Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Moth

Up on the fourth floor of Studio Theatre is a great big black box of a performance space, which isn’t actually black because its walls are cinder block, rather like an institutional enclosure. On a platform stage is Colin K. Bills’s equally ominous set—a row of hallway school lockers. If this ambiance triggers a twinge of high school angst (as it did for me)—some dim recovered memory of worry about fitting it, fear of being teased, or other unnamable age-specific unease—you’d not be far off the mark. You’ve come to a play by a writer who can relate. In fact Declan Greene’s Moth packs in so much Generation Y alienation, disaffection, and lonely isolation that you’ll likely thank your lucky stars you’ve grown up and moved on.

The script was originally extensively workshopped several years ago with young people, in Australia, where the almost-30 Greene is an up-and-coming theater-maker and playwright with an impressive list of prizes and productions to his name. Everything about Moth—the two characters, their teenspeak, their interaction, their back stories, their troubles—was in effect market-tested for verisimilitude and veracity by its ostensible target audience of teens. And it all rings true, though very disturbingly so. Melborne’s Arena Theatre Company, which commissioned and premiered the work, even distributed a related teacher’s guidebook featuring classroom exercises, discussion questions, and other earnestly useful info. The cover identifies the show’s “suitability” as “years 10–12.” All of which might suggest that Moth is an edifying cultural artifact full of teachable moments for youth.

In truth, Moth is a harrowing play about two depressed and distressed young people—both social outcasts and misfits, tormented physically and verbally by peers, but gifted with foul-mouthed wit and survivor grit. They engage in mutual aggression masking craving for affection and launch into a surreal fantasy of saving the world from destruction but end up spiraling into pathos and dead-ending in tragedy. How to Survive High School this show is not. If it were a segment on Glee, the music would have to be apocalyptic dirges and heavy metal cris de coeur.

As dark as is Moth’s thematic material, the performances and production are blazingly brilliant. In the role of Clarissa, an emo wannabe poet who cloaks her ample girth in goth, Allie Villarreal has powerful presence, at once scarey, sassy, and sad. As her slightly built friend Sebastian, whose obsession with anime blurs into messianic delusions, David Nate Goldman is an impish delight, nimbly navigating his character’s attention deficits and charming us with every perfervid free association. Tom Story’s direction digs deep into what makes this duo a fragile codependent dyad, even as he piles stagecraft surprise upon surprise. To that end the movement by  Elena Day, sound by James Bigbee Garver, and projections by Mimi d’Autremont are all shocking, in a good way.

I wouldn’t have missed Moth—it’s sensationally provocative and wickedly witty and the actors are captivating—but I left not knowing quite what to make of the work as a whole. In an interview with the playwright, I found this insight:

You know, high school is actually a really, really, really rough time, and I think people forget how fucked up and difficult high school can be for some people. And you know, if you want to dye your hair black and wear crazy clothes and write bad poetry, well that’s fine. Do whatever you need to do to get through it.

I’m starting to sound very polemic. I don’t mean to be. There was never any opportunity to sit down and think, well, what are we making this play about? There was never really the opportunity to make this a didactic exercise. Everything was just so up in the air all the time.

So what we’ve ended up creating is what I hope is an interesting tapestry of ideas, a network of ideas, that interrelate and feed off each other in a free associative kind of way.

And I think it’s good that it doesn’t have a hard-hitting message; young people get hit with that sort of thing a lot.

As I understand the author here, this work is meant to engage and resonate with disaffected teens and intentionally not “hit them over the head” with any overarching meaning. And that would probably make sense if the audience was Gen Y-ers. But I saw the show with a Studio Theatre audience whose high school years on average were decades ago. Being a grownup now, I’m not message averse. In fact I appreciate authorial framing that gives meaningful shape to recognizable life. Even the lost lives of youth. So I expected Moth to offer grownup comprehension of adolescent turbulence. That’s of course an impossible perspective. Which may be a message of a sort.

 

 

Golda’s Balcony

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

There’s not a long list of great actors who, through their indelible bravura depiction of a great historical figure in a solo performance, warrant substituting the word “is” for “as,” in billing like “So-and-So Is  Famous Person.” On audiences’ mental marquees, the actor and the role become one, such that people come to know and identify the notable through the portrayal. Think Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain. Tovah Feldshuh’s Golda Meir is now another.

Feldshuh began performing William Gibson’s one-woman play Golda’s Balcony more than ten years ago, first off-Broadway, then on Broadway, then on on-going tour. She embodies Meir’s passions, principles, and excruciating moral quandaries in depth and detail. She knows every nook and cranny of the part, the inflection of every line like the palm of her hand. She takes us into the pit of Meir’s gut-wrenching ambivalence over making war to make peace. Playwright Gibson did the historical homework but Feldshuh makes it live and breathe—with such verve and virtuosity that the production now on view at Theater J is an acting tour de force, an unforgettable melding of personage and performer.

Enhancing Feldshuh’s superb solo is stagecraft that serves the riveting storytelling: Alex Hawthorn’s fine sound design episodically shocks with sounds of war; Jeff Croiter’s lighting sharpens focus on emotional moments; projections by Batwin and Robin Productions clearly visualize historical allusions; original Broadway director Scott Schwartz’s rhythmic structure and movements make even slight gestures seem momentous. During several powerful high points Feldshuh becomes Meir as orator. Lights spotlight her, the sound reverbs; and Feldshuh’s performance vividly reifies Meir’s reputation as charismatic .

Gibson titled the play after what he called

the two balconies in Golda’s life. The first was outside a Tel Aviv apartment from which she could see the Mediterranean and the ships arriving every day with refugee Jews by the thousands coming to the new state of Israel. This view was the fruits, the welcome fruits, of state power.

The second balcony was Golda’s observation post into the workings at Dimona [Israel's secret nuclear research center, where warheads were made that Meir could have deployed but didn't]. This view was “into hell.”

Golda’s Balcony was added to Theater J’s season during controversy stirred by its announcement that it would produce The Admission (a work I greatly admired). The two plays seen side by side are  fascinating in their generational differences and contrasting political perspectives on Israel and ethics, or what Theater J calls different “narratives of nation building.” In its juxtaposing these two works, Theater J’s risk-taking enrichment of the DC theater scene can be seen as more illuminating and essential than ever.

Gibson’s script for Golda’s Balcony presents juxtapositions of another sort. As written it is a dizzying blizzard of free-associational switching. It jump-cuts constantly—from Meir’s precocious youth to her preeminence, from her adolescent falling in love with Morris, the man she married, to her crisis-management after Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur; now this, now that; now then, now now. Moreover the play is peopled with dozens of characters—Meir’s mother, her cabinet members, Henry Kissinger, refugees, the list goes on—and it requires the actor to shift persona and impersonation at lightning pace. Upon witnessing Feldshuh’s mastery of each and every such head-spinning transformation, something like awe sets in—and the wonderment never ceases.

How can one person, one actor, hold in mind so many other voices, make real so many different people, channel such diverse lives, all with instant-to-instant conviction and presence? How does Tovah Feldshuh do it? How in the world does any actor?

In the multiplicity of juxtapositions embodied so skillfully by Feldshuh is an eloquent testament to the promise implicit in Theater J’s programming embrace of discordant viewpoints. That embrace is among the things that theater does best: help us imagine and behold diverse lives on the same stage at the same time with individuality and integrity. As such another view from Golda’s Balcony is the important place of theater and metaphor in the process toward peace in the Middle East.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camp David

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

The real President Jimmy Carter attended the premiere of Camp David—the engrossing new play by Lawrence Wright in which he is the central character—and offered up this mini-review of it in an interview right after:

It was amazingly good. I couldn’t believe how good it was. The audience just was enraptured. A third or half of them had tears running down their cheeks. It was a really emotional experience.

I mostly concur. This most worthy play relates scenes in the 13-day woodsy retreat in 1978 during which Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin negotiated the shouldsy-couldsy Camp David Accord. By the end I sat still in my seat in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater enraptured and teary-eyed, exactly as President Carter reported. The final scene (which no one should know going in) comes as the kind of shock that stirs emotions in the deepest and best way that real-life events and great drama can.

I was initially a bit put off by the production. The set design by Walt Spangler is conspicuously unstylish; everything is serviceably literal (perhaps intentionally), except for the tall tree trunks that descend from the flyspace but never touch down on the stage. Distracted, I kept wondering why (some mechanical failure? a statement about rootlessness? never made sense). The acting is unstylized as well, almost stiff and stilted in its cautious execution, as perhaps befits a show that will be seen by two of the notables—Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter—on whom it is based. Moreover the script itself is unstylish; its earnestly flairless speeches at times seem lifted from an issue-themed TV movie, or something commissioned by the State Department for Voice of America, and when the three men sit squabbling it sounds like a Sunday morning squawk show. Can the great real-life drama upon which a play is based elevate what begins as a hackneyed production to a highpoint of dramatic triumph?

In this case the answer is an unqualified yes.

According to Wright, that powerful last scene, which seems stranger than fiction, is in fact based, like the entire play, on extensive historical research. Though Wright took minor dramatic liberties to tell the story on stage, as he explained in a post-show discussion Saturday, the text presents what really happened in that it is faithful to what can be known about the characters’ actual motivations at the time.

The agreement reached at Camp David between Sadat and Begin has served for 35 years to keep in place a partial peace in the Middle East, and the human drama behind the scenes of its inception unfolds in Wright’s playscript with sturdy craft and deft concision. In retrospect, once the play reaches its finish, one can see what went before as the perfectly apt, un-showoff-y staging required.

The work is directed with steady-handed proficiency by Molly Smith. A skilled cast animates Wright’s pithy script with conviction and clarity. Richard Thomas plays Carter with estimable sincerity. Even in the long speeches when Carter prays and addresses God (as if He’s somewhere up in that flyspace with  mechanical problems), we believe the character’s faith and recognize how profoundly Carter’s unabashed Christianity compelled and sustained him. Khaled Nabawy plays Sadat with disarming charm and clever candor; as written, he’s a character who may or may not trust Carter and may or may not be trusted—Nabawy smartly keeps us intrigued and guessing. And Ron Rifkin plays Begin with such zeal and honesty of purpose that we see through the character’s obstreperousness into the depths of a heart wounded by a history that must never ever repeat.

As Wright astutely observed in the same post-show discussion, these were “three men with different religions coming together to solve a problem that in a sense religion had caused.” The fact that all three  faiths with contested claims to a singular holy city became on the same stage completely and concurrently credible via these three vividly portrayed characters is an enduring credit to Wright, Smith, Thomas, Nabawy, and Rifkin. Truly, seeing them is believing.

But the character who steals scene after scene is Rosalyn Carter, played with quick-witted common sense and chipper effortlessness by Hallie Foote. She enters with tea service just when a tempest is about to brew. She gently touches a personal heart string just as tempers stretch to a tether. Rosalyn’s function in the play is (Wright’s words again) “making peace among the peacemakers.” She is also shown to have been Jimmy’s moral support and political adviser to an extent that in Wright’s rendering transcends  pillow talk and stands where heroes are honored.

In the characters of Jimmy and Rosalyn, Camp David brilliantly depicts two distinct mediation/conciliation styles, his and hers, one well-intentioned and highly moral male, the other intuitive and unthreatening female. His magnanimous style was admirable and it precipitated this impossible pipe-dream of a summit. But Camp David makes clear that this president’s  mediation style on its own would not have worked without this first lady’s. Without her gifts of grace, it would have failed. Male-male rivalries would not have subsided. There would be no concord. There would still be gendered animus in monotheism’s name. Therein may lie a lesson—and maybe the best reason of all for staging this play right now in D.C.

Camp David is ultimately a stirring revelation, and quintessential personal-is-political theater. No one in town is too much a policy wonk not to learn from it and be moved by it.

 

 

 

 

Violet

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

Since mid-January an intrepid troupe of musical-theater students has been rehearsing the sweet and soulful show Violet at The Theatre Lab School of Dramatic Arts under the able direction of Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro, who co-teach the school’s pay-to-play “Creating a Musical Role” class. The results were on glorious display last night when this shoestring student project began the first of six public performances in a cavernous auditorium space that melodiously became an up-close-and-personal showcase for some amazing up-and-coming talent.

The show itself—about a young woman named Violet whose face was scarred in a childhood accident and who takes a series of bus trips from Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to meet a faith healer in Tulsa—has one of the most gorgeous scores in contemporary musical theater. Composed by Jeanine Tesori and first performed off-Broadway in 1997, it features show tunes, folk, bluegrass, rock, and gospel; and the leads and ensemble in this production deliver it powerfully, touchingly, often thrillingly.

The role of Violet is played as a 25-year-old by Julie Dixon, who fascinatingly captures the character’s vacillation between awkward self-consciousness and feisty assertiveness. As her tween self Young Vi, Maddy Heyman positively glows with youthful hope, and her scenes with Stephen Smith as her doting single father—whose ax head flies off its handle and slices her face—are among the most poignant in the show. (We are to imagine the resulting scar; it’s never shown, as helpfully explained in a program note by lyricist and book writer Brian Crawley.)

The story is set in the South in 1965—a year after the Civil Rights Act was passed—and its theme of Violet’s quest for facial restitution is never far from its theme of institutionalized racism. Crawley’s sensitive script, based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, takes its sweet time unfolding the story, in flashback, overlapping scenes, and musical interludes—the narrative pace is as languid as a long ride in a bus—but the payoff at the end, when the two themes converge in a declaration of love, is an emotional knockout.

En route to Tulsa Violet meets two servicemen, one white and one black, both of whom fall for her. As Monty, the former, Zach Roberts is a charmer, an endlessly inventive male ingenue, whose strong come-on to Violet turns surprisingly tender. As Flick, the latter, Jonathan Randle does mesmerizing justice to the character’s stolid still-waters-run-deep soulfulness, and by the last scene he had me tearing.

Other standouts include Terry Gish as Preacher, who thumped the Bible with transfixing charisma, and Brandyn Ashley as gospel singer Lula, who may well have raised the auditorium’s actual rafters.

Among the cast list are even more finds (Rob Weinzimer as a Bus Driver, Susan Schulman as Old Lady, Robin Parry as Waitress, Mia Jacobs as another Bus Driver, Jacqueline Brown as Landlady, Rachel Lawhead as Hotel Singer, Korinn Walfall as Music Hall Singer, Kevin Youel Page as Mechanic/Radio Singer/Creepy Guy, Sam Landa as Rufus/Billy Dean, Eva Youel Page as Little Girl, Lynley Peoples as Virginia, Bri Eul, Mami Kaminaga, and Stella Sklar as Customers, Amy Jackson as a third Bus Driver [there are a lot of bus rides!], Eternada Fudge as Mabel). And the band, under the musical direction of Buzz Mauro, was professional pit-orchestra quality throughout (Mauro and Bill Yanesh on keyboards, Ken Hall on guitar, Evan Shafer on bass, and Paul Keesling on percussion).

The music and the singing set a superb high bar that not all the other production values measured up to. But there was never any doubt that the vocals were being sung by a stageful of voices-to-pay-attention-to. Local casting agents would be well advised to check it out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arguendo

Watching Arguendo—an actual Supreme Court transcript staged cheekily for chuckles by Elevator Repair Service, the New York–based troupe specializing in literary vérité—is like watching a 70-minute Saturday Night Live sketch. The text faithfully depicts arguments before the Court in a 1990 case called Barnes vs. Glen Theatre, which litigated whether women dancing onstage for pay in a non-alcohol adult venue could do so without covering their nipples and vajayjays.

The august justices (played variously and hilariously by Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, and Ben Williams)  are intent on drawing a definitive jurisprudential line. The ticklish issue before them: Can an Indiana statute requiring pasties and g-strings in public do so without compromising anyone’s right to free expression? Or does the First Amendment cloak what is otherwise buck naked?

If that setup sounds ridiculous, well, it is. Here we have our Constitution custodians stuck in legal limbo, obsessing over every relevant precedent that might possibly prove dispositive. (Stunningly animated projections designed by Ben Rubin make vivid their citation-littered quest.) And here we have before them two earnest attorneys, one (Mr. Uhl, the determined Ben Williams) arguing that the statute should be upheld, the other (Mr. Ennis, the flustered Mike Iveson) arguing it should not. Though the argumentation on the record is tedious and tendentious, the romp on stage at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company plays like a lively lampoon.

Ultimately (not a spoiler alert; this is juridical history, after all) five of the Supremes agreed that Indiana’s public indecency statute was “justified despite its incidental limitations on some expressivity” because it belonged to the long and honorable tradition of laws intended “to protect morals and public order.”

The statute in question contains the following definition of the nudity that is a no-no:

“Nudity” means the showing of the human male or female genitals, pubic area, or buttocks with less than a fully opaque covering of any part of the nipple, or the showing of covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state.

In a prologue to the play, reporters conduct an on-camera interview on the courthouse steps with one of the dancers in the case, Rebecca Jackson (Maggie Hoffman), who testifies to the press about how she feels she’s expressing meaning when she dances nude, how that meaning would not be the same if she had to wear pasties and a g-string, how all fifty “girls” in the theater’s employ are married or have steady boyfriends, and how no hanky-panky is going on (i.e., no pimping or prostitution). She’s not under oath—this is not an oral amicus brief. But despite her dubious credibility, her pollyanna preface gets the show going amusingly.

There are many weirdnesses in the Glen Theatre nude-dancing case—many of which become running gags in Arguendo, directed adroitly by John Collins—but by far the weirdest is that the Supreme Court decided it on the basis of absolutely no showing of harm. There was never any claim or any evidence submitted that anyone ever got hurt by doing or watching nude dancing, and no mention of any ancillary downsides. The case was decided solely based on a vague and vaporous notion of morality. Justice Scalia said as much when he concurred with the Court’s prevailing opinion:

The purpose of the Indiana statute…is to enforce the traditional moral belief that people should not expose their private parts indiscriminately…. Moral opposition to nudity supplies a rational basis for its prohibition.

We have seen that line of argument fumble and fail a lot lately. Laws defended “just because”—just because they are time-honored expressions of “morality” (never mind whether more people are hurt by the laws than by the behavior prohibited)—are faltering right and left. We have seen, for instance, the lifting of strictures against sodomy, the demise of DOMA, and the uptrend in legal weddings between same-gender-loving partners.

There’s a kind of new enlightenment afoot in the land that insists on proof in public affairs, a conscious quest for clarity that sees through uninformed prejudicial presumption. As a citizenry, we are learning to ask: Is there actual harm to real human beings? Is someone hurt in a way that law could accurately prevent and remedy? Then let us refine our legal system to suit real purposes. Let us not simply pass laws that pass on inherited moralizing myths.

But the passage to this point has been messy—not least in the legal arena, where understanding proceeds by argumentation, as dramatically rendered in Arguendo. The whole Barnes vs. Glen Theatre case was a botch, a bad dream of democracy being stupid. If you think deeply about what went spectacularly wrong there, you might be bummed. But not to worry, Arguendo makes it sensationally silly and thoroughly fun.

 

 

If/Then (take three: Broadway)

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

The musical with the biggest heart you can imagine is now back home in the Big Apple, and just like its main character, Elizabeth (the incomparable Idina Menzel), it is starting over in Manhattan, right where it  belongs.

I admit to having first met and fallen in love with If/Then during its out-of-town fling with Washington, D.C. I was a devoted and faithful admirer.  I did not stint in my praise. I did not falter in my passion. And I was so smitten I followed the show to Broadway to kindle that romance.

But, you know, there are always niggling questions hovering over every reunion with a long-lost adored one. (Okay, we had been apart only a few months, but infatuation’s  impatience made it feel forever.) I heard there had been some changes—dramatic self-improvement I was told. Oh dear, I worried. Would I recognize my beloved?  Would I again be moved by the enormous emotional intelligence and lyrical beauty that first attracted me?  Would the heartfelt songs and storylines still ring true? Would the performances still pulse with the same purity and power? Would my soul leap once more in the presence of relational honesty, authentic complexity, and affectional diversity such as I had never thought possible in life much less in a musical?

Or would I come to find out my beloved had had work done—and it was one of those face-lifts that numbs expressivity and strips away character?

I need not have worried. The If/Then on the boards now at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street is a glorious celebration of life and love and human longing to become who we are—and it’s even better than before.  Anyone who leaves If/Then uninspired to live more fully, love more openly, and aspire more tenaciously—well, you might want to check your pulse.

The first scene is in Madison Square Park where—on a set designed sleekly by Mark Wendland, on an afternoon lit lucidly by Kenneth Posner, as a lively assortment of New Yorkers lustily choreographed by Larry Keigwin sing of how life starts over each day (“What If”)—Elizabeth fatefully sets foot on two different paths. Until recently she lived in Phoenix, in an unhappy marriage. On the cusp of turning forty, she has left her husband and returned to Manhattan, with a hurt heart, guarded hope, and a graduate degree in urban planning.  On one of the plot’s two paths, she becomes Liz, gets a job teaching, falls in love with a  sweet guy who’s a physician Army reservist, and has children…  On the other path she becomes Beth, embarks on a high-powered city-government career in urban planning, has an almost-affair with her married boss, has a fleeting tryst with her bisexual boyfriend from college, and ends up childless….

As that  dual storyline unfolds—through Brian Yorkey’s astoundingly truthful book and lyrics  and Tom Kitt’s resoundingly heartfelt music—If/Then captures the catches in every modern woman’s conflicting choices. In doing so this production—briskly directed by Michael Greif—sets the bar for insight, integrity, and intelligence on the musical stage higher than ever before.

The innovative yet tricky part of the script where the two diverging paths are set forth has been smartly sharpened since last I saw the show. Elizabeth’s college chum Lucas (the affably self-conscious Anthony Rapp) and her brand-new best friend Kate (the vocal life-force LaChanze) each clearly take Elizabeth in the two different directions. To Lucas, she’s now Beth. To Kate, she’s now Liz—who by chance happens to meet a soldier named Josh just back from deployment (James Snyder, whose voice is as outstanding as his character is upstanding).

Kate, herself enamored of  Anne (the enjoyably ardent Jenn Colella), wastes no time urging Liz to make tracks and nab a man: “It’s a Sign,” she sings to that effect, in a subway car full of unlikely prospects. Kate also makes Liz don a pair of glasses, ostensibly to attract a guy who likes smart women, but beneficially to give a visual cue to who’s who (glasses = Liz; no glasses = Beth—another clarifying touch since D.C.).

Meanwhile Beth the urban planner gets hired by a former grad school classmate named Stephen (Jerry Dixon, a hunk in a suit with a huge voice to boot), who shares with her his dream of upbuilding the city (“A Map of New York”). He’s married, not happily, and there’s a spark of attraction between them.

Back in Liz’s world, Josh touchingly tries to overcome her reluctance to fall in love again (“You Never Know”). She doesn’t quite do so.

Back in the world of urban affairs, Lucas, who’s a housing activist, sings a rousing song of class-conscious connectedness (“No Man Manhattan”). It’s a wonderful scene in which the show’s populist perspective gets set stirringly to music and its progressive politics are not toned down.

Meanwhile in an apartment that is by turns Liz’s then Beth’s,  Josh and Liz consummate their love. Later Stephen comes by on business, Beth abruptly kisses him, and he flees. Awkward! Menzel sings a song to herself into a bathroom mirror reflecting on these surprising/compromising turns in her two characters’ love lives. It’s show-stoppingly hilarious, and its frank title (“What the Fuck?”) may be why the Playbill has no song list.

Elizabeth now has two wooers. Liz has Josh, with whom in one scene they sing of falling in love  (“Here I Go”). Beth meanwhile has Lucas, who in a subsequent scene sings tenderly of carrying a torch for her (“You Don’t Need to Love Me”).

Cut to Kate, who’s a kindergarten teacher and who, in a lesson about great women in history, tells her class about Elizabeth’s courageous taking charge of her life. In the D.C. production Kate did so metaphorically in a song I appreciated a lot called “The Story of Jane.” That song is gone, but in its place is an even more moving and eloquent one, “No More Wasted Time,” which beautifully amplifies the show’s seize-the-day theme.

By the end of Act One, Elizabeth’s two parallel story lines are in motion and a well of emotion has begun to overflow. Still ahead in Act Two are more surprising turns in the road—including Lucas’s new  boyfriend David (the adorably ebullient Jason Tam), a pediatrician colleague of Josh, who introduced them. There’s a marvelous moment when three pairs of lovers—one female-male (Liz and Josh), one male-male (Lucas and David), and one female-female (Kate and Anne) are all singing onstage at once, and it’s like a rainbow of romance somewhere over the moon.

Not all is happiness. Even hearts so full are sometimes broken. But that’s the chance one takes to love. And no one loves deeply without taking that chance.

By the time near the end when Idina Menzel belts out her big number “Always Starting Over,” we experience one of those great musical high points of which legends are made, and we are enthralled by theatrical greatness.

My fears have been allayed that If/Then would get to Broadway with stuff fixed that was never broken. Kudos to the producers for keeping the entire cast and creative team intact. There’s genuine collective genius going on here, and they wisely did not mess with it.  The changes all enhance the inspiring storytelling. The improvements all serve the heart and soul that were already there.

I was not wrong to risk opening my heart to this show. It has faithfully kept its promise and then some. If/Then is an uplifting gift that keeps on giving.

Might you fall in love with it too? This much I can promise you: The chances are very, very good.

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The original Broadway cast recording of If/Then will be released by Sony Masterworks Broadway on June 3, 2014.

