Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: June, 2014

The Laundry Room

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

The DC Black Theatre Festival this year offered some 45 self-produced shows, most one time only. Organized annually by the DC Drama Department, a nonprofit educational theater company, the festival featured performances in four categories: drama, deaf artists, family, and inspirational. I have sampled and reported on a few—but to fully appreciate the festival’s unique range of programming, see the complete schedule online.

There has never been a bright line between theater performance and spiritual ritual. On one side of it, there’s conventional theater, often completely secular, which can get pretty far afield of theater’s religious roots. On the other side are the many theatrical forms of worship and inspiration by which communities of faith cohere and seek communal transcendence. The line between the two can get blurry though,  as it does in The Laundry Room, which begins as a stage play and gradually transforms into liturgy.

The Laundry Room debuted in the 2012 DC Black Theatre Festival and was performed again in the 2013 festival. It returned on the 2014 festival program and played to an enthusiastic audience that seemed eager to take part in the show’s passage toward healing uplift. The play was written and produced by Freedome El, who owns and operates a health-and-wellness “life transformation business,” which I mention because The Laundry Room’s aspirational commitment to improving women’s lives is palpable throughout. Freedome El also co-directed (with Kim Ayubu Bey) and plays one of the characters. With her resonant voice and skillful in-the-moment acting, Freedome El, off stage and on, stands out as a creative force.

The play begins in a public laundry room where five women come to wash and fold clothes. A program note says this is “the story of five women who embark upon a journey of transformation and healing guided and protected by an ancient spirit guide, in a place where everything comes clean.” That ancient one is Sekmet (Asantewa Lioness), who wears a bright orange ceremonial robe; introduces herself as a “guardian, guide, helper, and healer”; moves silently and dancerly through the show; and carries a staff with an ankh at the end that she now and then waves over each of the women’s heads as a kind of blessing. Meanwhile the five women have an extended conversation about men—the men in their  lives and men in general.

We learn that when Yolie (El) was on a pleasure trip with a man named Suliman, he raped her. Khadijah (Maya Ayanna) is the third wife of five in a polygamous marriage. Turie (Tiffani “Cream Brown) sells sex to pay for college. Val (Jaharri Jah) is a financially independent career woman and self-described cougar who has no need for a husband. Jo (Melanie Barnes) is a lesbian, owns the laundry, and has no need for men at all. They have plenty to talk about—and the riffs and ripostes get dishy, catty, and snarky. There’s obviously zero sisterhood going on.

A dream sequence follows after which we find the women again in the laundry room, still folding clothes and conversing, but the topic is no longer men. It’s God. Everyone has a different take on God, but now they do not contest and carp at one another; instead they forge a connection—a bond not only with one another but with the divine and their power as women. To paraphrase Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, they wash their men right outta their hair by bathing in God’s light.

What finally transpired in Howard University’s Ira Aldridge Theatre was more like a shared religious experience than playgoing typically offers. Immediately after The Laundry Room ended, a woman took the stage and danced and chanted incantations that elicited an antiphonal response from the audience as if in church—except this communal experience channeled ancestors, not a bearded white guy in the sky.

As theater The Laundry Room could use a lot of work. The slow pace made the length feel overlong. Both the two extended conversations—the one about men and the one about God—went on and on randomly without clear character arcs or momentum. The silent hovering figure of Sekmet seemed distractingly irrelevant to the stage action most of the time, and bewildering when waving that wand. I could say more but I won’t. Because the truth is, The Laundry Room is only packaged as if it’s theater, as an entry point of ordinary-life familiarity, as a recognizable way in to a whole other experience altogether. It’s actually a personal and communal transformative experience grounded in women’s friendships, ancient wisdom, and spiritual healing practices. And as such it transcends words.

 

Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission but not including the post-play incantation.

The Laundry Room played one show only on June 29, 2014 at the Ira Aldridge Theatre at Howard University,
2455 6th St NW, Washington, DC. This year’s Black Theatre Festival has ended. The complete schedule is online.

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Layers Captive

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

The DC Black Theatre Festival this year offered some 45 self-produced shows, most one time only. Organized annually by the DC Drama Department, a nonprofit educational theater company, the festival featured performances in four categories: drama, deaf artists, family, and inspirational. I have sampled and reported on a few—but to fully appreciate the festival’s unique range of programming, see the complete schedule online.

