Contemporary American Theater Festival 2024: 1

CATF launches a slightly simplified season for 2024, presenting only four plays (one in two parts), with no productions rotating out at the festival’s four venues. Sharp-eyed program readers will also note only one world premiere.

In the flagship Frank Center venue is mounted What Will Happen to All That Beauty?, by Donja R. Love. It’s a tender, multi-generational study of the effect of HIV/AIDS, with specific attention to Black communities in metropolitan New York (at the dawn of the crisis) and small towns (close to the present day).

As we enter the theater for Part 1, we see Luciana Stecconi’s handsome multi-playing area set with up to seven levels, faced on wood slats in shades of brown, with backing screens of the same slats. This same set, with some of the screens rearranged, serves for Part 2, albeit with more realistic dressing pieces—bedding is on the platform bed, the cooker and sideboard are visible, and there’s a practical chandelier. There’s no marked change in style in the text or otherwise in the storytelling, so we’re left to puzzle why.

Lengthy costume changes in Part 2 take some of the momentum out of the piece, especially after the penultimate scene, which felt like the play’s end to most of us.

Which takes us to the final step of the journey of Manny (the charismatic Jude Tibeau), the protagonist of Part 2, and his relationship with his grandfather, Rev. Emmanuel Bridges, Sr. (powerful Jerome Preston Bates). Bridges, Sr. is a traditional Mississippi preacher, leading off Part 1 with a sermon that sets two of the play’s themes, beauty and sacrifice; he claims a somewhat confusing dichotomy between the two. His descendants, however, profess no particular faith; a supporting character in Part 1 quietly espouses Islam, but is not taken up on it. At one meeting with his grandfather, Manny is openly resistant to Christianity. So we’re left with Manny’s ambiguous final monologue. Preaching beauty, has he (improbably) taken up his grandfather’s mantle in the church? Has he taken up a street corner pulpit?

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • What Will Happen to All That Beauty?, by Dorja R. Love, directed by Malika Oyetimein

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

American Shakespeare Center presents Will’s popular romantic mixup comedy in “Renaissance Style:” a limited rehearsal period, a charismatic repertory cast of only ten, no traditional director, and (per the program note) “a unique mashup of tradition and ‘DIY’ aesthetic.” The reduced size cast means that the lovers double as mechanicals and fairies, to very good effect. There are (the now de rigueur) acknowledgements that some of the rhymes no longer work, and some other modern schtick. More fun are the ad libs with the onstage audience, as well as a very funny bit in which an imaginary bolt kills a train whistle hoot owl that would otherwise disturb Titania’s nap.

Joe Mucciolo’s Puck is quite corporeal, receiving pantomime kicks and blows from Ronan Melomo’s Oberon every time he messes up. The three-way fight among Puck, Demetrius, and Lysander makes good use of the Blackfriars’ upstage doors. Annabelle Rollison’s “Bottom’s dream” monologue is a marvel.

The test of a good Dream is a rollicking Pyramus and Thisby (Shakespeare’s 11:00 number), and the team delivers with fresh bits, from an enormous pair of falsies for Sarah Fallon’s Flute’s would-be ethereal Thisby, to a live dog for Moonshine, to Natasia Lucia Reinhardt’s approach to Wall. Rather than the conventional peace sign chink, she leaves another opening for P and T to converse—let’s just say that Wall enjoys the kiss more than either Pyramus or Thisby.

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare, American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.

Blackfriars has made some accommodations to audience comfort since my last visit, with permanent seat backs and cushions.

Amm(i)gone

A very personal piece of metatheater, Amm(i)gone is an extended Moth-style confessional monologue about Adil’s efforts to reconnect with his devout Muslim mother (his ammi) by unconventional means: an (uncompleted) joint project to translate Sophocles’ Antigone into Urdu. Hence, the equally unconventionally punctuated title. The piece takes off from this season’s earlier My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion (with its coda of a video call with the playwright’s mother) and runs with the notion: an extended passage is built from recorded conversations between ammi and Adil. A bit less moving than it wants to be, for this reviewer the strongest material was a video segment of Ivo van Hove’s Antigone. But at least the fifth-grader’s pun in Urdu is redeemed at the end of the piece.

  • Amm(i)gone, created and performed by Adil Mansoor, co-directed by Lyam B. Gabel, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in association with Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Washington

Dance Nation: an update: 5

We closed the show on Sunday, with a bit more drama. Sunday was a clean run for cues, except that at the end of the show we were high-fiving each other and I forgot the cue to bring the house lights up (the last of 80 light cues, which is a new personal maximum).

I missed Thursday through Saturday because I was chasing off a COVID-19 infection (first time for everything!). Swiss Army knife/ASM/understudy Trenor called the show, and do it well, by all reports. We spent four hours Thursday morning with me coaching him through my book and explaining (as best I could without the license key dongle) how to use the EOS virtual light board.

my deskYou can see the app running on my laptop here, along with my book, the god mic, a walkie-talkie, flashlight, scribble pads, water bottle, and Godzilla guarding it all.

step upclimbing wallHere’s that dummy electrical box and the climbing wall setup.

Wet towels to pick up the candy glass residue just made the deck sticky. Sweep, sweep, sweep.

Dance Nation: an update: 4

We got through opening weekend!

On Thursday, a cast member reported a positive COVID-19 test. We were so fortunate that (a) we had designated an understudy for their role and (b) the understudy was actually prepared. Director Lee and I met with the understudy Thursday afternoon, coached him through some lines and bits of blocking, and he got through the PWYC preview with one line call, by my count. He handled the rest of the weekend smoothly. Since we have double cast the Moms character, we’ll end up with four different casts over the three-week run.

Sunday I got happy fingers at the top of the show (in part due to some garbled communication with my sound board op) and I had to back out of a cue live. This is not as intuitive as you might think on the ETC EOS command line. Again, fortunately, I had practiced this maneuver a few times.

We started about 5 minutes late on Sunday due to a late-arriving cast member, which ultimately meant that we lost the last 5 minutes of the show to a block-wide power failure. Aargh!

The continuing challenge: cleaning up bits of candy glass from the eat-the-light-bulb effect. Anything that doesn’t get swept up gets ground into the painted floor. One of our Stevens suggested soaking the floor overnight with a wet towel and an plastic sheet on top of that. We’ll try that this weekend.

Dance Nation: an update: 3

We are into the week of dress rehearsals after two 12-hour days of tech work over the weekend. How did I ever do this and work full-time too?

I am getting reacquainted with the Stage’s booth and the new tech in it. We now have walkie-talkies so that I can cue crew backstage. There’s a new audio system; the old light board is in there, but we will be running the show from a laptop with software from ETC: lighting designer Jordan has borrowed some fancy Selador lighting instruments that they will use for some fun effects during the “baby sexy robots” dance.

Major flubs starting the show last night: I need to position the laptop under my right hand and keep the god mic close by, as well as the walkie-talkie. And some other rookie mistakes: I stumbled and dropped a borrowed prop that McKenna rescued with super glue. No more jokes about actors breaking props.

So far, we’ve been more or less lucky, losing only one rehearsal due to weather, one due to the director catching COVID-19, and one due to multiple schedule conflicts. Early on, we ran a few rehearsals from the tiny space at The Actor’s Center in the city—no space available at the Stage. Shades of Metroing down to Chinatown for that somewhat regrettable Anything Goes gig. We had to switch out master carpenters, as our original builder was called away on a family emergency.

At board chair Jen’s recommendation, I’ve filled out digital rehearsal report forms (as Google Docs) until we moved into the theater. I found them slightly useful. Ideally, you one could use them to track things like, “Fran missed today’s rehearsal and needs the new blocking for page 12,” and notes for the various departments. But without the department leads subscribing to the report folder (pull), one ends up just copy-pasting a note to an e-mail message (push). And we still fubarred communication on an item or two. Next time, I think I’ll try something else. Maybe a groups.io group?

We solved the problem of how our actors can boost themselves up onto the ballet barres to climb the walls: we added dummy electrical boxes projecting from the walls, complete with unwired receptacles and conduit.

Grumble grumble: unplanned runs to Target for a mop and bucket (most of the Stage’s gear for cleaning up is filthy) and to Artistic Concepts Group for glow tape and gaffer’s tape. Not to mention by mentioning the buckets of Pine-Sol and Goo Gone that I used stripping old spike tape and gunk from the floor of the Leta Hall Studio. What knucklehead uses glow tape for a spike?

The Stage’s template for scheduling tech now sets aside Friday evening for a paper tech. This is a welcome luxury that I don’t believe that I’ve had before. I had already started setting up my cued script from the plots we had up to that point, but Friday’s meeting filled in a lot of gaps, especially in scene transitions.

I am super glad that I got out ahead of the props problem and started laying out the tables on our dry tech day Saturday, as my props lead’s first day wasn’t until yesterday. Generally, I ended up delegating a lot of the props work to my lead, the scene shifts to my ASM (participating by proxy yesterday), and spiking most of the deck to my director.

We still have some issues to iron out, particularly with sound cues, but I think we’re doing OK. The rush hour commute from Reston to Four Corners sucks, but I have a mitigation plan for PWYC Thursday and Friday opening. My inbox is full of unread notes from yesterday, so maybe the optimism of this post is unfounded!

Some links: 99

A Commedia Romeo and Juliet

Five players offer a 70-minute rollicking reduction of the Shakespeare classic, with two rotating casts (I saw the “Capulet” cast). All characters save the lovers (including would-be lover Paris) are in half masks (designed by Tara Cariaso of Waxing Moon Masks). Ben Lauer’s Jerry Lewis-infused Nurse is a hoot; Bri Houtman’s Juliet hits all sorts of levels in the balcony scene. There was a sweet impromptu moment of audience interaction when a little boy in the audience vocally noted that a bit of schtick was being reused; Natalie Cutcher responded directly to him with a “Right? I know!”

The inevitable deaths are handled tenderly. When Mercutio dies, his mask is left onstage while the actor exits. There’s a nifty moment in the tomb when Juliet awakes and Romeo dies with a kiss: the pair deftly exchange places on the bier. Of course, this is a comedy, so when the corpses are needed for the summing up, scarecrows are used, all the better for tossing about to explain who killed who and why.

All the important bits of text that we remember from high school remain in place, including that weird Queen Mab passage.

  • A Commedia Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare, directed by Kathryn Zoerb, Faction of Fools, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, Washington

Dance Nation: an update: 2

We blocked the first half of scene 11, where The Girls psych themselves up to compete against another team that has boys doing tricks à la Newsies. Director Lee repeated an element from earlier in the show, an almost throwaway to cover a scene transition; in the context of scene 11, it’s absitively chilling and dark. My vocal reaction to the team was “Holy fuck.” Director Lee is pleased.

Days of Wine and Roses

Kelli O’Hara once again dons a 1950s shirtwaist silhouette in a role that quickly turns dark. From her opening song, “Story of the Atlantic Cable,” she owns this show—she is electrifying. Brian d’Arcy James partners her effectively in this somewhat unusual, intriguing score for only three voices (the ensemble is non-singing). I counted at least four instruments of the xylophone-metallophone ilk—great choices by the orchestrators!

The show hews fairly closely to the plot of the 1962 film, written by JP Miller from his Playhouse 90 teleplay. (No credit for Miller? Is the film out of copyright?)

There are a couple of anachronisms in the sound design (beeps in a hospital corridor, for one) that perhaps will be ironed out by the official opening of this remarkable show.

  • Days of Wine and Roses: The Musical, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, book by Craig Lucas, orchestrations by Adam Guettel and Jamie Lawrence, directed by Michael Greif, Studio 54, New York

Kristen Arnesen and her father are of Norwegian descent in this play. My Minneapolis landlord (Mr. Anensen) told me that sen indicates Danish rather than Norwegian heritage, but what do we know?

Hadestown

A pop rock retelling of the stories of Persephone and Hades (in part) and of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in a campy faubourg of a steampunk New Orleans (a few blocks over from the setting of Rent), with catchy, engaging tunes. In this post-opening cast, there’s a minor pop star (Betty Who) to introduce members of the band; a nice unamplified coda serves as an encore.

Not everyone in the audience had read Eurydice’s story in high school, to judge from the scattered gasps heard at a critical moment—which nonetheless felt a teeny bit unmotivated: Orpheus has a song about doubt, but the song wraps up and then he makes a bad choice.

Phillip Boykin as Hades makes the strongest impression among this cast, seductive and menacing in “Hey, Little Songbird.” In the band, Brian Drye on trombone and glockenspiel shows off his chops.

  • Hadestown, music, lyrics, and book by Anaïs Mitchell, developed with and directed by Rachel Chavkin, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York

Here We Are

A scrumptious, nutritious first act, distinctively Sondheim, and a sumptuous second act by Ives (who would want to leave such a beautiful room, as designed by David Zinn?), both of them capturing the spirit and many of the specific elements of Buñuel’s source material. There are open flames and punctured water pipes, but fortunately no cellos are sacrificed.

A meta moment in the first act entails the most effective use of bringing up the house lights that I’ve seen in many a year, a trick that is otherwise worn out. The Bistro à la Mode is reminiscent of The Philadelphia, a similarly cursed eatery imagined by Ives. A three-quarter circular bench that flies in is a simple effect, if the resources are available, but it left me envious nevertheless.

Outstanding in the cast is Dennis O’Hare in a number of roles, including the “enabler” who sings the frequently noted patter song about the lack o’ latte, all bananapants jumping intervals, and the imperious majordomo Windsor who is not what he seems. Jeremy Shamos has a sweet acrobatic move to catch a falling smartphone.

  • Here We Are, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by David Ives, inspired by the films of Luis Buñuel, orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, directed by Joe Mantello, The Shed, New York

Three long escalators to reach the performance space in The Shed left me feeling a bit like I was headed for the 400 level in the Capitals’ arena.

I will be making a point of recognizing orchestrators, having read Darryn King’s profile of Jonathan Tunick.

Dance Nation: An update: 1

And we’re back in the theater!

About six weeks ago, I signed on as an assistant stage manager for Silver Spring Stage’s production of Dance Nation, by Clare Barron. This was my way of easing back into theater after the long hiatus that started in late winter 2020. I figured that the Stage would find someone else to call the show—I had too many planned conflicts during the rehearsal period to commit as stage manager. Well, it turns out that finding a stage manager on shortish notice for a show in March is even harder than finding a substitute WATCH judge for that interval. So after some schedule negotiating, I agreed to SM the show. I’m only slightly boggled.

My last stage management gig was Incorruptible, also for the Stage, with Leta directing, 15 years ago now. Hmm, I wrote up some lessons learned from that project. I should try to implement some of them.

Dance Nation is a highly theatrical show, with wild dynamic levels in the text, adults playing tweens, and surrealist moments. My only familiarity with Barron’s work was a production of Baby Screams Miracle at Woolly Mammoth seven years ago. A number of the cast are young, in training at Studio Theatre—some fresh blood for the Stage as it jumps into the 21st century repertory.

Director Lee had been out of town for most of December, so we did table work via Zoom, and that worked out rather well, as far as I can tell. We had our first in-person meeting with the cast yesterday evening, mostly facilitated by intimacy director Julia. We set some shared guidelines for rehearsal, including “Land the plane,” that is, “Listen to yourself and when you’ve made your point, stop.”

I had already set up my prompt script, but the scripts package from Samuel French came with a pre-punched 8-1/2 by 11 script and binder for me. I feel like a big boy now.