Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

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Chocolate Covered Ants

When three hours in the theater elapse faster than many a 90-minute performance, it’s a good bet you’ve been in the thrall of a master storyteller. And that’s what happens in Chocolate Covered Ants, the hit play by Steven A. Butler. First produced by Restoration Stage in 2016 at Anacostia Playhouse and now remounted at THEARC, Chocolate Covered Ants pulses with electrifying candor about race, gender, and black fatherhood.

The title refers not to the exotic delicacy but to black men whose experience of white privilege is as being crushed underfoot like ants. During the two-act play, we hear the wrenching stories of six black men and the black woman who tries to understand them. Vividly performed and fascinatingly scripted, they come to seem to us as real as life. Their interrelated conflicts rivet us, making us care so much what will happen to them that we lose track of real time.

Suli Myrie (psychologist Dr. Adrienne Hilton Taylor) and MarQuis Fair (one of her research subjects, Tyrone Jackson) in ‘Chocolate Covered Ants.’ Photo by Kianga Lee.

I heard much buzz about the first production but never got to see it. When this revival was announced, I jumped at it, not least because it was another chance to see the work of a playwright who had awed me already. When I saw his The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus, I praised “Butler’s genius in crafting and combining all his character-driven narratives,” and I can now applaud Chocolate Covered Ants for the same reason.

The show begins with sirens and flashing police lights and six black men facing the audience.  A voiceover shouts, “Hands up!” and they all yell, “Don’t shoot!” This jolt is followed by their breathless responses to that unseen white cop. One says:

I’m standing here with my hands up, praying that you will understand that—just like you—I have a family to go home to.

Another says:

You don’t have to fear me, my brother… You’re the one holding the gun.

Then each has a monolog, breathtakingly poetic, that takes us into his life. Still addressing that white cop but in a sense also all white people, the first says:

Let’s be honest. It’s not the hoodie that scares you. It’s what it covers up; what it hides underneath. It’s my nose that can smell your bullshit from a mile away. It’s my chocolate colored skin that doesn’t burn in the sun—and ages better than yours. It’s my eyes that with one piercing glance into yours can make you question your very well-being. It’s my lips that form words like ‘no justice; no peace!’ It’s my ears that can figure out every secret and plan you try to hide from us….

The scene shifts to the office of Dr. Adrienne Hilton Taylor, a psychologist who has been researching black women. To complete that project she is now studying black men, in particular, black men who grew up without their biological father. Her intent is to help black women understand what hurts in the hearts of the men in their lives. It is a promising premise that proves to have a powerful emotional payoff.

Suli Myrie (psychologist Dr. Adrienne Hilton Taylor) in ‘Chocolate Covered Ants.’ Photo by Kianga Lee.

Dr. Taylor has arranged for five men deprived of their biological fathers to be interviewed and paid for their time. One by one they arrive, from different cities and walks of life, and each of their scenes with her becomes as engrossing as its own one-act play. Dr. Taylor’s sassy assistant, Michelle Pitts, provides much comic relief.

I won’t synopsize these characters’ narratives—which include Dr. Taylor’s own complicated relations with her ex and her father—because the play really surpasses the sum of its parts. And the succession of those stories—their artful aggregation, their surprising intersection—never lets our attention lapse and ultimately leaves us awestruck. Chocolate Covered Ants portrays personal dramas about individuated characters then connects them with shattering force. Taken together, Butler’s thematic scope, empathically drawn characters, and dynamic language have the heft and dimension of a classic. In worldview, voice, and form, Chocolate Covered Ants is a triumph. It belongs in the canon of contemporary plays produced across the country.

Playwright Steven A. Butler and Director Courtney Baker-Oliver on the set of ‘Chocolate Covered Ants.’ Photo by Kianga Lee.

Running Time: Three hours with one 10-minute intermission.

Chocolate Covered Ants, presented by Restoration Stage, runs through October 28, 2018, at THEARC Black Box Theater, 1901 Mississippi Avenue SE, Washington DC. For tickets, call 202-714-0646 or go online.

The 20-page program for Chocolate Covered Ants can be viewed here.

Promotional video about Chocolate Covered Ants featuring castmember MarQuis Fair

 

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Aida

Just before intermission in Constellation Theatre Company’s sparkling and stirring production of Aida, there comes a wonderful “Wakanda Forever” moment. The fearless Nubian princess Aida (a majestically poised Shayla S. Simmons), captured with her countrypeople who are now enslaved in Egypt, lifts their persecuted spirits with “The Gods Love Nubia.” The ensemble joins in the musical number, as do Aida’s allies, the house slaves Mereb and Nehebka (Da’Von Moody and Ashley Johnson-Moore, both magnetically poignant):

The gods love Nubia
We have to keep believing
Though scattered and divided we are still its heart

And the singing is absolutely glorious.

For anyone wondering how in the world this mammoth Broadway musical could work in a modest blackbox on 14th Street, here’s the answer: a pulse beat of conviction among the performers so persuasive it’s as if this epic myth were their own.

The storyline of Aida the musical, which is set in 3000 B.C.E., is of course not native to anywhere on the continent of Africa. It began as an opera written by Italians in the nineteenth century, then in the twentieth it was made a musical by Disney with music and lyrics by two brits. Book writers Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang have done a crafty job of making the roundabout plot relatable, and Elton John’s music and Tim Rice’s lyrics are terrifically listenable. But in lieu of the legendary pageantry of both opera house and Broadway versions of Aida, what makes Constellation’s show soar is its opulence of talent.

Scenic and Lighting Designer A. J. Guban—perhaps referencing the pyramids, or maybe the loves of the three leads—sets the story amid a profusion of triangles: on the floor in a pattern of blue, black, gold, and silver; overhead in frames; and onstage in forced-perspective shapes and angles that light up in bright colors. Even more spectacular are Costume Designer Kenann M. Quander’s jewel-bedecked and gilded high fashions for Egyptian royalty, uniforms and gowns for their minions, and earth-toned rags for their slaves. Notably, the fashionista Egyptian princess Amneris (a spunkily comic Chani Wereley) gets her vanity on in a succession of outfits each more eye-popping than the last.

Chani Wereley as Amneris, Shayla S. Simmons as Aida, and Jobari Parker-Namdar as Radames in ‘Aida.’ Promotion photo by Andrew Propp.

The show could well be called Radames and Aida, for their love, à la R&J, transgresses and transcends a boundary between hatreds. Radames (a strapping, lovely-voiced Jobari Parker-Namdar) is the Egyptian captain who invaded Ethiopia and captured among his conquests the beautiful Aida. Radames becomes fatefully infatuated with Aida; her self-possessed feistiness arrests him—but he’s already engaged to material girl Amneris.

