Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: January, 2016

The Glass Menagerie

What’s the best way to stage a modern classic that is both reverential and revelatory? How does one mount a production that is respectful of the author’s intent yet freshly insightful? How can a production that is both faithful to the text and plentiful with pleasant original surprise seem a coherent vision, a seamless whole?

The rewarding answers to all those questions can be found on stage right now in Director Mark Ramont’s beautiful and expressive new interpretation of  The Glass Menagerie at Ford’s Theatre.

The most immediately dramatic evidence of Ramont’s sensitively innovative approach is what we see before the play starts: Projected onto a white scrim pulled across the proscenium is a montage of clips from 1930s films and movie previews. Barely perceptible under the buzz and stumble of other theatergoers finding their seats is a mashup of these movies’ soundtracks. Are we in a cinema? Seems so. Or maybe a faded memory of one, for far left and right are huge piles of broken old movie theater seats that seem to bracket the stage with obsolescence.

Then gradually—on an old-fashioned living room set dimly lit in the center—we become aware that there’s a figure sitting in a wing chair facing upstage watching the same screen we’re seeing and smoking a cigarette. The play proper hasn’t begun, not a word of Tennessee Williams’ lovely language has been spoken, yet we are already immersed in the world of the character Williams wrote as its narrator, Tom, the lowly shipping clerk who aspires to be a poet. As we will soon learn, Tom—to avoid his mother Amanda, whose spirited presence he experiences as stultifying, and to escape into an imaginary world of adventure—goes out alone every night to the movies.

In one incandescent stroke of stagecraft, The Glass Menagerie has come alive in a whole new way.

The rest of the production follows suit. Moment after moment, we see Williams’ classic 1930s memory play not as a museum piece but refreshed in true tribute. For instance, Jim, the Gentleman Caller, appears in half light during Tom’s introductory monolog, so we already have a picture of him long before his entrance. And later, as his high school triumphs are recounted, we see black-and-white footage of his athletic prowess and charisma that makes the character’s backstory vivid in our minds. Laura, Tom’s painfully shy sister, appears onscreen as well—a picture of a possibility that never comes to pass and a vision of a hope that gets dashed.

In the scene near the end between Jim and Laura, the script has him asking her to dance with him. She demurs at first then awkwardly does so in a passage that as written lasts but a dozen lines of dialog. In Ramont’s production the lighting shifts and the music swells and they do a stunningly balletic pas de deux that suddenly sweeps us into all that Laura wishes for and all that her mother wants for her: true love with a man who loves her in return, her body wholly abled, her shyness become ebullience, her future secure. All of that wishing and wanting is in the text, but in that moment in this wonderful new production we get to experience it visually and viscerally.

Does the play itself stand the test of time? Well, yes and no. It is a period piece to be sure—and the Ford’s Theatre production showcases it lovingly. The sense in which it is a memory play has been heightened gloriously through scenic, sound, and cinematic effects. The resources of Ford’s Theatre could not have been expended on this masterpiece for more wow.

But what now seems dated is the play’s plot engine: the fact that Laura, who on account of being “crippled,” is so excruciatingly introverted that she flees business school, making her mother Amanda obsessive in her quest to snare Laura a man who will ensure her financial future. So much has changed that would have made Laura’s life entirely different today: The disability rights movement, which helped open doors through the ADA that were shut tight in the 1930s. The women’s movement, which helped give young women a  shot at financial independence as a Ms., not a Mrs. For gosh sakes even the airily aspirational human-potential movement, which now offers self-help courses and support groups of all sorts.

Williams’ script bluntly acknowledges the economic hardships of the era The Glass Menagerie is set in. And he foresees our individualistic pick-yourself-up-from-your-funk future when he has Jim urge Laura to take the public-speaking class he’s in. But Jim’s touching presumption that what works for him as a man will work just as well for Laura is unexamined. In the precious world of Laura’s glass animal collection, there is no glimmer of the transformative sexual politics to come.

