Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Terminus

Graphic language  can slam us and disturb us in a way that is unique to live theater. Visceral and muscular diction in performance can burn images into our mind’s eye as no cinema can. The power of rhyme and explosive meter can so alter the synapses of conscious and subconscious cognition that the unimaginable claims our brain as its stage, and there we then witness acts and events that could not possibly be. Yet we see, we see clearly. And as we do so, what was only words becomes its own mental reality.

The language in Mark O’Rowe’s play Terminus cerebrally breaks through the fourth wall of stagecraft exactly like that. The Irish playwright O’Rowe has forged a formidable verbal score. Three virtuoso actors voice it, delivering three interlocking and intersecting monologues in Dublinesque inflection. And in the timespace of an hour and 45 minutes their three characters’ riveting fiction summons from us a kind of attention that makes us more than spectators or mere hearers. The linguistic intensity makes us complicit in completion of what began in the writer’s perfervid and fevered mind.

The three actors are identified in the program as A, B, and C. The character A is a woman who works at a suicide hotline where she gets a call from a young woman who intends to terminate a near-term pregnancy, and who turns out to be the woman’s estranged daughter. Nanna Ingvarsson makes this mother’s anguish achingly vivid, and then horrifying as the character’s vengeful violence emerges. The character B is the young woman, and on a late-night sexcapade that goes horribly wrong, she plummets from a precipitous height but is saved from certain death by a flying demon made of worms. That moment of magical rescue about 15 minutes into the play marks its shift from the recognizable into the horror-show surreal, and Katie Ryan’s breathtaking performance impels a momentum that sweeps us beyond incredulity into awe. The character C is a horny and lonely guy with a scary streak; he’s terrified of women and becomes an unhinged serial killer. Dylan Meyers’s performance, an admixture of charm and alarming guile, is transfixing.

In the various monologues, the character arcs connect, but we know that by inference, based on bits and pieces in the tales they tell; the actors themselves do not interact; they speak their raw arias individually and separately.  I was struck by how distinctly Ingvarsson, Ryan, and Meyers each bring O’Rowe’s rich text to life with character-defining specificity.  So compelling is the narrative world that each actor creates, in fact, that I found the transitions between monologues abrupt, as if each long speech was over too soon.

Throughout O’Rowe has given the actors language with some intriguing poetic techniques.  Its tight metric construction makes it unforgiving of any inadvertent syllable out of place. And its reiterative internal rhyme especially is gloriously trippy. Here, for instance, is character A, in her first monologue, on a mission to prevent the young woman from having an abortion (the internal rhymes are kind of hidden unless you read it aloud):

…I can’t relent. Hell bent as I am on being her salvation, I station myself at the [curb] and nab a cab, the driver a blabbermouth. I tune him out and drift and, miffed at my lack of response to his shit, he quits his attempts to engage and sits in a childish rage til we’re there and, having paid my fare and got out, I hear, as he pulls away, him say, or rather grunt, “You cunt!” and, unfazed by his curse – I’ve been called worse – I go to her gate and enter, knock and wait on tenterhooks til she answers the door.

Director Tom Story has masterminded this verbal venture into the mindscape with extraordinary precision and passion. There’s minimal blocking, there’s really just talking. And Story has paced and shaped each actor’s soliloquy with singular grace. Set Designer Deborah Thomas has provided a  city-street platform featuring a grating beneath which, thanks to Lighting and Sound Designer Adrian Rodney, an underground train rumbles and blows up debris as it goes by.

Terminus is not a play you can urge someone to go see, because its story takes place in one’s imagination more than in conventional stage action. And some aspects of that story are coarse and grisly.  I myself involuntarily jumped in my seat at one point, upon hearing Ingvarsson utter a single word, “pop,” when her character gouged out someone’s eyeballs. And when some errant worms come loose from the Good Samaritan demon such that character B must replace them, you might be amused (as I and many in the audience were) or grossed out. So be advised.

But these performers are top-notch. They create through O’Rowe’s words a triptych of unforgettable portrayals that is not to be missed. And for lovers of deliciously well-wrought language, Terminus is like a trip to the ear candy shop.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

“This is a big play,” the playwright Tony Kushner has said without understatement, and without an argument from anyone. It’s sprawling and sweeping and awesome in depth and breadth. It’s also long, about three and a half loquacious hours, with a title so discursive it has been foreshortened to “iHo.” But as Director John Vreeke’s  epically eloquent production just opened at Theater J demonstrates, absolutely nothing else about it needs to be abbreviated.

Kushner’s story centers on an Italian-American family in Brooklyn with radical intellection in its blood. It’s one of those homes where talk overlaps constantly and opinions ping-pong and agile vocabularies are obligatory; and though other people come and go, their  brains all seem networked to the same cognitive cloud. That, of course, would be the prodigious mind of Kushner. The upshot is that drop-in visitors such as ourselves, inquisitive theatergoers, cannot help but be amused and amazed. Even if we don’t catch it all, there’s more than plenty to entertain us. And as we listen in on the brilliant badinage, our own mental faculties are quickened.

The genius of Kushner’s writing in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide… is that it activates in its audience the very attentiveness it wants and needs us to have in order to tune in to what it says and means—a mentally transformative experience unlike most any other in live theater. What lies in store for the rapt receiver is a story with such a broadband of resonance you’d have to combine Chekhov and Shaw with a soupçon of  Simon to come up with anything close.

