Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: December, 2018

Girlfriend

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts April 27, 2018]

The rock musical Girlfriend celebrates the tentativeness and exuberance of a budding romance between two gay teens in a small town Nebraska in the 1990s. Just after graduating from high school, Will, a socially awkward loner (Jimmy Mavrikes), and Mike, a popular jock (Lukas James Miller), gradually come to terms with their mutual attraction. As tenderly directed by Matthew Gardiner on Signature’s intimate ARK stage—and as exquisitely performed by Mavrikes and Miller—Girlfriend is a sublimely touching love story that aches with emotional authenticity in each instant.

Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) and Lukas James Miller (Mike) in Girlfriend. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Todd Almond wrote the semiautobiographical book around lyrics and music borrowed from Matthew Sweet’s hit 1991 alternative rock album titled Girlfriend. There’s a disarming irony in the fact that Sweet wrote and recorded Girlfriend after his divorce from his wife, yet Almond uses these songs to express the feelings flooding between two young men. For instance, during a scene where Will and Mike are at a drive-in watching a movie, they sing

I didn’t know nobody
And then I saw you coming my way
Don’t you need to get in the arms of a good friend?
Oh, cuz believe me, I’d sure love to call you my girlfriend.

Earlier Mike had given Will a mixtape of songs from Sweet’s album, which they’re both really into. Now they’re singing from it together ostensibly as fans. In fact, they’re singing the song to each other, warily coming out to each other and themselves. Sweet’s lyrics are therefore a little off-kilter, not your typically explicit burst-out-in-song-to-share-a-feeling musical number. Yet here as throughout the show, Sweet’s lyrics function to speak truths that dare not otherwise be said.

Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) and Lukas James Miller (Mike, standing) in Girlfriend. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

In relying on lyrics that were written as male to female and repurposing them as male to male, Almond risks echoing the campy custom of gay men appropriating female references for each other. But Girlfriend steers clear of that slang in two critical ways. First, the script situates Mike and Will completely outside the gay culture of the period. And second, it gives Mike and Will not a smidgen of the gendering misogyny that can accompany gay men’s mock feminizing of one another. Thus in Mavrikes’s and Miller’s extraordinarily soulful and ebullient performances, we are at liberty to be ever affected by their characters’ purely heartfelt affection.

Also underscoring Girlfriend‘s gender-just politics while rocking the house are the four women in the band—Musical Director Britt Bonney (keyboard), Beth Cannon (guitar), Nicole Saphos (bass), and Erika Johnson (drums). Scenic Designer Misha Kachman has cleverly positioned them upstage as if in a recording studio, such that when they sing and play backup they become literally the generational soundtrack to Will and Mike’s romantic exploration.

Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) and Lukas James Miller (Mike) in Girlfriend. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

With light-show colors, Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills shifts our focus artfully between the characters and the musicians. Costume Designer Frank Labovitz gives the musicians a hip rocker look and the high school grads a closetful of apt shirt changes. And Sound Designer Ryan Hickey not only vividly sets scenes, as with a passing train or that drive-in movie; he mixes in the actors’ subtly mic’ed voices such that those who know Sweet’s eminently singable melodies might want to sing along.

The slur “faggots” occurs once, the prerecorded sound of teen boys driving by and reviling them. It is a rupture, an intrusion of the real world, and thereafter Will’s and Mike’s love story is tested. But by then we are rooting for them, we want them to stay together, not least because the onstage chemistry between Mavrikes and Miller is riveting.

When they dance with each other to the music, it is as if their unspoken courtship gets physical. But more often they are facing the audience and reacting as if facing each other. Are they looking into some invisible mirror to know so minutely what the other is feeling and thinking, even in pauses between lines? How do they manage to fill each silence such that we hold our breath for what a look or glance will reveal next? And when they are not belting out songs but simply speaking softly very up close, how do they conspire to so transfix us as moment by moment they let us in on what is going on in their respective hearts?

In this era of rising anti-LGBTQ animus sanctioned by our Wannabe Alpha Male in Chief, Girlfriend‘s celebration of misogyny-free male-male love makes this production an artistic triumph.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Girlfriend has been extended through June 17, 2018, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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Vietgone

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts April 30, 2018]

There is so much in this show to flip over, you could be dizzied by its delights. The fantastical story and kooky characters, the wicked humor and badass music, the frisky cast and musicians, the far-out design and direction—it’s a full-on fusion of fun.

But it’s much, much more.

In Vietgone, Vietnamese-American Playwright Qui Nguyen sets out to tell how his parents fell in love after being resettled in America as refugees after the fall of Saigon. Nguyen, a practitioner of geek theater and a screenwriter for Marvel Studios, embellishes their romance with the wildest pastiche of pop culture I can recall seeing on a DC stage. He drops in this and that from comic books, Hollywood movies, hip-hop, cartoons, sit-coms, farce, kung fu fighting, sex comedies, you name it. Incredibly, it all coheres.

Scenic Designer Tony Cisek has transformed Studio Theatre’s fourth floor into something like a funky garage or unfinished shelter with a bandstand upstage, huge billboard-type placards on the wall representing Arkansas, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, California; a jumble of luggage, guitars, and other set dressing including a map of Saigon. A sign lights up that says Fort Chaffee—the real-life site of the refugee camp in Arkansas where in 1975 Tong, the playwright’s mother, and Quang, his father, met. Both 30 years old at the time, they were, as Jacob Yeh playing the Playwright tells us, “both survivors of a conflict that’s been raging in some form or fashion their entire lives.”

Regina Aquino (Tong) and Marc Delacruz (Quang) in Vietgone. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Tong (a fierce and feisty Regina Aquino) got airlifted out of Saigon with her mother, Huong (a slyly amusing Eileen Rivera), leaving behind not only her brother but her fiancé—whom she knows she will not see again.

Quang (a ruggedly robust Marc Delacruz), a pilot trained in the United States, flew a helicopter out of Saigon full of escaping Vietnamese but with no room for his wife and two kids—whom he wants dearly to return to.

The obstacles Quang and Tong face, and the complications in their courtship, have been cast by Nguyen into witty situational comedy and intense dramatic confrontations that jump back and forth in time and are by turns hilarious and deeply affecting.

Nguyen’s nimble balancing of light and dark shines throughout, as for instance in an exchange between Tong and her mom, who is unimpressed with their Fort Chaffee accommodations.

Huong:  I thought we’d have our own rooms at least.
Tong: It’s a refugee camp, mom. It’s not a hotel.
Huong: I know it’s not a hotel. I just thought—well, it’s America. I thought everything would be super nice here in America. That’s sorta what they advertise.

Not long after that laugh line, the play’s motif of rescue from certain danger appears.

Tong:  Mom, I didn’t “drag you here”. We were days away from being overrun by the Viet Cong, my job at the embassy offered me two tickets to America, I gave you one of those tickets—to, you know, SAVE YOU.
Huong:  You saved me?
Tong:  Yes. I saved you. This is the act of being saved.

Regina Aquino (Tong) in Vietgone. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The play is studded with terrific rock songs with lyrics by Nguyen, Music Director Jeff Song, and Andy Santospago, and original rock/pop/funk/psychedelic music by Santospago and members of the ace band The Vietgoners—Song (bass/vocals), Jonathan Hawkins (guitars/banjo/mandolin/vocals), and Keith Butler, Jr. (drums/percussion/vocals).

Many of the stories told in the songs are emotionally raw and the actors sing the guts out of them. For instance, Quang and Tong have a number called “Home” in which they have the same lyrics but with strikingly different meaning. Quang takes the stage solo with a chorus that goes:

HOME.
I’LL MAKE IT HOME.

By which Quang means “I’ll make it back to my homeland.” Tong then joins Quang onstage and sings a nearly identical verse except that for her the “I’LL MAKE IT HOME” chorus means “I’ll make this place my new homeland.” That’s some powerful musical storytelling. And wait till you hear Aquino belt out Tong’s “Don’t Give a Shit.”

