Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: July, 2013

The Book of Mormon

CONTAINS HERESY. That’s not a preshow advisory you’ll find posted at Kennedy Center where The Book of Mormon is playing to standing-room houses.  No, it’s my alert to you, dear reader, about what follows. Because instead of rehashing what most everyone knows—that this show is outrageous, hilarious, and the best Broadway musical in years—I’m going to take this show seriously. Meaning: I’m going to look at The Book of Mormon as one of theater history’s most significant contributions to global understanding and world peace.

That was not a joke.

I had questions on my mind when I went to KenCen the other evening. I’d read a lot about the show. I’d listened and relistened to the cast album (which completely cracked me up). And what I wanted to understand was this: How the heck did they do it? How did they get away with it? By what sorcery did Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone (who created book, music, and lyrics) alchemize this material (ostensibly offensive to mainstream Muggles) into abracadabra box office? Really, these three should write a book called Secrets of Highly Successful Subversives.

Then as I watched, something unexpected started to occur to me. I began to see that what’s most unconventional about this show—what’s most dangerously antiestablishment, actually—is not its rude, crude, and lewd humor. It’s what the show says about religion and belief. And not just what it spoofs about Mormonism—that’s but the setup, the pretext, a part representing the whole. And not just its gleeful blasphemy—starting with the fourth song in Act One, “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” which means “Fuck you, God.” The truly incendiary importance of this show is the brilliant blaze of light it casts on the entire human history of faith on earth.

I went to seminary before I did grad work in theater. As a result I have a master of divinity degree, which sounds like a black belt in holiness (but I assure you it’s not). At the time I was keenly interested in religion (though not as a believer) and connections between theater and theology—which may account for what dawned on me my night at the Opera House and prompted this exegesis. (That’s a fancy-schmancy way of saying “explanation and interpretation of a religious text.” And yeah, you read that right: I now take the musical Book of Mormon to be a profound religious text for our times.)

There’s a trenchant storyline running through The Book of Mormon about how what passes for divine revelation is really just some stuff some humans made up. At the beginning the show pokes fun at the dodgy origin story upon which the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was founded. One can readily guess what a giggle this is for non-Mormons (not a few of whom, let it be said, harbor an unseemly sense of superiority about the divine authority of their own scriptures and creeds). But Parker, Lopez, and Stone’s potshots are all lobbed so affectionately and knowingly that even devout Mormons can be amused. (Plus, judging from the three full-page paid ads in the slick Playbill promoting, LDS officials can’t be too miffed).

Then that storyline takes a turn in Act Two that is stunningly ridiculous and sublime. Elder Cunningham (the gifted buffo Christopher John O’Neill), whom we know to be a fibber, has been dispatched with a buddy, Elder Price (the hotshot hoofer Mark Evans), to Uganda to score conversions for the Mormon missionary team. Cunningly, Elder Cunningham revises the Mormon scriptural narrative to be more relatable to the residents. Actually he flat-out makes stuff up. Throughout the show, Parker, Lopez, and Stone borrow shamelessly from movies and other Broadway musicals, so it comes as yet another pleasure when there’s a play within the play reminiscent of the The King and I’s “Small House of Uncle Thomas” reenactment. Performing before the young missionaries’ visiting supervisor, a troupe of  villagers act out a wackadoodle version of the Mormon origin story that was completely fabricated by Elder Cunningham. The supervisor is scandalized—until it becomes clear that Cunningham’s rewrite has wrought amazingly beneficial effects. It has improved people’s lives. It has given them hope and meaning. It has delivered clear-cut ethical precepts that put a stop to horrific behaviors. (I’m being vague here in case you’ve yet to see the show.) In short, Elder Cunningham’s transparently fictional religious myth helps make humans more humane to one another.

Looked at as a parable within a parable, that twist in the story points to the show’s prophetic insight, for The Book of Mormon musical holds up for all to see how none of the narratives that undergird faith actually descended from on high. None. They were all stories told by humans to give expression to and embody aspirations for a good life. This message about sacred theistic storytelling that Parker, Lopez, and Stone have given us through the profane storytelling medium of theater is, in my humble estimation, a world changer. It tells us—even more eloquently than John Lennon’s “Imagine”—that though all religious stories seek truth, none is “the” truth. None are literally divine revelation, not one of them; all are human-made figures of speech; all ultimately have validity only in what can be observed as their moral influence on how well humans get along. Ergo, waging holy war is futile and religious bigotry is dumb, for the unprovable cannot be proved, the unclaimable cannot be claimed…and the ineffable cannot be eff’ed.

