The folks at Rorschach Theatre are practiced fantasists, so they have no problem conjuring a minotaur for the new play “The Minotaur.” Costume designer Lauren Cucarola provides actor David Zimmerman with a dapper suit in a brown rawhide tone, a shirt the color of blood and an elegant little horned headpiece, and voila: He’s a mythical bull chafing at the bad hand he’s been dealt by the gods.
Director Randy Baker also shows a sure touch with the dark web of a labyrinth he creates at Atlas Performing Arts Center. Set designer David Ghatan rings the intimate room in a net of string, and he seats the audience in a circle only two rows deep around the small playing area. Stephanie P. Freed’s lights are low and shadowy. The stage is set for ritual, for story.
Alas, that’s the catch. Anna Ziegler’s script is so self-conscious that it keeps getting snagged on its meta-theatrical reflections. The plot is about characters trying to break the chains of what feels like fate, but they talk about it so much that their actual doings seem minimized.
Even so, the show comes at you with an intelligent mix of classicism and whimsy that’s not entirely unlike the pop myths of acclaimed director-adapter Mary Zimmerman (“Metamorphoses,” “Arabian Nights”). Ziegler may not be in Zimmerman’s flamboyant league, but her puckish script turns the Greek chorus into a priest (Frank Britton), a rabbi (Jjana Valentiner) and a lawyer (Colin Smith), and the Minotaur’s half-sister Ariadne begins the narration of her romance with Theseus by explaining that they met “in an online chat room for royals.”
The tone isn’t consistently that flip. In fact, “The Minotaur” is largely formal, possibly because each character (not just the chorus) is tasked with so much narration. Themes of monstrous, ruinous appetite and the possibilities of self-determination — excellent topics for our times — are bold-faced as the characters recount incidents and replay scenes verbatim to illustrate the cages they exist in. You won’t miss the point as they strain for independence.
As the Minotaur, David Zimmerman broods effectively and with an undercurrent of threat; he’s nicely counterbalanced by Sara Dabney Tisdale’s storybook-chipper Ariadne. Josh Sticklin’s Theseus — tasked with slaying the Minotaur, of course — is a strapping, youthful presence in snug trousers and T-shirt. If his performance makes less of an impression, it might be because the play hits its talkiest, most tangled passages by the time we meet this “hero” (a term that comes in for some scrutiny).
“The Minotaur” is part of a rolling premiere, which means that Rorschach’s production closely follows a staging in Atlanta. Baker’s show is smartly designed; it’s aided by subtle underscoring by James Bigby Garver, and the only blemish is lighting that occasionally glows in the spectators’ eyes (the downside of having the patrons arranged in a small circle). You wonder whether the Atlanta version somehow found more mojo in the fundamental conflicts; the ace here is the alluring mythic atmosphere.
by Anna Ziegler. Directed by Randy Baker. About 90 minutes. Through Feb. 17 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Call 202-399-7993 or go to atlasarts.org.