Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: February, 2015

Back to Methuselah (The Thing Happens and The Tragedy of an Elder Gentleman)

People rarely go to the theater anymore to know what a playwright thinks. We go to be entertained, we go to be moved, we go to be told stories, which might involve hearing what assorted characters think. But apart from Tony Kushner and his ilk (does Kushner even have an ilk?), playwrights these days seem to think it gauche or louche to put their own opinions on stage.

George Bernard Shaw—who wrote the two wit-rich and idea-dense plays currently receiving a fascinating and rewardingly listenable production by Washington Stage Guild—is perhaps the preeminent practitioner of the notion that live theater ought to be a conveyor of ethical values. But Shaw’s long gone. These days, if live theater has any social utility to speak of, it’s to boost restaurant revenues, gentrify neighborhoods, stimulate tourism, encourage real estate development, and the like. But no one goes around arguing that live theater will have an edifying effect on a society’s ethics. The response would be a resounding pshaw.

How did we get to a point where live theater that presumes to be an uplifter of morals is written off as  not good theater? The immortal words of the playwright Moss Hart have become theater’s unexamined maxim: “If you have a message, call Western Union.” (The quote is also attributed to producer Samuel Goldwyn, actor Humphrey Bogart, and novelist Ernest Hemmingway.) The ostensible truism is kind of weird given how much messaging everyone does nowadays online. Cyberspace is teeming with opinionizing. Some of it’s rude, some of it’s revelatory, but no one decides to unplug because opinionizing per se is so dé classé.  Except that playwrights (or the deciders who pick plays to program) seem certain that audiences will surely tune out at authorial intellection that hints at a moral compass.

Some of the most commercially successful serious theater depicts reprehensible behavior. Scandalous behavior, horrific behavior. But just because a character gets his or her comeuppance for bad behavior does not mean that an ethical principle has been conveyed. Just because a character who seems to be good is revealed to have done something egregiously bad does not send an ethical message. Even theater in which bad things happen to good people has appeal—but there’s no moral in the story applicable to everyday or societal ethics. The playwright may or may not have a recognizable moral frame around the work. Some, such as Neil LaButte, usually do; some, such as Wally Shawn, really don’t. In almost no case does an author’s or a play’s or a character’s observable ethics become manifest in people’s personal morals after they leave the theater. People either enjoy or don’t enjoy. They don’t become better. That’s not why they go and that’s not why they come back. And everyone assumes they’ll stay away from any play that tries to preach.

So does that make Shaw a relic for the trash heap of history or a prophet for our times?

One of the things that’s so engrossing about the experience of attending to Washington Stage Guild’s current double bill (two-fifths of Shaw’s epic five-play Back to Methuselah) is that it shows Shaw to be the latter. We get to hear language that speaks of actual thinking by an actual thinker, someone with a vision of what needs to be. It’s a futuristic vision with awesome breadth and depth. And the characters, each and every one, are scintillatingly eloquent. There are none of the. Text. Stunts / that, you know. Well, um. // Contemporary playwrights use to. Notate. / the endemic inarticulateness of our / you know, um. Times.

Shaw was a playwright who did not shirk from undertaking the immense and important task of teaching people how to be better people. And interestingly, in doing so, he comes down on one side of an argument about art that goes back to 330 BCE, when the philosopher Aristotle wrote a treatise called “Poetics” in which he built a case for the ethical utility of art in society. He was talking back to his teacher, Plato, who had made the opposite case. In fact Plato went so far as to banish poets from the perfect society, because in representing mere appearances of reality, poetry misleads and deceives and is therefore morally suspect. Plato views are dated (“Banish the theater!” is so pre-Restoration). But so are Aristotle’s. Today’s audiences tend to believe art is art. Great art is great art. But to the extent there is any ethical utility anywhere among civilized societies, it ought not reside in Art.

Shaw would say a resounding Not so fast. If you catch these two shows you’ll catch his drift. Washington Stage Guild’s The Thing Happens and The Tragedy of an Elder Gentleman are to smart theatergoers as  fine dining is to gourmands. The diction is delicious, the ethical intellection is savory, and it won’t leave you hungry for substance after.

