Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: May, 2018

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Obsessional unrequited love is what prompts Petra von Kant’s bitter tears in the 1972 German film by Rainier Werner Fassbinder. The movie is a languid immersion in the self-absorption of a semi-successful fashion designer who falls disconsolately for a young gold-digging model named Karin. Meanwhile, Petra has a servile personal assistant named Marlene whom she treats imperiously, knowing full well that Marlene harbors a repressed passion for her.

Fassbinder is said to have written the film Petra, and the 1971 play on which it is based, on the heels of his own unhealed infatuation. Fassbinder had fallen hard for a young black Bavarian actor who had figured out how to lovelessly push Fassbinder’s sugar daddy buttons. In Fassbinder’s loosely autobiographical film, all six characters are women played by women dressed to the nines. Petra is as much an art movie as a fashion show. And the film is a classic gay male transliteration of a closety male-male drama into a usurped lesbian vocabulary.

Yanier Palmero (kneeling) as Marlene and Fernando Hechavarria as Petra in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Photo courtesy of Teatro El Público.

Kennedy Center’s Artes de Cuba has imported a Spanish-language stage production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant directed by Carlos Díaz, founder of Havana’s Teatro El Público. Authorship is credited to Fassbinder, but in Díaz’s conception, four of the six women characters are played by male actors: Fernando Hechavarria as prima donna Petra, Yanier Palmero as put-upon servant Marlene, Roberto Romero as Petra’s catty friend Sidonie, and Luis Manuel Alvarez as finagling ingenue Karin. (Petra’s daughter Gaby and mother Valerie are played straight, so to speak, by Alicia Hechavarría and Clara García.)

Fassbinder, who died in 1982, was not around to object (as did also-gay Edward Albee, who famously forbade all-male productions of Who’s Afraid…?). So here we have in the Kennedy Center Family Theater a gay-male narrative about boy-toy betrayal that got dressed up in women’s clothes and is now out of the closet as an homage to drag.

Um, what?

The result is an eye-filling, over-the-top melodrama that is never quite funny enough to be a comedy and never quite genuine enough to be a tragedy. Instead, it plays somewhere in the self-mocking, maudlin, and muddled middle, as though some Ru Paul also-rans had said, “Let’s put on a play.”

The production is indeed fun to watch. Set Designer Roberto Ramos Mori imagines von Kant’s bedroom atelier decked out in couture, wigs, haberdashery, and studio lights focused on a big white bed, whereupon much lolling and writhing transpire. Light Designer Carlos Repilado over-augments mood shifts so we can’t miss ’em and nicely makes the auditorium’s side walkways part of the show. And the costumes (inexplicably uncredited) are a fashionista’s fantasia. In the film Petra changes her wig three times; here she dons more than a half dozen whole outfits, as though the play might well be about someone who strangely can’t stop changing clothes.

Yanier Palmero as Marlene and Fernando Hechavarria as Petra in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Photo by Waldek Zelazewski.

Director Díaz sets a brisk pace and introduces sight gags galore: at one point, for instance, Karin and Marlene are both on their back with their legs bicycling in the air, for no apparent reason except it gets a laugh. The telephone, which rings garishly loud and often, is handled nimbly as a silly prop. Whether one can put up with Hechavarria’s incessant histrionics as Petra will be a matter of personal taste, but there’s a manic freakout scene when Petra in high dudgeon starts throwing booze bottles about, and it’s the kind of horrifying that can be hilarious.

For anyone reliant on the supertitles, as was I, they go by so faintly and fast one necessarily misses some of the show’s delights. Nevertheless one gets the distinct impression this was intended as a zippy-campy live-action cartoon befitting someone certifiably crazy in love—and on that it delivers.

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

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant plays one more performance tonight, May 17, 2018, at Teatro El Público performing at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC, as part of the Artes de Cuba festival, which runs to June 3, 2018.

For tickets to upcoming events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.




