Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: August, 2017

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith

In what is surely the most badass, take-no-prisoners performance by a musical artist on a DC stage in recent memory, Miche Braden brings her sensational star turn as Bessie Smith to H Street, belting out the blues and setting the house afire with heartbreak and deliverance.

The show is The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith (so-called because in the 1920s the blues were considered unholy, unlike church music). It’s a spectacular kickoff to Mosaic Theater Company’s third season.

Miche Braden as Bessie Smith and the band (Jim Hankins, Gerard Gibbs, Anthony E. Nelson Jr. in The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The setup of the show (conceived and directed by Joe Brancato, written by Angelo Parra) is that Smith and her musicians (Jim Hankins on bass, Anthony E. Nelson Jr. on sax, Gerard Gibbs on piano) have come to play a black night club because the white owner of the club where they had been booked made them use the back door. Smith told the cracker: if I can’t enter by the front door I’m not appearing on your stage—and quit the gig. What’s brilliant about this premise is not only that it immediately gives don’t-mess-with-me gravitas to Smith’s character—about which we learn more later. It also immediately casts the audience as habitues of that boîte (here gorgeously designed in reds, lavenders, and amber by Brian Prather and lushly lit by Todd O. Wren). Thus we are performed to as if we are presumed to be on Smith’s side from the get-go. As if we are more than sympathetic strangers. As if we are black.

I love when a work of theater literally creates who its audience is, when it addresses us in a way that unites us in a shared identity with common concerns, even if unfamiliar heretofore. The way this shift happens in The Devil’s Music is at once sly, beautiful, and subversive. And the dynamo in this dynamic is the phenomenal singer and actor Miche Braden. As soon as she enters singing “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” she begins coaching and coaxing the audience to respond as the brothers and sisters she assumes us to be. She shares Smith’s stories and point of view not as though we are interlopers who would not understand but as if she has welcomed us to her world because she knows we’re the folks who’ll get her. And it is that insider knowingness—wonderfully present in Braden’s earthy laughter, gutsy candor, scathing wit, and brassy moves—that, even more than the song lyrics and vocal styling, brings Bessie back as rebel.

To listen today to Bessie Smith records is to miss this quality. No matter how well digitally remastered, Smith’s recorded voice sounds toned down, constrained in sameness, without the audio amplitude our ears now associate with emotional range. We have to infer that range from the storytelling lyrics because it’s technically not there to hear. By contrast, Braden’s deep powerhouse voice in live performance makes amply resonant all the hurt, fury, and longing in the songs. And as a concert experience alone, The Devil’s Music is a knockout. (Braden also did the musical arrangements, which are stunning.)

Miche Braden as Bessie Smith accompanied by Anthony E. Nelson on sax in The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. Photo by Stan Barouh.

But there’s much more going on than a concert. “I’m a big girl but I’m light on my feet,” she says at one point, then deftly does a dance that delightfully legitimizes being a woman of size. Audaciously and unself-consciously, Braden embodies a full-figured bodily freedom and fully conscious female integrity that vividly underpin the story points in the narrative—including what was for Smith’s time an unconventional sexual appetite for both men and women, and including Smith’s instantaneous defiance against the woman hate of men in her life and the race hate of the Klan.

What begins as a premise that we the audience are all in attendance at a black club becomes gradually emblematic of one wounded but proud black woman’s liberation—recognizable, relatable, rageful, and righteous.

The transformative force of Miche Braden’s performance in The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is a profoundly important experience. Don’t miss it. She’ll get you getting it.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith plays through September 24, 2017, with a possible extension through October 1, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing in the Lang Theater at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.




Every great play by Shakespeare takes on altered shades of meanings depending on a production’s directing, design, and acting. That’s a theater truism. Also well-known to practitioners is that audience reaction can influence actors’ performances. But less recognized is how an audience’s response can shift a play’s thematic focus, making the play their own, by foregrounding meaning that most resonates with them in the moment.

I think Shakespeare meant that to happen. His plays are a piling on of themes, a pick-what-you-will preferring of philosophies, angles of vision, interpretations of human existence. Scholars and literary critics sort out motifs and parse what Shakespeare is “saying.” Directors approach their work with a production concept to guide an audience’s apprehension of the play.  But sometimes an audience goes rogue in a most wonderful way and discovers its own timely take on a timeless classic.

