Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Happy Ending

Happy Ending is a one-act satirical comedy written in the 1960s by Douglas Turner Ward, co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Company. He had written an op-ed for the New York Times called “American Theatre: for Whites Only?” that prompted funding and other support for the new company. The NEC’s mission was to create theater by black playwrights from the black point of view primarily (not exclusively) for black audiences. It’s easy to forget what a radical notion about representation that was back then. For that memorial reason alone, the revival of Happy Ending just opened at Anacostia Playhouse is well worthy of attention.

But do not come expecting a museum piece—because this Happy Ending is fresh, funny, and bursting with song-and-dance pizzazz. Yes, song and dance! Director Ella Davis has juiced up this modern classic with a riot of musical numbers. Some of the tunes that embellish the zany storyline are familiar (“What a difference a day makes”); more are brand-new. As composed by Marion Johnson and performed by a spirited cast with big voices, they get the joint jumping. And by the time of the show’s happy ending (no spoiler: the title gives it away), Ward’s comic gem has jumped out of history into the hysterical present.

Krinessa Pinket (Vi) and Jennifer Lee (Ellie) in ‘Happy Ending.’ Photo by Jabari Jefferson.

Happy Ending tells the story of two shrewd black maids, both sisters: Vi (Krinessa Pinkett) and Ellie (Jennifer Lee). For years they have worked for a wealthy white couple, the Harrisons. As the play opens they have just been let go, though, because Mr. and Mrs. H are getting a divorce. Vi and Ella are beside themselves with sobbing. And the reason for their over-the-top weeping is the comic twist of the play: All this time they have been engaged in a cagey embezzlement scheme, lifting food, clothing, and other items of value from the Harrisons, who own too much to notice. “We’re only getting back what we deserve,” says one. It’s a kind of DIY reparations scheme, and it touches a nerve of economic injustice that Ward ingeniously connects to the funny bone.

The play takes place in a ’50s Harlem kitchen—stylish in Set and Lighting Designer P. Precious Porter’s rendering—with green walls, blue appliances, black-and-white checkerboard floor, and, as we learn, a freezer and pantry packed with pilfered food. The interplay between Pinkett and Lee is priceless; their broad comedic skills pull us into Vi and Ellie’s hilarious pathos right away.

Krinessa Pinket (Vi), Jennifer Lee (Ellie, standing), and Greg Watkins (Junie) in ‘Happy Ending.’ Photo by Jabari Jefferson.

Their nephew Junie enters (Greg Watkins), having gone for a job he didn’t get. Somewhat surprisingly, Watkins, who cuts a charmingly dapper figure, begins doing smooth dance moves to a song of resilience and self-determination—”I’m black and I’m proud. I’m a strong man walking,” he belts—and even more surprisingly, he plays it straight to the audience. From then on, the show lifts out of fourth-wall staging, shifts into musical comedy gear, and takes off in a flurry of feel-good mirth.

A fourth character, Ellie’s beau Arthur (Charles Harris), shows up in time to join in a showstopping celebratory musical closer when the story’s promised happy ending is revealed. It’s hard to imagine Happy Ending ever ending with more upbeat joy.

Charles Harris (Arthur), Jennifer Lee (Ellie), Krinessa Pinket (Vi), and Greg Watkins (Junie) in ‘Happy Ending.’ Photo by Jabari Jefferson.

Happy Ending is a co-production between the Anacostia Playhouse and the All About the Drama Theater Group. Throughout, Costume Designer Luqman Salim’s clothes reflect the period but with a subtly fresh eye, as befits the entire production’s inventive reimagining.

Before the play proper begins, period jazz plays as we see a slideshow of black-and-white photographs of ’50s Harlem street scenes and notables such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lorraine Hansberry, Count Basie. It’s a very well crafted flashback by Sound and Projection Designer Tewodross Melchishua Williams that aptly locates the story in its time and place and soberly reminds us that the Civil Rights Movement was still just starting out.

These projections are followed by a less successful audio-visual enhancement, a six-minute film called “A Day in the Life of Vi & Ellie—Meet the Harrisons.” In it, Writer/Director Davis stages the backstory scene in which Vi and Ellie are dismissed. Only referred to in Ward’s script, that scene is here played out literally, and somewhat stiffly, with Pat Martin appearing as Mr. Harrison, Adele Robey as Mrs. Harrison, and Pinkett and Lee as Vi and Ellie. While the film does spell out the story’s inciting action (and arguably makes the play’s early exposition more accessible), the flat, forced tone misleads our expectations because the play that follows is actually a cunning bundle of fun.

Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Happy Ending plays through August 25, 2018, presented by the Anacostia Playhouse and All About the Drama Theater Group at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.

 

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The Story of the Gun

Mike Daisey’s monolog The Story of the Gun is a show both hilarious and sobering, and he begins it with a wry riff on who we are who have come to see it. As he joshingly reminds us, we are liberal theatergoers, meaning that in the national conversation about guns we’re way to the left. Fair enough, he’s got us pegged. Except, he adds dead serious, there’s important stuff entirely missing from that conversation—stuff Daisey’s going to tell us. And damn, does he.

Read my interview, Mike Daisey Takes Aim at ‘The Story of the Gun’ in America

I don’t want to dissuade anyone from going—in fact, I earnestly urge the opposite—but at the end of this evening of laughing my head off, I left kind of bummed. I found my brain bursting with new information and understanding, all of which could be summed up in this: The gun problem in America is even worse than I knew.

Mike Daisey, creator and performer of ‘The Story of the Gun.’

During the show, Daisey explains how the United States was “built on the gun” and how “guns are the heart of who America is.” There’s no way not to take what Mike Daisey’s saying as damning news. But there’s no public provocateur in the nation better able to deliver damning news so enjoyably.

He promises to block out from his presentation anything we might see on CNN or anything from the flame wars between gun-rights and gun-control proponents. He wants to avoid, he says, “the buzzwordification of everything” so as to get in touch with “the fuckedupness.” Guy’s got a gritty gift of gab.

What follows is Daisey’s sweeping narrative about the invention of gun technology and its eventual use by the “pasty white people” who arrived in the New (to them) World to murder millions of people who were here already. In Daisey’s unsparing telling, the shameful saga continues with the use of guns to terrorize shipped-over black people. Addressing the audience directly as if we are the America that did this—as anyone white and woke could surmise we are—Daisey’s voice darkens. “You genocided, you enslaved at the point of a gun,” he says. And the case he makes that America could never have come into being without the gun is staggeringly irrefutable.

He goes on a fascinating tangent (actually, all his tangents are fascinating) to explain how the Bill of Rights got tacked on to the Constitution: it was because angry militia members did not trust the ruling class that wrote the darn thing and demanded the right to armed revolution if need be. The framers knew they needed to accede to this gun-wielding citizenry or else the whole document was doomed. Thus was enshrined the right to bear arms—a right exercised initially by militias in every town locked and loaded to shoot natives and black people.

As Daisey points out, the gun is of no use at all today for its original purpose: “The gun doesn’t stop the government from imposing its will anymore.” Then, he dryly observes, the people who back then agitated for gun rights to keep a check on the government would not belong today to the NRA. They’d join the ACLU.

One of the things I especially admire about Daisey’s work is that he does not evade the sexual politics of his topic. Instead, he goes there, both humbly (because he is a straight white male) and outraged (because men). He went there in The Trump Card in an excoriating takedown of the shameless pussy grabber. And he goes there in The Story of the Gun: “The gun is a very male weapon, very phallic,” he says. “It’s a man’s way of forcing his way on the world.”

There’s more, lots more. His revelations about the NRA—how it built its corporate identity through fear and racial animosity—are shocking. His respect for the students who survived the Parkland shooting and have become activists is inspiring—they were not yet trained to think change is impossible.

I know of no theater artist with Mike Daisey’s power to synthesize and distill centuries of history through a clear-eyed lens of politicized conscience and still keep his rapt audience laughing and learning and in the palm of his hand.

Running Time: One hour 55 minutes, with no intermission.

The Story of the Gun plays through August 9, 2018, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company –  641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

 

Dave

You know those big live TV versions of blockbuster musicals that get broadcast decades after the show was a hit on the stage? Like, not until generations have come and gone? Well in the case of Dave, the new musical just opened at Arena Stage, I’m afraid that lag time just won’t do. Because Dave needs to be beamed into America’s living rooms right now.

Read David Siegel’s rave review of Dave.

I’m serious, this is a matter of national urgency. Did you see the alarming news that broke on the very day Dave opened? (I know, you’re wondering, Which alarming news?) Shrinks across the country are reporting increasing cases of Trump Anxiety Disorder. I’m not making this up. The telltale symptom of the syndrome is feeling as though the world is going to end.  And no wonder: the news cycle is a 24/7 trigger. People’s psyches are fried. The mental health of the citizenry is at stake. We need Dave to get us through.

Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) and the cast in ‘Dave.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

The musical Dave is based on the 1993 movie Dave, about an ordinary citizen named Dave Kovic who resembles President Bill Mitchell so much he’s recruited by the president’s handlers to be the president’s stand-in. Then President Mitchell has a stroke while fucking his mistress and the dastardly chief of staff and his West Wing-man press secretary decide to pass off Dave as the president without telling the First Lady, thinking she’ll never know because they hardly speak and assuming Dave the dufus will do their bidding. But Dave turns out to be a far better president than the one who’s in a coma. He lifts the country’s spirits, he promotes progressive legislation, he shows he really cares, and America loves him. He even wins the cold heart of the First Lady, who is icy toward Dave initially only because she thinks he’s the faithless dick she’s married to.

Dave the movie was in production during the presidency of George W. Bush and distributed during the presidency of Bill Clinton—in between lies about WMDs and lies about sexual screw-ups, in other words. Dave was a funny and moving contemporary fairy tale that in its time touched a nerve: a latent longing for our nation’s patriotic ideals to be real. For truth, justice, and the American way, for gosh sakes. And the movie did very well.

But no one could have predicted then the era of lies, inequity, and treason we live in now.

So the idea to bring back Dave as a musical was beyond brilliant. (Shout out to Warner Bros., which produced the motion picture from Gary Ross’s screenplay and got the ball rolling on its way to Arena.) And the creative team assembled is a galaxy of genius: Thomas Meehan and Nell Benjamin (book and lyrics), Tom Kitt (music), Tina Landau (direction), Sam Pinkleton (choreography), Rob Berman (music direction).

Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) and the cast in ‘Dave.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

Here’s why the musical they’ve made far surpasses the original movie: It’s live and it’s us. We the audience are in it together.

There comes a point in Act One when the storyline calls for the performers on stage to sing the national anthem. Nowhere in the script does it say: Come on, folks, join us. The plot would move ahead just fine if everyone in the house just kept seated, watched, and listened. But the night I saw the show, as soon as the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” began, the audience started to rise and sing along, one by one, until it was nearly everyone. I looked around incredulous and saw hands held over hearts. It was a spontaneous breakout of audience participation so full of pure, undefiled patriotism that it not only stopped the show; it lofted the musical into a whole new realm of communal meaning.

In addition to being set in the present—with cell phones and such—the musical Dave is different from the movie in several substantive ways that deepen its bond with audiences profoundly. For instance, in the movie First Lady Ellen Mitchell is an advocate for disenfranchised children, and Dave’s unexpected visit with her to a school and shared commitment to her cause is when their relationship thaws. In the musical Ellen is an advocate for eldercare, and Dave’s unexpected site visit with her to a nursing home and his active allyship on the issue serve a similar plot point—but the moment is immensely more resonant to the generation of theatergoers who themselves have been or are caregivers.

The nursing home scene in ‘Dave.’ Looking at each other center stage: Mamie Parris (Ellen Mitchell) and Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Another example: In the movie, Dave runs a temporary employment agency; in the musical, he is a high school history teacher with a huge admiration for Lincoln. In the very first scene, we see him teaching his class the Gettysburg Address, an excerpt of which is displayed on an overhead projector. Dave has circled the word we wherever it appears. He wants to imbue his students with their agency and responsibility as Americans. That theme comes round again at the very end of the show, in a song the whole company sings called “It’s On Us.” And by George, we get it.

We want to believe in a country that many of us fear doesn’t exist anymore. What Dave does is restore our faith in that country by restoring our faith in ourselves. That’s a neat trick, but it’s something live theater is ideally suited for. And Dave moves us forward toward that faith so beautifully and resolutely that it becomes far more than the out-of-town tryout of a terrific show destined for Broadway hitdom. Dave is a spirit-lifter, a hope-renewer, and a brain-reboot—a show that we as a nation need now more than we know.

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

Dave plays through August 19, 2018, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-488-3300 or go online.

 

The Trans-Atlantic Time Traveling Company

The prodigiously imaginative performance artist Holly Bass belongs to the first generation of her family not to pick cotton for a living. I learned that startling fact as I passed through an art installation on the way to a workshop performance of her latest devised dance-theater work, The Trans-Atlantic Time Traveling Company. Suspended from the ceiling were panels of silk imprinted with photographs of cotton fields and an image of Bass in a 19th-century white dress. As a banjo played, I was led toward the stage set and further back in time. Commanding the playing area was a rustic covered wagon surrounded by wooden crates and tin cookware, all under spreading moss-hung branches. Even the accommodations were transporting: one could sit in any of several dozen old-fashioned wooden rockers and chairs.

