Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: April, 2014

The Threepenny Opera

Signature Theatre’s new production of The Threepenny Opera—directed and choreographed with unerring cunning by Matthew Gardiner—is cringe-inducing, snarky, impudent, and jarring. Everything it’s meant to be. And I cannot imagine this subversive classic could look, sound, and play any better.

The show’s in-your-face surprises start in the MAX Theatre entranceway, where a devised BBC broadcast announces Queen Elizabeth has died, and fake covers of British celebrity mags scream CHARLES ABDICATES! SHOCKS ENGLAND! and MACHEATH IS AT LARGE! Just like that, we’re time-traveled, pitched into a world so contemporary it hasn’t happened yet. Inside, a vastly fascinating set designed by Misha Kachman juxtaposes graffiti and girders, mayhem and mottos—a place apropos distopian class warfare (a neon sign touts INSTANT CA$H, the painted stage floor cynically promises PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS).  The show’s trenchant motif of income inequality is on eye-popping display. Soon a stock market ticker will scroll ominously across the scene.

The first song, “The Flick Knife Song,”  is Jenny’s. We’ll learn later Jenny survives through prostitution. Natascia Diaz sings the song stunningly, breathtakingly,  beginning intimately, slowly, then building to a  brazen belt. It introduces the show’s charismatic main character, Macheath, who we’ll learn later is Jenny’s former boyfriend/pimp:

He’s evil, he’s a murd’rer
And they haven’t caught him yet
He’s a rapist, he’s a sadist
And they haven’t caught him yet

The translation chosen for this production is edgy and brash. The dialog is by Robert David MacDonald; the lyrics are by Jeremy Sams. It’s astoundingly good. It blew me away. And its raw vernacular had me wincing more than once. Later in Act One, for instance, Jenny has a duet with Macheath (Mitchell Jarvis, who does balletic bad boy like nobody’s business). They sing of their sorry affair:

JENNY
…it was fine till everything went wrong
We had the baby—but it didn’t last long
When I fell pregnant it was festive for a day

MACHEATH
But then we thought it best to wash it all away

JENNY
The drunken doctor showed us what to do

MACHEATH
We took the mess and put it down the loo

This duet, like all the musical numbers in the show, is performed gorgeously, gloriously, backed by a band of eight superb musicians under the extraordinary direction of Gabriel Mangiante. Kurt Weill’s great score more than gets its due, and music fans will rave over this rendition. What enthralled me even more, however, was the dramatic material, the meanings in it, and this show’s genius mise-en-scène.

There is precious little sentimentality in The Threepenny Opera. The script sends up every sanctimony it touches, including self-righteous charity. Mr. Peachum and Mrs. Peachum (Bobby Smith and Donna Migliaccio, both powerhouse vocalists) run a business licensing and fleecing beggars, whom they clothe and coach in order to elicit maximum handouts. The Peachums are to panhandlers as pimps are to prostitutes—a sarcastic story point this production handles shrewdly. Costume Designer Frank Labovitz’s riotously witty outfits illustrate what Mr. Peachum calls the “five basic varieties of human wretchedness best calculated to touch the human heart.” But artifice is all, he says, because “if the misery is genuine, nobody believes it.”

Their daughter is Polly Peachum (the diminutive dynamo Erin Driscoll), and she elopes with Macheath, a notorious underworld criminal, much to her parents’ horror. In her own defense, Polly sings them “Barbara Song,” explaining how she gave up the good-girl courtship code when she met Mr. Wrong:

There came a day when out of the blue
Came a man who couldn’t say please
And he didn’t even knock as he opened the door
And his smell made me week at the knees
He didn’t talk nice, he didn’t look nice
In fact he was uglier than sin
He didn’t care if he treated me respectfully
And that’s why I let him in.

As staged, with Polly lolling erotically on a bed, the song is a crowd-rousing showstopper. Driscoll knocks it out of the park. But what of the song itself? What the heck’s it doing in a show about income disparity, the lives of  desperation among the poor, the underclass that capitalism creates and requires? Is “Barbara Song” simply a sordid celebration of female self-abnegation? Is it a satire on masochistic acquiescence? We were told up top, after all, that the dude she falls for is a rapist and a sadist.

