Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: November, 2018

Indecent

The controversial scene that ends this “true story of a little Jewish play” has been foretold at length throughout the show and mentioned in much publicity, so it’s no spoiler to report that we all pretty much know it’s coming. The scene when staged in 1923 on Broadway was deemed indecent and the production banned because it showed two young women passionately embracing and dancing in the rain. Today the scene, as beautifully performed by Susan Lynskey and Emily Shackelford in a brief downpour on the Kreeger stage at Arena, is seen as simply lovely—and so unobjectionable one might wonder what all the fuss was about.

Susan Lynskey (The Middle: Halina/Ensemble) and Emily Shackelford (The Ingenue: Chana/Ensemble), with Ben Cherry (Lemml) in background, in ‘Indecent.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The fuss in its time was about a lot, as we learn from Paula Vogel’s imaginatively instructive Indecent, which tracks the history of the play that contained that offending rain scene. In 1907, a young man of 21 in Warsaw, Sholem Asch, wrote that play in Yiddish and called it God of Vengeance. The drama centers on an Orthodox Jew who runs a brothel and is having a spiritual crisis about his line of work. Meanwhile, his teenage virgin daughter and one of the women he pimps fall in a kind of spiritual love, precipitating that precipitation scene. God of Vengeance became a huge hit in many European cities, for reasons not entirely clear judging from excerpts scattered through Indecent. When mounted in New York, however, it was shut down for reasons Indecent makes far more plain: a peculiar confluence of lesbophobia and antisemitism.

Indecent explicates those influences intelligently, keeping both threads in view. If the play never persuasively entwines them, and never emotionally combines them, it’s not for Vogel’s lack of trying. The intersection of hatreds is always hard to wrap one’s head around. Compartmentalized, they can seem more copeable. Someone could probably argue that lesbophobia and antisemitism have the same psychosexual-historical root, but that would be a tall order for a play. So there’s necessarily a Brechtian tension between Indecent‘s docudrama ambition and how relatably its characters and narrative land.

In Director Eric Rosen’s fine production now at Arena, Brecht meets vaudeville meets melodrama, and the mashup is fascinating. All ten actors in the cast play actors; three of them also play musical instruments. A stage manager character (Ben Cherry) introduces us to this motley theatrical troupe, who will tell us the story of the play within the play. Under the musical direction of Alexander Sovronsky (who also composed some music), the troupe’s harmonies are stirring. And in Erika Chong’s choreography, the ensemble moves eloquently, as in the rousing clap-and-stomp opener.

The cast of ‘Indecent.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The evocative set designed by Jack Magaw is a dusty, century-old backstage, with costumes hung on racks in the darkness and movable wooden beams framing the action like a scalable proscenium. The agile lighting design by Josh Epstein features period lighting instruments. And Linda Roethke’s costumes delineate handsomely the multiple roles the actors play.

The distancing Brecht effect is most evident in the surfeit of surtitles projected on the set. They tell us, among other things, where we are, what language is being spoken, what’s being said if it’s not in English, and whenever time is being tinkered with. (The setting is “Warsaw, Poland, 1906, to Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1950s, and everywhere in between.”) All this signage executes Vogel’s script as called for, but it can split one’s attention and interrupt one’s rapport with the performers.

Several scenes are out-and-out vaudeville, played in a broad acting style and lit by footlights. The best of these is a number set in a Berlin cabaret, with the whole cast singing and dancing and a smashing Lynskey a la Marlene Dietrich delivering “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon.”

Emily Shackelford (The Ingenue: Chana/Ensemble) and Max Wolkowitz (The Ingenue: Avram/Ensemble) in ‘Indecent.’  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The play covers a lot of dramaturgical ground in realistic scenes among principals framed within those wooden beams. For instance, a sweet domestic scene between the young Asch (a standout Max Wolkowitz) and his well-to-do wife (Shackelford) introduces us to the play within the play (she’s just read the manuscript and she loves it) and its unconventional openness about same-sex attraction. This is followed by a scene in a writers salon where a roomful of men condemns Asch’s play for fueling antisemitism in its portrayal of the main character as a brothel owner.

