Category Archives: Theater

Baby Screams Miracle

Woolly continues its admirable run of productions in which people of faith—specifically, Christian faith—are front and center, with their questions and fears driving the story. (I think of 2011’s A Bright New Boise as another fine example.)

In Baby Screams Miracle, Carol and Gabe, parents of young Kayden (an odd, withdrawn little girl) are beset by a mounting series of calamities. A storm sends a tree crashing into their house, the storm growing to tempestuous levels. The technical demands of the script are masterfully met by James Kronzer’s set and Jared Mezzocchi’s video projections.

As the punishments visited on the family rise to Old Testament proportions, we wonder what part Kayden plays in this narrative. Is she a malevolent instigator? Are these calamities all in her imagination?

  • Baby Screams Miracle, by Clare Barron, directed by Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Caroline, Or Change

Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s ambitious, admirable musical, with a story drawn from Kushner’s life, concerns an African-American maid (Nova Y. Payton, in the title role) and her relationships with the Jewish family that she works for in 1963 Louisiana.

The first act doesn’t give us much information about what’s going on in Caroline’s head, since much of the time she’s not singing to another person, but rather to the various appliances in her basement workspace—and, in a nice touch, they sing back: the Washing Machine (Theresa Cunningham), the Dryer (V. Savoy McIlwain), and girl-group trio Radio. Alas, sound mixing in some of the multi-voiced passages makes it difficult to follow the various lines.

Tesori’s spiky score of many influences unfortunately saddles the eight-year-old Noah Gellman, son of Caroline’s employers, with a clichéd, squeaky, pitchy vocal line for most of the show. And the musical passages for the Moon don’t get into orbit.

In the second half, a scene centered on a Chanukah party is energized by the arrival of father-in-law Mr. Stopnick (the sufficiently nimble Scott Sedar)—one of Kushner’s antediluvian radical stand-ins—and the flow of contentious dialogue. The klezmer-splashed music also gives this section a boost.

Payton’s late-act aria (“Lot’s Wife”) is quite powerful.

  • Caroline, Or Change, music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, directed by Matthew Gardiner, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Md.
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It’s a privilege to pee

Broadway houses scramble to add capacity, manage the lines for the ladies’ loo at intermission.

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Upcoming: 48

WATCH assignments are ready! I have a big stack of five TBDs, but I know that I will be seeing (or swapping for)

  • Durang, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike*
  • Finn, Sheinkin, Reiss, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
  • Kelly, The Uninvited
  • Wilson, Book of Days

*Nearly everyone is doing the show this season, so this was not unexpected.

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Kiss

Guillermo Calderón’s Kiss is an ambitious, but unsuccessful attempt to bring the horrors of violence in today’s Syria into the American living room. A supposedly found text, a fluffy four-handed love triangle, is first interpreted as melodramatic soap opera, and then with cartoonish, expressionist violence.

Good theater takes real, specific events and reimagines them so that universals can be revealed. In this work, Calderón’s imagination fails him.

The play is presented not in Woolly’s auditorium but in its Smith/Melton Rehearsal Hall, with seats wedged in on risers. Viewers nostalgic for Woolly’s funky former space on Church Street will feel at home here.

  • Kiss, by Guillermo Calderón, directed by Yury Urnov, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Come from Away

Come from Away is a celebration of the profound act of kindness performed by the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, when 38 aircraft were diverted to its airport on 11 September 2001. For nearly a week, this community of fewer than 10,000 souls opened its homes and shelters to the stranded passengers from those flights.

