Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: July, 2017

The Mark of Cain

Fans of Synetic Theater’s music-and movement-based works derived from classic texts will find a surprise twist in the company’s latest offering. Typically, a Synetic extravaganza creates a vivid other world, someplace unto itself, visually voluptuous, aurally luscious, always a trip to somewhere fantabulous. But with The Mark of Cain, Synetic’s first wholly original devised work in five years, the other world collides with the real world. The mythic meets the immediate. And the impact is smashing.

With The Mark of Cain, according to Director Paata Tsikurishvili, Synetic set out to create “a neo-surrealist distillation of human history” that would illustrate how human evil began and how it persists in power that corrupts. Right there is a tipoff that something political might pop up.

Or maybe something more universal. Two large eyes set in triangles on either side of the stage (the eyes of God?) are weeping illuminated white balloon tears, as though all of creation is in mourning.

Ryan Sellers (Cain) in The Mark of Cain. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Accordingly, the show begins slowly. Performers move in slow motion. God (Philip Fletcher) kneels in dust downstage and from it forms two figures, Adam (Scott Brown) and Eve (Tori Bertocci), who explore their new environs and each other. A red balloon is locked in a cage, off limits. A sinister Dark Angel slithers in (Kathy Gordon) and tempts them, and soon the forbidden balloon bursts in their hands in a plume of red powder, signaling the origin of sin.

Up next is the origin of evil. Adam and Eve conceive two sons, whom they first mime, cradled in their arms then lead like toddlers by the hand. In one of the show’s many stunning image reveals, Cain (Ryan Sellers) and Abel (Dallas Tolentino) then step into the family tableau and take their parents’ hands.

Abel, in this retelling, becomes an artist whose medium is the Ensemble (Janine Baumgardner, Zana Gankhuyag, Irina Kavsadze, Megan Khaziran, Brown, and Bertocci), whom he beautifully sculpts and animates choreographically. Cain, jealous of his brother’s creative powers, attacks Abel and they fight, a pas de deux of rage against innocence that Sellers and Tolentino perform with fearsome force. Cain slays Abel then violently destroys the beauty his brother made. In a jarring physicalization of Cain’s destructive powers, Sellers’ brutal blows break the dancers’ bodies down as if to rubble, all without contact, only the evocation of the power of evil…and the evil of power.

Kathy Gordon (Dark Angel) and Ryan Sellers (Cain) in The Mark of Cain. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

God is displeased and brands Cain with a bloody emblem of shame. Reenter the Dark Angel, who seduces Cain into a reign of evil-doing that unfolds with quickening pace through human history. As each epoch is enacted, the Dark Angel crowns Cain with another symbol of unjust power, and he plays the part of smug despot with more and more relish. By the time Cain’s headwear is a red-starred military helmet and he and his troops are goose-stepping, the metaphor of evil descended in a direct line from mythic time to modern times has become powerfully persuasive.

And then comes the episode where Cain’s emblem of malevolent authority is no longer upon his head but a too-long red tie around his neck. You may have suspected the show was going there and it does, breathtakingly. Just as well as Synetic can retell a classic of literature wordlessly, the company now shows its chops evoking corruption and resistance viscerally, without a word being spoken.

Ryan Sellers (Cain) in The Mark of Cain. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Choreographer Irinia Tsikurishvili and Composer Koki Lortkipanidze along with Music Director Irakli Kavsadze have a remarkably organic collaboration that is evidenced in every dancer’s every breath and move. A sequence quoted from Ravelle’s Bolero becomes the musical equivalent of a showstopper. The adaptation, which is really mostly original, is credited to the Tsikurishvilis, Bertocci, and Nathan
Weinberger. And together Scenic Designers Paata Tsikurishvili and Phil Charlwood, Lighting Design Brian Allard, and Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson have spectacularly fabricated an unreal world…in order that it may appear to us as only too real.

The Mark of Cain is a bold breakthrough for Synetic Theater, and an eloquent, unexpected experience to behold. It will leave its mark in your imagining.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

The Mark of Cain plays through August 13, 2017, at Synetic Theater – 1800 South Bell Street, in Crystal City, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

VIDEO:

 

Wig Out!

The world of  Wig Out! is a glittering fantasia on house ballroom culture. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ingeniously metatheatrical 2006 script sets this play with music in the urban underground that came to mainstream attention with the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. It’s a subculture that offers safe space where refugees from white cis heteronormativity—mostly black and latinx LGBTQ youth—can find friendship, gender-expression freedom, self-acceptance, alternate families, and celebration of who they are.

Just opened at Studio Theatre is a spectacularly powerful, funny, and feel-good production of McCraney’s play, newly updated by the author. Under the inventive direction of Kent Gash, a long-time collaborator with McCraney, Wig Out! abounds in  outrageously fabulous costumes, dazzling choreography, and a cast that won’t quit knocking us out. McCraney’s poetic and wittily slang-filled script also contains moving scenes of relationship drama—poignant stories of love, lust, loyalty, and loss that play out in intimate, and sometimes graphic, detail,

The upshot is a show so sizzling hot it promises to be DC’s next sold-out summer hit.

The House of Light in Wig Out!: Back: Michael Kevin Darnall (Lucien); middle: Melissa Victor (Fate), Dane Figueroa Edidi (Faith), Jamyl Dobson (Rey-Rey), and Ysabel Jasa (Fay); front: Edwin Brown III (Venus). Photo by Teresa Wood.

