Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: July, 2012

Washington Improv Theater

I don’t know why I keep going back to Washington Improv Theater. By now you’d think I’d remember that it’s only going to make me laugh. A lot. Like, till it hurts. And who needs to laugh that much anyway?

I mean, you could let out a whole six month’s worth of guffaws in just the space of a 75-minute show—like the improvised musical I saw the other night at Source as part of Capital Fringe. Cheekily titled “iConfess,” it featured nine preternaturally clever actors (Matt Berman, Mark Chalfant, Catherine Deadman, Sarah Donnelly, Karen Lange, Justin Purvis, Curtis Raye, Greer Smith, Letty Tomlinson) and one insanely talented pianist-accompanist (Travis Ploeger), who also allegedly directed.

The whole thing bounced off a few randomly selected slips of paper on which audience members had written some deep, dark, secret confession.

I mean, srsly: How can a show be “directed” if it didn’t exist before the moment it’s performed?

And those various songs and musical interludes with made-up-on-the-spot lyrics that kept the audience in stitches? Well, didn’t it bother anyone that it was all ephemeral? Like, unless there was a rogue video cam in the theater, all that brilliance was just going to vanish. Like, pfft.

When Hollywood cranks out a so-called comedy with big-name stars and a multimillion-dollar budget and some dumb-and-dumber humor and you end up laughing maybe one-hundredth as much as you laugh at a WIT performance (for which the actors didn’t even get paid and your ticket cost chump change), at least the movie will endure, you know? Like, on cable, Netflix, your next unbearaby boring airline flight.…

OK, I know what you’re thinking. There are plenty of videos on Washington Improv Theater’s website and YouTube channel—clips representing highlights from a shipload of shows. So some of that inspired and tuneful lunacy has been preserved for posterity, just like in the movies!

Don’t be fooled. I’ve looked at some of those vids. They don’t begin to capture what happens in the theater when WIT runs amok. I know; I’ve seen their shows. And let me tell you: You have to be there with your butt in a seat to really get it. That’s when you truly risk laughing so hard you fall over gasping for air. Don’t think you can get the full effect otherwise.

You have to be there live.

Because that’s when WIT kills.

Capital Fringe: There Should Be an App for That!

Every year in late June I get interested in gambling. Not on craps or slot machines but on fringe theater. Because the Capital Fringe Festival tickets go on sale and I can’t wait to pick the shows I want to take a chance on. (Last year I hit the theatrical equivalent of a jackpot: Who’s Your Baghdaddy?, which was so good I had to see it twice.)

Now Capital Fringe is on and as usual I’m feeling overwhelmed. So many shows to see, how to decide?

I do my homework. I go to Fort Fringe (festival headquarters) and pick up postcards. I study the festival booklet circling whatever looks interesting. I read everything I can find in print and online. I frequent the online festival calendar to see what’s on when. I click through to look at websites and Facebook pages for shows I’m considering. As soon as reviews start to appear, I begin rethinking my early choices. And, well, whew! How come there isn’t an app to help me with all that?

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs every August for three weeks in Scotland’s capital city. Last year it began offering festival goers a really useful app, available free in iTunes and Google Play. Look at some of the cool things it does:

From the menu screen you can tap Shows to get a complete listing, or for show times and details you can tap All Performances, which you can sort by any of 11 categories (including Comedy, Musicals and Operas, and Theater), and you can poke into any listing for more about the show…

Back at the menu you can tap Nearby Now to find what will be on at exactly what time near where you are (which the app “knows,” so it tells you how far away the venue is). You can also see what’s playing where by tapping Venues or by tapping on a map…

Once you find something you want to see, you can buy tickets with the app. You can also keep track of what you’ve booked on My Festival and follow the festival Twitter feed. The app evidently has a corporate sponsor, Virgin.