Read Lisa Traiger’s interview with Holly Bass, “Holly Bass Celebrates Black Sisterhood in ‘The Trans-Atlantic Time Traveling Company’”

A special event workshop staging copresented by Theater Alliance and Anacostia Playhouse, The Trans-Atlantic Time Traveling Company features a cast of three—Bass (as Margaret) plus her collaborators Kailasa Aqueel (as Ruth) and Jasmine Hearn (as Jemma). As Sound Designer Evan Cook has birds chirp and as the sky shines blue behind Scenic Designer Tim Jones’s picturesque set, the three performers—all former slaves—enter barefoot in ruffled white house dresses and go about chores, cooking and hanging out laundry. “We’re safe, we’re freed now,” they say.

Kailasa Aqee,  Jasmine Hearn, and Holly Bass, in ‘The Trans-Atlantic Time Traveling Company.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The three freedwomen spin the covered wagon around to display the sign on its side: “The Trans-Atlantic Time Traveling Company.” They are en route with their distinctive road show, and they have stopped off right here in the present. What follows is an amiable conceptual variety show—a melange of songs, sketches, and dance—that gently entices the audience into an inquiry about what it means to be free if society is not just.

Costume Designer Jeannette Christensen gives each of the three freedwomen an exaggerated bustle under which are mounted two big inflated balls mounted upon the buttocks. “We offer the finest potions and the most marvelous entertainment,” they tell us, as they begin pitching us a magic elixir oil. One of the three, Ruth, enters as a man blind from birth. He is offered the allegedly curative elixir but it doesn’t work and he leaves disappointed. Suddenly he rushes back exulting that he can see. Already the audience is part of the show, so when the performers pass out edible infusions of the healing elixir (waxed-paper-wrapped candy), everyone takes one.

There is some dark energy afoot. A frightening darkness that overwhelms them, in Lighting Designer Max Doolittle’s bold execution. And the audience is asked directly to share their fears of the dark, whether from childhood or now. A few do. But the performers are reassuring: There is beauty and comfort in the dark, the audience is urged to see. “Darkness isn’t something to be afraid of.”

Some broad vaudeville comedy comes into play. There’s a laugh-out-loud sketch in which Margaret’s knee begins to enlarge alarmingly. It gets enormous. But the sisterhood of traveling transplants have a cure for that (wait for it…): Knee-Grow No More. It comes in quart-size bottles and “it will eliminate your Knee-Grow Problem.”

Throughout are lovely original tunes by Composer Sam Crawford blended with fun musical quotations, such as from the Talking Heads and “Billy don’t lose my number.” A story is told of Ruth’s fluency in the art of mouth percussion from Timbuktu; suddenly she’s delivering a rousing round of beatboxing.

Jasmine Hearn, Holly Bass, and Kailasa Aqee in ‘The Trans-Atlantic Time Traveling Company.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

At one point the performers take off their period dresses and do a very modern dance in phosphorescent lycra tights and tops, their appended balls providing rebound when bouncing on their behinds. At another point they do a hoedown square-dance, inviting audience members to join in. At yet another point they sing the spiritual “In That Great Getting Up Morning.”

The easy commingling of then and now together with a freeform blend of genres enlivened by a delightfully personable cast make this short-run workshop iteration of The Trans-Atlantic Time Traveling Company a most enjoyable and uplifting experience.

And in the end, each audience member leaves with authentication in the form of a certificate that they personally are indeed free.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

The Trans-Atlantic Time Traveling Company played July 26 to 29, 2018, at Theater Alliance in collaboration with Anacostia Playhouse performing at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place, SE, in Washington DC.

 

Perfecting the Kiss (2018 Capital Fringe)

This comedy about bad theater and inappropriate backstage behavior is just gobsmacking good. Laugh-a-minute is an underestimation. Don’t miss it.

Perfecting the Kiss, a production from New York written by six-time Emmy nominee Scott C. Sickles, is subtitled A Mockumentary for the Stage. It begins with a woebegone stage manager in overalls named Helen (played enchantingly by Helen McMillan), who tells us that though she herself is not a playwright, she has written a play to document the horrible experience she just had in rehearsal for another play.

That other play, Boxing Window, turns out to be hilariously dreadful, and the play about it, Perfecting the Kiss, turns out to be dreadfully hilarious. Take a torrent of theater in-jokes (think Noises Off or The Play That Goes Wrong scaled down to fit a Fringe venue). Then add a tangled tango of sexual misfires, with everyone coming on to someone whose sexual orientation is wrong.

The director of the play that undid Helen is the acerbic auteur manque Edwina (a gale storm of gall played by Mia Moreland). She has the hots for one of the two male hotties she has picked for the cast, Mike (an adorably droll and dry George Redner). He, in turn, crushes on his costar, Buck (an engagingly frenetic Patrick Harman).

