Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: July, 2018

Almost Full: A Young Woman’s Guide to Growing Up (2018 Capital Fringe)

On July 6, 2018, six girls ages 13 to 17 came together and began composing poetry and choreography and a little music about their just-starting-out lives. Two weeks later they performed the 29 short scenes they created as a charming, touchingly tender, and sweet Capital Fringe show.

The teens were identified in the program by only their first names—Abby, Esme, Jay, Josie, Laurel, and Sophia. They all had participated in a self-exploration retreat called SPEAK*Girls that was facilitated by Movement Director Brooke Viegut, Literary Director Jenna Stotts, and Producer Rhonda Eldridge, who introduced the show. The girls, they said, created everything; the grownups just provided prompts and guidance and sequenced the show. (Its title, Almost Full: A Young Woman’s Guide to Growing Up, was chosen months before the girls came together.)

SPEAK* stands for strength, purpose, empathy, art, and kindness and its mission is

to empower people from all walks of life in an intentional community by allowing them to creatively find their authentic voice and strengthen communication skills through an interdisciplinary collaborative arts program culminating in a self-expression based performance of original work.

The lovely first scene was danced and mimed to a song by The White Stripes whose chorus is “I can tell we’re going to be friends.” Each girl carried a notebook, which turned out to contain the poetry she would read at intervals during the show.

The writing was all very polished, and some of it was quite impressive. There were familiar echoes of shyness, loneliness, embarrassment, feeling invisible. (“When kids are bullying me, I wish I was a ghost.”) But there was also a strong current of empowerment, confidence, and triumph (“I’m sick of being told I’m too young to make a difference!” “You can’t silence us!”)

An intriguing theme that recurred through the program was the image of breaking down doors—it popped up so often the show might well have been called A Girl’s Guide to Breaking Down Doors!

One of the most moving passages was an eloquently simple scene called “A Letter to My Body,” written collectively by the group. “Dear legs…” began one; “Dear back…,” another. Then “Dear Spine…,” “Dear Hands…,” lastly “Dear Skull…” (which got a nice laugh on a line about wearing a bicycle helmet to keep it safe).

My only criticism of the program was that performers’ tentative and uninflected delivery rarely did justice to the poetry they were reading. They had plenty good reason to allow the language they had crafted to live in the room with the fullness it deserved. The writing overall was of such quality, in fact, I wished the facilitators would publish it online.

The finale was danced and sung to Sara Bareilles’s song “Brave,” and the joy evident in the performers’ faces was utterly infectious. Far from being merely a recital from a summer retreat, Almost Full: A Young Woman’s Guide to Growing Up turned out to be the sort of show that leaves one happier and more hopeful than when one went in.

Running Time: 55 minutes.

Almost Full: A Young Woman’s Guide to Growing Up playa one weekend only through Sunday, July 22, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church. 555 Water Street SW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

Rating: 

 

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Shopworn (2018 Capital Fringe)

Race relations in the Deep South might not leap to mind as a promising topic for a laugh-out-loud comedy. But in Shopworn, premiering at Fringe, Playwright-Producer Derek Hills (who is white) has pulled off a play that’s both punch-line funny and pretty darn woke. And Director Bryanda Minix (who is black) has guided the talented cast into four very fine performances.

Shopworn takes place in a store owned and run by the recently deceased Gertie, who was white and sold antiques, bric a brac, knickknacks, and such. Gertie’s quirky assistant Erica (Rachel Manteuffel), also white, begins the play with a fond ode to some of the items on display, so we get a sense of where we are and a preview of the stories props will tell.

Gary DuBreuil (Dalton) and Anika Harden (Molly) in ‘Shopworn.’

Later we learn the shop is located in New Lucerne, North Carolina (a fictional town), where there’s a monument to General Robert E. Lee and Civil War reenactments are going on.

Turns out a lot of the shop’s oddments have a racist past—like a “mammy” cookie jar and a coin bank shaped like “a little black man who eats the money.” And many of the customers Gertie catered to are cracker loyalists to Lee.

I’ve jumped ahead in the story to highlight what’s so dicey and nervy about the play’s setup, because it could so easily go off the rails into cringeville. Remarkably and rewardingly, it doesn’t.

Gertie’s two sons, both white, have arrived for her memorial service. They haven’t seen each other for more than a decade and have had little to do with their mother either since she abandoned them as boys. But they’re here to accept condolences and sort out what’s to become of the shop they just inherited.

The brothers are a classic odd couple. Dalton (Gary DuBreuil) is a well-off, wrapped-tight, suited-up IT project manager from Brooklyn who makes up due dates. Ash (Jesse Marciniak) is an unkempt, lackadaisical local laborer with no wealth to his name. Hills milks their byplay for loads of laughs and DeBreuil and Marciniak’s acting teamwork is fun to watch.

The humor triangulates as the brothers interact with Erica, who’s kind of a whip-smart ditz. She shows up in a bustier made of balloons. Then later she’s got some of the play’s sharpest political zingers. The character is a delightful original, and Manteuffel plays her to the hilt.

Shopworn plays its political-conscience card with the arrival of Dalton’s lover/partner Molly (Anika Harden), who is black and who shares their dual-income household in Brooklyn. Her professional expertise is wealth inequality. Molly is the play’s most challenging and significant role, and Harden, who excels in it, maintains a compelling dignity through even the play’s edgiest riffs on race.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for Molly to take offense at the shop’s inventory of racist artifacts. But the situation keeps getting awkwarder and awkwarder, and the white boys’ inept responses get funnier and funnier. There’s a point, for instance, when Dalton says to Molly: “I come from a culture of white supremacy.” Well, duh. But in context Dalton’s lame attempt at self-exculpation to the love of his life plays hilariously.

And later there is a passage in which Molly urges Dalton to be cognizant of what is always real to her but he’s not getting. “Use your human eyes,” she tells him. “Use your human eyes.” It is a stunning moment of the play.

Gertie is heard from now and then, voiced by Assistant Director Kelly Cronenberg, who also did the clever costumes and the clutter of props. When characters hear Gertie, they say she is saying things they have heard her say before. The device doesn’t work as well as other elements in the show, though. It feels like an intrusion. The Gertie we find out about in Erica’s own words emerges as one heck of a feisty woman, a fleshed-out character we’d like to get to know. In voiceover, at least as presently conceived and executed, Gertie gets diminished.

Another aspect of the script that could use a bit more work is the fact that it’s structured like a lurching sequence of comedy sketches, which, although plentiful with punch lines, never seem to ride a wave of comic momentum that comes of mounting expectation. That minor misgiving aside, Shopworn’s appealing characters, terrific performances, and ample laughs make it an excellent and entertaining buy.

Running time: One hour 5 minutes, with no intermission.

Shopworn plays through July 28, 2018, at Christ United Methodist Church,
900 4th St SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.

Rating: 

 

O Monsters (2018 Capital Fringe)

I went to see O Monsters, the radically abstract production created by Philadelphia’s New Paradise Laboratories, now playing in the Kogod Cradle at Arena as one of five curated productions in 2018 Capital Fringe. I had read the uncomprehending reviews—“near inscrutable,” “substitutes experimental flourishes for substance,” “doesn’t make much sense,” “just doesn’t make any sense”—so I was prepared to be baffled. But I wasn’t prepared to like it so much.

I was also relieved and glad to be seeing the show without having to write about it. I was there on my own dime. And I have no doubt that had I been there on a press comp obliged to make mental notes (or actual notes) about what I might explain to readers about what I was seeing, I would have liked the show a lot less. I might even have been put off by it because it was making my job so darn difficult.

I would have been distractedly struggling to translate this innovative production into familiarly linear sentences and paragraphs. Which is to say: I would have been trying to translate for others a language that I had not yet learned myself.

In the late ’60s and ’70s  I worked with the experimental Open Theatre—a collective whose influence has since informed a lot of collaboratively devised productions—and I learned then a lesson that I had forgotten until it flashed back to me after I watched O Monsters: Really original theater—meaning theater that’s unfamiliar because it’s not like theater that’s already been done to death before—has its own visual/aural vocabulary, its own kinesthetic grammar, its own way of conjugating action. It’s really its own new genre. Theater history is littered with such productions, work that was met with critical incomprehension if not resistance but went on to reshape and redefine what’s possible for theater to be.

As in the instance of O Monsters, which stretches perception quite beyond what’s commonly called for on local stages, such original work challenges audiences to be open to experiencing it without conventional expectations about how theater ought to mean—because the work itself is changing how theater can mean.

Kate Czajkowski, Julia Frey, Emilie Krause, and Matteo Scammell in ‘O Monsters.’ Artistic Director: Whit MacLaughlin. Photo courtesy of New Paradise Laboratories.

So what did I like so much about O Monsters? It took me a while to catch on, but I really enjoyed the show’s aesthetic, its quirky and imaginative juxtaposition of comedy and macabre. It had me chortling from the get-go. The piece opens with four performers posing in place onstage. One is in a black sheath on a table and three are in white underwear cuddle-huddled together. And then little green rubber balls start to drop from the grid, having nothing to do with anything except to bounce silly-like in counterpoint to the gravitas.

Had I required my brain to interpret what I was seeing, I might have missed being simply tickled. And, as I was to discover, there’s plenty in the piece to amuse. It’s not wink-wink, nudge-nudge funny. It’s humor that arises organically within the show’s own idiosyncratic syntax.

Simultaneously there’s some sort of horror show. We know from the program that the black-clothed figure is the mother and the three white-clothed figures are her triplets. And we soon learn there are dark and eventually gory goings-on. But all the while, the language of the performance admits incongruously of levity—so we’re kept chuckling when we wince, and cringing when we grin.

But even what I just said there fails to translate into sentences what transpires on stage. The language of criticism necessarily falls short when the language of a performance is thoroughly new. So when you see the show, forget everything you just read.

Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.

O Monsters plays through July 22, 2018, at Arena Stage – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 866-811-4111, or purchase them online.

Dragon Hunting Support Group (2018 Capital Fringe)

The theater students at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, MD, are a plucky bunch. When the school had no funds for production, they organized as a club and got a budget from the Student Government Association. With this real-life background of preventing youthful theater dreams from dying, an intrepid troupe of AACC students has trekked to Capital Fringe with a play about, aptly enough, suicide prevention.

The titular Dragon Hunting Support Group, which is the structural hub of the play, is a get-together for slaying the demons that drive young folk to slay themselves. Intermittent dragon roars (sound design: Sean Urbantke) underscore the metaphor.

The group is convened by Hudson (Jack Venton), who works on a suicide-prevention hotline and has had professional training (“Your dragons can be slain!” he promises). Joining the group at Hudson’s behest are Matthieu (Tristan White), a junior priest; questing freshmen Ben (Alec Moyes) and Haley (Amanda Matousek; and sullen Ellie (Rebecca Cohn), who is paralyzed from the waist down from an auto accident.

None of them, it turns out, are suicidal. But they all know someone who was—and who succeeded. Thus is set in motion the play’s expository device: one by one each group member tells the story of his or her now-deceased friend or loved one—what led to their demise and how they carried it out. To this end, Playwright Jonas “Tintinseher” Pallaro-Sonneborn sets forth a brisk succession of scenes in which Moyes, Cohn, Matousek, and White double as the eventual suicides while Hudson the group facilitator sits and listens and offers diagnostic observations. Once it becomes clear from the story sharing that none of the group members actually has need of a suicide-prevention support group, there is a plot twist that reframes all that we have seen and heard.

Director Corey Hennessey has the actors busily change scenes by repositioning metal folding chairs and pull focus during the mini-narratives by shining handheld stage lights on players’ faces as if under multicolored interrogation (lighting design: Stephanie Condon). And the acting troupe as a whole throw themselves into their ever-shifting roles with fledgling gusto.

But for a play ostensibly about the emotional and mental health emergencies that tragically lead to teen suicide, there a curious lack of emotional resonance in the performance. It comes off as forced and inauthentic. The script veers hastily from story line to story line without ever allowing moments to feel real or even have a pulse. And the acting though earnest is unpersuasive, broadly indicative of feeling states rather than credibly expressive from within. (The sole exception is a brief scene between Ben and White as Connor, on whom Ben has a crush.) Even the surprising plot twist—which is dramaturgically kind of inspired—plays flatly.

A lot of work has evidently gone into this show. The program describes an extensive script-selection and workshop process. The hard reality, at least for this reviewer, is that the result did not deliver on the passion poured into it. And that’s a learning experience every theater artist can relate to.

For audiences in and around Annapolis, the back page of the program for Dragon Hunting Support Group announces two promising future Theatre at AACC productions: Hairspray and Romeo and Juliet. To keep in the loop and support the troupe, like or follow its Facebook page.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

Dragon Hunting Support Group plays through July 29, 2018, at Arena Stage, the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.

Rating: 

 

Spook (2018 Capital Fringe)

Actor-Writer-Revolutionary Meshaun Labrone has done it again.  Two years ago he brought back Power! to Fringe. That drama about Stokely Carmichael I called “one of the best-written, best-acted, and best-directed solo theater pieces I have ever seen.” This year he premieres Spook, a play about a black cop, and I’ll cut to the chase: Meshaun Labrone’s Spook is an indelible drama of morals that will blow you away.

The main character is a passionate idealist named Daryl Spokane, nicknamed Spook. When the play begins he is sitting head bowed in a brown khaki prison uniform, the bars of his cell projected on a screen behind him. We learn he has been on death row for three years convicted of shooting to death four male fellow police officers, three white and one black, and bludgeoning to death a black female officer. With an hour left before his execution by lethal injection on live TV, Spokane starts explaining why he did it.

What follows is riveting and excruciating testimony delivered in a fever pitch by an actor whose depth and range are unmatched in my Fringe-going memory. The play dares us to understand what drove Spokane. And in doing so, it rips open raw racial wounds not only between whites and blacks but also among blacks.

“It was the police brutality that I witnessed that made me want to join the academy,” Spokane says. When he is assigned to a predominately black department, his hopes are raised then dashed. “I wanted to work with black men to save black men but all I found were niggas”—a word Spokane uses often to mean, broadly, blacks with no moral loyalty to the black community.

Spokane admires a brother supervisor who “used to always talk about honor and integrity.” At the same time, he derides another who “was the embodiment of black self-hate. He wasn’t a brother, he was a blue domestic terrorist in blackface and a psychopath.” The latter is one of the five Spokane shot.

