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The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Capital Fringe 2015 Review: Brothel

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Playwright Isa Seyran has told forthrightly the origin story of Brothel: Reading about the extreme gender imbalance of men to women in North Dakota resulting from an oil boom thanks to fracking, Seyran was inspired to write a play set in an imaginary small-scale legal brothel there that would supply the men with fucking. Seyran claims no first-hand knowledge of prostitution in North Dakota—where in fact it is criminalized, for both buyer and seller—though he does tell of personal familiarity with the operation of legal brothels in his native Turkey (presumably not as a service provider).

Watching the resulting six-character play—whose gender equipoise features one pimp, one john, one male health inspector, and three women in prostitution—I found myself reminded of Bertholt Brecht, who made up from whole cloth a play set in a 1930s Chicago peopled with mobsters and gangsters, although he had not yet set foot outside Europe. Brecht did so (in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a satirical allegory about the rise of Hitler) with a political purpose and viewpoint; he was not writing fourth-wall naturalism. Thus as I watched Seyran’s script play out, in a quite Fringe-servicable production that he himself directed, I kept listening to his text not for verisimilitude (his characters bear virtually no relationship to the reality of their roles in the actual sex industry) but for Seyran’s purpose and point of  view.

I cannot say that I discerned any such, other than a prostitution proponent’s propensity to justify the buying and selling of bodies for sex with a marketplace, supply-and-demand argument that pivots on phallic imperative. In his program note he quotes Hal, his pimp character, saying, “It is not my fault that God created men, gave them penises and put this unstoppable desire in them to put their penises into whatever hole they can find.”  Variants of that perspective recur throughout, always taken at face value, notably given voice by each of the female characters (“Pussy is the best currency in human civilization,” says Val at one point. Su, who is an Asian imigrant, translates the word prostitution in her homeland as “happiness providing” and comes to her career in this country with a diploma from a school for sex workers, which Hal at one point argues there should be in the U.S.).

If Seyran had something more in mind than pro-prostitution agit prop, this reviewer could not fathom what it was. Advance promotion for the show promised, in Sevran’s words, “a very serious drama with some heavy themes and undertones” and, in the press release’s words, “a new play that explores the question of what is at the deepest core of men and women…an unexacting [sic] look at human nature.” What I perceived instead was an awkwardly structured script that required the actors to lurch without perceptible motivation or thematic unity from speech to speech and scene to scene. For instance there’s a sudden catfight that erupts out of nowhere between the older Val, who has been pimped by Hal for many years (loyally, we are given to understand), and a new arrival, the younger, more kink-friendly Rosa, whom Hal wants to pimp as well. Abruptly Hal becomes the caring and consoling referee between two warring whores. Early on Hal’s character is established as that of a pimp with a heart of gold (hey, this is theater, where anything can happen), yet later Hal seriously contemplates pimping out his wife, who is mother of his two young children and pregnant with a third.

To their credit the actors gave this muddle of a script a good go, particularly Ned Read as Hal, who deserves a better role in a better play, and Pimmie Juntranggur as Su, who bursts on stage with formidable energy and absconds with her scene. Also in the cast were Adrian Iglesias as George the health inspector, whose new-to-the-job ineptness had charm; Sally Roffman as aging hooker Val, who found touching poignance in the part; Brian Lewadowski as Val’s favorite customer, Isaac, who played nice guy credibly if improbably; and Lauren Patton as Rosa, who did sexpot spitfire just fine.

Running Time: One hour 25 minutes with no intermission.

Brothel plays through July 25, 2015, at Logan Fringe Arts Space: Trinidad Theatre – 1358 Florida Ave NE Washington, DC 20002. For schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

LINK:
Read the preview article on DCMetroTheaterArts.

Capital Fringe 2015 Review: “It’s What We Do”: A Play About the Occupation

As a medium for understanding what has been going on in the Israel-occupied territories, the art of theater can do something that other  media cannot. Theater can narrate events and tell stories, of course; but it can also make the human emotions in dramatic encounters present and palpable. Theater can make feelings feel so real that we feel something akin to them too.  As evidenced by a theater piece that opened last night, the resulting performance experience can be gripping.  “It’s What We Do”: A Play About the Occupation is a powerful staging of a powerful script with a powerful moral meaning.

There was barely a sound in the sold-out opening night audience. There was nearly sustained pin-drop silence. Only one brief tragifarcical scene (an amusing bit about border-crossing bureacracy) got an audible response. All the rest of the time it was as if one could hear the audience listening, taking it all in, trying to process the unprocessable—in empathic response to the emotions being enacted and in stilled, chilled bewilderment at the inhumanity being depicted.

