Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: December, 2015

(Re)Acts: Forced From Home #RefugeeCrisis

The event had a provocative hashtag in its title: As if to reference an emergency that is tragically trending worldwide. As if to signal the evening’s explicit link to a global community of concern. As if to declare one small innovative theater’s grappling with an epic real-world human drama.

An audience of about 75 had gathered in the Silver Spring Black Box. The occasion was the most recent in Forum Theatre’s four-year-old Re(Acts) series.

As Producing Artistic Director Michael Dove explained in his introduction, Re(Acts) presentations are intended to offer “more rapid responses to what’s happening in the world” than what ordinary theater production can achieve. Local artists are enlisted by Forum to create ten-minute works on a current issue or theme. The compiled works are then staged for one night only, Pay What You Want, on a bare stage.

Dove recited sobering statistics about the dimension of the international refugee emergency. As headlines now shout daily, that emergency has become, appallingly, a xenophobic wedge issue in right-wing U.S. politics. But as we soon understood, this conscientious evening was meant to personalize, not polemicize, the problem—to engage through performance art what Dove called “the decision to leave everything you have because of fear.”

A few highlights (see full credits below):

In between the several segments of the program, Nora Achrati performed a touching solo play by Christine Evans in seven blog posts in the voice of a young girl whose Syrian homeland had become a horror. It was as if Anne Frank had a laptop.

Performing a monologue he wrote, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, started by interacting with the audience like a stand-up comic but then launched into what became a compelling narrative about how two parents escaped from Iran with their infant and immigrated to America. At the point the audience realized Ebrahimzadeh was that infant, it was like a stun gun to the heart.

The program’s final piece was a monodrama written and performed by Thomas Keegan. In it, Keegan portrayed a father who with his wife and child have walked 2,000 miles to escape and have no home, no money, no food. As he is interrogated by an unseen/unheard government official, we learn that this made-up story takes place in a dystopian U.S. where a military state is waging war on nonconforming citizens. There comes a point when Keegan’s character tries in agony to explain to the interrogator that his Christian faith is not the same as the fanatic extremism of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof—and in that moment was such a powerful metaphor for the impugning of all Muslims that it seemed to take the audience’s collective breath away.

There are important truths that journalism and documentary film tell best. But there are also deep truths that only insightful and creative artists can show us, in order for us to feel them, in the unique human-to-human encounter that is live theater. And that’s what happened Monday.

It  was my first experience of Re(Acts), and it will not be my last. Forum Theatre’s signature Re(Acts) series goes where theater meets real world with exceptional artistry and exemplary conviction.

Greetings from Fallujah
Written by Christina Evans
Performed by Nora Achrati
Directed by Jenna Duncan
A solo play in seven blog posts.

Return to Aleppo
By Annalisa Dias
Performed by Anna Lathrop and Rachel Hynes
Co-Directed by Anna Lathrop and Annalisa Dias
A playlet in which two women decide to leave Aleppo in the night after the 2013 bombings that destroyed much of Aleppo’s Old City during the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

Broken
Choreography by Kathy Gordon
Performed by K. G. Dance Company Dancers
A dance in which a couple, in the aftermath of leaving the life they know and love, are both brought closer and torn apart.

Coming Home
Written and performed by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh
The story of an Iranian immigrant’s search for identity, in vignettes from his family’s journey to America and his own 25 years later.

Seeking Home
Conceptualized and choreographed by Kely King/Contradiction Dance
Performed by Eleni Grove, Jessica Denson, Kelly King.
An audience-participation movement experience to build empathy for refugees as well as those who may be asked to open their hearts and homes in the midst of violence and turmoil.

Refugee
Written and performed by Thomas Keegan
A father imagines himself, his family, anad his country as though they were Syrian.

Running Time: About one hour 50 minutes with no intermission. (As is usual with Forum Theatre performances, there was a facilitated discussion afterward.)

(Re)Acts: Forced From Home #RefugeeCrisis played one night only December 21, 1015 at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD.

 

Advertisements

Stars of David: Story to Song

Stars of David: Story to Song—a rapturously beautiful concert musical now in a limited engagement at Theater J—is a unique blend of thrilling singing and insightful biography. Illuminating incidents from the lives of actual people—all boldface names and Jewish by birth—have been crystalized and lyricized into 14 songs sung simply and shimmeringly by a cast of four accompanied solely by a grand piano.

Last night the show turned the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater into one of DC’s premiere concert halls.

Stars of David: Story to Song is adapted from a book of the same name, a compilation of probing personal interviews conducted by journalist Abigail Pogrebin with an eclectic list of notables. Those whose lives are touched on in song in the show include many who are linked to the performing arts—Mike Nichols, Andy Cohen, Tony Kushner, Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Sorkin, Leonard Nimoy, Fran Drescher, Michael Feinstein, Norman Lear—and some public figures who are not—Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Kenneth Cole, Edgar Bronfman Sr.

Pogrebin, who with Aaron Harnick conceived Stars of David for the stage, recruited a who’s who of songwriters to tell each celeb’s story. Among those who signed on are musical-theater marquee names Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line), Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home), Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof), Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater (Spring Awakening), and Tom Kitt (Next to Normal). The book—the show’s smart sequencing of songs and clever connective patter—is coauthored by Pogrebin and Gordon Greenberg. There are plenty of witty laugh lines throughout. (Barbra Streisand is referred to as “the patron saint of Jewish girls”).

