Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Hand Jobs (Page-to-Stage)

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

The distinctive work of playwright Alan Sharpe returned to the Page-to-Stage Festival Saturday night with a reading of six short plays collectively titled Hand Jobs, presented by the African-American Collective Theater (ACT). My report on ACT’s offering last year noted Founding Artistic Director Alan Sharpe’s “observant eye on black gay men’s diverse lives,” and this year’s bill seemed even more insightful.

As Sharpe introduced the program to a house full of fans of his work, Sharpe dryly assured them that the title Hand Jobs referred to…typing. But if that double entendre was what attracted anyone to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, what kept the crowd in raptures of laughter and rapt emotional connection was something altogether more powerful and important. In the brief talk-back after, audience members asked aloud what needs to happen to get this work produced. Good question.

The short plays have a few things in common: They’re all set in and around DC and they each feature a particular life or relationship crisis affecting one or more gay black men. Yet the situations and the characters are so specifically rendered that we fully enter six completely different and compelling worlds.

Sharpe 1 "You Don't Know Me"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You Don’t Know Me” takes place in a coffee shop where 27-year-old Tyler (Stanley Z. Freeman , left) is about to meet, or rather ambush, Gloria, the wife of the 54-year-old man with whom he has been having an affair. As Tyler first explains to his disapproving best friend, Prentiss (Ricardo Lumpkin, center), he intends to confront the woman, let her know about the affair, and convince her to see the light and cede to him her husband. That Tyler is deluded becomes apparent when the no-nonsense Gloria (Barbara K. Asare-Bediako) enters and the play takes a completely unexpected turn that is both hilarious and poignant.

Sharpe 2 "Air-Tight"

 “Air-Tight” is set in a motel room in Southwest where an anxious landscape laborer, Graham (Brian Hamlett, left), is visited by his employer and lover, Austin (Larry Hull, right). Graham’s girlfriend has been murdered and Graham’s a suspect. But Graham has an airtight alibi because all during the weekend when she was killed he and Austin were having sex. Austin, however, is a man of prominent social standing and is loathe to be tainted by the scandal that would ensue if he vouched for his working-class lover’s alibi. Sexual attraction meets class tension meets evidence-gathering intrigue in a riveting one-act that’s also airtight.
 Sharpe 3 "Legacy"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A signature of Sharpe’s short plays is an unforeseen disclosure, and what’s revealed in “Legacy” could not be more heartbreaking. The play is set in the bedroom in Anacostia where Kevin (Jason Evan Barrett, left) and his younger brother Keith (Christopher Pree, right) once shared a bunk bed that is now just Keith’s. Kevin, who is gay, abruptly left home and purposely did not come back to attended their father’s funeral, which Keith resents because to Keith, who is straight, their dad was a hero. I  had to catch my breath at the several painful revelations about their deceased father that come to light, and how the brothers’ relationship is profoundly changed, and I doubt I was alone among audience members who now and then choked up.

Sharpe 4 "Blast from the Past"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The homophobia in bullying experienced by young gay men, a theme obliquely addressed in “Legacy,” surfaces in “Blast from the Past,” which is set just outside a motel ballroom where Brendan (Raquis Da’Juan Petree, left) is attending his 20th high school reunion. A classmate comes up to him from behind, covers his eyes, and demands of Brendan, “Guess who?” Turns out to be Stuart (Monte J. Wolfe, right), who tortured and tormented Brendan when they were students and who has come round to make amends. The twist at the end gets an approving laugh of recognition as well as a bittersweet pang of the pain that need not have been.

Sharpe 5 "Raw Deal"

 


 

 

Never one to shy away from explicit gay sex, Sharpe also casts a discerning and nonpandering eye on it that always reveals more than meets the lusting gaze. “Raw Deal” is set in a cheap room in an airport motel where Jackie, a pornographer (Donald Burch III, right),  is set up to shoot a low-budget gay sex tape. Jackie negotiates with a hot and horny teen, Red (Juan Raheem, center), which sex acts on camera will pay how much. The catch is, Red will score the biggest bucks only if his co-star top, in the vernacular of the play, smashes him raw (i.e. without a condom). As Jackie exits, the designated fuck buddy, Corey (Tristan Phillip-Hewitt, left), steps out of the shower. The exchange between the two is anything but fluid as Red and Corey wrestle with the high cost of performing for top dollar.  The revealing interpersonal drama that Sharpe portrays here inside the exploitative manufacture of sexual commodification is as disturbing as it is moving.

Sharpe 6 "Sunset"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sunset referred to in “Sunset”  is the one to be seen from the front porch of a house in Takoma that long-time lovers Daniel (Jesse N. Holmes, left) and Vernon (Gregory Ford, right) have shared for 20-plus years. Now Daniel needs a wheelchair and a walker, and Vernon is telling him he must get to a vital doctor’s appointment. But Daniel refuses. Terminally ill, he simply wants to stay and watch the sun go down together. The entire vignette is touching and tender beyond words. At a point Daniel breaks into song, the Jennifer Holiday showstopper from Dreamgirls (“And I am telling you, I’m not going!”). And it was as if the audience’s laughter broke through tears.

In addition to writing Hand Jobs, Alan Sharpe directed—and assembled an exceptional cast, each one of whom brought illuminating nuance to their role.  As an overall experience of heart-stoppingly good writing and performance, the evening was the equal of any major stage event in town. So why indeed is this writers’s work not professionally produced?

(Cast photos courtesy of ACT.)

Carved in Stone (Page-to-Stage)

(This report was written for DCMetroTheater Arts and is reprinted here.)

After the entertaining staged reading at last year’s Page-to-Stage Festival of Mario Baldessari’s comedy The Good Devil, In Spite of Himself (coauthored with Tyler Herman), I called it in my report “a boisterous, a ribald farce.” The Good Devil aimed to please and it did so, hilariously. Saturday morning in the Kennedy Center Terrace Gallery another new comedy by Baldessari was read aloud before an audience for the first time: Carved in Stone, directed by WSC Avant Bard Artistic Director Tom Prewitt and presented by Crash of Rhinos. Subtitled A Comedy of Terrors, the play offered a story that started off light and hilarious (Baldessari’s gift for biting comic dialog was enjoyably on display); then, in a departure for the author, the play steadily became deeper and darker and more resonant with hurt and loss. The nuanced narrative progression completely  entertained and captivated an attentive and appreciative audience, all of whom stayed after for a smart feedback discussion that was full of effusive praise.

The play, set in two small towns in Wyoming, begins with a brief prolog in which a golem named Joseph (read by Ray Ficca) is introduced. This figure from Jewish folklore will soon assume more and more prominence in the the play, and Baldessari’s script will shrewdly explain everything you might need to know to understand what’s going on (even if, like me, you came in unfamiliar with golem lore). But first Baldessari treats his audience to some broad sketch comedy.

Emmett Budrow (Jim Brady) is a redneck Christian who has carved a typo-ridden sculpture of the Ten Commandments (“Thou Shalt Not Bare False Witness”) that was recently ordered removed from public property. The mini monument is now parked in the garage of the Budrow family home where in scene one Emmett’s annoyed wife Bethel (Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang) and her friend Norma Lou, who is Jewish (Caren Anton), ridicule it, to the audience’s  amusement. Among the rapid-fire laugh lines are joking references to the contrast between Christian and Jewish worldviews and mocking references to the subliterate ignorance in Emmet’s fanatic fundamentalism.

The golem comes into the story soon thereafter because Emmett has decided to sculpt one, like an anthropomorphic  shrine, in the basement bedroom that once belonged to Emmet and Bethel’s daughter, Ruthanne. She died two years ago in circumstances that resulted in a tension between Emmet and Bethel that expresses itself in their bickering, which, though very funny, hints at unspoken pain and sorrow.

Early on Emmet takes his friend Toby (Stan Kang) down to show him his work in progress—still a mass of mud, as per the instructions for creating a golum that Emmett found on the Internet. Bizarrely Emmet keeps the sculpture in Ruthanne’s bed in a coffin. Toby is freaked out—and that’s before the golem begins to move and speak! The play is well on its way on its trajectory toward the tragicomic. (Through a turn of events I won’t give away, Ruthanne returns to life in Act Two read by Sherry Berg).

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Baldessari is juggling quirkily disparate elements that would not seem to coexist in the same play: the hick town Wyoming environment, the legalisms between civic and religious, the prejudice Emmet considers is a “War on Christianity,” the age-old anti-Semitism that originally occasioned the myth of the golem (believed to protect Jews from Christians), and the supernatural dimension of the golem itself (which mystically ushers the play theatrically into a realm of magic realism).

By the end, what began as Saturday Night Live sketch comedy has transformed into an episode out of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. Though that sounds an improbable stretch, it’s a credit to Baldessari, Prewitt, and the excellent, accomplished cast (I was told they rehearsed but once) that the audience not only bought it; they really seemed to dig it.

Emmett’s occupation is driving a truck that delivers bread. There’s a passage when trout rain down from the sky, and in the ensuing confusion the contents of Emmet’s  truck spill onto the road.  As the audience caught the loaves-and-fishes allusion and the image slowly dawned in their minds-eye, one could hear a gale of laughter rolling through the room.

The humor is oddball, the mystic twists are weird. But strangely Carved in Stone works like a charm.

The Winter’s Tale

William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is a play I’d never seen or read or even known a thing about. So the experience of discovering it via The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s smashingly good production (now revived in Free for All) was a thorough delight.

I got lucky in the lottery. I didn’t attend as “press” so I was on holiday as a reviewer. Which left me at liberty to get swept up in the play’s odd but compelling storyline  as I imagine groundlings in the Globe once did. Except Sidney Harman Hall has some of the best seating I’ve ever seen: The rake is steep and the seats have high backs so the knees of the patron behind you cannot possibly annoy you.

As I left the theater I was remembering not that I had freeloaded in comfort but that I had been knocked out by the play. Long considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays, it’s about three-fifths dark tragedy and about two-fifths rom-com. This oxymoronic hybrid is aptly pegged by  Original Director Rebecca Taichman in a program note:

One of Shakespeare’s late romances, The Winter’s Tale is a study in tonal collision—sliding from tragedy to comedy and back again. We careen through the dangerous, moneyed Sicilian court, into the comic Bohemian countryside. The play contains multiple and ever-shifting webs of meaning. As a director, the visual and theatrical challenges are…well…absurdly difficult and wonderfully exciting. You’ve got two tonally opposite worlds that somehow need to make illogical logic together.

Within this anomalous dramatic structure, the play tells a story that seemed to me so prescient, so pertinent to life today, so resonant with current gender contention, that it blew me away.

The Winter’s Tale plays as a perfectly contemporary parable about a retro, sexist, male-chauvinist asshole who, mirabile dictu, is redeemed. That character is Leontes, king of Sicilia, who suspects his near-term pregnant wife, Hermoine, has cuckolded him with Polixenes, king of Bohemia. Leontes flies into a jealous rage  that sets the play in motion and results in calamities to his entire paterfamilias. And why? Well, the script makes plain that Leontes has had a bromance with Polixenes since they were boys. So in a contemporary context his jealousy can be viewed as double pronged: Leontes is jealous of Polixenes for getting it on with his wife, and Leontes is jealous of Hermoine for getting it on with Polixenes. Leontes takes all of his controlling possessiveness and repressed homoeroticism out on…guess who?…the woman. The splenetic vengeful misogyny that spews thereafter from Leontes’ mouth is frighteningly familiar and horrifying in its consequences. This is the dark side of The Winter’s Tale and it could barely be bleaker.

I’ll not give away how what happens next happens, but it’s amazing.  Over the course of two and a half hours, Leontes atones for his screwups, most of the damage he did is undone, and by the end he has made amends.  To top it all off, he and Hermoine (who in truth was never unfaithful to him) are reunited, in a kind of magical way.

Incredibly—against the evidence of all lessons learned by loving women who’ve suffered at the hands of hate-filled men—it works. In this wondrous production now Free for All, Shakespeare imagines for us in art exactly the redemption that life needs far more of.

1814! The War of 1812 Rock Opera

What a kick to see this Capital Fringe hit back at it, better and badder. When 1814! The War of 1812 Rock Opera tore up the sweltering Baldacchino Tent in the summer of 2013, DCMetroTheaterArt’s five-star review  said “prepare to sweat, because the music is hot.” Now that the show is rocking an air-conditioned venue in Silver Spring, the music is, incredibly, even hotter. 

But hurry, it closes Sunday.

This ridiculously too-brief run commemorates the bicentennial of the little-known episodes in American history on which the show is loosely based. On August 24, 1814, the British attacked Washington, DC, torched the president’s residence (not yet called the White House) and burned down most other public buildings as well—in total about a tenth of the District. Coincidentally, the return of this full-on rock fest was preceded by the Washington Post‘s publication this week of a primer about those events on the kid’s page—which is worth a look to get the gist of what inspired the creators of 1814! The War of 1812 Rock Opera to let loose some firepower of their own.

Said creators are David Dudley and Dave Israel, who grew up in Baltimore near Fort McHenry, where on September 13, 1814, the American home team routed invading British forces in the “rockets’ red glare” battle that prompted Francis Scott Key to pen “The Star Spangled Banner.” On a hunch that the colorful characters and fierce conflicts in those pivotal war zones “would make a great Tommy­­­-style rock opera,” Dudley and Israel began writing music and lyrics. (Additional lyrics are ascribed to Erik Sunday.)

Last night left no doubt their hunch was spot on. The hour-long show they came up with—smartly directed by Alec Lawson—thrilled an enthusiastic intergenerational audience and sent me onto the street by the end on a high akin to that of headliner band at the 930 Club. The fact that the story of 1814! is all set in these parts is kind of a wonky bonus. Purely on its merits as a rock opera, 1814! has one of the best scores, played by one of the best backup bands, and sung by some of the best vocal talent to be found in the DC/VA/MD theater scene.

Said band consists of David Dudley (guitar, bass), Dave Israel (keyboards, guitar, mandolin), Jim Schaffer (drums), Erik Sunday (bass), and Carl Weigel (guitar).

Said cast is huge—15 plus several swings for various performances—with standouts aplenty. Gaines Johnston (Narrator) performs three poetically expositional interludes—which have some of the loveliest melodies in the show—with a welcoming warmth that steadies the storytelling. The 2013 program credited Dudley and Israel with a book, but the show is now entirely sung-through, with explanatory text crawls projected intermittently on screen. (I didn’t miss the spoken bits at all.) There is a sort of plot that approximates real events, and it helps to have a look at the notes and lyrics that are printed in the program to follow it. But really, this is a pulsing and pounding rock concert. And it’s perfectly okay to get lost in the powerful sounds and performances.

Chris Beck, Doug Balog, and Tom Balog—strumming guitar, banjo, and bass—deliver the rip-roaring “The War Hawks,” which cartoons the rabidly militant faction that narrowly persuaded the young country to go to war with Britain (“If some Eurotrash tries to take what’s mine / He’s gonna be on the fightin’ side of me”). Matt Casella plays the British Army’s Admiral George Cockburn as an arrogant bad boy, preening and strutting about the stage like a mean metalhead and wailing “Too Rockin’ to Loose” (“They call us invicibles / … / It’s a matter of principle / To humble this truculent horde”). (Robert Bradley, the Cap Fringe Cockburn, returns to the role Sunday.)

The costumes are a witty pastiche of period and punk with dashes of Union Jack for the Brits and young Old Glory for the Yanks. She dolled up Dolley Madison, for instance, in a purple waistcoat, black knee-high boots, and black fishnet stockings. Thus nattily and naughtily attired, Laura Komatinsky as Madison proceeds to belt out a “hear me roar” number called “I’m No Cupcake” that hilariously riffs on Hillary Clinton’s famous diss on staying home and baking cookies (“I’m no cupcake or fine pastry. / You’re talking to the First Lady!”).

The song you leave singing (and the one that returns like a prized pet earworm the next morning) is “Big Ass Flag.” It’s based on a quirky historical fact: U.S. Major George Armistead demanded that a huge stars and strips fly over his garrison to send a message of invincibility to the enemy. Armistead’s egoistic lyrics are a giggle (“Our boys just can’t lose if our flag is sufficiently huge / Bigger is better is what I say”). He asks local seamstress Mary Pickersgill for “something extra-large in red, white and blue,” and she caustically calls him on his hubris (“Do we need such a big ass flag? / What’s the deal with this big ass flag? / Can you fend the British off with a giant piece of cloth?”). Corey Hennessey as Armistead and Moira Horowitz as Pickersgill reprise performances that stopped the show last summer and did so again last night, with the audience singing along. Plus their dirty dancing on the “bigger is better” double-entendre was to swoon for.

The story heats up even more. Tim Olewnik as Revolutionary War vet Samuel Smith prances and skips onstage to howl a rousing call to arms in “Black Powder” (“Feelin’ frisky and independent / Come take a taste of my Second Amendment”). Derek Vaughan Brown as British General Ross leads a do-or-die assault in “Baltimore or Hell” that lands him the company of the Devil (Tim Krieder, bedecked in black horns and talons) and a lot of red light. (Throughout, the lighting by Chris Allen underscored the music and action with rock-concert flash, and projections mashed up archival paintings with grabby rock-world graphics that were a light show unto themselves.) Immediately after, Brown as General Ross belts out a ballad called “Empire of Love”; his dramatic shift in tone is stunning.

The finale has the entire ensemble in another singalong anthem, “I’ll Hold My Ground” mixed with more “Big Ass Flag.” It’s all stirringly patriotic, suffused with a national pride arising not from xenophobia or imperialism but from a genuine purity of heart: “I’ll hold my ground / I’ll build it up / If you burn it down / I won’t give up / On my hometown / If you stand by my side / I’ll hold my ground.”

Great rock concerts aren’t supposed to leave you misty eyed, am I right?

Well, this one might.

Running Time: 60 minutes.

1814! The War of 1812 Rock Opera plays through August 24, 2014 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theater – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. Advance tickets may be purchased online.

1814! The War of 1812 Rock Opera can next be seen when it headlines the Hampstead Hill Festival September 14, 2014, in Baltimore, MD.

The Original Cast Recording is available on CD and for download.

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The performance last night was preceded by a fascinating and lively panel of four eminent historians: Peter Snow, noted BBC personality; Stephen Vogel, former Washington Post reporter and author of Through the Perilous Fight, a new popular history of the Mid-Atlantic campaign; John McCavitt, of the Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland; and Ralph Eshelman, local historian and author of In Full Glory Reflected.

Panelists August 23 will be Christopher George, author of Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay, and Robert Reyes, an archivist and preservationist involved in he fight to protect Baltimore’s North Point battlefield.

The panel at the August 24 matinees will bring back Stephen Vogel and Christopher George. All three panels are emceed by Jim Meyer, a Baltimore writer and standup comic who is as informed about the pertinent battles as he is funny at repartee–which is to say: very.

Running Time for the panel: About 40 minutes.

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.

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