Jay Whittaker as Iago and Faran Tahir as Othello in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free For All production of Othello. Photo: Jennifer Reiley.

It was a witness as this happened during a Free For All performance of Othello at Sidney Harmon Hall the other night. It’s a superb production, a remount of Director Ron Daniels’s acclaimed 2016 staging, with solid performances by returning and new cast members alike. But what the Free For All audience made of it was eye-opening.

Among the many themes running through Othello—pride, jealousy, ambition, sex, marriage—there was one that leaped out: honesty. It was this theme above all others that the audience seemed in a mood to grab on to and run with. That’s what they did, audibly recognizing, enjoying, even laughing at, the deceit, bravado, guile, and audacity of the man whom Othello dubs “Honest Iago.”

Jay Whitaker’s Iago is a slick slimeball, a crafty chameleon, masterfully switching tactics with a physical and vocal dexterity that’s mesmerizing. Whitaker’s performance is reason enough to enter the free-ticket lottery pronto. If you get lucky and get into the show, you’ll see why the audience I was in glommed on to him.

But more was at play than a great performance. It was as if the audience was responding out of the shared experience of having lived now for half a year in a post-truth country, a twilight zone where alternate facts pass for public policy, fabrication usurps news, and vanity supplants values. It was as if laughing at Shakespeare’s greatest liar was exactly the relief everyone needed.

Shakespeare introduces Iago duping Roderigo (Ben Diskant), whom Iago shakes down on the fake promise that Iago can hook Roderigo up with Desdemona for a price. In the Free For All performance, the combo of Diskant’s foppish dandy and Whitaker’s sly trickster made the joke land instantly, and the audience seemed thereafter to adopt Iago as their entertaining entry into the story. Thus Othello’s subsequent “Honest Iago” sobriquet functioned as punch line—because the audience had Iago’s number as a con artist from the get-go, and they were digging being in on the joke.

The comedic arc of Iago’s flimflammery climaxed in the Act IV scene where Iago makes Othello believe that Cassius has admitted sleeping with Desdemona.

Othello: Hath he [Casius] said any thing?
Iago: He hath, my lord; but be you well assured,
No more than he’ll unswear.
Othello: What hath he said?
Iago: Faith, that he did—I know not what he did.
Othello: What? what?
Iago: Lie—
Othello: With her?
Iago: With her, on her; what you will.

With that last insinuation, Whitaker hilariously physicalizes the mental picture he’s planting in Othello’s fevered brain. While the text has Iago’s disclosure send Othello round the bend (he has a literal fit), it was Whitaker’s graphic antics (he humps like a horny dog) that made the audience go nuts.

Madeleine Rogers as Desdemona and Faran Tahir as Othello in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free For All production of Othello. Photo: Jennifer Reiley.

By spotlighting Whitaker’s Iago, I mean no slight to the many other standout performances in this production.The Pakistani American actor Faran Tahir, returning from the 2016 production, is magisterial as a Muslim Moor, and brilliantly limns Shakespeare’s portrait of an ethnic outsider. Among the new cast members, Madeleine Rogers as Desdemona is especially impressive, standing her ground and embodying honesty with a contemporary self-possession that makes her innocent victimhood all the more awful—and, in this context, a metaphor for the death of truth. Also bringing transparent modern dignity to their roles are Pilar Witherspoon as Emilia and Veronica del Cerro as Bianca.

I remember my first experience seeing a Shakespeare play at the Globe in London and being struck by how much of the text was structured to play to the groundlings. I hadn’t before appreciated how Shakespeare was deliberately addressing an audience sharply segmented by ticket price yet creating a commonality within that wooden O. I suspect that one of the reasons STC’s annual Free For All is so embraced by audiences and artists alike is that it comes closer to recapturing the Bard’s bond with folks in the cheap seats than can typically happen at higher price points.

But what’s happening in the current Free For All production of Othello is more than that. It’s a fascinating fresh revelation of a classic. Its resonance about the consequences of truthlessness is speaking both profoundly and cathartically to the times we live in.

Catch it if you can.


Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.

Free For All Othello plays through Sunday August 27, 2017, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Sidney Harman Hall– 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Information about how to receive free tickets is available online.


Review: ‘Othello’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by Lauren Katz (March 2, 2016)


Big Fish

The musical Big Fish is by any measure a feel-good show for the whole family, as evidenced by the buoyant and beautiful production now playing at The Keegan Theatre. But the main narrative arc in Big Fish has particular resonance for sons, a specific emotional current that touches anyone who grew from boy to man without ever really knowing his father’s love. This wound is familiar to many men, maybe most. And in one form or another, it can last a lifetime.

What has made so many grown men identify with and relate to Big Fish—with emotions so personal as to be inexpressible—is that it’s a fable of symbolic healing. At bottom Big Fish is a powerful story of symbolic reconciliation between an estranged father and son told through magical realism. It plays like a made-up kid’s tale, a boy’s wish come true beyond his imagining. But it’s explicitly couched in terms that grown men can privately understand. Decked out in amazing theatrics and amusing imagery, that core pulse connects father-longing sons subliminally to the musical by John August and Andrew Lippa as it did to its source, the film by Tim Burton. And the way the Keegan production directed by Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith keeps that primal pulse palpable is one of the show’s most remarkable qualities.

Dan Van Why (Edward Bloom) and Erik Peyton (Young Will) (with Courtney Moran as Mermaid in the background) in Big Fish. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

The show begins with a fish story. Edward Bloom, home from his work as a traveling salesman (Dan Van Why), tells his son Young Will (Erik Peyton) a whopper about a big one he once caught, and the boy is enthralled. In a song Edward sings to Young Will about witches, giants, mermaids, and such (“Be the Hero”). his fabulations grow and grow, and Young Will is spellbound. The scene is set in the boy’s bedroom; and as wonderfully played by Van Why and Payton, the rapport between them borders on rapture. Their extraordinary scene partnering becomes emblematic of a memory any son might wish he had of his own dad.

But Edward is away for long stretches. Will is hurt by his absence. And the older Will gets, the less enthralled he is by his father’s tall tales. The more his father tells them, the more annoyed Will gets. Will comes to regard his father’s far-fetched stories as deliberately distancing and deceitful. In a song called “Stranger,” Ricky Drummond as adult Will sings about Edward so wrenching it could be any father-wounded son’s anthem.

My father told me stories
I could never comprehend
In every tale he’d claim to be the hero
I’ve tried to understand him
But I wonder if I can…
Because after almost thirty years
I still don’t know the man
I wish I knew the man

Ricky Drummond (Will) and Dan Van Why (Edward Bloom) in Big Fish. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Flash forward to Act Two (skipping over some terrific subplots): Early on there’s a scene when the painful emotions in the estrangement between Will and Edward flood the stage almost literally. The song is “This River Between Us,” a duet sung by Drummond and Van Why standing on opposide sides of the stage. The lyrics are so raw and Drummond’s and Van Why’s vocals are so searing that for any son who feels unknown by his father, or for any father who feels unknown by his son, the song could prompt what would be heartbreak if ever he felt how that feels.

This river between us
Grows wider each day
He talks but he mostly has little to say
I beg him to separate
The truth from the tale…
So why don’t I believe my father
When he says “I love you”?

This river between us is selfish and cold
It flows where it wants to
It can’t be controlled
My son doesn’t want me to be
What I am
He don’t give a damn

Ricky Drummond, Emily Madden, Allie O’ Donnell, Patrick M Doneghy, Erik Peyton, Dan Van Why, Courtney Moran, Katie McManus. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

By the end of Big Fish, the abyss between these men is no more. It is bridged, and they are reconciled, through the legerdemain of brilliant storytelling and ebullient acting and singing. I won’t say how that happens. You have to see for yourself. It’s delightfully entertaining magical realism, after all, not theatrical therapy. But do not be surprised if afterward, moving memories of one’s own father’s life have been stirred and inspired.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Big Fish has now been extended through September 9, 2017, at Keegan Theatre—1742 Church Street NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.


Review: ‘Big Fish’ at The Keegan Theatre by Robert Michael Oliver


Smoky Mirrors

No sooner did some aerial apparatus drop from the fly space—ropes, straps, silks, hoops, trapezes—but what some artist-athletes would take hold of it and make acts of suspended animation. These performances—as balletic as they were muscular, as subtle as stupefying, as mesmerizing as sometimes shocking—were my introduction to DC’s robust circus scene.

