Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: March, 2016

After the War

“A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house,” said a certain prophet of Nazareth long ago. Subtract the word “prophet,” swap in “politically outspoken Israeli artist,” borrow storytelling structure from Ibsen (e.g. An Enemy of the People), and you have the gist of After the War, the new play by Motti Lerner just opened at Mosaic Theater Company.

There’s even a comically earnest doctor character who drops in Ibsenesquely: Bernard (a delightful Michael Toyaldo).

After the War is set in Tel Aviv in 2006 two weeks after the Second Lebanon War. Like Lerner’s prior and more provocative play The Admission, which played to great acclaim and ignited colossal controversy a season ago, After the War at its core of conscience casts a critical eye on the military conduct of Israel. But whereas the dramatic tension in The Admission turned on disputed facts about a particular military action, what drives After the War is the conflict between a particular world-traveled and -renowned pianist and the family members who bitterly resent him for his widely publicized critical views about the country that was his home and is still theirs.

Lerner’s estimably highminded purpose in After the War is just as plain as it was in The Admission, but it doesn’t catch hold as well; it stays worn on the sleeve not felt from the heart. For After the War to work onstage with the sort of emotional power The Admission had, we have to be more than curious about its interestingly idiosyncratic assortment characters; we have to care about them—and that doesn’t happen, despite perfectly good performances from very well-cast actors ably directed by Sinai Peter.

I heard the script read during Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival last fall and left thinking it felt formulaic, its character conflicts more forced than simmering up and erupting from within. The Mosaic production brilliantly opens up what is basically a one-set living room drama and gives it sweeping social context (in the form of projected warplanes) and resonant musicality (evoked by Frida Showham’s imposing orchestra hall set). Especially noteworthy is Eric Shimelonis’ outstanding sound design, which deceived me into believing I was hearing live orchestral and piano music in a concert hall. The play establishes its main character, Joel (Paul Morella), as a musical genius deservedly much lauded in the 18 years he has been abroad, and everything about the stagecraft makes that fact of the character credible and clear.

As written, Joel is seemingly sincere in his compassion for the Lebanese children whom Israeli militarism has turned into collateral victims—a compassion that, he says, has led him to take his public political stands. He believes “the person is also his conscience,” and he remembers that his piano-teacher mother Bella (Barbara Rappaport) taught him “not to separate the personal from the pianist,” so “I played to save us from our enemies and I played to save us from ourselves.” But as he confronts his own family with “what our soldiers did in your name in this war,” he seems not to have foreseen the extent to which his views would rankle them. Only now on this visit does he realize those views  are anathema to his mother, his brother Freddie (James Whalen), and his 23-year-old son Izzy (Guy Kapulnik). And only now does he learn those views were so detested by his deceased father that the distress may have killed him. We are given to understand that Paul the great pianist has surmised none of this before because the 18 years he has been away have kept him busy touring and performing and so, by inattention or intention, he has been out of touch. Still, the character’s cluelessness about the resentment he will confront on this visit is odd indeed—it comes off as a private deficit of anticipatory empathy that sticks out in glaring contrast to the compassion he publicly espouses.

What emerges is a portrait of the great artist as egotist—as someone who in his personal life doesn’t really walk the noble talk of his public life. Paul never really gets where his family’s resentment might be coming from; he never really seems to seek the kind of empathic connection with any of them that might move the dial on their separate and aggregate animosity. His obliviousness to them while he gallivanted the globe does not seem that much displaced by authentic dialogue in the moment. Moreover he is all too ready for a dalliance with Trudy (Tonya Beckman), who is not only his mother’s nurse and Bernard’s ex-wife but maybe his brother’s betrothed.

The self-absorption problem with After the War’s main character as written does not function simply as the sort of “flaw” that makes a character more complex or interesting. It functions instead as a deal-breaker for our ability to empathize with the character and consequently our ability to relate emotionally to the play and therefore our inclination to feel the import of its message.

