Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: August, 2016

Satchmo at the Waldorf

It is the morning after I saw a compelling and telling bioplay about Louis Armstrong just opened at Mosaic Theater Company, Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf. I have my earbuds in; I’m logged into streaming music; I am listening to tune after familiar tune as recorded by this legendary singer and trumpeter. And something unexpected is going on. The dramatic revelations that unfolded in the Atlas Lang Theater last night are resounding between my ears like  aftershocks from some seismic unsettling.

I never realized how embedded in the soundtrack of my younger years Armstrong’s crystalline cornet and gravelly vocals have been. I had forgotten about him, truth to tell. He was of a time in my life and pop culture that is long gone. And that is a strange realization, made stranger still by what I experienced last night, which in retrospect was as ear-opening as it was eye-opening.

The profound takeaway from Satchmo at the Waldorf—which features an extraordinary, tour-de-force solo performance by Craig Wallace—is that the legendary entertainer I am now recalling, the singer-musician I am now listening to, was someone I never knew. And probably, given the givens, someone I never could have known…until last night.

I grew up among white people who watched The Lawrence Welk Show and Your Hit Parade on black-and-white television. When we heard Armstrong on the radio or saw him on TV, we enjoyed him as another entertainer, someone with a big toothy grin and a happy lilt in his raspy voice who seemed nice (the Minnesota state adjective) and whom we liked. He was someone welcome in our home without hesitation, electronically. He was obviously someone who was a Negro, the word used then (instead of “colored”) with respectful reserve. But in point of fact he blended into our white cultural soundscape as if he wasn’t.

So about that tectonic tremor.

I entered the Lang knowing nothing about Armstrong’s life, particularly his life as a black entertainer in a white-privileging country and a white-dominated industry. I might have surmised that American racism had something to do with his career (duh), but I didn’t think to, I didn’t need to. Now that I do know something of Armstrong’s life and how he handled what he was up against—as selected and artfully crafted for the stage by his biographer Treachout—the way I hear and think about Armstrong has completely changed. And as entertaining as Satchmo at the Waldorf was—funny; fast-moving; phenomenally designed, directed, and acted; five-star fantastic—the crux of the show has left me kind of shaken.

I have heard Armstrong’s signature tune “When You’re Smiling” (“…the whole world smiles with you”), countless times. Now I cannot but hear in its strains the steely coaching of Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s longtime manager—a white man, Jewish, with ties to the mob—who instructed him to cater to white audiences’ tastes.  Armstrong did as he was told. And he was very good at it. Made millions at it. Made millions happy.

Episodically Wallace slips out of character as Armstrong, steps outside the Waldorf dressing room where the play is set, and shifts into the character of Glaser. Then the most amazing change happens in his voice. As Armstrong, Wallace speaks convincingly in a “sawmill” voice (one hopes no vocal cords are harmed in this production);  suddenly he speaks in Glaser’s authoritative voice (commendably done without caricature). In Armstrong and Glaser’s back-and-forth monologues, Treachout traces a tale of a mutually remunerative friendship in which, we  learn, Armstrong’s trust was grievously misplaced. Ultimately it is a troubling narrative of a relationship riven by a complex underlying racial tension that was then common in the entertainment industry—and that now my ears cannot but hear as I listen to Armstrong sing.

Episodically Wallace also slips on shades and shifts into the laid-back character of trumpeter Miles Davis, his voice taking on a third distinctive timbre. We learn that Davis was sharply critical of what he viewed as Armstrong’s pandering to white audiences, considered him an Uncle Tom. In Armstrong and Davis’s back-and-forth monologues, Treachout not only traces a dismaying narrative of the bitter rivalry between these two but also raises pointed questions about what it means to be a black artist in America, particularly the career penalty for any black celebrity who speaks out against racial injustice. One cannot listen today to Armstrong’s utterly apolitical recordings and blithely infer that that was then but what’s now is new and different. Cf. Colin Kaepernick’s decision sit out the national anthem.

Treachout’s script eloquently gives voice to Armstrong’s private musings on American racism but touches only briefly on his public display of politics: Once Armstrong in an interview expressed anger at the derogation of black school girls in an ugly incident during Eisenhower-era integration. The script’s attention is quickly diverted to jokiness about the coarse language Armstrong used in the interview. Nonetheless the point lands that even as Armstrong’s livelihood was dependent on pleasing white audiences, his conscience was not whitewashed.

