Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: November, 2017

The Ugly One

The gutsy woman-centric theater company Nu Sass is notable for producing works that feature women in major roles, onstage and off, typically in a tiny second-floor space on F Street that seats only 30 and feels a lot like a living room. In both substance and setting, Nu Sass creates up-close experiences that audiences cannot help but be drawn into, on themes that importantly intersect women’s lives.

Now, in a witty and gritty twist, Nu Sass has picked a play that speaks dead seriously to women’s lives but tells a story that’s about a man and played for laughs. It’s a farce called The Ugly One, an incisive satire that cuts comedically into our appearance-obsessed culture and the stigma of being unattractive.

Promotional graphic for Nu Sass’s production of The Ugly One.

The Ugly One is by a man, Marius von Mayenburg, a playwright renowned in Germany. And it’s about a man, an electronics inventor named Lette (Gary DeBreuil) who has a very ugly face. The running jokes about how ugly he is are brutal—his boss Scheffler (Aubri O’Connor), his wife Fanny (Moriah Whiteman), and his coworker Karlmann (David Johnson) do not hold back, and with each new phrase they use to say he’s ugly, the audience howls. (The same jokes told about a woman character would be cringe-worthy. There’s no way this role could be gender-switched.)

Arguably prejudicial appearance standards impact #MenToo. But it is women who bear the brunt—to an extent that’s not funny. Which is why the Nu Sass production of The Ugly One is so savvy, satisfying, and subversive. The story is a harsh yet farcical send-up of “looksism” and how it can denigrate one in the eyes of others and degrade one’s own sense of self. One’s looks are implicated in one’s very identity and individuality, and that’s a painful truth, readily recognizable by anyone who’s never felt good-looking. But seen through von Mayenburg’s absurdist lens, a double standard gets flipped to uplifting delight.

Lette decides to have plastic surgery at the hands of a very Germanic doctor (O’Connor again). After the bandages are removed, the operation is such a success he becomes an instant sex object, lusted after not only by Franny his wife but also by a wealthy older woman (Whiteman again), her gay son (Johnson again), and dozens of offstage women with whom he now has affairs. So desirable does Lette become that other men go under the knife just to look like him. Soon the face Lette sees in the mirror he now sees everywhere. Even the gay son gets the operation to look like the man he’s hot for, which leads to a comically metaphysical payoff at the end that is as gut-busting as it is mind-blowing.

Gary DeBreuil as Lette in The Ugly One. Photo courtesy of Nu Sass.

The acting style is wonderfully broad, and DeBreuil in particular brings to the role of Lette an antic physicality and facial plasticity that keeps getting funnier. The scenes shift from one to another quick as a wink, and Director Renana Fox keeps the action moving at such a clip the show flies by. Set Designers M. Bear and Joe Largess deftly turn tight quarters into multiple locations—an office, a living room, an operating room—and Lighting Designer E-hui Woo with but a handful of instruments shifts scenes with clarity and ease. The Ugly One, translated from German into British English by Maja Zade, has been Americanized by Nu Sass so seamlessly the play seems written here now.

A perfect fit for Nu Sass’s female-driven mission, The Ugly One is a dark drama about women tricked out as a light, brisk allegorical farce about men—and face it that’s a formula for sure-fire fun.

Running Time: About 80 minutes, with no intermission.

The Ugly One plays through December 17, 2017, at Nu Sass Productions performing at Caos on F Street – 923 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

 

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The Love of the Nightingale

A play from the 1980s about revenge for a rape, based on an ancient story from Greek mythology, comes alive in a student production as though it was about now. As though everything in it about how sexual assault silences women is as true today as then.  As though the play’s depiction of how rape entrenches women’s subordination and secures men’s hegemony goes back thousands of years and has not much budged.

The play is Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale, which in a bold stroke Shirley Serotsky chose to direct toward her M.F.A. degree at Catholic University. The production she has staged in the Callan blackbox is every bit as inspired as her impressive body of work with professional companies. Serotsky’s notably insightful handling of sexual-political themes (as with Rapture, Blister, Burn at Round House and Yentl at Theater J) is on eloquent display.

Sara Romanello as Philomele in The Love of the Nightingale. Photo courtesy of Catholic University of America Department of Drama.

The original Greek myth, which Wertenbaker has amplified, is about two sisters, Procne (Morgan Wilder) and Philomele (Sara Romanello), whose bond is deep. When Procne is married off to a king, Tereus (Chris Doyle), whom she does not love, the sisters are separated. Procne longs for Philomele and implores Tereus to bring Philomele to her. He agrees to, but while doing so attempts to seduce Philomele, and when she refuses him rapes her, brutally. In the end, the sisters get revenge, gruesomely.

The first tableau is stunning. It happens on a terrific set designed by Jonathan Dahm Robertson that evokes a weatherbeaten wooden ship. We hear sea sounds, designed by Evan Cook. The light, designed by Tim Donahue, is like the night at sea. A crew of male sailors stand swaying back and forth, synchronized, as on the deck of a ship under sail. An older woman sits forlornly.

Sara Romanello as Philomele and Chris Doyle as Tereus in The Love of the Nightingale. Photo courtesy of Catholic University of America Department of Drama.

We don’t yet know how this indelible stage picture fits into the play, but we will. It is the voyage meant to bring Philomele back to Procne. But it has become the scene of a sex crime. The forlorn woman is Philomele’s nurse Niobe (Desiree Chappelle). Her charge is now Tereus’ victim.

The production is loaded with standout moments. The play proper begins with the two sisters as young girls, talking brightly and delightfully about sex and sharing their limited knowledge about what men are like (“spongy,” says one). As the play darkens, they learn far more.

A chorus of women appear as a catty sorority, wearing matching 50s print dresses, designed by Gail Beach, One of them flips idly through a period Life magazine. They signal snobbish exclusivity. And like the sailors we saw at sea, they too are synchronized; they cross and recross their legs exactly the same

Members of the female chorus in The Love of the Nightingale. Photo courtesy of Catholic University of America Department of Drama.

There’s a wonderful play within the play, Phaedra, staged on the set that now serves as an amphitheater. The action functions as a foreboding of the rape but includes surprising humor, as for instance John Jones’s enjoyable turn as a campy Aphrodite.

When Philomele realizes she is the target of Tereus’ lust, she is counseled by her nurse to yield to his advances. “It’s easier that way,” Niobe advises, with weary resignation. But Philomele will have none of it and speaks out fiercely about her right to her integrity and independence.

The rape scene itself is difficult to watch. The sexual violence choreography by Kristin Pilgrim is exceedingly graphic and Romanello and Doyle execute it excruciatingly.

In the aftermath, the male sailors acknowledge that they were passive bystanders to the rape. “We said nothing,” one says. “It was better that way.”

Sara Romanello as Philomele and Desiree Chapelle as Niobe in The Love of the Nightingale. Photo courtesy of Catholic University of America Department of Drama.

Then there’s a scene where Philomele verbally lets Tereus have it. As he (somewhat unbelievably) stays silent, Romanello delivers Philomele’s rage at him, a withering takedown, with showstopping force. And in confronting him, she confronts head-on a major rape myth: “It was your act,” she says. “I caused nothing.” This is the play’s towering moment of female empowerment, but Tereus gets even. He cuts out her tongue. So she can no longer speak.

Tereus gets his comeuppance, however. Philomele and Procne see to that, their sisterhood never wavering. Finally, to halt the chain of carnage, the gods intervene and turn Procne, Philomele, and Tereus into birds (Philomele becomes the nightingale of the title). This is not really a resolution, of course, though it was in ancient Greece. Today it plays less as an ending and more as a timeout, to reflect on what needs to happen next.

The entire cast performed commendably, with energy and conviction. They seemed to be on board at a deep level with the contemporary portent of the play. The Love of the Nightingale at Catholic University is a superb production of a powerful and timely play that will surely prompt difficult conversations about, among other things, the role of male bonding in sustaining rape culture, the fact of sororicidal complicity among women, and the ongoing reality that women who speak up and speak out are punished.

Nevertheless some persist.

CAST
First Soldier, Male Chorus, Hippolytus in Phaedra: Dylan Fleming; Second Soldier, Male Chorus, Male Chorus in Phaedra: Joe Savattien; Procne: Morgan Wilder; Philomele: Sara Romanello; King Pandion, Male Chorus: Kevin Boudreau; Tereus: Chris Doyle; Queen, June: Danielle Scott; Hero, Phaedra in Phaedra: Gabriel Aston Brown; Iris, Female Chorus in Phaedra: Emily Cenvonka; Echo, Female Chorus in Phaedra, Servant: Annaliese Neaman; Helen, Nurse in Phaedra: Hailey Mozzchio; Captain, Male Chorus, Theseus in Phaedra: Danny Beason; Niobe: Desiree Chappelle; Itys, Male Chorus, Aphrodite in Phaedra: John Jones.

PRODUCTION STAFF
Scenic Design: Jonathan Dahm Robertson; Costume Design: Gail Beach; Lighting Design: Tim Donahue; Sound Design: Evan Cook; Fight Choreography: Kristin Pilgrim; Dramaturgy: Rachel Lyons; Producer: Eleanor Holdridge; Executive Producer: Patrick Tuite.

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

The Love of the Nightingale plays through November 19, 2017, at The Catholic University of America’s Callan Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington DC. Tickets for this production and the remainder of the Department of Drama’s 2017–2018 season are available online.

 

Republic For Which We Stand

For anyone who is more than a little unnerved that President Trump might go off half-cocked and trigger a war—which he could do with as little thought as he puts into a tweet—this civic-minded play has some bombshell news: The U.S. president can’t actually lawfully do that. According to the nation’s Founders. The Constitution they debated and crafted states explicitly that only Congress has the so-called war power.

Never mind that the U.S. is currently engaged in nine president-declared wars. And never mind that since Truman started the Korean War, thirteen successive administrations have violated the War Powers Clause of the U.S. Constitution. We have become a warfare state, perpetually at war, with all the cost, carnage, and family suffering that entails. Congress was never supposed to be the rubber stamp if a chief executive has a whim to win to war. Congress was meant to be the sole decider.

So that ought to be that. Except obviously it’s not.

The cast of Republic For Which We Stand shown in a performance at Castleton Theater May 28, 2017.

Republic For Which We Stand by John B. Henry—a self-described citizen playwright—is an imaginative restaging of the deliberations that led the Framers of the Constitution to conclude that giving the president war power would be a really bad idea. They knew they didn’t want an empire like the Brits had; they wanted a republic instead. So they broke with history and decided they didn’t want a monarch crowned with powers that an impetuous and bellicose ruler could one day abuse.

Gosh, whoever could they have had in mind?

The play is a quasi-comic, quasi-historical dramatic pageant set behind the scenes of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1781. Among the characters are several A-list originalists:  George and Martha Washington, James and Dolly Madison, George and Sarah Mason, and Benjamin Franklin, in whose home the play takes place.  Also making an appearance is Alexander Hamilton, though he comes in for a drubbing. Fans of the valorized version renowned in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical may be surprised that here Hamilton is the bad guy: the play’s sole proponent of giving the president unlimited war powers, and the foil for all the arguers on the prevailing side.

Republic for Which We Stand is the second play in a trilogy by Henry. Like the first, Arguing With God, it crackles with smarts. Epigrammatic arguments fly by like arrows with Shavian aim. In the mouths of his amusingly portrayed characters, John B. Henry’s terribly swift words bring an epic historic controversy vividly to life. To wit, on one side:

You can’t be the leader of the world without fighting wars.
War’s the best way to excite the loyalty of your subjects.
If you’re a great warrior, the barons will bankroll you.

And in compelling counterpoint:

Our Constitution must be designed for peace.
Only unsheath the sword of liberty in self-defense.
Our Constitution will stand or fall on resisting the temptation of war.

The Congressional Auditorium in the United States Capitol Visitor Center where Republic For Which We Stand was performed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I must pause to mention the absolutely extraordinary circumstances of the performance. It took place at the United States Capitol Visitor Center in the Congressional Auditorium subsequent to the introduction by Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) of a House Resolution drafted by the bipartisan Committee for the Republic that defines a presidential war as an impeachable offense. Playwright Henry explained in his opening remarks that because Congress has so far failed in its duty to debate that resolution, the debate would play out here in theatrical form instead. Adding to the resonance of the event was the fact that in the tradition of early Greek theater, the play was cast with so-called citizen actors, many of them professionals in other spheres but all non-pros as performers. The evening—far from being the amateur hour a cynic might expect—turned out to be a singular synchronicity of activist people’s theater and real-life politics of conscience the likes of which I cannot recall being witness to.

By coincidence the next week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to address Trump’s authority to issue a first nuclear strike. There’s plenty of war worry going around. Reportedly, some Republicans have hatched a plan to literally tackle Trump if he reaches for the nuclear code. The political issues posed by Republic For Which We Stand could not have higher stakes than they do at this moment in American history—and that awareness gave the performance rare salience.

The work itself is a playful pastiche of serious and comedic history sketches with pop songs along the way—among them “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar,” “Material Girl,” and “You’re No Good,” (all really well sung by Pat Nicklin as Dolly Madison). The period garb by Costume Designer Paula Hughes contributed substantial eye appeal to the catchy spectacle. The premise of the play is that George and Martha Washington are presenting three plays-within-the-play, each featuring one of England’s great warrior kings—William the Conqueror, Edward III, and Henry V—and a sometimes grisly rendering of their exploits (including beheadings). After each such object lesson in the perils of limitless executive power (“It’s the divine right of kings to take their countries to war!”), the assembled guests debate how to keep the U.S. prez in check. In Henry’s contemporized view, the Founding Mothers have equal say with the Founding Fathers, as in this exchange:

MARTHA WASHINGTON: We must entrust the war power to an institution with no inherent incentive to exercise it.
DOLLY MADISON: Otherwise we’ll be just like the British. And there goes our exceptionalism.

And this:

ALEXANDER HAMILTON: We must emulate the British monarchy. Otherwise we’ll never reach our manifest destiny: world greatness.
MARTHA WASHINGTON: The only thing that’s manifest is your vaulting ambition.

Surreally but consistent with the play’s intentional centering of female voices, there are also appearances by the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc (who, again in Nicklin’s full voice, gets to sing an amusing “I Love Paris”).  Other noteworthy performances included Jennifer Ruger as a pacifistic Virgin Mary (“Conquest defeats itself, but justice lives for the ages”), Bill Nitze as a fiery George Mason (“All Executives are predisposed to war”), and Hugh Hill as a full-of-himself Hamilton who in the closing moments ominously predicts,

America will replace Britain as world leader. Our political parties will ignore the Constitution and embrace my elective monarchy. Congress will rubberstamp endless presidential wars.

The cast of Republic For Which We Stand shown in a performance at Castleton Theater May 28, 2017.

Director Rick Davis, Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts and Professor of Theater at George Mason University, not only wrangled/managed a stageful of characters coming and going but infused the whole with an entertaining balance of levity and edification. Indeed the lively performances had something akin to the esprit of kids playing dress-up and going, “Hey, let’s put on a show!”—except these were grownups doing a decisive drama in perilous times in dead earnest. To that end a haunting choral dirge recurred:

We’re the victims of war.
War turned us into orphans.
War turned us into widows.
War caused us to bury our sons before our sons could bury us.
We’re the unknown collateral damage of war.

At the end, a company chorus of “This Land Is Your Land” got the audience singing and clapping along. It was a deserved upbeat ending to the thoroughly engaging show these citizen actors had put on. But the play had also been a sobering reminder that a founding principle of our country has been usurped. This had not hit home for me till I watched Republic For Which We Stand. And I left that imposing grand assembly hall with a heightened appreciation of how, since ancient times, people’s theater performed by politicized citizenry serves an essential civic function: to inform us and rouse us to act.

Production Program Credits:
Director:  Rick Davis; Costume & Props Director: Paula Hughes; Costume Assistant: Sonja Taylor; Drama Poo Bah: Richard Squires; Humorists: Richard Rymland, Travis Brown; Moral Philosopher: Bruce Fein; Dramaturge: David Hoffman; Plantagenet Advisors: John Lewis, William Garner; Virgin Mary Advisor: Tuck Grinnell; Literary Advisor: Francisco La Rubia Prado; Artist: Joan Danziger;  Photography & Video: Kenny Reff; Social Media: Max Mohr.
Performer Program Credits:
George Washington, Roger Mortimer: Bill Walton; Martha Washington: Gail Kitch;  James Madison: Bruce Fein; Dolly Madison, Joan of Arc: Pat Nicklin;  Alexander Hamilton, William the Conqueror & Ghost: Hugh Hill; Benjamin Franklin, Henry V: Ed Hughes;  Madame Helvetius, Matilda of Flanders & Ghost: Faith Lewis; George Mason, Edward II, Parliamentarians: Bill Nitze; Sarah Mason: Hali Jilani; Butler, Messenger, Doctor, Mortimer’s Men, Parliamentarians: Wolfgan Schaefer; Virgin Mary: Jennifer Ruger; Lombard Banker, Mortimer’s Men, Parliamentarians, French King John: Bill Marmon; Norman Lady: Lynn Sullivan; Queen Isabella: Nuchhi Currier; Young King Edward III, Orphans Chorus, Priest: Paul Anderson; Edward III: Howard Coon; Queen Katherine, Countess of Salisbury, War Chorus: Donna Christenson; War Chorus: Louisa Preston, Shelley Giordano.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Republic For Which We Stand played November 7, 2017, at Stone Hill Theatrical Foundation performing at the Congressional Auditorium in United States Capitol Visitor Center, 1 East Capitol Street NE, Washington, DC. For news of future performances

LINK:

Magic Time! ‘Arguing with God’ at Woman’s National Democratic Club by John Stoltenberg

VIDEO:

An on-book performance of Republic For Which We Stand at Castleton Theater May 28, 2017.

 

 

The Real Americans

“Why am I a stranger in my own land?” the preternaturally talented actor-writer Dan Hoyle asks during his solo excursion into the heartland of America. Having set forth several years ago by van from San Francisco (“So long, liberal bubble!”), he traveled a hundred days to listen to “the real Americans,” the folks left behind when the country’s bounty got divvied up. From what plain-spoken folks he met told him, Hoyle created a theater piece peopled with characters he rivetingly embodies on stage, switching voices, diction, and body language in an instant from one vivid impersonation to another.

Since 2010 when the show premiered, Hoyle has done it more than 400 times to crazy-fervent acclaim from coast to coast and internationally. It now arrives in DC for a brief run at Mosaic, and my hot tip is this: The intimate Lab II space where it plays at Atlas is going to fill up fast—because The Real Americans is far and away one of the most entertaining, polished, insightful, and stirring solo performances this town is likely to see.

Dan Hoyle in The Real Americans. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Hoyle calls his genre “journalistic theater,” which is okay as shorthand but doesn’t convey the vast content of conscience in what he does. For if what he does is reporting, it is more like corporeal rapport. If what he does is write, it is more like authorial embodying. He doesn’t so much depict as inhabit them, and he channels with utter respect what makes them tick.

Hoyle has been aptly compared to Anna Deveare Smith, who pioneered the art of recording conversations with people—typically on two sides of a political divide—then crafting their words into scripts, which in performance she inflected with uncanny precision and transformative veracity. Hoyle’s consummate skill set also recalls Richard Pryor’s and Robin Williams’s. As comic mime and mimic, he’s nearly peerless.

Dan Hoyle in The Real Americans. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Like Smith, Hoyle transits back and forth between two social spheres on two sides of a chasm—friends of his in San Francisco (who might be seen by outsiders as  a bunch of liberals who brunch) and the people he meets on his travels (who might be stereotyped as hicks and rednecks but who in fact are hurting bad because, as one says, “This country done lost its way”).

Hoyle works on a bare stage set with but a chair, a hatrack, and a guitar, which at points he plays. Lighting Designer E-hui Woo contributes lovely color effects when he sings. Sound Designer David Hines brings in an eclectic mix of pop, hip-hop, and country. And whatever has been done to shape and pace the show by Director Charlie Varon (a longtime collaborator of Hoyle’s) is spot-on. It plays flawlessly.

Dan Hoyle in The Real Americans. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

About an hour in, Hoyle stops and says, “That was the show I performed until a year ago.” Indeed all the references have been to the Obama era. The show then pivots to an epilogue, a passage where Hoyle revisits some of the people he introduced us to before, to get their take on Trump and why they voted for him. The insights in this section are preconception shattering and the last ten minutes speak volumes.

Remarkably, the humor in The Real Americans, which amps up to belly-laugh level, is never about ridiculing the people Hoyle makes present. They say things that are funny,  and his meticulous mimesis is intrinsically hilarious, yet his characters are not the butt of derision.

On the contrary, Hoyle’s performance models a way of being in this politically fractured world as a conscientiously compassionate listener. In bringing us into the lives of others whom we might automatically “otherize,” The Real Americans points to the possibility of a mode of existence that the poet Walt Whitman aspired to when he wrote “I contain multitudes” and the playwright Terrence meant when he wrote “Nothing human is alien to me.”

Put simply, where there is hearing, there is hope for healing. Go see Dan Hoyle show how.

Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.

The Real Americans plays through December 22, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing in Lab II 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.

From December 1 to 24, 2017, Dan Hoyle’s The Real Americans plays in rep with Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s Draw the Circle.

VIDEO:

A Short Series of Disagreements Presented Here in Chronological Order

He might have had an interesting idea for a solo show. He hadn’t written it yet. but he told Studio Theatre, which had booked him, that its title would be A Short Series of Disagreements Presented Here in Chronological Order. An accomplished comic monologuist with an avid fan base in Britain, Daniel Kitson was going to make his debut in DC at the instigation of Studio Artistic Director David Muse, himself a Kitson fan, with a world premiere new work. So far so good.

