Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Mnemonic

Just now when the world is wracked with wave upon wave of ethnic  animus—just now when our country has succumbed to xenophobia not seen on these shores for decades—there comes a work of theatrical art so richly imagined and so radically transformational that it causes a healing hush to fall over the audience.

This happens early on in the show as we are treated by the actor Carlos Saldaña to a sort of Ted Talk about origins and memory. Standing before a frosted plastic curtain and addressing us on a hand mic, he amiably gains our trust such that we oblige him when he asks us to put on the blindfold that we were handed as we entered the theater.

Slowly in our sightlessness the actor then coaches us into a visualization that becomes a startling perception: the recognition that the further back we trace our origins, the more we share the same cellular memory as members of the same species and “the more chaotic our inter-relationships.” We literally are all related to one another. No one is ever other. We are linked in our origins, in our migrating genealogies, in “the pattern of our ancestry.”

The gift of that indelible moment sets in motion the unforgettable play named Mnemonic.

I first saw Mnemonic some fifteen years ago when Complicité, the British theater company that devised it under the direction of Simon McBurney, brought it to New York. The moment I just described has never left me, as I suspect it will not anyone who sees Theater Alliance’s absorbing production now.

What happens next works in the head in ways only obliquely related to what happens on stage. That is the particular genius of this theater piece. It has two interweaving story lines that are only tangentially related. They’re really more like complementary metaphors than two intertwined plots, two parts that make a whole other whole.

In one of the story lines, Saldaña becomes Virgil, a man whose partner Alice abruptly left him nine months ago. He is bereft. Eventually they make long-distance cell phone contact and she tells him she’s on a quest in Eastern Europe to find traces of the father whose identity she only recently learned. Virgil’s and Alice’s story is a tale of love lost and not quite restored; a saga of roots lost and not quite found. It’s a human-interest narrative that by itself could fill a play with engaging relationship drama. And Teresa Spencer is terrific in the role of Alice. Her presence and assertion of self make an enormous contribution to the veracity of what transpires.

The other story line is about a scientific discovery in the Austrian Alps: the frozen body of the so-called Iceman (represented by Saldaña nude), who lived some 5,000 years ago. As the Iceman’s clothing, artifacts, and corpse are analyzed to reveal details about who he was, what he was doing there, how he lived and died, Alice is simultaneously learning details about who her father was, what he was doing where she sought him, and how he lived and died. The effect of taking in these two biographical dossiers in overlapping stage time but vastly distant in geography and generation makes for an extraordinary experience in theater. Mnemonic is unique in that it is everyday story telling, yet it seems more like found mythology. Almost mystically the stage action of Mnemonic comes to stand for our personal and collective understanding that we stem from a common family tree.

Saldaña and Spencer are joined by a gifted and versatile ensemble who play multiple supporting roles: Jon Reynolds, Vanita Kalra, Elena Day, Jonathan David Martin, and Michael Burgos. Besides their physical and mimetic agility they prove adept at delivering lines in multiple languages. This has the marvelous effect of underscoring what is truly global in the meaning of Mnemonic.

Director Colin Hovde has conceived a production so faithful to the magic in the material one cannot but wonder wide-eyed how it was done. He is ably aided by Movement Director Dody DiSanto, who creates vivid tableaux. And Scenic Designer Tony Cisek turns Anacostia Playhouse into a proscenium stage full of surprises, notably set pieces spun around between scenes by the actors in a whirling blur.

Costume Designer Danielle Preston locates the actors nicely in the here and now, even as the show’s scope sweeps us elsewhere and long ago. And Sound Designer Matthew M. Nelson creates a realistic aural world even as the stage world goes surreal, as it does often thanks to dazzling work by Lighting Designer William K. D’Eugenio and Projections Designer Patrick W. Lord. Special props to Properties Artisan Alex Vernon, who turns an ordinary item of furniture into an astonishing creature.

Theater Alliance’s Mnemonic is not only thrilling theater. It is a stirring and uplifting parable of our profound kinship. And in these troubling times for our disunited extended family, Mnemonic is welcome as rain during a drought.

Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

Mnemonic plays through April 9, 2017, at Theater Alliance, performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

No Sisters

A shout-out to Studio Theatre co-founder Russell Metheny, who designed the complex on 14th Street, for installing a backstage stairway connecting the dressing rooms of the second-floor Milton and the ground-floor Mead. Were it not for that architectural passageway, there could be no No Sisters, and DC would be deprived of Writer-Director Aaron Posner’s latest transfiguration of Chekhov—a play that bounces off Three Sisters with such spunk and sensibility it seems the reason the Russian one was written.

Following on Stupid Fucking Bird (Posner’s hilarious rejuvenation of The Seagull) and Life Sucks (his delightful ditto of Uncle Vanya), No Sisters again out-Chekhovs Chekhov. It is a genius comedy of the soul that lets loose what Chekhov kept a lid on.

While downstairs in the Mead a cast of fifteen perform Three Sisters on a sparse birch-studded set, upstairs in the Milton eight of them perform No Sisters in what the program calls “a weird-ass existential Chekhovian green room.” As wittily designed by Daniel Conway, the place is packed full of properties storage, mismatched furnishings, costume racks, clustered chandeliers, tables for makeup and snack breaks… Upstage by the door to downstairs is a dart board, with which actors pass the time before showtime.

Both plays clock in at the same running time, with the same elapsed times between their four acts and their intermissions syncing. The actors in No Sisters wear the same costumes designed by Jessica Ford that they wear in their roles downstairs. (The rest of the excellent design team is shared as well:  Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky, Sound Designer Christopher Baine, Composer James Barry. Tech week must have been unusually aerobic.) Seven television monitors in the No Sisters set keep watch on what’s happening on the stage below.

We are aware all the time there this other play going on, in a parallel world, in some amazing simultaneity. And that is so cool. The actors in No Sisters all play supporting roles in Three Sisters. (The actors playing the three sisters themselves, Ólga, Másha, and Irína, presumably have a green room elsewhere). The actors in No Sisters also go in and out of their Three Sisters characters, which becomes astonishingly dramatic.

Typically the actors address the audience directly, in riffs both fun and clever, especially at the beginning as we are introduced to them one by one. Quickly, though, we catch on to Posner’s inspired conceit: These actors come to this green room to vent on behalf of their characters’ inner lives, to say what Chekhov left unspoken, to deliciously chew scenery instead of making do with meaningful looks and pauses. As clouds gather over these characters and their story lines darken, this becomes incrementally a deeply moving tragicomedy.  Like standup meets primal scream therapy.

