Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Lazarus

The notion that medical technology will one day enable human beings to live indefinitely is not just science fiction. Preventing the aging process (or “ending aging”) is an actual field of scientific research. The possibility of living forever is also the sort of plot device that could well be made into a play. It would be a good idea, though, if the play itself did not seem to last forever.

Lazarus, a new play written and produced by Evan Crump and directed by Ruben Vellekoop, features some excellent performances, and the playwright has a nice knack for snappy, aphoristic dialogue (“Time is not our friend”). Plus, there’s a rich-versus-poor politics to the play with pertinent potential, particularly at this point in the health care debate: Only the wealthy can afford “the Lazarus procedure,” a treatment that somehow cellularly extends life; the desperate impoverished are left to perish. Moreover there’s a side-effect: “Empathy was an early casualty of the Lazarus procedure,” in the words of 164-year-old Dax, a practitioner of the treatment. So there’s promising material here for sure.

But the story line Crump has crafted strains credulity and comprehension at nearly every turn. We know the time is the future, the 2160’s according to the author’s program note. Fair enough. A compelling story can take us far from the here and now even the spare Trinidad Logan Arts black box using Fringe-level stagecraft. I’ve seen and felt it happen there before. (A good story could also hold our attention against the voluble voices coming from the street on opening night.) But in Lazarus, though the actors move black set pieces around from scene to scene with deliberation (Carlotta Capuano did set design), we get few clues as to where the characters are and why at the moment they’re there. For that matter we get few clues who the characters are and what they want.

The exception is the plot line of a poor widowed young mother named Em (Katie Jeanneret) whose infant will die unless she can persuade Dax (an excellent Bruce Alan Rauscher) to treat her child. That narrative threads through the play, though with none of the emotional impact one might expect of a mother-child drama. Its virtue is that it is followable.

Meanwhile, there is a gang of lower-class thugs led by Rude (an excellent Steve Lebens) who represent egalitarian resistance to the “plutocracy” being aided and abetted by the Lazarus procedure (David Jourdan as Sledge, Tony Thomas as Norse, Nick Maka as Trimble). Accordingly, they instigate stage combat (Casey Kaleba is fight director) and much men-in-groups bravado. I had the distinct impression during their scenes that Crump’s quick-witted but cryptic script would make a much better action/thriller movie—the medium that excels at high-stakes machismo—than it does onstage without clear context or reason to care.

Two other women are in the cast of characters and upon their first entrances they are both very intriguing: Trish (Devora Zack) is a cop, armed with a gun and martial arts chops. Her subsequent involvement in the storyline, however, is disappointingly random. And the character with the most fascinating back story is Reina (an excellent Star Bobatoon) who was married to Dax but died 50 years ago. She appears to him periodically as a visitation or apparition. Alas, she remains an enigma, and as scripted their unresolved scenes lend emotional dimension neither to Dax’s character nor to the play.

Reina’s other-worldly entrances are well enhanced by Sound Designer Glen Oliff and Lighting Designer Alex Brady, who have both done all they can within their means to help the story along.

The author in his program note wrote,

It is my hope that audiences for this show will think about their own views on life and death, the world that they’ll leave behind, and what resonance their life will have after they move on.

Those are deep thoughts on vital questions that my own mortality prompts me to ask of myself almost every day—but none of that occurred to me during Lazarus. I did reflect, however, on the passage of time.

Running Time: 90 minutes

Lazarus plays through July 22, 2017, at the Logan Fringe Arts Space’s Trinidad Theatre – 1358 Florida Avenue, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets call Ovation Tix at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

 

LINKS:

Capital Fringe Preview: ‘Lazarus’ by Evan Crump

 

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2017 Capital Fringe Page.

 

Constructive Fictions

Was ever a jailed sex offender more self-righteous and self-pitying than Rabbi Barry Freundel in this brilliantly disturbing new play by A. J. Campbell? Were ever such a predator’s’ victims—in Freundel’s case the women he surreptitiously photographed undressed for his own private spank bank—given more eloquent voice to state how he hurt and violated them, to call him on his shit? If ever there’s a play that better lays bare the inner life of a man of the cloth who prays and preys, it’s going to have to be measured against this hard-hitting script.

For those unfamiliar with the Freundel scandal, here’s a capsule summary from The Forward,   (“news that matters to American Jews”):

Before his arrest in 2014, Freundel was the longtime rabbi of Kesher Israel in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., and an active member of the Rabbinical Council of America, an Orthodox rabbinic group.
Freundel is believed to have violated the privacy of at least 150 women, whom he filmed while they undressed and showered at the mikvah, or ritual bath, including members of his Orthodox synagogue, candidates for conversion to Judaism and students at Towson University in Maryland, where Freundel taught classes on religion and ethics. The rabbi also secretly filmed a domestic violence abuse victim in a safe house he had set up for her.

Even in a society near sated with reports of clergy abuse—which cuts across all faiths and  seems not to have abated—what Freundel did still shocks.  Playwright Campbell (who also produced) paid close attention to the scandal. As she writes in a program note,

Even in a society near sated with reports of clergy abuse—which cuts across all faiths and  seems not to have abated—what Freundel did still shocks.  Playwright Campbell (who also produced) paid close attention to the scandal. As she writes in a program note,

I watched all the news coverage and read the court documents. What the Rabbi did by recording women in the bathroom was beyond comprehension. But there was no context or the story nor larger meaning to take away. [Constructive Fictions] was an attempt to frame the story so we understand the world he lived in.

