Contemporary American Theater Festival 2024: 1

CATF launches a slightly simplified season for 2024, presenting only four plays (one in two parts), with no productions rotating out at the festival’s four venues. Sharp-eyed program readers will also note only one world premiere.

In the flagship Frank Center venue is mounted What Will Happen to All That Beauty?, by Donja R. Love. It’s a tender, multi-generational study of the effect of HIV/AIDS, with specific attention to Black communities in metropolitan New York (at the dawn of the crisis) and small towns (close to the present day).

As we enter the theater for Part 1, we see Luciana Stecconi’s handsome multi-playing area set with up to seven levels, faced on wood slats in shades of brown, with backing screens of the same slats. This same set, with some of the screens rearranged, serves for Part 2, albeit with more realistic dressing pieces—bedding is on the platform bed, the cooker and sideboard are visible, and there’s a practical chandelier. There’s no marked change in style in the text or otherwise in the storytelling, so we’re left to puzzle why.

Lengthy costume changes in Part 2 take some of the momentum out of the piece, especially after the penultimate scene, which felt like the play’s end to most of us.

Which takes us to the final step of the journey of Manny (the charismatic Jude Tibeau), the protagonist of Part 2, and his relationship with his grandfather, Rev. Emmanuel Bridges, Sr. (powerful Jerome Preston Bates). Bridges, Sr. is a traditional Mississippi preacher, leading off Part 1 with a sermon that sets two of the play’s themes, beauty and sacrifice; he claims a somewhat confusing dichotomy between the two. His descendants, however, profess no particular faith; a supporting character in Part 1 quietly espouses Islam, but is not taken up on it. At one meeting with his grandfather, Manny is openly resistant to Christianity. So we’re left with Manny’s ambiguous final monologue. Preaching beauty, has he (improbably) taken up his grandfather’s mantle in the church? Has he taken up a street corner pulpit?

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • What Will Happen to All That Beauty?, by Dorja R. Love, directed by Malika Oyetimein

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

American Shakespeare Center presents Will’s popular romantic mixup comedy in “Renaissance Style:” a limited rehearsal period, a charismatic repertory cast of only ten, no traditional director, and (per the program note) “a unique mashup of tradition and ‘DIY’ aesthetic.” The reduced size cast means that the lovers double as mechanicals and fairies, to very good effect. There are (the now de rigueur) acknowledgements that some of the rhymes no longer work, and some other modern schtick. More fun are the ad libs with the onstage audience, as well as a very funny bit in which an imaginary bolt kills a train whistle hoot owl that would otherwise disturb Titania’s nap.

Joe Mucciolo’s Puck is quite corporeal, receiving pantomime kicks and blows from Ronan Melomo’s Oberon every time he messes up. The three-way fight among Puck, Demetrius, and Lysander makes good use of the Blackfriars’ upstage doors. Annabelle Rollison’s “Bottom’s dream” monologue is a marvel.

The test of a good Dream is a rollicking Pyramus and Thisby (Shakespeare’s 11:00 number), and the team delivers with fresh bits, from an enormous pair of falsies for Sarah Fallon’s Flute’s would-be ethereal Thisby, to a live dog for Moonshine, to Natasia Lucia Reinhardt’s approach to Wall. Rather than the conventional peace sign chink, she leaves another opening for P and T to converse—let’s just say that Wall enjoys the kiss more than either Pyramus or Thisby.

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.

Blackfriars has made some accommodations to audience comfort since my last visit, with permanent seat backs and cushions.

Amm(i)gone

A very personal piece of metatheater, Amm(i)gone is an extended Moth-style confessional monologue about Adil’s efforts to reconnect with his devout Muslim mother (his ammi) by unconventional means: an (uncompleted) joint project to translate Sophocles’ Antigone into Urdu. Hence, the equally unconventionally punctuated title. The piece takes off from this season’s earlier My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion (with its coda of a video call with the playwright’s mother) and runs with the notion: an extended passage is built from recorded conversations between ammi and Adil. A bit less moving than it wants to be, for this reviewer the strongest material was a video segment of Ivo van Hove’s Antigone. But at least the fifth-grader’s pun in Urdu is redeemed at the end of the piece.

  • Amm(i)gone, created and performed by Adil Mansoor, co-directed by Lyam B. Gabel, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in association with Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Washington

A Commedia Romeo and Juliet

Five players offer a 70-minute rollicking reduction of the Shakespeare classic, with two rotating casts (I saw the “Capulet” cast). All characters save the lovers (including would-be lover Paris) are in half masks (designed by Tara Cariaso of Waxing Moon Masks). Ben Lauer’s Jerry Lewis-infused Nurse is a hoot; Bri Houtman’s Juliet hits all sorts of levels in the balcony scene. There was a sweet impromptu moment of audience interaction when a little boy in the audience vocally noted that a bit of schtick was being reused; Natalie Cutcher responded directly to him with a “Right? I know!”

