Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: September, 2018

The Events

Theater Alliance’s The Events, now playing at Anacostia Playhouse, is one of several plays this season that deal with a mass shooting. (There’s also Pinky Swear’s Blight, coming October 20 to the same theater. And there’s another now on the boards that is keeping its pivotal shooting incident under wraps.)

This trending topic is likely to show up on American stages more and more, given the frequency with which that horrific instance of gun violence has taken its unrelenting toll in lives lost and residual pain. Mass shootings have become a national nightmare that we cannot wake up from—and theater makers, like ancient dream interpreters, are stepping up to make sense of the senseless.

Regina Aquino as Claire with the Ensemble (Moses Bossenbroek, Tess Higgins, Drew Frederick Holcombe, Rachel Hynes, Karen Lange, Lee Liebeskind, Jane Petkofsky, Sisi Reid, Alex Turner) in ‘The Events.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Against this background of vulnerability and trauma, The Events takes the point of view of a survivor of a mass shooting and reframes it in memory as a mesmerizing alternate reality. We watch as the survivor, Claire (a luminous Regina Aquino), becomes the dreamer of a different dream, proactively imagining a promise of hope and healing through compassion and forgiveness, for herself and, vicariously, for us. The result is a spellbinding theatrical experience that stays in the heart and mind like a saving revelation.

Click to read my colleague Beatrice Loayza’s review.

Originally the Scottish playwright David Grieg wrote The Events on commission from a theater in Norway. Theater Alliance happened upon it, picked it to kick off Producing Artistic Director Colin Hovde’s final season, and tweaked the text to Americanize it. Strangely, the play feels not foreign at all; it seems written here about what keeps happening here. In fact, the outline of its narrative is painfully too familiar.

As exquisitely directed by Hovde, the production takes place nowhere and in Claire’s mind. The surf of some sea roars in Thomas Sowers’s sound design, like some chatter-blocking white noise. In Giorgos Tsappas’s scenic design, abstract all-gray mottled walls surround a dreamscape with no discernible specificity. Except there is an upright piano and a heap of yellow folding chairs.

Those sparse particulars are important because Claire is the conductor of a choir, whom we meet at the very beginning as their twelve gorgeously matched voices sing out “Stand by Me.” (The praiseworthy ensemble consists of Moses Bossenbroek, Tess Higgins, Drew Frederick Holcombe, Rachel Hines, Karen Lange, Lee Liebeskind, Jane Petkofsky, Sisi Reid, and Alex Turner.)

Rachel Hynes, Josh Adams (The Boy), Regina Aquino (Claire), and Sisi Reid in ‘The Events.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

As we soon learn in chilling detail, however, one day a lone gunman dropped in on choir practice then shot everyone except Claire. This means the sentient choir members we see and hear singing clearly exist in Claire’s memory and imagination only. In the real world, they are dead.

Besides Claire, there is one other living character in The Events: The Boy, the shooter. He exists as a projection in Claire’s imagination too, but as the story that she tells unfolds, he is very much alive. And somehow she must emotionally reckon with him and with what he did—the very soul-wrenching quandary that more and more are in.

“I don’t want to understand what happened to me, I know what happened to me. I want to understand what happened to him,” Claire says early on. And over the course of the play, Claire stitches together the story of what happened and picks up piece after piece of the puzzle about why.

The choir returns to sing pop songs and hymns. And the nameless Boy appears as various figures in Claire’s cognition: his own father, a journalist, a psychologist, a politician, the woman with whom Claire lives and loves, and others. Josh Adams plays them all with such protean subtlety that we meet each not as a simple impersonation but as a sympatico reflection imagined by Claire.

Josh Adams (The Boy, Regina Aquino (Claire), and Ensemble in ‘The Events.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The Boy’s story is told in fragments, each a clue to why he did what he did, and the play’s proffered reasons are familiar as well: a boyhood spent teased and bullied become a young manhood consumed by rage against others, and so forth. Though the main character of the play is seeking to understand The Boy—and though both Adams’s and Aquino’s performances are powerful and poignant—the play itself never actually explains him, which I take to be its point. Because just as in all the accumulated shootings we see on TV, the shooter himself remains an enigma.

Instead, it is Claire whom we get to know. She is who connects us to what happened. She is who stands in for us. She is who finds the capacity for compassion despite incomprehension, perhaps the greatest challenge our species now faces.

Ultimately the way the play draws us into Claire’s world, letting us see it through her eyes, becomes by the end an extraordinarily transformative event. Make that plural—transformative events—because as the play takes place on stage it happens in each audience member’s own heart and mind. And it is there, as Claire shows us, where the healing release many seek can be found.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Events plays through October 7, 2018, at Theater Alliance, performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-241-2539 purchase them online.

