Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: May, 2017

Hir

The absurdity and grim reality of gender get a scathing going-over in this extraordinary play by Taylor Mac. Inside the hilarity of Hir (pronounced “here”) is a tragedy howling to get out.

Taylor Mac, author of Hir, has a reputation for outrageous originality as a playwright, actor, singer-songwriter, performance artist, director, and producer. I’ve been itching to see this play since Woolly announced it. Everything I heard and read about it made me suspect I would dig it. And I did. Bigly.

Malic White (Max), Emily Townley (Paige), Joseph J. Parks (Isaac), and Mitch Hébert (Arnold) in Hir. Photo by Scott Suchman.

After I laughed my guts out at Hir the other night, I figured out why the play had landed for me with so much punch: I recognized in Hir the work of an artist who is a gender abolitionist or gender anarchist—someone for whom bending gender is but a means to ending gender altogether.

It is a trend that’s catching on. For instance, these days it is not uncommon for young people to introduce themselves by saying what their personal pronouns are. The prescriptive presumption that everyone is either a he or a she (and never the twain shall meet) has become today’s flat-eartherism.

Thus the title of Mac’s play is the recently coined personal pronoun hir. In everyday speech hir refers to someone who is non-binary, transgender, or gender-queer, in grammatical constructions where the pronouns him and her would typically track. Here hir is the pronoun of Max, an AFAB (assigned female at birth) 17-year-old who is transitioning and taking testosterone. Known as ze, not he or she, Max is a whip-smart radical queer resister to heteronormativity—and Malic White’s punky, impudent performance in the role is wonderful.

Hir deals with, as Mac has written, “the remnants of the former body politic and the rise of a new progressive body politic.” The trans teen Max is the character from whom we hear the sharpest critique of the old and the most embodied determination about the need for change.

“Ze is becoming an innovator in gender,” exclaims Paige, Max’s cisgender (AFAB) mother. She could be trilling she is so thrilled by Max’s transition. Paige is explaining Max to Isaac, hir 24-year-old, cisgender (AMAB) brother. Isaac has been away for three years in the Marines and is now a war-damaged veteran. He cannot believe what has become of his home and family. The house is a mess. His father is in a dress. He is shocked. “Your sister is not your sister,” says Paige. “Ze has become the new. A revolutionary…. Transgender.” Whereupon Isaac—in a muscularly urgent performance by Joseph J. Parks—rushes to the kitchen sink and pukes.

Emily Townley (Paige) in Hir. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Paige—a zany, free-spirited true believer in gender revolution—is one of the great new tragicomic roles in contemporary theater. She is the play’s passion and propulsion, and Emily Townley’s nonstop-power performance is not to be missed.

When Isaac arrives he finds his father, Arnold, in a dressing gown in clown makeup and wig. A year ago Arnold had a stroke and is now treated by his wife Paige like a brain-damaged child or an untrained house pet. She squirts him to scold him when he says a bad word or holds his penis. Isaac accuses Paige of humiliating and emasculating his father, and she does not deny it.

Paige’s demeaning of Arnold would read as senseless cruelty but for the back story that emerges about Arnold’s character before his stroke. The portrait Mac paints is revolting: an angry, abusive paterfamilias who beat both siblings and beat and raped his wife. “I joined the Marines so I could learn how to stop him from doing things like that,” says Isaac. The old Arnold is the measure of a man that the new Max, finding hir way between sissy and trans-masculine, never wants to pass as. And Arnold is the reason Paige has become a zealous convert to the cause of overthrowing “the male-dominated hegemonic paradigm.”

The previous Arnold is never literally onstage. The powerless and pathetic Arnold we see (in Mitch Hébert’s eloquent performance) bears no resemblance. But that pre-stroke patriarch drives the action of the play like a primal scream: The character stands in for all that Paige recoils from, all that she wants to avenge, and all that she wants to dismember about gender.

The fact that the ways Paige picks to do so are quite unhinged makes for a cascade of comedy. But what motivates Paige to do so is the show’s caustic undertone.

The argument Paige makes—in a sincere but fractured and scatter-brained way—is that the gender binary has got to go. The alternative would be to accept patriarchal power relations as a natural imperative, biologically inevitable.

Hir by Taylor Mac, now playing in fast-paced production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company directed by Shana Cooper, is a seditious celebration of the beyond-gender trend. And it’s one of the funniest and profoundest farces I’ve ever seen.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Hir plays through June 18, 2017, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

 

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Jesus Christ Superstar

There’s an extraordinarily tender and touching moment in Signature Theatre’s ebullient Jesus Christ Superstar when Mary Magdalene (Natascia Diaz), after singing her gorgeous ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” snuggles alongside the sleeping body of Jesus (Nicholas Edwards), her backside to his front, and wraps his arm around her shoulders.

OMG Mary and Jesus are spooning.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Natascia Diaz (Mary)
in Jesus Christ Superstar at Signature Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.jpg

The moment was breathtaking, and I happened to have a very intimate view of it. I was seated in the Max theatre balcony, and I was directly overhead, almost with them in bed. Typically reviewers write about a show from an omniscient point of view, as if what they saw is what everyone will see. So although the critical consensus on this Jesus Christ Superstar has been a chorus of praise, the full significance of Signature’s immersive staging of the show has gone relatively unremarked: With the audience seated right up close three quarters way around the stage, both in the orchestra at actor eye level and in the dress circle at bird’s eye level, everyone gets a very different show.

