Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Rameau’s Nephew

There comes a scene in Rameau’s Nephew at Spooky Action Theater when Robert Bowen Smith playing He (the titular character) coughs an aria. Literally. Just like an opera singer except without music or lyrics. He goes on and on wordlessly, hackingly, raspingly, inflecting cough after ridiculous cough with a sincere and silly musicality that had me howling with laughter.

The stunt stopped the show. Remarkably it apparently left Smith’s vocal cords unscathed, for he was not the least bit hoarse after. And in retrospect this passage was the only time in the play when his character uttered something morally neutral. Because pretty much all the rest of the time, he was a shameless reprobate who reveled in his self-aggrandizing amorality the way a pig  delights in mud. (I’m not going to say how, because so much of the fun of the show is finding out how ingeniously this penniless fellow survives by being a conniving cad.)

Smith’s antic tour-de-force performance—a reason to rush to see this show—somehow turns the character’s appallingly selfish ethos into endlessly entertaining sketch comedy. I cannot recall a more enjoyable character on stage whose value system is so utterly bereft of a care for anyone but himself.

Rameau’s Nephew—directed deftly by Richard Henrich—is essentially a quick-witted comedy of morals, in which someone so profligate  must of course have someone proper to scandalize and shock. The straight man, accordingly, is a cerebral character the program calls I, a bourgeois fop played by Ian LeValley with punctilious panache.

The debate between them, all of it bristling with wit, is not at all one-sided. In fact the script by Shelly Barc and Andrei Belgrader adapted from Denis Diderot’s 18-century classic dialogue is surprisingly even-handed in its treatment of the two.

The character He, it turns out, does have one virtue, a talent for music. And in the end the character I finds himself marveling that the character He is so “attuned to music but deaf to morality.”

Ethics tends to be the engine of much of my favorite theater. When done well, the contest of morals in the conflicts between characters provides some of the art form’s most satisfying pleasures and unique provocations, a point in time and space where esthetics and ethics do a pas de deux that begins on a stage and continues in one’s mind. Such an event is now happening at Spooky Action in a  smart, scintillating, and side-splitting  production of Rameau’s Nephew.


I’d never been to Beertown, though I knew it by reputation as a must-visit burg. Folks had told me of this storied hamlet in the heartland where the local citizenry gather every five years to remember and reevaluate their past, reconnect with who they are, and reunite as a community. I knew one day I’d have to go there for myself. Because how many small towns ever do that, look backward and inward at once? And of those earnest villages that try to, how many know how to do it well? More to the point, how many have figured out how to make their polis a more perfect union by making it a place for everyone?

It may take a village to be a village, but civic cohesion is complicated, and municipal consensus is messy.

I knew going to Beertown was going to be quite a trip (literally, because I don’t have a car to get there). Thankfully the good folks at dog & pony DC have brought to town their very accurate simulacrum of a Beertown town hall meeting—held in an actual local gymnasium, festooned in blue bunting for the occasion—and peopled it with friendly townsfolk, whom they play-act very persuasively. So convincing was the ambiance and amiability I found, in fact, that as soon as I walked in with my nametag on and was warmly welcomed, I began to feel like a Beertonian myself. Like I had shown up an outlier but was about to belong.

And that was the most curious thing. The way the play-acted people treated me and talked to me began to turn me into someone I’m not—just as if I was play-acting too!

I was a little anxious about all this. I didn’t want to be brainwashed into any cult or anything (smiley face)! Plus I’m naturally standoffish, and if something promises audience participation I’m inclined to stay home. So I went straightaway to the dessert buffet, which was laden with a potluck of cookies and other goodies. Thereupon I got a sugar rush that calmed me down.

Around the gym were displayed placards about the history of Beertown along with some relevant artifacts. (Afterward I discovered the town’s tourist-friendly website, where I learned lots more.) Turns out artifacts are a big deal for Beertonians. Like yuge. For more than a century they’ve kept an assortment of oddments in a time capsule that they open every five years to decide by majority vote which new artifacts should go in and which former ones should come out. They call it their Quinquennial Time Capsule Celebration and this was their twenty-first. An agenda in the printed programs on our seats listed all the separate ceremonies this process entails. It also included lyrics to the uplifting (if awkwardly phrased) “Beertown Hymn,” which at one point everyone sang, newcomers and veteran play-actors alike.

Behind each object selected for the time capsule is a story of its enormous historic, emotional and/or artistic importance, and during the program proponents of new  accessions made speeches to stir up sufficient votes.

I was seriously surprised how full of feeling and moving these speeches were. Suddenly what had seemed simply an interesting if quirky emulation of a small-town ceremony went deep into personal lives and moistened some eyes. Certainly mine welled up.  One Beertonian who was Deaf put forth a book she related to as someone who always felt like an outsider. Another Beertonian put forth a military medal to honor a  veteran who had came home from serving his country in Iraq only to end up homeless. Yet another Beertonian who was black put forth a wooden shoe shine kit that was made by and belonged to his beloved father.

