Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: March, 2018

The Beckett Trio

Nanna Ingvarsson is so phenomenal in these three harrowing short plays by Samuel Beckett that one can easily imagine the Nobel Prize-winning minimalist—notoriously persnickety about his stage directions—rising from the grave (center stage, a six-by-two rectangular hole, in nearly no light) and exclaiming (in a hoarse whisper): “Yes, yes, that’s precisely what I meant.” And then (brushing dust from his cadaverous face): “If only I were still alive, I could write another playlet for her.” (Whereupon, woebegone, he slowly disappears into the hole. Ten-second pause. Fade to black.)

Nana Ingvarsson as May in Footfalls. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Two-time Helen Hayes Award winner Ingvarsson has secured a reputation as one of the best actors in town, but were she still casting about for a calling in life, deciphering the distilled texts of Beckett would be a mission with her name on it.

Robert McNamara is the Artistic Director of Scena, a company that for thirty years has been acting locally the intriguing literature he has sought out globally. Beckett’s Endgame was Scena’s first production, and now McNamara directs an enthralling hour’s worth of three spare plays, all of which touch on Beckett’s fascination/obsession with end-of-life stasis in the face of mortality.  Beckett may be the poet laureate of our inevitable decrepitude, and to some, this cryptic triptych might seem a grim night out, but do not underestimate Becket’s prosody, which has influenced more subsequent playwrights than you can shake a spear at. Not to mention: Ingvarsson’s musical mastery of Becket’s language is sublime.

Nanna Ingvarsson as May in Footfalls. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

The first playlet is Footfalls, in which a woman named May (Ingvarsson) paces back and forth on a walkway of planks clip-clop-clip-clop and has a fractured conversation with the Voice of her mother (a marvelous prerecorded Nancy Robinette). May is said to be fortyish but Costume Designer Sigrid Johannesdottir has followed Beckett’s instruction to the letter, as one must (“disheveled gray hair, gray wrap hiding feet”), making May seem like the ninety her offstage mother is said to be.

Nana Ingvarsson as Mouth in Not I. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Next up is Not I, in which Ingvarsson plays Mouth, who is just that: a brightly lit red-lipped mouth appearing in darkness through a hole eight feet above the stage, per Beckett. And Mouth runs off at the mouth with a torrent of phrases and ellipses and little syntactical connection. It begins:

…out…into this world…this world…tiny little thing…before its time…in a godfor—…what?…girl?…yes…tiny little girl…into this…out into this…before her time…godforsaken hole called…called…no mater…parents unknown…he having vanished into thin air…no sooner buttoned up his breeches…she similarly…eight months later…almost to the tick…so no love…spared that…

Mouth’s monologue goes on like that for nearly eight pages, and I could not help wondering during this epic logorrhea, How in the world did Ingvarsson learn it? And how in the world did she then make it so piteous and hilarious at the same time?

Nanna Ingvarsson as Woman in Rockaby. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

The closer is Rockaby. Ingvarsson as Woman sits in a rocking chair mechanically operated from offstage so it rocks and stops, rocks and stops. Again it’s a monologue in a female voice, this time in blank verse, an end-of-life reverie with this poignant refrain

in the end came
close of a long day
sitting at her window
quiet at her window

And again Beckett’s stage directions have been executed exactly:

Prematurely old. Unkempt gray hair. Huge eyes in white expressionless face.[…] Black lacy high-necked evening gown […] Incongruous flimsy head-dress set askew with extravagant trimming to catch light when rocking.

Set Designer John D. Antone has taken the liberty of mounting a gray stained stonelike wall upstage. Lighting Designer Johnathan Alexander has taken the liberty of giving us considerably more artful lighting that Beckett requested. Sound Designer Denise Rose has taken the liberty of playing before the show and between scenes an incongruous male voice singing German opera (no more incongruous than anything else in the show). And good that they did, because it all works together terrifically.

For a gripping take on a master of modern drama, wait not. Go do’t. (That’s a stage direction.)

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

The Becket Trio plays through April 8, 2018, at Scena Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. 20002, For tickets, call  202-339-7993 or purchase them online.

 

 

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Nat Turner in Jerusalem

By coincidence, Nat Turner in Jerusalem opened at Forum Theatre the day that The Raid closed at Theater Alliance. The two plays seen in succession are powerfully connected. Idris Goodwin’s The Raid imagines John Brown, the white Abolitionist who attempted to arm blacks for a revolt against slavery by leading a raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Nathan Alan Davis’s Nat Turner in Jerusalem imagines Nat Turner, the black revolutionary who, 28 years before the Harper’s Ferry raid, led freed blacks and slaves like himself in an armed insurrection. To see both plays and connect the dots between them is to bear witness to a galvanizing sign of our times. For just as the box office juggernaut Black Panther instills an aspirational vision of black power and sovereignty, so do these two back-to-back plays reclaim and honor a heritage of black pride and rebellion.

Jon Hudson Odom as Nat Turner in Nat Turner in Jerusalem. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Davis is the author of Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, a play I admired enormously when Theater Alliance did it three years ago. He has based Nat Turner in Jerusalem on a pamphlet published in 1831 by a lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, who transcribed Nat’s confession from interviews during their meeting in the Virginia jail cell where Nat was awaiting execution.