Theater J Associate Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky directs an ensemble of singer-actors who are so good they kept stealing and nearly stopping the show: Joshua Dick, Emily Levey, Sherri L. Edelen, and Aaron Serotsky (Shirley’s twin brother). The virtuoso pianist was Jacob Kidder; the gifted music director, George Fulginit-Shakar. And a shoutout to Sound Designer Justin Schmitz for the ace mic’ing and mixing.

Though on paper Stars of David sounds as if it could be a grab bag of tunes by dissimilar songwriters with disparate styles who just happen to have been given the same assignment, in performance the show plays completely of a piece—and more movingly than I could have imagined.

“Concert musical” does not convey the show’s reach and resonance, because what connects each song sung and story told is not these notables’ fame but their very personal and private reflection on what it means to be a Jew in America. It is a question the show poses like a many-faceted crystal, glinting in all directions depending on the light. It is a question the show poses like a stone, as impenetrable as it is enduring.

The company opens Stars of David with humor and sass, a song that riffs on Jewish stereotypes even as it owns a few. Then begins a cycle of songs, each about a revealing or surprising incident or experience in the life of each celeb.

We learn of Leonard Nimoy, for instance, how as a child he loved to perform magic—but an antisemitic trick caused him to quit.

We learn of Joan Rivers, queen of outrageous comedy and bling, that the high holy days were her respite.

We learn of Ruth Bader Ginsberg that she could not grieve her mother’s death because she was forbidden in the all-men minyan.

We learn of Tony Kushner he told his father that dealing with prejudice for being Jewish was good preparation for being gay.

We learn of Gloria Steinem that she identifies with the women who since biblical times have cooked the religious meals and set the ritual tables and served the presumptively privileged men.

We learn of Gwyneth Paltrow that the matzoh she eats is gluten-free.

And so the show goes, one startling or touching glimpse after another into lives we think of as lived dissimilarly in public yet all connected by the same inner question of identity.

The timing of Theater J’s programming of this show could not be more apt. While mainstream culture is awash in a secularized sectarian celebration that prompts no particular critical self-examination about what it means to be Christian in America, Stars of David shines a bright light on the meaning of Jewish identity that to this particular non-Jew felt awesomely universal.

True, Stars of David is descriptively a concert musical. But it is far more than meets the ear. It is meaning that meets the heart.

Running Time: One hour 15 minutes with no intermission.

Stars of David plays through December 27, 2015, at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.

 

Klecksography: Island of the Misfit Toys

Rorschach Theatre has produced another one-night-only show in its adventurous and eclectic Klecksography series, and Saturday night I went to report on what I saw. If I had to encapsulate the evening for folks who weren’t there or who are unfamiliar with Rorschach’s esthetic, I’d have to say it was silliness noir—with an irreverent spin on Christmas cheer worthy of a slightly sinister Santa Claws.

The word klecksography comes by way of the company’s namesake, Hermann Rorschach, he of ink blot test renown. Klecks is German for blot, and klecksography was the name Herr Rorschach gave a children’s game. Now it’s the name Rorschach Theatre gives its idiosyncratic theater game for  folks who’ve not outgrown childhood: First a provocative theme is picked. Next a bunch of local playwrights, directors, and actors are enlisted. (You’ve likely seen their names featured on playbills around town; this is their chance for some freewheeling playtime all their own.) Each writer is assigned a director and a cast of four or five and given 24 hours to deliver a script on the designated theme. Within a week the several playlets are rehearsed, designed, and teched, then performed on stage as an antic anthology—at which point the audience joins in the fun (as was amply evident at the show I saw).

The evening was conceived, curated, and produced by Rorschach Artistic Directors Jenny McConnell Frederick and Randy Baker. The theme they came up with promised to be not only fun and dark but personally relatable:

On an iceberg near the North Pole Charlie stands sentry over the Island of the Misfit Toys—a place where slightly flawed toys go to be forgotten. On this quiet winter night, The Abominable Snowman attacks—but before he can eat him, Charlie asks if he would rather hear a story. The snowman agrees and Charlie begins to distract him with story after story of misfit toys and their adventures. In a story that is equal parts Arabian Nights, Rankin and Bass and Goonies, KLECKSOGRAPHY: ISLAND OF THE MISFIT TOYS tells seven unexpected tales about what it means to be an outsider.

The “iceberg near the North Pole” was suggested by peaks of white bed linen suspended across the cyclorama. Benches and platforms about the stage were also covered with white sheets, which were removed when each set piece came into play.

The evening’s emcee and continuity wrangler was Charlie (James Finley), who wore a cardboard box around his waist hung from suspenders. As he was Charlie in the Box, not Jack, no one wanted to play with him, making him a misfit toy. Charlie’s nemesis was a menacing amplified voice (James Rogers III). Charlie tried to mollify the monster by telling tale after tale, each of which he introduced by opening a gift-wrapped box and pulling out a prop pertinent to the plot of each playlet.

And so the evening went. Seven playlets in all—each a little screwball, each a little pointed or poignant. There was much, much clowning. It was like watching 30 accomplished actors cut loose on stage and act out with the energy of jumpy school kids at recess. In the casts of characters created by the writers were a lot of jokey pokes at famous toys (see credits below), and the actors’ makeshift costumes and makeup were comically in keeping.

