Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Lloyd Rose

dio, a Hilarious `Durang Durang'

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
June 27, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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According to Mrs. Sorken (Marcia Churchill), the cultured suburban lady who introduces "Durang Durang," we are all "seeking the metaphorical Drama mine which will cure us of the nausea of life." I'm not sure that Christopher Durang, the author of this collection of skits, which opened Sunday at the Studio Theatre, is interested in curing us -- he finds nausea too uproarious. And in this sharp, funny evening directed by Serge Seiden, so does the audience.

Durang is flailing wildly here, and everything he hits -- from show biz mores to personal lives -- goes down for the count. Tennessee Williams is felled in "For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls" and Sam Shepard in "A Stye of the Eye." Marriage and old lovers get it in "Wanda's Visit," and Hollywood is skewered in "Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room." Like the bodies in the last act of "Hamlet,"the dead pretensions litter the stage.

In "Belle," Durang takes off after "The Glass Menagerie" and breaks it to bits. Crippled Lawrence (Scott Andrew Harrison) collects glass swizzle sticks to which he gives whimsical names such as "Q- Tip." Smothering mother Amanda (Mary Tucker) enlists brother Tom (Brion Dinges) to bring home a "feminine caller" (Dori Legg) who turns out, alas for Mother's plans, to be a hard-of-hearing lesbian.

In "A Stye of the Eye," Ma (Legg) announces proudly, "My children are virile, masculine symbols who shoot guns and beat up women." Her boys, Frankie and Jake, are actually the same person (Dinges) -- which leads to a very confusing fight scene -- and that person is also the same person as sister Mae (Tucker). Jake's brain-damaged wife, Beth (Michele Schaeffer), performs in a production of "Agnes Is Odd," playing a nun who has given birth and blinded several horses with a spike. Her brother, Wesley (Harrison), wanders around in bloody underwear intoning: "The lamb has maggots. I brung it in the kitchen." Artichokes abound. So do some actual cymbals. And an American flag gets folded by two blind women. Sounds like a Shepard play, all right. Sounds like all of them, actually.

In "Wanda's Visit," Legg, with exultant looniness, plays an old girlfriend foisting her unwelcome attentions on Jim (Dinges) and his shy wife, Marsha (Schaeffer, whose soft-voiced wrath recalls Georgette of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"). "Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room" brings playwright Chris (Harrison) face to face with Hollywood's idea of creativity, as epitomized by an executive (Tucker) who wants him to write a sex-change romance between a rabbi and a priest. In the weakest offering, "Nina in the Morning," Dinges, as the son of Nina (Churchill), pulls the pins out of her face lift.

It's a loopy evening. Durang isn't a disciplined writer and his stuff doesn't build to a comic climax, but he can meander down byways of nonsense worthy of a surrealist, and Seiden and his actors ramble right along with him. The inspired cast barrels through the craziness with hilarious seriousness. James Kronzer's set is engagingly rinky- dink and makes inventive use of limited space. Durang's windup is all over the place, but his aim is true. He's killingly funny.

Durang Durang, by Christopher Durang. Directed by Serge Seiden. Lights, Tom McCarthy; costumes, Lydia Spooner; sound, Ron Oshima. At the Studio Theatre Secondstage through July 23.

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Flip Sides; Frenetic Pain and Mirth At Woolly Mammoth

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
January 19, 1993
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Nicky Silver's "Free Will and Wanton Lust," which opened at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre on Sunday night, starts out as an arch and artificial comedy of manners, a` la Noel Coward, and ends up as a pair of hypnotic monologues out of Beckett. It's a mess, it's all over the place, but it's alive with pain and wit. Whatever a real writer is, Silver is that thing.

Washington audiences may fondly remember the previous Silver outing at Woolly Mammoth, "Fat Men in Skirts." This time around, Silver is also directing. As is often mysteriously the case, he's not the best director for his own material - he just adds on more of what he's already put in as a writer. In the first act, this leads to a lot of frenzied action that is nonetheless rather bland, all the same temperature; in the second, though, Silver pushes the edge of the envelope so hard that he, with the help of actors Jason Kravits and Kerry Waters, tears through into a still, solemn, mesmerizing place where the characters inhale and exhale sorrow instead of air.

Act 1 introduces us to another of Silver's Monster Mom characters, Claire (Waters), who is brittle and clever in old-movie-queen-cum- drag-queen style. Of course this creature, who is having an affair with a young stud, has ruined her children. Daughter Amy mopes around in a long ballet tutu and threatens suicide, partly because she is pregnant by a man she loved who deserted her. Son Phillip has dark circles under his eyes and is pale and jumpy; Kravits plays him like a man who's just been exhumed and is still a little tense about it. He arrives home with his new girlfriend, a repressed, wound-up woman named Vivian, who turns out to be an ex-love of the stud, Tony, with predictable catastrophic results. As this situation is unfolding, the characters throw out bons mots and oddball remarks, such as "Ravish me on the sofa. We'll upholster in the morning."

The absurdist horror of the American nuclear family isn't exactly a new subject, and in this first act Silver doesn't contribute much to it other than cleverness. People ignore each other's extreme statements of pain or anger and just natter away under their own little bell jars of egotism, as characters in the theater have been doing since Chekhov, way back at the beginning of the century. Because Silver has directed everyone to be slick and arch, there's no sense of humanity - even rotten, frightened or self-deluding humanity - under all the bright chatter, and up to this point the evening, though intermittently brilliant, is noisy and a little tiring.

Then in Act 2 Silver-the-writer boldly changes direction and style, as first Claire and then Phillip speak to us for a long, irresistible time. Claire tells the story of her mother, who, after a miscarriage, simply withdrew from life like Melville's Bartleby; as Claire puts it, when faced with any choice in life, her mother "preferred not to." Kerry Waters, whose Act 1 Claire was so caricatured the role might as well have been played by a man, reveals impressive depths as an actress in this monologue - marrow-chilling, sunless depths. Sex is the only comfort in her joyless life - it cleanses her, baptizes her into new innocence, erases time.

Kravits delivers Phillip's monologue in front of a burlap curtain, right at the audience, and he's riveting. Silver has put in some great cheap jokes at the beginning of the speech to win us over and make us listen, and where our minds might wander, Kravits keeps us fixed. He's a mannered actor, but his pain here is simple, unforced and overwhelming. Shortly into his story, the audience became so silent it was as if it were holding its collective breath. Phillip's monologue is a tale of love's hopelessness, of a longing for unity, of loneliness and despair. Like Claire, he recognizes sex as something that transcends the sordid, slimy, sticky, embarrassing aspects of life, something cleansingly radiant.

This last part of the play is a tour de force, bleak and yet beautiful. Claire and Phillip are in awful pain, but you can't get enough of them, you wish they would never stop talking to you. As a director, Silver appears to have sat down in front of them in wonder, knowing that even though he had written the lines, his characters still had secrets to tell. Waters and Kravits tell them.

In supporting roles, Audrey Wasilewski (Amy), Christopher Lane (Tony) and Naomi Jacobson (Vivian) are funny and fine, but none of their characters has a monologue on the level of Claire's and Phillip's, and their performances are consequently not as strong. James Kronzer has designed a perfectly peculiar set, with a black deco staircase that leads nowhere and a backdrop of rose satin drapery. Lighting designer David Zemmels works in equal partnership with Silver and the actors. During Phillip's speech, the light whitens Kravits's face until it seems as if the bone itself is coming through his skin.

"Free Will and Wanton Lust" is strange, a mermaid piece with a satirical upper body and a tragic tail. But no matter what objections you may have to Act 1, Act 2 couldn't work so powerfully without it. And the final image, in which petty, needy reality is swept up into a star-struck, movieland romantic beauty, is breathtaking - however disparate the play's elements, Silver brings them together here with dazzling theatricality, a visual triumph in his own world of words.

Free Will and Wanton Lust, written and directed by Nicky Silver. Set, James Kronzer; lights, David Zemmels; costumes, Rosemary Ingham; sound, Hugh Caldwell. With Kerry Waters, Christopher Lane, Audrey Wasilewski, Jason Kravits and Naomi Jacobson. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Feb. 14.

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t Parade; High Art to Tacky, A Season for All Tastes

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
September 10, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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People go to the theater for a number of reasons. There are always, of course, hopes for the delights of art. Sometimes the casting is so terrific you don't even care if the play itself works. Sometimes it's fun or interesting just to see an extreme concept worked out through a well-known play. And sometimes the all- encompassing reason for going to a play is what can only be called joie de cheap.

Right at the top of the upcoming season, we have an example of each of these:

Art: At the Shakespeare Theatre, Stacy Keach as Macbeth, directed by Joe Dowling. Even if the production doesn't work, it can hardly be anything but powerful. Both Keach and Dowling are lusty talents, ideally suited to the blood and iron of Shakespeare's tragedy of man- the-warrior. As if they weren't enough, Wallace Acton will bring his off-center presence to the role of the drunken porter who, unknown to himself, is the gatekeeper of Hell.