 

 

 

The Admission

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

As many who follow local theater news know, Theater J’s production of The Admission has been preceded by an offstage drama—a who’s-right/who’s-wrong argument, a what-really-happened/what-really-didn’t-happen controversy that has provoked passions and incited a considerable clash of intellection.  Turns out, the onstage drama of the play itself—the extraordinarily artful disputation playwright Motti Lerner has crafted for his seven indelibly articulate characters—far surpasses that spat in power and insight, and in force and importance.  The Admission is a towering achievement in the tradition of Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and other masters of moral inquiry.

Directed astutely by Sinai Peter, the play is set in Haifa forty years after a battle that took place in a small town named Tantura. The engrossing story pivots on what really happened there in 1948 when Israeli soldiers killed Arab villagers. The central question of the ensuing disquisition is, ostensibly, Exactly how many were killed? enough to qualify as a “massacre”? The characters in The Admission belong to a neighboring Israeli family and Arab family who are complicatedly connected to one another and to that event. They talk of casualties with the casual precision of statistics-absorbed sportsfans—as if  the ethics of war can be calibrated in corpse counts. Was it only 20? Well, okay then. Or was it 170 as the Red Cross said? That crosses the line. Or was it actually upwards of 200, as the young Israeli history professor named Giora (Danny Gavigan) is alarmed to discover while reading an unpublished dissertation. The question matters personally to Giora—impelling the quest to dig for truth that drives the play—because his father, Avigdor (Michael Tolaydo), led the brigade in that military encounter.

Giora’s mother, Yona (Kimberly Schraf), refuses to believe her husband is other than a war hero and insists that Giora stop scraping at scabs on old wounds. The truth-seeker Giora is undeterred. “Only when we find out what happened there will be able to live here,” he says.

Giora is all the more compelled by the emotionally wrenching eyewitness account he hears from Ibrahim (Hanna Eady), head of the neighboring Arab household: Unarmed civilians, says Ibraham, shot like dogs.

In a father-son confrontation filled with gut-punching pain, Avigdor defends himself saying, “All my life I’ve struggled to atone.”

Gioro thrusts back: “You’ve struggled to deny.”

Whether Lerner fictionalized the particular historical event loosely referenced in this play doesn’t really matter once the characters’ stories take off, because what steadily emerges in this brilliant script is a theme that resounds with humbling universality: If we do not put the past to rest and move on, how can we bear to live with ourselves in the present? Yet if we bury the past, pave over our culpability without owning it and atoning for it, how can we  live lives of moral integrity?

We may claim to, we may hope and long to, but we must first dig up the dirt. Metaphorically Gioro begins doing that in the very first scene. Downstage left on the sleek, simple set designed by Frida Shoham are tiny houses surrounded by sand, which Gioro sifts through his fingers. This miniature, we learn, signifies the land in Tantura where Arab bones lie buried. Avigdor, a wealthy real-estate developer, plans to bulldoze and build houses there. This anguishes Ibrahim, for whom digging up those bones is a callous cultural affront, and it prompts him to disclose Avigdor’s wartime crimes.

A provocative subplot involves Gioro’s knotty love life. Under pressure from his mother and father, Gioro is engaged to marry Neta (Elizabeth Anne Jernigan)—but he is in love with Ibrahim’s daughter, Samya (Leila Buck). That Lerner integrates this romance plot line with the historical-honesty through line is among the play’s smart surprises.

Samya’s brother, Azmi (Pomme Koch), runs a restaurant where Gioro’s family are very welcome guests—not least because Avigdor has been the family’s generous benefactor, including paying for Samya’s education. In Avigdor’s mind, this largesse is his atonement. Conveniently it has has also bought Ibrahim’s acquiescent silence, until now.

As Lerner lets us in on the intriguing interconnections between his characters, he gives each distinctive voice a version of moral authority. The Admission is admittedly an issue play.  But in fact and execution, it is richly textured with a multiplicity of  issues that each of the characters have with one another. The play’s overarching theme is not delivered as a polemic or tract; it is instead  embedded in arresting scenes and embodied in believable, playable people. In this respect The Admission ranks among dramatic-literature classics—and the exceptional ensemble of actors play each perspective and each point pitch perfectly.

Because of the aforementioned offstage drama, The Admission, originally announced as a full production, was repositioned as a lower-budget workshop. Accordingly the various specific settings in the playscript are not rendered realistically; everything happens Our Town–like on a bare stage with a few chairs and a table; meanwhile actors not in a scene can be seen waiting in the wings. There are a few evocative projections designed by Klyph Stanford, who also designed utilitarian yet effective lighting. Frida Shoham has designed straightforward costumes that are simultaneously appropriate to the characters and the rehearsal-in-progress feel. And in between scenes are simple yet effective music cues composed by Habib Shehedeh Hanna. (My only quibble: Sometimes these cues come in on top of dialogue, which in the barebones, stripped-down aesthetic of the show feels excessive and cinematic.)

Fortuitously, this workshop-style staging absolutely suits the play. It needs no more. This is a work that rewards focused engagement and needs no distracting display. In fact this script might well suffer if loaded down with more scenery and effects. The interplay of ideas is the thing wherein consciences are caught.

For anyone who attends theater accompanied by a moral sensorium, The Admission is essential viewing. In substance and significance, The Admission is a theatergoing peak experience.

 

 

 

Hair

When I saw the original Broadway production of Hair in the late sixties, my hair was shoulder length, and the slogan “Make love not war!” referred to pacifism pre-9/11 and fluid exchange pre-AIDs. Times have changed a lot (and I’m more shorn), yet this  legendary “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” rocks on, its spirit and heartbeat as alive and well as ever.  But why? Why is watching the show now with a cast not yet born then such a trip? I think the answer is simple: It’s because the radiant and thrilling production of Hair now on stage at the Keegan Theatre is an exuberant love fest as timeless as human hope.

When Hair began life on stage, many were shocked by (among other things) its radical candor about race, sex, drugs, and the nation’s wrongest war (till then). U.S. history since has arguably outstripped the show in shockingness. In those days young men who dissented from militarism demonstrated their opposition to the Vietnam War by burning their draft cards, at personal risk of arrest instead of induction—a scene touchingly evoked in the Keegan production. There is no equivalent symbolic action today. (How, for instance, does one protest the NSA’s unconstitutional electronic surveillance? Disconnect one’s phone? Nah, doesn’t have the same ring to it.) So much has transpired and altered in the U.S. socio-political landscape that Hair’s in-your-face critique might be assumed passé, a fondly remembered museum piece, a been-there-smoked-that hit of tuneful but irrelevant nostalgia. But it’s not. It feels fresh and of the moment. That Hair still inspires and stirs emotions, despite dramatic political climate change, is a wonder—an extraordinary testament to what live theater can do and be, and an experience not to be missed.

Directors Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea so get this, it’s incredible. They understand that the essence of this show is the ensemble, the tribe, the company of singer-actors who play the parts and sing the songs. The love-in that is Hair can come into being only if we the audience believe there’s so much trust, cohesion, and affection among the company members that we’re a part of the happening too, that we are embraced by a communicable, vicarious sense of communal connection. In that respect, the Rheas reach perfection.

The terrific Paul Scanlan (as Claude) and the captivating Josh Sticklin (as his buddy Berger) head up an outstanding cast of tribe members that includes  Danny Bertaux (Paul), Jamie Boyle (Hiram), Ian Anthony Coleman (Hud), Darius Tyrus Epps (Walter), Paige Felix (Natalie), Chad W. Fornwalt (Marc), Katie Furtado (Susannah), Autumn Seavey Hicks (Linda), Jade Jones (Leata), Emily Levey (Marjorie), Eben K. Logan (Dionne), Thony Mena (Jason), Christian Montgomery (Woof), Ines Nassara (Ronny), Lyndsay Rini (Crissy), Ava Silva (Diane), Kedren Spencer (Emmaretta), Dani Stoller (Jeannie), Ryan Patrick Walsh (Steve), and  Caroline Wolfson (Sheila), featuring Peter Finnegan (dubbed Margaret Mead). By turns they each belt out a solo or more, and all sing gorgeous backup like the sustaining support system everyone longs for. Every moment onstage, they seem to genuinely enjoy one another, and their spirited mutual admiration is irresistible. This ensemble is not only highly skilled; it’s the kissingest cast I’ve ever seen.

It’s no mystery why Hair continues to thrive on stage and sustain its vital place in audiences’ hearts and minds. For better and for worse, the historical context in which it arose nearly a half century ago is no longer with us. But we have not lost our longing to belong. Hair reinvigorates that aspiration. Hair revives that idealism and lifts us. And as staged at Keegan Theatre, it’s the best contact high in town.

Water by the Spoonful

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

Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize–winning Water by the Spoonful is set in 2009 and takes place mainly in Philadelphia but also travels to San Diego, Japan, and Puerto Rico. Two characters hold the emotional and dramatic center of this sprawling play. One is an extraordinary and beautifully written character named Elliot Ortiz, portrayed in Studio Theatre’s production by Arturo Soria with sun-flare brilliance.  Hilariously nimble-witted and rich in passion and pathos, Soria’s stellar performance must be seen.

Elliot served as a Marine in Iraq. Now returned home to Philadelphia, he is haunted by his recent combat experience (he sometimes sees the ghost, played appropriately apparition-like by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, of his first Iraqi kill). Elliot is also wracked in agony because the woman who raised him is dying of cancer. This woman, named Ginny Ortiz, is the other center of gravitas in the play. She never appears onstage; we come to know her through Elliot’s wellsprings of loyalty and devotion, which are wrenchingly deep. By the time of Ginny’s funeral in Act Two, when her near saintly accomplishments as a community activist are recited and Elliot breaks down eulogizing her, her absence and Elliot’s loss flood the stage with feeling.

Elliot’s and Ginny’s compelling story is intersected by multiple plotlines and diverse characters, none of which pulse with as much authenticity. (A program note by Dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen quotes Hudes recalling of her process while writing the play, “I knew it was going to be big and messy.” And that it is.) The supporting performances are uniformly fine—notably Gisela Chípe as Yazmin Ortiz. But the script is hobbled by a problematic structure that the production (directed by KJ Sanchez) never successfully solves.

In Act One we are introduced to two apparently disparate worlds. One is real-life/real-time, and there we meet Elliot and Yaz, who are cousins yet seem close as brother and sister. The other world is real time but virtual, an online chatroom for recovering crack addicts where we meet four  habitués identified by avatars: Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (“Haikumom”), Tim Gelman (“Fountainhead”), Vincent J. Brown (“Chutes&Ladders”), and Amy Kim Waschke (“Orangutan”). The script’s conceit is that these four characters converse in dialogue typical of online interactions but do so onstage as if they are in the same real room—like with blocking, crossing, sitting on furniture, handling props. Their avatars appear as projections on the set and chime when they enter the chat then go dark when they sign off. But the words the characters are keyboarding to one another and the screens they are presumably staring at are nowhere in evidence.

It doesn’t help that all this faux-chatroom interactivity takes place on a set (designed by Dan Conway with lighting by Michael Giannitti) that features prominently a claw-foot porcelain bathtub and a staircase to nowhere—neither of which functions in the play till the final few moments; till then they’re dimly lit enigmatic distractions. So it’s as if these ostensibly anonymous chats not only take place disconcertingly in a naturalistic theatrical environment; they seem on the set for some other play altogether. The upshot of this twice-removed staging is a barrier to connection with the characters, whose idiosyncratic stories of addiction and recovery, though passably interesting, never catch hold emotionally.

Things pick up when the two worlds collide. One character from the chatroom, “Haikumom,” is revealed to be Odessa, Elliot’s birth mother. Odessa abandoned Elliot as a boy and a let a younger sister die of dehydration (neglecting to give the child, as a pediatrician had instructed, “water by the spoonful”). Odessa thereby earned Elliot’s lifelong enraged resentment, and her appearance in real time real life prompts him to sob that his good mother had died instead of her.

Trouble is, the migration from chatroom to living room of Odessa (the character as written, played wonderfully by Fernandez-Coffey) has emotional resonance only to the extent that it occasions deeper understanding of the uncommonly crafted character  Elliot. His pain, humor, backbone, and affection anchor the text. Soria dives into the role and rides it like a cresting wave.

Normal

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

Molotov Theatre Group has an uncanny knack for converting its tiny black-box nook into an auditorium-scale operating theater for surgical dissection of the dark side of human nature. With its new production of Normal, observers in attendance at the unflinching examination get an artfully horrifying experience that is both fascinating and profound.

As dextrously directed by Jay D. Brock, this 1991 play by the Scottish writer-director Anthony Neilson—based on the real-life case of a German serial killer in the 1930s—is like a sharp instrument that cuts to the quick.

In the role of Peter Kurten (“the Düsseldorf Ripper”), Alex Zavistovich reveals the character’s monstrosity not in overheated histrionics but in the blithe aloofness with which the killer retells his crimes and the curious off-handedness with which he regards his repellant past. Zavistovich’s face flickers with a wince at a memory of abuse by his brutal and rapist father. Or grins delivering a bon mot. Or processes impassively an accusation. This devil is in the details, and Zavistovch nails them  As a result the evening’s immersion in one man’s pathology is immensely more absorbing than off-putting, and far more edifying than one might expect.

The play is structured around pretrial interviews between Kurten and his fresh-out-of-law-school attorney, Justus Wehner, who seeks to understand what makes his client tick in order to build an insanity defense. As appealingly played by Brian McDermott, this earnest naif starts out as liberalism’s interlocutor, pursuing the social-political sources of the impenitent killer’s sadism. Though appalled at the lifelong convict’s behavior—Kurten’s serial incarcerations began as a youth—Wehner probes into Kurten’s early family history and in so doing dredges up a vivid portrait of a man whose sexuality had been irrevocably locked at a young age into acts of savagery. The cycle of abuse it’s called in therapeutic circles today. The play puts the point more bluntly: Society manufactures monsters.

There is a third actor onstage whose indelible presence makes the entire proceedings eerily  powerful. Elizabeth Darby is identified in the cast list as Frau Kurten, the compulsive murderer’s unsuspecting wife. We first see her lying limply as if a corpse; suddenly she rises and sighs plaintively, “Peter, what is it that’s happened?…The police were looking for you. Is it serious?…Peter, what have you done?” As we the audience learn more and more grim answers to that question, Darby luminously becomes many more selves than Frau Kurten: Now she is a masked mannequin in a bizarre pas de deux with the perp, now she is one of the children he slew…again and again Darby becomes our personalized point of reference for all the killer’s prey, and her remarkably centered and strong performance importantly illuminates an undercurrent of the play. There is no victim blaming in it. Not a stitch. However sexually driven is the butcher, however remorselessly he flays pieces of meat, the epic moral fail is solely his.

Composer/Sound Designer Gregg Martin serves up a chilling soundscape. Choreographer Sarah Frances Williams creates some strangely apt interludes, including the dance between Darby and Zavistovich and a song-and-soft-shoe routine by McDermott and Zavistovich (who also staged the fights—one of which goes on for several shocking minutes). That such momentous theatricality has been achieved on a bare-bones budget is a credit to the evocative minimalism of Lighting Designer Pete Vargo, Set Constructor Morgan Sexton, and Costume Designer Libby Dasbach.

Molotov’s niche, it says, is horror; but Normal dispels conventional notions about the genre. By the time in the performance when the full import of the play’s title begins to hit—when the audience is confronted by the extent to which this one man’s sexual sadism, though excessive, may not be exceptional—that which is horrifying has entered a truly disturbing dimension.

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