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The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

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Oh, God

Theater and theology have been boon companions for eons. Ever since religion was invented, humans have wanted divinities with drama. Way back in polytheistic antiquity, playgoers imagined gods as celestial celebs who are just like us. When monotheism came along, it simplified the godhead dramatis personae—and the smaller-cast show turned out to be very tourable—but the human urge to anthropomorphize the otherwise unknowable hung on.

To that tried-and-tested trope, the acclaimed Israeli playwright Anat Gov has tacked on therapy: She wrote a comedy called Oh, God in which God visits a shrink. Like literally and hilariously, the Judeo-Christian God character comes to see a psychologist because he’s having issues—which is such a perfectly relatable extension of the theater/theology formula, it’s a wonder no one thought of it before.

Now having its DC premiere at Mosaic on H Street in a production directed nimbly by Michael Bloom, Gov’s Oh, God proves itself much more than its punchline-setup premise might suggest. What begins rib-tickling turns soul-searching and by the end gets heart-stirring. It’s an ingeniously moving comedy that well earns the adjective divine.

Sean McCoy (Lior), Kimberly Schraf (Ella), and Mitchell Hébert (God) in ‘Oh, God.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

Oh, God is set in the home office of Ella, a psychologist who specializes in early childhood learning disorders, hence a children’s play area stage right, and who likes to garden, hence an outdoor area stage left. Set Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson styles the room with plants and bright colors and suspends ivy-trimmed lattices overhead against a cyc evoking sky. It is a pleasant, welcoming space lit cheerfully by Lighting Designer Brittany Shemuga. And pre-show, Sound Designer Roc Lee pipes in relaxing Muzak covers of Beatles tunes.

Ella is played by Kimberly Schraf with an ethereal grace and polished poise that belie Ella’s own psychological distress. She is single mom to a 14-year-old son named Lior, who is severely autistic but also a gifted cellist. Lior is played by Sean McCoy with striking believability (the program credits Special Needs Consultant Dana Gillespie) and impressive cello chops. When Ella tells Lior she has a new client coming, he becomes agitated.

Enter a man in black, also agitated but for cosmic cause. A run of therapist-office jokes ensues as Ella tries to find out what his story is and why he needed to see her so urgently.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

“I am who I am,” he answers.

His father? He had none. His mother? Ditto. “So you were an orphan from birth?” she offers. Affirmative.

Ella is not about to believe anymore in God. “I’m secular,” she says, “I eat shrimp wrapped in bacon.” But he overcomes her skepticism with some otherworldly sound and light cues, and the two get to work. Turns out, God’s woes and travails have driven him to the brink of deciding to end it all—meaning Ella’s mission is to save creation from total destruction.

Mitchell Hébert (God) and Kimberly Schraf (Ella) in ‘Oh, God.’ Photo by Stan Barough.

Mitchell Hébert plays God with an awesome emotional command that ranges from self-pitying whimpering to gale-force Charleton Heston rage with a couple hilarious crying jags in between. And a remarkable thing happens in the deft interplay between Hébert and Schraf: As God the character steadily becomes credible to Ella, he takes on genuine psychological depth for us as well. Some of it is played for laughs (He has a fear of abandonment by humans. “They don’t love me, they love Jesus”). Some of it is played for real. And Ella herself is revealed as someone with her own dark night of the soul.

About two-thirds in, Ella lets loose, railing against God for his power-tripping and epic violence (“What kind of God are you?!” “Only God could be so inhuman!”). She nails him for his mistreatment of Job, whose love and loyalty he rewarded with hardship and affliction. And she accuses God of acting “like an abusive man.” It is a stunning turnabout, theatrically, theologically, and (perhaps for some in the audience) therapeutically.

Because Oh, God works as a divine comedy whatever one’s religious beliefs (including none of the above), it works as seasonal programming in wondrous ways. One might call it a miracle on H Street.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Oh, God plays through January 13, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext 2 or purchase them online.

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“Claim All of Your Selves”: Q&A with Caleen Sinnette Jennings (Queens Girl)

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts January 12, 2018]

Erika Rose’s performance in Queens Girl in Africa is awesome to behold. She plays the playwright’s teenage self, named Jackie, plus her parents, school friends, and others, with an incandescence that won’t stop. The coming-of-age story tells of the time in the 1960s she and her family lived in Nigeria. It picks up the storyline that began in the playwright’s Queens Girl in the World, which took place in New York City and was performed three years ago by Dawn Ursula.

Dawn Ursula in Queens Girl in the World at Theater J, directed by Eleanor Holdridge, Women’s Voices Theater Festival 2015. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The first Queens Girl play was commissioned for the first Women’s Voices Theater Festival by Ari Roth when he was artistic director of Theater J. Now artistic director of Mosaic Theater Company, Roth commissioned the second Queens Girl play for the second Women’s Voices Theater Festival. So externally the plays are of a piece, but within them is an even deeper connection.

Erika Rose in Queens Girl in Africa at Mosaic Theater Company, directed byPaige Hernandez, Women’s Voices Theater Festival 2018. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Between my memory of seeing Ursula as Jackie and now seeing Rose as Jackie, it was as though I had witnessed a continuous self, or a transmogrification of the same soul, first in one exquisite embodiment then in another.

Though Queens Girl in the World and Queens Girl in Africa each stand alone, taken together they are a beautifully theatricalized bildungsroman, a sweeping moral memoir of “How I came to know who I am” that makes the audience want to know Jackie too. Which is also to want to know the voice of the author.

The life depicted onstage in the Queens Girl cycle was adapted by Caleen Sinnette Jennings from her own. Jennings, a professor of theater at American University, was a member of the original Welders, which produced her Not Enuf Lifetimes, a play I admired enormously. When I asked if I could interview her to know more about her writing of the Queens Girl plays, she generously agreed.

Queens Girl cycle Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings.

John: The storytelling in the Queens Girl cycle is personal and political at the same time.  How are the two plays connected for you?

Caleen: When I wrote Queens Girl in the World, I considered that my one semi-autobiographical play. I had made up my mind I was not going to write anything like that again.

Fortunately for us you changed your mind.

It was Ari who convinced me. I told him, I said no I’m really not interested. And he took me to breakfast, so be careful if he invites you to breakfast.

They say life is lived forward and understood looking backwards. That kind of looking back is very emotional, and I had never written anything like this before, so I had a tremendous amount to learn. Just going from narrative to dramatic writing was difficult. There are characters that I conflated and things that I omitted and that were cut for time’s sake.

One of the things I always tell my playwriting students is: Don’t write anything autobiographical, because as you’re living your life, life happens to you, but in the theater, you have to have a protagonist that’s active and that does things. And really you’re not aware of what you’re doing when you’re living your life. You’re just having things happen to you and you sort of respond. So with Queens Girl in Africa, looking back and trying to answer the question that Ari, the director [Paige Hernandez], the dramaturg [Faedra Chatard Carpenter], and the actor [Erika Rose] kept asking me—But what did YOU DO?was difficult and intense and interesting.

The thing Ari said that convinced me to write Queens Girl in Africa was: You’ve learned so much in the first process. Give yourself a chance to apply what you’ve learned a second time. And that’s really what happened.

For me what’s so wonderful is what the main character Jackie learns about herself in the first play and then what she learns about herself in the second play. It’s from a teenager’s point of view but with the wisdom of an elder’s reflection and framing.

I certainly did not feel wise at the time. If you had spoken to me in fall of 1968, I was still worrying about: my canines are crooked and my feet are too big. So in writing the play, it was tricky to balance and frame artistically what you now understand about what you were going through and experiencing at the time. I couldn’t have articulated any of this to you then, but I understand it now.

All the teenage angst-y things about boyfriends and crushes and such is delightful, and both Dawn and Erika were wonderful playing that teenage self. And what for me was so rare is that the plays dramatize something very elusive, which is self-knowledge about oneself in the world politically. It was a continuous coming-of-age, coming-to-race-consciousness narrative, as I saw it. And I’ve never seen first-person theatrical storytelling quite so clearly frame a life in terms of the social-political landscape.

Well, you know, my parents and my grandparents had a lot to do with my sense of self. Ours was a house where we read and debated and watched television and talked about it. I went to Elizabeth Irwin High School, where we read The New York Times in class and talked about what was in the news, and we were assigned community service that we had to do, so we were encouraged to think of ourselves as citizens who had responsibility.

Erika Rose in Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ Queens Girl in Africa at Mosaic Theater Company, Women’s Voices Theater Festival 2018. Photo by Stan Barouh.

I got the sense there were playwriting lessons that you built into both works and we might not be aware of them, but the playwriting teacher in you was leaving behind gems of information, and if anyone was going to write a story about themselves with as much political perspicacity as you’ve shown, these are the things to keep in mind.

Well, any playwriting lessons in the play were not conscious because I was struggling to learn how to write it as I wrote it. So I don’t feel as if I left any hints or tips. Luckily I had an amazing dramaturg, Faedra, and Paige and Ari who encouraged me and helped me shape the piece.  I give great props to them. My original script was 150 some pages, and we cut it to around 60.

In the first part, Jackie talks about writing as helping her “make peace between the Erickson Street Jackie and the Irwin School Jackie”—meaning who she is in the mostly black Queens neighborhood where she lives and who she is in the mostly white elementary school she goes to in Greenwich Village. Then in part two she goes with her parents to live in Nigeria and asks “Am I afraid of Africa? … Who will Africa Jackie be?” And there’s this shocking moment when she realizes that she—as an American not born in Africa—is being called a word that means “white foreigner.”

Yeah.

My heart just sank. And in that moment I saw this powerful arc you had created about who Jackie conceives herself to be and who she’s perceived as: which Jackie is she? It was the kind of storytelling that keeps you completely absorbed but also, if you step away, it stands out as emblematic: like, everyone should be able to have that kind of self-awareness of who one is and who one is in context. It became more than storytelling; it became a parable that we could all learn from.

Well, you know, every teenager thinks something’s wrong with them, every teenager thinks: I don’t fit in because something is wrong with me, or: there are so many aspects of my personality, I’m not even sure which one is the real me. So if there’s one thing I would like people to take away with them it’s the moment Jackie discovers when she’s doing theater: Oh, my gosh, I can be three different Jackies in one body!

I went through adolescence decades before we had the term code-switching. So at the time I just thought I was crazy. But everybody has to adapt depending on where they are, what they’re doing. And that was a revelation to me. So I hope one of the things people will take away is: no, you’re not crazy; you’re adapting to circumstances, many times circumstances that are very difficult, but it’s all part of who you are. Claim all of your multiple selves.

One of the things that sets the Queens Girl plays apart from other coming-of-age stories is that the drama of Jackie’s self-understanding and emergence isn’t just about intra-family dynamics. There are historical events that crash into the storyline: the Baptist church bombing in Birmingham and the assassination of Malcolm X in part one; and in part two, the assassination of Dr. King, the race riots in America, and simultaneously the tribal war in Nigeria. At one point Jackie realizes, “The tribes don’t like each other.” I found that historical contexting of Jackie’s personal-growth narrative powerful: like a lesson for all.

I always tell my students: tell your story with as much detail as possible, because the thing that you don’t expect other people to understand—and the things you think: this will be boring, nobody will get this—are sometimes the things that really resonate with people. If you had asked me a month ago: are people going to respond to these things? I would have said: I absolutely have no idea.

Erika Rose in Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ Queens Girl in Africa at Mosaic Theater Company, Women’s Voices Theater Festival 2018. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Most people don’t think of themselves as being impacted by historical events the way Jackie so clearly does. That’s what’s so beautiful about her story: it shows us how events in the world become part of us.

I think that was also the flavor of the times. As boomers in the sixties, we were told we were special and we were going to change the world.  Also: Don’t trust anybody over 30. One of things that sometimes makes me sad is that students I teach often don’t have that sense of empowerment; they’re too worried about finances, they’re wrestling with health issues, they’re worried about their families who are paying for their education, they’re worried about things like insurance. I didn’t even know what insurance was when I was 18. I had time to be an idealistic wannabe activist.