What Posner has done in No Sisters is to script for each actor no-holds-barred monologues. These speeches, as played by the No Sisters cast with pull-out-all-the stops emotion, make for a piling on of peak theatrical experiences.

Biko Eisen-Martin plays the brooding, volatile soldier Solyóny with powerful range and rage.  Ro Boddie plays his amiable battle buddy Túzenbach with equal passion and presence. The idealistic Fedótik, youngest of the three soldiers, is played by William Vaughn with a heaping of hope that lifts the spirit of the whole play.

True to Chekhov, Posner’s characters fall on a subtly calibrated continuum from happiness to despair, from contentment to yearning, from elation to boredom. What makes this human comedy so funny and touching is the crystalline compassion in Posner’s writing and its honest observations about life.

As the three sisters’ pathetic older brother Andréy, unhappy with his own inadequacy, Ryan Rilette gives a performance that is wonderfully measured: it stops short of maudlin, it only makes us warm to him.  As Kulygin, Másha’s upstanding but clueless husband, Todd Scoffield gives a performance that is equally well balanced: it stops short of smarmy, it makes us ache for him when he is betrayed.

Standing out from these five amazing performances by men are two women who stop the show.

In Three Sisters, Natásha, Andréy’s wife, is an imperious shrew, liked by no one except possibly her husband’s boss with whom she has an affair. Posner, though, has given Natásha virtual arias about what she’s feeling—not just her peevish temper but her hurt and longing—and Kimberly Gilbert belts them with so much heart the house can hardly hold them.

In Three Sisters, Anfisa is an octogenarian serving woman who cared for the four siblings from their birth and whom Natásha wants to fire. It’s a small but touching part. Her role in Posner’s play, however, is huge, and Nancy Robinette’s performance in it is monumental.  Anfisa has a speech about “what love is” that Robinette delivers with such wrenching lyricism it can send tremors to one’s core.

“Listen to me now. Listen,” Anisa tells the naive Fedótik, who is smitten with Irína:

Love is… acceptance. Shocking, transformative, radical acceptance. It is Your Everything, in intimate and immediate relation, to Her Everything.
Love is a force, a fever, an eternal, unassuageable longing.
Love is Impossible: Impossible to have, impossible to hold, impossible to lose, impossible to know, impossible to live with, impossible to live without.

Daven Ralston (who plays a mean violin in Three Sisters) appears in a sweetly stunning  turn  as Young Woman, a specter character invented by Posner. She shows up in the imagination of Anfisa as Anfisa’s younger self. Their short scene together is so lovely and so beautifully performed it could be a playlet unto itself.

Does one need to have seen Three Sisters in the Mead before seeing No Sisters in the Milton? That’s what I did, and I can report it helps give thematic context and character familiarity to No Sisters. But No Sisters can also stand on its own as engaging entertainment and tour de force acting. With or without Chekhov’s Three Sisters (but ever indebted to it), Aaron Posner’s No Sisters gives audiences three of the most insightful and satisfying hours in locally grown and nourished theater.

There’s a point late in the play when Kulygin gives a speech that mentions the importance to civilization of funding for the arts:

We want to survive and the thing about Civilization is… it helps. It just… you know… helps. It makes things better. For more people. More of the time… Rules. Laws. Sewage Systems. Fire Codes. Patents. Public Education. Meals on Wheels. Funding for scientific research. Funding for the arts. Civilization makes things better for more of the people more of the time.
And that is why there is always Hope.

On opening night, the audience broke out in applause. Perhaps somewhere Chekhov cheered too.

Running Time: Approximately three hours including one 15-minute intermission.

No Sisters plays through April 23, 2017, at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

Note: Free vodka shots are offered upstairs at intermission of No Sisters and downstairs in the lobby after both shows end.

Needles and Opium

When I left the Eisenhower Theatre last night after witnessing this mesmerizing multimedia marvel, I had a quibble. I had just one, but it could be the most peculiar cavil I’ve ever had about a show.  There was a problem with the curtain call. Something was off. As actors typically do after performing in live theater, the three in this cast came out on stage to be greeted by the audience’s applause—which in this case was very well deserved; they were excellent.  But the set needed to take a bow too. Because that spellbinding construction and the brilliant lighting and projections that shone upon it deserved an ovation all their own, one that would raise the roof.

As it happens, the set very well could have taken a bow. It’s designed to. It tilts and pivots by means of some invisible mechanical/electronic magic. (The same outfit that fabricates Cirque du Soleil apparatus built it.) And it kept me suspended in disbelief and wonder for fully an hour and a half.

It’s deceptively simple to look at until it’s lit and comes to life. It’s the three-sided corner of an imaginary big cube. Each of the sides is by turns a wall or a floor, depending on how the contraption is angled and spun. There are doors and windows and even a murphy bed in the walls, but they’re invisible until they’re opened. And this three-sided set serves as the screen for some of the most amazing scenic and animated projections I have ever seen in theater.

Ever have “the whirlies”?—that disorienting dizziness that takes all the fun out of getting high? If so, you’ll have déjà vu as you experience this ever shifting/pitching/swiveling/slanting space that veers from place to place as in a substance-induced delirium. Except without the nausea. Only wide-eyed awe.

Not incidental to this stupefying sleight of stagecraft, a theme of the show is substance addiction. Written and directed by the world-renowned Canadian theater auteur Robert Lepage, Needles and Opium has three story lines that intersect somewhat surreally: The American trumpeter Miles Davis, who turns to heroin in anguish after a woman rejects him; the French writer Jean Cocteau, who turns to opium out of nonspecific existential torment; and a fictional Québécois voice actor named Robert who is so lovelorn because the woman he loved left him than he chokes up on a take in a recording studio.

Lepage first devised Needles and Opium 20 years ago out of an autobiographical loss not unlike the fictional Robert’s. His conceit in creating it was to evoke a metaphorical connection between the pain he experienced when the love of his life dumped him—a sort of withdrawal from love addition—and the literal substance dependence in the biographies of Davis and Cocteau.

Personally, I didn’t ever buy this premise. It reminded me too much of self-involved great male artists’ tendency to romanticize their solipsism. The women in Needles and Opium are virtual ciphers. We see them only as unreal images, both as Robert’s and Miles’s emotional projections and, in the case of the French film star Davis fixates on, a literal cinematic projection. So unfleshed out are the female roles, in fact,  that when the cast came out for their curtain call—two men and a woman—I had one of those “and who’s she again?” moments.

Maybe I had more than one criticism after all.

So I cannot honestly say, go see this show for the story lines, for the characters you’ll get to know, for their dramatic arcs of realization, for the rich insights into life it will reveal. As a people story, it’s pretty problematic. But go see it for the set. I mean that. The set is epic. It’s the star of this show. And in my mind, which is still reeling from seeing it, I am still applauding.

SLIDESHOW

VIDEO:

Intelligence

Lately I’ve been thinking that there are two key questions that must be asked of every season-programming choice by every theater’s artistic director:

1) Why now?
2) So what?

There is no single right answer to those questions, of course, and there are several wrong ones. But if those two questions have no answer, or if merely raising them draws shrugs and blank stares…well, perhaps, given the times we now live in, there’s a problem of pertinence.

Recently Arena Stage has been doing pertinence with uncanny prescience. Artistic Director Molly Smith’s choice to mount Lisa Loomer’s Roe and Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine deserves a special Helen Hayes Award for Programming Clairvoyance—for who could have foreseen America’s current health and well-being emergency, which  lent both productions such unsettling urgency?

Now comes the world premiere of a play with a shock of recognition that’s off the charts—Jacqueline E. Lawton’s penetrating Intelligence. Lawton, commissioned back in June 2015 to write for Arena’s auspicious Power Plays initiative, undertook “to process the betrayal I felt when the Bush Administration told a series of lies that led to the war in Iraq.” Little could Lawton have known how many lies lay ahead.

Intelligence is a compressed and fictionalized version of the so-called Valerie Plame affair, the 2003 scandal  recounted in the 2010 movie Fair Game, which in turn was based on memoirs by covert CIA operations officer Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. The subtitles of their books give the gist of the disgraceful episode: Plame’s Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House and Wilson’s The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity.

Lawton spotlights the character of Valerie Plame, in a dazzling performance by Hannah Yelland that’s translucent with truth. Remarkably, this sprawling drama of international intrigue and governmental malfeasance is told in a mere 90 minutes with but four other characters onstage: Valerie’s husband Joseph (Lawrence Redmond); her supervisor at the CIA, Elaine (Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman); Leyla, a Georgetown fashion designer (Nora Achrati);  and Leyla’s beloved uncle in the Middle East, Dr. Malik Nazari (Ethan Nova), who like Leyla is under CIA surveillance.

This concision has the effect of making Valerie’s conscience the real focal point of the play.  The character has love and concern for her husband and young children, as would be expected. But the singularity of her steely conscience as crafted by Lawton is neither a woman’s nor a man’s. It is a citizen’s. It is a patriot’s. It is the uncompromising morals of someone who expects better of her country. And I loved that Lawton did that.

Daniella Topol directs this intime exposé against a backdrop of stagecraft to knock your socks off. Set Designer Misha Kachman sets the stage with great gray columnar slabs that could be contemporary steles or an homage to the Twin Towers. They move about, creating playing spaces into which furniture is set for close-up scenes, but their grander purpose is to serve as vast surfaces on which Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi shows chilling footage of Bush, Cheney, Powell et al. lying the nation into war.

Somehow, perversely, Bush and Co.’s untruths told then about uranium buys and WMDs seem almost like good old days: a time when presidential prevarication could be isolated, sequestered, found in a few fateful phrases here and there, not a never-ending inundation, a logorrhea of lies.

Intelligence is a conscience-centered thriller set against a national tragedy on an epic scale. That this tragedy is ongoing and worsening only makes this sensational show more essential to see. Its “why now?” and its “so what?” are what great theater is about.

The Select (The Sun Also Rises)

F. Scott Fitzgerald was among the first to take an editorial whack at Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises (then called Fiesta). Among other things cut out by Fitzgerald was the entire first part. Thus pruned to 200-plus pages, the book became a bestseller.

Some years ago a  brilliantly inventive, New York–based theater company,  Elevator Repair Service, did its own redaction, a version they turned into a story-theater-style production that the Shakespeare Theatre Company has brought to town. Now culled to two acts in three-plus hours, the book comes to life in a fascinating new light.

It’s Hemingway lite. But it’s got real bite.

Elevator Repair Service (ERS) is known for taking famous writerly texts and staging them, sometimes verbatim, as long-form literary theater. I saw ERS’s much wordier rendition of the first chapter of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in New York a few years ago and recall being transfixed by it. ERS clearly was treating the material with the presumption of an auteur, doing with Faulkner’s text something he could not possibly have had in mind. Yet as the actors delivered not only the book’s dialogue but also its richly detailed narration, the author’s voice seemed to come through with astonishing clarity.

The text of the The Select (The Sun Also Rises) is much sparer. The actors speak less narration; the dialogue is more punched up. The text has been significantly sanitized too. Hemingway’s original is shot through with homophobia, antisemitism, racism, and misogyny. Hemingway, icon of the cult of hypermasculinity in American letters, did not mince disparaging words. Wisely ERS has eliminated the racism, toned the homophobia and antisemitism way down, and left but a modicum of misogyny. The Select would have been unbearable had they not.

The agreeable result plays less like meticulously faithful readers theater and more like a breezy drama by a clever playwright who likes to keep characters tight (“tight” being Hemingwayspeak for drunk). The whole show takes place in an enticing bar set by Scenic Designer David Zinn. There are so many bottles of booze on the wall it makes one think of grabbing a preshow drink.

Hemingway’s voice is famously curt. Simple straightforward sentences. Just the facts.  The tips of icebergs. Simple subjects and straightforward verbs. No purple frou-frou.  It’s a voice so readily parodied there’s a long-running International Imitation Hemingway Competition. Curiously in The Select, that unmistakable voice seems dialed down, stripped of distinction, almost genericized. It’s certainly not what makes the performance on stage at the Lansburgh Theatre so smashingly theatrical. That honor belongs hands down to Director John Collins’s ingenious staging, the electrifying choreography by Dance & Movement Coach Katherine Profeta, and the  stunningly eloquent audio effects by Sound Designers Matt Tierney and Ben Williams.

The acting overall was fine if a little uneven, but three stellar performances enthralled me.

Kaneza Schaal plays, among other roles, the prostitute Georgette. (In life Hemingway was a john of some renown and peopled his fiction with characters based on women he had thus known).  Georgette and the main narrator Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson) take a credible horse-drawn carriage ride while simply seated on two bar chairs. (Collins’s staging beguiles like that.) In the novel Jake had a war injury that left him impotent (a point that goes by fast in this version; it’s easy to miss). So nothing happens. Except that which happens when an actor of Schaal’s stature and presence magnetizes the stage.