Casting: At Studio, Sarah Marshall and Nancy Robinette will be together again, not once but twice, in two versions of Russian life: Tony Kushner's "Slavs!" and Chekhov's "Three Sisters." Joining them in both productions will be Isabel Keating (Little Voice in "Studio's "The Rise and Fall of Little Voice").

Concept: The Round House is producing "Nora," Ingmar Bergman's edited, reworked version of "A Doll's House." Bergman is a Strindberg fan without much use for Ibsen. Here, he "fixes" "A Doll's House" so that the results are more Strindbergian, making Nora a sexual power broker and Torvald her victim. It kind of screws up Ibsen, but it could be exciting theater.

Joie de Cheap: As its first offering, MetroStage presents "Me and Jezebel," in which audiences will get to see Rick Hammerly play Bette Davis. Okay, maybe this isn't really going to be cheap. Maybe it will be very complex and somber. Maybe people are going to purchase tickets ahead of time for the highest of motives -- i.e., a genuine, heartfelt curiosity about what it would be like to have Bette Davis as a houseguest. Hammerly was witty, tacky fun in "Red Scare on Sunset" at Source last year, and one can reasonably expect him to be the same here.

Various theatergoing constituencies will have various shows to look forward to. Musical theater will be abounding. Signature has already opened "Cabaret," and its final show will be Stephen Sondheim's "Passion." Later in the season, Douglas C. Wager will restage at Arena his celebrated 1983 production of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide." At the Kennedy Center, Carol Channing will sashay her ageless way across the stage in "Hello, Dolly!" and later the center will present "The King and I," with Donna Murphy from the Broadway production of "Passion." The Kennedy Center will also play its part in Disney's conquest of the world by presenting "Beauty and the Beast."

There are productions to be looked forward to simply for the individual voice of the writer. The African Continuum Theatre Coalition is producing a compilation of Langston Hughes's work, "Nap Does Simple's Blues." The Studio is bringing us Kushner ("Slavs!"), Alan Bennett ("Talking Heads") and, the loudest voice of them all, Eric Bogosian ("Suburbia"). The Kennedy Center will bring in Terrence McNally's new play, "Master Class," and Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize- winning off-Broadway hit, "Three Tall Women."

Woolly Mammoth has long been a reliable purveyor of "edge" theater and will continue in that tradition with such plays as the sinister, surreal journey across America "Watbanaland" and Tina Howe's never- before-produced "Birth and After Birth," which wins hands down for best title of the season. But the most stunning avant-garde production is likely to be found, for a change, on one of the larger stages, when Jo Anne Akalaitis directs Strindberg's "Dance of Death" for Arena. The battle of the sexes is reduced to its bloody essence in this, arguably Strindberg's greatest play, and Akalaitis is known for her revisionist take on texts by male authors, as well as for her daring and beautiful staging.

Finally, there are the alternatives to English-language theater. GALA Hispanic Theatre has long done duty in this area and continues this season with plays by Lope de Vega and Mario Vargas Llosa. Now there is a second Spanish-language theater in the area, Arlington's La Teatro de la Luna, as well as Arlington's Le Neon, a self- described "French/American theater."

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Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
September 12, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Resplendent in Nancy Reagan red, Rick Hammerly got a round of applause opening night when he made his entrance as Bette Davis in "Me and Jezebel" at MetroStage. Elizabeth L. Fuller's autobiographical play tells about the month in 1985 when Davis was a semi-welcome guest at her house in Connecticut. Fuller -- as well as her husband and 4-year-old son -- is played by the talented Mary Tucker, who was previously teamed with Hammerly in "Red Scare on Sunset" and partners him the way Astaire did Rogers. The script is essentially sweet, a funny Valentine, and Tucker imbues it with humor and uncloying sentiment. Her affection is the perfect backdrop for Hammerly's Davis; it shows him off and makes his moves look good.

Fuller is the author of eight books, including "Everyone Is Psychic," and she presents herself on the stage with good-natured irony as impressionable and a little loopy. The stage Fuller is overjoyed when circumstances conspire to make Davis her house guest; her favorite movie as a girl was "Jezebel," and Davis-worship was a bond between her and Old Ma, her beloved grandmother. She's completely star-struck, pausing in the middle of the play's action to giddily say to the audience, "I was hanging out with Bette Davis!"

Davis is, as one might imagine, something of a job to hang out with. Imperious, selfish and sharp-tongued, she takes over the Fuller household. "Margo Channing came to supper," Fuller's husband comments, "and Baby Jane stayed for breakfast." Fuller tries to look on the bright side of things: "If I could help her get in touch with her spiritual side, she could throw off that tinsel bondage of Hollywood!" This goopy goodwill goes over with Davis not at all: Hammerly reacts to Fuller's new-age gush with an expression of disbelief bordering on nausea.

Jeff Church directs with a sprightly touch, but the evening feels overextended. Fuller had the material for an entertaining one-act and stretched it very, very thin when she turned it into a full-length play. After you get the basic setup -- Davis is comically awful and Fuller comically reacts -- you've got the play. The relationship between a star and a fan from a younger generation is a ripe subject with a potentially complex and troubled underside, but "Me and Jezebel," like the recent "Ed Wood," with its story of Bela Lugosi and the worshipful Wood, stays on the innocent surface.

Hammerly has perfected a sort of mock-up of the famous Davis delivery and an expressionistic version of her hand gestures. He looks great, but it's never entirely clear what he means the role to be: a caricature, a convincing portrait of a spoiled elderly woman, a campy in-joke, a sympathetic biographical sketch, an excuse to mug, or a stunt. A little of each of these, his performance is flashy and occasionally fun but without much force. Casting a man in the role of a celebrated woman who was once a beauty and became a self- caricaturing hag isn't a neutral act -- it implies some criticism of femininity, if not outright hostility toward the woman herself. But the Davis of this play isn't really written as a monster, so Hammerly has to behave himself. And if a drag performance in a so-called "straight" play isn't a comment of some sort, what is it? Neither Hammerly nor Church has an answer for this question.

Me and Jezebel, by Elizabeth L. Fuller. Directed by Jeff Church. Set, Tess Riggs. Lights, Catherine Kelleher. Costumes, Harriet Engler. Sound, David Maddox. At MetroStage through Oct. 15.

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Theater; American Family Gothic

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
April 8, 1993
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Kimberly Schraf gives a bitter, intense performance as a woman remembering her childhood sexual abuse in "The Moonshot Tape," one of two one-acts being presented as a full evening at American Showcase Theatre. Sitting on an unmade bed, smoking, sipping gin and munching M&Ms, she gets stiller and quieter as her character, Diane, sinks back into memory. It's enough of a performance to make you forget that there really isn't a play there, just a story.

"The Moonshot Tape" is by Lanford Wilson, and its companion piece, "Tone Clusters," by Joyce Carol Oates. Together the two examine the American family gone wrong - in "Moonshot" from the child's point of view, in "Tone Clusters" from the position of the parents. The evening is unbalanced because the parents in "Tone Clusters" are treated, by the actors and directors, as fools who more or less asked for what they got through their middle-American ignorance, while Diane in "Moonshot" is presented as a sympathetic victim-survivor.

The dopes in "Tone Clusters" are Frank and Emily Gulick (Harry A. Winter and Beverly Brigham) of Lake Point, N.J., a suburb of Newark. In the modern American play, suburbia is always seething with horrors beneath its tidy surface; in this variation on what is getting to be a very, very old theme, the luckless parents have somehow raised a sex murderer. Oops. Appearing on a talk show to put forth their position - that their son is innocent - they answer intellectually phrased questions from an unseen interviewer (the voice of Grover Gardner) nervously and foolishly. They reveal themselves as racists with bad taste in exterior house paint. The audience laughed in a superior fashion at practically everything they said, and Winter and Brigham have not provided the Gulicks with the dignity or pain that would make the laughers choke on their own snobbery.

There is probably something in Oates's play about how social theories - provided by the interviewer - fail utterly to have anything to do with the bewilderment and suffering of people at the actual center of a social tragedy, but this idea is crushed beneath the heavy-handed satire launched at these pathetic sitting ducks. In a note, Lee Mikeska Gardner, who directed with her husband, Grover, writes, " `Tone Clusters' is not a slam at middle-class values." Maybe not. Maybe it's just been directed and acted that way.

"The Moonshot Tape" has parental villains too, but they stay offstage. It's really impossible to make anything dramatic of a memory of child abuse. The issue isn't one that can be presented from two sides morally, and without two sides there is no drama. As Diane begins talking to a reporter from a school newspaper in her home town, the audience has nothing to do but wait for some revelation to come up. It's never clear why Diane would spill her secrets to this reporter - she just spills them because Lanford Wilson needs an excuse for her to start talking. Considering the static nature of the material, Schraf's spirited, sardonic performance, and director Lee Mikeska Gardner's pacing, are very impressive.