At a Busboys and Poets program in fall 2013, Playwright and Director Pamela Nice happened to hear a former Israeli Defense Forces solder speak out about the horrors of the Israeli occupation.  That led her to discover an organization called Breaking the Silence, which has assembled a chorus of testimony about those horrors from other IDF service people. (Even a cursory glance at the group’s website offers a troubling look at the experience of soldiers whose consciences were military casualties.) Artfully, Nice has crafted excerpts from truth-telling about the 1967 occupation into a stage play featuring three Solders, composites representing an army of silence-breakers (compellingly played by Olivia Haller, Tariq Triano, and Keanu Ross-Cabrera), who are debriefed by an interviewer, an eerily uninflected offstage Voice (Dior Ashley Brown).

As the soldiers speak their verbatim testimony, their words now and then segue into short scenes, like tableaux vivants, which vividly demonstrate the solders’ horrific acts against Palestinians (who are played variously by a wonderful supporting ensemble: Moses Bernal, Sofia Pellegrino, Jamal Najjab, Xavier Goytia, and sisters Jaelyn and Izabella Cruz).

The cast has clearly been well directed to communicate the truth of each emotional moment. Time and again, one could read on their faces and in their quavering voices whole chapters of distress where there was but a line of dialogue. And in the midst of the extensive combat choreography—when the Israeli soldiers routinely assaulted the Palestinians—cries of the heart could be heard with heartbreaking immediacy.

“Our mission was to disrupt and harrass people’s lives,” says one Soldier succinctly. And that is exactly what “It’s What We Do” puts on stage: Ransacking homes and blowing up houses (euphemized as “changes of address”). Bulldozing centuries-old orchards. Jewish-only roads that Arabs are forbidden to travel. Brutal checkpoint assaults. Denial of work permits for anyone whose distant relative ever so much as threw a stone at an Israeli (meaning that nearly no Palestinian can earn a livelihood). Doing whatever it takes to defend the Jewish settlers’ claimed authority to live on land that once was Arabs’.

The catalog of indignities and atrocities that were these soldiers’ job to perform leaves them in an agony of inner conflict. They speak of being torn between the national loyalty of being born an Israeli and the awful recognition that that heritage now requires victimizing innocent Palestinian civilians. As one Soldier says, “The settlers are the closest to Jewish Nazis I’ve ever met.”

This is an extraordinary work of theater—disturbing in the most important sense that it provokes real-time reckoning with real-world morals and places the meaning of human emotions center stage. “It’s What We Do”: A Play About the Occupation is a play that one must think about and talk about after. But first and foremost, it must be seen.

Running Time: 45 minutes with no intermission.

“It’s What We Do”: A Play About the Occupation plays through July 25, 2015, at Atlas Performing Arts Center: Lab II – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

Capital Fringe 2015 Review: mostly the VOICE: a black lesbian journey

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

There are many delightful and poignant moments in mostly the VOICE: a black lesbian journey. This engaging autobiographical amalgam of poetry, original music, and storytelling—written and performed by  j.scales—opened last night in Gallaudet’s Eastman Studio Theatre and establishes j.scales as an important new voice in solo theatrical performance. I say this not only because the black lesbian experience is conspicuously underrepresented on DC stages (which it is). I say this also because j.scales is such a personable, multi-talented, and all-around-enjoyable performer.

j.scales begins by recounting her upbringing in Rochester, New York, where her father worked at Eastman Kodak (a photo in the program shows her as a girl beside snow as high as she is tall). As a black child in the suburbs, she was “living between worlds.” Inspired by Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, she wrote a letter to God to say she felt like a chocolate drop in vanilla ice cream.

With a terrific gift for vocal impersonation, j.scales introduces us to her first crush (jo), her mother, her grandmother, an elderly woman at church, and more. j.scales’s coming out to her mother was difficult; her mother was outraged when she discovered that her daughter had a drawer full of books by and about black lesbians. The experience becomes the setup for a moving song she sings called “does yr mama know?” that audibly landed for the audience.

Hers is an original and contemporary woman’s voice, yet it has, as j.scales makes humbly and abundantly clear, forerunners and foremothers. She makes a point of referencing and revering the books—such as Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and  Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back—that affirmed and inspired her when she was younger and coming out. Literally, she takes the books from a table centerstage and holds them up for us to see. In the context of telling us her personal past, it is a gracious and resonant political gesture.

On that table are other mementos, as of relationships and breakups she has had with various women. Stage right is a mic and stand where she does most of her poetry and storytelling. Stage left is an amp and bass, which she plays at the end on a song called “maybe she thought” that has a touching twist.  After exchanging numbers with a woman she met in a CVS and was attracted to, she wonders self-consciously whether the woman was so  forthcoming because she thought j.scales was a guy.

As j.scales’s story continues, she enters Howard, finds her way to the local music and poetry scene and queer community (dubbing herself  the High Priestess of Homo Hop), and decides to stay in DC, where she has since become well known as a poet, composer, musician, vocalist, and spoken-word artist. That j.scales is a formidable slam-poetry artist was amply evidenced during an eloquently explicit erotic poem that she read from the podium in near darkness. That interlude gave me occasion to appreciate the spotlighted ASL interpreter for this performance, Nikki Gee, whose artistic signing of j.scales’s graphic words was absolutely beautiful to behold.

(All Fringe performances at Gallaudet are ASL interpreted and/or captioned for the Deaf, and the 16 shows booked there this year will give hearing audience members scores of chances to be knocked out by the artistry of sign language in theater as I was again last night.)

mostly the VOICE is j.scales’s first attempt at combining all her gifts into a single solo theater piece, and she has had the good fortune to work on this project with Director Regie Cabico, himself a luminary in DC’s spoken-word scene. The piece in its present Fringe version has untapped potential. j.scales was off book for parts of the show,  but there were portions that she read from a script in a black binder that would have been much better by heart—particularly the very funny anecdotal stuff. As she performs the piece more, the unsteadiness of the transitions will likely diminish, and she will become surer of her material and her talent as a solo dramatic performer—both of which are outstanding. Though still a bit shaky, even in this first-time-out form, mostly the VOICE: a black lesbian journey is thoroughly enjoyable and eminently worth seeing.

Running Time: 55 minutes with no intermission.

mostly the VOICE: a black lesbian journey plays through July 26, 2015, at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. For schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

Plot Twists…

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

A outstanding assembly of DC’s African American LGBTQ artists converged to create Plot Twists…, a late addition to the DC Black Theatre Festival lineup. Conceived and produced by Monte J. Wolfe—and presented in conjunction with the festival by Brave Soul Collective—the show was an anthology of dramatic and comedic monologues, short scenes, and staged readings, each featuring a truly surprising plot twist and each written especially for this one-night-only performance. The result was a thoroughly entertaining and engaging evening that was also timely, topical, and thought-provoking.

Requiem for an Epitaph: A Monologue (written and performed by Michael Sainte-Andress) began the program with a poignant first-person reflection on life as a senior in the LGBT community: “True beauty exists at any age!,” Sainte-Andress preaches inspiringly.

An improbable encounter between a transwoman (played by Jorge Lander) who was being harassed on the street and a bible-thumping church lady (Valerie Papaya Mann) was the almost-sketch-comedy setup in Bad Religion (written by Stanley Freeman and directed by Monte J. Wolfe). But as the two sat down at a café and talked, the play took a completely unexpected turn and ended on a gesture of acceptance that genuinely surprised and pleased the audience.

In a monologue titled Broken Crayons, Writer/Performer Jared Shamberger told a touching and poetic story about liking to color when he was a boy—his favorite Crayolas being midnight blue and scarlet—and a favorite playmate, a boy who also liked to color. They would color together for hours. Then Shamberger learned that the boy had been abused. “Even broken crayons can still color,” Shamberger says hopefully.

Stealth Bombs (written and directed by Monte J. Wolfe) began with a young man (Stanley Freeman) telling a best friend (Wilma Lynn Horton) about his painful breakup with his boyfriend. Their witty banter does nothing to heal the man’s hurt heart. The play takes a sobering turn as the scene shifts to a meeting between the man and his ex-boyfriend (Jivon Lee Jackson), when the real reason the ex behaved so badly is revealed.

Conditioned (written by Stanley Freeman, performed by Monte J. Wolfe) was a tender reminiscence of growing up as a child who was called “sweet” and “soft” and “gay.” There ensue efforts to make him into a real man. But realizing the “hypermasculine image” never fit him, he comes to accept being called soft. “I’ll take it,” he says.

Writer/Director Alan Sharpe created in The Chance of a Lifetime an illuminating short drama about the experience of an older man (Michael Sainte-Andress) who lost scores of friends to HIV/AIDS but survived, and now has turned inward, selfishly surrounding himself with possessions and living a solitary life in suburbia. He is visited by three of those deceased friends (Monte J. Wolfe, Stanley Freeman, and Jared Shamberger), who come to do an intervention: to get him to stop wasting time and squandering his life. The message and the metatheatrical metaphor are stunning.

A Water Break (written and directed by Jared Shamberger) had two guy friends out for a run together (Jeremy Keith Hunger and Jivon Lee Jackson) taking exactly what the title says. It turns out to be the trope of two ostensibly straight men discovering their sexual feelings for each other. The casual flirting is handled cleverly and originally, however, and the buildup and the realization come as an enjoyable surprise.

