Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: December, 2016

Step Afrika!’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show

With the audience seated in the round on a floor shared by the playing space, you could feel the whole place shaking and quaking. It was no subterranean tremor; it was the ebullient Step Afrika! ensemble doing their dance moves. And their rhythmic pounding stomping stamping was reverberating with a vibe that was irresistibly joyful.

This was Step Afrika!’s sixth annual Magical Musical Holiday Step Show, directed by Artistic Director Mfoniso Akpan. Now playing through December 30, 2016, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, it’s a family-friendly extravaganza sure to gladden anyone’s inner kid.

Set Designer Ruthmarie Tenario has made of the Sprenger Theatre a virtual winter wonderland. The stage painted blue is festooned with blue and white streamers, and in the four corners of the black box stand evergreen trees decked in lights. On all the  walls are hung huge white cutouts of trees, and upon them Lighting Designer John D. Alexander makes it snow oversize snowflake projections—the first of many effects that will get more and more wondrous.

Atop a platform overlooking the stage stands DJ Frosty the Snowman (played by Jeeda Barrington) with his turntable scratching seasonal tunes with cheery beats. (The amplification by Sound Designer Patrick Calhoun gives the space terrific acoustics.) The show proper starts with two drummers at twin drum sets who rock the house and knock us out spinning their sticks.

Enter the ensemble performing a section of the program called “It’s Time for the Holidays,”choreographed by Jason Nious. They wear smart black-and-white formal attire, the first of several stunning wardrobes by Costume Designer Michael Murray. Strangely but amusingly, three cosplay-like figures are also loping about: a penguin and a couple of polar bears.

Suddenly we are treated to Step Afrika’s signature choreographic technique of stepping, clapping, kicking, and body-thumping—a performance style that’s breathtaking in its synchronization and astonishing in its ingenuity.

A second section titled “March of the Nutcrackers,” choreographed by Christopher Brient,  had the cast dressed as toy solders. Later they appeared as elves and ballerinas, later yet in contemporary fashions. During their several offstage costume changes, the show’s buoyant pace was kept up by soloists and Emcee Jakari Sherman.

There is impressive cohesion in motion among Step Afrika! performers. They are clearly one another’s peer in virtuosity, and the exuberance that comes of their unanimity is infectious. So when now and then they show off individually—as if to say, Here’s what I got; see if you can top that!—or when other competitions arise, you get that it’s all part of their polished play-acting. And you know this troupe is tight.

During a mock step-off between “the ladies” now dressed as glam ballerinas and “the fellas” now as goofy elves (“The Arctic Step Challenge”), there were startling splits by the women and a hilarious miming of snow angels by the men. As with some other sections of the show, the dancers did the amazing choreography themselves. Sherman as referee got the audience cheering and applauding for the “winning” team, then brought the two rival groups together in what became a show of high-impact solidarity.

A fun section titled “DJ Frosty’s Yuletide Step Workshop” got audience members out on the stage, now a dance floor where adults, tweens, and tots alike learned The Frosty Shuffle and frolicked alongside the cast.

A section called “Snow Day,”choreographed by Jakari Sherman, began with a bluish light effect evoking fallen snow. Several steppers wearing work boots and uniforms entered carrying shovels, and soon the sounds of these tools scraping and striking the stage combined with the sound of feet tromping and boot slapping. Then the rest of the ensemble joined in with shovels as well. It was as if Stomp had blown into town.

A section called “Home for the Holidays,” choreographed by Jakari Sherman,  was a spectacular finale that brought the whole cast back in assorted costumes they’d worn before. They set up a big abstract tree sculpture center stage and trimmed it in bright colored balls under a real fake snowfall. Then this gift of a show wrapped with another come-one, come-all dance party.

Featured in performance for this year’s Magical Musical Holiday Step Show are Mfoniso Akpan, Reginald Barrington, Christopher Brient, Emanuel Chacon, Deatrice Clark, Dionne Eleby, Matthew Evans, Kiera Harley, Joe Murchison, Anesla Sandifer, Brittny Smith, Jordan Spry, Alan Stewart, Andrew Vinson, TaQuez Whitted, Jerel Williams.