That the audience the other night was getting a bit of this radical message was evident when a character called an obvious fiction “a metaphor” and the line got not only laughs but resounding applause. That’s when I realized I was learning a real lesson about how highly successful subversives do heresy in hilarity: Seriously. And not seriously. And at the same time.

One Night in New York!

The term “gay musical theater” is almost redundant, especially for countless closeted teens who found they could forget their troubles and get happy when they happened upon the uniquely American art form of song, words, and dance rolled into one. Many of these kids started out in shows in high school, nearly all grew up to be fans, some became its creators—and Broadway has been the richer for it. But parse that term another way—combine “gay” and “musical theater” in a sentence like “I just saw the most wonderful gay musical theater yesterday”—and you would find yourself wanting. There’s not much there there. Until now. One Night in New York!, which just finished a sensationally popular run in Capital Fringe 2013 at Gala, blows musical theater a big rainbow kiss.

The book writer, lyricist, and composer is Eric Tipler, and gosh does he have musical theater chops. The story is about twenty-something Michael, a winningly winsome farm boy from a faith-based family in Iowa who comes to the Big Apple for one night only with the express purpose of hooking up to have his first time. It’s a tale that for the show’s target audience is as relatable as they come, and Tipler has turned it into a book that’s so funny and touching, so witty and wicked, so polished and well constructed, that it could give Harvey Fierstein agita.

At first Michael (the endearing Paul Luckenbaugh) falls under the tutelage of the comic Cock Fairy, who’s like a yenta in a tutu (the formidable Ryan Patrick Welsh). Cock Fairy prompts Michael on how to make it in New York City’s gay bar scene, and so it is that our hopeful hero is pitched into a spot-on send-up of preening preppies in a bar in Chelsea and fetid fetishists in a dark, dank Lower East Side dive. The whole silly/seedy affair is sung and danced by a chorus of habitués choreographed hilariously by director Craig Cipollini. But alas young Michael does not find the lad he’s looking for.

Then Michael sings a song of longing for love. And it stops the show. It’s some of the most nakedly emotional music and lyric composition you’re likely to find on stage. It choked me up and made me cheer. It’s called “Normal.” It’s Michael’s heartfelt plea to be “normal” and to find “someone who’s normal to me.” And in it Tipler may well have written as much the anthem for these post-DOMA times as was “I Am What I Am” post-Stonewall.

I confess, though, I got a little anxious when that song was over. Where could the story go next? How could Tipler top “Normal”? But, more urgently: How was this sweet character Michael ever going to truly find what he’s seeking within the show’s shallow all-gay-scene-all-the-time setup?

The good news turned out to be that Michael does luck into a really nice guy, someone with whom he does have what Cock Fairy promised would be “the kiss of love,” and someone who—check this out—doesn’t do hookups. So they part, maybe/possibly/probably to rendezvous another time in another town. Meanwhile Michael is horny and appeals to Cock Fairy for help.

And here’s where the show’s sturdy structure—and sharp social satire—got shaky for me. Tipler’s astute take on the gay bar scene goes about as far as it can in a dismal episode depicting the depressed and desperate in a joyless joint “where dreams go to die” and where Cock Fairy sings of “The Dregs.”

Yikes! Poor Michael! Get him out of this show!

What comes next is Tipler’s earnest satire on the hookup scene that’s now online. Tipler tries hard to include that sea change see-exchange within the purview of his entertaining critique—as indeed he must: For anyone who wants to score in a hurry, the Internet is where it’s at—but that puts the pressure of the One Night in New York! premise in a pickle, because now it’s 24/7 Online Anywhere! So Tipler inserts a big song-and-dance number about Grindr and gingerly sends Michael off stage to get down with a download.

But to me this plot turn felt like a downer, more patched in and pandering than this wonderful show deserved. Besides, it betrayed the core of the character Tipler had artfully crafted in Michael, who, after all, had found what felt like the love he wanted deep-kissing a great guy who doesn’t do hookups.

