Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: May, 2019

Antigonick and The Fragments of Sappho

Antiquity is in the house and what’s old is new again. Taffety Punk is presenting two short theater pieces featuring its signature integration of dance, drama, and music based on voices from Ancient Greece—in the first the Lesbian poet Sappho and in the second the Athenian tragedian Sophocles. Both pieces are set to eloquent contemporary texts in plain English crafted by the classicist and acclaimed poet Anne Carson.

The Fragments of Sappho

The double bill begins with a 25-minute theatricalization of Carson’s translation of fragments of lyric poems about the erotic by Sappho. There’s not much left of Sappho’s literary output: bits and pieces on papyrus, mentions by other writers, only one complete poem. But Taffety Punk has staged what remains—and filled in the gaps where words go missing with music, movement, and ingenuity.

Erin White and Teresa Spencer in ‘The Fragments of Sappho.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The best instance was when Teresa Spencer delivered a poem whose missing matter had been replaced with silence. She would speak isolated words and phrases and in the lacunae it was like the audio cut off—except her mouth kept moving. Someone who could read lips would know what she was saying, because Spencer had composed her own complete poem, which she performed full of feeling, connecting emotional dots left ages ago by Sappho. The effect was transfixing.

Little wonder that Choreographer Katie C. Sopoci Drake and Director Marcus Kyd were inspired to fill in the blanks between text tidbits as enticing as these:

You came and I was crazy for you
and you cooled my mind that burned with longing

but I am not someone who likes to wound
rather I have a quiet mind

someone will remember us
I say
even in another time

What was Sappho meaning? What was she feeling? With whom? About whom? Taffety Punk has set out to surmise.

Katie C. Sopoci Drake in ‘The Fragments of Sappho.’ In background: Dan Crane, Esther Williamson, Katie Murphy. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Drake was joined by four other dancers in lavender leggings and pink tops (Amanda Blythe, Safi Harriott, Katie Murphy, Erin White). Together and in solos and pairs, they sought Sapphic expression in a grandly gestural style reminiscent of Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham. At times the pace seemed more rushed than the ensemble could keep up with; one wished for more synchronicity and intentionality. Still, the lithe, lyrical, text-driven choreography accompanied by the raw growl of Kyd on bass and rimshots by Dan Crane on drums made for startling contrasts.

Among other imaginative finishes for Sappho’s ellipses was Esther Williamson singing an original song on a mic that went into echo amplification—as if resounding through time.

The sole surviving whole poem,  delivered by Williamson, was a prayer to Aphrodite that ends, hauntingly: “Be my ally.” It was a touching tribute to a long-ago poet from Lesbos whose love and longing had been recollected with respect.

Antigonick

The heftier half of the bill was Taffety Punk’s staging of the one-act play Antigonick, translated by Carson from Sophocles’ Antigone, directed by Kelsey Mesa with choreography by Kelly King. It had some knockout moments.

Lilian Oben as Antigone in ‘Antigonick.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The text begins with a cheeky translator’s note, intended to be performed, containing erudite references to analyses of Antigone by Hegel, Brecht, Judith Butler, et al. Here it is played back as a voiceover while Lilian Oben as a white-gowned, anguished Antigone goes like WTF and rolls her eyes. Instantly this much-studied character out of a distant dusty classic becomes real and relatable.

The piece is chock full of other contemporizing touches. To rave-like music, for instance, members of the Chorus bounce parkour-like off the walls. And an invented character in overalls named Nick (Katie Murphy) keeps going around measuring things, pulling down panels of scrim from the ceiling, and doing other puzzling stage business—until a surprise plot wrap-up at the end.

Amazingly in the midst of this delightfully hyperactive staging, the Sophoclean story comes through solidly and powerfully. In Oben’s deeply felt performance we get at gut level Antigone’s determination to give her dishonored dead brother a decent burial despite the petty edict of the king, and we get viscerally the tragic price Antigone pays for her loyalty and resistance.

Lilian Oben (Antigone) and Teresa Spencer (Ismene) in ‘Antigonick.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The supporting cast is equally strong, particularly in the big confrontation scenes. The first is between Antigone and her sister, Ismene (Teresa Spencer), who tries to argue Antigone out of her recalcitrance (not gonna happen). Then there’s King Kreon (a deliciously dastardly Dan Crane) getting the Guard (an arrestingly emphatic Louis E. Davis) to rat out Antigone’s grave goings-on. And another is the excruciating tension between Kreon and his son Haimon (an earnestly impassioned Danny Puente Cackley), who intends to wed Antigone and detests his father for his mistreatment of her. At points such as these Carson’s script can get scathing, and this cast can bite off each trenchant mouthful and chillingly spit it back.

The Chorus interludes—often ponderous and awkward in modern times—are here handled with engaging verve. As the ensemble, Cackley, Davis, and Spencer are joined by Esther Williamson and Rachel Felstein. (Davis also impresses as Messenger, Spencer also has a nice cameo as Kreon’s aggrieved wife Eurydike, and Felstein—a standout in the Chorus—also has a fascinating turn as the blind seer Teiresias.) We know going in that Antigone’s death is foregone, but its staging—her metaphorical lifeline is literally severed—is breathtaking.

Credit Anne Carson for a script that bursts with language so alive it seems never to have been dead. And kudos to Taffety Punk for refreshing a classic and shaping such a satisfying show.