A new designer in town, Alan R. Thornsberry, has provided Diane's unmade bed, and a trio of menacing television monitors for "Tone Clusters." These are handsome productions. And though flawed, the evening is ambitious - American Showcase is clearly stretching toward new artistic territory, a move always to be applauded.

Tone Clusters, by Joyce Carol Oates, directed by Grover Gardner and Lee Mikeska Gardner, and The Moonshot Tape,

by Lanford Wilson, directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Sets, Alan R. Thornsberry; costumes, Lynn Steinmetz; lights, Catherine Kelleher; original music, Ron Ursano. With Beverly Brigham, Harry A. Winter, Kimberly Schraf. At American Showcase Theatre through April 18.

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side-Down Dostoevsky

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
April 23, 1993
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"The Flying Karamazov Brothers in The Brothers Karamazov," which opened at Arena Stage last night, is sloppy, sophomoric, silly, strenuous, obvious and extremely funny. Dumb-funny, stupid-funny, why- am-I-laughing-at-this? funny. Comparisons are hard to come by, but if you mixed a Marx Brothers show with one of Mel Brooks's musical numbers, you'd have something approximating the amiable mess the juggling Karamazov Brothers have put together as an evening's entertainment.

It's not by any means as slick or satisfying as the Marx Brothers musicals Doug Wager has graced the Arena stages with in the past, and it isn't as insanely tasteless as Brooks. But it has a winning, try- anything loopiness and a fresh spirit, like a really clever college revue. Hewing very, very, very vaguely to the plot of Dostoevsky's celebrated novel ("a classic you were born to trash," the Brothers' director tells them), "TFKBBK" satirizes show biz, performance art, family relationships, religion, theater directors, Jewishness and itself in a casual, hit-or-miss fashion. Jokes that die are simply left to lie there while the four heroes scurry on to a gag that works, certain that if they just keep moving they'll stumble and fall into a guffaw.

The show begins with the Brothers (Paul Magid, who wrote the script, Howard Patterson, Michael Preston and Sam Williams) meeting with a pretentious director (Larry Block), who is going to make them artists by teaching them to abandon their Indian clubs for "interior juggling." They shoot him out of a cannon. The next thing you know, we're in the plot of "The Brothers Karamazov," with Pa Karamazov (Block again) as a vulgar hustler who in various ways torments his four sons, who in their various ways want to kill him.

One of the bits of the evening is finding out how many in the audience have read the novel. Few, very few, which is a pity, because actually the script sends up Dostoevsky pretty cleverly, as when the nihilist Ivan (Patterson), who in the novel proclaims that if there is no God then all is permissible, explains that his philosophy has led him to the revelation that "you may as well kill someone as make them laugh." As all the brothers - except the saintly Alyosha (Preston) - wish Dad were dead, so all of them end up in some way responsible for his death by a falling safe, a gag that's half Rube Goldberg and half Warner Bros. (The first act ends with a rendition of the Warner cartoons' theme song.)

Dmitri (Magid), the sensual elder brother, is in love with Grushenka, a performance artist whose specialty number, "I Am a Birthday Cake," consists of dousing herself with eggs, flour and milk. She can't get a grant, surprisingly enough, and Dmitri wants money to help her become the artist she is meant to be.

Dmitri is also involved with Katerina, played by the gymnast- comedian Cathy Sutherland, who has splendid legs of which she makes much sexy, funny use. Also on hand in several roles is the rotund and talented Bob Amaral. David LaDuca, as Dostoevsky, performs the worst rap since "Two Live Jews," and director Daniel Sullivan stages a takeoff on Yuri Lyubimov's 1987 Arena production of "Crime and Punishment." There is much running around. There are many bad puns. Things fall over. Objects are juggled. Idiocy rules.

I don't want to oversell the show. It's so easygoing as to be amateurish in places, and there are plenty of things that don't quite work. But it's loose, unpretentious and friendly, innocent even, a goof. If this is the kind of thing you like, this is the kind of thing you'll really like.

The Flying Karamazov Brothers in The Brothers Karamazov, by Paul Magid. Original music by Doug Wieselman and Gina Leishman; lyrics by Howard Patterson. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set, Andrew Wood Boughton; costumes, Caryn Neman; lights, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Steven M. Klein and Susan R. White; choreography, Doug Elkins. With Paul Magid, Howard Patterson, Michael Preston, Sam Williams, Larry Block, Joanna Glushak, Cathy Sutherland, Bob Amaral. At Arena Stage through June 13.

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Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
December 19, 1995
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"Silence, Cunning, Exile," which opened this past weekend at the Studio Theatre, takes its title from James Joyce, but its subject is the photographer Diane Arbus, known for her disturbing photographs of grotesques. Playwright Stuart Greenman gives credit to the "inspiration" of Arbus's life but, perhaps for legal reasons, has named his heroine Suzie -- and we don't get a good look at any of her work. So this is a play about an artist without any of her art; those who don't know Arbus's work already will find a lot of the evening opaque.

Still, aided substantially by Mary Battiata's performance in the central role, the play succeeds famously on one level: as a portrait of a certain type of artistic woman, neurotically seductive, passively dominating, childlike but potentially lethal. Battiata is on the staff of the Washington Post Magazine, and here she turns from writing to acting. It's hard to tell how much of Battiata's achievement is skill and how much presence, but presence is a large element of acting talent, and hers is mysterious and commanding: She always seems to know exactly what she's doing, and she keeps you wondering what makes this woman tick. With her wide-spaced eyes, broad cheekbones and thin, girlish arms, Battiatta's Suzie is a changeling, a goblin princess, around whom mere mortals flutter like self-destructive moths.

This is a play set among the educated bohemian elite -- editors, poets, actors -- who are generally not good stage company unless they're being satirized. Greenman presents them straight, so they tend to be a dull lot with their talk of ambition and inspiration, their artistic agony, their silly suicide attempts. It's a good thing strange little Suzie is in their midst, adding some witchbane to the bland stew of ideas and personalities.

When Suzie shows up in a new sweater, it smells, and turns out to have been filched from a bag lady. Though she begins with her husband, Donald (Steven Carpenter), as a fashion photographer, she is soon branching out, following dwarfs and transvestites home and begging to take their pictures. The script and Battiata suggest a narcissistic, consuming emptiness trying to fill itself vicariously with thrills. Suzie's camera is her weapon and her shield -- she invades, but remains inviolate herself.

With his sound designer, Lane Buschel, and costume designer Robin Stapley, director Keith Alan Baker conjures up the banal '50s, in which Suzie's story -- and the play -- begin. Perversion is to be longed for in Ike's America: "Maybe `normal' is a dead issue," Donald says hopefully. "There are no more rules." But when you have a wife like Suzie, rules begin to look good. Among other things, her lonely, compulsive journey illustrates the difference between those who actually are outsiders and those who just try on the pose like a smart hat.

The whole Studio Secondstage space is essentially a large room, and set designer Giorgos Tsappas has used every bit of it, including its doors into other rooms and halls. The result is nicely disorienting: On the one hand, you're in a box; on the other, those doors keep opening like lids onto a reality you can't quite see all of. Baker makes excellent use of the space, particularly in a sequence set at a New Year's Eve party.

Though it purports to be about arty society in the '50s and '60s, "Silence, Cunning, Exile" works best on the level of a fairy tale. Extraordinarily talented, poisonously peculiar, Suzie is the bad fairy at every artistic christening, the goblin who's going to get you if you don't watch out. She's "otherness" spookily made flesh.

Silence, Cunning, Exile, by Stuart Greenman. Directed by Keith Alan Baker. Lights, A.J. Weissbard. Also featuring Elizabeth Pierotti, John Emmert, Rhea Seehorn, Jeff Baker, Sharon Neubauer. At the Studio Theatre Secondstage, 202-332-3300, through Jan. 7.

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Theater; No Holds Bard; Woolly Mammoth's Delicious `Desdemona'

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
January 24, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Led by Naomi Jacobson in a pixilated comic performance, the Woolly Mammoth gang of zanies is putting on a delightful, often hilarious show with its production of "Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)," which opened last night.

Wearing an absurd gray tam-o'-shanter crowned with a woolly ball and a huge shapeless cardigan that might as well have "Professional Spinster" stitched on its back, Jacobson is a repressed Shakespearean scholar who plunges down the wastebasket, as opposed to the rabbit hole, to find herself in the wonderland of her own unconscious. This undiscovered country turns out to be identical to the plays "Othello" and "Romeo and Juliet."

Nothing daunted, our heroine - Constance Ledbelly by name - briskly sets out to give these famous tragedies happier outcomes. After all, as she has pointed out earlier, the only reasons those plays end so badly are "flimsy mistakes: a lost handkerchief, a delayed wedding announcement."