Suddenly these three singular stories became synecdoches for the sorrows, struggles, and aspirations of whole communities whose place within the body politic was contested and not yet assured. And significantly these stories were  being told before a gathering of townspeople who now had to reckon as in a democracy with how best to do e pluribus unum.

For some apparently arbitrary reason there can be only thirteen artifacts in the Beertown Time Capsule at any one time, so debate about which should make the cut got heated. But the fact of that cap also imposed a communal discipline and commitment to peaceable protocol that was as instructive as it was inspiring.

Mayor Michael Soch chaired the proceedings very proficiently such that when he declared the arguing over, the content of all the disparate characters in the room could find civil form: Votes were counted, the collection of artifacts updated, the time capsule closed for another five years, the meeting adjourned, and the event ended. Ostensibly ceremonial, it had actually been cathartic. Purportedly a town meeting, it had resembled the fractious U.S. system in microcosm. A seeming performance, it transformed hearts and minds.

Do go to Beertown. It’s a really nice place to visit. To eat dessert. To learn the lore. To meet new peeps. To play-act democracy. To practice conscientious inclusion and authentic civility.

If only we all could live there all the time.

But especially now.


Editor’s note: Our reviewer, John Stoltenberg, got kind of carried away with the artifice he experienced when he attended what was actually a remounting of the acclaimed dog & pony DC devised-theater piece called Beertown. As such the production had real credits, which John, absorbed as he was, neglected to mention. We have spoken with him about that.

Performers: Joshua Drew (Mayor Michael Soch), Jacob Yeh (Quiquennial Warden Franklin Li), Eileen Earnest (Archivist Joann Sugarman), Natasha Gallop (Patricia Brown), Amelia Hensley (Barbara “BB” Northup), DeJeannette Horne (Joseph Rodgers Davenport), Jon Reynolds (Fire Marshal Liam Murphy), James Caverly (Nate Brunner). Directed by Rachel Grossman. Designed by Colin K. Bills & Ivania Stack. Lead ASL interpreters: Brittany Quickel, Charlotte McGrath. Assistant Director: Kala Granger. Stage Manager: Sam Reilly.

Running Time (varies depending on how long Beertonians deliberate): Approximately two hours 30 minutes, including one recess.

Beertown plays through November 7, 2016, at dog & pony DC performing at Thurgood Marshall Center for Service & Heritage, 1816 12th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Like a gift that keeps on giving, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream keeps on rekindling. Dreamer after dreamer reconceives it as if anew. And last night that classic spark reignited at Gallaudet University, where the Theater and Dance Program presented a production to be delighted by—whether this be your first Dream or umpteenth.

“It is sweet comedy,” Bottom reminds his fellow Pyramus-and-Thisbeans. The same must be said of Director and Scenic Designer Ethan Sinnott’s staging, although it is, in a very funny way, pitch dark as night.

The set, for starters, is a stark all-black abstraction with a cascade of askew stairs, irregular shapes and odd angles, and cutouts and floor vents through which Lighting Designer Annie Wiegand has light peeking in as if from stars in the sky or some netherworld. No royal palace or enchanted woodland this, it is a macabre magic box. Branches of birch stripped of foliage are stuck in holes about the floor to indicate forest, but that’s as lush as it gets. The sense we are in some underworld rather than fairyland is underscored when we meet the fairies.

And by gosh they look like riffraff punks or downtown goth kids dressed all in black leather with studs and chains.  Oh and they also wear menacing facepaint. (Costume Designer Stephanie Fisher does the thug garb; Makeup Artist Nikolya Sereda, the masked  faces.)  The distance between one’s preconception of airy spirit sprites and this merry band of marauders remains a hilarious cognitive dissonance throughout the show

The effect is made all the more fun by the actors, who play it to the hilt. The role of Puck is performed by the luminous Miranda Medugno (Puck Prime) along with Jene Enabore (Puck 2) and Paige Hawkins (Puck 3). Together they make one badass trio.

Oberon looks more Hells Angels than fairyville, and Andrew Morrill’s performance of him as a scary heavy is topped off by two foot-high hair spikes on his head. Titania is drama queen of the night in the captivating Chelsea Hilaire’s lusty incarnation. And assorted other fairies appear as ubercool hooligans: Fairy (Yader Martinez), Moth (Tyresha Collins), Peaseblossom (Krystle Stewart), Cobweb (Caldonia Wilding), and Mustardseed (Emily Catalfamo).

Visiting Professor Howie Seago brings to the role of Bottom a seasoned comic gift along with gravitas, and he anchors well the ridiculous ragtag bunch of Quince (Ryan Barrett), Flute (Brandon Holst), Snout (Chukwudi Kalu), Starveling (Dae-Kun Kim), and Snug (Nate Eubanks).

In a nice touch, Sinnott has the fairies meddle in scenes even when they’re written to be offstage, including when the Rude Mechanicals are prepping their preposterous playlet. We see the would-be actors  wander amusingly across stage now and then, their scripts in hand, trying to learn their lines. And in a really silly running sight gag, they sometimes seem to step in shit.

This production is packed as full of sight-gag delights as a piñata.  Much of the pleasure stems from the hilariously hyper-expressive physical comedy in the acting style that animates the Bard’s poetry into ASL. The result is that the actors literally transcend the text by adding a whole other dimension of humor. I don’t know  sign so I couldn’t catch what they were up to, but I suspect it was a lot. One instance I recognized cracked me up:  When Bottom says, “I am a man as other men are,” another actor’s cupped hands appear below his crotch to indicate cajones.

Sumit Malik as Theseus and Stephanie Kesterke as Hippolyta make a suave and sophisticated couple, and leave no doubt there’s a liplocked fire in their loins. Farhan Rana is unhinged with rage as Egeus, and Britton Auman and Duvi Silva as Philostrate 1 and 2 play twin factotums with aplomb.

The knockabout antics of the four lovers become an ongoing entertainment all their own: William Millios as Demetrius, Aylah Cadwell as Hermia, Casey Johnson-Pasqua as Helena, and the magnetic Gideon Firl as a  James Dean–like Lysander. No one is credited as fight and tumbling choreographer (or mating-dance captain), but someone amazing put these actors through the paces that became breathtaking stunts.

For hearing audiences, voice actors Mary Beth Morgan, David Walsh, Carol Spring, TD Smith, Grant Chism provide simultaneous interpretation. (There is also a sound design by Robert Pike that, I have been informed, was not playing back correctly last night.)

Gallaudet University is the DC host site for “First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare,” a national traveling exhibition sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library, The American Library Association, and the Cincinnati Museum Center. It will be on display at Gallaudet through October 31, 2016, and this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is part of it.

I can’t help thinking Shakespeare would be tickled to see his words so alive in motion.

Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes, including one intermission.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream presented by the Gallaudet University Theatre and Dance Program plays through November 6, 2016 at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. All performances are signed and voice interpreted except Sunday, October 23, 2 pm; Thursday, October 27, 8 pm; and Saturday, November 5, 2 pm, which are signed only. For tickets, purchase them  online.

Bloody Poetry

So far as I can tell, Catholic University of America’s Drama Department turns out a lot of local talent. I keep seeing mentions of  it in program bios around town. Must be something good going on there, I’ve thought to myself. But before Bloody Poetry, I had not seen an actual CUA production (for which, as a fan and proponent of university theater, I claim no excuse). And what I saw made me appreciate how an academic theater program sets high bars to make students stretch.

Bloody Poetry kicked off the school’s 2016-2017 season, which aims, an online note says, to “examine what dreams and nightmares motivate people to seek a better future.” The 1984 play by Howard Brenton is about English lit notables Percy Bysshe Shelly and Lord George Gordon Byron and their circle of mistresses, hangers-on, and wives.

Though hoity-toity literary in its language, Bloody Poetry depicts its protagonists’  loves and lusts with the lurid candor of the National Enquirer and Real World. If you were looking for a play to catch the attention of an academic crowd who wouldn’t be caught dead in a dead poets society, Bloody Poetry would be a relatable pick. Given all the play’s historically accurate sexual goings-on, the Romantic Age might well be called the Randy Age. The text is also very frank about the era’s rampant STDs, so there’s a subtle safer sex message as well.

The school’s resources were well deployed. Costume Designer Julie Cray-Leong provided beautifully lacy gowns for the ladies and handsome vests and great coats for the gents. Scenic Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s evocative painted backdrop could seem both land and sea. Lighting Designer Dr. Tom Donahue’s plot worked well (though quite a few cues seemed too abrupt). Director Gregg Henry created some powerful stage pictures and tell-tale tableau and made wonderful use of the wide wine-red curtain, which at one point was hoist by Bysshe like a sail and at another became the water in which his abandoned wife Harriet Westbrook drowned herself. And Sound Designer Justin Schmitz offered a simply stunning  soundscape—one of the finest I can recall hearing in live theater. It ranged from lovely interludes of classical music to undertones of undulating sea and seemed the compelling emotional underscore of the entire production.