There’s a sharp class consciousness that pervades the show’s scathing riffs on capitalism and poverty. That’s the legacy of Bertolt Brecht and a convicting call to conscience. But among the intriguing aspects of this illuminating production are its cutting riffs on gender power inequities. Polly’s song “Pirate Jenny,” for instance, is written as a full-throated fantasy of female revenge (“There’s a ship in the harbor / with four dozen cannon / and they’re pointing at you”), and Driscoll makes no mistake she means what she sings.

In Act Two there’s a “Jealously Duet” between Polly and Lucy Brown, both of whom believe themselves to have a special claim on Macheath’s affections (they’re both wrong; he’s a complete cad).  It’s a spiteful cat-fight, staged and sung hilariously, all the more so because Lucy is played in drag.  This inspired cross-gender casting (of Rick Hammerly, a terrific comic actor) has a revelatory effect on the scene: it frames the cat-fight more as gender-class commentary than as horizontal-hostility cartoon.

Throughout the show there are references to the economics of ethics: High-flown moral ideals mean diddly to the down-and-out, who must do whatever they can merely to make do. The beggars on the street, the women in prostitution, the men in crime—The Threepenny Opera sees their common causality in upper-class hypocrisy. And Signature’s sensational production makes the message sing and dance to beat all heck.

The finale is a call for understanding, perhaps the only moment of sincerity in the show:

Don’t judge the poor too harshly
They turn to crime whenever times are tough
For life today is cold and grey and ghastly
And living it is punishment enough

Unlike conventional musicals where the musical numbers advance the plot, express a character’s inner emotions, and such, the songs in The Threepenny Opera are clever provocations—vexing perspectives and points of view to make us squirm. If that doesn’t sound like an especially entertaining way to spend an evening in theater—having one’s conscience pricked and perturbed—fear ye not. Threepenny Opera is pricelessly fun.

 

 

The Amish Project

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

Shooting sprees have become commonplace in our media consumption. Nowadays breaking news of yet another gunman and his multiple victims (the shooters are always male) more numbs than shocks. The scattershot slaughters seem to blur together in incremental succession—as though we’ve become inured to this American way of taking life. Now comes Factory 449’s deceptively simple gift The Amish Project. Performed with arrestingly versatile conviction by Nanna Ingvarsson, Jessica Dickey’s one-hander is a dramatic imagining of a 2006 incident in Nickel Mines, PA, when the local milkman entered an Amish schoolhouse with intent to sexually molest the little girls there but instead shot them and then himself. By the end The Amish Project jolts with a transformational viewpoint that is nearly as unthinkable and inconceivable as the crime itself.

According to the playscript, Amish people believe “there is no why.” As depicted in The Amish Project, they do not try to wrap their minds around what the outside world finds inexplicable in such a killer’s savage actions. His motivations do not much matter or even register for this insular community. They don’t distract themselves trying to understand what makes the killer tick. They don’t demonize him and distance themselves (“We are all a few bad days from sicko,” says one). What these religious folks do instead is forgive him unconditionally—a profoundly faith-based collective action that in its own way is also inexplicable.

The play is woven of a rich texture of the stories of several characters, all poignantly portrayed by Ingvarsson. Two of them are little girls, sisters, who were among the five slain in the shooting. Another is the widow of the gunman, a wife unaware of the extent of her husband’s “darkness.” Another is a non-Amish  scholar of Amish ways who offers expositional context. Another is the inscrutable gunman himself. I especially enjoyed Ingvarsson’s vibrant portrait of a young Hispanic girl who touchingly figures in the forgiveness story arc. Ingvarsson, though clothed throughout in a typical Amish dress, bonnet, and apron (by Costume Designer Scott Hammer), makes us believe each of these people exists onstage in the moment. With the specificity of her characterizations and her swift switching between them, Ingvarsson’s performance is extraordinary to behold.

Set Designer Greg Stevens evokes the fateful school room and situates the storytelling with an exposed-lath wall on which hangs a blackboard where the captivating 14-year-old draws and writes as her childlike patter takes us into the world of the play. Lighting Designer Joseph R. Walls creates one impressive visual environment after another, including the surprising effect of a live TV-studio broadcast.  And Sound Designer Kevin O’Connell’s work, which begins with a lovely Amish vocal, acoustically expands the stage dimensions far beyond its actual small space.

Director Holly Twyford has insightfully shaped the pace and amplitude of the entire production, but especially outstanding is the intuitive collaboration she has evidently  entered into with Ingvarsson. As with any multiply peopled one-person show, the role is a huge challenge. It requires the solo performer to instantly inhabit diverse characters using only her own instrument. The fact that Twyford herself knows that challenge from the inside is clearly apparent in how Ingvarsson’s engaging exteriorizations are framed.

Factory 449 doesn’t pick easy stuff. The Amish Project has an appealing, at times delightful, surface texture: for instance the 14-year-old’s charming narrative of a prison break told simply with hand gestures and chalk drawings, and the widow’s amusing concern with facial wrinkles and moisturizing sunscreen product. Yet the play also has a profound undercurrent, at times dark and distressing but at times illuminating and joyful. Would you believe a secular play with credible god talk?

There are two double whammys in Factory 449’s The Amish Project—first the unfathomable massacre committed by the killer, then the baffling benefaction of the believers. The contrast and interplay between those two incomprehensibles will linger in one’s mind and expand it long after.

 

Running time: 80 minutes without intermission.

The Amish Project plays through May 11, 2014 at Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, SE, in Washington, DC, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets can be purchased online. For more information call (202) 355-9449.

 

 

Jarman (all this maddening beauty) (Report on a work-in-progress)

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

For as long as there have been movies, theater artists have tried to integrate film with live performance. Something about celluloid (these days, video) seems to inspire theater artists to break the fourth wall by putting up a projection screen instead. Whether motivated by cinematic vision or cinema envy or both, this mixed-media approach tends to have mixed results. Mikhail Baryshnikov’s multimedia touring production Man in a Case is a case in point. Storytelling, a sine qua non of theater for eons, doesn’t readily leap back and forth, much less bridge the gap or blur the line, between the forms. That’s not to say meaningful merger of the two media can’t be done and done well—but the bar is very high.

The production cryptically titled Jarman (all this maddening beauty), just opened by force/collision at Atlas Performing Arts Center, valiantly and defiantly takes up the challenge.  Billed as “a premiere work-in-progress performance,” the piece features live onstage in real time solely the engaging and versatile John Moletress (who also directed, with Jacob Janssen associate director), plus 14 others (A.J.Coley, Ryan Patrick Welsh, Elizabeth Van Den Berg, Tony Tsendeas, Jefferson Farber, Pu$$y Noir, Joshua Limbaugh, Stephen Benedicto, Scott Frost, Christin Meador, Matthew Cumbie, Jeffrey Brady, Dean Barnes, Craig Souza) who appear in little clothing in artfully crafted videos by Filmmaker Benjamin Carver.

The pretext for the text by Obie-winning playwright Caridad Svich is an homage to Derek Jarman, the exuberantly imagistic filmmaker whose bold influence on queer and indie cinema is getting a fresh round of recognition on the anniversary of his death in 1994 from AIDS. (If you’ve never heard of Jarman, or even if you have, I recommend force/collision’s terrific online background material about the artist and the production.)

The piece begins simply as Moletress addresses the audience directly (speaking a text he also delivers as voiceover for a striking video by Carter released to promote this production):

This is the story of a boy
This is the story of a boy who made pictures
In a place called England
This is the story of that same boy when he was a man
And kept making pictures, and books, and gardens too
This boy became an artist

This is the story of a man who made pictures
And one day got sick, very sick
From a terrible plague that was goin’ ’round
This is the story of an artist who went blind
But even in his last days, kept making
Pictures in his head, beautiful pictures

Do not be deceived by the promise of linear storytelling in those moving words, however, because formally this show is a wild melange of language, movement, sound, and image. How wild? Well, to give you some idea: About 30 minutes in we get Moletress twerking in Margaret Thatcher mask and Iron Lady drag to Madonna’s “Girl Gone Wild” whilst onscreen on either side of the stage we can ogle a go-go boy shaking his booty in Great Britain-branded undies. Not long after that, Moletress with his back to the audience heists up his Thatcher skirt and feigns a pee on a small gravel garden or gravesite around which posies grow.  At another point Moletress—channeling Jarman as if to tip us off—puts a megaphone to his mouth and shouts: “Fuck narrative!”

At that the show succeeds.

