Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

When the Rain Stops Falling

This play by Andrew Bovell in this 1st Stage production burned so many astounding images onto my brain—and sent into my ears so many searing exchanges—that my head is still spinning.

For instance there’s a scene when we see the same character, Elizabeth Law, at two different ages in her life played by two different actors. (The play travels back and forth in time over 80-odd years, between rooms and landscapes in England and Australia, with eras and locales overlapping and segueing into one another—which sounds lots harder to follow than it actually is.) Thus we see Kari Ginsberg playing the younger Elizabeth; Teresa Castracane, the older, on the same spacious stage in the same placeless neutral gray set of see-through scrim (handsomely designed by Luciana Stecconi and eloquently lit by Brittany Diliberto), each wearing age-appropriate clothes (smartly designed by Kelsey Hunt) befitting a rather ordinary matronly Englishwoman.

We have already seen the younger Elizabeth’s howl of betrayal and outrage upon discovering that her husband, Henry, has been keeping a shameful secret and living a terrible double life. (It would be a spoiler to say more. When the Rain Stops Falling is nonstop suspenseful; its plot points are disclosed in a confluence of revelations that cascade one upon another—some so literally breathtaking I gasped involuntarily.)

We have seen Henry (a role Dylan Morrison Meyers makes indelible) demolished in self-reproach. We have already seen the younger Elizabeth expel him from her life, for he has become a stranger to her—he the adoring father of Gabriel, their seven-year-old son. (Elizabeth will never tell Gabriel the horrible reason his father left—an absence that will distress Gabriel all his life.) And now we see Elizabeth younger and Elizabeth older onstage at once. They neither see nor speak to each other, but as embodied in two powerful performances by Ginsberg and Castracane they send unspoken emotional depth charges to us in the audience—for we now behold what that dreadful sins-of-the-father plot point has done to Elizabeth long after her son is grown and gone from her life too.

The moment is beyond heartbreaking. In substance it surpasses Ibsen’s Ghosts. It approaches the fearsome pity of classic Greek family tragedy.

And there’s more upon more over the two-hours traffic of this sprawling and enthralling intergenerational epic—which Time magazine named best play of 2010—in a fascinating  production directed rivetingly by Michael Dove.

A page in the program contains a paragraph synopsis, a color-coded genealogy chart titled “Two Families Across Four Generations,” and a note titled “Family Tree Explained.” Taken together they’re a listening assist I recommend, because it tips you off the way myths familiar to theatergoers in Ancient Greece functioned as a collective Spark Notes for the drama about to unfold onstage.  Soon enough you will learn that the payoff for perusing this quick preshow crib sheet is profound.

The play begins in a downpour—the ensemble rushing about under umbrellas—then a  zone of dazzling poetic diction that becomes its linguistic home, even as the stories’ times and places shift.  An old man living on an Australian coast is about to receive a visit from the son he abandoned. And a fish falls out of the sky. Lest we expect lifelike to be naturalistic. And lest we suspect the improbable of being anything but true to life.

In ensuing scenes a tapestry of interwoven images unfurls—of fish soup, of rooms, of hats, of rain, of familial friction, of young love, of life new born and death impending. And it envelops you—washes over you, actually, like coastal surf, or like the rain that seems ever to fall (in Sarah O’Halloran’s subtle and lovely sound design).

We meet Gabriel Law (a touching Scott Ward Abernathy) who has come to Australia in search of  the man who abandoned him when he was seven. There he meets Gabrielle York (a feisty Sara Dabney Tisdale), a roadside diner waitress who chooses him to be her first time. Their love is complicated not only in and of itself but by what has been passed down to them unawares and what they in turn unwittingly will pass down. Therein lies the deepest satisfaction of this play: to see revealed in multiple time frames and interconnecting lineages all the legacies in lifetimes that the characters before us cannot possibly know themselves but that a brilliant script in a beautiful production makes as transparent to us as scrim.

Also outstanding in related roles are Frank Britton as Joe Ryan, stepfather to Gabrielle’s son (whom she names Gabriel, after his father); Amy McWilliams as Gabrielle York late in life (when the failure of memory is all there is); and Mark Lee Adams as Gabrielle’s boy Gabriel grown up (with a slate not blank but already much etched).

When the Rain Stops Falling—which, ironically, reminds us how little we can really know much less remember about all that lives through us in our lives—is a wonderfully original work of topnotch theatrical artistry that is as readily accessible as it is utterly unforgettable.

Running Time: Two hours, without intermission. (When the Rain Stops Falling is indeed a long drink of water, but in performance its two hours fly by; its pacing is pulse-beat perfect. Still, one might wish to limit one’s literal liquid intake beforehand as there will likely be restroom lines after.)

When the Rain Stops Falling plays through February 28, 2016  at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. For tickets, call (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)

The production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ acclaimed three-part saga now having its regional premiere at Round House Theatre is some of the most amazing storytelling I’ve seen on stage. Amazing on account of the stories themselves, and equally amazing on account of how they are told.

In an essay titled “Possession,” Parks gives this provocative inkling about what she’s up to:

[T]heater, for me, is the perfect place to “make” history—that is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, dismembered, washed out, one of my tasks as playwright is to–through literature and the special strange relationship between theater and real life—locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down.