The way Indecent jumps from theatrical genre to genre keeps up a nice pace of anticipation and dramatic payoff as the life story of Sholem Asch’s notorious play unfolds. About halfway through, however, Asch’s own life story becomes the more compelling focus. Asch has been living and working in the States but in the runup to the Third Reich, he makes a visit to his homeland.  He returns shaken by what he has witnessed. Indecent follows his life into old age, when we see him (now played by Victor Raider-Wexler) so shattered by the Holocaust that he wants the play he wrote in his youth never to be produced again. It lives on today in revivals, of course, but against the author’s wishes. This profoundly complex character arc of an artist who ends up at odds with his own art, even as the art itself provoked the world, is what leaves the lasting impact.

Cast:
Lemml: Ben Cherry
The Middle (Halina)/Ensemble: Susan Lynskey
Moriz Godowsky/Musician/Ensemble: John Milosich
The Elder (Otto)/Ensemble: Victor Raider-Wexler
The Elder (Vera)/Ensemble: Susan Rome
The Ingenue (Chana)/Ensemble: Emily Shackelford
Nelly Friedman/Musician/Ensemble: Maryn Shaw
Mayer Balsam/Musician/Ensemble: Alexander Sovronsky
The Middle (Mendel)/Ensemble: Ethan Watermeier
The Ingenue (Avram)/Ensemble: Max Wolkowitz

Creative Team:
Director: Eric Rosen
Choreographer: Erika Chong Shuch
Music Direction and Original Music: Alexander Sovronsky
Set Designer: Jack Magaw
Costume Designer: Linda Roethke
Lighting Designer: Josh Epstein
Sound Designer: Andre Pluess
Production Designer: Jeffrey Cady
Wig Designer: Anne Nesmith
Voice and Dialect Coach: Zach Campion

The cast of ‘Indecent.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Running Time: Approximately one hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Indecent plays through December 30, 2018, in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street, S.W., in Washington, D.C. Tickets may be purchased online, by phone at 202-488-3300, or at the theater box office.

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Barber Shop Chronicles

“To let one’s hair down” is to open up, be freer than usual, be willing to share. The idiom is apt for what transpires in Barber Shop Chronicles, an extraordinary exploration of black masculinity, in all its vulnerability and dignity. As entertaining as it is profound, the show was a sold-out, critically acclaimed hit in London, and it just arrived at Kennedy Center for a brief stop on its U.S. tour.

Barber Shop Chronicles, a play with music and movement, bursts upon the Eisenhower Stage like a  festival of honesty and virtuosity. Fascinating vignettes set in barber shops in London and five towns in Africa (Johannesburg, Harare, Kampala, Lagos, Accra) alternate with transitional passages of breathtakingly beautiful choreography and choral singing.

Ekow Quartey and Kenneth Omole in ‘Barber Shop Chronicles.’ Photo by Ryan Hartford CAP UCLA.

The brilliant Nigeria-born playwright Inua Ellams took a tape recorder with him on visits to actual barber shops and listened in on men’s candid banter there. With his poet’s gifts of concision, he then chiseled what he heard into taut, interweaving episodes about fatherhood and sonship, raising children, intergenerational relations, life under colonializing governments, and more.

Ellams has called black men’s barber shops a sacred place. In the play they’re referred to as the black man’s pub. In performance in Barber Shop Chronicles they vividly become safe supportive communities, small separate worlds, that are tethered to one another by the shared struggles and aspirations of African men in their homeland and the diaspora.

The design by Rae Smith makes that metaphor material. Directly above centerstage is a huge wireframe globe that twirls and lights up to indicate which country we’re in. Hanging everywhere are colorful sideshow-like painted panels illustrating popular haircuts, ballyhooing the show’s locales (“Lagos’ Finest,” “Tinache’s Trims,” “Simon’s Stylings”), and lit up to indicate which barber shop we’re in. Suspended all about are swooping fiber ropes that illuminate like glowing tendrils interconnecting everything.

There’s a fun preshow. The cast dances impromptu to lively music tracks. Audience members might sit in the onstage barber chairs and get a simulated haircut. The exuberant energy is infectious, and it is sustained throughout under Bijan Sheibani’s impecable direction, through scenes of laughs and emotion.

The ensemble of ‘Barber Shop Chronicles.’ Photo by Tim Trumble.

The play takes place in many places but on a single day, with the passing time indicated by a pair of clocks. It’s the day of a big televised soccer match that grips the attention of the entire ensemble, who cheer and roar with approval when their team scores. This establishes the baseline sportsfan bond among these men—but the play is about to go deeper, more personal, more interrelational, more truthful.

The first scene is a simple one. A young man has an emergency. He needs a haircut for a job interview he’s about to have. So he wakes up the local barber three hours before the shop is supposed to open. The young man gets his haircut but can’t afford the price, so he hightails out without paying. What we don’t know yet is that each of these characters will reappear in the narrative—just as characters and themes in subsequent scenes will interweave in a richly rewarding tapestry of tales.

Patrice Naiambana and Tuwaine Barrett in ‘Barber Shop Chronicles.’ Photo by Tim Trumble.

Along the way are markers of what I take to be the playwright’s point of view on black masculinity.

1. It is proud of being black. At one point there is a funny debate referencing Tupac about whether the n-word  spelled -igga is better than -igger, the unequivocal conclusion of which is: “Shit in anything still smells like shit.”

2. It is not homophobic. At one point there is a judgmental reference to how Uganda treats gays that comes in the context of a matter-of-fact and nonplussed reference to two African men (not characters in the play) who are a couple. It goes by fast, but it signals something lasting about how all the characters are portrayed.

3. It is not misogynist. With only men in a cast of characters and no women characters to speak on their own behalf, we must rely on how the male characters talk about women to know whether a play’s intent is counterpatriarchal or not. And in this regard Ellams leaves some telling cues. For example, there is an exchange between an older and a younger man having to do with the older man’s persistence in trying to get a woman to have sex with him. “I am wearing her down little by little,” the older man boasts. “Women don’t wear down, they get tougher,” says the younger man, “even I know that.”

4. It is adamant about justice. Near the end there is a scorching, show-stopping monolog by character who is enraged at Mandella’s embrace of Truth and Reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. The character cannot abide the fact that the white apartheid government got off the hook for what it did.

In a talkback after opening night, the playwright said he wrote Barber Shop Chronicles to offer “a glimpse into a world otherwise not seen.” Some further remarks fleshed out his point of view on masculinity, both autobiographially and politically. In Africa, he said, he was seen as man; not until until he came to London was he regarded as a black man. He has a twin sister. Just as he and his sister were equals in the womb, he grew up believing women equals in the world. And as a poet reading his poems to live audiences, he realized he was being applauded for being vulnerable. In Barber Shop Chronicles he wanted to create a safe space where other men could know that experience too.

In theatricality and topicality, Barber Shop Chronicles is a triumph.

Credits:
By Inua Ellams
Directed by Bijan Sheibani
Designed by Rae Smith
Lighting Designer:  Jack Knowles
Movement Director: Aline David
Sound Designer: Gareth Fry
Music Director: Michael Henry
Fight Director: Kev McCurdy
Associate Director: Stella Odunlami
Associate Director: Leian John-Baptiste
Assistant Director: Kwami Odoom

Wallace / Timothy / Mohammed / Tinashe: Tuwaine Barrett
Tanaka / Fiifi: Mohammed Mansaray
Musa / Andile / Mensah: Maynard Eziashi
Ethan: Alhaji Fofana
Samuel: Elliot Edussah
Winston / Shoni: Solomon Israel
Tokunbo / Paul / Simphiwe: Patrice Naiambana
Emmanuel: Anthony Ofoegbu
Kwame / Fabrice / Brian: Kenneth Omole
Olawale / Wole / Kwabena / Simon: Ekow Quartey
Elnathan / Benjamin / Dwain: Jo Servi
Abram / Ohene / Sizwe: David Webber

Running Time: About one hour 50 minutes, with no intermission.

Barber Shop Chronicles plays only through December 1, 2018, at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC.  For tickets call 202-467-4600 or go online.

The National Theater Production of Barber Shop Chronicles is presented in collaboration with the Laboratory of Global Performance and Politics and LabPerform, a series of public workshops and discussions. Playwright Caleen Sinette Jennings moderates a discussion with Playwright Inua Ellams Friday morning, November 30, at Georgetown. For more information, click here.

An Inspector Calls

J. B. Priestley’s classic An Inspector Calls—a drawing-room drama set in England in 1912 and written there in 1944has landed in DC with uncanny currency. Now at Sidney Harman Hall in a touring production first staged in London a quarter century ago, An Inspector Calls plays like a commentary on our times so politically pertinent one might suppose the playwright was clairvoyant.

The ensemble in ‘An Inspector Calls.’  Photo by Mark Douet.

