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.

    Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce

    Is there another playwright who shows such skill at introducing characters as Sarah Ruhl? Consider the poetic exposition in which we meet supporting characters Frank and Frances: in a double monologue, each speaking virtually the same text, we learn that Frank began life as an accountant, while Frances gave up physics (“all those angles,” as Tilly says) to open a hair salon.

    It is Tilly (ably played by Billie Krishawn) whose arc commands the play. As she transitions from quiet melancholy (captured in a scene which recreates the Vermeer pearl-earring portrait) to giddy, almost manic happiness, everyone else turns alienated and glum, as if some law of conservation of psychic energy were in force.

    Ruhl revisits some classical themes—Orpheus and Eurydice, comic metamorphosis—while keeping a light, deft tone. Christian Montgomery is hilariously over the top as Tilly’s psychotherapist, who has some severe transference issues. The piece is enlivened by solo cello played by Kate Rears Burgman, music by Wytold, and two song breaks.

    • Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce, by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Nick Martin, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington

      Contemporary American Theater Festival 2018: 5

      A young woman carries a heavy portable crib up a flight of stairs, bumping it on every other step; her actions echo those of a teenager seventeen years before, banging a suitcase down a different flight of stairs (metaphorical baggage reified). Two young women have an uneasy reunion, a decade and half after a shattering trauma that destroyed a family has split the two of them apart; they interchange playing scenes with their younger counterparts.

      In a program note, playwright Amy E. Witting says that we all are living in a “post-traumatic stress environment.” In this play, the most effective and challenging of this year’s festival, Alexandra (Joey Parsons) and Frankie (Jessica Savage) and their younger selves Alex (Sam Morales) and young Frankie (Ruby Rakos) hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves generally and the specific impact of this particular trauma.

      It is clear from the early moments of the play that broody Alexandra has endured some sort of loss, to be revealed in the course of the narrative. What is more subtle is the impact of those past events on Frankie; she is, in a sense, the forgotten victim.

      Does the unfolding of the play provide the healing to Frankie and Alexandra that they want, or the healing that they need?

      A quibble: the play’s climax, the big reveal by Alexandra, a chthonic explosion by Parsons, is played on that staircase, halfway up from the main playing space to an unseen second story. So there’s a good reason for director Ed Herendeen to put her there. But as a result, sightlines for some of us during this sequence are less than optimal.

      Contemporary American Theater Festival 2018: 4

      Providing an origin story for a prison work song (Berta, Berta) is a wobbly foundation for a full-length play. The actors are skilled and committed (Jason Bowen as the haunted Leroy and Bianca Laverne Jones as Berta); the stakes are high (a murder); the dressing of Luciana Stecconi’s set is first rate; but there’s something missing. Perhaps the piece relies too much on Leroy’s tell-not-show accounts of why he’s on the run, and of the heavy injustice laid on him that was the driver of events. It’s a risky business to suggest recasting an artistic work into another medium, but opening up this play as a film would strengthen the story that it wants to tell.


      Playwright C. A. Johnson says her program interview,

      Maybe Thirst is about politics, maybe it’s about gender, maybe it’s about special preferences, maybe it’s all of these things… or maybe, it’s just a play about how hard it is to let go.

      And it’s the play’s stubborn refusal to decide what it wants to be about that is a challenge. Once again, the stakes are high: in a post-apocalyptic landscape still bursting with violence, Samira (Monet) and Greta (Jessica Savage) care for their adopted son Kalil (newcomer Jalon Christian). The local warlord Terrance (Ryan Nathaniel George) has risen to power because he controls the water supply, and water in this community is a precious resource indeed. The rub: Terrance and Samira were once married, and his entrails are still consumed with rage that she is now with Greta. Is is because Greta is a woman? Because she is white? Or just because she is someone else? Terrance is incapable of telling us.

      Terrance explodes with gunplay, against his better judgement and surely not in the best interests of his people or himself. (A leader with doubtful skills, thrust onto the public stage, behaving irrationally to a bizarre degree? Why, that would—oh, never mind.)

      There is a loose end introduced towards the end of the play, that is never picked up or resolved, i.e., a suggestion that the water supply has been contaminated.

      Jessica Savage has the juicy opportunity to show us how excruciating it is to suffer a close-range gunshot wound, and she makes the most of it.

      • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
      • Berta, Berta, by Angelica Chéri, directed by Reginald L. Douglas
      • Thirst, by C. A. Johnson, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt

      Contemporary American Theater Festival 2018: 3

      From the other side of the Iron Curtain comes this timebending story, set in multiple places and times in the Soviet Union: in Kruschchev’s era, and before and after the rise of Stalin. Stalin’s purges take on a particular specificity in this work.

      In the 1930s, Alexei (David McElwee), synesthete and memory savant, is a newspaper reporter, and apparently a poor one, because he takes no notes. He doesn’t need to, because he can remember speeches word for word. This becomes problematic for him, when certain speakers he has heard (Bukharin, Kirov) are dropped into Russia’s Memory Hole.

      He himself disappears from official records, but a 1950s-era bureaucrat (Kreplev, Lee Sellars) takes a special interest in his case and in the psychologist who treated him (Joey Parsons)—a treat for us to see two beloved CATF regulars together on stage.

      There are two frames around the story, one of them a rather odd carnival act whose significance will be made clear, and the other a (sometimes distracting) direct address to us by Kreplev. Ultimately, the play is Kreplev’s journey, as he learns the personal cost of “accommodation,” both in the form of forgetting and being forgotten.

      Gregory gives Alexei’s synesthesia a poetic turn. The color magenta, for him, has the roar of a train; a politician’s words bounce around meaninglessly like so many rubber balls.

      Contemporary American Theater Festival 2018: 2

      There’s much to like in Michael Weller’s solo piece for John Keabler, irrespective of what you think of the evolving political views of Ronald Reagan—from admirer of FDR to speaker for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Keabler has the mannerisms and physicality, playing Reagan as much as a gangly kid as statesman.

      The framing device for the play is an imagined interview for a magazine, while the last moments of Reagan’s life slip away from him on his hospital bed. (In Reagan’s fever dream, he is still the good-looking young man who is Keabler.) This allows Reagan to control the flow, so his story unspools as a greatest hits compilation, with good mini re-enactments of his film roles. That is to say, when Reagan’s late life dementia allows him to remember. Unfortunately, the interview trope gets in the way, requiring Reagan for much of the work to maintain focus on the interviewer, who seems to be sitting in the aisle of Studio 112’s seating, about two rows back.

      Weller’s script is salted with nuggets of current affairs irony, as when Reagan rails against the idea of a wall (in his case, the one in Berlin) being the solution to security problems, or when he despairs of Russians in D.C. guiding policy.

      People and places from Reagan’s past are subtly suggested by monochrome screen projections by Christopher Erbe and Taran Schatz—very fine work.

      Contemporary American Theater Festival 2018: 1

      Bekah Brunstetter’s sugary, crinkly comedy could not be more contemporary: Jen (the effervescent Kelly Gibson), a young woman living in Brooklyn, returns to her family home in North Carolina. Engaged to the more bottled-up Macy (the poised, not strident Monet), Jen hopes that her wedding cake will be prepared by family friend and bakery proprietor Della. Della (the adventurous Erika Rofsrud), even more family than friend, holds to her traditional Christian religious mores; she has been brought up to “follow the directions until I die.” She balks at creating the confection—this despite her professed belief that the solution to war is to bake a personal cake for each combatant.

      The Cake takes all of its principals through emotional journeys and change (for that matter, Lee Sellars’ dour Tim the plumber goes through some changes himself), but most strongly changed is Della. Her late monologue is harrowing, finding deep notes of aching and repressed feelings of shame. Della also gets the best comic lines of the show. No fan of gluten-free baking, she once tasted such a cake and says that it made the back of her mouth feel like it did after a good cry. And this, quoted by audience members in the lobby: when challenged by Tim that lesbianism is not natural, she replies, “Neither is confectioner’s sugar.”

      Botticelli in the Fire

      Woolly closes its distinctly uneven season with the sound Botticelli in the Fire, a fantasia on the life of 15th-century Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. In Jordan Tannahill’s reimagining, Botticelli (company rising star Jon Hudson Odom) is rampantly bisexual, carrying on with both his patron’s wife and a young gifted painter from Vinci named Leonardo. Sumptuous period costumes intermingle with overt anachronisms—text messages, peanut butter sandwiches.

      Cody Nickell is well placed as the rich and powerful Lorenzo de’ Medici, while Craig Wallace is even more powerful as Girolamo Savonarola, imagined here as a street preacher elevated to savior of Florence, from the twin depredations of plague and licentiousness. Indeed, the power games played by both characters have unsettling resonances with current events.

      Forced by Savonarola to choose between art and love, Botticelli makes the expected choice. But there’s something missing here, in the text or elsewhere: Leonardo is young and beautiful and talented, granted, but his gift seems insufficient motivation for Botticelli’s sacrifice.

      Christian Frederickson’s excellent sound design is matched by Colin K. Bills’ chiaroscuro lighting.

      • Botticelli in the Fire, by Jordan Tannahill, directed by Marti Lyons, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington