Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: January, 2017

Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies

There is a laugh track with this show. As in a prerecorded TV sitcom where the studio audience was cued to be amused, there’s an overhead LAUGH sign that flashes intermittently accompanied by canned har-hars and rim shots.

Sometimes the LAUGH sign lights when something is howlingly funny—as happens a lot in this marvelously mischievous new play by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, just opened at Mosaic Theater Company. And sometimes the sign lights when something is so not funny we cringe. Because what Chisholm has crafted is a dead-serious comedy so cunning it catches our conscience completely unawares.

The subject of Chisholm’s hilariously subversive script is race relations in America and the peril young black men are in. The story begins in what might seem a cliche: a jail cell where two 14-year-old black men are being held on trumped-up charges (arrested for “bein’ while black”).

We learn that one of them, Marquis, was adopted as an infant by a well-to-do white couple and grew up in this suburb called Achievement Heights with no consciousness of being black. His favorite author is Nietzsche; he doesn’t know who Tupac Shakur is. He’s going to grow up to be a buppie for real. Keith L. Royal Smith, wearing a hoodie over a prep school uniform, captures Marquis’s naivete exactly and endearingly.

The other young man, Tru, comes from Baltimore where he grew up in the projects, and he can quote Tupac chapter and verse. The clothes under his hoodie are nondescript street but he sports ruby-red sneakers. He is both astounded and appalled by Marquis’s cultural ignorance of his roots. Jeremy Keith Hunter nails Tru’s swagger and street smarts with charismatic grit.

Marquis’s mother, Debra, an ultra-lib lawyer, shows up to spring her son from the clink, and in a twist of white guilt gets Tru out too. She invites Tru to come have a sleepover with Marquis so he can have his “first ‘cultural’ friend.” Jennifer Mendenhall’s shrewd performance as Debra makes her earnest do-gooderism a running giggle.

Tru determines to school Marcus in what being black means. As a comedic plot engine this pays off brilliantly, not only because it sets up huge laughs but because it’s a vivid lesson about what being black means for those who’ve not lived it.

Tru writes a handbook for Marquis that’s 114 pages of “wit and wisdom on what it takes to be a young black man in America.” It’s a compilation of crude cracks…

To make sure your point gets across, end all disputes with the phrase “Bitch!”

Any and all conversations with the opposite sex are always about your dick.

…and no-joke dope…

Never forget you black. At times you may forget, but remember that they never forget. It’s better to remind yourself, than to have them remind you.

Tru’s truisms play out surprisingly when five of Marquis’s white schoolmates come on the scene, all their 14-year-old urges in bloom. Three are a gaggle of girls—named Prairie, Meadow, and Clementine—who pose incessantly for selfies and compare their crushes on boys. Two are dubious buddies—Hunter and Fielder. The three boys went trespassing one night, but Hunter and Fielder skedaddled leaving behind Marquis to get arrested on his own.

Mendenhall doubling as Prairie and Emma Lou Hébert playing Meadow live up to their characters’ white-sounding names with giddiness and wit. Clementine has shy designs on Marquis, and Madeline Burrows makes her so adorable how could he not fall head over heels for her? Well, because he’s a timid dweeb and lacks mojo, which Tru hilariously provides.

Hunter and Fielder?” exclaims Tru, dazed by the unbearable whiteness. Josh Adams brings to Fielder a plaintive wimpiness that’s a fine complement to the rowdy raunch of Dylan Morrison Myers’s Hunter. (Myers will later have a solo scene as Hunter trying to follow Tru’s rules for being black that’s a tour-de-farce.)

Observing the action from the sidelines and sometimes playing a part in it is the cop who busted Marquis, Officer Borzoi, a stern and stalwart Frederick Strother. He also does the pre-show speech, which establishes the show’s delightful metatheatricality. (There are, for instance, instant replays of certain scenes during which things turn out slightly different each time.)

Set Designer Ethan Sinnott hauls on stage two huge metal containers that look lifted from a ship’s hold. They can be rolled around, at times they open to reveal scene settings inside, as if in a world of flux and concealment that deconstructs before our eyes. Costume Designer Brandee Mathies contributes subtly to the characters’ believability, letting the script not the clothes poke fun at stereotypes. Lighting Designer Brittany Shemuga together with Projections Designers Mimi D’Autremont and Roc Lee  sustain visual tension between what could be cartoon and what could be calamity. (The birds’ eye view from an overhead video camera is sometimes projected on upstage screens to unsettling effect.) And besides laying down disconcerting laugh tracks, Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson pumps propulsive percussive rap between scenes.

The playwright in an interview with Dramaturg Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe was asked what surprised him about developmental workshops of Hooded. Chisholm answered:

I didn’t know it was a comedy. I think that was my biggest discovery. This play was so personal and so serious in my head that I didn’t really know how funny it actually was.

There were a lot of fine lines to walk with this production—not least because its comic intensity risks giving offense and not seeming serious, whereas the play contains at its core a young black man’s pain. Director Serge Seiden with Associate Director Vaughn Ryan Midder succeed in walking those lines superbly. Mosaic’s world premiere of Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies is an extraordinary experience—a crackling good comedy that unwraps what’s no laughing matter.

Running Time: Approximately one hour 40 minutes with no intermission.

Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies plays through February 19, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

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Lizzie

Don’t groan but this is a bloody good show. It rocks, it roils, it’s saucy and sassy, it’s effin in-your-face.

The story is gory as you might expect. It’s about the legendary 1892 axe murder  of Lizzie Borden’s pa and stepma in Fall River, Massachusetts. At the time, the crime was a tabloid sensation. Then as now, the notion of women who kill obsessed the media.

Lizzie was tried but acquitted. Afterward she lived a quiet private life on her inheritance. To this day historians cannot suss out the perp and motive. But the mythology of Lizzie as culprit lives on in infamy and nursery rhyme.

In the early 1990s a rockin’ musical was made of the Lizzie legend. Its riot grrrl esthetic and postpunk score were perfect for flouting the straight-laced Victoriana of its source material. Similarly a few years later, alt rock in Spring Awakening thumbed its churlish nose at sexual repression coming down concurrently in Germany.

Has there ever been a musical genre more suited to defiance and revolt than rock?

That spirit of insubordination is on ample display in Pinky Swear’s pugnacious production of Lizzie. Director Marie Byrd Sproul turns the Anacostia Playhouse black box into a boom box of rebellion.

Musical Director Piero Bonamico (who also plays keyboard) leads a note-perfect  band: Katie Chambers (cello), Alice Fuller (percussion), Josh Ballard (bass guitar), and Mark Schramm (solo guitar). Together they give the score by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Alan Stevens Hewitt a crowd-rousing rendition.

Accomplished as the musicians are, it’s four female actor/singers who turn this show into songs of insolence. The women appear as characters who are individuated in the narrative: Pinky Swear Artistic Director Karen Lange is Bridget, the Borden family’s maid. Alani Kravitz is Lizzie. Rebecca Speas is Emma, Lizzie’s sister. And Allyson Harkey is Alice, a neighbor with whom Lizzie trysts in the barn.

Each wears an outrageously witty outfit by Costume Designer Liz Gossens (corsets meet punk, Victorian goes raunch). And each can belt like a rocker buzzed on fury or a balladeer ablissed on tenderness. Their delivery of the lyrics by Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner, which are really clever, doesn’t always land understandably. But their vocal, physical, and psychic cohesion leaves such a powerful impression of insurgency that the very notion of “women who kill” takes on a whole other meaning:

In the slang sense of noteworthy performance, these are women who kill.

Silent Sky

Lately the news has been resignifying theater more than usual. To resignify is not a commonly used verb but it’s a commonly understood thing. It means “to give new signification to,” to alter what something means. In the case of a play, it’s when life makes art betoken more than the artist imagined. Case in point: The hauntingly moving production of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky at Silver Spring Stage.

The play is about a real woman, Henrietta Leavitt, a brilliant American astronomer who in the late nineteenth century literally expanded human consciousness about how vast the universe is. She discovered a way to measure how far away stars are, at a time when astronomers thought the Milky Way (which Earth exists in like a teensy spec) is all there is. Wrong. Leavitt blazed the way to see that the universe has galaxies by the billions and it’s getting bigger. This she braved to do in a male-dominated profession decades before women had the vote.

A review by my DC Metro Theater Arts colleague Susan Brall puts the play in sharp focus and accurately praises it to the skies: “This trek into the stars will lift your soul and broaden your mind.”

But in these unsettling times, the play also bestirs consternation.

The morning I was to see Silent Sky,  I spotted a news story headlined “Little girls doubt that women can be brilliant, study shows”:

A study published Thursday in the journal Science suggests that girls as young as 6 can be led to believe men are inherently smarter and more talented than women, making girls less motivated to pursue novel activities or ambitious careers. That such stereotypes exist is hardly a surprise, but the findings show these biases can affect children at a very young age.

Really, girls as young as 6 disbelieve they can be brilliant?!

So it was cool to see in the community-theater audience of Silent Sky quite a number of kids. (The play is perfect for precocious youth. There are just a couple kisses and one “damn.”) Girls and boys alike were taking in Gunderson’s smart dramatization of the life and revolutionary accomplishment of a woman whose brain would not be contained: “If we’re not finding the largest truth,” Leavitt says at one point, “then what have we spent our lives doing?”

The continuing ceiling on young girls’ confidence in their intellect is not the only news that has compounded the significance of Gunderson’s play. Though Leavitt lived in a culture that did not value women’s scientific intelligence, it did still value science.

“I have fundamental problems with the state of human knowledge,” declares Leavitt early in the play. And we see her set out determined to increase human knowledge—through findings and facts, duplicable data, with eyes wide open, looking through a  lens clearly. “I specialize in what’s out there,” Leavitt says. Her breakthrough discovery allowed other astronomers to find “more sky.”

But a story now in the news dramatically resignifies Silent Sky. The cultural consensus that scientific findings matter is coming undone. Alarmingly, “alternative facts” are displacing the credibility of scientific research. Scientists across multiple fields are organizing as a protest bloc to refute lies that have been politically motivated to undermine confidence in facts and findings. Scientific data that disproves delusions is not just being  disputed; it’s being dispensed with and derided. It’s as if a dystopian dissembler-in-chief wants us to believe that Earth is the center of the universe.

This disturbing development was unimaginable in Leavitt’s time—and undreamt of when Gunderson sat down a few years ago to write a play about Leavitt’s life. Silent Sky was intended as a period piece that would speak to now about intelligence beyond gender. As written—and as performed, directed, and designed excellently at Silver Spring Stage—it inspires awe in us: Admiration for a woman who did not believe she was not brilliant, and wonder at a universe that extends far beyond what the naked eye can see.

Silent Sky is also now a period piece about a time in history when science was not yet treated as an enemy of truth. There’s no more important time to see it than right now.

 

Roe

The title of Lisa Loomer’s riveting play Roe refers to both the pivotal Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade and the person known as Jane Roe who was the plaintiff in it. Loomer dramatizes both stories—why and how the case came to be and who the person was and what happened to her. The play now running at Arena’s Kreeger Theater would have been electrifying had the prochoice presidential candidate won. Now with the outcome that was and will be, Roe plays like a thunderbolt to a body politic already in shock.

“History ain’t over yet,” says Jay Floyd (Jim Abele), the lawyer who represented the losing side when Roe v. Wade was first argued before the Supreme Court. Actually he nearly sneers this, to Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) after her argument before the bench on behalf of Jane Roe prevailed. The words hang in the air at Arena with  foreboding.

