Assassination and underground resistance are the subjects of two radically different 80-minute theatrical experiments in town now, both happening in tiny labs. Actor Joe Brack is playing John Wilkes Booth in his own new show, “Don’t Die in the Dark,” while in “Tyger,” the established avant-gardists of Banished? Productions are playing the rattled members of an arts and protest collective in a nation where citizens are vanishing.
“Tyger” is the more complicated and less satisfying project. It starts off playfully, with the audience gathering in the lobby of the 30-seat Mead Theatre Lab and being warned to turn off cellphones, not so we won’t interrupt the performance, but — shhh! — so the authorities can’t track us.
We’re splintered into groups of six or seven. We play a few low-key team-building games. Then inside the theater, a small band of actors in ordinary street clothes mourns the disappearance of a friend and colleague while acting out highly disjointed scenes (each announced by the stage manager) of poetry and protest.
“There’s no more Gabby,” one member laments. Another replies, “Gabby is everything.”
It’s a devised piece, meaning it’s written and assembled by the group (Banished? Productions ringleader Carmen C. Wong is the director). The language ranges from prosaic to poetic to wonkily theoretical. Structurally, it’s not a linear story, but shards jabbing at a theme. Roland Barthes and Jorge Luis Borges are among the project’s heavyweight intellectual sources; it’s heady stuff performed with a steadily grim and urgent tone. But piecing together the fragments eventually can wear you out, even if the pull of loss and political outrage is strong.
Brack’s “Don’t Die” is being performed in the same size space as G Street NW’s Mead, only uptown in the neat little Studio 1469, a gallery tucked away in a Mount Pleasant alley. It’s a two-man show written by Brack, who plays Booth, and with Bradley Foster Smith supplying invaluable accompaniment on guitar and acting a gallery of characters with Brack.
There’s a ballad quality to the storytelling, which is fragmented in a more familiar way than “Tyger.” It flashes back over Booth’s life as he’s cornered after the chase from Ford’s Theatre through Maryland to Virginia. This is timely during the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. (Booth died April 26, 1865, and this show, presented by City Artistic Partnerships, will close April 26.)
The mustachioed Brack plays Booth with a fierce gaze and fiery rhetorical style that befits the tragedian he actually was onstage. There are lots of passages from “Julius Caesar” as Booth acted Brutus, but also high-minded stump speeches supporting the Confederacy and attacking Lincoln. Brack’s formal style, on the edge of pomposity, makes clear how in love the radically partisan Booth is both with the righteousness of his convictions and with the sound of his own voice.
He’s angry and proud, but also frequently insulted and diminished, with insanity suggested as part of his genetic makeup. (There’s a long and mentally unhinged scene involving Booth’s father.) Under Matty Griffiths’s spartan direction and working on a stage decorated mainly with vintage handbills and news clippings, Brack and Smith look and sound the parts: They are stern and no-nonsense, with the somber musical passages lifting this historical portrait into something appealingly moody.
By Joe Brack. Directed by Matty Griffiths. Lights, Marianne Meadows; scenic consultant, Maggie Modig; costumes supplied by Deb Sevigny. About 80 minutes. Through April 26 at Studio 1469, 1469 Harvard St. NW. Tickets $20. Visit brownpapertickets.com .
Directed by Carmen C. Wong. Lighting and tech consultant, Gordon Nimmo-Smith; costumes, Kelley Kidd; projectionist, Jane Claire Remick. With Rachel Hynes, Annalisa Dias, Gregory Ford and DeLesslin George-Warren. Through April 25 at the Mead Theatre Lab, 916 G St. NW. Tickets $15-$25. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.culturaldc.org .