Category Archives: Reviews

Baby Screams Miracle

Woolly continues its admirable run of productions in which people of faith—specifically, Christian faith—are front and center, with their questions and fears driving the story. (I think of 2011’s A Bright New Boise as another fine example.)

In Baby Screams Miracle, Carol and Gabe, parents of young Kayden (an odd, withdrawn little girl) are beset by a mounting series of calamities. A storm sends a tree crashing into their house, the storm growing to tempestuous levels. The technical demands of the script are masterfully met by James Kronzer’s set and Jared Mezzocchi’s video projections.

As the punishments visited on the family rise to Old Testament proportions, we wonder what part Kayden plays in this narrative. Is she a malevolent instigator? Are these calamities all in her imagination?

  • Baby Screams Miracle, by Clare Barron, directed by Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Caroline, Or Change

Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s ambitious, admirable musical, with a story drawn from Kushner’s life, concerns an African-American maid (Nova Y. Payton, in the title role) and her relationships with the Jewish family that she works for in 1963 Louisiana.

The first act doesn’t give us much information about what’s going on in Caroline’s head, since much of the time she’s not singing to another person, but rather to the various appliances in her basement workspace—and, in a nice touch, they sing back: the Washing Machine (Theresa Cunningham), the Dryer (V. Savoy McIlwain), and girl-group trio Radio. Alas, sound mixing in some of the multi-voiced passages makes it difficult to follow the various lines.

Tesori’s spiky score of many influences unfortunately saddles the eight-year-old Noah Gellman, son of Caroline’s employers, with a clichéd, squeaky, pitchy vocal line for most of the show. And the musical passages for the Moon don’t get into orbit.

In the second half, a scene centered on a Chanukah party is energized by the arrival of father-in-law Mr. Stopnick (the sufficiently nimble Scott Sedar)—one of Kushner’s antediluvian radical stand-ins—and the flow of contentious dialogue. The klezmer-splashed music also gives this section a boost.

Payton’s late-act aria (“Lot’s Wife”) is quite powerful.

  • Caroline, Or Change, music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, directed by Matthew Gardiner, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Md.
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Kiss

Guillermo Calderón’s Kiss is an ambitious, but unsuccessful attempt to bring the horrors of violence in today’s Syria into the American living room. A supposedly found text, a fluffy four-handed love triangle, is first interpreted as melodramatic soap opera, and then with cartoonish, expressionist violence.

Good theater takes real, specific events and reimagines them so that universals can be revealed. In this work, Calderón’s imagination fails him.

The play is presented not in Woolly’s auditorium but in its Smith/Melton Rehearsal Hall, with seats wedged in on risers. Viewers nostalgic for Woolly’s funky former space on Church Street will feel at home here.

  • Kiss, by Guillermo Calderón, directed by Yury Urnov, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Come from Away

Come from Away is a celebration of the profound act of kindness performed by the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, when 38 aircraft were diverted to its airport on 11 September 2001. For nearly a week, this community of fewer than 10,000 souls opened its homes and shelters to the stranded passengers from those flights.

The ensemble-driven musical tells, by composites, some of the many tales that these travelers have to tell; it doesn’t shy away from stories of loss (the penultimate number “Something’s Missing”) or of irrational fears (an Egyptian sojourner is eyed nervously), but it is fundamentally a play about sharing and hope. Generally fast-paced (the transition into a brief scene set in the maelstrom of an air traffic control tower on that horrid day is electric), there are brief moments when everything comes to dead stop for comedy—as you would, for instance, when a moose ambles in front of your bus. A revolve is used to good effect, giving the characters of Nick and Diane a way to stroll along the cliffs of the Dover Fault (“Stop the World”) while the cast scurries about placing chairs for them to step to. Most importantly, it’s a show that calls for an ensemble of mostly character actors, notably Astrid Van Wieren’s welcoming schoolmaster Beulah, Joel Hatch’s suite of local mayors, and Geno Carr’s slightly befuddled local constable.

The music is traditional Maritimes folk music with a strong rock and roll bottom—if not particularly challenging, it’s certainly rousing. It stirs the emotions.

  • Come from Away, book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, directed by Christopher Ashley, Ford’s Theatre, Washington
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Angels in America

A short post to call out just a couple of the exceptionally strong elements of the Round House/Olney Theatre Center joint production:

Jon Hudson Odom is delightful as Belize; Dawn Ursula’s keening as the Angel is other-worldly. The production relies much on fun projections by Clint Allen and lights by York Kennedy: the arrival of the Angel, the alien streetscape of San Francisco, the talking dummies at the Mormon visitor center.

  • Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, by Tony Kushner, directed by Jason Loewith and Ryan Rilette, Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center, Bethesda, Maryland
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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2016: 3

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.”

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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2016: 2

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
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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2016: 1

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
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An Octoroon

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins brings us An Octoroon, his very strong post-modern and post-theatrical adaptation of an 1859 melodrama by Dionysius Boucicault (in turn, a version of a novel by Thomas Maine Reid). It’s genuinely provocative, on several levels, from the visceral (an historical image projected on the stage at a key point hits its mark) to the intellectual to the spectacular; Boucicault was writing and producing in the genre that demanded big theatrical effects, and this production both comments on that genre and makes good on its promise, with a outsized KABOOM!

Jacobs-Jenkins helps us out by framing his adaptation with direct address by two different versions of the playwright (one played by an African American and one by a European American [James Konicek, with the voice of an angelic bassoon]) in which he explains the creative and production challenges of reconstructing a pre-Civil War potboiler that calls for a cast of 21. In this way, he prepares us for an distanced approach to the material that he has reworked and appropriated for his own means—in a way that his misbegotten Appropriate does not. (Perhaps one’s reactions to that other play depend on whether one takes the title as an adjective or a verb.) Jacobs-Jenkins thus calls to mind another master and occasional mishandler of irony, surfaces, and the reality beneath, Herman Melville.

Suffice it to say that this is a show that benefits from program notes by the dramaturg and two company staffers concerned with things literary.

The script—and this production—attacks the question of appearance vs. reality by employing a black actor in whiteface, a white actor in redface, and another actor in the crudest of minstrelsy’s blackface (and “lawsa-lawsa” dialect). Certain characters act and speak as if they were on a stage in the 1800s, ready for their turn at Ford’s on 10th Street, while others (the entertaining Shannon Dorsey as Minnie) speak in the most contemporary of hip-hop vernacular. Pre-recorded underscoring accompanies expressive live cello work by Katie Chambers. A character eats a real banana, seated on a stage whose floor is covered in bits of cotton… representing, what exactly? A disaster effect is a blatant borrowing of a sight gag perfected by Buster Keaton nearly a century ago.

This is not to take away from the stage chops on display by Jon Hudson Odom in the triple roles of BJJ (one of Jacobs-Jenkins’s standins), George (the hero), and M’Closky (the mustache-twirling villain). The third-act cliffhanger calls for Odom to execute a knife fight with himself: smartly done!

  • An Octoroon, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Nataki Garrett, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

At the top of show, BJJ drinks off half of bottle of what looks to be whiskey. Woolly hasn’t seen such an interesting draught since Rob Leo Roy nightly chugged an bottle of Yoo-Hoo in The Food Chain.

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Journey to the West

Mary Zimmerman’s Journey to the West is another of her masterful renderings of ancient texts as modern theater, and it receives an equally masterful staging by Allison Arkell Stockman’s Constellation Theatre Company within the friendly confines of the Source Theatre space. The ensemble cast portrays episodes from the pilgrimage of the monk Tripitaka, drawing on a Ming dynasty novel that in turn adapted mythic materials from 1000 years earlier. The evening is packed with theatrical storytelling.

We watch very entertaining personified animals who accompany Tripitaka on his journey to the wellsprings of Eastern religion—strongest of these is the yogic, gymnastic Dallas Tolentino as the Monkey King. (This is basically a superhero road trip movie, with better karma.) There are trickster’s personality exchanges, a lengthy fight in slow motion, and multiple distinct water effects achieved with banners. The magnificent cornucopia of costumes are by Kendra Rai; composer/musician/sound designer Tom Teasley crowds numerous effects into his small space, including an inventive rendering of a pig at the trough.

  • Journey to the West, by Mary Zimmerman, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington

There were several respectful younger audience members at this matinee performance, but with a running time of 2:50, some budding theatergoers may find it a bit long.

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The Nether

The titular Nether of this dystopian play is an immersive cyberspace where anything imaginable—legal or otherwise—is possible. Its weakness is the condescending script: for some reason, the old saw that pornography leads technological advances is trotted out. A police detective, investigating improprieties in the Nether, has precisely one verb to play: to hector.

