Category Archives: Reviews

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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Winners and Losers

Winners and Losers is an intriguing agon of words, a novel way to open up personal storytelling. Scripted and performed by Marcus Youssef and James Long, both of Vancouver, B.C., with breakouts of improvisatory riffs and a quick game of ping-pong, the work is a rapid-fire debate over the question of who, or what, is the biggest winner.

Warming up with a quick assessment of what they had for dinner last night, they move on to topics like whether Canada or the U.S has handled its First Nations/American Indian issues better. Digging most deeply, they confront one another: is James or Marcus the more worldly wise, the better father, the more successful person?

It’s key to their argument that you have to consider the resources randomly doled out to each of us when we commence this Checkered Game of Life. Through a bit of mental martial arts, a dominant culture like the U.S. can be seen as weak. (To physicalize this line of reasoning, the two men engage in a brief [we hope, choreographed] bout of wrestling.) Perhaps they explain it best in an interview with Woolly:

MARCUS: Doing the show in DC is a dream. You guys live in the centre. Of an empire. Holy winner. And we feel like winners just for being invited–that’s the Canadian way. But is your empire in decline? Seems like it. Then who’s the bigger loser? You guys, for an electoral system entirely about raising unimaginable sums of cash over an absurd length of time? Or the rest of us, for paying far closer attention to your endless electoral sideshow than than what’s actually going on in our own countries?

The stories they tell are sometimes hilarious, sometimes chastening (Marcus once worked in a hospital laundry, sorting through the fouled sheets of the departed), sometimes a little crazy (James’s set piece in a dive bar about swapping insult jokes with a First Nations man recently released from prison). Embellished? Perhaps. But it makes a good story.

James and Marcus are marvels of the improvisatory “yes-and” even when the requirements of the piece call for a “no-but.”

  • Winners and Losers, created and performed by Marcus Youssef and James Long, directed by Chris Abraham, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Women Laughing Alone with Salad

Sheila Callaghan’s new play, a satire of gender roles and social expectations about mental and physical fitness, features some high-energy set pieces: white girls rapping about how to satisfy them, a dance club that morphs into a Paris boîte in the 1920s, a food fight with heads of lettuce. There’s a rejuvenation regimen with just a few nasty side effects that suggests the grotesqueries of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. What the play lacks is any sort of emotional journey for Meredith, Tori, or Sandy to embark upon.

It’s only in the second act, when a well-executed reversal develops, that we see much in the way of human feelings: it comes in the form of a lovely monologue by Janet Ulrich Brooks, looking back on the life of her first act character (Sandy) through the eyes of Sandy’s son.

  • Women Laughing Alone with Salad, by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Kip Fagan, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2015

A Festival that gives the design departments an opportunity to shine.

¶ In her new play, World Builders, Johnna Adams revisits some of the territory she last explored in the distasteful Gidion’s Knot (this time to better effect): the power and importance of personal worlds of the imagination, albeit streaked with fantasies of revenge and death. Whitney (Brenna Palughi) and Max (Chris Thorn) are psychiatric patients enrolled in a clinical drug study who face a familiar dilemma: continue treatment, but at the loss of their individual universes, hearts, and souls.

While Whitney’s interior world is an elaborate multiplanetary melodrama, something out of George R. R. Martin (a writer mentioned by Adams in her program notes), Max imagines a constricted place more suggestive of Beckett’s The Lost Ones. In a rather intense, economical 90 minutes, it’s a bit of comic relief when Max finds logical inconsistencies in Whitney’s complex apparatus.

Whitney and Max develop what you might call a relationship, and along the way find a way to accommodate one another’s fantasies—a good metaphor for the space each of us sacrifices to make room for another person in our worlds, our hearts.

Arshan Gailus supplies the subtle, effective soundscape.

¶ The strongest and most ambitious piece is Everything You Touch, by Sheila Callaghan, a rich, dark comic fantasia of fashion and body image, nougat laced with hot sauce. We follow the paired journeys of Jess (Dina Thomas), a schlubby software technologist of the present day who has rejected her mother’s ideals of feminine beauty (and disparages herself for it); and Victor (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), a 1970s fashion designer who breaks onto the scene as an Alexander McQueen/Malcolm McLaren-ish child of the avant garde and undergoes a Damascene conversion into an easy, breezy Halston-like esthetic. Scenes interleave, mixing up present and past. Victor and Jess, each in their own way, come to a crossroads of identity, asking am I defined by this schmatte that I’m wearing? by the fast-food restaurant I frequent? Do I want to make art, or be accepted by the buyers for Dillard’s? And each makes a choice, although Victor’s is quite different from Jess’s.

The technical elements of this production need to be on the Festival’s highlight reel. Foremost among these elements are the costumes designed by Peggy McKowen, launching the play with a series of outrageous couture pieces for Victor’s 1974 show. The actor/models in that show also serve as ensemble, as well as autonomous set pieces to fill in the multiple locations called for by the script. What a luxury for director May Adrales to be furnished with a bedside table that can react to a remark by Jess about her mother. Also key for getting us from place to place are the projections, designed by Shawn Duan and projected against David M. Barber’s set. (I’m still wondering how Duan achieved the effect that ends the prologue.)

Some parts of the more outré costumes feel out of place in the mid-seventies, at times leaving us a bit confused about when we are. And the dialogue (and relationship) between Jess and her engineer colleague Lewis is rather weak.

But if you’ve only time for one show in this year’s Festival, Everything You Touch is the one to see.

¶ Michael Weller’s adaptation of David Carkeet’s novel, The Full Catastrophe, is an entertaining comedy of relationships that doesn’t reach too far. Jeremy Cook, a professional linguist down on his academic luck, takes a position as an unconventional marriage counselor with the Pillow Group, led by eccentric magnate Roy Pillow (Festival favorite Lee Sellars). To say that Pillow’s methods are opaque would be utter understatement.

In bringing the book to the stage, Weller excises an unnecessary subplot of professional jealousy but retains Jeremy’s point of view narration. If the early passages are a bit too expositional, Jeremy’s wry asides to us are usually worth it. T. Ryder Smith, covering the enesemble roles (his program credit is “Everyone Else”), earned his ovation for his last character’s final exit.

¶ Steven Dietz, in the program notes to his thriller, On Clover Road, says that the play is “built to take members of the audience certain that know what is going to happen and instead something wholly different happens.” Unfortunately, what does happen here, especially at the crux of Act 1 into Act 2, is wholly implausible.

The set, designed by David M. Barber and lit by John Ambrosone, is a grungy, crepuscular abandoned motel room. Much of the action is primarily illuminated by a portable mechanic’s work light, positioned down center on the floor. The lamp’s position and the slight rake of the stage make a powerful shadow play on the back wall.

The story of the play concerns a dissolute mother seeking to extract her teenage daughter from a religious cult with the assistance of a deprogrammer of questionable means. We’re left with no one to root for, even when the cult leader, played with silicone-slick determination by Tom Coiner, appears in the second half.

WE ARE PUSSY RIOT, by Barbara Hammond, brings new life to the expression “show trial.” The play provides a context for the antics of the provocative Russian feminist group, a punk artist collective whose means and motives are easily misinterpreted by Western media.

The piece incorporates a jumble of overtly theatrical elements, some more successful than others: exaggerated gesture, lines spoken as a chorus, audience participation, a dance break with Madonna (who has spoken publicly in support of the group). If the pre-show in the cramped lobby of the Marinoff is a muddle, the cast are quick on their feet in dealing with audience members. (On premiere night, T. Ryder Smith, as Russian prosecutor, gave somewhat willing volunteer Paul a sheet of charges to read; when Paul begged off, saying that he needed his reading glasses, Smith bounded back to Paul’s companion in search of the specs.)

The scenes of the 2012 trial of three members of Pussy Riot, with dialogue taken almost exclusively from public statements, are interleaved with scenes in the cell of dissident Sergey (Smith, again), a composite character. While we are left with the impression that the young women’s movement will prove to be a flash in the pan, the passages with Sergey give the play gravity, bringing all that dancing on the catwalk back to earth. Russia’s problems and injustices aren’t going away soon, and maybe this kick in the shins from these young women with their guitars and video cameras will spark something of lasting impact.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • World Builders, by Johnna Adams, directed by Nicole A. Watson
  • Everything You Touch, by Sheila Callaghan, directed by May Adrales
  • On Clover Road, by Steven Dietz, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • WE ARE PUSSY RIOT, by Barbara Hammon, directed by Tea Alagić
  • The Full Catastrophe, by Michael Weller, based on the novel by David Carkeet, directed by Ed Herendeen
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Zombie: The American

Robert O’Hara’s Zombie: The American makes an interesting bookend to Woolly’s season with its opener, David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, in that both imagine the courtly intrigues in the centers of power—as Adjmi looks at late 18th-century France, O’Hara fancies a mid-21st-century USA in profound eclipse. But where Adjmi’s theatricality revealed a tender heart, the present work is a Grand Guignol melodrama of mashed-up metaphors. O’Hara’s heavy-handed message is that our culture has done some brutal things to get where it is today, and we should just own up to that. OK, there are zombies in the basement.

The future setting allows the imagination of costume designer Ivania Stack, who produces some trippy suits for the American President and his First Gentleman: exaggerated, but following a believable trend line. Sarah Marshall’s Lady Secretary of State Jessica Bloom resembles one of Ian Falconer’s ladies of a certain age, grimly leaning into the wind. The hidden treat of this show is Luigi Sottile, who plays three different factotums of the Presidential Court, all of them biological clones equipped with some sort of bionic artificial intelligence. His supercilious, sexy Royal Butler is worth the trip to D Street, N.W.

  • Zombie: The American, by Robert O’Hara, directed by Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Man of La Mancha

A strong production of this audience favorite, certainly a standard against which other productions can be judged.

The prison that Cervantes/Don Quixote finds himself suggests, somewhat anachronistically, an abandoned industrial facility, full of echoes; high above the relatively shallow playing space, a catwalk looms, from which a vertiginous stairway can be lowered. There is a substantial flywheel sort of thing: it’s useful as a means to subdue Aldonza during “The Abduction,” and it works well to suggest the windmill at which Don Quixote must tilt, but it otherwise seems to come from another time. A solid door in the floor always closes with an ominous bang.

Anthony Warlow does a fine job as the eponymous Knight of the Woeful Countenance. His reading of the play’s signature song, “The Impossible Dream,” builds from a quiet, half-spoken verse to a powerful climax. As Sancho Panza, Nehal Joshi is doe-eyed and slightly crazed, a character from a Disney cartoon who has tumbled into the direst of straits. Nice bit with the bench for “I Really Like Him.” The ensemble of muleteers provides much of the percussion that drives the Spanish-inflected score.

Sight lines and sound lines are often not the same. Listening from our row E seats, the amplified sound was occasionally murky, and sometimes those industrial echoes worked against telling the story.

  • Man of La Mancha, written by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh, lyrics by Joe Darion, directed by Alan Paul, Shakespeare Theatre Company Sidney Harman Hall, Washington
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Lights Rise on Grace

Chad Beckim’s economical three-hander tells the story of an unconventional love triangle among Grace, her husband Large, and the man he meets in prison, Riece. The play weaves together narrative monologue passages with deft ensemble scenes, with blade-sharp transitions between. It’s most enjoyable in an early scene from high school, where painfully shy Grace (the flexible Jeena Yi) first meets, goofy, affable Large (endearing DeLance Minefree).

It’s an actorly work—the players get to show off their chops—but one that’s less than engaging. The piece’s insistent mirrored structure, featuring pairs of completely different scenes played with almost identical dialog, comes off as excessively symmetrical. It touches on themes of race relations and the compromises we make to survive in challenging situations without going very deep.

  • Lights Rise on Grace, by Chad Beckim, directed by Michael John Garcés, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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The Pigeoning

Frank works in a shabby office, with nothing but his own OCD and a rather talkative office safety manual for company. The expression on his face usually registers somewhere between bemusement and mild alarm. Frank is also a bunraku puppet and the protagonist of this 60-minute piece—a charming, often goofy, at times phantasmagorically frightening tale of one man’s obsession with common city pigeons and the secret messages they carry to us.

Writer/director Robin Frohardt always lets us know what Frank is thinking, which is rather a challenge because Frank is wordless (we do hear some expressively heavy sighs from him); a lot of the information about Frank’s emotional and cognitive states is the responsibility of composer Freddi Price. Doubling on laptop, Price’s sound effects are clean and crisp, and sometimes not quite what they seem.

There’s a lot of good straightforward puppetry here: a formidable trash monster, a hilarious set of venetian blinds with a mind of its own. Frohardt is not afraid to go a little meta, as well, as when Frank himself turns feckless puppeteer. But the core of this piece is Frank’s endearing personality (although I don’t think I’d want to share a break room with him), sometimes revealed by something as simple as the squeak of a highlighting pen.

  • The Pigeoning, created and directed by Robin Frohardt, composed by Freddi Price, Artisphere Dome Theatre, Arlington, Va.

This was my first (and very likely last) opportunity to visit Artisphere’s friendly Dome Theatre (the ceiling of which was used very creatively to register an underwater effect). Alas, the multivenue county-funded facility is slated to be closed later this year.

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King Hedley II

Wilson set his agon in the back yards of three Pittsburgh row houses. By contrast, the set for this production is spare, with nary a building in sight: nearly the only nod to realism is the patch of stony ground where King tries to grow flowers. To a certain extent this abstract approach works: Stool Pigeon’s opening prologue is given to the rest of the characters, who generally remain onstage throughout the evening. One gets the sense of a ritualistic retelling of a Greek tragedy. And the squared-off space of the Fichandler is the perfect setting for King’s Act 1 closing monologue by Bowman Wright, lightning escaping from the bottle. Would that the ring speeches on the pro wrestling circuit could be as terrifying.

E. Faye Butler produces some powerful, throaty vocal colors in her reading of Ruby. And André De Shields gives us a clear-headed Stool Pigeon. Thrust into the role of the community’s savant (now that the multicentenarian Aunt Esther has passed), their Teiresias manqué, Stool Pigeon never falls into the trap of mere mumbling craziness.

  • King Hedley II, by August Wilson, directed by Timothy Douglas, Arena Stage Fichandler Stage, Washington
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Mary Stuart

Many strong D.C. area actors combine to perform this this play of historical fiction, written in 1800. The payoff comes in the second half, a meeting in the woods of the two royal antagonists, Queen Elizabeth of England (a bottled-up Holly Twyford, until she explodes) and the eponymous Queen Mary of Scotland (Kate Eastwood Norris, beaming with paradoxical purity). And it’s a good payoff, but perhaps not enough to redeem the first half, laden with exposition and little lyricism, a challenge to the actors’ breath control. Rajesh Bose presents an interesting take on Lord Burleigh, hard-line adviser to Elizabeth who counsels her to execute Mary posthaste: he parks himself on stage and avoids superfluous movement. One is put in mind of a 16th-century Jabba the Hutt.

  • Mary Stuart, by Friedrich Schiller, in a new version by Peter Oswald, directed by Richard Clifford, Folger Theatre, Washington
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Long Road Home

It was quite a pleasure to see a full evening’s program from Company E, after having seen this young modern-dance organization at the VelocityDC Dance Festival showcase. The opener, the duet “Alma,” introduces an intriguing twist: the floor is liberally scattered with Granny Smith apples. Finding a way to execute the piece within this self-imposed structural obstacle makes for a dance with a fresh, improvisational vibe—quite satisfying. The piece also flirts with that silly pass-the-orange game that our hip parents used to play. (The company has filmed a site-specific version of “Alma” at a temple in Shanghai.)

“Jerky Boy’s Dream,” a premiere, takes us into mid-century pop dances: frugs and jitterbugs. If the choice of music is uneven (The Tijuana Brass is lovely camp, but really, do we need to hear Mrs. Miller?), the fourth dance of the suite, in which the pair manipulate each other like love-struck marionettes, is very sexy.

Paul Gordon Emerson’s “Falling” is a beautiful signature piece for the company, executed this time by Vanessa Owen and Robert J. Priore: an insistently yearning, driving movement from stage right to left, with holy music by Arvo Pärt.

The evening’s other premiere, the ensemble dance “Dialogue of a Portrait,” is powered by late-century techno by Autechre and others. Seven dancers gradually amass in a tight pool of light before bursting into hard-edged, robotic movement: this is what social dancing will look like when there are twenty billion of us on the planet. But let’s hope we’re not wearing this unflattering makeup.

  • Long Road Home, Company E, Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, Washington
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Famous Puppet Death Scenes

A collection of short pieces of puppetry, all of them concerned with death—or more broadly and accurately, the evanescence of existence—from the broadly comic to the baldly conceptual. The company uses a variety of techniques and materials: some of them are rather steampunk and indebted to Edward Gorey, while others depend on such elements as an oversize popup book, a child’s play set of farm animals, or live-blown soap bubbles (chew on that, Joseph Cornell). (Some of the more obscure works of the Neo-Futurists find a certain affinity here.) Spoken English language is relegated to obscurity: perhaps the most effective pieces are wordless, narrated by grunts and gasps, or in a foreign language. Most of the time, the troupe is not concerned whether we see the manipulating hands or not: if it happens, it happens. While the interludes spoken by “Nathanial Tweak,” one of the few articulating puppets in the cast, lend little to the proceedings, the troupe’s ability to animate mute wood and plastic is strong.

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New venues, 2014

I visited several new spots, without making a big deal of it this year.

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

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The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism…

The collisions of ideas and recriminations that highlight the first two acts of Tony Kushner’s Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, multiple conversations/arguments taking place in the Brooklyn brownstone of Gus Marcantonio, are by turns invigorating and exhausting. Whereas OTC is fond of referring to the overlapping dialog in the second act of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County as the “fugue of dysfunction,” in Kushner’s work there is no delicate counterpoint, but rather Ivesian clangor—albeit modulated deftly by director John Vreeke.

The house of Marcantonio (Gus’s three children, his sister, an ex-son-in-law, two same-sex partners, and a baby on the way) is replete with people of higher learning and the word: a former nurse, a lawyer, two theology Ph.D.’s, a historian ABD. As for Gus (the firm Tom Wiggin), he’s a mere autodidact, a retired longshoreman and radical labor organizer who taught himself Latin and translates Horace for recreation. It’s not surprising (and yet it’s very funny) when the two theologians bicker over a translation when one of them is going into labor.

Yet there is a hollowness in Gus’s soul (made perhaps too explicit by a subplot involving something hidden behind a broken plaster wall) that he can’t fill, a compromise made earlier in his life that he still regrets. And so he makes plans to make his quietus, to distribute his estate, thereby throwing his family into a tizzy.

A subplot centered on Gus’s son PierLuigi (known as “Pill”) explores the commodification of sex and some aspects of labor’s alienation that Karl Marx chose not to discuss. The love triangle involving Pill’s husband Paul and the weedy hustler Eli feels a bit labored, but is redeemed when Eli appears in the closing moments of the play to solve a problem for Gus.

In all this wordy maelstrom, the standouts are two women of quiet power: Jenifer Belle Deal as Shelle, a dockworker’s widow who matter-of-factly explains to Gus how a home suicide can be accomplished, and Rena Cherry Brown as Gus’s sister Clio (called “Zeeko”), a polytheist who left the convent to follow Mao and Mary Baker Eddy. Brown is at her most eloquent sitting calmly, with crossed arms, speaking when it is meet to speak.

Mashups of high-minded intellection and simple, sublime pleasures drive much of the humor in this piece. The payoff for one of Gus’s stories about the old country concerns an anarcho-communist choral society. Kushner swings from the nigglingly precise (as projections tell us, the play takes place in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood, in 2007, on such-and-such dates and at such-and-such times) to the sweepingly allegorical, as in Gus’s dream of the tragedians and the single audience member. The point of Gus’s parable is that the the tragedy takes place in the mind of the viewer. And so, as we watch Kushner’s play, we ask ourselves, where does this story of betrayal and collapse take place? There on the stage, or within each one of us?

  • The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, by Tony Kushner, directed by John Vreeke, Theater J, Washington
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Marie Antoinette

David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, a star turn for Woolly company member Kimberly Gilbert, has some affinities with the 2006 film of the same name by Sofia Coppola, but it also recalls Adjmi’s Stunning from 2008: a sheltered, privileged young woman, bratty at times and certainly ill-equipped to deal with the wider world, is hobbled by the man in her life, someone who proves to be weaker than she. Adjmi’s Marie says, “I feel like a game that other people play, but not me.” As her marzipan and fondant world dissolves all around her, this Marie’s journey is to a smaller, quieter place where she acquires some measure of fortitude, even in the hour of her doom.

The theatrical exaggeration and the “snapshots” of the famous lines from history in this script and production remind us that what we think we know about Marie’s story is only framing, not knowledge at all.

As events fall out and the pretty venue of the Petit Trianon disassembles into Marie’s prison, the complex set changes (e.g., rolling up a grass carpet to expose an iron-mesh deck) call for visible crew members to make the shifts—a rare, welcome sight at Woolly. Indeed, is this disassembly or dissembling: how many layers of artifice do the technicians need to peel away?

Sarah Marshall’s work as Sheep is expressive, even though her puppet has no articulation, just a head stuck on a pole. Ominous and playful, sometimes a head cock is all that’s needed.

  • Marie Antoinette, by David Adjmi, directed by Yury Urnov, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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