Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: August, 2013

The Resurrection of Alice

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

If you like theatrical storytelling—the kind that catches you by the heartstrings, gets you all wrapped up, then doesn’t let loose until the very end—you’re going to love The Resurrection of Alice.

All alone on stage for all of two acts—all the while peopling it with upwards of a dozen distinct and delightful characters—Perri Gaffney brings to the Undercroft Theatre (in a Woman’s Works Program presentation of The Essential Theatre) such virtuosity and intimacy that all distance of time and place disappears and the story she tells all happens right here right now just for us.

And what a story it is. Told in a pastiche of rural South Carolina dialects, it begins in the 1940s and introduces us to a charming 15-year-old named Alice. Spirited and full of hope and life, she wins a full scholarship to go to college. But her promising future is dashed when her parents let her in on a binding deal they cut when she was seven with a Mr. Tucker, a much older man: As soon as Alice reached marriageable age, Mr. Tucker would get her as his wife. If he didn’t, all his years as a kindly background benefactor to the family (calculatedly making, in effect, down payments on her bride price) would stop cold, and her parents and sibs, all dependent on his quid pro quo dole, would be destitute.

As performed by Gaffney, the  scene in which Alice learns of her fate, and realizes the cost to her family if she tries to escape it, is so painful to watch that one nearly wants to stand and interrupt this ceremony and have it called off right then and there—which is a measure of how artfully Gaffney’s consummate storytelling builds its ineluctable momentum.

The script was adapted by Gaffney from her novel of the same name. Because the play is promoted as being topical and educational and about arranged marriage—a scourge that I did not know continues in this country to this day—I had some qualms before attending. Would this show feel like a movie of the month about “an issue”? Would it get all message-y and instructional and have no dramatic heart and soul? Well, I could not have been more mistaken.

For a useful analogy, think of the difference between how the topic of another scourge,  female genital mutilation, has been treated by Alice Walker (to whose Color Purple Gaffney’s Resurrection of Alice bears a touching family resemblance). As a political activist, Walker has done important documentary work about FGM (Warrior Marks). But as a novelist, Walker has created a rich and character-driven novel (Possessing the Secret of Joy) in which FGM is a crucial factor in the plot but does not stick out like a sore polemic. That’s exactly what Gaffney has done with arranged marriage in her Resurrection of Alice: She has created an emotionally compelling story driven by captivating characters, one of whose fate turns on a practice that is indeed a topic—but if you come scoping for takeaway points you will have to find them deeply embedded in a beautifully told tale.

What first piqued my interest in the show was seeing this video, which records the beginning of the play when Alice is seven. If you watch, you’ll get a foretaste of Gaffney’s pace-perfect script, where there is not a superfluous syllable and every line of dialog propels the the narrative. You’ll also glimpse how astonishingly Gaffney’s switches from character to character.

Special mention must go to Sharri Lavie Crockett’s fluidly imaginative lighting and eloquent sound design. Yes, this was Gaffney’s tour de force solo performance, but I was wowed by how the lighting and sound seemed an omnipresent supporting cast.

The title already gives a lot away so I’ll not say more about this womanist parable’s amazing outcome except that the word “resurrection” could fairly be swapped out for “emancipation”—a moving theme foreshadowed when Alice names her first child Harriet…after Harriet Tubman.

I have to acknowledge I had one slight difficulty: In the quickly paced last ten minutes or so—when a stunning plot twist is revealed—I lost track of the story line, which suddenly was more rushed than I could follow, and I had to piece it together in my mind after I’d left the theater. That plot twist is a stunner—but it comes so unexpectedly (and yet in hindsight so plausibly) that I could have used a little “here’s what’s happening”  assist from the extraordinary storyteller who till then had utterly tugged my heartstrings.

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Now That ‘Bradass87’ Is Chelsea: A Q&A With Playwright Claire Lebowitz

Claire Lebowitz conceived a documentary theater piece called Bradass87 and crafted the script from primary sources—including Bradley Manning’s own online chats and instant messages, in which he used the handle Bradass87. Because of recent news events that amplify the currency of Lebowitz’s already fresh-from-headlines play, I invited her to join me in an in-depth Q&A by email to discuss, among other things, the significance of her main character’s gender change. I sent her three substantive questions, and she wrote back three riveting and rousing answers—about the incarcerated soldier now named Chelsea Manning, what’s next for Bradass87, the role of theatrical art in politics…and what the United States may be about to do in Syria.

John Stoltenberg: As I watched Bradass87 on Saturday, August 17, in DC, I was very aware that Private Manning was to be sentenced in just a few days—a tense real-time suspense that loomed over the real-life events unfolding onstage. I admired your play enormously, as you know, and I wanted to make sure my five-star review went online right away (I called Bradass87 “an audaciously up-close and first-person portrait” that brings “this brave young man to life with a depth of understanding”).

At the time I could not have anticipated two extraordinary first-person texts that were soon to become public: First, on Wednesday, August 21, came Private Manning’s powerful post-sentencing statement (which I believe should be reprinted in every U.S. history textbook from now on). The next morning, August 22, came Private Manning’s startling statement “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female” (which has provoked an outpouring of responses both pro and con).

What went through your mind as you learned of those two dramatic developments? What do you make of them? What effect do you think they will have on future iterations of Bradass87?

Claire Lebowitz: Bradass87 has always been a living document, and I see these two statements as reiterating and clarifying points that are present in the play and in previous statements Chelsea has made in public and in private. What I am struck by in these two statements is how Chelsea has consistently appealed to our highest, most moral selves. She has acted in a way that reflects our perceived values as Americans. The Declaration of Independence was a radical, revolutionary document written during a time of Enlightenment. Chelsea Manning perhaps is our new Enlightenment hero of the Information Age (Chase Madar, The Passion of Bradley Manning), taking the values our nation is said to be founded on to heart, and reflecting them back to us.

