Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington

I do believe you darkies are trying to kill me,” says Martha Washington to her house slaves in this fantastical-historical play, just opened in a sensationally cheeky production at the new Ally Theatre Company. Martha has reason to be concerned.

The cast of …Miz Martha Washington (Tanya Chattman, Reginald Richard, Nate Shelton, Jane Petkofsky, Jonathan Miot, Taunya Ferguson, and Tai Alexander). Photograph by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Philadelphia Playwright James Ijames, a 2017 Whiting Award recipient, made up the script’s surreal story: George Washington’s frail widow lies in her sick bed having a fever dream populated by an antic assortment of black people. They appear to be waiting on her but really they are waiting for her to die, because by the terms of her husband’s will, they are then to be freed. So they pass the time messing with her head, playing out a wild series of comic sketches, and thoroughly entertaining the rest of us.

Ijames didn’t make up Martha’s paranoia, however, nor George’s will. She penned her panic in a letter that centuries later prompted Ijames to pen this play. Lucky for American theater he did too, because The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington is an extraordinary dark comedy about slavery in America. It compares to the act-of-imagination ingredients in works by other young African American dramatists—such as Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon), Suzan-Lori Parks (Father Comes Home From the Wars…), and Steven A. Butler Jr. (The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus)—who in wholly original voices have turned the fraught topic of U.S. racism into theater that both delights and indicts.

This regional premiere came to be because Producing Artistic Director Ty Hallmark and Director of Community Engagement Valerie Fenton saw the 2014 Philadelphia premiere. They knew on the spot it was a play that belonged in DC and the script with which they should launch Ally Theatre. They were right on both counts.

The play takes place in 1800 at Mount Vernon, today called an estate but then a plantation where more than 300 were enslaved. Set Designer Audrey Bodek builds an abstract paneled backdrop hung with historical paintings, such as Washington Crossing the Delaware. Realistic wooden furnishings—chairs, a table, a bed—are arranged on the stage.

At the beginning there’s a blue-lit haunting, with figures moving in slo-mo to the strained sounds of “Ring Around the Rosie.” Miz Martha Washington (Jane Petkofsky) awakens, addledly humming the same tune, appearing in her own dream unawares.

Nate Shelton (William Dandridge) and Tanya Chattman (Ann Dandridge). Photograph by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Six versatile actors playing Martha’s house slaves take the guise of nearly twenty characters, each a treat to watch. Ann Dandridge (Tanya Chattman) is the one closest to Martha, not least because they are daughters of the same white man, meaning that Ann’s young son William (Nate Shelton) is also Martha’s nephew. This is not the only Washington family secret that makes its way into the play, nor the only trace of the nation’s founding shame.

Two women, Doll and Priscilla, played by Ivana (Tai) Alexander and Taunya Ferguson, sit working at a kitchen table beating out a rhythm with spoons and a bowl. They have a riotously gleeful time imitating how they imagine Martha’s death rattle will sound, “like a choking chicken.” Rounding out the cast, Reginald Richard’s Davy razzes Jonathan Miot’s Sucky Boy, whose nickname refers to when he refused to be weaned.

From left: Ivana (Tai) Alexander (Doll), Tanya Chattman (Ann Dandridge), and Taunya Ferguson (Priscilla). Photograph by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The show quickly picks up an enjoyable pace of vision scenes and stock comic setups subverted. There’s a cleverly breathless shotgun lesson in American history, a bizarre quiz show, a grotesque mock slave auction in which Miz Washington herself is on the block

So much of the show’s fun is to be had watching the actors become different characters, and there are several standouts. Ferguson displays an amazing comic range, portraying by turns an imperiously proper Abigail Adams and a hilariously roughhewn slave auctioneer. Shelton, who skips adorably in and out of scenes as Ann’s boy, turns into an august bewigged judge in a scene where the slaves put Martha on trial.  And Reginald Richard’s turn as a ribald gangsta-rapper George Washington almost stops the show.

Reginald Richard (as George Washington) with Taunya Ferguson. Photograph by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Besides all the funny bits, though, there’s lots that’s serious, as for instance this poignant exchange between Martha and her sister/slave Ann late in the play:

MARTHA: Come with me. We can talk. Wouldn’t that be nice?
ANN: Talk?
MARTHA: Yes. We used to be so close when we were younger. You used to tell me secrets.
ANN: While I brushed your hair and turned down your bed.
MARTHA: Yes, and we would play and talk and whisper through the night.
ANN: When I slept at the foot of your bed. Before they put me down behind the kitchen.
MARTHA: And we…We shared our whole lives together.
ANN: Not our whole lives.
MARTHA: Yes…I know you. I know everything about you.
(Beat)
ANN: Here…(point to her own chest)…this is the dark black black black interior. Deep and hot like those tunnels in the sky…beyond the stars that people used to talk about before we got civilized. That dark darkness of my soul that is wet and looks wicked and smells funky and drips with sweat. This spot past my breast past my heart past my being. Beyond even what I can understand. That place that feels sooooooooo good to touch when no one is looking. I don’t let you come in there.

Chattman’s delivery of that monologue is powerfully moving. And throughout the play there are times when all the slaves are all laughing in unison, yet these moments are oddly sobering. Ijames explains this effect in his script:

“In slavery times the slaves were not allowed to laugh in many plantations. When the urge to laugh became irrepressible, the slaves had a “laughing barrel” into which they would lean way down, place their head in the barrel and laugh; then go back to whatever it was they were doing.”

There is no laughing barrel in this play. When the script indicates laughter it is not light or fun. It’s more like showing one’s teeth. Especially in the case of the slaves. Their laughter is hostile. Loud! Laughter is a weapon.

Sound Designer Hope Villanueva and Lighting Designer E-hui Woo evoke excellently both the dream worlds and real worlds and shuttle us back and forth with ease. And kudos to Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson, whose impressive creations range from louche to lavish.

With a vision “to elevate, illuminate, and give rise to voices that have gone unheard, to peer inside and spend time in spaces unseen,” Ally Theatre is off to a stupendous start. Its inaugural staging of The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington is theatrical discovery of the best kind—a terrific script not to be missed, a production with pizazz, and a bold new troupe to watch out for.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.

The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington plays through May 20, 2017,  at Ally Theatre Company performing at Joe’s Movement Emporium, 3309 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainer, MD. Tickets are available online.

 

Smart People

Racism, presumed in polite circles to be no laughing matter, gets a hilariously smart  deconstruction in Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People. Arena Stage has given this 2016 play its DC premiere in a nifty production pointedly directed by Seema Sueko that makes Diamond’s every zinger zing and stinger sting. And scarcely a racist presumption goes unscathed.

