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  • SeeWhatDC.jpgIf See What I Wanna See is Michael John LaChiusa's most accessible musical, it's only because everyone innately understands its basic premise: that what one person sees is not automatically what someone else sees. But at its heart, this adaptation of the stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (on whose works the film Rashomon was based) is as passionate and adventurous as LaChiusa's other boundary-breaking works such as Hello Again, The Wild Party, and Bernarda Alba. It may, however, be hard to tell this from the production running through May 31 at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia.

    This is not because the production, which has been directed by Matthew Gardiner, is not accomplished—it is. It's not because actors Channez McQuay, Matt Pearson, Bobby Smith, Rachel Zampelli, and Tom Zemon, and the band under Zak Sandler's musical direction, aren't performing the heck out of it—they are. It's not even because designers Adam Koch (set), Kathleen Geldard (costumes), and Mark Lanks (lighting) have not developed a mysterious and evocative look and feel for a show that leaps between New York of the 1950s, New York of the early 2000s, and feudal Japan—they have. It's because this expert production has absolutely everything it needs except a spark and, as is so often the case in the theatre, that makes all the difference.

    You notice it less in the first-act piece, "R Shomon," than you do in the second-act one, "Gloryday," because it's less immediately about feelings than it is the unreliability of memory and testimony. When a powerful businessman (Zemon) is murdered in Central Park, his wife (Zampelli), a thief (Pearson), and a janitor who claims to have seen the whole thing (Smith) cannot agree on exactly what happened. When the police engage a medium (McQuay) to speak to the dead man, even his version of the story doesn't match any of theirs. But since it's being filtered through someone who's not necessarily an objective observer, should it be taken at face value at all? The story, set to an erotically undulating jazz score positioned perfectly in the post-WWII idiom, is captivating but cool, and allows—or even expects—the performers to skirt the edges of fantasy in outlining an event no one can precisely pin down.

    But as the second act unfolds, something is clearly wrong. Aside from Smith, who's playing a priest who's begun openly rejecting his faith in the year following the events of September 11, 2001, everyone is still lost in their reflective reverie. They shouldn't be. Here, using music as modern and individual as any he's written, LaChiusa examines how tragedy can cripple, and sometimes restore, the human spirit, which requires portrayals not only spanning the full emotional gamut but committed to a kamikaze pursuit of life when the characters can finally grasp it. But Zemon's disillusioned businessman, Zampelli's drug- and failure-addled actress, and Pearson's burnt-out reporter, all drawn to Central Park when the priest convinces them (and the rest of the Western world) they'll witness a miracle there, have nothing visible at stake. You never sense, as you must for "Gloryday" to properly overwhelm, that their souls are on the line—and that they know it.

    The original cast of See What I Wanna See at The Public Theater in 2005 did not have this problem. Of course, you may think: How would that be possible for Marc Kudisch, Aaron Lohr, Idina Menzel, Henry Stram, and Mary Testa? Well, yes. But with the exception of McQuay, who as both the Medium and the priest's acidically atheistic Aunt Monica never finds nuances and comic colors even in the same general vicinity as those Testa located, the Signature cast is all more than up to the technical challenge. This is a smart, sexy, and obviously talented group that, on the page as well as onstage, meets every requirement. They just don't give the 100 percent the show needs to catch fire, and that the original cast made look and sound so effortless. I'd estimate the Signature company is pegged at about 70 percent: easily more than adequate, but simply not quite enough.

    "R Shomon" plays about as well as it did Off-Broadway, and the brief two-part curtain raiser for each act, "Kesa and Morito," about a Japanese woman (Zampelli) trysting with her secret Samurai love (Zemon) as each plot's the other destruction, even plays somewhat better under Gardiner's spicy but clear and firm staging than it did originally. But neither play touches, or even makes a motion toward, your heart. That's the job of "Gloryday," which exists to prove how the transcendent can indeed be found in the ordinary. For its many virtues, this See What I Wanna See cast hasn't been looking for it hard enough.

    In Shear Madness, by contrast, volatile viewpoints and death are both laughing matters. Director Bruce Jordan's, ahem, loose adaptation of Paul Pötner's play has been performing in Boston for over 29 years and at the tiny Theater Lab in the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., for almost 22. The reason for its absurd longevity—and its showing no signs of slowing down—is obvious from even a random viewing of the umpteenth replacement cast that can currently be seen in D.C. This random romp may take nothing seriously, and dump artistic cohesion straight out of the fourth wall at every opportunity, but it's guiltless and ever-changing fun that aims no higher than mocking everything within easy reach—including the audience. When it's done well, as here, that's always in style.

    "Style" being the key word, as this is all set in Tony Whitcomb's hair salon named—you guessed it—Shear Madness. Tony and his assistant, Barbara DeMarco, think they're in for an average afternoon full of washing, rinsing, and repeating, when the unthinkable happens: Their cantankerous upstairs neighbor, Isabel Czerny, is stabbed to death with a pair of barber's shears! But whodunit? Tony? Barbara? The self-professed antique dealer on hand hoping for a trim? Or even the society matron who (so it seems) has never stepped more than a few feet away from her hair dryer? The answer, as well as most of the other questions, comes courtesy of the audience, which is interviewed extensively by the detective assigned to the case. He insists on a step-by-step recreation of the moments preceding the crime, as well as a verdict which, shock of shocks, ends up being exactly how things really played out. More or less.

    So that means that Shear Madness is never, anywhere, the same play twice. The outcome changes, the audience changes, and even the script itself changes—the night I attended, there were volleys of cheap shots at Paris Hilton, Michael Vick, various Federal politicos, and countless others, as well as undisguised shout-outs to two different local high schools who just happened to be seeing the show that night. How can a play not say fresh and funny decade after decade when absolutely nothing is out of bounds?

    The cast I saw, of two currently in rotation, comprised Rick Hammerly, Gillian Shelly, Maureen Kerrigan, Jonathan Watkins, and Matthew R. Wilson, all of whom were fast on their feet and even quicker on their tongues, especially when some hapless audience member thought he'd found the perfect way to heckle them. He should have known better: You can't easily make fun of a show that makes fun of itself and everyone else first.

    See What I Wanna See runs through May 31 at the Signature Theatre, in Arlington, Virginia. Click here for tickets or more information.

    Shear Madness has an open-ended run at the Theater Lab at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. For tickets or additional information, visit www.kennedy-center.org.

    See What I Wanna See photos by Scott Suchman. Top (left to right): Tom Zemon, Channez McQuay, Matt Pearson, Rachel Zampelli, and Bobby Smith; bottom: Smith.

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