Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: December, 2017

The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged

“Let’s rethink sex” has suddenly become a thing. Well, not suddenly maybe. But it certainly has new pertinence in this era of full-frontal disclosure. Which made the  themes of The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged all the more tantalizing. According to advance publicity,

Through dialogue, movement, song, humor, and multimedia, the performance examines such themes as partner communication, sexual identity, the de-sexualization of aging women, today’s “hook-up” culture, and sexual health.

Scene from The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged. Photo: Courtesy of Honest Accomplice Theatre.

I was fortunate to see this entertainingly provocative show when it was in town as part of Mosaic Theater Company’s Workshop Series—one of DC theater’s hidden gems. Hidden in plain sight, actually.  Anyone can come, to the series or one by one. Performances are one night only and not open to press, so only those who attend can know a typical program’s depth of substance and high quality of talent. I’ve seen several and always left impressed.

I got an okay to report briefly on this particular workshop—a performance by the New York-based Honest Accomplice Theatre—because HAT had already been touring The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged for a few years.

The company’s mission is

to generate dialogue and stimulate change by focusing on topics that are often silenced, seen as shameful, or portrayed as one-dimensional, specifically through the lens of the women and trans experience. To deliver on this mission, Honest Accomplice Theatre produces work by the community, with the community, and for the community.

Scene from The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged. Photo: Courtesy of Honest Accomplice Theatre.

That phrase “the lens of the women and trans experience” jumped out at me. As I was to learn, it points to a radical (and rare) inclusiveness that in the hands of HAT has inspired some truly original feminist theatermaking. “We want people to know that others out there recognize the complexity of modern female and trans sexuality, and to feel comfortable in challenging the conceptions society often defines for them,” says Honest Accomplice Theatre.

The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged was devised by a rotating company of actors under the co-direction of Maggie Keenan-Bolger and Rachel Sullivan. Each of the two dozen short scenes in the play was based in some way on the creators’ real-life experiences of different aspects of sexuality. In addition to working from the truths of former and current cast members, HAT surveyed over 2,000 people online. It was a remarkable instance of theater art proceeding from shared principles that profoundly value the embodied uniqueness of individual lives.

Scene from The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged. Photo: Courtesy of Honest Accomplice Theatre.

I’ve seen a lot of collaboratively created theater in my day, but the singular process that imbued Birds and the Bees with its vivid authenticity was for me a new one.

The wonder is that Honest Accomplice Theatre has not been to DC before. On the strength of its one-night stand at Mosaic, the hope is that HAT’ll be back.

Created and Performed by:
Grace: Maybe Burke; Terry: AshIeigh Awusie; Alex: Stephanie Mallick; Jean: Meggan Dodd; Joanna: Lindsay Griffin; Ramona: Riti Sachdeva; Emerson: Jordan Ho; Linda: Cat Fisher

Scene List:
Nightmare Video
The Waiting Room
Skinny Jeans
Too Old
Sexy Time #1
Mirrors #1
Little Boxes
Sex Ed
Invisible Woman
Sexy Time #2
The Armor
Everybody Wants Sex
College Party
1 In 4
The Exam
Mirrors #2
Sexy Time #3
Devil In A Blue Dress
The Waiting Room

Creative Team and Crew:
Co-Creators and Directors: Maggie Keenan-Bolger & Rachel Sullivan; Production Stage Manager: Kristin Kelly; Assistant Director/DanceCaptain/Lights: Maybe Burke; Sound: Nathan Gregory; Costumes: Amanda Roberge; Props: Brenna Hughes; Armor Props: Heather Nielsen; Graphic Design: Nelson Salis; Videos: Andrew Keenan-Bolger; “Everybody Wants Sex” Lyrics: EllaRose Chary; “Everybody Wants Sex” Music: Teresa Lotz; “What Do You See When You Look at Me” Monologue: Taryn Wiskey

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission

The Birds and the Bees: Unabridged  was performed in the Mosaic Workshop Series by the Honest Accomplice Theatre company November 27, 2017, in the Lang Theatre in the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC.

The next performances in Mosaic’s Workshop Series are Yoga Play by Dipika Guha, directed by Jennifer L. Nelson (January 29, 2018), and To Kill a King (or City of Good Abode) by Josh Ford, directed by KenYatta Rogers (March 12, 2018). Tickets are available online.




The Last Night of Ballyhoo

The production is lushly beautiful; the pacing, impeccable; the music between scenes, splendid; the acting, a delight in every detail. And the warm, piquant humor in this Jewish family drama has a comforting old-timey feel—like the fun pleasure one could have watching a family comedy series on television back in the day when there were only three networks. How funny their foibles! How witty their one-liners! Aren’t those characters just a stitch? Let’s be sure to tune in again next week.

Shayna Blass, Zack Powell, Susan Rome, and Sasha Olinick in The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Set design by Dan Conway, costume design by Kelsey Hunt, lighting design by Colin K. Bills, sound design by Justin Schmitz, props design by Timothy J. Jones. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

So goes the very satisfying surface of Alfred Uhry’s Tony Award–winning The Last Night of Ballyhoo, just opened at Theater J in a production directed with magnificent precision by Amber Paige McGinnis. The year is 1939, and the place is the lavishly tasteful home of a well-to-do German Jewish family living in Atlanta where they are well-established fixtures of Jewish high society. The word Ballyhoo in the title refers to an exclusive ball at a Jewish country club, and a great deal of the play’s attention goes to whether two young women cousins will snare dates who are suitable husband material. Abroad, Hitler has just marched into Poland. But here in this insular world of assimilation and privilege, whether to put a star atop the Christmas tree counts as conflict, and what gown to wear to the ball counts as major crisis.

Shayna Blass as one of the two Ballyhoo-bound cousins, with Susan Rome as her mother. in The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Madeline Rose Burrows as one of the two Ballyhoo-bound cousins in The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

If you suspect that with all this self-satisfied superficiality—hilariously as it plays—Urhy might be setting us up for something unsettling, you would be correct. Because about midway through the first of two acts, we are jolted out of our enjoyment when one Jewish character refers to another Jew as a kike. Then a Jewish character refers to another Jew as a yid. In the aftershock of those epithets, Uhry introduces an outsider, a young Jewish bachelor from Brooklyn who practices his faith with reverence and devotion. He would be a catch for either cousin. Except his heritage is Eastern European. And soon it becomes evident that Uhry has laced this comforting confection with a lacerating dissection of Jew-hating among Jews. Within the context of a family comedy with laughter crackling from scene to scene, he gives us a glimpse at the snobbish animus of German Jews toward Jews who come from “east of the Elbe.” And even we who are not Jewish are unnerved out of our amusement.

To be fair, Uhry goes easy. This is Broadway comedy, after all, not a screed. He lays out the unbecoming enmity of Jew for Jew but does not harp on it. He lets us know it’s there but does not rub it in. And his ending, though a little too pat and tacked on, does suggest sincerely that reconciliation can come through common faith.

But the sight of stigmatizing prejudice within a stigmatized group is never a sight one wishes to see, even if one does not belong to the group yet can observe it with a modicum of conscience. Once seen, such horizontal hostility cannot be unseen. And here as staged it lingers like an acrid aftertaste even though the comedic meal was sumptuous.

What this all amounts to is something very worth seeing, for Theater J’s production of The Last Night of Ballyhoo is the best kind of comedy there is: It keeps you laughing and leaves you thinking.

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo plays through December 31, 2017, at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.


Review: ‘The Last Night of Ballyhoo’ at Theater J by David Siegel


Draw the Circle

Draw the Circle is no ordinary one-man show. Nor is it an ordinary autobiographical play. Because Mashuq Mushtaq Deen—its transgender playwright and solo performer—has a singularly fascinating life story to tell. And the way he tells it is even more amazing.

When Deen was born into his conservative Muslim family, he was assigned female. That today would make him a twofer target for trumpian animus. Also: a doubly underrepresented voice in theater.

