Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

The Arsonists

In a recent satire published on Medium, the San Francisco writer/actor/comedian Alison Page listed five dozen “Honest Theatre Awards.” Among them was one that struck me as an apt accolade for the production of The Arsonists I had just attended at Woolly Mammoth: “The This-Play-Isn’t-About-Trump-But-It-Kind-Of-Is-Now Award.”

As if to underscore The Arsonists‘ earnest eligibility in that joke category, Director Michael John Garcés has a wide flat-screen television upstage showing a montage of recognizable current-events footage including multiple shots of POTUS. The TV, situated in the home of the main character, George Betterman, plays constantly, through scene after scene in which neither it nor what’s on it is ever referenced. It’s just there, incessantly.

At first glance, this might seem a fundamental directorial mistake: a running distraction that keeps pulling focus from the actors and that the play doesn’t call for. Like having a pile of cuddly puppies on the set during Hamlet because the director wants us to consider how the Dane is really great. But of course, the TV in The Arsonists has more pertinence than that, for we are obviously meant to stay mindful of how what’s playing out on the nightly news is the frame through which we ought to be interpreting the Max Frisch script from seven decades ago.

Howard Shalwitz (George Betterman) and Tim Getman (an arsonist) in The Arsonists. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The play is about an Everyman (named Biedermann in the original German, Betterman in this translation) who lives in a town where, as reported in the local newspaper, there have been alarming outbreaks of fire set by clandestine arsonists who inveigle themselves into people’s home. When strangers show up at Betterman’s door and ask for food and lodging, he, wanting to appear a good guy, permits them to sleep in his attic—unaware that they too are arsonists who will shortly stockpile ominous drums of gasoline there. The script has much to say about Betterman’s passive complicity, and (to no one’s surprise) the gasoline is ignited and a conflagration ensues. The twist is who offers the arsonists the match: it’s none other than Betterman, whose incapacity for critical thinking the play makes an excoriating example of.

The play was written as a cautionary allegory about ordinary citizens’ collateral guilt in the rise of Fascism and Nazism, one of several post-World War II plays to try to make sense of the senseless. Thus the message in The Arsonists is spelled out not only in the fable-like storyline but in some astute aphorisms, sharply translated by Alistair Beaton, sprinkled throughout, often in the voices of a chorus of firefighter/watchers. A couple of my favorites were these:

If the thought of radical change scares you more than disaster, what can be done to stop the disaster?

And

We fail to see what’s happening under our noses.

Kimberly Gilbert (an arsonist) in The Arsonists. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The script veers toward the sententious, but that comes with the political-parable territory in such post-war dramatists as Frisch, Brecht, and Dürrenmatt. And the antic and energetic acting style adopted for the Woolly production prevents the text from ever seeming tendentious.

A program note explains that Woolly’s decision to program The Arsonists this season had a fire lit under it, so to speak, with the November 2016 election. On the face of it, this work would seem a felicitous choice. The Arsonists is about impending political danger and individual responsibility to take collective action that would intervene and stop it. Additionally, with substantial foundation support, Woolly embarked on an extraordinary community-partnership and audience-engagement effort surrounding the run, offering, for instance, talkbacks during which folks who’ve just seen the show can process what it meant to them.

As the audience leaves the theater, actors hand out a flyer printed on flame-red paper that makes the show’s point explicit:

It can happen here. We can stop it.

I found this all good and worthy…except the production did not actually do what it was intended to do. The passive-observer mode elicited by that always-on flat-screen television became the expected point of view from which to take in the whole show—a misfire effect compounded near the end by a whiz-bang display of stagecraft that left one going gosh-wow! more than OMG what can I do? The actors—evidently skilled even as they gamely played as over the top as they were supposed to—were never really given the sort of relatable moments that would connect us to their moral quandary emotionally other than as abstract, detached contemplation.

Perhaps in the way the production more numbed me than mobilized me, it was more about Trump than I thought.

 

Running Time: 2 hours without an intermission.

The Arsonists plays through October 8 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939 or purchase them online.

LINK:
Review: ‘The Arsonists’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by Robert Michael Oliver

 

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Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train

There are times in the theater when the particulars of a play—its people, place, and poetics—pull you in as only an arresting, well-told story can. But then something even more interesting begins to happen. The writer and performers sweep you into a zone of moral meaning so far-reaching that one’s whole universe of values gets a rethink. Like an epic tempest of ethical questions that leaves one’s conscience reeling and, for the moment, unmoored. Such is what transpires during the breathtaking, extraordinarily original production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at 1st Stage.

The setting is a prison; the characters are two prisoners, two guards, and a public defender; the story lines are about criminal trials, conviction, sentencing, incarceration. But curiously this isn’t actually a play about prison, at least not in the real world sense. It seems so at first, but as Stephen Adly Guirgis’s riveting drama unfolds, it becomes far more universal than its specifics would suggest: It becomes an electrifying contest among competing moral frameworks that make incompatible claims about personal culpability for wrongdoing.

Which is more like what great Greek tragedies do than what contemporary naturalistic plays do, right?

Teresa Castracane (Mary Jane Hanrahan) and Luis Alberto Gonzalez (Angel Cruz) in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Directors Alex Levy and Juan Francisco Villa display a profound grasp of this classical dimension of the play. They stage the work in the round, so that the actors are never seen against or inside a set. but rather are at all times surrounded by the spectator-hearers who are evaluating their characters’ speeches and actions. The play is full of monologues that function to articulate each character’s values, very much like back in Sophocles’ day, and the directors’ decision to stage the play in the round magnifies the standing and authority of each such magnificent speech.

In a brilliant stroke, Levy and Villa begin the play with a wordless choreographed prologue that is not in the script. As the audience enters, the central character, Angel Cruz (an intense and anguished Luis Alberto Gonzalez) is inside a cage made of prison bars hardly a yard square. At rise the other four actors enter not yet in character and circle the stage like a chorus. Then one by one these actors each remove one of the four barred walls, releasing the prisoner from his cage and the whole production from any pretense of lockup literalism. It is the first of many illuminating astonishments to come.

Twenty-eight-year-old Angel, we learn, was arrested three days ago for shooting Reverend Kim, a cult leader, “in his ass.” Angel was enraged because the Rev converted and inculcated Angel’s pal Joey, an action Angel regarded as stealing the friend he loved. Around this crime of passion and retaliation, Guirgis constructs a complex of ethical contradictions that by the end of the play leave us metaphorically enclosed in a conundrum.

