- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2004

OPENING

• Homebody/Kabul — Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Theatre J. In Tony Kushner’s look at East-West politics, a British housewife sets off for the adventure of a lifetime in Afghanistan only to disappear and leave her daughter and husband searching the country for her. Opens Monday at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. 800/494-8497.

NOW PLAYING

• Allegro — Signature Theatre — ***. This misunderstood 1947 Rodgers and Hammerstein concept musical, an Everyman fable about the son of a small-town, Midwestern doctor who gets further and further away from his core values as he passes into adulthood in big, bad New York City, was originally a critical and box-office dud. Now it is being revamped at Signature Theatre by director Eric Schaeffer, with a rewritten book by Joe DiPietro, a satisfying reshuffling of songs and achingly beautiful orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. The result is fascinating, even though it is more a gorgeous curiosity than a wholly satisfying theatrical experience. Through Sunday. 703/218-6500. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Henry IV, Part I — The Shakespeare Theatre — **1/2. This play is more about the wayward Prince Hal’s ripening into a leader than about his father, the monarch. But Ted van Griethuysen’s canny portrayal of the career carouser Falstaff and Andrew Long’s caustic, hair-trigger portrait of the rebel Hotspur steal the show. The two actors bring such originality and vitality to their roles that the rest of the production suffers in comparison. Christopher Kelly as Prince Hal never quite takes us inside Hal’s nature, and thus his maturation is never quite convincing. Other than Keith Baxter’s astute and keenly measured performance as the guilt-haunted King Henry IV, the rest of the production is largely workmanlike and uninspired. Through March 13. 202/547-1122. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• A Man’s a Man — Arena Stage Fichandler Theater — **. Bertolt Brecht’s early attempt at revolutionizing theater is a grab bag of styles and conventions, ranging from Weimar Republic-style cabaret and silent movie hijinks to Monty Python-style absurdist humor and lofty philosophical musings on what a piece of work man is. Yet it is the nothingness of this play that numbs you — not to mention that this ironic comedy is just not funny enough to sustain its two-hour-plus length. Amusing bits here and there help to alleviate the bloat, but it cannot save this queasy hybrid of over-seriousness and crass humor. Through March 7. 202/488-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Melissa Arctic — Folger Theatre — **1/2. What do you get when you take a really weird old play and spruce it up? You get a really weird new play. This brand-new drama by Craig Wright, in its world premiere, updates Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” transporting the Bard’s strangely disjointed vision to contemporary, snowbound Pine City, Minn. If, as some critics say, “The Winter’s Tale” is really two plays — a tragedy and a comedy — smashed into one, “Melissa Arctic” comes as close as anything can to making the whole concept seem coherent. Mr. Wright has managed to transform Shakespeare’s creaky characters into easily recognizable and largely sympathetic modern types. Through Sunday. 202/554-7077. Reviewed by T.L. Ponick.

• Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters — Imagination Stage — ***. A hushed and lovely African variation on the Cinderella story that tells us a good heart trumps a pretty face, as two sisters (the daughters of the title) vie to become a king’s bride. It’s not just an inane good-and-evil story: Thembi Duncan as the spoiled sister actually makes you feel sympathy for her self-centeredness. Erika Rose as the Cinderella figure is sunny and strong rather than insufferable. Director Jennifer Nelson captures the African feel of the folktale by having dancers play the villagers, to a percussive beat. Through Sunday. 301/280-1660. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Syringa Tree — Studio Theatre — ***. Studio’s production of Pam Gien’s play, directed with subtle humanity by J.R. Sullivan, arouses both accolades and a sense of urgency. Actress Gin Hammond’s transcendent solo performance is miraculous. She plays more than 20 characters of various ages, genders and ethnicities as she conjures up the parallel lives of whites and blacks in South Africa over 40 years, under apartheid and freed from it. The play is a one-woman show and portrays a small universe, but there is something operatic and epic in scale about “The Syringa Tree.” It is a singular theatrical experience. Through Sunday. 202/332-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Vita & Virginia — Rep Stage — ***. Lovers of language will delight in this epistolary play by English actress Eileen Atkins charting the loving friendship between novelist Virginia Woolf (Paula Gruskiewicz) and writer-gardener Vita Sackville-West (MaryBeth Wise). The relationship was Sapphic — Miss Sackville-West was a highborn free spirit infamous for her dalliances with both sexes — but the allure of the play lies in the spiritual and intellectual. In the women’s letters, words sit on the page as satiny and plump as sweet butter. They chart the course of the relationship, from early wooing to protracted breakup to Woolf’s suicide. Judicious editing would have helped, but the tart, plummy language is worth the time. Through March 22 at Howard County Community College. 410/772-4900. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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