And that’s exactly what Parks does in Father Comes Home…  The language alone—an idiocyncratic mix of imagery and idiom, delivered by an extraordinary acting ensemble—is unmistakably alive, a unique aural experience of passion, poetry, and proclaiming. Not to mention the pleasures of the play’s political profundity, its touching truisms, its comedy, its twists and turns.

The play begins in 1862 on a plantation, where four “less than desirable slaves” as  the playscript calls them (Jefferson A. Russell, Jon Hudson Odom, Stori Ayers, and Ian Anthony Coleman) are trying to guess whether Hero (Jaben Early), also a slave, will leave with their owner, who’s headed off to join the Confederate Army and wants his loyal lackey  along. Hero’s decision is fraught with complications, and the way Parks plays them out and strings everyone along is utterly engrossing. There are complex relationships to reveal between Hero and Homer (Kenyatta Rogers) and between Hero and Penny (Valeka J. Holt). By the time Hero declares he’s going, the stakes of the story have scaled to the epic heights of Greek tragedy: an enslaved “Colored man” who’s serving his “Boss-Master-Boss” who’s serving in battle on the side that’s defending slavery.

“All we’ve got is the trust between us,” counsels The Oldest Old Man (Craig Wallace). Yet  as the drama about Hero’s choice unfolds, Parks lets us see clearly how it’s a Hobson’s choice—and how easily what tethers these characters together could be severed in this system where they have no say.

One of the many powerful achievements of the play is Parks’ portrayal of the way “race” gets projected and parlayed in the systematic privileging of “white.” In her essay “An Equation for Black People Onstage,” Parks poses these questions:

Can a White person be present onstage and not be an oppressor? Can a Black person be onstage and be other than oppressed? For the Black writer, are there Dramas other than race dramas? Does Black life consist of issues other than race issues?

Parks herself takes up the challenge in those questions—in three plays that take place in the Civil War South!—with unique and astonishing ingenuity and artistry.

Part 2 is set in a wooded area where a Confederate Colonel (Tim Getman) and his captive, a Union Captain (Michael Kevin Darnall), are lost somewhere midway between their respective approaching armies. Hero enters carrying the wood and water his master directed him to fetch, and what follows is an extraordinary sequence of scenes on the themes of race, freedom, and human worth that are no less insightful for being hilariously entertaining. The poppycock Colonel, for instance, has a show-stopping monologue that begins, “I am grateful every day that God made me white” and ends “For no matter how far I fall, and no matter how thoroughly I fail, I will always be white.” The night I saw the show, I heard gasps of recognition that dared not breathe, the uneasy sounds of squirming, explosive guffaws. Was it meant to be funny? In her essay titled “Elements of Style,” Parks  tips us off to her revolutionary use of humor:

Laughter is very powerful—it’s not a way of escaping anything but a way of arriving on the scene. Think about laughter and what happens to your body—it’s almost the same thing as throwing up.

The overarching and cumulative effect of this masterwork, masterfully directed by Timothy Douglass, is an experience of brazenly original storytelling and blazingly theatrical style that will keep you riveted—and your mind in a state of being blown all during and long after.

 

 

 

 

 

The Glass Menagerie

What’s the best way to stage a modern classic that is both reverential and revelatory? How does one mount a production that is respectful of the author’s intent yet freshly insightful? How can a production that is both faithful to the text and plentiful with pleasant original surprise seem a coherent vision, a seamless whole?

The rewarding answers to all those questions can be found on stage right now in Director Mark Ramont’s beautiful and expressive new interpretation of  The Glass Menagerie at Ford’s Theatre.

The most immediately dramatic evidence of Ramont’s sensitively innovative approach is what we see before the play starts: Projected onto a white scrim pulled across the proscenium is a montage of clips from 1930s films and movie previews. Barely perceptible under the buzz and stumble of other theatergoers finding their seats is a mashup of these movies’ soundtracks. Are we in a cinema? Seems so. Or maybe a faded memory of one, for far left and right are huge piles of broken old movie theater seats that seem to bracket the stage with obsolescence.

Then gradually—on an old-fashioned living room set dimly lit in the center—we become aware that there’s a figure sitting in a wing chair facing upstage watching the same screen we’re seeing and smoking a cigarette. The play proper hasn’t begun, not a word of Tennessee Williams’ lovely language has been spoken, yet we are already immersed in the world of the character Williams wrote as its narrator, Tom, the lowly shipping clerk who aspires to be a poet. As we will soon learn, Tom—to avoid his mother Amanda, whose spirited presence he experiences as stultifying, and to escape into an imaginary world of adventure—goes out alone every night to the movies.

In one incandescent stroke of stagecraft, The Glass Menagerie has come alive in a whole new way.

The rest of the production follows suit. Moment after moment, we see Williams’ classic 1930s memory play not as a museum piece but refreshed in true tribute. For instance, Jim, the Gentleman Caller, appears in half light during Tom’s introductory monolog, so we already have a picture of him long before his entrance. And later, as his high school triumphs are recounted, we see black-and-white footage of his athletic prowess and charisma that makes the character’s backstory vivid in our minds. Laura, Tom’s painfully shy sister, appears onscreen as well—a picture of a possibility that never comes to pass and a vision of a hope that gets dashed.

In the scene near the end between Jim and Laura, the script has him asking her to dance with him. She demurs at first then awkwardly does so in a passage that as written lasts but a dozen lines of dialog. In Ramont’s production the lighting shifts and the music swells and they do a stunningly balletic pas de deux that suddenly sweeps us into all that Laura wishes for and all that her mother wants for her: true love with a man who loves her in return, her body wholly abled, her shyness become ebullience, her future secure. All of that wishing and wanting is in the text, but in that moment in this wonderful new production we get to experience it visually and viscerally.

Does the play itself stand the test of time? Well, yes and no. It is a period piece to be sure—and the Ford’s Theatre production showcases it lovingly. The sense in which it is a memory play has been heightened gloriously through scenic, sound, and cinematic effects. The resources of Ford’s Theatre could not have been expended on this masterpiece for more wow.

But what now seems dated is the play’s plot engine: the fact that Laura, who on account of being “crippled,” is so excruciatingly introverted that she flees business school, making her mother Amanda obsessive in her quest to snare Laura a man who will ensure her financial future. So much has changed that would have made Laura’s life entirely different today: The disability rights movement, which helped open doors through the ADA that were shut tight in the 1930s. The women’s movement, which helped give young women a  shot at financial independence as a Ms., not a Mrs. For gosh sakes even the airily aspirational human-potential movement, which now offers self-help courses and support groups of all sorts.

Williams’ script bluntly acknowledges the economic hardships of the era The Glass Menagerie is set in. And he foresees our individualistic pick-yourself-up-from-your-funk future when he has Jim urge Laura to take the public-speaking class he’s in. But Jim’s touching presumption that what works for him as a man will work just as well for Laura is unexamined. In the precious world of Laura’s glass animal collection, there is no glimmer of the transformative sexual politics to come.

Ford’s Theatre presents a Glass Menagerie that is a memory play most profoundly in the sense that it reminds us of a yesterday that is gone but should not be forgotten—a time when young women like Laura were destined for destitution if they did not marry. For anyone who knows the play (or who doesn’t yet), the Ford’s Theatre production is not to be missed. It is a brilliant, almost textbook example of how to lift a vintage script from the assigned-reading list and breathe brand-new life into it for today.

 

I Shall Not Hate

It was a record-setting blizzard, not prescient season planning, that resulted in Mosaic Theater Company’s rescheduling the opening of I Shall Not Hate to last night, International Holocaust Memorial Day—the date designated by the United Nations to mark the liberation of the concentration camp called Auschwitz-Birkenau.

There is a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza called Jabalia, a 1.5-square-kilometer area said to be one of the most densely populated places on earth. Much of I Shall Not Hate takes place there. For years it has been the site of unspeakable violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  There is as yet no international day to mark its liberation because there has been none.

Jabalia is where a Muslim boy named Izzedin Abuielaish was born and grew up and studied hard so that he could become a doctor. His family of eleven lived in a room three meters square with no electricity, running water, or toilet. His mother called it home. His father called it “bird trap.”

I Shall Not Hate is a solo theater piece with text beautifully distilled from Abuielaish’s best-selling memoir, I Shall Not Hate: A Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity. Performed by the formidable Israeli-Palestian actor Gassan Abbas, it has been directed affectingly by the Israeli theater artist Shay Pitovsky, who with Abuielaisah adapted the script.

The story told in I Shall Not Hate would be heart-wrenching enough if it were made up. But it’s true; it happened to the man portrayed onstage before us. Abuelielaish is the man whose words we hear spoken in Hebrew and Arabic, whose words we read as they are projected in English. And knowing this fact of this show’s theatrical veracity—as it vibrates through every gesture, every sound, every syllable—is to experience a devastatingly powerful drama that pierces to one’s soul.

Mosaic Theater Company is presenting I Shall Not Hate as one of five offerings in its singularly inclusive Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival. The production is superb. The work of Lighting Designer Ziv Volushin and Sound Designer Hilit Rosenthal is especially compelling. Having seen the first festival entry—a solo piece called Wrestling Jerusalem written and performed by the American Jewish theater artist Aaron Davidman (which I praised as a “a rare gift to the spirit and intellect that is relevant beyond words”)—and now having seen the second, Abuielaish and Pitovsky’s I Shall Not Hate, I have just begun to connect the dots of this festival’s unprecedented and sweeping mission: “Israeli, Arab, and American artists…affirming collective commitment to constructive dialogue and unfettered artistic expression.” And what I am starting to glimpse is a vision of theater’s authentic engagement with our troubled world that  comes by its hope for healing not wishfully but honestly‚ with a storytelling truth-telling that stuns and moves.

It begins quite sweet and funny. Abuelielaish in the commanding presence of Abbas chats with us about his youth—the years before he became a gynecologist (who, while working in Israel, delivered more babies there than any other doctor). He tells amusing anecdotes about, for instance, the zoo where two donkeys were painted with stripes so that the kids could have zebras, the marvelous school eraser he was given, the competition he won for reciting the Quran, the time he worked on a farm owned by the Madmoony family, the first Jews he’d ever met. He ambles about the stage—which in Niv Manor’s spare rendering is strewn with foreshadowing rubble and children’s shoes—and takes a seat among the audience as he regales us with tales before the trauma to follow.

And then come the bulldozers, which destroy his family home. And then excruciating Kafkaesque encounters with checkpoints and border guards. Then, in the midst of this all, his loving marriage and the birth of his seven children. And then the bombing massacre that left three daughters dead.

As Abuelielaish’s life story unfolds in simple speeches so poignant and poetic they break your heart and stop your breath, we are drawn ever closer to this man’s character and all this man has lived through—what he has survived, what he has lost. As he becomes a noted public health specialist and professor, later a world-renowned peace proponent, a haunting question hovers over every gripping turn of the narrative: How can this life story possibly lead to the conclusion foretold in its title? How can this not be a grudge match? How can one so hated not hate back?

There comes a point when this larger-than-life figure takes on such moral stature as to set to rest every vengeful objection and tower over every vindictive emotion.

“Who do you want me to hate?” he asks, humbly. The Israeli babies he delivered? The Jewish farm family who invited him to their table? The Israeli doctors who saved his two other injured children’s lives? Who?

“Hatred is our illness in this place,” he says. “It is eating us up without ever letting go.”

The good doctor’s decision to let hate go, to not let it recycle through him, to become a bigger human being than that, stands as one of dramatic literature’s greatest recognition scenes. For in that moment shines like a beacon one person’s principled commitment to forgiveness. And in that moment stands one local theater production as a global blessing.

Running Time: About 75 minutes with no intermission.

I Shall Not Hate plays through February 14, 2016, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, The Paul Sprenger Theatre – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

For the schedule of engagement events following performances of I Shall Not Hate, click here.

The Critic & The Real Inspector Hound

I just love it when theater laughs at itself. Who can forget the clockwork guffaws of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, or Shakespeare’s enchanting send-up of theatrical conceits in the “Pyramus and Thisbe” scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Can a sculpture make fun of sculpture? Can a song spoof singing? Can a ballet satirize dance? Well, maybe, sure. But have a look at the exhilarating double bill of one acts now playing at the Lansburgh Theatre, and you might well be persuaded that theater as an art form is uniquely suited to self-lampoon.

In the hands of a few fiendishly clever playwrights, that is, plus a terrifically crafty creative team.

The first play is Jeffrey Hatcher’s inspired adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1779 The Critic. In it eight great comic actors in sumptuously silly period costumes spin a cockamamie story of conceited playwrights, nincompoop theater critics, and no-talent actors that had me belly-laughing from beginning to end.

The second is Tom Stoppard’s 1968 The Real Inspector Hound, performed by the same cast. In it two theater critics watching an absurd play-within-the-play whodunnit become themselves, bizarrely, characters in the plot of it. While not as laugh-out-loud funny as the first, Inspector Hound yields up brain-tickling takes on illusion and reality that make its satirical trust no less satisfying.

Both these works are directed by Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Michael Kahn with amazingly zany zest and nonstop jesting. Kahn is also to be credited with pairing them purposely because they both take pokes at theater reviewers. Not always with gentle spoofing. Sometimes with scathing resentment. Which of course makes this double bill doubly intriguing for anyone such as myself known to publicly weigh in with opinions about performances on stage.

That serious intent can be read in how Shakespeare Theatre Company has framed this production, surrounding it with historical context and chewy commentary. I was especially fascinated by an article commissioned for the occasion by Robert Brustein, whose writing about theater in The New Republic and elsewhere I remember reading years ago like revelations (alongside criticism by such other early influencers as Eric Bentley, Richard Gilman, Tom Driver, and Stanley Kauffmann). In “Drama Criticism: The Old Age of an Age-Old Profession,” printed in the STC program and available online, Brustein writes:

People who judge the theatre have always been uneasy with one other. But in the long-running contention between the theatre reviewer and the drama critic, it is not often recognized that the two professionals are pursuing entirely separate paths. The reviewer is primarily interested in product, while the critic is more absorbed with process. The reviewer can turn out a notice between the falling of the curtain and the rising of the sun, while the critic normally has at least a week to revise, reenact, and redact first impressions.

Brustein goes on to elaborate on this critical distinction. “The reviewer,” he says, “steers audiences towards shows thought worth the ticket price.” I think of this type of theater coverage as ratings by a solo product tester claiming Consumer Reports objectivity and authority.

On the other hand, “the critic,” Brustein says, “is less concerned with sitting in judgment on a particular play than in trying to describe how it fits in a playwright’s artistic trajectory, in a company’s season, or in the history of dramatic literature.”

I would add to that: the conscientious critic tries to describe how a particular play relates to the life we live and the world we live in. To my mind, the most valuable focus of good theater writing is the locus where art and life are having a conversation. Who is saying what to whom? And why? And to what emotional effect and social impact?

The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound are a comedy hoot and will surely be a hit. But they go so far beyond entertaining that…well, it’s not funny. Together they prompt an important discussion about the function of theater writing in this town, one that has often been whispered about in the wings but needs to come downstage front and center.