Moletress becomes three individuated characters during the evening: Jarman himself, a younger man who’s discovering Jarman’s oeuvre and is in awe of it, and the male lover who in Jarman’s last years became his caretaker. Throughout there are references to Jarman’s life and work, his queer esthetic and gay-rights activism. But there’s no sense of biographical continuity. And don’t expect much plot beyond that pissoir gravel patch.

There are some brilliant visuals, however, not least Lisi Stoessel’s set, David Crandall’s projections (he also did the dancefloor-ready soundtrack), and Jedidiah Roe’s lighting. When Moletress from behind a projector reaches his hand in shadow as if to caress a beautiful young man in the video, for instance, or when Moletress abruptly smears blue paint over his eyes at the point Jarman goes blind, the effect is chilling. At times like these, the stagecraft and subject seem as one.  At other times the show slows and loses focus, notably during several long passages when Moletress is off stage and our attention is meant to be sustained by audiovisual effects alone. That didn’t work for me (though in fairness I’m no audiophile or cineaste).

Decidedly a work-in-progress—with a talkback for audience input afterward the night I attended—this theater/video hybrid nonetheless warrants serious attention. Even as the show’s current iteration lacks the illuminating lucidity of this discussion of it by Moletress and Svich, and even as its visuals lack the evocative beauty  of Carver’s videos, the company’s ambition is amazing: to find the theatrical correlative for a visionary filmmaker’s unique way of seeing that is as stunning and unforgettable to behold.

They’ve only just begun.

HowlRound TV will live-stream a performance of Jarman Sunday, April 20, 2014, at 4 pm EDT.

Jarman (all this maddening beauty) runs through April 27 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC 20002. For information about tickets and venue details, visit AtlasArts.org. Tickets are available online here.

Running time: 75 minutes without intermission.

 

Moth

Up on the fourth floor of Studio Theatre is a great big black box of a performance space, which isn’t actually black because its walls are cinder block, rather like an institutional enclosure. On a platform stage is Colin K. Bills’s equally ominous set—a row of hallway school lockers. If this ambiance triggers a twinge of high school angst (as it did for me)—some dim recovered memory of worry about fitting it, fear of being teased, or other unnamable age-specific unease—you’d not be far off the mark. You’ve come to a play by a writer who can relate. In fact Declan Greene’s Moth packs in so much Generation Y alienation, disaffection, and lonely isolation that you’ll likely thank your lucky stars you’ve grown up and moved on.

The script was originally extensively workshopped several years ago with young people, in Australia, where the almost-30 Greene is an up-and-coming theater-maker and playwright with an impressive list of prizes and productions to his name. Everything about Moth—the two characters, their teenspeak, their interaction, their back stories, their troubles—was in effect market-tested for verisimilitude and veracity by its ostensible target audience of teens. And it all rings true, though very disturbingly so. Melborne’s Arena Theatre Company, which commissioned and premiered the work, even distributed a related teacher’s guidebook featuring classroom exercises, discussion questions, and other earnestly useful info. The cover identifies the show’s “suitability” as “years 10–12.” All of which might suggest that Moth is an edifying cultural artifact full of teachable moments for youth.

In truth, Moth is a harrowing play about two depressed and distressed young people—both social outcasts and misfits, tormented physically and verbally by peers, but gifted with foul-mouthed wit and survivor grit. They engage in mutual aggression masking craving for affection and launch into a surreal fantasy of saving the world from destruction but end up spiraling into pathos and dead-ending in tragedy. How to Survive High School this show is not. If it were a segment on Glee, the music would have to be apocalyptic dirges and heavy metal cris de coeur.

As dark as is Moth’s thematic material, the performances and production are blazingly brilliant. In the role of Clarissa, an emo wannabe poet who cloaks her ample girth in goth, Allie Villarreal has powerful presence, at once scarey, sassy, and sad. As her slightly built friend Sebastian, whose obsession with anime blurs into messianic delusions, David Nate Goldman is an impish delight, nimbly navigating his character’s attention deficits and charming us with every perfervid free association. Tom Story’s direction digs deep into what makes this duo a fragile codependent dyad, even as he piles stagecraft surprise upon surprise. To that end the movement by  Elena Day, sound by James Bigbee Garver, and projections by Mimi d’Autremont are all shocking, in a good way.

I wouldn’t have missed Moth—it’s sensationally provocative and wickedly witty and the actors are captivating—but I left not knowing quite what to make of the work as a whole. In an interview with the playwright, I found this insight:

You know, high school is actually a really, really, really rough time, and I think people forget how fucked up and difficult high school can be for some people. And you know, if you want to dye your hair black and wear crazy clothes and write bad poetry, well that’s fine. Do whatever you need to do to get through it.

I’m starting to sound very polemic. I don’t mean to be. There was never any opportunity to sit down and think, well, what are we making this play about? There was never really the opportunity to make this a didactic exercise. Everything was just so up in the air all the time.

So what we’ve ended up creating is what I hope is an interesting tapestry of ideas, a network of ideas, that interrelate and feed off each other in a free associative kind of way.

And I think it’s good that it doesn’t have a hard-hitting message; young people get hit with that sort of thing a lot.

As I understand the author here, this work is meant to engage and resonate with disaffected teens and intentionally not “hit them over the head” with any overarching meaning. And that would probably make sense if the audience was Gen Y-ers. But I saw the show with a Studio Theatre audience whose high school years on average were decades ago. Being a grownup now, I’m not message averse. In fact I appreciate authorial framing that gives meaningful shape to recognizable life. Even the lost lives of youth. So I expected Moth to offer grownup comprehension of adolescent turbulence. That’s of course an impossible perspective. Which may be a message of a sort.

 

 

Golda’s Balcony

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

There’s not a long list of great actors who, through their indelible bravura depiction of a great historical figure in a solo performance, warrant substituting the word “is” for “as,” in billing like “So-and-So Is  Famous Person.” On audiences’ mental marquees, the actor and the role become one, such that people come to know and identify the notable through the portrayal. Think Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain. Tovah Feldshuh’s Golda Meir is now another.

Feldshuh began performing William Gibson’s one-woman play Golda’s Balcony more than ten years ago, first off-Broadway, then on Broadway, then on on-going tour. She embodies Meir’s passions, principles, and excruciating moral quandaries in depth and detail. She knows every nook and cranny of the part, the inflection of every line like the palm of her hand. She takes us into the pit of Meir’s gut-wrenching ambivalence over making war to make peace. Playwright Gibson did the historical homework but Feldshuh makes it live and breathe—with such verve and virtuosity that the production now on view at Theater J is an acting tour de force, an unforgettable melding of personage and performer.

Enhancing Feldshuh’s superb solo is stagecraft that serves the riveting storytelling: Alex Hawthorn’s fine sound design episodically shocks with sounds of war; Jeff Croiter’s lighting sharpens focus on emotional moments; projections by Batwin and Robin Productions clearly visualize historical allusions; original Broadway director Scott Schwartz’s rhythmic structure and movements make even slight gestures seem momentous. During several powerful high points Feldshuh becomes Meir as orator. Lights spotlight her, the sound reverbs; and Feldshuh’s performance vividly reifies Meir’s reputation as charismatic .

Gibson titled the play after what he called

the two balconies in Golda’s life. The first was outside a Tel Aviv apartment from which she could see the Mediterranean and the ships arriving every day with refugee Jews by the thousands coming to the new state of Israel. This view was the fruits, the welcome fruits, of state power.

The second balcony was Golda’s observation post into the workings at Dimona [Israel’s secret nuclear research center, where warheads were made that Meir could have deployed but didn’t]. This view was “into hell.”

Golda’s Balcony was added to Theater J’s season during controversy stirred by its announcement that it would produce The Admission (a work I greatly admired). The two plays seen side by side are  fascinating in their generational differences and contrasting political perspectives on Israel and ethics, or what Theater J calls different “narratives of nation building.” In its juxtaposing these two works, Theater J’s risk-taking enrichment of the DC theater scene can be seen as more illuminating and essential than ever.

Gibson’s script for Golda’s Balcony presents juxtapositions of another sort. As written it is a dizzying blizzard of free-associational switching. It jump-cuts constantly—from Meir’s precocious youth to her preeminence, from her adolescent falling in love with Morris, the man she married, to her crisis-management after Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur; now this, now that; now then, now now. Moreover the play is peopled with dozens of characters—Meir’s mother, her cabinet members, Henry Kissinger, refugees, the list goes on—and it requires the actor to shift persona and impersonation at lightning pace. Upon witnessing Feldshuh’s mastery of each and every such head-spinning transformation, something like awe sets in—and the wonderment never ceases.

