Doubt: A Parable

A powerful, compact, thought-provoking piece of theater: at St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, academic principal Sister Aloysius (the heralded Cherry Jones) becomes convinced that the parish priest Father Flynn (genial, robust Chris McGarry) has made inappropriate contact with one of her students. The time is the early 1960s, when the Catholic Church was undergoing the reforms accompanying the Second Vatican Council, taking steps towards accessibility, tolerance, and openness.

Yet flinty Sr. Aloysius, for whom even “satisfaction is a vice,” remains committed to the severities and regimen of the past. She gave up sugar for Lent one year, and when the season was over, forgot to resume the indulgence. She is convinced of Fr. Flynn’s misconduct on the merest shreds of evidence—and yet, she would ask, how much proof is needed when the exploitation of a twelve-year-old boy is at stake?

Fr. Flynn, for his part, answers her from the pulpit with a homily about accusations: as impossible as it is to catch the feathers of a torn pillow scattered to the wind, just so is it impossible to unsay a word of unsupported suspicion. As solid as Aloysius is in her certainly, Flynn finds comfort and a reminder of his own humanity in doubt. Of himself and his blamelessness? Perhaps.

Between the two stands Sister James, a young teacher at the school, played particularly effectively by Lisa Joyce. This is a role that in lesser hands would reveal its structural nature of providing exposition and comic relief, but Joyce gives the role reality. Despite her stated convictions, first on one side and then the other, it’s clear that she remans troubled with her own doubts.

As directed by Doug Hughes, there is a certain judiciousness in the early scenes, which play out for the most part in Aloysius’s cinderblock office and in the plain flower garden that separates the school from the priest’s quarters. Blocking is minimal. Jones keeps her hands bundled inside her habit, so that when she reveals them to ask for support or to make a point, the simple gesture has a lot of punch.

So it feels a little too much when emotions get the better of Flynn and Aloysius and the proceedings culminate in a shouting match between the two.

All around, dialects were sometimes difficult to place, sounding more Boston than Bronx.

But the closing moments of the play are perfectly modulated and genuine.

John Patrick Shanley’s notes to the play include an epigraph from Ecclesiastes 1:18: “…in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

  • Doubt: A Parable, by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Doug Hughes, The National Theatre, Washington

Orson’s Shadow

This imagined reconstruction of the unlikely collaboration of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier on a 1960 production of Rhinoceros amuses, but fails to excite. To be sure, two egos as large as those of Olivier and Welles have not collided on a Bethesda stage since Shakespeare, Moses, and Joe Papp several seasons ago, and two more colorfully neurotic artists in eclipse (Welles’s truimphant Citizen Kane already nearly two decades in the past, Olivier on the verge of dropping his second wife, the forlorn Vivien Leigh) would be hard to find. But how much spark can a play generate when its first act climax is a hiring decision?

Wilbur Edwin Henry is particularly effective at capturing the bear at bay that was Orson Welles at mid-career.

  • Orson’s Shadow, by Austin Pendleton, conceived by Judith Auberjonois, directed by Jerry Whiddon, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Maryland

Vigils

“Plants grow and die at the same time each year, and that makes them easier to love.” So says one character in Woolly’s current offering by Noah Haidle, a bittersweet fantasy about love, death, and letting go; the play’s theatrical construction has hints of Tony Kushner and Craig Wright.

Widow (all character names are anonymized to role names) has spent the last two years of her life mourning the death of her firefighter husband. Her clinging to the past takes on physical form, as she keeps his Soul (the surprising Michael Russotto) locked in a box at the foot of her bed. Widow (the always-strong Naomi Jacobson) and Soul replay and replay scenes from their less-than-happy life together—their marriage was forced by an unplanned pregnancy, which subsequently ended in a miscarriage— in sort of a Truly, Madly, Deeply meets Groundhog Day mashup. Unable to control their memories, Soul and WIdow replay scenes of pain more often than those of happiness, and although each would like to utter the words that would undo the pain, each scene repeats as in the past. Soul’s replays are carried out in part by Body (hunky Matthew Montelongo) because Soul is now blind, as he waits out the time on earth before Widow can release him to the afterlife. (The significance and theatrical effectiveness of Soul’s blindness is, unfortunately, lost on me.)

The three are almost overmatched by the perfect J. Fred Shiffman as the adenoidal Wooer, a fireman friend of the family. Shiffman’s Wooer is an amiable dork, awkward at small talk, who simply loves Widow and wants her to move on with her life.

Lest it be thought a heavy show, the play is still a comedy, and fantasy elements keep the mood light. A show-stopping set piece at a high school reunion calls for the four principals to line-dance to an old Britney Spears song, just because. Alas, the Foy flying apparatus for Soul and Widow, however effective, is still a bit obtrusive.

It’s an interesting twist that Wooer can interact, to a limited degree, with Soul. Haidle, young but already skilled in the art of putting a play together, says in a playbill interview,

To write the things I am trying to write, you have to establish the rules very quickly and the audience will give you their time. They’ll go with you for about eight minutes. And in those eight minutes you can do anything, but you have to show them that they’re in a world that has rules. You establish those rules, and most importantly I think, and I don’t know how you do this, but I think you have to tell them when they get to go home.

  • Vigils, by Noah Haidle, directed by Colette Searls, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

¡Noche Latina!

Septime Webre and the Washington Ballet mix it up Latin style with live music—in the lobby, on stage, and in the pit—and Latin works by three choreograpers, including a restaging of Webre’s own Juanita y Alicia. Even though some of the company’s stars are missing, it makes for a fun evening.

After an opening serenade by Mariachi Los Amigos, the dancing opens with Paul Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera, a suite of tangos set to music by Astor Piazzolla and Jerzy Peterburshsky, Sona Kharatian brings a leggy soulfulness to the “Celos” section, nicely balanced by the pair of comic borrachos danced by Jonathan Jordan and Jason Hartley. It’s an easy dance to enjoy, but perhaps not to love, with its unbalanced casting of seven men and five women. Its featured role (created, I believe, by Francie Huber) doesn’t have a clean break after the solo to give us the opportunity to applaud.

Mystic Warriors, performingly traditional Andean music, provides the intermission music. Following the break is Nacho Duato’s Na Floresta. Maki Onuki continues to develop her artistry, dancing two good solos, one slow, one fast. The time following this dance, ordinarily filled by another trip to the lobby, is taken—nay, stolen—by harp virtuoso Celso Duarte and his band, Jarocho Fusion.

Webre’s dance closes the evening, accompanied live by Cuban salsa band Sin Miedo. An extended family and friends assemble for a garden party, dressed in crisp off-whites, the women in pointe shoes, the men in jackets and Bermuda shorts. But an earthier element is also present in the form of Luis Torres, wearning colorful native trousers and not much else. The two factions come together in his duet with the robust Elizabeth Gaither, who doffs the linen and imported European decorum. She snaps off a crackling good run of very fast partnered turns.

  • ¡Noche Latina!, Washington Ballet, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, Washington

The Skriker

Nanna Ingvarsson executes a star turn in the title role of one of Caryl Churchill’s more demanding texts, The Skriker. The Skriker is “a shapeshifter and death portent, ancient and damaged,” and she is accompanied by all manner of denizens from the underworld of British folk tales—spriggans, kelpies, brownies—in this story set in modern England, originally produced in 1994. The Skriker carries off one, perhaps two, young working-class women (the effective Katie Atkinson and Lindsay Haynes) to the deeps below a no-longer green and pleasant Britain. The narrative, although ultimately unsatisfying in its perfunctory conclusion, carries echoes of the Persephone myth as well.

The Skriker speaks a slippery, allusive, punning speech with a logic of its own that brings to mind Monty Python’s Word Association Football sketch rewritten by James Joyce, and Ingvarsson and director Kathleen Akerley deserve high marks for making the words, at times impenetrable on the page, meaningful and accessible. Here’s a fragment from the punishing opening monologue:

Out of her pinkle lippety loppety, out of her mouthtrap, out came my secreted garden flower of my youth and beauty and the beast is six six six o’clock in the morning becomes electric stormy petrel bomb.

If the no-frills production doesn’t always manage the scene transitions well, it should be credited with finding a use for the Warehouse’s door to the back parking lot (a kind of Hades itself) that opens directly into the auditorium. Many of the folklore characters will be unknown to American audiences (who, at best, might know who the Green Man is), so it’s too bad that Churchill doesn’t give us more time and text to get to know the excellently-named demon Rawheadandbloodybones.

  • The Skriker, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Kathleen Akerley, Forum Theatre & Dance, Warehouse Theater, Washington

Paul Taylor Dance Company

The company presents two new, quite disparate works, framed by two older pieces set on music by G. F. Handel.

If Taylor’s Promethean Fire (2002) is read as a bold, optimistic response to the events of 9/11, his Banquet of Vultures (2005) is a grim, darkly pessimistic reaction to the prosecution of hostilities ever since those attacks. In murky, just-liminal light provided by Jennifer Tipton, dancers in olive drab jumpsuits cross the stage in headlong runs that suggest the Hoarders and Wasters of Dante’s Inferno. Three men struggle in a pool of light, with ever-shifting support, while another writhes in another pool of light stippled with blackness. MIchael Trusnovec, dressed in a black suit and red tie, hunches his shoulders like Tricky Dick and jerks about, barely in control of the situation: he’s Death in a power suit. This piece showcases the Taylor men with steps that remind one of Cloven Kingdom.

Offsetting this dance is the brief, comic Troilus and Cressida (reduced) (2006), featuring Taylor’s go-to girl for clowning, Lisa Viola. A travesty of classical conventions, set on Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours (yes, the one with the dancing pachyderms), the piece gets mileage out of Viola’s big visible effort in her jumps that lifts her at most three inches off the deck. She is matched by Robert Kleinendorst, who has to partner her while she climbs over his shoulder and back down his back, all the while his harem pants having fallen to his ankles. Subtle is not the word for it.

Rounding out the evening are the measured, stately Airs from 1978 and the very early Aureole (1962), featuring big straight arms that whirl like pinwheels. It’s a light, lovely piece, like spring clouds scudding about.

  • Paul Taylor Dance Company, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, Washington

One of the simple joys of visiting the Kennedy Center is the coconut-scented liquid soap in the washrooms.

The Little Prince

RHT brings a gentle touch to the theatrical elements of this adaption of the short novel by Saint-Exupéry, the wide-eyed fairy tale well-known to tenth-grade French students nationwide. The Snake first appears behind a scrim, then fully lit but still in pantomime, manipulated by a puppeteer, before finally appearing in the form of a human actor; the various “big men” that the Little Prince meets in his fall to earth appear in a circus wagon-sized frame.

But the text of the production is faithful to the words and drawings of the novel, at times slavishly so, as when Craig Wallace (the aviator-narrator of the story) speaks to us exactly what he’s thinking. On the other hand, something we miss from Saint-Ex is the Little Prince’s jaunty cutaway royal gown: to accommodate the exuberant physicality of Jamie Kassel’s characterization, perhaps, the Prince wears some sort of bedraggled nightshirt. Kassel fully commits herself in her playing, but two shows in a row in Bethesda that feature principals with squeaky voices is a little too much to ask of us.

In the second half, as the Fox, Wallace has more scenery to chew, and he does so endearingly. The episode of the taming of the Fox is managed as a manic dance to Jacques Brel’s “La valse à mille temps,” and it’s a show-stopper.

  • The Little Prince, by Rick Cummins and John Scoullar, based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, directed by Eric Ting, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Maryland

Martha, Josie, and the Chinese Elvis

Woolly’s American premiere of Jones’s comedy set in Bolton, in the north of England, may not knock it for six, but the solid production does score a run. The signature Woolly Mammoth theatrical elements are present: a dominatrix mom considering retirement; her two daughters, one of them a bit thick in the head; her shiny-pated client, proprietor of a local dry-cleaning establishment; an Irish cleaning woman with OCD; a neophyte Elvis impersonator from somewhere in the Far East, who has all the singer’s looks but is still learning the words to the songs; and those all-important fur-lined handcuffs. These are enough to keep the punchlines bouncing around the two-level half-timbered set, while themes of reconciliation and costuming and concealment play out.

Sarah Marshall’s natural comic rhythms are sometimes at odds with the dialect called for by her Martha, but she has a lovely, heartfelt second-act monologue that gives her character the opportunity to explain herself.

  • Martha, Josie, and the Chinese Elvis, by Charlotte Jones, directed by John Vreeke, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

Washington Ballet mixed bill

Sona Kharatian shines in the third of the duets in Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, the stormy and dramatic dance of the three. Robbins’ lyrical piece, set on Chopin piano nocturnes, is put together with simple materials, assembled masterfully.

Artistic Director Septime Webre’s new offering, oui/non, is a suite of dances to songs from the Edith Piaf songbook, sung live by Karen Akers. The company’s men meet the partnering challenge laid down by this piece, with nearly every song featuring a set of complicated gymnastic lifts; Erin Mahoney-Du’s partner in “Non, je ne regrette rien,” Luis Torres, seems to have sprouted a third arm in order to keep up. Akers breaks some hearts with some of Jacques Brel’s most piercing material.

The suite is just the right length to set us up for a rousing performance of the massive In the Upper Room, choreographed by Twyla Tharp to a score by Phillip Glass. The piece seems to be spun from nothing more than a backwards jazz run upstage by two dancers, but it flowers into a kaleidoscope of movement for thirteen. Norma Kamali’s costumes juxtapose prison stripes and leotards of a candied orange-raspberry color.

  • Washington Ballet mixed bill, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, Washington

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui

Catalyst Theater Company brings Bertolt Brecht’s chilling satire of the early career of Adolf Hitler to the friendly confines of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Written in exile from Germany while World War II still burned, Arturo Ui imagines Hitler as a comical gangster who sets out to organize the vegetable-sellers’ rackets in Chicago. With a thick Bronx accent, Arturo Ui and his henchmen are figures of fun out of a bad Jimmy Cagney movie—at least until the death toll begins to mount and Ui invades neighboring Austria (or Cicero, as the play would have it).

Scot McKenzie’s inhabiting of Ui is at its most frightening when he pauses in a climactic monologue and just stares us down. This before launching a stunning Hitlerian tirade that swamps the black box theater and the handful of cast members who provide background applause.

The evenly-matched ensemble cast of eight executes multiple duties, serving as scene shifters, lighting operators, and a three-piece orchestra. Some of the scene shifts take longer than we would like, but most transitions are covered by slide-show projections that establish the connection between events in the play and those in 1930’s Germany. Standouts include Grady Weatherford’s sotted Fish, scapegoated for the play’s Reichstag Fire stand-in; as well as Scott McCormick and his robust baritone, placed in the service of Butcher, Giri, and other roles, and a brisk second-act opening song.

  • The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, by Bertolt Brecht, directed by Christopher Gallu, Catalyst Theater Company, Washington

A Prayer for Owen Meany

Plays that trade on the theme of Marilyn Monroe (Oates’s Miss Golden Dreams, Russell’s Blood Brothers) are rarely successful, though I can’t articulate why. Perhaps they mistake icon for import. Simon Bent’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany likewise fails to impress.

Despite some highly theatrical technical elements—a flying actor; basketballs dropping from the sky; and an overwhelming set piece in the third act that involves revealing the back wall of the theater, painted as the Stars and Stripes three stories high while Vietnam War dead are delivered home by forklift—Irving’s black comedy of faith leaves us wondering why this story had to be told. It is the story of diminutive Owen, a “boy with a wrecked voice” who has premonitions of his own death and a heroic sacrifice. In a setting of New England grotesques out of Thornton Wilder, and told in tightly cued overlapping scenes, preternaturally spiritual Owen takes on the role of a wise child. The trouble is that Irving, Bent, director Blake Robison, and actor Matthew Detmer have given Owen a comically squeaky voice more appropriate to Burr Tillstom and Fran Allison’s clown puppet Ollie. Owen’s pronouncements of wisdom against the tradition-bound clerics of his hometown are flat and trite; he comes off as a grating smartass more at home on Saturday morning television. Maybe the idea worked better in the book.

The play picks up some momentum in the third act with an unsettling visitation by Lenny Bruce and Owen goes off to war. Too little, too late.

  • A Prayer for Owen Meany, novel by John Irving, adapted by Simon Bent, directed by Blake Robison, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Maryland

Contemporary American Theater Festival, 2006

This year’s festival includes a pair of memory plays, both of them premieres, Kim Merrill’s Sex, Death, and the Beach Baby and Keith Glover’s Jazzland. Merrill tells of a young woman haunted by a betrayal and death by drowning off the Jersey shore, while Glover riffs on the tensions between jazz and rock and roll. In Jazzland, a young jazz trumpeter, Roderigo, in recovery from an automobile accident, pieces the story of his own life back together as well as that of his father, Ram, an alto saxophonist who, following popular sentiment, began playing rock gigs. Questions of artistic integrity and faithfulness to an idiom are raised, but the play’s high-flying abstractions leave us with characters not fully realized. The most inventive material in the piece, as well as the most successful, is the recreation of the gigs played by Roderigo, Ram, and Ram’s partner Twist. Rather than demand expert musicianship from his actors, Glover gives them spoken-word pieces that they perform over a recorded-music background: the air crackles when Ram (the rich-voiced Joseph Adams) and Miles-like trumpeter Twist (the electric Scott Whitehurst) start trading eights.

Christopher Durang’s student Noah Haidle brings us the published Mr. Marmalade, a twisted comic fantasy told through the eyes of four-year-old Lucy, played by the full-grown Anne Marie Nest. Lucy’s single-parented life is rather grim, so it’s not surprising that her imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade, is as likely to smack her around or take cellphone calls during Tea Party as he is to take her ballroom dancing or cruising to Mexico. Sara Kathryn Bakker steals her scene as Sunflower, imaginary friend or Lucy’s new real-world friend, dweeby Larry (dressed hysterically by Margaret A. McKowen).

CATF veterans Carolyn Swift, Andy Prosky, and Kaci Gober return in the best show of the festival, Richard Dresser’s new Augusta. Dresser’s latest satire of life on the fringes of the corporate world has his signature dangerous bite: imagine chewing on a live electrical cord. Prosky’s middle manager Jimmy is in charge of teams of house cleaners, including the pair formed by just-hanging-on Molly (Swift) and just-getting-started Claire (Gober). Jimmy’s glad-handing smile, so disconnected from the small-minded manipulations going on behind it, is frightening. Swift’s Molly, ever blasted by life, has a posture when she’s being chewed out by Jimmy that looks like she’s being blown through a wind tunnel without Swift moving a muscle. Shaun L. Motley’s clever three-level set serves as the mansion that Claire and Molly clean, several restaurants and hotel rooms, and Jimmy’s office. The set cantilevers beds and divans into empty space, and its half-height floors remind us of the tilted world of Being John Malkovich. At the end of this play, proposed as the first of a trilogy on happiness (?!), after he is hoist by his own petty schemes, Jimmy is philosophical: “In this line of work, you learn to take the bad with the really bad.”

  • Sex, Death, and the Beach Baby, by Kim Merrill, directed by Karen Carpenter
  • Mr. Marmalade, by Noah Haidle, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Jazzland, by Keith Glover, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Augusta, by Richard Dresser, directed by Lucie Tiberghien
  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.