Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: January, 2014

Peter and the Starcatcher

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

If you’re willing to let your inner child stay up after bedtime and go out and play at Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater instead, you’re in for an evening of theatrical wonderment and once-upon-a-time delight the likes of which grownups rarely get permission from their inner adult to enjoy. Peter and the Starcatcher, the enthralling prequel to Peter Pan, is packed with so much imagination, agile acting, and sheer theatrical astonishment, it’s like an adventure in agelessness and a flashback to childhood.

You know that precious innocence when a child is enchanted by a grownup’s sleight-of-hand—some trick like peek-a-boo that makes the child giggle with surprise? Those ephemeral entertainments don’t depend on “suspension of disbelief,” because there’s no disbelief to suspend—the kid is too young for maturity’s skepticism to have set in; there’s only openness to awe. So those marvelous moments are instant entrees to the immense aptitude for imagination that somehow in human evolution got entwined in our DNA.

Peter and the Starcatcher is a myriad of such marvel-us moments.

Twelve virtuoso actors—all play multiple roles—tell a tale with more twists than the prop ropes they perform with. Based on the 2004 novel Peter and the Starcatchers (plural) by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the play Peter and the Starcatcher (singular) by Rick Elice is a fanciful back story to J.M. Barrie’s beloved classic about the boy who doesn’t grow up. And more fancies take flight in this show than one could possibly keep track of. By the end of its two acts we learn, among other things, who the lost boys are and how they got onto that island, why it’s called Neverland, how the lost boy Peter got his name, how the villainous Captain Hook got behanded and why he has such animus toward Peter, why that ferocious crocodile tick-tocks and gives Hook conniptions, why Peter doesn’t grow up, and how Tinkerbell flitted into his life.

Unleashing a pastiche of techniques from story theater, vaudeville, panto, music hall, and more, directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers—aided and abetted by Steven Hoggett’s eloquent movement and Wayne Barker’s winsome incidental music—create a richly imagined onstage world where the ordinary becomes extraordinary each and every instant. The flighty, peevish personality that becomes Tinkerbell, for instance, is introduced into the story as a yellow bird—represented by a household rubber cleaning glove that is flapped about by actors. “Clap your hands if you believe…” would have been superfluous just then, because that rubber glove had come to avian life before our eyes.

Much of Act One takes place on board two ships set sail from Victorian England toward the island later to be known as Neverland. As the actors lean in unison from side to side to the sound of creaking timbers, the sense of being at sea becomes visceral. Using simple ropes, the actors variously create scenes of cramped quarters belowdecks, the horizon of the ocean upon which miniature boats appear in the distance, the devouring jaws of a shark, the roiling sea itself—and each inventive image after the other takes hold in the mind’s eye as if real.

The playfulness of the staging is matched by the players’. The entire cast performs with precision and panache—this is one of the most artfully attuned ensembles I’ve ever seen on stage—and the three leads in particular are sensational. As Boy (who becomes Peter), Joey deBettencourt combines adolescent daring-do with sweetness and longing. As Molly (whose fondness for Peter takes them both by surprise), Megan Stern mixes her big bold voice with protofeminist moxie to make this young girl’s hopes and dreams both touching and uplifting. The hammy, over-the-top, insanely hilarious scene stealer of the show, however, is John Sanders as Black Stache (pirate nemesis to Peter). There’s a scene in Act Two when with a single line from the play (“Oh my god!”), he creates and sustains a show-stopping scene single-handedly (a pun intentional the script) that had the opening night audience laughing happily ever after.

The beguiling staging is deceptively simple. At one point, for instance, Peter jumps from a ladder onto a firefighter’s net held by fellow castmembers and it’s as if he dives headlong into the sea. There’s actually elaborate complexity underlying all the magic. The lighting design by Jeff Croiter is bewilderingly good—it’s as if each beat and nearly each line are punctuated by another eye-popping illumination illusion. The scenic design by Donyale Werle sets Act One as if in the hold of a dank dark ship then washes us in sunshine and open blue sea for Act Two’s island locale. Werle’s ornate gold proscenium and claret curtains evoke Victorian toy theater; meanwhile on either side musicians perched on high platforms propel the story with an extraordinary score of percussion, melody, and sound effects. The costume designs by Paloma Paloma are so clever and amusing they deserve to be admired on their own—as indeed a few can be in a showcase at the Eisenhower Theater. And in the jaw-dropping opening number of Act Two—a mermaid burlesque—Paloma’s comic costumes nearly upstage the entire spectacular production.