Playwright/Performer Meshaun Labrone

Labrone himself was once an officer in a metropolitan police force, and though Spook is explicitly fiction, one cannot help supposing that some of the gripping stories within it were inspired by real events. The incidents Spokane describes about police malfeasance seem chillingly plausible, such one about police mistreatment of a 17-year-old girl who had just been assaulted by her boyfriend.

There’s a bit of humor in the show but it’s very dark. For instance, following Spokane’s observation that “killing a dog causes a stronger public outcry than the killing of black people,” there’s an onscreen PSA that draws a visual parallel between abused dogs in cages and injured black men behind bars. A voiceover urges viewers to donate by dialing 1-800-Hep-A-Niga. It’s both funny and not.

Throughout the show, the lighting by Marianne Meadows and the sound and video design by Hope Villanueva are stunning.

There are also some passages that purely as writing are mindblowing. (The play was dramaturged by Jennifer Knight, director of Power!) One such monologue is about all the ways “niggas have been lobotomized.” Another is a sexually graphic parable about how Lady Liberty has granted blacks no favors (“Lady Liberty got niggas in the friend zone”). Labrone’s simultaneous accomplishment as author and performer is breathtaking.

The play exists implicitly in a social-justice framework. Juxtaposed with Spokane’s righteous rage at the failings of others, the character is nakedly honest about his own complicity. This makes the scene in which Spokane recites the law enforcement oath of office horrifically ironic.

“I’ve always pondered: what’s worse? Chattel slavery or colonization?,” Spokane asks pointedly. “Slavers raped our bodies; colonizers raped our minds.”

Meshaun Labrone’s Spook is emotionally scalding, politically scathing, and ethically scorching. It is one of the most significant revolutionary acts of theater ever to come out of Fringe.

Running time: 55 minutes

Spook plays through July 26, 2018, at Arena Stage, the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.

Rating: 

 

Hexagon 2018: Tweet Land of Liberty (2018 Capital Fringe)

The all-volunteer organization Hexagon, “DC’s only original political satirical musical comedy troupe,” has been around since 1955 and has long been a Fringe fan fave. Its signature productions are sketch-comedy-infused musical reviews featuring huge casts singing fresh songs that send up politicians, pop culture, and other skewerable topics of the day. Last year’s production, Hexagon 2017: Let Freedom Zing!, garnered the Fringe Audience Award for Best of Show. This year’s entry, Hexagon 2018: Tweet Land of Liberty—performed somewhat awkwardly in the chancel of a church—takes on the Tweeter in Chief with a fun futurist twist.

The premise of the show is that it’s taking place a century from now. A tourist husband-wife couple (Sandy Swan Guidera and Jim Guidera) drop in on the National Museum of American History where a museum guide (Jen Ayer Drake) shows them around an exhibit about the Trump era. There follow seventeen clever musical numbers threaded together by an amusing narrative that includes Trump firing his entire staff when he fails to win the Nobel Peace Prize and all the blue states seceding and annexing themselves to Canada (“Now that we’re part of Canada, we actually have safe gun laws!”).

Trump’s various wives and offspring make appearances. “Good to Be a Trump,” sing the privileged kids Ivanka (Katherine Catalano), Don Jr. (Chris Gray), Tiffany (Ellen Kaplan), and Baron (Susan Dye). “Trump Wives Bake a Cake” is sung by a bewigged trio of the betrayed, Ivana (Katherine Catalano), Marla (Ellen Kaplan), and Melania (Susan Dye) (wearing an apron that reads: “I really don’t bake. Do u?”). Trump’s most newsworthy dalliance gets her comeuppance on “Stormy” (Jackie Williams). And we learn that Paul Ryan (Chris Gray) (“a medical wonder for being spineless and gutless”), foreseeing a midterm blue tidal wave, up and quits—offering the lame excuse that he’s “Spending More Time” with his family.

One of the sharpest sketches pillories Hillary: In a number called “What Happened” (per the title of Clinton’s recent book), the candidate (Susan Dye) and a chorus of pantsuited supporters catalog all the reasons she lost (throwing in some funny sci-fi ones), to which she keeps singing the refrain “It’s not my fault!”

Among other boldface names to pop up is perjurer George Papadopoulos (Matthew Jeffers), who in “Cause I’m Drinkin'” explains, “I should have shut my trap but I was drinkin’.” And prevaricator Sarah Huckabee (Cristen Stephansky), who in a hilarious press conference bit keeps getting interrupted by texts that contradict what she just said.

This crowd obviously not being Trump’s base, there were a good many cheers when partisan points were scored (“This is so much worse than Watergate!”)

Supplementing the Trump-era focus on politicos, the show includes some other pop phenoms: TV talk shows get a roasting in “Blah Blah.” The Metro gets railed at in “Colors Don’t Run.” And online dating and sexting are taken a swipe at in “Mr. Whiskers” (sung by Karin Rosnizeck to a cat).

A few topics are treated semi-seriously, as in a number called “Times Up” when a chorus of women (wearing #TimesUp Ts) sit the tourist hubby down and set him straight. The moral of the number: “Raise your boys to be respectful men.”

To the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” are sung the lyrics now used in schools to teach kids about lockdowns. And politicians’ nostrums offered after shootings are shamed in “Thoughts & Prayers” (“To the victims of this tragedy we send our…”).

One misfire was a sketch lampooning contemporary advocacy of affirmative consent to engage in sexual activity. A man and woman are on a date. They each have a lawyer. For each advance in their affection—a hand hold, an eye gaze—the attorneys whip out a piece paper and tell the daters to “Sign the Form.” Besides being unfunny, the sketch in its cynical substance reversed what was achieved in “Times Up.”

There were technical glitches on opening night. The performance was delayed while efforts were made to get a Powerpoint to work. It never did, so the show just went on. The wireless mics, worn by some but not all, functioned erratically. As a result the wit in the lyrics—which from what was audible was impressive—didn’t come through even to the front rows of the vast nave. No doubt these issues will lessen once the show finds surer footing in this challenging venue.

Hexagon is a labor of love that over the years has raised millions of dollars for charity, so the troupe’s generosity can be considered its true talent in the sense of the biblical parable.

Taking that into account, the all-ensemble finale, “I Am America,” was surprisingly moving. Its patriotism seemed genuine, not cheap sentiment. It was a fitting and powerful communal closure to an evening full of reminders of how this “tweet land of liberty” has fallen short: “We are Americans here, like it or not.”

Credits

Director: Nicholas Michael Bashour
Cast: Geoffrey Baskir, Allison Sarah Burrell, Alexandra Burris, Katherine Catalano, Sharon Clark-Napolitano, Libby Dasbach, Steve Dasbach, Jen Ayer Drake, Susan Dye, Chris Gray, Jim Guidera, Sandy Swan Guidera, Matthew Jeffers, Ellen Kaplan, Joe Kaplan, Carol Newell, Karin Rosnizeck, Gary Schneider, Cristen Stephansky, Christina Wilharm, Jackie Williams
Playwrights: Nicholas Michael Bashour, Geoffrey Baskir, Richard Castle, Cynthia Haney, Rick Horowitz, Joe Kaplan, Doug Maurer, Neil McElroy, Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Paul Scherer, Germaine Shames, J Adrian Verkouteren, Michael Weems, Roy Zimmerman
Composers: Geoffrey Baskir, Walter Gilbert, Brock Holmes, Rick Horowitz, Matthew Levine, Porter Lyon, Doug Maurer, Sue Mason McElroy, Germaine Shames, Paul Scherer, J Adrian Verkouteren, Roy Zimmerman
Creative Team: Steve Dasbach (Producer), Joe Kaplan (Assistant Director of Creative  Materials), Gyr Turshen (Musical Director), Matthew Datcher (Sound Designer), Jef Smith (Lighting Designer), Marci Shegogue (Performance Accompanist), Lynn Kaplan (Rehearsal Accompanist), Jamie Breckenridge (Costumes), Cathy Dunn & Linda Wilson (Wigs & Makeup), Robin Gold & Jon Glover (Props)
Technical Team: Genie Baskir (Stage Manager), Peter Nerenstone (Technical Director), Jennifer Sokol & Kathy Suydam (Assistant Stage Managers), Ann Lung, Mary Busenburg, Katie Meskill & Judy Smith (Mic Crew)

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

Hexagon 2018: Tweet Land of Liberty plays through July 28, 2018, at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 400 I St SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.

Rating: 

 

Sobriety of Fear (2018 Capital Fringe)

Count Shaun Michael Johnson among the stunning new talents to be discovered at Capital Fringe. His solo show, Sobriety of Fear, is a tour-de-force of empathic acting. With breathtaking emotional transparency, he portrays four characters: a gentle four-year-old boy, Rudy; his mother Asha, a battered wife; Leroy, the abusive father and husband; and the violent man who was Leroy’s father. Rarely have I witnessed an actor so intimately inhabit distinct other selves and so fluidly transcend boundaries of gender and generation.

Moreover, Johnson wrote the script—a riveting story about domestic violence that rings so true it could have happened exactly this way in real life. (So: trigger warning for anyone to whom it actually did happen.)

The promotional graphic for ‘Sobriety of Fear.’ It looks cryptically abstract but once you see the show it’s not. From left to right that’s an angry man, a frightened boy, and an abused woman.

The unprepossessing venue is a meeting room in a church, and Director Mediombo Singo Fofana has kept the staging simple. A chair beneath which are concealed some props. A few circumspect sound and light cues. And one consummate actor commanding our attention as he steadily draws us into a disturbingly credible story.