There’s actually a whole lot of coarse language in Satchmo at the Waldorf. The one nit I have to pick about the script is its over-reliance on profanity for its humor. The coarse language per se is not bothersome; it serves to establish Armstrong’s earthy character and often connects the audience audibly as comedic. But too often the playwright makes a crutch of it for laughs, as though he couldn’t think of anything funnier.  The opening night audience’s nervous appreciation of it seemed to become more self-conscious than genuinely amused as the show went on.

What makes Mosaic Theater’s superb production of Satchmo at the Waldorf a peak theatergoing experience is its transformational force: In spotlighting the life of this legendary black artist of an era gone by, it literally alters perception of the culture we live in now, helps us to see, helps us to listen, helps us to know. The choice of this play to kick off its second season heralds Mosaic’s essential mission with clarion brilliance—not unlike Satchmo’s own horn.




There’s a good chance that watching FEAR—Kathleen Akerley’s playfully subversive new comedy at Longacre Lea about a troupe of actors in the throes of performing Shakespeare—will change your perception of the next play of the Bard’s that you see.

For theater makers, FEAR is a deliciously insider backstage romp sure to tickle the funny bone of anyone who has ever trod the boards or labored behind the scenes. It’s littered with acerbic “let’s put on a show” jokes; it’s astutely directed by Akerley herself; and  it’s got a quirky cast of characters (played nimbly by Tom Carman, Ashley DeMain, Vince Eisenson, Michael Glenn, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Séamus Miller, Amal Saade, and Matthew Alan Ward)  who amusingly embody the  clash and convergence of  egos, imaginations, and instruments that makes possible live theater.

And for the theatergoer sort, FEAR is curiously mind-altering, because it frames the process of performing Shakespeare in our times as a sport of contemporary concept concocting, a game that  any number can play by any number of rules. FEAR throws our focus onto the process that led up to the product we’re consuming; and in so doing, FEAR makes us a player-participant by prompting us to infer the origin story within what we’re watching—like a delightful invitation to be vicariously present at the creation.

From the audience/spectator point of  view, there’s something strangely redemptive about the experience of watching FEAR, because it dives headlong into all the ambivalences that typically inhibit folks’ enjoyment of Shakespeare’s stories and language (and let’s face it, a lot of the time what’s going on and what’s being said is literally opaque—unless you’ve read the plays beforehand and remember the annotations). Brilliantly, FEAR affirms, makes fun of, and ultimately helps us bypass those ambivalences.

There’s a popular series of Shakespeare’s greatest hits published as No Fear Shakespeare that eliminates the four-century language barrier by placing a contemporary paraphrase on every facing page of each script. Akerley’s title FEAR serves as a winking reminder that for many otherwise culturally alert and literate people, Shakespeare can be scary as shit. And what’s so refreshing about Akerley’s wonderfully iconoclastic approach to that fear is that she doesn’t treat it as a text problem, or as a linguistic obstacle that if only we had more Elizabethan vocabulary drill we could overcome. Instead she does something actually metatheatrical (a word often overused but well earned here).

In Act One we see the theater troupe in a rehearsal room, under the florescent glare of work lights, coming up with diverse production concepts; then in Act Two  we see the same actors playing out their concepts (using scenes from Hamlet and Macbeth), in front of  footlights charmingly crafted from tin cans.  By the time we get to Act Two, we are treated to a cognitive effect that might be described as mind-altering persistence of memory.  What has happened is that having been immersed in the creative process behind what is being performed before our eyes, we are now permitted to experience that inferred inner life of the production as the true text to be comprehended.

Akerley’s plays tend to be not only boldly imaginative dramatic enactments but also discombobulating mental events—and FEAR is no exception. At nearly three hours, it goes on a bit too long; but let’s face it, so does Shakespeare. As for myself, I’ve got a hunch that having seen FEAR will make my next visit to Shakespeare seem richer and quicker.


The Lonesome West

In real life, when we are spectators to two grown men facing off in dead-serious combat—right in front of us; with words, fists, lethal weapons, whatnot;  unmediated by movies and such—our natural response is  fright, for fear that the fight will get out of hand and include us. The more the conflict turns violent, the more urgently we wish to steer clear of it. And whatever high-minded notion we might entertain to intervene and break the battle up, our impulse would be tempered by the not unreasonable foreknowledge that putting ourselves in harm’s way between two androgenized antagonists could, depending on the severity of their animus, get us killed.

I mention this everyday dude drama as context for considering what makes The Lonesome West—now playing in an outstanding production at Keegan Theater—such a comedic triumph. For this dark comedy by Martin McDonagh about two quarreling brothers literally allows us to triumph over our aforementioned ingrained fear.

My DC Metro Theater Arts colleague David Friscic, in his spot-on five-star review of this production, quotes the playwright dissuading the very sort of dissection of his work I’m doing now:

People should leave a theatre with the same feeling that you get at a really good rock concert. You don’t want to talk about it, you just let it buzz into you.  I can’t stand people analyzing things. A play should be a thrill like a fantastic rollercoaster.

Of course McDonagh is correct in that. He’s also being a bit disingenuous. Because I  believe he knows exactly what he’s up to in his dark comedies.  Yes, The Lonesome West is a fantastic ride. But seeing how cunningly the rollercoaster is constructed can be its own kick too.

McDonagh’s comedy has fascinated me ever since the first play of his I saw. After Forum Theater opened its recent production  of The Pillowman, I talked with its director, Yury Urnov. In an interview published as “The Cathartic Comedy of Martin McDonagh,” Urnov explained to me the way McDonagh uses humor to break through social walls of prohibition. Urnov also told me a story about how in a context of political repression, he observed the humor in The Pillowman disempower the fearsomeness of tyranny.

McDonagh’s comedy is laugh-out-loud funny, to be sure. But there’s always a method to it.

In The Lonesome West, McDonagh layers hilarity over a mano-a-mano feud that in real life and real time would induce  stress not belly laughs. The Connor Brothers,  Coleman  (Matthew J. Keenan) and Valene (Bradley Foster Smith), may seem bumbling buffoons, but make no mistake: they are trigger-happy foes with enough fistfuls of resentment to shoot to kill.

McDonagh scripts their  savage and macabre verbal sparring. Director Mark A. Rhea paces each round with knockout punch. Keenan and Smith play high-risk foils as if on a high-tension high wire. And Casey Kaleba tightly stages each fight with a startling mix of hostility and silliness.

The two other characters in The Lonesome West both have important functions in McDonagh’s cathartic comedic scheme. The local rector, Father Welsh (Chris Stezin), tries to play the intercessor, to referee the brothers and get them to just get along. Despite his earnest entreaties, he fails, which becomes a running joke. But part of what turns his vain attempts into comic relief  is that he stands in for our high-minded impulse to intervene between two determined adversaries and—whew—he’s doesn’t get hurt.

The village moonshine runner Girleen (Sarah Chapin) plays another important role in how McDonagh’s combat-comedy plays out. As the sole female character in a drama that turns on animus between two male characters, Girleen has a structural function that is as profound for what it isn’t as for what it is. She isn’t the girl whom the guys bond over or against—a cliché resolution in both life and art that McDonagh here assiduously avoids. She is a woman of independent mind and means. And as McDonagh writes both brothers, they know well enough not to mess with her.

We naturally feel anxiety whenever we witness up close and personal two men really having at it, really having it in for each other. In McDonagh’s The Lonesome West that underlying anxiety serves to make the funny funnier. McDonagh’s funny, in turn, makes the anxiety dissipate, at least for the duration of the show. Ergo, the buzz.

Don’t miss it. Go feel it. And remember to forget everything you’ve just read.



Notes on My Theatergoing in London

My four days in London last weekend offered time slots to see six plays—four evenings and two matinees. My strategy was to seek intriguing, fresh writing in a mix of West End, Off West End, and Fringe productions. After poking around to learn what would be playing during my stay, I picked the following six shows (ranked in order of how much I admired them, from least to most).

The Spoils: This vehicle was written for himself by Jesse Eisenberg, who stars. It had a run in New York before transferring to the Trafalgar Studio. My husband was keen to see it, I’ve always liked Eisenberg’s work in film, and I lucked out and got us into the sold-out last show of the run. Eisenberg gives a fascinating and disturbing performance in the role of a disturbed, privileged, massively un-self-aware millennial. Really, the guy is so racist, sexist,  and all-around boorish that it’s a wonder the other characters, all age-mate friends, stick around with him for the full two acts. The script vainly tries to redeem Eisenberg’s unpleasant-if-clever character  with a cheesy sentimental ending, which I found unpersuasive. And on reflection I could not fathom Eisenberg’s point in writing the play to begin with—except possibly to show off his bag of tics.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery: This one was a typically British out-and-out farce, from a creative team whose comedic franchise includes two other hits currently on the boards, The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong. It’s the sort of tourist-crowd-pleasing lite entertainment I ordinarily would not expend a show slot on, but this one caught my eye because the titular theft caper takes place in my  hometown, Minneapolis. Large portions of the play were indeed gut-bustingly hilarious (as a sign outside the Criterion Theater touted). But overall this was never an experience that would stay with me. Plus the Minneapolis angle turned out to be completely peripheral. The actors’ diction was not remotely Minnesotan; and curiously a skyline in the set purporting to be Minneapolis showed the city’s singular landmark Foshay Tower with a 9/11-ish twin.

The Past Is a Tattooed Sailor: I discovered this lyrical gay-themed autobiographical gem by Simon Blow playing on the Fringe at the Old Red Lion Theatre, one of London’s unique pub venues. Downstairs the place was packed with blokes rowdily watching a Sunday afternoon sporting match, their pints in hand; and upstairs was a quiet intimate black box where if you sat in the front row you would just about be in the sex scenes. There were more people in the cast than in the audience (though the previous night had sold out), but that didn’t matter one whit. It was an enthralling, idiosyncratic script extremely well directed and performed.

The Truth: This West End hit caught my eye when I read that Studio had slated the hot young French playwright Florian Zeller’s The Father for next season—and wow, what a smart and crafty writer he is, in a terrific translation by Christopher Hampton. The four-character play turns on marital infidelity, a theatrical trope I usually find a yawn, but Zeller’s dazzling iteration had me laughing at its surprises and insights and gasping at its audacity from start to finish. Note to Studio Artistic Director David Muse: After The Father, please bring this one to DC next.

They Drink It in the Congo: I didn’t yet understand the title when I read the promo blurb about this new play by Adam Brace, which I caught in its second preview at the Almeida Theatre. It’s about liberal do-gooders in London trying to do something about the inhuman calamity that is the Congo, by putting on a festival to create media buzz. Conflicts arise between the festival organizers and the Congolese ex-pats they paternalistically try to enlist. The play is sprawling, with lots of characters and scene segues, snappy/witty dialog, and a brutal depiction of rape as a weapon of war. The piece reminded me in form and purpose of Mosaic’s epic play about Rwanda. The three-hour production was suspended at intermission, due to an actor’s injury, so I got a refund and a free drink at the bar but saw only half the play staged. I then bought and read the script to find out what happens and was knocked out by the scope, pace, and precision of the writing. I would see this work in its entirety in a heartbeat. (Not sure how well it would land in the States, however; a lot of unfamiliar political and cultural stuff flies by fast for American ears. I had to Google to find out what Londoners would likely know the title referred to: a juice drink called Umbongo whose bouncy, unfactual ad jingle goes “They drink it in the Congo.”)

Rotterdam: Okay, this new play by Jon Brittain blew me away. Loved it. I figured I’d find it interesting; its sex/gender/identity/love theme was right up my alley. But I had no idea how absolutely entertaining and brilliant it would be. It’s about a woman who’s reluctant to come out to her parents, and the person she has believed for seven years to be her lesbian lover—but who  reveals to her he wants to live as the man he has always known himself to be. This was another script I bought and read, and every riveting page confirmed my impression that this is breakthrough work about gender identity and fluidity and the most insightful portrayal of a trans character I’ve yet to see on stage. Note #2 to David Muse: Rotterdam closes August 27. You still have time to scout it.