Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

FEAR

There’s a good chance that watching FEAR—Kathleen Akerley’s playfully subversive new comedy at Longacre Lea about a troupe of actors in the throes of performing Shakespeare—will change your perception of the next play of the Bard’s that you see.

For theater makers, FEAR is a deliciously insider backstage romp sure to tickle the funny bone of anyone who has ever trod the boards or labored behind the scenes. It’s littered with acerbic “let’s put on a show” jokes; it’s astutely directed by Akerley herself; and  it’s got a quirky cast of characters (played nimbly by Tom Carman, Ashley DeMain, Vince Eisenson, Michael Glenn, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Séamus Miller, Amal Saade, and Matthew Alan Ward)  who amusingly embody the  clash and convergence of  egos, imaginations, and instruments that makes possible live theater.

And for the theatergoer sort, FEAR is curiously mind-altering, because it frames the process of performing Shakespeare in our times as a sport of contemporary concept concocting, a game that  any number can play by any number of rules. FEAR throws our focus onto the process that led up to the product we’re consuming; and in so doing, FEAR makes us a player-participant by prompting us to infer the origin story within what we’re watching—like a delightful invitation to be vicariously present at the creation.

From the audience/spectator point of  view, there’s something strangely redemptive about the experience of watching FEAR, because it dives headlong into all the ambivalences that typically inhibit folks’ enjoyment of Shakespeare’s stories and language (and let’s face it, a lot of the time what’s going on and what’s being said is literally opaque—unless you’ve read the plays beforehand and remember the annotations). Brilliantly, FEAR affirms, makes fun of, and ultimately helps us bypass those ambivalences.

There’s a popular series of Shakespeare’s greatest hits published as No Fear Shakespeare that eliminates the four-century language barrier by placing a contemporary paraphrase on every facing page of each script. Akerley’s title FEAR serves as a winking reminder that for many otherwise culturally alert and literate people, Shakespeare can be scary as shit. And what’s so refreshing about Akerley’s wonderfully iconoclastic approach to that fear is that she doesn’t treat it as a text problem, or as a linguistic obstacle that if only we had more Elizabethan vocabulary drill we could overcome. Instead she does something actually metatheatrical (a word often overused but well earned here).

In Act One we see the theater troupe in a rehearsal room, under the florescent glare of work lights, coming up with diverse production concepts; then in Act Two  we see the same actors playing out their concepts (using scenes from Hamlet and Macbeth), in front of  footlights charmingly crafted from tin cans.  By the time we get to Act Two, we are treated to a cognitive effect that might be described as mind-altering persistence of memory.  What has happened is that having been immersed in the creative process behind what is being performed before our eyes, we are now permitted to experience that inferred inner life of the production as the true text to be comprehended.

Akerley’s plays tend to be not only boldly imaginative dramatic enactments but also discombobulating mental events—and FEAR is no exception. At nearly three hours, it goes on a bit too long; but let’s face it, so does Shakespeare. As for myself, I’ve got a hunch that having seen FEAR will make my next visit to Shakespeare seem richer and quicker.

 

The Lonesome West

In real life, when we are spectators to two grown men facing off in dead-serious combat—right in front of us; with words, fists, lethal weapons, whatnot;  unmediated by movies and such—our natural response is  fright, for fear that the fight will get out of hand and include us. The more the conflict turns violent, the more urgently we wish to steer clear of it. And whatever high-minded notion we might entertain to intervene and break the battle up, our impulse would be tempered by the not unreasonable foreknowledge that putting ourselves in harm’s way between two androgenized antagonists could, depending on the severity of their animus, get us killed.

I mention this everyday dude drama as context for considering what makes The Lonesome West—now playing in an outstanding production at Keegan Theater—such a comedic triumph. For this dark comedy by Martin McDonagh about two quarreling brothers literally allows us to triumph over our aforementioned ingrained fear.

My DC Metro Theater Arts colleague David Friscic, in his spot-on five-star review of this production, quotes the playwright dissuading the very sort of dissection of his work I’m doing now:

People should leave a theatre with the same feeling that you get at a really good rock concert. You don’t want to talk about it, you just let it buzz into you.  I can’t stand people analyzing things. A play should be a thrill like a fantastic rollercoaster.

Of course McDonagh is correct in that. He’s also being a bit disingenuous. Because I  believe he knows exactly what he’s up to in his dark comedies.  Yes, The Lonesome West is a fantastic ride. But seeing how cunningly the rollercoaster is constructed can be its own kick too.

McDonagh’s comedy has fascinated me ever since the first play of his I saw. After Forum Theater opened its recent production  of The Pillowman, I talked with its director, Yury Urnov. In an interview published as “The Cathartic Comedy of Martin McDonagh,” Urnov explained to me the way McDonagh uses humor to break through social walls of prohibition. Urnov also told me a story about how in a context of political repression, he observed the humor in The Pillowman disempower the fearsomeness of tyranny.

McDonagh’s comedy is laugh-out-loud funny, to be sure. But there’s always a method to it.

In The Lonesome West, McDonagh layers hilarity over a mano-a-mano feud that in real life and real time would induce  stress not belly laughs. The Connor Brothers,  Coleman  (Matthew J. Keenan) and Valene (Bradley Foster Smith), may seem bumbling buffoons, but make no mistake: they are trigger-happy foes with enough fistfuls of resentment to shoot to kill.

McDonagh scripts their  savage and macabre verbal sparring. Director Mark A. Rhea paces each round with knockout punch. Keenan and Smith play high-risk foils as if on a high-tension high wire. And Casey Kaleba tightly stages each fight with a startling mix of hostility and silliness.

The two other characters in The Lonesome West both have important functions in McDonagh’s cathartic comedic scheme. The local rector, Father Welsh (Chris Stezin), tries to play the intercessor, to referee the brothers and get them to just get along. Despite his earnest entreaties, he fails, which becomes a running joke. But part of what turns his vain attempts into comic relief  is that he stands in for our high-minded impulse to intervene between two determined adversaries and—whew—he’s doesn’t get hurt.