She said [August 21] after being sentenced to 35 years in prison (the harshest sentence for a journalistic source ever):

I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.

This simple statement begs a series of soul-searching questions: Why do we live under the assumption that American lives are more valuable than other peoples’? What exactly makes us “exceptional”? What free society overclassifies information to justify illegal wars for profit? How can a functioning democracy with a free press overprosecute the messenger, rather than reviewing the crimes revealed and bringing the real criminals to justice?

In the statement made the following day [August 22] asking the world to support her in becoming her true self, she challenges us to confront our limiting assumptions of identity and simply asks us for what she needs—support. Considering how much she clearly thinks of us, the American people (in contrast to how those in power might view us), she deserves our support, as she has supported us and challenged us to “become our true selves.”

In terms of the play, I’m considering having the audience reading the statement made August 21 from the screen before the play begins. For someone who was treated so badly for being who she is throughout her life, her ability to identify with others and feel responsibility for the actions of her country is extraordinary. So often in this statement she uses the term we: “We have forgotten our humanity,” “We consciously elected to devalue human life in Iraq and Afghanistan,” “We elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.” I imagine the entire audience reading the statement from a screen like a mass mea culpa and an invocation of this individual who is locked away but we are bringing into the room. In terms of the trans statement, in the play we watch this young person struggle with not being able to express their true self, which I believe provides some sorely needed context to a discussion that is too reduced to who’s using which pronoun and could reach forward into a deeper truth about us all through the theater’s power to identify with, instead of separating from.

Stoltenberg: After those breaking-news statements, I looked back at the script you shared with me of the version of Bradass87 performed in DC, and I was surprised by how much rich context was in it that very much foreshadowed Chelsea Manning’s announcement—this passage especially:

I’m isolated as fuck, my life is falling apart, and I don’t have anyone to talk to. It’s overwhelming—I’m not comfortable with myself, I’m in an awkward state and the weird part is…I love my job. I was very good at it. I wish this didn’t have to happen like this. I don’t think it’s normal for people to spend this much time worrying about whether they’re behaving masculine enough. I behave and look like a male, but it’s not ‘me’. 8 months ago if you’d have asked me whether I would identify as female I’d say you were crazy, that started to slip very quickly, as the stresses piled up….

For whatever reason, I’m uncomfortable with my role in society in particular—I went on leave in late January/ early February and…I cross-dressed, full on. Wig, breastforms, dress—the works. For a few days I blended in…no one knew. The first thing I learned was that chivalry wasn’t dead. Men would walk out of their way and open doors for me, it was so weird. I was referred to as ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Miss’ at places like McDonalds (hey, I’m not a fancy eater). I took the Acela from DC to Boston, I rode the train, dressed in a casual business outfit. I really enjoyed the trip!  It was…an experience I won’t forget…99.9% of people coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan want to come home, see their families, get drunk, get laid…I…wanted to try living as a woman, for whatever reason. I don’t know, I just kind of blended in…I didn’t have to make an effort, it just came naturally, instead of thinking all the time about how I’m perceived, being self-conscious, I just let myself go…well I was self-conscious in a different way, I was worried about whether I looked pretty, whether my makeup was running, whether I spilled coffee on my expensive outfit.

I remember that when writing my review, I made a conscious choice to stop that quote after “I behave and look like a male, but it’s not ‘me’” —because I thought the rest would be a distraction. I see now that I omitted something not peripheral at all; it was actually a central story point in your text. But to be honest, I was also wary of provoking the nasty flame wars I know to be going on between political activists who view transwomen as really “men” and political activists who counter that such views are “transphobic.” Well, as you likely are aware, that highly charged controversy is all going on now around Chelsea Manning anyway, and suddenly she has become its lightning rod (which in my view really is a distraction, because if she should be regarded and remembered as a poster person for anything, it’s for her bravery in exposing the U.S. war-and-deceit machine).

I’m curious to know your thoughts on all of this—on Chelsea, the controversy, the future of Bradass87—not only as the playwright but also as a longtime Manning supporter and as what transactivists today call “cis” (meaning, in your case: a female-born woman).

Lebowitz: Originally when I started working on the project, the trans narrative was a much larger part of the story. From reading the Manning/Lamo chat logs, it is so pervasive and such a huge part of how Manning saw herself situated in the world. From speaking to many ardent supporters and getting statements from the lawyer that Bradley would like to be referred to as “he” and Bradley till he could move onto the next phase of his life, it seemed that there was so much at stake with the trial ongoing, and perhaps it was just something that she was questioning while deployed and not a core part of her identity issues. I minimized it through development, but that section that you quoted seemed to me to be one of the most beautiful passages, that I really missed when it was taken out, so it was put back in. For me it is the one moment that she is free from confinement, when she is remembering this moment that she felt comfortable—and like herself. I just love how she describes it.

It was a delicate balance of not ignoring this thing that she was clearly struggling with and making sure it was not used as an excuse or the “reason” that she had to act. I was committed to making sure that the lens that we view the act of leaking from is that of suppression of information and illegal imperialist wars, and not taken out of context as just a confused young gay man under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell with an axe to grind against the military.

In fact Bradass87 comes off to me as the opposite of confused; she knew she was a woman inside—”No one knows who I am inside”—and also felt so strongly that “information should be free” and “it’s important that it gets out, it might actually change something.” It is the world that is confused—how should we live in it? Like Bradley says at the beginning of the play, “I wish that things were black and white like the media and politicians presented […] it’s all shades of blurry gray”: Multiple things can be true at the same time; one can be intelligent, principled, and moral and also have a condition called gender dysphoria.

