Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 4

Michael Weller’s self-described work of “surreal slapstick” is the most challenging play of the festival, and ultimately the most rewarding, the one that gets under your skin. “Challenging” in the sense that some theatergoers don’t know what to make of it (as I consoled a seatmate) as well as in the technical sense. There are preposterous overnight transformations of the five characters’ living quarters, a remote-controlled bulldozer, and a series of silly headgear worn by the generator of all this surreal slapstick, one Mr. Shimeus (Wade McCollum). Shimeus spends most of the play wearing a tiny umbrella on his head.

But to back up a bit. McMoley (no-nonsense Lou Sumrall) and his family of Shananana, Frizzby, and Zazu, a Christian rock and roll band, are living in an abandoned factory at a time in the future when civilization has nearly collapsed and cities are vaporized by accidental/intentional detonations of “weapons dumps.” Strong-armed by the local housing authority, they are required to make space for Mr. Shimeus. When we first meet him, he is an abject puddle of a man, having lost his family, property, and livelihood, bringing nothing with him but some peculiar food customs. But not for long.

Shimeus immediately establishes a border between his side of the factory floor and McMoley’s side. His command of English improves by the hour, like an infernal version of Larry Shue’s Charlie Baker; there’s something of Edward Gorey’s spheniscid doubtful guest in Shimeus. His command of technology verges on the magical. Whatever he is, his power increases daily, pushing his boundary deeper into McMoley’s turf.

McCollum’s Shimeus is a verbal shape-shifter, keening, roaring, muttering in some tongue to offstage family members who somehow have materialized—stumbling in his English at one moment then hyperarticulating the next.

Is the rise of Shimeus a parable of the westward expansion of Europeans in America? Or a parody of the Jewish relocation into Palestine (Shimeus always sets an extra place at table for missing guests)? Or a recounting of the arrival of Latter Day Saints in Utah (there is a subplot with a mysterious bundle that bears a strong resemblance to Joseph Smith’s golden plates)? Or a recap of the Cold War and the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction?

A Brechtian coda doesn’t answer the question, dismisses it altogether. But the conflict remains.

Michael Weller, in an interview for the program book, says,

… the level of discourse on my social media newsfeeds about politics is psychotic. Things have become so crazed that the attempt to actually speak quietly in the middle of it to try and unravel what’s going on isn’t nearly as strong, at least to me, as trying to yell over it more stupidly than the discourse itself. By screaming that loud and that irrationally, could you make people think, for a moment, “That’s actually what we sound like?” I gave myself permission to take that route and that’s how the play resulted.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 3

Deborah Brevoort’s drama, inspired by the historical connection between Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein, is uplifting but ultimately a little teachy. The hidden star of this production is Larry Paulsen as the vinegary, steely Abraham Flexner, founder of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Paulsen/Flexner patiently endures a moment when it appears that he needs to have Jim Crow explained to him.

A unsettling two-hander by Joseph Dougherty concerns Chester Bailey, an ironworker (working in a WWII shipyard) who has suffered a harrowing industrial accident, and Philip Cotton, the psychiatrist charged with restoring Chester to some degree of mental health. Chester, played with goofy naïveté by Ephraim Birney, has developed a sort of hysterical seeing that tells him his physical disability is not so severe. Like Dysart with Alan Strang, the peppery Dr. Cotton (John Leonard Thompson as a last-minute fill-in at this performance) makes his peace with an outcome in which “there is no kindness.”

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • My Lord, What a Night, by Deborah Brevoort, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Chester Bailey, by Joseph Dougherty, directed by Ron Lagomarsino

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 2

In Greg Kalleres’s deceptively simple drama, Victoria (Julia Coffey) and John (Chris Thorn) are a successful couple in Indianapolis, living a carefully constructed narrative of how they came to be. Sometimes that narrative papers over a flaw—a memento of an Africa trip that is/was less than perfect—and sometimes it depends on a shared mirthless joke about shopping at Pottery Barn. The delicate balance of their lives is at risk of toppling when, driving home from the theater on a rainy night, Victoria hits something in the road and drives on without stopping.

What did they smash with their car? A deer? A suicidal stray dog? A person? Sometimes what you think you see is wrong, and some reflection brings clarity.

The arrival of their friend Lynn (Megan Bartle), pursued by the man who she is trying to break up with, Alex (Tom Coiner), has a paradoxically stabilizing effect. Lynn seems to enter relationships for the dubious pleasure of ending them, as illustrated by the story of her first date with Alex, in which she asks him to role-play becoming a ex.

John and Victoria return in their minds to the traffic accident, and stitch together their common version. As he says, “it doesn’t matter what story you choose to believe, as long as you both believe in the same story.”

There’s a fine side story about recommending a book to someone (Gravity’s Rainbow in this case) that you yourself haven’t read. It resonates with an anecdote told by classmate Johnnie in an acting workshop many years ago.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 1

Ellen Fairey’s sharp comedy is set in a North Side Chicago apartment, the setting of, yes, a support group organized by Brian (the earnest Chris Thorn). There is inter-generational friction and laughs (Brian, a young-looking 51, is the “oldest guy working at the Apple Store”), and some serious exploration of today’s re-sorting of gender roles. Brian’s friend Roger (blustery Scott Aiello), an ironworker with a case of the yips, and who’s likely to solve a problem using a baseball bat, experiences at least two happy reversals. A wig worthy of Robert Plant’s shaggiest years (and the color of a pair of oxblood loafers) gets plenty of play. And all of the men, no matter where they lie on the various spectra against which people are measured, have a nice bonding moment over “Dirty Harry” movies.

Continuing CATF’s tradition of ambitious solo pieces, Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez collaborate on an autobiographical piece performed by Suarez. Antonio of the play is a young man out of Bushwick with multiple ethnic heritages. A moment of violently reprimanding his son sparks a reverie of Antonio’s roots in Brooklyn, his fractious and abusive relationship with his mother, and (eventually) the story of how he trained as a dancer. The piece is episodic to the point of choppiness, and Antonio’s trip to Russia as an exchange student rather abruptly ends the piece. Jared Mezzocchi continues his excellent work for the festival in projections design.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • Support Group for Men, by Ellen Fairey, directed by Courtney Sale
  • Antonio’s Song/I was dreaming of a son, by Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez, directed by Mark Clements

Describe the Night

There are eight characters (seven players) in Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night, and nearly as many definitions of “truth” are espoused in the course of the evening. Is truth the accurate and complete description of a scene? Or only “what happens” and nothing of “what does not happen”? Or what someone in power declares to be true?

Can a sufficiently inventive writer (Isaac Babel, in this case, played by the earnest Jonathan David Martin) summon an imaginary blood-infused delicacy into existence? In Joseph’s world, yes he can.

Joseph skillfully weaves together a fantasia from the stories of the historical Babel, the Stalin-era Nikolai Yezhov (the “vanishing commissar”) (company member Tim Getman, showing all sorts of colors), and the Smolensk air disaster of 2010, a crash still smoldering with doubts and alternative explanations. There are deaths foretold that come to pass, a rise to power likewise predicted, and personal timelines interlinked with Atkinsonian levels of coincidence.

Under John Vreeke’s direction, there’s an additional level to the truth-telling, one of bearing witness. Maria (Kate Eastwood Norris) and Feliks (Justin Weaks), two people caught up in the carnage of 2010, also sit at the edge of the playing area to observe the scenes set in 1989 and 1940. If Maria and Justin didn’t see it, did it really happen?

Another plot thread follows the unexpected rise of Vova (the very skilled Danny Gavigan), from scrawny Stasi agent to a position of much greater, deadly power.

But let us not forget the playfulness of the young Isaac of 1920, inventor of subversive gangster ducks.

  • Describe the Night, by Rajiv Joseph, directed by John Vreeke, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

The White Snake

Constellation brings in another joyfully theatrical piece, Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of a Chinese folk tale—a tasty mix of beasts of fantasy, music, voice, dance, stage combat, and puppetry. Through many retellings, the core story concerns an educated White Snake (cool and regal Eunice Bae) who can take human form. White Snake falls in love with a mortal man, Xu Xian (Jacob Yeh); despite the cautions of the Buddhist abbot Fa Hai (a rather imposing Ryan Sellars), the two marry.

In some versions (not this one), Fa Hai is the voice of wisdom, helping Xu Xian to see through the world’s illusions; Xu Xian becomes a monk. Here, the retelling follows the love story between White Snake and Xu Xian, with particular emphasis on loving a person (or a snake) for what she is. Fa Hai becomes an evil antagonist, trapping Xu XIan in the monastery. This version also shows the influence of post-revolution China, with a subplot about corrupted magistrates.

Little details power the production, like the lorgnette held for White Snake while she attends to her studies, or the goofy bedroom slippers worn by Xu Xian’s layabout Sister.

Percussionist Tom Teasley is joined by Chao Tian to form Dong Xi (“East-West”), adding Chinese dulcimer to Teasley’s ocean harp and the other tricks in his bag.

There is strong, even deadly magic; there are journeys and rebirths. But there is also an endearing sitcom Darrin and Samantha vibe to Xu Xian and White Snake’s story. Perhaps it’s helped along by sidekick Green Snake (the inventive Momo Nakamura), likewise in human form and plucky servant to White Snake. Imagine Eve Arden transported to the East.

  • The White Snake, written and originally directed by Mary Zimmerman, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington

Topdog/Underdog

Smooth Lincoln (Jeremy Keith Hunter) vs. scrappy Booth (Louis E. Davis): two brothers locked in a power struggle with Biblical overtones. Davis is particularly effective, with expressive eyes and nice physical business: he knows how to clear a dining table quickly.