The character that emerges in The Confessions of Nat Turner is not at all what one would expect: He is no raving renegade. He is a devout Christian preacher who from a young age had precocious prophetic powers and believes he was divinely inspired to lead the insurrection. So it is with factual justification that faith becomes the fulcrum on which Davis balances this riveting play.

In one of several scenes between Nat (Jon Hudson Odom) and Thomas (Joe Carlson), the lawyer, an ardent secularist, declares:

THOMAS: The truth is, people will attribute whatever they decide is virtuous to God…. The Abolitionists think God hates slavery. The powers that reign in Virginia think God loves it….

God is not going to free the negroes. And this insurrection will only serve as proof for the argument that your people must be more severely controlled.

But Davis has given Nat an eloquence and purity of heart that Thomas’s skepticism and pragmatism are no match for. For instance, upon being pressed by Thomas to disclose information about possible conspirators and future rebellions that might occur, Nat says simply, as if gently preaching a parable:

NAT: The wind blows and the leaves are stirred…. What good does it do to ask one leaf what the others are up to?

Joe Carlson as Thomas Gray in Nat Turner in Jerusalem. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Nat is on stage the whole time, wearing tattered clothes in a dim jail cell framed in wooden planks with a single barred window letting in sunlight. He has lyrical monologues addressed to objects—his shackles, a lamp—and mesmerizing exchanges with Thomas and with a Guard (also played by the versatile Carlson). Under the sensitive direction of José Carrasquillo, the scenes proceed in a heightened diction that harks back in time. It is as if we are being subtly prompted to meditate on the meaning now of the thorny themes Davis lays out.

For instance, referring to the carnage left after the insurrection, Thomas challenges Nat,

THOMAS: Did you manage to defeat anyone who was not a child, a woman or otherwise wearing his pajamas?
NAT: Yes, we did….We did the work of death upon as many of your kind as we could. Victory was never promised. This was not war, Mr. Gray. This was warning.

And later…

THOMAS: Why would any Holy Being want that?
NAT: What do you think holy vengeance is supposed to look like?

Jon Hudson Odom as Nat Turner in Nat Turner in Jerusalem. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The marvel is that given such righteously over-the-top speeches, Nat emerges movingly as very human, a seer and prophet maybe but not a madman or lunatic. And that is due to the emotionally sublime performance of Jon Hudson Odom. At times he seems possessed of a passionate certainty that could only originate in some other realm where justice is held sacred, and he makes us believe that realm exists.

NAT: The signs, Thomas Gray, are everywhere. The uprisings will never cease until injustice ceases…
To cease injustice is your only recourse. Already the sands are shifting beneath your feet.

Nathan Alan Davis’s Nat Turner in Jerusalem is a theater experience that grabs you heart, mind, and soul. And very like the insurrection it references, it is a prophetic symbolic action: An enduring stirring of leaves. And an audacious shifting of sands.

Running Time: About 85 minutes, with no intermission.

Nat Turner in Jerusalem plays through April 7, 2018, at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.

LINKS:

Review: ‘The Raid’ at Theater Alliance by John Stoltenberg

Review: ‘Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea’ at Theater Alliance by John Stoltenberg

Review: ‘Nat Turner in Jerusalem’ at Forum Theatre by Ramona Harper

 

Chicago

With its snappy-saucy take on Chicago, The Keegan Theatre shows it knows how to give an audience the ol’ razzle-dazzle. And Keegan has done the durable musical proud. In fact in Keegan’s mounting of the quasi-naughty musical on a bare wood set in a decommissioned church, a case can be made that Chicago’s vaudeville-based storytelling works even better than it would in a glitzy Broadway house.

The cast of Chicago. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Set Designer Matthew J. Keenan drapes a worn red curtain to make a tacky proscenium, paints fake floorboards on the stage, installs tinny footlights at the edge, erects walls with see-through slats, builds bare-bones steps to a loft where the honky-tonky band hides—and presto we’re in the perfect sketchy playhouse to enjoy the sleazy scandals to come.

Under the indispensable musical direction of Jake Null, the second-story pit orchestra kicks off the bright and divey “Overture,” and Choreographer Rachel Leigh Dolan gets the joint jumping with dancers doing boy-girl bumps and grinds wearing Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson’s burlesque-inspired finery.

Is it getting hot in here or what?

Well, hell yeah. But under the sure hand of Co-directors Susan Marie Rhea and Mark A. Rhea, the show’s actual heat-generators are soon revealed: women who kill…and women actors who kill (pun intended).

Maria Rizzo as Roxie Hart in Chicago. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Foremost is Maria Rizzo as Roxie Hart, the brassy dame who becomes famous for shooting her lover and gets a vaudeville act out of the deal. In Rizzo’s riveting performance, Roxie is a bundle of vulnerability, with a fascinating tentativeness that reads as both insecurity and moxie. Rizzo can belt out a solo (her “Funny Honey,” is sensational), and she can high-kick like a chorine on caffeine. But it is in the quiet authenticity with which she conveys Roxie’s conflicted inner life that Rizzo’s performance becomes a star turn.

Right behind is Jessica Bennett as Velma, Roxie’s jailhouse rival for tabloid fame and ultimately her vaudeville partner. Bennett’s vocals are strong, her presence is appealing, and her robust dance moves tear up the stage. As the story goes, Roxie and Velma are an odd match—they parlay their notoriety as murderers into show business because, well, career options for ex-cons are limited. So there’s a not-quite-a-twosome tension in Rizzo’s and Bennett’s teamwork—as if to say: our individuated characters have not got lost in all that jazz.

