Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Freshest Snow Whyte

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

Better make that: kids of all ages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes with no intermission.

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

LINKS:

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

‘Cinderella: The Remix’ at Imagination Stage

Watch on the Rhine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two of the questions I asked were:

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The River

A man has a remote rustic fishing cabin. There are lot of fish in the water nearby. He’s a rugged, outdoorsy guy and he loves to fish. In a Hemingway novel he would not be a fish out of water. This man has been coming to this cabin since he was seven and his uncle brought him here and taught him how to fish. His uncle also brought women here. A lot of women. The man cannot remember how many. The man does not want to be like that. He has made a vow to himself. He wants to fall in love with one woman. One woman only.  A woman whom he can bring to this idyllic mancave of a fishing cabin and with whom he can share the simple joy of trout fishing. That’s what he truly wants. That’s what he believes about himself. That’s who he tells himself he is. Not like his philandering uncle.

If that sounds fishy, like bait before a switch, it is.  For The River by Jez Butterworth, now making a splash at Spooky Action Theater, is intriguingly not what it seems. To the Man (a terrific Jeffrey Allin), it is the story of a trout-fishing tryst with his new girlfriend, the singular woman he loves. But Butterworth lets us the audience in on a very different story, a tantalizing tale of the heart that’s as for real as only the surreal can be.

We meet The Man’s new girlfriend, The Woman (the extraordinary Emma Jackson; she’s absolutely transfixing). They’re going to go fishing. In the next scene we meet someone else who is also The Man’s new girlfriend, The Other Woman (a splendid Karen Novack). They have just been fishing. In alternating scenes these two women continue to play a continuous role in the same narrative, which is both perplexing and very cool.

So how many other fish are there in the sea? each woman asks him, in effect.  None others, The Man avers. Yet we see with our own eyes that this Man exists in his own narrative as if with one woman; meanwhile two actual women exist in his narrative separately. To themselves, The Woman and The Other Woman are individuated, each drawn to The Man, each deserving of fidelity. They do find out they are not unique in his narrative; he apparently intends for them to know. But are they actually interchangeable to him? Like all trout are alike in the lake?

Director Rebecca Holderness with Assistant Director Jennifer Knight have taken what could easily be staged as a poetic paean to male-pattern myopia and turned it into an utterly fascinating portrayal of perspicacious  female points of view. Jackson and Novack establish their characters vividly, subtly revealing they each  know better than to fall for this man hook, line, and sinker. The Man is oblivious to their uniqueness, he doesn’t seem to see it at all; meanwhile we in the audience are riveted by it. Which is not to take away from Allin’s nuanced performance as The Man. He comes off sincere not sinister, gracious not guileful. He’s even a man who knows his way around a kitchen. There’s an amazing scene where he cleans and cooks a real fish (fresh caught by The Other Woman) and then serves it sizzling from the stove (to the delicious delight of The Woman). Whatta guy.

In its brief 90 minutes The River becomes a seductive deep dive into the drama of male-female hooking up. Self-delusion and disillusion. Best intentions and betrayal. Imbalance of power. All the everyday heartbreakers flayed and filleted before our eyes. Except The River lures us with lush language. It tickles us with comic riffs. It teases us with theatrical trickery. It stuns us with poignance. And it catches us with a mystery that won’t stop reeling in meaning.

Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies

There is a laugh track with this show. As in a prerecorded TV sitcom where the studio audience was cued to be amused, there’s an overhead LAUGH sign that flashes intermittently accompanied by canned har-hars and rim shots.

Sometimes the LAUGH sign lights when something is howlingly funny—as happens a lot in this marvelously mischievous new play by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, just opened at Mosaic Theater Company. And sometimes the sign lights when something is so not funny we cringe. Because what Chisholm has crafted is a dead-serious comedy so cunning it catches our conscience completely unawares.

