Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: March, 2019

Dead Dog’s Bone: A Birthday Play

There is indeed a dog in this play, aptly named Dog, wryly performed by Karen Lange wearing a plaid shirt, jeans, and neck bandana. At the top of Act One, Dog sings a country-westernish song, “[Taking the] Hard Way Home,” introduced by The Virgin Mary (an amusingly cheeky Dannielle Hutchinson), who wears the requisite pale blue head shawl but who here brashly emcees the show and smokes.

Danielle Hutchinson (The Virgin Mary) and Karen Lange (Dog) in ‘Dead Dog’s Bone: A Birthday Play.’ Photo by Mara Sherman.

Dog, we learn, has terminal cancer. At the top of Act Two, Dog, still quite hale and hardy, sings “Keep Me in Your Heart [for a While]” as the ensemble goes “Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-lo.” Later in the act, Lange as still-dying Dog delivers a touching rendition of “[I’m Just a Poor] Wayfaring Stranger.”

Schuyler Atkins (Juniper) in ‘Dead Dog’s Bone: A Birthday Play.’ Photo by Mara Sherman.

During the course of this perplexing patchwork of a play with music, we meet members of Dog’s extended human family, and we hear their loosely related stories in disjointed fragments, some poetic, some dramatic, in shifting nonlinear time frames. There’s a winsome young woman named Juniper (a lively Schuyler Atkins) and her kind boyfriend Timothy (Andy De, who plays a lovely guitar). Dog lives with Juni and Tim, who celebrate what may be Dog’s last birthday. At one point Tim takes Dog on a motorbike road trip. At another, Juni and Tim struggle with whether Dog should be put down.

Andy De (Timothy) and Karen Lange (Dog) in ‘Dead Dog’s Bone: A Birthday Play.’ Photo by Mara Sherman.

There’s also Juniper’s divorced parents: her hard-drinking father Atlas (a gruff Erik Harrison), who fishes and bakes bread; and her distracted abstract-painter mother Iris (a dreamy Aubri O’Connor), who daubs at a blue door. Years ago they were fond of each other.

Though there are fractured threads of narrative continuity to infer in this broken-family drama, and some strained relationships to surmise, the playwright leaves the conjecturing to us. Piecing together what’s happening and who’s who to whom becomes our primary engagement with the play. That can work well if it all leads to some big bang of a reveal or emotional payoff for our efforts, but here it ends with a whimper. Dog dies and it’s sad.

Karen Lange (Dog) in ‘Dead Dog’s Bone: A Birthday Play.’ Photo by Mara Sherman.

The Virgin Mary interjects labels for the miscellany of scenes. Periodically a character “remembers a moment with” another, which we then see enacted: For instance, “Atlas remembers a moment with Iris” in which they cuddle at a lakeshore and skip pebbles over the water. Or a character will have “a dream,” which will then unfold surreally in blue light. Sometimes the announced topics are cogent (“Juniper and Timothy discuss happiness”) and sometimes cryptic (“Atlas asks Dog for advice,” “Tim asks Dog for advice”). As on any meandering path, The Virgin Mary’s signposts are welcome.

Dannielle Hutchinson (The Virgin Mary) in ‘Dead Dog’s Bone: A Birthday Play.’ Photo by Mara Sherman.

Now and then a Big Question With No Answer will pop up. Apropos of not a lot, for instance, Juniper asks, “When is it right to live for me, and when is it right to live for others?” The query goes nowhere. Similarly, Atlas asks, “Why do people leave? Why do dogs run away?” The koan is no sooner considered but it’s forgotten. The script’s meaningfulness is scattershot. Even the random reflections on birthdays seem untethered to any evident through-line of truth.

Lauren Gallup uses minimal lighting equipment to good advantage. Sound Designer Julia Colpitts and Music Captain Karen Lange bring pleasant oldies and goodies into the show, notably “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Blow Me (One Last Kiss).” Costumes by Nina Howe-Goldstein materialize characterizations scarcely sketched in the script. And the set by Julia Colpitts and Mara Sherman serviceably situates Dog’s dog house, Iris’s painting studio, and Atlas’s kitchen table. But that we are nowhere in particular is suggested by oriental throw rugs covering the playing area and, against the upstage wall, two utilitarian wooden palettes holding props that come into play.

Dead Dog’s Bone: A Birthday Playwas Veronica Tjioe’s first play and won the Dharma Grace Award in 2012 and the Hollywood Fringe Encore Producer’s Award in 2015. On Tjioe’s websiteshe expresses her artistic taste this way:

I am wild about theatre that involves magical realism, existentialism, clowning, inclusivity, feminism, surprises, accessibility, community…

That list checks most of this work’s discrepant elements, which Director Mara Sherman has ably wrangled.

Whether by accident or intent, Dead Dog’s Boneplays like a long rambling story that is of passing interest in that its details and digressions seem offhandedly inconsequential and its earnest outcome underwhelms. In other words, it plays like a perfect shaggy dog story.

Running Time: One hour 55 minutes, including one intermission.

Poster art by Hannah Day Sweet.

Dead Dog’s Bone plays through April 14, 2015, presented by Nu Sass Productions performing at Caos on F, 923 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.


We are seated on folding chairs in the living room of an actual house where two women and a man in their mid-twenties have agreed to meet up for a three-way. There’s a modest playing area for them and room for fewer than two dozen of us. And what we have come for is the world premiere of Spills by local playwright Ruthie Rado—which on the basis of this exuberantly outstanding production may be the funniest and freshest play about fair sex play ever written.

The site-specific, immersive performance goes on in a community art space in Takoma Park called RhizomeDC (where Deb Sivigny’s wonderful  Hello…My Name Is was done). The play could not be in a more agreeable venue. We sit so close to the action we are virtually voyeurs.

Kira Omans (Gal) and Jacob Thompson (Dude) in ‘Spills.’

The play is in three acts that flow into one another without a break. It begins with scenes of meet-and-greet during which it becomes clear that everyone knows why they’re there and have agreed in principle to the plan, but it’s not a foregone conclusion they’ll do the deed. The characters never refer to each other by name but have cute identifiers in the program. The two women are Chick and Gal, the man is Dude. Chick and Gal have not met before but Dude knows them both. The three-way was his idea, and he cleared it with his girlfriend Steph, who was totally okay with it (“We’re very open. Ethically non-monogamous”). This will be Chick’s and Gal’s first time with another woman and neither has previously been intimate with the polyamorous Dude. So they all could use a drink or two or several. Even before the hilariously orgasmic main event in Act Two, their nervous Act One preliminaries about “smashing nasties” generate such paroxysms of laughter it’s like dramaturgical edging.