Six student actors played the history-based roles: Dylan Fleming (a horndog Lord Byron), Desiree Chappelle (Claire Clairemont, Byron’s bodacious mistress), Danielle Scott (a timid Mary Shelly, who will become the second Mrs. Bysshe—and during the play  gets her idea to write Frankenstein), Noah Beye (a leading-man-looks Bysshe  and Byron’s peer in philandery), Morgan Wilder (Bysshe’s betrayed first wife Harriet Westbrook, whose suicidal monolog starts Act Two), and Kevin S. Boudreau (a prudish Dr. William Polidori, who entertains the audience with regular reports on all the scandals like a priggy TMZ).

The challenge of Brenton’s script for actors is that because it is so literary, so high-flown poetic (really, it invites later reading it’s so lush), it presents a temptation to declaim and proclaim at the expense of finding and feeling the characters’ inner emotional lives.  And the cast, while uniformly appealing and earnest, rarely avoided that textual trap.

To paraphase Robert Browning (and perhaps discern CUA’s intent in selecting this challenging play), student actors’ reach should exceed their grasp. Because that’s how they’ll get better.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Bloody Poetry played October 13 to 16, 2016, at The Catholic University of America’s Callan Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington DC. Tickets for the remainder of the Department of Drama’s 2016–2017 season are available online.


‘Bloody Poetry’ at Taffety Punk Theatre Company at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop by Robert Michael Oliver


Kiss is a work to be reckoned with. Its power and importance, its comedic wit and caustic intelligence, make it a major theatrical event of the season. For anyone who prefers shows to have substance and art to be a portal to what matters, this new play now at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company will be a mind blower.

But it would be wrong to reveal why.

Kiss, written by the acclaimed Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón, is performed without intermission, but the text is constructed in three acts, or movements, each staged in a distinct style from a different point of view.  I can  tell you about the first, and drop a few hints about the rest. But I dare not defuse the bombshells that come later.

The play seems to begin trivially, on a living room set. Curiously it looks like it’s in some foreign city but it’s a little off. The back wall is a carpet on which hangs a cheesy portrait of a couple; a huge brown leatherette sofa overflows with sparkly throw pillows; there’s an a odd plastic potted palm; a fake doorway stands stage left. Hadeel (Shannon Dorsey), wearing a headscarf, nervously welcomes Youssif (Joe Mallon), who’s dressed casually, and a droll tête-à-tête starts up. Hadeel has a boyfriend, Ahmed, who hasn’t arrived yet. Youssif has a girlfriend, Bana, who hasn’t arrived yet either. They are all four fast friends and have planned a double date to watch a television soap opera. Yet now Youssif declares his passion for Hadeel and there ensues a hilariously absurd seduction that continues as Ahmed (Tim Getman) and Bana (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) arrive.

We are in a quite off-kilter melodrama here, a silly/sly send-up of telenovelas. Kiss is the first play written by Calderón in English, and the script’s comedic idiom is ridiculously rich, the humor dry with a tart twist. Youssif, for instance, trying to persuade Hadeel to love him even though she loves Youssif’s best friend Ahmed, mansplains:

You can love two men at the same time. You can. The heart is a big muscle and yours is bigger than normal. I know. And it happens to a lot of women.

For her part, Hadeel waffles between requiting and rejecting Youssif’s advances (and Shannon Dorsey plays Hadeel’s hot/cool vacillations to the hilarious hilt):

Hadeel: Every time you and Bana come here to watch TV… when you leave I just want to scream TAKE ME, Youssif. TAKE ME WITH YOU. I just want to kiss your leather jacket. I want to put you to sleep. Forgive me, Bana. Youssif. I want to see you naked. I want to see you eat and when you are done I want to lick your plate until it’s completely clean.
Youssif: Please marry me.
Hadeel: No…
Youssif: Hadeel.
Hadeel: Don’t touch me.
Youssif: Marry me.
Hadeel: Leave me alone.

Ahmed arrives, also dressed casually, then Bana shows up, in dramatic movie-star garb (she is in fact a soap opera actor). Thereafter the story bubbles along like a tickling hot tub, the four never quite sorting their crazy love-crossed complications, the comedy buoyed by tight writing and terrific acting. Gradually the suspicion dawns that none of this is what it seems. As we are to learn in the next of the three acts, it decidedly is not.

The second act is a communication via Skype between the actors we’ve seen performing the soap opera—the script of which they found on the Internet—and the Woman (Lelia TahaBurt) they have identified as its author. She is in Lebanon and is at times translated by an Interpreter (Ahmad Kamal).  There will be talk of a kiss. And talk of a cough. And what we learn will turn everything we have seen into an experience entirely unexpected and possibly unprecedented.

Set and Costume Designer Misha Kachman and Lighting Designer Max Doolittle do far more than meets the eye in the first act. Just watch and see. Sound Designer James Bigsbee Garver and Projections Designer Alexandra Kelly Colburn pull out all the stops. And Yury Urnov, who directs this text with masterful skill and a politically astute imagination, contributes a coda that will leave you shell shocked.

Kiss at Woolly Mammoth is a must-see milestone in the history of entertainment with a conscience. And it’s about as brain changing as theater gets.

Speech & Debate

“Why can’t we talk about anything real in school?” The question is posed by Solomon, a nerdy high school student and wannabe journalist, whose teacher has forbidden him to report on the topic he wants to write about. It’s a classic standoff between adult authority and youthful search for authenticity that echoes through Stephen Karam’s dark comedy Speech & Debate. In it, three lonely misfit high school students who want to connect take it upon themselves to get real. Over the course of the lively, sharply observed, and very funny production I saw last night at The George Washington University, that connection happens so delightfully we  are caught up in it too.

Karam’s 2007 script has its ear tuned to teenage vernacular with captivating acumen. He doesn’t just get the slanguage; he gets the odd thought disruptions and peculiar syntactical synapses that characterize young brains still beginning to understand the beings they are in the world.  As smartly directed by GW theater professor Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang, the three students playing high schoolers capture Karam’s textured teen speak with an acting knack and exacting insight.

The play gets off to a hilarious start. Howie, who we learn is gay and comfortably out, is having an online chat with an older man who wants to hook up. We see their tentative text entries, which turn comically creepy,  displayed like a conversation in real time on an upstage screen. Meanwhile we hear Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” booming on the sound system! I can often tell within the first few minutes whether what I’m about to see is going to be any good, and last night’s show had me at hello.

Turns out that older man teaches in this very Salem, Oregon, high school, and Solomon is determined to expose him. For his investigative reporting, Solomon enlists Howie, whose online chat he has uncovered, as well as Diwata, a wannabe singer. Turns out Diwata has been turned down for a part in the high school musical by the man on the make with her classmate Howie—and she knows more about this “child molester” than Solomon himself wants to know.

It is a provocative setup and propitious plot engine that opens up wonderfully entertaining vignettes among the three students. They become by turns both a speech-and-debate club and the school’s gay-straight alliance, revealing themselves as fascinating characters in quest of authentic lives on their own and with one another. (Some of the play’s motifs—sexual secrets, lies, and predation—also happen to resonate eerily with today’s headlines, which could not have been foreseen when this nervy play was gutsily programmed.)

Will Lowe brings to the role of Solomon a lanky awkwardness that both charms and disarms. Jordan Feiner as Howie, who says he came out when he was ten, plays against stereotype in a way that terrifically serves the script’s cool normalizing of being gay. And Jennifer Rose playing older as the Teacher (later as a Reporter for a local news outlet) does a good job lobbing Karam’s sharp-edged grownup lines.

Performing the role of Diwata, Anna Young stands out as a formidable comedienne with  amazing dancing chops. In Diwati’s first scene of the play, she is alone in her room singing karaoke faultily, dancing mimicingly, and posting to her blog self-consciously—and Young nails it so hilariously, the scene could well stand alone as standup.

The production values are excellent, as they have been in every show I’ve seen at GW. Scenic Designer Gregg Jones builds three hexagonal platforms, furnished and dressed to represent each student’s room with apt specificity, and lays checkerboard tiles on a hexagonal floor area for classroom and other scenes.  Costume Designer Emily Yula’s clothes are a kick, notably the kooky and colorful wardrobe Diwata wears. Lighting Designer Jamie Gresens lends an institutional yet intimate feel to the proceedings. And along with the lighting, Sound Designer Samantha Gonzalez’s enjoyable pop-music tracks help cover the longish scene changes.

Finally a shout-out to Dramaturg Kathryn Chevalier for a very astute and well-written program note:

The story of Speech & Debate feels both familiar and fascinating, like something an audience has both heard before and is just discovering. Karam’s dark poignancy and vulnerable characters allow Speech & Debate to transcend a moment in time. The story of these three lives converging feels as if it is about more than high school, more than the 2000’s, and more than Salem, Oregon; it is about finding a way through the madness of growing up and clinging to those trying to do the same.

I don’t understand why more nonstudent theatergoers have not discovered the rewards to be had in the high-quality work being done by university theaters around town. Case in point: Speech & Debate, presented by The George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance. It’s a very short run but it’s well worth catching up with.

Running Time: Two hours and five minutes, including one intermission.

Speech & Debate plays through this Sunday, October 16, 2016, presented by The George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance at The George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, in the Marvin Center – 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC.  For tickets, buy them at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre’s box office, or call (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Now and then there comes a production of a play that is so spectacularly original it confounds one’s every expectation of what can be achieved in theater. The story—a marvel in itself—could not be told more mind-blowingly. There’s no way the play could work as well any other way.

That’s what I remember thinking about a year ago when I left New York’s Ethel Barrymore Theater having first experienced The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This profound and penetrating play—based on a novel written in the voice of a brainiac 15-year-old boy named Christopher—had been realized so perfectly that every rave I had read about its dazzling production was bested by what I saw and heard for myself.

So naturally I was eager to find out whether the show on tour would be as good. Its breakthrough wonders of stagecraft could not be easy to truck about. That dizzyingly animated set, that blazing light plot, that sonic boom-box sound track—all so central to the sensory and cerebral stimulation of the show—they’d have to replicate all that tech-citement on the road, right?

Well, that’s what they did alright, and the whole gosh-wow shebang can now be experienced in the Opera House at The Kennedy Center.

Purists might note a few inconsequential road-show accommodations: There’s no staircase that on Broadway protruded astonishingly from the upstage wall so that Christopher could bound up it; the stage floor doesn’t suddenly gape open so that Christopher can leap onto train tracks. But for all practical perceptual purposes, The Curious Incident is as thrillingly hallucinatory as before.

And then, on top of the theatrical extravaganza, there’s the extraordinary emotional inner life of the drama itself. Its main character, Christopher, cannot bear to be touched. Apparently on the autism spectrum, Christopher inhabits not his body so much as his very literal-minded intelligence, which is capable of prodigious mathematical calculations but incapable of inferring meaning from commonplace metaphors and idioms.  And right off the bat (to use an expression that would confuse Christopher), the play has done something without any precedent in theater that I can recall: In taking as its point of view the intellectually hyper-engaged but emotionally alienated Christopher, The Curious Incident introduces us to a wholly original cognitive and emotional relationship to a character and story line.

The “curious incident” that incites the plot is a dead dog, a pitchfork stuck into it, that lies centerstage before the play begins. The dog belonged to a neighbor of Christopher’s, and he sets out, Sherlock Holmes–like, to find the killer. His path of detective work leads him to learn not only that but much more, especially about his mother and father and how his family has been torn apart in ways that he had no clue. It’s a drama of discovery that would deeply distress any 15-year-old, but because the story is told through the naive/wise eyes of a child whose mental default is logical analysis, we get to witness the powerful narrative without incessant sentimentality yet with epic ethical clarity.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an unparalleled coup de théâtre. Don’t even think about missing it.


I happen to like solo performance pieces a lot and I’ve seen many. There’s something I love about the immediacy of a single performer claiming my attention—and maybe stirring my emotions or stimulating my intellect or making me laugh—with only that which they can bring to a stage on their own. So I speak from a past-primed perspective when I say:

I have never seen a solo performer who blew me away the way  Staceyann Chin did last night at The Studio Theatre with her autobiographical detonation, MotherStruck.

Chin—an acclaimed author and spoken-word artist—enters the intimate Milton Theatre down an aisle, connecting to the audience with all emotion guns firing from the get-go. She starts to tell her heart-racing story: Born in Jamaica. Realizes she’s attracted to girls. Gets assaulted by homophobic teen boys. Moves at 19 to Lower East Side New York to escape the thuggery. Falls in with poets and dreamers and finds her LGBTQ tribe. After multiple lesbian affairs that don’t last, falls deeply in love with and marries a gay man. (I know, that could never happen.) :)  Then she decides to have a baby.

And she is determined. Really determined. With a desire that drives this funny, furious, fast-paced show and Chin’s supercharged performance in it like a combusting propellant.

By some curious but happy coincidence, DC has just seen the openings of three terrific plays featuring female characters who are queer, lesbian, or otherwise patriarchy-nonconforming: Cloud Nine at Studio,  Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops at Woolly Mammoth, and The Gulf at Signature. Now comes MotherStruck with a  gripping and exhilarating story of lesbian single motherhood that’s so far outside trumpian presumptions that it plays like a triumphant alt universe.

And Chin slays it.

Striking in her red buzzcut mohawk, wearing no shoes and no makeup, Chin roams and owns the circular stage with pantherlike power. Her voice and face are a kaleidoscope of multiple characters and her rapid-fire inner life in the spellbinding narrative. Her energy is nonstop. Set Designer Kristen Robinson backs up Chin’s baby-yearning with an upstage curved wall, all gray on gray, upon which we can just make out the image of a sonogrammed fetus.  Its subtle effect on Chin’s story is stunning.

Chin is a constantly moving target, roving all over, at times aiming her performance intensely at individual audience members. Lighting Designer Dante Olivia Smith always finds and shines on her. Costume Designer Brandee Mathies gives her hip tie-dyed tights and loose oversheaths. Sound Designer Matthew Nielson inserts pop-music clips that get their own laughs, as when Chin exults over a potential donor’s sperm count, which is in the 98th percentile, and the chorus from “We Are the Champions” comes on.

Some serious synergy had to have gone on between Chin and Director Matt Torney. There’s not a cue that doesn’t work, a line that doesn’t land. Associate Artistic Director Torney can also be applauded for discovering MotherStruck in New York and urging that it be done as a Studio X production. (Studio X is not a venue; it’s the name Studio gives a subset of its season for “work that breaks new ground in its style or content.”)

There’s something marvelous about Studio’s programming of Stacey Chin’s  MotherStruck. At heart the work is an outlier narrative framed like a fringe show. It flips the finger not only at mainstream social conventions but also at commercial theater’s constraints on what women playwrights can and can’t say. How often do we get to hear an unabashedly radical feminist holding forth first person on a mainstage in this town?  Not very. Not even during last season’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival was there a voice quite like Staceyann Chin’s. Yet, praises be, her story now comes through—out, loud, and true.

There’s a rad rad world going on at Studio right now. And the woman who’s making it happen is a dyke to watch out for.

Running Time: About 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Not actually a spoiler though you might think so: Staceyann does give birth to a baby, a daughter whom she names Zuri. The afternoon before going to see MotherStruck, I watched this adorable video of them together. I was glad I did. I bet you will be too.

MotherStruck plays through October 23, 2016, at The Studio Theatre  – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

The Gulf

One measure of the quality of a play is how it stays in one’s mind the next few days. Or the next weeks or months or years. Not just how it plays on stage. How it remains in the brain.

There are no awards for this quality. No Tonys for most memorable. No Helens or Hayeses for most enduring experience in live theater.  Nor has anyone (to my knowledge) surveyed theatergoers to find out what feelings they remember that were occasioned by a show they saw. That’s not really possible, of course. Emotional recollection like that is subjective. It says less about the play than about the individual remembering it.

Or does it?

I ponder this by way of reflecting on the world premiere production of Audrey Cefaly’s beautiful play The Gulf  that I just saw at Signature Theatre. I’ve got a hunch it will hang around in my mind. And I’ve got a clue as to why.

I read the script of The Gulf several weeks ago before having a wonderful conversation with Audrey, which was published with a title lifted from something she said: “I Think About How Badly I Can Break a Heart Today.” As I reread that Q&A after seeing The Gulf in performance, one passage jumped out at me afresh:

I focus on two-handers, character-driven narratives. They are all love stories. All of them. I construct them and distill them in such a way that the audience can let go and focus on the sounds and the vibrations. It’s heavy on tension, low on sentiment. Those are the kinds of plays that pull me in, so those are the ones I like to write. We see ourselves in the characters, not because we recognize them, but because we recognize the ache.

Recognizing “the ache” describes what happened for me when I saw Audrey’s Maytag Virgin, and exactly what happened for me when I saw The Gulf.

The Gulf is about two women named Betty and Kendra (sublimely played by Maria Rizzo and Rachel Zampelli). Though Betty and Kendra have been lovers for six years, The Gulf is not a lesbian play per se. By which I mean each character’s “ache” is recognizable and relatable in ways that defy simplistic categorization.

Betty and Kendra are afloat in a boat in shallow waters of the Alabama delta. The story is set with water water everywhere—an unsolvable staging challenge unless you’re Cirque du Soleil—but the scenic, lighting, and sound design (by Paige Hathaway, Andrew Cissna, and Kenny Real, respectively) make it all plausible as possible.  What’s most important  is that the stage arts not get in the way of our experience of the characters’ emotions —and in that The Gulf is well served. Director Joe Calarco’s astute choice to mount the play in the round ensures that the feelings we sense in each moment are up-close and personal  as can be.

Betty and Kendra are in a boat because Kendra likes to fish and Betty, who doesn’t, wants to be with her. Betty, who intends to go away to community college to become a social worker, has brought along a self-improvement book, What Color Is Your Parachute? Initially Betty tries to persuade Kendra to set her sights on a better job than the menial-labor one she has and come with her. Kendra doesn’t want to be improved or made to change and doesn’t want to move. It’s all very funny, full of Cefaly’s priceless one-liners, but from the outset there are tensions in their relationship ready to flare any second.

There is palpable eroticism between Betty and Kendra pulling them together (as their scenes of passion make plain). Yet there are divisions between them that push them apart. “Could we be more different?” Kendra asks Betty at one point.

What happens when viewing The Gulf is that we are swept into the undercurrents of what is fundamentally a very universal love story. Two people are in love, but they are two different people—as how could two people not be? So how over time do they reconcile what unites them with what individuates them? How does love survive the lovers themselves?

It’s a story as old as time, right? But somehow  Cefaly tells it anew. With a  gift for writing characters whose hearts and hurts are opened to us in beautiful, bold, breathtaking, and ultimately healing ways.

Some who sense this undercurrent will want only to wade in, which is fine. Some may be towed under and engulfed. But it’ll always be the underlying aching that will lure us and linger.

Audrey Cefaly’s The Gulf is as memorable as anyone’s own first broken heart and as enduring as anyone’s longing for lasting love.

You can dive into it now at Signature.

What We’re Up Against

Near the end of What We’re Up Against, Theresa Rebeck’s incisive comedy about workplace sexism—just opened in a kick-ass production at The Keegan Theatre—a question is posed by Eliza, a very talented architect whom we’ve been watching be screwed by prick power in the office:

They said it wasn’t like this anymore. Why is it still like this?

That sobering question comes after scenes full of some of the funniest, sharpest-edge scripting, directing, and acting you’re likely to see in DC. And what’s remarkable about that question is that What We’re Up Against was first produced more than two decades ago.

Judging from the anti-woman animus unleashed this election season,  however, it could have been written a hot minute ago.

The play’s setting is an architecture firm. Scenic Designer Matthew Keenan in a sheer stroke of genius establishes the world of the play by making the upstage wall an architectural drawing of the firm’s floor plan, with each character’s office identified, as well as conference room, elevator, kitchen, and such. Office furniture is arrayed on stage, desks, filing cabinets, and such. Then as the play proceeds, the setting of each scene is highlighted on the back wall diagram—thus when Eliza complains of having been given an out-of-the-way “broom closet” for an office, we see precisely what she means.

In the first scene we meet Stu, a blustery lush of a boss, and a pitbull defender of the boys club, which he extols as “the system.” In dialog laced with the B word, the C word, and F bombs, Stu makes clear to his direct report Ben that new hire Eliza “doesn’t belong.” Peter Finnegan turns in a performance as Stu so witty that Rebeck’s withering treatment of the guy becomes a complete treat. Check out Finnegan’s hilarious drunken moonwalk in Act Two and you’ll see what I mean.

As Ben, Michael Innocenti must toe his boss’s line while walking a tightrope toward sympathetic identification with Eliza’s struggle for recognition and fairness. Innocenti’s performance creeps up on you, in the best way possible. It is so deftly nuanced that by the end the character as written—to whom Rebeck has given both a conscience and a male-bond-y reluctance to use it—emerges as having one of the most intriguing character arcs on stage.

Janice, the only other woman in the office, has worked there three years and counsels newbie Eliza to be patient and nonthreatening. Janice has learned to survive by sucking up, which is decidedly not Eliza’s style. The script portrays Janice as a bit of a dormat-y dim bulb next to Eliza’s independent incandescence, but Carolyn Kushner brings such canny heart to the role that we root for Janice too. And by the time the clash between Janice’s and Eliza’s contrasting characters emerges as an important focus of the play, their scene together in Act Two (in which Eliza tells Janice, “You sabotaged me in that meeting!”) is absolutely electric.

There’s a third dude in the office, Weber, one of those favored young men whose career advances faster than would any better qualified young woman’s. The role functions as sort of a joker, and Stephen Russell Murray’s effervescent performance in it—with whoops and comical gestures—is both a hoot and a pointed depiction of the character’s complicitous cluelessness.

This story of what talented women are up against in the workplace is set in motion when Eliza puts Weber’s name on a design solution she devised for an architectural challenge that had the men stumped. It has to do with ducts. “Those fucking ducts” as Stu calls them. Upon seeing Eliza’s solution with Weber’s name on it, Stu thinks it’s brilliant. Upon learning Eliza came up with it, he deems it awful. The comedy and culture crit that Rebeck drives with that plot engine is both laugh-out-loud and scathing.

Brianna LaTourneau’s commanding performance as Eliza is extraordinary. Rebeck has given the character one crack-you-up, knock-your-socks-off speech after another, and LaTourneau lands every one with drop-dead aim. I suspect Rebeck has poured into this play a lot of her own experience as a talented woman in a man’s world, giving voice to her own frustration and indignation. I’m just guessing based on the trenchant script. So bravo to Rebeck and LaTourneau for making Eliza indelible.

The stage arts have aligned to serve this show like bright stars in a constellation. Lighting Designer Allan Sean Weeks subtly dims the light on each scene near its end, which has an arresting effect. Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson slyly comments on the tilted playing field by allowing all the men to show up in casual arty-workplace attire (colorful shirtsleeves, tennis shoes; Weber even wears no socks) but putting the women in polished ensembles that say dressed for success. Sound Designer Madeline Clamp has inserted sexist pop music between scenes (such as “Under My Thumb,”Gold Digger,” “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch,” “Blurred Lines”) that would make a fantastic stand-alone playlist. And I found Susan Marie Rhea’s direction fascinating. Many were the moments when no dialog was spoken, but in the silent interstices between lines there were worlds of meaning and emotion.

The Keegan Theatre’s production of What We’re Up Against packs a hilarious wallop and scores a win for sex equality. Would that the play were a museum piece. But it’s not; it’s right on time. And DC is lucky to have it.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

What We’re Up Against plays through October 15, 2016 at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.