Rick Elice’s witty script is a marvel in its own right. It’s a treasure trove of word play, linguistic jokes, and hilariously off-the wall anachronisms (including winking nods to composer Phillip Glass, pop singer Kelis, and author Ayn Rand). No wonder it provoked this show’s artistry and whimsy.

A trunk full of “starstuff” figures prominently in Peter and the Starcatcher’s plot. The story’s maguffin, starstuff is a highly prized substance with magical transformative powers. Think fairy dust on steroids. Or acid. Or simply one’s long-ago preconstrained imagination.

“To have faith is to fly” is a lesson Peter learns by-and-by. Figuratively dusting audiences with a big dose of starstuff, this awesome show inspires inner children to want to make that leap too.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

Glassheart

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

The evening began enchantingly. The audience was seated on four sides of a square playing area lit by stage lighting, so we could look across and see one another’s faces in that wonderful expectant caesura between life and art. As the lights lowered, a dancerly figure emerged—a petite woman who moved with transfixing grace and soundlessly transformed the space. As if through mimetic magnetic force, she summoned forth the several set pieces being wheeled onstage by two figures in dark overalls: a sofa, a wall unit with books, a door frame, a window. No words had yet been spoken, no special sound or lighting effects had been deployed, yet a marvelous new world had come into being before our eyes.

The performer who so silently had thus awakened and whetted my imagination was Lynette Rathnam. And in the brief promising moments of that prelude—which lent a hallucinatory aura to otherwise ordinary scene-setting—I witnessed Rathnam singlehandedly embody and evoke the illusory dimension known as magical realism, the theatrical esthetic for which Rorschach Theatre is rightly renowned. The company’s most recent such production, a stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (which I did not see), was hugely popular. A year ago its The Minotaur (which I fortunately did see) retold the ancient myth through magic realism inventively and entertainingly. So I was eager to see Rorschach Theatre’s newest such production, Reina Hardy’s Glassheart, a modern phantasmagorical retooling of the ancient fable of a beast in quest of a beauty to marry.

Unfortunately, once the play as written began, my heightened expectations began a slump that continued for the next two hours.

Before I explain that disappointed assessment, I quote—in fairness—from the squib about Hardy’s play on the Dramatists Guild website, because it provides a much more cogent story synopsis than I could come up with:

Beauty never showed up. After centuries under the curse, the Beast [played here by Andrew Keller] and his one remaining magical servant [Megan Reichelt] have moved into a shabby apartment near a 7-11, hoping for a lower cost of living and better luck with girls. Their building manager [the aforementioned Lynette Rathnam], a fellow immigrant with a taste for gingerbread and children, offers help in navigating this threatening, impossible, completely mundane world, but all her gifts come with a price. When an eligible maiden [Natalie Cutcher] moves into the second floor apartment, the servant (a relentlessly cheery lamp) colludes with the landlady to kidnap the girl. The servant finds herself assimilating the girl’s identity, her name, and bookstore job [becoming] increasingly human [while] the Beast becomes increasingly lost….

Co-Artistic Director Jenny McConnell Frederick (who co-produced the show with Randy Baker) told the audience at the opening night reception that she discovered Glassheart while reading through a pile of scripts for the Source Festival. So again, in fairness, I quote from the advance press release Frederick’s enthusiastic praise for the work:

Rorschach has always been driven to works that are both timeless and contemporary. Reina Hardy’s sharp, smart new play embodies that exciting duality. Starting with this ancient tale of a beast searching for his beauty, she explodes the archetypes as she places them in a contemporary urban landscape of grungy apartments, bookstore jobs and questionable landlords.  It’s there, in the space between now and always, that the play confronts universal human questions of love, fate and free-will.