“A prostituted child doesn’t know who will exploit her next. But she doesn’t have to go very far,” read an ad that appeared on Metro platforms about a year ago. It was sponsored by Shared Hope International, a faith-based nonprofit whose cause is sex trafficking.

Shared Hope International MetroAdI remember puzzling over the cryptic diagram, surprised that an ad on this topic was running in Washington, DC. Like most people, I harbored a notion that sex trafficking of minors happens far away in other countries, not right here. So seeing Stacy Jewell Lewis‘ powerful new play in this year’s Black Theater Festival, 7 Layers Captive, was an unforgettable eye-opener.

Written, produced, directed, and performed by Lewis, 7 Layers Captive recounts Lewis’ own real story of being abducted into sex trafficking.

At the age of 19, when Lewis was on her way to her home in the Capital Hill neighborhood where she lived with her newborn and the boy’s father, her bus arrived early and she missed it. It was past 9:30. Not wanting to wait an hour for another, she accepted a ride offered by a frail-looking grandfather sort, whom she figured she could clock if there was trouble. Unknown to her, he was in cahoots with a pistol-packing pimp who for weeks had been observing the patterns of her life and the people closest to her. She was driven to New York City, where the pimp seasoned her, threatening to kill her baby if she escaped, then put to work on the streets. He made her call him Daddy and episodically beat her, making sure not to bruise her face so she could keep bringing him money. Some of the other girls in his stable were as young as 12.

Breathtakingly gripping and narratively harrowing, 7 Layers Captive is a tour de force of truth-telling. Lewis’ script is itself a work of poetry. Line after line went by that resonated exquisitely with perception and distilled emotion. Lewis’ artfully measured delivery seemed to leave moments around the rich language for it to register. Still the gifted writing made me mentally want to push pause to relish it.

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Lewis is a disarming and engaging performer. She alone speaks during the play (D’Anche silently portrays Lewis’ younger self during the seasoning scene; Nate Jewell stands in silently for the menacing pimp).  She tells her horrific story not with the agony and grim suffering one might expect but with a striking inner composure and a surprising smile on her lips. It’s as if, though she is recalling explicitly all the torments she went through, she has survived and, now more than ten years after, has arrived whole at a healed place from which she feels empowered to share her whole truth. Not because she wants our pity but because she deeply really wants us to understand what her story means.

Walter Cavanaugh and Chris Barz (aka) X||Z have produced original music and a sound design that eloquently amplifies Lewis’ riveting descent into a cacophonous dark world and ultimate ascent into harmony and light. The disturbing end of Act One is expressed viscerally by their sound track during an extended hallucinatory passage in which Lewis is drugged by her pimp into numbness, her face vacant, her voice silent. The effect is stunning.

Lewis enters in Act Two costumed like a 19th-century madam and delivers one of the most amazingly multilayered monologues I’ve ever heard on stage. Smiling all the while, she teases us with sexual-temptress cliches, simultaneously explicating the history of women in prostitution in America. This is who you see when you look at such a woman, Lewis seems to be saying; this is what’s really going on inside her body and soul because this is what has happened to her.

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7 Layers Captive ends on an uplifting note as Lewis tells of the personal redemption that graced her by faith. Whether or not one leaves the theater believing what Lewis believes, one truly believes her belief. And one cannot but feel awe and reverence at the magnificent veracity in the performance she has shared.

Running Time: 90 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

7 Layers Captive played one show only on June 26, 2014 at Sitar Arts Center, 1700 Kalorama Road NW, Washington, DC. This year’s Black Theatre Festival ends June 29. The complete schedule is online.

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Somethin Like Eatonville

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

The DC Black Theatre Festival, which runs through June 26, this year offers some 45 self-produced shows, most one time only. Organized annually by the DC Drama Department, a nonprofit educational theater company, the festival features performances in four categories: drama, deaf artists, family, and inspirational. I’ll be sampling, and reporting on, a few—but to fully appreciate the festival’s unique range of programming, go to the complete schedule online.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston’s beloved classic novel about a young woman’s quest for respect, has been adapted into a one-act musidrama called Somethin Like Eatonville—and on the evidence of the rough-edges, first-time-on-its-feet festival performance I saw, this show has the potential for greatness. The music by Tamara Wellons is as lush, lovely, and lively as any I’ve heard on the musical stage. Writer Nicole Morgan has compressed the stirring story of Hurston’s gutsy main character, Janie, into a smart, funny, and touching libretto that for an early iteration played with terrific momentum and emotional impact.