The ensemble-driven musical tells, by composites, some of the many tales that these travelers have to tell; it doesn’t shy away from stories of loss (the penultimate number “Something’s Missing”) or of irrational fears (an Egyptian sojourner is eyed nervously), but it is fundamentally a play about sharing and hope. Generally fast-paced (the transition into a brief scene set in the maelstrom of an air traffic control tower on that horrid day is electric), there are brief moments when everything comes to dead stop for comedy—as you would, for instance, when a moose ambles in front of your bus. A revolve is used to good effect, giving the characters of Nick and Diane a way to stroll along the cliffs of the Dover Fault (“Stop the World”) while the cast scurries about placing chairs for them to step to. Most importantly, it’s a show that calls for an ensemble of mostly character actors, notably Astrid Van Wieren’s welcoming schoolmaster Beulah, Joel Hatch’s suite of local mayors, and Geno Carr’s slightly befuddled local constable.

The music is traditional Maritimes folk music with a strong rock and roll bottom—if not particularly challenging, it’s certainly rousing. It stirs the emotions.

  • Come from Away, book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, directed by Christopher Ashley, Ford’s Theatre, Washington
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Five

Allison Considine drops in on Contemporary American Theater Festival’s flurry of five plays in repertory each summer, with emphasis on the tech elements.

As playwright [Ronan] Noone put it, “One play is collaborative. Five plays is just…I don’t know if there is a word for it.”

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Angels in America

A short post to call out just a couple of the exceptionally strong elements of the Round House/Olney Theatre Center joint production:

Jon Hudson Odom is delightful as Belize; Dawn Ursula’s keening as the Angel is other-worldly. The production relies much on fun projections by Clint Allen and lights by York Kennedy: the arrival of the Angel, the alien streetscape of San Francisco, the talking dummies at the Mormon visitor center.

  • Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, by Tony Kushner, directed by Jason Loewith and Ryan Rilette, Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center, Bethesda, Maryland
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Happy and healthy

Jennifer Diaz is the first female head carpenter in IATSE Local 1. Caitlyn Kelly watches her load in to the Walter Kerr.

Leta

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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2016: 3

This year’s festival delivered some solid and memorable shows and some disappointments. Such was Chisa Hutchinson’s The Wedding Gift, a play that doesn’t surpass the promise of its premise.

In this fairly transparent parable, Jason Babinsky’s Doug finds himself transported into an alien culture where he is the only fair-skinned humanoid. He is a shimseh, “like a pet, only more useful,” presented to the wife (Margaret Ivey’s Nahlis) of a newly married royal couple. Doug discovers the ways of this new world only gradually, because only two others (including the enjoyable Edward O’Blenis as Translating Attendant) speak any English; great swathes of dialogue are delivered in a language of Hutchinson’s invention. The conlang has the intended effect of disorientation, but it also means that small plot points are confused, and any subtlety of psychology is lost. How exactly is Doug to perform, in the eyes of Nahlis’s new husband Beshrum (Damian Thompson, with an impressive high leg kick)? We’ll never know.

Nevertheless, the play offers the tech teams the opportunity to go a little crazy, from Peggy McKowen’s costumes to Nathan A. Roberts’ and Charles Coes’ soundscapes. Director May Adrales establishes a movement and gestural vocabulary for this strange new planet, and then encourages each actor/character to invent within that framework: a gesture of mourning, expressed at the top of act 2, is both easily understood and unique to each player.

And if the denouement owes something to a certain series of dystopian films from the 1960s and 70s, at least we learn how the post-apocalyptic inhabitants of this world say, “I guarantee you there’s no problem.”

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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2016: 2

Festival veteran and favorite Joey Parsons takes on the epic role of Medea in the intimate space of Studio 112, as reworked by Allison Gregory in her Not Medea, a version that overlays Euripides’ tragic figure with a modern-day pediatric nurse who is desperately trying to keep her shit together. Called simply Woman in the program, Parsons portrays her with a flexible acting instrument imbued with yogic control.

While the play, with its fourth wall breaking worthy of early Stoppard, is generally effective in arousing our empathy for Woman’s loss (due to an ill-timed [self-inflicted?] distraction), it is on surer ground in its re-enactment of the old Greek tale. There are moments of magic conjured out of the mundane (body lotion from the shopping mall that becomes a shield of invincibility), and the rock-lined pool of water on Jesse Dreikosen’s set actually has a purpose—indeed, multiple ones (even though it is the cause of a scripted cleanup by the running crew).

