Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

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The Lathe of Heaven

Puppets, people, props, projections, and sci-fi pop up a lot on DC stages, but not often with the narrative verve, literary cred, and nonstop wit of The Lathe of Heaven. Adapted and directed by acclaimed theatrical deviser Natsu Onada Power from the book by renowned fantasy fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven is Spooky Action Theater’s dazzling entry in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Le Guin died at the age of 88 while the show was in rehearsal. Years before she gave Spooky Action Artistic Director Richard Henrich permission to adapt The Lathe of Heaven for the stage. Had she lived to see or hear of the lively results, I suspect she would have been impressed with what Power has done—the way one illimitable imagination might recognize another.

Matthew Marcus (as George Orr) in The Lathe of Heaven. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

There’s a storyline based on the novel about a very ordinary, unassuming man named George Orr (Matthew Marcus) who has one extraordinary power: his dreams can alter reality. Troubled by this, he goes for counseling to a sleep specialist, Doctor Haber (Matthew Vaky), a seeming humanitarian who is revealed as a powermonger seeking to harness Orr’s powers for malevolent purposes. But first Haber—concerned that he may be invading Orr’s privacy by studying his dreams—refers Orr to a tough-minded, civil rights lawyer, Heather Lalache (Erica Chamblee). As it happens, Heather is badass and biracial, the nerdy white dream weaver falls in love with her, and he tries to end racism in the world by dreaming everyone gray.

There are plenty of twists to that plot, but the real story that unfolds on stage is one of breathless anticipation for what captivating inventiveness will happen next.

The play takes place the year the novel was published, 1971—making all years afterward “far far in the future.” Before it begins, Sound Designer Roc Lee spins period tunes such as “Dream Weaver” and “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, just then released.

Three white shelving units packed with white storage boxes command the stage (Power did the novel set design). Stage right and left are metal tables that are in view of video cameras, about to be utilized by the inspired Projection Designer Danny Carr. During the show, members of the Ensemble (Mark Camilli Jr., Vanessa Chapoy, Jonathan Compo, Michaela Farrell, Kate Ginna, Adrian Jesus Iglesias, and Maddy Rice) sit at those tables nimbly positioning puppets, mounted graphics, and other objects to be shown on the shelving units. Over the course of the 90-minute run time, this mini meta-theater effect just keeps getting cleverer.

For instance, as George tells Dr. Haber about a traumatic experience he had as a boy when his inappropriate Aunt Ethel had creepy designs on him, the scene is enacted seriocomically on camera by puppets. This sets up a story point: George dreamt she was killed in a car crash and sure enough she was. But it also captures our own imaginations in the creative abundance of the show’s storytelling method.

Michaela Farrel (Ensemble), Matthew Marcus (George Orr), Matthew Vaky (Doctor Haber) in The Lathe of Heaven. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

There’s a real world outside the play, with billions of people and even some aliens, so there’s a thread of social commentary. At one point newspaper headlines are projected about overpopulation, pollution, bombings, and other calamities—which Haber in cahoots with George’s dreaming tries to manipulate for better or for worse. But to assure us this show’s an audience-friendly amusement and not a slog through issues, we’re treated to a folksy scene of Ensemble member Maddy Rice singing a lovely song about Portland, Oregon, because, well, that’s where Le Guin set the story.

Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny gives the three main characters credible real-world wardrobes but the Ensemble gets to wear fanciful stuff such as gray zippered uniforms and incongruous white shoes. Lighting Designer Adam Bacigalupo’s delightful work sometimes evokes a pinball game (which at one point Lee literally lets us hear). And Props Designer Caolan Eder’s playful wit is all over the place, such as the colander contraption George wears on his head while Dr. Haber measures his brainwaves, and the hooves made of cardboard boxes with which members of the Ensemble conjure a horse.

Matthew Vaky as Haber turns in an imposing performance that is both good guy and bad guy. Matthew Marcus as George Orr is a wonderfully worthy nerd. And Erica Chamblee as Heather Lelache conveys a dimension of conscience that nicely centers the play.

Maddy Rice (Ensemble), Matthew Marcus (George Orr), Michaela Farrel (Ensemble), Kate Ginna (Ensemble), Erica Chamblee (Heather Lalache), and Vanessa Chapoy (Ensemble) in The Lathe of Heaven. Photo by Melissa Blackall.

But it is in the love relationship between George and Heather that the production most astonishingly merges acting and design. Near the end, their characters are represented by gray puppets, with Chamblee, Marcus, and the Ensemble bringing Heather and George to life in an erotically magical connection.

The Lathe of Heaven at Spooky Action Theater transforms fantasy fiction prose into an ingenious multimedia entertainment and could not be more enjoyable. R.I.P., Ursula K. Le Guin. Brava, Natsu Onada Power. And kudos to the whole cast and creative team.

Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Lathe of Heaven plays through March 11, 2018, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th Street , NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 248-0301, or purchase them online.

LINK: 

Tributes to Ursula K. Le Guin by Natsu Onoda Power and Richard Henrich

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Ursula K. Le Guin (Novelist) published twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation.  She has received many awards including Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, and the National Book Foundation Medal.

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Natsu Onoda Power (Adaptor/Director). Natsu Onoda Power playwrighting credits include The T Party, A Trip to the Moon, and Astro Boy and the God of Comics (2015 Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Director in Small Theatre). Directing credits include projects at Olney Theater, Center Stage Baltimore, Studio Theatre, Theatre J, Forum Theatre, Synetic Theatre.

 

 

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Translations

There’s a lovely scene just before intermission that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. It is 1833 in agricultural County Donegal Ireland, and two star-crossed lovers—Maire (Samantha Gonzalez), a young woman who speaks only Irish, and Lieutenant George Yolland (Trevor LaSalvia), a British soldier who speaks only English—have met in the woods in the heat of a sweetly passionate attraction. They seem blissfully oblivious to the fact that they come from opposite sides of a colonialism-driven divide.

Trevor LaSalvi (Lieutenant Yolland) and Samantha Gonzalez (Maire) in Translations. Photo by Kirk Kristlibas.

There to interpret for them is Owen (Steven Kelly), a multilingual young Irish man, moonlighting from his job as a translator for the British army. In the script all three characters speak in English so that we the audience can understand them, even though Maire and George can’t understand each other. It’s an enthralling device. And the communication gap speaks volumes.

That’s but a glimpse into the high emotions and complex issues in Brian Friel’s play Translations, directed with acute sensitivity by Jodi Kanter, head of the George Washington University theater and dance program. Friel’s play is set in a fictional Irish village at the time when the forces of the Crown have come to impose British rule and change place names into the King’s English. As a documentary parable about colonialism, it is, sad to say, timeless—and this ardent student production does justice to the unjust story.

Kevin Adams (Hugh Mor O’Donnel), Hayes Lynch (Jimmy Jackin), Samantha Gonzalez (Maire), Jacob Pearce (Doalty), Katrin Baxter (Bridget), and Cara McErlean (Sarah) in Translations. Photo by Kirk Kristlibas.

The action takes place in a barn being used as a schoolhouse, and Scenic Designer Jingwei Dai’s stone walls, wooden beams, and slatted windows and doors pull us into the down-to-earth dimension of the play. Lighting Designer Carl F. Gudenius nicely streams in daylight and dapples it invitingly, while Sound Designer Aria Nawab introduces folksy interludes of fiddle between scenes.

Two veteran Keegan Theatre Company actors are on board: Kevin Adams as the headmaster Hugh Mor O’Donnel, a man whose fondness for Greek and Latin is well matched by his fondness for drink; and Timothy Hayes Lynch as Jimmy Jack, a student much older than the others. The professional polish of their sparring interplay is a treat.

But the student cast more than holds its own connecting us vividly to their individuated characters: Thomas Martin as Hugh’s put-upon son (and Owen’s older brother) Manus; Katrin Baxter, Cara McErlean, and Jacob Pearce as the earnest and ebullient students Bridget, Sarah, and Doalty; and Connor Driscoll as British officer Captain Yancey, the bad cop to Owen’s good. Jacob Pearce in particular does some appealingly scene-stealing work as rebellious Doalty.

Costume Designer Kelvin Small creates an authentically rustic look for the Irish and an officiously pompous look for the encroaching English. And Dialect Coach Susan Lynskey deserves a shoutout in several tongues for the cast’s smooth handling of the Gaelic, Greek, and Latin that Friel freely inserts into this play.

A moving evocation of how community cohesion and tradition gets lost in translation to imperialism, Brian Friel’s Translations at George Washington University is well worth a look and listen to.

Running Time: About two hours 5 minutes, including one intermission.

Translations plays through Sunday afternoon February 18, 2018, presented by The Theatre & Dance Program at the George Washington University Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. Marvin Center – 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC.  For tickets, buy them at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre’s box office, or call (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.

 

Peepshow

“Who here is a feminist?” asked the Ring Announcer (Amelia Hensley). As she signed, wearing a bright red pantsuit and standing on a thick padded mat as used for a contact-sport match, a nearby hearing actor translated. “Who here fights for gender equality?” As if on cue, hands went up in the audience. We were being welcomed to the Feminist Fight Federation—or FFF as we were urged to finger-spell it—where the battle for gender equality was about to be waged as a live-action cartoon.

There followed a rowdy display of stage-combat stunts that pitted yay! Suffragette (Elaine Yuko Qualter) against boo! Founding Father (Kerry McGee), then yay! Housewife (Tosin Olufolabi) against boo! Big Daddy (McGee), and ended with a sendup of female infighting that had rad Riot Grrrl (Sandra Mae Frank) brawling with rad Sista Girl (Natasha Gallop) joined in the fray by generic Basic Betty. (McGee out of man drag).

Tosin Olufolabi (in yellow) and Kerry McGee in Peepshow. Photo by Sandi Moynihan Multimedia.

This was during Peepshow, dog & pony dc’s latest “audience integration” extravaganza, an intermissionless immersive experience devised for the Women’s Voices Theater Festival by an entirely “non-male-identifying” cast and creative team, for an audience of anyone game for anything who would then “complete the ensemble.”

Those expressions in quotes are dog & pony dc parlance for its egalitarian approach to creating theater that pitches the audience into the show. As dog & pony dc fans know well, and as newbies find out fast, if you want to watch from a safe passive-spectator perch, you’d do better going someplace else. But if you want to feel a fun part of the action, you can’t do better than dog & pony dc.

A pre-show press advisory made sure I would get this:

dog & pony dc invites audience to do any number of things during a given show. We respectfully request media reviewing our work to not intentionally disengage because they believe distancing will add objectivity and perspective. It will, in fact, keep you from experiencing the event in totality.

The upshot of this engagement was an unexpectedly good time. I say unexpectedly because truth to tell the thematic content announced for Peepshow included some pretty serious stuff:  men’s sexual objectification of women, the friction between waves of feminism, women’s complicity in their own oppression. It sounded more like the syllabus for a women’s studies course (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) than a formula for unabashed theatrical exuberance—which is what Peepshow essentially is.

The evening is staged in five loosely connected sections, the middle one being the abovementioned female fight club, which had the audience revved up and in on the joke from the get-go.

Natasha Gallop with audience in Peepshow. Photo by Sandi Moynihan Multimedia.

The first scene played off the title: Four actors in faux showgirl garb posed come-hitherly through windows rimmed in LED strip lights  (Amelia Hensley , Elaine Yuko Qualter, Sandra Mae Frank, and Natasha Gallop). It was an obvious and clever nod to XXX peepshows and red light districts, and the lovely ladies in their bodices, hoop skirts, and Marie Antoinette wigs were evidently lampooning. Yet it put the audience in an awkward spot. To play along or not? Were we supposed to respond leeringly to their lures using the male gaze satirically? How does one do that?

Before long the foursome sang snippets of “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago but with lyrics changed to “She had it coming.” Almost shockingly the names of recently exposed sexual harassers began to scroll on a flat screen and a cast member read them aloud—leaving no doubt what real-world events had precipitated these parody proceedings.

Audience members from February 7 enjoying the multisensory moment of Peepshow. Photo by Sandi Moynihan Multimedia.

You don’t want to know too much going in, so I’ll give just a taste of the rest by mentioning an amazing scene that had no words. The set is a painted backdrop depicting a seashore, and a woman wearing an old-time bathing outfit (Ouida Maedel) is sunning herself and having a very pleasant time. To the side are buckets filled with what appears to be seaweed. Eventually, everyone in the audience gets handed one. And the mysteriously self-gratified bather shows by her example how we are to discover and savor what’s inside. I won’t give it away except to say that when I realized afterward what was symbolically going on, it blew my mind.

I left the performance aware that dog & pony dc has created in Peepshow a very different kind of safe space—a safe play space—for motley roomfuls of #MeToo and #TimesUp advocates and allies…and anyone else who is fed up with finding a harasser and abuser around every corner and having a perpetrator for a president. What dog & pony dc is up to is not only wholly entertaining. It is deeply replenishing. And right on time.