Loomer’s storytelling is not all gloom and doom, however; it’s highly theatrical, often delightfully comedic, an artful blend of docudrama, infotainment, and comic strip. Its cheeky main character, Norma McCorvey, the real Jane Doe, has a hilarious gift for gab (“It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a pool table,” she says at one point. And “I’m so poor I can’t afford to pay attention”). As written by Loomer and performed with scrappy joie de vivre by Sara Bruner, Norma commands attention as one of the most fascinating female characters on the contemporary stage. And though the life-and-liberty stakes of the drama are dead serious, and its portent now could not be more dire, Director Bill Rauch puts the cast of twelve through paces that have plenty of pricelessly funny payoffs.

Rauch, who is Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director, commissioned Loomer to write a work about the Roe case as one of 37 plays “sprung from moments of change in United States history” for OSF’s ambitious American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle. The play premiered at OSF as a coproduction with Arena Stage, which recently announced Power Plays, a ten-year new-play initiative focusing on DC’s “unique theatrical voice on politics and power.” Thus the role of Roe as both legal case and playscript has significance not only now but here—a short march away from the Supreme Court.

Loomer pits the two historical figures Sarah Weddington and Norma McCorvey against each other, and in Loomer’s construction, the tensions between them have nearly as much drama as the contested legal questions. McCorvey  was a poor, pregnant 22-year-old seeking an abortion when she was recruited by Weddington, then a 24-year-old recent law school grad, to be the plaintiff in a challenge to a Texas anti-abortion law. Their personalities and backgrounds differ sharply. Neither as written is particularly likeable (we’re not meant to cozy up to them, this isn’t a sentimental play). But Sarah and Norma each become so vivid in performance by Agnew and Bruner that they seem to have stepped on stage from life.

Actually, in a clever scripting move, Loomer has them step on stage from the pages of their own autobiographies. In recurring direct address to the audience, Sarah and Norma bicker over their contradictory and inconsistent versions of events. Weddington’s A Question of Choice (1992) and McCorvey’s I Am Roe (1994) disagree on significant points, and the script makes dramatic use of the disparities. The script also spots discrepancies between I Am Roe and McCorvey’s subsequent book, Won by Love (1998), written after renunciation of her role in Roe v. Wade.

“It’s really hard to talk objectively about history, about the ‘truth,'” complains Linda Coffee (Susan Lynsky), a colleague of Weddington’s. “Which is why I never wrote a book.”

When the play begins we see Sarah in a women’s consciousness-raising group whose members, having just read Our Bodies, Our Selves, are apprehensively lying on pillows and fumblingly following its instructions for inspecting their cervixes. Sarah reads them what they need: “a flashlight, a lubricant such as Crisco, a handmirror, and a speculum.” It’s a shamelessly funny scene.

We meet Norma in a  lesbian bar as a good-time gal, drinking, dancing, and making out. The tension between this delightful dyke and the ladylike lawyer gets the play off to a snappy start. And in two dozen tight scenes, the play goes from 1969 to now.

In an artful gimmick, the ensemble at times wear robes to represent the Supreme Court, then take them off to reveal in costume the various characters they play. And what a fascinating sweep of history gets depicted through this terrific cast’s many guises! In addition to the several fictional characters they play…

Gina Daniels appears as Aileen (McCorvey’s friend) and Florynce Kennedy (the famous activist lawyer and civil-rights advocate). Susan Lynskey appears as Linda Coffee (an attorney who with her colleague Weddington brought the 1972 case that challenged the Texas anti-abortion law) and Eleanor  Smeal (president of the National Organization for Women). Amy Newman appears as Gloria Allred (the influential women’s-rights lawyer, who befriended Norma). (With Allred now in the news, the character’s entrance on opening night brought a round of applause.) Pamela Dunlap appears as Mary (McCorvey’s alcoholic and emotionally abusive mother) and Kate Michaelman (president of NARAL Pro-Choice America). Catherine Castellanos appears as Connie Gonzales (McCorvey’s loyal long-time partner). Mark Bedard appears as Henry McCluskey (a Dallas adoption lawyer). Jim Abele appears as Ron Weddington (Sarah’s husband), Jay Floyd (who represented Dallas County DA Henry Wade and argued the anti-abortion case),  and Philip “Flip” Benham (an Evangelical Christian minister and leader of Operation Rescue). Richard Elmore appears as Supreme Court Justice Blackmun (who wrote the Roe v. Wade decision) and Henry Wade (the governor of Texas whose name is on Roe v. Wade). Zoe Bishop appears as Melissa (Norma’s first child, in the legal custody of Norma’s mother).

Set Designer Rachel Hauck constructs multilevel platforms that glide in and out, with steps that lead down to the orchestra (evoking the steps leading up to the Supreme Court building). This makes for a nice sense of shifting space, with scenes fluidly brought into focus by Lighting Designer Jane Cox.

We get a clear narrative sense of place—be it a pizza parlor, a dive bar, a swanky backyard, a modest home, a period disco, an abortion clinic, a book-filled law office, a stately courtroom—from photographs on the rear screen selected by Projection Designer Wendall K. Harrington. And between scenes and after, Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast uses pop music to lend a narrative of time through the decades. Most remarkably, Prendergast also allows us to hear the authentic voices of Justices Burger, Stewart, White, and Marshall during Weddington’s argument before the court. The “you are there” effect is both disquieting and amazing.

Costume Designer Raquel Barretto has made fine forthright choices for the male characters but some quirky ones for the female. Curiously, the women’s clothes are suggestive of the period but border on cartoony. Members of the cervix-seeking CR group, for instance, are dressed in such bad taste it could be satire. Even Sarah sometimes wears sendups of clueless dressing for success. Conceivably the intent was to align with the broad comedy in the play, which it definitely does. Still, so many caricature frocks in a pro-woman play takes some getting used to.

Wig Master Devon Ash, however, deserves a special hat tip. The actors’ doubling and tripling and the characters’ passage through time are communicated instantly through coif. At moments we get to see the actors take off one wig then don the next, even as we see busy stage hands briskly shift set pieces on and off. The aura of “you are there watching the workings of law” nicely encompasses a sense of “you are here watching the workings of theater.”

It will come as no news to those familiar with the fallout from Roe v. Wade that the woman at the center of the case in real life converted to Evangelical Christianity then Roman Catholicism and joined the anti-abortion movement. To its credit the play Roe makes that character arc completely comprehensible and emotionally compelling.  When Norma, for instance, learns from reading A Question of Choice that Weddington herself had an abortion and never told Norma, she is outraged: “If you wanted to help me get an abortion, why didn’t you tell me where you got yours?!” Norma yells, understandably feeling betrayed.

Norma comes to feel “used by the feminists and used by the press,” and the play pulls no punches about how that in fact was what happened and how it left her isolated, without support—and, importantly, needy for the embrace and acceptance of fervent believers. Eventually, though, McCorvey comes to feel used by the Evangelical Christian antiabortion movement as well. She was never cut out to be a poster person and the play contains the tragedy of what happened when she was made one..

Loomer plays with time, in a way that is  illuminating and often startling, by having characters mention what would happen to them in the future or what their obituaries would say. The script is surprisingly balanced as well. There are various passages of histrionics—emotional appeals on both the “abortion is choice” and “abortion is murder” sides of the controversy. And there is acknowledgement of the biases and uncertainty in first-person history. The result is a kind of authorial omniscience that is both empathetic and impartial, and ever respectful of the conflicting passions and principles at play in this ongoing national drama.

To be sure, the play does stay faithful to the spirit of the Roe v. Wade decision in underscoring the principle that the right to choose (under current interpretation of the Constitution, at least) belongs solely to the pregnant woman—not the state, not the church, not anyone else. In a surprise of a scene that functions like a coda, a young pregnant woman named Roxanne (a wonderful Kenya Alexander) confronts Sarah and demands to know whether abortion is murder. Sarah waffles, citing the fact that a fetus has not been judicially defined as a person.

“Don’t give me the law,” says Roxanne; “give me the truth.”

“We can give you the choice,” Sarah answers measuredly, “but you have to choose.”

Roe will resolve no legal argument nor make no political dispute go away; a play cannot do that. But in Lisa Loomer’s transparent determination as playwright to empathize with all her characters, to be fair to all the players, this work exemplifies and models how to feel where one’s opponent is coming from even if one cannot in conscience condone where they have gone. That alone makes Roe necessary now more than ever.

Running time: About two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Roe plays through February 19, 2017, at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase tickets online.

LINK:

Magic Time!: A Report on the Women’s Voices Theater Festival Reading of Lisa Loomer’s ‘Roe’ at The Kennedy Center by John Stoltenberg

Trailer for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production:

Lisa Loomer talking about getting the commission and the choices she made writing the play:

The Hard Problem

I love when a play starts out as a fascinating head trip—a smart, high-concept exhilaration of ideas—then propels me headlong into an overwhelming flood of emotion. It’s like being transported along a neural pathway from brain to heart that the playwright has turned into a thoroughfare of theatrical euphoria.

Tom Stoppard scripts that extraordinary excursion with his new play The Hard Problem, now in an exquisitely scintillating and astonishingly affecting production directed by Matt Torney at Studio Theatre.

What knocked me out about the play is that the central conflict in it is entirely ideational. Quite literally, Stoppard started with years of reading in the fields of brain science, quantitative analysis, behavioral research, game theory, and such. Then with his trademark alchemy he created characters and story lines to put on stage a dramatic distillation of what captured Stoppard’s curiosity to begin with—a conceptual question that may be humanity’s ultimate brain teaser: What is consciousness? How does it come about? Where does it come from and where does it reside?

To wit: Are we merely material mortals who run through our paces like lab rats and make solely self-interested choices like supercomputers sheerly on the basis of cost-benefit calculations?

Or rather: Is there, exterior to our gray matter, something we call a mind or a soul or a consciousness that may somehow cathect with nonmaterial transcendence (aka godness) such that we may be inspired to altruism (aka goodness) that is inexplicable as self-interest?

That is the hard problem to which Stoppard’s title refers and that his characters give voice to. And as they do, throughout the play, it’s brilliant listening. Pithy formulations of the riddle burst like popcorn kernels on a hot griddle. Just as you want to gobble one another comes along.

The central character Hilary (Tessa Klein), for instance, is a whip-smart psychology grad who gets a job at the Krohl Institute for Brain Science and says her prayers every night before bed. In her words,

The study of the mind is not a science. We’re dealing in
mind stuff that doesn’t show up in a scan – accountability,
duty, freewill, language, all the stuff that makes behaviour
unpredictable.

When her colleague Amal (Shravan Amin) tells her, “There is overwhelming evidence that the brain causes consciousness,” Hilary retorts,

There’s overwhelming evidence that brain activity
correlates with consciousness. Registers consciousness.
Nobody’s got anywhere trying to show how the brain is
conscious.

Leo (Martin Giles), Hilary’s boss, puts the problem in this nutshell:

Cognition – reasoning, imagining, believing . . . that’s
hard. How does the brain do self-consciousness? . . . Where is it happening? How?

Meanwhile, Spike (Kyle Cameron), Hilary’s tutor and sometime bedmate, avers the mind-is-matter view:

Culture, empathy, faith, hope and charity, all the flipsides
of egoism, come back to biology, because there just
ain’t anywhere else to come from except three pounds
of grey matter wired up in your head like a map of the
London Underground with eighty-six billion stations
connected thirty trillion ways, hard-wired for me first.

