Our correspondents report:
From Debbie Minter Jackson
Daughter/Concubine by Danielle A Drakes with Danielle Martin
The first act of this promising new play is a fascinating mixture of ancestral legacy, longing and hurt, with hints of heart and healing to come. A young blues singer, Byulla, meanders through the usual minefields of hurt and rejection finding solace and comfort through song. Although the premise sounds worn, familiar and weary as a scratched up vinyl record, complete with heaping helpings of life’s sorrows and a wayward man or two, what sets it apart is Byulla’s ancestral legacy, the forced sexual entrapment through slavery, and the residual effects that impact her every move. As a product of a stern, disapproving mother, who herself was the shameful product of a slave woman and Portuguese slave owner, Byulla’s mournful songs reflect the scars of generations of scorned women. While use of the term “concubine” is not explicitly explained in the script, the historical connotations are obvious enough in the women’s sexual service whether bound in chains or mental shackles.
This crowd pleaser definitely pleased the appreciative audience happy to see that the African Continuum Theatre Company, which has undergone its own share of tumultuous stormy weather and still struggling to stay afloat, is offering a full spate of upcoming readings of new plays throughout the season. If this new work is an indication of the quality and creativity in store, then we can only hope that the ancestral forces, and the market, will help sustain its existence as one of the last remaining African American theater producing company in the metro region.
Note: Occasional DCTS writer Danielle Martin was involved with this production. It did not affect our reporting.
Battles of Fire and Water by Dave Hunsaker
Excerpts from a brand new work Battles of Fire and Water, produced by Perseverance Theater in Association with the National Museum of the American Indian provided a tantalizing glimpse into cultural events totally off the beaten paths for many of us. Told from the perspectives– and in the languages– of the Tingit Indians of Sitka in Southeast Alaska and Russians soldiers who claimed the territory as part of their exploration, the story explores the cultural clash and battles that result. The impeccable authenticity of the native costume, the steady drum beat, and the woeful accompanying vocals set the place and tone of the piece that seeks to explain the “why” behind the fierce battles that resulted in more casualties than Little Big Horn. “You keep coming,” one of the native warriors intones to the Russian corporal. While the Indian warrior recounts his people’s own travels across continents and seas crossing the Alaskan straits into Europe and the Pacific Islands, the travels do not equate with the conquering mentality of the white soldiers. “Whether Russian, French, Spaniards or now even Americans, you keep coming,” he recounts. The breathtaking though brief excerpts from the Battles of Fire and Water showed the impact of the constant quest for land and bounty from the perspectives, oral tradition and the voices of the indigent population often silent in the account. Though scheduled in the last time slot of the Festival, the session was well attended by many who saw and raved about Perseverance’s captivating rendition of Macbeth or “the Scottish play” last year and sought more energetic offerings from the company. We were not disappointed.
From Rosalind Lacy
Baltimore Playwrights Festival: New Works by Maryland and D.C. Playwrights
Ten plays selected from 65 submissions for the 27th Baltimore Playwrights Festival already have made it from page to stage, rehearsed and performed before live audiences for three-weekend runs in local Baltimore community theaters this past summer, from June 26-August 31, 2008.
2:00-4:00 p.m. The theme could be: Let’s laugh at ourselves. Here are highpoints from the Baltimore Playwrights Festival performed the Page-To-Stage Festival at Kennedy Center this past weekend: The good news is that the American family is still dysfunctional (and what family isn’t?), but not the television sitcom kind. Live plays offer more honest, free expression. Some display more hilarity than others, as shown in one scene from Kosher with Salsa by Miryam Madrigal, a romantic comedy touching on cultural confrontation. A Mexican Jewish convert (the salsa), who undergoes circumcision, and a Jewish girl (the kosher) from Beverly Hills confront two bigoted mothers and the groom’s gay, boutique-owner brother. In Keeping Faith by Mark Scharf, a bride-to-be has been locked in the car trunk and kidnapped by her dissenting, over-the-edge parents, who dislike the groom. Does the end justify the means when the legally astute 18-year-old daughter threatens to bring in the cops? In another play excerpt, the quaint past (1909) is preserved, in Gay Deceivers by P.S. Lorio, where a neglected housewife invents the padded bra (“falsies”) to keep her husband’s interest out of the men’s club. But more modern, domestic fun is found in Graven Image by Stephen Kilduff, when a territorial, competitive daughter confronts a female college student house painter, who is painting over dad’s off-white, traditional walls with dazzling colors. Based on two domestic dramas about family competition, prolific Julie Lewis is a playwright to watch. And finally, the survival of friendship is confronted in Helena Troy by Rich Espey, when a new play has to transcend backstage rivalries to save a bankrupt theater.
But the current “hot” controversies are topics playwrights have explored since ancient Greece and will never go bankrupt. A lot of honesty comes out with back to basic reality that played to pin drop silence, as in Vagabond Players from this life: four short plays. Patricia Montley’s well-structured Suckled by Wolves, builds slowly to a shocking last line revelation. Two friends confront each other about a sexual predator, now a bishop. One friend confesses that because he didn’t like what was being done to him, he introduced the priest to his friend. Whether to have a baby or not was the stirring backdrop in The “A” Word, by Rosemary Frisino Toohey. Then in Trio by Jim Cary, illegal drugs and the conflict between loyalty and betrayal threaten to destroy a jazz combo. Let’s look at reality and solve our dysfunctions. Bravo to the plays that say that.
The Playwrights Group of Baltimore and their “Lock and Key” plays
7:30 p.m. Later that evening, the rich offerings continued to flow from The Playwrights Group of Baltimore, a totally different group. Under the theme “The Lock and Key Plays,” playwrights, who meet two times a month, wrote 10-minute shorts using the concepts or words “lock” and “key.” It was an exercise that elicited some juicy morsels.
My favorite character was the woman, age 40, disappointed by prospects, who wants to marry herself in O’er the Towering Steep, by John Conley. This delightful sketch develops libertarian themes, based on embedded references to John Lock’s theory of liberty (the lock) and all three verses of Francis Scott (the key) Key’s patriotic Star-Spangled Banner. The twist is that rational self-interest and self-realization help her find the “right man.” All in 10 minutes. That’s economical writing. But some entries added a dose of lemon. For example, Not Funny at All, by Jacob Hellman, depicted two frantic college-educated professionals, stumped by our computer-ruled society. They can’t remember their passwords (the key), and have to resort to extremes, even violence, to cross the threshold. Intruder by Mary Gallagher takes on a “bait and switch” salesman who humiliates women. But Remembrances by Adele Russell was a surprisingly gentle glimpse of an actor and actress as two aging seniors, one fighting off Alzheimer’s. But through the mental fog, the lovebirds can still recite the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This is not their last scene, only the end of the act. Poetry locked in the memory is the key to their love, a beautiful reminder of the power of language that can be the key to something eternal.
One audience member asked why more comedies aren’t being written. The answer came from the other side of the room that some of us like “to think.” The Baltimore playwriting groups succeed in laying down the challenge. Write on.
From Joel Markowitz
Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears by Theodore Bikel
No one tells a story like the great Theodore Bikel, so when he stepped on the Kennedy Center Terrace Stage, he was welcomed with a thunderous applause as he began to portray the great Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem. The audience laughed and snapped their fingers, and clapped as he sang songs in Yiddish and English, and told great funny stories and jokes, and showed the packed house why this Sholom Aleichem is so well loved by Jews and non-Jews of all ages. Here are some of my favorite quips and lines:
“When I met Mark Twain, he told me, “People call me the Yiddish Mark Twain, and Twain replied, “People call me the American Sholom Aleichem.”
On American life: “This is not the promised land. Here Jews are scrambling to make a living. Here the oppressors are fellow Jews.”
On suffering: Jews don’t have time to suffer. You have to survive, so it doesn’t kill you.”
On going to Cheder (Jewish school): “The Rabbi had only one technique- whipping!”
On trying to find his friend Shmulik the Storyteller who disappeared one day: We were one body -one soul. Because of his stories, I was determined to become a storyteller. Every Jew is on a journey from Jerusalem to Jerusalem. This writer is on a journey from Shmulik to Shmulik.”