Design credits: Chris Curtis, light design; Jen Gillette, costume design; Marcus Kyd, sound design; Amy Kellett and Donna Reinhold, set and prop manifestation; Renee Beaver and Aaron Beaver, scenic artists.

Running Time: About 95 minutes, including one intermission

Antigonick and The Fragments of Sappho play through June 8, 2019, at Taffety Punk Theatre Company performing at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door or go online.

The cast of ‘Antigonick’: Rachel Felstein, Dan Crane, Esther Williamson, Lilian Oben, Teresa Spencer, Danny Puente Cackley, Katie Murphy, and Louis E. Davis. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Klytmnestra: An Epic Slam Poem

Dane Figueroa Edidi is one of DC’s most original and multitalented theater artists. A dancer, actor, poet, playwright, and choreographer, she is also a teacher, novelist, political commentator as well as (in her words) a priestess, goddess, and healer. Having followed  her work for several years now, I can attest: Dane Figueroa Edidi is a sui generis force of star power and storytelling sorcery.

Back in early 2016 I had a conversation with Edidi (a two-time Helen Hayes Award nominee) and Natsu Onoda Power (recent recipient of two Helen Hayes Awards for The Lathe of Heaven). The topic was the representation of trans lives in the theater (“Trans Lives and Theater as Change Agent”). To my question about how gender and acting had played out in her life, Edidi answered:

I’ve always wanted to play divas. I wanted to play queens, I wanted to play Lady Macbeth. I never wanted to play Desdemona, but people wanted me to play Othello. And so in my training, there was this fight in the way people perceived my body—they were not feeding into my dream of being these amazingly great women. So what I did was study these great women’s roles separately aside. I would take the training that I was getting in class, and then I would utilize that as Clytemnestra or as Lady M or as Medea. And I would be in my room, practicing these monologues and learning these amazing women—because I knew that eventually we would get to this place.

Dane Figueroa Edidi and Autumn Angelettie (Drummer) in ‘Klytmnestra: An Epic Slam Poem.’ Photo courtesy of Manaf Azaam.

By “this place” Edidi could well have meant the present moment, as she is now commanding the Theater Alliance stage at Anacostia Playhouse in her solo play Klytmnestra: An Epic Slam Poem. It is a monumental performance, combining lyrical poetry, sensual dance, familiar tunes, catchy raps and chants, and ancestral invocation. And it is DC’s first mainstage production of a play written and performed by a local trans artist of color.

The play takes place in an ethereal throne room designed by Debra Kim Sivigny with translucent walls lit by Niomi Collard to suggest someplace outside time. The preshow playlist by Kenny Neal portends a theme: “Black Women,” “Ladies First,” “A Woman’s Worth…” Edidi enters wearing a headscarf over her flowing dreads and a festive two-piece garment of multicolored print (also by Sivigny) as she rings a tiny sacramental bell. A Drummer, Autumn Angelettie, accompanies Edidi, who as Priestess invites the audience to join her in a ceremonial call-and-response acknowledgment of black women ancestors: “Ashe, Ashe…”

What Edidi has begun is a bold reclaiming of Greek myth as Mother Africa’s, a rereading/re-rendering of the ancient tragedies that transforms them into poetic-justice narratives centering black women—both as righteous agents of their destiny and as rebels to patriarchy. As politico-poetic dramaturgy it is audacious, and Danielle A. Drakes has directed it with prodigious passion.

Edidi dons a colorful robe that looks African/Indonesian that has been draped over the throne. Suddenly she is the Goddess Queen Klytmnestra, recounting how Agamemnon murdered her first husband and first child then raped her and made her his wife—this before Agamemnon killed their daughter Iphigenia in order to raise sufficient wind to sail to Troy to war. (Those who have seen or will see The Orestia running concurrently at Shakespeare Theater Company will note that Edidi has ingeniously included versions of the myth not mentioned by Aeschylus.)

Among Edidi’s gifts as writer and performer is her preternatural talent for giving voice to the fury of women wronged. She is scary good at it. There is plenty of playfulness in Klytmnestra, quite a bit of humor and wit, melodious music (including a moving sing-along at the end)—but when time comes for Klytmnestra’s righteous rage to kick in, Edidi tears up the stage.

Dane Figueroa Edidi and Autumn Angelettie (Drummer) in ‘Klytmnestra: An Epic Slam Poem.’ Photo courtesy of Manaf Azaam.

Besides the title role, Edidi portrays several other female characters, among them Klytmnestra’s sister Helen (she whose beauty launched a thousand ships), their mother Leda (she who was raped by Zeus posing as a swan), her slaughtered daughter Iphigenia, and her husband Agamemnon’s concubine Kassandra. Each supporting character is signaled by a different sampling of black music and art. For instance, Klytmnestra’s matricidal son Orestes, the only male character in the cast list, is depicted as a gangsta rapper.

The play presumes some foreknowledge of the myths it artfully appropriates—the cascade of poetic eloquence can make plot points easy to miss—and the program provides no synopsis or who’s-who, which could have made the characters’ stories easier to follow. But even without a backstory briefing, the dramatic and emotional peaks that erupt in Klytmnestra well earn the word epic. And Sivigny’s set, Neal’s sounds, Collard’s lights, and Angelettie’s drum punctuation make for a stagecraft experience every bit as spectacular as the physical and vocal range of Edidi’s tour-de-force performance.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Klytmnestra plays through June 16, 2019, at Theater Alliance performing at Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the box office, or go online.

Correction: An earlier version of this review said that Klymnestra “is DC’s first mainstage production of a play written and performed by a trans artist of color.” In fact it was preceded by Mashuq Mushtaq Deen’s Draw the Circle at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Klytmnestra is the first such production by a local trans artist of color.

Sooner/Later

A rom-com about manhunting…at Mosaic? That’s probably not the sort of fare you’d expect from DC’s preeminent theatrical platform for social-justice programming. But who is to say that fair should have no place in what a woman wants in life and love?

Sooner/Later is a deep, bittersweet dive into one woman’s longing for an authentic relationship—with herself, with a man, and with a child—not necessarily in that order. “I want a kid so badly,” says thirty-something Nora at one point. “More than I want a man.” But Nora does not want to be a single mom: “I’m doing it the old-fashioned way or I’m not doing it at all.” That is the dilemma that drives this delicately nuanced drama by Allyson Currin, who has artfully steered clear of the sentimental and veered toward the transcendental.

Cristina M. Ibarra (Lexie), Erica Chamblee (Nora), and Tony K. Nam (Griff) in ‘Sooner/Later.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

The play is in two acts that segue one into the other. In the first, we meet a vivacious teenager, Lexie (Cristina M. Ibarra), who keeps egging on Nora (Erica Chamblee) to find the man who will be her dad—which means sending Nora on blind dates and picking out what to wear. “This outrages the feminist in me,” Nora jokes, not really joking. The delightful interplay between Ibarra’s and Chamblee’s performances is sharp-funny and sharp-biting:

NORA: Do I have to go on this date?
LEXIE: I’m making you.

NORA: So we are two lifeless females waiting for some guy? I’m not liking the sound of that.
LEXIE: It’s not about “some guy.” You know that.

NORA: At some point doesn’t it behoove me to cultivate my own personhood or something like that? That’s what the magazines recommend.

Nora goes to meet her blind dates at a nearby coffee shop called Grounds for Impeachment (which got an apt laugh). A thirty-something man named Griff (Tony K. Nam) happens by and notices her waiting there, futilely, for guys who turn out to be no-shows. Between Griff and Nora there blooms a gently quirky courtship—though it takes a while for them both to realize it—and the scenes between Nam and Chamblee are so charming and disarming we sense long before their characters do that they are perfect for each other. Chamblee gets the broad humor in Nora’s prickly reluctance just right, and Nam’s sensitive portrayal of Griff’s empathic patience especially impresses. He’s like a model of how not to be a dick, even as, without irony, he freely admits to being one.

LEXIE: They MIGHT connect.
But there is nothing I can do about it.
There is only probability and chance. I have to sit back and wait.
And long for the mother and father I know I want someday…

Tony K. Nam (Griff) and Erica Chamblee (Nora) in ‘Sooner/Later.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

DC playwright Allyson Currin’s Sooner/Later is the fourth “locally grown” play produced by Mosaic Theater—following Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Hooded, Caleen Sinnette Jennings’s  Queens Girl in Africa, and Psalmayene 24’s Les Deux Noirs—and it significantly represents Mosaic’s recent resolve to foreground women’s voices, with support from the Trish Vradenburg Play Commission.

Sooner/Later premiered at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park a year ago with an all-white cast. In choosing actors of color for the DC premiere, Director Gregg Henry brings a dimension to the play that aligns and resonates with Mosaic’s cultural-fusion mission. And the normalized beauty in the biracial family they form is a big part of how and why this play touches the heart with the soul of equality.

As the second act begins, Lexie is no longer the ardent matchmaker; she has become a tempestuous teen given to self-pitying tantrums. For her mother Nora and, now, her father Griff, she is a handful and a half. But time has been bent. Then and now are not what we thought. Something metaphysical is going on. As we piece together what was, in the first act, and what comes after, in the second, Sooner/Later takes on unexpected poignancy. Somewhere in the middle distance between the playwright’s imagination and ours, the lives of Nora, Lexie, and Griff become a singular story of happiness and sorrow commingled.

Tony K. Nam (Griff), Cristina M. Ibarra (Lexie), and Erica Chamblee (Nora), in ‘Sooner/Later.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Debra Booth’s set is a beige proscenium box that doesn’t exist anywhere except possibly in the characters’ minds. An oversize drawer pulls out stage left revealing a wardrobe of fashions from Target and T.J. Max tellingly chosen by Danielle Preston, and from this assortment Lexie selects what Nora should wear. Underscoring Lexie’s several stirring monologues—including a stunner Ibarra delivers about the seven ages of woman—Evan Cook lets us hear subtle strains of string instruments and murmurs of nature. And Kyle Grant’s lights shift place and time with dreamlike ease. By design, just like in memory, we are given few moorings, with the result that the exquisite moment-to-moment relational emotions in Sooner/Later are always at the forefront for us to feel.

Running time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

Sooner/Later plays through June 16, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Sprenger 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 Member of the Wedding

It was nearly 70 years ago that Carson McCullers adapted her beloved 1946 novel The Member of the Wedding into a prizewinning Broadway play. Set in a small Southern town, the story centers on two indelible characters: Frankie, a white preteen tomboy, and Berenice, the African American housekeeper hired by Frankie’s widowed father to take care of her.

Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published 14 years later, is set similarly in a small Southern town where a white tomboy named Scout is cared for by an African American housekeeper named Calpurnia hired by Scout’s widowed father, Atticus Finch.

Zoe Walpole (Frankie), Deidra LaWan Starnes (Berenice), and William Carroccio (John Henry) in ‘The Member of the Wedding.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

With To Kill a Mockingbird now a smash hit on Broadway in Aaron Sorkin’s controversial adaptation, the warmhearted production at 1st Stage of its literary precursor takes on a sheen of timely theatrical interest. And that anticipation is amply rewarded—for Zoe Walpole, whose flighty fancifulness lights up the stage as Frankie, and Deidra LaWan Starnes, whose empathy and dignity anchor the drama as Berenice, are giving two of the must-see performances of the season.

Zoe Walpole (Franie) and Deidra LaWan Starnes (Berenice) in ‘Member of the Wedding.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Frankie’s character arc runs the gamut of adolescent growing pains. She doesn’t fit in. She’s self-conscious about her looks. She’s nervous and at loose ends. Her mood is mercurial. She feels lonely and left out.  But she’s got her heart set on one big hope that impels her throughout the play. Her older brother Jarvis (Jonathan Helwig), who’s in the service, is about to marry Janice (Caroline Dubberly), and Frankie loves them both so much she aches at the thought: “My heart feels them going away—going farther and farther away—while I am stuck here by myself.” So Frankie determines to go with them on their honeymoon and be with them and part of them wherever they live.

Berenice tries to talk sense into the girl. The testy-sympathetic byplay in Starnes’s and Walpole’s scenes together is wonderful to behold. Starnes, in particular, gives Berenice both a sternness and a gentle playfulness, as when she mimics a cat and mimes Noah’s two-by-two ark, such that this specific black/white mother-figure/daughter relationship becomes ever more moving and ever more evocative.

Deidra LaWan Starnes (Berenice) in ‘Member of the Wedding.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

As we later learn, Berenice has her own impossible longing. Her first husband Ludie was the love of her life, and since he died she has married several different men trying without success to recover the love she lost. “My intention was to repeat me and Ludie,” she tells Frankie. When a suitor she’s seeing, T. T. (Dylan J. Fleming), drops by with her reefer head foster brother, Honey (Jonathan Del Palmer), we see passionate personal and family dimensions in Berenice’s character beyond her job as housekeeper, and Starnes’s glowingly rounded portrayal enriches both the play and us. There’s a stunning passage when Berenice is trying to explain to Frankie—deludedly obsessed with love for her brother and his wife—Berenice’s own drivenness to re-find love. Frankie is too young to understand, but we get it; we get that this beautifully nuanced play unfolds and embraces two parallel human heartaches across chasms of generation and race.

Michael Crowley (Mr. Addams), Zoe Walpole (Frankie), Jonathan Helwig (Jarvis), S. Gabriel Mackenna (John Henry), and Caroline Dubberly (Janice) in ‘Member of the Wedding.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The Member of the Wedding comes to us from a time when storytelling on stage could afford to be languid. Accordingly, we are given considerable time to meet several supporting characters before Frankie’s and Berenice’s emotional through-lines catch hold. The most delightful and intriguing is Frankie’s clever six-year-old cousin, John Henry (William Carroccio in the performance I saw, sharing the role with S. Gabriel Mackenna). There is a poignant three-way bond among Berenice, Frankie, and John Henry; and John Henry’s own character arc is touching: He likes to play dress-up, including in Berenice’s hat and shoes. We can sense in this affectionate production that both Frankie and John Henry might identify as gender nonconforming or nonbinary were they written today.

We also meet two parents: John Henry’s mother, Mrs. West (Rebecca Ballinger), and Frankie’s shopowner father, Mr. Addams (Michael Crowley).  Mr. Addams is upright and a good provider, yet with his character the play injects ugly reminders of white people’s casual racism. When Mr. Addams drops the n-word, the appalled look on Starnes’s face speaks volumes not in the script.

Deidra LaWan Starnes (Berenice), William Carroccio (John Henry), and Zoe Walpole (Frankie) in ‘Member of the Wedding.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The tender loving care in Cara Gabriel’s direction is evident everywhere. The entire cast play their parts very well, if occasionally a little halting in the performance I saw—but it’s Starnes and Walpole who forge the show into an emotional whole. Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s set design creates a homey, period kitchen, patio, and backyard arbor in tones of ivory and moss green that all feel believably lived in. The same fond verisimilitude can be seen in Jason Arnold’s light design, Debra Kim Sivigny’s costume design, and Felysia Furnary’s props design. Neil McFadden’s sound design creates a credible context of offstage crickets, bluesy trumpet, and piano being tuned; and in tandem with Arnold’s lights, an enormously effective storm. (I did wish, however, that from where I sat front row house left there had not been a speaker drone in between sound cues that not only annoyed but made the actors sometimes hard to hear.)

It says something about our times that two white Southern women writers, Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers in The Member of the Wedding, still have something of importance to say about race relations in America. And it says something about American theater that these two works can still prompt conversations we still need to have. The one is in New York at scalpers’ rates. The other is readily available and affordable at 1st Stage in Tyson’s Corners—and it’s well worth the trip.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

The Member of the Wedding plays through June 2, 2019, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the 1st Stage box office at 703-854-1856.

The Tarot Reading (V)

The circusy-party vibe begins before showtime. The place is festooned with streamers,  furnished with comfy sofas, bedecked in colored light, and stocked with bags of popcorn to share. A friendly Fool in a cabalistic cape greets the arriving “seekers” and “witnesses.” To those with a seeker ticket she will give a Tarot card, and when it is drawn during the show, that person will be summoned to be in a one-to-one vignette (a “revelation”) devised by one of seven cast members (“mediums”). Against a wall are shelves full of all the odd objects that prior Tarot-goers have offered as their “sacrifice” to enter. It’s a peculiarly cool and strangely welcoming scene.