On one level iHo centers on Gus, the widowed 72-year-old father of two sons, one gay and one straight, and a daughter, who is divorced from a man and in a lesbian relationship. Gus owns the $4 million brownstone where much of the play takes place. Gus has announced his intention to commit suicide, and his three children, who have their own dramas going on, are determined to change his mind. We know Gus means business because he’s already made a serious attempt. A former longshoreman and labor union organizer, he has become disillusioned with life, not in a morose and depressed way but in an insightful and astute way: The anticapitalist revolution he wanted to happen, and worked so hard to help incite, has not come to pass. Worse, he says, the world is dying because money has become truth.

There’s a bit of an implausibility about Gus: If he’s so smart, why can’t he think himself out of checking out? Well, just because, really. Besides, in Tom Wiggin’s compelling and persuasive performance, Gus’s idée fix propels interconnecting storylines that are as lively and fun to follow as they are dead serious.

The big ideas packed into iHo are about money, class, labor, property, the worth of work, the value of a human life—all loaded concepts in socialist and anticapitalist discourse—as well as about faith, the soul, God, and other spiritual concepts from religious traditions and theological study. Though Kushner’s full title seems an almost mocking amalgam of Marxist and religous frames of thought, it turns out he really does use both languages to dramatize and express his themes. Plus he throws in a lot of laughs and sex.

When the play begins,  Gus’s gay son, known as Pill (the engagingly earnest Lou Liberatore), is on the phone with a hot but dim hustler, Eli (the appealingly ardent Josh Adams). We learn there’s an intense connection of eroticism and commerce between them, not to mention multiple betrayals—including of Pill’s husband, Paul—and as their complex sex-for-sale relationship evolves over the course of the play, Kushner glosses it with some of the play’s most eyeopening observations about the deleterious effect of money on human life and relations.

Similarly Kushner extracts from the narrative of Gus’s suicide planning a potent metaphor for the anathema of property. Unbeknownst to his kids, Gus has found a buyer for the brownstone. He intends to sell it before he kills himself so the money can be divided among the siblings, a notion that distresses and appalls them. The house hangs over their lives not only figuratively; Production Designer Misha Kachman has cleverly suspended over the stage a red brick brownstone facade that does so literally.

Money, property, and labor are also viewed through Kushner’s witty lens in the subplot of Gus’s daughter, called Empty (the energetic Susan Rome), whose very pregnant same-sex partner, Maeve (the droll Lisa Hodsoll), is about to give birth to the child they planned. Empty and Maeve’s relationship is on the rocks, however, again with multiple betrayals. Empty has sex with her ex, Adam (the slick James Whalen), a real estate agent who brokered the sale of the brownstone. The sperm for the baby did not come from a bank as planned because Pill borrowed the money they’d saved up to do that and spent it all on his young hustler. So Maeve used sperm from Empty and Pill’s brother, Vito (the stolid Tim Getman), making her pregnant with her own nephew but locking the baby into an inheritance claim. Sooze (the flighty Sue Jin Song), Vic’s wife, shows up. When she learns Vic delivered the semen to Maeve not as a hand job but in situ, she freaks. Thus does Kushner hilariously and provocatively weight Maeve’s impending labor with impropriety and property, monkeying around and money.

Meanwhile three of the characters extemporize in religious language. Paul (Michael Anthony Williams) is a lecturer in theology, Maeve is a doctor of theology, and Gus’s sister, Zeeko (Rena Cherry Brown), is a former nun. And a character who arrives late in the play, Shelle (Jenifer Belle Deal), brings a loving, personal, and profoundly moving dimension to all the talk of the value of life.

All the stage arts perfectly serve Kushner’s extraordinary script and Vreeke’s focused conception. We are ushered into the philosophical/political landscape of the play by a fascinating montage of images and audio evoking U.S. and European political protest, demonstrations, communist and socialist leaders and mass actions—all by Projections Designer Jared Mezzocchi and Composer/Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis. Similar effects, including by Lighting Designer Dan Covey, mark the play’s passage in time and place and bracket the play’s scenes. While Kachman has framed the realistically furnished playing areas with dramatic abstraction—a wide bookcase suspended askew, a vast cracked wall upstage, that hovering building facade—Costume Designer Ivania Stack has given the characters an unobtrusive commonality of credibility.

Any “intelligent theatergoer’s guide” to The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide… ought to advise that there’s too much relational, emotional, and ideational content here to be appreciated and assimilated in one sitting. And the play lets you know right away that’s perfectly fine. There’s a lot of scintillating and quippy philosophizing, and the play moves at a brisk clip, but every plot point is unmissable and every character arc unmistakable. Whether you take a deep breath and call it The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures or whether you breezily call it iHo, this show is a surfeit of surprise and substance, of significance and delight, of density and shimmering wit. And the long and the short of it is…don’t miss it.

Running Time: Approximately three hours and 20 minutes, with two 10-minute intermissions.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures plays through December 21, 2014 at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater- 1529 16th Street, NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.

