Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: January, 2015

Half Life (a zombie letter for no one)

Originally published in DCMetroTheaterArts.

“I’m not dead, I’m just hurt real bad,” says Regina, a young woman whose life is a painful wreck, a sorry mess. She’s homeless, rejected and shut out, even by her mother. She is an outsider so alien to everyday human society that to others she seems a zombie. But performance artist Rachel Hynes, who plays Regina and who conceived Regina’s life crisis as a devised theater piece, wants us to get to know her up close and personal. The unnerving and compelling result is Half Life (a zombie love letter for no one), an artfully in-your-face encounter with someone so damaged she is on the verge of living death.

We sit in the small Mead Theatre Lab black box on either side of a playing area with a disassembled old car at one end and assorted auto parts hung from plastic sheeting overhead, the detritus of despair (Scenic Designer Brian Gillick and Lighting Designer Mary Keegan have created a haunting, almost post-apocalyptic world). “Mama, I crashed the truck,” says Regina sorrowfully as Hynes’s angular body agonizingly portrays the character’s near-death injury, dragging a wounded leg, horror on her lipstick- and eyeshadow-smeared face, her clothing torn (Costume Designer Brittany Graham strikes an intriguing style somewhere between punk and funk). Desperately Regina seeks safety and solace that seem always out of reach. When Regina tries without success to hitch a ride, the sounds of trucks vrooming by turn the playing area into a superhighway and her desolation sinks in further.

More than once I winced at how precisely Hynes (together with Co-Devisors Jonathan Lee Taylor, Tyler Herman, and Joshua Drew) have created image after image reminiscent of every destitute, hollow-eyed homeless person one has seen (or not seen) on the street. At its core the vision of Half Life is extraordinarily bold and daring: to put onstage a dramatic portrait of a person who is, for all practical purposes, a nonperson—just like all those nameless people in public places whose presence rebukes our comfort. And kudos to Cultural DC for housing this fearlessly unsentimental evocation of homelessness.

Though the character Regina lives in a kind of terminal isolation, Hynes herself shares the stage with Taylor, who plays several roles, including a goth bartender who befriends her and Regina’s shrill mother who doesn’t. Together Hynes and Taylor do some eloquent pas de deux as well (Choreographer Nora Rosengarten has really pushed them both, to arresting effect). The sound design, along with original music by Cex (Rjyan Kidwell), served to propel the storytelling, which was somewhat fragmentary as befits the main character’s fractured mental state.

This is definitely a theater piece that is worth seeing in this its first iteration and worthy of further and deeper development. The powerful imagery and stage presence of the performers is not always well matched by the spoken texts, which seem still in draft. And the fact of Regina’s isolation, which the piece very provocatively makes a point of, is not always congruent with the fact of another performer on stage  whose transition from role to role seems random rather than arising out of, or reflecting, Regina’s inner psychic/emotional reality.  The structural/dramatic challenge is how to underscore one character’s isolation by counterpoint to other characters’ presence. And that’s the sort of form/content conundrum that this nervy crew of collaborators deserves more opportunity to crack.

Running time: About 55 minutes, with no intermission.

Half Life (a zombie letter for no one) plays through February 21, 2015 at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G Street, NW in Washington, D.C. Purchase tickets online.

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Out of Silence: Abortion Stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign

Originally posted on DCMetroTheaterArts.

No girl grows up dreaming of terminating a pregnancy. There are plenty of aspirational fantasies out there—some good for her, some not—but to be in a situation where she decides to have an abortion is never a girl’s fond hope.

What those real-life situations can turn out to be—and how a woman in such a circumstance might deliberate on that decision then reach it—has been characterized in the national conversation for decades in some very broad, distorting strokes. Proponents and advocates on both sides of the contested issue have often argued in ways that are more polemical than true, more point-scoring than personal, more partisan than humanly honest. And until I saw a remarkable original theater piece called Out of Silence: Abortion Stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign, I had not realized what has been missing:  the compelling and illuminating focus on character, motivation, and story that live theater does best.

It was one performance only, at The Studio Theatre, a bill of thirteen original short plays, each based on real women’s true experience, scripted for the stage by a who’s who of ten Metro DC female playwrights and given an impressive full production directed by Mary Byrd Sproul.

The program was presented by the 1 in 3 Campaign, a project of the nonprofit Advocates for Youth that takes its name from the fact that one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. In order to bring to light what that statistic represents, the campaign collected stories from hundreds of those women. To then bring those stories to life, the project enlisted playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton to choose other playwrights, give them texts of selected stories to work from, and then assemble the scripts they delivered into what became a deeply affecting evening.

