Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: April, 2015

Closet Land

When we are ushered into the tiny dimly lit theater, constructed as a claustrophobic black box with only two rows of chairs on all sides, we enter a nightmare more harrowing and disquieting than any conjured by Kafka. We see there a lone woman sitting in a chair—bound, gagged, blindfolded and wearing a flimsy white nightdress. Her vulnerability is palpable—and we have not yet met the nameless man who will interrogate and assault her,  excruciatingly, before our eyes and nearly within arm’s reach. We are present in a wince-in-place space where no esthetic distance exists.

Closet Land began as a 1991 film directed by Rahda Bharadwaj from her  original screenplay. Bharadwaj has explained why she conceived it as a film not a stageplay:

Because film is better equipped to take the audience directly into intense emotional states—be they of pain, or of joy.  Closet Land, which indeed deals with torture and physical abuse, deals with pain. And my film, despite being about torture, also deals with the exhilaration of freedom and the power of human imagination….

After the film came out, Bharadwaj adapted her screenplay for the stage, a  version that has since been widely performed. While Bharadwaj acknowledges that the words in the stage version “have a lyrical force and sway,” she makes clear her preference for “the film experience,” which, she says, is “vastly different: hugely emotional and personal, with [the woman’s] pain and [the man’s] madness intimately felt.”

Should Bharadwaj see the stage version now playing  at Anacostia Arts Center, she might wish to revise that viewpoint. Because Factory 449’s production of Closet Land is more intense and more illuminating than the movie by at least a factor of 10. I say that having watched the film right after the play. The two forms follow approximately the same script and tell approximately the same story, yet they yield profoundly different significations. And I found Factory 449’s rendering to be by far the more cogent and compelling.

Director Rick Hammerly and Actors Sara Barker and David Lamont Wilson tell a hellish story and don’t hold back. A politically naive children’s-book author (Barker) has been detained by some unspecified government and is interrogated by a smooth-operator sadist-for-the-state (Wilson), who accuses her of having written books that subliminally indoctrinate impressionable youth.

“You can do anything with children if only you play with them,” he says arrogantly, quoting Prince Otto van Bismarck. And if that sounds like foreshadowing of child sexual abuse, it is. In the dark recesses of the play’s back story is the woman’s  tormenting memory as a five-year-old seeking refuge in a closet when a man, a friend of her mother’s, came by to visit weekly—and he would find her in that closet and regularly sexually molest her.  A story she has written called “Closet Land,” a thinly veiled evocation of that childhood trauma, has been seized by this ominously anonymous state and has precipitated the terrifying interrogation. Moreover the interrogator himself uses methods of torture that are graphically sexual, and at one point he and the molester merge into one.

The film foregrounds the theme of state torture; there’s an onscreen quote from Amnesty International at the end. Bharadwaj’s film shrewdly overlays political abuse and sexual abuse—or what Kate Millett calls “male domination and domination by the state” in her chapter about the film in her book The Politics of Cruelty. Millett observes the important sexual political metaphor in this melding, as state political torture feminizes and infantilizes its victims:

Under torture one is first reduced to a woman, then to a child, and as the torturer creates a woman out of any human material being tortured, he also creates a child, the citizen as child, frightened before the great, all-powerful, adult sadism of the state.

While Millett’s reading of the film Closet Land as an allegory about the sexual politics of state torture makes fascinating sense, there remains a lot about the film that seems more tangential than probative. For instance the entire specific childhood sex-abuse narrative: Why is it even there? The interrogation taking place in the present amply dramatizes the sexual politics of state torture; the molestation back story doesn’t add much. The brilliant interpretation now on view in the Factory 449 staging shifts the work’s focus, however, away from the capital P Political to the lower-case personal—foregrounding what the woman’s history of sexual abuse means to her—with dramatically revelatory results.

Because we sit so close in this black chamber—because we are so proximate to each invasion and derogation of the body of the character Barker portrays (sometimes with more verisimilitude than we can stand to watch), because Wilson’s portrayal of the suave cruelty of his character is so stark (and sometimes shocks the shit out of us)—we experience the nightmare viscerally ourselves. It’s not up on a screen that we can sit back from. We are in it.

What’s extraordinary is that by the end of the play we understand—as we don’t and can’t from the movie—exactly who is having this nightmare and why. We recognize that a woman, an accomplished creative writer, has been haunted and traumatized by her experience of sexual molestation; she has kept reliving it, reiterating it; she has been struggling with it all her life. But on this night—this horrific and auspicious night, here in this tiny space with only us few audience members as  witness—she is refiguring that molestation not as something personal, not as her fault, but as an instance of political torture in a social system of male sexual domination. Her purpose, using only the power of her intellect and imagination, is to name it, to resist it, to dissent from it, to conquer it.  She is literally now reauthoring the story in order to reclaim herself and the integrity of her body and mind. And the real suspense of the play becomes: Will she succeed?

Not only is Factory 449’s Closet Land a don’t-miss encounter with two exquisite performances in a stunning production. It is a revelation of liberatory meaning.

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The Revolutionists

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

The Revolutionists, an ambitious and promising new play by Lauren Gunderson, is getting a spiffy first full production courtesy of The Catholic University Department of Drama prior to its professional debut in February 2016 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The fact that this well-resourced university theater has proffered such quality talent to showcase such a provocative (if not-quite-there) script is worthy of serious attention. Plus there’s much vitality and vigor onstage to be enjoyed.

Gunderson’s play is brimming with good ideas, beginning with the intriguing cast of characters: Four women who lived at the time of the French Revolution but in history never met. (Gunderson evidently knows the history she riffs on. You can find some of her fascinating background research here.)

The play’s central figure is Olympe De Gouge, a playwright. In history Olympe was an early women’s-rights and abolitionist activist whose 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman predated by a year Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Gunderson cleverly has Olympe craft from within the very play we are watching, and Kimberlee Wolfson plays her with robust moxie that singlehandedly supercharges many a scene.

Olympe’s confidante  and playwriting critic is a free woman of color from the Caribbean named Marianne Angel Ogé. Marianne is an invention of Gunderson’s but is married to the historical personage Vincent Ogé, a free man of color who led a revolt against French colonialism. During the play Marianne learns that her husband has been killed, and Latia Stokes’s portrayal of the character, notably in the mournful and loving letters she writes him, is the most sympathetic and emotionally resonant in the play.

The character of the dethroned diva Marie Antoinette functions in The Revolutionists somewhat as a cartoon, all self-absorbed and imperious though her reign is over and her head’s about to roll. In history of course she was the opposite of a revolutionist. The running jokes about that in Gunderson’s fiction are choice, and Teresa Catherine’s silly-elitist portrayal of the fading royal, her pockets full of pretty ribbons, is great fun to watch.

The fourth character in the quartet is Charlotte Corday, who famously stabbed Marat to death in his bath. Charlotte enters imploring Olympe to write her some lines with which to give voice to her revolutionary zeal, and Ciaran Farley plays her throughout with an appealing earnestness.

Three male actors appear in the cast as black-garbed bad guys—goons and executioners. The program wryly calls them Fraternité, Liberté, and Égalité, and they are played wittily by Seth Rosenke, Joseph Huff, and Cengiz Orhonlu respectively.

Director Eleanor Holdridge has staged the play briskly and astutely with a commendable commitment to collaboration in the development of this new work. Gunderson is based in San Francisco, so during rehearsal, she, Holdridge, and the cast would Skype about tweaks to the script-in-progress. Given the verve in the performances, the energy in the staging, and the spunky text, these video chats had to have been lively indeed.

Scenic Designer Tom Donahue and Assistant Scenic Designer Magdalena Schutzler have set the play handsomely on the Hartke Theatre stage  with  stark upstage reveals when trials and executions take place. It’s historical fact, therefore no spoiler alert, that Olympe, Marie, and Charlotte all lose their heads—but they do so here quite artfully as illuminated by Lighting Designer John P. Woodey and accompanied by Sound Designer Roc Lee’s graphic effects. Costume Designer Aryna Petrashenko’s wardrobes are especially noteworthy; they manage to locate the characters in history yet make their personalities seem contemporary.

It is precisely that tension between then and now that Gunderson has playfully put to her purpose in The Revolutionists. The characters all make contemporary references and speak in current idioms, unaccented except when they speak French words. But for the fact that they keep talking about the high-stakes revolution going on out on the streets, they could easily have dropped in from a rad-girls’-world TV show as scripted by, say, Tina Fey or Lena Dunham.

This could all work splendidly but doesn’t just yet. There many points in the play when the writer seemed uncertain what to do next, whether to make funny or make a point, with the awkward result that what humor there was seemed erratic and arhythmic and what substance there was felt half-hearted and unconvincing. It was also often evident in the actors’ performances that they had to lurch from one bit to another without much text-based through line to be their guide. There was however a lovely ending, when the four join in song (a “be-the-change-you-want-to-see-in-the-world” pop tune), and it brings wonderfully inspiring closure to the show.

There are plenty of themes running through the play, but one comes through loud and clear: the notion that these four protofeminist activist women, inspired by the playwright Olympe, can rewrite their stories, can change their lives even as they change the society they live in such that the revolution they believe in will not replicate gender inequality. In contrast to the advice often given writers to “write what you know,” Olympe exhorts this sisterhood to “write what you want.” The promise and possibility in their ambition is moving and thrilling. And even though the guillotine is poised to dead-end their dreams in history, The Revolutionists does a nice job of urging such dreaming now.

