Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Pol Pot & Associates, LLP

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

This is a cunning conundrum of a play. It moves back and forth in time, sudden lighting changes signal shifts from realistic to magical, the characters speak like superliterate savants, one-line zingers carom among them, the plot is doled out in tantalizing tidbits, the story toys with our rapt attention like a Rubik’s cube in bubble wrap. Yet this is no ordinary brain-teaser. There’s meaning in this enigma. It plays like the best of Pinter except if Pinter had a point.

Confused? Well, you might come to enjoy it. Because if your mind gets as engrossed as mine did during this world premiere play by Kathleen Akerley, perplexity may never have seemed such a pleasure.

This much we find out for sure: Six men, all former employees of a law firm, have gone off the grid to live in an intentional community on a property in the woods. The set by Elizabeth McFadden is a rustic retreat amid tree trunks in browns and greens with mismatched chairs and hanging window frames looking out. It’s a sanctuary of sorts, far away from anywhere, but vaguely unsettling.

At the law firm there was a rigid hierarchy. High up in it, as managing partner, was the man who has adopted the nom de nature Frog (Michael Glenn). At the bottom, as photocopier operator, was a young man who has dubbed himself Fiver (Séamus Miller).  Ranked in between were men now named Hector (Michael John Casey), Raven (Chris Davenport), Todd (Daniel Corey), and Mal (Daniel Vito Siefring). Their purpose in going rural is to live on the land egalitarianly. A brotherhood of men who are eradicating hierarchy. Escapees from constricting careers, without wives or children or other ties that would preclude their pact to connect.

The basis of these men’s bond is somewhat elusive; it doesn’t appear to do with sex. Akerley’s script has one fleeting reference that might suggest these men even have a sexuality: a lame joke about the word “shaft” that gets only a so-so rise out of the guys. To all intents and purposes, these men comport themselves as campers in the woods with the same asexuality that characterized their workplace interactions.  Their minds, and therefore ours, are elsewhere.

But there’s no doubt as to their joint genderedness and their aim to defend it. A beautiful young woman arrives, unnamed in the credits except as She (Kira Burri), limping helplessly because her ankle twisted when she stepped in a nearby hole. The men fumblingly apply ice to the injury and otherwise make a gentlemanly show of trying to help her. But ominously she represents to them an unwelcome incursion from outside. And when the lighting by John Burkland changes dramatically to surreal, she utters curselike incantations of bad things that will befall them.

After she’s gone, the men sing a song, their anthem of cohesion, Scarborough Fair in six-part harmony (“Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…”)—and gosh these six actors have great voices.

Abruptly there is a furious banging, another outsider demanding entrance. Turns out to be the girl’s father, unnamed except as He (Jonathon Church). The girl has been shot dead in the head.

Up till then the play has been a scintillating display of oral arguments on a wild array of topics; now it becomes also a fascinating whodunnit. Who shot the girl and why? A detective arrives (Jonathon Church again). He interrogates each of the men. One by one he rules out suspects. Steadily, ineluctably, the men’s communitarian ideals fracture and fall to pieces. And there be shocking plot turns along the way.

Akerley’s shrewd script deserves and got an equally sharp director: Akerley herself. The pacing, the stage pictures, the performances, the whole production—it’s all first rate. Even the complicated scene changes work. They entail placing and removing then placing again certain set pieces in dim light, to signal the house before and after renovation, as time jumps to and fro. The sound design by Neil McFadden covers these transitions and makes them play like intriguing caesuras within a riveting momentum.

The title of this play makes more sense after seeing it than before. At a point Akerley’s characters chat about the radical agrarian socialism that the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot imposed. Their woodsy communal experiment implodes in violence for similar xenophobic reasons. Or something like that. There’s also a lot of Tarot card reading, a talent Fiver contributes to the mix.

The mashup of images and frames of reference that fly about in this brilliantly evasive new play—the law, a reign of terror, mystic fortune-telling, to name a few—can be head-spinning. And following the narrative can be like picking through pieces of  jigsaw puzzle. Akerley was once quoted in an interview cheekily paraphrasing from the Dune series: “Exposition is the mind-killer. Exposition is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” So don’t expect straightforward storytelling. And don’t come seeking soppy sentimentality or maudlin heart-string plucking either. This play knows exactly what it’s doing and it’s not that.

Pol Pot & Associates, LLP is a nifty stimulation of brain cells and a buzz-worthy theater treat. If you’re smart you’ll catch it.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one 10-minute intermission.

Pol Pot & Associates, LLP plays through August 31, 2014, at The Callan Theatre, Catholic University Drama Complex,
3801 Harewood Road NE. Tickets are available
online.

