Category Archives: Theater

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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An Octoroon

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins brings us An Octoroon, his very strong post-modern and post-theatrical adaptation of an 1859 melodrama by Dionysius Boucicault (in turn, a version of a novel by Thomas Maine Reid). It’s genuinely provocative, on several levels, from the visceral (an historical image projected on the stage at a key point hits its mark) to the intellectual to the spectacular; Boucicault was writing and producing in the genre that demanded big theatrical effects, and this production both comments on that genre and makes good on its promise, with a outsized KABOOM!

Jacobs-Jenkins helps us out by framing his adaptation with direct address by two different versions of the playwright (one played by an African American and one by a European American [James Konicek, with the voice of an angelic bassoon]) in which he explains the creative and production challenges of reconstructing a pre-Civil War potboiler that calls for a cast of 21. In this way, he prepares us for an distanced approach to the material that he has reworked and appropriated for his own means—in a way that his misbegotten Appropriate does not. (Perhaps one’s reactions to that other play depend on whether one takes the title as an adjective or a verb.) Jacobs-Jenkins thus calls to mind another master and occasional mishandler of irony, surfaces, and the reality beneath, Herman Melville.

Suffice it to say that this is a show that benefits from program notes by the dramaturg and two company staffers concerned with things literary.

The script—and this production—attacks the question of appearance vs. reality by employing a black actor in whiteface, a white actor in redface, and another actor in the crudest of minstrelsy’s blackface (and “lawsa-lawsa” dialect). Certain characters act and speak as if they were on a stage in the 1800s, ready for their turn at Ford’s on 10th Street, while others (the entertaining Shannon Dorsey as Minnie) speak in the most contemporary of hip-hop vernacular. Pre-recorded underscoring accompanies expressive live cello work by Katie Chambers. A character eats a real banana, seated on a stage whose floor is covered in bits of cotton… representing, what exactly? A disaster effect is a blatant borrowing of a sight gag perfected by Buster Keaton nearly a century ago.

This is not to take away from the stage chops on display by Jon Hudson Odom in the triple roles of BJJ (one of Jacobs-Jenkins’s standins), George (the hero), and M’Closky (the mustache-twirling villain). The third-act cliffhanger calls for Odom to execute a knife fight with himself: smartly done!

  • An Octoroon, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Nataki Garrett, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

At the top of show, BJJ drinks off half of bottle of what looks to be whiskey. Woolly hasn’t seen such an interesting draught since Rob Leo Roy nightly chugged an bottle of Yoo-Hoo in The Food Chain.

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Macbeth: a recollection

Reston Community Players is planning a commemorative booklet of reflections and remembrances to celebrate its 50-year mark. I offered the following story, told by many people since the event. This is my version:

I was a supernumerary in our production of Macbeth in the winter 1993 time slot, directed by Jan Belcher. I filled in the background for the battle scenes; I was a servant opening doors and setting tables; I supported the Bloody Captain during his speech; that sort of thing.

Jan was bluntly opposed to the tradition/superstition that the name of the play not be spoken within the confines of a theater, and she broke the taboo loud and clear on load-in day. Perhaps she was justified: the show went on to weather its share of mishaps and technical delays, but no more than usual.

Except for one night.

The first scene with the witches featured a dead body made of styrofoam, hung as on a gibbet. The three weird sisters (Maggie Geuting among them) did a dance around it, and at the end of scene, performed a wash-up move, cueing the flyman to take the corpse out.

But on this night, the corpse missed its spike and sailed all the way up to the top of the flyspace. We heard a loud bang as it crashed into the grid.

OK, nothing to see here; the play continued.

Lady Macbeth (Penny Cupina) came on for the letter scene. Halfway through the scene, one of the plastic corpse’s legs detached and fell to the deck, with a small crash but no ceremony. The stage manager said, “David, there’s a leg on stage. Can you help us out?” “Uh — sure thing.”

I came on to execute my next assigned gate-attendant maneuver, perhaps a little early. I strode over to the chunk of loose set dressing, scooped it up, and tried my best to hold it upstage of my body.

The gates being opened, Macbeth (Tel Monks) and his entourage entered as I skedaddled off stage and disposed of the artificial limb — to everyone’s relief.

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Trash = props

Eight set designers and dressers tackle the problem of designing for The Flick, by Annie Baker. Electromagnets in blackout—brilliant!

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Journey to the West

Mary Zimmerman’s Journey to the West is another of her masterful renderings of ancient texts as modern theater, and it receives an equally masterful staging by Allison Arkell Stockman’s Constellation Theatre Company within the friendly confines of the Source Theatre space. The ensemble cast portrays episodes from the pilgrimage of the monk Tripitaka, drawing on a Ming dynasty novel that in turn adapted mythic materials from 1000 years earlier. The evening is packed with theatrical storytelling.

We watch very entertaining personified animals who accompany Tripitaka on his journey to the wellsprings of Eastern religion—strongest of these is the yogic, gymnastic Dallas Tolentino as the Monkey King. (This is basically a superhero road trip movie, with better karma.) There are trickster’s personality exchanges, a lengthy fight in slow motion, and multiple distinct water effects achieved with banners. The magnificent cornucopia of costumes are by Kendra Rai; composer/musician/sound designer Tom Teasley crowds numerous effects into his small space, including an inventive rendering of a pig at the trough.

  • Journey to the West, by Mary Zimmerman, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington

There were several respectful younger audience members at this matinee performance, but with a running time of 2:50, some budding theatergoers may find it a bit long.

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Former Schönberg student makes good

William Schallert has taken his last bow.

In an interview for this obituary in 2009, Mr. Schallert said he had never been particularly selective about the roles he played. “That’s not the best way to build a career,” he admitted, “but I kept on doing it, and eventually it paid off.”

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The Nether

The titular Nether of this dystopian play is an immersive cyberspace where anything imaginable—legal or otherwise—is possible. Its weakness is the condescending script: for some reason, the old saw that pornography leads technological advances is trotted out. A police detective, investigating improprieties in the Nether, has precisely one verb to play: to hector.

A cloudy plexiglas box encloses the set in early sequences, causing significant audibility problems for us in row E.

The dismal enterprise is lightened by Jared Mezzocchi’s dazzling projections and the performance of Maya Brettell as Iris, a fantasy avatar.

  • The Nether, by Jennifer Haley, directed by Shana Cooper, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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