"Petunia and Chicken," from Animal Engine at the 2016 Capital Fringe Festival. (Courtesy Capital Fringe)

The Capital Fringe Festival launched last night with thumping live music at the new-ish permanent headquarters (as of last year) on Florida Avenue NE, and with the usual unpredictable slate of eclectic performances on a range of stages around town. A sample from Thursday's opening menu: the premiere of a political drama of McCarthy-era shenanigans called "Hunt," and the much-toured Willa Cather-inspired whimsy "Petunia and Chicken."

"Petunia and Chicken"

This small, crafty show features husband-and-wife team Carrie Brown and Karim Muasher playing a novel's worth of roles in a prairie romance. The story has a Willa Cather feel as Brown and Muasher -- alone on the small, empty stage in the Social Hall downstairs at the Sixth and I Synagogue -- create a surprisingly sweeping tale of European immigrants settling the Midwest generations ago.

The spine involves an immigrant girl named Petunia and the American-born boy nicknamed Chicken who befriends her. Brown and Muasher, the artistic directors of the New York-based performance troupe Animal Engine, play everyone and everything: parents, pets, even objects. Brown cleverly conjures an old phonograph, a very old dog (funny), and a vengeful mummy (very funny).

Long story short: They fall in love, but (alas!) fate pulls them apart. Chicken dives into adventures around the world, while Petunia soldiers on at the family farm her father worked hard to establish. The actors, guided by Melinda Jean Ferraccio's snappy clockwork direction, precisely conjure scenes with only a scarf (which becomes a wounded boy's sling, a plow harness, etc.) and each other.

The storytelling is nimble and playful, yet it also has a satisfyingly wide arc. The actors get full marks for sharply and swiftly etching so many characters; every person, animal or thing is crystal clear. This show will be hard to beat for a one-two punch of lightly worn skill and charm.

60 minutes. July 10, 19, 20 and 21 at the Sixth and I Synagogue Social Hall, 600 I St. NW.

"Hunt"


Terry Loveman as Sen. Lester Hunt in "Hunt," a political drama at the 2016 Capital Fringe Festival. (Rigsbee Photography)

Former congressional staffer Jean P. Bordewich is digging back into "Advise and Consent" territory, if you recall Allen Drury's 1959 potboiler (and the 1962 movie) about backstabbing on Capitol Hill. Bordewich is likely to find eager audiences for this real-life saga of a senator whose closeted gay son got caught soliciting sex in Lafayette Park and the partisan maneuvering that unfolded under the long shadow of the notorious witch-hunting senator Joe McCarthy. Thursday night's opening at Flashpoint was packed.

Bordewich knows her history, but the six-character script totters uncertainly; it's not a play with a strong creative stamp. Scenes creak slowly as real-life characters reenact the supercharged drama that led Wisconsin Sen. Lester Hunt to kill himself in 1954, in his office.

It's a lot of history to cram into an hour -- and onto a small stage that director Kristin Shoffner can't command to advantage. Bordewich boils it down to the noble Democrat Hunt (Terry Loveman), his equally noble wife (Suzanne Martin), their appealing but troubled son (Brice Guerriere), and two nasty Republicans: New Hampshire Sen. Styles Bridges (Scott Cummings) and Idaho's Herman Welker (Gary DuBreuil). Oh, and there's a sympathetic reporter (Michael David Anderson) to goose the story along with narration.

You never doubt that the dialogue is solidly grounded in actual events, and Bordewich writes with particular feeling for Hunt's conflicted son. But at least in this premiere, the broad strokes result in a too-compact shorthand for such an epic public tragedy.

60 minutes. July 13, 16, 19, 22 and 24 at Flashpoint's Mead Theatre Lab, 916 G St. NW.

IF YOU GO:

Fringe tickets are $17, plus a one-time purchase of a $7 Fringe button. Available online at www.capitalfringe.org, 866-811-4111 and Fringe venues.