Lee Liebeskind has ably directed the cast of four and elicited fine results from each of the designers—Robbie Hayes (those tellingly low-rent set pieces, which get wheeled about from scene to scene, as if the space itself is whirling), Veronica J. Lancaster (often eery sound), Lauren Cucarola (misleadingly ordinary costumes), Katie McCreary (ever shifting lighting), and Britney Mongold (appropriate props). Composers Aaron Bliden and Mark Halpern have contributed some striking incidental music and lovely songs that also fit the show’s real-yet-unreal circumstances well. The whole creative team did good work, and I commend them; it was solely the writing that I found problematic. As a result, both of the passages quoted above describe a much better play, and a far more illuminating and fulfilling theatergoing experience, than I got the other evening.

The character of the Beast as written (and this is not a reflection on Keller’s earnest and yeomanlike performance) is World’s Worst Boyfriend. We quickly get that he’s a failure as a pickup artist, but geez, it’s no wonder why: When not in his default mode as depressive and needy, he’s controlling and emotionally and physically abusive. I think I was supposed to notice smidgens of redemptive charm in the character now and then, but I’m afraid I would have had to be a desperate heterosexual female with Stockholm Syndrome to do so.

The character of the magical servant is a lamp (played as the script prescribes with incessant chirpiness by Reichelt, wearing a hat that lights up). But don’t think Lumière, the candelabra character in Disney’s musical Beauty and the Beast. Think desperate heterosexual female with a bulb so dim she has devoted herself to a domineering Beast she calls “Boss” in order to help him find an eligible beauty to wed. Not unless I were a rabidly misogynist men’s-rights extremist could I imagine any magical realism realm in which this character’s pathetic and abject subordination would hold appeal.

To be fair, there were many in the friend-filled audience who enjoyed Hardy’s script, as I inferred from their knowing laughs and chuckles. I however found the text laden with the the sort of non sequiturs that suggest a writer doesn’t really know where to go next or why but is going to fake it. The tone meandered and jumped about, never generating through sustained poetic language anything that might transport a listener into fresh headspace.  Moreover the text was wisecracky to no apparent dramatic purpose other than to gloss over the fact that not much humor was arising from character; it was mostly tacked-on schtick.

Notwithstanding the script, the evening did have a satisfying up side: Two actors in the show survived the parts provided them and turned in performances that had me thoroughly riveted. One of them, Lynette Rathnam, not only cast that choreographic/mimetic spell in the prelude; she brought to the role of the Beast’s landlady (who is also a Witch) a sure and astute sense of moment-to-moment truth and invention and showed off a talent I’d go out of my way to see onstage again. The other actor whose performance impressed me was Natalie Cutcher—in the weird role of Aiofe, the eligible-maiden neighbor from downstairs whom the lamp and the landlady ensnare for the Beast. (At one point, wondering aloud what the heck is going on, Aiofe conjectures that she’s being “sex trafficked”—which Hardy apparently intended as a joke.) Cutcher’s performance was a marvel of inner-emotional-reality ingenuity; from instant to instant she surprised me with inflections and insights into what she had me believing was a real character in surreal circumstances. Through the particularity and credibility of her performance, she created honest-to-gosh magical realism. Cutcher’s performance does this so brilliantly, you could not go wrong—if you go see Glassheart—if you never let her far out of your sight, for to the extent you focus on Cutcher, you might just glimpse the magical realm aspired to by both the playwright and this important company.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

Glassheart plays through February 16, 2014 at Rorschach Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center — 1333 H Street NE in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online.

Miss Nelson Is Missing

I had not been to kid’s theater since I was a kid. As an inveterate theater buff, I was dimly aware there was much highly praised professional children’s theater in the DC Metro area—but I was certain this youthful pursuit was not for me. (“Good of kind” is a reviewer’s catchphrase I recall from my childhood. It meant “okay if you like that sort of thing”—which today translates as “meh.”) I had mentally ranked children’s theater alongside skateboarding, bungee jumping, and tattooing my buttocks as something that I would probably not enjoy.

Realizing my reluctance might be a tad old-farty, I decided to youthen my vista and venture into this alien genre. I dared not go unaccompanied, however; I needed protective cover; I needed to attend with an age-appropriate guest. So I was greatly relieved when  sympathetic friends agreed to join me and bring their precocious ten-year-old daughter.