Jessica Bennett as Velma Kelly with the cast of Chicago. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

If I were pressed to pick my favorite number in Chicago, it would be “Cell Block Tango,” and in Keegan’s production it gets a killer deployment from the chorus of murderesses: Katie McManus (Liz), Heather Gifford (Annie), Jennifer Hopkins (June), Jillian Wessel (Hunyak), Amber Jones (Mona), and Melrose Pyne (Go-To-Hell Kitty)—all under the baleful eye of Rikki Howie Lacewell as Matron Mama Morton, whose smokey vocals on “When You’re Good to Mama” are delightfully wry.

Michael Innocenti as Amos Hart in Chicago. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

The men of Chicago are not to be outdone. Michael Innocenti as Roxie’s hapless hubby, Amos Hart, does a showstopping job on “Mr. Cellophane.” Wearing cartoony white gloves and a touching soulfulness, he milks comic pauses for all they’re worth.  Kurt Boehm as the debonaire and skeevy lawyer Billy Flynn slam-dunks his ventriloquist number, “We Both Reached for the Gun” (with Rizzo doing a drop-dead-hilarious dummy on his lap). The dance ensemble of men—Andre Hinds, Rj Pavel, Will Hayes, Kaylen Morgan—has two tall standouts, Hinds and Morgan, who partner Rizzo on “Roxie” with grace and flash. And Chris Rudy as the cross-dressing newshound Mary Sunshine delivers “A Little Bit of Good” with amusingly shrill operatic panache.

There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle and scads of sass and pizzazz on display in Keegan’s Chicago. Back in the 1970s, its legendary creators Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse, John Kander ingeniously packed the show’s plot and musical numbers into successive vaudeville acts; and on the Keegan stage, each such scene plays like a house afire. But in the end what sets Chicago apart as an American musical classic is its throughline of two down-and-out women with man troubles who become catty competitors then pick themselves up by their garter straps and decide they’re both better off in a bond. Not a thoroughly modern narrative of sisterly empowerment, perhaps, but thanks to a sterling production with two powerhouse female leads, it still works like a charm.

Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

Chicago has been extended through April 14, 2018, with Wednesday performances added, at The Keegan Theatre—1742 Church Street NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

 

Breathe: The Musical

Breathe is a brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed gospel musical that celebrates black resilience even as it revisits the traumas endured by the black family in a nation built on slavery. At times soaringly transcendent in its evocation of hope and faith, at times searingly explicit in its depiction of anguish and grief, Breathe in performance is a rapturous ceremony of shared healing.

The work is the heartchild of Cleavon Meabon IV, a 25-year-old wunderkind from Atlanta by way of Howard University, who wrote and directed the show. Also composed and arranged music for it. Also music-directed it. Also shot promotional photography and designed graphics for it. (This may be off topic for a review, but Meabon has achieved with Breathe one of the best theater marketing campaigns I have seen in DC.)

Breathe: The Musical opening night photo by Kevin Thompson.

Breathe is breathtakingly ambitious in form and substance. It has a cast of 25. Its ten scenes are sewn together in a patchwork of richly poetic riffs, received and rewritten spirituals, liturgical dance, dramatic episodes, and interludes of homespun comedy. The promise made on the show’s website is kept:

A great deal of American history has attempted to take the breaths away from African Americans through rape, lynching, Jim Crow laws, KKK terror, injustice, and police brutality.

BREATHE: The Musical is the story of the Jones family, a post-slavery family of sharecroppers in the early to mid 1900’s as they seek refuge from America’s violent racial climate.

Supremacy has begot rape, false allegations, lynch threats, and eventually death to the family. With the help of 5 timeless Midwives, the ghosts of historic lynching victims, and a vibrant close-knit community, they navigate through the everyday trials of the era to reformation and anti-lynch laws.

The show’s two acts have overwhelming emotional reach and resonance.

Breathe: The Musical opening night photo by Kevin Thompson.

It begins powerfully with a chorus of midwives singing “Hold On Just a Little While Longer” to support and succor a pregnant Myra Jones (Kayla Dixon), who is having flashbacks of her rape by the Massa. One of the midwives, Selma (Alexis Smith), has a speech that cuts into a collective wound.

SELMA: Her voice shakes like shackles trying to birth a baby she already bereaves. She chewed cotton roots hoping not to get stuck with a rapist seed, hoping not to aid in developing a new breed. We don’t like havin’ massa’s babies.

Maebon’s script is chockful of knockout poetry like that. And it often speaks truths with surpassing understanding. For instance, after Myra’s baby is born and the Massa is evidently implicated, the Massa’s white wife retaliates by accusing Myra’s husband, Wilbur (Kofi), of raping her. And Myra delivers a monolog as if addressing the Massa directly.

MYRA: She lie. She a liar.
She just want your attention.
And for the sake of me and mine, give it to her.
She knows her power.
The alleged rape of a white woman is a death threat to
every black man within 50 miles of her lying tongue.
Ropes chase him—latch on to his neck like leaches
draining his blood all because her revenge is confused.
She don’t know she’s really after you.

