Peter Brook can do more in 75 minutes than many directors can in a lifetime, evoking the extraordinary complexity of human existence—bitter and sweet—in a way that makes you forever after think about the world a bit differently. The Suit, currently playing at the Kennedy Center for two more nights as part of the World Stages festival of international theater, offers an opportunity to see what theatrical mastery can be conjured from three actors, three musicians, and a handful of rainbow-colored chairs.
The Suit comes from a short story by Can Themba (later adapted for the stage by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon), staged by Brook’s Paris company, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, with his longtime partner, Marie-Hélène Estienne. Philomen (Ivanno Jeremiah), a middle-class secretary, lives with his wife, Tilly (Nonhlanhla Kheswa), in Sophiatown, a vibrant black suburb of Johannesburg during the apartheid of the 1950s. One day, tipped off by a friend (who doubles as a narrator of sorts, played by Jordan Barbour) that his wife is being unfaithful, Philomen dashes home and finds a suit abandoned by her lover. Tilly’s punishment is that she must treat this suit as a cherished guest in her home: feed it, offer it a bed, and even take it for walks outside, to her abject humiliation.
Jeremiah’s Philomen is handsome, vital, and immensely loving until he learns of his wife’s infidelity; he describes the revelation as not so much a crushing blow as an “intricate breakdown” that forces the machinery of his life into disarray. Portraying his shift into cruelty, this production obliges the audience to consider the mistakes and errors in judgment all humans make, sometimes out of unhappiness (Tilly is a frustrated singer) and sometimes for no reason at all.
Part of The Suit’s brilliance is that there are no obvious heroes or villains: Philomen is flawless until Tilly’s misdeeds give him permission to change the rules, like a South African Walter White relishing the opportunity to break bad. Jeremiah’s broad smile and easy physicality belie a streak of menace; if Tilly refuses to indulge his suit charade, he tells her, “I will kill you.” And Kheswa’s wistful charm and unexpressed sadness make it impossible to condemn her. It helps that the songs she sings, from a cover of Nina Simone’s “I’m Feeling Good” to two African folk songs, are so beautiful, rendering the poignancy of a culture forever undermined by servitude.
That the play takes place under the cloud of apartheid is felt most strongly when Barbour sings Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” after telling Philomen that Sophiatown is to be razed and its inhabitants moved to inferior dwellings 20 miles outside of the city. Amid the chairs onstage, which the characters move to transform the setting from a bedroom to a bus stop to a house, the three-piece band (guitarist Arthur Astier, pianist/harmonica player Mark Christine, and trumpeter Mark Kavuma) offer a sense of a unique community on the precipice of destruction. That the suit itself—an object of consternation, pain, and, at one point, affection—resembles something lifeless and abandoned is no accident. Only Brook could draw such sadness, elation, and empathy from a simple folk tale barely an hour long.
The Suit is at the Kennedy Center through March 13. Tickets ($49) and more information about the World Stages festival are available at the Kennedy Center’s website.
According to one of the characters in Water By the Spoonful, after a while addiction is “less about getting high and more about trying to build a time machine.” That sense of trying to get back to something familiar while moving inexorably forward pervades Quiara Alegría Hudes’s intriguing and subtle play, the middle work in a trilogy focusing on a discharged Marine trying to reconcile his rocky past with an uncertain future.
Each play in Hudes’s series is supposedly inspired by music. In Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue, which debuted in 2006 and was a Pulitzer finalist, a Korean War veteran (and the grandfather to the above aforementioned Marine, Elliot) describes how Bach fugues relate to everyday life. In The Happiest Song Plays Last, which premiered last year in Chicago, Hudes uses Puerto Rican folk music to convey how understanding his heritage helps Elliot come to peace with himself. Water by the Spoonful, expertly directed by KJ Sanchez in Studio Theatre’s current production, uses the more esoteric and complex music of John Coltrane to convey the fragility and confusion of modern life.
Hudes based the play on her own experiences growing up in a second-generation Puerto Rican family in Philadelphia, and the character of Yazmin (Gisela Chípe) seems to be an avatar for the playwright, teaching music at Swarthmore (Hudes has a music degree), and telling an invisible classroom of students how dissonance within Coltrane’s music can be “a gateway to revelation.” In the play’s opening scene, Yaz and her cousin Elliot (Arturo Soria) jokingly argue about Elliot’s mother’s confusion when it comes to healthy food versus native cuisine—she listens to his lectures about “broccoli rabe and all that sh*t” but scrambles eggs in pork fat and serves quinoa with bacon.