Gwen Grastorf, performing The Magician, in ‘The Tarot Reading (V).’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The Tarot Reading—now in its fifth fanbase-expanding iteration—is a wholly original live-theater format. This makes it difficult to describe to someone who has not yet partaken. Everything happens before your eyes in real time, never to be seen again; and as in improv the ephemeral spontaneity and surprise elicit hoots of hilarity along with moments that make you go hmmm. But unlike in improv, where quick wit is all, each Tarot Reading revelation is allowed time for something meaningful (and often moving) to occur. To that end, each on-the-spot participatory performance has been prepped with presets involving a mixed bag of props, storytelling, games, songs, dance, costumes, characters, light effects, sound cues, and more. But the ingredient common to each is that the mediums have gone into themselves as human beings to touch on some truth to be shared theatrically with others.

Joan Cummins as The Fool (center), with Gwen Grastorf (left) and a Seeker (right), in ‘The Tarot Reading (V).’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

“There is no lying here,” explains The Fool (Joan Cummings), introducing the show. This space is “free of lies.” She will go on to emcee the proceedings and fill in between playlets with perky patter. But as the revelations unfold—and as truths pop up—The Fool’s initial advice comes to seem ever wiser: “Witness this as real.”

Toni Rae Salmi, performing The Devil, in ‘The Tarot Reading (V).’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The eclectic truths theatricalized typically have autobiographical sources. Particulars about the seven mediums themselves are revealed as much as more inclusive eurekas. The 21 vignettes I saw touched on themes of success and triumph, our place in the solar system, the connection between food and memory, how it feels to say “I love you,” the meaning of personal strength, how genetic ancestry relates to self-definition, the fluidity of personal identity, pre-death directives, spiritual cleansing…  Each one is a whole new world.

David S Kessler, performing Justice, in 'The Tarot Reading (V).' Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.Each of the seven mediums performs three revelations, each loosely based on a Tarot card, which results in a showcase of an amazing range of talents and topics. Actor and vaudevillian Gwen Grastorf, for instance, beguiled with cups-and-balls magic tricks as she told of family deception around her dad’s cancer. Actor and singer Toni Rae Salmi belted out a devil-may-care torch song to a soundtrack that rocked the house. Poet and playwright David S Kessler did a soft-shoe homage to Fred Astaire while telling of childhood ups-and-downs. Actor, poet, and musician Shaquille Steward delivered an apocalyptic rap. There’s much, much more, and it’s all done in front of everyone for an audience of one.

The stagecraft is so subtly executed it feels less like a theatrical production and more like a party with nifty artistic parlor games going on. Behind the scenes are 21 different sets of sound and light cues on call. Also at the ready are personnel for personal care should anyone use the safety signal that The Fool demonstrates beforehand.

Shaquille Stewart, performing Apocalypse, in ‘The Tarot Reading (V).’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

To Co-Creators Quill Nebeker and Alan Katz, it was essential that each audience member—whether witness or seeker—feels safe to be open to the sometimes unexpected emotions that may arise during The Tarot Reading. Crucially, the performers are continually conscientious about informed consent, and there’s free choice to opt out of anything at any moment.

Truth to tell, The Tarot Reading is kind of carny, kind of corny, kind of kooky, kind of culty. But it’s a lot more for real than all the arcana might suggest.

Credits
The Mediums: Gwen Grastorf, David S Kessler, Rachel Menyuk, Toni Rae Salmi, Rebecca Speas, Shaquille Stewart, and Yasmin Tuazon.
The Fool: Joan Cummins
Directors: Joan Cummins and Alan Katz
Production Designer: Niomi Collard
Interactivity Coaches: Allyson Harkey and Doug Robinson
Production Manager: Cody Whitfield
Production Assistant: Bryan Boyd
Safety Coordinators: Allyson Harkey or Doug Robinson
Casting and Hiring Director: Jon Jon Johnson
Producer: Quill Nebeker

Running time:  About three hours, including two intermissions. (This is the running time for the 21-card Classic Tarot. There is also a version called Nine Card Draw that runs about 90 minutes.)

The Tarot Reading (V) plays through 26, 2019, produced by The Arcanists at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online (where you can find explanations of the types of tickets—Nine Card Draw or Classic Tarot, Witness or Seeker).

RELATED INTERVIEW:

Magic Time!: 10 Questions for the Brains Behind ‘The Tarot Reading’

The Chibok Girls: Our Story

One night five years ago, a horror happened in Chibok, North Eastern Nigeria. The Boko Haram—Islamicist terrorists who believe that Western education is evil—abducted 276 girls from the school where they were avidly getting just such an education. The harrowing story of that brutal abduction and punishing aftermath is told in a powerfully poetic theater piece that had its U.S. premiere during the inaugural CrossCurrents festival hosted by the Lab for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University.

Meg Otanwa, Leelee Byoma, and Tobi Igbenoba in ‘The Chibok Girls’ at Georgetown University. Photo by Colin Hovde.

