“All The Names” at Quantum Theater

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José Saramago’s All the Names is a mysterious and haunting novel. The story revolves around Senhor José, a timid, middle-aged, low-level civil servant in the densely bureaucratic “Central Registry” of an unidentified city. Senhor José’s life is transformed when, having taken the uncharacteristically bold step of borrowing some of the registry cards to use for his after hours hobby creating scrapbooks of the lives of celebrities, he chances upon the card of an unknown woman and – for reasons he cannot explain, even to himself – becomes obsessed with tracking her down and finding out as much information as he can about her. His quest is a quiet one, but saturated with anxiety and suspense, as he surprises himself with the extraordinary measures he is willing to take in pursuit of his goal. In its attention to the mundane details of the lives of unimportant people, the novel has echoes of Georges Perec (whose Life: A User’s Manual was a world-altering book for me some twenty-five years ago); in its tragicomical-ironic take on the ways bureaucracy and regulations order and shape how we perceive and experience life, the novel invites comparisons with Kafka. But Saramago’s writing is not readily captured by such comparisons. His lyrical writing –translated into English with a touch of genious by Margaret Jull Costa – has a quiet tension that irresistibly pulls you into Senhor José’s mindscape as he grapples with his own self-doubts and self-recriminations about venturing beyond the tight circumscriptions of his tiny life.

The novel has very little dialogue, and much of the dialogue that does occur is in Senhor José’s head, as he speaks to himself (or, in a section in which he seems to be hallucinating with fever, to an apparition in his ceiling). The challenge facing Quantum Theater’s creative team was to find a theatrical solution for showing what the novel tells. I can’t tell you whether the production successfully captures the details of Saramago’s story for an audience member unfamiliar with the book, but it certainly captures the emotional and psychological experience of reading the novel. Structured as a journey into and through captivatingly designed spaces and installations (crafted by designers Narelle Sissons & Barbara Luderowski and lit by Cindy Limauro) in the original Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny, Quantum’s All the Names pulls us deeper and deeper into Senhor José’s meek – yet in its own way heroic – journey. Immersed in a haunting soundscape (composed and created by Sarah Pickett and Christopher M. Evans) that helps reproduce the novel’s uncanny atmosphere of apprehension and suspense, we burrow with him into the labyrinthine terrors of the Central Registry’s endless files of the dead; we face, with him, the dreadful power of the Registrar’s authority; and we quietly despair with him over the outcome of his inquiry.

L to R: Mark Conway Thompson and James Fitzgerald as Senhor José in ALL THE NAMES

L to R: Mark Conway Thompson and James Fitzgerald as Senhor José in ALL THE NAMES

In place of the novel’s narration of the thoughts running through Senhor José’s head, director Karla Boos has doubled the character. It’s an shrewd solution, one that theatricalizes and makes visible Senhor José’s unending push-me-pull-you interior dialogue. James Fitzgerald plays the “main” Senhor José as the frightened, deferential clerk; Mark Conway Thompson is the impish double who eggs his more timid self on to break the rules and set off on his irregular and unsanctioned investigation. As the Registrar who fills Senhor José’s heart with trepidation, Cameron Knight is imposing and authoritative, yet he imbues the role with enough sympathy that the character’s transition into something of an ally does not come as a surprise in the end. Bridget Connors rounds out the cast with a grounded and moving performance as the godmother of the woman Senhor José seeks.

The production is a hybrid of performance and installation – that is, some rooms along the journey do not include performers and are meant to be experienced as art installation spaces that speak narratively and/or thematically to the story. Some of these installations work better than others: the initial immersion into the world of the play, for example, in a room in which audience members are invited to write their names on chalkboard covered walls and are given an overview of the Central Registry’s bureaucratic structure (via Joseph Seamans’ clever media design), is very effective, and sets the mood and atmosphere of the rest of the play beautifully. But an installation later in the play that involves entering and then exiting a room crisscrossed with string and paper feels like a moment of disconnect or interruption – it is so different in both mood and aesthetic from the scenes before and after that its function within the whole is hard to compass. And later, in the installation that makes up the play’s cemetery scene, one of the scenic elements is so delightful and distracting in its novelty and charm that, despite the presence of performers helping to move the story forward, it is hard to stay focused on what the scene is about.

But those are minor quibbles about a work that otherwise compellingly achieves the admirable feat of translating a very interior, novelistic experience into a thought-provoking and mesmerizing theatrical journey.

