Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: September, 2014

Toast

I last partook of this tasty audience-integration treat from dog&pony dc last December when I saw Toast as a workshop production in the Kogod Cradle Series. The immersive experience was all about innovation and invention, and it was (literally) tasty: There was a table where you could interact with the premise by creating your own flavored butter, and mine was m-m-m-m-yummy. So I felt a twinge of disappointment when I heard that after nine months of gestation and improvisation on the innovation/invention theme, Toast would be popping up around town sans the flavored butter.

I needn’t have fretted, because the new iteration of Toast that dog & pony dc has cooked up is curiously more immersive and in fact far more (metaphorically) chewy.

The gambit of the piece is still a heady notion about the way invention happens, and the way creative crowd-sourcing of ideas leads to  better and better ones. That’s where Toast’s audience participation comes in; we are coaxed into fun brainstorming by members of dog & pony who greet and guide us in character as a variety of creative/inventive/facilitator types. But what seemed to me to have deepened about the piece and enriched it was a more transparent, cohesive intent on discovery not just for its own sake but for the good of all of humanity.

By some uncanny ice-breaking alchemy, the cast gets audience members who were complete strangers moments ago to share notions in small buzz groups with the kind of easygoing engagement usually reserved for long-time friends. I was in a group that was tasked with letting some essential feature of the common toaster inspire us to envision some sweeping new technological platform and practical application in order to solve a big problem. That may make no sense to anyone who wasn’t there, but to those of us who were, the challenge had a marvelously invigorating effect on our minds, and we ended up solving world hunger with an idea for a magic leaf that would use solar energy to convert inedible matter into nutritious food the way plants photosynthesize.

At first when you enter Toast (which I attended at a law office; the piece will occur at several venues), there’s an exhibit space with various displays on the theme of technological invention: A fortune-telling Ben Franklin impersonator, a doll house equipped with futuristic gizmos. I was captivated by a bright young boy who displayed his “science project,” a disassembled toaster, and knowledgeably explained to me infrared rays and other electronic esoterica. All of these devisings introduced us to the theme of innovation/invention and made it approachable, familiar, something ownable by each of us, not something “out there” where only Great Brains go to Think Stuff Up.

The genius of Toast is that as it engages audience members as participants in dramatized play, it democratizes creativity, and it makes an otherwise elusive truth seem self-evident and concrete: There’s genius in everyone if we but connect to it in one another.

The playful brilliance of Toast’s creators is contagious. Your brain will thank you for playing along.

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Metamorphosis

As a short story by Franz Kafka awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, it found itself onstage transformed into a live action graphic novel.

Wait, what?

Translation: The adventurous Alliance for New Music-Theatre has been messing around with Metamorphosis—the classic tale of a man who wakes up in his bed having become a big bug. They’ve been adding music, songs and sounds, movement, projected animations, a mixed bag o’ tricks. And the remarkable mashup that results not only aptly captures Kafka’s strange parable of a man utterly estranged, it captivates and fascinates way beyond words.

Inventively adapted and directed by Susan Galbraith from Steven Berkoff’s playscript, this music-theater amalgam is playing for a brief time only in the rehearsal room at Woolly Mammoth Theatre—a suitably stark space enclosed by gray concrete walls, which are put to provocative use as a surface on which to project stylized animations. Designed by Joey Wade and Janet Antich, who have borrowed imaginatively from Kafka’s own  minimalist-expressionistic drawings, these projections create a stage world where as an actor mimes lighting candles, white-on-gray flickers of flame appear; where sketched windows and doors may be opened and shut; where a young man who has become a vile insect can put up a portrait he fancies on the wall of his room. The visual interplay between actors and these projected animations, which pop in and out throughout—plus the integration of Kafka’s fabulist prose and artwork—brings a dimension to the storytelling that is both amusing and mesmerizing.

Though the production’s haunting music and unnerving soundscape (designed by Neil McFadden) can probably not be directly attributed to the inspiration of the Czech artist, the effect sometimes gets fabulously Kafkaesque. Contributing composer Hugh Livingston is credited with some of it, and Galbraith has interpolated some traditional Jewish melodies. The cast too has come up with some lively vocal improvisations along with cellist Yvonne Caruthers, who, sitting on a platform stage right during the performance, bows aural pleasures from atonal anguish to the loveliest of sonorities.