The village moonshine runner Girleen (Sarah Chapin) plays another important role in how McDonagh’s combat-comedy plays out. As the sole female character in a drama that turns on animus between two male characters, Girleen has a structural function that is as profound for what it isn’t as for what it is. She isn’t the girl whom the guys bond over or against—a cliché resolution in both life and art that McDonagh here assiduously avoids. She is a woman of independent mind and means. And as McDonagh writes both brothers, they know well enough not to mess with her.

We naturally feel anxiety whenever we witness up close and personal two men really having at it, really having it in for each other. In McDonagh’s The Lonesome West that underlying anxiety serves to make the funny funnier. McDonagh’s funny, in turn, makes the anxiety dissipate, at least for the duration of the show. Ergo, the buzz.

Don’t miss it. Go feel it. And remember to forget everything you’ve just read.

 

 

Notes on My Theatergoing in London

My four days in London last weekend offered time slots to see six plays—four evenings and two matinees. My strategy was to seek intriguing, fresh writing in a mix of West End, Off West End, and Fringe productions. After poking around to learn what would be playing during my stay, I picked the following six shows (ranked in order of how much I admired them, from least to most).

The Spoils: This vehicle was written for himself by Jesse Eisenberg, who stars. It had a run in New York before transferring to the Trafalgar Studio. My husband was keen to see it, I’ve always liked Eisenberg’s work in film, and I lucked out and got us into the sold-out last show of the run. Eisenberg gives a fascinating and disturbing performance in the role of a disturbed, privileged, massively un-self-aware millennial. Really, the guy is so racist, sexist,  and all-around boorish that it’s a wonder the other characters, all age-mate friends, stick around with him for the full two acts. The script vainly tries to redeem Eisenberg’s unpleasant-if-clever character  with a cheesy sentimental ending, which I found unpersuasive. And on reflection I could not fathom Eisenberg’s point in writing the play to begin with—except possibly to show off his bag of tics.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery: This one was a typically British out-and-out farce, from a creative team whose comedic franchise includes two other hits currently on the boards, The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong. It’s the sort of tourist-crowd-pleasing lite entertainment I ordinarily would not expend a show slot on, but this one caught my eye because the titular theft caper takes place in my  hometown, Minneapolis. Large portions of the play were indeed gut-bustingly hilarious (as a sign outside the Criterion Theater touted). But overall this was never an experience that would stay with me. Plus the Minneapolis angle turned out to be completely peripheral. The actors’ diction was not remotely Minnesotan; and curiously a skyline in the set purporting to be Minneapolis showed the city’s singular landmark Foshay Tower with a 9/11-ish twin.

The Past Is a Tattooed Sailor: I discovered this lyrical gay-themed autobiographical gem by Simon Blow playing on the Fringe at the Old Red Lion Theatre, one of London’s unique pub venues. Downstairs the place was packed with blokes rowdily watching a Sunday afternoon sporting match, their pints in hand; and upstairs was a quiet intimate black box where if you sat in the front row you would just about be in the sex scenes. There were more people in the cast than in the audience (though the previous night had sold out), but that didn’t matter one whit. It was an enthralling, idiosyncratic script extremely well directed and performed.

The Truth: This West End hit caught my eye when I read that Studio had slated the hot young French playwright Florian Zeller’s The Father for next season—and wow, what a smart and crafty writer he is, in a terrific translation by Christopher Hampton. The four-character play turns on marital infidelity, a theatrical trope I usually find a yawn, but Zeller’s dazzling iteration had me laughing at its surprises and insights and gasping at its audacity from start to finish. Note to Studio Artistic Director David Muse: After The Father, please bring this one to DC next.

They Drink It in the Congo: I didn’t yet understand the title when I read the promo blurb about this new play by Adam Brace, which I caught in its second preview at the Almeida Theatre. It’s about liberal do-gooders in London trying to do something about the inhuman calamity that is the Congo, by putting on a festival to create media buzz. Conflicts arise between the festival organizers and the Congolese ex-pats they paternalistically try to enlist. The play is sprawling, with lots of characters and scene segues, snappy/witty dialog, and a brutal depiction of rape as a weapon of war. The piece reminded me in form and purpose of Mosaic’s epic play about Rwanda. The three-hour production was suspended at intermission, due to an actor’s injury, so I got a refund and a free drink at the bar but saw only half the play staged. I then bought and read the script to find out what happens and was knocked out by the scope, pace, and precision of the writing. I would see this work in its entirety in a heartbeat. (Not sure how well it would land in the States, however; a lot of unfamiliar political and cultural stuff flies by fast for American ears. I had to Google to find out what Londoners would likely know the title referred to: a juice drink called Umbongo whose bouncy, unfactual ad jingle goes “They drink it in the Congo.”)

Rotterdam: Okay, this new play by Jon Brittain blew me away. Loved it. I figured I’d find it interesting; its sex/gender/identity/love theme was right up my alley. But I had no idea how absolutely entertaining and brilliant it would be. It’s about a woman who’s reluctant to come out to her parents, and the person she has believed for seven years to be her lesbian lover—but who  reveals to her he wants to live as the man he has always known himself to be. This was another script I bought and read, and every riveting page confirmed my impression that this is breakthrough work about gender identity and fluidity and the most insightful portrayal of a trans character I’ve yet to see on stage. Note #2 to David Muse: Rotterdam closes August 27. You still have time to scout it.

 

(Re)Acts: #Orlando

Live theater is not where we turn to learn the news in real time. We have TV and Twitter and plenty other frenzied feeds for that. But live theater may be the most potent and important form we have for uncovering our of-the-moment emotions about recent events. This matters, for it is always those emotions we most remember, however ineffable they be. And as Forum Theatre’s (Re)Acts series demonstrated vividly Monday night, one fundamental reason we need live theater is not only to share those emotions but to be assured that we are not alone in feeling them.

