Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: February, 2019

Separate Rooms

“Will I be missed?,” the young man wonders aloud as he surveys the thirtysomethings who have gathered in his Manhattan apartment for a party after his funeral. “Did it matter that I was here?” They do not hear him; only we can. “What did I leave behind?”

The character is called Him in the program, and his afterlife contemplations haunt this sprawling, often raucous and wacky new comedy by Joe Calarco. A Big Chill–style tribute to the turning point of turning 30, Separate Rooms is the first world premiere to be staged by the gutsy young 4615 Theatre, and as directed with verve by Founding Artistic Director Jordan Friend, it hits a generational nerve as it tickles to death.

Alex Mills as Him in ‘Separate Rooms.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell.

Alex Mills as Him appears first, addressing the audience with an infectious enthusiasm that seems very much alive though he just died in a car crash. Now and then we will hear from Him again, but for long stretches of the play, he is a silent witness to all the other characters’ delightfully messy and amusing goings-on. He ambles through scenes like an invisible interloper, listening and subtly reacting but lacking Mills’s otherwise magnetic presence. The play is built that way, which I guess is okay, but it’s odd to have the central character intermittently recede like a cipher.

Some of those who have come to mourn Him are chums from Cornell, friends of friends, a few strangers, and each is a bundle of comical quirks. Bob (Jacob Yeh) and Anna (Jen Rabbit Ring) are a high-strung married couple whose marriage is on the ropes: Bob has cotton wads up his nose to stop a nosebleed that was caused by a fall but that Anna wishes had resulted from her clocking him.

Jacob Yeh as Bob and Jen Rabbit Ring as Anna in ‘Separate Rooms.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell.

Melissa (Alani Kravitz), also high-strung, is desperate for a cigarette and goes on a nutty quest to find one (“Death happens,” she quips. “It doesn’t mean we have to stop smoking”). Eventually, all the joking about smoking pays off with some jaw-dropping gags involving Him’s ashes, which his sister Anna carries around in an urn. Frank (Vince Eisenson), also high-strung, keeps expounding about geopolitics (“This country is drenched in blood”), though no one cares what he has to say except when he admits he cheats on his wife. Janie (Jenna Berk), also high-strung, is a frantic late arrival. She missed the funeral, but she’s just in time for the mayhem.

There’s an enigmatic character the program calls The Guest. Nobody knows who she is and she doesn’t either. She is not only high-strung; she is high as a kite, and Melissa Carter plays her to the hilarious and hair-raising hilt.

Josh (Stephen Russell Murray) was Him’s boyfriend. He too is high-strung, inveterately anxious and agitated, and he hooks up with Simon, a downstairs neighbor (Reginald Richard), who drops in and wastes no time getting into Josh’s pants. (This among other things we see Him observe somewhat impassively.) Simon isn’t so much high-strung as perpetually horny. He’s got a show-stopping speech about barbeque-flavored Pringles and another about cumming for the first time when he was twelve and in church. The script’s references range widely.

Jenna Berk as Janie, Alex Mills as Him, and Stephen Russell Murray as Josh in ‘Separate Rooms.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell.

Though the play has elements of frenzied farce, it’s actually much more layered and literate than that. Separate Rooms moves back and forth in time and takes place in multiple rooms (hence the title). There are flashback and contemporaneous confrontations. And as we glean from the many monologues, each of the characters has an engrossing story to tell. These singular speeches are wonderfully written and cumulatively make Separate Rooms enormously satisfying. They’re sometimes drop-dead funny, often movingly lyrical, and always flooded with feelings, which the actors deliver luminously.

Typically a speech will begin with an off-beat topic then draw us into a narrative that becomes utterly immersive. At times this riveting pastiche of monologues can seem like separate playlets. At times we may puzzle over how or whether they will all come together, and when and where we ever are. But that disorientation is precisely what keeps us on tenterhooks, expecting the unexpected, in a nonstop state of surprise.

