Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Doctor Faustus

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

A steampunk staging of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus without any spoken or signed language? Just movement and mime and lighting and scenic effects? Sounds crazy, right? Well, depending on the audience member, it may not sound like much at all—this being a production of the Gallaudet University Theatre and Dance Program—or it might include (as it did for me) an equivalently crazy sound design.

Crazy as in fun to watch (and hear or not). Crazy as in nonstop eye-popping appeal. Crazy as in a fascinating burst of theatrical originality and devilishly fun invention.

The prime movers of this absorbing spectacle are Gallaudet grads James Caverly and Brian Suchite. Jumping off from Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus—a fraught religious allegory for religiously overwrought  times—Caverly and Suchite have found in steampunk an apt way to depict the high hokiness of the 1594 narrative using a hip and edgy contemporary esthetic.

Really, who today can get hot ‘n’ bothered about a career academic who makes a whack deal with the devil that gives him quack magical powers? Nowadays so many one-percenter titans are in bed with Beelzebub—having struck far more disastrous and dangerous bargains—that the dear Doctor Faustus’s ancient drama seems quaintly beside the point. We might indeed go ho-hum. Except that Caverly and Suchite have cleverly animated the classic text approximately along lines that Walt Disney employed with orchestral masterpieces in Fantasia.

In this endeavor they are aided and abetted by the stage-magic arts of Scenic Designer Ethan Sinnot (whose handsome set is a sinister clockwork gearbox), Light Designer Jason Arnold (whose gazillion light cues blaze and amaze), Costume Designer Elizabeth Ennis (who can dress a mean android Mephistopheles, or whoever the devil else happens onstage), Sound Designer DJ Nicar (whose steampunk hooks rock and rule), and Projection Designer Robert Hayes (who at one point elevates the entire stage and makes it fly, using but aerial motion photography).

A magnificent Lucifer puppet intermittently commands the stage. Designed  by Eric Brooks as a puzzlework of illuminated pieces that actors assemble into an apparition before our eyes, it puts on a gosh-wow show all its own. Samantha Smith is credited with props, and in a witty touch, Faustus unleashes his magical and telekinetic powers by touching a  keypad strapped on his arm, whereupon special effects and mayhem ensue.

John Cartwright II as Faustus, when not being tossed and upturned by the epic demands on his character (the role is a real workout), stands solidly at the center of an agile and energetic ensemble: Dominique Flagg, Derek Frank, Kala Granger, Page Hawkins, Casey Johnson-Pasqua, Yader Martinez, Neil Matthews, John Roberts, Amber Savard, Michael Schmitz, Duke Smith, Aria Warrick, Seth Washington, Caldonina Wilding, and Tyrel Wilding.  Except for Washington as Mephistopheles and Roberts as Persian King Darius, all play multiple roles.

Not that I could tell who was who, or even follow the story. A perhaps too cursory read of a couple synopses on line beforehand (there’s one in the program too) did not persist in memory sufficiently well enough to clue me. But I am not certain that following the plot of this show is what matters. It certainly didn’t for me. I quite enjoyed following how the plot had inspired the Doctor Faustus creators. And in that respect, I was never lost and I always transported.

Running Time: About one hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Doctor Faustus presented by the Gallaudet University Theatre and Dance Program plays through April 26, 2015 at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

Don’t Die in the Dark

This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Last night, on the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, I was in a DC theater venue of a very different sort: a tiny white-box art-gallery space down an alleyway in Columbia Heights. There for a little over an hour I sat enthralled by a tour de force performance of a tough-minded two-hander about the notorious actor who fired the fatal shot. And by the end my brain was burning with a blistering depiction of what made the killer tick.

Don’t Die in the Dark is a sweeping and stunning one-act by Joe Brack, directed with exquisite intensity by Matty Griffiths, and acted electrifyingly by Brack himself as John Wilkes Booth and Bradley Foster Smith playing multiple roles, singing, and playing guitar and harmonica (the program calls him “Guitar”). What this triumvirate of talents has achieved is quite simply a triumph.