Among the intriguing aspects of the script is the fact that each of the three romantic leads—Radames, Aida, and Amneris—has a father who plays a differently pivotal role in their lives and the story. Amneris is daughter to Pharaoh (a handsomely authoritative Kaylen Morgan), so when Radames marries her he will have a son-in-law’s sinecure. Aida is daughter to Amonasro, king of Nubia (a sensitively dignified Wendell Jordan), who loves her dearly but is affronted that she would fall for an Egyptian. And good guy Radames is son to the evil and conniving chief minister Zoser (a deliciously malicious Greg Watkins), who intends to ensure his son’s enthronement by offing the Pharaoh.

Director Michael J. Bobbitt, Musical Director Walter “Bobby” McCoy, and Choreographer Tony Thomas II have together triangulated a compelling production with a first-rate cast of actor-singer-dancers and a band so well balanced by Sound Designer Roc Lee that we hear every musical nuance, every emotional note.

Read ‘Perhaps He’s a Prodigy.’ How Walter “Bobby” McCoy Went From High School to the Heights of DC Theater, an interview with the musical director of Aida, by Nicolle Hertvik

A few highlights for me (besides the thrilling “The Gods Love Nubia”) were “How I Know You,” in which Aida and Mereb recognize each other as compatriots, tenderly sung by Simmons and Moody; “My Strongest Suit,” in which Amneris and her Attendants go clothes crazy, hilariously sung by Wereley and ensemble; “Elaborate Lives,” in which Radames declares his love for Aida, gorgeously sung by Parker-Namdar and Simmons and reprised movingly as they await their tragic entombment.

Aida the musical is a big show, with an epic story and outsize characters. But up close in small at Source, performed with artistry and affinity, it just couldn’t feel any better.

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

Aida plays through November 18, 2018, presented by Constellation Theatre Company performing at Source Source – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7763, or purchase them online.

Credits

Music by Elton John   Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls & David Henry Hwang
Directed by Michael J. Babbitt   Musical direction by Walter “Bobby” McCoy
Choreography by Tony Thomas II
Scenic/Lighting Designer: A.J. Guban
Costume Designer: Kenann M. Quander
Sound Designer: Roc Lee
Properties Designer: Tony Koehler
Fight Choreographer: Ryan Sellers
Associate Music Director: Marika Contouris
Production Stage Manager Kirsten E. Parker
Assistant Director: Sean-Maurice Lynch
Assistant Choreographer: Patricia “Pep” Targete

CAST

Aida: Shayla S. Simmons
Radames: Jobari Parker-Namdar
Amneris: Chani Wereley
Zoser: Greg Watkins
Mereb: Da’Von Moody
Nehebka: Ashley John
Amonasro: Wendell Jordan
Pharaoh: Kaylen Morgan
Ensemble: lan Anthony Coleman, Lawrence Hailes, Ashley Johnson-Moore, Amber Lenell Jones, Wendell Jordan, Kaylen Morgan, Ashley K. Nicholas, Greg Watkins, Topher Williams, Tara Lynn Yates-Reeves

BAND

Conductor/Keyboard 1: Walter “Bobby” McCoy
Keyboard 2: Marika Countouris
Flute, Alto Flute, Bamboo Flute, Oboe, English Horn, Alto Saxophone: Mila Weiss
Guitars: Jaime Ibacache
Bass: Jason Wilson
Drums/Percussion: Manny Ardniega

UNDERSTUDIES

Demitrus “Demie” Carter (Amonasro/Ensemble); Takara Clark (Ensemble); Candace Foreman (Ensemble); Amber Lenell Jones (Nehebka); Wendell Jordan (Zoser); Benjamin Kramer Kwalick (Ensemble); Ahmad Maaty (Pharaoh/Ensemble); Da’Von Moody (Radames); Nia Savoy (Amneris); Topher Williams (Mereb); Tara Lynn Yates-Reeves (Aida)

 

Anon(ymous)

Countless migrant children have been separated from home and family in war-torn parts of the world, and there is no way all their stories will be told. But Naomi Iizuka’s Anon(ymous)—just opened in a lyrically dreamlike production directed by Jon Jon Johnson—finds a way to contain those multitudes. Borrowing loosely from The Odyssey, Anon(ymous) traces the parallel narratives of a teenage boy who lost his home and his mother and a mother who lost her home and her son.

Because the play was originally commissioned and produced by the Children’s Theater Company of Minneapolis, its point of view is intriguingly both youthful and mature. The language is eloquently simple; the scenes are dramatically direct; the characters are vivid types. Yet the ruthless sounds of war intrude and there is no mistaking the harsh realities the show evokes.

Eirin Stevenson as teenage refugee Anon and Toni Rae Salmi as his mother Nemasani in ‘Anon(ymous).’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

As the audience arrives, Sound Designer Niusha Nawab broadcasts a BBC radio report about uprooted civilians, people fleeing violence, government offensives, huts burned, cattle killed, UN camps, disease, atrocities, tears. It is a bracing and grim documentary prelude to what turns out to be a more nuanced, more interiorized mise-en-scène. An ensemble of the displaced enters sorrowfully in Lighting Designer Ian Claar’s mottled half-light. One by one they huddle vulnerably under Set Designer Eric McMorris’s colorful assemblage of clothing hung on clotheslines that criss-cross the stage. Wearing rag-tag garb pulled by Costume Designer Robin Weiner, they are expressive of all those who yearn to breathe free.

This chorus of refugees then begins a haunting ode to home. It beautifully establishes the childlike storybook voice of the play:

Where I come from is oxen in rice fields and hills the color of green tea.
Where I come from is jungles filled with jaguars and pythons thick as a grown man’s thigh.
Where I come from is poison frogs the size of a thumbnail and squirrels that can fly from tree to tree.
Where I come from is waterfalls taller than the tallest skyscraper…

We meet the son and the mother: the young Anon (Eirin Stevenson) and the grieving Nemasani (Toni Rae Salmi). And we learn they got separated in the same circumstances. There was a war. They escaped by boat. There was a storm. The boat they were on sank. People drowned and disappeared. Neither Anon nor Nemasani knows the other is alive. But because we now know them both, we can anticipate their longed-for reunion, the hope for which sustains the play’s momentum through the episodes that follow.

And what an ingenious patchwork those episodes are. For instance, there is a scene in a sweatshop where refugee women are sewing clothing, and among them is Nemasani, stitching a shroud for the son she presumes dead. The brutish factory manager Mr. Mackus (Peter Mikhail) comes on to Nemasani and demands she marry him—making her the latest in his succession of mail-order brides. It is a striking instance of how the play can suggest adult-themed storylines in the language of Disneyesque innocence.

And there is a scene that establishes how Anon washed up half-dead on a beach and was rescued by Calista (Madelyn Farris), whose rich father owns the beach and a whole lot more. She insists on kissing him but he refuses—a touch that surely would be relatable by tweens.

Eirin Stevenson as Anon and Shaquille Stewart as Pascal in ‘Anon(ymous).’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

In scenes that follow, the character of Anon is shown to be as chameleon-like as Odysseus. He changes his name situationally, sometimes calling himself Nobody. He is adopted by a very wealthy American family—Nice American Father (Aron Spellane), Nice American Mother (Kara Turner), Nice American Daughter (Madelyn Farris)—but they aren’t his family and they aren’t his home and he runs away. He is befriended by Pascal, a refugee from West Africa (Shaquille Stewart), who helps him hide from immigration police in a tunnel. He scrounges for food discarded in garbage bags by an Indian restaurant run by Ali (Mikhail) and Ritu (Tamekia Jackson). Upon seeing its sign saying CURRY, he takes the name Koo Ri.

The stark realities faced by fleeing refugees are imaginatively and intergenerationally summoned in a scene in a truck driven by Strygal (Stewart). Beside him in the front seat are Anon and another young refugee named Belen (Cindy Wang). Strygal creepily puts the make on Belen and she resists. Anon, hearing sounds from the back of the truck of crammed refugees being transported, insists that Strygal pull over. Strygal refuses and Anon grabs the wheel. The truck crashes, followed immediately by another haunting ensemble chorus:

I came to America on a ship.
I came to America in a truck.
I walked a thousand miles.
I crossed a giant desert.
It was so hot I couldn’t breathe.
It was so cold, my fingers froze.

I had so many hopes.
I had so many dreams.
But I died
I died
I died along the way.

Noa Gelb as Naja in ‘Anon(ymous).’ Photo by Patrick Gallagher Landes.

The play’s goriest scene involves an eyepatch-wearing, wine-swilling butcher, Mr. Zyclo (Spellane), who intends to make sausage out of Anon. Zyclo’s pet bird (Turner) enters comically squawking and stalking about in high heels. In a show of avian allyship worthy of an animated cartoon, she gives one her shoes to Anon to poke out the butcher’s good eye and the other she uses to bludgeon him to death. It’s a gross-out scene sure to have pleased the kids, and a nicely timed respite for grownups from the heavy political reverberations at play.

In true Disney-magic fashion, Iizuka introduces a girl who is a goddess, Naja (Noa Gelb). She is like a brainy BFF to Anon, and a sweet romance blooms between them. They even share a kiss.

ANON: Do all goddesses kiss like that?
NAJA: No, just me.
(Anon and Naja kiss again.)
ANON: I’m really homesick.
NAJA: I know.
ANON: It’s like a big empty room inside of me.
NAJA: I know.
ANON: What if you want to go home, but there’s no more home to go home to? What if the one person you love more than anything, what if they don’t remember you?

Later, when Anon is in peril of being impaled by an angered Mr. Mackus, Naja suddenly appears with a sword and, like Calista before her, saves Anon’s life. So there’s girl power for the kids too.

The morning after I saw Anon(ymous)—in a pleasurable staging of a lovely play that can be appreciated openheartedly with child’s-eye simplicityI awoke to a headline reading “Splitting families again on table at White House.” It was a shocking reminder that the stories about migrant children told through myth and fantasy in Anon(ymous) do not have magical happy endings in real life. And that BBC preshow broadcast is more like how it goes down.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Anon(ymous) plays through October 27, 2018, presented by Theatre Prometheus at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre– 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD (next to the AFI Silver Theatre). Tickets are available online.

Cast 
Eirin Stevenson: Anon
Noa Gelb: Naja
Peter Mikhail: Mr. Mackus, Ali, Ignacio, Ensemble
Aron Spellane: Senator Laius, Mr. Zyclo, Nice American Father, Ensemble
Kara Turner: Mrs. Laius, Zyclo’s Bird, Nice American Mother, Ensemble
Toni Rae Salmi: Nemasani, Ensemble
Madelyn Farris: Calista, Serza, Sewing Lady #2, Nice American Daughter, Ensemble
Cindy Wang: Nasreen, Belen, Ensemble
Tamekia Jackson: Ritu, Sewing Lady #1, Ensemble
Shaquille Stewart: Pascal, Strygat, Ensemble

Production Crew 
Jon Jon Johnson: Director
Genevieve Dornemann: Stage Manager
Eliza Mott: Assistant Stage Manager
Robin Weiner: Costume Designer
Niusha Nawab: Sound Designer
Ian Claar: Lighting Designer
Maddy McKeague: Assistant Lighting Designer
Eric McMorris: Technical Designer and Set Designer

 

 

Safeguards

Brave Soul Collective is a hidden gem of theatrical truthtelling about black men who are LGBTQ. Periodically the collective surfaces with a one-night-only showcase of work by local writing and performing talent that if you blink you might miss. Impressively conceived and produced by Monte J. Wolfe, these collections of short plays unfailingly offer insight into what outsiders might consider a niche but those inside it know as life.

Brave Souls Collective producer, playwright, and performer Monte J. Wolfe.

What distinguishes the Brave Soul Collective esthetic is a sensitive, unsensational honesty that risks not reaching for laughs yet consistently reaches the heart. I’ve witnessed this emotional realism in programs such as Plot Twists (DC Black Theatre Festival) and Tenfold: An Evening of Brave Soul Performances (Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival). BSC presented its most recent program at the Anacostia Arts Center on the occasion of National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and the We Will Be Heard National Day of Action.

Following are the plays and credits with brief notations to give a sense of the breadth of emotional relationships and topicality—HIV/AIDS, family, sex, dating and relationships, substance abuse, mental health. Progressing from quiet intensity at the beginning to more and more dramatic force, Safeguards included some especially stunning works in the second part.

Donuts & Dilemmas
Performed by Darrell Evans & Monte J. Wolfe
Written by Jared Shamberger/Directed by Monte J. Wolfe
“Do we really need to get married?” After years of living together, Mitchell and Van confront what it means to keep one’s word.

Just Between Us Guys
Performed by Brave Soul Ensemble
In a scene played with the spontaneity of polished improv, members of a support group for black gay men that has been meeting for six months try to figure out how to move forward.

In the Chair
Performed by Keanna Faircloth & Jammine Nance
Written & Directed by Monte J. Wolfe
“How many gay clients do you have?” In his first-time visit to a psychotherapist, a young man named Clayton (“CJ”) discloses his isolation, his parents’ nonacceptance of him, and his longing to connect with “a normal regular dude.”

Chance of a Lifetime
Performed by Anthony Green, Michael Sainte-Andress, Rodderick Sheppard & Monte J.  Wolfe
Written & Directed by Alan Sharpe
An older man who lost scores of friends to AIDS but “dodged the HIV bullet” has now turned inward, selfishly surrounding himself with possessions and living a solitary life in suburbia. In a magical realism twist, he is visited by three of those deceased friends, who have come to do an intervention: to get him to stop wasting time and squandering his life.

When the Smoke Clears
Written & Performed by Yarde Noir
“Who am I without tina?” asks a young man, referring to his addiction to crystal meth—which, he realizes, is “a trip to wonderland” but not a way out of his isolation.

INTERMISSION

Stealth Bombs
Performed by Jason Evan Barrett, Keanna Faircloth & Anthony Green
Written & Directed by Monte J. Wolfe
A meeting between two exes who broke up over unfaithfulness leads to an apology and the revelation of a bigger lie: a drug addiction kept hidden.

For Colored Gays
Performed by Jason Evan Barrett, Anthony Green, Jammine Nance, Yarde Noir, Rodderick Sheppard & Monte J. Wolfe
Written by Anthony Green / Directed by Monte J. Wolfe & Anthony Green
“A black gay man / Has a better chance of contracting the virus / Than going to college / Than staying out of jail / Than finding real love.” A theater piece of extraordinary power and beauty, a poetic montage about same-gender-loving black men in the matter of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls… and Word Becomes Flesh by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Here, for instance, is the first impassioned monolog, from a gay son remembering his mother’s rejection of him:

The first time you cut me scarred the worse
I’d exposed my insides to you, my mother
Yet you dismissed me with a quick
As long as you don’t get Aids
A sudden jab that barely cut the skin
No blood was lost

The sharp remarks slit
More routinely and dug deeper
As long as you don’t look gay
Clean precise incisions
That broke open exactly where intended

You sliced through scabs
Spots where I had calloused
I grew numb to the hemorrhaging
As long as you don’t walk like a girl

I engraved myself with your razor
Never ruthless enough to shank the blade into you
Pierce your soul straight to the bone
Strike directly at your jugular
Like mother like son
Sling my own pointy edged weapon
Leaving raw pounds of your flesh on the floor
Watch you bleed out
I beg you to make your wounds mortal
Don’t simply nick me just enough that I feel it
Scream out that I disgust you if you truly love me
Please jam the knife through my heart
It’s more humane than another gash into my back

The rest of Anthony Green’s For Colored Gays is just as electrifying. The piece cries out to be produced again.

Left Behind
Performed by Darrell Evans & Patricia Williams Dugueye
Written & Directed by Alan Sharpe
“No son of mine is going to be a faggot.” The estranged mother and father of a young gay man meet after his memorial service. He committed suicide. The father has the young man’s ashes in a CVS bag. The young man’s name was CJ—the character we met earlier seeking help from a shrink. Recriminations are exchanged, about their son and their failed marriage. The mother, a bishop, tried to get the boy into conversion therapy. The father would have none of that. They bicker bitterly, then, in a gut-punch ending, they exit in opposite directions…leaving the CVS bag behind.

Voices
Performed by Brave Soul Ensemble
Written by Monte J. Wolfe
“Love. Understanding. Respect. Love. We all just want to be heard.” A chorus of brave souls brings closure to a moving evening.

Next time Brave Soul Collective makes an appearance, see for yourself: They help make unmasked honesty happen.

Running Time: Two hours 5 minutes, including one intermission.

Safeguards was presented September 27, 2018, by Brave Soul Collective performing at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC. For information about future events follow Brave Soul Collective on Facebook.

How to Win a Race War

I know from my feminist antipornography activism that there is plenty of misogynist hate literature around. (The hard-core stuff is brutal, sadistic propaganda marketed to men arousing them to violate women.) But despite my anti-racism activism, I was unfamiliar with the extent of so-called identitarian hate literature (propaganda marketed to whites rousing them to slaughter blacks). And then I read about the chilling research Ian Allen did for his three-part parody of the stuff, How to Win a Race War.

I remember hearing about The Turner Diaries, the book that inspired Timothy McVeigh, who perpetrated the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But an essay of Allen’s published in July in The New York Times,Inside the World of Racist Science Fiction,” opened my eyes to a related canon of novels I had no idea existed. These are books, mostly self-published and in scarily wide distribution, that fuel a white-nationalist culture intent on defending white identity against the perceived threat posed by hordes of Jews and people of color. Allen summarizes the plots of several and argues that “the tropes that define the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies—apocalyptic xenophoia, anti-Semitic conspiracies, racist fear-mongering—are also the tropes that define white-supremacist literature.” The essay left me convinced—and greatly relieved that Allen had read those execrable books so I did not have to.

Scene from part one of ‘How to Win a Race War.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

While Allen cogently explains the function of this literature in contemporary alt-right politics, his explanation of the use to which he himself has put this literature is not so persuasive:

The genre ranges broadly in tone and topic, from dark, foreboding dramas to broad, slapstick comedies; from neo-Confederate romances to futuristic dystopian nightmares. They’re dangerous and disgusting, for sure, but they’re also absurdly stupid and, on the whole, very badly written. As a playwright who specializes in edgy humor, I find them endlessly fascinating. Their vocabulary of broad stereotypes, paranoid fantasies, and preposterous global-takeover schemes is the stuff comedy is made of.

Having read this essay before seeing How to Win a Race War, I went with the understanding that the show would be the proof text of Allen’s premise that comedy can be made of racist hate lit. Based on what I saw, I can report that this premise is fatally flawed.

See my colleague Karim Doumer’s insightful critque of the show.

Scene from part two of ‘How to Win a Race War.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Allen is a big thinker and smart writer with a body of work that (though I’ve only seen his play Laura Bush Killed a Guy, which I admired) has established him as one of DC theater’s premier provocateurs. I gather from his bio that as a satirist he regards little as off-limits. For instance he made a film titled Snuff.mov, described as a “bizarre slaughterfest that proceeds to blur the line between love and hate, sex and violence, humor and horror.” Which lets me know that Allen considers both misogynist propaganda and identitarian propaganda ripe for his skewering. 

The three parts of How to Win a Race War take place in three epochs—during slavery (Get the Guns!), in the 1990s (Kill All Infidels!), and in a sci-fi future (Rinse and Repeat). They begin the same way: with an assortment of white-nationalist books arrayed on stage as if for sale by a street vendor. Before each play, the display is cleared away. This presumably should remind us that Allen’s fantasia on race wars in America riffs on actual source material that he doesn’t himself endorse but has processed into parody. Once the plays begin, though, that crucial frame of reference falters.

Scene from part three of ‘How to Win a Race War.’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

For parody to work on stage, an audience needs some familiarity with what is being parodied. We need to be in on the joke; we can’t be guessing what’s being joked about. With How to Win a Race War—unless we ourselves have read the hate literature as avidly as Allen—we have to keep inferring what his satirist’s gloss is referencing. And this puts us in the awkwardly untenable position of having to see as funny what Allen sees as funny while all the time knowing full well the source material he’s working with is hateful.

Ultimately the experience becomes an exhausting and numbing ordeal.

Upon leaving the theater the night I saw the show, audience members were offered a copy of the latest issue of Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, cover-lined “Confronting Hate: It’s past time to combat all the ways hate morphs into violence and crime in the U.S.” Which offered some consolation that the production’s convictions were antiracist in intent. That’s just not how it played in fact.

Running Time: Three hours and 15 minutes, including two intermissions.

How to Win a Race War plays through October 20, 2018, at the DC Arts Center – 2438 18th St NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

 

 

The Events

Theater Alliance’s The Events, now playing at Anacostia Playhouse, is one of several plays this season that deal with a mass shooting. (There’s also Pinky Swear’s Blight, coming October 20 to the same theater. And there’s another now on the boards that is keeping its pivotal shooting incident under wraps.)

This trending topic is likely to show up on American stages more and more, given the frequency with which that horrific instance of gun violence has taken its unrelenting toll in lives lost and residual pain. Mass shootings have become a national nightmare that we cannot wake up from—and theater makers, like ancient dream interpreters, are stepping up to make sense of the senseless.

Regina Aquino as Claire with the Ensemble (Moses Bossenbroek, Tess Higgins, Drew Frederick Holcombe, Rachel Hynes, Karen Lange, Lee Liebeskind, Jane Petkofsky, Sisi Reid, Alex Turner) in ‘The Events.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Against this background of vulnerability and trauma, The Events takes the point of view of a survivor of a mass shooting and reframes it in memory as a mesmerizing alternate reality. We watch as the survivor, Claire (a luminous Regina Aquino), becomes the dreamer of a different dream, proactively imagining a promise of hope and healing through compassion and forgiveness, for herself and, vicariously, for us. The result is a spellbinding theatrical experience that stays in the heart and mind like a saving revelation.

Click to read my colleague Beatrice Loayza’s review.

Originally the Scottish playwright David Grieg wrote The Events on commission from a theater in Norway. Theater Alliance happened upon it, picked it to kick off Producing Artistic Director Colin Hovde’s final season, and tweaked the text to Americanize it. Strangely, the play feels not foreign at all; it seems written here about what keeps happening here. In fact, the outline of its narrative is painfully too familiar.

As exquisitely directed by Hovde, the production takes place nowhere and in Claire’s mind. The surf of some sea roars in Thomas Sowers’s sound design, like some chatter-blocking white noise. In Giorgos Tsappas’s scenic design, abstract all-gray mottled walls surround a dreamscape with no discernible specificity. Except there is an upright piano and a heap of yellow folding chairs.

Those sparse particulars are important because Claire is the conductor of a choir, whom we meet at the very beginning as their twelve gorgeously matched voices sing out “Stand by Me.” (The praiseworthy ensemble consists of Moses Bossenbroek, Tess Higgins, Drew Frederick Holcombe, Rachel Hines, Karen Lange, Lee Liebeskind, Jane Petkofsky, Sisi Reid, and Alex Turner.)

Rachel Hynes, Josh Adams (The Boy), Regina Aquino (Claire), and Sisi Reid in ‘The Events.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

As we soon learn in chilling detail, however, one day a lone gunman dropped in on choir practice then shot everyone except Claire. This means the sentient choir members we see and hear singing clearly exist in Claire’s memory and imagination only. In the real world, they are dead.

Besides Claire, there is one other living character in The Events: The Boy, the shooter. He exists as a projection in Claire’s imagination too, but as the story that she tells unfolds, he is very much alive. And somehow she must emotionally reckon with him and with what he did—the very soul-wrenching quandary that more and more are in.

“I don’t want to understand what happened to me, I know what happened to me. I want to understand what happened to him,” Claire says early on. And over the course of the play, Claire stitches together the story of what happened and picks up piece after piece of the puzzle about why.

The choir returns to sing pop songs and hymns. And the nameless Boy appears as various figures in Claire’s cognition: his own father, a journalist, a psychologist, a politician, the woman with whom Claire lives and loves, and others. Josh Adams plays them all with such protean subtlety that we meet each not as a simple impersonation but as a sympatico reflection imagined by Claire.

Josh Adams (The Boy, Regina Aquino (Claire), and Ensemble in ‘The Events.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The Boy’s story is told in fragments, each a clue to why he did what he did, and the play’s proffered reasons are familiar as well: a boyhood spent teased and bullied become a young manhood consumed by rage against others, and so forth. Though the main character of the play is seeking to understand The Boy—and though both Adams’s and Aquino’s performances are powerful and poignant—the play itself never actually explains him, which I take to be its point. Because just as in all the accumulated shootings we see on TV, the shooter himself remains an enigma.

Instead, it is Claire whom we get to know. She is who connects us to what happened. She is who stands in for us. She is who finds the capacity for compassion despite incomprehension, perhaps the greatest challenge our species now faces.

Ultimately the way the play draws us into Claire’s world, letting us see it through her eyes, becomes by the end an extraordinarily transformative event. Make that plural—transformative events—because as the play takes place on stage it happens in each audience member’s own heart and mind. And it is there, as Claire shows us, where the healing release many seek can be found.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Events plays through October 7, 2018, at Theater Alliance, performing at The Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call 202-241-2539 purchase them online.

 

If I Forget

To paraphrase the famous Passover Seder line, “Why is this domestic drama different from all other domestic dramas?” Or, to put the impudent question another way, “What makes If I Forget a uniquely Jewish play as distinct from, say, an exceedingly well-made instance of the family-drama genre?”

First it must be acknowledged that Steven Levenson’s If I Forget, just opened at Studio Theatre in a production directed briskly and cuttingly by Associate Artistic Director Matt Torney, is indisputably well made. The playwright is quoted in a program note by Dramaturg Lauren Halvorson, “I wanted to write a play that was a real, intimate family drama, an old-fashioned kind of realistic play that could also, somehow, hold a lot of ideas.” In this, Levenson has succeeded superlatively, because If I Forget is a tightly packed drama of family conflict so funny, sad, and explosive it leaves one knocked out and wrung out by the end—not unlike the way family meltdowns tend to do in real life.

The siblings: Jonathan Goldstein (Michael), Susan Rome (Holly), and Robin Abramson (Sharon) in ‘If I Forget.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg

All the familiar conventions of great domestic drama are in play: A mismatched set of grown siblings separated by distance and temperament (in this case, two sisters and a brother who grew up in a Jewish family in Tenleytown). The occasion of some celebration or crisis that brings them together accompanied by assorted mates (the 75th birthday of their widowed father). Revelations of resentments and betrayals and arguments about everything (oy). A final scene of poignance purporting to be closure (here a theatrical evocation of a Jewish ritual).

Read my colleague David Siegal’s review of If I Forget.

Jumping ahead to Act Two for a moment (I know, an odd way to look at a play), it’s seven months after Act One and (without giving too much away) the characters are variously in the throes of: a major health collapse, a major career collapse, a major financial collapse, major childrearing struggles, and a bitter dispute over whether to cash in on an inheritance. And curiously all these Act Two intrafamily dramas seem not particularly Jewish at all.

The cast of ‘If I Forget’: Richard Fancy (Lou Fischer), Susan Rome (Holly Fischer), Robin Abramson (Sharon Fischer), Paul Morella (Howard), Jonathan Goldstein (Michael Fischer), Julie-Ann Elliot (Ellen). Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It’s Americanized Chekov meets assimilated Neil Simon. The several story lines are riveting. And the act plays vigorously, not least because all seven parts are performed with such distinction: Richard Fancy as the avuncular paterfamilias Lou Fisher, Susan Rome as the persnickety daughter Holly Fischer, Jonathan Goldstein as the renegade son Michael Fischer, Robin Abramson as the putupon daughter Sharon Fischer (caretaker to Lou), Julie-Ann Elliott as Michael’s forbearing wife Ellen, Paul Morella as Holly’s milquetoast husband Howard, and Joshua Otten as Holly and Howard’s wayward son Joey.

It’s not that the extended Fisher family’s problems could be any family’s problems—there are obvious parameters of class, education, and color that distinguish their relatively privileged woes. But there’s not much in Act Two that makes it a Jewish Act Two except the final ritual scene (which plays a little like a wrap-up afterthought).

One actually has to recall what Levenson does in Act One to appreciate what makes If I Forget a singularly volatile and disruptive Jewish play.  Michael, a college professor, has authored a radical and controversial book titled Forgetting the Holocaust—a deliberate provocation that is being read as an affront to everything Jews mean when they say “Never again.” Michael sent the book in manuscript to Lou, who, we learn, loathes it. A petition is circulating at the school where Michael teaches to block his shot at tenure. Even Michael’s own sister Holly thinks the book is anti-Semitic. All of which is Levenson’s wind-up to the speech in which Michael gives a searing summary of his book. Michael argues that Jews have forgotten the real lesson of the Holocaust, which is that the global problem is nationalism, of which anti-Semitism is a subset. The Holocaust isn’t over, says Michael. It keeps happening, for instance in Rwanda and by implication to Palestinians. Michael’s monolog is magnificently written and delivered, showstopping to this goy and, as I imagine, heart-stopping to any Jew, wherever he or she may fall on the spectrum between secular shame and Zionist hubris.

The cast of ‘If I Forget.’ Set design by Debra Booth. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Then just when one might think that speech by Michael is untoppable, Levenson has the father Lou weigh in with an equally searing monolog recalling his experience as a soldier in World War II among the Americans who first entered Dachau. The eye-witness account he gives is unbearable to hear, much less picture, and Levenson’s writing and Richard Fancy’s performance tear the play apart. In between two majestic pillars of conscience—Michael’s indictment of Jews’ self-referential memory versus Lou’s survivalist insistence on it—Levenson pitches the audience into perhaps the most profound contradiction facing Jews today.

And just as in real-life families when a political controversy erupts before intermission, it gets glossed over afterward, the subject gets changed, and generic family drama resumes. Because that first act controversy was so charged and so distressing, no one wants to talk about it anymore.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and that If I Forget may be one of the greatest Jewish plays of this century. And for that reason alone it must be seen.

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

If I Forget plays through October 14, 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.

 

Gloria

Count on Branden Jacobs-Jenkins to leave you whiplashed and shell-shocked. He hits nerve after nerve then goes for the jugular. Whatever he writes, see it.

Woolly’s previous productions of Jacobs-Jenkins’s plays Appropriate and An Octoroon were hilarious and lacerating inquisitions into American racism. Appropriate did it with a family of all-white characters. An Octoroon did it with characters of color in white, red, and black greasepaint. Jacobs-Jenkins followed with Gloria, just opened at Woolly in a stunning production of a knockout play. Gloria has a multi-raced cast of characters but really isn’t about race. Or rather, it’s about not being about race, since it’s set in one of those rarefied workplaces, the office of an urbane magazine, where the white-liberal presumption is that race is irrelevant. You’re just either a hotshot or not.

Conrad Schott (Dean), Justin Weaks (Miles), and Megan Graves (Ani) in ‘Gloria.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Most of Act One plays like the live taping of a television sitcom in front of a studio audience. Millennial co-workers bicker and throw shade, make snide jokes behind one another’s backs, slough off doing any real work, distract themselves with office gossip and online ephemera. As crisply directed by Kip Fagan, Jacobs-Jenkins’s precision pacing of the brisk, brittle comedy elicits a crackling laugh track. And the play hits a nerve of anxiety familiar to anyone who can remember starting out in a cutthroat career both ambitious for success and terrified of failure.

See an insightful overview of Gloria in my colleague Ian Thal’s’ review.

 

Eunice Hone (Kendra) in ‘Gloria.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Jacobs-Jenkins worked as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker after he got out of college and in Gloria mines that experience for an explosive minefield of tragicomedy. Having myself spent decades in national magazine editorial offices, I enjoyed the script’s depiction of the world of Gloria—the put-upon personalities of the fact-checking and copy-editing departments, editorial assistants in the open bullpen office jockeying for the attention of aloof bosses, everyone’s benign neglect of the intern, who’s left adrift with nothing meaningful to do.

Ahmad Kamal (Lorin) in ‘Gloria.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

I liked that Jacobs-Jenkins focuses on the office underlings and keeps the upper-echelon editors off stage. And I particularly appreciated the actors’ veracity in their portrayals: the hapless fact checker Lorin (Ahmad Kamal), the frayed copy chief Gloria (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), the eager intern Miles (Justin Weaks), and the chatty editorial assistants Ani (Megan Graves), Dean (Conrad Schott), and Kendra (Eunice Hong). Though exaggerated a tad for comic effect, these characters are all grounded in editorial cred. There are some daffy goings-on, but it’s all in a day’s work. Nothing amiss, nothing ominous, only quick, biting humor.