So the show’s final-scene storyline needs a bit of work. But I’ve got a hunch that Tipler can do the trick.


There’s some wondrous strange stuff in the Bible, but for out and out bizarro it’s hard to top the tale of the king Herod’s pervy thing for his stepdaughter (Salomé) and his macabre beheading (upon her whim) of an itinerant prophet (John the Baptist). Watching Scena Theatre‘s wondrous strange rendering of Oscar Wilde’s wondrous strange retelling of that age-old tale is to behold a marvel of theatrical imagination and a modern fantasia on aberrant sex.

The coruscating conception of the director and design team was to set Wilde’s 1891 one-act in 1920’s café society, with all the characters in blingy gowns and bespoke dinner duds except John the Baptist, who, imprisoned and stripped to the waist in ashes and sackcloth, seems by contrast a wild savage. In the Bible, and in Wilde, this caged noble savage is the story’s moral compass. Whilst the upper-crusties titter, dish, and connive to a vanity fare-thee-well (and Herod can be seen to be badly in need of a 12-step program for concupiscence addiction), the prophet Iokanaan (as John the B is named in the play) rails against their abominations and exhorts devotion to his crony the Christ. One big surprise of this setup is that it turns Wilde’s symbol-laden poetic diction into glittering bon mots—such that the show tickles with the fun of the society send-ups for which Wilde is renowned.

salom-dancing-before-herod-1876Historically the original biblical narrative has been an obsession among great white male artists, and it’s pretty obvious why: The story’s as porny as Scripture gets. Here for instance is an 1876 painting by Gustave Moreau showing Herod having a Hugh Hefner moment as he watches his private dancer Salomé.

There’s much that doesn’t make sense about the story (as recorded in Matthew and Mark), like: What’s it doing shoehorned in to an affecting narrative about Jesus’ early ministry? Really, it’s just spliced in, as if the early manuscript copyists needed a quickie to relieve, um, their carpal tunnel syndrome. And another thing: Why is its portrayal of John the Baptist so out of character? Everywhere else the guy is all about preaching to commoners, preparing the way for the Lord, passing on to them the big H20 blessing. But in the interlude where he loses his head, he has unaccountably landed in court in a lather about royals’ marital mishigas—to wit: Herod has wedded Salomé’s mother, Herodias, the wife of his late bro, whom Herod had offed—and in those days that wasn’t kosher. (It’s the part about marrying Herodias that in the biblical episode PO’s the prophet. He denounces the incestuous marriage but remarks not on Herod’s fratricide and incestuous desires for Salomé. So again: Why does this prophet’s character suddenly ring so false?)

If the scandalous/lecherous/nonsensical gorefest that is the Herod/Salomé/Herodias tale were pitched to a Hollywood producer, you might think it would be deemed the hot mess it is. But you’d be wrong. It’s been made into multiple movies.

Little wonder, then, that this very very raw material would have appealed to Oscar Wilde. But what he did with it—and what Scena’s inspired staging and cast have brought entrancingly to life—was to transform the story so that its undercurrent of sexual obsession is not only front and center but refracted into a fascinating threesie: male on male, male on female, and female on male.

We begin with a young man’s infatuation for a fellow fey functionary in Herod’s court. The desired youth, however, has eyes only for Salomé. And it doesn’t get better. Realizing Salomé has eyes only for the buff Iokanaan, the adored lad stabs himself to death. Just like that: unrequited and impaled. We move on to Herod, and his persistent leering at lithe Salomé despite Herodias’ nagging him to keep his eyeballs off her daughter. Salomé, with much moxie, rebuffs the letch. But here’s the really wild twist: Wilde has Salomé have the hots for the prophet, that unwashed hunk with unruly hair whom her stepdad consigned to a cistern for insulting his harridan wife. And to top that off, Wilde has the prophet let loose a river of revulsion for Salomé, which in Wilde’s version turns Salomé’s thoughts to murderous payback. And she’s got a fair point. Iokanaan’ full-throated, full-throttle screeds blaming women for all evil in many ways presage misogynist men’s-rights rants today.