This season Alliance for New Music-Theatre has been riffing on what it means to be an outsider, a topic for which Kafka’s Metamorphosis may be the all-time iconic metaphor. The story is set in the home of a Jewish family in the city of Prague, where Kafka spent his alienated youth and where anti-Semitic animus was the norm. In Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s telling retelling, the story’s focus becomes what it means to be an outsider inside one’s own family. Gregor Samsa (Ari Jacobson) is a traveling fabric salesman who dutifully supports his mother (Pamela Bierly-Jusino), father (David Millstone), and sister (Lily Kerrigan). When Gregor metamorphoses into an insect, their life comes apart at the seams, not because something dreadful has befallen their dear son but because their sole breadwinner has become unemployable. As if Gregor’s suffering wasn’t intense enough, his self-referentially resentful mother and father turn on him. Only his sister seems to care how horrible this must be for Gregor.

Jacobson’s angular, contortionist performance could not be more evocative of an outsider’s interior distress. He twists his body into impossible shapes (at one point sitting upside-down in a chair, his shoulders where his butt should be, his arms and legs all akimbo—and then sings that way). He also clambers around on a jumbled gym of ladders—on a set designed by Wade and lit spookily by Brian Allard—like a misshapen  creature fleeing insecticidal humans.

In Kafka’s Metamorphosis there comes a point when Gregor tries to speak from inside his locked bedroom to his family and to his boss, who has dropped by to locate the no-show employee. But Gregor’s voice comes out not human. On paper the words he speaks are comprehensible; only Kafka’s notation tells us they’re supposed to sound strange. At the same point in the story as enacted in Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s Metamorphosis, Jacobson enters into an excruciatingly painful dimension that the written word cannot possibly convey. As Jacobson’s gnarled, tormented body struggles, his voice breaks, skips, squeaks, crackles, squeals. His family have not yet seen the creature he has become; they are only learning now it does not sound at all like their meal ticket. They listen stricken, sickened. Just then Jacobson’s performance becomes the  epic center of the scene, eliciting  horrified fascination from the audience in a tour de force of masterful vocal monstrosity.

Anyone who remembers growing up feeling bugged because they were the black sheep or odd duck in their family will find in Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s marvelously hallucinatory Metamorphosis nice moments of reminiscence.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Metamorphosis plays through September 21, 2014 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call 202-966-3104, or purchase them online.

Belleville

I’ve been crazy about Amy Herzog’s writing since I saw 4000 Miles last year at Studio Theatre. When I saw After the Revolution at Theater J last season, I just flipped. Herzog is, as I said then, on my short list of favorite English-speaking playwrights. I’m a full-on fan and follower. That said, I can attest: Studio Theatre’s riveting production of Belleville gives us Amy Herzog’s writing at its electrifying best.

With Belleville Herzog stretches; she tackles the psychological suspense-and-thriller genre, not an easy one to pull off on stage. In preparation (she has said) she studied film classics of the form from the early 1040s, Gaslight (which was based on a play) and Suspicion (which was based on a novel). I’m not privy to any movie-option deal, but I would be flabbergasted if Herzog’s playscript for Belleville did not someday become a box office bonanza. Now’s your chance to catch and appreciate it in the flesh—in all its raw, naked, and shocking glory. Herzog has not only mastered the form; she has made it her own.

The fun with this form is not knowing much about the story going in or anything about where it’s headed. To share any spoilers would be just plain wrong. This much I can fairly report, however: The tension begins mounting from the get-go—as soon as eerie light spills in sideways through windows casting ominous dark shadows across an apartment where no one seems home. Enter Abby (Gillian Williams). She switches on lights. She’s late 20s, carrying shopping bags, and listening to music through ear buds. From off we hear the sound of moans from a pornographic video. When Abby, curious, takes out her ear buds, she hears too, and she’s alarmed. The sound is coming from the bedroom. She opens the door and looks in. She shrieks. Her husband, Zack (Jacob H Knoll), rushes out nervously, embarrassed, buttoning his fly. He has been jacking off. He thought she’d be at class. She thought he’d be at work. Instantly we are caught up. We follow along as the unnerving disclosures unfold, the pitch heats up, the stakes heighten. And we are utterly seized by horror and pleasure—because the suspense is thrilling us.

Herzog’s technical command of the genre is formidable. Seeming insignificant mentions and objects take on increasing portent, and plot point disclosures are exquisitely sequenced. Of Abby’s shopping trip Zack asks, “Did you use the new credit card?” Kind of an odd question at the time, but…maybe nothing. Little do we know the big something behind it. Or when Zack comes out of the kitchen with a baguette and a butcher knife, which he uses to slice it.