Kitson intended to tell a story TBD, through a succession of disagreements—which on the face of it sounds pretty brilliant. Also an apt theatrical form for a town where dysfunctional disputation has secured political gridlock. But with his show not yet written—and being himself notoriously reluctant to do press or even supply promo photos—Kitson left the good folks who do Studio’s marketing with little to go on but his title.

The description they came up with would have impressed Roget:

A brand-new story told entirely through the peripheries and pivot points of a number of debates, wrangles, quarrels, arguments, discussions, altercations, contretemps, and squables.

And further…

A brand-new show which is likely to be both funny and thoughtful, absurd and serious, rich with humanity and riddled with frustration.

When I read that—and when I saw the nondescript type treatment with which the mystery monologue would be branded—I felt a kind of bemused sympathy, for it all seemed to be silently screaming, “Help, we are stuck in a flack factory with no clue what we’re plugging.”

Little could the good folks at Studio know that there was one thing about their vague promo that was fundamentally accurate—because Kitson’s show would turn out to seem padded too.

Daniel Kitson, courtesy of his Wikipedia page. No production photos are available, per the artist’s request.

Now to be fair, Kitson is a brilliant talking writer. Many of his phrasings tripped off his tongue and tickled my intellect the way Wilde does or even Shaw (just to mention a few of his quick-witted countrypeople). Kitson’s brain is so evidently wired for verbal virtuosity I could honestly not tell if his textual felicities were prescripted or improvised. And given that Kitson himself has a very mild sporadic stutter (which he acknowledges in such a clever way that for us it goes away), his ability to captivate simply with rapid-fire language would be the envy of many a solo performer who’s stutter-free.

Early on Kitson also acknowledges that the title A Short Series of Disagreements… has totally nothing to do with the show he’s doing, because a couple months ago when on looming deadline he began writing it, he decided to do something else entirely. Fair enough. Maverick spontaneity is as much Kitson’s schtick as it is theater’s lifeblood. Nevertheless, upon sitting through the two-hour show Kitson has brought to DC, I did again feel for the good folks at Studio who had been—by my reckoning, not theirs—blindsided.

In Whatever Kitson’s Current Show at Studio Should Be Called, he talks us through the process of writing it and tells a tale that begins when he happened upon a bicyclist, hit by a car on the road, who he thinks winked at him as she was loaded into an ambulance. There follows a long and convoluted story, illustrated with photos projected on a screen from a carousel projector, in which like a forensic detective on RedBull, Kitson tracks down the biker’s backstory.

I caught Whatever well into its run. A mostly young audience had come. Those in the center section seemed to be enjoying it quite a lot. This was likely because, as I surmised, when Kitson turns his head from side to side to sweep in the whole audience, as he does constantly, he remains fully audible only to those in the middle. And it was from there most laughter emanated. The side section where I sat was pretty still.

About a half hour in, probably sensing quietude in the house, Kitson lobbed an adlib that got the biggest laugh all night. It went something like “We’re not even at the point that the Post called wearying.”

Kitson evidently eschews high tech (that projector was determinedly not LCD). But for the sake of the whole house, he really needed to be mic’ed. Never mind that the snapshots and scribbled documents he showed us onscreen were inscrutably small, and useless to our comprehension of the shaggy dog story with which we were being regaled. We just needed to hear more of his delicious eleventh-hour writing. Though Kitson has not succeeded here as a long-form comic scribe, all the good bits along the way deserved better.

Running Time: About two hours with no intermission.

A Short Series of Disagreements Presented Here in Chronological Order plays through November 25, 2017, at Studio Theatre’s Metheny Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

LINK: Review: ‘A Short Series of Disagreements Presented Here in Chronological Order’ at Studio Theatre by David Siegel

VIDEO:

 

Vicuña & The American Epilogue

“Even monsters need clothing,” says the bespoke tailor Anselm, an Arab Jew and immigrant, defending why he will sew a vicuña suit for a Republican presidential candidate whom his intern Amir, a first-generation Iranian American, finds deplorable and dangerous. The fictional candidate is a thinly disguised proxy for a certain wannabe winner with an evident emperor’s absence of clothes. So the central comedic metaphor in Jon Robin Baitz’s adroit political allegory—dressing a man of no scruples for success—packs a caustic punch from the get-go.

And judging from audience response on opening night, the aftershocks of that punch are what make Vicuña & The American Epilogue an invigorating crowd pleaser—at least here in blue-state DC. For though the storyline of Vicuña centers on dressing up a future prez, the most satisfying sections of the script are about dressing him down.

Laura C. Harris (Srilanka), Brian George (Anselm), Haaz Sleiman (Amir), and Kimberly Schraf (Kitty Finch-Gibbon) in Vicuña & The American Epilogue. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There are five characters in the play: The tailor Anselm (Brian George); the intern Amir (Haaz Sleiman); the candidate himself, here named Kurt Seaman (John De Lancie); the candidate’s daughter and campaign manager, Srilanka (Laura C. Harris), and the chairwoman of the RNC, Senator Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Kimberly Schraf). And Baitz has given three of them some of the most exquisite insult speeches this side of William Shakespeare.

Anselm is not one of them. Anselm would never diss a client, nor likely ever speak truth to power. “You win by silence and compliance,” he counsels his intern Amir.

And Seaman has so much vaingloriosity to spew that he more than deserves being the butt of Baitz’s delicious derision. “There is only one American dream now,” he says. “And it is to simply take what is left…. Take whatever you can, take that which is not nailed down before someone else does.” Seaman has a moral compass so lacking in empathy and introspection it might as well be a rock.

John De Lancie (Kurt Seaman) in Vicuña & The American Epilogue. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

But oh my what invective the other three characters get!

AMIR: He’s sort of a wonder to behold, like a Kracken or a four-headed goat glowing green outside a nuclear reactor.

AMIR: He is like a giant machine that makes evil disgusting bloated nasty donuts. Anything hateful anyone throws at him, he turns it into a batter to make a donut! And then he makes it. And spits it back out.

SRILANKA [to her father]: You made me your campaign manager because you need one person to tell you the truth. Here’s the truth, father, you have become an unregulated force, careening between contradictory positions, wracked by a lack of sleep, and fueled by junk food and coffee, saying whatever comes into your head at any moment….

AMIR [to Seaman]: Given your trajectory, it is quite clear that common decency is actually detrimental to your ascendancy. So I would keep your daughter around — as even sociopaths need canaries in their coal-mines.

John De Lancie (Kurt Seaman), Laura C. Harris (Srilanka), and Kimberly Schraf (Kitty Finch-Gibbon) in Vicuña & The American Epilogue. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The speeches Finch-Gibbon gets are the most scathing, and in Schraf’s showstopping performance they fire at Seaman like a strafing:

 

FINCH-GIBBON: There is a sense that you are ill…. The people who work at the Defense Department and in the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff …  have let it be known that you present certain very knotty obstacles to the chain of command in that you are generally speaking considered stark raving mad.

FINCH-GIBBON: You are unpredictable and shallow. And in politics, given the state of the world today, being unpredictable and shallow is deadly…. On a personal note, let me say this — you and your frivolous campaign, one fueled by the capriciousness deep within your dark, decaying and very shallow husk of a soul —  have simply broken my heart.

 

I share this foretaste of the fusillade that’s in store when one sees this astonishingly incisive and timely play to make a point about how unusually Vicuña plays in the mind: Vicuña takes us into and out of itself over and over again. To watch it is constantly to be reminded of the real-world tragifarce that the action onstage keeps pointing to and commenting on. Not only the credibility and appeal of Vicuña‘s storytelling but its very coherence depends as much on the craft of the cast and director (Robert Egan) as it does on our collective associational recognitions during it. Quite deliberately Vicuña invites us—no, requires us—to be thinking along with it and consciously connecting contemporaneous dots. All the speeches such as I’ve sampled function like dog whistles for those of us whose dismay since last November has been deepening by the day. And the satisfaction thus prompted is a pure Pavlovian pleasure response.

This is important to know going in, because all that easy (and hilarious) gratification can come at a cost when the original play Vicuña ends and its new American Epilogue begins. What Baitz has appended takes an abrupt turn—not only in time and staging style but internally, conceptually, in how it asks us to engage with it. No more dog whistles. Now instead an apocalyptic alarm and call to action. And taking seriously that sober call to action is going to be lots harder than passively enjoying potshots.

Some playwrights are more inclined to say what their play is “about” than others. Many refuse to. Baitz, however, does not hold back. In an interview he said,

Vicuna concerns the fucked-up election of an autocratic vulgarian real-estate developer named Kurt Seaman,

The epilogue picks up many years later, after all the catastrophes have occurred and America is breaking and over, a ruined place and a ruined idea, a failed democracy with a broken economy, and roving mobs.

It is a deeply flawed play, but an attempt at understanding ‘conditions on the ground’ in our ghoulish political era, and to project what the end-game of all this hell is. It’s a play about how we die by the sword of our own complicity.

