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October 13, 2008

Bad Habit, New Downright Joy

Roy Meachum

Kvetching remains part of reading these reviews. After some 40 years on the aisle, I do not expect to change soon. On the other hand, there still exists insufficiency of downright joy on stage; I'm not talking about giggles and guffaws, but evenings (and matinees) that send people dancing and singing into the good nights.


Restoration comedy has ever been a snuff-tinged pastry that's always been hard to swallow. Let me satisfy my urge to cheer first.


The Bethesda Theatre transplanted into the area last week a zany performance of a neo-Christian quartet – with one Jew added – yclept "Altar Boyz." The only liturgy on view is various styles of choreography sometimes accompanied by words that are screamed, soothed and shouted – sometimes even sung. The show reminded me of the first time I delved into "Jesus Christ Superstar" – the concert version. This delivers that kind of impact, especially for the young.


The old movie house on Bethesda's Wisconsin Avenue is supposedly the last stop on a whirlwind tour that has converted the nation – almost – to a belief that transcends sect and even the broad Christian banner. Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan and Abraham have the faith that permits them to toss their bodies heedlessly around stage and each other. They come close to harming bones; none fits into the mean category.


"Altar Boyz" pauses for nothing, especially an intermission; it's non-stop feel-good feeling. And it'll last for another couple weeks – until November 2. Get on your jeans and boogie along. It's a blast. At the Bethesda Theatre.


Now, we come to Restoration Comedy, as exemplified by the Shakespeare Theatre's production of William Congreve's "The Way of the World."


In the production, I find no flaw. Artistic Director Michael Kahn staged an impeccable show, very much complimented by scenery and costumes that warn before the first line's uttered what you're going to get. To paraphrase a line: The fault lies not in what anyone does, but in my perception of what the English court brought back from hanging around the precincts of the Sun King.


Louis XIV stands out in history, more than all his conquests and accomplishments, for such straight-face proclamations: "The state, it is myself" and "After me, the deluge." The first directly begot the second. Because he presumed divine authority, the ultimate divinely-ordained monarch guaranteed that his demise led to the destruction of his royal house and French monarchy itself. The brief span that preceded the Revolution, and intermittent years after, witnessed the spasms but, for all intents and purposes, the host of the exiled Scotch-English court had the effect of finishing off kings and their divine rights in this world and its ways.


The infection accompanied Charles II and his cavaliers (including their ladies) when they returned to London. It is painfully apparent in their theatre, the so-called Restoration Comedies. My aversion and rejection of the form has much to do with the self-flagellating masochism revealed in such works as "The Way of the World." Each character is endowed with such art and artifice that each reaches a certain seeming perfection. Even the fools are perfectly foolish, an attribute revealed in the way they are dressed. The single praise I can give that era has everything to do with the way female parts were henceforth played by females. That was revolution enow.


Not simply in the Shakespeare Theatre's portrayal, but voices, both men's and women's, are tucked into the upper reaches: neither soprano nor baritone, their collective pitch emphasizes no one can be trusted and believed. Whatever the words, there's a total absence of emotion. Comedy works only in direct contrast to reality; it relies upon trust betrayed: the spectacle of a man walking normally along and slipping on a banana is an example.


English theatre adjusted as the regimes changed, becoming less and less willing to shock, which has much to do with Restoration Comedy. The House of Hanover that begat the American Revolution resulted in Victorian prudery, the direct opposite of Louis XIV's court.


Please understand: Restoration Comedy has a place on the boards. But not when I'm in the audience: a fact I forget until intervals pass. Kind of the way, in my school days, I drank American beer too much on annual occasions – to remind myself why I didn't really like American beer.


As usual, you may disagree. In which case, the Shakespeare Theatre Company's "The Way of the World" is available these next several weeks in Washington, on downtown's Seventh Street.


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