- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

OPENING

• A Lesson Before Dying — The African Continuum Theatre Company. Ernest J. Gaines’ moving story about a young black man condemned to death in the backwoods of Louisiana. Opens tonight at the H Street Playhouse. 800/494-8497.

• The Subject — Charter Theatre Company. A restaurant worker overcomes her fascination with a customer by posing as a model for his photography. Opens Wednesday at the Warehouse Next Door. 202/333-7009.

NOW PLAYING

• Lenny & Lou — Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company — ***1/2. With Ian Cohen’s shocking epic, Woolly Mammoth pushes the envelope on scatological and sexually deviant behavior to new extremes. From graphic depictions of sex acts and partial nudity to salty language, smut and outrage, this play is an orgy of bad behavior. Yet at its heart it is a radical reaction to dealing with an aging parent whose mind is failing. What keep you from feeling slimy are Tom Prewitt’s tight direction and expertly abandoned performances by Nancy Robinette as the kinky Brooklyn Jewish mother; Howard Shalwitz and Michael Russotto as her two middle-aged sons, Lenny and Lou; and Jennifer Mendenhall as Lenny’s lewdly hormonal Mafia princess wife, Julie. The play takes an energy dip in the second act, but for the most part, it delivers a sidesplitting and perverse look at familial love. Through Sept. 26 at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. 800/494-8497. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• M. Butterfly — Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage — ***1/2. David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning play is based on a true-life scandal, the affair between a French diplomat in China and a Chinese opera singer who was not just a man, but a spy. Mr. Hwang’s deft deconstruction of the stereotypes Westerners hold about Eastern culture remains powerful and wrenching. However, the play is on its firmest footing when dealing with the blurred edges of sexuality, male fantasies and domination versus submission. Stephen Bogardus’ gives a gentle, restrained portrayal of the hapless protagonist, while newcomer J. Hiroyuki Liao as the spy holds a viewer spellbound through stylized gestures and graceful bows that are almost absurdly feminine. Through Oct. 17. 202/488-3300. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Macbeth — The Shakespeare Theatre — **. “Macbeth” charts the trajectory of the former “brave knight” (Patrick Page) who quickly goes from being hailed as a loyal nobleman to a reviled, psychopathic tyrant after he is seized by a “vaulting ambition” — the result of the weird sisters’ prophecy and some shrewd goading by his wife (Kelly McGillis). Sets, shadow play and costumes make this a dazzling production. Beyond the purely visual, it’s respectable but not greatly involving. With its cool, modern Danish sensibilities, this staging presents a portrait of ruthless ambition that attracts the eye but gives emotions the brush-off. Through Oct. 24. 202/547-1122. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• One Red Flower — Signature Theatre — **1/2. As might be expected from a musical about the Vietnam War, Paris Barclay’s play, inspired by the book “Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam,” leaves you rubbed raw. This new production, under the sure direction of Eric Schaeffer, is stunning. Mr. Barclay paints fervent musical portraits of six soldiers serving “in country” in 1969. The lyrics are based primarily on the actual words of the real-life soldiers. Their poems and letters home are by turns wistful, funny, despairing and always stippled with homesickness. The score relies on rock ‘n’ roll rhythms of the period. The superb cast creates lucid, emotionally resonant characters, and the play potently captures the wrath and harrowing ambiguity of a war that continues to disturb Americans. Through Oct. 3. 703/218-8500. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• The Phantom of the Opera — Hippodrome Theatre — ***. The Andrew Lloyd Webber smash has haunted theaters for 16 years — and shows not a trace of tatter. In the current touring production, Harold Prince’s often magical staging is intact, as are Maria Bjornson’s lavish belle-epoque sets and jewel-toned costumes. In fact, the musical’s evocation of the Paris Opera House in 1881 looks particularly fine in Baltimore’s newly restored Hippodrome Theatre, which was built at the turn of the 20th century. Cast cutbacks show at times, but the music is lush and over-the-top, and the 36-member cast attacks the musical with intensity and fervor. For the most part, “The Phantom’s” magic remains potent. Through Oct. 3 at 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore. 800/889-8457. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

• Venus — Olney Theatre Center for the Arts — ***1/2. Suzan-Lori Parks’ electrifying, free-form story of “the Hottentot Venus” — the South African woman Sarah Baartman, who was paraded around freak shows in 19th-century Europe, where people gawked at what they considered her outsized buttocks and genitalia — unfolds amid a hurly-burly atmosphere of musical vignettes, acrobatics, melodrama, slide shows and astute clowning. Sarah (a greatly compelling and sympathetic Chinasa Ogbuagu) becomes a “savage” in an iron cage who is not only ogled by the voyeuristic public but poked, prodded and examined by shady scientists and academics. Director Eve Muson’s Fellini-esque staging confronts the combustive subject matter full throttle, not even shying away from having certain characters appear in blackface. The production is bold and disturbing and is not for the priggish. Through Sept. 26. 301/924-3400. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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