There is a lot that’s buzzworthy about the show besides its contemporary resonance. The actors, who have just come off a UK tour, are uniformly superb. The stagecraft is eye-popping; it includes nighttime rain, a dank cobblestone exterior where street urchins run about, and a posh Victorian house that opens to its interior like a brightly lit jewel box.

The suspenseful story unspools like a classy whodunnit. The plot is set in motion when a London police officer arrives at an upscale home to investigate the recent suicide of an impoverished young woman. One by one, he questions the wealthy family members, and one by one they are each implicated in the poor woman’s death. As the mysteries of how, when, why, and how are revealed, the audience’s attention is ever more riveted.

Jeff Harmer, Diana Payne-Myers, Lianne Harvey, Hamish Riddle, Andrew Macklin, Christine Kavanagh and Ensemble in ‘An Inspector Calls.’ Photo by Mark Douet.

With the investigation gathering force, the play’s theme gathers steam. Dramatic tension builds sharply in the harsh contrast in circumstances between haves and have-nots. The young woman who died by suicide becomes a stand-in for all society’s dispossessed. Supernumeraries dressed as down-and-outs mass in mute witness. And the play shines an ever more glaring light on the responsibility of the privileged to the village of people who are left poor in pursuit of profit.

The wonder is that a play written in another country three quarters of a century ago arrives in our nation’s capital just now—at this very moment when there is a life-or-death conversation going on among elected suckups to the owning class, who just cut taxes for the super rich, about how threadbare they can make the social net.

An Inspector Calls comes calling on our collective conscience right on time. Don’t miss it.

Running Time: About one hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.

An Inspector Calls plays through December 23, 2018, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-547-1122, or go online.

 

Mike Daisey’s 18-Part, 30-Hour “A People’s History”

I remember being so bored by my high school American history class that I got a D in it. This was not normal. My report cards always had A’s and B’s. So the kindly elderly woman who taught the course, and who doubled as a guidance counselor, interpreted my near-flunk as a signal I might have something psychopathological going on. At her behest, I was administered a battery of tests—the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the Rorschach inkblot test, and I can’t recall what else. Strangely—as I now look back—it occurred neither to her nor to me that there might actually have been something psychopathological about that American history class.

If only Mike Daisey had taught the course, I would have been spared.

This was my eureka realization after my immersion in the master monologist’s  A People’s History, which has been enlightening and provoking sold-out audiences at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 18 successive chapters, each somewhat more than an hour and a half long. Perhaps because I had interviewed Daisey about a couple of his shows at Woolly Mammoth—The Story of the Gun and The Trump Card—I was offered access to audio recordings of the complete Seattle run of A People’s History if I would agree to write about it publicly.

I’m a huge fan of Daisey’s work, but still…30 hours? That sounded like a slog. What I did not expect was that as soon as I started listening, I got hooked—like addicted—so much so that my anticipation for each subsequent chapter kept spiking, and by the time the series was over I began relistening from the beginning. To date, I’ve racked up more than 50 hours with Mike Daisey’s voice bogarting the brainspace between my earpods.

A People’s History is larded with Daisey’s characteristically garrulous humor—he tells self-deprecating tales from his life, he riffs on life’s ironies, he ribs the audience, he lobs a fusillade of f-bombs, he lofts stirring flights of lyricism. Roughly half of each chapter gets laughs; the other half meets with silence—which I infer was maybe people squirming in discomfort or sitting stock still in mortification—because what Daisey lays out is the dark heart of the history of our country that’s never talked about in schoolbooks and that’s erased in nationalist myth.

The set for Mike Daisey’s ‘A People’s History’ at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Here is just one tidbit: We’ve all been told that George Washington had wooden teeth, right? Well, that’s not true. His dentures were made from teeth pulled out of the mouths of living slaves whom he owned. The documentation is irrefutable; it’s in his own letters to his dentist. White historians just never mentioned it—because this truth was not on message for the father of our country who never told a lie.

Daisey’s method is inspired. He compares and contrasts two dramatically different versions of American history: on one hand, the “default propaganda,” and on the other, what really came down. For the whitewash, his source is his 1983 high school American history textbook, An American Pageant. For the actuality, he cites mostly from Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States. The upshot is a scathing takedown of American exceptionalism, imperialism, and triumphalism and a cold-eyed account of the nation’s ignominious origin in genocide and slavery.