If a savvy corporation doing business in DC would underwrite development of an app for Capital Fringe, here’s my wish list for other functionalities: I’d want to see links to whatever each show is doing to promote itself online—its website, its Facebook page, photographs and videos, insider interviews with the artists, whatever. I’d want electronic reminders of the performances I bought tickets for. Once reviews start appearing, I’d want links to those too. And I’d love to see some Yelp!-like functionality such that anyone who’s seen a show they like could instantly say so—as a way of giving props to the shows’ creative teams and as a way of pointing festival goers to good bets. (I just saw The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute, for instance, and—oh my!—thumbs up, five stars.) Odds are, an instant audience-feedback readout would be a win-win.

So, what do you think? Take this quick poll. Help me let Capital Fringe know whether there should be an app in its future!

The Normal Heart

I lived through the time when this play takes place. I lived through it in New York City, where the play is set. I lived through it as a mysterious fatal disease afflicting gay men began to increase without ceasing.

I lived through it as the New York Native reassured me and other fearful readers that the alarming disease was not spread by sexual contact and we need not worry—so on the authority of this local gay-community newspaper I continued having what was not yet called unprotected sex.

I lived through it completely by chance. I should have been dead long ago.

These were a few of the many unsettling reflections stirred up by my viewing of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. I have admired Larry Kramer from afar for years, for being ruthlessly courageous in his rage against the homophobic inaction that let loose a scourge. But I have never before been in the palpable presence of his voice as I was last weekend at Arena.

Kramer’s unequivocating jeremiad comes through most eloquently in the crusading character of Ned Weeks (played powerfully by Patrick Breen), but it suffuses the entire esthetic, from David Rockwell’s embossed-headline set to Batwin + Robin Productions’ grief-inducing projections of names of the dead. And the entire cast is so on board with the underlying values in this play that they make your heart ache.

At every turn the play pronounces:

This a polemic, people. Get used to it.

This is what did not get heard when the HIV/AIDS epidemic began.

Hear it now and weep—for all who have died of bigoted neglect (by Mayor Ed Koch, President Ronald Reagan, et al., ad nauseum).

As someone who escaped HIV by some fluke of fate I will never comprehend, I simply cannot be an objective critic of this work.

But see it now, America must—before another callous and indifferent Republican takes the White House.

Bachelorette

To be honest, I resisted seeing this new play by Leslye Headland at Studio Theatre. From all I had read about it, I expected misogynist cartoons of women as bitches and sluts. And I think I’ve seen enough of that in the theater, thank you very much.

So when I finally broke down and went—just days before the DC production closed—I was utterly astonished by what I found. Bachelorette (not to be confused with the ABC television program The Bachelorette) is actually a profound exploration of how cultural misogyny fuels female self-hatred.

At the beginning three young women (who are to be bachelorettes in their friend’s wedding the next day) put on a riotously funny exhibition of women behaving badly—i.e., like uncouth dudes, apparently their sole social point of reference for freedom and escape from their lot as females. Their hilariously crude macholike banter and bravado escalate even as they divulge raw details of the damage done to them as women.

A program note says Bachelorette is one in a series about the seven deadly sins, the theme here being gluttony. And the three women certainly do consume appalling quantities of alcohol and drugs. But I don’t think I’ve seen anything onstage like what Headland has achieved thematically in exposing tragic pain just beneath high comedy. Yes, these woman act like bitches and sluts. But without at all preaching, the playwright lets us see this as their defense against a woman-hating world—as though their inner mantra is “You can’t hate me because I’ll hate myself more.”

The storyline keeps astonishing. Two authentically male dudes arrive. The bride-to-be shows up. And by the end there is a vast mess onstage that doesn’t begin to evoke the messes that are the three bachelorettes’ lives. I almost never stopped laughing, or gasping, at what just happened before my eyes.

The cast was uniformly phenomenal: Laura C. Harris, Jessica Love, and Dylan Moore as the bachelorettes; Eric Bryant and JD Taylor as the guys; and Tracy Lynn Olivera as the bride. And the direction by David Muse was brilliant.

I wish I’d seen this production sooner so I could have sent all my DC theatergoing friends.