Constance doesn't merely ditch the downer endings, she turns both plays into laugh-out-loud comedies. Playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald doesn't miss a trick, scattering satirical observations on love and sex, scholarship and the Bard like birdseed, while taking full advantage of the slapstick possibilities in Shakespearean cross-dressing.

Directors Lee Mikeska Gardner and Howard Shalwitz appear to be having a ball with the mix of sophistication and stupidity. Characters spout nutty, clever parodies of Shakespearean dialogue. One denounces Constance by charging that she "would skewer state and marriage on the same kabob." Another, confronted by the confusing cross-dressing, announces, "If this be so, I'll to my closet straight!" Observing what seems to be homosexual behavior on Constance's part, Tybalt sputters, "What! A Hellenic deviant! Oh fie!" Every now and then, just to liven things up, the directors run one actor or another smack into a pillar.

This is undergraduate humor, but on a very high level, the kind of thing those wacky college kids produced at Cambridge with "Beyond the Fringe." MacDonald is Canadian, which may be why her comedy seems more English than American: Watching (and laughing), you think of Tom Stoppard, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and, occasionally, the Pythons. However, the best comparison is American: The show is like a classic "Saturday Night Live" sketch that, miraculously, keeps working for two hours.

Given their first shot at Shakespearean roles, the Woolly actors respond with glee. Jason Kravits is first a shifty-eyed Iago then an increasingly bewildered Romeo, who, unable to figure out which sex his new inamorata Constance is, tries to keep up with her by switching his own gender.

As Juliet, Holly Twyford is a true Renaissance beauty - and funny besides. Jennifer Mendenhall turns Desdemona's preposterous heroism into something rather noble, playing a virago with style and wit. ("Boy!" the surprised Constance comments at one point. "Shakespeare really watered her down, eh?") Most happily, Daniel R. Escobar brings his outsize talents to Othello, Tybalt and - it had to happen - Juliet's nurse. (If nothing else, this production makes a terrific theatrical footnote to the Shakespeare Theatre's upcoming "Romeo and Juliet.")

As the shy but plucky Constance, Jacobson is outstanding. I've enjoyed her work in the past, but I had no idea she could carry a show like she does this one. As the scholarly old maid at the beginning of the play, she is a timid fussbudget, confiding apologetically to a professor, "My fine motor skills are really poor." The surprise and pleasure in the performance is the way she opens up the character. Her Constance may be inexperienced, but she's game: She begins to like the craziness of the world she's thrown into, its opportunities for adventure, education and pleasure. She warms up and lightens up before our eyes.

Keith Belli has provided an all-purpose Shakespearean set (lots of columns), and Howard Vincent Kurtz has created funny, sumptuous costumes on a minimal budget. Not all is perfect silliness. There's a little bit of clumsy plot involving a magical manuscript, but you can ignore it. There's also a lesson - Constance learns to be her own woman etc. - but even a side dish of spinach like that can't ruin this candy bar of a show.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), by Ann-Marie MacDonald. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner and Howard Shalwitz. Set, Keith Belli; lights, Marianne Meadows; costumes, Howard Vincent Kurtz; sound, Daniel Schrader; choreography, Roberta Gasbarre; props, Tessa Dunning; fight choreography, Brad Alan Waller. With Jason Kravits, Naomi Jacobson, Holly Twyford, Daniel R. Escobar and Jennifer Mendenhall. At Woolly Mammoth through Feb. 13.

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Lloyd Rose. "Theater; No Holds Bard; Woolly Mammoth's Delicious `Desdemona'." The Washington Post. Washington Post Newsweek Interactive Co. 1994. HighBeam Research. 7 Jan. 2009 .

hakespeare's Sylvan Sillies

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
January 25, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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It's beena good week for funny women in Washington theater. On the heels of Naomi Jacobson's happy clowning in Woolly Mammoth's "Goodnight Desdemona" comes Nanna Ingvarsson as a goofily beleaguered Helena in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which opened last night at the Washington Shakespeare Company.

At play's start, Helena loves Demetrius (Stan Kang), who scorns her but loves Hermia (Elizabeth Piccio), who spurns him but adores Lysander (Christopher Henley), who loves her in return. All clear? Then they all run away to the forest and fall asleep and fairies get into the picture, and the result is that both Lysander and Demetrius become wild about Helena, who views their changes of heart with suspicion and alarm. Plus, Hermia is pretty teed off.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" may be Shakespeare's broadest comedy of love. There are few courtly manners or poetic asides, just people running around in the woods making idiots of themselves. Pursuing Demetrius, Ingvarsson's Helena is an uninhibited fool for love: At one point she chases him across the stage with a bouncy lollop that recalls Pepe LePew.

As Lysander, Henley is sulky and sheepish, with an amusing instinct for self-preservation. Kang's Demetrius is a dopey fellow who attempts kung fu moves when battling for his lady's hand. Piccio goes to pieces in a nice, bratty way. After a while, I began to reflect that, though the four characters are presented as enchanted, they're actually behaving just the way people do when they're in love: much absurdity, extremism and dashing about.

But though the lovers' comedy works well enough, there are two other parts to the play: the story involving the fairies, and the story of Bottom and the menials, who are putting on the play "Pyramus and Thisbe." At this point in its performance history, the major challenge "Dream" offers a director is what to do about those damned fairies. Happily, gauze has been out of fashion for 70 years or so. Leaves have been in at least since Peter Brook, in his 1969 television production with Diana Rigg and Ian Richardson, made his fairies smudge-faced little earth sprites.

There are leaves in this production, wreathed around the necks of Oberon (Brian C. Diggs) and Puck (Robert W. White). Unfortunately, the two characters also wear short, bloomery skirts that look as if they're made out of inexpensive curtain material. No performance can survive this kind of costume, and in addition Diggs swivels his hips periodically to express his earth-spirit sexuality, a gesture that makes the skirt look even sillier. None of this is anywhere near as bad as the Kenneth Branagh-directed "Dream" I saw several years ago in which the fairies wore black leather trousers and crawled around sticking their tongues in and out of their mouths, but it isn't really what I'd call successful.

As for Bottom, David Fendig tries very hard in the part, but he strains too much to be more than occasionally funny. His best moments come when he does anachronistic impersonations, including Elvis and Bert Lahr. Of the other menials, Tom Mallan is funny as Snout, throwing himself into the role of the Wall in "Pyramus and Thisbe," but the others don't seem very comfortable on the stage. In the case of Nicola Daval, who plays Snug, this may be because the other characters can't figure out what sex Snug is, referring to the actress now as "He" and now as "She." This may be some new attempt at political correctness, but it looks like sloppiness and confusion.

Some of the details of the production are quite lovely. The hand puppets that serve as some of the fairies are exquisite little creations by Steven Lampredi, grotesque yet adorable. Wearing a second hat as a designer, Ingvarsson has given Bottom an ass's head that echoes Lampwick, the boy who turns into a donkey in Disney's "Pinocchio." I liked set designer Steve Thorpe's Crayola-green backdrop of tropical palms. Um, yes, palms. The production is set in Hawaii. This doesn't actually hurt the play, but it doesn't help it any either. Interludes of authentic Hawaiian dance and music, while lovely, make you feel as if the channel had suddenly switched to a documentary on Pacific culture.

The Washington Shakespeare Company has done impressive work in the past with no money to speak of and non-Equity actors. Here, however, its poverty shows, particularly in the casting, which in some of the minor roles is amateurishly weak. No one seems to have thought through the ideas in the production very clearly, or attended to the details. The discipline and inspiration by which this company has previously made up for its lack of resources is sadly missing this time out.

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare. Directed by Richard Mancini. Set, Steve Thorpe; lights, Benjamin Hay; sound and music, David Maddox; additional music, Mahina and Manu; costumes, Snezana Sasha Kojic. With Miyuki Williams, Steve Grad, Sheryn Hylton Parker, Jack French, Bill McKenney. At the Washington Shakespeare Company, Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, through March 5.

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Theater; Troubled `Dreams'; Alan Ayckbourn Strays Too Far With His First Musical

Article from:
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Article date:
January 10, 1994
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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For reasons that are mysterious, the brilliant, bitter English playwright Alan Ayckbourn has chosen to make a musical, "Dreams From a Summer House," inspired by "Beauty and the Beast." With an attempt at a score by John Pattison, Ayckbourn's 45th play, which opened last week at Arizona Theatre Company, is a complete mishap - a rarity in the theater, and fascinating because it's the work of a writer with a history of smart, successful plays.

As Ayckbourn has never been produced successfully on Broadway, a good many American theatergoers have only the vaguest idea who he is, even though more than 20 of his plays have been produced in London and he is commonly (and inaccurately) referred to as the English Neil Simon. A film with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Hopkins was made of his play "A Chorus of Disapproval." Apparently no one went to see it. (A well-attended stage production was done at Arena Stage in Washington a few years back.) Yet Ayckbourn is an extraordinary writer, a mordant master of comedy of manners, a hilarious, acid dissector of modern marriage and, as a humorist, a bit of a goof. (This season the Washington schedule includes two of his plays: "Season's Greetings" was just done at Round House, and "The Revengers' Comedies" is upcoming at Arena.)

The goof is in evidence in "Dreams," but not in the right way. The show is a sort of mix of "Into the Woods" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo": Three couples at an English country house, all of whom have problems in love, find themselvesinvolved with Belle and the Beast from the old tale. This sort of thing has to be either completely berserk or charming beyond imagining to work. Ayckbourn has been gloriously berserk in the past, but here, shuffling people in and out of fairyland, he becomes peculiarly cautious. In his other plays, he has hilariously shown us people screwing up their love lives. But here he keeps having the characters stop and tell us what they're feeling. Or sing it at us. One didactic lyric has Belle telling the Beast, "If I stay, I stay as neither slave nor master/ If I stay, I stay as friend and loving partner." You begin to feel as if you're at a marriage counseling session.

Usually evenhanded about the foolishness of both sexes, Ayckbourn is nastier than usual here about what one male character refers to as "the stronger sex. Not the better, but the stronger." The hero has a long, ranting speech that amounts to a complaint that women in general aren't, um, well-endowed enough. After this, when the young girl in love with him wonders why he doesn't notice her, you wait for someone to point out that it's because she's flat-chested. No one ever does, and it's not clear why the hero finally falls for her.

"Dreams From a Summer House" is full of ideas and questions about the relationship between the sexes, but nothing is worked out clearly. When the hero's ill-tempered ex-wife ends up a prisoner of the Beast, she somehow gets the upper hand over him and this makes her, upon her return to the real world, love her nit of a husband more. After a passionate affair with Belle, the hero abruptly decides he's been living a romantic fantasy and falls in love with the ingenue. The play keeps jolting along like this, as if scenes had been inadvertently dropped.

There are flashes of Ayckbournian wit. "If I touch you, you'll turn into my ex-wife," the hero glumly tells Belle. "All women do." And the nit of a husband is a nice addition to the company of beleaguered Ayckbourn males, unassuming fellows surrounded by (frequently female) forces greater than they, who turn out to be more resourceful than one might expect. It helps that the nit husband is played here by the one first-rate member of the cast, R. Hamilton Wright, who as a dimwitted comic Englishman is almost in a league with the sublimely daft Paxton Whitehead.

John Pattison has composed incidental music for many of Ayckbourn's plays, but when the two try to write songs that can carry a story along, they're way, way, way out of their depth. Neither appears to have any sense of how to use songs dramatically, so that they reveal the characters just at the point we want to know more about them. The first act is songless for the longest time, and then there's a supposedly funny song about having a sense of humor. The big number in the second act is a children's song the Beast introduces: There are lyrics about little birds going tweet, tweet, tweet. When most of the cast danced exuberantly offstage to this ditty, I began to feel that someone involved, possibly me, had lost his mind.

These sorts of belly-flops are almost inevitable in the career of a talented playwright, particularly if he's as amazingly prolific as Ayckbourn. As failures, they're often quite interesting - if for no other reason than that they teach the sober lesson that talent and experience are not necessarily proof against the sorts of mistakes usually indulged in only by amateurs.

Dreams From a Summer House. Book and lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn. Music by John Pattison. Directed by Jeff Steitzer and David Ira Goldstein. Set, Tom Butsch; costumes, Laura Crow; lights, Rick Paulsen; musical direction, Jerry Wayne Harkey. With Suzanne Bouchard, Darcy Pulliam, Greg Zerkle. At the Arizona Theatre Company.

ed in the Familiar

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
March 24, 1993
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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"Tea," which opened at Horizons Theatre Sunday night, is sociologically interesting but theatrically slight. In line with its emphasis on the experiences of women, Horizons presents here the story of five Japanese war brides living on an Army base in Oklahoma. After the suicide of one, the other four come together to remember, confront and all the usual that takes place in this sort of play.

In a nice touch, director Leslie B. Jacobson has put together a multiracial cast with nary a Caucasian in sight, and the snootiest of the five, most given to slurs on other cultures, is played by an African American woman, Tia Howell. Her character, Atsuko, is given to casual observations about "Negroes" dying young because of their diet, and she characterizes a crazy woman as walking "like a Korean." Unlike the others, Atsuko is married to a Japanese American, a bit of racial purity on which she prides herself. (Of the rest, one is married to a Mexican, one to an African American/Native American, and two to white guys, one Good and the other Bad.)

Chizuye (Laura Smiley) is the most assimilated, wearing slacks, smoking, drinking coffee instead of tea. Teruko, amusingly and charmingly played by Mishi Ko, is the group peacemaker. Setsuko (Miyuki Williams) is the most thoughtful. Along with Atsuko, they sit around and talk and act out flashbacks, while the ghost of the suicide Himiko (Elizabeth Piccio) watches and taunts or encourages them from beyond the grave.

We don't really learn anything surprising. The women are uncomfortable having to feel "solidarity" just because they're all Japanese, when in their own country they might not have had anything to do with one another. They experience racism in America. They feel caught between two worlds. It's an old, old immigrants' story, and playwright Velina Hasu Houston doesn't bring anything new to it.

I never thought I would see the day when costume designer William Pucilowsky would put together any outfit less than beautiful, but the costumes in "Tea" are unattractive and ill-fitting, and include what look like kimonos made of transparent shower curtain material.

There's a lot of goodwill behind this production, but not much else.

Tea, by Velina Hasu Houston. Directed by Leslie B. Jacobson. Set, Mick Murray and Alan Thornsberry; lights, Helena Kuukka; sound, John Anthony Ward; costumes, William Pucilowsky. With Elizabeth Piccio, Mishi Ko, Tia Howell, Miyuki Williams, Laura Smiley. At Horizons Theatre at the Writers' Center, Bethesda, through April 11.

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Ford's `Fantasticks': Warm and Fuzzy

Article from:
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Article date:
March 26, 1996
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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The boys from "Greater Tuna" -- Jaston Williams and Joe Sears -- throw off the dresses and don more sober, masculine gear for their roles as the fathers in the production of "The Fantasticks" that opened last weekend at Ford's Theatre. They also appear as an Indian and a Shakespearean ham in this 1959 musical fable about the course of true love. But in spite of their talents and efforts to spruce things up, "The Fantasticks" is showing its age.

Now in its 36th year at New York's Sullivan Street Playhouse, the show is the longest-running musical in the world, a sort of American equivalent to Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" in London. It features sweetly melodic songs that have entered the popular repertory -- "Try to Remember," "Soon It's Gonna Rain" -- and some cute jokes. It is absolutely inoffensive, which for some people may be reason enough to see it.

Boy (Julian Brightman) loves Girl (Jolie Jenkins). Dads pretend to be against it so as to encourage it. Boy gets Girl. Boy and Girl are not happy and go off and have unpleasant, though largely symbolic, adventures that show them how well off they were. Sadder but wiser, they get together again. The enterprise is overseen by a mystical major-domo figure named El Gallo (Kevin Bailey) who is assisted, I'm sorry to say, by a mime (Wendy Herrick).

As the saying goes, if this is the kind of thing you like, this is the kind of thing you'll like. There's whimsy galore, and also some bittersweetness, and lots of playing around with the conventions of theater.

Sears and Williams are funny guys, so they're funny here. The high point of the production is their partnership as the old thespian and his Indian partner: It's as if they're playing those traveling hucksters the Duke and the Dauphin from "Huckleberry Finn." They also have a couple of pleasant duets with canes and hats in front of a stylized backdrop. They shed a warm light, but nothing like the fireworks of their comic work in the "Tuna" play. There, they're transcendent. Here, they're nice.

The Fantasticks, book and lyrics by Tom Jones, music by Harvey Schmidt. Directed and choreographed by James J. Mellon. Set and costumes, Michael B. Raiford; lighting, Robert T. Whyburn; sound, Ken Huncovsky; musical direction, David Andrews Rogers. With Mark Aldrich, Doug Carfrae, Carolyn Droscoski, Jennifer Hall, Richard Jones, Kevin McMahon, Peggy Yates. At Ford's Theatre in an open-ended run. 202-347-4833.

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g America Sing

Article from:
The Washington Post
Article date:
June 28, 1996
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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It was Philip Roth who noted, with his usual mixture of irony, snideness and glee, that the two great popular songs of the Christian holidays -- "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade" -- were the work of a Jewish songwriter. That was Irving Berlin, who also wrote songs celebrating Thanksgiving, New Year's and -- with "God Bless America" -- the Fourth of July, as well as practically inventing the 20th-century love song. In Jerome Kern's famous aphorism: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music."