Among those surprises are some sweet scenes late in the play flashing back to Him’s and Josh’s first date and the beginning of what was their shared life. Besides being charming (at one point they dash out of an offstage shower with nothing on but towels), these scenes are especially welcome because they finally integrate Him into the action of his own life.

To suggest the play’s several different and sometimes cinematically simultaneous locations, Scenic Designer Jennifer Hiyama has devised movable fragments of walls, windows, and doors, which the actors wheel about. On opening night, the units seemed a cumbersome challenge for the cast to maneuver and operate smoothly. The set pieces also made the  playing area seem cramped, and called attention to themselves more than they served the storytelling. With hope this distraction can be diminished during the run.

[Read David Siegel’s interview with the director and design team of Separate Rooms.]

Lighting Designer Katie McCreary has taken advantage of the small space’s low ceiling to mount LED lights that often spill into the audience’s eyes, giving an interestingly surreal bluish backlight to the time-shifting we see on stage. Costume Designer Jeannette Christensen has credibly captured the characters’ idiosyncrasies, and Intimacy Director Jonathan Ezra Rubin has handily coached the kissing and making out, of which there is pleasantly a lot.

Despite its few rough edges, Joe Calarco’s Separate Rooms at 4615 Theatre is a play rich with humor and rife with emotional truths about life and death and adulting. “Live on stage your life stage” could be its teaser if you’re in your twenties or thirties. And if with luck you’ve survived them, you are likely to have a curiously gratifying time.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

The cast of ‘Separate Rooms’: Melissa Carter as The Guest, Vince Eisenson as Frank, Alani Kravitz as Melissa, Stephen Russell Murray as Josh, Alex Mills as Him, Jen Rabbit Ring as Anna, Jacob Yeh as Bob, Jenna Berk as Janie, and Reginald Richard as Simon.

Separate Rooms plays through March 17, 2019, at 4615 Theatre Company, performing at The Highwood Theatre – 914 Silver Spring Avenue, Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 928-2738, or purchase them online.

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Three Cheers to Grace

“They call me a vegetable,” Grace tells us. “They call me a corpse.” In this nimbly comic and deeply moving new play by Josie Walyus, a 14-year-old named Grace is literally in a coma. That’s how all the other characters see her: She suffered brain damage in an auto accident and is thisclose to dead. But in a brilliant theatrical stroke, Walyus portrays her title character fully awake and engaged, actively hearing and addressing everyone who comes into her hospital room, aware of their lives and loves unbeknownst to them. This shrewd dramatic device—which the script sets up and sustains beautifully throughout—has emotional resonance akin to that powerful final scene in Wilder’s Our Town when Emilie Gibbs returns from death to invisibly observe the everyday life she left behind.

In Grace’s case, she invisibly observes and responds to her circle of high school friends, who are a fun bunch, plus a few of their on-edge folks. In the pivotal role of Grace, Katie Rey Bogdan owns the stage with the droll ebullience of a young Nikki Blonsky. She and her best friend Eliza, a smartly spirited Madelyn Farris, were both on their way to swim-team practice when the car they were in crashed. The driver, Grace’s mom, was unhurt, but both Eliza and Grace were left comatose. Three Cheers to Grace picks up five months later, when Eliza has recovered, but Grace has not and never will.

Katie Rey Bogdan as Grace and Madlyn Farris (seated) as Eliza in ‘Three Cheers to Grace.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

At the core of the play is the abiding affection between Grace and Eliza, whose friendship has been fatefully interrupted. To that throughline, Walyus connects succinct scenes, ranging from hilarious to heartbreaking, that introduce us to nine supporting characters and their attendant subplots. Much of the pleasure of watching Three Cheers to Grace unfold stems from how cleverly crafted it is, with characters entering and leaving Grace’s hospital room and playing out loosely related minidramas with the momentum and élan one associates with good series TV.

Without giving their engrossing stories away, here’s a who else is who:

Dante, an appealingly animated Tre’Mon Kentrell Mills, takes a shine to Eliza as she does to him. The sensitive way Walyus depicts Grace’s feelings when she realizes her best friend has a new best friend is just one instance of how touching this play gets.