There’s another level of the plays, which is as a parable of exemplary parenting. Your parents saw a matinee of Queens Girl in Africa the day before it opened, and you were there in a talkback with them. What was their reaction?

Well, I got a little emotional at one point during the post-show discussion, because somebody asked me: How does it feel to have your parents here? And I said: I hope this will be a tribute to the gift they gave me. They enabled me at age 18 to see myself as a citizen of the world. [Jackie’s mother] Grace keeps saying to Jackie: You’re strong, you are smart. When I look at the kinds of things they taught me, I’m so grateful. My parents are Depression-era babies. So a lot of what you see in the two parents in the play is a reflection of their upbringing. They’re 93 and 92 now. They came and were very appreciative. And wow, it was amazing.

Near the end of Queens Girl in Africa, Jackie gets accepted into Bennington, which at that time was a very interesting place to be political. Will we find out what happens to Jackie there?

I’m resisting, but Ari announced to the audience that he’s taking me to breakfast.

Erika Rose in Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ Queens Girl in Africa at Mosaic Theater Company, Women’s Voices Theater Festival 2018. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Lastly, I want to ask you something from your perspective and stature in the theater and the community as an esteemed elder—which I take to be a mark of honor and I hope it fits you that way too.

I fear that’s a little hyperbolic, John. But it warms my heart to hear you say that.

Well, I think a lot of people think of you that way, and I know some of them because I’ve met some of your students. And I can also sense the wisdom that suffuses the work of yours I’ve seen. So my question is: From that perspective, what do you see as the biggest challenges regarding representation in DC theater of the voices of women and people of color? And what would you like to see happen that hasn’t yet?

Well, I think important things are happening. To go to the theater and see [my former student] Jonelle [Walker]’s play [TAME.] last year was just so incredibly exciting for me. We represent such a wonderful span of ages—from boomers, to millennials, to gen-x—and I see these young folks writing their own plays and forming their own companies and speaking out about how things need to change.

They have these questions:  why do things have to be like this? what if we did this? what if we did that?

DC embraced us Welders. In any other city it could have been: well, who do they think they are? And the established theaters could have said: well, let ’em go off and try; see how far they get without us. Instead, it was a full-on embrace and cheerleading that was unbelievable. And now to see Welders 2.0 come into its own, I think I see more movement than obstacles.

I see an understanding of the fact that individual artists have to take more responsibility, and theater establishments when they open up and embrace the agency of young artists will only continue to grow, and audiences will reflect the generational differences. I think everybody is coming to the realization there are certain things that have to be done to make theater continue to be relevant. There are some really smart people here. And I think DC is way out front in terms of doing some of those things.

Women’s Voices Theater Festival happened way before #MeToo. We’ve got all these fabulous universities. We have the Fringe Festival. We have Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage. DC is really an ideal place to examine what the key issues are and what people are doing to solve them, to get out ahead of some of the obstacles in the way of theater professionals.

It is a very exciting place to be at this very exciting time.

It is. I know of very few places where people would say: Yay, a new play that’s never been done; let me go and see a preview before it’s reviewed, on the coldest day of the year. It was astonishing to have 130 people come to a preview of Queens Girl in Africa on a night that was absolutely frigid for a play that nobody had any guarantee would be any good at all.  And people came and wanted to talk. That’s pretty special.

Running Time: 100 minutes including a 15-minute intermission

Queens Girl in Africa runs through Sunday, February 4, 2018, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext 2 or purchase them online.

WVTF Playwright Spotlight: Caleen Sinnette Jennings 
Caleen Sinnette Jennings is Professor of Theatre at American University in Washington, DC. She received the Heideman Award from Actor’s Theatre of Louisville for her play Classyass, which was produced at the 2002 Humana Festival and has been published in five anthologies. She is a two-time Helen Hayes Award nominee for Outstanding New Play. In 2003 she won the award for Outstanding Teaching of Playwriting from the Play Writing Forum of the Association of Theatre in Higher Education. In 1999 she received a $10,000 grant from the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays for her play Inns & Outs. Her play Playing Juliet/Casting Othello was produced at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in 1998. In 2012, Ms. Jennings’ play Hair, Nails & Dress, was produced by Uprooted Theatre Company of Milwaukee and by the DC Black Theatre Festival. Her most recent publication is Uncovered, in the 2011 Eric Lane and Nina Shengold anthology Shorter, Faster, Funnier. Dramatic Publishing Company has published: Chem Mystery, Elsewhere in Elsinore: the Unseen Women of Hamlet, Inns & Outs, Playing Juliet/Casting Othello, Sunday Dinner, A Lunch Line, and Same But Different. Ms. Jennings is also an actor and director. She received her BA in drama from Bennington College and her MFA in Acting from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

 

 

 

 

Gloria Steinem on Sovereignty (report)

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts January 30, 2018]

“What Mary Kathryn Nagle has given us on stage tonight is the history we don’t learn,” said renowned feminist author and activist Gloria Steinem during one of the most buzzed-about talkbacks of the theater season. The occasion was a  Sunday night performance of Nagle’s Sovereignty, the electrifyingly illuminating new play now at Arena Stage directed by Artistic Director Molly Smith as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.

Gloria Steinem, Director/Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith, and Playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle during a post-show conversation on the set of Sovereignty at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, January 28, 2018. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

At the heart of Nagle’s Sovereignty is a profound parallel between a woman’s fundamental right to control of her own body and the supreme right to self-governance of a nation. That connection—presented in the script as material not just metaphorical—prompted Arena to program a riveting post-show panel moderated by Smith with the feminist icon and the playwright.

One of Arena’s series of Power Plays, Sovereignty tracks the determination of a character named Sarah—who like playwright is a lawyer and citizen of the Cherokee Nation—to overturn the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe that disallows an Indian nation from bringing to justice any non-Indian who commits a crime on its land. As a direct consequence of the legal immunity this reprehensible ruling grants, outsiders perpetrate sexual violence against Indian women and children at shocking rates. They know they can get away with it and they do.

In the play Sarah is beaten and raped by her non-Indian husband. Deciding to charge him, she says:

If he can erase my sovereignty over my body, he can erase sovereignty over my nation.

Many in the audience had come specifically to stay for the panel, and during the performance, there was a pronounced commonality of audible responses. At one point a forceful line spoken by Sarah (played with grit and grace by Kyla García) got a reaction akin to a zinger at a rally speech. The crowd had come to be wowed and they were.

READ Elizabeth Ballou’s interview with Kyla García.

Nagle began her remarks talking about the history of colonial rape against Native women. Violence against women, she said, was “one of the first and longest-used tactics in the conquest of tribal nations.” One of the first things Christopher Columbus and his men did when they “got lost” and arrived here was to rape Native women.

“Women are the fabric of our nations,” Nagle said, “not just because we give birth to the next generation but we’re a matrilineal society,” meaning that “citizenship and identity within a nation is tied to a mother.” Thus the tactic used historically to destroy the sovereignty of Indian nations by assaulting the sovereignty of Native women’s bodies: “If you want to wipe out a nation, you wipe out the women.”

Gloria Steinem during a post-show conversation about Sovereignty at Arena Stage. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Steinem then elaborated, stating that a woman’s right to govern her body is “where democracy starts—either we govern our own physical selves or we don’t.” Controlling women’s bodies in order to control reproduction was “the beginning of patriarchy,”  which was “the beginning of all hierarchy.”

Then with her characteristic wry wit, Steinem said to much laughter: “It happens that women have wombs. If we did not have wombs, we’d be fine.”

Underscoring the strength and importance of Sovereignty in performance, Steinem said, “What we have seen tonight is so revelatory for what our concept of democracy is and what our human rights are.”

Nagle’s play turns dramatically on the fact that the rates of sexual assault and murdered and missing women in the U.S. are highest against Native women, the majority of those crimes are committed by non-Indian men on tribal land, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that tribes no longer have jurisdiction over those perpetrators. There is only one exception, built into the 2013 Violence Against Women Act, which grants tribes jurisdiction in cases of domestic violence and dating violence. But if a non-Native man comes on to tribal land and rapes or murders a Native woman, VAWA doesn’t cover it.

READ Ravelle Brickman’s review of Sovereignty.

Nagle and Steinem co-wrote an op-ed in September 2016 titled Sexual Assault on the Pipeline, in which they discussed the Dakota Access Pipeline and the accompanying “man camps” where construction workers live.

“This is a global problem,” Steinem said. In extractive industries, in Canada and many other countries, men are shipped “where the law isn’t looking.” Mineral-rich areas are often where indigenous people live. And the extractive industries engage in sex trafficking, shipping in women and very young girls for the men to abuse.

Kyla Garcia in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Kyla García as Sarah Ridge Polson in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Sovereignty is indeed “the history we don’t learn,” as I myself found. It is packed with unsettling things I was not aware of. I did not know it was the economic interests of the Southern owning class the government was serving when the U.S. expelled the Cherokee and other tribes from Georgia and sent them packing on the “Trail of Tears” to live on land that’s now Oklahoma. I did not know that “Cherokee removal” had been Andrew Jackson’s campaign promise. I did not know that Thomas Jefferson had inscribed in the Declaration of Independence a reference to indigenous peoples as “merciless Indian Savages.” The parallels in Sovereignty to the GOP’s allegiance to the one percent and Trump’s racist wall obsession were unspoken but unmistakable.

 SEE my take on Jefferson’s Garden at Ford’s Theatre, which deals with Thomas Jefferson’s similarly shameful treatment of former slaves.

“How can a play like this serve the discussion?” asked Smith. “How can a play like this move people into thinking a different way?”

Without hesitation, Steinem addressed the house directly: “Well, don’t you feel that you’ve learned more per square minute—?” At which point the audience erupted in applause.

Continuing, Steinem said, “I can’t think of anything that has been so informationally, emotionally, historically, democratically revelatory as what we’ve just seen.” More applause.

“We in this room are never going to behave the same again, right? We are going to understand things we’ve never understood before. And we are going to act on it… It’s going to affect all of our actions and consciousness forever more.”

Sovereignty is playing through February 18, 2018, as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets call (202) 488-3300 or go online.

Mary Kathryn Nagle (Playwright)

Mary Kathryn Nagle is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She currently serves as the executive director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program. She is also a partner at Pipestem Law, P.C., where she works to protect tribal sovereignty and the inherent right of Indian Nations to protect their women and children from domestic violence and sexual assault. She has authored numerous briefs in federal appellate courts, including the United States Supreme Court. She has received commissions from Arena Stage, The Rose Theater in Omaha, Nebraska, Portland Center Stage, and Denver Center. Her other plays include Manahatta, Diamonds, Waaxe’s Law, Sliver of a Full Moon, My Father’s Bones, Miss Lead, and Fairly Traceable.

On Bonding and Being a Warrior: Q&A with Katie Kleiger (The Wolves)

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts January 30, 2018]

The reason I asked to interview Katie Kleiger is that after I saw her in Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves at Studio Theatre, I realized I had seen her on the same fourth-floor stage in Lucy Prebble’s The Effect. But the contrast between Kleiger’s performances in The Effect and The Wolves was so great I didn’t make the association till I went home read her bio.

Katie Kleiger. Photo courtesy of Studio Theatre.

In The Effect, Kleiger played 26-year-old Connie, and she and Rafi Silver as Tristan had an amazing chemistry on stage. They fall in love while they are subjects in a clinical drug experiment, and as actors they both seemed so totally connected it felt like watching real life.

Now in The Wolves, Kleiger is playing a high school soccer player identified as #7, the number on her uniform. She’s 16 going on 17, and she and her teammates have an amazing chemistry on stage. They practice hard together, they play hard together, and they seem so totally connected it feels like watching real life.

So I wanted to begin with an acting-craft question, about those two roles and the rehearsal process Kleiger went through for each…

John: How was building onstage romantic chemistry with a male actor for The Effect different from building onstage cohesion (athletic and otherwise) with the eight other female actors in The Wolves?

Katie: That is such a great question. In The Effect, the building of the chemistry with Rafi was a process we both willingly chose to go down together. We had conversations about that exact thing, which is: to pull this story off, to do it well, he and I had to make an agreement to really love each other and care about each other as actors and as people first. It certainly didn’t hurt that we actually did like each other as people and got along very well. And we basically spent a ton of time together. We got food together every day, we always walked home together after rehearsal. We got to know each other really well.

Rafi Silver as Tristan and Katie Kleiger as Connie in The Effect at Studio Theatre.Photo by Teresa Wood.

The two of you were very intimate onstage. Did you have an intimacy choreographer working with you?

No, it was David [Muse, the director] who was working with us. I’ll say I was really anxious about it, and it was Rafi who at that point was a support for me in terms of making me feel comfortable. We—me, Rafi, and David—worked together on those scenes just the three of us for a while and didn’t introduce anyone else into the room. Eventually, Rafi and I became such close friends that I totally lost any nerves I might have had about the intimacy of those scenes. It was like being with a really close friend—we just happened to be in our underwear. We were so comfortable with each other it really didn’t hold any anxiety or stress for me.

The authenticity of that one-to-one relationship was one of the major appeals of that production, and I can’t imagine the play working without it. There was never any imbalance; it was always clear that it was the two of you breathing together.

So now The Wolves. It’s an all-female cast and there’s a lot of them.

 I was actually really anxious about starting rehearsals for The Wolves because I was also performing in The Book of Will at Round House so I was worried about not being fully present for the necessary bonding period, which usually happens in the first few weeks of rehearsal. It’s the natural life of a theatrical process that people come to know different layers of each other, each week, which is so important and formative for onstage relationships.

The cast of The Wolves. Photo by Teresa Wood

We were having long days, ten to six every day, all of us called every day. Oftentimes, the first half of the day was soccer and the second half of the day was on our feet. Marti Lyons, our incredible, unbelievable director, and our movement coach Stephanie Paul both knew that we needed to get on our feet right away. And being with those girls from ten to six every day was the bonding for me. There was something about embodying these teenage girls—who are all archetypes that in a sense fit parts of who we were.

Certainly, I was not #7 in all of her ferociousness. I will say though that when I read the script last year, absolutely she was the girl I wanted to play. Because there was absolutely a part of me—minus the makeup and minus maybe some of the blunt rudeness. Like, I cursed all the time. I was always putting up a front that I was stronger, tougher than in reality I ever was. That was who I was in high school.

So we were all embodying these people who, I think, capture something insecure about parts of our past. And being in that space was so vulnerable because of that. And what that turns into is a really strong bond right away, ’cause we’re getting to know each other as actors but we’re also getting to know each other as high schoolers.

The dialog that would take place in the room from the first day resembled the play. The stage manager or the director would be like: wait, this is the play. We’d be talking on break about like something or other, like: did you see the video, the video on YouTube? Ohmygod that guy…! And honestly, it was like different versions of the play. So the bonding happened really quickly, really naturally.

The bond among the teammates was so believable to watch, so powerful and nonstop. Even when they were sniping at each other, there was a sense they were connected. It was some of the most extraordinary ensemble work I can recall seeing on stage.

READ Hilary Sutton’s review of The Wolves.

One of the fascinating things about the play is how within all the precisely choreographed teamwork and overlapping conversations, we get to know each of the players as individuated characters—and yours stands out as one of the most memorable. A colleague of mine at DC Metro Theater Arts told me your character reminded her of Rizzo from Grease. And another asked me to tell you that you’re her new girl crush.

I love that.

Chrissy Rose, Katie Kleiger, and the cast of The Wolves. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Who is #7 in the play, who is she to you, and what was your process in finding the character?

I love #7. I always have. She can play the antagonist to some people’s stories, but in no way do I see her as any sort of bad guy or villain. In all of her crass, rude loudness, behind it all was humor. Week one I mentioned to the director that what I really wanted to stress with this character was that she really was going for laughs with the group. Nothing that she does is to hurt intentionally, unless that leads to humor, unless that leads to laughing. And the reason I felt that way is because that’s how I was in high school.

#7 seems the angriest and has a socially disruptive streak. She drops f-bombs throughout; she calls teammates bitches. Where do you think that’s coming from?

I’ve done extensive thinking about her background, and about what she grew up with. I had this idea that she grew up with just her father, and my guess was that he curses a lot and she picked it up from him. I do think that calling people bitch, whore, anything like that, that’s just her vocabulary, that is how she talks, almost endearing. Also, she loves to say what others won’t because that gives her attention and it gives her a response. So she will not ever be ignored; she will always be in the spotlight. She’s the alpha of the group, and to stay the alpha she will do that shock and awe thing.

#7 seems the most socially mature of the group. She’s the only player who has a boyfriend, the only one who’s had intercourse.

Yeah. She definitely would be happy for you to say that because she certainly wants people to think she’s the most socially mature. I think she puts up a front that she’s socially mature. And she does everything she absolutely can to maintain that appearance.

What’s your favorite moment or line of hers?

My favorite moment of the play is the hardest moment in the play, the end. Before I come back on in the last scene, I take off all my makeup backstage. There’s something about taking off all her makeup, for me, that is like very symbolic of her journey.

There’s a marvelous stage direction in the script: “They giggle as only 16-year-olds can.”

Oh, I know!

The cast of The Wolves. Photo by Teresa Wood

Would you talk about what the play says about the dynamics of female friendship? And what you’ve learned about those dynamics from being in this show with these castmates?

We spent a lot of time on that stage direction because we love it too. We revert back to our teenage selves when we are with each other, and it is so great. Being a teenage girl is not that great, there’s so much that is not great about it—god, we discussed plenty of that in rehearsal. There’s so much judgment as teenagers. But when you’re with your friends, when you’re in that safe friend space, there’s so much nonjudgement.

At that age, you’re not censoring yourself as you would be in front of a boy you liked. But in that group of soccer girls, you’re just going, at the top of your lungs, like a nonjudgement of yourself, just saying what you really feel, whether that gets you in trouble or not. And the giggling as only 16-year-old girls can is this involuntary “I’m laughing ’cause you’re laughing.”

Have you talked after the show with any high-school-age girls who’ve seen The Wolves?  

Oh, not yet. But we have a few student matinees,* and I cannot wait.

What do you suppose teenagers can get out of The Wolves, what do you think would be the takeaway for them?

Obviously, I want teenage girls who are interested in theater to go see this show.  I also want teenage girls and teenage boys who are not interested in theater to come to this show. A friend’s sibling who saw the show said, “I didn’t know theater could be like this.” And that’s what I want teenagers to get. I think we could get a ton of first-time theatergoers coming to see this show and realizing: oh, theater is something actually that can reflect me; I’m actually being reflected on stage and I’m being seen, and heard, and understood—not judged.

Gabby Beans in The Wolves. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The appeal and significance of The Wolves for anyone who is or was a 16-year-old girl is plain as day, especially in the performances now on stage at Studio. Why do you think young men, and for that matter older men, should want to see this play?

Easiest, quickest answer is that it’s a good piece of theater. It is not one of those things that should be exclusively for anyone, simply because of Sarah DeLappe’s beautiful, beautiful writing. Digging a little deeper, I think anyone who has loved a 16- or 17-year-old girl will love this. My dad is seeing the show Saturday. He coached my soccer team when I was really young. He watched me grow up. And I cannot wait for him to see this, because for a parent, or anyone who’s known a 16- or 17-year-old girl, it allows them to see so many sides of who these people are. It will not only pay homage to what they already know is there. It will actually open their eyes to see that these girls are so much more than they appear.

Title IX, the law passed in 1972 mandating equitable athletics opportunities, has impacted women’s and girls relationship to sports for a couple generations now. You mentioned you played soccer and I know you also played tennis in school. What have sports meant to you in your own life?

For a long time in my life, I was an athlete just as much as I was an actor. Then when I went to boarding school when I was a junior I basically stopped all sports. I still taught tennis in the summer, but there were no sports offered at my school because it was an arts school. At that moment, at the age of 17, I chose to focus on acting only. But up until then, I was a very serious tennis player from age 7 or 8 to 17-18. I was a soccer player; I dropped soccer to play tennis. It was another way of defining myself. In those formative years, it’s really nice to say “I’m an actor” or “I play tennis.” You have your thing, your ways of identifying who you are. It was important.

What do you think The Wolves is saying about the role of sports in the lives of these nine girls?

One of the reasons The Wolves is so incredible is because the classic trope of preparing for battle is being spun into the hands of nine teenage girls. You get that with the sound, the lighting, big drums and then lights up on these nine teenagers…and we’re talking about periods. But at the same time, our director always said, we are never to forget: you are preparing for battle—every single week. That’s about taking these girls seriously. Because no matter how silly our conversation gets, we’re athletes, and we are warriors, we are good, we win, we go to finals, and we’re to be taken seriously. That’s never lost in the show. That was what was important for me. It was a warrior thing. It was a time of my day that wasn’t sitting down in class or acting on stage where there was a simple path, and that was: to win. And doing so with my fellow women was an incredible part of my day.

What do you think girls’ sports has meant for the women’s movement?

We were all told to watch Dare to Dream, which is a documentary about the women’s national soccer team, and it’s all about the question you just asked, which is: putting women in this mode, this beast mode, this warrior mode. It’s de-associating the winning mentality and physicality necessary to win with masculinity. It’s showing the world what we’re capable of. And it’s asking the world to take us more seriously.

When you Google the phrase “do women soccer players,” the first thing that comes up is “make money” or “wear underwear” or “wear thongs” and then “wear makeup.” It seems like the number one topic of concern for female sports players is their appearance. And in response to the first google search topic, the truth is women soccer players do not get paid nearly as much as men. They often have to have second jobs, and they can’t make a living off of what they’re doing, unlike their male counterparts. So as important as women’s sports is to the women’s movement—it’s 100 percent steps in the right direction—we can never lose sight of the fact that there’s still so much further to go. And maybe one day the Google searches won’t be about our underwear.

The Wolves plays through March 11, 2018, at Studio Theatre  –  1501 14th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

* Student matinees of The Wolves are February 15 and 21, 2018,  both performances starting at 11 am with preshow activities starting at 10 am. For more information email studentmatinee@studiotheatre.org.

The Wolves TodayTix

Sarah DeLappe (Playwright)
Sarah DeLappe received American Playwriting Foundation’s inaugural Relentless Award, and was a finalist for the 2016 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the Yale Drama Series Prize for The Wolves. She received commissions from Playwrights Horizons, Atlantic Theater, Studio Theatre, Two River Theater Company, EST/Sloan, and Actors Theater of Louisville.

Hamlet: Q&A with Michael Urie

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts February 22, 2018]

When I had a chance to ask Michael Urie some questions about his performance as Hamlet, I learned he can hold forth as insightfully as the character he plays. Well, maybe minus the verse and plot. But still, for anyone who has seen Urie in the production Michael Kahn directed at Shakespeare Theatre Company—or for anyone in the future curious about this uber-talented actor’s take on the role—what follows will fascinate.

And if you haven’t seen Urie’s Hamlet yet, hurry. The show closes March 4.

Michael Urie

John: I found your performance thrilling, and what has stayed with me most about it is your unselfconscious expressivity, the virtuoso fluidity of your voice and your physicality. It really felt liberating to watch.

Michael: Well, thank you. I’ve heard versions of that. One of my favorite comments was somebody who was way up in the balcony, because as you know, that’s an enormous theater. And somebody up in the balcony said to me that they really enjoyed the physicality of the performance, and that I must have been a dancer. And I get that a lot. People often think that I’m a dancer. I’m not, at all.

But I take it as a great compliment because I think that physicality on stage, especially in a big theater, is important. On screen, TV, or film, you tell a story with your eyes and your words and your face. And on stage, if you have a big face like I do, you can use your face. But not everybody can see your face. It has to be done with your voice and your body. And so, to hear from somebody up in the balcony that they were getting some story from me physically is very gratifying. Because I think about them up there all the time. I think, My gosh, they’re so far away. I hope they’re getting this.