Kate Scelsa plays, among other roles, Frances, the girlfriend of Robert Cohn. Robert functions in the novel as Hemingway’s EveryJew, the foil for everyone else’s ambivalence/animus. So too in The Select.  (But relative to Director Collins’s better other casting, he himself does not impress in the role.) For a lot of Frances’s stage time, she fades into the background, a frumpy grumpy nobody; but when the time comes for her big monologue, it’s epic. It’s an all-out howl of grievance, a take-me-back aria of desperation, a don’t-you-dare-dump-me diatribe that would make Dreamgirls‘ Effie blush. Scelsa’s performance stops the show, and nothing else ever tops it. Not even the big bullfight scene in Act Two (which must be seen to be believed).

The character of Brett Ashley stands apart from the parade of submissive women in Hemingway’s oeuvre. Because she sports a boyish haircut, calls herself a “chap,” sleeps with whomever she wants, and has an unintimidatable libido, she is seen by many as thoroughly modern but mannish. That gender bending matters not to all the  men in The Sun Also Rises who are smitten by her. Instead it accounts for her allure. (Hey, a woman with a man’s sex drive; let’s take her for a spin.) To say that Stephanie Hayes nails the role would be an understatement. In its fierce sensuality and psychic force, hers is a performance one cannot take one’s eyes off. Happily she is on stage a lot.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these three performances of women characters all caught my eye. For ERS’s lively digest of Hemingway’s novel lets a sexual political theme shine through that might not jump off the page while reading. That theme is Hemingway’s fantasy of the shared woman. She whom many he’s have sex with like frat boys who hired a hooker—except of course separately, more decorously, with worldly sophistication, and with a woman who knows her own mind and owns her own body.

What’s fascinating about how this fantasy plays out in The Select is that all the men are fully cognizant of all the other men’s sexual relations with Brett. (Jake’s counts even though he can’t.) And they’re all okay with it. More than okay, actually. It’s almost as if they all bond through Brett’s body.

Another role very well played by a woman, Susie Sokol, is a teenage boy, the matador Pedro Romero—whose beauty holds appeal for Jake and prompts Brett to forthwith bed him. So even Pedro gets pledged to the men’s club.

You may not see what I saw in The Select (The Sun Also Rises). But if you see it for yourself during its run at the Lansburgh  (as you should), you will not lack for brainwork later. It’s one of those captivating shows whose implications kick in after curtain call.

The How and the Why

The very title poses a puzzle. How what? Why what? Yet the definite articles assert certitude. The what. The how. Turns out in this brainy play about two smart women,  perplexity and uncertainty unspool like two coiled strands of a double helix.

Just opened in a solid production at Theater J directed with penetrating precision by Shirley Serotsky, Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why entices us into two interconnected mysteries.  Parsed apart those mysteries are interesting, but taken together they are thoroughly fascinating. The play teases us with evidence about each line of inquiry, then leaves us in the extraordinary cognitive situation of figuring out how and why the two are linked.

One of those strands is scientific. The two women are evolutionary biologists. In their professional lives, they both theorize about menstruation—how and why it evolved in the human species. Turns out menstruation is a mystery male scientists have not thought to track down. (No mystery there.) From a Darwinian, natural-selection point of view, menstruation is counter-indicated. What on earth can account for the massive caloric expenditure required for this periodic flushing of the uterus? The advantage to the species of egg production is a no brainer. But with foodstuffs scarce, how is all that blood loss not egregious waste? The question may not be the sort that  keeps one up at night, but for the two women scientists in The How and the Why, it’s a bafflement whose explanation cries out to be theorized.

The older is Zelda Kahn, an unmarried woman of a certain age whose scientific brilliance and myriad career achievements have set her up in exactly the life she wanted. When we first meet her in her imposing academic office, we get a sense of her stature, and Valerie Leonard’s flawless performance gives Zelda just the right sort of professionalism, shrewd, cool, and wise-cracking.

Zelda has a theory about menstruation that has garnered her accolades in academe. In a multitude of publications she has put forth a “grandmother” hypothesis. The gist of it is that in primitive society when fertile females were kept constantly pregnant, the job of childcare fell to females who were postmenopausal. Which explains why menstruation stops but not  why it begins.

In science both the how and the why are important, as the younger woman, Rachel Hardeman, tells us. A how without a verifiable why is science’s unfinished business.

Rachel is 28, has a boyfriend, and has shown up in Zelda’s office, we don’t yet know what for. Rachel is a doctoral student still looking for the life she wants. She’s on a path of both self and scientific discovery. But what she knows for sure is that she wants her life to include a husband and children along with her career in evolutionary biology. Playing Rachel, Katie deBuys has the more challenging role because Rachel’s early-career angsting could easily get grating. DeBuys, however, finds just the right likeability in her longing, and by the end lifts Rachel to equal standing with Zelda.

Rachel has a theory that menstruation evolved to purge the uterus of all the toxicity that travels with spermatozoa. She’s arguably correct about the toxicity of sperm. (Another topic male scientists probably don’t delight in.) But there are some holes in her theory. Like what about postmenopausal intercourse, which probably happened  then as now? Or does Rachel’s theory mean all female life necessarily expired before the flow of menses ceased? Is a puzzlement.

Just as Treem snares our curiosity about the scientific standoff between Zelda’s and Rachel’s views, she casts a prior line of interrogation: Who are these two women to each other? For the longest time, we have no clue.

Turns out they are biological mother and daughter. The backstory Treem tells to arrange for this mother-daughter meeting and explain why it hasn’t happened before is persuasive if a little pat. Zelda gave Rachel up for adoption; Rachel just found out from the agency who her birth mother is; voilà this visit. What makes their slowly revealed connection so provocative is not why it happened but what it means: Rachel not only has traits associated with Zelda’s X chromosome; Rachel has Zelda’s so-called Eve gene (the mitrochondrial DNA inherited only through the female line). And they are now having a mind-blowing exchange about evolutionary biology within a like-mother/like-daughter drama the likes of which I’ve never seen.

Which is why it was no coincidence I walked out thinking of the double helix. The coolly scientific mystery in the play coils around the emotional relational mystery. Round and round they go, each enhancing the other’s hold on our imagination.

This all comes with a gloss of feminism lite. Zelda’s decision while a grad student to give up her child and pursue her career. Rachel’s desire to affirm her relationship with her boyfriend as a coauthor and collaborator in her work. Zelda and Rachel go round and round the “Can women have it all?” question (about which other plays I’ve seen have had more probative things to say). But this was not the discourse that really made me wrap my mind around this play.

What leaps to mind as I think back on the pleasure of watching Theater J’s The How and the Why is its brilliant portrayal of two incandescently intelligent women. At root they are trying to understand something about what bonds them to all mothers and daughters before them—and why that lineage matters.

The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus

A long-ago love story inspired this richly textured play with 1920s music. When Playwright Steven A. Butler Jr. was growing up, he heard family stories about how his great-great grandparents, Ruby Dyson and Ollie Tyson, fell in love in 1927. They met and settled in the small town of La Plata, Maryland, and began a family that now extends for generations.

Ollie and Ruby’s gifted great-great grandson has now imagined the world their love began in as a traveling circus. It’s an inspired idea. The owner of this circus is a white man. The townspeople the circus plays for are white. And all the circus performers and roustabouts are “Colored” (the word used throughout the script in its period sense).  The result is not only a hugely satisfying saga bursting with heart, humor, and song. It is also a profound narrative metaphor for the black family’s struggle to survive under conditions of prejudice and exploitation not far removed from slavery.

The set is the interior of a worn and tattered tent. Swaths of burlap drape up to a pinnacle where there’d be a tent pole and descend to surround the playing area, which is strewn with straw. At one end is a high stage all set for live performance. Platforms suggesting straw bales make a secondary stage. Clusters of old-time wood tables and wicker chairs evoke transient living quarters, and an old Victrola lends the place a touch of home away from home. It all promises “backstage drama!” and “showtime!”  and the show, engagingly shaped by Director Courtney Baker-Oliver, delivers both in equal measure.

Wonderful music arises during the dramatic action—ballads, torch songs, novelty show tunes, and more. (The delightful original songs are by Baker-Oliver, Butler, and Christopher John Burnett; the deft musical direction is by Burnett and Willie Ferguson.) In Act One, while we are being introduced to each of the thirteen characters, there’s more talk than singing; in Act Two, after we’ve met them, we are treated to more musical performances. The structure of the show draws us closer not only to the characters’ stories but to the meanings in the music.

And what moving stories they are. There are upwards of a dozen and they interweave and intersect throughout in ways that are by turns surprising, touching, shocking, and stirring, like a sprawling mini-epic.

Restoration Stage, which has produced this and other works by Butler (including his acclaimed Chocolate Covered Ants last season), has as its tagline “Restoring the black family—one story at a time,” which perfectly describes Butler’s present accomplishment. The first African American man to be named to the Arena Stage Playwrights’ program, Butler has just given American theater a masterpiece of empathy, entertainment, and uplift.

As the play began, it took me a few moments to catch on to Butler’s genius in crafting and combining all his character-driven narratives. They just seemed to come fast on the heels of one another, each a fragment unto itself. But then I realized what a powerful tapestry of troubles and longings Butler was weaving, what a sensitively embellished depiction of a community connected in struggle, what an act of love it had been for him to tell of the origin of his forebears’ devotion within a larger family context. And by the end I was in awe.

Because so much of the pleasure in watching this work is discovering its manifold subplots, I’d be remiss if I gave them away. But I can preview a few of the couples stories, because as is typical in classic comedies, there’s a pleasing payoff at the end of joyful pairings off.

Butler casts his great-great-grandfather Ollie as ringmaster of the circus, which he once owned but sold to a white man, Benjamin Boswell. In Pat Martin’s performance  Boswell now lords it over the troupe like P.T. Barnum channeling Simon Legree as a pimp. Miles Folley brings to the role of Ollie such a physical agility and adorably earnest charm that it’s no wonder he catches the eye of Butler’s great-great grandmother Ruby, and no wonder this vivacious chanteuse catches his. The character of Ruby emerged for me as the play’s most knockout role, and Ayanna Hardy’s performance in it is heartbreaking. By the time she belts the first solo in the show, “Darkies Never Dream,” she holds the audience in her arms.

Juxtaposed with the young lovers, Butler introduces an older married couple, nicknamed Pumpkin and Pickles, who have been on the road like seasoned vaudevillians. They do a musical-comedy routine in the second act with the cringeworthy title “Oh, You Coon,” and Corisa Myers as Pumpkin and Charles W. Harris Jr. as Pickles bring down the house. They also have an indelibly moving scene together during which they tell why they fell in love with each other, and who they are to each other.

There’s a late-arriving romance near the end involving two of the white characters, Boswell’s son Colby and Leonora, who comes from a well-to-do family in town. Colby’s complex connection to the other story lines is fascinating, and Robert Hamilton does a good job conveying it. Despite being upbraided by his abusive dad, he has no inclination to take it out on others, i.e. the showpeople whom he manages; instead he identifies with them as family.  When we first meet Leonore she seems the embodiment of clueless white snobbery, and Suzanne Edgar plays it to the hilt. She delivers a terrific ballad in Act One, “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” and in a twist goes useful-liberal at the end.

Besides the Ensemble’s opener, “Circus Theme,” there are three other musical numbers in the first act,  each owned magnificently by one of the foregoing female singer-actors. The third is Pumpkin’s funny-sad “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird.” And it’s Pumpkin who brings us back after intermission with a rousing  rendition of “Good Trouble” full of risque insinuation.

The innuendos roll on with “I Ain’t Gonna Give You My Jellyroll,” sung sweetly by Abiola Yetunde as Birdie, a shy roustabout who has taken a liking to an older roustabout named William (a fine Mandrill Solomon).

Even in a play full of fascinating characters, the originality of Freda stands out. She sings a song called “Mr. America” wearing faux Native American garb. Actually she’s Mexican and longs to return to California but keeps up this phoney gig like a trouper believing it’ll help her get there one day. Sara Hernandez’s performance in this role is among the most poignant in the play.

Everyone in the circus ran away to join it at some point, and some of their backstories are wrenching. Ruby’s and Ollie’s certainly are. There’s a scene between them about their pasts that completely choked me up. So did Zola’s. Madam Zola, as she styles herself, is an exotic, a fortune teller, one of those characters so out of left field they might belong in another play—until their heart-stopping story is disclosed.  Zola has another of the female solos, “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark” (more innuendo), and Brittany Timmons sells it for all she’s worth.

