Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Reykjavík

The Reykjavík conjured up in Steve Yockey’s new play Reykjavík is not the family-friendly destination the Iceland tourist bureau might try to sell you. But if you’re 18 or older—and if you wish to be transported to a stunningly original world of mystery, sensuality, passion, and menace—book your passage now. Because Reykjavík is a magical trip.

The play’s point of view is that of a traveler in a very strange land. A young gay man named James, played with enchanting naivete by Josh Adams, has wanted to see the Northern Lights ever since as a child he saw them in his sister’s picture book. Something very bad happened to her, he misses her. In remembrance of her, he has come to Reykjavík—but the Aurora Borealis can’t be seen; it’s the wrong time of year; it’s all wintry and dark. Despondent, James goes to a gay disco where he is hit on by two men—Martin (Dylan Arredondo) and Grigor (Carlos Saldaña)—who get him drunk, drug him, and take him back to their room.

Carlos Saldaña, Dina Soltan, Josh Adams, and Dylan Arredondo in ‘Reykjavík.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

That first scene is played with a mix of off-kilter wit, ominous vibes, and risky sex that sets the tone for the rest of the show. The music blares so loud the dialog is inaudible, so it is projected on the back wall as subtitles (which are very funny). A woman who may or may not be named Debbie (Dina Soltan) is passed out beside James in the booth. She comes to as Martin slips under the table and gives James a blow job. There ensues the kind of spaced-out sensuality that never quite makes sense but doesn’t really need to because in the moment it just feels real.

Abruptly the upstage wall floods with an abstract animation of kaleidoscopic colors and images of ravens. Variations on this gorgeous light show (by Video Designer Kylos Brannon) will appear in between the play’s episodic scenes throughout, and the cryptic theme of birds will also recur.

What follows is a series of seemingly unrelated playlets featuring mostly homoerotic situations between characters who may or may not be real and who inhabit a conjectural space where the Huldufólk dwell—the Hidden People of Icelandic lore. It’s an improbable place where blood can fall from the sky. And it’s a world where omniscient ravens outside a hotel window can watch two men fucking then send the men messages that will unravel the lies in their love.

That scene between bird-watched lovers as played by Arredondo and Robert Bowen Smith is mindblowing. They think they know each other until they find out they don’t. We know not yet where Yockey is going with this mesmerizing play, but we might well surmise it is taking us to some very dark places.

Josh Adams and Robert Bowen Smith in ‘Reykjavík.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There come subsequent scenes between men that are also sexually fraught and incrementally even more mindblowing. One is played in an eerie brothel by Arredondo as a john and Adams as his maybe-imagined trick. Another set on a street is played by Saldaña and Smith as a vacationing couple who are having an ugly/messy breakup. Yet another is played in a hotel bed in pot smoke and undies by Smith and Adams as boyfriends Peter and Ebon—the latter of whom reveals he is a brother bird to the ravens.

Several extraordinary monologues punctuate the play, among them the story Peter tells Ebon about when, as a gay boy afraid to come out, he secretly pilfered magazines and books with pictures of naked men. Smith’s delivery of the speech is exquisite.

Written less impactfully, though very well performed, is a scene between two lesbians, played by Soltan and Jenna Rossman, who meet in a Reykjavík hotel as strangers but who have actually had past lives elsewhere. Following upon the previous scenes between men, this one felt tacked on for inclusivity sake and lacked equivalent punch. Yockey’s female characters here generally get short shrift; for the most part they’re walkons—a curious omission given that Iceland ranks tops in the world for gender equality. The exception is the character Rossman appears as at the very end, in a scene that should come as a surprise. The monologue she performs then is profoundly moving.

Jenna Rossman and Josh Adams in ‘Reykjavík.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Throughout Reykjavík, there is a dark undercurrent about sex and danger, but there is an equally strong current of longing for love and trust. Director Rick Hammerly has so beautifully modulated the two that one feels swept away—as if by magic—just as Yockey’s script would have it. The design arts play a huge part in this sensation. At the four corners of the solid gray stage, Set Designer Eric Grims stations four stele-like pillars from which Hidden People keep watch. Costume Designer Sydney Moore helps us track the multiple roles the six actors play and clothes the show in considerable wonderment and foreboding. Lighting Designer Katie McCreary and Sound Designer Thomas Sowers achieve marvelously transformative effects, sometimes literally at the snap of a finger. And Brannon’s aforementioned spectacular inter-scene video projections warrant their own exhibition in an art gallery.

Rorschach Theatre’s production of Reykjavík transcends reality in order to reveal it. Steve Yockey’s play is a phantasmagorical parable about the darkness that can underlie sexual and romantic relationships. Yet ultimately, just like James’s quest, it takes us on a splendiferous journey to see the light.

Running Time: About 85 minutes, with no intermission.

Reykjavík plays through March 3, 2019, at Rorschach Theatre performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre– 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD (next to the AFI Silver Theatre). Tickets are available online.

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BLKS

BLKS is gonna be a blockbuster. Let’s get that out of the way. BLKS is a rapid-fire, laugh-out-loud comedy about a quartet of twenty-something black women in New York City who are roommates, gal pals, and lovers. The script is chiseled by Aziza Barnes in edgy/sexy wit and warmth that will bust your gut and break your heart. The performances and production values are over-the-top outstanding. The buzzy opening night audience went insane. But here’s the really amazing part: The hilarity is revolutionary.

Shannon Dorsey (Imani), Tatiana Williams (June), and Cyndii Johnson (Octavia) in ‘BLKS.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

We’ve seen plenty of clever rom-coms and sit-coms about mostly white twentysomethings, mostly straight, trying to get their shit together so they can find love and get a life. Think Friends, Girls, The Big Bang Theory, Broad City—shows that function exactly like white noise because they can block out obtrusive sounds of reality (if you’re in the demographic) or put you to sleep (if you’re not).

Alina Collins Maldonado (Ry) and Cyndii Johnson (Octavia) in ‘BLKS.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

BLKS is not just a rejoinder; BLKS is in a league of its own. BLKS is about being black and female and written by someone who writes funny and actually knows what they’re talking about (how often does that happen on stage?). Plus it’s as raw, blunt, and brazen as it fuckin wants to be. So be advised: If you’d rather not see a show that opens with a scene of cunnilingus—two women, Octavia and Ry, moaning and growling in orgasmic ecstacy—you might want to see what else is on.

