Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Transmission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do not trust stories.

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

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

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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

Lord of the Flies

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

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

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

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

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

Baker’s program note on this topic is telling:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Electric Baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.

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

Cloud Nine

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, which premiered in London in 1979, is rightly considered a landmark play. It’s pivotal for me personally as well, ever since I saw the legendary Tommy Tune production off-Broadway in 1981.

At the time I was  immersed in counter-cultural people’s theater, which tended to be wildly experimental in form but often single-issue-focused in content.The women’s movement was making waves, and there were remarkable women playwrights at work, mainly off-off-Broadway. But in commercial theater there were yet few plays that looked at the world through the lens of women’s lived experience (the singular exception being Ntozake Shange’s 1975  for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, recently and wonderfully revived at Theater Alliance).

Churchill’s Cloud Nine exploded my consciousness about what was possible to do and say in theater about the intersecting hierarchies of sex, race, and class all in the same play. From a shrewdly woman-centric, anti-imperialist viewpoint, Churchill dramatizes that interlocking-oppression matrix with scathing wit, surreal comedy, and inspired strokes of cross-gender, cross-race, and cross-generation casting.

When the play premiered, half of it was a period piece, and nowadays both halves are. Act I  is set in Victorian colonial Africa, and Act II is set 100 years later in a London in 1979. Some of the characters in Act I reappear in Act II but have aged only 25 years. It’s one of those time-and-place stunts that make theater so much fun.

As freshly reimagined by Director Monique Holt, Gallaudet’s revival of Cloud Nine is start to finish a delight, with unexpected twists. Performed on Gallaudet’s superb black box stage in artistic sign language by actors playing pointedly to the audience—and simultaneously spoken aloud by voice actors in the back of the house—the production is widely accessible. Intriguingly, it also takes on a new dimensional quality. It’s as if Churchill’s classic text has been given a meta layer of meaning that makes it seem all the more relevant to our times.

In Act I,  an imperious British officer named Clive (a properly pompous Gregg McConville, Jr.) has been posted to Africa to oversee the Crown’s dubious interests. His wife Betty, a part meant to be played by a man, is a sendup of submissive feminine frailty (“I am man’s creation…what men want is what I want to be,” she flutters—and a sensitive Andrew Morrill keeps her from seeming a cartoon). Their black manservant is Joseph, who considers his own people “bad people” (“What white men want, I dearly want to be”). The part is meant to be played by a white actor (and William Millios’ performance in the role is particularly impressive during two monologues,  a moving “In the Bleak Midwinter” and a fiercely unbiblical creation myth). Betty’s scolding mother, also Clive’s adoring mother-in-law, is Maud (a genteelly judgmental Caledonia Wilding). Edward, Clive and Betty’s son, meant to be played by a woman (a spunky Christy.Zendarski), is having a hard time becoming the man his father wants him to be as he much prefers to play with dolls.

The sexual attractions go every which way.

A spirited widow arrives seeking safety from restless natives, Mrs. Saunders (a feisty Chelsea Hilaire), and Clive promptly makes carnal moves on her (his head up under her skirt at one point).  A brave and butch explorer arrives for a visit, a friend of Clive’s named Mr. Harry Bagley (a stalwart Thadeus Suggs), and we learn he’s got a bro crush on Clive, and Edward has a boy crush on Harry. Meanwhile Betty has a thing for Harry, and Edward’s governess, Ellen (a winsome Jacinda Baldwin-Gomez), wants Betty real bad.

Scenic Designer Samina Vieth creates a crushed-paper-surface proscenium with a subtle map of Africa and portrait of Queen Victoria on either side. In Act I this unit frames a louvered double door draped by pastel crushed silk.  Lighting Designer Annie Wiegand makes it all look lovely lit from the front and vaguely ominous lit from behind, as when actors appear in shadow. Costume Designer’s chooses an all-white wardrobe for all except the assimilated sycophant Joshua, who wears white from the waist up but a dark-pattered sarong below. Detailing is not stitched on but drawn on, lending everyone a doll-like appearance, nicely enhanced by Make-up Artist Nikolya Sereda’s rosy cheeks and penciled-on raised eyebrows. Taken together these stage arts and the stylized acting evoke an enchanting live-action Victorian puppet show.