The historical research evidenced in Brack’s script was overwhelming in its reach; its cumulative effect was a density of content and language and seriousness of intent that I associate with classic epics, not pop-up one-acts. Frequently we see Booth performing excerpts from the roles he was renowned for in life, and these scenery-chewing turns not only impress us as theater but illuminate the character of the man who is playing those characters. Booth emerges as a villain who became vainglorious because of crippling insecurity.

Don’t Die in the Dark vividly explores the mind of someone who all his life was intimidated by his famous-actor father and his famous-actor brother—and who grew up desperate to ameliorate his own sense of inferiority by asserting superiority over others. Working from the historical record, Brack takes us deep inside the twisted mental state of a privileged white man, acclaimed for his artistry and munificently rewarded for it, whose racism came to consume him. Booth was obsessed with maintaining slavery, and hated Lincoln for emancipating slaves, thereby permitting—in the chilling words of Brack’s script—”nigger citizenship.” One of many revealing passages in Brack’s play comes when Booth defends slavery by saying he has seen fathers in the North treat their sons with more brutality than white masters in the South treat their Negro slaves.

Brack and Foster wore period costumes chosen by Deb Sevigny. Upstage of the small playing area are four units built of wooden lath, scenery on which Maggie Modig consulted. Tucked into the cracks and mounted on the lathwork are letters, photographs, posters advertising Booth’s performances. Kevin Laughon, who did show’s many significant storytelling props, achieved remarkable close-up credibility. And with minimal but strategically placed lighting instruments, including period footlights downstage, Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows worked minor wonders of mood change and location shift.

But the power of this performance transcends what happens on stage. It becomes what goes on in one’s own mind. The connections Brack uncovers in Booth’s biography keep resonating long after the play ends. And if now and then during it you imagine you may have heard echoes of Booth’s contempt recently in contemporary America, be not surprised.

This play tells an important part of the story of our nation. It belongs onstage at Fords.

Running Time: 1 hour 15 minutes with no intermission.

Don’t Die in the Dark plays through April 26, 2015, at Studio 1469, 1469 Harvard Street Rear, NW, in Washington, DC 20009, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. Purchase tickets online or call (202) 213-2474.

Very Still & Hard to See

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Very Still & Hard to See is neither quiet nor a challenge to perceive. Its aural and optical pleasures are bountiful. For this production of Steve Yockey’s cycle of supernatural short plays, directed with keen ingenuity by Randy Baker, Rorschach Theatre has outdone itself in the stage-arts department—beginning with one of the most original uses of the Lang Theatre one is ever likely to see there again.

This proscenium theater upstairs at Atlas Performing Arts Center has literally been turned inside out. And our discombobulation begins even before we enter. A sign in the lobby says not to use the staircase (because there has been some unidentified accident) but to wait for the elevator. Dutifully we do as we’re told. When its doors glide open, we are greeted by a maybe-not-human uniformed operator who takes us to some dark floor where two maybe-deceased spirits enter and stand among us, which is either comically creepy or creepily comic. What the heck is going on here?

Eventually we disembark and find ourselves…on stage. Our seats face the house. Looking out at the ominously dark auditorium we see the seats there are eerily covered by vast swaths of gauze. Meanwhile here and there more ghoulish specters appear—one laughing, then weeping; one weirdly lurking. Meanwhile the lighting keeps shifting for no reason underscored by unsettling seascapey sounds. Between where we sit and the Lang auditorium are some angular platforms with overturned pieces of furniture. And centerstage on a painted floor lies what may or may not be a corpse.

Where the heck are we? We have lost our bearings already and the show has yet to begin.

There are seven vignette-ish scenes plus a prolog and epilog. The eleven cast members sometimes appear as named characters in elusively plotted and loosely linked playlets, and sometimes they wear white masks and appear as background factors and apparitions. (A note from the playwright suggests he was inspired by preternatural creatures, spiritual essences, and invisible familiars found in Japanese folklore and mythology.)

There is a sort of overarching story line. The play takes place in and underneath a grand hotel by the sea. (The scrim-draped seating in the distance evokes undulating ocean waves, and the effect never stops being uncanny.)  Characters come and go in mini episodes in hotel rooms above, but there is evil down below, for this is truly a haute hell.

One of the story lines centers on the architect of the hotel, whose dark past is revealed, and all the characters’ various story lines dead-end in a wonderfully lit and choreographed scene that achieves onstage the wordless visual fascination of slo-mo blowups on film. Another knockout scene with no words was a dance between two women in evening gowns who had met on a blind date.

The cast handled the play’s abrupt shifts of reality and interruptions of reason with panache and dispatch. Though the program gave all the actors character names, it was a little hard to tell who was who as individuals. Yet the entire ensemble (Colin Smith, Yasmin Tuazon, James Finley, Ryan Tumulty, Amanda Forstrom, Kari Ginsburg, Peter Finnegan, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Farrell Parker, Shravan Amin, and Sarah Taurchini) was consistently strong.

For the striking stage arts on display, credit goes to Scenic Designer Brian Gillick, Lighting Designer Robbie Hayes, and Sound Designer Frank DiSalvo Jr. (whose swingy-jazz musical intervals between scenes were a delight). And Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny evocatively clothed characters who were only intermittently real.

Depending on your taste for surreal story structure, non sequitur text, and inscrutable characters, you may or may not get back the bearings you lost when you first entered the theater.  Yockey’s script is not big on narrative navigation cues and is often too random to be engaging. Yet in the fearless hands of the Rorschach crew, the text Yockey has inscribed as if in otherworldly ether has inspired a spectacularly grabby production and mesmerizing miseenscène.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Very Still & Hard to See plays through May 20, 2015, at Rorschach Theatre performing at 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, or purchase them online.

Drunkle Vanya

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

When I arrived to see Drunkle Vanya last night, the first thing I did was order a vodka. I don’t typically drink before I review, but in this circumstance it seemed part of my job, since the show was being done by actors mingling among audience members downstairs at The Pinch bar in Columbia Heights and would, I was told, entail much imbibing. Little did I know.

Drunkle Vanya is an actual play in the sense that there is a script and actors know their lines and play named characters. It was adapted and created by Lori Walter Hudson, a cofounder of Three Day Hangover, the New York City theater company that first produced it. The story is loosely Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya but with interpolated pop culture references, songs, and drinking games. With the narrative rejiggered to provide frequent occasions for the characters and (some audience members) to throw back shots and chug whole bottles of booze (to raucous encouragement from the crowd), there wasn’t much Chekhovian sublimity, but there was a heck of a lot of levity.

The audience was loving it.

LiveArtDC, the innovative crew of artists who concocted this immersive iteration of Uncle Vanya, is on to something. In the words of Drunkle Vanya Director Lee Liebeskind: “If the people won’t come to the theater, then let’s bring the theater to the people.” Last year the company did a similar number on Romeo and Juliet—an acclaimed production, which I did not see, called R&J: Star-Cross’d Death Match, performed at another DC bar. Based on the company’s choices so far, one can reasonably infer that “the people” Liebeskind refers to are the elusive millennials whom every big theater in town is trying to attract. To define that demographic more accurately, it’s habitués of hip ‘n’ happening dives.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The playful cast was enjoyable to watch as they maneuvered among the patrons, earnestly declaiming their characters’ assorted angsts and confronting each other as up-close and personal as performance art gets: Karina Hilleard (Vanya), Kevin Hasser (Astrov), Rebecca Ellis (Yelena), Jenna Berk (Sonya), Rasik Ohal (Alexander), and Jon Jon Johnson (Waffles). Musician Bob Manzo, introduced as “The Cheery Orchard,” accompanied on his guitar about a half dozen interspersed songs that had the delighted audience singing along.

The upshot? If your thirst is for theater and you want a fun time, drink in Drunkle Vanya.

I have to advise, though, that the actors’ own intake of alcohol during the performance is extreme, and the shots and bottles all come directly from the actual bar in the room, not from an offstage prop table. My companion was certain the cast’s beverages were nonalcoholic, as is usually the case in live theater. But often the same drinks were served simultaneously to audience members, who evidently were swilling the real thing. So if the cast’s beverages were fake, there was some truly impressive sleight of hand going on.

This show is 21 and up only.

Running Time: About 2 hours 15 minutes, including intermission.

Drunkle Vanya presented by LiveArtDC plays through April 25, 2015, at The Pinch, 3548 14th St., Washington, DC 20010. Tickets are available online or at the door one hour before showtime.

Emerge (dance concert)

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Watching the annual student spring dance concert last night at Howard University, I was taken aback from the get-go. What I saw was so impressive in conception and execution, so powerful in its impact, and so beautiful in each detail that I nearly forgot this was academia. Emerge had me believing I was beholding professional contemporary dance at its very best.

The program consisted of seven pieces, and the choreography throughout was breathtaking in its invention and strength. The first, choreographed by Assante Konte, was titled “African Suite – Djinafoly & Dumba.” It featured three drummers pounding propulsively stage right (one of them a boy who looked to be five) and a troupe of nine female dancers in headdresses and glittering gold and one male in a regal robe, all of whom kept moving to a beat with such intensity that it felt like we were at the big finale, not the start of the show.

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The second piece, choreographed by Maverick Lemons, was “Communities Together Rise,” an eloquent evocation of its theme performed by an ensemble of nine wearing hues in patchwork palette.

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For me the most dramatic offering of the evening was “Is the Writing on the Wall?,” choreographed by Ray Mercer, which closed out the first half of the program. A plain black wall up stage was danced around, against, and over by an ensemble of six to a music track based on Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” Gradually the black wall was filled in by chalk markings—first the word JUSTICE, eventually a huge drawing of a dove, chalk dust filling the air with each furious scrawl. I cannot say what the piece “meant,” only that it was riveting and moving and more thrilling than I thought dance could be.

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The strength of the choreography was matched toe to toe by the strength of the dancers. Dancers are always strong, of course; they have to be—except that in mainstream George Ballanchine Ballerina Land white female dancers are portrayed as delicate dolls. Not here at Howard, no way. These dancers were sturdy, muscular athletic artists, and watching them move singly and unitedly with power and purpose, deftly halting still then surging on, was an exhilaration that kept electrifying.

“Keuchen,” choreographed by Royce Zackery, started the second half of the program on quieter note—following the nonstop exuberance of the first half.  An intricately interconnected trio—Yasmeen Enahora, Paris Jones, Sydnee Carroll—performed in sinuous synchronicity. They were wearing toe shoes but they were not on point at first…

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…then suddenly they were—not delicately or demurely but statuesquely, with epic presence self-assertion.

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The lighting for each dance by TW Starnes was especially effective. Besides the choreographers named, Jennifer Archibald (“Shook”), Francesca Harper (“A Reconfigured Dream”), and Bre S. C. Seals (“1 – 3 – 13″)  contributed stunning work. The talented corp of dancers included Michael C. Bradford, Trey Rochell Capers, Aliyha Crawford, Lailah Duke, Raechelle Ellison, Yasmeen Enahora, Makeda Griffith, Destiny Jade Hill, Alyssa Holmes, Alexus Jones, Paris Jones, Ani Mayo, Ariarna Odom, Charise Pinkston, Rose Chantal Porter, Jessica Potts, Olivia Russell, Jaleesa Sharp.

The combined talent on stage was simply awesome.

Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

Emerge: Annual Spring Dance Concert produced by Howard University Department of Theatre Arts played April 10 and 11, 2015 at the Ira Aldridge Theater – 2455 6th Street, NW, in Washington, DC.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

There is no humor in one’s own unhappiness. To be lonely and disappointed in life is not to be amused. To feel empty and over the hill is not to be tickled. Yet when we laugh at the woes and sorrows of the middle-age siblings Vanya, Sonia, and Masha—as laugh we do, in gasps and gales, for more than two hours—something curiously healing happens. We are in on jokes that could be on ourselves except they’re not. They’re jokes on the artfully observed characters in Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, just opened in the fishbowl Fichandler at Arena Stage. Somehow the play turns melancholy to hilarity in a way that mitigates our own malaise and self-pity.

The production is directed by Aaron Posner, whom I interviewed when his own Chekhov-ish comedy Life Sucks played recently at Theater J. He has got to be theater’s smartest and most intuitive expert in the trending practice of lifting from Chekhov and making it seem like now. At the Arena Stage opening night reception—after Artistic Director Molly Smith praised Posner from the podium for his masterful direction of a difficult-to-stage play, one that (as she rightly pointed out) would have been easy to get wrong—I caught up with him to chat.

