This year’s festival delivered some solid and memorable shows and some disappointments. Such was Chisa Hutchinson’s The Wedding Gift, a play that doesn’t surpass the promise of its premise.
In this fairly transparent parable, Jason Babinsky’s Doug finds himself transported into an alien culture where he is the only fair-skinned humanoid. He is a shimseh, “like a pet, only more useful,” presented to the wife (Margaret Ivey’s Nahlis) of a newly married royal couple. Doug discovers the ways of this new world only gradually, because only two others (including the enjoyable Edward O’Blenis as Translating Attendant) speak any English; great swathes of dialogue are delivered in a language of Hutchinson’s invention. The conlang has the intended effect of disorientation, but it also means that small plot points are confused, and any subtlety of psychology is lost. How exactly is Doug to perform, in the eyes of Nahlis’s new husband Beshrum (Damian Thompson, with an impressive high leg kick)? We’ll never know.
Nevertheless, the play offers the tech teams the opportunity to go a little crazy, from Peggy McKowen’s costumes to Nathan A. Roberts’ and Charles Coes’ soundscapes. Director May Adrales establishes a movement and gestural vocabulary for this strange new planet, and then encourages each actor/character to invent within that framework: a gesture of mourning, expressed at the top of act 2, is both easily understood and unique to each player.
And if the denouement owes something to a certain series of dystopian films from the 1960s and 70s, at least we learn how the post-apocalyptic inhabitants of this world say, “I guarantee you there’s no problem.”
At left, a mystery slime mold busting out of the mulch, in my neighborhood on the way to the bus stop. At right, 51 N Street, N.E, being demolished ever so gradually.
Festival veteran and favorite Joey Parsons takes on the epic role of Medea in the intimate space of Studio 112, as reworked by Allison Gregory in her Not Medea, a version that overlays Euripides’ tragic figure with a modern-day pediatric nurse who is desperately trying to keep her shit together. Called simply Woman in the program, Parsons portrays her with a flexible acting instrument imbued with yogic control.
While the play, with its fourth wall breaking worthy of early Stoppard, is generally effective in arousing our empathy for Woman’s loss (due to an ill-timed [self-inflicted?] distraction), it is on surer ground in its re-enactment of the old Greek tale. There are moments of magic conjured out of the mundane (body lotion from the shopping mall that becomes a shield of invincibility), and the rock-lined pool of water on Jesse Dreikosen’s set actually has a purpose—indeed, multiple ones (even though it is the cause of a scripted cleanup by the running crew).
Ben Chase as Jason provides stalwart partnering, while Rachael Balcanoff as Chorus nicely rides the text’s half-sung, half-spoken sections with a sweet singing voice.
Susan Miller’s 20th Century Blues is an insipid undertaking. Photographer Danny arranges a reunion of her three Boomer-generation friends for the culmination of a long-running group portrait project (cf. Nicholas Nixon’s photographs of the Brown sisters). Trouble is, she’s never arranged for her friends to sign release forms. The unnatural dialogue among characters who represent types, not real people, rarely rises above what OTC Leta calls a certain “scriptiness.” (Although nimbus-haired Kathryn Grody brings a little oomph to Gabby.) Imagine the leaden heart of Return of the Secaucus 7 further dragged down by discussions about paperwork.
- Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
- Not Medea, by Allison Gregory, directed by Courtney Sale
- 20th Century Blues, by Susan Miller, directed by Ed Herendeen
Zach Schonbrun laments something else that has gone missing from modern baseball: the distinctive batting stance.
Christina Anderson’s pen/man/ship starts with some interesting materials — a black man in charge of a former whaling ship in 1896, bound for a somewhat mysterious expedition to Liberia; a free-thinking woman willing to challenge and assume authority — and the play features some committed acting performances. But much of the action is static, featuring the rather tired device of a character reading his own journal entries. The play reads as an academic exercise. The design choice to cover the deck of the Marinoff stage with an inch of water, requiring the four actors to perform in bare feet, comes off not as a metaphor but rather as a self-imposed restriction.
The Second Girl, by Ronan Noone, begins with an equally intriguing premise: the action plays in the kitchen of the home of Eugene O’Neill’s Tyrone family, simultaneous with the events related in his Long Day’s Journey into Night. We meet the cook Bridget Conroy (Jessica Wortham) and the chauffeur Jack Smythe (Ted Koch), both of them offstage in O’Neill, as well as the titular “second girl,” Cathleen Mullin (Cathryn Wake), common to both plays. Kris Stone’s kitchen set is meticulously dressed and fitted with a working stove and sink. Noone’s delicate drama is gradually unfolding, underscored by simple (and grinding) household tasks like food preparation and loading coal into a stove. The ambiguous ending offers some hope of escape, some chance for dreams to be realized — at least for some of the characters.
- Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
- pen/man/ship, by Christina Anderson, directed by Lucie Tiberghien
- The Second Girl, by Ronan Noone, directed by Ed Herendeen
So we closed the show yesterday afternoon, and I’m pleased, overall, with the way it went. (There’s always something that you wish could have been better. Like I wish that I’d had a coach to help me fine-tune the brief bit of stage combat.)