The offering I picked for my foray into ostensible fun was a musical called Miss Nelson Is Missing, playing through March 9 at Adventure Theatre MTC—a company now in its 62nd season (woo hoo, an old-timer too). My selection of this show by Joan Cushing (the renowned local who wrote book, music, and lyrics) was impulsive but not random. I noted that the cast features Sherry Berg, whose superb performance as Marjorie in Molotov Theatre Group‘s scathingly good Extremities (not at all a play for children!) I had greatly admired. Berg’s stretch from searing to silly I had to see.

I’ve probably cleared my throat long enough now, so I’ll come right out with it: Miss Nelson Is Missing is exuberantly entertaining, an effervescent enjoyment. From beginning to end it kept me grinning and sometimes guffawing. The ten-year-old in me loved it. As did the real ten-year-old in tow.

Of course I had to figure out why. Because that’s what I do. Writing for DCMetroTheatreArts is like giving a school report the next day except for a slightly higher reading level. So here are the top-three explanations I now scrawl in a mottled-cover, dog-eared composition book.

Reason #1: The literary source material is really interesting. Before I went, I read one of the books the show is based on, Harry Allard’s Miss Nelson Is Missing!, a slim oversize picture book first published in 1977 that I’d never heard of. The broadly comedic story is about the kids in room 207 whose teacher is nice Miss Nelson and who start out as incorrigible cutups. They’re like Romper Room rejects on a sugar rush. Then the tale takes a twist: Miss Nelson mysteriously disappears. She’s replaced by a harridan of a substitute named Miss Viola Swamp, whose steely discipline intimidates them into obedience. And boy, do they miss Miss Nelson! By the time their now-beloved Miss Nelson returns (under equally mysterious circumstances), the kids have transformed into Romper Room–approved Do-Bees. The medicinal moral of the story, which is basically “Behave or else,” goes down with heaping spoonfuls of high fructose made from corn.

Reason #2: The cast is crazy good. As the four miscreant kids, Sean McComas (Adam), Rachel Viele (Allison), Calvin McCullough (Gregory), and Sherry Berg (Cheryl) are formidably funny. The versatile Matt Dewberry, playing four different roles (custodian/narrator Pop Hanson, principal Blandsworth, museum guide AlCatraz, and detective McSmogg), makes each part a hilarious whole. And as Miss Nelson (who becomes—shhh, don’t tell the kids!—the Swamp creature), the enchanting Jessica Lauren Ball goes from goody-two-shoes to dominatrix stilettos with grace and witty grit. (As testimony to her tour-de-force transformation, the ten-year-old I was with had no clue that the Misses Nelson and Swamp were both played by Ball.)

Reason #3: The direction (Jennifer L. Nelson), musical direction (William Yanesh), and choreography (Michael J. Bobbitt) are snappy and sharp. And honorable mention goes to the apt set and projections design (Ruth Marie Tenorio), playful costume design (Aryna Petrashenko), amusing lighting design (Brittany Shemuga), and story-enhancing sound design (Kenny Neal).

Perhaps I should not have been as surprised as I was, but this production was crafted by a head-of-the-class creative team. They delivered a show that not only enthralled the kids and other grownups in the house; it changed my mind about children’s theater. Even more important, it opened my eyes to how live theater can be a lively point of reference for illuminating and edifying conversation between kids and grownups.

Here’s what I mean.

After the show was over, I asked the ten-year-old what she liked best. She promptly acted out a bunch of bits and lines from the show that popped from her uncannily retentive memory. Then I asked her what she didn’t like (the incorrigible critic in me was curious). Her two astute answers surprised me. We had been sitting in the side section of the theater’s three-quarter-round playing area, and she said she didn’t like that the actors played so much of the show to the center section. (I’m paraphrasing; she had her own way of saying this.) The performance was final dress, so I guessed the issue would be fixed before press night—but what struck me was that this youngster’s observation had jibed exactly with mine, and it led to an impromptu intergenerational conversation on the point.

Her other criticism was about the scene where Miss Swamp takes the kids on a field trip to the Museum of Crime and Punishment and shows them cells where notorious criminals in U.S. history were incarcerated. I never fully got what bothered this girl about this scene (she had evidently disengaged from the show during it), but I too had found the scene off key; the momentum of the show had seemed to dip a bit. So I told her I agreed with her—and as someone without young kids of my own, I found this quick intellectual connection a kick.

