“It’s the thing I’m most proud of in 35 years of doing theatre.” Rod Menzies is in Washington to direct the current class at the Academy of Classical Acting (ACA) in its production of The Duchess of Malfi. But that wasn’t what he referred to when we spoke this week. He was talking about Bitch Trouble: Stories about Friendship, a solo performance he directed which will also be in town, although for only one performance, this Sunday, June 1st at 6 p.m. at Corner Store Arts (900 South Carolina Ave., SE) on Capitol Hill.
“Everyone who comes just loves it. Many in the audience have come back two and three times and say it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. It’s great to be in a room with people who are laughing and laughing, great to be involved in a theatre event where people’s eyes are going, ‘I’m so glad I saw this!’,” said Menzies.
Menzies knows from solo shows. Based in L.A., he has, since 1995, worked with writers and performers on one-person performances. At first, he worked with material that was almost ready for performance, but eventually he started working with projects he would help develop “from the ground up.”
Developing a piece is a three-to-five year process, Menzies told me. For a year or a year and a half, you work on the form you want it to be in. Then, for another year, you work out the material in front of audiences. Then if you find that the piece “has legs,” you begin to tour it.
Into one of his workshops about eight years ago came Alice Johnson Boher, the writer and performer of Bitch Trouble. Menzies and Boher, who is from Columbus in south Georgia, first collaborated on Saint Alice of Chattahoochee, another solo show she wrote and with which she engaged in what he referred to as a “mini-tour of the Southeast. Her comedy style is so fabulous for everybody. There’s a kind of white trash twang to everything she writes, but also a charm and an intelligence. She’s a very sophisticated, literary person, but you don’t get that from her presence or her delivery — it just sneaks in. The piece has a kind of high-brow meets low-brow tone.”
Bitch Trouble, Menzies revealed, is “about fractured female friendship. There are three interrelated stories taking place at three different times of life. What’s great about this piece is that it is written by a woman and performed by a woman and it’s about female relationships. The insights into female friendship are beautiful and unique. There’s not a lot of material on that.”
The piece runs about 85 minutes and its 6 p.m. start time is described by Menzies as a “late matinee.” Indeed, it gives you a great Fringe-like opportunity (for those comprehensive theatre-goers among you) to squeeze it in after an early matinee while still leaving you with the rest of your Sunday night.
And it also gives you the opportunity to say that you saw it when. One of the fun aspects of theatre-going, let’s all admit it, is pointing back to the things you saw before anyone else did, as when I saw Charles Busch do Vampire Lesbians of Sodom at Limbo Lounge in the East Village (we all stood, there were no seats) before its years-long Off-Broadway run. Our one-night chance to see Bitch Trouble comes as it is on the verge of a New York run.
Bitch Trouble had success in L.A., where it was developed through readings and runs. After that, it played three sold-out shows in New York City, where it piqued the interest of producers. One of the purposes of the one-night run in D.C. is to give those producers another look and an opportunity to bring people down to see it in hope of an eventual run Off-Broadway. “There’s a backers’ audition kind of feel to it. There is a lot of momentum toward a longer run in New York,” said Menzies.
The other reason to do it here is what Menzies called a “gesture of creative connection. I’ve become proud of my relationship to the D.C. community. It’s full of people I admire and the caliber of this work matches” the caliber of work he has come to admire here. So bringing the play about which he feels so strongly is, he said, “a love letter to D.C.”
Washington is, after all, on the divide between North and South. It definitely is part of the Northeast corridor, while at the same time “D.C. has a strong Southern feel sometimes. This show definitely blends the South with the rest of America. D.C. will relate to the wit, to the level of the humor. D.C. is a very sophisticated theatre town, and Alice is a very sophisticated performer. If you’re smart, you’ll find it funny.”
I asked if the three related stories that make up the show are separate or if they weave together throughout the evening. Menzies replied: “Think of it as a triptych. There are three isolated stories but themes, images, and dynamics echo very strongly throughout all three. It’s a very integrated evening.”
Boher, who both wrote and acts in the piece, is primarily a writer, Menzies told me. She went to film school at U.S.C. “She’s a great writer,” Menzies said, and she’s had a screenplay optioned by a studio, but “her best writing is her solo show writing.”
As Menzies was preparing for Boher’s arrival the night we spoke and the opportunity to rehearse the piece before the performance on Sunday, he was also readying The Duchess of Malfi, which, he told me, is a “mucky, wonderful play” whose rehearsals are going “really, really well.” Over the years, Menzies has taught Shakespeare and Scene Study at ACA, and this is his third time directing one of their term-ending productions. Malfi will open on June 27 and run for two weeks in rep with The Winter’s Tale.
Gary Logan, who runs ACA, is a long-time collaborator with Menzies. The two met in Vancouver earlier in their careers. Menzies said, “I enjoy working here, it’s a great program.” Many ACA grads stay around Washington, and several are prominently involved in Taffety Punk Theatre Company, which is how the venue, Corner Store Arts, came onto Menzies’ radar. It’s primarily a music venue, but Taffety Punk has done theatre there. “It’s a charming room, a great space.”
And that great space will be filled on Sunday by Boher who, according to the review in L.A. Magazine, “juggles her grab bag of oddball characters so adroitly you can almost forget she’s alone on stage.” Off-stage will be her admiring director Rod Menzies, bringing the piece of which he is so proud to our city because he “wanted to share it with the people I have come to know here — and with some people I don’t yet know.”
Bitch Trouble: Stories about Friendship is onstage June 1st at 6pm at Corner Store Arts, 900 South Carolina Ave, SE, Washington DC 20003.
Details and tickets