Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis
by Charlotte Jones
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
At Christmastide, hope floats from the heavens like snow and cloaks us in a robe of optimism and cheer. We pray for, or fantasize about, a peaceful world where people are free and bellies are full. We imagine the year ahead of us full of personal fulfillment, for ourselves and those we love.
In a small home in Bolton, England, hope is more specific but no less improbable. Martha (Sarah Marshall), a cleaning woman with a monster obsessive-compulsive disorder, imagines that by counting to five she can protect herself from the demons which control her universe. Josie (Beth Hylton), the dominatrix who heads the household, hopes one day to be cryogenically frozen, so that she can be reanimated to relive her life without the mistakes she has irreversibly made this time around. Lionel (David Bryan Jackson), her client, hopes that a moment on all fours in a maid’s dress will give him the satisfaction which his pinched life denies him. And Brenda-Marie (Kimberly Gilbert), an adult woman with a child’s mind, dreams of the day when she and her dead twin sister ice-dance their way to Olympic glory before a cheering throng.
And in another part of town, Timothy Wong (Tony Nam), a Vietnamese immigrant with little discernable aptitude, imagines a life of wealth and ease – at least more wealth and ease than he has had so far – once his career as an Elvis impersonator takes off.
If at first you are put off by Woolly Mammoth’s production of Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis, I strongly recommend that you hold your judgment and wait for the wonders to come. Playwright Charlotte Jones has chosen unusual people in extreme situations as her subject, and she takes the short way in. What may appear to be stereotypical or even cruel depictions of people with enormous afflictions is simply Jones’ matter-of-fact treatment of them in everyday life. Thanks to the persistence of Jones’ vision, and the quality of the cast, these afflictions become endearing tics by the middle of the first scene.
It is the Feast of the Epiphany, and Josie is turning forty. Forlorn in her squeaky suit and cat-o-nine-tails, she is an actor who has played the same role all her adult life. Her client and friend, Lionel, who appears to be into the D/S thing principally so that he can wear women’s clothes, resolves to dispel her funk by throwing her a birthday party. This party features a disturbingly green cocktail of Lionel’s own devise – he calls it, aptly, a “catastrophe” – and the one ingredient necessary for anybody’s happy birthday, an Elvis impersonator.
In truth, now nearly thirty years dead, the King has come closer to becoming a redemptive figure than any of his contemporaries. Many people imagine their lives to be a movie scored by Elvis, and an astonishing number of folks, having lived through real catastrophe and devastating loneliness, point to the
What unfolds, accordingly, seems like the world’s worst birthday party until something happens which makes matters incomparably worse, and weirder. It turns the laughter to tears, and the tears back to laughter again, and the laughter back to tears again, and makes hope in all its absurd manifestations come down from the sky, until we’ve pretty much seen the best damn Christmas show that’s come to local stages in many years.
The cast, including Tiffany Fillmore as the dead sister Louise, is superb but even amongst such skilled performers, Kimberly Gilbert is a revelation. Brenda-Marie is a startlingly original character, with a child’s incapacity for guile but a woman’s store of information. She blurts out her observations without a moment’s nod to tact, but her broad embrace of the human experience makes her accept without judgment that which is shameful to others. Thus, for example, Lionel’s turn under the whip is nothing but a game he likes, no different than her complex ice-dancing fantasies. This is an extraordinarily complex character who must at every moment appear simple; Gilbert nails every one of the contradictory elements.
Each one of the actors sells who he is with facility and grace.
Dan Conway’s elaborate gingerbread set and Colin K. Bills’ subtle lighting are an exception to Woolly Mammoth’s customary minimalism, but they serve this play well, giving it a cozy feeling which makes it easier to accept and acknowledge this unusual family, so like our own.
Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis will continue to play on Wednesdays through Sundays until December 10. Sunday shows are at 2 and 7; all other shows at 8. No show on Thanksgiving. Post-show discussions on the 15th and 30th of November, and after the matinee show on November 19. Tickets range from $32 to $52 (there are discounts available) and may be obtained at 202.393.3939, or www.wollymammoth.net.