My perch on high offered some other cool observations that might not jump out for folks below. Seeing Scenic Designer Luciana Stecconi’s set from above, for instance, made its cross shape unmistakably auspicious. And watching Karma Camp’s choreography and Director Joe Calarco’s blocking, I could see the cast in swift-shifting patterns of spatial motion that were their own kaleidoscopic display.

The cast is big. Ten actor-singers play named characters; another eight singer-dancers comprise an ensemble called Apostles. They all have amazing voices; their singing has been roundly lauded for good reason. And they fill the stage with what can seem dizzying energy. The beauty of watching from above, though, is that one can spot and follow with unobscured clarity individual performances that stand out, such that they can seem to be telling their own story. To give just three examples, the Apostle Vincent Kempski is particularly arresting, as is Michael J. Mainwaring, who plays Peter and whose dancing throughout is extraordinary. And Sherri L. Edelen, whose turn as Herod is the show’s comic highpoint, is also great fun to watch as a super trouper in the singing-dancing chorus

But blessed are the people in the balcony, for they shall find their own faves.

Nicholas Edwards as Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo courtesy of Signature Theatre.

No seat in the Max is a bad one; no seat is all-seeing either. Much as I enjoyed my vantage point, the production sometimes verged on frenetic, its moments of emotional focus lost in hustle and bustle. And I imagine Jason Lyons’s lighting design did not look from downstairs at all as busy as it did from up. Patterns of light swept and swam in a flurry all over the floor with an overmuchness that called attention to itself way more than it would at stage level.

But there may be a greater message in Signature’s superbly theatrical staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, one that is implicit in the book and lyrics but that becomes uniquely incarnate at the Max. People’s points of view on the production in that environment will necessarily be dramatically different and disparate. Not unlike people’s points of view on the title character in real life.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

 

Jesus Christ Superstar plays through July 2, 2017, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

 

Ulysses on Bottles

Near the beginning of this transporting play, the actor Sarah Marshall, wearing a man-tailored white suit, unrolls a map of Gaza and lays it on the floor. She then dumps onto it 200 tiny plastic toy people. Down on her knees, she arranges them with her hands so they are exactly contained within the Gaza borders. Each figure, she says, represents 10,000 people, and in total these toys represent the two million Palestinians who live locked inside the Gaza Strip, “the most densely populated place on earth.”

Marshall is playing an allegorical character named Seinfeld who stands in for the Israeli surveillance state. She proceeds to explain in detail  how Israel ships into Gaza barely minimal food and other necessities, and how its captives’ procreation will within a few years make the place uninhabitable.

With this quirky symbolic show-and-tell explication, we immediately get a vivid picture in our mind of a what is in reality an inconceivable calamity—and in that eye-opening moment are dispelled all preconceptions of what a trenchant political play about the Occupation will look and sound like.

Michael Kevin Darnall as Ulysses and Sarah Marshall as Seinfeld in Ulysses on Bottles. Photo by Stan Barouh.

This will be no discourse or treatise. This will be no diatribe or tract. On the contrary this staging of Israeli Playwright Gilad Evron’s Ulysses on Bottles (translated by Evan Fallenberg) is every bit as startlingly theatrical in its conception and as engrossing in its execution as we have come to expect from Mosaic Theater Company. And Ulysses on Bottles is anchored by a performance in the title role—Michael Kevin Darnall as Ulysses—that ranks among the most viscerally transcendent and indelible yet seen in Mosaic’s distinguished two seasons.

The curious title bears explanation. “Ulysses” is the nickname given by the authorities to a jobless former teacher now in prison (the fictional character played by Darnell). Ulysses was arrested and charged for attempting to sail through Israel’s sea blockade of Gaza on a raft made of empty plastic bottles. His quixotic mission: to teach Russian literature in Gaza. Thus his handmade vessel had a cargo of books.

“Why Russian literature, of all things?” his pro bono defense lawyer, Izakov, demands to know. “You think the citizens of Gaza are particularly in need of Russian literature?”

“Believe me, the Gazans are dying to study Russian literature,” Ulysses says matter of factly. “It’s a breeze that rises higher than the kites they fly on the shore.”

The poetry and preposterousness in that reply epitomize what’s brilliant about Evron’s play. The notion that in the midst of their deprivation people in Gaza would find respite and uplift in Russian literature strains credulity.  But it precipitates a terrific play.

Surrounding the unleashed imagination of Ulysses are four supporting characters who grounded in the real world—that is to say, the society of Israeli professional privilege.

Matthew Boston as Izakov, Elizabeth Pierotti as Eden, and Chris Genebach as Horesh in Ulysses on Bottles. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Marshall’s Seinfeld is the most intriguing among them. Hard to figure where she’s coming from; she’s a symbol after all. As written she’s unpredictable. But Marshall makes her riveting..