The scientific/philosophical/religious conundrum at the core of The Hard Problem is as much its plot driver as an inciting action would be in some other play. From that central conflict Stoppard sets in motion a through line for his main character that touches upon each hot spot of the argument—then wraps up at the end with a revelation and a resolution that profoundly transcend all the contention.

All of this makes viewing The Hard Problem a peak theatergoing experience: You’re taking on board the ongoing debate even as you’re tracking the characters swept along in it. And you’re having a left-brain/right-brain adventure that’s sublimely mind-blowing.

[gay] Cymbeline

Queering Shakespeare may be gilding the lily. And if so DC these days has seen quite a few such embellished flowers. Like, golden nosegays for days. One of the best and freshest in the bunch is Theatre Prometheus’ [gay] Cymbeline. It’s a two-hour gender adventure that’s as fun, funny, and touching as a romp in the sack.

The story line of Cymbeline is notoriously convoluted. It’s said Shakespeare deliberately made it so as a prank. And one can imagine groundlings going, So many plot twists! This is whack! And then it dawns on them, Oh duh, this piling on of plots is a running gag. LMAO.

Cymbeline is at heart a comedy and as such it’s got one of Shakespeare’s simplest-to-follow and most surefire emotional hooks: Two people madly in love and lust who get separated by treacherous, intractable circumstances but then get reunited in each other’s arms by the end. Tearfully and joyfully. Like, everyone on stage and everyone in the audience just loses it they’re so happy.

The way Theatre Prometheus pulls that off with Cymbeline is a delight. The torn-asunder lovers are Imogen and Posthumos, who were written as female and male but are here played as lesbian. Surprisingly, this cross-gender casting makes the whole play make more persuasive modern sense.

Imogen’s mother the Queen wanted her to marry Clotus, her dufus son by a previous marriage, because she has dynasty designs on the match. Instead Imogen married Postumus, whom her father the king, Cymbeline, banishes from the court because he’s lowborn and beneath her. But Imogen is passionately in love with Postumus and will not be deterred. The gender switch that Theatre Prometheus makes to queer the play is to make Postumus an amorous stone butch and Imogen a feisty femme. This immediately turns the explicit elitism of the parental no-no into implicit no-homo. And it works brilliantly.

There’s another juncture in the story that illustrates what can be searing about this queering. The banished Postumus, now an ex-pat in Rome, meets Iachimo, a sketchy fellow with a low opinion of women’s morals. His own being even lower, he makes a bet with Postumus that he can bed Imogen. There’s a  subsequent scene where Iachimo does indeed attempt to seduce Imogen (he doesn’t succeed, but he later pretends to have). And what we see in Theatre Promethesus’ rendering is the added innuendo of the straight dude’s fantasy that all a dyke needs is a good dick.

That all of this layering comes off hilariously is due to direction, acting, performance style, and stage arts that are utterly beguiling.

Director and Producer Tracey Erbacher, who conceived this approach to the text along with Dramaturge (and Imogen) Caitlin Partidge, sets a pace from the top that just keeps delivering knockout moments—from lip locks to sword fights to silly walks to comic chases. The audience I saw the show with kept cracking up.

Standouts in the superlative cast included Caitlin Partidge playing Imogen as a take-no-BS ingenue, Zach Boylan playing Cloten as a clueless goofball, Briana Manente playing Postumus as all love-lorn in leather, and Jonathan Rizzardi playing Iachomo as a half-cocked cock of the walk.

Also: Rachael Murray as a giddily addled Cornelia, the doctor who provides a pivotal potion, and Jacqueline Chenault as the faithful servant Pisanio, who first sets the scene for us and whose earnest grace continues throughout the play to connect us to the goings-on.

Additionally but not least:  Renea Brown (Second Lord / Buiderius), Renae Erichsen-Teal (Queen / Belarius), Mollie Goff (First Lord / Frenchman / Arviragus), Christopher Holbert (Cymbeline / Philario), Rachael Murray (Helen), Jonathan Rizzardi (Caius Lucius), and Zach Boylan (two Captains).

There’s a particular style of crisp and wittily inflected diction along with antic physical comedy in this production that’s remarkably consistent from actor to actor, and it accounts for much of the pleasure. It’s a style I can’t put my finger on to describe, though. I think it may have to be seen and heard. Suffice to say, it had me enthralled throughout.

Lighting and Scenic Designers Eric McMorris and Yannick Godts frame the action in a proscenium, pretty in pink, green, and ivory, and create with light a wonderful flow of worlds within. Costume Designer Kristina Martin kept amusing me with her mishmash of contemporary and faux-classic. Between scenes Sound Designer Patrick A. Lachance placed snippets of pop songs whose lyrics were like amazing annotations to the action. And Fight Choreographer Megan Beham made the zaniest mayhem a side show in itself.

The run of [gay] Cymbeline isn’t long. So pick this gilded lily quickly while it’s still in bloom.

Running Time: About two hours, including one intermission.

[gay] Cymbeline plays through January 29, 2017, at Theatre Prometheus performing at the Anacostia Arts Center’s Black Box Theatre – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

Recent Tragic Events

The American theater has generated some great plays prompted by the tragic events of 9/11. I remember vividly Neil LaBute’s powerful 2002 drama The Mercy Seat, in a production LaBute directed  Off-Broadway with Liev Schreiber and Sigourney Weaver. Locally, Kathryn Coughlin’s gripping Bigger That You, Bigger Than Me, which Field Trip Theatre premiered in 2015, knocked me out (and has inspired a forthcoming production in New York).

When Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events debuted Off-Broadway in 2002, it was touted by its producer Playwrights Horizons as the first post-9/11 comedy—which was a stretch even then. True, the play is set on the day after 9/11, in an apartment in Minneapolis where a television set is left on replaying grim footage of the twin towers falling down. But the tragic event itself is oddly tangential to the play.

The apartment belongs to twenty-something Waverly, whose twin sister Wendy lives in Manhattan and may or may not have been killed in the carnage. So there’s a through line of disaster-specific suspense that we see enacted mostly in Waverly’s anxious and persistent use of her phone. But as playwriting, the 9/11 angle feels more incidental gimmick than trenchant story driver. Even Waverly’s attention is diverted from it more often than not, suggesting we don’t much need to care about it either.

The play’s comedic elements are layered uneasily over this artifice. Waverly’s wishy-washy blind date Andrew arrives. Her obnoxious neighbor Ron drops by joined by his near-naked girlfriend Nancy. Together the four end up in a Gen-X goof-off fest that involves pizza, wine, and card games. Wright’s humor, such as it is, has not worn well. And the conceit that these characters would blithely entertain themselves this way on such a dark day—oblivious to “the thing” that’s on TV—strains credulity.

The real guts of the play, which are substantial, become apparent in the characters’ riffs on free will versus determinism. And Wright injects some clever metatheatricality to dramatize this theme. During the Stage Manager’s pre-show speech she asks an audience member to volunteer to flip a coin. After that, the Stage Manager tells us, we will periodically hear a tone sound at points in the play that could have gone another way if the coin toss had turned out different.

This thought exercise sets up a second act in which the characters tackle, à la a post-collegiate bull session, the topic of freedom versus fate. These passages make for interesting listening. The characters for the first time are enjoyably articulate instead of annoying. And though they don’t reflect explicitly on how the topic connects to the disaster at ground zero, presumably we can.

Putting disparate components into the same play, however, does not necessarily make them cohere. And in the case of this script, the tragic news, the rom-com, and the philosophizing never become a satisfying whole. But an energetic, enthusiastic cast and a smart, imaginative design team have given Recent Tragic Events their all and mounted a worthy production in the vaulted church that is St. Mark’s Players’ home stage. Tackling a flawed play and making it work as well as it can, their undauntedness is to be admired.

Jenny Oberholzer is a droll and engaging Stage Manager. Alicia Yass is an effervescent Waverly. Sidney Davis is an appealingly kindhearted Andrew. Ernie Molina is amusingly boorish as Ron. And Taylor Bono, who keeps quiet as Nancy, becomes a delightfully matter-of-fact sock puppeteer. The credibility of their engaging ensemble work is a credit to Director Anupama Torgal.

Set Designer Kelly Mingle has created an expansive yet homey apartment furnished from Ikea on Waverly’s budget. Costume Designers Ceci Albert and Lisa Brownsword get the young exec look just right for Waverly and Andrew and the hipster-slacker look just right for Ron and Nancy. Sound Technicians Brian Jones and Jerry Dale have excellently mic’ed the cast to counter church acoustics, and Sound Designer Heather Cipu created nicely storytelling audio including the tones of chance, the broadcast voice of Tom Brokaw, and musical interludes (Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” at the end was especially apt). And kudos to Lighting Designer Jerry Dale, who managed to create warm intimacy on stage from instruments hung way high up in the rafters. The surprising light cues called by the Stage Manager in the last five minutes, which included a stunning projection, were especially well done. It was the perfect payoff.

Running Time: One hour 50 minutes, including one intermission.

Recent Tragic Events plays through January 28, 2017, at St. Mark’s Players performing at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church – 301 A Street SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 546-9670, and leave a message, or purchase them online.

Someone Is Going to Come

Someone Is Going to Come is a comedy of menace with a roiling undercurrent of sexual tension. It evokes ominous noirish goings-on in a scary remote locale told in stark idiosyncratic dialogue. And it’s funny as all get out. Scena Theatre’s impeccably perturbing production of the Norwegian dramatist Jon Fosse’s biting three-hander had me howling at the odd turns of phrase and the actors’ quirky inflections. But perhaps what hit me as hilarious was meant to seem simply inscrutable? Like a knife that could cut two ways? Strange, very strange.

Someone Is Going to Come does not contain the sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge cues to yuck-yuck that are typical of commercial American comedy. And this is a work by a World Famous Playwright From a Foreign Country (though not well known here). So perhaps one ought assume it is inappropriate or uninformed to find this internationally credentialed highbrow work a hoot?

Absolutely not. This play and this production gleam like existential comic gold.

Fosse’s spare, austere, and distinctive voice—often compared to Pinter and Beckett—can loop through restatements with a quality of incantation that is both mesmerizing and risible.

As the play begins a man and a woman arrive at a remote dilapidated house by the sea that they have bought with the intention of being “alone together… together alone.” HE (David Bryan Jackson) and SHE (Nanna Ingvarsson) keep saying so over and over, with slight variation: They are going to be “alone together….together alone…together alone in each other.” There’s something creepy about their incessant redundancy, and a curious tension builds that edges on ridiculous.

HE appears to be in his 60s, SHE appears to be younger.  It’s not clear whether they are married, but they seem a devoted couple. Except that HE seems inordinately controlling of her. It’s as if their isolation from other people suits some nefarious purpose of his. Suddenly SHE becomes filled with dread, a fear that, as the title says, someone is going to come, someone who will intrude on their solitude.

At this point in the play it becomes impossible to take one’s eyes off Ingvarsson, as she begins to signal with her voice, face, and body the sexual subtext of what’s going on. The ostensible horror they speak of is that an unwelcome intruder is going to come. The actual unspoken horror subtly conveyed in Ingvarsson’s and Jackson’s performances is that she is realizing she is trapped and she desperately wishes someone will come to rescue her.

