Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: September, 2017

Lela & Co. (Post-Play Palaver)

Post-Play Palaver is an occasional series of conversations between DC Metro Theater Arts writers who saw the same performance, got really into talking about it, and decided to continue their exchange in writing. That’s what happened when Senior Writers and Columnists Sophia Howes (Dangereuse) and John Stoltenberg (Magic Time!) saw the play Lela & Co. presented by Factory 449 at The Anacostia Arts Center.

Felicia Curry (Lela) in Lela & Co. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Sophia Howes: In Lela & Co., Felicia Curry brings us a portrait of a female soul in torment who miraculously retains her courage and sensitivity in the midst of shockingly brutal circumstances. She is, happily, supported by an admirable acting partner, Renaldo McClinton, who plays her father, husband, and various other men in her life. The play, by Cordelia Lynn, is structured as an autobiography, and every moment of it is full of excruciating truth. As an abuse survivor myself, I thought I might find it disturbing. But like all successful pieces of art, it is a joy to experience.

John Stoltenberg: Interesting that you call Lela & Co. an autobiography. Though it is not the playwright’s own life story (she has called it fiction), in Felicia Curry’s breathtaking performance we believe it is definitely Lela’s life story. The play is mostly her monologue (various men in her life, all played by McClinton, make brief intrusions). Her performance captivated me from the first two minutes and thereafter only became more compelling.

Immediately we come to know Lela as a real girl (15 when the play begins), and then we stay connected to her through the marriage and anguishing abuse—captivity, rape, sex slavery—that happens to her and the dramatic escape she makes. The writer and the actor together make the character and the narrative as credible as one can imagine being played on stage. Curry’s moment-to-moment authenticity is simply awesome to behold. And there is a sense that as excruciating as Lela’s story is to hear, there is something transformative and transcendent in the way Lynn and Curry have honored it with honest truth-telling. And so yes, the final effect is freeing.

I was particularly impressed with the way the writer, director, and actor handled the violence in the story. None of it ever happens to the actor directly, but it is all made vivid in our minds. At one point there is an extended blackout during which we hear Lela say what her husband-then-pimp began to do to her. We see it only in our mind’s eye, which in a way makes us feel it all the more. It was one of the most powerful scenes in one of the most powerful plays about sexual abuse I can recall seeing.

Sophia: John, you are so right about that blackout. It was sensational. I want to draw attention also to the political aspects of the piece. When Lela is imprisoned in her own home (in a room, actually) by her husband, she can only hear the occasional sounds of gunfire. When she is able to get a glimpse of the horrors of war, we learn just enough detail to empathize with her pain. Lela is struggling not only with family abuse but with a country (unnamed) that seems to be essentially a failed state. Her new husband’s friends don’t like the country she comes from, and they make that abundantly clear. Everything is stacked against her, and yet she is radiant.

Renaldo McClinton (Man) and Felicia Curry (Lela) in Lela & Co. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

John: This is the second Factory 449 production I’ve seen directed by Hammerly that deals graphically and explicitly with a female’s resistance to, and escape from, torture. The other was Closet Land, also harrowing in its details, also set in an unspecified place. In my column about that show I wrote:

Director Rick Hammerly and Actors Sara Barker and David Lamont Wilson tell a hellish story and don’t hold back. A politically naive children’s-book author (Barker) has been detained by some unspecified government and is interrogated by a smooth-operator sadist-for-the-state (Wilson), who accuses her of having written books that subliminally indoctrinate impressionable youth….

Not only is Factory 449’s Closet Land a don’t-miss encounter with two exquisite performances in a stunning production. It is a revelation of liberatory meaning.

Thinking back to the similarities between Lela & Co. and Closet Land, what impresses me now is how precise and lucid is Hammerly’s direction, and how faithful it is to the female character’s physical and emotional state—literally breath to breath and heartbeat to heartbeat—without ever seeming exploitative or prurient.