 

 

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A Hard Look at the Theme of Pornography in ‘Rapture, Blister, Burn’

(Originally written as a column for DC Metro Theater Arts.)

I knew I would be bummed if I missed the Round House Theatre production of Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn. Everything I read told me, “John, you gotta see this.” So when I caught its penultimate performance Saturday evening, I felt lucky indeed—not least because this was in the midst of DC’s massive snowshow, when folks all over town were shivering and theaters were shuttering—but Round House kept its home fires burning. Having seen Rapture, Blister, Burn, I can report: If any of you out there are kicking yourselves because you missed it, well, don’t hurt yourselves or anything, but I can feel your pain—because there but for a snowfluke go I.

The play was engrossing, the cast was extraordinary, Shirley Serotsky’s direction was spot on. The audience was clearly connecting, which struck me as a marvel. Given how much feminist theorizing is packed into Gionfriddo’s script—some of it densely, abstrusely academic—one might have supposed that eyes would glaze over. But no, the flurry of feminist ideas in the show played like piquant catnip to a herd of felines (among whom were not a few toms; the audience included many couples who appeared to be on a date). And these weren’t just garden-variety feminist ideas (like: women ought to have choices, it’s hard to have it all, that sort of thing). Sure, there was a lot of such duh, easy-on-the-ears opining. Yet this firebrand of a script also had a thick load of gritty stuff about pornography, a topic that typically makes its appearance in the performing arts salaciously and panderingly. But analytically and critically? Not so much.

I read the local press on the show when I came home. I was struck by how minimally the theme of pornography in the play was mentioned. Mainly the theme written about was the “Can women have it all?” question. The play certainly warrants that discussion. The central story line is built on the tension between two former college roommates: Catherine, now a single woman prominent in her career, and Gwen, a stay-at-home mom. As it happens, Gwen’s husband, Josh, was Catherine’s boyfriend back in the day, and so when Catherine comes to visit, she and Josh find laboratory conditions for their sexual chemistry to reignite.

What actually stirs the pot of tension in the play between a woman who chose career and a woman who chose family however is not therefore exactly the feminist dilemma that Betty Friedan broached in The Feminine Mystique. The conflict turns out to be about (wait for it:) a dude. The plot of Rapture, Blister, Burn, at least on the face of it, turns on the turn-on of adultery, perhaps commercial theater’s most all-time favorite, and most tiresome, trope. As a consequence a lot of the dialogue between Catherine and Gwen—between whom one might expect fiery feminist ideas to flare—doesn’t actually pass the Bechdel test. There’s this guy between them, see? And he takes up air in the room even when he’s not there.

The big twist in Rapture, Blister, Burn, however—the point where Gionfriddo blows the adultery trope to pieces—is her character of the dude. She establishes Josh as being not only ambitionless and a pothead but also addicted to watching online pornography in the basement—a habit that, as Gionfriddo makes clear, has had a flat-lining effect in his and Gwen’s bedroom.

Given how many men are similarly hooked on virtual hookups with virtual hookers, and given how many sexual relationships are similarly going south as a result, one might expect a pornography-addiction backstory like Josh’s to be showing up more often on stage (as it did, for instance, in last summer’s brilliant Capital Fringe hit Giant Box of Porn, by Patrick Flynn).

Gionfriddo’s fresh take here is that Josh is no catch, not even a lothario. He’s a pathetic loser according to his wife (on account of his trifecta of defects: his slacking, his toking, and his stroking), and she has stuck with him ’cause of the kids. The genius of Gionfriddo’s script is that, going where few playwrights of any gender have gone, she has nervily made Josh the porn addict the pivot of her play. And suddenly with Catherine, who’s a feminist fury of sorts, Josh is like a phoenix arousing after doing it one handed so long to fantasy tits and asses.

If that isn’t a combustible setup for a bonfire of a play, I don’t know what is.

So why has so much commentary about Rapture, Blister, Burn kept mum about the centrality of internet pornography in Gionfriddo’s script? Round House’s marketing barely breathed the word. Reviewers have glommed onto the “having it all” question and seemed to skitter around the elephant-in-the-room issue. Is it that the topic of what pornography is doing to men’s sexuality, in real time and in real life, now is as taboo as pornography itself once was?

One can find plenty on line about pornography’s suppressant effect on men’s capacity for empathic eroticism with living partners. For instance, there’s a site targeted to young people—the generation who grew up in a culture steeped in internet pornography—called Fight the New Drug. It has almost nothing that sounds anything like feminist theorizing about pornography. It’s all about the basic damage that, as young people are learning, pornography has done to their sexuality and their relationships—something second wave feminists never really saw coming—with advice and inspiration for those who want to recover.

Of Gionfriddo’s initial impulse to write Rapture, Blister, Burn, she has said:

I actually set out to write a play about the impact of Internet pornography on the American psyche.  I had a pre-Internet childhood.  When we became curious about sex, we had to work so hard for every little scrap of information.  Now it’s just, as one of my characters says, point-and-click to see full penetration online.  So I went chasing after some wisdom about how this colossal change in access to porn has impacted us.

Though the play Gionfriddo ended up writing doesn’t announce itself as being about the effects of internet pornography, that theme is organically embedded throughout, not only in the character Josh and his storylines with Gwen and Catherine but also in all the discourse about feminist viewpoints on pornography. The play is chockablock with chatter about the theme, in fact. The wonderfully frank character Avery, a millennial who comes into the play as Gwen and Josh’s babysitter, has some particularly sharp-edged observations about her generation’s experience of internet pornography. You can’t listen to the play without the theme of pornography, and internet pornography in particular, jumping out at you.

As I sat there Saturday night, I found myself mentally applauding the play’s complex and near-constant engagement with the theme. Even though I didn’t agree with everything every character said, I realized that wasn’t the point. This wasn’t really about contested feminist arguments about pornography. This was a hard look at the inarguable deleterious effects of the stuff itself—artfully and fully embodied, as every big theme in theater must be, in character and action. And I was enraptured by the play’s blistering and burning engagement with the topic.

So it was that afterward I found the local media’s relative silence about the theme…curious.

Was everyone just snowed?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

bare: A Pop Opera (updated)

Update:

I went back to see Clandestine Arts’ production of Bare last night (February 27) and found the show even more enjoyable than the first time. The quality of  musical numbers and performances had improved overall, and there were some new standouts, such as Ryan Alexander as Lucas rapping “Wonderland” and Kayleigh Marie Brennan as Ivy in her several songs. Most of the tech problems from opening night had been resolved. Lighting was fine given the resources, and the wireless mics had been ditched. There were still a few spots when the volume of the vocals didn’t rise above that of the music track, but simple sound-level tweaking would fix that; in the DC Arts Center’s minuscule black box, the mic’ing was not missed.

The biggest and most enriching shift came in the portrayal of the relationship between the two boyfriends—Peter (Derek Critzer) and Jason (Tyler Everett Adams)—whose star-crossed love story drives the show. Whereas on opening night Peter’s and Jason’s onstage chemistry seemed to start believably and touchingly but then dissipate—such that by the end their big duet “Bare” seemed awkward and unfelt—in the version I revisited there was a connection between the two characters that got deeper and more moving as the show went on and made their song “Bare” a highpoint.

Musicals are Clandestine Arts’ chosen niche. In its brief history this intrepid small company has produced several elsewhere (Rent and Sweeney Todd among them); Bare is its first in DC. On the basis of this area debut, and given the evident improvement I observed within the show’s first week, Clandestine Arts is definitely an emerging company worth watching.

Original review:

A young new theater company called Clandestine Arts has come to town and marked its arrival by tackling the beautifully scored coming out musical bare: A Pop Opera. With a spirited cast of 17 all singing all dancing and an electronic mini orchestra on playback, they’ve staged the inspiring show in the DC Arts Center, that black box in Adams Morgan so intimate that chamber theater there is a squeeze. The results are auspicious if a bit rough around the edges. But more important, Clandestine Arts’ bare bears witness to the very youthful “let’s put on a show we really care about” passion that has sparked every great grown-up theater around.

