Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Blackberry Winter

Does a play about an incurable progressive disease not sound like something you’d care to see? Does a character’s long, lone monologue about her mother’s memory loss to Alzheimer’s not seem appealing? Is the topic itself too fraught because it is already familiar in your life? If so, I have two words for you:

Holly. Twyford.

In Forum Theatre’s provocative production of Steve Yockey’s brand-new Blackberry Winter directed by  Michael Dove, Holly Twyford is giving DC audiences a tour de force performance that is unforgettable. No pun intended.

Twyford claims the stage, earns our trust, and wins over our hearts with wit and warmth. She introduces herself as Vivienne Avery and speaks to us not like a scripted character but as someone real we are getting to know. As Twyford moves about the thrust stage, she acknowledges our presence with genuine regard. She seems merely with her eyes to eliminate all distance between her and us. When she talks to us, her words don’t even sound written by someone else; they seem to be Vivian’s in the moment. And through it all, Vivian lets us in on her fears in a way that makes them more faceable, both by her and by us.

Forum is one of eight National New Play Network theaters mounting Blackberry Winter as a rolling world premiere. Producing Artistic Director Dove has observed that Yockey’s plays “have an ability to theatricalize and unlock difficult conversations and topics.” And the topic of Alzheimer’s is nothing if not difficult.

Vivienne presents herself as carefully pulled together, proper, polished—the sort of person who has a place for everything and everything in its place. That includes about a dozen props placed on pedestals around the stage, each of which will serve as a prompt for a section of her storytelling. The first prop Vivienne turns to is an envelope, which  contains a letter from the assisted living facility where her mother, Rosemary Davis, has been for three years. Vivienne dreads that the letter will say it’s time to move Rosemary to a nursing home—an excruciating decision for anyone to have to make. So Vivienne tries to distract herself by talking to us to avoid opening the envelope.

Besides an illuminatingly candid depiction of someone trying to cope with overwhelming and contradictory emotions—from fond memories to panic, from composure to collapse—what emerges in Blackberry Winter is a fascinatingly frank story of an adult daughter’s relationship with her mother. Perhaps all daughter-mother relationships are complicated in their own way, but this one rings so true that when Vivienne produces a photograph of Rosemary and shows it to the audience, we do not see a prop; we see the face of the woman she has been telling us about.

Vivienne has taken to baking in the middle of the night because of the insomnia that has set in from stress. In one of many wry laugh lines, Vivienne says,

I don’t drink but lately I’ve become jealous of people who do. And I’m intensely aware of how that sounds.

Plucking a card out of a recipe box on a pedestal, Vivienne reads off the ingredients for coconut cake and recalls baking it with her mother, who always put the batter into two pans. Vivienne decisively uses three. Her mother, Vivienne tells us, has forgotten how to bake the recipe herself (and for her safety would not be allowed near an oven). But once when Rosemary was watching Vivienne bake that cake, she knew to correct her daughter on how many pans are supposed to be used.

In such touching anecdotes are contained telling traces of two entwined lives—the once cared-for child now become “proactive care manager” to the parent. There are also some troubling incidents recounted—as would have to be the case. Alzheimer’s, as Vivienne reminds us, only ever gets worse. But many of Vivienne’s recollections are just flat-out funny, as for instance the one she tells about a pile of stylish scarves. Rosemary persisted in buying them for her not respecting, then not remembering, that Vivienne really hates wearing them.

Early on Vivienne tells us that besides occupying her mind with all-night baking she has been cooking up “a bit of amateur cosmogony” to understand the origin of Alzheimer’s.

I’ve been trying my hand at some creation myths to explain away the awful. Or make it palatable, which is ridiculous.

Thus at three points in the play Vivienne snaps her fingers, the lighting goes dappled green, and the scene shifts to a forest wherein a fable is played out, partly in verse by White Egret (a charming Sara Dabney Tisdale) and Gray Mole (an amusing Ahmad Kamal) and partly in animated projections that could be illustrations from a Newberry-winning children’s book.

The sleek scenic design by Debra Kim Sivigny (who also did costumes and props) sets blond wood pedestals on blond wood flooring that gets bleached to be the upstage wall where Patrick Lord’s enchanting projections are shown. The cutaways to the forest fable are beautifully achieved by Lighting Designer John D. Alexander and Sound Designer Thomas Sowers.

Depending on one’s point of view, the effect of these interpolated fable scenes may come as a diverting theatricalization, serving to relieve and lighten what would otherwise be a straightforward solo performance piece. Alternately, the fable scenes may seem like preschool redux, an infantilizing interruption in Vivienne’s engaging grownup emotional arc. (If the playwright had seen what Twyford does in the role,  might he have trusted Vivienne to carry the show?)

Either way, Forum Theater’s Blackberry Winter is a production to savor.  Most of all, one gets to know, up close and personal,  a brilliantly written Vivienne Avery, phenomenally performed by Holly Twyford, whose ultimately courageous memorial to her mother’s dimming memory makes us mindful of both the mind’s fragility and the mind’s resilience.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

Blackberry Winter plays through June 11, 2016, at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.

When January Feels Like Summer

Mosaic Theater Company tops off its prodigious first season with an improbably romantic comedy by Liberian-American playwright Cori Thomas. It’s about people from different cultures who you would not think would fall for each other but they do. And it’s got a heart so big and embracing, so filled with the endearing humor of human connecting, that by the end you want to hug it back.