The evening ended on a musical note. The entire cast gathered on stage and led the audience in a sing-along. The lyrics (by Jack Novak), hastily distributed throughout the house, began: “Have a lonely, sad existence.” The fact that that cheeky sentiment seemed to crack everybody up captured perfectly the satyric spirit that seemed for the expanse of this ephemeral show a counter-seasonal uplift.

Barbie Dream House
By Allyson Currin
Directed by Bridget Grace Sheaff
Danny Rovin (Tom), Tori Boutin (Barbie), Sarah Holt (Mom), Ashley Nicole Lyles (Tina)

Re-Integration
By Tim Guillot
Directed by Nick Martin
Erik Harrison (My Buddy), Kathleen Burnard (Rainbow Brite), Lolita Marie (Queen of Africa Doll), Farrell Parker (Raggedy Ann)

Proactive Interpersonal Escalation (P.I.E.) Therapy
By James Rogers III
Directed by Ryan Maxwell
Misty Demory (Silly Clownie Raphael), Ben Lauer (The Poltergeist Clown), Frank Britton (Dr. Chuckles Selzer-Spraybaum), Chelsea Thaler (Shakes Tuck’n Roll & Mrs. Baggy Pants), Brighton Barker (Griffin)

The Smippets Save the Island of Misfit Toys
By Zachary Fernebok
Directed by Quill Nebeker
Shawn Jain (Kevin the Frog), Caroline Lucas (Frizzy Boar), Karen Lange (Gitmo), Ife Johnson (Mass Podgy)

Judy the Fisher-Price Babysitter
By Joshua Ford
Directed by Sarah Scafidi
Kim Tuvin (Judy the Babysitter), Olivia Haller (Jennifer), Mackenzie Williams (Parker), Gray West (Gilgamesh)

Santa Cannot Save You (The King Moonracer Play)
By Alexandra Petri
Directed by Joshua W. Kelley
Jennifer Osborn (Subject 1), Hilary Kelly (Subject 2), Amal Saade (Subject 3), Christian Sullivan (King Moonracer)

Back to the Island
By Jack Novak
Directed by Anna Lathrop
Amanda Tatum (Cowboy), Rachel Spicknall Mulford (Ostrich), Alison Daniels (Doll), Matt Strote (Elf), Ally Jenkins (Mrs. Claus)

Charley & Bumble
Story by Randy Baker
James Finley (Charlie), James Rogers III (Bumble’s Voice)

Patrick Lord (Set & Prop Designer), Niusha Nawab (Sound Designer), Colin Dieck (Lighting Designer), Laura Schlactmayer (Stage Manager), Gwen Grastorf (Lobby Host).

Running Time: About 75 minutes with no intermission.

Klecksography: Island of the Misfit Toys played one night only December 19, 2015 at Rorschach Theatre performing on the Lang stage at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C.

West Side Story

Signature Theatre’s production of West Side Story is every bit as eye-filling and ear-thrilling as any lover of this great American musical could wish.

On a spacious thrust stage inside the intimate Max, with the audience seated on three sides, Director Matthew Gardiner and Choreographer Parker Esse have unleashed a dancing-and-singing cast with breathtaking muscular force and vibrant vocals. Seated in full view above the action is a 17-member orchestra, conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch, that becomes a glorious aural wall. Lighting Designer Jayson Lyons has created an immersive visual world so animate it seems alive.

Often it all seems overwhelming, more gorgeous than one can behold at one time. And we are so close we seem inside it.

The only imperfection I can report is that those in speaking roles (Bobby Smith as Doc, John Leslie Wolfe as Lieutenant Schrank, and Russell Sunday as Officer Krupke) deliver acting performances far more persuasive (and more uniformly audible) than those whose singing and dancing shines so stunningly. But that blip by no means diminishes what is a superb experience in musical theater.

Wisely Gardiner has made no attempt to update or darken the material—an approach he took last season with Cabaret with brilliant results. (Recently Molly Smith updated and darkened Oliver at Arena with  interesting but mixed results.) How a production’s staging says its when is just as relevant as how it says the show’s what, where, who, how, and why. And in this respect, West Side Story is a curious case.

Though it touches on such timely topics as gang warfare, police malfeasance, ethnic animus, and immigration, the world of West Side Story does not translate to now. It can’t. And the reason is, it was always a fantasy world. The original world of Dickens’ Oliver Twist was real. The original world of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories really happened. By contrast, West Side Story, which premiered in 1957, was imagined by four white men—Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Jerome Robbins (original direction and choreography)—who, brilliant as they were, had as much first-hand experience of the musical’s inner-city setting as Shakespeare had of fair Verona in 1595.

And yet many an audience member in the orchestra during the original West Side Story Broadway run may have left the theater thinking they had been treated to a peek inside an authentic Manhattan environment where the lives of others not like themselves were rendered with some verisimilitude. They had to have known it was a prettified peek. But from their socioeconomic perch did they notice what a complacency-coddling concoction the entire show actually was? As musical theater it is beautiful beyond measure. I take no issue with Signature’s calling it “America’s greatest musical.” But in its depiction of life in America’s urban underclass, it is pure American BS.

The score is of course peerless. The lyrics glisten. And the show’s dramatic structure is well made as can be.

At the same time the book is laden with lingo said by no street kid ever. There is nary a nod to the story’s economic class context (the Moynihan Report was not to appear till 1965). The most politically pointed it gets is the sendup of profiling and stereotyping in “Gee, Officer Krupke”—a song that provides terrific comic relief in Act Two but that also offers audiences a cheap chance to check the “I really get these people” box.

Here’s a thought experiment to play out my premise a bit further.

There’s a play by Marcus Gardley produced by Mosaic Theater currently running at Atlas called The Gospel of Lovingkindness. It’s inspired by a true story; it’s set in a real place, South Side Chicago; its themes are contemporary and pressing; its characters and conflicts do not seem made up from whole cloth; its powerful poetic language echoes real people’s speech. Under Jennifer L. Nelson’s direction the script of The Gospel of Lovingkindness plays stupendously; it pulses with truth-telling. And if one day it became source material for a chamber musical or opera, it could be amazing.

The fact that theater has increasingly made space on stage for the voices of creators who have actually lived the stories they tell, to whom what happens in their stories has happened, for whom the hope and purpose of their storytelling matters deeply and personally—that fact is slowly but surely changing how we see.

In that respect West Side Story at Signature is wonderfully worth seeing for what it is. And importantly worth seeing for what it isn’t.

Is it possible to admire and enjoy the design and performing talent invested in a musical theater classic without excising one’s conscience and comprehension about how the material is of its time?

I should hope so.

Running Time: About two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

The Gospel of Lovingkindness

There is a shibboleth shared by liberals and conservatives alike that when a young black man shoots to death another young black man in the inner city, the fault lies in themselves. Something about not lifting oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Something about not stepping up to one’s responsibility. Something about being shiftless.

For folks who frame the blame this way, these are comfy explanations, ways of looking at a problem without the inconvenience of having to see why it actually is one. As a commitment to keeping complicitly blinkered, it’s akin to thinking of a woman who was raped that she was asking for it.

In an essay titled “The Secret Life of Inner-City Black Males,” Ta-Nehisi Coates names this pervasive pseudo explanation “the notion that black people are lacking in virtue”:

From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America—black and white—that African American people, and African American men in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship:

That is because it is a message that makes all our uncomfortable truths tolerable. Only if black people are somehow undeserving can a just society tolerate a yawning wealth gap, a two-tiered job market, and persistent housing discrimination.

I mention this background in order to foreground a point about Marcus Gardley’s powerfully poetic The Gospel of Lovingkindness, which has begun a run in a stunning and intimate production at Mosaic Theater Company. Just as Mosaic’s season opener, Unexplored Interior, opened our eyes to the Rwandan genocide, The Gospel of Lovingkindness opens our eyes to America’s most cherished myths about so-called black-on-black crime—and explodes them one by one as its wrenching human drama unfolds.

The Gospel of Lovingkindness is performed by four actors in the Lab 2 space at Atlas—miniature compared with Unexplored Interior, which filled the Lang stage upstairs, but no less major, and every bit as necessary.

The play is set in South Side Chicago a few years ago and tells parallel stories of two young men named Manny and Noel. Manu H. Kumasi plays both roles with extraordinary physical precision and emotional range.

Noel’s mother, named Miriam, is one of several roles played by Erica Chamblee, who with consummate skill creates each distinct character. Dick Brown plays Manny’s father, plus other roles, and he too differentiates multiple characters compellingly.

Deidre Lawan Starnes plays Mary, Manny’s mother, throughout—and her emotional arc once her son is killed becomes the chilling spine of the story. Weeks after singing at the White House, Manny is shot a few blocks from home, and his prized Air Jordan shoes are stolen. Thereafter all that is senseless about his killing becomes the thread of tough truths and revelations followed ruthlessly by the play.

Director Jennifer L. Nelson has shaped an ensemble whose acting is so real and virtuoso—and staged the work so close up—it’s as if the characters in the playing area and we the audience around it share not only time and space but heartbeats and respiration. Gardley’s script contains awesomely poetic monologs, gorgeous verbal arias and disturbing riffs. Especially when Nelson has an actor stand upon a box to deliver them as if at a poetry slam, the effect is breathtaking.

Noel’s basketball coach played by Brown dashes his hopes for an athletic scholarship, assessing him “average,” but gives him a Horatio Alger-esque pep talk: “You want to survive in this world you got to stand out. Be relentless.”

With similar self-improvement aphorisms, Noel’s mother Miriam tells him to get a job: “You can take your life and rewrite it,” she urges. But harsh reality hits when Noel’s low-paying job stacking boxes falls through. And then he learns he has fathered a child whom he now must help support.

The word racism is nowhere in the script but it’s between all the lines. “The whole world’s afraid of me and they don’t even know me!” pleads Noel. “I spend so much fuckin time tryin to convince people who I’m not that sometimes I forget who I really am. I just…I just want a fair shot.”

In a brilliant coup de théâtre, Gardley brings on Ida B. Wells, the legendary Civil Rights Movement leader and women’s suffrage advocate—and Chamblee brings a spry spirit to the insightful and inciting 152-year-old. Ida inspires and emboldens Mary to be an activist in her own right and join the cause (“A million mothers to stop the killings!”), which Mary does, at first reluctantly then with zeal. And as Mary speaks out on a radio show, she connects killings to the wealth gap: “You can’t help make the streets safe if you don’t give people better options.”

In a harrowing-to-hear monolog, Noel vents what it means to live on the down side of that wealth gap:

I’ve been doing the right thing most of my life and it’s got me nowhere but right where I started. I’ve tried everything: I don’t have a head for books or numbers—school ain’t my thing. I don’t want to go to the service because I ain’t tryin to die for a country that still treat me like a lower class citizen. I tried getting an honest job, tried to make a little money the honest way but it was pennies and I just can’t spend my whole life poor as shit….