Note to Oscar: D’ya think ya might be workin’ out some personal stuff here? Just askin’. When you wrote this you were headed soon to prison for your dalliance with boy jail bait. You mighta had a lotta anger issues. And sexual conflicts, being on the downlow and all. But ya know, Oscar, it’s prob’ly okay. You’re dead and gone now. You surely paid your dues, dude. And you left behind this edgy, witty, comic and darkly provocative play, one that could not be produced in England in your lifetime because it was banned, but one with which an adventurous, 25-year-old, crazy-young-at-heart theater company in Washington, DC, could one day concoct a mind-blowing delight.

Romeo and Juliet

Cross-gender casting of the classics can be sometimes a silly stunt, sometimes an earnest bemusement, and sometimes—as in Romeo and Juliet as staged for Capital Fringe by We Happy Few Productions—an astonishing fresh take for our times, a rereading that rewards us with resonance and relevance we were not aware of before.

Academics have had a field day deconstructing cross-dressing in Shakespeare. Oh my. So much self-absorbed abstraction, so much empty convolution. Publishing that keeps professors from perishing but that will annihilate a theater-lover’s pulse in a heartbeat.

We Happy Few’s gender re-think is not only brilliantly plain and simple; it’s richly evocative: In this stripped-down (90-minute) version, all the parts are played by male actors save the part of Juliet. It’s just girly, impulsive Juliet up against a boisterous crew of seven guys. Before the performance begins on a bare-bones stage with spare set pieces, we get a heads-up program note about this conception’s genesis from director Hannah Todd:

In this world, it’s not just that men are the people in political power or that men have the ultimate say over who their daughters marry or who will be their wives. It’s that the wills of men—their passions, their pettiness, their jealousies, their proclivities, their whims, their violence, and their wishes—drive everything. Women’s lives are, as a rule, completely at the mercy of men.

You understand that Todd is talking here about long-ago Verona, right? No resemblance to today?


Todd’s annotation goes on:

However, the men are also prisoners of the unstable world their free reign creates. There is a ubiquitous undercurrent of machismo, of violence, manifested in the feud that underlies every interaction. The world is a powder keg—at the slightest provocation, it explodes.

Such an anachronism! Hard to recall there was ever a world as weird as that!

So what, you may well ask, is the payoff of Happy Few’s recast-the-past gambit? Well, happily, plenty.

At the opening, we see all the male actors standing stock still around the stage in dim light. And they all seem vaguely menacing as wan, fair Juliet speaks the prolog in a spotlight. Abruptly gang warfare breaks out—choreographed to within an inch of its life by Casey Kaleba—and it’s thug on thug, Montagues against Capulets, the cockfight that keeps on keeping on for no reason ever given. They do it just because and—as becomes apparent—just because it’s what men do to be the men.

Academics have had another field day trying to suss out the overarching theme of R&J. There sort of isn’t one, actually, which bothers no one except academics. But We Happy Few has found a profound one: In this vision of the play, everything that takes place happens in a context of, and largely because of, endemic male-male aggression—fisticuffs, weapons, body takedowns, you name it—plus all the latent homoeroticism that lethally underlies it. Even when the aggression is not aimed at foes but is counterfeit affection among BFFs, there’s enough butt slapping and feigned buggery here to keep an all-boy dormitory at attention.

And there are more surprises:

All the male actors play macho, and two double as Nurse and Lady Capulet. The fact that these female characters are being played by the same actors who played male characters produces indelible and stunning effects. For instance when Lord Capulet bellows and rages, Nurse simpers, and Lady Capulet cowers—in what feels as close to a domestic violence episode as ever I’ve seen emulated onstage—it is almost shocking to see the same two actors, who heretofore among men were at one another’s throats, collapse into women’s fear and trembling in the face of their abuser.

I dare not give anymore away. See this production if you possibly can. It’s one for the annals of theater history. Besides which, it’s a helluva good show.


RFK is a triumph. A Capital Fringe production from Philadelphia’s New City Stage, it’s a powerfully moving flashback for anyone who remembers Robert F. Kennedy’s life and times, and an illuminating tribute for anyone born more recently. But moreover: It’s a profoundly revelatory lens for us all on U.S. life and times today.