The top floor of Studio has been the site of many of the District’s best immersive stagings. It was transformed into a dive bar for Murder Ballad, a cabaret for Silence! the Musical, a church basement for Hand to God. Now for Wig Out!, Set Designer Jason Sherwood has installed there a glitzy catwalk down an alleyway the audience sits on either side of. (With only 108 seats in the house, none more than four rows from the stage, the show gets up-close and personal pretty fast.) There are four mirrored doorways framed by assemblages of photos, manikin parts, posters, old electronics, and other memorabilia of eras gone by. Even before the show begins, the theater space has an exhilarating and intriguing vibe. Then when the performance starts, Lighting Designer Dawn Chiang’s moods and blazes and Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson’s galvanic music make it all go wowza.

McCraney’s version of ball culture imagines two rival “houses,” families as fiercely antagonistic as the Montagues and Capulets, except instead of sword-fighting they vie for victories at balls, late-night runway performances where individuals as representatives of their house are judged on dance moves, fashion, demeanor, and convincingness. The competition can be cutthroat, as it gets in Wig Out! between the House of Light and the House of Di’abolique.

The Fates in Wig Out!: Melissa Victor, Dane Figueroa Edidi, and Melissa Victor. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Before we meet the two houses, we are visited by the Fates, a high-energy trio of young women named Fay (Ysabel Jasa), Fate (Melissa Victor), and Faith (Dane Figueroa Edidi). Appearing periodically in the play like playful pick-me-ups, and sometimes somber witnesses, they are part Greek chorus, part chorus line, part hip-hop girl-group, and wholly enchanting in their synchronized choreography and vocals.

Among the poignant relationship dramas in Wig Out! is the one that begins on a subway when Eric (Jaysen Wright), a handsome hunk, is hit on by Wilson (Michael Rishawn), another handsome hunk, who at the moment is in drag. Eric’s initial ambivalence is overcome by Wilson’s irresistible advances, and they go to Wilson’s place where they have steamy sex. That evening Eric learns Wilson is also Ms. Nina, and she begins to introduce Eric to her world as one of the kids in the House of Light. The complex romance between Eric and Wilson/Ms. Nina is a heart-tugger throughout the show, including after Wilson/Ms. Nina comes out as trans, and Wright and Rishawn play their richly written roles with breathtaking versatility and naked honesty.

Michael Rishawn (Wilson/Ms. Nina) and Jaysen Wright (Eric) in Wig Out! Photo by Teresa Wood.

The conflict that is the play’s main event kicks off when Rey-Rey, “The Legendary Mother of the House of Light” (Jamyl Dobson), and Lucian, “The Founding Father of the House of Light” (Michael Kevin Darnall), learn from a goth-clown messenger named Loki (Alex Mills) that the rival House of Di’abolique has challenged the House of Light to a Cinderella Ball that very night at midnight! Emergency preparations begin forthwith (for what will become, in Act Two, a sensational high-stakes diva duel).

Meanwhile in the House of Light, other riveting relationship dramas come to light. Venus (Edwin Brown III), a beautiful young man in drag, had a thing once with house DJ Deity (Desmond Bing), a straight-acting dude who digs male bodies, and Deity wants to rekindle it. Ever on the prowl, Lucian, the house father, has or had a thing for many, and Darnall plays him with a Don Corleone swagger that’s both menacing and seductive. Rey-Rey, the house mother, knows her youth is fading and she’s lost luster in Lucien’s eyes, and Dobson plays her touchingly with all the grandeur that is her due and all the brokenness she does not deserve.

Edwin Brown III (Venus) and Desmond Bing (Deity) in Wig Out! Photo by Teresa Wood.

Rey-Rey has a monolog that references her struggle to uplift the House of Light while the AIDs plague raged and decimated the gay and drag communities. It’s a passage that exemplifies McCraney’s superb writing in Wig Out!, and Dobson’s delivery of it is profound:

When this house was early light, low light
I came in here and worked this bitch you hear
Me. When it was not a time or place of glamour
In the scene I put the couture back in the bash.
That was my ass walking down with the true strut
Of fashion icon. I brought win after win and the name
Legendary to a house with little to no light until
There was Rey there was no way so even though I
May not have the glow of youth mother fucker
I got the glam of age. I know what its like to try
To hold up fabulousness while everyone withers
And dies around you. I walked amongst the legends
Who didn’t make it thru. I lost most of my house to
An AIDS war that the kids didn’t know how to survive.

McCraney’s text borrows from black, gay, and drag slang with beautiful abandon—and may leave those not in the know a little in the dark. But this is a cast that got deep inside the language and they know viscerally of what it speaks. If you miss some idioms, just let ’em go by, and trust the actors to let you know what’s meant.

(I tried making some educated guesses instead and learned that’s not a great idea. For instance, there’s a scene where the Fates are working hard rehearsing a routine for the Cinderella Ball and Venus tells them, to encourage them, “You’re fish, honey, real women.” Thinking the word fish was derogatory, as it is used among gay men to describe women, I got confused. Turns out, I learned later on Google, in the drag world fish is a great compliment, and an acronym for “fit, intelligent, sexy, hot.”)

Though some of us may seem to have come as strangers into a strange land, McCraney has given us the wonderful character of Eric. His winsome naivete is also ours as he seeks to figure out this unfamiliar world and whether he belongs in it.

At a point in Act One, Eric has a dream in which all that he imagines the scene might be suddenly comes to life in the persona of Serena (Frank Britton), “Mother of the House of Di’abolique.” Wearing geisha makeup, a flamboyant kimono, an extraterrestrial hairstyle, and boots a foot high, Britton rips up the stage lip-syncing “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane (“Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall”). Meanwhile, Mills as Loki, a lost-boy in Serena’s house, does an unbelievable contortionist-gymnastic floor routine. This was the first moment that felt like a showstopper had just happened. It would not be the last.

There would be lots more scene-stealing fashions from Costume Designer Frank Labovitz and lots more jaw-dropping movement and dance from Choreographer Dell Howlett and lots more emotionally wrenching scene work by the actors. There’s so much talent onstage and offstage for this show, it fact, it’s like non-stop overwhelming sensory stimulation.

So get ready for the fandemonium.

There’s a question you’ll be hearing from ecstatic theatergoers this summer: “Have you seen Wig Out! at Studio yet?!” And once you do, you’ll be asking the question too.

Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.

Wig Out! plays through August 6, 2017, at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

 

The Gun Show

Among the issues polarizing America (and degrading public discourse) is the hot-button question of what to do about guns. Proponents of positions right and left talk past each other. Both camps have unassailable certitude on their side. Playwright E.M. Lewis set out to see if she could bridge the divide.

She chose to tell autobiographical stories about her own relationship to guns in the form of a solo performance piece. But rather than step onstage herself to tell the stories, she chose to have them told by a male actor—”for distance” as her script explains. Thus as performed with prodigious virtuosity by Vin Shambry, Lewis’s The Gun Show became as riveting for its form as for its content.

Vin Shambry in E.M. Lewis’s The Gun Show, CoHo Productions, Portland. Photo by Owen Carey.

The production directed by Shawn Lee originated in Portland, Oregon, where he, Lewis, and Shambry are based, and stopped off on its tour for a brief run in 1st Stage’s Logan Festival of Solo Performance on its way to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. (How a play about America’s firearms impasse will play in Scotland—a country that prohibits all handguns, semi-automatic, and pump-action non-rim-fire rifles—should be interesting.)

The set is black-box simple. A chair and table with some props. A standing work light. A projection screen on which can be seen a montage of closeups of gun parts. As we enter, the low sound of rounds being fired at a shooting gallery.

Shambry is a transfixing performer and owns the stage. He begins vividly describing a shoot-’em-up scene in the movie Reservoir Dogs. He makes the point we sometimes “can’t tell the difference between real life and a Tarantino movie.” We think he is playing a black man confronting gun violence because that’s who we see before us. And then we realize the lines he is speaking are Lewis’s. Not just because she wrote them; she lived them. When Shambry speaks, for instance, of “my husband,” he means hers.

Vin Shambry in E.M. Lewis’s The Gun Show, CoHo Productions, Portland. Photo by Owen Carey.

Shambry shines a flashlight on Lewis’s face in the audience. She is sitting there, as she has been for all performances. She wrote herself into the script as a silent witness to the telling of her story. As a writer, as a woman, her script explains, she felt the story needed to be told in a man’s voice. At the point when we realize that she herself is in the house, whatever line there is between life and art completely blurs, and we ourselves are witness to something far more than theater.

Shambry (as Lewis) promises to tell five stories and does so. One is a story about how Lewis grew up around and with guns. They were familiar in her family. He (as she) asks those who did not come from such a background and/or who would not want guns around: “How far from law enforcement do you live?” If a violent criminal was to break into your home and 911 is an hour away, wouldn’t you rather be able to defend yourself? The point lands. In a similar vein, he (as she) tells a story about an armed robbery in a Portland bookstore where she worked.

And then he (as she) tells the story of how she learned to shoot. She was expertly instructed by a 29-year-old man she met when she was 19, the man named Irving whom she would marry. And from then on, the politically challenging story of The Gun Show is also the moving, and sometimes heartbreaking, story of a marriage.

The issue of guns is more complicated than right and left, says the script. “The commentary is killing the conversation.” We need to talk from what we have in common: We all want to be safe. “What’s stopping us from figuring this out?”

Lewis’s script spells out the conundrum: Guns ≠ safety. No guns ≠ safety. The last story is a tragedy that brings that point home.

Projection Designer Kristeen Willis Crosser punctuated the solo performance with sometimes witty images: blown-up stage directions, for instance. Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago brought intimacy to the vast stage space, Sound Designer Rodolfo Ortega amplified the story telling subtly (no ear-shattering gunshots, thankfully), and Costume Designer Gregory Pulver gave Shambly casual clothes to match his personable stage presence.

Distilling the problem of guns in America to its particulars in the life of one woman from the Northwest of Norwegian descent brings a sharp focus to what’s personal and intractably complicated about the issue. And the device of having her story told by a man, in this case a black man, is remarkably effective in showing us the universal patterns in those particulars, without the option to dismiss what’s being said because a woman’s voice on stage still does not say “human experience” with the gravitas that a man’s does.

And yet, if the stories being told were from a black man’s life—portrayed on stage by an actor who fit the part—the particulars would be dramatically different. If he were to talk about what’s complicated about the gun debate, for instance, he would have to reference the death of Philando Castile, the black man who was shot by a white police officer upon stating the fact that he was carrying a licensed firearm, as was his Second Amendment right.

The Gun Show doesn’t go there. Yet it leaves us with the lesson that what’s complicated always has personal context and cannot be abstracted apart from individual lived lives. As such truthful storytelling about complexity goes, The Gun Show sets a brave example, with a terrific script brilliantly played.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

The Gun Show was one of three works in The Logan Festival of Solo Performance, which ran July 6-16, 2017, at 1st Stage – 524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA.

LINKS:
In the Moment: Logan Festival of Solo Performance at 1st Stage by David Siegel
Review: ‘Hick: A Love Story’ at 1st Stage by David Siegel
Review: ‘Empanada For A Dream’ at 1st Stage by David Siegel

 

 

Help Me, Wanda!

Toni Rae Salmi is an actor seen frequently on DC stages, most recently “enjoyably grand” in Perfect Arrangement at Source Festival. In Help Me, Wanda!, she belts out a rockin’ song list—much of it tunes made famous by the “Queen of Rockabilly,” Wanda Jackson. Backed by a four-member band upstairs at Solly’s Tavern, Salmi also weaves through her set an inspiring and autobiographical woman-centric narrative about mustering confidence and gumption to stand one’s ground in a world staked out by men. It was rockin’ music mixed with moxie, and a crowd-pleaser from beginning to end.

Wearing a sleeveless black sequined sheath, a pixie cut, and heels, Salmi took the mic in hand and the audience into her confidence. Admitting this was her first-ever cabaret show, she drew us warmly into personal anecdotes about both Jackson’s life and her own.

“I Gotta Know,” she sang, from Jackson’s 1960 rockabilly album Rockin’ With Wanda:

One thing I gotta know, I gotta know, I gotta know
If our love’s the real thing where’s my weddin’ ring

And she nailed the classic “Hard Headed Woman” from Jackson’s 1961 rock album There’s a Party Goin’ On:

Well a hard headed woman a soft hearted man
Been the cause of trouble ever since the world began

Rock legend Wanda Jackson was said to be “the only woman who could do justice to an Elvis song.” Back in the day, Jackson even dated Elvis—before she met and fell in love with the man to whom she would be married for 55 years (Wendell Goodman, who died in May).  At the indefatigable age of 79, Jackson is “not hiding her age,” said Salmi, and “still touring with a bad-ass rock band.” Inspired by Jackson’s career-long brazenness, Salmi began putting her own act together.

Not all Salmi’s song list originated with Jackson, but her choices fit the evening’s build-me-up bill perfectly. She did a rendition of “Maneater,” for instance, with a gender flip in the lyrics:

OK, here I come. Watch out boys.

And riffing off personal anecdotes about her own love life, she upped the energy in the room with her heartfelt/sarcastic version of Lindi Ortega’s “I Want You”:

… I can be bad
I can drive you mad
Be the girl that you won’t forget
I want you to want me
I want you to want m

Salmi’s admiration for Jackson goes beyond the legend’s love life and artistry. “The woman has a backbone,” Salmi told us. Once when a venue manager would not allow her black keyboardist to accompany her, Jackson answered, “He plays or I don’t.”

The first rock song Jackson wrote was “Mean Mean Man,” and Salmi knocked it out of the park.

i love a mean mean man
he lives uptown
when i want him he’s never around
he’s a mean mean man
he’s a mean mean man
he’s a mean mean man but i love him all i can

Affairs of the broken heart suffused several numbers, and Salmi knew whereof she sang. “I once asked a man I was seeing, ‘Why are you treating me this way?’ He answered, ‘Because you’re letting me.’ Don’t stay with anyone who makes you lose your spark.”

Then she sang an over-the-top hilarious revenge song, “I’m gonna shoot you in the dark,” finally surprising us with who wrote it for her: Musical Director and Keyboardist Felix Pagés. Following that Salmi did a pointed performance of Jack White’s “Love Interruption”:

I won’t let love disrupt, corrupt or interrupt me, anymore.

The show’s peak empowerment moment came with Muddy Magnolias’ redo of “American Woman,” which began powerfully with Salmi singing solely to the accompaniment of Ryan Ciliax on drums:

I’m a whole lotta grown ass American woman
Do I look like, the walk all over me type
I’m a whole lotta strong ass American woman

I know my worth and who I am

Near the end, Salmi got even more personal, sharing stories of her adoptive mother and her birth mother. “Without those two women I wouldn’t be who I am today,” she said, then began the most moving song of the show, Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”

Ending up-tempo and upbeat, Salmi closed with Jackson’s 1960 Top 40 pop hit, “Let’s Have a Party.” And that was exactly what we’d had.

Also in the band were Hector Moncada on lead guitar and Moe Hendawi on bass guitar, and Salmi was joined on stage by Brittany Alyse Willis in a couple duets.

One technical quibble. Granted this is Fringe, and granted Solly’s is not a fully equipped theater, but lighting and sound on opening night needed tweaking. For most of the show, Salmi stood in a dim glow emanating from strings of tiny white lights hanging like curtains stage left and right. There was almost no light on her from the front, which meant her wonderfully personable facial expressions were in shadow. Meanwhile, the band behind her was brightly lit at all times. Similarly, the sound balance favored the instruments over her vocals. Salmi delivered a star turn and deserved better.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

RATING:

 

Help Me, Wanda! plays through July 22, 2017, at Solly’s U Street Tavern – 1942 11th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or purchase them online.

 

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2017 Capital Fringe Page

VIDEO:

 

The Originalist

The original The Originalist returns to Arena in a much larger house (The Kreeger, not the Kogod Cradle where it debuted in 2015). This is fitting. The play, the performances, and the production are so triumphally good that tuned-in theatergoers will be thronging.

For those who missed all the buzzy huzzahs during the play’s first Arena run, when it was extended twice due to popular demand, John Strand’s The Originalist is set in DC and centers on a fictional verbal sparring match between the arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his cheeky, liberal new law clerk, a black lesbian Harvard Law School grad named Cat. Their confrontation—a fizzy fusion of hilarity and erudition, of grammar games and intellectual gotchas—is as fun-to-watch-and-listen-to as any to be found on a DC stage. The night I attended, peals of laughter rolled through the re-opening-night crowd. There also were some groans, not because it was awful but because it was awesome: so linguistically dexterous and outrageously sharp even points of view one might be appalled by had the appeal of being enjoyably expressed.

Jade Wheeler as Cat and Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

Even more momentously, The Originalist returns to Arena in a much changed political landscape, an alt-ered United States, an era more partisanly polarized than since perhaps the Civil War. It’s that dead serious. So how and why did The Originalist‘s debate between right and left become such feel-good fun?

There are some features within the script that help explain. For one thing, Justice Scalia and Cat really listen to each other; they don’t preach or bark at each other; whatever they say, they speak with the sincere (and not misplaced) expectation that the other will hear and understand if not agree.  Modeling this grown-up comportment (which seems to have exited the national stage, pursued by a boor), Edward Gero and Jade Wheeler reprise their roles as Scalia and Cat with such emotional dimension and mental precision one could relish their company for hours.

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The play is set in 2012–2013 as the Supreme Court was arguing the same-sex marriage case that would overturn DOMA, United States v. Windsor. A fascinating and informative chunk of The Originalist revisits that pivotal decision, with Scalia maintaining his strict-constructionist view that because the Constitution breathes not a word about homosexuality it shouldn’t be a federal case, and with Cat arguing, basically, get real.

But soon into the show I sensed a significant extra-textual phenomenon going on, something above and beyond the script’s historical and legal content, something that seemed a sea-change transformation in how the play was landing.  Our new and unimproved political landscape had made Gero’s and Wheeler’s phenomenal performance feel like group therapy for the body politic. It was as if our collective belly laughter about the fissures that divide us was making us believe again in public civility and political cooperation, or what Cat calls “meeting in the middle.” These days that hope seems dashed in real life. But for The Originalist’s (nearly) two hours’ traffic on the Kreeger stage, that healing hope felt within reach.

Brett Mack as Brad, Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and Jade Wheeler as Cat in The Originalist. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

Brett Mack is back as Brad, also a recent Harvard Law grad and a competitor for Scalia’s clerkship. A right-wing foil to Cat, he comes off a jerk of all tirades, which functions to make Scalia’s smarter, less ideological conservatism all the more pointed—and Scalia’s yielding to Cat’s influence all the more poignant.

The work of Director Molly Smith’s superb design team is again in view, now in more spacious quarters: Set Designer Misha Kachman, Costume Designer Joseph P. Salasovich, Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills and Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis. (See commentary on the original Kogod production by my DCMetroTheaterArts colleagues Robert Michael Oliver and David Siegel.)

More than any other stage work in recent memory, The Originalist’s relevance and resonance have not so much been overtaken by events as amplified by them. Would that now did not make this play so necessary and rewarding to see.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission.

The Originalist plays through August 6, 2017, at the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at  (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

LINKS:

In The Moment: ‘The Originalist’ at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater by David Siegel

 

The Heroes’ Tale

Four black men in their forties sit around a chess game in Dupont Circle park in 1980. They open the show singing barbershop-quartet style, an upbeat song about themselves: They are the 1342 Dupont Circle Heroes. (“White folks pretended we didn’t exist so we started calling ourselves Heroes.”) They’ve been friends for more than 20 years, since before the area was gentrified. Their elaborate handshake seals their longtime bond. And the story the play subsequently tells—of what happened between 1960 and 1980—is a stunner. In one brief hour, The Heroes’ Tale by Cheryl Butler-Poole weaves themes of race hate and sexual assault into a gripping narrative of love, loyalty, betrayal, and the longing to know one’s roots. Directed by her husband, Gregory Poole, the show features some of the most arresting acting you’re likely to see in Fringe.

I’ll give away one plot point and no more, because the way the tale unfolds—its structure, moving back and forth between 1960 and 1980, revelation by revelation, from point of view to point of view—is an important reason the play has such power.

Twenty years ago, three of the Heroes were convicted of raping a white woman, and they spent ten years in prison for the crime. They didn’t do it. They don’t just say they didn’t; they really didn’t. But who did do it, and with what consequences for whom, left me breathless by the end.

Even to say too much about how the characters are related would spoil the suspense.

Thyme (Autumn Butler) is a young woman who is both a character in the story and a witness to it.  She observes everything, from a stool upstage. And just when the Heroes’ male-male banter gets a bit much, she steps through the fourth wall and lets us know what she’s feeling.