The subject of Chisholm’s hilariously subversive script is race relations in America and the peril young black men are in. The story begins in what might seem a cliche: a jail cell where two 14-year-old black men are being held on trumped-up charges (arrested for “bein’ while black”).

We learn that one of them, Marquis, was adopted as an infant by a well-to-do white couple and grew up in this suburb called Achievement Heights with no consciousness of being black. His favorite author is Nietzsche; he doesn’t know who Tupac Shakur is. He’s going to grow up to be a buppie for real. Keith L. Royal Smith, wearing a hoodie over a prep school uniform, captures Marquis’s naivete exactly and endearingly.

The other young man, Tru, comes from Baltimore where he grew up in the projects, and he can quote Tupac chapter and verse. The clothes under his hoodie are nondescript street but he sports ruby-red sneakers. He is both astounded and appalled by Marquis’s cultural ignorance of his roots. Jeremy Keith Hunter nails Tru’s swagger and street smarts with charismatic grit.

Marquis’s mother, Debra, an ultra-lib lawyer, shows up to spring her son from the clink, and in a twist of white guilt gets Tru out too. She invites Tru to come have a sleepover with Marquis so he can have his “first ‘cultural’ friend.” Jennifer Mendenhall’s shrewd performance as Debra makes her earnest do-gooderism a running giggle.

Tru determines to school Marcus in what being black means. As a comedic plot engine this pays off brilliantly, not only because it sets up huge laughs but because it’s a vivid lesson about what being black means for those who’ve not lived it.

Tru writes a handbook for Marquis that’s 114 pages of “wit and wisdom on what it takes to be a young black man in America.” It’s a compilation of crude cracks…

To make sure your point gets across, end all disputes with the phrase “Bitch!”

Any and all conversations with the opposite sex are always about your dick.

…and no-joke dope…

Never forget you black. At times you may forget, but remember that they never forget. It’s better to remind yourself, than to have them remind you.

Tru’s truisms play out surprisingly when five of Marquis’s white schoolmates come on the scene, all their 14-year-old urges in bloom. Three are a gaggle of girls—named Prairie, Meadow, and Clementine—who pose incessantly for selfies and compare their crushes on boys. Two are dubious buddies—Hunter and Fielder. The three boys went trespassing one night, but Hunter and Fielder skedaddled leaving behind Marquis to get arrested on his own.

Mendenhall doubling as Prairie and Emma Lou Hébert playing Meadow live up to their characters’ white-sounding names with giddiness and wit. Clementine has shy designs on Marquis, and Madeline Burrows makes her so adorable how could he not fall head over heels for her? Well, because he’s a timid dweeb and lacks mojo, which Tru hilariously provides.

Hunter and Fielder?” exclaims Tru, dazed by the unbearable whiteness. Josh Adams brings to Fielder a plaintive wimpiness that’s a fine complement to the rowdy raunch of Dylan Morrison Myers’s Hunter. (Myers will later have a solo scene as Hunter trying to follow Tru’s rules for being black that’s a tour-de-farce.)

Observing the action from the sidelines and sometimes playing a part in it is the cop who busted Marquis, Officer Borzoi, a stern and stalwart Frederick Strother. He also does the pre-show speech, which establishes the show’s delightful metatheatricality. (There are, for instance, instant replays of certain scenes during which things turn out slightly different each time.)

Set Designer Ethan Sinnott hauls on stage two huge metal containers that look lifted from a ship’s hold. They can be rolled around, at times they open to reveal scene settings inside, as if in a world of flux and concealment that deconstructs before our eyes. Costume Designer Brandee Mathies contributes subtly to the characters’ believability, letting the script not the clothes poke fun at stereotypes. Lighting Designer Brittany Shemuga together with Projections Designers Mimi D’Autremont and Roc Lee  sustain visual tension between what could be cartoon and what could be calamity. (The birds’ eye view from an overhead video camera is sometimes projected on upstage screens to unsettling effect.) And besides laying down disconcerting laugh tracks, Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson pumps propulsive percussive rap between scenes.

The playwright in an interview with Dramaturg Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe was asked what surprised him about developmental workshops of Hooded. Chisholm answered:

I didn’t know it was a comedy. I think that was my biggest discovery. This play was so personal and so serious in my head that I didn’t really know how funny it actually was.

There were a lot of fine lines to walk with this production—not least because its comic intensity risks giving offense and not seeming serious, whereas the play contains at its core a young black man’s pain. Director Serge Seiden with Associate Director Vaughn Ryan Midder succeed in walking those lines superbly. Mosaic’s world premiere of Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies is an extraordinary experience—a crackling good comedy that unwraps what’s no laughing matter.

Running Time: Approximately one hour 40 minutes with no intermission.

Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies plays through February 19, 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.

Lizzie

Don’t groan but this is a bloody good show. It rocks, it roils, it’s saucy and sassy, it’s effin in-your-face.

The story is gory as you might expect. It’s about the legendary 1892 axe murder  of Lizzie Borden’s pa and stepma in Fall River, Massachusetts. At the time, the crime was a tabloid sensation. Then as now, the notion of women who kill obsessed the media.

Lizzie was tried but acquitted. Afterward she lived a quiet private life on her inheritance. To this day historians cannot suss out the perp and motive. But the mythology of Lizzie as culprit lives on in infamy and nursery rhyme.

In the early 1990s a rockin’ musical was made of the Lizzie legend. Its riot grrrl esthetic and postpunk score were perfect for flouting the straight-laced Victoriana of its source material. Similarly a few years later, alt rock in Spring Awakening thumbed its churlish nose at sexual repression coming down concurrently in Germany.

Has there ever been a musical genre more suited to defiance and revolt than rock?

That spirit of insubordination is on ample display in Pinky Swear’s pugnacious production of Lizzie. Director Marie Byrd Sproul turns the Anacostia Playhouse black box into a boom box of rebellion.

Musical Director Piero Bonamico (who also plays keyboard) leads a note-perfect  band: Katie Chambers (cello), Alice Fuller (percussion), Josh Ballard (bass guitar), and Mark Schramm (solo guitar). Together they give the score by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt a crowd-rousing rendition.

Accomplished as the musicians are, it’s four female actor/singers who turn this show into songs of insolence. The women appear as characters who are individuated in the narrative: Pinky Swear Artistic Director Karen Lange is Bridget, the Borden family’s maid. Alani Kravitz is Lizzie. Rebecca Speas is Emma, Lizzie’s sister. And Allyson Harkey is Alice, a neighbor with whom Lizzie trysts in the barn.

Each wears an outrageously witty outfit by Costume Designer Liz Gossens (corsets meet punk, Victorian goes raunch). And each can belt like a rocker buzzed on fury or a balladeer ablissed on tenderness. Their delivery of the lyrics by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner, which are really clever, doesn’t always land understandably. But their vocal, physical, and psychic cohesion leaves such a powerful impression of insurgency that the very notion of “women who kill” takes on a whole other meaning:

In the slang sense of noteworthy performance, these are women who kill.

Silent Sky

Lately the news has been resignifying theater more than usual. To resignify is not a commonly used verb but it’s a commonly understood thing. It means “to give new signification to,” to alter what something means. In the case of a play, it’s when life makes art betoken more than the artist imagined. Case in point: The hauntingly moving production of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky at Silver Spring Stage.

The play is about a real woman, Henrietta Leavitt, a brilliant American astronomer who in the late nineteenth century literally expanded human consciousness about how vast the universe is. She discovered a way to measure how far away stars are, at a time when astronomers thought the Milky Way (which Earth exists in like a teensy spec) is all there is. Wrong. Leavitt blazed the way to see that the universe has galaxies by the billions and it’s getting bigger. This she braved to do in a male-dominated profession decades before women had the vote.

A review by my DC Metro Theater Arts colleague Susan Brall puts the play in sharp focus and accurately praises it to the skies: “This trek into the stars will lift your soul and broaden your mind.”

But in these unsettling times, the play also bestirs consternation.

The morning I was to see Silent Sky,  I spotted a news story headlined “Little girls doubt that women can be brilliant, study shows”:

A study published Thursday in the journal Science suggests that girls as young as 6 can be led to believe men are inherently smarter and more talented than women, making girls less motivated to pursue novel activities or ambitious careers. That such stereotypes exist is hardly a surprise, but the findings show these biases can affect children at a very young age.

Really, girls as young as 6 disbelieve they can be brilliant?!

So it was cool to see in the community-theater audience of Silent Sky quite a number of kids. (The play is perfect for precocious youth. There are just a couple kisses and one “damn.”) Girls and boys alike were taking in Gunderson’s smart dramatization of the life and revolutionary accomplishment of a woman whose brain would not be contained: “If we’re not finding the largest truth,” Leavitt says at one point, “then what have we spent our lives doing?”

The continuing ceiling on young girls’ confidence in their intellect is not the only news that has compounded the significance of Gunderson’s play. Though Leavitt lived in a culture that did not value women’s scientific intelligence, it did still value science.

“I have fundamental problems with the state of human knowledge,” declares Leavitt early in the play. And we see her set out determined to increase human knowledge—through findings and facts, duplicable data, with eyes wide open, looking through a  lens clearly. “I specialize in what’s out there,” Leavitt says. Her breakthrough discovery allowed other astronomers to find “more sky.”

But a story now in the news dramatically resignifies Silent Sky. The cultural consensus that scientific findings matter is coming undone. Alarmingly, “alternative facts” are displacing the credibility of scientific research. Scientists across multiple fields are organizing as a protest bloc to refute lies that have been politically motivated to undermine confidence in facts and findings. Scientific data that disproves delusions is not just being  disputed; it’s being dispensed with and derided. It’s as if a dystopian dissembler-in-chief wants us to believe that Earth is the center of the universe.

This disturbing development was unimaginable in Leavitt’s time—and undreamt of when Gunderson sat down a few years ago to write a play about Leavitt’s life. Silent Sky was intended as a period piece that would speak to now about intelligence beyond gender. As written—and as performed, directed, and designed excellently at Silver Spring Stage—it inspires awe in us: Admiration for a woman who did not believe she was not brilliant, and wonder at a universe that extends far beyond what the naked eye can see.

Silent Sky is also now a period piece about a time in history when science was not yet treated as an enemy of truth. There’s no more important time to see it than right now.

 

Roe

The title of Lisa Loomer’s riveting play Roe refers to both the pivotal Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade and the person known as Jane Roe who was the plaintiff in it. Loomer dramatizes both stories—why and how the case came to be and who the person was and what happened to her. The play now running at Arena’s Kreeger Theater would have been electrifying had the prochoice presidential candidate won. Now with the outcome that was and will be, Roe plays like a thunderbolt to a body politic already in shock.

“History ain’t over yet,” says Jay Floyd (Jim Abele), the lawyer who represented the losing side when Roe v. Wade was first argued before the Supreme Court. Actually he nearly sneers this, to Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) after her argument before the bench on behalf of Jane Roe prevailed. The words hang in the air at Arena with  foreboding.

Loomer’s storytelling is not all gloom and doom, however; it’s highly theatrical, often delightfully comedic, an artful blend of docudrama, infotainment, and comic strip. Its cheeky main character, Norma McCorvey, the real Jane Doe, has a hilarious gift for gab (“It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a pool table,” she says at one point. And “I’m so poor I can’t afford to pay attention”). As written by Loomer and performed with scrappy joie de vivre by Sara Bruner, Norma commands attention as one of the most fascinating female characters on the contemporary stage. And though the life-and-liberty stakes of the drama are dead serious, and its portent now could not be more dire, Director Bill Rauch puts the cast of twelve through paces that have plenty of pricelessly funny payoffs.

Rauch, who is Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director, commissioned Loomer to write a work about the Roe case as one of 37 plays “sprung from moments of change in United States history” for OSF’s ambitious American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. The play premiered at OSF as a coproduction with Arena Stage, which recently announced Power Plays, a ten-year new-play initiative focusing on DC’s “unique theatrical voice on politics and power.” Thus the role of Roe as both legal case and playscript has significance not only now but here—a short march away from the Supreme Court.

Loomer pits the two historical figures Sarah Weddington and Norma McCorvey against each other, and in Loomer’s construction, the tensions between them have nearly as much drama as the contested legal questions. McCorvey  was a poor, pregnant 22-year-old seeking an abortion when she was recruited by Weddington, then a 24-year-old recent law school grad, to be the plaintiff in a challenge to a Texas anti-abortion law. Their personalities and backgrounds differ sharply. Neither as written is particularly likeable (we’re not meant to cozy up to them, this isn’t a sentimental play). But Sarah and Norma each become so vivid in performance by Agnew and Bruner that they seem to have stepped on stage from life.

Actually, in a clever scripting move, Loomer has them step on stage from the pages of their own autobiographies. In recurring direct address to the audience, Sarah and Norma bicker over their contradictory and inconsistent versions of events. Weddington’s A Question of Choice (1992) and McCorvey’s I Am Roe (1994) disagree on significant points, and the script makes dramatic use of the disparities. The script also spots discrepancies between I Am Roe and McCorvey’s subsequent book, Won by Love (1998), written after renunciation of her role in Roe v. Wade.

“It’s really hard to talk objectively about history, about the ‘truth,'” complains Linda Coffee (Susan Lynsky), a colleague of Weddington’s. “Which is why I never wrote a book.”

When the play begins we see Sarah in a women’s consciousness-raising group whose members, having just read Our Bodies, Our Selves, are apprehensively lying on pillows and fumblingly following its instructions for inspecting their cervixes. Sarah reads them what they need: “a flashlight, a lubricant such as Crisco, a handmirror, and a speculum.” It’s a shamelessly funny scene.

We meet Norma in a  lesbian bar as a good-time gal, drinking, dancing, and making out. The tension between this delightful dyke and the ladylike lawyer gets the play off to a snappy start. And in two dozen tight scenes, the play goes from 1969 to now.

In an artful gimmick, the ensemble at times wear robes to represent the Supreme Court, then take them off to reveal in costume the various characters they play. And what a fascinating sweep of history gets depicted through this terrific cast’s many guises! In addition to the several fictional characters they play…

Gina Daniels appears as Aileen (McCorvey’s friend) and Florynce Kennedy (the famous activist lawyer and civil-rights advocate). Susan Lynskey appears as Linda Coffee (an attorney who with her colleague Weddington brought the 1972 case that challenged the Texas anti-abortion law) and Eleanor  Smeal (president of the National Organization for Women). Amy Newman appears as Gloria Allred (the influential women’s-rights lawyer, who befriended Norma). (With Allred now in the news, the character’s entrance on opening night brought a round of applause.) Pamela Dunlap appears as Mary (McCorvey’s alcoholic and emotionally abusive mother) and Kate Michaelman (president of NARAL Pro-Choice America). Catherine Castellanos appears as Connie Gonzales (McCorvey’s loyal long-time partner). Mark Bedard appears as Henry McCluskey (a Dallas adoption lawyer). Jim Abele appears as Ron Weddington (Sarah’s husband), Jay Floyd (who represented Dallas County DA Henry Wade and argued the anti-abortion case),  and Philip “Flip” Benham (an Evangelical Christian minister and leader of Operation Rescue). Richard Elmore appears as Supreme Court Justice Blackmun (who wrote the Roe v. Wade decision) and Henry Wade (the governor of Texas whose name is on Roe v. Wade). Zoe Bishop appears as Melissa (Norma’s first child, in the legal custody of Norma’s mother).

Set Designer Rachel Hauck constructs multilevel platforms that glide in and out, with steps that lead down to the orchestra (evoking the steps leading up to the Supreme Court building). This makes for a nice sense of shifting space, with scenes fluidly brought into focus by Lighting Designer Jane Cox.

We get a clear narrative sense of place—be it a pizza parlor, a dive bar, a swanky backyard, a modest home, a period disco, an abortion clinic, a book-filled law office, a stately courtroom—from photographs on the rear screen selected by Projection Designer Wendall K. Harrington. And between scenes and after, Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast uses pop music to lend a narrative of time through the decades. Most remarkably, Prendergast also allows us to hear the authentic voices of Justices Burger, Stewart, White, and Marshall during Weddington’s argument before the court. The “you are there” effect is both disquieting and amazing.

Costume Designer Raquel Barretto has made fine forthright choices for the male characters but some quirky ones for the female. Curiously, the women’s clothes are suggestive of the period but border on cartoony. Members of the cervix-seeking CR group, for instance, are dressed in such bad taste it could be satire. Even Sarah sometimes wears sendups of clueless dressing for success. Conceivably the intent was to align with the broad comedy in the play, which it definitely does. Still, so many caricature frocks in a pro-woman play takes some getting used to.

Wig Master Devon Ash, however, deserves a special hat tip. The actors’ doubling and tripling and the characters’ passage through time are communicated instantly through coif. At moments we get to see the actors take off one wig then don the next, even as we see busy stage hands briskly shift set pieces on and off. The aura of “you are there watching the workings of law” nicely encompasses a sense of “you are here watching the workings of theater.”

It will come as no news to those familiar with the fallout from Roe v. Wade that the woman at the center of the case in real life converted to Evangelical Christianity then Roman Catholicism and joined the anti-abortion movement. To its credit the play Roe makes that character arc completely comprehensible and emotionally compelling.  When Norma, for instance, learns from reading A Question of Choice that Weddington herself had an abortion and never told Norma, she is outraged: “If you wanted to help me get an abortion, why didn’t you tell me where you got yours?!” Norma yells, understandably feeling betrayed.

Norma comes to feel “used by the feminists and used by the press,” and the play pulls no punches about how that in fact was what happened and how it left her isolated, without support—and, importantly, needy for the embrace and acceptance of fervent believers. Eventually, though, McCorvey comes to feel used by the Evangelical Christian antiabortion movement as well. She was never cut out to be a poster person and the play contains the tragedy of what happened when she was made one..

Loomer plays with time, in a way that is  illuminating and often startling, by having characters mention what would happen to them in the future or what their obituaries would say. The script is surprisingly balanced as well. There are various passages of histrionics—emotional appeals on both the “abortion is choice” and “abortion is murder” sides of the controversy. And there is acknowledgement of the biases and uncertainty in first-person history. The result is a kind of authorial omniscience that is both empathetic and impartial, and ever respectful of the conflicting passions and principles at play in this ongoing national drama.

To be sure, the play does stay faithful to the spirit of the Roe v. Wade decision in underscoring the principle that the right to choose (under current interpretation of the Constitution, at least) belongs solely to the pregnant woman—not the state, not the church, not anyone else. In a surprise of a scene that functions like a coda, a young pregnant woman named Roxanne (a wonderful Kenya Alexander) confronts Sarah and demands to know whether abortion is murder. Sarah waffles, citing the fact that a fetus has not been judicially defined as a person.

“Don’t give me the law,” says Roxanne; “give me the truth.”

“We can give you the choice,” Sarah answers measuredly, “but you have to choose.”

