Posts

Photo: Margot Schulman
Photo: Margot Schulman

Signature Theatre Stirs Actors and Audiences with Passion

While an iconic work in the pantheon of Stephen Sondheim’s contributions to musical theatre, Passion is admittedly not an airy, feel-good musical. The hour-and-50-minute, one-act play asks much of its actors and its audiences as it tells the timeless story of wavering between the love of two different people.

The new production, at Signature Theatre through September 23, is staged to mirror a runway. The audience will be split down the middle, facing one another while absorbing the characters’ anguish as they’re torn between multiple outcomes throughout the play.

The musical, which made its debut in 1994 and holds the title of shortest-running show to win a Tony Award for Best Musical, is based on the recounting of an Italian author’s affair with an ailing woman while he served in the military. Giorgio (Claybourne Elder) swings from a dangerous pendulum between his carefully arranged relationship with his beautiful – and married – mistress Clara (Steffanie Leigh) and the allure of the reclusive, plain Fosca (Natascia Diaz).

Signature Theatre Associate Artistic Director Matthew Gardiner brings an intimacy and fierce intensity to the production, challenging audiences to face themselves and their perceptions of physical beauty. Every decision feels very deliberate, from splitting the stage in half to emphasize Giorgio’s gravitation toward both women to the unmoving lens on his transformation over the course of the play as the actor never once leaves the stage.

“It’s very dynamic,” says Diaz (West Side Story, Threepenny Opera) of the play’s staging. “It already denotes one side and another – and being pulled in multiple directions. That is the dynamic. Giorgio is being pulled between these two women. It visually exists in a physical format that enhances that energy. Matthew is able to make things that are tangible and real, but it has this ethereal quality to it.”

At first blush, the intricacies of the story may seem dated. A sickly, homely Fosca isolates herself from her surroundings and lives vicariously through books. Giorgio takes a military post far away from his beautiful Clara, but the lovers stay connected through impassioned letters. Though Passion is set in the 19th century, the painful missteps of romance and navigating the concept of monogamy are still very much familiar to us in 2018. As Elder (Sunday in the Park with George, Bonnie and Clyde) prepared for his role, he too found the subject matter relatable.

“The novel was written in 1870 and as I read it, I thought to myself, ‘What a fascinating mediation on love and obsession, affection and passion,’” Elder says. “I’ve definitely found myself in the novel – like, ‘I have done that before, I have felt that way about a person before’ – which is very interesting. The feelings behind it all are every bit as contemporary as they would have been in the 1800s.”

Fosca is widely regarded as one of the most unlikeable characters in modern theatre, making it a complex role for any actor. But much like Elder, Diaz looked past the surface and found common ground with the young woman, physical and emotional afflictions and all. While preparing to take on what she called the largest role she’s ever played, Diaz says she grew to feel as though she knew Fosca.

“I looked at the page and thought, ‘I could have written this,’ meaning that I understand her completely. I not only understand her, but I love her. It’s the strangest thing to play a character as large and as previously judged as this. It’s just like any other slander case. They don’t know her until they’ve read it and seen what’s at the center of her soul.”

The polarizing nature of Fosca lies not as much in her physical unattractiveness as it does in the fact that she embodies “pure, unadulterated feeling.” At the heart of the play, though, is Giorgio’s struggle between two women, two ways of life, his head and his heart.

The audience’s disdain for Fosca may be the initial visceral reaction, but the production holds another element that makes Giorgio’s role equally if not more so emotionally taxing. As the common thread that binds every character in Passion together, it makes sense to have Elder remain onstage for the entire performance – though the impressive feat does have its own physical and emotional challenges for the actor.

“What Giorgio learns in this play is astonishing and very profound,” Elder says. “I connect to it greatly and I find it very emotional, and therefore it’s hard. As actors, it costs something emotionally every time you do a play. You give a piece of yourself to it. I’m grateful this run is only a few months, because living in this for a long time would be very challenging. I would need a lot of therapy. It challenges me to really face myself.”

For audiences who are ready to experience a production that asks questions both timeless and timely, Signature is ready to take you on a journey in their intimate, inventive black-box space. You may learn something about yourself right alongside Giorgio.

Passion is not a show that gets done very often in regional theatre, because it’s not a big draw,” he continues. “It’s complicated, it’s emotional, it’s dark at times. It’s not a laugh-a-minute night out, so you need an audience that’s going to get excited and support it. I have absolutely no doubt that [Signature] is the best possible place to do this show. I feel very, very lucky to get to be a part of this.”

Stephen Sondheim’s Passion runs through September 23 at Signature Theatre. Tickets are $40-$104. Pride Night is September 7, Discussion Night is September 12 and Open Captioning will be held on September 16. Learn more at www.sigtheatre.org.

Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org

Photo: Kitty Geoghan
Photo: Kitty Geoghan

A Day in the Life: Studio Theatre Literary Director Adrien-Alice Hansel

Imagine you’re handed a pile of plays. Hidden among them is the perfect story, waiting to be brought to life. Finding the next great piece for 14th Street’s Studio Theatre is just one of Adrien-Alice Hansel’s many responsibilities. On Tap sat down with Studio’s literary director to talk about her work, the DC theatre scene and what she enjoys doing in the city.

On Tap: What exactly does being a literary director entail on a daily basis?  
Adrien-Alice Hansel: I listen to our artistic director tell me the kind of work he wants to be doing in the next season and beyond, and then I reverse-engineer the process to get us there. I find projects to share with our literary committee, who review and discuss the work we’re considering. I have to understand what Studio is and does, and to understand what work is out there – both in the United States and internationally. I learn the work of many different writers and read their past work. Sometimes, we will even commission a play from a writer. I also do marketing and the initial publicity for each play. It’s a big, amazing job.

OT: Any other facets of the job that are particularly interesting?
AAH: I also work as what’s called a dramaturg, which means that for all of the shows of the season, my associate literary director Lauren Halverson [and I] get to know the play really well. [We get] to know the work of the writer and get deep into the world of the play. A piece set in 1838 but written in 1980 will have a different context now than it did in its initial run, and we have to understand that context.

OT: What makes Studio Theatre such a  unique space?
AAH: One great thing about Studio is that we have four spaces with 200 or fewer seats. It’s a big operation, but they’re all really intimate spaces so being able to hand that to a writer is an amazing privilege. Plays can speak at their own volume here – it can be quiet, it can be loud, it can be exuberant – and that’s one of the really wonderful and exciting things about my work.

OT: What are you looking for in a play that makes it a good fit for Studio?
AAH: Across the season, we’re looking for range. The kinds of work that we’re drawn to and that work well in our spaces are engaged and immediate. They reflect the contemporary world, and they’re somewhat political. We tend to do plays about people who are engaged in their lives and very affected by the outside world. They’re grappling with big questions. We do both dramas and comedies of character. We’re looking for plays that give you a ride and leave you with things to talk about. Our plays will give you a couple of ideas, a couple of perspectives. You’ll have felt your way through arguments on both sides. The “empathy gymnasium” of the theatre is a piece of what Studio does. You’re going to have fun, and you’re going to be up close with the actors on a journey.

OT: You’ve been at Studio for seven years. How has the DC theatre scene changed in your time there?
AAH: There was and there remains a passion for new work. There have always been great small theatre companies here, and I have definitely seen actors come through and move up. A lot of studios have started commissioning new work. There’s a sense of DC as a place, and theatre [companies] around the city are examining what it means to be in our nation’s capital in such an interesting intersection of different diaspora and communities. Increasingly, I see a lot of theaters engaging with questions of difference and inclusion, working to open the eyes of the mainstream theaters to the talent that is here.

OT: Has Studio changed along with the local scene?
AAH: At Studio, we’re asking aggressive questions about who is and isn’t on our stages and attending our plays – who used to be in our neighborhood and who isn’t here anymore. There’s a lot of work to do, and I think that plays are the best when the audience is different from each other. The thing that happens in theatre that I haven’t seen anywhere else is that when your audience is a mixed group of people, one group’s response to what’s happening onstage can teach the other.

OT: What plays from Studio’s 2018-2019 season are you most excited about?
AAH: Cry It Out [begins November 14] is about parenting. The main characters are these two new moms, and it’s a very, very funny play about how parenting looks different depending on your class. If I Forget [begins September 12] is set in DC in the early 2000s and is about Jewish identity as well as life in DC – and the 14th Street corridor itself. Queen of Basel [begins next March] is set in Miami and is a new version of Miss Julie by August Strindberg. Each of the main characters have a connection to the Caribbean or South America, and it’s about power, race and desire. And finally, there’s another new work called P.Y.G. [begins next April] about a boy band rock star who hires two musicians from a hip-hop group called Petty Young Goons to toughen up his image, all on reality TV. It’s a play about race, appropriation and the consequences of trying to tell your story.

OT: What do you like to do in DC when you’re not working?
AAH: I have two kids so that dictates a lot of my free time. DC is excellent on so many fronts. It doesn’t have the reputation that it should for its art scene. Big, small, culturally specific – it’s all here. As a parent, so much stuff is free, so you can take your kids to see so much and it’s close to nature. I grew up barefoot in back yards and fields. You can do that in Rock Creek Park in small ways or go outside the city easily and do that. Everything from the Kennedy Center to the Atlas [Performing Arts Center] is within reach. And as a side note, the coffee shops here are truly top notch.

OT: Do you like to go see plays by yourself, or do you prefer to go with other people?
AAH: I don’t have a strong preference. But if you go with me, we will definitely talk about it – but only after when we’re in a private place. I prefer to be incognito.

Learn more about Hansel’s work and Studio Theatre’s 2018-2019 season at www.studiotheatre.org.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

Photo: Séamus Miller
Photo: Séamus Miller

A Sneak Peek at Work in Progress Tyrant

True to their mission to “Make Space for Art,” the nonprofit organization, CulturalDC, invited the public to a series of workshops at the Source Theatre’s 100-person black box space to provide feedback on the thought-provoking original play, Tyrant, written by Kathleen Akerley.

Tyrant follows the theatrical trend of law induced alternate realities similar to Hulu’s reworking of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and HBO’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”

Set in the United States, 40 years after the enacting of legislation that presumably solves the homeless crisis across the country, Tyrant explores the power dynamics that come when the ultra-wealthy force homeless citizens to work in exchange for lodging. Eliciting woeful calls from onlookers, the theme parallels the prison-industrial system enforced today in hundreds of for-profit prisons nationwide. Overflowing with racial and class-based oppression, Tyrant challenges viewers to evaluate their roles in the ongoing systemic oppression.

This particular workshop was a reading which allowed commenting, questioning, and a restructuring of roles, per the audience’s recommendation, after Act One. The goal was to explore scene functionality “when racial demographics are altered” according to CulturalDC.

With three “Actuals” and two “Maestros” name tags on seats across the intimate stage, scene one opens with a glacial-like air (both figuratively and literally), foreshadowing unfortunate actions to follow.

Martin, a maestro, is the homeowner played by a Caucasian male. He is a wealthy man (the source of his wealth is unknown) who has manifested upwards of 10 Actuals from the “Center” to perform certain tasks in his home. He has a chef, two massage therapists, nurses, drivers and a therapist.

His persona straddles the line between a sympathetic endearing supervisor and a threatening manipulative tyrant.

Shown interacting with Martin in act one are two Actuals; Leon and Regina, Martin’s massage therapists. Leon is played by a Caucasian male and Regina is played by a female of African descent.

Martin’s wealth is quickly obvious, as he lavishes himself with daily massage treatments, on each occasion sharing his dreams with Leon and Regina. Each session reveals a bizarre dream while they rub away the tension formed from a long day of no labor.

Regina and Leon have differing experiences prior to being placed with Martin. Regina, presumably in her mid-twenties, grew up in the Center where Actuals are raised and trained to work for Maestros. From birth, she was taught the laws of servitude and obedience. Whereas Leon, of a similar age, was raised by his mother until her sudden disappearance, before eventually becoming an Actual as well.

Both are happy and thankful to work in Martin’s home, as the Maestro provides lodging, food, clothing and even a small degree of companionship. Still, ambivalence weighs down the pair as they try to obey each law perfectly. Otherwise, their utmost fear of being reassigned or returned to the Center is unavoidable.

In this complex alternate reality, the laws are comprehensive but oppressive. The law surfacing continually prohibits Actuals from thinking or pretending as though they are not Actuals. They must always be an Actual, never aspiring to be anything more. Once an Actual, forever an Actual; they cannot purchase freedom, and there is no expiration for servitude.

Another law that echoes from the intercoms for all to hear is silence-time, which happens sporadically and ranges 5-10 hours a day. This period is a relevant restriction geared to ensure Actuals enjoy adequate rest to guarantee their ability to perform their jobs. During this time they must not talk, work or perform any other activity.

Their ability to work is fundamental to their involvement in the program. Similar to solitary confinement for those with behavioral problems in prison, if they do not work, they must return to the Center for correcting.

Fortunately, the laws not only apply to Actuals. Maestros have their own set of regulations to abide by once they’ve acquired and manifested an Actual. Maestros cannot make Actuals uncomfortable, and inflicting pain is prohibited. Instead, Maestros provide reports detailing their experience and all incidents that transpire. Any violation found leads to the immediate removal of Actuals and the expulsion of the Maestros in question.

It is clear an attempt was made to form a utilitarian society harvesting the labor found in slavery but without its cruelty and violence. But with absolute power, absolute corruption follows.

In the case of Tyrant, the oppression of the homeless population is overt proof of corruption. Many implicit tactics are used to facilitate tyranny, such as the restriction on education. The rationale for restricting slaves’ educational development was that if slaves could read, they could aspire and plot to be more than slaves. Though Actuals can read, access to real-world experiences and knowledge is restricted.

In a particular daunting scene, Regina injures herself on a scolding hot tea kettle, unlawfully gifted by Leon. Once confronted by Martin, due to her inability to massage him, it’s evident Regina had no conception of healing. During an exhausting exchange between Martin and Regina, where Martin attempts to manipulate Regina to strike fear in her, he eludes to her inability to perform her job. With this proclamation, she ascertains her hand-use will never be regained and begins to spiral, as the fear of returning to the Center is upon her.

After the close of act one, playwright Akerley asked the audience if they would like to see any actors in a different role. She forewarns the audience, disclosing sexually violent graphic scenes are to occur in the second act. Which led one individual to ask that the female actor, playing Regina, be removed. She was reassigned to the role of Martin, after an understudy praised her portrayal of the character from previous performances. The audience member explains the reasoning behind his recommendation, sharing his discomfort with “seeing” harm done to a woman of African descent by a white male, explaining it “hits too close to home.”

With Regina cast as a Caucasian female and Martin a woman of African descent, the second act continues without skipping a beat.

Once the show concluded and the heinous sexual act transpired, comments and questions poured from the audience.

One woman asked, “What is the ideal audience you see watching your play?” Akerley responded, “white middle and upper-middle class,” with the purpose of inciting a reaction or sense of responsibility to resolve systemic racial and class-based oppression.

Audience members questioned the inclusion of violent sexual acts, suggesting this form of assault is heavy handed.  To counteract both claims offered by these individuals, another actor proposes their inability to address or confront oppressive acts against minorities (women and people of color) further perpetuates the cycle of injustice. Because we live in a society where crimes persist against those presumed to be at the lower end of these power dynamics, there is a need for dramatic portrayals reinforcing that progress is still needed.

On a later call, Akerley explains the importance of race in the production of this piece of work. Reminiscing about a 2014 field production in Chicago, where an entirely Caucasian, and outstanding, cast provoked a lackluster conversation. She recalls conversations about the legality of legislation and the potential enactment of this law, rather than the treatment of marginalized individuals and the stripping of fundamental liberties like freedom, love and prosperity.

Akerley hopes future producers will cast the play in a way that “make[s] conversations productive.” She feels it is her obligation, as a playwright, to make audiences uncomfortable, yet willing to grapple with and confront the disparities produced by society.

Tyrant is in the final editing stages and will premiere in a DC theater in 2019. To see upcoming Longacre Lea productions, visit here and to learn more about CulturalDC events at visit here.

Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company
Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

Lucky Steals Show in Waiting For Godot

Hope and despair, slapstick comedy and profound philosophical musings, each are abound in quick succession in Samuel Beckett’s iconic and mysterious play Waiting for Godot.

Irish acting company Druid is performing their rendition of the hard-to-interpret play at the Shakespeare Theatre Company through May 20. The metaphorical mystery in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot leaves an endless amount of room for interpretation, but Druid’s rendition is certain to keep audiences laughing as much as it will make them think.

The play tells the story of two tramps, seemingly stranded on a barren countryside road. Vladimir (nicknamed Didi, played by Marty Rea), a usually cheerful intellectual and Estragon (nicknamed Gogo, played by Aaron Monaghan), the wearier of the two. The pair bicker, play games and tell stories endlessly, while they wait for the arrival of someone named Godot. During the eager, sometimes hopeless, wait, the tone alternates between heartbreaking and hilarious.

“I think Beckett wants us to go through all the different emotions in this play. There are some very sad, emotional moments and kind of a despair at times but then he does the opposite, there’s great hope and great love and great laughs at times at ourselves and our existence,” actor Garrett Lombard says.

The two tramps, draped in shabby clothes and plagued with ill-fitting boots and itchy hats, encounter only three other characters: Pozzo (Rory Nolan), his slave named Lucky (Lombard) and an unnamed boy (Malcolm Fuller).

The tramps wonder about and at times judge Pozzo’s treatment of Lucky, who is constantly burdened with a stool, a basket, a suitcase full of sand and a rope around his neck.

“[Lucky is] a very subservient character, very low-status kind of guy, and he basically wants to please his master by doing his job of carrying his bags and giving him his coat and his stool and his whip and whatnot as best as he can,” Lombard says.

Perhaps the character most difficult to interpret in Waiting for Godot, Lucky stumbles around the stage, answering to Pozzo’s every beck and call, without saying a word – until his famous, breathtaking monologue that earned a raucous round of applause from the awestruck audience.

“He comes out with this incredible, mad, long, stream of consciousness speech, about the human existence and what we have ascertained about trying to explain this and trying to explain the universe and ends up, during the speech, almost losing his mind completely,” Lombard says.

The monologue nearly drives Pozzo, Didi and Gogo out of their minds as well.

This landmark moment makes preparing for the role of Lucky a colossally strenuous process. In addition to his monologue, the character spends most his time either hunched over or flopping down in exhaustion. According to Lombard, prepping for the character required a lot of stretching and staying in the best possible shape.

Apart from the physical aspects, the getting in the mind of the character was an isolating process, Lombard says. Lucky is constantly serving Pozzo and does deliver an enormous speech, but he never actually banters with other characters.

“It’s a bit of a lonely process. You don’t get to have the kind of fun that Didi and Gogo have in the rehearsal room. But it’s a really interesting one to work on as an actor, even if it was a little bit lonely at times,” Lombard says.

Critics have debated the symbolism of Lucky’s name, as well as his role. Some say Lucky is aptly named because unlike any other characters, he knows what his purpose is – to serve Pozzo. The name could also be sarcastic, which is in line with the play’s dark humor.

Catch the show until May 20 at the Lansburgh Threatre. Tickets start at $44 and can be purchased here. More information can be found at www.shakespearetheatre.org.

STC’s Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Photo: Daniel Schwartz
Photo: Daniel Schwartz

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Small but Mighty

“Small but mighty” should be the thought that comes to mind after seeing the most recent production by the Constellation Theatre Company. Bertolt Brecht’s epic tale The Caucasian Chalk Circle dazzles in the hands of director Allison Arkell Stockman. She leads a small ensemble of 14 to victory as they confidently and passionately unveil the grand story of adventure, justice, power and love.

The Constellation Theatre Company transformed the black-box theatre into a 360 degrees, 88-seat configuration, which elicits an immersive experience where the partition separating drama and reality is lifted.

The circular design heightens the play’s mysteriousness, engrossing audience during the epic tale. Throughout the two and a half hour show, thespians enter and exit from every aperture, making it nearly impossible to declare one point of the stage as the main stage. Constant head turning, searching for the one speaking, along with unexpected audience participation maintains a high alertness for viewers within this insulated rousing environment.

 

A whirlwind of talent engulfs both the 14-person cast, who portray more than sixty characters between them, and the three-person band performing rock-inspired music for the period piece.

As the lights expose the all black stage, a multidimensional, multi-period story begins to unfold. Two farmer unions debate who should control the land abandoned by the Nazis after WWII, and in order to resolve the conflict, a play was produced and performed.

Carrying the bulk of the narrative initially is a character described as The Singer, played by Matthew Schleigh, who is also one of the three band members. Schleigh lightheartedly introduces the parable that would reveal the unexpected steps it precedes. His performance is exactly what one would hope for in a renaissance piece. He charms and flirts with the audience while singing modern folk songs to appeal to those present. His narration leaves more to be desired as he shifts gears altogether and assumes the role of the Judge in the latter half of the production.

Within another vein of the multi-dimensional story line, a war is taking place after a coup leads to the murder of the Governor played by Keith E. Irby. The murder takes place after the governor’s son and heir is born. In a panic, the mother of the child leaves her home and abandons her new born baby. Grusha, a handmaiden, played by Yesenia Iglesias, saves the baby from certain death.

Grusha’s journey in search of asylum is preempted by her own love story with the soldier Simon, played by Drew Kopas. The innocent love between characters Grusha and Simon is brought into sharp focus and is most evident as the couple sings their farewell song before Simon leaves to fight in a war against Iran.

At the onset, Iglesias’ vocal stylings are delicate, but eventually they ricochet throughout the intimate space. Her talents are perfectly supported by a diverse and powerful ensemble whose harmonies could be bottled and sold at an extremely high price. All musical components are exquisite.

The only unpleasant, albeit intentionally, element within the entire show is Sergeant, played by Scott Ward Abernethy. At first, Sergeant comes across as a comical, loving character, until his true intentions surface and his whole presence transforms. The demented performance could cause one to wince at his very sight. This is mostly due to the crude language, sexual gestures and unwarranted sexual advances, which echo the atrocities responsible for today’s #MeToo movement.

One thing the Constellation Theatre Company has certainly mastered is transformative theater. Each time I visit the intimate space, I’m lost in a new world, but I’m always guided by an ensemble that embodies its characters and navigates the set. Their knowledge of the space paired with the simple and appropriate choreography by Tony Thomas II makes this a spectacular hit.

The use of space was pleasant, as they create bridges out of humans and illustrate wind with dance. The play wows, making you want to sit in the theater for hours in reflection of the time spent in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia.

The Causasian Chalk Circle is playing now through May 13 at the Constellation Theatre Company. Ticket prices are $25-$45. There is no late seating.

Consteallation Theatre Company: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; 202-204-7741; www.constellationtheatre.org

Photo: Carol Rosegg
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Trust in The Wiz at Ford’s Theatre

There’s not a moment in Ford’s Theatre’s The Wiz when you’re not exhilarated. From the instance Toto rushes across the stage to the final second Dorothy clicks her heels, the kaleidoscope of characters, colors and music inspires the audience to yelp, cheer, tap their feet, laugh and snap – it’s impossible to sit still when you’re traveling through the Wonderful World of Oz.

The Wiz, the iconic winner of seven Tony Awards, is an adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, which unapologetically celebrates black culture through it’s score of blues, soul, gospel, R&B, jazz and pop, in addition to its universal narrative. The Wiz isn’t a story about a young black girl overcoming slavery, extreme poverty or hardships. Rather, the story is about a young girl who happens to be black making friends and finding strength as she attempts to journey home after being whisked away by a tornado into a magical land.

“The beauty of The Wiz is its message that anything we already are is enough,” director Kent Gash explains in Ford’s press release. “Dorothy feels restless and stuck at home, but when the tornado comes through, it absolutely turns her world upside down and changes her perspective. Dorothy discovers she is smarter, more powerful and more interesting than she ever realized. She comes to understand that how she moves through the world can change lives. That is a valuable lesson for us all to celebrate.”

Ines Nassara shines as Dorothy. The moment she sings the first line on “Soon As I Get Home,” we know exactly who this character is. We feel Dorothy’s fear, excitement and resolve to succeed in her mission. At the beginning of the show, she’s still unsure of her bravery. By the time she helps her new friend, the Cowardly Lion (played exquisitely by Christopher Michael Richardson), discover his own strength in “Be a Lion,” you’ll be hard-pressed to hold back tears upon seeing this young woman stand with such power.

Hasani Allen emulates the same charm and lankiness as Michael Jackson in the same role as the Scarecrow, but his “Aw, shucks” sweetness is all his own. For lacking a heart, Tinman, as brought to life by Kevin McAllister, sings with all his soul about the eternal fear we all have about being unable to love, and being unlovable.

While the four leads of the show prove wonderful, The Wiz is a musical that needs a strong ensemble cast. Ford’s production delivers, and when the show reaches its peak after Evillene melts away with “Everybody Rejoice” – an exuberant song celebrating freedom and new chapters – you can’t help but revel in the joy onstage.

This production of The Wiz is a delight for any pop culture fiend. There are call-outs to Jackson 5 dance routines, Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece RevelationsWakanda, Coming to America, Flavor of Love (Flava Flav’s VH1 dating show), Paris Is Burning, Grace Jones, Prince and Purple Rain, and of course, some moonwalking thrown in for good measure.

This is a story about having the courage to trust in yourself – trusting your smarts, trusting your heart, trusting your bravery and, finally, trusting in your spirit.

The Wiz runs at Ford’s Theatre through May 12. For more information about the show or details on times, dates and tickets, click here.

Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; 202-347-4833; www.fords.org

Photo: Daniel Schwartz
Photo: Daniel Schwartz

The Skin of our Teeth: quirky play a story for the times

With a whirlwind of huge time jumps, religious allegory and actor-audience interaction, The Skin of Our Teeth is one of those plays that keep you thinking long after the curtain has closed and everyone has gone home. And while I still find it hard to put into words what the story means on a personal level, I am certain that this is a play with a message that could not be better suited for the times. Running at Constellation Theatre until February 11, The Skin of Our Teeth was written by Thornton Wilder and has been directed by Helen Hayes award winner Mary Hall Surface for this production.

The play follows the story of the Antrobus family—husband George (Steven Carpenter), wife Maggie (Lolita Marie), children Henry (Dallas Tolentino) and Gladys (Malinda Kathleen Reese) and their maid Sabina (the fantastic Tonya Beckman)—in good times and bad and across vast time shifts. And I mean vast—the scenes range from the beginning of an Ice Age, to the Atlantic City boardwalk to a post-apocalyptic bomb shelter.

How can these times all be connected? Well the Antrobus’s are very old… George and Maggie have been married for 5,000 years to be exact. But they are simply your average family living in a New Jersey suburb, managing to survive all these Earth-altering events by… wait for it… the skin of their teeth.

And despite an unusual storyline and being written by Wilder almost 80 years ago, certain elements of the story may as well have been written for our modern era. Quotes from Maggie could be said by today’s feminists: “I have a letter…and in the letter is written all the things that a woman knows. It’s never been told to any man and it’s never been told to any woman, and if it finds its destination, a new time will come. We’re not what books and plays say we are. We’re not what advertisements say we are.”

Other’s talk about how in times of hardship, we must go on no matter what: “Do I have to explain to you what everybody else already knows – everybody who keeps a home going? Do I have to say what nobody should ever have to say, because they can read it in each other’s eyes? Now listen to me: I could live for seventy years in a cellar making soup out of grass and bark, without ever doubting that this world has work to do and will do it?”

While somewhat of a challenge to describe on paper, The Skin of Our Teeth adds up in person and is truly a funny, moving story that proves just how much the human spirit can endure. Constellation Theatre’s Source Theatre proved a great stage to host the show as its semi-circular stage allowed for wonderfully unique set designs and an intimate setting let the audience experience the full impact of emotions flowing across the stage. The unique characters and wildly imaginative storyline will truly stay with you long after the play is over, and as Sabina says to the audience at the end, the show doesn’t end with the curtain call; we have a long way to go and the end hasn’t been written yet.

Catch The Skin of Our Teeth at the Constellation Theatre Company’s Source Theatre, running through February 11, 2018. Learn more here.

Constellation Theatre Company’s Source Theatre: 1835 14th St. NW, DC; 202-204-7741; www.constellationtheatre.org

Photo: newmusictheatre.org
Photo: newmusictheatre.org

The Sounds of Surveillance

When an authoritarian regime spies on its citizens, what sound does it make? According to George Orwell, that sound is the background noise from a telescreen. For Margaret Atwood, it’s blessings from an ambiguous but menacing religion. And for the Alliance of New Music-Theatre’s interpretation of Protest, totalitarianism can sound a lot like the echo of Dupont Circle traffic.

Alliance is currently performing the famous play written by Václav Havel, former political prisoner – and Czechoslovakia’s last president and the Czech Republic’s first president – in Dupont Underground through May 21. One of DC’s best-kept secrets, Dupont Underground is a public arts space that served as a streetcar station until 1962.

Because Protest has such a long history of censorship, the subterranean setting was phenomenal. Audience members accessed the space by descending under Dupont Circle from an easily-missed entrance. Lit by only a few glowing lights, the drop in temperature was sudden and significant. Viewers made their way down the winding tunnel to reach the stage, passing by a makeshift bar and graffiti-covered walls.

Protest marks the cavernous art space’s first play, and in the repurposed labyrinth, car horns and sirens play a much more sinister role. The echoes bouncing off concrete walls in the underground tunnels have each character darting nervous looks over their shoulders as they discuss – and avoid discussing – their political situation. According to Alliance’s Artistic Director, Susan Galbraith, the venue plays as much of a role in the performance as the actors do.

“One night, we had helicopters circling throughout the performance so they [emphasized] the danger that the [characters] lived under surveillance all the time,” Galbraith said. “So, it does change the performance enormously, but I also think sometimes it can get so quiet. And we can still feel that immediacy, intimacy and internal monologue.”

Protest depicts an encounter between a formerly jailed activist, Vaněk (Drew Valins), and a wealthy man who has invited him over, Staněk (David Millstone). Staněk needs Vaněk’s help releasing his daughter’s fiancé from political prison, while Vaněk needs Staněk’s influential signature on a petition. Both characters need something from one another, yet the constant surveillance under which they live requires them to perform an elaborate and awkward dance of small talk.

After his imprisonment for defending a radical punk band’s creative freedom, Havel’s plays were banned from public performance. But that didn’t stop the revolutionary. His plays became known as “apartment plays,” performed for private audiences. With Havel often playing his everyman alter-ego, Vaněk, the two-character play became known for its sense of urgency and claustrophobia. In addition to the venue itself, Dupont Circle contributes to the message of the play as well.

“Dupont Circle has been a place of ferment and social movements in Washington,” Galbraith said. “In my time, the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the transgender movement, the climate movement now – all of these things – [are] thrilling to me. There’s something happening upstairs that feeds this down here. So, I’m hoping all of our pieces will have that dimension.”

But the ever-present threat of surveillance and political turmoil isn’t the only familiar aspect of the play. Toward the end of the hour plus-long production, Staněk must battle himself as much as Vaněk battles the repressive regime.

In a fierce monologue, Staněk weighs the pros and cons of signing the petition. Is the loss of social status worth a clear conscience, or should protest be left to the known dissidents? As Staněk’s desire for revolution collides with his lofty reputation, Protest reminds its audience that regardless of social status, we the privileged share a responsibility to incite change.

“Now, more and more people are talking about Havel,” Galbraith said. “One guy who came to our show held up a picture of a poster in one of these marches in Seattle. It said, ‘Where is Václav Havel now?’ So, I think there is this feeling of, ‘Where is he now? Where is that voice? Where is the voice of total morality and challenge to us?’ And we’re looking for the leaders, hopefully not to just do it for us.”

Catch performances of Protest at Dupont Underground on May 19 at 7:30 p.m., May 20 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and May 21 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$30 and can be purchased on Dupont Underground’s website.

Dupont Underground: 1500 19th St. NW, DC; www.dupontunderground.org