Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

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Sotto Voce

Among the revelatory dimensions of this lyrical play is one that caught my attention by surprise. I knew going in that Sotto Voce, by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Nilo Cruz, would resonate with the contemporary plight of refugees because it references a tragic historical event: the voyage of the S.S. St. Louis, which set sail in 1939 from Hitler’s Germany for Cuba filled with nearly a thousand Jews expecting temporary refuge as tourists till their applications for U.S. visas were approved. But they were refused entry by Cuba, then by the U.S. and Canada as well, so the ship was forced to turn back to Germany, where upon disembarking most of the passengers were sent to Nazi camps and perished.

I knew the theme of imperiled immigrants ostracized from sanctuary by cold-hearted government leaders would hit home in these horrid times. And it did. Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr’s choice to program Sotto Voce was more than pertinent; in the context of “our country’s current immigration debates,” as he says in his program note, it was “an imperative.”

Andrés C. Talero (Saquiel) and Brigid Cleary (Bernadette) in Sotto Voce at Theater J. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

But there arose for me in Sotto Voce another theme, as if whispered under the surface but just as profound: what the play says about writing and the life of the mind. Within the play’s dreamlike story and rhapsodic language can be discerned penetrating insights about the relation of writing to memory, and of memory to writing. One can literally hear Cruz illuminating how literature itself—the art of it, the act of making it—can be an antidote to the horrors of history. This thesis in the hands of a professor or literary critic might sound all well and good, convincing intellectually in the abstract.  But Cruz’s genius in Sotto Voce is to embody that premise in people, plot, and poetry such that it comes alive before our eyes.

Now on view in a transfixing production at Theater J directed by José Carrasquillo—with exquisite performances by Brigid Cleary, Andrés C. Talero, and Desiree Marie Velez—Sotto Voce tells a story of two writers: one a young Cuban Jewish man named Saquiel (Talero) and one an elderly German-born novelist named Bernadette (Cleary). Bernadette now lives in an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City, where the more realistic portions of the play are set. There’s a chair for reading, a desk for writing, and a projected view out the window.

Cruz deftly incorporates the fateful S.S. St. Louis voyage by giving both Saquiel and Bernadette a personal connection to it. Saquiel’s grandaunt was a passenger. And Bernadette, when she was 19, was in love with a Jewish man named Ariel who was also on the ship. Saquiel sets the play in motion when he seeks to learn from Bernadette her memories of her lost love and obtain her writings about it for a history project he is doing. The beginning of the play consists mostly of Saquiel’s persistent communications (by email, phone, and apartment-building intercom) and Bernadette’s resistance to his entreaties. “Are you stalking me?” she demands to know at one point, not without cause.

Andrés C. Talero (Saquiel) in Sotto Voce at Theater J. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In this dogged pursuit of a source by a writer, Sotto Voce resembles in form another play Carrasquillo directed for Theater J, the 2016 production of The Body of an American. In that two-hander by Dan O’Brien, the playwright himself is a character. By means of relentless emails excerpted in the script, O’Brien hounds another character, a photojournalist and war correspondent, in hopes of obtaining interviews that O’Brien can make into a play. In both Sotto Voce and The Body of an American, the narrative momentum and our credulity are sustained because we take the interrogator’s determination to be deeply felt and urgent. In Sotto Voce, Cruz creates for Saquiel a compelling passion and a moving backstory, and largely because of Talero’s winningly heartfelt performance in the role, we see the character not as a creepy pesk—and not as a walking/talking theatrical device (though structurally that’s what he is)—but rather as a real, caring writer in worthy quest of source material (and we want him to succeed!).

 

Brigid Cleary (Bernadette) in Sotto Voce at Theater J. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The second writer character Cruz creates, Bernadette, is the published author of a body of work that young Saquiel has read and admired. She is evidently successful as we see from her pricey residence and the fact she has a personal assistant/housekeeper (Lucila, vivaciously and mischievously played by Velez). She is also a real writer, as we see from Cleary’s impeccably truthful performance. Even before we see more of Bernadette’s emotional life expressed through Cleary’s heartrending range, we recognize in Bernadette a writer at work in her mind with words even when she is not literally writing.