Love Stinks! (concert cabaret)

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Love and song go together so well they’re a compound noun. Who doesn’t love a love song? But what about love that is disappointing, unreciprocated, wounding—all the loves that dare not speak their pain? What kind of song goes with that? Last night at Atlas Performing Center the Gay Men’s Chorus offered a rousing reply. Borrowing the hook from a J. Geils Band classic, eleven GMC soloists sang a sixteen-song selection called Love Stinks! And it would be hard to imagine love gone wrong sounding more wonderful.

First of all is the pleasure of hearing such a beautiful assortment of male vocalists one after another. There’s something deeply moving about the human voice when it sings purely from the heart in the vocal timbre and range called male—because it’s a voice that manifestly does not play by the manhood rules. It is a voice unmasked, unaffected, and unfiltered by macho posturing and aggression. It is a voice at ease in itself, in its full expressivity and its natural pitch range. It is not a voice that has been butchified, forced to sound lower than it wants to (a habit that over time makes men sound gruff and gravelly because it turns the supple vocal cords they were born with to gristle). Honest emotion, much less heartbreak, is not what manly men are supposed to express—which is why the unfalsified male singing voice is especially stirring.

The gift that Gay Men’s Chorus keeps giving is the beauty of male voices free to be. It liberates because it is liberated. Could a Straight Men’s Chorus give that gift as well? Well, sure, of course. Vocal cords don’t have a sexual orientation (you just have to not wreck them trying not to sound unmanly). But could a Straight Men’s Chorus deliver a program with the emotionally revelatory content of Love Stinks!? I don’t think so.

All the performers were on stage the whole time, dressed in a red-black-white color scheme and seated onstage at cabaret-style tables; then one by one they stood and took the mic. Each of the songs in the program told a story and each was introduced by a singer who told a story from his own life—of a lover who left, a lost love who can’t be forgotten, a boyfriend who betrayed, a relationship turned emotionally and verbally abusive. These candid personal snippets cued up the song choice with the precision of set-up scenes in well-wrought musicals. The personal stories and songs weren’t all torchsongy downers; some were upbeat, sweet, and silly—a couple comically bickering, high hopes for a newfound romance, strategies to steer clear of a jerk. They ran the gay gamut. And the fact that the gamut was gay became more and more significant as the rich narrative arc of the song list was revealed.

I’m guessing each of the soloists had a say in the songs they sang, because the songs suited them so right. The performers, appealing one and all, were GMC members Matt Beck, Jarrod Bennett, Richard Bennett, Stuart Goldstone, Kip Jacobs, Garrick Jordan, Lonny Smith, Michael B. Smith, L. Owen Taggart, Kevin Thomason, and Matt Thompson. But credit for the artistry and tapestry of the evening as a whole belongs to Director Thea Kano and Assistant Director Eric Peterson, along with the masterly musicianship of Pianist Jason Sherlock. What emerged from all the singers’ stories—of lost and regretted loves, of longings and heartaches, of relationship fits and spats—was  a composite character who was greater than the sum of the individual men’s hearts, a kind of collective soulfulness, an Everyman Yearning for the Love of Another Man.  There onstage in the Lang Theatre auditorium was compiled, in separate stories and songs, a candid compendium of exactly what that feels like—and boy could the audience relate.

The last number was astounding (and since this was one a one-night-only show I can report it without giving away a spoiler). The entire cast sang “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago (“He had it coming…”), with originally scripted anecdotes of deserved revenge that were howlingly funny. Every(wronged)man Yearning for Love got his collective comeuppance, and the audience responded to the imagined justice with jubilation. It was a funny and feel-good finale to a show that dared to name the love that hurts.

Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission.

Love Stinks! was performed twice Saturday, November 15, 2014, 5 pm and 8 pm, at The Lang Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H St NE, in Washington DC.

Bad Jews

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Bad Jews beggars genre naming. “Comedy of ideas”  doesn’t hold a Shabbat candle to it. Bad Jews is so over-the-top funny, so razor-sharp smart, and so plumb-the-depths profound that it left me gobsmacked in utter awe. Written by Joshua Harmon when he was just 24, and now playing at Studio Theatre only until December 21, Bad Jews is a perfectly polished gem—a don’t-miss gift of exceptional theater whichever holiday you observe (or don’t).

The setting is a studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The four characters are all millennials. Three are the grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor named Poppy, whose funeral was that day; the fourth is a goyish girlfriend. The show’s form is fast-paced sitcom. At first it plays like a Friends script, and Serge Seiden directs with hilarious panache.

And then an argument emerges. It’s a conflict between Daphna (the firecracker Irene Sofia Lucio), a devout and observant Jew, and her cousin Liam (the volatile Alex Mandell), who is unapologetically lapsed and antipathetic to the faith. The point of their contention is a mega MacGuffin: Who should inherit Poppy’s cherished chai, a sacred gold charm with a significance and history that Daphna reveres and Liam reviles. This family fissure is the fuse that sets off a megafun explosion.

Jonah, Daphna’s cousin and Liam’s brother, is a gamer slacker and a reluctant spectator to the spat. It’s his apartment, paid for by his well-off folks; and three sleeping areas, a pull-out sofa and two inflated air mattress, were meant to welcome Daphna and Liam.  But Jonah (the still-waters-run-deep Joe Paulik) does not want to be involved in their dispute much less referee.

Liam arrives from a ski trip (so he has missed Poppy’s funeral) with Melody, a pretty blonde WASP who finds herself thrust into a religious hornet’s nest. She seems a bit dim at first, a typical airhead ingenue, but in Maggie Erwin’s spitfire performance, Melody’s surprising character arc becomes a dazzling stroke of brilliance. Just when the fray could not be more fraught with anger, the sweet-tempered Melody, an opera singer manqué, offers to sing a song to calm things down. Erwin’s ensuing off-key rendition of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess had the audience in stitches and nearly stopped the show.

Set Designer Luciana Stecconi’s earth-tone simplicity and Lighting Designer Daniel MacLean Wagner’s easy ambiance fit the situation just right. Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan’s musical intro and outro evoke Jewish cultural past and millennial present. And Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt makes spot-on character-specific choices—including a pink parka worn by Melody.

When the play turns serious (as it does intermittently), Harmon gives his characters some of the most trenchant and well-wrought speeches I can recall in any contemporary play. The counterposing views of Daphna and Liam are expounded with both gravitas and wit. Liam slams the scriptural cherry-picking required to make Jewish tradition “palatable for your 21st century sensibilities.” He cites in particular biblical passages with anti-female animus, more to rile Daphne than out of any pro-woman sympathies (the guy can hurl misogynist invective with the worst of them).

I can’t get worked up about preserving a totally watered down version of something that wasn’t even true to begin with, and I’m not going to allow it to dictate how I live my life or who I choose to live my life with so I can genetically or biologically pass on something I don’t believe in.

With equal eloquence Daphne gives voice to the essential values at the core of honoring Jewish tradition:

If I stop, if we all stop, it will be gone. And you can’t get it back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

The playwright presents each view in stark contrast but in stirring equipoise. As we weigh Liam’s and Daphne’s words, we realize Harmon’s thumb is not on the scale. And his command of character-driven ideological conflict makes this comedy-drama a powerfully engaging experience.

The title is a jokey echo of a self-deprecating jest common among nonobservant Jews; but among devout Jews, the title can also seem off-putting and a provocation. Wherever one falls on that continuum of culture and creed (and even if, like me, your ancestors were never met with anti-Semitism), Harmon’s ending will astonish and move you beyond what anyone could possibly expect. I will give nothing away except to say that Jonah, about whom we learn little during the play (compared with the other three characters, he’s kind of a cipher), is revealed in such  a  true and touching way that all laughter stills—and only the heartbeat of great art can be heard.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Bad Jews plays through December 21, 2014 at The Studio Theatre’s Mead Theatre-1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300 or go online.

Pen

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Washington Stage Guild starts off its 29th season with a smart production of David Marshall Grant’s Pen, a curious play that is by turns provocative and perplexing. The company’s tagline, aptly, is “Smart theatre for a smart town.” Pen‘s dramatis personae are brainy alright. But much as I admired the sharp writing, excellent performances, astute direction, and quality of stagecraft arts on display, at intermission I was scratching my head about what had just happened. By the end I was left wondering if I was perhaps not smart enough to figure out where the play went and how it got there. In the midst of what is ostensibly a naturalistic family drama, there are some surreal twists that just made me go “huh?” That said, this production is a thoroughly engrossing theater experience.

At the center of the family drama, set in 1969, is Matt Bayer, a senior in high school whose psychologist father divorced his mother after she became wheelchair-bound with MS. The hapless but hopeful Matt (in an exceptionally insightful performance by Chris Stinson) lives with his demanding and difficult mother, Helen. He’s torn between the caretaking he feels he owes her and his need to move out and go away to college. Helen, for her part, is abusively clingy, and her brief interludes of maternal concern keep their dynamic cycling between sentimental affection and cynical rejection. Poor Matt—he wants to get as far away from her as possible and she won’t even let him go to the movies. How he has survived their dreadful mother-son dynamic this long is a mystery. (I’m tempted to observe that this trope is not uncommon in works by gay male writers…but I won’t. I’ll just say it’s a vivid depiction of codependence to the enth.)

Emily Townley plays Helen Bayer with engaging range—and if like me you find her character unbearable at first (picture Jo Anne Worley as Mommie Dearest), hanger in there. Over the course of the play Townley reveals touching dimensions of Helen that are as sensitive as they are surprising.

Initially I found the character of the father, Jerry Bayer, appallingly lacking in a self-awareness for a shrink. He’s dumped his disabled wife and is about to marry a young blonde. What’s not to dislike? Equally remarkable, however, is Michael Russotto’s amazingly aware performance in the role. So compelling is he that he nearly had me believing the character might be a nice guy with good intentions. And in a scene in Act Two in a bar where he plays pickup artist, his charm is completely convincing.

Director Kasi Campbell has found just the right balance among these characters, which is no mean feat. We need to care about what happens to them all. At the beginning I cared only about the put-upon son (and Stinson’s deeply intuitive performance is so arresting and satisfying, he’s one of those actors you miss when there’s a scene without them). Campbell, Townley, and Russotto, however, make sure all sides of the troubled triangle solidly sustain the show.

Set Designer Shirong Gu and Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows picture an appealingly moderne living room as well as effective suggestions of a restaurant and bar. Sound Designer Robert Pike offers enjoyable music tracks from the era, and Costume Designer Sydney Moore portrays the period simply and without cliche.

The title refers to a prop pen, a red one, that functions in the play in two ways. On the one hand, it’s an ordinary writing instrument (a particular model Helen prefers because she can do crossword puzzles lying on her back and the ink cartridge doesn’t need shaking). On the other hand, its point is to prompt the play’s Twiglight Zone-y twists. I never figured out what one the hand had to do with the other. But Washington Stage Guild has handled the requisite ambidextrousness handily, and its Pen points most promisingly to its 2014–15 “Season of Love and/or Marriage.”

Gotta hand it to them for that.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.

Pen plays at plays through November 23 at the Undercroft Theatre of  Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 240-582-0050 or visit the Washington Stage Guild website.

Not Enuf Lifetimes

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

There is a shortlist of great American plays about hopes and dreams, wrenching and emotionally exacting dramas exposing the anguish when righteous aspiration is tragically not enough. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is one. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is another. Such plays endure not just because they are uncommonly well written and playable but because they take us into the heart of strivers with such specificity and universality that their stories stay in us long after we walk out of the theater and forever after illuminate how we think about life. Last night a new play opened on H Street that joins that list. Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ Not Enuf Lifetimes is, quite simply, destined to become an American classic.

Not Enuf Lifetimes is the second offering by the new DC-based Welders playwrights collective, which has been promoting the play as being about bridging the generation gap between baby boomers and hip hop culture. And that’s certainly the context of the story. But Not Enuf Lifetimes is about vastly more than that—just as Death of a Salesman is not actually about business travel; and A Raisin in the Sun, not about housing.

What Jennings has dared to do—and phenomenally succeeded at—is to put on stage the moral life crisis of  a white person of conscience who is striving to do good, to make a difference in the world, someone driven by hopes of offering personal recompense for a heritage of white privilege and a dream of social justice. The authenticity of Jennings’ achievement is nothing short of breathtaking.

Jennings, a professor of theater at American University, has said the play was prompted by a conversation she once had with a “skinny, white transfer student with a head full of blond curls who had traveled all the way from the Northwest to go to school in D.C.” He was “bright and politically conscious” and he had taken a challenging job in what white folks call the inner city working with disadvantaged kids. As Jennings explains: “One afternoon, as we sat on a bench on AU’s quad, he seemed particularly sad, and I asked if he was okay. He said his social justice work was sometimes overwhelming. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘It feels like there are not enough lifetimes to make up for all the bad stuff that my people have done.’”

That spark animates Jennings’ central character, Ian, who has dropped out of med school—abandoning the career his mother and father wanted for him—moved into a hood and immersed himself in hip hop and a life of radical racial- and economic-justice activism. Ian (played with wired and electrifying conviction by Kiernan McGowan) tries to explain to his working-class father, Frank (played with weary gruffness by Elliott Bales), why he feels he’s got a “deadline” for his life:

I’ve got this tiny window of time to put the world back on its axis, you know, before it spins out of control…. I’ve been reading about white privilege… racism and oppression. I’m looking for a way to live with myself….I’m trying to create something in myself to love….I’m just trying to find peace in myself and spread it around…

Or as Ian puts it more bluntly later:

I wanna do something worth shit in my life.

With Ian’s personal quest of conscience thus established, Jennings introduces us to her other characters, each of whose role in the story resonates with its own values and yearning: Majit, Ian’s girlfriend, who is of Indian descent and a social worker (played with tough empathy by Shanta Parasuraman); Cheryl, Ian’s religiously devout and superficially sweet but abusive mother (played with transfixing precision by Melissa Flaim); and two characters played by the same extraordinary actor, David Lamont Wilson: Dante, Ian and Magit’s landlord, a computer professional by day and hip hop DJ by night; and Ronnie, a hip hop poet whom Ian mentors. This double casting becomes one of the most evocative elements of the show: As Wilson conveys both Dante’s middle-class demeanor and Ronnie’s street mien, the one is unrecognizable in the other, yet both are seemingly not disparate.

Several passages in the play are spoken aloud as hip hop poetry and they are mindblowingly good. Ronnie challenges Ian’s white-privileged social-activist presumption in a scathing riff:

Where you come from?
Hopping off your white horse, Ridin’ through the ghetto to rescue, of course.
Wanna fight the power, wanna uplift all the poor
Wow, gee, I guess nobody ever tried that before

And Ian responds with a verse that is almost painfully self-aware:

I’m a white boy.
I have no rhythm.
I’m a white boy.
I have no style.
I’m a white boy
I have no way to hide
What they see when they see me
And they see beneath my skin

Jennings delves with sure clarity into both of these specific selves, one black one white, letting each speak honestly, just as she does throughout for each of her complex and compelling characters. Her writing is endlessly satisfying; each synapse of it signals some new twist, some insight, some unexpected emotional instant. And the mastery with which Jennings shapes the story of what becomes of Ian with his hopes and dreams is enthralling and touching all the way to the heartrending end.

Jennings’ fine script has been staged with great inspiration and integrity by Director Psamayene 24.  Scenic Designer Ethan Sinnott has created a splendid  multiplatform playing space, dressed by Scenic Artist Kelley Rowan in graffiti and urban clutter, that artfully contains both interiors and exteriors. At several points there are flashbacks that pick up from and enact an incident being told, and Lighting Designer Allan Sean Weeks fluidly shifts our visual fields to make these transitions in time and space seem perfectly seamless. Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson—playing yet another role in the show—not only makes hip hop come alive but also expands the action effectively with offstage sounds. And  Costume Designer Katie Touart has dressed characters who range from street rapper to church lady such that all seem perfectly suited to tell this remarkable story.

Not Enuf Lifetimes is a play that will live on in other productions, other places, other times. This run is only the first of many to come. But that’s all the more reason to catch this Welders original production—the one that introduced to the theater an essential story for our time never told as powerfully onstage before.

Not Enuf Lifetimes plays through November 15, 2014 at The Welders performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

Someone Is Going to Come (a workshop production)

This is what Jon Fosse’s words sound like. When he writes it sounds like this. His characters talk in short statements. They talk and they seem to say something ordinary. They seem to. One will say something to the other and it will be simple. And plain. It will not sound overstated. It will be plain and simple and it will sound unremarkable. And then they will say it again but not quite the same. It will be different. The meaning will change a little. Not quite the same. Maybe something else. On stage his words sound like this. Simple words and silence. This is what it sounds like when Jon Fosse writes what characters say. And don’t say.

The spare, austere, and distinctive voice of the Norwegian dramatist Jon Fosse lends itself to parody as readily as does that of Pinter and Beckett, to whom he is often compared. It can loop repetitively through restatements, and as it does so it takes on an emotionally reserved yet lyrical incantatory quality that is mesmerizing.

Fosse is one of Europe’s most performed playwrights. His reputation as a poet, essayist, novelist was already established when, in his 30s, he began to write for theater. Now in his 60s, he has written more than 30 plays, which have been translated into 40 languages and received more than 900 productions.

Fosse is relatively unknown in the U.S. for reasons somewhat obscure. It could be because he writes in New Norwegian, or Nyorsk, a language that lends itself to poetical diction, not naturalistic dialect (which most American TV and film watchers assume is all there is). Fosse has bluntly said he eschews naturalism. Instead his writing is almost abstracted in its simplicity and lack of specificity, which has the curious effect of inviting one’s intellect to fill in the provocative blanks.

I had not heard of Fosse until I learned that Scena Theatre Artistic Director Robert McNamara was staging a one-night-only workshop performance of one of Fosse’s early works, Someone Is Going to Come, with sponsorship by the Royal Norwegian Embassy. In his remarks to the audience, McNamara said he intends a full production next year. Judging from the reading I attended and the intensely engaged response it received, a full production of Someone Is Going to Come is to be eagerly anticipated.

I know Fosse’s work only from two short stories and this one play, all of which have in common, besides Fosse’s idiosyncratic use of language, a deceptively simple story line. In the case of Someone Is Going to Come, a man and a woman arrive at a remote ramshackle house by the sea with the intention of being “alone together… together alone.” The character the script calls He (read by David Bryan Jackson) is in his 60s, and the character the script calls She (Nanna Ingvarsson) is in her 30s. It’s not clear whether they are married, but they seem very much a couple, devoted to and fond of each other. But as soon as they arrive, She becomes filled with dread, a fear that, as the title says, someone is going to come, someone who will intrude on their solitude. We can guess her fears are well founded because a third character is listed in the program, Man (Ron Ward). Sure enough Man, also 30-something, arrives, prompting a fit of proprietary jealousy and paranoiac rage in the older man. It steadily becomes evident that the unsafe circumstances She first feared were misnamed: The someone who scares her is now the man she came with, the one she thought she knew and trusted. The way Fosse crafts the turgid undercurrents of that thrillerlike psychological progression, through a sparse surface of language, is gripping, and the three readers, directed by McNamara, made moment after moment ominous.

Jon Fosse’s first name is pronounced “yawn”—but his writing is not. His distinctive voice is worthy of serious attention in this theater town.

Running Time: 70 minutes, no intermission.

Someone Is Going to Come was presented by Scena Theatre October 6, 2014, in the Melton Hall at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, D.C.

Toast

I last partook of this tasty audience-integration treat from dog&pony dc last December when I saw Toast as a workshop production in the Kogod Cradle Series. The immersive experience was all about innovation and invention, and it was (literally) tasty: There was a table where you could interact with the premise by creating your own flavored butter, and mine was m-m-m-m-yummy. So I felt a twinge of disappointment when I heard that after nine months of gestation and improvisation on the innovation/invention theme, Toast would be popping up around town sans the flavored butter.

I needn’t have fretted, because the new iteration of Toast that dog & pony dc has cooked up is curiously more immersive and in fact far more (metaphorically) chewy.

The gambit of the piece is still a heady notion about the way invention happens, and the way creative crowd-sourcing of ideas leads to  better and better ones. That’s where Toast’s audience participation comes in; we are coaxed into fun brainstorming by members of dog & pony who greet and guide us in character as a variety of creative/inventive/facilitator types. But what seemed to me to have deepened about the piece and enriched it was a more transparent, cohesive intent on discovery not just for its own sake but for the good of all of humanity.

By some uncanny ice-breaking alchemy, the cast gets audience members who were complete strangers moments ago to share notions in small buzz groups with the kind of easygoing engagement usually reserved for long-time friends. I was in a group that was tasked with letting some essential feature of the common toaster inspire us to envision some sweeping new technological platform and practical application in order to solve a big problem. That may make no sense to anyone who wasn’t there, but to those of us who were, the challenge had a marvelously invigorating effect on our minds, and we ended up solving world hunger with an idea for a magic leaf that would use solar energy to convert inedible matter into nutritious food the way plants photosynthesize.

At first when you enter Toast (which I attended at a law office; the piece will occur at several venues), there’s an exhibit space with various displays on the theme of technological invention: A fortune-telling Ben Franklin impersonator, a doll house equipped with futuristic gizmos. I was captivated by a bright young boy who displayed his “science project,” a disassembled toaster, and knowledgeably explained to me infrared rays and other electronic esoterica. All of these devisings introduced us to the theme of innovation/invention and made it approachable, familiar, something ownable by each of us, not something “out there” where only Great Brains go to Think Stuff Up.

The genius of Toast is that as it engages audience members as participants in dramatized play, it democratizes creativity, and it makes an otherwise elusive truth seem self-evident and concrete: There’s genius in everyone if we but connect to it in one another.

The playful brilliance of Toast’s creators is contagious. Your brain will thank you for playing along.

Metamorphosis

As a short story by Franz Kafka awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, it found itself onstage transformed into a live action graphic novel.

Wait, what?

Translation: The adventurous Alliance for New Music-Theatre has been messing around with Metamorphosis—the classic tale of a man who wakes up in his bed having become a big bug. They’ve been adding music, songs and sounds, movement, projected animations, a mixed bag o’ tricks. And the remarkable mashup that results not only aptly captures Kafka’s strange parable of a man utterly estranged, it captivates and fascinates way beyond words.

Inventively adapted and directed by Susan Galbraith from Steven Berkoff’s playscript, this music-theater amalgam is playing for a brief time only in the rehearsal room at Woolly Mammoth Theatre—a suitably stark space enclosed by gray concrete walls, which are put to provocative use as a surface on which to project stylized animations. Designed by Joey Wade and Janet Antich, who have borrowed imaginatively from Kafka’s own  minimalist-expressionistic drawings, these projections create a stage world where as an actor mimes lighting candles, white-on-gray flickers of flame appear; where sketched windows and doors may be opened and shut; where a young man who has become a vile insect can put up a portrait he fancies on the wall of his room. The visual interplay between actors and these projected animations, which pop in and out throughout—plus the integration of Kafka’s fabulist prose and artwork—brings a dimension to the storytelling that is both amusing and mesmerizing.

Though the production’s haunting music and unnerving soundscape (designed by Neil McFadden) can probably not be directly attributed to the inspiration of the Czech artist, the effect sometimes gets fabulously Kafkaesque. Contributing composer Hugh Livingston is credited with some of it, and Galbraith has interpolated some traditional Jewish melodies. The cast too has come up with some lively vocal improvisations along with cellist Yvonne Caruthers, who, sitting on a platform stage right during the performance, bows aural pleasures from atonal anguish to the loveliest of sonorities.

This season Alliance for New Music-Theatre has been riffing on what it means to be an outsider, a topic for which Kafka’s Metamorphosis may be the all-time iconic metaphor. The story is set in the home of a Jewish family in the city of Prague, where Kafka spent his alienated youth and where anti-Semitic animus was the norm. In Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s telling retelling, the story’s focus becomes what it means to be an outsider inside one’s own family. Gregor Samsa (Ari Jacobson) is a traveling fabric salesman who dutifully supports his mother (Pamela Bierly-Jusino), father (David Millstone), and sister (Lily Kerrigan). When Gregor metamorphoses into an insect, their life comes apart at the seams, not because something dreadful has befallen their dear son but because their sole breadwinner has become unemployable. As if Gregor’s suffering wasn’t intense enough, his self-referentially resentful mother and father turn on him. Only his sister seems to care how horrible this must be for Gregor.

Jacobson’s angular, contortionist performance could not be more evocative of an outsider’s interior distress. He twists his body into impossible shapes (at one point sitting upside-down in a chair, his shoulders where his butt should be, his arms and legs all akimbo—and then sings that way). He also clambers around on a jumbled gym of ladders—on a set designed by Wade and lit spookily by Brian Allard—like a misshapen  creature fleeing insecticidal humans.

In Kafka’s Metamorphosis there comes a point when Gregor tries to speak from inside his locked bedroom to his family and to his boss, who has dropped by to locate the no-show employee. But Gregor’s voice comes out not human. On paper the words he speaks are comprehensible; only Kafka’s notation tells us they’re supposed to sound strange. At the same point in the story as enacted in Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s Metamorphosis, Jacobson enters into an excruciatingly painful dimension that the written word cannot possibly convey. As Jacobson’s gnarled, tormented body struggles, his voice breaks, skips, squeaks, crackles, squeals. His family have not yet seen the creature he has become; they are only learning now it does not sound at all like their meal ticket. They listen stricken, sickened. Just then Jacobson’s performance becomes the  epic center of the scene, eliciting  horrified fascination from the audience in a tour de force of masterful vocal monstrosity.

Anyone who remembers growing up feeling bugged because they were the black sheep or odd duck in their family will find in Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s marvelously hallucinatory Metamorphosis nice moments of reminiscence.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Metamorphosis plays through September 21, 2014 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call 202-966-3104, or purchase them online.