Roe will resolve no legal argument nor make no political dispute go away; a play cannot do that. But in Lisa Loomer’s transparent determination as playwright to empathize with all her characters, to be fair to all the players, this work exemplifies and models how to feel where one’s opponent is coming from even if one cannot in conscience condone where they have gone. That alone makes Roe necessary now more than ever.

Running time: About two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Roe plays through February 19, 2017, at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase tickets online.

LINK:

Magic Time!: A Report on the Women’s Voices Theater Festival Reading of Lisa Loomer’s ‘Roe’ at The Kennedy Center by John Stoltenberg

Trailer for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production:

Lisa Loomer talking about getting the commission and the choices she made writing the play:

The Hard Problem

I love when a play starts out as a fascinating head trip—a smart, high-concept exhilaration of ideas—then propels me headlong into an overwhelming flood of emotion. It’s like being transported along a neural pathway from brain to heart that the playwright has turned into a thoroughfare of theatrical euphoria.

Tom Stoppard scripts that extraordinary excursion with his new play The Hard Problem, now in an exquisitely scintillating and astonishingly affecting production directed by Matt Torney at Studio Theatre.

What knocked me out about the play is that the central conflict in it is entirely ideational. Quite literally, Stoppard started with years of reading in the fields of brain science, quantitative analysis, behavioral research, game theory, and such. Then with his trademark alchemy he created characters and story lines to put on stage a dramatic distillation of what captured Stoppard’s curiosity to begin with—a conceptual question that may be humanity’s ultimate brain teaser: What is consciousness? How does it come about? Where does it come from and where does it reside?

To wit: Are we merely material mortals who run through our paces like lab rats and make solely self-interested choices like supercomputers sheerly on the basis of cost-benefit calculations?

Or rather: Is there, exterior to our gray matter, something we call a mind or a soul or a consciousness that may somehow cathect with nonmaterial transcendence (aka godness) such that we may be inspired to altruism (aka goodness) that is inexplicable as self-interest?

That is the hard problem to which Stoppard’s title refers and that his characters give voice to. And as they do, throughout the play, it’s brilliant listening. Pithy formulations of the riddle burst like popcorn kernels on a hot griddle. Just as you want to gobble one another comes along.

The central character Hilary (Tessa Klein), for instance, is a whip-smart psychology grad who gets a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science and says her prayers every night before bed. In her words,

The study of the mind is not a science. We’re dealing in
mind stuff that doesn’t show up in a scan – accountability,
duty, freewill, language, all the stuff that makes behaviour
unpredictable.

When her colleague Amal (Shravan Amin) tells her, “There is overwhelming evidence that the brain causes consciousness,” Hilary retorts,

There’s overwhelming evidence that brain activity
correlates with consciousness. Registers consciousness.
Nobody’s got anywhere trying to show how the brain is
conscious.

Leo (Martin Giles), Hilary’s boss, puts the problem in this nutshell:

Cognition – reasoning, imagining, believing . . . that’s
hard. How does the brain do self-consciousness? . . . Where is it happening? How?

Meanwhile, Spike (Kyle Cameron), Hilary’s tutor and sometime bedmate, avers the mind-is-matter view:

Culture, empathy, faith, hope and charity, all the flipsides
of egoism, come back to biology, because there just
ain’t anywhere else to come from except three pounds
of grey matter wired up in your head like a map of the
London Underground with eighty-six billion stations
connected thirty trillion ways, hard-wired for me first.

The scientific/philosophical/religious conundrum at the core of The Hard Problem is as much its plot driver as an inciting action would be in some other play. From that central conflict Stoppard sets in motion a through line for his main character that touches upon each hot spot of the argument—then wraps up at the end with a revelation and a resolution that profoundly transcend all the contention.

All of this makes viewing The Hard Problem a peak theatergoing experience: You’re taking on board the ongoing debate even as you’re tracking the characters swept along in it. And you’re having a left-brain/right-brain adventure that’s sublimely mind-blowing.