Rado’s script is studded with wit. It makes twenty-something, slang-filled chit-chat sound like hella high comedy. Rebecca Wahls’s direction of its every detail is pitch-perfect. And the cast, singly and as an ensemble, are as fun a bunch as could be.

Dude, whose home this is and whose roommates are elsewhere, is an amiable professional Ultimate Frisbee player with a wounded knee. Rado conceived of Dude as having a talent for considerately pleasing the multiple women with whom he scores, and Jacob Thompson gets his sexy swagger and endearing good manners just right.

Rebecca Ballinger (Chick) and Kira Omans (Gal) in ‘Spills.’

Gal, the first to arrive, is a bundle of nerves and insecurities. She’s a graphic designer of baby food pouches and not taken seriously at work. She’s the one to initiate the conversation about boundaries, and she says she has an early plane to catch so she really doesn’t have time to get it on. Kira Omans deftly captures the character’s timidity and fragility then radiates an amazing revelation as the character blossoms.

Chick is an admin assistant at a nonprofit and a fitness and yoga fanatic. Rebecca Ballinger brings a delightful sense of aspirational erotic ambivalence to Chick—she wants to be more open than she is. At one point, Chick leads an exercise for “pelvic bowl opening.” She and Gal begin by lying down on their backs on the floor and moving their hips around in a circle, like they’re grinding and bumping the air.

Rebecca Ballinger (Chick), Kira Omans (Gal), and Jacob Thompson (Dude) in ‘Spills.’

Noticing that Dude is watching intently, Gal asks him, “Is this mad sexy right now?”

“In theory, it should be,” he says drily.

“Come join us,” urges Chick, “loosen your pelvis!”

“Will my anatomy allow it?” he asks.

“Probably,” says Chick. ” If you break your dick and go sterile, you can totally
litigate me.”

And such is a tidbit of the wit you get in Rado’s script.

Jacob Thompson (Dude), Kira Omans (Gal), and Rebecca Ballinger (Chick) in ‘Spills.’

After that, they all crack up and form a laughing pile that makes the will-they-or-won’t-they question a lot less in doubt. In Act Two we learn what they decide to do—promotion material refers to it as “theatrical depictions of consensual sex.” It is off-the-charts hilarious and way too good to give away.

Each of the three characters has a backstory, and the most developed is that of Gal, whose mother was Chinese and father, mostly Irish. Gal tells of taking a DNA test that identifies a brother she never knew she had. The unfolding of that narrative by Rado and Omans is deeply touching, and among the wonders of the script is how well such a moving character arc fits within the overall merriment.

In Act Three, the actors come out in character and interact with individual members of the audience who, before the show, have agreed to be part of it. This too is too good to give away except to say that the actors whose mad skills with a script have just been amply demonstrated now show themselves to be artists of the ad lib.

Production Designer Brittany Martz has made this house a home for this amazing play: clothing as cool and convincing as the actors’ performances, furnishings that might have come from a yard sale, and sex toy props that only a really wild imagination could come up with.

If we humans are homo ludens—having an innate capacity to laugh, play, and enjoy—it should come as no surprise that laughter is the best libido liberator. Certainly that’s the sensuality and sensibility that overflows from the splendid Spills.

Running time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Spills runs through March 30, 2019, presented by Who What Where Theater Collective performing at RhizomeDC – 6950 Maple Street, NW, in Washington, DC. attendance is limited. Purchase tickets online.




Hexagon 2019: Romp in the Swamp

Hexagon has been around for 64 years and never seems to age. Since 1956 the musical comedy theater group has been turning out original political satire that’s as of-the-moment as the news. Its latest is Romp in the Swamp, a two-act music-and-sketch review that skewers morsels of modern mores like a red-hot kabob stick: politics in the time of Trump, of course, but peculiarities of pop culture too.

The ‘Hexagon 2019: Romp in the Swamp’ opening number. Photo by Paul Cestone.

A cartoonscape of the Capitol submerged in slime spreads across the stage, because the futurist joke threading through the show is that the swamp that is DC never drained; it got swampier. Climate change has kicked in (“The President has declared air conditioning a hoax”), so “from sea to shining sea there’s nothing in between.”

A team of intrepid archeologists arrives to dredge up what life was like in 2019. In the opening number (“Romp in the Swamp”), the stage fills with singing and dancing archeologists and swamp creatures:

No one can explain it,
People came to drain it
And clean out all the muck here,
Somehow they all got stuck here.

There’s a winsome let’s-put-on-a-show vibe, and the performers and creative team are all big-hearted volunteers—Hexagon’s box office always benefits a charity—but the writing is biting, the tunes are inviting, and there’s more than enough fun here to make for an enjoyable evening of making fun.

For instance, there’s a scene in which the archeologists discover a strange bushel-basket-size mound of yellow fiber worn as a headdress by Susan Dye—in whose operatic soprano voice we hear an ode to Trump’s “Hair.”

Trump himself appears in an amusing impersonation by Matthew Ratz in several scenes. There’s a production number complete with backup singers and dancers in which he fondles and extols a model of the new Air Force One, which has been repainted to say “United States of TRUMP.”

There’s a sketch in which Trump complains to Sarah Huckabee Sanders (Cristen Stefansky) that he doesn’t have his own signature song. He runs through a list of song titles he’d like, but all they’re off limits, she tells him, because “Cease and desist.” Finally, she offers one he can have: “You’re So Vain.”

Matthew Ratz as Trump in “Rocket Man.” Photo by Paul Cestone.

A highlight of the evening is a musical number called “Rocket Man,” with gold-jacketed backup singers and Elvis-ish garb for Trump, in which his infatuation with foreign dictators gets a hilariously bromantic spin (“Feel the love…!”).

The three Supremes and Kavanaugh in “Justice.” Photo by Paul Cestone.

A host of prominent figures in the news make appearances, such as Mitch McConnell (Curt von Kann) wearing a tortoise shell in a sketch called “Mock Turtle.” There’s satisfying satire in a sketch called “Justice” in which the three female Supremes—Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Ellen Kaplan), Elena Kagan (Karen Pedone), and Sonia Sotomayor (Deidre Gyr Turshen)—haze newbie Brett Kavanaugh (Chris Gray).

The “Congressional Spice Girls.” Photo by Paul Cestone.

In another witty number, five Democratic congresswomen all dressed in white—Kyrsten Sinema (Jen Ayer Drake),  Nancy Pelosi (Karen Pedone ), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Caitlin Michelle Remmel),  Abigail Spanberger (Kathy Suydam), and Rashida Tlaib (Jackie Williams)—sing and dance as the “Congressional Spice Girls,” joined on the coda by Martha McSally (Rachel Waldstein).

Jackie Williams (center) in “Stormy.” Photo by Paul Cestone.

Jackie Williams has two show-stopping solo turns: as Stormy Daniels in a number called “Stormy” and as Michelle Obama in “Becoming/Kick.”

