Annex Theatre at Capitol Hill Arts Center
Through April 12.
Horror theater is a great idea. If playhouses hope to woo back spectacle-minded audiences, become morally relevant (all horror movies are modern morality plays), and exploit the national obsession with violence, they have to tap a vein and get the blood flowing.
By that logic, Grand Guignol should be a smashing success. It presents short plays from the original Grand Guignol, the Parisian theater that ran from 1897 to 1962 and created infamous special effects with offal from butcher shops—except it's a reading of those plays. Meaning: no special effects and lots of hacky dialogue circa 1910 (though actors Shannon Kipp and James Weidman make good use of the scripts' goofiness, hamming it up, or down, as necessary). The plays themselves have gory and predictable climaxes, but there are some great lines hiding in the manure. Among them: "If only people could regret their actions beforehand" and "I am ashamed to be free" and "Books in general aren't that clever" and "Ees a joke—zees knife ees made of boiled paper." If Annex Theatre cut relentlessly from each play and stocked up on the pig blood, they'd have a blockbuster on their hands. BRENDAN KILEY
The Voice of the Prairie
Through April 22.
As Leave It to Beaver and Norman Rockwell have taught us, misty-eyed nostalgia and innocence easily give way to dull-minded, pernicious simplicity. John Olive's 1986 play Voice of the Prairie, set in the early days of radio, is so sweet that it flirts with predictability and hokiness. But the play, with its dark Faulknerian undertones, is neither dim nor dangerous, and Taproot Theatre mines its strengths thanks to some solid acting, sound direction by Scott Nolte, and an imaginative set that brings it all together.
Jeff Berryman plays rural bachelor Davey Quinn, who becomes a national radio sensation by recounting the stories of a few wild months he spent as a teen riding the rails and falling in love with a blind girl named Frankie, played by Marianne Savell. (Both are running away from painful households and are eventually separated.) Berryman and Savell know how to keep the action of a scene moving, or how to stop it for effect. Timothy Hornor, an admired Shakespearean actor and a known commodity at Taproot, is more unsteady in this ultra-realistic milieu, which benefits from a set that makes no bones about its own fiction: It never tries to look like a barn, a hotel room, or any of the play's other literal settings. Mark Lund designed it for the extended thrust stage, which has the audience on three sides. At the back wall, an elaborate lighting design by Andrew Duff shows a cloudy blue sky, and in front of it, a tunnel constructed out of crates, luggage, and tossed-off old furniture is lit vivid orange, like a campfire. Though the scenery is fixed, it manages to change with the action, evoking both the closeness of the lovers' hideouts and the vastness of the flatlands where they wander. JEN GRAVES
Dina Martina: Live at the Jewelbox
Through April 7.
Despite years of gushing about the singular talents of freak drag goddess Dina Martina and her creator Grady West, I've never actually reviewed one of Dina's shows. I've seen virtually all of them—all the local ones, at least—from 1996's out-of-nowhere mindblower An Evening with Dina Martina to the greatest-hits extravaganza that preceded her engagement last summer in Provincetown, a gig that set in motion Dina's inevitable New York City sainthood and one she will repeat this summer. But now I'm required to critique a single, new, non-greatest-hits Dina Martina show—Dina Martina: Live at the Jewelbox, to be precise—and it's my job to tell you: It's OK.
Like all of Dina's "all-new shows!" the latest is a hodgepodge of more-or-less entertaining songs and malapropism-drenched stories and stage banter, spiked with one or two of the face-exploding highlights that cement Dina's reputation as a superstar without peer. (In Live at the Jewelbox, the face-exploding moment involves a silk gown, a chaise longue, and "Old Man River.") Of Dina's burgeoning oeuvre (how's that for an image?), only the greatest-hits collections have provided reliable wall-to-wall entertainment. With the "all-new shows," sloshing through Dina's increasingly clownish muck to get to the diamonds has long been the name of the game. Would I prefer all of Dina's shows to be as satisfying as the retrospectives? Sure. I'd also like fudge to cure cancer. Despite the frustration factor, Dina's muck, as I insist on calling it, often contains some bizarrely inspired shit. (The maternal dreamscapes in her 1999 Christmas show at On the Boards come to mind—they weren't funny, just creepily sweet, dragging the audience into the existential question at the core of the Dina Martina experience: "Why the fuck is this happening?") If you're the type that treasures any opportunity to be in the same room with Dina Martina, the "all-new shows" are for you. Others can look forward to a forthcoming greatest-hits collection. DAVID SCHMADER