Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

The Shipment

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

If there were a Richter Scale for risk-taking in theater, Forum Theatre’s  production of The Shipment would register right up at the top. In brazenly challenging assumptions about how we perceive race and identity, The Shipment literally rocks the house. The unsettling shock waves it generates come one upon another. It disrupts our comfort zone with caustic comedic wit. It is suffused with a sense of humor that we both laugh at and can’t.

The script by Young Jean Lee defies more conventions that one can count—with nerve and verve like I’ve never seen. The nimbly inventive direction by Psalmayene 24 keeps us on edge—just at the fine line between amusement and unease, between hilarity and alarm—yet always pulls us back, albeit sometimes just barely.

The Shipment takes chances. Mind-blowing chances.

The play is in two parts that are as different as can be. The first is like vaudeville, with  musical numbers and comedy sketches that send up minstrelsy. The second is a satire on the naturalistic drawing room comedy, the running joke being that this one is peopled by Buppies who talk and act exactly like entitled whites. The gear-stripping shift from one part to the other—which takes us from stereotypical portrayals of blacks by blacks to stereotypical portrayals of whites by blacks—is a shocker in itself. A fiercely gifted cast of five—Shannon Dorsey, Mark Hairston, Dexter Hamlett, Darius McCall, and Gary L. Perkins III—plays the discombobulating multiplicity of roles.

The show begins on a bare stage with five chairs (Forum Artistic Director Michael Dove is credited with the minimalist set design but also deserves credit for programing this maximal provocation.) The cast comes out and does a cartoonish song and dance routine to a song called “Fascinating New Thing.” At the time I recognized neither the band, Semisonic, nor the song—the lyrics of which include “I’m surprised that you’ve never been told before / That you’re lovely / And you’re perfect.” So the irony escaped me that this alt-rock band is three white guys from Minneapolis.

As I was soon to learn, The Shipment delivers so much irony you may sometimes be uncertain whether to scratch your head or let it merrily spin.

Abruptly Darius McCall, in a most impressive in-your-face performance (he is known in the Deaf community as Prinz-D), begins a standup routine so rude and crude one may need to wince or squirm. Among the more printable of its crass lines is  “Most white folks ain’t evil—they just stupid.” Then the barbs turn equal-opportunity: “It ain’t just white folks bein’ clueless,” the comedian says. “White, Asian, Latino, black.”

Who is this guy, and what are we to make of him? So begins our teetering on the edge of a brave new take on what we see when we see race. The theme is carried through in successive comedy sketches played so broadly we cannot help but be in on the joke. They run a gamut of black cultural cliches from drug dealing, stealing, and jail to basketball and rap. One, for instance, is set during a video shoot that’s supposed to feature rapper wannabe Omar (Gary L. Perkins)—but first a stylist named Sashay (Mark Hairston, in a hilariously scene-stealing turn) sings an ostentatious song about his special uniqueness and flamboyantly hits on Omar.

In the second part The Shipment delivers huge helpings of cultural cliches about a group of well-off thirty-something friends. They are, as the cookie slur says, black on the outside and white on the inside, and their fun-show parade of self-involved obsessions and woes is a hoot. (In a cast full of clowns, Shannon Dorsey in these scenes is particularly over-the-top.)

Lighting Designer Allan Sean Weeks creates some effects that are as jolting as the text. Costume Designer Katie Touart gives the actors stark abstract black for the first part and naturalistic earth tones for the second. Properties Designer Kevin Laughon cleverly provides all the objects for the first part as flat black drawings on white squares, which works terrific as an unreality check. And Choreographer Tony Thomas II has given the cast an entertaining spate of moves. (Though the dancing on opening night seemed not quite yet sharp, that scarcely mattered—in all else the cast’s performances were cutting and acute.)

The Shipment is an extraordinary script being given an exceptional production by Forum Theatre. By playing with our own perceptions of itself, The Shipment prompts us to notice that the way we perceive racial identity can be unperceptive. It makes us look at the lens through which we look. It incites us to see how we see.

Afterward you may not know what hit you. But whatever it was is a hit.

Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

The Shipment plays through June 13, 2015 at Forum Theatre performing at The Silver Spring Black Box Theatre  – 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8279, or purchase them online.

Good Hope Road (staged reading)

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

For decades theatergoers have warmed to plays set in rooming houses. Playwrights have been fond of the form too, because it permits an otherwise random mix of boarders to become an engrossing cast of characters with intriguing lives and intertwined story lines. If you add plays set in hotel lobbies, you’ve got a shelf full of scripts—albeit some now gathering dust.

Just when you might think the formula was past its prime, along comes Alan Sharpe’s brand-new, beautifully wrought full-length play Good Hope Road, which I was fortunate to hear read aloud yesterday at DC Arts Center. Presented by the African-American Collective Theater (ACT) as an LGBTQ Theater Showcase during DC Black Pride Weekend, the play breathed such entertaining and moving fresh life into the boarding-house genre that I left wanting to know immediately when I could expect to see it onstage in a full production.

Good Hope Road is set in Anacostia on the front porch of a four-unit apartment building whose residents are six gay black men. Over the course of the play they are joined by five other gay black men. They range in age from 70 to 20, each and every one of them is a distinct and compelling character, each has a fascinating story to tell, and their lives intersect in surprisingly touching ways.

The words good hope in the title capture what is ultimately the play’s indomitable and aspirational spirit. But first the writer’s road takes us through places that seem funny on the surface but have sadness underneath.

The eldest character is Oscar (read by Michael Sainte-Andress), a retired schoolteacher confined to a wheelchair whose dependence on Depends has not dampened his astringent wit. (Sharpe gives him the play’s sharpest one-liners, much to the delight of yesterday’s full house.) Oscar employs a young man named Mario (Juan Raheem), who is possessed of perhaps the sweetest temperament and biggest heart of any home-healthcare aide ever.

Oscar’s longtime friend is a renter named Earl (Donald Burch III), who is also retired and an earnest foil to Oscar’s cantankerousness. Earl lives with his lover Jesse (Jason Crews), who owns a barber shop where, as we learn in Act Two, he has secretly been trysting with a cute hair cutter, Dion (Raquis Da-Juan Petree).

A third unit in the building is shared by three brothers, all of them gay. Danny (Tristan Phillip Hewitt) is a ne’er-do-well having no employable assets except his hot 20-year-old body, with which he wins a wet-underwear contest and hooks up extensively. Danny’s older brother Darryl (Monte J. Wolfe) seriously gets on his case trying to get him to grow up. Their well-meaning middle brother Dwight (Jeremy Keith Hunter) tries to mediate their strife. By the time a secret about Darryl’s sex life is revealed in Act Two, we realize Sharpe has created with these three disparate brothers an extraordinarily original portrait of a loving family.

Two men arrive to rent the fourth unit, and they also happen to be gay—engaged to be married in fact. Malik (Justin Fair) is so light-skinned Oscar thinks he’s white. (Malik’s mother is black and his father is Jewish.) Malik’s fiance is Armani (Reginald Richard), whose name sounds as upscale as his family background. The cliffhanger that ends Act One has to do with the fact that Armani’s rich uncle intends to buy the betrothed boys this very building as a wedding present—which comes as a huge shock to the other tenants.

Just as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun set a complex domestic drama in the context of a racist real estate market, Sharpe has set the interconnected stories of these boarders in the context of rapid changes happening right now in Anacostia. As such Good Hope Road is not only a wonderfully told story about wholly unstereotypical characters, not only a poignant portrait of eleven indelible lives—it is a barometer of a neighborhood in transition and a brilliant bellweather dramatic work.

Good Hope Road, presented by the African-American Collective Theater, was read May 24, 2014 at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th St NW, Washington, DC 20009

Next Day Theater

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

When you go to one-night-only theater, you never know what you’ll get. There’s no word of mouth, no buzz, no yelping from critics. It’s like speed blind-dating.

And if the one-night-stand in question, Next Day Theater, is brand-new to the DC theater landscape—its cheeky promo calls the popup a world premiere—that ups the ante-cipation.

I checked out Next Day Theater with another DC Metro Theater Arts writer, Michael Poandl. We made our way downstairs at Tropicalia on U Street where just past the bar there’s a small stage. In no time the place was packed with an audience ready to have a drink and a good time. Doing theater where people imbibe seems to have become a trend in DC—Drunkle Vanya and Murder Ballad come to mind. The libation-abetted levity offered by Next Day Theater was so au courant it didn’t exist 24 hours earlier. The sketch-comedy scripts had been written in advance, but the actors and directors got to see them only after work the day before.

Michael and I both enjoyed the show and agreed it would be a terrific fixture of DC’s performing-arts nightlife. To convey the fast-paced, on-the-fly invention we saw onstage, I asked Next Day Theater’s impresario, Executive Producer Matt Spangler, to breeze through the show with me—like chitchat on a DVD extra.

IMPROV ACTORS Erik Heaney and Lena Winter.

John: The show began with a couple of actors  bantering downstage left.  I couldn’t tell if they were improvising or had been scripted, but it was very, very funny.

Matt: They were improvising. That was my idea. I hashed it out over some beers with a friend of mine who does improv one night. She recommended Erik. Then I found Lena through one of the other actors in the production. And the three of us came up with this scenario where they were starting the show.

John: I can’t believe they hadn’t worked together before.

Matt: I don’t think they ever knew each other.

John: They reminded me of the comedy team Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

Matt: They would love that comparison.

John: They were so good I wanted to see more of them.

STOP DOING IT! By Anne Marie DiNardo. Directed by Star Johnson. With Janel Dillard and James Nachbaur.

John: Stop Doing It! had a hilarious premise: a masseuse who can’t stop texting the Pope. And while she’s massaging she’s messaging—where did that come from?

Matt: Anne Marie wrote it as messaging, but the director came up with the idea of the massage.

John: That wasn’t in the script!?

Matt:   No, the script was bare, like Samuel Beckett, just two characters on stage rapping with each other. Then at the end the director had the woman being massaged rising up with a Pope hat on.

VOYERS By Derek Hills. Directed by Ushma Parikh. With Chris Alexander, Disiree Brown, Alexander Gheesling, Miles Gheesling, Ny’a Johnson.

John: The setup of Voyers was a group of tag artists in a corporate board-room setting. They’re interviewing applicants to join their team as taggers. And then one candidate comes in who’s a feeble-wobbly senior citizen and for her job audition she draws sex parts.

Matt: It sounds really funny when you describe the plot.

John: There was some fun-to-watch acting going on too.

SPOKEN WORD MONOLOGUE Written and performed by Sam Kean.

John: Sam Kean, who in his real life wrote a scientific book about the Periodic Table of Elements, told a funny and true story about how when it was translated into Chinese it got a book cover that was erotica.

Matt: He’s been on the New York Times bestseller list actually.

John: He comes from the SpeakeasyDC community?