Eileen Rivera (Ensemble), Joe Ngo (Nahn), Marc Delacruz (Quang), and Jacob Yeh (Ensemble) in Vietgone. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The show is rife with humor, a lot of it uproariously broad and bawdy, and some of the edgiest makes fun of America. Early on, for instance, there’s a road-trip scene between Quang and his buddy Nahn (a wonderfully wacky Joe Ngo), during which they travel by motorcycle to California on account of Quang’s cockamamie plan to get back to Vietnam. On the way, they talk of this and that.

Quang:  Americans aren’t huge fans of peeps like you and me.
Nahn:  Bullshit. Why would they send so many troops over if they didn’t like us?
Quang: Listen, man, I spent 18 months here in ’68 learning how to fly down in Lacklund Airforce Base. They barely like each other. Look how the white ones treat the black ones here and they’re all from the same country.
Nahn: That is nutbags.
Quang: This is why we need to get home. North and South Vietnam may be at war, but at least we’re not fighting each other over something as stupid as the way we look.
Nahn:  Word.

And not a few of the show’s jests are gentle ribbing of white Americans. “Yo what’s up white people,” exclaims Tong to the audience at the top of the show. And Yeh’s caricatures of white guys are a hoot—among them a crybaby blond-wigged airman who longs for Tong, a bearded Hells Angels biker brute who runs the uneasy raiders off the road, and a long-haired airhead hippie who can’t stop apologizing for the Vietnam War.

The era is captured winkingly. There’s a haze-filled scene with mary jane. There’s bed-hopping galore. (Tong keeps plucking Quang’s shirt open before they get it on.) Recognizable bits from movies like Ghost and The Matrix get big laughs.

Costume Designer Frank Labovitz gets the comic-book look yet keeps the characters believable. Lighting Designer Heather T. Gilbert lends a fantasy fun-house feel. Fight Director Robb Hunter gives a mock martial-arts scene the perfect comic punch. And with her infamous imagination and verve, Director Natsu Onoda Power shapes all the inspired bits and pieces into a whole that ultimately lands with stunning impact.

It happens in the last scene, between Quang, now elderly, being interviewed by his son for a play he wants to write about his father and mother. Their talk turns to the Vietnam War and America’s role in it as seen from the point of view of those for whom the war came to them. These people—including Quang and Tong, without whom there would not be this Playwright—were reliant on America for rescue from the imminent danger posed by the Viet Cong. It is a powerfully written scene that articulates and invites a fundamental recalculation of why we were in Vietnam.

By the end, Vietgone does something so beyond entertaining, so unexpected and unforgettable, that I not only left the theater with my mind blown. I left with my mind changed.

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

Vietgone plays through May 20, 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.

Love and Friendship IRL: Q&A with Brandon McCoy and Brianna Letourneau (Other Life Forms)

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts June 26, 2018]

I went to see Other Life Forms, the new comedy at Keegan Theatre, not expecting to write about it. But the play changed my mind. I wasn’t even home yet when on an impulse I tweeted that Other Life Forms is “a beautifully original comedy about love and friendship that is so funny, moving, and deeply truthful I expect it is destined for Off-Bway and beyond.” Then days later, still high on it, I sat down to talk with real-life friends and lovers Brandon McCoy, who wrote the play, and Brianna Letourneau, who acts in it as Leslie.

Brandon McCoy and Brianna Letourneau on the second-act set of “Other Life Forms” at Keegan Theatre. Photo: DC Metro Theater Arts

John: Other Life Forms had me laughing a lot, and then it left me so emotionally moved I was just floored. It’s like a wellspring of insights about love and friendship that just kept trickling through the play—especially in that amazing last scene in the coffee shop between Ben [Josh Sticklin] and Leslie.

Josh Sticklin as Ben and Brianna Letourneau as Leslie in “Other Life Forms.” Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

I was struck by all the relationship wisdom that was coming from Leslie. Everything she’s trying to communicate to Ben seems faithful to a woman’s point of view, unfiltered by a man’s, and I found myself wondering about the playwright: Who’s his muse? Male playwrights don’t come to this—

Brandon: Right.

Brianna: —on their own necessarily.

And when I found out you two are a couple, which I didn’t know going in, I thought to myself: There’s a story here that I want to find out about.

Read Amy Kotkin’s review of Other Life Forms

You’ve been living with this play for—

Brianna: Quite a while.

Brandon: Three and a half years.

And you just had a wedding anniversary?

Brianna: Yeah, we’ve been married for four years and together for thirteen.

The play seemed to me so truthful, it had to have been rooted in real life somehow—stuff you could only know by living it.

Brandon: There’s a story there for sure.

You’ve worked a lot together in theater. Was yours a “showmance”?

Brianna: It wasn’t a showmance.

Brandon: It was around theater but it wasn’t a showmance.

Brianna: It was a classroom-mance.

Brandon: We met at Catholic University in 2004. I was a first-year graduate student, and she was a first-year undergrad.

Brianna: So he was my TA. That’s where the relationship started. That’s where the chemistry began. It was my very first theater class ever and Brandon’s very first class teaching as a grad. I walked in and I didn’t know anyone. I’m from Oregon originally. I’d just driven three thousand miles away from my family. I was a wreck. Brandon was in the front of the classroom calling roll and I was like, he’s going to fuck up my name, ’cause it’s a hard one, Brianna Letourneau. No one ever gets it right the first time. And Brandon said “Brianna Letourneau” like he knew exactly how to say my name. It made me sit up for a second. I sort of took him in for the first time. And then that day he performed two Shakespeare monologs back to back, just off the cuff, brilliantly. I’m a young eighteen-year-old at the time and I had never seen that before.

Brandon: It’s also fair to say that I was really young too.

Brianna: You were very young, you were twenty-two.

Brandon: Well, I took you in for the first time in that class too. But for the record, nothing happened.

Brianna: Nothing happened.

Brandon: Nothing happened until you were not my student anymore.

Brianna: That’s true.

You’ve worked on a lot of plays about love, but you wanted to write a different kind of love story. Say more about that.

Brandon: My favorite experiences in the theater are watching comedies. When we see plays together, we will talk on the drive back and after we get home about what we saw, and some of the most profound conversations we have had have been in and around comedies. If you’re laughing at something, if you’re engaged in it in that way, you’re immediately reflecting on it. Then if you allow yourself to have that conversation afterward, you start to wonder why you’re laughing in the first place.

What’s very you in this play?

Brandon: Of all the plays that I have working drafts for, this is the one where I think I’m in the least.

Brianna: Yeah, there are elements of each one of these characters that we probably represent on some level. But I wouldn’t say this is Brianna and Brandon’s story by any means.

Brandon: It comes back to what you and I value in relationships.

Brianna: Right.

Brandon: This idea of love—that chemistry plus friendship equals love—if that’s the thesis of this play, which I think it is, this is certainly something that you and I agree on.

Brianna: Well, we actively work on.

Brandon: Right.

Brianna: I think this is an exploration in our lives of what we have defined love as.

Brandon: And what we value in each other.

Brianna: What we value. That’s a really good way of saying it.

During the three years the script has been in the works, did you have something like pillow talk about it?

Brianna: It’s fun to watch Brandon write plays.

Brandon: Brianna is, without a doubt, my first editor, my first set of eyes.

What was Brianna’s influence on the play?

Brandon: I have an interesting tidbit about that.

I should take you into separate rooms and see if your answers match up.

Brandon: Like The Newlywed Game.

Brianna: Would we end up together?

Brandon: I will say that this was not Brianna’s favorite play of mine that I have written.

Brianna: True story.

Brandon: And what I said to her was something along the lines of: You don’t get it.