The scene in question is a fabricated interpolation by adapter Cushing. It appears neither in the book Miss Nelson Is Missing nor in its 1982 sequel, Miss Nelson Is Back, upon which the show is also based. Director Nelson’s staging of the scene cannot be faulted—its comedy is dark, edgy, campy, and clever. But for younguns (the show is recommended for ages 5 and up), the scene could be disquieting. Besides which, to my dramaturgically obsessed mind, the scene unnecessarily overstates the show’s message that bad things happen to children who misbehave (and does so with ominous reference  to the dubiously relevant example of adult felons).  So on the authority of both this hyper-perceptive ten-year-old and yours truly, I insert a slight advisory: The Museum of Crime and Punishment scene is “good of kind,” and it would be well worth talking about afterward—among kids of all ages.

Urinetown: The Musical

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Urinetown: The Musical holds a special place in my theatergoing memory. I first saw it in New York City days after the September 11, 2001, attacks because then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani told me to. He made a public announcement that New Yorkers should get out, go to restaurants, go to the theater, because, he said,  “I want the people of New York to be an example to the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, that terrorism can’t stop us.” I dutifully did as he said. So it was that I found myself in the Henry Miller’s Theatre (now the Stephen Sondheim Theatre) gasping with astonished laughter at what had to have been one of the most irreverent and insubordinate musicals ever to make it to Broadway. And when in Act Two the male lead Bobby Strong sang the show’s gorgeous and gospelized “Run, Freedom, Run,” it sent chills down my spine—it was the perfect anthem in that moment for all our nation’s hopes and dreams.

That memory was with me as I watched the earnest, energetic, and enjoyable production that has been directed by Patrick M. Doneghy for Dominion Stage, one of DC Metro’s most adventurous and enduring community theaters. And I had to marvel at how since 9/11 this unlikeliest of Broadway hits—with its not-so-subtle revolutionary and insurrectionary  political subtext—has been embraced across the country by nonprofessional performers and local audiences who rediscover together this peculiarly inspiring theatrical treat.

“Run, Freedom, Run,” indeed.

The show starts off by making fun of its own off-putting title, in narrative patter between police cop Officer Lockstock (Christopher Guy Thorn) and street urchin Little Sally (Dana Robinson). Their cheeky humor sets the tone for the quirky story about to unfold. A long  drought has caused a dreadful shortage of water. To conserve it, people are required to pay to pee in privatized pissoirs owned by dastardly capitalists who are protected by a thuggish police state. “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” sings the strict enforcer of bladder control Penelope Pennywise (Katherine Lipovsky).  People are mercilessly punished if they tinkle illegally elsewhere. That silly premise promises lots more potty humor than there actually is. Funnily enough, the show is pretty darn PG.

There’s also a touching love story across class lines. Bobby Strong (Matt Liptak) begins as a lowly urinal guard but soon becomes a rabble-rousing street activist and leads a populist pee-for-free movement (“Yes Wee Can!” says a demonstrator’s sign). Along the way Bobby is smitten by Hope Cladwell (Melissa Berkowitz), the beautiful and insouciant daughter of Caldwell B. Cladwell (Michael Bagwell), callous CEO of the megacorporation that profits from the pee fees. “Follow Your Heart” is Bobby and Hope’s sweet Act One duet.

As spirited as this show is, the opening-night performance I saw in the Gunston Middle School auditorium unluckily lacked in precision what it evidenced in enthusiasm. A good many music cues, for instance, were picked up a tad late (which when fixed will enliven the show’s momentum). The amplification system sometimes balked and squawked (but I’d bet Sound Designer Kevin DeMine and his crew can have these problems fixed quickly). And opening-night jitters occasionally rattled the ensemble’s confidence a bit (though their perky esprit was infectious).

Dominion Stage has got to be commended for mounting this nervy musical. Urinetown—which is all about people so poor they haven’t got a pot to pee in—belongs on every theater lover’s bucket list; it’s a must-see at least once in one’s lifetime.  Besides its funny book and bouncy tunes, there’s a whole lot more:  a prescient radical metamessage that is not far removed from that of Occupy Wall Street. Underlying all its giggles, Urinetown: The Musical is a genuinely all-American homage to what we now call the 99 percent.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.

Urinetown: The Musical plays through January 25, 2014, at at Dominion Stage performing at Gunston Arts Center – Theatre One – 2700 S. Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, purchase them online, or at the door.