The sudden incapacity of their mother is the occasion for three siblings and their cousin to gather at a Boston hospital in Amy Leigh Horan’s touching and perceptive new family dramedy Burst, just opened in a lovely Parlor Room Theater production. The title refers to the mother’s burst brain aneurysm. She’s off stage in a coma. Everyone is hoping for and expecting her recovery. But…

“I googled it,” announces the gangly teenage cousin Kira—in a bubbly-awkward performance by Tori Boutin—who then reads from her smartphone the dire prognosis.

So we pretty much know where this play is headed. But the beautiful way it unfolds—the affecting and surprisingly humorous way it gets there—is what holds our rapt attention.  As tightly and tenderly directed by Bridget Grace Shaeff, there’s not a moment in Burst’s 90 minutes when its characters’ truths are not treasured.

Tori Boutin (Kira) and Robert Pike (Stephen) in Burst. Photo by Amy Horan.

The set by Ember DiSalvo is a generic waiting room with bland seating, beige walls, institutional tile on the floor, and the implicit behest to be calm and be patient because you’re likely to be here a while.

Alison Talvacchio (Erin) and Robert Pike (Stephen) in Burst. Photo by Amy Horan.

The first two siblings we meet are the oldest, twenty-something Erin, and the youngest, high schooler Stephen. Both live at home with their mom., their father having passed some years ago.

Erin takes to heart her firstborn responsibility to both her mother and her younger brother, and in Alison Talvaccio’s nuanced performance we sense also a grownup’s weight of incipient grief.

Stephen, with his emotions churning from sullen and morose to brash and exuberant, is Horan’s most complex character. He’s absorbed in his iPad, hands in pockets in his hoodie, by turns sulky and antic, and in Robert Pike’s impressive performance also the production’s most arresting.

When middle sibling Ally, who lives in New York trying to make it as an actor, shows up with her boyfriend Steve, sparks fly. “You’re not around,” says Erin resentfully. And indeed Ally intends to fly back for an audition she deems more important than her dying mom.

Ally as written is a bit of a flibbertigibbet, her self-centeredness well conveyed in Mo O’Rourke’s performance. She and Steve her kind-hearted and level-headed beau might seem an unlikely match, but Thomas DiSalvo’s performance makes the relationship plausible.

One might not think the serious implications of the mother’s health crisis would occasion much levity, but Horan’s deft comic touch is evident throughout. A high point of the show, for instance, is when Stephen gets everyone to join him on a hilarious “Wobble Baby” dance.

Mo O’Rourke (Ally) and Thomas DiSalvo (Steve) in Burst. Photo by Amy Horan.

Dramaturgically the most original element of Burst is the fact that Stephen, Erin, Ally, Kira, and even Steve each have a turn delivering a monologue as if to the mother in her room in an ICU.  Though these poignant passages don’t tell us much about the mother—who remains a passive placeholder until the stunning final scene—they play like telltale heart monitors wired deep inside those giving them voice.

Costume Designer Julie Cray Leong also pegs the characters and their context. Stephen, for instance, wears a Fenway T. And Kira wears a sparkly tiara with cat ears, which she cutely leaves as a gift for her nonresponsive aunt. Lighting Designer Dean Leong gracefully shifts our focus between the waiting room and the ICU. And Sound Designer Frank DiSalvo Jr.’s music choices include artists mentioned in the script, from John Denver to Eminem, and function wonderfully as emotional breathers between scenes—the way a movie will cut away to a long shot of scenery going by, so we can absorb what just happened before the story moves on.

Burst turns out to be not so much about the stricken parent at its center as about the apprehensions and deep affections among immediate family members now sharing a loss that is unspeakable—except Horan allows us to hear.

“The one person that I told everything to every single day is gone,” says Stephen near the end.

Anyone who has known or anticipated such a loss will leave Burst deeply moved.

Amy Leigh Horan’s new play has a promising future on other stages. Catch it now its first time out.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Burst plays through May 27, 2018, at Parlor Room Theater performing at the Callan Theatre in the Hartke Theatre Complex on the campus of Catholic University – 3801 Harewood Road, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 340-8623, or purchase them online.