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen in Draw the Circle. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Mosaic Theater Company has staged stories that include trans characters before (notably When January Feels Like Summer and Charm), but Draw the Circle is the first time Mosaic has invited a transgender author to tell their own story. If you believe theater at its best is a big tent, that’s huge news.

As we enter the Lab II black box at Atlas Performing Center, a color photograph of a girl of about eight appears on an upstage screen. She’s wearing long hair and a dress and looking at the camera warily. The stage floor is a white square set with only a white chair. Deen enters and without ado goes into character as the people in his story. They include his mother, his father, the woman who is his romantic partner in life, and others.  His voice and body alter for each; as they appear in the play, they are identified on the projection screen—Mother, Father, Molly, and so on. We read to know who’s who. We watch to see what they say and do. The effect of Deen’s storytelling technique and artistry is arresting.

Unlike some transfolk who prefer not to revisit their pre-transition lives, Deen is transparent about his. That photo onscreen was him as a child, when his name was Shireen. With his gentle humor, his agile portrayals, and a grippingly self-aware narrative, Deen takes us on his journey to become the man we see before us.

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen in Draw the Circle. Photo by Stan Barouh.

And here’s the most amazing thing: We see Deen in front of us, performing the parts of other people in his life, getting inside their hearts and minds, embodying them as they talk to and about him—their concerns for him, their reservations, their affections and disaffections. Yet Dean himself never speaks a word. Not a single first-person utterance we hear is his.

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen in Draw the Circle. Photo by Stan Barouh.

When sometimes the white chair stands in for someone a character is talking to, there’s suddenly a two-hander scene done one-handed. When even his most tormented inner life finds expression, it is as observed and reflected by another person, a character into whom he has entered in order that we may know him. The character of the man Deen becomes is consequently only ever inferred or construed or filled in by us. In order to follow his story, we necessarily become conscious and empathic witnesses,  seeking to understand him, not being told how to, completing his story of seeking to be seen. The way as writer/performer Deen lets us know him through his transformation only through everyone else’s point of view is a masterful act of writing and performance that transforms us.

Dean’s story is at times harrowing. We learn of the period he was suicidal, cutting himself, such was his pre-transition distress. At times his story is just mind-blowing. Shereen and Molly meet and fall in love in what to all appearances was a lesbian relationship. Years after his transition, Deen and Molly’s relationship endures.

The play talks plainly about the details: the hormones, breast binding, top surgery, strap-on dildos, pack ‘n’ pees. More important, though, Molly speaks with enthralling honestly about what’s going on between her and this very butch person whom she loves. A dramatic turning point occurs when Molly realizes Shireen wants desperately and simply to be seen as “he.” But in the real world of other people’s gender stereotyping, that cannot happen for him without hormones and surgery. And so begins Molly’s way forward to acceptance.

A trigger warning: At a point about midway, Deen knocks over the chair, it crashes violently to the stage, he tells us he is going to tell us about “the rape,” and he does.

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen in Draw the Circle. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Draw the Circle was directed by Chay Yew, who also designed the set, with lighting by Mary Louise Gieger and E-hui Woo and sound by Matthew M. Nielson. The entire production is spare, without ostentation or embellishment, the better to focus our attention on the man emerging as others see him: as the man he wants to become.

And who exactly might that man be?

There’s a blazing zone of illumination during Draw the Circle when we learn Deen wants to be a man but does not want to be like men who rape, men whom he knows all too well from living life as a woman. The moment seems almost oracular, as if from Tiresias with #MeToo tears.

“What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman?” Deen asks. “What’s the difference?” What indeed.

If you believe theater can teach us something important about who we are as gendered beings—or even if you just have a hunch that America cannot be great if driven by hate—Draw the Circle is an epochal inquiry into identity…and some of the most pressing questions of our time.

Running Time: About 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Draw the Circle plays through December 24, 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.

Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’sBlog Posts Draw the Circle plays in rep with Dan Hoyle’s The Real Americans. See Review: ‘The Real Americans’ at Mosaic Theater Company by John Stoltenberg


Amazing Grace

A gorgeous production of a glorious musical in a grand new DC theater. What’s not to love?

The new hall for performing arts is the 472-seat World Stage Theater, high up on the fifth floor of the new Museum of the Bible. The undulating lines of its sleek brown wood-paneled walls and ceiling are meant to evoke, says the museum’s website, “an ancient tent flapping in the wind.” For a frequent theatergoer it might also call to mind the embracing effect inside the Kogod Cradle—agreeably proportioned and welcoming, not showy or self-important. The lobby is nothing special architecturally but has no need to be: it looks out on expansive views of the Capitol, Mall, and sky.

Of particular interest to frequent theatergoers is the World Stage Theater sound system, which—on the basis of the production of Amazing Grace just opened—could be the envy of many another Broadway-musical-size house in town. (I won’t name names; but if you’ve ever sat in a seat with lousy amplification, you know what I mean.) Here one can hear the show’s adroit lyrics and wonderful vocals with clarion quality throughout.

The cast of Amazing Grace. In the center: Michael Burrell as John Newton and Eleanor Todd as Mary Catlett. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The musical Amazing Grace—with music and lyrics by Christopher Smith, book by Smith and Arthur Giron—had a run on Broadway two years ago. The production now in DC is an all-new non-Equity mounting that after inaugurating the World Stage Theater will take off on a 27-state national tour.

Amazing Grace is a sweeping saga of one man’s redemption and an enslaved people’s freedom. In a sense, it’s Les Miserables lite. I mean no disrespect by comparing this sturdy show to that masterpiece. On the contrary, I mean to point out that as impressive as Amazing Grace’s more modest execution is, its ethical substance is just as profound.

The story arc of Amazing Grace centers the character arc of John Newton (1725-1807), an English mariner and slave-trading businessman with a gift for hymn writing but no particular value system other than self-involvement and money making. After nearly losing his life at sea—saved, he believed, by divine intervention—he had a religious conversion and became an abolitionist. “Amazing Grace” is the anthem he wrote to express his humble gratitude for the unearned forgiveness that freed him to change his ways and embark on a mission to make amends.

Amazing Grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

John Newton’s moral turnabout holds one of history’s most enduring life lessons, a beacon for how to become one’s better self. The song John Newton left us stirs soul after soul. But the story behind it has new resonance and relevance right now. As we hear in the Prologue from a slave named Thomas (an imposing Isaiah Bailey):

There are moments when the waves of history converge, when the transformation of one man can change the world. With his hands John Newton enslaved thousands, but with his words he helped to free millions. You have heard his song, though you may not have known it was his. How can something so beautiful come from someone so wretched?

We first see a set based on ship masts, sails, ropes, and rigging, a huge Union Jack unfurled as a scrim. As stunningly conceived by Scenic Designers Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce and Lighting Designer Ken Billington, the stage fluently becomes by turns a storm at sea, a British parlor, a near-drowning underwater, a savannah in Siera Leone, and more.

Michael Burrell as John Newton in Amazing Grace. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Michael Burrell as John Newton is on stage most of the show and gives such an appealing performance that he and his bright baritone keep commanding attention. At first, John seems a likable fresh-faced lad, asserting his independence (in a song called “Truly Alive”) from his domineering dad, Captain Newton (Russell Rinker), owner of a shipping company trading in African slaves.

Michael Burrell as John Newton selling a slave (Morgan Scott). Photo by Stan Barouh.

The more we learn about this family business, the shadier John’s character appears. Soon into Act One, there is a musical number called “The Auction” that is a rawly staged slave auction, excruciating to watch. Chillingly, John becomes the auctioneer and treats us the audience as bidders, as if to implicate us in this heinous commerce. It’s a cringe-worthy scene that signals what’s to come, for clearly this musical is not going to equivocate about the horrors of human trafficking. Nor is it going to let white privilege off the hook.

John’s childhood friend and love interest, Mary Catlett (the lovely-voiced Eleanor Todd), tries to let him know she believes in his better nature, remembering how as a boy of nine “he cried out loud” (“Someone Who Hears”). Later we learn her sympathies are with the Abolitionists, which puts her life in danger and puts her at odds with John. Their relationship is on its face a musical convention, two good-looking leads overcoming obstacles on a path to love. But here the conflict between them is rendered as an eloquent examination of a universal struggle between evil and good in the most intimate interpersonal context. And it works.