Amaluna

Ardent fans of Cirque du Soleil attending the spectacular new Amaluna will recognize this as one of Cirque’s best tent shows ever.  Now in its 30th year with a track record of more than two dozen unique productions, Cirque is typically circumspect about overpraising its shows so as not to overpromise an audience’s experience. But as a longtime aficionado (a Cirque-head, if you will), I honestly cannot think of a Cirque touring show any better.

Before I say why, a few words to anyone who has never seen Cirque live: Think dreams, story, movement, music, fantasy. Picture dancers, singers, musicians, acrobats, clowns. Imagine beauty, colors, creativity, physical strength, virtuoso artistic feats.

Can’t do it, right? Can’t hold that much in your mind’s-eye all at once? Neither could I. Before I saw my first Cirque, all I knew was: Oh, that’s the circus without animals. Yay, PETA, blah blah. I had no idea what a wholly new art form I would find.

The origins of Cirque go back to the early 1980s with a ragtag troupe of Québecois street performers who did juggling, acrobatics, stilt walking, and other circus arts. In 1982 they created a street performers’ festival, which was so successful it led to a show called Cirque du Soleil (circus of the sun). Cirque du Soleil has since carved out a unique style of performance, completely reinventing and reconceiving the traditional circus. Cirque introduced dramatic themes, music, dance, and virtuoso performances that connect audiences viscerally through emotion. With but one exception (Zumanity, which is adults-only), Cirque du Soleil  is completely family friendly and genuinely appeals across generations.

At intermission I asked the parents of an eight-year-old how he was liking the show so far. “He’s enthralled,” said Mom right away as Dad nodded. Afterward I asked two ten-year-old boys for their views. “Amazing” and “awesome” they answered instantly. I did not happen to ask any girls, which was my oversight—especially considering the fact that Amaluna is a profoundly pro-female and female-centric theatrical spectacle.

“An ode to femininity and renewal,” says Cirque promo, with characteristic understatement. Amaluna Director Diane Paulus—the Broadway legend behind such award-winning productions as Pippin and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess—has said, “I wanted to create a show with women at the center of it, something that had a hidden story that featured women as the heroines.” And wowza, did she ever.

Borrowing bits from Greek and Norse mythology, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest,  the extravaganza takes place on an imagined gynocratic island named Amaluna (a word Cirque coined to mean Mother Moon and a subliminal homage to menstruation). Amaluna is inhabited by the benevolent deities Prospera (Julie McInnes) and Moon Goddess (Andréanne Nadeau), a Caliban-esque creature named Cali (Viktor Kee), a beautiful ingenue named Miranda (Julia Mykhailova), Miranda’s clown of a nurse named Deeda (Sheeren Hickman), and a corps of fierce females who evidently aced martial arts class.

Scenic Designer Scott Pask and Lighting Designer Matthieu Larrivée have made a wondrous world of sea greens and blues beneath luminous foliage that looks like a rainforest canopy of phantasmagoric fiber-optic cable. Costume designer Mérédith Caron has adorned the cast—from clowns to creatures to aerialists and tumblers—with sparkle and sheen and endless ingenuity. As we enter the tent, we hear Sound Designer Jacques Boucher’s tropical birdscape; soon vivid and booming effects punctuate the drama.  Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard (aka Bob & Bill) have composed a lush, lovely, and rockin’ score, which is sung gloriously by McInnes and Jennifer Aubry and played by turns tenderly and muscularly by an all-woman band (McInnes on violoncello and sax, Didi Negron on drums, Mireille Marchal on percussions, Cassandra Faulconer on bass, Angie Swan and Rachel Wood on guitars).

Off-stage there looks to be gender parity (among Amaluna’s creators are also Cirque Founder Guy Laliberé, Director of Creation Fernand Rainville, Choreographer Karole Armitage, Acrobatic Choreographers Karole Armitage and Debra Brown, Acrobatic Performance Designer Rob Bollinger). But onstage there decidedly is not. Besides the all-woman band, 70 percent of the cast are female. The overall effect is both powerful and nuanced, a thrilling theatrical experience like none other. This is a world run by women who are brave, strong, and self-possessed and who take up space without apology and own it without deference. Amaluna makes “leaning in” seem like child’s play on a jungle gym.

Into this imaginary world come some men and the plot thickens: A storm blows up and a shipwrecked crew washes on shore entangled in fishing nets. Among them are a hunk and a clown, and each becomes smitten with an indigenous maiden.

The hunk is Romeo (Evgeny Kurkin), who falls for Miranda. Classically, there are impediments to their romance. Miranda’s mother is the shaman Prospera, who arranged the storm and otherwise oversees her daughter’s arc toward love. Thus in the first act Miranda finds herself aswim in a huge see-through waterbowl   (I’m not sure why but it didn’t matter; the sight was stunning). Romeo leaps up on the lip of the bowl and takes off his shirt to join her. There were admiring oohs and ahhs from the audience (though this was carefully not played as a Chippendales moment), and their ensuing splash de deux was sweet and discreet.

In the second act Romeo athletically and longingly climbs a pole that reaches toward the flyspace where Miranda has been lifted by Moon Goddess—a breathtaking nod to the R&J balcony scene. At a point when his efforts fail to reach her, he heart-stoppingly plummets down the pole headfirst, stopping inches from the stage floor, as if so frustrated in his infatuation he flirts instead with death.  What struck me was the extent to which this acrobatic feat—astonishing in its own right—had been given a storytelling raison d’être, and the performer had been given a character motivation as credible and compelling as in scripted drama. In the dozen or so Cirque shows I’ve attended, I’ve never seen the like.

Nor have I seen an aerial duo go at it with the impassioned ferociousness of Vanessa Fournier and Maxim Panteleenko playing Goddess and God of the Wind. Suspended from straps in midair, they fling and fly about overhead, together-apart/together-apart, with such perfectly balanced yet vehement sexual electricity they could be Cirque’s backup power source.

The clown washed up on Amaluna is Jeeves (Nathalie Claude), Romeo’s bumbling manservant, and he falls for Miranda’s nurse Deeda, who’s giddy and a bit dippy. In the second act there’s a hilarious scene in which Deeda, now very pregnant (contraception apparently not a biggie on Amaluna), goes into labor. With Jeeves’s comically inept obstetric assistance, Deeda delivers a brood of…well, whatever kind of babies clowns have. Astoundingly Amaluna milks the comedy with utterly G-rated aplomb. At that and countless other moments, the thought came to mind: There’s a female director’s eye on all this. And that eye blazes with brilliance.

Throughout, the visuals beggar description, as they invariably do with Cirque. Near the beginning, in the middle of a ritual circle of islanders floats a big red silk, mysteriously, as if animated by ancient spirits. Near the end another such silk appears, now blue, blown aloft like an apparition. The evocative simplicity is gorgeous. Two solo acts are especially arresting for a similar reason: They focus attention on a singular human skill, not claptrap apparatus. Kee as Cali stands atop the water bowl juggling and miming simultaneously; his dexterity tossing and catching balls together with his gestural specificity  is riveting. Also on her own is Lili Chao-Rigolo as Balance Goddess, who assembles before our eyes, simply by balancing one wooden rib upon another, a huge mobile that looks like a fish skeleton sculpted by Alexander Calder. Her pace is slow and steady, precarious piece by piece. And as time seems to stop, the audience dares not breathe.

Of course the acrobatics must be seen to be believed; that’s quintessential Cirque. But Amaluna puts its own spin on the stunts. For instance, the first act closes with a troupe of eight women warriors on uneven bars performing gymnastic antics with a vigor that is unequivocally virile. George Balanchine ballets conditioned generations of upscale audiences to expect to see female strength disguised as fragility in toe shoes, decorated in tutus. Not so in Amaluna, where these performers’ brusque shouts and stern miens declare unabashed power.

Then cannily, Paulus opens the second act with four strapping shirtless men and a teeterboard. As they jump on it and bound from it, they turn somersaults in the air that would be idiotically daredevil but for the cohesion of trust and coordination that clearly unites them. And we see vigor on display that is exactly equal in virility to what we saw before intermission. The point could not be made more plainly. Nor, quite possibly, could a show celebrate gender equity more enthrallingly, awesomely, amazingly (to paraphrase those lucky unbiased boys).

Run away to this circus at once. You cannot imagine the extraordinary experience that awaits.

 

Running Time: About two hours and 20 minutes, including one 25-minute intermission.

 

Amaluna plays through September 21, 2014, under the blue and yellow Big Top at National Harbor, 300 Waterfront Street, in Oxon Hill, MD. Tickets are available online or call 1-800-450-1480.

Gidion’s Knot

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

At the core of this inexorable and engrossing drama by Johnna Adams is a disturbing enigma: A fifth-grade boy named Gidion, suspended from school under suspicious circumstances, has shot himself in the head. Why? His imposing mother (played powerfully by Caroline Stefanie Clay) has come to her dead son’s classroom to meet with his mousy teacher (played sensitively by Katy Carkuff) and demand an answer.

As the mystery unfolds and the alarming back story is revealed, the mother’s grief and rage are not assuaged; they overwhelm the stage and our hearts with anguish. And we are witness to a modern tragedy that cracks wide open huge questions with unsettling lessons about how and what we teach kids.

Director Cristina Alicea’s sharp and searing vision is evident in every detail. She does show and tell with an acute eye and ear, and one emotional wallop after another.

The set by Scenic Designer Scott Hengen is a brilliant full-color flashback to grade school, with desks arranged neatly, a blackboard, and a cursive-script alphabet along the wall. At first glance this set seems too big for a two-character play. Turns out to barely contain the vast reach of what happens. On the floor, square green tiles that begin upstage right in an orderly checkerboard pattern gradually come apart and splay downstage left as if recoiling from regimentation.  Subtly the effect underscores one of the haunting themes of the play: that education can fail to save a troubled child simply by crushing that child’s imagination.

