- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

OPENING

• On the Verge, or the Geography of Yearning Arena Stage, Fichandler Theater.— Three sisters set off on a exploratory trek to Terra Incognita only to find several inexplicable artifacts a Hula-Hoop, cream cheese and a news clipping about President Nixon. Opens tomorrow.—5/5/488-3300.

NOW PLAYING

• Bal Masque — Theatre J — ***1/2. Playwright Richard Greenberg’s intriguing and stylish chamber play catches three Manhattan couples as they return from “the party of the century,” Truman Capote’s 1966 Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel. The ball symbolized the breaking down of social mores during the ‘60s, and Mr. Greenberg explores the cultural shift in this world premiere. The actors are superb and superbly matched, and John Vreeke’s direction is impeccable. “Bal Masque” is an aria for the ears and the intellect. Through May 21 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. 800/494-8497. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Canterbury Tales — Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater — ***. The Middle Ages are brought to sacred and scatological life in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s earthy adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s magnum opus, which follows a wildly disparate cross section of medieval religious pilgrims who vie in a storytelling competition on their way to Canterbury. A protean cast of 20 assumes more than 200 characters to dramatize 18 of Chaucer’s tales. The undertaking is so enormous that it requires two parts (three hours each, and each including an equal ration of filth and sanctimony) and three directors. Not many theater companies could pull off such a feat, but the RSC does so stylishly and with bracing candor and impudence. Through Saturday. 202/467-4600. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Frozen — Studio Theatre Secondstage — ****. Three sterling performances by Andrew Long, Nancy Robinette and MaryBeth Wise, an absorbing and emotionally complex play by British playwright Bryony Lavery, and impeccable direction by David Muse. Who could ask for anything more? This is the kind of small, intense, actor-driven show for which Studio Theatre is known. The play charts the interwoven lives of three psychologically paralyzed characters: a convicted child murderer, an American researcher who believes that serial killers are ill and not evil, and the mother of a 10-year-old girl who was one of the victims. The production thrills in the deepest sense with exquisite acting that burns with intelligence and heat. Through Sunday. 202/332-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Hip Hop Anansi — Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Center — ***. Adapted by Elsa Davis from the story “Anansi and His Sons,” this hip-hop version features a trickster spider named Anansi, who wants to win the “golden fly pie” more than anything but must rely on the talents of his children to claim the prize. It’s a hip-hop show to which you’d feel comfortable taking the whole family. The b-boys and fly girls in this production are youthful and fresh-faced. No BET-style, hootchy-kootchy moves or even a wisp of gangsta violence. These are the mean streets of “Sesame Street.” Playing Saturday and Sunday at 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE. 301/280-1661. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill — Arena Stage, Kreeger Theater — **1/2 — Lainie Robertson’s stage show does not attempt a definitive biography of Billie Holiday but instead tries to capture the calamitous spirit of the Baltimore-born singer as she might have been in 1959, the year of her death at age 44 from years of hard drinking and heroin addiction. The place is a gin-soaked jazz club in Philadelphia, where Lady Day (Lynn Sterling) is down on her luck but still wearing the signature gardenias in her hair and immaculate white evening finery. Miss Sterling neatly captures the flavor of Miss Holiday’s singing style, and the evening is melodic and frequently entertaining. However, there’s a tawdriness about the play’s depiction of the legendary vocalist. They didn’t call Miss Holiday “Lady” for nothing, and making her a tramp does her an injustice. Through June 4. 202/488-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Persians — Shakespeare Theatre Company — ***. Ellen McLaughlin’s short, spiky new version of Aeschylus’ powerful and empathetic cautionary play has inspired a visually startling and aurally textured production directed by Ethan McSweeny. The play retells the battle at Salamis, which felled the Persian army at a hideous cost to both sides. The running time may be 80 minutes, but the Shakespeare Theatre packs plenty of spectacle in both the show’s physical aspects and the forthright potency of Aeschylus’ descriptions of the carnage of war. Through May 21. 202/547-1122. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Sex Habits of American Women — Signature Theatre — **. There’s nothing too hot about this play, a tepid and bisected look at sexual mores in 1950 and 2004 sparked by playwright Julie Marie Myatt’s wish to poke fun at a 1951 handbook on the female libido and its author. He’s portrayed as a man so distracted by his work he doesn’t notice that his martini-swilling wife has taken a lover and his daughter is having lesbian stirrings. The performances are impeccable, but the play strikes false notes. It’s meant to be about hypocrisy and secrets, but the play is glib and soulless, jumping between the past and the present without providing any resonance. Like an unfulfilling partner, “Sex Habits” leaves you high and dry. Through Sunday. 800/955-5566. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Shenandoah — Ford’s Theatre — **1/2. This revival of the war-weary 1975 musical about the Civil War presents a pacifist stance within a patriotic American context, and the question it asks — about the necessity for all that killing and dying — is as appropriate as ever. The play centers on Charlie Anderson, a Lincolnesque widower from Virginia who is adamant about keeping his sons out of the Civil War — a war that by play’s end he cannot avoid. Director Jeff Calhoun’s production features striking staging and winning performances. At times the show feels flimsy and patched together, with interminable narrative passages and a windy first act. The music is catchy but unsubstantial. Nevertheless, it is stunningly relevant today to a battle-fatigued America. Through May 21. 202/397-SEAT. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Silent Partners — Scena Theatre — ***. That charismatic monster of German theater, Bertolt Brecht, receives an etched-in-acid profile in this staging of Charles Marowitz’s vastly enjoyable look at the mutually parasitic relationship between the playwright and his translator, Eric Bentley, a critic and academic. The world premiere work, adapted from Mr. Bentley’s book, “The Brecht Memoir,” revels in delicious humor as it ponders why people allowed Brecht to manipulate them so mercilessly. In his direction Mr. Marowitz is overly indulgent with his own play, which needs some drastic editing. But the play bracingly explores the relationship between idol and sycophant. Through May 21 at the Warehouse Theater. 703/684-7990. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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