The circumstances of the performance were also noteworthy. Somethin Like Eatonville was co-directed by Nicole Morgan and Fred Michael Beam in two versions. The one I saw in the afternoon was performed in American Sign Language by actors who (with one exception) are deaf. Simultaneous voicing was provided by mic’ed hearing actors in the front row. The music and vocals were prerecorded, with the actors onstage simultaneously signing the lyrics. An evening performance was to be performed by a different cast, all hearing, with simultaneous ASL translation. Such parallelism in dual-language performance has got to be rare (I’ve never heard of it before).  The fact that the material being performed was so promising made it all the more remarkable.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, first published in 1937, is set in Florida. It tells the story of young Janie Crawford’s emergence as an independent woman during her relationships with three men whom she marries. The first marriage, to a farmer, a much older man, is arranged by Janie’s grandmother, who tells her in Somethin Like Eatonville’s rousing first song to “Settle Down.” Janie is miserable because husband number one treats her like a mule. “Nobody told me I had to be this wonder woman doing it all,” Janie sings, in a song called “Nobody Told Me.” Then Janie happens to meet the man who would become her next husband, someone with big ambitions and a head for business. She remains his wife for twenty years. She is well provided for but feels stiffled by his control. Worse, he insults her appearance. Seeing the scene where she stands up to him being signed with huge vehement gestures made the passion in that confrontation seem to erupt onstage.

When husband two dies Janie momentarily mourns him, and in the funeral scene the chorus sings a cappella a gorgeous religious chorale called “Walk in the Light.” One day a younger man drops by. They fall in love and marry. He treats her with respect; what she says matters to him. They live an idyllic life together in the Everglades (“the muck”) until suddenly a massive storm hits. He’s bitten by a rabid dog and becomes deranged. In his demented rage he aims a pistol at her; in self-defense she fires first with a shotgun and kills him. It’s a tragic ending, but Janie comes through it all with her head held high and her heart full of hope. In Somethin Like Eatonville she has a touching speech in which she says, “Love is like the sea, and the only shape it takes is the shore it meets. And it’s different for every shore.” Watching the actor playing Janie sign multiple waves meeting multiple shores brought the poetry to life with breathtaking beauty.

I want to follow this show as it develops. I would not be surprised to someday see its name in lights.

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Running time: About 70 minutes with no intermission.

Somethin Like Eatonvilee played two shows only on June 22, 2014 at the Andrew Foster Auditorium at Gallaudet University. For more shows in this year’s Black Theatre Festival go to the complete schedule online.

 

 

 

Confessions of a Homo Thug Porn Star

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

The DC Black Theatre Festival, which runs through June 26, this year offers some 45 self-produced shows, most one time only. Organized annually by the DC Drama Department, a nonprofit educational theater company, the festival features performances in four categories: drama, deaf artists, family, and inspirational. I’ll be sampling, and reporting on, a few—but to fully appreciate the festival’s unique range of programming, go to the complete schedule online. 

A few years ago Tiger Tyson, the real young man on whom this solo script is based, asked James Earl Hardy to write his life story. Hardy, an acclaimed novelist and playwright (his B-Boy Blues was a sensation at last summer’s DC Black Theatre Festival), decided to put the bio on stage as a monodrama. It’s an indelible story of a bisexual blatino boy from the hood, born Jonelle, who escapes and overcomes his poor and homeless past by becoming a famous top in gay porn (cheekily combining the first names of the golfer and the boxer). Finding himself screwed over by producers, he starts his own profitable gay porn business. Along the way he gets married (to a woman with whom, he has said, he is always honest) and becomes a stand-up father (unlike his own who abandoned him).

Onstage at the ARC Theater was a table and chair. The Tyson character (played impressively by Tavarius Graves) enters wearing just boots, a backward baseball cap, and a towel wrapped around his waist. We learn later he’s on a break from a porn shoot he’s in. He sits, vapes (as if it’s a blunt), and begins talking to an unseen interviewer, whose probing questions steadily prompt him to bare all. Though he gets naked only figuratively, there’s an interlude early on when Graves demonstrates how the adolescent Jonelle danced at a gay club: slow and undulating and fine. The scene went on far longer than needed to make its point, but Hardy, who also directed, accurately judged that this late-night audience would not be impatient for it to end.