Nurse Rose, given a richly layered performance by Karen Romero, is Dante’s mom. Walyus reveals Nurse Rose’s backstory as an immigrant and the domestic crisis she is in with remarkable wisdom and compassion.

Katie Rey Bogdan (Grace), Sisi Reid (Maria), and Elenilson Ayala (Jamie) in ‘Three Cheers to Grace.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Jamie (Elenilson Ayala) and Maria (Sisi Reid) are an adorably adoring couple, goofily gaga for each other, and it’s in their scenes that Walyus treats us to the silly tensions and instant passions of young love.

Caroline, an absorbingly vivid Naima Randolph, is Eliza’s younger sister, and in her story is a haunting portrait of how it feels to live in the shadow a more accomplished older sibling.

Eliza and Caroline’s mother is seven-times-married Britney Raimond, played by Mimsi Janis on the cusp between tenderness and bravado. Mama Britney, as she wants to be called, is a wonderfully broad comic character whom Walyus skillfully keeps just this side of ridiculous.

Rounding out the play’s parent-child dynamics are Eliza and Caroline’s mom Lilliana Smith (a brittle, high-strung Suzanne Edgar) and their dad Gerald Smith (a sage and stolid Marlon Russ). One can marvel at how many friends-and family-dramas Walyus has woven into this work. And to the extent neurological expertise is required, it appears credibly in the character of Dr. Hines, played with professionalism and purpose by Stefanie Garcia.

Naima Randolph (Caroline), Tre’Mon Kentrell Mills (Dante), Madelyn Farris (Eliza), and Katie Rey Bogdan (Grace)  in ‘Three Cheers to Grace.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Eric Ruffin has directed with evident conviction about this play’s worthiness as a new work. The pace, the stage pictures, the performances, the spacing are consistently arresting. At times Ruffin has actors silently walk about the set angularly like passersby on autopilot as if to sketch for us the harshly institutional environment in which this heartfelt play takes place.

Enhancing that impression is Scenic Designer Timothy J. Jones’s set: cool-plastic see-through walls and upstage cyc on which Lighting Designer Arnika Downey displays boldly colorful scene-change effects. Sound Designer Cresent Haynes accentuates those transitions with chest-quaking rumbles and blips and beeps of vital signs. And Costume Designer Moyenda Kulemeka has clothed the high schoolers like with-it kids and the adults like slightly out-of-it grownups. This is a play with a distinctly teen point of view, and the creative team completely got that.

“I wish I had spoken more,” says Grace late in the play, reflecting on her imminent demise. “I have so much more to say. My story can’t be over yet.”

I haven’t yet mentioned that this noteworthy play was written by a high school student (though the veracity of its teen speak could have given that away). Josie Walyus wrote the first draft in 2018 while a tenth grader in a Young Playwrights’ Theatre program at H-B Woodlawn. YPT then worked with her to develop what has become the first-ever YPT production of a full-length play by one of its mentees.

Judging from the achievement of Three Cheers to Grace, Josie Walyus is going to have many more stories to tell and much more to say. Catch this world premiere now so you can say you knew her oeuvre when.

Running Time: One hour 35 minutes, with no intermission

Three Cheers to Grace plays through March 3, 2019, at Young Playwrights’ Theater performing at the Dance Loft on 14th, 4618 14th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, go online.

Reykjavík

The Reykjavík conjured up in Steve Yockey’s new play Reykjavík is not the family-friendly destination the Iceland tourist bureau might try to sell you. But if you’re 18 or older—and if you wish to be transported to a stunningly original world of mystery, sensuality, passion, and menace—book your passage now. Because Reykjavík is a magical trip.

The play’s point of view is that of a traveler in a very strange land. A young gay man named James, played with enchanting naivete by Josh Adams, has wanted to see the Northern Lights ever since as a child he saw them in his sister’s picture book. Something very bad happened to her, he misses her. In remembrance of her, he has come to Reykjavík—but the Aurora Borealis can’t be seen; it’s the wrong time of year; it’s all wintry and dark. Despondent, James goes to a gay disco where he is hit on by two men—Martin (Dylan Arredondo) and Grigor (Carlos Saldaña)—who get him drunk, drug him, and take him back to their room.

Carlos Saldaña, Dina Soltan, Josh Adams, and Dylan Arredondo in ‘Reykjavík.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

That first scene is played with a mix of off-kilter wit, ominous vibes, and risky sex that sets the tone for the rest of the show. The music blares so loud the dialog is inaudible, so it is projected on the back wall as subtitles (which are very funny). A woman who may or may not be named Debbie (Dina Soltan) is passed out beside James in the booth. She comes to as Martin slips under the table and gives James a blow job. There ensues the kind of spaced-out sensuality that never quite makes sense but doesn’t really need to because in the moment it just feels real.

Abruptly the upstage wall floods with an abstract animation of kaleidoscopic colors and images of ravens. Variations on this gorgeous light show (by Video Designer Kylos Brannon) will appear in between the play’s episodic scenes throughout, and the cryptic theme of birds will also recur.

What follows is a series of seemingly unrelated playlets featuring mostly homoerotic situations between characters who may or may not be real and who inhabit a conjectural space where the Huldufólk dwell—the Hidden People of Icelandic lore. It’s an improbable place where blood can fall from the sky. And it’s a world where omniscient ravens outside a hotel window can watch two men fucking then send the men messages that will unravel the lies in their love.

That scene between bird-watched lovers as played by Arredondo and Robert Bowen Smith is mindblowing. They think they know each other until they find out they don’t. We know not yet where Yockey is going with this mesmerizing play, but we might well surmise it is taking us to some very dark places.

Josh Adams and Robert Bowen Smith in ‘Reykjavík.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There come subsequent scenes between men that are also sexually fraught and incrementally even more mindblowing. One is played in an eerie brothel by Arredondo as a john and Adams as his maybe-imagined trick. Another set on a street is played by Saldaña and Smith as a vacationing couple who are having an ugly/messy breakup. Yet another is played in a hotel bed in pot smoke and undies by Smith and Adams as boyfriends Peter and Ebon—the latter of whom reveals he is a brother bird to the ravens.

Several extraordinary monologues punctuate the play, among them the story Peter tells Ebon about when, as a gay boy afraid to come out, he secretly pilfered magazines and books with pictures of naked men. Smith’s delivery of the speech is exquisite.

Written less impactfully, though very well performed, is a scene between two lesbians, played by Soltan and Jenna Rossman, who meet in a Reykjavík hotel as strangers but who have actually had past lives elsewhere. Following upon the previous scenes between men, this one felt tacked on for inclusivity sake and lacked equivalent punch. Yockey’s female characters here generally get short shrift; for the most part they’re walkons—a curious omission given that Iceland ranks tops in the world for gender equality. The exception is the character Rossman appears as at the very end, in a scene that should come as a surprise. The monologue she performs then is profoundly moving.

Jenna Rossman and Josh Adams in ‘Reykjavík.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Throughout Reykjavík, there is a dark undercurrent about sex and danger, but there is an equally strong current of longing for love and trust. Director Rick Hammerly has so beautifully modulated the two that one feels swept away—as if by magic—just as Yockey’s script would have it. The design arts play a huge part in this sensation. At the four corners of the solid gray stage, Set Designer Eric Grims stations four stele-like pillars from which Hidden People keep watch. Costume Designer Sydney Moore helps us track the multiple roles the six actors play and clothes the show in considerable wonderment and foreboding. Lighting Designer Katie McCreary and Sound Designer Thomas Sowers achieve marvelously transformative effects, sometimes literally at the snap of a finger. And Brannon’s aforementioned spectacular inter-scene video projections warrant their own exhibition in an art gallery.

Rorschach Theatre’s production of Reykjavík transcends reality in order to reveal it. Steve Yockey’s play is a phantasmagorical parable about the darkness that can underlie sexual and romantic relationships. Yet ultimately, just like James’s quest, it takes us on a splendiferous journey to see the light.

Running Time: About 85 minutes, with no intermission.

