- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

How refreshing to see antiwar plays that do not come on like grenades. Recent productions in Washington, such as “The Sandstorm” and “Guantanamo,” may be passionate declarations of war’s hellish aspects, but the humorless extremism and tendency to agitprop can leave audiences crying for mercy rather than calling for peace.

The Forum Theatre & Dance Company looks to World Wars I and II for a non-spoon-fed approach with two short, invigoratingly staged one-acts, “The Gas Heart” by Tristan Tzara and “Hamletmachine” by Heiner Muller.

Romanian-born Mr. Tzara, known mainly for being a founder of the absurdist dada movement and popping up as a character in Tom Stoppard’s 1975 play “Travesties,” wrote “The Gas Heart” in 1920 as a balletic, seemingly nonsensical response to the Great War.

With the forceful and affecting “Hamletmachine,” Mr. Muller examines the pervasive environment of paranoia and terrorism in post-World War II Europe through the familiar characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy “Hamlet.”

For both playlets, the actors perform mostly on a steel scaffold. This device, unfortunately, has been burned into our pop-culture consciousness after Bob Fosse’s movie “All That Jazz,” which subsequently was ripped off by Paula Abdul for her music videos.

Try to put that aside while concentrating on the deceptively playful “The Gas Heart,” which features six actors forming the different parts of a face — Eye (Alexander Strain), Eyebrow (Hugh T. Owen), Ear (Jay Hardee), Nose (an intense and focused Abby Wood), Mouth (Fiona Blackshaw), and Neck (Grady Weatherford).

The various facial features converse in this language poem, composed mainly of non sequiturs and burnished gibberish. Although it all sounds like jib-jabber at first, the rhythms and repetitions and the placements of words begin to take on a fragmentary beauty, kind of like those poetry refrigerator magnets that make unexpected verse out of randomness.

The cast handles the precise choreography well, showing discipline and an occasional foray into anarchic humor, but it is the intellectual vigor of the acting that impresses, particularly in the quicksilver vocal shadings of Mr. Steel, Mr. Owen and Mr. Hardee.

This trio also perform admirably in “Hamletmachine,” especially Mr. Owen as a voluble Hamlet forced not only to take action, but also to take sides. His soliloquy when he wishes to hide behind a typewriter, his mother, anything to keep from participating or thinking and feeling, is dazzling — fierce, yet honed.

Mr. Weatherford has a gripping scene in which he plays a ghost who seems to be falling apart right before your eyes, something he accomplishes not with makeup or costumes, but with a graveyard voice and simple, powerful gestures.

Forum is a new company, but it makes the most of its limited resources with keen attention to acting and physical movement. The company’s performers may lack the extensive physical vocabulary of the visually stunning Synetic Theater, but this production, directed by Kathleen Akerley (“The Gas Heart”) and Michael Dove (“Hamletmachine”), shows that well-trained actors can more than compensate for a modest budget.

***

WHAT: “The Gas Heart” and “Hamletmachine”

WHERE: Forum Theatre & Dance, at the Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 5.

TICKETS: $12 to $18

PHONE: 202/518-9516

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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