Daisey minces no words. He calls Ameria’s history of genocide and slavery “one of the most bloody, psychotically awful, vicious histories in the history of the world.” America, he says, is “the only nation of its scale and size that is founded on such monumental crimes.”

That’s probably a post-Thanksgiving buzzkill. And for sure there’s anger in Daisey’s method. But what he’s up to as a political artist here is uniquely worthy of serious attention. For what Daisey has done is invent an original form of theater that literally alters consciousness. It changes fundamentally how we understand. Because it makes the past make sense in a way that makes the present make sense.

A war declared on a false pretext? A tax cut to make the rich richer? Teargassing babies at the border? You name it. Pick any recent governmental outrage. Daisey’s A People’s History will put it in factual, actionable context: America’s been there and been doing that ever since Christopher Columbus made first contact with the people who lived here—people whom he promptly enslaved and whom white Americans subsequently exterminated.

Mike Daisey in ‘A People’s History’ at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Angela Nickerson.

Turns out Daisey didn’t much like American history in high school either.

It seems like things just fucking happen. It’s a bizarre narrative that doesn’t make any sense.

That was the reason I started pouring myself into this project. Because everything that is happening to my country started to feel like it was changing and shifting.

He describes his 18-part project as

trying to grind away at American triumphalism, which is written into us so deeply you don’t notice it. But when you grind away you reach a point where the raw wood of then matches the wood of 2018.

Suddenly the history of our country becomes a useful narrative because it makes sense with the fucked-up world we’re in now. When you draw through the lines of genocide and hate and how groups get alienated and left out and the way power constructs itself, that is how the world starts to make sense and suddenly history seems immediate and personal.

The Seattle Rep run ended yesterday. The recordings of it are not publicly available. There are no plans at present for Daisey’s A People’s History to be produced again. But if ever our troubling times called for a particular work of live theater, this moment and this magnum opus would surely be it.

Nothing I’ve experienced in theater comes anywhere near Mike Daisey’s A People’s History in mental/moral transformative impact.

 

 

The Choir of Man

If you’re in a mood for some boisterous joy this holiday weekend—some soul-rousing solos and heartbreaking harmonies in the tenor/bass range—nab a ticket to The Choir of Man. The touring concert show, performed by nine magnificently talented men with roots in Ireland, just stopped for a brief run at Kennedy Center. And be forewarned: remaining shows are selling out.

The Choir of Man is spirit-lifting twice over, in poignancy and pints. It’s set in an Irish pub, equipped with a dartboard and swinging bar doors. Audience members mingle onstage before the show starts. Cast members dash about the Terrace Theater joking and taking selfies with the crowd. There’s real beer on tap—the cast will later offer it in KenCen sippy cups to some lucky folks. The virile vibe is jovial and bracing, robust and embracing. Here is a happy place where blokes sing open-heartedly and dance unabashedly, and we get to enjoy their good company.

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The cast of The Choir of Man. Photo by Brian Wright.

A Narrator (Denis Grindel) sets the scene with patter so poetic it’s like lyrics awaiting a melody. This is “a proper old-school pub,” says he; “there’s “no frills or frippery.” Lest we think we’re in some macho sanctum where feelings mustn’t show, the Narrator sets us straight: “This isn’t a boys-don’t-cry kind of place,” he explains.

This pub, signage says, is The Jungle, and appropriately enough the lads’ first big number is Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” A floor mop becomes a mic stand and bottles and pans get pressed into service as a drumkit. It all seems playfully improvised, and the stage bursts with on-the-spot spontaneity, though clearly every scintilla is polished to play like clockwork.

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The cast of The Choir of Man. Photo by Brian Wright.

The Narrator explains that while many pubs have a sports team or a darts team, this one has a choir. As he introduces us to each member, with a sobriquet and bio sketch, they each perform a witty bit: Tapper (Freddie Huddleston), Bore (Andrew Carter), Hardman (Tom Brandon), Beast (Peter Lawrence), Casanova (John Sheehy), Barman (Mark Loveday), Piano Man (Connor Going), and Joker (Aidan Banyard).

We will soon get to know all nine as uniquely talented individuals, but even more movingly, we will get to experience their rapturous rapport, for what they accomplish in concert—in their exquisitely synced singing and crackerjack choreography—is a male performance of such emotional lucidity and unanimity it nearly elicits tears.

A couple numbers involved an audience member invited onstage. The night I was there, Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” (“Let’s go all the way tonight”) was sung as an affectionate serenade to a delighted gray-haired lady as she and the soloist sat like kids at a table stage left. Immediately after, at a table stage right, Man of LaMancha’s “To dream the impossible dream” was sung ardently to a middle-aged gent while he and the soloist collaborated on building a house of cards. In both instances, there was a gentle wit and unfacetious sweetness that would win over anyone.

On Billy Joel’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Tapper, his hair in a man bun, tore up the stage tap-dancing. And in a man-up gender-twist on Adele’s “Hello” (“I must have called a thousand times/To tell you I’m sorry for everything that I’ve done”), the entire ensemble paused mid-phrase in stop-motion and reached out as if imploringly. The mix of athletic vigor and emotional rigor on the exact same theme, regret for lost love, was stunning.

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The cast of The Choir of Man. Photo by Brian Wright.

Although the concert was largely a capella, quite an array of instruments got played. Piano Man ripped into the upright piano more than once. At other times others took up a uke, a banjo, a guitar, a trumpet, bongos, and more. On the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” the pub choir turned into a veritable pub band.

As the concert progressed, the choir kept pulling out more and more emotional stops. In Luther Vandross’s “Dance With My Father” (“How I’d love love love / To dance with my father again”), the harmonies and shared sorrows were heart-rending. And Queen’s classic ballad “Somebody to Love” (“Can anybody find me somebody to love?”) became a harmonized howl of shared forlornness.

Near the end of the program the rocking “Some Nights” by fun. turned to self-reflection (“What do I stand for? / What do I stand for?”). And John Farnham’s “You’re the Voice,” accompanied by a mournful bagpipe, included an eerily resonant lyric:

We’re all someone’s daughter
We’re all someone’s son
How long can we look at each other
Down the barrel of a gun?

The choir closed with a traditional Irish tune, “The Parting Glass,” which ended on this note: “Good night and joy be with you all.” Indeed that was the sentiment that had been thrillingly instilled in us all. But beyond that joy, there had appeared a kind of hope: a vision of men in harmony instead of conflict, of men behaving gladly instead of badly—of dudes in tune, with their feelings as well as with ours.

Credits: Created by Andrew Kay and Nic Doodson Directed by Nic Doodson Music Supervisor and Arranger: Jack Blume Choreographer and Movement Director: Freddie Huddleston Writer: Ben Norris Scenic Design: Oli Townsend Lighting Design: Richard Dinnen Sound Design: Max Hunter Costume and Associate Designer: Verity Sadler Assistant Director: Jim Fortune Selected Song List (courtesy of The Choir of Man): “Welcome to the Jungle” – Guns N’ Roses “Hello” – Adele “Somebody to Love” – Queen “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” – Paul Simon “Under the Bridge” – Red Hot Chilli Peppers “The Impossible Dream” – Man of La Mancha “Some Nights” – fun. “Teenage Dream” – Katy Perry “Wake Me Up” – Avicii

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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The Choir of Man plays only November 23, 24, and 25, 2018, in the Terrace Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F St. NW in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the Box Office at (202) 467-4600 or order them online.

The Choir of Man Original Cast album of gorgeous covers is for sale on iTunes and can be streamed on Apple Music and Spotify.

 

Cry It Out

Cry It Out—an exhilaratingly funny and touching comedy about new parenthood—is a joyous reminder that when a playwright of Molly Smith Metzler’s skill and compassion writes “close to home,” as she puts it—drawing from her own life—the work on stage can draw us in and connect us as if it is our story too. This identity alchemy is all the more wondrous in Cry It Out because the story it tells is grounded in the specific postnatal experience of three new mothers—and Metzler wrote it from notes she took during the first two years of her daughter’s life.

This is, then, a play no man could have written because no man could have known its postpartum particulars. Curiously, this subject matter is also relatively rare in the annals of plays by women who are moms. To the extent today’s theater deals with birth and baby-care topics (which is not much), it is generally not from the vantage point of those whose days are measured in soiled diapers, whose sleep is scheduled between breastfeedings, and whose clothes are accessorized with spitup and snot.

Dina Thomas (Lina) and Emjoy Gavino (Jessie) in Cry It Out. Photo by Daniel Corey.

Raising infants and birthing plays at the same time is no walk in the park. Yet the paucity of dramatic literature that foregrounds new motherhood might also be explained by a cultural headwind of a more invidious sort: the professional theater presumption that marketing new plays by women is hard enough. Why compound the problem by producing plays that would interest only theatergoers who would have to hire babysitters? And why mount content that non-moms would not relate to?

All of which makes Studio’s choice to program Cry It Out quite a remarkable surprise. There are plenty of laugh lines; this is a gut-bustingly funny comedy after all. But it is literally written with mother wit. Metzger’s script can refer to babies as larval and breasts as boobs and get away with it, because her jokes consistently arise situationally from specifics she knows from inside. What’s amazing is how this insider angle of vision becomes a singularly satisfying experience for those who are outside it.

Watching and enjoying Cry It Out is keenly connecting—not least because the direction (by Joanie Schultz) and the four actors in this production are stellar. But the play itself is really the thing that transfixes and affixes us. Even as the biological basics of maternity—pregnancy, gestation, lactation—are vividly evoked throughout the script, Cry It Out welcomes us into its world with a humor, warmth, and emotional inclusiveness that transcend our various anatomies by reminding us primally of our very commonplace commonality: We each were born to a mother and she had to make really hard choices about how to take care of us and get us grown. Our mothers’ choices were different, their resources and support systems were different, their obstacles and opportunities were different. But their choices to keep and safeguard us cost them more than we can know.

Emjoy Gavino (Jessie) and Dina Thomas (Lina) in Cry It Out. Photo by Daniel Corey.

I love how disarmingly Metzler has crafted her narrative to bring home to us this connection. We first meet two young moms who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds but who are in similar emotional straits: a postpartum loneliness and isolation that yield, once they meet, to neighborly camaraderie and friendship.

Upper-middle-class and personable Jessie (Emjoy Gavino) is an attorney in a firm where she’s on track to make partner. She has really bonded with her baby, though, and is thinking of scuttling her career to be a stay-at-home mom. The problem is that this would infuriate her financial-sector husband, whose plan for their future depends on having dual incomes.

Working-class, brash, and wise-cracking Lina (Dina Thomas) is on a paltry maternity leave from her entry-level hospital job and must return to work because her partner the baby daddy makes almost no money, though he does do admirable good in a social service agency. The problem is that Lina’s mother-in-law, in whose care the infant would have to be left, cannot be trusted because she’s a lush.

The third mother we meet is from the upper crust: wrapped-tight, overwrought Adrienne (Tessa Klein), who shares none of Jessie’s and Lina’s joys of motherhood. Adrienne has not bonded with her baby and feels mostly rage because the birth of the child has imperiled her high-end career as a jewelry designer. Her equally high-earning husband owns a successful company, so they could easily afford for Adrienne to take off work to raise their kid. The problem is that Adrienne is adamant she does not want to.

Paolo Andino (Mitchell) and Emjoy Gavino (Jessie) in Cry It Out. Photo by Daniel Corey.

In an intriguing twist, Metzger introduces Mitchell, Adrienne’s wealthy and well-meaning husband (Paolo Andino), who drops in on Jessie and Lina’s backyard palaver to ask if his wife could join them. Adrienne needs the sort of sisterly support they appear to have for each other, he explains. Mitchell is a fascinating character in that he evidences all the emotional warmth and concern of a loving new mom, while Adrienne evidences all the postnatal chilliness of a typical distant and resentful new dad. Besides bringing rich layers of comic complication, fraught drama, and class analysis to the play, Metzger’s stereotype-smashing Mitchell-Adrienne storyline functions as a shrewd rebuttal to the notion that biology is destiny.

The play’s title refers to a theory of sleep training that holds that babies put to bed should be left alone to “cry it out.” Once they realize in the darkness no one will come, they will quit crying and comfort themselves to sleep. At one point Jessie asks Lina if she has ever considered trying the technique. “No,” says Lina, “because I don’t hate babies.” The title also refers metaphorically to the dilemma of isolated first-time moms who know not what to do and are left to flounder it out on their own.

In an even deeper sense, the title Cry It Out refers to the origin story the play connects us to: All of us came out our mother’s womb into this world bawling like babies in need of everything beginning with mama. Whenever we harbor animus based on difference, that is the fundamental affinity we have forgotten, our shared mammalian humanity. That’s the universalizing gist that cries out of Cry It Out. And that’s essentially why Studio’s production is such a must-see, must-feel theater experience.

 [Read Amy Kotkin’s review of Cry It Out.]

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

Cry It Out plays through December 16, 2018, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-332-3300 or go online.