The Scottish Art Play

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Pay no attention to the infringement on intellectual property

Last Tuesday, I saw William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Liesl Tommy, at Shakespeare Theatre.

I will let you in on wonderful secret: For every mainstage show, Shakespeare Theatre does something called Free Will. On Monday at noon, they offer a certain number of free tickets for that week’s performances. It is a truly fantastic program that allows people like myself, who couldn’t afford to go otherwise, the opportunity to see Shakespeare.

I walked in on Tuesday evening with my free ticket to this beautiful multi-floor venue and entered the theatre to see a set entirely in silver and gray. The back wall was concrete with a gigantic crack running through it. Fabric hung down from the ceiling; when it mixed with the light, it created an eery glow around the stage. The stage itself was raked back and had little indentations throughout. As the play progressed, large fluorescent poles descended from the sky to denote different spacial arrangements and feelings of the characters with their bright, changing colors. I could have watched that set, designed by John Coyne, all night. It was truly an artistic masterpiece. That said, it wasn’t overly useful in helping me understand what was happening. Unfortunately, that was a theme in this production. Let me explain.

The show was set in Northern Africa. The clothing, the casting, and the program told me as much, but I didn’t have time to read the program beforehand. I didn’t receive clear confirmation of the setting until the second act when a map is displayed. Maybe they could have done that upfront?

In addition, the set, while utterly beautiful, didn’t help me pinpoint exactly where we were – it was too abstract with all the concrete and fluorescent tubes.

The costumes, designed by Kathleen Geldard, were divine, absolutely true to North African garb; with bold colors and golden embroidery, they were deeply rooted in reality. The set and lights stood in such stark contrast to that, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing a lot of the time. (One might argue that it’s similar to Macbeth and his Lady’s delusions, but I don’t think the intention was to cause confusion to this magnitude for the audience).

Oh goodness, and the sound. It was designed by Broken Chord. It also made no sense and did not enhance my experience. I wish I could have just watched the costumes, set, and lights with no sound at all.

Another problem was that, although these are classically trained Shakespearean actors, and very good actors in fact, they didn’t make me understand the text. It was as if they were relying on everyone already knowing the story and confusion in the text wouldn’t be a big deal.

In the program, they provide a synopsis, a director’s note, a literary manager’s note, an interview with the director, a section on different productions of the “Scottish” Play that have been set in somewhere other than Scotland, and a note about the costumes. I sat down a few minutes before the play began and I certainly didn’t have time to read all of that. Plays should speak for themselves, or if there are additional words to say about the play, they shouldn’t involve 15 pages of reading before you can understand even the basics. Shakespeare Theatre should not assign the audience required reading before they can comprehend the play.

I believe this was a failing on the part of the director. I know that I won’t understand everything in a Shakespeare play, but good directors will force their actors to make me at least understand the emotion behind the words.

The director just made so many choices. Most of them were strong choices, which is admirable, but most of them created more problems than solutions.

For example, they used cell phones. This isn’t a bad thing, updating Shakespeare to fit the modern age. However, it cut out some of the interaction between characters – they just had a phone conversation instead. It hindered character development and relationship-building and made me care less about the characters.

Because of the more limited interaction, it seemed that the characters went through approximately zero maturation throughout the play. Macbeth (Jesse J. Perez) was a power-hungry maniac from the beginning and never shook that. Lady Macbeth (Nikkole Salter) always seemed completely in control of her faculties.

Another thing. Duncan is a woman in this play, not a man. Having Duncan be a queen isn’t a problem, but it does beg the question: “Why didn’t Lady Macbeth make a run for the throne?” She is clearly the one who sets the plan in motion, she is clearly the more ambitious of the pair. At least in the beginning. Why doesn’t she just ditch her wimp of a husband that she doesn’t seem to love very much anyway? Well, obviously, I know the answer: that’s just not how it was written. Moving on.

The three witches were apparently Western mercenaries who were manipulating African politics. I didn’t get that until the second act. Would have been nice to know from the beginning without having to read the program.

To be clear, I don’t appreciate when plays treat their audience like dummies. However, I thought this Macbeth obfuscated the very basics of the show.

