Sweet Sting

Still, The Screened-In Porch is not a bad place to spend an evening. The acting is, for the most part, especially entertaining; Andrea Frye's direction is generally straightforward; and Jim Burwinkle's set and lights are handsome and effective.

-- Harry Weber

TARTUFFE
By Moli`ere

TWELFTH NIGHT
By William Shakespeare
The Acting Company at the Edison Theatre's Ovations! Series

The Acting Company strikes me as something Americans can be proud of. Somehow we have managed, for a quarter-century, to support this group of mostly young actors who year after year demonstrate the high level achieved by the actor-training programs in this country. They appear in productions of both new plays and classics that are directed and designed by some of the best people in the American theater and that travel to large cities and small towns all across the country.

Nor are these productions dumbed down for the provinces, as we saw last weekend at Washington University's Edison Theatre, where the Acting Company brought its repertory for two evenings. Tartuffe in particular had more than a little weirdness about it. The late Garland Wright, on whose original production director Mark Ax based this one, liked to explore the darker side of comedies, and moli`ere gives him plenty to explore here. I could do without the wild party andindustrial-strength rock at the top of the show, which gives too much justification to Tartuffe's pious complaints. Nor could I figure out why Susan Hilferty's costumes span centuries, either making the too-obvious point that moli`ere is for all ages or else making a point too subtle for this dummy to grasp.

But the production does give a visceral intensity to the agonies of a family tortured by a patriarch under the thumb of a fake holy man. Andrew McGinn's Orgon bursts with nervous energy, driven to constant activity, a man who could long for the spiritual rest Tartuffe promises him. Even the hint of a homoerotic attraction, never consciously acknowledged by Orgon, helps explain his irrational commitment to the man.

Troy Hourie's two-level set, on which Matthew Frey's lights create fascinating chiaroscuro, gives the cast lots of opportunity for physical comedy and visual surprises. Best of all are the assurance and intelligence with which they speak the rhymed couplets of Richard Wilbur's delicious translation and the way their physical rhythms match the verbal ones.

They do well by Shakespeare's language, too, in Twelfth Night. Penny Metropulos' direction, like the dun-colored sets of Michael Vaughn Sims and costumes of Jeff Fender, emphasizes the play's autumnal, melancholy quality, sometimes to the point of sapping it of energy both comic and romantic. But the approach can create a dreamlike feeling appropriate to this comedy of disguises and confusions that questions how real our reality really is.

McGinn again stands out, this time as the rigidly correct steward Malvolio. Rayme Cornell, the self-possessed wife in Tartuffe, here shows a more yielding side as the Countess Olivia. As Viola, Charity Jones makes a convincing young man while never losing touch with the young woman hiding in his clothes.

Even my reservations add to the pleasure -- and the challenge -- the Acting Company brings with these classics.

-- Bob Wilcox

MYSTICS
Choreographed by Susan Gash and Beckah Voigt
Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre

Susan Gash and Beckah Voigt compose and perform, with other members of their company, dance that often almost speaks. Individual movements are like words, longer divisions like short lyric but didactic chapters. Most dance is either primarily abstract movement or primarily mime. Gash/Voigt uses dance to embody -- what? Notions? Ideas? Concepts? Their dance gives tangibility to whatever it is the way words give tangibility to ideas and those feelings that can go into words.

Their newest work, Mystics, which received its first performances last weekend before the high altar at Christ Church Cathedral, also almost speaks of what perhaps cannot be spoken. Inspired (says its program note) by the writings of medieval women visionaries, Mystics becomes a mystery -- that is, an embodiment of what cannot be comprehended rationally. We are used to this meaning of the word from religious speech: Christians, for instance, cannot comprehend the love and mercy of God, so the word becomes flesh, and God's love becomes visible in Jesus. It is impossible to speak of the religious experience of women, but Gash/Voigt attempts to dance of it the way talkers usually talk. The piece begins with the four women of the company (besides Gash and Voigt, Lisa Eck and the always interesting Mary Ann Rund) quite literally boxed up in elaborately carved cubes, pawing at the sides and tops of the cube, unaware of one another. As they emerge to the floor, we see they are clothed in gauzy, rust-colored silk tunics (reminiscent of a subdeacon's tunicle) and trousers of the same material.

As happens often in Gash/Voigt choreography, fabric plays an important part. Mystics involves a large rectangle of dark velvet and a long, narrow strip of white gauze. When three of the cubes are put together and covered with the velvet, we have an altar around which the dancers circle. When the gauze is laid over the length of the altar's communion rail beneath which a dancer sleeps, it becomes a heavenly road on which angels dance. At one point the velvet is a rich gown and the white gauze the veil of the bride of the godhead; later, it makes bandages for the feet and a rope to pull the devotee upward.

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