Running Time: Two hours including one intermission.

The Revolutionists has four more performances remaining: tonight at 7:30 PM; Saturday, April 25, 2015 at 2 PM and 7:30 PM; and Sunday, April 26, 2015, at 2 PM at The Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 319-4000, purchase them at the box office, or online.

Murder Ballad

The fourth-floor black box at Studio Theatre has housed some extraordinary original storytelling. Recent productions of Terminus and Moth leap to mind. The space, called Stage 4, seems like a magnet for edgy stories that cannot be wrapped up in sentimental ribbons. Even when those stories are packaged as hugely enjoyable musicals (I’m remembering Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), whatever is disturbing, disruptive, or transgressive at the narrative core remains unadorned and transparent—or at least in plain enough view so you can see it if you want.

The unspoken subtext at that venue seems to be: If you want only to be entertained, your brainpan coddled, go elsewhere. If you want storytelling with grit and guts, stick around. All of which is coming back to me as I ponder what to make of Murder Ballad.

The whole evening is, hands down, one of the most ingeniously immersive experiences I can imagine having in a theater. The space looks, feels, and sounds like an actual dive bar, with bartenders and real booze. Except for stage lighting overhead and a tucked-away sound and light booth (which you don’t notice at first), the place doesn’t resemble a theater at all. The night I walked in, I was completely disoriented. I didn’t recognize it as a space I’d been in before. The verisimilitude achieved by the design and production team is simply stunning, and no raves can do it justice. Shoutouts to Production Designer Brian MacDevitt, Set Director Andrew Cohen, and Lighting Director Andrew Cissna. On any list of DC happening hot spots, what they’ve done to the fourth four at Studio should be rated “Don’t even think of skipping this one.”

Add to that the unmissable performances: four superb actor-singers (Christine Dwyer as Sara, Anastacia McCleskey as Narrator, Cole Burden as Tom, and Tommar Wilson as Michael) who during the sung-through show move about among the audience, stand on the bar and pool table, and step onto an endstage where there’s a rockin’ band (Yusef Chisholm on bass, Darren R. Cohen on keyboard, Logan Seith on drums, Ben Young on guitar). Shining musical talents one and all, they have been burnished to a shimmering luster by Director David Muse, Music Director Darren R. Cohen, Sound Designer Ryan Rumery, and Movement Director Nancy Bannon.

The material itself, the musical Murder Ballad, tells a gritty and gutsy story, ultimately a brutal one, but presented as what the script itself calls an entertainment wrapped in a bow. The creation of Julia Jordan, who conceived it and wrote book and lyrics, and Juliana Nash, who wrote music and lyrics, Murder Ballad was not written to be performed in a bar; that appears to be Muse’s inspiration, premised on the fact that in the text one of the characters, Tom, is a bartender then a bar owner, and the precedent of a similarly staged production he saw in New York. Nor were the four characters in Murder Ballad identified in the script except by name, meaning that the casting at Studio has been what’s called colorblind (not a term I’m fond of, but I know none better). This has the worthy effect of focusing our attention—as Dr. King urged—on content of character.

Now about the story, which if you follow it, takes some very troubling turns, even before there’s a murder. The show as much as promises there will be one. In the Narrator’s first song she sings of “true love gone awry”:

There’s always a killer
So logic’ly someone has to die.
We sing the murder ballad’s warning,
There but for the grace of God go I.

And when the payoff comes it packs a wallop. The deed is done bloodily with a baseball bat that is displayed early on (yup, the Playwriting 101 alert: This weapon will come lethally into play). You won’t guess who kills and who dies, though, and I’m not going to tell you. But the script’s canny convergence of character arcs that become the tense windup to the murder will make you think it could be anyone.

What struck me during the show was that there are aspects of the story’s windup that are more unsettling than the homicidal finish. The murder itself goes by rather quickly and is followed by a flip, upbeat finale during which the three surviving characters sing:

The thrill of the kill
Romance, blood, calamity.
That’s Entertainment!
Long as it don’t happen to you.

You know you want it.
You wanted us to.
Lusted for murder,
Hope we satisfied you.

Actually I wasn’t satisfied. My mind was still processing the story. In brief, it’s this: The central character, Sara, has had a hot fling with Tom, whom she walked out on. She meets Michael and falls aggressively in lust. (This female protagonist was clearly at the head of her Sexual Agency class.) Michael is a straight-up, responsible guy. They have a child. Michael is a good provider and a good father. Sara, it would seem, has a Perfect Husband and a Perfect Home Life. Trouble comes when Sara runs into Tom and their lust resumes. Michael, whose character has scruples (in marked contrast to Sara and Tom), begins to catch on in a catchy tune called “Little by Little”:

Now little by little
I see what’s goin’ on.
Yeah little by little
I see that somethin’s wrong

Sara’s choices, which began as highly questionable when she has an affair with Tom and betrays Michael’s trust, devolve into reprehensible, when her dalliance with Tom turns the character into a bad mom. At one point Sara neglects to pick up Michael’s and Sara’s daughter, Frankie. Michael, the play’s moral rudder as Sara is off rutting, confronts her:

Tell me was Tommy inside you,
When you forgot Frankie, yesterday?
Tomcat got your tongue, got nothing to say?

What kind of mother are you?

And in that stinging lyric is summed up what is most problematic about Murder Ballad: The central character, Sara, is utterly unsympathetic. Never mind all the culture’s misogynist slang for loose women who sleep around without shame, this female character, created by two women, has the ethics of a flea.

Could it be that the authors have intentionally created a character so unlikeable that we are led to believe she’s going to be the murder victim and has it coming? Or is the character fatally flawed as dramatic construction—a vacuum in the play where a fully rounded main character should be?

The thing is, the enormously entertaining packaging of Murder Ballad—the setting, the songs, the performances—has the effect of concealing what at the work’s core is a gritty, gutsy, perturbing, and troubling narrative. And it’s exactly at that core that one can find the raw, unnerving, and smartly executed kind of theater one can always expect on Studio’s fourth floor.

Doctor Faustus

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

A steampunk staging of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus without any spoken or signed language? Just movement and mime and lighting and scenic effects? Sounds crazy, right? Well, depending on the audience member, it may not sound like much at all—this being a production of the Gallaudet University Theatre and Dance Program—or it might include (as it did for me) an equivalently crazy sound design.

Crazy as in fun to watch (and hear or not). Crazy as in nonstop eye-popping appeal. Crazy as in a fascinating burst of theatrical originality and devilishly fun invention.

The prime movers of this absorbing spectacle are Gallaudet grads James Caverly and Brian Suchite. Jumping off from Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus—a fraught religious allegory for religiously overwrought  times—Caverly and Suchite have found in steampunk an apt way to depict the high hokiness of the 1594 narrative using a hip and edgy contemporary esthetic.

Really, who today can get hot ‘n’ bothered about a career academic who makes a whack deal with the devil that gives him quack magical powers? Nowadays so many one-percenter titans are in bed with Beelzebub—having struck far more disastrous and dangerous bargains—that the dear Doctor Faustus’s ancient drama seems quaintly beside the point. We might indeed go ho-hum. Except that Caverly and Suchite have cleverly animated the classic text approximately along lines that Walt Disney employed with orchestral masterpieces in Fantasia.

In this endeavor they are aided and abetted by the stage-magic arts of Scenic Designer Ethan Sinnot (whose handsome set is a sinister clockwork gearbox), Light Designer Jason Arnold (whose gazillion light cues blaze and amaze), Costume Designer Elizabeth Ennis (who can dress a mean android Mephistopheles, or whoever the devil else happens onstage), Sound Designer DJ Nicar (whose steampunk hooks rock and rule), and Projection Designer Robert Hayes (who at one point elevates the entire stage and makes it fly, using but aerial motion photography).

A magnificent Lucifer puppet intermittently commands the stage. Designed  by Eric Brooks as a puzzlework of illuminated pieces that actors assemble into an apparition before our eyes, it puts on a gosh-wow show all its own. Samantha Smith is credited with props, and in a witty touch, Faustus unleashes his magical and telekinetic powers by touching a  keypad strapped on his arm, whereupon special effects and mayhem ensue.

John Cartwright II as Faustus, when not being tossed and upturned by the epic demands on his character (the role is a real workout), stands solidly at the center of an agile and energetic ensemble: Dominique Flagg, Derek Frank, Kala Granger, Page Hawkins, Casey Johnson-Pasqua, Yader Martinez, Neil Matthews, John Roberts, Amber Savard, Michael Schmitz, Duke Smith, Aria Warrick, Seth Washington, Caldonina Wilding, and Tyrel Wilding.  Except for Washington as Mephistopheles and Roberts as Persian King Darius, all play multiple roles.

Not that I could tell who was who, or even follow the story. A perhaps too cursory read of a couple synopses on line beforehand (there’s one in the program too) did not persist in memory sufficiently well enough to clue me. But I am not certain that following the plot of this show is what matters. It certainly didn’t for me. I quite enjoyed following how the plot had inspired the Doctor Faustus creators. And in that respect, I was never lost and I always transported.

Running Time: About one hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Doctor Faustus presented by the Gallaudet University Theatre and Dance Program plays through April 26, 2015 at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

Don’t Die in the Dark

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

Last night, on the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, I was in a DC theater venue of a very different sort: a tiny white-box art-gallery space down an alleyway in Columbia Heights. There for a little over an hour I sat enthralled by a tour de force performance of a tough-minded two-hander about the notorious actor who fired the fatal shot. And by the end my brain was burning with a blistering depiction of what made the killer tick.

Don’t Die in the Dark is a sweeping and stunning one-act by Joe Brack, directed with exquisite intensity by Matty Griffiths, and acted electrifyingly by Brack himself as John Wilkes Booth and Bradley Foster Smith playing multiple roles, singing, and playing guitar and harmonica (the program calls him “Guitar”). What this triumvirate of talents has achieved is quite simply a triumph.

The historical research evidenced in Brack’s script was overwhelming in its reach; its cumulative effect was a density of content and language and seriousness of intent that I associate with classic epics, not pop-up one-acts. Frequently we see Booth performing excerpts from the roles he was renowned for in life, and these scenery-chewing turns not only impress us as theater but illuminate the character of the man who is playing those characters. Booth emerges as a villain who became vainglorious because of crippling insecurity.

Don’t Die in the Dark vividly explores the mind of someone who all his life was intimidated by his famous-actor father and his famous-actor brother—and who grew up desperate to ameliorate his own sense of inferiority by asserting superiority over others. Working from the historical record, Brack takes us deep inside the twisted mental state of a privileged white man, acclaimed for his artistry and munificently rewarded for it, whose racism came to consume him. Booth was obsessed with maintaining slavery, and hated Lincoln for emancipating slaves, thereby permitting—in the chilling words of Brack’s script—”nigger citizenship.” One of many revealing passages in Brack’s play comes when Booth defends slavery by saying he has seen fathers in the North treat their sons with more brutality than white masters in the South treat their Negro slaves.

Brack and Foster wore period costumes chosen by Deb Sevigny. Upstage of the small playing area are four units built of wooden lath, scenery on which Maggie Modig consulted. Tucked into the cracks and mounted on the lathwork are letters, photographs, posters advertising Booth’s performances. Kevin Laughon, who did show’s many significant storytelling props, achieved remarkable close-up credibility. And with minimal but strategically placed lighting instruments, including period footlights downstage, Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows worked minor wonders of mood change and location shift.

But the power of this performance transcends what happens on stage. It becomes what goes on in one’s own mind. The connections Brack uncovers in Booth’s biography keep resonating long after the play ends. And if now and then during it you imagine you may have heard echoes of Booth’s contempt recently in contemporary America, be not surprised.

This play tells an important part of the story of our nation. It belongs onstage at Fords.

Running Time: 1 hour 15 minutes with no intermission.

Don’t Die in the Dark plays through April 26, 2015, at Studio 1469, 1469 Harvard Street Rear, NW, in Washington, DC 20009, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. Purchase tickets online or call (202) 213-2474.

Very Still & Hard to See

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

Very Still & Hard to See is neither quiet nor a challenge to perceive. Its aural and optical pleasures are bountiful. For this production of Steve Yockey’s cycle of supernatural short plays, directed with keen ingenuity by Randy Baker, Rorschach Theatre has outdone itself in the stage-arts department—beginning with one of the most original uses of the Lang Theatre one is ever likely to see there again.

This proscenium theater upstairs at Atlas Performing Arts Center has literally been turned inside out. And our discombobulation begins even before we enter. A sign in the lobby says not to use the staircase (because there has been some unidentified accident) but to wait for the elevator. Dutifully we do as we’re told. When its doors glide open, we are greeted by a maybe-not-human uniformed operator who takes us to some dark floor where two maybe-deceased spirits enter and stand among us, which is either comically creepy or creepily comic. What the heck is going on here?

Eventually we disembark and find ourselves…on stage. Our seats face the house. Looking out at the ominously dark auditorium we see the seats there are eerily covered by vast swaths of gauze. Meanwhile here and there more ghoulish specters appear—one laughing, then weeping; one weirdly lurking. Meanwhile the lighting keeps shifting for no reason underscored by unsettling seascapey sounds. Between where we sit and the Lang auditorium are some angular platforms with overturned pieces of furniture. And centerstage on a painted floor lies what may or may not be a corpse.

Where the heck are we? We have lost our bearings already and the show has yet to begin.

There are seven vignette-ish scenes plus a prolog and epilog. The eleven cast members sometimes appear as named characters in elusively plotted and loosely linked playlets, and sometimes they wear white masks and appear as background factors and apparitions. (A note from the playwright suggests he was inspired by preternatural creatures, spiritual essences, and invisible familiars found in Japanese folklore and mythology.)

There is a sort of overarching story line. The play takes place in and underneath a grand hotel by the sea. (The scrim-draped seating in the distance evokes undulating ocean waves, and the effect never stops being uncanny.)  Characters come and go in mini episodes in hotel rooms above, but there is evil down below, for this is truly a haute hell.

One of the story lines centers on the architect of the hotel, whose dark past is revealed, and all the characters’ various story lines dead-end in a wonderfully lit and choreographed scene that achieves onstage the wordless visual fascination of slo-mo blowups on film. Another knockout scene with no words was a dance between two women in evening gowns who had met on a blind date.

The cast handled the play’s abrupt shifts of reality and interruptions of reason with panache and dispatch. Though the program gave all the actors character names, it was a little hard to tell who was who as individuals. Yet the entire ensemble (Colin Smith, Yasmin Tuazon, James Finley, Ryan Tumulty, Amanda Forstrom, Kari Ginsburg, Peter Finnegan, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Farrell Parker, Shravan Amin, and Sarah Taurchini) was consistently strong.

For the striking stage arts on display, credit goes to Scenic Designer Brian Gillick, Lighting Designer Robbie Hayes, and Sound Designer Frank DiSalvo Jr. (whose swingy-jazz musical intervals between scenes were a delight). And Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny evocatively clothed characters who were only intermittently real.

Depending on your taste for surreal story structure, non sequitur text, and inscrutable characters, you may or may not get back the bearings you lost when you first entered the theater.  Yockey’s script is not big on narrative navigation cues and is often too random to be engaging. Yet in the fearless hands of the Rorschach crew, the text Yockey has inscribed as if in otherworldly ether has inspired a spectacularly grabby production and mesmerizing miseenscène.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Very Still & Hard to See plays through May 20, 2015, at Rorschach Theatre performing at Lang Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online.

Drunkle Vanya

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

When I arrived to see Drunkle Vanya last night, the first thing I did was order a vodka. I don’t typically drink before I review, but in this circumstance it seemed part of my job, since the show was being done by actors mingling among audience members downstairs at The Pinch bar in Columbia Heights and would, I was told, entail much imbibing. Little did I know.

Drunkle Vanya is an actual play in the sense that there is a script and actors know their lines and play named characters. It was adapted and created by Lori Walter Hudson, a cofounder of Three Day Hangover, the New York City theater company that first produced it. The story is loosely Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya but with interpolated pop culture references, songs, and drinking games. With the narrative rejiggered to provide frequent occasions for the characters and (some audience members) to throw back shots and chug whole bottles of booze (to raucous encouragement from the crowd), there wasn’t much Chekhovian sublimity, but there was a heck of a lot of levity.

The audience was loving it.

LiveArtDC, the innovative crew of artists who concocted this immersive iteration of Uncle Vanya, is on to something. In the words of Drunkle Vanya Director Lee Liebeskind: “If the people won’t come to the theater, then let’s bring the theater to the people.” Last year the company did a similar number on Romeo and Juliet—an acclaimed production, which I did not see, called R&J: Star-Cross’d Death Match, performed at another DC bar. Based on the company’s choices so far, one can reasonably infer that “the people” Liebeskind refers to are the elusive millennials whom every big theater in town is trying to attract. To define that demographic more accurately, it’s habitués of hip ‘n’ happening dives.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The playful cast was enjoyable to watch as they maneuvered among the patrons, earnestly declaiming their characters’ assorted angsts and confronting each other as up-close and personal as performance art gets: Karina Hilleard (Vanya), Kevin Hasser (Astrov), Rebecca Ellis (Yelena), Jenna Berk (Sonya), Rasik Ohal (Alexander), and Jon Jon Johnson (Waffles). Musician Bob Manzo, introduced as “The Cheery Orchard,” accompanied on his guitar about a half dozen interspersed songs that had the delighted audience singing along.

The upshot? If your thirst is for theater and you want a fun time, drink in Drunkle Vanya.

I have to advise, though, that the actors’ own intake of alcohol during the performance is extreme, and the shots and bottles all come directly from the actual bar in the room, not from an offstage prop table. My companion was certain the cast’s beverages were nonalcoholic, as is usually the case in live theater. But often the same drinks were served simultaneously to audience members, who evidently were swilling the real thing. So if the cast’s beverages were fake, there was some truly impressive sleight of hand going on.

This show is 21 and up only.

Running Time: About 2 hours 15 minutes, including intermission.

Drunkle Vanya presented by LiveArtDC plays through April 25, 2015, at The Pinch, 3548 14th St., Washington, DC 20010. Tickets are available online or at the door one hour before showtime.

Emerge (dance concert)

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

Watching the annual student spring dance concert last night at Howard University, I was taken aback from the get-go. What I saw was so impressive in conception and execution, so powerful in its impact, and so beautiful in each detail that I nearly forgot this was academia. Emerge had me believing I was beholding professional contemporary dance at its very best.

The program consisted of seven pieces, and the choreography throughout was breathtaking in its invention and strength. The first, choreographed by Assante Konte, was titled “African Suite – Djinafoly & Dumba.” It featured three drummers pounding propulsively stage right (one of them a boy who looked to be five) and a troupe of nine female dancers in headdresses and glittering gold and one male in a regal robe, all of whom kept moving to a beat with such intensity that it felt like we were at the big finale, not the start of the show.

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The second piece, choreographed by Maverick Lemons, was “Communities Together Rise,” an eloquent evocation of its theme performed by an ensemble of nine wearing hues in patchwork palette.

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For me the most dramatic offering of the evening was “Is the Writing on the Wall?,” choreographed by Ray Mercer, which closed out the first half of the program. A plain black wall up stage was danced around, against, and over by an ensemble of six to a music track based on Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” Gradually the black wall was filled in by chalk markings—first the word JUSTICE, eventually a huge drawing of a dove, chalk dust filling the air with each furious scrawl. I cannot say what the piece “meant,” only that it was riveting and moving and more thrilling than I thought dance could be.

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The strength of the choreography was matched toe to toe by the strength of the dancers. Dancers are always strong, of course; they have to be—except that in mainstream George Ballanchine Ballerina Land white female dancers are portrayed as delicate dolls. Not here at Howard, no way. These dancers were sturdy, muscular athletic artists, and watching them move singly and unitedly with power and purpose, deftly halting still then surging on, was an exhilaration that kept electrifying.

“Keuchen,” choreographed by Royce Zackery, started the second half of the program on quieter note—following the nonstop exuberance of the first half.  An intricately interconnected trio—Yasmeen Enahora, Paris Jones, Sydnee Carroll—performed in sinuous synchronicity. They were wearing toe shoes but they were not on point at first…

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…then suddenly they were—not delicately or demurely but statuesquely, with epic presence self-assertion.

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The lighting for each dance by TW Starnes was especially effective. Besides the choreographers named, Jennifer Archibald (“Shook”), Francesca Harper (“A Reconfigured Dream”), and Bre S. C. Seals (“1 – 3 – 13”)  contributed stunning work. The talented corp of dancers included Michael C. Bradford, Trey Rochell Capers, Aliyha Crawford, Lailah Duke, Raechelle Ellison, Yasmeen Enahora, Makeda Griffith, Destiny Jade Hill, Alyssa Holmes, Alexus Jones, Paris Jones, Ani Mayo, Ariarna Odom, Charise Pinkston, Rose Chantal Porter, Jessica Potts, Olivia Russell, Jaleesa Sharp.

The combined talent on stage was simply awesome.

Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

Emerge: Annual Spring Dance Concert produced by Howard University Department of Theatre Arts played April 10 and 11, 2015 at the Ira Aldridge Theater – 2455 6th Street, NW, in Washington, DC.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

There is no humor in one’s own unhappiness. To be lonely and disappointed in life is not to be amused. To feel empty and over the hill is not to be tickled. Yet when we laugh at the woes and sorrows of the middle-age siblings Vanya, Sonia, and Masha—as laugh we do, in gasps and gales, for more than two hours—something curiously healing happens. We are in on jokes that could be on ourselves except they’re not. They’re jokes on the artfully observed characters in Christopher Durang’s Chekhov-inspired comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, just opened in the fishbowl Fichandler at Arena Stage. Somehow the play turns melancholy to hilarity in a way that mitigates our own malaise and self-pity.

The production is directed by Aaron Posner, whom I interviewed when his own Chekhov-ish comedy Life Sucks played recently at Theater J. He has got to be theater’s smartest and most intuitive expert in the trending practice of lifting from Chekhov and making it seem like now. At the Arena Stage opening night reception—after Artistic Director Molly Smith praised Posner from the podium for his masterful direction of a difficult-to-stage play, one that (as she rightly pointed out) would have been easy to get wrong—I caught up with him to chat.

When I mentioned what I noted was the production’s healing humor, Posner’s face lit up animatedly in agreement. Then on the spot he shared with me insights about how for that elusive humor to happen, actors must go deep into the pain of their characters’ moments (I’m paraphrasing here), and he told me how that process had come to pass recently during rehearsal for particular performances. Indeed, the entire cast is extraordinary—they each deliver multiple show-stopping, own-the-stage solos, as if connected all the while more like close-knit family than a professional acting ensemble. Whatever depths Posner and the cast dug down to during rehearsal, the performances that result are marvelous to behold.

Durang’s script is currently much produced across the land, and it’s no wonder why—Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is a funny, funny play with an astonishingly huge heart. It’s set in the present in a well-kept house in the country that is home to sister and brother Sonia (Sherri L. Edelen) and Vanya (Eric Hissom) and owned by their sister Masha (Grace Gonglewski), a semifamous film actress who arrives in Act One. The whole setup is a clever mash-up of bits and pieces from Chekhov. As Vanya explains, their parents, both professors, named the three kids after characters in Chekhov. The text is littered with other references to Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters, and The Seagull as well. No prior knowledge of these precursors is required to enjoy the goings-on, but for dramatic-lit insiders, there are goo-gobs of winking nods.

Vanya and Sonia’s clairvoyant housekeeper Cassandra comes by (in Jessica Frances Duke’s riotous performance, she actually breezes in like a dervish).  Masha shows up with her boytoy Spike (a buff bundle of randy energy in Jefferson Farber’s eye-candy performance). On a near-skinny-dip in the pool, Spike’s roving eye espies the beautiful next-door ingenue Nina (all sweetness and hope in Rachel Esther Tate’s lovely performance). And more hilarity ensues.

Yet an undercurrent of hurt and heartache flows steadily just beneath the play’s laugh-out-loud surface. It’s there from the beginning, in the lonely lamentations of frumpy Sonia (performed so lovingly by Edelen we fall in love with her—and we cheer for her when romance might be at hand). It’s there in the suppressed, unfulfilled affect of the gay brother Vanya (played with compelling quietude by Hissom—until he breaks out in a scathing rant in Act Two). It’s there in the mournfulness with which Masha (the stylish and statuesque Gonglewski) reflects on her five failed marriages, her fear of aging,  her likely loss of Spike to a younger woman. But not until the very end—a touching, deeply affecting, and wholly unexpected reconciliation scene—does that undercurrent suddenly become an emotional tidal wave. And it immerses us and buoys us and drenches us in healing empathy.

The Margins

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

There be eerie goings-on inside the DC Arts Center black box where Molotov Theatre Group is staging a spell-binder of a show about a psychic experiment to create a ghost by occultish committee. Although the horror play, titled The Margins, is short (just over an hour), it is long on suspense and double whammies—plus some preternaturally shrewd scripting by Playwright David Skeele.

Under Carl Brandt Long’s dextrous direction—which steadily grips us with increasing tension—six actors play characters in quest of a specter. They gather in the gloomy-musty maroon-walled parlor (built by Set Designer Rachel Marie Wallace, lit by Lighting Designer Pete Vargo) of an old, uninhabited mansion with a storied past. Five are quasi experts in the lore and luring of ghosts: Jonathan, the anxious host (Adam R. Adkins); Phyllida, a no-nonsense historian (Jen Bevan), who knows what lies buried in the basement beneath; Lane (Elliot Kashner), who has detected an unsettling level of mold on the premises; Trace (Yoni Gray), who was traumatized into muteness as a child by a sexual molester; and Helen, Trace’s sister (Katie Jeffries), who shares his past but can give voice to more than anyone could have imagined. Joining them is Markus, a jaded, just-the-facts reporter from the New York Times (Brian McDermott) who is there ostensibly to report but who involuntarily becomes part of the creepy story.

If you know your horror genre you can surmise that the psychics’ experiment goes awry and a ghost shows up who makes mayhem. Still the alarmingly uncanny story line will keep you guessing, and the effects will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Notable among those effects is the unnerving soundscape by Composer/Sound Designer Gregory Thomas Martin. If you weren’t already jumpy, it will jolt you there. Videographer Steven Bradford has devised an appropriately spooky opening credit sequence projected onto a screen above the mantle. And Bevan, doubling as costume designer, has outfitted this motley lot eclectically and cleverly. A video camera, which sometimes is operated hand-held as a prop, sends a live feed to the projection screen, lending a movie-like aura to the proceedings.

There was some opening night shakiness in the performances, and an unlucky glitch pitched the video into sleep mode a couple times, which distractingly brought up on screen a tech company logo. That can all surely be fixed, but ironically the tech accident, by momentarily taking my mind out of the scene, made me mindful with unexpected clarity of just how engrossed I had become in the storytelling and all its attendant effects.

The strength of Steele’s story is really the hook. It brings to life the disturbing past life of a young woman who lived on “the margins” of society, a servant girl who suffered horribly at the hands of the master of the mansion where this junk-science seance is set. Steele has constructed a back story for the play that in its own riveting way is more horrifying than anything that unfolds on stage. It is a crafty cri de coeur from a buried memory of sexual predation. And the Molotov production does it justice—even as the victim shows up to exact revenge.

I have seen and reviewed two previous Molotov productions of plays whose themes also turn on sexual violence in extremis: Extremities and Normal. Though I do not know whether this pattern of similarity was intentional, it strikes me as evidence of an extraordinary commitment on the part of theater artists whose esthetic is Grand Guignol—associated with graphic, amoral horror entertainment—to depict on stage real life’s horrors and hold their amorality up to clear-eyed view.

Bravo.

Running Time: About 65 minutes with no intermission.

The Margins plays through April 26, 2015 at Molotov Theatre Group performing at DC Arts Center (DCAC) – 2438 18th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Performances are every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 7:30 pm. For tickets, purchase them online.