For 22 years Step Afrika! has been, as Founder and Executive Director C. Brian Williams said before the show, “stepping around the world.” Easy to understand why it’s so popular; the company’s talented performers and distinctive choreography have enormous and timeless appeal across generations and cultures. (You simply have to experience it visually and viscerally if you’ve never done so. It’s theatergoing like none other.)

But as I discovered the night I saw the 2016 edition of Magical Musical Holiday Step Show, there’s another dimension of Step Afrika!’s appeal that feels particularly welcome right now. Whatever worldly cares you might have come in with get set aside. And in their place happens one of the happiest holiday times in town.

Running Time: About 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Step Afrika!’s Magical, Musical Holday Step Show (2016) plays through December 30, 2016 at Step Afrika! performing at The Paul Sprenger Theatre, 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.

Note: This is definitely a show grownups can enjoy whether accompanied by youngsters or not. For those who do bring children, Step Afrika! invites you to come to the crafts table in the Atlas lobby 30 minutes before showtime so they can create and decorate musical instruments such as clappers, shakers, and drums to be played during the show. (The night I was there, the little ones played only on cue—and it was cute.)

LINK:

The DOMA Diaries

The year 2013, when the Supreme Court narrowly struck down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional, has already faded from America’s short-term memory but not so much as has 1996, the year President Bill Clinton spinelessly signed it into law. Time passes, the news cycle moves on, people get used to taking things for granted. In effect, same-sex marriage has been normalized. Generations of queer kids will come along who have no recollection of what life and love were like for those whom law once kept asunder

So it is that The DOMA Diaries serves as an important memory prompt, a necessary flashback. Written by Kevin Michael West, The DOMA Diaries takes the form of amiably theatricalized storytelling to bring back to mind the damage DOMA did.

The play premiered last summer in the Fringe festival in a production directed by West that my DC Metro Theater Arts colleague David Friscic reviewed and rated five stars and a “best of the festival” pick. I missed the play then but happily The Rainbow Theatre Project—in keeping with its commitment to showcase works “that reflect the unique experiences, interests and history of the LGBTQ community”—brought back the same cast and director to reprise the show in two performances at Source.

I went assuming I was kind of familiar with what the consequences of DOMA had been, but West’s script opened my eyes to particulars I’d not realized. He has created three fictional couples who are composites, as the program says, “inspired by the real life experiences of LGBT Americans.” In each couple’s story West makes vivid how DOMA came down around three specific issues in U.S. law: survivor benefits, immigration, and adoption. West’s choice of those three issues proved both apt and revealing.

Audrey (Joy Gerst),  a veteran, wants to be buried in Arlington Cemetery next to her deceased wife, also a vet, but is legally forbidden that final-resting-place respect, which straight spouses are entitled to.

Red (Christian Rohde) and Oliver (Garrett Matthews) meet cute, fall in love, and get married in a state where that’s allowed. But Oliver is a Russian national, he’s in the States on a work visa, and he must leave the country when it expires. Had the couple been straight, he’d have spousal rights to stay.

Janice (Renae Erichsen-Teal) and Sophie (Nell Quinn-Gibney) have two kids (the biological child of each). When Janice falls terminally ill, Sophie wants to adopt Janice’s child as her own, but under the law she cannot. Against Janice and Sophie’s wishes, Janice’s father George (Steven Wolf, who also plays Audrey’s brother) tries to adopt the child instead, which he can legally do as next of kin.

That precis of the legal issues in the script sounds more schematic than the show plays. West has done a fine job of crafting relatable narratives that pull us into these characters’ relationship crises and yield real emotional payoff when each has its hard-won resolution.

At one point a character makes reference to a sign seen carried by a demonstrator in an anti-DOMA protest:

Your laws will not change our love. But our love will change your laws.

