Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Broken Glass

Arthur Miller’s 1994 Broken Glass does not rise to the stature of his greatest works (Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, The Price, and others). But even lesser Miller can be arresting, as the smart and sharp production now playing at Theater J demonstrates. Directed by Aaron Posner with precise attention to each pulse beat, given impeccably persuasive performances by its cast of six, and featuring some of the most powerful set and projection design in town (by Andrew Cohen and Mark Costello, respectively), Theater J’s Broken Glass shines a brilliant light that lets us see clearly into the fragile and shattered marriage at its center.

It is 1938, and a Jewish couple named Sylvia and Phillip Gellburg are reacting in very different ways to news of Kristallnacht. Phillip (Paul Morella) has very mixed feelings about being Jewish. He doesn’t hide it. But his snarky remarks about other Jews come from a self-loathing place. Consequently (or coincidentally) what’s going on in Germany 3,000 miles away is of little concern to him. By contrast, Sylvia (Lisa Bruneau) identifies deeply with the Jews who are being brutalized by Nazis. She follows the news closely and has become increasingly distressed. And nine days ago she suddenly became paralyzed below the waist. She can’t walk. She has no feeling down there. Her husband, greatly troubled, goes to consult Sylvia’s doctor, Dr. Harry Hyman (Gregory Livington).

Lise Bruneau (Sylvia Gellburg) in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at Theater J. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The Washington Post runs a regular series of “medical mystery” articles in its Health & Science section with headlines such as

She thought she’d pulled hip muscles, but six doctors couldn’t diagnose her pain.

Doctors thought he just had jock itch. Then it spread.

By the end of such articles there’s a surprising diagnosis, often with a good prognosis. At a point early in Broken Glass, I was reminded of that Washington Post series…

His wife suddenly became paraplegic. Her doctor did not know why.

Miller steadily teases out clue after clue in the mystery of what’s disabling Sylvia. And sure enough by the end there’s a diagnosis and an implied prognosis.

Except that Miller leaves us to ponder two different diagnoses, which compete for our credulity as the play unfolds. That Sylvia’s symptoms are psychosomatic (or “hysterical,” as Dr. Hyman explains to Phillip) is established as a given. And Dr. Hyman puts forth the compelling hypothesis that Sylvia’s distraught anxiety about what’s happening to Jews in Germany is the traumatizing trigger. But that’s not the whole story. Upon further investigation—involving intimate time spent with Sylvia—Dr. Hyman and we begin to understand that the etiology of Sylvia’s malady is not only the Nazis but Phillip.

Gregory Linington (Dr. Harry Hyman) and Lise Bruneau (Sylvia Gellburg) in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at Theater J. Photo by Teresa Wood.

We learn a backstory that includes spousal abuse, erectile dysfunction, and a consequently (or coincidentally) torpid marriage bed. So the Phillip hypothesis stands up—and seems cinched in the final scene shocker. And yet Sylvia’s howl of vicarious pain over the plight of German Jews offers convincing and excruciating evidence that Sylvia’s woundedness is as a Jew.

The two diagnoses don’t ever jibe or cohere. Miller never spells out how Sylvia’s suffering could be simultaneous as a woman and as a Jew, though obviously they are. Nor, for that matter, does Miller explain how the causal source of her suffering could be both her husband and the Nazis (a disturbing parallel, but obviously what Miller meant).

One might have expected a playwright who is herself a woman and a Jew to connect those derogated identities and make them playable and palpable on stage. One might be surprised that here in Broken Glass it is a great man of American letters who has done so. Consequently (or coincidentally) one would have damn good reason to get over to Theater J to see this often overlooked but important Arthur Miller play—if only to ponder the relationship between being gendered female and being Jewish, then and now.

Running time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.

Broken Glass plays through July 9, 2017 at Theater J – The Edlavitch DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.

LINK:
Review: ‘Broken Glass’ at Theater J  by David Siegel

 

When We Were Young and Unafraid

On the top floor of The Keegan Theatre is a cork board labeled “What Does Feminism Mean to You?” Pushpins, pens, and slips of paper are provided so that patrons can have their say, and they do. Lots of thoughts to put a pin in. Lots of divergent points of view yet all tagged feminism. It’s an apt metaphor for the multiplicity of discrepant perspectives that Playwright Sarah Treem has packed into this passionately partisan play.

When We Were Young and Unafraid—now playing at Keegan in a production smartly directed by Marie Byrd Sproul—is set specifically in the year 1972. This was a time when there were not yet any battered women’s shelters in the United States. The very concept of “domestic violence” did not yet exist. It happened but it had no name. As Gloria Steinem famously said,

When I was growing up in Toledo, there was no such crime as domestic violence. It was called life.

Since then, women have continued to be battered, and battered women have continued to experience isolation, vulnerability, trauma, homelessness—not much has really changed. But today there are places to go for safe refuge. There are professional victim services advocates to help a woman leave her abusive partner. There is attention paid to same-sex domestic violence. There are programs for healing, hope, and a new life. Back in 1972, there was nothing of the sort.

Sheri S. Herren (Agnes) and Kaylynn Creighton (Penny) in When We Were Young and Unafraid. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

Treem imagines a do-it-herself hero-healer named Agnes (Sheri S. Herren), who has repurposed her rustic B&B, on a small island just off the coast of Seattle, to serve as a drop-in, stay-awhile sanctuary for battered women. A former Army nurse, Agnes looks out not only for her occasional paying guests but also for her pro bono refugees from their marriage to a misogynist.

The political movement derisively then called “women’s lib” had begun, but Agnes is not an adherent. She’s uninterested. She needs no ideological conclusions about women’s place in the world to prompt or persuade her. She does what she does to help battered women because they are in trouble and need help she can provide. In Agnes, Treem has created a woman whose pro-woman actions would easily count as “feminist,” but her convictions are apolitical. She’s driven by compassion, not a cause.

Into Agnes’s world, Treem introduces four other characters, each of whom has a relationship to feminism that does get articulated as a particular politics. Turns out they have very different viewpoints about what women’s liberation means. And one of the best features of Treem’s script is how shrewdly she has her characters voice political disagreements that persist divisively within feminism today.

In a meta nutshell, these are disagreements about men. Or more precisely: how women should relate to men.

When we first meet Penny (Kaylynn Creighton), the high school student whom Agnes is raising, she is dead set against going to the prom or participating in any other superficial boy-girl rituals. She’s smarter than the boys in her classes and she knows it. She’s striving to get into to Yale (which only recently went co-ed). She has no intention of dumbing herself down to get a date.

A young woman, Mary Anne (Jenna Berk), arrives, her face bruised and a bloody bandage around her head. Her husband, John, has just brutally beaten her. She’s terrified of him, yet she’s still in love with him. The life lesson in her up-close-and-personal encounter with this man’s rage is utterly lost on her. Masochism, the self-inflicted curse of woman as a class, has made her long to go back to him.

Things get philosophically freaky when Treem brings Penny and Mary Anne into a conversation about boys and dating. Mary Anne elicits from Penny—independent, intelligent, self-possessed—an admission that she has a serious crush on the captain of the football team, but he’s oblivious of her. Seizing the opening, Mary Anne starts giving Penny tips about how to be a coquette to catch his eye, stroke his ego, and trigger his hormones. Wear a dress to school. Watch him at football practice. Smile adoringly. Touch him accidentally. Penny follows Mary Anne’s advice to the letter and in no time at all, Penny has a date to the prom.

Besides the nearly absurd disconnect here—a battered woman giving advice to a teen about how to hit on a man—there’s the acting distance Berk must stretch from bloodied victim to sagacious big sister. And Berk pulls it off with awesome virtuosity.

Sheri S. Herren (Agnes) and Nora Achrati (Hannah) in When We Were Young and Unafraid. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

Another character comes by, Hannah (Nora Achrati), a butch radical lesbian on her way to a commune of separatists called the Gorgons. Hannah, as she is quick to explain, has no use for men. Her entrance would feel like a contrivance, a convenient counterpoint to Mary Anne’s and Penny’s man problems, except that Treem gives Hannah some of the best lines in the play. She quotes Ti-Grace Atkinson, for instance: “Feminism is the theory. Lesbianism is the practice.” And Achrati knocks the part out of the park.

Having set forth four perspectives on feminism from four female characters, Treem adds two male characters to the mix. One of them, John, we never see. He shows up like a beast at the gate but doesn’t crash it. His clear-and-present danger outside the B&B becomes viscerally present inside. And he too has a relationship to feminism. Hovering wordlessly over the women’s discourse, John’s disruptive appearance in the play makes the women’s disagreements seem like petty distractions from the primary emergency at hand.

Theo Hadjimichael (Paul) and Jenna Berk (Mary Anne) in When We Were Young and Unafraid. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

Treem’s fifth character is Paul (Theo Hadjimichael), a guest at the B&B. A would-be musician, he’s a genuinely gentle soul. His relationship to feminism is that it led his wife to leave him, and he’s hurting. She got involved in consciousness-raising and lost interest in him because, she told him, he wasn’t enough of a man. His sensitivity and caring have become a liability in a world where there are liberated women who like to be manhandled in bed.

I’ve sketched here just a few of the inconsistencies in feminism that Treem’s script artfully lifts aloft and lets clash, because they comprise a big bunch of the play’s punch. They are familiar intra-movement disputes in feminism today. Many more have cropped up since 1972—such as intersectionality and trans feminism. But what’s so brilliant and engaging about When We Were Young and Unafraid is that it’s a time capsule of an era when second-wave feminism was just beginning to kick ass.

I recommend Keegan’s When We Were Young and Unafraid as not only an excellent production but also a revealing political period piece. Feminism has never been monolithic. Just check out that cork board upstairs.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

Advisory Warning: Contains sexual situations and references to domestic violence and rape. Recommended for ages 16 and older.

When We Were Young and Unafraid plays through July 8 at The Keegan Theatre—1742 Church Street NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

LINK:
Review: ‘When We Were Young and Unafraid’ at The Keegan Theatre by Julia Hurley

 

The Return

Inside this taut and provocative two-character play—which vividly evokes the political tension between the Israeli state and its Palestinian citizens—there is a startling sex scene, one that vividly evokes the sexual tension between a woman and a man. It is an explicit, erotic hookup with shocking consequences. To the best of my recollection, it is the first per se sex scene in a production at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. So you’d think it would make a ripple of news. Yet curiously this sex scene has received only glancing attention in press commentary about the play. Often as not, it’s not even mentioned. At a post-show panel discussion I attended, nobody brought it up. I find this curious. I think that sex scene warrants a very close look.

We don’t actually see the sex scene on stage. We see it in our mind’s eye, through the clarity of the writing and the extraordinary performances of two gifted actors. It happened thirteen years ago, between the man and woman who now appear before us onstage. They are named in the program only by generic gendered pronouns, Him and Her—as if to seem both anonymous and archetypal.

The Return by Hanna Eady and Edward Mast, directed flawlessly by John Vreeke, is receiving its U.S. premiere as the culminating production of Mosaic’s stellar second season. It continues the Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, which Artistic Director Ari Roth inaugurated sixteen years ago at Theater J. Both playwrights are also actors, and their script is as playable as it is profound.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (Her) and Ahmad Kamal (Him) in The Return. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Eady is Palestinian-American; Mast, his collaborator, is American. Their jointly authored dramatic work The Return is distinguished by what Roth has called its unmediated Palestinian lens. Meaning: There is no doctrinaire deference to Israeli state interests in it. A 2016 production in Hebrew at an Arab theater in Haifa was shut down after eight performances. As Eady explains in an interview with my DCMetroTheaterArts colleague Ravelle Brickman:

The government simply decided that Jews should not see or hear anything that expressed a Palestinian point of view, or that suggested an abrogation of human rights.

Besides the authors’ pro-Palestinian sympathies, The Return is also distinguished by having as its inciting incident a sex scene. Meaning: Had the sex not happened, there would be no play.

Ahmad Kamal (Him) and Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (Her) in The Return. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The Return is set in Israel in a city about ten miles north of Tel Aviv, in the front office of an auto repair garage. A woman who is Jewish arrives (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), ostensibly because her car needs fixing. Though it is the Sabbath, she finds one mechanic on duty, a man who is Arab (Ahmad Kamal). As we will learn, the woman’s motives are not automotive.

Thirteen years ago she and he had a brief romance that involved, on more than one occasion, passionate lovemaking that by both their accounts was mutually gratifying. “It felt real,” she recalls, and he concurs.

In no way did he physically coerce her; she has a speech making that clear (putting to rest any speculation that might arise from seeing Keegan’s slight size next to Kamal’s big and burly build). Their characters both wanted it and they wanted each other. There was just one catch. He’s Arab, and he led her to believe he’s Jewish. She was attracted to him with that understanding and would not have been otherwise. She makes clear she would have had nothing to do with him had she known he was Arab. (Her prejudice, a plot point, suffuses his world and the world of the play.) Thus with her uninformed consent, the sex she had with this man was in all other ways really good.

So-called rape by fraud, or rape by deception, is a crime in Israel (as it is in the U.S. and the UK). In 2010 a man was convicted of the crime in Israel for lying about being Jewish, which may have suggested The Return’s inciting incident, though Eady and Mast have veered so far from that case its only relevance is to posit that such a plot point could plausibly happen.

In Eady and Mast’s brilliantly constructed story line, the man is tried for committing rape by deception; and at trial, she testifies against him without disclosing her own volition, agency, and pleasure in their sexual encounters. Her testimony about his deception is thus itself a deception. The question Who violated whom? thus looms. She is haunted by guilt over what she did to him then and has come to atone and ask his forgiveness.

“I want us to just be people,” she tells him at one point.

“They built this place where you and I can never be the same,” he replies.

In the political context of Jewish-Arab relations, those two lines reverberate.

And in the gender-binary context, they throb.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (Her) and Ahmad Kamal (Him) in The Return. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Much of The Return tracks in chilling detail the dreadful consequences that befall the man after his conviction. We are left with no doubt had he not been Palestinian, Israeli law would not have charged him, nor would the state have crushed his soul so.

In the woman’s character arc the authors have crafted a damning critique of the illusion of the efficacy of good intentions. We leave the theater judging not only her but also all who are complicitous, wittingly or not, in state-sanctioned hate and whose crimes cannot be cleansed.

The backstory of the man’s and the woman’s sex scene is by no means what The Return is “about.” But that scene’s particulars make what the play is about far more than a personal microcosm of a political macrocosm. The man’s and woman’s shared sexual history engages us where we live, as much in the abstract in our consciences as palpably in the bodies we inhabit. Tuning into this important function of the sex scene is to appreciate all the more this play’s depth.

The Return at Mosaic is more than a play to be touched and troubled by. It’s a play to get in the gut.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

The Return plays through July 2, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

LINKS:

Review: ‘The Return’ at Mosaic Theater Company of DC, Part of the 2017 Voice From a Changing Middle East Festival by Robert Michael Oliver

Interview: Playwrights Hanna Eady and Edward Mast on ‘The Return,’ Now in US Premiere at Mosaic Theater Company of DC by Ravelle Brickman

 

 

School for Lies

The set that we see is a towering eyeful,
The interior decorator spared nary a trifle,
For decked all about are amusing objets d’art
On loan from museums with tastes tres bizarre.
Claes Oldenberg’s oversize cherry and spoon’s
Propped opposite that dog in balloons by Jeff Koons,
Which is hung in a bird cage directly ovah
Salvador Dali’s Mae West lips sofa.
So many cultured sculptures from who knows where,
Plus Pedro Friedeberg’s gold hand chair!
Could it be these fine artworks are what meet our eyes?
Or might we be in for a bigger surprise?

The cast of School for Lies. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Bingo, in case you’re still paying attention:
This comedy is shot through with pretension.
Ergo its title, a snarky rant
Against society’s predilection for cant.
Mon dieu! another drama about truth and illusion!
Have we not seen such plays in profusion?
Why dust off Molière for our modern amusement?
He’s yesterday’s news, man, what’s the inducement?
The dude wrote in French, he has to be translated
What was funny back then has got to be outdated.
Bottom line, can we enjoy what’s about to go on?
Absolutament! And yes we Kahn.

Gregory Wooddell, Cameron Folmar, Liam Craig, and Tom Story in The School for Lies. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The costumes alone are enough to drop jaws
The foppery and finery would give Sun King pause.
He’d invite the whole cast to Versailles too
Since they’re all worthy of giving high fives to.
I was nuts about the show if you haven’t deduced.
The performance could not have been better produced
But what got me hooked was the way it was written,
David Ives’ script had me totally smitten.

Michael Glenn, Dorea Schmidt, and Victoria Frings in The School of Lies. Photo by Scott Suchman.

His crackerjack couplets, his playful bag of tricks,
Made my ears want more and more as if I needed a fix.
When he worked in some words that were crude or risque
It was like I’d been tossed a verbal bouquet.
Once he even mimicked Valleyspeak and rap
And my higher cortex went, Oh snap!
For an hour and a half this went on and on
As ear candy goes it was bon upon bon bon
Delicious his rhymes were, like fine French fromage,
I could not resist serving up this homage.
So delightful they were, so wicked and sublime,
Oh yes! said my mind, hit me up one more time!
And then it hit me I’d been guessing or predicting
How each couplet would finish. God it got addicting!

