Bloomsday

Middle-aged literature professor Robert returns to Dublin to explore a what-might-have-been romance: a chance encounter with a superstitious guide to a walking tour of the city of James Joyce’s Ulysses comes to an abrupt, unsatisfying end. The slippery nature of time, particularly as experienced by Cait, the tour guide, engenders a dialogue between past and present.

When the focus is on young Robbie (Josh Adams) and Caithleen (Danielle Scott), the energy picks up, especially in the key scene in Sweny’s.

But playwright Dietz makes Robert a teacher of literature for no particular reason, unless it is so that Robert can commit the apostasy of bashing the novel for the benefit of audience members who regret never having read the book.

  • Bloomsday, by Steven Dietz, directed by Kasi Campbell, Washington Stage Guild, Washington

The 39 Steps

The stars of this highly theatrical comedy-thriller are Christopher Walker and Gwen Grastorf, each playing “cast of dozens”—with the assistance of three backstage dressers. Grastorf is particularly effective as the self-effacing Mr. Memory and is just plain adorable as the innkeeper Mrs. McGarrigle, who dotes on Hannay and Pamela as the “runaway couple.” There are shards of Bernard Herrmann’s film scores from at least three Hitchcock movies in Gordon Nimmo-Smith’s sound design. And, yes, there are shadow puppets.

  • The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan and the movie by Alfred Hitchcock, directed by Nick Olcott, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington

Standing

Too often too true: Chekhov’s Dramatic Principles for Community Theatre, by Ross Murray.

If in rehearsals an actor relentlessly points out the break with realism inherent in hanging a loaded pistol on the wall, then proceedings will grind to a halt until the director testily reminds the actors that this is not a democracy and that his sole compensation for this theatrical endeavor is two comp tickets for any performance.

Keep.

A relentless comic monologue, purportedly structured as a recitation of every item in Kitson’s house. The soloist, with a background in stand-up, can match heckle for heckle, calling out on this Wednesday two different audience members who had drifted away from total engagement. Quickly, the piece becomes less an itemization of the things that Kitson hangs on to and more a dump of the ideas and narrative wisps that he can’t let go of. He speaks well of keeping things around that make one sad; in one specific case, a shelf of clean, empty jam jars like “horrible little pockets of hope.” Despite the direct audience address, Kitson’s rapid-fire delivery sucks most of the air out of the room, leaving little breath with which to make a genuine connection with his listeners.

  • Keep., written and performed by Daniel Kitson, Studio Theatre Mead Theatre, Washington

A Chorus Line

The most powerful moments in this production come from the no song, no dance passage told by Paul (Jeff Gorti), a honest confession of a story not captured by cast recording albums. Samantha Marisol Gershman brings a naturalness to “Nothing,” dropping at times from a clear singing voice into speech. Emily Tyra’s Cassie shows us the fragility of a performer who’s hit some bumps in the road.

  • A Chorus Line, book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante, music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kleban, directed by Matthew Gardiner, Signature, Arlington, Va.

Little Shop of Horrors

If the finale of the current production of this silly, entertaining show (some have even called it campy) lacks spectacle—where are the plants that ate Des Moines?—at least there is a great makeup change for the principals (whose characters are being slowly digested by Audrey II), not to mention one more sparkly red costume change for the doo-wop girls Chiffon (Selena Clyne-Galindo), Crystal (Charin Wereley), and Ronnette (Alana S. Thomas). Scott Ward Abernethy shines as Orin, the evil dentist, and the parade of hangers-on chasing Audrey II’s Time-Life fame. Choreographer Ilona Kessell has built an adorbs tango/hora/grapevine for Seymour and Mushnik’s “Mushnik and Son.” MattaMagical’s series of Audrey II puppets are increasingly alarming.

  • Little Shop of Horrors, book and lyrics by Howard Ashman, music by Alan Menken, directed by Nick Martin, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington

Some links: 86

  • Converting 35% of the acreage of a coffee farm to shade-grown culture can maximize revenue, according to new research by Amanda Rodewald et al. and summarized by Gustave Axelson. Depending on the premium paid for shade-grown coffee, that percentage can go as high as 85%.
  • A smartphone attachment can test for the presence of norovirus in a drinking water sample and produce results in five minutes. The promising prototype comes from the biomedical engineering lab of Jeong-Yeol Yoon. Joe Palca reports.

    In the wake of hurricanes and other storms, flooding can cause sewage systems to overflow, potentially mixing with water intended for drinking. Municipal water system managers would breathe easier if they could be certain they didn’t have to worry at all about norovirus contamination.

  • How to cross a river. The water at Huntley Meadows Park is never this fast or cold.
  • Melissa Errico submits a “self-tape” audition.

Jitney

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson sets a snappy pace for this show, a dialogue between the generations, a pace that allows the humor to come through. David Gallo’s set, a run-down jitney station in 1997 Pittsburgh with traces of a former barbershop, crackles with details like a bricks-and-boards coffee table that isn’t quite square.

As the sot Fielding, inventive comic relief Anthony Chisholm’s strangled squeal of a voice takes us for a coaster ride, his pitch rolling up and down. Steven Anthony Jones imbues Becker’s act 1 closing monologue with gospel singing notes. As delivered by Francois Battiste, Booster’s curtain line of act 2 shines forth as perhaps the most powerful, succinct, inevitable last line of a play.

  • Jitney, by August Wilson, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Arena Stage Kreeger Theater, Washington

Assassins

Signature brings us a slightly subdued production of Stephen Sondheim’s black comedy of political murder and alienation. The playing space is rather shallow, generally with set pieces moving smoothly from the wings on wagons. When not in the scene, the assassins are offstage, rather than the popular choice of placing them in pigeonholes onstage. The sound design is a bit live and echoey, at least to my ears in row G.

Ian McEuen is an electric Zangara, trilling his R’s in contempt. Charles Guiteau, as played by Bobby Smith, is an interesting mix of effete glitz, self-effacement, and manic Broadway—buy his book, please. Vincent Kempski’s Booth is strongest in his scene with Lee Harvey Oswald, his dynamics ranging from understated seduction to a raging beatdown.

  • Assassins, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, directed by Eric Schaeffer, Signature, Arlington, Va.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 4

Michael Weller’s self-described work of “surreal slapstick” is the most challenging play of the festival, and ultimately the most rewarding, the one that gets under your skin. “Challenging” in the sense that some theatergoers don’t know what to make of it (as I consoled a seatmate) as well as in the technical sense. There are preposterous overnight transformations of the five characters’ living quarters, a remote-controlled bulldozer, and a series of silly headgear worn by the generator of all this surreal slapstick, one Mr. Shimeus (Wade McCollum). Shimeus spends most of the play wearing a tiny umbrella on his head.

But to back up a bit. McMoley (no-nonsense Lou Sumrall) and his family of Shananana, Frizzby, and Zazu, a Christian rock and roll band, are living in an abandoned factory at a time in the future when civilization has nearly collapsed and cities are vaporized by accidental/intentional detonations of “weapons dumps.” Strong-armed by the local housing authority, they are required to make space for Mr. Shimeus. When we first meet him, he is an abject puddle of a man, having lost his family, property, and livelihood, bringing nothing with him but some peculiar food customs. But not for long.

Shimeus immediately establishes a border between his side of the factory floor and McMoley’s side. His command of English improves by the hour, like an infernal version of Larry Shue’s Charlie Baker; there’s something of Edward Gorey’s spheniscid doubtful guest in Shimeus. His command of technology verges on the magical. Whatever he is, his power increases daily, pushing his boundary deeper into McMoley’s turf.

McCollum’s Shimeus is a verbal shape-shifter, keening, roaring, muttering in some tongue to offstage family members who somehow have materialized—stumbling in his English at one moment then hyperarticulating the next.

Is the rise of Shimeus a parable of the westward expansion of Europeans in America? Or a parody of the Jewish relocation into Palestine (Shimeus always sets an extra place at table for missing guests)? Or a recounting of the arrival of Latter Day Saints in Utah (there is a subplot with a mysterious bundle that bears a strong resemblance to Joseph Smith’s golden plates)? Or a recap of the Cold War and the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction?

A Brechtian coda doesn’t answer the question, dismisses it altogether. But the conflict remains.