Campbell’s canny solution is to set the play in the DC jail cell where Freundel is to this day serving time and to make him have to hear the accusations and testimonies of four women—all deeply devout Jews—who are composites of the many he abused over a period of five years. The uncredited set literally frames him, and it’s on rollers so it can be rotated by the women as they testify. The interior of the cell also functions as a pulpit during passages when Freundel changes from prison orange into rabbinic garb.  As directed by David Moretti, Constructive Fictions is an ingenious work of stagecraft.

Matty Griffiths as Freundel delivers a remarkably nuanced performance. Even as the rabbi is vainly complaining of his circumstances, egoistically explaining his conduct, plaintively seeking exoneration without an ounce of empathy for those he violated, Griffiths achieves a persona and presence that allow us to see not just through the man but deep inside him. As embodied by Griffiths, Freundel is by no means a sympathetic character but he is a comprehensible and decidedly recognizable one.

As one woman pointedly says, “Men will risk anything to get what they want.”

As the story unfolds, Campbell’s script drops jaw-dropping details one after another. Freundel compares his behavior to that of Bill Clinton, General Petraeus, and John Edwards and grouses that he got jail time and they didn’t (!). He proudly mentions he once published an article about what’s wrong with pornography and regularly counseled couples whose marriages were damaged by the husband’s consumption of it (!). He justifies his mikveh-peeping as necessary surveillance, to make sure these women’s conversions to Judaism would be legit (!).

The four women are played by Anna Paliga as Rachel (a student less inclined to judgment than the others), Natasja Handy as Leah  (the youngest, a whose hurt and anger hurt to watch), Gianna Rapp as Rebecca (a woman in sorrow at the fact her Rabbi saw her naked before her betrothed did), and Helen Bard as Sarah (the oldest and wisest and in many ways the most grief-stricken).

In fairness, these four performances lacked the confidence and presence demanded by Campbell’s scathing script. However, there is a captioning system in the theater intended for the Deaf and hard of hearing. On occasions when a particular performance was not landing with as much gravitas as it might, I found myself watching as Campbell’s electric text scrolled by. And I would get chills.

 

Campell’s contextual framing of Freundel’s offenses turns on the notion that everyone tells useful lies. We can’t be who we really are otherwise. We create “constructive fictions” (hence the title) in order to be true to ourselves. The notion of the “useful illusion” has been a trope in theater for ages, and trotting out it here as Freundel’s self-defense may seem to make some sense…

But stay tuned to for the shocking and damning ending.

Running Time: 60 minutes.

Constructive Fictions plays through July 23, 2017, at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. Some dates and times provide an ASL interpreter For tickets call Ovation Tix at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

 

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2017 Capital Fringe Page.

 

Ready to Serve: Remember the Nurses

Stories of war wounded told from the point of view of military medics—those who try to save lives and bag the bodies of the ones they can’t—give glimpses into the bravery and heroism of the fighting forces who serve and defend. Taking the point of view of U.S. Army nurses sent to the front in France during World War I, storyteller Ellouise Schoettler does not shy away from the carnage of that “bloody, bloody battle.” But the bravery and heroism she shows us vividly is that of the nurses themselves. The story of how they served and defended becomes an engrossing portrait of women before Suffrage who were not even afforded the dignity of rank.

Photo taken on the dock in New York City, June 14, 1917, before the 64 Maryland nurses boarded the USS Finland to cross the Atlantic. “In our blue capes – we were a picture!”

What Schoettler tells us is all true, extracted and structured into a script from the letters of 64 Maryland nurses who were trained and worked at Johns Hopkins. They were highly skilled professionals, ages 25 to 45 “with no attachments,” who, when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, answered the call.

In Schoettler’s concise chronological narrative, we learn of their long voyage at sea, the harsh conditions they faced at the base hospital where they were assigned, the bonds of sisterhood they formed, their courage in the face of calamity… Their readiness and dedication make for an inspiring story of selfless service.

As we enter the black box, “Over Here, Over There” is looping, and black-and-white documentary stills of World War I nurses in uniform scroll across an upstage screen. (The photographs, I learned, are from the archives of the Women In Military Service for America Memorial.)

Schoettler enters wearing a contemporary ensemble of red shoes and a multicolored jacket over black top and slacks. Sitting on a stool, she sets her story in 1970 and delivers it as an 80-year-old woman looking back 50 years. The unnamed character is a composite, based on incidents, language, and images in the letters that were Schoettler’s source. But the text is so of a piece, and has such a persuasive voice, that one is never aware there are actually 64 voices speaking.

Schoettler performed this piece at last year’s Fringe and has toured with it extensively. On opening night, though, her delivery was at times halting, as if unsure of what’s next. This meant that an actor’s transitions typically present and perceptible between moments were often absent, seeming to leave emotional blanks unfilled-in. But throughout Schoettler maintained an amiable, less-is-more composure that made the story carry the emotion, and that it did, quickly establishing its own arresting pace and carrying us along with its own compelling momentum.

 

Recently the U.S. has been declaring wars with far less noble pretexts than the principled military and humanitarian objectives it had in, say, the two World Wars. Tragically this has resulted in service members’ returning home to nothing like the heroes’ welcomes that greeted veterans of previous wars. Thus a striking takeaway from Schoettler’s storytelling is a flashback to when it was far clearer what and whose freedom was being fought for.

Anyone whose grandparents or other family members served in World War I will find this solo performance especially personally engaging (as became evident during a talkback with the audience at the show I attended). And anyone with an interest in women’s history will find the story Schoettler tells a fascinating eye-opener.

Running Time: 60 minutes.

Ready to Serve: Remember the Nurses plays through July 22, 2017, at the Eastman Studio Theatre in the Elstad Annex of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC. An ASL interpreter was onstage throughout both the performance and the talkback. For tickets call Ovation Tix at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

 

LINKS: 

Capital Fringe Preview: ‘Ready to Serve’: A Story for the WWI Centennial by Ellouise Schoettler, Storyteller

2016 Capital Fringe Preview #19: ‘Ready to Serve: Unknown Stories of WWI Nurses’ by Robin Fox

Check other reviews and show previews on DCMetroTheaterArts’ 2017 Capital Fringe Page.

 

Olityelwe (The Forgotten) (Staged Reading Report)

When Jonathan David Martin came from New York to DC to be Theater J’s new associate producer in March of last year,  he brought with him a backstory as co-artistic director and producer of the Smoke & Mirrors Collective, a theater company based in Brooklyn. He showcased a sample of that company’s work at Theater J as a one-night-only staged reading,  Olityelwe (The Forgotten) by Zoey Martinson. Fully staged, the play has had a run off-Broadway, performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and a tour in South Africa. The staged reading demonstrated that the play deserves a run in DC.

Jonathan David Marton

It was the original cast—Martin together with Zoey Martinson and Yusef Miller, who had come down from New York for the event—so the performance was more than a standard staged reading. At times the three were on scripts but more often they were spiritedly gumboot dancing—a rhythmic stomping-slapping-clapping style that originated in the mines of Johannesburg (and that reminded me of the high-energy step-dancing that StepAfrika! does).

Yusef Miller (Mandisi), Zoey Martinson (Thandi), and Jonathan David Miller (Jan), gumboot dancing in the original production of Olityelwe (The Forgotten).

The original production was directed by Awoye Timpo; its propulsive pre-recorded sound design was by John Emmett O’Brien, with original music directed by Tuelo Minah; its South African costume designs were by Lara de Bruijn, and the percussive choreography was by Sdudozo Ka-Mbili and Cuereston Burge.

Smoke & Mirrors “creates original works for theater and the web that combine socially relevant themes with an ambitious, multi-disciplinary approach to storytelling.” The company was cofounded by Martin and Actor and Playwright Zoey Martinson, and they both wear co-artistic director and producer hats.

Olityelwe (The Forgotten) was written by Martinson after working as a humanitarian aid worker at a refugee camp in West Africa and then traveling to South Africa to interview people living in the informal settlements around Soweto.

Zoey Martinson (Thandi) and Yusef Miller (Mandisi) in the original production of Olityelwe (The Forgotten).

The play creates a vivid world. It is set in Kliptown, a residential district of Soweto. And it tells a powerful story, a personal drama that heartbreakingly puts a human face on Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. Thandi (Martinson), a college graduate living with HIV, is visited in her tiny shack by her dear, longtime friend Mandisi (Miller). She is not well. The remembered joy and laughter between them do not allay her symptoms nor alter her resolve to end her life. In between visits from a well-meaning local official, Jan (Martin), Mandisi tries to change Thandi’s mind.

On the evidence of this staged reading, Olityelwe (The Forgotten) compares in substance, authenticity, and emotional force to Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, seen recently at Mosaic Theater Company of DC, and Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, which premiered at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Somebody needs to pick this one up and bring it back.

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission.

Olityelwe (The Forgotten), presented by Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative, was read July 26, 2017, at Theater J – The Edlavitch DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC.

VIDEO:

Musical Directo Tuelo Minah talks about the original music in Olityelwe (The Forgotten) (formerly titled Ndebele Funeral).

Choreographer Sdudozo Ka-Mbili talks about the gumboot dancing in Olityelwe (The Forgotten) (formerly titled Ndebele Funeral).

 

Broken Glass

Arthur Miller’s 1994 Broken Glass does not rise to the stature of his greatest works (Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, The Price, and others). But even lesser Miller can be arresting, as the smart and sharp production now playing at Theater J demonstrates. Directed by Aaron Posner with precise attention to each pulse beat, given impeccably persuasive performances by its cast of six, and featuring some of the most powerful set and projection design in town (by Andrew Cohen and Mark Costello, respectively), Theater J’s Broken Glass shines a brilliant light that lets us see clearly into the fragile and shattered marriage at its center.

It is 1938, and a Jewish couple named Sylvia and Phillip Gellburg are reacting in very different ways to news of Kristallnacht. Phillip (Paul Morella) has very mixed feelings about being Jewish. He doesn’t hide it. But his snarky remarks about other Jews come from a self-loathing place. Consequently (or coincidentally) what’s going on in Germany 3,000 miles away is of little concern to him. By contrast, Sylvia (Lisa Bruneau) identifies deeply with the Jews who are being brutalized by Nazis. She follows the news closely and has become increasingly distressed. And nine days ago she suddenly became paralyzed below the waist. She can’t walk. She has no feeling down there. Her husband, greatly troubled, goes to consult Sylvia’s doctor, Dr. Harry Hyman (Gregory Livington).