When Saquiel learns that Bernadette cannot bring herself to write about what happened to Ariel, Saquiel recognizes his emotional opening to the historical material he seeks; and as the story unfolds, he in turn offers Bernadette the gift of emotional access to that memory cache as well. The way this transaction occurs between the characters is extraordinary to behold. They never are in the same space at the same time, but through the illusion of the imagination and the magic of language, Bernadette inhabits Ariel then Saquiel inhabits Ariel too. And in that empathic transfiguration and that transcendent act of rewriting reality—in order recover emotional truth and reclaim one’s self—Bernadette and Saquiel share in a redemption onstage so powerful that it feels beyond words. Except, of course, it was with words that writing found the feelings.

The inner lives of characters who are writers are rarely as persuasively portrayed in plays as they are by Cruz in Sotto Voce. And to some extent the “news hook” of this production—its relevance to the current refugee crisis—commands attention that can overshadow what is truly timeless in this play: its theme of the intrinsic bond between writing and memory. Through writing, memories can be recovered that we have evaded. Through reading others’ shared memories, we can re-find our own. Writing and remembering are twinned in the heart and mind—and essential to life.

The healing and connecting power of the imagination is not imaginary; it is real—as we are stirringly reminded in Theater J’s beautiful staging of Nilo Cruz’s Sotto Voce.

Don’t forget to see it.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission.

Sotto Voce plays through October 29, 2017, at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.

LINK: Review: ‘Sotto Voce’ at Theater J by Ravelle Brickman

 

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An Act of God

Rarely have I enjoyed such a perfect union of comic writing, acting, and staging with such non-stop hilarity. Just opened in the intimate Ark theater at Signature. An Act of God, had me doubled over laughing so hard it could  count as an abs workout.

The intelligent design of the show is everywhere—in the kitch-celestial set (Daniel Conway), the razzmatazz lights (Alberto Segarra), the waggish sound (Ryan Hickey), the pearly white costumes (Robert Croghan), Tom Story’s divine star turn as God, his two daffy wingmen, the Archangels Michael (Evan Casey) and Gabriel (Jamie Smithson)—all under the ridiculously sublime direction of Eleanor Holdridge.

Evan Casey (Michael), Tom Story (God), and Jamie Smithson (Gabriel) and  in An Act of God. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The program calls God the Playwright, but the real prime mover is “Adapter” David Javerbaum, Emmy-winning head writer and executive producer of The Daily Show with John Stewart. For the last seven years Javerbaum has authored an irreverent Twitter feed called @TweetofGod, which became the genesis of the play. The account presently has 3.38 million followers, who presumably have a taste for Javerbaum’s wicked sense of humor.

Here, for instance, are the tweets I read just before attending Javerbalum’s play.

TheTweetofGod

If these tweets tickle you as they did me, you’ll likely adore the insouciant omniscience of An Act of God. The script’s cheeky wit, wordplay, and left-of-center politics are rollickingly relentless. There is delightful interplay with the audience, some shameless merchandizing, some ad-libbed gems. But the show is far more than the sum of its tweetable quips.

An Act of God is loosely structured around its titular character’s plan to redo the Ten Commandments, which he deems in need of a makeover. Each one occasions much laughter of recognition, but as God nears the end of his new top ten thou-shalt-nots, something metacomedic begins to occur. Some pretty darn smart theologizing starts creeping in. Some really profound observations about who God might be and who that means we are.

Evan Casey (Michael), Tom Story (God), and Jamie Smithson (Gabriel) and  in An Act of God. Photo by Margot Schulman.

To say more would spoil both the fun and the epiphany. Suffice it to say: An Act of God is not one of those comic meringues that satisfy your sweet tooth but leave you wishing you’d had something more substantial. An Act of God’s got something to say, something important about what it might truly mean to be created in God’s image. You’ll know what I’m saying when you see it. And that’s the God’s honest truth.

Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission

An Act of God  plays through November 26, 2017, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

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The Effect

When two lovers in life or on stage display an intense interaction of attraction, they are said to have “chemistry.” That elusive feeling may be more than a metaphor, according to Lucy Prebble’s absorbing play The Effect. Our notions of romantic emotion may have more to do with neurochemistry than we knew.

Just opened in a spectacularly immersive staging on the top floor of Studio Theatre, The Effect is a heady play about the heart, a passionate play about the brain, a rational play about irrational desire—and a mindblowing exploration into the biochemistry of human love.

Rafi Silver (Tristan) and Katie Kleiger (Connie) in The Effect. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The two romantic leads—Katie Kleiger as Connie and Rafi Silver as Tristan—do indeed have chemistry between them, so much so you’re likely to fall in love with them before they fall in love with each other. So natural and believable are their performances, it’s as if we’re watching real life.  Except we’re observing them the way researchers spy on lab animals in an experiment.

Twenty-something Connie and Tristan have been paid to be subjects in a clinical drug trial being conducted by two doctors, Lorna James (Gina Daniels) and her boss, Toby Sealey (Eric Hissom), who themselves have a complicated romantic past. Prebble calls this “a play for four people, in love and sorrow.” As Connie’s and Tristan’s relationship flowers and unfolds, Lorna’s and Toby’s resumes and unravels.

Prebble’s script—which is as dizzyingly ingenious as it is assiduously informed—was inspired by an actual drug trial that went awry. The dramatic situation she invents is based on real neuroscience: the chemical that floods our brains when we feel in love is the same substance whose insufficiency makes us feel depressed. And Prebble’s adroit story tests what effect increasing doses of that chemical will have the minds of two strangers. With enough plot twists to make your own head spin.

There’s much wit in the play, and the cast discovers it delightfully. Connie and Tristan joke with their urine specimens. Toby has a funny bit holding a human brain in his hand, à la Hamlet’s Yorick. And Prebble’s writing, which contains a lot of incomplete speeches left for fine acting to fill in, can turn suddenly, astonishingly poetic. For instance, when Connie and Tristan break the clinic rules and have sex, their heart-rate monitors come loose. Lorna, upon deducing what they were up to: “I’m missing eight hours of each of your hearts.”

Rafi Silver (Tristan) and Katie Kleiger (Connie) in The Effect. Photo by Teresa Wood.

There’s no way to describe the transfixing effect of The Effect without delineating the extraordinary work of the design team assembled by Director David Muse. Studio’s fourth-floor Stage 4—site of such impressive past environments as Murder Ballad, Hand to God, and Wig Out!—has been reconstructed by Set Designer Luciana Stecconi as a pharmacological laboratory. The concession stand is called a Bar-Macy, with drinks on offer in vials and blood bags and cookies in Petri dishes. Once seated, one sees a sleek, wide hospital-white florescent-lit space with an illuminated rim that makes watching the show feel like looking into a mirror—except it’s the other half of the audience, on the opposite side of the stage.

Lighting Designer Jesse Belsky takes us from chilly sterility to heated sex tryst and moods in between. Projection Designer Alex Basco Koch animates the two facing white walls of the space with an eye-popping array of signage and medical metrics as the two young subjects are having their vitals tested. And Sound Designer & Composer Ryan Rumery pumps in so much trance-like electronica and medical-tech effects it’s like the soundtrack of a hospital stay or a psychotic episode—and it’s stunning. All of it. Stage 4’s most knockout makeover yet.

Eric Hissom (Dr. Toby Sealey) and Gina Daniels (Dr. Lorna James) in The Effect. Photo: Teresa Wood.

There’s something fascinatingly contradictory about The Effect. It is visceral and cerebral at the same time. With Connie and Tristan, we get all the rampant passion and spilled-gut emotions of a torrid love story. With Drs. James and Sealey—in addition to their rueful review of their relationship—we get a running debate about the ethics and efficacy of pharmacological meddling in the mind. The play argues with itself, both unsentimentally and empathically. The effect is thought-provoking and poignant, and a must-see production.

Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes, including one intermission.

The Effect plays through October 29, 2017, at Studio Theatre’s Stage 4 – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

 

Assassins

This season for whatever reason—and far be it from me to speculate—three theater companies in the nation’s capital are presenting Stephen Sondheim’s tunefully insolent tribute to presidential assassins.

Well, tribute might not quite be right. The story told in Sondheim’s music and lyrics and John Weidman’s book is actually more a theatrical visit to the psyches and societal crises of misfits who share with us why they felt compelled to kill. All set in a colorful carnival.

