Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: July, 2016

The Golden Smile

It is probably not a good idea, near the end of a maniacally inscrutable and incessantly unfunny musical, to have one character sing, apropos the show, “It’s over! It’s done!” and then have another character respond, “Oh, thank god.”

In fairness, The Golden Smile, described by its creators as “An Absurd Musical,” wears its pointlessness  on its sleeve. And admittedly the one-liner quoted above offered the stoic and mostly quiet audience a semi-witty relatable moment.

The Golden Smile is set in the 1950s in the rec room of a mental institution. The premise is promising: Five mental patients, caught making inappropriate use of their rec room, face getting kicked out of it, and so they determine to write and perform a play in hopes that their stern supervisor, seeing they can behave, will permit them to stay. The story device of inmates taking over the asylum and putting on a play worked brilliantly in Marat/Sade, Peter Weiss’s epic masterpiece with music set during the French Revolution. So you might think The Golden Smile, a millennials’ retread of the gambit set in the Eisenhower years,  would at minimum be mildly interesting. But you would be wrong.

The creators’ stated intent is “to raise awareness for mental health issues,” to produce “a historical analytic psychology thriller aimed at depicting mental health in the 1950s.” But the work as staged falls woefully short.

Five spirited actors play the five inmates—Andy McCain (identified in the program as Writer), Amanda Mason (Director), Flynn Harne (Angry Actor), Jody Doo (Sarcastic Actor), and Robert DiDomenico (Loathing Actor). Director Joey Stamp has let them loose to act like hyperactive five-year-olds scrapping on a playground, taunting each other, throwing tantrums, generally making infantile mayhem. Minutes into the show, it becomes clear we’re in for a tedious acting exercise in age regression having little to do with illuminating mental health in the 50s.

Two other actors have roles as observers—Jody Hinkley (Critic 1) and Yasmin Schancer (Critic 2)—who now and then make comments that puncture the inmates’ pretentions. Exactly what the play-within-the-play is about I found rather obscure. I did get that the inmates are making up a meandering mythology and that it has to do with the quirky discovery that gold can be extracted from within teeth, hence the titular golden smile. (And yes, that twist comes across as a bizarre allusion to the Nazis’ extraction of teeth for  gold from inmates on their way to the ovens—a detail made all the more peculiar by the fact that Yaakov Bressler, whose first play this is, is Orthodox.)

The mental ward’s supervisor, identified in the program as Messenger, is played by JeVon Todd Blackwell. At intervals that quickly become predictable, Messenger enters, the lights shift, he reprimands and/or punishes the misbehaving inmates, temporarily restoring order, then exits to return only to repeat. He’s smarmy and sanctimonious and he’s got  a sadistic streak; now and then he physically assaults a patient. His function seems mainly to interrupt the pandemonium each time it wears thin, which it does relentlessly.

Though I cannot say for certain, there seemed to be fleeting hints of a script that might have been better served by a lighter touch in a different production. There was a scene with a very clever run of puns about death, for instance, that could easily have been quite amusing had it not itself been bludgeoned to death by ham-handed directorial choices.

Zach Stamp (Joey’s brother) wrote the unremarkable, unmemorable music and lyrics, though the numbers were sung by some very good voices in the cast with prerecorded backup well done by Michael Stamp (Pianist, Arranger), Chris Lano (Saxophone), and Gaby Baez (Bass) and audio engineering by Rory Dennis. An intriguingly raggedy wardrobe for the ragtag bunch was pulled together by Costume Designer Rivkah Spolin, who also dressed the Messenger in spiffy sharp whites. Props Designer Carrie Pieper found a vintage radio and various paraphernalia for the players to play with. And Lighting Designer Conor Moore’s well-conceived light cues lent a sense of drama and momentum that the show otherwise lacked.

In the time-honored tradition of absurdism in theater, a play did not simply trot out empty non sequiturs for no reason. The authorial intent was to confront audiences with the meaninglessness of existence—to say something true, even if that something was: life sucks. I could discern no such truth-telling purpose in what I saw on stage last night in the Trinidad Theatre. Despite the frenzied efforts of an inventive and energetic cast, this show barely offers  Fringe-worthy fun.

I knew to expect The Golden Smile’s absurdism and vulgarity. I was looking forward to it, actually, prepared to go with it if it went somewhere. But it went nowhere.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission

The Golden Smile plays through July 17, 2016 at  Logan Fringe Arts Space, Trinidad Theatre  – 1358 Florida Ave NE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2016 Capital Fringe Page

I Found That the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow

Anna Snapp gives a robust, witty, and protean performance in this genuinely candid and insightful solo theater piece. Self-authored, and based on her own life, I Found That the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow is a poignant and revealing recital of all the debilitating ailments, diagnoses, and painful incidents that her 25-year-old body and mind have known since she was about 19. There are so many, in fact—including  autoimmune diseases, infections, suicidal depression, bipolar disorder, trauma-induced eating disorder—that she helpfully lists them for us on a Post-It flip chart.

“Why was my body failing me?” she asks, and after disclosing one  hurt and ailment after another, she relates an incident in her past that—the piece strongly suggests—precipitated or aggravated her subsequent breakdown of  body and mind. The incident is disturbing, and disturbingly told, and Snapp’s bravery in confronting it is remarkable.

Snapp is a natural mimic who can quickly switch voices and physicalize an array of states of mind and comic types; plus she punctuates the play with some wonderfully punchy set pieces. Early on she talks to the floor, creating a character for it that she depicts with a cartoon voice, then riffs on how the floor is so cold and hard and she hates it even as she collapses on it comically. At another point, after a clever scene with a gastroenterologist (whose name is Dr. Rectil), Snapp delivers a showstoppingly hilarious poem about rectal foam. And near the end Snapp picks up a tennis racket and mimes with it in slow-motion while narrating a hysterically funny satire on antidepressant TV commercials.

David Minton directs a simply staged but effective production. The few pieces of furniture comprising the set include a sheet-draped chair that doubles as a hospital bed. Light shifts create cinematic cross-cutting, and apt and well-timed sound cues are smoothly integrated into the show. Snapp’s narrative switches back and forth in time, which she marks by naming the year a scene or incident occurred. For me that fractured chronology got a little hard to track, but perhaps in a future iteration that confusion will be ironed out.

Snapp’s bio note describes her estimable intention in creating the piece, and speaks of the audience she hopes will find their way to it:

While Anna Snapp has been trained in everything from Shakespeare to the Uta Hagen technique, she wanted to do something unique, create change, engage discussion, and shut down the stigma surrounding mental and physical health problems. So, she wrote about her own struggles with crippling ailments as a way to cope. Out of the writing and rehearsal experience grew a deep acceptance and optimistic mindset for Snapp. Her show is meant to create a voice for people who feel like they can’t speak up about their problems

As Snapp’s agony-upon-agony story unfolds, it helps to be mindful that the title of the piece, I Found That the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow, promises a hopeful ending. Against incredible odds, it’s a promise that Anna Snapp’s performance keeps beautifully.

Running Time: About 55 minutes with no intermission.

I Found That the Sun Will Rise Tomorrow plays through July 20, 2016 at The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, Room A-9 – 901 G Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2016 Capital Fringe Page