Three Excellent Nights at the Theater: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Apples from the Desert, The Aliens (18 cents)

Three wonderful productions in DC these days.

1. The Shakespeare Theatre’s current production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, directed by Ethan McSweeny, is pure enjoyment. The setting is unclear. At first you think you might be in Peron’s Argentina. But soon, the time and place gets very murky, when Hermia tells her father that she won’t marry Demetrius, because she loves Lysander, while Hermia’s friend Helena doesn’t mind this, because she loves Demetrius, who of course wants to have nothing to do with her. The lovers flee to the forest, pursued by the thwarted lovers.

The setting becomes even more confusing when you see the straggly theatrical group, headed by a wonderful Bottom, preparing for a rag-tag performance before the king, dressed in international skid row costume. And, of course, when the scene switches to the forest, time and place get more confused, which is to be expected, as the play leaves a setting of reality and the cast are fairies of the forest, led by Oberon with his trusty and agile aide, Puck, who work their mischief to foul up everyone’s plans. Until, of course, all comes together at the end – this is a comedy, not a tragedy. Wonderful acting, costumes, set, and a tremendously physical performance. Well worth seeing.

2. “Apples from the Desert” at Theater J, part of the Voices from the Changing Middle East program, is somewhat similar to “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in that is another play based on a romance not approved by a family. But no romantic triangles here (or romantic parallelograms), no fairy kings or spirits, and the play has a relatively standard plot line – an 18 year old woman, Rivka, runs away from her orthodox Jerusalem family and ultra-authoritarian father. Set in the early years of Israel, Rivka winds up at a kibbutz in the southern Negev desert, with her secular boyfriend Doovy. Her family is torn apart by her departure, and eventually her father, her mother and her aunt wind up on the kibbutz hoping to bring her back to her family. The story line is a little tough on the orthodox community, perhaps, and portrays the kibbutz as a little too idyllic, but the dialogue works well, with a nice mixture of seriousness and comedy, and the cast (including Washington stalwarts Michael Tolaydo, Sarah Marshall, and Jennifer Mendenhall) lift this play from the ordinary to something a little more special. Highly recommended.

3. “The Aliens” at the Studio. I think that Annie Baker, playwright, has extraordinary talent. This is the third of her plays we have seen (the others were “Circle Mirror Transformation” and “Body Awareness”) and I thought it as good as the others. And that is saying something.

Now, I know that some don’t agree with me here. “The Aliens” has a cast of three, a college drop out with some emotional problems, a very bright young man who never graduated from high school, and a young, high school student who works part time at the cafe in whose back yard the other two hang out. And the play is about their hanging out, often with a lot of silences. And it seems that it is this silence that some playgoers find hard to take. But it is this silence that is so natural, and makes the play what it is.

Clearly the pace of “The Aliens” is different from the pace of most shows you might see. This does not mean that it drags, but it clearly is not a play with fast paced dialogue. It seems to me that the skill of the playwright is really tested when she writes silence, just as it is when one of the three sing his home made songs, and when another reads a long excerpt from his novel in process.

I looked at a number of reviews of “The Aliens” from newspapers in Washington, in New York and in San Francisco. All the reviews are positive, and they all make one identical point: because of the unique composition of this play, it all depends upon the extraordinary skill of the cast and the director. And in each case, the reviewer agrees that the particular cast and director in question has what it takes to make the play work so well. Not to take anything from the cast or the director, if it always works as it seems to, I take my hat off to the playwright.

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