How can one person, one actor, hold in mind so many other voices, make real so many different people, channel such diverse lives, all with instant-to-instant conviction and presence? How does Tovah Feldshuh do it? How in the world does any actor?

In the multiplicity of juxtapositions embodied so skillfully by Feldshuh is an eloquent testament to the promise implicit in Theater J’s programming embrace of discordant viewpoints. That embrace is among the things that theater does best: help us imagine and behold diverse lives on the same stage at the same time with individuality and integrity. As such another view from Golda’s Balcony is the important place of theater and metaphor in the process toward peace in the Middle East.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camp David

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

The real President Jimmy Carter attended the premiere of Camp David—the engrossing new play by Lawrence Wright in which he is the central character—and offered up this mini-review of it in an interview right after:

It was amazingly good. I couldn’t believe how good it was. The audience just was enraptured. A third or half of them had tears running down their cheeks. It was a really emotional experience.

I mostly concur. This most worthy play relates scenes in the 13-day woodsy retreat in 1978 during which Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin negotiated the shouldsy-couldsy Camp David Accord. By the end I sat still in my seat in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater enraptured and teary-eyed, exactly as President Carter reported. The final scene (which no one should know going in) comes as the kind of shock that stirs emotions in the deepest and best way that real-life events and great drama can.

I was initially a bit put off by the production. The set design by Walt Spangler is conspicuously unstylish; everything is serviceably literal (perhaps intentionally), except for the tall tree trunks that descend from the flyspace but never touch down on the stage. Distracted, I kept wondering why (some mechanical failure? a statement about rootlessness? never made sense). The acting is unstylized as well, almost stiff and stilted in its cautious execution, as perhaps befits a show that will be seen by two of the notables—Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter—on whom it is based. Moreover the script itself is unstylish; its earnestly flairless speeches at times seem lifted from an issue-themed TV movie, or something commissioned by the State Department for Voice of America, and when the three men sit squabbling it sounds like a Sunday morning squawk show. Can the great real-life drama upon which a play is based elevate what begins as a hackneyed production to a highpoint of dramatic triumph?

In this case the answer is an unqualified yes.

According to Wright, that powerful last scene, which seems stranger than fiction, is in fact based, like the entire play, on extensive historical research. Though Wright took minor dramatic liberties to tell the story on stage, as he explained in a post-show discussion Saturday, the text presents what really happened in that it is faithful to what can be known about the characters’ actual motivations at the time.

The agreement reached at Camp David between Sadat and Begin has served for 35 years to keep in place a partial peace in the Middle East, and the human drama behind the scenes of its inception unfolds in Wright’s playscript with sturdy craft and deft concision. In retrospect, once the play reaches its finish, one can see what went before as the perfectly apt, un-showoff-y staging required.

The work is directed with steady-handed proficiency by Molly Smith. A skilled cast animates Wright’s pithy script with conviction and clarity. Richard Thomas plays Carter with estimable sincerity. Even in the long speeches when Carter prays and addresses God (as if He’s somewhere up in that flyspace with  mechanical problems), we believe the character’s faith and recognize how profoundly Carter’s unabashed Christianity compelled and sustained him. Khaled Nabawy plays Sadat with disarming charm and clever candor; as written, he’s a character who may or may not trust Carter and may or may not be trusted—Nabawy smartly keeps us intrigued and guessing. And Ron Rifkin plays Begin with such zeal and honesty of purpose that we see through the character’s obstreperousness into the depths of a heart wounded by a history that must never ever repeat.

As Wright astutely observed in the same post-show discussion, these were “three men with different religions coming together to solve a problem that in a sense religion had caused.” The fact that all three  faiths with contested claims to a singular holy city became on the same stage completely and concurrently credible via these three vividly portrayed characters is an enduring credit to Wright, Smith, Thomas, Nabawy, and Rifkin. Truly, seeing them is believing.

But the character who steals scene after scene is Rosalyn Carter, played with quick-witted common sense and chipper effortlessness by Hallie Foote. She enters with tea service just when a tempest is about to brew. She gently touches a personal heart string just as tempers stretch to a tether. Rosalyn’s function in the play is (Wright’s words again) “making peace among the peacemakers.” She is also shown to have been Jimmy’s moral support and political adviser to an extent that in Wright’s rendering transcends  pillow talk and stands where heroes are honored.