Written for the stage and directed by Wole Oguntokun, artistic director of Nigeria’s Renegade Theatre, The Chibok Girls: Our Story is based on testimonies of girls who survived the abduction and members of their communities. The voices in the play are seared with fear and sorrow. Here, for instance is one girl’s rendering of the events of that night, in a section called “Welcome to Womanhood,” when men disguised as guards broke into their dormitory:

Just strange men in uniform who looked at us through hooded eyes.
Bearing weapons of all kinds.
And now we knew they were not real soldiers.
I do not know how it came upon us
But we just knew
And we shivered in this knowledge.
There was too much darkness surrounding them
Swirling through their clothing and their gestures

They loaded us in the back of the vehicles and started the engines.
Girls screamed. Slaps and kicks rent the air. There were many cocked guns.
And then when we were all seated
One walked down the line of vehicles waving and calling out
I did not know if it was a friendly greeting or a farewell.
“Welcome to womanhood,” he said.
“Girls of Chibok, I greet you.
Welcome to womanhood.”

‘The Chibok Girls Our Story.’ Photo by Renegade Theatre.

The sadism implicit in that sinister greeting became manifest as girls were forced to have sex with their fanatic abductors, the “men with dead eyes.”

The insurgents slaughtered some girls’ parents and set fire to houses. Some girls were killed, some were ransomed, some were recruited to be suicide bombers, and some escaped. This is the voice of one who got away:

I jumped into the bushes to my left
And ran. I heard sharp cracks beside me
Whistles past my ears
Branches fell ahead of me
I was told when my family found me after two days
That they were the sounds of bullets passing me by.
I learnt that the bullet you hear is not the one that kills you.

But life thereafter came with a price, as a survivor tells in a section called “Stigmata”:

When I go to the stream, the other girls keep their distance.
I have been marked in an unseen way.
“I am the wife of Boko Haram”
I have been touched by the devil
And it is not a mark that can ever be washed off.
It is a dark glow, a halo that is around my head
I see pity, disgust, and revulsion on the faces of my own people.

‘The Chibok Girls Our Story.’ Photo by Renegade Theatre.

The Chibok Girls, which premiered four years ago in Lagos, was performed eloquently on the Gonda Theatre stage by an ensemble of four young women in black leotards (Leelee Byoma, Tobi Igbenoba, Jennifer Osammor, and Meg Otanwa). At times they sang and danced; mostly they delivered Oguntokun’s elegiac text in a declamatory tempo, surrounding each line with a kind of reverential silence, now and then breaking out in heartrending bursts of emotional urgency. They were accompanied by a terrifically in-sync drummer (Dolapo Kodaolu), and Oguntokun himself appeared briefly and scarily as a soldier in camo with a rifle. The paneled backdrop, on which the 20 section titles were projected, was plastered at its sides with documentary photographs and reports of the event from international news media—flat depictions stark contrast to the vivid voices alive before us.

Story after story and stanza after stanza go by with painful poignancy. The unremitting script triggers wrenching mental images. Nothing but the words themselves can convey how breathtaking is this play.

We were children who had learnt to whisper
Our intimate conversations with Death;
Bodies violated by soulless men
While watched by silent gods
Who played board games
As youthful dreams bled into the sand.

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

The Chibok Girls: Our Story played May 7, 8, and 9, 2019, presented by Georgetown University’s Lab for Global Performance and Politics as part of its CrossCurrents festival at Davis Performing Arts Center, Gonda Theatre, 37th and O St., N.W., Washington, DC.

 

 

God of Carnage

The set foreshadows the coming fracas.  There’s a fault line down the middle where this living room seems sliced in two. And something’s out of whack. The halves do not align. Like two stressed tectonic plates beneath the surface predicting a quake any second, Matthew J. Keenan’s astute set design sets us on edge.

That’s just one instance of shrewd staging in Keegan Theatre’s smartly entertaining production of Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage, a riotous free-for-all among four grownups. The setup is simple. In a playground spat between two eleven-year-old boys, Henry suffered minor injuries when Benjamin hit him in the mouth with a stick. Henry’s parents, Veronica and Michael (Lolita Marie and DeJeanette Horne) have invited over Benjamin’s parents, Annette and Alan (Susan Marie Rhea and Vishwas), in hopes of resolving things civilly. But as microaggressions mount, marital rifts emerge, and tempers flare, the adults begin bickering and brawling worse than kids behaving horridly. The play’s running joke is, as Annette says early on, that “parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves.”

Susan Marie Rhea (Annette) and Lolita Marie (Veronica) in ‘God of Carnage.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman

If there’s a Richter scale for hilarity, this show’s aghast guffaws would surely register. But the play also contains some intriguing serious bits: evolutionary/anthropological explanations for all the mayhem. Reza plants speculation after hypothesis about how humans’ savage instincts are never completely constrained by civilization, so they erupt like volcanic lava—respectable social graces be damned. That’s how I remember the play on Broadway some ten years ago: It played like a primitive, primal screaming match that left everyone hapless victims of something brutal embedded in culture and human nature. Curiously, there’s something comforting about that interpretation. It universalizes the idiotic “boys will be boys” trope into the equally idiotic “humans will be humans”—like a handy, all-purpose absolution of moral responsibility.

Veronica is the character who most vehemently argues against that predetermination:

VERONICA. I don’t see the point of existence without some kind of moral conception of the world…. I’m standing up for civilization! And it’s lucky there are people who are prepared to do that!

Lolita Marie’s standout performance as Veronica impressively gives that argument significant standing. But in Reza’s combative script, Veronica’s moral fervor fails, it persuades no one, and savagery wins the round.