ABBY. Is that really the appropriate implement? For that little baguette?
ZACK. Everything else is in the sink.

And yes, we get it: The playwright has just introduced a huge sharp knife on stage. We probably haven’t seen the end of it. And no, it turns out, we assuredly have not.

Where Herzog really bends the genre, though, is in her keen dissection of a relationship between a particular man and woman, a marriage, a connection driven by conjugal passion as well as friendly familiarity betokened by their nickname for each other: homey. But, as we learn piece by disturbing piece, their relationship is also burdened by mental disequilibrium (hers) and rife with deception (his). In this razor-sharp production directed by Studio Theatre Artistic Director David Muse, and in the eloquent precision of the performances by Knoll and Williams, the revelations proliferate and resonate with all the explosions built in to Herzog’s text. About a fourth-fifths of the way through, Abby fearfully, finally, asks Zack:

ABBY. What’s going on?
ZACK. What do you mean?
ABBY. I don’t know, what do I mean?
(pause)
ZACK. I don’t know.
(long pause)
ABBY. Homey? What’s happening?

In that simple yet haunting moment they become Everymarriage, or Everycouple—two people who thought they knew and loved each other but are realizing that they didn’t and don’t. In Herzog’s transformation of the horror/suspense form, that recognition is—as a psychological and emotional depth charge—far more horrible than any choreographed physical struggle or onstage gore could ever be. Perhaps I’m biased because I’m a theater lover, but I seriously doubt that what Muse, Williams, and Knoll achieve here in live performance will ever translate on film with quite the same propulsive pulse that you’ll experience when you go to Belleville.

But that’s not all. Herzog’s play contains within it another perspective altogether, a marriage between two people who do not unravel before our eyes; in fact by the end they seem strengthened in their connection. They are Alioune (Madeka Steady) and Amina (Joy Jones), French-Senegalese neighbors who live downstairs and are Abby and Zack’s landlords. Steady’s performance is appealing and agile; Jones’s is poised and powerful.  Together their Alioune and Amina are solid anchors in a main storyline that ineluctably is going off the rails. With their fascinating subplot, Herzog pushes the suspense/thriller genre into yet another dimension: She layers in a political point of view, an implicit critique of a privileged, self-involved culture beset by first-world problems. Studio Theatre Dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen quotes Herzog on the contrast between these two relationships:

Amina and Alioune have concrete plans for themselves, concrete ideas about what it means to live a meaningful adult life, including work and raising a family. Abby and Zack have different ideas that have to do with fulfillment and self-actualization and happiness and these Western concepts of being exceptional.

The final scene of the play has Amina and Alioune, alone onstage, speaking together in French. I didn’t understand a word, but no matter, because I understood that Herzog was giving them the last word. And just then my mind, which had already been blown, went stunned and blank in awe.

Running Time: An hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Belleville plays through October 12, 2014 at The Studio Theatre’s Metheny Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

Yentl

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

In Theater J’s beautiful, eloquent, and thrilling new production of Yentl, such profound new life has been breathed into Isaac Bashevis Singer’s beloved novella that at its heart this retelling is more transformative than any before. By that I mean: Inside this thoroughly charming show is an interpretation so disarming that it’s not only (in Artistic Director Ari Roth’s words) “a Yentl for our time“; it’s ultimately a Yentl for the future of who we are.

Anshul (the male name and persona young Yentl has adopted in order to study Torah) tips us off to what’s up at the beginning: “This is a story about the mystery of appearances, the deceptions of the heart, and the divine androgyny of the soul.” And it’s that last part, “the divine androgyny of the soul,” that this production keeps gently assisting us to glimpse.

To be sure, the familiar feminist framing of the fable is still intact: a young woman’s resistance to society’s diminishing and demeaning expectations for her under male-supremacist hegemony. This was the paradigmatic theme that resonated in 1975 when the women’s movement was taking off and the stage adaptation by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer opened to acclaim on Broadway. The handsomely masculine set designed by Robbie Hayes, with lighting designed by Andrew Cissna, is a two-level library loaded with books on shelves literally bookended by a proscenium erected of massive tomes. As the audience enters, seven young  yeshiva students are discussing and reading.  It’s nothing like the neutral, bare, white-walled and white-floored space the play took place in 39 years ago. This Yentl never lets us forget its oppressive context: a men’s world of learning from which women are forbidden—”as it is written.”