 

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If I Forget

To paraphrase the famous Passover Seder line, “Why is this domestic drama different from all other domestic dramas?” Or, to put the impudent question another way, “What makes If I Forget a uniquely Jewish play as distinct from, say, an exceedingly well-made instance of the family-drama genre?”

First it must be acknowledged that Steven Levenson’s If I Forget, just opened at Studio Theatre in a production directed briskly and cuttingly by Associate Artistic Director Matt Torney, is indisputably well made. The playwright is quoted in a program note by Dramaturg Lauren Halvorson, “I wanted to write a play that was a real, intimate family drama, an old-fashioned kind of realistic play that could also, somehow, hold a lot of ideas.” In this, Levenson has succeeded superlatively, because If I Forget is a tightly packed drama of family conflict so funny, sad, and explosive it leaves one knocked out and wrung out by the end—not unlike the way family meltdowns tend to do in real life.

The siblings: Jonathan Goldstein (Michael), Susan Rome (Holly), and Robin Abramson (Sharon) in ‘If I Forget.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg

All the familiar conventions of great domestic drama are in play: A mismatched set of grown siblings separated by distance and temperament (in this case, two sisters and a brother who grew up in a Jewish family in Tenleytown). The occasion of some celebration or crisis that brings them together accompanied by assorted mates (the 75th birthday of their widowed father). Revelations of resentments and betrayals and arguments about everything (oy). A final scene of poignance purporting to be closure (here a theatrical evocation of a Jewish ritual).

Read my colleague David Siegal’s review of If I Forget.

Jumping ahead to Act Two for a moment (I know, an odd way to look at a play), it’s seven months after Act One and (without giving too much away) the characters are variously in the throes of: a major health collapse, a major career collapse, a major financial collapse, major childrearing struggles, and a bitter dispute over whether to cash in on an inheritance. And curiously all these Act Two intrafamily dramas seem not particularly Jewish at all.

The cast of ‘If I Forget’: Richard Fancy (Lou Fischer), Susan Rome (Holly Fischer), Robin Abramson (Sharon Fischer), Paul Morella (Howard), Jonathan Goldstein (Michael Fischer), Julie-Ann Elliot (Ellen). Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It’s Americanized Chekov meets assimilated Neil Simon. The several story lines are riveting. And the act plays vigorously, not least because all seven parts are performed with such distinction: Richard Fancy as the avuncular paterfamilias Lou Fisher, Susan Rome as the persnickety daughter Holly Fischer, Jonathan Goldstein as the renegade son Michael Fischer, Robin Abramson as the putupon daughter Sharon Fischer (caretaker to Lou), Julie-Ann Elliott as Michael’s forbearing wife Ellen, Paul Morella as Holly’s milquetoast husband Howard, and Joshua Otten as Holly and Howard’s wayward son Joey.

It’s not that the extended Fisher family’s problems could be any family’s problems—there are obvious parameters of class, education, and color that distinguish their relatively privileged woes. But there’s not much in Act Two that makes it a Jewish Act Two except the final ritual scene (which plays a little like a wrap-up afterthought).

One actually has to recall what Levenson does in Act One to appreciate what makes If I Forget a singularly volatile and disruptive Jewish play.  Michael, a college professor, has authored a radical and controversial book titled Forgetting the Holocaust—a deliberate provocation that is being read as an affront to everything Jews mean when they say “Never again.” Michael sent the book in manuscript to Lou, who, we learn, loathes it. A petition is circulating at the school where Michael teaches to block his shot at tenure. Even Michael’s own sister Holly thinks the book is anti-Semitic. All of which is Levenson’s wind-up to the speech in which Michael gives a searing summary of his book. Michael argues that Jews have forgotten the real lesson of the Holocaust, which is that the global problem is nationalism, of which anti-Semitism is a subset. The Holocaust isn’t over, says Michael. It keeps happening, for instance in Rwanda and by implication to Palestinians. Michael’s monolog is magnificently written and delivered, showstopping to this goy and, as I imagine, heart-stopping to any Jew, wherever he or she may fall on the spectrum between secular shame and Zionist hubris.

The cast of ‘If I Forget.’ Set design by Debra Booth. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Then just when one might think that speech by Michael is untoppable, Levenson has the father Lou weigh in with an equally searing monolog recalling his experience as a soldier in World War II among the Americans who first entered Dachau. The eye-witness account he gives is unbearable to hear, much less picture, and Levenson’s writing and Richard Fancy’s performance tear the play apart. In between two majestic pillars of conscience—Michael’s indictment of Jews’ self-referential memory versus Lou’s survivalist insistence on it—Levenson pitches the audience into perhaps the most profound contradiction facing Jews today.

And just as in real-life families when a political controversy erupts before intermission, it gets glossed over afterward, the subject gets changed, and generic family drama resumes. Because that first act controversy was so charged and so distressing, no one wants to talk about it anymore.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and that If I Forget may be one of the greatest Jewish plays of this century. And for that reason alone it must be seen.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.

If I Forget plays through October 14, 2018, at Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

 

Gloria

Count on Branden Jacobs-Jenkins to leave you whiplashed and shell-shocked. He hits nerve after nerve then goes for the jugular. Whatever he writes, see it.

Woolly’s previous productions of Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays Appropriate and An Octoroon were hilarious and lacerating inquisitions into American racism. Appropriate did it with a family of all-white characters. An Octoroon did it with characters of color in white, red, and black greasepaint. Jacobs-Jenkins followed with Gloria, just opened at Woolly in a stunning production of a knockout play. Gloria has a multi-raced cast of characters but really isn’t about race. Or rather, it’s about not being about race, since it’s set in one of those rarefied workplaces, the office of an urbane magazine, where the white-liberal presumption is that race is irrelevant. You’re just either a hotshot or not.

Conrad Schott (Dean), Justin Weaks (Miles), and Megan Graves (Ani) in ‘Gloria.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Most of Act One plays like the live taping of a television sitcom in front of a studio audience. Millennial co-workers bicker and throw shade, make snide jokes behind one another’s backs, slough off doing any real work, distract themselves with office gossip and online ephemera. As crisply directed by Kip Fagan, Jacobs-Jenkins’s precision pacing of the brisk, brittle comedy elicits a crackling laugh track. And the play hits a nerve of anxiety familiar to anyone who can remember starting out in a cutthroat career both ambitious for success and terrified of failure.

See an insightful overview of Gloria in my colleague Ian Thal’s’ review.

 

Eunice Hone (Kendra) in ‘Gloria.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Jacobs-Jenkins worked as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker after he got out of college and in Gloria mines that experience for an explosive minefield of tragicomedy. Having myself spent decades in national magazine editorial offices, I enjoyed the script’s depiction of the world of Gloria—the put-upon personalities of the fact-checking and copy-editing departments, editorial assistants in the open bullpen office jockeying for the attention of aloof bosses, everyone’s benign neglect of the intern, who’s left adrift with nothing meaningful to do.

Ahmad Kamal (Lorin) in ‘Gloria.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

I liked that Jacobs-Jenkins focuses on the office underlings and keeps the upper-echelon editors off stage. And I particularly appreciated the actors’ veracity in their portrayals: the hapless fact checker Lorin (Ahmad Kamal), the frayed copy chief Gloria (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), the eager intern Miles (Justin Weaks), and the chatty editorial assistants Ani (Megan Graves), Dean (Conrad Schott), and Kendra (Eunice Hong). Though exaggerated a tad for comic effect, these characters are all grounded in editorial cred. There are some daffy goings-on, but it’s all in a day’s work. Nothing amiss, nothing ominous, only quick, biting humor.

Which makes what happens just before intermission such a cataclysmic shock.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (Gloria) in ‘Gloria.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

I gladly abide by Woolly’s wish that this event not be revealed. I did not see it coming nor would I have wanted to. Suffice to say, what happens turns Act Two into a different play.

Fascinatingly, Jacobs-Jenkins now pivots and switches which nerves he hits. The play becomes a commentary on the media maw, particularly the packaging and retailing of what used to be called New Journalism (reportage so flashily first-person it’s mainly about the writer). Three of the characters in Act One now have book projects about what happened. One of the projects never went anywhere but two have been published. And the play now entertains a comic critique of each book’s relative reliability owing to each author’s dubious claim to being an eyewitness. In other words: Fake views.

Since I saw Gloria a few days ago, I have been trying in my mind to patch together Act One and Act Two, to reconcile the content of the two halves, to make a causal case for their connection that would make them seem a meaningful whole. I’ve read various attempts by others to infer such rationales (like one I’d paraphrase as: obsessional ambition leads to media chicanery). But I’ve not come up with a connecting concept that persuades me.

Which has led me to the suspicion that Jacobs-Jenkins may have intended me to grope futilely for an explanation of how Act Two relates to Act One. Because the sort of event that joins them doesn’t really join them at all. It sunders them. It makes no sense, and it rips apart reality.

Damn, that guy can write.

Running time: Two hours, with an intermission.

Gloria plays through September 30, 2018, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the venue or order online.

 

Kennedy Center Page to Stage 2018: Tastings from a Buffet (Part Two)

Kennedy Center’s annual Page to Stage Festival is always chock full of tempting offerings, and the challenge of deciding what to see is daunting. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet…except you really can’t. The best you can do chose a tasting menu. So here’s what Nicole Hertvik and I picked to see on Labor Day. (See Part One for my reports from Saturday.)