The most powerful piece of the evening was My Sweet Black Babushka (written by Josette Marina Murray and directed by Monte J. Wolfe). Performed with awesome emotional force by Thembi Duncan, it told a mother’s story of raising her baby boy in a family of strong women only to see him grow up and be shot dead in too-familiar circumstances of racist police action. The action that the mother takes in response had the audience riveted. There was mention during the talkback of turning this short monodrama into a full-length theater piece—a notion with which I wholeheartedly agree. The piece was absolutely superb.

Writer/Performer Monte J. Wolfe—whose multiple talents and producing vision had been been evident all evening—brought the program to a wistful close with another childhood reminiscence. This one, The Fine Print, referenced the do-over joys of playing with an Etch-a-Sketch toy and wondered aloud, “Why can’t life be like that?” And where was the fine print that warned there would be disappointment, heartbreak, and such? “I feel at war with adulthood,” he says.

This was the first time I’d attended one of the one-night-only themed anthology shows that Brave Soul Collective and Monte J. Wolfe have been putting together for several years. Next time another of these creative and content-rich collaborations comes around, my advice is: catch it.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

Plot Twists played June 28, 2015 at Brave Soul Collective performing at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, in Washington, DC.

Secrets of a Black Boy

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

A theater troupe from Toronto brought this play to town for three performances only for the DC Black Theater Festival. Secrets of a Black Boy speaks with great honesty and artistry. It achieves on stage that rare synthesis when a show that is entertaining  enriches an audience’s understanding at the same time. One wishes it could stay in town longer so that more people could be touched by it.

Written by Darren Anthony, Secrets of a Black Boy reveals the inner lives of five young black men who have gathered for one last game of dominoes at an inner-city community center that is about to be demolished, along with nearby public housing, in an urban gentrification land grab. Though this particular back story is based in Toronto, it resonates implicitly for neighborhoods in DC where it also has been imposed.

Upstage were cardboard boxes piled high into walls painted colorfully with graffiti. Eminently portable (because the boxes could readily be disassembled), this eloquently simple set design evoked perfectly the precarious transcience that brought these five men together. Stage right was DJ O, spinning an evocative mix of “Billy Jean,” “Let My People Go,” Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and such. Across the stage was stretched a yellow construction-site CAUTION tape that was promptly torn down by an actor in soundless protest.  A wordless prolog began—a tableau of a man in African garb being shackled then enslaved then freed. The vivid and evocative stage picture lingered like a haunting collective memory throughout all that followed.

And what followed was engrossing: an amalgam of monologues, scenes, and choreographic interludes that not only brought us into the lives of five distinctly drawn characters but also presented us—through the tight and cohesive performance of the group as a whole—with extraordinary stage images of authenticity among men. The five actors (Troy Crossfield, Shomari Downer, Al St. Louis, Samson Brown, and Leighton Williams) each displayed individual strengths—each was clearly committed to the character he played—but it was when Director Kimahli Powell had the ensemble moving, singing, exulting, incanting together that Secrets of a Black Boy was off the hook with unity and energy.

Here’s just a sampling of insightful moments in the show:

• There’s a fatherless kid named Biscuit, whom the older men try to mentor and raise up right. Biscuit has a funny-sad monolog about how he looked up to his only role model, his big brother, whose sexual prowess with a procession of females he witnessed: “He lasted…eight minutes!” the boy says impressed, to what seemed rueful chuckles of recognition.

• One of the men tells of the day his brother, who was dealing drugs, was shot: “I wake up wondering if this is my day to die.”

• The ensemble mock-instructs the audience in “the wifey checklist”—a semi-serious/semi-facetious list of tips for women who want to keep a man. (“Be a lady on the streets and a freak in the sheets.”) It sends itself up even as it makes points that land.

• One of the men challenges another, whose partner is leaving him, whether he really knows how to satisfy a woman. There follows a riff recommending cunnilingus (“go downtown”) that had female members of the audience audibly amused and affirmed.

• Each of the monologues was terrifically well written but one that seemed particularly edgy yet real was a speech by a character who said he was  “a successful black man with a preference for white women. Deal with it.”

• The lively choreographic interludes—which kept the pace moving briskly—included one set to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” demonstrating this was a cast that had bonded solidly and with esprit.

• During a five-minute pause  the cardboard boxes were turned to reveal sepia renderings of faces including that of Dr. King. Thereafter the ensemble performed a moving tribute to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others: “It coulda been me, another black man down.” “I can’t breathe.” “I was trying to be the best man I could be.”

• Among the powerful monologues in the second part was one by a man who told of losing his temper and abruptly beating the woman he loved. He recalls watching his pops hit his mother, then hit him. And in a stunningly staged episode we see him wreak his own violence on…a metal folding chair. The image of that chair taking his abuse was chilling. But the follow-through, when we see him realize remorsefully what he has done, was equally impactful. In a scene that lasted but ten minutes, the writer, director, and actor achieved something devastatingly iconic and unequivocally condemnatory about domestic violence.

This show had humor. This show had heart. This show was fun to watch. But even more important, Secrets of a Black Boy is a testament to truths that may be told by men among men if they are unafraid to be honest with one another.

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, including one short pause.

Secrets of a Black Boy played June 26–28, 2015 at The Andrew Foster Theatre of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC.

Finally Quiet in My Head

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Madness has been dramatized in theater at least since the ancient Greeks. The mind come loose from its moorings, the persona altered, a terror deep in the self—whether in life or on stage, this troubled and troubling extremity of existence holds the human imagination captive. And notwithstanding modern psychiatric and pharmacological interventions, there is a persistent mystery about madness that keeps dramatists returning to it and audiences intrigued by it.

Cristina Bejan’s play Finally Quiet in My Head—which had its U.S. premiere in the DC Black Theater Festival over the weekend—follows the story of a young woman named Morgan, whom we first meet in Saint Elizabeths Hospital, the District’s public mental health facility for intensive inpatient care. Morgan, played with winning high-spiritedness by Muslima Musawwir, begins by reciting, as if at a private poetry slam, a hallucinatory transhistorical dream she has had that includes imagery of plantation life and before.

Thereafter the play unfolds naturalistically, with  scenes set in the psych ward, Morgan’s parents’ home in DC, and her friend Tosha’s New York City apartment. In jump-cut flashback chronology, we see Morgan institutionalized, then out and about, then in again, then out. And for the most part these scenes establish a baseline of conventionality for the narrative. The shrink Dr. Raj (played with cloying cheer by Janani Ramachandran) is almost a cliche of smarmy sympathy. Deborah, Morgan’s mother (played with shrill exasperation by Gwen Lewis), is almost a cliche of  parental scorn. Anthony, Morgan’s father (played with volatile impatience by Steven Langley), is almost a cliche of the even-tempered supportive parent who can blow a fuse in a minute. Tosha, Morgan’s friend from childhood (played with flippant liveliness by Tuesday Barnes), is almost a cliche of the giddy girlfriend who can dish about sex and boyfriends but doesn’t get Morgan at all.

The character in Morgan’s world who breaks the mold, who is conspicuously atypical as dramatis personae go, is a fellow patient she meets in the psych ward named Gerard (played with teddy-bear-like warmth by Christopher Akinbuwa). Gerard is from Senegal, and Morgan has no idea why he has been institutionalized. He doesn’t know why she has been either. In other words, they do not see each other as the world sees them, as “mentally ill.” And on that lovely simpatico and level ground, the two become trusting friends.

At the very end Gerard has a speech that is like a bookend to the one of Morgan’s that began the play—a riff that poetically echoes hers. By this time we have learned what trauma precipitated Morgan’s “nervous breakdown” (eloquently foreshadowed in a dream Morgan relates about Mary the mother of Jesus). And by this time the playwright has arranged for reconciliations that wrap up the story. But with that last speech of Gerard’s, the play leaves us with a provocative loose end: Did Morgan imagine this gentle man to heal herself?

A presentation of the new culture and art collective Bucharest Inside the Beltway, Finally Quiet in My Head was co-directed with evident personal conviction by Bejan and Brittney Sankofa. The play was first produced in 2006 in Oxford, England, where Bejan was a Rhodes Scholar. Though in performance the more conventional scenes lacked the dramatic tension that the play’s overarching theme and weighty substance might suggest, the original story Finally Quiet in My Head tells, its poetic framing, and its two central characters—Morgan and Gerard—stay compellingly in the mind as an intriguing modern take on the age-old enigma of madness.

Running Time: About 75 minutes with no intermission.

Finally Quiet in My Head played June 20 and 21, 2015 at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, SE, in Washington, D.C.

The Book of Mormon (Revisited)

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Two years ago I saw the touring production of The Book of Mormon at The Kennedy Center and was utterly blown away. I wrote a column at the time about the profound content of The Book of Mormon, because of its brilliant depiction of the role of human imagination and metaphor in religious language and practice. I found this megahit musical comedy by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone to be “one of theater history’s most significant contributions to global understanding and world peace.” With missionary zeal, I’ve been exhorting everyone since to see the show.

Last night I returned to The Book of Mormon—which given my reverence for the musical had a shrine thing going on. A touring company with an all-new cast is “back by popular demand” until August 16. And I can rapturously report that the show I saw last night is just as good as—maybe better than—the one that blew me away in 2013.