Just let that moment sink in: In the space of eight tight lines, Maebon has Myra articulate her insight into a privileged white woman who is nonetheless oppressed by a white man but throttles her anger at the Massa and shunts it to a black man instead.

That’s some powerful dramatic writing. And the musical has only begun.

Breathe: The Musical opening night photo by Kevin Thompson.

The story unfolds in a series of scenes with such iconic settings as a laundry, a tent revival, a Sunday dinner, a funeral, a rally, a hair salon. There’s a unit set of moss- and foliage-covered stonework and woodwork designed by Tyson Evans and Darius Ligon. Scene changes are effected by actors’ rearrangement of set pieces, with lighting designed by Jourdan Holden and sound designed by Demont Cross. The choreopoem feel of the show is well realized in Ebony Ingram’s choreography. And a costuming team of four (Tyson Evans, Belinda Ligon, Sankara Xasha Tube, Solfistafunk) do wonders with fabrics, textures, and embellishments to create a relatable sense of the period.

The gifted poetry is so succinct and imagistic, it does not always track as storytelling, however; so the narrative and the who’s who can at times be hard to follow. For future productions (which there must be), a dramaturg might help fix that, because the language as written is amazing and the story arc is epic. Despite that minor issue, the emotional underpinnings of the performance were always palpable—especially in the music and the singing, which with every musical number re-stole the show. The choral work was simply stunning in purity and passion. And given the great song list (including such spirituals as “Jesus, My All, to Heaven Is Gone,” “Way Over in Beulah Lan’,”  “By and By,” “City of Heaven”), a cast recording would be fitting.

Breathe: The Musical opening night photo by Kevin Thompson.

Were Breathe not so artfully crafted, some trigger warnings about its content might be in order. There is a lynching (handled symbolically). The Klan shows up (as stick puppets). Myra has a dream in which she sees “The Fruits”—the corpses of hanging victims (“creepy, but not scary” says a stage direction). There is Myra’s rape (described viscerally). But the genius of Breathe is that it is always in touch with the emotions it elicits. It always knows the pulse of the bloodlines of the people who share the history it recalls.

For instance, early in the show, there is a scene when the Midwives flash back to being sold at auction. One by one they tell their terrible story. And this eloquent sisterhood struggles to find a way forward.

“Ain’t nothing wrong with having flashbacks,” says Selma. “We all get them.”

“Yes there is,” says Devorah (Corisa Myers). “That’s the problem now. We can’t
focus what is for us because we won’t leave what was alone.”

Breathe doesn’t leave alone what was. Breathe goes there. Breathe evokes and distills the collective trauma of an extended black family whose scars reopen still. But Breathe’s intent to help heal from that shared history is ever present and ever vigilant. Breathe takes a deep breath and moves the family on. And it’s a beautiful thing.

Breathe: The Musical marketing image and photo by Cleavon Meabon IV (Cleavisions).

Cast
The Jones Family: 
Kayla Dixon (Myra “Jean” Jones), Kofi (Wilbur R. Jones Sr.), Bryan Archibald (Rayford Jones Jr.), Nzingha Ashford (Marilyn “Jean” Jones), Courtney Harris Rona “Jean” Jones, CJ Harris (Harold “Bud” Jones)
The Midwives: Alexis Smith (Selma), Brittany Turner (Gertie), Lady Davonne (Erma), Brittany Caldwell (Erma u/s), Catrina  Brenae (Cissy), Corisa Myers (Devorah), Tiana Thomas (Devorah u/s)
The Fruits: Harrison Walker (Thomas Shipp), Anthony Powell (Abram Smith), Latoya Lewis (Emilie Antoinie), Shawnee Owens (Laura Nelson), Niko Gibbs (Lige Daniels), Tatayana Flannigan (Unknown)
The Blues People:  Dana Coleman (Madam Lovely), Jaleesa Sharp (Cindy), Niko Gibbs (Bart, Lisa’s Child), Harrison Walker (Claude), Anthony  Powell (Rod)
The Revival: Barry Moton (Rev. Jenkins)
The Dancers: Jaleesa Sharp, Da’Neisha Ligon, Tyra Jackson, Naila Brown, Carla Camargo, Lailah Horsford

Breathe: The Musical marketing image and photo by Cleavon Meabon IV (Cleavisions).

Production Team
Writer and Director:  Cleavon Meabon IV
Executive Producer: Tyson Evans
Musical Director: Cleavon Meabon IV
Music Composer: Cleavon Meabon IV
Music Arranger: Cleavon Meabon IV, Jarrett Roseborough IV
Assistant Director: Nathaniel Shelton
Associate Producers: Belinda Ligon, Chandra Gore, Alexis Smith, Shantelle Mosby
Music Lyrics: Cleavon Meabon IV, Tyson Evans
Music Producer: Robert Dixon Jr.
Choreographer: Ebony Ingram
Dance Captains: Jaleesa Sharp, Da’Neisha Ligon
Costuming: Tyson Evans, Belinda Ligon, Luqman Salim, Sankara Xasha Tube, Solfistafunk
Set Design: Tyson Evans, Darius Ligon
Production Manager: Demetrius Cole
Sound Designer: Demonte Cross
Light Designer: Jourdan Holden

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Breathe: The Musical plays through March 24, 2015, at SoulFree Enterprises performing at THEARC West Blackbox, 1901 Mississippi Avenue SE, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

 

The Tarot Reading (IV)

Despite its occultish name, The Tarot Reading is not a cabalistic rite for mystics. It is actually an ingenious theater game for hipster questers who are psyched to play along. To be sure, the trappings of the participatory performance evoke the arcane realms of ritual, invocation, and revelation. But the reality is a spellbinding actor-instigated crowd-pleaser that has achieved certifiable cult status.

