Curious questions tease the brain during this peculiarly provocative production. One is: Is this theater? Another is: What are we to make of it?
The Man Who, just opened at the estimably idiosyncratic Spooky Action Theater, is about how the mind can be glitchy. It takes the form of a succession of 17 scenes depicting neurological defects that can occur in the human brain—actual syndromes that have been clinically observed and described in the literature. Selected malfunctions are acted out by two women and two men switching roles from scene to scene between playing a Doctor and playing a Patient (a nice touch that dissolves the wall between normal and not). Though the enactments cohere in style and substance, the vignettes are not connected—there are no characters as such, there’s no continuity of plot, there is no omniscient writer’s point of view. And the scenes occur in a sequence that has no discernible significance.
The Man Who was devised in France in the 1990s by the influential director Peter Brook, who with his collaborators, among them coauthor Marie-Hélène Estienne, was inspired by case studies in the 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks, the noted author and professor of neurology. Besides that book, Brook and and his troupe based their development of the piece on first-hand observations of the behavior of people whose minds were in various ways clinically out of order.
The result is the neurological equivalent of a surgical operating theater without the lecture. Or a cognitive freak show without the carney and condescension.
Helmed by Founding Artistic Director Richard Henrich with Associate Director Elena Day, the production is exceptionally well designed and crafted (as has been typical of work I’ve seen recently at Spooky). The set by Giorgos Tsappas is all stark planes in gray, a perfectly sparse neutral gallery in which to mount the vivid portraits. The costumes too are unassuming and in neutral tones, such that the presence of the actors is what stands out. Colin Dieck’s lighting achieves remarkable effects as actors move around the space beyond the stage and seem always to be lit dramatically wherever they roam. The sound design by Gordon Nimmo-Smith smartly makes the piece approachable and even relatable, not sensationalized or bizarre. And Elizabeth Long’s aptly picked props play fascinating roles in diagnosing and demonstrating the patients’ various syndromes—which are always portrayed compassionately, never mimicked to be mocked.
The humanity that shines through the show, the warmth it radiates, is its strong suit and is a credit to the uniformly excellent cast: David Gaines, Tuyet Thi Pham, Carlos Saldana, and Eva Wilhelm. (Pham is especially impressive; more than enacting her subjects she channels them, as when an electrode is placed on her forehead and she exults uncannily with long-lost memories of her youth.) All the actors—whether doubling as white-coated doc or as plainclothes patient—genuinely welcome us as trusted initiates into a world where our curiosity though uncomprehending need never be unaccompanied by empathy. This sensitivity matters deeply, not least for anyone in attendance who knows or who has known someone whose mind has been afflicted in some way.
But is it theater?
Yes and no.
In 1995, just before The Man Who was to open at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooks told TV interviewer Charlie Rose,
It isn’t written with a story…. There is no narrative. Can you make theater without a narrative? It seemed to me of course you can, but how is what the work’s about.
Certainly the acting, directing, and stage arts in this Spooky Action production are first-rate. But the fragmentary text, clinical concept, and non sequitur structure may not work as theater experience for everyone. All the neurological computing errors on parade can leave one constantly uncertain how much is meant to be entertainment, how much is meant to be edification. There are isolated obvious laugh lines; but don’t come expecting a comedy, for there are long discomfiting stretches when expressing amusement would seem somehow inhumane.
So…what are we to make of it?
What Spooky Action’s The Man Who achieves—and this it does with emphatic success—is to leave us trying to understand, with our own minds such as they are, what has gone wrong in the minds of others. What has happened to them and how and why? Who are they now that it has happened? Then: Who are we to whom this has not happened?
The Man Who leaves us, in other words, trying to make sense. Trying to surmise significance. Trying to create meaning where there may ultimately be none. Which is after all the point of having a human mind in an incomprehensible universe. And bestirring awareness of that amazing cerebral capacity is the mind-expanding reason to be perplexed by this show.
Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes with no intermission.
Peter Brook talking about The Man Who on The Charlie Rose Show, March 2, 1995.
How does a play that starts out about real estate for gosh sake—adjacent farms in rural Ireland—become a heart-wrenching story of adjacent lost souls who fall in love late in life? How does a play that starts out prosaically about inheritance rights of all things—who gets one of those two farms after its paterfamilias passes—become so achingly soulful that watching it makes one’s eyes well? Such is the ineluctable emotional through-line of John Patrick Shanley’s beautiful Outside Mullingar, now playing in a breathtakingly moving production at The Keegan Theatre.
I see a lot at Keegan and there’s a lot to see. Eight shows alone his season, the company’s twentieth. I’ve written about some of my fave plays: most recently Six Degrees of Separation, What We’re Up Against, The Lonesome West. But when I walked out of Outside Mullingar—directed by Producing Artistic Director Mark A. Rhea with what seemed inspired grace—I knew that I had just seen Keegan at its best. I loved the show. I loved it so much that I’ve been struggling over how to say why.
My DCMetroTheaterArts colleague Ravelle Brickman has given a clear overview of the excellent staging and acting along with intriguing details about the narrative. If you want a properly descriptive evaluation of the production, be sure to read her review. Because what I have to say is something else, something completely subjective, something about how the play might affect some people personally.
Outside Mullingar at its heart is about reluctance to love. The inhibitions that cancel out connecting. The emotional lockdown that happens inside when being open feels unsafe. The incessant inner tape loops that drown out anyone else’s heartbeat and stifle one’s own.
That theme is most embodied in the character of Anthony, who is played by Brandon McCoy with such touching introversion and vulnerability you’d think he’d be more comfortable all by himself. He’s 42, and he was so devastated by a girl’s rejection when he was 16 that for the last 26 years he has lived entirely inside himself, convinced he is an unlovable weirdo, with zero inclination to ever fall in love again.
And here’s where all the real estate and inheritance stuff comes in. It’s plotting about plots of land, but it’s about much more than that. It’s the farmland framework in which an unlikely love takes root and blooms.
The family farm Anthony lives on is owned by his brusque widowed father Tony (given a first-rate performance by Kevin Adams), who is near death. He doesn’t want to leave the land to an only son who’ll have no heirs.
Next door is another family farm that is owned by Aoife (the marvelous Rena Cherry Brown playing cranky geriatric delightfully). Aoife has just buried her husband and is looking toward the grave herself. Unlike Tony, who resents his son’s unweddedness, Aoife fully intends to leave her farm to her thirtysomething unmarried daughter Rosemary. And just like Anthony, Rosemary is romantically all alone.
Unbeknownst to Anthony, Rosemary has been fond of him for years and pines for him to notice her and reciprocate. Susan Rhea in the role is one wonderfully tough cookie, a go-getter dynamo. Watching Rhea’s Rosemary determinedly woo McCoy’s diffident Anthony is to be caught up in an emotional anticipation that Shanley’s script sustains with astonishing sympathy and suspense and that they each play out in pitch-perfect harmony.
Deepening the play’s theme of reluctance to love is a pivotal scene that takes place in Tony’s bedroom on what is about to be his deathbed. Tony reveals to Anthony how he came to fall in love his wife, years into their marriage, which for Tony to that point had been loveless. Tony explains how he experienced a transformation in his heart— “The quiet hand of God touched me so soft I thought it was the breeze.” Tony promptly sells a parcel of his land to his neighbor in order to buy his wife a gold ring to replace the brass one he gave her on their wedding day. That parcel and that ring are to play a big part in the plot. But what happens in the moment between Tony and Anthony—in the most-choked-me-up father-son scene I can recall seeing on stage—is a transmission of parental permission to love, and a father’s modeling for his son how love can overcome.
For his part Anthony believes himself so odd no one would have him. He discloses to Rosemary that he believes himself to be a honeybee—something he told the girl he fancied at 16 and it made her flee. Rosemary is acceptingly nonplussed but curious. She asks him what he believes her to be if he’s a bee. A flower, he tells her. A beautiful flower.
We just know they’re going to get together. They have to; this is a comedy. What perverse playwright would string us along with two characters who would totally complete each other if only they knew it, then dash our hopes with a brutal breakup?
But Shanley’s poetic score for these two characters’ heartstrings has a rare sostenuto to it that is sublime pure pleasure. The play’s precisely paced procrastination—all the awkward delays, all the missed cues, all the emotional baggage that keeps popping up between Anthony and Rosemary—is as mesmerizing edging to a pulse-pounding orgasm.
The play isn’t about estate planning; it’s about heart opening. It’s about solitude ending. It’s about risking intimacy over isolation. It’s about courage to come out of one’s shell. And it’s about the best love story I’ve seen on stage.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.
DC site-specific theater of resistance reached a new height last night—also a new low—as Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s arresting staging of Vaclav Havel’s Protest became the first play performed before a live audience in the District’s “new Subterranean Arts & Cultural Center,” the abandoned trolley roundabout now redone as Dupont Underground.
The convergence of place, play, performance, and present political predicament was almost too perfect.
The venue, Dupont Underground, deserves a visit in its own right and its own review. One enters down a stairway and arrives in a vast, arcing, echoing chamber, with murals on the outer wall and trolley tracks embedded underfoot. It was built for a streetcar system that was superseded by cars and buses after World War II, and during the Cold War was a bunker stocked with provisions in the event of a nuclear bomb.
The architectural drama that now imbues the space—and makes you go “Wow, something amazing could happen here”—compares to that of other theaters built for that purpose on massive budgets. The fact this is a “found” civic space reclaimed for live performance gives it a populist vibe that money can’t buy. Plus, the very location (which could not be more public-transportation accessible) invokes the history of political resistance in the city that has centered around the Dupont Circle fountain.
“Every protest that has ever been here has been upstairs,” said Artistic Director Susan Galbraith in her introductory remarks on opening night.