Producer-director-designer-choreographer Derek Crizer is the multitalented hyphenate behind Clandestine Arts, which he started in Orlando in 2013 and just now launched in DC. Oh, and also, he plays one of Bare’s leads, and he does so with an investment of verve and personal conviction that sets the bar for the entire cast.

bare: A Pop Opera is set in a Catholic boarding school and tells of the romantic entanglements of several students, among them a gay kid, Peter (played by Critzer), who has a boycrush on Jason (Tyler Everett Adams). Jason reciprocates in sexual feelings but, wanting to stay in his straight-acting closet, soon hooks up with Ivy (Kayleigh Marie Brennan). Ivy is a girl whose thin prettiness is envied by the ample Nadia (Brittany Washington) and who in favor of Jason blows off the het kid, Matt (Christopher Rios), who has the hots for her. Along with diverse sexual desires there’s plenty of disappointment of the heart to go around as Peter and Matt are each crushed when Jason scores with Ivy, and Nadia stays ever the lonely girl. It’s a perfect setup of teen angst and lust, in other words, for a delightfully emotion-laden two-act musical.

bare: A Pop Opera began life in 2000 (with book by Jon Hartmere Jr. and Damon Intrabartolo, lyrics by Hartmere, and music by Intrabartolo). A lot has changed since then, conspicuously marriage equality and more options for homoerotic openness, so it’s fair to wonder how a show about two gay boys stands the test of this transformative time. Well, for starters, despite all the epochal changes, young people’s heartbreaks didn’t suddenly disappear. And what the Clandestine Arts production makes compellingly clear is that the heart and soul bared in bare matters just as much now and is as moving as ever.

The musical numbers vary considerably in quality, but there are some absolutely standout performances that are well worth seeing. Prominent among them is the full cast  when they sing as an ensemble; their choral work (props to Musical Director Brandon Heishman)  is consistently gorgeous and a recurring high point of the production. Whatever variables there be in the playing of parts, the whole is really something.

Plus there are noteworthy voices among three women in the cast, each of whom happens to have played their part in some prior production (which may account for how powerfully they each have made their role their own). Early on Washington as heavyset Nadia belts out a song called “Plain Jane Fat Ass” with impressive sass and assurance and pipes worthy of applause. In Act Two we hear Elizabeth Brandon as Claire, Peter’s mother, who, having just learned her boy is gay, delivers a soulful solo called “Warning” beautifully and with heartrending honesty. And then there’s Richelle Lacewell as Sister Chantelle, a nun like none other, hilariously sharp-tongued and wickedly funny. With a singing voice to raise the rafters, Lacewell was clearly an audience fave. She commands the stage whenever she’s on, pretty much stopped the show with “God Don’t Make No Trash,” and would alone be solid reason to check out bare.

Other characters in the storyline include Priest (Heishman) and students Lucas (Ryan Alexander), Tanya (Aerika Saxe), Dian (Amanda Tatum), Alan (Chad Vann), Zach (Stephen Kutzleb), Kyra (Alexandra Guyker), Rory (Abby Glackin), and Ensemble members Morgan DeHart, Alex Lew, and Summer Hill.

The aforementioned rough edges include a lighting plot that leaves actors in the dark a lot, a sound system that could use more oomph (the actors wear wireless mics but often to no advantage), and a few numbers near the end that get pitchy and seem under rehearsed. The set is kind of a charming jumble, though, of garbage cans and planks and cubes that get noisily rearranged between scenes as befits the cast’s engaging “let’s put on a show” esprit. And the costumes are inventive (Lacewell doubled as seamstress).

Suspended overhead is an illuminated cross, and around on the walls are hung colorful abstractions of stained glass—but even leaving religious imagery aside, there’s a nice sense throughout that these players and this company are all in a space worthy of praise.

Running Time: About 2 hours 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Bare: A Pop Opera plays February 26 at 7:30 pm; February 21, 27, and 28 at 7:00 pm; February 22 at 3 pm and  March 1 at 3:00 pm & 7:30 pm at Clandestine Arts performing at The District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC)- 2438 18th Street, in Washington, DC. Tickets are $22 and $18 for DCAC members. Tickets can be purchased online, or at the door.