In the characters of Jimmy and Rosalyn, Camp David brilliantly depicts two distinct mediation/conciliation styles, his and hers, one well-intentioned and highly moral male, the other intuitive and unthreatening female. His magnanimous style was admirable and it precipitated this impossible pipe-dream of a summit. But Camp David makes clear that this president’s  mediation style on its own would not have worked without this first lady’s. Without her gifts of grace, it would have failed. Male-male rivalries would not have subsided. There would be no concord. There would still be gendered animus in monotheism’s name. Therein may lie a lesson—and maybe the best reason of all for staging this play right now in D.C.

Camp David is ultimately a stirring revelation, and quintessential personal-is-political theater. No one in town is too much a policy wonk not to learn from it and be moved by it.

 

 

 

 

Violet

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

Since mid-January an intrepid troupe of musical-theater students has been rehearsing the sweet and soulful show Violet at The Theatre Lab School of Dramatic Arts under the able direction of Deb Gottesman and Buzz Mauro, who co-teach the school’s pay-to-play “Creating a Musical Role” class. The results were on glorious display last night when this shoestring student project began the first of six public performances in a cavernous auditorium space that melodiously became an up-close-and-personal showcase for some amazing up-and-coming talent.

The show itself—about a young woman named Violet whose face was scarred in a childhood accident and who takes a series of bus trips from Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to meet a faith healer in Tulsa—has one of the most gorgeous scores in contemporary musical theater. Composed by Jeanine Tesori and first performed off-Broadway in 1997, it features show tunes, folk, bluegrass, rock, and gospel; and the leads and ensemble in this production deliver it powerfully, touchingly, often thrillingly.

The role of Violet is played as a 25-year-old by Julie Dixon, who fascinatingly captures the character’s vacillation between awkward self-consciousness and feisty assertiveness. As her tween self Young Vi, Maddy Heyman positively glows with youthful hope, and her scenes with Stephen Smith as her doting single father—whose ax head flies off its handle and slices her face—are among the most poignant in the show. (We are to imagine the resulting scar; it’s never shown, as helpfully explained in a program note by lyricist and book writer Brian Crawley.)

The story is set in the South in 1965—a year after the Civil Rights Act was passed—and its theme of Violet’s quest for facial restitution is never far from its theme of institutionalized racism. Crawley’s sensitive script, based on the short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, takes its sweet time unfolding the story, in flashback, overlapping scenes, and musical interludes—the narrative pace is as languid as a long ride in a bus—but the payoff at the end, when the two themes converge in a declaration of love, is an emotional knockout.

En route to Tulsa Violet meets two servicemen, one white and one black, both of whom fall for her. As Monty, the former, Zach Roberts is a charmer, an endlessly inventive male ingenue, whose strong come-on to Violet turns surprisingly tender. As Flick, the latter, Jonathan Randle does mesmerizing justice to the character’s stolid still-waters-run-deep soulfulness, and by the last scene he had me tearing.

Other standouts include Terry Gish as Preacher, who thumped the Bible with transfixing charisma, and Brandyn Ashley as gospel singer Lula, who may well have raised the auditorium’s actual rafters.

Among the cast list are even more finds (Rob Weinzimer as a Bus Driver, Susan Schulman as Old Lady, Robin Parry as Waitress, Mia Jacobs as another Bus Driver, Jacqueline Brown as Landlady, Rachel Lawhead as Hotel Singer, Korinn Walfall as Music Hall Singer, Kevin Youel Page as Mechanic/Radio Singer/Creepy Guy, Sam Landa as Rufus/Billy Dean, Eva Youel Page as Little Girl, Lynley Peoples as Virginia, Bri Eul, Mami Kaminaga, and Stella Sklar as Customers, Amy Jackson as a third Bus Driver [there are a lot of bus rides!], Eternada Fudge as Mabel). And the band, under the musical direction of Buzz Mauro, was professional pit-orchestra quality throughout (Mauro and Bill Yanesh on keyboards, Ken Hall on guitar, Evan Shafer on bass, and Paul Keesling on percussion).