And the #MeToo movement gets a wicked Golden Girls twist in a sketch and number called “Bolden Girls”/”Keep It in Your Pants” with Rose (Susan Dye) Sophia (Ellen Kaplan), Dorothy (Kathleen Reilly), and Blanche (Karen Pedone). Turns out Blanche’s hookup with the Pizza Delivery Boy (Alex Diaz-Ferguson) has precipitated a visit from the Process Server (Joe Kaplan) charging her with sexual harassment. She thought the hashtag #MeToo meant “pound me too.”

“The Bolden Girls.” Photo by Paul Cestone.

The target range for the show’s political spoofing is a broad one. Staff turnover in the White House comes under ridicule (“Revolving Door”). Trump’s border wall emergency gets flipped—here it’s Mexico building a wall and policing its country against American tourists (“The Mexican Border Song”). Political correctness gets a sendup when a popular new liberal-progressive candidate (Susan Dye), who is perfect on all the issues, suddenly incurs the wrath of her followers because she is spotted using a plastic straw (“The Last Straw”). There’s lots more—some with sharper focus than others but with plenty whose aim is right on.

With equal cheek, Act Two takes on a wide assortment of cultural topics including online dating and dirty-pic sexting (Jennifer Strand as a single senior in the classic “Mr. Whiskers,” which I saw last summer when I reviewed Hexagon’s Fringe show) and the Sisyphean Metro system (“Back2Good, the best they can do”).

At four intervals during the show, two legit-seeming TV news anchors sit at a desk stage right, as if on camera, for a howlingly funny joke-set called “Newsbreak.” Their edgy material and their dry delivery was on a par with SNL‘s “Weekend Update.”*

Given that the show played on a high school auditorium stage, the dramatic lighting effects from song to song were noteworthy. Mostly the wireless mics worked, and the small orchestra off left served the singing well. Most remarkable was the invention in the array of costumes. In scene after scene, whole chorus lines would come on in flashy new looks, and the nonhuman characters (birds and other creatures) were accordingly decked out cleverly.

For the finale, the full company—women in sparkling silver tops and black skirts, the men in white tie and black tux—sang a movingly patriotic chorale called “This Is Us” (“We can be a better nation if we remember who we are”).

This entire intrepid troupe has gone to the swamp and seen what’s there and cracked us up. So when at last they stand stirringly on America’s higher ground, it is an upbeat ending well earned and much needed.

*Hexagon’s Newsbreaks go back decades, predating Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update,” I learned after I posted this review. Unannounced local DC radio and news anchors and other local personalities come to deliver the “news” during these segments. The night I saw Romp in the Swamp, the Newsbreak guest hosts were Jim Bohannon (National Radio Hall of Fame inductee) and Jackie Nedell (former TV anchor for NBC TV). Other guests during the run include Heather Curtis (WMAL radio), Mike Murillo (WTOP), Jim Lokay (Fox 5 TV), Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, Lauryn Ricketts (NBC & WTOP Broadcast Meteorologist), Christine Brennan (USA Today and ABC News and Sports), Lisa Berigan (Big 100.3FM), Loo Katz (97.1 FM and Hound Radio), and Bruce Alan (WTOP).

Running Time: About two hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.

Hexagon: Romp in the Swamp plays through April 6, 2019,  at Woodrow Wilson High School, 3950 Chesapeake St NW, Washington, DC, in the Tenleytown neighborhood. Tickets are available online or by calling 202-333-7469.

Proceeds from ticket sales go toward helping Hope Connections for Cancer Support.

Hexagon 2019: Romp in the Swamp


Romp in the Swamp – Lyrics by Tim Johnston, Music by Nicholas Bashour and Jon Nowick, Arranged by Brock Holmes and Porter Lyon, dance break choreographed by Abigail Kruger
Shining City in a Swill – Sketch by Kenneth McLeod
Hair – Lyrics by Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Music by Lynn Kaplan, Instrumental Arrangement by Brock Holmes
Mind Your C’s and D’s – Sketch by Cathy Carpousis
United States of Trump (Air Force One) – Lyrics and Music by Geoffrey Baskir, choreographed by Claudia Halasz
Trump or Treat – Sketch by Beccah Lewis, Eileen Joyner, and Terry Lewis
Stormy – Lyrics and Music by Douglas Maurer
Rocket Man – Lyrics by Tim Johnston, Mark Raffman & Joe Kaplan, Music by Jon Nowick, Arranged by Joe Sipzner, choreographed by Claudia Halasz
Budget Meeting – Sketch by Lilian Leifert
Temper Tantrum – Lyrics by Douglas Maurer and Nancy Pelosi, Music by Douglas Maurer
Revolving Door – Lyrics by Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Music by Jon Nowick, Arranged by Porter Lyon
At the Border – Sketch by Joe Kaplan
The Mexican Border Song – Lyrics and Music by Douglas Maurer
Chariots of the Bog – Sketch by Kenneth McLeod
Frankenfish – Lyrics and Music by J. Adrian Verkouteren, tap dance choreographed by Claudia Halasz
Bolden Girls  –  Sketch by Cathy Carpousis
Keep It in Your Pants – Lyrics by Rick Horowitz, Music by Walter Gilbert
Loaded – Lyrics by Richard Castle, Music by Matthew Levine, Arranged by Porter Lyon, dance choreographed by Claudia Halasz
Becoming/Kick – Lyrics and Music by Douglas Maurer, men’s kick choreographed by Nicholas Bashour, women’s kick choreographed by Lisa Irvine


Hippo Chrissy – Lyrics by Nicholas Bashour, Music by Sam Steere, Arranged by Joe Sipzner, tap dance choreographed by Claudia Halasz
Mock Turtle – Sketch by Kenneth McLeod
Congressional Spice Girls – Lyrics and Music by Geoffrey Baskir, choreographed by Claudia Halasz
All’s Will That Ends Will – Sketch by Beccah Lewis, Eileen Joyner, Terry Lewis, and William Shakespeare
It’s Mueller Time – Lyrics by Rick Horowitz, Music by Walter Gilbert
Mr. Whiskers – Lyrics by Richard Castle, Music by Matthew Levine
Justice – Sketch by Cathy Carpousis
Just Us – Lyrics by Joe Kaplan, Music by Geoffrey Baskir
Filter Me Out – Lyrics by Michael Weems, Music by Sam Steere, choreographed by Claudia Halasz
Athleisure – Lyrics by Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Music by Walter Gilbert
Gluten Free – Lyrics and Music by Brandon Walker, Arranged by Porter Lyon
National Landing – Lyrics by Mark Raffman, Music by Mark Raffman and Brock Holmes, Arranged by Brock Holmes
Back2Good – Lyrics by Rick Horowitz, Music by Walter Gilbert
The Last Straw – Lyrics by Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Music by Kathy Meyer Jeffers and J. Adrian Verkouteren
Bipartisan Duet – Lyrics by Mark Raffman, Music Jon Nowick, Arranged by Sue Mason McElroy
This Is Us – Lyrics by Joe Kaplan, Music by Douglas Maurer
Romp in the Swamp (Reprise) – Lyrics and Music by Nicholas Bashour, Arranged by Brock Holmes and Porter Lyon
G’Bye G’Bye – Lyrics by Cynthia Haney and Douglas Maurer, Music by Douglas Maurer

Cast: Geoffrey Baskir, David Boies, Cathy Carpousis, Sharon Clark-Napolitano, Neil Conway, Shannon Cowett, Libby Dasbach, Steve Dasbach, Alex Diaz-Ferguson, Jen Ayer Drake, Sharon Dye, Julia Frank, Chris Gray, Ellen Kaplan, Joe Kaplan, Abigail Kruger, Kaiya Lyons,  Justin Marcellus, Karen Pedone, Matthew Ratz, Kathleen Reilly, Caitlin Michelle Remmel, John Sadowski, Gary Schneider, Cristen Stefansky, Jennifer Strand, Kathy Suydam, Deirdre Gyr Turshen, Curt von Kann, Rachel Waldstein, Jackie Williams, George Willis

Principal Writers: Nicholas Bashour, Geoffrey Baskir, Cathy Carpousis, Richard Castle, Cynthia Haney, Rick Horowitz, Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Tim Johnston, Eileen Joyner, Joe Kaplan, Lilian Leifert, Beccah Lewis, Terry Lewis, Douglas Maurer, Kenneth McLeod, Mark Raffman, J. Adrian Verkouteren, Brandon Walker, Michael Weems

Contributing Writers: Phil Alperson, Bernie Cohen, Darrell Capwell, Malcolm Edwards, Eric A. Eisen, John Finch, Lars Issa, Judy Klass, Lillian Leifert, John V. “Skip” Maraney, Neil McElroy, Mike Desser, Sally Rogers, Alan Saltman, Doug Samuelson, Gary Schneider, Chuck Smith, Jef Smith, Laurie Smilan, Nicholas Zill

Musical Arrangers: Geoffrey Baskir, Walt Gilbert, Brock Holmes, Lynn Kaplan, Porter Lyon, Douglas Maurer, Sue Mason McElroy, Joe Sipzner, J. Adrian Verkouteren

Composers: Nicholas Bashour, Geoffrey Baskir, Walt Gilbert, Brock Holmes, Kathy Meyer Jeffers, Lynn Kaplan, Matthew Levine, Douglas Maurer, Jon Nowick, Mark Raffman, Sam Steere, J. Adrian Verkouteren, Brandon Walker

Musicians: Conductor – Joe Sipzner, Piano – Sue Mason-McElroy, Keyboard – Lynn Kaplan, Electric Bass – David Smith, Lead Guitar – Hugh LeMunyon, Rhythm Guitar, Percussion – Ethan Kabati, Drums – Nell McElroy

Production Team:
Producer: Steve Dasbach
Assistant Producer: Jackie Williams
Artistic Director: Nicholas Bashour
Assistant Director for Creative Materials: Joe Kaplan
Musical Director:  Lynn Kaplan
Co-Musical Director/Conductor: Joe Sipzner
Vocal Director: Deirdre Gyr Turshen
Master Pianist: Susan Mason Mcelroy
Stage Manager: Michal Kaufer
Co-Stage Manager: Jennifer Sokol
Assistant Stage Managers: David Stahl and Joe Durso
Choreographers: Claudia Halasz and Abigail Kruger
Kick Choreographer: Lisa Irvine
Dance Captain: Rachel Waldstein
Lighting Designer: Jef Smith
Lighting Crew Chief: Mike Resser
Master Carpenter, Set Assembly Crew Chief, Stage Crew Chief/ Scenic Painting Crew Chief, and Transportation Coordinator: Bill Rippey Master Scenic Artist and Scenic Designer: David Means
Sound Designer and Crew Chief: Matthew Datcher
Hair and Makeup Designer and Crew Chief: Cathy Dunn
Properties Co-Designer and Crew Chief: Robin Gold
Properties Co-Designer: Dottie Holmgren
Costume Designers: Jamie Breckenridge, Eleanor Dicks, and Linda Wilson Microphone Crew Chief: Ann H. Lung
Media Relations: Gene Tighe III

Queen of Basel

Queen of Basel by Hilary Bettis, now on the boards at Studio, is scathingly brilliant. One walks out gobsmacked. (I completely concur with my colleague Bob Ashby’s astute review.) But watching Queen of Basel reminded me of something about theatergoing that I rarely hear discussed: You can walk out of a great play feeling a little icky and that’s okay.

Bettis subtitled Queen of Basel “an unapologetic response to Strindberg’s Miss Julie,” and that it is. In Strindberg’s 1888 original, a lusty valet named Jean, who works for a powerful count, manipulates and rapes his employer’s daughter, a wild and spoiled young woman named Julie who ultimately kills herself. It’s a classic dead white man’s wet dream: Get the rich bitch.

How Bettis came to write her rejoinder is interesting. An award-winning playwright and producer, she was approached to adapt Miss Julie by Michel Hausmann, artistic director and co-founder of Miami New Drama. He considers Bettis “a bad-ass feminist and a genius writer,” he has said, and he was fully aware that the play is “morally repulsive, because it’s profoundly misogynistic.”

Andy Lucien (John) and Christy Escobar (Julie) in ‘Queen of Basel.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Bettis told him: “I fucking hate that play.”

Hausmann replied: “Precisely—that’s why I want you to tackle it.”

He got a yes from her, obviously. And the extraordinary play she wrote “is beyond what [he] had hoped.” Bettis “made it possible for this story to be told in the 21st century. She took away any sense of misogyny, and she gave the characters a level playing field, so it could be three-dimensional.”

Queen of Basel tosses out most of Miss Julie, keeping mainly the cast of three: Julie, now the socialite daughter of a wealthy real estate developer; John (Jean), now an Afro-Cuban Uber driver; and Christine, a minor character in Miss Julie now a Venezuelan refugee with a surprising past. The original setting, the kitchen of a Swedish estate, is now the back room of a commercial-grade kitchen in a swanky Miami hotel owned by Julie’s father. But the characters’ storylines are radically reimagined. Christine is a cocktail waitress in the hotel. John and Christine are engaged. Between John and Julie sexual sparks fly. Julie steadily unravels (sober for five years, she gets wasted on wine). John and Julie have consensual sex on the beach. Christine gets revenge. Julie commits social suicide.