For make no mistake: The meaning of After the War is profoundly important. Its clear-eyed depiction of the brave and courageous artist who speaks out despite the professional and personal price to be paid is not only exemplary; it is a stance of ethical principle that is urgently needed. Though this particular script misfires, the Mosaic Theater Company that produced it—the thriving enterprise that Ari Roth conceived and helms, that Serge Seiden and Jennifer L Nelson co-create—precisely embodies the portrait this play aspires to: the essential socially conscious artist for whom art and politics not only mix but mesh.

“The purpose of art is to make people better,” said Lerner during the opening night reception. And he said of After the War that “the play wants to disturb you to ask what to do to not let this happen.” Lerner’s and his play’s intention is to be celebrated. And Mosaic is to be commended for bringing it to the stage.

 

 

Advertisements

Falling Out of Time

There is so much sorrow in this show
Nine fine actors playing nine parents
All mourning dead children
Searching to see them again
Seeking to be with them one more time
Speaking words of unspeakable loss
Each groping their solitary way
Going in circles
Burdened by unbearable grief
Each child’s dying retold
Each child’s death relived
Mothers and fathers intoning
One by one
Poems of loss and sadness
Lyrical lines of lamentation
Becoming a chorus of bereavement
No longer alone
Finding solace in shared heartbreak
In freeing verse
In full disclosure of private pain
All their sadness aired
No more to be said
Able to breathe again
Still their children are dead
Gone from them
Yet they have found the words
To say what it is like
What it is
To lose the precious life of one’s child

So know this before you go:
It is all in verse
And it is all about sorrow
Soulful sorrow, all of it
A show made solely of sorrow
Yes, one note
A note you may know
But this singular maybe-familiar note has been scored like a magnificent symphony
And it is voiced by nine superb soloists
Who become an exquisite choir
That may lift you up
If you have already known the note

 

 

 

Moment

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” as Leo Tolstoy famously said. Had Tolstoy seen Studio Theatre’s penetrating production of Deirdre Kinahan’s lacerating Moment—a knife-edged night of reopened old wounds—he might have added: “Each unhappy family has a meltdown in its own way.”

At the explosive end of Moment’s first act, the audience I watched the play with sat a long moment in shell-shocked silence. I doubt any of us knew what hit us.

Things don’t start out that way. At the beginning, Moment chit-chats and chirps along innocuously, quite unremarkably and for quite a while, as we are introduced to the members of a Dublin family. It is a family, we are to learn, that has a painful past that cannot be put behind them, and now is the first time they’ve all been together since the shocking incident that tore them apart some 15 years ago.

Teresa, the mother (Dearbhla Molloy), is on too many meds and has not enough memory left to keep track of them. Ciara (Caroline Bootle Pendergtast), one of Teresa’s two daughters, is a conventional mom with a fun-loving bloke of a hubby, Dave (Ciaran Byrne). But Teresa’s other daughter, Naimh (Emily Lanham) (pronounced Neev), arrives so tense and tightly wound she doesn’t even want to be around Fin (Avery Clark), the hapless co-worker and wannabe boyfriend she brought along.

What amps up the tension is the impending arrival of the sisters’ older brother, Nial (Peter Albrink). As a self-absorbed adolescent, he committed a horrible crime in his bedroom that he was sentenced to prison for. Since he served time, Nial’s life has been remarkably rehabilitated; he has become a successful abstract artist, exhibited in several galleries; he has the love of Ruth (Hannah Yelland), a beautiful and understanding woman  who is also his art-world-savvy rep. For all practical purposes, Nial’s life is now happy and whole, and he has determinedly moved on.  Naimh has decidedly not. She has never forgiven him.

It is to this kindling that Naimh’s bitter resentment of her older brother—for what he did, for what it did to her—sets a torch. And what makes Moment truly momentous is how Kinahan takes this incendiary combustion and makes it shine a bright light on family sexism.

Lots of playwrights have an “origin story,” a biographical narrative or incident that explains why they started writing for theater and how they discovered it was their art form, but Deirdre Kinahan’s must be among the most revealing. As she told Her, an Irish women’s magazine:

I first got into writing when myself and a friend Maureen set up the Tall Tales Theatre Company and we were both really interested in acting. I was acting for a couple of years, from around 1997 to 1999.

When I was acting I was also doing a bit of work with Ruhama Women’s Project.  It provided education to women who had worked in prostitution all their lives in Dublin… I was in there teaching basic English literacy, computers and drama and I became very close to a couple of the senior women.

They then got interested in coming to my plays and one of them had the idea about writing a play about their lives so I said yes, I would bring a writer in and all the rest of it but they said we don’t want anyone else to write it but you. I said I’m not a writer but they said we trust you so I agreed to do it. That was my first play.

This genesis of a writing life is gendered: One cannot imagine a man being asked by women exiting the sex industry to tell their stories. But it is also an origin story that is  gender-inequity conscious: One cannot imagine a woman in denial about male supremacy being entrusted by such women to tell their stories either.

This illuminating backstory of what became Kinahan’s acclaimed playwrighting career offers an insight into what she has achieved in Moment: Kinahan has a keen intuition for seeing the men in her play though the eyes of the women in her play, and for showing us exactly why the women see those men that way.

The main focus of Kinahan’s artful seeing is Nial, as he is viewed by his mother (who adores him) and his sister Niamh (who abhors him). Another focus is the deceased man whose portrait looms on the wall—the siblings’ father and Teresa’s husband—as we hear conflicting stories about why he died.

With a steady, unsettling gaze, Kinahan exposes the raw nerves of homespun sexism that fixes siblings for life in relation to one other and to themselves. Moment shows us a daughter who cannot escape living unhappily in the shadow of the favored son who hurt her…sisters whose father may have lost his life defending his son…grown women to whose own mother their prodigal brother still matters more….

To say this family drama is fascinating is an understatement.

 

1984

Shakespeare Theatre Company has missed no opportunity to issue advisories to audiences about to attend the spectacularly intense Headlong production of George Orwell’s 1984, now on stage at the Lansburgh.  An advance email from Artistic Director Michael Kahn to ticket holders warns accurately of “loud noises including gun shots, bright and flashing lights that create a strobe-like effect and scenes of graphic violence….” A sign in the lobby posts the same warnings. The light, sound, and special effects in this show surpass in visceral impact their every admonition.

Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke, who audaciously adapted and directed it, faced the daunting task of finding 21st-century theatrical form for the iconic book Orwell wrote in 1948 about state suppression of thought and memory long before history was digital. Of this challenge Macmillan has said:

How do we achieve double-think, how do we deliver the intellectual argument, and also can we take along a 15-year-old who has never read the book while satisfying the scholar who has read the book 100 times?

The sensational shebang they came up with certainly delivers the sort of gosh-wow FX that 15-year-olds go to action movies for. At intervals that would sync with any adolescent’s distractable attention span, there booms and blazes another eye-popping, ear-shattering dramaticus interruptus.

And the script they came up with is cannily faithful to the original, in that it incorporates the usually ignored appendix to the book. This far-future coda—ostensibly  composed in 2050, after the totalitarian state of 1984 has fallen—gave Macmillan and Icke license to be full-on meta, and they ran with it. Thus we see scenes of the surveillance and torture suffered by protagonist Winston and his paramour Julia in 1984 even as commentators from 2050 on stage at the same time talk about how that was then. And thus we see jumbo-screen video inserts into the stage action showing what’s going on concurrently in other rooms. All this heady layering and interconnecting is gosh-wow interesting too.

George Orwell’s hope in writing 1984 was to inspire resistance and courage of the sort that even if solitary and not collective can have effect in defiance of unjust authority. Describing this authorial intent, critic Michael Shelden writes in a program note,

The idea was that the battle against a regime infested with lies would never be lost if at least one brave soul refused to surrender the truth. The hero of the book, Winston Smith, is that last man. Watching his grim struggle allows us to wonder how long we might hold out against such tyranny and to question why any society would have relinquished so much power in the first place.