Even though DOMA is done for and marriage equality has been normalized, the spirit of that slogan is needed now more than ever. Our not-normalizable president elect, when pressed last month on 60 Minutes for his opinion on legalization of same-sex marriage, said he is “fine with that.” Given his proclivity for prevarication, there’s every chance he’ll not remember having said it. But for the LGBTQ community—as Rainbow Theatre’s timely remount of The DOMA Diaries reminds us—forgetting history is not an option.

Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.

The DOMA Diaries was presented by the Rainbow Theatre Project December 11 and 12, 2016, at Source Theatre – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For information on upcoming Rainbow Theatre Project productions, go to their website.

LINKS:

2016 Capital Fringe Review: ‘The DOMA Diaries’ by David Friscic

Magic Time! Heard About the Rainbow Theatre Project? A Q&A With Artistic Director H. Lee Gable by John Stoltenberg

Into the Woods

The acclaimed Fiasco Theater production of Into the Woods has come to the Eisenhower Theater at Kennedy Center for the holidays—I am tempted to say for a spell, because the show is enchanting as a magic elixer—and I completely concur  with my DCMTA colleague Andra Abramson, who gushed that it “deserves to be gushed over.”

Key to this surfeit of delights is the fact that Fiasco has reimagined the storytelling in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical classic in a way that inivites our imaginations into it. Both our inner child and our mental grownup get to play along with the players as they spin intertwined fairy tales that hark back to long ago and speak truths about life right now.

I loved, for instance, how a cowbell hung around an actor’s neck designates him a cow—and our imaginations get it. I loved how actors’ fingers fluttering pieces of paper signify a flock of birds—and our imaginations light up. I loved how a taxidermist’s trophy animal head held by an actor makes him into a wolf—and our imaginations believe it. I loved how the quivering feather duster in an actor’s arms stands in for a hen—and our imaginations are tickled again.

I loved Fiasco’s stripped-down simplicity too. For instance, the part of the narrator in the script has been dispensed with, and snatches of exposition are dispersed among the troupe of ten. The orchestra has been dispensed with as well: there’s a single pianist, and cast members on other instruments play a pickup tune team. There’s not even any woods. The sole tree is represented by a vintage dress form. Because in the world of make believe, why not?

All the focus is on the story. There are theatrical sleights like shadow plays and gag costumes, but the most special effect is what happens in our minds when we fill in the blanks and complete the tale. The performance style aligns so perfectly with the storytelling, in fact, it’s as if the musical was always meant to be staged exactly this way.

The book of Into the Woods is a commingling of familiar narratives about Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf and her grandmother, Jack of the fabled beatstalk and his mother and their cow, Rapunzel and her long hair, Cinderella and her tormenting stepsisters, a couple of prince charmings, and a wicked witch. Lapine and Sondheim have added a baker and his wife to complete the cast.

The plot is driven by three once-upon-a-time wishes. Jack and his mother want their cow to give milk, Cinderella wants to go to a big bash the king is throwing, and the baker and his wife want a child. Their quests hit some snags foist upon them by the evil hag, but the wishers carry on undaunted. And by the end of Act One everyone has what they wished for and is all set to live happily ever after.

I pause here between acts to insert some backstory that manifests in this entertaining production in a deeply intriguing way.

The stories that are the source material for Into the Wood originated in Germany in a generations-long oral tradition among women. These stories included sex and gruesome violence and were never intended for children. In the original, for instance, Rapunzel gets pregnant; the stepsisters chop their feet down to size to fit the slipper;  the wolf swallows whole little Red and her grand, who are rescued only when a hunter slices open the wolf’s belly. One can but speculate what roiled the imaginations of these hausfraus of Germany such that they would want to regale one another with these dark  and bizarre tales.

Two young German librarians named Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, sensing a folk literature about to be lost, traveled the country to collect these adult-only stories and first published a selection in 1812. Immediately, under pressure from the book-buying public, the brothers began bowdlerizing the texts in subsequent editions so they could be read to the kinder—a process of lite-ning and cute-sifying that reached its apex in the Disney versions.


In 1976 a book appeared written by a Holocaust survivor named Bruno Bettleheim called The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. The book was a Freudian take on the kid lit that followed from the Grimm brothers’ un-griming. It argued that fairy tales, even those with darker themes, are good for children’s emotional development. When Lapine and  Sondheim got hold of the book, it was the lightbulb moment for what became Into the Woods.

And in that lightbulb moment was an important literary pivot: The process of child-proofing fairy tales was thrown into reverse. Lapine and Sondheim went back to the oral original versions (including theatricalized renderings of the examples of sex and gore mentioned above). And together Lapine and Sondheim proceeded to create a musical that is not really about childhood enchantment at all. It’s about adult disenchantment.

Which brings us to Act Two. Now the wishes have all been granted, but they’re not all the wishers hoped. And there ensues some coping rumination about what life holds for grownups, as in this lyric:

WISHES MAY BRING PROBLEMS,
SUCH THAT YOU REGRET THEM.
BETTER THAT, THOUGH,
THAN TO NEVER GET THEM…

Sondheim is the master of skepticism and irresoluteness, of misgivings and ambivalence, of existential weltschmerz. So many of his recitative-like musical phrases are not quite melodic, almost atonal (singable only by classically trained vocalists), as if to yield to hooks and homey humablility  would be to buy  in to a dubious fantasy that it’s a wonderful life and we can live happily ever after (or some such seasonal sentiment).

And then Sondheim will surprise us by pulling out the emotional stops. There is a gorgeous song near the the end called “No One Is Alone.” It’s one of Sondheim’s unabashed heart-tuggers:

SOMETIMES PEOPLE LEAVE YOU,
HALFWAY THROUGH THE WOOD
OTHERS MAY DECEIVE YOU,
YOU DECIDE WHAT’S GOOD.
YOU DECIDE ALONE.
BUT NO-ONE IS ALONE.

The musical refrain “No one is alone” seems not only a wish but an experience of its fulfillment. For just then the connection that has been happening between the inventive Fiasco Theater production of Into the Woods and the participating imaginations of the audience becomes nothing short of a magic moment.

The Second Shepherds’ Play

Watching the Folger Consort’s robust and warmhearted staging of this medieval mystery play, I was struck by how curiously it connects us today to the audiences who first saw it performed. Here we were twenty-first-century citizens of a nation that didn’t exist when acting troupes took this show on the road to town squares. And what worked then was working again.

I don’t mean all the lovely period music that Adapter and Director Mary Hall Surface has artfully  interpolated into the plot. I’m not talking about the fine cast of musicians-actors-singers-dancers-puppeteers who enact the age-old material both boisterously and reverently. And I’m not referring to the terrific period-ish peasant attire by Costumer Adalia Tonneyck. No, I mean the way the storytelling built into the structure of The Second Shepherd’s Play funnels us from earthy fun and farce into an experience of transcendent meaning as if neither time has elapsed nor anything in us as human beings has changed.

Few of the townsfolk in the Middle Ages knew how to read, and few escaped the poverty of the class they were born into. Theater back then was an educational outreach arm of the Church of Rome, totally subject to its rules. Women were totally subject to men’s rules as well, since husbands literally owned their wives as chattel property. Life was brutish, nasty, and short, and the Christian mystery plays were created to save souls on the fly.

Yet here we were comfortably ensconced in the august Folger Theatre, relatively well educated and well-off in a secular society, way past passage of the Married Women’s Property Acts (if not the Equal Rights Amendment), and here we were digging broad comedy worthy of the Marx Brothers or Three Stooges that begins with woebegone shepherds complaining of the weather and the rich but most of all their shrewish, unappealing wives.

Here, for instance, is a taste of the play’s casual misogyny in a speech by the shepherd Gib (written as is the whole play in a distinctive a a a a b c c c b rhyme scheme):

But, young men of wooing, for so God us wrought,
Beware well of wedding, and hold well in thought:
“Had I known” is a thing that serveth of nought.
Much constant mourning has wedding home brought,
And grief,
With many a sharp shower:
For thou mayst catch in an hour
What shall savour full sour
As long as thou lives.

