Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: July, 2015

Capital Fringe 2015 Review: Brothel

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

Playwright Isa Seyran has told forthrightly the origin story of Brothel: Reading about the extreme gender imbalance of men to women in North Dakota resulting from an oil boom thanks to fracking, Seyran was inspired to write a play set in an imaginary small-scale legal brothel there that would supply the men with fucking. Seyran claims no first-hand knowledge of prostitution in North Dakota—where in fact it is criminalized, for both buyer and seller—though he does tell of personal familiarity with the operation of legal brothels in his native Turkey (presumably not as a service provider).

Watching the resulting six-character play—whose gender equipoise features one pimp, one john, one male health inspector, and three women in prostitution—I found myself reminded of Bertholt Brecht, who made up from whole cloth a play set in a 1930s Chicago peopled with mobsters and gangsters, although he had not yet set foot outside Europe. Brecht did so (in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a satirical allegory about the rise of Hitler) with a political purpose and viewpoint; he was not writing fourth-wall naturalism. Thus as I watched Seyran’s script play out, in a quite Fringe-servicable production that he himself directed, I kept listening to his text not for verisimilitude (his characters bear virtually no relationship to the reality of their roles in the actual sex industry) but for Seyran’s purpose and point of  view.

I cannot say that I discerned any such, other than a prostitution proponent’s propensity to justify the buying and selling of bodies for sex with a marketplace, supply-and-demand argument that pivots on phallic imperative. In his program note he quotes Hal, his pimp character, saying, “It is not my fault that God created men, gave them penises and put this unstoppable desire in them to put their penises into whatever hole they can find.”  Variants of that perspective recur throughout, always taken at face value, notably given voice by each of the female characters (“Pussy is the best currency in human civilization,” says Val at one point. Su, who is an Asian imigrant, translates the word prostitution in her homeland as “happiness providing” and comes to her career in this country with a diploma from a school for sex workers, which Hal at one point argues there should be in the U.S.).

If Seyran had something more in mind than pro-prostitution agit prop, this reviewer could not fathom what it was. Advance promotion for the show promised, in Sevran’s words, “a very serious drama with some heavy themes and undertones” and, in the press release’s words, “a new play that explores the question of what is at the deepest core of men and women…an unexacting [sic] look at human nature.” What I perceived instead was an awkwardly structured script that required the actors to lurch without perceptible motivation or thematic unity from speech to speech and scene to scene. For instance there’s a sudden catfight that erupts out of nowhere between the older Val, who has been pimped by Hal for many years (loyally, we are given to understand), and a new arrival, the younger, more kink-friendly Rosa, whom Hal wants to pimp as well. Abruptly Hal becomes the caring and consoling referee between two warring whores. Early on Hal’s character is established as that of a pimp with a heart of gold (hey, this is theater, where anything can happen), yet later Hal seriously contemplates pimping out his wife, who is mother of his two young children and pregnant with a third.

To their credit the actors gave this muddle of a script a good go, particularly Ned Read as Hal, who deserves a better role in a better play, and Pimmie Juntranggur as Su, who bursts on stage with formidable energy and absconds with her scene. Also in the cast were Adrian Iglesias as George the health inspector, whose new-to-the-job ineptness had charm; Sally Roffman as aging hooker Val, who found touching poignance in the part; Brian Lewadowski as Val’s favorite customer, Isaac, who played nice guy credibly if improbably; and Lauren Patton as Rosa, who did sexpot spitfire just fine.

Running Time: One hour 25 minutes with no intermission.

Brothel plays through July 25, 2015, at Logan Fringe Arts Space: Trinidad Theatre – 1358 Florida Ave NE Washington, DC 20002. For schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

Read the preview article on DCMetroTheaterArts.

Capital Fringe 2015 Review: “It’s What We Do”: A Play About the Occupation

As a medium for understanding what has been going on in the Israel-occupied territories, the art of theater can do something that other  media cannot. Theater can narrate events and tell stories, of course; but it can also make the human emotions in dramatic encounters present and palpable. Theater can make feelings feel so real that we feel something akin to them too.  As evidenced by a theater piece that opened last night, the resulting performance experience can be gripping.  “It’s What We Do”: A Play About the Occupation is a powerful staging of a powerful script with a powerful moral meaning.

There was barely a sound in the sold-out opening night audience. There was nearly sustained pin-drop silence. Only one brief tragifarcical scene (an amusing bit about border-crossing bureacracy) got an audible response. All the rest of the time it was as if one could hear the audience listening, taking it all in, trying to process the unprocessable—in empathic response to the emotions being enacted and in stilled, chilled bewilderment at the inhumanity being depicted.

At a Busboys and Poets program in fall 2013, Playwright and Director Pamela Nice happened to hear a former Israeli Defense Forces solder speak out about the horrors of the Israeli occupation.  That led her to discover an organization called Breaking the Silence, which has assembled a chorus of testimony about those horrors from other IDF service people. (Even a cursory glance at the group’s website offers a troubling look at the experience of soldiers whose consciences were military casualties.) Artfully, Nice has crafted excerpts from truth-telling about the 1967 occupation into a stage play featuring three Solders, composites representing an army of silence-breakers (compellingly played by Olivia Haller, Tariq Triano, and Keanu Ross-Cabrera), who are debriefed by an interviewer, an eerily uninflected offstage Voice (Dior Ashley Brown).

As the soldiers speak their verbatim testimony, their words now and then segue into short scenes, like tableaux vivants, which vividly demonstrate the solders’ horrific acts against Palestinians (who are played variously by a wonderful supporting ensemble: Moses Bernal, Sofia Pellegrino, Jamal Najjab, Xavier Goytia, and sisters Jaelyn and Izabella Cruz).

The cast has clearly been well directed to communicate the truth of each emotional moment. Time and again, one could read on their faces and in their quavering voices whole chapters of distress where there was but a line of dialogue. And in the midst of the extensive combat choreography—when the Israeli soldiers routinely assaulted the Palestinians—cries of the heart could be heard with heartbreaking immediacy.

“Our mission was to disrupt and harrass people’s lives,” says one Soldier succinctly. And that is exactly what “It’s What We Do” puts on stage: Ransacking homes and blowing up houses (euphemized as “changes of address”). Bulldozing centuries-old orchards. Jewish-only roads that Arabs are forbidden to travel. Brutal checkpoint assaults. Denial of work permits for anyone whose distant relative ever so much as threw a stone at an Israeli (meaning that nearly no Palestinian can earn a livelihood). Doing whatever it takes to defend the Jewish settlers’ claimed authority to live on land that once was Arabs’.

The catalog of indignities and atrocities that were these soldiers’ job to perform leaves them in an agony of inner conflict. They speak of being torn between the national loyalty of being born an Israeli and the awful recognition that that heritage now requires victimizing innocent Palestinian civilians. As one Soldier says, “The settlers are the closest to Jewish Nazis I’ve ever met.”

This is an extraordinary work of theater—disturbing in the most important sense that it provokes real-time reckoning with real-world morals and places the meaning of human emotions center stage. “It’s What We Do”: A Play About the Occupation is a play that one must think about and talk about after. But first and foremost, it must be seen.

Running Time: 45 minutes with no intermission.

“It’s What We Do”: A Play About the Occupation plays through July 25, 2015, at Atlas Performing Arts Center: Lab II – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.

Capital Fringe 2015 Review: mostly the VOICE: a black lesbian journey

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

There are many delightful and poignant moments in mostly the VOICE: a black lesbian journey. This engaging autobiographical amalgam of poetry, original music, and storytelling—written and performed by  j.scales—opened last night in Gallaudet’s Eastman Studio Theatre and establishes j.scales as an important new voice in solo theatrical performance. I say this not only because the black lesbian experience is conspicuously underrepresented on DC stages (which it is). I say this also because j.scales is such a personable, multi-talented, and all-around-enjoyable performer.

j.scales begins by recounting her upbringing in Rochester, New York, where her father worked at Eastman Kodak (a photo in the program shows her as a girl beside snow as high as she is tall). As a black child in the suburbs, she was “living between worlds.” Inspired by Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, she wrote a letter to God to say she felt like a chocolate drop in vanilla ice cream.

With a terrific gift for vocal impersonation, j.scales introduces us to her first crush (jo), her mother, her grandmother, an elderly woman at church, and more. j.scales’s coming out to her mother was difficult; her mother was outraged when she discovered that her daughter had a drawer full of books by and about black lesbians. The experience becomes the setup for a moving song she sings called “does yr mama know?” that audibly landed for the audience.

Hers is an original and contemporary woman’s voice, yet it has, as j.scales makes humbly and abundantly clear, forerunners and foremothers. She makes a point of referencing and revering the books—such as Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and  Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back—that affirmed and inspired her when she was younger and coming out. Literally, she takes the books from a table centerstage and holds them up for us to see. In the context of telling us her personal past, it is a gracious and resonant political gesture.

On that table are other mementos, as of relationships and breakups she has had with various women. Stage right is a mic and stand where she does most of her poetry and storytelling. Stage left is an amp and bass, which she plays at the end on a song called “maybe she thought” that has a touching twist.  After exchanging numbers with a woman she met in a CVS and was attracted to, she wonders self-consciously whether the woman was so  forthcoming because she thought j.scales was a guy.

As j.scales’s story continues, she enters Howard, finds her way to the local music and poetry scene and queer community (dubbing herself  the High Priestess of Homo Hop), and decides to stay in DC, where she has since become well known as a poet, composer, musician, vocalist, and spoken-word artist. That j.scales is a formidable slam-poetry artist was amply evidenced during an eloquently explicit erotic poem that she read from the podium in near darkness. That interlude gave me occasion to appreciate the spotlighted ASL interpreter for this performance, Nikki Gee, whose artistic signing of j.scales’s graphic words was absolutely beautiful to behold.

(All Fringe performances at Gallaudet are ASL interpreted and/or captioned for the Deaf, and the 16 shows booked there this year will give hearing audience members scores of chances to be knocked out by the artistry of sign language in theater as I was again last night.)

mostly the VOICE is j.scales’s first attempt at combining all her gifts into a single solo theater piece, and she has had the good fortune to work on this project with Director Regie Cabico, himself a luminary in DC’s spoken-word scene. The piece in its present Fringe version has untapped potential. j.scales was off book for parts of the show,  but there were portions that she read from a script in a black binder that would have been much better by heart—particularly the very funny anecdotal stuff. As she performs the piece more, the unsteadiness of the transitions will likely diminish, and she will become surer of her material and her talent as a solo dramatic performer—both of which are outstanding. Though still a bit shaky, even in this first-time-out form, mostly the VOICE: a black lesbian journey is thoroughly enjoyable and eminently worth seeing.

Running Time: 55 minutes with no intermission.

mostly the VOICE: a black lesbian journey plays through July 26, 2015, at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. For schedule of performances and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.