Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: March, 2017

King Lear

Director Leslie Jacobson has book-ended Shakespeare’s dark tragedy King Lear with lyrical and lovingly-lit tableaux of the mad king’s court as if in a fairy-tale photo op—Lear regal on his throne, his daughters adoring at his feet, his subjects surrounding him smiling ear to ear. These are before-and-happily-ever-after snapshots that would be perfect for a royal post on Instagram. We hear the dulcet-toned voice of a Troubadour (Andrew Flurer) singing traditional English folk tunes (he kicks off this love-in with “Greensleeves”). He is nicely accompanied by a clown-like guitar player (John Preuessner, who also plays The Fool). And the two are joined by a chorale of the full cast singing in joyful harmony. The improbable upshot is a prelude and postlude to the production that spliced together would make a feel-good YouTube vid.

What’s up with this show? Is it tragic fate or a merry fête?

Turns out, it’s both.

The occasion is not only as Shakespeare would have it: Lear’s kingdom mismanagement, his peevish misapportionment of it among his three daughters, his descent into dementia, his woeful demise, et cetera.

The occasion is also a celebratory career commemoration of the actor who’s playing Lear, Alan Wade. Retiring after 40 years playing a leading role in founding, running, and professoring in The George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance, Wade has opted for no easy-peasy swan song.  He has chosen to scale the Mount Everest end-of-life role of Lear—and in a production evidently mounted to showcase his fearless farewell, he makes it to some impressive heights.

For instance in the first scene—where Lear is divvying up his kingdom between his two mendacious daughters Goneril (Anna Coughlin) and Regan (Renee Glanville) and disinheriting his guileless one Cordelia (Julia Barrett)—things go along calmly for a while. Lear appears a sane man, a monarch worthy of respect. Then suddenly there’s a stark bright light cue and blitzy sound effect and Lear goes temporarily insane, off his rocker, seething with spitting rage. It happens again. Then again. And immediately we recognize the mo of an unhinged narcissist.

Joining Wade in the play’s other messed-up paterfamilias role, Earl of Gloucester, is Rick Foucheux. It is an arresting performance every bit as not-to-be-missed as his many others for the past 35 years. In real life Foucheux too is nearing a culmination of his career. In what reportedly will be his last role on stage, he will appear  as Lear this spring in Avant Bard’s King Lear, directed by Tom Prewitt. Here in King Lear at GW, where he is an adjunct member of the theater faculty, he not only commands the stage—his each speech of Gloucester’s soars—he also shares the stage with younger, far less experienced actors in an extraordinarily egalitarian way.

So it was that taken together the scenes between Gloucester and his scheming gold-digger son Edmund (an absorbing Kent-Harris Repass) and the scenes between Gloucester and his lovingly loyal son Edgar (a compelling Will Low) provided the most interesting moments in the production. Low gives a delightfully nimble performance disguised as “Poor Tom,” and by the end Low’s expression of Edgar’s sorrow over losing his father offers the production’s most moving moment—not least because we remember Foucheux’s Gloucester with similar tenderness.

Director Jacobson, who is also a professor at GW, writes in her program note about compassion between the generations, echoing the teacher/student relationship that in this production informs the audience/actor connection.

I find this play a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. Both the older generation (Lear, Gloucester, Kent, and Fool) and the younger generation (Cordelia, Edgar, and Albany) are vulnerable. Still, none of these characters lose their humanity. In the depths of their suffering, each is capable of humor, compassion, loyalty, generosity, and forgiveness.

This conviction was well displayed in Lear’s embrace of his daughter Cordelia as they go to prison. And together Foucheux and Low made the suicide-fail cliff scene work with enormous empathy.

King Lear would likely mean something quite else were the whole cast the age of the younger actors in this production (though a 23-year-old did once play the title role for the RSC!). Thus several actors who are agemates of Wade and Foucheux help anchor the cast generationally: In addition to Preussner as the Fool, they are Roy Barber as Lear’s advisor the Earl of Kent and Marc Albert as Goneril’s servant Oswald.

Accordingly the youthful contingent give  the script diligent attention: Besides the daughters three, they are Tommy Martin as Goneril’s husband Duke of Albany, Delanté Fludd as Regan’s husband Duke of Cornwall,  Connor Driscoll as Duke of Bergundy who opts out of marrying the dowry-less Cordelia,  and Ryan Cureton as King of France who weds her instead.

The printed program sets the time as “Ancient Briton and Now” and the place as “The British Isles and the Betts Theatre,” and that classic/contemporary mashup is well carried through in the stagecraft. Scenic Designer Bradley Sabelli paints on the backdrop and stage floor an illustration of the British Isles that looks almost cartoonlike, puffy like yeasty dough. Stagehands in black identify the shifts in locale by propping up various emblematic banners (designed, I surmise, by Properties Master Jennifer Sheetz).