“I just want to be good,” Angel says at one point. “I want to be a good man.” Search inside most everyone and the aspiration to be a good person is there somewhere. That is the problem but how? And if one does something wrong, what then? “I’m so so so so sorry,” Angel says a little later. Is confession good enough for the soul? What are the odds on atonement? What’s the deal with redemption? Is being a law-abiding citizen like carrying an exculpation card? By whose rules and what principles will one be judged? Are some wrongs exempt from censure because they serve a greater good?

Before we know it, Guirgis’s comedy drama has us dangling on the horns of these and more dilemmas.

Angel’s court-assigned attorney, Mary Jane Hanrahan (a tough, cool Teresa Castracane), is the play’s voice of situational ethics. “The law is a set of rules for every circumstance as if they’re all the same,” she says; “they’re not all the same.” From her father, Mary Jane learned a lesson that guides her lawyering with Angel.  When she was a girl her father escorted her to a father-daughter dance, where he took umbrage at another father’s bigoted remark and stabbed the man with a fork. “It was just a fork,” Mary Jane recalls her father told her, which connects to Angel’s shooting the thieving cult leader’s behind: both instances of “trying to do a great right by doing a little wrong.” Mary Jane’s memory of what her father did clearly informs her determination to get Angel acquitted. “He made a foolish, perilous choice but it was a statement,” she says. “I find honor in that.”

One of the play’s funniest and most trenchant scenes is between Castracane and Gonzales when Mary Jane coaches Angel how to testify at trial. She needs to teach him how to lie. “Tell me a smart lie,” she says. “A good lie is based on truth.” Her game plan is to go for jury nullification—so they’ll sympathize with Angel and let him off despite what the law says. In Mary Jane’s moral frame, what’s right is not always what’s legal, and she tries to win Angel over to that view.

Luis Alberto Gonzalez (Angel Cruz) and Frank Britton (Lucius Jenkins) in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

Another character trying to win Angel over is Lucius Jenkins (a suave and savvy Frank Britton). Lucius has been convicted of eight sadistic murders and is awaiting extradition to Florida where he’s to be executed. But Lucius has seen the light of the Lord. A zealous convert to Christ as Redeemer, he preaches a gospel of faith and redemption. “Deliver me from evil, Lord. Thy will be done,” he says. “Deliver me from me, Lord.” Lucius has had a rough life. He was abused and sodomized as a boy, turned to drugs and alcohol as a result. But Angel is appalled at Lucius’s remorseless, self-interested sanctimony and wants none of it. And the tug of war for Angel’s life and liberty between Mary Jane and Lucius—between, more universally, secular humanism and sacred absolution—is a primary driver of the drama’s galvanizing effect.

The two prison guards are positioned as good cop/bad cop incarnate.

Robert Heinly (D’Amico) in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

Good cop is D’Amico (a warm and sturdy Robert Heinly), who exemplifies kind-hearted compassion. He brings Lucius Oreo cookies and cigarettes; his wife baked Lucius a shepherd’s pie; D’Amico and Lucius share a buddylike badinage. Lucius’s criminal past doesn’t faze D’Amico: “All I know about Lucius Jenkins is that I liked him.”

Jose Guzman (Valdez) in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

Bad cop is Valdez (a wired and snarky Jose Guzman), who represents by-the-book adherence to the law.  “I do not like infractions,” he warns Angel. “There will be no more infractions.” Valdez doesn’t buy Lucius’s salvation story either: “If there is a god, do you honestly believe you are free from the burden of what you’ve done?” Sanctimonious in his own way, Valdez says: “I’m a good man because I choose to be. End of story.” Yet the malice in Valdez’s upbraiding of his prisoners and the savagery in Lucian’s murder of his victims fall on the same sadism spectrum.

The 1st Stage production of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is an exhilarating immersion in values at odds—in many ways the moral muddle and ethical disconnects that have got this country where it is today. To say the show is head-spinning would be insufficient. To say it combusts is an understatement.

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

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train plays through October 8, 2017, at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.

LINK:

Review: ‘Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train’ at 1st Stage by Mike Bevel

 

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith

In what is surely the most badass, take-no-prisoners performance by a musical artist on a DC stage in recent memory, Miche Braden brings her sensational star turn as Bessie Smith to H Street, belting out the blues and setting the house afire with heartbreak and deliverance.

The show is The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith (so-called because in the 1920s the blues were considered unholy, unlike church music). It’s a spectacular kickoff to Mosaic Theater Company’s third season.

Miche Braden as Bessie Smith and the band (Jim Hankins, Gerard Gibbs, Anthony E. Nelson Jr. in The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The setup of the show (conceived and directed by Joe Brancato, written by Angelo Parra) is that Smith and her musicians (Jim Hankins on bass, Anthony E. Nelson Jr. on sax, Gerard Gibbs on piano) have come to play a black night club because the white owner of the club where they had been booked made them use the back door. Smith told the cracker: if I can’t enter by the front door I’m not appearing on your stage—and quit the gig. What’s brilliant about this premise is not only that it immediately gives don’t-mess-with-me gravitas to Smith’s character—about which we learn more later. It also immediately casts the audience as habitues of that boîte (here gorgeously designed in reds, lavenders, and amber by Brian Prather and lushly lit by Todd O. Wren). Thus we are performed to as if we are presumed to be on Smith’s side from the get-go. As if we are more than sympathetic strangers. As if we are black.

I love when a work of theater literally creates who its audience is, when it addresses us in a way that unites us in a shared identity with common concerns, even if unfamiliar heretofore. The way this shift happens in The Devil’s Music is at once sly, beautiful, and subversive. And the dynamo in this dynamic is the phenomenal singer and actor Miche Braden. As soon as she enters singing “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” she begins coaching and coaxing the audience to respond as the brothers and sisters she assumes us to be. She shares Smith’s stories and point of view not as though we are interlopers who would not understand but as if she has welcomed us to her world because she knows we’re the folks who’ll get her. And it is that insider knowingness—wonderfully present in Braden’s earthy laughter, gutsy candor, scathing wit, and brassy moves—that, even more than the song lyrics and vocal styling, brings Bessie back as rebel.

To listen today to Bessie Smith records is to miss this quality. No matter how well digitally remastered, Smith’s recorded voice sounds toned down, constrained in sameness, without the audio amplitude our ears now associate with emotional range. We have to infer that range from the storytelling lyrics because it’s technically not there to hear. By contrast, Braden’s deep powerhouse voice in live performance makes amply resonant all the hurt, fury, and longing in the songs. And as a concert experience alone, The Devil’s Music is a knockout. (Braden also did the musical arrangements, which are stunning.)

Miche Braden as Bessie Smith accompanied by Anthony E. Nelson on sax in The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. Photo by Stan Barouh.

But there’s much more going on than a concert. “I’m a big girl but I’m light on my feet,” she says at one point, then deftly does a dance that delightfully legitimizes being a woman of size. Audaciously and unself-consciously, Braden embodies a full-figured bodily freedom and fully conscious female integrity that vividly underpin the story points in the narrative—including what was for Smith’s time an unconventional sexual appetite for both men and women, and including Smith’s instantaneous defiance against the woman hate of men in her life and the race hate of the Klan.

What begins as a premise that we the audience are all in attendance at a black club becomes gradually emblematic of one wounded but proud black woman’s liberation—recognizable, relatable, rageful, and righteous.

The transformative force of Miche Braden’s performance in The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is a profoundly important experience. Don’t miss it. She’ll get you getting it.

Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith plays through September 24, 2017, with a possible extension through October 1, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing in the Lang Theater at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

 

 

Othello

Every great play by Shakespeare takes on altered shades of meanings depending on a production’s directing, design, and acting. That’s a theater truism. Also well-known to practitioners is that audience reaction can influence actors’ performances. But less recognized is how an audience’s response can shift a play’s thematic focus, making the play their own, by foregrounding meaning that most resonates with them in the moment.

I think Shakespeare meant that to happen. His plays are a piling on of themes, a pick-what-you-will preferring of philosophies, angles of vision, interpretations of human existence. Scholars and literary critics sort out motifs and parse what Shakespeare is “saying.” Directors approach their work with a production concept to guide an audience’s apprehension of the play.  But sometimes an audience goes rogue in a most wonderful way and discovers its own timely take on a timeless classic.

Jay Whittaker as Iago and Faran Tahir as Othello in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free For All production of Othello. Photo: Jennifer Reiley.

It was a witness as this happened during a Free For All performance of Othello at Sidney Harmon Hall the other night. It’s a superb production, a remount of Director Ron Daniels’s acclaimed 2016 staging, with solid performances by returning and new cast members alike. But what the Free For All audience made of it was eye-opening.

Among the many themes running through Othello—pride, jealousy, ambition, sex, marriage—there was one that leaped out: honesty. It was this theme above all others that the audience seemed in a mood to grab on to and run with. That’s what they did, audibly recognizing, enjoying, even laughing at, the deceit, bravado, guile, and audacity of the man whom Othello dubs “Honest Iago.”

Jay Whitaker’s Iago is a slick slimeball, a crafty chameleon, masterfully switching tactics with a physical and vocal dexterity that’s mesmerizing. Whitaker’s performance is reason enough to enter the free-ticket lottery pronto. If you get lucky and get into the show, you’ll see why the audience I was in glommed on to him.

But more was at play than a great performance. It was as if the audience was responding out of the shared experience of having lived now for half a year in a post-truth country, a twilight zone where alternate facts pass for public policy, fabrication usurps news, and vanity supplants values. It was as if laughing at Shakespeare’s greatest liar was exactly the relief everyone needed.

Shakespeare introduces Iago duping Roderigo (Ben Diskant), whom Iago shakes down on the fake promise that Iago can hook Roderigo up with Desdemona for a price. In the Free For All performance, the combo of Diskant’s foppish dandy and Whitaker’s sly trickster made the joke land instantly, and the audience seemed thereafter to adopt Iago as their entertaining entry into the story. Thus Othello’s subsequent “Honest Iago” sobriquet functioned as punch line—because the audience had Iago’s number as a con artist from the get-go, and they were digging being in on the joke.

The comedic arc of Iago’s flimflammery climaxed in the Act IV scene where Iago makes Othello believe that Cassius has admitted sleeping with Desdemona.

Othello: Hath he [Casius] said any thing?
Iago: He hath, my lord; but be you well assured,
No more than he’ll unswear.
Othello: What hath he said?
Iago: Faith, that he did—I know not what he did.
Othello: What? what?
Iago: Lie—
Othello: With her?
Iago: With her, on her; what you will.

With that last insinuation, Whitaker hilariously physicalizes the mental picture he’s planting in Othello’s fevered brain. While the text has Iago’s disclosure send Othello round the bend (he has a literal fit), it was Whitaker’s graphic antics (he humps like a horny dog) that made the audience go nuts.

Madeleine Rogers as Desdemona and Faran Tahir as Othello in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Free For All production of Othello. Photo: Jennifer Reiley.

By spotlighting Whitaker’s Iago, I mean no slight to the many other standout performances in this production.The Pakistani American actor Faran Tahir, returning from the 2016 production, is magisterial as a Muslim Moor, and brilliantly limns Shakespeare’s portrait of an ethnic outsider. Among the new cast members, Madeleine Rogers as Desdemona is especially impressive, standing her ground and embodying honesty with a contemporary self-possession that makes her innocent victimhood all the more awful—and, in this context, a metaphor for the death of truth. Also bringing transparent modern dignity to their roles are Pilar Witherspoon as Emilia and Veronica del Cerro as Bianca.

I remember my first experience seeing a Shakespeare play at the Globe in London and being struck by how much of the text was structured to play to the groundlings. I hadn’t before appreciated how Shakespeare was deliberately addressing an audience sharply segmented by ticket price yet creating a commonality within that wooden O. I suspect that one of the reasons STC’s annual Free For All is so embraced by audiences and artists alike is that it comes closer to recapturing the Bard’s bond with folks in the cheap seats than can typically happen at higher price points.

But what’s happening in the current Free For All production of Othello is more than that. It’s a fascinating fresh revelation of a classic. Its resonance about the consequences of truthlessness is speaking both profoundly and cathartically to the times we live in.

Catch it if you can.

Truth.

Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.

Free For All Othello plays through Sunday August 27, 2017, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Sidney Harman Hall– 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Information about how to receive free tickets is available online.

LINK:

Review: ‘Othello’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by Lauren Katz (March 2, 2016)

 

Big Fish

The musical Big Fish is by any measure a feel-good show for the whole family, as evidenced by the buoyant and beautiful production now playing at The Keegan Theatre. But the main narrative arc in Big Fish has particular resonance for sons, a specific emotional current that touches anyone who grew from boy to man without ever really knowing his father’s love. This wound is familiar to many men, maybe most. And in one form or another, it can last a lifetime.

What has made so many grown men identify with and relate to Big Fish—with emotions so personal as to be inexpressible—is that it’s a fable of symbolic healing. At bottom Big Fish is a powerful story of symbolic reconciliation between an estranged father and son told through magical realism. It plays like a made-up kid’s tale, a boy’s wish come true beyond his imagining. But it’s explicitly couched in terms that grown men can privately understand. Decked out in amazing theatrics and amusing imagery, that core pulse connects father-longing sons subliminally to the musical by John August and Andrew Lippa as it did to its source, the film by Tim Burton. And the way the Keegan production directed by Mark A. Rhea and Colin Smith keeps that primal pulse palpable is one of the show’s most remarkable qualities.

Dan Van Why (Edward Bloom) and Erik Peyton (Young Will) (with Courtney Moran as Mermaid in the background) in Big Fish. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

The show begins with a fish story. Edward Bloom, home from his work as a traveling salesman (Dan Van Why), tells his son Young Will (Erik Peyton) a whopper about a big one he once caught, and the boy is enthralled. In a song Edward sings to Young Will about witches, giants, mermaids, and such (“Be the Hero”). his fabulations grow and grow, and Young Will is spellbound. The scene is set in the boy’s bedroom; and as wonderfully played by Van Why and Payton, the rapport between them borders on rapture. Their extraordinary scene partnering becomes emblematic of a memory any son might wish he had of his own dad.

But Edward is away for long stretches. Will is hurt by his absence. And the older Will gets, the less enthralled he is by his father’s tall tales. The more his father tells them, the more annoyed Will gets. Will comes to regard his father’s far-fetched stories as deliberately distancing and deceitful. In a song called “Stranger,” Ricky Drummond as adult Will sings about Edward so wrenching it could be any father-wounded son’s anthem.

My father told me stories
I could never comprehend
In every tale he’d claim to be the hero
I’ve tried to understand him
But I wonder if I can…
Because after almost thirty years
I still don’t know the man
I wish I knew the man

Ricky Drummond (Will) and Dan Van Why (Edward Bloom) in Big Fish. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Flash forward to Act Two (skipping over some terrific subplots): Early on there’s a scene when the painful emotions in the estrangement between Will and Edward flood the stage almost literally. The song is “This River Between Us,” a duet sung by Drummond and Van Why standing on opposide sides of the stage. The lyrics are so raw and Drummond’s and Van Why’s vocals are so searing that for any son who feels unknown by his father, or for any father who feels unknown by his son, the song could prompt what would be heartbreak if ever he felt how that feels.

WILL:
This river between us
Grows wider each day
He talks but he mostly has little to say
I beg him to separate
The truth from the tale…
So why don’t I believe my father
When he says “I love you”?

EDWARD:
This river between us is selfish and cold
It flows where it wants to
It can’t be controlled
My son doesn’t want me to be
What I am
He don’t give a damn

Ricky Drummond, Emily Madden, Allie O’ Donnell, Patrick M Doneghy, Erik Peyton, Dan Van Why, Courtney Moran, Katie McManus. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

By the end of Big Fish, the abyss between these men is no more. It is bridged, and they are reconciled, through the legerdemain of brilliant storytelling and ebullient acting and singing. I won’t say how that happens. You have to see for yourself. It’s delightfully entertaining magical realism, after all, not theatrical therapy. But do not be surprised if afterward, moving memories of one’s own father’s life have been stirred and inspired.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Big Fish has now been extended through September 9, 2017, at Keegan Theatre—1742 Church Street NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

LINK:

Review: ‘Big Fish’ at The Keegan Theatre by Robert Michael Oliver

 

Smoky Mirrors

No sooner did some aerial apparatus drop from the fly space—ropes, straps, silks, hoops, trapezes—but what some artist-athletes would take hold of it and make acts of suspended animation. These performances—as balletic as they were muscular, as subtle as stupefying, as mesmerizing as sometimes shocking—were my introduction to DC’s robust circus scene.

They are folks who didn’t have to run away to join the circus. They have found a way to make the circus join them.

Alex Reyes, Angela Stoner, Jeff Wagener, and Laura Wooster in Smoky Mirrors. Photo by Rich Riggins.

The show’s title, Smoky Mirrors, was at first opaque to me, but its subtitle grabbed me: “an aerial exploration of gender and sexual orientation.” And sure enough, wending its way through two acts and 13 scenes was the thread of a narrative about a young woman (the remarkably gifted Montana DeBor) on a quest for an identity that is not divided against itself in the distorting, deceptive gender binary.

Montana DeBor in Smoky Mirrors. Photo by Rich Riggins.

At several points, a mirror was wheeled onstage hung with articles of gendered clothing. The young woman tried some on and rejected some, as if trying to find a look faithful to her true self. The title’s allusion to smoke and mirrors began to become clearer, as if to say that looking into a distorting mirror for affirmation of an illusion may be its own delusion.

Or, as Writer and Creative Director Elizabeth Finn writes in a program note,

It is sometimes difficult to see the spectrum behind the dichotomy….
We are working…to reflect the true complexity of human experience, rather than the false dichotomy we have inherited. That means telling the stories of people who do not fit into a tidily gendered box, the people who are most hurt by our violent oversimplification.

In an early scene, a quartet of two women and two men (Alex Reyes, Angela Stoner, Jeff Wagener, and Laura Wooster) did an act on a single wide trapeze wearing typically gendered aerialist costumes. But to a soundtrack of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” they subverted gendered trapeze performance conventions: Not only the men were catchers but the women were as well.

A similar symbolic reversal happened in a duo scene in Act Two when it was the man (Mark Harding) who performed on two swaths of red fabric while the woman (Elise “Teddy” Sipos) performed on a loop of steel chain.

Christian Kloc in Smoky Mirrors. Photo by Rich Riggins.

Only one act was not performed aloft: an amusing juggler, Christian Kloc, whose droll and dextrous stunts with plastic bowling pins had a playfully mixed soundtrack of “Dream Lover” by Bobby Darin and “Dreamlover” by Mariah Carey.

Gwynne Flanagan Cox in Smoky Mirrors. Photo by Rich Riggins.

Just before an aerial straps act near the end, a half dozen piles of powdered chalk were dumped about the stage in a bright rainbow of colors. Before the act was over, the aerialist, Elizabeth Finn—swinging around in circles, her feet touching the floor, or kicking up colored dust—had blended the hues and inscribed on the stage the trans symbol.

Interspersed in the show were voice-overs, poetic spoken word pieces that amplified the show’s theme. The gist of these is in the title of the final one, an excerpt from a trans and genderqueer anthology, “Dear Gender, An Elegy.”

(The complete program is below.)

Sweet Spot Aerial Productions is a professional circus arts company committed to reflecting LGBTQ characters and themes. It was launched three years ago by four instructors at the DC affiliate of the Trapeze School of New York (Elliot Proebstel, Laura Wooster, Angie Stoner, and Jeff Wagener), as an alternative to the “very heteronormative and very cisgender-role” mindset of mainstream circus arts.

Their first production was during Capital Pride 2015. Since then their audiences have broadened. This summer (June-July 2017), Sweet Spot Aerial Productions was featured in the Circus Arts programming of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. And in December 2017  the company will present a holiday show titled A Circus Carol, the teaser for which sounds intriguing:

It’s holiday pageant time at W.T. Dickens High School! Chaos reigns supreme throughout the school halls as teachers, administrators and students try to get it together in time for their annual holiday production. Watch as the circus atmosphere comes to life in A Circus Carol, as incredible aerial performances dazzle and bring our characters together to rise above (sometimes, literally!) the holiday madness.

I like discovering theater in performances that are not generally thought of as “theater.” Stories told in unexpected places and performed in unexpected ways can be as engrossing and meaningful for their astonishing form as for their substance. The audience at the performance I attended was digging it. They responded volubly to every virtuoso maneuver, every scary drop, every impossible pose. And though the narrative of a quest for authenticity in a gendered world was more focused in some scenes than in others, it was never far from mind.

Sweet Spot Aerial Productions is on to something deep and delightful. They are embodying important human meaning in a form, circus arts, not typically given to subversive and affirming storytelling. With Smoky Mirrors, the company has defied both gravity and the dichotomy of gender. They’ve got a lot of nerve.

Mark Harding in Smoky Mirrors. Photo by Rich Riggins.

INTRODUCTION
Spoken word intro written and read by Elizabeth Finn

ACT ONE

SCENE I “Courage” – Rope Hammock
Performed by Mark Harding to  “Always something better” by Trentmolfer
Choreographed by Mark Harding
Spoken word piece written and read by Elliot Proebstel

SCENE II “Same DNA” – Triple Static Trapeze 
Performed by Alex Reyes, Angela Stoner, Jeff Wagener, and Laura Wooster to “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga (Zedd Remix)
Choreographed by Alex Reyes, Angela Stoner, Jeff Wagener, and Laura Wooster

SCENE III  Aerial Halo
Performed by Elise “Teddy” Sipos to “Bold As Love” by Jimi Hendrix
Choreographed by Elise “Teddy” Sipos and coached by Rachel Walker
Spoken word piece “Ready to know” by Joy Ladin, from Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, ed. TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson. Read by  Montana DeBor and Elliot Proebstel

SCENE IV  “Mirror, Mirror”

SCENE V “A Little Wicked” – Silks
Performed by Sally Haden to  “A Little Wicked” by Valerie Kroussard
Choreographed by Sally Haden and Elizabeth Finn

SCENE VI  “Perspective” – Silks and Chains
Performed by Mark Harding on Silks and Elise “Teddy” Sipos on Chains to “Full Moon” by Petit Biscuit
Choreographed by Mark Harding and Elise “Teddy” Sipos

Montana DeBor in Smoky Mirrors. Photo by Rich Riggins.

ACT TWO

SCENE I  “Boundaries” – Aerial Rectangle
Performed by Montana DeBor and Gwynne Flanagan Cox to “Innocence” by Flume ft. AlunaGeorge
Choreographed by Montana DeBor and Gwynne Flanagan Cox
Spoken word piece from “Cactus Flower” by Amlr Rabiyah, from Troubling the Line. Read by Elliot Proebstel

SCENE II “Surprise Yourself” – Duo Trapeze
Performed by Dana Karash and Elliot Proebstel to “Surprise Yourself ” by Jack Garratt
Choreographed by Dana Karash and Elliot Proebstel
Spoken word piece from Citizen by Claudia Rankine. Read by Montana DeKor

SCENE III Juggling
Performed by Christian Kloc to “Dream Lover” by Bobby Darin and “Dreamlover” by Mariah Carey
Choreographed by Christian Kloc

SCENE IV “Who do you see?”

SCENE V  Single Point Static Trapeze
Performed by Gwynne Flanagan Cox to “Elastic Heart” by Sia (Blood Diamond Remix)
Choreographed by Gwynne Flanagan Cox

SCENE VI  Straps
Performed by Elizabeth Finn to  “No Man Is an Archipelago” by British Sea Power
Choreographed by Elizabeth Finn

SCENE VII  “One” – Rope
Performed by Montana DeBor to “Some Minds” by Flume ft. Andrew Wyatt
Choreographed by Montana DeBor and Jim Domenick

Spoken word piece “Dear Gender, An Elegy” by Stacey Waite, from Troubling the Line, read by Montana DeBor

Production Team: Director: Jen Irvin; Producer: Angela Stoner; Libretto: Elizabeth Finn; Creative Directors: Elizabeth Finn. Kate Winston; Stage Manager: Chris Griffin; Lighting Design: Catherine Girardi; Chief Rigging and Safety Officer: Jeff Wagener; Sound Engineer: Jana Cohen; Sound Operator: Amanda Bach; Production Crew: Sheri Baxter, AJ Brown, Kathy Hart, Christine Heckel, Amy Nagy. Alex Reyes, Hannah Robinson, Krystan Silva; Promotion and Marketing: Laura Wooster; Promotion Illustration: Montana DeBor.

Running Time: 90 minutes, including one intermission.

Smoky Mirrors, produced by Sweet Spot Aerial Productions, was performed August 5 and 6, 2017, in the Lang Theater at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C.

A Circus Carol, Sweet Spot Aerial Productions’ holiday show, will be performed  at Atlas Performing Arts Center: Saturday, December 16, 2017, at 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., and Sunday, December 17, 2017, at 4:00 p.m. Tickets are available online.

 

The Mark of Cain

Fans of Synetic Theater’s music-and movement-based works derived from classic texts will find a surprise twist in the company’s latest offering. Typically, a Synetic extravaganza creates a vivid other world, someplace unto itself, visually voluptuous, aurally luscious, always a trip to somewhere fantabulous. But with The Mark of Cain, Synetic’s first wholly original devised work in five years, the other world collides with the real world. The mythic meets the immediate. And the impact is smashing.

With The Mark of Cain, according to Director Paata Tsikurishvili, Synetic set out to create “a neo-surrealist distillation of human history” that would illustrate how human evil began and how it persists in power that corrupts. Right there is a tipoff that something political might pop up.

Or maybe something more universal. Two large eyes set in triangles on either side of the stage (the eyes of God?) are weeping illuminated white balloon tears, as though all of creation is in mourning.

Ryan Sellers (Cain) in The Mark of Cain. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Accordingly, the show begins slowly. Performers move in slow motion. God (Philip Fletcher) kneels in dust downstage and from it forms two figures, Adam (Scott Brown) and Eve (Tori Bertocci), who explore their new environs and each other. A red balloon is locked in a cage, off limits. A sinister Dark Angel slithers in (Kathy Gordon) and tempts them, and soon the forbidden balloon bursts in their hands in a plume of red powder, signaling the origin of sin.

Up next is the origin of evil. Adam and Eve conceive two sons, whom they first mime, cradled in their arms then lead like toddlers by the hand. In one of the show’s many stunning image reveals, Cain (Ryan Sellers) and Abel (Dallas Tolentino) then step into the family tableau and take their parents’ hands.

Abel, in this retelling, becomes an artist whose medium is the Ensemble (Janine Baumgardner, Zana Gankhuyag, Irina Kavsadze, Megan Khaziran, Brown, and Bertocci), whom he beautifully sculpts and animates choreographically. Cain, jealous of his brother’s creative powers, attacks Abel and they fight, a pas de deux of rage against innocence that Sellers and Tolentino perform with fearsome force. Cain slays Abel then violently destroys the beauty his brother made. In a jarring physicalization of Cain’s destructive powers, Sellers’ brutal blows break the dancers’ bodies down as if to rubble, all without contact, only the evocation of the power of evil…and the evil of power.

Kathy Gordon (Dark Angel) and Ryan Sellers (Cain) in The Mark of Cain. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

God is displeased and brands Cain with a bloody emblem of shame. Reenter the Dark Angel, who seduces Cain into a reign of evil-doing that unfolds with quickening pace through human history. As each epoch is enacted, the Dark Angel crowns Cain with another symbol of unjust power, and he plays the part of smug despot with more and more relish. By the time Cain’s headwear is a red-starred military helmet and he and his troops are goose-stepping, the metaphor of evil descended in a direct line from mythic time to modern times has become powerfully persuasive.

And then comes the episode where Cain’s emblem of malevolent authority is no longer upon his head but a too-long red tie around his neck. You may have suspected the show was going there and it does, breathtakingly. Just as well as Synetic can retell a classic of literature wordlessly, the company now shows its chops evoking corruption and resistance viscerally, without a word being spoken.

Ryan Sellers (Cain) in The Mark of Cain. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Choreographer Irinia Tsikurishvili and Composer Koki Lortkipanidze along with Music Director Irakli Kavsadze have a remarkably organic collaboration that is evidenced in every dancer’s every breath and move. A sequence quoted from Ravelle’s Bolero becomes the musical equivalent of a showstopper. The adaptation, which is really mostly original, is credited to the Tsikurishvilis, Bertocci, and Nathan
Weinberger. And together Scenic Designers Paata Tsikurishvili and Phil Charlwood, Lighting Design Brian Allard, and Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson have spectacularly fabricated an unreal world…in order that it may appear to us as only too real.

The Mark of Cain is a bold breakthrough for Synetic Theater, and an eloquent, unexpected experience to behold. It will leave its mark in your imagining.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

The Mark of Cain plays through August 13, 2017, at Synetic Theater – 1800 South Bell Street, in Crystal City, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

VIDEO:

 

Wig Out!

The world of  Wig Out! is a glittering fantasia on house ballroom culture. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s ingeniously metatheatrical 2006 script sets this play with music in the urban underground that came to mainstream attention with the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. It’s a subculture that offers safe space where refugees from white cis heteronormativity—mostly black and latinx LGBTQ youth—can find friendship, gender-expression freedom, self-acceptance, alternate families, and celebration of who they are.

Just opened at Studio Theatre is a spectacularly powerful, funny, and feel-good production of McCraney’s play, newly updated by the author. Under the inventive direction of Kent Gash, a long-time collaborator with McCraney, Wig Out! abounds in  outrageously fabulous costumes, dazzling choreography, and a cast that won’t quit knocking us out. McCraney’s poetic and wittily slang-filled script also contains moving scenes of relationship drama—poignant stories of love, lust, loyalty, and loss that play out in intimate, and sometimes graphic, detail,

The upshot is a show so sizzling hot it promises to be DC’s next sold-out summer hit.

The House of Light in Wig Out!: Back: Michael Kevin Darnall (Lucien); middle: Melissa Victor (Fate), Dane Figueroa Edidi (Faith), Jamyl Dobson (Rey-Rey), and Ysabel Jasa (Fay); front: Edwin Brown III (Venus). Photo by Teresa Wood.

The top floor of Studio has been the site of many of the District’s best immersive stagings. It was transformed into a dive bar for Murder Ballad, a cabaret for Silence! the Musical, a church basement for Hand to God. Now for Wig Out!, Set Designer Jason Sherwood has installed there a glitzy catwalk down an alleyway the audience sits on either side of. (With only 108 seats in the house, none more than four rows from the stage, the show gets up-close and personal pretty fast.) There are four mirrored doorways framed by assemblages of photos, manikin parts, posters, old electronics, and other memorabilia of eras gone by. Even before the show begins, the theater space has an exhilarating and intriguing vibe. Then when the performance starts, Lighting Designer Dawn Chiang’s moods and blazes and Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson’s galvanic music make it all go wowza.

McCraney’s version of ball culture imagines two rival “houses,” families as fiercely antagonistic as the Montagues and Capulets, except instead of sword-fighting they vie for victories at balls, late-night runway performances where individuals as representatives of their house are judged on dance moves, fashion, demeanor, and convincingness. The competition can be cutthroat, as it gets in Wig Out! between the House of Light and the House of Di’abolique.

The Fates in Wig Out!: Melissa Victor, Dane Figueroa Edidi, and Melissa Victor. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Before we meet the two houses, we are visited by the Fates, a high-energy trio of young women named Fay (Ysabel Jasa), Fate (Melissa Victor), and Faith (Dane Figueroa Edidi). Appearing periodically in the play like playful pick-me-ups, and sometimes somber witnesses, they are part Greek chorus, part chorus line, part hip-hop girl-group, and wholly enchanting in their synchronized choreography and vocals.

Among the poignant relationship dramas in Wig Out! is the one that begins on a subway when Eric (Jaysen Wright), a handsome hunk, is hit on by Wilson (Michael Rishawn), another handsome hunk, who at the moment is in drag. Eric’s initial ambivalence is overcome by Wilson’s irresistible advances, and they go to Wilson’s place where they have steamy sex. That evening Eric learns Wilson is also Ms. Nina, and she begins to introduce Eric to her world as one of the kids in the House of Light. The complex romance between Eric and Wilson/Ms. Nina is a heart-tugger throughout the show, including after Wilson/Ms. Nina comes out as trans, and Wright and Rishawn play their richly written roles with breathtaking versatility and naked honesty.

Michael Rishawn (Wilson/Ms. Nina) and Jaysen Wright (Eric) in Wig Out! Photo by Teresa Wood.

The conflict that is the play’s main event kicks off when Rey-Rey, “The Legendary Mother of the House of Light” (Jamyl Dobson), and Lucian, “The Founding Father of the House of Light” (Michael Kevin Darnall), learn from a goth-clown messenger named Loki (Alex Mills) that the rival House of Di’abolique has challenged the House of Light to a Cinderella Ball that very night at midnight! Emergency preparations begin forthwith (for what will become, in Act Two, a sensational high-stakes diva duel).

Meanwhile in the House of Light, other riveting relationship dramas come to light. Venus (Edwin Brown III), a beautiful young man in drag, had a thing once with house DJ Deity (Desmond Bing), a straight-acting dude who digs male bodies, and Deity wants to rekindle it. Ever on the prowl, Lucian, the house father, has or had a thing for many, and Darnall plays him with a Don Corleone swagger that’s both menacing and seductive. Rey-Rey, the house mother, knows her youth is fading and she’s lost luster in Lucien’s eyes, and Dobson plays her touchingly with all the grandeur that is her due and all the brokenness she does not deserve.

Edwin Brown III (Venus) and Desmond Bing (Deity) in Wig Out! Photo by Teresa Wood.

Rey-Rey has a monolog that references her struggle to uplift the House of Light while the AIDs plague raged and decimated the gay and drag communities. It’s a passage that exemplifies McCraney’s superb writing in Wig Out!, and Dobson’s delivery of it is profound:

When this house was early light, low light
I came in here and worked this bitch you hear
Me. When it was not a time or place of glamour
In the scene I put the couture back in the bash.
That was my ass walking down with the true strut
Of fashion icon. I brought win after win and the name
Legendary to a house with little to no light until
There was Rey there was no way so even though I
May not have the glow of youth mother fucker
I got the glam of age. I know what its like to try
To hold up fabulousness while everyone withers
And dies around you. I walked amongst the legends
Who didn’t make it thru. I lost most of my house to
An AIDS war that the kids didn’t know how to survive.

McCraney’s text borrows from black, gay, and drag slang with beautiful abandon—and may leave those not in the know a little in the dark. But this is a cast that got deep inside the language and they know viscerally of what it speaks. If you miss some idioms, just let ’em go by, and trust the actors to let you know what’s meant.

(I tried making some educated guesses instead and learned that’s not a great idea. For instance, there’s a scene where the Fates are working hard rehearsing a routine for the Cinderella Ball and Venus tells them, to encourage them, “You’re fish, honey, real women.” Thinking the word fish was derogatory, as it is used among gay men to describe women, I got confused. Turns out, I learned later on Google, in the drag world fish is a great compliment, and an acronym for “fit, intelligent, sexy, hot.”)

Though some of us may seem to have come as strangers into a strange land, McCraney has given us the wonderful character of Eric. His winsome naivete is also ours as he seeks to figure out this unfamiliar world and whether he belongs in it.

At a point in Act One, Eric has a dream in which all that he imagines the scene might be suddenly comes to life in the persona of Serena (Frank Britton), “Mother of the House of Di’abolique.” Wearing geisha makeup, a flamboyant kimono, an extraterrestrial hairstyle, and boots a foot high, Britton rips up the stage lip-syncing “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane (“Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall”). Meanwhile, Mills as Loki, a lost-boy in Serena’s house, does an unbelievable contortionist-gymnastic floor routine. This was the first moment that felt like a showstopper had just happened. It would not be the last.

There would be lots more scene-stealing fashions from Costume Designer Frank Labovitz and lots more jaw-dropping movement and dance from Choreographer Dell Howlett and lots more emotionally wrenching scene work by the actors. There’s so much talent onstage and offstage for this show, it fact, it’s like non-stop overwhelming sensory stimulation.

So get ready for the fandemonium.

There’s a question you’ll be hearing from ecstatic theatergoers this summer: “Have you seen Wig Out! at Studio yet?!” And once you do, you’ll be asking the question too.

Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.

Wig Out! plays through August 6, 2017, at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

 

The Gun Show

Among the issues polarizing America (and degrading public discourse) is the hot-button question of what to do about guns. Proponents of positions right and left talk past each other. Both camps have unassailable certitude on their side. Playwright E.M. Lewis set out to see if she could bridge the divide.

She chose to tell autobiographical stories about her own relationship to guns in the form of a solo performance piece. But rather than step onstage herself to tell the stories, she chose to have them told by a male actor—”for distance” as her script explains. Thus as performed with prodigious virtuosity by Vin Shambry, Lewis’s The Gun Show became as riveting for its form as for its content.

Vin Shambry in E.M. Lewis’s The Gun Show, CoHo Productions, Portland. Photo by Owen Carey.

The production directed by Shawn Lee originated in Portland, Oregon, where he, Lewis, and Shambry are based, and stopped off on its tour for a brief run in 1st Stage’s Logan Festival of Solo Performance on its way to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. (How a play about America’s firearms impasse will play in Scotland—a country that prohibits all handguns, semi-automatic, and pump-action non-rim-fire rifles—should be interesting.)

The set is black-box simple. A chair and table with some props. A standing work light. A projection screen on which can be seen a montage of closeups of gun parts. As we enter, the low sound of rounds being fired at a shooting gallery.

Shambry is a transfixing performer and owns the stage. He begins vividly describing a shoot-’em-up scene in the movie Reservoir Dogs. He makes the point we sometimes “can’t tell the difference between real life and a Tarantino movie.” We think he is playing a black man confronting gun violence because that’s who we see before us. And then we realize the lines he is speaking are Lewis’s. Not just because she wrote them; she lived them. When Shambry speaks, for instance, of “my husband,” he means hers.

Vin Shambry in E.M. Lewis’s The Gun Show, CoHo Productions, Portland. Photo by Owen Carey.

Shambry shines a flashlight on Lewis’s face in the audience. She is sitting there, as she has been for all performances. She wrote herself into the script as a silent witness to the telling of her story. As a writer, as a woman, her script explains, she felt the story needed to be told in a man’s voice. At the point when we realize that she herself is in the house, whatever line there is between life and art completely blurs, and we ourselves are witness to something far more than theater.

Shambry (as Lewis) promises to tell five stories and does so. One is a story about how Lewis grew up around and with guns. They were familiar in her family. He (as she) asks those who did not come from such a background and/or who would not want guns around: “How far from law enforcement do you live?” If a violent criminal was to break into your home and 911 is an hour away, wouldn’t you rather be able to defend yourself? The point lands. In a similar vein, he (as she) tells a story about an armed robbery in a Portland bookstore where she worked.

And then he (as she) tells the story of how she learned to shoot. She was expertly instructed by a 29-year-old man she met when she was 19, the man named Irving whom she would marry. And from then on, the politically challenging story of The Gun Show is also the moving, and sometimes heartbreaking, story of a marriage.

The issue of guns is more complicated than right and left, says the script. “The commentary is killing the conversation.” We need to talk from what we have in common: We all want to be safe. “What’s stopping us from figuring this out?”

Lewis’s script spells out the conundrum: Guns ≠ safety. No guns ≠ safety. The last story is a tragedy that brings that point home.

Projection Designer Kristeen Willis Crosser punctuated the solo performance with sometimes witty images: blown-up stage directions, for instance. Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago brought intimacy to the vast stage space, Sound Designer Rodolfo Ortega amplified the story telling subtly (no ear-shattering gunshots, thankfully), and Costume Designer Gregory Pulver gave Shambly casual clothes to match his personable stage presence.

Distilling the problem of guns in America to its particulars in the life of one woman from the Northwest of Norwegian descent brings a sharp focus to what’s personal and intractably complicated about the issue. And the device of having her story told by a man, in this case a black man, is remarkably effective in showing us the universal patterns in those particulars, without the option to dismiss what’s being said because a woman’s voice on stage still does not say “human experience” with the gravitas that a man’s does.

And yet, if the stories being told were from a black man’s life—portrayed on stage by an actor who fit the part—the particulars would be dramatically different. If he were to talk about what’s complicated about the gun debate, for instance, he would have to reference the death of Philando Castile, the black man who was shot by a white police officer upon stating the fact that he was carrying a licensed firearm, as was his Second Amendment right.

The Gun Show doesn’t go there. Yet it leaves us with the lesson that what’s complicated always has personal context and cannot be abstracted apart from individual lived lives. As such truthful storytelling about complexity goes, The Gun Show sets a brave example, with a terrific script brilliantly played.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

The Gun Show was one of three works in The Logan Festival of Solo Performance, which ran July 6-16, 2017, at 1st Stage – 524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA.

LINKS:
In the Moment: Logan Festival of Solo Performance at 1st Stage by David Siegel
Review: ‘Hick: A Love Story’ at 1st Stage by David Siegel
Review: ‘Empanada For A Dream’ at 1st Stage by David Siegel

 

 

Help Me, Wanda!

Toni Rae Salmi is an actor seen frequently on DC stages, most recently “enjoyably grand” in Perfect Arrangement at Source Festival. In Help Me, Wanda!, she belts out a rockin’ song list—much of it tunes made famous by the “Queen of Rockabilly,” Wanda Jackson. Backed by a four-member band upstairs at Solly’s Tavern, Salmi also weaves through her set an inspiring and autobiographical woman-centric narrative about mustering confidence and gumption to stand one’s ground in a world staked out by men. It was rockin’ music mixed with moxie, and a crowd-pleaser from beginning to end.

Wearing a sleeveless black sequined sheath, a pixie cut, and heels, Salmi took the mic in hand and the audience into her confidence. Admitting this was her first-ever cabaret show, she drew us warmly into personal anecdotes about both Jackson’s life and her own.

“I Gotta Know,” she sang, from Jackson’s 1960 rockabilly album Rockin’ With Wanda:

One thing I gotta know, I gotta know, I gotta know
If our love’s the real thing where’s my weddin’ ring

And she nailed the classic “Hard Headed Woman” from Jackson’s 1961 rock album There’s a Party Goin’ On:

Well a hard headed woman a soft hearted man
Been the cause of trouble ever since the world began

Rock legend Wanda Jackson was said to be “the only woman who could do justice to an Elvis song.” Back in the day, Jackson even dated Elvis—before she met and fell in love with the man to whom she would be married for 55 years (Wendell Goodman, who died in May).  At the indefatigable age of 79, Jackson is “not hiding her age,” said Salmi, and “still touring with a bad-ass rock band.” Inspired by Jackson’s career-long brazenness, Salmi began putting her own act together.

Not all Salmi’s song list originated with Jackson, but her choices fit the evening’s build-me-up bill perfectly. She did a rendition of “Maneater,” for instance, with a gender flip in the lyrics:

OK, here I come. Watch out boys.

And riffing off personal anecdotes about her own love life, she upped the energy in the room with her heartfelt/sarcastic version of Lindi Ortega’s “I Want You”:

… I can be bad
I can drive you mad
Be the girl that you won’t forget
I want you to want me
I want you to want m

Salmi’s admiration for Jackson goes beyond the legend’s love life and artistry. “The woman has a backbone,” Salmi told us. Once when a venue manager would not allow her black keyboardist to accompany her, Jackson answered, “He plays or I don’t.”

The first rock song Jackson wrote was “Mean Mean Man,” and Salmi knocked it out of the park.

i love a mean mean man
he lives uptown
when i want him he’s never around
he’s a mean mean man
he’s a mean mean man
he’s a mean mean man but i love him all i can

Affairs of the broken heart suffused several numbers, and Salmi knew whereof she sang. “I once asked a man I was seeing, ‘Why are you treating me this way?’ He answered, ‘Because you’re letting me.’ Don’t stay with anyone who makes you lose your spark.”

Then she sang an over-the-top hilarious revenge song, “I’m gonna shoot you in the dark,” finally surprising us with who wrote it for her: Musical Director and Keyboardist Felix Pagés. Following that Salmi did a pointed performance of Jack White’s “Love Interruption”:

I won’t let love disrupt, corrupt or interrupt me, anymore.

The show’s peak empowerment moment came with Muddy Magnolias’ redo of “American Woman,” which began powerfully with Salmi singing solely to the accompaniment of Ryan Ciliax on drums:

I’m a whole lotta grown ass American woman
Do I look like, the walk all over me type
I’m a whole lotta strong ass American woman

I know my worth and who I am

Near the end, Salmi got even more personal, sharing stories of her adoptive mother and her birth mother. “Without those two women I wouldn’t be who I am today,” she said, then began the most moving song of the show, Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”

Ending up-tempo and upbeat, Salmi closed with Jackson’s 1960 Top 40 pop hit, “Let’s Have a Party.” And that was exactly what we’d had.

Also in the band were Hector Moncada on lead guitar and Moe Hendawi on bass guitar, and Salmi was joined on stage by Brittany Alyse Willis in a couple duets.

One technical quibble. Granted this is Fringe, and granted Solly’s is not a fully equipped theater, but lighting and sound on opening night needed tweaking. For most of the show, Salmi stood in a dim glow emanating from strings of tiny white lights hanging like curtains stage left and right. There was almost no light on her from the front, which meant her wonderfully personable facial expressions were in shadow. Meanwhile, the band behind her was brightly lit at all times. Similarly, the sound balance favored the instruments over her vocals. Salmi delivered a star turn and deserved better.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

RATING:

 

Help Me, Wanda! plays through July 22, 2017, at Solly’s U Street Tavern – 1942 11th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or purchase them online.

 

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2017 Capital Fringe Page

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