Performers: Sandra Mae Frank, Natasha Gallop, Amelia Hensley, Ouida Maedel, Kerry McGee, Tosin Olufolabi, Elaine Yuko Qualter, Carol Spring
Conceived and developed by Rachel Grossman, Tosin Olufolabi & Ivania Stack
Director: Rachel Grossman
Choreographer: Lorraine Ressegger-Slone
Set & lighting designer: Annie Wiegand
Costume designer: Claudia Brownlee
Sound designer: Tosin Olufolabi
Production dramaturg and assistant director: Jordana Fraider
Devised by Claudia Brownlee, Jordana Fraider, Sandra Mae Frank, Natasha Gallop, Kala Granger, Rachel Grossman, Amelia Hensley, Ouida Maedel, Kerry McGee, Tosin Olufolabi, Elaine Yuko Qualter, Lorraine Ressegger-Slone, Carol Spring, Ivania Stack & Annie Wiegand
Production and stage management: Emilie Moore, Trent Harper, Kala Granger
ASL Translation: Sandra Mae Frank & Amelia Hensley, with Annie Wiegand & Kala Granger
Performance interpreters: History Estil-Varner & Mary Beth Morgan with
Rhea Kennedy, Cara Schwartz & Jayne Tubergen

Running Time: About 90 minutes with no intermission.

Peepshow plays through February 25, 2018, at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company Rehearsal Hall – 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

Recommended for ages 18 and older. Completely accessible to and enjoyable by hearing and Deaf audience members. To maintain intimacy of the experience, attendance is capped at 30 persons per show.

dog & pony dc (Playwright) The creation of Peepshow began with 16 artists attending an intensive devising weekend in August 2017. From there, dog & pony dc’s artistic leadership duo, Rachel Grossman and Ivania Stack, and company member Tosin Olufolabi, drafted the show outline. Peepshow’s spectacles were then crafted by Grossman, Stack, and Olufolabi, co-founder/company member Lorraine Ressegger-Slone, and Sandra Mae Frank, Natasha Gallop*, Kala Granger, Amelia Hensley, Ouida Maedel, Kerry McGee*, Elaine Yuko Qualter*, and Carol Spring (* = company members). dog & pony dc is an ensemble-based devised theatre company comprised of hearing and Deaf artists. While dog & pony dc creates new plays and interactive experiences, the company’s mission is to inspire self-discovery, forge new relationships, and champion social change.

Familiar

When the 2018 Women’s Voices Theater Festival comes to a close and the hits to emerge from it are tallied, Danai Gurira’s comedy Familiar will surely be on the shortlist.

Gurira’s play Eclipsed—a brutal story about a Liberian rebel war lord’s sex slaves and a female Liberian freedom fighter’s attempt to rescue them—had a hugely successful run on Broadway, where it has to have been the most politically gripping play about African women ever seen on the Great White Way. With Familiar, Gurira continues her focus on women of African ancestry, but this time the politically gripping story she tells is tucked inside—wait for it—a gut-bustingly funny comedy set in a suburb of Minneapolis.

Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Anne, seated), Kim Sullivan (Donald), AndyTruschinski (Brad), Drew Kopas (Chris), Sharina Martin (Tendi), Twinkle Burke (Margaret), Woolly company member Shannon Dorsey (Nyasha), Inga Ballard (Marvelous) in Familiar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The storytelling starts with Set Designer Paige Hathaway’s eye-filling two-level interior of a middle-upper-class home, tastefully decorated in white and beige. It’s like a whitewashed canvas awaiting bold strokes of color (which the play more than delivers). The home belongs to a sixty-something married couple—he’s a lawyer, she’s a biochemist—who are emigres from Zimbabwe, but there is not a hint of Africa in the decor. There are however icicles hanging from the exposed roof and frost on the windowpanes, as it’s subzero Minnesota winter. The look is coolly assimilationist, Architectural Digest style.

Inga Ballard (Marvelous), Woolly company member Shannon Dorsey (Nyasha), Kim Sullivan (Donald) in Familiar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Oh, but there’s a carved antique Christian cross on the wall. And Donald, the husband (a stalwart Kim Sullivan), attempts to hang a map of Zimbabwe, but his wife, Marvelous (a marvelously authoritative Inga Ballard), wants it taken down. The conflict that’s to heat up between Western values and African traditions has only just begun—and already laughter is rolling sitcom style.

Donald and Marvelous’s younger daughter, Nyasha (a delightfully droll Shannon Dorsey), has flown in from New York, where she’s been trying to make it as a singer-songwriter and feng shui consultant. To try to better understand her Zimbabwean roots, she recently visited Zim, as she calls it; but having been raised by parents who completely Americanized her, she did not know the language and could not connect.

Drew Kopas (Chris), Sharina Martin (Tendi) in Familiar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The occasion is the wedding of Donald and Marvelous’s older daughter, a successful lawyer named Tendi (a strikingly nuanced Sharina Martin) to Chris (a charmingly earnest Drew Kopas), who co-founded a nonprofit that does human-rights work in Africa. They met cute in a charismatic Christian congregation. As it happens, Chris is Caucasian (“a white boy from Minnetonka”), and the play mines their cross-cultural contrast for much enjoyable humor. Interestingly, the values and culture clash that really erupts in the play is not so much about the wedding couple as it is about bitter differences and animosities among Marvelous and her two sisters.

The younger sister, Margaret (an amiable Twinkie Burke), has a Ph.D. with no career to show for it and likes to drink. Marvelous has welcomed her for the wedding. But Marvelous is outraged when her older sister, Anne (a force-of-nature Cheryl Lynn Bruce), arrives from Zimbabwe to officiate at a traditional roora—the so-called bride-price ceremony—which Tendi and Chris have opted for out of respect for Tendi’s forebears. Marvelous is adamantly opposed and sparks fly.

Gurira uses that disagreement over roora to precipitate some very funny scenes and some very sobering ones, and both sorts cut to the quick of her theme. Not a punchline or sight gag is untethered to her purpose. For instance, in roora the groom must have a go-between to negotiate with the bride’s family how much he owes them. For this task Chris taps his younger brother Brad (the agreeably goofy Andy Truschinski). There ensues a hilarious scene in which both white guys are on their knees awkwardly clapping and dropping offerings of cash at Anne’s bidding into a wooden bowl. The turnabout subtext of the ritual is priceless.

AndyTruschinski (Brad), Drew Kopas (Chris), Twinkle Burke (Margaret), Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Anne) in Familiar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

There is also a scene between Brad and Nyasha that closes Act I that is so howlingly funny it turned intermission on opening night into a buzzy party.

Among the play’s more serious moments are some trenchant and timely speeches about the price paid by immigrants who forsake their cultural identity for the sake of success and assimilation. For instance:

ANNE: You people want to sit in this country and act like Zimbabwe no longer exists? IT EXISTS!! And it is where YOU are from! You people haven’t been back ONCE! As though there is some other land where you were birthed and suckled! You want to keep these whites happy, FOR WHAT? They are going to take our daughter to be in their family! She is going to lose her name, she is going to start having … children that will talk like her, (imitating an American accent) ‘MAWM, I want to go to the MAWWL MAWM! I want PIZZA!’ … They will be asked where they are from and they will say, MINESOOOTA, and that will be IT!

The most pivotal character in the play turns out to be one who never appears; we only hear of her. She is deceased. Her name is Florie. She was a fourth sister (Auntie Florie to Nyasha and Tendi), a Zimbabwean liberation fighter, “very involved in the armed forces that were fighting the colonial regime.” Says Auntie Anne: “She was a revolutionary really. Very, very brave.” Figuratively Florie is also a sister to the liberation fighter in Eclipsed.

Costume Designer Karen Perry supplies bold dashes of bright colors for the three sisters and Tendi. Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills and Sound Designer Justin Schmitz subtly create a realistic ambiance. And the work of Director Adam Immerwahr is exceptionally impressive. Not a breath is out of place, not a beat does not take us into the heart of this phenomenal play.

It is Gurira’s great gift to be able to regale us with torrents of humor in easily recognizable family squabbles—set in the snow-white American Midwest of all places—and at the same time anchor her play firmly in the political reality of her characters’ ancestral home. Near the end, she then tops it off with a big family-secret reveal. On the face of it, that heart-stopping surprise might seem to border on melodrama. But actually, brilliantly, it brings home and personalizes an ongoing identity and liberation struggle that for each of her characters is precisely her point.

Look for Woolly Mammoth’s production of Danai Gurira’s Familiar at the top of a lot of must-see lists this season. It is, quite simply, a comedic masterpiece.

Running Time: About two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

https://www.woollymammoth.net/event/familiar

Familiar plays through March 4, 2018, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939 or purchase them online.

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Danai Gurira (Playwright)

Danai Gurira is an award-winning playwright and actress. The author of Familiar, The Convert, and Eclipsed, Danai currently stars as Michonne in AMC’s critically-acclaimed original series The Walking Dead. Danai’s other film credits include Black Panther, Mother of George, The Visitor, 3 Backyards, and Restless City.

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Character Building by Booker T. Washington

There is something heart-stirring and inspiring about this new one-man musical. In between excerpts from glorious hymns and spirituals, the great African American educator and orator Booker T. Washington gives us a pep talk about how to live an honorable life—exhorting us to lift ourselves up, to be productive, to be of service—thus the title, Character Building. 

Booker T. Washington last appeared on a local stage as a pivotal character in Ragtime at Ford’s, based on E. L Doctorow’s novel. Here all the words are Washington’s own, unfiltered by anyone’s fiction, edited by Adapter/Director Martin Blank from informal Friday night talks that Washington gave to groups of 18-year-old students at the school he founded now known as Tuskegee Institute.

This was not long after Emancipation, and most of the students were former slaves. So historically we are far removed from those for whom the words were originally meant. Yet Washington’s words are so eloquent and urgent they demand to be heard again today. They touch us and galvanize us the way a thrilling preacher can. It’s history but it’s right on time. Because given where our national leadership has lately been mired, attending to Character Building is a satisfaction and a relief. It’s like discovering an ennobling ethical message in a bottle that has been adrift in an ignoble swamp.

Gregory Burgess as Booker T. Washington in Character Building. Photo by Kayla Mahood, Stone Photography.

On the upstage wall inside the small black box at Capital Hill Arts Workshop is projected a photograph of Booker T. Washington. It stays there throughout, a reminder of the man we now get to meet in the personable and imposing performance of Gregory Burgess.

At an upright piano stage right sits Musical Director Scott Farquhar, whose rousing Overture samples from songs in the show. Wearing a sharp vested suit (by Costume Designer Kristina Lambdin), Burgess enters a stage set simply with a writing desk, a chair, and drinking water on a small table. The spare effect achieved by Set Designer Halsey Taylor and Lighting Designer Jason Aufdem-Brinke fittingly keeps Burgess the focus of our attention.

Burgess has a wry twinkle in his eyes, even when he’s at his most earnest. And listening to his rich baritone vocals is a pleasure. There are nearly 20 musical numbers in the 50-minute show so, do the math, they go by quickly—just long enough to touch us with such classics as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” “Go Down Moses,” “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” “Shall We Gather at the River.” The multiple segues between spoken and sung sections are handled with extraordinary grace, and Blank’s apt juxtapositions of admonition and musical inspiration are a revelation.

Unlike many a contemporary self-help guru who preaches self-involvement to the privileged, Washington offered students solid advice about success that still rings good and true. For instance,

In considering your time, today, this week, this month, have you done your
best? I fear many of you, when you look at your conscience, must answer
that you have not. There have been minutes, hours, days, which you have
completely thrown away. If you have not done your best, straight from your
heart, in all your work and in life, it is not too late to make amends.

Get hold of this idea: you can make the future just what you want to make it.
You can make it bright, happy, useful, if you learn this fundamental
lesson—it never pays to do any less than your very best. To succeed, live
good, honorable lives by learning how to do something uncommonly well.

Crucially Washington linked success to service to others:

I call your attention to this fact: one thing is dependent for success upon
another; one individual dependent for success upon another; one family in a
community upon other families for their mutual prosperity. The same is true
in nature. One thing cannot exist unless another exists—cannot succeed
without the success of something else.

Washington was born a slave, raised himself up to get an education, and founded more than 3,000 schools for African-American children in the South—meaning he knew whereof he spoke. And throughout Burgess’s fine performance, the passion in Washington’s mission comes through vividly in his every conscientious phrase, his every wise word.

The show is intended for both school and adult audiences and easily builds a rapport with both. At one point during the performance I saw, Burgess sat on the steps next to a youngster and said, “You see? You see?” And he seemed to.

Music Director Scott Farquhar with Gregory Burgess as Booker T. Washington in Character Building. Photo by Kayla Mahood, Stone Photography.

For about a half-dozen musical numbers, Burgess and Farquhar sing together. Musically this works, their voices blend well, it’s a nice change of pace. But it temporarily makes the show about two guys dueting—one of whom we’ve gotten to know, the other we haven’t. Dramaturgically the pairing reads as a step out of character for Washington and interrupts the continuity of our engagement with him. In future productions (which I fervently urge that there be), an onstage youth choir—giving voice to the student generation Washington cared about and spoke to—could take this already soaring show to even greater heights.

Character Building plays through Black History Month only on Saturdays at 1:00 p.m., and seating is limited. As a theatrical testament to one of the most influential characters in Black History—and as a reminder of what matters in the character one calls one’s own—this powerful and pertinent musical is a hugely rewarding experience.

Running Time: About 50 minutes with no intermission.

Character Building plays Saturdays through February 24, 2018, at American Ensemble Theater performing at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW) – 545 7th Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, which are Pay What You Will, call CHAW 202-547-6830. (All proceeds from ticket sales benefit CHAW and its tuition assistance program, which allows low-income and homeless children the opportunity to make art.)

 

Jefferson’s Garden

A portrait of George Washington hangs in Ford’s Theatre on the presidential box where Abraham Lincoln was shot. When you stop to think about it, this is an odd disconnect. Presumably faithful to what the box looked like that fateful night, the Washington portrait viewed today makes the crime scene seem a shrine to the wrong man. It’s truthful but misleading.

This preshow reflection turned out to be apt preparation for Jefferson’s Garden, the play now on the boards at Ford’s.

READ Elizabeth Ballou’s review of Jefferson’s Garden at Ford’s Theatre 

There is a curious interplay between history and interpretation in Jefferson’s Garden, Ford’s entry in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. By its own acknowledgment, the play is a historical fiction, though it’s about something that really happened. It dramatizes the pivotal point in U.S. history when the country’s founding ideals of freedom, independence, equality, and liberty were sold down the river by white male slaveholders.

The cast of Jefferson’s Garden. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

In a way, you could say, America’s history of slavery is its moral Achilles heel. And that’s just on its one foot. On the other is its other moral Achilles heel, the genocide of the people whose home this land once was. Thus for several centuries the nation has hobbled along bipedally imagining itself to be America the Beautiful, Land of the Free. And just about every national immorality since—be it the internment camps or the recent eviction of innocent immigrants—can be traced in a direct line back to those two Founding Flaws.

In Jefferson’s Garden, British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker zeros in on one of them, the contradiction between the American revolutionaries’ espousal of freedom, equality, and inalienable rights and the hard fact that the Framers enshrined slavery in the Constitution. As the playwright said in an interview,

It seemed to me that this particular moment in American history is when the fault lines were laid, when the definition of freedom was corrupted.

First produced in the UK in 2015 to critical acclaim, Jefferson’s Garden retains a supercilious Brit’s eye view. These idealistic upstart colonists and their glaring ethical contradictions! the play seems to chide. Did they not learn from being on the receiving end of oppression how not to do it to others? Guess not!

And of course, the point is well taken.

But the construction and tone of the play rarely reach the gravitas that grounds the historical substance of the play. The theatrical setup is promising: nine actors don various costumes from wardrobe racks and black crates and act out various characters and scenes that tell the story of how America’s ideals were compromised. It’s as if traveling players had come to town to catch the conscience of all us anti-monarchists.

The Native American genocide is glossed over. There’s a telling mention in Wertenbaker’s script in the second act when the Framers determine that a freed slave should be quantified as three-fifths of a person, and an Indian as nothing. That’s it, zip, a blip.

The cast of Jefferson’s Garden. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The Ford’s production is first-rate. The cast is a Who’s Who of local acting talent (Christopher Block, Felicia Curry, Michael Kevin Darnall, Christopher Dinolfo, Kimberly Gilbert, Michael Halling, Thomas Keegan, Katheryn Tkel, Maggie Wilder), nearly all of whom I’ve seen do stunning work in meatier roles. Director Nataki Garrett keeps the flurry of character switches and scene shifts on a clear course at a quick clip.  And the epic script is loaded with lines that have a glorious oratorical ring to them.

We won the war but now we have to shape a country.

Let the inherent rights of man be restored.

Then from Susannah, a slave:

America hasn’t yet been shaped to make me safe.

And from a candid founding father:

Privilege is always bought with someone’s freedom.

Yet I left the theater disappointed, distanced. Given the topic—how our country compromised its values to rationalize a crime against humanity—I would have expected some emotion beyond mild bemusement, engagement with characters who captured my caring, perhaps even a twinge of sorrow or shame. But compared with home-grown dramatic treatments of what America euphemizes as its race problem—Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon (seen recently at Woolly), Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home From the Wars (Round House), Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment (Forum), James Ijames’s The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington (Ally), and Steven A. Butler Jr.’s The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus (Restoration Stage) come to mind—Wertenbaker’s Jefferson’s Garden seemed to me wan without bite or sting, high concept without rage in the gut, an exercise more than an exorcism.

Judging from enthusiastic reviews of the UK production, it played better across the pond.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Jefferson’s Garden plays through February 8, 2018, at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, go online.

 

The Trial

Kafka’s nightmare novel about a man named Joseph K—who is arrested, detained, and tried but never told what he has done wrong—would seem perfect for Synetic Theater’s magic touch. A promising opportunity to use its magnificent design, choreographic, and musical talents in service to a surreal story with unmistakable relevance today. A potential parable about faceless state action rounding up and deporting people whose only crime is to live here.

Surely the adjective Kafkaesque applies to what is now being done to innocent people in our country’s name. So I looked forward Synetic’s take on the story of Joseph K.

Scene from The Trial. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

I recall being greatly impressed by the contemporary resonance to be found in the previous Synetic production I saw, The Mark of Cain. In my review I wrote:

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.

The narrative of The Mark of Cain traced the mythic origin of human evil and how it has persisted throughout history in corrupt power…

And then comes the episode where Cain’s emblem of malevolent authority is … a too-long red tie around his neck. You may have suspected the show was going there and it does, breathtakingly.

With that brilliant allusion to Trump, the entire piece took on gravitas that left me marveling.

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.

Thus I was expecting Synetic’s The Trial to have some of the same currency and heft. Perhaps even more, since The Trial would have language (not credited in the program except that Nathan Weinberger is billed as Adaptor).

Scene from The Trial. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Directed by Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili with movement by Associate Artistic Director Irina Tsikurishvili, The Trial is as eye-popping, ear-buzzy, and kinesthetic as anything I’ve seen at Synetic. Costume Designer Erik Teague has outfitted all the characters (except Joseph K) as eerie oversize insects, bug-eyed, scaley, multilimbed, creepy-crawly. Lighting Designer Brian S. Allard deploys a vivid palette of reds, greens, blues, and yellows into an ominous dark world evoked by Scenic Designer Daniel Pinha’s “massive, ruthless insect hive” (per a program note). And in the same menacing vein, Resident Composer Konstantine Lortikipanidze has again scored an extraordinary soundscape, this time employing what seems an orchestra of anthropods.

Shu-nan Chu is especially good as Joseph K, the hapless pawn in a pernicious powerplay who tries his best to protest and resist. And the various personages named in the novel who figuratively bug Joseph K, and who here are literally bugging out, are also very well played (Tori Bertocci as Anna, Chris Willumsen as Willem, Thomas Beheler as Franz, Ryan Tumulty as Inspector/Judge/Priest/Huld, Kathy Gordon as Clerk/Mrs. Grubach/Leni, Lee Liebeskind as Karl).

Scene from The Trial. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

But The Trial didn’t work for me. As I left the theater I wondered why. And here’s what I figured out.

By turning all the ancillary characters in The Trial into insects, Synetic in a sense conflated the story of Joseph K with the story of Gregor Samsa, who in Kafka’s Metamorphosis wakes up as a huge cockroach. Taking that sort of liberty is Synetic’s stock in trade, of course, and typically the payoff is fresh insight into the source material.

This time, though, the approach proves antithetical to the text. Synetic’s vision of The Trial turns the story of an ordinary man bedeviled by mindless bureaucrats into a story of an ordinary man beset by a roach infestation. Which makes the play not so much a trenchant parable as a hollow sci-fi tale of alien abduction.

Whatever Kafka’s reason for telling the stories of Joseph K and Gregor Samsa in separate works, it was probably a good one. Mushing them together not only misses the point of the author. It’s a missed artistic opportunity for contemporary resonance and revelation.

Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

The Trial plays through February 18, 2018, 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.

Note:  This production is recommended for ages 14+ for mature content.

LINK:

Review: ‘The Trial’ at Synetic Theater by David Siegel

VIDEO:

 

Everything Is Illuminated

A young Jewish American writer named Jonathan arrives by train in the Ukraine on a quest to find a woman named Augustine who helped his grandfather Safran escape the Nazis. He has only a faded photograph of them together and the name of a tiny town, Trachimbrod. But he must find her—he must—because she is the woman without whom he would not have been.

“He has come a long way to seek his past,” says Alex, the amiable young Ukrainian whom Jonathan has hired as translator.

“And I have gone a long way to escape mine,” says Alex’s gruff Grandfather, whom Jonathan has hired as driver. We know not yet what Alex’s Grandfather refers to, though we already have good reason to wonder what he did in the war. And the moment goes by fast—just one of countless breathtaking beats in an exquisitely written play.

Everything Is Illuminated—adapted by British playwright Simon Block from Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed debut novel—delves into the distance between Holocaust remembering and Holocaust forgetting. Between honoring the dead and disavowing why and how they died. Between the sorrow and the complicity. And incredibly, unforgettably, what comes shining through like literal light is a radiant emotional experience as heartrending as it is hilarious.

Yes, hilarious—not a word one might associate with such resolute remembrance.

Billy Finn, Alex Alferov, and Daven Ralston in Everything Is Illuminated. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

First off, Jonathan’s translator Alex is a randy dude with a nutty grasp of English, and as delivered in dialect by the commandingly comedic Alex Alferov, his not-quite-literate lines land laugh after laugh (“I implore you to forgive my speaking of English. I am not so premium with it”).

Second, Alex’s Grandfather, Jonathan’s driver, wears dark glasses, hobbles with a white cane, and appears to be blind. He’s not really, but this serves to unnerve Jonathan, as does the Grandfather’s sudden burst of anger. The Grandfather is a character whose full complexity comes to a shocking boil in a flashback in the second act, but in the beginning, Eric Hissom has him simmer to fascinating and fearsome effect.

The brainy, fish-out-of-water Jonathan is nicely played with earnest honesty by Billy Finn, who’s especially winning as the foil for the jokey setups. Notable among them is the horny, yapping, and flatulent dog (a puppet animated and voiced by Daven Ralston) that accompanies the threesome on their drive to Jonathan’s mystery destination.

Daven Ralson and Billy Finn in Everything Is Illuminated. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Ralson also appears in other supporting roles, including surly Waitress, crusty Hotel Keeper, sullen Petrol Attendant—each deftly individuated. But her immeasurable contribution to the magic of the play is as musician (playing lovely incidental interludes of her composition on stringed instruments) and as Brod, a maybe mythical muse to Jonathan when his writer’s imagination must fill in blanks that his journey cannot.

Several timelines interweave in the play, as well as shifts from naturalism to magical realism; not all is always as it seems. So it is that Jonathan encounters an Old Woman who lives alone in a small house one room of which has shelves full of photographs and other mementos in labeled boxes. In Nancy Robinette’s magnificent portrayal, the Old Woman delivers a heart-stopping story recalling what happened to the shtetl of Trachimbrod.

Old Woman: I am the only one remaining…
They were all killed…
Except for one or two who managed to escape…
You should never have to be the one remaining.

Billy Finn, Nancy Robinette, Alex Alferov, and Eric Hissom in Everything Is Illuminated. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Is she Augustine, the woman who saved Jonathan’s grandfather? Maybe, maybe not. But upon seeing Jonathan’s photograph of them together, she remembers Safran was the first boy she kissed.

Equally heart-stopping but even more horrifying is the story Hissom as Grandfather tells in which we learn what he did that he has tried to forget. “I am a good person who lived in a bad time,” he says to his grandson, trying to justify himself, trying to explain what, despite his intentions, got brutally passed down from father to son to son.

Grandfather: I didn’t want your father to grow up close to so much death. I wanted so much for him to live a good life, without death and choices and shame and guilt. Without guilt, Alex. Oh, to live without guilt!…
I wanted to remove your father from everything that was shameful. But I discovered that shame follows you like an infected dog…

The play’s theatrical mix of realism and invention comes alive in language so amazing it washes over one like waves. The stage arts too combine to make this a spectacularly engaging production.

Director Aaron Posner conducts each pulsebeat with an emotional reverence that resonates throughout the house. Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway enlarges upon the Old Woman’s shelves and makes of them a testament to the mind’s quest to retrieve meaning. Costume Designer Kendra Rai mixes rustic and real (for Alex, Grandfather, and others) with sublime and wished-for (the ethereal white gowns worn by Old Woman and Brod). Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan brings vibrant veracity to Jonathan’s arrival at the train station, and near the end Heffernan and Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky create cosmic effects with heart-stirring force.

Special kudos to Dialect Coach Nancy Krebs for achieving an astonishing layering of languages. Alex, when addressing Jonathan or the audience in his funny, fractured English, speaks with a thick Slavic dialect; yet when Alex, his Grandfather, and others talk among themselves in their native tongue, they do so with standard American inflection. The result, an aural delight, intriguingly echoes the levels of perspective at play.

Theater J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr pursued the rights to stage Everything Is Illuminated with a determination that now pays off in a powerful production not to be missed. I know there will be many who will see it having read Foer’s book, but I came to the play cold. And with each plot surprise and poetically turned phrase, it swept me away. I absolutely loved it.

Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

Everything Is Illuminated plays through February 4, 2018, at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.

 

The Skin of Our Teeth

Thornton Wilder’s allegorical paean to humanity’s survival “by the skin of our teeth” has itself become a marvel of endurance. First staged in 1942, when times were decidedly dire, the determinedly optimistic The Skin of Our Teeth was a Pulitzer Prize-winning hit on Broadway and has been steadily produced ever since.

It’s a wackadoodle play, a kitchen sink of metatheatrical tricks. The actors break character and stop then restart the play, the chronology spans eons in three acts, comic bits accumulate with non-sequiturial chutzpah. Truth to tell, Wilder’s dramaturgical unorthodoxy has been matched if not surpassed by many of the very experimental playwrights he inspired. Yet this unclassifiable comedy-drama sticks around, an artifact from the past and a perennial audience pleaser—because crazily enough it’s got something to say that still needs hearing.

Wilder believed the play “mostly comes alive under times of crisis.” And indeed, given the cynical mess in our government and the creeping cynicism that has ensued, the fresh and feisty version of The Skin of Our Teeth that comes alive in Constellation Theatre Company’s production proves Wilder’s point perfectly.

Malinda Kathleen Reese (Gladys), Steven Carpenter (Mr. Antrobus), Lolita Marie (Mrs. Antrobus), and Dallas Tolentino (Henry) in The Skin of Our Teeth. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

The basic plot is by any measure screwy. A certain George and Maggie Antrobus (Steven Carpenter and Lolita Marie)—stand-ins for the human race—have been married for 5,000 years. They live simultaneously in 1942 Excelsior, New Jersey, and in time immemorial. Which means that a radio broadcaster can announce news of the day even as George invents the wheel and a pet dino and woolly mammoth wander in.

Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus have two upstart teenagers—a daughter, Gladys (Malinda Kathleen Reese), and a son, Henry (Dallas Tolentino)—and an outspoken maid, Sabina (Tonya Beckman). A gritty if offbeat family, the Antrobuses survive before our eyes the Ice Age (in Act One), a global flood (in Act Two), and a devastating war (in Act Three). The upbeat ending celebrates humanity’s resilience and ability to make new beginnings.

The fun is in the fast-paced farcical crises that beset this tenacious family, and Director Mary Hall Surface keeps up a winning momentum. Some of Wilder’s laugh lines land more mildly today than they surely did in 1942, yet a few are surprisingly contemporary zingers. And overall there’s an energetic pleasantness and cheerful inventiveness to the performances that well sustains the show’s two and a half hours.

Tonya Beckman (Sabina) and Lilian Oben (Fortune Teller) in The Skin of Our Teeth. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

In particular, Lolita Marie plays Mrs. Antrobus with a persuasive gravitas that consistently grounds the play, and Tonya Beckman brings to Sabina a sassy sashay that brightens each scene she’s in.

Also noteworthy in the big cast are Gerrad Alex Taylor (Telegraph Boy/Interviewer/Ensemble), Collin Connor (Frederick/Fred Bailey/Ensemble), Ben Lauer (Dolly/Broadcast Official/Ensemble), Billie Krishawn (Stage Manager/Ensemble), Lilian Oben (Fortune Teller/Ensemble), Mary Miller-Booker (Broadcast Official/Hester/Ensemble), Christopher Gillespie (Mr. Tremayne/Ensemble), and Natalie Cutcher (Ivy/Ensemble).

The set by Scenic Designer A.J. Guban (who also did the lighting) is particularly clever. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright—with geometric earth tones on the floor, stacked-flagstone walls, mission furnishings—it winks at the fact that several of the great architect’s most famous houses have not withstood time well.

Malinda Kathleen Reese (Gladys) in The Skin of Our Teeth. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

Costume Designer Frank Labovitz walks a fine funny line between couture and cartoon, especially in the colorful second-act scene on the Atlantic City Boardwalk (where we meet a flamboyant Fortune Teller who knows both future and past). Sound Designer Justin Schmitz besides providing some delightful 1940s music tracks also makes scenes of nearby disaster a chest-pounding experience. And Puppet Designer Matthew Aldwin McGee’s antediluvian critters are cute as buttons.

The Skin of Our Teeth is a perfect pick-me-up for imperfect times. The play has been around and will likely be around longer, since its significance shelf life syncs with that of the human race. But hats off to Constellation Theatre Company for reminding us that despite current crises, we all have an important part to play in continuing what has to “go on and on for ages yet.”

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including a single intermission between Acts One and Two.

The Skin of Our Teeth plays through February 11, 2018, at Constellation Theatre Company performing at Source Theatre – 1835 14th Street North West, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7741, or purchase them online.

 

Guilt

Sex and guilt were linked in superstition before institutional Christianity came on the scene, but thanks to the medieval Catholic Church they got hooked up with theology too. It was in the runup to the church’s crackpot Inquisition that three senses of the word possession—as carnal, religious, and demonic—got all mushed together. And western civilization has not since quite got them sorted.

This approximately is the historical and contemporary backdrop for John Shand’s Guilt, a dazzlingly literary play in verse based on the true story of Urbain Grandier, a womanizing 17th-century French Catholic priest who was burned at the stake for sorcery.

Now having its world premiere in a penetrating Scena Theatre production directed by Artistic Director Robert McNamara, Guilt is rich with scintillating ideas and alive with vivid language. According to the author, Guilt “explores the overlays and collisions between sexual and spiritual rapture: how one might fuel the other, and how one might be misconstrued as the other.” The work also functions as an epic morality play about misplaced guilt, “reckoning” overreaction, and mistaken retribution.

Oscar Ceville (Grandier) and Danielle Davy (Brigitte) in Guilt. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Subtitled “an opera without music,” Shand’s script is rife with poetic arias that fuse ecstasy, eroticism, and doctrine. And sometimes flat-out lechery, as when we meet the vain Grandier (Oscar Ceville) admiring himself in a mirror:

Grandier: What purpose lay in lavishing such looks
as might threaten one’s humility,
if not to snare the weaker sex?
And, after all, by bedding them, do I
not let them touch the very ladder to our Lord?
So in a sense my seed anoints:
a sort of sacrament.

The local Magistrate De Brou (Ron Litman) brings his lovely 18-year-old daughter Brigitte (Danielle Davy) to Grandier for innocent lute lessons. Left alone with her, Grandier sets about seducing her.

Meanwhile, he preaches a sermon extolling chastity in the unwed. Upon hearing his overheated homily, Jeanne (Nanna Ingvarsson), a sexually frustrated hunchbacked prioress, delivers a hilarious lyrical aside about her own prurient interest in him.

Jeanne: I could eat his voice, and chew on every word;
eat his voice and devour his lips;
roll his voice around in my mouth,
roll it around with my tongue;
chew every word a hundred times…

The historical Grandier was a propagandist against clerical celibacy, which pissed off the ecclesiastical power structure, and Guilt touches on some of his arguments. But the character is presented more as horndog than polemicist. And Brigitte his virgin conquest is depicted as quite coyly willing. Not yet having declared herself desirous of him, Brigitte delivers a passage purple with passion to Grandier in the confessional booth:

Brigitte: I’ve gazed upon a man – a passer-by, no more –
my eyes keen blades of lust;
I’ve felt his fingers in my hair
as he whispers words of love.
His fiery breath has kissed my ear,
as his arms, like rings of molten steel,
encircled and entrapped me.
I’ve lain sleepless through the nights,
the bed drenched in my sweat
as the ghost of his mouth –
as real as sin – found out my own,
and convulsed me with desire.
I’ve felt myself melt when exposed
to the furnace of his perfect mind.
I’ve seen myself harbour him
Amid his storms of passion.
I have wept at the glimpse of ecstasy;
I have ached with such longing for his lips –

Grandier: Yes, I think I get the gist.

Brigitte alludes of course to Grandier, he happily gets the hint—and there follows a classic scene of coital disappointment.

Brigitte: Is that all?
Pain, tears and violent violation
from a man who sheds abruptly
all wisdom, knowledge, beauty,
to become a heaving mass?

A few months later Brigitte lets Grandier know she’s pregnant, and he reacts like a misogynist dickhead.

Grandier: Wretched girl. She has ever been a trial….
And now, to be with child! The slut!
I’ve been abused at every turn.

Brigitte’s father, De Brou, browbeats her too.

De Brou: You stupid girl! You hussy! How dare you shame me in this way!

Topping things off, the unchivalrous Grandier, confronted by De Brou, totally denies having had sex with Brigitte.

Grandier: It was not I, but a great black dog that tupped her.

Ron Litman (De Brou), Oscar Ceville (Grandier), and Nanna Ingvarsson (Jeanne) in Guilt. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Let us pause to take stock of where guilt might fairly and accurately be apportioned at this point. Perhaps the Church bears some, for enforcing celibacy on priests (presumably so there will be no heirs to its earthly treasures). But realistically, seen from the point of view of any audience member even dimly aware of how patriarchy operates, Grandier and DeBrou are due for a load of guilt by the ton.

All of which makes the plot twists that follow both fascinating and effed up.

Jeanne, still carrying a torch for Grandier—who, we learn, “has defiled half the women in the town”—schemes to recruit him as confessor in her priory, but he scoffs at her offer. Outraged by his “oceanic arrogance” and bestirred by revenge, Jeanne declares, “If I can’t have him no one shall.”

Under increasing scrutiny for being “the man who preached ‘Be chaste’ while fucking women left and right,” Grandier goes grandiose:

Grandier: Though hordes of De Brous
seek to bring me down,
they’ll not succeed without the Church;
and the Church will never see besmirched
its own good name.

Grandier got that wrong though. The powers of the church come down upon him hard, first in the guise of a Jesuit exorcist, Surin (John Geoffrion), who reframes Grandier’s offense as witchcraft requiring a public exorcism. As he tells Jeanne and Brigitte,

Surin: Grandier is a sorcerer, and you are all under his spell. Under his spell he has seen fit to have you possessed by devils. Devils!

Grandier is imprisoned and tortured. Brigitte and Jeanne are put through excruciating exorcisms.  And steadily the play’s framing of Grandier shifts such that he becomes its centrally sympathetic character: “Surely I’ve done nothing so wrong to warrant this?” he pleads.

Surin will have none of it:

Surin: His trial must be a lesson to the world that we shall win this war against a foe that would destroy our God, our faith, our way of life. His death must give the people hope that we’ll prevail, while sowing the fear of God within their hearts of what befalls any who transgress.

Oscar Ceville, Nanna Ingvarsson, John Geoffrion (Surin), Danielle Davy, Ron Litman in Guilt. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Before Grandier is gruesomely burned alive, he mansplains an exoneration of himself:

Grandier: What if I did no more than lavish love where there was need?…
If I am guilty of any sin, it is the sin of love. Of loving too deeply the fairer sex. Of longing to satisfy their longings. Besides, the fault was not all mine. Often these women flung themselves at me, unable to contain their desires. Who could say “No!” when they threw off their clothes? Who could say “no” to their hungry tongues and honeyed thighs?

And Brigitte has a dramatic change of heart.

Brigitte: Until I saw the flames I thought –
I thought I hated him enough
to want to watch him die.
But hate melted to a swirling pool
of pity shored with desolation,
aching and throbbing, aching and throbbing
in my ears and in my breast;
tearing and tearing and tearing at me
with the thought I’ve killed the man I loved.
I have helped to fuel
the fire with an innocent man.

Danielle Davy (Brigitte) and Nanna Ingvarsson (Jeanne) in Guilt. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

The play wants to sweep us into recognition that in the end Brigitte, as she tells us, is guilty too. Like a #MeToo victim with accuser’s remorse. This dramatic twist requires audience amnesia about how Grandier treated Brigitte earlier in the play when in classic blame-the-victim mode he rejects her as a slut for getting pregnant by him. For me that was too much a stretch, and I left the theater far more impressed with the playwright’s powers of poetic expression than with his powers of moral discernment.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.

Guilt plays through February 4, 2018, at Scena Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. 20002, For tickets, buy them at the door or purchase them online.

LINK: Review: ‘Guilt, an opera without music’ at Scena Theatre by David Siegel