Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: June, 2013

B-Boy Blues

This beautiful play with this fine cast needs to be seen to be believed. It is powerful and poignant, sexy and sad, searing and profound—and it requires a theatrical run and a national tour immediately.

The extraordinary company of actors and shoestring production came down from NYC to DC for one night only, part of the DC Black Theatre Festival—coincidentally on the day that the other Supremes undid DOMA. But even had that headline not happened, the sold-out crowd in Howard University’s Ira Aldridge Theater would have had plenty grounds for celebration, because right there on-stage, in the sometimes-shirtless flesh, same-gender-loving passion was what ruled.

As adapted for the stage by James Earl Hardy (from his beloved novel) and directed by Stanley Bennett Clay, B-Boy Blues unfolds in scenes that are so surprising, cinematically succinct, and overflowing with emotion that each interstitial blackout becomes its own drama of anticipation. The main narrative arc is a provocatively complex love story between two hot young men: a buppie—Mitchell “Little Bit” Crawford (the captivating Aundra Goodrum)—and a brutha—Raheim “Pooquie” Rivers (the arresting Jas Anderson). We meet seven other compelling and distinctly drawn SGL characters in their circle; Mitchell’s straight coworker and close friend Michelle (the endearing Jacqueline King-howell); and Raheim’s wise and knowing mother, Mrs. Rivers (the astounding Jennifer Fouché, who at one point belts out a song that stops the show). When this director was casting B-Boy Blues, he was blessed with crazy karma.

Dymir Arthur, in a piece for Mused Online Magazine, explains better than I can “Why You Must See James Earl Hardy’s ‘B-Boy Blues.’ “

I will simply add that contrary to what the term b-boy might suggest, the show actually has no breakdancing. But a little past the middle there’s a heartbreaking dance that will take your breath away. And it changes everything.

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A Frontier, as Told by the Frontier

In the weeks after 9/11 in New York City, one saw chain-link fences to which had been attached missing-person notices. Hundreds upon hundreds—silently pleading paper testaments to a vast sadness and loss. That’s the image brought back to me by Deb Sivingy’s set for this enormously touching new play in Source Festival by Jason Gray Platt: a chain-link fence festooned with tattered flyers. And so it was that I began to sense the four teenage characters’ lonely sorrow even before I had met them.

And what an adorable bunch they were: two boys and two girls, cute as buttons, who in some far future have been left behind in an abandoned amusement park under the protection and tutelage of an imposing grownup named Nafts.

Why has everyone disappeared? one of the youngsters asks him.

Just because someone has left doesn’t mean they have disappeared, Nafts answers sagely.

Thus we begin to glimpse that Nafts is the system’s spinmeister. And, as impressively played by Scott McCormick, he is so fluent at parent-teacher dissociation that his seemingly guileless warmheartedness persuades even us.

Four amazingly talented actors bring the kids to winsomely heartfelt life: Maggie Erwin, Kyle Encinas, Ryan Sellers, and Kita Grayson. Their performances are so sweet and authentic that one cannot help but want them to be okay.

Something terrible is going on outside this amusement park that is ostensibly their safe home. Something about insurgents. Something about a mass exodus. Really bad stuff.

To find out more, you’ll have to get a ticket and go on the ride.

Caesar and Dada

Art about art. Fiction about fiction. Poetry about poetry. Theater about theater. Isn’t it interesting how interesting that can be? (And can I get an amen from Gertrude Stein?)

WSC Avant Bard, that intrepid, now nomadic troupe that brazenly revisits and rethinks classics, has just mounted a spiffy production of an intriguing new play—one that toys  with ideas and spaces in our head we didn’t know were there. It’s a two-acter called Caesar and Dada, by local playwright Allyson Currin, directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, and it’s broadly about—wait for it—six characters in search of their dada.

The paddleball tethered to Avant Bard’s usual oeuvre is an oddball story about a troupe of theatrical-realism devotees in post-WWI Zurich (pretentiously dubbed the Theater of Truth), who are mounting a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Lily (Mundy Spears), a winningly uppity American outsider, drops in,  finagles Frank (Sun King Davis), the talented but tyrannical director, into a brazen retooling of the company’s presentational style, and before long we and the six characters are dabbling in alternate isms: symbolism, expressionism, finally dadaism.