" `Puttin' On the Ritz': The Irving Berlin Songbook," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center, is essentially one 52-song medley edited into two hours and performed by a cast of five led by Carol Lawrence. Her red hair done up in a Lucille Ball style, Lawrence still shakes a shapely leg as she delivers these classics, but her supporting cast is only so-so. As with the Second City troupe's current show, this revue is in the "K.C. Cabaret," a performance space constructed on the Eisenhower Theater stage.

Still, there's something to be said for any evening covering so many Berlin songs, even if most of them are in snippets. I suppose that by today's standards Berlin is corny, and I suspect that even in his day (a long one: 1888-1989) Berlin was a little corny. But it was corniness raised to the level of genius. The modern American musical would not exist, at least not in its present form, if Berlin had never written.

An immigrant, Berlin flung himself into cultural assimilation with the passion of a man coming to a country that had never known a pogrom -- and of course, it wasn't he who became assimilated into American music, but American music that became his. His optimism and innocence weren't naive, they were the product of history. When this Jewish composer wrote "God Bless America" in 1918, it wasn't cranked-out mindless jingoism but a heartfelt, valid political statement.

"Puttin' On the Ritz:" The Irving Berlin Songbook. Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Directed and choreographed by Randy Skinner; music direction and arrangements by Paul Trueblood; production design, Rui Rita; lights, Mara N. Fishman; costumes, David Brooks; pianists, Paul Trueblood and Dennis Buck. With Patti Butler, Nick Corley, Anthony Galde and Paige Price. At the Kennedy Center through July 14. 202-467-4600.

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Theater; `Annie Get Your Gun': Nostalgic Bull's-Eye

Article from:
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Article date:
July 15, 1993
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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The production of "Annie Get Your Gun" that opened last night at the National Theatre isn't very sophisticated - in places it's even clunky - but the show retains an irresistible charm. The story of sharpshooter Annie Oakley's romantic troubles, set against Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, is a piece of vintage Americana, from the days (1946, to be exact) when the country still thought of itself as innocent.

Irving Berlin composed the score, and it includes "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Anything You Can Do" and "I Got the Sun in the Morning (And the Moon at Night)." An argument can be made that Berlin, also the author of "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade," invented homespun America - certainly his Wild West characters, including his tomboy heroine tamed by love, seem "classic," as familiar as a dream. Steps have been taken in this new production to remove the patronizing attitude toward Indians - here they are definitely Native Americans. Annie's song "I'm an Indian Too!" is gone, and I for one didn't miss it, particularly as it has been replaced by some impressive tribal dancing, which, like all male folk dancing, has beauty and power.

Cathy Rigby is a diminutive Annie, appearing first with dirt smeared on her face, toting a gun nearly as long as she is. Rigby is a hard-working, slightly mechanical performer, but she makes Annie's naive love for shooting champion Frank Butler touching in its straightforwardness. Poor innocent Annie thinks that because Frank loves her, he'll be happy that she shoots so well. The script tells the story of her coming to grips with reality in the form of the male ego.

The story's something of a downer, because in any love contest it's sad to see egoism triumph over innocence. When Ethel Merman played Annie, the problem probably took care of itself - Merman would have aimed at poor Frank like a tank, and for his sake you'd have wanted her to lose some of her firepower. Rigby is so open and well meaning that you feel for her and wish Frank were less of a dolt.

Director Susan H. Schulman gets around this as well as she can by directing the romance to diminish Frank's patronizing obtuseness. In the role, Brent Barrett is self-mockingly vain, and his hurt feelings are more childlike than mean-spirited. He and Rigby don't have any romantic spark as a couple - in particular, you never see the moment when he begins to fall for this little ragamuffin - but they're funny together, particularly when working their height difference for laughs (he has about a two-foot advantage). At the end, Annie abandons her shooting achievements for Frank with such careless glee that all the sting goes out of the gesture and we smile at the lovers' embrace.

Heidi Landesman and Joel Reynolds have designed a set with a lot of hanging drops, many of them based on 19-century Wild West show advertisements. These are nostalgically appealing in the same way the show is. Though Barrett has an exquisite voice, you can't really say anyone in the cast is top-notch. But this is a tuneful, sometimes touching evening, too sweet-spirited to be dismissed as corny.

Annie Get Your Gun, songs by Irving Berlin, book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. Directed by Susan H. Schulman. Orchestrations, Robert Russell Bennet, Michael Gibson, Brian W. Tidwell; choreography, Michael Lichtefeld; sets, Heidi Landesman and Joel Reynolds; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lights, Ken Billington; sound, Gary M. Stocker. With Cathy Rigby, Brent Barrett, Paul V. Ames, Erick Devine, Mauricio Bustamante, Bill Bateman. At the National Theatre through July 31.

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To Women, a Mystery No More; In New York, the Sherlockian Baker Street Irregulars Finally Open Their Doors

Article from:
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Article date:
January 13, 1992
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Lloyd Rose
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"He disliked and distrusted the sex, but he was always a chivalrous opponent." Thus Dr. John H. Watson on his friend Sherlock Holmes's attitude toward women.

Friday night, at the annual Baker Street Irregulars dinner here, the chivalry was in evidence and the dislike and distrust muted to the barest murmur. After 58 years as a Men Only organization, the Irregulars - the American equivalent of England's Sherlock Holmes Society - were admitting women not only as members, but to the dinner itself.

In the gilt and mirrored ballroom at 24 Fifth Avenue, 15 or so white-clothed tables were set up for the very English meal of thick, rare roast beef (melon to start, apple strudel to finish). At each, among the seven or eight men, sat - history being made! - a woman. And throughout the dinner, and at the cocktail party preceding, and at the reception the next day, the men went out of their way to make the women feel welcome.

Graciousness. Courtesy. Noblesse oblige. All the old-fashioned words and phrases applied. The Baker Street Irregulars' purpose, after all, is to "keep green the memory of the Master" (i.e., Holmes), and that memory includes the ultra-civilized Victorian world in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories (published from 1887 to 1927) take place. It's a fairy-tale world - a variety, in spite of the London setting, of pastoral. Decency and fair play are meant to be the norm; if they are not, it's a gentleman's duty to find out why.

The BSI dinner attire included a number, though not a preponderance, of deerstalker hats. Some men sported the Irregular tie: Its three colors - mouse gray, purple and faded blue - are those of the famed dressing gowns that Holmes was wont to lie around in while musing on an abstruse problem or dreaming his cocaine dreams. There was an amazing variety of lapel pins: the door of Holmes's flat at 221-B, little enamel plaques of scenes or characters from the stories, a guardian angel, a door knocker, a deerstalker, a pig (see "The Adventure of Black Peter").

Several attendees wore black tie. At least one boasted handsome gray gloves and spats. After the dinner everyone headed, as is the custom, over to the after-party held by the distaff Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, "because frankly," one member confided, "what's the point of getting all dressed up unless there's someone to admire you?"

Ah, the ladies. "Women are never to be entirely trusted," Holmes told Watson, "not the best of them." In spite of this, the Sherlock Holmes Society in tradition-bound England (founded in 1952) has always been coed; its first president was Dorothy L. Sayers, author of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. It is the Irregulars who have been more like the cliche of the English club - faintly eccentric, a bit snobbish, stag. The group mutated out of three casual little clubs started in the '30s by Christopher Morley, that jack of all letters who at one time or another was a critic, a columnist, a theatrical producer, a novelist, a lecturer, a poet - and who had a hand in the founding of both the Book-of-the-Month Club and the famed Gotham Book Mart (across 47th Street, from his office).

Morley loved to start clubs. Sometimes they met for the first time on the occasion of their founding (often a spontaneous action over drinks or dinner) and then never again. But the BSI persisted. It took unto itself a constitution and "buy-laws" (drinking was never far from members' minds), and there is evidence in those buy-laws that women were not necessarily to be excluded: A couple of clauses refer to members as possibly being "of opposite sexes." And three women successfully completed the Sherlockian crossword puzzle devised by Morley's brother as an entrance exam.

Still, somehow, the membership remained all male. (It has included one editor of The Washington Post, Felix Morley, and, honorarily, two presidents: Truman and FDR.) There have been a couple of exceptions through the years - Lenore Glen Offord and Lisa McGaw - but both were informed that they could never come to the dinner. The present head, or "Wiggins," of the BSI, Tom Stix, instituted a practice of inviting all "investitured" Irregulars to the dinner. McGaw was planning to attend in 1990, but between the invitation and the event, she died.

It may have been this sobering incident that determined Stix's actions at the reception the day after the 1991 dinner. Unlike the dinner, the reception was open to both sexes - and Stix chose the occasion to announce the investitures of six women.