Alliance for New Music-Theatre is a company “committed to engage audiences changing the conversation through the arts [italics theirs].” This production of Protest is its first as Dupont Underground’s theater in residence. The once-banned play has been smartly directed by Galbraith and designed by Joey Wade (set, lights, and projections) to suggest the living rooms in which the play was first performed privately to circumvent state censure. The simple makeshift look is apt and compelling: Two chairs and a table on a carpet on a raised platform backed by a plain white wall. LED lights behind the audience wash the stage in shifting hues and brightness with no discernible reason except to convey an uncanny context of uncertainty, instability, flux, and possible power outage.
The production began as a commission by the Embassy of the Czech Republic and was performed to mark Havel’s 80th birthday at, among other places, the President Woodrow Wilson House. The set of Protest now at Dupont Underground has on its side walls projected photographs of that interior, including a portrait of First Lady Elizabeth Wilson.
The character whose home this is, Stanek (David Millstone), might well be that grandly domiciled. Stanek once lived a politically fringy life but now, having made it big as a television writer, lives comfortably well off, keeps his radical past at a remove, and enjoys gardening and fine brandy. He could easily be pegged a bourgie sell-out except he finds himself in a situation that he knows needs an activist assist. His daughter’s boyfriend, a pop star, has been imprisoned by the authorities. In hopes of mounting a petition campaign to free the young man, Stanek has invited his still-dissident longtime friend Vanek (Drew Valins), to come for a visit. Vanek was once himself a political prisoner. Stanek needs his political cred but doesn’t want to take any risk of his own. Vanek turns the tables and challenges Stanek himself to sign the petition. Will he or won’t he? Dare he or daren’t he? Vanek’s and Stanek’s disagreement about political tactics drives the drama, and Millstone and Valins play out their differences with probing panache.
With witty direction from Galbraith, Millstone leads Valins in seeming to connive leaning over the parlor table, then hilariously crawling under it. Each in turn plays at times to the audience with an entertaining earnestness, as if expecting allies for their views. Indeed there emerges a cleverly competitive subtext, an invitation to join Team Vanek or Team Stanek.
The playwright has given Stanek most of the lines, and Millstone plays them to the hilt, sometimes shouting them resoundingly into the cavernous tunnel. His performance is fantastically frenetic. Vanek has far fewer lines, and Valins’s delivery is more deliberate, more quietly certain, less emotionally ostentatious. Clearly the audience Havel wrote for would have known what Vanek was thinking because they like Havel were like Vanek, so the character had less need to explain himself. The expansive character of Stanek, however, is where the play becomes a revelation.
Staneck’s debate within himself, articulated with textual precision, becomes an enthralling inquiry into conscience, courage, and complicity. Stanek has a long final monologue in which he weighs the consequences of signing or declining to sign the petition that would be the public protest of the play’s title. As scathingly scripted by Havel and here performed magnificently by Millstone, that speech is a showstopping knockout, a moral-intellectual mind-blower. That it speaks with eerie specificity to current resistance to #resistance is the best possible reason to see this show.
Note that Dupont Underground is accessible only by a stairway only partially equipped with handrails and has no restrooms, although patrons may use facilities in the lobby of the Dupont Hotel across the street.
Running Time: One hour 5 minutes, with no intermission.
Protest plays through May 21, 2017, at Alliance for New Music-Theatre performing at Dupont Underground (public entrance is at 1500 19th Street NW, Washington, DC, on north side of Dupont Circle next to Starbucks and across from Dupont Hotel). Tickets may be purchased online.
‘Protest’ at Ambassador Theater at Flashpoint, by Justin Schneider
Much to my tickled surprise, last night I found myself shouting out that I am a lesbian—I along with an entire audience in Lab One at The Atlas Performing Arts Center! Really, all of us, about equally women and men, similarly giddy and shouting in unison: “I am a lesbian!” We had been urged on by five quirky characters who had just declared themselves to be lesbians as well. And how that came to happen is the delightful pleasure of this zany play.
Monumental Theatre Company, a young bunch begun three years ago “with a desire to promote the millennial artist’s voice,” has picked a script that is chock full of wacky, madcap comedy typical of fringe, starting with its cheeky, check-it-out title. Named Best Overall Production in the 2012 New York Fringe Festival, 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche originated in Chicago, where Andrew Hobgood and Evan Linder, co-artistic directors of The New Colony, first concocted this ingenious crowd pleaser.
Among the clever conceits in the play is its time and place, a recently remodeled community center where, in 1956, there is to be a gathering of the Susan B. Anthony Society for the Sisters of Gertrude Stein. “Welcome Sisters” reads a banner strung up in Set Designer Wes Reid’s pale yellow, artfully style-less meeting room. A security-equipped door turns out to be that of a bomb shelter—this being the era of apprehension over nuke strikes.
Five ladies arrive all atwitter, dressed in winkingly faux-50s frocks by Costume Designer Kelsey Sasportas. They’re about to reveal and eat this year’s prize-winning quiche, and they could more, um, egg-cited.
As the show unfolds, the ladies extol the glories of the egg, like an ovation for their ova, while the play flirts facetiously with the sapphic allusion in quiche-eating. As becomes apparent, the ladies’ enthusiasm bespeaks a longing not yet…egg-spressed.
But first they greet each of us in attendance as if we are their dear society sisters, come to join their meeting. To seal the deal they stick on each of us a tag with a female name. We are then addressed by that name and asked solicitously about how our family members are.
So begins the unabashed bonding that five quick-witted actors create during the show with and within their beguiled audience. Geocel Batista as Wren, Morgan Meadows as Dale, Malinda Markland as Vern, Kaitlin Kemp as Ginny, and Allie O’Donnell as Lulie comprise a cast full of comedians, all gifted at improv, physical comedy, verbal whimsy, and general nuttiness. Batista’s ebullience is especially infectious, and Meadows does a show-stopping monologue in which she mimics her character’s father. Under the adroit direction of Jimmy Mavrikes, this buzzy ensemble achieves together an acting style—brazenly broad in the best sense—that is an utter enjoyment unto itself.
During the show an actual quiche is eaten, in a way that had the audience in stitches, and among Prop Designer Liz Long provisions was that title foodstuff. Sound Designer Jordana Abrenica and Lighting Designer Rob Siler delivered a dramatic plot twist that I won’t mention because one shouldn’t…egg-spect it.
This whole show is really fun. Though it’s a saucy spoof of the sexual repression of the pre-women’s-movement 50s and a savvy look back at the paranoia of the Cold War, don’t come hungry for a heavy meal. Monumental Theater Company’s 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche is light as a souffle, deep as a perfect pie crust, and deliciously hilarious.
Running Time: About 75 minutes, with no intermission.
5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche plays through May 22, 2017, at Monumental Theatre Company performing at performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, The Paul Sprenger Theatre – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.
Who’da thunk that our current administration’s dysfunction would prompt nostalgia for our eight years worth of W.? But that indeed is the curious takeaway from watching Lisa Hodsoll’s poignant impersonation of Laura Bush in a surprisingly touching comedy by Ian Allen, which is now playing in a world premiere production by The Klunch at Caos on F.
“And really,” the former First Lady says of that era, “if you could have it back today, wouldn’t you?”
At that the opening night audience went nuts.
Poised, charming, and gracious, Hodsoll enters in a polished white suit chit-chatting about her famous cookie recipe. Sudden car crash and fast flashback to Hodsoll staring into headlights: She’s at the scene of a collision in 1963, when 17-year-old Laura Welch ran a stop sign and hit a vehicle driven by a 17-year-old classmate named Michael Douglass, who died of a broken neck.
The facts of that crash are on the record. Snopes, for instance, has the scoop. And it’s no spoiler to look them up beforehand; having done so myself, I can attest I appreciated Allen’s invention all the more. And invent he does. Allen, who is artistic director of The Klunch, takes those fatal facts and plays with them wildly—surmising, for instance, various motives Laura may have had to murder Michael. But in the end Allen plays the facts straight. And by then, thanks to all the illuminating detail he has shared about her life (as someone who grew up wanting “to be the best girl in the world”), we are well prepared for the play’s emotional reality check.
Reportedly the role of Laura Bush was originally written to be played by a man in drag. Wisely, a woman was cast instead. Laura as researched and written really is a rounded and emotionally grounded character. And as played by Hodsoll, she is not at all a caricature or cartoon, which could have been the downside risk of not casting cis. Here and there in the script, however, are snide traces of Allen’s camp intention, and some of them could easily be excised. Allen, for instance, has Laura refer disparagingly to no fewer than four women (Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Teresa Kerry, and Tipper Gore) as looking “mannish” or like “a man.” Despite Hodsoll’s earnest efforts, these insults come across as gratuitously out of character.
The cheesy hook of the title, Laura Bush Killed a Guy, is no doubt what will catch attention for Allen’s script and lure in audiences. But after all the laughs (of which there are many; this show’s a hoot), what his play leaves one with is much richer and deeper than its lurid title might suggest: In a production performed with radiant wit by Hodsoll and sensitively directed by John Vreeke, Laura Bush Killed a Guy is a memorably moving portrait of a forgotten First Lady.
We hardy knew her, it seems. And maybe now we miss her humble gentility, her guileless integrity, qualities in short supply at 1600 Pennsylvania these days. Of course we never warmed to her husband as she did—she loved him completely and sincerely, about which the script is unequivocal. But as in all live theater when a character seen through another character’s eyes becomes someone more than we see with our own, the strangely affecting aftereffect of Laura Bush Killed a Guy is how Laura Bush loved a guy.
Running Time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Laura Bush Killed a Guy plays through June 4 2017, at The Klunch performing at Caos on F Street – 923 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased online or by calling 866-811-4111 or at the box office 30 minutes before showtime.
The dystopia delineated in Building the Wall is predicted by the playwright, Robert Schenkkan, to happen in America very soon. By the time the play is set, in the year 2019, the two characters are already looking back at it, a fait accompli, the barbaric consequence of an anti-immigrant animus fueled by a president who is competent only at fanning hate. And there is a big problem with the play: It is horrifyingly plausible.