I wouldn’t go along with Baitz that it’s the play that’s flawed, however. The play simply points to a flaw that is in ourselves. Because compared with what’s required to call this vulgarian’s con game on account of conscience, making sport of him is just lots more fun.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.

Vicuña & The American Epilogue plays through December 3, 2017 at Mosaic Theater Company of DC, performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

LINK: Review: ‘Vicuña & The American Epilogue’ at Mosaic Theater Company by Ravelle Brickman

 

 

In the Red and Brown Water

The wonder-filled stories that wend their way through In the Red and Brown Water were located by the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney in “the distant present” in a fictional town in Louisiana. But in the mesmerizing and lyrical production at Howard University, the set evokes more an ancient Greek amphitheater—curving pink stone steps framed within a large arc, a wide vista of blue cloud cover beyond. It is a place such as where gods of yore would visit in human form, and the archaic echo is apt. For here it is McCraney’s enchanting cast of characters named after Yoruba deities who drop by—and what a fun playground of these gods the Ira Aldridge Theater becomes.

The cast of In the Red and Brown Water at Howard University.

The action happens about as much in the aisles as on stage. Director Eric Ruffin, Composer and Musical Director Bert Cross II, and Choreographer Dwayne Murray conspire to make the entire auditorium part musical hall, part party space, part sacred site. In the first musical number, the ensemble made an amazing ritual entrance from on stage and the back of the house. Within minutes the opening night audience was so into the show it could have raved on all night. Oohs and ahs when characters and their relationships crossed lines or touched nerves, big guffaws when shade was thrown with rude slurs, swoons and bobbing to the dance beats and the singing and prerecorded soundtrack (which included the rousing “Down by the Riverside” with its trenchant refrain “Ain’t gonna study war no more”).

Tarell Alvin McCraney is the Academy Award–winning screenwriter for Moonlight whose play Wig Out! was a smash hit this summer at Studio. There’s something about his language and storytelling that becomes absolutely galvanizing in performance. His In the Red and Brown Water characters are a free-style gumbo of Yoruba traditions and Caribbean and African stories, and the Howard student cast made of them a banquet of indelible portrayals.

The play centers on Oya (an effervescent Chinna Palmer), who’s a star track runner. The Woman from State (Dani Ebbin) offers her a full scholarship, but Oya turns it down in order to care for her dying mother, Mama Moja (Ezinne Elele)—whereupon we wonder whether her selflessness means her future might have held more.

Oya is, as the opening chorus reiterates, “a beautiful girl,” and much of the subsequent storytelling turns on her relationships with three suitors—each a quirky and complex character in his own right. Ogun (an appealingly earnest Harrison Walker) is smitten with her but has a terrible stutter that she wants him to stop. Miraculously, his stutter later falls away when he’s with her. Shango (a magnetic John Chukwudelunzu) and Oya have a lusty bad romance before he goes off to war. She then takes comfort with her godbrother Elegba (a comic Tre’mon Kentrell Mills with an impressive singing voice), all the while pining for Shango, who returns in camo and knocks up Shun (Tatyana Flannigan), a local “girl from around the way.”

Oya’s athletic and academic career precluded, she is embarrassed and pointedly shamed for not having gotten pregnant—that being what’s supposed to be her lot in life. Meanwhile, two of her suitors father children and she learns she’s infertile. Unable to find fulfillment in motherhood, she becomes increasingly despairing, to the point that she commits a horrifying act of masochism: She cuts off her ear and hands it to Shango as a token of her love.

Other fine performances are turned in by Brittany Turner as Oya’s godmother Aunt Elegua; Kyra Walker as Nia, another “girl from around the way”;  Duane Richards, the DJ Egungun, “a boy from around the way”‘; and Ashley Cruel in the ensemble.

Set Designer Michael Stepowany’s amphitheater elevates the epic-scale emotions. Lighting Designer T.W. Starnes backgrounds the action with gorgeous moonscapes and sunbursts. And Costume Designer Kendra Rae does marvelous things with colorful prints and accessories that set off the cast’s basic-white wardrobe with clever character touches.

There is a decided darkness within McCraney’s narrative. Oya’s character arc, despite her ebullience and resilience, is ultimately quite grim. (The color red in the title is established early on as referring to Oya’s bleeding.) Yet in performance, it’s as if a comic pop-tribal opera were being played out, in a world full of joy and jubilation. It is precisely that tension between hearts that ache and bleed and hearts that leap and sing that makes this production such a heartfelt and entertaining evening.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.

In the Red and Brown Water plays through November 4, 2017, at Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts at the Ira Aldridge Theater – 2455 6th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.