The Undeniable Sound of Right Now

If KISS were starting out today, they’d be trying to get noticed on a streaming music site like Spotify. And followers would find their tour dates on apps like Bandsintown. Or maybe the masked marvels would land a recording contract simply by racking up views with a vid on YouTube. But back in the pre-digital day, the music scene was different, not only for performers and fans but for local presenters and venue owners.  Turns out those seismic shifts in the music industry could precipitate some poignant backstage family drama, as we learn from Playwright Laura Eason’s fond tribute to that time, The Undeniable Sound of Right Now.

For anyone torn between whether to check out an edgy rock club or catch some captivating characters on the legitimate stage, Keegan Theatre’s DC premiere of Eason’s play has got you covered. As directed with verve and grace by Brandon McCoy, The Undeniable Sound of Right Now is rockin’ live theater about live rock music.

Susan Marie Rhea as Bette, Chris Stezin as Hank, Jessie Power as Lena, and Kevin Hasser as Toby in The Undeniable Sound of Right Now. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The play is set in 1992 in Chicago at a grungy rock-band bar owned by Hank, who for a quarter-century has hosted shows by a who’s who of up-and-coming and now name-brand bands. Both Hank’s Bar, as the dive is called, and Hank himself have become legendary. As executed by Set Designer Matthew J. Keenan and Properties and Set Dressing Designer Cindy Landrum Jacobs, the joint’s fading glory is evident in every dank detail. There’s cheap beer on tap, a messy collage of paint and posters on the walls, crushed plastic cups and other trash from last night’s bash on the floor. A sign in a hallway reads: “We know our restrooms suck. Deal with it.” We get the picture and almost the stink. And Sound Designer Veronica J. Lancaster selections of pre-show and inter-scene tracks from the likes of The Clash, Gun N’ Roses, Bush, and Nirvana are a mellow time tunnel for those who were around back then.

The play sets out to dramatize a point in pop culture history when DJ’ed raves were in ascendance and live-music venues were losing business. And the crux of this conflict gets played out in a father-daughter relationship that is as moving as any I’ve seen on stage. The very compelling Chris Stezin plays fifty-something bar owner Hank, a man whose place in the rock-scene sun still shines for some but is slowly but surely being eclipsed.  His scrappy, adoring daughter Lena, ebulliently played by Jessie Power, can go toe-to-toe self-assuredly with her dad or any other man.

Chris Stezin as Hank and Jessie Power as Lena in The Undeniable Sound of Right Now. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The going between dad and daughter gets tough when Lena begins dating a hip DJ named Nash. “I hate DJs,” says Hank bluntly. We sense some of a father’s familiar angsting when the daughter who loves him now falls for another man. But with this suitor, the stakes are even higher because Nash represents the music-biz competition, the next wave, the crowds that won’t come round anymore—and Hank’s “dated taste.” Hank waxes nostalgic about “a time when music meant as much as anything,” “when music sent people out of their minds.” And in Ryan Sellers’s nimbly emotive performance as Nash, we see both the charmer Lena fancies and the future Hank fears.

There’s a family backstory. Lena’s biological mother was an addict and is out of the picture. Lena was raised by Hank and his second wife Bette, now his ex, who is complicatedly still around, and agitatedly portrayed by Susan Marie Rhea. The bar’s history is itself almost a character—Stevie Nicks, KISS, The Clash, and other names are dropped.  And Hank’s sole employee Toby—who sweeps up, keeps the books, and has a crush on Lena—is an adorably awkward nerd in Kevin Hasser’s warmly amusing performance.

The plot sputters a bit when the landlord’s son Joey shows up demanding a 20 percent hike in the rent, at which point Lena and Nash concoct a plan to raise cash by throwing a DJ’ed rave in an adjacent empty warehouse. The unsympathetic rent-collector twist is a tired trope, but Josh Sticklin’s menacing yet ingratiating turn as Joey is so fun to watch we don’t mind.

Ryan Sellers as Nash and Jesse Power as Lena in The Undeniable Sound of Right Now. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Eason can get to the emotional core of her characters, though, in surprising ways. Hank, for instance, has a heartbreaking speech to Lena in which he remembers the feelings that accompanied his decision to raise his motherless child:

I keep thinking I’ll get over it. For years, I’ve been hoping, O.K., when she can sit up, I’m not going to be so attached. O.K., when she can talk, when she can walk, O.K., when she’s 10 and like a little person, I will not feel this.