The inevitable deaths are handled tenderly. When Mercutio dies, his mask is left onstage while the actor exits. There’s a nifty moment in the tomb when Juliet awakes and Romeo dies with a kiss: the pair deftly exchange places on the bier. Of course, this is a comedy, so when the corpses are needed for the summing up, scarecrows are used, all the better for tossing about to explain who killed who and why.

All the important bits of text that we remember from high school remain in place, including that weird Queen Mab passage.

  • A Commedia Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, directed by Kathryn Zoerb, Faction of Fools, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington

Days of Wine and Roses

Kelli O’Hara once again dons a 1950s shirtwaist silhouette in a role that quickly turns dark. From her opening song, “Story of the Atlantic Cable,” she owns this show—she is electrifying. Brian d’Arcy James partners her effectively in this somewhat unusual, intriguing score for only three voices (the ensemble is non-singing). I counted at least four instruments of the xylophone-metallophone ilk—great choices by the orchestrators!

The show hews fairly closely to the plot of the 1962 film, written by JP Miller from his Playhouse 90 teleplay. (No credit for Miller? Is the film out of copyright?)

There are a couple of anachronisms in the sound design (beeps in a hospital corridor, for one) that perhaps will be ironed out by the official opening of this remarkable show.

  • Days of Wine and Roses: The Musical, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, book by Craig Lucas, orchestrations by Adam Guettel and Jamie Lawrence, directed by Michael Greif, Studio 54, New York

Kristen Arnesen and her father are of Norwegian descent in this play. My Minneapolis landlord (Mr. Anensen) told me that sen indicates Danish rather than Norwegian heritage, but what do we know?

Hadestown

A pop rock retelling of the stories of Persephone and Hades (in part) and of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in a campy faubourg of a steampunk New Orleans (a few blocks over from the setting of Rent), with catchy, engaging tunes. In this post-opening cast, there’s a minor pop star (Betty Who) to introduce members of the band; a nice unamplified coda serves as an encore.

Not everyone in the audience had read Eurydice’s story in high school, to judge from the scattered gasps heard at a critical moment—which nonetheless felt a teeny bit unmotivated: Orpheus has a song about doubt, but the song wraps up and then he makes a bad choice.

Phillip Boykin as Hades makes the strongest impression among this cast, seductive and menacing in “Hey, Little Songbird.” In the band, Brian Drye on trombone and glockenspiel shows off his chops.

  • Hadestown, music, lyrics, and book by Anaïs Mitchell, developed with and directed by Rachel Chavkin, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York

Here We Are

A scrumptious, nutritious first act, distinctively Sondheim, and a sumptuous second act by Ives (who would want to leave such a beautiful room, as designed by David Zinn?), both of them capturing the spirit and many of the specific elements of Buñuel’s source material. There are open flames and punctured water pipes, but fortunately no cellos are sacrificed.

A meta moment in the first act entails the most effective use of bringing up the house lights that I’ve seen in many a year, a trick that is otherwise worn out. The Bistro à la Mode is reminiscent of The Philadelphia, a similarly cursed eatery imagined by Ives. A three-quarter circular bench that flies in is a simple effect, if the resources are available, but it left me envious nevertheless.

Outstanding in the cast is Dennis O’Hare in a number of roles, including the “enabler” who sings the frequently noted patter song about the lack o’ latte, all bananapants jumping intervals, and the imperious majordomo Windsor who is not what he seems. Jeremy Shamos has a sweet acrobatic move to catch a falling smartphone.

  • Here We Are, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by David Ives, inspired by the films of Luis Buñuel, orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, directed by Joe Mantello, The Shed, New York

Three long escalators to reach the performance space in The Shed left me feeling a bit like I was headed for the 400 level in the Capitals’ arena.

I will be making a point of recognizing orchestrators, having read Darryn King’s profile of Jonathan Tunick.

Girl from the North Country

Girl from the North Country suffers from a surfeit of quirky, irascible, and damaged characters, and nearly as many subplots. In its favor, it’s good to hear songs (many we know, some we don’t) by Bob Dylan (if only, sometimes, as snippets) in new styles (hard rock, blues, gospel-ish) and arrangements. The reworking of “I Want You” as a duet is very fine. But in most cases, the songs are disconnected from the stories: rarely does someone, following the Rodgers and Hammerstein paradigm, sing to explain themselves, or to advance the plot, or because they just can’t help it. The medley opening the second act is particularly puzzling: why are we hearing these particular songs?

That said, Jill Van Velzer does well with “Sweetheart Like You,” giving us a good belt; Jay Russell as the unctuous Mr. Perry and Jeremy Webb as “Bible salesman” Reverend Marlowe are chewy antagonists. There are a couple of rousing 11:00 numbers, “Duquesne Whistle” and a few stanzas of “Hurricane” with an interpolation from “All Along the Watchtower.” And we appreciate that the show doesn’t take applause breaks; but by the same token, the pace of dialog in most of the book scenes is unnecessarily breakneck. Give us a chance to care about these people.

  • Girl from the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, orchestrated and arranged by Simon Hale, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, Washington

Public Obscenities

Public Obscenities makes use of some familiar tropes: a young man returns to the country of his heritage, images hidden away are revealed, someone who refuses a calling ascends to it, things that are thought of as authentic are perhaps not so. Chowdhury’s unique spin is that the locale is half a world away, in Kolkata, and big chunks of the dialogue are in Bangla.

Our traveler is Choton (the energetic Abrar Haque), who is accompanied by his boyfriend Raheem (Jakeem Dante Powell). While Choton gads about, interviewing citizens about language and marginalized communities in pursuit of an ill-conceived dissertation research project, Raheem quietly (perhaps too quietly) stays closer to Choton’s family home, making tender portraits with a disused twin-lens reflex camera. We’re reminded that the TLR can achieve intimate results because the photographer can maintain eye contact with the subject—or the subject might be unaware that a photograph is being made—as masters of the technology like Vivian Maier showed. Unfortunately, locked-down Rakeem, the character who accepts his calling, never really shows us what’s going on with him, which is perhaps a fault of writing, direction (Chowdhury directs his own script), or acting.

Golam Sarwar Harun, as Jitesh, one of Choton’s uncles, comes off best. Speaking little English, Jitesh quietly deals with the flurry of activity that has appeared in his house; he is encouraged to sing a lovely song that had Bangla-speakers in the audience audibly marking time with him.

Peiyi Wong’s effective unit set (Choton’s family home, well-lived-in right down to the slightly wobbly ceiling fan) accommodates subtitle projections; flavorful sound design by Tei Blow is there when we need it.

  • Public Obscenities, written and directed by Shayok Misha Chowdhury, Woolly Mammoth Theater Company with co-presenter Theater for a New Audience, Washington

Orlando

Sarah Ruhl’s reduction of Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s gender-fluid time-travel novel of 1928, picks out key episodes and characters from the life of the titular 300-year-old would-be writer. Plucky Orlando (the adaptable Mary Myers) is ringed by a chorus of four, each of them playing an important personage in Orlando’s journey from inchoate man to established woman. Most remarkable among them is Alan Naylor’s comic turn as Queen Elizabeth (now QE II, of course), a screeching parrot in a red wig of a color unknown to both nature and the laboratory.

Ruhl’s text cleaves close to Woolf’s, so for instance we hear the memorable image “Birds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground” of the Little Ice Age section. That strategy can sometimes work against the momentum of the play, as when the chorus is reduced to simple narration (albeit physicalized) of the transitions of Orlando’s world.

Costume designer Kitt Crescenzo has put all four chorus members (male and female) into modified farthingales, an effective choice, and Sasha’s furs are quietly sumptuous. Orlando’s womanly headgear of the 19th and 20th centuries was a bit unstable at Sunday’s performance.

  • Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, adapted by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Nick Martin, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington

My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion

Sasha Denisova’s piece is an effective smash-up of memory play and topical satire, with a rotating set, live and canned video projections, and other theater tricks. With a recurring image of a huge mosquito with Vladimir Putin’s face surreally attached to it, there’s no question where Denisova and her titular Mama (always welcome Holly Twyford) stand on the current conflict.

Sasha’s Mama keeps herself grounded with traditional kitchen solutions to basic problems (no fridge? keep butter cool by submerging it in water), even as her appeals for relief in Kyiv climb the ladder of implausibility. A phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is followed up by interviews with increasingly powerful leaders, both global and extra-global. The projections enable what might be the first and only artistically defensible deepfake videos, as supporting cast member Linsday Smiling impersonates Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz in turn.

Director Yury Urnov employs other theatrical devices, including a slithering, bloodsucking Putin (Suli Holum in a full-head Putin mask) that brings to mind the depersonalized work of Jean-Claude van Ittalie. Holum, as narrator, Daughter, and stand-in for the playwright, keeps the audience engaged with a warm, charismatic connection.

  • My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion, by Sasha Denisova, directed by Yury Urnov, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

It’s live theater: at Sunday evening’s performance, Twyford cut her hand while Mama was slicing onions and haranguing Zelenskyy on the phone. With professional aplomb, she called for a hold while bandages were quickly fetched.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2023: 3

The strongest piece in this year’s festival, José Rivera’s Your Name Means Dream, returns to some of the themes explored by 2014’s Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons, Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, and Spike Jonze’s Her. Before we’re even quite settled, there’s a nice nod to Philip K. Dick.

Here, the android is Stacy (role created by the acrobatic Sara Koviak), fitted out as an emotional support robot and housekeeper for the titular Aislin (Anne O’Sullivan), an irascible New Yorker who’s been deserted by a string of hired human helpers, all of them frustrated by her stubbornness. Although there are sparks of HAL-like murderous behavior from Stacy (she’s only a prototype, subject to flaws in the machine), this play focuses more on whether Stacy has achieved what we would call empathy and the ability to recognize beauty—more to the point, to recognize the quality of beauty.

Stacy’s technology enables her to physically personify someone on the other end of a telephone (sic?) call with Aislin, in this case her loutish son Roberto. She can do a mean Joe Pesci. And her spectacular aria comes when Stacy performs a factory reset.

Here’s a question for your book group: Stacy encourages (browbeats) Aislin into eating healthy, exercising, enjoying herself, all in the service of prolonging her life. Yet Stacy’s program dictates that she expires when Aislin does. How does Stacy’s behavior qualitatively differ from ours, when we encourage (browbeat) a loved one to get off the couch, schedule a colonoscopy, or stay on prescribed medications?

Playwrights will no doubt be exploring new aspects of general artificial intelligence in years to come. Soon I expect to see something with a role explicitly written for a bot (no steelface, in other words). Perhaps a murder mystery featuring the lovelorn Sydney?

We in the audience are always intrigued by set dressing: we so missed the opportunity to see Aislin and Stacy play a round of Monopoly.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2023: 2

The four-sided Marinoff is the de rigueur venue for one-on-one prison conversations (see 2017’s We Will Not Be Silent), not to mention rumbly room tone (David Remedios’ sound design), and hence Chisa Hutchinson’s Redeemed finds its place there. In this instance, Trevor (Doug Harris), a white man imprisoned for beating an Asian man to death, is up for parole; he also has a book proposal for agent Claire (Elizabeth Sun), who (it just so happens) is the sister of the man Trevor killed.

While Sun’s Claire makes some nonobvious points (very forcefully) about the power relationships between whites and Asians, it’s also the case that most would find it impossible to find common ground with someone so angry. The open-ended conclusion of the play is legitimate, so far as it goes, but the narrative’s final twists are a cop-out. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if Trevor were completely sincere?

Jeffrey Lieber’ s Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction) inaugurates the friendly confines of the Shepherdstown Opera House as a CATF venue. The set, a cabin in the woods, fits well in the snug space (a small problem with masking for those of extreme house left). A three-hander with shades of Harold Pinter, the story is driven by withheld information and flirts with the possibility of alternate timelines. There’s a neat (and quite loud) cliffhanger to end the first act. The tidbits of biological research offered by Adele don’t resonate as much as the song that Miller remembers hearing when the three first met: Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield.”

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • Redeemed, by Chisa Hutchinson, directed by marcus d. harvey
  • Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction), by Jeffrey Lieber, directed by Susan V. Booth

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2023: 1

Orlandersmith’s monologue for Bronxite Virgil, a DJ who makes an unusual career change in mid life, is clearly a work in progress. At times working from a script, Virgil/Orlandersmith directly addresses the audience with a story of loss and life purpose found. Certain passages, like Virgil’s commutes on the subway, lack specificity, while others, such as Virgil’s apprenticeship, are quite graphic. A pronunciation issue briefly took me out of the story.

At the other end of the production values spectrum, Lynn Rosen brings The Overview Effect to the Frank Center’s well-outfitted stage. A maximalist fantasia on space exploration and modern entrepreneurship, with elements of a double sabotage mystery, the play isn’t coy about the models for its two spacefaring megalomaniacal antagonists: the program book interview identifies them as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. The feud between overwhelms the work’s throughline, the emotional journey of engineer-turned-private eye Dylan.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • Spiritus/ Virgil’s Dance, written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith, directed by Neel Keeler
  • The Overview Effect, by Lynn Rosen, directed by Courtney Sale

Glossary:

Incendiary

A disco shootout with a mom and her big-ass purse. Whatever happens, Tanya (Mom with the arsenal) (Nehassaiu deGannes) remembers to stay hydrated. Scenes with her matching pair of lawyers, Markus and Marcus (Breon Arzell and Brandon J. Pierce), are inspired.

  • Incendiary, by Dave Harris, directed by Monty Cole, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington