Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: May, 2013

No Man’s Land

Harold Pinter may be the biggest tease ever to write for theater. Case in point: his No Man’s Land—which just ended a run in a superb production by WSC Avant Bard at Theater on the Run. Pinter piles on the dialogic misdirection, plot ambiguity, and character non sequiturs as if in a fugue state. And woe to anyone who tries to learn what’s really going on; for as with most of Pinter, one cannot  breathe the word  “reality” without air quotes. But there’s canny method here, and if one yields to Pinter’s calculated obfuscation, the effect is fascinating—and often hilarious.

A fifty-something literary lion (Hirst, played both powerfully and buffoonishly by Brian Hemmingsen) has picked up a fifty-something literary wannabe (Spooner, played connivingy and fey by Christopher Henley) at Hampstead Heath, a notorious gay cruising ground in northwest London. Hirst has brought Spooner home to his high-toned but kind of creepy and off-kilter lair (designed by Steven T. Royal Jr.). The talky assignation that follows, while never overtly sexual, has more homoerotic undertones than one can shake a dick at.

This ostensible “no man’s land” is in fact very much a man’s land, and Pinter is a master at tracking the subtle and not-so-subtle dominance games that men play with one another when there are no women around to put down. There’s an amazing scene in which Hirst goes on and on about having had an affair with Spooner’s wife. (We’re never really certain whether Spooner was ever actually married, but never mind, the point is the cockfight.) We see Spooner wither under Hirst’s taunting tale of cuckoldry, and the round goes to Hirst. Then Spooner rallies and launches into a graphic and detailed depiction of his own dalliances with women whom Hirst had fancied but never shagged. (Again, did any of this really happen? Doesn’t matter.) It’s Spooner’s triumph at oneupsmanship and Hirst’s turn at defeat.

The whole play is kind of a patchwork of beats and scenes like that—artful innuendo and elegant verbal fisticuffs by which Pinter puts the men in menace. The sparring gets deviously and delectably more complex with the entrance of two younger male characters, apparently Hirst’s hired help and perhaps sex buddies besides (Foster, played by Frank Britton, and Briggs, played by Bruce Alan Rauscher).

Pinter was an actor before he became famous as a playwright, and his trust in the actor’s craft runs through and through his work. The characters in No Man’s Land don’t really have clear arcs; indeed they’re not necessarily the same characters from scene to scene. The play functions not at all like a well-made play but rather like a long-form improvisation, with the premise or setup shifting from scene to scene and the actors immersing themselves in the fluidity of the proposition at hand—with the benefit of Pinter’s language to locate themselves somewhere in the moment.

I’ve admired several recent WSC productions: Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Bacchae, and Tooth of Crime. I have to say, though, this No Man’s Land easily tops that list. Watching the splendid performances of Hemmingsen and Henley (both past artistic directors) under the astute direction of Tom Prewett (the company’s new AD), I could not help but hope that Helen Hayes award nominators had caught the show. Henley’s poseur performance in particular tickled me—he kept cracking me up, sometimes with no more than a twitch of eyebrow or flick of tongue.

WSC Avant Bard’s daring engagements with classic theater literature are a DC-area treasure. Alas, for the time being WSC Avant Bard  is nomadic, because last year it was unceremoniously booted from its black-box space in Artisphere (a deeply dumb decision that prompted me not to want to return to Artisphere since). To shake things up, the company’s next production will be a new play—Caesar and Dada by Allyson Currin. It opens June 29 at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre. I’ll be there.

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Optimism! Or Voltaire’s Candide

There’s gotta be a mischievous alchemist lurking in the church building that is Spooky Action Theater‘s current haunt, because down in the basement there a 250-year-old French novel has been transmuted into a giddily playful and energetic romp of a show—in rhymed couplets, no less—that is two and a half hours of nonstop serious fun.

Well, maybe the adapter, TJ Edwards, deserves some credit. His rhymes propel the tale with  zinger after zinger.

Oh, and maybe I should mention the director, Michael Chamberlin. His dazzling conception was to stage the play in the round, like a boisterous commedia dell’arte.

Oh, gosh, can’t forget the cast of nine. Ryan Alan Jones gives a virtuoso performance as Candide, with a physicality that astounds as he seems to dance even through stage fights. Rosemary Regan as the Old Woman delivers a poignant monolog with a passion and power we didn’t see coming. The others also beguile in all their diverse guises: Adoeye, Michael Kevin Darnall, Patricia Lynn, Jessica Shearer, Gregory Stuart, Ryan Tumulty, and John Tweel.

And the design—set, costume, sound, lighting—and the hilariously silly cardboard props. Oh dear, maybe it wasn’t alchemy after all.

But the truly amazing thing is, this delightful entertainment has a point. It’s a very serious point, actually, as was Voltaire’s—about the dubious durability of optimism. You know, that hopey changey thing? And how the pileup of horrible things that happen to people can give even the most inveterate Pollyanna pause?

After the fun of the show was over (well, a little bit during), I began reflecting on how Voltaire’s framing of this dilemma has some darn profound contemporary resonance. He takes dead aim at a broad swath of villains—the secular and sacred powers that have allied to oppress and victimize—and he ruthlessly exposes their cruelty. Voltaire also lays bare men’s systematic sexual violence against women, as one by one the female characters give graphic report, and he presents their violation as being no less despicable than men’s violence against other men. All this the guileless Candide bears witness to. And his heady optimism is, understandably, sorely tested.

I have to credit this production for more than its theatricality. With extraordinary verve and nerve, this production revives Voltaire’s stark critique of men’s inhumanity to women and other men. And in the process, it challenges us to be mindful that we do not fall for any optimism that opts for obliviousness.

4000 Miles

Not five minutes into the Studio Theatre production of 4000 Miles, I knew that by the end I would be giving the play a standing ovation. The writing and the acting were that good, from the get-go.  I could tell I was going to love it. And I did. Every scene, every beat, every line.

Now, some might assume I came to the theater having read one too many raves of Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer Prize–finalist drama, so maybe I was all hopped up to see a snob hit. I will concede I arrived with more than usual anticipation. But I did not expect to be so transported before the first scene-break blackout—and then completely blown away by the end.

How to explain this? And how to explain why Amy Herzog just became one of my very fave living English-speaking playwrights? To be honest, I was so mesmerized I’m not sure.

The four characters in 4000 Miles are a 20-something young man, Leo (played by Grant Harrison), who, having bicycled cross-country from Seattle drops in unexpectedly on his octogenarian grandmother, Vera (Tana Hicken), in her Greenwich Village apartment. Over the course of the play, which flashes forward scene by scene in time, Leo gets a visit from his probably-no-longer girlfriend, Bec (Heather Haney). And some time later he brings back to his grandmother’s apartment a woman he picked up, Amanda (Annie Chang). There is a lot of completely engrossing storytelling. But there’s really no big overarching Plot.

There’s just life. Real people connecting, disconnecting, speaking of this and that from the heart, from off the top of their heads, always from someplace profoundly human—with a verisimilitude I did not realize was so rare in theater until I witnessed how Herzog does it.

You know how lots of playwrights write dialogue so blatantly stagey that it can’t possibly ring true—but the hapless actors still have to inject some credible emotion into it? However much a line might delight or surprise the audience,  you just know the actor had to work to make it work. Maybe because Herzog was once an actor herself, she never foists such “Look at me, I’m writing!” language on her characters. She just seems to have gifted the cast, as if effortlessly, with an amazingly resonant score that if played as honestly and sensitively as she composed it will become on stage so like life that you cannot help but be swept into it.

What makes this production of 4000 Miles all the more glorious, all the more a peak theatrical experience, is that all four cast members—as masterfully directed by Joy Zinoman—play Herzog’s brilliant score pitch perfectly.

Really, truly, the best new play I’ve seen in years.