Sure enough MAN (Joseph Carlson) shows up, a ruggedly handsome loner. Turns out he’s who sold the couple the house. His hunky presence prompts a fit of proprietary jealousy and paranoiac rage in the older man. It steadily becomes evident that the unsafe circumstances SHE first feared were misnamed: The someone who scares her is now the man she came with. It also steadily becomes evident that SHE and MAN have a magnetic sexual attraction. But what will HE do to her if SHE does what she wants to with MAN?

Ingvarsson’s navigation between the two men becomes one of the most transfixing character arcs with solely subtext to go on that I can recall seeing on stage. Sometimes she holds it all in, suppressing every untoward sexual thought—but just then a slight single movement of her foot speaks monologues of let-go longing.

The way Fosse crafts the turgid erotic undercurrents of that thrillerlike psychological progression, through a sparse surface of language, is gripping; and the three actors, masterfully directed by Robert McNamara, make moment after moment spellbinding, and now and then gut-bustingly funny.

LINK: Magic Time!: ‘Someone Is Going to Come’ (a workshop production) at Scena Theatre by John Stoltenberg

Charm

Just opened at Mosaic Theater Company in a thrilling and vibrant production directed by Natsu Onoda Power is a play that puts on stage some of what National Geographic just called the gender revolution. But this is no anthropological field trip. Charm is so funny and poignant, and so pure of heart, that it elevates ordinary theatergoing to a revolutionary act of participation. Call it radical kinship: a  shared opportunity to see differently lives that are different from our own.

The gifted playwright of Charm is Philip Dawkins, a thirty-something gay white cis male  whose characters though fictionalized were inspired by real people whom he listened to and learned from. The path from those people to the play to this performance to our prehension is remarkable.

The main character of Charm is a 67-year-old African American trans woman named Mama Darlena Andrews. She volunteers at a social services center to uplift a group of homeless youth of color by teaching them social graces and grooming, all qualities she calls charm. Mama Darlena believes this tender loving training will affirm their worth and raise their aspirations. She beholds and esteems each one and calls them “my babies.” They are trans, genderqueer, gay, straight, gender nonconforming—a medley of individuals each socially stigmatized for their uniqueness. Mama Darlena teaches them to celebrate it instead—in themselves and in one other.

Dawkins spent some six months attending the real Charm School at the Center on Halsted in Chicago begun by the real Miss Gloria Allen. Dawkins would not take notes because he did not want the students ever to see him looking down and not paying them his full attention. So he would take it all in, then right afterward write it down—with Capote-like acuity and recall—and from those notes he created a play. He could not have sat in class as a detached observer. He had to have been empathetically present in order to apprehend the lives he witnessed. The characters in Charm could not otherwise have come to seem so real and true to life. And his empathetic apprehension is built into the play.

Dawkins has said of his intentions in writing Charm:

I hope it opens up a doorway to empathy where it may not have been expected. And I hope that people take that invitation and walk through that door.

That doorway began to open in what transpired between Dawkins’ witnessing and Dawkins’ writing. And it now swings wide open in the Lang Theatre on H Street performed by a cast so connected to their characters we cannot but be as well.

We first meet Mama Darlena (B’Ellana Duquesne), all warmth, propriety, and poise, when she walks on stage in her heels and addresses us as if we are her charges. Within moments she lands the first big laugh of the play:

I am so lookin’ forward to getting’ to know each and every one of you. But before we get started, there is one thing I need to make perfectly clear and that is, I have zero interest in lookin’ at your butt crack.

With such easygoing jokes and genuine gestures of inclusion, Mama Darlena disorients us out of whatever reserve we came in with and begins the play’s entry into our hearts.

We first meet Mama Darlena’s babies in a classroom of undifferentiated mayhem, a rowdy melee of jostling, jesting, and jeering. Miss Darlena’s entrance brings order. And the rest of the play brings each of her charm students into indelible focus one by one.

Jonelle (Justin Weaks) is gender nonconforming: male bodied but female attired. During the play a romance blooms that surprises Jonelle almost as much as us.

Victoria (Jade Jones*) is straight, cis female, and the mother of two children being cared for by their grandmother because Victoria can’t.  Their babydaddy is Donnie (Louis E. Davis), cis male and presumptively straight but emotionally on the downlow with a female-presenting male inmate whom he fell for while in jail. During the play Mama Darlena reconciles Victoria and Donnie in a twist that surprises them almost as much as us.

Lady (Joe Brack) is gender uncertain and on the autism spectrum. She can’t find thrift shop clothes that become her. She doesn’t have a place even among the displaced. During the play Mama Darlena helps her be okay.

Beta (Clayton Pelham, Jr.) appears as a thuglike street tough. The way Mama Darlena draws out of him the painful secret he hides, and the anguished sorrow he suddenly howls, amounts to a gut-wrenching showstopper.

Arelia (Nyla Rose) is older than the others. Male to female trans, she has been in prostitution since she was 13. During the play she develops a crush on Mama Darlena and discloses in the play’s most heart-wrenching monologue such a depth of desperation and drive for survival that the show goes breathless once more.

Logan (Samy El-Noury) is a gay college kid who drops in out of curiosity only to learn something unforeseen about himself.

D (Kimberly Gilbert) is supervisor of the center and uses the pronouns they/their/them. A pivotal conflict scene between D and Mama Darlena explodes both their and our preconceptions .

There’s a lot of intolerance at the beginning among and between the characters in Charm. Prejudices and pejoratives, divisions and derision, fly every which way. Slowly but surely, though, Mama makes a place of peace for the distressed, and a home of kindness for the homeless. It is a process that catches us up in it. The characters’ movement to tolerance, trust, and connection models a movement that the entire play invites us to join.

The first part of the path is Dawkins’ act of empathy in scripting and individuating these characters’ lives.The second part of the path is the actors’ acts of empathy in embodying those lives. The third part of the path is the chance the Mosaic production occasions for random acts of empathy for those lives from anyone in the audience.

