Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: May, 2014


If this were a theater review it would be an effusive rave. The production of Mike Bartlett’s play Cock now at Studio Theatre is impeccable: The lighting, the sound, the direction, the casting, the acting, all are flawless. Whatever praise you’ve read about the show is likely all true. If you’ve been tempted but you’re wavering with indecision about whether to see it, just stop reading and go.

And be prepared to be engaged by a riveting, tense, tightly wound script about…wavering indecision.

The central character, John, came out as gay when he was a university student—no surprise, since he “fancied men…a lot a lot.” He now lives with a man, to whom he’s hugely sexually attracted and who’s much in love with John, almost desperately so. But this man (whom the script names M) has a  bitchy streak a mile wide and frequently mocks John nastily.  John realizes that despite the hot sex they have they’re “fundamentally different individuals”—and they split up. Then John happens to meet a woman—W—with whom he falls in love. Together John and W begin a trusting intimacy and mutually satisfying sexual relationship.

Not long after John and M get back together. But John’s relationship with W continues; they both want it and like it. She knows he’s gay, because he told her right away, and she’s okay with that. But complications ensue when M learns of John’s relationship with W. Their fever-pitched conflict drives a what’s-going-to-happen-next narrative that will keep you hanging on every word and transfixed by every gesture. Whom will John choose, M or W?

“I’ve never found women attractive,” he tells W.

“I’m not women. I’m me,” W replies—in one of countless jolts of recognition that Bartlett’s repartee-rich script delivers like high voltage to the brain.

Meanwhile bitchy boyfriend is decidedly not okay with John’s relationship with W. He accuses John, “You cheated on me…with a girl a woman a female a chick, cow, bitch”—one of the least coarse instances of the misogyny he spews throughout the play. To which John says,

“Stop it.”

There is a current running through Cock that speaks profoundly to some of the most hotly contested issues in interpersonal and social relations today, the contemporary torrent of questions about gender, identity, and sexuality, and implications thereof for ethics. I cannot recall the last time I left the theater having watched a play I found so brilliant and unnerving at the same time. Maybe because I could relate. I too have fallen in love with a particular woman even though I have always been attracted to men. So I was paying particular attention to the extraordinary emotional/relational contest that Bartlett has devised here.

Cock is loaded with substance and insights but it’s by no means a treatise. It actually plays as a scintillating comedy. The witticisms come in a flurry. The brisk action is spellbinding. The actors verbally spar under florescent lighting on the dirt floor of a minimalist circular set such as where rapt spectators might watch an exquisitely choreographed cockfight.

John’s wavering indecision between W and M propels the plot.

“I suppose I like both,” he tells M, “but that’s okay isn’t it…”

“That’s okay John yes it’s absolutely okay to like both,” says M.

“Yes. Exactly.”

“But not at the same time.”

Bartlett has constructed Cock around that either/or assumption, made it seem valid and credible, exposed its high stakes, and followed its ineluctable logic. Yet the play cleverly contains within itself a fascinating rebuttal to that assumption.

John, for instance, remembers that when he came out

everyone said the real me was emerging, and that I’d been repressed, and so I thought I must’ve done the right thing then, but it didn’t feel like that to me…I never got why that changed anything other than who I wanted to fuck. What did it matter? Gay straight, words from the sixties, sound so old….They’re horrible words what they do how they stop you…and I can see now I can see that it’s about who the person is. Not man or woman but What they’re like. What they do.

John openly acknowledges that W treats him better than M does; she does not belittle him; she makes him feel good about himself. Moreover,

“She’s gentle,” John tells M. “You’ve never been that.”

“Gentle. No,” M concedes.

W too has M’s number: “This isn’t good for you,” W tells John. “He makes you feel…small and stupid and it’s not about sexuality at all, in the end it’s what he does for you.”

Steadily the play heads toward the inevitable collision, the crisis when John has to decide not just whom he wants to be with but who he is. Even as the suspense thickens, the laughs don’t let up, until the very last moments, the disturbing denouement.

And you walk outside afterward gobsmacked by great theater.




A Midsummer Night’s Riot

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

Watching the world premiere of A Midsummer Night’s Riot is like watching theatrical lighting strike. For the third time. In the exact same place (the Keegan Theater). With the exact same writer (Rosemary Jenkinson) and director (Abigail Isaac). And the same amazing actor, Josh Sticklin, who in a virtuoso solo performance commands the stage with such singular verve and artistry that it must be seen to be believed.

I’ve witnessed this highly charged convergence of creative force fields twice before.

In 2011 the Keegan presented the world premiere of a one-act, one-person play set in Belfast called Basra Boy. It starred Sticklin, was written in Belfast dialect by the Northern Irish playwright Jenkinson, and was directed by Isaac. Sticklin played Speedy, a hyper, foul-mouthed young punk, plus a cast of supporting characters who came equally and instantly alive before our eyes by sheer dint of Sticklin’s quicksilver talent. I was knocked out.

Following that production’s success, Keegan presented in 2013 another world premiere of another one-person play set in Belfast, Cuchullain, written in Belfast dialect by the same author, directed once more by Isaac, and starring again Sticklin—as a hyper, foul-mouthed young punk who is this time named Aaron.

In A Midsummer Night’s Riot Sticklin plays Ross, a witty, randy Belfast teenager who has a dream: to be a famous pro golfer with a gorgeous girlfriend. But he is pitched into nightly summertime street riots between Protestant and Catholic youth, and he’s so strapped for cash he cannot afford golf clubs.

As in Basra Boy and Cuchullian, Sticklin bounds about the stage, peoples it with a cast of sharply drawn characters through uncanny insta-impersonation (male and female, young and old), and captivates with a torrent of  waggish jokes and lickety-split narration of a transfixing tragicomic story.

When I first saw Sticklin’s performance in a one-person work by Jenkinson, I could have sworn that he, like the writer, is a Belfast native. He’s not, but onstage he still sure seems so. In A Midsummer Night’s Riot, the part and the player are a perfect fit.

Jenkinson’s script is a remarkable piece of writing. Composed as one long prose-poem monologue (with nary a stage direction), it’s loaded with local  slang—some of which is explained in a one-page glossary handed out with the program. (And some of it offers a bemusing glimpse into the mind and appetites of a teenage male—e.g, buckfast means booze and stridener means hard-on.) But as rich as are the idioms and the authenticity of dialect, one’s ear quickly adjusts to catch the gist, the way one listens to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English spoken aloud. In fact the aptness of that comparison extends further, because Jenkinson’s use of language is mind-blowing. The text that Sticklin animates is utterly alive with poetic diction. For anyone with a taste for Bard-ish word play, the world of A Midsummer Night’s Riot is like entering a shop full of ear candy.

If you missed Basra Boy, if you missed Cuchullain, don’t let this one pass you by. It’s lightning in a bottle—as electrifying as solo theater gets.

Runtime: One hour 15 minutes, with no intermission.

A Midsummer Night’s Riot plays through June 5, 2014 at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 892-0202, or purchase them online.

Freud’s Last Session

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

If conversation were kindling, this two-hander would combust. If argumentation were edible, this debate would be delectable. If a supersmart script played by two stellar actors were a spectator sport, this play would have a stadium cheering both sides at once. As an intense and absorbing experience in the theater, Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain, now on stage at Theater J, is quite simply extraordinary.

It’s also surprisingly funny. Who knew serious talk about God could be so goshdarn entertaining?

Playwright St. Germain has pitched together two intellectual-giant contestants—one an avowed atheist, Sigmund Freud (played here masterfully by Rick Foucheux), and the other a converted Christian, C. S. Lewis (the exceptionally gifted Todd Scofield). In real life their contrasting belief systems never actually talked back to each other, but in Freud’s Last Session they do, with a brainy brilliance so fun to follow that the play’s 80 minutes seem over too soon.

The imagined pretext for this idea fest is that Freud—near the end of his life and suffering horribly from incurable mouth cancer—has invited the chipper rising academic star Lewis for a visit in Freud’s London study (designed by Deb Booth so splendidly that Architecture Digest might want a look). The time is the eve of England’s entry into World War II, and Lewis arrives with a parcel that, as we learn later when an air raid siren sounds, contains a gas mask. Death and detonations loom as the two men debate the existence of God. They are well matched; the playwright has given each a fair share of witty riposts and wise rebuttals. The play does not favor one character over the other; for a while as I  listened raptly I found myself mentally ticking off points scored by each. In the end, though, it’s a draw. Yet the drama in their discourse is palpably personal and eerily epic.

The entire production is as sharp and on point. Director Serge Seiden has polished the two performances’  equipoise to a sheen, and paced the proceedings such that each line lands perfectly in one’s mind. Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis provides ominous BBC radio broadcasts and rumblings of war. Props Designer Deb Thomas has embellished the set with telling objets d’art, including a pantheon of divinity figurines that incongruously adorn Freud’s desk. Costume Designer Ivania Stack’s 1940s suits are appropriately bespoke.

The fact that Theater J has staged this particular work as the culmination of its season seems to me momentous in a way that surpasses the play itself. More than once during the show I found myself marveling: Here was I a lapsed Lutheran ex-seminarian hearing the character C. S. Lewis hold forth as a devout Christian and the character Sigmund Freud hold forth as a professed atheist in a theater whose stated mission is “to celebrate the distinctive urban voice and social vision that are part of the Jewish cultural legacy.”

It takes nerve in this town to hit a nerve the way Theater J does. Attend Freud’s Last Session and you’ll know what I mean.

Freud’s Last Session plays through June 29, 2014 at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater- 1529 16th St NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.