See them, laugh your head off at them, then see if you don’t want to talk back.

 

 

 

 

 

Wrestling Jerusalem

“It’s complicated.”

So begins—on a note of supreme understatement—Writer/Performer Aaron Davidman’s captivating and insight-rich solo show, Wrestling Jerusalem, the third provocative production in Mosaic Theater’s inaugural season.

The title is a play on the biblical name Israel, which originally (Genesis 32:28) meant  wrestling with God. In Wrestling Jerusalem, Davidman attempts no less a project than bringing to the stage the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict—solely through the medium of one Jewish American traveler’s eloquent first-hand accounts and the acting instrument of one virtuoso performer.

Davidman starts out with a riveting fast-paced riff compiling   historical/cultural/geographic/political/religious sources and sore spots cited as causes of the conflict. The effect is both amusing in its dizzyingness and sobering in its hopelessness. Before long one senses a more apt title would be Interrogating the Terrible. Or Unpacking the Intractable.

Davidman has an engaging presence on stage—he moves like a dancer, pivots on a dime when he shifts between bits and scenes, fills the vast Lang Theatre with a sense of intimacy and urgency, conveys a conviction that speaks volumes. Plus the show is well leavened with wry wit. (He tells a joke about a rabbi who has been praying for peace at the Western Wall for forty years. I won’t give away the off-color punchline but on opening night it had the audience roaring.)

Then the real drama of the evening unfolds. As Davidman takes us with him on his journey, channeling people he meets along the way, sketching  characters in dialect and diction, keeping faith with folks in opposing factions who have not done so with one another, seeking universalizable shreds of hope, he’s like Walt Whitman writ larger than life (“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”). It’s impressive; awe-inspiring, actually.  Yet one has to wonder: How is this possible? How can one human being do what Davidman has determined to do?

That was the dilemma faced by Anna Deavere Smith in her solo show Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and analogously by David Hare in his solo show Via Dolorosa—both of which I saw the creators perform. Davidman is a sort of hybrid, artfully combining elements of Deavere Smith’s uncanny vocal mimesis and Hare’s authorial gravitas. Yet there Davidman stands alone on stage as an individual, expecting us to believe he’s really not.

Though Davidman’s journey sometimes borders on edutainment, it also yields some mind-blowing insights. For instance, one of the characters he inhabits explains the physiology of trauma that is driving the politics of animus between Israelis and Palestinians. “We are two societies living in profound fear,” he says. “Trauma is trauma.” The persistent message of  all their “recycled trauma”? “I am not safe.”

At another point Davidman gives voice to a character who parses the Hebrew prayer (Deuteronomy 6:4) that observant Jews say daily (it’s sometimes translated “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”). That last part, God is one, Davidman’s character does an amazing number on. God is one, he says, does not mean Our God is the only one. It means what it says: God is one. God is all. And God is everyone’s one God.

In the moment of that exegetical epiphany, the singular form of this solo drama suddenly resounded with hope. For if one actor can embody other lives on stage this vividly, this compassionately, this expansively, can there possibly be a more apt human metaphor for God’s infinite embrace of us all?

The more one wrestles with Mosaic Theater’s Wrestling Jerusalem,  the more one uncovers a rare gift to the spirit and intellect that is relevant beyond words.

Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.

Wrestling Jerusalem plays through January 24, 2016, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

(Re)Acts: Forced From Home #RefugeeCrisis

The event had a provocative hashtag in its title: As if to reference an emergency that is tragically trending worldwide. As if to signal the evening’s explicit link to a global community of concern. As if to declare one small innovative theater’s grappling with an epic real-world human drama.

An audience of about 75 had gathered in the Silver Spring Black Box. The occasion was the most recent in Forum Theatre’s four-year-old Re(Acts) series.

As Producing Artistic Director Michael Dove explained in his introduction, Re(Acts) presentations are intended to offer “more rapid responses to what’s happening in the world” than what ordinary theater production can achieve. Local artists are enlisted by Forum to create ten-minute works on a current issue or theme. The compiled works are then staged for one night only, Pay What You Want, on a bare stage.

Dove recited sobering statistics about the dimension of the international refugee emergency. As headlines now shout daily, that emergency has become, appallingly, a xenophobic wedge issue in right-wing U.S. politics. But as we soon understood, this conscientious evening was meant to personalize, not polemicize, the problem—to engage through performance art what Dove called “the decision to leave everything you have because of fear.”

A few highlights (see full credits below):

In between the several segments of the program, Nora Achrati performed a touching solo play by Christine Evans in seven blog posts in the voice of a young girl whose Syrian homeland had become a horror. It was as if Anne Frank had a laptop.

Performing a monologue he wrote, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, started by interacting with the audience like a stand-up comic but then launched into what became a compelling narrative about how two parents escaped from Iran with their infant and immigrated to America. At the point the audience realized Ebrahimzadeh was that infant, it was like a stun gun to the heart.