I thought the piece was artful. It could have been an experiential art piece and I would have been much more accepting of it. However, it was play, meant to be understood. And it just wasn’t.

I enjoyed myself, but I have to give this production a 6/10. If you’re going to go see it, read the program beforehand for maximum comprehension.

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Theater *Magic*

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Let’s call a spade a spade: I heart this play. It was the diamond standard. And I’ll club anyone who says otherwise.

On Wednesday, I saw The Magic Play at Olney Theatre Center. Written by Andrew Hinderaker, directed by Halena Kays, and with magic created by Brett Schneider, it was truly a *magical* play.

I texted my friend Katie, who works at Olney, on Wednesday, trying to decide when I was going to come see this show, and I (somewhat jokingly) said that I was free that night. She said, “great, let’s do tonight!”

So at 5:30pm I was on the metro out to *the farmland* as I like to call it. I rode it to the end of the red line. Then, she picked me up and we drove another 20 minutes into Maryland. And I’m going to be honest, I thought I was going to see a magic show, and I was stoked about it. Katie informed me that, no, Olney was not just putting on a magic show. It was a play with a plot, with character development, and also with magic. I was intrigued, and so unprepared for this powerful, revelatory play.

At its heart, this is a (very impressive) magic show intertwined with the story of the magician’s own failed relationship. It begins with the Magician (Brett Schneider) performing a real magic show with card tricks galore. Through flashbacks, the audience learns that this magic show is happening on the same day that his boyfriend left him. And the “play” part of The Magic Play begins.

It’s not a simple thing to talk about the plot of the show because it’s winding, it doubles back, it rewrites itself with each new truth revealed, with each trick played for the audience. I read the dramaturg’s note before the show and thought, “well that was vague.” But as the show progressed, I saw that this show can only be described in such vague, poetic language because it touches something indescribable. Ok, but let me try.

The play equates a magic show with a relationship. A magician, in his work, manipulates outcomes, manipulates emotions; is thorough, meticulous, and only gives the *appearance* of magic. Essentially, he lies for a living, but convinces people (the audience) he’s telling the truth. In a relationship, this is like a nuclear bomb, as we see. The Diver (played by Jon Hudson Odom), the Magician’s love, feels that he can’t trust the Magician. The Magician manipulates reality around the Diver in order to produce the desired magical effect, love. At one point, the Magician says that there’s no real magic for him because he’s the one creating it, not experiencing the joy and wonder that his intended audience feels. He longs for that though.

Honestly, that didn’t do the play justice whatsoever. Let me try again.

I walked into the theater and saw the set, designed by Lizzie Bracken. On one side of the stage, a house of cards; on the other, a table with a few miscellaneous items, and in the center, another table. Two chairs are on stage. There was a scrim behind this, gorgeously painted a smoky, cloudy purple, with simple, elegant designs on the outside in lines and dots. At the beginning of The Magic Play and the magic show, the stage is flooded with lights of all colors (lighting designed by Jesse Belsky). When the Magician entered and began his magic, the cards were projected on the scrim through a live feed. The Magician was dressed in a slightly too big, dim cerulean, three-piece suit and deep aubergine shoes (costumes designed by Alison Siple). During the magic show, eery and foreboding music (designed by Matthew M. Nelson) pervaded until the magic miraculously concluded, the music swelled, and the card disappeared or reappeared or changed. When Daniel, the Diver, a figment of the Magician’s imagination, appeared to interrupt the magic show, the lights, the sound, and the set shifted. When they were engulfed in a flashback, that memory changed all the technical aspects again, revealing a diving board behind the scrim. It was fluid, like diving into a pool, how the audience was taken to a magic show, to the Magician’s mind, to a memory of a natatorium at night. It was as if the magic of the plot and the journey of the Magician performed magic on the technical aspects of the show and vice versa.

And that was first act. The reason it’s difficult to discuss the plot specifically is because I don’t want to give away any of the magic. Besides the fact that it would be pointless to try to describe magic, the magic show follows the course of the relationship, each piece of magic is a touchstone with significance for the pair.

Let me talk about the acting for a moment, and by extension, the magic. There was an absolute dynamism between Schneider as the Magician and Odom as the Diver. There was tension, like a bungee cord connected to each of their hearts, and it was taut and strained, until it snapped. When I saw their relationship, I saw reality. (Which is, of course, the point, but also ironic given that this whole play is about the fact that the magic we see in a show isn’t necessarily real. It’s designed to manipulate the reactions of the audience. It was beautiful. I love theatre.)

The second act features Harry A. Winter as the Magician’s father, who left him as a kid, also a magician, working the casino circuit in Reno. Honestly, I can’t tell you how the acting was in the scene because I never saw it. I saw a father and son trying to reconcile after years of not talking, after the father not even recognizing the son. It was that good.

Alright, you might think I’ve gone off the rails here with my ebullient praise of a show that I can’t even properly explain. But I think that’s the point. This show made me feel, viscerally, the the love, manipulation, and magic. How do you even describe magic?

This play gets damn close. Magic is beautiful, messy, meticulously planned, full of effort, and seeming effortless. Magic makes you feel special and connected to something bigger – the rest of the audience, the rest of the universe, just one other person.

The juxtaposition between a Magician and a Diver is perfect. A Magician plans and executes according to the plan. A Diver practices, but at the end of the day, he has to dive, and trust that they haven’t magically drained the water in the three seconds between board and bottom of the pool. So the play begs the question, which one are you? Both are valid, but I came out of the play thinking that it might be better to leap into the unknown and at least have a shot at experiencing real magic.

I give this play a 10/10. There’s so much more I want to say about it, but honestly, you just need to experience it for yourself. If you don’t want to see the play, *suit* yourself, but you’re missing out!

Number of times I wrote magic in this review (including that one, including the title): 54

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See the show to understand this picture

 

Amazing Or, Fantastic

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Red Line Or, I Love Single Tracking

That’s how I feel about Or, at Round House Theatre. On April 12, I saw the show, written by Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Aaron Posner. You may or may not remember him as the playwright and director of No Sisters [reviewed here].

I went into this show as I do many others. It was a pay what you can show (more on that later) and I knew next to nothing about the show. I actually prefer to go to shows that I know very little about because I get to discover everything along with the characters. It’s exciting!

The play begins with Holly Twyford, the actor, introducing us to her character, Aphra Behn, a widow in debtor’s prison from debts accrued while she was a spy for the English now-King, Charles II, who dreams of becoming a playwright.

From the moment Twyford spoke, it was clear that she had absolute mastery of language – be it 17th century or modern English. She deftly moved from rhyming couplets to long soliloquies, performed with the gravitas of a playwright of that era and the familiarity of a contemporary woman.

At the beginning of the play, Twyford delivers a prologue of sorts where she challenges the audience’s assumptions by putting things in opposition that, for Behn, are more like a melange of the two proposed items. For example, “actor or whore,” “gay or straight…or sometimes both.” Behn mingles concepts, facts, fictions into her own world. A world created right before our eyes in this play.

After listening to the Stuff You Missed In History Class podcast episode on Aphra Behn, I learned that most of what was referenced in this insane (and insanely brilliant) show actually aligned with Behn’s life. With a slight caveat that most of Behn’s biography is a series of “maybe” statements. (Record-keeping in the 1660s, am I right??)

She went to Suriname by herself (or with her family), met William Scott (maybe), went back to England (definitely), married a guy named Behn (probably), he died from the plague two years later (let’s go with yes), she went to Antwerp as a spy to connect with Scott again and flirt a little more with him (that wasn’t her mission, that’s just what happened), then finally got back to England, where she ended up in debtor’s prison. And that is where this story begins.

Most of the play takes place in Behn’s new apartment (set designed by Paige Hathaway), with a large window in the back, pillows and a hookah on stage right, door to Behn’s bedroom stage left. Behn’s desk is in the center. The room comes alive in deep crimsons and bathed in lamplight. The whole time, it felt like the room was ablaze: one moment with passion, the next with Behn’s furious mind at work on a manuscript, the next with deceit and betrayal.

The costumes, designed by Kendra Rai, emphasized the divide and melding of the modern age with the English Restoration era. They featured combat boots and corsets, capes and capris. And wigs. The wigs were magnificent. Each character was distinct to the point that I would not have necessarily been able to tell that there were only 3 actors to play all 7 characters.

Which brings me to the other two actors. We’ve talked already about Twyford’s prolific Behn, but Erin Weaver as Nell Gwynne, Maria, and Lady Davenent – let’s talk about that. We are first introduced to Weaver as Nell Gwynne, an actress of the time famous for specializing in “breeches roles,” which means she did a lot of cross-dressing. And this was no exception. Her bawdy attitude, littered with profanity and a cockney accent to boot was captivating. And in the span of just a few minutes offstage, Weaver was transformed in Maria, Behn’s feisty handmaiden with a hunch and glasses. Not two minutes later, Weaver appeared as the fast-talking Lady Davenent. The scene with Lady Davenent and Behn lasted maybe 5 minutes, but Lady Davenent spoke continuously, without hardly a breath, and Behn said nothing at all. The audience applauded after Lady Davenent left the stage in a flourish, never to be seen again in the play. Each of Weaver’s characters was a powerful (and powerfully comedic) woman.

Whenever Behn or one of Weaver’s characters were speaking, I never lost them. Their focus was intense and their engagement with the audience, impeccable. (More on the audience later).

The male characters of the Jailor, Charles II of England, and William Scott were played by Gregory Linington. I enjoyed the male characters as characters, but their arrival usually spelled trouble for Behn. That said, Linington’s hasty switches between King and commoner were hilarious and required a great deal of precision on the part of Linington and the stage crew (bravo).

This play, while informative, while humorous, while engaging, wasn’t about the plot for me. The characters compelled me to keep watching. The plot was a bit of convoluted mess, but it wiggled itself out in the end. I guess All’s Well That Ends Well (topical reference!).

I give this play a 9/10. For me, it’s a must see if you like English accents, wigs, sex, or plots to kill the King. And honestly, who doesn’t like English accents??


Ok, a quick word about pay what you can nights and the audience.

I go to a lot of shows. I can’t always afford to go to every show I want to. I compromise by going to these pay what you can nights, but I don’t think I can stand to go to another one.

Pay what you can audiences are probably the rudest audiences on the planet. No fewer than 5 cell phones went off during the performance. The woman next to me was texting with the brightness on 1000%. People were talking during the show.

I can’t honestly understand why you would be so rude to the actors/crew and the other patrons, but I guess if people don’t pay the full amount for shows, they believe they can act like howler monkeys during mating season.

In my opinion, there should be a collection bucket in the lobby where you drop your cell phone before you enter a theatrical space.

All this is just to say that be warned when you go to pay what you can nights. I love what they stand for because theater should be accessible to all, but the patrons at these shows (or at least the past three I’ve been to) are terrible, awful, no-good, very bad people who impede my enjoyment of the show with their incessant ring tones.

Theater J(ust Wait)

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I accidentally cut off the lamppost and the head of the girl at the top

I feel bad for three reasons. #1) I saw this play a week ago and didn’t have time to write a review for it until now. #2) I’m giving it a complicated review. Not bad per se, but not excellent. #3) The review itself is a little choppy (and I use way too many parentheticals).

Last Wednesday, at the Pay What You Can Preview, I saw Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs at Theater J, directed by Matt Torney.

If y’all don’t know Brighton Beach Memoirs, let me give you a little taste. Eugene (played by Cole Sitilides) is a baseball-, boobs-, and book-obsessed kid of 14 years living in a house with his mother, father, older brother, aunt, older female cousin, and younger female cousin. And basically they all ran into money trouble on the same day. Eugene more or less narrates the story, providing exposition and asides, most of which are pretty humorous. I’m going to start with the acting and story here because this play is about the conflict and resolution of people in this one family.

The story, while mundane, while typical of a struggling family in Brooklyn in 1937, plays a little like a half-hour comedy on TV. There are a lot of twists and turns: romances sour and return, money ebbs and flows (mostly flows out of their hands), resolution tied with bow. Slowly, everything does turn out ok at the end, complete with a comedy button that would have fit in perfectly at the end of episode of I Love Lucy. It’s a serious show about serious topics, but there’s a airiness about it (and I’m not talking about the breeze off the beach).

Neil Simon is the king of one-liners, and Eugene really is the peanut gallery we need, but not the one we deserve right now. (We might deserve a little better than a horny kid at times).

The play is definitely a period-specific piece, so it requires an intense attention to detail to recreate a scene from 1937 Brooklyn in the home of Jewish-American family down on their luck. Here’s where this production lost me a little.

This play has four young actors playing the teenage sons and daughters of the family, and they’re required to do accents – 1937 Jewish-American Brooklyn accents. Some of them weren’t bad, others were merely unpracticed. Regardless, it was clear they had put in a lot of effort, but it wasn’t paying off all the time. They’ll get better.

That’s pretty much how I feel about this whole production: it’ll get better. The accents will get better, the comfort with the lines will get better, the relationships among the family will get better. This is the price I pay for not paying the price (aka going to pay what you can night).

It look a while for the cast to hit their stride, but it was the father, Jack, played by Michael Glenn, who I felt unified the family within the world of the play and also the cast as unit in this production. When the family all sat down for the dinner, I looked at the cast and said, “here’s a family, not a cast of actors.”

In fact, most of the actors impressed me in some way or another. I could identify with almost every character at certain times.

Maybe it’s because I have a sister, but the tension and love between Kate, the elder sister with two sons, played by Susan Rome, and Blanche, the younger sister with two daughters, played by Lise Bruneau, resonated with me. At its core, this is a show about relationships, and I look forward to the day when this production captures these relationships a little better. Everything is in place, but it needs time and practice to mature.

Before I move on to technical aspects, let me say a quick word about familial dramas aka dramas that take place usually in a central location in a family home and revolves around the members of the family. I hate them. They’re the worst. They drag on and on, and nothing is resolved or solved. It’s just characters clashing and yelling, and nothing comes of it.

Never once did I feel that way about this piece. By the end, I felt love exuding from this family. That’s what’s missing from too many familial dramas: love. It’s a family, so of course there’s going to be struggle. But Neil Simon and this production showed me a different side of a struggling family.

A very complete picture of a night in the life of a family is painted: no stone unturned, no minute left unaccounted for. The set played a large role in this.

When I walked in and saw the set for the first time, I saw it was a house made entirely of floral patterns. In each of the four rooms across the two levels was a new and distinct floral wallpaper. And in every room, it was peeling from the ceiling or the floor. There were lamps everywhere in the space and they were used, turned on and off constantly. It truly did seem like a family who was saving money by not replacing aging wallpaper and turning off lights as they left a room. It served the double purpose of directing the audience’s eye to the next bit of action in another room. I thought both the set and lighting design, by Luciana Stecconi and Colin K. Bills, respectively, were nice and ushered in the mood of Brighton Beach in 1937.

The costumes, designed by Ivania Stack, and hair/makeup did their job; they were clearly of a different time – I’m not certain it was 1937, but I also haven’t researched 1937 fashion extensively. Each time a man exited the house, he put on his hat. That’s notable. Not much else struck me about the costumes.

The sound and music, designed by James Bigbee Garver, was definitely still finding its groove (I’m not apologizing for that pun). Sometimes it was a bit too heavy-handed in both content and amplification. I could have done with a bit more subtlety.

Alright, we’ve reached the end of this review. Here’s my trouble. I know this play will be better than what I saw of it, but I can only assess the play I saw. So I’m giving it a 6/10, but I feel confident that it will reach an 8/10 during the course of its run. I enjoyed the story, I enjoyed moments, I enjoyed the ending. It just didn’t have the cohesion that it should, but I know that will come in time.

No Sisters, No Problem!

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Definitely no sisters in this play

Yesterday, I saw No Sisters at Studio Theatre, written and directed by Aaron Posner. First thing you need to know is that it is performed in rep (repertory) with Three Sisters, meaning that the two shows are performed in the same time period with the same cast. Here’s the catch: not only is the cast the same, but the characters from Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters are the same characters in this show and while those characters are offstage for Three Sisters, they are onstage for No Sisters. Honestly, it was a feat – truly masterful playwriting/stage managing in terms of timing the character’s entrances and exits with the other show. Before I get to that though, I want to talk about the technical aspects.

According to the program, the setting is a “weird-ass existential Chekhovian green room,” and it definitely was. It was also glorious. The set designer, Daniel Conway, was working overtime on this one. From what I can tell, there’s no props designer, so I assume Conway did everything. Let me paint a picture, starting with the center. There were three portraits of the the three sisters above the center entrance/exit. They were wrapped in green Christmas tree lights; other Christmas tree lights laced themselves through the top of the set, with spaces for globes, toys, and other items one might find in a green room or props room. There were multiple sittables (chairs, couches, you get it) of various sizes. There were flower mugs and Star Trek mugs and a picture of a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln on the wall. There were chandeliers of every kind – broken, ornate, everything, and scattered about the audience as well. The show relied on some audience participation, so we needed to be illuminated at times. There were columns of closed-circuit TVs projecting real-time video from the downstairs production of Three Sisters. The interface between No Sisters and Three Sisters was truly magnificent. The set was impressive and intricate; the attention to detail was divine.

The lighting was a time a little harsh, but I appreciated that the lighting designer, Jesse Belsky, made the lighting significant. It would have been easy to have only a few lighting cues – we’re in a green room for heaven’s sake, but it was nice to have variety.

No Sisters really brought Chekhov into the 21st century. The play alluded to the toils of today and equated them back to the toils of turn of the century Russia (the 19th to the 20th). We’re talking about economic disparity, refugee issues, wars, heartache. The characters in Chekhov’s play are exhausted from living life in 1901 Russia, and to be honest, I’m tired of living life in Trump’s America. No Sisters drew that out of the characters.

A lot of the play was spent with characters giving monologues to the audience and interacting with them, but I actually preferred when there were two or more characters on stage. The monologues were a bit dry and self-indulgent at times, but then again, that’s kind of Chekhov. It seemed like more of a therapy session for these characters – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think it informed my understanding of Three Sisters immensely, to see the characters make discoveries and tease out the worst and best parts of themselves.

It reminded me of an acting exercise we did in college, but also before that. You take a character, you sit in front of the class, and the class interviews the characters. So you make up a backstory, you fill in gaps. You make the character.

The college version of this, which incidentally I did with Three Sisters, is where you go through the play meticulously; you find everything that is said about your character; you find everything that you say about yourself. And from there, you craft your character based on every possible bit of information.

Honestly, it’s a best practice for discovering your character. Regardless, it seemed like the playwright did this ad nauseam. For obvious reasons, this play had to fit within the time constraints of Three Sisters, happening downstairs. Because of this, the play dragged on at times, as I mentioned, usually during a monologue. However, a couple of characters engaged me constantly: William Vaughan as Fedotik was adorable, naive, and a powerhouse – something he is not given in Three Sisters. Most of the characters who were not given much in Three Sisters, were given infinitely more in this play. The relationship between Solyony (Biko Eisen-Martin) and Tuzenbach (Ro Boddie) was sweetened before it soured by giving their backstory and seeing their love and hate for each other. Kimberly Gilbert as Natasha and Ryan Rilette as Andrey sparkled as the extremely dysfunctional wife and husband. Natasha’s boundless energy and nervous wreckage shot out of her like a geyser, and Andrey’s descent into the discovery that he’s just as bad if not worse than his wife was revelatory for the audience as well.

The whole play was revelatory. That’s what therapy does, it reveals and seeks to explain the worst parts of ourselves.

The overall goal of both plays was the same at the end of the day – they both attempted to make sense of a world that is so beyond anyone’s understanding. And I think both plays succeed in a way because they realize at the end that they can’t give THE answer, they can only given AN answer. One answer that rings true for them individually. And collectively, it can help inform our attempt to give THE answer or AN answer or whatever.

I enjoyed the play, I enjoyed learning about these characters from new angles. I enjoyed seeing certain actions – the duel between Solyony and Tuzenbach – that we don’t see on stage in Three Sisters. I thought it was a beautiful companion piece, but as Anfisa warned us near the beginning, “not a lot happens,” especially during the monologues. I give this play a 7/10.