Category Archives: Theater

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2018: 5

A young woman carries a heavy portable crib up a flight of stairs, bumping it on every other step; her actions echo those of a teenager seventeen years before, banging a suitcase down a different flight of stairs (metaphorical baggage reified). Two young women have an uneasy reunion, a decade and half after a shattering trauma that destroyed a family has split the two of them apart; they interchange playing scenes with their younger counterparts.

In a program note, playwright Amy E. Witting says that we all are living in a “post-traumatic stress environment.” In this play, the most effective and challenging of this year’s festival, Alexandra (Joey Parsons) and Frankie (Jessica Savage) and their younger selves Alex (Sam Morales) and young Frankie (Ruby Rakos) hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves generally and the specific impact of this particular trauma.

It is clear from the early moments of the play that broody Alexandra has endured some sort of loss, to be revealed in the course of the narrative. What is more subtle is the impact of those past events on Frankie; she is, in a sense, the forgotten victim.

Does the unfolding of the play provide the healing to Frankie and Alexandra that they want, or the healing that they need?

A quibble: the play’s climax, the big reveal by Alexandra, a chthonic explosion by Parsons, is played on that staircase, halfway up from the main playing space to an unseen second story. So there’s a good reason for director Ed Herendeen to put her there. But as a result, sightlines for some of us during this sequence are less than optimal.

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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2018: 4

Providing an origin story for a prison work song (Berta, Berta) is a wobbly foundation for a full-length play. The actors are skilled and committed (Jason Bowen as the haunted Leroy and Bianca Laverne Jones as Berta); the stakes are high (a murder); the dressing of Luciana Stecconi’s set is first rate; but there’s something missing. Perhaps the piece relies too much on Leroy’s tell-not-show accounts of why he’s on the run, and of the heavy injustice laid on him that was the driver of events. It’s a risky business to suggest recasting an artistic work into another medium, but opening up this play as a film would strengthen the story that it wants to tell.


Playwright C. A. Johnson says her program interview,

Maybe Thirst is about politics, maybe it’s about gender, maybe it’s about special preferences, maybe it’s all of these things… or maybe, it’s just a play about how hard it is to let go.

And it’s the play’s stubborn refusal to decide what it wants to be about that is a challenge. Once again, the stakes are high: in a post-apocalyptic landscape still bursting with violence, Samira (Monet) and Greta (Jessica Savage) care for their adopted son Kalil (newcomer Jalon Christian). The local warlord Terrance (Ryan Nathaniel George) has risen to power because he controls the water supply, and water in this community is a precious resource indeed. The rub: Terrance and Samira were once married, and his entrails are still consumed with rage that she is now with Greta. Is is because Greta is a woman? Because she is white? Or just because she is someone else? Terrance is incapable of telling us.

Terrance explodes with gunplay, against his better judgement and surely not in the best interests of his people or himself. (A leader with doubtful skills, thrust onto the public stage, behaving irrationally to a bizarre degree? Why, that would—oh, never mind.)

There is a loose end introduced towards the end of the play, that is never picked up or resolved, i.e., a suggestion that the water supply has been contaminated.

Jessica Savage has the juicy opportunity to show us how excruciating it is to suffer a close-range gunshot wound, and she makes the most of it.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • Berta, Berta, by Angelica Chéri, directed by Reginald L. Douglas
  • Thirst, by C. A. Johnson, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt
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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2018: 3

From the other side of the Iron Curtain comes this timebending story, set in multiple places and times in the Soviet Union: in Kruschchev’s era, and before and after the rise of Stalin. Stalin’s purges take on a particular specificity in this work.

In the 1930s, Alexei (David McElwee), synesthete and memory savant, is a newspaper reporter, and apparently a poor one, because he takes no notes. He doesn’t need to, because he can remember speeches word for word. This becomes problematic for him, when certain speakers he has heard (Bukharin, Kirov) are dropped into Russia’s Memory Hole.

He himself disappears from official records, but a 1950s-era bureaucrat (Kreplev, Lee Sellars) takes a special interest in his case and in the psychologist who treated him (Joey Parsons)—a treat for us to see two beloved CATF regulars together on stage.

There are two frames around the story, one of them a rather odd carnival act whose significance will be made clear, and the other a (sometimes distracting) direct address to us by Kreplev. Ultimately, the play is Kreplev’s journey, as he learns the personal cost of “accommodation,” both in the form of forgetting and being forgotten.