When I mentioned what I noted was the production’s healing humor, Posner’s face lit up animatedly in agreement. Then on the spot he shared with me insights about how for that elusive humor to happen, actors must go deep into the pain of their characters’ moments (I’m paraphrasing here), and he told me how that process had come to pass recently during rehearsal for particular performances. Indeed, the entire cast is extraordinary—they each deliver multiple show-stopping, own-the-stage solos, as if connected all the while more like close-knit family than a professional acting ensemble. Whatever depths Posner and the cast dug down to during rehearsal, the performances that result are marvelous to behold.

Durang’s script is currently much produced across the land, and it’s no wonder why—Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a funny, funny play with an astonishingly huge heart. It’s set in the present in a well-kept house in the country that is home to sister and brother Sonia (Sherri L. Edelen) and Vanya (Eric Hissom) and owned by their sister Masha (Grace Gonglewski), a semifamous film actress who arrives in Act One. The whole setup is a clever mash-up of bits and pieces from Chekhov. As Vanya explains, their parents, both professors, named the three kids after characters in Chekhov. The text is littered with other references to Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters, and The Seagull as well. No prior knowledge of these precursors is required to enjoy the goings-on, but for dramatic-lit insiders, there are goo-gobs of winking nods.

Vanya and Sonia’s clairvoyant housekeeper Cassandra comes by (in Jessica Frances Duke’s riotous performance, she actually breezes in like a dervish).  Masha shows up with her boytoy Spike (a buff bundle of randy energy in Jefferson Farber’s eye-candy performance). On a near-skinny-dip in the pool, Spike’s roving eye espies the beautiful next-door ingenue Nina (all sweetness and hope in Rachel Esther Tate’s lovely performance). And more hilarity ensues.

Yet an undercurrent of hurt and heartache flows steadily just beneath the play’s laugh-out-loud surface. It’s there from the beginning, in the lonely lamentations of frumpy Sonia (performed so lovingly by Edelen we fall in love with her—and we cheer for her when romance might be at hand). It’s there in the suppressed, unfulfilled affect of the gay brother Vanya (played with compelling quietude by Hissom—until he breaks out in a scathing rant in Act Two). It’s there in the mournfulness with which Masha (the stylish and statuesque Gonglewski) reflects on her five failed marriages, her fear of aging,  her likely loss of Spike to a younger woman. But not until the very end—a touching, deeply affecting, and wholly unexpected reconciliation scene—does that undercurrent suddenly become an emotional tidal wave. And it immerses us and buoys us and drenches us in healing empathy.

The Margins

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

There be eerie goings-on inside the DC Arts Center black box where Molotov Theatre Group is staging a spell-binder of a show about a psychic experiment to create a ghost by occultish committee. Although the horror play, titled The Margins, is short (just over an hour), it is long on suspense and double whammies—plus some preternaturally shrewd scripting by Playwright David Skeele.

Under Carl Brandt Long’s dextrous direction—which steadily grips us with increasing tension—six actors play characters in quest of a specter. They gather in the gloomy-musty maroon-walled parlor (built by Set Designer Rachel Marie Wallace, lit by Lighting Designer Pete Vargo) of an old, uninhabited mansion with a storied past. Five are quasi experts in the lore and luring of ghosts: Jonathan, the anxious host (Adam R. Adkins); Phyllida, a no-nonsense historian (Jen Bevan), who knows what lies buried in the basement beneath; Lane (Elliot Kashner), who has detected an unsettling level of mold on the premises; Trace (Yoni Gray), who was traumatized into muteness as a child by a sexual molester; and Helen, Trace’s sister (Katie Jeffries), who shares his past but can give voice to more than anyone could have imagined. Joining them is Markus, a jaded, just-the-facts reporter from the New York Times (Brian McDermott) who is there ostensibly to report but who involuntarily becomes part of the creepy story.

If you know your horror genre you can surmise that the psychics’ experiment goes awry and a ghost shows up who makes mayhem. Still the alarmingly uncanny story line will keep you guessing, and the effects will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Notable among those effects is the unnerving soundscape by Composer/Sound Designer Gregory Thomas Martin. If you weren’t already jumpy, it will jolt you there. Videographer Steven Bradford has devised an appropriately spooky opening credit sequence projected onto a screen above the mantle. And Bevan, doubling as costume designer, has outfitted this motley lot eclectically and cleverly. A video camera, which sometimes is operated hand-held as a prop, sends a live feed to the projection screen, lending a movie-like aura to the proceedings.

There was some opening night shakiness in the performances, and an unlucky glitch pitched the video into sleep mode a couple times, which distractingly brought up on screen a tech company logo. That can all surely be fixed, but ironically the tech accident, by momentarily taking my mind out of the scene, made me mindful with unexpected clarity of just how engrossed I had become in the storytelling and all its attendant effects.

The strength of Steele’s story is really the hook. It brings to life the disturbing past life of a young woman who lived on “the margins” of society, a servant girl who suffered horribly at the hands of the master of the mansion where this junk-science seance is set. Steele has constructed a back story for the play that in its own riveting way is more horrifying than anything that unfolds on stage. It is a crafty cri de coeur from a buried memory of sexual predation. And the Molotov production does it justice—even as the victim shows up to exact revenge.

I have seen and reviewed two previous Molotov productions of plays whose themes also turn on sexual violence in extremis: Extremities and Normal. Though I do not know whether this pattern of similarity was intentional, it strikes me as evidence of an extraordinary commitment on the part of theater artists whose esthetic is Grand Guignol—associated with graphic, amoral horror entertainment—to depict on stage real life’s horrors and hold their amorality up to clear-eyed view.

Bravo.

Running Time: About 65 minutes with no intermission.

The Margins plays through April 26, 2015 at Molotov Theatre Group performing at DC Arts Center (DCAC) – 2438 18th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Performances are every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 7:30 pm. For tickets, purchase them online.

Lights Rise on Grace

Now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is a depiction of eroticism so intimate and artful that it left me woozy with awe and wonder.

No one takes their clothes off. There are no phony porny moans. Instead this powerful production of Chad Beckham’s probing Lights Rise on Grace reveals to us—sheerly through a coalescence of phenomenal playwriting, acting, and direction—three twenty-something characters intertwining and intersecting sensually, their arms, legs, and kisses entwined, their longings laid bare.

To call it a three-way would be to belittle its riveting complexity and the tightly choreographed tactility and poetic text that make the moment mind-blowing.

By the point in play when these three characters converge onstage physically as if in a fine-tuned trio of passion, we have gotten to know them very well indeed: a black man nicknamed Large (DeLance Minefee), a Chinese woman named Grace (Jeena Yi) with whom Large has been in love (they met in their teens), and a white man named Riece (Ryan Barry) whom Large met in prison and also fell in love with.

In the entangled triangle that the actors perform, we witness Grace’s desire for Large:

His breath on my neck, hot and deep.
His soft, smooth touch against the warmth of my skin.
His warm, hungry mouth. Lips, teeth, tongue tracing, nibbling, licking.
His hands massaging, exploring the curves of my waist, down over the crease in my hips, down the length of my legs.

We witness Riece’s desire for Large:

My panting, anxious breath. Shallow and eager.
My possessed, hurried hands grabbing, pulling.
My slobbering mouth slurping across his face and neck like a hungry bulldog.
Hands on pants, tugging, yanking, tearing them down.

We see Large torn torturedly between them:

Don’t –
Stop –
Please –
Don’t stop –

Twice during the play the actors entwine like this, with similar poetic language, and each time what amazes is that this is a metaphorical stage event only. It does not purport to be an actual scene in the characters’ narrative. Beckim’s story-theater-style script, full of direct address to the audience, guides us through a story as compelling as any one is likely to find in a 90-minute drama. It jumps back and forth in time but never loses us; it always tracks the character arcs with cliché-free specificity. And it is perfectly clear that Large and Grace have an explicit sexual relationship as do Large and Riece, but the three do not ever literally have a sexual encounter simultaneously. Yet through this stunning triadic enactment—voiced by Beckim, conceived by Director Michael John Garcés, and shaped in close collaboration with the actors—it as if we the audience are embraced into an empathic understanding of three character’s interior lives at a depth that theater rarely plumbs.

Set Designer Luciana Stecconi places the action on a slate-gray platform backed by great gates of steel lath that resound when slammed shut for the prison scenes like a cellblock on lockdown. Lighting Designer Dan Covey beams down bright white glare from a huge suspended panel as if the characters are under interrogation and we are privy to their truths. Sound Designer James Garver underscores the characters’ real world with otherworldly effects. Costume Designer Ivana Stack clothes the actors casually and practically. And the actors’ versatile portrayal of numerous supernumerary characters could not have occurred apart from Voice & Dialects Coach Gary Logan’s sharp ear.

In Lights Rise on Grace, the lives of three indelible characters braid together like an ever more taut rope that tugs at our hearts through the beautiful/sad ending when one of the strands lets go. Yet the exquisite memory of the eroticism that resonated between them persists. And like a beneficent illumination, Lights Rise on Grace sheds light on a unforgettable love story.

The Norwegians

So dere’s dis play goin’ on in town called Da Norvegians, and it’s set in Minneapolis and it’s got Norvegian characters in it, so I tought I should go check it out, on accounta I vas born dere and grew up dere an’ my fodder vas Norvegian, so I know da lingo pretty good, doncha know. I tought maybe I could assess da play for accuracy in how it depicts my Minnesota Luteran cultural milieu, ya know.  Plus it mentions lutefisk, vich I myself ate ven I vas a child, dough I hated it. I hated everyting about it: da smell, da taste, da consistency, vich vas like rubber. It’s a traditional Norvegian delicacy but I could never understan’ vy dey dint yust leave it back in Norvay. Ennaway, dat vile fish vas served special at Christmas in my fodder’s fodder’s dining room in Minneapolis, and I never hauled off and said how much I hated it, ’cause dat vould not be nice.

Nobody in da Minnesota Luteran family I grew up in ever hauled off an’ said anyting. It vas yust not done, doncha know. Dere vas an unspoken ting dat it’s a sin to be angry or rude or confrontational. So you learn to lump it and stuff it. C. Denby Swanson who wrote Da Norvegians got dat part right fer sure. Dere are dese two Minnesotans, Tor an’ Gus, who are business partners, an’ dere business is contract killing—vich isn’t very nice necessarily, but neverdaless Ron Litman and Brian Hemmingsen who play dem make it very funny how dey practice dere profession using nice manners. Dere’s a lotta laughs about dat, you betcha.

Dere are also two non-Minnesotans in da play, and you can tell dey are from elsewhere because dey are not Norvegian and dey don’t talk Minnesotan at-tall. Dey are two vimmin named Betty and Olive. Betty is from Kentucky and Olive is from Texas, an’ it turns out dey vere boat dumped by dere respective boyfriends and so dey become clients of contract killers to off dere not-nice boyfriends. Uff-dah! Dat makes for very funny complications, you betcha. An’ Nanna Ingvarsson and Nora Achrati who play dem are so funny dey reminded me of dat British comedy team Joanna Lumley an’ Jennifer Saunders. Someone should write a notter play for dem two because it’s so rare dat vimmin togedder get to be over-da-top hilarious like Ingvarsson and Achrati are ven dey are trash-talkin’ dere fateless men.

I got to tinkin’ dat if dese two vimmin characters vere Minnesota Norvegian, dere vould be no play, because it’s not nice to kill your boyfriend yust because he dumped you, an’ every Minnesota Norvegian knows dat, doncha know. If dey vere Minnesota Norvegian vimmen, dey vould need a much bedder reason den dat to kill dere boyfriends! Dern tootin’! Minnesota Norvegian vimmin dumped by ex-boyfriends yust lump it and stuff it. So it’s a good ting fer dis funny play dat Betty an’ Olive came from Kentucky and Texas.

Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

You’d be hard pressed to find a better theatrical catharsis for high school angst than Dog Sees God, Bert V. Royal’s funny/poignant reimagining of characters from the Peanuts comic strip playing this weekend in an entertaining/moving student production at George Washington University. Directed with sharp sensitivity by Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang, the show is both a send-up of adolescent superficiality and a serious look at teenage bigotry, the kind that makes picked-on kids want to kill themselves. It’s like a lifesaving lesson wrapped in laughs.

