Small theaters are often the best labs for experiments, and storytelling takes risky turns in several shows on the eastern edge of D.C.’s theater map. Solas Nua occupies an Anacostia River pier for its creative “The Frederick Douglass Project”; Faction of Fools flogs Anton Chekhov with its knockabout mission at Gallaudet University; and at the Anacostia Playhouse, Theater Alliance is lavishing its artistic polish in a provocative disaster comedy called “Flood City.”
Theater Alliance has been winning top Helen Hayes Awards just about every year lately, and the company has gathered plenty of talent to Gabrielle Reisman’s play inspired by Hurricane Katrina. The show follows survivors coping with the 1889 Johnstown Flood, and it seems to open underwater, with furniture and debris suspended above set designer Andrew Cohen’s boardwalk strip stage, Max Doolittle’s lights piercing through mist and Matthew M. Nielson’s sound adding the river’s surge. Theater Alliance productions are nearly always smartly snapped together, and Jenna Duncan’s staging is no exception.
I’m guessing costume designer Kelsey Hunt gets credit for the show’s most arresting sight: the five-inch steel pipe that appears to be jammed into actor Ryan Tumulty’s bald head. That’s Reisman’s image for the kind of raw determination that keeps struggling people going, whether it’s post-Katrina (Reisman is partly based in New Orleans), post-Johnstown or in 1992, when the script time-hops to layoffs that again hit Pennsylvanians hard.
Tumulty’s deadpan performance is matched by sharp turns from Lolita Marie, Kari Ginsburg, Kerri Rambow and Jared Shamberger among the balanced cast of seven. The tone never entirely gels in Reisman’s grim, plucky, decidedly talky dialogue, but it’s a vivid vision.
That’s more than you can say for the commedia dell’arte of “The Cherry Orchard,” a subtle classic that gets whacked by slapstick acting. The physical commedia style is the Faction of Fools house style, and they’ve achieved surprisingly penetrating results with Shakespeare and (my favorite) Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
This antic “Cherry Orchard” is baffling, though, with actors (many of them in masks) hopping like they’re on hot coals or spreading their arms like birds drying their wings. Chekhov’s characters can be absurdly self-absorbed, but this scattershot show isn’t drawing out that or anything else, and nearly all the dialogue sounds the same (surprised!).
Better by far are the unexpected fusions that the Irish outfit Solas Nua discovers in “The Frederick Douglass Project,” about the 1846 trip Douglass took to Ireland. The 70-minute drama is an engaging mash-up of two works: “An Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland” by D.C.’s Psalmeyene 24 and “Wild Notes” by Ireland’s Deirdre Kinahan.
The setting couldn’t be more picturesque: the show unfolds under a narrow tent on a pier at the Capitol Riverfront’s Yards Park, with the river lapping only feet away and Douglass landmarks in sight. Psalmeyene 24’s play imagines Douglass (a diplomatic Gary L. Perkins III) on a ship to Ireland, transitioning from formal dialogue as he explains himself to the white captain and, particularly, to a white female passenger (Madeline Mooney, as a curious and determined figure in both works), and sometimes bursting into hip-hop that’s impressively fresh and funny. The short, inquisitive play boasts a crisp dramatic gambit that makes slavery tangible.
Kinahan’s script widens Douglass’s eyes and broadens the issue from American slavery; it features characters you don’t foresee from places you wouldn’t guess. Director Raymond O. Caldwell has a fine cast that speaks well and executes fluid bursts of movement (Tiffany Quinn is the choreographer) accompanied by live music. The historical sense in both parts of the project is nimble, and so is the adventurous downtown theatrical spirit.
Flood City, by Gabrielle Reisman. Directed by Jenna Duncan. About two hours. Through June 17 at the Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. $40. 202-241-2539 or theateralliance.com.
The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Paul Reisman. About two hours. Through June 10 at Gallaudet University’s Eastman Studio Theatre Elstad Annex, 800 Florida Ave. NE. $22. 800-838-3006 or factionoffools.org.
The Frederick Douglass Project, by Psalmeyene 24 and Deirdre Kinahan. Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell. About 70 minutes. Through May 24 at The Yards Marina, 1492 Fourth St. SE. $35. solasnua.org.