But a lot of this comedy-with-a-woke-conscience is the kind of cringe-worthy funny that can make one  wonder whom it’s meant to amuse. Smart People doesn’t pull punches. It strides right up to the tense brink of so many racial and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices that it’s a wonder the whole undertaking doesn’t tumble off a PC cliff. More than once I found myself thinking, Thank god this play was written by a woman of color; I don’t think a white guy could get away with it, much less come up with it. 

Clockwise (from top left): Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Gregory Perri as Brian White, and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Diamond, whose scripting cred includes a year as Arena Stage resident playwright, gives us four characters whose demographic diversity will drive her storytelling. We are introduced to them one by one, each standing in a cell on Set Designer Micha Kachman’s two-story grid, which seems as much a statement about putting people in boxes as a very fun way to stage this play.

Two of the play’s four brains on board are tenured Harvard University professors. Brian White is, as his surname says, white, and his specialty is neuro-science. He studies the relationship between the brain and subconscious racist prejudice—how our brains are wired to perceive patterns of racial identity in ways that shape discriminatory attitudes and behavior. His research shtick, which he is quite proud of, is gathering clinical data to prove that white people are racist. This plays rather like a running joke—like, duh. But it’s also the notional glue in the delightfully intertwined interactions of the four characters, all of whom in different combos keep bumping up against whatever’s going on there in our national noggin.

(While watching Smart People I was never sure whether Diamond had made this neuro-science stuff up. It sometimes seemed it could be fanciful. Turns out, as I learned later, the science of the racist brain is  a thing. Which in its own way makes Smart People as mind-blowing as Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, the play about the brain science of consciousness recently seen at Studio Theatre.)

Gregory Perri as Brian White and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Brian, besides priding himself in his scientific pursuit, is one of those preening learned liberals who would without hesitation white-splain racism to a person of color. Gregory Perri plays Brian so spot-on clueless smart guy it’s embarrassing. And I mean that totally as a compliment.

Ginny Yang is a Harvard colleague of Brian’s, a professor of psychology. She brings to the play’s interrogation of racism the insider insight of someone whose academic field is race and identity among Asian American women, who herself is Japanese American and Chinese American, and who in private practice counsels Asian American women. Her research findings show “a direct correlation of racist stereotyping to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.” So she’s smart, alright. Ginny is also a snooty shopaholic and can’t be bothered joining a faculty committee addressing institutional racism at the school: “I’m uncomfortable celebrating my marginalization with other disgruntled marginalized people.” Sue Jin Song as Ginny gets these contradictions and more and makes of them a wonderfully nuanced performance.

Not a PhD like Brian and Ginny but an up-and-coming MD is Jackson Moore, who is African American and an intern at Harvard Medical School. When we first meet him, he is on duty in the emergency room having been called on the carpet for amputating the toe of an obese seventy-something diabetic. Immediately we get Jackson’s place in the play as a highly educated, talented, and yes articulate young black man who knows about racism because it happens to him, all the time. His anger is real and venting it has got him in trouble. He’s also got a brother who’s a recovering crack addict to whom  racism arguably happened worse and to whom Jackson sends money for food. He’s a guy with a big heart that he is trying to keep from hardening, and Jaysen Wright captures the role’s complexity with such winning grace that his likability quotient lifts the entire play.

Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Valerie Johnston, also African American, is a young actor with an MFA in Acting from the prestigious A.R.T. in Cambridge. But her talent, training, and attractive instrument don’t get her the same caliber of roles that her white classmates are landing. She’s a feisty sort, though, determined to make it in a profession that is particularly susceptible to racist brain imaging, by audiences and directors alike. The script doesn’t make this explicit but it’s clearly what Valerie is doing in Diamond’s cast of characters: Smart as she is, she’s not seen past her skin. Lorene Chesely in the role makes us believe completely in Valerie’s vivacious presence as a performer, plus the grit that lets nothing stop her.

Over the course of the play, in a sequence of sometimes overlapping scenes, Diamond mixes and matches these four characters. Jackson and Valerie have a fling that turns tempestuous. Brian and Jackson compete as basketball buddies and dudes. Financially strapped Valerie gets work as Brian’s assistant. Ginny and Brian have a fling that turns tempestuous. And so forth. The flow of two-hander scenes can read a little random, like meetups of convenience not impelled by any plot. But Diamond’s purpose is not to make a traditionally well-made play; it’s to dramatize how racism can pop up in all the little exchanges in life that seem innocuous but really aren’t. And the scenes she writes to show that are brilliantly sharp as texts.

Here, for example, is such an exchange between Brian and Ginny. It takes place in Brian’s office.  Brian has just told Ginny, not without self-pity, about the flak he catches for his work.

GINNY: So the work I do…. Perhaps it’s given more….room, because I’m not railing against the system that created the circumstances.
BRIAN: By circumstance you mean genocide, slavery, internment?
GINNY: Look, I’ve identified issues in specific Asian American populations, depression, anxiety. I’ve acknowledged the unfair social…dynamic
BRIAN: Racism.
GINNY: Do you not get tired of that word? I’ve pointed out the ‘dynamic’ that feeds the cycle. But I address the cycle. What good does running around screaming slavery and internment do now?
BRIAN: What about the white individuals who made the bullshit that makes the low self-esteem?
GINNY: I’m more concerned with the female Asian American individuals who are just trying to get jobs, date, have decent family lives…. It is what it is. Why not just give people a better set of tools for navigating it.

Smart People is smartly set in Cambridge 2007–2009 in the run-up to Obama’s first Inauguration, a time when the topic of race was in the national conversation at a whole new level of being taken seriously. Obama’s candidacy had made that happen. The last scene of Smart People takes place at his Inauguration—with fantastic flashback effects by Sound Designer Andre Pluess and Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi. After two acts of nonstop laughter, this moment of celebration seemed to me suddenly sobering and saddening—because it so vividly pointed to a period that since November is no more.

People who fancy themselves smart should not miss this show, heartbreaking ending and all. For Smart People reminds us—with biting wit, much humor, and great affection—that there are difficult conversations about race that still need to be had. And we can still have them.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.

Smart People plays through May 21, 2017, at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

 

Or,

As play titles go, Or, is one of the most ungoogleable. It is a search engine dead end. And as an original mashup of past and present, prose and poetry, and performative purposes, Liz Duffy Adams’s  Or, is also one of the most unpeggable.

My colleague David Siegel, in his rave review, called the production now playing at Round House Theatre “the embodiment of literate theater performed by a top-notch cast.” I completely concur—and the provocative script has got me thinking.

Or, is kind of a comedy, in the manner of the Restoration, the era evoked in the play. As such it’s got lots of laughs. But Or, is also something else. Something quite rad. It’s a fusion of feminism and farce as silly and serious as can be.

Or, (the comma in the title is intentional) is the third theatrically adventurous play I’ve enjoyed at Round House that has tucked inside it some fierce feminist consciousness. Of NSFW by Lucy Kirkwood, for instance,  I wrote:

In NSFW Kirkwood skewers the way men’s and women’s consumer lifestyle magazines aggravate and ameliorate their target audiences’ insecurities. And in so doing NSFW pokes a spot-on critique at the entire culture’s commodification of gender anxiety.

Of Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo, I wrote:

Given how much feminist theorizing is packed into Gionfriddo’s script—some of it densely, abstrusely academic—one might have supposed that eyes would glaze over. But no, the flurry of feminist ideas in the show played like piquant catnip to a herd of felines (among whom were not a few toms; the audience included many couples who appeared to be on a date). And these weren’t just garden-variety feminist ideas (like: women ought to have choices, it’s hard to have it all, that sort of thing). Sure, there was a lot of such duh, easy-on-the-ears opining. Yet this firebrand of a script also had a thick load of gritty stuff about pornography, a topic that typically makes its appearance in the performing arts salaciously and panderingly. But analytically and critically? Not so much.

The main character in Or, is the playwright Aphra Behn (1640-1689), who was one of the first women to earn a living from writing. After a somewhat slow takeoff on a long runway of a prologue, Or, lifts aloft on the premise of a hugely feminist joke: Aphra is on deadline to deliver a playscript by the next morning, but she keeps being sidetracked by her lovers (two men and a woman), who keep dropping in on the lodgings that she rented to be (in Virginia Woolf’s famous phrase) a room of her own. Instead, in Adams’s wittily sexy conceit, the place is a pied-à-terre for Aphra’s polyamory. All of which is so much fun to watch play out—passionate kisses, fast costume changes, French-farce door slamming—that it’s easy to lose track of the question that’s really driving Aphra: Will she finish? 

In the opus sense, not the big-O one.

Aphra’s feminist convictions about financial independence are set forth early on in a scene with Charles II, who has made amorous advances toward her and whose kiss has evidently aroused her.

I am not a professional mistress. I have greater ambitions…. I’m no kind of whore, the kind that marries or the other kind. I’ll earn my own bread or go hungry.
(They kiss again)
Very nice. But a kiss won’t transform me into a mistress nor you into a theatrical contract.

Later Aphra explains for Charles even more explicitly her determination not to depend on a man:

The greatest danger for a woman, let me tell you, plague and fire and war in one, is all-consuming love for a man. As a nation under a tyrant, so a woman in love: all freedom lost for the sake of a specious security that only lasts as long as a sunny day in England; that is, as long as a man loves or a tyrant pleases to be kind.

Throughout Or, Adams cleverly layers a 1960s sexual-revolution vibe over 1660s societal values, but Aphra’s views on mutually volitional sex would have been anomalous in either ethos. Aphra spells this out in a scene with the celebrated actor Nell Gwynne, who here is one of Aphra’s paramours.

APHRA: Nature endowed us with a glorious gift for pleasure and nothing is more natural than to take all honest advantage of it.
NELL: And by honest you mean?
APHRA: Willing. The only sensual sin is to take what isn’t freely given. If I am lucky enough to attract the true affection of a lovely man or woman, and if together we can increase the sum total of happiness in the world for even an hour, I consider that an act of virtue, not vice.

Adams gives Aphra and Nell not only a passionate attraction to each other but also a similarly feminist take on the sexual politics of marriage. Comparing it to prostitution, Nell says, “What’s the difference, except you’re selling yourself to just one man. No way around it, to be a woman is to be a whore…”

In perhaps the most nervy instance of radical feminism to appear in Adams script, Aphra and Nell articulate differing views on penis-in-vagina sex. Speaking confidentially to Nell, Aphra says of her lover (and patron) Charles:

Well, to be blunt, I don’t let him fuck me. We exchange every other pleasure but that.
NELL: Why not?
APHRA: … I’ve never really cared that much about that part; it’s all the rest that does it for me.
NELL: I love it, I could do it for hours. Did you see my Cleopatra last season? “O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!” I love that line, I know just what she means.

In a unique twist on the feminist “can women have it all?” trope, Adams frames the work-versus-love dilemma specifically from the point of view of a woman writer. And if the play can be said to have a message for women today, it is in this telling exchange between Aphra her ex-lover William.

WILLIAM: You don’t love me anymore, you said so.
APHRA: It’s not quite that simple. I never did know how to stop loving, I only know how not to let it stop me.

If Or, is evidence of a pattern in Round House programing—plays by women with feminist core convictions not needing the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival in order to be produced—I’m all for it.  And the reason for my unqualified affirmation goes beyond this particular play and this particular writer. Because if professional theater makes room for the voices of the marginalized but does not make room for the most radically liberationist among them, it has not actually made room for any of them.

A Human Being Died That Night

There are moments in this gripping, challenging, and deeply thought-provoking drama when the smallest of gestures by the two actors say what the play is about more than words can.

A Human Being Died That Night is set inside a penitentiary in South Africa. Gray bars, gray floors, gray walls, gray everything. A black woman and a white man are seated at opposite ends of a table, she in a tasteful suit, he in an orange prison uniform.

She is a psychologist. She is there to interview a convicted killer of black people. He acted as an agent of the apartheid state. His crimes are heinous.  Headlines have called him “Prime Evil.”

At a point the man leans forward in his chair, hanging his head as if in remorse, and lowers his handcuffed wrists into his lap. In a sudden, subtle, and stunning movement, the woman assumes the same position, her wrists at rest in her lap like his, as if in empathy. Her mirroring movement comes too quick to seem calculated; it looks genuine, almost involuntary. And in the eloquence of their shared body language, the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation—huge, lofty concepts at the core of this play—becomes as palpable as a pulse.

The play A Human Being Died That Night is tightly adapted by British dramatist Nicholas Wright from an award-winning, best-selling 2003 book of the same name by South African clinical psychologist and research professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who based it on her prison interviews with the infamous Eugene de Kock. A former South African commanding officer, he kidnapped, tortured, and murdered black anti-apartheid activists and was sentenced to two life sentences plus. Gobodo-Madikizela’s subtitle is A South African Story of Forgiveness—which might sound like a stretch till you see this play.

Pumla is a character in it, a lecturer on issues of forgiveness and reconciliation. She begins the play as if she has come to deliver a speech to us, and she gets to the moral heart of the matter straightaway:

What should our attitude be to people who have committed atrocities? Our tendency, always, is to think of them as monsters who are radically different from ourselves. We fear that, if we engage with them as real people, we will be lowering the moral requirements for entry into the human community. There is another reason too. It is our fear of discovering that the perpetrators are as human as they are.

Behind Pumla is Set Designer Debra Booth’s stark cold prison space; and seen on a screen through bars are Projections Designer Patrick Lord’s documentary stills of political violence, including the crimes of de Kock. The play’s setting and historical backdrop are unmitigatedly grim.

But Erica Chamblee as Pumla is a poised professional who knows to keep a specialist’s detachment from her research subjects, and that emotional reserve of hers serves the mediating purpose of being a buffer for us too against the horror. Then as the play unfolds, we witness her feeling floods of emotion she was trying to keep in check. And we too let down our guard. Chamblee’s is an awesomely measured performance of a person attempting what seems impossible in these horrific circumstances: to understand and forgive.  In a sense A Human Being Died That Night is a parable for grownups that models its edifying moral in the character arc of Pumla. Except it’s not a made-up fable; it really happened.

A Guard (Jason B. McIntosh) leads in a prisoner in chains then leaves, locking the two inside. As Eugene de Kock, Chris Genebach portrays someone more personable and good-natured than either we or Pumla might have expected. Still there is something creepy here.

EUGENE: Tell me, does this, this set-up that you’re looking at now make you think of a certain film?
[Pause]
With Jodie Foster and Sir Anthony Hopkins?
PUMLA: Yes, I must admit that it reminded me of that.

Cue the nervous laughter.

Much of Wright’s script relates violent instances in South African history that de Kock had a bloody hand in. Especially poignant was the aftermath of his role in the so-called Motherwell bombing, in which three black police officers were killed. Testifying and confessing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (on which Gobodo-Madikizela served), de Kock made the startling request to meet with the widows of the slain police officers in order to apologize to them. This event of moral transformation made a deep impression on Gobodo-Madikizela, who later arranged to interview de Kock in prison.

Eugene’s recounting of his meeting with the widows is powerful.

I said what I’d come to say. That I sincerely and from the bottom of my heart regretted what I had done. I said I knew there was no excuse…. I told them, “I did wrong and I confess it. I offer you an unreserved apology. I hope you will understand.” There was a moment of silence, and then [one of the widows] got up and moved towards me. I thought fine, let her hit me if she wants, she’s earned that right. But she put her arms around me…she hugged me…. She said, “I forgive you. And my tears are not only for my husband. They are for you as well.” Then she said, “It’s not too late. There’s still a future. You can change.”

Upon hearing this, Pumla reaches across the table to touch Eugene’s hand. Abruptly he pulls back. We find out later why Eugene recoiled. Pumla had inadvertently touched the finger with which he pulled the trigger when he killed.

There are so many memorable lines of dialog in this show: “The divide between good and evil is paper thin.” “Forgiveness is not forgetting,” And under Logan Vaughn’s exacting direction, each such text triggers its own cognition. But it is the small gestures that speak volumes—be it a tear covertly wiped away by Pumla, an itch unselfconsciously scratched by Eugene, or Pumla’s outstretched arm across the table. The healing drama is in the details.

This second play in Mosaic’s South Africa: Then and Now rep goes beyond “now.” It points to the necessary future of our coexistence. Trust Mosaic Theater Company to remind us how our common humanity is reliant on empathy and reconciliation—and how our interpersonal is ethically implicated in the epic.

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

A Human Being Died That Night plays in rep with Blood Knot  through April 30, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

LINKS:

Review: ‘Blood Knot’ at Mosaic Theater Company of DC by Ravelle Brickman

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s website

In the Next Room or the vibrator play

I lost count of how many orgasms are in this show. They keep, um, coming and coming. And each one is performed stunningly by a student actor with such precisely differentiated paroxysms and vivid vocalization, and with such intrinsic dramatic interest, that they become playlets within the play, each a showstopper jaw-dropper.

And those Big Os are only a few of the pleasures to be had in the excellent production directed by Derek Goldman at Georgetown University of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the vibrator play, a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award nominee. I caught the show near the end of its run, and the enthusiastically responsive audience suggested to me that word of mouth had made it a campus hit. Certainly the acting, design, and direction combined with Ruhl’s script were of a caliber that could easily have made it a hit with the larger audience of theater fans as well.

Ruhl’s play tells an audacious story, much of it based on historical fact, about the titular vibrator, which was made possible by the invention of electricity. Early use was made of this clever gizmo to treat “hysteria” in women (and on occasion men). Offered to patients in a clinical setting by medical professionals of the time, supervised stimulation to orgasm by vibrator had a salutary therapeutic effect—symptoms of hysteria subsided or disappeared. So these coming attractions generated quite a buzz.

Stage left is the proper 19th-century parlor of Dr. Givings (an earnest and forthright Alex Prout) and his wife Mrs. Givings (an impressive and vivaciously versatile Michaela Farrell). Stage right is the titular next room, an office with an examining table upon which the doc treats his patients to peak experiences.

The first patient of Dr. Givings we meet is Mrs. Daldry (a fascinatingly high-strung Healy Knight, whose hilarious scenes with Farrell pretty much walk away with the show). She arrives with her dud-in-bed husband Mr. Daldry (an amusingly unremarkable Charlie Tepany). He’s dispatched to take a walk, though, so that Mrs. Daldry can be seen by the doctor in his office, attended by his assistant Annie (Vanessa Chapoy, whose dazed but unfazed takes on the proceedings made me smile). Mrs. Daldry disrobes to her Victorian undergarments and lies apprehensively on the examining table covered by a sheet. With nonplussed Annie standing by, the practiced doctor does his thing. His thingamajig locates her thingamabob and ecstasy ensues.

We meet the second patient of Dr. Givings at the top of Act Two—a flamboyant Italian artist named Leo (a dashing and kinetic Alec Meguid), whose poetic odes to female beauty in art and life charm both the Mesdames. Turns out he’s got symptoms that Dr. Givings recognizes as histeria. Ruhl, in a startling but astute plot twist, has a scene with Leo under the sheets having his prostate palpated by the doctor’s electrical  dildo. So it is that we get Leo’s ecstasy in excelsis.

Mrs. Givings gets a turn being turned on too—she is the last of three characters to orgasm spectacularly during the show—but her ecstasy comes of a connection between her and Mrs. Daldry, not at the hands of her hubby. This instance makes her realize what’s been missing from her marital bed, and she sets about getting it, with surprising results quite tender and touching.

There is not a moment in the play when Ruhl is not thoroughly in command of the gendered meanings in what she’s doing. There is also a subplot with which Ruhl brilliantly leads us to see the raced meanings of the play. Mrs. Givings has just given birth to a baby but is not lactating sufficiently. She then enlists an African American wet nurse named Elizabeth (an affectingly stoic Nona Johnson). The story lines that follow (including Leo’s patronizing painting of Elizabeth nursing the Givings’ baby) have a profound effect on the whole play in framing the action as privileged white people’s problems.

Set Designer Andrew Cohen, one of several professionals on the creative team, does a fantastic job. Among the nice touches are the two large images framed and mounted on opposite walls: a romanticized painting of a woman in the posh living room and a clinical diagram of a woman’s body in the medical office. Just as Ruhl’s play tracks the gender dichotomy, Cohen sets up a dramatic contrast between a female friendly world stage left and a starkly male world stage right.

