- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2007

OPENING

• Gem of the Ocean — Arena Stage, Fichandler Theater. In 1904 Pittsburgh, a mystical 285-year-old matriarch leads a spiritual journey to the mythical city of Bones, a place where troubled souls that seek solace in her house can finally be set free. Opens tomorrow. 202/488-3300.

• Rough Magic — Rorschach Theatre. After being imprisoned for 500 years, a man named Caliban escapes to modern-day New York City, where he joins forces with a magical dramaturg and a love-struck lifeguard. Opens Saturday at the Sanctuary Theatre. 202/452-5538.

• Vigils — Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. A woman clings to her dead husband’s talkative soul as she attempts to see someone new. Opens Monday. 202/393-3939.

NOW PLAYING

• Desire Under the Elms — American Century Theater — ***. For his 1924 foray into American realism, Eugene O’Neill looked to the Greeks, incorporating elements of the Oedipus trilogy, “Medea” and “Phaedra” into his tragedy about a New England farming family. It’s a bodice-ripper, a tale of sex, revenge and a 19th-century game of “Who’s your daddy?” Character and psychological forces drive this stark and taut production, under the firm guidance of William Aitken. The strong acting and the epic characters make this “Desire” one that deserves to emerge from the shadows. Through Feb. 3 at Gunston Theater II. 703/553-8782.

• Into the Woods — Signature Theatre — **1/2. This big, brainy Stephen Sondheim musical, which takes classic fairy tales and gives them an adult, sardonic spin, blends the classics 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.

• 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.

• 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.

• Noises Off — Arena Stage, Kreeger Theater — ****. You’ll find yourself helpless with laughter during Arena Stage’s production of British playwright Michael Frayn’s rowdy 1982 backstage comedy in which a third-rate British theater company tries to put on a third-rate sex farce while everything falls apart on both sides of the curtain. It’s a delirious depiction of backstage dramatics and the scarcely contained hysteria that goes into the making of live theater that will delight both showbiz insiders and innocents. Through Sunday. 202/488-3300.

• 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.

• This is How it Goes — Studio Theatre — ***. Playwright Neil LaBute’s latest foray into our knee-jerk reactions is a race-themed “Rashomon” with twists and kinks reminiscent of that master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. The issue is ingrained racism, and Mr. LaBute suggests that Generation X-ers and beyond may not be as colorblind as they profess. You’d never believe that bigotry could be entertaining, but Studio Theatre’s lively production, directed by Paul Mullins, makes an uncomfortable discussion a stinging pleasure. Through Feb. 11. 202/332-3300.

• Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater — ***1/2. Marriage ain’t for sissies, and there’s a lurid, perverse joy in watching this touring revival of the 1962 drama that playwright Edward Albee revised for the 2004 Tony Award-winning Broadway run. The play, set in a New England college town in 1960, takes place during one long, drunken night after a faculty party and reveals that the bitter, shared stories of the toxically married George and Martha have created an intricate alternate reality that welds them miserably together. Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner are malignantly magnificent, displaying an exultant ugliness on the cellular level. In real life you wouldn’t want to share even their air space, but at the Eisenhower Theatre you can watch with comfortable, ironic detachment as these old gladiators hack away at one another. Through Sunday. 202/467-4600.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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