“Oblivion” at City Theatre

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Carly Mensch’s perceptive new comedy Oblivion begins with a parent-teen standoff: mom Pam (Lisa Velten Smith) and dad Dixon (Quentin Maré) have caught their 16-year-old daughter Julie (Julia Warner) in a lie. She’s told them she spent the weekend on a college tour; they know (as parents do) that she didn’t. In true progressive-hipster fashion, they insist that it doesn’t matter to them where she really did spend her weekend; what matters here is that she’s being untruthful, that she’s showing a lack of integrity. They are the kind of liberal, openminded, freerange parents who have candid conversations about sex and drugs with their daughter. What could she possibly feel she needs to hide from them?

At this point, if you’re like me, you’re already way ahead of the next plot reveal, so I’m not going to hide it. Julie was at a church retreat, with her good friend the budding filmmaker Bernard (Christopher Larkin), and, of course, this is the one thing she could do that would rock Pam and Dixon’s resolutely secular world. Julie is one of those super smart, hyper articulate, master buttonpusher teenagers who knows how to make an endrun around adult sophisms, and her sudden embrace of religion precipitates a crisis of faith of sorts in her mother, as well, as Pam grapples with the contradiction between her self-avowed liberal openmindedness and her utter disdain for people of faith. Julie’s spiritual seeking, and the fact that she felt the need to keep it secret from Pam and Dixon, has a domino effect on the whole family. As the play proceeds, all four characters become unmoored, each coming face to face with their own personal form of oblivion.

l to r: Christopher Larkin as “Bernard”, Julia Warner as “Julie”, Lisa Velten Smith as “Pam” and Quentin Maré as “Dixon” – photo by Kristi Jan Hoover

l to r: Christopher Larkin as “Bernard”, Julia Warner as “Julie”, Lisa Velten Smith as “Pam” and Quentin Maré as “Dixon” – photo by Kristi Jan Hoover

Mensch’s writing is near pitch-perfect on the parent-teen dynamic in the play, and she is a sharp satirist of lefty hipsterdom. Gianni Downs’ scenic design cleverly gives a boost to that satire with a backdrop of large shelves showcasing the kind of artfully displayed found objects one associates with an imagined Williamsburg abode, only to later reveal those objects as props and set pieces in the course of the play. Director Stuart Carden has given the play a fluid staging that is punctuated, during scene changes, by projection designer Jordan Harrison’s sumptuous black and white film footage of the engimatic movie Bernard is shooting throughout the play, footage that clearly signals his unspoken and unrequited adoration of Julie. Warner and Larkin are utterly convincing as the play’s teenagers, clumsily navigating their way towards a future adult identity and trying on ideas and ideologies along the way. Maré is smart and funny as Dixon, giving the character a kind of daft self-awareness that yields to something much more honest as the play winds to a close. But it’s Velten Smith – a newcomer to Pittsburgh – who anchors this production with an emotionally and intellectually complex performance that any mother of a teen (or, for that matter, any teen daughter!) will recognize as the real deal.

“At Once there Was a House” by CorningWorks and “Endless Lawns” at the REP

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Beth Corning describes her new dance piece At Once There Was a House as “a zany theatrical ride exploring the question of ‘whatever happened to DICK & JANE?’” I’m not sure that description aptly describes the work she has created. While I have no doubt that the insular vision of ideal American family life represented in those old grade school reading primers was the original impetus behind the piece, the work presented at the New Haxzlett this weekend (a revamped and enlarged version of a piece she originally created a decade ago) seems less interested in answering that particular question than in opening new questions about how occluded our interior lives can be, not just to others, but also to ourselves.

At Once There Was A House features six performers – four professional dancers (Corning herself, Michelle de la Reza of Attack Theater, Tamar Rachelle Tolentino of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and Yoav Kaddar, head of dance at WVU) along with actor John Gresh and musician Jackie Dempsey. Although not all six move with equal grace and skill, each performer brings enormous charm, charisma and energy to the work; Dempsey, in particular, is a sly and engaging actor who connects winningly with the audience. The six performers present characters who appear to have gathered for a high school reunion (variously named “Jane” and “Dick”), and the piece proceeds as a series of vignettes that exposes their inner yearnings, anxieties, and strivings.