Lighting Designer David Ghatan, besides highlighting Lear’s rants in the first scene, creates some lovely mottled looks on stage and catches all the fast action that takes place in the theater aisles. Sound Designer Katy Fields, besides amping up those rants, punctuates the plot with trumpets and other sound cues called for by the Bard. And Costume Designer Cheryl Yancey pulls off the neat trick of having the cast wear fancy faux-period costume pieces over what might be the actors’ rehearsal clothes. (The night I saw the show, the cast seemed a little uncertain with Fight Choreographer Casey Kaleba’s moves; still there were gestures that made me jump.)

I did not realize till the end how artfully this production frames the notoriously downer King Lear as both a fond tribute to a particular actor/academic and a warmly gift-wrapped experience for the young cast and their attentive audience.  But now you know before you go.

Running Time: Three hours 5 minutes, including one intermission.

King Lear plays through this Sunday, April 2, 2017, presented by The George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance at The George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, in the Marvin Center – 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC.  For tickets, buy them at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre’s box office, or call (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.

Note:  Renee Glanville, who is Deaf, signs her performance as Regan with eloquent animation while other actors interpret for her. The complete performance Saturday, April 1, will be ASL interpreted.

Dry Land & What Every Girl Should Know

I’ve seen some harrowing-to-watch theater in my time, but I recall nothing as excruciating as a particular scene in Dry Land, now running at Forum Theatre. The play by Ruby Rae Spiegel is set in the present in a girls locker room. The scene in question is between two members of a swim team, 17-year-old Amy (Emily Whitworth) and 18-year-old Ester (Yakima Rich). I won’t disclose what happens or why. But be forewarned that when you witness this breathtaking work, you will see a scene that will stay with you. It  is devastatingly visceral and shatteringly well performed. It is a scene that must be seen and cannot be unseen.

The writer knew this climactic scene would stun. She follows it with two slow scenes to allow the audience time to recover. Even then, by the time Dry Land ends and the house lights come up, the gut punch is not gone.

If there were a Helen Hayes Award for Best Partnering by Two Actors in a Single Scene, Whitworth and Rich would win it in a walk  By rights Playwright Spiegel and Director Amber Paige McGinnis should be up for awards as well.

The qualities I admire in this production begin with Spiegel’s script, which is tightly written, tough-minded, and intense. It is also wickedly witty. Spiegel captures the banter among girls with an unerring ear for the idiom of teens diving headlong into a world they know not yet how to navigate.

Here for instance is an early scene between Amy, who is pregnant and trying not to be, and Ester, who wants to seem as worldly as she. Amy is sitting on the floor in the locker room with a copy of Playboy.

AMY: I got the magazine from the boys’ locker room. It’s porn.
ESTER: Oh.
AMY: Come sit.
[Amy pats the ground next to her. Ester sits a little far from Amy, maybe because of the porn.]
AMY: The boys’ locker room stinks.
ESTER: That’s what I’ve heard.
AMY: There were some moldy shorts in the corner.
[Short silence.]
ESTER: How’s the porn?
AMY: Kind of gross. But also kind of hot.
[Ester nods.]

They chat for a moment about other things then resume looking at the magazine.

ESTER: She looks like she was made in a wax museum.
AMY: That’s all the airbrushing.
Remember when I told you what it felt like when I was a cheerleader? It’s what it feels like to be this girl. Like all bent over and shit. Like sexy but also really ugly because it’s sex and sex is ugly.
ESTER: I don’t think sex is ugly.
AMY: You’ve had sex?
ESTER: One time. On a trampoline.
AMY: Shit. Really?

What was it like?
ESTER: A little bouncy? But also nice I guess.

Though the main conflict is a trust/distrust drama between Amy and  Ester, there is also a third swim team member,  17-year-old Reba (well played by Thais Menendez).  And two male roles add yet more dimension to the narrative: 20-year-old Victor (an appealing Christian Montgomery) and a dutiful Janitor (Matty Griffiths) who does not speak but helps lift the heavy silence that falls after that scene I did not describe.

Dry Land is performed in rep with What Every Girl Should Know, a title taken from a pamphlet by Margaret Sanger first published in 1913. Playwright Monica Byrne imagines a girls dormitory in a Catholic reformatory in 1914. There are four beds in it belonging to 14-year-old Lucy (Yakima Rich) and three 15-year-olds, Anne (Thais Menendez), Joan (Lida Maria Benson), and Theresa (Emily Whitworth).

Offstage is the unseen chaplain Father Dolan, whom Theresa describes as “a very young priest, very well educated and progressive and kind; and rather handsome.” One by one, every Saturday night, the girls give Confession to Father Dolan. He keeps a bowl of oranges outside the confessional for his nubile penitents. Given this sketchy setup, which is described early in the play, one might suppose that conduct unbecoming a cleric is in the offing. And one would not be wrong.

Once the story line of serial statutory rape takes hold, the play becomes gripping. If one can stay patient during the long, languid time the playwright takes to get there, an affecting payoff awaits.

To be fair, the play hints at what’s to come. Joan, for instance, has this speech about her experience in the confessional with Father Dolan:

I confessed my sins, truthfully, and then he told me about Joan of Arc, and how she was proud like me, but that her pride was also a gift from God. And that it only mattered that she used it the right way. But even aside from that…it’s how gentle he is. I didn’t know a man could be like that. When I came here, I thought, men were like weapons and women were like wounds. That nothing stops them from getting in if they want to. That’s what it is to be woman—to be born already split open, like a carcass.

But sharply written speeches like that are the exception. Where the writing in Dry Land is tight and intense, the writing in What Every Girl Should Know feels loose, aimless, and unfocused. For most of the play we are treated to what amounts to an extended period pajama party during which the girls tell tales and dance rituals and speak in jarringly contemporary slang that keeps disrupting the play’s time frame.

Curiously it is the girls’ reverence for Margaret Sanger that most anchors the play. They regard her as a saint, and believe that she will save them. Theirs is the faith of the lost, the hope of the doomed. And a genuine sadness sets in at the end when it becomes clear that these ebullient girls have no safety where they are and no realistic future in the world outside.

Forum Theatre is to be commended for programming these two plays, together dubbed #NastyWomenRep. Though the plays will inevitably be compared, both should definitely be seen. That one is not the equal of the other matters less than that both tell stories with a fierce honesty every girl needs to grow up a nasty woman.

Running Time for each play: 90 minutes, without an intermission.

Dry Land & What Every Girl Should Know  play in rep through April 15, 2017, at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.

LINK:

Review: ‘What Every Girl Should Know’ and ‘Dry Land’ in Rep at Forum Theatre by Robert Michael Oliver

VIDEO:

 

 

 

 

 

Well

“Social ills” is a term often used to name a problem without caring about the people affected by it—as in the phrase “racism and other social ills.”  It’s a way of keeping one’s distance by making the problem somebody else’s. It’s like the way one can hear said of someone chronically and inscrutably sick, “They didn’t live right; it’s their fault.” Or, “It’s a made-up malady, you know.”  These two messed-up ways of thinking come in for a hilarious sendup and blistering takedown in Lisa Kron’s 2004  Well, now playing at 1st Stage in a luminous production that moves the heart and animates the mind.

On the surface, Well is an autobiographical play being devised before our eyes by a woman named Lisa Kron, a New York performance artist like the actual author. She enters from the house and begins a monologue to introduce a show she has scripted:

The play that we’re about to do deals with issues of illness and wellness. It asks the question: Why are some people sick and other people are well? Why are some people sick for years and years and other people are sick for a while but then they get better? Why is that? What is the difference between those people?

That turns out to be a misdirection. Much of what Lisa has to say concerns the playwright’s actual mother, Ann Kron, even though Lisa says at the outset, “This play is not about my mother and me.” As we noticed when as we entered the theater, an elderly woman, whom we now learn is Lisa’s mother, has been asleep in a recliner on a set that at first glance seems cluttered but is in fact arranged with great care. (Set Designer Luciana Stecconi depicts Ann’s living room with remarkable authenticity;  Props Designers Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa have curated a fascinating mini museum of collectibles.) During Lisa’s monologue, Ann wakes with a line that cracks up the audience, and the daughter’s and mother’s divergent points of view are off and running.

Ann Kron is a Midwestern white woman who in real life was a community organizer. Ann believes deeply in racial equality and worked tirelessly to  integrate her Lansing, Michigan, neighborhood, even as she suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome aggravated by allergies, which kept her an exhausted semi-invalid. Lisa, when she was younger, had symptoms similar to her mother’s yet recovered.  Nevertheless Lisa is beside herself with fear that she is fated to become her mother.

As a replay of the masterplot of many a strained mother/daughter relationship, Well will play as a powerful recognition scene for many who are themselves daughters. And two extraordinary actors nail it: Audrey Bertaux as Lisa personifies Everydaughter’s beholden attachment to her birth mother along with Everydaughter’s drive to disidentify and get the heck away.  Elizabeth Pierotti’s sensational performance as Ann embodies laudable political conscience, an honest love for Lisa, and an amusing measure of Everymother’s critical snark. The connection and disconnection between their characters fills the house with an electricity that feels like contact with a live socket. Even if one is a son who has been paying but cursory attention to the women in his life, the complex conflict between Lisa and Ann in this production will ring profoundly true.

But Well is more.

First and foremost it’s a clever comedy, filled with enough comic bits to keep one grinning and chuckling all the way through. At the beginning Ann, for instance, offers to get the audience something to drink. Lisa says no, no, Mom; they’re fine. Ann goes offstage anyway and returns with a bagful off packaged snacks, which to Lisa’s mortification she tosses into the audience. And then there’s the running gag of Lisa’s exasperation (“We are so off track!”) when her scripted intentions get subverted.

Lisa means to present what she archly describes as “a multicharacter theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in a community.” To do so she sets out to tell the story of her stay at an allergy clinic as well as the story of her mother’s neighborhood organizing, which Lisa rightly admires.