And a charming story of when he had writer’s block, his small daughter squeezed his finger, and after the squeeze, he began writing again.
And why is his character-Tevye – The Milkman so close to him?
“I have a passion for poor Jews, They are an art. I can show you what I can do with poverty.”
After the show, Mr. Bikel told me he is still working on editing the show. What was once a two act show is now only one act. I grew up reading these Sholom Aleichem stories, and I understand what a difficult job this must be. I can’t wait to see Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, when it plays at Theater J from December 17, 2008 – January 11, 2009.
You can listen to two podcasts I recorded with Theodore Bikel at Theater J in May, 2007:
Where Does East Begin: A Musical Journey by Matt Conner.
I am a big fan of composer Matt Conner’s production of Nevermore, which was given a fantastic production at Kensington Arts Theatre this year, so I was eagerly awaiting this concert, which featured highlights of four new works that Matt is composing – Crossing, Senior Moments, Partial Eclipse and Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which he is writing with Broadway star Hunter Foster.
And what a joy to see and hear so many of my favorite local ,young and talented sing the heck out of Matt’s music -Stephen Gregory Smith, Kurt Boehm, Eleasha Gamble, Kara Tameika-Watkins and Priscilla Cuellar. And boy did this ensemble deliver.
My favorite moments? Kara’s gorgeous solo on “Here I Am” from Crossing, Stephen’s powerful Blue from Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Eleasha’s lush singing of “Boston” from Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Kurt’s gorgeous rendition of “Purple Sky” and Priscilla’s emotional rendition of “Run Away” from Partial Eclipse. What a treat to hear this great ensemble end the concert with the gorgeous “Dream-land” from Nevermore.
Life in Death-Opera Electronica. by Greg Martin.
Greg Martin composed Life In Death-Opera Electronica as his thesis for fulfillment of the requirements for this degree in Master of Music in Composition at Catholic University in January 2008.
Life In Death is the original title for Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Oval Portrait, published in 1842. It’s about a painter who is obsessed with his art who convinces his new bride to be his model. Because the painter is so obsessed with his work and himself, he neglects to realize that his bride is dying- and she does,
The one act opera was beautifully sung by Bridgid Eversole as Emily-the bride, Tad Czyzewski as the Painter, and James Rogers as the Narrator and Father, who had the difficult task of singing to an already recorded track. Alison Candela on the violin, James Iacketta on the drums and other percussion instruments add oomph to the creepy and haunting score. Katherine Frattini added some swirling choreography. A special kudos to Jason Cowperthwaites’s gorgeous lighting and Rick Lenegan’s easeled set.
From Danielle Martin
A Time Upon Itself by Greg Beuthin
Inkwell has garnered a reputation for supporting playwrights whose visions push the bounds of imagination and director Jessica Burgess’ offering for Page-to-Stage did not disappoint. Greg Beuthin’s A Time Upon sets itself within a crowded dreamscape filled with generations of people and bric-a-brac who are regularly shook, but not rocked by earthquakes; the result is that time exists as taffy. Such a complicated world demands a pared down premise that Beuthin provides: two lonely and seemingly abandoned old women Gran (the wickedly funny Wyckham Avery) and Mum wield their sophistry against oblivion. What does rock them are two visitors – shadows representing best and worst of their long gone progeny, which they must and do come to embrace. The power of this play and what allowed for such all-around strong readings of these puppet-like parts sprouts from the lyrically potent writing and fabulously fantastic world Beuthin realizes for the audience. This is a dream that deserves to come into fruition onstage. The cast for this reading included performances from: Wyckham Avery, Frank Britton, Valerie Fenton, James Flanagan, Lindsay Haynes, Lisa Hill-Corley, Q. Terah Jackson, Hilary Kacser, Amy Kellet, Lee Liebeskind, Eric Messner, Wendy Nogales, Alex Perez, Kevin Pierson.