Lighting Designers Paul Frydrychowski and AnnMarie Castrigno create another brilliant effect during a passage when the teacher reads the mother a short story that Gidion wrote. It’s a piece of risky scripting because it goes on so long, page after page, but the payoff is profound. As the teacher steadily reads, the wash on the set gradually dims, and a projection appears across the upstage wall. It’s Gidion’s handwriting. Gidion’s words. The very words now filling our ears with horror and pity. The mise-en-scène—language and lighting as one—is chilling.

Special acclaim must be accorded Caroline Stefanie Clay’s extraordinary performance as the mother. It was as if the real-life character just walked in the door. Defending her deceased son with all the unconditional devotion and passion any child in trouble could ever wish for in a parent. Owning the stage with her voice and elocution and forceful grace. Not acting, just being. It was absolutely unforgettable.

Gidion’s Knot is for parents of school-age children, and for anyone who ever was such a child. Anyone who ever felt boxed in in school with no way out. It’s about an enigma—the title alludes to the myth of the Gordian Knot—but there’s no mystery at all why Gidion’s Knot must be seen: The play, this production, and these performances are a master class in thrilling and illuminating theater.

Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.

Gidion’s Knot plays through August 3, 2013 at Forum Theatre performing at Round House Theatre Silver Spring – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. Pay-what-you-want tickets are available an hour before every performance. Advance tickets may be purchased online.

Gidion’s Knot is a co-production with Next Stop Theatre Company and will play August 28 through September 14, 2014, at NextStop’s Industrial Strength Theatre – 269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or purchase online.

Porch (Capital Fringe)

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

What a pleasure to happen upon this gem of a show. Featuring three exceptionally truthful and touching performances on a plain platform with next-to-no production values and working with an exceptional score, Porch plays like the sort of unembellished, deeply felt chamber music that even as its emotional undertones crescendo makes anything orchestral seem overstated and overmuch. Just the perfect piece for Fringe, as Producer and Director Aly B. Ettman must have supposed.

This wonderful one-act by Jeffrey Sweet—set in 1985 in late summer on the front porch of house in the Midwest—premiered in New York in 1978. In 1984 when the play was staged there again, The New York Times remarked on its authenticity and sense of “small- town restlessness and dreaming, the outward touches of hick combined with underlying shrewdness, and the feeling that the daily rhythms of the past have quiet values that cannot be matched by modern big city life.”

New Yorker Amy Herbert, a thirty-something single career woman (played with pitch-perfect toughness/tenderness by Anna Fagan), has flown home to be with her widowed father, who is about to undergo major surgery that he may not survive. As they talk back and forth on that front porch, their estrangement is palpable. He mocks the honorific “Ms.” He makes insesitive cracks about her serial and fleeting love affairs with men, how they “pass like kidney stones.” She swallows that and other resentments.  She tries to be pleasant.

Ernest Herbert (played by Elliott Bales with equally pitch-perfect gruff love for his daughter), owns a stationery store in town—and this being 1985, his wares include typewriter ribbons. His only son and Amy’s only sibling died some years ago, so he expresses his hopes that if he doesn’t make it, Amy will move back and take over the business. She makes clear that she would sell it and the house too. He’s stung by this.

The third character arrives, Sam Davison. In high school Sam and Amy were boyfriend and girlfriend. He’s a photographer who takes pictures of graduating seniors for the yearbook, and he’s divorced with a child. He brings Amy a photograph he took of her from the time they were close. He evidently hopes Amy and he could rekindle what they had (and given the soulful admiration and respect for her in Sean Coe’s sensitive performance in the role, that romantic outcome is one we might hope for too).

I disclose not a word about the ending. Except I was not dry-eyed.

The minimalist production included a subtle lighting design by Peter Caress, which lent a late afternoon and evening ambiance, and lovely incidental music by Bob Chaves, which seemed emotionally attuned to every scene in which it played. But always the focus was these three beautifully rendered characters and the tremulous sounds their heart strings made as duets and a phenomenally talented trio.

Running Time: 55 minutes, with no intermission.

Porch plays through July 27, 2014, at Goethe Institut—Gallery-812 7th Street NW (at I Street), in Washington, DC. For performance information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

 

The Other Day (Capital Fringe)

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

About an hour into The Other Day as performed at The Shop, a Dutch airport clerk named Steven (played by a very dashing Dash King), shows a young American named Mark (a puppy-dog-sweet Matthew Williamson) around Amsterdam until Mark’s lost suitcase can be found. The luggage contains the ashes of Mark’s dead lover, Santo. Steven takes Mark to the HomoMonument, where Steven has a poignant monolog about his dead husband Marcello that King delivers with such simplicity and such sorrow that it not only stole the scene; it stole the whole show. Because just then everything that the play seemed longing to say about love and loss was contained in King’s singular performance.