Ann shares some sharp observations about the racism she saw in her neighborhood, for instance the scare tactics real estate brokers used to spur white flight even as the municipal authorities began cutting schools and other resources. “This is how a slum is made,” Ann says (foreshadowing Ta-Nehisi Coates’s trenchant 2014 analysis ). Ann takes a stand and resists. She also relates how she once went to stay  at the home of black roommate in Baltimore—and witnessed personally what race hate was doing to communities of color.

Ann’s memory of the events Lisa relates, however, turns out to be quite contrary to Lisa’s, and their bickering about that is both telling and tickling. Add to that, the troupe of four actors Lisa has enlisted go off script in ways that frazzle Lisa laughably.

The amazingly versatile actors play at least three parts each: Laura Artisi (Joy, Dottie, A), Edward Christian (Howard, Head Nurse, D), Marquis D. Gibson (Jim, Nurse 2, Little Oscar, Big Oscar, C), and Lolita Marie (Lori/Kay/Mrs. Price/Cynthia, B). Each of these many characters is immediately distinct in both performance and wardrobe (for which credit goes to Costume Designer Danielle Preston). Ultimately the four actors (who go by their real first names, Laura, Edward, Marquis, and Lolita, break out of the roles Lisa has written for them and join in affectionate solidarity with Ann.

The inventive metatheatrics of this conceit are a thorough delight. Director Michael Bloom, who has directed Well before, clearly knows its every nuance. Audiences who have seen or will see the hit musical Fun Home, for which the real Lisa Kron wrote the Tony Award–winning book, will recognize her storytelling gifts. She kind of out-Pirandellos Pirandello.

Susan Sontag, who is referenced in Well, rightly reverentially, wrote an influential essay in 1977 called Illness as Metaphor. It was a searing argument against blame-the-sufferer moralizing about medical conditions. In Well, the playwright has the character of Lisa harbor a “wellness” judgment on her mother for how she was “able to heal a neighborhood” but “not able to heal herself.” And slowly the playwright takes the character Lisa to an inspiring and mind-blowing realization.

What comes through this performance with indelible eloquence—at a time when the health of our body politic has been severely compromised—is the connection between “wellness” judgmentalism and what’s morally wrong with framing the human costs of racism as a “social ill.”

With this extraordinary and prescient contribution to our understanding at this moment of reckoning about health care, Well at 1st Stage is as invigorating as theater gets.

Running Time: One hour 40 minutes with no intermission.

Well plays through April 23, 2017, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, Tysons, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.

Mnemonic

Just now when the world is wracked with wave upon wave of ethnic  animus—just now when our country has succumbed to xenophobia not seen on these shores for decades—there comes a work of theatrical art so richly imagined and so radically transformational that it causes a healing hush to fall over the audience.

This happens early on in the show as we are treated by the actor Carlos Saldaña to a sort of Ted Talk about origins and memory. Standing before a frosted plastic curtain and addressing us on a hand mic, he amiably gains our trust such that we oblige him when he asks us to put on the blindfold that we were handed as we entered the theater.

Slowly in our sightlessness the actor then coaches us into a visualization that becomes a startling perception: the recognition that the further back we trace our origins, the more we share the same cellular memory as members of the same species and “the more chaotic our inter-relationships.” We literally are all related to one another. No one is ever other. We are linked in our origins, in our migrating genealogies, in “the pattern of our ancestry.”

The gift of that indelible moment sets in motion the unforgettable play named Mnemonic.

I first saw Mnemonic some fifteen years ago when Complicité, the British theater company that devised it under the direction of Simon McBurney, brought it to New York. The moment I just described has never left me, as I suspect it will not anyone who sees Theater Alliance’s absorbing production now.

What happens next works in the head in ways only obliquely related to what happens on stage. That is the particular genius of this theater piece. It has two interweaving story lines that are only tangentially related. They’re really more like complementary metaphors than two intertwined plots, two parts that make a whole other whole.

In one of the story lines, Saldaña becomes Virgil, a man whose partner Alice abruptly left him nine months ago. He is bereft. Eventually they make long-distance cell phone contact and she tells him she’s on a quest in Eastern Europe to find traces of the father whose identity she only recently learned. Virgil’s and Alice’s story is a tale of love lost and not quite restored; a saga of roots lost and not quite found. It’s a human-interest narrative that by itself could fill a play with engaging relationship drama. And Teresa Spencer is terrific in the role of Alice. Her presence and assertion of self make an enormous contribution to the veracity of what transpires.

The other story line is about a scientific discovery in the Austrian Alps: the frozen body of the so-called Iceman (represented by Saldaña nude), who lived some 5,000 years ago. As the Iceman’s clothing, artifacts, and corpse are analyzed to reveal details about who he was, what he was doing there, how he lived and died, Alice is simultaneously learning details about who her father was, what he was doing where she sought him, and how he lived and died. The effect of taking in these two biographical dossiers in overlapping stage time but vastly distant in geography and generation makes for an extraordinary experience in theater. Mnemonic is unique in that it is everyday story telling, yet it seems more like found mythology. Almost mystically the stage action of Mnemonic comes to stand for our personal and collective understanding that we stem from a common family tree.