A cloudy plexiglas box encloses the set in early sequences, causing significant audibility problems for us in row E.

The dismal enterprise is lightened by Jared Mezzocchi’s dazzling projections and the performance of Maya Brettell as Iris, a fantasy avatar.

  • The Nether, by Jennifer Haley, directed by Shana Cooper, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Guards at the Taj

Rajiv Joseph fancies two guards assigned duty at the soon-to-be-unveiled Taj Mahal in 1648: the dour, straight arrow Humayun (Ethan Hova) and the free-spirited, bumbling, imaginative Babur (the fearless Kenneth De Abrew). They’re called upon to execute a quite bloody task, and their temporary paralysis in reaction to this horror turns out to be quite funny: complementary disabilities that suggest Beckett’s similarly doomed Hamm and Clov. Sound designer Palmer Hefferan conjures an ominous sonic landscape in the pre-dawn hours while the two clowns await their fate.

  • Gaurds at the Taj, by Rajiv Joseph, directed by John Vreeke, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound

Early Stoppard and rebooted Sheridan, in an adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, both of them quite fun. One might think that there is nothing funny left to be found in a play-within-a-play that experiences a disastrous run-through, but errant 18th century stage machinery and wobbly wigs are up to the task. And how much more interesting, how reflexive, that the Guffman for whom the play is being presented is “Sheridan” himself. Robert Dorfman is very fine as Mr. Sneer, egging on the hapless Sir Fretful Plagiary (John Catron), giving him ridiculous notes that move his historical play of the Spanish Armada onto a plane not visited by reality.

In the second half”s Stoppard, the opening monologue by theater critic Moon—a celebration of second-stringers and deputies—was all the more piquant on the night we heard it, as understudy Brit Herring was standing in as Moon. Naomi Jacobson is perfect as Mrs. Drudge, the dogsbody of Muldoon Manor who answers the telephone with the scene-setting stage directions. Dorfman is quite deranged as Inspector Hound, as if Agatha Christie’s Sgt. Trotter were played by a braying Harpo Marx. And hats off to the props and effects departments, who provide an offstage crashbox that actually sounds funny, as well as the excruciatingly noisy chocolates wrapper with which Birdboot opens the proceedings.

Who is the mysterious intruder? Tom Stoppard offered this answer in a 1999 speech reprinted as a program note: “…a play which depends on keeping its secrets isn’t worth seeing twice… When it comes to mystery stories I am in agreement with Edmund Wilson… whodunits would be more interesting if Playbill named the murderer.”

  • The Critic, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher
  • The Real Inspector Hound, by Tom Stoppard, both directed by Michael Kahn, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington
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Sweat

Lynn Nottage’s Sweat (commissioned and produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) is a distillation of the frustrations and personal tragedies visited on the working class of Reading, Pennsylvania. The economic shocks of globalization generally and NAFTA specifically resound here on Route 422 as plant closings, lockouts, and busted pensions. Nottage dramatizes these Berks County stories with a strong ensemble of nine fully-realized characters, by turns striving, washed up, deluded, and occasionally successful. All of them, in one way or another, are trying to find a way to hold the line, be it against strikebreakers, addiction, or self-destructive violence. And through Nottage’s particulars she achieves a universal.

The main playing space is a local bar, designed by John Lee Beatty, meticulously tricked out with lamps advertising beer and a TV set playing news from the Bush-Gore campaign of 2000. It’s almost too good looking—one feels the need of a little grit and grime in the corners. It’s presided over by Jack Willis’s Stan, a veteran of both Vietnam and the shop floor; although partially disabled, he makes a worthy bartender, his voice a powerful deep bray of sardonic acceptance.

  • Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, directed by Kate Whoriskey, Arena Stage Kreeger Theater, Washington

In a note in the program book, Executive Producer Edgar Dobie calls out the importance of unions and collective bargaining to the artistic process.

Embracing a system of unions benefits both employees and employers; the production you are about to enjoy would not have been possible without several of the unions mentioned above, nor could it have transferred from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to Arena in its original form. We are indebted to the men and women who are represented within these unions, as they hold us accountable to our commitment to fairness and prosperity.

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New venues, 2015

Didn’t get around much this year, but I did visit one performance space that is no more.

2014’s list. 2013’s list. 2012’s list. 2011’s list.

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