Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Roe

The title of Lisa Loomer’s riveting play Roe refers to both the pivotal Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade and the person known as Jane Roe who was the plaintiff in it. Loomer dramatizes both stories—why and how the case came to be and who the person was and what happened to her. The play now running at Arena’s Kreeger Theater would have been electrifying had the prochoice presidential candidate won. Now with the outcome that was and will be, Roe plays like a thunderbolt to a body politic already in shock.

“History ain’t over yet,” says Jay Floyd (Jim Abele), the lawyer who represented the losing side when Roe v. Wade was first argued before the Supreme Court. Actually he nearly sneers this, to Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) after her argument before the bench on behalf of Jane Roe prevailed. The words hang in the air at Arena with  foreboding.

Loomer’s storytelling is not all gloom and doom, however; it’s highly theatrical, often delightfully comedic, an artful blend of docudrama, infotainment, and comic strip. Its cheeky main character, Norma McClosky, the real Jane Doe, has a hilarious gift for gab (“It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a pool table,” she says at one point. And “I’m so poor I can’t afford to pay attention”). As written by Loomer and performed with scrappy joie de vivre by Sara Bruner, Norma commands attention as one of the most fascinating female characters on the contemporary stage. And though the life-and-liberty stakes of the drama are dead serious, and its portent now could not be more dire, Director Bill Rausch puts the cast of twelve through paces that have plenty of pricelessly funny payoffs.

Rausch, who is Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director, commissioned Loomer to write a work about the Roe case as one of 37 plays “sprung from moments of change in United States history” for OSF’s ambitious American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. The play premiered at OSF as a coproduction with Arena Stage, which recently announced Power Plays, a ten-year new-play initiative focusing on DC’s “unique theatrical voice on politics and power.” Thus the role of Roe as both legal case and playscript has significance not only now but here—a short march away from the Supreme Court.

Loomer pits the two historical figures Sarah Weddington and Norma McCorvey against each other, and in Loomer’s construction, the tensions between them have nearly as much drama as the contested legal questions. McCorvey  was a poor, pregnant 22-year-old seeking an abortion when she was recruited by Weddington, then a 24-year-old recent law school grad, to be the plaintiff in a challenge to a Texas anti-abortion law. Their personalities and backgrounds differ sharply. Neither as written is particularly likeable (we’re not meant to cozy up to them, this isn’t a sentimental play). But Sarah and Norma each become so vivid in performance by Agnew and Bruner that they seem to have stepped on stage from life.

Actually, in a clever scripting move, Loomer has them step on stage from the pages of their own autobiographies. In recurring direct address to the audience, Sarah and Norma bicker over their contradictory and inconsistent versions of events. Weddington’s A Question of Choice (1992) and McCorvey’s I Am Roe (1994) disagree on significant points, and the script makes dramatic use of the disparities. The script also spots discrepancies between I Am Roe and McCorvey’s subsequent book, Won by Love (1998), written after renunciation of her role in Roe v. Wade.

“It’s really hard to talk objectively about history, about the ‘truth,'” complains Linda Coffey (Susan Lynsky), a colleague of Weddington’s. “Which is why I never wrote a book.”

When the play begins we see Sarah in a women’s consciousness-raising group whose members, having just read Our Bodies, Our Selves, are apprehensively lying on pillows and fumblingly following its instructions for inspecting their cervixes. Sarah reads them what they need: “a flashlight, a lubricant such as Crisco, a handmirror, and a speculum.” It’s a shamelessly funny scene.

We meet Norma in a  lesbian bar as a good-time gal, drinking, dancing, and making out. The tension between this delightful dyke and the ladylike lawyer gets the play off to a snappy start. And in two dozen tight scenes, the play goes from 1969 to now.

In an artful gimmick, the ensemble at times wear robes to represent the Supreme Court, then take them off to reveal in costume the various characters they play. And what a fascinating sweep of history gets depicted through this terrific cast’s many guises! In addition to the several fictional characters they play…

Gina Daniels appears as Aileen (McCorvey’s friend) and Florynce Kennedy (the famous activist lawyer and civil-rights advocate). Susan Lynskey appears as Linda Coffee (an attorney who with her colleague Weddington brought the 1972 case that challenged the Texas anti-abortion law) and Eleanor  Smeal (president of the National Organization for Women). Amy Newman appears as Gloria Allred (the influential women’s-rights lawyer, who befriended Norma). (With Allred now in the news, the character’s entrance on opening night brought a round of applause.) Pamela Dunlap appears as Mary (McCorvey’s alcoholic and emotionally abusive mother) and Kate Michaelman (president of NARAL Pro-Choice America). Catherine Castellanos appears as Connie Gonzales (McCorvey’s loyal long-time partner). Mark Bedard appears as Henry McCluskey (a Dallas adoption lawyer). Jim Abele appears as Ron Weddington (Sarah’s husband), Jay Floyd (who represented Dallas County DA Henry Wade and argued the anti-abortion case),  and Philip “Flip” Benham (an Evangelical Christian minister and leader of Operation Rescue). Richard Elmore appears as Supreme Court Justice Blackmun (who wrote the Roe v. Wade decision) and Henry Wade (the governor of Texas whose name is on Roe v. Wade). Zoe Bishop appears as Melissa (Norma’s first child, in the legal custody of Norma’s mother).

Set Designer Rachel Hauck constructs multilevel platforms that glide in and out, with steps that lead down to the orchestra (evoking the steps leading up to the Supreme Court building). This makes for a nice sense of shifting space, with scenes fluidly brought into focus by Lighting Designer Jane Cox.

We get a clear narrative sense of place—be it a pizza parlor, a dive bar, a swanky backyard, a modest home, a period disco, an abortion clinic, a book-filled law office, a stately courtroom—from photographs on the rear screen selected by Projection Designer Wendall K. Harrington. And between scenes and after, Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast uses pop music to lend a narrative of time through the decades. Most remarkably, Prendergast also allows us to hear the authentic voices of Justices Burger, Stewart, White, and Marshall during Weddington’s argument before the court. The “you are there” effect is both disquieting and amazing.