In the aftermath of the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history—when a gunman opened fire on patrons enjoying Latin Night at a gay nightclub in Orlando June 12, 2016—Forum Theatre asked several local theater makers to create short pieces in response. Among the invited artists were Welders playwrights and several folks affiliated with the DC Queer Theatre Festival.

The pieces—nine in total—were performed one night only for an audience of about sixty, nearly all of whom stayed afterward for a facilitated discussion in which thoughts and feelings that arose during the performances could be spoken aloud safely. That went on for nearly another hour; it was intense; people seemed not to want it to end.

Below are the program credits with my brief annotations, to convey something  of the evening’s content. This was my second time attending a Forum Theatre (Re)Acts production—my first pertained to the #Refugee Crisis—and it was again an extraordinary experience to be in an ad hoc community of audience members and theater artists, all of whom in some sense resurfacing, processing, and finding expression for news-made emotions that fit no news-flash hashtag.

Next time Forum Theatre does another (Re)Acts, know that it could be some of the most meaningful time you spend  inside a theater and away from a screen.

The American Dream
Written and Performed by Alina Colins Maldonado
A personal poetic reflection on the meaning of “home,” which for the artist is Puerto Rico, and “freedom,” with excerpts from the song “America” accompanied by claves. A poignant observation that those latinx who were killed that night were “finally called Americans.”

The Scarf
By Allyson Currin
Directed by Angela Kay Pirko
Performed by Jessica Lefkow (Tara), Connor J. Hogan (Jamie)
A gay son in a tender scene with his totally loving mom, “who gets it.” They reminisce about a particular green scarf, which a photo showed his mom draping around his neck when he was a boy—accepting him then perhaps more than he yet knew to accept himself. He produces that very scarf. Their fond bond is played out on a double bed. Then he abruptly says goodbye and goes out. Immediately her phone rings—without words we know the tragic news she hears—and without words we realize he has visited her in a dream.

Nobody Wins
Text Generated by Allyson Harkey, Jon Jon Johnson, Niusha Nawab, Maria Alejandra Baltuano, Ryan Tumulty
Recorded by Richard Labounty, Chema Pineda Fernandez, Jonathan Del Palmer, Niusha Nawab, Elizabeth Hansen, Jon Jon Johnson, Melissa Marie Hmelnicky, Allyson Harkey
Sound Designer: Niusha Nawab
Performed by Jon Jon Johnson, Justin Jarod Bell, Jonathan Del Palmer, Terrence Bennett
Choreography by Ryan Tumulty
A movement piece for four men accompanied by a prerecorded chorus of voices who declare, at one point, “We’re out and proud/all the bullets in the world won’t stop us.” But then the space is rocked by the sound of gunshots, and one by one dancing bodies are brought down dead.

In the Wake
By Sloka Krishnan
Directed by Joshua W. Kelley
Produced by Matthew Ripa
Performed by Reginald Richard (Danny), Shabab Ahmed Mirza (Chris), Tamieka Chavis (Blob), Danny Rovin (White Man)
A darkly surreal comedy about a gay man of color cleaning up his apartment, picking up men, and coming to consciousness about what race has to do with his sex life. At rise Danny interacts with an inexplicable Blob (a big bunch of balloons), which has a hilariously imploring and whimpering personality. Danny’s date Chris, also a gay man of color, shows up and sings a soulful/funny song about “In the wake of tragedy…/in the wake of violence…” Later Danny has a hookup with boorish White Man, who proudly asserts “I’m not a racist!” even as he revels in the blowjob he’s graphically exacting from Danny. Chris, Danny realizes, would make a better match.

#Orlando: Conceived by Teatro de la Séptima Generación/Seventh Generation Theatre
Music by Miguel Amaguaña
Performed by Maria Alejandra Baltuano, Joanna Cifredo, Chema Pineda Fernandez
A poetic, multi-voiced mediation about the importance of safe space for the latinx community; the fact that this was Latin Night, one night a week only, white Anglo gay every other night; the fact that tragedy was compounded when parents found out their children were queer at the same time they learned they were dead. The names of those dead are read aloud, one by one, their Hispanic and Anglo names pronounced as their families would have said them. The victims were queer, black, and brown. This was a hate crime, targeted. “I need to hold my girlfriend and tell her I love her.”

Closet
Written and Performed by 2Deep the Poetess
“Dancing and loving should never be punishable by death,” says the writer/performer of this trenchant poetic monologue about cultural assimilation as a closet, about trying to fit in, about not feeling “beautiful for who you are.” The fight is for “the right to love me.”

#orlando
Written by Bob Bartlett, Patrick M. Fleming, and Steven J. Satta
Performed by Patrick M. Fleming
Directed by Steven J. Satta
A table with makeup mirror. A hat rack with feather wrap and wig. A witty, rueful coming-of-age reminiscence by a performer in full makeup preparing to go on stage in drag—along with an ode to lost gay bar culture: “There wasn’t an app for any of it. We need the bars! Put down your Grindr!” As he dons the feather wrap and wig, he says of his impersonation that it is not a way of hiding; “This is a mask that reveals.” A rousing chorus of the song “Finally” tops off the scene.

Holding Hands
Written by Gwydion Suilebhan
Directed by Ryan Maxwell
Sound Designer: Kenny Neal
Performed by Matthew Pauli
A touching story about the author’s late father, and how they would go for long walks holding hands. A scene by a lake is evoked simply by the sounds of nature.  Once, while they were walking on the road, a vehicle sped by and two men in it shouted at them, “Faggots!” Never letting go of his son’s hand, the father said to him steadily, “Never be afraid to love who your soul tells you to love.”