Been runnin all my life tryin not to be a statistic, a stereotype. But I keep running into the same wall. Ain’t no way I can write myself out. I just need to accept my plot. Them white boys on the North side, they get a free ride—they born with a silver spoon in their mouths—they already got their money. They already got a free pass.

There is a touching moment when Mary tucks Manny into bed as a boy and sings “Brown Baby” as a lullaby to him:

YOU GONNA HAVE THINGS I NEVER HAD
WHEN OUT OF COLD HEART HATE IS HURLED
SUGAR BROWN YOU GONNA LIVE IN A BETTER WORLD
BROWN, BROWN BABY

And there is an immensely moving reprise when Noel sings the same song to his baby son:

BROWN, BROWN BABY
YOU GONNA GROW UP
TO DRINK FROM THE PLENTY CUP
YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE TALL TO STAND PROUD
OR SPEAK UP CLEAR AND LOUD

The hope, hurt, and longing in those echoing lullabies is the heart and soul of this beautiful play. And the sharp reality check scripted into it is what makes it essential to see and feel.

That the stagecraft seems makeshift seems perfect for the visceral emotions. Heather C. Jackson’s character-disclosing costumes, Dan Covey’s living lighting, and Baye Straightforward Harrell’s eloquent sound  create a world where real people say real things bluntly and unabashedly. And Set Designer Ruthmarie Tenorio has painted the walls with murals, one of which is graffitied, “If anyone finds this, I’m sorry you’re here.”

The Gospel of Lovingkindness is not to be missed. Washington, DC, needs this play. With The Gospel of Lovingkindness, Mosaic continues to build on H Street a theater with unmistakable conscience and indispensable vision.

Running Time: About one hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.

The Gospel of Lovingkindness plays through January 3, 2016, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing in the Lab 2 space at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

How to Catch a Leprechaun

This being a show meant for kids, I defer to a critical opinion I overheard right afterward, voiced by a child not yet 5:

“That was really cool! Really funny too!”

Coauthored by Mario Baldessari and Ethan Slater and directed by Jon Townson, How to Catch a Leprechaun weaves a bit o’ magic in forty minutes from eight merry tunes and four lively characters. If the gleeful sounds coming from the youngsters at the 2 p.m. matinee I attended yesterday are any indication, Keegan has found a winner for the wee ones. Plus there’s just enough over-their-heads humor to land some choice chuckles for grownups.

Josh Sticklin turns in a delightfully impish performance as the Leprechaun. He sings the show’s first song, “The Lights Be Fading,” which includes in its lyrics a most entertaining version of preshow advisories about silencing your cell phone and such.

We’re soon in Mulligan’s Pub, where we meet Riley O’Really, a guitar-strumming minstrel and intrepid Leprechaun catcher played with a twinkle in his eye and a jig in his step by Bradley Foster Smith.

The two proprietors of the pub are the hearty, earthy barkeep Mrs. Mulligan (Sally Cusenza) and her lanky husband Mr. Mulligan (Bryan Doyle), who keeps distractedly swinging a golf club. The three sing a song called “Green Lemonade” explaining that’s the only beverage the pub serves.

The Mulligans dispute O’Really’s claim that leprechauns exist, but O’Really knows better. He has seen one himself in this very pub! Besides,  all the kids in audience are in loud agreement because they’ve espied Sticklin’s character sneaking about too!

A funny antiphonal bit begins whereby anytime O’Really says his name, it prompts a chorus from the house of “Oh, really?” And when the youngsters were urged to point at any sighting of the Leprechaun, I heard them do so with the cutest of squeals.

Thus is set in motion the captivating tale of O’Really’s plan to catch the Leprechaun in order to obtain his pot of gold—a quest that takes him to a great daisy field, conjured by oversize prop flowers designed by Carol Baker and lovely projections designed by Patrick Lord. There’s also clever costuming designed by Kelly Peacock, a cheery lighting design by Dan Martin, and a bouncy sound design by Jake Null.

The ongoing interplay between the players and the young audience is indeed cool and funny. Smith does a preshow sing-along as folks are finding their seats. And soon as the show ends, the actors still in costume head to the lobby, where they chit-chat with the kids, hand out souvenir trinkets, and readily pose for photos.

For anyone looking to catch a really, oh-really kid-friendly musical this season, Keegan Theatre’s How to Catch a Leprechaun is a lucky charmer of a show.

Running Time: About 40 minutes with no intermission.

Appropriate for children age 3 and up.

How to Catch a Leprechaun plays 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays through December 27, 2015, at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

Seasonal Disorder

‘Tis the season for jolly laughter, and if you like humor that’s loopy, irreverent, quick-witted, and fresh, you’ll fit right in at Washington Improv Theater’s annual Seasonal Disorder. It’s all made up on the spot, so every performance is one night only. Which if you’re in the audience is a funny-bone bonanza but if you’re a morning-after reviewer is a bane. Nothing I saw and guffawed at will ever be seen on stage again.