They are folks who didn’t have to run away to join the circus. They have found a way to make the circus join them.

Alex Reyes, Angela Stoner, Jeff Wagener, and Laura Wooster in Smoky Mirrors. Photo by Rich Riggins.

The show’s title, Smoky Mirrors, was at first opaque to me, but its subtitle grabbed me: “an aerial exploration of gender and sexual orientation.” And sure enough, wending its way through two acts and 13 scenes was the thread of a narrative about a young woman (the remarkably gifted Montana DeBor) on a quest for an identity that is not divided against itself in the distorting, deceptive gender binary.

Montana DeBor in Smoky Mirrors. Photo by Rich Riggins.

At several points, a mirror was wheeled onstage hung with articles of gendered clothing. The young woman tried some on and rejected some, as if trying to find a look faithful to her true self. The title’s allusion to smoke and mirrors began to become clearer, as if to say that looking into a distorting mirror for affirmation of an illusion may be its own delusion.

Or, as Writer and Creative Director Elizabeth Finn writes in a program note,

It is sometimes difficult to see the spectrum behind the dichotomy….
We are working…to reflect the true complexity of human experience, rather than the false dichotomy we have inherited. That means telling the stories of people who do not fit into a tidily gendered box, the people who are most hurt by our violent oversimplification.

In an early scene, a quartet of two women and two men (Alex Reyes, Angela Stoner, Jeff Wagener, and Laura Wooster) did an act on a single wide trapeze wearing typically gendered aerialist costumes. But to a soundtrack of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” they subverted gendered trapeze performance conventions: Not only the men were catchers but the women were as well.

A similar symbolic reversal happened in a duo scene in Act Two when it was the man (Mark Harding) who performed on two swaths of red fabric while the woman (Elise “Teddy” Sipos) performed on a loop of steel chain.

Christian Kloc in Smoky Mirrors. Photo by Rich Riggins.

Only one act was not performed aloft: an amusing juggler, Christian Kloc, whose droll and dextrous stunts with plastic bowling pins had a playfully mixed soundtrack of “Dream Lover” by Bobby Darin and “Dreamlover” by Mariah Carey.

Gwynne Flanagan Cox in Smoky Mirrors. Photo by Rich Riggins.

Just before an aerial straps act near the end, a half dozen piles of powdered chalk were dumped about the stage in a bright rainbow of colors. Before the act was over, the aerialist, Elizabeth Finn—swinging around in circles, her feet touching the floor, or kicking up colored dust—had blended the hues and inscribed on the stage the trans symbol.

Interspersed in the show were voice-overs, poetic spoken word pieces that amplified the show’s theme. The gist of these is in the title of the final one, an excerpt from a trans and genderqueer anthology, “Dear Gender, An Elegy.”

(The complete program is below.)

Sweet Spot Aerial Productions is a professional circus arts company committed to reflecting LGBTQ characters and themes. It was launched three years ago by four instructors at the DC affiliate of the Trapeze School of New York (Elliot Proebstel, Laura Wooster, Angie Stoner, and Jeff Wagener), as an alternative to the “very heteronormative and very cisgender-role” mindset of mainstream circus arts.

Their first production was during Capital Pride 2015. Since then their audiences have broadened. This summer (June-July 2017), Sweet Spot Aerial Productions was featured in the Circus Arts programming of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. And in December 2017  the company will present a holiday show titled A Circus Carol, the teaser for which sounds intriguing:

It’s holiday pageant time at W.T. Dickens High School! Chaos reigns supreme throughout the school halls as teachers, administrators and students try to get it together in time for their annual holiday production. Watch as the circus atmosphere comes to life in A Circus Carol, as incredible aerial performances dazzle and bring our characters together to rise above (sometimes, literally!) the holiday madness.

I like discovering theater in performances that are not generally thought of as “theater.” Stories told in unexpected places and performed in unexpected ways can be as engrossing and meaningful for their astonishing form as for their substance. The audience at the performance I attended was digging it. They responded volubly to every virtuoso maneuver, every scary drop, every impossible pose. And though the narrative of a quest for authenticity in a gendered world was more focused in some scenes than in others, it was never far from mind.

Sweet Spot Aerial Productions is on to something deep and delightful. They are embodying important human meaning in a form, circus arts, not typically given to subversive and affirming storytelling. With Smoky Mirrors, the company has defied both gravity and the dichotomy of gender. They’ve got a lot of nerve.

