Saturday, November 10, 2007

Theatre Droppings: Ambition Edition

Ambition was a central theme in two plays I saw this weekend.

I sometimes think that a limited design budget is the catalyst for some really creative thinking. Theatre Alliance at the H Street Playhouse works on a relative shoestring (I know, I've worked there), but you would never know it from their latest production, "Ambition Facing West." Tony Cisek has filled the playing space with a set of wooden platforms of varying heights, and placed the whole unit in a bed of white gravel. The setting totally suits this story, which spans generations and geography, and suggests a waterside dock from which characters long to journey and change. (That dockside feel is aided greatly by Ryan Rumery's terrific sound design). You might think I walked out of the show humming the set, but in fact, I left the theatre humming the Direction. Jeremy Skidmore has cast his show extremely well, and placed at its center two of DC's finest actresses, Amy McWilliams and Jennifer Mendenhall. From them all things flow, and this quiet and gentle play crept up on me and won me over.

MetroStage's "tick, tick...BOOM" is anchored by the charming and buoyant performance of Stephen Gregory Smith as Jon, the stand in for writer/composer Jonathan Larson. The central theme of the show, angst over turning 30 without much financial or artistic success, can be applied to lots of artists turning lots of ages, so, for me, the plot never really ignited. But boy, the music did, and in the larynges (yes, that is the plural of larynx) of Smith and his two cohorts, the point is made. I have only seen Stephen "in support," as they say, but he makes a winning case as the kind of quirky leading man to whom everyone can be attracted. And tiny spitfire Felicia Curry, whom I have never seen, makes a meal of a handful of different characters, and then shakes the rafters in her final solo. Matt Pearson's role of the gay best friend (the show was written in 1990, so that's not as trite as it now sounds) drops a bombshell near the end of the piece, one which from today's advantage, we can see coming. The CityPaper review of this production complained about this sudden diversion, but from my seat, the revelation motivated our hero to continue his quest for artistic expression. As Jon sits down at a discarded piano and plunks out new notes, we can imagine Jonathan Larson doing the same, and coming up with his Pulitzer winning "Rent," in which AIDS is a haunting presence.