Margaret Kemp and Wendell Wright in Tom Walker(Photo: Scott Suchman)
Margaret Kemp and Wendell Wright in Tom Walker
(Photo: Scott Suchman)
Take your pick in Washington, D.C., where this winter's theater offerings run the proverbial gamut from "A" to "Z" (here, Arena Stage to Paul Zaloom). The smorgasbord includes dollops of magical realism, German Romanticism, tall tales, and performance art. And that only addresses the four shows that I managed to fit into a single weekend. Stay longer, see more.

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Tom Walker, a play by John Strand now in its world premiere engagement at Arena Stage (through March 4), is a mystery of sorts, centering around a ne'er-do-well fiddler who grabs a chance to make a fortune in exchange for his soul. Program notes emphasize the Colonial American setting and interracial relations in the piece, but racial prejudice is talked about more than it is portrayed.

The Mephistophelean Woodsman (Wendell Wright) is plenty scary and powerful, though more because of his black doings than his black skin. He pounces on unwitting victims in an isolated swamp; using flashpots and persuasion, he puts those victims to work for him until they are exhausted and sent to their deaths in secret. Very late in the play, we get some plodding confession of how the Woodsman's own mistreatment has led him to take advantage of others. And, lest he still be perceived as a bad guy, Strand clunkily reveals right before the climax that the Woodsman supports orphans with his ill-gotten gains. He only pretends to be the Devil; in truth he's Robin Hood.

Tom Walker (John Glover) is a hapless nice guy with a shrewish wife, a mounting tab at the local tavern, and no visible means of support. Naturally the Devil's offer attracts his attention. When Tom is spirited off to his death at the end of Act I and returns to tell about it at the start of Act II, Strand's narrative turns into a cliffhanger.

Unfortunately, much of the production is too heavy-handed for this light, lovely tale to soar. Tom's wife (Kate Buddeke) stomps, growls, and pouts to excess. We know from the dialogue that she is prickly and frustrated; why turn her into a caricature? An ensemble of three actors does labored duty in broad strokes as assorted indentured workers, sailors, narrators, and topers to move the tale along. Multiple locales are suggested by scenic elements that drop from above or rise on elevators, but these become predictable, slowing down rather than furthering what is written as a fluid series of happenings. As the bed rises out of the floor, we wait for the start of a domestic scene; then the snaky ropes descend, and we're back in the swamp. The production, under Kyle Donnelly's direction, can't seem to decide how much it wants to be social realism and how much illustrated lecture, nor how much it's willing to cut loose into legend and tall tale.

One production element that does combine mood-making and history is Tom's fiddling. What sounds a bit like eerie, almost atonal scratching is the result of sound designer Donald Di'Nicola's research into pre-Colonial music. The cacophony is both authentic and unsettling. Likewise, the inclusion of shells and bones on the costumes (by Nancy Schertler) of the "Devil" and his daughter are both fantasy-like and suggestive of non-European traditions.

Tom does strike a second bargain with the Woodsman, and the scene in which he pulls this off is delightful and clever. It's just a long time in coming.

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February was the month for The Kennedy Center to kick off its multi-year festival celebrating the arts and culture of Latin America, AmericArtes! The play in this year's lineup, Cronica de Una Muerte Anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold), is part fable, part mystery, and part ritual. Cronica, which ran for three performances, is based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel of the same name. It tells the story of a wedding that ends with a murder when the groom discovers the bride is not a virgin. He returns her to her family, her brothers seek revenge, and the brothers systematically stalk and kill the young man whose name she has cried out under duress.

Whether or not the murder victim did deflower the bride is something we never learn for sure; what we do see is how a community bonds around entrenched prejudices. Religious devotion and deliberate cruelty intertwine, but no two people see or remember exactly the same thing, making for a piece that suggests Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" crossed with Rashomon. The key to the magic of the production is Jorge Ali Triana's direction; Triana is a triple threat, an award winner for his work in theater, film, and television in his native Colombia. Working here with the Fundacion Teatro Nacional of Bogota, he conveys the fluidity and repetitiveness of a surrealist dream with the exposed theatricality so dear to Brecht.

A scene from Cronica de Una Muerte Anunciada
A scene from Cronica de Una Muerte Anunciada
Cronica is set in a bullring (designed by Luis Alfonso Triana), which the company of 15 actors enters at the start of the piece. Stately procession gives way to picture-making: A priest oversees (or, really, turns a blind eye to) the proceedings from atop the center of the semi-circle. The townspeople comment from behind moveable panels that protect them from the central conflict; these panels do double duty as tables, beds, butcher blocks, bars, and counters. The victim-to-be rushes into the arena, naked, as the door slams shut. He is trapped, vulnerable, scared, young, and unsure of what's about to hit him--except that it already has hit him. The story is told simultaneously as something that has happened in the past and as something that is unfolding in the present. "That morning" is "this morning," as the brother-murderers alternately go after their victim and fall to their knees in confession.

The mothers of both the murderers and the victim are played by the same actress, suggesting that motherhood in this town is a monolith. An exception to this is a servant woman who works in the victim's house. Whether or not the victim slept with the bride is unclear; the fact that he fondles the servant's daughter at every available opportunity is a blatant fact. As an outsider, the servant sees what transpires without the need to whitewash or ignore it.

Parts of Cronica are chanted, other parts are played in slow motion; one townsperson is presented as a commentator/clown with a red nose, and dance serves as a way to convey longing. At the wedding celebration, a contained waltz gives way in a heartbeat and an abrupt lighting change to a burst of Latin music and pulsating movement. The murder victim smolders and flirts with the bride during the waltz, but when the bride returns to dancing with her groom to the more sexual beat, she palpably falls in love with her new husband.

The final scene makes good on the first. Again, the whole town is present, but now the victim has fallen. Again, they chant that this is the day he will die, but now we see that the sacrifice has changed very little. What is chilling about this is not that we feel pity or fear for an individual hero; the ritualized presentation and cool lighting mitigate such a response. Rather we see the nauseating horror of business-as-usual among unthinking "traditionalists" whose culture supports the idea that women are only as valuable as their intact hymens, their beauty, their zeal as mothers of sons, and their capitulation to the status quo.

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Great news: Friedrich Schiller's Don Carlos is receiving a bold, clear production at The Shakespeare Theatre, crafted by director Michael Kahn (through March 11). Schiller's tale of political intrigue laced with rugged individualism and unrequited love was a staple of 19th-century European theater. (The play figures in Susan Sontag's recent novel In America as an example of the great drama beloved of the protagonist, a brilliant Polish actress who emigrates to the United States in the 1870s and is in for a disappointing awakening with regard to American tastes.)

Schiller and Goëthe started out as bad boys of the sturm und drang ("storm and stress") movement in 18th-century Germany. With its characteristic emphasis on private consciousness, validation of self-determination and liberty over loyalty to government, and concern for companionate love regardless of familial duty or propriety, sturm und drang was the immediate forerunner of Romanticism. Don Carlos delivers Romanticism and romance as its hero, the crown prince of Spain, opposes his father in the name of nationalist autonomy and then willingly foregoes pursuit of his one true love to aid an uprising against tyranny. The facts that the true love is his stepmother, the tyrant is his father, and the prince's modus operandi is rife with rash insults and indiscreet billets doux add resonance to the suspense and, ultimately, to his spectacular demise.

The play is set in the 1550s, but Schiller's real concerns were his own era. Accordingly, the design of Kahn's production nods to the 16th century while keeping the immediacy of the arguments in the foreground. Robert Perdziola's costumes borrow from period silhouettes (think Velasquez, sort of), but the protagonists' urgency says "right now." Ming Cho Lee's set is about chilliness and entrapment, not about historical accuracy. Characters glide in and out like black velvet chess pieces on a marble board; a single decorative element often serves to define a locale as prison, lady's salon, or throne room.

The agon is between a control-freak king and his "oversoft" but idealistic son. Both love the queen and both want to control the Netherlands. The earnest, diplomatically naive heir-apparent has a university friend, the Flemish Marquis of Posa (Andrew Long), who functions as guide and conscience. The center of the play is a long debate on political philosophy between the king and the friend. Also on hand are a scheming priest and a military advisor straight out of the world of Machiavelli.

Kahn cagily codes generational divides by allowing the acting styles that would have been up-to-the-minute when the various actors in his production came of age to remain distinct, rather than eliding them. Part of the appeal of Robert Sella's performance as Don Carlos and Enid Graham's rendering of the universally admired queen is their youthful, contemporary manner. Ted van Griethuysen plays King Philip, the prince's father, with furrowed brow and elevated speech. The Grand Inquisitor, chief agent of both evil and Catholicism (played by Emery Battis), emerges almost from a time machine (Battis's bio says he started his career with Eva LeGallienne in 1933). This Grand Inquisitor looks like a corpse in a black Ku Klux Klan robe and hood; he is the ne plus ultra in this already over-the-top adventure. How high is the top? Well, when the king hesitates to kill his own son (the historical Philip had the prince sent to prison, where the heir died of a fever), the Grand Inquisitor offers soothing justification with reminders of an unimpeachable role model. God sacrificed his son, didn't he? Ouch.

Robert David MacDonald's newish translation of Don Carlos is accessible and clear. Even with a three-hour running time, the audience hung on every witticism, and many walked out talking about injustice and betrayal. This is less surprising than it may seem at first glance, when you consider how much the tenets of Romanticism pass for "timeless" ideals about artists and individualists in our own era. The surprise is that this play isn't tackled more often.

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Global concerns are sometimes tackled in new theater pieces, but they usually show up in forms other than discursive debate. Take Paul Zaloom's Velvetville. In 90 minutes, this solo performance piece uses toys, trash bags, bubble wrap, vocal impersonation, and an overhead projector to deconstruct the workings of environmental waste, voyeurism, fear of flying, the funeral industry, and the subject of just how sadistic dentists can be. Keep in mind that the protean Zaloom never gets out of his pajamas and that George Bush makes a cameo appearance in the form of a literal toy shrub, and you'll begin to get the picture.

Paul Zaloom in Velvetville(Photo: Howard Wise)
Paul Zaloom in Velvetville
(Photo: Howard Wise)
Zaloom has been, in his own words, out to "satirize the hazards of out-of-control consumption" for more than 20 years. He calls his work "low-tech multimedia," and part of the fun of watching him manipulate cutouts, stuffed animals, pliers, plungers, straws, ball-point pens, slotted spoons, and shower curtains is that you start wanting to do it yourself.

Take the shower curtains: Zaloom tells the story of the yuppification of Vermont in about 45 seconds by using, among other things, shower curtains to depict seasons and natural phenomena. The flowered model is spring, the one with the leafless trees in muted colors on the white background is winter, and a six-foot swath of bubble wrap is a frozen river. Drape these on a stand and set the scene; crumple them up and the destruction is complete. (Yes, he pops the bubbles. Who doesn't? That's ice breaking up.)

Part of the fun is that the targets of Zaloom's critiques are immediately recognizable; some of them are things we all consume and experience, like junk food and crowded highways. Zaloom speeds up time, though, to show how the development of ubiquitous ski condos, four-lane beltways, etc., are anything but inevitable. When he spells it out with plastic tubes and hairnets, it all seems so clear. Why didn't we see it coming?

Velvetville closed at the Studio Theatre on February 18, but Zaloom gets around, so there should be opportunities to see him soon in a venue near you. I've previously experienced his combination of fun, silliness, and smarts in Grand Central Station, at P.S. 122, and on television, where he played Beakman on CBS's Beakman's World. It occurred to me while watching Velvetville that asking theater students to concoct 10-minute pieces in the style of Zaloom along with the usual classical and contemporary monologues might be an excellent way to test their creative mettle. If you've got vocal facility, a sense of how objects work in space, timing, a point-of-view, dramaturgical chops, a knack for improvisation, and a sense of humor, you're ready to take your act on the road. At least, Paul Zaloom is.