Macmillan and Icke’s adaptation and staging has to be one of live theater’s most razzle-dazzle interpretations of a literary classic. The question to be posed to the production—gosh-wow though it be—is whether it is faithful to the novelist’s hope that individual resistance and courage be inspired.

There comes a point during the scene when Winston is being tortured horrifically when he cries out to the audience, on whom the house lights have come up:

HOW CAN YOU JUST SIT THERE? GET UP! DO SOMETHING! HELP ME—HELP ME—YOU HAVE TO STOP THEM—PLEASE GET UP…

Of course nobody does. We get that this is a playwright’s conceit. We know to play by the rules of being an audience member. We know we have not literally been invited to volunteer to go on stage. Yet do we get the message that the very individual inaction, inertia, and complacency that gave passive assent to this fictional totalitarian takeover might be part of the problem in the real world here and now?  And do we get the implicit message of Orwell’s prescient conception that we need to be mindful so we don’t become complicit ourselves in governmental mindfuck? Or if we don’t get that message, does that to some extent indict the integrity of the entire metatheatrical enterprise?

A case could be made that this staging of 1984, far from inspiring and motivating us to individual acts of courage and rebellion, actually numbs with its assault on our senses, its overload of gosh-wow effects, such that in the end we are lulled into the same complacent contentment that led Orwell’s doomed citizenry down the fateful path of trusting authority too much.

Go see it and decide.

OpenStage New Works Showcase

The theater term “packed house” took on all new meaning for me the night I caught this month’s OpenStage New Works Showcase. Not only was there no empty folding chair;  the show went on stage in what was literally a private home. To be exact, it was the exposed-brick-walled living room of Kris Swanson and Roy Mustelier, whose remarkable hospitality stems from their equally remarkable commitment to emerging artists.

Billed as “an ‘open mic’ for theater artists,” OpenStage is curated, produced, and promoted by an impressive impresario named Star Johnson. I’m told the evening was typical—a bill of about a half dozen ten-minute  plays, solo performances, or scenes-from-plays-in-progress,  created by a mix of local playwrights and performed for an eager audience as diverse as the artists. I don’t recall experiencing live theater in this town amid such an unselfconsciously assorted roomful of folks.

The audience was enjoying it, and I too found the evening entertaining and satisfying, with pleasing flashes of fresh talent and surges of one-night-only energy. Here are credits and snapshots from the event (courtesy of OpenStage), which was emceed by Brittney Sankofa.

1) The Tragedy of Mario and Juliet by Wayne Nicolosi
With Jeff Mocho, Rena Brault, Chris Nicolosi, Shirley Panek, Greg Bowen, Brian Binney, Larry Levinson, and Wayne Nicolosi
Scenes from a full-length comedy set in Verona, NJ, about bumbling architect Romeo and handsome contractor Mario who meet their match while building a balcony for local spitfire Juliet.

2) Ya Dig?  (A Prayer to My Sister) by Sisi Reid
With Moriamo Akibu, Makia Green, and Sisi Reid
Literally, lyrically, and metaphorically digging, three women seek self-acceptance  in a world full of hatred of “everything brown” and ultimately discover how to love themselves.

3) I Will Send For You by Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman
With Lyn Artope and Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman
A mini-drama, based on the true story  of Saartjie Baartman, in which a South African woman bids a painful good-bye to her sister as she leaves for Europe, where she will be displayed in a human zoo as the Venus Hottentot.

4) Calico by Robert Kittredge
With Cristen Stephansky, Mike Bagwell, Emily Sucher, Ashley Zielinski and Robert Kittredge
A one-act send-up of the iPhone age in which a dumb off-hand remark by a famous actress gets caught by TMZ, goes viral, and threatens to ruin her.

5) Bowie Is Dead by Star Johnson.
With Emily Canavan and Kashyap Sridhar
A comedy sketch set in a restaurant, where the server reveals her  bizarre secret.

6) Scar Tissue by Sherryle Jackson
With Denise Sanchez and Johnnie Leon Hill 
A dramatic excerpt from the author’s novel The Promised Land in which a wife and her minister husband cope with her infertility and the excruciating consequences of past mistakes.

7) Blu’s Crisp Bills by Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman
With Dior Ashley Brown and Rayona L Young
A dark comedy in which a woman thinking she’s calling a contract killer to do in her husband gets a wrong number, and things don’t go as planned.
8) Love Letter to My Oppressor written and performed by Barbara K. Asare-Bediako
An eloquent poetic monologue that takes on the state and those whose “freedom is founded on better than me.”

There are many unique sites of surprise in the DC theater landscape. OpenStage New Works Showcase is certainly one of them, and for the adventurous theatergoer, it’s well worth a visit.

Running Time: One hour 30 minutes with no intermission.

OpenStage New Works Showcase was performed March 4, 2016, at The Corner Store, 900 South Carolina Ave SE, Washington, DC. For more information or news of the next showcase, like the OpenStage Facebook page or email openstagedc@gmail.com.

 

They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!

In politics, the expression “marxist farce” could well be a slur hurled by some puerile and petulant presidential hopeful (you never know these days). In theater, however, the term “marxist farce” has a reputable history and legitimate meaning as the name of a genre. It just doesn’t pop up much. In the economics of commercial theater, marxist farce is a rare bird, and it’s no longer much seen in the U.S. indie theater scene either.

If you’re looking for one of these uncommon agit-tainments, you’d be hard pressed to find a more interesting and important example than Dario Fo’s They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! It’s the prolific Nobel Prize winner’s most produced play, written in 1974 and staged around the world since. Thanks to Ambassador Theater you can catch this classic work of working-class consciousness in a terrifically witty revival at Flashpoint.

In They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!, Fo borrows farcical techniques from the Commedia Dell’Arte and boulevard theater of his native Italy as well as the Theatre of the Absurd. American audiences unfamiliar with these European traditions might more likely recognize echoes of Abbott and Costello, I Love Lucy, Martin and Lewis, and Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners. Indeed Fo’s two hilariously scheming housewives Antonia (Hanna Bondarewska) and Margherita (Moriah Whiteman) could be sisters to Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz, and their two bombastic/bumbling husbands Giovanni (Darren Marquardt) and Luigi (Mitch Irzinski) could be doppelgangers for Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton.

The zany plot kicks off when consumer prices suddenly skyrocket and Antonia joins with other shoppers who are taking matters into their own hands by stealing food. Afraid her law-abiding husband Giovanni will find out, Antonia conceals some of the stolen food under her friend Margherita’s coat, with the result she looks  pregnant. The husbands’ bewilderment over this sudden fecundity makes for running gags aplenty. Meanwhile the law shows up in multiple guises (Peter Orvetti) intent on finding the incriminating food loot. The play is aimed squarely at a mass middle-of-the-road audience, cleverly constructed to keep ’em laughing all the way through to the very end, when Fo’s exhortation to build a mass movement of proletariat solidarity enters slyly if not subtlely, like a beneficent deus ex marxism.

Ambassador Theater is presenting the DC area premiere of a wonderful new-and-now translation by Jon Laskin and Michael Aquilante of Fo’s most recent rewrite (over the years he has continued updating it to keep pace with the dispiriting financial times), and it’s a real kick to listen to this adroit cast play it to the hilt. Zippily directed by Joe Martina and Danny Rovin, the production relocates the play from Milan to Newark, and changes Italian corporation names to contemporary U.S. behemoths like Citibank and Verizon. Also interpolated are some apt references to “the previous pope’s” edicts against contraception and recent police activity in Baltimore and Fergusson. The first act is a hoot; the second act lags a bit. I sensed Fo overwrote a stretch. A labored subplot heist by Giovanni and Luigi supplants the far more madcap momentum begun by Antonia and Margherita. But that’s a script quibble. The Ambassador Theater’s enjoyable production of They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay! smartly showcases a classic by one of world theater’s most influential political consciences.