Izakov is a flat-footed straight shooter who’s wrapped very tight, Matthew Boston in the role is rock solid. Izakov genuinely wants to help Ulysses get out of jail; he pleads with Ulysses to accept the state’s deal: release in return for a promise not to venture forth to Gaza forevermore. But a sympatico romantic Izakov is not, and the fact that his wife, a shallow society matron named Eden, is pressuring him to put on a pink dress and sing at a fundraiser has him in a funk.

Elizabeth Pierotti nails Eden’s smug smarm. Another lawyer, Horesh, comes in to the story as a self-serving foil to Izakov’s do-gooder-ism (to Horesh Gaza is “a fucking shit hole… If someone had the guts he would drop a bomb and wipe out the whole shebang”). Chris Genebach keeps him bearable, no mean feat.

That pink dress bit—an allusion to a Thomas Mann story—at first seems oddly out of place. But in a twist, that pink dress and that uptight lawyer have a scene together that enriches the play in the most surprising way. (Note that it comes with a musical earworm.)

Set and Costume Designer Frida Shoham has conceived an amazing unit set. It’s all gray, with walls up to the fly space, but they’re made of scrim such that actors can be seen before the enter and after they exit. There’s a wooden chair center stage that functions multiple ways, including as a glider. Lighting Designer Brittany Shemuga and Sound Designer Roc Lee animate this plain gray space for eye and ear whether in a prison or at a party.  And Serge Seiden directs with compelling clarity and concision. Among the most forceful scenes was the one with Ulysses alone in his cell is standing on the chair in agitation because his waste bucket has spilled.

Michael Kevin Darnall as Ulysses and Matthew Boston as Izakov in Ulysses on Bottles. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The collaboration between Seiden and Darnell had to have been extraordinary, because the actor is delivering a depiction of Ulysses’ inner turbulence that is so daring and disclosing it drives the momentum of the entire production. In each of his scenes—when he vehemently argues his cause and his case with his lawyer, when he’s alone in his cell venting his sexual frustration, when he remembers and reenacts his son, who was born severely disabled and died at age six—Darnell is nonstop transfixing.

Ulysses is imprisoned but his poetic passion flies sky high. He is a hero of the heart, an artist of resistance, a victor in vision even in defeat.  Quite remarkably, inexplicably actually, Ulysses on Bottles floats us into a headspace where only illogical allegory can make sense of the senseless. It’s a stunning theatrical voyage and not to be missed.

Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.

Ulysses on Bottles plays through June 11, 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.

LINK:

 by Robert Michael Oliver

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Sioux Falls

10th Muse Productions’ The Wedding Party was a huge hit in Capital Fringe 2015 (the DCMetroTheater Arts review called it a “delightful comedic romp”). It was a show that Maegan Dominy co-wrote (with Mimsi Janis).  Now in her own full-length play Sioux Falls, just premiered at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, Dominy weighs in with both levity and gravity on the hot-button topic of abortion.

The drama that drives the play, however, is not so much the contestedness of the political issue as the complicatedness in the personal narratives of three women who urgently need abortion services. As such Sioux Falls is about their whys, not the opposition’s thou shalt nots.

The women’s difficulties and destinies are very different, but their destination is the same. They are all en route to Sioux Falls, the only town in South Dakota where there’s a clinic that that can help them. In Sioux Fall‘s structure as skillfully set forth by Dominy, the obstacles in their path are as much the state’s restrictive abortion laws as the conflicted circumstances of their own lives.

Conceptually the play’s storytelling is in thirds, each centered on one of the three women, with each of their stories composed and acted in its own style.

Tess Higgins (Kat) and Jonathan Rizzardi (Robby) in Sioux Falls. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Kat is an ambitious grad student, a smart cookie and a would-be journo, who has shacked up the last four years with Robby, a wannabe rock star and amiable dim bulb. Upon learning she’s pregnant (“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckety, fuck…”), she asks Robby for help coming up with the price of an abortion. She’s not ready to have a kid. He wants her to have it but is always behind on his half of the rent. Cash-strapped but determined not to let her pregnancy or her partner deter her, she sets out in his heap for Sioux Falls with a credit card.

Kat’s trimester of the storyline is written and played as quick-witted rom-com. Tess Higgins as Kat is a star-quality comic actor who here displays a gift for millennial angst. And Jonathan Rizzardi as Robby is a thoroughly enjoyable dufus. Robby may be a stock slacker from many a recent movie, but there’s a comic chemistry between Rizzardi and Higgins that feels fresh and spontaneous. Moreover Dominy has given them the play’s funniest lines—which kept me chuckling a lot.


Allyson Harkey (Mara) and Seth Alcorn (Chris) in Sioux Falls. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Mara is an earnest and idealistic professor of journalism, up for tenure at a small college. Her devoted husband Chris is a contract lawyer. They love each other dearly and they are desperate to have a child. They’ve been trying without success; Mara has miscarried three times. Now pregnant again, they learn that the fetus Mara is carrying has a seriously impairing genetic disease. In shared sorrow they make the agonizing decision to make the drive to Sioux Falls.

Mara’s trimester of the storyline is written and played as soap opera for grownups. The writing, not at all maudlin, is astute and truthful. The characters’ concerns are expressive of honesty and affirmation in mature love. We get to know two individuals vividly and we feel their pain. Allyson Harkey brings to Mara both sensitivity and grit. Seth Alcorn brings to Chris both a sturdiness and vulnerability. The play is never more heartbreaking than during their second-act scene in a hospital room, when their grief peaks and the bond between them seems never more secure.

Mo O’Rourke (Annabelle, standing highest) with Mermaids (from left:) Jennifer J Hopkins, Bianca Lipford, and Ali Evarts in Sioux Falls. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Annabelle is a young woman who is delusional; she has three imaginary companions who are…mermaids (Disney’s The Little Mermaid made a big impression). She is also a battered wife, escaping with her life on a bus to Sioux Falls. The relationship between her abuse and her delusions emerges gradually. Her narrative is sobering and saddening, also often mystifying. Mostly we get to know her as a naïf, a woman who, kept isolated by a man she calls a monster, lacks any information or support that could save her, so she seeks survival in her own dream.

Annabelle’s poignant trimester of the storyline is written and played as magical realism. Thus it includes, peculiarly, expressionistic choreography featuring three Mermaids—Alana (Ali Evarts), Adella (Jennifer Hopkins), and Attina (Bianca Lipford), dressed in tights and shiny green skirts. It’s not clear till the end who they are or why they’re there, although between scenes they function handily to change set pieces. Mo O’Rourke’s brings to the role of Annabelle a touching simplicity and innocence along with a tremulous sense of being imperiled; she’s so watchable it hurts. And Dominy’s writing for Annabelle and her Mermaids reaches for a poetry of emergency and escape. But these passages, despite being ably performed, never cohere nor propel the play with the same clarity and impact that Kat’s and Mara’s narratives do.

Where the play really shows its stuff is when the three women’s stories coincidentally intersect. Mara and Kat have a scene together in a car that is stunningly written and performed: a knock-down confrontation between women of two different generations, the elder’s grievances against the younger on devastating display. And Kat and Annabelle have a scene together at a lake that is also beautifully written and acted: a moving depiction of one woman’s reaching out in sisterhood to rescue another.

Director Rachel Murray keeps the action in motion while focusing attention on the play’s many telling moments. Each of the Mermaid players doubles in other more naturalistic roles: Evarts as a pregnancy counselor and a clinic receptionist, Hopkins as a doctor, Lipford as another doctor and a nun. These parts they perform with uniform excellence.

Set Designer James Finley’s minimalist stage features a greenish scrim that becomes where mermaids swim. Lighting Designer Jason Afudem-Brinke helps distinguish the play’s three style dimensions. Sound Designer Niusha Nawab inserts striking music between scenes. Choreographer Nora Rosengarten evokes underwater ballet on a flat stage floor. And Playwright Dominy doubles as costume designer, fascinatingly revealing how she views how her own characters should dress (Robby’s floor-length camo bathrobe, for instance, is oddly perfect for the eccentric dude.)

Though the childlike magical realism in Sioux Falls lacks the persuasive appeal of its wonderful millennial rom-com and its profound mature melodrama, the scope of the play’s significance and the eloquence of its content far exceed the sum of its parts.

Meghan Dominy’s Sioux Falls is well worth a visit. It speaks from three hearts whose reasons male legislators know nothing of.

Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

Sioux Falls plays through June 11, 2017, at 10th Muse Productions performing at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

The Father

There are reasons aplenty not to miss The Father now playing at The Studio Theatre, and Ted van Griethuysen’s performance in the title role is foremost among them. Recently the recipient of a Helen Hayes Tribute award, van Griethuysen commands the stage with incomparable expressivity of body and voice and presence of mind—even as the character he plays, 80-year-old André, is losing his mental moorings.

Ted van Griethuysen and Erika Rose in The Father. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The entire production is one of the finest I’ve seen at Studio: The impeccable direction by David Muse. The accomplished supporting cast—Kate Eastwood Norris (Anne), Manny Buckley (Pierre), Caroline Dubberly (Laura), Erika Rose (Woman), Daniel Harray (Man). The design team, notably Lighting Designer Keith Parham and Sound Designer Ryan Rumery, whose inter-scene effects were like episodes of malfunction in André’s brain.

But what made me want to see this play in the first place—and the reason I would see it again in heartbeat—is the script by Florian Zeller (translated from French by Christopher Hampton). What Zeller does with the structure of this play is so brilliant and distinctive it qualifies for authorial adjective status as Zellerian (à la Pinteresque and Beckettian).

(I just googled Zellerian and got nothing. You read the coinage here first.)

I first experienced what is singularly Zellerian last August in London. There was a hit play running in the West End called The Truth. I recognized the name of the playwright (whom I had not otherwise heard of) as the author of a play programed for the 2016-2017 season at Studio. So I thought I ought to check him out.

Broadly speaking, The Truth is a four-character comedy about marital infidelity. Two pairs of straight people coupling outside their vows who then get caught inside their lies.

Ho-hum, right?

I am so tired of the adultery trope in theater. Commercial theater is obsessed by it. Bourgeois boulevard-comedy audiences can’t be tickled and titillated enough by it. Adultery is the guilty-pleasure masterplot for wedded masses yearning to breathe free.

Okay, maybe I’m overreacting. But my point is that Zeller’s The Truth took that overdone subject and transformed it into a script structure that fundamentally altered my experience of theatergoing. Scene after scene, the script led me to think one thing only to suspect in the next and the next it’s really another thing, then in  the end the script got me realizing as I looked back on its canny construction that this was not surreal; it all made sense. Moreover in playing with my perception of what is real—constantly reframing and renaming it—the script structure momentarily altered my own reality as a conscious, sentient self.

Just as Beckett’s plays affect how the world looks when we walk out of the theater, and just as Pinter’s plays attune us to subtexts in interpersonal relations, Zeller in The Truth takes apart how we piece together reality in our minds.

Kate Eastwood Norris, Ted van Griethuysen and Caroline Dubberly in The Father. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Which is exactly what Zeller does in The Father.  And as in The Truth, Zeller takes on a topic that has already been done to death in drama. In this case it’s late-life mental decline and senescent amnesia. Broadly speaking, The Father—which Zeller calls “a tragic farce”—is about a man with dementia. But that doesn’t begin to convey the play’s Zellerian genius. Scene after scene, we are led to think one thing only to suspect in the next and the next it’s really another thing, then in the end we realize as we look back on what has transpired it all makes sense; but with astonishment we realize Zeller’s script structure has brought us into the faltering mind of the main character. We have been experiencing what it’s like to think like he does. We have been both outside and inside the play.

I don’t want to give away how Zeller achieves this.  Best to be taken by perplexity and surprise at each twist and turn. But know going in to see The Father at Studio that your brain will be different when you come out.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Father plays through June 18, 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.

VIDEO:

LINKS:

Review: ‘The Father’ at The Studio Theatre by Robert Michael Oliver

Review #2: ‘The Father’ at The Studio Theatre by Ravelle Brickman

Magic Time! ‘Notes on My Theatergoing in London’ by John Stoltenberg

 

Protest

 

 

http://www.vhlf.org/events/vaclav-havels-protest/

The Man Who

Curious questions tease the brain during this peculiarly provocative production. One is: Is this theater? Another is: What are we to make of it?

The Man Who, just opened at the estimably idiosyncratic Spooky Action Theater, is about how the mind can be glitchy. It takes the form of a succession of 17 scenes depicting neurological defects that can occur in the human brain—actual syndromes that have been clinically observed and described in the literature. Selected malfunctions are acted out by two women and two men switching roles from scene to scene between playing a Doctor and playing a Patient (a nice touch that dissolves the wall between normal and not). Though the enactments cohere in style and substance, the vignettes are not connected—there are no characters as such, there’s no continuity of plot, there is no omniscient writer’s point of view. And the scenes occur in a sequence that has no discernible significance.

From left: David Gaines, Tuyet Thi Pham, and Carlos Saldana in The Man Who. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

The Man Who was devised in France in the 1990s by the influential director Peter Brook, who with his collaborators, among them coauthor Marie-Hélène Estienne, was inspired by case studies in the 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks, the noted author and professor of neurology. Besides that book, Brook and and his troupe based their development of the piece on first-hand observations of the behavior of people whose minds were in various ways clinically out of order.

The result is the neurological equivalent of a surgical operating theater without the lecture. Or a cognitive freak show without the carney and condescension.

Helmed by Founding Artistic Director Richard Henrich with Associate Director Elena Day, the production is exceptionally well designed and crafted (as has been typical of work I’ve seen recently at Spooky). The set by Giorgos Tsappas is all stark planes in gray, a perfectly sparse neutral gallery in which to mount the vivid portraits. The costumes too are unassuming and in neutral tones, such that the presence of the actors is what stands out. Colin Dieck’s lighting achieves remarkable effects as actors move around the space beyond the stage and seem always to be lit dramatically wherever they roam. The sound design by Gordon Nimmo-Smith smartly makes the piece approachable and even relatable, not sensationalized or bizarre. And Elizabeth Long’s aptly picked props play fascinating roles in diagnosing and demonstrating the patients’ various syndromes—which are always portrayed compassionately, never mimicked to be mocked.

Eva Wilhelm and Carlos Saldana in The Man Who. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

The humanity that shines through the show, the warmth it radiates, is its strong suit and is a credit to the uniformly excellent cast: David Gaines, Tuyet Thi Pham, Carlos Saldana, and Eva Wilhelm. (Pham is especially impressive; more than enacting her subjects she channels them, as when an electrode is placed on her forehead and she exults uncannily with long-lost memories of her youth.) All the actors—whether doubling as white-coated doc or as plainclothes patient—genuinely welcome us as trusted initiates into a world where our curiosity though uncomprehending need never be unaccompanied by empathy. This sensitivity matters deeply, not least for anyone in attendance who knows or who has known someone whose mind has been afflicted in some way.

But is it theater?

Yes and no.

In 1995, just before The Man Who was to open at the Brooklyn Academy of Music,  Brooks told TV interviewer Charlie Rose,

It isn’t written with a story…. There is no narrative. Can you make theater without a narrative? It seemed to me of course you can, but how is what the work’s about.

Certainly the acting, directing, and stage arts in this Spooky Action production are first-rate. But the fragmentary text, clinical concept, and non sequitur structure may not work as theater experience for everyone. All the neurological computing errors on parade can leave one constantly uncertain how much is meant to be entertainment, how much is meant to be edification. There are isolated obvious laugh lines; but don’t come expecting a comedy, for there are long discomfiting stretches when expressing amusement would seem somehow inhumane.

David Gaines and Tuyet Thi Pham in The Man Who. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

So…what are we to make of it?

What Spooky Action’s The Man Who achieves—and this it does with emphatic success—is to leave us trying to understand, with our own minds such as they are, what has gone wrong in the minds of others. What has happened to them and how and why? Who are they now that it has happened? Then: Who are we to whom this has not happened?

The Man Who leaves us, in other words, trying to make sense. Trying to surmise significance. Trying to create meaning where there may ultimately be none. Which is after all the point of having a human mind in an incomprehensible universe. And bestirring awareness of that amazing cerebral capacity is the mind-expanding reason to be perplexed by this show.

Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes with no intermission.

The Man Who plays through June 4, 2017, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th Street , NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.

VIDEO: 
Peter Brook talking about The Man Who on The Charlie Rose Show, March 2, 1995.

https://charlierose.com/video/player/14025

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Outside Mullingar

How does a play that starts out about real estate for gosh sake—adjacent farms in rural Ireland—become a heart-wrenching story of adjacent lost souls who fall in love late in life? How does a play that starts out prosaically about inheritance rights of all thingswho gets one of those two farms after its paterfamilias passes—become so achingly soulful that watching it makes one’s eyes well? Such is the ineluctable emotional through-line of John Patrick Shanley’s beautiful Outside Mullingar, now playing in a breathtakingly moving production at The Keegan Theatre.

Kevin Adam (Tony) and Rena Cherry Brown (Aoife) in Outside Mullingar. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

I see a lot at Keegan and there’s a lot to see. Eight shows alone his season, the company’s twentieth. I’ve written about some of my fave plays: most recently Six Degrees of Separation, What We’re Up Against, The Lonesome West. But when I walked out of Outside Mullingar—directed by Producing Artistic Director Mark A. Rhea with what seemed inspired grace—I knew that I had just seen Keegan at its best. I loved the show. I loved it so much that I’ve been struggling over how to say why.

My DCMetroTheaterArts colleague Ravelle Brickman has given a clear overview of the excellent staging and acting along with intriguing details about the narrative. If you want a properly descriptive evaluation of the production, be sure to read her review. Because what I have to say is something else, something completely subjective, something about how the play might affect some people personally.

Outside Mullingar at its heart is about reluctance to love. The inhibitions that cancel out connecting. The emotional lockdown that happens inside when being open feels unsafe. The incessant inner tape loops that drown out anyone else’s heartbeat and stifle one’s own.

Brandon McCoy (Anthony) and Susan Rhea (Rosemary) in Outside Mullingar. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

That theme is most embodied in the character of Anthony, who is played by Brandon McCoy with such touching introversion and vulnerability you’d think he’d be more comfortable all by himself. He’s 42, and he was so devastated by a girl’s rejection when he was 16 that for the last 26 years he has lived entirely inside himself, convinced he is an unlovable weirdo, with zero inclination to ever fall in love again.

And here’s where all the real estate and inheritance stuff comes in. It’s plotting about plots of land, but it’s about much more than that. It’s the farmland framework in which an unlikely love takes root and blooms.

The family farm Anthony lives on is owned by his brusque widowed father Tony (given a first-rate performance by Kevin Adams), who is near death. He doesn’t want to leave the land to an only son who’ll have no heirs.

Next door is another family farm that is owned by Aoife (the marvelous Rena Cherry Brown playing cranky geriatric delightfully). Aoife has just buried her husband and is looking toward the grave herself. Unlike Tony, who resents his son’s unweddedness, Aoife fully intends to leave her farm to her thirtysomething unmarried daughter Rosemary. And just like Anthony, Rosemary is romantically all alone.

Unbeknownst to Anthony, Rosemary has been fond of him for years and pines for him to notice her and reciprocate. Susan Rhea in the role is one wonderfully tough cookie, a go-getter dynamo. Watching Rhea’s Rosemary determinedly woo McCoy’s diffident Anthony is to be caught up in an emotional anticipation that Shanley’s script sustains with astonishing sympathy and suspense and that they each play out in pitch-perfect harmony.

Deepening the play’s theme of reluctance to love is a pivotal scene that takes place in Tony’s bedroom on what is about to be his deathbed. Tony reveals to Anthony how he came to fall in love his wife, years into their marriage, which for Tony to that point had been loveless. Tony explains how he experienced a transformation in his heart— “The quiet hand of God touched me so soft I thought it was the breeze.” Tony promptly sells a parcel of his land to his neighbor in order to buy his wife a gold ring to replace the brass one he gave her on their wedding day. That parcel and that ring are to play a big part in the plot. But what happens in the moment between Tony and Anthony—in the most-choked-me-up father-son scene I can recall seeing on stage—is a transmission of parental permission to love, and a father’s modeling for his son how love can overcome.

For his part Anthony believes himself so odd no one would have him. He discloses to Rosemary that he believes himself to be a honeybee—something he told the girl he fancied at 16 and it made her flee. Rosemary is acceptingly nonplussed but curious. She asks him what he believes her to be if he’s a bee. A flower, he tells her. A beautiful flower.

We just know they’re going to get together. They have to; this is a comedy. What perverse playwright would string us along with two characters who would totally complete each other if only they knew it, then dash our hopes with a brutal breakup?

Susan Rhea (Rosemary) and Brandon McCoy (Anthony) in Outside Mullingar. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

But Shanley’s poetic score for these two characters’ heartstrings has a rare sostenuto to it that is sublime pure pleasure. The play’s precisely paced procrastination—all the awkward delays, all the missed cues, all the emotional baggage that keeps popping up between Anthony and Rosemary—is as mesmerizing edging to a pulse-pounding orgasm.

The play isn’t about estate planning; it’s about heart opening. It’s about solitude ending. It’s about risking intimacy over isolation. It’s about courage to come out of one’s shell. And it’s about the best love story I’ve seen on stage.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

Outside Mullingar plays through May 28, 2017, at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

 

Protest

DC site-specific theater of resistance reached a new height last night—also a new low—as Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s arresting staging of Vaclav Havel’s Protest became the first play performed before a live audience in the District’s “new Subterranean Arts & Cultural Center,” the abandoned trolley roundabout now redone as Dupont Underground.

The convergence of place, play, performance, and present political predicament was almost too perfect.

Drew Valins (Vanek) and David Millstone (Stanek) in Protest at Alliance for New Music-Theatre. Courtesy of Alliance for New Music-Theatre.

The venue, Dupont Underground, deserves a visit in its own right and its own review. One enters down a stairway and arrives in a vast, arcing, echoing chamber, with murals on the outer wall and trolley tracks embedded underfoot. It was built for a streetcar system that was superseded by cars and buses after World War II, and during the Cold War was a bunker stocked with provisions in the event of a nuclear bomb.

Dupont Underground entrance and interior and staging for Protest. Photographs by John Stoltenberg for DCMetroTheaterArts.

The architectural drama that now imbues the space—and makes you go “Wow, something amazing could happen here”—compares to that of other theaters built for that purpose on massive budgets. The fact this is a “found” civic space reclaimed for live performance gives it a populist vibe that money can’t buy. Plus, the very location (which could not be more public-transportation accessible) invokes the history of political resistance in the city that has centered around the Dupont Circle fountain.

“Every protest that has ever been here has been upstairs,” said Artistic Director Susan Galbraith in her introductory remarks on opening night.

Alliance for New Music-Theatre is a company “committed to engage audiences changing the conversation through the arts [italics theirs].” This production of Protest is its first as Dupont Underground’s theater in residence. The once-banned play has been smartly directed by Galbraith and designed by Joey Wade (set, lights, and projections) to suggest the living rooms in which the play was first performed privately to circumvent state censure. The simple makeshift look is apt and compelling: Two chairs and a table on a carpet on a raised platform backed by a plain white wall. LED lights behind the audience wash the stage in shifting hues and brightness with no discernible reason except to convey an uncanny context of uncertainty, instability, flux, and possible power outage.

The production began as a commission by the Embassy of the Czech Republic and was performed to mark Havel’s 80th birthday at, among other places, the President Woodrow Wilson House. The set of Protest now at Dupont Underground has on its side walls projected photographs of that interior, including a portrait of First Lady Elizabeth Wilson.

David Millstone (Stanek) and Drew alins (Vanek) in Protest at Alliance for New Music-Theatre. Courtesy of Alliance for New Music-Theatre.

The character whose home this is, Stanek (David Millstone), might well be that grandly domiciled. Stanek once lived a politically fringy life but now, having made it big as a television writer, lives comfortably well off, keeps his radical past at a remove, and enjoys gardening and fine brandy. He could easily be pegged a bourgie sell-out except he finds himself in a situation that he knows needs an activist assist. His daughter’s boyfriend, a pop star, has been imprisoned by the authorities. In hopes of mounting a petition campaign to free the young man, Stanek has invited his still-dissident longtime friend Vanek (Drew Valins), to come for a visit. Vanek was once himself a political prisoner. Stanek needs his political cred but doesn’t want to take any risk of his own. Vanek turns the tables and challenges Stanek himself to sign the petition. Will he or won’t he? Dare he or daren’t he? Vanek’s and Stanek’s disagreement about political tactics drives the drama, and Millstone and Valins play out their differences with probing panache.

With witty direction from Galbraith, Millstone leads Valins in seeming to connive leaning over the parlor table, then hilariously crawling under it. Each in turn plays at times to the audience with an entertaining earnestness, as if expecting allies for their views. Indeed there emerges a cleverly competitive subtext, an invitation to join Team Vanek or Team Stanek.

Drew Valins (Vanek) and David Millstone (Stanek) in Protest at Alliance for New Music-Theatre. Courtesy of Alliance for New Music-Theatre.

The playwright has given Stanek most of the lines, and Millstone plays them to the hilt, sometimes shouting them resoundingly into the cavernous tunnel. His performance is fantastically frenetic. Vanek has far fewer lines, and Valins’s delivery is more deliberate, more quietly certain, less emotionally ostentatious. Clearly the audience Havel wrote for would have known what Vanek was thinking because they like Havel were like Vanek, so the character had less need to explain himself. The expansive character of Stanek, however, is where the play becomes a revelation.

Staneck’s debate within himself, articulated with textual precision, becomes an enthralling inquiry into conscience, courage, and complicity. Stanek has a long final monologue in which he weighs the consequences of signing or declining to sign the petition that would be the public protest of the play’s title. As scathingly scripted by Havel and here performed magnificently by Millstone, that speech is a showstopping knockout, a moral-intellectual mind-blower. That it speaks with eerie specificity to current resistance to #resistance is the best possible reason to see this show.

Note that Dupont Underground is accessible only by a stairway only partially equipped with handrails and has no restrooms, although patrons may use facilities in the lobby of the Dupont Hotel across the street.

Running Time: One hour 5 minutes, with no intermission.

Protest plays through May 21, 2017, at Alliance for New Music-Theatre performing at Dupont Underground (public entrance is at 1500 19th Street NW, Washington, DC, on north side of Dupont Circle next to Starbucks and across from Dupont Hotel). Tickets may be purchased online.

LINKS:

‘Protest’ at Ambassador Theater at Flashpoint, by Justin Schneider

 

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche

Much to my tickled surprise, last night I found myself shouting out that I am a lesbian—I along with an entire audience in Lab One at The Atlas Performing Arts Center! Really, all of us, about equally women and men, similarly giddy and shouting in unison: “I am a lesbian!” We had been urged on by five quirky characters who had just declared themselves to be lesbians as well. And how that came to happen is the delightful pleasure of this zany play.

The cast of 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche: Malinda Markland (Vern), Geocel Batista (Wren), Allie O’Donnell (Lulie), Kaitlin Kemp (Ginny), and Morgan Meadows (Dale). Photo by RJ Pavel.

Monumental Theatre Company, a young bunch begun three years ago “with a desire to promote the millennial artist’s voice,” has picked a script that is chock full of wacky, madcap comedy typical of fringe, starting with its cheeky, check-it-out title.  Named Best Overall Production in the 2012 New York Fringe Festival, 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche originated in Chicago, where Andrew Hobgood and Evan Linder, co-artistic directors of The New Colony, first concocted this ingenious crowd pleaser.

Among the clever conceits in the play is its time and place, a recently remodeled community center where, in 1956, there is to be a gathering of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein. “Welcome Sisters” reads a banner strung up in Set Designer Wes Reid’s pale yellow, artfully style-less meeting room. A security-equipped door turns out to be that of a bomb shelter—this being the era of apprehension over nuke strikes.

Five ladies arrive all atwitter, dressed in winkingly faux-50s frocks by Costume Designer Kelsey Sasportas. They’re about to reveal and eat this year’s prize-winning quiche, and they could more, um, egg-cited.

As the show unfolds, the ladies extol the glories of the egg, like an ovation for their ova, while the play flirts facetiously with the sapphic allusion in quiche-eating. As becomes apparent, the ladies’ enthusiasm bespeaks a longing not yet…egg-spressed.

But first they greet each of us in attendance as if we are their dear society sisters, come to join their meeting. To seal the deal they stick on each of us a tag with a female name. We are then addressed by that name and asked solicitously about how our family members are.

So begins the unabashed bonding that five quick-witted actors create during the show with and within their beguiled audience.  Geocel Batista as Wren, Morgan Meadows as Dale, Malinda Markland as Vern, Kaitlin Kemp as Ginny, and Allie O’Donnell as Lulie comprise a cast full of comedians, all gifted at improv, physical comedy, verbal whimsy, and general nuttiness. Batista’s ebullience is especially infectious, and Meadows does a show-stopping monologue in which she mimics her character’s father. Under the adroit direction  of  Jimmy Mavrikes, this buzzy ensemble achieves together an acting style—brazenly broad in the best sense—that is an utter enjoyment unto itself.

Morgan Meadows (Dale) as her character’s father. Background, from left: Allie O’Donnell (Lulie), Geocel Batista (Wren), Kaitlin Kemp (Ginny), Malinda Markland (Vern). Photo by RJ Pavel.

During the show an actual quiche is eaten, in a way that had the audience in stitches, and among Prop Designer Liz Long provisions was that title foodstuff.  Sound Designer Jordana Abrenica and Lighting Designer Rob Siler delivered a dramatic plot twist that I won’t mention because one shouldn’t…egg-spect it.

This whole show is really fun. Though it’s a saucy spoof of the sexual repression of the pre-women’s-movement 50s and a savvy look back at the paranoia of the Cold War, don’t come hungry for a heavy meal. Monumental Theater Company’s 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche is light as a souffle, deep as a perfect pie crust, and deliciously hilarious.

Running Time: About 75 minutes, with no intermission.

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche plays through May 22, 2017, at Monumental Theatre Company performing at performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, The Paul Sprenger Theatre – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.