"The room could not be quieted," said Susan Rice, one of the six, hastening to add that the noise was enthusiastic. "It was a phenomenal and electric moment - completely unexpected."

Good-natured and dry-witted, she recounted the story of how in 1987 she was voted into the all-male Hugo's Companions (one of the "scion," or regional, societies) and then - after an emergency election purged the officers and installed new ones - voted right out again. When she received her BSI investiture, she could not resist going over to those who had rejected her in Hugo's Companions to see if they would congratulate her. "Manfully, they did."

Manfully. At Friday's dinner, when Evelyn Herzog, the founder of the Adventuresses (who was also among the first six women investitured), advanced to the podium to much applause, one fellow referred, quite audibly, to an excretion associated with bulls. At another point, when Stix announced that women were present for the first time, the man booed. He sat much of the time with his hand over his eyes, perhaps to avoid having to look at the woman seated directly across from him.

Asked to go on the record about his views, he preferred not to comment. Some conversation revealed that he had retired early from his job at Los Alamos because "another thing I disagree with is people being allowed to keep their jobs until they're mentally incapacitated and can no longer do them." He was also an Episcopal priest - a member of a group that has had to endure many alterations in tradition in the past 20 years, not the least being the loss of that masterpiece of English prose, the Book of Common Prayer. "I'm not a conservative," he snapped at one point. "I'm a reactionary."

"What's that?" inquired a man across from him. "Somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun?"

This man was one of the many who had made sure a woman guest felt welcome. Unsolicited comments included things such as "I've been waiting 20 years for this" and "It's about time women were admitted."

No one could say exactly why they had been left out all these years. The word "tradition" came up a lot. One member said he had changed his mind about admitting women when it was made clear to him that "the BSI was the pinnacle of Sherlockian recognition, and why should women be denied? It was hard to argue with that."

And Stix - the benign dictator who perpetrated this velvet revolution - said female membership became "inevitable when it was pointed out to me that it is only the BSI who are taken seriously as a scholarly organization, not the Adventuresses."

Scholarly? Definitely. The Irregulars operate on a charming conceit: that Holmes really lived, that Watson wrote the stories, and that the putative author, Conan Doyle, was only a literary agent - or, as the Irregulars refer to him, the Literary Agent. Doyle - er, Watson - wrote rather carelessly, and there were many discrepancies in the stories (also known as the Canon, or Sacred Writings). It's unclear, for example, whether Watson's first name was John or James, how many times he was married (at least twice) and where exactly a Jezail bullet entered him (shoulder or leg). Then there are the more serious questions - such as whether Holmes went to Oxford or Cambridge. With 56 short stories and four novels there's a lot of ground to cover. Scholarly papers are offered at the dinner each year. The most scandalous was Rex Stout's 1941 "Watson Was a Woman."

Women, again. Was admitting them really an issue worth such opposition? Does their presence change anything? It's admitted that insulting one-upmanship among members may not be as harsh as before. And possibly the poems and toasts may not be as "blue." "Blue" was the word used, in these days of the Hill-Thomas hearings and televised rape trials. The word "ladies" was also used - without irony or condescension, or any woman bristling or taking offense.

Everyone was, in fact, what would once have been called "well-bred." The men welcomed the women. And the women took their admittance with graciousness and gratitude, not as if they were "owed."

"I had no desire to see the small all-male Sherlockian societies go coed," said Herzog. "Women like to hang around women and men like to hang around men, and I can't see anything wrong with that." It was only exclusion from the founding organization, the BSI, that "just wasn't right. I feel great gratitude to Tom Stix and appreciate his sense of fair play."

Rice, with her humiliating in-then-out experience at Hugo's Companions, was slightly less sanguine. She remembered walking into that meeting and feeling "invisible and naked simultaneously" as the men stared then quickly looked away. For her, her investiture into the BSI was so wonderful that she still thinks of it to cheer herself "when times get tough."

Were the men just having a tantrum in a teapot? Or did they indeed, out of gallantry and a sense of fair play, give something up? At the dinner, with only 20 or so women among the approximately 150 present, the atmosphere was relaxed. There was comradeship, a sense of let's-be-silly-and-to-hell-with-it, a cigars-and-whiskey ambiance.

At the mixed-sex reception the next day the atmosphere was perfectly cordial and unstrained. Yet it was there - that faint tension men exhibit in female company, the understanding that if they look stupid or do something dumb it won't be merely in front of forgiving male eyes but under the gaze of ... women. Who may actually say something about it. Who may, possibly, remind them about it in the future. Who, in the worst possible imagining, might, if they chose, tell jokes about it.

For the sake of the ladies' feelings, the gentlemen laid themselves open to this risk.

"They're nice guys," said Rice. "Even the ones who voted me out. I can't really get mad at any of them."

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JON TINDLE

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Article date:
April 14, 1996
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Thin as a rail, beaky and intense, Jon Tindle slightly resembles a bird, and has, in fact, played one: the title role in "The Swan" at Round House. He is currently pulling off the tour de force of playing, without camp or affectation, a woman: the sexually repressed minister's wife in the Studio Theatre's production of "Talking Heads." A few years ago, he took Tennyson's long poem "Maud" and performed it as a dramatic reading, bringing out all of the material's dark, Poelike qualities. In short, the English-born Tindle is a protean figure, amazingly malleable and full of surprises.

Though unseen on Washington's larger stages, Tindle's eccentric, arresting talents have enlivened productions at the Studio (Solyony the nihilist in "Three Sisters"), the Washington Stage Guild (the callow Frank Gardner in "Mrs. Warren's Profession") and the Washington Shakespeare Company (Galveston, the king's erotic downfall in "Edward II"). He's something of a well-kept secret, but one wider exposure wouldn't ruin.

"Most of my income is through acting. I do work one day a week at Backstage bookstore, because I like to keep my hand in, and it gives me the perk of being able to look at new plays without buying them. My first job here was at a store called the Bowl and Board in Georgetown, which was a place that, interestingly enough, sold bowls and boards. "In England, I was a bricklayer, I was a store clerk, I was a gardener, I worked in the dockyards. I was actually sitting on top of a roof, building a chimney, and suddenly out of nowhere this huge squall blew up and my ladder fell down into the street, and I'm sitting there on the apex of this roof in the pouring rain and I thought, `What am I doing with my life?' That was the exact moment I decided to come to this country, which was a very good decision for me."

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KAREN EVANS

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Article date:
April 14, 1996
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Karen Evans is the education director at Arena Stage. But in her real life -- her artistic life -- she heads the Black Women Playwrights' Group and is the author of "My Girlish Days" and "Homegirls," two very different plays about African American women. In "My Girlish Days," which was produced at American Showcase Theatre (now MetroStage) in 1993, she told the story of a spirited woman who is constricted by the bleak realities of life in a small, poor Southern town. "Homegirls," which was just read at the Kennedy Center's annual Washington Front and Center series, is about the effects of the Civil Rights movement on a group of young women. Cant-free, her plays have grace and authenticity; they convey a life not merely observed but lived.

"I'm very, very lucky," says Evans. "I do for Arena what I did freelance through the Artists in Education grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities: I teach, and I write. I'm out in the public schools teaching play writing. And I get a check on a regular basis.

"In teaching, I like the `click' when you get a story map up on the board and you're listing scenes or moments that could possibly be in the play and you hear the `click' in the back of the room from the guy who hasn't yet written anything. You know he actually gets it and that he will write something, because he now understands how a story moves from your head onto the paper." "I still pause when people say, `What is your occupation?' My first impulse is always to say, `Writer.' "

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`Starving': Gobble, Gobble

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Article date:
April 16, 1996
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Mud, blood, artichokes, an exploding car and a maggot-infested lamb: Must be a Sam Shepard play. And it is -- "Curse of the Starving Class," which opened over the weekend at Washington Shakespeare Company. As the years go by, Shepard, with his self-consciously poetic soliloquies and thudding symbolism, begins to look more and more "literary." At Washington Shakespeare Company, director Brian Hemmingsen has played into this tendency by eschewing what little psychological realism there is in the script and opting for a stylized production with absurdist overtones.

On a poor avocado-cum-sheep-raising ranch in California, patriarch Weston (Ian LeValley) drinks his way through the days and nights while his bitter wife, Emma (Hope Lambert), tries to keep the teenage children fed. These are sullen, possibly retarded Wesley (Christopher Henley) and his firecracker of a little sister, Ella (Caren Anton). The family isn't actually that poor, but all of its members have a consuming existential hunger: for Life, for Lost Dreams, for the Vanished Promise of This Country.