Theater Alliance: The Blackest Battle 

After preshow hip hop tracks from DJ Nicktha1da, a dynamic Ensemble of eight exploded into the playing area. With edgy, driving sounds and movement, they delineated two warring rap factions—the East crew and the West crew—in a fictional New York city (a “slum village”) “where so-called Black on Black violence rains down like a fiery storm.”  The rivalry in this Hip Hop Musical is fought not with weapons but in rap, over whose is the harder.  “I’m tired of violence,” says one. But as with the Montagues and Capulets,  this feud between East and West has no end and no reason. And as in Romeo and Juliet, there is a lovely scene of love at first sight between a young man and woman from opposite camps. They are named Bliss and Dream, and before their romance is discovered (and denounced), they go together to watch fireworks on the pier—a place where slaves were shipped. There is an evocative storyline about drug dealing, but here the drug is called “hope.” It is said to “open peoples minds and show you the truth.” And there is a chilling scene under a bridge where there is a wall on which are written the names of those who have been killed. As shown at Page to Stage, The Blackest Battle appears to have powerful potential as a work of dance, rap, and song to help unpack the horizontal violence that can erupt under a reign of racist hate. —J.S.

Written by Psalmayene 24
Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell
Music by Nicktha1da
Choreographed by Tiffany Quinn
Ensemble: Adanna Paul, Jasmine Hall, Billie Krishawn, Neko Ramos, Gary Perkins III, Louis E. Davis, Harrison Michael Walker

The cast of ‘The Blackest Battle’ taking a bow after the Page to Stage performance. Photo courtesy of Natalie Graves Tucker.

Theater Alliance will present another performance of The Blackest Battle Sunday, September 9, 2018, at 5 pm as part of its Words Become Action Festival: Flipping the Script at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon PL, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 241-2539 or go online.

Too Much Damn (TMD) Theater: Enough—a Musical

Enough by Amber Waltz was a callback to Dickens’ Christmas Carol through the eyes of feminist history. Iris (Paige Davis), a young professional, is trapped in a dead-end journalism job with a male boss (Timothy R. King) who sends her on endless coffee runs, poo-poos her substantive ideas, and then appropriates them as his own. Luckily for Iris, her feminist fairy godmother (Karen Hopfl Harris) is on the job. Watching events unfold from the “femiverse,” feminist godmother decides that Iris needs to be reminded of the long journey women have made in demanding equal rights. She assembles a team of three fairies to take Iris on a journey through feminism’s past, present, and future.

Ruth Diaz, Maria Mainelli, and Robin Weiner in ‘Enough’ at Page to Stage. Photo courtesy of Too Much Damn Theater.

The story is told through a series of delightful songs that were played at Page-to-Stage on a single guitar by Francis Torres González. Enough was chock full of catchy musical numbers. This is theater designed to make a strong social statement—that women have fought tooth and nail for social equality and that there is still a lot of fighting to be done. Music and humor proved effective tools in preventing this serious piece of theater from feeling too heavy-handed or pedantic. —Nicole Hertvik

Written, composed, and directed by Amber Waltz
Musical Director/Accompanist: Francis Torres González

Iris: Paige Davis
Ralph: her boss: Timothy R. King
Faye, Feminist Godmother: Karen Hopfl Harris
Ghost of Feminist Past: Mimi Harlow
Ghost of Feminist Present: Sherry Edmonds
Ghost of Feminist Future: Mary Zuzik Andrechik
Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Nicole Summons
Alice Paul: Camryn Shegogue
Sojourner Truth: Patricia Williams Dugueye
Frances Harper: Amber Smithers

Follow Too Damn Much Theatre on Facebook.

Washington Improv Theater: iMusical: Apocalypse How? 

Technically speaking there is never any page that precedes anything iMusical does on stage. iMusical is a troupe within Washington Improv Theater that just wings it and sings it, making up brilliantly hilarious musicals on the spot based on audience suggestions. Their shows are all one-of-a-kind, one-off surprises. For the Kennedy Center show, the cast asked the audience to pitch ideas about how the world will end. From three suggestions, the audience voted the most popular: “The world will end…because Twitter stays in business.” And so it was that another clever insta-comedy with music was off and running. As always, the amazing Travis Ploeger was playing at the keyboard and doing musical direction in real time. (The communication among performers is so uncanny, I’ve sometimes amused myself with the suspicion that everyone is secretly wired to some offstage prompting genius who’s feeding them cutup setups and laugh lines, lyrics, and tunes. I’m probably wrong about that…but you never know.) I’ve enjoyed iMusical for years in the Source Theater black box, so it was a treat to see how handily the troupe (now actually wired, with mics) filled the full house in the Family Theater with even more voluble laughs. —J.S.

By the iMusical ensemble
Directed by Travis Ploeger

The cast of iMusical back stage right after the show. Back row: Dan Milliken, Matt Berman, Ryan Brookshire, Patrick Fleury, Travis Charles Ploeger. Front row: Jess Lee, Elaine Colwell, Jaci Pulice, Mark Chalfant. Photo courtesy of Washington Improv Theater.

Washington Improv Theater performs at Source, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. For information about upcoming shows and to purchase tickets, go online.

Georgetown University: Unfinished Album of Lazarus Lovesong 

Georgetown University student K.J. Moran has written a hilariously original and powerfully brave play with music about a college-age woman named Lou who was raped a year ago by her then-boyfriend, Eli. It has been a year since and the trauma is still with her—theatricalized as an actor representing Eli, invisible to all the other characters, who won’t leave Lou alone.

Andrew Molinari (Lazarus Lovesong), Megan Spinella (Lou), Jennifer Loo (June), and Nolan Peacock (Ric) in ‘Unfinished Album of Lazarus Lovesong’ at Page to Stage.

Lou has hooked up with Ric, a respectful sweetheart of a guy, but abruptly stops mid-foreplay because she can’t get Eli out of her head. How Lou deals with that past pain and ultimately feels ready to make love again makes for an of-the-moment narrative pulsing with humor and heartache—and honest and brilliant playwrighting. (Sample one-liner: “Sylvia Plath was punk as fuck.”)

The punk rock band in ‘Unfinished Album of Lazarus Lovesong’: Mark Camilli, Andrew Molinari, and Jennifer Loo.

The thoroughly engaging supporting cast is rounded out by Lou’s roommates (Genevieve, June, and Lou’s gay bestie Benni) and a punk rock band led by Lazarus Lovesong, whose terrific musical numbers punctuate the story as though they’re Lou’s inner soundtrack. One of the best plays I’ve seen all year. —J.S.

Written by K.J. Moran
Music by Isaac Warren
Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer
Advised by Professor Natsu Onoda Power
Stage Managed by Julia Beu
Music Directed by Nicole Albanese

Healy Knight (Genevieve/Lucy Lakemaker)
Chris Phillips (Eli)
Gabriel Berkowitz (Stage Directions)
Nolan Peacock (Ric/Licky Lakemaker)
Andrew Molinari (Lazarus Lovesong/Narrator/Dr. Fiehl)
Jennifer Loo (June/Lily Lakemaker)
Megan Spinella (Lou)
Mark Camilli (Benni/Lemon Lakemaker)

Information about upcoming events in the Georgetown University Theatre and Performance Studies Season is online.

 

Small Mouth Sounds

“You have everything you need within you to be human,” says an unseen guru on the god mic. He is speaking in sonorous tones to six seekers who now sit rapt in a row facing us the audience. They have come to a weeklong silent retreat by the shore of a sylvan lake. We have come to the theater to watch and participate in their process. In one sense the experience of the retreat is theirs. In another, it is ours, because there really is a lot of silence in this play.

Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl is one of those wily comedies where what’s funny is what you will. There are some laughs that are large but lots more that are small, like individual little fishes leaping up out of the water.

That could happen in the very lake we see rippling through upstage slats in Debra Booth’s calming blond-wood set and Alexandra Kelly Colburn’s you-are-there projections, where birds can be seen swooping through the air.

Katie deBuys (Alicia), Michael Glenn (Ned), Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Rodney), James Whalen (Jan), Andrea Harris Smith (Judy), and Beth Hylton (Joan) in ‘Small Mouth Sounds.’ Photo by Kaley Etzkorn,

What’s going on in Small Mouth Sounds is that the headspace the play creates for its characters—self-reflective, meditative, contemplative—is also a headspace it sets up for us. Where it wants to take the characters, it kind of wants to take us too. Meanwhile, all that dialog-free time on one’s mind can lead one to wonder about that disembodied guru guy. He keeps saying stuff about mindfulness, self-awareness, personal change, his head cold. Is he a for-real wise master or a spoof of our self-absorption?

That Teacher, exquisitely voiced by Timothy Douglas, perfectly pitches us together with the six retreaters into the same fishy kettle of bemused uncertainty.

Andrea Harris Smith (Judy) and Beth Hylton (Joan) in ‘Small Mouth Sounds.’  Photo by Kaley Etzkorn

Those seekers, each performed with the precision of a fine mime, are identified in the program by names that are rarely or never spoken in the play: Jan (James Whalen) is a taciturn dude who does a funny bit swatting bugs; Rodney (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) is a self-help video personality who’s already well versed in retreat-iquete; Ned (Michael Glenn) is a woebegone underdog who gets a full-on monolog, a hilarious recounting of his Job-like travails; Joan and Judy (Andrea Harris Smith and Beth Hylton) are a lesbian couple who are working something out but we’re never told exactly what; and Alicia (Katie deBuys), kind of a ditz, attends to the proceedings with wide-eyed sincerity…and couples offstage very audibly with Rodney.

Michael Glenn (Ned) and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Rodney) in ‘Small Mouth Sounds.’  Photo by Kaley Etzkorn

Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny gives each casual clothing they have believably lived in (though Rodney gets a nude scene wearing what he was born in), and Props Master Kasey Hendricks finds them credible accouterments for sleepovers in the woods. Lighting Designer York Kennedy effectively cycles sunshine and moonshine onto a bare wood stage. And Sound Designer Roc Lee’s crickets, birds, and roaring bear also take us into the great outdoors.

Watching the characters’ nonverbal communications and miscommunications is a delight. It’s much more subtle than charades, but the stumbling improv is just as fun. At one point, for instance, Joan breaks into sobs at something Teacher says, and the others keep trying to pass her a packet of sympathy tissues, which she keeps refusing, so as to savor her sorrow.

This retreat is “a vacation from your habits,” pronounces the Teacher. “You will never go back to who you were.” But who was that?

Michael Glenn (Ned), Katie deBuys (Alicia), James Whalen (Jan), Beth Hylton (Joan), Andrea Harris Smith (Judy), and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Rodney) in ‘Small Mouth Sounds.’  Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

Wohl’s script provides the actors with detailed backstories about their characters, but we the audience are never privy to this information. We never know why each of the six has come here, what need they wanted to be fulfilled, what change they hoped would happen. In the beginning, Teacher instructs them to write their “intentions” on a slip of paper, then at the end to burn them. But whatever was written is known only to them. While this makes for some very entertaining face and body expression, it means there aren’t character arcs to hold on to as in plays with lots more words, and whatever change they undergo remains for us guesswork.

Still (pun intended), Small Mouth Sounds is a rare theatrical experience that not only invites us to think our own thoughts along with the characters but leaves us quiet time to do so. And whether we experience such shared quietude as transcendent or a send-up, this semiserious comedy generously leaves up to us.

Running Time: One hour 20 minutes, with no intermission.

Small Mouth Sounds plays through September 23, 2018, at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 240-644-1100, or purchase them online.

 

Kennedy Center Page to Stage 2018: Tastings from a Buffet (Part One)

Kennedy Center’s annual Page to Stage Festival is always chock full of tempting offerings, and the challenge of deciding what to see is daunting. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet…except you really can’t. The best you can do is pick and choose a tasting menu. So here’s what caught my eye on Saturday. (See Part Two for a look at Labor Day.)

Kennedy Center. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

Rorschach Theatre: Season Fragments

Rorschach Theatre (Jenny McConnell Frederick and Randy Baker, Artistic Directors) specializes in magic, the kind that lifts us out of the everyday real to put us in touch with the timeless otherworldly.  Its Page to Stage entry featured vividly written excerpts from the three world-premiere plays in the company’s 2018/2019 season, each quirky in conception and intriguingly surreal. As directed by Randy Baker, the reading was not a three-parter but rather a mashup. Different casts would read selected scenes from the three plays in a nonlinear rotation that evocatively crossreferenced themes and highlighted a stranger-in-a-strange land motif. The jump cuts from storyline to storyline in the fragment-mashup format made it all a little hard to follow, but certainly piqued curiosity to know more.

In Sing to Me Now by Iris Dauterman, the Greek goddess Calliope (Callie) is so overwhelmed with her muse workload (“Fewer people get inspired by me”), that she hires an intern to help her out (“People of Earth: I have a job opening”).

Sing to Me Now (October 19 to November 18)
By Iris Dauterman
CALLIE: Robin Covington
MO: Andrew Keller
YANKEE: Tori Boutin

During a 24-hour period in the namesake city of the play Reykjavich by Steve Yockey, a man seeking the Northern Lights discovers instead a dark supernatural world where a person can become a bird.  The excerpt read at Page to Stage featured a riveting monolog about a gay man who as a closeted youth stole piles of books and magazines with pictures of naked men—a stash discovered by his father.

Rejkavik (February 8 to March 3, 2019)
By Steve Yockey
JAMES: Andrew Keller
MARTIN: lan Armstrong
GRIGOR: Danny Cackley
DEBBIE: Madison Middleton
PETER: Danny Cackley
EBON: lan Armstrong

And in Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven by Reina Hardy, a 13-year-old girl who is a science genius encounters a genuine alien intelligence who tells her blithely (and factually), “I know everything.”

Annie Jump & the Library of Heaven (April 19 to May 19, 2019)
By Reina Hardy
ANNIE: Madison Middleton
ALTHEA: Tori Boutin
DR JUMP: lan Armstrong
KJ: Danny Cackley
Mrs GOMEZ: Robin Covington

Rorschach Theatre performs at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, N.E. in Washington, D.C. Single tickets, season subscriptions (offered for the first time this year), and more information are available online.