Here are directions to The District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC)- 2438 18th Street, in Washington, DC.

 

The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

There were many moments in Naomi Wallace’s The Trestle at Poe Lick Creek, as  interpreted by Director Jodi Kanter at The George Washington University, when I inwardly and involuntarily went “wow”—beginning as soon as I saw the set. Scenic Designer Shirong Gu, a GW grad student, has erected on the Betts Theatre stage the girdered footing of the titular trestle. It towers powerfully up into the fly space, looming in forced perspective over all the action, making people below it seem puny, just as in Wallace’s script it is a haunting and taunting presence in the lives of local teens.

The play is set in rural United States during the hardscrabble times of the Depression. Parents are being laid off from work; their children face futures with no promise. Young people have nothing to look forward to except the 7:10 train as it courses across the trestle. They have turned that train’s timetable into a game, the rules of which are harsh: As the train approaches, run across the trestle toward it and try to get to the other side alive. There is no safety space beside the tracks, no creek below to break one’s fall. It’s run for your life or die.

The story begins as a slight, dorky 15-year-old, Dalton (played by Jordan Feiner with a pained sensitivity that reminded me of Peter MacNicol in Sophie’s Choice), is being goaded to play chicken with an oncoming steam engine by a 17-year-old tomboy named Pace, who is taller and bigger (and, in Shira Hereld’s nuanced performance, a sexually aggressive bully who is wrestling with her  longing to be desired). The badinage between them is scripted as a role-reversal back-and-forth that vacillates between I-hate-you/I-want-you, go-fuck-yourself/fuck-me. Wallace’s poetic play is full of such push/pull dances of conflicted ambiguity, often with twisty nonsequitur leaps. It is a credit to Feiner and Herald that they have found  emotional through lines to embody all their character’s jarring psychological complexities yet come across with credible continuity.

Wallace has handed a similar acting challenge to three other roles, all of which are written as older but in this student production are played by agemates of the actors playing Dalton and Pace. Two are Dalton’s parents, Gin (Meghan Bernstein), a low-paid worker in a glass factory where chemicals have turned her hands blue, and Dray (Colton Timmerman), who has become pathetic in perpetual joblessness. Bernstein and Timmerman avoid the kind of caricature one commonly sees when actors play characters decades older than themselves. What Bernstein and Timmerman do instead, with emotional maturity that greatly impressed me, is stay true to Wallace’s script, with all its revealing and concealing convolutions—the terrible tension, for instance, in the fact that depression-era desperation has despoiled Gin and Dray’s passion for each other. Under Kanter’s insightful direction, the erotic push/pull between Dalton and Pace can be seen as mirrored in the erotic push/pull between Gin and Dray—such that what’s so fascinating in Wallace’s rendering of gender, particularly her depiction of its shifting, role-rearranging power dynamics, becomes enthralling to listen to and watch be played out across generations. And thus does Wallace’s ending—a sexually charged role-reversal scene between Dalton and Pace—become all the more astounding and touching.

A fifth character is Chas (Josh Bierman), the father of a teenage son who, goaded into the deadly game by Pace, was killed by a train atop the trestle when he tripped. By a slight contrivance of convenience on Wallace’s part, Chas also happens to have a job as warden in the small town jail, where in the nonlinear unfolding of the play Dalton is imprisoned for killing Pace. We learn over the course of two acts what really happened and why, which piques curiosity and sustains pathos as much like a potboiler as a tragedy, so I’ll not spoil the story by saying more. But pay attention to Bierman’s performance. He has some amazing moments during what are in effect arias that Wallace has composed for the character. Something that Bierman brought to the role made me believe intermittently an old soul was right there on stage.

All the conflict in the language turns to corollary combat now and then, and Fight Director Casey Kaleba has choreographed this agile cast terrifically. Costume Designer Sydney Moore has captured the period and the poverty precisely. Lighting Designer Carl Gudenius effectively takes us into the confines of a prison, beneath a speeding train, up onto the tracks, and elsewhere—even in the omnipresence of Gu’s massive trestle (a set that ought to win some prize). And Sound Designer Natalie Petruch intersperses the most enchanting sound of wind chimes, a perfect evocation of the play’s time shifts and poetry.