Or if you were rattled by the reiterated word pussy in Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage (Woolly’s previous funny foray into all-female terrain), be aware that this time it’s clit. The anatomic specificity is significant because it’s the site—in the very next scene—where Octavia is shocked to discover she has a mole.

That’s the play’s inciting action. A blemish on a clitoris. And from then on all hullaballoo breaks loose.

The poet Aziza Barnes (whose pronoun is Z) wrote BLKS in a playwrighting class when Z was at NYU. “I didn’t want it to be poetry,” Z says,

because I wanted this play to be centered on the way in which Black women or genderqueer Black women who are close with each other, speak to one another.

I could argue that for the six indelibly drawn characters in BLKS, the idiom of the play is poetry—the poetry of the crib, the street, the club, the bed, the heart.

BLKS takes place over the course of twenty-four hours and much of it happens in the drab apartment shared by Octavia, June, and Imani, who each are trying to make it and make something of themselves. Octavia (Cyndii Johnson) is collaborating with her lover, Ry (Alina Collins Maldonado), on an artsy film; Imani (Shannon Dorsey) aspires to be a stand-up comic à la Eddie Murphy; June (Tatiana Williams) is a very employable math whiz. Booze and joints are their drugs of choice. They get along tumultuously.

When Octavia freaks out about her mole, Imani offers to make a first-aid run to CVS. Octavia then freaks out even more because Ry, the woman who was just giving her head, won’t look at it, so Octavia kicks her out. Imani returns with a bagful of Band-Aids, and hysterical hysteria ensues. Meanwhile, June comes home having learned that her boyfriend has been cheating on her: She went to his place to make him pancakes and found empty Popeyes boxes on the kitchen table along with a used condom. So June is freaking out too.

Shannon Dorsey (Imani), Cyndii Johnson (Octavia), and Tatiana Williams (June) in ‘BLKS.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The story takes a sobering turn as the scene shifts to a city street where the roommates encounter a thuggish young black man (Justin Weaks) roughing up a drunk young white woman (Madelyn Joey Rose). They call 911 for help but are told by a racist operator all cop cars have been dispatched.

Justin Weaks (Justin) and Tatiana Williams (June)in ‘BLKS.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Weaks will return later, utterly transformed, playing an earnestly nice young man named Justin, who is smitten with June but in comic-mixup circumstances is invited to lickety-split by Octavia. Rose also reappears in a different guise, as a wannabe-woke white girl called The Bitch on the Couch, in a maybe/maybe-not hookup with Imani.

The characters’ interconnections get more startling, the mood pendulums between hilarious and heavy; the cast’s acting becomes ever more exhilarating to behold. The entire ensemble is of Helen Hayes-award caliber, but an extra shoutout goes to Shannon Dorsey and Justin Weaks, whose gifts for physical comedy just keep on giving. To watch Dorsey bounce giddily about, and Weaks clamber gangly through a window, is to savor two of DC’s preeminent talents in peak comedic form.

Madeline Joey Rose (The Bitch on the Couch) and Shannon Dorsey (Imani) in ‘BLKS.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Director Nataki Garrett directed a previous production of BLKS in Chicago, and her intimate grasp of the play’s quirky characters, catchy rhythms, and underlying poignance is evident in every riveting beat. Among the play’s touching moments is the scene when June explains why every time her boyfriend betrays her, she puts on the gown from the cotillion he once took her to. Another is when Imani shares why she and her father watched Murphy’s Raw on DVD while her dad was dying. Never far from the surges of laughter are young lives urgent to mean and connect.

Overhead are enormous girders on which are projected the passing undercarriage of elevated subway trains accompanied by their rolling-thunder rumble. Between scenes colorful projections saturate the set with stunning views of Manhattan in motion. The cinematic scenic effects and whirlwind scene changes are among the best I’ve ever seen. Props for that to Scenic Designer Efren Delgadillo Jr, Lighting Designer Jeanette Oi-suk Yew, Sound Designer T. Carlis Roberts, and Projections Designer Rasean Davonte Johnson.

Costume Designer Lex Liang has dressed the characters as though in backstories, and Wig and Hair Designer Jason Hayes has styled them as if accessorizing their personalities. Intimacy and Fight Choreographer Lorraine Ressegger-Slone had her work cut out for her—what with all the brawling, lip-locking, and getting it on—and she worked it.

In Barnes’s words, BLKS is “a play by and for Black people”—which by now ought to be less revolutionary, and more customary, than it still is. Too often we see works on stage that are about black people but really for white people—productions often very artful yet basically cultural artifacts in the comfort zone that commercial American theater affords everyone except people of color. BLKS is different. “If you are not identifiable or identified as a Black person, you cannot claim it as yours, and you can’t commodify it as yours,” Z explains. “But you can surely enjoy it. And you can surely experience it.”

Z is absolutely right about that. And tickets are gonna go fast.

Running Time: About two hours, with no intermission.

BLKS plays through March 3, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office or order online.

SHAME 2.0 (With Comments From the Populace)

“You have to be a good Arab,” says Morad Hassan of the stigma he faces trying to have a career as an Arab actor in Israel—the very country where, he says, “we are the Jews of the Jews.”

“FREE PALESTINE,” says the T-shirt worn by Israeli playwright Einat Weizman—the very shirt, imprinted with the PLO flag, that prompted a torrent of online abuse when a photo of her in it appeared on a popular internet site

Colleen Delany as Einat Weizman in ‘SHAME 2.0.’ Photo by Christopher Banks.

In SHAME 2.0 just opened at Mosaic, these two scrappy artist-activists from the front lines of a culture war tell their extraordinary and instructive stories. In form, the show is a vivid theatrical scrapbook—a patchwork of monologues, TV news clips, projections, citations from cyberhate, vitriolic voicemails. In intent, SHAME 2.0 is Einat Weizman’s and Morad Hassan’s DIY docudrama of how they tried to make art to make change and what it cost them. In effect, SHAME 2.0 goes to the heart of what’s dangerous about dissident art.

