Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: May, 2017

Laura Bush Killed a Guy

Who’da thunk that our current administration’s dysfunction would prompt nostalgia for our eight years worth of W.? But that indeed is the curious takeaway from watching Lisa Hodsoll’s poignant impersonation of Laura Bush in a surprisingly touching comedy by Ian Allen, which is now playing in a world premiere production by The Klunch at Caos on F.

“And really,” the former First Lady says of that era, “if you could have it back today, wouldn’t you?”

At that the opening night audience went nuts.

Lisa Hodsoll as Laura Bush in Laura Bush Killed a Guy. Photo by Chelsea Bland.

Poised, charming, and gracious, Hodsoll enters in a polished white suit chit-chatting about her famous cookie recipe. Sudden car crash and fast flashback to Hodsoll staring into headlights: She’s at the scene of a collision in 1963, when 17-year-old Laura Welch ran a stop sign and hit a vehicle driven by a 17-year-old classmate named Michael Douglass, who died of a broken neck.

High school classmates Laura Welch and Michael Douglass. Photo courtesy of The Klunch.

The facts of that crash are on the record. Snopes, for instance, has the scoop. And it’s no spoiler to look them up beforehand; having done so myself, I can attest I appreciated Allen’s invention all the more. And invent he does. Allen, who is artistic director of The Klunch, takes those fatal facts and plays with them wildly—surmising, for instance, various motives Laura may have had to murder Michael. But in the end Allen plays the facts straight. And by then, thanks to all the illuminating detail he has shared about her life (as someone who grew up wanting “to be the best girl in the world”), we are well prepared for the play’s emotional reality check.

Reportedly the role of Laura Bush was originally written to be played by a man in drag. Wisely, a woman was cast instead. Laura as researched and written really is a rounded and emotionally grounded character. And as played by Hodsoll, she is not at all a caricature or cartoon, which could have been the downside risk of not casting cis. Here and there in the script, however, are snide traces of Allen’s camp intention, and some of them could easily be excised. Allen, for instance, has Laura refer disparagingly to no fewer than four women (Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Teresa Kerry, and Tipper Gore) as looking “mannish” or like “a man.” Despite Hodsoll’s earnest efforts, these insults come across as gratuitously out of character.

The cheesy hook of the title, Laura Bush Killed a Guy, is no doubt what will catch attention for Allen’s script and lure in audiences. But after all the laughs (of which there are many; this show’s a hoot), what his play leaves one with is much richer and deeper than its lurid title might suggest: In a production performed with radiant wit by Hodsoll and sensitively directed by John Vreeke, Laura Bush Killed a Guy is a memorably moving portrait of a forgotten First Lady.

We hardy knew her, it seems. And maybe now we miss her humble gentility, her guileless integrity, qualities in short supply at 1600 Pennsylvania these days. Of course we never warmed to her husband as she did—she loved him completely and sincerely, about which the script is unequivocal. But as in all live theater when a character seen through another character’s eyes becomes someone more than we see with our own, the strangely affecting aftereffect of Laura Bush Killed a Guy is how Laura Bush loved a guy.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Laura Bush Killed a Guy plays through June 4 2017, at The Klunch performing at Caos on F Street – 923 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling 866-811-4111 or at the box office 30 minutes before showtime.


Building the Wall

The dystopia delineated in Building the Wall is predicted by the playwright, Robert Schenkkan, to happen in America very soon.  By the time the play is set, in the year 2019, the two characters are already looking back at it, a fait accompli, the barbaric consequence of an anti-immigrant animus fueled by a president who is competent only at fanning hate. And there is a big problem with the play: It is horrifyingly plausible.

Schenkkan wrote Building the Wall right after the November election; in February Forum Theatre chose to fast-track it to production (along with other theaters, as a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere). As Forum Artistic Director Michael Dove told the audience at last night’s opening in Arena’s Kogod, he “wanted it to be in the national conversation immediately, in downtown DC, near the White House.”

Tracey Conyer Lee (Gloria) and Eric Messner (Rick) in Building the Wall. Photograph by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The place is a prison meeting room, a table and two chairs. Lighting Designer Sarah Tundermann frames these close quarters with florescent tubes on the floor at the corners. Sound Designer Thomas Sowers adds an unsettling low undertone.  Set Designer Patrick Lord erects a gridwork rear-projection screen on which appear ominous news images in sepia. One is headlined “DEPORTATION TO BEGIN.”

A historian, Gloria, has come to interview a prisoner, Rick, who has been convicted for doing the job he was hired to do. He worked as a supervisor for a private corporation that had a federal contract to detain and dispatch tens of thousands of people targeted by Trump.  The corporation was paid by the government per dead body disposed of.

Erica Chamblee as Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Chris Genebach as Eugene de Kock in A Human Being Died That Night at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The situation bears similarity to the interviewer-prisoner dynamic dramatized in Nicholas Wright’s A Human Being Died That Night, just closed at Mosaic Theater Company. A black woman and a white man sit at opposite ends of a table. She wears tasteful business attire; he wears an orange jumpsuit. But whereas A Human Being Died That Night takes place in a penitentiary in South Africa and pertains to actual past killings of black people that happened under apartheid, Building the Wall takes place in a prison in El Paso, Texas, and pertains to killings of nonwhite people that could happen under Trump but have not yet.

It is is a distinction without a difference.

“I’m not racist,” Rick assures Gloria near the beginning, unconvincingly. “Why can’t I be proud to be white?” he asks later. Every country has a right to defend its borders, he declares rhetorically, as if this simplistic principium exonerates him.

What makes Building the Wall not only a terrifying forewarning but also a spellbinding character study is the way Schenkkan peels back Rick’s posturing so we  see what makes him tick. This the playwright does by tracking what attracted Rick to Trump.

Rick was not particularly political when he happened into a rally, but the experience of watching Trump on the stump, he tells Gloria, was “an electrical thrill.” The candidate’s unabashed political incorrectness was for Rick cathartic. It said to Rick “you could do something you weren’t supposed to do” and “you didn’t feel shame.” The exhilaration Rick felt in this throng was “like a pro wrestler thing.”

As Rick explains to Gloria, “People were voting to get their country back.” Meanwhile Rick’s personal psychological profile has made plain how that nationalism equated with exculpation for being white.

Building the Wall Playwright Robert Schenkkan.

The incendiary combination of America First-ism and white identity politics erupts in Schenkkan’s script in an incident in Times Square that prompts Trump to declare martial law and start rounding up immigrants. Rick is put in charge of a football stadium turned mega holding pen. But countries refuse to repatriate the people being detained, so the U.S. is stuck with masses of people in unsanitary conditions coming down with cholera. Rick is overwhelmed. There are bodies piling up. Portable mortuaries are called in. It’s “millions of people,” Rick says, “a cluster fuck of massive proportions.”

The character of the interviewer Gloria is less fleshed out, although we learn of the loss of her beloved brother, who was blown to bits by an IED in Iraq. The detail is telling: Presidential megalomania has led to carnage before.

Dove’s direction and the performances by Tracey Conyer Lee as Gloria and Eric Messner as Rick serve the storytelling superbly. And it is the playwright’s accumulating mental picture of an unthinkable future that is the force field of the play, the reason it is necessary to be seen.

Theater can make the incredible credible, the unbelievable believable, the inconceivable conceivable. That is the profound power of this art.  How better to deploy that power now than to foresee where our nation is headed unless we #resist?

The play’s ending is jaw-dropping. Don’t miss it.

Running Time: About 85 minutes with no intermission.

Building the Wall plays through May 7, 2017, at Forum Theatre, performing at The Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.

Building the Wall continues  May 18 through 27, 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.