Saldaña and Spencer are joined by a gifted and versatile ensemble who play multiple supporting roles: Jon Reynolds, Vanita Kalra, Elena Day, Jonathan David Martin, and Michael Burgos. Besides their physical and mimetic agility they prove adept at delivering lines in multiple languages. This has the marvelous effect of underscoring what is truly global in the meaning of Mnemonic.

Director Colin Hovde has conceived a production so faithful to the magic in the material one cannot but wonder wide-eyed how it was done. He is ably aided by Movement Director Dody DiSanto, who creates vivid tableaux. And Scenic Designer Tony Cisek turns Anacostia Playhouse into a proscenium stage full of surprises, notably set pieces spun around between scenes by the actors in a whirling blur.

Costume Designer Danielle Preston locates the actors nicely in the here and now, even as the show’s scope sweeps us elsewhere and long ago. And Sound Designer Matthew M. Nelson creates a realistic aural world even as the stage world goes surreal, as it does often thanks to dazzling work by Lighting Designer William K. D’Eugenio and Projections Designer Patrick W. Lord. Special props to Properties Artisan Alex Vernon, who turns an ordinary item of furniture into an astonishing creature.

Theater Alliance’s Mnemonic is not only thrilling theater. It is a stirring and uplifting parable of our profound kinship. And in these troubling times for our disunited extended family, Mnemonic is welcome as rain during a drought.

Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

Mnemonic plays through April 9, 2017, at Theater Alliance, performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

No Sisters

A shout-out to Studio Theatre co-founder Russell Metheny, who designed the complex on 14th Street, for installing a backstage stairway connecting the dressing rooms of the second-floor Milton and the ground-floor Mead. Were it not for that architectural passageway, there could be no No Sisters, and DC would be deprived of Writer-Director Aaron Posner’s latest transfiguration of Chekhov—a play that bounces off Three Sisters with such spunk and sensibility it seems the reason the Russian one was written.

Following on Stupid Fucking Bird (Posner’s hilarious rejuvenation of The Seagull) and Life Sucks (his delightful ditto of Uncle Vanya), No Sisters again out-Chekhovs Chekhov. It is a genius comedy of the soul that lets loose what Chekhov kept a lid on.

While downstairs in the Mead a cast of fifteen perform Three Sisters on a sparse birch-studded set, upstairs in the Milton eight of them perform No Sisters in what the program calls “a weird-ass existential Chekhovian green room.” As wittily designed by Daniel Conway, the place is packed full of properties storage, mismatched furnishings, costume racks, clustered chandeliers, tables for makeup and snack breaks… Upstage by the door to downstairs is a dart board, with which actors pass the time before showtime.

Both plays clock in at the same running time, with the same elapsed times between their four acts and their intermissions syncing. The actors in No Sisters wear the same costumes designed by Jessica Ford that they wear in their roles downstairs. (The rest of the excellent design team is shared as well:  Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky, Sound Designer Christopher Baine, Composer James Barry. Tech week must have been unusually aerobic.) Seven television monitors in the No Sisters set keep watch on what’s happening on the stage below.

We are aware all the time there this other play going on, in a parallel world, in some amazing simultaneity. And that is so cool. The actors in No Sisters all play supporting roles in Three Sisters. (The actors playing the three sisters themselves, Ólga, Másha, and Irína, presumably have a green room elsewhere). The actors in No Sisters also go in and out of their Three Sisters characters, which becomes astonishingly dramatic.

Typically the actors address the audience directly, in riffs both fun and clever, especially at the beginning as we are introduced to them one by one. Quickly, though, we catch on to Posner’s inspired conceit: These actors come to this green room to vent on behalf of their characters’ inner lives, to say what Chekhov left unspoken, to deliciously chew scenery instead of making do with meaningful looks and pauses. As clouds gather over these characters and their story lines darken, this becomes incrementally a deeply moving tragicomedy.  Like standup meets primal scream therapy.

What Posner has done in No Sisters is to script for each actor no-holds-barred monologues. These speeches, as played by the No Sisters cast with pull-out-all-the stops emotion, make for a piling on of peak theatrical experiences.

Biko Eisen-Martin plays the brooding, volatile soldier Solyóny with powerful range and rage.  Ro Boddie plays his amiable battle buddy Túzenbach with equal passion and presence. The idealistic Fedótik, youngest of the three soldiers, is played by William Vaughn with a heaping of hope that lifts the spirit of the whole play.

True to Chekhov, Posner’s characters fall on a subtly calibrated continuum from happiness to despair, from contentment to yearning, from elation to boredom. What makes this human comedy so funny and touching is the crystalline compassion in Posner’s writing and its honest observations about life.

As the three sisters’ pathetic older brother Andréy, unhappy with his own inadequacy, Ryan Rilette gives a performance that is wonderfully measured: it stops short of maudlin, it only makes us warm to him.  As Kulygin, Másha’s upstanding but clueless husband, Todd Scoffield gives a performance that is equally well balanced: it stops short of smarmy, it makes us ache for him when he is betrayed.

Standing out from these five amazing performances by men are two women who stop the show.

In Three Sisters, Natásha, Andréy’s wife, is an imperious shrew, liked by no one except possibly her husband’s boss with whom she has an affair. Posner, though, has given Natásha virtual arias about what she’s feeling—not just her peevish temper but her hurt and longing—and Kimberly Gilbert belts them with so much heart the house can hardly hold them.

In Three Sisters, Anfisa is an octogenarian serving woman who cared for the four siblings from their birth and whom Natásha wants to fire. It’s a small but touching part. Her role in Posner’s play, however, is huge, and Nancy Robinette’s performance in it is monumental.  Anfisa has a speech about “what love is” that Robinette delivers with such wrenching lyricism it can send tremors to one’s core.

“Listen to me now. Listen,” Anisa tells the naive Fedótik, who is smitten with Irína:

Love is… acceptance. Shocking, transformative, radical acceptance. It is Your Everything, in intimate and immediate relation, to Her Everything.
Love is a force, a fever, an eternal, unassuageable longing.
Love is Impossible: Impossible to have, impossible to hold, impossible to lose, impossible to know, impossible to live with, impossible to live without.

Daven Ralston (who plays a mean violin in Three Sisters) appears in a sweetly stunning  turn  as Young Woman, a specter character invented by Posner. She shows up in the imagination of Anfisa as Anfisa’s younger self. Their short scene together is so lovely and so beautifully performed it could be a playlet unto itself.

Does one need to have seen Three Sisters in the Mead before seeing No Sisters in the Milton? That’s what I did, and I can report it helps give thematic context and character familiarity to No Sisters. But No Sisters can also stand on its own as engaging entertainment and tour de force acting. With or without Chekhov’s Three Sisters (but ever indebted to it), Aaron Posner’s No Sisters gives audiences three of the most insightful and satisfying hours in locally grown and nourished theater.

There’s a point late in the play when Kulygin gives a speech that mentions the importance to civilization of funding for the arts:

We want to survive and the thing about Civilization is… it helps. It just… you know… helps. It makes things better. For more people. More of the time… Rules. Laws. Sewage Systems. Fire Codes. Patents. Public Education. Meals on Wheels. Funding for scientific research. Funding for the arts. Civilization makes things better for more of the people more of the time.
And that is why there is always Hope.

On opening night, the audience broke out in applause. Perhaps somewhere Chekhov cheered too.

Running Time: Approximately three hours including one 15-minute intermission.

No Sisters plays through April 23, 2017, at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

Note: Free vodka shots are offered upstairs at intermission of No Sisters and downstairs in the lobby after both shows end.

Needles and Opium

When I left the Eisenhower Theatre last night after witnessing this mesmerizing multimedia marvel, I had a quibble. I had just one, but it could be the most peculiar cavil I’ve ever had about a show.  There was a problem with the curtain call. Something was off. As actors typically do after performing in live theater, the three in this cast came out on stage to be greeted by the audience’s applause—which in this case was very well deserved; they were excellent.  But the set needed to take a bow too. Because that spellbinding construction and the brilliant lighting and projections that shone upon it deserved an ovation all their own, one that would raise the roof.

As it happens, the set very well could have taken a bow. It’s designed to. It tilts and pivots by means of some invisible mechanical/electronic magic. (The same outfit that fabricates Cirque du Soleil apparatus built it.) And it kept me suspended in disbelief and wonder for fully an hour and a half.

It’s deceptively simple to look at until it’s lit and comes to life. It’s the three-sided corner of an imaginary big cube. Each of the sides is by turns a wall or a floor, depending on how the contraption is angled and spun. There are doors and windows and even a murphy bed in the walls, but they’re invisible until they’re opened. And this three-sided set serves as the screen for some of the most amazing scenic and animated projections I have ever seen in theater.

Ever have “the whirlies”?—that disorienting dizziness that takes all the fun out of getting high? If so, you’ll have déjà vu as you experience this ever shifting/pitching/swiveling/slanting space that veers from place to place as in a substance-induced delirium. Except without the nausea. Only wide-eyed awe.

Not incidental to this stupefying sleight of stagecraft, a theme of the show is substance addiction. Written and directed by the world-renowned Canadian theater auteur Robert Lepage, Needles and Opium has three story lines that intersect somewhat surreally: The American trumpeter Miles Davis, who turns to heroin in anguish after a woman rejects him; the French writer Jean Cocteau, who turns to opium out of nonspecific existential torment; and a fictional Québécois voice actor named Robert who is so lovelorn because the woman he loved left him than he chokes up on a take in a recording studio.

