Sampling plays from Britain, Israel, and Spain

As performed by the National Theatre of Great Britain, John Webster's ``The Duchess of Malfi'' is the most technically dazzling of the Chicago International Theatre Festival's first-week offerings. It's a murky Jacobean play about corruption and religious hypocrisy, and the production fully supports this. The set looks like the inside of a crypt, and is lit from below so as to cast huge, ominous shadows. This drama is filled with horror, intrigue, and murder most foul. Two brothers don't want their widowed sister to remarry. They persuade her to hire an unsavory spy, Bosola, as her master of horse, so that they can keep tabs on her. She secretly marries her steward and bears him a child. When the brothers find out, they tell Bosola to dispatch her. In the end, everybody dies -- by strangling, garroting, poison, or sword.

The superb acting is in keeping with the dank and slimy set. Ian McKellen, who also heads the company, is quite wonderful as the hired gun, Bosola. But there's little heart in it.

I never got the sense that the Duchess, played by Eleanor Bron, really loved her husband. There is intellectual impact -- the anguish people go through, and the power others gain over them -- when they sell their conscience. The point is made, but there is little sense of tragedy.

``The Duchess of Malfi,'' directed and designed by Philip Prowse, closed on May 4. The company will disband shortly after its stay in Chicago, so this is the last chance to see the rest of its repertoire: Chekhov's ``The Cherry Orchard,'' May 6-11; and Tom Stoppard's ``The Real Inspector Hound'' and Sheridan's ``The Critic,'' May 14-25.

From the Haifa Municipal Theatre of Israel came ``Ghetto.'' This production may have technical troubles (stemming from the translators' struggles over the headsets to keep up with the actors, who speak rapid Hebrew), but it is all heart, passion, and soul.

It transports us back to the Vilna ghetto in Poland, where, at the height of the Holocaust, a theater troupe decides to continue performing to keep spirits up. ``Ghetto'' is told as a story being recollected by the man who served as the theater's artistic director. Equal parts cabaret and drama, it tells stories of a singer who is condemned to death for stealing a kilo of beans; the alternating kindness and cruelty of the saxophone-playing German officer who presides over Vilna; and mostly about small, heroic choices made daily.

Joshua Sobol's play is filled with moral dilemmas, such as that of the Jewish policeman who decides who lives and who dies, and of the residents who argue whether it is right to have a ``theater in a cemetery.'' What finally convinces them is the prospect of better food, clothing, and of keeping humanity alive in the face of the Nazis' implacable will to break their spirit.

For all its sadness, ``Ghetto'' is filled with joy, humor, and vitality. It is beautifully sung and tremendously moving. One is left with a sense of the triumph of spirituality over forces that could not squelch it.

The Haifa Municipal Theatre, making its first appearance in the United States, is now presenting ``The Soul of a Jew: The Last Night of Otto Weininger,'' May 7-10, before traveling to Washington, D.C., where it will perform both plays at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

A bad week of missed connections and canceled flights is what prompted the Spanish comedy trio El Tricicle to put together their piece spoofing the airline industry, ``Take-Off.'' Joan Gracia, Paco Mir, and Carles Sans take us through all the strange things that happen in air travel -- and then spin off into a new stratosphere of silent absurdity.

Inane messages from loudspeakers that announce flights and then cancel them; portly, pompous janitors who look hard for dirt but don't clean; shrieking lady travelers who can't find their tickets, and respectable enough pilots who suddenly start buzzing each other with paper airplanes, making appropriate noises, are a few of the troupe's targets.

There is true zaniness at work here. One of the best moments came when they were all finally on the plane, and one of the characters opens up the round window, which has inexplicably become a dryer, and takes out a clean white shirt, which he hangs up. He then throws dirty clothes through the window and squirts them with detergent.

The troupe reminds one of Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, Jacques Tati, Peter Sellers, Buster Keaton, and the Three Stooges. A lot of Stooges. The best bit was when two of the trio, dressed as flight attendants, stroll through the audience tossing newspapers. Maybe hurling might be a better word. After awhile the audience starts hurling back, and for a few gleeful moments the theater is filled with flying newspapers.

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