The script suggests that the characters in Act II  be played by the same actors who did Act I, with some switcheroo swapping: Betty II is to be played by the woman who played Edward I, Edward II is to be played by the man who played Betty I, and so on. Monique Holt instead chose a different cast for the the Act II characters. As Holt explained to me, not only did this increase the number of roles available; it offered hard-to-come-by training in understudying, because the Act I cast also learned the Act II roles, and vice versa.

In Cloud Nine’s Act II, the colonial history satirized in Act I is never mentioned. Instead we get an assortment of contemporary personal relationship issues without any particular social context other than the generic hip 70s, depicted  in this production by a backdrop of slogans, spray painting, and posters.

Betty is making her way in the world solo, having left Clive, and Emma Crawford gives Betty’s journey to find herself a touching soulfulness. Betty’s daughter, Victoria, represented by a doll prop in Act I, is now married unhappily to Martin, a man who uses trendy liberationist sensitivity to belittle her. The scene where this falls out between Phil Meredith (as Martin) and Allyson Bortoletto (as Victoria) was sharply played and a highpoint. Betty’s son, Edward, is now a gardener and in a gay relationship with Gerry, who does not reciprocate Edward’s romantic attachment. The scene where this emotional distance becomes clear between Ryan Barrett (as Edward) and Eric Murphy (as Martin) was touchingly played, and Murphy’s handling of Martin’s subsequent graphic monologue about cruising was exceptional. Victoria, rebounding from Martin, seeks sexual solace with a lesbian single mother named Lin, played with fine forthrightness by Caroline Suggs. Lin’s daughter Cathy, played by a man (a rambunctious and tempestuous Gideon Firl), is a tomboy who likes guns. In a quirky but typically 70s communal commingling, Lin and Victoria and Edward all end up living together—and then Edward discloses he himself might be lesbian and maybe a woman too.

Churchill’s snappy dialog was good hands. The actors were coached in American Sign Language and British Sign Language by Jesse Conrad and Stephen Kimble. And an able cast of six voice actors, led by Voice Director Corrie Pond, delivered Churchill’s dialog with verve and nuance and credibly portrayed vocally all 16 different characters: Joshua Cauley, Samantha Fina, Aaron Halleck, Ben Lauer, Malka Roth, Samantha R. Smith.

Gallaudet’s excellent and entertaining mounting of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine is a terrific testament to the prescience, provocation, and political acumen of this important modern classic.

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

Cloud Nine presented by the Gallaudet University Theatre and Dance Program plays through April 24, 2016 at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. All performances are signed and voice interpreted except Saturday matinees, which are signed only. For tickets, purchase them online.

 

My Queer Body

Inside the beltway bubble of local theater making, it’s easy to forget how many U.S. citizens are indifferent, if not antipathetic, to live theater. Mainly they express this by voting with their butts, which they keep on sofas or in sports arenas—which is all fine and good; it’s the American cultural marketplace. Every now and again, though, some demagogic pols, fanning culture-war flames, rile up anti-art animus, as happened back in the 1990s when four performance artists had their National Endowment for the Arts grants ungranted. They banded together and sued, went on to notoriety as the NEA Four, and became heroes of resistance to public-funding philistinism.

Two of these four are being recognized in a pair of aptly chosen performance pieces presented by Rainbow Theatre Project: Tim Miller and Holly Hughes. The first, Miller’s nakedly autobiographical 1992 solo piece My Queer Body, was performed—I’m tempted to say inhabited—by Paul Alan to an enthusiastically appreciative audience last Sunday at Bier Baron Tavern. Artistic Producing Director H. Lee Gabel persisted for six months to get the rights and told the crowd in his introduction that this was “the first time Tim Miller has given permission for someone else to do his words.”

Hughes’s 1996 solo piece Clit Notes will be performed Sunday, April 24, at the same venue in a gender swap by John Moletress. Taken together, these two performance pieces are a fascinating blast from the past. Moreover, in the wake of recent anti-LGBT legislation, they are a timely reminder that radical queer art still has plenty to say to power.

Alan entered amiably wearing eye liner, hot pink suspenders, a gray tank top, and black stovepipe jeans—and he began interacting with audience members right off. He was obviously keeping to Miller’s script, which he sometimes read from, but the effect of his nimbly gender-fluid performance, mixed with situational ad libs, seemed more like spontaneous improv.

In Miller’s words

My Queer Body is my most seminal piece. And not just because the show starts with me as a queer sperm getting ready to be ejaculated out of my dad’s dick—though that’s clearly a tip-off. In My Queer Body I wanted to weave a funny, scary, and emotional gay boy’s alternative creation myth, an odyssey of swimming upstream as a queer spermlet at conception to my first boy-kiss to the ecstatic visions of homo-sex transforming the state!

Miller’s performance of that first bit, a fantasia on his conception, can be viewed on online, and Alan’s rendering was every bit as funny if even more playful.

Miller goes on to explain,

This show explores the stories that our bodies carry and how systemic homophobia challenges our deepest selves. The performance traces a journey through the most intimate pleasures and pains of being in our bodies in these difficult and juicy times. In My Queer Body we have the sweetness of an early love, a date with a boy at the La Brea Tar Pits, and a frightening peek into a volcano and the mortal fears of the time. I wanted the show to reveal some of the secrets that are held in my heart and head and butt and breath. The show ends up with a rousing call to claim ecstasy and imagine a fabulous queer future complete with a black lesbian president.

Throughout there are historically specific echoes of an era when HIV/AIDS was taking countless gay men’s lives and “Silence = Death.” Miller and his first boyfriend attend a demo protesting California Governor Pete Wilson’s veto of a gay rights bill. Miller fondly remembers watching Zefferelli’s lush Romeo and Juliet, which features the tush of an early crush. Yet My Queer Body seems to play in a timeless place of erotic awakening and coming of age. And when, prior to enacting ecstatically Miller’s first time having sex, Alan strips down to bright orange briefs anachronistically branded Diesel, we are reminded that that was not only then; it’s now all over and over again.

Connor Hogan’s direction astutely shaped a site-specific performance that allowed Alan an engaging freedom that kept the whole performance fresh, and Alan’s open rapport with the audience was its own reward. Though he was not off book, his body owned the story. Alan was at once himself and Tim Miller.  And had Miller been there in the flesh, I’m guessing he’d be glad he came.

Running Time: One hour 20 minutes, with no intermission

My Queer Body was presented April 10, 2016, by Rainbow Theatre Project performing at  Bier Baron Tavern, 1523 22nd Street NW, Washington, DC.

Clit Notes, written by Holly Hughes and performed by John Moltress, will be presented April 24, 2016, by Rainbow Theatre Project performing at Bier Baron Tavern, 1523 22nd Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

This is the queer birth section from the beginning of Tim Miller‘s solo performance piece My Queer Body.

 

The Nether

Playwright Jennifer Haley has seen the future and it’s The Nether, her cerebrally chilling thriller about future tech and future sex. Just opened at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in a fantastical production directed by Shana Cooper, The Nether sets off brain bombs like there’s no tomorrow.

Imagine, if you will, a 3D virtual world where men’s most twisted sexual compulsions have free rein. A cyberspace where cybersex is so advanced, the simulated sex objects seem sensate. A  private digital retreat for consensual role play and dark desires unmoored to social mores. A place where men with tendencies toward children can pursue their bent beyond the reach of real-world laws. The perfect personal playground for customized erotic imaging where no actual human bodies are abused, no fetishized flesh is wounded, no fuck toys are trafficked. It’s only electronic ones and zeros. A harm-free, value-neutral programmed pornland for the mind.

Or is it?

Haley’s ingenious script rips into that thicket of ethical issues and keeps us on mental tenterhooks with one of the most spellbinding theatrical head trips of our time.

The play opens with a real-world interrogation in progress into shady goings-on in the virtual world. The investigator, Morris (a tersely toughminded Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) is embarked on an initiative to impose real-world law on virtual-world licentiousness. To that end she questions an entrepreneurial procurer named Sims (a rivetingly unravelling Edward Gero) about his lucrative Hideaway, a beautiful Victorian-themed locale he has programmed in “the Nether” where men from the real world pay him to enter as “shades.” Once there they can do whatever they want to compliant convincing children who are actually digitized avatars operated from afar by adult “behinders.”

MORRIS: But really, Mr. Sims, an average of fourteen hours a day in the Nether? What can be gained by spending so much time in something that isn’t real?!
SIMS:  Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean it isn’t real….As the Nether becomes our contextual framework for being, don’t you think it’s a bit out of date to say it isn’t real?

Within this shrewd setup Haley propels an unnerving story that moves back and forth between the interrogation room and the Hideaway, where we meet Sims as his avatar Papa (wearing a sharp all-white suit by Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt) and his favorite faux child, a giggling, sexually precocious nine-year-old girl named Iris (the fascinatingly nuanced Maya Brettel). Also dropping by the Hideaway is a reluctant customer named Woodnut (Tim Getman, who’s got an inimitable knack for playing appealing and appalling). With Papa’s smarmy encouragement, Woodnut’s innocent-seeming dalliance with Iris gets dark before our eyes.

Back in the investigation room, Morris grills a disheveled 65-year-old retired professor named Doyle (Paul Vincent O’Connor, who reveals the character’s unfolding surprises with touching depth). Believing Doyle has incriminating information on Sims, she confronts him:

MORRIS: People meet as physical beings in the Nether.
DOYLE: But there are no longer physical barriers to that contact…. Can’t you see what a wonder it is that we may interact outside our bodies?!
MORRIS: But who are we when we interact without consequence?

Some of Haley’s scenes in the real world play like captivating arguments, with characters in moral combat. And some in the virtual world, especially the scenes of seductive child’s play, are so prettily creepy you could hear a pin drop on opening night.

The super-smart script is supported by a dazzling production. Set Designer Sibyl Wickersheimer creates two distinct worlds that shift back and forth in the blink of an eye. Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills keeps the real world harsh and bathes the virtual world in beauty. Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis astonishes our ears, as the play does our conscience. And Projections Designer Jared Mezzocchi creates absolutely magical background imagery, including birds in flight in an enchanting forest.

I doubt there is another more important and portentous play about our online future than The Nether. And having been blown away by the Woolly Mammoth production, I’m not so sure that future is not already now.

 

After the War

“A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house,” said a certain prophet of Nazareth long ago. Subtract the word “prophet,” swap in “politically outspoken Israeli artist,” borrow storytelling structure from Ibsen (e.g. An Enemy of the People), and you have the gist of After the War, the new play by Motti Lerner just opened at Mosaic Theater Company.

There’s even a comically earnest doctor character who drops in Ibsenesquely: Bernard (a delightful Michael Toyaldo).

After the War is set in Tel Aviv in 2006 two weeks after the Second Lebanon War. Like Lerner’s prior and more provocative play The Admission, which played to great acclaim and ignited colossal controversy a season ago, After the War at its core of conscience casts a critical eye on the military conduct of Israel. But whereas the dramatic tension in The Admission turned on disputed facts about a particular military action, what drives After the War is the conflict between a particular world-traveled and -renowned pianist and the family members who bitterly resent him for his widely publicized critical views about the country that was his home and is still theirs.

Lerner’s estimably highminded purpose in After the War is just as plain as it was in The Admission, but it doesn’t catch hold as well; it stays worn on the sleeve not felt from the heart. For After the War to work onstage with the sort of emotional power The Admission had, we have to be more than curious about its interestingly idiosyncratic assortment characters; we have to care about them—and that doesn’t happen, despite perfectly good performances from very well-cast actors ably directed by Sinai Peter.

I heard the script read during Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival last fall and left thinking it felt formulaic, its character conflicts more forced than simmering up and erupting from within. The Mosaic production brilliantly opens up what is basically a one-set living room drama and gives it sweeping social context (in the form of projected warplanes) and resonant musicality (evoked by Frida Showham’s imposing orchestra hall set). Especially noteworthy is Eric Shimelonis’ outstanding sound design, which deceived me into believing I was hearing live orchestral and piano music in a concert hall. The play establishes its main character, Joel (Paul Morella), as a musical genius deservedly much lauded in the 18 years he has been abroad, and everything about the stagecraft makes that fact of the character credible and clear.

As written, Joel is seemingly sincere in his compassion for the Lebanese children whom Israeli militarism has turned into collateral victims—a compassion that, he says, has led him to take his public political stands. He believes “the person is also his conscience,” and he remembers that his piano-teacher mother Bella (Barbara Rappaport) taught him “not to separate the personal from the pianist,” so “I played to save us from our enemies and I played to save us from ourselves.” But as he confronts his own family with “what our soldiers did in your name in this war,” he seems not to have foreseen the extent to which his views would rankle them. Only now on this visit does he realize those views  are anathema to his mother, his brother Freddie (James Whalen), and his 23-year-old son Izzy (Guy Kapulnik). And only now does he learn those views were so detested by his deceased father that the distress may have killed him. We are given to understand that Paul the great pianist has surmised none of this before because the 18 years he has been away have kept him busy touring and performing and so, by inattention or intention, he has been out of touch. Still, the character’s cluelessness about the resentment he will confront on this visit is odd indeed—it comes off as a private deficit of anticipatory empathy that sticks out in glaring contrast to the compassion he publicly espouses.

What emerges is a portrait of the great artist as egotist—as someone who in his personal life doesn’t really walk the noble talk of his public life. Paul never really gets where his family’s resentment might be coming from; he never really seems to seek the kind of empathic connection with any of them that might move the dial on their separate and aggregate animosity. His obliviousness to them while he gallivanted the globe does not seem that much displaced by authentic dialogue in the moment. Moreover he is all too ready for a dalliance with Trudy (Tonya Beckman), who is not only his mother’s nurse and Bernard’s ex-wife but maybe his brother’s betrothed.

The self-absorption problem with After the War’s main character as written does not function simply as the sort of “flaw” that makes a character more complex or interesting. It functions instead as a deal-breaker for our ability to empathize with the character and consequently our ability to relate emotionally to the play and therefore our inclination to feel the import of its message.

For make no mistake: The meaning of After the War is profoundly important. Its clear-eyed depiction of the brave and courageous artist who speaks out despite the professional and personal price to be paid is not only exemplary; it is a stance of ethical principle that is urgently needed. Though this particular script misfires, the Mosaic Theater Company that produced it—the thriving enterprise that Ari Roth conceived and helms, that Serge Seiden and Jennifer L Nelson co-create—precisely embodies the portrait this play aspires to: the essential socially conscious artist for whom art and politics not only mix but mesh.

“The purpose of art is to make people better,” said Lerner during the opening night reception. And he said of After the War that “the play wants to disturb you to ask what to do to not let this happen.” Lerner’s and his play’s intention is to be celebrated. And Mosaic is to be commended for bringing it to the stage.

 

 

Falling Out of Time

There is so much sorrow in this show
Nine fine actors playing nine parents
All mourning dead children
Searching to see them again
Seeking to be with them one more time
Speaking words of unspeakable loss
Each groping their solitary way
Going in circles
Burdened by unbearable grief
Each child’s dying retold
Each child’s death relived
Mothers and fathers intoning
One by one
Poems of loss and sadness
Lyrical lines of lamentation
Becoming a chorus of bereavement
No longer alone
Finding solace in shared heartbreak
In freeing verse
In full disclosure of private pain
All their sadness aired
No more to be said
Able to breathe again
Still their children are dead
Gone from them
Yet they have found the words
To say what it is like
What it is
To lose the precious life of one’s child

So know this before you go:
It is all in verse
And it is all about sorrow
Soulful sorrow, all of it
A show made solely of sorrow
Yes, one note
A note you may know
But this singular maybe-familiar note has been scored like a magnificent symphony
And it is voiced by nine superb soloists
Who become an exquisite choir
That may lift you up
If you have already known the note

 

 

 

Moment

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” as Leo Tolstoy famously said. Had Tolstoy seen Studio Theatre’s penetrating production of Deirdre Kinahan’s lacerating Moment—a knife-edged night of reopened old wounds—he might have added: “Each unhappy family has a meltdown in its own way.”

At the explosive end of Moment’s first act, the audience I watched the play with sat a long moment in shell-shocked silence. I doubt any of us knew what hit us.

Things don’t start out that way. At the beginning, Moment chit-chats and chirps along innocuously, quite unremarkably and for quite a while, as we are introduced to the members of a Dublin family. It is a family, we are to learn, that has a painful past that cannot be put behind them, and now is the first time they’ve all been together since the shocking incident that tore them apart some 15 years ago.

Teresa, the mother (Dearbhla Molloy), is on too many meds and has not enough memory left to keep track of them. Ciara (Caroline Bootle Pendergtast), one of Teresa’s two daughters, is a conventional mom with a fun-loving bloke of a hubby, Dave (Ciaran Byrne). But Teresa’s other daughter, Naimh (Emily Lanham) (pronounced Neev), arrives so tense and tightly wound she doesn’t even want to be around Fin (Avery Clark), the hapless co-worker and wannabe boyfriend she brought along.

What amps up the tension is the impending arrival of the sisters’ older brother, Nial (Peter Albrink). As a self-absorbed adolescent, he committed a horrible crime in his bedroom that he was sentenced to prison for. Since he served time, Nial’s life has been remarkably rehabilitated; he has become a successful abstract artist, exhibited in several galleries; he has the love of Ruth (Hannah Yelland), a beautiful and understanding woman  who is also his art-world-savvy rep. For all practical purposes, Nial’s life is now happy and whole, and he has determinedly moved on.  Naimh has decidedly not. She has never forgiven him.

It is to this kindling that Naimh’s bitter resentment of her older brother—for what he did, for what it did to her—sets a torch. And what makes Moment truly momentous is how Kinahan takes this incendiary combustion and makes it shine a bright light on family sexism.

Lots of playwrights have an “origin story,” a biographical narrative or incident that explains why they started writing for theater and how they discovered it was their art form, but Deirdre Kinahan’s must be among the most revealing. As she told Her, an Irish women’s magazine:

I first got into writing when myself and a friend Maureen set up the Tall Tales Theatre Company and we were both really interested in acting. I was acting for a couple of years, from around 1997 to 1999.

When I was acting I was also doing a bit of work with Ruhama Women’s Project.  It provided education to women who had worked in prostitution all their lives in Dublin… I was in there teaching basic English literacy, computers and drama and I became very close to a couple of the senior women.

They then got interested in coming to my plays and one of them had the idea about writing a play about their lives so I said yes, I would bring a writer in and all the rest of it but they said we don’t want anyone else to write it but you. I said I’m not a writer but they said we trust you so I agreed to do it. That was my first play.

This genesis of a writing life is gendered: One cannot imagine a man being asked by women exiting the sex industry to tell their stories. But it is also an origin story that is  gender-inequity conscious: One cannot imagine a woman in denial about male supremacy being entrusted by such women to tell their stories either.

This illuminating backstory of what became Kinahan’s acclaimed playwrighting career offers an insight into what she has achieved in Moment: Kinahan has a keen intuition for seeing the men in her play though the eyes of the women in her play, and for showing us exactly why the women see those men that way.

The main focus of Kinahan’s artful seeing is Nial, as he is viewed by his mother (who adores him) and his sister Niamh (who abhors him). Another focus is the deceased man whose portrait looms on the wall—the siblings’ father and Teresa’s husband—as we hear conflicting stories about why he died.

With a steady, unsettling gaze, Kinahan exposes the raw nerves of homespun sexism that fixes siblings for life in relation to one other and to themselves. Moment shows us a daughter who cannot escape living unhappily in the shadow of the favored son who hurt her…sisters whose father may have lost his life defending his son…grown women to whose own mother their prodigal brother still matters more….

To say this family drama is fascinating is an understatement.

 

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