The play, which premiered off Broadway in 2005, predated Glee by four years and presaged the television hit’s uncompromising look at high school bullying driven by animus and anxieties around appearance and sexual identity. Royal is openly gay, and though his script is loaded with broad humor, it minces no words about the tragic consequences of teenage intolerance. GLAAD recognized the popular play with a media award, and Royal has a sequel in the works.

Dog Sees God, which follows the Peanuts gang into high school,  skirts copyright issues by altering the characters’ names and calling itself an “unauthorized parody”—the object of the parody being not the comic strip but high school life. The title comes from a line spoken by Beethoven née Schroeder now a gay kid who practices piano privately during lunch period to avoid being bullied in the cafeteria (Nick Ong plays him with affecting timidity and tremulousness). “You know they say a dog sees God in his master. A cat looks in the mirror,” he tells CB née Charlie Brown (played with appealing agility by Jon Weigell), who is mourning his dead dog and harboring a boycrush on Beethoven. “I hate cats,” CB  chuckles. He then abruptly kisses Beethoven full on the lips.

The moment came as a complete surprise not only to Beethoven on stage but to the opening night audience in the auditorium, most of whom were GW students and agemates of the cast. Their very audible reaction ranged from aghast shock to affirmational delight; it was an amazing interplay of performance and response. And it was in that instant I understood what I had been sensing was so engaging about this production.

There was something about the performances I had been trying to put my finger on. The cast members seemed to have thrown themselves into their portrayals with an energy, conviction, and physicality that seemed to go beyond thespian; it was more like therapeutic. Here were eight college students enacting not only for an audience of peers but for themselves some of the rawest, raunchiest, and rudest aspects of a life experience they had all shared but years ago. And they were celebrating in shared comic catharsis the fact that they had come through, they had survived, and it had gotten better.

Shane Moran, for instance, in a commendable performance as Matt (the former Pig-Pen, now a germophobe jock), gave the character a hilarious horny swagger plus a dangerous homophobic edge that was revealed to mask his own conflicted sexual feelings for the boy he beat up on. He was like an embodied Everydude, except his cool cruel exterior was anatomized before our eyes.

And Annie Ottati, in a noteworthy performance as Tricia (the former Peppermint Patty), skillfully rendered in entertaining detail—in catty cahoots with Samantha Gonzalez as Marcy (Marcie)—all that is fatuous and vicious in what passes for pretty and popular. In the interaction of stage action and audience reaction, something about the way the art of theater can show the interior of characters’ exterior seemed to be serving a collectively retrospective healing through humor and heartache.

The evening’s comedy peaked in Madison Awalt’s solo scene as CB’s Sister (Sally), who performed her one-woman-show “about a caterpillar who longs to evolve into a platypus instead of a butterfly” as a hilariously dreadful dance that had the audience howling. The audience also enjoyed the agreeably recognizable spaciness of Gregory Langstine’s performance as the slacker pothead Van (Linus). As it happens he smoked the ashes of his blanket after it was burned by the pyromaniac Van’s Sister (Lucy), performed as amusingly deranged by Liena Rose Armonies-Assalone.

Costume Designer Sigríður Jóhannesdóttir has captured exactly the clothing tastes of this quirky cast of characters. Lighting/Scenic Designer Molly Hall has given the stage a Mondrian-like comic strip look with pastel panels in black margins, while her projected cartoonlike illustrations indicate scene changes wittily. And Sound Designer Austin Keefe has separated scenes with eloquent passages played on piano.

The pace of the performance started slowly, which may have been opening night jitters. The timing of actors’ lines was at first overhesitant, as if seeking an unsure split second too long the emotion to be played. Audience response seemed uncertain as well. Before long the production hit its comedic stride more confidently, and actors and audience connected with not only the authenticity of the material but also the wholehearted personal investment of the performances. In a curious way, the show began with the same undertone of “Will you like me? Will you accept me?” anxiety that everyone remembers vividly if not painfully from high school. The form was also the content. Here was a show about teenagers fearfully seeking acceptance performed by collegians opening themselves warily to friends and classmates. And what happened next was quite thrilling. Because once acceptance was signaled by an appreciative audience and once the actors relaxed into being fully present, Dog Sees God became one of those wonderful experiences in theater when candor is embraced and an audience is touched and lifted up.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead plays through this Sunday, March 29, 2015, 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.

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