From Steven McKnight
Minotour by Anna Ziegler
Minotaur is based upon the myth where Theseus enters a maze, kills the Minotaur, and takes away Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos. In this entertaining adaptation, Ariadne is a bored teenage girl who spends time with the Minotaur to relieve the tedium of her life. Meanwhile, she dreams of a romance with Theseus prior to meeting him (although she has seen his Facebook page and sent him lots of intense e-mail messages). Helping the action along is a chorus comprised of a priest, a rabbi, and a lawyer. The story is told in a funny manner with many entertaining asides and lots of serious philosophical musings about fate, happiness, and other important topics. This work demonstrates an abundance of talent, but at times the play is almost too much of a good thing. The audience gets pounded by some much fast talking philosophy that it creates some fatigue and distance from the characters before the final touching ending. Once tightened up a bit, Minotaur will be a very impressive work of art.
From Lorraine Treanor
The Prince and the Troubadour by Rex Daugherty and Doug Wilder
Charter Theater’s family theatre group, New Plays for Young Audiences, is in its second year of producing original musicals for the very young, and The Prince and the Troubadour truly tickled both the youngsters in the hall and us mature types. Two guys – you already know them by the title – are having not so great a time on the road, while both secretly wish to marry Marys. As luck would have it – there are two Marys in the vicinity, one a no-nonsense, Ninja-skilled princess and one a witch with some pretty amazing recipes for soups and entrees. It’s not so much what happens – one Mary kidnaps one guy while a posse of the other Mary and the scaredy-pants guy ride to the rescue, it’s the wit and charm of the tale and the fact that the actors never forget we’re out there that makes this reading, and its upcoming production in January worth the trip to Arlington’s Theatre on the Run.
Monday Evening 1942 by Steve LaRoque
I confess upfront to being a big fan of actor Steve LaRoque so it was a treat to hear his new play read, and to see how well it echoes the gentle humor and compassion of the playwright himself. Fans of baseball probably know that July 6, 1942 was the first All Star Game under lights in New York City, and was also the night of an enforced city wide blackout. The game, delayed by rain, ended two minutes before the city was plunged in darkness. I learned that and much about the chemical treatment of wartime garments and about the love and sacrifice of a father for his child. Ed, one of only a few mechanics not enlisted in the war, must work overtime to keep up the production line for an important Army contract. His only child, Teresa, has enlisted and leaves in the morning. He tells his sister Ivy, his only confidante, his concerns about Teresa, and one secret which could keep her from leaving him. This is a small, subtle play currently in re-writes but sure to be ready for is debut April 17th at Quotidian. “Two days after tax day” Steve reminded us with a smile.
From Tim Treanor
The Near East, by Alex Lewin
UC-San Diego MFA Lewin has put together a riveting, if overlong, meditation on the uncertainties which bind us in this Arena Stage-sponsored reading. Aisha Ghazali (Gabriella Fernandez-Coffey) is an Islamic feminist scholar, whose special provenance is a reexamination and retranslantion of the Qu’ran to make it more welcoming to women. She recruits a Jewish archeologist (Paul Morella) to help her find a book which might be the source of both the Qu’ran and the Old Testament – an act of heresy in conservative Saudi Arabia. In the meantime, her brother Umar (Michael Vitaly Sazonov) serves in the household of an English oil executive (Michael Kramer) who the Muslim brotherhood suspect of being a spy. They ask Umar to report on him – but there’s a complication: Umar is also the executive’s lover. This play is exquisitely drawn, suspenseful – and over two hours long, in the reading. Some wonderful passages which don’t flow naturally from the narrative (I’m thinking now of an interesting argument between Aisha and the archeologist of the meaning of certain passages of the Qu’ran) may end up being winnowed, but this fine, vital play is nearly ready for production. The superb reads which the cast, especially Sazonov, Morella and, in particular Fernandez-Coffey, give the text helped us understand the play’s full potential.
* * *
The Rape of Lucrece, by William Shakespeare
Lucrece, an epic poem about the crime which eventually gave birth to a revolution, and the revolution which gave birth to the Republic of Rome, is here given an electronic bath by Taffety Punk Theatre Company. Kimberly Gilbert is Lucrece, Marcus Kyd is her rapist Tarquin, (and, briefly, Lucrece’s husband Collatine) and Lise Bruneau is director and narrator. They recite Shakespeare’s work from about a third of the way in, and musician Sean Peoples adds music, found sound and echo effects. Tarquin’s voice is filtered so that it sounds as thought it is coming over a radio (as is Lucrece’s for a short passage). Had Bruneau – or any of these fine actors – simply recited the poem, the audience would have appreciated Shakespeare’s perspective and reveled in his language. I am not certain how Peoples effects – some of which were lovely to listen to, in and of themselves – added to the text. However, the audience seemed to enjoy it.
From Leslie Weisman
The Mystery Prince by Rebecca Nesvet
This full-length play was inspired by Mary Shelley’s novel, “The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck,” which posits the legitimacy of Warbeck as heir to the throne of England – specifically, Richard, Duke of York, one of the young princes murdered by Richard III. A complex tale with 15 characters (at least one of whom is doubled by the same actor without benefit of costume change), it will undoubtedly be easier to follow when staged and choreographed with the requisite costumes and props (of which we were given a small taste), entrances and exits. Although disparate levels of experience and preparation were evident at this early stage, the cast overall did a yeoman’s job of navigating the authoritatively Elizabethan-style text and songs, for which kudos is due both the young playwright, Rebecca Nesvet, and the director, Catherine Aselford.
In a Q&A after the performance, Nesvet said that her experiment to bring a novel to the stage, and in particular this novel, was predicated on two key principles. First, was her respect and affection for Shelley’s book, and her desire to open it to modern audiences who may otherwise be unfamiliar with it. Second is her belief – which goes against the grain of much history and artistic endeavor (not to mention human nature), but is refreshing, and even bracing to hear – that the “hero concept” is inherently destructive. The Shelley book offered a vehicle for exploring its dangers through a subject that people don’t feel passionate about, at the same time opening a political discussion by analogy. The Georgetown Theatre Company, so the flyer, “is dedicated to bringing great literature to Washington, D.C. audiences as live theatrical entertainment … because at one time, all fiction had to capture the reader’s imagination.” This play may just do that.
“Shortstack v4: The Lunchbox Diner Plays” Bob Bartlett, Artistic Director, AccokeekCreek Theatreco
Take an ordinary American diner at Christmastime, add eleven local playwrights, and what do you get? Eleven extraordinary takes on the American experience (while I was able to see only seven, they left me no doubt but that the rest must have matched them), distinguished by both freshness and assurance and enhanced by actors who convincingly inhabited the characters, sometimes uncannily so. In Walter Thinnes’s Your Turn to Watch Dad, Type A Daughter nearly drives eager-to-please waitress to distraction, until wise, composed Dad gives the gal a valuable tip – in both senses of the word. Another waitress, in Audrey Cefaly’s Clean, is distraught over her increasing age and weight, and despairs of ever finding true love – only to find it as close as the “50 years of Hubba-Bubba” stuck under the tables. Unlikely soul mates also find each other in Mark Harvey Levine’s Surprise, in which a lady who frets to her date that she’s lost her only lesbian friend, soon learns that she has more to worry about: he knows what she’s going to say and do seconds before she does.
When it comes to time warps, though, nobody has it over Steve Lewis’s futuristic, post-apocalyptic Doomsdiner, where Jewel and Rock are visited by a bubbly, 1950s-era soda jerk who answers every question with a peppy, preppy, perpetually grinning “Yessirreebob,” and insists on serving the starving survivors the Blue Plate Special – good nourishment, no doubt, for the embryo growing inside Jewel who will one day take over the world. World dominion is about the farthest thing from the minds of the gentle mother and son in Jeffrey Sweet’s “Sneaks,” in which Maria and Howie discuss with disarming, if unspoken affection the world he’s seen and that she’s only dreamed of, and come to a conclusion that will enable her to escape her mean-spirited husband’s controlling, prying eyes and share in the brave new world of her son’s life without ever leaving the house. I’d encourage all theater lovers to leave the house for the six plays that make it from this series to Bowie State on September 13.