- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

OPENING

• Carnival! — Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. A girl from a small village in France joins the Grande Imperial Cirque de Paris and becomes a pawn in the rivalry between the troupe’s magician and its puppeteer. Opens Saturday. 202/467-4600.

NOW PLAYING

• Gem of the Ocean — Arena Stage, Fichandler Theater — ***. Devotees of the late playwright August Wilson’s depiction of emerging identity among 20th-century black Americans have looked for Aunt Ester to come out from the wings since she was first mentioned in 1992’s “Two Trains Running.” She finally appears, a vibrant 285 years old, in this 2004 play set in 1904 Pittsburgh, receiving its local premiere under the clear-cut direction of Paulette Randall. Portrayed with guile and grace by Lynnie Godfrey, Ester takes a young man who wants to have his soul cleansed on a metaphysical journey to a graveyard kingdom made of the skeletons of those who drowned on the way to America. The actors struggle with voice projection and have a hard time establishing the fluid rhythms of the relationships so essential to Mr. Wilson’s work. What prevails is Mr. Wilson’s abiding humanism and lyricism — and, of course, Aunt Ester. She is well worth the wait. Through March 18. 202/488-3300.

• Into the Woods — Signature Theatre — **1/2. This big, brainy Stephen Sondheim musical, which gives classic fairy tales an adult, sardonic spin, blends them with a new one involving a baker and his wife who struggle to lift a witch’s curse that prevents them from having children. It opens Signature’s new theater with a respectable and somewhat prosaic production, directed by Eric Schaeffer, in which nothing particularly inspiring stands out. The pace is agreeable and the music — some of Mr. Sondheim’s most far-reaching and intricate, with dastardly lyrics and rhyme schemes that not everyone can master — is well sung and performed, but an overall blandness pervades. The new building is gorgeous, airy and dramatic, and it will be fascinating to watch Signature adapt to it. Through Feb. 25. 703/820-9771.

• Jitney — Ford’s Theatre — ***. Produced in association with the African Continuum Theatre Company, this is the 1970s play in the late August Wilson’s 10-work cycle depicting 20th-century life for blacks. It’s set in Mr. Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh in the city’s Hill District, at a gypsy cab station called Becker’s Car Service, a mecca for the neighborhood’s men. Rich with manly repartee, the play centers on the bitter reunion between Becker and his adult son, recently sprung from the state pen. It frames an intergenerational clash that pits the postwar era against the emerging thug-life culture of the late 1970s. Mr. Wilson’s words flutter and swoop with the musicality of jazz, and director Jennifer L. Nelson creates a convivial and enveloping environment to show men who depend on each other for their livelihood and as their touchstones to truth. Through Sunday. 202/347-4833.

• King Lear — Folger Theatre — **. Director Alfred Preisser sets this “Lear,” a co-production by the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the Folger, in ancient Mesopotamia, where “an eye for an eye” became a legal precedent and the Code of Hammurabi reigned. Mr. Preisser also looked to Margaret Mead’s book “Sex and Temperament” as grounds for the production’s sprawling sexuality, with its strained intimations — unsupported by Shakespeare’s text — of father-daughter bonds that are sensual as well as familial. When the show is in motion, it is entrancing. The chiseled physicality of the cast members and the nimble athleticism of their dance movements invigorate the play. But the quality of the diction and the command of Shakespeare’s language teeters between accomplished and almost laughably wooden; even the delivery by Andre De Shields as Lear is erratic and melodramatic. Through Feb. 25. 202/544-7077.

• Macbeth — Synetic Theater — ***1/2. Something wickedly good this way comes as director Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili combine forces for a vigorous, if wordless, take on Shakespeare’s tragedy about unchecked ambition and snowballing carnage. The visually arresting production mingles militaristic precision with sinuous supernatural touches, and the troupe relies on ingenuity and impeccable physical training in lieu of technical wizardry. The production may not draw you in right away, but grows in power and visual magnificence until its bloody climax. Though the words are unspoken, the lyricism is exquisitely expressed in movement and music that makes you see the playwright in a richly unexpected context. Through Feb. 25. 703/824-6200.