The idea behind Out of Silence is that eventually the script can be produced by campus and other groups across the country in order to use theater to raise visibility of women’s abortion experiences similar to the way Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues has raised awareness of women’s experiences in sex and sexual assault. Ensler, who developed Vagina Monologues from interviews, was the sole and singular dramatist who shaped those particular women’s voices into an episodic play that for nearly two decades has  given voice to countless others. Out of Silence, just starting out, brings two important dimensions to the process that make its future even more promising.

1. The writers are diverse, each accomplished in her own right: Allyson Currin, Caleen Jennings, Jacqueline E. Lawton, Mary McKeon, Anu Yadav, DW Gregory, Nicole Jost, Kristen LePine, Jennifer L. Nelson, and Karen Zacarias. Each writer is gifted in a unique use of language and stage storytelling, and the result is a whole with a rich texture that surpasses the sum of its parts. One catches on soon that each playlet will feature a character who, for reasons we are to learn, decides to have an abortion. As the compelling variety of life-driven reasons unfolds, the stories are told in an equally engaging range of theatrical styles—from sorrowful monologue to cleverly comic sketch and everything in between.

2. The plays are peopled with characters who talk, for the most part, to each other (not solely  to us the audience), because they must, because they need to, to work through a conflict or a crisis, to come to some kind of resolution, however difficult, however painful, to sort out relationships, emotions, and practicalities that now center excruciatingly on an unwanted pregnancy. In the production I saw, there were five exceedingly talented actors, four women and one man: Shayna Blass, Celeste Jones, Jon Hudson Odom, Tuyet Thi Pham, and Fatima Quander. There were many fine performances, but Blass and Odom’s skillfully comic turn in Karen Zacarias’s Checks & Balances, about a young woman’s visit to a financial adviser to see if she could afford to raise a baby (um, no), kept me laughing out loud.

No one in this play decides not to have an abortion. That would have made it a different play, of course, but the thought crossed my mind, Why not? Isn’t complexity what theater also does really well?

There was, perhaps predictably, a protest out on the street beforehand. Demonstrators held up posters with photos of fetuses and filled the sidewalk with slogans and helplines in colored chalk. “I regret my abortion,” said one sign. “Abortion stops a beating heart,” said some chalk. As if what? As if no one knows that? As if the choice was a childhood wish-come-true?

During a talkback after with several of the playwrights, one of them wondered aloud whether the demonstrators outside would be moved by the performance that had so palpably moved the audience in the theater. Maybe not. But maybe.

The capacity of theater to draw us in, to make us care about characters, to fall in love or like with them, to identify with them,  to make us want them to be okay—that’s what makes Out of Silence such an extraordinarily compassionate  game changer in consciousness raising about this troubling topic in these troubled times.

It’s possible that I witnessed the only time this cast will perform this work together, and the only time this excellent costume design (Brian J. Shaw), sound design (Jeffrey Dorfman), scenic design (Paige Hathaway), and lighting design (Sarah Kost) will ever come together as a complete stage production. I wish that weren’t the case. I wish there was a run and I could say run to it. Because this is one of those instances where one can honestly say, “DC theater, ya did good.” And, with hope, when the script gets done and done again across the land, what started here will startle the country as it did those few who got to see it first.

Running time: About 90 minutes with no intermission.

The plays: Ruah, by Allyson Currin; Wrestling with Choice, by Anu Yadav; Brandy and the Bear, by Caleen Sinnette Jennings; Lizzy & Charlie, by Jacqueline E. Lawton; Charlie, by Nicole Jost; Darnell & Shenay, by Jennifer L. Nelson; The Line, by DW Gregory; Maria, by Nicole Jost; You’re Never Too Old, by Mary McKeon; Checks & Balances, by Karen Zacarias; Dinnertime, by Anu Yadav; Dear Harriet, by Kristen LePine; Big Little Things, by Jaqueline E. Lawton.

Out of Silence: Abortion Stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign was performed January 20, 2015 at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC.

Life Sucks (Or the Present Ridiculous)

Originally posted on DCMetroTheaterArts.

An intriguing question runs through Life Sucks (Or the Present Ridiculous), which is whether in fact life sucks or not. Is life inherently such a bummer that there’s no point going on? Or is life itself its own darn good reason for hope and optimism?

In Theater J’s delightful new production—Writer/Director Aaron Posner’s metatheatrical mashup of melancholy and hilarity—the question becomes like an insistent riddle, not just a brainteaser but a soul perturber.  As Posner’s seven idiosyncratic characters confront the question over the course of two acts—one by one, each with a different  agony, a different angle of vision, a different self-referential obsession—something quite extraordinary happens inside Goldman Theater. The question becomes the audience’s too. That curious question hovering over the entertaining action on stage  leaps out into the house and becomes everyone’s own.

Not to give this show away, but if you don’t walk out afterward feeling utterly uplifted, the intrinsic value of your loves, losses, and longings (flaws and all) validated—you might want to check your pulse. Because Life Sucks is one of the most exhilarating and life-affirming experiences in the theater you’re ever likely to have.

You might not think that watching all these characters lament their sadsack woebegone lot in life would turn out to be enjoyable and oddly edifying.  The secret of course is Chekhov, from whose Uncle Vanya Posner has cheekily lifted situations and character relationships. However far from Chekhov’s original Posner’s “irreverent variation” ranges, the genius of Life Sucks is that it stays faithful to the genius of Chekhov. Like Stupid Fucking Bird (Posner’s accolade-laden take on Chekhov’s Seagull), Life Sucks delivers a cornucopia of theatrical jokes, stunts, and silly bits. But Life Sucks goes much deeper. Life Sucks plumbs real pain and illuminates life right now, in the ridiculous present.

An array of unrequited loves and lusty longings propels the rom-com action, and the story unfolds in a country home that has seen better days (Set Designer Meghan Raham has given it ramshackle charm and a lot of mismatched chairs).

At the beginning the actors come out on stage and talk to us out-of-character.  The world of the play is both a stage peopled with naturalistic characters and a platform for the actors playing them to address the audience directly, which happens quite often. Strings of lightbulbs hung over the audience (by Lighting Designer Nancy Shertler) fade up when that’s about to happen and fade out when the  action resumes onstage. Visually it’s a nifty transition, but it also cleverly sets up a connection between our own living presence and the characters’ inner lives.

A character nicknamed Pickles (played touchingly by Kimberly Gilbert, who manages to combine morose with hopeful) opens the play strumming a ukelele and singing the Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden.” Later in the first act Pickle has a  monologue about how she never stops loving all the people she has ever loved—in particular Iris, a woman who left her. So moving is Gilbert’s performance of this amazing speech that if it were a musical number it would stop the show. And that speech serves to signal that all the play’s light ‘n’ quirky comedy is grounded in authentic human heartache.

Sonia (played with equal parts gusto and sexual frustration by Judith Ingber) has the hots for the handsome gymrat doctor Astor (the strapping Eric Hissom), who in turn has the hots for the  stunningly beautiful Ella (played with elegant intelligence by Monica West), who in turn is married to the much older Professor (a cranky pedant played amusingly by John Lescault). Babs (the down-to-earth Naomi Jacobson) gives Sonia the dish on a youthful fling she had with Astor—the point being: move on (thus refuting Pickles’s infatuation in perpetuity). Meanwhile, the disheveled, despondent Vanya (as played by Sasha Olnick a perfect buffoon for love) is  horny for Ella as well.

There’s a scene in act two when Vanya, bereft of dignity, his life a hopeless shambles, faces all the other characters on stage who, like a tribunal, ask him one by one the same question, “Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?”  followed by their own story about how life sucks for them. The cumulative effect of this testimony is such a piling on of human comedy that the gales of laughter can scarcely gasp for air.

Some of the richest and most revelatory exchanges in Life Sucks are about the difference between how life treats women considered attractive and women considered unattractive. (“Life” in that sentence being a placeholder for “men.”)  Sonia is especially beset by insecurities about her plain looks. Ella’s problem is that she is dogged by men’s incessant desires. All this is in Chekhov’s text, but what Posner has made of it for these our modern times is brilliant. For instance there’s a passage when Ella, no mouseburger she, defiantly takes a stand. As those dangling overhead lightbulbs come on,  she asks the audience point-blankly: “How many would like to have sex with me?” (The night I saw the show, some hands went up.) Then Ella takes it further, confrontationally not toyingly, as if expecting a real answer: “How many are dying to sleep with someone other than the one you are supposed to?” As she goes on in this  vein, it’s as if she becomes a one-woman wonder, a hollaback heroine, defending the bodily integrity of her gender with excoriating exuberance.

There are similarly contemporary comedic riffs in Life Sucks about old age, workaholism, loneliness, and more. What’s remarkable about this provocative play is not only how much Posner has packed into it but also what he has left out. There’s not a hella godtalk. No Hallmark card spirituality. Not a nod to any creed. Yet Life Sucks sings a song of life’s worth that one cannot help but keep humming. (Pickles’s last tune, tellingly, is John Lennon’s “Imagine.”)

At one point a character flips the question: If life doesn’t suck, what does it do?

Well, for one thing, it grants some fortunate theatergoers the satisfaction of seeing Life Sucks.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Life Sucks plays through February 15, 2015 at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater- 1529 16th Street, NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.

Choir Boy

Originally posted on DCMetroTheaterArts.

There comes a scene in Choir Boy at The Studio Theatre when five young black men stand naked in dimly lit separate shower stalls singing  “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” in glorious harmony. As water streams down their sleek wet bodies, it’s as if they are just born, birthed in sorrow and isolation, abandoned to vulnerability, only connecting through the sound of their hearts’ common cry. It is a stage image so stunning in visual and aural beauty and metaphoric force that breath and time both seem to stop.

So it is that one cannot attend to Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s superb Choir Boy without sensing here a deeply felt imagination retelling in his own brilliant way the truth that #BlackLivesMatter.

McCraney has chosen as his contemporary context the fictional all-black Charles R. Drew Prep School and created within it five individuated student characters who all sing in the school’s choir. And sing they do, mostly gospel songs, always a cappella, with gloriously blended voices that Il Divo would envy.

With distant echoes of TV’s Glee, several story lines emerge in these characters’ lives, the central one being that of Pharus (Jelani Alladin), a lithe young man who because of his extraordinary vocal talent has been chosen to lead the choir but whose opening solo is interrupted by homophobic whispers about his effeminacy. His roommate, the athletically built Anthony (Jaysen Wright), is straight but accepting of Pharus, and uncommonly so. The relationship between Pharus and Anthony as it unfolds in their several scenes together was for me the most affecting and arresting of McCraney’s various narratives. At one point Anthony in a roughhousing mood straddles Pharus, kneels astride him as Pharus lies semi-helplessly on his back, and playfully tickles him mock-mercilessly. Pharus, whose sexual attraction to Anthony has been evident, suddenly and involuntarily ejaculates—and the aftermath of shame Pharus feels coupled with the embrace of Anthony’s unfazed friendship is among the show’s most powerful and moving moments.

McCraney’s meta-theme is these boys’ moral maturation into men, and Set Designer Jason Sherwood has placed the play in a circular space with old-school inlaid-wood flooring, sconce-lit panels, and heraldic shields overseen from high up the wall by gilt-framed portraits of great African-American men in history, among them President Obama.

Besides Pharus and Anthony, we meet Bobby (Keith Antone), the ne’er-do-well nephew of the stolid Headmaster Marrow (Marty Austin Lamar); class-jester Junior (Eric Lockley); and earnest, closeted David (Jonathan Burke), who has a shower scene with Pharus that is both steamy and shocking. Also factoring formatively in these young men’s lives is faculty member Mr. Pendleton (Alan Wade), an elderly white history professor whose own history includes civil rights activism and who in an impressively choreographed confrontation commands a student to stop using the N word (I lost friends behind that word, he painfully recalls).

There are no echoes here of Ferguson, no suggestion of the hostility these young men face once they step off campus where the N word kills. Choir Boy presents itself as family business, an airing of issues about masculinity and identity in an enclosed world of blacks valuing blacks.

So the show’s tone is never a howl of anger at white supremacy. Instead its tone follows its form, which is functionally musical theater.  Though technically a play with music, Choir Boy plays and feels exactly like a succession of musical numbers with a book of intervening scenes—lots of great gospel, some clever contemporary rap and pop, all performed under the musical direction of Darius Smith so masterfully that there could easily be a cast recording (I’d buy it in a heartbeat).

But while the musical theater form is the Choir Boy’s formidable strength, therein also lies a disconcerting disconnect.

Director Kent Gash has ably staged McCraney’s work—the musical numbers (I’ll say it again:) are not to be missed—but the acting style adopted for the intervening scenes takes a little getting used to. It’s very “play to the balcony” Broadway, brisk and vaudeville-broad, almost sit-comy. Concision of pace is a plus in musical theater but the consequence here is that the actorly in-the-momentness one might expect (given the extraordinarily emotional depth of McCraney’s character arcs) seems in sparse supply. This limitation is to be expected, perhaps, when the engine driving a show is its crowd-pleasing musical numbers (and please the crowd they do—the predominantly white audience I was with applauded rapturously after every stirring number). Yet there’s an absence where the underlying soul aches in McCraney’s stories are not more palpably present.

There is an important conversation to be had that this production of Choir Boy prompts.  It’s the large (and awkward and maybe messy) conversation about race in the DC theater landscape, about whether and how stories of black lives get to be told on local stages. By pointing to the instance of Choir Boy as a safe-for-white-consumption musical entertainment, cleansed of righteous and warranted  Ferguson-fueled outrage, I do not mean to slight in any way the extraordinary talent and professionalism on display, Studio Theatre’s enlightened sincerity in producing the play, or McCraney’s authenticity of artistry. But as a writer who cares about the intersection of ethics and art in theater, I cannot but view this instance with reference to its resonance right now, in these times, when a national consensus is emerging that full and honest truth-telling about black lives, individuated and in the aggregate, matters more than ever.

There is an annual Black Theatre Festival in DC. From what I’ve seen of it (see links to my recent reviews below), it is unabashed in telling stories without reference to white people’s comfort zone. It’s also on the radar of almost no white theatergoers or theater writers I know. And the DC theater community ought to have a problem with that.

So by all means go see and hear Choir Boy. It is magnificent musical theater.

But then afterward, have a deep think.

LINKS:

DC Black Theatre Festival: ‘Seven Layers Captive’

DC Black Theatre Festival: ‘Somethin’ Like Eatonville’

DC Black Theatre Festival: ‘Confessions of a Homo Thug Porn Star’

DC Black Theatre Festival: ‘The Laundry Room’

The T Party

Originally posted on DCMetroTheaterArts.

Natsu Onoda Power’s delightfully devised theater piece The T Party could not have a more perfect home than Michael Dove’s quintessentially inclusive Forum Theatre. At Forum every walk-up ticket is Pay What You Want. In The T Party—a celebration of multigender fluidity in the human species (plus some polyamorous dolphins)—every gender performativity is Play Who You Want.

Writer/Director Power riffs imaginatively on real life stories of actual residents of DC (plus said denizens of the deep), and the storytelling she stages is as captivating as it is cathartic. Through surprising juxtapositions of playlets, dance, music, and spectacle, The T Party invites the audience to join in the cast’s liberating fun.

There’s a hilariously awkward yet erotic online hookup between two people (played by Jonathan Feuer and Rachel Hynes) who in cyberspace can freely present themselves as their gender du jour.

There’s a touching scene between two young girls (Sara Dabney Tisdale and Allie Villarreal) who fall in love then into fear as they’re shamed by a homophobic slur—and shut off all they felt for each other.

There’s a fascinating conversation between a married father, attracted to women, who cross-dresses  (Brendan Quinn) and a young transwoman, attracted to men, who’s transitioning and passing (Rafael Sebastian). Despite the fact they’re both wearing female clothing, their brittle exchange opens a harsh and unsisterly divide between between them.

There’s a jokey scene in a local gay bar with actors costumed as bears and otters (Zachary Gilbert as a baby cub nurses on a squeeze bottle of honey).

And then there are those dolphins. My, how they float one another’s boat. An ensemble of actors, covered head to toe in stretch fabric, leap and squeak about the stage with giddy abandon, canoodling every which way, as a cool rapper emcee (Nehemiah Markos) quotes from an academic paper about their aquatic homoerotics. This improbable mash-up of hip music track, scholarly text (including footnotes), and buoyant dance moves becomes its own ridiculously entertaining and enlightening art form.

The show actually begins in the lobby, where a lively party gets started (including karaoke) that then segues into an onstage prom (where anyone can dance along). The letter in the title stands for many words beginning with T, we learn—among them transformation and transcend. And the free-form party motif sets a lighthearted tone of freedom from gendered and gendering constraints.

There’s not much about the real-world violence that enforces gender norms, the femiphobic animus that assigns subordinate status to some and one-size-fits-no-one straitjackets to all. Gender in The T Party is treated more as fashion statement than war zone. Yet throughout there are telling evocations of the hostility faced by anyone who steps out of line, as for instance in this recitation:

One in 250 people in the US who were born male seek sex reassignment surgery.
One in 500 people in the US who were born female seek sex reassignment surgery.
One in 350 people in the US identify as transgender
One in 150 transgender people in the US die by homicide.
One in five teenagers that are homeless in the US identify as transgender.
One in two people who identify as transgender has had a suicide attempt before the age of 20.

To my astonishment, I discovered, The T Party also begins in the restrooms, those inner sanctums of gender regimentation. Upon entering the Forum Theatre men’s room, I happened upon a gathering of audience members watching a scene, evidently scripted and rehearsed, between an actor outside a stall talking to an actor inside (giving instructions about  how to strap on an artificial penis, or something like that). When I returned moments later, there was yet another scene in progress: a male actor berating two female actors who were dressed in male drag and telling them to get the hell out. I’m told similar scenes take place in the women’s room. So don’t miss the action in the biffies beforehand.

Whenever high entertainment value and authentic content converge in theater is reason to cheer. This show has done that to a T. The T Party is a hoot with heft, a gas with gravitas, and it’s seriously silly.

Party on.