On Labor Day weekend, Kennedy Center plaza level entry was pandemonium, noisy with skate boarders, who zigzagged and snaked in and out of a recessed pit and across a cordoned-off area. The skateboarders’ passion connected us to the 14th Annual Page-to-Stage Festival, a rich offering of short free trailers, script readings and open rehearsals of new plays upcoming in the 2015-2016 theater season. Out of more than 50 plays and musicals, I selected four for my short list of “must sees,” in full-length production.
- R.U.R. A Retro-Futuristic Musical, based on Czech playwright Karel Capek’s play, R.U.R., originally written in 1920, about 95 years ago, is adapted and directed by co-lyricist Susan Galbraith, with electronic music by Maurice Saylor for the Alliance for New Music-Theatre. This musical, presented as a preview in the KC Family Theater, promises to be an edgy, exciting resurrection of a 20th century classic, required “ho-hum” reading for college students decades ago. Now R.U.R. comes as a timely, warning for the future. Hence the sub-title, “A Retro-Futuristic Musical.” It’s an exciting fusion of new electronic, classical music and clever lyrics, based on the 20th century classic by Capek, who invented a new word in English, “robot,” meaning artificial workers, based on the Czech word robota for “drudgery.”
R.U.R will open April, 2016 at Dupont Underground.
Before this trailer in the Family Theater, at 2:30 p.m., on Monday, cast members circulated in the audience, saying things like, “Our numbers are few,” and “Survivors, it’s so good to see you!” “Do you feel ready to overcome the odds?” Musical composer Saylor’s use of ostinato undercurrent, a strong repetitive bass line, (there could be even more of it throughout) set an ominous tone. Throughout, there were memorable satiric jabs, such as “Robots make good lecturers at the university level. They remember everything. But they never think.”
R.U.R. is an acronym for Rossum’s Universal Robots. The fictional inventor, Mr. Rossum hates poverty and human suffering. So to relieve humans of physical labor, Rossum designs robots to replace human workers. Humans are now only managers, their own masters. Ultimately, the tension builds until the robots outnumber humans. There is an uprising. Roles are reversed. Robots eventually take over as managers. And an outcry is heard: “Deliver us from Robots!” and “This paradise is a curse.” The message is clear: Beware, if we don’t watch what we invent, human beings may become obsolete, no longer needed, and replaced by robots. We need to think about the things invented. What we create can destroy us.
During the post-show talk-back, the question was raised: Why make this absurdly funny, weird classic into a musical? Composer Maurice Saylor had an answer. It was a chance to explore a surreal musical world. Even though this was a staged reading, we could hear Saylor’s atonal compositions, beautifully rendered by two musicians, one on keyboard; the other on percussion and drums, coming into us. Galbraith’s strong direction could be seen in the actors’ snappy gestures and head turns to show us the robotic world. Mechanization is replacing human life. One audience member remarked that Japan’s birth rate in 2014 was at its lowest. In the electronic music, our hearts beat with the robotic rhythms. We experience the deadening of human feeling, what is happening as machines replace human beings. This preview was about 60 minutes. Full production lined up for next year 2016 promises to be provocatively longer.
- After the War by Motti Lerner, directed by Ari Roth, for the Mosaic Theater Company of DC., is a richly laced tapestry of themes, about war and the healing power of artistic performance. After an 18-year absence, a middle-aged classical pianist returns home to Tel Aviv, Israel, with hopes of healing old wounds with his family through musical performance, after Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon. This was a war in which heavy civilian loss on all sides left lingering, political divisions between pacifists and hawks.
Mosaic Theater’s production of After the War opens March 24, 2016 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
This is a play about the slippery nature of truth. Different perspectives from different points of view are explored throughout the reading. What really happens during times of war? What is the collateral damage from war and long separations? What causes the internecine war? Joel, once a child prodigy, appears to have an international reputation as a humanitarian and as a musician, not shared by his estranged, dysfunctional family. No one gets healed. Each family member appears to be living in an illusion.
Kudos to an impassioned, cohesive ensemble of professional actors, including Paul Morella, Barbara Rappaport, Sean Fri, Tonya Beckman, Michael Tolaydo, Silas Gordon Brigham, who held a large audience captivated in the KC Theater Lab Monday evening at 5:30 p.m. Although the post-show discussion revealed audience confusion as to what message to take from the play, the actors’ impassioned delivery showed the direction Mr. Lerner is taking. With so many unanswered questions, maybe there are no answers.
- If I Hold My Tongue by Patricia Henley, directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne, for the Compass Rose Theater aroused a lively talk-back post-show in the beautifully cool, new Russian Lounge on Saturday, at 4:30 P.M. The characters are fictional but the playwright, Henley used direct quotes (“too good not to use,”) from her interviewing real women in a half-way house in a large metropolitan city.
If I Hold My Tongue opens September 17, 2015 at Compass Rose Theatre.
This two-acter, set in Fells Point, Baltimore, features Cici, an attractive, young prostitute, high on drugs, who finds connection with three others in a half-way house. All four needy women are drowning in their addictions. One woman describes participating “in dumpster diving” to survive financially deprived, risky situations. Cici worries about the losing custody of her three children, girls. It’s a moving moment when two of the women, reaching out, find emotional support with each other for a few moments in a place of darkness. Who will make it and get out?
Judging from post-show feedback of, “Very realistic,” Henley hits a nerve and is right-on. Although one audience member remarked how he didn’t feel “desperation” in the actors performance, I disagreed strongly. I felt anxiety, even terror, not just for the individual women but for myself. These four prostitutes are drowning. They are all of us. They are thrashing around emotionally for survival. I felt it in the writing and in these performances. As women we feel so helpless, vulnerable. For example: one of the characters, Karen lands a job but is hit with the shock that her paycheck won’t cover her expenses. She cannot live on her own. She needs the half-way house.
- Pandemopium, by Connor Rohan, directed by Maya E. Roth, a product of Georgetown University Theater Dept. The earlier pandemonium outside from the skate-boarders on the KC plaza caught on inside the packed Terrace Gallery, at 8 p.m. for the 50 minute staged reading of Pandemopium. A production developed strictly through academic research from playwright Rohan, who never has visited or experienced Afghanistan first hand, but whose attempt to humanize an impossible political situation dealing with Afghani poppy cultivation, won the Donn B. Murphy One Acts Festival award in 2015.
Tightly and skillfully written, Connor’s mix of the tragic and comic elements make Pandemopium a winner, exposing the economic reasons for raising opium. Landowner Ashraf’s Afghani family has to farm opium illegally, for survival. Ultimately, a relative impersonates an opium trader; thus, adopt a Shakespearean-like disguise, to deal on the illegal market, in order to save the family farm from destruction by the Afghan Army. Ashraf puts his family at risk in harm’s way, in order to support them. The characters show us how impoverished farmers cannot make a living any other way. The play is filled with pain-filled, ironic humor, a humanizing experience.
The 14th annual Page-to-Stage festival was held at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, September 5 – 7, 2015.
Which readings have put those plays on your don’t-miss list