Tennessee Shakespeare and GCT offer holiday alternatives. 

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The term "chamber theater" is usually reserved for stage adaptations of literary work that rely on much of the author's original text. And even with that stricter definition in mind, I think it's fair to apply that term to the kind of work Tennessee Shakespeare does when the company goes indoors at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens to perform epic plays in a room where plays were never meant to be performed. In a review of All's Well That Ends Well, I said the cast's performance style was less like ensemble acting than group storytelling. The same holds true for the company's charmingly intimate Much Ado About Nothing, which feels like a show created for living room performances. If anything, Dan McCleary, who also directed Much Ado, has gone out of his way to amplify the show's narrative quality.

Using the simple convention of talking to the audience, McCleary invites ticket-holders into the play and treats them like guests at a series of staged parties and public events. In Much Ado, which revolves around victory parties and weddings, it only makes sense.

Carey Urban and Tony Molina Jr. spar convincingly as Beatrice and Benedick. Their humane performances stand out in a tight, tiny ensemble of quality clowns and top shelf actors.

The Dixon's Winegardner Auditorium isn't the most changeable or accommodating theater space, so scenic design and lighting have been smartly de-emphasized in ways that frame the company's biggest asset — its actors.

Much Ado is as fine example of how Shakespeare can surprise us with his modernity. Although the romantic comedy is best known for its witty banter, Urban very nearly stops the show with Beatrice's clear-eyed assessment of gender inequality — "I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman, with grieving."

Much Ado About Nothing through December 18th

First, I'd like to do something I almost never do and start this review with a standing ovation. Hooray for Germantown Community Theatre. Hooray for being brave and doing things differently during the holidays when nobody ever does anything especially brave or very different. While other playhouses pull out beloved Christmas classics and reel in customers who attend theatrical performances somewhere between once a year and once a lifetime, it makes good sense for a clever company to cash in on regulars looking to escape all the Bah humbugs and God bless us every ones.

There's a problem, though. From its violent beginning through a long, somber curtain call (set to the loping tune of Alfred Hitchcock's TV theme), Germantown's Rope never feels like a gift of any kind.

Rope's a funny fish to begin with. Modern audiences may be familiar with the show by way of Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 film starring Jimmy Stewart as a morally ambiguous college professor coming to terms with a pair of decadent students who've misunderstood Nietzsche and done something awful. It's based on Patrick Hamilton's chatty, 1929 play, which tells the same story. Set in the period of original production, and loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case, Rope was Hamilton's portrait of a dangerous and narcissistic class, happy to make games out of sex and murder. It also functions a kind of platonic dialogue on nihilism. Think of it as a gay American Psycho set in post-WWI Britain with an au courant ideology standing in for watermarked business cards.

GCT's production is well-intentioned but short on color. The lust for a life less ordinary that drives this hot chiller is largely desexualzed and less compelling than it might be.

James Dale Green holds his own in the pivotal role Rupert Cadell, an irascible, hard-drinking poet shaped by the original war to end all wars. But for a man full of drinks and dangerous ideas, he's never allowed to be more than a scamp. Nor is anybody else, regardless of whom they may not have killed, or why.

As Hitchcock once noted, the best films are made from mediocre source material. Rope's no real exception.

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