When I was in court a few weeks ago, one of the psychiatrists who testified said about gender identity, “[It’s] how we define our world and what role we serve in it at this point anyways. I think maybe some point in the future, gender won’t matter as much. At this point, it’s very much a defining part of who we are and how we function. Maybe someday it won’t matter so much, but gender is still seen as a core issue of identity and how we interact in the world.” I like this idea, that someday the way we interact in the world will not be so limited to only how our bodies present us.

I wrote Chelsea a letter that day saying, “I have tried myself to transcend gender at different moments in my life and feel increasingly stuck in a box as I get older where people treat me a certain way (dismissive) because of their perception of me based on looks. In some ways I can see where being a woman inside allows you to empathize and feel connected to the powerless and oppressed. I’m often astounded by the lack of empathy and compassion displayed in hegemonic pervasive white male culture (the one that we all live in and holds us captive).”

Stoltenberg: One of the reasons I love theater is that better than any other art form, it can communicate and convey character: meaning who we see a person is by the actions they choose. Theater is literally the “seeing place” where we are invited to witness and interpret and understand other human beings acting “in character”—in relation to themselves, one another, and society at large. Theater as a cultural artifact thereby illuminates, for us as individuals and as a species, the complexities and simplicities of how to be human.

I believe this is the sense of character that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was referring to when he said, 50 years ago: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Today I would add: “…not be judged either by their sex assignment at birth or by their chosen gender identification”—though I realize that’s by no means a popular conception.

Which brings me back to Chelsea Manning.

I sense that in the minds of a lot of people, there is an awkward disconnect now between who they understood Manning to be as Bradley and the public figure they’re now trying to wrap their mind around who has asked to be called Chelsea. And yet, as I see it, Manning’s core character is completely continuous, uninterrupted, in the sense that this is the exactly the same individual who took certain specific actions by which we can recognize, interpret, and judge (for better and for worse) the content of this person’s character. In other words, something nutty seems to be going on here that seems to have something to do with prior conceptions of how people think about a man’s character-revealing actions and how people think about a woman’s character-revealing actions. People seem to think there’s supposed to be some great division between those value frameworks, and Chelsea somehow leapt from one into the other, so now everyone is flummoxed.

What are your thoughts on all this—in particular, how do you yourself see the character now known as Chelsea Manning and how you are considering and weighing that character as a theater artist with an eye to the next production of Bradass87?

Lebowitz: One of the things that attracts Chelsea to me as a character and was overwhelming to me when I saw her testify in court in December and February is that she is entirely “herself,” if that makes any sense. Over the process of her confinement and the trial during the last three years, I feel that she has matured in terms of her historical, political, and philosophical knowledge and also grown into herself in a certain way. When stripped away of everything and pushed to a point where many of us would have broken, she appears to have met the challenge head-on and surpassed it with flying colors.

Everyone in the media should have been prepared for the switch in pronouns and name; it was in the chat logs, it was discussed in court, there was a diagnosis. I suppose there is never a convenient time to come out and for everyone to change the way they perceive something. Did we think she wouldn’t have the courage to come out? Please!

When someone has asthma we don’t deny them an inhaler—why are we threatened by her hormone therapy? This is not new science—hormone therapy has been an accepted treatment for gender dysphoria for a very long time, but we do not see trans people represented very frequently in our culture. Once again she has shown how our media is lacking and we need the context art provides, and to have a discussion that is not entirely sensationalized, reductive, and intellectually insulting like the mainstream media is. She again challenges the rest of us to figure out who we are in reaction. Bigots? Warmongers? Ignorant? She doesn’t think so: “I believe that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.” At this moment we are looking at another military action in Syria that 6 percent of Americans support. We know that we were lied into Iraq with media collusion. It’s a lovely thought to think that if we just have the truth—the information we’re not getting—then we would see that no war is worth it, and be able to do something about the next one.

This is why I like the theater: It is the most political, social art form, that could spur an audience into action because they’ve gone through something and perhaps had a transformation in their thinking. This play allows us all to consider who we’ve become in the world, especially in the last ten years, by relating Chelsea Manning’s experience and how she’s been treated. The soldier taking the fall for two failed wars deserves to have her own words heard, and I believe she has a message for us.

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For more information about Bradass87, see its blog or Facebook page or follow @bradass87ows on Twitter.

Nijinsky’s Last Dance

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

“I am Nijinsky,” says the actor/dancer Primož Bezjak, in a tone almost primal. “The great Nijinsky.”

He speaks in Slovenian as his words appear on overhead screens in English. He has been sitting onstage in silence as we entered the space and took seats around a constructivist circular playing area. For some moments now, this danseur noble‘s supple and sinewy body has been moving, slowly, beginning to burn images of torment and grace into our brains. When at last language leaves this seeming shaman’s lips, we the opening night audience are already transfixed—as though, uncannily, we have entered a trance state. For we are beholding a performance so magnificent that one barely dares breathe.

Primož Bezjak as Nijinsky. Photograph by Primož Lukežič.

Primož Bezjak as Nijinsky. Photograph by Primož Lukežič.

At the end of our fleeting hour in this presence, we sit in rapt awe. We have just been led on a stream-of-consciousness trip through the troubled life and disintegrating mind of the lithe young man who was the dance legend Nijinsky, by an exquisite guide who glides in and out of embodiments of dramatic personae from Nijinsky’s dark inner life. As boldly portrayed by Bezjak, the great Nijinsky has come to life before our eyes, exhibiting  moves choreographed by Mateja Rebolj as if channeling “the god of dance” himself. (There were no grands jetés, through which Nijinsky created the illusion he was suspended in midair—they would have been hazardous in this low-ceilinged space—but Bezjak left no doubt he could have executed them beautifully.) Then Bezjak stands on stage out of character and—breaking his own mesmerizingly self-absorbed concentration—acknowledges for the first time our presence. As if on cue we come to and we remember: Oh right, this is where we applaud. And suddenly we do so, Thunderously. Still transfixed by what has transpired.

This remarkable production by Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theatre has come to town for five nights only at Flashpoint, presented by Cultural DC, after which the company has tickets to fly back home. That means this Last Dance is DC’s last chance to witness a rare theater event. First seen at Signature Theater in 1998–99, Nijinsky’s Last Dance, by local playwright Norman Allen, has had several productions—but I cannot imagine any as fine as this.

Allen’s script is based on the diary Nijinsky wrote in a manic six and a half weeks that began the day after what was literally his last dance (a fiasco). By that time, at age 28, Nijinsky’s brilliant career was over, and he had been diagnosed as mentally ill. The diary tracks, surreally, Nijinsky’s memories of pivotal events and influential people even as he enters into the schizophrenic mental state for which he would be institutionalized the rest of his life.

Barbara Kapelj Osredkar’s set design and Matjaž Brišar’s lighting design have created an environment of confinement—a sunken, square, cagelike space, fitted with mangled sanitarium bed frames—surrounded by a raised playing area on which Nijinsky’s recollected triumphs take flight, and anguished scenes return, accompanied by Silvo Zupančič’s cerebrally disturbing soundscape.

One need know nothing about Nijinsky’s biography to appreciate Last Dance, but knowing even a bit makes the experience richer. One of the major themes in Nijinsky’s life was the persistent disconnect between his own sexual desires and the ways he was desired; rarely did they sync. As a youth he was an avid consumer of prostituted women. At the age of 18, androgynous and poor, he met an older man, a wealthy prince, who became his first sugar daddy with benefits. (In the jarring jargon of today, Nijinsky was straight and gay for pay.) After a year the prince tired of Nijinsky and handed him off to SDWB #2, another older man, the wealthy impresario Diaghilev, who was to shape and exploit the career for which Nijinsky became renowned. For his part, as he records in his diary, Nijinsky was repulsed by Diagilev’s flabby butt and saggy moobs and disliked coming upon pillows soiled with Diagilev’s black hair dye. At one point the creepy Svengali loaned out his boytoy to pose nude for the sculptor Rodin, who promptly exacted his own priapic quickie.

The spiritual and emotional impact on Nijinsky of all this craven sexual usage becomes excruciatingly transparent in Bezjak’s dextrous portrayal of an introverted, lonely soul who has no soulmate. Nijinsky’s own choreography—scandalous for its time—notoriously included autoeroticism, which Bezjak does not shy from, and which even now comes as a shock. It’s as though through this performance Bezjak shows us, from the raw inside out, precisely how it feels never to feel one’s body belong to oneself because it has been a commodity for so many others.

When Nijinsky fell rather abruptly in love with, and married, a wealthy woman who had been a groupie (and who later bore him a daughter), the jealous Diagilev spitefully paid him back by severing their professional ties—a move that proved calamitous for Nijinsky’s career and hastened his descent into the agony where Last Dance begins. In this singular new staging, director Marko Mlačnik has created an evocative and original landscape and found exactly the perfect performer to travel it. Mlačnik and Bezjak’s collaboration brought to mind for me the stage work done by the influential Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski and his premier actor Ryszard Cieslak. If back in the day when I saw their extraordinary work I thought, “I’ll never see anything like this again,” I was dead wrong. I just did.

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There is no film record of Nijinsky dancing, but this video, computer-animated from actual stills, offers a shadowy glimpse.

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Running Time: One hour, with no intermission

Nijinksky’s Last Dance plays through Friday, August 30, 2013, at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street NW, Washington, DC. To purchase tickets, click here

Bradass87

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Who is the real Bradley Manning? Does anyone know? Can anyone know? These pressing and compelling questions ricochet today even in mainstream news media, which—more beholden to elites than to accuracy—filter reality but rarely sift out truth. Even among ostensibly progressive pols, Bradley Manning looms as an enigma—because they cannot shake the chastening fact he puts their compromised idealism to shame. (Full disclosure: I have publicly identified myself as a Bradley Manning supporter.) Now comes Bradass87, a theater piece that offers a unique and fascinating front-row seat to history. Built around Manning’s own words and artfully compiled from documents on the public record, Bradass87 delivers an audaciously up-close and first-person portrait that reveals how deeply the maligned young soldier himself was distressed by the question Who is Bradley Manning?

I’m not so much scared of getting caught and facing consequences at this point, as I am of being misunderstood, and never having the chance to live the life I wanted to. I’m way way way too easy to marginalize, I don’t like this person that people see. No one knows who I am inside.

The play is not a polemic meant to persuade doubters and haters. Nor is it simply a piece of agit prop intended to rouse and rally supporters (although excerpts have been performed as street theater in New York City). What Bradass87 actually is—in the version I saw at a staged reading in Washington, DC, August 17—is an astute look through theater into the moral agony of a human being who, in real life and real time, has experienced his own existence as a U.S. citizen in extremis. He could not cut his conscience to fit the country’s war-and-deceit machine. Nor, as Bradass87 makes painfully clear, could he excise his true self to fit standard-issue masculinity. Bradass87 lays bare the convergence of those two points of conflict and resistance in Manning in a way that is nothing short of brilliant.

There is an insight here that could incite. Which is why it’ll never appear on the nightly news.

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Ara Morton (in camo) and Matt Mezzacappa (as Bradley Manning).

Claire Lebowitz is the prime mover of Bradass87 (which was the handle Manning used in instant-message chats). The concept was Lebowitz’s, she composed the pellucid script, and she directed the gripping DC reading in the basement performance space at The Universalist National Memorial Church (based on David Schweitzer’s direction of a staging at the Culture Project in New York City and bringing to DC the haunting sound design by Michael Feld and eye-popping video design by Kevin Brouder). The stark set (shown above in the NYC production) represented Bradley Manning’s cell, which came to feel ever more confining.