Vishwas (Alan), DeJeanette Horne (Michael), and Lolita Marie (Veronica) in ‘God of Carnage.’ Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Director Shirley Serotsky has lent Reza’s play a more interesting and more relevant interpretation. Just as that fissure in the stage presages the hostility to come, Serotsky’s staging lets us see afresh the intrafamilial precursors of Benjamin’s and Henry’s tiff: This production pointedly highlights how the two husbands’ crude and rude sense of “virility” has been a longstanding exasperation for the wives, whose efforts to civilize them have been in vain:

ALAN. You know, speaking personally, my wife had to drag me here. When you’re brought up with a kind of John Wayne-ish idea of virility, you don’t want to settle this kind of problem with a lot of yakking. (Michael laughs.)

ANNETTE. I thought your model was Spartacus.

ALAN. Same family.

MICHAEL. Analogous.

VERONICA. Analogous! Are there no lengths you won’t go to to humiliate yourself, Michael?

If you’ve never seen God of Carnage, you should, it’s a modern comedy classic, and Keegan offers a superb chance to enjoy it. If you have seen the play and know the story, watch closely how Serotsky conducts who bickers and brawls with whom—couple versus couple, spouse versus spouse, women versus men, men versus women, Annette versus Veronica, Michael versus Alan… The conflict scenarios are ever-shifting and elide into one another. But what comes through loud and clear is that the antecedent of this anxious comedy is not human evolution in the ancient past. This is a completely contemporary comic parable about why two young apples have fallen not far from two trees.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

God of Carnage plays through May 25, 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.

The Children

Three retired nuclear physicists meet in a quaint cottage not far from the nuclear power plant where they once worked and where a catastrophe has occurred. Earthquake, tsunami, tidal wave, radiation—like  Fukushima, Japan, except seaside in England. And so there goes the neighborhood. It sounds like the setup for an apocalyptic sitcom. And though indeed there are eruptions of smart laughs, dry humor, and even a delightful dance number in what follows, the real explosions go off in one’s mind as the implications of this electrifying thriller sink in.

Richard Howard (Robin), Jeanne Paulsen (Hazel), and Naomi Jacobson (Rose) in ‘The Children.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Lucy Kirkwood is one of those playwrights you can’t wait to know what they’ll tackle next. Her Chimerica at Studio Theatre and NSFW at Round House Theatre were dazzling dramatizations of epically consequential issues on an emotionally intense human scale. This track record would be reason enough to check out The Children without reading another word of this rave.

Long married Hazel and Robin have evacuated their farm, which is in the nearby “exclusion zone,” and are making do conserving electricity, which comes on after 10. With survivalist optimism, Hazel does yoga and prepares healthful meals and Robin takes the Geiger counter along when he goes to check on the beloved herd of cows they left behind, one of whom they named after the theoretical physicist Heisenberg.

Naomi Jacobson (Rose) and Jeanne Paulsen (Hazel) in ‘The Children.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.

At rise, Robin is off making his cow rounds when Hazel is surprised by a visit from Rose, a former coworker from the now-lethal power plant. Hazel hasn’t seen Rose in 38 years. Why has she come here? What is she up to? What does she want? Not till near the end do we, along with Hazel and Robin, find out, and it’s a breathtaking bombshell of an ask—which had best remain unforeseen. But couldn’t Rose have blurted it out sooner? Like maybe ten minutes in? Maybe so, but then there’d be no play—i.e., we’d be deprived of all the riveting disclosures about these three retirees that Kirkwood’s spellbinding script delivers.

Jeanne Paulsen’s Hazel is a chattering bundle of nerves. Her unease is unceasing. Paulson plays Hazel’s apprehension so completely it becomes the paramount emotion of the play; and her performance, of intensifying interest. But it’s Hazel’s sustained suspicion and simmering hostility toward Rose that cinch our sense of suspense.

Naomi Jacobson’s Rose, meanwhile, emanates enigmatic composure. She is uncannily familiar with the place, she knows exactly which cupboard has the glassware, and that unnerves Hazel further. Hazel realizes that Rose has been here when Hazel wasn’t. Before Hazel and Robin married, as Hazel knew, Robin and Rose were an item  But it turns out this humble abode, now a pied-à-terror, was where Robin and Rose would continue their affair.

Richard Howard (Robin(, Jeanne Paulsen (Hazel), and Naomi Jacobson (Rose) in ‘The Children.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The vertex of this romantic triangle is Richard Howard’s Robin, an amiably brainy lunk. He and Hazel have raised four children, the oldest a troubled 38-year-old daughter. These were to be the couple’s sunset years, lived out in bucolic bliss. (The script’s choice observations about aging—e.g., Hazel to Robin: “You are past your sell-by date”—audibly amused the AARP-esque audience I was with.) Then everything that could go wrong did.

Enfolding these characters’ backstories—of domesticity, health crises, marital distrust—is Kirkwood’s stirring evocation of humans’ irresponsibility to the Earth and the cost of overconsumption (“We cannot have what we want just because we want it,” says Hazel pointedly, a dig at her husband’s betrayal as well). The children of the title are the legions who’ll bear the legacy left by their ecologically reckless forebears.