Alliance for New Music-Theatre:
Women of Troy: Voices from Afghanistan

Alliance for New Music-Theatre (Susan Galbraith, Artistic Director) has tackled a retelling of Euripides’ classic anti-war play, Trojan Women, set in the cultural context of wartorn modern-day Afghanistan. Titled Women of Troy: Voices from Afghanistan, the new work incorporates music, dance, poetry, and puppetry performed by a company of American and Afghan artists. Excerpts showcased during Page to Stage featured three musicians on a platform stage left: Co-Composer Quraishi on the lute-like rubab, Co-Composer Dawn Avery on cello, and Qais Nawaz on the percussive tabla. Their stirring and expressive music throughout was what held the excerpts together. Program notes explained what was going on in each excerpt (a synopsis without which the narrative would not have been evident). In one passage, a charming little boy marionette bops to the music, listening and watching. In another, the stentorian god Poseidon orates (“The gods should make peace”), and a huge owl puppet appears (“Women have always been collateral damage.”) The goddess Anahita enters spectacularly as if in a chariot driving four puppet lionesses on leashes of colored silks. When she dances dervish-like, her hands and arms in graceful eloquence, she lets down her flowing hair.  A woman sings in a moving duet with the rubab. These and other evocative sound and movement images—with poetic texts and song, players in richly adorned costumes, puppets on land and in flight—were a glimpse into a work-in-progress that promises to be epic and panoramic. —J.S.

Written by Susan Galbraith and Yalda Baktash
Composed by Qurashi and Dawn Avery

Eric Wright (Puppet Designer)
Dorothy James (Puppeteer)
Jennifer Tether (Choreographer, Anahita)
Leeza Ahmady (Afghan Dancer and Choreographic Consultant)
Lida Ahmady (Afghan Singer)
Brittany Baratz (Andromache)
Veronica del Cerro (Cassandra)
Jennifer Lee (Hecuba)
Alyssum Phil (Athena)
Claudia Rosales Waters (Lioness, Afghan Refugee)
Michael Yeshion (Poseidon)

Women of Troy: Voices from Afghanistan is in development by Alliance for New-Music Theatre. For news of future performances, follow the company on Facebook.

Venus Theatre: Living and Dying with Tricia McCauley

Deborah Randall and Tricia McCauley

Long before the Women’s Voices Festival caught on, Venus Theatre of Laurel, MD (Deborah Randall, Artistic Director), established itself as one of the longest-running women’s theatres in the world. For 23 years, Randall was friends with Tricia McCauley, a frequent collaborator and a well-known and beloved local actor.  (“We were engaged in each other’s imagination in a wonderful way.”) McCauley’s brutal murder on December 25, 2016, shocked the theater community and left Randall in a grief-struck trauma that has only recently lifted, in part through the power of storytelling and Randall’s healing work on this solo performance piece, which she developed as an artistic tribute to McCauley’s life and memory. (“Some of me died with her, but she lives with me.”) At Page to Stage, Randall performed the piece on book but with her heart filled with the pain of loss and decades of love. A personal memorial to a friend and a witness to the affirming bond of theater.

Written, directed, and performed Deborah Randall

A full production of Living and Dying with Tricia McCauley opens September 20 at Venus Theatre, 21 C Street, in Laurel, MD. For more information, visit the Venus website and follow Venus on Facebook.

Monumental Theatre Company: Montgomery

This new musical set in 1955 Montgomery grabbed me from the very first song and kept me moved all the way. That first number is “Let It Roll,” sung by the whole ensemble, about coping with the indignities of living in the Jim Crow South. Next, the ensemble sings “Time to Bring the Rain,” meaning time to resist. Then a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin sings “My Time to Make a Move”—and a gripping story begins about her arrest for not giving up her seat on a crowded bus to a white person. Claudette is whip-smart. She can quote the Equal Protection Clause. She knows there can’t be different laws for different people. She sings “Rebellion on My Mind.”  Claudette’s brave act of resistance on a city bus and arrest really did precede Rosa Parks’s more well-known similar act and arrest. (The musical is based on the historical record as well as new interviews.) But Claudette was young, poor, and dark-skinned, while Rosa Parks would be a more perfect defendant: mature, mild-mannered, light-skinned. So it was that Montgomery’s civil rights leaders chose Parks to catalyze a city-wide bus boycott. Other characters we meet in the breathtaking narrative include Claudette’s mother and father, Mary Anne and Q.P.; Claudette’s lawyer, Fred Gray; and, in a cameo, Dr. King. Kevin McAllister directed a first-rate cast, and Marika Countouris conducted the bracing score. The book, lyrics, and blues and rock music are all by Britt Bonney, who with this Act One (Act Two isn’t done yet) has already made a mark on American musical theater.