Soria’s Elliot is a charming and cocky actor moonlighting as a Subway employee whose affect is tough but who drops hints of the brilliance that has carried his cousin into academia—carnations, he informs Yaz, tell the rest of the world that “they were out of roses at 7-Eleven.” He wrestles with demons—at one point, literally—from his time in the Marines, haunted throughout the play by a man begging in Arabic for his passport, manifested onstage by actor Maboud Ebrahimzadeh. It’s one of the few moments in the play that feels forced; there’s more than a shade of Banquo to this lily-white ghost, whose continual reappearances drive Elliot to moments of despair and decline.
Elliot’s breakdowns connect the play to its other seemingly disparate set of characters, who interact with each other via an online chatroom for crack cocaine addicts. There’s Haikumom (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey), the forum administrator, who welcomes newbies, censors profanity, and dishes out inspirational poems to help others in crisis; Chutes&Ladders (Vincent J. Brown), a middle-aged IRS employee who wants nothing more than to reconnect with his son; and Orangutan (Amy Kim Waschke), who’s traveling to Japan to try and find her birth mother. The onstage conversations between the three characters are some of the most entertaining of the play, illustrated through screen names illuminated on a back wall and the ’90s e-mail ping sound of people logging in and out.
The forum is shaken up by the arrival of Fountainhead (Tim Getman), a wealthy businessman and family man who smokes crack on the weekends and brazenly tells them to hoots of derision that after crashing his Porsche, “a rental Ford is as close to rock bottom as I hope to get.” In the play’s other narrative, action leaps forward with the death of Elliot’s mother, Ginny, who, it turns out, wasn’t actually his birth mother after all. As the two threads converge, Sanchez uses a deft hand with pacing and suspense to reveal some of the layers of Elliot’s painful history.
Water is the kind of play that moves forward almost breezily, deceptively entertaining in its portrayal of Spanglish communities and their culture clashes, funny drug addicts embracing gallows humor to avoid enlightenment, and unreliable stereotypes. Like an iceberg, there’s infinitely more beneath the surface. Fernandez-Coffey is particularly effective in communicating how hope and reality collide as her character shifts from an online persona to an IRL existence. The friendship between Chutes&Ladders and Orangutan, meanwhile, is one of the show’s most affirming moments, with both Waschke and Brown revealing brave vulnerability in their unlikely connection.
As Yaz, Chípe has the least thrilling role, but her story about showing up to a music lesson with only a tidy understanding of musical expression offers insight into how each of the characters seems fundamentally ill-equipped for a messy world, particularly Soria’s tortured, explosive Elliot. Each scene plays out efficiently on Dan Conway’s set, a precisely minimal jumble of chairs, a bathtub, an ancient computer, and an ottoman in front of a broken staircase leading up to nowhere. Each item is used at least once, with the bathtub saved, dramatically, until last (call it Chekhov’s tub if you must).
The water of the play’s title recurs throughout in different forms—Chutes&Ladders recalls nearly drowning at the beach when a current drags him away from the shore; Elliot and Yaz scatter their relative’s ashes into the ocean in a cleansing moment in Puerto Rico; Fountainhead helps another character in a transformational and selfless way. But it’s the title evocation of water by the spoonful that bears the most weight. Without giving too much away, this is a show that ekes out its emotional force, drop by drop.
Water By the Spoonful is at Studio Theatre through April 13. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($39 to $75) are available at Studio Theatre’s website.
Iris Rainer Dart is no stranger to lachrymosity. Countless tears have been shed since she bestowed her 1985 paean to female friendship, Beaches, upon the world (forever enshrined in the hearts of several generations of women thanks to the 1988 movie adaptation with Bette Midler)—and countless more can be expected thanks to the world premiere musical adaptation of Beaches at Signature Theatre, for which Dart contributed book (with Thom Thomas) and lyrics.
It’s not startling to find the audience in need of a hanky throughout much of Beaches’ two-and-a-half-hour running time—but what is surprising is how charming and genuinely moving the show is. All too frequently, productions pitched at predominantly female audiences descend into cliché-spewing mawkishness where everything is pink and sparkly and crafted out of shoes. With the exception of a memorable disco scene, director Eric Schaeffer is positively restrained here, focusing primarily on the genuine love affair between the brash, Bronx-born singer Cee Cee (played as an adult by Alysha Umphress) and the elegant, waspy Bertie (Mara Davi).
Fans of the film will find most everything to be different, even the names (in the movie Bertie became Hillary, played by Barbara Hershey, while Bertie’s daughter, Nina, was renamed Victoria). Dart’s faithfulness to the plot of her original novel allows for more theatricality in the scenes in which Cee Cee and Bertie work for a low-budget theater owned by John (Matthew Scott), as well as later, when down-on-her-luck Cee Cee finds herself performing disco anthems in a painfully unflattering sequined jumpsuit in Miami Beach. But the focus on the redemptive power of female friendship is no less heartfelt, even if the rift between the two opposite souls is glossed over for expediency’s sake.
From the minute young Cee Cee (Presley Ryan) yells at young Bertie (Brooklyn Shuck) for interrupting her nap between shows on an Atlantic City beach, the two seem perfectly at ease with each other. Cee Cee wows the sheltered little girl with her Shirley Temple-cloying (and awkwardly inappropriate) dance routine, while Bertie’s generous sincerity appeals to Cee Cee, whose stage mother (Donna Migliaccio) is an oppressive presence. Schaeffer quickly crafts the foundation for the friendship by showing both girls growing up in “The Letters (You’re Out There),” in which six actresses play the characters writing to each other at different ages. At times, the lyrics hint at some of the confused ardor of hormonal teenagers (“I kiss the mailman when he brings your letters,” sings teenage Bertie (Mayla Brettell), but Dart is clever enough to show how each girl draws something from the other that she lacks at home, making their friendship feel genuine.
The action unfolds in front of a spectacular set by Derek McLane in which hundreds of pieces of beach-bleached furniture hang on the wall around a small proscenium. It’s unclear what the furniture means, exactly, beyond offering top notes of antiquing trips and Restoration Hardware, but visually it’s both interesting and unobtrusive, and allows for other backdrops to be wheeled in to create a dazzling disco scene or the view from Cee Cee’s off-Broadway debut.
Dart and Thomas’s book is propped up by the remarkably polished music by Austin, a relative newbie whose songs are among the best Signature has presented in its new musicals. “The View From Up Here,” Cee Cee’s wistful number about being on the verge of success, is self-assured and powerful, and Umphress belts it out with gusto. But the most engaging numbers are the duets between the two friends, particularly “Normal People,” a funny song in which Bertie and Cee Cee persuade themselves they can live happily together in dream-killing domesticity, and “My Perfect Wedding,” which brings all six actresses back to sweetly depict the girls imagining their futures. Davi has fewer occasions than Umphress to showcase her superb voice, but her performance is arresting and just restrained enough to contrast with her costar’s necessarily over-the-top style.
Purists will be relieved to hear that “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” the song that spawned a thousand Midler-impersonating drag queens (and even a revival of sorts at the Oscars last night) makes it into the show, in a fitting additional scene in which Cee Cee flees her life with Bertie to record her debut album, but sings it clearly to her, with Davi present onstage, in the shadows. The lone clunker is “This is the Life,” supposedly an ode to the dysfunction of being a performer, which ends up feeling more twee than a Brady Bunch musical. And although “God Gave You Me” is thrillingly jaunty, its upbeat tone feels jarringly discordant towards the end of the show, when tissues are already wrung through. Hopefully no spoiler alert is needed when it comes to the weepiness engrained within Beaches’ finale; nevertheless it’s hard not to leave thinking that the show, like the friendship, was worth all these tears and more.
Beaches is at Signature Theatre through March 30. Running time is about two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($56 to $89) are available via Signature Theatre’s website.
The 21st century is about the only recent time period the title character of Orlando doesn’t venture into during his (and her) multi-century romp through the years. Despite this, there’s a certain modern freshness to this take on Virginia Woolf’s story of a man who wakes up halfway through his life to find he’s now a woman.
Sharply adapted for the stage by playwright Sarah Ruhl and performed by WSC Avant Bard, this version of the tale injects more humor and a certain lightheartedness into the proceedings. While two formidable performers have been cast in the meaty roles of Orlando and Sasha, his/her first true love, the rest of the parts are handled by a facile Greek chorus (Andrew Ferlo, Jay Hardee, and Mario Baldessari). This means it isn’t just Orlando who gets to play around with ideas of gender, as the three men make quick, and often amusing, transitions from servants to countesses to suitors.
Director Amber Jackson spikes these moments with rapid costume changes and interesting lighting tricks (the scene of Orlando’s transition from man to woman is captured nicely and dramatically behind a shadowy sheet). Starting in the 1500s and ending in the 20th century, Orlando has a lot of ground to cover. But the production moves swiftly—so much so that it can race past some intriguing plot points; a riot here, some gypsies there. It keeps up with Orlando as he seduces the royal court and ice-skates with Russian royalty (and then as a woman confronts domesticity and embraces poetry).
Speaking of Russian princesses, Amanda Forstrom is a lively and alluring presence as Sasha, Orlando’s companion on his early adventures. But the show belongs to Sara Barker in the title role. Barker has an effortless way of communicating the idea that despite her character’s major changes, Orlando is the same person deep down. The immersive performance is nuanced, convincing, and just fun to watch.
Orlando’s thoughtful musings on the challenges and limitations of womanhood may not have quite the pertinence they did when the play was written nearly a hundred years ago. It’s easy to be sympathetic to the initial boredom and general helplessness Orlando feels in her early days of womanhood (especially when thinking of the autobiographical ties to Woolf herself), even if it might not be quite relatable. But the idea of taking a certain ownership of one’s gender remains interesting and relevant, especially during a time when society is able to more directly confront ideas of gender fluidity.
Orlando is at Theater on the Run through March 23. Running time is about 90 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($25 to $45) are available via WSC Avant Bard’s website.
So you want to make a play about playmaking. That’s fabulous: It’s a topic that’s been richly mined since the Hellenic era, from the Rude Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the über-meta writers and stars of [title of show]. Go forth, dig deep, rhyme “Stanislavski” with “Swarovski” and “no one loves me,” and good luck to you.
The only thing to consider is that actually making theater is a hideously tedious process, as anyone with even limited experience writing or devising a show can tell you. The best thing that can be said about the impossibly pompously named We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 , currently playing at Woolly Mammoth through March 9, is that it replicates this tedium with cruel dedication. For 95 percent of this show, you will be as bored and frustrated and miserable as you ever were trying to craft your magnum opus about your magnum opus about space cats in the 22nd century.
Part of the problem is the pace. Somehow director Michael John Garces has managed to stretch a show that was a sprightly 90 minutes when it ran in New York to a nerve-shredding two hours and ten minutes, with no intermission to speak of. Audience members, should they need to leave for any reason, have to duck past the actors and walk out the stage door (Misha Kachman’s set puts the action in-the-round, replicating a community hall inside the Woolly theater and forcing the audience to enter from backstage). Along with the lights, which remain up throughout, this makes it even harder to get absorbed in the action and pay attention to the cast.
It’s a shame, because those actors are enormously talented and largely wasted playing irritating and creatively dense, well, actors. The conceit of the show is that six artists of different races and genders are attempting to put on a play about a forgotten period of Namibian history during which German colonialists committed shocking acts of genocide. This is an important and horrifying subject, and it only makes the flippancy with which playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury treats it as a device to explore quote unquote race more infuriating. Instead of insight, we get blame. Instead of a thoughtful examination of bias, subliminal prejudice, and history we get an extraordinarily dull series of scenes being improvised by people more interested in their artistic “journey” than in doing something meaningful.
None of the characters has a name—they’re instead distinguished by being referred to as “Black Woman” or “White Man,” though the ensemble cast includes two men of each race. The always excellent Dawn Ursula acts as ringleader, although the rest of the cast berates her for constantly trying to adopt a leadership position when really it’s supposed to be a collective effort. At first, Drury seems to be attempting a Christopher Guest-style indictment of amateur dramatics, throwing in some funny moments wherein the characters reveal their own awfulness (Holly Twyford, for instance, adopts a terrible African accent and puts on a turban at one point). But these moments are few and far between, as the playwright and director each spend far too much time portraying the reliable anarchy of a leaderless community. (Watching six people squabble for two hours could be the very definition of theater of cruelty.)
Things get better and worse in the show’s climactic end scene—better for finally achieving intensity and worse for being completely inexplicable. Supposedly transported not into their African and German characters but somehow into Southern white lynchers, the actors tape a piece of paper over the face of one of the players (Andreu Honeycutt), then march around him, chanting, for what feels like an hour but is probably three minutes, tops. Then they hang him until he falls screaming onto the floor. It’s bizarre, ugly, and reductive. Is this violent, cruel act of racism the audience’s fault? When Michael Anthony Williams stares hatefully at us for 30 seconds before walking offstage, it feels like it, and yet after sitting quietly for two-plus hours, sending the blame this way hardly seems fair.
There are necessary things to be explored when it comes to making art about horrific acts of inhumanity, and funny things to be said about the way we often tiptoe around one another when it comes to race. This show, sadly, doesn’t succeed in doing either. It’s endlessly self-indulgent, dangerously haphazard, and above all, enormously tough on the people paying money to see it, without any of the intelligence or acuity that warrants such an approach.
We Are Proud . . . is at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through March 9. Running time is about two hours and ten minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($35 to $75) are available via Woolly’s website.
Jukebox musicals, from Mamma Mia! to Movin’ Out, tend to earn more eye rolls than respect from “serious” musical theater fans—though even that phrase is hard for this “serious” musical theater fan to write with a straight face. There’s an assumption of laziness and commercialism that comes with the idea of appropriating popular songs for the stage. And the transition from album to musical isn’t always a seamless one: Plots can feel forced, and Broadway-fied rock songs can just end up sounding sillier than the originals (looking at you, Rock of Ages).
American Idiot, the theatrical adaptation of Green Day’s 2004 opus of disaffection, doesn’t suffer from any of those problems. The haunting powerhouse of an album is a true rock opera in the tradition of The Who’s Tommy and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar, and its eventual path to the stage was almost inevitable. Barely any dialogue is needed to fashion an affecting narrative for the show, which focuses on three early 2000s youths stifled by suburbia. Friends Tunny (Dan Tracy) and Johnny (Jared Nepute) flee to the city: Tunny rejects his life there and ends up in the military, while Johnny descends into a life of drugs and partying. Will (Casey O’Farrell) had longed to join them, but ends up stuck back at home with his newly pregnant girlfriend (Mariah MacFarlane, one of the show’s vocal superstars). Each struggles to cope with the consequences of his choice.
So many of American Idiot’s musical numbers are anthems and power ballads that the show’s energy has few chances to wane; it’s a testament to the non-equity cast of this national tour that they never let it do so. The non-equity status is worth noting because it’s unusual for a tour, but the impact on the quality of the production seems pretty negligible (a flying scene from the Broadway production has been cut, but that could easily be the result of staging challenges on the road rather than budget). The tone of the story is well served by hiring younger performers, and while the female leads outshine the male ones in the vocal department, there’s no weak singer in the cast. Among the men, O’Farrell lends a beautiful plaintiveness to songs like “Give Me Novacaine,” while Carson Higgins is a manic force as St. Jimmy, Johnny’s drug-dealing muse/alter ego. The chorus kills it on numbers like the rousing “Holiday,” the stirring “Are We the Waiting,” and “21 Guns,” the show’s emotional climax, led by the stunning Olivia Puckett as Johnny’s put-upon girlfriend, Whatsername.
It’s always a little disconcerting when a show set so close to the current time feels like an effective period piece, but American Idiot does have a bit of a time capsule feel to it. The industrial-looking set has television screens everywhere, playing memorable moments from the time period and flashes of commercial imagery. The show really seems to emphasize the nuances and multiple dimensions of American Idiot’s songs: the audience can be at turns frustrated with or sympathetic to its characters without having to fully buy into their youthful rage, muddy politics, or general ennui.
Steven Hoggett’s jerky, head-banging choreography is a good match for American Idiot, though it occasionally veers toward the overly literal. The show, directed by Michael Mayer, has a similar feel to another Broadway take on misspent youth, Spring Awakening, though things aren’t as bleak for the show’s protagonists here. American Idiot’s ending isn’t a tidy or a happy one, but it also isn’t a tragedy. Life isn’t going to be easy for these kids, and that’s not only okay—it’s realistic.
American Idiot is at National Theatre through February 23. Running time is about 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($48 to $93) are available via National Theatre’s website.
In his play Yellow Face, David Henry Hwang tinkers with the topic of race as if it were a Rubik’s Cube. The show premiered off-Broadway in 2007, but Hwang’s script still sounds like a rough draft, and Theater J’s somewhat under-rehearsed production adds to that feeling.
Yet despite its ramshackle qualities, the play proves consistently engaging. As an audience member, you want Yellow Face to work better and exhibit more edge than a butter knife, but you go along with it anyway. Hwang wrote the 1988 Broadway hit M. Butterfly, scripted the hit musical Aida in 2000, and revised the book for a 2002 revival of the old musical Flower Drum Song. He has a gift for leavening heavy ideas and racial fault lines with humor.
Since the central character in Yellow Face is Hwang (pronounced Wong) himself, that wit is often self-deprecating or self-critical. Listed in the program as DHH (and played by Stan Kang), the playwright guides the audience, often with direct address, through a tumultuous period in his professional life. Newly famous after the success of M. Butterfly, Hwang protested the casting of the white British actor Jonathan Pryce as an Asian character called the Engineer in the musical Miss Saigon before it came to Broadway in 1991. Pryce had played the role to acclaim in London, in full “Asian” makeup. Hwang and other American theater artists of Asian backgrounds got the union Actors Equity to refuse a permit for Pryce to play the role in New York. Then, as Hwang recounts in Yellow Face, their activism backfired. The producers canceled the opening of Miss Saigon, Equity backed down, and Hwang ended up looking bad.
The playwright tried to deal with some of the issues from that kerfuffle in a 1993 play, Face Value, which closed after eight previews on Broadway.
It’s at this juncture that Hwang’s DHH stage persona in Yellow Face becomes an unreliable narrator, following himself on a slippery slope of deception. When his soon-to-flop play is about to begin rehearsals, he and the artistic team hire an actor, Marcus G. Dahlman (Rafael Untalan), to play the lead. Marcus is vague about his background, and after DHH hires him he realizes Marcus isn’t remotely Asian. But there’s a catch-22. He can’t fire Marcus because he’s not Asian—that would be discrimination. So DHH and Marcus enter into an unspoken agreement to imply that Marcus is of a diverse background, some of which includes Jewish ancestors from Siberia, which, after all, is in Asia.
Through all of this weaves the sunny, left-coast presence of the playwright’s father, Henry Y. Hwang, referred to as HYH (Al Twanmo) in the play. It’s a loving portrait of the aging banker—blunt-spoken, quirky, and in love with America and capitalism. (The actor deserves some sort of trouper award: He broke his ankle after the show opened, and is now performing in a wheelchair and cast.) Mr. Hwang and his small California bank become targets of suspicion linking them to mainland China in the late 1990s, and his son uses that and other torn-from-the-headlines stories to further peel the onion of anti-Asian sentiment in America.
Playwright Hwang’s DHH avatar makes one poor decision after another and gets himself into a politically incorrect pickle. How can he, who protested the casting of Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon, engage in racially insensitive casting himself? Meanwhile, the actor Marcus starts cashing in on the confusion about his background, which allows for pointed but very gentle spoofs of The King and I.
All this unfolds in playwright Hwang’s memory and in his office, exploded into a handsome, stage-framing array of file cabinets, desks, and chairs (design by Luciana Stecconi). The back wall of stacked file drawers provides a screen for projected photos (by Jared Mezzocchi) that dissolve among the many faces of people discussed in the play.
But like all those photos dissolving into one another, Hwang’s script is constantly shifting in plot and tone. So, too, is the staging by director Natsu Onoda Power. Her actors, who double as ex-girlfriends, activists, theater folk, reporters, and more, seem hesitant about blocking and sometimes about lines. They nearly get hung up on awkward props, such as telephone cords. It’s as if, not quite sure what the playwright is trying to say, the production itself can’t focus.
Yellow Face is at Theater J through February 23. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($25 to $65) are available at Theater J’s website.
Some people can’t help but look on the bright side—even if they find themselves buried waist-deep in a pile of earth and garbage. That’s the state in which we find Winnie, the tragic heroine in Samuel Beckett’s brutal thought experiment of a play, Happy Days, currently being staged by CulturalDC at Flashpoint’s Mead Theater Lab.
Winnie (Karen Lange) doesn’t have much to keep her occupied these days. She’s got a bag of objects—a toothbrush, a comb, a handgun—most of which she uses to perform her daily acts of hygiene. She also has a parasol to (somewhat ineffectively) shield her from the beating sun. Her husband, Willie (Christian Sullivan, effective in his small role), is on the premises, but isn’t doing her much good—he hides from view, creeps in and out of a hole, and largely grunts and reads the paper, not quite connecting with his desperately optimistic wife. The promise of sleep doesn’t provide much comfort: It can only be achieved once the day comes to an end; otherwise an unerring alarm forces Winnie awake, making her endure each day to the fullest. Through it all, she clings to her memories, the smallest of pleasures each day brings, and the false sense of control her routine gives her. Unfortunately, she only can fool herself for so long.