Reykjavík plays through March 3, 2019, at Rorschach Theatre performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre– 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD (next to the AFI Silver Theatre). Tickets are available online.

BLKS

BLKS is gonna be a blockbuster. Let’s get that out of the way. BLKS is a rapid-fire, laugh-out-loud comedy about a quartet of twenty-something black women in New York City who are roommates, gal pals, and lovers. The script is chiseled by Aziza Barnes in edgy/sexy wit and warmth that will bust your gut and break your heart. The performances and production values are over-the-top outstanding. The buzzy opening night audience went insane. But here’s the really amazing part: The hilarity is revolutionary.

Shannon Dorsey (Imani), Tatiana Williams (June), and Cyndii Johnson (Octavia) in ‘BLKS.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

We’ve seen plenty of clever rom-coms and sit-coms about mostly white twentysomethings, mostly straight, trying to get their shit together so they can find love and get a life. Think Friends, Girls, The Big Bang Theory, Broad City—shows that function exactly like white noise because they can block out obtrusive sounds of reality (if you’re in the demographic) or put you to sleep (if you’re not).

Alina Collins Maldonado (Ry) and Cyndii Johnson (Octavia) in ‘BLKS.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

BLKS is not just a rejoinder; BLKS is in a league of its own. BLKS is about being black and female and written by someone who writes funny and actually knows what they’re talking about (how often does that happen on stage?). Plus it’s as raw, blunt, and brazen as it fuckin wants to be. So be advised: If you’d rather not see a show that opens with a scene of cunnilingus—two women, Octavia and Ry, moaning and growling in orgasmic ecstacy—you might want to see what else is on.

Or if you were rattled by the reiterated word pussy in Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage (Woolly’s previous funny foray into all-female terrain), be aware that this time it’s clit. The anatomic specificity is significant because it’s the site—in the very next scene—where Octavia is shocked to discover she has a mole.

That’s the play’s inciting action. A blemish on a clitoris. And from then on all hullaballoo breaks loose.

The poet Aziza Barnes (whose pronoun is Z) wrote BLKS in a playwrighting class when Z was at NYU. “I didn’t want it to be poetry,” Z says,

because I wanted this play to be centered on the way in which Black women or genderqueer Black women who are close with each other, speak to one another.

I could argue that for the six indelibly drawn characters in BLKS, the idiom of the play is poetry—the poetry of the crib, the street, the club, the bed, the heart.

BLKS takes place over the course of twenty-four hours and much of it happens in the drab apartment shared by Octavia, June, and Imani, who each are trying to make it and make something of themselves. Octavia (Cyndii Johnson) is collaborating with her lover, Ry (Alina Collins Maldonado), on an artsy film; Imani (Shannon Dorsey) aspires to be a stand-up comic à la Eddie Murphy; June (Tatiana Williams) is a very employable math whiz. Booze and joints are their drugs of choice. They get along tumultuously.

When Octavia freaks out about her mole, Imani offers to make a first-aid run to CVS. Octavia then freaks out even more because Ry, the woman who was just giving her head, won’t look at it, so Octavia kicks her out. Imani returns with a bagful of Band-Aids, and hysterical hysteria ensues. Meanwhile, June comes home having learned that her boyfriend has been cheating on her: She went to his place to make him pancakes and found empty Popeyes boxes on the kitchen table along with a used condom. So June is freaking out too.

Shannon Dorsey (Imani), Cyndii Johnson (Octavia), and Tatiana Williams (June) in ‘BLKS.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The story takes a sobering turn as the scene shifts to a city street where the roommates encounter a thuggish young black man (Justin Weaks) roughing up a drunk young white woman (Madelyn Joey Rose). They call 911 for help but are told by a racist operator all cop cars have been dispatched.

Justin Weaks (Justin) and Tatiana Williams (June)in ‘BLKS.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Weaks will return later, utterly transformed, playing an earnestly nice young man named Justin, who is smitten with June but in comic-mixup circumstances is invited to lickety-split by Octavia. Rose also reappears in a different guise, as a wannabe-woke white girl called The Bitch on the Couch, in a maybe/maybe-not hookup with Imani.