On the outside Graves is muscularly built, more buff than the real-life Tyson, and he brings to the role an extraordinary interior emotional range—from brazen and boastful proclamations of his character’s propulsive sex drive (“I like to fuck” is the gist),  to an anguished and wrenching  portrayal of a suicide attempt when Jonelle was a youth. Graves plays that particular scene, which comes in the middle, with penetrating depth. Jonelle is sent to Covenant House, a refuge in New York City for “runaways and throwaways.” Alone in his room, despondent and depressed, he holds a razor blade up in his right hand and tells us his left wrist is calling for it. The suspense in the moment is intense. Suddenly there is a pounding at the door and Jonelle is interrupted by a priest, a white man from whom the boy had had creepy sexual attention and who now inadvertently saves the boy’s life.

Jonelle is sent to a mental institution and he cannot bear being there. Graves handles deftly the other characters in the story, such as the unctuous priest, and here he voices “the psych guy,” who tells him exactly how he needs to present himself in order to get out. Jonelle smartly obliges. And he remembers something he learned from another resident at “CH”: that he could make good money dancing and stripping at a club with a gay clientele. So that is what he does. Then, largely endowed, he is discovered while stripping by a producer, and his career in gay porn takes off.

Tyson’s titillating upward trajectory—hardly what Horatio Alger had in mind—stands in stark contrast to the too common tragic alternatives for other urban youth in his circumstances: to be jailed or killed. Moreover the very sexually active Tyson—having himself avoided the other tragedy so many brothers have not—is in real life a vocal proponent of condom use and vehemently denounces bare-backing.

Interesting guy. Illuminating story. Arresting writing. A provocative theater experience.

 

Buyer & Cellar

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

The laughs come so fast in Buyer & Cellar—and Michael Urie’s solo performance is so brilliantly engaging—that the words “funny” and “fun” seem too puny, utterly inadequate to convey the extraordinary experience.

There’s been extensive advance press on this show, so the setup will be familiar to many: The writer Jonathan Tolins stumbled upon a passage in Barbra Streisand’s coffee-table book, My Passion for Design, that mentioned the fact she has built for herself a shopping mall beneath her Malibu estate. Inspired by that curious tidbit, Tolins invented a character, Alex, a young, gay, out-of-work actor in L.A., and spins a fiction in which Alex gets hired to be the sole shopkeeper in this mall for its sole customer, Streisand.

Urie, as Alex, tells that background in an intro, emphasizing that all of this play is made up (except the existence of the underground mini-mall). He then steps nimbly into the story, playing other characters as well, including Alex’s boyfriend Barry (who is a devotee of the diva) and Streisand herself (a formidable presence who, Alex learns, is actually human). Going in, I knew that the show would be at once a cleverly comic contrivance and a gay fantasia on fandom. I did not expect, however, to get so caught up—from Urie’s very first moments on stage right through to the tender end—in such out-and-out enjoyment.

Tolins’ writing is quick-witted, full of one-liners and incongruous situations that kept the opening night audience totally tickled. (When Streisand visits the mall to shop, the running joke is that she comes by to buy what she already owns. And so, absurdly, Alex and Barbra haggle over the price of an antique doll she wants.) But it was Urie’s  appealing performance that made every zinger sing. Urie’s lithe gift for sprightly physical comedy inhabits him everywhere. His mercurial face is a wonderment of instant shifts and surprises. With his pliant facial takes, supple voice, and trickster timing, he finds within a single quip more laughs than could possibly have been in the script. As an actor he accomplishes something amazing: In a setup that could easily turn Streisand into a tabloid cartoon, Urie keeps us connected to his own character’s central innocence and ingenuousness. The result is that we come to see the Streisand character through Alex’s eyes, with such emotional empathy and honesty that we are touched by both of their vulnerabilities and insecurities.

Urie charms the heck out of the audience. Despite all the times he’s performed this play (more than 400, in an Off-Broadway run and now on tour), he’s as spontaneous and in-the-moment as if Buyer & Cellar opened last week. Even more adorably, he seems genuinely to be enjoying the audience’s enjoyment. While the audience is laughing at something he just did or said, an impish grin will flash on his face as if to share the delight. This has the uncanny effect not of diminishing audience response by stepping on the laughs but of amplifying them. Urie’s being in on the humor enhances the spirited connection.

Urie’s performance is backed by a spiffy touring production, smartly directed by Stephen Brackett. The set by Andrew Boyce and lit by Eric Southern with rear projections by Alex Koch makes us believe we are now in the mall, now in Barry and Alex’ s apartment, now in the mansion, now in Alex’s inner head space. The sound by Stowe Nelson suitably gives the whole fiction the context of Streisand’s real singing.

Shakespeare Theatre Company deserves plaudits for bringing Buyer & Cellar to DC. The show’s got a good big heart. The hearty laughs it gets are abundant. And it’s gotta be one of DC theater’s happiest and gayest nights out.

But the main reason not to miss this brief run is Michael Urie’s ebullient and effervescent performance. The play near the end has Alex reflecting on how, just like Barbra, what we all really want is to create our own world. On the face of it, that sentiment is silly; Streisand is mega wealthy and can afford to be over-the-top acquisitive. Moreover the moment could have been maudlin, a sappy summing up so we leave satisfied we had a “message” along with lotsa laughs. In Urie’s enchanting and sensitive portrayal, however, the moment reaches beyond fun and funny to what has been incrementally moving us all along: our own emotional entrée into a wonderful world created by Urie.

Running time: Approximately 100 minutes with no intermission.

Grounded

Sometimes an extraordinary piece of theater plays like a synecdoche on steroids. It serves as a small part that represents a vast whole with astounding force. A window that lets us see something more calamitous than what’s there in particular before our eyes. A microcosm that exposes a horrific macrocosm. The solo play Grounded does just that. In its indelible portrayal of a woman in the U.S. Air Force who must give up fighter-pilot duty and become a military drone operator, Grounded gives an unforgettable glimpse into the moral depravity and devastation of high-tech killing.

The production currently at Studio is an import from the UK’s Gate Theatre (which qualifies it by a bit of a stretch as finale to the New British Invasion Festival). But the jarringly poetic script, which has been produced a crazy number of times, is by an American playwright, George Brant. And make no mistake: This play’s clear-eyed lens on modern warfare keeps the ethos of U.S. militarism squarely in its sights.

The Pilot (played like blue blazes by Lucy Ellinson) is in love with flying. She’s gung-ho as can be. Then she meets a nice guy, falls in another kind of love, and gets pregnant. She is reassigned to what she derisively calls the chair force, where she is retrained to manipulate by remote control a device that can fly and spy and destroy. At first she likes the work okay. She can come home after her mind-numbing twelve-hour shifts to her little girl and loving husband. And she does her job well…until she can’t anymore.  Because the experience destroys her. Crushes her. Shatters her moral sensorium. Unwittingly and involuntarily she’s conscripted into the legion of PTSD sufferers that the United States’ post-9/11 wars have generated like factories manufacturing mangled toy soldiers.

Widely reported in the news recently was the story that the U.S. Department of Defense has begun funding research to develop moral robots—implements of warfare programmed to be able to make ethical choices about, for instance, whom to kill. (That sounds like a satire from the Onion but it’s not.) I imagined the day such new technology will dawn as I watched the Pilot in Grounded watch the gray screen on which she could see what the drone she was controlling was watching. Scoping out targets, pushing buttons to blow them up, she is obligated to commit acts that become incrementally excruciating for her. Eventually she loses it when she must decide to annihilate a man being clung to by his daughter. And I wondered: Would a moral robot in her role have prevented the moral injury to her soul? Is PTSD the new collateral damage that the DOD must now ameliorate by creating killing machines that never crack up from guilt and shame?

Grounded is by no means agit-prop; it’s probably the most engrossing hour one can spend in the theater these days in DC. Director Christopher Haydon has staged an emotional epic within the confines of an eloquent gray cube designed by Oliver Townsend. Light effects by Mark Howland and sound design by Tom Gibbons rock and shock us, then suddenly zero in on the Pilot’s ordeal. As a finely wrought dramatic work, Grounded is stunning in every detail.

Only on reflection do the show’s aftershocks make one realize one has just witnessed through the art of theater an unimagined new horror in the theater of war.

 

 

Killer Joe

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

Audiences with a taste for pitch-dark comedy will get their fill of a deliciously unsettling feast in Killer Joe, the launch production of the aptly named new theater company SeeNoSun. Killer Joe has a pedigree as the first play written by Tracy Letts, he whose penchant for disturbing dramas of family dysfunction powered his Pulizer Prize–winning August: Osage County. Killer Joe epitomizes that time-honored genre where horror and hilarity converge. As adroitly directed by Michael Wright and played to the hilt by a cracker-jack cast, Killer Joe generates shocked gasps and guffaws in equal measure with the greatest of unease.

I enjoyed its enormity enormously. The word enormity (when used with etymological precision to mean outrageous immorality) accurately sums up Killer Joe’s twisted story line and (four of its five) characters. All of which makes Killer Joe fascinating, horrifying, and comic all at once.

The play is set in Dallas and takes place inside a trailer, the sort referred to in the slur white trailer trash. True to that epithet, this place is home to the oafish big bubba Ansel Smith (William Aitken); his scheming second wife Sharla (Mallory Shear); and the sweet but dim Dottie (Jennifer Osborn), his twenty-something daughter by his first wife. The action jump-starts when Dottie’s older brother, the desperately deluded Chris (Matthew Marcus)—who lives with their mother, Adele—barges in with a cockamamie plan to hire a killer to do in Adele in order to collect on her life insurance policy.

These unhinged down-and-outs all have a moral screw loose, and Letts never lets us forget it, even as he tickles us with their turpitude. Thus we’re thrust into that discombobulatingly amusing and bizarro zone that writers like Joe Orton and Martin McDonagh have honed on stage: outrageous amorality with a master playwright’s crafty moral frame all around it. Add to that a quirky sense of humor, and the experience of watching such a play is like the guilty pleasure of rubbernecking at a crash on the highway, except the wreck is a clown car from which funny jokesters keep popping.

The grotesque jesting escalates when Joe Cooper (Sun King Davis) shows up—a detective on the  police force who moonlights as a contract killer. He refuses Chris’s offer to wait to be paid after Adele is dead. Instead he requires a retainer up front against his cut of the payout—namely sexual access to the virgin Dottie, whom he swiftly beds.

Chris—who, feckless as he is, cares deeply about his sister—is now caught in a moral quandary. “Nothing’s worse than regret,” he says. “Not cancer, not being eaten by a shark, nothing.”

The on-point acting is thrilling to watch up close in the DC Arts Center black box, and the entire cast is excellent: Aitken’s lumpish Ansel, Marcus’s wired Chris, Shear’s double-dealing Sharia, Davis’s suave and scarey Killer Joe. But Jennifer Osborn stands out. I doubt Killer Joe would work as a play without a performance in the role of Dottie as nuanced and centered, as gritty and guileless, as Osborn’s. With effortlessness and simplicity, she captures  the center of attention every moment she’s on stage. Alone among the miscreant misfits in Letts’ cast of characters, Dottie is a locus of innocence—and Osborn keeps her in focus throughout the fracas till her stunning comeuppance at the end.

Osborn, doubling as Costume Designer, has picked out spot-on clothes; Lighting Designer Brian Allard gives visual jolts to the story; and the uncredited Sound Designer alarms with a vicious barking dog. The first row of seats goes unused, in order to accommodate the Smiths’ living room and working kitchen, so the space is even more intimate that usual. One can almost reach out and taste Food Wrangler Diane Freeman’s credible edibles.

Letts’s script is intense and tightly wound, rigged with jaw-dropping shocks, and plays like blazes in this small space. Letts’s screenplay for William Friedkin’s film version (starring Matthew McConaughey as Killer Joe) closely follows the playscript, as I learned reading it after seeing SeeNoSun’s terrifically taut staging. But I approached the show  knowing no more of the plot than what I’ve just reported, and the unfolding story had me on the edge of my seat with tense anticipation. Though I’m glad I knew no more, I feel obliged to alert sensitive theatergoers that there is a troubling scene near the end—as was widely reported when the movie came out—when Killer Joe enacts his rage at Sharla’s deception in a forced simulated sex act. For a few moments there, the stage action is intentionally appalling, and Letts sends in no clowns.

SeeNoSun’s candor about such scenes is evident in its mission “to create a compelling theatrical experience that expands an understanding of the human condition by bringing provocative plays to life that explore the human monster and the unspeakable acts they commit.” Killer Joe is definitely on that message. And it’s a powerful knockout of a show.

 

Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Killer Joe plays through June 29, 2014, at the DC Arts Center – 2438 18th Street, NW, in Adams Morgan, in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased online.

The Prostate Dialogues

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

Theater J’s finale to its fine 2013–2014 season turns out to be a surprisingly poignant solo performance about a man’s privates. Storyteller Jon Spelman is our genial guide; the genitals in question are his; and the show is suitable for a general adult audience—even the bits that border on too much information. Judging from the laughter that punctuated Spelman’s spunky spiel, the folks at the opening matinee—among whom were many 50-plus married couples—were enjoying it a lot. Which you might not expect of a man’s monologue about having prostate cancer.

Artistic Director Ari Roth says in a program note that The Prostate Dialogues grew out of “an idea for a play about male sexuality and mortality” and that the project has “gone through 34 drafts over the past two years of cultivation and development.” That’s a lot of TLC, and a credit to Theater J’s courageous convictions. As it happens, the world premiere of this theater piece is now playing on stage on the same set designed by Debra Booth that is being used for Freud’s Last Session (a coincidence that would surely have intrigued Sigmund).

Spelman tells the story of his symptoms, his diagnosis, the physical and emotional effects, his fears, his nightmares. He reveals his failed but funny efforts to find a men’s support group. He takes us along on treks. He shares with us intimate details of his relationships with his wife and grown daughter. He tickles us and touches us. Even as he entertains us, he lets us see his vulnerability.

And that vulnerability is what most makes this theater piece remarkable. Culture is crowded with young men’s crowing about the invincibility of their equipage, their priapic impertinence, their coital conquests. Against that backdrop of porn-fueled posturing, hearing a man reflect on his genitals as an actual grownup—at an age when real life, real relationships, and real physical changes have dispelled those adolescent fantasies and delusions—is refreshing and liberating.

There’s a fascinating passage in Spelman’s piece when he talks about coming to understand that the penis is “a concept.” What he means is, the phallus has been prized and worshiped for eons—he cites several ancient civilizations—but all that baggage does not actually fit one’s personal package. Experientially, there’s a whole other world going on down there—a world in which Spelman is now a voyager who has set out to tell the truth.

He is ably assisted by Director Jerry Whiddon, Lighting Designer Dan Wagner, and Lighting Design Adapter  Garth Dolan, who all bring polish to the production. The sound design (Sound Engineer Capital City Sound, Sound Board Operator Tamar Gasko) is particularly apt in the way it gives the storytelling dimension.

At the performance I saw, Spelman seemed not yet fully in command of the script; he now and then took a split second to mentally call up his next line, so there was a sense this is still a work in progress. But without fail, Spelman always found the authenticity within. The unspoken that now he can say. The demythologizing that now he can do.

Spelman embodies an exemplary honesty about his emotions and male anatomy—something that The Prostate Dialogues will surely embolden more men to do.

Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission.

 

 

Judgment at Nuremberg

A resounding round of applause is owed the American Century Theater, whose sharp, smart production of Judgment at Nuremberg brings this towering play to DC Metro audiences at last. As Artistic Director Jack Marshall has said: “It is stunning, and indeed an embarrassment, that this superb and important drama has never been performed professionally in the Washington area, where the Holocaust Museum and the World War II Memorial are located.”

With this TACT production, the DC Metro theater landscape just got another monument.

The play is a blunt, probing, shocking look back at the post–World War II war-crimes trial in Nuremberg, Germany, in which an Allied tribunal oversaw prosecution of German jurists for their role in the Nazis’ heinous human-rights abuses. It’s good-guy judges judging bad-guy judges—an explosive courtroom drama in which tremors at the fault lines of horror and honor, of complicity and conscience, become quakes that shake us and wake us from the complacency that comes of forgetting.

When theater does this best is what makes for some of the best theater. Theatergoers who get this will get Judgment at Nuremberg.

Marshall in a program note quotes something told him twenty years ago that prompted the origin of TACT:

Big issues—justice, war, bigotry, bias, the legal system, fairness, courage. Plays aren’t about big issues any more. Now, a drama is a ninety-minute, three-person play about roommates coming to terms with being vegetarians. It’s all small, timid stuff. [A]udiences don’t want to be challenged, or so theater companies think. Somebody needs to start producing the old plays that matter.

Judgment at Nuremberg is, hands down, a play that matters.

Some who know Judgment at Nuremberg from Stanley Kramer’s acclaimed 1961 film version—with its Oscar-winning screenplay by Abby Mann (who subsequently adapted it into the script being produced by TACT)—may be thinking: Seen that, done that.  The movie is indeed magnificent. Its perch on every best-courtroom-drama list is assured. And though one need never have seen it to appreciate TACT’s gripping and haunting interpretation, attending to this particular play in live theater is its own distinctly rewarding experience.

The camera cannot always show a character’s reaction to what another character is saying; that’s a fact of the medium. There are reverse shots for that, so you rarely get to see the continuity in a character’s response. But if  you catch Judgment at Nuremberg during its run at Gunston Arts Center, Theater II—which you would be remiss to miss—all the characters in every confrontation are constantly visible and the full field-of-vision effect can be extraordinary.

Take, for instance, the affecting scene when the defendants’ lawyer (the role for which Maximilian Schell won an Oscar) is interrogating the man whom the Nazis sterilized for having low intelligence (played memorably in the movie by Montgomery Clift). When Christopher Henley takes the stand as that damaged man, his shaken, fearful performance not only steals the scene; it becomes among the most moving moments of the play. We get to see Steve Lebens’s superb performance as the defense attorney throughout, but as he grills this prosecution witness, drills into him, damaging him even more, our eyes are on Henley’s—darting about, uncomprehending what is happening to him, broken, glazed with pain. We get to see into a character’s wounded soul as a camera could not have shown.

Take for another instance Director Joe Banno’s inspired staging, in which the stakes of the drama are heightened by having the audience seated in raked rows on either side of Set Designer Patrick Lord’s stark shades-of-gray courtroom—as if we are spectators split between two dispute-to-the-finish teams as no camera cutaway can convey. Sound Designer Sean Allan Doyle’s orchestral music interludes have a stirring sonority in the space unlike any movie sound track. Lord’s projections not only function deftly to shift scenes when the play’s action takes place outside the courtroom; they loom over the whole stage event; and when the prosecution offers vivid filmed glimpses of such atrocities as the judges on trial abetted, the visual effect is strangely more implicating than was the solely cinematic.

Banno’s brilliant directorial strokes include another that utterly transcends celluloid: he has cast an ensemble of spectral figures “from Hitler-era Nuremberg” (as he writes in his director’s note),  who appear here and there throughout the show in “a silent dialogue with Mann’s eloquent writing.” I found these apparitions profoundly evocative as, for instance, they would cross paths with, and cast glances at, named characters during scene changes, or sit in the background in ghostly light like disappeared witnesses to the defendants’ crimes.

This is one of those shows one can’t stop thinking about and wanting—no, needing—to talk about. The complex tumult of moral, ethical, and legal issues at play in this trenchant script does not settle down anywhere easy. It raises a host of questions, some of which have a disturbing currency, especially given all the globe’s genocides and other human-rights abuses since. Everyone will have their own takeaway perplexity—some moral, ethical, or legal quandary that Abby Mann’s script insightfully points to. Mine was: How can there be a moral high ground at all?

It’s one thing to discern the moral low ground—the lethal nadir of humanity, the unprecedented depth dug by the Nazis. But on what basis did the United States among the Allied powers have the righteous right to judge? Judgement at Nuremberg astutely challenges that presumption, citing, for instance, Truman’s atomic bombing of Japanese civilians. And though not remarked in the play, what of this country’s Founding Genocide of indigenous peoples, or its systematic economic disenfranchisement on the basis of race. By what higher power (other than sanctimonious nostrums), can the U.S. claim the moral right to pass judgment on crimes against humanity?

Flash forward to today: By what right can the U.S. claim the moral high ground from which to judge an incarcerated or an ex-pat whistleblower who has exposed irrefutably its war crimes or its unconstitutional secret surveillance? Isn’t that the moral low ground trying to pass itself off as ennobled and entitled? How does that differ from what those German judges did?

The play Judgment at Nuremberg is more than worth seeing; now more than ever, it is necessary.

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A superb 42-page Audience Guide has been written and compiled by Jack Marshall to accompany TACT’s production of Judgment at Nuremberg. The Guide is available at the box office for a $4 donation and will be online after the show closes. Copies are also available free to those who attend a post-show discussion.