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

Toast

Robert Silverman watches the crew clean up after a performance of True West.

This is the essence of it—there’s your craft, your technique and training, and the direction and the show’s design and all the elements that combine to make a play a play, and then there’s The Thing You Can’t Fake.

And yet… sewing ribbon for typewriter ribbon—gotta remember that. And the potted plant as its own periaktos is brilliant.

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

Some links: 84

All theater-themed links today!

  • Mike Nussbaum, “reportedly the oldest working stage actor in America,” talks to Scott Simon.
  • Mark Liberman speculates about the origins of the signature phrase from Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, “I’m here to be told.”
  • David Kortava watches fight choreographer B. H. Barry design a brawl for the Met’s Faniculla del West.

    His principal concern, though, was that the scene’s most stirring moment, in which an actor leaps from a balcony, occurs too early in the sequence. “Rudolf Nureyev”—the late Soviet ballet dancer—“taught me never to open all your Christmas presents at once,” Barry said….

  • Another map of the New Orleans streetcar network that would have helped Blanche Dubois get where she needed to go.