The characters’ interconnections get more startling, the mood pendulums between hilarious and heavy; the cast’s acting becomes ever more exhilarating to behold. The entire ensemble is of Helen Hayes-award caliber, but an extra shoutout goes to Shannon Dorsey and Justin Weaks, whose gifts for physical comedy just keep on giving. To watch Dorsey bounce giddily about, and Weaks clamber gangly through a window, is to savor two of DC’s preeminent talents in peak comedic form.

Madeline Joey Rose (The Bitch on the Couch) and Shannon Dorsey (Imani) in ‘BLKS.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Director Nataki Garrett directed a previous production of BLKS in Chicago, and her intimate grasp of the play’s quirky characters, catchy rhythms, and underlying poignance is evident in every riveting beat. Among the play’s touching moments is the scene when June explains why every time her boyfriend betrays her, she puts on the gown from the cotillion he once took her to. Another is when Imani shares why she and her father watched Murphy’s Raw on DVD while her dad was dying. Never far from the surges of laughter are young lives urgent to mean and connect.

Overhead are enormous girders on which are projected the passing undercarriage of elevated subway trains accompanied by their rolling-thunder rumble. Between scenes colorful projections saturate the set with stunning views of Manhattan in motion. The cinematic scenic effects and whirlwind scene changes are among the best I’ve ever seen. Props for that to Scenic Designer Efren Delgadillo Jr, Lighting Designer Jeanette Oi-suk Yew, Sound Designer T. Carlis Roberts, and Projections Designer Rasean Davonte Johnson.

Costume Designer Lex Liang has dressed the characters as though in backstories, and Wig and Hair Designer Jason Hayes has styled them as if accessorizing their personalities. Intimacy and Fight Choreographer Lorraine Ressegger-Slone had her work cut out for her—what with all the brawling, lip-locking, and getting it on—and she worked it.

In Barnes’s words, BLKS is “a play by and for Black people”—which by now ought to be less revolutionary, and more customary, than it still is. Too often we see works on stage that are about black people but really for white people—productions often very artful yet basically cultural artifacts in the comfort zone that commercial American theater affords everyone except people of color. BLKS is different. “If you are not identifiable or identified as a Black person, you cannot claim it as yours, and you can’t commodify it as yours,” Z explains. “But you can surely enjoy it. And you can surely experience it.”

Z is absolutely right about that. And tickets are gonna go fast.

Running Time: About two hours, with no intermission.

BLKS plays through March 3, 2019, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office or order online.

SHAME 2.0 (With Comments From the Populace)

“You have to be a good Arab,” says Morad Hassan of the stigma he faces trying to have a career as an Arab actor in Israel—the very country where, he says, “we are the Jews of the Jews.”

“FREE PALESTINE,” says the T-shirt worn by Israeli playwright Einat Weizman—the very shirt, imprinted with the PLO flag, that prompted a torrent of online abuse when a photo of her in it appeared on a popular internet site

Colleen Delany as Einat Weizman in ‘SHAME 2.0.’ Photo by Christopher Banks.

In SHAME 2.0 just opened at Mosaic, these two scrappy artist-activists from the front lines of a culture war tell their extraordinary and instructive stories. In form, the show is a vivid theatrical scrapbook—a patchwork of monologues, TV news clips, projections, citations from cyberhate, vitriolic voicemails. In intent, SHAME 2.0 is Einat Weizman’s and Morad Hassan’s DIY docudrama of how they tried to make art to make change and what it cost them. In effect, SHAME 2.0 goes to the heart of what’s dangerous about dissident art.

The backstage history of SHAME 2.0 is a drama in itself. Weizman adapted it from an earlier work that she and Hassan co-authored titled SHAME. Mosaic Founding Artistic Director Ari Roth—who met them in Israel when both were acting in a play that Mosaic would later stage as The Returnimported the project and for a time was announced as a co-adapter. But, as Roth explains in his program note, that changed:

A funny thing happened on the way to the workshopping of Shame 2.0—I began losing control of a story that wasn’t mine. And by the middle of the second week of rehearsals, a script I believed was approaching its definitive state, turned out not to be: not in the eyes of the collaborators who mattered most.