There’s a tragically sad story line about a character nicknamed Tumbler (well played by Obinna Nawachuk), a simpleton who performs as a primate, dressed like a cartoon monkey. He longs to see his grandmother again, and just as Freda endures the humiliation of acting like an Indian, he naively believes this sideshow job will reunite them.

There’s also a fourth white character, Daphne, who is Lenora’s high-society friend and like her a snob. Unlike Lenora, however, Daphne is visibly uncomfortable around the Colored characters, and Jenna Murphy’s performance keeps that aversion very credible.

There are few moments in Butler’s play that are not in some sense about race. One of the qualities of his writing that caught my attention early on is the fact that the four white characters in it are always white; they never become unraced or raceless as they would in a play—written by a white author, say—where nine characters are white and four are black. In such a case the black characters typically stay portrayed and perceived as black while the white characters are portrayed and perceived as “race-neutral generic human.” That never happens in The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus—to the deep credit of the entire production.

Unusually, the costumes and properties are designed by the director and the playwright. Ollie’s ringmaster outfit is appealingly clownish and the women’s show-biz gowns are stunning. Lighting Designer Jerry M. Dale Jr. has turned the black box at Anacostia Playhouse into a most enjoyable tent show. The lovely choreography is by Raquis Petree.  And Sound Designers Eric Wells and Aaron Gerald, besides subtly mic’ing the playing area, provide a few thunderous weather effects, playback of old records, and a vintage stand mic for the acts on stage.

Over and above the outstanding music, performances, and production values in Stephen A. Butler Jr.’s The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus, there is its eloquent testimony to the resilience without which the black family in America could not have survived the African diaspora. To watch that dramatized in the fictional context of a traveling circus is to see the obstacles in an imaginative new way but also to appreciate again the persistence and virtuosity that, within the remembered bonds of African kinship, overcame, went forth, and multiplied.

R.I.P., Ruby Dyson and Ollie Tyson. A great-great grandson of yours just did you proud.

Running Time: Three hours 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus plays through August 14, 2016, at Restoration Stage performing at the Anacostia Playhouse– 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. Tickets are for sale online.

The Freshest Snow Whyte

Far off the radar of most grownup theatergoers, the writer/director Psalmayene 24 has been creating an extraordinary body of work for children. I’ve been an admirer of the trenchant work he has directed for mature audiences—the plays Not Enuf Lifetimes and The Shipment knocked me out. But until The Freshest Snow Whyte—his fourth creation for Imagination Stage—I had not tuned in to the delightful and insightful shows Psalmayene 24 makes up for kids.

Better make that: kids of all ages.

And before saying what a shimmering fine show this is, better say up front: The Freshest Snow Whyte delivers a message about equality so beautiful and important, it’s not only family-friendly; it’s what the whole world needs now.

The Freshest Snow Whyte is a hip hop musical. Hip hop lite, you might say, upbeat like pop with zero menace. The word freshest in the title and script means coolest, the best. In the spirit of that superlative, the tightest book and slickest lyrics are by Psalmayene 24 and the dopest hip hop score is composed and performed by Musical Director Nick “tha 1da” Hernandez.

Psalmayene 24 imagines the fairy tale character Snow White in a futuristic comic strip world. Scenic Designer Richard Ouellette goes crazy askew; eccentric triangles outlined in neon form the upstage wall and an overhead projection screen, and more irregular triangles make up the floor. It’s like Buckminster Fuller was on something. Strangely the disorientation becomes the perfect locale for Psalmayene 24’s charming tale.

The plot borrows just a smidgen from the Brothers Grimm. It’s the year 3000 and Snow Whyte has become a universe-renowned graffiti artist, the freshest, in fact. That’s the verdict of Mira, who adjudicates the competition—from behind a scrim as if inside a mirror—and declares who’s the freshest of them all. We get to see Snow Whyte’s award-winning work on the big screen above the stage (Projections Designer Tewodross “Teo” Melchishua Williams makes the art on her behalf), and it is indeed marvelous to behold. Kind of like Kandinsky was on something.

Snow Whyte has no wicked stepmother, no wicked stepsisters, but she does have a wickedly entertaining uncle, Kanye East. Kanye’s got a huge heart. He took Snow Whyte in when she was little and raised her to be the self-possessed young woman she has become. But he also has a huge ego. He is himself a graffiti artist, and he flies into a fit of pique when his niece gets Mira’s nod as freshest.

Kanye has a robot named 3Pac, who regularly needs a reboot. Kanye enlists the malfunctioning 3Pac as his accomplice in a scheme to settle the score with Snow Whyte and prove he has more talent. Thus is set in motion an interplanetary chase-and-intrigue caper invested in win-or-lose competitiveness and involving some very silly walks.

Upon learning that her uncle is up to no good, Snow Whyte goes into exile on the planet Palladium, where she though an alien is given sanctuary (imagine that!). Her host family consists of two twin zanies, Pop Lock and K Rock—the seven dwarfs, downsized—whose floppy walks make them seem rubberized. When they go off to work, they let her stay in their home but make her promise not to let anyone in the door. Meanwhile  Kanye has tracked her down (he and 3Pac travel by nifty hover-limo), and he tries comical disguises to inveigle himself inside.

The night I saw the show, the kids in the audience were loving it. The live-wire actors busted the rhymes and bounced to the beats like all get out. And they could have not had better confederates than Choreographer Tony Thomas II and Costume Designer Jeanette Christensen. The musical accompaniment is prerecorded (Sound Designer Thomas Sowers keeps it real), but the rapping and singing could not be more alive.  Together they contrived a crew of comic strip characters who were nonstop outlandish and enchanting.

The artistry of Lighting Designer Dylan Uremovich impressed the young audience so much that one particular effect stopped the show in audible awe. It was when  Snow Whyte said of the weather “It’s sparkling.” And the darkened auditorium lit up with glittering starbursts.

The piece is perfectly paced for young attention spans, with ample interludes of audience participation. The cast would start up a call and response to make a plot point happen, for instance, and the kids would chime in with glee. And there was a bit when the zanies are away and Snow Whyte discovers something she can’t identify. It’s a broom, the kids yelled out. When Snow Whyte asked for someone to show her how to use it, one tot did so adorably.