First of the three to open is a delightfully sassy Assassins from Pallas Theatre Collective produced by Tracey Elaine Chessum. (Next up this month is Next Stop’s, and Dominion Stage has another on the way in January.) Pallas has a track record of staging with panache contemporary musicals with political bite, and Assassins terrifically showcases the company’s audacious command of the form.

The killer cast: Karen Lange (Sara Jane Moore), Taylor Rieland (John Hinckley), Tyler Cramer (Samuel Byck), Andrew Keller (John Wilkes Booth), Topher Williams (Guiseppe Zangara), Zach Brewster-Geisz (Charles Guiteau), and Alex Palting as (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme) in Assassins. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography, LLC.

The carny setting of the show is suggested by circusy strands of lights strung from the ceiling and stuffed animals hung on the black backdrop like shooting gallery prizes. “Come here and kill a president!” barks the Proprietor (Alex Thompson) at the top of the show. And we’re off and running—with the sagas of nine actual assassins (a few who were would-be, most who did not throw away their shot).

The cast list is an actual rogues’ gallery: John Wilkes Booth (Andrew Keller), who shot Abraham Lincoln. Leon Czolgoz (an impressive Brendan McMahon), who shot William McKinley. John Hinkley (Taylor Rieland), who shot Ronald Reagan. Samuel Byck (Tyler Cramer), who plotted to kill Richard Nixon by crashing a plane into the White House. Giuseppe Zangara (an intense Topher Williams), who aimed at Franklyn Delano Roosevelt but shot the mayor of Chicago. Charles Guiteau (Zach Brewster Geisz), who shot James A. Garfield. Sara Jane Moore (Karen Lange) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Alex Palting), who both fumblingly tried to kill a bumbling Gerald Ford (and who have some of the funniest scenes together in the show). And last and most famously, Lee Harvey Oswald (Andrew Flurer, a dead ringer his character)), who shot John F. Kennedy.

Each of their stories is told in scene and song, in an inventive variety of staging styles, in music that echoes each era, the actors wearing clothing of each period by Costume Designer Joan Lawrence. For instance, Palting as Fromme and Rieland as Hinkley are paired in a marvelous duet called “Unworthy of Your Love,” which Hinkley sings to his inspiration, Jody Foster, and Fromme sings to hers, Charles Manson. It’s weird but it works. Which well can be said of the whole show.

Ensemble members Gabriel Brumberg, Mason Catharini, Jenna Murphy, Andrew Flurer, and Marc Pavan in Assassins. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography, LLC

Also in the cast are Will Hawkins as an agreeably voiced Balladeer, Christine Callsen as the anarchist Emma Goldman, the young Gabriel Brumberg as Moore’s son Billy, and a versatile Ensemble that includes (in addition to the performers named above) Mason Catharini, Mark Pavan, Jenna Murphy, and Camryn Shegogue.

Director Clare Shaffer has ingeniously shoehorned the show into the black box at Logan by casting actors who double as musicians, such that at times they are the orchestra seated stage left and right and at times they are center stage singing and dancing and playing their instruments. The carnivalesque quotient of this choice pays off enormously in pleasure. Choreographer Pauline Lamb’s dance moves bring an infectious energy. Lighting Designer E-hui Woo creates beautifully moving effects during songs. And Sound Designer Reid May injects a variety of gunshots from the firearms obtained by Weapon Props Designer Brian Dettling.

The very idea of a musical about presidential assassins is a charged, nervy concept, and as executed by Pallas Theatre Collective the material is entertaining and unsettling in equal measure. There are a lot of guns in the show. There’s even a song in praise of them, “Gun Song.” And there’s a lot of anguished monologing about the disillusionments, deprivations, and despair that motivated how the guns came to be used. They’re all fake stage firearms, of course, but in the hands of this killer cast, they can give one a triggering jolt, as happened to me during the show’s startling choreographed finish.

The entire cohort of assassins has a big musical number near the end in which they each have a lyric that finishes the sentence “I did it because…” Clearly, this musical wants us to attend to the assassins’ interior lives in order to understand who they were as people and why they did what they did. Not to condone what they did. Not to make them out to be heroes or sympathetic. But to reckon with what made them each tick and not just dismiss them as deranged.

That’s a big ask. To know your answer, see the show.

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Assassins plays through October 15, 2017, at Pallas Theatre Collective performing at the Logan Fringe Arts Space’s Trinidad Theatre – 1358 Florida Avenue, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

 

Blood at the Root

Hard to imagine a dramatic work more perfect for undergraduate actors or more pertinent to the racial tensions of our times than Dominique Morisseau’s trenchant Blood at the Root, now playing in a riveting production at Howard University.

To put this play’s immediacy in context, racist hate speech in the form of so-called noose incidents has reared its ugly head in the capital area recently, including at colleges and the Smithsonian’s African-American history museum. In Blood at the Root, exactly such a bigoted act drives the action. The title comes from the protest song “Strange Fruit”—

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root 
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…

—and in Morisseau’s play the title evokes the heavy weight of history that underlies each act of race hate today.

Morisseau’s script was written specifically for six M.F.A. acting students whom she worked with and got to know during a residence at Penn State School of Theatre. By happenstance, three of the actors were black and three were white.

In the news at the time was the story of the Jena Six. This was a case of six black teenagers who were convicted in the beating of a white student at a high school in Jena, Louisiana. There was a particular tree where only white students sat. The day after black students tried to sit there, nooses appeared in the tree. A schoolyard fight broke out. The six black students were charged with attempted murder. The injustice of that outcome troubled Morisseau, and as she talked about it with the acting students, she recognized the opportunity to build an important play around it.

Playwright Dominique Morisseau. Photo courtesy of Studio Theatre.

Unusual for a work based on real events, one is never made aware that headlines preceded the play and “explain” what happens and why; rather, Morisseau’s drama arises plausibly and believably solely from her fictional characters and setting, a high school in Richmond, Virginia.

The distinctive features of Morisseau’s script are exceptionally well played in the Howard production. Notably, for instance, nearly all the two-character scenes are between a black student and a white student—as such they are bristling with issues—and each of the characters has at least one eye-opening monologue. There are also powerful passages in the form of a choreopoem played by all the actors at once. Morisseau’s writing is electrifying—as is evident in her Skeleton Crew, now running at Studio Theatre—and the Howard cast delivers it with compelling conviction: Adanna Paul (Raylynn), Austin T Farrow (Justin), Isaiah Reed (De’Andre), Kathryn Miller (Asha), Luke Risher (Colin), Nicole Vaughan (Toria), Shwneé Owens (Principal Miller).

Director Goldie Patrick has done an outstanding job of creating a credible sense of daily life at a high school, not only in casting the speaking roles but by incorporating an ensemble of nine who are not in the script (Brittaney Duhaney, Emmanual Key, Imani Branch, Kalen Robinson, Kasheem Fowler-Bryant, Olivia Dorsey, Paul Gatlin, Sophia Early, and Tyree Austin).  Vividly in characters they created, they stride across the stage between scenes as between classes and support the action in other important ways, as during a student protest demonstration and in movement by Choreographer Christopher Law. It’s impossible to imagine Morisseau’s play working as well without them.

As if to underscore how lines get drawn on the basis of race, Set Designer Michael Stephawany paints on the black floor a white Mondrian-like grid that is echoed on the upstage wall. A montage of speeded-up footage documenting America’s legacy of racism begins the show, with a mix featuring “Strange Fruit” by Sound Designer Cresent Haynes. Lighting Designer TW Starnes complements the staging’s urgent momentum. And Costume Supervisor Kendra Rai selects lots of shorts and shades of red to capture the sweltering October heat in the story.

Dominique Morisseau’s Blood at the Root is a breakthrough contribution to the conversation on race in America and a unique instance of how art can inspire young people to conscientious action against injustice. The production at Howard does Morisseau’s work all the justice it deserves and can be highly recommended.

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

Blood at the Root plays through Saturday, October 14, 2017, at The Howard University’s Al Freeman Jr. Environmental Theatre Space in Childers Hall – 2455 6th Street NW, in Washington, DC.  Tickets may be purchased from the box office, (202) 806- 7700, or online.

 

The Lover and The Collection

The great Irish actor Lisa Dwan is in town doing something with the playwright Harold Pinter right now at the Lansburgh Theatre that is utterly amazing. She is both doing Pinter and undoing Pinter. Playing the sole female character in two Pinter one-acts directed by Michael Kahn, The Lover and The Collection, Dwan is giving a must-see performance that is nothing short of a one-woman decoding of what’s problematic about Pinter’s women.

Lisa Dwan (Sarah) and Patrick Kennedy (Richard) in The Lover. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

In The Lover (written in 1962), Dwan plays Sarah, who is married to Richard (Patrick Kennedy), who gets off on imagining his wife is his whore. That’s the nub of the story: a sex game of let’s pretend, in which Sarah’s a horny whore and Richard’s a lusty punter. They have a conventional middle-class marriage; they have a sixties-tasteful home; he commutes every day to his office job. We never know what Sarah does all day besides bide her time with ants-in-her-pants anticipation till he returns. Which by prior arrangement Richard does, mid-afternoon (surprise surprise), in the guise of her titular lover for a romp with his fantasy strumpet.

The script is explicit about Pinter’s conceit that Sarah is into the game as much as Richard. She apparently, in fact, has little else on her mind.

Sarah is one of the first of Pinter’s female characters to function as motivation and justification for his male characters’ obsession with women as whores. As written Sarah is quick-witted, evenly matched with Richard as a verbal combatant. Pinter’s signature linguistic parrying and thrusting has a transfixing rhythm of menace and twisted eros, and Dwan and Kennedy nail it. But the text gives little evidence of Sarah’s self-knowledge or inner life. Instead, we find that out from Dwan’s performance when Sarah is alone onstage with no lines.

Lisa Dwan (Sarah) in The Lover. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Watch whenever she sits, on a chair or sofa, deliberately and unspontaneously, first placing her hand in her lap as if to fold herself in half. Then watch when she’s on the sofa as she adjusts and positions her body, just so, as if to accommodate but really to parody the impending male gaze. Watch as she then reclines and lounges, just so, as if to feign an unnatural pose with no pretense of authenticity. This she does several times alone on stage such that when she does it again in Richard’s presence, we recognize immediately what’s both ludicrous and contrived in Sarah’s demeanor—which of course is not at all what Richard reads. He sees only the whore he wants to see. But she has shown us his delusion. Dwan literally anatomizes the fiction in Pinter’s sexist fixation before our eyes.

In the second one-act, The Collection (1961), Dwan plays Stella, who is married to James (Patrick Kennedy), who suspects his wife had sex with a gay man and is lying about it. That’s the nub of the story: a jealous husband whose conviction that women are faithless liars has converged with his homoerotic fantasy of sharing the same vagina with another man.

Unpacking Pinter can turn up some queer stuff.

Most of the action involves James’s confronting the young gay fashion designer in question, Bill (Patrick Ball), who lives with an older art collector, Harry (Jack Koenig), then confronting Stella, then confronting Bill again, then confronting Stella again. James is really driven to find out the truth (which in Pinter is a fool’s game); the story unspools with winning momentum; the male actors keep the comic tension tight.

Lisa Dwan (Stella) in The Collection. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

But watch as Dwan lies languidly on a sofa downstage right with nearly no lines and a cat on her lap. Watch as her body language conveys blasé condescension as if to say: this is not about me, guys, it’s about you; go work out your hangups and let me know when you’re done. Literally repudiating the sexist projections in what is essentially one of Pinter’s early cockfight-and-pissing-match dramas, Dawn simply shows us Stella’s nonplussed choice to keep her own company with a cat.

Pinter is renowned for his pauses. Wordless moments meant to speak volumes. Little did he know how shrewdly and subversively Lisa Dwan would fill them.

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

The Lover and The Collection play through October 29, 2017, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the Shakespeare Theatre Company Box Office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

 

 

Love and Information

This is a most peculiar play, but in a very good way. It’s more about its form than its content. And that’s what makes it one of Forum Theatre’s most fascinating offerings.

Ahmad Kamal and Kathleen Akerley in Love and Information. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The famously unorthodox British playwright Caryl Churchill has in Love and Information defied just about every theatrical convention you can name: Be it character, plot, theme, continuity, place, situation, point of view, or whatever, all the customary building blocks of drama have here come tumbling down, toppled by the author of Top Girls, leaving a playroom strewn with lacunas. Churchill’s cryptic text consists of a nonlinear series of some 60 vignettes and mini-sketches, some as short as a sentence, all devoid of stage directions or indications of who says what. This gives the actors, director, and designers carte blanche to invent who’s who and where and why they say what they do. The heady result leaves completely to the imagination of the audience what it all “means.” It’s like watching improv with performers making up everything except their lines.

Under the exhilaratingly inspired direction of Artistic Director Michael Dove, the show has a ridiculously gifted cast of fourteen—Kathleen Akerley, Moriamo Akibu, Edward Christian, Samy El-Noury, Megan Graves, Laura C. Harris, Nanna Ingvarsson, Jade Jones, Ahmad Kamal, Lilian Oben, Jared Shamberger, Ryan Tumulty, Emily Whitworth, and Shpend Xani. Briefly, they appear on the fly in groups of two, three, or more as some 100-odd characters they invented, in discontinuous scenarios based on text from the barebones script.

Megan Graves and Lilian Oben in Love and Information. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The cast is backed by a design team on creative overdrive. Costume Designer Frank Labovitz gives each character a specificity the author never specified. Lighting Designer Billy D’Eugenio frames each vignette upon the wide stage in a particular place never designated. Set Designer Andrew Cohen supplies beds, tables, and other set pieces never called for in the script. Projection Designer Patrick Lord throws on vast screens an original montage of images evoking technology, nature, linguistic disintegration. Sound Designer Roc Lee clues our ears to precise locations with evocative audio bridges in between.

At first, the scenes seem to have nothing to do with one another—as indeed they don’t—like a sensory overload of randomized moments from modern life.

Slowly but surely, though, the magic in this mad method begins to emerge. The payoff in the production’s seeming purposelessness is in the way it teases our truncated attention spans. No need to remember and reflect anymore; there’s only going to be more data to overwrite what just happened. Cleverly the show caters to exactly the way life in the 21st-century Information Age makes of our minds a catchall so distracted by one think hole after another that we no longer know nor much care how dots are connected.

Edward Christian and Nanna Ingvarsson in Love and Information. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Under the onslaught of today’s stimulus overload, our minds come to lack the solidity and cogency of even Swiss cheese. Instead, they more resemble a skeltering of Cheetos and Cheez-Its.

When Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message,” he meant that our apprehension of content today is mediated through form so much that form means more and matters more. Form is content. What’s brilliant about Forum Theatre’s riveting realization of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information is that formally there is more to the show than the particulars you get and the impressions you leave with. Only after this total immersion in the fragmentary and fractured does one realize what a myriad of vividly imagined performances one has been privy to—what embodied human instants the actors have come up with and shared. That they have all been so recognizably full of emotion comes like a clarifying respite from the senseless detachment of information overstimulation.

All of which makes for one heckuva fun brain game.

Running TIme: One hour 50 minutes, with no intermission.

Love and Information runs through October 21, 2017, at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.

 

Lela & Co. (Post-Play Palaver)

Post-Play Palaver is an occasional series of conversations between DC Metro Theater Arts writers who saw the same performance, got really into talking about it, and decided to continue their exchange in writing. That’s what happened when Senior Writers and Columnists Sophia Howes (Dangereuse) and John Stoltenberg (Magic Time!) saw the play Lela & Co. presented by Factory 449 at The Anacostia Arts Center.

Felicia Curry (Lela) in Lela & Co. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Sophia Howes: In Lela & Co., Felicia Curry brings us a portrait of a female soul in torment who miraculously retains her courage and sensitivity in the midst of shockingly brutal circumstances. She is, happily, supported by an admirable acting partner, Renaldo McClinton, who plays her father, husband, and various other men in her life. The play, by Cordelia Lynn, is structured as an autobiography, and every moment of it is full of excruciating truth. As an abuse survivor myself, I thought I might find it disturbing. But like all successful pieces of art, it is a joy to experience.

John Stoltenberg: Interesting that you call Lela & Co. an autobiography. Though it is not the playwright’s own life story (she has called it fiction), in Felicia Curry’s breathtaking performance we believe it is definitely Lela’s life story. The play is mostly her monologue (various men in her life, all played by McClinton, make brief intrusions). Her performance captivated me from the first two minutes and thereafter only became more compelling.