Prevention
Written by Caleen Sinette Jennings
Choreography by Darren Rabinowitz
Performed by Caleen Sinette Jennings and Darren Rabinowitz
A theme has emerged during the evening, unspoken but palpable, about parents and their responsibility to heal and make their children whole through love, and in this final piece a playwright and a dancer pull out all the emotional stops. “Where’s that little kid?” the author asks of the young man who shot down those people in Orlando, as the dancer interprets her words in movement. “Where are all the scared young boys?” she asks further, standing at a podium, in a pained lament for the youth whose humanity was never unlocked by the love of a parent. (And suddenly the real-life shooter’s brutal, upbraiding father, never mentioned all evening, has been chillingly alluded to.) The author has two black sons, she tells us. She is determined to save them. Then she becomes the wordless dancer, and the dancer goes to the podium to deliver the message she wants us to know. Just after she thought she had finished writing this piece, he explains, there was another shooting. And then yet another. She can only express her anguish now in movement. She has no more words to write.

Running Time: About one hour 40 minutes, with no intermission. (As is usual with Forum Theatre performances, there was a facilitated discussion afterward.)

(Re)Acts: #Orlando played one night only July 25, 2016 at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD.

A portion of the proceeds from this (Re)Acts event will go Equality Florida for funeral and medical costs for the victims of the Orlando shooting. Donations for that fund may be made here.

 

Double X

S. Ann Johnson’s Double X—an exquisitely crafted choreopoem exploring the multicultural distinctions and connections among seven women—had its DC debut Saturday after appearances in Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia. In a review of the Baltimore production two years ago (when the play was titled XX Chromosome Genome Project and directed by the playwright), DC Metro Theater Arts writer ZSun-Nee Matema called it “a sensuous, riveting tale of women on the brink of self-acceptance and emancipation” and “a story with energy, joy, and soul.” And that it surely is.

Johnson’s script is an eloquent sequence of first-person and collective testimonies, with some choreographic and musical interludes. In performance the text becomes a complete dramatic experience, not unlike Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, which Johnson has said inspired her. That influence shines through. As was unmistakable during the matinee talkback I attended, the audience engaged with and identified with the seven women’s voices just as I saw happen during Theater Alliance’s recent production of for colored girls.

Credit goes in large measure to Director Alvin Ford Jr. and the cast. As Johnson explained during the talkback, part of her intention was to  dispel conventional thinking in the theater that woman are either black or white; thus the seven women’s diverse ethnicities in Double X are identified by  “flavor”: Jackie Mass as Caramel (Latina American flavor), Terena McLorn as Chocolate (African American flavor), Linda Bard as Cinnamon (Native American flavor), Danielle Donnelly as Ginger (Middle Eastern American flavor), Sharlene Salvatierra as Lemon (Asian American flavor), Claire Aniela as Vanilla (European American flavor), and Naelis Ervin as White Chocolate (Biracial American flavor).

Shange had her rainbow of women wear dresses of different colors, and that distinction by  appearance serves her play well. But Johnson’s delineation of her women’s various voices by flavor makes a deeper dramaturgical statement, expressing  who her women are from inside and thereby reflecting an intersectional insight that unites them.

99.9 percent of our genetic structure is the same
99.9 percent of me is you
99.9 percent of you is me
There‘s only a 0.1 percentage point difference between us
We are the same genome
Just a different flavor

The program listed 28 different titles of poems, but as performed they flow into one another seamlessly, almost free-associationally. At the beginning there are passages about self-image and resisting objectifying social pressures (“I‘m reclaiming the control media has held on me,” says one.) The choreopoem then seques into an evocation of the exhilaration of falling love….

I‘m in love with his sensitivity.
I‘m in love with his spirituality.
I‘m in love with his sex.

…and the pain of being betrayed…

I dumped you in the dumpster but somehow I feel discarded.
Brokenhearted.
My health, my heart, you disregarded.
And who‘d have thought it?
All but me.

The poetic text keeps sparking spirited images in the mind as the actor/dancers lend it emotional resonance with their voices and bodies. Throughout, the play’s personal is implicitly political, but near the end, in explicit references to the civil rights movement, the play’s political convictions come passionately to the fore. It is in that context that the playwright gives the European American character (Vanilla) a speech whose nerve seemed to leap off the  stage:

I did not kill your relatives or erase your memoirs, your history.
So, don’t you dare point your finger at me….
You look at me as if at night I torch crosses
And travel incognito behind a pointed white mask.
When I speak of inequality you seem to disbelieve
That I walked alongside civil rights leaders
Not just for you, but for me….
I am more than the oppressor.
You are more than the oppressed.
Let us learn, live and love one another

Johnson coproduced with Naelis Ervin. Karis Lovechild composed the music. Costume Designer Jordan Matthews gave each actor’s basic-black garment a distinctive scarf, shall, wrap, hijab, or other piece of a similar fabric, thus showing at a glance the commonality underlying the characters’ distinctions.

S. Ann Johnson’s Double X is a profound and important reminder that diversity need not mean division—and that the harmony the world much needs may best be learned from people called women.

Running Time: About 75 minutes with no intermission.

Double X played July 23, 2016 at School Without Walls at Francis Stevens, 2425 N St NW, Washington, DC.

 

99 – A Rock Opera

Musical theater and the country could use a good renegade rock musical inspired by the Occupy Movement. The demonstrations that spread across America spurred by Occupy Wall Street shared a kindred spirit and antiauthoritarian fervor with the 1960s  Anti–Vietnam War Movement—out of which, lest we forget, the groundbreaking musical  Hair arose. And as the revival of Hair recently at Keegan Theatre made plain, that “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” is by no means a museum piece.  (I called that production “radiant and thrilling…an exuberant love fest as timeless as human hope.”)

Something along those lines must have occurred to Writer Mark Baughman and Director Jonathan Zuck, whose 99 – A Rock Opera opened last night at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre. (Baughman wrote everything, book, lyrics, and music; Zuck produced.)  It’s set in a park in Cleveland where an Occupy Cleveland demonstration is in progress, and the 99 in the title refers to the 99 percenters, on behalf of whose interests a protest against the wealthiest one percent took hold around the globe. (Somehow those interests got rabble-roused of late in Cleveland without quite the same egalitarian political vision or clarity of fiscal focus—it turned into more of an exuberant hate fest, actually. But I digress.)

99 – A Rock Opera has a really cool staging concept going for it. The black box playing area is a public park lined by potted trees. Across the stage floor are spread swaths of artificial turf and oversize protest signs. Once the show starts, a huge projection screen displays archival stills and video from the real Occupy Cleveland action. (Betsy Zuck did the set design; Nathan Collard did the lighting design.) And seated all over in folding lawn chairs are members of the audience, meaning that they are inside the action as if  participants in the occupation.

Though this setup meant some neck craning as the actor/singers played scenes among them, it was about as up-close-and-personal as immersive theater design gets. (Audience members could also watch from a stepped bank of regular theater seats—an option I picked lest my notetaking peg me an indiscreet undercover cop.)

The show also has some rockin music hooks sung by a pumped-up cast with great big voices—Lalo Medina, Nick DePinto, Rachel Jones, Harv Lester, Jackie Madejski, and Elizabeth Darby—and backed by instrumentalists who know their stuff—Baughman  (Guitar), George Cranford (Drums), Joy Richman (Vocals, Percussion), Sue Sedmack (Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals), and Will Travis (Bass).

However, on opening night the show was plagued by two problems that taken together diminished what otherwise could have been enjoyable. One of the problems is probably easily fixed: The sound balance, especially at the beginning, had the band so loud the singers’ lyrics were inaudible. The wireless mics and amplification system seemed to function just fine. The levels seemed to be  tweaked during the performance such that some songs near the end came through beautifully. But overall whatever we were to learn about the storyline from the lyrics was lost from the get-go.

The second problem is the book. The scenes in between songs are so brief (sometimes just two or three lines), they come across as cryptic. While the goal of maintaining the momentum of the music is admirable, the  only way to follow the story in 99 – A Rock Opera is to have read and memorized all the notes in the program, which summarize the plot and explain what happens in each song. I had a chance to read the script beforehand, and in it each short scene between songs is accompanied by an explanatory expositional note (longer than the scene) about the story being told,  but the story never plays comprehensibly on stage, and near as I could tell the rest of the audience was as mystified as I was.

For the curious, the plot summary from the show’s program is reproduced below, with performers’ names inserted.

99 is a new rock opera about Pete [Lalo Medina], a middle aged engineer who works for the Cleveland, Ohio Department of Environment. Pete has been tasked with managing a group of protesters (the “99ers”) who have taken over the main city park. Pete identifies with the 99ers and thinks of his work as carrying out their mission.

Pete finds that the 99ers leader is his college flame, Sarah [Jackie Madejski]. Genuinely thrilled to see Sarah after all these years, he is crushed by her rebuke that he is a sell-out. Further confusion comes when The Gardner [Nick DePinto], the featured speaker of the protest and Pete’s idol from his youth, addresses the crowd and reveals himself as a narcissistic fascist. Now Pete doesn’t know if he changed or they did.

And there is Henry [Harv Lester]. Henry was living in the park and he has been displaced by the 99ers. Henry was a successful business and community leader who fell from grace and decided to drop out of society by cashing in and taking up residence in the park.

Meanwhile, Pete’s wife Mary [Rachel Jones] has her own issues. She has kept secret her family history of Huntington’s chorea and she has started to have some of the symptoms she saw kill her mother after a long, painful decline. Mary is dealing with this secret and as her marriage to Pete is one of two very independent people, she doesn’t know if Pete will really be with her when he learns about what may be ahead.

Mary takes Pete out to one of their favorite old haunts to talk to him and spill the news, but Pete is distracted by his encounter with Sarah and the events unfolding at the park.

The universally liked Henry gets accosted by hoodlums and ends up in the hospital. As tensions rise, Pete’s boss (who Pete somewhat sarcastically calls “Captain America”) [DePinto again] takes center staage to lead a counter-protest called “The Redbaggers.”

The 99ers and Redbaggers finally square off, fulfilling a destiny few of them knew was inevitable. In the wake of the battle, Pete introduces Mary to Sarah.

That synopsis is immediately followed by this note explaining—in the likely event you missed it—what 99 was meant to mean:

The story explores the alienation many people now feel in today’s highly polarized, highly politicized society. Well-meaning people cannot work out their differences, or even coexist, because they are presented with false choices, compelled to join one side or another and find themselves fighting for people and institutions that are barely known to them.

Though Baughman’s songs are stronger musically than lyrically, Medina, DePinto, Jones, Lester,  Madejski, and Darby (as Young Sarah) give standout performances. Vocally the solos and the backup harmonizing they all sing are by far best of show, and Jones’ “Words Fail Me” is especially well done.

Running Time: About 65 minutes with no intermission

99 – A Rock Opera plays through July 31, 2016 at DC Dogs performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. Tickets are available online.

Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities

Fans of Cirque du Soleil know to expect wonder, beauty, and thrills, and Cirque doesn’t disappoint. It’s a brilliantly executed brand that has become a global phenomenon (21 different productions are currently touring or installed in long runs somewhere). Each of Cirque’s shows is singular, unlike any other; yet they are all incubated within a similar creative vision and utilize a toolkit of recurring theatrical techniques. It’s a performance form that blends music, choreography, design, acrobatics, characters, and storytelling/mythmaking into a spectacle that is both singular and familiar.

But once you’ve seen one, don’t think you’ve seen them all. Once you see one, you just want to see more. That’s what happened when I caught my first Cirque show (or it caught me), and that’s what happens every time I see another. (My last was Amaluna two too-long years ago.)

