Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: June, 2012

Cuchullain

There came a moment midway through Josh Sticklin’s phenomenal solo performance in Cuchullain when my mind leapt to compare him to other great stage actors who have transfixed me as much. The one I thought of first was Ian McKellen—in particular in a play called The Cut I saw in London at the Donmar Warehouse. Seriously. Sticklin is that good.

Something astounding is happening here, and we have the Keegan Theatre to thank.

Last season the Keegan presented the world premiere of a one-act, one-person play set in Belfast called Basra Boy. It starred Sticklin, was written in Belfast dialect by the Northern Irish playwright Rosemary Jenkinson, and was directed by Abigail Isaac. Sicklin played Speedy, a hyper, foul-mouthed young punk, plus a cast of supporting characters who came equally and instantly alive before our eyes by sheer dint of Sticklin’s quicksilver talent. I was knocked out.

In the wake of that production’s success, Keegan announced another world premiere this season of a another one-person play set in Belfast, written in Belfast dialect by the same author, directed once more by Isaac, and starring again Sticklin—as a hyper, foul-mouthed young punk who is this time named Aaron.

Really? I thought. Was Keegan expecting lightning to strike twice? Well, if so, Keegan could not have been more prescient, for Cuchullain is even better.

It’s got a different story (riveting, and I won’t give it away), but Sticklin is again bounding all over the stage, commanding it at every turn, and peopling it with other characters through uncanny insta-impersonation.

So compelling and convincing was Sticklin’s performance, I could have sworn that he, like the writer, is a Belfast native. He’s not. He’s a local boy. Catch him now before he makes it big.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets

“Stage picture” is a term of art in theater design. It refers to the overall look of a play—colors, composition, setting, etc. The concept enters an extraordinary dimension in this enthralling production created by the London-based performance company named 1927.

On tour around the world for the past two years, “The Animals and Children Took to the Streets” is having a brief run at Studio Theatre. And as others are tweeting, it’s an event not to be missed.

Onstage are three white screens—a large one in the center, two narrower ones on either side, each with a window in which one of three actors sometimes appears. The entire 70-minute performance takes place within marvelous projections designed and animated by Paul Barritt (whose abundant visual imagination belongs in a modern art museum).

Here’s a tantalizing glimpse:

 

I’ve seen a lot of projections for scenic effect, but never before have I been so captivated by real-time interplay between imagery and actors. Breathtaking effects abound. At one point an actor sweeps the stage with a push broom; immediately a puff of dust appears on screen. At another point an actor, standing in place, appears to be lifted high up by a giant hand then dropped—and the heart-stopping peril of her precipitous fall is portrayed solely through the animation onscreen.

In this invented world between live action and film—suffused with lovely music and song (by Lillian Henley) and delightfully stark poetry (by author and director Suzanne Andrade)—a seemingly amusing fable gets told. It’s set in a squalid housing development called the Bayou. Oppression is rampant. Cockroaches climb the walls. (They crawl onscreen throughout the show.) Then comes an uprising (hordes of children taking to the streets). Then the government quashes the rebellion (by handing out gum drops laced with something like Ritalin). The ending is not cheery. This is quite a revolutionary fable, actually—its danger to entrenched authority camouflaged in enchanting stage techniques.

I can’t say I was so taken by the three human performances (Andrade, Henley, and Esme Appleton, who co-designed costumes). They seemed nearly as preprogrammed as the animations running on three overhead projectors, more focused on hitting their marks than making moments come alive. So a throwback Brechtian alienation effect was definitely going on. Yet the overall effect of the show was absorbing. I’d see anything 1927 creates next in a heartbeat.

Suicide, Incorporated

I’ve seen some terrific stuff done by No Rules Theatre Company (a precocious fledgling that flits between DC and Winston-Salem). I thoroughly enjoyed its productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Warehouse and Peter Pan: The Boy Who Hated Mothers at the H Street Playhouse. And I’ve seen company cofounder Joshua Morgan, who directed Suicide, in some brilliant turns as a performer, notably in Theater J’s The Chosen at the Fichhandler. On top of that, the promotion for Suicide promised an exploration of masculinity’s shutdown of men’s emotional honesty and shrink-wrapping of men’s souls—a theme that could not be more pressing.