Now, I know Hammerly is a director with great range. He just did a children’s show at Adventure, and for Avant Bard he is currently directing Barker again in a comedy by Lauren Gunderson. But there’s something about the specific care, empathy, and deep respect for female experience in extremis that’s in evidence in Hammerly’s direction of Curry in Lela & Co. that feels to me really admirable and rare.

Felicia Curry (Lela) in Lela & Co. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Sophia: Hammerly’s direction is superb, and he is blessed with exceptionally fine actors. I was especially impressed by the scene between Lela and the one customer who displayed any sort of human feeling. The scene in which they are at cross-purposes, speaking different languages, while she thinks he will help her and he is describing his mission to help “her” country, is heartrending One of the best examples I have seen of the anguish caused by retraumatization. Being turned down when finally summoning the courage to ask for help is one of the most crushing experiences a human being can have. Lela’s persistence is what leads to her recovery, but it also involves surviving failure.

The script seems pitch-perfect except in two respects, which is not to fault the production at all. First, there is a sort of vaudeville turn in the middle, entitled “Lela & Co.,” which seems out of place stylistically with the rest of the play. Secondly, some of Lela’s problems seemed to be resolved a bit prematurely; another flaw that rests in the writing. Still, as John noted above about Closet Land, Lela & Co. is a “must-see” production.

John: Lela & Co. is not only a  “must-see”; it is a “won’t-forget.” The subject of the play is horrifically painful. The performances are terrifically truthful. The experience of watching it is an extraordinary encounter with a wounded heart through ennobling art.

Running Time: one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Lela & Co. plays through October 1, 2017, at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.


Review: ‘Lela & Co.’ by Factory 449 at The Anacostia Arts Center by Robert Michael Oliver


The Arsonists

In a recent satire published on Medium, the San Francisco writer/actor/comedian Alison Page listed five dozen “Honest Theatre Awards.” Among them was one that struck me as an apt accolade for the production of The Arsonists I had just attended at Woolly Mammoth: “The This-Play-Isn’t-About-Trump-But-It-Kind-Of-Is-Now Award.”

As if to underscore The Arsonists‘ earnest eligibility in that joke category, Director Michael John Garcés has a wide flat-screen television upstage showing a montage of recognizable current-events footage including multiple shots of POTUS. The TV, situated in the home of the main character, George Betterman, plays constantly, through scene after scene in which neither it nor what’s on it is ever referenced. It’s just there, incessantly.

At first glance, this might seem a fundamental directorial mistake: a running distraction that keeps pulling focus from the actors and that the play doesn’t call for. Like having a pile of cuddly puppies on the set during Hamlet because the director wants us to consider how the Dane is really great. But of course, the TV in The Arsonists has more pertinence than that, for we are obviously meant to stay mindful of how what’s playing out on the nightly news is the frame through which we ought to be interpreting the Max Frisch script from seven decades ago.

Howard Shalwitz (George Betterman) and Tim Getman (an arsonist) in The Arsonists. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The play is about an Everyman (named Biedermann in the original German, Betterman in this translation) who lives in a town where, as reported in the local newspaper, there have been alarming outbreaks of fire set by clandestine arsonists who inveigle themselves into people’s home. When strangers show up at Betterman’s door and ask for food and lodging, he, wanting to appear a good guy, permits them to sleep in his attic—unaware that they too are arsonists who will shortly stockpile ominous drums of gasoline there. The script has much to say about Betterman’s passive complicity, and (to no one’s surprise) the gasoline is ignited and a conflagration ensues. The twist is who offers the arsonists the match: it’s none other than Betterman, whose incapacity for critical thinking the play makes an excoriating example of.

The play was written as a cautionary allegory about ordinary citizens’ collateral guilt in the rise of Fascism and Nazism, one of several post-World War II plays to try to make sense of the senseless. Thus the message in The Arsonists is spelled out not only in the fable-like storyline but in some astute aphorisms, sharply translated by Alistair Beaton, sprinkled throughout, often in the voices of a chorus of firefighter/watchers. A couple of my favorites were these:

If the thought of radical change scares you more than disaster, what can be done to stop the disaster?


We fail to see what’s happening under our noses.