Even as the young characters in The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek race against time in the face of a train, audiences dare not dawdle if they wish to catch this very special theater experience as it speeds through town this weekend only.

Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek plays through February 22, 2015, at The George Washington University’s Betts Theatre in the Marvin Center – 800 21st Street,
Washington, DC 20052. Tickets are available online, at the Betts Theatre box office prior to a performance, or by calling (202) 994-0995.

Cherokee

The connectivity crew at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company creates some of the most imaginative audience-engagement gimmicks in town. Typically tied to, and expressive of, the themes inside a play, these fun diversions are always cleverly designed to pique interest in those themes and prompt audiences to personalize them. With Cherokee, Woolly’s current production, that team may have topped themselves.

Inspired by the quirky choice of four characters in Lisa D’Amour’s Cherokee to leave city life behind and go out into nature where they have transformative life experiences (think vision quest via stagecraft not peyote), Connectivity Director Kristen Jackson and Connectivity Assistant Abby Zan have devised an amusing online quiz to test one’s readiness to “go off the grid” together with a touch-screen version one can play with as one arrives at the theater.

At intermission I discovered an interactive display of theirs that features a map of the world on which one can insert a digital pin to represent a place where one has had a life-changing experience of some sort. Poke around on the pinpoints previously placed there by patrons and one can read an amazing range of captions that hint at scores of fascinating miniplays—extraordinary moments in people’s lives that might only have happened in out-of-the-way places. So captivated by the conceit was I that I put a pin on the screen myself and annotated it with a pivotal episode in my life I had not thought about in years (I won’t say where in the world or what I said; that would be oversharing).

The problem was, all these audience-engagement stunts in the lobby were more interesting, involving, and rewarding than the play on stage.

The production was first rate. Beautifully done, in fact. Set Designer Daniel Ettinger provides a stunning abstract forest of tall tree trunks that are lit gorgeously by Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills’s moonbeams, sunrises, and dappled sunshine that seems to have a life of its own. That we are in woods animated by natural wonders is also evoked eloquently by Sound Designer Palmer Heffernan’s insect and bird songs plus energizing music tracks between scenes.  And Projection Engineer Aaron Fisher shows us witty and revelatory images of vistas, movie titles, selfies, signage, and interiors that locate the play’s story and move it along.

The direction by John Vreeke is also excellent, particularly the sense of momentum he brings to the pace. A terrific cast conveys Janine, an open-to-new experience mother and schoolteacher (Jennifer Mendenhall), and her husband, John (Paul Morella), a stiff-but-game oil-company exec. Janine and John have ventured from their comfortable home in Houston into the woods in a place called Cherokee, North Carolina, with an abundance of pricey camping gear and an adoring and adorable younger couple: John’s best friend Mike (Thomas W. Jones II), and his new wife Traci (Erica Chamblee).  Mike and Traci are hoping to get pregnant on this trip, and the sounds of ardor from inside their tent bode very well in that regard. Out there in the woods, they encounter Josh (Jason Grasl), a strapping 25-year-old of Cherokee descent who performs in a nearby pageant-for-tourists (we see him getting into Indian costume at the beginning of the show). John enters and alters their lives in unexpected ways.

The problem was, these five characters, ostensibly in search of a life-transforming experience, seemed instead in search of an author: a playwright who might have made their endeavor seem less contrived, more credible, compelling, and transporting.

I did not see D’Amour’s hit Detroit—also directed by Vreeke at Woolly, also centering on two couples—so I have no frame of reference for what has to have been an expectation that lighting would strike twice with Cherokee. Perhaps had an electric storm been scripted (there was talk of rain once, but the weather was generally becalmed), a semblance of some such spark might have occurred.

What are we to make of the point in the play when Janine, who has been tracking texts with her children back in Houston as any concerned and responsible parent might, suddenly decides to get rid of her smartphone, being gleefully determined to unplug. Who is this woman? Is she secretly psycho mom? Why is her husband not fazed? D’Amour lets the moment go by unremarked.

