Washington’s Page-to-Stage Festival at the Kennedy Center
A meal is best savored when it is first observed cooking in the pan, giving up its aromatic perfumes to its expectant consumers as a gift and a tease. And when a mother is with child, her other children will gather round her and put their ears to her belly, to marvel at the heedless and insistent kicking of their sibling-in-utero. So should those who love theater not assemble at the Kennedy Center every Labor Day weekend to see what plays Washington’s best and most adventuresome theaters are developing? I think we should, and so I did.
Mind you, these production are not ripe for reviewing, any more than the developing infant in his mother’s womb is ripe for my judgment. But they are ready for observing, and for noting any promise which they might hold. Some of them might be produced this year or the next; some of them might not be produced for many years; and some will never be produced. But for the moment they all stood full of equal promise in this graceful building on the banks of the mud-colored Potomac.
Scena Theatre presented a play by its Artistic Director Robert McNamara called Saboteur! – a Moises Kaufman-type documentary about a spectacularly underplanned Nazi scheme to smuggle terrorists into the United States with instructions to plant bombs in war production plants or, failing that, in Jewish-owned department stores. That the scheme failed was due mostly to the personnel the Nazis selected to carry out the task: a collection of whiners, losers and lunatics who wore their personal failures like badges of honor. It is, of course, a story of considerable resonance today, and it is interesting to note that Franklin Roosevelt, of sainted memory, was even more eager to ignore the civil and legal rights of the captured saboteurs (two of whom were American citizens) than is our current reviled incumbent. In this staged reading, the estimable Christopher Henley was superb as the dangerously unstable George Dasch, and Nick Scott Nolte and Regen Wilson were also notable as a fun-loving, Jew-hating Nazi Colonel and a Strangelovian bomb doctor, respectively. Buck O’Leary did a nice job of capturing FDR’s plumy tones. It’s nice to see an actor care enough to get a voice right even when the person he’s capturing has been dead for sixty years and the voice is known to less than five percent of his audience.
MetroStage, which is rapidly acquiring a reputation for the able production of African-American musicals, presented a musical version of The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings. Taken from William Brashler’s novel (and a 1976 movie with the late, great Richard Pryor), Bingo describes the startling rebellion of some Negro League stars against their overbearing – and cheapskate – team owners. The background – that the long-overdue integration of the major leagues (and the subsequent demise of the Negro Leagues) is about to come about – gives everything a bittersweet perspective. Longtime Washington stage figure Michael J. Bobbitt (among other things, he choreographed Once on This Island for Round House) is responsible for the book, and Dr. John Cornelius, who has served as music director for several local schools, wrote the music and lyrics.
Bobbitt and Cornelius’ other collaboration, also under the MetroStage umbrella, is a reworking of fourteen songs by theatrical legend Stephen Schwartz. Audaciously, Cornelius has completely decontextualized these numbers from their musical roots, and given them some jazzy, bluesy, gospel overtones. With these arrangements, the remarkable Eleasha Gamble, who along with four other artists sang the revised music, could become a top Schwartz interpreter. Particularly notable was Gamble in a revised Defying Gravity; Erin Driscoll and Phil Olarte in a playful Its’ an Art, and a pastiche of Where is the Warmth, Manchild Lullaby and Morning Glow in which all five artists (including Priscilla Cuellar and Isaiah Johnson) collaborated. Schwartz was in the audience, and he did not seem displeased at what he heard.
For the evening’s entertainment, I saw Short Stack v2, a selection of Bowie State University productions directed by Bob Bartlett and Reneé Charlow. In order: Like White on Rice (Mark Scharf) was a meditation on lost love set in a bar and deliberately written entirely in clichés. Scharf talked about his intentions and hopes for the play in a dctheatrereviews exclusive you can find here. Matthew Jordan, Christopher Holbert, and Tina Renay Fulp played the cliché-ridden characters….Pierced (Audrey Cefaly) is the story of a nervous young man (Jordan) who is about to get lucky with a very strange young lady (Fulp) – if only he’ll let her pierce his ear with a knitting needle. Keep your eyes out for more from this Washington-area playwright, whose work is receiving awards and recognition here and elsewhere….Sakina (Michael Leicht) tells the story of a mother (Kelly Armstrong) called to account for the murder of her infant in a country where all the children are dying of disease and starvation.,, Also with Lilita-Marie, Reginald Rich, and Jared Shamberger….in The Bank (Steven Schultzman), a retired doctor at loose ends with himself (Elliot Moffit) intervenes in unexpected ways to help a Senegalese security guard (David Hooker) and, indirectly, the object of his affection (Julie Stemper)….Why We Invented God (D.W. Gregory) is a tight little mini-drama about a young couple (Holbert and Stemper) and their hapless neighbor (Moffit) made terrified by the presence of a John Mohammed-type sniper in their town…Chess Game (Stephen LaRoqcue) tells the story of a chess master (David Thomas) and his protégé (Shamberger) as they work through the older man’s feelings of obsolescence. Good acting abounded in Short Stack v2, which will be staged more fully – and for free – at Bowie State at 7.30, September 14 and 15. Jordan and Moffit were particularly noteworthy.