Michael Urie as Hamlet. Photo by Scott Suchman.

In this production, the play starts with a soliloquy of Hamlet’s. The guard scene with the ghost of Hamlet’s father comes later. It’s like a cold open. I thought that was dramatically brilliant, and it meant your performance had me at hello. But there’s no onstage action yet that you might use to motivate you. What’s going on for you before the play begins? Are you picturing events that have affected Hamlet’s state of mind?

Yeah, I imagine that this is me, Hamlet, shortly after the wedding of my mother and my uncle, and I just don’t know what to make of it. I’ve been at school. I’ve been told my father’s dead, and that my uncle’s going to be king, and I come home. I don’t really care that I’ve been passed up for king. That’s not really ever been anything, and I’m so shocked that my father’s dead, and so upset that my father’s dead. And the text supports that he doesn’t really have ambition to be king.

It isn’t until later in the play that you get a sense that he regrets not being king, and he wishes he was. Or, that he should have been, and that perhaps he’s done Denmark a disservice by not being king. And so I think at the beginning, he’s so sad that his father is dead, and then so angry that his mother married his uncle, who he hates. And he has no one to talk to.

He loved his father. He loved his mother. But now, he doesn’t understand either of them. And so he turns to the audience. Obviously, it’s not actually the audience, but in the world of a play, and certainly in the world of Shakespeare, characters do turn to the audience to share their inner thoughts.

And I agree: Michael Kahn’s idea to put that speech at the beginning was totally brilliant. Because usually you sit through the entire first ghost scene and the entire first Claudius scene, which in our production is a press conference, and then you find out what Hamlet’s so upset about. And you’ve heard about what’s going on, over and over again. The king is dead. The queen is still the queen, and the uncle’s now the king and all this stuff. You’ve heard about it, but you don’t get Hamlet’s point of view until the very end of that second scene.

And to put it front and center not only gives Hamlet license to not have to just brood all the time. You can know what’s wrong with him, and then see how he behaves publicly. Because of course, in Shakespeare, it really is all about public versus private. When there are soliloquies on the side, you get the private thoughts. That’s them being private and being personal. And then, they are often different publicly.

And a problem I’ve always found with Hamlet is that poor Hamlet can’t really be that until you find out what his problem is at the end of the second scene. Until Claudius’s big speech in Act 3—“Oh, my offense is rank. It smells to heaven”—Claudius doesn’t say anything bad. He’s concerned about Hamlet, but you don’t know why he’s concerned about him. And so, if you hear from me right away, I hate that guy, it gives the actor playing Claudius license to be charming and good and likable.

Michael Urie as Hamlet. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Michael Kahn has said he would not have done Hamlet if he couldn’t get you to play it, which I totally get, having seen the production. Why do you think it was your Hamlet that he wanted to build that production around?

Gosh, I don’t know. I know that when I did Buyer & Cellar, that one-man comedy about Barbara Streisand that I was in for a long time—

I saw it and loved it.

You did? Did you see it here?

Yeah.

Okay, so I think it was when Michael saw me do that play that he first had the idea, because a lot of that play was direct address. And I think he saw me in the Harman talking to the audience, and he thought, “Oh, that’s like Hamlet. Maybe he could play Hamlet.”

And then he saw me in another play called Homos, Or Everyone in America by Jordan Seavey, at the LAByrinth Theater in the West Village, which was about the ups and downs of a relationship between a writer and an academic, and I played the writer. And the character was very dextrous with language. It wasn’t a heightened language. It was actually very modern, but it was very technical. It was a lot of overlapping and a lot of talking at the same time or finishing each other’s sentences. It was a wonderful play, and it was actually in the lobby after Michael saw it that he asked me to play Hamlet.

And that play was funny, and it was cruel, and it was tragic. It had a lot of the elements that Hamlet has. So I guess when he asked me to do it, and as I prepared to start working with him, I thought, Okay. What is it about those two plays, which are wildly different, that make him think of Hamlet, and how do I attack our Hamlet with that in mind?

Ryan Spahn as Rosencrantz, Kelsey Rainwater as Guildenstern, and Michael Urie as Hamlet. Photo by Scott Suchman.

One of the things that struck me about your performance is that although textually the character is often taken to be inscrutable, you made Hamlet in person seem completely accessible and relatable, like a fresh start for experiencing the character.

Well, thank you, that’s an interesting observation. And I would say that that comes from the text. I know that Hamlet is often thought of as brooding and mysterious, but actually, you know, they call him sweet lord, sweet prince, sweet Hamlet. I actually think that the Hamlet that we don’t meet, that everyone has known, is a sweet guy. He’s sweet. They say sweet, and I think it means the same thing now that it did then. I’m sure it means other things too, but I think that he was a likable, kind, thoughtful person.

He has friends. They say that he’s liked by the people. His mother lives by his looks. And at the beginning of the play they say, Why are you still so sad about your father’s death? I think that there’s a change in him, and that the real guy is an accessible, charming guy who likes to talk to people and who is interested in argument. You know, he’s the kind of guy who will wander through a cemetery and go strike up a conversation with the grave digger. I think that’s Hamlet, and the fact that he is shrouded in black at the beginning of the play, and he is depressed, is what’s different.

That’s not the guy. That’s not Hamlet. He has become that because he’s so upset at the beginning of the play. So to me, the guy we meet at the beginning of the play is not the guy he’s been his whole life. And so that gives us license to fall into the other guy. He loves Horatio. That’s his friend from school, the guy he loves to talk about philosophy with. And then when Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern come in, he can fall into this old camaraderie that he had with these two where they would play with words. And then of course, he realizes: Oh, I can’t trust these two.

And the same thing when the players show up. He loves the players. He loves watching plays. And when the players show up, it is genuine. So it is not always through this mask of: he’s a depressed, brooding, moody guy. The depression and the angst is new. So that’s why I think Hamlet is able to go from the nunnery scene, where he’s filled with rage and violent with Ophelia, into the speech to the players, within a matter of lines, where he’s silly and funny and charming.

And I think Shakespeare is telling us, This is who this guy is; he goes from thing to thing.

Oyin Oladejo as Ophelia and Michael Urie as Hamlet. Photo by Scott Suchman.

There was an ebullience in your performance as I saw it, and as I was interpreting what you were doing. Your performance is faithful to Hamlet’s antic disposition, but it also seems very true to a contemporary sense of personal freedom—in particular, freedom from those vocal and behavioral constraints by which masculinity is supposed to be performed. It’s like you’re portraying a freedom from the mask of manhood. And by the way, I’m not talking about whether Hamlet is being played gay, because you can be gay and stuck inside that mask. I’m talking about this other particular quality in your performance that so riveted me. It’s what I called earlier your unselfconscious expressivity and your virtuoso fluidity of the voice and the body. I think it’s something that profoundly illuminates the character and the play. Are you okay if we go there?

Sure, yeah. Sure, sure, sure. It’s an interesting idea.

After I saw your performance I got to thinking: If Denmark is a prison, so then, by extension, are these conventions of stereotypically dominant masculinity, which are represented in this production by all the cold gray ambiance, police state trappings, the Nazi-like imagery that shows up late in the play. By contrast, your Hamlet is an anomaly. In the script, he no longer fits in, he can’t and he won’t. But your performance makes that outsider status a form of resistance to and escape from the prison. It’s called hegemonic masculinity by academics, but you know what I’m talking about. You can disagree if you like. It won’t hurt my feelings.

Oh, I don’t. Claudius says, in his first scene with Hamlet when they’re trying to cheer Hamlet up and tell him to cast off his nighted color, he says basically: Of course, everyone loses their father; everyone’s father dies. And Claudius says, “But to persever in this obstinate condolement is a course of impious stubbornness. ’Tis unmanly grief.”

Ah.

Yeah. And I think that that is absolutely there.

You know, it’s debatable how old Hamlet is. But he’s definitely not college age anymore. If Yorick died three and 20 years ago, which is what the gravedigger says, and Hamlet remembers him, then he has to be at least, what, 26, 27? So I think he is some kind of perpetual student. He’s still in school. He’s not following in his father’s footsteps or he would be king. He would not have left Denmark. He would have stayed in Elsinore, and he would have been his father’s right-hand man. And I think because he loved his father, I think that his father supported this decision, and he said, Yes, go. Study philosophy. Go be a student. Go live your life. Go have fun. Go be yourself. And I think that Hamlet has been allowed to be himself.

And now, because he’s been absent, his uncle’s been able to usurp the throne. And so I do think that Hamlet has followed his own heart. And it is poetry, and it is theater, and it is philosophy, and even maybe religion. I think he’s a religious person too. But it’s not politics. It is not war. He has not regimented himself. He lived his life. He hasn’t been focused on the future of Denmark, or his political career or power. That’s what his uncle’s been trying to get. And here are all these buttoned-up guys in suits and security. And I think that he leaves Denmark because it’s boring. He doesn’t like it. I think that the Denmark he returns to is the prison.

Hamlet’s mother seems to really love Ophelia, and seems to really want for Hamlet and Ophelia to have been together. But nobody else does. And that is a forbidden love. Hamlet and Ophelia obviously care for each other very much. Whether or not it’s true love, whether or not he wanted to make Ophelia his queen, doesn’t seem to be interesting to Hamlet, and Hamlet doesn’t want to be king. And he doesn’t stay. He stays perhaps partially because of Ophelia. I think he sees Ophelia as someone that he can speak to, trust, until he can’t anymore, which is heartbreaking to him. But he’s not allowed to be with Ophelia in Denmark, so he has to go someplace else and follow his heart elsewhere.

Alan Cox as Claudius, Gregory Wooddell as Osric, Michael Urie as Hamlet, and Madeleine Potter as Gertrude. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Your Hamlet seemed to me someone who has not outgrown the emotional volatility of adolescence. I sensed a very contemporary sense of what that means: Feelings erupt, feelings do switcheroos. Plus, he’s not trapped inside heteronormative armor. So his soliloquies become a kind of emotional sharing that feels generationally very true. Does that sound to you like what you’re doing?

Yes, I think so. He’s still a student, and he is still eager to learn—all the things that come with being a student and being surrounded by different kinds of people, and being immersed in other cultures and other ideals. He says, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I think that they spend their days arguing. They probably get high and argue about life and politics and religion, and all those things that students argue about.

And I think that because Hamlet is rich and privileged, he’s never had to do anything but that. And so I really think that that’s why he is so struck by all of this, because he’s not had to grow up yet. And he is forced to grow up by the actions of this play. And it ends up with him having to murder somebody, and I think going crazy. He of course pretends to be crazy. Like when the ghost says to him, “Taint not thy mind,” meaning: Don’t let yourself go crazy while you’re doing this. While you’re figuring out how to avenge my death, don’t lose your mind.

And immediately after Hamlet sees the ghost, he says to Horatio and Marcellus, Guys, I might pretend to be crazy. Don’t tell them I’m pretending. And then he overhears Polonius and his uncle and mother talking about how he’s gone mad, before he’s even had a chance to put this antic disposition on, really. They say, He came to Ophelia’s room and he was crazy. And to me, he came to Ophelia’s room right after he saw a ghost because where else is he gonna go? And he couldn’t tell her about the ghost. He couldn’t do that. He loves Ophelia. He couldn’t put her in that kind of danger. He couldn’t say, I saw my father’s ghost. Because that would not only put her in the middle of it all but she would have to go and tell somebody, Oh, my gosh, what’s going on with Hamlet? And indeed she does. She goes and says to her father, “I’ve been so afrighted. My lord, I’ve been so afrighted.” And Polonius says, Ah, this is why Hamlet is different. We’ve all been wondering why is Hamlet so different. And the mother’s like: I think it’s obvious. He’s upset about his father dying, and he’s upset about me getting married so quickly.