Schenkkan wrote Building the Wall right after the November election; in February Forum Theatre chose to fast-track it to production (along with other theaters, as a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere). As Forum Artistic Director Michael Dove told the audience at last night’s opening in Arena’s Kogod, he “wanted it to be in the national conversation immediately, in downtown DC, near the White House.”
The place is a prison meeting room, a table and two chairs. Lighting Designer Sarah Tundermann frames these close quarters with florescent tubes on the floor at the corners. Sound Designer Thomas Sowers adds an unsettling low undertone. Set Designer Patrick Lord erects a gridwork rear-projection screen on which appear ominous news images in sepia. One is headlined “DEPORTATION TO BEGIN.”
A historian, Gloria, has come to interview a prisoner, Rick, who has been convicted for doing the job he was hired to do. He worked as a supervisor for a private corporation that had a federal contract to detain and dispatch tens of thousands of people targeted by Trump. The corporation was paid by the government per dead body disposed of.
The situation bears similarity to the interviewer-prisoner dynamic dramatized in Nicholas Wright’s A Human Being Died That Night, just closed at Mosaic Theater Company. A black woman and a white man sit at opposite ends of a table. She wears tasteful business attire; he wears an orange jumpsuit. But whereas A Human Being Died That Night takes place in a penitentiary in South Africa and pertains to actual past killings of black people that happened under apartheid, Building the Wall takes place in a prison in El Paso, Texas, and pertains to killings of nonwhite people that could happen under Trump but have not yet.
It is is a distinction without a difference.
“I’m not racist,” Rick assures Gloria near the beginning, unconvincingly. “Why can’t I be proud to be white?” he asks later. Every country has a right to defend its borders, he declares rhetorically, as if this simplistic principium exonerates him.
What makes Building the Wall not only a terrifying forewarning but also a spellbinding character study is the way Schenkkan peels back Rick’s posturing so we see what makes him tick. This the playwright does by tracking what attracted Rick to Trump.
Rick was not particularly political when he happened into a rally, but the experience of watching Trump on the stump, he tells Gloria, was “an electrical thrill.” The candidate’s unabashed political incorrectness was for Rick cathartic. It said to Rick “you could do something you weren’t supposed to do” and “you didn’t feel shame.” The exhilaration Rick felt in this throng was “like a pro wrestler thing.”
As Rick explains to Gloria, “People were voting to get their country back.” Meanwhile Rick’s personal psychological profile has made plain how that nationalism equated with exculpation for being white.
The incendiary combination of America First-ism and white identity politics erupts in Schenkkan’s script in an incident in Times Square that prompts Trump to declare martial law and start rounding up immigrants. Rick is put in charge of a football stadium turned mega holding pen. But countries refuse to repatriate the people being detained, so the U.S. is stuck with masses of people in unsanitary conditions coming down with cholera. Rick is overwhelmed. There are bodies piling up. Portable mortuaries are called in. It’s “millions of people,” Rick says, “a cluster fuck of massive proportions.”
The character of the interviewer Gloria is less fleshed out, although we learn of the loss of her beloved brother, who was blown to bits by an IED in Iraq. The detail is telling: Presidential megalomania has led to carnage before.
Dove’s direction and the performances by Tracey Conyer Lee as Gloria and Eric Messner as Rick serve the storytelling superbly. And it is the playwright’s accumulating mental picture of an unthinkable future that is the force field of the play, the reason it is necessary to be seen.
Theater can make the incredible credible, the unbelievable believable, the inconceivable conceivable. That is the profound power of this art. How better to deploy that power now than to foresee where our nation is headed unless we #resist?
The play’s ending is jaw-dropping. Don’t miss it.
Running Time: About 85 minutes with no intermission.
Building the Wall plays through May 7, 2017, at Forum Theatre, performing at The Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.
Building the Wall continues May 18 through 27, 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.
There are mysteries of belief and faith beneath this fascinating parable of a play, roiling like the seawater that churns below the wooden house where its action takes place. This house is built on stilts on the coast of a small island in Indonesia. The sounds of water lapping and surf breaking and the liquid reflections of light upon its moving surface never cease.
Part cross-cultural collision, part family melodrama, part theological thriller, part audacious myth-making, Rorschach Theatre’s Forgotten Kingdoms contains such rich content it’s like riding a rip tide.
Playwright Randy Baker grew up in Singapore, grandson of a missionary, and he has set this play at the home of an American missionary based loosely on his grandfather and the stories Baker remembers he told. But beyond that biographical mooring and Baker’s lived familiarity with the locale, Forgotten Kingdoms is an act of fictive imagination that immerses its audience’s attention like a Williams or O’Neill.
David Holiday is the missionary, played by Sun King Davis with pitch-perfect preacher’s zeal, demons within to boot. His wife, Rebecca Holiday, has dutifully followed him to this remote outpost with not nearly his enthusiasm. They met in a bar in Yakima, Washington, when he was a lush and a lothario. She, already a Christian, was working there as a bartender and determined to save him. She succeeded, he turned into an impassioned man of the cloth, and now she’s stir-crazy-stuck in this house on stilts, a stay-at-home mom for their troubled and troublesome son, Jimmy, whom she calls, not inaccurately, “weird.” Susceptible to seizures, he sometimes wanders off alone without warning. (He is played with eerie authenticity by Jeremy Gee; we can believe he may be haunted, as locals say). Natalie Cutcher captures Rebecca’s conflicted affection for her husband and frustrating concern for Jimmy along with her ongoing anger and bitterness. As Rebecca puts it one point, “Hell is getting what you want.”
Hinted at there are the makings of the hellish domestic confrontation that blows up in Act Two like an electrical storm, in a scene played with gale force by Davis and Cutcher. Their dispute—about, among other things, who saved whom—delivers a jolt to the play that raises all the wattage thereafter
Act One is more measured and methodical as Baker sets forth the engrossing cross-cultural conflicts and theological arguments that underlie the action. Playing antagonist to David’s Christian triumphalism is a local named Yusuf bin Ibrihim, who is Muslim and whose wife and father attend David’s Sunday services. From Yusuf we learn of the island’s culture, the kingdom that was displaced and suppressed by colonialist kingdoms from one country after another.
We also learn David has healing powers. Or maybe doesn’t. Depends who is telling the story. And who is changing it. This is among the conundrums of faith and belief that wash ashore in Forgotten Kingdoms like messages in bottles.
Yusuf’s father is dying—an offstage death that will come to be resonant with religious symbolism. And Yusuf has a strangely simpatico connection with Jimmy, who at the end figures into the religious symbolism in a breathtakingly mythic way. In the performance of Indonesian actor Rizal Iwan, Yusef is given a very moving, very soulful presence that grounds the play’s provocative spirituality.
Just before intermission there’s a shocker, the gasp-out-loud kind. This precipitates the arrival in Act Two of a fifth character, a member of David’s congregation named Officer Togar, on official investigative business, played solidly by Vishwas.
Director Cara Gabriel conducts the panoramic scope of this play with orchestral dimension. The set by Debra Kim Sivigny, who also did costumes, is alone worth the trip to H Street to see this show. (The aroma of fresh-sawed lumber lingers in the air, testament to the hand-wrought stagecraft on display.) Lighting Designer Tyler Dubuc makes this ever-flowing world beside the sea seem real. And sound Designer Justin Schmitz, whose eloquent water effects underscore all, composes an opener for each act with the sort of stirring music that typically begins big movies.
I cannot say for certain what Forgotten Kingdoms is “about.” But I sensed at every turn there is an ocean of meaning within it—like an ebb and flow of stories and emotions that touch on faith and belief yet never explain it, never contain it. And just how deep is that ocean can be known only by diving in.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.
Forgotten Kingdoms plays through May 21, 2017, at Rorschach Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, The Paul Sprenger Theatre – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.
“I do believe you darkies are trying to kill me,” says Martha Washington to her house slaves in this fantastical-historical play, just opened in a sensationally cheeky production at the new Ally Theatre Company. Martha has reason to be concerned.
Philadelphia Playwright James Ijames, a 2017 Whiting Award recipient, made up the script’s surreal story: George Washington’s frail widow lies in her sick bed having a fever dream populated by an antic assortment of black people. They appear to be waiting on her but really they are waiting for her to die, because by the terms of her husband’s will, they are then to be freed. So they pass the time messing with her head, playing out a wild series of comic sketches, and thoroughly entertaining the rest of us.
Ijames didn’t make up Martha’s paranoia, however, nor George’s will. She penned her panic in a letter that centuries later prompted Ijames to pen this play. Lucky for American theater he did too, because The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington is an extraordinary dark comedy about slavery in America. It compares to the act-of-imagination ingredients in works by other young African American dramatists—such as Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon), Suzan-Lori Parks (Father Comes Home From the Wars…), and Steven A. Butler Jr. (The Very Last Days of the First Colored Circus)—who in wholly original voices have turned the fraught topic of U.S. racism into theater that both delights and indicts.
This regional premiere came to be because Producing Artistic Director Ty Hallmark and Director of Community Engagement Valerie Fenton saw the 2014 Philadelphia premiere. They knew on the spot it was a play that belonged in DC and the script with which they should launch Ally Theatre. They were right on both counts.
The play takes place in 1800 at Mount Vernon, today called an estate but then a plantation where more than 300 were enslaved. Set Designer Audrey Bodek builds an abstract paneled backdrop hung with historical paintings, such as Washington Crossing the Delaware. Realistic wooden furnishings—chairs, a table, a bed—are arranged on the stage.
At the beginning there’s a blue-lit haunting, with figures moving in slo-mo to the strained sounds of “Ring Around the Rosie.” Miz Martha Washington (Jane Petkofsky) awakens, addledly humming the same tune, appearing in her own dream unawares.
Six versatile actors playing Martha’s house slaves take the guise of nearly twenty characters, each a treat to watch. Ann Dandridge (Tanya Chattman) is the one closest to Martha, not least because they are daughters of the same white man, meaning that Ann’s young son William (Nate Shelton) is also Martha’s nephew. This is not the only Washington family secret that makes its way into the play, nor the only trace of the nation’s founding shame.
Two women, Doll and Priscilla, played by Ivana (Tai) Alexander and Taunya Ferguson, sit working at a kitchen table beating out a rhythm with spoons and a bowl. They have a riotously gleeful time imitating how they imagine Martha’s death rattle will sound, “like a choking chicken.” Rounding out the cast, Reginald Richard’s Davy razzes Jonathan Miot’s Sucky Boy, whose nickname refers to when he refused to be weaned.
The show quickly picks up an enjoyable pace of vision scenes and stock comic setups subverted. There’s a cleverly breathless shotgun lesson in American history, a bizarre quiz show, a grotesque mock slave auction in which Miz Washington herself is on the block
So much of the show’s fun is to be had watching the actors become different characters, and there are several standouts. Ferguson displays an amazing comic range, portraying by turns an imperiously proper Abigail Adams and a hilariously roughhewn slave auctioneer. Shelton, who skips adorably in and out of scenes as Ann’s boy, turns into an august bewigged judge in a scene where the slaves put Martha on trial. And Reginald Richard’s turn as a ribald gangsta-rapper George Washington almost stops the show.
Besides all the funny bits, though, there’s lots that’s serious, as for instance this poignant exchange between Martha and her sister/slave Ann late in the play:
MARTHA: Come with me. We can talk. Wouldn’t that be nice?
MARTHA: Yes. We used to be so close when we were younger. You used to tell me secrets.
ANN: While I brushed your hair and turned down your bed.
MARTHA: Yes, and we would play and talk and whisper through the night.
ANN: When I slept at the foot of your bed. Before they put me down behind the kitchen.
MARTHA: And we…We shared our whole lives together.
ANN: Not our whole lives.
MARTHA: Yes…I know you. I know everything about you.
ANN: Here…(point to her own chest)…this is the dark black black black interior. Deep and hot like those tunnels in the sky…beyond the stars that people used to talk about before we got civilized. That dark darkness of my soul that is wet and looks wicked and smells funky and drips with sweat. This spot past my breast past my heart past my being. Beyond even what I can understand. That place that feels sooooooooo good to touch when no one is looking. I don’t let you come in there.
Chattman’s delivery of that monologue is powerfully moving. And throughout the play there are times when all the slaves are all laughing in unison, yet these moments are oddly sobering. Ijames explains this effect in his script:
“In slavery times the slaves were not allowed to laugh in many plantations. When the urge to laugh became irrepressible, the slaves had a “laughing barrel” into which they would lean way down, place their head in the barrel and laugh; then go back to whatever it was they were doing.”
There is no laughing barrel in this play. When the script indicates laughter it is not light or fun. It’s more like showing one’s teeth. Especially in the case of the slaves. Their laughter is hostile. Loud! Laughter is a weapon.
Sound Designer Hope Villanueva and Lighting Designer E-hui Woo evoke excellently both the dream worlds and real worlds and shuttle us back and forth with ease. And kudos to Costume Designer Alison Samantha Johnson, whose impressive creations range from louche to lavish.
With a vision “to elevate, illuminate, and give rise to voices that have gone unheard, to peer inside and spend time in spaces unseen,” Ally Theatre is off to a stupendous start. Its inaugural staging of The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington is theatrical discovery of the best kind—a terrific script not to be missed, a production with pizazz, and a bold new troupe to watch out for.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington plays through May 20, 2017, at Ally Theatre Company performing at Joe’s Movement Emporium, 3309 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainer, MD. Tickets are available online.
Racism, presumed in polite circles to be no laughing matter, gets a hilariously smart deconstruction in Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People. Arena Stage has given this 2016 play its DC premiere in a nifty production pointedly directed by Seema Sueko that makes Diamond’s every zinger zing and stinger sting. And scarcely a racist presumption goes unscathed.
But a lot of this comedy-with-a-woke-conscience is the kind of cringe-worthy funny that can make one wonder whom it’s meant to amuse. Smart People doesn’t pull punches. It strides right up to the tense brink of so many racial and ethnic stereotypes and prejudices that it’s a wonder the whole undertaking doesn’t tumble off a PC cliff. More than once I found myself thinking, Thank god this play was written by a woman of color; I don’t think a white guy could get away with it, much less come up with it.
Diamond, whose scripting cred includes a year as Arena Stage resident playwright, gives us four characters whose demographic diversity will drive her storytelling. We are introduced to them one by one, each standing in a cell on Set Designer Micha Kachman’s two-story grid, which seems as much a statement about putting people in boxes as a very fun way to stage this play.
Two of the play’s four brains on board are tenured Harvard University professors. Brian White is, as his surname says, white, and his specialty is neuro-science. He studies the relationship between the brain and subconscious racist prejudice—how our brains are wired to perceive patterns of racial identity in ways that shape discriminatory attitudes and behavior. His research shtick, which he is quite proud of, is gathering clinical data to prove that white people are racist. This plays rather like a running joke—like, duh. But it’s also the notional glue in the delightfully intertwined interactions of the four characters, all of whom in different combos keep bumping up against whatever’s going on there in our national noggin.
(While watching Smart People I was never sure whether Diamond had made this neuro-science stuff up. It sometimes seemed it could be fanciful. Turns out, as I learned later, the science of the racist brain is a thing. Which in its own way makes Smart People as mind-blowing as Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem, the play about the brain science of consciousness recently seen at Studio Theatre.)
Brian, besides priding himself in his scientific pursuit, is one of those preening learned liberals who would without hesitation white-splain racism to a person of color. Gregory Perri plays Brian so spot-on clueless smart guy it’s embarrassing. And I mean that totally as a compliment.
Ginny Yang is a Harvard colleague of Brian’s, a professor of psychology. She brings to the play’s interrogation of racism the insider insight of someone whose academic field is race and identity among Asian American women, who herself is Japanese American and Chinese American, and who in private practice counsels Asian American women. Her research findings show “a direct correlation of racist stereotyping to low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.” So she’s smart, alright. Ginny is also a snooty shopaholic and can’t be bothered joining a faculty committee addressing institutional racism at the school: “I’m uncomfortable celebrating my marginalization with other disgruntled marginalized people.” Sue Jin Song as Ginny gets these contradictions and more and makes of them a wonderfully nuanced performance.
Not a PhD like Brian and Ginny but an up-and-coming MD is Jackson Moore, who is African American and an intern at Harvard Medical School. When we first meet him, he is on duty in the emergency room having been called on the carpet for amputating the toe of an obese seventy-something diabetic. Immediately we get Jackson’s place in the play as a highly educated, talented, and yes articulate young black man who knows about racism because it happens to him, all the time. His anger is real and venting it has got him in trouble. He’s also got a brother who’s a recovering crack addict to whom racism arguably happened worse and to whom Jackson sends money for food. He’s a guy with a big heart that he is trying to keep from hardening, and Jaysen Wright captures the role’s complexity with such winning grace that his likability quotient lifts the entire play.
Valerie Johnston, also African American, is a young actor with an MFA in Acting from the prestigious A.R.T. in Cambridge. But her talent, training, and attractive instrument don’t get her the same caliber of roles that her white classmates are landing. She’s a feisty sort, though, determined to make it in a profession that is particularly susceptible to racist brain imaging, by audiences and directors alike. The script doesn’t make this explicit but it’s clearly what Valerie is doing in Diamond’s cast of characters: Smart as she is, she’s not seen past her skin. Lorene Chesely in the role makes us believe completely in Valerie’s vivacious presence as a performer, plus the grit that lets nothing stop her.
Over the course of the play, in a sequence of sometimes overlapping scenes, Diamond mixes and matches these four characters. Jackson and Valerie have a fling that turns tempestuous. Brian and Jackson compete as basketball buddies and dudes. Financially strapped Valerie gets work as Brian’s assistant. Ginny and Brian have a fling that turns tempestuous. And so forth. The flow of two-hander scenes can read a little random, like meetups of convenience not impelled by any plot. But Diamond’s purpose is not to make a traditionally well-made play; it’s to dramatize how racism can pop up in all the little exchanges in life that seem innocuous but really aren’t. And the scenes she writes to show that are brilliantly sharp as texts.
Here, for example, is such an exchange between Brian and Ginny. It takes place in Brian’s office. Brian has just told Ginny, not without self-pity, about the flak he catches for his work.
GINNY: So the work I do…. Perhaps it’s given more….room, because I’m not railing against the system that created the circumstances.
BRIAN: By circumstance you mean genocide, slavery, internment?
GINNY: Look, I’ve identified issues in specific Asian American populations, depression, anxiety. I’ve acknowledged the unfair social…dynamic
GINNY: Do you not get tired of that word? I’ve pointed out the ‘dynamic’ that feeds the cycle. But I address the cycle. What good does running around screaming slavery and internment do now?
BRIAN: What about the white individuals who made the bullshit that makes the low self-esteem?
GINNY: I’m more concerned with the female Asian American individuals who are just trying to get jobs, date, have decent family lives…. It is what it is. Why not just give people a better set of tools for navigating it.
Smart People is smartly set in Cambridge 2007–2009 in the run-up to Obama’s first Inauguration, a time when the topic of race was in the national conversation at a whole new level of being taken seriously. Obama’s candidacy had made that happen. The last scene of Smart People takes place at his Inauguration—with fantastic flashback effects by Sound Designer Andre Pluess and Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi. After two acts of nonstop laughter, this moment of celebration seemed to me suddenly sobering and saddening—because it so vividly pointed to a period that since November is no more.
People who fancy themselves smart should not miss this show, heartbreaking ending and all. For Smart People reminds us—with biting wit, much humor, and great affection—that there are difficult conversations about race that still need to be had. And we can still have them.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.