We’re human—and we’re killing ourselves—and no one seems to see that… and it bothers me. Apathy. Apathy is far worse than the active participation. I prefer the painful truth over any blissful fantasy.

The excellent DC cast featured Britton Herring, Joe Brack, Felipe Cabezas, and Frank Turner, as intimidating officers and coarse guards, and, in the daunting role of Manning, the exceptional Chris Dinolfo, who brought a virtuoso range of passion, pathos, terror, and queer charm. (To watch Dinolfo, in brutal incarceration, suddenly dance to a soundtrack of Lady Gaga—over whose CDs the real Manning secretly recorded a cache of intelligence—was simply a delight.)

Lebowitz served as assistant to Judith Malina, the legendary founder of the Living Theatre, who in 2007 directed a new production of the American classic The Brig, which I was fortunate to catch at the Living’s performance space on Clinton Street. As I watched Bradass87, I could hear, see, and feel echoes of Kenneth H. Brown’s script and the legacy of Malina’s masterful direction. One stage picture was particularly ominous: the small-framed detainee Manning stripped naked, harangued, and shamed by a phalanx of angry hypermacho thugs. Lebowitz had isolated for our gaze the authorized, male-pattern sadism that Manning has suffered. And as we learn vividly from Bradass87, that punishment has effectively been an ongoing Abu Ghraib.

Why are you doing this to me? Why am I being punished? I have done nothing wrong!

What have I done to deserve this type of treatment?!

There actually are answers to those questions in Bradass87. Answers that are a moral injury to Manning. And maybe to us all.

I’m isolated as fuck, my life is falling apart, and I don’t have anyone to talk to. It’s overwhelming—I’m not comfortable with myself, I’m in an awkward state and the weird part is…I love my job. I was very good at it. I wish this didn’t have to happen like this. I don’t think it’s normal for people to spend this much time worrying about whether they’re behaving masculine enough. I behave and look like a male, but it’s not ‘me’.

Bradley dissented from the criminal war machine and he dissented from regimental manhood. By rights he was a conscientious objector on both counts, fully entitled in the fullness of his humanity to opt out. But he didn’t know that because no one saw that, no one mentioned it to him, no one gave him the support and counsel that Bradass87 makes desperately clear he needed. So he could not, and did not, save himself. Instead, as Bradass87 shows, in his overweening idealism he did something surpassingly noble: He tried to save America from itself. He tried to rescue our foreign diplomacy from deceit. He actually tried to save other people’s lives.

For bringing this brave young man to life with a depth of understanding that, to my knowledge, no other medium has yet done, this theater-piece-in-progress deserves to live on and be seen.

For more information about Bradass87, see its blog or Facebook page or follow  @bradass87ows on Twitter.

A Few Good Men

Exploding onstage like a fusillade of biting wit and badinage, A Few Good Men is getting a crackling-good production that makes this power-packed 1991 play feel like it was ripped from today’s headlines.

Doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen the Hollywood movie version. Over at the Keegan Theatre, it’s all brand-new again. So be forewarned: It could get you in your gut and go off in your brain.

Aaron Sorkin wrote A Few Good Men on cocktail napkins when he was 27 years old while working as a bartender at the Palace Theatre in New York City. (The play became a Broadway hit, then a smash film, and Sorkin went on to write such masterworks as the television series The West Wing and the film The Social Network.) Sorkin constructed the play’s rivetingly clockwork plot from a true story: Some young Marines at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base were being tried in a military court for hazing, and nearly killing, a fellow Marine. It was a story Sorkin had learned of from his sister, a recent law school grad, who was on her way to join the military legal team that would defend them.

A Few Good Men centers on a military legal team also defending young Marines, Lance Cpl. Harold W. Dawson and Pfc. Louden Downey (Jon Hudson Odom and Adi Stein, both spot on), who are charged with hazing—and, in Sorkin’s telling, killing—one Pfc. William T. Santiago (the immensely moving Nathaniel Mendez). The ranking officer on the three-member defense team is Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway (the crisply effective Brianna Letourneau). Even as we laugh through Act One at Sorkin’s trademark repartee, we watch engrossed as Galloway parries and thrusts over tactics and legal maneuvers with her two male colleagues, LtJG Sam Weinberg (the touchingly nebbishy Michael Innocenti) and LtJG Daniel A. Kaffee (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, whose impressive range builds in Act Two to its own emotional detonation).

The second act revolves around the trial—which by now is steeped in so much suspense that the nearly two-and-a-half-hour performance flies by faster than a fleet of jets. The prosecution—making “the people’s” case—is headed by Capt. Jack Ross (the intriguingly intense Bradley Foster Smith). Among witnesses called to the stand is the slightly befuddled Cpl. Jeffrey Owen Howard (played with scene-grabbing humor and pathos by Kevin Hasser). Finally, as evidence and tensions mount, the defense team calls the base commander, Col. Nathan Jessep (played with gruff grit by Mark A. Rhea), who turns out to be their pièce de résistance: Prefaced famously by the line “You can’t handle the truth!,” Rhea’s meltdown-implosion as Jessup becomes a stun gun.

Directed by Jeremy Skidmore with the tight precision of a drill team, the entire production takes place on a multilevel set that features a humongous tipped-over flagpole from which a colossal American flag once proudly waved…but now lies inert over nearly a third of the stage. Could this provocative scenic design by Steven Royal be sending the incendiary message that our nation’s flag has fallen?

Maybe.