Brianna: I totally got it. It was the comedy part. For me, the last scene was the reason why I wanted to play Leslie.  She has such a clear arc and she’s so honest. I do really connect to her in so many ways.

Brandon: There are other plays that I have worked on that Brianna’s voice is in intentionally. The thing about this play that I didn’t realize until we were in tech is that Brianna’s voice was in Leslie, and it’s because she and I are sitting around our house reading these scenes out loud and I’m stealing. I’m stealing from what she is. Her rhythm, her cadence.

Brianna: There’s a lot of truth in Leslie.  She’s wise but she’s also very funny and very honest. She’s the one who is holding people accountable and herself accountable, which I really respect. I respect Leslie and I think I strive for that.

She’s a geologist and she’s the rock.

Brandon: Leslie is the most down to earth. Literally, she is a geologist. I think sometimes when you’re with somebody this long and you speak the same language with each other like we do, you can lose sight of how much you’re actually influenced by each other.

Josh Sticklin as Ben, John Loughney as Jeff, and Brianna Letourneau as Leslie in “Other Life Forms.” Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

So many moments in the play rang true for me. Like points of emotional clarity expressed so simply and directly they just open the heart. One of them was that story about the point when Ben knows he’s in love with Leslie. She’s got food poisoning from a restaurant they ate at and she’s puking her guts out and he spends the night with her in the toilet taking care of her and he’s holding her and…she takes his hand. That simple gesture flooding with emotional truth, that destroyed me.

Brandon: A touch.

Josh Sticklin as Ben and John Loughney as Jeff in “Other Life Forms.” Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There’s another brilliant passage in a speech by Jeff [John Loughney]. It’s about our fear of screwing up and having someone call us out on it.

Having to face your mistakes, missteps, and miscalculations. And then having someone look at you and say to you, “You were wrong.” 

The whole beginning of the play is about that fear—the fear of screwing up and being exposed for it—in the form of a hilarious comedy about online dating anxiety.

Brandon: Right.

But how that fear gets handled in the second act just knocked me out. How did you know that theme belonged to the play?

Brianna: That’s a good question.

Brandon: Because that is me. If I’m in this play, that’s me. I suffer from social anxiety quite a bit. In fact, I’ve written another play that’s almost entirely about that idea.

Brianna: It’s called Tanner, and it’s really good.

Brandon: A long time ago, when I was just discovering that I had social anxiety, a therapist told me that usually it’s a fear of being misunderstood. It’s a fear that what you’re putting out there is going to be interpreted in such a way that you’re out of control of it, and it takes a life of its own once it’s out there.  I think some sort of fear drives all plays about the human experience. That was mine. Mine is that you put something out there into the world and you sort of wait and see how it gets returned to you. Then the thing about relationships, that ultimately works, is that you find somebody who knows you’re making missteps and miscalculations and loves you anyway.

Brianna: Can I add to that? I’ve gotten asked a lot about that last scene: Do you think that Ben and Leslie end up together? And I’m not going to answer that, because I think people should have their own experience with that. But honestly, for me it changes daily, depending on how that scene goes, where I think we land. I do feel like a takeaway for me in connection to Brandon and my relationship is that there’s an opening of Ben at the end of the play through Leslie. She is not afraid to acknowledge where her own faults are and doesn’t share that same fear that is evident in this play.

Brandon: Absolutely.

Brianna: She says: I have to talk about how I messed up and if you discover you did too, so be it, let’s work through it together. In Brandon and my relationship, I think we’ve mirrored that opening for each other, which is a good thing, to be celebrated.

Brandon: A hundred percent.

Your program note says that you hope audiences laugh and have a really good time. How have they been responding, and what are some of people’s reactions to the play that have particularly gratified or surprised you?

Brandon: When you rehearse a comedy, just before the audience comes—

Brianna: You’re like desperate for the audience.

Brandon: Please, please, please let them laugh. Our first performance—

Brianna: Oh my God, it was amazing.

Brandon: It was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life because the first scene started and I was just like, okay, thank God. This is actually funny. And then they stayed with it. And it was like, oh okay, we’re on to something.

Brianna: They were listening and they were leaning in. Brandon hasn’t been at every show and universally it has been very positive. This play makes you think about your life, right now: Who am I in this? What is love to me? And something that a lot of people have come up and said to me after the show—which feels very vulnerable and honest—is the line that resonates with them the most: “We forgot how to be friends.”

The play does a depth charge at that point.

Brandon: At the end of the play, Jeff says, “You’re going to be okay.” It’s the message of the play, that you’re going to be okay. I think people need to hear that right now. It’s going to take some work, but it’s going to be okay.

Brianna: You have to trust that.

Brandon: This is why the theater is important. It’s okay to make people laugh. If they get something else out of it, that’s wonderful. But it is okay for them just to laugh. When Jeff says, “You’re going to be okay,” everybody hopefully takes a breath. Then they leave the theater thinking they’re better for the experience of seeing this, because they’re happier than when they came in.

Brianna: Does this play hit you in the head? Does it hit you in the heart? Does it hit you in the gut? Good plays should do all three. And I feel like every night I bring Leslie to life I get to live in all three of those worlds.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, including one intermission.

Other Life Forms plays through July 7, 2018, at The Keegan Theatre—1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

The Story of the Gun: Q&A with Mike Daisey

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts July 23, 2018]

Masterful monologuist Mike Daisey returns to DC to skewer with humor another burning issue of the day. This time it’s America’s thing about guns. What’s that all about, anyway? How did guns get to be more American than apple pie? The show is called The Story of the Gun, and it offers some surprising answers.

The Story of the Gun plays one week only at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company July 31 to August 9. Daisey’s fans will know better than to miss it. And newbies will be in for a scintillating eyeopener.

Mike Daisey, creator and performer of ‘The Story of the Gun.’

Daisy is a regular raconteur on the Woolly stage. Over the years, I’ve relished six of his shows there: How Theater Failed America (2009), The Last Cargo Cult (2010), The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure) (2012), The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (2012), American Utopias (2013), and The Trump Card (which ran Cassandra-like a week before the 2016 election).

Daisey, who creates and performs all his own material, typically sits at a table with pages of notes and a glass of water before him and regales us with stories. And before we know it, he has us laughing and aghast.

John: DC audiences obviously really like you. What do you like about DC audiences?

Mike: Well, there’s real strength to being in a center of power. I’ve always treasured the ability to talk to real American citizens. The humanity we’re always most in touch with is our own, and there’s real power in being able to have a human conversation that isn’t mediated by the media just steps away from where the corridors of power really are, the levers that cause the largest things to move in our world, which is the machinery of the capital. I really love that about coming to DC.

In the run-up to the 2016 election, you brought The Trump Card to DC, and we talked then about how the show had changed as more and more damaging stuff came out about the candidate. Since Trump won, you’ve done at least two shows related to his presidency, This Is Not Normal and The End of Journalism.

Yeah, both of those are certainly post-Trump shows. The concerns of The End of Journalism are larger than the Trump presidency, but that show is definitely heightened and underlined by the disaster currently unfolding. This spring at the Guthrie, I performed the 18-part A People’s History, which attempts to contextualize our current moment by looking at the whole of our history. I haven’t done any work in the last 18 months that’s not either directly related to the current crisis or strongly impacted by it.

What have you learned since the election that you didn’t know when you did The Trump Card?

I didn’t know how terrible it was going to be in its particulars, and so I sit, like most people do, in a state of expanding, ongoing horror. I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with the psychological implications of unending torment. As terrible news compounds on top of terrible news, a lot of how one reacts to the ongoing situation becomes: how do you handle the news when the news is always terrible and often more terrible than you had contemplated actually happening?

A lot of the reactions that normal human beings have to that—to become numb, to attempt to normalize things—are actions that reinforce abuse of power. My own reactions have been mapped very closely to that. I feel myself normalizing things that are terrible. You want to stay outraged at the things that deserve outrage. At the same time, if you are outraged every single day at the highest intensity, you will burn yourself out. And if you burn yourself out, then you won’t be there to actually fight. It’s very difficult to manage at times like this.