The program’s final piece was a monodrama written and performed by Thomas Keegan. In it, Keegan portrayed a father who with his wife and child have walked 2,000 miles to escape and have no home, no money, no food. As he is interrogated by an unseen/unheard government official, we learn that this made-up story takes place in a dystopian U.S. where a military state is waging war on nonconforming citizens. There comes a point when Keegan’s character tries in agony to explain to the interrogator that his Christian faith is not the same as the fanatic extremism of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof—and in that moment was such a powerful metaphor for the impugning of all Muslims that it seemed to take the audience’s collective breath away.

There are important truths that journalism and documentary film tell best. But there are also deep truths that only insightful and creative artists can show us, in order for us to feel them, in the unique human-to-human encounter that is live theater. And that’s what happened Monday.

It  was my first experience of Re(Acts), and it will not be my last. Forum Theatre’s signature Re(Acts) series goes where theater meets real world with exceptional artistry and exemplary conviction.

Greetings from Fallujah
Written by Christina Evans
Performed by Nora Achrati
Directed by Jenna Duncan
A solo play in seven blog posts.

Return to Aleppo
By Annalisa Dias
Performed by Anna Lathrop and Rachel Hynes
Co-Directed by Anna Lathrop and Annalisa Dias
A playlet in which two women decide to leave Aleppo in the night after the 2013 bombings that destroyed much of Aleppo’s Old City during the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

Broken
Choreography by Kathy Gordon
Performed by K. G. Dance Company Dancers
A dance in which a couple, in the aftermath of leaving the life they know and love, are both brought closer and torn apart.

Coming Home
Written and performed by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh
The story of an Iranian immigrant’s search for identity, in vignettes from his family’s journey to America and his own 25 years later.

Seeking Home
Conceptualized and choreographed by Kely King/Contradiction Dance
Performed by Eleni Grove, Jessica Denson, Kelly King.
An audience-participation movement experience to build empathy for refugees as well as those who may be asked to open their hearts and homes in the midst of violence and turmoil.

Refugee
Written and performed by Thomas Keegan
A father imagines himself, his family, anad his country as though they were Syrian.

Running Time: About one hour 50 minutes with no intermission. (As is usual with Forum Theatre performances, there was a facilitated discussion afterward.)

(Re)Acts: Forced From Home #RefugeeCrisis played one night only December 21, 1015 at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD.

 

Stars of David: Story to Song

Stars of David: Story to Song—a rapturously beautiful concert musical now in a limited engagement at Theater J—is a unique blend of thrilling singing and insightful biography. Illuminating incidents from the lives of actual people—all boldface names and Jewish by birth—have been crystalized and lyricized into 14 songs sung simply and shimmeringly by a cast of four accompanied solely by a grand piano.

Last night the show turned the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater into one of DC’s premiere concert halls.

Stars of David: Story to Song is adapted from a book of the same name, a compilation of probing personal interviews conducted by journalist Abigail Pogrebin with an eclectic list of notables. Those whose lives are touched on in song in the show include many who are linked to the performing arts—Mike Nichols, Andy Cohen, Tony Kushner, Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Sorkin, Leonard Nimoy, Fran Drescher, Michael Feinstein, Norman Lear—and some public figures who are not—Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Kenneth Cole, Edgar Bronfman Sr.

Pogrebin, who with Aaron Harnick conceived Stars of David for the stage, recruited a who’s who of songwriters to tell each celeb’s story. Among those who signed on are musical-theater marquee names Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line), Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof), Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater (Spring Awakening), and Tom Kitt (Next to Normal). The book—the show’s smart sequencing of songs and clever connective patter—is coauthored by Pogrebin and Gordon Greenberg. There are plenty of witty laugh lines throughout. (Barbra Streisand is referred to as “the patron saint of Jewish girls”).

Theater J Associate Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky directs an ensemble of singer-actors who are so good they kept stealing and nearly stopping the show: Joshua Dick, Emily Levey, Sherri L. Edelen, and Aaron Serotsky (Shirley’s twin brother). The virtuoso pianist was Jacob Kidder; the gifted music director, George Fulginit-Shakar. And a shoutout to Sound Designer Justin Schmitz for the ace mic’ing and mixing.

Though on paper Stars of David sounds as if it could be a grab bag of tunes by dissimilar songwriters with disparate styles who just happen to have been given the same assignment, in performance the show plays completely of a piece—and more movingly than I could have imagined.

“Concert musical” does not convey the show’s reach and resonance, because what connects each song sung and story told is not these notables’ fame but their very personal and private reflection on what it means to be a Jew in America. It is a question the show poses like a many-faceted crystal, glinting in all directions depending on the light. It is a question the show poses like a stone, as impenetrable as it is enduring.

The company opens Stars of David with humor and sass, a song that riffs on Jewish stereotypes even as it owns a few. Then begins a cycle of songs, each about a revealing or surprising incident or experience in the life of each celeb.

We learn of Leonard Nimoy, for instance, how as a child he loved to perform magic—but an antisemitic trick caused him to quit.

We learn of Joan Rivers, queen of outrageous comedy and bling, that the high holy days were her respite.

We learn of Ruth Bader Ginsberg that she could not grieve her mother’s death because she was forbidden in the all-men minyan.

We learn of Tony Kushner he told his father that dealing with prejudice for being Jewish was good preparation for being gay.

We learn of Gloria Steinem that she identifies with the women who since biblical times have cooked the religious meals and set the ritual tables and served the presumptively privileged men.

We learn of Gwyneth Paltrow that the matzoh she eats is gluten-free.

And so the show goes, one startling or touching glimpse after another into lives we think of as lived dissimilarly in public yet all connected by the same inner question of identity.

The timing of Theater J’s programming of this show could not be more apt. While mainstream culture is awash in a secularized sectarian celebration that prompts no particular critical self-examination about what it means to be Christian in America, Stars of David shines a bright light on the meaning of Jewish identity that to this particular non-Jew felt awesomely universal.

True, Stars of David is descriptively a concert musical. But it is far more than meets the ear. It is meaning that meets the heart.

Running Time: One hour 15 minutes with no intermission.

Stars of David plays through December 27, 2015, at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.

 

Klecksography: Island of the Misfit Toys

Rorschach Theatre has produced another one-night-only show in its adventurous and eclectic Klecksography series, and Saturday night I went to report on what I saw. If I had to encapsulate the evening for folks who weren’t there or who are unfamiliar with Rorschach’s esthetic, I’d have to say it was silliness noir—with an irreverent spin on Christmas cheer worthy of a slightly sinister Santa Claws.

The word klecksography comes by way of the company’s namesake, Hermann Rorschach, he of ink blot test renown. Klecks is German for blot, and klecksography was the name Herr Rorschach gave a children’s game. Now it’s the name Rorschach Theatre gives its idiosyncratic theater game for  folks who’ve not outgrown childhood: First a provocative theme is picked. Next a bunch of local playwrights, directors, and actors are enlisted. (You’ve likely seen their names featured on playbills around town; this is their chance for some freewheeling playtime all their own.) Each writer is assigned a director and a cast of four or five and given 24 hours to deliver a script on the designated theme. Within a week the several playlets are rehearsed, designed, and teched, then performed on stage as an antic anthology—at which point the audience joins in the fun (as was amply evident at the show I saw).

The evening was conceived, curated, and produced by Rorschach Artistic Directors Jenny McConnell Frederick and Randy Baker. The theme they came up with promised to be not only fun and dark but personally relatable:

On an iceberg near the North Pole Charlie stands sentry over the Island of the Misfit Toys—a place where slightly flawed toys go to be forgotten. On this quiet winter night, The Abominable Snowman attacks—but before he can eat him, Charlie asks if he would rather hear a story. The snowman agrees and Charlie begins to distract him with story after story of misfit toys and their adventures. In a story that is equal parts Arabian Nights, Rankin and Bass and Goonies, KLECKSOGRAPHY: ISLAND OF THE MISFIT TOYS tells seven unexpected tales about what it means to be an outsider.

The “iceberg near the North Pole” was suggested by peaks of white bed linen suspended across the cyclorama. Benches and platforms about the stage were also covered with white sheets, which were removed when each set piece came into play.

The evening’s emcee and continuity wrangler was Charlie (James Finley), who wore a cardboard box around his waist hung from suspenders. As he was Charlie in the Box, not Jack, no one wanted to play with him, making him a misfit toy. Charlie’s nemesis was a menacing amplified voice (James Rogers III). Charlie tried to mollify the monster by telling tale after tale, each of which he introduced by opening a gift-wrapped box and pulling out a prop pertinent to the plot of each playlet.

And so the evening went. Seven playlets in all—each a little screwball, each a little pointed or poignant. There was much, much clowning. It was like watching 30 accomplished actors cut loose on stage and act out with the energy of jumpy school kids at recess. In the casts of characters created by the writers were a lot of jokey pokes at famous toys (see credits below), and the actors’ makeshift costumes and makeup were comically in keeping.

The evening ended on a musical note. The entire cast gathered on stage and led the audience in a sing-along. The lyrics (by Jack Novak), hastily distributed throughout the house, began: “Have a lonely, sad existence.” The fact that that cheeky sentiment seemed to crack everybody up captured perfectly the satyric spirit that seemed for the expanse of this ephemeral show a counter-seasonal uplift.

Barbie Dream House
By Allyson Currin
Directed by Bridget Grace Sheaff
Danny Rovin (Tom), Tori Boutin (Barbie), Sarah Holt (Mom), Ashley Nicole Lyles (Tina)

Re-Integration
By Tim Guillot
Directed by Nick Martin
Erik Harrison (My Buddy), Kathleen Burnard (Rainbow Brite), Lolita Marie (Queen of Africa Doll), Farrell Parker (Raggedy Ann)

Proactive Interpersonal Escalation (P.I.E.) Therapy
By James Rogers III
Directed by Ryan Maxwell
Misty Demory (Silly Clownie Raphael), Ben Lauer (The Poltergeist Clown), Frank Britton (Dr. Chuckles Selzer-Spraybaum), Chelsea Thaler (Shakes Tuck’n Roll & Mrs. Baggy Pants), Brighton Barker (Griffin)

The Smippets Save the Island of Misfit Toys
By Zachary Fernebok
Directed by Quill Nebeker
Shawn Jain (Kevin the Frog), Caroline Lucas (Frizzy Boar), Karen Lange (Gitmo), Ife Johnson (Mass Podgy)

Judy the Fisher-Price Babysitter
By Joshua Ford
Directed by Sarah Scafidi
Kim Tuvin (Judy the Babysitter), Olivia Haller (Jennifer), Mackenzie Williams (Parker), Gray West (Gilgamesh)

Santa Cannot Save You (The King Moonracer Play)
By Alexandra Petri
Directed by Joshua W. Kelley
Jennifer Osborn (Subject 1), Hilary Kelly (Subject 2), Amal Saade (Subject 3), Christian Sullivan (King Moonracer)

Back to the Island
By Jack Novak
Directed by Anna Lathrop
Amanda Tatum (Cowboy), Rachel Spicknall Mulford (Ostrich), Alison Daniels (Doll), Matt Strote (Elf), Ally Jenkins (Mrs. Claus)

Charley & Bumble
Story by Randy Baker
James Finley (Charlie), James Rogers III (Bumble’s Voice)

Patrick Lord (Set & Prop Designer), Niusha Nawab (Sound Designer), Colin Dieck (Lighting Designer), Laura Schlactmayer (Stage Manager), Gwen Grastorf (Lobby Host).

Running Time: About 75 minutes with no intermission.

Klecksography: Island of the Misfit Toys played one night only December 19, 2015 at Rorschach Theatre performing on the Lang stage at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C.

West Side Story

Signature Theatre’s production of West Side Story is every bit as eye-filling and ear-thrilling as any lover of this great American musical could wish.

On a spacious thrust stage inside the intimate Max, with the audience seated on three sides, Director Matthew Gardiner and Choreographer Parker Esse have unleashed a dancing-and-singing cast with breathtaking muscular force and vibrant vocals. Seated in full view above the action is a 17-member orchestra, conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch, that becomes a glorious aural wall. Lighting Designer Jayson Lyons has created an immersive visual world so animate it seems alive.

Often it all seems overwhelming, more gorgeous than one can behold at one time. And we are so close we seem inside it.

The only imperfection I can report is that those in speaking roles (Bobby Smith as Doc, John Leslie Wolfe as Lieutenant Schrank, and Russell Sunday as Officer Krupke) deliver acting performances far more persuasive (and more uniformly audible) than those whose singing and dancing shines so stunningly. But that blip by no means diminishes what is a superb experience in musical theater.

Wisely Gardiner has made no attempt to update or darken the material—an approach he took last season with Cabaret with brilliant results. (Recently Molly Smith updated and darkened Oliver at Arena with  interesting but mixed results.) How a production’s staging says its when is just as relevant as how it says the show’s what, where, who, how, and why. And in this respect, West Side Story is a curious case.

Though it touches on such timely topics as gang warfare, police malfeasance, ethnic animus, and immigration, the world of West Side Story does not translate to now. It can’t. And the reason is, it was always a fantasy world. The original world of Dickens’ Oliver Twist was real. The original world of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories really happened. By contrast, West Side Story, which premiered in 1957, was imagined by four white men—Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Jerome Robbins (original direction and choreography)—who, brilliant as they were, had as much first-hand experience of the musical’s inner-city setting as Shakespeare had of fair Verona in 1595.

And yet many an audience member in the orchestra during the original West Side Story Broadway run may have left the theater thinking they had been treated to a peek inside an authentic Manhattan environment where the lives of others not like themselves were rendered with some verisimilitude. They had to have known it was a prettified peek. But from their socioeconomic perch did they notice what a complacency-coddling concoction the entire show actually was? As musical theater it is beautiful beyond measure. I take no issue with Signature’s calling it “America’s greatest musical.” But in its depiction of life in America’s urban underclass, it is pure American BS.

The score is of course peerless. The lyrics glisten. And the show’s dramatic structure is well made as can be.

At the same time the book is laden with lingo said by no street kid ever. There is nary a nod to the story’s economic class context (the Moynihan Report was not to appear till 1965). The most politically pointed it gets is the sendup of profiling and stereotyping in “Gee, Officer Krupke”—a song that provides terrific comic relief in Act Two but that also offers audiences a cheap chance to check the “I really get these people” box.

Here’s a thought experiment to play out my premise a bit further.

There’s a play by Marcus Gardley produced by Mosaic Theater currently running at Atlas called The Gospel of Lovingkindness. It’s inspired by a true story; it’s set in a real place, South Side Chicago; its themes are contemporary and pressing; its characters and conflicts do not seem made up from whole cloth; its powerful poetic language echoes real people’s speech. Under Jennifer L. Nelson’s direction the script of The Gospel of Lovingkindness plays stupendously; it pulses with truth-telling. And if one day it became source material for a chamber musical or opera, it could be amazing.

The fact that theater has increasingly made space on stage for the voices of creators who have actually lived the stories they tell, to whom what happens in their stories has happened, for whom the hope and purpose of their storytelling matters deeply and personally—that fact is slowly but surely changing how we see.

In that respect West Side Story at Signature is wonderfully worth seeing for what it is. And importantly worth seeing for what it isn’t.

Is it possible to admire and enjoy the design and performing talent invested in a musical theater classic without excising one’s conscience and comprehension about how the material is of its time?

I should hope so.

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

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