The performance space is configured galley style, and designer Nephelie Andonyadis’s set wraps around the audience with the cardboard-patched walls of the brothers’ squat.

  • Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by DeMone Seraphin, WSC Avant Bard, Arlington, Va.

JQA

Aaron Posner’s enjoyable riff on the life of John Quincy Adams, sixth U.S. President (and here, perhaps the last adherent of the Enlightenment), would slide easily into the family-friendly, history-inflected programming at Ford’s Theatre, were it not for several outbursts of salty language. The play unfolds as a series of imagined one-on-ones between Adams and various figures in his life, spanning the years 1776 to 1847; indeed, much of what we learn about Adams comes not from what he says and does, but rather from what his interlocutors say and tell him to do.

What keeps this dialogue-heavy play afloat is a clever bit of double-cross-casting: by turns, each of four actors, of various genders and colors, portrays Adams, with the remaining three taking on all the other roles of the play. Thus, for instance, Joshua David Robinson, an African-American man, gives us a populist pro-slavery Andrew Jackson, and then in a subsequent scene, Frederick Douglass, who makes an effective appeal to Adams’s abolitionist tendencies. Most effective at this multiple role-playing is Eric Hissom, with a masterful rendering of the profane Henry Clay, who tells the still-idealistic Adams that his only paths to an effective Presidency are finding legislative compromise or raising fears in the populace. When Hissom later plays Adams, there is a touching passage in which he contemplates his legacy and looks out on the people whose lives he’s touched, people who are yet to be.

There’s a nice structural pattern to the play, as it is framed by its opening scene in a public park between a young Adams (Jacqueline Correa) and George Washington (Phyllis Kay)—with some fun anachronisms like takeout coffee cups and a Secret Service detail—and its closing scene between an elderly Adams (Kay again) and freshman congressman Abraham Lincoln (Correa again). Costume director Joseph P. Salasovich has given the four Adamses four variations on a formal frock coat, each in the same rich burgundy color. There is a very fine moment each time an actor passes the role, and the coat, on to the next actor—an inauguration ceremony in miniature.

My favorite unseen character from Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, Mr. Hardtacks, makes a repeat non-appearance.

  • JQA, written and directed by Aaron Posner, Arena Stage Kogod Cradle, Washington

BLKS

Aziza Barnes’ play is high energy, often played at farce tempos. Often cartoonish, the script is redeemed in part by a nuanced portrayal by Shannon Dorsey as Imani; Justin Weaks also does well as Justin, a rather weedy fellow who just wants to do the right thing.

The play calls for several playing spaces: a Brooklyn apartment, a seedy neighborhood near a club, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the apartment set is not up to the task of supporting all the door slamming required. The wobbly walls recall the worst of community theater construction.

  • BLKS, by Aziza Barnes, directed by Nataki Garrett, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov’s Stalinist-era novel, as adapted by Edward Kemp, is a tart borscht of intertextual satire, black comedy, and magic realism. The first half finale, with ruble notes flying everywhere, is reminiscent of the closing moments of The Magic Christian (by Terry Southern, Joseph McGrath, et al.). Of particular note are Emily Whitworth’s Berlioz, owner of the kick turn exit, and Ben Lauer as Rimsky, an eager theater manager who would have felt at home in Matt Weiner’s Sterling Cooper ad agency.

  • The Master and Margarita, based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, adapted by Edward Kemp, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington

Pescador

This Chilean troupe brings us a wordless story of scenes from the life of a fisherman, from the drudgery of dragging a small boat onshore to a harrowing major storm. Their medium is a blend of puppetry and dance: generally five performers are on stage at one time, but not all of them are involved in the manipulation of the pudgy fisherman puppet or his tiny skiff at any given moment. The others may tumble across the stage, or bang into one another as the seas get rough. The team is most effective and energetic when it is maintaining the rolling rhythm of a boat on the ocean, whether it be crossing offshore breakers or navigating the calmer waters of a feeding ground.

  • Pescador, performed by Silencio Blanco, directed by Santiago Tobar, Kogod Theatre at the Clarice, College Park, Md.

The Waverly Gallery

Kenneth Lonergan accomplishes a feat of mimesis with his text for Gladys (the masterful Elaine May), who manages a genteelly unsuccessful art gallery on New York’s Waverly Place and who is gradually succumbing to dementia. It’s a work that calls for virtuosic concentration on the part of May and her scene partners, with her false starts, repetitions, wanderings into her receding memories, and numberless offers to feed the family dog.

The narrative drive of the play, such as it is, is provided by Don (the effective Michael Cera), a young painter from the Boston suburbs, equally unsuccessful, whom Gladys befriends and offers to represent.

As Gladys slips deeper into her shadow world, her verbal improvisations become more transparent (even to her, perhaps): passing a platter of cheese at Don’s gallery opening, she offers, “Would you like some— —of this?” When Don must return to Boston for a few days, Gladys mercurially rejects him, calling him “sneaky.” This is good stuff, grounded in reality. (So much so that I began to suspect that Lonergan had been in attendance during a few choice interactions that I have personally been party to.)

Unfortunately, the play’s structure is marred by direct address narration by Gladys’s grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges), who fills in some of the events between scenes. While Hedges is perfectly fine in his scenes with Gladys and family, his flat line readings during the fourth wall-breaking passages leads us to the conclusion that the play would be better without them.

Joan Allen as Ellen, Daniel’s mother and Gladys’s daughter, has some good moments, starting the play at a 3 of rattled by Gladys and gradually building to an 8 of frantic as she becomes unmanageable.

The play calls for four playing spaces, three of them realized in quite realistic detail by David Zinn and his team. When the art gallery was hung with Don’s paintings, I was a bit puzzled: what we see on stage, albeit quite personal and figurative, is quite skillful. Wasn’t it the point that Don is a self-deluded bad painter? Similarly, the ground plan led to some less than smooth blocking choices.

This play is a thoughtful story of loss, with some good comic bits (the schtick with adjusting a hearing aid is well timed, and not overdone) and a standout performance by May. But too much tell without show says that it would work better in a different medium.

  • The Waverly Gallery, by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Lila Neugebauer, Golden Theatre, New York

She the People

Woolly’s partnership with The Second City again disappoints. From the opening sketch, presenting white privilege as a board game, She the People is preachy (hey, the choir’s out here) and only intermittently funny. A talk show segment, spiced with a bit of improv; a business meeting led by an executive in an outlandish T. Rex suit; and Maggie Wilder’s “I’m quirky” girl-child bit (one of the few pieces that doesn’t directly rail against the patriarchy) are the high points.

  • She the People, directed by Carly Heffernan, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and the Second City, Washington

Indecent

Eric Rosen directs an effective production of Paula Vogel’s confidently theatrical, ensemble-driven meta-play, telling us the story of Sholem Asch’s play The God of Vengeance, from its early productions in Yiddish-speaking Europe after the turn of the century to its suppressed Broadway production of 1923. Vogel’s script finds a way to feed us the key snippets of Asch’s play, while keeping the action skipping along. In the cast, Ethan Watermeier stands out, having drawn most of the cards for playing heavies: an Irish policeman assigned to close down the production, a rabbi speaking against the “indecent” material of the play. A scene of the play’s production in a 1943 Warsaw ghetto, using found space and all the actors wearing Jewish stars, is particularly powerful, a testament to the resilience of art in the face of repression.

  • Indecent, by Paula Vogel, directed by Eric Rosen, Arena Stage Kreeger Theater, Washington

Small Mouth Sounds

Bess Wohl’s rewarding, at times challenging play drops six seekers (four strangers and one couple) of varying degrees of attainment into a five-day meditation retreat somewhere in the mountains of the East Coast. What not all of them were aware of when they signed up for this exploration, but what is explained to them by the Teacher (Timothy Douglas) early on, is that the retreat is to be conducted in silence.

The “small mouth sounds” of the title no doubt refer to the productions of the Teacher (who does speak, at length, during the proceedings). Offstage and closely mic’d, we hear every lip smack, sniffle, and popped P. It’s enough to make a sound engineer weep, but it’s in the service of this gently satiric play. Douglas’s Teacher is enlightened, in his own way, but he is also digressive, bemused, and distracted. Wohl captures the paradox of this way of teaching, while stepping back from the edge of parody.

Because the onstage actors are mostly silent, it’s an interesting challenge for us to follow their intentions and perhaps fill in some of their backstories. Most interesting are the scenes where the six sleep more or less communally. We watch their parallel stories as they retire and arise, with an overload of finely built details: sun salutations and bad breath and noisy illicit crunchy snacks.

Michael Glenn, as Ned, gets an opportunity to shine in the one extended monologue given to the sextet, a rambling question for the Teacher that unravels into an autobiography of pain and disaster. Details again: notice how Andrea Harris Smith’s Judy finds the death of Ned’s parents on the L.I.E. hilarious, but she is devastated in the next breath to learn that Ned’s dog has died, too.

Maboud Ebrahimzadeh brings a great physicality to the role of Rodney, the more-Ashtangi-than-thou student. He even finds the hardest way possible to slip on his shoes.

The writing of the later scenes for the Teacher is forced, but the overall experience of the play is positive. Yes, we do live on a charnel ground that we call the World, or the Now; but some of us get a glimpse of something greater.

  • Small Mouth Sounds, by Bess Wohl, directed by Ryan Rilette, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Md.