Directed by Managing Director and Producer Serge Seiden with the same genial brio he brought to the brittler Bad Jews, When January Feels Like Summer feels like sweetly comic summer stock, apolitical and unpolemic light entertainment. Yet in a profound  way, Thomas’s play expresses Mosaic’s commitment “to making powerful, transformational, socially-relevant art.”

The play takes place in Harlem in the vicinity of the 157th Street subway stop. It features five characters, two of whom are African American and best friends, and two of whom are Indian immigrants and brother and sister.

We first meet homeboys Devaun and Jeron riding the subway and loudly bantering  about “getting with” women. Devaun, who boasts cocksurely of his experience, is played by Jeremy Keith Hunter with delightfully antic swagger. His is a larger-than-life comic performance that keeps getting more impressive as the play goes on. Jeron looks to  Devaun for dating smarts but in all other respects is brighter, and Vaughn Ryan Midder brings to the role a winning earnestness.

The story shifts to a convenience store operated by Nirmala. The shop belongs to Nirmala’s husband, but he has lain brain dead in a hospital for three years since he was shot during  a robbery.  Nirmala’s brother, Ishan, urges Nirmala to pull the plug, because he intends to transition and wants the life-insurance money to pay for gender-reassignment surgery. Nirmala cannot bring herself to disconnect her husband, and Lynette Rathnam plays the character’s inner conflict with stirring sensitivity. The tricky part of Ishan, who during the play becomes a woman named Indira, is embodied by Shravan Amin with persuasive empathy and grace.

The fifth character is Joe, an African American and a sanitation worker who picks up trash from the convenience store—including at one point Nirmala’s husband’s stash of porn. Inside Joe’s burly and brusque exterior is the lonely hurt of a divorcé (his ex turned out to be a drug addict). Joe takes a liking to Nirmala; he sees in her a good person he would want to be seen by. Nirmala considers herself still married and is not ready to move on, but in Jason B. McIntosh’s nuanced portrayal of Joe, she finds reason to reconsider.

As Nirmala’s and Joe’s romance unfolds, so does another bicultural liaison even more unlikely: a romance between 28-year-old Indira, her body now responding to new hormones, and 20-year-old Devaun, his libido in hormonal overdrive. Devaun sees Indira as the woman she wants to be seen as, and Indira sees Devaun as the gentleman he realizes he quite likes being seen as. In being seen, each of the characters begins life anew. There arises a piquant sexual chemistry between Devaun and Indira , and Hunter and Amin perform it with a conviction that made their first date scene a poignant high point of the play.

In an earlier scene in the hospital, Nirmala has a monologue in which she tells her husband—on the chance he can hear—how deeply it hurt her that he preferred getting off on the bodies of women in porn to ever touching hers. Besides drawing us into Nirmala’s character with stripped-bare intimacy, Rathnam’s riveting performance in the scene helps us understand Nirmala’s enormous underlying emotional longing to be seen by a man who desires her.

Not to be left out of the mix-and-matchmaking, Jeron gets a chance at a date with the Chinese-American woman he’s got a crush on. Clearly in When January Feels Like Summer, the rubric for romance is, Never mind the gap.

Desire across color lines and other societal divisors has long been an important trope in  theater. Besides being intrinsically interesting, attraction that transcends such barriers can be transformative: Dramatic depictions of it can change society because witnessing it can change how people see other people—not as the other but as someone.

When January Feels Like Summer goes further: It shows characters discovering for themselves the transformative experience of being seen. It shows that gift—being beheld as one’s authentic self—enabling the characters to regift it to one another.

As uplifting and heartfelt as Thomas’s comedic script is, it takes on particular significance in the context of Mosaic’s intercultural mission at the crossroads that is H Street. One cannot imagine When January Feels Like Summer resonating with more meaning on any other stage in DC. And that ultimately is the huge-hearted, feel-good force that is Mosaic’s hilarious and healing season finale.

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

When January Feels Like Summer plays through June 12, 2016, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing in the Lang Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

Hedda Gabler

Watching Julia Coffey’s feline and feral performance in the title role of Studio Theatre’s sleek and stark staging of Hedda Gabler is to witness the trainwreck that is Ibsen’s enigmatic character in a transfixing new light.

The production directed with polish by Matt Torney in a terrific adaptation of the text by Mark O’Rowe plays like a swift contemporary psychol0logical thriller. With its crisply idiomatic dialogue and frequently overlapping lines, it feels like the sort of fresh new writing that Artistic Director David Muse  typically programs, a script that’s Studio’s forte. You’d never guess the play premiered 125 years ago. As such Studio’s updating is a perfect entry point for anyone who knows nothing about the play. At the same time for anyone familiar with Hedda Gabler as a great role in dramatic literature—which like the part of Hamlet yields more meaning each time it is played by a fine actor—this show is a thorough thrill.

Set Designer Luciana Stecconi locates the story in a gray-on-gray minimalist modern living room—an apt metaphor for Hedda’s restless emptiness and ennui. The tipoff that we’re not in Norway where the play was originally set is a military photograph (of the general who is Hedda’s father) that has a stars-and-stripes background. Other than that detail, the place looks un-lived-in, as if styled by a realtor for resale. The fact it seems more Albee or Reza than period Ibsen foreshadows the vicious ferocity to come.

The actors who play the characters who circle Hedda’s volatile vortex are superb. As the academic Jorge Tessman, the husband Hedda recently married with whom she is already bored, Avery Clark brings an earnestness and puppy-dog eagerness. As Jorge’s aunt Julie Tessman, whom Hedda rudely insults, Kimberly Schraf is touchingly well-meaning. As Berta the maid, whom Hedda imperiously berates, Rosemary Regan is appropriately timid and tremulous. As Thea, who is smitten with the man whom Hedda carries a crazed torch for, Kimiye Corwin is girlish and guileless.

Though Hedda’s honeymoon was a six-month yawn, there are two men in the play who are both former flames, and they are each crotch-deep in sexual tension with her. As Eljert, whom Hedda desires though he once attempted to rape her, Shane Kenyon is a marvel at playing both sexy and more messed-up than Hedda. As Judge Brack, who out-cons the conniving Hedda and sexually ensnares her, Michael Early is smooth operator incarnate.

Much has been written over the years that views the character of Hedda Gabler as a victim of male-supremacist circumstance—a creature trapped within the society of Ibsen’s time and the men’s world in which he set the play. Ibsen himself encouraged that interpretation, and many a feminist critic has run with it—not without sound grounds both textually and socio-politically.

But the staging now playing at Studio shines a very different light on Hedda’s character. In shifting the story to here and now, it confronts us with someone who might be effed-up not because she’s a woman in a man’s world but because her moral compass is out of whack as a human being.

She was bored on her honeymoon travels because her husband was absorbed in researching his next book, but she couldn’t, um, visit a museum? She keeps going on about needing beauty in her life but she can’t, like, take an art-appreciation course? She can’t make a female friend and have a conversation that maybe could pass the Bechdel test? This is a white woman with so much privilege she could pretty much have it all. If she decided to carry to term her pregnancy she’s even already got a live-in nanny. The world is her oyster not her cloister.

Seeing Studio’s refreshing new take on Hedda Gabler, in particular Julia Coffey’s phenomenal performance as Hedda, reminded me of something Gloria Steinem once said: “I want to see the day when a mediocre woman can go as far as a mediocre man.” 

Perhaps we have come to the day when a female character on stage can be a fascinating bitch with the same entitlement that a male character can be a bastard.

 

Martin Luther on Trial, the new play by Chris Cragin-Day and Max McLean that had its world premiere in DC at the Lansburgh Theatre, joins the canon of great theatrical works about major figures in religion. It easily compares to Archibald Macleish’s J.B. about the biblical Job, T.S. Eliot‘s Murder in the Cathedral about Archbishop Thomas Becket, George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Like those formidable forerunners, Martin Luther on Trial wrestles dramatically with heady matters of faith and ethics, of God and conscience—that deep and serious stuff that arises in us as a species hardwired for both belief and doubt. But this play goes them one better: Martin Luther on Trial is quite the divine comedy and it’s funny as hell.

The play imagines the rad Reformation-rouser as defendant in an afterlife courtroom somewhere between heaven and hell. The Devil is prosecutor, St. Peter is judge, and Katie, Luther’s devoted wife, is his defender. The issue at trial is whether Luther committed the unpardonable sin—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Devil, who holds a humongous grudge against Luther, is dead set on proving his guilt so that Luther will be sent to eternal damnation. That inciting premise, which may seem arcane to some, builds terrific trial-procedural scaffolding on which the play mounts its spellbinding storytelling.

Katie and The Devil each call and cross-examine a mind-bending cross-historical roster of witnesses. Among them are Hitler, through whom the play tackles head-on Luther’s antisemitism; Martin Luther King Jr., who honors his namesake’s advocacy for the oppressed; Freud, who analyzes Luther’s relation to his brutal earthy father; and Pope Francis, who looks back approvingly on Luther’s critique of papal power mongering. Their testimonies bristle with wit and revelations and laugh-out-loud one liners. Interspersed are vivid vignettes from Luther’s bio—including agonizing crises of faith and humanizing homespun scenes from Martin and Katie’s unconventional courtship and marriage. What emerges is a fascinating, dynamic, and complex portrait of the man whose schismatic reading of Scripture changed history.

The character of Katie is written with a very modern independence of mind and disarming depth. In standing up to both the Devil (for his overweening arrogance) and her own husband (for his vile views about Jews), Katie is the moral center of the play. In a recent interview, Playwright Cragin-Day shared this insight about why:

Katie was my way into this story. I could understand why she would love this man, why she would be excited by his teachings, inspired by his courage, and also disappointed in his failings. She was an incredibly strong, brave, intelligent woman in her own right. And she took a lot of criticism for it by Luther’s peers. But Luther loved Katie’s stubbornness and confidence….Once I gave myself permission to put myself into Katie, the writing came easily.

Cragin-Day’s identification with the character and Kersti Bryan’s beautiful performance in the role had the audience emotionally on Katie’s side from the get-go. And therein lies this remarkable play’s most remarkable quality.

The character of The Devil as written calls for snarky histrionics that Paul Schoeffler handles hilariously.  To rub in the charge of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the script has the Devil explicate it—in a withering and crude condemnation concerning Luther’s burning of the bull of excommunication that was his sentence in his earthly trial:

DEVIL: The bull of excommunication had all the authority of the Pope behind it. God’s representation on earth. Luther believed that, didn’t he?
KATIE: Yes, but—
DEVIL: Then, there’s no other way to interpret that action except: Luther gave God the finger.
KATIE: He didn’t!
DEVIL: And that’s really what the unforgivable sin is, isn’t it? Telling the Holy Spirit to go piss off. Telling God, “I don’t need you. I don’t need your love. I don’t need your salvation, so you can shove it up your ass.” That’s the thing you can’t do. The thing that God really doesn’t allow….. Luther committed the unforgivable sin, and I say bra-vo.

Schoeffler’s scene-stealing scenery chewing is theatrical heaven. And when near the end the Devil blows his satanic stack…well, it would be a spoiler to say more.

The character of St. Peter has the thankless task of keeping the Devil in check and arbitrating the sometimes tempestuous proceedings. It’s a fantastical setup and John Michalski brings to the role a wizened warmth that makes the part and the make-believe goings-on seem completely convincing.

The play portrays Luther in early-1500s episodes from when he was an idealistic young man becoming a monk to when he defiantly nailed his dissident theses to the cathedral door to when he declined into depression in his last years. Fletcher McTaggart’s compelling performance in these biographical glimpses captures each naturalistic nuance and epic passion in a way that scales the character’s convictions and contradictions to Shakespearean dimensions. The scene when Luther comes upon the concept of grace and falls to his knees humbled and overcome was as powerful an epiphany as I’ve seen played onstage.

Two more actors in the cast play ten other characters, literally and figuratively with distinction. Mark Boyett’s turns as Hitler, Freud, Pope Francis, and others are memorable and unmistakable. Leopold Lowe is equally impressive as Dr. King, Michael the Archangel, and others.

Director Michael Parva has overseen a magnificent production. Set Designer Kelly James Tighe locates the story against a tryptic of ecclesiastic arches surrounding a gateway to the beyond. Three modern tables and clear-plastic chairs are in place for Katie, the Devil, and the witness; and downstage are a wooden table and stools representing Luther’s era. Reaching floor to fly space is a stack of books that represent in Act One all the biographies about Luther that The Devil has been hoarding and in Act Two the collected works of Luther himself, which in his heresy trial he famously refused to recant. Lighting Designer Geroffrey D. Fishburn brings dramatic clarity to these multiple spaces and time zones. Costume Designer Nicole Wee creates each character’s wardrobe with historicity and specificity. And Sound Designer Quentin Chiappetta brackets the show with two renderings of Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”: a folk version before and a choral version after. It is a mighty metaphor for how Luther’s populist, anti-papist, and person-centered faith eventually found voice in its own church polities and institutions.

Martin Luther on Trial not only belongs among the great plays about major figures in religion. Martin Luther on Trial sets a new standard for great plays about a great man that look at his character through the clear eyes and incisive conscience of a great woman character.

Do I hear an amen?

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Martin Luther on Trial plays through May 8, 2016, at Fellowship for  Performing Arts performing at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the Shakespeare Theatre Company Box Office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

An American Daughter

We can thank the fickle fates who determine the fluky destinies of local theater programming for Keegan Theatre’s inspired late addition of Wendy Wasserstein’s An American Daughter to its spring lineup. On paper An American Daughter is a period piece, written in 1996 and set in a Georgetown living room in the 1990s. But in Keegan’s snappy and trenchant production, Wasserstein’s script crackles with witty political repartee and cracks open two prominent women’s personal pain in a way that feels as up-to-the-minute as streaming news.

An American Daughter plays rivetingly—like a Lifetime movie except with Wasserstein smarts and a castful of fascinatingly complex characters. Wasserstein wrote it just after The Sisters Rosensweig (recently also seen in DC in a terrific production, at Theater J) and said in her preface to the play,

My intention with An American Daughter was … to create a fractured fairy tale depicting both a social and a political dilemma for contemporary professional women. In other words, if Chekhov was the icon of The Sisters Rosensweig, then Ibsen would be the postfeminist muse of An American Daughter.

The main plot concerns Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes, who has been nominated by the president to be Surgeon General of the United States. Successful in her career, happy in her marriage, devoted to her twin sons, beloved by her father, bonded in genuine sisterhood with a longtime friend, and dedicated to advocating for women’s health issues and other liberal causes, Lyssa on the surface is one of those shining new women promised by mainstream “lean in” feminism who have it all and then some.

But all is not as it seems, as in theater and life it never is.

Wasserstein complicates Lyssa’s path to confirmation by fictionalizing two real-life public humiliations for high-profile women of the era: The “nannygate” ignominy that sank President Clinton’s nominations of Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood, when it was revealed they had illegally employed undocumented workers to care for their children, and Hillary Clinton’s snark remark about not sacrificing her career for Bill’s: “I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas.” In both cases the arguably sexist blowback functioned to set back women’s already delimited dignity in public life.

“Nannygate” in Wasserstein’s play  becomes “jurygate” when it is revealed that Lyssa has never done jury duty and once ignored a summons, which is a crime. Clinton’s quote about homemaking becomes in An American Daughter a loose-lipped comment Lyssa makes on camera disparaging her late mother’s “ice box cakes.” Both gaffes catch hold in the news cycle, and Lyssa’s ship begins to sink.

The production, directed briskly by Brandon McCoy, features many fine performances, but the actors who play the two main characters—Susan Marie Rhea as Lyssa and Lolita Marie as Lyssa’s best friend, Dr. Judith B. Kaufman, call for a special shout-out. Both characters are professionally accomplished doctors (Judith is an oncologist), and the play begins with their deep personal friendship, a model of mutual support and solidarity.

But as we learn, Judith is deeply unhappy, unable to conceive and single not by choice. She has a monologue about her unhappiness near the end of Act One that Marie fills with so much pain and anguish it almost hurts to hear. Marie’s performance is a star turn that is not to be missed.