Lise Bruneau (Sylvia Gellburg) in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at Theater J. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The Washington Post runs a regular series of “medical mystery” articles in its Health & Science section with headlines such as

She thought she’d pulled hip muscles, but six doctors couldn’t diagnose her pain.

Doctors thought he just had jock itch. Then it spread.

By the end of such articles there’s a surprising diagnosis, often with a good prognosis. At a point early in Broken Glass, I was reminded of that Washington Post series…

His wife suddenly became paraplegic. Her doctor did not know why.

Miller steadily teases out clue after clue in the mystery of what’s disabling Sylvia. And sure enough by the end there’s a diagnosis and an implied prognosis.

Except that Miller leaves us to ponder two different diagnoses, which compete for our credulity as the play unfolds. That Sylvia’s symptoms are psychosomatic (or “hysterical,” as Dr. Hyman explains to Phillip) is established as a given. And Dr. Hyman puts forth the compelling hypothesis that Sylvia’s distraught anxiety about what’s happening to Jews in Germany is the traumatizing trigger. But that’s not the whole story. Upon further investigation—involving intimate time spent with Sylvia—Dr. Hyman and we begin to understand that the etiology of Sylvia’s malady is not only the Nazis but Phillip.

Gregory Linington (Dr. Harry Hyman) and Lise Bruneau (Sylvia Gellburg) in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at Theater J. Photo by Teresa Wood.

We learn a backstory that includes spousal abuse, erectile dysfunction, and a consequently (or coincidentally) torpid marriage bed. So the Phillip hypothesis stands up—and seems cinched in the final scene shocker. And yet Sylvia’s howl of vicarious pain over the plight of German Jews offers convincing and excruciating evidence that Sylvia’s woundedness is as a Jew.

The two diagnoses don’t ever jibe or cohere. Miller never spells out how Sylvia’s suffering could be simultaneous as a woman and as a Jew, though obviously they are. Nor, for that matter, does Miller explain how the causal source of her suffering could be both her husband and the Nazis (a disturbing parallel, but obviously what Miller meant).

One might have expected a playwright who is herself a woman and a Jew to connect those derogated identities and make them playable and palpable on stage. One might be surprised that here in Broken Glass it is a great man of American letters who has done so. Consequently (or coincidentally) one would have damn good reason to get over to Theater J to see this often overlooked but important Arthur Miller play—if only to ponder the relationship between being gendered female and being Jewish, then and now.

Running time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.

Broken Glass plays through July 9, 2017 at Theater J – The Edlavitch DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.

LINK:
Review: ‘Broken Glass’ at Theater J  by David Siegel

 

When We Were Young and Unafraid

On the top floor of The Keegan Theatre is a cork board labeled “What Does Feminism Mean to You?” Pushpins, pens, and slips of paper are provided so that patrons can have their say, and they do. Lots of thoughts to put a pin in. Lots of divergent points of view yet all tagged feminism. It’s an apt metaphor for the multiplicity of discrepant perspectives that Playwright Sarah Treem has packed into this passionately partisan play.

When We Were Young and Unafraid—now playing at Keegan in a production smartly directed by Marie Byrd Sproul—is set specifically in the year 1972. This was a time when there were not yet any battered women’s shelters in the United States. The very concept of “domestic violence” did not yet exist. It happened but it had no name. As Gloria Steinem famously said,

When I was growing up in Toledo, there was no such crime as domestic violence. It was called life.

Since then, women have continued to be battered, and battered women have continued to experience isolation, vulnerability, trauma, homelessness—not much has really changed. But today there are places to go for safe refuge. There are professional victim services advocates to help a woman leave her abusive partner. There is attention paid to same-sex domestic violence. There are programs for healing, hope, and a new life. Back in 1972, there was nothing of the sort.

Sheri S. Herren (Agnes) and Kaylynn Creighton (Penny) in When We Were Young and Unafraid. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

Treem imagines a do-it-herself hero-healer named Agnes (Sheri S. Herren), who has repurposed her rustic B&B, on a small island just off the coast of Seattle, to serve as a drop-in, stay-awhile sanctuary for battered women. A former Army nurse, Agnes looks out not only for her occasional paying guests but also for her pro bono refugees from their marriage to a misogynist.

The political movement derisively then called “women’s lib” had begun, but Agnes is not an adherent. She’s uninterested. She needs no ideological conclusions about women’s place in the world to prompt or persuade her. She does what she does to help battered women because they are in trouble and need help she can provide. In Agnes, Treem has created a woman whose pro-woman actions would easily count as “feminist,” but her convictions are apolitical. She’s driven by compassion, not a cause.

Into Agnes’s world, Treem introduces four other characters, each of whom has a relationship to feminism that does get articulated as a particular politics. Turns out they have very different viewpoints about what women’s liberation means. And one of the best features of Treem’s script is how shrewdly she has her characters voice political disagreements that persist divisively within feminism today.

In a meta nutshell, these are disagreements about men. Or more precisely: how women should relate to men.

When we first meet Penny (Kaylynn Creighton), the high school student whom Agnes is raising, she is dead set against going to the prom or participating in any other superficial boy-girl rituals. She’s smarter than the boys in her classes and she knows it. She’s striving to get into to Yale (which only recently went co-ed). She has no intention of dumbing herself down to get a date.

A young woman, Mary Anne (Jenna Berk), arrives, her face bruised and a bloody bandage around her head. Her husband, John, has just brutally beaten her. She’s terrified of him, yet she’s still in love with him. The life lesson in her up-close-and-personal encounter with this man’s rage is utterly lost on her. Masochism, the self-inflicted curse of woman as a class, has made her long to go back to him.