Lepage first devised Needles and Opium 20 years ago out of an autobiographical loss not unlike the fictional Robert’s. His conceit in creating it was to evoke a metaphorical connection between the pain he experienced when the love of his life dumped him—a sort of withdrawal from love addition—and the literal substance dependence in the biographies of Davis and Cocteau.

Personally, I didn’t ever buy this premise. It reminded me too much of self-involved great male artists’ tendency to romanticize their solipsism. The women in Needles and Opium are virtual ciphers. We see them only as unreal images, both as Robert’s and Miles’s emotional projections and, in the case of the French film star Davis fixates on, a literal cinematic projection. So unfleshed out are the female roles, in fact,  that when the cast came out for their curtain call—two men and a woman—I had one of those “and who’s she again?” moments.

Maybe I had more than one criticism after all.

So I cannot honestly say, go see this show for the story lines, for the characters you’ll get to know, for their dramatic arcs of realization, for the rich insights into life it will reveal. As a people story, it’s pretty problematic. But go see it for the set. I mean that. The set is epic. It’s the star of this show. And in my mind, which is still reeling from seeing it, I am still applauding.

SLIDESHOW

VIDEO:

Intelligence

Lately I’ve been thinking that there are two key questions that must be asked of every season-programming choice by every theater’s artistic director:

1) Why now?
2) So what?

There is no single right answer to those questions, of course, and there are several wrong ones. But if those two questions have no answer, or if merely raising them draws shrugs and blank stares…well, perhaps, given the times we now live in, there’s a problem of pertinence.

Recently Arena Stage has been doing pertinence with uncanny prescience. Artistic Director Molly Smith’s choice to mount Lisa Loomer’s Roe and Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine deserves a special Helen Hayes Award for Programming Clairvoyance—for who could have foreseen America’s current health and well-being emergency, which  lent both productions such unsettling urgency?

Now comes the world premiere of a play with a shock of recognition that’s off the charts—Jacqueline E. Lawton’s penetrating Intelligence. Lawton, commissioned back in June 2015 to write for Arena’s auspicious Power Plays initiative, undertook “to process the betrayal I felt when the Bush Administration told a series of lies that led to the war in Iraq.” Little could Lawton have known how many lies lay ahead.

Intelligence is a compressed and fictionalized version of the so-called Valerie Plame affair, the 2003 scandal  recounted in the 2010 movie Fair Game, which in turn was based on memoirs by covert CIA operations officer Plame and her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson. The subtitles of their books give the gist of the disgraceful episode: Plame’s Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House and Wilson’s The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife’s CIA Identity.

Lawton spotlights the character of Valerie Plame, in a dazzling performance by Hannah Yelland that’s translucent with truth. Remarkably, this sprawling drama of international intrigue and governmental malfeasance is told in a mere 90 minutes with but four other characters onstage: Valerie’s husband Joseph (Lawrence Redmond); her supervisor at the CIA, Elaine (Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman); Leyla, a Georgetown fashion designer (Nora Achrati);  and Leyla’s beloved uncle in the Middle East, Dr. Malik Nazari (Ethan Nova), who like Leyla is under CIA surveillance.

This concision has the effect of making Valerie’s conscience the real focal point of the play.  The character has love and concern for her husband and young children, as would be expected. But the singularity of her steely conscience as crafted by Lawton is neither a woman’s nor a man’s. It is a citizen’s. It is a patriot’s. It is the uncompromising morals of someone who expects better of her country. And I loved that Lawton did that.

Daniella Topol directs this intime exposé against a backdrop of stagecraft to knock your socks off. Set Designer Misha Kachman sets the stage with great gray columnar slabs that could be contemporary steles or an homage to the Twin Towers. They move about, creating playing spaces into which furniture is set for close-up scenes, but their grander purpose is to serve as vast surfaces on which Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi shows chilling footage of Bush, Cheney, Powell et al. lying the nation into war.

Somehow, perversely, Bush and Co.’s untruths told then about uranium buys and WMDs seem almost like good old days: a time when presidential prevarication could be isolated, sequestered, found in a few fateful phrases here and there, not a never-ending inundation, a logorrhea of lies.

Intelligence is a conscience-centered thriller set against a national tragedy on an epic scale. That this tragedy is ongoing and worsening only makes this sensational show more essential to see. Its “why now?” and its “so what?” are what great theater is about.

The Select (The Sun Also Rises)

F. Scott Fitzgerald was among the first to take an editorial whack at Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises (then called Fiesta). Among other things cut out by Fitzgerald was the entire first part. Thus pruned to 200-plus pages, the book became a bestseller.

Some years ago a  brilliantly inventive, New York–based theater company,  Elevator Repair Service, did its own redaction, a version they turned into a story-theater-style production that the Shakespeare Theatre Company has brought to town. Now culled to two acts in three-plus hours, the book comes to life in a fascinating new light.

It’s Hemingway lite. But it’s got real bite.