Beth Corning & John Gresh

Beth Corning & John Gresh

As in previous works, Corning demonstrates a sure eye here for the metaphorical image that captures ineffable and complex inner states – the unstable picket fence in an early moment, for example, or the lyrical disjuncture between an intimate pas de deux and a mundane description of a typical morning’s breakfast taken from Don DeLillo’s novel The Body Artist. But the vignettes felt more tenuously held together in this piece than in some of Corning’s previous works; the story logic was much more disjointed and dreamlike. At some times, that dream felt like a nightmare – the vignette in the middle of the piece featured a house on fire center stage, for example – and at others, like a strange moment out of a Keystone Cops film (Gresh runs around the stage chased by a mat of artificial grass in one of the more absurd moments of the evening). And as with any dream, what it was “about” felt enigmatic and elusive, touching on issues of identity, loss, aging, and the impossibility (and, perhaps, undesirability) of recapturing the past.

The collision of the past into the present is also a central thematic concern of Anthony McKay’s new play Endless Lawns, which is getting its world premiere at The REP under the direction of Gregory Lehane. The title refers to the landscaping challenge presented by “High Chimneys,” the glamorous Connecticut estate on which twins Torch and Flo Gregson (Laurie Klatcher and Cary Anne Spear), daughters of a wealthy film star, grew up. As a teen Ray (Jason McCune) had a summer job mowing the estate’s endless lawns and watched from atop his riding lawnmower as the girls entertained elite beaus like Torch’s boyfriend Graham (Mark Staley), the son of her father’s lawyer. Now Ray is the manager of the local Kmart, and Torch is his employee and girlfriend – the sisters, having been disinherited by their alcoholic and abusive father, are barely clinging to the socioeconomic ladder they once proudly stood atop. The play’s conflict is set in motion when Graham – also no longer a member of the New England aristocracy – suddenly returns after a thirty year absence and upends Torch’s hard-earned equilibrium.

Jason McCune and Laurie Klatscher; photo Jeff Swensen

Jason McCune and Laurie Klatscher; photo Jeff Swensen

McKay tells a story that has comic and tragic turns, and Lehane and the ensemble make the smart choice to keep the dialogue and tone light and lifted and let the tragic moments take care of themselves. The ensemble is terrific, in particular Laurie Klatscher, whose Torch starts the play as a woman who seems to have come to contented terms with the crappy hand she’s been dealt and then, after being suddenly reminded again of all she’s lost over the past thirty years, finds her priorities and dreams realigned by end of play. It’s a complicated, rewarding emotional journey, and Klatscher shows us every nuance of it.

Like Corning, McKay offers an opportunity to reflect on the many ways we “can’t go home again”- both literally and figuratively – in his theatrical exploration of a pair of sisters who can neither live the life their childhood promised nor fully escape it.

“Elemeno Pea” at City Theatre

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My thirteen-year-old daughter went to see Cinderella this weekend, which she liked very much, with one qualm: “I don’t think I ever realized,” she said to me after I picked her up at the mall, “when I was a little kid watching the animated version, that they get married after just barely knowing each other for a few hours. I mean, he’s really rich and she’s got nothing, so you can see why she would do it, but – how’s that really gonna work out?”

That question – how does that class mobility thing really work out? – is at the heart of Molly Smith Metzler’s Elemeno Pea, a sharply observed comedy about the unacknowledged barriers between the haves and the have-nots that make such Cinderella moves especially tricky to pull off.

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L to R: Ariel Woodiwiss, Kimberly Parker Green, and Robin Abramson

The play takes place in the living room of the guest house of a ridiculously amazing Martha’s Vineyard estate (stunningly designed by Tony Ferrieri) owned by Peter and Michaela Kell, a fabulously rich couple whose fortune comes mainly by way of Peter’s father’s success in advertising. Simone (Robin Abramson), Michaela’s obscenely well-compensated personal assistant, has invited her older sister Devon (Ariel Woodiwiss) for a post-Labor Day weekend on the beach. It’s the first time Devon – whose own recent trajectory has been one of downward mobility, having gone from a supervisor at a social work agency to alley coordinator at Olive Garden – has seen Simone in her new gig, and she’s understandably both agog at the wealth on display and a bit befuddled by her sister’s relationship to it. Their vacation is interrupted by the unexpected return of Michaela (Kimberly Parker Green), who has been unceremoniously dumped from her husband’s Jaguar on the way to the ferry off the island. It’s not all “happily ever after” in this castle, after all: Michaela, who comes from the same kind of scruffy upstate New York suburban background as Simone and Devon, has only the most tenuous of holds on her rung on the aristocratic ladder, and, as it turns out, she has made some terrible miscalculations about how to maintain what little security and status she has. Now she is – in the words of Peter’s friend/Simone’s boyfriend, the über-facile and ultra-wealthy Ethan (Anthony Comis) – “O-U-T out,” and as she moves through this personal crisis we see, in a series of wittily written scenes, how both Simone and Devon’s assessment of her changes.

Metzler is interested in how class and status sediment into stereotype, so for much of the play she gives us characters who seem closer to caricatures than real people. It’s a clever choice that works well, because it both allows us to see each character through the others’ preconceived ideas and expectations and makes room for each character to break stereotype in unanticipated ways. Moreover, although some of the stereotypes feel at times a bit pat – in particular, both the entitled Ethan and the Puerto Rican handyman Jos-B (Tony Chiroldes) skirt dangerously close to being quotations of real people – the City Theatre cast infuses enough heart into each character to lend real poignancy to the play’s outcome. Parker Green and Woodiwiss have the furthest to take their characters, and they do so masterfully – both reveal unexpected honesty and warmth as the play winds to a close and Abramson’s blinkered Simone heads off to a Cinderella future that looks to end a lot like Michaela’s.

“How I Learned What I Learned” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater

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How I Learned What I Learned is August Wilson’s last play, one that he performed himself in 2003 in Seattle, a couple of years before he died. It’s a portrait of the artist as a young man in the Hill District, structured as a loose collection of stories, some delivered in a blunt, direct, and at times expletive-laden manner, others told with flights of lyricism that capture Wilson’s poetic aspirations and achievements. Over the course of about two hours we hear about Wilson’s first kiss, his financial struggles, and his early love affairs, as well as about the rich cultural life in the Hill midcentury and the many and various forms racism took (and continues to take). The individual stories are beautifully crafted, showcasing Wilson’s skill as a storyteller in top form. But their organization as a whole feels haphazard, and as a result the performance leaves an overall impression of being caught in the company of a beloved uncle who’s holding court entertaining the young’uns with tales of the old days. Jetlagged as I was after my return from Zurich I found this a bit taxing, but my theater companion was captivated and enthralled, so I don’t know whether my reaction to the structural formlessness of the script was due to my fatigue or its meandering. (I have a vague recollection of having been told that Wilson never finished this script, and a little googling seems to confirm that no “final” version of the text was ever nailed down, so it would be unfair to take Wilson to task on a play he was never able to finish in any case).

Eugene Lee as August Wilson in "How I Learned What I Learned." Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

Eugene Lee as August Wilson in “How I Learned What I Learned.” Photo courtesy Pittsburgh Public Theater

Eugene Lee is absolutely terrific as that “beloved uncle,” bringing the right touches of irony, cynicism, anger, and sentimental nostalgia at all the right moments. How I Learned What I Learned is both a funny play that will get you to laugh at yourself and a serious one that demands reflection on how race impacts us all. Lee’s dry “seen-it-all, done-it-all” delivery makes room for that reflection and invites us to share his (that is, Wilson’s) umbrage at the ways in which the color of his skin predetermined so much of his experience.

David Gallo has designed a gorgeous set that refers simultaneously to the detritus of Wilson’s (and Pittsburgh’s) history (in the bits and pieces strewn in the dirt beneath the stage on which Lee stands) and to the stories Wilson crafted from that history (in the hundreds of pieces of paper hanging as backdrop to the stage). Projected scene titles are cleverly “typewritten” onto those pieces of paper, perpetually reminding us that writing is a form of making and remaking, a labor of imprinting ideas onto the world. Writing – storytelling – was the labor to which August Wilson devoted his life, so that – one must presume he hoped – there would come a time when others would no longer need to learn what he learned. Funny as it is, the play is also a sober reminder of how much labor remains to be done in that respect.

“For the Tree to Drop” at PICT Classic Theatre

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Henry (Justin Lonesome), a slave who has attempted to escape to freedom one too many times, is dead, hanged from a tree by Edgar (David Whalen), the plantation owner who claims him as his property. Henry’s sister, Estella (Siovhan Christensen), keeps vigil under that tree, doing what she can to provide his body dignity in death. Upon this Antigone-inspired premise, Lissa Brennan’s new play For the Tree to Drop builds an existentialist drama that explores the webs of power in which antebellum slaves (and their owners) were caught.

I use the word “existentialist” deliberately in that last sentence, for as much as the play explores the power dynamic between the slave owner and slave, and between the free and the unfree, my own attention while watching was most drawn by its scrutiny of the strange apparent lack of difference between life and death, for slave and slave owner alike. This is most pointedly brought out in the two characters who are seemingly peripheral to the central conflict, Theenie (Linda Haston), a house slave, and Clarinda (Karen Baum), Edgar’s wife. Neither of these women is free to have a purpose; both merely bide time with meaningless, coerced occupation. They are, metaphorically at least, no more alive than Henry, an idea that’s driven home by his energetic presence on stage throughout the play. Meanwhile, Estella has her own awakening to the difference between what it is to be merely alive and what it is to live, as she discovers a real purpose for her labor in digging the grave that will (she hopes) be the final resting place for Henry’s corpse.

l to r: Karen Baum, Justin Lonesome, Siovhan Christensen. Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons

l to r: Karen Baum, Justin Lonesome, Siovhan Christensen. Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons

Brennan’s writing has a beautiful lyricism, and she makes use of vivid and precise imagery to evoke her characters’ strivings and yearnings. There is powerful poetry at work here, and the very fine actors do it justice. But even at a short sixty-five minutes, the play, with its repetitive structure, begins to feel taxing at the end. It’s a play in which not much happens – a woman digs a grave, others come to talk to her about what she is doing and why she is doing it – and at times it felt like we, too, were suspended. Moreover, rich in its excavation of the moral nightmare of slavery as this play is, I don’t think Brennan takes full advantage of one of her story points: she uses Henry and Estella’s parentage as a secret to be revealed, but as an audience relatively well-versed in the sexual freedoms taken by slaveowning men in history (like, for example, Thomas Jefferson) we are way ahead of her, and the characters’ reluctance to reveal the secret comes off as a red herring. It would be far more provocative if the play were to spill that information at the start and then add Edgar’s own existential dilemma into the mix. After all, a man who could treat his only living son with such utter disregard for the value of his existence must not really know the difference between merely having a life and truly living, either.

Director Alan Stanford has staged the play in the Cultural Trust’s downtown studio space; his pared-down production puts focus on the actors and the words, with vivid projections (by Jessi Sedon-Essad) and haunting sound (Steven Shapiro) that not only mirror and complement the poignancy of Brennan’s text but also elevate the production as a whole to a level of theatricality that feels very right for the play.

 

“Prussia: 1866″ at The REP Professional Theatre Company

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In Gab Cody’s new play Prussia:1866 Mariska von Klamp (Laura Lee Brautigam), the young wife of the older novelist and statesman Heinrich von Klamp (the marvelously muttonchopped Philip Winters) is having an affair with Heinrich’s young private student Fritz (Friedrich Nietszche, that is! played by Drew Palajsa), whom Heinrich believes is in love with his assistant Rosemary (Gab Cody), a bluestocking (well, actually, blue-bloomers) feminist who has hitched her hopes for women’s advancement on Heinrich’s influence in a future united Germany. Rosemary, whose ideas of women’s advancement extends to a rejection of marriage – which she sees as a state of enslavement for women – is in fact torn between her attachment to Heinrich and a budding romance with an American Delegate (Sam Turich), who wants to bring her to America to help lead the women’s movement there. In an effort to get Mariska to leave her husband, Fritz pretends to woo Rosemary, which rouses Heinrich’s jealousy, which later makes the American Delegate suspicious and … sound confusing? Throw in a pious maid (Hayley Nielsen) and a long lost Viennese poetess (Mary Rawson) and you’ve got all the ingredients for a lovely confection of a farce.

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L to R: Philip Winters, Sam Turich, Laura Lee Brautigam, and Gab Cody

 

Prussia: 1866 touches on some serious issues – early feminism, religiously grounded antipathies, budding German nationalism, the opposition of rational thinking and sensual appetites, and, in passing, some sort of Nietszchean nihilism – but for the most part it just revels in Dionysian silliness. Kim Martin has directed her comically gifted cast in an energetic production that hums along for the most part like a well-oiled machine, with doors flying open and slamming shut at precisely the speed and frequency the genre demands. Cody’s characters are sharply delineated, and she gives them wonderful moments of both physical slapstick and verbal wit, all of which the cast pulls off with virtuosity and flair. The play’s rhythm is quite delightful, too, building in the second act to an almost orgiastic frenzy until the bell for breakfast throws cold water on these sober Germans’ passions.

The production is skillfully executed, and enormous fun, but the play could use a little continued reworking. Its central and most serious conflict resides in Rosemary, whose ambitions for women’s equality and advancement are at odds with her lustful feelings toward the American who has made seducing her part of his diplomatic mission. The setup is familiar, and we expect her to give up her politics and dreams for love (not only because the genre demands a tidy ending in the form of neatly paired, age-appropriate coupledoms, but also because we’ve all seen that movie with Katherine Hepburn or Sandra Bullock). Cody seems to want to offer a different ending to this familiar (and not-so-feminist) scenario, but the somewhat muddled ending of the play makes it difficult to parse what, precisely, her Rosemary really wanted – and really got – in the end. That aside, Cody possesses one of the finest comic sensibilities in the Pittsburgh theater scene – if you missed her Alchemist’s Lab last year you really missed out! – and Prussia:1866 demonstrates her comic genius in high form.

