Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Vicuña & The American Epilogue

“Even monsters need clothing,” says the bespoke tailor Anselm, an Arab Jew and immigrant, defending why he will sew a vicuña suit for a Republican presidential candidate whom his intern Amir, a first-generation Iranian American, finds deplorable and dangerous. The fictional candidate is a thinly disguised proxy for a certain wannabe winner with an evident emperor’s absence of clothes. So the central comedic metaphor in Jon Robin Baitz’s adroit political allegory—dressing a man of no scruples for success—packs a caustic punch from the get-go.

And judging from audience response on opening night, the aftershocks of that punch are what make Vicuña & The American Epilogue an invigorating crowd pleaser—at least here in blue-state DC. For though the storyline of Vicuña centers on dressing up a future prez, the most satisfying sections of the script are about dressing him down.

Laura C. Harris (Srilanka), Brian George (Anselm), Haaz Sleiman (Amir), and Kimberly Schraf (Kitty Finch-Gibbon) in Vicuña & The American Epilogue. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

There are five characters in the play: The tailor Anselm (Brian George); the intern Amir (Haaz Sleiman); the candidate himself, here named Kurt Seaman (John De Lancie); the candidate’s daughter and campaign manager, Srilanka (Laura C. Harris), and the chairwoman of the RNC, Senator Kitty Finch-Gibbon (Kimberly Schraf). And Baitz has given three of them some of the most exquisite insult speeches this side of William Shakespeare.

Anselm is not one of them. Anselm would never diss a client, nor likely ever speak truth to power. “You win by silence and compliance,” he counsels his intern Amir.

And Seaman has so much vaingloriosity to spew that he more than deserves being the butt of Baitz’s delicious derision. “There is only one American dream now,” he says. “And it is to simply take what is left…. Take whatever you can, take that which is not nailed down before someone else does.” Seaman has a moral compass so lacking in empathy and introspection it might as well be a rock.

John De Lancie (Kurt Seaman) in Vicuña & The American Epilogue. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

But oh my what invective the other three characters get!

AMIR: He’s sort of a wonder to behold, like a Kracken or a four-headed goat glowing green outside a nuclear reactor.

AMIR: He is like a giant machine that makes evil disgusting bloated nasty donuts. Anything hateful anyone throws at him, he turns it into a batter to make a donut! And then he makes it. And spits it back out.

SRILANKA [to her father]: You made me your campaign manager because you need one person to tell you the truth. Here’s the truth, father, you have become an unregulated force, careening between contradictory positions, wracked by a lack of sleep, and fueled by junk food and coffee, saying whatever comes into your head at any moment….

AMIR [to Seaman]: Given your trajectory, it is quite clear that common decency is actually detrimental to your ascendancy. So I would keep your daughter around — as even sociopaths need canaries in their coal-mines.

John De Lancie (Kurt Seaman), Laura C. Harris (Srilanka), and Kimberly Schraf (Kitty Finch-Gibbon) in Vicuña & The American Epilogue. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The speeches Finch-Gibbon gets are the most scathing, and in Schraf’s showstopping performance they fire at Seaman like a strafing:

 

FINCH-GIBBON: There is a sense that you are ill…. The people who work at the Defense Department and in the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff …  have let it be known that you present certain very knotty obstacles to the chain of command in that you are generally speaking considered stark raving mad.

FINCH-GIBBON: You are unpredictable and shallow. And in politics, given the state of the world today, being unpredictable and shallow is deadly…. On a personal note, let me say this — you and your frivolous campaign, one fueled by the capriciousness deep within your dark, decaying and very shallow husk of a soul —  have simply broken my heart.

 

I share this foretaste of the fusillade that’s in store when one sees this astonishingly incisive and timely play to make a point about how unusually Vicuña plays in the mind: Vicuña takes us into and out of itself over and over again. To watch it is constantly to be reminded of the real-world tragifarce that the action onstage keeps pointing to and commenting on. Not only the credibility and appeal of Vicuña‘s storytelling but its very coherence depends as much on the craft of the cast and director (Robert Egan) as it does on our collective associational recognitions during it. Quite deliberately Vicuña invites us—no, requires us—to be thinking along with it and consciously connecting contemporaneous dots. All the speeches such as I’ve sampled function like dog whistles for those of us whose dismay since last November has been deepening by the day. And the satisfaction thus prompted is a pure Pavlovian pleasure response.

