Last month, we saw a play written by Kathleen Akerley; this month we’ll see one by Callie Kimball, and Washington theaters are everywhere exploding with the excellent work of Karen Zacharias. Washington writers are finally getting their props.
The Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival is the place where, for many of them, their work gets a first airing. Here’s what our correspondents said about this, and the other work which is seeing its first light in the Page-to-Stage.
From Rosalind Lacy
Yesterday, Rosalind visited the Catholic University of America (CUA) MFA Playwrights and Composers all-day showcase of work in progress. Here’s what she saw.
The Tall Tales of the Sisters of Ellery Hollow by Stephen Spotswood
How does it feel to grow up feeling strange and different in a homogeneous small town?
From the Opera House Rehearsal Hall reading stands, two Catholic University acting students, with expressive voices, take command and tell The Tall Tales of the Sisters of Ellery Hollow. This is a series of mesmerizing anecdotes about a wise old black-skinned woman, named Gammy Glowworm and the abandoned, twin white girls in her charge. Gammy’s glowing skin color, that stands out so bright on Main Street, is an advantage. She’s like a glow worm in the forest so the lost twin white girls can see her coming. The twins’ beautiful mother has reincarnated into a willow tree whose weeping branches sway in the wind and don’t rest quietly until a nasty, hairy old man (the father?) disappears with a poof. Told from the point of view of the wandering twins, Abby (Eli Sibley) and Elsie (Rachel Holt), it represents the point of view of all children who feel belittled and small. Stephen Spotswood’s characters don’t know their pasts or how they were born but when endowed with the action heroes’ superpower, they can help other abused and humiliated children on earth. Under the spell of mythical stories like the ones MFA playwriting candidate Spotswood makes up, your attention cannot possibly wander. This play, rich with a story teller’s imagistic art, is still in birthing stages. But the child in me hopes Spotswood’s magic succeeds in moving Tall Tales from page to stage. (Or page to screen.)
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Death & Chamomile by Stephen Bradford Lewis
Three short briefs for one sitting: one about a piano lesson; a second, a bar story; and a third, a humanized take on the Icarus myth, are noble attempts to scale the heights. The results are mixed. Whereas the clever word play and gag lines succeed as stand-up comedy bits about the frustrations of finding meaningful relationships-even with parents (Prometheus and Icarus), what’s missing is a cohesive launching pad. Granted, the playwright warns us these are three unrelated plays. His ditzy piano teacher, Mrs. Pistol, a great character in play #1, quotes Steven Hawking: “Anything that is formless is always expanding.” Maybe out of formless anecdotal musings, Lewis can link his story line to a star in the famous physicist’s universe, and find order.
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This Is Not My Life Act 1: Book by Stephen Bradford Lewis, with music and lyrics by John W.V. Maggi.
This musical satire has a refreshing, cynical tone, and pokes fun at the old-time Hollywood endings,. The CUA students have good singing voices and seem to enjoy themselves doing this contrast-of-generations story. Helen, a mom is seeking happiness in her fifth (or was it fourth?) marriage, whereas her daughter, Emily is shedding her boyfriends (one of whom was busted for crack possession), and finds freedom within quite adequate, thank you. Where the plotline falters, some of the songs, like “Another Wedding, Another Groom,” with its catchy rhythms, compensate. Since this is only Act I, we have no idea if Emily ever finds her man. The arc of this story is established, the eccentric characters interesting, so with another rewrite, who knows what will happen?
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Hunter Rising by Bob Bartlett
As we know from Shakespeare’s Richard III, evil fascinates. So it is with Bob Bartlett’s portrayal of pedophilia in a play that shows us the long range damage inflicted by child molestation. We are thrust into the minds of two pedophiles struggling with their sexual attraction to young boys. Hunter, presented with hypnotic sensitivity by recent CUA grad, Chris Zito, is a young predator, both seductive and frightening. Jon Townson, known for his work at American Century Theatre is Billy, an older man who initiated the 12-year-old Hunter into sex in a secluded abandoned playground. Now Billy has moved on to marry and divorce but has a son, Sean who has gone missing after running away from home. At the same time, Hunter, the victimized boy now an emotionally crippled 23-year-old seeks reconciliation with Billy, his former lover. Bartlett shifts scenes back and forth with clarity to show us what happened in the past through the character’s reminiscing reunions and present-tense recriminations. John Tweel, well-known for solid performances at ACT, plays Michael, Billy’s new apartment roommate. And Alice Anne English gives us a cameo shot of a concerned mother. I’d like to see a larger part for her in this psychological drama. Is pedophilia inherited, that is, based on brain wiring, or acquired by predatory seductions? The 90-minute play points a warning finger at the latter, and shows the long range damage inflicted by the child molester. Some of the repetitive lines that give this piece its hypnotic quality also grow tedious. It needs a good edit – at 90 minutes, it seems long – but wow, look out for Hunter Rising in the future. It could stand as a warning to teach children to just say no.