The comic character who most embodies the musical’s revelatory riff on faith is a young Mormon man named Elder Cunningham. He gets paired with another young Mormon man, Elder Price, and deployed on a missionary junket to Uganda. As scripted, Cunningham is the chubby Mutt to Price’s lanky Jeff, the schlubby Costello to Price’s strapping Abbott.

The role of Elder Cunningham is a plum one for someone plump, and Cody Jamison Strand owns it. With an infectiously giddy laugh, a knack for physical buffoonery and nimble dance moves, genius comic timing, and a voice that ranges hilariously from squealing falsetto to faux-macho basso, Strand is an absolute knockout. Expect him to be the next Nathan Lane, the next Bert Lahr, the next Zero Mostel. Strand—who played the part previously on Broadway (right out of the University of South Dakota)—is a major reason for anyone contemplating seeing this road show to book tickets pronto.

David Larsen, who plays Cunningham’s companion Price, also brings it. The two have stunningly gorgeous voices, whether harmonizing  (as on the lovely duet “I Am Here for You”) or belting out solos (Larsen on “I Believe,” Strand on “Man Up”).

A third lead, Candace Quarrels, plays Nabulungi, a young woman whom Cunningham and Price befriend in Uganda. Quarrels simply soars on her solo ode to Salt Lake City, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” and the duet that she and Strand sing after coyly having their first coitus, “Baptize Me,” nearly stopped the show.

There is not a nano-instant in this production that hints of long-run-hit fatigue. The choreography and singing by the entire company—the Mormon entourage and the Ugandans alike—is as sharp, polished, and quicksilver fresh as can be. The insanely creative contributions of Directors Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, Choreographer Nicholaw, and Music Supervisor Stephen Oremus are evident in every delightful detail. And the original lighting by Brian MacDevitt, costumes by Ann Roth, and scenic design by Scott Pask seem brand-sparkling new.

There’s no better time to take in this modern masterwork of musical comedy. By some rare theatrical alchemy this ridiculously heretical entertainment appeals to people who are devout and people who are not, to people who adore big Broadway musicals and people who’ve never been to one in their life.

The Book of Mormon is a hit show you have to see to believe.

Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

The Book of Mormon plays through August 16, 2015  at  The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

Occupied Territories

The theater is no a stranger to the wounds of war.  Countless plays and performance pieces have opened our hearts and minds to that which is unhealed and raw, to that which persists as pain and trauma, to that which has cut down the lives of even those who come home from war alive.

Theater keeps us mindful not only that there are too many such stories to tell but that truthful storytelling of war’s human consequences is essential. For if there is any chance that war will end for ever after, it will be when civilization reaches consensus that no one can ever win a war because war by definition is failure.

The urgent cannon of great theatrical works that tell of war’s grievous after-effects has now been joined by a powerful and heartrending new play just opened at Theater Alliance. Titled Occupied Territories, it looks at what U.S. military action in Vietnam did to one American family—in particular the injury it did to the relationship between one Vietnam veteran and his daughter. Remarkably, in such synecdoche, Occupied Territories becomes before our eyes an emblem of a grieving war-torn era that mires our nation still today.

Occupied Territories is a devised play, meaning that it emerged out of collaborative workshops, not a playwright’s script. It began at Theater Alliance two years ago with but a few sentences of text for each of its scenes sketched by Mollye Maxner, the visionary prime mover who conceived and directed the work and who is herself the daughter of a Vietnam War vet. Unlike devised pieces one sometimes attends that display imaginative theatrical effects but lack a coherent emotional flow to carry things along—so the experience is more diverting than engaging—this one felt as if it were coursing on a current over heart-stopping rapids.

The play is staged in the round; there are only about 40 seats ranged in a circle in the Anacostia Playhouse black box. The story begins in a wood-framed thrust set depicting a basement (by Scenic Designer Andrew Cohen), where two bickering adult sisters, Helena (Adrienne Nelson) and Jude (Nancy Bannon), are going through the belongings of their recently deceased father, a withdrawn and troubled man who served in Vietnam 45 years ago and evidenced lifelong symptoms of PTSD. Jude especially is bitter that her father did not treat her better, and she discounts the significance of his military service, because his story to the family was that he was never in combat.

We learn that’s not what happened at all, in a most affecting dramatic reveal. A squad of Army servicemen led by Miles (Elliott Bales) explosively takes over the space around the basement set and makes of it a perilous night-time jungle in Vietnam (effectively aided by Sound Designer Matthew M. Nielson and Lighting Designer Kyle Gran). One young grunt, a boyish Collins  nicknamed Cornbread (Cody Robinson), bears the brunt of other squad members’ hazing and razzing. He is innocent patriotism personified. “This can’t be for nothing, right?” Collins asks not really rhetorically. “FTA,” says a grit-tough squad mate; “fuck the Army.”