Playwright/Performer Shaun Michael Johnson. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The narrative is not a new one. Its outlines will be familiar to anyone with knowledge about DV. The couple fall deliriously in love. When she becomes pregnant he begins drinking heavily and becomes controlling. The man beats her in front of the child. The boy is helpless to intercede and save her…  (That’s not a spoiler alert about the play so much as the master plot of patriarchy at home.)

But what Johnson has done with this narrative is so original I cannot recall seeing a performance like it. In his shifts from point of view to point of view, it is as if Johnson shows us each character’s unfiltered soul. Plus as playwright Johnson has set for himself some traps that as actor he evades with crazy ease. The boy is not played cutesy. The mother is not a female-impersonation cartoon. The father is not a cardboard caricature. Johnson delivers the real deal, over and over, shifting between characters with grace and surpassing understanding. For instance, there’s a point at which Ayesha reaches out her arms in duress and before our eyes they become the joyous upstretched arms of the boy. Johnson’s transition from one to the other is so seamless it feels like an anatomical/emotional cross-melt.

To be honest, the title of the show is inscrutable. But absolutely everything else is not. If you care about acting, if you care about violence against women, if you care about whether men can have the guts to get it, see Sobriety of Fear.

Running Time: 50 minutes, with no intermission.

Sobriety of Fear plays through July 28, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, 555 Water Street SW, Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.

Rating: 

 

Barococo (2018 Capital Fringe)

Happenstance Theater, the much-lauded purveyors of cheekily sophisticated whimsy, have brought another original devised work to Fringe, and if it doesn’t tickle your funny bone, you might want to have that checked.

Happenstance’s distinctive theatrical style—honed for a dozen years now under the artistic co-directorship of Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell—entails highbrow clowning, lush design, witty lifting from history, lots of mime, minimal text, and a collective imagination that thinks nothing of mixing kooky and astute. The show now on the boards at Arena is called Barococo (a portmanteau from Baroque and Rococo). The periodish couture of it is shown in this promo photo, but really to be fully appreciated these erudite zanies must be seen in performance.

Karen Hansen (Doppio Gernelli Von Sharfenberghopf), Alex Vernon (Leslie Pmplemousee de Citron-Pressé), Sarah Olmsted Thomas (Dauphine Marionette), Sabrina Mandell (Olympia Stroganovskaya), Gwen Grastorf (Constance Blandford Plainview), and Mark Jaster (Astorio Cavalieri) in ‘Barococo.’ Photo courtesy of Happenstance Theater Company.

Barococo was conceived of as a spoof of the aristocracy in pre-Revolutionary France and, by insinuation, the one percent now. It’s a brilliant comic conceit and could not be more cathartically on time.

Stage right are a harpsichord and other instruments of the era, which during the show will be played euphoniously by Karen Hansen, musical director. Elsewhere are a table and two fencing foils that other members of the giftedly twisted ensemble—Mandell, Jaster, Gwen Grastorf, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, and Alex Vernon—will shortly put to hilarious use.

The show opens with animated tableaux vivants, which play back as though on rewind. Handkerchiefs, a sword, a deck of cards, a book—the cast makes of simple props a sequence of nonsequiturs. It doesn’t make much sense, but its silliness is irresistible.

There follows a series of games—riddles, charades, hide and seek—with clever bits of dialogue (“Soon we will all be history!”). The sight gags, which I won’t spoil, are priceless, as are the puns and double entendres (to a cellist: “Touch the G string. That’s the spot”).

There are some lovely musical interludes as when a chamber ensemble joins Hanson, who plays multiple instruments ambidextrously. And the high point of the clowning is a pantomimed grande bouffe that becomes a slo-mo food fight and had the opening night audience howling.

Happenstance freely acknowledges (I’m paraphrasing) that the company subsumes substance to style on playful purpose. Yet the parodistic point of Barococo becomes deliciously explicit at the end, when the elite get their comeuppance, albeit comedically (“You cannot starve the people and not expect to pay”).

Perhaps because this piece is brand-new, it feels slightly uneven. The majority of the passages are polished to perfection, but a few seem still tentative in timing and intent. For instance, in the opening moments, the characters play “what’s going on here?” uncertainty apparently for laughs, but it doesn’t land as such; it’s just unsure. This I’d bet will get better during the Fringe run. For the most part, be assured: Barococo plays with a pace and panache that make it a pastel parfait of frothy fun.

Running Time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.

Barococo plays through July 22, 2018, at Arena Stage, the Mead Center for American Theater: Cradle – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.

Rating: 

 

People for Whom the World Spins and Turns

The boarding house play is a staple in theater. Assorted folks who might otherwise never cross paths are thrown together by a playwright who then grips us with their backstories, intertwined character arcs, big reveals, and badinage. Sometimes the setting is a rooming house (Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s Stage Door), a hotel (Lanford Wilson’s The Hot L Baltimore), a flop house (Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carré)…you get the idea. Perhaps the boarding house play is such a quintessentially American genre because we buy the melting pot idea abstractly but know how hard it is to get along.

Elle Marie Sullivan (Haley), Ayesha Gowie (Cheryl), Matthew Castleman (Steve), James J. Johnson (Daryl), and Kevin S. Boudreau (Ron) in “People for Whom the World Spins and Turns.” Photo by Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks.

The Essential Theatre is now presenting a world premiere play about five recovering addicts who are all in a kind of boarding house, a 28-day recovery center. Written by James J. Hsiao, MD, and directed by Founder/Artistic Director S. Robert Morgan, People for Whom the World Spins and Turns has all the best qualities of the classic boarding house drama: a miscellany of fascinating characters whose conflicts, quirks, and compulsions keep us riveted. But People for Whom the World Spins and Turns adds a twist from another classic genre: Once the story gets cranking, it becomes a wickedly clever whodunnit.

The mysterious culprit commits not a murder but rather an invidious breach of recovery program protocols. Someone—we don’t find out who till the stunner end—is planting addictive substances in the common room to make the other residents fail, to tempt them into falling off the wagon: a bottle of beer, pot-laced brownies, a bag of white powder. Multiple people are implicated with motives and means, and the suspense steadily builds.

Besides the sturdy script, what makes the show gripping is the caliber and intensity of the acting. Morgan’s brisk direction has the cast hopped up on so much energy that the combative patches of dialog ricochet and the intimate monologues hit hard.

Honesty in rehab is not only highly valued but essential. Each of the characters has a compelling story to tell, and each of the skilled actors seems to have lived each character’s life viscerally.

Steve (Matthew A. Castleman) is on staff and the group’s facilitator. His parents were killed in a car accident by a guy who was DUI. Steve turned to drugs in his depression. He’s been clean for three years but he knows how hard it is to quit.

Haley (Elle Marie Sullivan), a feisty college student, has been forced into rehab by her father as a condition of paying more tuition. Her mother died of breast cancer, on drugs to ameliorate the chemo pain. That got Haley started. She’s angry and flirty and acerbically astute (“Even when it comes to drugs, women suffer more.”)

Ron (Kevin S. Boudreau), a hotshot, driven lawyer, also doesn’t believe he belongs in rehab, but his firm has mandated it if he expects to make partner. He’s rich and can afford a pharmacopia of pricey drugs, which he deludedly believes he can indulge in without being impaired.

Daryl (James J. Johnson) was born a crack baby, was a drug runner as a kid, and continued to deal into young adulthood until he was using more than he could sell. He’s a regular relapser, been to rehab five times already, and is so much at home he brings a Bob Marley poster for his bedroom wall.

Cheryl (Ayesha Gowie) tells perhaps the most heartrending story. A boyfriend got her hooked then abandoned her (“He loved his dope more than he loved me”).  To pay for her habit, she sold her body. And four years ago she bore a son, whom she cannot see.

Elle Marie Sullivan (Haley), Matthew Castleman (Steve), Ayesha Gowie (Cheryl), Kevin S. Boudreau (Ron), and James J. Johnson (Daryl) in “People for Whom the World Spins and Turns.” Photo by Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks.

Set Designer April Joy Vester locates the characters’ self-disclosures within institutional gray walls. There’s a common area with kitchen, mismatched chairs, and a pool table where several games are played. Sound Designer Crescent R. Hayes offers inter-scene music by turns eerie and new agey. Costume Designer Luqman Salim provides the characters a catchall of casual lounge-around-home-home attire, complete with flip-flops and scuffies.

The characters vacillate between propping one another up with pep talks and bromides and undermining one another in anger and rancor. Lighting Designer Ian Claar transitions nicely between characters’ tense scenes together and their revelatory inner monologues addressed to the audience.

One learns a lot about addiction in People for Whom the World Spins and Turns, but it always feels organic, never like infotainment. And the excellence of theatrical craft on display in The Essential Theatre production makes it consistently engrossing and kind of a high.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

People for Whom the World Spins and Turns plays through July 15, 2018, at The Essential Theatre performing at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place, SE, in Washington DC. Tickets are available online.

 

East of the River

Community engagement is a noble aspiration for a lot of theaters around town. The challenge is to make theater matter to folks who live in the nabe. To connect the institution to the community, to be responsive to their needs, not just the theater’s. To figure out how to build audiences through show-related local partnerships and such.

All sorts of community-engagement initiatives get tried. Some theaters’ efforts fare okay, some not so much. It’s a big deal and a thorny problem, especially in DC, where income inequality is worse than anywhere else in the U.S. And truth be told, most DC theater caters to those who have—even on those occasions when the show being produced is about those who have not.

Often overlooked is perhaps the most obvious community-engagement tactic: Find out what matters to the community already and then make theater out of it.

The cast of ‘East of the River’ in rehearsal. Photo by Star Johnson.