For as ever I read epistle, I have one [wife]  by the fire,
As sharp as a thistle, as rough as a briar.
She is browed like a bristle, with a sour face dire.
Had she once wet her whistle she could sing like a choir
Her paternoster.
She is as great as a whale,
She has a gallon of gall:
By him that died for us all,
I would I had run till I lost her.

After the heist of one of their sheep by Mak, a fellow shepherd, the stolen critter is discovered concealed by Mak and his scheming wife Gill in a cradle as if it’s a newborn baby—and the play turns into a vulgar parody of the very Nativity the play was ostensibly written to promote.

Then suddenly the tone pivots again as if to a whole other play. An Angel appears to the shepherds  and announces the birth of Jesus, and they’re off following a star toward Bethlehem in what becomes an exhilarating, glorifying, and totally smirk-free manger scene.

There awaits for those who attend The Second Shepherds’ Play at Folger Theatre an extraordinary experience in time travel back six centuries to the past as well as a remarkable theatrical passage from farce to faith.  One might think both gaps unbridgeable—unless one has witnessed what happens in this exceedingly well-crafted show.

Copenhagen

The storytelling in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen—which won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Playis ingeniously done. The play’s three characters are deceased. They are actual historical figures whom Frayn extensively researched then imagined conversing in an afterlife on a circular stage space that has no specific time but three actual chairs. They speak sometimes to one another and sometimes to us the audience and sometimes as if to some indeterminate cosmos. Frayn’s exquisitely literate script is all talk but it’s riveting talk. And it interweaves exposition, dialogue, and interior monologues in a precise and coherent but not-quite-linear technique that so far as I know is unique to this play.

As I watched Perisphere Theater’s taut and mesmerizing production just opened at Logan Fringe Art Space, I experienced the play’s story and language playing in my mind with exactly the fascination I recall when I watched the Broadway production (which I did perched in onstage seating that surrounded the circular set). Director Heather Benjamin, the cast, and the design team have executed this singular play’s intentions and tensions with spellbinding skill.

The play purports to be about a mystery, a question mark of history that hovers over a particular meeting in 1941 in Copenhagen that occurred when the Danish Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr and Margrethe Bohr, his wife and confidant, were visited by the German Nobel-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg. The very first lines of the play establish both the mystery that Frayn will unravel and the method of afterlife memory he will use to do so:

Margrethe  But why?
Bohr  You’re still thinking about it?
Margrethe  Why did he come to Copenhagen?
Bohr  Does it matter, my love, now we’re all three of us dead and gone?
Margrethe  Some questions remain long after their owners have died. Lingering like ghosts. Looking for the answers they never found in life.
Bohr  Some questions have no answers to find.
Margrethe  Why did he come? What was he trying to tell you?

As the story unfolds, we learn that Copenhagen is German-occupied, Bohrs is Jewish, and Heisenberg now heads a German physics project that could be devising a nuclear bomb. We also learn that they first met in Denmark when Heisenberg was 22 and Bohrs was 38, they became mentor and mentee (more like father and son), as theoretical physicists they were colleagues and collaborators, and all three remained friends—until the Nazis came to power and war broke out.

So there was a lot at stake in that mysterious 1941 meeting that Frayn now has their memories try to recover. As it turns out, there was more than any of them knew.

What makes Copenhagen absorbing as a work of dramatic literature is that in performance it steadily keeps raising the ante about what is at stake. Because the play proceeds to a big reveal—a cognitive point when we realize that what is at stake is more than a personal visit but rather  a critical nuclear juncture in the geopolitical history of the world—the direction and acting need to sync like theatrical fission. And this they do in Perisphere’s production. John Decker as Niels Bohr, Ben McRoe as Werner Heisenberg, and Sue Struve as Margrethe Bohr play like charged particles on an underlying wavelength, like a gravitational forcefield for the mind.

And another thing. This play performed right now, in post-election America—with all the text’s historical references to tyrannical power, racist nationalism, and capacity for nuclear annihilation—takes on a real-world portent that’s like a bomb set to go off.