The time frame of RFK is summer 1964 (when LBJ passed over Bobby for veep) till June 1968 (when RFK was shot). The stage feels packed full—of people, events, places. Yet the whole extraordinary enterprise is brought to life by one actor only (with impressive panache by Russ Widdall) aided by intermittent projections and audio.

But I have to be honest: It was the playscript by Jack Holmes (who first played the title role on stage as well) that had me rapturous by the end. It is as exquisitely crafted as any one-person show I have ever witnessed (and I scavenge for them; I seek out and see as many as I can). By the time RFK closes—with the song lyrics “Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby? Can you tell me where he’s gone?”—I found myself quietly weeping. Not just at the loss of a politician whom I remember as being a personal hero on civil rights and who had became, before the public’s eyes, a better person than he’d been in private life (how often does that ever happen?). No. I think I was also mourning the loss of an America.

It started to hit me early on. There are some wicked bits about J. Edgar Hoover, whom he bugged, his fiendish fascination with the lives of others, how he resented reporting to Bobby as attorney general not his brother the president. And I’m thinking to myself:

Those were the good old days. That was before an unchecked NSA pried into everyone’s business around the world, answerable only to a secret court that passed out rubber-stamp permission slips to commit unconstitutional espionage…

There are also some behind-the-scenes exchanges about the Vietnam War, the dubious grounds for going into it, Johnson’s failed promise of victory, the senseless human carnage, the sullying of a nation’s name. And I’m thinking to myself:

Those were the good old days. That was before Shrub (aka Bush Jr.) got the country enmired in Iraq, on a specious pretext, the senseless human carnage, the pissing away of a nation’s reputation…

RFK poignantly looks back. It also, implicitly, reflects on now.

Anybody here seen my old friend America? Can you tell me where it’s gone?

Don’t miss this one.

Disco Jesus and the Apostles of Funk

This funky-soul show has some rousing numbers that will get your soul outta whatever funk it’s in. But as a musical, it ain’t no Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. The story line is meh; the structure, tiring; and the characters, annoying (most of the men seem a-holes; most of the women,  doormats). Even leaving aside the sweltering sauna inside the Baldacchino Gypsy Tent during opening matinee, there was a lot to endure about Disco Jesus and the Apostles of Funk. But lordy does it have a Mary to hail.

Her name is Felicia Curry, and she has a voice that’s celestial. She plays Mary, a naive singer whom the swaggering Jesus dude entices into trying out to front his new Apostles of Funk band. (About the only thing biblical in the show is some borrowed names and bad pothead puns about getting “stoned.”)

“I auditioned for American Idol once,” Mary tells Jesus innocently. The line gets a knowing chuckle—because Curry could actually be an Idol contender. Even if the tent temp was steamier, the chance to behold Curry’s soaring performance would still be worth it.

I’m a huge fan of Capital Fringe, and heaven knows it can be a haven for vanity producing. So Disco Jesus can perhaps be forgiven for seeming a vehicle for Vaughn Irving, who not only wrote the lyrics and so-so book and co-wrote the not-bad music but also plays the eponymous Jesus (though not terribly well; he kinda puts the mess in messianic). If this show ever has another incarnation, Irving could do it and himself a favor by casting someone else.

Though no one on stage held a candle to Curry, there were a few who came close. Among them was guitarist Matthew Schleigh, who has some phenomenal pipes (he doubles as The Face, one of several sleazeball men who fancy themselves god’s gift to women). And Suzanne Edgar plays some transcendent sax. Her mean, wailing solo darn near brought down the tent (though why, during it, were three women all over Edgar emulating some horndog’s idea of a lesbian orgy?).

Have I mentioned that the sexual politics of this show are really retro? Yeah, they sorta suck. But blessedly Mary can save you from all that.


Lee J. Kaplan is an appealing and accomplished actor, and as his ambitious and athletic solo performance as the many characters in Bully amply demonstrates, he’s a facile and gifted impersonator. Imagine a talent like Robin Williams inhabiting a Men’s Health fitness model and you’ll get the idea. The guy looks for all the world like a real guy’s guy, one who’s got it all together with everything going for him. No wimpy kid was he.

No wait, hold that thought. The performance has just begun and Kaplan is sharing an entry from a diary kept by a real-life boy. The passage is painful to read. It’s about being bullied, over and over. And it gets worse, year by year, vulgar taunts, brutal aggression. The boy dreads going to school; he develops uncontrollable tics; his sustained suffering is palpable. All the more so because this is Kaplan’s own story, in his own words, his own emotions still raw. With Bully, which Kaplan also wrote, he lifts the mask behind which countless adults conceal an Everychild’s story so severe and prevalent that the US government is trying to intervene. Kaplan’s brave coming out as a childhood bullying victim is reason enough to attend to the profound social significance of this timely DC Capital Fringe Festival show. But his compelling performance makes it a must-see.

1814! The War of 1812 Rock Opera

Sure to be a breakout hit in this year’s DC Capital Fringe Festival, this hard-rockin’ crowd pleaser is based on events leading up to the 1814 Battle of Baltimore—a rather obscure turning point in the American rebellion against the British remembered today mainly because while observing it, Frances Scott Key, a wannabe poet, penned verses that later became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Had Key been watching this revel-rousing musical flashback, he might well have expressed awe at these rockers instead of rockets.

Among the many delights in 1814! (music, lyrics, and book by David Dudley and Dave Israel) is the fun it pokes at patriotism based in militarism (a founding principle of this country, as it turns out; also the playbook for recent wars). One song, for instance, “Big Ass Flag” (destined to be a signature chart topper if the show moves on to bigger and better venues, as it deserves to), hilariously both celebrates and ridicules the American ethos of excess: “What we need is a big ass flag / What we want is a big ass flag / Our boys can’t lose if our flag is sufficiently huge.”

You don’t have to know much about history to have a good time here. The Yanks and the Brits wage onstage war with hard-driving rock riffs. It’s good guys versus bad guys, right? ‘Cause that’s what history books tell us! Well, maybe not, as one barbed lyric reminds us: “All the villains and the heroes are alike in many ways / But still we keep repeating myths of our star-spangled past.”

I recommend reading the lyrics beforehand (they’re helpfully printed in the program), not only because they are so quirky and quippy but because the blazingly good band sometimes overwhelms the singers’ words. To fully appreciate Dudley and Israel’s composition, I also highly recommend the studio album, recorded by (most of) this Cap Fringe production’s gleaming bright stars. (You can sample tracks and download the album in iTunes.)

The Rocky Horror Show

I’m probably jumping to the left and right of some gun by writing about a show that hasn’t had its press night, but I saw the first preview of this cult classic last night at Studio, and—dammit, Janet—there’s so much to admire about it that I can’t hold back. In brief (spandex, leather? what’s your pleasure?): It’s a hot hoot.

But this fascinating production does something even more revealing than all the thongs and harnesses and garters and bustiers that the beguiling cast comes (pretty much un)dressed in. What this production exposes us to is an extraordinary insight. Yes, this Rocky Horror Show does the science-fictional time warp again—with sing-along, clap-along, bounce-along exuberance. But it’s also a fresh perception about the passage of time in real life.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean, lest I come off as some dramaturgical wonk who propounds program notes that make sense only in the aridity of academia. DC theater already has enough of that. But I digress.

Richard O’Brien wrote the book, music, and lyrics for The Rocky Horror Show in the early 1970s, when the fun of a fond look back at late-night double-feature picture shows by RKO (to which Rocky’s first song pays homage) was a shared memory among the baby boomer fan base. Upon that collective experience of cinema, Rocky layered naughty and antiauthoritarian decadence, semisinful in its time. The show became a sensation.

But how does one stage decadence in 2013, when the culture is awash in it? Put another way: how do you do outré today? That’s the big challenge of, um, mounting Rocky now.

A lot of the audience last night were of a certain age, attending Rocky as if it was a recollected rite of passage. Maybe in their youth they danced in the aisles in costume at a midnight showing or twelve. Watching Rocky on stage now was—as a song says—like “going home.” And in eager anticipation, a few donned boas for the occasion. For this crowd, revisiting the music, lyrics, and story was like doing again the time wAARP.

