Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Tag: WSC Avant Bard

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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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.

Six Characters in Search of an Author

For anyone who loves theater, this groundbreaking 1921 work by Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello belongs to the cannon of Most Original and Influential Plays of the twentieth century. As a director’s program note to WSC Avant Bard’s fresh and delightful production puts it: “Before Six Characters in Search of an Author, Spike Jonze could not have conceived Being John Malkovich.” And the list could easily go on—Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Shakespeare in Love, Kenneth Brannagh’s A Midwinter’s Tale (aka In the Bleak Midwinter), Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art…. Just about anything ever written since with a play within a play, any stage experience based on dimensions of reality and illusion, or any metatheater that’s about theater itself owes Six Characters a megadebt.

Though I long ago studied the play, I’d never seen it performed until WSC Avant Bard brought it to life. And what a rewarding pleasure that was. Full of unexpected wit and humor about the rehearsal process, actor and director temperaments, and humble stagecraft, the production functions on one of its multiple levels as an insider homage to playmaking. And you can tell that the actors—directed winningly by Tom Prewitt—are having just as much fun with that conceit as the audience in attendance at their interrupted rehearsal.

The translation, by Carl R. Mueller, is a kick. There’s no dust gathering here; the language feels very today. And the production design evokes fondly a sort of everytheater within a theater.

If you’ve never seen this germinal gem, now’s your chance  (through December 9, 2012, at Artisphere).