The four Heroes are Feets (Gregory Poole), TJ (Thomas Freeman), Black Jimmy (Steve Langley), and Suede (Adiyb Muhammed). Their lives have changed but they still harmonize.

There’s a woman we first meet in a 1960 park scene as a hippie, singing “Scarborough Fair” (Dena Colvin). She will name her daughter Thyme.

And there’s a racist street gang: White Boy 1 (Ben Church), White Boy 2 (Danny Rovin), and White Boy 3 (Todd Leatherbury).

This GroundWorksEntertainment production comes to Fringe having been staged elsewhere over several years, which is likely why all the performances are so assured and all the characters so lived in.

Lighting Designer India Soodoo, Sound Technician Dakota Butler, and Lighting Technician Tim Durham have created interesting moments in the narrative, such as scenes played as if anonymously in silhouette and street sounds when a character mimes opening a door to step outside.

Not knowing what to expect then finding out and being mind blown is what for me connects the dots among high-points in Fringe-going. This is such a dot. Don’t miss it. The Heroes’ Tale does something amazing.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

The Heroes’ Tale plays through July 23, 2017, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Sprenger Theatre–1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or purchase them online.

RATING:
 

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2017 Capital Fringe Page

 

 

 

 

This Too Comes By Hard

No way around it, this is a dark, harsh, and gritty domestic drama. For some, it may be too dark, too harsh, too gritty, perhaps a partner violence trigger. A fun, frothy, feel-good frolic this show is decidedly not. But it’s got a riveting story structure, creditable acting and direction, and cutting, high-tension dialogue that kept me on the edge of my seat.  For devotees of tight, intense playwriting, James E. Custer’s This Too Comes By Hard is a seriously terrific must-see.

Not incidentally, it’s also an auspicious debut for Unreal City Theatre, a brand-new company out of Harrisburg, Virginia.

An oversized bare bulb hangs over the hard-scrabble digs of a young man and woman with clearly no money. There are a table and chairs and milk crates packed with books. Their toilet is an outhouse. They shower at a truck stop. The overhead bulb flickers on and off in the interstices between dimensions of their reality.

He’s jittery, wound like a knot. His restless leg quivers. He could explode at any moment. And he does. He barks at her abruptly in rage.

They’ve been together five years. She calls him “hon.” She loves him. His anger and aggression never wane. They do and deal drugs. Smoking crystal meth is their relaxant of choice. She brings up the subject of marriage. He doesn’t want to talk about it.

He has terrifying dreams. He has dreams that he thinks are real. He dreams of death. He dreams of her hanging herself. He wants her to leave. He wants her to stay.

Lights shift abruptly. Their exchanges suddenly become voice-over. Music and sounds jolt. Like time is out of joint.

She: Do you think it or did you dream it?

He: Is there a difference?

She: Do you think it or did you dream it?

He: It’s too hard to know for sure.

Her parents cut her off when she took up with him. His parents come for dinner. It is a disaster. He and his father have a confrontation. He chews her out in front of them.

A preacher appears to him. She wants to listen to him. She wants to help him. He won’t be helped.  “Violence is part of life,” he hurls at her.

He can’t tell his dreams from what’s real, and neither can we. He can’t tell his dreams from drug-altered states, and neither can we. Which makes watching this play unnervingly gripping.

Scott W. Cole directs with impressive acuity. Heidi Winters Vogel and Buddy Garrison as the long-suffering parents and Jessie Houff as the well-intentioned preacher embody the noble futility of adults when youth are determined to self-destruct.

And Will Browning and Angie Tolomei enact the young couple’s poisoned/impassioned codependency—her masochism a near match for his violence—with such fierce believability it at times made me wince.

So intense was their performance, in fact, that I was much relieved to read afterward in an interview with Tolomei on Unreal City Theatre’s blog that she and Browning have been friendly colleagues since their first meeting in rehearsal. (I share that for those who, in the wake of Chicago’s Profiles scandal, may wonder/worry during this show as I did.)

I was also interested to read this on the same blog from the playwright:

Being able to explore the way that people talk fascinates me. My main influences are Sam Shepard, Duncan Macmillan, Jon Fosse and others who experiment with dialogue and its forms. Playwrights who try to accurately portray real dialogue are who I’m drawn to, and that certainly influences how I write.

Smart traces of Shepard, Macmillan, and Fosse in This Too Comes By Hard are unmistakable. James E. Custer is a writer to watch.

Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.

This Too Comes By Hard plays through July 23, 2017, at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. Performances are captioned. For tickets call Ovation Tix at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

RATING: 

 

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2017 Capital Fringe Page.

 

Lazarus

The notion that medical technology will one day enable human beings to live indefinitely is not just science fiction. Preventing the aging process (or “ending aging”) is an actual field of scientific research. The possibility of living forever is also the sort of plot device that could well be made into a play. It would be a good idea, though, if the play itself did not seem to last forever.

Lazarus, a new play written and produced by Evan Crump and directed by Ruben Vellekoop, features some excellent performances, and the playwright has a nice knack for snappy, aphoristic dialogue (“Time is not our friend”). Plus, there’s a rich-versus-poor politics to the play with pertinent potential, particularly at this point in the health care debate: Only the wealthy can afford “the Lazarus procedure,” a treatment that somehow cellularly extends life; the desperate impoverished are left to perish. Moreover there’s a side-effect: “Empathy was an early casualty of the Lazarus procedure,” in the words of 164-year-old Dax, a practitioner of the treatment. So there’s promising material here for sure.