The story wraps up in a pointed metaphor, which I disclose to underscore what an impressively principled script Psalmayene 24 has written. The twin zanies’ employment, it turns out, is in a cosmic mixing and measuring operation. It’s the place from which each individual who is born gets assigned a unique and individualized array of talent. Some individuals may excel at one thing; some may excel at another, and so on. But each individual gets the same total amount. Everyone’s assortment is different but no one’s aggregate is better. Everyone is equal.

Speaking of arrays of talent, the actors deserve a special shout-out. Because I had seen several of them before in serious and substantive dramatic roles, I was blown away to see what they can do when they cut loose and go wacky. Frank Britton as 3Pac, Katy Carkuff as Snow Whyte, Louis E. Davis as Pop Lock, Jonathan Feuer as Mira, Calvin McCullough as Kanye East, Taylor Robinson as K Rock—their polished physicality and mischievous free spirits kept me giggling to myself at stuff the kids could not possibly appreciate, because they could not know what awesome acting talent was taking us along on this buskers’ holiday of hilarity.

So bring the kids, without question (The Freshest Snow Whyte is a kick for five and up). But even with no young ones along, The Freshest Snow Whyte is an inspired mix of terrific fun and stirring truth.

Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.

The Freshest Snow Whyte plays through March 18, 2017, at Imagination Stage – 4908 Auburn Avenue, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the Box Office at (301) 280-1660 or purchase them online.

LINKS:

‘P.Nokio: A Hip-Hop Musical’ at Imagination Stage by Grace Kim

‘Cinderella: The Remix’ at Imagination Stage

Watch on the Rhine

Whatever this play meant to Broadway audiences when it debuted in 1941, just prior to America’s entry into a war of resistance to fascism abroad, what matters now is what it means to audiences just as America has entered a war of resistance to fascism here at home. Does Lillian Hellman’s principled script—now in a praiseworthy production on the waterfront at Arena Stage—stand the test of time? Does it warrant viewing, in other words, as a Watch on the Potomac?

Judging from audience response on opening night, the answer is yes.

The earliest and clearest evidence that Watch on the Rhine was landing with contemporary relevance came in an exchange between the young lawyer David Farrelly (Thomas Keegan) and the antifascist activist Kurt Müller (Andrew Long).

David’s mother Fanny Farrelly (Marsha Mason) is the wealthy widow whose sumptuous country estate near DC the play takes place in. It is 1940, and Kurt has arrived with his wife Sara Müller (Lise Bruneau), who is David’s beloved sister, and their three children. The Müller family have been on the run, because Kurt in his native Germany is an enemy of the state. And they have all been welcomed without reservation into the Farrelly home.

This is the line of David’s to Kurt that prompted a sudden and resounding round of applause:

You are a political refugee. We don’t turn back people like you, people in danger.

And boom. The exigency of sanctuary hit home in the house.

As the story unfolds, Hellman reveals Kurt’s antifascist conscience as if a beacon of bravery. “Here I stand, I can do no other,” Kurt quotes  Martin Luther, the famous German resister to institutional religious tyranny. Kurt faces threats on his life, not only from  Nazis but from a scoundrel houseguest, Teck De Brancovis (J Anthony Crane)—a plot that thickens harrowingly as the play proceeds. Kurt’s mother-in-law Fanny offers Kurt not only a wing of the house to stay in but some serious cash. She may be a checkbook liberal, but she appreciates what’s priceless about radical resistance. And through it all, Hellman paints a profoundly moving portrait of Kurt’s loving family standing by him—Sarah, of course, but also the three precocious kids.

I had an opportunity during rehearsals to interview the actors who portray those youngsters.  I wanted to look at Watch on the Rhine through their eyes. The play is a combination light drawing room comedy and disturbing dark drama—like a specialty sandwich held together with mayonnaise that says a mouthful. So I was curious how they were wrapping their heads around it.

Two of the questions I asked were:

Watch on the Rhine takes place in 1940, shortly before the United States entered World War II. Your mother is American and your father is German. What do think it means to your character that your father is against fascism and the Nazis? 

And:

How can someone your age relate to the themes that are in Watch on the Rhine? 

Their answers say as much about the present resonance of the play as did that round of grownup applause on opening night.

Sixteen-year-old Ethan Miller, who plays the oldest of the three siblings, said,

Joshua lived in Germany during the fascist regime and knows how dangerous fascism can be, and he has a great sense of patriotism for his father’s mission. Also he has a small sense of democracy, because his mother is American, which gives him more of a reason to stand behind his father’s work. There is also a great sense of fear involved, because it seems no matter where they go, fascism always seems to follow.

In the time period when this show takes place, very few people had the right to speak up about important world matters such as human rights. Among the excluded were children. They did not have a voice, and even if they did want to speak up, they were not allowed to. It is important for teens to see this show and appreciate how fortunate we are. Unlike in the show, teens today are able to be heard and to be seen, and can make a difference by speaking up instead of being silenced.

Fifteen-year-old Lucy Breedlove, who plays the middle child, said,

Babette grew up in Germany as fascism was on the rise. Due to the nature of her father’s job, she and her brothers have gotten used to a lifestyle where they’re constantly in fear that their family will be caught by the Nazis, even when they move to America.

Watch on the Rhine is timeless in that it combines the stories of a family reunion, a relationship, and a political feud. Despite being written in 1941, the themes are still relevant today because it focuses on a modern family that has complexities in all fields.

And eleven-year-old Tyler Bowman, a delightful scene stealer as the youngest, said,

Bodo feels that his father is doing the right thing even though it goes against his native country, and Bodo is proud of his father.

There are times when kids just do normal, everyday things like baseball, knitting, fixing things, etc., even though the world is changing.

As crisply directed by Jackie Maxwell as Watch on the Rhine is, there are some plot complications in the script that don’t have a self-evident modern-day analog; as a result they can seem inscrutable. I overheard a couple minor comments to that effect, and I myself got perplexed at times. For instance, I didn’t exactly track Teck’s treachery (though Crane does villainy vividly) or the backstory of the twist that necessitates Kurt’s return to Germany (though the emotion when he says good-bye to his family was off the charts). But as the teens and tween quoted above can confirm, you can be underage and get what’s timeless here.

What comes through compellingly in Watch on the Rhine is its overarching narrative of resistance, persistence, and courage—and the need for solidarity as if we’re family. Suddenly the year 1940 and the year 2017 seem the same moment in perilous times. And Arena Stage has given us a show whose urgency is so relatable it aches.

