Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

The Gulf

One measure of the quality of a play is how it stays in one’s mind the next few days. Or the next weeks or months or years. Not just how it plays on stage. How it remains in the brain.

There are no awards for this quality. No Tonys for most memorable. No Helens or Hayeses for most enduring experience in live theater.  Nor has anyone (to my knowledge) surveyed theatergoers to find out what feelings they remember that were occasioned by a show they saw. That’s not really possible, of course. Emotional recollection like that is subjective. It says less about the play than about the individual remembering it.

Or does it?

I ponder this by way of reflecting on the world premiere production of Audrey Cefaly’s beautiful play The Gulf  that I just saw at Signature Theatre. I’ve got a hunch it will hang around in my mind. And I’ve got a clue as to why.

I read the script of The Gulf several weeks ago before having a wonderful conversation with Audrey, which was published with a title lifted from something she said: “I Think About How Badly I Can Break a Heart Today.” As I reread that Q&A after seeing The Gulf in performance, one passage jumped out at me afresh:

I focus on two-handers, character-driven narratives. They are all love stories. All of them. I construct them and distill them in such a way that the audience can let go and focus on the sounds and the vibrations. It’s heavy on tension, low on sentiment. Those are the kinds of plays that pull me in, so those are the ones I like to write. We see ourselves in the characters, not because we recognize them, but because we recognize the ache.

Recognizing “the ache” describes what happened for me when I saw Audrey’s Maytag Virgin, and exactly what happened for me when I saw The Gulf.

The Gulf is about two women named Betty and Kendra (sublimely played by Maria Rizzo and Rachel Zampelli). Though Betty and Kendra have been lovers for six years, The Gulf is not a lesbian play per se. By which I mean each character’s “ache” is recognizable and relatable in ways that defy simplistic categorization.

Betty and Kendra are afloat in a boat in shallow waters of the Alabama delta. The story is set with water water everywhere—an unsolvable staging challenge unless you’re Cirque du Soleil—but the scenic, lighting, and sound design (by Paige Hathaway, Andrew Cissna, and Kenny Real, respectively) make it all plausible as possible.  What’s most important  is that the stage arts not get in the way of our experience of the characters’ emotions —and in that The Gulf is well served. Director Joe Calarco’s astute choice to mount the play in the round ensures that the feelings we sense in each moment are up-close and personal  as can be.

Betty and Kendra are in a boat because Kendra likes to fish and Betty, who doesn’t, wants to be with her. Betty, who intends to go away to community college to become a social worker, has brought along a self-improvement book, What Color Is Your Parachute? Initially Betty tries to persuade Kendra to set her sights on a better job than the menial-labor one she has and come with her. Kendra doesn’t want to be improved or made to change and doesn’t want to move. It’s all very funny, full of Cefaly’s priceless one-liners, but from the outset there are tensions in their relationship ready to flare any second.

There is palpable eroticism between Betty and Kendra pulling them together (as their scenes of passion make plain). Yet there are divisions between them that push them apart. “Could we be more different?” Kendra asks Betty at one point.

What happens when viewing The Gulf is that we are swept into the undercurrents of what is fundamentally a very universal love story. Two people are in love, but they are two different people—as how could two people not be? So how over time do they reconcile what unites them with what individuates them? How does love survive the lovers themselves?

It’s a story as old as time, right? But somehow  Cefaly tells it anew. With a  gift for writing characters whose hearts and hurts are opened to us in beautiful, bold, breathtaking, and ultimately healing ways.

Some who sense this undercurrent will want only to wade in, which is fine. Some may be towed under and engulfed. But it’ll always be the underlying aching that will lure us and linger.

Audrey Cefaly’s The Gulf is as memorable as anyone’s own first broken heart and as enduring as anyone’s longing for lasting love.

You can dive into it now at Signature.

What We’re Up Against

Near the end of What We’re Up Against, Theresa Rebeck’s incisive comedy about workplace sexism—just opened in a kick-ass production at The Keegan Theatre—a question is posed by Eliza, a very talented architect whom we’ve been watching be screwed by prick power in the office:

They said it wasn’t like this anymore. Why is it still like this?

That sobering question comes after scenes full of some of the funniest, sharpest-edge scripting, directing, and acting you’re likely to see in DC. And what’s remarkable about that question is that What We’re Up Against was first produced more than two decades ago.

Judging from the anti-woman animus unleashed this election season,  however, it could have been written a hot minute ago.

The play’s setting is an architecture firm. Scenic Designer Matthew Keenan in a sheer stroke of genius establishes the world of the play by making the upstage wall an architectural drawing of the firm’s floor plan, with each character’s office identified, as well as conference room, elevator, kitchen, and such. Office furniture is arrayed on stage, desks, filing cabinets, and such. Then as the play proceeds, the setting of each scene is highlighted on the back wall diagram—thus when Eliza complains of having been given an out-of-the-way “broom closet” for an office, we see precisely what she means.

In the first scene we meet Stu, a blustery lush of a boss, and a pitbull defender of the boys club, which he extols as “the system.” In dialog laced with the B word, the C word, and F bombs, Stu makes clear to his direct report Ben that new hire Eliza “doesn’t belong.” Peter Finnegan turns in a performance as Stu so witty that Rebeck’s withering treatment of the guy becomes a complete treat. Check out Finnegan’s hilarious drunken moonwalk in Act Two and you’ll see what I mean.

As Ben, Michael Innocenti must toe his boss’s line while walking a tightrope toward sympathetic identification with Eliza’s struggle for recognition and fairness. Innocenti’s performance creeps up on you, in the best way possible. It is so deftly nuanced that by the end the character as written—to whom Rebeck has given both a conscience and a male-bond-y reluctance to use it—emerges as having one of the most intriguing character arcs on stage.

Janice, the only other woman in the office, has worked there three years and counsels newbie Eliza to be patient and nonthreatening. Janice has learned to survive by sucking up, which is decidedly not Eliza’s style. The script portrays Janice as a bit of a dormat-y dim bulb next to Eliza’s independent incandescence, but Carolyn Kushner brings such canny heart to the role that we root for Janice too. And by the time the clash between Janice’s and Eliza’s contrasting characters emerges as an important focus of the play, their scene together in Act Two (in which Eliza tells Janice, “You sabotaged me in that meeting!”) is absolutely electric.

There’s a third dude in the office, Weber, one of those favored young men whose career advances faster than would any better qualified young woman’s. The role functions as sort of a joker, and Stephen Russell Murray’s effervescent performance in it—with whoops and comical gestures—is both a hoot and a pointed depiction of the character’s complicitous cluelessness.

This story of what talented women are up against in the workplace is set in motion when Eliza puts Weber’s name on a design solution she devised for an architectural challenge that had the men stumped. It has to do with ducts. “Those fucking ducts” as Stu calls them. Upon seeing Eliza’s solution with Weber’s name on it, Stu thinks it’s brilliant. Upon learning Eliza came up with it, he deems it awful. The comedy and culture crit that Rebeck drives with that plot engine is both laugh-out-loud and scathing.

Brianna LaTourneau’s commanding performance as Eliza is extraordinary. Rebeck has given the character one crack-you-up, knock-your-socks-off speech after another, and LaTourneau lands every one with drop-dead aim. I suspect Rebeck has poured into this play a lot of her own experience as a talented woman in a man’s world, giving voice to her own frustration and indignation. I’m just guessing based on the trenchant script. So bravo to Rebeck and LaTourneau for making Eliza indelible.

The stage arts have aligned to serve this show like bright stars in a constellation. Lighting Designer Allan Sean Weeks subtly dims the light on each scene near its end, which has an arresting effect. Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson slyly comments on the tilted playing field by allowing all the men to show up in casual arty-workplace attire (colorful shirtsleeves, tennis shoes; Weber even wears no socks) but putting the women in polished ensembles that say dressed for success. Sound Designer Madeline Clamp has inserted sexist pop music between scenes (such as “Under My Thumb,”Gold Digger,” “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch,” “Blurred Lines”) that would make a fantastic stand-alone playlist. And I found Susan Marie Rhea’s direction fascinating. Many were the moments when no dialog was spoken, but in the silent interstices between lines there were worlds of meaning and emotion.

The Keegan Theatre’s production of What We’re Up Against packs a hilarious wallop and scores a win for sex equality. Would that the play were a museum piece. But it’s not; it’s right on time. And DC is lucky to have it.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

What We’re Up Against plays through October 15, 2016 at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

 

How To… Sex Education (Weekend Two)

Having enjoyed the first weekend of Rabble Crew Productions’ How To… Sex Education, I went back for seconds—another set of four short plays on the ever popular theme of sex…and the never popular topic of sex education. The cheeky conceit that connected the grab bag of two shows is that sex education can be fun and funny. Or sexy and silly. Or loopy and libidinous. Or something along those lines.

The first three plays on the bill made that case well. But it was the fourth that went all the way—with a remarkably crafted poetic-comedic playlet that merits further exposure.

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Sex-O-Lympics
Written and directed by Dara Gold

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From left: High school students Layla and Geo (Dara Gold and Nick Elefante), new teacher Ms. Bonnie Jones (Karen Elle), students Lisa and Ava (Chase Hiday and Elizabeth Colandene), experienced teacher Ms. Anne Gibs (Jackie Madejski), school secretary (Bre McKenley), principal Higgins (Kenny Washington). Not pictured: Students Eli and Loquatia (Corry Bedwell and Ty Black).

First up was a large-cast story set in a high school where a newbie teacher named Ms. Bonnie Jones is assigned the sex-ed class—a bunch of randy, unruly, uncouth teens who crack up when one notes that her initials are BJ. They’re a teacher’s worst nightmare. Thankfully Ms. Jones gets help from a more experienced teacher, Ms. Anne Gibs, who is full of tricks for turning the kids into eager learners. Her stunts involve standard-issue bananas and condoms but also a song-and-dance “C-O-N-S-E-N-T” number (to the tune of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”), a pin-the-arrow-on-the-G-spot game (pictured), and odd novelties such Jello-o shots that she urges the students to loll their tongues around in. The whole affair becomes a manic competition, which the dour principal walks in on—though not before some actual education goes on as regards STDs and the advisability of sex that’s good and safe. In substance the sketch could easily serve as acceptable pedagogy in a real high school but for the fact it’s not only foolish-funny but also semi-smutty.

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Mother Knows Best
Written by Jen Williams and directed by Rebecca Wahls

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From left: Tess Higgins (Cassie/daughter), Annette Wasno (mother)

A young career woman with a skewed work-life balance is visited by her divorced mother, who, nosing around in her daughter’s closet, discovers a pink box. Turns out it’s where her daughter keeps her sexual aids. But the running joke is that the mother is far more adventurous and sexually experimental than her  uptight daughter, and at one point praises the virtues of a particularly effective sex toy (which you can make out in the photo). “Remember,” the mother counsels, “the faster you learn to get yourself off, the happier you’ll be.”