And they’re like: No, no, no, no; it can’t be that. It must be that he’s in love with Ophelia. And of course it’s not that. It’s what his mother said, and it’s what the ghost said. So in our production, Hamlet overhears this whole conversation. He overhears Polonius go to his uncle and mother and say, He’s mad for Ophelia’s love, and so this is how we can try it further. This is how we can prove it. We will get Ophelia to spy on him for us. And so in our production, brilliantly, I think, Michael Kahn has Hamlet overhear that.

Michael Urie as Hamlet. Photo by Scott Suchman.

And so then the antic disposition that he ends up putting on, that he says he’ll put on, is only to further the idea that Polonius and Claudius and Gertrude have, that it’s all about Ophelia. So in the fishmonger scene, when he’s teasing Polonius, it’s all about a daughter, it’s all about this daughter. And Polonius is like, Aha, it is my daughter. And he puts on the play, and he continues this charade. He thinks Ophelia’s being sweet to him when they meet up for the nunnery scene, but then she ends up giving the letters back, and he remembers, Oh, that’s right, this is all according to their plan.

So he has to destroy her for the benefit of the bug [an electronic listening device]. So he just perpetuates their idea by destroying Ophelia. And then at the play that he puts on, by humiliating her in front of everybody. “Lady, shall I lie in your lap? My lady, should I lie in your lap? I mean, my head upon your lap? I mean, with my head in your lap? Do you think I meant country matters?” That’s all just to humiliate Ophelia in front of them to perpetuate this idea that she has driven him crazy, so that they won’t assume it’s anything else.

And so then, the act of finding out, Oh my gosh, that ghost was real. Oh my gosh, my uncle killed my father. Oh my gosh, what am I gonna do? How am I going to avenge my father’s death? That, ultimately, tragically, I think, drives him crazy. So yes, it’s a good question. Is Hamlet mad or isn’t he, that is the question. The answer is: He’s not. He pretends to be. And then he is, because he goes mad.

I think that ultimately he goes crazy because he is tasked with this impossible task, and he misfires, quite literally, and kills Polonius when he hopes to be killing the king. And the act of murder drives him even further into madness. And then, when he is sent away, and he discovers that not only did he see the king see himself in the play, but now he’s seen proof that the king wants him dead, when he unseals Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern’s commission that says: Off with his head. He knows he’s right. He knows the ghost was right. He knows that he has to go back and save Denmark from this maniac. And that is when he is finally sane again.

So when he comes back, when he returns, and you see him with the gravedigger, he’s sane, and he’s ready to lead. And that’s the guy, unfortunately, tragically, that’s the guy that we needed at the beginning of the play. That’s the guy that could’ve stopped all this from happening. But through his own passions and his own privilege, he never grew up. And it wasn’t until all this horrible stuff happened that he had to.

And so when he says to Laertes before they duel, “It was not me that killed your father. It was Hamlet’s madness.” It was my madness, and if that’s the case, then my madness is my enemy too. And I think that’s all totally true, and that’s exactly what happens to him. And that’s what he believes. And in those final scenes, he is no longer mad.

I’d like to talk a bit more about your voice, because in performance it’s so beautifully not butch. You know the way a lot of men will try to talk at the bottom of their pitch range until their vocal cords just wear out, and they get hoarse and gravelly? But for your Hamlet, the whole pitch range is available to you, almost lyrically, all the time. There’s just no boundary that you’ve placed on it. And I love that about it, the freedom of expressivity that it represents. What’s that like for you in performance?

I wouldn’t say that it’s a particular choice. It’s a choice in that I feel like that’s the way to speak this language, and I feel like he is a character who goes through major changes through the course of the play. Emotionally he’s wildly different from scene to scene. And to not employ a variety in voice is, I think, impossible. So to me it is a product of following the thoughts.

When I was at Julliard, we spent many hours in voice classes, finding ways of making clear the text. And a lot of that is vocal variety. And Shakespeare, as you know, is filled with parentheticals and filled with comparisons, filled with metaphor, filled with antithesis, and you can’t just stay on one note all the time if you’re going to do a parenthetical.

When you start a speech and there’s not a period for ten lines, you have to figure out how to get to that period. We would do this exercise where the line was “Shall we all, Valentine do stop chattering, come into dinner?” And we would be urged to find a way with vocal variety to make that very clear. So it would usually be something like “Shall we all (Valentine, do stop chattering) come into dinner?”

We would do exercises like that all the time at school, and I used those things all over this play. It’s constantly in this play. A great example is when I’m throwing Ophelia around in the nunnery scene, after I realize that we’re being spied on, and I say, for the benefit of whoever’s listening, “I say we will have no more marriages. Those that are married already, all but one shall live. The rest shall keep as they are.” And that’s a lot of different thoughts in that one little speech. And if I don’t go all the way up and down my register, I don’t know how else to convey it.

Madeleine Potter as Gertrude and Michael Urie as Hamlet. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The way I saw your physicality—which that balcony audience member said was like a dancer—was that there was just simply no expressive gesture that you had to censor in order to present as a guy who has no affinity with anything feminine. That was not a concern. By contrast Claudius, in his voice and bearing, is very much the man there in that way.

Yeah.

Sometimes when a male actor is being particularly expressive on stage—especially if it’s not treated in some convention like drag or something—I sense some people in the audience are really taken by it, and some people are a little bit wanting to be at a remove from it, like they’re unnerved.

The things we’re talking about aren’t specific choices I’ve made. They’re just the way it comes out of me. What I do know is that audiences at Hamlet laugh at the famous lines. They just can’t help it. When they hear, “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark,” they laugh. When they hear, “Get thee to a nunnery,” they laugh, even though those are not funny lines. And I find they also will laugh at things that aren’t funny because they get them. And I think that there’s something about clarity that is amusing to people, and they delight in it. Shakespeare is not easy, and a lot of audiences, especially adults, come to see Shakespeare with a wall up to an extent, because they know it’s gonna be hard. And they delight in understanding things.

And I think that’s something this production does. When the lights come up and you see a guy in a security-guard jacket watching TV monitors, you get it. And they delight in that and they laugh at that. They think, Oh my gosh, I get this.

And so I think perhaps this vocal variety and physical storytelling that you’re picking up is occasionally delighting people and making them laugh, and they might perceive it as being funny. But what it really is, is they’re just getting it, and it’clear to them. And perhaps I’ve been given license to be free by Michael Kahn and by our production, and that’s how it’s coming out.

I think it’s very exciting, what you’re talking about. If it means that any boy or young man that comes to see this play thinks, I can be a man and not have to use the lower register of my voice and keep my arms at my side, then I’m very excited by that.

Running Time: 3 hours, including one intermission.

Hamlet TodayTix

Hamlet plays through March 4, at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, performing at Sidney Harman Hall – 610 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 547-1122 or go online.

LINKS:

‘Buyer & Cellar’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by John Stoltenberg

Schmoozing with Michael Urie About ‘Buyer & Cellar’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by Joel Markowitz

Mom Baby God: Q&A with Madeline Joey Rose

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts March 2, 2018]

Mom Baby God—a solo show written and performed by Madeline Joey Rose about the right’s attack on abortion rights—is as playful as it is powerful. The play centers on a fourteen-year-old girl, Destinee, and takes place at a Students for Life of America conference. When I caught the show at  Forum Theatre in March 2017, it rocked me—not only because of its delightful dramatic/comedic form and Rose’s enthralling performance but also because of its urgent political content and the daring process by which the play came into being:  Rose wrote Mom Baby God  based on extensive firsthand research into the anti-abortion movement.

In this in-depth Q&A, Rose talks about her politics and her process, and shares insights with important implications for making both theater and social change.

Mom Baby God runs March 3 to 10, 2018, at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop produced by Taffety Punk Theatre Company and directed by Lise Bruneau. This is one not to miss.

Madeline Joey Rose, who wrote and performs Mom Baby God. Photo by David Noles Photography.

John: The backstory of Mom Baby God is a drama unto itself: You went into the Christian pro-life movement and turned what you learned into a solo performance piece. Then over several years you revised and refocused the piece to center on a character you created named Destinee, a teenage girl coming of age in the Christian pro-life movement. What first prompted you to begin work on this project?

Madeline: I started when I was a student at Hampshire College. I was part of an investigation of crisis-pregnancy centers, which are anti-abortion, right-wing clinics. They’re all over the U.S., and there was one in Amherst, Massachusetts, called Birthright. I went there posing as a pregnant college student and was really horrified by the experience.

They had baby clothes hanging up on the walls and what they call fetal development kits—which are scientifically inaccurate—and they gave me tea and cookies. Being immersed in that was powerfully disturbing. I wanted to bring other people, particularly on the left, into spaces like this, to understand the stakes. So I decided to spend a year doing research over 2012 and 2013, the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

I’ve been an activist since I was twelve, when I was sent to the principal’s office for not saying the Pledge of Allegiance. In high school I became a socialist and was very involved with antiwar and immigrant rights and feminist activism. In 2011 there was action in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood, and there were mobilizations from pro-choice activists. For me it was a very exciting moment—seeing people rise up and call themselves feminists and protest the attack on abortion rights.

Through that activism, I started to learn more about the extent of the attack on abortion rights. Being in that movement is what gave me the fire to want to do something broader about it and use theater as a tool.

Madeline Joey Rose as Destinee crushing on Justin Bieber in Mom Baby God. Promotional photo for Taffety Punk production by Marcus Kyd.

Did you go undercover?

No. My college thesis committee was like: you need to not have a fake identity! But I definitely tried to aesthetically fit in. I think I wore an American flag t-shirt at one point. At that point I envisioned the piece to be more in the style of documentary theatre like The Laramie Project or Anna Deavere Smith’s work, and so everybody I interviewed at that point signed waivers. I was very clear about what I was doing. When I told people I’m a student, I’m writing this play, your voice will be heard onstage, most of them were like: great, I’m glad somebody’s interested in what we’re doing, and I’m glad to share my story. When I went back to the Students for Life conference this year to do more research and re-develop the play, I didn’t think that much about trying to fit in visually—I figured everyone would have forgotten who I was at this point. And then of course someone at the registration desk immediately said, “You look really familiar to me…are you from Mom Baby God? We all know who you are.” That was fun.

What was your method, recording people and transcribing?

Yeah, recording on my phone, transcribing, and also just taking people in. Because I was recording and not having to write things down, I was able to study people’s mannerisms and facial expressions and study the way that they were speaking. These right-wing conferences also encouraged social media use, so everybody is taking out their phones and filming things, which was a helpful way to capture the atmosphere and to return to that material when creating the world of the play in the writing and design.

But the most useful part of my immersive research was hanging out with teenagers at these right-wing conferences and having very informal conversations and getting a better sense of the culture of the right wing and what it feels like to be a part of it—less so the specifics of what people were saying but more: what is the emotional life of being a fourteen-year-old girl who’s part of a movement that is actively stripping away your own rights?

Mom Baby God obviously incorporates details you could only have learned firsthand about pro-life organizing methods, pro-life messaging to young people, and pro-life role models.

One of the benefits of really studying the right wing is understanding what their tactics are and what is resonating with people, and I think that’s really important to see the context that people are coming to these politics from; it’s from fear, from hopelessness. Then you start to see the contradictions where someone could be pulled in a different direction ideologically, but they’ve unfortunately been met by a more organized and aggressive right-wing movement first.

Who is Destinee in the play, who is she to you, and who do you want her to be to the audience?

Destinee is this very driven but impressionable fourteen-year-old, and she goes to the Students for Life of America conference, which is a real conference. The whole play takes place at the conference, and it’s her experience there as she’s trying to become a right-wing leader. But then she meets this boy who reminds her of Justin Bieber named John Paul. It’s about her trying to navigate a coming of age sexually, and how much those feelings come up against what she’s supposed to believe, think, and feel. Her ideas are changing and she’s at the beginning of her own journey. That gives the audience a way in, to say: there’s some hope that she could change or her life could diverge from this path.

