Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Tag: DC new play

Caesar and Dada

Art about art. Fiction about fiction. Poetry about poetry. Theater about theater. Isn’t it interesting how interesting that can be? (And can I get an amen from Gertrude Stein?)

WSC Avant Bard, that intrepid, now nomadic troupe that brazenly revisits and rethinks classics, has just mounted a spiffy production of an intriguing new play—one that toys  with ideas and spaces in our head we didn’t know were there. It’s a two-acter called Caesar and Dada, by local playwright Allyson Currin, directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, and it’s broadly about—wait for it—six characters in search of their dada.

The paddleball tethered to Avant Bard’s usual oeuvre is an oddball story about a troupe of theatrical-realism devotees in post-WWI Zurich (pretentiously dubbed the Theater of Truth), who are mounting a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Lily (Mundy Spears), a winningly uppity American outsider, drops in,  finagles Frank (Sun King Davis), the talented but tyrannical director, into a brazen retooling of the company’s presentational style, and before long we and the six characters are dabbling in alternate isms: symbolism, expressionism, finally dadaism.

The point of the post-war timeframe—historically dada’s cradle—becomes movingly clear in a long speech to Lily by one of Truth’s actors, Tristan (Andrew Ferlo), who has returned from battle with what  today we call PTSD: When all hell breaks loose in wartime, all meaning loses its moorings as well. The restraints of realism fail and fall apart. There’s no escape from war-worn meaninglessness except into more meaninglessness. The experience of emptiness can find reflection only in form without content.

Speaking of reflection, the set is a marvelous contraption by co-director Steven T. Royal Jr. featuring a vast Photo #7mirror rigged at a 45-degree angle to the stage so that we see the whole first act face on and from above, as if all is relative, nothing is what it seems. You can see its dazzling effect at left in the scene between Lily and Tristan. Fun animations and clever projections by Tewodross Melchishua also punch up points in the play’s art history refresher. The originality of the script appears to have inspired spurts of novelty all over the place.

With actors making head-spinning transformations from scene to scene, moment to moment, and style to style, one can sometimes feel uncertain what to hold on to, as if one has lost one’s bearings. Or perhaps more precisely: as if one’s theatergoing experience has been incrementally dada-ized.

But there’s a really compelling relationship story line that anchors everything. It’s the dramatic tension between the domineering Franz (whom Lily accurately calls a bully) and the outsider Lily (who takes no bull). The way Lily stands up to Franz and steadily transforms him is remarkable to behold—not least because Currin handles it so, well, realistically. We get sympathetic male coworkers advising Lily to cower before Franz’s authority just as they do—the bumptious Dominic (Joe Feldman) and the sage Alfred (Mario Baldessario). We even get the threatened, claws-out female coworker Anna (Megan Dominy) trash-talking Lily for her presumption and gumption. It’s like a tale out of every workplace since women broke out of the secretarial pool.

There’s a heck of a lot to appreciate here. And there’s a lot to reflect on later. Literally and metaphorically, it holds a mirror up to life.

Stupid Fucking Bird

Woolly Mammoth‘s jaunty staging of Aaron Posner‘s rejiggered Seagull is enormously entertaining. It’s like—

Well, at times the actors have scenes together that are kind of…borrowed…or lifted…or cribbed or whatever…from Chekhov’s original, and at other times they…I don’t know, they—

Actually what they do is they address the audience like they…well, you know…

So there’s these seven actors, see. And they each play a role in the basic story that Chekhov wrote. And there’s tons of love on stage. Yeah, that’s what Chekhov himself said in 1895 while he was writing The Seagull: “tons of love.” Except it’s all…what do you call it?…blown off…rebuffed…unrequited or whatever. And so the actors are all really fun to watch even when their characters are bummed and very sad. Just very very sad because…I don’t know they—

Know whud I mean?

My point here is that Posner has taken Chekhovian subtext—unspoken charged emotions below the surface of what characters say aloud (Chekhov’s signature dramatic technique that famously influenced theatrical history)—and traded it for unfinished thoughts and dangling utterances that litter his script with ellipses and em dashes at line endings. This textual stunt is tons of fun, especially when Posner has characters say the filler words whatever and fuck. The voices on stage sound contemporary, not nineteenth century at all. Posner captures precisely how people communicate in real life these days—in fumbling, incomplete fragments groping for expression and hoping for comprehension. That’s what’s expected and accepted. In fact in this era of inarticulation, there are certain social circles (for instance among the young) where someone who articulates clearly, who makes real sense in complete syntax, is regarded with suspicion and even derision.

Know whud I’m sayin’?

The only other time I’ve seen The Seagull on stage was in London. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s acclaimed production, directed by Trevor Nunn with Ian McKellan, was wrapping up its international tour. And that was the point in my life when I understood why theater folks revere Chekhov. The language on stage was so rich, the acting so emotionally resonant, the characters so hilarious in their melancholy, that I finally got it: I got why Chekhov deemed The Seagull a comedy. The human-all-too-human kind. The kind that keeps your eyeballs really moist.

