War and Witchcraft

Constellation offers an over-the-top satire of war, while Keegan takes on witchcraft and Arthur Miller's ''Crucible''

As Arms and The Man opens, Amy Quiggins flutters across the stage playing Raina Petkoff as if she were Barbie come to life. She’s giddy about the man she loves, who’s off trying to be heroic. At war.

It’s overdone, exaggerated acting – and that’s exactly what director Allison Arkell Stockman wanted. Stockman instructs her Constellation Theatre cast to accentuate the satire in George Bernard Shaw’s play, one of his earliest, decades before his best-known Pygmalion. The targets here are chiefly war and romance, two things that 117 years later are still overly glorified and swooned over. Class comes in for a drubbing, too.

Raina Petkoff, you see, is trying to lead a fairy-tale life, one spent luxuriating in her Bulgarian family’s large house, complete with servants. But reality creeps in as the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885 continues. She starts having doubts about love and the military. Then, the war literally bursts through her storybook bedroom window in the form of a soldier. Michael John Casey plays Swiss Capt. Bluntschli, an enemy of Sergius Saranoff, Petkoff’s betrothed. However inadvertently, Bluntschli makes love a battlefield too, threatening Saranoff and Petkoff’s match made in upper-class heaven.

And to think, he has that much power even though his nickname is ”Chocolate Cream Soldier.”

ARMS AND THE MAN
starstarstar AND ONE HALF
To Nov. 20
Source Theatre
1835 14th St. NW
$20-$40
202-204-7760
constellationtheatre.org

Once again Constellation Theatre impresses with the way it adds intrigue to a well-worn story, one that, despite some choice barbs and banter, is showing its age. Much credit for Constellation’s feat goes to its imaginative design team, particularly A.J. Guban and his three different sets, each bigger and more amusing than the last. It’s also fascinating to watch Guban’s work with accentuated lighting, especially in Act 1, with the constant lighting and blowing out of candles. Costume designer Kendra Rai also gets us and especially the actors in the spirit, with showy costumes for even the Petkoff’s lower-class help.

Ultimately, Constellation’s Arms and the Man is more than the sum of its parts because of the strong acting team Constellation has assembled. Amy Quiggins, for example, isn’t the only one playing over-the-top. In fact, Mark Krawczyk outdoes her, playing her fiancé Saranoff as a macho and flamboyant toy soldier who’s both obnoxious and irresistible. And Michael John Casey and Brynn Tucker as the Petkoff maid Louka both are convincing as the play’s centers of gravity.

By show’s end, everyone, including the audience, has surrendered to them, and to love.

WE MAY NOT BE KILLING women accused of witchcraft today, and we may not condemn people for not going to church, or for not professing faith publicly. Thank God. But Arthur Miller’s classic play The Crucible, focused on the Salem witch trials from over 300 years ago, is still relevant. There are still factions of society that abhor the separation of church and state granted a century after Salem. And similar kinds of mass hysteria generated against a class of people still stir occasionally. In Miller’s day, it was McCarthyism’s defaming of left-leaning Hollywood types.

The Keegan Theatre’s production of The Crucible, directed by Susan Marie Rhea, packs a wallop with its large cast of 20, including several child actors. They’re crowded onto the stage at the small Church Street Theater off 17th Street NW. Also serving as set designer, Keegan’s artistic director Mark A. Rhea deserves praise for his creative use of essentially one set for four acts, making it relatively easy for the cast to get around.

The play starts slow, as family and neighbors attend to the seemingly possessed daughter of Salem’s Rev. Samuel Parris (Colin Smith). There are just too many actors crowded into a tiny upper room, and too much carrying on at once, making it hard to focus. But certainly by Act 2, a viewer is engaged. That’s especially true because of Karen Novack’s masterful portrayal of Elizabeth Proctor. Stately and stoic, Novack plays Proctor as morally upright but also smart, sophisticated and intelligent. She’s a modern woman – centuries ahead of her time. That naturally scares the bejeezus out of the Puritans, and she becomes a chief target in the anti-witch crusade.

The Crucible revolves around her husband, John Proctor, a religious man who’s not above questioning his faith, and who would prefer to practice in private. His efforts to save his wife are complicated by an earlier dalliance with Abigail Williams (the captivating Sarah Lasko), the duplicitous young woman who is helping the court in its fight against witchcraft and Lucifer.

THE CRUCIBLE
starstarstar AND ONE HALF
To Nov. 19
Church Street Theater
1742 Church St. NW
$30-$35
703-892-0202
keegantheatre.com

Mark Rhea assumes the lead role of Proctor. Rhea struggles mightily in the role. He brays instead of bellows, and he flies off the handle at times when more controlled hostility would be more compelling. Rhea just seems to lack the air of confidence and assurance the role needs.

Nonetheless, Keegan’s production succeeds, a testament to both the strength of Miller’s writing for an ensemble, and especially to the other actors in the cast. In addition to Novack and Lasko, Emily Riehl-Bedford also shines in her portrayal of the hysterical Mary Warren. You don’t doubt the awe commanded to Kevin Adams’s Deputy Gov. Danforth, even as you dismay over his unchecked power in the courtroom.

And Kevin Hasser makes the Rev. John Hale a conscientious pastor to believe in, wrestling with his faith in humanity.

If only there were more people in the world like him.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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