Opening Nights

DARK RIDE

Open Circle Theater; ends Sun., Feb. 29

You can tell that director José Amador has at least a small idea of what's supposed to be quirky and convoluted about Len Jenkin's play—there's a semblance of orderly disorder, and the actors are all trying to behave as if they're appearing in something unconventional—but he has distinct difficulty articulating even that notion.

With a dash of Durang, and a pinch of Ionesco, Jenkin's script is a straight-faced piece of comic brain candy set in motion by an ancient manuscript, The Book of the Yellow Ancestor, and the Translator (Josh Knisely) who is coming unglued trying to determine both its meaning and its authenticity. As the harried intellectual unloads his efforts on the audience, the show shifts to the story he's deciphering, then to a story within that story, and so on. We meet: a heartsick woman (Alicia D. Barta) taking a break from reading a novel to ponder a postcard from her wandering lover; then the wandering lover (Scott O. Moore) who sent that postcard; then several characters from both the novel and the wanderings of that lover, including, among many others, a deranged Jeweler (John McKenna) obsessed with a rare stone, and a nutcase short-order cook (Robert Dixon) who claims he's got the mummified corpse of John Wilkes Booth.

If I've got any of this wrong it's because I'm not entirely sure Amador has all of it right, either. Jenkins' script is really just a diligently absurdist free-for-all, but it does have a lot of slick stuff going on and a tone that would be a challenge for all but the most expert of farceurs—none of whom is involved in this particular production, as far as I can tell. Knisely and Moore are doing their best to stay levelheaded in the nonsense, and I'm fairly certain McKenna knows he's aiming for the off-kilter, but there's an unsteady hand at the show's controls. By the time the story curves back around to the Translator, and his reality begins to bump up against all the others in an ornate rumination on coincidence, the night has become a thudding, undirected amalgam of The Twilight Zone and Pulp Fiction, with a nod toward The Maltese Falcon as David Lynch might have done it. Amador can't plant his cast's feet comfortably in any of these territories, let alone all of them at once (Kate Kraay, as an implacable Waitress, seems to have been told that all it took for those '30s Warner Bros. dames to put across a wisecrack was chewing gum). The show doesn't resemble a ride so much as it does a stumble, and an ungainly one at that. STEVE WIECKING

TWO BIRDS & A STONE

Capitol Hill Arts Center; ends Sat., Feb. 28

After listening to the graphic recitations of war atrocities sprinkled throughout Two Birds & a Stone, one might so despair of man's inhumanity toward man that the best solution would seem to be flushing the whole grisly mess of civilization away. Yet there's also a delicacy to this work that readily conveys how even the mere prospect of hope enables people to endure seemingly unbearable circumstances.

Playwright Amy Wheeler was inspired by the stories she heard while traveling through Bosnia in the summer of 1997, but Two Birds is set in an unnamed country, in the wake of a similarly anonymous war (even the swaggering soldiers speak a specially created language that's a harsh blend of Arabic, German, and Serbo-Croatian). The characters don't have names—it's as if the war has reduced everyone to a core essence, where nuances of personality are irrelevant.

The main story line concerns the fate of an unlikely homeless duo—an orphaned teenage boy and a young woman, pregnant after repeated rapes in prison, who join forces as they attempt to rebuild their shattered lives. Their individual histories are pieced together through flashbacks and dream sequences: the Boy (Kalan Sherrard) engages in conversation with the Sun (John Farrage) and the Moon (Susan McIntyre); the Woman (Marie Broderick) relives her torture under an Interrogator (Nathan Breskin-Auer), whose surprisingly deep need for human contact leads to him confessing more than he ever extracts from his prisoner.

Director Amy Wheeler has staged the show in an imaginative fashion, with the action unfolding on a conventional stage at one end of the room, a smaller stage at the other, balconies, and the room's center space. Having the seats spread around the room?meaning the cast literally runs through the audience while entering and exiting—also helps draw you in to the action; the mayhem isn't something you simply observe, it's exploding all around you.

The leads turn in largely understated performances that throw the brashness of the other characters into sharp relief (most notably Jose Gonzales as a particularly flamboyant fish). War leaves neither side unscathed, but the underlying theme of Two Birds emphasizes that the human spirit isn't so easily vanquished. GILLIAN G. GAAR

ARTHUR: THE BEGETTING

Taproot Theatre; ends Sat., March 6

Arthur: The Begetting is a prequel, and hence faces a couple of challenges specific to the genre. The biggest hurdle confronting any such endeavor has to do with character: In circling around to fill in the pre-story, there is always the risk that the conspicuous absence of beloved principals will be acutely felt and audiences will grow impatient. (Witness the yawns generated by the last Star Wars prequels—everyone missed Han Solo, and it was generally agreed that director George Lucas was an idiot for thinking Jar Jar Binks would stopper the gap.)

This story of King Arthur's parents admirably surmounts that risk by throwing in a couple of very interesting, very charismatic characters of its own, the most powerful of whom is the king's mommy-to-be, Queen Igraine. Nikki Visel Whitfield, who starred as Igraine when the play was picked "Best of the Fest" at the 2000 Seattle Fringe Festival, fills the role like a distaff dynamo. Part Lady Macbeth, part tarted-up Guinevere, Whitfield is a storm of royal rage complicated by amorous confusion—a strong, beautiful woman being pursued by three randy kings. And in his role as Uther, one of Igraine's suitors, veteran actor Nolan Palmer is riveting, utterly convincing in his portrayal of a savage man whose belligerent and lusty nature is overcome by desire.

The second obstacle confronting prequels is the question of narrative: Can the play stand on its own two legs, or does it suck, leechlike, on the blood of the story it seeks to introduce? Though at times the pacing falls a bit slack, the drama here, directed by Taproot honcho Scott Nolte, proves itself entirely worthy of existence. It is suspenseful, romantic, and darkly medieval. More impressive yet is the fact that, as a prequel, the play gives no indication of feeling inferior; it is what it is—a minor myth and happy to be. RICHARD MORIN

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