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Remedial Sex Ed
Written by Derek Hills and directed by Sarah Scafidi

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From left: Stephanie Svec (Ms. Marcos), Torin Lusebrink (Brandon), Kelsey Murphy (Charlotte)

A young man wasted on Jägermeister visits his high school teacher, of whom he is way too fond. He is moving and must change high schools so he won’t see her anymore and has come to declare his crush. She, however, is preparing to go on a date (presumably with a grownup) and tries her best to blow him off. He then goes to a prop pail and blows chunks. In time a young woman student enters and complicates the situation. The writing is very funny and makes a cliche setup seem brisk and fresh.The playing of the interplay between teacher and young man was especially clever.

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Pregnancy Files
Written and directed by Natalia Gleason

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From left: Kristina Brooks, Kimberlee Wolfson, Karen Elle, Katie Jeffries

This one really caught my eye and ear. It’s four women giving voice to the experience of conception, pregnancy, and birth—an apt conclusion for this series of takes on sex-ed. This terrific short play was distinguished by some really accomplished writing by Natalia Gleason, who told me she had written it during her own pregnancy. She also directs a delightful quartet of young women who begin by emulating various intensities of coitus then inflate balloons, which they pop under their tops (as in the photo). It’s a simply irresistible image, and it sets up what becomes a choral interweaving of four enthralling monologues about being pregnant—the whole gamut, from farting to bonding. Here’s a post-partum passage that gives an idea of the wry writing:

I had this thought during my midday shower today, that I respect and trust my body more than ever before.
It is not the most comfortable place of late, it will no longer get me on page six or win me an olympic medal, but for heavens sake, it assembled a fully functioning human being out of a microdrop of sperm.
I also think that pregnancy is a wonderful and rare chance for women to reconnect with the natural world. You have to trust your body above all; more than your doctor, your midwife, your mothering friends, your baby-grow vitamins and your calcium supplements. Books are placebo, the internet is overkill, no app on your smartphone will get you far.
It has to be your natural physical ability and your god-given animal instinct.
You have to listen to your god-given animal instinct.
You have to let your god-given animal instinct take over
I have never thought it is possible to feel so out of control and powerful at the same time.
Cue Lion King.

At which point they sing halfheartedly “The Circle of Life”!  Hilarious and honest all at once, Natalia Gleason’s Pregnancy Files needs to be filed under Put Onstage Again, Please.

 

Running Time: One hour 20 minutes, including one intermission.

How To…Sex Education: Weekend Two played September 23 and 24, 2016, at Rabble Crew performing at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW, Washington, DC.

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Yusuf / Cat Stevens’ “A Cat’s Attic” Concert

Cat Stevens (as he was known then) last performed at The Kennedy Center back in November 1971 just months after it opened. Much has changed since then, including his name (which became Yusuf after he converted to Islam in 1977). But to his enraptured fans in the sold-out Concert Hall the other night, it was an ecstatic reunion with some of the most heartfelt and pure music about peace and love of this or any time.

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Yusuf / Cat Stevens’ “A Cat’s Attic” tour  was not promoting an album—he was simply telling us through song the story of his life (“Welcome to my background,” he said gently near the beginning). Thus the entire program was blessedly devoted to such beloved classics  as “Where Do the Children Play?” “Moonshadow,”  and “Peace Train.” The crowd seemed to savor every familiar measure, every emotional moment of it. Songs were greeted by individuals standing up as if in personal exultation, even before mass praise poured out in ovations at the end.

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The stage set, Yusuf tells us, evokes the attic above his parents’ home in London’s West End where he grew up. The backdrop is a moonscape. Shining stage left as if on a foggy night is a street lamp under which his two backing musicians will play. And inside the quaint wooden attic itself are a comfortable chair, an old trunk, a vintage record player, an upright piano, and posters on the wall, one of himself from his Cat Stevens years and one for West Side  Story. Turns out as a boy he could hear the show down the street from this room, as he tells us just before singing “Somewhere.”

The amiable evening proceeds like that, each song introduced by autobiographical patter that positions it in his lifetime (and, for many in the audience, ours). In his dashing gray hair and  beard, wearing an easygoing vest and T, he stands  or sits relaxed at a mic and sings for us, his guitar playing virtuoso. His voice is clear and strong as it’s ever been, focused and unforced from his head notes to his bass. He makes the whole house feel at home.

He cites  the Beatles’ influence on him—”Have fun, sing, and fall in love”—then renders a bouncy “Love Me Do.” Offering his own 1967 “Here Comes My Baby,” he mischievously inserts “text on the phone” into the lyrics. Sitting beside the phonograph and playing a track of “Twist and Shout,” he remembers, “I had to get myself a guitar after that.”  Continuing on the theme of songs of longing from his love-struck youth, he elicits cheers from the audience with “The First Cut Is the Deepest.”

His wit shines throughout, as when singing and playing “Matthew and Son,” he lets us hear how his song’s hook is echoed in the “think it’s kinda funny”  refrain of “Mad World”: “Well, I think it’s kinda funny,” he quips, “how this sounds the same.”

From an early age, he tells us, he was really into musicals and has made several attempts to write one, including an anti-violence musical titled The Death of Billy the Kid. In the second act when he sings his emotional “Father and Son,” which brought the audience to its feet, he informs us it originated for a musical be worked on with actor Nigel Hawthorne called Revolution. The song is about a pacifist father trying to dissuade his son from leaving home and joining up, and the son saying why he must go his own way. The high-stakes context of that unfinished musical gives the song stunning new resonance.

His life story took a dark turn when, after touring with Jimi Hendrix, he was hospitalized with TB. This was “a big wake-up,” he says,  after which he sought spiritual solace in Buddhism and went to India, the occasion for his lovely “Katmandu.” Then just before intermission he foreshadows his later religious devotion with a moving rendition of “On the Road to Find Out”:

Yes the answer lies within
So why not take a look now
Kick out the devils sin
Pickup, pickup a good book now

In Act Two we find him sitting at a table pouring tea for himself,  in fond remembrance  of the cover art he drew for his album Tea for the Tillerman, on which many of the evening’s most revered songs were first recorded. He moves to the piano where he accompanies himself on a tender “Sad Lisa” and hearkens back to the soundtrack of Harold and Maude with a rousing “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.” His lyrics can sometimes be so childlike, his couplets so truthful and touching, they take breath away.