Those looking for answers to basic questions—what got them here? Is it a form of punishment? Why don’t they seem to need to eat? What happened to everyone else?—won’t find them in producer/director Jess Jung’s production of Beckett’s demanding work. In a sense, Happy Days is almost a mild form of torture for Beckett’s audience, as we find ourselves having to endure the same inanity, boredom, and malaise Winnie goes through. The viewers do have one form of distraction—taking in Joe C. Klug’s simple but well-crafted set, including Winnie’s mound of garbage and objects (many of them slightly outdated pieces of technology), with an abstract painting and hanging tiles serving as backdrop.
In some ways, act two is more satisfying. Winnie is forced, essentially, to get real as the stakes become higher. She’s now buried up to her chin, and her illusions and memories of life in “the old style” are being put to the test. Watching the capable Lange begin to crack under the pressure of her unyielding circumstances is an intriguing, if sadistic, prospect. Even the purest of her miserable life’s limited pleasures can’t keep her days happy forever.
Happy Days is at Flashpoint through February 23. Running time is about 100 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($15) are available via CulturalDC’s website.
Who but Kathleen Turner could make Mother Courage sexy? Brecht’s indomitable battle-ax of an anti-heroine has a lot of qualities, but sex appeal isn’t necessarily one of them, even if she can rattle off a list of husbands longer than the inventory log on her cart. Scarred, grizzled, and indomitable, Mother Courage is the great cockroach of 20th-century theater, prevailing long after war has snuffed out everyone else onstage.
And yet put Turner in the role, as Arena Stage’s Molly Smith has done in this rollicking new production of Mother Courage and Her Children, and you instantly get more va-va-voom with your Verfremdungseffekt. Turner’s Mother Courage belts out James Sugg’s songs with all the bravado of a cabaret star and seduces customers and the Cook (Jack Willis) to her cart with the arch of a single eyebrow. Put her in the midst of a war and dress her in a dull brown petticoat with a gray headscarf if you like, but somehow Turner’s Jessica Rabbit will always peek out.
The infamous voice helps, of course, and this time she even sings. Although Turner’s a little shaky in her opening number, she performs admirably throughout the rest of the show, wooing a soldier away from anger in “The Great Capitulation” and rocking her daughter to sleep in a poignant “Lullaby” (accompanied on opening night by distinct sounds of weeping from the audience). Smith’s commissioning of Suggs to write new music for Brecht’s songs was billed as bringing a wold, eccentric, gypsy-inspired sound to the show, a little like New York gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, but what Suggs has dreamed up instead seems to surf the genres of popular music, from a wildly seductive, tango-inspired “Yvette (Song of Fraternization)” sung by the camp prostitute (Meg Gillentine) to the aforementioned lullaby, which wouldn’t feel out of place on a Dixie Chicks album.
The music, along with Turner’s infinite charisma, brings energy by the bushel to Mother Courage, which has its own reputation for lengthiness and frequently requires more endurance from the audience than a Ring Cycle revival. This production uses David Hare’s translation, peppered with profanity and gleefully colloquial in tone—“We’re not under siege, for chrissakes, we’re the f**king besiegers,” shouts a soldier early into the first act—and proceeds with a breakneck pace. At only two and a half hours, it positively flies by.
At first glance, Courage is standing atop her cart like a pageant queen, wheeled onto the stage by her three children: testosterone-fueled Eilif (Nicholas Rodriguez), dummy Swiss Cheese (Nehal Joshi), and mute daughter Kattrin (Erin Weaver). She makes a living by following soldiers during the Thirty-Year War and selling them sundries such as shirts and brandy, all the while doling out topsy-turvy philosophical soundbites about the virtues of war.
The price for this profiteering is living through war itself, which Smith conveys through a soundtrack of bullets, bombs, and shell attacks, usually when they’re least expected. There’s no logic behind the fighting, which frequently seems to be futile, particularly when Courage and her children switch clothes to pretend to be either Catholic or Protestant. When Eilif is wooed away to join the army by a wily officer (Jacobi Howard), it’s money, not the mission, that motivates him.
The bleakness of Courage losing her children one by one is tempered somewhat by the festive stoicism she preaches, accompanied by the ten live musicians onstage, many of whom are actors doing double-duty. At any given time there can be a double bass, a banjo, an accordion, and a three-piece brass band chugging along (side note: who knew Rick Foucheux, playing the Chaplain, was such a good tuba player?). Smith follows Brechtian doctrine to remind the audience they’re watching a play: The actors read the stage directions at the beginning of each scene; the lights frequently go up all through the house; and scenes occasionally pause for a few seconds, with Turner and the other actors cast in a flat yellow light like a sepia photograph.
The set, by Todd Rosenthal, is as practical and ingenious as our heroine, crafting an army tent from ropes and a sheet of netting and incorporating all kinds of props and furniture into Courage’s cart. Longtime Arena costume director Joseph P. Salasovich has made the costumes austerity-bland; with the exception of Yvette, whose hooker clothes are vibrant but worn, and who later reappears in what seems to be a glorious fur-trimmed fatsuit.
In addition to Turner, who carries the show on her seemingly unshakable shoulders, credit goes to Weaver as Kattrin, who manages to steal scenes without uttering a word through her tragicomic miming and her guttural, furious howls when trouble’s afoot. Smith wisely ends with an indelible image of Courage outstretching her hand to follow the soldiers after losing everything. That gesture is hard to forget, but Weaver’s remarkable performance underscores the poignancy of the innocents who aren’t equipped to even pretend to spin war in their favor.
Mother Courage and Her Children is at Arena Stage through March 9. Running time is about two and half hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($55 and up) are available via Arena’s website.
Imagine Bram Stoker’s take on Richard III mixed with some Buffy influences and a little Sam Raimi, and you might come up with something similar to the Folger’s current production, running through March 9. More goth than gothic, the show, directed by Folger mainstay Robert Richmond, brings a sense of the supernatural to Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, with ghosts disappearing into the ground to an eerie soundtrack by Eric Shimelonis, and the titular villain (Drew Cortese) lingering in the shadows just offstage to watch as his grisly deeds go down.
The shaven-headed Cortese may seem too handsome to play Richard, that “lump of foul deformity,” but that’s pretty much the only complaint one could charge in his direction. From his opening soliloquy raging against his brother King Edward IV (Paul Morella) and his own physical inadequacies, Cortese paints a masterful portrait of psychopathic detachment, adopting a vulnerable affect to woo Lady Anne (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) while simultaneously signaling his derision at her gullibility to the audience. “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?,” he sneers. “Was ever woman in this humor won?/I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.”
Hampered slightly by a plot that’s complicated in a way only the history of medieval Britain can be, dramaturg Michele Osherow has nevertheless done good work cutting such a gargantuan play down to size. Navigating the intricacies of Richard’s unwieldy family tree aside, the action flows smoothly and the pace never falters. Morella is particularly electrifying as Edward discovers his brother Clarence’s (Michael Sharon) death, while a pas de deux between Cortese and Julia Motyka as Edward’s widow, Elizabeth, is riveting—she responding to him with the disbelief and vehement hatred one might expect when the murderer of one’s two sons asks to marry one’s daughter, and he seeming irritated and confused by her truculence.
If the show has a weak spot amid robust performances (even Holden and Remy Brettell are adorable as the Princes in the Tower), it’s the design elements, which can’t decide whether they want to be vintage horror, BBC drama, or The Matrix. The leather coat worn by Buckingham (Howard W. Overshown) is pure Morpheus, while Queen Margaret (Naomi Jacobson) writhes around in fury sporting wild gray hair and what appears to be a Maori face tattoo. Queen Elizabeth wears a leather corset with a red silk bolero and a feather collar, and when Richmond (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) starts to haunt Richard’s dreams he appears in a Darth Vader gas mask. Costume designer Mariah Hale obviously wants to incorporate modern influences, but Catesby’s (Sharon again) wraparound sunglasses and army fatigues just don’t make sense teamed with the stately gowns worn by Princess Elizabeth (Jenna Berk) and Lady Anne.
The most striking visual element of the show is the stage itself: Richmond and set designer Tony Cisek have converted the Folger’s theater into an in-the-round structure, so most of the audience sits on what’s typically the stage and the action plays out in the middle of the Elizabethan theater. (As usual, there are pop-up cameos from actors on the balcony and in the aisles, which adds to the general sense of spookiness.) While the set itself at first appears deceptively simple for Cisek, the plain rectangular platform is revealed to provide a series of trapdoors for the actors to appear and disappear from.
This is a show worth seeing for Cortese alone—the kind of Richard who’s uncomfortably charismatic wrenching the ring off his wife’s corpse before tenderly placing it on his own finger—and in the Folger’s small theater, the sense of being passively complicit in his actions is stronger than ever. Richmond’s Richard III is gratifying proof of how bracing and entertaining Shakespeare’s history plays can be, even if it isn’t exactly sure in which chapter of history it belongs.
Richard III is at the Folger Theatre through March 9. Running time is about two hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($30 to $72) are available via the Folger’s website.