Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: October, 2015

Darius & Twig

I cannot help but think that if W.E.B. DuBois were alive, he would absolutely love Darius & Twig, the passionately purposeful play by Caleen Sinnette Jennings adapted from Walter Dean Myers’s popular young adult novel of the same name. Now running in the Family Theater at The Kennedy Center in a production as playful as it is profound, Darius & Twig is positively pulsing with edifying energy and “the vision of seers.”

The phrase is from DuBois’s famous 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth,” which begins:

The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races. Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers.

It would be ahistorical to wish DuBois’s conscientious attention to black men did not leave out black women. He was a man of his time, after all. But he was a man ahead of his time as well: His point about the uplifting importance for a people of excellent higher education for its exceptional upper percentile has stood the test.

Darius and Twig are two boys living in Harlem, one black, one Hispanic. They’re in high school, they are best friends, and they each excel. Darius writes, so well that during the play his story is accepted for publication in a literary journal. Twig runs, so fast that during the play he triumphs in competition.

That Darius is a “seer” is explicit in the script. He poetically imagines himself flying like a falcon and tells us he sees things only he can see. Twig too envisions the victory he wishes to achieve.

Significantly Darius and Twig deeply esteem each other’s excellence and want each other to succeed—a beautiful part of their bond. They are not in competition with each other. They are in competition for their future, which they know is dependent on getting into a good school (“You have to give a damn for yourself”).

The boys face obstacles to their aspirations. Darius’s Mama is a single mother living near poverty, raising Darius and his brother Brian, and struggling with a drinking problem. Twig’s Uncle Ernesto pressures him to quit. There’s a sadistic neighborhood bully named Midnight who with his sidekick Tall Boy taunts and torments Darius and Twig, calling Twig “fairy feet.”

But there are significant adults in their world who recognize Darius and Twig’s talents and who encourage and support them. The discipline and determination to succeed evidenced by both Darius and Twig are dramatically exemplified. In the end both Darius and Twig are accepted to colleges on scholarship. And the thrill of their accomplishment rippled through the mostly adult audience on opening night.

As Darius, Justin Weaks gives a phenomenally eloquent performance. There need to be more vehicles—like this and Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea—for his transfixing acting agility. And he was extraordinarily well matched by the exuberant Twig played by Christopher Wilson, who doubled as Brian. Appearing in 13 supporting roles were the astonishingly versatile Manu Kumasi and Latia Stokes. Director Eleanor Holdridge created a lively, believable world, and most remarkably she makes the atypical tenderness underlying the relationship between Darius and Twig completely credible.

The set by Andrew Cohen is an urban montage of graffiti-filled brick walls, basketball backstop, garbage can, newsstand, all against blue sky breaking through. Overhead was spray-painted “One person can only do so much”—with the word “only” crossed out. That edited legend is a tip-off that there is a pedagogy at play in this play. Its inspirational messaging is intrinsic to every scene, and a colorfully designed Cuesheet program guide intended for young audiences ensures that its lessons last. For instance,

What it takes to be a runner,
what it takes to be writer
you have to be the best you can,
you have to be a fighter.

The best, the best you can… Over a century ago DuBois capitalized the word Best. Darius & Twig underscores it with true-to-life contemporary truth. And the result is one of the best shows in town for young audiences of all ages.

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Top Girls

I may have missed it, but to my knowledge no playwright in the current Women’s Voices Theater Festival set out to write a feminist-socialist play and explicitly said so. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Understandably those F and S words creep a lot of people out, Emma Watson and Bernie Sanders notwithstanding.) So in my book, that makes this solidly engaging university production of Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls a theatrical event worthy of serious attention.

The endlessly inventive British playwright Churchill wrote Top Girls in 1982, a time when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, Ronald Reagan was president, and women of considerable privilege had begun to climb the ranks of middle management aiming to smash the glass ceiling. None of the seven women whose considerable talents brought Churchill’s work to life last night onstage at The George Washington University had yet been born.

In 1987 Churchill said of Top Girls to an interviewer:

What I was intending to do was make it first look as though it was celebrating the achievements of women and then—by showing the main character, Marlene, being successful in a very competitive, destructive capitalist way—ask, what kind of achievement is that? The idea was that it would start out looking like a feminist play and turn into a socialist one, as well.

And that’s exactly what Churchill achieved in this fascinatingly complex time-traveling epic. In the first scene we meet Marlene, a self-acknowledged “pushy” exec, celebrating her promotion to managing director of the Top Girls employment agency by hosting a dinner party at an upscale London restaurant for five women. Those women, all figures from history, literature, and art, have accepted Marlene’s invitation to join her in the present (the 1980s). Downing bottle after bottle of fine wine, they chit-chat and tell overlapping stories about their lot in life as women—which sucks, not surprisingly, though the interconnecting tales they tell are astounding. “To our courage!” says Marlene as she toasts them. Then: “Why are we all so miserable?”