Michael Burrell as John Newton and Eleanor Todd as Mary Catlett in Amazing Grace. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The cast is about evenly divided between those who play white characters and those who play black, and among the latter are some knockout performances. Kelli Blackwell plays Nanna, Mary’s faithful maidservant. At one point Mary asks Nanna, “Tell me how you came to be here.” Nanna tells of her daughter, Yema (Kanysha Williams), who was stolen from her by slave traders in Africa, and the scene shifts to a powerful musical number  (“Yema’s Song”) in which we witness how African royalty, in this case ruthless Princess Peyai (a fierce Shannon E. Johnson), sold their own tribespeople to the traders.

So many other scenes also deserve mention.

There’s the exhilarating one set in the Abolitionist lair on High Street. There Mr. Tyler (Da’Von Moody), Rabbi Einhorn (Joshua Simon), Mr. Quigley (Jordan Campbell), and members of the Ensemble sing a song called “We Are Determined,” vowing to undermine the slave trade:

For we are determined to live and to die
For the freedom of those
That our nation denies

There’s the funny scene in a posh club when full-of-himself Major Gray (Wyn Delano), who fancies himself a suitor to Mary, tries to offer her an engagement ring (“Expectations”). She has zero interest in his proposal, and offers some clever cracks about men that the audience quite enjoyed.

There’s the weighty one of the slave auction, and the gripping one of slave capture.

There’s the heart-stopping, eye-popping one when the Newton family’s house slave Thomas rescues John from drowning—and we see them through a scrim suspended from Flying by Foy wires as if deep in the sea.

And there’s the turning point scene when John declares, “I came face to face with all my sins,” followed by the scene in which he asks Thomas for forgiveness—which Thomas reluctantly gives.

Michael Burrell as John Newton and Isaiah Bailey as Thomas in Amazing Grace. Photo by Stan Barouh

At this moment in our country’s history when powerful men are being exposed and publicly confronted and having to fess up to their mortifying failures as human beings, the example of scalding self-honesty and confession in this story of John Newton’s redemption has much to say that sorely needs saying.

The show is not quite shipshape. A few light cues seemed not yet certain; some of Christopher Gattelli’s choreography and David Leong fight choreography had not gelled. But the entire production is handsomely directed by Gabriel Barre, and visually the show is magnificent. Toni-Leslie James’s period costumes are lush in their textures and color palettes; Robert-Charles Vallance’s wig designs are spot on. And the uniformly clear and strong vocals are an absolute pleasure to hear.

Before the show, I looked for the orchestra pit and found there is none. The cast members sing live but all the beautiful orchestrations (by Kenny Seymour) and dramatic arrangements (by Joseph Church) are prerecorded and played back, with the same high fidelity as the striking effects in the sound design (by Shannon Slaton). To musical-theater-attuned ears, this can take a little getting used to; but one soon realizes that though the conductor’s job is done and gone, the emotions in the scoring are completely in sync with the emotions in the singers, and an array of speakers has been positioned and programmed to create a rich dimensionality and directionality beyond what typically can arise from a pit below the stage.

I found the theater staff to be among friendliest I’ve ever encountered. Another anomaly I noticed was that the audience was likely not a theater crowd; I guessed them to be folks seeing the show more because it was in a museum that had personal meaning for them. Perhaps as a result, their responses throughout—to the show’s dry humor, the cast’s spectacular singing—sounded somewhat subdued. (Or perhaps it was because the hall’s acoustics are better-suited to sound coming from on stage than from the house.) But soon as the show was over, the audience rose to their feet cheering and applauding. And at the very end of the curtain call, when the whole cast broke out in “Amazing Grace” and invited the audience to sing along, it was as deeply moving as hymn time in a house of worship on a holy day.

Running Time: Just under three hours, including one intermission.

Amazing Grace plays through January 7, 2018, at the World Stage Theater in the Museum of the Bible, 400 4th Street SW, Washington DC. Tickets, which include admission to the museum, can be purchased online.