• Orson’s Shadow — Round House Theatre Bethesda — ***. An off-Broadway hit directed at Round House with a sharp insider’s perspective by actor-director Jerry Whiddon, actor Austin Pendleton’s highly entertaining comedy is a deliciously witty backstage play based on an actual event. The 1960 London staging of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” brought together the legends Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier and the influential British theater critic Kenneth Tynan — along with Olivier’s mentally shattered wife, the old school movie star Vivien Leigh, and his mistress, Joan Plowright, a practical and down-to-earth young actress. The play is a kind-hearted and often hilarious exploration of great artists as they wrestle for control. It’s such fun to peek in on such luminaries from a distance. Through Feb. 25. 202/644-1100.

• Richard III — Shakespeare Theatre Company — ***. Ever since Shakespeare put quill to paper, “Richard III” has symbolized treachery and tyranny. Director Michael Kahn’s angular and brisk production presents Richard III as a blue-blooded assassin, but also as a consummate actor who assumes the roles necessary to get what he wants. And Geraint Wyn Davies’ Richard glitters with a malevolent charm. As silver-tongued as Satan, as flattering and goading as a celebrity publicist, Mr. Davies invites us to look beyond Richard’s disfigurements and see him as a lover, a warrior and a supple master of language. The cast is enormous and compelling, the production complex because of the tension between the death-march plot and the elusiveness of Richard III’s character. You’ll delight in this king’s dark company, even if you hate yourself for doing so. Through March 18. 202/547-1122.

• Sleeping Arrangements — Theater J — **. Laura Shaine Cunningham’s quirky memoir of growing up orphaned in a makeshift, nontraditional family in the Bronx of the 1950s is a beautifully written, warmly shocking work, where heartbreak and hilarity slap up against each other in equal doses. Very little of it is translated to the stage in director Delia Taylor’s production, a scattershot and unsettled memory play that never recovers from problems in pacing and tone; the pert, straightforward comedy of one-liners is at odds with the dreamlike, impressionistic structure of the piece. An accomplished ensemble cast compensates for the sketchy quality of the script by broad overacting. This is one work that plays far better on the page than the stage. Through Sunday. 800/494-8497.

• The Small Things — Solas Nua — ***. If writers paint pictures with words, then Irish playwright Enda Walsh is a graphic novelist — and in this U.S. premiere staged by the contemporary Irish theater company Solas Nua, Mr. Walsh’s stark, black-and-white imagery wells in your mind like blood blisters. In a bare, Beckettian landscape, a man and a woman live separately on two lone hilltops. They are the last survivors of a grisly regime that took over their small village when they were children, torturing the villagers in an effort to enforce silence. Thus language means freedom, speech defiance. It may not always add up, so just let yourself be carried by Mr. Walsh’s language. Through Feb. 25 at the Flashpoint Mead Theatre Lab. 800/494-TIXS.

• Trouble in Mind — CenterStage — ***1/2. Costume designer Catherine Zuber’s fitted suits, decorous little hats and stiff pocketbooks fairly scream the respectable 1950s, but the white gloves quickly come off in this blisteringly funny discourse on race and show-biz false faces. It’s a neglected gem from Harlem playwright Alice Childress, a founding member of the American Negro Theatre, that pulls back the curtain to reveal the behind-the-scenes sniping and subterfuge during rehearsals for an anti-lynching play, and it’s being staged with gleaming umbrage under the direction of Irene Lewis. Through March 4 at 700 North Calvert St., Baltimore. 410/332-0033.

• Vigils — Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company — ***1/2. Young playwright Noah Haidle eschews slice-of-life dramas in favor of the flagrantly imaginative and surreal, and this absurdist, randy work concerns itself with the oddball interior life of a firefighter’s widow who cannot let go of his body or soul. Torn between his memory and the possibility of real love — and sex — with a live suitor, she opts for a selfless act that liberates both the quick and the dead. The play is deeply rooted in emotion and raunchily funny at the same time, and the production, directed by D.C. newcomer Colette Searls, bursts with off-color and off-kilter energy. It also exhibits the best use of the commodious new space since Woolly’s opening last season. Through Feb. 25. 202/393-3939. MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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