Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Tag: studio theatre

The Rocky Horror Show

I’m probably jumping to the left and right of some gun by writing about a show that hasn’t had its press night, but I saw the first preview of this cult classic last night at Studio, and—dammit, Janet—there’s so much to admire about it that I can’t hold back. In brief (spandex, leather? what’s your pleasure?): It’s a hot hoot.

But this fascinating production does something even more revealing than all the thongs and harnesses and garters and bustiers that the beguiling cast comes (pretty much un)dressed in. What this production exposes us to is an extraordinary insight. Yes, this Rocky Horror Show does the science-fictional time warp again—with sing-along, clap-along, bounce-along exuberance. But it’s also a fresh perception about the passage of time in real life.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean, lest I come off as some dramaturgical wonk who propounds program notes that make sense only in the aridity of academia. DC theater already has enough of that. But I digress.

Richard O’Brien wrote the book, music, and lyrics for The Rocky Horror Show in the early 1970s, when the fun of a fond look back at late-night double-feature picture shows by RKO (to which Rocky’s first song pays homage) was a shared memory among the baby boomer fan base. Upon that collective experience of cinema, Rocky layered naughty and antiauthoritarian decadence, semisinful in its time. The show became a sensation.

But how does one stage decadence in 2013, when the culture is awash in it? Put another way: how do you do outré today? That’s the big challenge of, um, mounting Rocky now.

A lot of the audience last night were of a certain age, attending Rocky as if it was a recollected rite of passage. Maybe in their youth they danced in the aisles in costume at a midnight showing or twelve. Watching Rocky on stage now was—as a song says—like “going home.” And in eager anticipation, a few donned boas for the occasion. For this crowd, revisiting the music, lyrics, and story was like doing again the time wAARP.

But what of the generation not conceived until two or three decades ago? Their decadence is not their parents’ decadence; theirs is their own. And it’s porn. Their collective memory is not RKO double-feature anything; it’s 24/7 online porn, the culture they grew up immersed in, an all-access pass inconceivable in the 70s. That’s the insight with which directors Keith Alan Baker and Alan Paul, choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt, and costume designer Collin Ranney began their approach to The Rocky Horror Show. And the results are brilliant.

Just as O’Brien’s original Rocky paid sardonic homage to sci-fi, Studio’s production pays homage to porn: with parody, ironic detachment, caricature, and a pleather-wrapped plethora of wink-wink air quotes.

You know those stage fights that are so stagey you don’t even think someone’s really being hurt? Well, there was a fight choreographer during rehearsal to make sure no one would get injured. Studio’s Rocky is kind of like that. There’s all this play-acting of tropes from porn (thrusting, grabbing, pouting, posing, tongue flicking), yet no one is really doing anything sexual. It’s all as phony as an orgy in commedia dell’arte. It’s as if they called in a porn-sex choreographer to make sure no one would get turned on. Interestingly, then, the show becomes not so much a titillation as an astute and antiauthoritarian sendup of porn’s pandering to a generation that never knew a world without it.

So yes, it’s a hot hoot: some of the most fun live on stage in DC right now for mature audiences. But also, it’s a haute hit: one of those theater-going experiences you don’t kick out of your brain in the morning.

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.

4000 Miles

Not five minutes into the Studio Theatre production of 4000 Miles, I knew that by the end I would be giving the play a standing ovation. The writing and the acting were that good, from the get-go.  I could tell I was going to love it. And I did. Every scene, every beat, every line.

Now, some might assume I came to the theater having read one too many raves of Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer Prize–finalist drama, so maybe I was all hopped up to see a snob hit. I will concede I arrived with more than usual anticipation. But I did not expect to be so transported before the first scene-break blackout—and then completely blown away by the end.

How to explain this? And how to explain why Amy Herzog just became one of my very fave living English-speaking playwrights? To be honest, I was so mesmerized I’m not sure.

The four characters in 4000 Miles are a 20-something young man, Leo (played by Grant Harrison), who, having bicycled cross-country from Seattle drops in unexpectedly on his octogenarian grandmother, Vera (Tana Hicken), in her Greenwich Village apartment. Over the course of the play, which flashes forward scene by scene in time, Leo gets a visit from his probably-no-longer girlfriend, Bec (Heather Haney). And some time later he brings back to his grandmother’s apartment a woman he picked up, Amanda (Annie Chang). There is a lot of completely engrossing storytelling. But there’s really no big overarching Plot.

There’s just life. Real people connecting, disconnecting, speaking of this and that from the heart, from off the top of their heads, always from someplace profoundly human—with a verisimilitude I did not realize was so rare in theater until I witnessed how Herzog does it.

You know how lots of playwrights write dialogue so blatantly stagey that it can’t possibly ring true—but the hapless actors still have to inject some credible emotion into it? However much a line might delight or surprise the audience,  you just know the actor had to work to make it work. Maybe because Herzog was once an actor herself, she never foists such “Look at me, I’m writing!” language on her characters. She just seems to have gifted the cast, as if effortlessly, with an amazingly resonant score that if played as honestly and sensitively as she composed it will become on stage so like life that you cannot help but be swept into it.

What makes this production of 4000 Miles all the more glorious, all the more a peak theatrical experience, is that all four cast members—as masterfully directed by Joy Zinoman—play Herzog’s brilliant score pitch perfectly.

Really, truly, the best new play I’ve seen in years.

The Motherfucker with the Hat

This is a really offbeat (and, I would argue, pretty downbeat) play. And in its new production at Studio Theatre it’s performed darn brilliantly.

It’s sort of a comedy, but sort of not. It’s got sexual infidelity and off-the-charts jealousy,  brutal betrayal of love and friendship, knockabout stage combat, addiction/recovery/relapse… Very dark stuff, but with very blue punchlines.

Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has created a world in which each of his five effed-up characters becomes by turns the butt of a scathing, profanity-laced “Here’s what’s wrong with you” speech from one of the others—and we the audience are expected to accept this pileup of train wrecks as entertaining behavior. Some of the cascading passages of splenetic invective  almost rose to a level of poetry, to my ears anyway—perhaps inured as they had become to the play’s repetition of the F word. Which is to say, this ain’t no TV sitcom.

I left without a clue as to what it all means. I took no comfort in witnessing five lives carom off one another only to tumble further. Nothing uplifting going on that I could discern. But I was enthralled by the virtuoso acting—which in its own way was ennobling.

Director Serge Seiden has assembled an exquisitely charismatic cast: Rosa Colón as the spitfire Veronica; Drew Cortese as her bragadocious BF Jackie, Quentin Maré as unctuously two-faced Ralph D, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey as his exasperated wife Victoria, and Liche Ariza as would-be best bro Cousin Julio. With thrilling authority and presence, they deliver a five-star turn.

If this troupe doesn’t win a prize for best performance by an ensemble…I’ll eat my mf-ing hat.

The Aliens

In The Aliens, playwright Annie Baker seems to have put a dumpsterful of Pinter pauses and Becket silences onstage at Studio Theater. Unspoken ellipses seem to hover overhead forever in invisible thought balloons. As characters hesitate to speak, then hesitate some more, we wait, expectantly. And amazingly, all that nonlanguage becomes emotional eloquence before our very ears.

This surprising and rewarding play, deftly directed by Lila Nuegebauer, has a humble setup: Two slacker layabouts loitering on the back patio of a Vermont coffeehouse are joined by a teenage dweeb who is the coffeehouse scullery boy. And they talk. Or they don’t talk. There is poetry and song. Or there are aching unexpressed longings. And in the end a life is lost and a life transformed.

Baker’s inventive and insightful verbal/nonverbal score would likely fall quite flat if not well acted, and these three actors played it with near-perfect pitch: Scot McKenzie as KJ, a big lunk of a psilocybin head, Peter O’Connor as Jasper, a wannabe beat novelist; and Brian Miskell as Evan Schelmerdine, an awkward and shy kid on the cusp of everything.

A program note explains that Baker specified that at least a third, if not a half, of The Aliens consist of silence. The effect is mesmerizing. Even as we hang on every word, the characters’ nonspeaking speaks volumes.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

A totally infectious sense of high-spirited freedom sweeps up the audience even before this brilliant Studio Theatre production begins. The talented young cast sings, plays, and dances us into a Hair-like countercultural frenzy with a pounding rock score. From start to finish, this show is an amped-up entertainment, yet it unfolds a true tale with very unsettling politics. “Unsettling” in that sentence is a punning euphemism, for what Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson exposes is the ruthless removal of Native Americans by our seventh president, whom it dubs, without much hyperbole, “America’s Hitler.” In this context, stark black-and-white onscreen projections of suburban housing projects become shocking reminders that all this developed real estate was once another people’s homeland.

I used to enjoy musical theater more when I was young than I generally do now. In high school (a very long time ago) I played trumpet in the pit orchestra for Carousel and Guys and Dolls, and I fell in love with the form. I collected recordings of musicals, back when they were on LPs. More recently, though, I thought Wicked was a yawn, and Phantom of the Opera a prorape potboiler.

I now come alive as an audience member when musical theater turns over a rock to reveal a political dark side of society. Urinetown stuck it to corporate capitalism. Caroline, or Change shone a light on the lives of African Americans who served white families. True to Victor Hugo, the musical Les Misérables, at its heart, honored revolutionaries (albeit with such a lush score that bourgeois audiences were never ruffled). And Who’s Your Baghdaddy?, a musical that premiered in the Capital Fringe Festival a year ago, about the ruse that resulted in our going to war in Iraq, remains the very best political theater I’ve ever seen.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson now qualifies as another personal fave. It’s a bloody good musical—just the way I like it.


The Animals and Children Took to the Streets

“Stage picture” is a term of art in theater design. It refers to the overall look of a play—colors, composition, setting, etc. The concept enters an extraordinary dimension in this enthralling production created by the London-based performance company named 1927.

On tour around the world for the past two years, “The Animals and Children Took to the Streets” is having a brief run at Studio Theatre. And as others are tweeting, it’s an event not to be missed.

Onstage are three white screens—a large one in the center, two narrower ones on either side, each with a window in which one of three actors sometimes appears. The entire 70-minute performance takes place within marvelous projections designed and animated by Paul Barritt (whose abundant visual imagination belongs in a modern art museum).

Here’s a tantalizing glimpse:


I’ve seen a lot of projections for scenic effect, but never before have I been so captivated by real-time interplay between imagery and actors. Breathtaking effects abound. At one point an actor sweeps the stage with a push broom; immediately a puff of dust appears on screen. At another point an actor, standing in place, appears to be lifted high up by a giant hand then dropped—and the heart-stopping peril of her precipitous fall is portrayed solely through the animation onscreen.

In this invented world between live action and film—suffused with lovely music and song (by Lillian Henley) and delightfully stark poetry (by author and director Suzanne Andrade)—a seemingly amusing fable gets told. It’s set in a squalid housing development called the Bayou. Oppression is rampant. Cockroaches climb the walls. (They crawl onscreen throughout the show.) Then comes an uprising (hordes of children taking to the streets). Then the government quashes the rebellion (by handing out gum drops laced with something like Ritalin). The ending is not cheery. This is quite a revolutionary fable, actually—its danger to entrenched authority camouflaged in enchanting stage techniques.

I can’t say I was so taken by the three human performances (Andrade, Henley, and Esme Appleton, who co-designed costumes). They seemed nearly as preprogrammed as the animations running on three overhead projectors, more focused on hitting their marks than making moments come alive. So a throwback Brechtian alienation effect was definitely going on. Yet the overall effect of the show was absorbing. I’d see anything 1927 creates next in a heartbeat.