Veanne Cox in The School for Lies. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Some might surmise all this rhyming’d be annoying
But I’m here to tell you it was not at all cloying.
It altered my brain, rearranged how I listened
Linguistic piss and vinegar made me totally blissened.
If you see School for Lies, which I heartily recommend
You will hear what I mean: The script has pleasures no end.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The School for Lies plays through July 9, 2017, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

LINK: Review: ‘The School for Lies’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by Sophia Howes

 

 

Perfect Arrangement

Perfect Arrangement by Topher Payne was a smash hit at Source Festival when it debuted there four years ago, and the comedy’s return to Source on the occasion of the festival’s tenth anniversary is cause for celebration. Set in 1950 during the so-called Lavender Scare—when persecution of homosexuals and other “deviants” had U.S. state sanction—Perfect Arrangement is both gut-busting funny and soberingly trenchant.

Danielle Scott (Millie), Jon Reynolds (Bob), Jennifer Lyons Pagnard (Kitty), Jack Novak (Jim), Kevin McGuinness (Ted), and Mary Myers (Norma) in Perfect Arrangement. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

In what may be the most consequential program note ever penned by a playwright, Payne informs us that the apology John Kerry offered for the Lavender Scare, in his last days as Secretary of State—”the first time the government acknowledged any of this happened”—disappeared from the Department of State website as soon as Donald Trump took office.

In 2014 the American Theatre Critics Association named Perfect Arrangement Best Play by an Emerging Playwright. In 2015 it ran Off-Broadway produced by Primary Stages and had subsequent runs in San Diego, Seattle, and elsewhere. As I write this it is up for a Lambda Literary Award.

I had a hunch something like this was going to happen. When I saw the 2013 Source Festival production directed Linda Lombardi, I raved in my blog,

This play is ready for Broadway. It’s knockout funny, with crackling punch lines. It’s flawlessly constructed—paced like a bubbly farce at times, like a jaw-dropping drama at others. And it’s got a core of sexual political content that puts Neil Simon–ish froth to shame.

After seeing Source’s all-new production directed by Nick Martin, I now hold Payne’s script in even higher esteem.

Jon Reynolds (Bob), Danielle Scott (Millie), and Jack Novak (Jim) in Perfect Arrangement. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

Perfect Arrangement takes place in the upscale living room of an apartment in Georgetown. The period is pivotal. This was the time of McCarthyism when maniacal American anti-communism merged with animus against homosexuals. A dragnet was launched inside the U.S. government to purge anyone suspected of being lesbian or gay.  The notion was that in offices like the State Department, homosexuals were national security risks because they were subject to blackmail. (Little could anyone have guessed when Perfect Arrangement premiered how that toxic hate-fueled episode in U.S. history would morph into today’s Islamophobic and anti-immigrant politics—like some horrifying déjà vu.)

The story Payne spins out of this historical homophobic nightmare is cleverly and hilariously set up as a 50s-era TV sitcom. Payne’s script specifies, in fact, that the set have “a layout reminiscent of that of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on ‘I Love Lucy.'” The set at Source designed by Jessica Cancino has a suitably flat-beige 50s feel that with its avocado sofa and persimmon chair looks like it’s been furnished from Sears and Roebuck.

This living room is shared by Bob & Millie & Jim & Norma, though they don’t all share the same bed. From all appearances, Bob & Millie are married, as are Jim & Norma. But they’re all in the closet together, figuratively speaking. An offstage bed is shared by Millie & Norma. And another is shared by Bob & Jim, whose living quarters are reachable through a closet, literally.

Bob Martindale (Jon Renolds) and Norma Baxter (Mary Meyers) work in the State Department. Bob is in charge of an expulsion program there and Norma is his secretary. But at home they and their same-sex paramours—Millie Martindale (Danielle Scott) and Jim Baxter (Jack Novak)—have adopted a nuptial ruse in order, or so they hope, to escape exposure and firing.  The comic potential in this setup jump-starts the hilarity as the foursome entertain Bob’s straight-arrow boss Ted Sunderson (Kevin McGuinness) and his ditsily clueless wife Kitty (Jennifer Pagnard, whose performance was a ceaseless hoot).

Hiding behind phony personas is an age-old comic stage device, and Payne reinvents it ingeniously: two lesbians in love pretending to be married to husbands, two gay men in love pretending to be married to wives.  And then—with a gifted writerly hand—Payne introduces plot turns and character conflicts that gradually unravel and reveal what’s not “perfect” here at all.

Mary Myers (Norma) and Toni Rae Salmi (Barbara) in Perfect Arrangement. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

An auspicious visit comes near the end of the first act from Barbara Grant (the enjoyably grand Toni Rae Salmi). Barbara is a State Department employee under investigation for being “a loose woman.” Her arrival sets in motion events that lead to one of the most profound endings I’ve ever witnessed in a new play. Near the end of the second act, Payne tops everything that’s gone before with a breathtaking scene that rips open a gender divide among the once happy foursome.  Suffice it to say, lesbians who are looking for liberation and impatient with gay men’s leadership will recognize a lot in Payne’s story line.  And gay men might learn a thing or two too.

I can’t in conscience give away any more of Payne’s astonishing story structure, but I have to marvel at how he keeps finding what’s funny. Payne has an uncanny knack for keeping faith with his audience through humor. That he has embedded his powerful and empowering political insights in a play bursting with belly laughs is a comedic marvel that must be seen to be believed.

Perfect Arrangement is a sturdy script, and as such it easily withstood what on opening night was some unevenness and uncertainty in the acting.  Tighter pacing and stronger ensemble cohesion will doubtless emerge during the run.  The costumes designed by Frank Labovitz were for the women a delightful lift from Donna Reed’s and Harriet Nelson’s wardrobes; and for the men, appropriately post-war dorky. Lighting Designer E-hui Woo made scene shifts entrancing, and Sound Designer Veronica Lancaster brought in period tunes that could make one feel like swaying or dancing.

Perfect Arrangement is assured a slot on the short list of all-time Best LGBTQ Pride Plays and is destined for a place in the canon of contemporary classics.

Perfect Arrangement is an incandescent comedy about queer courage in dark times. And the times they just got dark again.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Perfect Arrangement plays through July 2, 2017, at The Source Festival performing at Source – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

 

Hir

The absurdity and grim reality of gender get a scathing going-over in this extraordinary play by Taylor Mac. Inside the hilarity of Hir (pronounced “here”) is a tragedy howling to get out.

Taylor Mac, author of Hir, has a reputation for outrageous originality as a playwright, actor, singer-songwriter, performance artist, director, and producer. I’ve been itching to see this play since Woolly announced it. Everything I heard and read about it made me suspect I would dig it. And I did. Bigly.

Malic White (Max), Emily Townley (Paige), Joseph J. Parks (Isaac), and Mitch Hébert (Arnold) in Hir. Photo by Scott Suchman.

After I laughed my guts out at Hir the other night, I figured out why the play had landed for me with so much punch: I recognized in Hir the work of an artist who is a gender abolitionist or gender anarchist—someone for whom bending gender is but a means to ending gender altogether.

It is a trend that’s catching on. For instance, these days it is not uncommon for young people to introduce themselves by saying what their personal pronouns are. The prescriptive presumption that everyone is either a he or a she (and never the twain shall meet) has become today’s flat-eartherism.

Thus the title of Mac’s play is the recently coined personal pronoun hir. In everyday speech hir refers to someone who is non-binary, transgender, or gender-queer, in grammatical constructions where the pronouns him and her would typically track. Here hir is the pronoun of Max, an AFAB (assigned female at birth) 17-year-old who is transitioning and taking testosterone. Known as ze, not he or she, Max is a whip-smart radical queer resister to heteronormativity—and Malic White’s punky, impudent performance in the role is wonderful.

Hir deals with, as Mac has written, “the remnants of the former body politic and the rise of a new progressive body politic.” The trans teen Max is the character from whom we hear the sharpest critique of the old and the most embodied determination about the need for change.

“Ze is becoming an innovator in gender,” exclaims Paige, Max’s cisgender (AFAB) mother. She could be trilling she is so thrilled by Max’s transition. Paige is explaining Max to Isaac, hir 24-year-old, cisgender (AMAB) brother. Isaac has been away for three years in the Marines and is now a war-damaged veteran. He cannot believe what has become of his home and family. The house is a mess. His father is in a dress. He is shocked. “Your sister is not your sister,” says Paige. “Ze has become the new. A revolutionary…. Transgender.” Whereupon Isaac—in a muscularly urgent performance by Joseph J. Parks—rushes to the kitchen sink and pukes.

Emily Townley (Paige) in Hir. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Paige—a zany, free-spirited true believer in gender revolution—is one of the great new tragicomic roles in contemporary theater. She is the play’s passion and propulsion, and Emily Townley’s nonstop-power performance is not to be missed.

When Isaac arrives he finds his father, Arnold, in a dressing gown in clown makeup and wig. A year ago Arnold had a stroke and is now treated by his wife Paige like a brain-damaged child or an untrained house pet. She squirts him to scold him when he says a bad word or holds his penis. Isaac accuses Paige of humiliating and emasculating his father, and she does not deny it.

Paige’s demeaning of Arnold would read as senseless cruelty but for the back story that emerges about Arnold’s character before his stroke. The portrait Mac paints is revolting: an angry, abusive paterfamilias who beat both siblings and beat and raped his wife. “I joined the Marines so I could learn how to stop him from doing things like that,” says Isaac. The old Arnold is the measure of a man that the new Max, finding hir way between sissy and trans-masculine, never wants to pass as. And Arnold is the reason Paige has become a zealous convert to the cause of overthrowing “the male-dominated hegemonic paradigm.”

The previous Arnold is never literally onstage. The powerless and pathetic Arnold we see (in Mitch Hébert’s eloquent performance) bears no resemblance. But that pre-stroke patriarch drives the action of the play like a primal scream: The character stands in for all that Paige recoils from, all that she wants to avenge, and all that she wants to dismember about gender.

The fact that the ways Paige picks to do so are quite unhinged makes for a cascade of comedy. But what motivates Paige to do so is the show’s caustic undertone.

The argument Paige makes—in a sincere but fractured and scatter-brained way—is that the gender binary has got to go. The alternative would be to accept patriarchal power relations as a natural imperative, biologically inevitable.

Hir by Taylor Mac, now playing in fast-paced production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company directed by Shana Cooper, is a seditious celebration of the beyond-gender trend. And it’s one of the funniest and profoundest farces I’ve ever seen.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Hir plays through June 18, 2017, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

 

Jesus Christ Superstar

There’s an extraordinarily tender and touching moment in Signature Theatre’s ebullient Jesus Christ Superstar when Mary Magdalene (Natascia Diaz), after singing her gorgeous ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” snuggles alongside the sleeping body of Jesus (Nicholas Edwards), her backside to his front, and wraps his arm around her shoulders.

OMG Mary and Jesus are spooning.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Natascia Diaz (Mary)
in Jesus Christ Superstar at Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.jpg

The moment was breathtaking, and I happened to have a very intimate view of it. I was seated in the Max theatre balcony, and I was directly overhead, almost with them in bed. Typically reviewers write about a show from an omniscient point of view, as if what they saw is what everyone will see. So although the critical consensus on this Jesus Christ Superstar has been a chorus of praise, the full significance of Signature’s immersive staging of the show has gone relatively unremarked: With the audience seated right up close three quarters way around the stage, both in the orchestra at actor eye level and in the dress circle at bird’s eye level, everyone gets a very different show.

My perch on high offered some other cool observations that might not jump out for folks below. Seeing Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi’s set from above, for instance, made its cross shape unmistakably auspicious. And watching Karma Camp’s choreography and Director Joe Calarco’s blocking, I could see the cast in swift-shifting patterns of spatial motion that were their own kaleidoscopic display.

The cast is big. Ten actor-singers play named characters; another eight singer-dancers comprise an ensemble called Apostles. They all have amazing voices; their singing has been roundly lauded for good reason. And they fill the stage with what can seem dizzying energy. The beauty of watching from above, though, is that one can spot and follow with unobscured clarity individual performances that stand out, such that they can seem to be telling their own story. To give just three examples, the Apostle Vincent Kempski is particularly arresting, as is Michael J. Mainwaring, who plays Peter and whose dancing throughout is extraordinary. And Sherri L. Edelen, whose turn as Herod is the show’s comic highpoint, is also great fun to watch as a super trouper in the singing-dancing chorus

But blessed are the people in the balcony, for they shall find their own faves.

Nicholas Edwards as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo courtesy of Signature Theatre.

No seat in the Max is a bad one; no seat is all-seeing either. Much as I enjoyed my vantage point, the production sometimes verged on frenetic, its moments of emotional focus lost in hustle and bustle. And I imagine Jason Lyons’s lighting design did not look from downstairs at all as busy as it did from up. Patterns of light swept and swam in a flurry all over the floor with an overmuchness that called attention to itself way more than it would at stage level.

But there may be a greater message in Signature’s superbly theatrical staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, one that is implicit in the book and lyrics but that becomes uniquely incarnate at the Max. People’s points of view on the production in that environment will necessarily be dramatically different and disparate. Not unlike people’s points of view on the title character in real life.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

 

Jesus Christ Superstar plays through July 2, 2017, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

 

Ulysses on Bottles

Near the beginning of this transporting play, the actor Sarah Marshall, wearing a man-tailored white suit, unrolls a map of Gaza and lays it on the floor. She then dumps onto it 200 tiny plastic toy people. Down on her knees, she arranges them with her hands so they are exactly contained within the Gaza borders. Each figure, she says, represents 10,000 people, and in total these toys represent the two million Palestinians who live locked inside the Gaza Strip, “the most densely populated place on earth.”

Marshall is playing an allegorical character named Seinfeld who stands in for the Israeli surveillance state. She proceeds to explain in detail  how Israel ships into Gaza barely minimal food and other necessities, and how its captives’ procreation will within a few years make the place uninhabitable.

With this quirky symbolic show-and-tell explication, we immediately get a vivid picture in our mind of a what is in reality an inconceivable calamity—and in that eye-opening moment are dispelled all preconceptions of what a trenchant political play about the Occupation will look and sound like.

Michael Kevin Darnall as Ulysses and Sarah Marshall as Seinfeld in Ulysses on Bottles. Photo by Stan Barouh.

This will be no discourse or treatise. This will be no diatribe or tract. On the contrary this staging of Israeli Playwright Gilad Evron’s Ulysses on Bottles (translated by Evan Fallenberg) is every bit as startlingly theatrical in its conception and as engrossing in its execution as we have come to expect from Mosaic Theater Company. And Ulysses on Bottles is anchored by a performance in the title role—Michael Kevin Darnall as Ulysses—that ranks among the most viscerally transcendent and indelible yet seen in Mosaic’s distinguished two seasons.

The curious title bears explanation. “Ulysses” is the nickname given by the authorities to a jobless former teacher now in prison (the fictional character played by Darnell). Ulysses was arrested and charged for attempting to sail through Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza on a raft made of empty plastic bottles. His quixotic mission: to teach Russian literature in Gaza. Thus his handmade vessel had a cargo of books.

“Why Russian literature, of all things?” his pro bono defense lawyer, Izakov, demands to know. “You think the citizens of Gaza are particularly in need of Russian literature?”

“Believe me, the Gazans are dying to study Russian literature,” Ulysses says matter of factly. “It’s a breeze that rises higher than the kites they fly on the shore.”

The poetry and preposterousness in that reply epitomize what’s brilliant about Evron’s play. The notion that in the midst of their deprivation people in Gaza would find respite and uplift in Russian literature strains credulity.  But it precipitates a terrific play.

Surrounding the unleashed imagination of Ulysses are four supporting characters who grounded in the real world—that is to say, the society of Israeli professional privilege.

Matthew Boston as Izakov, Elizabeth Pierotti as Eden, and Chris Genebach as Horesh in Ulysses on Bottles. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Marshall’s Seinfeld is the most intriguing among them. Hard to figure where she’s coming from; she’s a symbol after all. As written she’s unpredictable. But Marshall makes her riveting..

Izakov is a flat-footed straight shooter who’s wrapped very tight, Matthew Boston in the role is rock solid. Izakov genuinely wants to help Ulysses get out of jail; he pleads with Ulysses to accept the state’s deal: release in return for a promise not to venture forth to Gaza forevermore. But a sympatico romantic Izakov is not, and the fact that his wife, a shallow society matron named Eden, is pressuring him to put on a pink dress and sing at a fundraiser has him in a funk.

Elizabeth Pierotti nails Eden’s smug smarm. Another lawyer, Horesh, comes in to the story as a self-serving foil to Izakov’s do-gooder-ism (to Horesh Gaza is “a fucking shit hole… If someone had the guts he would drop a bomb and wipe out the whole shebang”). Chris Genebach keeps him bearable, no mean feat.

That pink dress bit—an allusion to a Thomas Mann story—at first seems oddly out of place. But in a twist, that pink dress and that uptight lawyer have a scene together that enriches the play in the most surprising way. (Note that it comes with a musical earworm.)

Set and Costume Designer Frida Shoham has conceived an amazing unit set. It’s all gray, with walls up to the fly space, but they’re made of scrim such that actors can be seen before the enter and after they exit. There’s a wooden chair center stage that functions multiple ways, including as a glider. Lighting Designer Brittany Shemuga and Sound Designer Roc Lee animate this plain gray space for eye and ear whether in a prison or at a party.  And Serge Seiden directs with compelling clarity and concision. Among the most forceful scenes was the one with Ulysses alone in his cell is standing on the chair in agitation because his waste bucket has spilled.

Michael Kevin Darnall as Ulysses and Matthew Boston as Izakov in Ulysses on Bottles. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The collaboration between Seiden and Darnell had to have been extraordinary, because the actor is delivering a depiction of Ulysses’ inner turbulence that is so daring and disclosing it drives the momentum of the entire production. In each of his scenes—when he vehemently argues his cause and his case with his lawyer, when he’s alone in his cell venting his sexual frustration, when he remembers and reenacts his son, who was born severely disabled and died at age six—Darnell is nonstop transfixing.

Ulysses is imprisoned but his poetic passion flies sky high. He is a hero of the heart, an artist of resistance, a victor in vision even in defeat.  Quite remarkably, inexplicably actually, Ulysses on Bottles floats us into a headspace where only illogical allegory can make sense of the senseless. It’s a stunning theatrical voyage and not to be missed.

Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.

Ulysses on Bottles plays through June 11, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

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 by Robert Michael Oliver

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Sioux Falls

10th Muse Productions’ The Wedding Party was a huge hit in Capital Fringe 2015 (the DCMetroTheater Arts review called it a “delightful comedic romp”). It was a show that Maegan Dominy co-wrote (with Mimsi Janis).  Now in her own full-length play Sioux Falls, just premiered at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, Dominy weighs in with both levity and gravity on the hot-button topic of abortion.

The drama that drives the play, however, is not so much the contestedness of the political issue as the complicatedness in the personal narratives of three women who urgently need abortion services. As such Sioux Falls is about their whys, not the opposition’s thou shalt nots.

The women’s difficulties and destinies are very different, but their destination is the same. They are all en route to Sioux Falls, the only town in South Dakota where there’s a clinic that that can help them. In Sioux Fall‘s structure as skillfully set forth by Dominy, the obstacles in their path are as much the state’s restrictive abortion laws as the conflicted circumstances of their own lives.

Conceptually the play’s storytelling is in thirds, each centered on one of the three women, with each of their stories composed and acted in its own style.

Tess Higgins (Kat) and Jonathan Rizzardi (Robby) in Sioux Falls. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Kat is an ambitious grad student, a smart cookie and a would-be journo, who has shacked up the last four years with Robby, a wannabe rock star and amiable dim bulb. Upon learning she’s pregnant (“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckety, fuck…”), she asks Robby for help coming up with the price of an abortion. She’s not ready to have a kid. He wants her to have it but is always behind on his half of the rent. Cash-strapped but determined not to let her pregnancy or her partner deter her, she sets out in his heap for Sioux Falls with a credit card.

Kat’s trimester of the storyline is written and played as quick-witted rom-com. Tess Higgins as Kat is a star-quality comic actor who here displays a gift for millennial angst. And Jonathan Rizzardi as Robby is a thoroughly enjoyable dufus. Robby may be a stock slacker from many a recent movie, but there’s a comic chemistry between Rizzardi and Higgins that feels fresh and spontaneous. Moreover Dominy has given them the play’s funniest lines—which kept me chuckling a lot.


Allyson Harkey (Mara) and Seth Alcorn (Chris) in Sioux Falls. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Mara is an earnest and idealistic professor of journalism, up for tenure at a small college. Her devoted husband Chris is a contract lawyer. They love each other dearly and they are desperate to have a child. They’ve been trying without success; Mara has miscarried three times. Now pregnant again, they learn that the fetus Mara is carrying has a seriously impairing genetic disease. In shared sorrow they make the agonizing decision to make the drive to Sioux Falls.

Mara’s trimester of the storyline is written and played as soap opera for grownups. The writing, not at all maudlin, is astute and truthful. The characters’ concerns are expressive of honesty and affirmation in mature love. We get to know two individuals vividly and we feel their pain. Allyson Harkey brings to Mara both sensitivity and grit. Seth Alcorn brings to Chris both a sturdiness and vulnerability. The play is never more heartbreaking than during their second-act scene in a hospital room, when their grief peaks and the bond between them seems never more secure.

Mo O’Rourke (Annabelle, standing highest) with Mermaids (from left:) Jennifer J Hopkins, Bianca Lipford, and Ali Evarts in Sioux Falls. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Annabelle is a young woman who is delusional; she has three imaginary companions who are…mermaids (Disney’s The Little Mermaid made a big impression). She is also a battered wife, escaping with her life on a bus to Sioux Falls. The relationship between her abuse and her delusions emerges gradually. Her narrative is sobering and saddening, also often mystifying. Mostly we get to know her as a naïf, a woman who, kept isolated by a man she calls a monster, lacks any information or support that could save her, so she seeks survival in her own dream.

Annabelle’s poignant trimester of the storyline is written and played as magical realism. Thus it includes, peculiarly, expressionistic choreography featuring three Mermaids—Alana (Ali Evarts), Adella (Jennifer Hopkins), and Attina (Bianca Lipford), dressed in tights and shiny green skirts. It’s not clear till the end who they are or why they’re there, although between scenes they function handily to change set pieces. Mo O’Rourke’s brings to the role of Annabelle a touching simplicity and innocence along with a tremulous sense of being imperiled; she’s so watchable it hurts. And Dominy’s writing for Annabelle and her Mermaids reaches for a poetry of emergency and escape. But these passages, despite being ably performed, never cohere nor propel the play with the same clarity and impact that Kat’s and Mara’s narratives do.

Where the play really shows its stuff is when the three women’s stories coincidentally intersect. Mara and Kat have a scene together in a car that is stunningly written and performed: a knock-down confrontation between women of two different generations, the elder’s grievances against the younger on devastating display. And Kat and Annabelle have a scene together at a lake that is also beautifully written and acted: a moving depiction of one woman’s reaching out in sisterhood to rescue another.

Director Rachel Murray keeps the action in motion while focusing attention on the play’s many telling moments. Each of the Mermaid players doubles in other more naturalistic roles: Evarts as a pregnancy counselor and a clinic receptionist, Hopkins as a doctor, Lipford as another doctor and a nun. These parts they perform with uniform excellence.

Set Designer James Finley’s minimalist stage features a greenish scrim that becomes where mermaids swim. Lighting Designer Jason Afudem-Brinke helps distinguish the play’s three style dimensions. Sound Designer Niusha Nawab inserts striking music between scenes. Choreographer Nora Rosengarten evokes underwater ballet on a flat stage floor. And Playwright Dominy doubles as costume designer, fascinatingly revealing how she views how her own characters should dress (Robby’s floor-length camo bathrobe, for instance, is oddly perfect for the eccentric dude.)

Though the childlike magical realism in Sioux Falls lacks the persuasive appeal of its wonderful millennial rom-com and its profound mature melodrama, the scope of the play’s significance and the eloquence of its content far exceed the sum of its parts.

Meghan Dominy’s Sioux Falls is well worth a visit. It speaks from three hearts whose reasons male legislators know nothing of.

Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

Sioux Falls plays through June 11, 2017, at 10th Muse Productions performing at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

The Father

There are reasons aplenty not to miss The Father now playing at The Studio Theatre, and Ted van Griethuysen’s performance in the title role is foremost among them. Recently the recipient of a Helen Hayes Tribute award, van Griethuysen commands the stage with incomparable expressivity of body and voice and presence of mind—even as the character he plays, 80-year-old André, is losing his mental moorings.

Ted van Griethuysen and Erika Rose in The Father. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The entire production is one of the finest I’ve seen at Studio: The impeccable direction by David Muse. The accomplished supporting cast—Kate Eastwood Norris (Anne), Manny Buckley (Pierre), Caroline Dubberly (Laura), Erika Rose (Woman), Daniel Harray (Man). The design team, notably Lighting Designer Keith Parham and Sound Designer Ryan Rumery, whose inter-scene effects were like episodes of malfunction in André’s brain.

But what made me want to see this play in the first place—and the reason I would see it again in heartbeat—is the script by Florian Zeller (translated from French by Christopher Hampton). What Zeller does with the structure of this play is so brilliant and distinctive it qualifies for authorial adjective status as Zellerian (à la Pinteresque and Beckettian).

(I just googled Zellerian and got nothing. You read the coinage here first.)

I first experienced what is singularly Zellerian last August in London. There was a hit play running in the West End called The Truth. I recognized the name of the playwright (whom I had not otherwise heard of) as the author of a play programed for the 2016-2017 season at Studio. So I thought I ought to check him out.

Broadly speaking, The Truth is a four-character comedy about marital infidelity. Two pairs of straight people coupling outside their vows who then get caught inside their lies.

Ho-hum, right?

I am so tired of the adultery trope in theater. Commercial theater is obsessed by it. Bourgeois boulevard-comedy audiences can’t be tickled and titillated enough by it. Adultery is the guilty-pleasure masterplot for wedded masses yearning to breathe free.

Okay, maybe I’m overreacting. But my point is that Zeller’s The Truth took that overdone subject and transformed it into a script structure that fundamentally altered my experience of theatergoing. Scene after scene, the script led me to think one thing only to suspect in the next and the next it’s really another thing, then in  the end the script got me realizing as I looked back on its canny construction that this was not surreal; it all made sense. Moreover in playing with my perception of what is real—constantly reframing and renaming it—the script structure momentarily altered my own reality as a conscious, sentient self.

Just as Beckett’s plays affect how the world looks when we walk out of the theater, and just as Pinter’s plays attune us to subtexts in interpersonal relations, Zeller in The Truth takes apart how we piece together reality in our minds.

Kate Eastwood Norris, Ted van Griethuysen and Caroline Dubberly in The Father. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Which is exactly what Zeller does in The Father.  And as in The Truth, Zeller takes on a topic that has already been done to death in drama. In this case it’s late-life mental decline and senescent amnesia. Broadly speaking, The Father—which Zeller calls “a tragic farce”—is about a man with dementia. But that doesn’t begin to convey the play’s Zellerian genius. Scene after scene, we are led to think one thing only to suspect in the next and the next it’s really another thing, then in the end we realize as we look back on what has transpired it all makes sense; but with astonishment we realize Zeller’s script structure has brought us into the faltering mind of the main character. We have been experiencing what it’s like to think like he does. We have been both outside and inside the play.

I don’t want to give away how Zeller achieves this.  Best to be taken by perplexity and surprise at each twist and turn. But know going in to see The Father at Studio that your brain will be different when you come out.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Father plays through June 18, 2017, at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

VIDEO:

LINKS:

Review: ‘The Father’ at The Studio Theatre by Robert Michael Oliver

Review #2: ‘The Father’ at The Studio Theatre by Ravelle Brickman

Magic Time! ‘Notes on My Theatergoing in London’ by John Stoltenberg