But the story line Crump has crafted strains credulity and comprehension at nearly every turn. We know the time is the future, the 2160’s according to the author’s program note. Fair enough. A compelling story can take us far from the here and now even the spare Trinidad Logan Arts black box using Fringe-level stagecraft. I’ve seen and felt it happen there before. (A good story could also hold our attention against the voluble voices coming from the street on opening night.) But in Lazarus, though the actors move black set pieces around from scene to scene with deliberation (Carlotta Capuano did set design), we get few clues as to where the characters are and why at the moment they’re there. For that matter we get few clues who the characters are and what they want.

The exception is the plot line of a poor widowed young mother named Em (Katie Jeanneret) whose infant will die unless she can persuade Dax (an excellent Bruce Alan Rauscher) to treat her child. That narrative threads through the play, though with none of the emotional impact one might expect of a mother-child drama. Its virtue is that it is followable.

Meanwhile, there is a gang of lower-class thugs led by Rude (an excellent Steve Lebens) who represent egalitarian resistance to the “plutocracy” being aided and abetted by the Lazarus procedure (David Jourdan as Sledge, Tony Thomas as Norse, Nick Maka as Trimble). Accordingly, they instigate stage combat (Casey Kaleba is fight director) and much men-in-groups bravado. I had the distinct impression during their scenes that Crump’s quick-witted but cryptic script would make a much better action/thriller movie—the medium that excels at high-stakes machismo—than it does onstage without clear context or reason to care.

Two other women are in the cast of characters and upon their first entrances they are both very intriguing: Trish (Devora Zack) is a cop, armed with a gun and martial arts chops. Her subsequent involvement in the storyline, however, is disappointingly random. And the character with the most fascinating back story is Reina (an excellent Star Bobatoon) who was married to Dax but died 50 years ago. She appears to him periodically as a visitation or apparition. Alas, she remains an enigma, and as scripted their unresolved scenes lend emotional dimension neither to Dax’s character nor to the play.

Reina’s other-worldly entrances are well enhanced by Sound Designer Glen Oliff and Lighting Designer Alex Brady, who have both done all they can within their means to help the story along.

The author in his program note wrote,

It is my hope that audiences for this show will think about their own views on life and death, the world that they’ll leave behind, and what resonance their life will have after they move on.

Those are deep thoughts on vital questions that my own mortality prompts me to ask of myself almost every day—but none of that occurred to me during Lazarus. I did reflect, however, on the passage of time.

Running Time: 90 minutes

Lazarus plays through July 22, 2017, at the Logan Fringe Arts Space’s Trinidad Theatre – 1358 Florida Avenue, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets call Ovation Tix at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

 

LINKS:

Capital Fringe Preview: ‘Lazarus’ by Evan Crump

 

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2017 Capital Fringe Page.

 

Constructive Fictions

Was ever a jailed sex offender more self-righteous and self-pitying than Rabbi Barry Freundel in this brilliantly disturbing new play by A. J. Campbell? Were ever such a predator’s’ victims—in Freundel’s case the women he surreptitiously photographed undressed for his own private spank bank—given more eloquent voice to state how he hurt and violated them, to call him on his shit? If ever there’s a play that better lays bare the inner life of a man of the cloth who prays and preys, it’s going to have to be measured against this hard-hitting script.

For those unfamiliar with the Freundel scandal, here’s a capsule summary from The Forward,   (“news that matters to American Jews”):

Before his arrest in 2014, Freundel was the longtime rabbi of Kesher Israel in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., and an active member of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox rabbinic group.
Freundel is believed to have violated the privacy of at least 150 women, whom he filmed while they undressed and showered at the mikvah, or ritual bath, including members of his Orthodox synagogue, candidates for conversion to Judaism and students at Towson University in Maryland, where Freundel taught classes on religion and ethics. The rabbi also secretly filmed a domestic violence abuse victim in a safe house he had set up for her.

Even in a society near sated with reports of clergy abuse—which cuts across all faiths and  seems not to have abated—what Freundel did still shocks.  Playwright Campbell (who also produced) paid close attention to the scandal. As she writes in a program note,

Even in a society near sated with reports of clergy abuse—which cuts across all faiths and  seems not to have abated—what Freundel did still shocks.  Playwright Campbell (who also produced) paid close attention to the scandal. As she writes in a program note,

I watched all the news coverage and read the court documents. What the Rabbi did by recording women in the bathroom was beyond comprehension. But there was no context or the story nor larger meaning to take away. [Constructive Fictions] was an attempt to frame the story so we understand the world he lived in.

Campbell’s canny solution is to set the play in the DC jail cell where Freundel is to this day serving time and to make him have to hear the accusations and testimonies of four women—all deeply devout Jews—who are composites of the many he abused over a period of five years. The uncredited set literally frames him, and it’s on rollers so it can be rotated by the women as they testify. The interior of the cell also functions as a pulpit during passages when Freundel changes from prison orange into rabbinic garb.  As directed by David Moretti, Constructive Fictions is an ingenious work of stagecraft.

Matty Griffiths as Freundel delivers a remarkably nuanced performance. Even as the rabbi is vainly complaining of his circumstances, egoistically explaining his conduct, plaintively seeking exoneration without an ounce of empathy for those he violated, Griffiths achieves a persona and presence that allow us to see not just through the man but deep inside him. As embodied by Griffiths, Freundel is by no means a sympathetic character but he is a comprehensible and decidedly recognizable one.

As one woman pointedly says, “Men will risk anything to get what they want.”

As the story unfolds, Campbell’s script drops jaw-dropping details one after another. Freundel compares his behavior to that of Bill Clinton, General Petraeus, and John Edwards and grouses that he got jail time and they didn’t (!). He proudly mentions he once published an article about what’s wrong with pornography and regularly counseled couples whose marriages were damaged by the husband’s consumption of it (!). He justifies his mikveh-peeping as necessary surveillance, to make sure these women’s conversions to Judaism would be legit (!).

The four women are played by Anna Paliga as Rachel (a student less inclined to judgment than the others), Natasja Handy as Leah  (the youngest, a whose hurt and anger hurt to watch), Gianna Rapp as Rebecca (a woman in sorrow at the fact her Rabbi saw her naked before her betrothed did), and Helen Bard as Sarah (the oldest and wisest and in many ways the most grief-stricken).

In fairness, these four performances lacked the confidence and presence demanded by Campbell’s scathing script. However, there is a captioning system in the theater intended for the Deaf and hard of hearing. On occasions when a particular performance was not landing with as much gravitas as it might, I found myself watching as Campbell’s electric text scrolled by. And I would get chills.

 

Campell’s contextual framing of Freundel’s offenses turns on the notion that everyone tells useful lies. We can’t be who we really are otherwise. We create “constructive fictions” (hence the title) in order to be true to ourselves. The notion of the “useful illusion” has been a trope in theater for ages, and trotting out it here as Freundel’s self-defense may seem to make some sense…

But stay tuned to for the shocking and damning ending.

Running Time: 60 minutes.

Constructive Fictions plays through July 23, 2017, at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. Some dates and times provide an ASL interpreter For tickets call Ovation Tix at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

 

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2017 Capital Fringe Page.

 

Ready to Serve: Remember the Nurses

Stories of war wounded told from the point of view of military medics—those who try to save lives and bag the bodies of the ones they can’t—give glimpses into the bravery and heroism of the fighting forces who serve and defend. Taking the point of view of U.S. Army nurses sent to the front in France during World War I, storyteller Ellouise Schoettler does not shy away from the carnage of that “bloody, bloody battle.” But the bravery and heroism she shows us vividly is that of the nurses themselves. The story of how they served and defended becomes an engrossing portrait of women before Suffrage who were not even afforded the dignity of rank.

Photo taken on the dock in New York City, June 14, 1917, before the 64 Maryland nurses boarded the USS Finland to cross the Atlantic. “In our blue capes – we were a picture!”

What Schoettler tells us is all true, extracted and structured into a script from the letters of 64 Maryland nurses who were trained and worked at Johns Hopkins. They were highly skilled professionals, ages 25 to 45 “with no attachments,” who, when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, answered the call.

In Schoettler’s concise chronological narrative, we learn of their long voyage at sea, the harsh conditions they faced at the base hospital where they were assigned, the bonds of sisterhood they formed, their courage in the face of calamity… Their readiness and dedication make for an inspiring story of selfless service.

As we enter the black box, “Over Here, Over There” is looping, and black-and-white documentary stills of World War I nurses in uniform scroll across an upstage screen. (The photographs, I learned, are from the archives of the Women In Military Service for America Memorial.)

Schoettler enters wearing a contemporary ensemble of red shoes and a multicolored jacket over black top and slacks. Sitting on a stool, she sets her story in 1970 and delivers it as an 80-year-old woman looking back 50 years. The unnamed character is a composite, based on incidents, language, and images in the letters that were Schoettler’s source. But the text is so of a piece, and has such a persuasive voice, that one is never aware there are actually 64 voices speaking.

Schoettler performed this piece at last year’s Fringe and has toured with it extensively. On opening night, though, her delivery was at times halting, as if unsure of what’s next. This meant that an actor’s transitions typically present and perceptible between moments were often absent, seeming to leave emotional blanks unfilled-in. But throughout Schoettler maintained an amiable, less-is-more composure that made the story carry the emotion, and that it did, quickly establishing its own arresting pace and carrying us along with its own compelling momentum.

 

Recently the U.S. has been declaring wars with far less noble pretexts than the principled military and humanitarian objectives it had in, say, the two World Wars. Tragically this has resulted in service members’ returning home to nothing like the heroes’ welcomes that greeted veterans of previous wars. Thus a striking takeaway from Schoettler’s storytelling is a flashback to when it was far clearer what and whose freedom was being fought for.

Anyone whose grandparents or other family members served in World War I will find this solo performance especially personally engaging (as became evident during a talkback with the audience at the show I attended). And anyone with an interest in women’s history will find the story Schoettler tells a fascinating eye-opener.

Running Time: 60 minutes.

Ready to Serve: Remember the Nurses plays through July 22, 2017, at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. An ASL interpreter was onstage throughout both the performance and the talkback. For tickets call Ovation Tix at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

 

LINKS: 

Capital Fringe Preview: ‘Ready to Serve’: A Story for the WWI Centennial by Ellouise Schoettler, Storyteller

2016 Capital Fringe Preview #19: ‘Ready to Serve: Unknown Stories of WWI Nurses’ by Robin Fox

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2017 Capital Fringe Page.