Going back to O'Neill, American playwrights have conflated the broken promise of America with the broken American family. Parents fail their children, and the fathers in particular fail by not being able to make their way in the capitalist marketplace of American life. Shepard covers this extremely familiar territory once more, but combines it with modern nostalgia for the supposedly purer life of the family farm (he is himself the son of an avocado farmer) and the myth of the American frontier as a place where a man could prove and find himself. With all these Themes crowding in, there's not much room for characterization. Wesley and his clan strike a lot of attitudes, but though the characters get a lot of blood on them, they don't have a lot of blood in them. What Shepard can do is write pugilistic, one-on-one, actor's-exercise-type scenes, but for these to come off you need a specific type of actor: the aesthetic equivalent of a big-shouldered, fear-is-for-the-weak heavyweight fighter. That sort of actor is born, not made, and none of the performers here is in that mold. (The actor the company does have in the mold, Hemmingsen, is offstage rather than on.) Additionally, Henley and Anton seem way too old for their roles and LeValley -- who has some nice moments in his quiet scenes -- too young. For a guy so heavily into melancholy and mythologizing, Shepard can be extremely funny. Watching this production, you can imagine the play's working as a rough, energetic comedy, a tightrope act above a void of yearning and loss. But Hemmingsen's carefully artful mounting of the script breaks any comic momentum it might have had. In particular, music intrudes at unwanted moments -- competing with Henley during his big soliloquy, for example, or coming up so regularly when the refrigerator door opens that the icebox begins to seem like a music box. His surrealistic touches pile on top of surrealistic poeticizing, and the production collapses. Curse of the Starving Class, by Sam Shepard. Directed by Brian Hemmingsen. Assistant director, Andrew Blackwell; set, Michael Murray; lights, Benjamin Hay; costumes, Kerri E. Rambow; sound, Jim Stone. At the Washington Shakespeare Company through May 26. Call 703-418-4808.

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unniest `Profession'

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Article date:
July 30, 1996
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Halo Wines in the title role of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" should be reason enough for theater happiness, but John Going's production, which opened last weekend at the Olney Theatre, is just one enjoyable performance after another.

George Bernard Shaw is so familiar, so energetic, so startling and so in love with ideas that it's easy to forget, or downplay, how funny a writer he is. This is not Going's problem. He apparently sees the somewhat knotty script as primarily a comedy of rather bad manners, and has directed with the light touch of boulevard farce. It's impressive how well the script responds to this treatment. The ideas still whiz right at you, but the play seems giddy, a little bubbly. "Mrs. Warren" wasShaw's first good play, and it has the springiness a brilliant beginner can bring to his medium.

After twenty-some years of absentee mothering while she plied her profession abroad, Mrs. Warren returns to England to see her daughter, Vivie (Katherine Leask), and find out what she plans to do with her life. There's been nothing but the best boarding schools and university for Vivie, and she has a degree in mathematics from Cambridge. A practical girl, to put it very mildly, she plans to become an accountant. Her mother would rather see Vivie well married -- though not, to be sure, to her would-be lover, the feckless Frank Gardner (Bob Kirsh), or to oily Sir George Crofts (Richard Bauer), who has designs on her.

"Whom shall she marry?" was the prime question asked of women in 18th- and 19th-century fiction. Shaw, typically, turns this whole marriage plot on its head. He brings in Ibsenian intimations of incest and corruption, but only to use them for heartless comedy. He blasts sexual hypocrisy about "good women" (the kind you marry) and "bad women" (the kind you don't) to shreds and grinds romantic idealism into the dirt. It's a rocky ride. But you keep laughing.

Vivie, though, is not very funny at all. She's a little alarming, actually. At one point Mrs. Warren's friend Praed (Douglas Simes) says to her, "You make my blood run cold," and the audience is likely to agree with him. Vivie is so competent, so unsentimental, so independent, so much tougher than everyone else that she can begin to drive you nuts. Shaw's heroines tend to be annoyingly superior and smug, but icy Vivie may be the least endearing of them all. Shaw seems to adore her, but the audience's sympathy may wander to that unapologetic old trollop, her mother.

It's easy to soften Mrs. Warren and play for audience sympathy, but Wines gives her uncomfortable shadings of coarseness. Her Mrs. Warren isn't merely a hypocritical gentlewoman, she's a jaded creature and a cynical, predatory flirt. She seems dangerous, and this makes it easier to take Vivie's treatment of her. Matters are also helped by Leask's portrayal of Vivie, to whom she gives a maturity and a capacity for troubled reflection that aren't in the script.

Bauer plays Crofts as more of a slime than a bully, but he's at his serpentine best and makes your skin crawl. Kirsch does a lot with the callow Frank, giving him such warmth and charm that you're disturbed at his final shallowness. All through the play Frank keeps telling everyone who will listen that he has no character, and we laugh; Kirsh makes you feel a jolt when it turns out Frank has been telling the simple truth.

In addition, there are Simes, very much the gent as Praed, and Tom Carson blustering his way through the role of Frank's father, a vicar with a past.

When the play opened in New York in 1905 (11 years after the London premiere) the critic for the New York Herald huffed, "The play is morally rotten. . . . It defends immorality." He wasn't wrong. It's still unsettling to sit in the audience and listen to Shaw gleefully explaining that, from a financial point of view, there's no real difference between marriage and prostitution, or pointing out that the money that supports the "good" social institutions of arts and education has its source in the sins of capitalism. There's no answering him, either. A century later, his criticisms of modern society still hold.

Mrs. Warren's Profession, by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by John Going; set, James Wolk; costumes, Mary Ann Powell; lights, Tom Sturge; sound, Ron Ursano/The Chroma Group Ltd.; props, Tessa Dunning. At the Olney Theatre through Aug. 25. Phone 301-924-3400.

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`Beauty': Only Skin Deep

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Article date:
June 7, 1996
Author:
Lloyd Rose
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Go ahead and take your children. What else is there to say about "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," which opened last night at the Kennedy Center. Very small children might find it too long, but any kid who liked "Cats" will like this. So will adults who like Disneyland, since the production is basically a Disneyland ride with live actors and some nice tunes.

There are more tunes than there were in the film, 12 altogether. As befits a musical comedy, the Beast (Frederick C. Inkley) now gets a couple of solos in which he laments his lot, including the Act 1 curtain number. Inkley has sung Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables" and has a fine, strong voice, but his real contribution to the evening is his acting. Under all that hair and prosthetic rubber, his Beast is rather shy, and his wooing of Belle (Kim Huber) is sweet-naturedly funny. At his best, he may remind you just a little of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion.

Huber is a blandly perky Belle, with a full-toned voice. Patrick Page has some comic moments as Lumiere, the Maurice Chevalier-like butler-candlestick. No one else standsout except Tony Lawson (also a "Les Miz" alumnus) as the self-infatuated villain, Gaston, who woos Belle because she's the only woman in the village as good-looking as he is. Gaston looks like Li'l Abner with an Elvis pompadour, and Lawson gives him a smile so fatuously perfect you'd swear it was some brand-new Disney special effect. He has a lot of energy, which is always a blessing in a show that's heavy on sets, lights and pyrotechnics.

Costumer Ann Hould-Ward designed another Broadway fairy-tale musical, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Into the Woods," and her work there was full of beauty and surprise. Here, since so many of the characters are inanimate objects (a candlestick, a clock, a teapot, etc.), she's more in the position of designing props people can dance in. I'm not sure there was a graceful solution to the problem of having characters onstage who are essentially things rather than people. At any rate, Hould-Ward has come up with designs that look fine when the actors are standing still but awkward when they're moving. Even getting around in the stuff looks like a bit of a feat.

There's lots of fire in "Beauty and the Beast." Lumiere the candlestick has a pair of flaming hands. Sparks fly from various contraptions and characters. Strobes flash in your eyes. There's neon. But basically the scenic work is stolid and conservative, a series of shifting cutouts in the trademark Disney style of Mitteleuropean kitsch.

To frequent theatergoers, none of this will seem particularly new or exciting. Washington audiences have seen the marvelous dancing sets of "Crazy for You" and the sleight-of-hand movieland scenery of "City of Angels," not to mention Arena musicals directed by Douglas C. Wager, a man who knows how to make sets perform like splendid wind-up toys. Director Robert Jess Roth's theatrical background is mostly in kiddie shows for Disneyland, which probably accounts for "Beauty's" odd mixture of spectacle and stasis. It looks fine, but it has no theatrical dynamism. Then again, neither do Disneyland rides. Disney did what it could do here; it's a corporation that has grown very, very rich by providing the expected.

Disney's Beauty and the Beast, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, book by Linda Woolverton. Directed by Robert Jess Roth. Choreography by Matt West. Sets, Stan Meyer. Lights, Natasha Katz. Sound, Jonathan Deans. Illusions, Jim Steinmeyer and John Gaughan. Orchestrations, Danny Troob. Musical supervisor and incidental music arrangements, Michael Kosarin. With Grant Cowan, Don Sklar, Betsy Joslyn, Jeff Brooks, Asher Book, Evan Jay Newman, Mary Stout, Rob Lorey. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sept. 29. Call 202-467-4600.

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