You’ve been performing The Story of the Gun for about four years?

It was first performed in early 2013. The show was commissioned and created in response to Sandy Hook—which is indicative of how sad the entrenched state of the gun conversation is that that shooting has now become like fabled, old history. Joe Haj, who was then artistic director at PlayMakers in North Carolina and is now artistic director at the Guthrie, approached me to ask if I’d be interested in trying to tackle the gun conversation in a new way. I said that I was, and that’s how the show began.

How has The Story of the Gun changed since then?

It’s deepened. I wanted to have a conversation about guns that blocked out everything that was contested territory. The show is an attempt to talk about guns without using the language of either gun-control advocates or gun-rights advocates. I simply tried to exclude all that from the conversation to then see what was left, which is one of the ways the show found its form: I realized one of the central questions that neither side really deals with is the actual history of guns.

You have this thing that’s such a divided issue for a huge number of people in the country, but the actual history of how guns came to occupy this psychic space in America is never part of that conversation. The conversation always revolves around very limited talking points about shootings and reactions to shootings, and it’s never about why our country’s statistics are wildly different than everyone else’s. When did they start diverging? How did this begin? What is the evolutionary path that led us to this moment? By exploring that, I discovered there were some very useful things one can say about guns in America that don’t directly contradict either side’s orthodoxy and that make it then worth talking about.

Is it fair to say audiences coming to The Story of the Gun who think they know what you’re going to say will be surprised?

Yes, I think that’s true. If they weren’t, then that would be bad, because no one’s interested in a conversation about hot-button issues if you’re not able to find a new, compelling, empathic angle. It’s already a problem where the soil has become so drained of nutrients that new actual thought can’t grow there.

It makes complete sense that we have an intractable problem with guns if you go back and actually examine the fact that this country was founded at the point of a gun and absolutely implemented by guns. America the experiment is absolutely impossible except for guns. The discovery of the New World and the bringing over here of guns, which was new technology at that moment—the existence of guns at that moment allowed a technological superiority to aid and abet the genocide of a huge number of people.

And it’s the gun that underlies that power. It’s the gun that gives early settlers and colonists, after they establish a foothold, the power to bring people over as slaves. Without guns, they would not have been able to enforce slavery the way that they did. Guns are integral to the entire American experience. As a consequence, you can’t extract the gun from the country that was created by it.

Recently the story of Trump and the story of the NRA converged in revelations about Russian influence on American politics. Did you see that coming?

Well, I don’t know that I saw it coming, but it’s clear now. The counter-intel that Russia has been doing on American politics has succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. And one of the largest levers to manipulate is the lobby of gun ownership, because it reaches a very specific demographic slice across America. That is a powerful tool to wield. If you can manipulate that group, you’re manipulating a huge number of American voters. So it makes sense to me that the Russians would.

I know you think a lot about the role of the theater artist in relation to social justice. What are your personal guiding principles about that?

As a younger person, I would often get distracted and disheartened because I would wish that the things I was creating in the theater, the things I was seeing in the theater, would reach beyond the theater. And that has always given me a kind of ambition. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to temper that with the wisdom to see that it is not just the amount of people you reach, it’s the depth to which you reach them.

In a world where anyone can record a YouTube video and post it, you can have a viral impact on a tremendous number of people. The question becomes: to what depth were you able to have that impact, and how complex was the conversation you were really able to have in that medium?

One of the things that theater does better than any other art form is human connection, because the artist is actually present, sculpting the work in the moment. I treasure my form of theater because I am present and the words themselves shape to the moment that they’re spoken. In the same way, this conversation is shaped by the questions you’re asking, the experience in the theater is shaped through the concerns of the present moment.

I know that the show I’ll be performing next week will be highly influenced by everything that’s happened with the Trump presidency. And then in the moment when I speak the words and I sculpt them, they will be informed by those things, and they’ll be formed by the people in the room, and so we will be in communion in that space. That kind of conversation, that kind of deep communion, is largely absent from our civic discourse now. But we need community very badly.

I see my job through the theater as a way to create an intentional community, and an attempt each time for those who choose to participate in it to have a very real conversation that begins germinating in the room. But that’s just the seed that I am planting with them; the real flowering of it is outside the room. The people in the room with me who have this conversation about the nature of guns, of violence, of male aggression and the history that lends itself to through the American experience—they’ll carry that conversation out of the room with them.

As a young man, I used to take too much on myself. I would think, “I have to find a way to not only do this live in the theater; I’ve got to find a way to bring it to all these people.” But at the end of the day, I don’t bring it to the people. The people receive it, it comes through me, and they are the ones that go out into the world just as each of us goes out every day, and they’re the ones that have to be the change they want to see. You just hope that your work inspires that.

Read my column about the show.

The Story of the Gun plays July 31 through August 9, 2018, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company –  641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

On Being Open On Stage: Q&A with Michael Kevin Darnall (New Guidelines for Peaceful Times)

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts October 21, 2018]

When Michael Kevin Darnall plays a character who is the focus of a long scene and we can watch every nuance and shading of his emotional expression without interruption, he can be transfixing. When I saw him do that in Mosaic Theater Company’s production of Gilad Evron’s Ulysses on BottlesI wrote:

The actor is delivering a depiction of Ulysses’ inner turbulence that is so daring and disclosing it drives the momentum of the entire production.

I saw Darnall do that again in Bosco Brasil’s New Guidelines for Peaceful Times, now playing at Spooky Action Theater

Read David Siegel’s review.

Michael Kevin Darnall as Clausewitz and Carlos Saldaña as Segismundo in ‘New Guidelines for Peaceful Times,’ now playing at Spooky Action Theater. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The character who drives the plot is the Brazillian immigration interrogator Segismundo, played terrifically by Carlos Saldaña. He’s calling the shots. He’s the proactive one. But it’s Darnall’s more reactive performance as the Polish émigré Clausewitz that really drives the emotional momentum of the play. It hooked me and gripped me even beyond the storytelling in the play itself. So I wanted to talk with him to ask him how he does that.

I had no idea what a wonderful story I would hear.

Michael: I consider myself to be a very sensitive person. I’ve always been, ever since I was little. I’d be watching a sitcom and something sad would happen on The Golden Girls or 227, and my mom or grandmother would look at me across the room and say, “Kevin, it’s just a show.”

I get really wrapped up in stories that tug on my heartstrings, and there’s something about Clausewitz that is so gentle and open and hurt. And that really touches me. We talked a lot about his sense of wonder. That’s a word the director Roberta Alves used a lot in rehearsal. His childlike wonder. His naivete. His chosen profession and how he approaches life with a sense of exploration and joy in the doing.

He was an actor in Poland and after his life there crumbled he decides that he wants to change professions and do something more worthwhile, more “real.” He decides to become a farmer in Brazil. It looks like an arbitrary decision but once he unravels what he’s been through and what led him to that decision, you see why he would give up art and deem it as less important than manual labor.

Michael Kevin Darnall as Ulysses and Sarah Marshall as Seinfeld in ‘Ulysses on Bottles’ at Mosaic Theater Company. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The sensitivity you have felt since you were a child seems key to what I see in your performance, because it is so unusually unabashed and rare. Especially in anyone who is raised to be a boy. How did you grow up and keep it?

Well, God knows, there were plenty of attempts to drive it out of me, whether my peers or family members who saw that I was a little too soft, a little too weak. I would cry at card tricks, you know? But if anyone asked me what my secret is, what makes me a good actor if you think I am one, I would say I have it all to thank to women, the women in my life. The incredibly kind, sensitive, giving women who raised me. My mother. My aunts. My grandmothers. Of course, there were wonderful men in my life as well. My dad. My grandfathers. But there’s something about what I saw that women do, and it’s that generosity of spirit.

I’m so taken by people who aren’t afraid to be their authentic selves. To cry when it’s time to cry. To shout when it’s time to shout. To completely fall apart when it’s time to completely fall apart. They have such faith and strength. They know they’ll bring it all back together. And I’ve always carried that with me.

I grew up in the Baptist/Pentecostal church, so I spent a lot of Sundays in church with these women. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a black Baptist church or a Pentecostal church, but when the spirit moves it’s an amazing thing to witness. Seeing your mother crying and laid prostrate on the floor—and 30 minutes later we’re joking and going to have fried chicken at my grandmother’s house. I was so taken by the way these women would let spirit move through them.

And also actresses. I will never forget. It was summer break and I was at home by myself flipping channels. I landed on HBO and it was the end of A Trip to Bountiful with Geraldine Page. And I was watching this woman behave in such a way—her hands and how she would touch her face. And I had the nerve to think that this woman was stealing from me, that Geraldine Page was doing my shtick! I was just so taken by her.

And then I went to acting school, and Joan Potter—my great acting teacher at SUNY Purchase, Conservatory of Theatre Arts—she had actually been the understudy for Geraldine Page and Kim Stanley when they did that famous production of The Three Sisters at the Actors Studio that went to London. Joan would tell these great stories about her friend Gerry Page and Kim Stanley. And funny stories about Sandy Dennis. So then on break I started to research these women.

Seeing their performances on video, I knew I was watching very much more accomplished, much more gifted, clearly older people than I, people who had lived a lot more life at that point. But I saw something in the way that Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, and Sandy Dennis approach a line and a moment—something that I saw in myself. Those women changed my life. And I aspired to be as good as them.

Michael Kevin Darnall and Kate Eastwood Norris. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

Michael Kevin Darnall and Kate Eastwood Norris. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

Hearing how women inspired your acting technique, I’m recalling other roles I’ve seen you play, like the boyfriend in Yentl. And the guy in Animal who’s like—

Oh my gosh.

He’s a pretty over-sexed man, right?

Oh yeah.

Were you using this same woman-inspired acting sensitivity on him?

Well, you know in 2018, we’re trying to be more mindful about using words like feminine and masculine and what it means to be a woman or a man. It’s not that I am ever-shifting “feminine” qualities into “masculine” qualities. What I’m attributing to femininity is that willingness to be open and available and sensitive. And as a guy who went to acting school with a lot of testosterone in the room, I see how men get tight and guarded and stiff when acting.

Inspired by some wonderful women, I’ve always been determined to have the same amount of trust, freedom, courage, to be vulnerable. I think that may be what you’re seeing. I don’t feel the need to be macho on stage.

Michael Kevin Darnall in ‘When Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2, and 3)’ at Round House Theatre. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.

I’m flashing back to your role as the captured Union captain in Father Comes Home from the Wars. That vulnerability was coming through even in that character. It’s not that you’re playing the same character all the time.

But there’s always me. I’m always bringing me to the table.

You’re always bringing that possibility to the audience, too.

Yes. You can’t leave yourself out of the equation. I always am playing a character, but it has to start through me because how else can you make it personal? How else can you reach an audience? When we get cast in roles, we get cast for a reason. And for whatever reason in those roles you mentioned, the directors wanted my interpretation of the role. So why would I leave out my bag of tricks so to speak—who I am as an actor? That’s what they hired me for.

Cassie Platt as Grace and Michael Kevin Darnall as Henry in ‘The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs’ at Spooky Action Theater. Photo by Tony Hitchcock.

I’m also remembering your manipulator role in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs.

Oh, my God, right?

He was really creepy, but I think now in retrospect what made him so interesting was what you’re talking about having brought to the role. Something shining through you that wouldn’t if you were more covered or more armored.

You’re not the first person who’s said he was creepy. But I thought he was charming, and I tried to amp up my charm a million percent dealing with my character’s wife, who I was so in love with. And the feedback I got was that what’s making him so creepy is that you are so sweet. You are so kind. But the things you are saying and doing, they belie the charm that you’re radiating.

The playwright Carole Fréchette said to me, “You were such a kind Henry, such a creepy Henry”—because she was used to seeing guys play it tough and overtly evil. But I said to the director Helen Murray, “You know I think his words are going to take care of that scary monster in the small room. So I don’t need to play into the idea of being that big and scary husband. I’m just going to be me. And I’m going to let the audience get it from the words and from my actions.” And they did. It served them in a different way than me going around banging my fists into walls.

Top: Michael Kevin Darnall as Lucien in ‘Wig Out! at Studio Theatre. Middle: Melissa Victor, Dane Figueroa Edidi, Jamyl Dobson, Ysabel Jasa. Front: Edwin Brown III. Photo by Teresa Wood.

That illuminated the character and brought us into the story in a subtextual way. With all the characters I’ve seen you play and how you’ve played them, the emotional freedom you bring to a performance is what seems to subliminally make the audience want to know you and be on your side.

In Wig Out! at Studio Theatre, I played this gay hypermasculine dude named Lucien. He did the most vile things, and he’s so calculated, but I tried to slide into that role with relaxation and charm. That was the first time I was ever in a show where the audience would boo me at curtain call. I think they were with me for the ride, but ultimately they could not condone the things that I did. And I thought, Well, I really must have taken them on a journey if they feel free enough to give me a boo.

In New Guidelines for Peaceful Times, you’re an actor playing a character who is an actor who we learn is in fact acting before our eyes. How do you think about playing all those layers?

It is such a chess match because I’m trying to charm this immigration officer and he’s really giving me nothing in return. I’m throwing at him: We share the same religion. I’m from a Catholic country, you’re from a Catholic country. Well, he was raised in a Lutheran orphanage. I throw at him a poem from his country’s most celebrated poet. He throws that back, Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of him. Isn’t he a writer?

I’m getting nowhere. I try to relate to his picture of his wife on his desk. It’s not his wife, it’s his sister. Everything I try is not working, so I have to pull out the big guns, I have to start acting, what I did every night for over 25 years. I start doing monologues and poetry. And he lays down the gauntlet and says: Makes me cry and I’ll sign your papers.

The horrific stories I tell are true, yet the immigration officer is unmoved by them. But when I step into the role of actor and give him fantasy, a monologue from a play, that’s what moves him. “That damn theater,” he says. That’s what gets him. And that’s when I realize there is something to be said for being an actor. I thought I was wasting my life in the theater every night. I missed what was happening in the world. But I wasn’t.

Michael Kevin Darnall as Clausewitz in ‘New Guidelines for Peaceful Times.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

How did you find your character’s Polish accent?

I have to give a shout out to Leigh Dillon, who was my great speech teacher in college, at SUNY Purchase, Conservatory of Theatre Arts. She used to have her students sit underneath a glass living room coffee table and watch where the sounds lived in their mouths. She created the best speech technique, and I fell in love with speech and accents. With accents, she would always say, “Don’t listen to instructional videos. Listen to real speakers of the language.” One day I was home and this show came on about grannies who cook. It happened to be a Polish grandmother. I studied her. I listened to her on YouTube over and over again.

One of the questions the play asks is “Is there a place for theater in this world after the war,” meaning after World War II. What is your own view of the place for theater in the world today? And what makes you want to be part of it?

I don’t consider myself a very political person. I’m not as involved and as aware of politics as I really should be to be a responsible American in 2018. But the message of the playwright is so much bigger than I. I may not always completely get the message. I may not always be able to wrap my brain around their message. But I am a ready and willing vessel to deliver that message in the best way I can. I think that’s where the filter of Michael comes in and where I’m willing to let that message flow through me. Hopefully it reaches the audience in a way that not only lands on them but digs in the guts and moves a couple of things around. And hopefully when they walk away from the theater, when they get home that night and are about to turn off their phones and go to sleep, they’re still thinking about what they saw that night. And they’re somehow changed.

