Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in 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.


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.












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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Blood, Sweat & Fears: A Grand Guignol Sick Cabaret

As the local go-to theater company for carrying on the Grand Guignol tradition, Molotov Theatre mounts some of the most interesting combos of style and substance in town. There are a few other small theaters that also specialize in productions reflecting a particular historical theatrical esthetic (Faction of Fools’ inventive custodianship of commedia del’arte comes to mind). But it’s my impression that in depicting  dark recesses of human nature using storytelling conventions of the horror genre, Molotov always nails something unsettling or exposes something buried that is more than the sum of its gore.

Case in point: its current production, Blood, Sweat & Fears: A Grand Guignol Sick Cabaret.

Beforehand the actors, attired in Roaring 20s evening wear, mingle with the audience in the lobby (the costumes by Jesse Shipley are smashing). Several pass among us proffering platters with shots of port. The speakeasy feel continues inside as the Chanteuse (a vibrant Jen Bevan) sings a series of songs—including “I Won’t Dance,” “Makin Whoopee,””Anything Goes,”  and “I’m in the Mood for Love”—that run through the show. Mistress of ceremonies Bella Donna (a cheeky Mallory Shear) mischievously toys with the audience as she sets up each of three short plays that comprise the program.

Translated from French by Richard Hand and Michael Wilson, the three plays are actual scripts from the Grand Guignol tradition (the texts sound fresh, not the least archival). Director Alex Zavistovich, Molotov co-founder and artistic director, has shaped them into an evening that is creative, smart, and entertainingly eccentric. (See his  commentary “A Textbook Case of Horror: Molotov’s Blood, Sweat & Fears Goes Authentically Old School.”)  On top of the shock and horror inscribed in the period texts, Zavistovich has layered a musical nostalgia and an old-timey cinema sensibility that contribute to the show’s appeal  (credit also goes to Composer Gregory Thomas Martin, Lighting Designer Pete Vargo, Set Designer Mary Seng, and Piano Accompanist Jill Parsons).

Popular horror entertainments in the Grand Guignol genre are typically considered indifferent to ethics. Though I don’t doubt Blood, Sweat & Fears could be assumed to fit that amoral mold, I would argue that there is a theme running through the evening that is anything but oblivious to values. I began to track it when I noticed that in all three playlets, male characters are dealing with an affliction associated with sex. (This should  come as no surprise, given that in slasher films, today’s descendants of Grand Guignol, sexuality and horror are joined gruesomely at the hip.)

In the first play, The Lighthouse Keepers (directed by Assistant Director Elliott Kashner), we meet Brehan (Zach Brewster-Geisz) and his son Yvon (Brian Kraemer), who are tending an isolated lighthouse alone for a month-long stint. Yvon is madly in love with a young woman he intends to marry and longs to be with again,  but his mad passion becomes viscerally explicit in a metaphorical affliction that Kraemer enacts chillingly.

In the second play, Tics—Or Doing the Deed, the sexual affliction is handled purely for laughs. We meet  two hoity-toity couples—Dr. Martin (Alex Miletich IV) and Mme. Martin (Annette Mooney Wasno), and Monsieur de Merliot (Gray West) and Mme. de Merliot (Katie Culligan)—and we learn that both husbands are troubled by a hilarious post-coital tic (the outrageous way Miletich physicalizes his is particularly fun to watch). Turns out the servant Adrian (Brian Kraemer again), after shagging the maid Venus (Lizzy Colandene), develops a tic of his own to tickle us with.

In the third play, The Final Kiss, a romance has gone ruinously wrong. We meet a man whose face is wrapped in gauze—Henri (David Dieudonne)—because the woman he loved but left has thrown acid on his face in revenge. In constant agony, he is tended by a Nurse (Jennifer Restak) and Doctor (Zach Brewster-Geisz again). When he receives a visit from  his former inamorata Jeanne (Fabriolla Da Silva), the metaphor of facial disfigurement takes “love hurts” to Sadean dimensions. (Fight Choreographer Mallory Shear staged their shocking confrontation.)

With Blood, Sweat & Fears: A Grand Guignol Sick Cabaret, Molotov Theatre mixes classic horror with physical comedy and a lounge act and concocts a fizzy, funny cocktail that packs a sobering wallop.





“POWER!” Stokely Carmichael

I wish that recent events had not made this powerful theater experience so necessary.

I wish that Capital Fringe would have come along again and this production would have warranted theatergoers’ advance attention mainly for the accolades it garnered during last summer’s festival (Pick of the Fringe Special Director Award, DC Metro Theater Arts Best of Fringe) and on tour in L.A.

I wish I could have gone to the Trinidad Theatre to see this show and walked out overwhelmed solely on the basis of its formidable artistic merits—as one of the best-written, best-acted, and best-directed solo theater pieces I have ever seen, a polished work that could easily command any major stage in town.

I wish I could just say this is a great show put on by some terrific talents (Writer and Performer Meshaun Labrone, Director Jennifer Knight, Projection Designer Hope Villanueva, Sound Designer Elisheba Ittoop, and Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows).

I wish I could talk about how interesting it is that back in 1966 a young Black revolutionary named Stokely Carmichael advocated for Black Power because he foresaw that freedom and assimilation would be insufficient, and how interesting it is that he explicitly cited white supremacy as the crux of the problem, and how interesting it is that he viewed nonviolence as a useful tactic but not a binding principle, and how interesting it is that that he and his views have disappeared.

I wish there were still some privileged standpoint of aesthetic distance from which this play about Stokely Carmichael could be discussed and appreciated as a superb work of art, applauded and recommended as a don’t-miss peak experience in artful docudrama and virtuoso performance.

I wish “POWER!” Stokely Carmichael did not have to matter like it does right now.

Running Time: 55 minutes with no intermission.

“POWER!” Stokely Carmichael plays through July 27, 2016 at Logan Fringe Arts Space: Trinidad Theatre – 1358 Florida Ave NE Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2016 Capital Fringe Page

Read Alison French’s 5-star review of POWER! Stokely Carmichael from Capital Fringe 2015.

One Man Romeo

The young actor and rapper Darius McCall fell so much in love with the role of Romeo that he longed to bring the character to life, by himself, alone on stage with but Shakespeare’s words and his own heart and soul to guide him. On the evidence of his portrayal in One Man Romeo, it would be more accurate to say he fell in love with Romeo’s loving, for  he brings the character’s ardor for Juliette to life so beautifully and tenderly one could forget she’s not there.

Well, she is there, in a way. The spare set at Caos on F is a carpeted platform on which stands a catafalque draped in white linen. Lying upon it as if lifeless is the figure of a young woman, her face covered by a white veil. At the beginning, while the audience files in, McCall lies face down on the stage floor like a corpse himself. Once McCall comes to in character, dressed handsomely in a fine Elizabethan-ish doublet, he takes us into Romeo’s dreamt recollection, reenacting as if in the present all that led up to his death alongside his love.

The text is pieced together solely from speeches Shakespeare wrote for Romeo. It features the monologues but also includes a lot of dialogue, which McCall handles ably, reacting in each split second in each exchange to what implied other voices say. The scenes are separated by blackouts during which evocative period-like music plays (Ben Fisler is credited as composer).

The text excerpts are not exactly sequential, and since they were not written to have free-standing exposition, one has to know the story to track what’s going on. As such, the show does not quite comprise a complete theater experience. But even if one is not familiar with Romeo’s character arc in the play, One Man Romeo as directed by Estelle Miller offers a hugely satisfying portrait of an actor personally engaging with a part.

McCall’s performance is exquisitely sensitive. With remarkable physical presence and riveting facial luminescence, he seems to act from deep within each moment to moment emotion, such that at times Romeo the character becomes newborn before our eyes.

I was especially touched, for instance, by the scene at the masked ball when Romeo first beholds Juliette. McCall’s sweet tearful kisses are not to the air; they are to someone beloved who in his heart and ours is as real as can be.

Videos on YouTube show McCall as an accomplished American Sign Language rapper whose stage name is Prinz-D The First Deaf Rapper. His mission as a performer, says his bio,

is to show the world that no one can hold him down regardless of what they say about his disability or path in life. His commitment to excellence and strong drive for the passion of arts will blaze a trail for others who struggle like him to realize their dreams in achieving what they believe in.

Something about that drive to realize one’s dreams comes through vividly and viscerally in McCall’s Fringe show. The passion of the character and the passion of the player become one in One Man Romeo.

Running Time: About an hour with no intermission.

All remaining performances will have an ASL interpreter.

One Man Romeo plays through July 23, 2016 at Caos on F – 923 F Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2016 Capital Fringe Page


The Golden Smile

It is probably not a good idea, near the end of a maniacally inscrutable and incessantly unfunny musical, to have one character sing, apropos the show, “It’s over! It’s done!” and then have another character respond, “Oh, thank god.”

In fairness, The Golden Smile, described by its creators as “An Absurd Musical,” wears its pointlessness  on its sleeve. And admittedly the one-liner quoted above offered the stoic and mostly quiet audience a semi-witty relatable moment.

The Golden Smile is set in the 1950s in the rec room of a mental institution. The premise is promising: Five mental patients, caught making inappropriate use of their rec room, face getting kicked out of it, and so they determine to write and perform a play in hopes that their stern supervisor, seeing they can behave, will permit them to stay. The story device of inmates taking over the asylum and putting on a play worked brilliantly in Marat/Sade, Peter Weiss’s epic masterpiece with music set during the French Revolution. So you might think The Golden Smile, a millennials’ retread of the gambit set in the Eisenhower years,  would at minimum be mildly interesting. But you would be wrong.

The creators’ stated intent is “to raise awareness for mental health issues,” to produce “a historical analytic psychology thriller aimed at depicting mental health in the 1950s.” But the work as staged falls woefully short.

Five spirited actors play the five inmates—Andy McCain (identified in the program as Writer), Amanda Mason (Director), Flynn Harne (Angry Actor), Jody Doo (Sarcastic Actor), and Robert DiDomenico (Loathing Actor). Director Joey Stamp has let them loose to act like hyperactive five-year-olds scrapping on a playground, taunting each other, throwing tantrums, generally making infantile mayhem. Minutes into the show, it becomes clear we’re in for a tedious acting exercise in age regression having little to do with illuminating mental health in the 50s.

Two other actors have roles as observers—Jody Hinkley (Critic 1) and Yasmin Schancer (Critic 2)—who now and then make comments that puncture the inmates’ pretentions. Exactly what the play-within-the-play is about I found rather obscure. I did get that the inmates are making up a meandering mythology and that it has to do with the quirky discovery that gold can be extracted from within teeth, hence the titular golden smile. (And yes, that twist comes across as a bizarre allusion to the Nazis’ extraction of teeth for  gold from inmates on their way to the ovens—a detail made all the more peculiar by the fact that Yaakov Bressler, whose first play this is, is Orthodox.)

The mental ward’s supervisor, identified in the program as Messenger, is played by JeVon Todd Blackwell. At intervals that quickly become predictable, Messenger enters, the lights shift, he reprimands and/or punishes the misbehaving inmates, temporarily restoring order, then exits to return only to repeat. He’s smarmy and sanctimonious and he’s got  a sadistic streak; now and then he physically assaults a patient. His function seems mainly to interrupt the pandemonium each time it wears thin, which it does relentlessly.

Though I cannot say for certain, there seemed to be fleeting hints of a script that might have been better served by a lighter touch in a different production. There was a scene with a very clever run of puns about death, for instance, that could easily have been quite amusing had it not itself been bludgeoned to death by ham-handed directorial choices.

Zach Stamp (Joey’s brother) wrote the unremarkable, unmemorable music and lyrics, though the numbers were sung by some very good voices in the cast with prerecorded backup well done by Michael Stamp (Pianist, Arranger), Chris Lano (Saxophone), and Gaby Baez (Bass) and audio engineering by Rory Dennis. An intriguingly raggedy wardrobe for the ragtag bunch was pulled together by Costume Designer Rivkah Spolin, who also dressed the Messenger in spiffy sharp whites. Props Designer Carrie Pieper found a vintage radio and various paraphernalia for the players to play with. And Lighting Designer Conor Moore’s well-conceived light cues lent a sense of drama and momentum that the show otherwise lacked.

In the time-honored tradition of absurdism in theater, a play did not simply trot out empty non sequiturs for no reason. The authorial intent was to confront audiences with the meaninglessness of existence—to say something true, even if that something was: life sucks. I could discern no such truth-telling purpose in what I saw on stage last night in the Trinidad Theatre. Despite the frenzied efforts of an inventive and energetic cast, this show barely offers  Fringe-worthy fun.

I knew to expect The Golden Smile’s absurdism and vulgarity. I was looking forward to it, actually, prepared to go with it if it went somewhere. But it went nowhere.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission

The Golden Smile plays through July 17, 2016 at  Logan Fringe Arts Space, Trinidad Theatre  – 1358 Florida Ave NE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2016 Capital Fringe Page

I Found That the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow

Anna Snapp gives a robust, witty, and protean performance in this genuinely candid and insightful solo theater piece. Self-authored, and based on her own life, I Found That the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow is a poignant and revealing recital of all the debilitating ailments, diagnoses, and painful incidents that her 25-year-old body and mind have known since she was about 19. There are so many, in fact—including  autoimmune diseases, infections, suicidal depression, bipolar disorder, trauma-induced eating disorder—that she helpfully lists them for us on a Post-It flip chart.

“Why was my body failing me?” she asks, and after disclosing one  hurt and ailment after another, she relates an incident in her past that—the piece strongly suggests—precipitated or aggravated her subsequent breakdown of  body and mind. The incident is disturbing, and disturbingly told, and Snapp’s bravery in confronting it is remarkable.

Snapp is a natural mimic who can quickly switch voices and physicalize an array of states of mind and comic types; plus she punctuates the play with some wonderfully punchy set pieces. Early on she talks to the floor, creating a character for it that she depicts with a cartoon voice, then riffs on how the floor is so cold and hard and she hates it even as she collapses on it comically. At another point, after a clever scene with a gastroenterologist (whose name is Dr. Rectil), Snapp delivers a showstoppingly hilarious poem about rectal foam. And near the end Snapp picks up a tennis racket and mimes with it in slow-motion while narrating a hysterically funny satire on antidepressant TV commercials.

David Minton directs a simply staged but effective production. The few pieces of furniture comprising the set include a sheet-draped chair that doubles as a hospital bed. Light shifts create cinematic cross-cutting, and apt and well-timed sound cues are smoothly integrated into the show. Snapp’s narrative switches back and forth in time, which she marks by naming the year a scene or incident occurred. For me that fractured chronology got a little hard to track, but perhaps in a future iteration that confusion will be ironed out.

Snapp’s bio note describes her estimable intention in creating the piece, and speaks of the audience she hopes will find their way to it:

While Anna Snapp has been trained in everything from Shakespeare to the Uta Hagen technique, she wanted to do something unique, create change, engage discussion, and shut down the stigma surrounding mental and physical health problems. So, she wrote about her own struggles with crippling ailments as a way to cope. Out of the writing and rehearsal experience grew a deep acceptance and optimistic mindset for Snapp. Her show is meant to create a voice for people who feel like they can’t speak up about their problems

As Snapp’s agony-upon-agony story unfolds, it helps to be mindful that the title of the piece, I Found That the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow, promises a hopeful ending. Against incredible odds, it’s a promise that Anna Snapp’s performance keeps beautifully.

Running Time: About 55 minutes with no intermission.

I Found That the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow plays through July 20, 2016 at The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, Room A-9 – 901 G Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2016 Capital Fringe Page


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