The point of the post-war timeframe—historically dada’s cradle—becomes movingly clear in a long speech to Lily by one of Truth’s actors, Tristan (Andrew Ferlo), who has returned from battle with what  today we call PTSD: When all hell breaks loose in wartime, all meaning loses its moorings as well. The restraints of realism fail and fall apart. There’s no escape from war-worn meaninglessness except into more meaninglessness. The experience of emptiness can find reflection only in form without content.

Speaking of reflection, the set is a marvelous contraption by co-director Steven T. Royal Jr. featuring a vast Photo #7mirror rigged at a 45-degree angle to the stage so that we see the whole first act face on and from above, as if all is relative, nothing is what it seems. You can see its dazzling effect at left in the scene between Lily and Tristan. Fun animations and clever projections by Tewodross Melchishua also punch up points in the play’s art history refresher. The originality of the script appears to have inspired spurts of novelty all over the place.

With actors making head-spinning transformations from scene to scene, moment to moment, and style to style, one can sometimes feel uncertain what to hold on to, as if one has lost one’s bearings. Or perhaps more precisely: as if one’s theatergoing experience has been incrementally dada-ized.

But there’s a really compelling relationship story line that anchors everything. It’s the dramatic tension between the domineering Franz (whom Lily accurately calls a bully) and the outsider Lily (who takes no bull). The way Lily stands up to Franz and steadily transforms him is remarkable to behold—not least because Currin handles it so, well, realistically. We get sympathetic male coworkers advising Lily to cower before Franz’s authority just as they do—the bumptious Dominic (Joe Feldman) and the sage Alfred (Mario Baldessario). We even get the threatened, claws-out female coworker Anna (Megan Dominy) trash-talking Lily for her presumption and gumption. It’s like a tale out of every workplace since women broke out of the secretarial pool.

There’s a heck of a lot to appreciate here. And there’s a lot to reflect on later. Literally and metaphorically, it holds a mirror up to life.

Frankenstein

When a great rock concept album gets transposed to live theater (think Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Green Day’s American Idiot), it’s usually the music that’s the real star of the show. All the rest is packaging, which can be cool—optical sizzle for the audio steak. But at the end of the day, the unadorned studio recording on a CD or mp3 player still offers the rock fan a self-sufficient and thoroughly satisfying aural pleasure.

So it is with British composer Richard Campbell‘s progressive-metal rock-opera concept album Frankenstein, which we can thank Landless Theater Co. for discovering and bringing across the pond. It’s bloody good. You can sample some tracks here and you can preview the album here:

In the Landless production now at Gala, there’s a kickass band performing Campbell’s dense and driven score. They’re upstage, kind in shadows, but they absolutely dominated the show: Charles Johnson (piano), Lance Larue (drums), Brenna St. Ours (backing vocals), Ray Shaw (bass), music director Jack Sossman (rhythm guitar, theremin, synth), Alex Vallejo (lead guitar). At first I didn’t realize how freaking good they were, because there was so much else going on. So consider yourself tipped off. Their performance alone is worth the price of a ticket. Actually, more.

If you focus on the powerful and wild wall of prog metal they construct, it helps put into context all the rest that’s going on, which, it turns out, is a lot like a staged concert. And all the rest did not rise to the musicians’ high bar. In particular, having listened a bit to the music beforehand and gotten a sense of the rich texture of the lyrics, I was disappointed last night at the Gala that the sound system (or its settings) obscured so much of the vocalists’ words. That’s par for the course at a regular rock concert, of course, but this earnest and inventive production deserved better. [Note added June 25: I’ve been informed that the sound system at Gala is currently configured in such a way that the first three rows are not good seats from which to hear the mix. Not knowing that, I was sitting in the front row. So be advised!] 

A program note about Landless mentions that its mission centers on “building new audiences by revitalizing interest in live theatre.” Obviously with Frankenstein, this nervy company—which this year marks its tenth birthday—has thought outside the box of theater fare for typical audiences. Way outside. Who knew there was a community of metal heads in DC? Well guess what? That’s where Landless looked to find its pickup band. And damn did they discover greatness.

Company

In Signature Theatre‘s sleek and shiny new production of Company—the show that tunefully triggers everyone’s anxiety and ambivalence about marriage—DC theater has once again bested Broadway. Or at least the two Broadway productions I’ve seen: the early-70s original starring Larry Kert as the unhappily unwed Bobby and the 2006 revival starring Raúl Esparza. Signature’s is way better.

Maybe it’s because the Company company seems to be enjoying one another’s company onstage. (Really, that sentence needed all the company it could get—as do we all, or so the show says.)  Each of the five couples seems recognizable and real, even when they’re not the focus of a scene. More important, they seem genuinely fond of Bobby; and he, of them. Even Bobby’s three unproposed-to paramours are having a romp. The effect on the audience of this intracast lovefest is, I think, the production’s secret sauce. Because without that key ingredient, the recipe as written (George Furth’s astringent book and Stephen Sondheim’s ascerbic lyrics) could easily be more cynical than charming, more bitter than bittersweet, and all in all a bit hard to swallow.

There’s a really annoying convention in comedies devised to tickle the funny bone of middle-age-and-up Broadway audiences: infantile jokes about marriage, about divorce, about adultery, about shrewish wives, about feckless husbands—gags that can make one gag—all tied up in the end in a sentimental affirmation of the conjugal bond.  Ha-ha, goes the crowd. And whew, I didn’t have to reflect too deeply about the problems in my own marriage(s).

Company is not like that. Company is a very different theater experience. Company is rather in your face, actually. It engages you because it reflects in-real-life relationship difficulties. It reminds you of your own, maybe. It makes you go hmmmm. And then it makes you leave the theater humming its wonderful tunes.

Signature artistic director Eric Shaeffer’s casting and direction are brilliant. The entire ensemble, led by the endearing Matthew Scott as Bobby, is a delight. The orchestra, extraordinary. The costumes and set design, stunning.

I do have a quibble, though, about the five projection screens on the upstage wall. They needed to go dark much more often than they did. They distracted from the  performances and they rarely contributed anything worthy of note—especially all the arty photos of New York City. I kept wanting to scream: I know we’re in Manhattan! I don’t need reminding like some hick in the hinterlands. The script tells me everything I need to know about where we are. Would you please just shut off so I can enjoy this great show?

So my advice if you go—and you really, really should—is don’t pay attention to those literalist illuminations. They say nothing, they add nothing, and you won’t miss a thing if you ignore them.

Stupid Fucking Bird

Woolly Mammoth‘s jaunty staging of Aaron Posner‘s rejiggered Seagull is enormously entertaining. It’s like—

Well, at times the actors have scenes together that are kind of…borrowed…or lifted…or cribbed or whatever…from Chekhov’s original, and at other times they…I don’t know, they—

Actually what they do is they address the audience like they…well, you know…

So there’s these seven actors, see. And they each play a role in the basic story that Chekhov wrote. And there’s tons of love on stage. Yeah, that’s what Chekhov himself said in 1895 while he was writing The Seagull: “tons of love.” Except it’s all…what do you call it?…blown off…rebuffed…unrequited or whatever. And so the actors are all really fun to watch even when their characters are bummed and very sad. Just very very sad because…I don’t know they—

Know whud I mean?

My point here is that Posner has taken Chekhovian subtext—unspoken charged emotions below the surface of what characters say aloud (Chekhov’s signature dramatic technique that famously influenced theatrical history)—and traded it for unfinished thoughts and dangling utterances that litter his script with ellipses and em dashes at line endings. This textual stunt is tons of fun, especially when Posner has characters say the filler words whatever and fuck. The voices on stage sound contemporary, not nineteenth century at all. Posner captures precisely how people communicate in real life these days—in fumbling, incomplete fragments groping for expression and hoping for comprehension. That’s what’s expected and accepted. In fact in this era of inarticulation, there are certain social circles (for instance among the young) where someone who articulates clearly, who makes real sense in complete syntax, is regarded with suspicion and even derision.

Know whud I’m sayin’?

The only other time I’ve seen The Seagull on stage was in London. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed production, directed by Trevor Nunn with Ian McKellan, was wrapping up its international tour. And that was the point in my life when I understood why theater folks revere Chekhov. The language on stage was so rich, the acting so emotionally resonant, the characters so hilarious in their melancholy, that I finally got it: I got why Chekhov deemed The Seagull a comedy. The human-all-too-human kind. The kind that keeps your eyeballs really moist.

The snippets of the Seagull story that Posner has plugged into his script are unsustained; the actors regularly break character, unsentimentally. The rollicking waves of humor come mainly from Posner’s clever colloquialisms and anachronisms and interactive bits with the audience. And it’s indeed a hilarious crowd pleaser, like watching actors improvise on the edge. But to the limited extent it’s Chekhov, it’s a Cliff’s Notes version for those more familiar with Chekov from Star Trek.

The effect is as discombobulating as it is entertaining. We are drawn into a scene fraught with emotion, then suddenly yanked out. Over and over, again and again, as if everything is in air quotes, bracketed in ironic detachment. So after a while, we learn we dare not care too much about the lives of the characters on stage. We literally learn not to trust our own empathy, because to do so is to be set up to be a little bit betrayed by another bait and switch.

Now, I know that Posner can write one hell of a full-fledged play. His adaptation of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen at Arena was utterly gorgeous. I was moved beyond words. Changed too, actually—I left that theater experience different from when I went in.

The earnest young wannabe writer in Posner’s riff on The Seagull declaims early on that there must be new forms of art, creations that change us. By the end the lovelorn lad (actually the out-of-character actor who plays him) is searching aloud for the catharsis. Where’s the catharsis? he laments. Where is it?

It’s a very funny joke. But it also exposes Posner’s own grasping for authentic emotional content inside his trickster technique. Which can sometimes feel, you know, like he’s run out of ideas…or at a loss for meaning…or drawing a blank…or whatever.

Perfect Arrangement

I’ll cut to the chase: This play is ready for Broadway. It’s knockout funny, with crackling punch lines. It’s flawlessly constructed—paced like a bubbly farce at times, like a jaw-dropping drama at others. And it’s got a core of sexual political content that puts Neil Simon–ish froth to shame.

The author’s name is Topher Payne. Remember it. Because in Perfect Arrangment—one of three full-length plays debuting in the DC Source Festival—he has gifted the American theater with an instant classic. And if he keeps this up, he’ll have a theater named after him someday.

I’ll try to explain what’s so brilliant about Perfect Arrangement. (I don’t have to persuade the opening night audience; they were on their feet cheering afterwards.)

It begins kind of sit-com-y. (Bear with me here.) It’s set in 1950 in Georgetown, in a very beige period living room shared by Bob & Millie & Jim & Norma. No, they don’t all share the same  bed. From all appearances, Bob & Millie are married. As are Jim & Norma. But actually an offstage bed is shared by Millie & Norma. And another is shared by Bob & Jim. Because Bob & Norma work in the State Department, the four of them have devised this nuptial ruse in order—or so they hope—to escape the dragnet that was then purging America of dykes and fags. (That part is historical fact: the so-called Lavender Scare. You can look it up. And check out this trailer for the forthcoming documentary The Lavender Scare: http://kck.st/XJWKZo.)

The comic potential in this setup jump-starts the hilarity as the foursome entertain Bob’s straight-arrow boss Ted and his ditsily clueless wife Kitty. Hiding behind phoney personas is an age-old comic stage device, and Payne reinvents it ingeniously: two lesbians in love pretending to be married to husbands, two gay men in love pretending to be married to wives. (Memo to Broadway producers: If you’re not lucky enough to catch Perfect Arrangement for yourself, you just gotta trust me on this—the belly laughs are nonstop.)

And then—with a sure and steady writerly hand—Payne introduces plot turns and character conflicts that gradually unravel and reveal what’s not “perfect” here at all. An auspicious visit in the first act from Barbara—a State Department employee under investigation—sets in motion events that lead to one of the most profound endings I’ve ever witnessed in a new play. Near the end of the second act, Payne tops everything that’s gone before with a breathtaking scene that rips open a gender divide among the once happy foursome. I can’t in conscience give away any more of Payne’s astonishing story structure, but I have to marvel at how he keeps finding what’s funny. Payne has an uncanny knack for keeping faith with his audience through humor. (Memo to producers: If you’re worried about whether Perfect Arrangement is “too gay” for a Broadway audience, just don’t; that’s silly.) And kudos to the superb Source Festival ensemble (Andrew Keller, Raven Bonniwell, Natalie Cutcher, Kiernan McGowan, Zach Brewster-Geisz, Karen Lange, and Jill Nienhiser) and director (Linda Lombardi), who filled every moment with exquisite panache.

Lake Untersee

Rocky, a 15-year-old boy from a broken home, goes in search of  the boy whom he loves. That’s it; that’s pretty much the story. But mix this adolescent quest with evocative metaphors, add some beautifully lyric poetry, chill over lots of ice—and you get the surprisingly intoxicating concoction that is playwright Joe Waechter‘s  Lake Untersee.

One of three full-length plays world-premiering in DC’s Source Festival, Lake Untersee contains some wonderfully imagined elements. Primary among them is Noah Chiet‘s embodiment of  Rocky. For someone who is himself not yet 15, Chiet brings a remarkable range of emotional truthfulness to his role. When choking on inexpressible feelings—as with his disfunctional parents—his Rocky utters gutteral sounds (somewhere between a bark and a croak) that begin as a running gag but then become heart-wrenching. This kid has acting chops. Chiet’s performance alone is reason enough to see this production.

Another wonder to behold is Waechter’s central conceit, which is that Rocky’s youthful crush, Charlie, is buried under eons of ice in Antarctica’s Lake Untersee—and Rocky must get to him and rescue him. Yeah, I know, as a metaphor for a boy’s homoerotic infatuation—frozen below the surface, untouched by adult warmth, requiring a high-risk solo self-discovery trek—that harsh, chilly image sounds interesting on paper. But how the heck can it work on stage? Incredibly, it pretty much does, the actors’ artful delivery of Waechter’s poetic speeches aided and abetted by Joseph Walls’s startling stark lighting and Roni Lancaster’s sound design featuring blizzards and glacial ice.

Thanks in part to The Inkwell, the Lake Untersee script has been in development for a couple years—and, to be honest, it still plays like a work in progress. A few scenes fall flat. For a play with such a tender emotional core, the character of Rocky’s mother seems over-the-top cartoonish; his father, too much a stiff cliché. And the too-familiar story of their marital strife resembles a warmed-over TV dinner. So I don’t think the text is yet ready to be, um, frozen.

But Waechter is definitely on to something good.

Actually the next most interesting character after Rocky is his dad’s live-in girlfriend, Gale (Liz Osborn), who is—just simply—really nice. Rocky and Gale have a scene together that is sweetly moving; we see Rocky realize she genuinely cares about him; we see him stop barking/croaking and open up to her. You’d think a character whose basic trait is ordinary niceness would be rather a bore on stage, but somehow Waechter and Osborn have made her fascinating.

Throughout the play, Rocky intrepidly pursues his (emotional) rescue mission, with a cool twist at the end.  Once we get that by rescuing his longed-for love, Rocky is actually saving himself, his single-minded story becomes en route one of those original theatrical turns that can suddenly hook one’s heart and prompt a tear or two. Like when a winter thaws.

2013 Music in the Night

I’m aware that hearing someone’s stark raving enthusiasm for a one-night-only, pop-up theater performance can sound like “Nyah-nyah, here’s what you missed.” Well, my sincere apologies…but here’s what you missed: a dazzling showcase of some of the most thrilling musical-theater talents in DC.

A co-presentation of Theatre Washington and Capital Pride at Town, this blazing comet comes around but once a year. Monday night’s was only its second appearance in the DC night sky. And I’m already impatient for next year’s.

Assembled and accompanied on piano by Joshua Morgan—who puts the imp in impressario—eleven rising stars did turns in solos and duets belting out show tunes so gorgeously and powerfully you might well worry that a savvy casting director will snatch them off the stage right there and then.

Happily, you can bask in some of this brilliance yourself in upcoming productions. Consider what follows a stargazing guide, annotated (to the best of my knowledge) with online coordinates and next-up appearances:

Shayna Blass (Rabbit Hole at Keegan), Matthew DeLorenzo (Rocky Horror at Studio), Aaren Keith (also Rocky Horror at Studio), Kevin S. McAllister (Violet at Ford’s), Stephen Russell Murray (Spin at Signature), Amy McWilliams (Laramie Project and Violet at Ford’s), Farrell Parker (until June 8 in Full Monty at Keegan, then WAIFs), Nova Y. Payton (Smokey Joe’s Café at Arena), Paul Scanlan (Laramie Project at Ford’s), Matthew Rubbelke (Rocky Horror at American University), Bayla Whitten (Enchanted April at Arena).

There you have it: a constellation of crazy-gifted local luminaries. I’m tempted to say, “Knock yourself out.” But any one of them can do that for you.