Military justice is much contested nowadays. See, most notably, current efforts in Congress to shunt military sexual-assault cases to independent military prosecutors, on the theory (to paraphrase freely:) that the chain of command can’t handle the truth. As a result there are now not a few good Americans—deeply patriotic, indebted to armed forces personnel for their sacrifice, some service members themselves—for whom “military justice” has become an oxymoron. And that’s the zeitgeist context in which Keegan Theatre’s fresh new Few Good Men is the most relevant and resonant theater event going on in DC.

Asked in an interview about why his writing often ventures into politics, Sorkin said:

I’m not politically sophisticated. All of my experience, training, and education has been in the theater…. I like writing romantically and idealistically, and there’s just a treasure trove of stories in that area. Just the whole idea of patriotism and democracy and the struggles that we have in this country…I find those things very emotional. As a dramatist, you’re looking for points of friction, and there are all kinds of points of friction in those areas…. But I’m not Clifford Odets, who wrote about politics because that was his way of being an activist. I’ve met activists—I’m not one of them. I’ve never marched anyplace. Those guys are for real.

In Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, all the military lawyers—almost shockingly—are “the good guys”: hardworking idealists, trained professionals, earnestly striving for what they honestly believe is achievable justice inside the system. And in the end (spoiler alert:) they get “the bad guy,” the culprit whom the system correctly holds accountable. Doesn’t matter how protected or highly positioned the criminal; justice must be served…and is. As a result, to watch A Few Good Men at this moment in time—knowing what one cannot not know about (for instance:) rampant abuses of power, from sex crimes to war crimes to crimes against the constitution—is to rediscover something inspiring and powerfully moving about the way justice in America was meant to be…but isn’t.

While activists take that “point of friction” to the streets, we can thank Sorkin and Keegan for taking it stirringly to the theater.

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Also posted in my Magic Time! column on DC Metro Theater Arts, where it is accompanied by a fascinating video interview with Aaron Sorkin.

Lovelace (film)

In 1972 some men made a film that did her wrong. Unspeakably and indelibly wrong. The film was named Deep Throat. Now some men—with two women producers—have made a film that does right by her. It’s called simply Lovelace. And cinematic justice has never been so bittersweet.

“Linda Lovelace” was the nom du porn of Linda née Boreman (played luminously by Amanda Seyfried), who as a 21-year-old naif was seduced by a lowlife, snaky charmer named Chuck Traynor (played with alarming menace by Peter Sarsgaard). Theirs was not a love story.

Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Traynor, and Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace.

Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Traynor, and Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace.

After tricking Linda’s parents (played with poignant depth by Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick) into trusting him, Traynor marries her. Early on he gets arrested and jailed and phones her to bail him out. She never knows what exactly he does for “work” (he’s a pimp); he forbids her to ask him—and pointedly he tells her that a wife cannot testify against her husband. His Svengalian grip on her tightens. He hypnotizes her into ultimate fellatio, beats her, rapes her, pistol-whips her, and peddles her to sleazeballs (played with creepy cred by Chris Noth, Bobby Cannavale, and Hank Azaria), who make the movie that made them gazillions from her suppressed gag reflex.

Chris Noth as Anthony Romano, Bobby Cannavale as Butchie Peraino, and Hank Azaria as Jerry Damiano.

Chris Noth as Anthony Romano, Bobby Cannavale as Butchie Peraino, and Hank Azaria as Jerry Damiano.

There have been a few other fine films that have depicted with fearsome veracity men’s controlling violence toward women. What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993), based on Ike Turner’s abuse of Tina, comes to mind.  I  recall seeing that fiery film in a crowded theater in DC with a predominantly black audience who voluably warned the onscreen Tina (the awesome Angela Bassett) to get the hell out. Another classic of the genre is Enough (2002), about an abused wife who learns to fight back. It starred Jennifer Lopez in a gut-wrenching performance—perhaps her best screen acting ever. And of course The Accused (1988) belongs on the list. Based on a real-life gang rape and subsequent trial, it starred Jodie Foster in a shattering performance that more than earned her a Best Actress Oscar.

These films are all well and good—but the real money to be made from movies about men’s controlling violence toward women is if the flick gets off dicks. I refer, of course, to pornography. And that’s where Deep Throat came on the scene. It became a chic hit. Esteemed critics such as Norah Ephron and Roger Ebert praised it. Johnny Carson cracked jokes about it. At the time, nobody seemed to notice the bruises that were evident in the film on Linda Lovelace’s body. Nobody seemed to wonder how in the world those bruises got there. Lovelace goes behind the scenes and shows how they got there: Chuck Traynor was beating the crap out of her. For anyone who ever watched Deep Throat in a reverie of sexual release, Lovelace will come as more of a shock than a hypothermic shower. For anyone trapped in a cycle of domestic violence and/or the sex industry, Lovelace will be a signal that there’s an exit. For not only does Lovelace warrant serious awards attention and audience admiration on its filmmaking merits; Lovelace so illuminates the dark side of pornmaking that it’s as if the movie theater’s projection booth has become a lighthouse beacon for saving lives.

The film’s structure is brilliant. The directing team of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who with Andy Bellin wrote the taut and evocative screenplay, created their own new form with which to tell Linda’s story: They used as their point of dramatic departure how Linda’s psychological perspective shifted as her troubles deepened. I personally found it helpful to know about their framework ahead of time, because it made the film’s steadily building tension palpable from the start. But I can readily imagine that for anyone with no foreknowledge of Deep Throat’s true back story, not knowing what to expect heightens the impact of the dramatic reversal to come. First we see the story of Linda’s romance with Traynor and a vision of the making of Deep Throat as if through rose-colored glasses. Jump-cut six years later to a scene where  Linda is taking a lie detector test at the behest of the publisher of her autobiography Ordeal, in which she tells what really happened to her. Then the movie backs up and replays the same story but this time with its harsh reality raw—all the beating and prostituting and gang-raping behind the porny fantasy exposed.

Well, not all of it. I’ve read Ordeal. The movie makers left out the worst of what was done to Linda, which was abominable and included forced bestiality. Had they not, I have no doubt, Lovelace would have been not only unreleasable but unwatchable.

But be assured, these movie makers evidence a deeply sensitive intuition about their audience’s sensibility. The camera pulls back, or there’s a quick cutaway, from each instant or event that might so disturb us that it would distract us from the emotional throughline of Linda’s story. This holds true for the sex scenes as well as the violence. The result is that much of this material happens in our mind’s eye, not onscreen.

Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace.

Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace.

Plus there’s the absolutely luminescent performance of Amanda Seyfried. If you’ve seen and loved her in, say, Mamma Mia! or Les Misérables (as I have), you will be blown away by the emotional insight she brings to the screen in Lovelace. There is a whole movie going on in her eyes. And it is a wonder to behold.

Co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have given us Milk (about assassinated gay icon Harvey Milk), The Celluloid Closet (a documentary about gays in film), and HOWL (starring James Franco as influential gay poet Allen Ginsberg). So it should come as no news that Epstein and Friedman are themselves gay. But the really big surprise here is that these two gay men have made in Lovelace a movie that exposes the abusiveness of heterosexual pornography. Not only that, but they depicted sexual abuse of a woman without ever treating it as a turn-on—something rare in movies by straight men.

Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace and James Franco as Hugh Hefner.

Amanda Seyfried as Linda Lovelace and James Franco as Hugh Hefner.

If I have a quibble with Lovelace, it’s that James Franco—a wonderful actor elsewhere—was totally miscast as Hugh Hefner (an embarrassingly awkward portrayal so airbrushed it bore no resemblance to what Linda disclosed about Hef in Ordeal). And if the roseate opening scenes, which include cheesy gag lines from Deep Throat, do not tickle one’s taste for a cheap tease, they could leave a viewer slightly impatient. Unless one limns what dire darkness lies ahead, the going could seem uncertain.

There’s clear dramatic purpose underway, of course, and the filmmakers stay true to it with a sure hand and their smart bait-and-switch structure. By midway through, as one screw after another is turned, the mounting tension becomes nearly overwhelming. Thus the scenes near the end of resistance, recovery, and reconciliation prompt an extraordinary sort of catharsis: It is, ironically, the kind of confrontation with emotional truth and political reality that sometimes happens best in what seems fiction.

Running Time: 92 minutes. Lovelace opened August 9 nationally but at a paltry few theaters nearby:  AMC Rio in Gaithersburg, AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, and the Angelika in Fairfax. (Why it’s not in the District at the Landmark E Street Cinema is incomprehensible to me.) Lovelace is also available via on-demand channels and iTunes.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF RADIUS-TWC

Caroline, or Change

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Caroline, or Change—the gorgeously resonant musical about race relations and resilience—has just opened in a gloriously heart-rending production by The Elden Street Players. Here in Herndon, Virginia, tucked into an intimate black box theater, is a show with such a superb cast and orchestra, performing with such emotional authenticity and theatrical authority, that it left me after in a kind of rapture:  I wanted the honesty of its truth-telling never to end.

The story, which is entirely sung—to a sumptuous score by Jeanine Tesori—is set in 1963 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where a black maid named Caroline (Anya Randall Nebel, in a stunning star turn) works for a liberal Jewish couple. In the family is a quirky, inquisitive boy named Noah (the supertalented Aiden White*), who wants to befriend her—not out of white liberal guilt exactly but more because he idolizes her. Also because he is grieving his deceased mother. Also because he is irritated by his meddlesome stepmom (Shaina L. Murphy, whose clarion vocals make us warm to her as Noah cannot). Also because he feels distanced from his aloof dad (Matthew Scarborough, who not only has pipes but plays astoundingly on clarinet).

Noah thinks the world of Caroline. The feeling is not mutual.

Caroline, or Change is loosely based on the childhood of Tony Kushner, who wrote the book and lyrics and also grew up in a Jewish family in Lake Charles, Louisiana, also minded by a beloved black maid. The acclaimed author of Angels in America and the screenplay for Lincoln, Kushner has written nothing else as openly autobiographical for the stage. In the honesty and clarity with which he conveys and animates his characters’ lives, he holds back nothing. Nor does the Elden Street cast. Their soaring voices hit us in the gut and crack open our hearts, over and over.

We first meet Caroline doing the laundry in the basement—and immediately we sense her enormous sorrow. Though put-upon and stuck in this poorly paid position, Caroline is frightened of change, both inside and out. She fears reprisals for speaking up for herself. She fears the activist movement for black civil rights, which could destabilize her tenuous lot in life.

If the setup of Caroline, or Change sounds familiar, you may be remembering The Help, a best-selling novel and subsequent hit film that came out a decade after Caroline started workshops in 1999. Both works had their origin in the viewpoint of a white character based on a white author’s real life. So it is only right that both works be judged on how faithfully and fairly they portray their black characters. My own intimation last night was that the Elden Street company had brought so much of their own emotional truth to the words and music—really, it was breathtaking—that Kushner’s and Tesori’s whiteness virtually vanished: a transcendence and epiphany of empathy that may only truly ever happen in live theater.

Being live theater, of course, Caroline, or Change can take artistic liberties, including use of inventive stage devices. In Scene One, our protagonist laundress gets a mini–Greek chorus in the form of a singing Washing Machine (Rikki Howie), a singing Dryer (Malcolm Lee), and a Supremes-like trio that harmonizes as The Radio (Ivana Alexander, Andrea Gerald, and Ariana Kruszewski). On paper these gimmicks are thisclose to insipid, but as embodied by these fine singers, they profoundly deepen our concern and compassion for Caroline.