Christy Escobar (Julie) in ‘Queen of Basel.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There’s lots more texture than that, of course. Bettis gives us rich portraits of her three characters with multiple ethnic, cultural, and regional identities (“In a global world of immigrants, what are any of us?” Bettis says in an amazing artistic statement on her website.) Bettis’s script erupts with the frisson of race, class, and sex dissonance. The humor is acidic; the passion and pathos, wrenching.

But has Queen of Basel actually wrung the misogyny out of Miss Julie?

About midway through, Julie has a speech about wanting to be philanthropic, to give money to help save refugee children. It’s a sentiment that seems to come out of nowhere. It doesn’t sound like her at all. Whatever generosity in her we’ve seen is always self-serving. Turns out she really doesn’t control any money; her father does. So watching the debauchery and final debasement of the character—a debasement Julie bravely defies—I could not tell whether to view her as a tragic figure or as just a really messed-up and spoiled rich chick.

Christy Escobar (Julie) in ‘Queen of Basel.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The actor playing the role (Christy Escobar) is absolutely riveting, but Bettis gives us little that might elicit empathy or pity or admiration for the character. Instead, we’re left feeling kind of icky—seeing her as simply selfish, superficial, and self-destructive. Which is to say: While Bettis has managed to empty Miss Julie of Strindberg’s misogyny, there is nothing about Queen of Basel to prevent it from tapping into our own.

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

Queen of Basel plays through April 7, 2019, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call 202-332-3300 or go online.

Cirkus Cirkör: Limits

The circus I fell in love with as a kid is gone. It was touted at the time as the greatest show on earth: a three-ring tented extravaganza that smelled of roasted peanuts, sawdust, and manure and traveled from town to town by train with browbeaten animals by the boxcar. It was unadulterated diversion and entertainment. No one went to the circus back then for artistic expression and thematic meaning. Such circus didn’t exist.

‘Limits.’ Photo courtesy of Cirkus Cirkör.

That all began to change in the 1970s, in France, when a human-animal-only genre emerged now known as Cirque Nouveau, or contemporary circus. It borrows acrobatics and other traditional circus skills and adds original music, character and story elements, light and sound design, and modern technology and merges it all into a live experience that goes beyond entertaining to move us as the finest performing arts do.

We don’t have such a circus based in the Metro DC area, but we are fortunately visited regularly by Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil, a company whose work I love. For decades Cirque du Soleil has been my go-to frame of reference for what Cirque Nouveau is and can be. Astonish me, I think whenever I go, and that’s what Cirque always does.

The cast of ‘Limits.’ Photo courtesy of Cirkus Cirkör.

That frame of reference got stretched beyond my imagining when Sweden’s Cirkus Cirkör came to town. Here was a Cirque Nouveau that was doing not only stunning artistic expression but also powerful social-justice messaging. The show, titled Limits, touched on forced migration, nations’ inhospitality to refugees, borders as inhumane boundaries—all messaged hauntingly alongside spectacular circus acts. I’d never conceived of such a thing. And it was exhilarating.

Limits was directed by Tilde Björfors, the founder and creative director of Cirkus Cirkör. Some 20 years ago, inspired by a French Cirque Nouveau troupe’s performance in Stockholm, she started what has become in Sweden a socially engaged “circus empire.” Limits is one of three Cirkus Cirkör productions about refugees, and its message to the world is summed up in a program note by Björfors:

Anything is possible! Boundaries are meant to be crossed. Limits are meant to be exceeded! We human beings can do so much more than we believe, if we dare to challenge our limitations!

This précis gets physical as the performers in Limits persistently exceed what seems humanly possible and surmount conventions of identity delineation whose main function is division and derision.

‘Limits.’ Photo courtesy of Cirkus Cirkör.

Take the notion of trust. As one watches the trust implicit in every hand-to-hand balance, in every teeterboard somersault, in every aerialist’s catch in midair, how can one not be awed by the human capacity for having faith in one another?

At the beginning, there is a video projection of seawater under a distant bridge with seagulls in graceful flight and cacophonous squawk (there’s a glimpse in the wonderful trailer below). We hear the voice of a girl:

When I was a child and took the boat from Finland to Sweden, I was trying to see where the border was. I couldn’t imagine how there could be a border in something that is constantly moving.

‘Limits.’ Photo courtesy of Cirkus Cirkör.

Against that innocent sense of unguarded fluidity, the stark tyranny of intolerance appears in a graphic counting as if in real time how many people are being forced to leave home, forced to flee to where they have none. In another projection, refugees on foot in an endless procession on a distant horizon make their way over forbidding desert mountains. The impermanence and impoverishment of migrant life are captured in such images as frail paper-boat props and rags, lots of rags of bright colors everywhere, as if washed vividly and variously ashore.

‘Limits.’ Photo courtesy of Cirkus Cirkör.

In Cirkus Cirkör’s rigging, a grid of girders above the stage, there are no motorized winches to pull the cables that raise and lower performers. It’s all done in plain sight by human counterweight. Even the set piece that becomes a tilted playing area is raised and lowered that way. The performance is literally an expression of power to, from, and by people.

Samuel “Looptok” Långbacka, composer of ‘Limits.’ Photo courtesy of Cirkus Cirkör.

The five performers—in addition to distinctive skills as acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, tumblers—have distinctive personalities, which we get to know individually. And in keeping with the show’s globalist theme, the music, which is glorious (see Spotify link below), has multiple international intonations. With gorgeous live vocals by two performers and lively instrumentals by the composer, the music in Limits sounds as though the world would if it were attuned more to community than to difference.

Running Time: About two hours 10 minutes, including one 25-minute intermission.

Limits played March 6 to 9, 2019, performed by Sweden’s Cirkus Cirkör at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Eisenhower Theater — 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC.

Acrobatics, Aerial Acrobatic, and Vocals: Saara Ahola
Acrobatics and Teeterboard: Oscar Karlsson
Acrobatics and Teeterboard: Nilas Kronlid
Acrobatics and Roue Cyr: Sarah Lett
Acrobatics, Juggling, and Vocals: Peter Aberg Live
Musician: Samuel “LoopTok” Långbacka
Voice-over: Qutaiba Aldahwa, Javid Heidari

Creative Team
Director and Concept: Tilde Björfors
Texts: Tilde Björfors, the ensemble, Nadia Ben Belgacem, Arash Dehvari, Kajsa Bohlin, Tatiana-Mosio Bongonga, Qutaiba Aldahwa, Javid Heidari
Composer Samuel “LoopTok” Långbacka
Set Design: Fanny Senocq, Stefan “Drake” Karlström, Joel Jedström, and Tilde Björfors
Costume Design: Jonna Bergelin
Video Scenography/Projections: Visual Relief, Johannes Ferm Winkler, Tom Waldton, Per Rydnert
Choreography: Olle Strandberg

Hands on a Hardbody

The title of this show, if you have never heard of it, doesn’t mean what you might think. It’s not about fitness. It’s not about sex. It’s a country-western musical about ten hard-up Texans trying to win a hardbody pickup truck. It’s based on a documentary about a real dealership’s annual endurance promotion: Contestants literally have to keep their hands on the truck. If they let go, they lose. Days pass as one by one they drop out. Last contender standing gets the keys to the prize. It’s musical chairs meets Survivor meets They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Keegan Theater, renowned for its slam-dunk productions of well-known musicals such as Chicago, Hair, and American Idiot, now delivers the goods with one more out of the way…and it’s a winner. Hands on a Hardbody is a hoedown of heart and humor and a shindig of lifted spirits.