Belleville

I’ve been crazy about Amy Herzog’s writing since I saw 4000 Miles last year at Studio Theatre. When I saw After the Revolution at Theater J last season, I just flipped. Herzog is, as I said then, on my short list of favorite English-speaking playwrights. I’m a full-on fan and follower. That said, I can attest: Studio Theatre’s riveting production of Belleville gives us Amy Herzog’s writing at its electrifying best.

With Belleville Herzog stretches; she tackles the psychological suspense-and-thriller genre, not an easy one to pull off on stage. In preparation (she has said) she studied film classics of the form from the early 1040s, Gaslight (which was based on a play) and Suspicion (which was based on a novel). I’m not privy to any movie-option deal, but I would be flabbergasted if Herzog’s playscript for Belleville did not someday become a box office bonanza. Now’s your chance to catch and appreciate it in the flesh—in all its raw, naked, and shocking glory. Herzog has not only mastered the form; she has made it her own.

The fun with this form is not knowing much about the story going in or anything about where it’s headed. To share any spoilers would be just plain wrong. This much I can fairly report, however: The tension begins mounting from the get-go—as soon as eerie light spills in sideways through windows casting ominous dark shadows across an apartment where no one seems home. Enter Abby (Gillian Williams). She switches on lights. She’s late 20s, carrying shopping bags, and listening to music through ear buds. From off we hear the sound of moans from a pornographic video. When Abby, curious, takes out her ear buds, she hears too, and she’s alarmed. The sound is coming from the bedroom. She opens the door and looks in. She shrieks. Her husband, Zack (Jacob H Knoll), rushes out nervously, embarrassed, buttoning his fly. He has been jacking off. He thought she’d be at class. She thought he’d be at work. Instantly we are caught up. We follow along as the unnerving disclosures unfold, the pitch heats up, the stakes heighten. And we are utterly seized by horror and pleasure—because the suspense is thrilling us.

Herzog’s technical command of the genre is formidable. Seeming insignificant mentions and objects take on increasing portent, and plot point disclosures are exquisitely sequenced. Of Abby’s shopping trip Zack asks, “Did you use the new credit card?” Kind of an odd question at the time, but…maybe nothing. Little do we know the big something behind it. Or when Zack comes out of the kitchen with a baguette and a butcher knife, which he uses to slice it.

ABBY. Is that really the appropriate implement? For that little baguette?
ZACK. Everything else is in the sink.

And yes, we get it: The playwright has just introduced a huge sharp knife on stage. We probably haven’t seen the end of it. And no, it turns out, we assuredly have not.

Where Herzog really bends the genre, though, is in her keen dissection of a relationship between a particular man and woman, a marriage, a connection driven by conjugal passion as well as friendly familiarity betokened by their nickname for each other: homey. But, as we learn piece by disturbing piece, their relationship is also burdened by mental disequilibrium (hers) and rife with deception (his). In this razor-sharp production directed by Studio Theatre Artistic Director David Muse, and in the eloquent precision of the performances by Knoll and Williams, the revelations proliferate and resonate with all the explosions built in to Herzog’s text. About a fourth-fifths of the way through, Abby fearfully, finally, asks Zack:

ABBY. What’s going on?
ZACK. What do you mean?
ABBY. I don’t know, what do I mean?
(pause)
ZACK. I don’t know.
(long pause)
ABBY. Homey? What’s happening?

In that simple yet haunting moment they become Everymarriage, or Everycouple—two people who thought they knew and loved each other but are realizing that they didn’t and don’t. In Herzog’s transformation of the horror/suspense form, that recognition is—as a psychological and emotional depth charge—far more horrible than any choreographed physical struggle or onstage gore could ever be. Perhaps I’m biased because I’m a theater lover, but I seriously doubt that what Muse, Williams, and Knoll achieve here in live performance will ever translate on film with quite the same propulsive pulse that you’ll experience when you go to Belleville.

But that’s not all. Herzog’s play contains within it another perspective altogether, a marriage between two people who do not unravel before our eyes; in fact by the end they seem strengthened in their connection. They are Alioune (Madeka Steady) and Amina (Joy Jones), French-Senegalese neighbors who live downstairs and are Abby and Zack’s landlords. Steady’s performance is appealing and agile; Jones’s is poised and powerful.  Together their Alioune and Amina are solid anchors in a main storyline that ineluctably is going off the rails. With their fascinating subplot, Herzog pushes the suspense/thriller genre into yet another dimension: She layers in a political point of view, an implicit critique of a privileged, self-involved culture beset by first-world problems. Studio Theatre Dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen quotes Herzog on the contrast between these two relationships:

Amina and Alioune have concrete plans for themselves, concrete ideas about what it means to live a meaningful adult life, including work and raising a family. Abby and Zack have different ideas that have to do with fulfillment and self-actualization and happiness and these Western concepts of being exceptional.

The final scene of the play has Amina and Alioune, alone onstage, speaking together in French. I didn’t understand a word, but no matter, because I understood that Herzog was giving them the last word. And just then my mind, which had already been blown, went stunned and blank in awe.

Running Time: An hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Belleville plays through October 12, 2014 at The Studio Theatre’s Metheny Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.