Unfortunately the rest of the production, directed by Michael R. Burgtorf, did not do justice to the play.

I had the impression while watching that despite casting and acting choices that left me intermittently amused but mostly annoyed, the play by Mark Jason Williams is probably very worthy.  I just read the play online to be certain—and found it to be quite wonderfully nuanced, far better than what’s reflected in this flawed production.

Santo (Jase Parker) and Mark meet in Manhattan at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, where Santo hits on Mark because he’s cute, and they go to Santo’s place in Jersey City for a one-night stand. We are supposed to believe that thereafter they fall in love, though there’s a lot of conflict in their relationship. The production gets the brittle bickering right—actually, too right: Lines of dialog are incessantly barked and snapped, and we get a gratingly bitchy Santo who rarely drops the “pompous jackass routine” that Mark at one point calls him on. But there’s never credible chemistry, nothing that could make us believe there’s anything like love between them, and absolutely nothing that would warrant Mark’s great grief once Santo dies. Which is one of the reasons King’s performance of Steven’s monolog of mourning so stands out: King has more to work with in the offstage character Marcello than Williamson has to work with in the onstage character Santo.

Mark and Santo have a close friend, Dina (Dannielle Hutchinson). She used to be a co-worker of Mark’s at the law firm where he’s an admin and out, and they’ve stayed friends. The script does a creditable  job of establishing Dina as multiple-dimensional, not the fag-hag cliché, and we get a coherent and compelling story of who she is apart from her connection to these two guys: She is going through a relationship drama of her own with another offstage character, a wealthy and cold-hearted man named Doug who married her to be his trophy wife. Dina wants things to work out for Mark and Santo. When they don’t (Santo goes back to drugs, fucks around, abruptly dies), Dina takes Mark’s side and wants things to work out for him. Dina also tries to prompt Mark out of his mopey self-pity: “Quit Harvey Milking it,” she tells him at one point.

Late in the play, in Amsterdam, where Dina travels with Mark on Doug’s dime after Santo’s death, Dina has a monolog in the red-light district, where she has gone for a walk while Steven is showing Mark Van Goghs. As written, Dina’s speech is an eloquent counterpoint to Mark’s story and an illuminating insight into her own. Speaking as if to a prostitute in one of the windows, she asks, “Do you ever get lonely in that window? Do you ever get rejected and take it personally?” Curiously only in that that solo moment do we get a glimpse through Hutchinson’s empathetic performance of the character depth she might have shown us the rest of the time.

This disappointing production lets down a fine play and a promising playwright because we never get what Mark and Santo ever see in each other (and the play doesn’t work if we don’t). So we never get what Dina sees in them either.

Except, as the script says, Williamson is cute.

Running Time: About one hour and 10 minutes, with no intermission.

The Other Day plays through July 26, 2014, at The Shop at Fort Fringe – 607 New York Avenue NW, in Washington, DC. For performance information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

LINKS
2014 Capital Fringe Show Preview: ‘The Other Day,’ by Mark Jason Williams

Review of Mark Jason Williams’ ‘Recovery’ (Capital Fringe 2013), by Flora Scott

Two preview articles about ‘Recovery’ are here and here.

Giant Box of Porn (Capital Fringe)

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

Giant Box of Porn opened in the big Warehouse black box before a standing-room-only audience Saturday, and once the show got going I knew why: This humdinger is going to be a hot ticket not only at this year’s Capital Fringe but at any major professional theater-producing company that is smart enough to snatch it. Because Giant Box of Porn is one of the funniest, freshest, and truthiest new comedies ever to pop up in recent memory in DC.

A young married couple in their late twenties—Ron (Grant Cloyd), a laid-back architect, and Kate (Anna Jackson), a hyper-driven broker—are on the cusp of conceiving their first child. They’ve talked it through tactically, they’re about to embark on an island vacation to prompt it, they’ve planned a move to a bigger apartment, and they’re all ready and set to go. Except they’re not. Not really. Because, as it turns out, these yuppies are having heebie-jeebies about becoming mommy and daddy.

That’s a really recognizable contemporary relationship crisis, one that not a few writers have assayed onstage, on film, and in print. But Playwright Patrick Flynn has got a take that’s so original and observant, it blows the lid off this  millennial dilemma, makes it hilarious and touching fun, and hits revelatory new nerves. Flynn’s brilliant entree to this underlying angst is the eponymous box of porn, a cardboard container of XXX VHS tapes, which shows up one day in Ron and Kate’s apartment.

Ron’s impulse is to inventory the stuff, methodically. Kate’s is to freak out. Bookending their uproarious ensuing blowup are two characters who function as comic foils. Vanessa (Morganne Davies) is Kate’s hippie-dippy sister, married with three kids to a man whose extramarital flings she’s made inner holistic peace with for the sake of family cohesion. To Vanessa the porn’s no prob, and Kate should just chill. Sherlock (Will Hayes) is Ron’s friend and a randy bachelor pick-up artist whose own apartment in a messy man cave. To Sherlock the porn is an opportunity to fap, and all Ron needs to make it happen is a VCR.

The jokes come fast and the laughter is convulsive. One example of Flynn’s wonderfully character-driven humor happens early on when Ron and Kate are trying to figure out how the giant box of porn got there and why.  Kate decides to try looking online. But all the search terms she comes up with, starting with “giant box of porn,” return exactly the opposite kind of results she wanted. The look of appalled astonishment on Jackson’s face in the process is priceless. Their pressing problem, Kate realizes as the laughter mounts, is “not Googleable.”

Near the end things get more serious. How the box of porn got there and why is finally revealed. Vanessa and Sherlock’s drop-in visits are done. Kate and Ron are alone together to confront the conflict between what Kate wants in their relationship and what Ron is afraid of. The unexpected conclusion is both stark and heartbreaking—and what began as preposterous as Ionesco becomes as for-real as Ibsen.

Flynn’s tight script is as polished as they come. For the audio simulation of the character’s porn watching, Sound Designer Kenny Neal gives good aural sex. And Director Maureen Monterubio’s sure hand is evident in each stroke of staging, each dialog parry and thrust, each new deep delight. The acting is uniformly tip-top, but special mention must be made of Anna Jackson’s remarkable performance. Sheerly on the basis of it, Jackson is surely one of the finest comic actors on the DC theater scene.

Giant Box of Porn contains more surprises and satisfactions than you can possibly imagine or I can possibly say. See it now while you can. Next time it’s on the boards could be Broadway.

Running Time: About one hour and 20 minutes, with no intermission.

Giant Box of Porn plays through June 27, 2014, at The Warehouse, 645 New York Ave NW (on New York Ave NW between 6th St NW and 7th St NW), in Washington, DC. For performance information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

LINK
2014 Capital Fringe Show Preview: ‘Giant Box of Porn’ by Patrick Flynn.

Malevolence (Capital Fringe)

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

King’s Players, a young company in DC, named after Artistic Director and Founder Timothy R. King, has presented well-received original shows at the last two Capital Fringe festivals. Its 2014 offering is a debut drama written and directed by King about the psychic and relational fallout when an attractive female high school student, Sara (Jane Gibbins-Harding), accuses her thirty-two-year-old male math teacher, Rob (Mitch Irzinski), of inappropriate sexual contact. The question as to what really happened—did he or didn’t he?—hovers disturbingly over the play.

In the first scene Sara asks Rob what she can do to remedy her failing grade, and we are clearly led to suspect that quid pro quo sex with him will be the answer. Once the anonymous accusation goes public, conversations and confrontations follow between Rob and his wife (Kimberly Pyle) and daughter (Brittany Morgan), the school principal (Jacinda Bronaugh), and a teachers union rep (Nikki Gerber). Though Rob insists he’s innocent, these women all presume his guilt.

Well-conceived projections filmed and edited by Randy Philipp swiftly set up scenes, intersperse television interviews, and otherwise keep the storytelling moving briskly. But at only 40 minutes, the play seems too slight, giving its own substance short shrift. The focus stays mainly on Rob, whose role is scarcely sketched in (though Irznski performs it with compelling dimensionality). But we don’t find out much at all about Sara, and certainly not enough to make sense of the character’s curious choices. So a lot of the time Malevolence plays like David Mamet’s Oleanna lite—meaning it skims the surface of its dicey accuser-accused situation without much character texture and dramatic depth.

Still, if this script can be considered a first draft from which lessons can be learned that could prompt a richer more insightful iteration, it’s a worthy effort. And even this too-quick take provokes a headful of thought on a hot topic.

Running time: 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Malevolence plays through July 27, 2014, at Goethe Institut—Mainstage-812 7th Street NW (at I Street) in Washington, DC. For performance information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

LINKS
2014 Capital Fringe Show Preview: ‘Malevolence’ by Timothy R. King.

Review of King’s Players 2013 Fringe show, ‘Mme. Macbeth,’ by Anne Tsang.

Review of King’s Players 2012 Fringe show, ‘In the Company of De Sade,’ by Amanda Gunther.

Writing Miss Clark’s Résumé (Capital Fringe)

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

In cases of sexual contact between teachers and minor students, the perpetrator is usually assumed to be male. But there are cases of such inappropriate and criminal behavior by female teachers too—the notorious high school teacher Mary Kay Letourneau, who was convicted in 1998 of raping a young male student, comes to mind. Intriguingly, advance promotion for Writing Miss Clark’s Résumé touches on this provocative topic. It’s a play, the blurb for Capital Fringe says, about a high school teacher who “becomes entangled with two of her students.” Director Emily Canavan, writing a preview for DCMetroTheaterArts, says that in the play she and her sister, Writer Kelly Canavan, “pull blurry lines of consent and truly shady love into the spotlight.” Sounds very promising. But the play itself is a disappointment. Virtually nothing about it works.

The beginning scenes take place in a classroom, where we first meet Miss Clark (Devora Zack) as a peppy English teacher, fond of her students (she calls them “dear” and “hun”), who are fond of her as well. These pedestrian scenes are flat and clichéd and set a tone for the work that rises above boring only when it becomes repellant. That would be when we get Miss Clark in bed with two of her students, Eric (Noah Shaefer) and Alicia (Shar-Nay Gaston).

The problem is not that it’s a sex scene. The problem is the utter improbability of Miss Clark’s character arc and the lame, trumped-up explanation for how she happened into this sordid situation in the first place: She has lupus.

Miss Clark’s several mysterious and debilitating symptoms are painstakingly diagnosed as such in a series of  dull scenes with medical professionals (David Berkenbilt, Richelle Brown, Julia Frank). As a result of this disease Miss Clark falls all to pieces in class, where one day Eric and Alicia solicitously offer to massage her tense, stressed muscles. The next thing you know we’re in Miss Clark’s bedroom and there’s a threesome going on, which we are supposed to believe was initiated by the students while Miss Clark was indisposed. Even as an earnest fellow teacher, Charlie (Lorenzo Jones), discovers and exposes the scandal, the play defies credulity.

The cast valiantly makes a go of this botch and debacle. All six of Miss Clark’s students are especially to be commended for turning in lively individual performances brimming with spunk and originality. In addition to Eric and Alicia they are Cesar (Marlowe Vilchez), Natalie (Nikki Frias), Shirelle (A.I. Graves), and Daren (DJ Harney). God I hope they get cast in a better play next time.

Lupus? Really? That’s what the author comes up with in order to portray “blurry lines of consent”?

If seeing students start to get naked to get it on with teacher isn’t ick factor enough, this play’s irremediably flawed dramaturgy should do it.

Running Time: 55 minutes.

Writing Miss Clark’s Résumé plays through July 27, 2014, at Mountain – Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW,  in Washington, DC. For performance information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

LINK
2014 Capital Fringe Show Preview: ‘Writing Miss Clark’s Résumé’ by Kelly Canavan.

As We Are (Capital Fringe)

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

A widowed father in his late 50s lies in bed on a morphine drip, his body rife with cancer. Beside him is his thirty-something gay son, who has traveled to his childhood home in this small town in Kansas for what he knows will be his father’s final days. Through choking gasps, the brusque father utters his last words: “You brought shame to my family. I wish you were never born.”

Boom.

In the stillness of the moment, the emotion hits like a defibrillator shock. And there are more heart-jolts where that came from in As We Are, the haunting and quietly moving new play from Larry E. Blossom.

The gay son, Vince (the strapping and stoic Roger Nawrocki), is now a psychologist living in DC with a man he loves. Vince has two younger siblings who each grew up in his shadow damaged in different ways. Both have arrived for what becomes an all-out dredge-up of family pain: Mallory (the stricken and poignant Rachel Caywood), became an unwed mother as a teen, forbidden to have the abortion she desperately wanted by her dominating dad, who was stewing in humiliation because his football-hero elder son turned out to be homo. The younger son, Asher (the animated and very promising Patrick Joy), is a strident and petulant surfer dude, ostentatiously het, with a wife and kid and a serious drinking problem. At one point Asher drunkenly taunts Vince: “Do you know how many women I’ve had sex with to prove I’m not like you?”

Both blame Vince—Asher vehemently, Mallory sorrowfully—for torments they experienced after the point in their youth when their big brother was caught having sex with another boy.  Before then, admiring fans called Vince “Twinkletoes,” for his swift skills on the football field. After Vince was discovered in flagrante, and immediately attacked violently by the boy’s outraged dad, the nickname became a derisive slur.

Turns out there’s lots more to unpack about Vince’s inadvertent outing, and As We Are does so with an ineluctable assurance of playwriting craft that is reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill’s rendering of family secrets imploding.

We first meet the raging patriarch, Big Bruce (Peter Markey, whose dramatic range and depth are impressive), as a grief-stuck husband holding on to his beloved wife, Peg (the sensitive and sympathetic Suzanne Knapik), as she dies in his arms. Flash forward two years to the present, Big Bruce himself is now near death, cared for by an in-home hospice attendant named Sancia (the smartly spirited Isadora Sasser). As the story unfolds, we also meet a homophobic and closeted cleric, Pastor Ward (Ned Read); another bullheaded patriarch, Vince’s former Coach (George Tamerlani); and Coach’s haplessly married-with-children son Bryan (Christopher Harris), who was the year-younger boy young Vince had sex with.