I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart

Friendships between fat girls and gay boys really are a thing, practically a cliche actually—or a trope, as Playwright Morgan Gould dignifies them when referring to just such a queer pairing in her audacious new play, I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart. You can find commentary and confessions about the familiar phenom online—conjectures, for instance, that fat-girl/gay-boy friendships have appeal because they are not sexually threatening to either party, or because gay boys have taste in fashion that fat girls fancy though it doesn’t fit, or because fat girls offer maternal succor that gay boys long for even as they chase dick. There are googobs of cliches to explain the cliche, in other words.

Gould’s I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart, just opened at Studio X (the adventurous R&D lab at Studio Theatre), features fat girl Sam and gay boy Leo. They met in college and for the last fifteen years have been roommates and best buds. She has a boyfriend who sometimes stays over in her bedroom (and who, we learn gratuitously from Leo, has a crooked cock). We learn nothing of Leo’s sex life except whatever it is happens outside their apartment (because at home, as Sam lets him know she knows, he just jacks off). They’re both would-be writers (though she’s more disciplined and productive than he). And they can each lob witty barbs like duelists at a dart board.

Gould, who herself identifies as fat, seems to want us to like them but not a whole lot. As adeptly performed by Nicole Spiezio and Tommy Heleringer, Sam and Leo run the gamut from fun and games to some truly troubling stuff. Heleringer is adroit at throwing the sort of gay male shade at Sam that could well be called swish-ous. The role seems written for him; it fits like a rubber and he keeps it up with gusto. His antic moves and jokey mugging hijack many a scene. And there’s a shocking surprise twist at the end when we realize how skillfully Spiezio has all along been revealing long-suffering Sam’s mean streak.

The production begins razzmatazz, like a campy floor show in front of a silver mylar rain curtain. Sam and Leo lip-sync the song that is the title of the play. Then the curtain opens on Sam and Leo’s apartment (uncannily realistic in Luciana Stecconi’s set design). As the two begin their badinage, you’d bet this is the comedy love child of Will and Grace and Friends. But Gould (who also directs) has something darker in store.

Gould frames Sam and Leo’s friendship not as an instance of any cliched conjecture but as two people’s authentic response to a not-fake fact:  the social stigma on being fat and the social stigma on being gay. In Gould’s clear-eyed view, what bonds Sam and Leo is the mutual support their friendship represents, and she is eloquent on the subject. As she told the gay weekly The Washington Blade:

We know what hate looks like. When I walk in a room, I know immediately which person hates fat people. They don’t have to say a word. You learn that early. And gay men learn who hates them really early too. We find each other like a safe haven, a place where we can be mean and funny together. It’s us against the world.

The hate Sam and Leo face in the world is palpable in the play, like a presumption of intolerance, though the script smartly doesn’t harp on it. What the script does expose  glaringly, however, is how that hate internalized and unexamined suffuses their friendship.

They frequently check each other on it. At one point Sam tells Leo (in what is played as a throwaway line), “You’re the world’s worst misogynist.” Moments later she asks him sincerely if something she just said was “homophobic-y.” And Leo teasing Sam for not being very feminist and assertive says, “You’re no Gloria Steinem.” They’re educated and politically aware of the systematic oppression they each face in the world.

Yet there are layers in their lives together of underlying internalized oppression that never surface between them as problematic and ought to. For instance Sam routinely cleans Leo’s room and neither ever queries whether this might be sexist male privilege.  Meanwhile Leo routinely and brusquely dry-humps Sam, and once to get her attention grabs her breast, all of which Sam puts up with without protest. Neither ever interrogates whether this might smack of female deference to gay male woman mocking.

So I found a lot to tear apart in I Fucking Wanna Tear You Apart. More than once what was clearly meant as humor made me wince. In particular the character of Leo, while by no means the world’s worst misogynist (that title now belongs to POTUS), poses a dramaturgical threat to Gould’s undertaking. As written and as performed, Leo embodies stereotypical gay male indifference to women’s body integrity like a spot-on cartoon. Leo knows better than to fat-shame Sam, but he clearly takes  out his internalized femiphobia on her, because he’s a man and he can.  As a consequence Sam’s  desperate I’m-nothing-without-you devotion to him becomes pathetic. Not exactly the self-respect you’d expect in a heroine fat grrrl.

I believed and admired Gould’s framing of Sam and Leo’s outlier friendship as an essential mutual support system in a hostile environment. She got that deep and true and right. But I did not trust that she was accurately tracking how that environment had contaminated them.

Not until, that is, Gould introduced a third character.

Chloe is a coworker of Leo’s whom he befriends and brings home to meet Sam. He fully expects Sam to like Chloe and welcome her. As the three sit side-by-side on the sofa, Leo in the middle gleefully exclaims, “My work wife and my home wife!” Anna O’Donoghue brings to the role of Chloe such a pert simplicity and ebullience that we along with Leo fall in like with her immediately. But Sam does not. Chloe is thin, and Sam feels threatened by Leo’s friendship with her. Sam believes it to be a betrayal: fraternizing with the enemy hegemony. And Sam sets out to tear them apart.

As plotting this is brilliant and as played it gets riveting. Gould lets us see Sam’s female self-loathing lash out at an utter innocent, a women whom Sam can revile with all the scorn that has been dumped on her. It is chilling how daringly Gould now takes Sam to the dark side of outside oppression when it dwells within.

Gould doesn’t take the same insightful scalpel to Leo, however. And that may well be because the play’s origins were autobiographical. Sam in a sense is Gould’s alter ego. Dear friendships with two gay men inspired her to put the fat-girl/gay-boy trope on stage. That Gould eviscerates Sam but lets Leo off the hook may well be a gesture of friendly discretion. But theater, I think, insists on more ruthless truth-telling.

Codependency is a trope with mind-blowing dramatic potential, as Ford’s revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? reminds us. George and Martha cannot live without each other, nor can they with. Albee saw into their poisoned souls and knew exactly what made them sick. Heaping their self-hatred on stage in all honesty, Albee makes us laugh in gut bursts and tremble in sorrow and pity.

I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart shows every bit as much promise as Edward Albee’s early work, arguably more. That Morgan Gould can be mentioned in the penumbra of this playwriting giant is a tribute to her voice, craft, and conscience. Gould  has braved stigma both outside and inside the theater world to tell the tragicomic story of Sam and Leo’s codependency. Gould truthfully references the real world as she makes a world of respite real on stage, and that counts. That matters. Studio is to be applauded for taking a chance on this play and giving it a first-rate production. That  I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart is incomplete and still unfinished only makes it all the more a fascinating and important theatrical find.