You’re lost in the dark, you can trust me.
‘Cause you know that’s how it must be.
Lisa Lisa, sad Lisa Lisa.

Lost in her hall, she can’t hear me.
Though I know she likes to be near me.
Lisa Lisa, sad Lisa Lisa.

Introducing his erotic fable “Boy With a Moon and Star on His Head,” which contains lyrics atypically graphic for this devout period of Yusuf’s life (“It is you I want to share my body with”), he first assures the audience that “nothing in this song ever happened.” Then he adds, joking: “I hope that message gets back to my wife.”

His spiritual, personal, and professional life pivoted dramatically on a trip to Malibu in  1976 during “a dark period in my life.” He was swimming in the ocean and a strong Pacific current was pulling him out to sea. “I asked God to save me,” he tells us. “And He sent a wave.” That wave carried him safely to shore—and propels him into “People Get Ready”:

People get ready
There’s a train a-coming
You don’t need no baggage
You just get on board
All you need is faith
To hear the diesels humming
Don’t need no ticket
You just thank the Lord.

His brother gave him a book, he tells us, “a book about Abraham, Moses, Jesus.” Though he does not name it, we know he means the Qur’an. “I learned to bow,” he explains. “To be what you must, you must give up who you are.”

A long period followed, nearly three decades, during which Yusuf neither composed nor performed anymore. To the world he was becoming a great humanitarian, giving of the wealth he’d earned in the music industry he now eschewed to promote peace and rescue orphans and other refugees. But to his thongs of fans he had fallen silent.

Then one day his son brought a guitar back into their home. “The guitar came back,” he says simply, “and I realized I really had another job to do.”

Besides growing up on Broadway musicals, Yusuf also was drawn to Disney. That turns out not to be so improbable as he quotes a rabbit in a Disney movie called Zootopia who gives a speech to the other animals that goes in part,

Try to make the world a better place…. Change starts with you, it starts with me, it starts with all of us.

Acknowledging he is performing this night at the epicenter of American politics, he is careful not to inject himself into election season. “I’ve decided to say—nothing,” he says drily. “Except I vote for the rabbit.” And with that he launches into his unstoppable “Peace Train.”

His encores of “Wild World” and “Morning Has Broken” became in that cavernous accoustic space an intimate audience singalong. And when at last he left the stage saying “Peace be with you, my friends,” it was like an actual benediction.

One of the big takeaways of the evening was what a gift Yusuf / Cat Stevens’ extraordinary song catalog would be to musical theater if someone could get it right. There was a disastrous attempt made in 2012 in Melbourne called Moonshadow, which closed promptly. But if it could work with ABBA’s Mama Mia and Green Day’s American Idiot, it surely ought to work with the emotional depth and range of Yusuf / Cat Stevens’ music.

I am someone for whom Cat Stevens’ music was on the sound track of my youth. I choke up hearing “Morning Has Broken” the way I do hearing “Imagine” or “Amazing Grace.” Listening to him sing with such soulful beauty and pacifist conviction again brought me back to a time of tender hope and inspiring optimism that I’d long forgotten—and that I realized our nation too has been missing.

I recommend taking some time from your life to listen to Yusuf / Cat Stevens, again or for the first time. As a man and humanitarian, he is a gentle treasure, a huge-hearted peace lover. As a musician—as a troubadour for our troubled times—he is indispensable.

Set List

“Where Do the Children Play?”
“Don’t Be Shy”
“Somewhere” (P.J. Proby cover)
“Love Me Do” (Beatles cover)
“Here Comes My Baby”
“The First Cut Is the Deepest”
“I Love My Dog”
“Matthew and Son”
“A Bad Night”
“Trouble”
“Fill My Eyes”
“Katmandu”
“I Wish, I Wish”
“Miles From Nowhere”
“On the Road to Find Out”

Intermission

“Sad Lisa”
“If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”
“Into White”
“Father and Son”
“Moonshadow”
“How Can I Tell You”
“Sitting”
“Boy With a Moon and Star on His Head”
“Ruins”
“Oh Very Young”
“Novim’s Nightmare”
“People Get Ready” (Impressions cover)
“Be What You Must”
“Roadsinger”
“Maybe There’s a World” / “All You Need Is Love” (Beatles cover)
“Peace Train”

Encores
“Wild World”
“Morning Has Broken”

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

Yusuf / Cat Stevens’s A Cat’s Attic tour played September 22, 2016 at The Kennedy Center Concert Hall — 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. Tickets for remaining tour performances are available online.

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How To… Sex Education

Rabble Crew Productions has a proclivity for mounting edgy, sex-themed theater in fringey places around town. Last December they did Madeline Farrington’s Glory Us at The Fridge in Eastern Market, set in the world of Tinder and anonymous sex. My DC Metro Arts colleague Robert Michael Oliver caught it and called it a “sexual medley for the electronically horny (and lonely) modern world.” In 2014’s Capital Fringe they did Kelly Canavan’s Writing Miss Clark’s Résumé (directed her sister Emily Caravan), an unnerving dark comedy that included sexual contact between a teacher and her students.

Along these licentious lines, Rabble Crew has produced two weekends of pop-up playlets collectively titled How To…Sex Education at the DC Arts Center black box in Adams Morgan. Each weekend features a different bill of four 15-minute one-acts staged by DC-based writers, directors, and actors. I attended the first one and (no double entendre intended) found more than enough pleasures to want to come again.

Hardcore Normcore
Written and directed by Madeline Farrington

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From left: Madeline Farrington (Clara),  Tim Trueheart (Ike)

Clara and Ike are biking to an ABC store from a party where Clara got so wasted she should  not be operating machinery of any kind. Their quite funny dialog, a lot of it sending up  liberal do-gooderism, includes jokes such as one about her mishearing racing for racist. It’s made all the more amusing by Farrington’s loopy out-of-it-ness. At issue is whether they are a match. “I don’t want to live in your normcore world!” she tells him. Then Clara insists he feel her breast. He obliges. Distracted, they crash, their bikes are totaled, and she lands banged up and delirious in a hospital bed with Ike loyally at her side.

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American Piety
Written by Matt Spangler and directed by Emily Canavan

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From left: Timothy R. King (Goodman Mather). Pooja Chawla (Abigail), Noah Sommer (Malachi), Yvonne Paretzky (Goody Tituba), and Cristen Stephansky (Betty).

The satiric setup is very clever:  A sex-education class in the Plymouth Colony led by a pious scold of a preacher named Goodman Mather. The students dutifully learn their lessons, but their class is interrupted when Goody Tituba arrives and takes over. Goody, in a very funny performance by Yvonne Paretzky, rips into their repressive lessons with hilarious anti-oppression sexual-liberty stuff from today: “The Devil is a white construct to suppress women and people of color!” “Adam and Eve is a gender-biased fairy tale!” Don’t buy into “hegemonic masculinity”!

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A Cozy Little Fire-Lit Evening
Written and directed by Timothy R. King

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From left: Julie Herber (Samantha),  Mitch Irzinski (David),
Brittany Morgan (Rachel)

A very noir tale with knife-like twists. Samantha (called Sam) drops in on David to exact revenge. He’s a university professor who dumped her when he took up with a student, the type he regularly fucks. What drives Sam round the bend, though—and what makes Julie Herber go all Fatal Attraction—is that David dumped her by email! Rachel, the younger woman, shows up. Sam is packing a knife in her bag. There will be blood. The big surprise is who dies how.

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Social Guidance for Women
Written by Star Johnson and directed by Ayan

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From left: Ayan (Mary), Yvonne Paretzky (Linda), Jennifer McClean (Susan), Fred Rogers (Announcer).  Not pictured: Janel Dillard (who played the part of Mary Friday).

Coincidentally another playlet in which a sexist male authority figure’s repressive views get skewered. As the Announcer stands at a podium reading prescriptive pronouncements about women’s proper role in sex and elsewhere (condemning, for instance, masturbation as infidelity), a feisty sisterhood of three very liberated women  have a giggle about what they really want and get when they get it on.

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Running Time: One hour 20 minutes, including one intermission.

The four one-acts on the bill for next weekend are:

Pregnancy Files
Written and directed by Natalia Gleason

Sex-O-Lympics
Written and directed by Dara Gold

Mother Knows Best
Written by Jen Williams and directed by Rebecca Wahls

Remedial Sex Ed
Written by Derek Hills and directed by Sarah Scafidi

How To…Sex Education: Weekend One played September 16 and 17, 2016, at Rabble Crew performing at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets for How To…Sex Education: Weekend Two—September 23 and 34, 2016—are available online.

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brownsville song (b-side for tray)

Yesterday at Anacostia Playhouse, the real world and the world onstage converged. It was like a communal emotion-meld through theater, the human heartbreak untold in too many headlines become the pulse of a singularly heartrending play.

Playwright Kimber Lee was moved to write  brownsville song (b-side for tray) in response to the shooting death of a real young man named Tray Franklin in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Lee did not want Franklin to be a statistic, another name in the endless eulogies and obituaries about young black men whose lives ended in gun violence. So Lee created a character named Tray, borrowed aspects of his life from the real Tray—a teen with a passion for boxing, a scholarship he was awarded on the strength of a personal essay, and a father who too was shot to death, when Tray was a boy. Lee then imagined the family that her Tray left behind, the family who loved him and now lived with his absence.

That might sound all mordant and mournful. But brownsville song is anything but. Because the extraordinary cast and director have found such overflowing hope and love in Lee’s lyrical script that our emotional experience follows along as if buoyed by a coursing current. And the story is told with a marvelous ebb and flow in time, such that for long passages we and his family are face to face with Tray before he was shot.

Tray’s grief-stricken grandmother, Lena, begins the play just after that. She has a monologue. She wants us to understand that her grandson Tray was a good kid. Not a gang member. Nothing to do with drugs. He had a promising future. “He was not the same old story,” she says. And from her  very first words, we are in the presence of an astounding actor, Lolita Marie, who is playing the part as if from the depths of Lena’s soul. For the next ninety minutes there will not be a nanosecond when Marie is onstage that we are not enthralled by her.

Lena is Tray’s “Grams.” She’s really like a mother to him, on his case about completing that scholarship essay. He’s disgruntled by her nagging, but as the play unfolds a beautiful warmth between them is revealed. Sideeq Heard, who plays Tray, positively radiates emotional presence on stage when he is solo, addressing several monologues directly to the audience, but never more so than in the scenes he shares with Lena and his kid sister, Devine.

Devine, played with the sweetest enthusiasm by Kita Grayson, has scenes with Tray  more imagined than real in which the two dance together. Director Paige Hernandez, whose  sensitive conception for this show sweeps us up in each scene, also did the choreography. Heard’s and Grayson’s moves are delightful.

Tray and Devine have lived with Lena since their father was killed and Devine’s mother, Merrell, left them. Tray’s father and Merrell got together after Tray’s birth mother died.  The backstory on these familial relationships falls into place piecemeal but always in time for us to understand the tensions—particularly the intrafamily strife that Merrell brings.

Merrell is one complex and challenging character—Tray’s father was black and she’s not,  she abandoned Devine and Tray, she spent time in rehab. Regina Aquino has found a through-line and center for Merrell that in the end becomes extremely touching.

And Avery Collins’s appealing performance keeps it real in two supporting roles: Junior, a pal of Tray’s who was with him when he was shot, and a college student who drops in the Starbucks where Tray works as a barista.

Debra Kim Sivigny’s sprawling set and smart costumes effectively serve the story’s characters and time-and-place shifts (including a park, a bedroom, a kitchen, a boxing gym). Lighting and sound by William K. D’Eugenio contribute enormously to the show’s flow, and Nick tha Ida’s original music brings terrific pop-culture specificity.

At one point Tray explains what bonds him, his Grams, and his sister: “We hold on tight and we ain’t let go,” he says. At another point, now speaking from after death, he exhorts  us the audience “to write hope into your own story.” The onslaught outside of gun violence and senseless killings could easily make this play feel too timely, too topical, too true to life. But what Theater Alliance achieves with Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray)  is something else entirely. When you see it you’ll feel it. It’s hope to hold on tight to.

Run Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

brownsville song (b-side for tray) plays through October 9, 2016 at Theater Alliance performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops

“Can feminism be funny?” inquiring minds at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company want to know. For that is the conundrum that connects Sheila Callaghan’s  Women Laughing Alone With Salad, Woolly’s cheeky hit comedy in last season’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, and the audacious whimsy of Jen Silverman’s new comedy Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops, just opened at Woolly in a doozy of production.

Silverman’s full title for the show bears quoting in all its all-caps brazenness:

COLLECTIVE RAGE: A PLAY IN FIVE BOOPS; IN ESSENCE, A QUEER AND OCCASIONALLY HAZARDOUS EXPLORATION; DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU WERE IN MIDDLE SCHOOL AND YOU READ ABOUT SHACKLETON AND HOW HE EXPLORED THE ARCTIC?; IMAGINE THE ARCTIC AS A PUSSY AND IT’S SORT OF LIKE THAT

If the word pussy there puts you off, this play may not be for you. The characters pronounce it so often, it becomes a womantra.

Back in the 1990s, Eve Ensler’s breakthrough The Vagina Monologues defanged and reclaimed the word vagina. Now Silverman’s in-your-face Collective Rage is giving pussy a place in the fun.

Woolly likes to program “edgy plays that piss off Republican senators,” said Managing Director Meghan Pressman in her opening night pre-show remarks. Fair warning then: This show’s definitely not for those white guys. Because boy does it get blue.

Back in the 1970s, a feminist women’s health movement emerged that taught women how to use vaginal speculums to do self-exams. At about the same time there were workshops  for women that encouraged masturbation, on one’s own or in groups, and offered effective how-tos. It was the heyday of “No thank you. I’m just looking. And I can help myself.”

That adventurous spirit of feminist-inspired exploration suffuses Silverman’s new play in a most marvelous way. We are barely ten minutes into it when hand mirrors are produced and members of the all-female cast are holding them under themselves to appreciate the pleasant view down there. Before long the characters’ wickedly witty repartee is rife with references to sapphic satisfactions.

And who are these characters exactly? Finding out is half the fun. (The other half is Silverman’s quicksilver wit). There are five of them, and each is named Betty Boop—after a doll-like cartoon character popular in the 1930s  who had bee-sting lips, wide mascara’ed eyes, black pin curls, dainty shoes, and preternatural curves. Silverman’s Betty Boop conceit is not only silly and cute but also quite serious—it’s cleverly used to doll up the Woolly lobby, and it suggests that each Betty is a caricature in quest of an authentic life.

We meet the five Bettys against a stark, hard, all-yellow set designed by Dane Laffrey and lit by Colin K. Bill—as if they are boxed in but don’t know it.

Betty Boop 1 (a simply stunning Beth Hylton) is the sleek, fashionable blond trophy wife of a very very rich man with whom she is utterly bored. She has no women friends. Her marriage is empty. She’s the sort of privileged white woman for whom another Betty, the Friedan one, would have made sense.

Betty Boop 2 (Dorea Schmidt, whose poignant performance will melt your heart) is also unhappily married, to a man of more modest means; and she is so timid, friendless, and lonely, she pathetically makes her hand into a puppet for companionship. Back in the day Helen Gurley Brown would have dubbed her a mouseburger.

Betty Boop 3 (an Amazonian-amazing Natascia Diaz) is a spitfire bi-affectionate Latina who after being Betty 1’s guest at “the theatah”  becomes an avid thesbian. She leads the other Bettys in putting on a show—a hilariously muddled version of the play within the play the thinks was called Summer’s Midnight Dream. She’d have dug María Irene Fornés and Gloria Anzaldúa.

Betty Boop 4 (a terrifically tough Kate Rigg) is a stone butch dyke who needs no man in her life for anything, including for fixing her truck. She and Leslie Feinberg might have tooled around and canoodled like body-and-soulmates, except that Betty Boop 4 is hot for Betty Boop 5.

Betty Boop 5 (in a knockout performance by Felicia Curry you can’t take your eyes off) is a black, nonbinary, masculine-presenting, female-born badass who has spent time behind bars and is okay with female pronouns. She is Betty Boop 4’s truck buddy (the scenes when the two wenches wield wrenches are gutbusting funny); but in a surprising twist, she gets with another Betty. Her soul sistah would have been Audre Lorde; and if George Jackson were nonbinary, he’d be her Soledad bro.

