- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

OPENING

• Our Lady of 121st Street — Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. A group of old friends descend on a funeral home to pay respects to their beloved and feared teacher Sister Rose, only to find her body has vanished. Opens Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Film Theater. 202/467-4600.

• Thoroughly Modern Millie — Kennedy Center Opera House. At the height of the Jazz Age in New York City, “moderns,” including a flapper named Millie Dillmount, were bobbing their hair, raising their hemlines, entering the work force, and rewriting the rules of love in this Broadway hit musical. Opens Tuesday. 202/467-4600.

NOW PLAYING

• Carousel — Olney Theatre Center for the Arts — **. This “chamber musical” approach to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 musical pares down the cast and orchestra and keeps the staging simple. This cuts costs, but also exposes the musical’s sometimes jarring juxtapositions. Songs about geraniums in the “winder box” coexist uneasily with a rougher subtext involving wife beating, suicide, unhappy children, and crimes of desperation. The psychological permutations require a deft hand so that the audience is rooting for the tormented hero, but director Brad Watkins displays little dexterity with the material, giving us a “Carousel” that is workmanlike but hardly uplifting or emotionally knotty. Through Dec. 26. 301/924-3400. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Diary of Anne Frank — Round House Theatre Bethesda — ***1/2. This may seem like an eccentric, downer choice for the holiday season. But under the heartfelt and careful direction of Rebecca Bayla Taichman, “Anne Frank” glows anew, because of an outstanding ensemble and also because of Wendy Kesselman’s new adaptation. It has a radiance and hushed spirituality that makes you newly appreciative of the sacredness of human life. What you come away with is the shining example and untarnished hope of Anne Frank’s life, and the enduring gift of her diary. Through Dec. 12. 240/644-1100. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Grace — Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company — ***. Born-again Christianity gets a drubbing in Craig Wright’s intense and funny play about the peril of prayer. The play loops backward from a violent domestic crime; its focus is a young born-again couple — he a would-be wheeler-dealer who mixes business with saving souls, and she a humble soul alone in their Florida condo, isolated and terrified. “Grace” bristles with ideas about religion, violence and the metaphysics of love, and what can be stereotyped, is. Director Michael Garces’ fast-moving staging emphasizes the seamy side of faith, which is great fun but shortchanges the beauty and spiritual power of religion. The play unfortunately takes a predictably dark turn when the husband goes postal on his wife and everyone else in his path, and its banal, Quentin Tarantino-esque resolution is unworthy of the play’s earlier philosophical and meditative feel. Through Dec. 19 at the Warehouse Theater. 800/494-8497. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Highest Yellow — Signature Theatre — ***1/2. One of the most glorious sights you’re apt to see on the musical stage this season is a naked man with a bloodied bandage wrapped around his ear, sitting in a bathtub and singing the rapturously beautiful title song in Michael John LaChiusa’s world premiere musical about the artist Vincent Van Gogh and his young attending physician, Dr. Felix Rey. This is a wild and harsh work, with a feverish and sometimes monstrous approach to the idea of obsession and a back-alley sensuality. Its score is exquisite and intense; its book, by local playwright John Strand, probes the nature of genius and madness and the difference between love and obsession with discriminating intelligence. Eric Schaeffer’s direction is nearly faultless and the performances are outstanding. The show is not perfect, but it shows glittering potential. It changes you, makes you see color and light and love with new eyes. Through Dec. 12. 703/218-6500. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Importance of Being Earnest — Fichandler Theater at Arena Stage — **. Oscar Wilde’s breathtakingly witty 1895 comedy is an airtight confection: One false move, one jarring note, and all the lightness and seemingly effortless artifice are compromised. That’s what happens here as director Everett Quinton gooses up this drawing room comedy with low-comedy conventions — spit takes, cartoony sound effects, slapstick humor, bumps and grinds accompanying certain lines — in short, a burlesque approach to Oscar Wilde. The actors, too, seem at conflict with the material, fighting with the dialogue instead of relaxing into its pristine rhythms. Everyone gets shrill and screechy at some point. Except for a handful of exuberant performances, Arena’s “Earnest” is a three-hour exercise in how an Oscar Wilde play should not be done. Through Dec. 26. 202/488-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Ivanov — Studio Theatre — **1/2. This staging of a rarely performed, will-o’-the wisp Anton Chekhov play boasts immaculate performances by some of Washington’s finest actors, but the question is: Why bother? Raw and almost brattily controversial, written quickly on a dare in 1887, this play revolves around the moods of the title character, a broke landowner gripped by depression who flouts convention by marrying a Jewish woman and so becomes the focus of the entire community. It’s clearly an early play, plagued by sameness and cloying repetition; some scenes are mercilessly talky. The play gives Studio a chance to show off its spiffy new building, and newest stage, which is twice as tall as the older main theater. Set designer Russell Metheny makes the most of the newly ample room, and Helen Huang’s costumes look terrific. All of this talent might have been better lavished on a more satisfying play, but this production is notable for introducing us to a young Chekhov and the promise of brilliance to come. Through Dec. 12. 202/332-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Pericles — The Shakespeare Theatre — ***1/2. In structure and style, this late play of Shakespeare’s (and there are some doubts he wrote it all) is more like an epic poem teeming with characters and incident, with an episodic plot that almost defies unity. Rather than run from the play’s unruliness, director Mary Zimmerman has instead embraced it, staging it in a single room — an 18th-century wood space with towering glass windows. The result is a transcendently lovely production. It’s evidence that Shakespeare’s “problem plays” can be a launching pad for inspiration and magic. Through Jan. 2. 202/547-1122. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Price — Centerstage — **. Arthur Miller’s well-made 1968 rant against materialism and accreted resentment is as sharp as ever, but an odd lassitude overhangs this production by Baltimore’s Centerstage. Except for some eleventh-hour emotional fireworks in the second half, this play about two estranged brothers, who reunite to sell a pile of junk owned by their father, has all the energy of a halfhearted yard sale. Too bad. “The Price” is a play that can smolder with bitterness and jealousies real and imagined. All we’re left with here are the ashes and dust. Through Dec. 12 at 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. 410/332-0033. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Two Gentlemen of Verona — Folger Theatre — ***. Director Aaron Posner cannily skirts the main flaws of this early Shakespeare play about young love by highlighting the lesser roles of the servants over the frankly silly romantic leads. Holly Twyford, Lucy Newman-Williams and Kate Eastwood Norris play the “minor” roles of servants, outlaws and codgers with vigorous physical humor, various masks and accents, and their own formidable inventiveness to come up with a robust array of characters. Shifting the focus gives “Gentlemen” an unexpected lift and lightness that makes the play’s legendary problems pop like a soap bubble. Through Dec. 19. 202/554-7077. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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