Michael Weller, in an interview for the program book, says,

… the level of discourse on my social media newsfeeds about politics is psychotic. Things have become so crazed that the attempt to actually speak quietly in the middle of it to try and unravel what’s going on isn’t nearly as strong, at least to me, as trying to yell over it more stupidly than the discourse itself. By screaming that loud and that irrationally, could you make people think, for a moment, “That’s actually what we sound like?” I gave myself permission to take that route and that’s how the play resulted.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 3

Deborah Brevoort’s drama, inspired by the historical connection between Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein, is uplifting but ultimately a little teachy. The hidden star of this production is Larry Paulsen as the vinegary, steely Abraham Flexner, founder of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Paulsen/Flexner patiently endures a moment when it appears that he needs to have Jim Crow explained to him.

A unsettling two-hander by Joseph Dougherty concerns Chester Bailey, an ironworker (working in a WWII shipyard) who has suffered a harrowing industrial accident, and Philip Cotton, the psychiatrist charged with restoring Chester to some degree of mental health. Chester, played with goofy naïveté by Ephraim Birney, has developed a sort of hysterical seeing that tells him his physical disability is not so severe. Like Dysart with Alan Strang, the peppery Dr. Cotton (John Leonard Thompson as a last-minute fill-in at this performance) makes his peace with an outcome in which “there is no kindness.”

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • My Lord, What a Night, by Deborah Brevoort, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Chester Bailey, by Joseph Dougherty, directed by Ron Lagomarsino

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 2

In Greg Kalleres’s deceptively simple drama, Victoria (Julia Coffey) and John (Chris Thorn) are a successful couple in Indianapolis, living a carefully constructed narrative of how they came to be. Sometimes that narrative papers over a flaw—a memento of an Africa trip that is/was less than perfect—and sometimes it depends on a shared mirthless joke about shopping at Pottery Barn. The delicate balance of their lives is at risk of toppling when, driving home from the theater on a rainy night, Victoria hits something in the road and drives on without stopping.

What did they smash with their car? A deer? A suicidal stray dog? A person? Sometimes what you think you see is wrong, and some reflection brings clarity.

The arrival of their friend Lynn (Megan Bartle), pursued by the man who she is trying to break up with, Alex (Tom Coiner), has a paradoxically stabilizing effect. Lynn seems to enter relationships for the dubious pleasure of ending them, as illustrated by the story of her first date with Alex, in which she asks him to role-play becoming a ex.

John and Victoria return in their minds to the traffic accident, and stitch together their common version. As he says, “it doesn’t matter what story you choose to believe, as long as you both believe in the same story.”

There’s a fine side story about recommending a book to someone (Gravity’s Rainbow in this case) that you yourself haven’t read. It resonates with an anecdote told by classmate Johnnie in an acting workshop many years ago.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 1

Ellen Fairey’s sharp comedy is set in a North Side Chicago apartment, the setting of, yes, a support group organized by Brian (the earnest Chris Thorn). There is inter-generational friction and laughs (Brian, a young-looking 51, is the “oldest guy working at the Apple Store”), and some serious exploration of today’s re-sorting of gender roles. Brian’s friend Roger (blustery Scott Aiello), an ironworker with a case of the yips, and who’s likely to solve a problem using a baseball bat, experiences at least two happy reversals. A wig worthy of Robert Plant’s shaggiest years (and the color of a pair of oxblood loafers) gets plenty of play. And all of the men, no matter where they lie on the various spectra against which people are measured, have a nice bonding moment over “Dirty Harry” movies.

Continuing CATF’s tradition of ambitious solo pieces, Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez collaborate on an autobiographical piece performed by Suarez. Antonio of the play is a young man out of Bushwick with multiple ethnic heritages. A moment of violently reprimanding his son sparks a reverie of Antonio’s roots in Brooklyn, his fractious and abusive relationship with his mother, and (eventually) the story of how he trained as a dancer. The piece is episodic to the point of choppiness, and Antonio’s trip to Russia as an exchange student rather abruptly ends the piece. Jared Mezzocchi continues his excellent work for the festival in projections design.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • Support Group for Men, by Ellen Fairey, directed by Courtney Sale
  • Antonio’s Song/I was dreaming of a son, by Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez, directed by Mark Clements