- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

Do you find yourself afraid to fly lately? You still can savor the sunny romanticism of Madrid and Andalusia with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's winning production of Jim Knable's play "Spain."

The show, directed with oddball joie de vivre by Tom Prewitt, has nothing to do with the holidays, but you will feel warmed, anyway, by the demented cheer of this story of a wife whose strange and entrancing dream helps her cope after her husband leaves her for a breast-augmented younger woman.

"Spain" bears great similarities to "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wizard of Oz" in its rendering of a bizarre dreamscape where truth lies hidden in the madness. Barbara (Emily Townley), the spurned wife, sits in her pink robe and ponders life without John (Andrew Ross Wynn), her spouse of five years. The marriage has had its bumps, which Barbara has suppressed with fantasies about sunny Spain, the land of Don Quixote and Federico Garcia Lorca, of flamenco dancing and the scent of Seville oranges.

Suddenly, a Spanish conquistador (Christopher Lane) appears in her living room a sun-dappled Mediterranean space designed by Robin Stapley and enhanced by Lisa I. Ogonowski'sradiant lighting with the light glinting off his helmet and armor. The manly man (his name is El Tigre, which he pronounces with a big-cat grrrrrrr) is a recent transport from the Middle Ages after an odd encounter with an Ancient (Sarah Marshall), a Mayan shaman who has propelled him into the future for a yet-to-be-revealed reason.

Making the best of the situation, El Tigre props his metal boots on the coffee table and regales Barbara with stories of what it is like to be a new man in the New World. "We go places, and we name them" is one insight, and his tales are gorged with blood, lust and savagery.

The gleeful recountings of rape and pillage appall Barbara at first, but El Tigre's grabby gusto soon becomes inspiring. Taking her destiny and his sword into her own hands, Barbara embarks on an after-midnight tour of Spain that is way beyond what you see in travel brochures. As is standard in dream logic, Barbara's Spanish dreamscape is populated with her trying-to-be-respectable best friend, Diversion (Katie Barrett); her husband (who also moonlights as a flamenco guitarist); and a lawyer from the Deep South (Miss Marshall).

It is all very zany, and rather than try to make sense of it, you just have to grab on for the ride. The experience reminds me of a recent holiday gathering with a bunch of friends sitting around watching Beatles movies. One guest never before had seen "Help" or "Hard Day's Night" and was astonished that they had no plot or character development. "It isn't 'Citizen Kane,'" we explained. "This is a Beatles movie. They run around, and then they stop and sing songs." She calmed down after that.

"Spain" isn't an August Strindberg work and has no pretensions of being one. At its cockamamie heart, the play is a sweet story about an angry, cast-adrift woman who finds in dreams strength and resources she didn't know she had.

Of course, Woolly's production emphasizes happy freneticism rather than feelings. Because the plot line is wacky, the play is anchored by the characters. The cast gives an outstanding performance, starting with Mr. Lane as the Conquistador. He amuses us hugely as a romance-novel cover come to life, kind of like Fabio with a more splendid sense of humor. He makes no bones about being infatuated with his reflection in his shiny helmet and delivers his lines in all capital letters, ending each utterance with guttural flourishes.

Miss Marshall is both adorable and unsettling as the Mayan god. Her voice sounds diabolical and, well, ancient, and she contorts her face into the squat expressions typical of Mayan art. She is a naughty sprite as well, shaking her rattles in a wholly untoward manner, suggesting that the Ancient may be old but there's life in the old shaman yet.

As the beleaguered Barbara, Miss Townley offers an appealing mix of tentativeness and newfound brio, a winsome contrast to Miss Barrett's Diversion, who is a brisk sort who appears to have it all together that is, until the cracks start to surface.

The only disappointing role is John, who seems unformed and underwritten. Mr. Wynn does have a shining moment, though, when he tells of his wild first encounter with the other woman.

If you are looking for a bit of warm-weather diversion, "Spain" is the place to be.

***1/2

WHAT: "Spain"

WHERE: Kennedy Center's American Film Institute Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and Dec. 31; 2 p.m. Sundays and Jan. 5; and 7 p.m. tomorrow and Dec. 30, through Jan. 6

TICKETS: $17 to $32

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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