The snippets of the Seagull story that Posner has plugged into his script are unsustained; the actors regularly break character, unsentimentally. The rollicking waves of humor come mainly from Posner’s clever colloquialisms and anachronisms and interactive bits with the audience. And it’s indeed a hilarious crowd pleaser, like watching actors improvise on the edge. But to the limited extent it’s Chekhov, it’s a Cliff’s Notes version for those more familiar with Chekov from Star Trek.

The effect is as discombobulating as it is entertaining. We are drawn into a scene fraught with emotion, then suddenly yanked out. Over and over, again and again, as if everything is in air quotes, bracketed in ironic detachment. So after a while, we learn we dare not care too much about the lives of the characters on stage. We literally learn not to trust our own empathy, because to do so is to be set up to be a little bit betrayed by another bait and switch.

Now, I know that Posner can write one hell of a full-fledged play. His adaptation of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen at Arena was utterly gorgeous. I was moved beyond words. Changed too, actually—I left that theater experience different from when I went in.

The earnest young wannabe writer in Posner’s riff on The Seagull declaims early on that there must be new forms of art, creations that change us. By the end the lovelorn lad (actually the out-of-character actor who plays him) is searching aloud for the catharsis. Where’s the catharsis? he laments. Where is it?

It’s a very funny joke. But it also exposes Posner’s own grasping for authentic emotional content inside his trickster technique. Which can sometimes feel, you know, like he’s run out of ideas…or at a loss for meaning…or drawing a blank…or whatever.

Perfect Arrangement

I’ll cut to the chase: 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.

The author’s name is Topher Payne. Remember it. Because in Perfect Arrangment—one of three full-length plays debuting in the DC Source Festival—he has gifted the American theater with an instant classic. And if he keeps this up, he’ll have a theater named after him someday.

I’ll try to explain what’s so brilliant about Perfect Arrangement. (I don’t have to persuade the opening night audience; they were on their feet cheering afterwards.)

It begins kind of sit-com-y. (Bear with me here.) It’s set in 1950 in Georgetown, in a very beige period living room shared by Bob & Millie & Jim & Norma. No, they don’t all share the same  bed. From all appearances, Bob & Millie are married. As are Jim & Norma. But actually an offstage bed is shared by Millie & Norma. And another is shared by Bob & Jim. Because Bob & Norma work in the State Department, the four of them have devised this nuptial ruse in order—or so they hope—to escape the dragnet that was then purging America of dykes and fags. (That part is historical fact: the so-called Lavender Scare. You can look it up. And check out this trailer for the forthcoming documentary The Lavender Scare:

The comic potential in this setup jump-starts the hilarity as the foursome entertain Bob’s straight-arrow boss Ted and his ditsily clueless wife Kitty. Hiding behind phoney 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. (Memo to Broadway producers: If you’re not lucky enough to catch Perfect Arrangement for yourself, you just gotta trust me on this—the belly laughs are nonstop.)

And then—with a sure and steady writerly hand—Payne introduces plot turns and character conflicts that gradually unravel and reveal what’s not “perfect” here at all. An auspicious visit in the first act from Barbara—a State Department employee under investigation—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. 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. (Memo to producers: If you’re worried about whether Perfect Arrangement is “too gay” for a Broadway audience, just don’t; that’s silly.) And kudos to the superb Source Festival ensemble (Andrew Keller, Raven Bonniwell, Natalie Cutcher, Kiernan McGowan, Zach Brewster-Geisz, Karen Lange, and Jill Nienhiser) and director (Linda Lombardi), who filled every moment with exquisite panache.

Lake Untersee

Rocky, a 15-year-old boy from a broken home, goes in search of  the boy whom he loves. That’s it; that’s pretty much the story. But mix this adolescent quest with evocative metaphors, add some beautifully lyric poetry, chill over lots of ice—and you get the surprisingly intoxicating concoction that is playwright Joe Waechter‘s  Lake Untersee.

One of three full-length plays world-premiering in DC’s Source Festival, Lake Untersee contains some wonderfully imagined elements. Primary among them is Noah Chiet‘s embodiment of  Rocky. For someone who is himself not yet 15, Chiet brings a remarkable range of emotional truthfulness to his role. When choking on inexpressible feelings—as with his disfunctional parents—his Rocky utters gutteral sounds (somewhere between a bark and a croak) that begin as a running gag but then become heart-wrenching. This kid has acting chops. Chiet’s performance alone is reason enough to see this production.

Another wonder to behold is Waechter’s central conceit, which is that Rocky’s youthful crush, Charlie, is buried under eons of ice in Antarctica’s Lake Untersee—and Rocky must get to him and rescue him. Yeah, I know, as a metaphor for a boy’s homoerotic infatuation—frozen below the surface, untouched by adult warmth, requiring a high-risk solo self-discovery trek—that harsh, chilly image sounds interesting on paper. But how the heck can it work on stage? Incredibly, it pretty much does, the actors’ artful delivery of Waechter’s poetic speeches aided and abetted by Joseph Walls’s startling stark lighting and Roni Lancaster’s sound design featuring blizzards and glacial ice.

Thanks in part to The Inkwell, the Lake Untersee script has been in development for a couple years—and, to be honest, it still plays like a work in progress. A few scenes fall flat. For a play with such a tender emotional core, the character of Rocky’s mother seems over-the-top cartoonish; his father, too much a stiff cliché. And the too-familiar story of their marital strife resembles a warmed-over TV dinner. So I don’t think the text is yet ready to be, um, frozen.

But Waechter is definitely on to something good.

Actually the next most interesting character after Rocky is his dad’s live-in girlfriend, Gale (Liz Osborn), who is—just simply—really nice. Rocky and Gale have a scene together that is sweetly moving; we see Rocky realize she genuinely cares about him; we see him stop barking/croaking and open up to her. You’d think a character whose basic trait is ordinary niceness would be rather a bore on stage, but somehow Waechter and Osborn have made her fascinating.

Throughout the play, Rocky intrepidly pursues his (emotional) rescue mission, with a cool twist at the end.  Once we get that by rescuing his longed-for love, Rocky is actually saving himself, his single-minded story becomes en route one of those original theatrical turns that can suddenly hook one’s heart and prompt a tear or two. Like when a winter thaws.

American Utopias

Hugely entertaining theater isn’t usually also profoundly political. Authentic political theater is supposed to be self-important and polemical, right? Like earnest agitprop, loaded with Brechtish messaging and echt alienation. It’s not supposed to embrace you magnanimously in hilarity. So after laughing  so hard throughout Mike Daisey’s not-to-be-missed exuberance of humor now at Woolly Mammoth, you don’t expect to walk away later so transformed, strangely contemplative, and pondering your own place on the world stage. Which in the case of American Utopias is of course just fine, because it tickles us astonishingly…and then really catches us unawares.

Mike Daisey is riotously funny but he doesn’t do standup (see my previous post about his work). Mostly he sits, at a table, and, with a boundlessly playful stage presence, tells stories. In the case of American Utopias, they coalesce into a thoroughly absorbing, two-and-a-half-hour monologue about his trippy journeys to Burning Man and Walt Disney World and his more sobering reflections on the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

The thing is, once we start laughing, we are already players in Daisey’s game, because we are laughing, almost always, in recognition of something. Something Daisey has held up to view for us. But it’s something we hadn’t looked at before, or something we hadn’t seen quite like that before. Something he wants us to see—through his extraordinary probe-through-culture-fog eyes—because once we see it, once we are awake not asleep (as he puts it)…we might, just possibly might, be changed.

It would be reductive to summarize what Daisey opens our eyes to in American Utopias. It might also be a spoiler. But I’ll give a hint: Now that megacorporations are officially persons (per the U.S. Supreme Court), they also get to be among Daisey’s dramatis personnae. Turns out they’re actually the off-stage protagonists, propelling and influencing every tale he tells. Which makes Daisey and the rest of us…what? The pawns? The peons? The antagonists? Eeek! But if we’ve been awakened by American Utopias, we might well find ourselves asking ourselves that question.


To be honest, I resisted seeing this new play by Leslye Headland at Studio Theatre. From all I had read about it, I expected misogynist cartoons of women as bitches and sluts. And I think I’ve seen enough of that in the theater, thank you very much.

So when I finally broke down and went—just days before the DC production closed—I was utterly astonished by what I found. Bachelorette (not to be confused with the ABC television program The Bachelorette) is actually a profound exploration of how cultural misogyny fuels female self-hatred.

At the beginning three young women (who are to be bachelorettes in their friend’s wedding the next day) put on a riotously funny exhibition of women behaving badly—i.e., like uncouth dudes, apparently their sole social point of reference for freedom and escape from their lot as females. Their hilariously crude macholike banter and bravado escalate even as they divulge raw details of the damage done to them as women.

A program note says Bachelorette is one in a series about the seven deadly sins, the theme here being gluttony. And the three women certainly do consume appalling quantities of alcohol and drugs. But I don’t think I’ve seen anything onstage like what Headland has achieved thematically in exposing tragic pain just beneath high comedy. Yes, these woman act like bitches and sluts. But without at all preaching, the playwright lets us see this as their defense against a woman-hating world—as though their inner mantra is “You can’t hate me because I’ll hate myself more.”

The storyline keeps astonishing. Two authentically male dudes arrive. The bride-to-be shows up. And by the end there is a vast mess onstage that doesn’t begin to evoke the messes that are the three bachelorettes’ lives. I almost never stopped laughing, or gasping, at what just happened before my eyes.

The cast was uniformly phenomenal: Laura C. Harris, Jessica Love, and Dylan Moore as the bachelorettes; Eric Bryant and JD Taylor as the guys; and Tracy Lynn Olivera as the bride. And the direction by David Muse was brilliant.

I wish I’d seen this production sooner so I could have sent all my DC theatergoing friends.