Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Tag: keegan theatre

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.

A Behanding in Spokane

Martin McDonagh is one of my favorite living playwrights. I can’t quite explain why. Something about the way he makes nuttiness hilarious. Something about the way his humor is at once dark as night, grisly as gristle, and light as a souffle. His weird stuff just keeps on surprising in a most peculiarly satisfying way. I don’t know how else to put it.

So of course I had to check out the new production of McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane at the Keegan Theatre. And what a delightfully demented headtrip it was.

The story is loony. It really is about a long-ago dismembered hand and its owner’s twisted quest to find it. Yeah, I know: What could be funny about that? Well, trust McDonagh to make it so.

I saw the Broadway production starring Christopher Walken as Carmichael, the one-handed wonder of a main character. Mark A. Rhea doesn’t quite command the stage as Walken did (who could, really?), but you have to hand it to him (groan), he comes darn near close.

We meet Carmichael in a seedy dump of a hotel room where he has come to rendezvous with a couple scammers who have led him to believe they can sell him his old hand. They are a hysterical twosome, excellently performed: Toby (played by Manu Kumasi), a young black man given comedically to intermittent weeping, and his white girlfriend, Marilyn (Laura Herren), the least unhinged character in the play and, in a way, its earnest reference point for logic as all bizarreness breaks loose.

But for my money the most memorable character in this production turned out to be Mervyn, the hapless hotel desk clerk. Mervyn has a monologue that on paper has some of  Behanding’s funniest writing, but as performed by Bradley Foster Smith, it became a showstopper. This actor brought cadences and inflections to the text that would have made the playwright cheer. May I suggest that McDonagh meet Smith someday and write for him some more?

If you’ve never before seen anything by McDonagh, a word of advice: Leave all your expectations at home. Just catch this show at Keegan.

Of only one thing can you be certain: You’ll need both hands to applaud.

August: Osage County

When you’ve sat through a three-and-a-half-hour play and you feel as if not more than ninety minutes have gone by, either your mental faculties are waning or you’ve just witnessed a great work of theater. In the case of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts (in a riveting new production at the Keegan Theatre), it’s definitely the latter.

I honestly can’t figure out what makes this three-act Pulitzer Prize-winning play such a powerhouse. Sprawling sagas about dysfunctional families abound in American theater. Eugene O’Neill comes to mind. But you can often feel yourself growing older as you suffer through them. Not so with Osage County, whose indelibly idiosyncratic characters command your attention from the get-go with every glance and breath.

Under the sure-handed direction of Mark A. Rhea, the entire cast of thirteen gives one of the best ensemble performances I’ve seen. Rena Cherry Brown as the pill-popping matriarch tears up the rug, and our hearts. Susan Marie Rhea, Belen Pifel, and Karen Novack as her three damaged daughters serve up heapings of humor and pathos. And I was touched by Eric Lucas’s sheriff—a sensitive, upstanding guy who just happens into a family gathering that is ripping apart at the seams.

At the preview I saw, the audience gave an immediate standing ovation. The play—a hit on Broadway, where I first saw it—is staggeringly well written, a clockwork construction that winds up so much tragicomic tension that at the end it goes off like a fusillade of emotional time bombs.

But be assured: Once it begins, you enter a different time zone.


There came a moment midway through Josh Sticklin’s phenomenal solo performance in Cuchullain when my mind leapt to compare him to other great stage actors who have transfixed me as much. The one I thought of first was Ian McKellen—in particular in a play called The Cut I saw in London at the Donmar Warehouse. Seriously. Sticklin is that good.

Something astounding is happening here, and we have the Keegan Theatre to thank.

Last season the Keegan presented the world premiere of a one-act, one-person play set in Belfast called Basra Boy. It starred Sticklin, was written in Belfast dialect by the Northern Irish playwright Rosemary Jenkinson, and was directed by Abigail Isaac. Sicklin played Speedy, a hyper, foul-mouthed young punk, plus a cast of supporting characters who came equally and instantly alive before our eyes by sheer dint of Sticklin’s quicksilver talent. I was knocked out.

In the wake of that production’s success, Keegan announced another world premiere this season of a another one-person play set in Belfast, written in Belfast dialect by the same author, directed once more by Isaac, and starring again Sticklin—as a hyper, foul-mouthed young punk who is this time named Aaron.

Really? I thought. Was Keegan expecting lightning to strike twice? Well, if so, Keegan could not have been more prescient, for Cuchullain is even better.

It’s got a different story (riveting, and I won’t give it away), but Sticklin is again bounding all over the stage, commanding it at every turn, and peopling it with other characters through uncanny insta-impersonation.

So compelling and convincing was Sticklin’s performance, I could have sworn that he, like the writer, is a Belfast native. He’s not. He’s a local boy. Catch him now before he makes it big.