As musicians appear, the wonderful klezmer/pop/rock score composed for Napolin and Singer’s play by Jill Sobule begins. Then a mixed-gender chorus of townspeople starts to sing. Each member of the cast is a splendid singer, the musicians among them are superb, and Music Director Jonathan Tuzman has conducted them all gorgeously. But this is not a musical as such, not even a play with music exactly, because the lyrics enhance and comment on the period narrative in a completely contemporary voice—which has the marvelous effect of keeping us in mind of the story’s relevance right now.

Three characters carry the play’s plot. As Anshul/Yentl, the girl who dresses as a boy, Shayna Blass embodies a young person’s passion kept within impossible constraint. As Avigdor, Anshul’s study partner at the yeshiva, Michael Kevin Darnall portrays overt passions with more amplitude, as befits the liberty of a young man, yet his complex inner emotional life is always transparent. As the ingenue Hadass, Avigdor’s beautiful former fiancé, Sara Dabney Tisdale is as winsomely rebellious yet conforming as any modern teenage girl.  Theater J Associate Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky, whose insightful staging reveals rich layers of meaning and feeling throughout, has paid particularly illuminating attention to the polyamorous love triangle that plays out among them.

Anshul has feelings for Avigdor (as a female might have for a male), who also has feelings for Anshul (more complicatedly as a male for a male). Referring to this mutual yet suppressed attraction, the witty lyrics of one of the songs, based on the Biblical love of Jonathan and David, say “They were really close—if you know what I mean.”)

Meanwhile Avigdor longs for Hadass, who unwillingly cut off their engagement because her mean mother said. So Anshul, out of love for Avigdor, vows to get Avigdor and Hadass back together again. Except, oopsie, Hadass falls in love with Anshul. And Anshul comes to love Hadass. Oy.

“We’re in this together, the three of us,” says Avigdor to Anshul at one point. And later, after Yentl reveals herself to be a woman, and Avigdor and Hadass do get back together—with Anshul/Yentl having devotedly served as their matchmaker after all—Avigdor tells Hadass, “She [Yentl] loved us both.” It is one of the tenderest and truest moments in a play that is brimming with them.

Some current commentary on this musicalized version of Yentl speaks of it as “a transgender story” (as NPR called it), so I went prepared to view it through that trendy lens. But with respect to the contemporary transgender community, I think that’s not what’s going on here. I think Yentl as reconceived at Theater J  has really and deeply become a story about the divine androgyny of the soul, just as Anshul says up top. It’s not about a sex change; it’s about a heart change.

In the English translation of Singer’s “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” I read before attending the play, the gender of the pronoun for Anshul/Yentl keeps going back and forth without explanation; it just shifts fluidly, almost arbitrarily (though never confusingly). That’s a very literary way of evoking the divine androgyny of the soul. But how to make such an ephemeral and elusive notion come alive on stage dramatically so we can behold it in moment-to-moment reality?

At its core, more than the story of a girl in conflict with an exclusionary men’s world, this Theater J production reveals Yentl to be the story of someone in conflict with the gender binary itself. The foregrounding of the love triangle, and its stunningly heartfelt execution, is the giveaway.

At the end, when Avigdor and Hadass marry, and Yentl, who loved them both, watches from a perch on the second tier of the library, we get a happy ending for the newlyweds. But what does Yentl get? Is it an unhappy ending, or bittersweet? Or is it the wisdom she sought in the Torah that she finally finds in her own living and loving?

You will not leave this great performance of Yentl unmoved and untouched. You may also catch a glimpse of the divine.

 

Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Yentl plays through October 5, 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 (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.

 

Hand Jobs (Page-to-Stage)

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

The distinctive work of playwright Alan Sharpe returned to the Page-to-Stage Festival Saturday night with a reading of six short plays collectively titled Hand Jobs, presented by the African-American Collective Theater (ACT). My report on ACT’s offering last year noted Founding Artistic Director Alan Sharpe’s “observant eye on black gay men’s diverse lives,” and this year’s bill seemed even more insightful.

As Sharpe introduced the program to a house full of fans of his work, Sharpe dryly assured them that the title Hand Jobs referred to…typing. But if that double entendre was what attracted anyone to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, what kept the crowd in raptures of laughter and rapt emotional connection was something altogether more powerful and important. In the brief talk-back after, audience members asked aloud what needs to happen to get this work produced. Good question.

The short plays have a few things in common: They’re all set in and around DC and they each feature a particular life or relationship crisis affecting one or more gay black men. Yet the situations and the characters are so specifically rendered that we fully enter six completely different and compelling worlds.

Sharpe 1 "You Don't Know Me"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You Don’t Know Me” takes place in a coffee shop where 27-year-old Tyler (Stanley Z. Freeman , left) is about to meet, or rather ambush, Gloria, the wife of the 54-year-old man with whom he has been having an affair. As Tyler first explains to his disapproving best friend, Prentiss (Ricardo Lumpkin, center), he intends to confront the woman, let her know about the affair, and convince her to see the light and cede to him her husband. That Tyler is deluded becomes apparent when the no-nonsense Gloria (Barbara K. Asare-Bediako) enters and the play takes a completely unexpected turn that is both hilarious and poignant.

Sharpe 2 "Air-Tight"

 “Air-Tight” is set in a motel room in Southwest where an anxious landscape laborer, Graham (Brian Hamlett, left), is visited by his employer and lover, Austin (Larry Hull, right). Graham’s girlfriend has been murdered and Graham’s a suspect. But Graham has an airtight alibi because all during the weekend when she was killed he and Austin were having sex. Austin, however, is a man of prominent social standing and is loathe to be tainted by the scandal that would ensue if he vouched for his working-class lover’s alibi. Sexual attraction meets class tension meets evidence-gathering intrigue in a riveting one-act that’s also airtight.
 Sharpe 3 "Legacy"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A signature of Sharpe’s short plays is an unforeseen disclosure, and what’s revealed in “Legacy” could not be more heartbreaking. The play is set in the bedroom in Anacostia where Kevin (Jason Evan Barrett, left) and his younger brother Keith (Christopher Pree, right) once shared a bunk bed that is now just Keith’s. Kevin, who is gay, abruptly left home and purposely did not come back to attended their father’s funeral, which Keith resents because to Keith, who is straight, their dad was a hero. I  had to catch my breath at the several painful revelations about their deceased father that come to light, and how the brothers’ relationship is profoundly changed, and I doubt I was alone among audience members who now and then choked up.

Sharpe 4 "Blast from the Past"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The homophobia in bullying experienced by young gay men, a theme obliquely addressed in “Legacy,” surfaces in “Blast from the Past,” which is set just outside a motel ballroom where Brendan (Raquis Da’Juan Petree, left) is attending his 20th high school reunion. A classmate comes up to him from behind, covers his eyes, and demands of Brendan, “Guess who?” Turns out to be Stuart (Monte J. Wolfe, right), who tortured and tormented Brendan when they were students and who has come round to make amends. The twist at the end gets an approving laugh of recognition as well as a bittersweet pang of the pain that need not have been.

Sharpe 5 "Raw Deal"

 


 

 

Never one to shy away from explicit gay sex, Sharpe also casts a discerning and nonpandering eye on it that always reveals more than meets the lusting gaze. “Raw Deal” is set in a cheap room in an airport motel where Jackie, a pornographer (Donald Burch III, right),  is set up to shoot a low-budget gay sex tape. Jackie negotiates with a hot and horny teen, Red (Juan Raheem, center), which sex acts on camera will pay how much. The catch is, Red will score the biggest bucks only if his co-star top, in the vernacular of the play, smashes him raw (i.e. without a condom). As Jackie exits, the designated fuck buddy, Corey (Tristan Phillip-Hewitt, left), steps out of the shower. The exchange between the two is anything but fluid as Red and Corey wrestle with the high cost of performing for top dollar.  The revealing interpersonal drama that Sharpe portrays here inside the exploitative manufacture of sexual commodification is as disturbing as it is moving.

Sharpe 6 "Sunset"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sunset referred to in “Sunset”  is the one to be seen from the front porch of a house in Takoma that long-time lovers Daniel (Jesse N. Holmes, left) and Vernon (Gregory Ford, right) have shared for 20-plus years. Now Daniel needs a wheelchair and a walker, and Vernon is telling him he must get to a vital doctor’s appointment. But Daniel refuses. Terminally ill, he simply wants to stay and watch the sun go down together. The entire vignette is touching and tender beyond words. At a point Daniel breaks into song, the Jennifer Holiday showstopper from Dreamgirls (“And I am telling you, I’m not going!”). And it was as if the audience’s laughter broke through tears.

In addition to writing Hand Jobs, Alan Sharpe directed—and assembled an exceptional cast, each one of whom brought illuminating nuance to their role.  As an overall experience of heart-stoppingly good writing and performance, the evening was the equal of any major stage event in town. So why indeed is this writer’s work not professionally produced?

(Cast photos courtesy of ACT.)