Rhea brings to Lyssa a heart and a harriedness that are endlessly compelling. She is constantly aflutter doing domestic chores—folding laundry, arranging pillows, clearing guests’ glassware—even as no one else lifts a finger. It is a brilliant acting choice that hovers with heavy irony over the story line as Lyssa’s diss on domesticity turns the women of America against her. And equally not to be missed is Rhea’s delivery of Lyssa’s monologue near the end of Act Two during which Wasserstein brings home the personal crisis that Lyssa’s political slaughter has wrought.

There’s plenty of funny in this show. Wasserstein’s well-known knack for laugh-out-loud banter is excellently handled by the entire cast, which includes Brianna Letourneau, Mark A. Rhea, Slice Hicks, Michael Innocenti, Timothy H. Lynch, Sheri S. Herren, and Josh Sticklin. But what Rhea and Marie do when their characters are hurting is wondeful beyond words.

In the context of the current contest for the presidency, in particular Hillary Clinton’s run, An American Daughter reverberates with so much timely relevance and feminist significance that Keegan’s remodeled Church Street structure might well start to shake. It is, quite simply, a winner.

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

An American Daughter plays through May 28, 2016 at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

The Body of an American

A true story that begins with the desecration of a dead body becomes, before our eyes and hearts, a living and breathing buddy story. Dan O’Brien’s The Body of an American is an intimate two-hander about a unique friendship between two men. In the engrossing production just opened at Theater J, it is performed so poignantly and personally there are moments you forget you’re watching a play.

Its two stars create a stage reality that is physically, emotionally, and psychically stunning. Eric Hissom plays a photojournalist and war correspondent named Paul Watson; Thomas Keegan plays Dan O’Brien, the playwright himself; and between them they take actor trust and character truth to extraordinary depths.

Watson and O’Brien’s friendship is framed within a factual narrative about American militarism and foreign policy. In 1993 Watson is on assignment in Somalia during the battle known as Black Hawk Down, and he takes a photograph of a United States soldier’s corpse being dragged through the streets by an angry mob.

The impact of that photograph is immense (uncannily like the iconic 1989 photo of a lone protester standing against a tank in Tiananmen Square that was the genesis of Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica). Watson’s photograph prompts President Clinton to withdraw U.S. troops, and the next year it wins a Pulitzer Prize. (A chilling line in the play points to Watson’s shot as a possible precursor to 9/11: “Al-Qaeda learned a lot from the propaganda value of that photograph.”)

In 2007 O’Brien listens to Watson on NPR tell Terrie Gross the story of that photo and how it has haunted him since. Watson believes that just before he took the picture, he heard the dead soldier say, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” O’Brien, sensing in the story an opportunity for dramatization, reaches out to Watson and kind of stalks him by email, and their ensuing correspondence and 2010 meeting form the basis of the play O’Brien wrote and we are watching.

O’Brien’s script sometimes has both actors playing the same character, with fragments of a single speech spliced quickly between them—an affected effect that at the beginning takes getting used to. At other times each actor voices a score of minor characters with a veracity that’s to their credit as well as Dialect Coach Neill Hartley’s. (Hissom’s and Keegan’s mimicry of Terrie Gross, however, is more mincing than convincing.) Eventually as the play settles in to telling us who these men are and how their connection intersects their separate lives—especially as we learn what haunts them (“The ghosts are getting closer”)—Hissom’s performance as Watson  and Keegan’s performance as O’Brien emerge as some of the most powerful and persuasive actor partnering you’re likely to see electrify a stage.

The play is well served by the creative team. Sound Designer Brendon Vierra starts off with a bang: hovering helicopter and thunderous explosives. About halfway through, O’Brien and Watson finally meet in person, in the Arctic, and Lighting Designer Dan Covey creates such cool storytelling effects as their stepping from temperate interior to frigid exterior. Co-Production Designers Marie Schneggenburger and Jonathan Dahm Robertson provide a triangular thrust, and upstage of it a rectangular projection screen. Projection Designer Tim McLoraine shows a subtly informative full-screen flow of documentary footage and stills, some of which are actual shots by Watson. I found myself puzzling, however, over the persistent picture-in-picture effect, which was often devoid of meaning (though never to the detriment of the play).
Near the end of The Body of an American there is a brief tableau  when Hissom as Watson stretches out his hands as if in crucifixion and Keegan as O’Brien stands behind him, mirrors the gesture with his own arms, then gently rests his head upon Hissom’s shoulder. In is in such moments—when what torments and tethers these two characters is exquisitely, poetically physicalized—that we can surmise the superb  hand of Director José Carrasquillo guiding two absolutely phenomenal performances.

They are the reason this show is a must-see.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

The Body of an American plays through May 22, 2016, at Theater J at The Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s  Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.

Transmission

You know you’re having an unorthodox experience in theater when there’s a near absence of dramatic action in front of you but an epic interplay of ideas happening in your brain. So it goes in Transmission, Gwydion Suilebhan’s curiously cognitive and rivetingly disruptive new performance piece just opened on H Street at Atlas Performing Arts Center.

The fifth of five new works produced by the first cohort of Welders, Suilebhan’s Transmission is a live, scripted disquisition delivered by the author to an audience to no more than 20 seated comfortably in well-upholstered 1930s furniture arranged around the Lab II black box. Within their reach are tables with period radios, a dish of hard candies to take, an assortment of books, and golden light aglow from table lamps and floor lamps. As we are welcomed to this genteel faux parlor, more like special guests than an audience, a scratchy recording of Artie Shaw’s 1940s tune “If I Had You”plays from the antique radios. It’s all very cozy and inviting and—given that Transmission has been promoted as “immersive” and “participatory”—utterly charming and disarming.

Soon the person the program calls The Performer (Suilebhan) appears dressed in vest and tie and begins to regale us with odd bits of history—about, for instance, old-time trains, children’s storybooks, early information technology—and tangents on such topics as brain chemistry, genetic mutation, and viruses. We learn little about who The Performer is. The sparse autobiographical details we get don’t really add up to a backstory (and I wanted to know more, especially what impelled him to this project; it seems improbably to be out of the blue, which somewhat abstracts him as a character). But we do get a perfectly clear sense of what and how he thinks—and who he thinks we are—as he talks to us familiarly, holding forth like an avuncular tutor, now and then pausing for our response to a point. Clearly he’s doing this for a reason. He wants us to be aware of something. He wants us to understand something. He wants us to think about something in a new way. But what? and why? The flow of his discourse seems free-associational. It’s all very verbal though never verbose.  Maybe just maybe it’s leading us somewhere. We’re just not yet sure where.

Unlike most solo performance pieces, Transmission is conspicuously lacking in narrative. It has no arc of events or incidents with any beginning, middle, or end, and that’s exactly The Performer’s intent:

I don’t plan to tell you any stories.  I’m not a storyteller. I’m…something else.

As to what Transmission is “about,” there will likely be as many interpretations as there are people fortunate to be parlor guests. But those varied takeaways will likely all turn in some way on Transmission’s central provocation: In an age of information overload, how do we know what we know and why do we believe it? Or, in the words of The Performer,

How do we take charge of which ideas we’ll allow in our minds, and how long we’ll let them stay, and whether we’ll agree to pass them on?

In Transmission, Suilebhan has undertaken what is in effect a heretical challenge to storytelling, that foundational fixture of civilization  and theater in particular. And fascinatingly, Suilebhan dissects and disputes storytelling through theater. This he does on no anarchic whim. The Performer’s motivation that emerges is personal, concerned for our intellectual welfare: He truly wants us to interrogate how we unwitting rely on storytelling to comprehend and communicate whatever is true.

[D]o you know what really scares me about us all being besieged by so many stories all the time? It’s the willing suspension of disbelief. We all talk about the suspension of disbelief like it’s this virtuous act, when in fact what it really seems to be is an automatic set of brain states that get triggered whenever somebody starts relating a narrative….

Our minds, when they’re in story-listening mode, do not distinguish fact from fiction….

I do not trust stories.

An outstanding creative team makes this wholly original theater experience memorable: Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis gives voice to a roomful of radios; Experience and Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills settles us in and unsettles us as well; Properties Master and Scenic Designer Jacy Barber takes us credibly back to the late 30s and early 40s; Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny attires The Performer like a dapper don. And in the part of The Host who greets guests and facilitates a conversation following The Performer’s presentation, Performance Dramaturg Jordana Fraider expertly keeps us at ease even as our heads begin to spin.

Everything about Gwydion Suilebhan’s Transmission is refined, cultivated, seemingly simply a courteous inquiry, no more than a pleasant parlor chat about this and that. And then it turns out to be a Molotov cocktail to the mind.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Transmission plays through May 28, 2016 at The Welders performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

Lord of the Flies

When Randy Baker told me he had directed a production of Lord of the Flies with a cast of mostly teenage girls, I knew I had to see it. William Golding’s classic about British schoolboys whose savagery emerges when they are marooned on an island is not only a disturbing parable about the collapse of civilization. It is also a brutal depiction of the dominance games boys learn to play. There are no girls for them to torment; instead the stronger boys bully the defenseless ones, constructing a gendered infrastructure of top-down cruelty built on fealty among barbarians—not unlike supremacy-based civilization itself.

So what happens when the roles in that double-edged fable are played by girls?  Well—on the basis of the absorbing production I saw last night in the Reeve Theatre at Imagination Stage in Bethesda—something very provocative indeed.

The cast featured 14 students in grades 8 to 11 who auditioned two years ago to get into the Acting Conservatory, which is one of several Imagination Stage theater and arts educational programs. For three semesters this Class of 2016 studied acting technique, then last January—as Nikki Kaplan, associate director of education, said in her opening remarks—”they were handed off to a genius director, Randy Baker.”

Baker is one of many top-notch theater makers whom Imagination Stage engages to work with its student casts. The local professionals who made up the creative team for Lord of the Flies,  for instance, delivered results that would be the envy of many an indie theater in town: Samina Vieth’s verdant yet menacing scenic design, Robert Croghan’s uniforms-undone costume designs, Kristin Thompson’s lovely/startling lighting design, Thomas Sowers’ thunder-clap-shocking sound design, Gina Grundman’s nailed-the-pig-head props design, and Kristen Pilgrim’s frighteningly good fight choreography, which had me jumping out of my front-row seat.

Lord of the Flies as adapted for the stage by Nigel Williams demands of young actors that they loose their inner beasts. The script doesn’t hold back; it’s ruthless; insults added to injury leap off the page. At the same time, the cast must sustain those ties of trust and teamwork that any ensemble needs to succeed on stage. The fact that this class of student actors had worked together and bonded for a year and a half—during which time, Kaplan told me, none dropped out—was clearly an important foundation for taking on this treacherous play.