Sarafina!

Even if you already know how inspiring and moving this show is, from seeing the film or the musical on stage, you are in for a spirit-lifting, heart-leaping, foot-stomping thrill when you experience what Howard University students have done with Sarafina!  

From the very first notes to the rousing finale, 21 amazing singer/actor/dancers (plus three backup singers and six musicians) turn a story of black students’ struggle for freedom in South Africa into a celebration of determination, hope, and talent that totally rocks the Ira Aldridge Theater.

Sarafina! is a South African musical written and composed by Mbongeni Ngema, with music co-arranged by  Hugh Masekela. It’s set in the 1980s in a Soweto high school where students retell the true story of a 1976 student-led protest. Back then the students were  required by the white government to use Afrikaans in classes instead of their own language, Zulu, and they took their fury to the streets. Ultimately their activism brought about change, but before that there was much bloodshed; students were shot at by police and died. A beautifully powerful work of musical theater, Sarafina! stands as a testament to student bravery then and now, and it’s no wonder why the Howard University Department of Theater Arts has committed major resources to it.

Eric Ruffin, whose direction of Black Nativity at Theater Alliance I recently admired, again leads a big ensemble and creative team to enthralling glory. Musical Director Mongezi Ntaka brings out such gorgeous choral and solo vocals I could have shut my eyes and believed I was hearing an original cast recording. Choreographer Jakari Sherman has the students on a roll of high-energy stepping and gymnastic dance moves that doesn’t let up. Fight Choreographer Nate Shelton has actors in confrontations that look safe but make you jump anyway. And Dialect Coach Courtney Ferguson leaves not a single player’s diction unpersuasive.

Costume Designer Kendra Rai takes a school-uniform look for the students and individuates it,  gives their teacher a closetful of color, and decks the cast in  tribal-inspired costumes for an eye-popping second-act dance routine. Scenic Designer Michael C. Stepowany’s movable corrugated-steel panels serve the fast-paced action smartly. And Lighting Designer TW Starnes lends the show an apt rock concert feel.

The band upstage plays very like at a rock concert: Mongezi Ntaka (guitar), Bert Cross II (keyboard), Stephan Naylor (bass), Demetrius Whitsey (drums), Jonathon Neal (trumpet/flugelhorn), Royce Hodnett (saxophone). And standing just in front of them,  Taylor Hayes, Derrionne Key, Joshua Pyrum sing backup.

The entire ensemble blew me away. Though there were standout individual performances,  it was the overwhelmingly in-sync spirit of unity in their singing and dancing that was unmistakably the medium and message in one: Amanda Morris, Brittany Clark (a high-kicking knockout as the teacher, Mistress It’s a Pity), Cobe Jackson, Danielle King, Douglas Ruffin, Ezinne Elele, Gerald Doe, Gregory Banks, Isaiah Reed (arresting as the combative Crocodile), I’shanee Ford, Jabari Denson (enjoyable as the personable Colgate), Kamau Mitchell, Kevin Thorne, Kristen Armour (awesome as the feisty Sarafina), Mickaela Armstead, Neah Banks, Nia Savoy, Nzingha Ashford, Taylor Burrell, Tony Donaldson Jr., Tyasia Niangane.

Howard commissioned a new prologue especially for this run, in order to take  into account the end of Apartheid and the release of  Nelson Mandela from prison. Change and freedom come slowly; but without courageous activism, they would not ever. That’s the unmissable lesson of Sarafina! If ever a university show possessed performing excellence on a grand scale on top of profound educational purpose, the stunning production I saw last night was surely it.

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

Sarafina! produced by Howard University Department of Theatre Arts plays to March 12, 2015 at the Ira Aldridge Theater – 2455 6th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.