The music and the singing set a superb high bar that not all the other production values measured up to. But there was never any doubt that the vocals were being sung by a stageful of voices-to-pay-attention-to. Local casting agents would be well advised to check it out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arguendo

Watching Arguendo—an actual Supreme Court transcript staged cheekily for chuckles by Elevator Repair Service, the New York–based troupe specializing in literary vérité—is like watching a 70-minute Saturday Night Live sketch. The text faithfully depicts arguments before the Court in a 1990 case called Barnes vs. Glen Theatre, which litigated whether women dancing onstage for pay in a non-alcohol adult venue could do so without covering their nipples and vajayjays.

The august justices (played variously and hilariously by Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, and Ben Williams)  are intent on drawing a definitive jurisprudential line. The ticklish issue before them: Can an Indiana statute requiring pasties and g-strings in public do so without compromising anyone’s right to free expression? Or does the First Amendment cloak what is otherwise buck naked?

If that setup sounds ridiculous, well, it is. Here we have our Constitution custodians stuck in legal limbo, obsessing over every relevant precedent that might possibly prove dispositive. (Stunningly animated projections designed by Ben Rubin make vivid their citation-littered quest.) And here we have before them two earnest attorneys, one (Mr. Uhl, the determined Ben Williams) arguing that the statute should be upheld, the other (Mr. Ennis, the flustered Mike Iveson) arguing it should not. Though the argumentation on the record is tedious and tendentious, the romp on stage at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company plays like a lively lampoon.

Ultimately (not a spoiler alert; this is juridical history, after all) five of the Supremes agreed that Indiana’s public indecency statute was “justified despite its incidental limitations on some expressivity” because it belonged to the long and honorable tradition of laws intended “to protect morals and public order.”

The statute in question contains the following definition of the nudity that is a no-no:

“Nudity” means the showing of the human male or female genitals, pubic area, or buttocks with less than a fully opaque covering of any part of the nipple, or the showing of covered male genitals in a discernibly turgid state.

In a prologue to the play, reporters conduct an on-camera interview on the courthouse steps with one of the dancers in the case, Rebecca Jackson (Maggie Hoffman), who testifies to the press about how she feels she’s expressing meaning when she dances nude, how that meaning would not be the same if she had to wear pasties and a g-string, how all fifty “girls” in the theater’s employ are married or have steady boyfriends, and how no hanky-panky is going on (i.e., no pimping or prostitution). She’s not under oath—this is not an oral amicus brief. But despite her dubious credibility, her pollyanna preface gets the show going amusingly.

There are many weirdnesses in the Glen Theatre nude-dancing case—many of which become running gags in Arguendo, directed adroitly by John Collins—but by far the weirdest is that the Supreme Court decided it on the basis of absolutely no showing of harm. There was never any claim or any evidence submitted that anyone ever got hurt by doing or watching nude dancing, and no mention of any ancillary downsides. The case was decided solely based on a vague and vaporous notion of morality. Justice Scalia said as much when he concurred with the Court’s prevailing opinion:

The purpose of the Indiana statute…is to enforce the traditional moral belief that people should not expose their private parts indiscriminately…. Moral opposition to nudity supplies a rational basis for its prohibition.

We have seen that line of argument fumble and fail a lot lately. Laws defended “just because”—just because they are time-honored expressions of “morality” (never mind whether more people are hurt by the laws than by the behavior prohibited)—are faltering right and left. We have seen, for instance, the lifting of strictures against sodomy, the demise of DOMA, and the uptrend in legal weddings between same-gender-loving partners.

There’s a kind of new enlightenment afoot in the land that insists on proof in public affairs, a conscious quest for clarity that sees through uninformed prejudicial presumption. As a citizenry, we are learning to ask: Is there actual harm to real human beings? Is someone hurt in a way that law could accurately prevent and remedy? Then let us refine our legal system to suit real purposes. Let us not simply pass laws that pass on inherited moralizing myths.

But the passage to this point has been messy—not least in the legal arena, where understanding proceeds by argumentation, as dramatically rendered in Arguendo. The whole Barnes vs. Glen Theatre case was a botch, a bad dream of democracy being stupid. If you think deeply about what went spectacularly wrong there, you might be bummed. But not to worry, Arguendo makes it sensationally silly and thoroughly fun.