Things get philosophically freaky when Treem brings Penny and Mary Anne into a conversation about boys and dating. Mary Anne elicits from Penny—independent, intelligent, self-possessed—an admission that she has a serious crush on the captain of the football team, but he’s oblivious of her. Seizing the opening, Mary Anne starts giving Penny tips about how to be a coquette to catch his eye, stroke his ego, and trigger his hormones. Wear a dress to school. Watch him at football practice. Smile adoringly. Touch him accidentally. Penny follows Mary Anne’s advice to the letter and in no time at all, Penny has a date to the prom.

Besides the nearly absurd disconnect here—a battered woman giving advice to a teen about how to hit on a man—there’s the acting distance Berk must stretch from bloodied victim to sagacious big sister. And Berk pulls it off with awesome virtuosity.

Sheri S. Herren (Agnes) and Nora Achrati (Hannah) in When We Were Young and Unafraid. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

Another character comes by, Hannah (Nora Achrati), a butch radical lesbian on her way to a commune of separatists called the Gorgons. Hannah, as she is quick to explain, has no use for men. Her entrance would feel like a contrivance, a convenient counterpoint to Mary Anne’s and Penny’s man problems, except that Treem gives Hannah some of the best lines in the play. She quotes Ti-Grace Atkinson, for instance: “Feminism is the theory. Lesbianism is the practice.” And Achrati knocks the part out of the park.

Having set forth four perspectives on feminism from four female characters, Treem adds two male characters to the mix. One of them, John, we never see. He shows up like a beast at the gate but doesn’t crash it. His clear-and-present danger outside the B&B becomes viscerally present inside. And he too has a relationship to feminism. Hovering wordlessly over the women’s discourse, John’s disruptive appearance in the play makes the women’s disagreements seem like petty distractions from the primary emergency at hand.

Theo Hadjimichael (Paul) and Jenna Berk (Mary Anne) in When We Were Young and Unafraid. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

Treem’s fifth character is Paul (Theo Hadjimichael), a guest at the B&B. A would-be musician, he’s a genuinely gentle soul. His relationship to feminism is that it led his wife to leave him, and he’s hurting. She got involved in consciousness-raising and lost interest in him because, she told him, he wasn’t enough of a man. His sensitivity and caring have become a liability in a world where there are liberated women who like to be manhandled in bed.

I’ve sketched here just a few of the inconsistencies in feminism that Treem’s script artfully lifts aloft and lets clash, because they comprise a big bunch of the play’s punch. They are familiar intra-movement disputes in feminism today. Many more have cropped up since 1972—such as intersectionality and trans feminism. But what’s so brilliant and engaging about When We Were Young and Unafraid is that it’s a time capsule of an era when second-wave feminism was just beginning to kick ass.

I recommend Keegan’s When We Were Young and Unafraid as not only an excellent production but also a revealing political period piece. Feminism has never been monolithic. Just check out that cork board upstairs.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

Advisory Warning: Contains sexual situations and references to domestic violence and rape. Recommended for ages 16 and older.

When We Were Young and Unafraid plays through July 8 at The Keegan Theatre—1742 Church Street NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.

LINK:
Review: ‘When We Were Young and Unafraid’ at The Keegan Theatre by Julia Hurley

 

The Return

Inside this taut and provocative two-character play—which vividly evokes the political tension between the Israeli state and its Palestinian citizens—there is a startling sex scene, one that vividly evokes the sexual tension between a woman and a man. It is an explicit, erotic hookup with shocking consequences. To the best of my recollection, it is the first per se sex scene in a production at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. So you’d think it would make a ripple of news. Yet curiously this sex scene has received only glancing attention in press commentary about the play. Often as not, it’s not even mentioned. At a post-show panel discussion I attended, nobody brought it up. I find this curious. I think that sex scene warrants a very close look.

We don’t actually see the sex scene on stage. We see it in our mind’s eye, through the clarity of the writing and the extraordinary performances of two gifted actors. It happened thirteen years ago, between the man and woman who now appear before us onstage. They are named in the program only by generic gendered pronouns, Him and Her—as if to seem both anonymous and archetypal.

The Return by Hanna Eady and Edward Mast, directed flawlessly by John Vreeke, is receiving its U.S. premiere as the culminating production of Mosaic’s stellar second season. It continues the Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, which Artistic Director Ari Roth inaugurated sixteen years ago at Theater J. Both playwrights are also actors, and their script is as playable as it is profound.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (Her) and Ahmad Kamal (Him) in The Return. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Eady is Palestinian-American; Mast, his collaborator, is American. Their jointly authored dramatic work The Return is distinguished by what Roth has called its unmediated Palestinian lens. Meaning: There is no doctrinaire deference to Israeli state interests in it. A 2016 production in Hebrew at an Arab theater in Haifa was shut down after eight performances. As Eady explains in an interview with my DCMetroTheaterArts colleague Ravelle Brickman:

The government simply decided that Jews should not see or hear anything that expressed a Palestinian point of view, or that suggested an abrogation of human rights.

Besides the authors’ pro-Palestinian sympathies, The Return is also distinguished by having as its inciting incident a sex scene. Meaning: Had the sex not happened, there would be no play.