This is important to know going in, because all that easy (and hilarious) gratification can come at a cost when the original play Vicuña ends and its new American Epilogue begins. What Baitz has appended takes an abrupt turn—not only in time and staging style but internally, conceptually, in how it asks us to engage with it. No more dog whistles. Now instead an apocalyptic alarm and call to action. And taking seriously that sober call to action is going to be lots harder than passively enjoying potshots.

Some playwrights are more inclined to say what their play is “about” than others. Many refuse to. Baitz, however, does not hold back. In an interview he said,

Vicuna concerns the fucked-up election of an autocratic vulgarian real-estate developer named Kurt Seaman,

The epilogue picks up many years later, after all the catastrophes have occurred and America is breaking and over, a ruined place and a ruined idea, a failed democracy with a broken economy, and roving mobs.

It is a deeply flawed play, but an attempt at understanding ‘conditions on the ground’ in our ghoulish political era, and to project what the end-game of all this hell is. It’s a play about how we die by the sword of our own complicity.

I wouldn’t go along with Baitz that it’s the play that’s flawed, however. The play simply points to a flaw that is in ourselves. Because compared with what’s required to call this vulgarian’s con game on account of conscience, making sport of him is just lots more fun.

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

Vicuña & The American Epilogue plays through December 3, 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.

LINK: Review: ‘Vicuña & The American Epilogue’ at Mosaic Theater Company by Ravelle Brickman

 

 

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In the Red and Brown Water

The wonder-filled stories that wend their way through In the Red and Brown Water were located by the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney in “the distant present” in a fictional town in Louisiana. But in the mesmerizing and lyrical production at Howard University, the set evokes more an ancient Greek amphitheater—curving pink stone steps framed within a large arc, a wide vista of blue cloud cover beyond. It is a place such as where gods of yore would visit in human form, and the archaic echo is apt. For here it is McCraney’s enchanting cast of characters named after Yoruba deities who drop by—and what a fun playground of these gods the Ira Aldridge Theater becomes.

The cast of In the Red and Brown Water at Howard University.

The action happens about as much in the aisles as on stage. Director Eric Ruffin, Composer and Musical Director Bert Cross II, and Choreographer Dwayne Murray conspire to make the entire auditorium part musical hall, part party space, part sacred site. In the first musical number, the ensemble made an amazing ritual entrance from on stage and the back of the house. Within minutes the opening night audience was so into the show it could have raved on all night. Oohs and ahs when characters and their relationships crossed lines or touched nerves, big guffaws when shade was thrown with rude slurs, swoons and bobbing to the dance beats and the singing and prerecorded soundtrack (which included the rousing “Down by the Riverside” with its trenchant refrain “Ain’t gonna study war no more”).

Tarell Alvin McCraney is the Academy Award–winning screenwriter for Moonlight whose play Wig Out! was a smash hit this summer at Studio. There’s something about his language and storytelling that becomes absolutely galvanizing in performance. His In the Red and Brown Water characters are a free-style gumbo of Yoruba traditions and Caribbean and African stories, and the Howard student cast made of them a banquet of indelible portrayals.

The play centers on Oya (an effervescent Chinna Palmer), who’s a star track runner. The Woman from State (Dani Ebbin) offers her a full scholarship, but Oya turns it down in order to care for her dying mother, Mama Moja (Ezinne Elele)—whereupon we wonder whether her selflessness means her future might have held more.

Oya is, as the opening chorus reiterates, “a beautiful girl,” and much of the subsequent storytelling turns on her relationships with three suitors—each a quirky and complex character in his own right. Ogun (an appealingly earnest Harrison Walker) is smitten with her but has a terrible stutter that she wants him to stop. Miraculously, his stutter later falls away when he’s with her. Shango (a magnetic John Chukwudelunzu) and Oya have a lusty bad romance before he goes off to war. She then takes comfort with her godbrother Elegba (a comic Tre’mon Kentrell Mills with an impressive singing voice), all the while pining for Shango, who returns in camo and knocks up Shun (Tatyana Flannigan), a local “girl from around the way.”

Oya’s athletic and academic career precluded, she is embarrassed and pointedly shamed for not having gotten pregnant—that being what’s supposed to be her lot in life. Meanwhile, two of her suitors father children and she learns she’s infertile. Unable to find fulfillment in motherhood, she becomes increasingly despairing, to the point that she commits a horrifying act of masochism: She cuts off her ear and hands it to Shango as a token of her love.

Other fine performances are turned in by Brittany Turner as Oya’s godmother Aunt Elegua; Kyra Walker as Nia, another “girl from around the way”;  Duane Richards, the DJ Egungun, “a boy from around the way”‘; and Ashley Cruel in the ensemble.

Set Designer Michael Stepowany’s amphitheater elevates the epic-scale emotions. Lighting Designer T.W. Starnes backgrounds the action with gorgeous moonscapes and sunbursts. And Costume Designer Kendra Rae does marvelous things with colorful prints and accessories that set off the cast’s basic-white wardrobe with clever character touches.

There is a decided darkness within McCraney’s narrative. Oya’s character arc, despite her ebullience and resilience, is ultimately quite grim. (The color red in the title is established early on as referring to Oya’s bleeding.) Yet in performance, it’s as if a comic pop-tribal opera were being played out, in a world full of joy and jubilation. It is precisely that tension between hearts that ache and bleed and hearts that leap and sing that makes this production such a heartfelt and entertaining evening.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one intermission.

In the Red and Brown Water plays through November 4, 2017, at Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts at the Ira Aldridge Theater – 2455 6th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

 

 

Hello, My Name Is…

Having heralded five* Welders productions, I approached Deb Sivigny’s Hello, My Name Is… with both eagerness and wariness. Knowing that Sivigny had chosen as her subject a fact of her own biography—international adoption—I went aware that sometimes the very personal works onstage and sometimes it doesn’t, and saying so when it doesn’t can be awkward if not insulting. Knowing also that Sivigny does not have a rich résumé as a writer as she does for her stunning work as a scenic and costume designer, I went aware that sometimes dramaturgical inexperience works and sometimes it doesn’t, and saying so when it doesn’t can be harsh if not uncivil. So I went with more than usual hope that Sivigny’s work would be something I’d like.

And I didn’t just like Hello, My Name Is…. It left me in awe.

Read David Siegel’s review of Hello, My Name Is

Three things stood out for me about Sivigny’s singular achievement with Hello, My Name Is…. First and foremost was its dramaturgical originality. Though billed as Lead Producing Playwright (as all members of The Welders are when their turn comes), Sivigny has created something far more than a play. Hello, My Name Is…, directed by Randy Baker, is staged in a two-story house in Takoma, with an audience of no more than 15 guided from room to room and sometimes outdoors as a cast of eight actors perform in various roles. But this is no ordinary site-specific theater; nor is it stunt-writing (where the gimmick is pretty much all there is to get). This was instead a wholly original form of realizing thematic depth and human dimension in theatrical storytelling.

Linda Bard as June in Hello, My Name Is…. Photograph by C. Stanley Photography.

For some of the characters, the audience is not “there.” We are in their living spaces and they are in their worlds. They are inches from us but not performing for us. Three of them were born in South Korea (as was Sivigny). As to the topic of international adoption they represent, schematically speaking, the Good, the Bad, and the Conflicted. Dana (Janine Baumgardner) was adopted into a wealthy family and has no qualms about that; happily, they’re her home now. Bryan (Jon Jon Johnson) was in foster care for years then taken in by a family who failed to file naturalization papers for him; so when he is busted for pot he is deported to Korea, still with no home, and he lives in fury about all that. June (Linda Bard) was adopted into a loving, ingratiatingly Christian home but knows that to know who she is, she must know more about her birth mother, and what she finds out does not console her.

Janine Baumgardner as Dana in Hello, My Name Is…. Photograph by C. Stanley Photography.

The way these three characters’ stories overlap, intersect, and converge is the dramaturgical genius of the piece. We come upon them in various scenes—such as in June’s girly-pink bedroom, where she wordlessly embraces a faceless doll; in Bryan’s foster dorm, where in great distress he writes and incessantly rewrites a letter to his imagined birth mother; in Dana’s faddish teen bedroom, where she blithely dances to pop music on a CD player. The characters grow up between scenes. We meet Dana again in the backyard, staged as a wedding reception, where she is the toast of her guests (us). We meet them all together in a restaurant in Seoul, where they have come to discover themselves in their pasts. As we encounter these characters (as if we are privy to their real lives) and as the narrative threads that connect them interweave in our minds, we come to know and care about them in a different way from how we relate to characters “on stage.” They are so close to us and familiar to us it is as if they are in our lives like family.

Jon Jon Johnson as Bryanin Hello, My Name Is…. Photograph by C. Stanley Photography.

Other characters relate to us directly. Aunt Rosey (Julie Garner) welcomes us into her Minnesota living room for what will be a “Welcome Home” surprise party when the adoptee June arrives. We all wear name tags; Rosey addresses us personally, offering us snacks, drinks, and hotdish; we chat among ourselves. “I have no idea what hotdish is,” another audience member says to me. At which point memories of Minnesota potlucks come flooding back and I say, “I grew up on it.” Without our knowing it, we become an ensemble in Sivigny’s dramaturgy: a temporary, transient family. And that is the second feature of Sivigny’s achievement that stands out for me. The audience’s identity is transformed from the very beginning. Though we bear our own names, we together adopt a different identity. Thus when we are ushered from room to room, we are not only witnesses; we are also the displaced. We are taken from one unfamiliar location to another unfamiliar location, where we need to find our place not only literally (where to sit or stand) but metaphorically. In thus mirroring the experience of the three characters whose life stories we are following, we become like active listeners in a conversation, always affirming we hear you.

Among the other characters who relate to us directly are Birth Mother (Jennifer Knight) and Ultimate Mother (Wyckham Avery), who do so in very different ways. Birth Mother wafts in and out of scenes, dancerly and silently, and looks deeply into our eyes as if seeking someone, perhaps her lost child, evoking for us the mother whom June, Dana, and Bryan seek and can never know. The way this character has been conceived to inhabit a physical and psychic dimension midway between the characters’ lives and our own is a remarkable stroke of theater-making.

Linda Bard as June and Jennifer Knight as Birth Mother. Photograph by C. Stanley Photography.

Ultimate Mother, on the other hand, has plenty to say. She addresses us in the office of her adoption agency in Korea where we are gathered to hear her hold forth about the wonderful things she has done for unwanted Korean children—and at her unsubtle urging, we offer her gifts of appreciation (props preset underneath our chairs). While Ultimate Mother’s speeches are more conventionally shaped, the gesture we are coaxed to make—giving her gifts—is decidedly not. Symbolically our action brings us into complicity with this international adoption operation, and we are set up to see it prima facie as a social virtue.

But the issue turns out to be far more complex than that. In the subsequent scene in Seoul—where June, Dana, and Bryan meet up in a restaurant—Sivigny lays out the characters’ three dramatically divergent experiences of, and views on, international adoption: the Good, the Bad, and the Complicated. (Bryan is particularly eloquent in his angry denunciation of the Korean government policies that left so many children vulnerable to begin with.) Here I found a third extraordinary aspect of Sivigny’s achievement: We hear three different characters speak their distinct subjective realities, which are not compatible objectively; yet as contradictory as they are, the playwright has given them each equal valence, has fully upheld and advocated each of their points of view, and made them each true to a believable life. This artfully impartial handling of dramatic and thematic conflict is what makes great plays last, and this authorial depth of empathy across difference is the stuff of which great theater is made.

That Sivigny literally immerses us in Hello, My Name Is… in the experience of her extraordinary dramaturgy offers yet more evidence that The Welders has become one of DC’s premier incubators of innovative theatrical storytelling.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Hello, My Name Is… is playing through November 12, 2017, at RhizomeDC – 6950 Maple Street, NW, in Washington, DC, attendance is limited, and shows are selling out. For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006, or purchase them online.

Notes from The Welders:

  • The location is indoor/outdoor and weather may vary. Please dress for warmth and comfort.
  • The location is not wheelchair accessible. If you have mobility or other accessibility concerns, please contact the Welders at connect@thewelders.org before purchasing your ticket.
  • Seating is not guaranteed. Some sections are standing room only.
  • Parties may be split up.
  • Food will be a part of the experience. If you have allergies or other concerns, please let us know when you check in.
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*I have reviewed and highly praised four previous Welders productions: Caleen Sinnette Jennings’s Not Enuf Lifetimes, Bob Bartlett’s happiness (and other reasons to die, Gwydion Suilebhan’s Transmission, and Stephen Spotswood’s Girl in the Red Corner. And I enormously admired Renee Calarco’s Our National Museum of the Unforeseen Tragedy (which I did not write about because it was work-in-progress).

 

God of Carnage

The big laughs in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage come from watching grownups behaving badly, and the big joke is that four parents end up acting more like petulant, belligerent children than their own eleven-year-old progeny. Written in French and translated into English by Christopher Hampton, the comedy became a West End and Broadway hit in the aughts. In the fun production at George Washington, a cast of student actors land the laughs in God of Carnage with polish and panache.

The story begins with a simple, unprepossessing setup and then goes hilariously awry. Two sets of middle-class parents get together to sort out a playground tiff between their sons, one of whom hit the other with a stick, breaking two teeth. From polite posturing, the couples gradually turn more surly and uncivil than their wayward kids. Irritants get taken as microaggressions, provocations push politesse over the edge, all pretense at social propriety falls away, and by the end four ids are unleashed and revealed to be utterly juvenile.

The key to the comedy is keeping credible its slow simmer to an over-the-top boil. Director Elizabeth Kitsos-Kang has paid precise attention to each moment-to-moment escalation. And the actors—themselves not quite of an age to have eleven-year-olds—sustain belief in their characters’ explosive tempers with enjoyable assurance.

Jordan Feiner and Leslie Miller play Michael and Veronica, parents of the kid who got hit. Feiner gives Michael, a merchant of everyday household items, a down-to-earth, no-nonsense quality that ultimately erupts in macho apoplexy. Miller starts Veronica, a collector of African art, at a higher-strung pitch, and evenly matches Michael’s tempestuous outbursts.

Samantha Gonzalez and Kent-Harris Repass play the parents of the kid who got hit, Annette and Alan. Gonzalez gives Annette a gigglish charm that turns farcically indelicate (at a point the character barfs all over a pile of coffee table art books). Alan is a high-power lawyer, often barking on his cell phone, and Repass persuasively shows the character’s shift of professional aggression into personal space.

At the beginning, the two spouses in each couple touch one another fake-ardently almost constantly, as if to inflect their speeches with marital decorum and affable sentiment. By the end they’re all about to come to blows, and two of them actually do. As often happens when two straight couples socialize, the women bond and the men bond, and a gender feud seems about to break out. Except here even those alliances are off, and it’s every inner barbarian for themselves.

Scenic Designer Tara Lyman-Dobson gives Veronica’s and Michael’s living room a tidily tasteful earth-tone comfort, the better to contrast with the messy mayhem that ensues. Costume Designer Stacey Thomann Hamilton dresses Veronica  in an expressive outfit of arty slacks and smock; Michael, in worn jeans; Annette, in a stylish red sheath; and Alan, in a dress-to-impress suit with ostentatious red socks.

Lighting Designer Pancharee Sangkeo nicely highlights the play’s pulses and shifts of focus. Sound Designer Kathryn Fields fills in the cell phone rings and the drone of a hair-dryer. And special mention to Properties Master Kelvin Small for devising how to deliver the stage vomit.

The comic payoff built into Reza’s script plays out just as it’s supposed to. It steadily takes the audience along for a riotous ride that’s riddled with recognition of how base and vulgar people can be without impulse control and the constraint of courtesy (which at one point Alan calls “a waste of time”). Not so much a laughing matter on the national stage, but funny as all get out on this one.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.

God of Carnage plays through this Sunday, October 22, 2017, presented by The George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance at The George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, in the Marvin Center – 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC.  For tickets, buy them at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre’s box office, or call (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.

 

Judge Me Not

Strong writing, passionate acting, and a meaningful purpose combined to make Judge Me Not a gem of a show. An assemblage of monologues around a common theme, the show came with a message: Do not pass snap judgment on others whose life story you know nothing of. As staged two nights only in the DC Arts Center black box in Adams Morgan, Judge Me Not told a series of compelling stories that made that point persuasively. The result was a performance impressively rich in talent and integrity.

Taking inspiration from Amiri Baraka, Writer and Producer Indigo (also known as Sheena D. Horne) conceived Judge Me Not as a way “to incite a little more compassion and connectedness.” And Director Ani Dae, who “believes in living what you love by using your gifts to serve a greater purpose,” gave the show a shape and pace that achieved a fine balance between comedy and pathos.

In a choreographed prologue, the acting ensemble entered holding up signs in front their faces with labels of derogation such as SINNER, SLUT, and THUG. This scene functioned as a pointed challenge: to find out who’s behind each mask.

Sheena “Indigo” Horne came on in a colorful caftan and headdress as comic-crotchety Grandma Ole Day, hobbling on a walking stick. Acknowledging that she’s a recovering alcoholic and has been married for 2,000 years to a man with a head so big it can shade her from the sun. Grandma interacted with, and cracked up, the audience. Meanwhile, she carried on a jokey scolding with her mock-put-upon grandson Tyler (Hassan Bangura).

Then began the serious monologues, which in content and performance were gripping.

Tiffany Strother as Sammie entered strung out and begging for money—exactly the sort of street person folks would try to avoid. Then she told a harrowing story of hardship: With her law degree she got a good job but was laid off and couldn’t get another. Then she lost her home and became poorer and poorer. While living in a shelter she was raped. Then she got addicted to drugs…

Calvin D. Tucker Jr. as Poetic performed a rap-like monologue about growing up “in a world that always hurled on a black man.” Included was a poignant anecdote about a white child who got a really bad sunburn and began then to resent those whose melanin protected them.

Alyse Hamilton as Amber told of needing to terminate her pregnancy, against a loud chorus of anti-abortion hostility portrayed by the ensemble (dressed all in black except for white gloves). She explained to them why she was needing an abortion: “I’m pregnant by my daddy.” She then chillingly portrayed his voice as he was molesting her.

Ani Dae as Momma D told of bringing her nine-year-old child with her when she went for a job interview. She trustingly asked a receptionist to watch the child until the interview was over. But when she came out, her child was gone, abducted by a man who posed as the father. Her horror and anguish were very affecting.

Before and after the intermission, Indigo as Grandma Ole Day returned for more banter with the audience. Her schtick was perfect comic relief. In no way did it diminish the gravity of the monologues To the contrary, it heightened the stories’ impact.

Latashia Carney as Ms. Nell told of being molested by a white babysitter’s boyfriend—and while he did it, the babysitter pinned her down. After that trauma, she became mute.

Sheena “Indigo” Horne as Nikki told a story of alcoholism. This Nikki character was so different from Indigo’s Grandma Ole Day character, she was barely recognizable as the same actor. It was a striking transformation.

Kelvin Terrell as Malcolm portrayed a character who could easily be pegged a deadbeat dad (he’s had five children by four women). No one ever showed him “how a man is supposed to be.” But he changed and became “a better man” when he recognized his own father’s failure to be one.

Latashia Carney as Ms. Brown told of being in prostitution from financial desperation. “I did what I had to do for my children.”

Sheena “Indigo’ Horne as Grandma Ole Day returned joined by Calvin D. Tucker Jr. transformed as funnily feeble Grandpoppy—a comic duo who gave the audience much appreciated respite from all that had been heavy to hear.

In a final solo performance, Ani Dae as Lady Diva entertained the audience as if in club act on the theme of overcoming others’ judgments: “Your past is not equal to your future. You are the only person that can judge your past.”

Grandma Ole Day was then joined by the ensemble, whose earlier masks of disparagement were flipped to reveal messages of empowerment such as STRONG and VALUABLE.

By the end Judge Me Not succeeded in its intention outstandingly. All initial assumptions about the characters the writer had scripted—and the cast had made us recognize—had been called into question, subverted by theatrically truthful story-telling.

Judge Me Not is a moving, enjoyable, and valuable show, and it deserves a rerun.

Running Time: Approximately one hour 45 minutes, including one intermission.

Judge Me Not played October 14 and 15, 2017, at SDH Productions performing at the DC Arts Center – 2438 18th Street NW, in Washington, DC.

 

Mark of Cain

 

Sotto Voce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t forget to see it.

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

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

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

 

An Act of God

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

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

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

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

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

TheTweetofGod

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

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

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

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

Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, with no intermission

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

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The Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Assassins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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