Kimberly Gilbert (an arsonist) in The Arsonists. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The script veers toward the sententious, but that comes with the political-parable territory in such post-war dramatists as Frisch, Brecht, and Dürrenmatt. And the antic and energetic acting style adopted for the Woolly production prevents the text from ever seeming tendentious.

A program note explains that Woolly’s decision to program The Arsonists this season had a fire lit under it, so to speak, with the November 2016 election. On the face of it, this work would seem a felicitous choice. The Arsonists is about impending political danger and individual responsibility to take collective action that would intervene and stop it. Additionally, with substantial foundation support, Woolly embarked on an extraordinary community-partnership and audience-engagement effort surrounding the run, offering, for instance, talkbacks during which folks who’ve just seen the show can process what it meant to them.

As the audience leaves the theater, actors hand out a flyer printed on flame-red paper that makes the show’s point explicit:

It can happen here. We can stop it.

I found this all good and worthy…except the production did not actually do what it was intended to do. The passive-observer mode elicited by that always-on flat-screen television became the expected point of view from which to take in the whole show—a misfire effect compounded near the end by a whiz-bang display of stagecraft that left one going gosh-wow! more than OMG what can I do? The actors—evidently skilled even as they gamely played as over the top as they were supposed to—were never really given the sort of relatable moments that would connect us to their moral quandary emotionally other than as abstract, detached contemplation.

Perhaps in the way the production more numbed me than mobilized me, it was more about Trump than I thought.


Running Time: 2 hours without an intermission.

The Arsonists plays through October 8 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939 or purchase them online.

Review: ‘The Arsonists’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by Robert Michael Oliver


Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train

There are times in the theater when the particulars of a play—its people, place, and poetics—pull you in as only an arresting, well-told story can. But then something even more interesting begins to happen. The writer and performers sweep you into a zone of moral meaning so far-reaching that one’s whole universe of values gets a rethink. Like an epic tempest of ethical questions that leaves one’s conscience reeling and, for the moment, unmoored. Such is what transpires during the breathtaking, extraordinarily original production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at 1st Stage.

The setting is a prison; the characters are two prisoners, two guards, and a public defender; the story lines are about criminal trials, conviction, sentencing, incarceration. But curiously this isn’t actually a play about prison, at least not in the real world sense. It seems so at first, but as Stephen Adly Guirgis’s riveting drama unfolds, it becomes far more universal than its specifics would suggest: It becomes an electrifying contest among competing moral frameworks that make incompatible claims about personal culpability for wrongdoing.

Which is more like what great Greek tragedies do than what contemporary naturalistic plays do, right?

Teresa Castracane (Mary Jane Hanrahan) and Luis Alberto Gonzalez (Angel Cruz) in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Directors Alex Levy and Juan Francisco Villa display a profound grasp of this classical dimension of the play. They stage the work in the round, so that the actors are never seen against or inside a set. but rather are at all times surrounded by the spectator-hearers who are evaluating their characters’ speeches and actions. The play is full of monologues that function to articulate each character’s values, very much like back in Sophocles’ day, and the directors’ decision to stage the play in the round magnifies the standing and authority of each such magnificent speech.

In a brilliant stroke, Levy and Villa begin the play with a wordless choreographed prologue that is not in the script. As the audience enters, the central character, Angel Cruz (an intense and anguished Luis Alberto Gonzalez) is inside a cage made of prison bars hardly a yard square. At rise the other four actors enter not yet in character and circle the stage like a chorus. Then one by one these actors each remove one of the four barred walls, releasing the prisoner from his cage and the whole production from any pretense of lockup literalism. It is the first of many illuminating astonishments to come.

Twenty-eight-year-old Angel, we learn, was arrested three days ago for shooting Reverend Kim, a cult leader, “in his ass.” Angel was enraged because the Rev converted and inculcated Angel’s pal Joey, an action Angel regarded as stealing the friend he loved. Around this crime of passion and retaliation, Guirgis constructs a complex of ethical contradictions that by the end of the play leave us metaphorically enclosed in a conundrum.

“I just want to be good,” Angel says at one point. “I want to be a good man.” Search inside most everyone and the aspiration to be a good person is there somewhere. That is the problem but how? And if one does something wrong, what then? “I’m so so so so sorry,” Angel says a little later. Is confession good enough for the soul? What are the odds on atonement? What’s the deal with redemption? Is being a law-abiding citizen like carrying an exculpation card? By whose rules and what principles will one be judged? Are some wrongs exempt from censure because they serve a greater good?

Before we know it, Guirgis’s comedy drama has us dangling on the horns of these and more dilemmas.

Angel’s court-assigned attorney, Mary Jane Hanrahan (a tough, cool Teresa Castracane), is the play’s voice of situational ethics. “The law is a set of rules for every circumstance as if they’re all the same,” she says; “they’re not all the same.” From her father, Mary Jane learned a lesson that guides her lawyering with Angel.  When she was a girl her father escorted her to a father-daughter dance, where he took umbrage at another father’s bigoted remark and stabbed the man with a fork. “It was just a fork,” Mary Jane recalls her father told her, which connects to Angel’s shooting the thieving cult leader’s behind: both instances of “trying to do a great right by doing a little wrong.” Mary Jane’s memory of what her father did clearly informs her determination to get Angel acquitted. “He made a foolish, perilous choice but it was a statement,” she says. “I find honor in that.”

One of the play’s funniest and most trenchant scenes is between Castracane and Gonzales when Mary Jane coaches Angel how to testify at trial. She needs to teach him how to lie. “Tell me a smart lie,” she says. “A good lie is based on truth.” Her game plan is to go for jury nullification—so they’ll sympathize with Angel and let him off despite what the law says. In Mary Jane’s moral frame, what’s right is not always what’s legal, and she tries to win Angel over to that view.

Luis Alberto Gonzalez (Angel Cruz) and Frank Britton (Lucius Jenkins) in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

Another character trying to win Angel over is Lucius Jenkins (a suave and savvy Frank Britton). Lucius has been convicted of eight sadistic murders and is awaiting extradition to Florida where he’s to be executed. But Lucius has seen the light of the Lord. A zealous convert to Christ as Redeemer, he preaches a gospel of faith and redemption. “Deliver me from evil, Lord. Thy will be done,” he says. “Deliver me from me, Lord.” Lucius has had a rough life. He was abused and sodomized as a boy, turned to drugs and alcohol as a result. But Angel is appalled at Lucius’s remorseless, self-interested sanctimony and wants none of it. And the tug of war for Angel’s life and liberty between Mary Jane and Lucius—between, more universally, secular humanism and sacred absolution—is a primary driver of the drama’s galvanizing effect.

The two prison guards are positioned as good cop/bad cop incarnate.

Robert Heinly (D’Amico) in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

Good cop is D’Amico (a warm and sturdy Robert Heinly), who exemplifies kind-hearted compassion. He brings Lucius Oreo cookies and cigarettes; his wife baked Lucius a shepherd’s pie; D’Amico and Lucius share a buddylike badinage. Lucius’s criminal past doesn’t faze D’Amico: “All I know about Lucius Jenkins is that I liked him.”

Jose Guzman (Valdez) in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

Bad cop is Valdez (a wired and snarky Jose Guzman), who represents by-the-book adherence to the law.  “I do not like infractions,” he warns Angel. “There will be no more infractions.” Valdez doesn’t buy Lucius’s salvation story either: “If there is a god, do you honestly believe you are free from the burden of what you’ve done?” Sanctimonious in his own way, Valdez says: “I’m a good man because I choose to be. End of story.” Yet the malice in Valdez’s upbraiding of his prisoners and the savagery in Lucian’s murder of his victims fall on the same sadism spectrum.

The 1st Stage production of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is an exhilarating immersion in values at odds—in many ways the moral muddle and ethical disconnects that have got this country where it is today. To say the show is head-spinning would be insufficient. To say it combusts is an understatement.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train plays through October 8, 2017, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.


Review: ‘Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train’ at 1st Stage by Mike Bevel