Last night’s full house was revved and ready. There’s an avid fan base for WIT’s schtick; folks keep coming back for more. When the emcee, Education Director Jonathan Murphy, asked who was there for the first time, only a handful raised their hands. The black box space at Source was abuzz with millennial enthusiasm, abetted by a bit of booze (beer and wine are on offer in the lobby). WIT is more than a theater; it’s a night spot. And a deservedly trendy one at that.

WIT consists of six “company ensembles”—seasoned improv teams that play and perform together—plus thirteen troupes the program calls “special guests.” Having seen some from column A and some from column B, I honestly cannot tell the difference, except I know the one called iMusical makes up mini-musicals on the fly.

Each team has a nickname, and depending on which night you come, you’ll be treated to two or three. There’s a schedule where you can see which will perform which night. I saw an ensemble called King Bee and a special guest group called Improv Actually. As always beforehand, cast members ask the audience to shout out answers to seemingly random questions. The responses, however oddball, then inspire sketchlets and scenelets that weave together in a dizzying hilarity of quips and non sequiturs.  If you’re a newbie and wouldn’t know one team from another, just go. Attending a WIT show is like spinning a wheel of fortune. Some notches on it pay off a bit better than others. But there are no booby prizes. Everyone’s a winner.

I last saw Seasonal Disorder two years ago and loved it:

At this time of year when there are enough earnest holiday-themed shows on the boards around town to bestir almost anyone’s inner Ebenezer Scrooge, the honestly earned belly laughs to be had on a crazy-cheap ticket to Seasonal Disorder are a priceless gift of loopy merriment.

The lineup I saw last night I liked a lot.

The punchy players in King Bee (Megan Cummings, Mike Hendrix, Paul Hitlin, Eva Lewis, Dan Miller, Nancy Norman, John Windmueller) concocted a tale involving, among other audience suggestions, bathrooms, aliens, batteries, and Donald Trump, in a sketch made all the sillier for its utter illogic.

The cast of clowns in Improv Actually (Mike Hendrix, Bryan Jackson, Dana Malone, Dan Milliken, Richie Pepio, Jaci Pulice, Katie Rush, Macey Schiff, Kate Symes, Greg Tindale) bounced off an audience suggestion for a locale then spun an enjoyably tangled yarn loosely tethered to the Newseum.

Though there were many standout individual performances, the teams as a whole did not sync with quite the zany energy I recall from 2013. Also, the setup made the playing space seem cavernous, and the acting took place so far up stage that it sometimes wasn’t audible—and I was in the front row. None of this, however, dampened my overall enjoyment nor diminishes my estimation of WIT.

Laughter may be the best medicine but it’s also the gift that’s never out of season. Watching talented troupes keep on their toes in Washington Improv Theater shows, pirouetting from punch line to punch line, stepping on every crack, is always a one-of-a-kind gift that keeps on tickling.

So keep WIT on your wish list. And succumb to Seasonal Disorder.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 10 minutes, with no intermission.

Seasonal Disorder plays through December 20, 2015 at Washington Improv Theater at Source – 1835 14th St. NW, in Washington, DCFor tickets, purchase them online.

Stage Kiss

Plays about playmaking have an enduring appeal. Think Noises Off, Six Characters in Search of an Author. Shows about shows on the musical stage have indelible charm. Think Chorus Line, Kiss Me Kate. Metatheatricality can even inspire great moviemaking. Remember how Birdman reinvented cinematic narrative?

This sort of stuff is Sarah Ruhl’s forte. Her script for Passion Play—directed by Michael Dove last season at Forum Theatre—looked at actors’ retelling of a crucifixion story from inside and out, on stage and off, in three different eras, in language worldly and otherworldly, and became a masterpiece of theater’s capacity to engage us in meaning as multiplicity.

This sort of stuff is also Aaron Posner’s métier. His Life Sucks (Or the Present Ridiculous)—the reworking of Chekhov he  wrote and directed last season for Theater J—looked at actors in and out of character, in and out of funks, and as they wrestled with the elusive meaning of life on a stage set that was sometimes a placeholder and sometimes meant to be a real place, the play became a masterly metaphor for human existence itself.

Individually Ruhl and Posner do metatheatricality like nobody’s business. Round House Theater Producing Artistic Director Ryan Rilette has brilliantly teamed them on Ruhl’s comedy Stage Kiss. The script is super clever; Posner’s direction is peerless. And the exuberant upshot is not only a gut-busting laugh a minute but also a mind-blowing insight into love and sex.

Stage Kiss as its title suggests turns on theatrical depiction of kissing. The fact it focuses on kissing as a public act, as something actors do in full view of an audience, becomes a prompt for us to wonder, along with the characters, about kissing in private as an interpersonal act when no one is watching:

Is it live or is it Memorex? Is it real or is it mimesis?

There’s an ongoing play-within-the-play in Stage Kiss, and the characters are mostly actors. The main two are credited in the program as She (Dawn Ursula) and He (Gregory Wooddell). Years ago She and He had a passionate affair; they have since gone their separate ways. She married and has a teenage daughter; He has a fiancé. They haven’t seen each other for more than a decade. Now, awkwardly, they are cast by a stage director (Craig Wallace) in the same 1930s-era play as two characters who have a red-hot adulterous affair. Abruptly their real-life romance resumes, torridly, with comic complications aplenty: She has a real-life husband (Todd Scofield) and daughter (Tyasia Velines); He has a real-life girlfriend (Rachel Zampelli). In their onstage roles She and He are called upon to kiss, a lot, and their lusty lip-locking carries over offstage into their ostensibly authentic lives.