Richard Howard (Robin) and Jeanne Paulsen (Hazel) in ‘The Children.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Electrical power lines are prominent in scenic designer Tom Kamm lived-in kitchen set, and there comes a stunning stagecraft effect that is too mindblowing to reveal. Lighting Designer Miriam Nilofa Crowe artfully shifts time into candle-lit evening then shocks the eyes with a fluorescent glare when the power surges on. Sound Designer Broken Chord establishes the natural environment of nearby sea surf and seagulls and gets a Geiger counter to click on cue. Costume Designer Nephelie Andonyadis gives Rose remarkably truthful clues to her character’s past. And Director David Muse absolutely astonishes with his nuanced handling of interpersonal moments among and between these precisely cast actors.

Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children is a captivating masterpiece of small-cast theater that’s actually about the stage that is our planet. Perhaps its most urgent and disquieting aspect is the way its three very intelligent characters come to realize what they cannot know about what they have done.

This is a play whose see-by date is right now.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Children plays through June 2, 2019, at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or go online.

Oslo

It is rare that theater seriously asks us to believe something far beyond itself. Typically we are asked to suspend disbelief about let’s-pretend that happens on stage. The gripping and inspiring play Oslo leaves us with a different ask, one that in retrospect seems a massive task: We are challenged by the end to believe that a peace process between sworn enemies is not only plausible onstage but possible in the real world.

Playwright J.T. Rogers has dramatized the true story of the delicate back-channel negotiations in Norway between Israel and the PLO that culminated in the historic 1993 Oslo Accords. Official United States-led diplomatic efforts then as now were failing (“Fuck the State Department,” a bureaucrat says at one point). A Norwegian married couple, Terje Rød-Larsen (Cody Nickell) and Mona Juul (Erin Weaver), got it into their heads that they could parlay Norway’s neutrality and Rød-Larsen’s notions about organizational psychology into secret face-to-face meetings between Israeli and Palestinian delegates. Their idealistic idea—daft on the face of it given all the violence being done by both sides—was that if the adversaries could meet each other personally and see each other as fellow human beings, familiarity and trust would arise such that agreement could be reached incrementally, sticking point by sticking point.

Erin Weaver (Mona Juul) and Cody Nickell (Terje Rød-Larsen) in Round House Theatre’s current production of ‘Oslo.’ Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

Against all odds, it worked. There comes a point in Act Two when two men representing the opposing sides affirm their agreement by shaking hands, and Mona, who sometimes addresses the audience directly, tells us “the world began to change.” Even though we know a moment like that is going to come—because we know the story ends with a big deal—the gesture of that handshake takes one’s breath away. Somehow and by surprise it taps into some unacknowledged reservoir of longing for amity and reconciliation. We are seeing a theatrical emulation of a human meeting that really happened once, and something in us wants to believe it could happen again but we fear it never will. Certainly not with a bellicose president whose firmest handshakes are with other autocrats.

Rogers’s insightful script, Ryan Rillette’s crisp direction, and a deft cast keep Oslo’s storytelling engrossing and its diversity of characters vivid. A lot is spelled out, especially by Terje, about the fascinating theory underlying what he and Mona are up to—it’s a person-centered methodology, not organization-centric; it’s about gradualism, not all-or-nothingism. It also involves a cushy retreat and ample creature comforts like waffles and scotch. As Oslo unfolds, we can see clearly how that personal approach played out in practice, sometimes well and sometimes not so well—with ever optimistic Terje urging everyone to “push on” though there’s no “roadmap.”

In ‘Oslo,’ negotiating for the PLO: Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Ahmed Quire) and Ahmad Kamal (Hassan Asfour). Negotiating for Israel: Gregory Wooddell (Ron Pundak), Sasha Olinick (Yair Hirschfeld), and Juri Henley-Cohn (Uri Savir). Photo by Lilly King

Even more than what gets arrestingly told to us, what struck me about the Round House Theatre production is what gets simply shown to us without comment—particularly in the nuanced performances by Nickell and Weaver of Terje and Mona. For instance, when negotiators’ tempers flare and Terje is dissed, he never takes the bait; he always does something to defuse the situation. Even when physically threatened, he doesn’t counter attack; he withdraws, explaining nonconfrontationally, “I won’t be your punching bag.” His neutrality does not neuter him; to the contrary by his modeling of a manhood not invested in dominance and disparagement, it emerges as one of the reasons the all-male combatants come to feel at ease with one another.

The gender dynamics of effective conflict resolution stand out even more in how Mona comports herself. In this fraught world of contested masculinity, she is well aware that her presence as a woman is having a civilizing influence against what could easily turn into a brawl. At the same time, her adroit deflection of attempts to sexualize and hit on her steadily establish her as a voice the negotiators listen to and respect, as in her persuasive speech to them all reminding them of all the mothers and children their incessant strife has slain.

Erin Weaver (Mona Juul) and Cody Nickell (Terje Rød-Larsen) in Round House Theatre’s current production of ‘Oslo.’ Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

Within Rogers script about the Oslo Accords back channel, there lies the equally illuminating story of the back channel behind it: the scenes between Mona and Terje about trust-breaking and trust-building in their relationship. Theirs is a marriage of true minds and empathic principles. It is not uniformly harmonious, but we see that it always pushes on.

Ultimately what Oslo illustrates is that without  Mona and Terje in the room—and their respective defections from standard-issue gender specs—everything would have broken down. Left to their own devices, these posturing men would have made a mess of it.

Oslo is not just history. It is a must-learn lesson for tomorrow.

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

Oslo, presented by Round House Theatre, plays through May 19, 2019, at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100 or go online.

Review: ‘Oslo’ by Round House Theatre by David Siegel