I witnessed an extraordinary instance of success at this: a one-night-only workshop of an original musical called East of the River, based on interviews with residents of Anacostia and presented to a capacity crowd in the black box at the Anacostia Arts Center by a fledgling project called the Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab. The talk-back/community conversation that followed was on fire. I cannot recall seeing a post-show audience as roused and revved up.

The idea began with Star Johnson, who’s a talent to watch. Upon learning about the Anacostia Arts Center Residency Incubator program, she put in an application to work with the local community to devise an original musical about Anacostia, which she would direct. The result was a one-act musical so alive with relatable characters, emotional specificity, musical integrity, lyrical felicity, and social-justice urgency that it felt like a mini Rent.

It was not a reviewable performance. Everyone was on book. But I can report that the material, the method of its creation, and the performers’ conviction made the evening galvanizing.

‘East of the River’ Writer/Director Star Johnson.

Johnson wrote the book and collaborated with others on lyrics and music (see credits below). The premise of the storyline is brilliant: It supposes that Whole Foods is going to open a store in Anacostia, which is one of DC’s largest food deserts (so-called because residents have no nearby access to healthy food). In fact, Whole Foods has no reported plans to do so, but that only makes the setup all the more a provocation.

And what’s remarkable is how many divergent community perspectives the musical represented. This was no one-note agitprop for or against gentrification.

A character named Alvin comes on like a hotshot in favor of the new store. He’s got an urban planning degree and he advocates zealously for the city’s plan to revitalize the neighborhood.

ALVIN: Look around, the city is evolving
Things are changing
People moving
Has to be a way to mix new with old

A character named Chris sees the downside:

CHRIS: Yeah, Al, well a Whole Foods opening means I need to get the hell out of Anacostia because that’s not what I value in my neighborhood. It’s gonna bring the kind of people that are afraid of the type of people who live here. And this doesn’t need to be a neighborhood based on fear.

Variations on that debate run throughout. In addition, there is some wonderfully sharp humor. For instance, a musical number based on “the oft-forgotten August Wilson play… Two Negros and a Big Box Store,” sung by Dee and Tam,

Keep your head down low
No eye contact
Be unassuming
Blend in…

They deliberate whether to wear their hoodies up or down. Knowing full well the risk, they decide to wear them up.

There are eloquent choral refrains, such as “When will the broken be whole again,” and anecdotes that ring painfully true, such as:

DEE: First time I ever went into a Starbucks alone, I was 14, in Dupont Circle and….my friends and I were accused of plotting to steal the tip jar. I’ve never stolen anything in my life. That shit stuck with me.

and:

ALVIN: There’s nothing more hurtful than walking on MLK past a liquor store and the homeless man sitting there asking for change is the same kid you used to sit next to in class and you wonder – what happened?

In the all-company Finale, a character named Wanda solos on an anthem of resilience:

WANDA: Rivers form a barrier
No one’s gonna bury us
This is our city
Born and raised never went away
This is our city
No one’s gonna bury us
No one’s gonna take away
The beauty, the spirit
The grit, the soul, the roots, oh
No one’s gonna bury us
No one’s gonna bury us

East of the River was of the audience, by the audience, and for the audience. It was a case study in how theater can open community conversation artfully and authentically. All of DC theater—and all of DC for that matter—would do well to take note.

See NPR’s story on the production,
“Musical ‘East Of The River’ Examines A Gentrifying Anacostia”

Running Time: 35 minutes

A concert staging of East of the River played June 29, 2018, presented by The Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab performing at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC.

The Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab has announced a second performance of East of the River July 25 at 8 pm at Anacostia Arts Center. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and seating is limited. Tickets are available online. For inquiries, contact anacostiamusical@gmail.com.

Cast
Alvin: LJ Moses
Dee: Karen Elle
Yvonne: Patricia Williams Dugueye
Nikki: Brittney Sankofa
Wanda: Miriam Bowden
Tam: Preshona Ambri
Jazz: Alesia Ashley
Kel: Amber Waltz
Chris: Nicole Summons

Band
Julian Johnson, Keyboard
Amber Waltz, Guitar
Boom Washington, Percussion
____
Musical Numbers
Introduction (Company)
Manchego Cheese (Nikki)
Becky and Bryce (Chris & Kel)
How Do You Get to Anacostia? (Tam & Jazz)
We Can’t Stop (Alvin)
Two Negros and a Big Box Store (Dee & Tam)
Out With the Old (Company)
Back At Me (Jazz)
Finale (Wanda)

Talk-back/community conversation moderated by Harvey Fitz
___
Book by Star Johnson
Lyrics by Star Johnson, Preshona Ambri, Alesia Ashley, with contributions from Sisi Reid
Music by Julian Johnson, Amber Waltz, Boom Washington, Star Johnson, and Preshona Ambri
Arrangements by Julian Johnson, Boom Washington, and Amber Waltz

Anacostia Musical Theatre Lab is a part of the Residency Incubator program at Anacostia Arts Center and sponsored by ARCH Development.