Immediately we come to know Lela as a real girl (15 when the play begins), and then we stay connected to her through the marriage and anguishing abuse—captivity, rape, sex slavery—that happens to her and the dramatic escape she makes. The writer and the actor together make the character and the narrative as credible as one can imagine being played on stage. Curry’s moment-to-moment authenticity is simply awesome to behold. And there is a sense that as excruciating as Lela’s story is to hear, there is something transformative and transcendent in the way Lynn and Curry have honored it with honest truth-telling. And so yes, the final effect is freeing.

I was particularly impressed with the way the writer, director, and actor handled the violence in the story. None of it ever happens to the actor directly, but it is all made vivid in our minds. At one point there is an extended blackout during which we hear Lela say what her husband-then-pimp began to do to her. We see it only in our mind’s eye, which in a way makes us feel it all the more. It was one of the most powerful scenes in one of the most powerful plays about sexual abuse I can recall seeing.

Sophia: John, you are so right about that blackout. It was sensational. I want to draw attention also to the political aspects of the piece. When Lela is imprisoned in her own home (in a room, actually) by her husband, she can only hear the occasional sounds of gunfire. When she is able to get a glimpse of the horrors of war, we learn just enough detail to empathize with her pain. Lela is struggling not only with family abuse but with a country (unnamed) that seems to be essentially a failed state. Her new husband’s friends don’t like the country she comes from, and they make that abundantly clear. Everything is stacked against her, and yet she is radiant.

Renaldo McClinton (Man) and Felicia Curry (Lela) in Lela & Co. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

John: This is the second Factory 449 production I’ve seen directed by Hammerly that deals graphically and explicitly with a female’s resistance to, and escape from, torture. The other was Closet Land, also harrowing in its details, also set in an unspecified place. In my column about that show I wrote:

Director Rick Hammerly and Actors Sara Barker and David Lamont Wilson tell a hellish story and don’t hold back. A politically naive children’s-book author (Barker) has been detained by some unspecified government and is interrogated by a smooth-operator sadist-for-the-state (Wilson), who accuses her of having written books that subliminally indoctrinate impressionable youth….

Not only is Factory 449’s Closet Land a don’t-miss encounter with two exquisite performances in a stunning production. It is a revelation of liberatory meaning.

Thinking back to the similarities between Lela & Co. and Closet Land, what impresses me now is how precise and lucid is Hammerly’s direction, and how faithful it is to the female character’s physical and emotional state—literally breath to breath and heartbeat to heartbeat—without ever seeming exploitative or prurient.

Now, I know Hammerly is a director with great range. He just did a children’s show at Adventure, and for Avant Bard he is currently directing Barker again in a comedy by Lauren Gunderson. But there’s something about the specific care, empathy, and deep respect for female experience in extremis that’s in evidence in Hammerly’s direction of Curry in Lela & Co. that feels to me really admirable and rare.

Felicia Curry (Lela) in Lela & Co. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Sophia: Hammerly’s direction is superb, and he is blessed with exceptionally fine actors. I was especially impressed by the scene between Lela and the one customer who displayed any sort of human feeling. The scene in which they are at cross-purposes, speaking different languages, while she thinks he will help her and he is describing his mission to help “her” country, is heartrending One of the best examples I have seen of the anguish caused by retraumatization. Being turned down when finally summoning the courage to ask for help is one of the most crushing experiences a human being can have. Lela’s persistence is what leads to her recovery, but it also involves surviving failure.

The script seems pitch-perfect except in two respects, which is not to fault the production at all. First, there is a sort of vaudeville turn in the middle, entitled “Lela & Co.,” which seems out of place stylistically with the rest of the play. Secondly, some of Lela’s problems seemed to be resolved a bit prematurely; another flaw that rests in the writing. Still, as John noted above about Closet Land, Lela & Co. is a “must-see” production.

John: Lela & Co. is not only a  “must-see”; it is a “won’t-forget.” The subject of the play is horrifically painful. The performances are terrifically truthful. The experience of watching it is an extraordinary encounter with a wounded heart through ennobling art.

Running Time: one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Lela & Co. plays through October 1, 2017, at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

LINK:

Review: ‘Lela & Co.’ by Factory 449 at The Anacostia Arts Center by Robert Michael Oliver

 

The Arsonists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And

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

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

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

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

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

It can happen here. We can stop it.

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

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

 

Running Time: 2 hours without an intermission.

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

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

 

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LINK:

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