The smartly functional (uncredited) set design, along with eloquent, evocative lighting (designed by Jeff Boatright), adroitly anchors multiple playing spaces: the basement, the family kitchen, Noah’s bedroom, and an elevated, picket-fenced platform upon which appears, yes, a singing Moon (Rosemarie Stephens-Booker). There’s also a bus stop where Caroline waits for a ride with her feisty friend Dotty, also a maid but more ready to rise up (Brenda Parker, whose spunk is a delight). And, of course, there comes along a singing Bus (Jared Shamberger). Like the chorus of appliances, these roles, wonderfully sung as if antiphonally to Caroline’s, serve further to let us into the life of a touchingly complex main character who, in her constant sorrow and seeming stasis, might otherwise feel remote.

Any residual reserve we might feel about Caroline just dissolves, however, when we meet her three adorable kids and see how abundantly she loves them: the older daughter, Emmie (Caelyn D. Sommerville, another supertalent to watch out for); her younger daughter Jackie (sweetly shy Mareike Elizabeth Nebel), and her youngest, son Joe (scene stealer Royal Tré Jones, III), whose nappy pate at one point Caroline tenderly kisses—and suddenly it’s as if we’ve seen through to her soul.

But in truth we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Not till near the end of Act Two do we fully feel the gale force of Caroline in all her rage and supplication. It happens in a musical number the program calls “Lot’s Wife.” Brace yourself. As performed by Anya Randall Nebel, it’s a powerstorm, a knock-your-socks-off triumph, an elemental immersion in a character’s anguish the likes of which I’ve not witnessed on any stage anywhere.

There are dozens of factors in this production that flowed into the rapture I felt at the end. But if there’s one that stands out, it’s the dimension of emotional honesty that was shared and sustained throughout the show—in each detail of every performance. This went way beyond superlative ensemble work; this was a company attuned in unison to a fundamental frequency or wavelength that lies way beneath, or far above, just about anything on offer in theater today. As a result the reception in that black box in Herndon was like a hotspot for emotional connection.

I’m told that during the show’s initial runs in New York City, despite critical raves,  some early audiences found Caroline to be a more inwardly reflective character than they were used to seeing at the center of a Broadway musical. And of course, up against razzmatazz attention-getters that typically do boffo box office biz, the character of Caroline calls upon a deeper place in us. We cannot in coldness say “Go ahead, entertain me.” We need to come to know her heart through our own.

This Elden Street production—as sensitively directed by Evan Hoffmann with magnificent musical direction by J. Michael d’Haviland and Elisa Rosman—offers assurance to each of us…that our hearts will not open in vain.

* The role of Noah is shared by Aidan White and John Ray (whose performance I did not see).

The Third Breast

The Third Breast is a gritty play, produced by a gutsy company. The three actors are arresting; the music and visuals, appealing. But for some interesting reasons, the challenging script by Polish writer Ireneusz Iredyński (1939–1985) can be an effort for a U.S. audience to comprehend.

On the surface the story is a naturalistic drama of sex, power, and intrigue inside a hippie-dippie commune in the woods. Think Jonestown but swathed in saffron and headed by a woman named Eva. She is, as we are told by her older and former paramour, Thomas (the estimable Christopher Henley), a charismatic and revered leader, but she has grown a third breast, a defect that shames her and must remain unknown to the cult. Indeed, the eponymous protuberance so perturbs her that Thomas persuades a hot-blooded pup, George (the intense and watchable Matthew Ingraham), to perk up her body image by making love to her. He does so, with gusto, to Eva’s evident pleasure—but instead of, say, telling the hottie she would like to hook up with him again sometime, Eva (the Liv Ullman–esque Sissel Bakken) tells George he must, for the good of the commune, murder the only two other cult members who know of her flaw.

Hmmm, methinks maybe this show isn’t so naturalistic after all.

And it’s not. There’s really a huge, overhanging political allegory going on. I couldn’t follow it, actually, but it seemed to be a scathing screed against the corruption intrinsic to communism. Or something like that; I was never sure. All I could tell was that whatever the characters were proponents of, the author himself was likely not. From what I could surmise, Iredyński deemed them all deranged if not malignant, even as the audience was supposed to warm to them and identify with them and care about what happens to them with fear and pity as in tragedy.

So I could have used a Cliff’s Notes to know what the heck was going on.

Allegory in theater is a difficult trick to pull off well. There’s gotta be a smart surface, which I call the WYSIWYG level, and this has to invite us to suspend disbelief and enter a world that’s internally credible and engaging. Then there’s gotta be a smart meta level, where Big Issues levitate in plain sight but are typically seen only by those who have eyes to see. The wildly popular musical Wicked is a contemporary classic of the allegory form. At the WYSIWYG level, it’s the enchanting back story to The Wizard of Oz. At the meta level, it’s a trenchant critique of racism and discrimination. You don’t have to get the meta level to enjoy the WYSIWYG level; the meta level doesn’t have to work for everyone; you don’t even have to know it’s there. But the WYSIWYG level is a deal breaker; you have to be drawn into it and be able to follow it on its own terms. The meta level can’t make sense of character transitions and story arcs that don’t make sense on the WYSIWYG level; the meta level can’t connect dots that don’t cohere on stage; the meta level can’t function as on-the-fly script doctor. And that’s where The Third Breast miscalculates, at least for an audience that has the world-politics knowledge base of a gnat.

That would be me.

Ambassador Theatre founder and artistic director Hanna Bondarewska has set the company’s sights on an inspiring mission: “to build international cultural awareness” by producing works from abroad heretofore unknown on these shores. It’s like drama as diplomacy—which in terms of cultivating global understanding sure trumps Disney’s “It’s a Small World After All.”

So this company’s heart is in the right place. And I want it to succeed. This time out, it didn’t. But I’ll be back to check in on it next time.