Elevator Repair Service (ERS) is known for taking famous writerly texts and staging them, sometimes verbatim, as long-form literary theater. I saw ERS’s much wordier rendition of the first chapter of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in New York a few years ago and recall being transfixed by it. ERS clearly was treating the material with the presumption of an auteur, doing with Faulkner’s text something he could not possibly have had in mind. Yet as the actors delivered not only the book’s dialogue but also its richly detailed narration, the author’s voice seemed to come through with astonishing clarity.

The text of the The Select (The Sun Also Rises) is much sparer. The actors speak less narration; the dialogue is more punched up. The text has been significantly sanitized too. Hemingway’s original is shot through with homophobia, antisemitism, racism, and misogyny. Hemingway, icon of the cult of hypermasculinity in American letters, did not mince disparaging words. Wisely ERS has eliminated the racism, toned the homophobia and antisemitism way down, and left but a modicum of misogyny. The Select would have been unbearable had they not.

The agreeable result plays less like meticulously faithful readers theater and more like a breezy drama by a clever playwright who likes to keep characters tight (“tight” being Hemingwayspeak for drunk). The whole show takes place in an enticing bar set by Scenic Designer David Zinn. There are so many bottles of booze on the wall it makes one think of grabbing a preshow drink.

Hemingway’s voice is famously curt. Simple straightforward sentences. Just the facts.  The tips of icebergs. Simple subjects and straightforward verbs. No purple frou-frou.  It’s a voice so readily parodied there’s a long-running International Imitation Hemingway Competition. Curiously in The Select, that unmistakable voice seems dialed down, stripped of distinction, almost genericized. It’s certainly not what makes the performance on stage at the Lansburgh Theatre so smashingly theatrical. That honor belongs hands down to Director John Collins’s ingenious staging, the electrifying choreography by Dance & Movement Coach Katherine Profeta, and the  stunningly eloquent audio effects by Sound Designers Matt Tierney and Ben Williams.

The acting overall was fine if a little uneven, but three stellar performances enthralled me.

Kaneza Schaal plays, among other roles, the prostitute Georgette. (In life Hemingway was a john of some renown and peopled his fiction with characters based on women he had thus known).  Georgette and the main narrator Jake Barnes (Mike Iveson) take a credible horse-drawn carriage ride while simply seated on two bar chairs. (Collins’s staging beguiles like that.) In the novel Jake had a war injury that left him impotent (a point that goes by fast in this version; it’s easy to miss). So nothing happens. Except that which happens when an actor of Schaal’s stature and presence magnetizes the stage.

Kate Scelsa plays, among other roles, Frances, the girlfriend of Robert Cohn. Robert functions in the novel as Hemingway’s EveryJew, the foil for everyone else’s ambivalence/animus. So too in The Select.  (But relative to Director Collins’s better other casting, he himself does not impress in the role.) For a lot of Frances’s stage time, she fades into the background, a frumpy grumpy nobody; but when the time comes for her big monologue, it’s epic. It’s an all-out howl of grievance, a take-me-back aria of desperation, a don’t-you-dare-dump-me diatribe that would make Dreamgirls‘ Effie blush. Scelsa’s performance stops the show, and nothing else ever tops it. Not even the big bullfight scene in Act Two (which must be seen to be believed).

The character of Brett Ashley stands apart from the parade of submissive women in Hemingway’s oeuvre. Because she sports a boyish haircut, calls herself a “chap,” sleeps with whomever she wants, and has an unintimidatable libido, she is seen by many as thoroughly modern but mannish. That gender bending matters not to all the  men in The Sun Also Rises who are smitten by her. Instead it accounts for her allure. (Hey, a woman with a man’s sex drive; let’s take her for a spin.) To say that Stephanie Hayes nails the role would be an understatement. In its fierce sensuality and psychic force, hers is a performance one cannot take one’s eyes off. Happily she is on stage a lot.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these three performances of women characters all caught my eye. For ERS’s lively digest of Hemingway’s novel lets a sexual political theme shine through that might not jump off the page while reading. That theme is Hemingway’s fantasy of the shared woman. She whom many he’s have sex with like frat boys who hired a hooker—except of course separately, more decorously, with worldly sophistication, and with a woman who knows her own mind and owns her own body.

What’s fascinating about how this fantasy plays out in The Select is that all the men are fully cognizant of all the other men’s sexual relations with Brett. (Jake’s counts even though he can’t.) And they’re all okay with it. More than okay, actually. It’s almost as if they all bond through Brett’s body.

Another role very well played by a woman, Susie Sokol, is a teenage boy, the matador Pedro Romero—whose beauty holds appeal for Jake and prompts Brett to forthwith bed him. So even Pedro gets pledged to the men’s club.

You may not see what I saw in The Select (The Sun Also Rises). But if you see it for yourself during its run at the Lansburgh  (as you should), you will not lack for brainwork later. It’s one of those captivating shows whose implications kick in after curtain call.