From Danielle Martin
GI Gay and Other Plays, by Jeffrey Hatcher
A happy surprise! This reading was really more than just a reading: it was an 80 minute performance caliber black box offering. The title of this series of one acts by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (co-commissioned by The Guthrie Theatre and Florida Stage) undercuts the gravity of the playwright’s impetus for writing this series, which was the events of 9/11. But Hatcher’s self-deflation and self deprecation, although at first odd, is what ultimately sets each of these shorts apart, making them not just thoughtful but wholly personal reflections of the attacks. It also helps that Director Michael Bigelow Dixon brought deft nuance to each of the rather accomplished performances from Matt Dunphy, Jennifer Mendenhall, Michael Russotto, Michael Vitaly Sazonov, and Theodore Snead. First up, Thud, is a monologue told from a playwright’s perspective about the monotony of waiting in airport lines with sales reps, dubbed ‘Thuds”. As the playwright harps on their nerdiness, their bad jokes, their emblems emblazoned casual Friday shirts, she becomes touched with sorrow because she is sure that it is men like them who effectively resisted the terrorist attempt to take over Flight 93. They were the useful and sacrificed, and the playwright, for all her knowledge, understanding, and agility, was not. Next, Disaster Pitch takes a trip to pre-9/11 Hollywood where an attack on America could not be conceived. For the next piece, we are shuttled back to the airport where we are treated to Thank You For Your Service in which characters are asked to give up their seats on an overbooked flight presumably for a solider who stands off to the side. While the ticket holders debate what the right thing to do is, the play’s conceit is undercut and soldier himself has sacrifices his seat, so that another may get on board. We then move to a theatre for Mr. Roberts Goes to Washington, a play about George W attending the theatre that actualizes what actor would or would not say to Bush about war given the opportunity. In Voice of America we switch lines to a conservative station’s radio booth where the journalist guest is haunted on-air by the ghost of soldier he had sent to war. And the final titular presentation uses first person narrative to lay bare how gay men and women are “found out” after joining the military and not allowed to serve. Each play has Hatcher’s signature quick and witty dialogue with affably neurotic and erudite characters. But the topic of the shows means that these elements are serving a real quest to find humanity in our world, and this shift gives this work incredible and I would say already actualized potential.
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She Was My Brother, by Julie Jensen
In a refreshing and gently colloquial piece presented by Salt Lake Acting Company, Julie Jensen’s She Was My Brother transports us back to the late 19th Century and onto the land of the Zuni tribe where two rival ethnographers, Tuli (Lee Mikeska Gardner) and Wilson (Daniel Townsend) discover that the tribe’s roles of gender expand to include men, women, and transvestites, as embodied by Lamana (Cesar Guadamuz). Choosing this topic and theme could not be more vogue in our current relationship to gender, something that both director David Mong and dramaturg Mike Dorrell took care to explore, but not to exploit. The result is a tender and effective presentation. Each short scene builds upon itself, and the contrast between the two ethnographers grows sharper. Wilson takes to embracing and embodying the culture where “everyone is made fun of equally” creating his own masks for days of worship and partaking in the day to day work. Tuni remains steadfastly outside of the Zuni’s world keeping a steady grip on her position as analyst. What both develop is an abiding love for Lamana, who is eventually taken to Washington DC to study where she dies. Wilson, abandoned in heart, attempts to move back east, but cannot thrive. It is Tuli who endures and reports all that she has found, a fact that remains inevitable if slightly disheartening. For it is she who is the furthest away that has the most to say. And that is a fact that has not changed with time.
From Steve McKnight
Sofonisba by Callie Kimball
Sofonisba is a work in progress about the life of the female Italian renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola. In the partial draft presented by Washington Stage Guild, playwright Callie Kimball focuses on her years as a court painter to King Phillip II of Spain, including her friendship with the young Queen Isabella. One of the play’s themes involves the challenges faced by a woman in those times. The Bishop is concerned about the dangers posed by her “manly ambition,” while the King is eager to arrange her marriage to Don Francisco, a shy and fawning older admirer. It will be interesting to see how much of the historical setting and other topics are incorporated in the development of the play, as well as how the painter will evolve as parts of her full life (she lived to 93) are utilized. Based upon the excerpt read, Callie Kimball has a solid foundation for an interesting portrait of the woman and her times. The supporting characters are well-rounded and the dialogue is realistic yet entertaining.
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Ngala Muti by E. Bentley Solomon
Ngala Muti is a completed draft of a play about a classic Ugly American (Jim Denton) who drags his wife Jane to a weekend in the bush country so he can experience the real Africa, courtesy of ranger Bobby and his tracker Tshonga. The playwright’s knowledge of Africa is apparent in the script and she is very skillful at utilizing humor about the dysfunctional marriage and mocking the arrogant and inexperienced visitors. Eventually the play turns dark as a slightly heavy-handed critique of white imperialism emerges and Jim meets a fate perhaps more serious than deserved. The last part of the play, however, has nice tension and a thrilling ending. With a little work on the tone of the piece and perhaps a minor adjustment of Jim’s role, this play shows real promise for future production.
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The Last Days of Cleopatra Book by Joe Calarco Music & Lyrics by Charlie Barnett
A musical about the making of Cleopatra, the big-budget 1983 film that almost bankrupted Twentieth Century Fox, is a terrific concept. Based upon the excerpt performed, it has vivid characters and some interesting themes. The audience saw Elizabeth Taylor expressing her doubts about performing the role of Cleopatra (talking with imaginary famous friends and singing with the song I Can’t Do This), heard a group of reporters determined to get a gossipy story about Taylor with the group number I Ain’t Gonna Let Nothin’ Happen, and then saw the beginning of the sparks between Taylor and Richard Burton as they quarreled and sang You Are Right with the film’s director, Joseph Mankiewicz. Joe Calarco’s book has sharp dialogue and the music of Charlie Bennett is sophisticated and entertaining. This musical has great potential.
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May 39th by Callie Kimball
Callie Kimball has reworked May 39th, her play about dating and relationships a thousand years in the future, since its production in the 2006 Fringe Festival. She has downplayed some of the futuristic aspects of the work to focus on the intimacy issues faced by a young couple on the morning after their first encounter. Rachel Beauregard as Louisa and Charley Mann as Sam gave fine performances that highlighted the awkward humor of the situation, while making their halting efforts to establish a romantic connection very believable. Although Kimball intends to keep working on the piece, this thoughtful and entertaining one act play appears on the verge of readiness for the stage.
From Tim Treanor
Alighieri’s Assent, by James Lawry
Dr. Lawry is a man of great medical and scientific accomplishment who has turned to history and playwriting in retirement. This piece covers some unusual ground: a monastery in Sicily just before the arrival of Patton’s armies. Alighieri (Jan Knightley) sought the monkish tonsure himself, but his lust for Cascina (Tonya Beckham Ross) showed him that the vow of chastity was impossible. Now he’s a partisan, imprisoned in that same monastery by the fierce fascist commando Russo (Dan Istrate), a childhood friend and the brother of Cascina. This play needs some work – which Taffety Punk will give it – but also features some fine characterizations in Russo and the ghostly monk Concordia, both of whom were given fine readings, by Istrate and Stephen Patrick Martin, respectively. (Seen August 30).
Host and Guest, adapted by Roland Reed from a poem by Vazha Pshavela
Synetic’s remount of the production which first brought them widespread attention – it has played in Philadelphia and New York as well as Washington – gives us an opportunity to study the company’s unique art, in detail. At the Page-to-Stage, Synetic gave us an opportunity to step into what artistic director Paata Tsikurishvilli calls “the kitchen”…watching the company go through the two-hour warmup which precedes every rehearsal. Synetic is movement-based theater – but it is clear that the movement is an adjunct to acting. Every strenuous exercise shows actors at work: representing the lift of a heavy weight; pulling themselves along walls; colliding and pulling apart. It resembles mime – in the same way, for example, that heavyweight boxing resembles table tennis. “We look for actors first,” choreographer Irini Tsikurishvilli explains, and then teaches them movement, rather than trying to teach dancers to act. Nonetheless, it’s not for every actor, as Ben Cunis, who plays the Guest, points out. “You have to have a sense of rhythm,” he says, since the actors often move to a different rhythm than the one which the audience hears. Also, as Paata Tsikurishvilli reveals, it’s a young actor’s game: he, at 40, is the oldest company member. As for the play itself, the few scenes we saw at Page-to-Stage confirm that it’s vintage Synetic stuff – cinematic, dark, and, in these dangerous times, oddly moving.