Crumbs Are Also Bread

Washington Ensemble Theatre

Through March 12.

Washington Ensemble Theatre's openings are so exciting it's gotten to the point where Brendan Kiley, Annie Wagner, and I fought—literally, fought—over who got to review this show. In the end, we all went. And sat in the front row. Right in front of a giant wooden spool resting on its side, with icicles dripping from it. The set is by Jennifer Zeyl, and it is awesome, although its awesomeness takes a minute to register. Is there somehow more room in this theater than the last time you were here? Is it deeper and wider than you remember? How did Zeyl do that? Everything is washed winter gray and bare trees are suspended from the ceiling and so is, in the center of it all, a chandelier. The conflation of interior and exterior is not only practical, it's intelligent. Crumbs Are Also Bread, an original play by Stephanie Timm, is about the tension between the outside (what people do) and the inside (sexual secrets, envy, madness). It's an American winter gothic.

It has 19 characters, played by nine actors whose contributions are roughly equal, but, honestly, Alexandra Tavares and Michael Place are the stars of this show. Tavares plays two characters: a housewife whose cat has been poisoned to death and a schoolteacher who daydreams about her dead military husband. Both characters are broadly written types—Timm seems to have something for fairy tales or, if you take a cynical view, clichés—and, on top of that, Tavares happens to be beautiful, and that combination, in the hands of a less resourceful actor, usually ends up somewhere generic and forgettable. Tavares deserves mad props for making these characters compelling.

Place's star turn is more overt. He plays three characters, including a paperboy with a clubfoot and a fisherman with a (bad) moustache, but it's his role as a dog in a single scene in act two that will go down in WET history. He's in a winter cap with flaps (his ears) and trying to force himself not to eat something he really wants to eat. That's it. Place is so good it's hard to describe. You watch him and you think: This is the reason for theater. What he's doing couldn't be done in any other medium.

You feel that way about the cryptic, gestural, whooshing, ghostly final scene of the first act, too—it has the feeling of a dream sequence in a movie, except it's actually happening right in front of you. The plot's blurriness is initially intriguing, but it becomes tiring. Lathrop Walker, one of WET's leading men, is trapped in an underwritten role that leaves him little to do except clench his jaw and be actorly. Crumbs Are Also Bread is best when it isn't trying so hard to be interesting, when the actors find ways to punch through the ice of its concealments and complications and dualities. The play itself—the script—is actually sort of flat and frozen. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE

We Are Not These Hands

Macha Monkey at Theatre Off Jackson

Through March 3.

In a filthy chamber opposite an internet cafe in a country without a name, two oversexed moppets babble at each other. Moth, or "Moffie" (Amy Conant), is skinny and smudged; Belly (Tinka Jonakova), has big eyes, a cloud of black curls, and an impudent stance. They speak a contrived pidgin ("Someone talk rank about your pa bein' a capit'list!"), pantomime the money shots they see on the cafe's computer screens ("Ungh-ungh-unnhh-uhhhhhh!!"), yearn after Tank Girl fashion accessories (combat boots made of "real skin" are the ultimate prize), and tumble around with the idealized intimacy of street urchins everywhere. Or, at least, everywhere onstage and in the movies.

Brooklyn playwright Sheila Callaghan's script concerns a self-styled anthropologist (Mark Fullerton) who's dictating a book about this closed society, where poverty and cyberculture mix in volatile proportions. He's delighted to discover that internet girls are easy, and soon he's boinking an instantly docile Moth—that is, while he's not ranting aloud to his dead mother, fretting about shredded credit cards, and showing all the classic signs of a theatrical character with mental illness. ("Mother, I don't understand the shape of my hands," he warbles.)

The production wouldn't be nearly so bad if the dialogue—and the pretentious "chapter" titles—weren't so aggravating. The set (by Geoff "Riffraff" Morris) makes nice use of scrap-heap monitors and pixilated graphics, the actresses are endearingly animated (though, ladies: would street urchins really shave their legs baby-smooth every night?), and director Joy Brooke Fairfield keeps the eentsy-weentsy plot developments bumping along toward the perfunctory Gal Fawkes climax. If you're ever in doubt about how to end your play, just blow something up. ANNIE WAGNER

Super Females

Bad Actor Productions at Northwest Actors Studio

Through March 3.

An alleged comedy about a day spa in "Oceanattle." The production company is aptly named. BRENDAN KILEY