The Mother, by Justin J. Bell (right), with navi (left) and a Seeker in The Tarot Reading. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The Tarot Reading began in 2016 and popped up briefly in March and October of 2017. What was to be a run of three shows last weekend sold out so fast a fourth was added. One need not be clairvoyant to foretell there shall be more.

I attended on a “witness” ticket, meaning I watched and enjoyed from the comfort of a rocker, one of the assorted chairs on risers around the stage. Twenty-one folks who had “seeker” tickets had each been given a Tarot card on entry, and when their card was drawn, they were summoned from their seat to take part in a personalized “revelation”—basically a playlet for an audience of one, part scripted, part improvised—performed by one of seven “mediums” (Justin J. Bell, Allyson Harkey, Jon Jon Johnson, David S. Kessler, Niusha Nawab, Nyla Rose, and Rebecca Speas).

The Beast, by Nyla Rose (left), with a Seeker in The Tarot Reading. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

I attended the first iteration of The Tarot Reading with “seeker” status in October 2016 at the gallery space Studio 1469 in Columbia Heights.  So I had some idea what to expect.

The World, by Justin J. Bell (left), with a Seeker in The Tarot Reading. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Alan Katz and Quill Nebeker— then as now the “summoners,” or chief deviser-producers—had conceived what seemed a wholly new framework for experiencing live theater. Katz happened also to be my “medium” that night. “The Fool,” then played by Rebecca Speas, seated me in a chair center stage and spun me around to face Katz upstage.

“Hi,” he said, “What’s your name?”

I answered.

Okay, John, let’s play a game. It’s called 30 seconds to Heaven. Here’s the deal. For the purposes of this Revelation, we’re going to pretend you’re dead. We’re sorry for your loss…. You are dead and at the gates of Heaven. Here’s the game: you have 30 seconds to make an argument to me, the gatekeeper, as to why you should get into heaven. You can say anything you want, anything that you think might get you in, as long as you believe it to be true. Then there will be a decision mechanism that will decide whether you get in or you go to, well, the other place….

Wheel of Fortune, by David 8 Kessler (left), with a Seeker. Background: Jon Jon Johnson, Justin J. Bell in The Tarot Reading. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Katz started the “argument timer” and in 30 seconds I pleaded my case. I didn’t make anything up. I said stuff about my commitment to social justice, unspecific but true. Then Katz instructed my jury of stand-in Saint Peters (whom I could not see) to decide my fate by a show of hands. I got voted into Heaven, which weirdly was a relief.  I also won a stuffed animal named Pete. Then a bell dinged and the audience broke into a round of applause.

That pretty much illustrates the gambit behind The Tarot Reading: an original game, with prescriptive rules, by which the “medium” engages the “seeker” and thereby involves and engrosses everyone in the house.

The Moon, by Rebecca Speas (floor), with a Seeker in The Tarot Reading. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Classical theater is riddled with such setups: You have to choose one of three chests. You have to pass such and such a test. You have to decide between this path and that other path. You must wager for your life. Cleverly culling and retooling the master plot concept, Nebeker and Katz—along with “head of transfiguration” Joan Cummins—oversee selection, rehearsal, and staging of the twenty-one game-based episodes.

For each “corporealization” of The Tarot Reading, the seven mediums each create and perform three rituals, loosely related thematically to a card in the Tarot deck (The Magician, The Moon, The Thunderbolt, Resurrection, and such). What’s uncanny is not only how consistently successfully the twenty-one such stratagems work as theater over the course of an evening. What’s truly marvelous is how the high hilarity of some can be juxtaposed with the autobiographical emotional rawness of others in a card-drawn sequence that’s completely randomized from show to show.

The High Priest, by Niusha Nawab (left), with a Seeker in The Tarot Reading. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The Tarot Reading (IV) had advanced greatly terms of stagecraft and conceptual richness since the first I saw a year and a half ago. Production Designer Mary Keegan had festooned the ceiling with strings of lights and coiled swaths of color and had given each of the episodes dramatic stage lighting. Some also had sound designs by navi and Niusha Nawab.

The Fool, played by navi, was our greeter and guide, referring to us familiarly as “friends, neighbors, and beings of all flavors.” The Fool was essentially our cohesion coach, conducting us “the human orchestra” in foot stomps, finger snaps, and rhythmic vocalizations. Even more personally, the Fool was the ally of our psyche, declaring there shall be “no lying” and instructing us in the “safety valve,” a raised fist gesture, which we were to use if at any point one of us was triggered or needed to opt out. Though nobody used the gesture the night I attended, there were times when someone understandably might have: several rituals were flagged in the program for “depictions of violence,” “stories of and related to death,” “stark depictions of PTSD,” and the like. The show was a lot of laughs, with plenty of comical situations and a cast ad-libbing nimbly. Yet after the belly laughs were done, it was the from-the-gut emotionality some of the mediums brought to their rituals that stuck around. Doubtless, the zone of safety delineated by the Fool was as much for the sake of the mediums as it was for us.

Thunderbolt, by on Jon Jon Johnson (right), with a Seeker in The Tarot Reading. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Because the rituals are semi-scripted, one is likely to hear epigrammatic lines that tenderly transcend the entertaining game being played. For instance: In the ritual for The Chariot card, Nawab says, “The victory is not in reaching the destination but it’s in finding the path.” In the ritual for The Emperor card, which featured a comic nerf-gun shootout and a content warning for “gun violence,” Speas says, “You don’t need a badge to be good, and you don’t need a gun to feel powerful.” And in the ritual for The Sick Man card, which contained a content warning for “chronic pain,” Kessler says, “I don’t regret what I can’t do anymore. I cherish what I did once.”

Something unexpectedly humane happens in The Tarot Reading. Not something esoteric yet something inexplicably connecting. When the cult hit comes round again, catch it. The Tarot Reading is a captivating catharsis not to be missed.

Running Time: Approximately three hours, including two intermissions.

 

The Tarot Reading (IV) played March 9, 10, and 11, 2018, produced by The Arcanists at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC. For information about future performances, follow The Tarot Reading on Facebook or join the Tarot Reading mailing list.

 

Taylor Mac’s “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged)”

I doubt the Eisenhower Theater was ever more queered than the night Taylor Mac came to town. The outrageously gifted and fabulously attired theater artist brought “a radical fairy realness ritual sacrifice” to a cheering sold-out crowd—who at one point were persuaded to pair off in same-sex couples and slow dance.

Whatever Taylor Mac bid, we did.  It was as if everything staid and conventional about DC was being delightfully corrupted by a steamroller of queer counterculture.

The two-part program was packed with showstoppers, starting with Mac’s entrance down the aisle wearing a glittery vision in gold featuring shimmering wings, ruby red heels, and a sequined headdress embellished with “In Goddess We Trust.”  It was the first but not the last extrava-gown-za from Mac’s longtime costume designer, Machine Dazzle, whose own cameo appearance was in a face-wrapped homage to the flamboyant performer/designer Leigh Bowery.

This would not be “a normal concert,” Mac said, to no one’s surprise. “This is a performance art concert. You can hate everything about this show, and I still will have succeeded.” Which of course was a joke, because the audience was lovin’ every minute. Not least when Mac broke out into an arrangement of “Amazing Grace” so amazing it felt like the second coming of Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and Ziggy Stardust all rock and rolled into one.

Taylor Mac. Photo by Little Fang courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

The program, Mac announced, would be a selection of songs about resistance since 1776, abridged from the 24-hour version, which played in New York.

The first song in the series was indeed a ditty from 1776 called “The Congress,” which was a treat for anyone fed up with today’s legislative branch. Its unequivocal hook was “execrate the Congress…execute the Congress…curse the haughty Congress…bid adieu to Congress.”

From 1780 Mac reclaimed what he called “the first women’s lib song” (I’m not sure what he meant by that, as it was written in praise of the Queen). And then, as if for bipartisan cred, Mac introduced what he called “the GOP’s favorite resistance song.” When it turned out he meant the blackface minstrelsy classic “Dixie Land,” the audience howled (“Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton, / Old times there are not forgotten. / Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land!”) Then, astonishingly, Mac brought real feeling to the tune, like a beautifully moving musical reverie. Of course, Mac had a zinger to catch us up and score a point: “Nostalgia is the last refuge of the racist.”

Taylor Mac. Photo by Little Fang courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Mac’s patter between and within songs was inimitably quick and witty; and the impromptu theatrical provocations, a hoot. At one point Mac went into the audience, picked out six middle-aged white men, and got them to carry the glam entertainer shoulder-high up to the stage, all the while Mac sang a trumpety disco arrangement of the late 1880s “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” Whether that was meant as a double entendre, I cannot guess.

Continuing the show’s radical embrace of resistance movements, Mac wrapped references to the black civil-rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, and the queer civil-rights movement into an introduction to the Nina Simone song “Mississippi Goddam” (“You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality”). Accompanied by two powerhouse vocalists (Steffanie Christi’an and Thornetta Davis) and the outstanding orchestra (Danton Boller on bass, Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks on drums, Viva DeConcini on guitar, Greg Glassman on trumpet, J. Walter Hawkes on trombone, Dana Lyn on violin) under the magnificent musical direction of Matt Ray on piano, Mac’s rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” rocked the house like a truth bomb.

Mac’s persona and programming share some DNA with Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous, but as Mac set up a classic Irving Berlin song, things got not only ludicrous but strangely touching. Explaining that Berlin was a Russian Jewish immigrant who grew up in a crowded New York tenement, Mac cajoled the audience into a “reenactment,”  conducting us section by section  to make nonsense sounds—squalling infants, gabbing parents, babbling brothers and sisters—as if we were a cacophonic orchestra, all while Mac on the mic milked the irony out of “All Alone.”

Taylor Mac. Photo by Kevin Yatarola courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

After the intermission, a thundering Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter” jolted us back (“It’s just a shot away / It’s just a shot away”), and Mac worked in a poignant reference to Marsha P. Johnson, the transgender pioneer and activist said to have sparked the queer-rights riot in 1969 when she threw a glass at the mirror in the Stonewall Bar. Punned Mac: “It was the shot glass heard round the world.”

Middle-aged white men, it turned out, were in for more. Mac selected three of them this time and sent them up on stage with instructions to stand center stage and represent “the patriarchy.” This they did with evident good cheer. Then with full-on cheek, Mac sang the Platters’ “Only You” (“Only you can make this world seem right… You’re my dream come true, my one and only you”). Things got very hand-holdy and huggy.

There was still more. Mac introduced a Ted Nugent song (“Snakeskin Cowboy”) that Nugent acknowledged was about fag-bashing (“Who the hell you think you are / You’re dancin’ around with your high-heeled boots / … / Just hangin’ around with your fancy pants on”). And Mac declared: “We have to appropriate that shit.” Thereupon Mac induced/seduced the entire audience into the aforementioned same-sex slow dance. I can’t explain it. You had to have been there.

Then came an entrance even grander than Mac’s: The Bowie State University Pep Band, horns blaring and drums pounding, marched down the aisle in formation and in force and owned the stage to the galvanizing strains of the Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway” (“We’re marching the freedom highway / And we’re not gonna turn around”).

The word showstopper doesn’t even…  But Mac had even more in store, including a big finish inspiration that “the people have the power.”

Something precious and ineffable happened during this show. Not incidentally, Lighting Designer John Torres deployed a lot of red, white, and blue through billowing haze that not only made the house feel part of the stage but made us all feel part of America. It was off-the-charts entertaining and at the same time heart-stoppingly grounded in a politics of inclusion and resistance. Mac got a MacArthur genius grant for good reason. If the nation had a popular entertainer laureate, I’d nominate Taylor Mac.

Before the show, I overheard a patron  who had seen the 24-hour version say: “It was exhausting but pretty phenomenal.”) Before being swept away by this two-and-a-half-hour touring edition, I could not imagine wanting 21 and a half hours more.

Now I totally can.

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

Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged) played March 6, 2018, at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater — 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC.

Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged) was presented as part of Direct Current, a new celebration of contemporary culture, which runs through March 19, 2018, at the Kennedy Center. Tickets and the full schedule are online.

 

That Part Is True

Wouldn’t it be fun to be a young urban radical and cohabit with other young revolutionaries—in a cheap walk-up apartment that you all share—eating fast food, having polyamorous sex, doing recreational drugs—in between planning direct actions that will tear down oppressive systems like for sure, you know? Wouldn’t that just be a blast? to hang out with your closest chums in a woke cell of resistance? At home with the rads. What could go wrong, right?

If that setup at all tickles you, you’re in a mood to appreciate the comedic shenanigans and dark plot twists that Playwright/Director Madeline Farrington’s That Part Is True has in store.

Mabelle Nung Fomundam (Kate), Kathleen Vaughn Crosby (Tiffany), LJ Moses (Jordan), and Tim Trueheart (Mick) in That Part Is True. Photo by Emily Canavan.

There are four wannabe revolutionaries in the house and they are a delightfully motley bunch. Kate (Mabelle Nung Fomundam), the one with some money, is a hothead, fuming and screaming over just about everything. Her sometime lover Tiffany (Kathleen Vaughn Crosby) is a cooler head. Her other sometime lover Mick (Tim Trueheart) is a laconic mooch. And Jordan, the fourth roomie (LJ Moses), is a bit of an enigma, also apparently Mick’s other sometime lover.

They call their sparse yet cluttered crib Safe House. True to the esthetic of a Fringe show, Sound and Light Designer Dujuan Pritchett has given the playing space a simple urban ambiance (including a hint of the snowmageddon going on outside) and Art Director Michael Barczynski has dressed the set with agit-prop graphics (“Direct Action for the Win”).

Besides these digs, the activists share a history that includes the Occupy movement in DC. And interestingly, as funny as the offbeat character-driven humor sometimes is, their politics and principles are never butts of the joke. Even when the characters are being their most divertingly dysfunctional, the playwright keeps their convictions sincere. I take this neat trick to be faithful to the actual history of the producing theater company, Rabble Crew Productions, which, according to a program note,

was founded in the wake of Occupy DC’s eviction from McPherson Square when Kelly Canavan [aka Madeline Farrington] worked with other Occupyers to produce her first show, McPherson Madness, in the 2013 Fringe Festival…. Rabble Crew continues to grow as a theater collective catering to those of us lurking along the road less traveled.

LJ Moses (Jordan), Mabelle Nung Fomundam (Kate), Kathleen Vaughn Crosby (Tiffany), and Tim Trueheart (Mick) in That Part Is True. Photo by Emily Canavan.

Two of the four roles in That Part Is True turn out to be parts that are fake. They are not who they seem—and the unraveling that results as their backstories are revealed is what drives an offbeat plotline that ends with a macabre shocker.

The play’s structure seems looser and more ambling than what might be expected to support the play’s aspiration to gravitas. A promo text on the web gives the gist of it:

That Part Is True explores the ways that marginalized people—specifically men and women of color and queer folks—are betrayed and endangered by the institution of policing and other authoritarian political institutions against which they are organizing. This conflict is reflected in the breakdown of the relationships between characters when they experience a loss of trust that endangers and hurts them.

In performance, that’s not really what comes through. Far more vivid than that earnest political critique is the quirky quartet of characters. Though they might be wingnuts in the real world, we quite come to enjoy their company on stage. The acting style often feels like awkwardly random behavior, with seemingly nonsequitur emotive leaps and discrepant pacing, and occasional dead zones when nothing much is happening. But curiously the effect is disarmingly charming. The whole cast embodies a kind of unstudied realness that makes the characters’ idiosyncrasies all the more interesting and their intertwined stories all the more engaging.

Activists do strange things in their zeal—as anyone who has been around them knows and as Madeline Farrington obviously knows well. Her dark comedy That Part Is True is both a human-comedy treat and a hat-tip tribute to the youth who energize the real resistance.

Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, with no intermission.

That Part Is True presented by Rabble Crew Productions had its world premiere at the Atlas Intersections Festival February 24 and March 3, 2018 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center- 1333 H Street NE in Washington, DC.

 

There will be three extended-run shows March 16 to 18, 2018, at the Logan Performing Arts Space at the Fringe Trinidad Theater- 1358 Florida Avenue NE, Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased online

LINK:

Preview: ‘That Part is True’ at Atlas INTERSECTIONS Festival by Guest Author

 

Hold These Truths

There is a dramatic moment in Hold These Truths that comes as no surprise yet comes as a heart-stopping shock. We know going in that this moment is going to happen. We know that the U.S. Supreme Court is going to uphold young Gordon Hirabayashi’s conviction for refusing to comply with federal orders that during World War II sent U.S. citizens into internment camps—for the sole reason that their ancestry was Japanese. That’s what really happened then and that’s why this gripping play is in DC now. But in that foregone stage moment when Ryun Yu as Hirabayashi learns the Justices’ unanimous ruling and says, with heartrending incredulity,

I lost?

—in the silence that descends then in the Kogod Cradle, a caesura because neither he nor we can quite breathe, there comes a shock of recognition: This our nation did in our name. And this it could do again.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in Hold These Truths. Photo by Chris Bennion for ACT-A Contemporary Theatre.

Since 2007 Yu has been touring with this play by Jeanne Sakata, whose research included interviews with Gordon Hirabayashi before he died in 2012 at the age of 93. Yu and Sakata bring Hirabayashi personably to life on stage: We meet him growing up among his family and the friends he makes in college; we get to know him as a very likable idealist, a Quaker and conscientious objector who seems to emanate innocence and integrity. But just as impressively, the actor and playwright bring the U.S. Constitution to life, as if it’s another character in the play.

What makes “these truths” about equality in the Constitution “self-evident”? Hirabayashi wonders early on. What indeed? And how do those truths jibe with the spate of racist slurs he encounters, then the president’s curfew and the evacuation order that he must in conscience disobey?

“Ancestry is not a crime,” Hirabayashi says, as if self-evidently.

Director Jessica Kubzansky has melded the play and the performance artfully so that what animates Hirabayashi and what animates our nation’s ideals become vividly present both onstage and in our hearts and minds. Sound Designer John Zalewski transports us from place to place along with striking documentary audio. And Set and Lighting Designer Ben Zamora offers a simple bare wood stage and plain back wall and then lifts luminous storytelling to a stunning level.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in Hold These Truths. Photo by Chris Bennion for ACT-A Contemporary Theatre.

Hirabayashi has been rightly praised for his courage—and was awarded posthumously a Medal of Freedom by President Obama. As portrayed in Hold These Truths, however, he himself seems to see his bravery as simply congruent with “a responsibility to live by my principles.” Not a bad plan.

Though full of warmth, wit, and humor, Hold These Truths does not shirk from portraying Hirabayashi as a protagonist against the antagonism of state-sanctioned racism, hence vulnerable without redress to the animus of ordinary Americans.

But this is not a black-and-white story of a good guy versus bad guys. It’s also about good guys who cop out, who capitulate, who cave. Sakata’s script specifically portrays Hirabayashi in the context of cowardice among the very people who ought to have known and acted better: Liberal ACLU lawyers, for instance, ostensibly committed to the very freedoms Hirabayashi had been robbed of, turned their backs on him when he needed them—then turned around to take his case when it rose to the Supreme Court and promised them glory.

And there is a wrenching scene at his trial when we learn that Hirabayashi’s own parents, subpoenaed by the government to testify against him, do so.

The internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry was one of the most shameful episodes in our nation’s history.  And it is telling that in these troubling times several other recent plays have focused on relatedly shameful episodes: Jefferson’s Garden (about the founding fathers’ defense of slavery) Sovereignty (about federal sellouts of Native Americans), 4,380 Nights (about the hellhole that is Gitmo). It seems the season of our discontent.

The Constitution says, “We hold these truths…”—a declarative statement, however dubious in practice. The title of this play, significantly, changes the “we” to “you”: Hold These Truths is an imperative, an admonition to remember those self-evident truths and practice what they preach even when our elected officials do not.

I cannot overstate how timely and worth seeing Hold These Truths is. The production is impeccable. Ryan Yu’s performance as Gordon Hirabayashi is inspiring. But it is the play’s resonant content—about what makes America great and what doesn’t—that really gets us where we live right now.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Hold These Truths plays through April 8, 2015, in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets call (202) 488-3300 or go online.