And it’s the third part that’s the charm.

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*Beginning January 19, the role of Victoria will be played by Tamieka Chavis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copenhagen

Strange to watch a play unfold and wish that it did not feel so chillingly relevant. Or that  the past it depicts never happened. Or that the moral and material uncertainty at its core did not portend a fearsome future. So it was on opening night of Theater J’s highly charged, highly skilled production of Michael Frayn’s 1998 Copenhagen—which at this moment in time plays like a minefield for the mind.

As the news cycle has recently had alarming reason to remind us, there are today, in the possession of some nine nations, more than 15,000 nuclear warheads. Enough to blow the world to kingdom come.  What Frayn does in Copenhagen is to recollect that precarious instant in history when there were still none. No nation yet had one. But a race was on to invent one.

If this were myth, it would be like that fabled moment in Eden just before a bite into an apple introduced sin. But this is not myth; it actually happened: It’s the moment when physicists bit the bullet and introduced nuclear annihilation.

The explosive drama that is Copenhagen takes us back to that fateful juncture. The story is told in an unreal afterlife where three once-real-life people have gathered to unravel a mystery: Why did the German Nobel-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg come to Copenhagen in 1941 to visit Danish Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr, his friend and mentor, and Margrethe, Bohr’s wife? What exactly happened between them? What exactly was said?

The historical record draws an inconclusive blank, which Frayn fills in: Niels, Werner, and Margrethe talk to one another and to us and to themselves, and in doing so they parse the science and crises of conscience that converged in that mysterious meeting just prior to the prospect of nuclear holocaust.

The stakes are sky high. Heisenberg, who trained under Bohr in Denmark and now holds a university chair in Germany, may or may not be helping devise a nuclear bomb at Hitler’s behest. Bohr, who is half Jewish, lives in Nazi-occupied Denmark, his friendship with Heisenberg now strained by Hitler’s ruthless rise to power.

Bohr and Heisenberg piece together their conflicting memories and interpretations of that mysterious 1941 meeting. Margrethe Bohr’s memory adds weight, for she is both a reality check and an opinionated observer of Niels’s and Werner’s relationship. She gets not only the theoretical physics and realpolitiks but also the gendered drama in her husband’s filial feelings for his former mentee. Through Margrethe’s keen eyes, we see a father-son bond that at times absented Niels from her and the several real sons she bore him.

The way the play interweaves explanations of nuclear fission and evocations of war with  dissection of tensions within a marriage over a friendship between two men—in crackling smart dialogue—makes for an extraordinarily provocative drama. And the cast on stage at Theater J does it every justice it deserves.

Michael Russotto’s Niels Bohr has both a professorial bearing and an avuncular inner glow. Tim Getman’s Werner Heisenberg exudes both ambitious earnestness and  buoyant charm. They are especially appealing in their several buddy scenes, when they relive the beginnings of their brainy bond, the period in the 1920s when Heisenberg first studied with Bohr and together they conceived some of theoretical physics’s greatest hits: Heisenberg’s famous principle of uncertainty, Bohr’s theory of complementarity. The affection that arose between them becomes palpable in Russotto’s and Getman’s performance.

Next to Russotto’s and Getman’s towering stature, Sherri L. Edelen might appear a small soprano voice up against a booming bass and baritone. But Edelsen’s Margrethe Bohr is fiercely focused and unyielding in her insistence on accurate recall. And her deadpan asides to the audience about the men land like truth bombs.

The script’s illuminating explications of how and why nuclear reactions work—hence how and why they can be weaponized—are in very plain English. Yet the play as written can seem a little heady and verge on austere. Moreover the text’s multiple layers of time and differing dimensions memory—the characters are dead after all, so Aristotelian unities be damned—can sometimes perplex. But Director Eleanor Holdridge has made several fascinating choices that have the salutary effect of both warming up the play and clarifying it. For instance there is a marked easygoingness in the acting that agreeably avoids the text’s temptation go oracular. And the distinctive stagecraft of the show lends intriguing support for the riveting storytelling.

Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi’s striking blue-gray set is the interior of a massive cylinder whose walls are hung with clear vinyl strips—the sort used in doorways to walk-in freezers, except reaching to the fly space. Three white chairs, the only furnishings called for in the script, are modern molded white plastic. And lying about the stage are orbs that light up, as if atomic particles had fallen to the floor of a cyclotron. At times Holdridge has the actors slip through the vertical slats and play portions of scenes from the upstage side, as if in an unreal realm unlike the unreal realm downstage.  While sometimes distracting, these actors’ interactions with the set,  wholly original to this production,  do evoke the play’s multilayered unlocatedness and its quest for transparency.

Lighting Designer Andrew Cissna creates apt illusions in the way light reflects off those vinyl strips, as if particles and waves of light are in motion. And there are some stunning light cues that flood this cool cloud chamber with the sudden warmth of a shining sun.

Composer and Sound Designer Patrick Calhoun inserts lyrical musical passages between scenes—pianos, strings, wind chimes. Yet now and then there booms a distant detonation, audible yet almost subliminal, as if to keep us mindful of the end use of these end-of-days devices.

Hitler never got the atomic bomb. A conundrum of Copenhagen is whether Werner Heisenberg helped or hindered Hitler’s failed attempt to. But the United States did. And a corollary conundrum of Copenhagen is whether Niels Bohr aided and abetted Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos in that ignominious success.

Seventy two years ago—four years after the events of Copenhagen—the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than any other play written since, Copenhagen explodes the moral enigma that ushered in the nuclear age. And right now it’s particularly urgent to see. Because more than any other play currently onstage in the nation’s Capitol, Theater J’s production exposes what led to the risk of recklessness that will soon accompany trigger-happy rage.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Copenhagen plays through January 29, 2017, at Theater J at The Edlavitch DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.