Matt: Right. Amori Langstaff my girlfriend and I went to the Valentine’s Day Show of Speakeasy DC at the 9:30 Club, and Sam came on. A couple of Speakeasy actors really impressed us, so we went to their websites and messaged them to see if they’d be interested in doing this show. And I heard back from Sam.

WHEEL BARROW By Max Garner. Directed by Rachael Murray. With Jean Chemnick, Jimmy Lee, Karen Masih.

John: Wheel Barrow was set in a Canadian radio station, very surreal.

Matt: Alaskan.

John: Oh, Alaska. The host puts oddball callers on the air and there’s this penguin beside him who just squeaks. That one was probably the most obscure to me.

Matt: I’m not sure I get the guess-who connection myself. But I knew the penguin was going to get some laughs, and people like that kind of folksy Northern Exposure  humor.

John: It’s a good example of a sketch that has pop culture references in it that not everybody’s going to get. I mean, Northern Exposure was a while ago. But pretty soon you’re on to the next sketch, and you don’t have to be in the know.

THE TASTE By Jessica Bylander. Directed by Jen Williams. With Gemma Davimes, Lorrie Smith, Carol Spring, Christen Stephansky.

John: The Taste is about an Olympics-style wine-tasting championship, and Carol Spring, who played the curmudgeonly coach, just knocked me and Michael out.

Matt:  Have you seen her before?

John: Nope. The sketch had a hilarious premise, but she just chewed up that story and—

Matt: She stole the show. Hopefully we’ll get her back before she goes on to be a huge star.

John: Yeah, please. I can see that Next Day Theater could be an entry point for a lot of up-and-coming people—

Matt: Uh-huh—

John:  It also can function to showcase some star power. Like “Hey, folks, it’s random; you never know what you’re going to see. But you might see someone who’s really on their way.” I love that.

Matt: It’s utterly pretentious for me to compare ourselves to something like Saturday Night Live. But hey, maybe we’re an incubator for talent. I think Carol is going to be known on the scene. There’s no question about that. If she broke out a little bit through us, I’m flattered.

GUN PLAY By Matt Spangler. Directed by Chris Griffin. With Garry DeBrueil, Vitaly Mayes, Erick Morrison, Jeff Siperly, David Walsh, Kenny Washington.

John: This last one was a send-up of the ease of gun purchase with a hilarious parade of customers who can get guns—an armless man, Charlton Heston dressed as Moses, a deer, a baby. It was probably the most barbed social satire in the piece. I know you wrote it, but I’m curious to know your thoughts generally going forward about the place of politically awake sketch comedy in your project.

Matt: I’d like to see more of it. I’m a fairly passionate person politically. And I’ve done some documentary work. But I think you sometimes can get your message across, if you have one, more forcefully with humor than you can with pounding on a podium, right? The gun movement, where the pro-gun advocates are these days, has reached heights of absurdity in some respects. I think that if you can show that, if that’s something you believe, on stage, and people see how silly it is, then maybe your message starts to get through a little bit. But my first goal with that piece was that I had in mind a Monty Python–type sketch—something like that famous Cheese Shop one, where you have somebody come in and try to order cheese, but they don’t have any.

Next Day Theater performed May 16, 2015 at Tropicalia – 2001 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For information about future Next Day Theater productions, “like” its Facebook page or email Matt Spangler.

Link: Matt Spanler on Next Day Theater: “Like Hitting a Truck”

Cabaret

By the end of Act One, I was stunned and shaken. By the end of Act Two, I was speechless, not wanting to move. And I had seen this show before. The movie too. I already knew that it has a dark interior—that within the gorgeous score and acrid script lies the Nazi rise to power in 1930s Berlin. The show does not shy away. It depicts the onset of that inhuman depravity, which even still can be spoken of only with hushed sorrow and respect.

And yet, and yet…Joe Masteroff, John Kander, and Fred Ebb made of that horrific era an enduring book musical, which Signature Theatre has now mounted in an astounding and powerful production. The show is as melodious and eyecatching as ever. It can be—dare I say?—enjoyed. Yet under the sure hand of Director and Choreographer Matthew Gardiner, it is an iteration that always knows where it is going: directly into that darkness.

Gardiner’s muscular choreography is to my mind the most impressive component of this production (which is saying a lot because the show is full of phenomenal performances, fabulous costumes, and spectacular set and light effects). From the beginning the rough-and-tough choreography is the engine that drives the show to its nightmarish end. The movements are brusque and angular, replete with repetitive stomps. When goose steps appear late in Act One, they do not come from nowhere; they have been implicit in Gardiner’s bone-chilling choreography all along.

From the get-go Wesley Taylor’s edgy Emcee exudes beguiling cruelty, all sneering mockery, more cynical than sensual, more hateful than hot. No fey café jester he. This ostensible androgyne embodies pure pre-Nazi contempt, and Taylor’s transfixing performance displays the character’s hostility to the hilt.

Act One closes with the encroaching Nazi party given a high tenor’s voice in the deceptively lovely anthem “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” As the lyric line crescendoed to a miltant chorale, it was like an emotional train wreck.

In Act Two the Emcee sings “If You Could See Her (with my eyes)” to someone costumed as an ape whose primate movements might suggest an innocuous clown show. Then when the ape mask comes off and a woman is revealed, the Emcee’s harsh punchline is “She doesn’t look Jewish at all!” She is the chorine Lulu, played by Shayna Blass, with a look on her face of hollow-eyed fear and humiliation. Blass as Lulu reappears at the end of Act Two stripped and pummeled as the victim of a vicious anti-Semitic assault. Blass’s performance in that scene conveyed such an extremity of vulnerability that it was too painful to watch.

So don’t come expecting sanctimonious catharsis or conscience-soothing sentimentality. This show starts dark, then gets starker. It is shattering beyond words, and Blass’s role at the very end is unforgettable.

In fact it is hard to imagine a more uncompromising and in-your-face Cabaret than Signature Theatre’s. “If you’re not against all of this, then you’re for it,” the visiting American writer Cliff (Gregory Wooddell) tells the English chanteuse Sally Bowles (Barrett Wilbert Weed). He is referring to the rise to power of German demagogues there and then. In this production those words resound against indifferent complicity right here and now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jumpers for Goalposts

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

There have been some great plays set in locker rooms that lay bare the anxieties underlying men’s lives. After all, the sports locker room is the archetypical site of respite from the male-male combat by which is contested one’s MQ—masculinity quotient. David Storey’s 1971 rugby-team play The Changing Room comes to mind as does Richard Greenberg’s 2002 baseball-team drama Take Me Out, which undressed gay panic in the shower room before our eyes.

But no play has taken us inside a lads’ locker room with quite the naked candor of Tom Wells’s Jumpers for Goalposts, a sweet, side-splittingly funny, and subversive romantic comedy just opened at Studio Theatre. Already a hit in England (Wells’s homeland), Jumpers for Goalposts is getting its U.S. premiere in a production directed by Matt Torney that will knock your sweat socks off.

The title, Jumpers for Goalposts, refers to items of clothing placed on the ground as make-believe goal posts in the loose associations of amateur football teams (we say soccer) that are popular in England. And the script’s fearless spunk starts right off with its quirky cast of characters: four men and one woman who comprise a ragtag team called Barely Athletic in an LGBT soccer league.

Three of the men are single and gay—shy Luke (Liam Forde), burly bear Geoff (Jonathan Judge-Russo), and post-twink Danny (Zdenko Martin). One of the men, the token straight Joe (Michael Glenn), is recently widowed. The woman, tough and tenacious Viv (the ever awesome Kimberly Gilbert), is lesbian. These mates play against, and usually lose to, a league of other teams that includes one that’s lesbian, one that’s uberbutch, and one that’s trans.

This is not your father’s half-time hangout.

If you happen to be tracking Wells’s upending of locker room tropes, you can’t help but notice that all the guys are unabashedly nonathletic. They accept that fact of below-peer prowess in themselves and one another; they’re not crippled by shame about it; they don’t deride one other about it with oneupsmanship slurs.

Moreover these men are uniformly nonmisogynistic.  Their leader, Viv, not only coaches them but plays alongside them. At a time when having a girl play on any boys’ team fuels hand-wringing furor across the land, Viv’s being a team player goes utterly unremarked.

Viv tries valiantly to inspire them to do their best. She urges Joe, who’s turning forty, to get back in shape. In a delightful bit she consults a “For Dummies” book about how to coach sports to youngsters. Viv believes in Luke, Geoff, Danny, and Joe more than they believe in themselves. And though she sincerely wants them to stop losing, she never upbraids them for their failures on the field by calling them names from male coaches’ catalog of femiphobic insults. Nor do the guys ever diss her for being female or crack femiphobic jokes about her.

Tom Wells left all that stuff out. And funnily enough, we don’t miss it. Because funnily enough, Tom Wells has got something better going on—a wholly original angle of vision that, besides being laugh-out-loud hilarious, is heartwarming and liberating.

Costume Designer Kathleen Geldard has made the cast’s multiple changes of street and sports clothes an amusing anti-fashion show. Sound Designer Kenny Neal has nailed Barely Athletic’s agony of defeat in each successive score-keeping announcement. Dialect Coach Gary Logan has credibly transported the cast of characters to just outside Hull, the playwright’s hometown. (American ears may need to adjust a bit, and there’s no glossary of slang at hand.)  Set Designer Debra Booth’s splendidly specific locker room exudes a rank and gamey familiarity that could prompt an anxiety flareup of athletes’ foot from just looking at it. And Lighting Designer Michael Giannitti casts an unflinching glare on the place and strikingly punctuates scenes with “OMG what happens next?” blackouts.

I spoke above of liberation, and I want to make something clear. Tom Wells has not written a gay liberation play. He has not even written a gay play. His characters live ordinary lives; they’re are not habitués of any gay scene.  Instead Tom Wells has written a play that lets us in on a level of vulnerability and longing beneath masculine social posturing that is rarely seen as such in life, and he has brilliantly made it visible on stage—and Studio Theatre has now introduced this insightful young writer to a country with one of the most aggressive cults of masculinity in the world.

Jumpers for Goalposts is an incandescent comedy that gives audiences the great gift of liberating the imagination from the constraints of conventional manhood. As such Jumpers for Goalposts goes beyond liberation to redemption and scores a victory for us all.

Running Time: About one hour 50 minutes with no intermission.

Jumpers for Goalposts plays through June 21, 2015 at Studio Theatre’s Metheny Theatre – 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

The Call

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

Tanya Barfield’s play The Call seeks to give dramatic expression to the stark chasm between first world problems and third world problems. In so doing it tackles a topic with vast global consequence and humanizes it on stage such that we in our western comfort zone may take a hard look at it and not avert our eyes. In Theater J’s handsome new production now playing away from its home base on 16th Street at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, Barfield’s worthy ambition is well served. The Call comes through clearly with both gravitas and grace.

“We didn’t ask to solve the world’s problems; we asked for a baby,” bemoans Annie (Tessa Klein), a thirtysomething white American who with her thirtysomething white American husband, Peter (Jonathan Feuer)—ensconced in their comfortable American home—are attempting to adopt an orphaned infant from Africa. The  process gets more complicated than they expected.

Next door to Annie and Peter lives an African émigré, Alemu (Bru Ajueyitsi), who drops by and speaks vividly of the endemic poverty and disease in his native continent, as scenically beautiful as it is. Alemu functions as a reality check on Annie and Peter’s parenting plans, which blithely presume that cross-cultural adoption will ameliorate the unhappiness of failing for several years to conceive a full-term baby themselves. “You want a child from Africa, but you don’t want Africa,” he tells Annie.

And boom. The play’s packed political charge detonates.

As performed, the play seems far more personal than political. But everywhere it veers is a minefield of meta meaning.

The play is particularly personal for Barfield, who is biracial African-American and same-gender-loving and who with her white partner has adopted two children from Ethiopia. She told an interviewer from Out: “I don’t think of myself as a political playwright…. I’m just a human playwright. The same way I don’t like being labeled a gay playwright or a female playwright. Are you a black playwright? That’s not the way I think.”

Yet Barfield’s own life standpoint evidently accounts for two fascinating characters in The Call that amplify the play’s political theme beyond Annie and Peter’s entitled life crisis. They are a same-gender-loving African-American couple, Drea (Kelly Renee Armstrong) and Rebecca (Joy Jones), who are Annie and Peter’s friends (and, as Peter lets us know, their only black ones). When the play begins, Drea and Rebecca have, yes, come to dinner.

Drea and Rebecca regale Annie and Peter with tales of their recent trip to Africa: unforeseen hazards of a safari, being viewed as “white” Americans. And two things about them immediately stand out. One is that these two women deeply love each other; these are fully rounded characters in a committed same-sex relationship; there is no “drama” about that. It’s what it is.

The other thing is that their lives are also conspicuously first world. They can afford to be tourists in a foreign land where there is famine.

Set Designer Tim Jones has brilliantly located the play’s portrayal of privilege against a backdrop of poverty. The set is a multi-use unit: it functions as living room, bedroom, art museum, public park. Installed above, behind, and to the side is haunting humanitarian cargo—bales and crates of USAID food packed for shipment abroad. That fraught freight is never mentioned in the script. It just looms. Eloquently.

Director Shirley Serotsky has shaped a show that flows accessibly and engagingly, keeping the text’s many trenchant messages within the context of credible character relationships. Lighting Designer Garth Dolan has neatly focused our attention on each scene in each locale, creating a cinematic sense of movement though the set stays put. And Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan has framed the action with energetic music tracks that evoke, remarkably, a hybrid of first and third world. (Note that the Sprenger Theatre is subject to “sound bleed” from performances in adjacent spaces, which I mention not as a defect in the production but as something good to know going in. Because I had not been so advised, I was now and then distracted and perplexed as to the meaning of what I mistakenly took to be sound cues from The Call. Once I guessed what was what, the extraneous sounds were easy to tune out.)

The play’s worthy ambition and the production’s excellent execution notwithstanding, The Call requires a kind of attention not typical of Theater J’s more explicitly political fare. Its contents and portents take a while to come forth from beneath the surface of what is rather conventional domestic dialog, and the script can feel discursive at times—there’s a lot of lengthy storytelling about what happened elsewhere that doesn’t self-evidently serve the storytelling of the drama right in front of us. But wait for it. Once The Call comes through, you get a powerful connection between two worlds.

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes including one intermission.

The Call plays through May 31, 2015 at Theater J performing at The Paul Sprenger Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, purchase them online.

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea

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

A bright 18-year-old named Dontrell has had a dream. He saw a man with the face of his father who is captive on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic. In the dark hold of the vessel he saw that man and a woman conceive a child, from whom Dontrell would one day be descended. And then he saw the man leap overboard into the sea. When Dontrell awakens, he vows to pull that man up to shore.

That simple event impels the transcendent Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea. As imagined in what follows by Playwright Nathan Alan Davis, the quest to know who one is by knowing where one came from—the yearning to embrace and be embraced by one’s ancestry, to be worthy of it, to redeem it—has perhaps never before in dramatic literature found such lyrical metaphorical force.

The play is so good, it’s getting a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere in five cities including DC, where Theater Alliance has mounted a production directed by Timothy Douglas that is breathtakingly exquisite. Scenes of choreographed ritual flow into sharply observed naturalistic interludes then flow into dazzling dance and music then flow into astonishing mimed storytelling and back again. Contemporary idiomatic language full of humor flows into heightened poetic arias full of longing then flows into monologues full of  intimate disclosure and back again. Stunning stage pictures take us from living rooms and bedrooms to underwater and out to sea.

The part of Dontrell is played by Justin Weaks, whose performance is extraordinary. There is not a split second that Dontrell’s passions and aspirations do not shine through him from within. The character is whip-smart; Dontrell has been accepted into Johns Hopkins and is due there in three weeks. The character is also a poet; he keeps a log about his quest on a mini-cassette recorder in exuberant imagery. The character is also a typical teenager, impetuous and naive.  Weaks’s portrayal melds the  parts of Dontrell into a transfixing singular presence that  propels the action through all its stylistic shifts and diction switching not only with believability and continuity but with star quality.

The cast is abundant with talent: Sharisse Taylor plays Danielle, Dontrell’s endearingly bratty kid sister. Louis E. Davis plays Robby, Dontrell’s hip-hopped-up buddy from childhood. Katherine Renee Turner plays Dontrell’s level-headed cousin Shea, who works at an aquarium, where Dontrell consults her about his quest. Danielle C. Hutchinson plays Dontrell’s Mom, the solid rock of the family, who dreads that Dontrell’s deep-sea-diving dreams will deter him from college. Frank Britton plays Dontrell’s Dad, at first a brusque absence, later a wise guide. Katie Ryan plays Erika, who’s white, three years older, and a lifeguard. Erika saves Dontrell’s life when he jumps into a swimming pool without a clue how to swim. Later they fall in love without a clue where it will lead.

At times the cast appears as an ensemble speaking incantatory text and dancing to the African drum beat of Percussionist Jabari Exum, original music by Matthew M. Nielson, and African-inspired moves by Choreographer Dane Figueroa Edidi. Costume Designer Kendra Rai dresses the Company in ritual white when they’re a chorus and in cleverly contemporary outfits when they play their characters.

Spectacularly dramatic effects have been achieved by Lighting Designer Dan Covey, Projections Designer Michael Redman, and Sound Designer Matthew M. Nielson. In the scene when Dontrell visits the aquarium where his cousin works, the “tank” is formed by a wondrous projection on the floor animated with swimming fish. Upon it Katie Ryan “swims” while Dontrell—in a witty reversal of his own dilemma—talks to her as if she’s Nemo, the clownfish in the Disney cartoon whose father was trying to find his son. When Dontrell jumps into the deep end of a pool thinking he’ll learn to swim (he doesn’t; he nearly drowns), the scene comes vividly alive as chorus members lower and raise a rope around the stage edge to indicate the pool rim and lighting and sound switch from above water to below.

I admired everything about this production, so much so that I felt intimidated reviewing it. As soon as it was over I doubted I could convey just how important and thrilling it was. There was a quality of the script that snuck up on me, though; I didn’t glimpse it till afterward. It has to do with how Davis has drawn Dontrell’s relationships with the women in Dontrell’s life: his cousin Shea, the first trusted person he turns to for advice; Erika, the lifeguard who saves his life; and his mother, whose strength he needs to learn.

There comes a point in the play when Dontrell and his mother have a confrontation. Dontrell has obtained scuba gear to pursue what he calls his destiny, to rescue his long-drowned ancestor. His mother, angry that Dontrell would not honor his duty and go to college, grabs the knife from a birthday cake and stabs the wetsuit with it.

MOM (stabbing): You think your dreams the only ones the matter!?
DONTRELL: Ma, stop it!
MOM (stabbing): What you think you know about destiny!? I put my everything into you boy!
DONTRELL: Ma, stop it! Stop it! Stop it you bitch!

Abruptly there is silence. Everyone freezes.

What comes next in Davis’s script is a passage during which Dontrell’s Dad, till now not much of a presence, gives Dontrell a serious dressing down about what it meant that he called his mother “bitch.”  In that monologue—which Frank Britton delivers with staggering power (walking away with the scene)—Dontrell’s father explains:

Bitches is Warrior-Women, but we don’t know how to call ’em that, and we ain’t got no other word for ’em….
Mothers are always on guard….
Mamma knows she the last line of defense….
When you in your darkest hour and them wolves come howlin’
I don’t want no pound puppies at the gate. I don’t want no best in show.
I want Bitches.
I want Ruthless Bitches.
I want Meeean Bitches protecting you….
I want Warrior Women standin’ over you!…
You go out there and kiss your mother.

Dontrell, who has yet to kiss the sea, goes to do so.

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea breaks over us like wave upon wave of human love and hope, submerges us in honesty, buoys us by its bold vision and heartfelt voice. This gorgeous Theater Alliance production of this beautiful new play is an absolute must.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea plays through May 31, 2015 at Theater Alliance playing at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, Washington, DC 20020. Purchase tickets online.

The Great Lieutenant Sprinkle Didn’t Save Me

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

“Every ghost story is kind of like a history lesson,” says the young woman identified as A History Major in The Great Lieutenant Sprinkle Didn’t Save Me, an intriguing new play by Jack Novak now appearing briefly in the tiny white box space CAOS on F. That line not only sums up what the play’s about; in Novak’s ingenious script, it also summons strange and paranormal echoes from DC’s actual past: In 1909 a police captain was shot to death by one of his officers at a substation on Capital Hill. A few years ago at the same substation, a surveillance camera captured the image of a phantom police officer. Could it have been the ghost of the long-ago murdered police captain?

You can read about these incidents on the website Ghosts of DC (a real thing, I now know). From that curious source material—“Officer Sprinkle and the Haunted Police Station” by Tim Krepp—Playwright Novak has crafted a haunting tale as startling as it is fun.

The existing white-walled space at CAOS is the set. Upstage are the room’s three windows with white blinds closed. Overhead glare florescent lights, which go on and off abruptly, the sole light plot. On stage are positioned a desk, two chairs, and two video screens fed by several surveillance cameras. It’s  a spare, blank slate set, and a most unlikely setup for supernatural effects.

Director Maureen Monterubio does a cagey job of drawing us in. A young man identified as An Unnamed Guard keeps night watch at his desk. He frets. He thinks he sees a shadowy figure on one of the monitors. He goes off stage to investigate. We observe his movements through corridors and other rooms as they are revealed on security camera (a nice touch). He finds nothing and returns to his desk. His wife, the History Major, drops by. He tells her what is or isn’t going on, and as it happens she’s a ghost buff. She has no fear, because she believes ghosts are harmless; ghosts just want to tell their story. Guard is not buying it. Before long they, and we, are ensnared in a darkening story that both tickles and chills.