Ahmad Kamal (Him) and Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (Her) in The Return. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The Return is set in Israel in a city about ten miles north of Tel Aviv, in the front office of an auto repair garage. A woman who is Jewish arrives (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), ostensibly because her car needs fixing. Though it is the Sabbath, she finds one mechanic on duty, a man who is Arab (Ahmad Kamal). As we will learn, the woman’s motives are not automotive.

Thirteen years ago she and he had a brief romance that involved, on more than one occasion, passionate lovemaking that by both their accounts was mutually gratifying. “It felt real,” she recalls, and he concurs.

In no way did he physically coerce her; she has a speech making that clear (putting to rest any speculation that might arise from seeing Keegan’s slight size next to Kamal’s big and burly build). Their characters both wanted it and they wanted each other. There was just one catch. He’s Arab, and he led her to believe he’s Jewish. She was attracted to him with that understanding and would not have been otherwise. She makes clear she would have had nothing to do with him had she known he was Arab. (Her prejudice, a plot point, suffuses his world and the world of the play.) Thus with her uninformed consent, the sex she had with this man was in all other ways really good.

So-called rape by fraud, or rape by deception, is a crime in Israel (as it is in the U.S. and the UK). In 2010 a man was convicted of the crime in Israel for lying about being Jewish, which may have suggested The Return’s inciting incident, though Eady and Mast have veered so far from that case its only relevance is to posit that such a plot point could plausibly happen.

In Eady and Mast’s brilliantly constructed story line, the man is tried for committing rape by deception; and at trial, she testifies against him without disclosing her own volition, agency, and pleasure in their sexual encounters. Her testimony about his deception is thus itself a deception. The question Who violated whom? thus looms. She is haunted by guilt over what she did to him then and has come to atone and ask his forgiveness.

“I want us to just be people,” she tells him at one point.

“They built this place where you and I can never be the same,” he replies.

In the political context of Jewish-Arab relations, those two lines reverberate.

And in the gender-binary context, they throb.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (Her) and Ahmad Kamal (Him) in The Return. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Much of The Return tracks in chilling detail the dreadful consequences that befall the man after his conviction. We are left with no doubt had he not been Palestinian, Israeli law would not have charged him, nor would the state have crushed his soul so.

In the woman’s character arc the authors have crafted a damning critique of the illusion of the efficacy of good intentions. We leave the theater judging not only her but also all who are complicitous, wittingly or not, in state-sanctioned hate and whose crimes cannot be cleansed.

The backstory of the man’s and the woman’s sex scene is by no means what The Return is “about.” But that scene’s particulars make what the play is about far more than a personal microcosm of a political macrocosm. The man’s and woman’s shared sexual history engages us where we live, as much in the abstract in our consciences as palpably in the bodies we inhabit. Tuning into this important function of the sex scene is to appreciate all the more this play’s depth.

The Return at Mosaic is more than a play to be touched and troubled by. It’s a play to get in the gut.

Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.

The Return plays through July 2, 2017, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.

LINKS:

Review: ‘The Return’ at Mosaic Theater Company of DC, Part of the 2017 Voice From a Changing Middle East Festival by Robert Michael Oliver

Interview: Playwrights Hanna Eady and Edward Mast on ‘The Return,’ Now in US Premiere at Mosaic Theater Company of DC by Ravelle Brickman

 

 

School for Lies

The set that we see is a towering eyeful,
The interior decorator spared nary a trifle,
For decked all about are amusing objets d’art
On loan from museums with tastes tres bizarre.
Claes Oldenberg’s oversize cherry and spoon’s
Propped opposite that dog in balloons by Jeff Koons,
Which is hung in a bird cage directly ovah
Salvador Dali’s Mae West lips sofa.
So many cultured sculptures from who knows where,
Plus Pedro Friedeberg’s gold hand chair!
Could it be these fine artworks are what meet our eyes?
Or might we be in for a bigger surprise?

The cast of School for Lies. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Bingo, in case you’re still paying attention:
This comedy is shot through with pretension.
Ergo its title, a snarky rant
Against society’s predilection for cant.
Mon dieu! another drama about truth and illusion!
Have we not seen such plays in profusion?
Why dust off Molière for our modern amusement?
He’s yesterday’s news, man, what’s the inducement?
The dude wrote in French, he has to be translated
What was funny back then has got to be outdated.
Bottom line, can we enjoy what’s about to go on?
Absolutament! And yes we Kahn.

Gregory Wooddell, Cameron Folmar, Liam Craig, and Tom Story in The School for Lies. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The costumes alone are enough to drop jaws
The foppery and finery would give Sun King pause.
He’d invite the whole cast to Versailles too
Since they’re all worthy of giving high fives to.
I was nuts about the show if you haven’t deduced.
The performance could not have been better produced
But what got me hooked was the way it was written,
David Ives’ script had me totally smitten.

Michael Glenn, Dorea Schmidt, and Victoria Frings in The School of Lies. Photo by Scott Suchman.

His crackerjack couplets, his playful bag of tricks,
Made my ears want more and more as if I needed a fix.
When he worked in some words that were crude or risque
It was like I’d been tossed a verbal bouquet.
Once he even mimicked Valleyspeak and rap
And my higher cortex went, Oh snap!
For an hour and a half this went on and on
As ear candy goes it was bon upon bon bon
Delicious his rhymes were, like fine French fromage,
I could not resist serving up this homage.
So delightful they were, so wicked and sublime,
Oh yes! said my mind, hit me up one more time!
And then it hit me I’d been guessing or predicting
How each couplet would finish. God it got addicting!

Veanne Cox in The School for Lies. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Some might surmise all this rhyming’d be annoying
But I’m here to tell you it was not at all cloying.
It altered my brain, rearranged how I listened
Linguistic piss and vinegar made me totally blissened.
If you see School for Lies, which I heartily recommend
You will hear what I mean: The script has pleasures no end.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The School for Lies plays through July 9, 2017, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

LINK: Review: ‘The School for Lies’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by Sophia Howes

 

 

Perfect Arrangement

Perfect Arrangement by Topher Payne was a smash hit at Source Festival when it debuted there four years ago, and the comedy’s return to Source on the occasion of the festival’s tenth anniversary is cause for celebration. Set in 1950 during the so-called Lavender Scare—when persecution of homosexuals and other “deviants” had U.S. state sanction—Perfect Arrangement is both gut-busting funny and soberingly trenchant.

Danielle Scott (Millie), Jon Reynolds (Bob), Jennifer Lyons Pagnard (Kitty), Jack Novak (Jim), Kevin McGuinness (Ted), and Mary Myers (Norma) in Perfect Arrangement. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

In what may be the most consequential program note ever penned by a playwright, Payne informs us that the apology John Kerry offered for the Lavender Scare, in his last days as Secretary of State—”the first time the government acknowledged any of this happened”—disappeared from the Department of State website as soon as Donald Trump took office.

In 2014 the American Theatre Critics Association named Perfect Arrangement Best Play by an Emerging Playwright. In 2015 it ran Off-Broadway produced by Primary Stages and had subsequent runs in San Diego, Seattle, and elsewhere. As I write this it is up for a Lambda Literary Award.

I had a hunch something like this was going to happen. When I saw the 2013 Source Festival production directed Linda Lombardi, I raved in my blog,

This play is ready for Broadway. It’s knockout funny, with crackling punch lines. It’s flawlessly constructed—paced like a bubbly farce at times, like a jaw-dropping drama at others. And it’s got a core of sexual political content that puts Neil Simon–ish froth to shame.

After seeing Source’s all-new production directed by Nick Martin, I now hold Payne’s script in even higher esteem.

Jon Reynolds (Bob), Danielle Scott (Millie), and Jack Novak (Jim) in Perfect Arrangement. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

Perfect Arrangement takes place in the upscale living room of an apartment in Georgetown. The period is pivotal. This was the time of McCarthyism when maniacal American anti-communism merged with animus against homosexuals. A dragnet was launched inside the U.S. government to purge anyone suspected of being lesbian or gay.  The notion was that in offices like the State Department, homosexuals were national security risks because they were subject to blackmail. (Little could anyone have guessed when Perfect Arrangement premiered how that toxic hate-fueled episode in U.S. history would morph into today’s Islamophobic and anti-immigrant politics—like some horrifying déjà vu.)

The story Payne spins out of this historical homophobic nightmare is cleverly and hilariously set up as a 50s-era TV sitcom. Payne’s script specifies, in fact, that the set have “a layout reminiscent of that of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on ‘I Love Lucy.'” The set at Source designed by Jessica Cancino has a suitably flat-beige 50s feel that with its avocado sofa and persimmon chair looks like it’s been furnished from Sears and Roebuck.

This living room is shared by Bob & Millie & Jim & Norma, though they don’t all share the same bed. From all appearances, Bob & Millie are married, as are Jim & Norma. But they’re all in the closet together, figuratively speaking. An offstage bed is shared by Millie & Norma. And another is shared by Bob & Jim, whose living quarters are reachable through a closet, literally.

Bob Martindale (Jon Renolds) and Norma Baxter (Mary Meyers) work in the State Department. Bob is in charge of an expulsion program there and Norma is his secretary. But at home they and their same-sex paramours—Millie Martindale (Danielle Scott) and Jim Baxter (Jack Novak)—have adopted a nuptial ruse in order, or so they hope, to escape exposure and firing.  The comic potential in this setup jump-starts the hilarity as the foursome entertain Bob’s straight-arrow boss Ted Sunderson (Kevin McGuinness) and his ditsily clueless wife Kitty (Jennifer Pagnard, whose performance was a ceaseless hoot).

Hiding behind phony personas is an age-old comic stage device, and Payne reinvents it ingeniously: two lesbians in love pretending to be married to husbands, two gay men in love pretending to be married to wives.  And then—with a gifted writerly hand—Payne introduces plot turns and character conflicts that gradually unravel and reveal what’s not “perfect” here at all.

Mary Myers (Norma) and Toni Rae Salmi (Barbara) in Perfect Arrangement. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

An auspicious visit comes near the end of the first act from Barbara Grant (the enjoyably grand Toni Rae Salmi). Barbara is a State Department employee under investigation for being “a loose woman.” Her arrival sets in motion events that lead to one of the most profound endings I’ve ever witnessed in a new play. Near the end of the second act, Payne tops everything that’s gone before with a breathtaking scene that rips open a gender divide among the once happy foursome.  Suffice it to say, lesbians who are looking for liberation and impatient with gay men’s leadership will recognize a lot in Payne’s story line.  And gay men might learn a thing or two too.

I can’t in conscience give away any more of Payne’s astonishing story structure, but I have to marvel at how he keeps finding what’s funny. Payne has an uncanny knack for keeping faith with his audience through humor. That he has embedded his powerful and empowering political insights in a play bursting with belly laughs is a comedic marvel that must be seen to be believed.

Perfect Arrangement is a sturdy script, and as such it easily withstood what on opening night was some unevenness and uncertainty in the acting.  Tighter pacing and stronger ensemble cohesion will doubtless emerge during the run.  The costumes designed by Frank Labovitz were for the women a delightful lift from Donna Reed’s and Harriet Nelson’s wardrobes; and for the men, appropriately post-war dorky. Lighting Designer E-hui Woo made scene shifts entrancing, and Sound Designer Veronica Lancaster brought in period tunes that could make one feel like swaying or dancing.

Perfect Arrangement is assured a slot on the short list of all-time Best LGBTQ Pride Plays and is destined for a place in the canon of contemporary classics.

Perfect Arrangement is an incandescent comedy about queer courage in dark times. And the times they just got dark again.

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

Perfect Arrangement plays through July 2, 2017, at The Source Festival performing at Source – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

 

Hir

The absurdity and grim reality of gender get a scathing going-over in this extraordinary play by Taylor Mac. Inside the hilarity of Hir (pronounced “here”) is a tragedy howling to get out.

Taylor Mac, author of Hir, has a reputation for outrageous originality as a playwright, actor, singer-songwriter, performance artist, director, and producer. I’ve been itching to see this play since Woolly announced it. Everything I heard and read about it made me suspect I would dig it. And I did. Bigly.

Malic White (Max), Emily Townley (Paige), Joseph J. Parks (Isaac), and Mitch Hébert (Arnold) in Hir. Photo by Scott Suchman.

After I laughed my guts out at Hir the other night, I figured out why the play had landed for me with so much punch: I recognized in Hir the work of an artist who is a gender abolitionist or gender anarchist—someone for whom bending gender is but a means to ending gender altogether.

It is a trend that’s catching on. For instance, these days it is not uncommon for young people to introduce themselves by saying what their personal pronouns are. The prescriptive presumption that everyone is either a he or a she (and never the twain shall meet) has become today’s flat-eartherism.

Thus the title of Mac’s play is the recently coined personal pronoun hir. In everyday speech hir refers to someone who is non-binary, transgender, or gender-queer, in grammatical constructions where the pronouns him and her would typically track. Here hir is the pronoun of Max, an AFAB (assigned female at birth) 17-year-old who is transitioning and taking testosterone. Known as ze, not he or she, Max is a whip-smart radical queer resister to heteronormativity—and Malic White’s punky, impudent performance in the role is wonderful.

Hir deals with, as Mac has written, “the remnants of the former body politic and the rise of a new progressive body politic.” The trans teen Max is the character from whom we hear the sharpest critique of the old and the most embodied determination about the need for change.

“Ze is becoming an innovator in gender,” exclaims Paige, Max’s cisgender (AFAB) mother. She could be trilling she is so thrilled by Max’s transition. Paige is explaining Max to Isaac, hir 24-year-old, cisgender (AMAB) brother. Isaac has been away for three years in the Marines and is now a war-damaged veteran. He cannot believe what has become of his home and family. The house is a mess. His father is in a dress. He is shocked. “Your sister is not your sister,” says Paige. “Ze has become the new. A revolutionary…. Transgender.” Whereupon Isaac—in a muscularly urgent performance by Joseph J. Parks—rushes to the kitchen sink and pukes.

Emily Townley (Paige) in Hir. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Paige—a zany, free-spirited true believer in gender revolution—is one of the great new tragicomic roles in contemporary theater. She is the play’s passion and propulsion, and Emily Townley’s nonstop-power performance is not to be missed.

When Isaac arrives he finds his father, Arnold, in a dressing gown in clown makeup and wig. A year ago Arnold had a stroke and is now treated by his wife Paige like a brain-damaged child or an untrained house pet. She squirts him to scold him when he says a bad word or holds his penis. Isaac accuses Paige of humiliating and emasculating his father, and she does not deny it.

Paige’s demeaning of Arnold would read as senseless cruelty but for the back story that emerges about Arnold’s character before his stroke. The portrait Mac paints is revolting: an angry, abusive paterfamilias who beat both siblings and beat and raped his wife. “I joined the Marines so I could learn how to stop him from doing things like that,” says Isaac. The old Arnold is the measure of a man that the new Max, finding hir way between sissy and trans-masculine, never wants to pass as. And Arnold is the reason Paige has become a zealous convert to the cause of overthrowing “the male-dominated hegemonic paradigm.”

The previous Arnold is never literally onstage. The powerless and pathetic Arnold we see (in Mitch Hébert’s eloquent performance) bears no resemblance. But that pre-stroke patriarch drives the action of the play like a primal scream: The character stands in for all that Paige recoils from, all that she wants to avenge, and all that she wants to dismember about gender.

The fact that the ways Paige picks to do so are quite unhinged makes for a cascade of comedy. But what motivates Paige to do so is the show’s caustic undertone.

The argument Paige makes—in a sincere but fractured and scatter-brained way—is that the gender binary has got to go. The alternative would be to accept patriarchal power relations as a natural imperative, biologically inevitable.

Hir by Taylor Mac, now playing in fast-paced production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company directed by Shana Cooper, is a seditious celebration of the beyond-gender trend. And it’s one of the funniest and profoundest farces I’ve ever seen.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Hir plays through June 18, 2017, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.