I relate to her a lot. I grew up in the Bush years. I grew up under all of the abstinence-only quote-unquote sex education and sexual purity politics. That culture really shaped my life, so I’ve experienced firsthand the ways the sexual politics of shame and purity can have such a negative impact on young people and how important it is to center conversations about sexuality and gender in the fight for bodily autonomy.

Madeline Joey Rose as Destinee in Mom Baby God. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

During Mom Baby God, Destinee refers to (by my count) three real people: pop heartthrob Justin Bieber, nervy pro-life activist Lila Rose, and “President” Mike Pence. You also play multiple fictional roles—quickly switching between them, sometimes swapping minimal costume pieces—Destinee’s grandmother, pro-life feminist Trish, teenage pro-life activist and Destinee’s rival Makayla Roberts, abstinence coach Bryan Dwayne, boy band heartthrob John Paul Alexander II.

He’s my favorite character to play. He’s a very swaggy but tender teenage boy in a Christian EDM Dance Crew. Very cool.

During the play we see Destinee go from crushing on Justin (whose photograph she adoringly kisses) to a for-real hookup with John Paul. I found that narrative one of the most compelling aspects of the play (it was so good, I wanted more of it). Would you talk about that character arc of Destinee’s—how you see it (or how you want it to mean in the piece)—and what audience reactions have been to Destinee’s and John Paul’s sexual encounter?

As the show has evolved the relationship between Destinee and John Paul has become much more nuanced, and this newest version in 2018 fleshes it out even more. When I first wrote the show in 2013, John Paul was a bit of a caricature. I didn’t give their flirtation time in the play to breathe into a more mutual crush, and so the power dynamics seemed very imbalanced in ways I didn’t understand until touring it. I learned from audience reactions that the play was being understood as being about this one bad teenage boy manipulating a younger girl. It was important to me to give both of them more investment in the relationship because, I think, there’s a false narrative that teenage girls are never sexual, and if they have sexual experiences they are always being taken advantage of. And similarly, there’s the false idea that all teenage boys are ready for sex at all times and have it all figured out. Those narratives don’t serve anybody. I wanted the moments between Destinee and John Paul to explore more the culture of shame and sex-negativity, and therefore the confusion and the lack of vocabulary that young people have about sex in a healthy and consensual way. They both really want to be there and the problem is actually that neither one of them knows how to express their desires because they’re both so steeped in shame—they think what they’re doing is so wrong—and as a result there’s a lot of pain and confusion in moments that could otherwise be really positive for both of them.

I learned from your piece something that was news to me: the way today’s pro-life messaging to girls lifts language from feminism.

The anti-abortion movement has completely co-opted left-wing rhetoric. When I was first doing the research, they were co-opting Occupy slogans; they were taking the protest chant We are the 99 percent and turning it into We are the pro-life generation. They now have a whole mission to reframe the movement as a feminist movement, and adopt all of the slogans of the Women’s March and its visuals. The most shocking thing to me doing research in 2018 was the ways they’re attempting to use the language of #MeToo and the movement against sexual violence. They’re talking about rape, but they attribute sexual violence to “a culture of promiscuity”—and then you have the anti-abortion groups who continued to endorse Roy Moore even after his abusive behavior was well known. I saw more rifts in the movement around the issue of sexual violence than I’ve ever seen before, and I think that’s a testament to the strength of the #MeToo movement that has changed public opinion.

There’s a moment in Mom Baby God that vividly exemplifies this co-opting trend, when Trish, a pro-life feminist, tells Destinee that abortion upholds the patriarchy because it allows guys to fuck around. I heard some gasps at that point. Meanwhile, flashing back to the early days of mobilizing to protect a woman’s right to choose, I recalled how radical feminist pro-choice activists at that time were very aware that the support they were getting from male lefties was predicated on exactly that self-interest: coital access without commitment.

That particular brand of right-wing feminism is the most effective and dangerous, I think, because they’re tapping into real pain women are experiencing in a misogynistic society, and it understandably resonates with people. But their politics are still ultimately about sexual purity outside the context of heterosexual monogamous marriage. By contrast, I think, the movement against sexual violence is contributing really important language and shifting the conversation about consent and about gender in relationships, and hopefully some of the people who would otherwise be pulled in a right-wing direction by the so-called “pro-life feminists” will instead be inspired to join the movement against sexual violence and for reproductive rights.

I should add, though, that the woman who Trish is based on—an activist I interviewed in 2013 and whose politics I’ve followed since then—has in the past year or so become an open white supremacist. When I realized that, I decided I needed to re-develop that character to reflect her political development and the pretty horrifying turns she has made. This is someone who openly describes herself now as an “ethno-nationalist” and “traditionalist” and posts Proud Boys propaganda on her social media.

Madeline Joey Rose as Destinee in Mom Baby God. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

If you could communicate what you know about what you do, what would you say?

Being an actor is a daily practice of empathy in the way that working out at a gym is working out your muscles. When I’m working on a character, I’m exploring this other person’s worldview and attempting to embody another person’s reality. When you do that you learn a lot about people’s contradictions. Nobody is totally consistent. That necessarily bleeds into how I view people offstage as well.

We all live in a society where the ideas that we get are from mainstream media and from the government, which are heavily right-wing and corporate. And most people are learning about the world through those channels. Therefore people are going to grow up in the world with all kinds of contradictory and reactionary ideas. Nobody is born with reactionary ideas. And people’s ideas can change. Even on the left, that can be a controversial statement right now. In the culture of social media and internet political conversations, there’s such a quickness to go: well, this person said this one thing and I took offense to that and so I’ll dismiss them forever, I’m never going to take them onto our side as my comrade.

To be clear, there are of course toxic people who shouldn’t be engaged with, and I don’t think this means that “all opinions are valid” and we should just all be friends with right-wingers and be polite to each other. Ideas need to be challenged. Nazis need to be protested and shut down. The anti-abortion movement is a violent movement, both by targeting and killing abortion providers, and also by robbing people of their right to make decisions about their bodies and by instilling lifelong shame in people for being sexual or for being queer. There should be no room for that.

But I do think we’re too dismissive with people who are attempting to take a stand for justice but maybe don’t have all the right lingo down or still hold some contradictory ideas, and we don’t acknowledge the ways people’s ideas can change through struggle and through political debate in a movement, and how our own ideas have evolved through that same process.

I think being an actor and a theater artist forces you to interrogate the ways people form their behaviors and actions, their worldview, and to see their complexity. Nobody is just one thing. Everybody wears costumes. People change—otherwise it’s a very boring play. Listening to and embodying other people forces you to see the depth and possibility in each person, which I think can be a very hopeful thing.

How has working on Mom Baby God changed you?

I’ve learned a lot more about how hurtful these politics are ultimately to men too. Talking with teenage boys in the anti-abortion movement, you see how limiting these very strict gender roles are to them too: Don’t have emotions, be tough, don’t be gay. It’s extremely repressive and damaging, and I think men have a real stake in gender liberation that goes beyond being allies. I’ve gained a greater curiosity and urgency to understanding what is drawing both men and women to these politics and what we’re all losing as a result.

Mom Baby God plays March 3 to 11, 2018, at Taffety Punk performing at  Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW) – 545 7th Street, SE, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

LINK: 

Magic Time!: Life Lessons of ‘The Real Americans’: A Q&A with Playwright-Performer Dan Hoyle by John Stoltenberg

Bedroom Talk: Q&A with Dimitri Gann and Ryan Townsend (Top and Bottom)

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts April 1, 2018]

Top and Bottom is a new gay comedy by Kevin Michael West and directed by Christopher Janson. It’s set in a hotel room where James, a wannabe “dom,” has planned an S&M-ish hookup with Tommy, supposedly a “sub.” My DC Metro Theater Arts colleague Darby DeJarnette called the play “a comedy with brains and heart” and said the two actors, Ryan Townsend (who plays James) and Dimitri Gann (who plays Tommy), “are fantastic on stage together and bring a tenderness and understanding to their characters.”

That was precisely my impression too. Then I learned that Ryan and Dimitri are a real-life couple, and I guessed they might have an interesting story to tell. So late one afternoon before an evening performance, I met them in the DC Arts Center black box. They sat side by side on the bed they use in Top and Bottom. And as I listened I realized their experience with the play as a couple was even more intriguing than I had thought.

Ryan Townsend as James and Dimitri Gann as Tommy in Top and Bottom. Photo by Conor Kelley.

John: Let’s start with the characters you play. Who are they, and how do you relate to them?

Ryan: The first thing that I related to with James is how meticulous he is. He has a notebook of all his plans that he has for the evening. I have a notes page in my Macbook with all the plans I have, for not just my evening, but my life. So we’re very similar in that aspect.

Right at the beginning, you enter in a leather harness and accidentally you swat yourself with this riding crop and go ouch. It’s hilarious. And from that point on, we know this is a sendup of his attempts to be a top.

Ryan: Yeah, he’s been planning this moment, and dreaming about this experience, for years. But he hasn’t been able to actually have a dress rehearsal.

Dimitri: Tommy is much less concerned with the plan and how things are going to go because that’s not really up to him. That’s not his role in the bedroom. His job is to follow orders and be taken along on this whirlwind new adventure. He has a story about one of his previous sexual adventures, and it’s very much like: Take off all your clothes and get in the car, and then you’ll figure out what happens afterward.

This is the first time I’ve played a gay character on stage, my first time when I can relate like: Oh yes, he’s attracted to men, and I’m attracted to men, and I don’t have to transcribe my attraction and put it on this female and pretend that’s my thing. Very similar to Tommy,  I had several years in my life where I was very much about the sexual adventure, the show-up-and-see-what-happens kind of thing. I was just going to be adventurous and try everything at least twice.

How do your characters meet?

Ryan: Craigslist.

What is the time period of the play?

Dimitri: Just a couple years ago.

Ryan: I have a very limited knowledge of the kink world, but I have a couple friends who are involved in it, and they do a lot of hookup things through Craigslist because that’s where you’ll find people who are into that.

You two are a couple.

Dimitri Gann.

Both: Yes.

How long have you been together, and how did you meet?

Ryan: It’ll be two years in May.

Dimitri: And we met on Tinder.

Ryan: Yeah. My best friend was on Tinder, trying to find herself a man to see, and we enjoyed swiping people away because that’s what you do. You swipe people left or right. And when I would leave her place, I would think, “Well, I want to swipe people away.” So I was doing it not even looking for anything serious—and Dimitri was the only person I’ve met from Tinder.

Awww.

Ryan: A hundred-percent success rate.

Have you worked together in the theater before?

Ryan: No.

Dimitri: This is our first time together.

Did you audition together, as a package?

Ryan: No.

Dimitri: We couldn’t make the audition call together.

So, did Chris [Christopher Janson, the director] put you together?

Ryan: He knew that we were dating. I think I had dropped that in an email.

But you both read the play and knew that you wanted to go for it?

Ryan: Mm-hm.

Ryan Townsend.

Did you go for the parts you got?

Ryan: No.

Dimitri: I went for the other part.

Did you go for the other part too?

Ryan: Yeah.

Oh, gosh.

Dimitri: Yeah.

That’s too funny.

Ryan: Chris called us in for both parts. But then as we were reading the play, I’m like, “Oh, well I’m Tommy because I’m bossy, and I’m judgy, and that’s who I am.” And Dimitri’s much more sweet and nice and kind. So I was like, “Well, you’re the James, I’m the Tommy.” But I think it worked itself out properly.

Dimitri: Yeah, once we started rehearsing, it was like, “Oh, wait. No, no, no, you’re definitely the James.”

Ryan: Yeah, I’m one hundred percent James.

Dimitri: You’re not Tommy.

Ryan: I am so not Tommy.

What for each of you has been the hardest part of this play, and what’s the most fun part?

Dimitri: For me, the hardest part at first was the space. It’s very challenging to an actor but also very rewarding because it’s so small.  I do a whole monologue where I’m essentially in that guy’s lap over there [points to front row]. It’s almost six or seven minutes. It’s me just talking. So that was hard.

A very fun part of this show has been getting to reacquaint myself with my sense of comic timing. I really enjoy making people laugh and having those funny bits and the work that goes into that. It’s hard to be funny on purpose night after night after night. It takes a lot of work, but it was really fun to get the timing down, and get the bits down, and work through it and make it funny,  but keep it real and be in the moment, and have that happen to be funny.

Ryan: The hardest part for me has been my ending monologue. It’s difficult because it’s so layered. There’s a lot to play with in the monologue, and it’s so different because the rest of the show is me being fumbly and a klutz and nerdy, and this is a moment where it’s very tender and very revealing.

The most fun thing is definitely the comedy, to hear the laughter. When we would do something funny in rehearsal and Chris or Deb [Deborah Gur] our stage manager would just have a belly laugh, it was like, “Oh, well that was a good choice. Okay, cool. Let’s put that in my back pocket.”

Tell me about audience reactions. How have they been?

Ryan: Varied. There have been some that just love it. When I put the dildo on the wall, that always gets a good laugh. But there was one day where they didn’t laugh at anything, and for a comedy, that’s what you thrive off of. It was weird.

Dimitri: The monologue that Tommy has at the end is very intense, and some nights, I’ll get very visceral, emotional reactions out of people; I’ll hear people gasp.

There’s a scene where I am totally naked, and right before that moment happens, I can hear a lot of whispering because everyone’s like, “Oh, this is the thing that they were talking about—”

Ryan: We heard someone legitimately saying, “Are we going to see his penis?”

Dimitri: And I almost lost it.

Ryan: I wanted to turn around and say, “Yeah.”

Dimitri Gann as Tommy in Top and Bottom. Photo by Conor Kelley.

What was that nude scene like for you?

Dimitri: It was on my stage bucket list to be naked in a play. I’ve always wanted to do it because I had friends that did it. We did Equus at my college, and besides that being a wonderful play my friend got to be naked on stage, and I thought that was such a wonderful, vulnerable thing.

I thought it was going to be more difficult than it was. We didn’t really start rehearsing it nude until the week before we opened, and when we started doing it, it was just like it was in the moment, and we just did the scene, and everybody was cool about it. There was a little bit of nerves opening night, because like, “Oh, I’m in front of people now.”

Ryan: I think some people do come in and they don’t expect the nudity, but it’s very brief. He’s not naked very long.

So what’s it like for you when Dimitri’s in the scene nude?

Ryan: It’s whatever. Old news.

Ryan Townsend as James in Top and Bottom. Photo by Conor Kelley.

What do you think Top and Bottom is saying about power dynamics between people in the bedroom?

Ryan: I think it normalizes the stigma that might be behind something like BDSM [dominance and submission] because we see these two people that you could meet any day on the street. The character I play is wearing glasses and is super nerdy and not the type you’d think would be into kink, but he is. So the play suggests, “Oh, maybe that’s not such a taboo thing.”

Dimitri: We got to read the whole play beforehand.

Ryan: Yeah, before the audition, Chris sent us the whole play.

Dimitri: And one of the things that I immediately was drawn to was that it dispels a lot of the ideas that we, especially as gay men, tend to have about what a top should look like, what a bottom should look like, what giving in to control really is about versus what people think it’s about.

Before this show, I always thought like, “Oh, well, BDSM is a way-over-there thing because it’s somebody completely relinquishing all control and kind of putting themselves below. But that’s really not what it’s about. The two characters ultimately are on a journey to discover how important it is to have a balance of that control and that even for someone who’s a sub [submissive], there is a control about when they decide to give themselves over, and then, that’s where they get the balance from.

Ryan: Tommy’s the bottom one, the submissive one, but he’s calling the shots most of the time. And even though James’ role is the top, dominant person, he has no idea what he’s doing.

Kevin Michael West, the writer, said he got the idea for the play when he met a guy for a hookup, and they went to his place. And when they got there, the guy wanted Kevin to tie him up, but Kevin wasn’t into it and was really bad at it, and the humor that arose in that moment he expanded into the play. And it’s very, very funny—

Ryan: Because it’s real.

It comes from the fact that these characters aren’t good at it either.

Ryan: Yeah.

And as it turns out, at the end, they don’t seem too into it or committed to it either.

Ryan: It transcends that.

It goes to some other place.

Ryan: Yeah.

Ryan Townsend as James and Dimitri Gann as Tommy in Top and Bottom. Photo by Conor Kelley.

How much of what these characters desire is their real emotional erotic longing, and how much is it trying to act out how they think gay men should act?

Ryan: Well that’s sort of psychological. You could think: I want this because it’s the way I’m supposed to be or this is the way it’s supposed to be so I should want that. My character has never done this before, so how does he know how a dominant top person is supposed to act?

And how did he learn what he thought he should be able to be good at? There’s no mention in the play of porn, for instance.

Ryan: Yeah. But that’s probably where he gets a lot of these ideas. There are also websites that are dedicated to BDSM culture. So he’s either read things or seen things like pornography that give him this glorified idea of what it’s supposed to be. That’s why it’s funny when I walk out and I’m this skinny guy and I put on this low voice when I’m being my top dominant personality. But then I talk normally, and it’s like this light little nasally voice.

So maybe he had to learn to want it in order to fit into the culture?

Dimitri: I think for Tommy, it was very evident as he flowered and blossomed into his sexual self that he wanted to try everything. It is very similar to my own story. I remember coming out right before I turned 18 and thinking, “Oh, man, I’ve got some catching up to do.” I saw all my other friends were starting to get into longer-term relationships because they’d had practice, and they were starting to have sex.

And going to college, I just went, “Whoo!” I’m very similar to Tommy in that respect. He’s a person who learned from going out and doing it a bunch and getting into what he liked. He’s good at putting on the mask of life. He talks in the play about liking other people being in charge. But how much of that was at first purely the attraction to it or whether he learned how to be into it? I wonder sometimes whether he does it because he really likes it, or because he found that’s what he was being wanted for.

What would you like audiences to take from this show?

Ryan: I think what you say at the end of your last monologue is a theme we want people to take away.

Dimitri: Okay. Minor spoiler alert. I have a monologue at the end that really captures what this show’s about, and it’s: “find out who you are, and then love yourself for who you are.” That’s the journey that these characters take: hiding behind this whole thing that they do—the scene, the fantasy of it all—and then through this story coming to a place of greater acceptance of themselves and the ability to love themselves.

Which brings me to my last question: What have you and your offstage relationship gained from working together on this show?

Dimitri: Well, we learned that we can get through a lot of stressful parking nightmares—

Ryan: Oh, my God.

Dimitri: —without killing each other, which is great. A lot of forgiveness of the snippiness there.

It’s been such a team effort, and we get to spend a lot of time together. Normally, when one of us is in a show or when both of us are in shows—like six months ago, we were both in shows that were very far away from where we lived, and we saw each other an hour a day—

Ryan: An hour a day.

Dimitri: —which was the drive home from the shows, and that was it, and we’d go to bed, and I’d wake up and go to work. So it’s been really nice to be in the same—

Ryan: Lots of hang-out time.

Dimitri: Yeah, which has been really nice because we don’t get much of that.

Ryan: We just moved here from South Florida in January, so this is a nice “Hey, we’re in this together” situation.

Oh, that’s sweet.

Ryan: Our lovely stage manager, Deb, posted a picture of us in rehearsal one time, and she said, “Hetero or homo, you’re going to relate to both of these characters.” And I think that’s really true because like that line Dimitri says about loving yourself and accepting yourself for who you are: everybody needs to do that.

You think, “Yeah, these characters are gay. These characters are into BDSM,” but the show isn’t about BDSM. This show isn’t about us being gay. For my character, it’s about accepting that he is who he is, and it’s not shameful, and he needs to embrace that.

I hope anyone out there who comes to see the show, and is questioning who they are, in any aspect, can be like “You know what? Maybe it is okay. Maybe this part of me is okay.”

Thank you, guys.

Ryan: You’re welcome.

Dimitri: Come see the show. It’s really good.

Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.

Top and Bottom plays through April 29, 2018 at the DC Arts Center— 2438 18th Street NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased online.

Amanuensis

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts April 22, 2018]

Time has not been kind to Great Dead White Male Artists, poor things. Nosey feminist historians have been poking around in these guys lives and digging up dirt about how they treated women! And now and then a cheeky feminist playwright will come along and dish up the drama on stage! Like for instance Amanuensis, Lauren Feldman‘s fanciful takedown of John Milton. You know, that 17th-century English poet revered for his epic 12-volume Paradise Lost in which he presumes to explain the ways of God to man? Well, Feldman—who identifies as not only feminist but queer—has had the temerity to explain the ways of Milton to women!

The play starts off with Deborah, youngest of Milton’s three daughters, announcing to the audience: “My father is a misanthrope.” Her sister Anne later amplifies: “My father did not exude beatitude.” And in a verbal smackdown as imagined by Milton’s oldest daughter Mary, she slams him to his face: “You inconsiderate chauvinist arsehole.”

These three sisters’ grievance was legit. By the time Milton began work on Paradise Lost he had gone blind and the mother of his three girls had died giving birth to the youngest. He remarried but that wife died too. So he made up the verse in his head and dictated it to his daughters, requiring them to write down every precious word. This went on for seven years, and all the while Milton kept them functionally illiterate. When he died he made his third wife Elizabeth his sole heir and disinherited his daughters, calling them in his will “unkind children…very undutiful to me.”

And so topples another GDWMA from his privileged pedestal in patriarchy.

Kate Ginna (Mary), Alex Prout (Milton), Healy Knight (Deborah), and Michaela Farrell (Anne) in Amanuensis. Photo by Jordan Silverman/Georgetown University.

Upon learning this grim backstory, the playwright (billed in the program as L M Feldman) was more than infuriated; she was inspired. She saw in it a storytelling opportunity to imagine the three daughters and to give them the imagination to transcend their plight—a chance to look back at the sisters in their time and reconceive them now as modern sheros. Feldman titled her play Amanuensis (which in Latin means “slave with secretarial duties”) and subtitled it “a tale, a grapple, a loosely historically inspired feminist fantasia”—which the Georgetown University Theater & Performance Studies Program took as an open invitation to stage some serious fun.

Indeed the best parts of the play are the several scenes when the three daughters—Mary (Kate Ginna), Anne (Michaela Farrell), and Deborah (Healy Knight)—cut loose and play-act. There’s an episode in which, trying to explain how they were made, they pretend to be men and amusingly emulate wearing trousers by hiking up their long skirts between their legs. (Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny, a professor at Georgetown, has created a wonderful wardrobe that locates the period yet suggests levity.) There’s the aforementioned scene in which Mary imagines telling off her father. And there’s an amazing scene of tableaux vivants in which the three sisters pose as they have been posed in famous paintings that idealize a benign paterfamilias and his fond progeny (the very paintings that one could view as reproductions in the lobby beforehand).

A tableau vivant in Amanuensis. Kate Ginna (Mary), Alex Prout (Milton), and Healy Knight (Deborah). Photo by Jordan Silverman/Georgetown University.

Under two big latticed windows, Set Designer Swedian Lie arranges two large platforms—one stage left all-purpose, and one stage right depicting Milton’s study. There’s a reading chair (where sits Milton ensconced in a black robe), a stand-up writing desk (where the three scribes shall toil), and shelves full of books and accumulating bundled manuscripts of Milton’s masterwork. Lighting Designer Kris A. Thompson creates some lovely mottled effects, and Sound Designer Thomas Sowers produces the distinct chime that signals changes of time, which is also announced by year as the seven years of text slavery elapse.

The student cast handled their roles and scene transformations well. The thankless part of Milton was played gamely by Alex Prout. As written the character is a charmless egoist, which the play’s logic requires but which does begin to grate. Happily, two other fine gents appear, Thomas (Travis Fujita)—who gets asked by one of the daughters, “How will I ever stomach marrying one of your sex?”—and Young Man With News (Jonathan Compo). We also meet Milton’s third wife, Elizabeth (Madelyn Rice), who doesn’t have Milton’s number as the daughters do.

Healy Knight (Deborah) in Amanuensis. Photo by Jordan Silverman/Georgetown University.

Though it can be awkward when writing about a student cast to single any actor out, the performance of Healy Knight as youngest daughter Deb calls for special mention. Knight captured a cockiness and sassiness in the character that enlivened the entire play, and her moment-to-moment technique was extraordinary.

Director Maya E. Roth, also a professor at Georgetown, introduced the performance I saw by commending the collaboration that had gone into it, from students, guest artists, faculty, and alumni. And indeed, remarkable institutional resources had been allocated to bring Amanuensis to the stage, including developmental readings with professional actors and multiple residencies for the playwright. In the process, Roth said, the script, had undergone eight rewrites.

The project’s heart is in the right place, and one can easily admire the dedication with which this play has been mounted. The story of John Milton’s usurpation of his three daughters’ labor for the glory of his godlike legacy, and their subsequent erasure from history, is one that needs to be known. Feldman’s script and Roth’s direction give it a good college try. But the problematic poet at the center of it, the character who incited the action by his hubris, is also the play’s dramaturgical problem. No matter how much fantasia the three daughters devise—and there’s a whole lot of it to delight in—there’s always that flat static bad dad sucking the life out of it.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

Amanuensis played April 12 to 21, 2018, at the Davis Performing Center’s Gonda Theatre at Georgetown University – 37th & O Streets NW, in Washington, DC.

Girlfriend

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts April 27, 2018]

The rock musical Girlfriend celebrates the tentativeness and exuberance of a budding romance between two gay teens in a small town Nebraska in the 1990s. Just after graduating from high school, Will, a socially awkward loner (Jimmy Mavrikes), and Mike, a popular jock (Lukas James Miller), gradually come to terms with their mutual attraction. As tenderly directed by Matthew Gardiner on Signature’s intimate ARK stage—and as exquisitely performed by Mavrikes and Miller—Girlfriend is a sublimely touching love story that aches with emotional authenticity in each instant.

Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) and Lukas James Miller (Mike) in Girlfriend. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Todd Almond wrote the semiautobiographical book around lyrics and music borrowed from Matthew Sweet’s hit 1991 alternative rock album titled Girlfriend. There’s a disarming irony in the fact that Sweet wrote and recorded Girlfriend after his divorce from his wife, yet Almond uses these songs to express the feelings flooding between two young men. For instance, during a scene where Will and Mike are at a drive-in watching a movie, they sing

I didn’t know nobody
And then I saw you coming my way
Don’t you need to get in the arms of a good friend?
Oh, cuz believe me, I’d sure love to call you my girlfriend.

Earlier Mike had given Will a mixtape of songs from Sweet’s album, which they’re both really into. Now they’re singing from it together ostensibly as fans. In fact, they’re singing the song to each other, warily coming out to each other and themselves. Sweet’s lyrics are therefore a little off-kilter, not your typically explicit burst-out-in-song-to-share-a-feeling musical number. Yet here as throughout the show, Sweet’s lyrics function to speak truths that dare not otherwise be said.

Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) and Lukas James Miller (Mike, standing) in Girlfriend. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

In relying on lyrics that were written as male to female and repurposing them as male to male, Almond risks echoing the campy custom of gay men appropriating female references for each other. But Girlfriend steers clear of that slang in two critical ways. First, the script situates Mike and Will completely outside the gay culture of the period. And second, it gives Mike and Will not a smidgen of the gendering misogyny that can accompany gay men’s mock feminizing of one another. Thus in Mavrikes’s and Miller’s extraordinarily soulful and ebullient performances, we are at liberty to be ever affected by their characters’ purely heartfelt affection.

Also underscoring Girlfriend‘s gender-just politics while rocking the house are the four women in the band—Musical Director Britt Bonney (keyboard), Beth Cannon (guitar), Nicole Saphos (bass), and Erika Johnson (drums). Scenic Designer Misha Kachman has cleverly positioned them upstage as if in a recording studio, such that when they sing and play backup they become literally the generational soundtrack to Will and Mike’s romantic exploration.

Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) and Lukas James Miller (Mike) in Girlfriend. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

With light-show colors, Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills shifts our focus artfully between the characters and the musicians. Costume Designer Frank Labovitz gives the musicians a hip rocker look and the high school grads a closetful of apt shirt changes. And Sound Designer Ryan Hickey not only vividly sets scenes, as with a passing train or that drive-in movie; he mixes in the actors’ subtly mic’ed voices such that those who know Sweet’s eminently singable melodies might want to sing along.

The slur “faggots” occurs once, the prerecorded sound of teen boys driving by and reviling them. It is a rupture, an intrusion of the real world, and thereafter Will’s and Mike’s love story is tested. But by then we are rooting for them, we want them to stay together, not least because the onstage chemistry between Mavrikes and Miller is riveting.

When they dance with each other to the music, it is as if their unspoken courtship gets physical. But more often they are facing the audience and reacting as if facing each other. Are they looking into some invisible mirror to know so minutely what the other is feeling and thinking, even in pauses between lines? How do they manage to fill each silence such that we hold our breath for what a look or glance will reveal next? And when they are not belting out songs but simply speaking softly very up close, how do they conspire to so transfix us as moment by moment they let us in on what is going on in their respective hearts?

In this era of rising anti-LGBTQ animus sanctioned by our Wannabe Alpha Male in Chief, Girlfriend‘s celebration of misogyny-free male-male love makes this production an artistic triumph.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Girlfriend has been extended through June 17, 2018, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

Vietgone

[Originally published on DC Metro Theater Arts April 30, 2018]

There is so much in this show to flip over, you could be dizzied by its delights. The fantastical story and kooky characters, the wicked humor and badass music, the frisky cast and musicians, the far-out design and direction—it’s a full-on fusion of fun.

But it’s much, much more.

In Vietgone, Vietnamese-American Playwright Qui Nguyen sets out to tell how his parents fell in love after being resettled in America as refugees after the fall of Saigon. Nguyen, a practitioner of geek theater and a screenwriter for Marvel Studios, embellishes their romance with the wildest pastiche of pop culture I can recall seeing on a DC stage. He drops in this and that from comic books, Hollywood movies, hip-hop, cartoons, sit-coms, farce, kung fu fighting, sex comedies, you name it. Incredibly, it all coheres.

Scenic Designer Tony Cisek has transformed Studio Theatre’s fourth floor into something like a funky garage or unfinished shelter with a bandstand upstage, huge billboard-type placards on the wall representing Arkansas, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, California; a jumble of luggage, guitars, and other set dressing including a map of Saigon. A sign lights up that says Fort Chaffee—the real-life site of the refugee camp in Arkansas where in 1975 Tong, the playwright’s mother, and Quang, his father, met. Both 30 years old at the time, they were, as Jacob Yeh playing the Playwright tells us, “both survivors of a conflict that’s been raging in some form or fashion their entire lives.”

Regina Aquino (Tong) and Marc Delacruz (Quang) in Vietgone. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Tong (a fierce and feisty Regina Aquino) got airlifted out of Saigon with her mother, Huong (a slyly amusing Eileen Rivera), leaving behind not only her brother but her fiancé—whom she knows she will not see again.

Quang (a ruggedly robust Marc Delacruz), a pilot trained in the United States, flew a helicopter out of Saigon full of escaping Vietnamese but with no room for his wife and two kids—whom he wants dearly to return to.

The obstacles Quang and Tong face, and the complications in their courtship, have been cast by Nguyen into witty situational comedy and intense dramatic confrontations that jump back and forth in time and are by turns hilarious and deeply affecting.

Nguyen’s nimble balancing of light and dark shines throughout, as for instance in an exchange between Tong and her mom, who is unimpressed with their Fort Chaffee accommodations.

Huong:  I thought we’d have our own rooms at least.
Tong: It’s a refugee camp, mom. It’s not a hotel.
Huong: I know it’s not a hotel. I just thought—well, it’s America. I thought everything would be super nice here in America. That’s sorta what they advertise.

Not long after that laugh line, the play’s motif of rescue from certain danger appears.

Tong:  Mom, I didn’t “drag you here”. We were days away from being overrun by the Viet Cong, my job at the embassy offered me two tickets to America, I gave you one of those tickets—to, you know, SAVE YOU.
Huong:  You saved me?
Tong:  Yes. I saved you. This is the act of being saved.

Regina Aquino (Tong) in Vietgone. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The play is studded with terrific rock songs with lyrics by Nguyen, Music Director Jeff Song, and Andy Santospago, and original rock/pop/funk/psychedelic music by Santospago and members of the ace band The Vietgoners—Song (bass/vocals), Jonathan Hawkins (guitars/banjo/mandolin/vocals), and Keith Butler, Jr. (drums/percussion/vocals).

Many of the stories told in the songs are emotionally raw and the actors sing the guts out of them. For instance, Quang and Tong have a number called “Home” in which they have the same lyrics but with strikingly different meaning. Quang takes the stage solo with a chorus that goes:

HOME.
I’LL MAKE IT HOME.

By which Quang means “I’ll make it back to my homeland.” Tong then joins Quang onstage and sings a nearly identical verse except that for her the “I’LL MAKE IT HOME” chorus means “I’ll make this place my new homeland.” That’s some powerful musical storytelling. And wait till you hear Aquino belt out Tong’s “Don’t Give a Shit.”

Eileen Rivera (Ensemble), Joe Ngo (Nahn), Marc Delacruz (Quang), and Jacob Yeh (Ensemble) in Vietgone. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The show is rife with humor, a lot of it uproariously broad and bawdy, and some of the edgiest makes fun of America. Early on, for instance, there’s a road-trip scene between Quang and his buddy Nahn (a wonderfully wacky Joe Ngo), during which they travel by motorcycle to California on account of Quang’s cockamamie plan to get back to Vietnam. On the way, they talk of this and that.

Quang:  Americans aren’t huge fans of peeps like you and me.
Nahn:  Bullshit. Why would they send so many troops over if they didn’t like us?
Quang: Listen, man, I spent 18 months here in ’68 learning how to fly down in Lacklund Airforce Base. They barely like each other. Look how the white ones treat the black ones here and they’re all from the same country.
Nahn: That is nutbags.
Quang: This is why we need to get home. North and South Vietnam may be at war, but at least we’re not fighting each other over something as stupid as the way we look.
Nahn:  Word.

And not a few of the show’s jests are gentle ribbing of white Americans. “Yo what’s up white people,” exclaims Tong to the audience at the top of the show. And Yeh’s caricatures of white guys are a hoot—among them a crybaby blond-wigged airman who longs for Tong, a bearded Hells Angels biker brute who runs the uneasy raiders off the road, and a long-haired airhead hippie who can’t stop apologizing for the Vietnam War.

The era is captured winkingly. There’s a haze-filled scene with mary jane. There’s bed-hopping galore. (Tong keeps plucking Quang’s shirt open before they get it on.) Recognizable bits from movies like Ghost and The Matrix get big laughs.

Costume Designer Frank Labovitz gets the comic-book look yet keeps the characters believable. Lighting Designer Heather T. Gilbert lends a fantasy fun-house feel. Fight Director Robb Hunter gives a mock martial-arts scene the perfect comic punch. And with her infamous imagination and verve, Director Natsu Onoda Power shapes all the inspired bits and pieces into a whole that ultimately lands with stunning impact.

It happens in the last scene, between Quang, now elderly, being interviewed by his son for a play he wants to write about his father and mother. Their talk turns to the Vietnam War and America’s role in it as seen from the point of view of those for whom the war came to them. These people—including Quang and Tong, without whom there would not be this Playwright—were reliant on America for rescue from the imminent danger posed by the Viet Cong. It is a powerfully written scene that articulates and invites a fundamental recalculation of why we were in Vietnam.

By the end, Vietgone does something so beyond entertaining, so unexpected and unforgettable, that I not only left the theater with my mind blown. I left with my mind changed.

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

Vietgone plays through May 20, 2018, at Studio Theatre  –  1501 14th Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.