The lighting in this substation, the Guard explains, is erratic; thus when the overhead lights go off as they often do, the stage is lit spookily only by the video screens. The program lists a third character, so you know this young couple will not be alone for long. Yet when in backlit darkness A Figure appears—the Guard and History Major unawares—it comes as quite a jolt.

The relationship between the ghost-busting spouses is charming. Emily Kester plays the nerdy History Major with a sweet spark, and Kevin Collins plays the dweeby Guard with earnest angst. Novak gives their characters some interesting angles to bounce off. Guard moved to DC so History Major could pursue her studies and she’s grateful, yet History Major wants Guard to have more ambition and not be so ineffectual—there’s a lot of recognizable detail about a new millennial marriage. Kester and Collins portray their characters’ affection and qualms with an affecting authenticity that nicely invites us into their story, and makes the mayhem to come seem all the more a disruption of their lives. Figuring prominently in that mayhem, of course, is the spectral Figure, and John Stange embodies him with both balletic grace and gruff menace.

Sound Designer Robert Pike has delivered a truly unnerving soundscape, one that evoked a level of stagecraft far beyond the resources of this small playing space. Lighting Designer Chris Holland seemed to have cast spells with bare bones lighting sources. Costume Designer Jennifer Salter created a very credible phantom cop. And Projections Designer Lauren Joy filled those video screens with storytelling imagery that was spellbinding.

With The Great Lieutenant Sprinkle Didn’t Save Me and this young company’s previous offering, Bigger Than You, Bigger Than Me, Field Trip Theatre seems to have found a unique niche in DC’s crowded theater landscale: Bright and original contemporary playwrighting, in smart small-scale productions, with fascinating connections to the District. For Bigger Than You, the connection was DC’s post-9/11 history. For Lieutenant Sprinkle, it’s DC’s history of ghosts.

Field Trip Theatre is full of surprises—and right now the one not to miss is  The Great Lieutenant Sprinkle Didn’t Save Me.

Running Time: About one hour with no intermission.

The Great Lieutenant Sprinkle Didn’t Save Me plays through May 17, 2015 at CAOS on F – 923 F St. NW, Washington, DC 20004. Purchase tickets online.

On Approval

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

The Broadway and West End audiences that made Frederick Lonsdale’s On Approval a hit in the 1920s could not possibly have guessed how this light comedy would play in 2015. Bet they would be surprised. Because this zinger-packed confection is not only a tasty delight about love and romance. In the aftermath of second-wave feminism, it’s a fascinating blast from the past full of pith and vinegar about women, men, and sex.

Four sharp-tongued characters and a cheeky plot keep one bouncing back and forth between amusement and bemusement. Two of the characters are women of wealth; two of the characters are men of lowly means. The play is set in England in 1927, and as it begins, in an upper-crusty Mayfair home, we learn that each rich woman is smitten with one of the poor men. From then on in this role-reversed comedy of coupling, jokes about finances and infatuation buzz about like stingers.

Maria, whose income would be equivalent today to about $2 million, is played grandly with urbane self-absorption by Tricia McCauley. Helen, who is heir to a pickle fortune and one of England’s most affluent, is played sweetly with girlish guilelessness by Megan Dominy.

Helen is in love with George, a duke on the brink of bankruptcy.  Maria is secretly enamored of  Richard, whose income is not much above poverty level. The income disparities bother neither woman at all, but what really bugs Maria (besides the fact she can’t stand George) is that, as she has learned the hard way from a previous marriage, men can turn out to be not what they appear. Gasp! “What does any woman know about any man?” Maria laments. (A running jest in the script is Lonsdale’s witty crit of men’s cockiness and caddishness, which back in the day must have tickled many an early women’s libber and today—curiously!—stands the test of time.)

So Maria has devised a not-so-cockamamie plan. She will arrange for Richard to spend a month with her on a remote Scottish isle “on approval”—meaning this will be a prenup test drive at the end of which she will get hitched with him if he still pleases her or return the lout to the lot if he does not. Once this clever plot engine is revved, it just keeps humming along—and the story takes unexpected turns that lead to comic and caustic payoff.

Dylan Myers plays the vain George, Duke of Bristol, with a crass conceitedness that is somehow endearing—even when he treats Helen as if she were his servant. And Paul Edward Hope plays the dufus Richard with a hapless goofiness that’s its own comic turn. Richard has been besotted with Maria for years, and at the point he learns she’s inviting him on that island idyl, Hope literally skips across the stage, stealing the scene with him.

Maria makes plain to Richard that he will not be spending the night with her; she has arranged instead a hotel room to which he is expected to retire. The look of disappointment on Hope’s face when Richard learns this is like that of a clown whose balloons have burst. Maria’s terms for limited engagement obviously observed the mores of the time, when premarital sex would have been scandalous, a comedy-killing distraction. But what’s fascinating is to watch this story angle of Lonsdale’s though a contemporary lens accustomed to morals gone missing: Somehow removing sex from the equation sharpens focus on the integers and other variables, and a play from the past presciently speaks to today.

Director Steven Carpenter has choreographed the cast briskly as if in a square dance to a lighthearted tune. Set Designer Carl F. Gudenius and Assistant Set Designer Sydney Moore have created two handsome, lavishly appointed interiors (one for each act; the second is the house in Scotland where the test tryst transpires). Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows has beautifully warmed this odd love match. Special mention goes to Costume Designer Lynn Steinmetz, whose dresses for the ladies are flapper-chic and whose bespoke suits for the gents are dapper. Steinmetz has the men wearing the shiniest of black shoes, and the attention these pull serves the play marvelously, as both Myers and Hope often convey their characters’ quirks with their feet. And in between scenes, Sound Designer Marcus Darnley has queued up nicely hummable period songs.

With On Approval, the Washington Stage Guild has wrapped up its “Love And/Or Marriage”–themed 29th season with a polished production of a real gem. Those who like dry wit with a bit of gist will be dazzled.

Running Time: Two hours including one intermission.

On Approval plays through May 17, 2015 at Washington Stage Guild performing at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information and for tickets, call (240) 582-0050, or purchase them online.

Closet Land

When we are ushered into the tiny dimly lit theater, constructed as a claustrophobic black box with only two rows of chairs on all sides, we enter a nightmare more harrowing and disquieting than any conjured by Kafka. We see there a lone woman sitting in a chair—bound, gagged, blindfolded and wearing a flimsy white nightdress. Her vulnerability is palpable—and we have not yet met the nameless man who will interrogate and assault her,  excruciatingly, before our eyes and nearly within arm’s reach. We are present in a wince-in-place space where no esthetic distance exists.

Closet Land began as a 1991 film directed by Rahda Bharadwaj from her  original screenplay. Bharadwaj has explained why she conceived it as a film not a stageplay:

Because film is better equipped to take the audience directly into intense emotional states—be they of pain, or of joy.  Closet Land, which indeed deals with torture and physical abuse, deals with pain. And my film, despite being about torture, also deals with the exhilaration of freedom and the power of human imagination….

After the film came out, Bharadwaj adapted her screenplay for the stage, a  version that has since been widely performed. While Bharadwaj acknowledges that the words in the stage version “have a lyrical force and sway,” she makes clear her preference for “the film experience,” which, she says, is “vastly different: hugely emotional and personal, with [the woman’s] pain and [the man’s] madness intimately felt.”

Should Bharadwaj see the stage version now playing  at Anacostia Arts Center, she might wish to revise that viewpoint. Because Factory 449’s production of Closet Land is more intense and more illuminating than the movie by at least a factor of 10. I say that having watched the film right after the play. The two forms follow approximately the same script and tell approximately the same story, yet they yield profoundly different significations. And I found Factory 449’s rendering to be by far the more cogent and compelling.

Director Rick Hammerly and Actors Sara Barker and David Lamont Wilson tell a hellish story and don’t hold back. A politically naive children’s-book author (Barker) has been detained by some unspecified government and is interrogated by a smooth-operator sadist-for-the-state (Wilson), who accuses her of having written books that subliminally indoctrinate impressionable youth.

“You can do anything with children if only you play with them,” he says arrogantly, quoting Prince Otto van Bismarck. And if that sounds like foreshadowing of child sexual abuse, it is. In the dark recesses of the play’s back story is the woman’s  tormenting memory as a five-year-old seeking refuge in a closet when a man, a friend of her mother’s, came by to visit weekly—and he would find her in that closet and regularly sexually molest her.  A story she has written called “Closet Land,” a thinly veiled evocation of that childhood trauma, has been seized by this ominously anonymous state and has precipitated the terrifying interrogation. Moreover the interrogator himself uses methods of torture that are graphically sexual, and at one point he and the molester merge into one.

The film foregrounds the theme of state torture; there’s an onscreen quote from Amnesty International at the end. Bharadwaj’s film shrewdly overlays political abuse and sexual abuse—or what Kate Millett calls “male domination and domination by the state” in her chapter about the film in her book The Politics of Cruelty. Millett observes the important sexual political metaphor in this melding, as state political torture feminizes and infantilizes its victims:

Under torture one is first reduced to a woman, then to a child, and as the torturer creates a woman out of any human material being tortured, he also creates a child, the citizen as child, frightened before the great, all-powerful, adult sadism of the state.

While Millett’s reading of the film Closet Land as an allegory about the sexual politics of state torture makes fascinating sense, there remains a lot about the film that seems more tangential than probative. For instance the entire specific childhood sex-abuse narrative: Why is it even there? The interrogation taking place in the present amply dramatizes the sexual politics of state torture; the molestation back story doesn’t add much. The brilliant interpretation now on view in the Factory 449 staging shifts the work’s focus, however, away from the capital P Political to the lower-case personal—foregrounding what the woman’s history of sexual abuse means to her—with dramatically revelatory results.

Because we sit so close in this black chamber—because we are so proximate to each invasion and derogation of the body of the character Barker portrays (sometimes with more verisimilitude than we can stand to watch), because Wilson’s portrayal of the suave cruelty of his character is so stark (and sometimes shocks the shit out of us)—we experience the nightmare viscerally ourselves. It’s not up on a screen that we can sit back from. We are in it.

What’s extraordinary is that by the end of the play we understand—as we don’t and can’t from the movie—exactly who is having this nightmare and why. We recognize that a woman, an accomplished creative writer, has been haunted and traumatized by her experience of sexual molestation; she has kept reliving it, reiterating it; she has been struggling with it all her life. But on this night—this horrific and auspicious night, here in this tiny space with only us few audience members as  witness—she is refiguring that molestation not as something personal, not as her fault, but as an instance of political torture in a social system of male sexual domination. Her purpose, using only the power of her intellect and imagination, is to name it, to resist it, to dissent from it, to conquer it.  She is literally now reauthoring the story in order to reclaim herself and the integrity of her body and mind. And the real suspense of the play becomes: Will she succeed?

Not only is Factory 449’s Closet Land a don’t-miss encounter with two exquisite performances in a stunning production. It is a revelation of liberatory meaning.

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