So I had high hopes.

The play, by Andrew Hinderaker, is set in a fictitious office that offers writerly assistance to wannabe suicides who need a note that shows they cared enough to leave behind the very best. One of the employees is actually an ex-Hallmark scribe, who, unknown to the boss, moonlights answering calls to a suicide-prevention hotline. The boss himself, a bully and an a-hole, keeps a lid on his own sorrowful secret about suicide. And one suicidal customer shows up, named Norm (an Everyman, get it?), whose spillage of inner emotional agony (stemming from erectile disfunction on his wedding night) occurs about an hour into the 80-minute play.

The setup sounds more interesting than it turned out to be.

Part of the problem was all the empty pauses, pregnant with no meaning. A Pinter or a Mamet can pull off pauses that can be eloquent. But when a play keeps sputtering to tiny stops with no clear purpose, you just sense the playwright trying to think up what to write next. And it doesn’t help that the pulsing soundtrack to the blackout scene changes gave them more momentum than any of the scenes.

Then there’s the central problem posed by the premise: that men’s silence about their inner lives is why (as the play tells us) 80 percent of suicides are male. The play’s pileup of pauses, presumably objective correlatives for all that masculine unspokenness, simply did not render that premise dramatically. It only stopped the show. And not in a good way.

* * *

This town needs No Rules Theatre Company, whether it hits or misses. We need the derring do with which it does new work, the enthusiasm with which it embraces audiences, the spunk with which its young artists invent. And now, with the imminent demise of its fine black-box venue the H Street Playhouse (what’s up with that?), No Rules is going to need a new home.

May its migrations to DC find another perfect place to perch.

* * *

UPDATE August 1, 2012: No Rules has a new home at Signature. Congrats!

The Servant of Two Masters

There is so much sheer silliness on stage at the Landsburgh, you could find yourself giggling and guffawing back to childhood. Seriously. But with your adult sense of (mildly smutty) humor intact.

Director Christopher Bayes has given his ridiculously talented cast free rein to improvise wildly, riffing on the text, their characters, the plot, current events, and whatnot, in physical comedy so broad it could use a wide-load warning. In the process they recreate before our eyes a riotously contemporary version of classic 18th-century commedia dell’arte.

The comic bits just kept coming and coming.

For me the rampant low-brow hilarity in this production had a curious effect: It gave its serious theatergoers express permission to delight again in the sort of infantile entertainment found in Roadrunner cartoons, the Three Stooges, Beavis and Butthead—all that stuff we think that as grownups we ought to have grown out of. And in tickling us silly, it seemed to temporarily reset the audience’s collective chronological age.

Who knew an art form so old could be so fun—and make one feel so young?

 

Spring Awakening

I first saw this amazing show several years ago at the Eugene O’Neill Theater on Broadway, seated on stage, alongside wooden chairs from which the robust young actors sometimes belted out songs, and being completely blown away. A paean to adolescent lust, longing, and lost innocence, Spring Awakening is wrapped in a lushly melodious rock score and told in gripping postpuberty stories that touch on coitus, masturbation, pregnancy, child abuse, botched abortion, homoeroticism, entry-level sadomasochism, suicide, and more. Based on a 1892 play of the same name (a scandal in its time) by the German playwright Frank Wedekind, it has been turned into one of the most moving and relevant American musicals of our time.

The original cast album went promptly onto my iPod, and I’ve been listening to it ever since. So of course when the new Keegan Theatre production opened, I had to see it. And boy, was I not disappointed.

The orchestra and young cast were fantastic; the musical numbers, just as thrilling as I recall from the original Broadway production. (And there are some stunning voices here, including Nora Palka as Ilsa, Alex Alferov as Ernst, and Paul Scanlan as Moritz.) But for me, the character-driven storytelling in the dramatic interludes was better than on Broadway—clearer, more precise, much more powerful. The Church Street Theater is just the right size for this show, I realized. In the Eugene O’Neill, a moderately big house, it seemed overblown, overproduced. Seated in the audience in D.C., I felt closer to the heartbreaking action than I did when I was seated on stage in New York.

 

The Ice Child

If Rick Santorum, Randall Terry, and other prolife male poobahs ever need a collective wet dream, The Ice Child could do nicely. For packed inside this Factory 449 production is a story that was as unsettling and disconcerting to me as, I imagine, it might be arousing to an androcentric antichoicer:

Man in a bar overhears a newly pregnant woman talk of having an abortion. He then kidnaps her and locks her in a freezer chest in his basement, where he intends to keep her for nine months until she bears a baby. His redeeming mercy: The freezer is plugged in but it’s out of order. So she’s overheated, not frozen.

The man has a wife, in whom he’s lost sexual interest. She doesn’t go down to the basement, his man cave. Meanwhile she carries on an affair with a young hunk, with whom the husband may or may not be having a bromance.

Atop this potent erotic-political brew, tossed on like random croutons, are some racial bewilderments. The monstrous husband is black (and refers at one point to the “tan children” he desires). The unwanted wife is über-Aryan (and now and then speaks German). The boy toy and imprisoned victim are average American whitebread.

I would have liked to know what to make of this.

The staging was evocative, almost brilliant. The actors appeared framed in white boxes (yes, like ice chests) on either side of a screen on which were projected mesmerizing videos, as of the coffined young woman struggling to break free. The actors—Sara Barker (young woman), Dexter Hamlett (husband), Karin Rosnizeck (wife), and David Landstrom (studlet)—stood before floor mics and, in the stentorian presentational style of Factory 449’s previous production, 4.48 Psychosis, enunciated their lines to the audience with earnest conviction. It was all very dialectical, very Brecht, very theater of alienation. And kind of cool.

But if there was a message, it was a mess.

The Bacchae and The Tooth of Crime

Cockfights are not my cup of tea—neither in life nor in art. Which is why most action movies leave me cold. I’m just not into watching pumped up hunks with balls-out blunderbluster go mano-a-mano. That master plot is so tired.

But two productions now in repertory at Artisphere—Euripides’ The Bacchae and Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime—offer an intriguingly subversive twist on the dueling-dudes drama.

The plays were written some 2,400 years apart. I saw the two WSC Avant Bard productions within a week. And then an odd thing happened: They began interacting in my head.

On the surface, they’re both plays with music. But not just with music: driven by music. The Bacchae score, composed for this production by Mariano Vales, is gorgeously eclectic—some of the finest music for theater I’ve ever heard. The Tooth of Crime score was written at Shepard’s behest by T. Bone Burnett, and it could easily pass for a hard-rock set at the 9:30 Club.

What struck me, though, was how these paired productions treat their thematic similitude. Both feature a young upstart hero of ambiguous sexuality who arrives auspiciously, unnerves and challenges a sexually armored big shot, then proceeds to bring the macho honcho down.

In The Bacchae, it’s the character of Dionysus who comes to town (Thebes) to have his way and hold sway. As delicately but disarmingly portrayed by Jeremy Pace (channeling Prince and David Bowie), Dionysus’ androgynous, pansexual persona is what inspires pandemonium in his female fans and propels the action. When Dionysus dupes his butch nemesis, Pentheus (Elliott Kashner), into donning drag—in order to visit the fervid fanbase unharmed (spoiler alert: he gets very harmed)—Dionysus’ wilely strategem is all the more shocking because it’s played so fey.

In The Tooth of Crime, it’s the character of Crow who appears at the top of Act Two to topple the presumptive rock star Hoss. Playwright Sam Shepard—America’s poet laureate on the angst of damaged men—clearly intended the sparring between Hoss and Crow to be a verbal smackdown between two studs. In the Shepard oeuvre, there are no pansies or poofters. And in his early plays especially, there’s typically but one part for a woman—written for his girlfriend du jour. So in rereading the sexual politics of this text, director Kathleen Akerley has achieved a stunning reinterpretation. For one thing, Hoss, played by John Tweel, is portrayed as a regular joe. No testosterone on overdrive. Just a fella who sings effin’ great songs. And Becky, as played by Jennifer J. Hopkins, has real presence onstage; she’s not just Hoss’s hookup. But it is Tom Carman’s beguiling portrayal of Crow that really sends Shepard’s gender scheme round the bend. From the moment Crow appears—dandylike, dancerly (he seems never to stop moving)—you know a change is gonna come. And Hoss, with his stoic, straight-up stance, doesn’t stand a chance.