The backstage history of SHAME 2.0 is a drama in itself. Weizman adapted it from an earlier work that she and Hassan co-authored titled SHAME. Mosaic Founding Artistic Director Ari Roth—who met them in Israel when both were acting in a play that Mosaic would later stage as The Returnimported the project and for a time was announced as a co-adapter. But, as Roth explains in his program note, that changed:

A funny thing happened on the way to the workshopping of Shame 2.0—I began losing control of a story that wasn’t mine. And by the middle of the second week of rehearsals, a script I believed was approaching its definitive state, turned out not to be: not in the eyes of the collaborators who mattered most.

Now onstage as part of Mosaic’s Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival—in what’s deftly called a world premiere workshop production, directed gingerly by John Vreeke—SHAME 2.0 had conflicts during rehearsals so serious there was talk of calling it off. Luckily for DC theatergoers and theater makers who prefer art not stripped of principles, the show did go on.

Morad Hassan as himself in ‘SHAME 2.0.’ Photo by Christopher Banks.

Hassan, an appealingly dexterous actor, plays himself with great charm. For the first half hour or so, he regales us with stories of indignity from his life as a working actor in Israel’s politically fraught theater scene. As the only Arab student in Hebrew University, for instance, he finds out no Palestinian writers are taught. He is type-cast in Arab roles (thus “You have to be a good Arab”), then gets a gig in Waiting for Godot playing a Palestinian speaking Hebrew. The pinnacle of his thespian identity disjunction (call it TID) is his turn as Shakespeare’s Shylock.  But in an amazing turnabout, Hassan delivers Shylock’s famous speech…

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?

…and in his wrenching performance, we can hear the voice of an Arab appealing for equal treatment from Jews. It is one of the most moving moments of the evening.

Colleen Delany as Einat Weizman in ‘SHAME 2.0.’ Photo by Christopher Banks.

Up next for another half hour or so is the very principled Weizman. Though portrayed here by Colleen Delany with fetching conviction, Weizman was in real-life widely reviled for her beliefs. Her story interweaves two trenchant threads. One is what happened to her when her photograph in that T-shirt prompted a horrendous online attack of hate speech, some of which tweets and Facebook posts are incorporated graphically into the show (hence “comments from the populace”). Delany as Weizman hands out a dozen cards to audience members and at points asks them to be read aloud. “Thank you for…playing along,” Delany/Weizman says wryly. Even for someone familiar with the cesspool of misogynist invective in cyberspace, hearing ordinary folks give voice in public to such real-life insults can be unsettling. “Thank you,” she says graciously after each.

Weizman’s other narrative is about state suppression of dissident Palestinian artists in Israel. For instance, funding for Israel’s only Arab-speaking theater, Al-Midan Theater in Haifa, was summarily frozen after it staged a play alleged to incite terrorism (it didn’t; it was simply a docudrama about a prisoner convicted on dubious grounds of killing an Israeli soldier). To amplify and personalize this censorship, a third character has been added for the American run: Israel’s current culture minister, Miri Regev, the stylish right-winger who decreed the funding cutoffs and required that Arab artists sign a pro-Israel loyalty oath. Regev is the heavy of the story, and it’s a challenging role to play at all likably, but Lynette Rathnam in it succeeds with remarkable aplomb.

Lynette Rathnam as Culture Minister Miri Regev in ‘SHAME 2.0.’ Photo by Christopher Banks.

Introducing the play on opening night, Associate Artistic Director Victoria Murray Baatin explained that this workshop would be a “stripped down” version. Nothwithstanding that disclaimer, the production was very well outfitted by a creative team that included Set Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson, Lighting Designer Brittany Shemuga, Costume Designer Brandee Mathies, Projections Designer Dylan Uremovich (whose rear-wall animations much enhanced the storytelling), Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson (whose audio clips from hate tweets also propelled the story), and Sound Engineer Robert Garner (whose mic’ing of the cast gave appreciated clarity to each speech).

In the end, what stands out in SHAME 2.0 is Einat Weizman’s and Morad Hassan’s insistence on their right to their own voice in art and their persistence in the face of prejudice and vilification. Even behind the scenes, as the script intimates, they did not quit advocating for what they needed to say and how they needed to say it. As the slogan “Nothing about us without us!” gains traction in American theater, Mosaic is again at the cutting, and very complex, edge.  Anyone who cares about art that matters must not miss this inspiring instance of what makes theater worth it—and what makes making such theater hard.

Running Time: About 75 minutes, with no intermission.

SHAME 2.0 (With Comments From the Populace) plays through February 17, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext 2 or purchase them online.

 

The Brothers Size

“You fucked up! You fucked up! You fucked up!” rails the older brother, berating the younger. “You fucked up! You fucked up! You fucked up!” he goes on, as if he cannot rage enough, as if he can’t get it out of his system. “You fucked up! You fucked up! You fucked up!…”

This jolting speech comes midway in The Brothers Size like a ritual of chastisement, like an incantation of blame, transliterating into raw poetry the troubled brother bond that Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney lays bare.

[Read Chuck Leonard’s review of The Brothers Size.]

Gary-Kayi Fletcher (Ogun Size) and Clayton Pelham, Jr. (Oshoosi Size) in ‘The Brothers Size.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Ogun Size the older brother (Gary-Kayi Fletcher) is the responsible one. He is an auto mechanic, stolid; he owns and operates a repair shop (imaginatively represented by Set Designer Giorgos Tsappas as an upstage mound of inner tubes). Oshooshi Size the younger brother (Clayton Pelyam Jr.) is the ne’er do well, impressionable, a shirker, just released from prison on parole and crashing with Ogun. The explosive tension between them is not unmixed with filial love. Ogun sincerely wants to help Oshooshi get back on his feet, make something of himself. Ogun readily offers Oshooshi a job managing his shop. But Oshooshi has no inclination to be improved and mocks his older brother’s industrious work ethic:

Oshooshi Size: Ogun you better stop man.
Stop doing it to yourself.
You keep working like that
Everyday all day at that damn shop
You gone work yourself to death
You better don’t…
Death kill the lazy last.

A third character appears, Elegba (Thony Mena), Oshoosi’s buddy from prison. Ogun accurately sizes up Elegba as a bad influence on his brother. Oshoosi doesn’t see Elegba that way at all; Oshoosi, in fact, values his friendship with Elegba over his brotherhood with Ogun. In this tempestuous triangulation, McCraney plays out and gives poetic voice to a profound drama about the meaning to men of other men—and, not incidentally, what happens to men in the pen.

