Aaron Posner’s enjoyable riff on the life of John Quincy Adams, sixth U.S. President (and here, perhaps the last adherent of the Enlightenment), would slide easily into the family-friendly, history-inflected programming at Ford’s Theatre, were it not for several outbursts of salty language. The play unfolds as a series of imagined one-on-ones between Adams and various figures in his life, spanning the years 1776 to 1847; indeed, much of what we learn about Adams comes not from what he says and does, but rather from what his interlocutors say and tell him to do.

What keeps this dialogue-heavy play afloat is a clever bit of double-cross-casting: by turns, each of four actors, of various genders and colors, portrays Adams, with the remaining three taking on all the other roles of the play. Thus, for instance, Joshua David Robinson, an African-American man, gives us a populist pro-slavery Andrew Jackson, and then in a subsequent scene, Frederick Douglass, who makes an effective appeal to Adams’s abolitionist tendencies. Most effective at this multiple role-playing is Eric Hissom, with a masterful rendering of the profane Henry Clay, who tells the still-idealistic Adams that his only paths to an effective Presidency are finding legislative compromise or raising fears in the populace. When Hissom later plays Adams, there is a touching passage in which he contemplates his legacy and looks out on the people whose lives he’s touched, people who are yet to be.

There’s a nice structural pattern to the play, as it is framed by its opening scene in a public park between a young Adams (Jacqueline Correa) and George Washington (Phyllis Kay)—with some fun anachronisms like takeout coffee cups and a Secret Service detail—and its closing scene between an elderly Adams (Kay again) and freshman congressman Abraham Lincoln (Correa again). Costume director Joseph P. Salasovich has given the four Adamses four variations on a formal frock coat, each in the same rich burgundy color. There is a very fine moment each time an actor passes the role, and the coat, on to the next actor—an inauguration ceremony in miniature.

My favorite unseen character from Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, Mr. Hardtacks, makes a repeat non-appearance.

  • JQA, written and directed by Aaron Posner, Arena Stage Kogod Cradle, Washington

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.

Stupid Fucking Bird

Aaron Posner’s “sort of” adaptation, the play with the name that many news media won’t reproduce verbatim, takes Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and feeds it back on itself with the gain turned to 11. Just as William Forsythe hyperextended the classical ballet world’s preparatory steps, Posner injects taboo-word vernacular, monologues that baldly state subtext, and direct address of the audience (in and out of character) into Chekhov’s twisted comedy of artistic ambitions and daisy-chained love triangles—and comes up with something wickedly funny.

The play is Posner’s argument with Constantin Stanislavsky’s “method” of realistic theater. The tension is reflected in Misha Kachman’s set design, which swings from Act 1’s ambiguous, minimal space—a samovar that no one pours from, an exposed flyrail, a clearly artificial back wall, seven bentwood chairs, and a battered piano—to Act 2’s ultrarealistic apartment kitchen, its walls covered with every domestic utensil known to Williams-Sonoma. The argument is made explicit in a tour de force rant for Conrad (frantic Brad Koed), a plea for a new approach to theater in which he heckles playbill-scanning audience members.

It’s an argument with Chekhov’s arcane symbolism, too. I’m still looking for someone to explain to me why Nina thinks she is a (forgive me, birding community) seagull.

Yet, amid all this potty-mouthed Neo-Futurism, Howard Shalwitz’s direction never loses touch with emotional honesty. Rick Foucheux’s aging Sorn (sort of a smoothie blended from Chekhov’s characters Sorin and Dorn) quietly reminds us, “when you see an old guy, you never know,” and the passage is a heart-breaker. Kimberly Gilbert’s Beckettian Mash, so despondent that she can’t utter the word “hope” without three levels of Palinesque quotation marks around it, is pursued by Darius Pierce’s Dev, the sweetest shlub you’ll ever see on stage. And Gilbert shows some mad musical chops on the ukulele.

  • Stupid Fucking Bird, by Aaron Posner, sort of adapted from The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, directed by Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

Reading list

‘Tis Poetry Month once again, and Patrick Cooper points to Jay Parini’s list of ten American poems then “have left the deepest mark on US literature – and me.” Robert Lowell is more or less unknown to me, and Parini’s selection, “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” reminds me pleasantly of Marianne Moore. I haven’t read much Whitman for a long while—time to rectify that.

In the Next Room or the vibrator play

Sarah Ruhl’s script plays it straight for most of In the Next Room or the vibrator play, reserving her trademark theatricality for the satisfying ending. Indeed, it’s a play that accomplishes some of its best moments in the shared silences between two characters, especially a touching subplot between Sabrina Daldry (the fine Kimberly Gilbert) and clinic nurse Annie (an understated and hence very effective Sarah Marshall); the silences are fitting, since this is a story that unfolds in a Victorian America where sexual experience is not discussed, hardly even recognized for what it is. (And apparently no one saw the need for personal lubricant.)

There’s a lovely passage toward the end of Act 1 in which Catherine Givings (welcome newcomer Katie deBuys) looks forward to the coming century in which “everything in our lives will be electrified: On. Off. On. Off.” with clearly mixed feelings.

Daniel Conway’s set puts two half-circle rows of bleacher seats onstage to frame Dr. Givings’ parlor and consulting room as if it were an operating theater. Unfortunately, upstage action creates sightline problems for patrons sitting in the upper row. But I loved the hand-cranked entrance bell fitted to the Givings’ front door.

  • In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Aaron Posner, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington