My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion

Sasha Denisova’s piece is an effective smash-up of memory play and topical satire, with a rotating set, live and canned video projections, and other theater tricks. With a recurring image of a huge mosquito with Vladimir Putin’s face surreally attached to it, there’s no question where Denisova and her titular Mama (always welcome Holly Twyford) stand on the current conflict.

Sasha’s Mama keeps herself grounded with traditional kitchen solutions to basic problems (no fridge? keep butter cool by submerging it in water), even as her appeals for relief in Kyiv climb the ladder of implausibility. A phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is followed up by interviews with increasingly powerful leaders, both global and extra-global. The projections enable what might be the first and only artistically defensible deepfake videos, as supporting cast member Linsday Smiling impersonates Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz in turn.

Director Yury Urnov employs other theatrical devices, including a slithering, bloodsucking Putin (Suli Holum in a full-head Putin mask) that brings to mind the depersonalized work of Jean-Claude van Ittalie. Holum, as narrator, Daughter, and stand-in for the playwright, keeps the audience engaged with a warm, charismatic connection.

  • My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion, by Sasha Denisova, directed by Yury Urnov, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

It’s live theater: at Sunday evening’s performance, Twyford cut her hand while Mama was slicing onions and haranguing Zelenskyy on the phone. With professional aplomb, she called for a hold while bandages were quickly fetched.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2023: 3

The strongest piece in this year’s festival, José Rivera’s Your Name Means Dream, returns to some of the themes explored by 2014’s Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons, Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, and Spike Jonze’s Her. Before we’re even quite settled, there’s a nice nod to Philip K. Dick.

Here, the android is Stacy (role created by the acrobatic Sara Koviak), fitted out as an emotional support robot and housekeeper for the titular Aislin (Anne O’Sullivan), an irascible New Yorker who’s been deserted by a string of hired human helpers, all of them frustrated by her stubbornness. Although there are sparks of HAL-like murderous behavior from Stacy (she’s only a prototype, subject to flaws in the machine), this play focuses more on whether Stacy has achieved what we would call empathy and the ability to recognize beauty—more to the point, to recognize the quality of beauty.

Stacy’s technology enables her to physically personify someone on the other end of a telephone (sic?) call with Aislin, in this case her loutish son Roberto. She can do a mean Joe Pesci. And her spectacular aria comes when Stacy performs a factory reset.

Here’s a question for your book group: Stacy encourages (browbeats) Aislin into eating healthy, exercising, enjoying herself, all in the service of prolonging her life. Yet Stacy’s program dictates that she expires when Aislin does. How does Stacy’s behavior qualitatively differ from ours, when we encourage (browbeat) a loved one to get off the couch, schedule a colonoscopy, or stay on prescribed medications?

Playwrights will no doubt be exploring new aspects of general artificial intelligence in years to come. Soon I expect to see something with a role explicitly written for a bot (no steelface, in other words). Perhaps a murder mystery featuring the lovelorn Sydney?

We in the audience are always intrigued by set dressing: we so missed the opportunity to see Aislin and Stacy play a round of Monopoly.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2023: 2

The four-sided Marinoff is the de rigueur venue for one-on-one prison conversations (see 2017’s We Will Not Be Silent), not to mention rumbly room tone (David Remedios’ sound design), and hence Chisa Hutchinson’s Redeemed finds its place there. In this instance, Trevor (Doug Harris), a white man imprisoned for beating an Asian man to death, is up for parole; he also has a book proposal for agent Claire (Elizabeth Sun), who (it just so happens) is the sister of the man Trevor killed.

While Sun’s Claire makes some nonobvious points (very forcefully) about the power relationships between whites and Asians, it’s also the case that most would find it impossible to find common ground with someone so angry. The open-ended conclusion of the play is legitimate, so far as it goes, but the narrative’s final twists are a cop-out. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if Trevor were completely sincere?

Jeffrey Lieber’ s Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction) inaugurates the friendly confines of the Shepherdstown Opera House as a CATF venue. The set, a cabin in the woods, fits well in the snug space (a small problem with masking for those of extreme house left). A three-hander with shades of Harold Pinter, the story is driven by withheld information and flirts with the possibility of alternate timelines. There’s a neat (and quite loud) cliffhanger to end the first act. The tidbits of biological research offered by Adele don’t resonate as much as the song that Miller remembers hearing when the three first met: Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield.”

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • Redeemed, by Chisa Hutchinson, directed by marcus d. harvey
  • Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction), by Jeffrey Lieber, directed by Susan V. Booth

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2023: 1

Orlandersmith’s monologue for Bronxite Virgil, a DJ who makes an unusual career change in mid life, is clearly a work in progress. At times working from a script, Virgil/Orlandersmith directly addresses the audience with a story of loss and life purpose found. Certain passages, like Virgil’s commutes on the subway, lack specificity, while others, such as Virgil’s apprenticeship, are quite graphic. A pronunciation issue briefly took me out of the story.

At the other end of the production values spectrum, Lynn Rosen brings The Overview Effect to the Frank Center’s well-outfitted stage. A maximalist fantasia on space exploration and modern entrepreneurship, with elements of a double sabotage mystery, the play isn’t coy about the models for its two spacefaring megalomaniacal antagonists: the program book interview identifies them as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. The feud between overwhelms the work’s throughline, the emotional journey of engineer-turned-private eye Dylan.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • Spiritus/ Virgil’s Dance, written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith, directed by Neel Keeler
  • The Overview Effect, by Lynn Rosen, directed by Courtney Sale



A disco shootout with a mom and her big-ass purse. Whatever happens, Tanya (Mom with the arsenal) (Nehassaiu deGannes) remembers to stay hydrated. Scenes with her matching pair of lawyers, Markus and Marcus (Breon Arzell and Brandon J. Pierce), are inspired.

  • Incendiary, by Dave Harris, directed by Monty Cole, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

The School for Lies

David Ives has still got it! His 105 minute reduction of Molière’s Misanthrope (from 2017) is like clarified butter, crackling with wordplay in rhyme. Bonobo is word you usually find in crossword puzzles, not scripts, but it’s in there. I also scribbled down zipless tango. Delicious!

The physical stuff is there, too. Roses to rubbery Dylan Arredondo as Philinte and Jacob Yeh as the preposterous prig Oronte.

The pace was perhaps a skosh too fast for this Sunday matinee audience to follow, but everyone found something to enjoy.

  • The School for Lies, by David Ives, inspired by Molière’s The Misanthrope, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington


Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s is a companion piece to her gritty Sweat. The new play is much lighter and more hopeful (even if the antagonist gets the last word), and is a tour de force for the props department. Four ex-felons work as sandwich makers and short order cooks, telling their stories while avoiding the domineering glare of their boss Clyde (force of nature Dee Dee Batteast)—there’s little plot to this long one act. As oppressed by Clyde as they were by any legal authority, nevertheless our scrappy chefs find creativity and meaning. They are led by the Zen master-ish Montrellous (the oracular Lamont Thompson) into a place something like freedom. Montrellous is a Jedi of the kitchen (sampling one of his coworker’s inventions, he says, “I can taste your impatience.”)

  • Clyde’s, by Lynn Nottage, directed by Candis C. Jones, Studio Theatre Victor Shargai Theatre, Washington

Jennifer Who Is Leaving

The show opens with a monologue that is right in the wheelhouse of fan favorite Nancy Robinette, but it’s clear that, by ten minutes after her entrance, it is Jennifer (the stalwart Kimberly Gilbert) who is at the end of her tether, and something is about to snap. Floyd King as Joey, Jennifer’s rebarbative charge, doesn’t have a lot of levels to play, but he finds what he can, including several disgusting ways to eat donuts.

This is a dark comedy about mundane, essential jobs, such as working the night shift at a Dunkin’ Donuts (the story takes place before the rebranding) and assisting the elderly with ADLs (like [ick] toileting). So perhaps my only quibble is that Nan’s floor mopping doesn’t catch all the corners.

  • National Capital New Play Festival: Jennifer Who Is Leaving, written and directed by Morgan Gould, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Md.

Pacific Overtures

Signature Theatre smooths out some of the less accessible elements of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures—no Kabuki makeup, no hanamichi (the vomitoria do just fine), no lion dance—but it’s still an effective piece of storytelling, and the music delights. For instance, Tamate and Kayama (Quynh-My Luu and Daniel May) sing their own thoughts in “There Is No Other Way,” rather than through distancing Observers, and the song still works. Jason Ma as the Reciter is positively genial, avuncular; his reactions to the story as it unfurls contribute to its effectiveness.

Non-males are part of the cast throughout, although cross-dressing is preserved for “Chrysanthemum Tea” (scheming Andrew Cristi) and “Welcome to Kanagawa,” the latter for comedic effect. And the production leans in to puppets, using them not only for the Emperor, but also in “Pretty Lady” and “Someone in a Tree.”

“Please Hello” is a hoot, with a nifty wooden-shoe tap dance for the Dutch Ambassador. The half masks for the Europeans are rather terrifying.

  • Pacific Overtures, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, directed by Ethan Heard, Signature Theatre, Arlington, Va.

Ethan Mordden’s On Sondheim: An Opinionated Guide, as well as the liner notes from the original cast recording, was quite helpful in preparing this post.

The Griegol

This very fine story of mystery and mourning opens with a walk to a funeral home—and then gets darker (and funnier) from there. But this is also a story about growing up, and hence it ends on notes of hope. And there’s a cat!

Trick of the Light Theatre brings The Griegol to life for a nearly wordless 60 minutes with some of my favorite low tech theatricality, including shadow play, bunraku-style puppets, and opaque projectors, as well as live actors and a musician. A terrifying smoke monster left us wondering, How did they do that? Was that a trick with iron filings?, but the team in a post-show Q&A fessed up that it was pre-produced stop motion video with sand (apparently an unforgiving medium).

A subplot introduced late in the piece confused us for a moment, but it was quickly integrated into the main story. We glad that the company of five was able to make the long trip from Aoteoroa/New Zealand.

Kia ora! (easier to write than it is to pronounce)

Julius Caesar

Kathleen Akerley is one of the few playwrights working today who bravely peels open her own dramaturgy. In her 90-minute remix of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, she accomplishes this by various means, among them

  • a docent (frequent collaborator Séamus Miller) waltzing a bemused group of museum-goers across the set;
  • a dour editor (Miller again) pulling pages from a huge copy of the working script, dismissing each cut page as not relevant to her purposes;
  • via video projection, a trio of friends parked on the couch, watching/pausing the play as if it were a Netflix adaptation;
  • two gods (?) commenting on and trying to shape the narrative;
  • and yet more.

Despite the play’s heritage as a fixture of high school English literature classes, Akerley exposes the work for the “problem play” that it might be. After the assassination in Act III, why does a completely new faction of characters appear?

In Akerley’s version, the death of Caesar is not the point. Indeed, Caesar is never played by an actor, and his dead body is only represented by a bloodied mantle. The calculations that Cassius and Brutus make are still relevant today, and provoke discussion. But Akerley doesn’t take the easy road; early in her script, a character quickly dismisses any parallels to a recent disgraced American president.

  • Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, a modern retelling by Kathleen Akerley, directed by Kathleen Akerley, Avant Bard Theatre, Arlington, Va.

How the Light Gets in

Even though Grace is a successful travel writer, she is so alone and vulnerable that unpleasant news sends her tumbling, grasping at anything to make her feel safe. Keeping up a good front (she says, “Usually I only cry in parking garages”), Grace (as realized by the excellent Tonya Beckman) embarks on a journey that propels this intimate story, well suited to the confines of 1st Stage’s playing space. Unexpectedly, she finds support from a runaway (Madeline Regina), a tattoo artist (Joel Ashur) with a bit of mystic mystery about him, and a Japanese architect with a huge case of designer’s block. Jacob Yeh as Haruki, the flummoxed architect, brings a solidity that enfolds Grace (yes, there is some sweet origami) and proves to be what she needs to move forward.

This 90-minute tale has a bit of whimsy that brings to mind the work of Sarah Ruhl; Ashur and Regina serve as narrators and Greek chorus to keep the story clicking along.

Kathryn Kawecki’s set design is exceptional, giving us an enchanting, cozy Japanese garden that doubles as various other spaces.

  • How the Light Gets in, by E. M. Lewis, directed by Alex Levy, 1st Stage, Tysons, Va.

seven methods of killing kylie jenner

I don’t know of a graceful way to put this: this play will resonate more with audiences who are different from me. Many of the work’s themes—prejudices in favor of light-skinned BIPOC, the shameful treatment of Sara Baartman (the so-called “Hottentot Venus”), an offhand homophobic remark unearthed from the deep social media timeline—have been elaborated elsewhere. And let us retire the trope of bringing up the house lights to implicate the audience.

The play does make it clear that, and why, Cleo (Leanne Henlon) is enraged. And the strongest element is the theatricalizing of the chaotic cacophony that is a viral thread, realized by Henlon and Tia Bannon as her friend Kara. Their physicalizing of emojis is quite the thing. Don’t understand current British slang and internet initialisms? It doesn’t matter. The playing is there.

  • seven methods of killing kylie jenner, by Jasmine Lee-Jones, directed by Milli Bhatia. Royal Court Theatre’s production, presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

Personally, I have never understood the mania for all things Jenner-Kardashian. But that’s easy for me to say.

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story

HOTSPUR. Nay, I will. That’s flat!
[King Henry IV] said he would not ransom Mortimer,
Forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer.
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll hollo “Mortimer.”
Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.

Henry IV, Part 1, I:3

It’s fair to say that the ecological consequences of the introduction of European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris, EUST) into North America have been a (mostly adverse) mixed blessing. I’ve been told that EUSTs are favored by groundskeepers for golf courses, because the birds eat turf-destroying grubs—make of that what you will. And my grandmother had a particular animus against them; make of that what you will. I certainly wouldn’t knowingly park my car under a roost.

But perhaps we can retire the canard that the introduction happened at one place, at one time, by one man: Eugene Schieffelin, a drugmaker and socialite in New York. Research by Lauren Fugate and John MacNeill Miller, as reported by Jason Bittel, confirms that Schieffelin wasn’t the only American to release EUSTs, nor was he by any means the first. By the 1870s, “introductions were well underway,” decades before Schieffelin’s activity in 1890-1891.

According to the former president of the Acclimation Society of Cincinnati, between 1872 and 1874 the society released about four thousand European birds, including starlings.

“Acclimation” or “acclimitization” was a particularly boneheaded piece of nineteenth-century ecology that held that introduced species could improve an ecosystem.

Anglophone countries… focused instead on the ways importing species could increase the beauty, diversity, and economic yield of the local environment—sometimes because they themselves had destroyed it.

Most importantly—to answer a question that Rick Wright asked in a 2014 blog post— Schieffelin had no particular interest in the birds of Shakespeare. He just liked starlings. Fugate and Miller lay the myth on the desk of Edwin Way Teale, in an essay from 1948.

“[The starling’s] coming was the result of one man’s fancy,” he writes of Schieffelin: “His curious hobby was the introduction into America of all the birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.” Published more than forty years after Schieffelin’s death this sentence is the first time Shakespeare enters the story. It is hard to say where Teale got the idea.

Perhaps Teale was bemused by Central Park’s Shakespeare Garden, begun in 1913, years after Schieffelin’s death.

As Wright wryly observes,

With a Horatian eye to their capacity to delight and to profit, the [American Acclimatization] Society’s introductions over the years included everything from brook trout to Java finches, neither of which, if memory serves, ever trod the boards at the Globe.

Shakespeare’s one reference to Sturnus vulgaris (above) isn’t even pejorative; rather, the bird is recognized as a good mimic. Make of that what you will.


Jennifer Tipton at the light board for a show of her own making:

When computer controls came in, for example, she was surprised by how much she liked them.

“You can program cues with a liquid movement you could never have with human beings pushing levers and knobs,” she said. “Before the computer, I can’t remember a cue that lasted more than 30 seconds, but now you can have something happening across the full hour of a program. I thought I would miss the ability to call cues in the way I was taught — vocally, you can speed it up and slow it down — but I was thrilled that it happened the same way every time.”

New equipment can alter color and orientation automatically — so if she wants to change something, “you don’t have to stop the rehearsal and have a guy get the ladder out and change it,” she said. But many of the new high-tech colors aren’t to her liking — “they aren’t full spectrum, like the sun” — and the fact that the manufacturers keep changing them makes it difficult to maintain the consistency of her designs for older works still in repertory.