Which makes what happens just before intermission such a cataclysmic shock.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (Gloria) in ‘Gloria.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

I gladly abide by Woolly’s wish that this event not be revealed. I did not see it coming nor would I have wanted to. Suffice to say, what happens turns Act Two into a different play.

Fascinatingly, Jacobs-Jenkins now pivots and switches which nerves he hits. The play becomes a commentary on the media maw, particularly the packaging and retailing of what used to be called New Journalism (reportage so flashily first-person it’s mainly about the writer). Three of the characters in Act One now have book projects about what happened. One of the projects never went anywhere but two have been published. And the play now entertains a comic critique of each book’s relative reliability owing to each author’s dubious claim to being an eyewitness. In other words: Fake views.

Since I saw Gloria a few days ago, I have been trying in my mind to patch together Act One and Act Two, to reconcile the content of the two halves, to make a causal case for their connection that would make them seem a meaningful whole. I’ve read various attempts by others to infer such rationales (like one I’d paraphrase as: obsessional ambition leads to media chicanery). But I’ve not come up with a connecting concept that persuades me.

Which has led me to the suspicion that Jacobs-Jenkins may have intended me to grope futilely for an explanation of how Act Two relates to Act One. Because the sort of event that joins them doesn’t really join them at all. It sunders them. It makes no sense, and it rips apart reality.

Damn, that guy can write.

Running time: Two hours, with an intermission.

Gloria plays through September 30, 2018, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets at the venue or order online.

 

Kennedy Center Page to Stage 2018: Tastings from a Buffet (Part Two)

Kennedy Center’s annual Page to Stage Festival is always chock full of tempting offerings, and the challenge of deciding what to see is daunting. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet…except you really can’t. The best you can do chose a tasting menu. So here’s what Nicole Hertvik and I picked to see on Labor Day. (See Part One for my reports from Saturday.)

Theater Alliance: The Blackest Battle 

After preshow hip hop tracks from DJ Nicktha1da, a dynamic Ensemble of eight exploded into the playing area. With edgy, driving sounds and movement, they delineated two warring rap factions—the East crew and the West crew—in a fictional New York city (a “slum village”) “where so-called Black on Black violence rains down like a fiery storm.”  The rivalry in this Hip Hop Musical is fought not with weapons but in rap, over whose is the harder.  “I’m tired of violence,” says one. But as with the Montagues and Capulets,  this feud between East and West has no end and no reason. And as in Romeo and Juliet, there is a lovely scene of love at first sight between a young man and woman from opposite camps. They are named Bliss and Dream, and before their romance is discovered (and denounced), they go together to watch fireworks on the pier—a place where slaves were shipped. There is an evocative storyline about drug dealing, but here the drug is called “hope.” It is said to “open peoples minds and show you the truth.” And there is a chilling scene under a bridge where there is a wall on which are written the names of those who have been killed. As shown at Page to Stage, The Blackest Battle appears to have powerful potential as a work of dance, rap, and song to help unpack the horizontal violence that can erupt under a reign of racist hate. —J.S.

Written by Psalmayene 24
Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell
Music by Nicktha1da
Choreographed by Tiffany Quinn
Ensemble: Adanna Paul, Jasmine Hall, Billie Krishawn, Neko Ramos, Gary Perkins III, Louis E. Davis, Harrison Michael Walker

The cast of ‘The Blackest Battle’ taking a bow after the Page to Stage performance. Photo courtesy of Natalie Graves Tucker.

Theater Alliance will present another performance of The Blackest Battle Sunday, September 9, 2018, at 5 pm as part of its Words Become Action Festival: Flipping the Script at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon PL, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 241-2539 or go online.

Too Much Damn (TMD) Theater: Enough—a Musical

Enough by Amber Waltz was a callback to Dickens’ Christmas Carol through the eyes of feminist history. Iris (Paige Davis), a young professional, is trapped in a dead-end journalism job with a male boss (Timothy R. King) who sends her on endless coffee runs, poo-poos her substantive ideas, and then appropriates them as his own. Luckily for Iris, her feminist fairy godmother (Karen Hopfl Harris) is on the job. Watching events unfold from the “femiverse,” feminist godmother decides that Iris needs to be reminded of the long journey women have made in demanding equal rights. She assembles a team of three fairies to take Iris on a journey through feminism’s past, present, and future.

Ruth Diaz, Maria Mainelli, and Robin Weiner in ‘Enough’ at Page to Stage. Photo courtesy of Too Much Damn Theater.

The story is told through a series of delightful songs that were played at Page-to-Stage on a single guitar by Francis Torres González. Enough was chock full of catchy musical numbers. This is theater designed to make a strong social statement—that women have fought tooth and nail for social equality and that there is still a lot of fighting to be done. Music and humor proved effective tools in preventing this serious piece of theater from feeling too heavy-handed or pedantic. —Nicole Hertvik

Written, composed, and directed by Amber Waltz
Musical Director/Accompanist: Francis Torres González

Iris: Paige Davis
Ralph: her boss: Timothy R. King
Faye, Feminist Godmother: Karen Hopfl Harris
Ghost of Feminist Past: Mimi Harlow
Ghost of Feminist Present: Sherry Edmonds
Ghost of Feminist Future: Mary Zuzik Andrechik
Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Nicole Summons
Alice Paul: Camryn Shegogue
Sojourner Truth: Patricia Williams Dugueye
Frances Harper: Amber Smithers

Follow Too Damn Much Theatre on Facebook.

Washington Improv Theater: iMusical: Apocalypse How? 

Technically speaking there is never any page that precedes anything iMusical does on stage. iMusical is a troupe within Washington Improv Theater that just wings it and sings it, making up brilliantly hilarious musicals on the spot based on audience suggestions. Their shows are all one-of-a-kind, one-off surprises. For the Kennedy Center show, the cast asked the audience to pitch ideas about how the world will end. From three suggestions, the audience voted the most popular: “The world will end…because Twitter stays in business.” And so it was that another clever insta-comedy with music was off and running. As always, the amazing Travis Ploeger was playing at the keyboard and doing musical direction in real time. (The communication among performers is so uncanny, I’ve sometimes amused myself with the suspicion that everyone is secretly wired to some offstage prompting genius who’s feeding them cutup setups and laugh lines, lyrics, and tunes. I’m probably wrong about that…but you never know.) I’ve enjoyed iMusical for years in the Source Theater black box, so it was a treat to see how handily the troupe (now actually wired, with mics) filled the full house in the Family Theater with even more voluble laughs. —J.S.

By the iMusical ensemble
Directed by Travis Ploeger

The cast of iMusical back stage right after the show. Back row: Dan Milliken, Matt Berman, Ryan Brookshire, Patrick Fleury, Travis Charles Ploeger. Front row: Jess Lee, Elaine Colwell, Jaci Pulice, Mark Chalfant. Photo courtesy of Washington Improv Theater.

Washington Improv Theater performs at Source, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington, DC. For information about upcoming shows and to purchase tickets, go online.

Georgetown University: Unfinished Album of Lazarus Lovesong 

Georgetown University student K.J. Moran has written a hilariously original and powerfully brave play with music about a college-age woman named Lou who was raped a year ago by her then-boyfriend, Eli. It has been a year since and the trauma is still with her—theatricalized as an actor representing Eli, invisible to all the other characters, who won’t leave Lou alone.

Andrew Molinari (Lazarus Lovesong), Megan Spinella (Lou), Jennifer Loo (June), and Nolan Peacock (Ric) in ‘Unfinished Album of Lazarus Lovesong’ at Page to Stage.

Lou has hooked up with Ric, a respectful sweetheart of a guy, but abruptly stops mid-foreplay because she can’t get Eli out of her head. How Lou deals with that past pain and ultimately feels ready to make love again makes for an of-the-moment narrative pulsing with humor and heartache—and honest and brilliant playwrighting. (Sample one-liner: “Sylvia Plath was punk as fuck.”)

The punk rock band in ‘Unfinished Album of Lazarus Lovesong’: Mark Camilli, Andrew Molinari, and Jennifer Loo.

The thoroughly engaging supporting cast is rounded out by Lou’s roommates (Genevieve, June, and Lou’s gay bestie Benni) and a punk rock band led by Lazarus Lovesong, whose terrific musical numbers punctuate the story as though they’re Lou’s inner soundtrack. One of the best plays I’ve seen all year. —J.S.

Written by K.J. Moran
Music by Isaac Warren
Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer
Advised by Professor Natsu Onoda Power
Stage Managed by Julia Beu
Music Directed by Nicole Albanese

Healy Knight (Genevieve/Lucy Lakemaker)
Chris Phillips (Eli)
Gabriel Berkowitz (Stage Directions)
Nolan Peacock (Ric/Licky Lakemaker)
Andrew Molinari (Lazarus Lovesong/Narrator/Dr. Fiehl)
Jennifer Loo (June/Lily Lakemaker)
Megan Spinella (Lou)
Mark Camilli (Benni/Lemon Lakemaker)

Information about upcoming events in the Georgetown University Theatre and Performance Studies Season is online.

 

Small Mouth Sounds

“You have everything you need within you to be human,” says an unseen guru on the god mic. He is speaking in sonorous tones to six seekers who now sit rapt in a row facing us the audience. They have come to a weeklong silent retreat by the shore of a sylvan lake. We have come to the theater to watch and participate in their process. In one sense the experience of the retreat is theirs. In another, it is ours, because there really is a lot of silence in this play.

Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl is one of those wily comedies where what’s funny is what you will. There are some laughs that are large but lots more that are small, like individual little fishes leaping up out of the water.

That could happen in the very lake we see rippling through upstage slats in Debra Booth’s calming blond-wood set and Alexandra Kelly Colburn’s you-are-there projections, where birds can be seen swooping through the air.

Katie deBuys (Alicia), Michael Glenn (Ned), Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Rodney), James Whalen (Jan), Andrea Harris Smith (Judy), and Beth Hylton (Joan) in ‘Small Mouth Sounds.’ Photo by Kaley Etzkorn,

What’s going on in Small Mouth Sounds is that the headspace the play creates for its characters—self-reflective, meditative, contemplative—is also a headspace it sets up for us. Where it wants to take the characters, it kind of wants to take us too. Meanwhile, all that dialog-free time on one’s mind can lead one to wonder about that disembodied guru guy. He keeps saying stuff about mindfulness, self-awareness, personal change, his head cold. Is he a for-real wise master or a spoof of our self-absorption?

That Teacher, exquisitely voiced by Timothy Douglas, perfectly pitches us together with the six retreaters into the same fishy kettle of bemused uncertainty.

Andrea Harris Smith (Judy) and Beth Hylton (Joan) in ‘Small Mouth Sounds.’  Photo by Kaley Etzkorn

Those seekers, each performed with the precision of a fine mime, are identified in the program by names that are rarely or never spoken in the play: Jan (James Whalen) is a taciturn dude who does a funny bit swatting bugs; Rodney (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) is a self-help video personality who’s already well versed in retreat-iquete; Ned (Michael Glenn) is a woebegone underdog who gets a full-on monolog, a hilarious recounting of his Job-like travails; Joan and Judy (Andrea Harris Smith and Beth Hylton) are a lesbian couple who are working something out but we’re never told exactly what; and Alicia (Katie deBuys), kind of a ditz, attends to the proceedings with wide-eyed sincerity…and couples offstage very audibly with Rodney.

Michael Glenn (Ned) and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Rodney) in ‘Small Mouth Sounds.’  Photo by Kaley Etzkorn

Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny gives each casual clothing they have believably lived in (though Rodney gets a nude scene wearing what he was born in), and Props Master Kasey Hendricks finds them credible accouterments for sleepovers in the woods. Lighting Designer York Kennedy effectively cycles sunshine and moonshine onto a bare wood stage. And Sound Designer Roc Lee’s crickets, birds, and roaring bear also take us into the great outdoors.

Watching the characters’ nonverbal communications and miscommunications is a delight. It’s much more subtle than charades, but the stumbling improv is just as fun. At one point, for instance, Joan breaks into sobs at something Teacher says, and the others keep trying to pass her a packet of sympathy tissues, which she keeps refusing, so as to savor her sorrow.

This retreat is “a vacation from your habits,” pronounces the Teacher. “You will never go back to who you were.” But who was that?

Michael Glenn (Ned), Katie deBuys (Alicia), James Whalen (Jan), Beth Hylton (Joan), Andrea Harris Smith (Judy), and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Rodney) in ‘Small Mouth Sounds.’  Photo by Kaley Etzkorn.

Wohl’s script provides the actors with detailed backstories about their characters, but we the audience are never privy to this information. We never know why each of the six has come here, what need they wanted to be fulfilled, what change they hoped would happen. In the beginning, Teacher instructs them to write their “intentions” on a slip of paper, then at the end to burn them. But whatever was written is known only to them. While this makes for some very entertaining face and body expression, it means there aren’t character arcs to hold on to as in plays with lots more words, and whatever change they undergo remains for us guesswork.

Still (pun intended), Small Mouth Sounds is a rare theatrical experience that not only invites us to think our own thoughts along with the characters but leaves us quiet time to do so. And whether we experience such shared quietude as transcendent or a send-up, this semiserious comedy generously leaves up to us.

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

Small Mouth Sounds plays through September 23, 2018, at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 240-644-1100, or purchase them online.