Baker’s program note on this topic is telling:

William Golding’s 1954 novel was a Cold War cautionary tale about humanity’s darker instincts in the face of a breakdown of society. Those ideas remain present in any telling, but our production also seeks to explore the loneliness, the joy and the terrible savagery of what it means to be a teenager. Our ensemble-based approach of discovery in rehearsal allowed the conservatory students to integrate their own stories into the novel’s traditional plot.

Situating Goldman’s story as a tale about contemporary teenagers is a quirky concept that makes intriguing sense. Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” functions as the production’s theme song. We see the first character to appear exasperated because her cell phone has died. Inflections and gestures lifted from today’s pop culture pop up in winsome ways—making the characters’ later thuggery and sadism all the more stark.

The actors performed as an ensemble with impressive energy and verve. The program had their names in alphabetical order—and Baker kept some of the novel’s names for some while regendering others—thus Amelia Barnard played Hailey, Sofija Baykun played Melanie, Malaika Bhayana played Marcie, Camille Blackman played Ralph, Story Hentoff played Claire Nolan, Sophie Isbell was a standout playing Jack Meridew, Benjamin Kapit (the one male actor) played Perceval, Lynn Kusmin played Erin, Ilana Maiman played Sam, Lila Neusner played Simon, Olivia Tello played Piggy, Zoe Tompkins played Belle, Alice Turnham played Elizabeth, and Sarinah Wahl played Roger.

What became apparent about this distinctive performance was that it wasn’t girls acting like boys are socialized to act—there was no impersonation, no mimicry, no put-on boy behavior. What clicked about the performance was that it was girls not acting like girls are socialized to act. It was girls acting without reference to boys at all, completely outside the requisite social norms and conventions that minimize females in deference to males.

Given that much of dramatic literature requires female actors to play all manner of  demeaning “girlish,” “womanly,” and “feminine” clichés, it was a real treat to watch the imaginations of these Imagination Stage students unleashed.

Running Time: One hour 50 minutes, with one intermission.

Lord of the Flies played April 29 to May 1, 2016, at Imagination Stage‘s Reeve Theatre – 4908 Auburn Avenue, in Bethesda, MD. Tickets for the remaining run may be purchased online, at the box office, or by phone at 301-280-1660.

Nikki Kaplan, Associate Director of Education, talks about the Imagination Stage acting program

The Electric Baby

At the center of this beautifully ambiguous and hauntingly honest play is a sick infant. The baby is peculiar, perhaps mythically so, in that it glows like the moon.

As we enter the theater, the baby’s mother is sitting knitting in a wicker chair beside a white bassinet, and she is singing a lullaby or maybe keening. We do not know yet whether this child will survive. We cannot foresee how much loss will be borne nor how much hope will be born as the subsequent story circles elliptically through the lives of random strangers. But we are drawn from the beginning into a drama that does not let us go even after it is done.

Randy Baker, Rorschach Theatre’s co-artistic director (with Jenny McConnell Frederick), has directed The Electric Baby with a poignant tenderness that is completely in keeping with Stefanie Zadravec’s lyrically surreal script. Set somewhat arbitrarily in Pittsburgh, The Electric Baby tells the stories of six characters whose lives intersect by accident—which ought not suggest the writer lacks in purposefulness, for the play proceeds with a wondrous strange inevitability.

The mother of the titular glowing infant is a Romanian immigrant named Natalia, who is a fount of funny folk cures. Jennifer J. Hopkins plays her with a mix of quick wit and mournfulness that from the beginning sets the touching tone of the play. Ambimbola, a Nigerian immigrant, is a cab driver who came to America with a dream of prosperity but found his dream’s doors slammed shut and now has high hopes of winning the lottery. J. Shawn Durham portrays him with a spiritedness that never completely leaves him even as the events of the play leave him steeped in sorrow.

Helen and Reed are a middle-age married couple whose lives are disrupted when Helen, impatiently awaiting their valet-parked car, happens to walk into the street, causing the cab driven by Ambimbola to crash into a light pole. It is the only violence in the play, yet it impacts everyone after. In Cam Magee’s superb performance as Helen we see a most remarkable interplay of feistiness and remorse. Well matched is William Aitken’s well-meaning and woeful Reed, whom we see in a scene with a 22-year-old escort as a hapless client.

Said escort, Rozie, also works part time in a restaurant as a server along with a young man named Dan, who’s got a huge crush on her. In their first scene, just after they’ve both  been fired, they get into a taxi, bicker, banter with the driver, Ambimbola—then suddenly comes the crash. As Rozie, Sarah Taurchini is a delight—she totally nails the character’s spunk and moxie. Kiernan McGowan is equally enjoyable as her would-be boyfriend, Dan, and two other characters we meet as the story lines crisscross and unfold.

The storytelling swirling through the scenes is anchored in specific moments of emotional truth, to which each member of this excellent cast connects us. Now and then Natalia and Ambimbola also tell poetic fables that though somewhat cryptic lift the emotional and relational real world to a higher realm of meaning.

The scenes that follow from one another as if by chance are staged with the simplest of effects. Scenic Designer Betsy Zuck drapes a cone of white fabric over the white  bassinet that connects above to a circular electrical grid while waves of electrical charge radiate on the floor. Lighting Designer Katie McCreary makes the flow of scenes seem cinematic and brightly lights both the baby and a moon. Sound Designer Thomas Sowers creates a shocking car crash as well as subtle ambiances of street, restaurant, hospital. Costume Designer Frank Labovitz’s choices tell as much about the characters as the script.

You may well come away from The Electric Baby, as I did, with a sense that the playwright is present in this play in a way that is profoundly personal. That is indeed the case, as I learned from reading Zadravec’s powerful essay “In Sickness and in Health.”

Exactly what does The Electric Baby mean? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure it matters, because so much palpable emotional truth goes by in this interpretation that one becomes part of it just by letting it in. Followers of Rorschach Theatre’s showier, more usual approach to magical realism might be surprised, and very pleasantly so, for this is a play and a production purely from and for the heart.

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.
The Electric Baby plays through May 15, 2016, at Rorschach Theatre performing  at Atlas Performing Arts Center, The Paul Sprenger Theatre – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online.

C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert

Believe it or not, this is one terrific piece of theater. It’s a one-man play about an influential, world-class thinker that’s every bit as smart, fascinating, and satisfying as the best such solo performances seen in this town. It bears comparison to the portrayals of Alexander Graham Bell (2013) and R. Buckminster Fuller (2010) by local acting legend Rick Foucheaux.

What’s ingenious about C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert is that its plot is all about how the great thinker thought. Its most pivotal events are mental. And their dramatic momentum—how thought A prepared for thought B, which propelled realization C—amounts to some amazing moments on stage and in one’s own mind.

Max McLean performs impressively as C.S. Lewis (1898–1963), the British author and scholar  best known for his now mega-selling fantasy fiction (notably The Chronicles of Narnia) but also widely revered for his religious writings. A man given as much to rationality and intellectual rigor as he was enchanted by myths and the imagination, Lewis famously converted in his fifties from a secular worldview to a deeply personal belief in the incarnated God of Christianity. McLean—who adapted the succinct and scintillating script from a host of texts by the prolific Lewis—traces the path of that conversion, step by unexpected step.

The play is set in 1950 in Lewis’ study at Oxford—an academic position he was appointed to at age 26 and held until his death. To dramatize Lewis’ conversion, McLean zooms in on that point in Lewis’ life, which preceded the Narnia books as well his meeting Joy Davidman (a love story told the film Shadowland). The choice works perfectly.

With warmth and candor, McLean gives us a Lewis that immediately draws us in. (In the talkback after, McLean referred to Anthony Hopkin’s performance in Shadowland as “overly diffident, uncomfortable in his skin”—in marked contrast to the amiable and personable fellow we meet in McLean.)

Lewis begins by telling us of his boyhood, including the death of his beloved mother and his relationship with his demanding father, a verbally dexterous prosecutor who grilled his son like a hostile witness. As the boy tries to rise to the challenge, we see the emergence of his tough-minded intellect as well as his agile articulateness. A stint with a private mentor further cultivates Lewis’ command of literature, languages, and ideas.

Listening to this very personal voice from the past come alive through McLean’s excerpts from Lewis’ eloquent writings is a real reward of this production. Following the elegant sentences, delighting in fresh phrasings, savoring even the pauses—it’s not unlike the pleasure of hearing a monologue by a dramatist on the order of Kushner or dare I say Shakespeare.

The conversion story line begins with a religious upbringing that Lewis faked his way through out of fear of his father’s disapproval. Lewis’ disbelief turned into a form of atheism called materialism, the notion that the universe had no prime mover; it’s all just atoms caroming around in space. And then comes a mental plot twist: It dawns on Lewis that the mind cannot explain itself; that rationality, consciousness, and the like cannot possibly be the random result of atoms bouncing about; that “it must be more than biochemistry.” So then: bang, there must be God.

We know going in how the play ends; the show’s promotion gives it away: C.S. Lewis,  erstwhile proponent of a godless universe, becomes a Christian. But how the play gets there is the intriguing thing.

Lewis shares with us several relevant encounters along the way, including an illuminating walk and talk with J.R.R. Tolkein (who was already Christian) and a particularly influential book of fantasy fiction he happened upon at age 16.

Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later, I knew that I had crossed a great frontier….

That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me not unnaturally took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.

This from a fantasy fanboy who was to grow up with an intellect and imagination whose unique interplay would entertain and inspire millions.

There are more revelations along Lewis’ revealing path. Among them is the strikingly phrased realization by this scholar of world mythology that “the Gospel story is a myth working on us like other myths, with one difference: it really happened.”

Max McLean mentioned in his talkback that C.S. Lewis Onstage had been workshopped in New York and that this engagement at the Lansburgh is its world premiere. As co-directed by Ken Denison and Max McLean, the production is superbly polished. Lewis ambles about in a professorial suit by Costume Designer Michael Bevins that is fitting because it doesn’t quite. Sitting or standing by an armchair center stage or crossing to a desk and bar on either side on a set by Scenic Designer Kelly James Tighe, Lewis is seen against a wonder range of animations by Projection Designer Rocco DiSanti that introduce us to personages in Lewis’ biography (as their portraits pop off the wall) and transport us from the study to grassy glens and beyond. Lighting Designer Geoffrey D. Fishburn shows us Lewis in fluid pools of light and scene-shift blackouts during which the impact of the prior scene can sink in. And Sound Designer Ken Goodwin frames each scene with beautiful strains of classical piano.

Whether or not this great thinker’s religious realization is anything like one’s own experience, thinking, or belief, purely as dramatic character arc, the conversion story in C.S. Lewis Onstage is captivating.

Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.

C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert plays through May 8, 2016, at Fellowship for Performing Arts performing at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the Shakespeare Theatre Company Box Office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

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