Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Entertaining Mr. Sloane

When a dark farce titled Entertaining Mr. Sloane opened in London in 1964, it was viewed as rude, scandalous, and repugnant because of its homosexual content and its three main characters’ blatant amorality. Its author, Joe Orton, was a young working-class gay bloke who had recently served a half year in prison, for defacing library books of all things. Those were repressive times. Homosexual acts were still illegal in England. The Lord Chamberlain was still vetting and censoring scripts before they could be staged. Entertaining Mr. Sloane instantly established Orton as enfant terrible du jour.

The Edge of the Universe Players 2—a young company that intends “to produce plays with big meanings that transcend ages and cultures”—now offers DC Metro theatergoers a chance to see for themselves what all the fuss was about. And it’s a show worth checking out. While Entertaining Mr. Sloane as a playscript is not what I’d call timeless, this deft, respectful, and well-crafted production presents a fascinating opportunity to see it now—through eyes that have been opened to much franker and far more explicit treatments of gay themes—and watch a genuinely nervy writing talent at work.

The story takes place in London in the living room of a house built beside a dump. Set Designer Giorgos Tsappas has captured the chintzy mismatched ambiance of cliche British bad taste and Properties Designer Kevin Laughon has filled it with déclassé nick-nacks that fit right in. Into this garishly prim setting comes a twenty-year-old working-class gay bloke, himself a sort of social refuse, with the intention of renting a room.

Kath, the landlord, is played by Claire Schoonover with the nervous overanimation of a woman in her forties who is not past her sexual prime. Like a mama cougar in heat, she pounces on the young man, whom she calls alternately “Mr. Sloane” and “Baby.” Sloane, played by Matthew Aldwin McGee with a seedy, sullen sensuality that Sloane would know has allure, doth not protest.

Enter Kath’s conniving brother, Ed, who also has sexual designs on Sloane. As smoothly played by Jim Jorgensen with unctious seductiveness, Ed persuades Sloane to be his chauffeur and picks up the tab for Sloane’s rent. “Any arrangement you fancy,” says Sloane, never one to turn down a good trick.

Sloane and Ed’s scene together early in Act One is a masterpiece of double entendres and coded sexual subtext, and it’s when my ears began to really prick up to Orton’s crafty and clandestine use of language. After Entertaining Mr. Sloane became a hit, Orton recalled with relish that the Lord Chamberlain had made him take out all the hetersexual naughty bits but left the homosexual ones behind—presumably not noticing they were there.

Nothing is stated, but there can be no mistaking that Ed and Sloane start getting it on off stage. When Ed finds out that Sloane is also having sex with Kath—a lusty connection we need not surmise—he gets testy and the stakes rise. Both Ed and Kath want to keep entertaining their laddie lay. What to do? Therein lies the tension that builds to twists and shocks.

There’s a fourth character, Kemp, who is Kath and Ed’s doddering da. As he comes comes and goes, David Bryan Jackson expresses with each entrance Kemp’s body declining and mental bulb dimming. He and his son have been estranged for twenty years; Kemp was outraged when he caught the boy doing something homosexual in his bedroom and has never stopped being ashamed. Beyond that Kemp’s character functions in the plot in an important way that I won’t give away. Best to be surprised.

Doubtless Entertaining Mr. Sloane got more laughs and gasps back in the day. The experience of viewing it now can elicit a sense that the play’s punches have been pulled. The high-voltage tensions among the characters that once sparked this transgressive comedy seem to have lost some wattage. But that says more about our liberalized times than it does about this production, which Director Stephen Jarrett has staged at a crisp and efficient clip.

Once upon a time this breakthrough script became a hit. They don’t write ’em like this anymore; they don’t have to. Theater like life keeps changing. And today’s real scandals are more likely to happen out on the streets.

If this production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane seems a flashback to a more innocent time, it is also packed with payoff—because the talented team at Edge of the Universe Players 2 has given us a welcome showcase for appreciating Joe Orton’s insidious wit.

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

Entertaining Mr. Sloane plays through December 13, 2015, at The Edge of the Universe Players 2 performing at the The Writer’s Center – 4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda, MD. Tickets are available online.





Sons of the Prophet

Theater J’s first triumph of the season was Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ semi-autobiographical Queens Girl in the World. Its second is also loosely autobiographical: Stephen Karam’s  Sons of the Prophet—a very funny play that’s seriously about suffering.

The play takes place about eight years ago in a burb in Pennsylvania. The main character, 29-year-old Joseph, is beset by multiple misfortunes: the recent death of his father following a car accident, the deterioration of his aging uncle for whom he is primary caregiver, the clinically unhinged woman who is his boss, plus his own cluster of physical afflictions, including chronic pain and some mysterious symptoms that require him to have an excruciating spinal tap center stage.  Chris Dinolfo  plays him with fit, fine, and winning flair. Yet given all the adversities piled on Joseph in the script, the character could be mistaken for a millennial’s Job lite.

“If only I knew what problems were headed my way,” Joseph laments at one point.

But the context for Joseph’s tribulations is a rich vein of  comedy with which Karam has infused this extraordinary play. Time and time again, the human pulse of its humor reaches out and touches us, or catches in our throat.  Within this improbably funny framework, the more Dinolfo makes Joseph’s inner torment transparent, the more he makes us care. And the more we care about his character, the more we want him to have a crack at the play’s catchphrase:

“All is well.”