“Mr. Joy” at City Theatre and “Brahman/i” at Quantum Theatre

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There are two very compelling, thought-provoking, assumption-challenging one-person plays in town right now; because of my own busy schedule, I had (what turned out to be) the great good luck to see them both in one day, and they’ve been bouncing fruitfully off each other in my head ever since. So it seems appropriate and natural to write about them both in one post.

Mr. Joy is the third play by Daniel Beaty to premiere at City Theatre, and it is concerned with the same set of issues he addressed in Through the Night, his previous one-man show: the attitudes and structures that perpetuate the cycle of poverty and violence in which too many young black men are trapped. As in that play, one actor – here, the mightily talented Tangela Large – embodies a diverse set of characters, and as in that play the various characters are embroidered together into a tapestry of community that has both tender junctures of support and hot flashpoints of anger.

Tangela Large in MR. JOY

Tangela Large in MR. JOY

A vicious attack on Mr. Joy, the Chinese proprietor of a shoe-repair shop in Harlem, is the hub from which a series of interconnected monologues radiate, each adding a perspective to the ongoing, always thorny conversation about race, class, privilege, and opportunity in contemporary society. Pairs of shoes lined up along the front of the stage stand for the customers Mr. Joy has served; they are both a tribute to his impact on the community and symbols for the wide range and mixture of people whose stories are told here. Beaty’s characters include Clarissa, a young HIV-positive African-American girl taken on as an assistant by Mr. Joy, who found in him a surrogate grandfather and mentor; Bessie, her grandmother, who organizes other grandmothers to combat gang violence; John Lee, Mr. Joy’s son, and Clifford, John Lee’s African-American boss, both of whom have risen far above their ghetto origins and barely conceal their own class and race prejudices against their former neighbors; Ashes, Clifford’s transgender daughter, rejected by her father but treasured by her Harlem neighbors; and DeShawn, a young black man torn between doing what is right and doing what he thinks he needs to do to survive.

Beaty’s form of storytelling relies less on plot than on collage effect; he pastes together monologue, song, and poetry to capture our empathy for a variety of (often conflicting) points of view. Part of Beaty’s skill as a theatermaker inheres in the way he casts his audience as interlocutor – each character hails us into a different subject position, and at times we “become” a character in the play itself – as, for example, when DeShawn addresses us as Dre, his homeboy just released from prison, or when the homeless artist James speaks to us, toward the end of the play, as if we were DeShawn. This positioning functions to counter the distancing effect of the play’s purposeful theatricality – it draws us into the world of the play not only as activated listeners and witnesses but also, at times, as its victims and perpetrators. The play thereby demands that we attend – and attend differently – to each of its varied characters’ pains, joys, fears, and frustrations, and in so doing offers an opportunity to walk a few blocks in their shoes.

That’s also what we get from Aditi Brennan Kapil’s Brahman/i: a one-hijra stand-up comedy show. For Quantum Theatre’s production, set designer Britton Mauk has convincingly transformed the Garfield Community Center into a popup “Temple of Comedy” (drinks and snacks come with the ticket), where the headliner is Brahman, aka Brahmani (Sanjiv Jhaveri), an intersex person who has chosen not to choose. In contrast to Large, who plays nine different characters of different ages, races, and genders, Jhaveri only plays one character in this show, but it is a character who transforms before our eyes, from man, to woman, to “hijra” (the Hindi word for an intersex person).

Sanjiv Jhaveri as Brahman in BRAHMAN/I; photo Heather Mull

Sanjiv Jhaveri as Brahman in BRAHMAN/I; photo Heather Mull

Personal pronouns are not going to be my friends in the following, so bear with me. Brahman/i recounts, in an at times knee-slappingly hilarious standup routine, the ways in which his/her sexual ambiguity became the source of anguish and confusion in adolescence, and how myths and fables from her/his Indian heritage, imparted by a sympathetic but bossy Auntie, did – and didn’t – help her/him understand how he/she fits in. Like Mr. Joy, Brahman/i invites us to spend time, and empathize deeply, with someone who has been marginalized by otherness. The standup comedy framework makes room for the playwright and character to anticipate and coopt the audience’s potential antipathy towards the character’s atypical sexual status; as in any standup routine, Brahman/i turns a lot of the jokes on him/herself. The self-deprecating humor has the desired effect, winning us over to Brahman/i’s side. Brahman/i also aims the humor at those near and dear, in comic imitations of friends and family, putting on the Indian accent and mannerisms that are, as she/he archly notes, reliably sure to get a laugh out of American audiences. But the comedy is arguably at its best when Kapil widens the lens and pulls into focus those aspects of cultural heritage that straightjacket sexual status and gender identity into the confines of what is socially convenient. For example, tear-inducing riffs on the sex temples of Khajuharo and on the role of the hijras in the Ramayana reveal both the longevity and silliness of many of our cultural assumptions about sexual identity and sexual expression – as Brahman/i cannily observes, apropos those temples of love: some ancient artist actually took the time and care to carve all that sexual expression in stone!

Jhaveri is commanding and charming as Brahman/i, and he works the room like a real-deal standup comedian. The play has a lot of excellent material, and it takes the audience on what turns out, in the end, to be an unexpected – and unexpectedly moving – journey, offering us insight into a subjectivity many of us may never have realized was “out there” to occupy. But it is about twenty to thirty minutes too long; the show would achieve a more forceful emotional payoff if Kapil subjected her material to some judicious editing.

It should be pretty obvious at this point how serendipitous and complementary these two performances are, especially seen back to back. In both, a single performer deliberately and transparently shows us what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin, and in so doing invites us to imagine ourselves there, too. In both, as audience members, we are given an active role to play in the performer’s presentation of self; we are there not only to witness, but to give the characters they assume space to come into existence. Both make it impossible for us to deny sympathy and concern for the marginalized others the solo performers so carefully embody, and both challenge and inspire us to continue to see through their eyes outside the theater as well.

“Or,” at Off the Wall Productions

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The (not particularly attention-grabbing) title of Liz Duffy Adams’s 2010 play “Or,” refers to the vibrant and complicated state of sexual, intellectual, and political ambiguity in which its main character, the 17th-century playwright Aphra Behn, dwelled. (It’s also a bit of a jest on her tendency to hedge her bets with the titles of her works). Best known for her authorship of the short novel Oroonoko, or, the Royal Slave (1688) and the play The Rover, or, the Banish’d Cavaliers (1677) – her most-revived work in the modern day – Behn was one of England’s first professional female writers, famously lauded by Virginia Woolf for having earned women “the right to speak their minds.” Behn is also a figure cloaked in a fog of historical mystery: before she started writing professionally, she is known to have worked as a spy in Holland for Charles II during the early years of the Restoration, a job that plunged her into deep debt and may have landed her in debtors’ prison upon her return to London in 1666. But other details of her private life and personal history are maddeningly obscured, mostly by Behn herself; she comes to us through history, as her biographer Janet Todd has noted, as an “unending combination of masks.”

That historical uncertainty leaves room for Adams to play with reckless abandon in the sandbox of Behn’s life, taking up real historical characters like Nell Gwynn (one of England’s early actresses), King Charles II, Lady Mary Davenant (the widowed manager of The Duke’s Company), and William Scot (one of Behn’s fellow spies in Antwerp) and weaving them into a good old-fashioned door-slamming farce. We’re in London, 1670, and Behn (Erika Cuenca) is under the gun to finish a play by morning for the Duke’s Company, but she finds herself distracted by the seductive Nell Gwynn (Robin Abramson). Their budding flirtation is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Scot (Ethan Hova), who has intelligence of a plot against the King’s life he wants to bargain for his safe return to England. Scot’s also here to release a bad case of pent-up desire for Behn, who (in this play, at least) was his comrade-in-arms in more ways than one. The King himself (also played by Hova) turns up wanting a turn in her bed, too (he’s Behn’s lover and patron), so there’s a lot of hiding in cupboards and closets and, because Abramson and Hova play multiple characters, much hilarity with quick costume changes and unexpected entrances. Behn’s evening is spent trying to keep these ex-, current, and future sexual partners apart – with mixed success – while also putting the finishing touches on the play that will launch her career.

L to r: Ethan Hova, Erika Cuenca, Robin Abramson

L to r: Ethan Hova, Erika Cuenca, Robin Abramson

Duffy’s writing is witty and spirited, at once a comic celebration of openness and an earnest valorization of the space “in-between” as the space of human creativity and generosity. The play’s queer gender politics suggest parallels between the Restoration – a time marked by sexual libertinism and cultural revolution – and the modern day, but without heavy-handed dot-connecting. Indeed, one of the play’s strengths is its mixing of 16th-century verse with modern vernacular; the weaving of time periods into each other feels fresh and smart and easy. With farce, timing is everything, and director John Shephard has his ensemble in and out of closets and bedrooms (and dresses and cloaks) with delightful rapidity. Clever metatheatrical moments (like the sound cues that ding each time one of Behn’s play titles is mentioned in passing) keep the tone ironic and knowing, an attitude very much in keeping with Restoration comedy, which frequently called attention to its own theatricality and – particularly in Behn’s case – to the author’s often precarious relationship with her audience.

“Smart Blonde” at City Theatre

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Willy Holtzman’s play Smart Blonde (in its world premiere at City Theatre) is a surprising amuse-bouche of a play: like an intricately prepared appetizer, it tantalizes but also teases, giving you something to savor but also leaving you wanting just a bit more. The play presents a biographical sketch of the film and theater actress Judy Holliday, née Judy Tuvim, whose Marxist-Jewish upbringing (and lifelong relationships) made her vulnerable to the scrutiny of the McCarthy hearings, and who built her theatrical and film career playing “dumb blondes” (even though she herself was possessed of extraordinary intelligence). If you’re of a certain age, or a classical Hollywood film buff, you might have seen her as the vapid Billie Dawn, her signature role, in the film version of Born Yesterday; as writer Ruth Gordon observes in the play, “It takes a smart woman to play dumb.”

The play opens in a recording studio in 1964, with Holliday (Andréa Burns) recording an album of songs she has co-written with her collaborator (and lover) Gerry Mulligan. As she begins to rehearse while waiting for Mulligan to arrive, the scene flashes back to her youth, and then hops forward in irregular intervals to present short vignettes tracing her early cabaret act, her debut on Broadway, her move to Hollywood and a career in film, her testimony in front of Congress after coming under suspicion as a Communist, and her film comeback thanks to the intervention of producer Harry Cohn. Along the way we see some details of her personal life – struggles with family expectations, friendships with prominent Jewish performers and writers like Leonard Bernstein and Garson Kanin, marriage to musician David Oppenheim, motherhood, divorce, and, finally, romance and artistic collaboration with the jazz composer Gerry Mulligan.

Jonathan Brody (as studio side man Bernie Leighton) and Andréa Burns (Judy Holliday); photo courtesy City Theatre

Jonathan Brody (as studio side man Bernie Leighton) and Andréa Burns (Judy Holliday); photo courtesy City Theatre

Holtzman moves the story along at a brisk pace, pausing just long enough to give us a glimpse of some of the major milestones in Holliday’s career and personal life (the show runs eighty minutes without intermission). The flashbacks shift fluidly into each other, thanks to quick costume changes and skillful choreography on the part of actors Jonathan Brody and Adam Heller, who play the roles of all of the other figures in Holliday’s life. This was a little disconcerting at the beginning – I’ll confess at first I had a a bit of trouble keeping up – but because the whole is structured as a collage of all these short scenes the fast tempo feels absolutely right for the play. Heller and Brody perform some magical sleights-of-body in disappearing as one character and reappearing as another, even at times making the transformation right in front of us with the grab of a prop or costume piece, and they vividly establish the myriad of idiosyncratic personalities who made up Holliday’s artistic, professional, and personal circle. It’s been said of Holliday that one of her greatest gifts was her ability to shift mood quickly and easily from comic to serious; the massively talented Burns demonstrates a similar gift in her performance of Holliday, displaying, in one moment, the actress’s formidable intellect and seriousness of purpose, and, in the next, her ability to self-mock and assume the persona of a dimwit. She has an enormous smile that brings oodles of charm and charisma to the role, and when she sings – and thankfully, she sings a great deal in this show – she has a voice like honey, smooth, sweet, and easy. I could have listened to her all night. Burns does most of her songs solo, but in a few of the numbers she is joined by Brody and Heller, who are accomplished vocalists themselves (and Brody does double duty in the show as an impressively adept piano accompanist).

Tony Ferrieri’s set design rather ingeniously serves as both a realistic recording studio and every other space needed for the flashbacked scenes – the recording studio-specific elements seem to disappear and reappear as needed, due in no small part to Ann Wrightson’s effective lighting design. Robert C.T. Steele’s period specific costumes are simple enough to be donned and doffed quickly, but iconic enough to help us keep track of the many characters who come and go in Holliday’s life.

The fact that these personalities are so lightly sketched – and that we’re not sure we even fully know Holliday herself at play’s end – is, in the end, one of the strengths of Smart Blonde: it opens the door just a crack onto a subject who seems infinitely more interesting than would first appear.

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