Co-Directors Blossom and Knapik do a creditable job staging this auspicious script. The pace overall seemed at times more plodding than evocative, some moments acted awkwardly, but the payoffs throughout—especially at the explosive end—are well worth investing one’s time and attention…along with one’s own pained memories of family wounds.

Running Time: About one hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission.

As We Are plays through July 27, 2014, at Mountain – Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW,  in Washington, DC. For performance information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

LINK
2014 Capital Fringe Show Preview: ‘As We Are’ by Emily Sucher.

Rock Bottom [A Rock Opus] (Capital Fringe)

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

If one way to tell whether a rock musical is really good is that it makes you want to come back and see it again,  The Landless Theatre Company’s Rock Bottom [A Rock Opus] makes the cut and then some. The story is textured and character driven, the book and lyrics are smart and sharp, the music is fantastic. There’s a whole lot to like on first viewing, and the show promises even more the next time.

What makes Rock Bottom [A Rock Opus] so interesting and involving is that it’s based on a richly imagined 2009 novel, Rock Bottom, by Michael Shilling, who with Landless Artistic Producing Director Andrew Lloyd Baughman has written the musical’s book. The show’s landscape—raunchy sex, illicit drugs, and wicked rock ‘n’ roll—exudes edgy verisimilitude. The musical takes place, as does the novel, on the last day in the demise of a rock band named Blood Orphans. Once the next big thing, with a release just out on the Warners label, they have crashed and burned, their record assailed for its racist lyrics, their reputation in tatters, their doomed European tour now dead-ending in Amsterdam.

Each of the four band mates has a back story, and each has a compelling character arc. That in itself sets Rock Bottom [A Rock Opus] apart from, say, American Idiot, which played like a nonstop rock concert but whose characters and story lines were all a muddle. By contrast there’s a lot going on with these Rock Bottom lads, and there are several satisfying stretches in the show during which their provocative dramas unfold and no music plays.

Shane, the band’s lead singer (Rob Bradley, whose vocals soar), has recently converted to Buddhism, and his new-found zeal gets on everyone’s nerves. Bass player Bobby has eczema on both hands so he keeps flubbing his licks (Tom Jackson depicts his torturedness to a tee). Guitarist Adam, like the runt of a litter,  bears the brunt of the others’ abuse (Marshall Stone shows the character’s quiet strength beneath his shy). And drummer Darlo is a sex addict whose father operates a violent-sex pornography business in L.A.  As the play opens, Darlo’s dad has just been arrested on suspicion of complicity in a sex-trafficking ring. Darlo’s through line, his determination not to become like his father, commands much of the action (and Greg Bowen plays the wounded son with down-and-dirty desperation plus some howling-good vocal chops).

The band’s manager is Joey, and as played terrifically by Devin Gaither, she’s one foxy, feisty boss lady. Gaither pretty much steals every scene she’s in, so canny and captivating is her performance. No wonder this lost-boy band has followed her charismatic lead.

This being the world of sex, drugs, etc., we also meet the women the guys hook up with (in prostitution and not) in assorted couplings (sordid and not), plus now and then a pimp or drug dealer. We also meet some parents (including Darlo’s porn-king father and born-again mother) and sundry roadies. All of these supporting characters (Talia Segal, Jen Tonon, Kathleen Burnard, Jonathan R. Lovins, Steve Custer, Matt Farkas) propel the story with fascinating flair.

Baughman’s direction is brisk, and though dialog and lyrics sometimes got lost in the Warehouse’s challenging acoustics (so there was more narrative going on than one could catch), the show has unmistakable vision and verve. Especially astute was the choice to keep the musical numbers no longer than needed to make their point in the story—even though many were so listenable they could have gone on. Baughman wrote the music and lyrics; Talia Segal and Michael Shilling are credited with additional material. Two musical numbers were standouts: One was “Sideways,” a lovely duet sung by Adam and a singer he meets named Deena (sweetly performed by Segal), accompanying themselves on acoustic guitars. The other was “Sing the Song Back to Heaven,” Blood Orphans’ final song of their career and the show’s full-cast big finish. It rocked the Warehouse good.

Yeah, I’m going back. Assuming the house is not so packed I can’t get in.

Running Time: About one hour and 15 minutes, no intermission.

Rock Bottom [A Rock Opus] plays through July 26, 2014, at Warehouse Theater – 645 New York Ave. NW, in Washington, DC. For performance information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.
2014 Capital Fringe Show Preview: ‘Cast Announcement for Landless’ Summer of Rock Productions’ by Andrew Baughman.

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