- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

OPENING

• The Night of the Iguana — Washington Shakespeare Company. What happens when a fallen clergyman turned tour guide takes a busload of female tourists to Mexico’s west coast. Opens tonight at the Clark Street Playhouse. 800/494-8497.

NOW PLAYING

• All the Great Books — Kennedy Center Terrace Theater — ***1/2. In less than two hours of this infinitely zany remedial literature class, the Reduced Shakespeare Company zips through 83 classics in the Western canon. These masters of compression — the Professor (Austin Tichenor), the Coach (Reed Martin), and the Student Teacher (Matthew Croke) — use props, silly wigs, spit takes and drag to illustrate such classics as “Moby Dick,” “War and Peace” and “Green Eggs and Ham.” All three players exhibit rowdy enthusiasm and inventiveness, whether they are lovingly lampooning “Don Quixote” or “Plato’s Republic.” They appear to have not only actually read the great books, but know their essence and what can be skewered. It’s great fun for students of all ages. Through Aug. 1. 202/467-4600. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.

• Gertrude Stein: If You Had Three Husbands — Stanislavsky Theater Studio — **1/2. Enigmatic and frequently mesmerizing, Scott Fielding and Sarah Kane’s experimental playlet is more like an assemblage or a sensory piece than traditional theater. Miss Kane as Gertrude Stein sits inside a picture frame, flanked by chairs and clocks. She also interacts with three large canvases. Titles of each sequence are projected on a screen above accompanied by a range of sounds — animal sounds, clanking cutlery, outdoor noises, tunes from a music box or the ticking of a metronome. Each sequence features snippets of Miss Stein’s idiosyncratic, aestheticized language, marked by resonating repetition and fragmentation. Unfortunately, Miss Kane’s exaggerated elocution and singsong cadences, which never vary for the play’s one-hour duration, sound studied and monotonous. The play’s deliberate, slow movements, painterly lighting and stage effects and discordant music are all skillfully integrated to create a striking mood piece. Through Sunday. 202/265-3748. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.

• Ghosts — The Shakespeare Theatre — **. Director Edwin Sherin has slapped Henrik Ibsen’s 1881 masterpiece about lies and retribution clear into 1981 in an attempt to make the play as vigorous and shocking to audiences as it was more than 100 years ago. The updating is not the cold-water jolt to the senses Mr. Sherin anticipated. Instead, the modifications and add-ons have pushed “Ghosts” into the unfortunate realm of melodrama. Even the august Jane Alexander as the wealthy widow Helen Alving in her Shakespeare Theatre debut cannot elevate this production beyond seeming like something you’d see on the Lifetime cable network. Nor can the rest of the excellent cast save this version of “Ghosts” from being anything but a stifling modern museum piece. Through July 27. 202/547-1122. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.

• Lackawanna Blues — The Studio Theatre — ****. Actor-writer Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adoptive mother, known as “Nanny,” was a woman whose heart was as vast as their hometown of Lackawanna, N.Y. Nanny raised Mr. Santiago-Hudson and either took in or otherwise helped out most of Lackawanna’s citizenry at one time or another. The influence of her love on Mr. Santiago-Hudson and everyone she met is the subject of this autobiographical play, and a more bountiful tribute to motherhood cannot be found. Mr. Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony Award for his performance as Canewell in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” conjures a hearty image of Nanny in her boarding house, fixing us a plate of chicken feet and dumplings. Accompanied by the sublimely syncopated, finger-picking commentary of master blues guitarist Bill Sims Jr., Mr. Santiago-Hudson doesn’t just tell a story with his voice — he throws his whole body into it. His morphing into the 20-odd characters — a Damon Runyon-esque cavalcade of souls — is quicksilver magic. Through Sunday. 202/332-3300. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.

• Pippin — Round House Theatre — **. Under the direction of Thomas W. Jones II, “Pippin,” the 1970s musical about Charlemagne’s son — who seeks out an extraordinary life and winds up finding inner peace — receives a clamorous updating that includes elements of rap, hip-hop, funk, gospel and smooth, jazzy R&B.; The urban rhythms may be more palatable to a modern audience and the “Rent” crowd, but the score’s melodies are lost in a storm of noodling keyboards and guitars — and forget about learning character and story through song. The show’s sweetly idealistic lyrics — about war’s deadly toll, the fleeting pleasures of free love and the search for meaning — are either barely distinguishable in the sound mix or the singers are stretching notes, Whitney Houston-style. It might wow ‘em on “American Idol,” but it has nothing to do with mastery of a melody. Through Sunday. 240/644-1100. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.

• Private Lives — Olney Theatre — … Noel Coward’s flippantly insouciant 1930 comedy about the idle rich. Elyot (Paul Morella) and Amanda (Valerie Leonard), once unhappily and vociferously married, encounter each other again at a seaside resort hotel in France, each on a honeymoon trip with a new spouse — and in adjoining rooms, no less. The old flame sparks again, and the two flee their newly wedded partners and shack up. Olney’s production has its sparkling moments: Snazzy, cynical, and attractive, the studiously bored Mr. Morella and the leggy, nervy Miss Leonard snap and crackle with glamour, wit, and a collective fear of ennui. Their personal chemistry lights up the room. The costumes are authentic and alluring. Director Richard Romagnoli’s pacing is crisp and impeccable. The production is a must-see if you’re a die-hard Coward aficionado. But in the end, the effort is flummoxed by characters who are hard to like, and stymied by supporting actors who cannot always transcend this limitation. Mr. Coward tiptoes up to the serious modern issue of how to make a marriage between two power-lunchers, and reveals he doesn’t have the answer. Through Sunday. 301/924-3400. Reviewed by T.L. Ponick.

• Shear Madness — Kennedy center Theater Lab — **. This corny, hokey tourist trap — now in its second decade — is doubly maddening because the Kennedy Center displays it as art to the cultural center’s unsuspecting pilgrims. The audience-participation murder-mystery farce (set in a Georgetown hair salon) is well-played, though, when the actors refrain from mugging and cracking up one another. Continues indefinitely. 202/467-4600. File review by Nelson Pressley.

• Valentine’s Day — The Quotidian Theatre Company — *1/2. This is one of nine plays in Horton Foote’s “Orphans’ Home Cycle,” which depicts the lives of Mr. Foote’s parents from 1902 to 1928. Mr. Foote is an eminent screenwriter (“To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies”) and playwright (“The Trip to Bountiful” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Young Man From Atlanta”). It defies belief that the man who wrote this play is the same one who created the screen character of “Mockingbird’s” Atticus Finch. Although “Valentine’s Day” is concerned with love and devotion, even Cupid would be hard-pressed to find something to like — let alone love — about this overwritten, overdetermined doily designed to evoke sweetly scented, wistful memories of small town life in World War I America. Unfortunately, any nostalgia the play elicits for the days when folks used polite forms of address and neighbors helped each other is quickly nullified by the all-encompassing torpor of the play and production. Through Sunday at The Writer’s Center Auditorium. 301/816-1023. Reviewed by Jayne M. Blanchard.

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