Gregory gives Alexei’s synesthesia a poetic turn. The color magenta, for him, has the roar of a train; a politician’s words bounce around meaninglessly like so many rubber balls.

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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2018: 2

There’s much to like in Michael Weller’s solo piece for John Keabler, irrespective of what you think of the evolving political views of Ronald Reagan—from admirer of FDR to speaker for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Keabler has the mannerisms and physicality, playing Reagan as much as a gangly kid as statesman.

The framing device for the play is an imagined interview for a magazine, while the last moments of Reagan’s life slip away from him on his hospital bed. (In Reagan’s fever dream, he is still the good-looking young man who is Keabler.) This allows Reagan to control the flow, so his story unspools as a greatest hits compilation, with good mini re-enactments of his film roles. That is to say, when Reagan’s late life dementia allows him to remember. Unfortunately, the interview trope gets in the way, requiring Reagan for much of the work to maintain focus on the interviewer, who seems to be sitting in the aisle of Studio 112’s seating, about two rows back.

Weller’s script is salted with nuggets of current affairs irony, as when Reagan rails against the idea of a wall (in his case, the one in Berlin) being the solution to security problems, or when he despairs of Russians in D.C. guiding policy.

People and places from Reagan’s past are subtly suggested by monochrome screen projections by Christopher Erbe and Taran Schatz—very fine work.

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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2018: 1

Bekah Brunstetter’s sugary, crinkly comedy could not be more contemporary: Jen (the effervescent Kelly Gibson), a young woman living in Brooklyn, returns to her family home in North Carolina. Engaged to the more bottled-up Macy (the poised, not strident Monet), Jen hopes that her wedding cake will be prepared by family friend and bakery proprietor Della. Della (the adventurous Erika Rofsrud), even more family than friend, holds to her traditional Christian religious mores; she has been brought up to “follow the directions until I die.” She balks at creating the confection—this despite her professed belief that the solution to war is to bake a personal cake for each combatant.

The Cake takes all of its principals through emotional journeys and change (for that matter, Lee Sellars’ dour Tim the plumber goes through some changes himself), but most strongly changed is Della. Her late monologue is harrowing, finding deep notes of aching and repressed feelings of shame. Della also gets the best comic lines of the show. No fan of gluten-free baking, she once tasted such a cake and says that it made the back of her mouth feel like it did after a good cry. And this, quoted by audience members in the lobby: when challenged by Tim that lesbianism is not natural, she replies, “Neither is confectioner’s sugar.”

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Botticelli in the Fire

Woolly closes its distinctly uneven season with the sound Botticelli in the Fire, a fantasia on the life of 15th-century Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. In Jordan Tannahill’s reimagining, Botticelli (company rising star Jon Hudson Odom) is rampantly bisexual, carrying on with both his patron’s wife and a young gifted painter from Vinci named Leonardo. Sumptuous period costumes intermingle with overt anachronisms—text messages, peanut butter sandwiches.

Cody Nickell is well placed as the rich and powerful Lorenzo de’ Medici, while Craig Wallace is even more powerful as Girolamo Savonarola, imagined here as a street preacher elevated to savior of Florence, from the twin depredations of plague and licentiousness. Indeed, the power games played by both characters have unsettling resonances with current events.

Forced by Savonarola to choose between art and love, Botticelli makes the expected choice. But there’s something missing here, in the text or elsewhere: Leonardo is young and beautiful and talented, granted, but his gift seems insufficient motivation for Botticelli’s sacrifice.

Christian Frederickson’s excellent sound design is matched by Colin K. Bills’ chiaroscuro lighting.

  • Botticelli in the Fire, by Jordan Tannahill, directed by Marti Lyons, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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A mystery: 13

Our American Cousin, by Tom Taylor, Act II, Scene 2:

Enter, from R. 2 E., SIR E., MRS. M., … two servants in livery, carrying tray and glasses, a wine basket containing four bottles to represent champagne, knife to cut strings, some powerful acid in one bottle for ASA—pop sure. (p. 31, Samuel French ed.)

What in Fox’s name is meant by pop sure? And, unless I missed something, that bottle of acid is never used.

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Fifth member of the quartet

The role of sound design in professional live theater, a podcast episode produced by James Introcaso.

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Underground Railroad Game

This play is not the first to treat its audience like children, but it is perhaps the first to do so literally, when the house lights come up and the house is addressed as a fifth-grade class beginning a teaching unit on the American Civil War.

Shallow, lacking nuance, weakly manipulative, and not nearly as shocking as it wants to be, the piece is not without its good moments.

  • Underground Railroad Game, by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard with Lightning Rod Special, directed by Taibi Magar, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Broadsides

An NEH grant will enable the digitization of an archive of 19th-century playbills in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

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Angular

Cecil Taylor’s passing reminds me of my favorite passage from Craig Lucas, from scene 2 of Blue Window. It’s a good thing that I have a printed copy to refer to, because my recollection of the dialogue, from a production I saw 22 years ago, is faulty.

At a small gathering/party of friends, Tom has put a recording of Cecil Taylor on the sound system.

TOM. But I don’t know if you can hear it, but I mean, he’s literally rethinking what you can do with melody. He’s changing all the rules from the ground up.

* * *

TOM. Like a painter. He’s breaking it up, you know, and putting some parts of it in front of where they belong and he’s splitting up tonalities and colors, shapes —
ALICE. Splitting up did you say?
TOM. Splitting.
ALICE. No, I know, I was…
TOM. He’s literally challenging you to hear it, you know, rehear it. What is music?
GRIEVER. No, I know, but this isn’t like a famous melody? Or –?
TOM. Why not?
GRIEVER. I mean it isn’t like “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” backwards or something.
TOM. No…

For some reason I always want to remember that as “‘Mairzy Doats’ upside down and backwards.”

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The Pavilion

The Hub’s simple staging well serves Craig Wright’s wistful, spiritual three-hander, using a single movable set piece (a bench attached to pair of dock railings) to achieve some variety and levels. Helen R. Murray’s Kari shows some flintiness; but she takes her time with Kari’s tender, giddy closing monologue (“Do you remember that day in the spring of junior year…?”) and the result is masterful. Nora Achrati is called upon to embody a gaggle of different Pine City, Minnesota denizens, and she does a good job with the more naive characters like Pudge and Lisa, but she lacks the gravel and venom that Carla needs. Her second act opening monologue is quite thoughtful and fine.

Director Kelsey Mesa has chosen to present the show without the scripted intermission, blunting the force of Kari’s explosive first act closer.

  • The Pavilion, by Craig Wright, directed by Kelsey Mesa, the Hub Theatre, Fairfax, Va.

Deep shadows cast by the house lights make this black box performance space a bit too literal.

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Familiar

Danai Gurira’s engaging drama takes a new angle on the ever-intriguing clash of cultures. In this play, Donald (avuncular Kim Sullivan) and Marvelous (stick-straight Inga Ballard), émigrés from Zimbabwe and now naturalized American citizens living in Minnesota, are preparing for the marriage of their older daughter Tendi to Chris, an evangelical Christian. When Tendi and her sister Nyasha seek to introduce African cultural elements into a conventional Protestant ceremony, sparks fly. The sparks catch fire at the arrival of the young women’s aunt Anne (force of nature Cheryl Lynn Bruce). Everyone in this tangle is working from a base of good intentions, and yet feelings get smashed and promises broken.

The end of the first act is forced, depending as it does on unrealistic behavior on the part of Nyasha (flexible company member Shannon Dorsey) and some too-fast thinking by Chris’s best man and brother, dim bulb Brad (Andy Truschinski). However, it does set up a winning comic scene between the two at the top of the second act.

The characters’ speech rhythms are quite interesting, from Marvelous’ triple “Anyway, anyway, anyway” as a means to blow off frustration (repeated by her daughter later in the play) to Anne’s grunts and an expression of dismay, a bit of Shona that sounds like “my way.”

  • Familiar, by Danai Gurira, directed by Adam Immerwahr, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Bisha TV

Confronting a repressive regime, with satirical puppets.

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Deck

Washington’s National Theatre may have converted its rigging system from hemp ropes and sandbags to lines and counterweights, but there remain a few houses (and eight of them on Broadway) that use the nautical system, as Lisa Lacroce Patterson reports.

While hemp houses have deep stages, they cannot hang as many set pieces as theatres with modern counterweight systems because, since the bulky sandbags require a lot more space, those theatres have fewer “line sets” from which to hang. A counterweight system might have a line set every 6 to 8 inches, but a sandbag system requires more than double the amount of space between rope sets. At the State [Theatre New Brunswick, New Jersey], if a tour comes in with four or more 53-foot trucks, often less than half of the scenery can make it onto the stage because of the limited number of line sets.

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