Collins announces with excitement he’s about to be a father. Later he gets a letter telling him he has a newborn daughter, named Jude. And in that stunning moment we realize we are about to find out what happened to Jude’s father 45 years ago in the war that left him unable to communicate the unspeakable.

As Jude’s and Collins’s stories unfold and interconnect across the expanse of 45 years in two immersive and simultaneous settings, the action moves back and forth between basement and war zone. There are  indelible passages of sound and movement, including shocking incidents evoking the horrors of war that American soldiers not only suffered but perpetrated against civilians. There is also a shirtless pas de deux performed with breathtaking force and grace by Hawk (Thomas Rowell) and Harcourt (Nathan Jan Yaffe) that vividly conveys what Jude’s father meant when he told her that the bond between battle buddies far surpassed familial love. (Yaffe doubles uncredited as a civilian in choreography so chilling it seems inhuman.)

Occupied Territories was co-written by Mollye Maxner and Nancy Bannon, co-choreographed by Mollye Maxner and Kelly Maxner, and performed by a cast of eleven, including other Army squad members Lucky (Freddie Bennett), Ace (Desmond Bing), Cargo (Stephan Horst), Alex (Jake MacDevitt), and Professor (Thony Mena).

By the end I was so emotionally devastated by what I had seen that I myself was unable to speak until a good several minutes later. I only half-facetiously reflected that the production should be followed by grief counseling. I surmised from a talkback after that the piece impacted others deeply as well.

Not only is the particular story Occupied Territories tells extraordinary; so also is the original dramatic manner in which it does so. You may think you’ve seen plenty enough of the Vietnam War up close and personal. You may think you already know the drill. But when you experience how Occupied Territories tells its moving, memorable, and mythic story, you’ll have to think again.

The Word and the Wasteland (Source Festival)

At the center of this taut, trenchant play by Timothy Guillot is a fascinatingly enigmatic character named Benjamin Harding. He has very few lines. For the better part of two hours, Joshua Simon performs the role in eloquent silence. With his hollow, glaring eyes, his haunted face and calibrated body language, Simon keeps the character’s secrets and  holds our attention hostage.

As we learn from a cacophany of breaking-news broadcasts projected on vast screens around the theater, Benjamin Harding is in prison in L.A. and under FBI investigation for a terrorist bombing attack on the Walt Disney Concert Hall that killed 225 people and injured hundreds more.  Over the two acts that follow, the tension sprung from that circumstance lets up only intermittently for the kind of nervous laughter that puts the screws on tighter.

Harding appears to fit exactly the profile of nearly every sullen, inscrutable white man who has committed senseless mass murder in the U.S. in recent memory; that much is typical. But Guillot’s very atypical plot gimmick, which makes this play keep ticking like a time bomb, is Harding’s request to have his poetry read by a black woman poet from New York City. Her name is Elizabeth (“Lizzy”), and Benjamin has been following her performances of her own poetry on YouTube. “I’m your biggest fan,” he tells her in their first meeting, which has been arranged against her will by the FBI as a means to get their clammed-up suspect to talk. Tamieka Chavis plays Lizzy with striking inner strength and gravity and vividly expresses the sense in which both poet and  suspect are being held captive.

Joshua W. Kelley, who has deftly directed this gripping drama, sometimes sets up scenes that overlap in time and share the same stage. Thus early on we see the two FBI investigators battle over tactics—new-to-the-force Katherine (played whip-smart and poised by Sarah Ferris) and her gratingly overbearing boss Richard (played brashly by Greg Thompson)—even while we see Benjamin tremulously give Lizzy the handwritten poem he wishes her to read on camera.

As the play gathers momentum and menace, Lizzy’s YouTube delivery of Benjamin’s poem goes viral, and mainstream news outlets latch on to the trending story, turning  Lizzy and Benjamin into media phenoms. Lizzy’s initial reluctance to be involved is replaced by a sympathetic interest in Benjamin, even as he is demonized and dissected by more and more pundits.

Benjamin, we learn, grew up in the Deep South, and his abusive father was a white supremacist who actively supported the Klan and similar hate groups. We also learn that Benjamin has a brother, Woodrow (played by Zach Bopst with a touchingly awkward sinisterness).

Guillot has crafted a shrewd and evocative script that is propelled by crackling dialog, a mesmerizing narrative, an astute spin on media, and the aforementioned enigma,  Benjamin Harding. Not only does the play keep us wondering what makes Harding tick; it turns our voyeuristic curiosity into a measure of concern for the character—an identification that reaches unnerving intensity in a scene when Benjamin is brutally beaten (and Simon’s nearly soundless anguish then is chilling).

What ultimately impressed me most, however, is what the play leaves completely  unremarked and unexamined. It’s almost as if, like the central character Benjamin Harding, it maintains its own right to remain silent. That extraordinary unspokenness has to do with race, a topic never mentioned, either explicitly or referentially, as a theme of the play. By the end, though, the play’s silence on the issue is deafening. Here is a young man, Benjamin, who was literally born to racism; everything about his family upbringing was exactly the sort that imbues children with race hate. Yet the one person in the world Benjamin chooses to trust with his truth is a black woman poet from Harlem.

None of the media commentators who keep showing up onscreen make any mention of that obvious fact; nor does it occur to the FBI investigators as a piece of the puzzle they’re trying to solve. Part of this play’s brilliance is that it leaves us the audience that provocative lead to follow in our own mind on the way home.

The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

A hit Broadway comedy, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, rounds out Theater J’s 2014–2015 season in a production smartly directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Written in a mainstream mode by Charles Busch—whose oeuvre ordinarily tends toward outlandish—the play takes middle-of-the-road humor on a joy ride with so many enjoyable bends and twists the laughs could not whiz by faster.

The story takes place in an Upper West Side condo valued at (we are told) $2.5 million. Set Designer Caite Hevner Kemp has created a grand living room that’s trying to appear stylish but without any real style. The furniture looks pricey but doesn’t match. It’s as though no interior decorator was allowed near the place and instead the room was put together by someone of means but mediocre taste. That would be the central character, Marjorie Taub, the titular spouse. As the comedy begins she is drowning in a slough of despond, and Susan Rome, who plays Marjorie superbly, makes her mid-life crisis a giggle to watch.

Well read and cultured (she drops names like Herman Hesse and Rilke), and a supporter of a host of worthy charities, Marjorie says she’s mourning the death of her shrink but really she’s depressed about the meaningless of her existence. “I delve, I reflect, I brood,” she says. Her loving and faithful husband, Ira Taub, a revered and retired allergist played with earnest sensitivity by Paul Morella, can do nothing to lift her spirits. “I have ambiguities you can’t begin to fathom,” she tells him. Ira’s practice has set them up for privilege and leisure, but Marjorie’s life is a void she cannot fill.

That’s about to change.

Enter Lee Green, Marjorie’s childhood chum, who drops into the play as if by chance. It’s the classic interloper trope—like Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner and Paul in Six Degrees of Separation—and in Lise Bruneau’s enthrallingly entertaining performance, the character shifts things around and shakes everything up, leaving Marjorie’s life by the end turned around for the better.

Marjorie’s elderly mother, Frieda, lives in an apartment down the hall, makes her way with a walker and, in a running gag, is reliant on suppositories. Frieda adores Ira, her son-in-law, but harshly judges her daughter, Marjorie. Barbara Rappaport brings to the role a feistiness and comic timing that make her every line land to howls from the audience.

A fifth character, Mohammed, an émigré from Iraq, is the building lobby attendant, and in this insightful production Holdridge has given the role more prominence than it has in the script. Stationed stage right at a concierge desk throughout, Mohammed becomes a witness to the proceedings, somewhat the play’s conscience, and he seems to be taking notes on the show as it goes. (Projections Designer Ruthmarie Tenorio has his handwritten narrative texts appear on the proscenium above the stage.) Maboud Ebrahimzadeh’s stolid performance as Mohammed has the effect of grounding the play and its lightweight first world problems in a weightier context—even as the jokes fly fast and furious.

The entire production is as spiffy and classy as can be. Of particular note are the jazz interludes between scenes by Composer/Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis, Costume Designer Frank Labovitz’s elegant wardrobe for Marjorie and Lee, and the bright way Lighting Designer Jason Arnold makes the big abstract painting upstage seem to shimmer with color.

A hit on the Great White Way about 15 years ago (in a production I remember enjoying a lot), the play has been deftly updated  by the author for the Theater J run with contemporary references to current technology and pop culture such that it feels completely fresh, as if written but months ago. Given how much in the world has changed since 2000, that achievement is remarkable.

Though The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife borrows a bunch from the television sit-com style of comic character quirks, clever zingers, and zany situations, it’s got more going on than meets the eye. There’s a method to the madcap, a moral to this tale.  We can see it in Marjorie’s improbable yet persuasive character arc: She gets over herself and gets on with living purposefully. That’s not a bad prescription and it comes in the form of the best medicine—nonstop laughter.

Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.

The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife plays through July 5, 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 (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.

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