Ford’s Theatre presents a Glass Menagerie that is a memory play most profoundly in the sense that it reminds us of a yesterday that is gone but should not be forgotten—a time when young women like Laura were destined for destitution if they did not marry. For anyone who knows the play (or who doesn’t yet), the Ford’s Theatre production is not to be missed. It is a brilliant, almost textbook example of how to lift a vintage script from the assigned-reading list and breathe brand-new life into it for today.

 

I Shall Not Hate

It was a record-setting blizzard, not prescient season planning, that resulted in Mosaic Theater Company’s rescheduling the opening of I Shall Not Hate to last night, International Holocaust Memorial Day—the date designated by the United Nations to mark the liberation of the concentration camp called Auschwitz-Birkenau.

There is a Palestinian refugee camp in Gaza called Jabalia, a 1.5-square-kilometer area said to be one of the most densely populated places on earth. Much of I Shall Not Hate takes place there. For years it has been the site of unspeakable violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  There is as yet no international day to mark its liberation because there has been none.

Jabalia is where a Muslim boy named Izzedin Abuielaish was born and grew up and studied hard so that he could become a doctor. His family of eleven lived in a room three meters square with no electricity, running water, or toilet. His mother called it home. His father called it “bird trap.”

I Shall Not Hate is a solo theater piece with text beautifully distilled from Abuielaish’s best-selling memoir, I Shall Not Hate: A Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity. Performed by the formidable Israeli-Palestian actor Gassan Abbas, it has been directed affectingly by the Israeli theater artist Shay Pitovsky, who with Abuielaisah adapted the script.

The story told in I Shall Not Hate would be heart-wrenching enough if it were made up. But it’s true; it happened to the man portrayed onstage before us. Abuelielaish is the man whose words we hear spoken in Hebrew and Arabic, whose words we read as they are projected in English. And knowing this fact of this show’s theatrical veracity—as it vibrates through every gesture, every sound, every syllable—is to experience a devastatingly powerful drama that pierces to one’s soul.

Mosaic Theater Company is presenting I Shall Not Hate as one of five offerings in its singularly inclusive Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival. The production is superb. The work of Lighting Designer Ziv Volushin and Sound Designer Hilit Rosenthal is especially compelling. Having seen the first festival entry—a solo piece called Wrestling Jerusalem written and performed by the American Jewish theater artist Aaron Davidman (which I praised as a “a rare gift to the spirit and intellect that is relevant beyond words”)—and now having seen the second, Abuielaish and Pitovsky’s I Shall Not Hate, I have just begun to connect the dots of this festival’s unprecedented and sweeping mission: “Israeli, Arab, and American artists…affirming collective commitment to constructive dialogue and unfettered artistic expression.” And what I am starting to glimpse is a vision of theater’s authentic engagement with our troubled world that  comes by its hope for healing not wishfully but honestly‚ with a storytelling truth-telling that stuns and moves.

It begins quite sweet and funny. Abuelielaish in the commanding presence of Abbas chats with us about his youth—the years before he became a gynecologist (who, while working in Israel, delivered more babies there than any other doctor). He tells amusing anecdotes about, for instance, the zoo where two donkeys were painted with stripes so that the kids could have zebras, the marvelous school eraser he was given, the competition he won for reciting the Quran, the time he worked on a farm owned by the Madmoony family, the first Jews he’d ever met. He ambles about the stage—which in Niv Manor’s spare rendering is strewn with foreshadowing rubble and children’s shoes—and takes a seat among the audience as he regales us with tales before the trauma to follow.

And then come the bulldozers, which destroy his family home. And then excruciating Kafkaesque encounters with checkpoints and border guards. Then, in the midst of this all, his loving marriage and the birth of his seven children. And then the bombing massacre that left three daughters dead.