The last scene, set in a naturalistic kitchen in Suffolk, is a trenchant confrontation between Marlene and her sister Joyce, a working class woman raising a daughter, Angie, by holding down four jobs (“It adds up,” she says). Joyce challenges Marlene’s myopic grasping for success within an economic structure built on keeping people like her down beneath:

Marlene: She’s a tough lady, Maggie. I’d give her a job….
Joyce: You voted for her then?….
Marlene: First woman prime minister. Terrifico. Aces. Right on….
Joyce: What good’s first woman if it’s her? I suppose you would have liked Hitler if he was a woman. Ms Hitler. Got a lot done, Hitlerina….
Marlene: Bosses still walking on the workers’ faces? Still Dadda’s little parrot? Haven’t you learned to think for yourself? I believe in the individual. Look at me.
Joyce: I am looking at you.

So Marlene would not be a good advert for Lean In.

But more important, Top Girls dares to ask the question that Emily’s List will likely not: Will we be better off with a woman at the top if the capitalist system she’s highly stationed in stays the same? (Note to next Democratic debate moderators: Ask that.)

Churchill’s conceptual arc in Top Girls is profound and stealthy; from beginning to end, what she’s up to sneaks up on you. Thankfully in this GWU Department of Theatre and Dance production, Director Jodi Kanter makes each step of the way a riveting treat.

Angelina Hoidra as Marlene was the play’s commanding center of gravity. The five women she dines with are a motley assortment of characters all well played as well: Alexandria Taliaferro as Isabella Bird, an actual avid traveler: Kait Haire as Lady Nijo, an actual child courtesan in Japan; Madeleine Farrington as Pope Joan, a legendary pontiff who posed as a man; Melanie Lerch as Griselda, a literary figure in Chaucer; and Marceleine Sutter, whose uncouth lack of table manners as Dull Gret, a peasant in a painting by Breugel, much delighted the opening night audience. Their attentive server was played by Léocadia Tchouaffé. Everyone but Hoidra doubled or trippled. Notably, Sutter comically stole some later scenes in the role of young Angie, Lerch was very cute as Angie’s playmate Kit, and Taliaferro reappeared in the powerful presence of Joyce.

To my ears the cast did British diction well (Susan Lynskey was dialect coach), though they were not uniformly clearly audible, at times a function of being so far upstage on Scenic Designer Michael Stepowany’s curiously undistinguished symmetrical staircase-and-multiplatform set. Sound Designer Sabrina Hyman played authentically innocuous lounge piano under the restaurant scene and found amusing 80s tunes for the scene changes. And hats off (at the very least) to Costume Designer Sigríður Jóhannesdóttir, whose period garments for the five dinner guests, power suits for Marlene, and kids’ clothes for the girls were outstanding

Top Girls is quite a difficult play to stage, actually; on paper it’s a bit of a slog to read. Not only are there several time leaps (the end of Act Two takes place before the end of Act One); the characters are constantly talking on top of one another. In performance this simul-scripting creates a lifelike gendered language texture—I was reminded of the giggly girl talk one overhears among gaggles of teens and tweens who all seem to be chirping at once. Churchill’s characters do something similar, just more sobered up by being grown up, and the student cast last night handled it ably.

This rare run ends Sunday. Anyone who has never seen and listened to Top Girls on its feet should catch it now. It’s a certifiable modern classic, and it’s in a woman’s voice that speaks for all of us…except the one percent.

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Top Girls plays through this Sunday, November 1, 2015, at The George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, in the Marvin Center – 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC. The 2:00 pm performance November 1 will be ASL interpreted. For tickets, buy them at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre’s box office, or call (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.

Avenue Q

The intriguing tagline for Constellation Theatre Company’s 2015/16 season is “Playtime for Grownups,” which could not have been more appropriate on opening night of its Avenue Q—the wholly humable musical in a humdinger of a production. It’s going to be a huge hit. And it really is adult fun.

The famous show with childhood-invoking Sesame Street–style puppets about twentysomething life crises originated in 2003 with music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Mars and book by Jeff Whitty. It has since become quite the phenom—produced so often that one can find multiple vendors online offering to rent the requisite puppets. The laugh-out-loud show has clearly hit a nerve along with the funny bone.

Perhaps it is worth asking: Why?

The songs and plotlines in Avenue Q touch on a catalog of concerns common to the generational life stage now known as millennial: career uncertainty, unemployability, financial insecurity, lack of focused purpose, fear of and longing for relationship commitment, sense of no future. Avenue Q also layers on even more personal problems: coming-out anxiety, everyday racism, masturbation, internet porn, loneliness…. Though that list sounds heavy,  Avenue Q keeps everything light and lively. Real and relatable. Digestible and delightful even. For which we have to hand it to the hand puppets.

Not for nothing are puppets employed in play therapy with children. Puppets give permission to say what can’t be said and tell stories that can’t be told.  The evergreen genius of Avenue Q is that it makes actor-operated foam and fur toys come alive as believable dramatic characters whose performance is totally disarming and whose subtextual therapeutic function is all about releasing unspeakable truths.