At one point She asks He, apropos a particularly ostentatious osculation: “Did it make you feel like an actor kissing an actor or did it make you feel like a person kissing a person?” That is the play’s big connundrum, one that doesn’t go away afterward, and one that to my knowledge is wholly original to this work.

Granted, Stage Kiss is a knockout comedy. Some of the punch lines and sight gags had me doubling over. There were times I could not keep from chuckling even as the show played on. Ruhl plus Posner equals hilarity squared. The fantastic cast also includes Michael Glenn, Rachel Zampelli, Tom Truss, and David Mavricos. Kelsey Hunt perfectly conveys the split between street wear and costume. Sound Designer/Composer James Bigbee Garver’s interscene music tracks instantly shift the show between the 1930s and now. Set Designer Tony Cisek and Lighting Designer Andrew R. Cissna have created scenic effects that serve the metatheatrical storytelling with jaw-dropping aptness. The production is spectacular in every respect.

But though Stage Kiss is nonstop hilarious, it’s no fluffy souffle that leaves you hungry for substance later. It didn’t hit me till after, but this sensational show is concocted around a surprisingly serious thought provocation:

Stage Kiss questions kissing the way Waiting for Godot interrogates god.

 

Bad Jews

When I first saw Joshua Harmon’s brilliant play Bad Jews at The Studio Theatre about this time last year, I could not contain my enthusiasm. I praised it to the skies:

Bad Jews is so over-the-top funny, so razor-sharp smart, and so plumb-the-depths profound that it left me gobsmacked in utter awe…. Bad Jews is a perfectly polished gem—a don’t-miss gift of exceptional theater whichever holiday you observe (or don’t).

I could not have imagined the show could get any better. It broke all box office records for Studio, which kept extending the run until it couldn’t anymore because another show was booked into the space. Now back on stage—literally by popular demand—Studio’s revival of Bad Jews offers those who missed it a serendipitous reprieve: another chance to catch this irresistibly hilarious and astonishingly heartfelt comic masterpiece.

Yesterday I got a chance to reappreciate the production—and I was enthralled all over again. The creative team headed by Director Serge Seiden is still the same. The set, lights, sound, costumes are the same. Harmon’s scintillating script has not changed. Yet the show plays even better than before. The humor is even more truth-based, the nonverbal moments even more nuanced, the characters even more vivid, the story arc even more moving and meaningful.

How, I wondered, could that possibly be?

Three of the four actors are new to this year’s production—the three who portray twenty-something cousins in a Jewish family who have gathered on the occasion of their beloved grandfather’s death. Laura Lapidus now plays Daphna, the one who is religiously observant and has a headful of steam and hair. Her antagonist, Liam, the lanky brainiac who does not share her religious fervor and thinks little of their tradition, is now played by Noah Averbach-Katz. Rowan Vickers now plays Jonah, Liam’s quiet younger brother who tries not to be involved in Daphna’s and Liam’s ferocious feud over their Poppy’s chai—a religious keepsake that survived the Holocaust along with Poppy and is steeped in family history.

The fourth cast member, Maggie Wilder (née Erwin), returns as Melody, Liam’s good-hearted shikse sweetheart and opera singer manqué. Wilder’s memorable, comically off-key “Summertime” vocal once more brought the house down to smithereens.

As a foursome the cast is fearsomely funny. They engage us, sometimes outrage us. Daphna and Liam each have what Artistic Director David Muse calls “seething rant-arias,” in which they dispute not only their claim to the chai but the very form and content of Judaism, and Lapidus and Ayerback-Katz deliver Harmon’s fusilades of scathing invective with drop-dead showstopping firepower.

Yet at the same time there is immense warmth and heart within this show—borne mainly of Vickers’s and Wilder’s sensitive performances—and those qualities draw us into the world of the cousins’ comic conflicts with such touching precision and authenticity that it’s as if for the time being we are members of this extended, eccentric family.

There’s one important interpretive shift in this year’s production: Daphne is now played with a disarming smile on her face, especially at the beginning, even when she is saying stinging things. The adjustment works terrifically to offset Daphne’s acidity yet stay faithful to the script—in which the character as written has a bitchy streak.  The portrayal of Liam has been modulated as well. His tirade about Daphne—a misogynist screed—is as horrifying to hear as Melody says. But when Liam’s softer side appears, as when he professes his devotion to Melody, it seems  genuinely to supplant the rancor of his rant.

As I marveled at the ensemble performance of Lapidus, Vickers, Averbach-Katz, and Wilder, I sensed that under Seiden’s direction this fresh cast had uncovered a profusion of subtle new comic details in Harmon’s script. For example, they punched up words in the midst of speeches that might each have had one laugh before but now had a galeful more. And with countless spot-on wordless gestures they got situational guffaws at points that became more riotous in the moment than the dialog. It was as if the show were a stew  prepared from a fine family recipe and had  simmered for such time that marinated flavors not apparent before were now pleasuring another generation’s palette anew.

Quite simply Studio Theatre’s remounted Bad Jews is DC theater’s  funnest and tastiest feast of the season.

Running Time: One hour 35 minutes.

Bad Jews plays through January 3, 2016, at The Studio Theatre’s Mead Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

Noura

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

On my explorations into the local universe of  university theater, I’ve sighted some terrific stuff. Most of it  I’ve written about for DC Metro Theater Arts (see links to my recent faves below). But if I hadn’t got a heads-up about these shows as a contributor here, there’s no way I would have learned about any of it. Campus-based productions—which  have very short runs, often just a weekend—are almost never on the radar of theatergoers outside academe. Which is a great pity. And I don’t mean the sort of pity that Greek tragedians paired with fear. I mean the doggone damn-shame kind.

A hugely important case in point is a project that has been going on for the last two years at Georgetown University called Myriad Voices: A Cross-Cultural Performance Festival. It launched with a splash in 2014 when it Skyped in Syrian refugees in Amman who were slated to come to Georgetown (to perform their trenchantly relevant reinterpretation of Euripedes’ Trojan Women) but were denied visas. The US Bureau of Consular Affairs in Amman in its wisdom ruled that the cast members, all women, had not demonstrated “non-immigrant intent”—despite the fact they were leaving their children and young families at home.

There has to be some supreme irony in the fact that Noura, the latest offering in Georgetown’s Myriad Voices festival, is billed as “a re-imagining of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House,” the play that ends with Nora walking out on her husband and three young children and slamming the door.

The script of Noura is by Heather Raffo, an award-winning Iraqi-American playwright and performer whose work focuses on bridge-building between her Eastern and Western cultures. Inspired by stories she heard from Arab American women, Raffo set out to recast Nora in the contemporary context of a family of Iraqi immigrants. Last night I attended an engrossing reading of the play, directed by Derek Goldman and featuring Raffo herself in title role. With resources afforded by a major theater performance program, this was more than a typical staged reading. In addition to chairs and music stands, there was a lighting design, costumes, set pieces, props, a sound design. The cast of five, working with scripts in hand, had been blocked to give a sense of the play on its feet.

The character of Noura is a thoroughly modern woman—a loving and beloved wife, a devoted mother, and  an accomplished architect by profession. For the last eight years she and her husband, Tariq, a surgeon (Dariush Kashani), have made their home in America and have recently become U.S. citizens. They struggled at first, he worked for a while at a Subway, but they are relatively comfortable now.

“I need to be a woman who does something,” says Noura, wishing aloud she had been able to help rebuild her home country. But that is not to be. She is from Mosul, a place that ISIS has laid waste to (“There is a genocide in my hometown,” she says). She is also acutely aware that she now lives in a country where as an Iraqi she is suspect (“You can’t compare these psychopaths to the rest of us!”).

With a nod to Ibsen, Noura and Tariq, both Christian, are preparing for Christmas. They debate whether to give their  American-grown boy, Yazen (11-year-old Gabriel Brumberg), the violent video game he wants.

As Noura takes cigarette breaks outside in the wintry snow, we hear her troubled inner voices, whispered in Arabic, an unspeakable discontent that not only has no name but may even be unthinkable.

Two visitors arrive. One is a friend of the family named Rashid (James Whalen), who is Muslim and who like Tariq is a doctor. With another nod to Ibsen, Rashid is attracted to Noura.

The other visitor is Maryam (Madeleine Kelley), a wholly original character (and the one I found the most fascinating out of a very intriguing bunch). She is twentysomething, an orphan, and was raised in Iraq in a convent. Noura has been in touch with Maryam on Facebook and—unbeknowst to Tariq—has been sending her money. Maryann arrives in America financially independent; she holds a degree in engineering that will ensure her employability. She is also single by choice and six months pregnant. Noura is overjoyed when she first meets Maryam. Then Maryam takes off her coat and Noura sees the baby bump—and Noura has a cow.

Suddenly, shockingly, the word “slut” slips into the script, and Tariq outdoes Noura in slinging the slur at Maryam. (“She’s got slut written all over her!” he says). For her part Maryam is unfazed, completely centered in her choices, and fiercely self-possessed. She explains that having no family whatsoever, she decided with informed intent to have a child on her own. It took months to conceive, she says, and months to get rid of the guy. So she’s not about to take their shit.

As can be seen in the conflict that erupts over Maryam’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Raffo’s script layers on to this simmering family story a roiling country story—the dramatic tension between the culture they came from and the culture into which they are assimilating. The bond between Noura and Maryam is at the same time a sexual-political divide. The bond between Noura and Tariq is at the same time a sexual-political divide—as we learn when he angrily brings up an incident in Noura’s past from twenty years ago and declares her not “honorable.” They are words once spoken that cannot be unsaid.

As one might expect, Nora’s iconic exit in A Doll’s House gets its counterpart in Noura. Asked by Tariq, “What about your family?” she answers: “I cannot hold on and move on at the same time.” But the ending of Noura is by no means an open-and-shut case of identity gone missing, for there are surprising twists in the plot that I shall not disclose. The audience, clearly captivated, stayed on afterward for a lively and extensive talkback.

Remaining readings of Noura are sold out, but there is another Myriad Voices event tonight (December 4, 2015) for which tickets are still available online: Ping Chong + Company’s Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity.

Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.

Noura will be read two more times, December 5, 2015, at 4 pm and 8 pm, at the Davis Performing Center’s Devine Studio Theatre at Georgetown University – 37th & O Streets NW, in Washington, DC. Both readings are sold out.

LINKS:

‘War With the Newts’ at Georgetown University

‘Top Girls’ at George Washington University

‘The Revolutionists’ at The Catholic University

‘Fires in the Mirror’ at Howard University

‘Doctor Faustus’ at Gallaudet University Theatre and Dance Program