But what of the generation not conceived until two or three decades ago? Their decadence is not their parents’ decadence; theirs is their own. And it’s porn. Their collective memory is not RKO double-feature anything; it’s 24/7 online porn, the culture they grew up immersed in, an all-access pass inconceivable in the 70s. That’s the insight with which directors Keith Alan Baker and Alan Paul, choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt, and costume designer Collin Ranney began their approach to The Rocky Horror Show. And the results are brilliant.

Just as O’Brien’s original Rocky paid sardonic homage to sci-fi, Studio’s production pays homage to porn: with parody, ironic detachment, caricature, and a pleather-wrapped plethora of wink-wink air quotes.

You know those stage fights that are so stagey you don’t even think someone’s really being hurt? Well, there was a fight choreographer during rehearsal to make sure no one would get injured. Studio’s Rocky is kind of like that. There’s all this play-acting of tropes from porn (thrusting, grabbing, pouting, posing, tongue flicking), yet no one is really doing anything sexual. It’s all as phony as an orgy in commedia dell’arte. It’s as if they called in a porn-sex choreographer to make sure no one would get turned on. Interestingly, then, the show becomes not so much a titillation as an astute and antiauthoritarian sendup of porn’s pandering to a generation that never knew a world without it.

So yes, it’s a hot hoot: some of the most fun live on stage in DC right now for mature audiences. But also, it’s a haute hit: one of those theater-going experiences you don’t kick out of your brain in the morning.

Much Ado About Nothing (film)

Joss Whedon’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing has rightfully been much praised. I hereby add my own huzzahs and urge every theater lover to see it quickly with an audience (don’t wait for it on Netflix!). A sold-out house at an E Street Cinema matinée clearly loved it. And I came away with fresh insight as to why. But before I explain, take a look at the trailer…

Granted, Joss Whedon is a genius (as I first discovered with his TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But with Much Ado About Nothing, I realized, he’s done something to illuminate Shakespeare that is an utter astonishment.

What prompted my epiphany was an experience a few years back while attending a production of Twelfth Night at the reconstructed Globe Theater in London. Never before in my reading or theater going had I understood exactly how pivotal the pit is to Shakespeare. That milling throng had by far the best seats in the house (except, of course, they had to stand), because, I abruptly realized, Shakespeare wrote to and for them first and foremost. All those asides in the text? They’re zingers to the pit. All those scenes where the focus is not so much on who’s speaking but really on who’s wordlessly overhearing or eavesdropping? Those too play best to the pit. And the minimalist props called for on the miniplatform that is the Globe stage? To people in the pit, those bonsai become a forest.

I know I’m not the first to observe that every great production of a Shakespeare play illuminates it for contemporary audiences—with some new shading, nuance of character, line reading. The mining expedition that the director, cast, and designers have embarked upon has brought us shiny new gems.

Well, Josh Whedon has just illuminated not only a single play but the bard’s whole  oeuvre—because he has discovered the profound sense in which, for Shakespeare, the camera is the new pit. Yes, a medium undreamt-of in Elizabethan times actually now offers everyone in a theater the perfect analog for pitsters’ experience of being up close and personal.

Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is remarkably minimalist. Black and white, one location (his real home), not much “opening up.” Instead what his camera does mostly is track every last tidbit of human emotion as it flickers across the faces of his fine cast. I doubt, for instance, that the two classic scenes where Benedict overhears how Beatrice loves him and then where Beatrice overhears how much Benedict loves her could ever be played on stage as heartachingly hilarious as they are in this deft filmic rendering. Whedon’s Much Ado is jampacked with such joys. And you know how in typically overwrought proscenium stagings of Shakespeare the director and designer struggle to keep grabbing the eyeballs of an audience with TV-induced ADHD? Well, as Whedon has now shown, the camera has closeups that do that much better. Truth is, Shakespeare never wrote  for proscenium stages in huge auditoriums. So in such vast venues, his plays are always at risk of seeming labored. Yeah, sure, like love’s labors. But, let’s be honest, much oft’ gets lost.

So get thee to Whedon’s Much Ado. And afterward ponder this: Why is studying Shakespeare in high school so darn difficult and dull? Why not have Shakespeare taught in classrooms only by professional actors, with maybe a director standing by? Why trust those canonical texts to pedants who teach because they cannot do? Why not let Shakespeare’s language come alive in the only medium that could conceivably offer the camera any competition as the new pit: the living classroom?