Thank goodness for the dog-skeleton puppet and the deconstructing Parisian-landmark set. Those are the most audience-friendly features of “Witch” and “Rameau’s Nephew,” respectively, two brainy and ambitious but ultimately exasperating productions built on historical texts.
Directed by Richard Henrich, Spooky Action Theater’s ultra-talky “Rameau’s Nephew” is the more polished of the two shows. The script, by Shelly Berc and Andrei Belgrader, is adapted from “Le Neveu de Rameau,” a satirical piece penned in the late 18th century by French philosopher Denis Diderot. The dialogue contrasts the views of two speakers: a philosopher and his acquaintance, the title character, an irreverent slacker who happens to be the famous composer’s nephew.
When the two men run into each other near the Palais-Royale, Rameau’s nephew (played here by Robert Bowen Smith) amuses and scandalizes his acquaintance (Ian LeValley) by deriding idealism and other pieties. He scoffs at patriotism and the notions of duty and virtue. (Erik Teague designed the harmonious period costumes.)
The conversation, which includes some lively anecdotes, constitutes the play’s entire dramatic action, more or less. Presumably to compensate for the lack of showier incident, Henrich’s production abounds in conspicuous stage business: A character’s coughing fit takes a near-acrobatic turn, for instance. The acting, too, is larger than life. Smith, in particular, antics it up with animated gestures, faux-coy smiles and a manic laugh. The hyperbolic acting style eventually becomes grating, even if it does help parcel out the minutes of this cerebral and garrulous show.
It’s easier to appreciate Giorgos Tsappas’s set, a configuration of gray rectangular panels onto which is projected an elegant architectural facade. The arrangement evokes a serene classicism, until panels start sliding or falling away, suggesting the collapse of a society’s assumptions.
Conflict of a more sensational kind is the subject of Convergence Theatre’s “Witch,” a world-premiere “radical adaptation” of the 1621 play “The Witch of Edmonton.” Convergence’s hour-long version tells of Mother Sawyer (Sharalys Silva), a friendless elderly woman who is victimized by her neighbors. When the Devil appears to Mother Sawyer in the form of a dog, she accepts his help in her attempt to get revenge. Meanwhile, in the same village, a selfish bigamist (Chris Daileader) does badly by his two wives (Janani Ramachandran and Stephanie Tomiko).
Directed and choreographed by Elena Velasco, “Witch” benefits from the delightfully eerie dog-skeleton puppet (designed by Joshua Rosenblum), which represents the Devil. Unfortunately, the flesh-and-blood performances are less persuasive, often looking and sounding strained or awkward.
Moreover, “Witch” wields a double-edged sword as it emphasizes the themes of misogyny and sexism, which are implicit in the story. Those issues have loomed large in the presidential election, lending this show an extra sheen of topicality. But various details press the point too baldly. For instance, gritty projections hinting at the abuse or exploitation of modern women play out on the blood-spattered sheets hanging around the set. With these visuals and other pointed touches, “Witch” announces that women have often been badly treated through the ages, a fact we already knew.
Rameau’s Nephew, adapted by Shelly Berc and Andrei Belgrader. Directed by Richard Henrich; lighting design, Brittany Shemuga; sound, David Crandall; properties, Becky Mezzanotte. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $20-$40. Through Nov. 13 at Spooky Action Theater at Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW. 202-248-0301. spookyaction.org.
Witch, adapted by Convergence Theatre. Directed and choreographed by Elena Velasco; set design and puppetry, Joshua Rosenblum; lighting and projections, Philip da Costa; costumes, Kateri Kuhn and Ali Rocha. With Darren Marquardt and Annette Mooney Wasno. About one hour. $12-$18. Through Oct. 30 at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. 866-811-4111. convergencetheatre.org or culturaldc.org.