That oft-quoted maxim is from The Prophet, the mega-selling book by Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran. As it happens Joseph works in publishing as editorial assistant to a manic book packager named Gloria (played by Brigid Cleary so flamboyantly funny and deranged she steals every scene she’s in). When Gloria learns that Joseph, also Lebanese-American, is remotely related to Gibran—by barely a twiglet on the family tree—she tries to get him to write a fictional memoir about all the “sons of the prophet” in his family.

Among those dubiously dubbed sons is Joseph’s father, who when the play begins with the blast of a crash has just died after a horrid nighttime car accident that may have precipitated a fatal heart attack. The crash was caused by a local high school football player who put a decoy deer into the middle of the road as a prank. Another so-called son is Joseph’s father’s aged brother, Bill (a gruff and affecting Michael Willis), who is in physical decline and increasingly a burden to Joseph. Also living at home is Joseph’s teenage bother, Charles (a buoyant and impish Tony Strowd Hamilton), who was born with one ear so is half hearing impaired. Joseph and Charles now have no parents (their mother predeceased their father). As it happens both brothers are gay.

Happily the brothers’ being gay does not count as one of their woes; instead in Karam’s rendering it leads to a delightful encounter for each. A reporter for a local TV station named Timothy tracks down Joseph intent on getting the scoop out of him about the Gibran nonstory. Turns out Joseph and Timothy were both runners on rival teams when they were in high school. Turns out Timothy too is gay. What starts for Joseph as an unwanted ambush by a nosy newshound begins to feel like a wanted hookup with a fellow former jock (Sam Ludwig as Timothy plays the sexual segue credibly and appealingly).

The football player who set the fake deer in the road, Vin, arrives to express his sympathy and remorse to the family. Vin is a hunky lunk, a bit dim but his sincerity runs deep (Jaysen Wright’s tenderly tentative performance in the role is heartbreakingly poignant). Charles is soon smitten with Vin, and they have a sweet boy-crush scene together upstairs, on an upper level of Luciana Stecconi’s minimalist and nonspecific yet striking all-gray set.

A school board meeting is called  to determine whether to prevent Vin from playing football anymore as punishment for his lethal stunt. Two dizzy board member dames (played adroitly  by Vanessa Bradchulis and Cam Magee) have some hilarious comedic bits. Then Vin takes the podium to give his speech of contrition—and suddenly the scene is a lump-in-throat moment.

Karam has said he used a lot of his own life in this play (though it’s not strictly speaking autobiographical): Like Joseph, Karam grew up gay in a Lebanese-American family in Pennsylvania; he ran cross-country; he worked in book publishing as an editorial assistant; he has had to have a spinal tap; he has lost relatives in sudden deaths… What is so impressive about Sons of the Prophet in performance at Theater J is that every laugh has a ring of human truth, and every note that could easily have sounded simply like sorrow has been set to a sweeping score of hope and uplift.

I cannot say I know how Karam did it. But I can say for certain that Director Gregg Henry has conducted that score like a masterwork, and the cast has played each part masterfully, on a stage superbly augmented by, among others, Sound Designer Patrick Calhoun, Lighting Designer Kyle Grant, and Costume Designer Collin Ranney.

Theater J’s Sons of the Prophet combines comedy and tragedy with a spellbinding originality of voice and vision.  This show is a rare one. All is not only well…it’s wonderful.


Running Time: One hour 55 minutes with no intermission.

Sons of the Prophet plays through December 20, 2015 at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.



Appomattox, the magnificent and powerful opera by Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton that premiered at The Kennedy Center last night, looks at American history with a breathtaking urgency and relevance. I am trying to think of major works of musical theater that come close, and I can’t.

There are many story arcs through which the history of America has been told on stage in musicals: America as melting pot, America as land of opportunity, America as birthed in idealism and conceived in liberty, America as home to religious freedom… The list of meta-narratives goes on, and there are excellent examples of each.

Until Appomattox, however, the musical stage has never told a story that—as its raison d’être—takes a brutally honest look at America’s brutal race problem.

To tell this story compactly, Appomattox focuses on what Glass has called “the potent combination of suffrage and race.” Act One takes place during Lincoln’s administration and centers on the Civil War and its aftermath—the fight to abolish slavery and to obtain for former slaves the right to vote. Act Two takes place during LBJ’s administration and centers on passage of the Civil Rights Act and the struggle for voting rights. Within this astute framework, Appomattox takes us directly into the emotional heart of events and incidents that tell hard truths, with no romantic gloss, about the racist hate and violence that persist today.

“The argument of the piece,” Glass told an interviewer, “is that the war [the Civil War] never ended.” As a lyric line near the end of Act One puts it, “I thought this was the ending of a struggle but it was just the beginning.”

An ensemble of all the women in the cast gives voice to a deeply affecting throughline. In a prolog the women sing of suffering and sorrow. In an epilog they return to sing, as if to history, of the critical and spiritual challenge ahead: “It is for us to take the world you left and to transform it completely.” What transpires in between thus becomes the musical and theatrical equivalent of that which impelled the struggle to free slaves and the civil rights movement—a passion that was intrinsically both political and devout.