And what are we to make of Traci’s reaction when Mike mysteriously disappears? She sheds a few tears but she moves on mighty fast. Having found evidence that suggests he’s dead, she is in no time at all a happy camper again, her arms open to the charms of Josh. Traci, impregnated by Mike a hot minute ago, is suddenly all hot to trot. Granted, Josh is handy and a hunk. But really, in what universe does Traci’s character arc not read as a coupling of titillating convenience in a script that stutters with exposition and evidences scant conviction?

I never got a sense this play was burning to be written. I just kept feeling it was fitfully flickering along like a boxful of kitchen matches trying to ignite damp kindling.

 

Fires in the Mirror

This review first appeared in DC Metro Theater Arts.)

Anna Deavere Smith’s classic Fires in the Mirror is getting a fascinating production this weekend by a very talented ensemble of student actors at Howard University. And on two counts this iteration is very worth seeing: Some  truly outstanding performances (casting directors: take note), and a chance to appreciate (or re-appreciate) one of the finest instances of theater’s power to reconcile, through empathy enacted in live performance, across deep divisions of difference and distrust.

Smith created Fires in the Mirror as a solo theater piece in the aftermath of a horrendous clash in 1991 in Crown Heights Brooklyn between a black community and a Lubavitcher Jewish community. What incited the interethnic animus, and inflamed it into devastatingly violent confrontations, was the death of a 7-year-old black boy in a car accident, precipitated when a Hasidic rebbe’s car ran a red light, after which a group of young black men stabbed to death a 27-year-old Hasidic scholar.

Smith interviewed people on both sides of the divide, recorded their words, then edited the transcripts into a series of monologues, each of which Smith performed with a precision and range of embodied veracity unprecedented in theater at the time. I saw Smith in the original production, and I remember vividly the experience of witnessing each individual she portrayed as a real presence, each of their vocal and ideational idiosyncrasies intact. The indelible example of this singular human being bringing audiences into the lives of others who “otherize” one another has stayed with me as evidence that where there is empathy there is hope for healing. And perhaps nowhere but live theater can that evidence come so alive.

Thus it was with keen anticipation that I attended a performance of the play’s two-dozen-plus monologues doled out to an acting company of 12. And it worked very well indeed. Not always, there was some unevenness in the cast; but there was more than enough movingly intuitive acting, together with some imaginative staging ideas, to make the evening as a whole a blazing bright beacon of possibility for this town’s ongoing need for racial and ethnic rapprochment.

Director Mark Hairston has utilized an in-the-round stage in a black box to intriguing effect. Projections tell us helpfully the name of each person whose voice we are hearing. Lighting Designer Khaiya Darnell has illumined the action with an assortment of actor-operated practicals (flashlights, electric votive candles, desk and floor lamps, and such) plus strings of tiny white lights hung in the four corners of the stage—all of which makes for some wonderfully surprising images. Set Designer Niara Nyabingi has provided actors with a bunch of big white cubes that become by turns a runway, a chair, a bench, a shrine, and more. Costume Designer Marci Rodgers has accented the cast’s basic-black wardrobe with some character-revealing details. And Sound Designer Kemai Ballard has inserted an array of music tracks that resonate not only with the theme of the play but with both communities’ cultures. (I especially liked a rap routine and an interlude when the cast dances to Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” which was released the same year as the collision in Crown Heights.)

The core of the show is of course the corps of actors, all of whom demonstrated strong voices and stage presence.  Evidently well directed by Hairston and Dialect Coach Yasmin Thomas, each of them made remarkable and rewarding personal journeys inside characters both like and unlike themselves: Mericus Adams, Birgundi Baker, Devonne Bowman, Martece Caudle, Dana Jai Coleman, Briana Ellis-Gibbs, Kearston Hawkins-Johnson, Z. Jones, Shanzah Khan, Briana Lott, Alexcia Thompson, and Naim-Iman Vann.

The opening night audience at Howard was clearly connecting with this show. There were moments when the response echoed that of congregants in church. I daresay audiences more familiar with religious referents in the fare at Theater J will find much to admire here as well.