Now onstage as part of Mosaic’s Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival—in what’s deftly called a world premiere workshop production, directed gingerly by John Vreeke—SHAME 2.0 had conflicts during rehearsals so serious there was talk of calling it off. Luckily for DC theatergoers and theater makers who prefer art not stripped of principles, the show did go on.

Morad Hassan as himself in ‘SHAME 2.0.’ Photo by Christopher Banks.

Hassan, an appealingly dexterous actor, plays himself with great charm. For the first half hour or so, he regales us with stories of indignity from his life as a working actor in Israel’s politically fraught theater scene. As the only Arab student in Hebrew University, for instance, he finds out no Palestinian writers are taught. He is type-cast in Arab roles (thus “You have to be a good Arab”), then gets a gig in Waiting for Godot playing a Palestinian speaking Hebrew. The pinnacle of his thespian identity disjunction (call it TID) is his turn as Shakespeare’s Shylock.  But in an amazing turnabout, Hassan delivers Shylock’s famous speech…

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?

…and in his wrenching performance, we can hear the voice of an Arab appealing for equal treatment from Jews. It is one of the most moving moments of the evening.

Colleen Delany as Einat Weizman in ‘SHAME 2.0.’ Photo by Christopher Banks.

Up next for another half hour or so is the very principled Weizman. Though portrayed here by Colleen Delany with fetching conviction, Weizman was in real-life widely reviled for her beliefs. Her story interweaves two trenchant threads. One is what happened to her when her photograph in that T-shirt prompted a horrendous online attack of hate speech, some of which tweets and Facebook posts are incorporated graphically into the show (hence “comments from the populace”). Delany as Weizman hands out a dozen cards to audience members and at points asks them to be read aloud. “Thank you for…playing along,” Delany/Weizman says wryly. Even for someone familiar with the cesspool of misogynist invective in cyberspace, hearing ordinary folks give voice in public to such real-life insults can be unsettling. “Thank you,” she says graciously after each.

Weizman’s other narrative is about state suppression of dissident Palestinian artists in Israel. For instance, funding for Israel’s only Arab-speaking theater, Al-Midan Theater in Haifa, was summarily frozen after it staged a play alleged to incite terrorism (it didn’t; it was simply a docudrama about a prisoner convicted on dubious grounds of killing an Israeli soldier). To amplify and personalize this censorship, a third character has been added for the American run: Israel’s current culture minister, Miri Regev, the stylish right-winger who decreed the funding cutoffs and required that Arab artists sign a pro-Israel loyalty oath. Regev is the heavy of the story, and it’s a challenging role to play at all likably, but Lynette Rathnam in it succeeds with remarkable aplomb.

Lynette Rathnam as Culture Minister Miri Regev in ‘SHAME 2.0.’ Photo by Christopher Banks.

Introducing the play on opening night, Associate Artistic Director Victoria Murray Baatin explained that this workshop would be a “stripped down” version. Nothwithstanding that disclaimer, the production was very well outfitted by a creative team that included Set Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson, Lighting Designer Brittany Shemuga, Costume Designer Brandee Mathies, Projections Designer Dylan Uremovich (whose rear-wall animations much enhanced the storytelling), Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson (whose audio clips from hate tweets also propelled the story), and Sound Engineer Robert Garner (whose mic’ing of the cast gave appreciated clarity to each speech).

In the end, what stands out in SHAME 2.0 is Einat Weizman’s and Morad Hassan’s insistence on their right to their own voice in art and their persistence in the face of prejudice and vilification. Even behind the scenes, as the script intimates, they did not quit advocating for what they needed to say and how they needed to say it. As the slogan “Nothing about us without us!” gains traction in American theater, Mosaic is again at the cutting, and very complex, edge.  Anyone who cares about art that matters must not miss this inspiring instance of what makes theater worth it—and what makes making such theater hard.

Running Time: About 75 minutes, with no intermission.

SHAME 2.0 (With Comments From the Populace) plays through February 17, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext 2 or purchase them online.

 

The Brothers Size

“You fucked up! You fucked up! You fucked up!” rails the older brother, berating the younger. “You fucked up! You fucked up! You fucked up!” he goes on, as if he cannot rage enough, as if he can’t get it out of his system. “You fucked up! You fucked up! You fucked up!…”

This jolting speech comes midway in The Brothers Size like a ritual of chastisement, like an incantation of blame, transliterating into raw poetry the troubled brother bond that Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney lays bare.

[Read Chuck Leonard’s review of The Brothers Size.]

Gary-Kayi Fletcher (Ogun Size) and Clayton Pelham, Jr. (Oshoosi Size) in ‘The Brothers Size.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Ogun Size the older brother (Gary-Kayi Fletcher) is the responsible one. He is an auto mechanic, stolid; he owns and operates a repair shop (imaginatively represented by Set Designer Giorgos Tsappas as an upstage mound of inner tubes). Oshooshi Size the younger brother (Clayton Pelyam Jr.) is the ne’er do well, impressionable, a shirker, just released from prison on parole and crashing with Ogun. The explosive tension between them is not unmixed with filial love. Ogun sincerely wants to help Oshooshi get back on his feet, make something of himself. Ogun readily offers Oshooshi a job managing his shop. But Oshooshi has no inclination to be improved and mocks his older brother’s industrious work ethic:

Oshooshi Size: Ogun you better stop man.
Stop doing it to yourself.
You keep working like that
Everyday all day at that damn shop
You gone work yourself to death
You better don’t…
Death kill the lazy last.

A third character appears, Elegba (Thony Mena), Oshoosi’s buddy from prison. Ogun accurately sizes up Elegba as a bad influence on his brother. Oshoosi doesn’t see Elegba that way at all; Oshoosi, in fact, values his friendship with Elegba over his brotherhood with Ogun. In this tempestuous triangulation, McCraney plays out and gives poetic voice to a profound drama about the meaning to men of other men—and, not incidentally, what happens to men in the pen.

McCraney’s script has the actors speak some of the stage directions aloud along with their other lines. He does this, he has said, “to invite the audience into the story—to remind the audience that they are being spoken to and are a part of the experience. And to allow the actor a chance to really focus on telling the story rather than pretending they are someone else.” This has an intriguing and compelling effect: Even as we are pulled into the characters’ lives, we are left a respectful distance with which to process what’s going on.

Clayton Pelham, Jr. (Oshoosi) and Thony Mena (Elegba) in ‘The Brothers Size.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

McCraney, who wrote The Brothers Size in the mid-aughts when he was at Yale Drama School, himself has a younger brother who served a two-year jail sentence. Coincidentally, the motif of accomplished older brother and incarcerated younger brother was the theme of novelist John Edgar Wideman’s 1984 memoir Brothers and Keepers, about his fugitive younger brother, who was sentenced to life.  Wideman frames the story as an argument for prison reform:

A society that allows its prison system to slip below the radar of public scrutiny, below humane standards of decency, provides an essential tool for tyrants or tyrannical ideologies to criminally seize control of a state.

The Brothers Size is not such an argument. It is an intimate epic. It is a ravishing mashup of song, poetry, and dance, with elements of Yoruba myth, eloquently staged by Director José Carrasquillo in a superb production at 1st Stage as if in a sacred space (here a circular blood-tainted pool surrounded by a solid round stage ringed by a soft substrate that yields to footfalls). Moreover, The Brothers Size is a powerful parable about whether one brother can ever free another—and how a seeming friend can ensnare another—told by three enthralling actors who sing and chant and grunt and dance and grapple and beat their chests percussively, commanding the space like celebrants and demigods. But the fact of Oshoosi’s and Elegba’s imprisonment haunts the narrative with a persistence they cannot escape.

The Brothers Size will leave you deeply, perhaps inexplicably, moved.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

The Brothers Size runs until February 24th, 2019, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. Tickets are available online.