But he can’t.

I can’t stop loving you.

And we do not hear a catchy song hook. We hear the all-access feelings of an honorable father for his child.

For fans of both live rock music and live theater, Keegan Theatre’s production of The Undeniable Sound of Now is a terrific twofer. It’s got a heart that beats like a drum kit, and it packs a wallop like a subwoofer.

Running Time: One hour 55 minutes, including one intermission.

The Undeniable Sound of Right Now plays through May 27, 2018, 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.


Iron & Coal

The sheer magnitude of the concert event was enough to inspire wonder and awe. More than 200 musicians packed the Strathmore stage and a balcony above—two orchestras, three choirs, a rock band—plus animated projections on a widescreen scrim and a stadium-scale light plot flooding the hall. For two nights only, Jeremy Schonfeld’s 2011 rock concept album Iron & Coal got mega-sized. The effect was gloriously spectacular and overwhelmingly beautiful—and also dramatically not quite focused.

Composer Jeremy Schonfeld, creator of Iron & Coal, at the piano as Music Director David Bloom conducts members of Contemporaneous and Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras. Photo by Jim Saah.

Composer/lyricist Schonfeld created Iron & Coal as a tribute to his German Jewish father, Gustav Schonfeld, whose story is gripping: At the age of 10 he was sent to Auschwitz and survived along with his father until liberation. Then, reunited a year later with his mother, who also survived, Gustav grew up in the United States and became a renowned medical doctor, much lauded in his lifetime. (He died in 2011 on the very day his son’s Iron & Coal was mastered.) Portions of his autobiography, titled Absence of Closure, were incorporated into the concert program. He was “the first refuge kid from war to be bar mizvahed” at his synagogue in St. Louis (“The boy who lost his childhood becomes a man today”). He tells vividly of his post-traumatic nightmares. The snippets from Gustav’s memoir make one want to read more.

Jeremy writes in a program note that he “set out…to create an album honoring the stories and history so richly engrained in the fabric of my family and the Jewish experience at large.” Thus the Shoah casts a shadow over the work, prominently in its references to “Mourner’s Kaddish,” “Yedid Nefesh,” and other Jewish prayers. But even more indelibly, the shadow of Jeremy’s father looms over the work. Gustav was a man of towering moral stature against whom Jeremy cannot but measure himself. And Jeremy’s musical vocabulary for the emotions in that complex father-son connection is, aptly enough, rock.

Musicians from Contemporaneous and Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras, with singers from Young Artists of America, the Strathmore Children’s Chorus, and the Alexandria Harmonizers. Photo by Jim Saah.

During the entire concert, as on the album, there is a musical conversation between the mournful and prayerful language of Jewish heritage and the pulsing questing of contemporary rock—all consolidated inside a sumptuous orchestral and choral soundscape. It is as if the central concept of the album was really to reconcile as an oratorio something mere oratory could not.

I listened to the album a lot beforehand. It’s really good (and readily available on Spotify; see link below). But nothing prepared me for how gorgeously enormous it would sound at Strathmore.

I am not a music critic; I do theater. I look for the storytelling, the characters; I try to engage with the meaning and values in the action; I listen for the language, spoken and unspoken. So it was that my ears pricked up at a particularly portentous moment about one third through the program.

Lincoln Clauss (foreground) as Young Father in Iron & Coal, Music Director David Bloom (background). Photo by Jim Saah.

Three characters are established in the story: Jeremy Schonfeld, at a piano center stage, plays Son (himself). Standing in a small set stage left, composer/singer/actor/director Rinde Eckert plays Father (Gustav). And in another small set stage right, actor/singer Lincoln Clauss plays Young Father (Gustav in his youth). Eckert’s and Clauss’s liquidly clarion voices are thrilling. Schonfeld’s has a reedier, grittier edge; you sense he’s lived the rough emotions whereof he sings.

In a composition that begins with Schoenfeld’s setting of the liturgical prayer “Yedid Nefesh” and transitions to a boppy rock song called “Good Man,” Schoenfeld sings some verses that are laden with too-precious internal rhyme (as is characteristic of Iron & Coal):

It’s too hard to swallow, the victory is kind of hollow
And it keeps on following me wherever I go
Down to the marrow and on the broken wings of a sparrow
It’s a harrowing journey learning to reap what you sow

Actor Rinde Eckert as Father in Iron & Coal. Photo by Jim Saah.

Then powerfully, Son and Father sing a duet; then even more powerfully Young Father joins in, and the three reiterate a lyrical hook that seems to home in on why this story needed to be told:

Am I a good man?
I don’t know.

Despite the occasional lyrical banality, personal matters of great moral moment are at stake here. In his program note, Schonfeld tells us

As I labored to create Iron & Coal, I was faced with several difficult decisions: What is the story I am trying to tell here? Is it mine? Is it Dad’s? Why am I doing this, and for whom?

Those questions linger in the work itself, which wants to keep present the weight of history—the circumstances that Gustav narrowly survived—and at the same time wants to reckon with Jeremy’s own coming of age as the son of a Holocaust survivor. It’s a tall order. In the concert version Father wonders, “Did I survive for a reason?” Then later as though on faith he answers, “We survived for a reason.”

Iron & Coal animation by Tom Selzer.

Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker and Animation Designer Tom Selzer give chilling context to this narrative with such images as coiled barbed wire, faceless human figures, a still of Gustav’s elementary school classmates, none of whom but Gustav survived. English lyric surtitles helpfully appear on the screen as well.

Early on, Son sings, “Dad, you will always be my story.” It is a line sung on Jeremy’s behalf, yet in a sense on EverySon’s, for the work is unabashedly a paean to patriliny: It’s about Jeremy and his father and his father’s father and his father’s father’s father and so on. Women go unmentioned except Gustav’s mother and wife, who each get maybe 15 words—a curious minimization given that what makes these sons Jewish is the fact their mothers were.

One senses that the entire opus wants to uncover the meaning of Jeremy’s life in the shadows of both history and his father—which could have been an ennobling dramaturgical throughline had Jeremy’s character arc been better crafted for the big stage. Musically, the complex passions in that character arc come through with magnificent clarity. As a composer, Schonfeld creates a conversation between himself and his heritage that is blissful to listen to. And as symphonically amplified in the vast Strathmore hall, the message in the music soars.

As a lyricist, however, Schonfeld does not do his characters’ story justice. What works in small as a concept album sounds at concert scale too random, too driven by clever but empty rhymes, too emotionally discontinuous to resonate. Like son like father, perhaps, his words struggle to be worthy of his music.

Mourner’s Kaddish
Aliyah / The Waiting
Save Me
Yedid Nefesh
Good Man
Bad Man
Man Questions God
Center of the Universe
Nothing Really Matters / Stop, Stop
If Ever
Piece of Me
Shema Yisrael
Iron & Coal / I Gotta Song
Story of Love

Produced by Strathmore and Beth Morrison Projects
Creator and Performer   Jeremy Schonfeld
Director   Kevin Newbury
Music Director and Arranger   David Bloom
Projection Designer   S. Katy Tucker
Animation Designer   Tom Seltzer
Movement   Natalie Lomonte
Video Engineer and Programmer   Paul Vershbow
Production Stage Manager    Lindsey Turteltaub
Video Assistant  Michael Clark

Jeremy Schonfeld
Rinde Eckert
Lincoln Clauss
Alexandria Harmonizers
Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras of Strathmore
Young Artists of America
Strathmore Children’s Chorus

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Iron & Coal played two performances only, May 3 and May 4, 2018, at the Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in Bethesda, MD.

READ an interview with Jeremy Schonfeld by my DCMTA colleague David Siegel:

In the Moment: ‘Iron & Coal’ Creator Calls His Work an Ode to a Ravaged Soul (at Strathmore) by David Siegel

LISTEN to Jeremy Schonfeld’s concept album Iron & Coal on Spotify: