Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Tag: DC theatergoing

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.

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Frankenstein

When a great rock concept album gets transposed to live theater (think Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Green Day’s American Idiot), it’s usually the music that’s the real star of the show. All the rest is packaging, which can be cool—optical sizzle for the audio steak. But at the end of the day, the unadorned studio recording on a CD or mp3 player still offers the rock fan a self-sufficient and thoroughly satisfying aural pleasure.

So it is with British composer Richard Campbell‘s progressive-metal rock-opera concept album Frankenstein, which we can thank Landless Theater Co. for discovering and bringing across the pond. It’s bloody good. You can sample some tracks here and you can preview the album here:

In the Landless production now at Gala, there’s a kickass band performing Campbell’s dense and driven score. They’re upstage, kind in shadows, but they absolutely dominated the show: Charles Johnson (piano), Lance Larue (drums), Brenna St. Ours (backing vocals), Ray Shaw (bass), music director Jack Sossman (rhythm guitar, theremin, synth), Alex Vallejo (lead guitar). At first I didn’t realize how freaking good they were, because there was so much else going on. So consider yourself tipped off. Their performance alone is worth the price of a ticket. Actually, more.

If you focus on the powerful and wild wall of prog metal they construct, it helps put into context all the rest that’s going on, which, it turns out, is a lot like a staged concert. And all the rest did not rise to the musicians’ high bar. In particular, having listened a bit to the music beforehand and gotten a sense of the rich texture of the lyrics, I was disappointed last night at the Gala that the sound system (or its settings) obscured so much of the vocalists’ words. That’s par for the course at a regular rock concert, of course, but this earnest and inventive production deserved better. [Note added June 25: I’ve been informed that the sound system at Gala is currently configured in such a way that the first three rows are not good seats from which to hear the mix. Not knowing that, I was sitting in the front row. So be advised!] 

A program note about Landless mentions that its mission centers on “building new audiences by revitalizing interest in live theatre.” Obviously with Frankenstein, this nervy company—which this year marks its tenth birthday—has thought outside the box of theater fare for typical audiences. Way outside. Who knew there was a community of metal heads in DC? Well guess what? That’s where Landless looked to find its pickup band. And damn did they discover greatness.

Company

In Signature Theatre‘s sleek and shiny new production of Company—the show that tunefully triggers everyone’s anxiety and ambivalence about marriage—DC theater has once again bested Broadway. Or at least the two Broadway productions I’ve seen: the early-70s original starring Larry Kert as the unhappily unwed Bobby and the 2006 revival starring Raúl Esparza. Signature’s is way better.

Maybe it’s because the Company company seems to be enjoying one another’s company onstage. (Really, that sentence needed all the company it could get—as do we all, or so the show says.)  Each of the five couples seems recognizable and real, even when they’re not the focus of a scene. More important, they seem genuinely fond of Bobby; and he, of them. Even Bobby’s three unproposed-to paramours are having a romp. The effect on the audience of this intracast lovefest is, I think, the production’s secret sauce. Because without that key ingredient, the recipe as written (George Furth’s astringent book and Stephen Sondheim’s ascerbic lyrics) could easily be more cynical than charming, more bitter than bittersweet, and all in all a bit hard to swallow.

There’s a really annoying convention in comedies devised to tickle the funny bone of middle-age-and-up Broadway audiences: infantile jokes about marriage, about divorce, about adultery, about shrewish wives, about feckless husbands—gags that can make one gag—all tied up in the end in a sentimental affirmation of the conjugal bond.  Ha-ha, goes the crowd. And whew, I didn’t have to reflect too deeply about the problems in my own marriage(s).

Company is not like that. Company is a very different theater experience. Company is rather in your face, actually. It engages you because it reflects in-real-life relationship difficulties. It reminds you of your own, maybe. It makes you go hmmmm. And then it makes you leave the theater humming its wonderful tunes.

Signature artistic director Eric Shaeffer’s casting and direction are brilliant. The entire ensemble, led by the endearing Matthew Scott as Bobby, is a delight. The orchestra, extraordinary. The costumes and set design, stunning.

I do have a quibble, though, about the five projection screens on the upstage wall. They needed to go dark much more often than they did. They distracted from the  performances and they rarely contributed anything worthy of note—especially all the arty photos of New York City. I kept wanting to scream: I know we’re in Manhattan! I don’t need reminding like some hick in the hinterlands. The script tells me everything I need to know about where we are. Would you please just shut off so I can enjoy this great show?

So my advice if you go—and you really, really should—is don’t pay attention to those literalist illuminations. They say nothing, they add nothing, and you won’t miss a thing if you ignore them.

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: http://kck.st/XJWKZo.)

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.

2013 Music in the Night

I’m aware that hearing someone’s stark raving enthusiasm for a one-night-only, pop-up theater performance can sound like “Nyah-nyah, here’s what you missed.” Well, my sincere apologies…but here’s what you missed: a dazzling showcase of some of the most thrilling musical-theater talents in DC.

A co-presentation of Theatre Washington and Capital Pride at Town, this blazing comet comes around but once a year. Monday night’s was only its second appearance in the DC night sky. And I’m already impatient for next year’s.

Assembled and accompanied on piano by Joshua Morgan—who puts the imp in impressario—eleven rising stars did turns in solos and duets belting out show tunes so gorgeously and powerfully you might well worry that a savvy casting director will snatch them off the stage right there and then.

Happily, you can bask in some of this brilliance yourself in upcoming productions. Consider what follows a stargazing guide, annotated (to the best of my knowledge) with online coordinates and next-up appearances:

Shayna Blass (Rabbit Hole at Keegan), Matthew DeLorenzo (Rocky Horror at Studio), Aaren Keith (also Rocky Horror at Studio), Kevin S. McAllister (Violet at Ford’s), Stephen Russell Murray (Spin at Signature), Amy McWilliams (Laramie Project and Violet at Ford’s), Farrell Parker (until June 8 in Full Monty at Keegan, then WAIFs), Nova Y. Payton (Smokey Joe’s Café at Arena), Paul Scanlan (Laramie Project at Ford’s), Matthew Rubbelke (Rocky Horror at American University), Bayla Whitten (Enchanted April at Arena).

There you have it: a constellation of crazy-gifted local luminaries. I’m tempted to say, “Knock yourself out.” But any one of them can do that for you.

No Man’s Land

Harold Pinter may be the biggest tease ever to write for theater. Case in point: his No Man’s Land—which just ended a run in a superb production by WSC Avant Bard at Theater on the Run. Pinter piles on the dialogic misdirection, plot ambiguity, and character non sequiturs as if in a fugue state. And woe to anyone who tries to learn what’s really going on; for as with most of Pinter, one cannot  breathe the word  “reality” without air quotes. But there’s canny method here, and if one yields to Pinter’s calculated obfuscation, the effect is fascinating—and often hilarious.

A fifty-something literary lion (Hirst, played both powerfully and buffoonishly by Brian Hemmingsen) has picked up a fifty-something literary wannabe (Spooner, played connivingy and fey by Christopher Henley) at Hampstead Heath, a notorious gay cruising ground in northwest London. Hirst has brought Spooner home to his high-toned but kind of creepy and off-kilter lair (designed by Steven T. Royal Jr.). The talky assignation that follows, while never overtly sexual, has more homoerotic undertones than one can shake a dick at.

This ostensible “no man’s land” is in fact very much a man’s land, and Pinter is a master at tracking the subtle and not-so-subtle dominance games that men play with one another when there are no women around to put down. There’s an amazing scene in which Hirst goes on and on about having had an affair with Spooner’s wife. (We’re never really certain whether Spooner was ever actually married, but never mind, the point is the cockfight.) We see Spooner wither under Hirst’s taunting tale of cuckoldry, and the round goes to Hirst. Then Spooner rallies and launches into a graphic and detailed depiction of his own dalliances with women whom Hirst had fancied but never shagged. (Again, did any of this really happen? Doesn’t matter.) It’s Spooner’s triumph at oneupsmanship and Hirst’s turn at defeat.

The whole play is kind of a patchwork of beats and scenes like that—artful innuendo and elegant verbal fisticuffs by which Pinter puts the men in menace. The sparring gets deviously and delectably more complex with the entrance of two younger male characters, apparently Hirst’s hired help and perhaps sex buddies besides (Foster, played by Frank Britton, and Briggs, played by Bruce Alan Rauscher).

Pinter was an actor before he became famous as a playwright, and his trust in the actor’s craft runs through and through his work. The characters in No Man’s Land don’t really have clear arcs; indeed they’re not necessarily the same characters from scene to scene. The play functions not at all like a well-made play but rather like a long-form improvisation, with the premise or setup shifting from scene to scene and the actors immersing themselves in the fluidity of the proposition at hand—with the benefit of Pinter’s language to locate themselves somewhere in the moment.

I’ve admired several recent WSC productions: Six Characters in Search of an Author, The Bacchae, and Tooth of Crime. I have to say, though, this No Man’s Land easily tops that list. Watching the splendid performances of Hemmingsen and Henley (both past artistic directors) under the astute direction of Tom Prewett (the company’s new AD), I could not help but hope that Helen Hayes award nominators had caught the show. Henley’s poseur performance in particular tickled me—he kept cracking me up, sometimes with no more than a twitch of eyebrow or flick of tongue.

WSC Avant Bard’s daring engagements with classic theater literature are a DC-area treasure. Alas, for the time being WSC Avant Bard  is nomadic, because last year it was unceremoniously booted from its black-box space in Artisphere (a deeply dumb decision that prompted me not to want to return to Artisphere since). To shake things up, the company’s next production will be a new play—Caesar and Dada by Allyson Currin. It opens June 29 at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre. I’ll be there.

Optimism! Or Voltaire’s Candide

There’s gotta be a mischievous alchemist lurking in the church building that is Spooky Action Theater‘s current haunt, because down in the basement there a 250-year-old French novel has been transmuted into a giddily playful and energetic romp of a show—in rhymed couplets, no less—that is two and a half hours of nonstop serious fun.

Well, maybe the adapter, TJ Edwards, deserves some credit. His rhymes propel the tale with  zinger after zinger.

Oh, and maybe I should mention the director, Michael Chamberlin. His dazzling conception was to stage the play in the round, like a boisterous commedia dell’arte.

Oh, gosh, can’t forget the cast of nine. Ryan Alan Jones gives a virtuoso performance as Candide, with a physicality that astounds as he seems to dance even through stage fights. Rosemary Regan as the Old Woman delivers a poignant monolog with a passion and power we didn’t see coming. The others also beguile in all their diverse guises: Adoeye, Michael Kevin Darnall, Patricia Lynn, Jessica Shearer, Gregory Stuart, Ryan Tumulty, and John Tweel.

And the design—set, costume, sound, lighting—and the hilariously silly cardboard props. Oh dear, maybe it wasn’t alchemy after all.

But the truly amazing thing is, this delightful entertainment has a point. It’s a very serious point, actually, as was Voltaire’s—about the dubious durability of optimism. You know, that hopey changey thing? And how the pileup of horrible things that happen to people can give even the most inveterate Pollyanna pause?

After the fun of the show was over (well, a little bit during), I began reflecting on how Voltaire’s framing of this dilemma has some darn profound contemporary resonance. He takes dead aim at a broad swath of villains—the secular and sacred powers that have allied to oppress and victimize—and he ruthlessly exposes their cruelty. Voltaire also lays bare men’s systematic sexual violence against women, as one by one the female characters give graphic report, and he presents their violation as being no less despicable than men’s violence against other men. All this the guileless Candide bears witness to. And his heady optimism is, understandably, sorely tested.

I have to credit this production for more than its theatricality. With extraordinary verve and nerve, this production revives Voltaire’s stark critique of men’s inhumanity to women and other men. And in the process, it challenges us to be mindful that we do not fall for any optimism that opts for obliviousness.

Smudge

The play is about a married couple who have a severely incapacitated child.. As a result the couple’s marriage is sorely tested. We watch in fear and fascination as the bleak comedy unfolds, and when one of the spouses contemplates murdering their damaged progeny…

Oh wait, that’s not the play I’m seeing. That’s a play I saw decades ago. I’m actually here at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda watching Pinky Swear Productions’ Smudge by Rachel Axler, which is about a couple whose daughter, whom they dub Smudge, is born horribly misshapen. But what’s running through my mind is another play: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, by the British playwright Peter Nichols, which is about a couple whose daughter, whom they dub Joe Egg, was born horribly disabled.

It’s never a good sign when your mind wanders off to another play like that. Especially if the play you wander off to is lots better than the one you’re watching.

Playwrights should not be deterred from tackling themes and setups that have been dramatized before. Artful theatrical imitation can be a brilliant homage. Revisiting storied works from the past can unpack fresh narratives for now. And I do understand why the topic of a botched baby captured Axler’s attention. I myself wrote a play in college about a married couple who tour midway sideshows with their freak child.  The aberration infant is a resonant trope, particularly for young adult ambivalence about conception and parenthood. (See also Rosemary’s Baby.)

But Smudge dies aborning.  The characters are sit-com-y, with nary a credible emotional moment between them. The dialog is archly overwritten when not lame. The device of the defective daughter is presented as a white baby carriage tricked out with tubes, which light up, in sync with sound effects, when the unseen deformity “communicates” to its mother—which gets annoying, and after a while you wish it would shut up. The director, Ryan Maxwell, writes in a program note that Smudge “was one of the smartest scripts I’d read in a long time”—which, if true, I would have advised not acknowledging.

There are two things about this production that make it worth seeing. One is Brandon Cater’s sensitive performance as the young husband. He made the part seem more playable than it was, and I am keen to see him in a real role, Romeo, this summer at Brave Spirits Theatre. The other reason to see Smudge is Brandon Roe’s unnerving but intelligent sound design, which had the uncanny effect of making the production seem more momentous than it was.

Of course you may want to see Smudge to see how creeped out you are by the storyline. And you are anxious about not having a healthy baby. And you’ve never seen or read Joe Egg.

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.