Over the course of the play, the Bettys come together in assorted ways including, of all things, dinner parties (a possible nod to Judy Chicago’s iconic “The Dinner Party,” a triangular table set with labia).  Then, in a stupendous stroke of stagecraft, their collective rage becomes a  rave—and they begin lives outside the box.

Director Mike Donahue manages the Bettys’ unfolding character arcs in what becomes a world without men without ever manhandling anything. And Kelsey Hunt’s costumes are a wardrobe wonder, speaking volumes about the characters before they say a word. It is a production perfectly on point at every screwy turn.

My only reservation is that near the end the show’s effervescence goes somewhat flat for a short slow stretch, suggesting the script could lose ten minutes or so. But all is redeemed by the breathtakingly beautiful ending.

Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops, delightfully staged at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is sassy, saucy, and shrewdly funny. It finds what’s outrageously amusing in five boxed-in females’ lives. But it never makes fun. It only makes us laugh a lot. And maybe be inspired to break out of boxes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Schwartz

What is it that’s so tried and true about plays about siblings? Must be something universal, because there are so gosh darn many of them. Structurally they obviously make for auspicious cast lists, characters with built-in back stories of tensions and lingering resentments. A playwright has only to put the brothers or sisters in the same room and something dramatic or comedic is sure to happen, right? But what is it about plays centering on siblings that so connects and cathects us?

I was prompted to this rumination after seeing Theater J’s sharp staging of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s The Last Schwartz, the acrid comedy that kicks off the first season curated by new Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr. From its very first scene, The Last Schwartz delivers us into a curious disequilibrium between laughing and cringing, then leaves us to sort out our  uncertainty on a scale encompassing the cosmos. Yup, it really goes there. It takes our spinning heads from a living room to the moon.

But you don’t know that at the beginning, when Bonnie (Anne Bowles) is telling her distracted husband Herb (Sasha Olinick) about an Oprah show she watched that featured two twin girls whose bodies were inoperably conjoined. Herb isn’t listening, he’s absorbed in reading a newspaper; but we sure are. Bonnie is cracking quasi-tasteless jokes about the sisters’ plight (which we don’t know whether to laugh at or not) and then abruptly shifting mood to tell us how inspiring the girls are when they tell Oprah undauntedly they would never want to be separated and they each want to have children someday. Suddenly Bonnie’s mixed-signal monologue careens to her overweening grief over her childlessness (she has miscarried five times) and her sorrowful longing to have a connection as lasting and empathic as these two sisters’.

Yikes. I don’t recall a show that so had me chuckling, wincing, and emotionally wrenched all at once from the get-go.

And so it goes as The Last Schartz unfolds—joshingly, jarringly, engagingly—with three grown brothers and a sister, who comprise a divided and distrustful Jewish family, converging on their deceased parents’ home, ostensibly to observe their father’s yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death.

“Why aren’t we a real family?” Norma the sister (Barbara Pinolini) asks no one in particular.

“This is what a real family is” her brother Herb shoots back at her.

Norma is the only sibling taking this yahrzeit seriously, and she is peeved at the others’ indifference. Her annoyance escalates when Gene, her youngest brother and a TV commercial director (Billy Finn), arrives with Kia, his shiksa bimbo wannabe-starlet girlfriend (a hilarious Emily Kester). No love is lost either between Norma and Bonnie, Herb’s emotionally volatile wife, who converted to Judaism for him. The only sibling who gets a smidgen of Norma’s sympathy is Simon (Andrew Wassenrich), a possibly autistic astronomer who is going blind and spends most of the play in isolation staring into a telescope remembering constellations from when he could see.

Norma the family morals maven is estranged from her ex-husband and son because she called the cops on the boy when she found him smoking pot. Kia has no intention of birthing a baby because she’s a spokesbody in a “Fat No More” commercial. Meanwhile  Bonnie’s babyless desperation lends the play an undercurrent of pathos. “I want a child!” Bonnie wails. “I want to be a family!” And there’s something both disturbing and almost farcical about the lengths to which Bonnie goes to try to make that happen.

As it turns out, the title The Last Schwartz refers specifically and significantly  to this airless Jewish family’s heirlessness, and by extension it evokes Jews’ tenuous-for-generations hold on earthly survival. “To keep the family alive is to keep faith alive,” Norma pronounces—a point the play both plays with for our amusement and drives home unsettlingly for our reflection.

Why does The Last Schwartz make such recognizable sense, yet why is our response to this funny/serious play so complicated? The answer is a familiar connection that a whole lot of folks can relate to. It’s the sibling thing. And it’s why The Last Schwartz at Theater J rings true on stage with amazing reverberation in the mind.

Cloud Nine

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, which premiered in London in 1979, is rightly considered a landmark play. It is pivotal for me personally as well, ever since I saw the legendary Tommy Tune production off-Broadway in 1981.

At the time I was immersed in counter-cultural people’s theater, which tended to be wildly experimental in form but often single-issue-focused in content. The women’s movement was making waves, and there were remarkable women playwrights at work, mainly off-off-Broadway. But in commercial theater there were yet few plays that looked at the world through the lens of women’s lived experience (the singular exception being Ntozake Shange’s 1975  for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, wonderfully revived at Theater Alliance).

Churchill’s Cloud Nine exploded my consciousness about what was possible to do and say in theater about the intersecting hierarchies of sex, race, and class all in the same play. From a shrewdly woman-centric, anti-imperialist viewpoint, Churchill dramatizes that interlocking-oppression matrix with scathing wit, surreal comedy, and inspired strokes of cross-gender, cross-race, and cross-generation casting.

When the play premiered, half of it was a period piece, and nowadays both halves are. Act I  is set in Victorian colonial Africa, and Act II is set 100 years later in London in 1979. Some of the characters in Act I reappear in Act II but have aged only 25 years. It’s one of those time-and-place stunts that make theater so much fun.

So it was a thrill to see what Director Michael Kahn has done with Cloud Nine at Studio Theatre. The play’s wit and wisdom—Churchill’s gimlet eye on the isms—is as spot-on as ever.  There are scores of delightful, insightful details in the performances that tease out meanings and moments that are faithful to the text yet seemed fresh. And Kahn’s staging  brings all the play’s erotics to the surface with brand-new candor.

In Act I,  an imperious British officer named Clive has been posted to a country in Africa to oversee the Crown’s dubious interests. Clive (John Scherer) is the very model of a major self-aggrandizer. His wife Betty (Wyatt Fenner), a part meant to be played by a man, is a sendup of submissive feminine frailty (“I am man’s creation…what men want is what I want to be,” she flutters.)  Their black manservant, meant to be played by a white actor, is Joseph (Philippe Bowgen), who considers his own people “bad people” (“What white men want, I dearly want to be”). Betty’s scolding mother, also Clive’s adoring mother-in-law, is Maud (Joy Jones). Edward (Laura C. Harris), a part meant to be played by a woman, is Clive and Betty’s sensitive son, who is having a hard time becoming the man he’s supposed to be as he much prefers to play with dolls.

The sexual attractions go every which way.

A spirited widow, Mrs. Saunders, arrives seeking safety from restless natives, and Clive resumes his carnal moves on her (his head up under her skirt at one point in an emulation of oral sex).  The very assertive Mrs. Saunders is played by Holly Twyford, who also plays Ellen, Edward’s very unassertive governess. (Twyford’s character switching is masterful; it’s as if whenever she changes costume offstage, she alters her entire acting instrument.)

A brave and butch explorer arrives for a visit, a friend of Clive’s named Mr. Harry Bagley (Christian Pedersen), and we learn he’s got a bro crush on Clive. The scene  when Harry comes on to Clive, mistaking Clive’s intentions, is made all the more hilarious by its explicitness. Meanwhile the boy Edward wants a reprise of the sex that Harry had with him before, and the production’s physicalization spells out what Edward desires.  With similarly graphic specificity, Betty signals she has a thing for Harry, and Ellen wants Betty bad.

In Cloud Nine’s Act II, the colonial history satirized in Act I is never mentioned. Instead we get an assortment of contemporary personal relationship issues—sexual couplings of several sorts—without any particular social context other than the generic hip 1970s. Evidently we are well into the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, and gay liberation, but the relationship between the two halves of Cloud Nine can seem elusive on first viewing. Suddenly time and place have changed; and though we see the same actors, they’re playing different roles for no apparent reason. It is here that Kahn’s direction does great service to the play, because the sexual specificity with which he has staged Act I emerges in Act II as the visceral connective tissue between the two.

Betty (played now by Twyford) is making her way in the world solo. Betty’s daughter, Victoria (Harris), is now married unhappily to Martin (Pedersen), a man who uses trendy liberationist sensitivity to belittle her. Betty’s son, Edward (Scherer), is now a gardener and in a gay relationship with Gerry (Fenner), who does not reciprocate Edward’s sexual attraction and romantic attachment. A graphic monologue by Gerry about cruising delivers as much tristesse as sex. Victoria, rebounding from Martin, seeks sexual solace with a lesbian single mother named Lin (Jones).  Lin’s daughter Cathy, played by a man (Bowgen), is a tomboy who likes guns. In a quirky but typically ’70s communal commingling, Lin and Victoria and Edward all end up living together—and then Edward discloses he himself might be lesbian and maybe a woman too.

As I watched Kahn’s refresh of Cloud Nine with great appreciation, and not a few hearty  laughs,  I recalled his revitalization of another classic comedy from the pre-AIDS late ’70s, his 2013 production of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, also at Studio. And having just seen Round House Theatre’s stunning revival of Tony Kushner’s masterwork set in the dark ages of AIDS, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,  I cannot help but be grateful to Studio Theatre and Michael Kahn for bringing back Cloud Nine and shining such enjoyable light on it.

Studio Theatre’s Cloud Nine is a very smart take on a very smart play that’s a very sly take on sexual mores back in the day. If you get off on salience and substance, you’ll have very a good  time.
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Note: Some passages here about the play Cloud Nine were originally written for my review of  Gallaudet University Theatre and Dance Program’s “excellent and entertaining” production of it, directed by Monique Holt in April 2016.

Come From Away

When I saw this new musical on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, there were no more than ten minutes during it when my eyes were dry. They welled up from the first scene. Sure, I know I tear up easily, as did my dad. I’ve even been kidded about it. But never before has a show left me so awash.

By the end I had no clue how I could talk about a show that had left me without words. A show on its way to Broadway that’s so moving and inspiring I would see it again in a heartbeat.  A show that told a true story about human kindness that touched me in a place in my soul I think I did not know was there.

Now to read the barrage of reviewers’ accolades this show has garnered is to go, “Yes, yes. That’s true. All true.”

And now to hear the blizzard of audience buzz about this show is to think, “Well, no wonder. Of course.”

Come From Away is a show the likes of which American musical theater has never seen: an uplifting emotional epiphany about accidental altruism that leaves you a better person than before you went in. A five-star review by my DC Metro Theater Arts colleague David Gerson explains succinctly why Come From Away at Ford’s Theatre has become a hit :

Come From Away is a celebration of the unflappable human spirit, and the generosity and kindness that always seems to manifest itself in our darkest hours. And it earns every tear, laugh, and cheer that it deservedly gets.

So watch your back, Hamilton. Another blockbuster’s on the way.