Caroline Dubberly as Heather with the cast of ‘Hands on a Hardbody.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

First of all, the score (music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, lyrics by Amanda Green) is terrific, and under the ever-excellent musical direction of Jake Null, the 19 singer-actors and 8 musicians raise the rafters of the Keegan like a countrified tent revival.

The show jump-starts with an all-company number, “Human Drama Kind of Thing,” that sets up the rules and spells out the stakes:

Everybody’s broke here
Tryin’ to make ends meet
Pay a debt back, had a setback
Got to get back on our feet

Each contestant is in specifically dire financial straits, and over the course of the musical, we get to know them up close.  But everyone is here for the same reason: “If I win this truck, all my troubles are through.”

The book by Douglas Wright does a deft job of multiple character development and storyline exposition, and every contestant gets a compelling musical number. While the script’s structure might seem formulaic and predictable, what animates the show’s ample appeal in performance is not so much suspense about who’s going to win the truck but the successive emotional grabbers in the unfolding vignettes of hardship, heartache, and hope.

For instance, contestant Janis is accompanied by her husband Don, who’s there for more than moral support. Their song together, “If I Don’t Sleep” (beautifully sung by Valerie Adams Rigsbee and Gary DuBreuil), is a tenderly moving evocation of empathy, mutuality, and reciprocity in a marriage.

The marriage of contestant JD and his devoted wife Virginia is in an opposite situation. As we learn in their song “Alone with Me,” their relationship is being stressed and tested by his emotional withdrawal from her. “I don’t want to talk…. Just let me be,” sings Patrick M. Doneghy as he. To which, as she, Katie McManus sings (in a gorgeous voice that is a standout): “I wish I knew what I could do to make myself enough for you. / The way that you’re enough for me.”

Another outstanding voice is that of Shayla Lowe as Norma, who belts a country-gospel number late in Act One called “Joy of the Lord” that introduces the show’s rich thematic spin on the spirituality of the poor:

I feel the joy!
I feel the joy in me
Lifted my pain
When I needed to be
The joy of the Lord’s in me

In counterpoint, late in Act Two there’s a song about faith lost. It’s called “God Answered My Prayers” (the title is sarcastic because God’s answer came back “no”), and it’s sung by an abrasive contestant named Benny, whom no one takes a liking to because he won a truck two years ago (but his wife drove off in it when she left him). John Loughney as Benny knocks the number off the lot.

John Loughney as Benny with the cast of ‘Hands on a Hardbody.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

For the players in this unfair game, this keep-on-truckin’ contest is not only a brass-ring thing; it’s a hopey-faithy thing: a gamble that with luck and the Lord will pay off. What makes Hands on a Hardbody so poignant (when it’s not being irresistibly raise-the-roof rousing) is that the stories it tells echo through the country’s entire paycheck-to-paycheck and no-paycheck population. America does not say, Let them eat cake. America says, Let them play games of chance and pray in a chancel.

The show has many more fascinating human-interest stories set to song: Jesús (Andres Alexjandro Ponce)—who gets dissed as an illegal immigrant by Cindy (Kari Ginsberg), the snooty judging partner of Mike (Josh Sticklin), the sharpster dealership owner—is actually “Born in Loredo” and saving to become a veterinarian.

Chris (Duane Richards II), a war vet traumatized by combat, longs to be “Stronger.” Another troubled young man, Ronald (Willie Garner), sings of “My Problem Right There”—which is actually problems plural. Heather (Caroline Dubberly) was enlisted by Mike on account of her looks and is pressed to admit, “It’s a Fix.”

A romance blooms between Kelli (Beatice Owens) and Greg (Ramon Danie Rodriguez), but when she drops out (“I’m Gone”) he must choose whether to follow. Frank (Chris Gillespie) a local TV reporter tracks the contest and the players. And a fine Ensemble (Dana Nearing, Maggie Leigh Walker, Oscar Ceville, and Selena Clyne-Galindo) rounds out the talented cast.

Willie Garner as Ronald with the cast of ‘Hands on a Hardbody.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Co-Directed energetically by Elena Velasco and Mark A. Rhea, with enjoyable character-driven choreography by Velasco, Hands on a Hardbody also sports a crack creative team. Set Designer Matthew J. Keenan locates the story simply and economically around a twirling truck under oversize pennants. Lighting Designer Jason Arnold gives each musical number a sensational finish. Sound Designer Gordon Nimmo-Smith mics each voice clearly such that when they sing as a chorale it gives chills. And Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson gives the contestants a casual array of denim, Ts, caps, sneaks, shorts, and sweats for standing around under hot sun.

The impressive pit orchestra, kept invisible backstage but thrillingly audible throughout, includes Jake Null and Deborah Jacobson (keyboards), Jaime Ibacache and Brad Emmett (guitars), Jason Wilson (bass), Angelica Kalasz (cello), Alexandra Touzinsky (violin/mandolin), and Manny Arciniega (percussion).

The all-company finale, “Keep Your Hands on It,” is a huge crowd-pleaser, and as performed on the Keegan stage, its touching refrain—”If you want something, keep your hands on it”—will stay with you long after.

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

[Read Barbara MacKay’s interview with Hands on a Hardbody co-directors Elena Velasco and Mark A. Rhea.]

Hands on a Hardbody plays March 9 through April 6, 2019, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767 or go online.

Crying Hands

We like to think that the Holocaust could never happen here. We want to believe that it shouldn’t so it couldn’t. And then comes along a work of theater like Crying Hands that screams out how incrementally the Holocaust happened—how that stain on human civilization began inconspicuously with a simple political ideology, a populist appeal to purify a nation through racial cleansing—and we are shocked back to reality: The distance between boys in white-nationalist MAGA hats and German youth in swastika armbands is merely a matter of time and degree.

Crying Hands tells the story of what happened to Deaf people in Nazi Germany. Until very recently that story has been hidden from history. It included—in the runup to Hitler’s “Final Solution”—the statutory sterilization of hundreds of thousands of Deaf men, women, and children in the 1930s along with systematic eugenics measures to eliminate the Deaf altogether. This cruel catastrophe is now being told as a riveting stage documentary by Teater Manu, a touring theater based in Norway that performs in American Sign Language.

Eitan Zuckerman (Narrator), Ronny Patrick Jacobsen (Hans), and Ipek D. Mehlum (Gertrud) in ‘Crying Hands.’ Photo by Dag Jenssen.

I caught the production during its brief stop in Washington, DC, where it played to a rapt, mostly Deaf audience in the terrific Marvin Theatre at George Washington University. Against projections of a grim black-and-white documentary photomontage, three signing actors and one voice actor held the house captive with a ghastly narrative that could have happened back then to nearly everyone there.

The historical record that Crying Hands dramatizes is a crash course in the evils of biological superiority. We learn about the Nazis’ insidious campaign to “improve the human gene pool,” to “clean society,” to protect the nation from “degeneration.” We learn about “ideological marginalization,” the “registry for hereditary impairment,” academic research on “racial hygiene.” We learn how the technology of extermination developed steadily in lockstep with the expanding ideology of racial inferiority. The “Angel of Death” Dr. Josef Mengele got a head start by killing hundreds of thousands of children by injection and starvation, but that wasn’t really scalable. Gas chambers and crematories became necessary late-stage efficiencies.

The challenge of how to make all this horrific historical material assimilable on stage, much less relatable, would have deterred anyone less visionary and adept than Playwright and Director Bentein Baardson—and credit goes to Teater Manu Artistic Director Mira Zuckermann for tapping him for the task. Baardson’s inspired idea was to tell the story through the biographies of Hans and Gertrude—two composite characters based on interviews with Deaf survivors of the Holocaust. Nearly everything Hans and Gertrude say, we are told, is something once said by a survivor.

Ronny Patrick Jacobsen (Hans) and Ipek D. Mehlum (Gertrud) in ‘Crying Hands.’ Photo by Dag Jenssen.

Hans (an energetically expressive Ronny Patrick Jacobsen) was born Deaf. A working-class motorcycle buff, he joins a Nazi stormtrooper unit. But in a purge of disabled soldiers, Hans is forced to be sterilized (“the Hitler cut”), becomes a political prisoner, and is sent to Auschwitz.

Gertrude (a compellingly poised Ipek D. Mehlum) is a hearing woman born to wealth. As a med student, she buys into Nazi ideology and becomes an active agent of anti-Deaf marginalization. But her worldview spins when she learns one of her grandmothers was Jewish.

Kjersti Fjelstad (Voice Actor) in ‘Crying Hands.’ Photo by Dag Jenssen.

A Narrator (an able Eitan Zuckerman) introduces and deftly segues between the third-person stories told by Jacobsen and Mehlum. All the while a Voice Actor (a richly resonant Kjersti Fjeldstad) sits stage left and interprets into a mic the three others’ signing.

The entire theater piece is presentational, descriptive, informative, and intense. There is little interaction between the quasi-fictional characters. As they stand and declaim to us and listen to each other, a montage of chillingly cold imagery and, at times, bursts of pounding sound assail us. The effects delivered by Video Designer Simon Valentine, Sound Designer Erik Hedin, and Lighting Designer Torkel Skjærven are powerful. The photomontage serves the storytelling with particular force; there are moments when a particular photo is so apt—such as a shot of a squadron of motorcyclists headed for the Brandenburg Gate—the script might well have been shaped to fit it.

The experience as a whole was not moving in any conventional theatrical sense; it was not intended to give us such feels. Nonetheless, Crying Hands is unforgettable, true to its purpose to fill a gap in Deaf history. As such it is also an essential piece of Holocaust history with a grave lesson for every one of us now: What happened then could already be happening again. Just not this time to the Deaf.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Crying Hands played March 7 to 9, 2019, performed by Teater Manu—produced in collaboration with The Corcoran School of Arts and Design, Theatre & Dance Program of   George Washington University—at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC.  The production has gone on to New York City and Toronto, and tickets for those performances are online.



When we see an unwell homeless person on the street—these days huddled in layers of rags against the cold—we can know nothing of the story of who they are and how they got there. All we can really know is that their story has come to a bad end. Pulling back that shroud of anonymity and ignominy, an utterly transfixing solo performance from Ireland gives us eyes to see how much we can’t.

The work is called Silent, written and performed by Pat Kinevane, who has been touring in it to international acclaim, including London’s prestigious Laurence Olivier Award. The Irish arts group Solas Nua has imported the Fishamble theater production directed by Jim Culleton for a most welcome run in the Lab Theatre II at Atlas.

The vast black box is empty but for some scattered props, a bowl to drop change in, a bottle, a garbage bag. There’s a dull roar of road traffic. A figure lies under a brown blanket and slowly stirs. When he emerges, wearing a nondescript black outfit, we behold a mature and sturdy performer who moves with a dancer’s grace, a vamp’s camp, and a meticulous mime’s precision. There is choreography in every gesture, every digit, every blink. Then when at last he speaks—with a vocal versatility that has more tonalities and timbers than could possibly belong to any one person—we are drawn irresistibly into the backstory of a Dubliner down and out.

Pat Kinevane in ‘Silent.’ Photo by Ger Blanch.

His name, we learn, is Tino, after Rudolph Valentino, because his mother Nana “lived for silent films.” Besides his parents, who did not treat him well, we meet his gay brother Pierce, his ex-wife Judy, and the son he was cut off from when Judy kicked him out. He once had “splendid things,” he says—a job, a home, a wife—and he has lost them all in an inchoate life on the street drinking cheap merlot and clinically depressed.

Tino’s narrative is grim but not grimly told. It unspools surreally, cinematically, highlighted now and then by silent-film-like scenes in which Kinevane’s delightfully overdramatized self-presentation becomes ever more captivating. Throughout, the light cues are sudden and stark, sometimes single spots piercing the dark from shifting angles, with swelling interludes as of music from old movies. (At one point Kinevane channels Valentino in The Sheik.)

Pat Kinevane in ‘Silent.’ Photo

But there is no fourth wall. Kinevane connects with a couple of members of the audience, greets them by first name, banters with them a bit, then continues to speak to them during the show—which has the curious effect of making each one of us feel personally addressed.

Pat Kinevane in ‘Silent.’ Photo by Marina Levitina.

There are images and scenes in Tino’s story that burn themselves into one’s brain. He tells of a 40-year-old man in a homeless shelter, for instance, who every night in his sleep would howl “Mamaaaa!” And he does a witty riff on antidepressants that for anyone familiar with the social stigma might briefly seem healing.

Among the moving subplots in Tino’s spiraling story is his relationship with his one-year-older brother, Pierce, who was viciously attacked for being gay (“they murdered him with giggles and sneers”). Tino, who grew up straight, was deeply fond of him. Tino tells a funny flashback of when as boys they shared a bedroom and came upon (no pun intended) their respective stashes of porn—Tino’s called Dirty Slut; Pierce’s, Cockatoo. Kinevane uses the moment to mimic and ridicule the mid-orgasm facial grimaces that photographs in both stashes had in common. Why couldn’t they look happy? he asks. In a show with a lot of laughs, that got one of the largest.

“All he wanted was to be wanted, you know,” Tino says ruefully; “Isn’t that what we all want?” And after his beloved brother was driven to suicide: “Guilt wouldn’t leave me because I should have stood up for him more.”

As performance art and storytelling, Silent is a breathtaking tour de force. As theater with a social conscience, its evocation of the humanity hidden within homelessness is harrowing and heartrending. But maybe most important of all, Silent is a rare and wonderful experience that can remind us who we are when we care.

Written and performed by Pat Kinevane
Directed by Jim Culleton
Music composed by Denis Clohessy
Stage Managers: Ger Blanch & Aziza Kelly
Assistant Stage Manager: Susan Squires
Costume design by Catherine Condell
Produced by Eva Scanlan

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Silent plays through March 24, 2019, at Solas Nua performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lab Theatre II – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext 2 or purchase them online.

Solas Nua has arranged a series of post-show discussions after select performances featuring special guests from organizations working to end homelessness in DC. For a full schedule, click here.

Blood at the Root

Raymond O. Caldwell kicks off his new Producing Artistic Directorship at Theater Alliance with a production of Dominque Morisseau’s Blood at the Root that is bursting with youthful exuberance, critical race issues, emotional authenticity, and astonishing beauty.  It is a powerfully auspicious debut.

The cast of ‘Blood at the Root’: Molly Shayna Cohen, Billie Krishawn, Charles Franklin IV, Maria Mainelli, Jordan Clark Halsey, Stephanie Wilson, Imani Branch. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Blood at the Root is set in a fictional Cedar High School in Louisiana. The plot is based on real events in 2006 at a high school in Jena, Louisiana, where there was a particular tree that only white students sat under. The day after black students tried to sit there, nooses appeared in the tree. A schoolyard fight broke out. Six black students were charged with attempted murder. That injustice prompted Morisseau to write this choreopoem, its title echoing the Billie Holliday song “Strange Fruit” (“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”).

At Theater Alliance there is no such historical framing to distance us. The production boldly becomes its own indelibly real event. It all happens right now right in front of us, in a restive high school world rife with cliques and rumors. We are introduced to that awkward world in the lobby where there are defaced metal lockers and after-school activities posters. It continues in the all-gender restrooms where there is rude graffiti and prerecorded gossip.

That’s the teaser for the show that follows and starts off with a rave that throbs and rocks the house. The cast of eleven, choreographed with incessant invention by Tiffany Quinn, gyrate with an immersive fervor that immediately connects us. It is not dance as display; it is kinesthetic rapport.

The cast then addresses the audience with so-called Rules of Engagement, Morriseau’s cheeky invitation to react however the heck we want. We soon meet six named characters who along with an ensemble of five will draw us into the unsettling incident at Cedar High. Is it just a prank? Or is it racist? Don’t expect simplistic pontificating. Morriseau goes to the crux of some of today’s most complex contentions around race, pitches us right in the middle, and challenges us to take a stand.

Billie Krishawn as Raylynn and Molly Shayna Cohen as Asha in ‘Blood at the Root.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The main character is Raylynn (the always luminous Billie Krishawn), who is anti-apathy and anti-injustice and out to break rules. Hers is a conscience that no social convention can quash. But her nervy decision to go sit under the tree where white students sit incites a blowback of race hate that eventually embroils her dear brother De’Andre (an imposing Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour).

Raylynn’s best friend is Asha (a sharply comedic, lollipop-sucking Molly Shayna Cohen), who is white but “black by association.” Asha was raised by a stepmother who was black and has always felt she “belonged” among black kids. Asha’s self-involved shallowness is an enjoyable contrast to Raylynn’s idealistic earnestness, and Krishawn and Cohen’s girlish scenes together are delightfully funny—but they take a sobering turn at the point Asha’s true loyalty to Raylynn is tested.

Stephanie Wilson as Toria and Deimoni Brewington as Justin in ‘Blood at the Root.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Parallel to Raylynn’s fearless rule-breaking is the fearless truth-telling of a white character named Toria, a radical investigative journalist for the student newspaper. Her foil is Justin, the moderate, wrapped-tight editor of the paper, who is black and insistent that Toria cover innocuous topics, not incendiary ones. The scenes between Stephanie Wilson as Toria and Deimoni Brewington as Justin deliver some of the play’s most electrical high tension, as when Toria, chiding Justin for his timidity, says, “You’re more invisible than me and I’m damn near a ghost.” But wait for it when Justin lets loose with his monolog about existing “in the cracks”—and Brewington nearly stops the show with it.

Billie Krishawn as Raylynn and Paul Roeckell as Colin in ‘Blood at the Root.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Raylynn becomes sorta-kinda friendly with Colin, a white football player who is both a jock and gay. Colin is thus both target and agent of animus, and with his story arc—delineated with increasing intensity by Paul Roeckell—Morisseau takes us to unexpectedly unexamined places where issues of identity, affinity, and justice do not sort themselves out tidily.

The way Choreographer Quinn augments the drama is breathtaking, as when Toria sits at her laptop and reads her report of the arrest and imprisonment of the six young black men and six actors lie around her on the floor conveying their anguish through movement.

Stephanie Wilson as Toria and Ensemble in ‘Blood at the Root.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Scenic Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s sets the action against a back wall of graffitied lockers (which hold surprises) upon a floor of classroom-colored square tiles. It’s somehow everything bleak and banal about high school recollected and real again. But Lighting Designer Alberto Segarra does a visual blizzard on it, from dance-off to prison. Projections Designer Kelly Colburn creates arresting effects on it, from documentary news footage to a flurry of texted rumors, all amplified by Sound Designer Tony Starnes. And Costume Designer Amy MacDonald seems to have raided some really cool and quirky teenagers’ closets and found exactly the backpack for each.

The Ensemble—Imani Branch, Charles Franklin IV, Jordan Clark Halsey, Maria Mainelli, Alex Turner—are exquisitely integrated into the production and a pleasure to watch. Director Caldwell’s eye-popping and thought-provoking vision is also well served by Assistant Directors Aria Velz and Timothy Thompson.

The play’s dissection of racial tensions in a high school is chilling. The production’s cast and design are thrilling. Blood at the Root at Theater Alliance is not to be missed.

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

Blood at the Root plays through March 24, 2019, at Theater Alliance performing at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office, or go online.