Every so often I use music as a way to get into the world of a character. (My friend Lisa suggested this trick a long time ago.) Now, the little Bobby McFerrin riff that Roger used as transition music at the top of Act 2 was all I needed to help me find Tom Driscoll. But for the well-meaning, somewhat feckless, gentle parish priest Rev. Jim in Act 1, I needed a complete playlist. Some of this music I already had on hand, and some was newly-purchased. Here it is, Jim’s Jam, all songs pre-1959 as far as I can tell:
- Perry Como, “Accentuate the Positive”
- Lawrence Welk orchestra, “Bubbles in the Wine”
- Patsy Cline, “Walkin’ after Midnight”
- Glenn Miller orchestra, “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo”
- Mel Tormé, “Moonlight in Vermont”
- Lawrence Welk orchestra, “Beer Barrel Polka”
- Perry Como, “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You”
- Mantovani orchestra, “Charmaine”
- Patti Page, “Old Cape Cod”
- Glenn Miller orchestra, “A String of Pearls”
- Perry Como, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
- Lawrence Welk orchestra, “Village Tavern Polka”
Mantovani’s version of a 1926 waltz by Rapée and Pollack is most everyone’s idea of soul-evacuating elevator music. (I remember an ironic modern dance troupe performance from about 20 years ago, set on this song, that consisted of the entire company queueing up as if at the DMV.) But for Jim, the lush, pillowy arrangement is pure bliss, his idea of what God’s grace must feel like. Is that a zither in the mix in the last chords? Plus, you can do t’ai chi stretches to it.
Jim and Judy danced to Glenn Miller when they were courting.
The Lawrence Welk recordings, all from the pre-TV days, are astonishing. Joyful, energetic, inventive, not slick at all—nothing like the bland music I heard when I was a kid in my grandfather’s living room watching the TV show. I used to worry that I was turning into my mother. Now I should worry that I’m turning into her father.
Fresh arrivals from Powell’s, and some interesting choices from the freebie shelf at work. I picked up the DeLillo at our new indie bookstore, Scrawl Books. Plus, I’m doing a book exchange at Vanessa’s in a couple of weeks: who knows what that will bring?
Posted in Like Life
Dan Hurlin, who created the amazing Disfarmer, in preparation of a suite of Futurist plays by Fortunato Depero, Demolishing Everything with Amazing Speed.
Posted in Theater
Stephanie Mason led members of her posse on a summer walk in the Blue Mountain area of G. Richard Thompson WMA. This patch is well-known in spring for its ephemerals, trilliums, and orchids, but there’s plenty to see once the trees have leafed out, too. The weather was cool for July, generally overcast, with a bit of a shower towards the end of the day. Not much happening on the butterfly charts.
Summer wildflowers go for broke in the color department. Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) on the left and Purple-flowering Raspberry (Rubus odoratus) on the right.
Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) on the left, in flower and fruit. And the extravagantly-colored Canada Lily (Lilium canadense) on the right.
The bird checklist for the trip was short, but we had some goodies. Heard and seen Common Raven (Corvus corax), Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus), and Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens). And brief glimpses of Kentucky Warbler (Oporornis formusus) and Cerulean Warbler (Dendroica cerulea).
But the theme of this walk turned out to be beetles. Perhaps the cool temps slowed these crawlies down so that we could get good looks. At left, trying to convince you he’s a Milkweed Bug or firefly is a net-winged beetle (Calopteron sp.). We have three species here in the mid-Atlantic. Distinguishing them calls for looking at features like antennomere colors—beyond the quality scope of my image. At right, creeping over my knuckles and trying to stay out of focus, a Larger Elm Leaf Beetle (Moncesta coryli); according to Evans, this is the largest leaf beetle species in North America.
And, at the start of the walk, a patch of dogbane with numerous Dogbane Beetles (Chrysochus auratus)—even flashier than Japanese Beetles.
Posted in In the Field
An oldie but a goodie, saved from linkrot: Thomas the NJ Transit train.
Steve LaRocque has some generous things to say about our production of Clybourne Park. And the kicker:
A note on the language: polite early on, it gets very rough in the clinches.
Kit Sheffield led a ferns workshop last Sunday (yes, it’s been a busy week). We looked at a lot of ferns, some plants that don’t look like ferns but are, and of course some plants that aren’t ferns. We started at the Visitor Center, followed the river trail as far as Gladys Island and Carper’s Pond, then looped back via the Nature Center.
Some new ferns for me were Lowland Fragile Fern (Cystopteris protrusa) (left) and Broad Beech Fern (Phegopteris hexagonopera) (very handsome).
A few fern ID tips:
- The first thing to look for is growth pattern: does this fern grow in a clump, or singly?
- Look at the bottom pair of leaflets, for instance to distinguish Lady Fern from Hay-scented Fern. This is also useful for applying my “opposite Onoclea” rule.
- Look for hairs in the axils (armpits) of Cinnamon Fern.
Something that didn’t look like a fern for centuries, but is now considered to be one, based on fossil evidence: Scouringrush (Equisetum hyemale). Unfortunately for the quality of the image, the growth tips of this specimen have been deer-browsed.
One more fern, Rock Polypody (Polypodium virginianum). Cute name, cute fern!
And a not-a-fern: Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are in flower.
Posted in In the Field