Category Archives: Theater


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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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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The Humans

The Humans is a routine family comedy/drama, built around the familiar tropes of a Thanksgiving dinner and a new, sketchy apartment in New York. An early telephone call, made by Aimee (Therese Plaehn), to provide some key exposition, is both well crafted and well executed.

  • The Humans, by Stephen Karam, directed by Joe Mantello, Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, Washington
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The Skin of Our Teeth

Constellation Theatre Company’s production of this quirky mid-century piece demonstrates that it’s still relevant, and that’s to the credit of the performances (like Tonya Beckman’s shape-shifting Sabina) as well as the writing. Consider the passage in the second act where Sabina’s actor breaks character (in a maneuver that prefigures Lanford Wilson’s Book of Days) and refuses to play a scene as “written,”

Because there are some lines in that scene that would hurt some people’s feelings and I don’t think the theatre is a place where people’s feelings ought to be hurt.

(Mr. President, your tickets will be available at will call.)

The production has tweaked a few of the lines (Sabina’s “understudy” been sent to Peet’s for a latte), but Beckman’s natural delivery of Wilder’s scripted lines makes them sound like 21st-century improvisations.

The despair in Beckman’s reading of “Oh, the world’s an awful place, and you know it is. I used to think something could be done about it; but I know better now.” is monumental.

Steven Carpenter’s hale and hearty George Antrobus has a radio-friendly baritone; Lolita Marie gives us an earthy Maggie Antrobus; and Ben Lauer’s honking mammoth is adorable.

The ambitious set design entailed a rather complicated changeover into Act 2 on this Saturday matinee.

  • The Skin of Our Teeth, by Thornton Wilder, directed by Mary Hall Surface, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington
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Upcoming: 49

The matrix of judging assignments for 2018 WATCH has been released. I’ll be visiting a member company that’s new to me. And doing a lot of driving.

  • Johnston, House
  • Sondheim, Assassins
  • Morgan, The Audience
  • Menken, Ashman, and Rice, Beauty and the Beast
  • Mamet, American Buffalo
  • Simon, California Suite
  • Morey/Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Lerner and Loewe, Brigadoon

Plus two ever-popular TBDs.

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A meditation from ten years ago, in honor of our anniversary.

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Suddenly is a captivating dramatization of a suite of short stories (cryptic little tales, more precisely) by Edgar Keret, employing puppets, live video, and actors. Here, the puppets and scenery are scaled to the frame of a video lens: a ten-inch-long pair of legs, trudging through a streetscape of castoff, broken bits of frames and shutters, becomes the lonely man Miron walking down a shabby street. The moving video lens manipulates point of view. There is the the touching story of a dog named Tuvia, a puppet constructed from scraps of fabric. When Tuvia is abandoned on a street corner, we watch the dog recede from view as the camera walks away. The camera leverages perspective: a two-shot of the feet of a live actor and those of puppet Miron line up perfectly. In the piece’s most intriguing breakdown of narrative frames, the dog Tuvia chews on the cameraman’s cables and runs roughshod over the set for Miron’s meeting in a coffee shop. Narrator and listener exchange places multiple times over the course of the stories.

The philosophy of the piece is that it is more difficult, but more valuable, to make something out of something (not out of nothing). For indeed, in doing so, you learn that the something was there all along.

  • Suddenly, based on stories by Etgar Keret, adapted by Zvi Sahar and Oded Littman, The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, directed by Zvi Sahar, PuppetCinema, Clarice Center Kogod Theater, College Park, Md.
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Lauren Gunderson on the most durable social media outlet: live storytelling.

Theater is not on demand. Rather it asks you to show up on time and focus in order to experience the intimate intensity of its medium.

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Respect for acting

Hilary Howard reports on the precarious state of independent acting conservatories in New York. To stay afloat, many have partnered with universities (at the cost of higher fees for their students). The Knickerbocker’s showcase is now online (which makes sense, because aspiring actors are gravitating to classes in auditioning and on-camera work and skipping classes in craft). Rents for Chelsea venues are climbing. At Stanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse,

“We are all afraid of the roof caving in,” said Ms. [Pamela] Moller Kareman, who had to pay $20,000 to fix the building’s out-of-commission elevator when she was first hired. “The elevator guys said we don’t even have parts for this anymore,” she recalled.

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Top Girls

Keegan Theatre delivers a solid production of this story of the accomplished businesswoman Marlene (Karina Hilleard), recently promoted to managing director of her employment agency, who may be having second thoughts about the sacrifices she has made to ensure her success. The trippy opening scene, a dinner party to which Marlene has invited five women from history and legend, crackles with energy, a mashup of the real and the imagined.

The core drama, set in early Thatcherite Britain, hasn’t lost any of its bite in today’s world of grabby reality show hosts, underserved people in need, and open secrets. Caroline Dubberly is a standout as Angie, a special needs young girl who’ll likely never finish high school, but who understands things that none of the adults in her life ever will.

  • Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Amber Paige McGinnis, Keegan Theatre, Washington
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The Pajama Game

The standouts in this frothy entertainment are old school Eddie Korbich as Hines, the officious time and motion man, and Prez, played with gawky grace by Blakely Slaybaugh. Korbich gets his taps on for “Think of the Time I Save” and takes a turn with Broadway éminence Donna McKechnie in “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again”—two dance breaks that aren’t frequently seen. Slaybaugh gives us a comically acrobatic “Her Is.”

Which is to say that the choreography by Parker Esse and its execution are top notch: we loved the tape measures as streamers and hula hoops for “Once a Year Day.”

  • The Pajama Game, music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, directed by Alan Paul, Arena Stage Fichandler Stage, Washington
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Our Town

Aaron Posner’s production of Our Town relaxes some of the strictures of its traditional presentation, without losing the spirit of Wilder’s play. Instead of a pair of ladders, there are set pieces for the Gibbs and Webb houses, facing one another in a galley configuration. There is the same direct address, perhaps all the more effective because we are watching the other half of the audience, as well as the play.

The town of Grover’s Corners has grown more ethnically diverse than it was in Wilder’s time. Lest we miss the point, the Stage Manager (archly played by Jon Hudson Odom) takes a knee for the passage that honors New Hampshire’s Civil War dead.

Perhaps the most effective departure is the use of half-size bunraku-influenced puppets (designed by Aaron Cromie) to portray the dozen of so minor characters. At the top of Act 3, the cast brings each puppet on, cradled in their arms—a most moving stage picture.

Todd Scofield gives us an appropriately bemused Mr. Webb. Megan Anderson’s Mrs. Gibbs is a tidy package of charm and practicality; Anderson’s plummy Prof. Willard is delightful.

  • Our Town, by Thornton Wilder, directed by Aaron Posner, Olney Theatre Center, Olney, Md.
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Some links: 78

A short roundup of theater links, as I clean out my Instapaper queue:

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Love and Information

70 possible short scenes, merely text, no characters, no given situations
memory palace
missing information
the impossibility of describing the sensation of fear, of plain, of longing
shotgun DNA sequencing
love and remembrance
cocktails and [illegible]
interrogation and torture
opening scene: Alice shares a secret with Bob, but we never get to hear it
house configured galley style, watching other audience members
half a line, fishermen in slickers, a phone call to a Las Vegas showgirl
information exchange
ensemble of fourteen
strong work

  • Love and Information, by Caryl Churchill, directed by Michael Dove, Forum Theatre, Silver Spring, Md.
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