If you’ve never been to a Cirque show, Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities, just opened in Tysons Corner two blocks from the Silver line stop, would be a perfect place to start. And for those who’ve seen some Cirque before,  Kurios’  marvels will not only wow one’s inner kid-at-the-circus, as all Cirque shows do. Kurios’ artistic achievement will also enchant adventurous theater folk with its sophisticatedly trippy mix of imagery from cinema and steampunk.

A signature of each Cirque show is its distinctive look. Cirque keeps coming up with one such eye-popping world after another. And the specific ambiance created by the design team of Kurios—Cirque’s 35th production since 1984is sensational.

Kurios bears an uncanny visual and thematic  resemblance to the 2011 film Hugo: It’s an imagined surreality filled with period gizmos, toybox thingamajigs, and industrial mechanical devices; and there’s a central character who’s trying to make sense of it all. In Hugo, it was an imperiled boy; in Kurios, it’s a tinkerer called the Seeker, whose curio cabinet contains a cast of quirky characters who come to life and spill out on stage to provide the evening’s enthralling entertainment.

Other influences can be espied in the show and are hat-tipped in a production backgrounder:  For the set, Jules Verne and Thomas Edison; for the costumes, the Bauhaus, Alfred Jarry’s play Father Roi, the Franco-Belgian cartoon character Obelix, Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, and French illusionist and film director Georges Méliès; the 19th-century Industrial Revolution for props and the acrobats’ apparatus. Theatergoers and theater makers who love artful aggregations of styles and images that nonetheless cohere will have a field day watching Kurios. It’s like a master class in mashup.

The music is magnificent, well worth a listen beforehand. And as with all Cirque shows, there are plenty of large-scale acts that fill the stage and its air space with heart-stopping feats of tumbling, balancing, bouncing, flying. A few highlights:

• The Russian Cradle Duo, in which a hulking man serves as human trapeze for a diminutive woman, whom he swings and flings through the air in a most amazingly graceful display of trust.

• Aerial Straps, in which two strapping shirtless men fly suspended above the stage and the audience now apart now together, now distant then entwined, in a most awesome athletic/erotic flight of fancy.

• Banquine, in which 13 acrobats bound onto each other’s shoulders, not by means of teeterboard but by muscular lifting, and then, among other stunts, stand one atop another up to four high.

Kurios also features what seemed to me an unusually high number of smaller-scale acts—the sort that are equivalent to a magician’s card tricks as opposed to huge  illusions.  I found these riveting, and one of the most original and rewarding aspects of the show. For instance:

• Yo-yos, in which a solo performer commands the rapt attention of the audience solely by spinning suspense from a couple yo-yos, in time with fast flamenco-like guitar.

• Theater of Hands. This one blew me away. A hot air balloon inflates as it descends from the tent’s fly space. It then becomes the projection screen for real-time video closeups of human  hands that are brought to life by off-camera artists and become human-like puppets. Their miniature storytelling is utterly magical.

No Cirque show would be complete without comedy and Kurios features some of Cirque’s most original, including:

•  Comic Act, which involved a sofa, a crazy-antic comedian, and the participation of an audience member. Like a fast-paced improv sketch, it had the audience member bemused and the audience howling.

• Invisible Circus, which was basically a solo ringmaster character working with sound effects and a big set piece that had been built full of sight gags to create hilarious illusions of an unseen unicyclist, lion tamer, high diver, and such. I doubt any scene shop has ever supplied so many laughs a minute.

Curiously, for a production that’s got far more than a cabinet’s worth of things in it (machines, engines, scientific equipment, animated set pieces) plus an oddball assortment of thing-like characters (Accordion Man, a pair of robots), Kurios turns out to be among Cirque’s most personal and human-scale productions.

For fans and fans-to-be, Cirque du Soleil’s  Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities is both classically spectacular and captivatingly fresh.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, with one 25-minute intermission.

Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities plays through September 18, 2016 under the blue and yellow Big Top at Tysons II, 8025 Galleria Dr., Washington, Virginia 22102.Tickets are available online. For booking assistance call (877) 924-7783.

 

 

 

We Know How You Die!

I sure laughed a lot at the show I saw the other night at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Gut-busting funny, it was. And I’d highly recommend you catch it…except it was made up on the spot, never to be seen again.

Taking a crazy flyer, four quick-on-their-feet comics from New York created the whole  hilarious evening without a script, just their wits. Long-form improv, it’s called.  During the first half hour or so they chose someone from the audience  who agreed to share details from her life. (Why anyone would do this I have no idea, but when the actors asked for volunteers, hands shot up all over the packed house.) The improvisers interviewed her on stage, keeping us in stitches the whole time and somehow preserving her dignity. Then, bouncing off biographical particulars they had gleaned, they proceeded for the next 45 minutes or so to spin a loopy story that culminated in her demise, which involved being pummeled by falling apples and fatal complications from a paper cut. (Don’t ask.) The audience loved it.

The troupe bears the brand banner of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the influential comedy phenomenon that since 1990 has launched the careers of a roster of comedians. (Two of the recognizable  names among UCB’s famous alumni are  Amy Poehler and Kate McKinnon.)

The four UCB improv actors now playing in town are Shannon O’Neill, Brandon Scott Jones, Molly Thomas, and Connor Ratliff—every one a name to watch. Each brought a unique set of physical and verbal comedy skills, but what was amazing was watching how they synced. I honestly don’t know how they did it. They all seemed to be tuned in to some  frequency that  only they could hear, and it whispered secret prompts to them like “what if the the next setup or story twist was [fill in the blank]?”

After the volunteer’s fictional death scene, there was an intermission,  followed by another improbable improvisation of about 20 minutes. The evening felt complete and cathartic—the way laughing a lot leaves you high on happy-brain chemicals—and I can report that the audience was digging every bit of it.

The United Citizens Brigade improv troupe will do their surprise-filled We Know How You Die! at Woolly Mammoth Theatre only through July 31.  If you go see one of their shows, will you have as good a time as I did? I’d say the odds are darn good. These four folks are fantastic.

Running Time (can vary from show to show): Two hours, with one intermission.

We Know How You Die! performed by the United Citizens Brigade Theatre plays through July 31, 2016, performing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre –  641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

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The DC improv scene is thriving, somewhat off the radar of regular performing arts coverage. Improv happens to be difficult to review, because whatever a critic sees always vanishes; but word-of-mouth has been building the reputations of a bunch of places where you can take in your funny bone for a kick fix. I applaud Woolly Mammoth for showcasing a bunch of them in its promo of the UCB run, and I’ve appended here the annotated listings  that Woolly generously provides.

Improv, Locally Sourced!

Want more improv? These local DC organizations can provide you with some tasty locally grown, farm-to-table improv comedy.

The Unified Scene Theater: a brick-and-mortar improv comedy theater-space (finally!) in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of DC galvanizing DC’s improvisational comedy scene: a home for those seeking shows, classes, and workshops in the collaborative art of improvisational comedy.

In its 18th year, the nonprofit Washington Improv Theater (WIT) has unleashed the creativity of thousands of Washingtonians and our alumni have gone on to write for SNL and The Daily Show. Last year, we performed for over 21,000 audience members and shared our life-changing classes program with over 1,500 enrolled students.

Chinese Menu Comedy: a monthly all-star improv showcase that brings together only the best from DC and beyond.

 

 

The Highwood Theater: Named one of the top improv venues in the DC area, The Highwood Theatre in Silver Spring hosts Improv Comedy Night shows two Fridays a month at 8:00 pm. Featuring improv troupes from the DC and Baltimore metro areas, Highwood provides a space for established and new troupes alike to share ideas and perform together while entertaining audiences.

 

Laugh Index Theatre (LIT): offers a training program for improvisers, stand-up/storytellers & sketch writers and performers in addition to regular shows, an annual festival, corporate training, and workshops for anyone at any level.

 

 

 

The DC Improv: offers classes in improv comedy and monthly shows by the ComedySportz troupe.

 

Dojo Comedy: provides instruction, practice, and performance of improv, sketch, and alt comedy in Washington, D.C. Shows every weekend, classes regularly enrolling.

 

 

 

 

 

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Yellowman

I first saw Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman at the Manhattan Theater Club in 2002, with Orlandersmith herself in the role of the dark-skinned Alma and Howard W. Overshown  as the light-skinned Eugene. The play made a profound impression on me. When I learned that Anacostia Playhouse Executive Director Adele Robey had chosen to produce it, I knew that if the acting and direction were worthy of this great play, it would be powerful. And it absolutely was—a stunning and beautiful staging of a gut-wrenching and eye-opening story.

Yellowman is a dramatization, set in South Carolina, of the lives of Alma and Eugene, friends since childhood who as they grow older fall in love. It is a complex and pain-filled narrative, composed in five sections with the two actors playing multiple roles, including people in Alma’s and Eugene’s families. (The play was a finalist for the the Pulitzer Prize in drama that year, the award going to Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, another great play written for two black actors.)

The central tension in Yellowman turns on the skin-tone prejudice that exists among and between black people in America, a form of internalized racism, sometimes called colorism, that manifests as self-hatred for being dark-skinned. This damaging dynamic didn’t come from nowhere; it’s a consequence of history; but pervasive as it is, it’s not something white people generally know much about, because that history didn’t and doesn’t happen to them. This privileged obliviousness, which also has a history, corresponds to the fact that men generally don’t know much about women’s internalized misogyny, again because it didn’t and doesn’t happen to them.

I say all this to frame the experience of watching Yellowman, which will vary by audience member perhaps more than usual, because internalized race hate and internalized woman hate are the pool of pain at the bottom of the well from which Dael Orlandersmith has drawn the character of Alma. Since the time she was a child, Alma has been blamed and berated for being large, awkward, poor, and dark:

This is what my mother and her mother before her believed / they believed had they been born “rich and high yella,” they wouldn’t have suffered….My mother and her mother before her believed / if only they could be light / light and rich / if they could marry a light-skinned man, they’d be loved.

You must see Stori Ayers’ performance as Alma. She is magnificent. The hurt inside Alma—which Orlandersmith’s script makes explicit—coexists in Ayers’ incandescent embodiment with a warmth, humor, and largesse of spirit that is a wonder to behold. And when in an instant she transforms into Alma’s mother, the bile and self-loathing she brings to the role is shocking.

Alma’s partner on stage is Eugene, a wonderfully sympathetic character that Orlandersmith has created as a lover and as a counterpoint to all the contempt Alma confronts. He has his own conflicts and issues to struggle with—including a family rife with alcoholism and a judgmental father who is dark-skinned and who resents Eugene for being light-skinned. Once, when Eugene was nine or ten, his father turned on him and said,

“Do you think I’m handsome Eugene?” and I said “Yeah, Daddy.” Then he stood over me / towering over me in all his blackness and said with incredible menace “Do you think I’d be more handsome if I was high yella like you?” and I gasped you know and inside I’m crying / screaming and another part of me wants to hurt him, hit him…

Damaged as Eugene is, and damaged as Alma is, who he wants to be to Alma, and who Alma becomes to him, turns into a heart-ache of a love story that we do not want to end badly.

Justus Hammond’s performance as Eugene complements Ayers’ superbly. Hammond too switches in the blink of an eye to bring other characters to sudden life. And his love and longing for Alma are touching and true.

Besides the two actors there are only two crates on stage. The set designed by Harlan Penn is a wall of multicolored panels meant to be nowhere in particular. But David Lamont Wilson’s compelling sound design creates a sense of place after place. And Johnathan Alexander’s lighting design is as sensitive as it is spectacular—its subtle shifts seemed organically one with the emotional energy of each moment.