Running time: 60 minutes, with no intermission.

New Guidelines for Peaceful Times plays through October 28, 2018, at Spooky Action Theater, 1810 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.

On Acting with a Conscience: A Q&A with Lianne Harvey (An Inspector Calls)

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts December 4, 2018]

The character Lianne Harvey plays in J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, Sheila Birling, really fascinated me. Sheila stands out as no ordinary ingenue. During the course of the play, Sheila goes from the sheltered sanctimony of her well-to-do family to a shattering recognition of the class stratification that her family’s wealth rests on. I greatly admired Harvey’s performance in the role—and how it models what it means for a character to act with a conscience—so I was grateful for this chance to talk with her.

Diana Payne-Myers (as Edna, a maid) and Lianne Harvey (as Sheila Birling) in ‘An Inspector Calls.’ Photo by Mark Douet

John: Who is Sheila in the play and who is she to you?

Lianne: When the curtain goes up, you see the Birling family having dinner. Sheila is engaged to Gerald, a well-to-do man of the town, and it’s their engagement party. Sheila is a self-involved, fairly unlikeable individual, a real product of her upbringing. She goes on this massive journey of self-discovery when the Inspector comes in and starts questioning the family; he provokes her in a way she probably hasn’t been before and makes her see her life in a very different light. I think the audience can hopefully see the world through her eyes and are on Sheila’s side by the end of the play.

It’s an absolute honor to play her—to get to be silly and giddy and naughty at the beginning of the play, and then, as she discovers more about the consequences her actions have had, to essentially “grow up” during the course of the production. I like to think of Sheila and Eric, her younger brother, as a voice for the future generation—who will hopefully go on to lead much better lives than Mr. and Mrs. Birling do.

How did you approach that character arc as an actor?

Hamish Riddle (as Eric Birling) and Lianne Harvey (as Sheila Birling) in ‘An Inspector Calls.’ Photo by Mark Douet.

I went in as a blank canvas. I hadn’t seen the production before and hadn’t initially envisioned Sheila in the way that Stephen Daldry had. So I said, “I’m ready to do whatever you want me to do.” And then, once I got the basis of the character, I was able to bring my own ideas to the table.

A number of reviewers have noted the amazing transition you make, taking the character from silly to gritty. It seems really important to the whole play that that transition be clear. It seems important to the playwright J.B. Priestley that the wealthy-class Birling family not be painted with a broad brush but that Sheila and her brother are shown taking ethical exception to the family they came from.

I think so. I’ve learned a lot about Priestley through doing this part. He wrote the play in 1945 when he had been through two world wars. In the First World War, he served as a soldier in the trenches, so he saw a lot first hand. In the Second World War, he had his own radio broadcast, and he talked often about how he would like to see a kinder post-war Britain—it was incredibly popular with the British people. I think the ideas he spoke about in his radio broadcasts propelled him to write the play. He set An Inspector Calls in 1912, which is before either of those wars happened, and he also sets it the same week the Titanic sunk.

I think Priestley wanted to make a very socialist point, and I think that the play still is relevant today because of that. The message at the heart of the play is about society—we are part of one society and we are responsible for each other. I think that still hits home now, I felt it hit home when we were in the UK on our five-week tour before coming over here, and it definitely seems to be resonating with the audiences in Washington. That’s why it continues to be such a special production.

I’m guessing the Daldry production is considerably older than you are.

Even the set is older than I am!

Lianne Harvey

When did you join the show and what had you been doing before?

This production was created 30 years ago, so there have been lots of revivals of it. Liam Brennan who plays the Inspector and Hamish Riddle who plays my brother have done this show three times now. I joined back in August and, after rehearsals, embarked on the five-week UK tour. Before that, I was working with another director doing an Alan Ayckbourn comedy. It was nice to do a farce. Doing that has probably helped me in this show, which seems to be getting lots of laughs in the U.S.

You mentioned on opening night that you can see differences between the UK audiences on that tour and the DC audiences here. Can you say more about that?

Yeah, we love you guys! There is a real readiness to jump on board from the very start. There’s also this very open willingness to laugh, which is great for us. Sometimes it feels like the audience are a character of their own, but we love it because you can tell that the audience are listening. I’m not saying that they weren’t in the UK, but perhaps we’re a tad more self-conscious when it comes to laughing so heartily out loud.

I understand the Daldry production began as a response to Thatcherism in England, and here it is now in the U.S. at a time of Trumpanomics. So I’m interested in your thoughts about how An Inspector Calls lands today in the context of the class system in England and the class system in America.

I do think we’ve come at a time where this show feels particularly relevant. When the play was done after Thatcher, certain lines got tweaked in order to make it even more relevant. Liam who plays the Inspector was telling me that there’s a line in his speech to the audience—

The speech that you think is the end of the play?

Yes. The speech where you think the curtain is going to come down and you are going to applaud. That amazing, transcendent speech which he does so well. There’s a line in it which says we are members of one society; we’re responsible for each other. That line wasn’t originally phrased in the way it is now. It was tweaked after Margaret Thatcher had said something about us not being members of a society; about us being individuals. That was many years ago now and yet we are still seeing this production and that speech have weight. An Inspector Calls is going out there night after night and it’s still landing and it’s still speaking to people.

Liam Brennan (as Inspector Goole) and Ensemble in ‘An Inspector Calls.’ Photo by Mark Douet

I have to ask you about that amazing set, that house. What’s it like working with that thing?

Oh my god. I love the set and I’m also terrified of the set!

The thing that’s amazing about this show is the team behind it: you’ve got the direction by Stephen Daldry, an amazing set by Ian MacNeil, and the incredible lighting of Rick Fisher. To add to that, you’ve got the thrilling soundtrack of Stephen Warbeck, and together they create a spectacle for the audience. The set itself is stunning—but when those walls open up and you are up there, in that house on stilts, in that massive frock, it is very scary! It took us a long time to get used to it.

And when it explodes and spouts flames and tilts and spills behind you—?

That moment is absolutely brilliant! This show has been done many times in the UK, and it still gets me every day seeing the house fall down with the music blasting and the bangs and pyros—yeah, it really is a sight to behold.

I happened to see a tweet of yours in which it appeared that you had participated in an anti-Trump protest in London.

I did. A lot of my friends did. We went with our banners and there were thousands and thousands of people lining the London streets. It was massive. When he came over to the UK, I felt that I needed to go and make my voice heard and I’m glad that I went and I stood up for something that I believe in. I wanted to make sure I was on the right side of history.

[Read Sophia Howes’s review of An Inspector Calls.]

[Read John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column about An Inspector Calls.]

Running Time: About one hour and 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.

 

Our Class

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts November 7, 2018]

Long before the recent shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Derek Goldman had planned to direct a production of Our Class with student actors at Georgetown University. It is a play whose timeliness was wanted by no one.

Six years ago, Goldman directed a professional production of Our Class at Theater J with the same artistic team now on board for the Georgetown production. At the time, Tzvi Kahn, in his DC Metro Theater Arts review, called the play “a Holocaust-era case study in the moral degeneration of individuals in the context of societal descent into genocide and madness.” At Georgetown, that case study will be told by a new generation.

Based on a true story and set in a classroom in a small town in Poland named Jedwabne, Our Class has a cast of ten—half are Jews, half are Catholics—whose story begins when they are students. The play dramatizes, as Kahn wrote, how “their pre-war friendships disintegrate amid the Nazi conflagration.”

The original text written in Polish by Tadeusz Słobodzianek has been adapted by Norman Allen from a literal translation by Catherine Grovesnor, and its idiom is youthful and fresh.

Just as significantly, the actors in the Georgetown production are closer to their characters’ age than were the actors in the Theater J production, and so they too will be bringing their own contemporary sensibility. Here, for instance, is a candidly personal Q&A with one of the student actors.

Who do you play in Our Class and how do you relate to them?

Nicole Albanese

Nicole Albanese: I play the role of Dora in Our Class. Dora wants to be a movie star when she grows up, and I want to be an actor, so I relate to Dora in having big dreams. I think we both have a fire within us—a certain spark. Dora is relentless in pursuing her dream—she is a fighter, and though a significant amount of adversity is thrown her way, she never stops fighting. This is a quality I really admire in Dora; she never shrinks into the small, quiet role of a victim. This is a quality that I believe I also hold within me, but Dora has inspired me to embrace my strength, and to be resilient.

What is Our Class about from your character’s point of view?

Dora is able to take on an interesting perspective on everything that happens in Jedwabne due to the construction of the play. She is alive in the first act, and after her death is able to engage with her classmates as a ghost. Therefore, while Dora is horrifically betrayed by her classmates in the first act, the incredulousness, rage, and confusion that these betrayals incite in her are put into perspective after her death. As a ghost, Dora sees her classmates continue to suffer, to find joy, and to invest themselves in the foolishness of human concerns. Therefore, for Dora, the class is never truly divided or broken, especially because they are reunited in death. The class, however, is morphed into something grotesque and strange as it is put under the mounting pressure of neighbors turning against neighbors.

Top: Alex Prout, ML Sparrow, Charlie Trepany; middle: Colum Goebelbecker, Healy Knight, Benjamin Lillian; bottom: Ben Eneman, Jonathan Compo, Matias Litewka.

How has rehearsing and performing in Our Class affected you?

This role has been the most difficult role I have ever worked on. The play deals with a wide range of dark topics, including genocide and sexual assault. It is impossible to not be affected by this material, especially when stepping into the shoes of someone going through it all. Therefore, this process has really required a deep connection with cast members, and a constant checking in with how we have been feeling. The cast has really looked out for each other throughout the whole process, which has been a blessing. It has been about finding a balance of allowing myself to be affected, because I believe it is important to let the horrors hit me, but also protecting myself from emotional harm. But although this process has been difficult, I believe it has really changed me as an actor and as a human being, and allowing oneself to be changed is part of theater.

Why is it important for people to see Our Class right now?

Evidently, Our Class has been made very relevant by certain events. The narratives of sexual assault have attained a greater weight in the light of the Kavanaugh hearings, and the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue was a clear, horrifying reminder that anti-semitism is still resulting in needless violence. The Pittsburgh shooting particularly made all our hearts hurt deeply as a cast. However, even if these events had not happened, it would have still been important to see this play; these events are not anomalies, they are evidence of hate that exists in the fibers of society. Our Class tells a story that has repeatedly been denied, silenced, and pushed under the rug. It is a story that needs to be heard to give justice to the people who died in Jedwabne, and to serve as a continual reminder that anti-semitism is not something we have moved past as humanity: neighbors still hate their neighbors, neighbors still kill their neighbors.

[Read Ian Thal’s DC Metro Theater Arts review of Our Class]

Our Class plays November 8–17, 2018, presented by the Georgetown University Theater & Performance Studies Program, at Davis Performing Arts Center, Gonda Theatre, 37th and O St., N.W., Washington, DC. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or online.

Our Class trailer

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-S8QHA4qBpe-pg9s8UWNwVP-3xxVFS8r/preview

The Frederick Douglass Project

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts May 14, 2018.]

In a tent pitched on a pier overlooking the Anacostia River, there is a powerfully important work of theater being performed. The work is The Frederick Douglass Project, commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Douglass’s birth, and inspired by a visit that the great antislavery author and orator made to Ireland on a speaking tour in 1845, following publication of his autobiography, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave.

The presenting company, Solas Nua, typically does Irish plays, so The Frederick Douglass Project is a departure—a spoken, sung, and choreographed cross-referencing of cultures: a side-by-side view of the African-American experience of slavery and the Irish experience of English colonialism. The result is gripping theater that gets at stuff about the meaning of race in America with extraordinary originality, relevance, and insight.

Gary Perkins III as Frederick Douglass in The Frederick Douglass Project. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Gary Perkins III as Frederick Douglass in The Frederick Douglass Project. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

 

The Frederick Douglass Project consists of two sequential one-act plays: An Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland by Psalmayene 24, set on the ship on which Douglass sailed to Ireland, and Wild Notes by Deidre Kinahan, set in Dublin after Douglass arrives.  In the inventive conception of Director Raymond O. Caldwell and Choreographer Tiffany Quinn, the two plays segue seamlessly from one to the other, and the two writers’ voices create a rich and resonant stage world. Gary L. Perkins III plays Douglass throughout, and the seven other roles in each are played by Madeline Mooney, Daniel Westbrook, Mike Crowley, Kevin Collins, Tiffany Byrd, Louis E. Davis, and Jenny Donovan.

READ Ramona Harper’s DCMTA review of The Frederick Douglass Project

The parallels between what was happening at the time to blacks in America and the Irish in Ireland are central to the narrative in The Frederick Douglass Project. Douglass’s visit coincided with the beginning of the great famine. Oppression of the Irish by the English meant that the impoverished Irish were shipped off in so-called coffin ships the shipowners intended to sink—a barbaric echo of the Middle Passage. With eyes wide open, the authors of The Frederick Douglass Project look back to the period before Irish immigrants transformed from an oppressed, unwelcome social class in their homeland to become part of a white racial class in America (a history described by Noel Ignatiev in his book How the Irish Became White).

 

Frederick Douglass being whipped, in a scene fromAn Eloquent Fugitive Slave Flees to Ireland. From left: Tiffany Byrd, Kevin Collins, Gary Perkins III, Michael Crowley, and Dan Westbrook in The Frederick Douglass Project. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

In the first play, during Douglass’s voyage to Ireland, he meets a woman onboard the ship named Susan (played by Mooney) who has come to the first-class deck on a ruse because her cabin is far below.

Frederick: I believe, in God’s eyes, we’re all first class citizens.
Susan: All of us?
Frederick: Yes.
Susan: Men and women alike? With equal freedoms?
Frederick: Unquestionably.

In the second play, Douglass meets an educated Irish woman named Margaret (Mooney again), who has been reduced to panhandling. Douglass drops a coin in her cup and she and Douglass get to talking, sharing their dreams of freedom. In the course of their conversation, Douglass tries to explain slavery to her, trying to let her know that the America she associates with hope and freedom is not what she thinks because there he is derogated on account of his black skin.

Not fully comprehending him, she asks, “What is ‘White’?”—and her question drops like a truth bomb is coming.

Douglass: White is power Margaret. White is murder. White is lies. White is money.  White is cruelty…great cruelty….boundless cruelty.  White is the whip.  White is the gun.  White is its own ruination Margaret, because deep down, deep in the bowels of white humanity, they know that slavery is wrong.
Margaret:  It must be Sir.
Douglass: I wonder will you feel the same when you see the power it might grant you? I wonder will you beat the slave yourself?
Margaret:  Never.
Douglass:  Some of your kin do.
Margaret:  My kin?
Douglass:  There are Irish Slavers, Irish Drivers Margaret. Irish men and women who crush their black brethren in order to find an American foothold of their own.
Margaret: Then they have lost their soul Frederick Douglass. And they have forgotten who they are.

Three stories told in Wild Notes. Clockwise from top left: Tiffany Byrd as Kabite, a refugee; Jenny Donovan as Rita, an abused child; Louis E. Davis as Kalief, an innocent man in prison, in The Frederick Douglass Project. Photos by Teresa Castracane.

Building incrementally on Douglass’s convictions about sexual and racial equality, the thematic breadth of The Frederick Douglass Project becomes breathtaking. Woven into this thrillingly theatrical performance are storylines touching on sexual abuse of children, anti-immigrant rejection of refugees, racist incarceration of black men—all viewed as if through Douglass’s eyes as aspects and adjuncts of slavery.