Music, Book, and Lyrics by Britt Bonney
Direction by Kevin McAllister
Musical direction by Marika Countouris

Cast:
CLAUDETTE COLVIN: Kanysha Williams
MARY ANNE COLVIN, et al.: Ashley Moore (Johnson)
Q.P. COLVIN, et al.: Greg Watkins
MARGARET JOHNSON, et al.: Alex De Bard
JOANN ROBINSON, et al.: Kelli Blackwell
E.D. NIXON, et al.: DeCarlo Raspberry
ROSA PARKS, et al.: Iyona Blake
FRED GRAY, et al.: Solomon Parker
MAYOR GAYLE, et al.: Brent Stone
OFFICER WARD, et al.: Brice Guerrie
ENSEMBLE: Ashley K. Nicholas
ENSEMBLE: Megan Bunn

Montgomery Band:
PERCUSSION: Erika Johnson
GUITAR: Beth Cannon
BASS: Benjamin Rikhoff
PIANO: Marika Countouris

African-American Collective Theater (ACT): UNPROTECTED sex 

I wrote some time ago on DCMTA:

“Two of DC’s most important independent theater collectives bearing witness as black artists to #BlackLivesMatter are Brave Soul Collective  [whose  2018 Page to Stage program Life Lines was at the same time as Montgomery] and African-American Collective Theater (ACT). For several years now I have observed both collectives to be consistent producers of important storytelling about black lives, and both to be generally overlooked by DC’s  mainstream theater world.”

That important history of storytelling continued in ACT’s 2018 program of nine short plays, read to a standing-room-only audience. All were written and directed by Founding Artistic Director Alan Sharpe, and all touched in some way (typically hilariously) on black LGBTQ lives. Sharpe’s keen eye for casting, his razor-sharp cut-a-bitch wit, and his deeply sensitive insight combine to create character after character, each with a compelling backstory and each with a vivid presence on stage.

“Bout That Good-Good”

Acerbic jokes about aging and death and randy reminiscences of gay scenes past pepper this sketch set in a DC apartment after the funeral of the lover of one of the three men. “I used to have so many friends!”
Donald Burch III as CLARENCE, August Bullock as SIDNEY, Reggie Covington as QUENTIN

“Something Special”

In a Trinidad apartment just after two young men have had hot sex, one of them wonders how the other suddenly got moves and grooves he’d not had the pleasure of before. Had his boyfriend been…practicing with someone else?Davon Harris as CORY and Antwain Cook as DERRICK.

“The Other Woman”

“I want you to leave my husband alone!” says one in a testy confrontation. Turns out it’s the down low husbands who are getting it on.
Mieka Sanderson as JASMINE and Erika Jones as MONICA.

 

“Meet THE ELITE”

A gathering at the DC Center brings together some local gay notoriety for some nostalgia about gay social clubs and eyeopening disclosures about the latest sexual goings-on. A fragment from a longer-form play-in-progress
(Clockwise, from top left): Joseph Reaves as RON,  Michael Sainte-Andress as ADRIAN, Jammine Nance as RANDY, Melvin Stanard as ROMAN, Gregory Ford as DEXTER, Darrell Johnson as CLYDE.

[Intermission]

“Bucket Lust”

Returning to the theme of aging comedically, Sharpe sets this smart ensemble piece in a senior assisted-living facility called Potomac View, where cheesecake is an unlikely aphrodisiac and the sexual couplings are to die for.
(Clockwise, from top left): Caroline G. Pleasant as MYRA, Paula Pree as MINNIE, Dolly Turner as MAVIS, LaJuan Martin as DR. JAMISON, Wilma Lynn Horton as COURTNEY, Larry Hull as ZEKE & Ronald King as GARLAND

“ROLE PLAY”

Sex, laughs, and radicalism infiltrate this playlet set in a 1970s church basement where the Black Panther party is running its breakfast program to raise healthy kids for the revolution. A dustup about whether cleaning up is “women’s work” prompts a reminder that Huey Newton argued for uniting the women’s movement and the gay liberation front as potential allies.
Tristan Phillip Hewitt as JAMAL, Emmanuel Kyei-baffour as MILES, Darnell Morris as OMAR.

“Daddy Issues” 

In a Fort Totten condo where two gay men share a happy home, the straight son of one of the men drops in unexpectedly and angry. He’s just out of the joint, came to confront his dad for leaving his mom, and wants to stay there while the older men go on their planned cruise. The father-son conflict sinks it and relationships get rerouted.
Monte J. Wolfe as LEE, Darrell Evans as IVAN, Maurice T. Olden as MARCUS.

“The Worst Thing That Could Happen”

Two young men working late in a DC office building have just had sex in the men’s room. But come to find out, a security guard is on to them. One young man keeps his cool; the other freaks out; workplace dramedy ensues.
Marlon Russ as RON, Juan Raheem as JESSE, and Charles Harris, Jr. as the SECURITY

“Getting Results”

Two young men are in the waiting room of a VD clinic in DC, watching for their number to be called to get their results. One of young men comes on to the other and wants it now. What could go wrong?
Zukeh Freeman as DAMIAN and Reginald Richard as ARCHIE.

 

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