Director Thembi Duncan really got this play. She just got it, everything about it.  And she cast it and shaped it with enormous empathy and purpose. In her program note she writes:

I plan to explore the thread of black self-hate that originated in colonialism, runs alongside oppression, and threatens to destroy marginalized people. I see Yellowman as a story of the many ways that the cancer of oppression can live in black American bodies.

This play and this production permit us—whoever we are—to see the pain in that story with opened eyes and hearts. As such to witness Anacostia Playhouse’s searing Yellowman is a privilege not to be missed.

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

Yellowman plays through August 14, 2016 (in repertory with Riches), at the Anacostia Playhouse– 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. Tickets are for sale online.

 

 

Hand to God

So this strange thing happened. I was sitting at a table in a church basement that happened to be on the fourth floor of Studio Theatre, and I was waiting to see a show called Hand to God. And right there in front of me were artsy-craftsy supplies and a plain white stocking that looked like it wanted with all its heart to become a sock puppet. So I fulfilled its wish. This is me with the puppet I made. You can see a friendly picture of Jesus  on the bulletin board behind us.

John Stoltenberg & puppet

John Stoltenberg and puppet at Studio Theatre’s Hand to God.

The puppet stayed pretty quiet during the show. Didn’t cause any disruption or anything. But when we got home things went weird. The puppet started talking. Out of the blue, it took on a life of its own, just like the foul-mouthed puppet Tyrone in Hand to God! So I turned on my tape recorder. I mean, what else was I to do?

John: So, um, how did you like the play?

Puppet: Loved, loved, loved the puppets! Especially Tyrone and that chick puppet he fucks.

Wait, wait, I can’t have you talking like that. I’m doing a proper writeup about Hand to God—an appreciation of its artfulness and important deep themes and such.

Are you going to review the puppets?

I wasn’t planning to, no.

Oh, dude, that so pisses me off. If there are puppets in a show, who do they always send to review it? A person, that’s who. They never send a puppet. That’s so flesh-and-bloodist.

Um, okay, I get your point. So would you like to do it?

Are you shittin me?

I’ll introduce you to DC Metro Theater Arts readers as the world’s first puppet critic of puppet performances.

Can I say whatever the goddam hell I want?

You can say whatever.

Deal. I would shake on it but I’m careful what I put in my mouth.

I understand. So what can I tell them is your name?

Timon.

Like Timon My Hand? [chuckles lamely]

No, knucklehead. Like Magic Timon.

Okay, Magic Timon. So let’s start with Margery, the character Susan Rome plays. Margery is head of the Christian puppet ministry at Mount Logan Lutheran Church, and she has a puppet named Rita who appears briefly at the beginning.

Rita gave a brilliant performance—absolutely star quality—even though the role was grievously underwritten. All Rita has is one line: “I love Jesus! Do you love Jesus?” The playwright didn’t give her much to work with, but she gave it her all, and you have to hand it to trouper puppets like Rita who have big hearts in small parts.

Next?

Well there’s Pastor Greg, played by Tim Getman, but, um, he didn’t have a puppet.

With all the out-of-work puppets there are, that’s shameful!

But—by assigning Margery to have the teenagers put together a puppet show ready for next Sunday’s church service, he’s creating jobs for puppets! So that’s cool, isn’t it? And Christian charity too?

Okay, he’s forgiven. Plus as a 100-percent cotton sock puppet I have a soft spot for men of the cloth.

Next?

Well, there’s Timothy, he’s the churlish teenager played by Ryan McBride who’s always randy.

How can he be Timothy if he’s always Randy?

Timothy doesn’t have a puppet either, I’m afraid. He says, “Puppets are for faggots.”

Ugh, that’s so discriminatory. Puppets are for everyone.

Agreed.

So when do we get to the slutty chick puppet with the big bazooms?

I really wish you could talk a little more…high toned.

You said I could say whatever I wanted.

I did. But Hand to God is in its own way a very deep exploration of some very profound themes. For instance one can find reflected in it each of Freud’s three components of the personality—the id (that would be Tyrone), the ego (that would be for instance Margery), the superego (that would be the whole repressive religious belief superstructure). Seen in an entirely different light, one can discern in the play the ancient tension between the aspirational Apollonian and the more base Dionysian, which Judeo-Christian monotheism recast as good and evil, God and Satan. And if one looks further—

I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Can we please go on to that hot chick puppet?

I don’t understand how you turned out to be straight.

Go figure.

The puppet you seem to be obsessed by is named Jolene. She is operated by Jessica, a very sweet teenager played by Caitlin Collins.

I hate it when people say we’re operated. It’s so demeaning. It makes us into…things. That kind of cultural insensitivity is exactly why puppet performances should be reviewed by kindred puppets! [sputters in fury, loses a googly eye]

Here let me help stick your eye back on.

Thank you.

So I assume you want to review Jolene’s performance when she and Tyrone get down and dirty and Dionysian.

Oh, oh, Jolene! Jolene! How sensationally sensual! How wonderfully overwhelming! How piquantly prurient! How orgasmically original.

I see you’re into adverb and alliteration overkill too.

What?

Nothing. Never mind.

And her partner in that scene, Tyrone! Words fail me—

Yes, Tyrone is the puppet who— Is “lent animate life by” okay?

Cut “animate.” Because life is life is life is life is life is life is life is—

Okay, got it. Tyrone is lent life by Jason, the conflicted teenager played by Liam Forde. And in fact, you know, I had a terrific conversation with Liam about that the other day. You should read it.

I should.

Do you read?

Actually no.

So…Tyrone. The puppet Tyrone. As the world’s first puppet critic of puppet performances, Magic Timon, what’s your critical take on Tyrone?

I want to be him.

What?!

I want to be him. Breathe him. Feel like him. Inhabit him. Be all he can be. Do all he can do. I want to rage and scream like him. I want to cause bodily harm like him. I want to subdue other dudes like him. I want to fuck Jolene like him—

Wait, wait. Tyrone is your…role model?

Tyrone is my God.

Oh my god.

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