Mark Harding in Smoky Mirrors. Photo by Rich Riggins.

Spoken word intro written and read by Elizabeth Finn


SCENE I “Courage” – Rope Hammock
Performed by Mark Harding to  “Always something better” by Trentmolfer
Choreographed by Mark Harding
Spoken word piece written and read by Elliot Proebstel

SCENE II “Same DNA” – Triple Static Trapeze 
Performed by Alex Reyes, Angela Stoner, Jeff Wagener, and Laura Wooster to “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga (Zedd Remix)
Choreographed by Alex Reyes, Angela Stoner, Jeff Wagener, and Laura Wooster

SCENE III  Aerial Halo
Performed by Elise “Teddy” Sipos to “Bold As Love” by Jimi Hendrix
Choreographed by Elise “Teddy” Sipos and coached by Rachel Walker
Spoken word piece “Ready to know” by Joy Ladin, from Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, ed. TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson. Read by  Montana DeBor and Elliot Proebstel

SCENE IV  “Mirror, Mirror”

SCENE V “A Little Wicked” – Silks
Performed by Sally Haden to  “A Little Wicked” by Valerie Kroussard
Choreographed by Sally Haden and Elizabeth Finn

SCENE VI  “Perspective” – Silks and Chains
Performed by Mark Harding on Silks and Elise “Teddy” Sipos on Chains to “Full Moon” by Petit Biscuit
Choreographed by Mark Harding and Elise “Teddy” Sipos

Montana DeBor in Smoky Mirrors. Photo by Rich Riggins.


SCENE I  “Boundaries” – Aerial Rectangle
Performed by Montana DeBor and Gwynne Flanagan Cox to “Innocence” by Flume ft. AlunaGeorge
Choreographed by Montana DeBor and Gwynne Flanagan Cox
Spoken word piece from “Cactus Flower” by Amlr Rabiyah, from Troubling the Line. Read by Elliot Proebstel

SCENE II “Surprise Yourself” – Duo Trapeze
Performed by Dana Karash and Elliot Proebstel to “Surprise Yourself ” by Jack Garratt
Choreographed by Dana Karash and Elliot Proebstel
Spoken word piece from Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Read by Montana DeKor

SCENE III Juggling
Performed by Christian Kloc to “Dream Lover” by Bobby Darin and “Dreamlover” by Mariah Carey
Choreographed by Christian Kloc

SCENE IV “Who do you see?”

SCENE V  Single Point Static Trapeze
Performed by Gwynne Flanagan Cox to “Elastic Heart” by Sia (Blood Diamond Remix)
Choreographed by Gwynne Flanagan Cox

SCENE VI  Straps
Performed by Elizabeth Finn to  “No Man Is an Archipelago” by British Sea Power
Choreographed by Elizabeth Finn

SCENE VII  “One” – Rope
Performed by Montana DeBor to “Some Minds” by Flume ft. Andrew Wyatt
Choreographed by Montana DeBor and Jim Domenick

Spoken word piece “Dear Gender, An Elegy” by Stacey Waite, from Troubling the Line, read by Montana DeBor

Production Team: Director: Jen Irvin; Producer: Angela Stoner; Libretto: Elizabeth Finn; Creative Directors: Elizabeth Finn. Kate Winston; Stage Manager: Chris Griffin; Lighting Design: Catherine Girardi; Chief Rigging and Safety Officer: Jeff Wagener; Sound Engineer: Jana Cohen; Sound Operator: Amanda Bach; Production Crew: Sheri Baxter, AJ Brown, Kathy Hart, Christine Heckel, Amy Nagy. Alex Reyes, Hannah Robinson, Krystan Silva; Promotion and Marketing: Laura Wooster; Promotion Illustration: Montana DeBor.

Running Time: 90 minutes, including one intermission.

Smoky Mirrors, produced by Sweet Spot Aerial Productions, was performed August 5 and 6, 2017, in the Lang Theater at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C.

A Circus Carol, Sweet Spot Aerial Productions’ holiday show, will be performed  at Atlas Performing Arts Center: Saturday, December 16, 2017, at 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., and Sunday, December 17, 2017, at 4:00 p.m. Tickets are available online.