Constellation’s Succesful Marriage

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Katy Carkuff and Joe Brack rehearse a scene from The Marriage of Figaro.

“Apollo’s warrant” and “Wag-errant” do not rhyme — not really — but Allison Stockman doesn’t want to hear it. By which we mean she does want to hear it: “Embrace the rhyme,” she instructs her charges. “Make it rhyme!”

Words to live by, or at least to perform by.

It’s a Sunday afternoon half a week into the new year, and Stockman is dismissing the cast of Constellation Theatre Company’s The Marriage of Figaro from the Source building’s second floor rehearsal room overlooking fashionable 14th Street NW. Their homework? To parse the rhythm of the play’s spoken prologue. But “Embrace the rhyme” could just as well be a glib reduction of the company’s mission statement, which promises “visionary, expressive design with heightened physical movement and elevated language.”

That probably reads well on a grant application, but Stockman’s self-descibed “epic ensemble” has built a reputation for delivering the goods, establishing itself less in barely more than a year and a half as a destination for actors and audiences alike. Constellation made its splashy debut with a June 2007 production of August Strindberg’s obscure A Dream Play, as reworked by Caryl Churchill. (“Brisk, accessible, and surprisingly humorous,” praised This Very Newspaper at the time.) An imaginative, highly popular The Arabian Nights followed the same year.

Since then, Constellation has taken on — with varying degrees of success — critiques of socioeconomics and ethics (Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechwan), Greek tragedy (The Oriestia) and Faust-as-political allegory (Vaclav Havel’s Temptation).

The texts, which Stockman selects with the company’s seven “associate artists,” outwardly have little in common except that they call for large ensembles (a trait Stockman looks for) were all written, or derived from source material, in languages other than English (which she says she hadn’t even noticed). But the 34-year-old Baltimore native and former teacher has nonethless made her productions reflect a unified artistic vision. The link is Constellation’s house style; one that incorporates original music, dance and unabashedly outsized performances.

But — this is important — they’re still plays. Not musicals.

Not even Figaro, best known as a Mozart opera.

No, this “Figaro” comes more or less from the source: Pierre Beaumarchais’s long-censored 1778 sex comedy (or “comedy of manners,” if we must) wherein, as in the movie Braveheart, a nefarious regal type stirs up trouble by invoking his right of primae noctis — basically, dibs on a local virgin before she’s married off to some other dude. (And you complain about your taxes!) Stockman needs a little prodding to admit she stitched the script together herself from a half-dozen translations, though she’s quick to share credit with dramaturg Christie Denny, and to point out that on-the-fly revisions have come from the entire cast.

For this “period-Lite” production, Stockman is emphasizing the play’s roots in commedia dell’arte, treating her actors to a workshop conducted by mimes Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell.

Visually, Stockman and resident designer A.J. Guban are using the oblong shapes of Gaudi’s buildings and Goya’s “light, pastoral” paintings as their touchstones. Costumer Yvette M. Ryan has dressed the title character and his bride — both servants — more modestly than is historically accurate, to help the audience grasp the hierarchy of the characters, given that class is one of Beaumarchais’s major themes. It’s a liberty Stockman was happy to take.

“We’ve got this French play, set in Spain, that’s best known for being an Italian opera written by an Austrian, and we’re doing it in the U.S.” she laughs. “So we felt like we had some freedom.”

Constellation Theatre Company’s The Marriage of Figaro is at the Source, 1835 14th St. NW. (800) 494-8497. Thursday-Feb. 22. $20. Tickets are here.

A slightly shorter version of this story appears in today’s Paper of Record.

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