Enter the playwright Harvest Carruthers, the apotheosis of pomposity (Daniel Damiano in a Nathan-Lane-ish turn), and more carnal complications ensue.

Despite the fact that at Harvest’s insistence the two male actors spend an inordinate amount of time in rehearsal practicing their hyper-passionate stage kiss (hence the title), Harvest keeps insisting he has not written a gay play. His director has his number:

EDWINA: If directors made a habit of staging what playwrights intend, no one would come to the theater.

Not a few jokes are trenchant takedowns of theatrical pretention. The script of Boxing Windows is the epitome of authorial self-indulgence, for instance, maudlin poetry in mauve, and everyone knows it but Harvest and Buck.

MIKE: It’s not a play, it’s a gay weather report.

And there’s a jaw-dropping anecdote about a high-concept production of Romeo and Juliet that Edwina directed Mike in as Romeo: it was set in a concentration camp, with Romeo a Nazi and Juliet a Jewess.

The room at Arena could not be a more perfect space for conveying rehearsal room ambiance and on-the-fly production values, and the actual director, Paula D’Alessandris, has done a bang-up job. The cast is first-rate and the laughs come fast and furious. Even the light and sound cues—called by the actual stage manager, Laura Schlachtmeyer—are funny. (Kudos to Schlachtmeyer for reading Sickles’s script and urging him to bring it to Fringe.)

Perfecting the Kiss is in town for just two more performances. If laughing at theater’s lapses and whooping at its bloopers is your thing…get thee to this funnery.

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.

Perfecting the Kiss plays through July 28, 2018, at Arena Stage, the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available at the venue and online.

Rating: 

 

Almost Full: A Young Woman’s Guide to Growing Up (2018 Capital Fringe)

On July 6, 2018, six girls ages 13 to 17 came together and began composing poetry and choreography and a little music about their just-starting-out lives. Two weeks later they performed the 29 short scenes they created as a charming, touchingly tender, and sweet Capital Fringe show.

The teens were identified in the program by only their first names—Abby, Esme, Jay, Josie, Laurel, and Sophia. They all had participated in a self-exploration retreat called SPEAK*Girls that was facilitated by Movement Director Brooke Viegut, Literary Director Jenna Stotts, and Producer Rhonda Eldridge. Viegut, Stotts, and Junior Facilitator Erin Villaronga introduced the show. The girls, they said, created everything; the grownups just provided prompts and guidance and sequenced the show. (Its title, Almost Full: A Young Woman’s Guide to Growing Up, was chosen months before the girls came together.)

SPEAK* stands for strength, purpose, empathy, art, and kindness and its mission is

to empower people from all walks of life in an intentional community by allowing them to creatively find their authentic voice and strengthen communication skills through an interdisciplinary collaborative arts program culminating in a self-expression based performance of original work.

The lovely first scene was danced and mimed to a song by The White Stripes whose chorus is “I can tell we’re going to be friends.” Each girl carried a notebook, which turned out to contain the poetry she would read at intervals during the show.

The writing was all very polished, and some of it was quite impressive. There were familiar echoes of shyness, loneliness, embarrassment, feeling invisible. (“When kids are bullying me, I wish I was a ghost.”) But there was also a strong current of empowerment, confidence, and triumph (“I’m sick of being told I’m too young to make a difference!” “You can’t silence us!”)

An intriguing theme that recurred through the program was the image of breaking down doors—it popped up so often the show might well have been called A Girl’s Guide to Breaking Down Doors!

One of the most moving passages was an eloquently simple scene called “A Letter to My Body,” written collectively by the group. “Dear legs…” began one; “Dear back…,” another. Then “Dear Spine…,” “Dear Hands…,” lastly “Dear Skull…” (which got a nice laugh on a line about wearing a bicycle helmet to keep it safe).

My only criticism of the program was that performers’ tentative and uninflected delivery rarely did justice to the poetry they were reading. They had plenty good reason to allow the language they had crafted to live in the room with the fullness it deserved. The writing overall was of such quality, in fact, I wished the facilitators would publish it online.

The finale was danced and sung to Sara Bareilles’s song “Brave,” and the joy evident in the performers’ faces was utterly infectious. Far from being merely a recital from a summer retreat, Almost Full: A Young Woman’s Guide to Growing Up turned out to be the sort of show that leaves one happier and more hopeful than when one went in.

Running Time: 55 minutes.

Almost Full: A Young Woman’s Guide to Growing Up playa one weekend only through Sunday, July 22, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church. 555 Water Street SW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

Rating: 

 

Shopworn (2018 Capital Fringe)

Race relations in the Deep South might not leap to mind as a promising topic for a laugh-out-loud comedy. But in Shopworn, premiering at Fringe, Playwright-Producer Derek Hills (who is white) has pulled off a play that’s both punch-line funny and pretty darn woke. And Director Bryanda Minix (who is black) has guided the talented cast into four very fine performances.

Shopworn takes place in a store owned and run by the recently deceased Gertie, who was white and sold antiques, bric a brac, knickknacks, and such. Gertie’s quirky assistant Erica (Rachel Manteuffel), also white, begins the play with a fond ode to some of the items on display, so we get a sense of where we are and a preview of the stories props will tell.

Gary DuBreuil (Dalton) and Anika Harden (Molly) in ‘Shopworn.’

Later we learn the shop is located in New Lucerne, North Carolina (a fictional town), where there’s a monument to General Robert E. Lee and Civil War reenactments are going on.

Turns out a lot of the shop’s oddments have a racist past—like a “mammy” cookie jar and a coin bank shaped like “a little black man who eats the money.” And many of the customers Gertie catered to are cracker loyalists to Lee.

I’ve jumped ahead in the story to highlight what’s so dicey and nervy about the play’s setup, because it could so easily go off the rails into cringeville. Remarkably and rewardingly, it doesn’t.

Gertie’s two sons, both white, have arrived for her memorial service. They haven’t seen each other for more than a decade and have had little to do with their mother either since she abandoned them as boys. But they’re here to accept condolences and sort out what’s to become of the shop they just inherited.

The brothers are a classic odd couple. Dalton (Gary DuBreuil) is a well-off, wrapped-tight, suited-up IT project manager from Brooklyn who makes up due dates. Ash (Jesse Marciniak) is an unkempt, lackadaisical local laborer with no wealth to his name. Hills milks their byplay for loads of laughs and DeBreuil and Marciniak’s acting teamwork is fun to watch.

The humor triangulates as the brothers interact with Erica, who’s kind of a whip-smart ditz. She shows up in a bustier made of balloons. Then later she’s got some of the play’s sharpest political zingers. The character is a delightful original, and Manteuffel plays her to the hilt.

Shopworn plays its political-conscience card with the arrival of Dalton’s lover/partner Molly (Anika Harden), who is black and who shares their dual-income household in Brooklyn. Her professional expertise is wealth inequality. Molly is the play’s most challenging and significant role, and Harden, who excels in it, maintains a compelling dignity through even the play’s edgiest riffs on race.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for Molly to take offense at the shop’s inventory of racist artifacts. But the situation keeps getting awkwarder and awkwarder, and the white boys’ inept responses get funnier and funnier. There’s a point, for instance, when Dalton says to Molly: “I come from a culture of white supremacy.” Well, duh. But in context Dalton’s lame attempt at self-exculpation to the love of his life plays hilariously.

And later there is a passage in which Molly urges Dalton to be cognizant of what is always real to her but he’s not getting. “Use your human eyes,” she tells him. “Use your human eyes.” It is a stunning moment of the play.

Gertie is heard from now and then, voiced by Assistant Director Kelly Cronenberg, who also did the clever costumes and the clutter of props. When characters hear Gertie, they say she is saying things they have heard her say before. The device doesn’t work as well as other elements in the show, though. It feels like an intrusion. The Gertie we find out about in Erica’s own words emerges as one heck of a feisty woman, a fleshed-out character we’d like to get to know. In voiceover, at least as presently conceived and executed, Gertie gets diminished.

Another aspect of the script that could use a bit more work is the fact that it’s structured like a lurching sequence of comedy sketches, which, although plentiful with punch lines, never seem to ride a wave of comic momentum that comes of mounting expectation. That minor misgiving aside, Shopworn’s appealing characters, terrific performances, and ample laughs make it an excellent and entertaining buy.

Running time: One hour 5 minutes, with no intermission.

Shopworn plays through July 28, 2018, at Christ United Methodist Church,
900 4th St SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.

Rating: 

 

O Monsters (2018 Capital Fringe)

I went to see O Monsters, the radically abstract production created by Philadelphia’s New Paradise Laboratories, now playing in the Kogod Cradle at Arena as one of five curated productions in 2018 Capital Fringe. I had read the uncomprehending reviews—“near inscrutable,” “substitutes experimental flourishes for substance,” “doesn’t make much sense,” “just doesn’t make any sense”—so I was prepared to be baffled. But I wasn’t prepared to like it so much.

I was also relieved and glad to be seeing the show without having to write about it. I was there on my own dime. And I have no doubt that had I been there on a press comp obliged to make mental notes (or actual notes) about what I might explain to readers about what I was seeing, I would have liked the show a lot less. I might even have been put off by it because it was making my job so darn difficult.

I would have been distractedly struggling to translate this innovative production into familiarly linear sentences and paragraphs. Which is to say: I would have been trying to translate for others a language that I had not yet learned myself.

In the late ’60s and ’70s  I worked with the experimental Open Theatre—a collective whose influence has since informed a lot of collaboratively devised productions—and I learned then a lesson that I had forgotten until it flashed back to me after I watched O Monsters: Really original theater—meaning theater that’s unfamiliar because it’s not like theater that’s already been done to death before—has its own visual/aural vocabulary, its own kinesthetic grammar, its own way of conjugating action. It’s really its own new genre. Theater history is littered with such productions, work that was met with critical incomprehension if not resistance but went on to reshape and redefine what’s possible for theater to be.

As in the instance of O Monsters, which stretches perception quite beyond what’s commonly called for on local stages, such original work challenges audiences to be open to experiencing it without conventional expectations about how theater ought to mean—because the work itself is changing how theater can mean.

Kate Czajkowski, Julia Frey, Emilie Krause, and Matteo Scammell in ‘O Monsters.’ Artistic Director: Whit MacLaughlin. Photo courtesy of New Paradise Laboratories.

So what did I like so much about O Monsters? It took me a while to catch on, but I really enjoyed the show’s aesthetic, its quirky and imaginative juxtaposition of comedy and macabre. It had me chortling from the get-go. The piece opens with four performers posing in place onstage. One is in a black sheath on a table and three are in white underwear cuddle-huddled together. And then little green rubber balls start to drop from the grid, having nothing to do with anything except to bounce silly-like in counterpoint to the gravitas.

Had I required my brain to interpret what I was seeing, I might have missed being simply tickled. And, as I was to discover, there’s plenty in the piece to amuse. It’s not wink-wink, nudge-nudge funny. It’s humor that arises organically within the show’s own idiosyncratic syntax.

Simultaneously there’s some sort of horror show. We know from the program that the black-clothed figure is the mother and the three white-clothed figures are her triplets. And we soon learn there are dark and eventually gory goings-on. But all the while, the language of the performance admits incongruously of levity—so we’re kept chuckling when we wince, and cringing when we grin.

But even what I just said there fails to translate into sentences what transpires on stage. The language of criticism necessarily falls short when the language of a performance is thoroughly new. So when you see the show, forget everything you just read.

Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.

O Monsters plays through July 22, 2018, at Arena Stage – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 866-811-4111, or purchase them online.

Dragon Hunting Support Group (2018 Capital Fringe)

The theater students at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, MD, are a plucky bunch. When the school had no funds for production, they organized as a club and got a budget from the Student Government Association. With this real-life background of preventing youthful theater dreams from dying, an intrepid troupe of AACC students has trekked to Capital Fringe with a play about, aptly enough, suicide prevention.

The titular Dragon Hunting Support Group, which is the structural hub of the play, is a get-together for slaying the demons that drive young folk to slay themselves. Intermittent dragon roars (sound design: Sean Urbantke) underscore the metaphor.

The group is convened by Hudson (Jack Venton), who works on a suicide-prevention hotline and has had professional training (“Your dragons can be slain!” he promises). Joining the group at Hudson’s behest are Matthieu (Tristan White), a junior priest; questing freshmen Ben (Alec Moyes) and Haley (Amanda Matousek; and sullen Ellie (Rebecca Cohn), who is paralyzed from the waist down from an auto accident.

None of them, it turns out, are suicidal. But they all know someone who was—and who succeeded. Thus is set in motion the play’s expository device: one by one each group member tells the story of his or her now-deceased friend or loved one—what led to their demise and how they carried it out. To this end, Playwright Jonas “Tintinseher” Pallaro-Sonneborn sets forth a brisk succession of scenes in which Moyes, Cohn, Matousek, and White double as the eventual suicides while Hudson the group facilitator sits and listens and offers diagnostic observations. Once it becomes clear from the story sharing that none of the group members actually has need of a suicide-prevention support group, there is a plot twist that reframes all that we have seen and heard.

Director Corey Hennessey has the actors busily change scenes by repositioning metal folding chairs and pull focus during the mini-narratives by shining handheld stage lights on players’ faces as if under multicolored interrogation (lighting design: Stephanie Condon). And the acting troupe as a whole throw themselves into their ever-shifting roles with fledgling gusto.

But for a play ostensibly about the emotional and mental health emergencies that tragically lead to teen suicide, there a curious lack of emotional resonance in the performance. It comes off as forced and inauthentic. The script veers hastily from story line to story line without ever allowing moments to feel real or even have a pulse. And the acting though earnest is unpersuasive, broadly indicative of feeling states rather than credibly expressive from within. (The sole exception is a brief scene between Ben and White as Connor, on whom Ben has a crush.) Even the surprising plot twist—which is dramaturgically kind of inspired—plays flatly.

A lot of work has evidently gone into this show. The program describes an extensive script-selection and workshop process. The hard reality, at least for this reviewer, is that the result did not deliver on the passion poured into it. And that’s a learning experience every theater artist can relate to.

For audiences in and around Annapolis, the back page of the program for Dragon Hunting Support Group announces two promising future Theatre at AACC productions: Hairspray and Romeo and Juliet. To keep in the loop and support the troupe, like or follow its Facebook page.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

Dragon Hunting Support Group plays through July 29, 2018, at Arena Stage, the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.

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Spook (2018 Capital Fringe)

Actor-Writer-Revolutionary Meshaun Labrone has done it again.  Two years ago he brought back Power! to Fringe. That drama about Stokely Carmichael I called “one of the best-written, best-acted, and best-directed solo theater pieces I have ever seen.” This year he premieres Spook, a play about a black cop, and I’ll cut to the chase: Meshaun Labrone’s Spook is an indelible drama of morals that will blow you away.

The main character is a passionate idealist named Daryl Spokane, nicknamed Spook. When the play begins he is sitting head bowed in a brown khaki prison uniform, the bars of his cell projected on a screen behind him. We learn he has been on death row for three years convicted of shooting to death four male fellow police officers, three white and one black, and bludgeoning to death a black female officer. With an hour left before his execution by lethal injection on live TV, Spokane starts explaining why he did it.

What follows is riveting and excruciating testimony delivered in a fever pitch by an actor whose depth and range are unmatched in my Fringe-going memory. The play dares us to understand what drove Spokane. And in doing so, it rips open raw racial wounds not only between whites and blacks but also among blacks.

“It was the police brutality that I witnessed that made me want to join the academy,” Spokane says. When he is assigned to a predominately black department, his hopes are raised then dashed. “I wanted to work with black men to save black men but all I found were niggas”—a word Spokane uses often to mean, broadly, blacks with no moral loyalty to the black community.

Spokane admires a brother supervisor who “used to always talk about honor and integrity.” At the same time, he derides another who “was the embodiment of black self-hate. He wasn’t a brother, he was a blue domestic terrorist in blackface and a psychopath.” The latter is one of the five Spokane shot.

Playwright/Performer Meshaun Labrone

Labrone himself was once an officer in a metropolitan police force, and though Spook is explicitly fiction, one cannot help supposing that some of the gripping stories within it were inspired by real events. The incidents Spokane describes about police malfeasance seem chillingly plausible, such one about police mistreatment of a 17-year-old girl who had just been assaulted by her boyfriend.

There’s a bit of humor in the show but it’s very dark. For instance, following Spokane’s observation that “killing a dog causes a stronger public outcry than the killing of black people,” there’s an onscreen PSA that draws a visual parallel between abused dogs in cages and injured black men behind bars. A voiceover urges viewers to donate by dialing 1-800-Hep-A-Niga. It’s both funny and not.

Throughout the show, the lighting by Marianne Meadows and the sound and video design by Hope Villanueva are stunning.

There are also some passages that purely as writing are mindblowing. (The play was dramaturged by Jennifer Knight, director of Power!) One such monologue is about all the ways “niggas have been lobotomized.” Another is a sexually graphic parable about how Lady Liberty has granted blacks no favors (“Lady Liberty got niggas in the friend zone”). Labrone’s simultaneous accomplishment as author and performer is breathtaking.

The play exists implicitly in a social-justice framework. Juxtaposed with Spokane’s righteous rage at the failings of others, the character is nakedly honest about his own complicity. This makes the scene in which Spokane recites the law enforcement oath of office horrifically ironic.

“I’ve always pondered: what’s worse? Chattel slavery or colonization?,” Spokane asks pointedly. “Slavers raped our bodies; colonizers raped our minds.”

Meshaun Labrone’s Spook is emotionally scalding, politically scathing, and ethically scorching. It is one of the most significant revolutionary acts of theater ever to come out of Fringe.

Running time: 55 minutes

Spook plays through July 26, 2018, at Arena Stage, the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.

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