Ben Chase as Jason provides stalwart partnering, while Rachael Balcanoff as Chorus nicely rides the text’s half-sung, half-spoken sections with a sweet singing voice.

Susan Miller’s 20th Century Blues is an insipid undertaking. Photographer Danny arranges a reunion of her three Boomer-generation friends for the culmination of a long-running group portrait project (cf. Nicholas Nixon’s photographs of the Brown sisters). Trouble is, she’s never arranged for her friends to sign release forms. The unnatural dialogue among characters who represent types, not real people, rarely rises above what OTC Leta calls a certain “scriptiness.” (Although nimbus-haired Kathryn Grody brings a little oomph to Gabby.) Imagine the leaden heart of Return of the Secaucus 7 further dragged down by discussions about paperwork.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • Not Medea, by Allison Gregory, directed by Courtney Sale
  • 20th Century Blues, by Susan Miller, directed by Ed Herendeen
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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2016: 1

Christina Anderson’s pen/man/ship starts with some interesting materials — a black man in charge of a former whaling ship in 1896, bound for a somewhat mysterious expedition to Liberia; a free-thinking woman willing to challenge and assume authority — and the play features some committed acting performances. But much of the action is static, featuring the rather tired device of a character reading his own journal entries. The play reads as an academic exercise. The design choice to cover the deck of the Marinoff stage with an inch of water, requiring the four actors to perform in bare feet, comes off not as a metaphor but rather as a self-imposed restriction.

The Second Girl, by Ronan Noone, begins with an equally intriguing premise: the action plays in the kitchen of the home of Eugene O’Neill’s Tyrone family, simultaneous with the events related in his Long Day’s Journey into Night. We meet the cook Bridget Conroy (Jessica Wortham) and the chauffeur Jack Smythe (Ted Koch), both of them offstage in O’Neill, as well as the titular “second girl,” Cathleen Mullin (Cathryn Wake), common to both plays. Kris Stone’s kitchen set is meticulously dressed and fitted with a working stove and sink. Noone’s delicate drama is gradually unfolding, underscored by simple (and grinding) household tasks like food preparation and loading coal into a stove. The ambiguous ending offers some hope of escape, some chance for dreams to be realized — at least for some of the characters.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • pen/man/ship, by Christina Anderson, directed by Lucie Tiberghien
  • The Second Girl, by Ronan Noone, directed by Ed Herendeen
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Clybourne Park: an update: 2

So we closed the show yesterday afternoon, and I’m pleased, overall, with the way it went. (There’s always something that you wish could have been better. Like I wish that I’d had a coach to help me fine-tune the brief bit of stage combat.)

Every so often I use music as a way to get into the world of a character. (My friend Lisa suggested this trick a long time ago.) Now, the little Bobby McFerrin riff that Roger used as transition music at the top of Act 2 was all I needed to help me find Tom Driscoll. But for the well-meaning, somewhat feckless, gentle parish priest Rev. Jim in Act 1, I needed a complete playlist. Some of this music I already had on hand, and some was newly-purchased. Here it is, Jim’s Jam, all songs pre-1959 as far as I can tell:

  • Perry Como, “Accentuate the Positive”
  • Lawrence Welk orchestra, “Bubbles in the Wine”
  • Patsy Cline, “Walkin’ after Midnight”
  • Glenn Miller orchestra, “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo”
  • Mel Tormé, “Moonlight in Vermont”
  • Lawrence Welk orchestra, “Beer Barrel Polka”
  • Perry Como, “May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You”
  • Mantovani orchestra, “Charmaine”
  • Patti Page, “Old Cape Cod”
  • Glenn Miller orchestra, “A String of Pearls”
  • Perry Como, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”
  • Lawrence Welk orchestra, “Village Tavern Polka”

Mantovani’s version of a 1926 waltz by Rapée and Pollack is most everyone’s idea of soul-evacuating elevator music. (I remember an ironic modern dance troupe performance from about 20 years ago, set on this song, that consisted of the entire company queueing up as if at the DMV.) But for Jim, the lush, pillowy arrangement is pure bliss, his idea of what God’s grace must feel like. Is that a zither in the mix in the last chords? Plus, you can do t’ai chi stretches to it.

Jim and Judy danced to Glenn Miller when they were courting.

The Lawrence Welk recordings, all from the pre-TV days, are astonishing. Joyful, energetic, inventive, not slick at all—nothing like the bland music I heard when I was a kid in my grandfather’s living room watching the TV show. I used to worry that I was turning into my mother. Now I should worry that I’m turning into her father.

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Upcoming: 46

Dan Hurlin, who created the amazing Disfarmer, in preparation of a suite of Futurist plays by Fortunato Depero, Demolishing Everything with Amazing Speed.

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Clybourne Park: an update

Dry tech today, so I was off seeing other shows and catching up on the e-mail pile. Our company publicist circulated a questionnaire that she will use to write a preview piece for one of the local online theater mags. Some of Lennie’s questions and my answers:

1. What drew you to Clybourne Park as a director/actor?

When I first saw this show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company six years ago, I wrote : ‘Have you ever had this experience? A play finishes its first act, and as the house lights come up for intermission, you think, “that act was so polished and well-constructed that it could stand by itself; I could go home now and be happy.” That’s how we felt at the act break…’ That’s how strong this material is.

3. In his 2011 review of Woolly Mammoth’s second production of Clybourne, Peter Marks of the Washington Post said that “the play rummages, if you will, in the eternally unfinished basement of American race relations. It is a play about people thinking they don’t sound exactly the way they do.” Your thoughts on that? Actors, how does his second sentence apply to your character(s)?

It is ever a challenge (probably greater than the one I describe in my answer to #6 below) to separate what you know, as a person, that your character sounds like from what you know and feel is going on inside that character. It is a tempting trap to put quotation marks around what your character says and does, to telegraph to the audience, “I, the actor, am not this uninformed/foolish/nasty/hateful person that I am playing.” And I think that everyone in our cast has done a good job of stepping around that trap.

4. Another review quote — when Clybourne opened on Broadway in 2012, Ben Brantley of the New York Times said, “This play probably will be topical for many years to come. That’s bad news for America, but good news for theatergoers, as ‘Clybourne Park’ proves itself more vital and relevant than ever on a big Broadway stage.” That was two years after its Off Broadway premiere. Flash forward to now, four years after the Broadway premiere. Is Clybourne again — or still — “more vital and relevant than ever”? Why?

You betcha. One of the smart things that Bruce Norris does, via the echoes down the half century from 1959 to 2009, is to call out our propensity to slap a label on something (or someone) and think that we have understood it. The character Bev, in 1959, refers with some discomfort to a young man in her community; he has what today we would call Down Syndrome, but Bev has only the word “mongoloid.” In the second act, Kathy (played by the same actor), speaks briefly, thoughtfully about a niece with Asperger’s Syndrome. Will not audiences of 2059 hear Kathy’s words and find her just as benighted?

5. What’s the importance of the specific link to A Raisin in the Sun?

Well, perhaps it is a recognition of the potency of Langston Hughes’s poem, “Harlem,” from which the image is drawn: “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” That such a simple eleven-line poem could spark Lorraine Hansberry’s full-length stage play, a musical adaptation, and now Bruce Norris’s answer play, is astonishing.

6. As an actor or director, what’s been your biggest challenge with this show? Creating two characters? Recreating the house during
intermission? Something else?

Simple mechanics: falling down, safely, in such a way that I can fall down again the next night.

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