As Abuelielaish’s life story unfolds in simple speeches so poignant and poetic they break your heart and stop your breath, we are drawn ever closer to this man’s character and all this man has lived through—what he has survived, what he has lost. As he becomes a noted public health specialist and professor, later a world-renowned peace proponent, a haunting question hovers over every gripping turn of the narrative: How can this life story possibly lead to the conclusion foretold in its title? How can this not be a grudge match? How can one so hated not hate back?

There comes a point when this larger-than-life figure takes on such moral stature as to set to rest every vengeful objection and tower over every vindictive emotion.

“Who do you want me to hate?” he asks, humbly. The Israeli babies he delivered? The Jewish farm family who invited him to their table? The Israeli doctors who saved his two other injured children’s lives? Who?

“Hatred is our illness in this place,” he says. “It is eating us up without ever letting go.”

The good doctor’s decision to let hate go, to not let it recycle through him, to become a bigger human being than that, stands as one of dramatic literature’s greatest recognition scenes. For in that moment shines like a beacon one person’s principled commitment to forgiveness. And in that moment stands one local theater production as a global blessing.

Running Time: About 75 minutes with no intermission.

I Shall Not Hate plays through February 14, 2016, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, The Paul Sprenger Theatre – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

For the schedule of engagement events following performances of I Shall Not Hate, click here.

The Critic & The Real Inspector Hound

I just love it when theater laughs at itself. Who can forget the clockwork guffaws of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, or Shakespeare’s enchanting send-up of theatrical conceits in the “Pyramus and Thisbe” scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Can a sculpture make fun of sculpture? Can a song spoof singing? Can a ballet satirize dance? Well, maybe, sure. But have a look at the exhilarating double bill of one acts now playing at the Lansburgh Theatre, and you might well be persuaded that theater as an art form is uniquely suited to self-lampoon.

In the hands of a few fiendishly clever playwrights, that is, plus a terrifically crafty creative team.

The first play is Jeffrey Hatcher’s inspired adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1779 The Critic. In it eight great comic actors in sumptuously silly period costumes spin a cockamamie story of conceited playwrights, nincompoop theater critics, and no-talent actors that had me belly-laughing from beginning to end.

The second is Tom Stoppard’s 1968 The Real Inspector Hound, performed by the same cast. In it two theater critics watching an absurd play-within-the-play whodunnit become themselves, bizarrely, characters in the plot of it. While not as laugh-out-loud funny as the first, Inspector Hound yields up brain-tickling takes on illusion and reality that make its satirical trust no less satisfying.

Both these works are directed by Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Michael Kahn with amazingly zany zest and nonstop jesting. Kahn is also to be credited with pairing them purposely because they both take pokes at theater reviewers. Not always with gentle spoofing. Sometimes with scathing resentment. Which of course makes this double bill doubly intriguing for anyone such as myself known to publicly weigh in with opinions about performances on stage.

That serious intent can be read in how Shakespeare Theatre Company has framed this production, surrounding it with historical context and chewy commentary. I was especially fascinated by an article commissioned for the occasion by Robert Brustein, whose writing about theater in The New Republic and elsewhere I remember reading years ago like revelations (alongside criticism by such other early influencers as Eric Bentley, Richard Gilman, Tom Driver, and Stanley Kauffmann). In “Drama Criticism: The Old Age of an Age-Old Profession,” printed in the STC program and available online, Brustein writes:

People who judge the theatre have always been uneasy with one other. But in the long-running contention between the theatre reviewer and the drama critic, it is not often recognized that the two professionals are pursuing entirely separate paths. The reviewer is primarily interested in product, while the critic is more absorbed with process. The reviewer can turn out a notice between the falling of the curtain and the rising of the sun, while the critic normally has at least a week to revise, reenact, and redact first impressions.

Brustein goes on to elaborate on this critical distinction. “The reviewer,” he says, “steers audiences towards shows thought worth the ticket price.” I think of this type of theater coverage as ratings by a solo product tester claiming Consumer Reports objectivity and authority.

On the other hand, “the critic,” Brustein says, “is less concerned with sitting in judgment on a particular play than in trying to describe how it fits in a playwright’s artistic trajectory, in a company’s season, or in the history of dramatic literature.”

I would add to that: the conscientious critic tries to describe how a particular play relates to the life we live and the world we live in. To my mind, the most valuable focus of good theater writing is the locus where art and life are having a conversation. Who is saying what to whom? And why? And to what emotional effect and social impact?

The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound are a comedy hoot and will surely be a hit. But they go so far beyond entertaining that…well, it’s not funny. Together they prompt an important discussion about the function of theater writing in this town, one that has often been whispered about in the wings but needs to come downstage front and center.

See them, laugh your head off at them, then see if you don’t want to talk back.

 

 

 

 

 

Wrestling Jerusalem

“It’s complicated.”

So begins—on a note of supreme understatement—Writer/Performer Aaron Davidman’s captivating and insight-rich solo show, Wrestling Jerusalem, the third provocative production in Mosaic Theater’s inaugural season.

The title is a play on the biblical name Israel, which originally (Genesis 32:28) meant  wrestling with God. In Wrestling Jerusalem, Davidman attempts no less a project than bringing to the stage the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict—solely through the medium of one Jewish American traveler’s eloquent first-hand accounts and the acting instrument of one virtuoso performer.

Davidman starts out with a riveting fast-paced riff compiling   historical/cultural/geographic/political/religious sources and sore spots cited as causes of the conflict. The effect is both amusing in its dizzyingness and sobering in its hopelessness. Before long one senses a more apt title would be Interrogating the Terrible. Or Unpacking the Intractable.

Davidman has an engaging presence on stage—he moves like a dancer, pivots on a dime when he shifts between bits and scenes, fills the vast Lang Theatre with a sense of intimacy and urgency, conveys a conviction that speaks volumes. Plus the show is well leavened with wry wit. (He tells a joke about a rabbi who has been praying for peace at the Western Wall for forty years. I won’t give away the off-color punchline but on opening night it had the audience roaring.)

Then the real drama of the evening unfolds. As Davidman takes us with him on his journey, channeling people he meets along the way, sketching  characters in dialect and diction, keeping faith with folks in opposing factions who have not done so with one another, seeking universalizable shreds of hope, he’s like Walt Whitman writ larger than life (“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”). It’s impressive; awe-inspiring, actually.  Yet one has to wonder: How is this possible? How can one human being do what Davidman has determined to do?

That was the dilemma faced by Anna Deavere Smith in her solo show Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and analogously by David Hare in his solo show Via Dolorosa—both of which I saw the creators perform. Davidman is a sort of hybrid, artfully combining elements of Deavere Smith’s uncanny vocal mimesis and Hare’s authorial gravitas. Yet there Davidman stands alone on stage as an individual, expecting us to believe he’s really not.

Though Davidman’s journey sometimes borders on edutainment, it also yields some mind-blowing insights. For instance, one of the characters he inhabits explains the physiology of trauma that is driving the politics of animus between Israelis and Palestinians. “We are two societies living in profound fear,” he says. “Trauma is trauma.” The persistent message of  all their “recycled trauma”? “I am not safe.”

At another point Davidman gives voice to a character who parses the Hebrew prayer (Deuteronomy 6:4) that observant Jews say daily (it’s sometimes translated “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”). That last part, God is one, Davidman’s character does an amazing number on. God is one, he says, does not mean Our God is the only one. It means what it says: God is one. God is all. And God is everyone’s one God.

In the moment of that exegetical epiphany, the singular form of this solo drama suddenly resounded with hope. For if one actor can embody other lives on stage this vividly, this compassionately, this expansively, can there possibly be a more apt human metaphor for God’s infinite embrace of us all?

The more one wrestles with Mosaic Theater’s Wrestling Jerusalem,  the more one uncovers a rare gift to the spirit and intellect that is relevant beyond words.

Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.

Wrestling Jerusalem plays through January 24, 2016, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.