Psalmayne 24 gives Douglass several rousing raps that Perkins and the ensemble deliver with terrific verve. An early one sets forth the play’s activist intentions:

Frederick: We need more abolitionists
We need more folk raisin’ up a right fist
At heart I’m really a pacifist
But by any means necessary we must resist
We need more radical activists
We need more revolutionary optimists
We need more freedom fighters ready to enlist
We need less bigots and less misogynists
We need less things that make you wanna slit ya wrist
We need peeps to thrive and not just exist

The Frederick Douglass Project by Psalmayene 24 and Deirdre Kinahan is a brilliantly encompassing story about the connectedness of oppressions and the common cause required to resist. Hard to imagine that Solas Nua has ever shed “new light” (the meaning of its name) to more urgently needed effect.

Catch this intense show before its tent folds.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

The Frederick Douglass Project by Solas Nua runs through May 24, 2018, at the Yards Marina, 1492 4th Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets and information, go online.

The Fever

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts October 27, 2018]

If you’ve ever been in an acting class, a group-encounter session, a sensitivity training, or  kindergarten, you’ll feel right at home in The Fever. Even if you’re by nature standoffish,  an inveterate skeptic, or a willful wallflower, you might still have an interesting, unobjectionable time. But as you’ve likely heard, you’ll be in the herd—one of 60-some folks seated on four sides of a scarlet stage who are coaxed onto that floor to move, gesture, touch, and otherwise relate.

Billed as an experimental theater event “created in complete collaboration with the audience,” The Fever is facilitated by five actors. Two of them, Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, dubbing themselves 600 Highwaymen, wrote and directed it. And despite the free-flowing, nonlinear, and seemingly spontaneous situations audience members participate in, the work as a whole is very much structured, with a solid underlying dramaturgy and some pretty amazing sound and light cues.

Click to read my colleague Beatrice Loayza’s review.

From ‘The Fever.” Photo by Maria Baranova.

The point becomes apparent early on. We are being invited to practice community, cooperation, cohesion. We are being welcomed to rehearse empathy, trust, ease with strangers. We are, very possibly, accessing something human and communal in ourselves that we have literally lost touch with. As human animals, we have as much capacity to accept and connect as we have to fight or flee. We just keep forgetting how the former feels. The Fever is meant to remind us.

I am ordinarily averse to audience participation of any sort, so I went knowing my limits would be tested. I was soon impressed, though, by the leaders’ sensitivity and skill, and how gently they overcame my default reluctance. In short order, they got all of us out onto the floor—including myself, to my surprise, not ill-at-ease among them.

Because my taste runs to shows with actual scripts with words, I found The Fever’s lack of basic elements like plot, character, conflict, and theme unsatisfying as a theatrical experience. When a work of theater is good, it stays with me. And I left doubting this one would.

From ‘The Fever.” Photo by Maria Baranova.

But it’s days later now and I’m wondering: Did something in my subconscious get reset or reawakened somehow? Was I coached to reaccess something in our species history I had been opting out of?  I never had an aha moment when I could feel my guardedness being let go—when I suddenly remembered in my body, Wow I belong to the human fam. If it happened it happened so gradually and subliminally I did not know it was happening.

Running Time: 75 Minutes

The Fever plays through November 4, 2018, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, by calling 202-393-3939, or online.

The Fever is fully accessible to people with mobility restrictions. For information call the box office at 202-393-3939.

Crystal

Cirque du Soleil’s Crystal is staged on a slick sheet of ice where acrobats and skaters combine to create an amazing entertainment. A spectacular array of chills and charms to thrill and warm the heart, it’s perfect family-friendly fare for this time of year. Plus it’s got the girl-power appeal of Mean Girls meets Frozen meets Wonder Woman.

The storyline that threads through this intersection of ice and circus centers on a young girl named Crystal. Her dull suburban family and superficial peers think she’s weird and strange. She feels a misfit and all alone. So she skates away from home and finds herself on a frozen pond. But she’s on thin ice and it cracks and she tumbles down below. There she meets a reflection of herself, like a supportive doppelganger, who gives her a pen, and she begins to find her voice through writing (“I can make a map of my mind with a stroke of my pen!” she says in voiceover). Crystal now imagines a series of retro and futuristic worlds that seem surreal but actually arise from her memories of real-life—places like a playground, a school room, an office, a prom—and each such situation becomes the site of another stupendous circus act or dance or skating stunt. Finally, having realized and mastered her creative powers, Crystal is able to return to reality and to her family as her true self (“I know who I am!”).

Crystal (Nobahar Dadui) meets her Reflection (Mary Siegel) in ‘Crystal.’  Photo © Cirque du Soleil.

As with nearly all Cirque productions, there’s preshow clowning and fun with the audience—in this case involving a lot of snowball throwing. The cool blue-white unit set is an ice palace with rooms inside and skating ramps outside. Stainless steel trees, sounds of winter wind, and a trash barrel fire set the scene.

Crystal was designed to be performed in stadiums, and its ice-rink playing area is more vast than what would fit inside a traveling tent. Cirque regulars may note that the arena space seems less intimate, and audience responses less unison, than in the wrap-around enclosure of a typical Cirque big top. But the acoustics and sightlines are just fine. And the upside tradeoff is the animated projections that flood the flat white ice surface with stunning visions of color and motion.

Cirque often launches new productions not only with fresh themes and design schemes but also with technical breakthroughs behind the scenes. In the case of Crystal, that meant fabricating synthetic ice to cover sloping ramps so that the extreme skaters in the cast can do their insane derring-do like skateboarders do. It also meant devising a mind-blowing visual illusion: At times there appear gorgeous whorls and trails on the ice, as if in the wake of performers’ skates. It’s not CGI’ed beforehand. It’s responsive video that follows the flow of motion of the skaters in real time then instantly projects patterns based on it onto the ice. Thus the fantastic skating creates fleeting works of art before our eyes.  And it’s as hypnotically wonderful to behold as anything I’ve seen in Cirque.

At the office balancing on stairs act from the show Crystal by Cirque du Soleil

The chair-balancing act in the office Crystal imagines in ‘Crystal’ (artist: Lkhagva-Ochir). Photo © Cirque du Soleil.

Musically Crystal is a departure for Cirque. There are a few onstage musicians—accordion, violin, clarinet, guitar. But mainly we hear lush recordings that include both original compositions and covers of such popular songs as sia’s Chandelier and Beyonce’s Halo.  This works great because it keeps the show’s point of view the mind of a relatable young girl of today. Costuming and makeup choices are similarly kept contemporary. The circus acts are also more human scale: Cirque’s trademark phantasmagorica and esoterica have been left out so that we can perceive the performances Crystal imagines as not far removed from her actual life.

What stands out in Crystal—besides the crazy talent of the skaters and acrobats in the company—is the emotional storytelling of its choreography. For instance there comes a point when Crystal wonders aloud whether she will ever meet another heart with whom she might share her own. Enter from overhead a young man suspended from red straps. To say he’s a Prince Charming figure does not do justice to the moving romanticism with which he and Crystal connect as coequals and commune in midair.

Ballroom aerial straps act from the show Crystal by Cirque du Soleil

Ballroom aerial strap pas de deux from ‘Crystal’ (Jerome Sordillon and Nobahar Dadui). Photo © Cirque du Soleil.

Crystal, who is onstage for most of the show’s two hours, is played by Nobahar Dadui with awesome grace, strength, and stamina. It is a star-quality performance—and the best solo work I can recall seeing in my decades of appreciating Cirque.

Whether you’re a fan of Cirque or a first-timer, you’ll find in Crystal a gem of a show. But you have to act fast: It’s in town in DC for only the weekend.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, plus a 20-minute intermission.

Crystal plays through December 9, 2018, at Cirque du Soleil performing at Capital One Arena, 601 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.