Lighting Designer Kristin A. Thompson fluidly shifts focus between the two worlds, and creates a delightful cue that dims the office lights whenever power is being drawn by the vibrator. A very talented student sound designer, Sean Craig, lends a humming-buzzing undertone to the happiness appliance. Prop Designers Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa get credit for, among other things, the doctor’s very credible implements. And Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny’s period garments are, especially for the women, magnificent in every detail right down to their underwear.

In the Next Room is the third main-stage production I’ve seen at Georgetown  (the other two were War With the Newts and Wind Me Up, Maria!: A Go-Go Musical, both directed by Natsu Onoda Power), and I’m beginning to conclude that GU has one of the top must-see university theaters in town.

Running Time: About two hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.

In the Next Room, or the vibrator play plays through April 8, 2017, at at the Davis Performing Center’s Gonda Theatre at Georgetown University – 37th & O Streets NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

Lucy

As the PETA-hounded circus left town on its farewell tour, I  headed to the Atlas Performing Center to see Lucy, an UrbanArias opera about an actual chimp. I was reassured to learn that no animals were harmed in the production. In fact, throughout the oddly enjoyable hour, the only primate onstage was a human—one whose resounding baritone related a stranger-than-fiction true story.

In 1964—in an experiment then called cross-fostering—a psychologist and his wife adopted a day-old chimpanzee whom they named Lucy and raised in their home as their daughter. That’s what they considered her, their daughter. And the psychologist formed with her a particularly deep emotional bond.

The psychologist and his wife had a biological son about the same age, whom they named Steve. As much as possible, the couple treated Lucy and Steve the same, as equally human. For eleven years Lucy lived in their household (longer than any other cross-fostering placement). As Lucy grew she got her own bedroom, a lockable concrete-and-steel enclosure equipped with child’s furnishings and a drain in the floor. And she would be let out to play throughout the house and romp on the couple’s ranch and even be introduced to occasional house guests.

Eventually Lucy’s hostility and aggression made keeping her a danger. The experiment had failed. Lucy was relocated to a sort of game preserve in Gambia where people taught her how to live like other chimpanzees. A few years later she fell prey to a grisly killing by poachers.

Now, if you were a writing and composing team, does a first-person account by that chimp-loving shrink sound like it would make…an opera? Hard to imagine, but that’s the notion that occurred to Composer John Glover and Librettist Kelley Rourke. They took this very sincere man’s memoir about these very offbeat events and made it musically and dramatically into a surprisingly funny, fascinating, and ultimately touching experience. You wouldn’t think it would work. You’d think audiences would go eww, weird. But Lucy leaves you going wow.

The opera is set after Lucy’s horrific death, in the concrete and steel room that was hers, a place captured with stark authenticity by Set Designer Michael Locher. The floor even shows stains leading to the drain from when the chimp was cleaned up after. The stage is set with a child-size bed and chair, some storage boxes, a floor lamp Lucy may have tipped over, and a table on which a 60s-era cassette player, slide projector, and film projector are arrayed. (This equipment will be deftly deployed as audiovisual aids as the story unfolds.)

Andrew Wilkowske, whose character is named after the real Maurice Temerlin,  enters from an upstage door and begins singing  a score that is remarkably revealing of his inner emotional life. “Lucy, Lucy, Lucy, Lucy…” he pleads, as if this plaintive, dirgelike repetition would bring her back to him.

Wilkowske’s performance convinces from the beginning, which is key to why Lucy works. The pain of Maurice’s loss is palpable from the first moment.  Such is Wilkowske’s investment in the role that when he refers to Lucy as “our little girl,” lyrics that might make one wince, we believe his adoring belief. As he goes on to regale us with anecdotes from his life with Lucy, sometimes as playful as she must have been, the emotional core of his character is never anything but credible. The role was written for Wilkowske and this is not his first time on stage with it. His sure vocal command of the score and his sensitive empathy for Maurice are impressive.

And there’s a lot of amusement in the show. Maurice’s singing of Lucy’s defecation habits was scatological humor of the finest sort.  At another point he runs about the stage almost like Lucy might and plays a silly game of peekaboo with us as if with her. And there is a hilarious scene when Maurice, pouring whiskey into a tiny teapot then pouring himself a drink in a tiny teacup, tells us what a wonderful drinking companion Lucy was—at an age when it would have been wrong to drink with Steve.

Accompanying Wilkowske’s strong sung narration was the Inscape Chamber Orchestra—Robert Wood, UrbanArias’ founder, conducting Sandy Choi  on violin, Hrant Parsamian  on cello, Evan Ross Solomon on bass clarinet, and R. Timothy McReynolds on piano. I was struck by the intensity of emotion the orchestra conveyed  as when Maurice repeats simply “she, she, she, she,” words that alone could never have borne such anguish. And alongside the grownup instrumentation, David Hanlon on toy piano provided the sweetly tinkling theme for Lucy.

Director Erik Pearson heads a production that pulls us into a human-interest story that could easily seem simply quirky but pits us face to face with quickening questions about who we are as humans. A most remarkable thing happens during Lucy. The character of Lucy comes to seem completely real. We get to know her and see her first through Maurice, of course, but at some point during the show—through the artful confluence of libretto, score, performance, and design—Lucy becomes real on her own.  So much so that when she dies, so has a tragic heroine.

Running Time: One hour with no intermission.

Lucy plays through April 8, 2017, at UrbanArias performing at The Paul Sprenger Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

VIDEO:

Pike St.

Even as fear and animus split the human race asunder, great authors have reminded us for millennia that we really are all one. From the ancient Roman playwright Terrence (“I am human, and nothing human is alien to me”) to the American poet Walt Whitman (“I am large, I contain multitudes”) to the pop star Michael Jackson (“We are the world, we are the children”), the human aspiration to unity has been voiced in wonderful words. Admirable adages. Timeless texts. But there’s always a catch. Because only when that aspiration is embodied are we mortals fully persuaded that we are of one another. Seems the body can mean more than words ever can.

All of which is why what Nilaja Sun does in her solo performance Pike St. is such an epiphany of empathy. She brings other people to life on stage; they live and breathe  through her; her physicality is their and our pathway to comprehending.

I am a huge fan of what Anna Deveare Smith does with other lives along similar lines. She interviews people, records their words, edits the transcripts into speeches, then performs them with uncanny precision of inflection and veracity of character. Each individual she portrays becomes a real presence, their vocal and ideational idiosyncrasies intact. When Smith began doing her solo shows (Fires in the Mirror; Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992), she lifted the power of live performance to reconcile across divisions of difference and distrust. And as a consummate truth-teller/storyteller, she always started with what real people said.

Nilaja Sun is also a consummate truth-teller/storyteller, but she begins with people’s bodies. To watch Sun channel her characters in her own body, switching from one to another (more swiftly than a dancer, more seamless than a cinematic special effect) is to behold what seems a brand-new human faculty—a sense beyond sight, touch, hearing taste, and smell—the capacity to honor selves other than one’s own by allowing them in.

Sun authors her own solo plays, which are scripted fiction but extrapolated from life.  (Pike St., for instance, is set in a specific fifth-floor apartment in a tenement building on New York’s Lower East Side, at the onset of a hurricane.) Here’s how she describes her playwriting process:

The work comes to me physically first, and then the word follows. I go through life watching and paying attention to body language, to accents, to the way people move in space, and that’s where a lot of the writing comes from. I don’t start by thinking in terms of “What do I want to say?” It’s more, “Who do I want to leave the audience with?”

For more than four minutes at the beginning of Pike St., Sun  sits in a kitchen chair, her mouth agape, her hands and arms contorted, nearly immobile except she bounces to background music. We are transfixed, not yet knowing who we are seeing; then with astonishing suddenness Sun leaps to animated life and welcomes us to the world of the play. She does this by, of all things, leading us in a clapping and deep-breathing exercise. So begins the singular experience of Pike St.: watching the extraordinary way Sun moves in space.

I was stunned and spellbound by Sun’s physicality even before the show’s story unfolded. Then as she introduced us to each of her story’s several characters, she seemed to be embodying them exactly as they would themselves.

First there is Evelyn, a gutsy single mom whose daughter Candi (whom we met unawares earlier) was paralyzed four years ago, likely by an aneurysm, and cannot breathe on her own. With the risk of electrical outage from the oncoming storm, Evelyn worries that Candi will be reliant on an untested gas-fueled generator.

Living with them is Evelyn’s father, Papi, a gruff horndog who is having sex with Migdalia in the other room.  Due home from Afghanistan this day is Evelyn’s brother Manny, who has been sending money to help pay for food, but Papi has been spending it on his golddigger girlfriend.

There’s an octogenarian Jewish neighbor, Mrs. Applebaum, who’s a little out of it. When she asks Evelyn if she is Puerto Rican and Evelyn answers yes, Mrs. Applebaum exclaims, “Welcome to America!”—forgetting that she helped deliver Evelyn when she was born.

Other characters come in and out—a buddy of Manny’s, a shopkeeper—and each comes so thoroughly alive in Sun’s body and voice we nearly forget she is but one person not a cast.

There’s only that kitchen chair on stage. Set Designer Meghan Raham makes a plain playing space bracketed by shelves full of candles stage left and right—an ever present reminder the lights may go out. Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau, though, creates vivid scene changes and moods that shift as fast as Sun’s. And Director Ron Russell doubling as Sound Designer creates a sound track so impressive it sometimes seems Sun’s co-star.

The story, which wends its way through much humor and drama, leads to a shocking  ending that drives home the play’s purpose and social conscience. Which is all well and good. But the real message of Pike St. is in the medium of the messenger: the presence of a profoundly gifted performer who is a shaman for humanity’s wholeness.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

Pike St. plays through April 23, 2017, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

King Lear

Director Leslie Jacobson has book-ended Shakespeare’s dark tragedy King Lear with lyrical and lovingly-lit tableaux of the mad king’s court as if in a fairy-tale photo op—Lear regal on his throne, his daughters adoring at his feet, his subjects surrounding him smiling ear to ear. These are before-and-happily-ever-after snapshots that would be perfect for a royal post on Instagram. We hear the dulcet-toned voice of a Troubadour (Andrew Flurer) singing traditional English folk tunes (he kicks off this love-in with “Greensleeves”). He is nicely accompanied by a clown-like guitar player (John Preuessner, who also plays The Fool). And the two are joined by a chorale of the full cast singing in joyful harmony. The improbable upshot is a prelude and postlude to the production that spliced together would make a feel-good YouTube vid.

What’s up with this show? Is it tragic fate or a merry fête?

Turns out, it’s both.

The occasion is not only as Shakespeare would have it: Lear’s kingdom mismanagement, his peevish misapportionment of it among his three daughters, his descent into dementia, his woeful demise, et cetera.

The occasion is also a celebratory career commemoration of the actor who’s playing Lear, Alan Wade. Retiring after 40 years playing a leading role in founding, running, and professoring in The George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance, Wade has opted for no easy-peasy swan song.  He has chosen to scale the Mount Everest end-of-life role of Lear—and in a production evidently mounted to showcase his fearless farewell, he makes it to some impressive heights.

For instance in the first scene—where Lear is divvying up his kingdom between his two mendacious daughters Goneril (Anna Coughlin) and Regan (Renee Glanville) and disinheriting his guileless one Cordelia (Julia Barrett)—things go along calmly for a while. Lear appears a sane man, a monarch worthy of respect. Then suddenly there’s a stark bright light cue and blitzy sound effect and Lear goes temporarily insane, off his rocker, seething with spitting rage. It happens again. Then again. And immediately we recognize the mo of an unhinged narcissist.

Joining Wade in the play’s other messed-up paterfamilias role, Earl of Gloucester, is Rick Foucheux. It is an arresting performance every bit as not-to-be-missed as his many others for the past 35 years. In real life Foucheux too is nearing a culmination of his career. In what reportedly will be his last role on stage, he will appear  as Lear this spring in Avant Bard’s King Lear, directed by Tom Prewitt. Here in King Lear at GW, where he is an adjunct member of the theater faculty, he not only commands the stage—his each speech of Gloucester’s soars—he also shares the stage with younger, far less experienced actors in an extraordinarily egalitarian way.

So it was that taken together the scenes between Gloucester and his scheming gold-digger son Edmund (an absorbing Kent-Harris Repass) and the scenes between Gloucester and his lovingly loyal son Edgar (a compelling Will Low) provided the most interesting moments in the production. Low gives a delightfully nimble performance disguised as “Poor Tom,” and by the end Low’s expression of Edgar’s sorrow over losing his father offers the production’s most moving moment—not least because we remember Foucheux’s Gloucester with similar tenderness.

Director Jacobson, who is also a professor at GW, writes in her program note about compassion between the generations, echoing the teacher/student relationship that in this production informs the audience/actor connection.

I find this play a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. Both the older generation (Lear, Gloucester, Kent, and Fool) and the younger generation (Cordelia, Edgar, and Albany) are vulnerable. Still, none of these characters lose their humanity. In the depths of their suffering, each is capable of humor, compassion, loyalty, generosity, and forgiveness.

This conviction was well displayed in Lear’s embrace of his daughter Cordelia as they go to prison. And together Foucheux and Low made the suicide-fail cliff scene work with enormous empathy.

King Lear would likely mean something quite else were the whole cast the age of the younger actors in this production (though a 23-year-old did once play the title role for the RSC!). Thus several actors who are agemates of Wade and Foucheux help anchor the cast generationally: In addition to Preussner as the Fool, they are Roy Barber as Lear’s advisor the Earl of Kent and Marc Albert as Goneril’s servant Oswald.

Accordingly the youthful contingent give  the script diligent attention: Besides the daughters three, they are Tommy Martin as Goneril’s husband Duke of Albany, Delanté Fludd as Regan’s husband Duke of Cornwall,  Connor Driscoll as Duke of Bergundy who opts out of marrying the dowry-less Cordelia,  and Ryan Cureton as King of France who weds her instead.

The printed program sets the time as “Ancient Briton and Now” and the place as “The British Isles and the Betts Theatre,” and that classic/contemporary mashup is well carried through in the stagecraft. Scenic Designer Bradley Sabelli paints on the backdrop and stage floor an illustration of the British Isles that looks almost cartoonlike, puffy like yeasty dough. Stagehands in black identify the shifts in locale by propping up various emblematic banners (designed, I surmise, by Properties Master Jennifer Sheetz).

Lighting Designer David Ghatan, besides highlighting Lear’s rants in the first scene, creates some lovely mottled looks on stage and catches all the fast action that takes place in the theater aisles. Sound Designer Katy Fields, besides amping up those rants, punctuates the plot with trumpets and other sound cues called for by the Bard. And Costume Designer Cheryl Yancey pulls off the neat trick of having the cast wear fancy faux-period costume pieces over what might be the actors’ rehearsal clothes. (The night I saw the show, the cast seemed a little uncertain with Fight Choreographer Casey Kaleba’s moves; still there were gestures that made me jump.)

I did not realize till the end how artfully this production frames the notoriously downer King Lear as both a fond tribute to a particular actor/academic and a warmly gift-wrapped experience for the young cast and their attentive audience.  But now you know before you go.

Running Time: Three hours 5 minutes, including one intermission.

King Lear plays through this Sunday, April 2, 2017, presented by The George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance at The George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, in the Marvin Center – 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC.  For tickets, buy them at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre’s box office, or call (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.

Note:  Renee Glanville, who is Deaf, signs her performance as Regan with eloquent animation while other actors interpret for her. The complete performance Saturday, April 1, will be ASL interpreted.

Dry Land & What Every Girl Should Know

I’ve seen some harrowing-to-watch theater in my time, but I recall nothing as excruciating as a particular scene in Dry Land, now running at Forum Theatre. The play by Ruby Rae Spiegel is set in the present in a girls locker room. The scene in question is between two members of a swim team, 17-year-old Amy (Emily Whitworth) and 18-year-old Ester (Yakima Rich). I won’t disclose what happens or why. But be forewarned that when you witness this breathtaking work, you will see a scene that will stay with you. It  is devastatingly visceral and shatteringly well performed. It is a scene that must be seen and cannot be unseen.

The writer knew this climactic scene would stun. She follows it with two slow scenes to allow the audience time to recover. Even then, by the time Dry Land ends and the house lights come up, the gut punch is not gone.

If there were a Helen Hayes Award for Best Partnering by Two Actors in a Single Scene, Whitworth and Rich would win it in a walk  By rights Playwright Spiegel and Director Amber Paige McGinnis should be up for awards as well.

The qualities I admire in this production begin with Spiegel’s script, which is tightly written, tough-minded, and intense. It is also wickedly witty. Spiegel captures the banter among girls with an unerring ear for the idiom of teens diving headlong into a world they know not yet how to navigate.

Here for instance is an early scene between Amy, who is pregnant and trying not to be, and Ester, who wants to seem as worldly as she. Amy is sitting on the floor in the locker room with a copy of Playboy.

AMY: I got the magazine from the boys’ locker room. It’s porn.
ESTER: Oh.
AMY: Come sit.
[Amy pats the ground next to her. Ester sits a little far from Amy, maybe because of the porn.]
AMY: The boys’ locker room stinks.
ESTER: That’s what I’ve heard.
AMY: There were some moldy shorts in the corner.
[Short silence.]
ESTER: How’s the porn?
AMY: Kind of gross. But also kind of hot.
[Ester nods.]

They chat for a moment about other things then resume looking at the magazine.

ESTER: She looks like she was made in a wax museum.
AMY: That’s all the airbrushing.
Remember when I told you what it felt like when I was a cheerleader? It’s what it feels like to be this girl. Like all bent over and shit. Like sexy but also really ugly because it’s sex and sex is ugly.
ESTER: I don’t think sex is ugly.
AMY: You’ve had sex?
ESTER: One time. On a trampoline.
AMY: Shit. Really?

What was it like?
ESTER: A little bouncy? But also nice I guess.

Though the main conflict is a trust/distrust drama between Amy and  Ester, there is also a third swim team member,  17-year-old Reba (well played by Thais Menendez).  And two male roles add yet more dimension to the narrative: 20-year-old Victor (an appealing Christian Montgomery) and a dutiful Janitor (Matty Griffiths) who does not speak but helps lift the heavy silence that falls after that scene I did not describe.

Dry Land is performed in rep with What Every Girl Should Know, a title taken from a pamphlet by Margaret Sanger first published in 1913. Playwright Monica Byrne imagines a girls dormitory in a Catholic reformatory in 1914. There are four beds in it belonging to 14-year-old Lucy (Yakima Rich) and three 15-year-olds, Anne (Thais Menendez), Joan (Lida Maria Benson), and Theresa (Emily Whitworth).

Offstage is the unseen chaplain Father Dolan, whom Theresa describes as “a very young priest, very well educated and progressive and kind; and rather handsome.” One by one, every Saturday night, the girls give Confession to Father Dolan. He keeps a bowl of oranges outside the confessional for his nubile penitents. Given this sketchy setup, which is described early in the play, one might suppose that conduct unbecoming a cleric is in the offing. And one would not be wrong.

Once the story line of serial statutory rape takes hold, the play becomes gripping. If one can stay patient during the long, languid time the playwright takes to get there, an affecting payoff awaits.

To be fair, the play hints at what’s to come. Joan, for instance, has this speech about her experience in the confessional with Father Dolan:

I confessed my sins, truthfully, and then he told me about Joan of Arc, and how she was proud like me, but that her pride was also a gift from God. And that it only mattered that she used it the right way. But even aside from that…it’s how gentle he is. I didn’t know a man could be like that. When I came here, I thought, men were like weapons and women were like wounds. That nothing stops them from getting in if they want to. That’s what it is to be woman—to be born already split open, like a carcass.

But sharply written speeches like that are the exception. Where the writing in Dry Land is tight and intense, the writing in What Every Girl Should Know feels loose, aimless, and unfocused. For most of the play we are treated to what amounts to an extended period pajama party during which the girls tell tales and dance rituals and speak in jarringly contemporary slang that keeps disrupting the play’s time frame.

Curiously it is the girls’ reverence for Margaret Sanger that most anchors the play. They regard her as a saint, and believe that she will save them. Theirs is the faith of the lost, the hope of the doomed. And a genuine sadness sets in at the end when it becomes clear that these ebullient girls have no safety where they are and no realistic future in the world outside.

Forum Theatre is to be commended for programming these two plays, together dubbed #NastyWomenRep. Though the plays will inevitably be compared, both should definitely be seen. That one is not the equal of the other matters less than that both tell stories with a fierce honesty every girl needs to grow up a nasty woman.

Running Time for each play: 90 minutes, without an intermission.

Dry Land & What Every Girl Should Know  play in rep through April 15, 2017, at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.

LINK:

Review: ‘What Every Girl Should Know’ and ‘Dry Land’ in Rep at Forum Theatre by Robert Michael Oliver

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Well

“Social ills” is a term often used to name a problem without caring about the people affected by it—as in the phrase “racism and other social ills.”  It’s a way of keeping one’s distance by making the problem somebody else’s. It’s like the way one can hear said of someone chronically and inscrutably sick, “They didn’t live right; it’s their fault.” Or, “It’s a made-up malady, you know.”  These two messed-up ways of thinking come in for a hilarious sendup and blistering takedown in Lisa Kron’s 2004  Well, now playing at 1st Stage in a luminous production that moves the heart and animates the mind.

On the surface, Well is an autobiographical play being devised before our eyes by a woman named Lisa Kron, a New York performance artist like the actual author. She enters from the house and begins a monologue to introduce a show she has scripted:

The play that we’re about to do deals with issues of illness and wellness. It asks the question: Why are some people sick and other people are well? Why are some people sick for years and years and other people are sick for a while but then they get better? Why is that? What is the difference between those people?

That turns out to be a misdirection. Much of what Lisa has to say concerns the playwright’s actual mother, Ann Kron, even though Lisa says at the outset, “This play is not about my mother and me.” As we noticed when as we entered the theater, an elderly woman, whom we now learn is Lisa’s mother, has been asleep in a recliner on a set that at first glance seems cluttered but is in fact arranged with great care. (Set Designer Luciana Stecconi depicts Ann’s living room with remarkable authenticity;  Props Designers Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa have curated a fascinating mini museum of collectibles.) During Lisa’s monologue, Ann wakes with a line that cracks up the audience, and the daughter’s and mother’s divergent points of view are off and running.

Ann Kron is a Midwestern white woman who in real life was a community organizer. Ann believes deeply in racial equality and worked tirelessly to  integrate her Lansing, Michigan, neighborhood, even as she suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome aggravated by allergies, which kept her an exhausted semi-invalid. Lisa, when she was younger, had symptoms similar to her mother’s yet recovered.  Nevertheless Lisa is beside herself with fear that she is fated to become her mother.

As a replay of the masterplot of many a strained mother/daughter relationship, Well will play as a powerful recognition scene for many who are themselves daughters. And two extraordinary actors nail it: Audrey Bertaux as Lisa personifies Everydaughter’s beholden attachment to her birth mother along with Everydaughter’s drive to disidentify and get the heck away.  Elizabeth Pierotti’s sensational performance as Ann embodies laudable political conscience, an honest love for Lisa, and an amusing measure of Everymother’s critical snark. The connection and disconnection between their characters fills the house with an electricity that feels like contact with a live socket. Even if one is a son who has been paying but cursory attention to the women in his life, the complex conflict between Lisa and Ann in this production will ring profoundly true.

But Well is more.

First and foremost it’s a clever comedy, filled with enough comic bits to keep one grinning and chuckling all the way through. At the beginning Ann, for instance, offers to get the audience something to drink. Lisa says no, no, Mom; they’re fine. Ann goes offstage anyway and returns with a bagful off packaged snacks, which to Lisa’s mortification she tosses into the audience. And then there’s the running gag of Lisa’s exasperation (“We are so off track!”) when her scripted intentions get subverted.

Lisa means to present what she archly describes as “a multicharacter theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in a community.” To do so she sets out to tell the story of her stay at an allergy clinic as well as the story of her mother’s neighborhood organizing, which Lisa rightly admires.

Ann shares some sharp observations about the racism she saw in her neighborhood, for instance the scare tactics real estate brokers used to spur white flight even as the municipal authorities began cutting schools and other resources. “This is how a slum is made,” Ann says (foreshadowing Ta-Nehisi Coates’s trenchant 2014 analysis ). Ann takes a stand and resists. She also relates how she once went to stay  at the home of black roommate in Baltimore—and witnessed personally what race hate was doing to communities of color.

Ann’s memory of the events Lisa relates, however, turns out to be quite contrary to Lisa’s, and their bickering about that is both telling and tickling. Add to that, the troupe of four actors Lisa has enlisted go off script in ways that frazzle Lisa laughably.

The amazingly versatile actors play at least three parts each: Laura Artisi (Joy, Dottie, A), Edward Christian (Howard, Head Nurse, D), Marquis D. Gibson (Jim, Nurse 2, Little Oscar, Big Oscar, C), and Lolita Marie (Lori/Kay/Mrs. Price/Cynthia, B). Each of these many characters is immediately distinct in both performance and wardrobe (for which credit goes to Costume Designer Danielle Preston). Ultimately the four actors (who go by their real first names, Laura, Edward, Marquis, and Lolita, break out of the roles Lisa has written for them and join in affectionate solidarity with Ann.

The inventive metatheatrics of this conceit are a thorough delight. Director Michael Bloom, who has directed Well before, clearly knows its every nuance. Audiences who have seen or will see the hit musical Fun Home, for which the real Lisa Kron wrote the Tony Award–winning book, will recognize her storytelling gifts. She kind of out-Pirandellos Pirandello.

Susan Sontag, who is referenced in Well, rightly reverentially, wrote an influential essay in 1977 called Illness as Metaphor. It was a searing argument against blame-the-sufferer moralizing about medical conditions. In Well, the playwright has the character of Lisa harbor a “wellness” judgment on her mother for how she was “able to heal a neighborhood” but “not able to heal herself.” And slowly the playwright takes the character Lisa to an inspiring and mind-blowing realization.

What comes through this performance with indelible eloquence—at a time when the health of our body politic has been severely compromised—is the connection between “wellness” judgmentalism and what’s morally wrong with framing the human costs of racism as a “social ill.”

With this extraordinary and prescient contribution to our understanding at this moment of reckoning about health care, Well at 1st Stage is as invigorating as theater gets.

Running Time: One hour 40 minutes with no intermission.

Well plays through April 23, 2017, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.