Running Time: About 95 minutes with no intermission.

Fires in the Mirror plays through February 15, 2015 in the Al Freeman, Jr. Environmental Theatre Space (inside the Fine Arts Building) at Howard University – 2455 6th St NW, Washington DC 20059. Tickets may be purchased at the Ira Aldridge Theater Box Office, by calling (202) 806-7700, or online. Additional information can be obtained by calling (202) 806-7050.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts.

Martin McDonagh is one of my favorite living playwrights, and I’ve loved his black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore every time I’ve seen it. So for me the Constellation Theatre Company production just opened was a total pleasure: savagely funny writing, punchy performances, eye-popping effects, high-tension pacing, and a gala of gore.

OK, that last part about the gore might not be to everyone’s taste. Sensitive to the point, Matthew R. Wilson, who has directed The Lieutenant of Inishmore with pitch-perfect panache—he nails it—expends a hand-wringing program note explaining why this really is a Constellation play even though it’s not the company’s typically beautiful-to-behold fare.

Well, the blunt fact is, Inishmore is not pretty as a picture at all. It’s one of the most balls-out send-ups of macho violence, militarism, ethno-nationalism, and sheer dickwittery to be found on the English-speaking stage. And all the macabre torture, gunfire, slasher-style bloodshed, and dismemberment serves a hilariously higher satyric purpose. It’s Monty Python meets Grand Guignol meets Dr. Strangelove. Which you probably have to see to believe.

McDonagh’s story takes place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, eight of its nine scenes on the island of Inishmore. The wacky plot is set in motion when Davey (a nimble Chris Dinolfo), who wears long hair and rides a girl’s pink bike, finds a dead black cat on the road. He takes the corpse to Donny (a gruff Mark Lee Adams), who has been taking care of a black cat belonging to Padraic, his wild-eyed militant son who has been away blowing up chip shops. Donny and Davey are instantly terrified about what the terrorist Padraic would do if he found out his cat is dead. Turns out Padraic, whom we first meet torturing a drug dealer (an acrobatic Matthew Ward hung upside down), adores his pussycat. McDonaugh’s script plays with the character’s contradictions to rich comedic effect, and Thomas Keegan brings an enjoyable range to the role as he swings between swaggering renegade and cat-loving softie.

Among the other militant malcontents we meet are James (Matthew Ward), Christy (Daniel Flint), Brendan (Joseph Carlson), and Joey (Chris Stinson). They are by turns bumbling and barbarous, a cadre of killer Keystone Cops.  McDonagh takes dead aim at the deranged boy-gang mentality that drives their  danger, and the jokes fly furiously, as hilarious as they are harrowing.

The sole female role in the play is 16-year-old Malread, the tomboy-tough sister of gentle Davey. The brilliance of Malread’s character arc did not really hit me until seeing this Constellation production. Malread (played by a spunky Megan Dominy) is a tagalong wannabe militant, longing to belong to a badass boys’ club that doesn’t want her, also trying to spark a romance with her hotblooded hero Padraic, to whom she’s a flat-chested twerp. It would be a spoiler to give away how Malread ends up, and what she alone comes to realize after all the mayhem, but wait for it. Dominy’s delivery of that recognition is soft-spoken but trenchant.

Scenic Designer A. J. Guban has devised a handsome and versatile set that changes scenes during swift blackouts without losing a beat. Sound Designer Neil McFadden has propelled the pace with music tracks between scenes ranging from disco to Sinéad O’Connor. All the manic mano a mano has been staged handily by Co-Fight Directors Wilson and Casey Kaleba. And Blood and Effects Designer Kaleba has come up with a slaughterhouse/funhouse full of indelible imagery.

That violence is senseless is the sort of hollow truism that sounds good but always seems to stay in some ethereal dimension along with wishes and dreams. The genius of The Lieutenant of Inishmore is how it puts that senselessness front and center and in yer face, in the form of over-the-top black comedy. The result is an improbable parable. And a thrilling night of theater.

Running Time: 95 minutes with no intermission.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore plays through March 8, 2015 at Source – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-204-7741 or purchase online.