McCraney’s script has the actors speak some of the stage directions aloud along with their other lines. He does this, he has said, “to invite the audience into the story—to remind the audience that they are being spoken to and are a part of the experience. And to allow the actor a chance to really focus on telling the story rather than pretending they are someone else.” This has an intriguing and compelling effect: Even as we are pulled into the characters’ lives, we are left a respectful distance with which to process what’s going on.

Clayton Pelham, Jr. (Oshoosi) and Thony Mena (Elegba) in ‘The Brothers Size.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

McCraney, who wrote The Brothers Size in the mid-aughts when he was at Yale Drama School, himself has a younger brother who served a two-year jail sentence. Coincidentally, the motif of accomplished older brother and incarcerated younger brother was the theme of novelist John Edgar Wideman’s 1984 memoir Brothers and Keepers, about his fugitive younger brother, who was sentenced to life.  Wideman frames the story as an argument for prison reform:

A society that allows its prison system to slip below the radar of public scrutiny, below humane standards of decency, provides an essential tool for tyrants or tyrannical ideologies to criminally seize control of a state.

The Brothers Size is not such an argument. It is an intimate epic. It is a ravishing mashup of song, poetry, and dance, with elements of Yoruba myth, eloquently staged by Director José Carrasquillo in a superb production at 1st Stage as if in a sacred space (here a circular blood-tainted pool surrounded by a solid round stage ringed by a soft substrate that yields to footfalls). Moreover, The Brothers Size is a powerful parable about whether one brother can ever free another—and how a seeming friend can ensnare another—told by three enthralling actors who sing and chant and grunt and dance and grapple and beat their chests percussively, commanding the space like celebrants and demigods. But the fact of Oshoosi’s and Elegba’s imprisonment haunts the narrative with a persistence they cannot escape.

The Brothers Size will leave you deeply, perhaps inexplicably, moved.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

The Brothers Size runs until February 24th, 2019, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. Tickets are available online.

Twelve Angry Men

Cross-racial casting can be totally wrongheaded—as when white actors impersonate characters of color. It can also be speciously universalizing—as when actors of color play all the parts in a work written as all-white. Rarely does cross-racial casting in itself lift a play to a new dimension of storytelling insight. But that’s exactly what Director Sheldon Epps has achieved with his staging of Reginald Rose’s 1954 Twelve Angry Men at Ford’s. Epps’s cross-racial casting conception offers a brilliantly original illumination for our times of an already riveting classic.

[Read David Siegel’s review of Twelve Angry Men.]

In Rose’s script, twelve white male jurors deliberate their verdict in the case of a 16-year-old boy accused of knifing his father to death. The boy’s ethnicity is unspecified—he is referred to as one of “them,” one of “those people”—not white like the jurors. Beginning from a straw vote of 11-to-1 in favor of guilty, the jurors argue and debate the evidence, steadily revealing their various degrees of bias up to and including this all-out racist rant:

You know what they’re like!… These people are born to lie…. They don’t know what the truth is. Well, take a look at them. They are different. They think different. They act different. Well, for instance they don’t need any big excuse to kill someone…. There is not one of them, not one who’s any good…. We’re facing a danger here…. These people are multiplying. This kid on trial, his type, they’re multiplying five times as fast as we are…. And they are—wild animals. They’re against us, they hate us, they want to destroy us….

Lawrence Redmond (Juror Seven) and Bueka Uwemedimo (Juror Eleven) with (background) Eric Hissom (Juror One), Bru Ajueyitsi (Juror Five), Sean-Maurice Lynch (Juror Two) and Michael Russotto (Juror Three) in ‘Twelve Angry Men.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Epps’s casting inspiration—which came to him in 2013 when he was artistic director of Pasadena Playhouse—was to have six of the jurors played by black actors and six played by white. He explains why in a recent interview:

I had a slot open up and become available shortly after Trayvon Martin was shot, which resulted in then president Barack Obama’s first speech addressing race and how alive racial issues were at the time. I felt strongly that I wanted to put something on the stage that addressed these sensitive and very explosive issues in a meaningful way. That led me to this casting concept of the play, which, without substantial changes to the dialogue, gives a new subtextual weight to the racial issues, which have always been inherent in the play. There were many discoveries in rehearsal that made the play even more immediate and visceral than we even anticipated.

At the invitation of Ford’s Theatre, Epps has brought his cross-racial conception to DC, and to watch it is to be enthralled by the subtextual depth and detail now apparent in the play.

In Rose’s script, the eleven jurors one by one change their vote to not guilty. In the Epps iteration, the first six to acquit are all black, beginning with Juror Eight (Erik King) followed by Juror Two (Sean-Maurice Lynch), Juror Five (Bru Ajueyitsi), Juror Six (Jason B. McIntosh), Juror Nine (Craig Wallace), and Juror Eleven (Bueka Uwemedimo).

The six who come around later are all white: Juror One (Eric Hissom), Juror Three (Michael Russotto), Juror Four (Christopher Bloch), Juror Seven (Lawrence Redmond), Juror Ten (Elan Zafir), and Juror Twelve (Brandon McCoy).

The dramatic moment when the jurors’ 6–6 split occurs along race lines has electrifying implications. Though not in the script, it speaks volumes. All the jurors of color, relating personally to the fate of the boy, have found reasonable doubt; all the white jurors are unbudging, still otherizing him. Immediately the resonance of the play amps up.

But even before that 6-6 split, and long before that MAGA-worthy tirade, there are nuances and subtleties in the cast’s performances that reveal realities about race relations with an eloquence beyond words. It is as if the black actors have written their own inner scripts with which to play their characters’ silent reactions to what the white characters are acting out loud.

Over and over, we see white characters assume that their reality is the only one. When a white character says something that racially stigmatizes the defendant, it reads as a microaggression to the black characters, who resist by deflecting or looking away as if to say “I’m not buying it” or by casting a “Do you believe this shit?” glance to another black character. And when a white character gets up in the face of a black character, invading his space, there’s a fleeting recoil at the presumption.

Often the blocking alone diagrams lines of social affinity and animus by race. White characters gather with other white characters, even as black characters drift to the periphery to avoid confrontation, looking to one another as if for connection. Tellingly at a point when a white character makes a joke, only other white characters find it funny. And who gives comfort to whom always has racial content.

Erik King (Juror Eight, standing) and the cast of ‘Twelve Angry Men.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

By the time the unanimous verdict is reached, a shift has occurred in the racial dynamics among the characters. It’s very subtle, almost as imperceptible as the slowly darkening light when rain falls and evening comes. One by one the white characters break ranks with one another—unbonding from other men’s whiteness—and as they do we see a transformation in the black characters’ relationship to what was previously only a fraught social situation. By the end, a tentative cohesion emerges in the room. It’s partly because the twelve jurors have achieved a unanimity of verdict, of course. But in this production, it’s also because they have reached a transient equilibrium that though by no means raceless is for now not angrily raced.

In Twelve Angry Men, Sheldon Epps has staged one of the most salient racial recastings of a play I have ever seen. And in the interstices between the lines Rose wrote, an extraordinary cast of actors has uncovered and embodied a wealth of meanings unbeknownst to Rose.

Running Time: About two hours, with one intermission.

Twelve Angry Men plays through February 17, 2019, at Ford’s Theatre – 511 10th Street, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (888) 616-0270, or purchase them online.

C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters

When the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” comes on the pre-show soundtrack, it’s a tipoff that C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is going to be a diabolically delightful evening of theater and infernally amusing. The script is deftly adapted for the stage by Max McLean (who also directs) and Jeffrey Fiske from Lewis’ popular epistolary novel wherein the moral universe is turned upside down: God is “The Enemy” and the Devil-in-chief is “Our Father.”

The Screwtape Letters is obliquely a story about the vicissitudes of faith and the joke is that it’s set in Hell, where Screwtape is a mid-level devil who trains youthful lucifers. His nephew Wormwood is currently on Earth, assigned to a human known as the Patient. During the course of the play, Screwtape writes a series of exhortations to Wormwood about how to do the Devil’s work properly so that the Patient will be duly damned. “Remember you are there to fuddle him,” says Screwtape. “Do not allow any temporary excitement to distract you from the real business of undermining faith and preventing the formation of virtues.”

The cast of ‘C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniels.

As played in dapper finery by Brent Harris, Screwtape is a bewitching mix of cheeky smirks, vain guile, and comedic bile. (Whenever he pronounces his own name, he conspicuously pops the p. But he can’t say the word love without gagging.) He is assisted by a scaley-crawly-squawky underling named Toadpipe, a secretary and nonverbal scene partner,  played by Anna Reichert, alternating with Tamala Bakkensen. (When Screwtape mentions the word prayer, Toadpipe vomits.)

Last seen in DC in 2012, The Screwtape Letters is one of several touring productions by the Fellowship for Performing Arts that take artful theatrical flight from articles of Christian faith. Other FPA shows I’ve seen and greatly admired include Martin Luther on Trial and C.S. Lewis on Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert.  They are all distinguished by top-level acting, directing, and design and a unique knack for eliciting spiritual self-reflection sheerly though ingeniously engaging entertainment, with nary a preachment in sight.

The set is a raked stage of hot-red stone pointing to a twisted stairway that leads earthward. Now and then Toadpipe clambers up it to a mailbox, depositing and collecting the uncle-nephew correspondence to great whooshes of hell roar and epic light effects. Screwtape’s office is spartan: There is a comfortable red leather chair and footstool, a writing table, not much else. But the back wall is a catacomb, an eerie frieze of human skulls and bones that are all that’s left after devils feast on savory banquets of unsaved souls.

The cast of ‘C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.’ Photo by Jeremy Daniels.

Part of the enormous pleasure of watching The Screwtape Letters is in following along with and figuring out its inverted values scheme. Here virtue is evil and virtue’s absence is devoutly to be desired. When the Patient becomes a Christian, that’s a disaster. When the Patient lapses, that’s a reprieve, another chance for a win for Wormwood. During a talkback opening night, McLean referred to The Screwtape Letters as a “reverse devotional.”  Lewis himself called it “diabolical ventriloquism.” Even as we are treated to a terrific stage spectacle full of amazing sounds and visual fury and hilariously scenery-chewing performances, we are teased to translate backward what we hear and find a place for its meaning in our minds.

For instance, Screwtape urges Wormwood to keep the Patient absorbed in so-called real life. This is because humans “find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes.”

And theological points slip in obversely, as when Screwtape warns, “We must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created.”

Music functions cleverly. There’s a funny scene when Screwtape holds up a coffee-table Madonna biography and her pop anthem “Material Girl” plays. And important plot points in the Patient’s story are underscored by the hymns “Amazing Grace” and “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

Though The Screwtape Letters was published more than 75 years ago, it almost sounds like it could have been written yesterday. For instance, at one point Screwtape explains how devils in “the Lowerarchy” have produced what humans think of as “sexual ‘taste.’… This they do by working through the small circle of popular artists, dressmakers, actresses and advertisers who determine the fashionable type.”

Then, with Toadpipe miming the different types of ideal female he describes, Screwtape explains how his cronies have manipulated male sexual taste:

At one time we have directed it to the statuesque and aristocratic type of beauty, mixing men’s vanity with their desires…. At another, we have selected an exaggeratedly feminine type, faint and languishing, so that folly and cowardice, and all the general falseness
and littleness of mind which go with them, shall be at a premium…. we now teach men to like women whose bodies are scarcely distinguishable from those of boys. Since this is a kind of beauty even more transitory than most, we thus aggravate the female’s chronic horror of growing old (with many excellent results)….  We have engineered a great increase in the license which society allows to the representation of the apparent nude (not the real nude)…. it is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be. Yet at the same time, the modern world is taught to believe that it is being “frank” and “healthy” and getting back to nature. As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist.

At that, the opening-night audience broke out in applause.

The Screwtape Letters plays only through Sunday evening February 3, and shows are selling out.

Credits:
Adapted for the stage by Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske
Directed by Max McLean
His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape: Brent Harris
Toadpipe: Tamala Bakkensen, Anna Reichert
Scenic Design: Cameron Anderson
Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada
Lighting Design: Jesse Klug
Costume Design: Michael Bevins
Executive Producer: Ken Denison

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters plays through February 3, 2019, at Fellowship for Performing Arts performing at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the Shakespeare Theatre Company Box Office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

 

Admissions

“Some of my best friends are white men,” says Sherri, the very liberal white woman who handles admissions at a small New England prep school. Avowedly antiracist, Sherri is on a mission to increase the proportion of people of color in the student body. She cares, she really cares, as does her equally liberal husband Bill, who is dean of the school. Yet even as that tone-deaf admission blurts out of her mouth in an impassioned argument about race favoritism in recruiting—a quota bias that may have kept Sherri and Bill’s shiningly bright son Charlie out of Yale—she catches herself and hears herself…and the audience gasps and laughs at her gaffe.

Awkward moments like that abound in Admissions, Joshua Harmon’s edgy new comedy about whiteness. Stuff keeps getting said by well-meaning white people that comes out sounding so righteously off-key it’s both horrifying and hilarious. Scintillating socially conscious comedy is Harmon’s strong suit, and Admissions is every bit the equal of his runaway hit, Bad Jews. It’s even nervier, as evidenced in the grippingly good production at Studio directed pitch perfectly by Mike Donahue. What makes Admissions not only satisfying as popular entertainment but momentous as modern playwriting is how shrewdly Harmon holds up for embarrassment and amusement his characters’ unbearable whiteness of being.

[Read Beatrice Looyza’s review of Admissions.]

Kevin Kilner as Bill, Meg Gibson as Sherri, and Ephraim Birney as Charlie in ‘Admissions.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

It’s ridiculously easy these days for white liberals to condemn the rhetoric of white nationalism. It costs nothing and it pays off, like a no-risk rewards program. In certain progressive circles, sanctimonious scorn for white arrogance is not so much a politics of resistance as a ritual of virtue signaling. Like being in the correct club. Like wearing a name badge that says “Hi, I’m not a deplorable.” And the result is that such piety becomes yet another comfort zone for wypipo.

The young white playwright Joshua Harmon gets this. Admissions is a scathingly caustic satire that explicates and lacerates some of white liberalism’s most smug self-perceptions. Which means for anyone who fancies themselves woke to the ways white privilege works in the real world, Admissions is a must-see.

Ephraim Birney as Charlie and Meg Gibson as Sherri in ‘Admissions.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Charlie has a show-stopping rant when he learns his classmate and best friend Perry, who is black, has gotten into Yale while Charlie, who thinks he’s more qualified, didn’t. Charlie knows the talk to walk—he has been well raised by two progressive parents and is exceptionally gifted. But he is stung to his core when his presumptions of privilege are upended; and in aggrieved exasperation, he lets loose with an eruption of racist animus that horrifies his parents, the audience, and ultimately himself. What Harmon’s script does next is breathtaking: It tracks Charlie’s coming to terms with what actual commitment to racial equality must cost. Charlie’s character arc thereafter becomes more than just another white character’s journey to enlightenment. It cuts to the quick of what white enlightenment can even mean.

“I don’t have white pride,” says Charlie at one point, “but I’m not ashamed.” Admissions asks us to ask how for anyone born white in white supremacy that can possibly be true.

It is an explosively brilliant play.

Running Time: One hour and fifty minutes, with no intermission.

Admissions plays through February 17, 2019, at Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street NW,
in Washington, DC. For tickets, visit the box office or purchase them online.

 

Jeffrey

If there’s such a thing as gay wit, Paul Rudnick’s got a load of it. Imagine Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward if they could be out about it. Yeah, Rudnick ranks with them and then some. As proof, check out the thoroughly entertaining evening’s worth of gay wit that abounds in Rudnick’s 1993 Off-Broadway hit Jeffrey, just revived by Rainbow Theatre Project at DC Arts Center in Adams Morgan.

[Read David Friscic’s review of Jeffrey.]

If you’re unfamiliar with Rudnick’s delicious wit, you can taste it in real time in his wickedly funny Twitter feed. Typically he bounces off the news of the day and makes something or other a bit less dispiriting. A recent example:

Trump and Pence visited the MLK memorial for under two minutes and never mentioned MLK. Trump later explained, “I was tricked into going because I was told it was a statue of me and that there’d be hamberders”

@PaulRudnickNY‘s tweets are a cyber reminder that laughter is the best antidepressant.

Rinaldo Martinez as Jeffrey in ‘Jeffrey.’ Photo by RCG Photography.

Rudnick wrote Jeffrey in the thick of the AIDs epidemic when the urban gay community was being decimated, anxiety was off the charts, and depression was the new normal. Exactly a quarter-century before, in 1968, Mart Crowley’s Boys in the Band deployed gay wit against the presumed unhappiness of what was then shamed as the urban homosexual’s lifestyle. “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” jokes the character Michael. In the era of AIDs, that lifestyle had literally become lethal. Introducing Jeffrey on opening night, Rainbow Artistic Producer H. Lee Gable remembered the unremitting loss and grief of that terrible time and choked up.

I saw the original New York production of Jeffrey at the Minetta Lane Theatre, and I remember being blown away that this out playwright’s wit could so pinpoint and puncture my own anxiety about the contagion. At the top of the play is a hilarious sex scene abruptly interrupted when the main character Jeffrey says to his fuck buddy, “It broke.” A frail latex condom had failed and implicitly a death sentence loomed. Moments later Jeffrey, for eminently reasonable fear of the virus, foreswears sex.

That on-point premise is quickly and comically complicated when Jeffrey meets and has the hots for Steven, a hunky gym rat who also has the hots for Jeffrey but who discloses he is seropositive. The question of whether Jeffrey and Steven will get together and get it on plays out over two acts in a series of comedy sketches in iconic situations—including a gym, a safe-sex jack-off club, a support group for sexual compulsives, a self-blame lecture by a self-help guru, a TMI phone call with mom and dad, and an awkward run-in with a gropey priest. Romantic comedy is pretty much always a will-they-or-won’t-they suspense narrative. And comedy in general is pretty much always bouncing off some anxiety or other. But AIDs? Yeah, Rudnick went there.

So as I approached Rainbow’s revival there was a question on my mind: Now that there’s pre-exposure prophylaxis and HIV infection is medically manageable to the point of being untransmittable, does Jeffrey still work as a lift-your-spirits comedy?

Short answer: It decidedly does.

The thing about gay wit is that it’s refreshingly timeless. Rudnick’s one-liners still snap and startle. His sendups of gay and self-help culture are still spot on. His supporting characters are still adorably corny. His two leads still seem made for each other but for an impossible obstacle. His empathic insights into serodiscordant relationships are still of the moment. And the underlying heart and soul of Jeffrey—the story arc of a love that overcomes that which separates—is an enduring testament to the human will to survive by our wits.

Now as then, see Jeffrey for its infectious joy.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

Jeffrey plays through February 10, 2019, at Rainbow Theatre Project performing at the DC Arts Center – 2438 18th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets go online.

19: The Musical

It was “a century of struggle” before women in the United States won the right to vote in 1920, and the centenary of the amendment that cinched it, the nineteenth, is just around the corner. An original work titled 19: The Musical, based on the rarely told backstory of the fight for women’s suffrage, is being readied to mark that milestone, with book and lyrics by Jennifer Schwed and Doug Bradshaw and music by Charlie Barnett.

[Read Nicole Hertvik’s interview with Doug Bradshaw and Jennifer Schwed, “The Past Is Prologue in New Musical About Suffragists.”]

The three creators, who are also co-producers, have taken the unusual step of staging workshop performances of their work-in-development en route to its projected premiere in 2020. So it was that sixteen songs from 19 sung by a cast of sixteen at 1st Stage last weekend offered a tantalizing sneak peek at a making-of-American-history musicalization, inspired in part by what Lin-Manuel Miranda did in Hamilton.

The cast of 19: The Musical. Photo by Jennifer Schwed.

It is impossible to imagine what Alice Paul and her sister suffragists would make of this telling of their story in song and dance. They were not exactly happy hoofers. The actual history of what they achieved and against what obstacles is a whole lot grittier and more grueling than could possibly be told in two tuneful acts. Historian Eleanor Flexner, in her classic Century of Struggle: The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States, quotes suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt’s unentertaining tally of what it took:

To get the word “male” in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of the country fifty-two years of pauseless campaign. . . . During that time they were forced to conduct fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.

Sadly the story of the fight for women’s suffrage has effectively been written out of history. It is hardly taught in schools. Girls grow up with no idea what happened. And no Ken Burns (The Civil War) or Dustin Lance Black (When We Rise) has stepped forward to document and dignify the struggle for women’s suffrage in series television. During the post-show discussion Friday, the mostly young cast members were asked whether before their involvement in 19 they had heard of any of the historical figures who appear in the script. Tellingly, nearly none had.

For the purposes of this workshop, the singer-actor-dancers performed only 16 of the show’s 40-some musical numbers. There was not yet dialogue (only brief connective narration in between). There were not yet costumes (everyone wore black, with “Suffragist” in white letters on the women’s T-shirts; “Man,” on the men’s). There was not yet a set (just the empty black box). And there was not yet an orchestra (though Barnett, the very accomplished composer, was sensational accompanying on piano). All these elements are projected for the future.

For now, 19: The Musical as workshopped consists of some lively and inventive lyrics and a legit lovely show-tune score that hold genuine promise. But this is not a review. Given how much the show has changed since workshops began more than a year ago and how much will likely change before opening, it would be premature to do more than report and reflect on some intriguing features that came through at this stage.

First of all, the songs are terrific—very listenable melodies and rhythms, very sharp and on-point texts. In fact the workshop felt a bit like a buoyant backers audition. And while the ensemble often embodies the suffrage movement as a whole (as in the spritely opener, “We Won/19,” an exaltation over the amendment’s passage), a few clearly delineated historical figures lend easily followable focus. For instance, the central character, Alice Paul,  becomes relatable right away with her solo “Dear Mama,” and her throughline closely follows the two-act story arc. Her encounter with British suffragists Christabel Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst dramatizes nicely her growing convictions about “The Reasons” for women’s suffrage. Movement foremother Susan B. Anthony (called Sue B), who died before suffrage was won, shows up oddly as a kind of advisory apparition (perhaps because her name recognition exceeds all others’). But importantly, the African-American journalist Ida B. Wells weighs in to confront the Southern white racism that infected the women’s suffrage movement and that 19, in “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” does not shy from.

It’s when the book and lyrics take on that troubling history of race and sex intersection that the musical comes most alive with contemporary resonance. I wished for more such teeth and substance. By contrast, some of the other musical numbers selected for this workshop bordered on storybookish, sentimental, and simplistic—perhaps because intervening set-up scenes, which typically provide dramatic tension and heft, were not there yet.

The cast of 19: The Musical. Photo by Jennifer Schwed.

Two musical numbers, each centered on a male historical figure, happened to contain within them some of the most interesting character-driven storytelling. The delightfully spot-on “Sensible Girl,” which President Woodrow Wilson sings to suffragists who’ve come to his office, is wittily dripping with condescension. And in the touchingly amusing “Harry Listen to Your Mother,” we see legislator Harry Burn’s vote change from nay to yea on the strength of his mama’s moral suasion.

Yet curiously, other than in those two quite mild-mannered scenes, the actual fact of misogynist opposition to women’s suffrage is given very short shrift.  I caught one wicked lyric line about how men who are “hostile” are “from Hades,” but for the most part, the storytelling treats men with ladylike gloves. This struck me as unnecessarily timid in an era when books like Rage Becomes Her and Good and Mad are out there. Arguably even this entertainment about women’s suffrage lite is an improvement on the unending darkness to which that protofeminist triumph has been consigned. By why pass up an opportunity to give voice through musical theater to the righteous anger that suffragists had to suppress back then?

Song List

ACT I
We Won/19
Easy
Dear Mama
The Reasons
Partners in Crime
New World Order
Will You Be Here For Me?
Put Yourself in My Shoes
The Bloody March
Sensible Girl

ACT II
Silence
Damned If I Do
Jailed for Freedom
Victory Will Be Mine
Harry Listen to Your Mother
Reclaiming My Time

Cast
Narrator: Elizabeth Keith
Alice Paul: Katie Ganem
Carrie Chapman Catt: Meredith Eib (January 11)/Maria Ciarrocchi (January 12)
Ida B. Wells: Millicent Scarlett
Lucy Burns: Meredith Eib
Sue B: Debora Crabbe
Christabel Pankhurst: Elizabeth Keith
Emmeline Pankhurst: Millicent Scarlett
President Woodrow Wilson: Brian Lyons-Burke
Harry Burn: Michael Keith
Chorus & Dancers: Karen Bralove, Kristen Briscoe, Bethel Elias, Cincin Fang, Haylee Green, Danielle Marquis

Production Team 
Jennifer Schwed: Writer/Lyricist/Director/Producer
Doug Bradshaw: Writer/Lyricist/Director/Producer
Charlie Barnett: Composer/MusicalDirector/Arranger/ Piano/Producer
Vocal Captain: Millicent Scarlett
Choreography: Danielle Marquis, Angela Norris
Dance Captain: Kristen Briscoe

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.

19: The Musical played January 11 and 12, 2019, produced by Through the 4th Wall performing at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in McLean, VA. 19: The Musical will  be performed again Friday, January 18, 2019, at The Hill Center – 921 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, in Washington, DC, as part of the One Woman One Vote Festival. Ticket information can be found online.

 

The One Woman One Vote Festival: Raising 100 years of women’s voices in society, the One Woman, One Vote 2020 Festival is a collaboration with national organizations and cultural institutions to present films, concerts, exhibitions, and public events leading into the commemoration of the centennial year of the 19th Amendment passing, and the OWOV Film Festival in March 2020. The film festival event showcases documentary and dramatic films that embrace both history and contemporary issues that make a difference for all women today. The festival is being organized by Bonnie Nelson Schwartz.

In honor of the upcoming Women’s March, DC Metro Theater Arts is partnering with A Tour of Her Own, a women-run walking-tour company offering women’s history tours throughout DC. Don’t miss their February 2nd tour “Women on Stage: Raising the Curtain on the Washington Theater Scene.”

Washington Magic

When I was a kid, magic tricks and puppet shows were forerunners to my love of theater. They were like my gateway drug. I got hooked on the wonder and live storytelling. And to this day I associate theatergoing with “magic time”—what I call that heightened moment of expectancy just before the performance begins when one is open to awe. So of course when I was offered a chance to catch a Washington Magic show, I jumped at it.

And what a jaw-dropping evening of astonishment it was.

Washington Magic, a monthly affair at the tony Arts Club of Washington, showcases 90 minutes of magic, comedy, and mindreading preceded by an open bar and full-course gourmet buffet dinner, all for one prix fix ticket (quite a bargain at $65 or $75, compared with dinner, drinks, and a show just about anywhere else). The setting is upscale but the vibe is fun and friendly fandom. Folks have come to be amazed not put on airs. The dining room, with a platform stage at one end, seats fewer than 80, so the experience is immersive and intimate; the tricks are performed literally right before our eyes.

The production’s impresarios are David Morey and Savino Recine, both accomplished illusionists, and each month they share the stage with a featured guest magician. The night I was there, it was John McLaughlin, who presumably knows a thing or two about deception and misdirection from his former day job as acting director of the CIA.

Savino Recine.

First on the triple bill was Savino Recine, former owner and executive chef of Primi Piatti, where he was known for performing sleight-of-hand tricks tableside for patrons. He likes to “have fun with the impossible,” he said, and he was clearly in his element as he boggled our brains with number games, card tricks, and some uncanny audience-participation stunts. In one, he guessed accurately, while double-blindfolded, which of six different beverages a woman sipped and savored. In another, to illustrate how “people are connected,” he had a father and daughter on stage each stretch out an arm with their eyes closed. He lightly touched the dad on the shoulder and asked the daughter to point to where she might have felt a touch as well. She pointed precisely to where Savino had touched her dad. Twice Savino did this; twice the phantom touch was felt.

John McLaughlin.

Next up was John McLaughlin, who with David Morey coauthored a book about how magic can effectively be applied in the business world. McLaughlin began with a quip quoting himself when he was a boy, “Mama, I want to be a magician when I grow up.” “Son,” his mother said, “you can’t do both.” McLaughlin did some dextrous stuff with silk scarves that changed color and torn paper that was restored and then gave a little spiel about “the oldest trick in magic,” the familiar one with three cups and three balls—except that McLaughlin did it dumbfoundingly as if it had never been done before. As he was doing a number with an egg and scarves he also delivered some great cracks about how the trick illustrated spy specialties like “intelligence ops,” “surveillance,” “angle of vision,” and “sowing confusion.”

It was a kick to see both these guys—one a former cook and one a former spook—having the time of their lives in their encore careers as tricksters.

David Morey.

Headliner David Morey—who calls magic “a hobby out of control”—may be even more all in. A sought-after speaker and strategist who performed at Obama’s official Inauguration Ball, Morey had just flown in that day from a gig in China—but strangely, he joked, the jet lag had enhanced his mind-reading powers. He made six shiny rings link and unlink in an instant. He guessed accurately the serial number on a dollar bill. And then, holding up randomly selected sealed envelopes containing slips of paper on which we each hand-wrote something beforehand, Morey called out audience members’ names and mind-read what they’d said and what they were thinking at that moment.

Inexplicability filled the air like a flight of confetti.

In his narrative patter, Morey mentioned the three classifications of Thomas Jefferson’s library—memory, reason, and imagination. There seemed to be a message up his sleeve, for he also quoted Albert Einstein: “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination.” And further: “There are only two ways to live our lives. The first is as if nothing is a miracle. And the second is as if everything is a miracle.” Could it be that this Washington Magic show—an utterly entertaining amazement in its own right—was subliminally affirming and reminding us of the ineffable value of suspending disbelief? Well, if so, why not? That’s the magic of theater, after all. And this night had truly been the theater of magic.

David Morey, Savino Recine, and John McLaughlin in ‘Washington Magic.’

Washington Magic performed December 20, 2018, at Arts Club of Washington, 2017 I Street NW, Washington, DC 20006. The next performances will be in the same venue January 24 (already sold out) and February 15, 2018. For information about dates, times, and tickets for future shows, follow Washington Magic on Facebook and Twitter, check its website, or call 888-882-8499 or 202-223-7945.