In all the current contretemps concerning church-state separation (of which there are plenty), that core feature of American history often gets overlooked—perhaps to our peril. A conservatism that seems to want theocracy is properly anathema. But a liberalism that seems unwelcoming to believers is also wrongheaded. The lesson of American history (as Appomattox makes vivid) is unequivocal: revolution need not be shorn of faith.

I say this as a know-nothing about opera. I also say this as someone so lapsed I am religiously a nothing. I say this solely as someone fortunate to see and hear on stage a sumptuous and sublime production of one of the most important works of musical theater for our time:

Appomattox sings a hymn to freedom and an anthem to save America.

War With the Newts

When an actor comes on stage and tells you to silence your cell phone, etc., then identifies himself as a newt, you might be a bit perplexed. And when, further, he announces that all the humans you’ll see on stage will be played by newts too, you might suppose you’re in for a surprise. And that you are—for the world premiere of War With the Newts at Georgetown University is more wondrous strange than anyone can imagine.

Anyone, that is, except Natsu Onoda Power, who adapted the script from The War With the Newts—a 1936 satirical novel by Czech author Karel Čapek—and directed a multimedia spectacle as tickling and ingenious as can be.

The theatrical winking is nonstop.

First, the cute newts. They dance about in orange stocking feet wearing fingerless brown mittens and baggy brown onesies with a long thick tail attached. At some point, the entire ensemble shows up thus garbed.

Then, sure enough as promised, some of the the newts don human clothes to tell their tale, which pretty much follows Čapek’s plot, except it’s presented as a dazzling amalgam of projections, music, sound and light effects, dance, song, puppets, and silly sketch comedy.

The gist of Čapek’s novel is a pessimistic political allegory about economic exploitation, oppression, and worker revolt—plus a list of isms including capitalism, colonialism, fascism, and racism. It was written in the run-up to the Third Reich.

In the novel European humans, eager to grab wealth by harvesting pearls, seek a new source in the sea for these mollusk-created baubles and happen upon an undersea population of newts. These clever creatures the Europeans then capture, trade, enslave, and turn into a labor force. Turns out newts are adept at all sorts of projects, including altering shorelines and creating shipping lanes, plus they can learn to speak. In time the newts become conscious of their oppression, organize and rise up, engage in full-on revolutionary class warfare with explosives, overthrow their exploiters, take over—and it’s a whole newt world.

Natsu Natsu Onoda Power (called Newtsu in the program!) turns this dark saga into a witty romp. When the newts are in their native habitat, fish projected on a scrim swim by accompanied by sounds of burbling water, and a projected bubble floats up if a newt burps. When the newts become workers, they march and dance about wearing hard hats. Using big white cubes, they mime all kinds of projects—building reservoirs, water locks, dams, artificial islands—in a wordless scene that’s a high point and a delight.

But Čapek’s serious thrust is not left out. When the servant class of newts is made subjects in sadistic medical experiments, their torture is choreographed excruciatingly. And the ending—when avenging newts triumph—is literally explosive.

A brilliant team of stage artists has collaborated on this extravaganza, among them Sound Designer Sean Craig, Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi, Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny, Lighting Designer G. Ryan Smith, and Projections Designer Lauren Joy.

The spirited student cast—who make the fun they’re having infectious—consists of Michael Doonay, Michaela Farrell, Kate Ginna, Jordanna Hernandez, Carolyn Kenneally, Ben Lillian, Johnny Monday, Greg Ongao, George Prugh, Taylor Rasmussen, Danny Woods, and Marc Byrnes (as an author named J.D. Salamander!).

This sensational show is fleeting; it plays only through November 21. If you manage to catch it you’ll see fantastical imagination on display and a timely parable at play.

Running Time: One hour 35 minutes, including one intermission.

War With the Newts plays through November 21, 2015, at the Davis Performing Center’s Gonda Theatre at Georgetown University – 37th & O Streets NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.


You know that feeling you get when you go to something—you attend it as a visitor or you drop in as an interloper—and by the time that something ends, you feel as if you belonged to it? Well, there’s a family whose surname is Apple whose home has exactly that welcoming effect.

In November two years ago, The Studio Theatre presented the first two of Richard Nelson’s four-play Apple Family CycleThat Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad. I remembered going to see them both and loving them—but I had quite forgotten what it was about them that I loved and why.

It is now another November, and The Studio Theatre has staged the last two Apple Family plays, Sorry and Regular Singing, with the same marvelous cast as before, under the same brilliant direction of Serge Seiden, set in the exact same dining room, designed by Deb Booth, in a stately house in upstate New York. And as soon as Sorry began, I realized that each of the people on stage was familiar to me, someone I once knew well, someone I had warmed to, someone whose company I had enjoyed. And gradually it all came back to me: the roseate glow I felt two years ago in the presence of this fascinating family as their private and unexceptional lives played out: their stories and opinions, their joys and sorrows, their tiffs and resentments, their bonds and affections

If The Apple Family Cycle were a reality show on TV, I would be hooked. I would schedule my life around it so as not to miss a single episode. Or if it were a serial dramedy on Netflix, I would be binge-watching. It’s that addictive. (But be assured, one need not have seen the first two installments to immerse oneself in the third. Sorry stands self-sufficiently on its own, and any backstory one might need to know is artfully told within it.)

Although Sorry has very loosely an overarching narrative, it is actually a medley of stories. As in many a family, everyone brings their own dramas and quirks, like individual portion-size covered dishes, which as cooked up by Playwright Nelson turn into a terrific plotluck.

The Apple family members have gathered—by happenstance on Election Day 2012—because the time has come to move Benjamin, the eldest, into a nearby assisted-living home.

Benjamin is in his eighties and was once a renowned actor. Ted van Griethuysen’s regal bearing in the role leaves no doubt his performances used to be grand. But Benjamin suffers long- and short-term memory loss—which van Griethuysen portrays with a charming addledness—and his condition has worsened past what the two women in his family who care for him can manage.

Benjamin lives with two nieces, Barbara and her sister Marian. Barbara, the eldest, is single and a school teacher. Sarah Marshall completely captures the brittleness in Barbara’s manner that masks a lonely vulnerability. Marian is divorced and dating, and mother of a daughter who years ago committed suicide. Elizabeth Pierotti’s performance reveals Marian in all her complexity—her girlish excitement about her new boyfriend, her undertow of grief from her loss. Their sister, Jane, has come from Chicago to support them through the difficult transition they must undertake for the sake of their uncle and themselves. Jane is the youngest and liveliest and has a boyfriend who’s a struggling actor. The detailed way Kimberly Schraf conveys Jane’s no-nonsense amiability rounds out the enduring sisterhood the three women share.

Their brother, Richard, a high-powered lawyer, has also arrived but is impatient to leave. As the son he was favored, which to this day rankles his sisters. Yet even as they chide him for his overbearing sense of entitlement, they know as siblings they are inextricably bound. In revealing what is both annoying and winning about Richard, Rich Foucheux’s precise portrayal of the character is captivating.

The show’s several scenes are separated by lowered lights (lighting design by Daniel MacLean Wagner) and chimes (sound design by Palmer Heffernan), during which the actors rearrange themselves slightly. It is as if the play proceeds in real time but now and then hits pause. Sorry begins at 5 a.m. with all the characters still in sleepwear—except Richard, who shows up unexpectedly early—and one by one we see them dress for the day (in costumes designed to suit each character beautifully by Helen Huang).

Mainly what happens in Sorry is a lot of smart chat, including about politics and curious info—fun facts we didn’t know and matters of import in the larger scheme of things. Unlike typical domestic dramas that stay confined within some self-referential zone, Sorry foregrounds a family who are all avid readers, eager absorbers of ideas, and alert observers of current affairs. Near the end they play a kind of game: They go around the room telling what they would say to President Obama. And no sooner does this game begin but what one wants to play along in one’s own mind too.

Studio Theatre’s production of Sorry has the most refreshing and enticing effect: It not only invites us by the heart into a family’s shared mealtimes and memories; it engages our intelligence like a scintillating conversation.

You can come as you are. The family in The Studio Theatre’s Sorry has set out a wide welcome mat. And once you enter their home you’ll cross a threshold to a remarkable work of theater that in showing us the warm interior of a family bears witty witness to the wider world we live in.

And who would not jump at the chance to be a guest at that?


Note: The Studio Theatre’s 2013 productions of the first two plays in Richard Nelson’s cycle—That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad—are in the Washington Area Performing Arts Video Archive and may be viewed for free at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, and the Martin Luther King D.C. Public Library, Washington, DC.


Running Time: About one hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.

The Apple Family Cycle: Sorry plays in repertory with The Apple Family Cycle: Regular Singing through December 13, 2015, at The Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available at the box office, 202-332-3300, and online.

World Builders

To judge by social media, love and madness are a thing. Here are a few choice examples now making the rounds in the meme-osphere:

“Love is merely a madness….” (William Shakespeare)
“There is always some madness in love….” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
“When love is not madness, it is not love.” (Pedro Calderon de la Barca)

Love and madness have apparently become such an item, they go together better now than love and marriage did back in the day (“like a horse and carriage”).

In Johnna Adams’s play World Builders—now on stage in a poignant and absorbing production from Forum Theatre—the love/madness metaphor takes on profound new depth.

The world of the play is located in the experience of a young woman, Whitney, and a young man, Max, who have both been clinically diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder (SPD). Their affliction is no poetic-trope madness. Theirs is literal, described in the DSMMD (what shrinks call the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The play is set in a psychiatric wing, specifically that at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where Whitney and Max are subjects in a six-week clinical trial of a new med that might ameliorate their symptoms (which the play presents with veracity).

At the beginning Whitney is the highly charged livewire, and Laura C. Harris’s performance of her is electrifyingly supple. In contrast Max’s pilot light appears to have gone out; his affect is sullen and dull. Though we don’t yet know it, Daniel Corey’s performance of him will have heart-wrenching emotional range.

That Whitney and Max fall in love—a prospect planted early on when Whitney persists in getting Max’s attention—turns out to be far less a surprise than why and how they do so.

I caught the show last night at Woolly Mammoth where it is running in the rehearsal hall through November 21 very up close and personal. Staged in the round with but two rows of seats on all sides, and smartly directed by Amber McGinnis Jackson, World Builders is about as intimate and arresting as theater gets.

I found the ending not only beautifully moving but head-spinning. I won’t give it away; one should discover the progress of the play for oneself. But it has to do with the impact of Adams’s establishment of each of the two characters’ very separate and distinct “worlds,” private mental spaces that represent their respective experiences of their shared syndrome.

These worlds are of enormous importance to each character. “My world is the closest thing I have to a heart,” Whitney says. Her world is like a science-fiction fantasia packed with people, planets, and plots. Max’s world, by contrast, is macabre; it’s like the grim crime scene of serial killer. Max is gentle to his core and his world torments him. Still his grim fixation on it functions as a kind of attachment.

Whitney and Max are both fully cognizant that the drugs they are taking are “world-killer pills,” which will literally clear their minds. And they are not sure they want that.

“I love my world more than I love you,” Whitney tells Max—yet, “I want you and my world.”

The unfolding relationship between Whitney and Max becomes a love story stripped of the blinders that love typically insists on. The magnificent metaphor that Adams builds in World Builders will resonate for anyone who has a personal world of enormous importance to them and who does not want that world infringed on in order to comply with what is expected in order to be attached to another person. The fundamental question the play asks is this: If we each have a world and we cannot be ourselves without it and we cannot let someone else into it, how do we negotiate living and loving with someone else who also has their own world?

This play’s metaphor of an answer might rock your world.

Unexplored Interior (This Is Rwanda: The Beginning and End of the Earth)

There comes a moment early in Act One when Raymond, a young man who left his family in Rwanda to learn film making at NYU, returns to his homeland, which has become a devastation. The 100-day Hutu genocide of his people, the Tutsi, has exterminated his entire family, among a million more. Raymond—played with a beautiful power by Desmond Bing—stands downstage facing us the audience but looking as if at the evidence of a crime against humanity from which the world averted its eyes.

And seeing what he sees, he weeps.

In that moment could be witnessed the raison d’être for this epic and mesmerizing production: to permit us to see, through the lives and eyes of believable characters—both fictional and historical—a glimpse at the 1993 massacre in Africa that the world disgracefully ignored.

“It happened over. And over. And over,” a character says. “Five times more efficient than the Holocaust.”

Raymond decides to make a film to try to tell the complex story in multiple interconnecting and overlapping stories. But “how do you even begin to describe a genocide?,” he asks. “It is like trying to describe the sea to someone who has never seen it by showing them a handful of water.”

Boldly chosen to inaugurate Mosaic Theater Company, Unexplored Interior by Jay O. Sanders does more than offer a handful of water; it positions Mosaic as the preeminent theatrical platform for such necessary art. I cannot imagine another local theater-producing organization daring to attempt to tell a compact, conscientious, and compelling story drawn from the incomprehensibly sprawling Rwanda genocide.

Mosaic dared. And Mosaic did.

Sanders’s tightly crafted script is indelibly filmic in keeping with its main character’s POV. There are quick cuts within scenes and jump cuts between. Briefly sketched narratives overlap and abut. Characters from different realms appear onstage together—real ones with remembered ones, contemporary with historical, actual with fictional. Time shifts and toggles back and forth. And Director Derek Goldman master-manages this all with auteurial assurance.

Meanwhile spectacularly cinematic effects lavish the stage: A constantly eye-popping panoply of projections (designed by Jared Mezzocchi) plays on a jumbo screen. Movie-theater-like surround sound (designed by Christopher Baine) fills our ears—from classical music to rainstorms to explosions and thunderclaps accompanied by striking lightning (lighting design by Harold F. Burgess II). The set (designed by Luciana Stecconi), constructed of ragged, rough-hewn wood layers and draped canvas, suggests the hillsides and fields of Rwanda with a fine lack of literalness that allows for multiple scenes set elsewhere as well.

Sanders, an accomplished actor, writes the kind of script that implicitly trusts actors unconditionally. He knows what need not be in words, and exactly what text cuts to the quick. Accustomed to hearing more prolix playwrights spell out more, I needed a scene or so to pick up on Sanders’s linguistic succinctness and quicksilver references (a lot of which are to flicks). But once I caught on, the result was heightened alertness to what the actors were doing.

The Unexplored Interior cast was astounding; each and every one commanded attention. And because the majority of the characters are African, there was a range and depth of roles and performances that mainstream theater rarely provides.

Bill Grimmette appeared as Felicien, Raymond’s beloved grandfather whose storytelling inspired Raymond to tell stories through film. Grimmette’s sage presence had enormous gravity.

Jeff Allin played Alan, Raymond’s film-school professor, mentor, and friend; then doubled as General Romeo Dallaire, the real-life Canadian peacekeeping officer who tried to avert the genocide but got no resources to do so. Allin conveyed the complexity of both men’s stricken consciences with deep grace.

Erika Rose was Kate, Alan’s wife then widow, a film editor who accompanies Raymond on his journey to make his film. (“I’ve been African-American,” Kate tells Raymond. “But what do I really know about Africa?” “We are family, Kate,” he replies.) Once they get to Rwanda, Kate and Raymond set up and frame scenes as if directing Raymond’s unspooling screenplay, and Rose brought touching strength and verve to the role.

Isaiah Mays, a seventh-grader, played Boy, a nonspeaking role performed completely in dance and mime. Mays’s portrayal was every bit the peer of the other pros on stage, and his entrance dance (the show’s choreography was by Vincent E. Thomas) was a crowd-pleaser.

The Rwandan genocide had its roots in historical animus between the Hutu and the Tutsi, a racialist division—largely the residue of European rule (first Germans then Belgians)—that turned lethal when the majority Hutu set about slaughtering the Tutsi for ethnic supremacy. The news was met by ignorance and incomprehension abroad, plus much smug “they’re not like us” disdain.

The dramatist Sanders echoes what Shakespeare did with the Montagues and Capulets: He sets up two significant relationships in the play between a Hutu and a Tutsi character.

Raymond is Tutsi and his best friend, Alphonse, is Hutu. Freddie Bennett plays Alphonse with appealing energy and—as we learn when Raymond visits him in jail—very moving sensitivity.

Cat-reen is also a friend of Raymond’s from childhood, also Tutsi, and Shannon Dorsey plays her with sensuality and fierceness. As it happens Cat-reen and Thomas fall in love. And Thomas is not only Hutu; he is an aristocrat and government minister responsible for carrying out the slaughter of the Tutsi. In one of the play’s most engrossing twists, Thomas persuades himself that the more zealous he is in that genocidal pursuit, the more he will be able to shield Cat-reen from harm. His character’s “deal with the devil” makes for a quagmire of internal contradiction, and Michael Anthony Williams’s portrayal of him is intense.

Also contributing to the superb cast’s vivid storytelling were Silas Gordon Brigham, JaBen A. Early, Christian R. Gibbs, Jefferson A. Russell, and Baakari Wilder.

Sanders has inserted yet another telling theatrical device: He introduces the character of Mark Twain, the writer who is remembered and celebrated as a humorist but forgotten as a clarion of conscience. The real-life Twain, in a play called King Leopold’s Soliloquy, tried to tell the world what Leopold II did in the Belgian Congo. (“As bad as Hitler,” Kate says. “Killed ten million people,” Alan says. “No one cared ’cause it’s ten million BLACK people.”) In Unexplored Interior Twain shows up, his avuncular self in a white suit, to impart courage to General Romeo Dallaire:

MARK TWAIN: Watched your African adventure from the best seat in the house. Infuriated me all over again—did my best to sound the alarm, but they don’t seem to have learned a damn thing—human race just keeps movin’ in circles! Came here to persuade you to stay the course, sir. A man of conscience is a precious commodity….

DALLAIRE: …I thought you wrote comedies.

MARK TWAIN: When I learned about the horrors of Leopold and the Belgian Congo, sir, damn well drained the comedy right outta me. And same as you—tried like hell to arouse the world’s attention…

It is one of those marvelous trans-historical meetings of figures from different eras that can only happen persuasively on stage, and John Lescault brings Twain to life with an inspiring luminance that brings home the importance of the play precisely.

Unexplored Interior intersects community and conscience with sweeping scope and compassion, the likes of which this town needs more than it knows. So welcome to DC, Mosaic Theater Company! What a meaningful and momentous gift you bring.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with one 20-minute intermission.

Unexplored Interior (This Is Rwanda: The Beginning and End of the Earth) plays through November 29, 2015, at Mosaic Theater Company 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.

Winners and Losers

I left Winners and Losers thinking, Wow, there’s more here than meets the eye. Or, as one of the performers said in an interview, “The show really bangs around in your head….”

On the face of it, Winners and Losers is both silly and serious, hilarious and sobering: It’s as if two friendly frat boys who are as funny, smart, and quick as Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart were horsing around on an episode of Real World—joshing, jesting, tussling, showing off.

Now a hit at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Winners and Losers has been wittily promoted with a photo of two men having a pissing match, literally aiming at a target in a urinal. The image is spot on. Winners and Losers plays like edgy two-hander standup comedy that turns into a verbal smack down.

Gradually the oneupsmanship game darkens. It appears to get out of hand. It seems to become a cruel duel. And a tense question arises: Will these best buds’ mano a mano contest be a deal-breaker for their camaraderie? And will it leave one of them victor, the other broken?

Winners and Losers is nothing less than a coup de théâtre, a collision of art and real life that appears to be happening in the moment—a dramatic encounter whose outcome is not only unknown to the audience; it may not be known to the two men who are the cast.

I cannot think of anything akin. It may well be a whole new professional performance form. As such it’s not to be missed.

The artists who set up that suspense each night on stage, partly scripted and partly adlibbed, are Marcus Youssef and James Long, two fortysomething actors from Canada who are both superb improvisers and storytellers. In life they are friends and collaborators; they created Winners and Losers as a vehicle for themselves, structured so they play two competitors to the point that we realize (and maybe worry) that they may not be playing.

Their estimable aim is to “explore this question of competition as thoroughly as possible.” As one said in an interview:

The weighing of “winner” or “loser” is a constant in our society from politics, to sports, to how you might encounter random people in the street. Us against them, this against that, me against you.

Competition when healthy and helpful is good for all of us — you might even call it collaboration. When competition is unhealthy, this usually means someone is playing at a disadvantage or another is playing unfairly or someone or something external is pitting people against each other.

Toward that purpose they begin by playing a game in which they name something kind of at random and declare whether it’s a winner or a loser. DC streetcars, Goldman Sachs, and Donald Trump were among the topics adjudicated to much amusement the night I saw the show.

As if to divert attention from the deeper stuff to come, Youssef and Long bandy about references to current events, income disparity, racism, and the like. Nothing really personal yet. Very Colbert–Stewart in its astute observations and progressive perspectives.

Then slyly the show segues into a series of contests and confrontations between the men that reference their own real lives—as friends, sons, husbands, and fathers. By the time the topic got to “Who is the better masturbator?” it was clear the ante had been upped. Youssef and Long play an actual game of Ping Pong as they banter with delivery that increasingly borders on derogation. Long steps out to pee and upon his return initiates an actual wrestling match, an intense struggle that I assumed to have been fight-choreographed but which seemed alarmingly convincing. As their entwined bodies rolled around, struggling to exert and extricate from one tense and tight muscular hold after another, it was as if two men were enacting their inability to express what it was they really needed and wanted: to embrace.

The universality of that epic undercurrent of suppressed male-male affection in men’s lives seems not to have been on Youssef and Long’s minds, not what their performance was meant to be “about,” not what they intended to “say.” Winners and Losers was silent on the point. But at that moment it howled out.

Youssef and Long are very self-aware in their various riffs about checking their privilege on vectors of wealth and ethnic heritage, which is a terrific strength of the piece. Youssef teases Long about wearing $200 jeans. Long taunts Youssef about being frugal while standing to inherit a bundle with his father dies. Neither is anywhere near impoverished, they admit. And together they acknowledge that Canada’s shameful treatment of its First Nations population is not something that happens to them.

But conspicuously lacking is any privilege checking on account of being men. There’s not an iota of such insight. Which is weird given how much the show has to say about what it means to be men.

Though the show’s worthy intent is to explore competition “as thoroughly as possible,” it does so with a blind spot. It assumes the ruse that the interpersonal competition between these two talented men—which, brilliantly, is the very form of the show’s incandescent content—is not gendered. Which is a crock.

Hello, these are two dudes having a cockfight. Just like men do incessantly to be men. One’s gotta be a loser so the other can be a winner. Happens day in and day out. It’s the socially engineered engine of unhealthy competition.

And ain’t that a pisser?

Darius & Twig

I cannot help but think that if W.E.B. DuBois were alive, he would absolutely love Darius & Twig, the passionately purposeful play by Caleen Sinnette Jennings adapted from Walter Dean Myers’s popular young adult novel of the same name. Now running in the Family Theater at The Kennedy Center in a production as playful as it is profound, Darius & Twig is positively pulsing with edifying energy and “the vision of seers.”

The phrase is from DuBois’s famous 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth,” which begins:

The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races. Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers.

It would be ahistorical to wish DuBois’s conscientious attention to black men did not leave out black women. He was a man of his time, after all. But he was a man ahead of his time as well: His point about the uplifting importance for a people of excellent higher education for its exceptional upper percentile has stood the test.

Darius and Twig are two boys living in Harlem, one black, one Hispanic. They’re in high school, they are best friends, and they each excel. Darius writes, so well that during the play his story is accepted for publication in a literary journal. Twig runs, so fast that during the play he triumphs in competition.

That Darius is a “seer” is explicit in the script. He poetically imagines himself flying like a falcon and tells us he sees things only he can see. Twig too envisions the victory he wishes to achieve.

Significantly Darius and Twig deeply esteem each other’s excellence and want each other to succeed—a beautiful part of their bond. They are not in competition with each other. They are in competition for their future, which they know is dependent on getting into a good school (“You have to give a damn for yourself”).

The boys face obstacles to their aspirations. Darius’s Mama is a single mother living near poverty, raising Darius and his brother Brian, and struggling with a drinking problem. Twig’s Uncle Ernesto pressures him to quit. There’s a sadistic neighborhood bully named Midnight who with his sidekick Tall Boy taunts and torments Darius and Twig, calling Twig “fairy feet.”

But there are significant adults in their world who recognize Darius and Twig’s talents and who encourage and support them. The discipline and determination to succeed evidenced by both Darius and Twig are dramatically exemplified. In the end both Darius and Twig are accepted to colleges on scholarship. And the thrill of their accomplishment rippled through the mostly adult audience on opening night.

As Darius, Justin Weaks gives a phenomenally eloquent performance. There need to be more vehicles—like this and Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea—for his transfixing acting agility. And he was extraordinarily well matched by the exuberant Twig played by Christopher Wilson, who doubled as Brian. Appearing in 13 supporting roles were the astonishingly versatile Manu Kumasi and Latia Stokes. Director Eleanor Holdridge created a lively, believable world, and most remarkably she makes the atypical tenderness underlying the relationship between Darius and Twig completely credible.

The set by Andrew Cohen is an urban montage of graffiti-filled brick walls, basketball backstop, garbage can, newsstand, all against blue sky breaking through. Overhead was spray-painted “One person can only do so much”—with the word “only” crossed out. That edited legend is a tip-off that there is a pedagogy at play in this play. Its inspirational messaging is intrinsic to every scene, and a colorfully designed Cuesheet program guide intended for young audiences ensures that its lessons last. For instance,

What it takes to be a runner,
what it takes to be writer
you have to be the best you can,
you have to be a fighter.

The best, the best you can… Over a century ago DuBois capitalized the word Best. Darius & Twig underscores it with true-to-life contemporary truth. And the result is one of the best shows in town for young audiences of all ages.

Top Girls

I may have missed it, but to my knowledge no playwright in the current Women’s Voices Theater Festival set out to write a feminist-socialist play and explicitly said so. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Understandably those F and S words creep a lot of people out, Emma Watson and Bernie Sanders notwithstanding.) So in my book, that makes this solidly engaging university production of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls a theatrical event worthy of serious attention.

The endlessly inventive British playwright Churchill wrote Top Girls in 1982, a time when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, Ronald Reagan was president, and women of considerable privilege had begun to climb the ranks of middle management aiming to smash the glass ceiling. None of the seven women whose considerable talents brought Churchill’s work to life last night onstage at The George Washington University had yet been born.

In 1987 Churchill said of Top Girls to an interviewer:

What I was intending to do was make it first look as though it was celebrating the achievements of women and then—by showing the main character, Marlene, being successful in a very competitive, destructive capitalist way—ask, what kind of achievement is that? The idea was that it would start out looking like a feminist play and turn into a socialist one, as well.

And that’s exactly what Churchill achieved in this fascinatingly complex time-traveling epic. In the first scene we meet Marlene, a self-acknowledged “pushy” exec, celebrating her promotion to managing director of the Top Girls employment agency by hosting a dinner party at an upscale London restaurant for five women. Those women, all figures from history, literature, and art, have accepted Marlene’s invitation to join her in the present (the 1980s). Downing bottle after bottle of fine wine, they chit-chat and tell overlapping stories about their lot in life as women—which sucks, not surprisingly, though the interconnecting tales they tell are astounding. “To our courage!” says Marlene as she toasts them. Then: “Why are we all so miserable?”

The last scene, set in a naturalistic kitchen in Suffolk, is a trenchant confrontation between Marlene and her sister Joyce, a working class woman raising a daughter, Angie, by holding down four jobs (“It adds up,” she says). Joyce challenges Marlene’s myopic grasping for success within an economic structure built on keeping people like her down beneath:

Marlene: She’s a tough lady, Maggie. I’d give her a job….
Joyce: You voted for her then?….
Marlene: First woman prime minister. Terrifico. Aces. Right on….
Joyce: What good’s first woman if it’s her? I suppose you would have liked Hitler if he was a woman. Ms Hitler. Got a lot done, Hitlerina….
Marlene: Bosses still walking on the workers’ faces? Still Dadda’s little parrot? Haven’t you learned to think for yourself? I believe in the individual. Look at me.
Joyce: I am looking at you.

So Marlene would not be a good advert for Lean In.

But more important, Top Girls dares to ask the question that Emily’s List will likely not: Will we be better off with a woman at the top if the capitalist system she’s highly stationed in stays the same? (Note to next Democratic debate moderators: Ask that.)

Churchill’s conceptual arc in Top Girls is profound and stealthy; from beginning to end, what she’s up to sneaks up on you. Thankfully in this GWU Department of Theatre and Dance production, Director Jodi Kanter makes each step of the way a riveting treat.

Angelina Hoidra as Marlene was the play’s commanding center of gravity. The five women she dines with are a motley assortment of characters all well played as well: Alexandria Taliaferro as Isabella Bird, an actual avid traveler: Kait Haire as Lady Nijo, an actual child courtesan in Japan; Madeleine Farrington as Pope Joan, a legendary pontiff who posed as a man; Melanie Lerch as Griselda, a literary figure in Chaucer; and Marceleine Sutter, whose uncouth lack of table manners as Dull Gret, a peasant in a painting by Breugel, much delighted the opening night audience. Their attentive server was played by Léocadia Tchouaffé. Everyone but Hoidra doubled or trippled. Notably, Sutter comically stole some later scenes in the role of young Angie, Lerch was very cute as Angie’s playmate Kit, and Taliaferro reappeared in the powerful presence of Joyce.

To my ears the cast did British diction well (Susan Lynskey was dialect coach), though they were not uniformly clearly audible, at times a function of being so far upstage on Scenic Designer Michael Stepowany’s curiously undistinguished symmetrical staircase-and-multiplatform set. Sound Designer Sabrina Hyman played authentically innocuous lounge piano under the restaurant scene and found amusing 80s tunes for the scene changes. And hats off (at the very least) to Costume Designer Sigríður Jóhannesdóttir, whose period garments for the five dinner guests, power suits for Marlene, and kids’ clothes for the girls were outstanding

Top Girls is quite a difficult play to stage, actually; on paper it’s a bit of a slog to read. Not only are there several time leaps (the end of Act Two takes place before the end of Act One); the characters are constantly talking on top of one another. In performance this simul-scripting creates a lifelike gendered language texture—I was reminded of the giggly girl talk one overhears among gaggles of teens and tweens who all seem to be chirping at once. Churchill’s characters do something similar, just more sobered up by being grown up, and the student cast last night handled it ably.

This rare run ends Sunday. Anyone who has never seen and listened to Top Girls on its feet should catch it now. It’s a certifiable modern classic, and it’s in a woman’s voice that speaks for all of us…except the one percent.

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

Top Girls plays through this Sunday, November 1, 2015, at The George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, in the Marvin Center – 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC. The 2:00 pm performance November 1 will be ASL interpreted. 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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