The Kennedy Center’s 12th annual Page-to-Stage event was an all you-can-eat buffet last Monday. Not to worry if the flavors and tastes run together.
Everyone won in this Labor Day Weekend event which ran the weekend before the DC theatre season cranks up in earnest. Small companies may boast they’ve landed the big venue gig; The Kennedy Center can tout hosting a genuine community event; and the underwriters, in this case The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and Share Front, can pat themselves on the back that they’ve made the opportunities available. Maybe most importantly, people who might want to check out what is new in greater Washington theatre can partake FOR FREE of a genuine arts buffet.
One down side is that, because these are readings, it’s hard to get that quality emotional experience that one can get going to a dedicated theatrical event.
Another may be that so many new works are read, sung or “moved through” that the pile-up requires participants negotiating tricky KC road maps and pulling some fancy in-and-out maneuvers, even occasionally dialing down road rage. However, no one familiar with the daily commute of Greater Washington area should feel they are not up to the sport.
My specific snapshots:
Pinky Swear Productions started off my day with a brand new play, The Last Burlesque. Stephen Spotsworth’s work takes on the weird world of a certain kind of variety show that bends our understanding of strip and specialty acts which appeal to certain kinky appetites that most of us think are not part of our “normal” society. That’s Spotsworth’s point exactly: that the person in the next work cubicle or on line shopper for an appropriate wardrobe to wear by day may be exploring a much more exciting dimension, what might be described as deviant practices by night. The “front” of this business includes a pretty normal mother and daughter relationship, except that the young woman, who’s run away from this particular circus into academia, now comes home to a freak show that’s unfolding. It gives the piece its tension and also its humor.
One of the strongest dramatic moments for me was when the relatively new performer in the troupe proceeds to catalogue the 94 ways she had pierced herself before she’d found her “professional calling” in Vera’s Valley show. If part of what theatre is about is to push us to examine the things we might not want to look at, then this play may have some legs.
Laura Miller, Artistic Director, leads this company which has at its mission, “looking for strong roles for women… and plays where people talk to each other and things happen.” I noticed that the upcoming Pinky Swear production is Bondage by the powerful playwright David Henry Hwang, described as both a love story and a “race play.” Bondage opens November 7 at Anacostia Playhouse. Details and tickets
I took in a big helping of the Playwrights Forum offering, The Land of Bad Choices by James H. Hanrahan and Harry M. Bagdasian. The play carries a lot of ambition as a big, topical play, integrating the story of a child being killed in an elementary school shooting with our attitudes about gun violence vs. second amendment rights, post traumatic stress syndrome of returning warriors, and the media’s sensationalizing people’s most private and vulnerable moments. It even makes references to the VA’s lack of organization and timely response.
While I could appreciate the scope and import of the work, I felt at times made more heavily aware of its cleverness than compelled by the action and characters.
Down in Kennedy Center’s Family Theatre, the African Continuum Theatre Company had reconstituted itself after a hiatus to present a work under their new Producing Artistic Director Thembi Duncan. Happily so, for Mon Chaton, both written and directed by Duncan and set against the background of the Harlem Renaissance, proved a lovely and compelling play.
In this play a Miss Minnie Pierce has died, and her niece, Virginia Neal, arrives from Bedford County Virginia to the Big Apple to settle the deceased’s property. She learns that her “aunt Minnie” has kept a pretty unusual boarding house in Harlem whose boarders, including Thaddeus aka Countess Malveena, slowly draw Virginia in to fall for the bright lights and wild ways of Harlem.
Duncan has captured the rhythms and gestures of a unique group of characters, and at the center of this play is Virginia, a complex and poetic creature, played beautifully by Tricia Homer. There is some other nice work in this ensemble, in particular Jacobi Howard, Carolyn Agan, and Audra Polk. I look forward to seeing the work fully mounted.
It wouldn’t be a representative Washington spread without the inclusion of Synetic Theater. The company drew the biggest crowd I saw the whole day in the less than ideal Millennium Stage South space, with audience corralled into the narrow box-like corridor so deeply they lined up back past the Opera House in order to catch something of these theatrical shape shifters.
The company shared a rehearsal snippet of their latest show, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In one scene called “Building the Portrait” the ensemble swirled in and out of totem-like human structures while the artist and the central character of Dorian seemed united in a pas de deux that featured lifts and acrobatic spills.
In another scene, the artist speaks in a long monologue about his obsession. The reality that this ensemble seems to achieve physically so effortlessly proves a much greater challenge with the inclusion of speech. Nonetheless, The Picture of Dorian Gray promises to be one of the company’s most adult and complexly challenging shows to date when it opens later this month in their home in Crystal City. Details and tickets.
In some ways the most satisfying program for me was delivered by the newly formed DC playwrights collective, The Welders. It was my introduction to their novel structure for the creation of new works: namely a “closed” organization of 5 playwrights who will write and produce a play each year, taking turns serving as Artistic Directors of their own works for three years, then turning the whole organization, budget and process over to five new playwrights.
The plays by the current five, Caleen Sinette Jennings, Bob Bartlett, Gwydion Suilebhan, Renee Calarco, and Allyson Currin were smart, funny, and each a little quirky – all good for playing in this kind of setting. Best of all they were short or well-picked excerpts that stood alone – and served as little sips of sherbet to the evening.
I honestly don’t know if the playwrights picked each based on common interests or set each other tasks to write about common themes, but to my mind the plays fit together based on some aspect of popular culture they evoked. Jenning’s show used the TV show Scandal (which I am embarrassed to admit I have never seen) to create the conceit for I Ain’t Olivia Pope. In the play, three women respond to living in the same transitional neighborhood in DC, where one has moved back to from the suburbs after her husband has died must face her old childhood friend who never got out. Some really nice acting from Kelsea Edgerly and especially Cynthia Rollins and Rachel Foley.
Playwright Bartlett offered up a confrontation between a nature-loving hippie father and his estranged tattooed son in his play, Swimming with Whales which was both outright funny and harrowing. There were several turns in the action that had me almost breathless wanting to see how it turns out.
Gwydion Suilebhan has created a one woman tour de force for actress Jennifer Mendenhall in Cracked, which takes the fad of cooking shows to a high energy absurdity. A marvelous little structured piece, full of music and nuance, and Mendenhall nailed it as she delivered a lecture on the egg.
Renee Calarco has written Warriors, her own take on the victims of this generation’s war. It was my second warrior piece of the day, but in its brevity and focus, ended up delivering an even greater punch than The Land of Bad Choices.
Finally, The Redneck Holy Grail by Allison Currin proved to be a whacky actors’ vehicle for the comic duo of Rick Foucheux and Cynthia Rollins, as they hurl venom at each other while their granddaughter (Kelsea Edgerly) gets one life lesson after another.
All in all, I was well-pleased with the amount of original dramatic writing that goes on in this city. I urge you to check it out this season of full productions, readings and workshops. There may be a playwright’s voice, a company’s style that speaks especially to you.