Costume Designer Raquel Barretto has made fine forthright choices for the male characters but some quirky ones for the female. Curiously, the women’s clothes are suggestive of the period but border on cartoony. Members of the cervix-seeking CR group, for instance, are dressed in such bad taste it could be satire. Even Sarah sometimes wears sendups of clueless dressing for success. Conceivably the intent was to align with the broad comedy in the play, which it definitely does. Still, so many caricature frocks in a pro-woman play takes some getting used to.

Wig Master Devon Ash, however, deserves a special hat tip. The actors’ doubling and tripling and the characters’ passage through time are communicated instantly through coif. At moments we get to see the actors take off one wig then don the next, even as we see busy stage hands briskly shift set pieces on and off. The aura of “you are there watching the workings of law” nicely encompasses a sense of “you are here watching the workings of theater.”

It will come as no news to those familiar with the fallout from Roe v. Wade that the woman at the center of the case in real life converted to Evangelical Christianity then Roman Catholicism and joined the anti-abortion movement. To its credit the play Roe makes that character arc completely comprehensible and emotionally compelling.  When Norma, for instance, learns from reading A Question of Choice that Weddington herself had an abortion and never told Norma, she is outraged: “If you wanted to help me get an abortion, why didn’t you tell me where you got yours?!” Norma yells, understandably feeling betrayed.

Norma comes to feel “used by the feminists and used by the press,” and the play pulls no punches about how that in fact was what happened and how it left her isolated, without support—and, importantly, needy for the embrace and acceptance of fervent believers. Eventually, though, McCorvey comes to feel used by the Evangelical Christian antiabortion movement as well. She was never cut out to be a poster person and the play contains the tragedy of what happened when she was made one..

Loomer plays with time, in a way that is  illuminating and often startling, by having characters mention what would happen to them in the future or what their obituaries would say. The script is surprisingly balanced as well. There are various passages of histrionics—emotional appeals on both the “abortion is choice” and “abortion is murder” sides of the controversy. And there is acknowledgement of the biases and uncertainty in first-person history. The result is a kind of authorial omniscience that is both empathetic and impartial, and ever respectful of the conflicting passions and principles at play in this ongoing national drama.

To be sure, the play does stay faithful to the spirit of the Roe v. Wade decision in underscoring the principle that the right to choose (under current interpretation of the Constitution, at least) belongs solely to the pregnant woman—not the state, not the church, not anyone else. In a surprise of a scene that functions like a coda, a young pregnant woman named Roxanne (a wonderful Kenya Alexander) confronts Sarah and demands to know whether abortion is murder. Sarah waffles, citing the fact that a fetus has not been judicially defined as a person.

“Don’t give me the law,” says Roxanne; “give me the truth.”

“We can give you the choice,” Sarah answers measuredly, “but you have to choose.”

Roe will resolve no legal argument nor make no political dispute go away; a play cannot do that. But in Lisa Loomer’s transparent determination as playwright to empathize with all her characters, to be fair to all the players, this work exemplifies and models how to feel where one’s opponent is coming from even if one cannot in conscience condone where they have gone. That alone makes Roe necessary now more than ever.

Running time: About two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Roe plays through February 19, 2017, at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase tickets online.

LINK:

Magic Time!: A Report on the Women’s Voices Theater Festival Reading of Lisa Loomer’s ‘Roe’ at The Kennedy Center by John Stoltenberg

Trailer for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production:

Lisa Loomer talking about getting the commission and the choices she made writing the play:

The Hard Problem

I love when a play starts out as a fascinating head trip—a smart, high-concept exhilaration of ideas—then propels me headlong into an overwhelming flood of emotion. It’s like being transported along a neural pathway from brain to heart that the playwright has turned into a thoroughfare of theatrical euphoria.

Tom Stoppard scripts that extraordinary excursion with his new play The Hard Problem, now in an exquisitely scintillating and astonishingly affecting production directed by Matt Torney at Studio Theatre.

What knocked me out about the play is that the central conflict in it is entirely ideational. Quite literally, Stoppard started with years of reading in the fields of brain science, quantitative analysis, behavioral research, game theory, and such. Then with his trademark alchemy he created characters and story lines to put on stage a dramatic distillation of what captured Stoppard’s curiosity to begin with—a conceptual question that may be humanity’s ultimate brain teaser: What is consciousness? How does it come about? Where does it come from and where does it reside?

To wit: Are we merely material mortals who run through our paces like lab rats and make solely self-interested choices like supercomputers sheerly on the basis of cost-benefit calculations?

Or rather: Is there, exterior to our gray matter, something we call a mind or a soul or a consciousness that may somehow cathect with nonmaterial transcendence (aka godness) such that we may be inspired to altruism (aka goodness) that is inexplicable as self-interest?

That is the hard problem to which Stoppard’s title refers and that his characters give voice to. And as they do, throughout the play, it’s brilliant listening. Pithy formulations of the riddle burst like popcorn kernels on a hot griddle. Just as you want to gobble one another comes along.

The central character Hilary (Tessa Klein), for instance, is a whip-smart psychology grad who gets a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science and says her prayers every night before bed. In her words,

The study of the mind is not a science. We’re dealing in
mind stuff that doesn’t show up in a scan – accountability,
duty, freewill, language, all the stuff that makes behaviour
unpredictable.

When her colleague Amal (Shravan Amin) tells her, “There is overwhelming evidence that the brain causes consciousness,” Hilary retorts,

There’s overwhelming evidence that brain activity
correlates with consciousness. Registers consciousness.
Nobody’s got anywhere trying to show how the brain is
conscious.

Leo (Martin Giles), Hilary’s boss, puts the problem in this nutshell:

Cognition – reasoning, imagining, believing . . . that’s
hard. How does the brain do self-consciousness? . . . Where is it happening? How?

Meanwhile, Spike (Kyle Cameron), Hilary’s tutor and sometime bedmate, avers the mind-is-matter view:

Culture, empathy, faith, hope and charity, all the flipsides
of egoism, come back to biology, because there just
ain’t anywhere else to come from except three pounds
of grey matter wired up in your head like a map of the
London Underground with eighty-six billion stations
connected thirty trillion ways, hard-wired for me first.

The scientific/philosophical/religious conundrum at the core of The Hard Problem is as much its plot driver as an inciting action would be in some other play. From that central conflict Stoppard sets in motion a through line for his main character that touches upon each hot spot of the argument—then wraps up at the end with a revelation and a resolution that profoundly transcend all the contention.

All of this makes viewing The Hard Problem a peak theatergoing experience: You’re taking on board the ongoing debate even as you’re tracking the characters swept along in it. And you’re having a left-brain/right-brain adventure that’s sublimely mind-blowing.

[gay] Cymbeline

Queering Shakespeare may be gilding the lily. And if so DC these days has seen quite a few such embellished flowers. Like, golden nosegays for days. One of the best and freshest in the bunch is Theatre Prometheus’ [gay] Cymbeline. It’s a two-hour gender adventure that’s as fun, funny, and touching as a romp in the sack.

The story line of Cymbeline is notoriously convoluted. It’s said Shakespeare deliberately made it so as a prank. And one can imagine groundlings going, So many plot twists! This is whack! And then it dawns on them, Oh duh, this piling on of plots is a running gag. LMAO.

Cymbeline is at heart a comedy and as such it’s got one of Shakespeare’s simplest-to-follow and most surefire emotional hooks: Two people madly in love and lust who get separated by treacherous, intractable circumstances but then get reunited in each other’s arms by the end. Tearfully and joyfully. Like, everyone on stage and everyone in the audience just loses it they’re so happy.

The way Theatre Prometheus pulls that off with Cymbeline is a delight. The torn-asunder lovers are Imogen and Posthumos, who were written as female and male but are here played as lesbian. Surprisingly, this cross-gender casting makes the whole play make more persuasive modern sense.

Imogen’s mother the Queen wanted her to marry Clotus, her dufus son by a previous marriage, because she has dynasty designs on the match. Instead Imogen married Postumus, whom her father the king, Cymbeline, banishes from the court because he’s lowborn and beneath her. But Imogen is passionately in love with Postumus and will not be deterred. The gender switch that Theatre Prometheus makes to queer the play is to make Postumus an amorous stone butch and Imogen a feisty femme. This immediately turns the explicit elitism of the parental no-no into implicit no-homo. And it works brilliantly.

There’s another juncture in the story that illustrates what can be searing about this queering. The banished Postumus, now an ex-pat in Rome, meets Iachimo, a sketchy fellow with a low opinion of women’s morals. His own being even lower, he makes a bet with Postumus that he can bed Imogen. There’s a  subsequent scene where Iachimo does indeed attempt to seduce Imogen (he doesn’t succeed, but he later pretends to have). And what we see in Theatre Promethesus’ rendering is the added innuendo of the straight dude’s fantasy that all a dyke needs is a good dick.

That all of this layering comes off hilariously is due to direction, acting, performance style, and stage arts that are utterly beguiling.

Director and Producer Tracey Erbacher, who conceived this approach to the text along with Dramaturge (and Imogen) Caitlin Partidge, sets a pace from the top that just keeps delivering knockout moments—from lip locks to sword fights to silly walks to comic chases. The audience I saw the show with kept cracking up.

Standouts in the superlative cast included Caitlin Partidge playing Imogen as a take-no-BS ingenue, Zach Boylan playing Cloten as a clueless goofball, Briana Manente playing Postumus as all love-lorn in leather, and Jonathan Rizzardi playing Iachomo as a half-cocked cock of the walk.

Also: Rachael Murray as a giddily addled Cornelia, the doctor who provides a pivotal potion, and Jacqueline Chenault as the faithful servant Pisanio, who first sets the scene for us and whose earnest grace continues throughout the play to connect us to the goings-on.

Additionally but not least:  Renea Brown (Second Lord / Buiderius), Renae Erichsen-Teal (Queen / Belarius), Mollie Goff (First Lord / Frenchman / Arviragus), Christopher Holbert (Cymbeline / Philario), Rachael Murray (Helen), Jonathan Rizzardi (Caius Lucius), and Zach Boylan (two Captains).

There’s a particular style of crisp and wittily inflected diction along with antic physical comedy in this production that’s remarkably consistent from actor to actor, and it accounts for much of the pleasure. It’s a style I can’t put my finger on to describe, though. I think it may have to be seen and heard. Suffice to say, it had me enthralled throughout.

Lighting and Scenic Designers Eric McMorris and Yannick Godts frame the action in a proscenium, pretty in pink, green, and ivory, and create with light a wonderful flow of worlds within. Costume Designer Kristina Martin kept amusing me with her mishmash of contemporary and faux-classic. Between scenes Sound Designer Patrick A. Lachance placed snippets of pop songs whose lyrics were like amazing annotations to the action. And Fight Choreographer Megan Beham made the zaniest mayhem a side show in itself.

The run of [gay] Cymbeline isn’t long. So pick this gilded lily quickly while it’s still in bloom.

Running Time: About two hours, including one intermission.

[gay] Cymbeline plays through January 29, 2017, at Theatre Prometheus performing at the Anacostia Arts Center’s Black Box Theatre – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

Recent Tragic Events

The American theater has generated some great plays prompted by the tragic events of 9/11. I remember vividly Neil LaBute’s powerful 2002 drama The Mercy Seat, in a production LaBute directed  Off-Broadway with Liev Schreiber and Sigourney Weaver. Locally, Kathryn Coughlin’s gripping Bigger That You, Bigger Than Me, which Field Trip Theatre premiered in 2015, knocked me out (and has inspired a forthcoming production in New York).

When Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events debuted Off-Broadway in 2002, it was touted by its producer Playwrights Horizons as the first post-9/11 comedy—which was a stretch even then. True, the play is set on the day after 9/11, in an apartment in Minneapolis where a television set is left on replaying grim footage of the twin towers falling down. But the tragic event itself is oddly tangential to the play.

The apartment belongs to twenty-something Waverly, whose twin sister Wendy lives in Manhattan and may or may not have been killed in the carnage. So there’s a through line of disaster-specific suspense that we see enacted mostly in Waverly’s anxious and persistent use of her phone. But as playwriting, the 9/11 angle feels more incidental gimmick than trenchant story driver. Even Waverly’s attention is diverted from it more often than not, suggesting we don’t much need to care about it either.

The play’s comedic elements are layered uneasily over this artifice. Waverly’s wishy-washy blind date Andrew arrives. Her obnoxious neighbor Ron drops by joined by his near-naked girlfriend Nancy. Together the four end up in a Gen-X goof-off fest that involves pizza, wine, and card games. Wright’s humor, such as it is, has not worn well. And the conceit that these characters would blithely entertain themselves this way on such a dark day—oblivious to “the thing” that’s on TV—strains credulity.

The real guts of the play, which are substantial, become apparent in the characters’ riffs on free will versus determinism. And Wright injects some clever metatheatricality to dramatize this theme. During the Stage Manager’s pre-show speech she asks an audience member to volunteer to flip a coin. After that, the Stage Manager tells us, we will periodically hear a tone sound at points in the play that could have gone another way if the coin toss had turned out different.

This thought exercise sets up a second act in which the characters tackle, à la a post-collegiate bull session, the topic of freedom versus fate. These passages make for interesting listening. The characters for the first time are enjoyably articulate instead of annoying. And though they don’t reflect explicitly on how the topic connects to the disaster at ground zero, presumably we can.

Putting disparate components into the same play, however, does not necessarily make them cohere. And in the case of this script, the tragic news, the rom-com, and the philosophizing never become a satisfying whole. But an energetic, enthusiastic cast and a smart, imaginative design team have given Recent Tragic Events their all and mounted a worthy production in the vaulted church that is St. Mark’s Players’ home stage. Tackling a flawed play and making it work as well as it can, their undauntedness is to be admired.

Jenny Oberholzer is a droll and engaging Stage Manager. Alicia Yass is an effervescent Waverly. Sidney Davis is an appealingly kindhearted Andrew. Ernie Molina is amusingly boorish as Ron. And Taylor Bono, who keeps quiet as Nancy, becomes a delightfully matter-of-fact sock puppeteer. The credibility of their engaging ensemble work is a credit to Director Anupama Torgal.

Set Designer Kelly Mingle has created an expansive yet homey apartment furnished from Ikea on Waverly’s budget. Costume Designers Ceci Albert and Lisa Brownsword get the young exec look just right for Waverly and Andrew and the hipster-slacker look just right for Ron and Nancy. Sound Technicians Brian Jones and Jerry Dale have excellently mic’ed the cast to counter church acoustics, and Sound Designer Heather Cipu created nicely storytelling audio including the tones of chance, the broadcast voice of Tom Brokaw, and musical interludes (Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” at the end was especially apt). And kudos to Lighting Designer Jerry Dale, who managed to create warm intimacy on stage from instruments hung way high up in the rafters. The surprising light cues called by the Stage Manager in the last five minutes, which included a stunning projection, were especially well done. It was the perfect payoff.

Running Time: One hour 50 minutes, including one intermission.

Recent Tragic Events plays through January 28, 2017, at St. Mark’s Players performing at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church – 301 A Street SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 546-9670, and leave a message, or purchase them online.

Someone Is Going to Come

Someone Is Going to Come is a comedy of menace with a roiling undercurrent of sexual tension. It evokes ominous noirish goings-on in a scary remote locale told in stark idiosyncratic dialogue. And it’s funny as all get out. Scena Theatre’s impeccably perturbing production of the Norwegian dramatist Jon Fosse’s biting three-hander had me howling at the odd turns of phrase and the actors’ quirky inflections. But perhaps what hit me as hilarious was meant to seem simply inscrutable? Like a knife that could cut two ways? Strange, very strange.

Someone Is Going to Come does not contain the sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge cues to yuck-yuck that are typical of commercial American comedy. And this is a work by a World Famous Playwright From a Foreign Country (though not well known here). So perhaps one ought assume it is inappropriate or uninformed to find this internationally credentialed highbrow work a hoot?

Absolutely not. This play and this production gleam like existential comic gold.

Fosse’s spare, austere, and distinctive voice—often compared to Pinter and Beckett—can loop through restatements with a quality of incantation that is both mesmerizing and risible.

As the play begins a man and a woman arrive at a remote dilapidated house by the sea that they have bought with the intention of being “alone together… together alone.” HE (David Bryan Jackson) and SHE (Nanna Ingvarsson) keep saying so over and over, with slight variation: They are going to be “alone together….together alone…together alone in each other.” There’s something creepy about their incessant redundancy, and a curious tension builds that edges on ridiculous.

HE appears to be in his 60s, SHE appears to be younger.  It’s not clear whether they are married, but they seem a devoted couple. Except that HE seems inordinately controlling of her. It’s as if their isolation from other people suits some nefarious purpose of his. Suddenly SHE becomes filled with dread, a fear that, as the title says, someone is going to come, someone who will intrude on their solitude.

At this point in the play it becomes impossible to take one’s eyes off Ingvarsson, as she begins to signal with her voice, face, and body the sexual subtext of what’s going on. The ostensible horror they speak of is that an unwelcome intruder is going to come. The actual unspoken horror subtly conveyed in Ingvarsson’s and Jackson’s performances is that she is realizing she is trapped and she desperately wishes someone will come to rescue her.

Sure enough MAN (Joseph Carlson) shows up, a ruggedly handsome loner. Turns out he’s who sold the couple the house. His hunky presence prompts a fit of proprietary jealousy and paranoiac rage in the older man. It steadily becomes evident that the unsafe circumstances SHE first feared were misnamed: The someone who scares her is now the man she came with. It also steadily becomes evident that SHE and MAN have a magnetic sexual attraction. But what will HE do to her if SHE does what she wants to with MAN?

Ingvarsson’s navigation between the two men becomes one of the most transfixing character arcs with solely subtext to go on that I can recall seeing on stage. Sometimes she holds it all in, suppressing every untoward sexual thought—but just then a slight single movement of her foot speaks monologues of let-go longing.

The way Fosse crafts the turgid erotic undercurrents of that thrillerlike psychological progression, through a sparse surface of language, is gripping; and the three actors, masterfully directed by Robert McNamara, make moment after moment spellbinding, and now and then gut-bustingly funny.

LINK: Magic Time!: ‘Someone Is Going to Come’ (a workshop production) at Scena Theatre by John Stoltenberg

Charm

Just opened at Mosaic Theater Company in a thrilling and vibrant production directed by Natsu Onoda Power is a play that puts on stage some of what National Geographic just called the gender revolution. But this is no anthropological field trip. Charm is so funny and poignant, and so pure of heart, that it elevates ordinary theatergoing to a revolutionary act of participation. Call it radical kinship: a  shared opportunity to see differently lives that are different from our own.

The gifted playwright of Charm is Philip Dawkins, a thirty-something gay white cis male  whose characters though fictionalized were inspired by real people whom he listened to and learned from. The path from those people to the play to this performance to our prehension is remarkable.

The main character of Charm is a 67-year-old African American trans woman named Mama Darlena Andrews. She volunteers at a social services center to uplift a group of homeless youth of color by teaching them social graces and grooming, all qualities she calls charm. Mama Darlena believes this tender loving training will affirm their worth and raise their aspirations. She beholds and esteems each one and calls them “my babies.” They are trans, genderqueer, gay, straight, gender nonconforming—a medley of individuals each socially stigmatized for their uniqueness. Mama Darlena teaches them to celebrate it instead—in themselves and in one other.

Dawkins spent some six months attending the real Charm School at the Center on Halsted in Chicago begun by the real Miss Gloria Allen. Dawkins would not take notes because he did not want the students ever to see him looking down and not paying them his full attention. So he would take it all in, then right afterward write it down—with Capote-like acuity and recall—and from those notes he created a play. He could not have sat in class as a detached observer. He had to have been empathetically present in order to apprehend the lives he witnessed. The characters in Charm could not otherwise have come to seem so real and true to life. And his empathetic apprehension is built into the play.

Dawkins has said of his intentions in writing Charm:

I hope it opens up a doorway to empathy where it may not have been expected. And I hope that people take that invitation and walk through that door.

That doorway began to open in what transpired between Dawkins’ witnessing and Dawkins’ writing. And it now swings wide open in the Lang Theatre on H Street performed by a cast so connected to their characters we cannot but be as well.

We first meet Mama Darlena (B’Ellana Duquesne), all warmth, propriety, and poise, when she walks on stage in her heels and addresses us as if we are her charges. Within moments she lands the first big laugh of the play:

I am so lookin’ forward to getting’ to know each and every one of you. But before we get started, there is one thing I need to make perfectly clear and that is, I have zero interest in lookin’ at your butt crack.

With such easygoing jokes and genuine gestures of inclusion, Mama Darlena disorients us out of whatever reserve we came in with and begins the play’s entry into our hearts.

We first meet Mama Darlena’s babies in a classroom of undifferentiated mayhem, a rowdy melee of jostling, jesting, and jeering. Miss Darlena’s entrance brings order. And the rest of the play brings each of her charm students into indelible focus one by one.

Jonelle (Justin Weaks) is gender nonconforming: male bodied but female attired. During the play a romance blooms that surprises Jonelle almost as much as us.

Victoria (Jade Jones*) is straight, cis female, and the mother of two children being cared for by their grandmother because Victoria can’t.  Their babydaddy is Donnie (Louis E. Davis), cis male and presumptively straight but emotionally on the downlow with a female-presenting male inmate whom he fell for while in jail. During the play Mama Darlena reconciles Victoria and Donnie in a twist that surprises them almost as much as us.

Lady (Joe Brack) is gender uncertain and on the autism spectrum. She can’t find thrift shop clothes that become her. She doesn’t have a place even among the displaced. During the play Mama Darlena helps her be okay.

Beta (Clayton Pelham, Jr.) appears as a thuglike street tough. The way Mama Darlena draws out of him the painful secret he hides, and the anguished sorrow he suddenly howls, amounts to a gut-wrenching showstopper.

Arelia (Nyla Rose) is older than the others. Male to female trans, she has been in prostitution since she was 13. During the play she develops a crush on Mama Darlena and discloses in the play’s most heart-wrenching monologue such a depth of desperation and drive for survival that the show goes breathless once more.

Logan (Samy El-Noury) is a gay college kid who drops in out of curiosity only to learn something unforeseen about himself.

D (Kimberly Gilbert) is supervisor of the center and uses the pronouns they/their/them. A pivotal conflict scene between D and Mama Darlena explodes both their and our preconceptions .

There’s a lot of intolerance at the beginning among and between the characters in Charm. Prejudices and pejoratives, divisions and derision, fly every which way. Slowly but surely, though, Mama makes a place of peace for the distressed, and a home of kindness for the homeless. It is a process that catches us up in it. The characters’ movement to tolerance, trust, and connection models a movement that the entire play invites us to join.

The first part of the path is Dawkins’ act of empathy in scripting and individuating these characters’ lives.The second part of the path is the actors’ acts of empathy in embodying those lives. The third part of the path is the chance the Mosaic production occasions for random acts of empathy for those lives from anyone in the audience.

And it’s the third part that’s the charm.

____

*Beginning January 19, the role of Victoria will be played by Tamieka Chavis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copenhagen

Strange to watch a play unfold and wish that it did not feel so chillingly relevant. Or that  the past it depicts never happened. Or that the moral and material uncertainty at its core did not portend a fearsome future. So it was on opening night of Theater J’s highly charged, highly skilled production of Michael Frayn’s 1998 Copenhagen—which at this moment in time plays like a minefield for the mind.

As the news cycle has recently had alarming reason to remind us, there are today, in the possession of some nine nations, more than 15,000 nuclear warheads. Enough to blow the world to kingdom come.  What Frayn does in Copenhagen is to recollect that precarious instant in history when there were still none. No nation yet had one. But a race was on to invent one.

If this were myth, it would be like that fabled moment in Eden just before a bite into an apple introduced sin. But this is not myth; it actually happened: It’s the moment when physicists bit the bullet and introduced nuclear annihilation.

The explosive drama that is Copenhagen takes us back to that fateful juncture. The story is told in an unreal afterlife where three once-real-life people have gathered to unravel a mystery: Why did the German Nobel-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg come to Copenhagen in 1941 to visit Danish Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr, his friend and mentor, and Margrethe, Bohr’s wife? What exactly happened between them? What exactly was said?

The historical record draws an inconclusive blank, which Frayn fills in: Niels, Werner, and Margrethe talk to one another and to us and to themselves, and in doing so they parse the science and crises of conscience that converged in that mysterious meeting just prior to the prospect of nuclear holocaust.

The stakes are sky high. Heisenberg, who trained under Bohr in Denmark and now holds a university chair in Germany, may or may not be helping devise a nuclear bomb at Hitler’s behest. Bohr, who is half Jewish, lives in Nazi-occupied Denmark, his friendship with Heisenberg now strained by Hitler’s ruthless rise to power.

Bohr and Heisenberg piece together their conflicting memories and interpretations of that mysterious 1941 meeting. Margrethe Bohr’s memory adds weight, for she is both a reality check and an opinionated observer of Niels’s and Werner’s relationship. She gets not only the theoretical physics and realpolitiks but also the gendered drama in her husband’s filial feelings for his former mentee. Through Margrethe’s keen eyes, we see a father-son bond that at times absented Niels from her and the several real sons she bore him.

The way the play interweaves explanations of nuclear fission and evocations of war with  dissection of tensions within a marriage over a friendship between two men—in crackling smart dialogue—makes for an extraordinarily provocative drama. And the cast on stage at Theater J does it every justice it deserves.

Michael Russotto’s Niels Bohr has both a professorial bearing and an avuncular inner glow. Tim Getman’s Werner Heisenberg exudes both ambitious earnestness and  buoyant charm. They are especially appealing in their several buddy scenes, when they relive the beginnings of their brainy bond, the period in the 1920s when Heisenberg first studied with Bohr and together they conceived some of theoretical physics’s greatest hits: Heisenberg’s famous principle of uncertainty, Bohr’s theory of complementarity. The affection that arose between them becomes palpable in Russotto’s and Getman’s performance.

Next to Russotto’s and Getman’s towering stature, Sherri L. Edelen might appear a small soprano voice up against a booming bass and baritone. But Edelsen’s Margrethe Bohr is fiercely focused and unyielding in her insistence on accurate recall. And her deadpan asides to the audience about the men land like truth bombs.

The script’s illuminating explications of how and why nuclear reactions work—hence how and why they can be weaponized—are in very plain English. Yet the play as written can seem a little heady and verge on austere. Moreover the text’s multiple layers of time and differing dimensions memory—the characters are dead after all, so Aristotelian unities be damned—can sometimes perplex. But Director Eleanor Holdridge has made several fascinating choices that have the salutary effect of both warming up the play and clarifying it. For instance there is a marked easygoingness in the acting that agreeably avoids the text’s temptation go oracular. And the distinctive stagecraft of the show lends intriguing support for the riveting storytelling.

Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi’s striking blue-gray set is the interior of a massive cylinder whose walls are hung with clear vinyl strips—the sort used in doorways to walk-in freezers, except reaching to the fly space. Three white chairs, the only furnishings called for in the script, are modern molded white plastic. And lying about the stage are orbs that light up, as if atomic particles had fallen to the floor of a cyclotron. At times Holdridge has the actors slip through the vertical slats and play portions of scenes from the upstage side, as if in an unreal realm unlike the unreal realm downstage.  While sometimes distracting, these actors’ interactions with the set,  wholly original to this production,  do evoke the play’s multilayered unlocatedness and its quest for transparency.

Lighting Designer Andrew Cissna creates apt illusions in the way light reflects off those vinyl strips, as if particles and waves of light are in motion. And there are some stunning light cues that flood this cool cloud chamber with the sudden warmth of a shining sun.

Composer and Sound Designer Patrick Calhoun inserts lyrical musical passages between scenes—pianos, strings, wind chimes. Yet now and then there booms a distant detonation, audible yet almost subliminal, as if to keep us mindful of the end use of these end-of-days devices.

Hitler never got the atomic bomb. A conundrum of Copenhagen is whether Werner Heisenberg helped or hindered Hitler’s failed attempt to. But the United States did. And a corollary conundrum of Copenhagen is whether Niels Bohr aided and abetted Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos in that ignominious success.

Seventy two years ago—four years after the events of Copenhagen—the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than any other play written since, Copenhagen explodes the moral enigma that ushered in the nuclear age. And right now it’s particularly urgent to see. Because more than any other play currently onstage in the nation’s Capitol, Theater J’s production exposes what led to the risk of recklessness that will soon accompany trigger-happy rage.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Copenhagen plays through January 29, 2017, at Theater J at The Edlavitch DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.

Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show

With the audience seated in the round on a floor shared by the playing space, you could feel the whole place shaking and quaking. It was no subterranean tremor; it was the ebullient Step Afrika! ensemble doing their dance moves. And their rhythmic pounding stomping stamping was reverberating with a vibe that was irresistibly joyful.

This was Step Afrika!’s sixth annual Magical Musical Holiday Step Show, directed by Artistic Director Mfoniso Akpan. Now playing through December 30, 2016, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, it’s a family-friendly extravaganza sure to gladden anyone’s inner kid.

Set Designer Ruthmarie Tenario has made of the Sprenger Theatre a virtual winter wonderland. The stage painted blue is festooned with blue and white streamers, and in the four corners of the black box stand evergreen trees decked in lights. On all the  walls are hung huge white cutouts of trees, and upon them Lighting Designer John D. Alexander makes it snow oversize snowflake projections—the first of many effects that will get more and more wondrous.

Atop a platform overlooking the stage stands DJ Frosty the Snowman (played by Jeeda Barrington) with his turntable scratching seasonal tunes with cheery beats. (The amplification by Sound Designer Patrick Calhoun gives the space terrific acoustics.) The show proper starts with two drummers at twin drum sets who rock the house and knock us out spinning their sticks.

Enter the ensemble performing a section of the program called “It’s Time for the Holidays,”choreographed by Jason Nious. They wear smart black-and-white formal attire, the first of several stunning wardrobes by Costume Designer Michael Murray. Strangely but amusingly, three cosplay-like figures are also loping about: a penguin and a couple of polar bears.

Suddenly we are treated to Step Afrika’s signature choreographic technique of stepping, clapping, kicking, and body-thumping—a performance style that’s breathtaking in its synchronization and astonishing in its ingenuity.

A second section titled “March of the Nutcrackers,” choreographed by Christopher Brient,  had the cast dressed as toy solders. Later they appeared as elves and ballerinas, later yet in contemporary fashions. During their several offstage costume changes, the show’s buoyant pace was kept up by soloists and Emcee Jakari Sherman.

There is impressive cohesion in motion among Step Afrika! performers. They are clearly one another’s peer in virtuosity, and the exuberance that comes of their unanimity is infectious. So when now and then they show off individually—as if to say, Here’s what I got; see if you can top that!—or when other competitions arise, you get that it’s all part of their polished play-acting. And you know this troupe is tight.

During a mock step-off between “the ladies” now dressed as glam ballerinas and “the fellas” now as goofy elves (“The Arctic Step Challenge”), there were startling splits by the women and a hilarious miming of snow angels by the men. As with some other sections of the show, the dancers did the amazing choreography themselves. Sherman as referee got the audience cheering and applauding for the “winning” team, then brought the two rival groups together in what became a show of high-impact solidarity.

A fun section titled “DJ Frosty’s Yuletide Step Workshop” got audience members out on the stage, now a dance floor where adults, tweens, and tots alike learned The Frosty Shuffle and frolicked alongside the cast.

A section called “Snow Day,”choreographed by Jakari Sherman, began with a bluish light effect evoking fallen snow. Several steppers wearing work boots and uniforms entered carrying shovels, and soon the sounds of these tools scraping and striking the stage combined with the sound of feet tromping and boot slapping. Then the rest of the ensemble joined in with shovels as well. It was as if Stomp had blown into town.

A section called “Home for the Holidays,” choreographed by Jakari Sherman,  was a spectacular finale that brought the whole cast back in assorted costumes they’d worn before. They set up a big abstract tree sculpture center stage and trimmed it in bright colored balls under a real fake snowfall. Then this gift of a show wrapped with another come-one, come-all dance party.

Featured in performance for this year’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show are Mfoniso Akpan, Reginald Barrington, Christopher Brient, Emanuel Chacon, Deatrice Clark, Dionne Eleby, Matthew Evans, Kiera Harley, Joe Murchison, Anesla Sandifer, Brittny Smith, Jordan Spry, Alan Stewart, Andrew Vinson, TaQuez Whitted, Jerel Williams.

For 22 years Step Afrika! has been, as Founder and Executive Director C. Brian Williams said before the show, “stepping around the world.” Easy to understand why it’s so popular; the company’s talented performers and distinctive choreography have enormous and timeless appeal across generations and cultures. (You simply have to experience it visually and viscerally if you’ve never done so. It’s theatergoing like none other.)

But as I discovered the night I saw the 2016 edition of Magical Musical Holiday Step Show, there’s another dimension of Step Afrika!’s appeal that feels particularly welcome right now. Whatever worldly cares you might have come in with get set aside. And in their place happens one of the happiest holiday times in town.

Running Time: About 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Step Afrika!’s Magical, Musical Holday Step Show (2016) plays through December 30, 2016 at Step Afrika! performing at The Paul Sprenger Theatre, Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

Note: This is definitely a show grownups can enjoy whether accompanied by youngsters or not. For those who do bring children, Step Afrika! invites you to come to the crafts table in the Atlas lobby 30 minutes before showtime so they can create and decorate musical instruments such as clappers, shakers, and drums to be played during the show. (The night I was there, the little ones played only on cue—and it was cute.)

LINK:

The DOMA Diaries

The year 2013, when the Supreme Court narrowly struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, has already faded from America’s short-term memory but not so much as has 1996, the year President Bill Clinton spinelessly signed it into law. Time passes, the news cycle moves on, people get used to taking things for granted. In effect, same-sex marriage has been normalized. Generations of queer kids will come along who have no recollection of what life and love were like for those whom law once kept asunder

So it is that The DOMA Diaries serves as an important memory prompt, a necessary flashback. Written by Kevin Michael West, The DOMA Diaries takes the form of amiably theatricalized storytelling to bring back to mind the damage DOMA did.

The play premiered last summer in the Fringe festival in a production directed by West that my DC Metro Theater Arts colleague David Friscic reviewed and rated five stars and a “best of the festival” pick. I missed the play then but happily The Rainbow Theatre Project—in keeping with its commitment to showcase works “that reflect the unique experiences, interests and history of the LGBTQ community”—brought back the same cast and director to reprise the show in two performances at Source.

I went assuming I was kind of familiar with what the consequences of DOMA had been, but West’s script opened my eyes to particulars I’d not realized. He has created three fictional couples who are composites, as the program says, “inspired by the real life experiences of LGBT Americans.” In each couple’s story West makes vivid how DOMA came down around three specific issues in U.S. law: survivor benefits, immigration, and adoption. West’s choice of those three issues proved both apt and revealing.

Audrey (Joy Gerst),  a veteran, wants to be buried in Arlington Cemetery next to her deceased wife, also a vet, but is legally forbidden that final-resting-place respect, which straight spouses are entitled to.

Red (Christian Rohde) and Oliver (Garrett Matthews) meet cute, fall in love, and get married in a state where that’s allowed. But Oliver is a Russian national, he’s in the States on a work visa, and he must leave the country when it expires. Had the couple been straight, he’d have spousal rights to stay.

Janice (Renae Erichsen-Teal) and Sophie (Nell Quinn-Gibney) have two kids (the biological child of each). When Janice falls terminally ill, Sophie wants to adopt Janice’s child as her own, but under the law she cannot. Against Janice and Sophie’s wishes, Janice’s father George (Steven Wolf, who also plays Audrey’s brother) tries to adopt the child instead, which he can legally do as next of kin.

That precis of the legal issues in the script sounds more schematic than the show plays. West has done a fine job of crafting relatable narratives that pull us into these characters’ relationship crises and yield real emotional payoff when each has its hard-won resolution.

At one point a character makes reference to a sign seen carried by a demonstrator in an anti-DOMA protest:

Your laws will not change our love. But our love will change your laws.

Even though DOMA is done for and marriage equality has been normalized, the spirit of that slogan is needed now more than ever. Our not-normalizable president elect, when pressed last month on 60 Minutes for his opinion on legalization of same-sex marriage, said he is “fine with that.” Given his proclivity for prevarication, there’s every chance he’ll not remember having said it. But for the LGBTQ community—as Rainbow Theatre’s timely remount of The DOMA Diaries reminds us—forgetting history is not an option.

Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.

The DOMA Diaries was presented by the Rainbow Theatre Project December 11 and 12, 2016, at Source Theatre – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For information on upcoming Rainbow Theatre Project productions, go to their website.

LINKS:

2016 Capital Fringe Review: ‘The DOMA Diaries’ by David Friscic

Magic Time! Heard About the Rainbow Theatre Project? A Q&A With Artistic Director H. Lee Gable by John Stoltenberg

Into the Woods

The acclaimed Fiasco Theater production of Into the Woods has come to the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center for the holidays—I am tempted to say for a spell, because the show is enchanting as a magic elixer—and I completely concur  with my DCMTA colleague Andra Abramson, who gushed that it “deserves to be gushed over.”

Key to this surfeit of delights is the fact that Fiasco has reimagined the storytelling in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical classic in a way that inivites our imaginations into it. Both our inner child and our mental grownup get to play along with the players as they spin intertwined fairy tales that hark back to long ago and speak truths about life right now.

I loved, for instance, how a cowbell hung around an actor’s neck designates him a cow—and our imaginations get it. I loved how actors’ fingers fluttering pieces of paper signify a flock of birds—and our imaginations light up. I loved how a taxidermist’s trophy animal head held by an actor makes him into a wolf—and our imaginations believe it. I loved how the quivering feather duster in an actor’s arms stands in for a hen—and our imaginations are tickled again.

I loved Fiasco’s stripped-down simplicity too. For instance, the part of the narrator in the script has been dispensed with, and snatches of exposition are dispersed among the troupe of ten. The orchestra has been dispensed with as well: there’s a single pianist, and cast members on other instruments play a pickup tune team. There’s not even any woods. The sole tree is represented by a vintage dress form. Because in the world of make believe, why not?

All the focus is on the story. There are theatrical sleights like shadow plays and gag costumes, but the most special effect is what happens in our minds when we fill in the blanks and complete the tale. The performance style aligns so perfectly with the storytelling, in fact, it’s as if the musical was always meant to be staged exactly this way.

The book of Into the Woods is a commingling of familiar narratives about Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf and her grandmother, Jack of the fabled beatstalk and his mother and their cow, Rapunzel and her long hair, Cinderella and her tormenting stepsisters, a couple of prince charmings, and a wicked witch. Lapine and Sondheim have added a baker and his wife to complete the cast.

The plot is driven by three once-upon-a-time wishes. Jack and his mother want their cow to give milk, Cinderella wants to go to a big bash the king is throwing, and the baker and his wife want a child. Their quests hit some snags foist upon them by the evil hag, but the wishers carry on undaunted. And by the end of Act One everyone has what they wished for and is all set to live happily ever after.

I pause here between acts to insert some backstory that manifests in this entertaining production in a deeply intriguing way.

The stories that are the source material for Into the Wood originated in Germany in a generations-long oral tradition among women. These stories included sex and gruesome violence and were never intended for children. In the original, for instance, Rapunzel gets pregnant; the stepsisters chop their feet down to size to fit the slipper;  the wolf swallows whole little Red and her grand, who are rescued only when a hunter slices open the wolf’s belly. One can but speculate what roiled the imaginations of these hausfraus of Germany such that they would want to regale one another with these dark  and bizarre tales.

Two young German librarians named Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, sensing a folk literature about to be lost, traveled the country to collect these adult-only stories and first published a selection in 1812. Immediately, under pressure from the book-buying public, the brothers began bowdlerizing the texts in subsequent editions so they could be read to the kinder—a process of lite-ning and cute-sifying that reached its apex in the Disney versions.


In 1976 a book appeared written by a Holocaust survivor named Bruno Bettleheim called The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. The book was a Freudian take on the kid lit that followed from the Grimm brothers’ un-griming. It argued that fairy tales, even those with darker themes, are good for children’s emotional development. When Lapine and  Sondheim got hold of the book, it was the lightbulb moment for what became Into the Woods.

And in that lightbulb moment was an important literary pivot: The process of child-proofing fairy tales was thrown into reverse. Lapine and Sondheim went back to the oral original versions (including theatricalized renderings of the examples of sex and gore mentioned above). And together Lapine and Sondheim proceeded to create a musical that is not really about childhood enchantment at all. It’s about adult disenchantment.

Which brings us to Act Two. Now the wishes have all been granted, but they’re not all the wishers hoped. And there ensues some coping rumination about what life holds for grownups, as in this lyric:

WISHES MAY BRING PROBLEMS,
SUCH THAT YOU REGRET THEM.
BETTER THAT, THOUGH,
THAN TO NEVER GET THEM…

Sondheim is the master of skepticism and irresoluteness, of misgivings and ambivalence, of existential weltschmerz. So many of his recitative-like musical phrases are not quite melodic, almost atonal (singable only by classically trained vocalists), as if to yield to hooks and homey humablility  would be to buy  in to a dubious fantasy that it’s a wonderful life and we can live happily ever after (or some such seasonal sentiment).

And then Sondheim will surprise us by pulling out the emotional stops. There is a gorgeous song near the the end called “No One Is Alone.” It’s one of Sondheim’s unabashed heart-tuggers:

SOMETIMES PEOPLE LEAVE YOU,
HALFWAY THROUGH THE WOOD
OTHERS MAY DECEIVE YOU,
YOU DECIDE WHAT’S GOOD.
YOU DECIDE ALONE.
BUT NO-ONE IS ALONE.

The musical refrain “No one is alone” seems not only a wish but an experience of its fulfillment. For just then the connection that has been happening between the inventive Fiasco Theater production of Into the Woods and the participating imaginations of the audience becomes nothing short of a magic moment.