Avenue Q is playing on a revitalized 14th Street in a town that millennials have flocked to in droves. The jobs are here; the nightlife is here; the buzz is here. Their budgets are stretched but there are bucks coming in. DC is the nation’s epicenter of driven young people on the lower rungs of ladders leading to actual and relevant careers. So what gives with the enormous appeal of a decade-old musical set beside an inner-city tenement inhabited by under- and unemployed college grads who all believe their lives suck?

There’s a funny song in the show called “Schadenfreude,” from the German word that combines “harm” and “joy” and refers to the feeling of pleasure one can take in seeing the troubles of others. (You can read the lyrics here—like a lot of the script, they get coarse.) As a meta frame for the whole production, “Schadenfreude” is eloquent, because Avenue Q is the perfect perch from which to view with tickled pity the pathos of post-adolescent angst.

And what’s remarkable is that this experience is not an alienation effect. On the contrary, Constellation’s Avenue Q connects the audience to an important commonality though song and comedy and the ebullience of the cast.

Their joie de vivre is indelible and infectious. They sing, they dance, they skip, they twerk. Director Allison Arkell Stockman has achieved a sharp staging, with tight choreography by Rachel Leigh Dolan, that one cannot imagine being more enjoyable, performed by musical comedy talents one cannot imagine being more entertaining.

Seven actors play puppeteers, who are dressed in black but who, though “invisible” to all the other characters, appear fully present as performers: Matt Dewberry (Princeton), Katy Carkuff (Kate Monster), Alex Alferov (vivid as Nicky), Vaughn Ryan Midder (arresting as Rod/Trekkie Monster), Emily Zickler (enchanting as Lucy, also Mrs. Thistletwat), and Jenna Berk and Christian Montgomery (as the two Bad Idea Bears). Three actors play “people” characters (dressed colorfully in street clothes by Costume Designer Kara Waala): Mikey Cafarelli and Justine “Icy” Moral, as the two young lovers Brian and Christmas Eve, and Eben K. Logan, a standout as the landlord, Gary Coleman.

Musical Director Jake Null conducts a buoyant  band of instrumentalists upstage of the cityscape scrim  conceived and lit prettily by Scenic and Lighting Designer A. J. Gubon. Constellation’s authentic-looking puppets are indeed the real deal; they’re from the original Avenue Q designer, Rick Lyon, and whatever Puppet Coach Matthew Adwin McGee did sure got results: The entire cast’s puppetry skills are awesome. The actors not only speak in puppet voices; they somehow sing in those puppet voices as well. They’re amazing.

Still, the show’s unique appeal really does turn significantly on those silly puppets.

Constellation’s Avenue Q is fundamentally an uplifting puppet show for grownups. Grownups who are agemates of the characters and share similar indecisions and insecurities. Grownups who are older but can look back at a time when they were younger and life was less charted, less settled in its ways. That’s because Avenue Q speaks of a universal wisdom. And it does so with toys from childhood that liberate the id in our inner kid.

Smartphones

saw this show last nite. LMAO. 2 funny. OMG. u G2G.

So might read a hasty text from a self-absorbed hipster about Smartphones, the ridiculously delightful farce now playing at Mead Lab Flashpoint. Presented by Ambassador Theater in a brisk and bracing production directed by Joe Banno, Smartphones is a hilarious comedy of bad manners about our era’s inner Narcissus, whose vain reflection now stares back from a handheld screen.

Spanish playwright Emilio Williams writes with tongue drolly in cheek, except when stuck out and blowing a raspberry. Two young married couples—Amelia and Barnaby, and Dagobert and Chantal—meet up in the home of their friend Fedé, who is absent but expected imminently. The husbands are friends from high school; the wives, from college. And in an endlessly silly meta-theatrical joke, their wait for Fedé echos Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (except now and then they receive “On my way” texts from him and follow his Facebook and Twitter feeds). Also skewering their self-referential, selfie-satisfied social world is a meta-joke hyperlinked to Sartre’s No Exit (except one or another will now and then run out to buy a bottle of booze).

Fedé’s cleaning lady, Marie (Ambassador Artistic Director and Founder Hanna Bondarewska, decked out in a latex maid’s getup and yellow rubber gloves), opens the show lip syncing an operatic aria and amusingly flouncing about and flirting with the audience seated round the stage.  The stark, simple set (designed along with the flashy lighting by David Ghatan) features four leather swivel chairs, a black-upholstered table, and an anachronistic green plastic telephone perched upon a red pillar.

The couples enter and banter, and each spouse carries a constantly consulted smartphone. The landline rings auspiciously but they let it go—because “nobody answers their phone anymore.” Obsessed with their  wi-fi’ed online lives, at one point the two women text a convo in the dark, their faces lit solely by their smartphones. It’s one of googobs of clever bits. There’s also a running joke about “spotty coverage”—to which they all say “ewww!” Episodically they all spaz out in weird green light and loud static, as if in dreaded disconnection from a signal—meanwhile their disconnection from one another fazes them not at all.

So outrageously and hilariously shallow are the four of them that they speak earnestly about the benefits of outsourcing their children to China for adoption. “There are things in life that a horoscope can’t prepare you for,” one of them laments. Suddenly a text message comes in. Is it from Fedé? “Oh no, it was just my fridge. I’ve got an alert that we ran out of margarine.” Banno’s program note aptly characterizes Smartphones as “‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians,’ as if written by a blogging Oscar Wilde.”

Ariana Almajan brought a very funny Valley Girl inflection to Amelia. Moriah Whiteman played the ditz Chantal with incouciant fizz. And Shravan Amin gave Dagobert bumbling charm. Because Bruce Rauscher had become unable to perform as Barnaby, Tekle Ghebremeschel stepped in and played the role on book. I can attest he did well, and the last-minute substitution did not detract the slightest from my complete enjoyment.

Smartphones is one of the smartest, sharpest satires I’ve seen. It’s also one of the shortest—the subtitle’s “pocket-size” doesn’t lie. And in its refreshing brevity is the soul of its conspicuous wit.

YW.

Running Time: 55 minutes with no intermission.

Smartphones – a pocket-size farce plays through November 15, 2015 at Ambassador Theater performing at Mead Lab Flashpoint – 906 G Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.

LINK:

‘Sex, Lies and Nomophobia’ in Emilio Williams’ ‘Smartphones’ at Ambassador Theater Opening Tonight

Straight Outta Hell at Next Day Theater

With a stand-up comedy act plus five skits, the laughs last Saturday at Straight Outta Hell—Next Day Theater’s one-night-only sketch-comedy surprise—were well earned. Producer Matt Spangler had once again put together a bang-up blast for a full house at Tropicalia, the happening basement boîte at 14th and U.

Chalk up another win for DC’s performing arts nightlife, and another venue for fearless writers, directors, and performers. By the time the amply unwound audience cheered the curtain call, the tiny Tropicalia stage was crammed with a throng of actors who had just tickled the assembled funny bones. And this was no skeleton crew. By my count the cast numbered 33, up from 22 the last time Next Day Theater popped up in May.

OPENING ACT: Cortez Fabia

The comic’s first joke—a nod to the athletic good looks he’d gotten from his Asian/African American parentage—was “No, I’m not Tiger Woods.” Fabia is an appealing performer, and the audience was right with him as he went on to ribald riffs about what he fears.  Not scary Halloween stuff, though: What alarms him is his mother dating. In that tell-all context Fabia noted wryly that the only thing he and his  mother’s new boyfriend had in common was that they’d both “been inside her”—at which lewd truth the audience fell out.

Thereafter in an interlude that Spangler assured me by email was “a little self-deprecating / meta fun,”  an Exorcist/Carrie specter all in red entered and vomited—a bit intended as a bad-taste palette cleanser.

In sketch comedy, setup is key. There has to be humor built in to the situation from the get-go. Accordingly, what follows are teasers for the five subsequent Halloween-themed comedy sketches—as conceived by a pickup team of writers and directors—meant as much to give a giggle with the gist as to whet your appetite for Next Day Theater’s next groaning smorgasbord.

CASPER’S COMING OUT PARTY: Written by Anne Marie DiNardo. Directed by Jen Williams. With Erik Heaney, Noah Sommer, Paul McLane, Karen Masih, Lena Winter.

It’s a close-knit family of traditional ghosts—mom, dad, grandma, two brothers—whose mission is to scare. But one of the boys has a secret to tell: He doesn’t want to pretend anymore that he’s a ghost and have to scare people because inside he knows he’s a fairy. (His family doesn’t clap their hands.)

HERE COMES THE PANIC: Written by Jenny Splitter. Directed by Jenna Duncan. With Tori Boutin, Emma Hebert, Hilary Kelly, Yewande Odetoyinbo, Rick Westercamp, Robert Pike.

She’s about to become the bride of a zombie, and she’s freaking out. (Maybe she’d calm down if some Anne Rice were thrown?)

MONSTER GROUP HOUSE: Written by Derek Hills. Directed by Natalia Gleason. With Joseph Mariano, Kenny Washington, Richard Evans, Jean Chemnick, Lorrie Smith, Janel Dillard.

Their monster tax rebate is in jeopardy. They have to scare more but they’re losers at it. They need a zombie life coach. (Oh right, that’s an oxymoron.)

MEAT-CUTE: Written by Matt Spangler. Directed by Timothy R. King. With Kurt Riggs, Cristen Stephansky, David Walsh, Johana Vargas, Brittany Sankofa.

It’s a frontier restaurant called Chez Donner (as in Donner Pass), and the repast it offers is…people. (Mmm, delish.)

MURDERELLA: Written by Dara Gold, Star Johnson, and Desiree Springer. Directed by Star Johnson. With Desiree Springer, Dara Gold, Merancia Noelsaint, Vitaly Mayes, Ben Harris, Jackie Madejski, Brittney Sankofa, Harvey Jones, Johana Vargas, Breanna Mckenley, Janani Ramachandran.

It’s a hookup scene for ghouls and guise. There are bad dates aplenty. Topless pics are sexted. Dramas ensue (“I will no longer support the tissue industry with my heartache!”).

Next Day Theater sketches are intrinsically ephemeral. You have to catch ’em before they’re not. So if you want to be looped in about Next Day Theater’s next loopy one-off, like its Facebook page, subscribe to its email list, or email ndt.24hr@gmail.

Next Day Theater performed Straight Outta Hell October 17, 2015 at Tropicalia – 2001 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC.

Link: Next Day Theater’s Matt Spangler Recaps Their May 16, 2015 Performance at Tropicalia

Link: Matt Spanler on Next Day Theater: “Like Hitting a Truck”

The Dealer of Ballynafeigh

When a particular company and a particular playwright hit it off such that they keep knocking it out of the park—as have The Keegan Theatre and Belfast-born Rosemary Jenkinson—theirs has to be a match made in theater heaven. And when the result of their remarkable union—The Dealer of Ballynafeigh—is yet another smashing show, it’s time to pop some bubbly.

Keegan has already mounted three productions of  plays by Jenkinson: Basra Boy (2011), Cuchullain (2012), and A Midsummer Night’s Riot (2014). Each is set in Belfast. Each is written as a monologue featuring an idiosyncratic young man (distinctly enacted with antic energy by the gifted Josh Sticklin, who also impersonated all the other characters onstage). Each was directed with distinction by Abigail Isaac Fine.

Now comes Jenkinson’s The Dealer of Ballynafeigh, also set in Belfast, also directed by Fine. Keegan has entered the work—named after a borough of Belfast—in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival along with its other entry, The Magic Tree, playing in repertory.

The Dealer of Ballynafeigh has all the street lingo and quirky authenticity, all the dark and offbeat humor, all the wit and poetry, and all the fast-paced plot twists of the previous three shows. The fascinating difference is that this time the characters are played by a cast of five actors instead of one.

Haplessly unmarried and fortysomething Billy (Peter Finnegan), together with his feisty Ma (Jane Petofsky), is on a cockamamie quest to give a certain drug dealer his just desserts. Said comeuppance is warranted, Billy and Ma believe, by the fact this dealer sold a girl a bad dose of ecstasy that put her in the hospital.

It’s the sort of righteous but ridiculous plot engine that Martin McDonagh might devise, and Jenkinson’s hilarious story takes similarly macabre convolutions. Billy and Ma begin by bunglingly torturing Jackie the dealer (Michael Kazemchak); then oopsie, Ma offs Jackie by stuffing a potent white powder in his mouth. Turns out Billy is in debt for big bucks to Mackers, a macho boss man (John Stange), because the bills that Billy was to pay him were accidentally in a load of Ma’s wash, and they all became worthless because they shrank.

Of course, paper currency doesn’t really shrink in water, but the money-laundering joke is so funny, its plausibility matters not. So goes the rest of the madcap story line as well. In hopes of scoring replacement cash., Ma takes the bag of powder to sell to a zany dealer named named Gurley (Bradley Foster Smith), who’s got a strange messiah complex.

Though the title, The Dealer of Ballynafeigh, could be an homage to Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Jenkinson’s script is every bit the equal of the best of McDonagh’s work. When the handguns come out and the stage blood appears, there ensues the sort of gore that’s good for many a gasp and guffaw. Keegan rightly recommends the play “for audiences 16+ due to violent content and mature themes”—which is of course the very stuff that in Jenkinson’s hands is crack-up candy for grownups.

Viewed in the context of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, a quality in Jenkinson’s work emerges that was not as apparent before: In all the male characters Jenkinson writes, she parses each bloke’s special hybrid of bravado and vulnerability with a rare comic eye and an acutely tuned ear.  It’s as if she has eavesdropped on real and unique young men living lives of gendered vainglory, and she has imported their riffs and rhythms into her writing to create crackling alive stage diction. That is in fact what she has done (as she told me when I met her at the opening night reception), which explains why The Dealer of Ballynafeigh is jam-packed with insightful listening transliterated into laughs.

Unlike the three monologue plays (which were written subsequent to this one, Jenkinson told me), The Dealer of Ballynafeigh features the central character of an older woman, Ma—and what a character she is. (“Way I see it,” she tells her son, “you men don’t have the intuition to understand feminine logic. The relevant bits of your brains are missing…”) Ma is brazen, Ma is forward, her cheeky wit takes no prisoners. Is Ma a tad mad? Well, maybe. But that just gives her license to say the play’s most outrageous, over-the-top comic lines. Here, for instance, is a typical exchange between Billy and Ma that reveals a complex character both comic and satiric:

Ma: … You and your guns.
Billy: It’s the only way.
Ma: I did my best with you. I never bought you a gun as a boy.
Billy: I know you didn’t.
Ma: I bought you a dolly instead.
Billy: I remember that dolly. I stole an airgun and popped it to fuck.
Ma: So much for social conditioning.

The part of Ma has got to be one of theater’s greatest comic roles for women—another welcome discovery thanks to the WVTF.

The comedy vein Jenkinson taps into calls for a really broad performance style—overbroad may be more like it. Accordingly both Bradley Foster Smith and John Stange play their parts to the hilarious hilt. If the excellent performances of Peter Finnegan, Michael Kazemchak, and Jane Petkafsky seemed ever so slightly less assured on opening night, in no way was the clockwork polish of the play perturbed.

The production shared with The Magic Tree the same set design by Robbie Hayes, a nondescript playing area made of smooth brown floor panels that slope upward to a nonspecific back wall. Though this drab double-duty scenery was an understandable convenience, Jenkinson’s play never quite seemed to be where it belonged. Despite that, the colorful texture of each vivid scene was never diminished. Similarly, though the show often seemed underlit (in G. Ryan Smith’s design), the spark in each speech was undimmed.

The Dealer of Ballynafeigh has come thisclose to being a prizewinner: Keegan publicity says it came third in the BBC Tony Doyle Awards and was short­listed for the King’s Cross and Verity Bargate Award. Lucky for Washington, DC,  it has never before been produced and thus qualifies as a WVTF world premier.

The script of The Dealer of Ballynafeigh is simply terrific. As writing it ranks among my WVTF faves. DC theatergoers have The Keegan Theatre to thank for mounting another Jenkinson gem.

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

The Dealer of Ballynafeigh plays through November 14, 2015 at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

Bug

When I saw the SeeNoSun OnStage production of Tracy Letts’s first play, Killer Joe, a year ago June, I wrote a rave and called it “a powerful knockout of a show.” So it was with keen anticipation that I approached the company’s new production, Tracy Letts’s second play, Bug, again directed by Michael Wight and again featuring Jennifer Osborn.

Better? worse? about the same?

OMG it slayed me.

The script is a classic Letts combo of kooky Okies, pitch-dark comedy, bizarro derangement, and a jaw-dropping plot. Letts is one of theater’s finest twofers: He is a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright (for August: Osage County) who, because he is himself an accomplished actor (he got a Tony Award for his George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), writes roles and scenes so gosh darn playable they sweep actors and audience alike into a perfect storm of powerful performance.

And that’s exactly what happened last night at the Anacostia Arts Center.

Bug is set in a seedy motel room where the high-strung forty-something Agnes (a fascinating Kimberlee Wolfson) has holed up. She has been getting harassing phone calls and hitting the booze hard. Her lesbian biker buddy RC drops by (Jennifer Osborn, giving another stunning performance). They work together as cocktail waitresses. They do lines of coke together. They dump on Agnes’s abusive ex, who to Agnes’s alarm has just been let out of prison and has reason to come after her. Then the two substance-addled BFFs commiserate about their kids. RC’s lover just got custody of theirs.  Years ago Agnes’s was abducted from a shopping cart in a supermarket.  And paranoid mental instability creeps into the play like a steady infestation of pests.

From the bathroom enters Peter, a nerdy Gulf War vet on the lam whom Agnes has taken in. He seems quiet and harmless, with a methodical presence of mind Agnes evidently lacks.  Suddenly Peter hears a cricket and traces it to a smoke alarm, which he whacks off the wall. A bit of odd behavior, but not a deal breaker between them. Peculiarly Agnes and Peter become friends. And she invites him into her bed.

Their morning after is devoid of bliss, however, as we see Peter bug out like a banshee when he discovers teensy parasitic insects have arrived in their coital tryst. Matthew Marcus is riveting in the role—he shades every nuance from mild to wild—and the point when Peter thrashes about in paroxysms trying to swat the bugs crawling all over his body is a scene-stealing sensation.

Another uninvited arrival is Agnes’s fresh-out-of jail batterer, Goss (an arrestingly imposing Aaron Tone). Goss is not pleased to find that Peter has had sex with Agnes, and he proceeds to browbeat Agnes and bully Peter—a confrontation that Marcus and Goss play to chilling perfection.

But about the bugs.

Peter believes he has been the subject of a medical experiment during which bugs have been embedded in his body and they are crawling out to feed. The set and sound design (credited to SeeNoSun) subtly incline us to believe him. A helicopter whirs overhead as a looming ceiling fan spins and a tacky AC buzzes. Colin Dieck’s lighting is as credible on as it is unnerving off. The scene-changing blackouts,  lit by a blinking neon sign outside, elicit mental pictures by the swarm. Gruesome wounds appear on Agnes’s and Peter’s body (effects makeup by Alex Brewer) lending graphic substantiation. An amiable but not-what-he-seems Dr. Sweet arrives (a persuasive Dave Gamble), and we find out more. Then we witness a grisly end. SeeNoSun’s prominent advisory says: “Bug contains graphic sexual content, nudity, drug use, smoke and violence. It is recommended for mature audiences only.” Believe it.

On one level Bug is a provocative metaphor for conspiracy-theory mania, a theme that Wright—whose direction is utterly lucid—explores in a program note. (In that respect Bug is as timely today as it was two decades ago when Letts wrote it, maybe more so.) On another level—the theatrical playing stage, where live action impacts an audience or not—Bug is a hilarious thriller and a tragicomic romance played with a pace and force that left me agog.

Running Time: One hour 25 minutes with no intermission.

Bug plays through November 1, 2015, at SeeNoSun OnStage performing at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, SE, in Washington, DC 20020. Tickets are can be purchased online

Hootenanny

Hootenanny by Monique LaForce is a two-hander with an unsettling story up its sleeve. It’s a story about a man and a woman that incrementally builds nerve-fraying psychological tension from what seems the slightest, most innocuous of encounters.

Two actors, Chip and Samantha (capably acted by Doug Krehbel and Cate Brewer), meet in the nondescript green room of a theater where they play bit parts in a show within the play called Hootenanny.

The off-stage “on-stage” show, which is going on at the same time, is a musical version of the Scottish play set improbably to bluegrass music. Chip plays the Thane of Cawdor and Samantha plays Lady Macbeth, and they have a wait on their hands between scenes. We hear bits of a banjo-accompanied witches’ song, the bouncy hook of which is “Trouble, trouble, trouble,” and I caught a chuckle-worthy reference to hand-washing as “OCD.” But notwithstanding the brief, very pleasant prerecorded original music composed and performed by Dead Men’s Hollow, the made-up Macmusical is so incidental to Chip and Samantha’s green-room encounter as to be almost random. Because the real drama turns not on Shakespeare or singing but on stalking, seduction, and surrender.

As the character of Chip was revealed, I was reminded of the old-time theater idiom “stage-door Johnny”—a man so enamored of a particular actress or showgirl that he waits relentlessly at the stage door in hopes of catching her attention and courting her. Chip is a variant: he’s a back-stage Johnny. Unbeknownst to Samantha, he became obsessed with her years ago when they happened to audition together, and ever since he has seen, and/or tried out for a part in, every single show she has been in. And now he has contrived the very chance he has always wanted: to be alone with Samantha at last.

Why Samantha doesn’t get the hell out of that green room once she knows of his stalker past, and why instead she seems not to mind his amorous attention, is a little hard to fathom. But as written Samantha is a bit of a naïf. She’s not a dumb blonde exactly but she’s certainly dim. From the get-go she doesn’t get a lot of Chip’s banter. He’s quicker-witted than she by a factor of about twelve (an unexpected character contrast for a play in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival).

Samantha is spending her off-stage time memorizing a scene for an audition for a role she hopes to get in a pilot. Chip, though stung to learn she’s thinking of leaving the show they’re in, offers to run lines with her. She agrees.

The scene  they read is between Becka, a high-power attorney (the part would be a stretch for Samantha), and Nigel. As we hear it played, subtle parallels echo the inscrutable subtext going on between Samantha and Chris. More role-playing, initiated by Chip, ensues, including a contest coming up with pickup lines. She does okay (“Are you needing a map because you got lost in my eyes?”), but he’s a real pro (Chip after crossing the stage in front of her: “Do you believe in love at first sight, or should I walk by again?”).

At a point in their often funny role-playing, Samantha admits to Chip that she cannot cry on cue. He suggests such tricks of the trade as rubbing onion near one’s eyes. He seems to have her best interests at heart. He seems to support her in her professional ambitions. But there comes a twist. And little does Samantha know in what part in what sexual script he has cast her.

Director Catherine Aselford has done a good job of modulating the interplay of light and dark shadings in LaForce’s play. Both Krehbel and Brewer have very agreeable stage presences. The character of Chip, for instance, is written far creepier than Krehbel plays him. And Samantha as written is far more of an emotional doormat than Brewer plays her. Their artful underplaying turns out to be an asset, such that the play’s perturbing reverberations sneak up on us.

Running Time: 55 minutes with no intermission.

Hootenanny played through October 10, 2015, at Guillotine Theatre performing at The National Museum of Women and the Arts and will have two more performances at The Receiving Vault at the Ivy Hill Cemetery, 2823 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22302, at 3 pm October 17 and 18. Tickets are available online. 

Alice in Wonderland

If you were looking for a local troupe to put Alice’s fabled Wonderland on stage, your top choice would have to be Synetic Theater. And no wonder. Synetic’s trademark physical theater enthralls one’s inner child in a way that little Alice Liddel must have felt when she first heard the stories told her by the family friend who would go on to publish them under the pen name Lewis Carroll. The difference is that her child’s imagination was filled by words alone. When an audience attends Synetic’s Alice in Wonderland, all their inner children are treated as if on a field trip to an imagined phantasmagoria of music, movement, and madness most magical.

The entire show is engrossing—it’s easily among the most enjoyable Synetic productions I’ve seen—but as I was watching in wonderment, I was also literally wondering: What happens to Alice’s story when told in the context of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival? Does it change? How? What new meaning comes into play?

Synetic’s Alice in Wonderland is an abundance of delight. Kathy Gordon as Alice spinning dizzily as she tumbles down the rabbit hole. Tori Bertocci as the clock-watching White Rabbit clambering frantically on monkey bars.  Alex Mills as the Cheshire Cat playfully chasing a ball and then its own tail and then savoring a mouse. Augustin Beall and Thomas Beheler as Tweedledee and Tweedledum high-fiving like two drugged-out dudes. Eliza Smith as the Dodo in a tutu  dancing for her life on tiptoe. Vato Tsikurishvili as front quarters of the hookah-toking Caterpillar (while four other dancer-actors writhe its hindquarters). Renata Veberyte Loman in platform shoes and a white latex gown as the Queen grandly cheating on the croquet court. Dallas Tolentino, Justin J. Bell, and Zana Gankhuyag as the Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse robotically popping at an irrational tea party (not the partisan kind).

The direction by Paata Tsikurishvili, the choreography by Irina Tskikurishvili, the lighting by Colin K. Bills, the costumes by Kendra Rai—it all works together as a gorgeous whole. But the stupendous score is a standout. Resident Composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze has made of music a multilevel river of sound that propels the action like a rapids. (You can hear it here on Soundcloud.)

The script, adapted by Lloyd Rose based on the novel, uses words very sparingly, as befits Synetic. Many lines are familiar, and a few are very funny. (“You can’t let the words have the last word,” says Vato Tsikurishvili as Humpty Dumpty before he takes his terminal tumble.) Some are also perplexing such that they put one into the same head-scratching state of mind as Alice. (The zany tea party hosts insist for instance that time is a he not an it.) Rose’s most notable contribution however is not what little is spoken but the insightful story line she has crafted (deftly synopsized in the program), which includes twists both old and new. In one particularly nice touch, the play begins with Alice playing with her beloved toy dolls, each of which appears as a character in the dream that will become her adventure in Wonderland.

Rose’s rendering of Wonderland leaves no doubt that it is all a dream and the dream is Alice’s. As in many a dreamscape, the dreamer  is buffeted by stuff that would make no sense when one is awake but when one is asleep can be disorienting if not downright dangerous and dark. The character of Alice that emerges in this production, however, is no put-upon patsy, prey to incomprehensible peril. Instead, this Alice argues with the characters she meets in her dream. She challenges their presuppositions about reality and defies their presumptions about her. She doesn’t take their guff. In this sense this classic tale—told first by a grown man to a girl child whom he overadored—has been translated and transformed by a female playwright into a confident young woman’s voice for today. And Alice becomes the hero of her own dream.

Lady Lay (report)

As you take your seat at Scena Theatre’s production of Lady Lay, don’t be surprised to see the spitting image of Bob Dylan in the house. It’s the actor Ron Litman, who will pop into the play anon.

Lady Lay by Lydia Stryk is Scena’s entry in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, and in it we hear from the voice of a young woman who (like Stryk) lives in Berlin. The time is 1989. The woman’s name is MariAnne (Ellie Nicoll). She’s an employment-office clerk whose crush of clients are desperate for a job and who herself is desperate for a life.

An ensemble of eight plays the clients—Kevin O’reilly (Seth) Aniko Olah (Frau M), Matt Dougherty (Herr D), Amanda Forstrom (Frau F and Frau Y), Edward Nagel (Herr K), Jennifer Bevan (Frau H), and Madeleine Adele (Frau L). At the beginning they sit in two rows facing each other and mime like robotic functionaries. Then one by one they have an appointment with MariAnne to appeal for work.

The tedium is credible and MariAnne is beside herself with boredom. One day as chance would have it she gets turned on to the music of Bob Dylan. She  becomes so enamored that he appears to her. (Litman’s uncanny emulation of the legendary troubadour steals every scene he’s in.) The encounter with Dylan’s music and his antiestablishment affect have a transformative effect on MariAnne: She is inspired to seek a way out of her humdrum existence. She goes from being a groupie to being the agent of her own life. The Berlin Wall falls and the theme of freedom is evoked with great fervor.

Director Robert McNamara and Assistant Director Alexandra Linn Desaulniers have made maximal use of a minimalist set. Upstage center is MariAnne’s desk, which anchors the proceedings. The actors—who play multiple roles throughout—utilize the several wooden chairs to set a variety of scenes, including an English-language classroom and the interior of an airplane. Sound Designer Denise Renee provides an ample sampling of Dylan’s tunes—the welcome effect of which for me was to prompt me  to play his albums when I got home.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Lady Lay runs through October 10, 2015, at Scena Theatre performing at at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.