Category Archives: Theater

We head to The Studio Theatre and the Shakespeare Theatre, both in Washington, D.C., for upcoming performances and talks with the directors this spring.

Backstage at “The Liar”

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

With an offbeat comedy, a seasoned cast and a poodle-shaped topiary, it’s hard to imagine the Shakespeare Theater Company’s latest endeavor would not be a hit with audiences. Director Michael Kahn, however, is working line-by-line through the show to ensure that the show, a world premiere of David Ives’ adaptation from Pierre Corneille’s “The Liar”, maximizes each laugh in the play. In a recent dress and tech rehearsal, Kahn made it plainly clear that his production will fall nothing short of comedic excellence, working with actors to perfect delivery and position. Though the staging moved along at a glacial pace, colorful actors entertained themselves, and their small audience during segues between takes. If the show itself employs a witty comedy delivered in rhyming couplets, the force driving the chuckles home is a cast of endearing jesters. After take upon take of the same few lines for stretches of more than twenty minutes, the actors frequently found their tongues tied and lines forgotten, resulting in outtakes as funny as the script itself.

What was most amazing, however, was the critical eye of Kahn and his application of it. While the audience watched actors delivering lines of dialogue, Kahn would take not of the lighting levels in the background or whether or not a set piece was properly located. These things were not immediately apparent to the audience who spent their energy trying to follow the quick script, but a small edit or adjustment here and there actually made all the difference in creating a specific mood. It was also incredible just realizing that Kahn was able to process each tiny detail of the production at once and make judgments about the validity of the whole. His confidence in requesting changes assured the audience that he sought to provide the best show possible for viewers, and his reliance on actors for input showed the level of trust he has in his experienced cast.

Perfecting “The Liar”

We went to see a tech/dress rehearsal of “The Liar,” a new show opening this week at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. Excerpts from students’ impressions follow:

Photo provided by the Shakespeare Theater Company

Charlie Carroll:

When observing a comedic play, it’s easy to believe that the witty verse, precise timing and hilarious slapstick simply come out of a well-developed script.  After observing a dress rehearsal for David Ives’ adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s “The Liar,” it became clear just how much work goes into perfecting the tiniest details of a play.

The version of the play presented at the Lansburgh Theatre is what Broadway playwright David Ives describes as a “translaptation,” a translation of the French original, tweaking certain character traits and plot points to adapt the screenplay to modern times while remaining true to the spirit of the story.  “The Liar” tells the story of Dorante (Christian Conn), a smug, French aristocrat who continuously lies to get everything he desires.  Dorante uses his charm and cunning wit to fool his father and friends and win over the affections of the beautiful Clarice (Erin Partin) and Lucrece (Miriam Silverman).  However, for every lie he tells, Dorante must construct at least two more to get himself out of each unfavorable situation created by his tangled web of deception.

Upon entering the Lansburgh Theatre, the beauty of the golden lobby immediately drew me into the spirit of the theatre.  After being greeted by one of the production assistants, our class was led into the actual theatre.  Spread throughout the theatre were a number of soundboards, wires and other logistical instruments with production assistants weaving in and out of the aisles working to make sure the rehearsal ran smoothly.

The director of the play, Michael Kahn, sat directly in the middle, leaning back nonchalantly in his seat with a large microphone sitting in front of him.  The stage was empty, save for the beautifully designed set.  At Kahn’s command, Tony Roach, who plays Alcippe, appeared onstage as the stagehands retracted the balconies overlooking the stage, morphing the set from a pristine plaza setting to the inside of a lavish French house.  As Roach awaited Kahn’s cue, he stood in place mouthing his lines to himself, mimicking sword parries and thrusts in preparation for his short monologue.

Kahn was nothing less than demanding, allowing Roach to recite his lines for no more than 10 seconds before he asked the actor to start over.  This process would continue once Roach had satisfied Kahn’s demands.  The set was returned to the beautiful outdoor plaza, with a poodle-shaped bush, surrounded by a circular stone bench, set as the centerpiece.  For at least ten minutes David Sabin, who plays Dorante’s father Geronte, was asked to re-do his opening, barely making it past his first couple of lines each time.

By the time Conn made his way onto the stage with Adam Green, who plays Dorante’s trusty servant Cliton, the director spent the following two hours going over what amounts to no more than a 10-15 minute scene in the actual play.  Kahn’s direction ranged anywhere from Dorante’s placement and lighting under a balcony to specific hand gestures made between him and Geronte during their conversation.  Although Kahn’s loud commands were made a bit too frequently, the attention to detail and subtle changes made a world of difference.  By the end of the scene the actors perfected their comedic deliveries, hinting at a promising future for the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s latest production.

David Lewis:

The director, of course, is the maestro. But it’s interesting to see the actors themselves suggest ways they can best portray their roles. It is here you get to see the actors at their most vulnerable, pacing around the stage while trying to remember their lines and figuring out what they should do and say to capture their characters and environment.

Though much of the play’s humor will come from the movement and dialogue of the actors, seeing many of these characters walk one by one onto the stage with their over-embellished costumes, especially the men, will also give the audience laughs.  The costumes reflect — and spoof — the exuberance of the period.

Alexandra Wells:

… The director, Michael Kahn, a god of the theater world, embodied everything that I stereotypically conjure when I visualize any brilliant man of the arts. He was extremely attuned to detail, and also knew when to let the actors explore their own characters via poses, ad libbed dialogue or facial expressions.

Tauren Dyson:

Play rehearsals are not supposed to be fun … the process is supposed to feature a bunch of mercurial actors who can’t get along with the director and constantly blow lines. Watching the Shakespeare Theatre Wednesday, it seemed as though the cast and crew weren’t aware of what they were supposed to be doing. That is, they exhibited none of the aforementioned characteristics … and worked well together.

Jeremy Walsh:

… Unfortunately, the adaptation tried to get a little too creative by interweaving classical language and ironic phrasing with hints of the modern world.

For example, Dorante’s beeping wristwatch plays an important role in the scene’s elaborate lie. Hints such as a digital watch are apparently dropped randomly … but the play doesn’t seem to explain why these characters from nearly five centuries ago wear digital watches and send text messages. … Disregarding this misguided attempt to connect modern society should be easy for the modern audiences because the hilarious jokes and beautiful setting will occupy their attention and keep them thoroughly entertained.

Elise Lundstrom:

We observed the inner workings of this scenes, the actors and Kahn going back and forth on what made the most sense on stage and what techniques had the most comedic effect. We were encouraged to laugh if things were funny, and laugh we did.

Elizabeth Ward:

Another reason to get excited is in the show’s details. Set in 17th century Paris, the production is lavish in set and costume. One parlor scene is encompassed by tall, black-and-white Victorian panels and accentuated in chartreuse accessories: a chandelier here and a sitting bench there. This then seamlessly opens up onto a street scene centered on a poodle-shaped hedge and two apartment balconies lined in magenta and yellow daisies.

Leslie Byford:

Whether it was how something was said, or how they entered or exited, Kahn seemed to value their opinions (something I’m not sure many directors take into consideration) … no matter how many times he stopped and started a scene over, the actors and the rest of the production team didn’t seem to mind. He managed to keep things light with his own brand of humor …

Arrien Davison:

With every punchline, the director would stop the performance … that line would be funnier if you lean against the wall, he would say. I initially thought he was just being picky … but after the actors took his suggestions and made those changes, it was, indeed, funnier.

Muddied waters

By Jeremy Walsh
ArtsPost staff writer

Driven by the momentum of a recently extended run, The Studio Theatre’s rendition of “In the Red and Brown Water” continues to entertain audiences with its heart-wrenching story and intimate performance style.

The theater’s performance last Wednesday night was no certainly exception, as production had the crowd hanging emotionally by a shoestring, ready to erupt in laughter or jointly gasp in shock and sorrow when the moment called for it.

Though the performance entertained most of the crowd for the evening, Studio’s adaptation deviated too greatly from the original version, as written by 29-year-old sensation Tarell Alvin McCraney, losing some of the work’s true potential, thus leaving the show simply an evening’s entertainment instead of emotionally lasting experience.

McCraney’s play tells the story of Oya, an excellent runner who turns down the opportunity to run track at college to care for her ailing mother.  When her mother dies, Oya enters a destructive, though sexually fulfilling relationship with the neighborhood’s cocky hotshot, Shango.

As the second act begins, Oya finds herself trapped in her neighborhood projects in Louisiana, without any foreseeable future now that her position on the college track team has been filled and stuck in an unfulfilling relationship with another man, Ogun, now that her beloved Shango has gone off to war.

Making matters worse for Oya is the fact all the other women in the neighborhood, also fresh out of high school, have children or are pregnant, but she finds herself consistently without child, convincing herself that she isn’t conceiving because it isn’t the right time.  Oya soon spirals out of control, after being continually mocked as a childless outcast and after being unable to snatch up Shango upon his return.

McCraney’s story hinges on the audience’s personal connection to Oya, her disillusionment, and her agonizingly unalterable situation.  Studio director Serge Seiden made an important adjustment to the script increasing the intimacy of the performance, choosing to use theater-in-the-round as the presentation style.

In some respects, using theatre-in-the-round was a powerful and inventive decision, especially considering the extremely close quarters of Studio’s Milton Theatre, which seats no more than 200 patrons with front-row viewers sitting no more than a foot from the stage.

As a result, the actors are so close to viewers that their characters’ emotions are on full display for every viewer to clearly see.  Additionally, the nature of the adaptation forced the actors to run on and off the stage quickly, continuously passing patrons at the ends of rows.

While these proximity characteristics eased the audience’s connection to the characters, theatre-in-the-round in close quarters does present the problem that actors can block other actors, causing some audience members to miss important expressions or lines, as happened occasionally during Wednesday’s performance.

Seiden’s other adaptive was far less impressive.  The actors spoke all stage directions aloud, which worked positively in some instances as many actors played the stage direction for laughs.  Yaegel T. Welch, who played Shango, excelled most at using the stage directions in his favor because almost every “enter Shango” got a rousing laugh.

Still, the laughs were not consistent because not every stage direction is important enough to point out to the audience.  Some verbalized stage directions distracted from the importance of the character’s actual lines, and thus, the overall use of stage directions detracted from the performance’s fluidity and emotionality.

However, where the play was most distracting were the actors.  That’s not to say the performances of the actors because many actors were brilliant in their roles.  Raushanah Simmons was particularly noteworthy as Oya; Simmons brought clearly conveyed the torment of young Oya, struggling to fight through her suffocating life in the projects.   Simmons brilliantly balanced the joy and optimism of Oya early in the play with the utter sorrow of the latter act.

Simmons is clearly a seasoned actress, perhaps a little too seasoned, as were her fellow actors portraying characters just out of high school.  The characters clearly in their late teens and early twenties were portrayed by performers in their late twenties and early thirties.  And while the actors brought powerful, utterly moving performances, their older appearances were confounding, turning an important story about characters only entering adulthood into one seemingly focused on highly immature young adults.

In the end, Studio Theatre presented an interesting twist on McCraney’s play that was, for the most part, engaging.  However, this non-traditional adaptation misplaced the story’s depth as a result of unnecessary alterations and misguided casting choices.  The result was an entertaining show that could have been so much more.

‘In the Red and Brown Water’ transcends boundaries to tell a timeless tale

By Kristen Becker
ArtsPost staff writer

A poor community on a Louisiana bayou provides a fertile setting for a story about what happens when life gets in the way of a young woman’s dreams. Tarell Alvin McCraney tells a timeless tale in “In the Red and Brown Water,” his play about the all-too-human struggle to rise above one’s situation in life — and what happens when failure is the only option.

The new production at The Studio Theatre in Washington portrays the story of Oya, a young African-American woman living in the projects of San Pere, a fictional Louisiana city. Oya is determined to use her talent as a runner to create a promising future for herself. But she makes choices that may thwart her dreams.

Jahi A. Kearse, who plays Ogun, one of Oya’s love interests, interpreted the young woman’s obsessions as a determination to get out of the projects. He explained that in poor communities there are no options for those who want out, especially for women.

Kearse, who grew up in an impoverished area, said that in those environments, “Women are not inspired to make it happen. They are not self-confident enough to move out of these areas and find new opportunities.”

McCraney drew from his own experiences growing up in public housing in Miami to inform his portrayal of life in San Pere. The premise of this story — a person beaten down by circumstances out of their control — is hardly original, but McCraney’s characters make it fresh. And the humor interwoven throughout doesn’t take away from the inherently tragic story; it makes the story more palatable to the audience. He also uses an interesting mix of poetry in the stage directions with contemporary and sometimes vulgar language that contributes to the timeless feel of it; he describes the story as taking place in the “distant present.”

Although it was jarring at first, the decision to have the actors read the stage directions in addition to delivering their lines seemed to serve the function of a Greek chorus, giving insight into not just who was who, but also into the characters’ frame of mind. Given the stark background, with few props and no scenery, it also helped the audience understand what was happening at various points in the play when the lack of visual cues could have been a hindrance to the theatergoer’s overall comprehension of the play.

The play’s creative staging at The Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre matches the unique story-telling devices McCraney uses. The focal point of the Milton Theatre is theater-in-the-round: a small, circular stage in the center of the room with stadium-style seating surrounding it on all sides. Such an intimate setting allows for interaction between the characters and the audience that made us more than spectators. Not only did the actors address the audience, but some of the action also took place in the theater’s aisles, in effect bringing the viewer into the performance. They broke the fourth wall and made me more invested in the story than I would have been if it had been staged in a more traditional way.

McCraney named all of the play’s characters after deities found in the Yoruba religion. (The Yoruba are an ethnic group found primarily in West Africa, namely in Nigeria). According to Kearse, the characters do not necessarily share the same characteristics as their mythological namesakes. For example, he explained that Oya is actually the goddess of fertility, and Ogun, rather than being viewed as rather weak, is one of the stronger gods.

Although he draws inspiration from ancient mythical deities, McCraney creates a timeless tragedy with his play. The action and situations are so universal that they could be taking place anywhere. “In the Red and Brown Water” deals with issues that transcend racial and cultural differences, making the story intriguing for anyone.

‘In the Red and Brown Water’ stirs the sexual and the spiritual

By Heather McAuliffe
ArtsPost staff writer

“In the Red and Brown Water,” now playing at The Studio Theatre, is a tragic glimpse into the realities facing a young woman in murky waters of the Mississippi Delta.  Brought to life by drum beats, rhythmic chanting and the occasional hip-hop chorus blasting from the DJ booth just off stage, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story captures the ecstasy and heartbreak of Oya, a talented runner whose early choices — including whether to take or turn down an athletic scholarship — will set her life course.

And when Oya turns to the men in her community for comfort and stability, she makes still more decisions that will impact her profoundly.  First is Shango, the swaggering stud of the neighborhood, who curls his fingers around Oya’s ear and makes her melt into his arms.  Strong, proud and irresponsible, Shango is the heat and passion that Oya craves.  When stuttering Ogun whimpers onto the stage, he seems like weak competition for Shango, though he is kind and gentle, and pledges to make her happy.

Oya’s fertility is emphasized through repeated references to bleeding, blood and menstruation, described as a wound that won’t heal, in a community where motherhood for most women is a defining accomplishment. McCraney’s sharp examination of womanhood in the projects illuminates the challenges that women face, and the importance of empowerment and opportunity for women and girls.  Oya is trapped by lack of opportunities, and as she says there’s “nowhere for me to go but here.”

The production is laced with Yoruba spiritual references, including the names of most of the characters.   The Yoruba religion, descended from communities in the Niger River delta in Africa, plays a large role in defining the personalities of the characters.  Known as orishas, each character in the play is named after a Yoruba deity and assumes many of their characteristics.  Shango, for example, is the most ostentatious representation of brute male sexuality.  He is also drawn to war, fighting and conflict.  He oozes sexual energy on the stage, and is played with all the necessary ego and bravado.  Aunt Elegua is named for the orisha most associated with protection.  She cares for Oya and guides. In Yoruba tradition, a small statue of Elegua is present in every home, and protects those living in that house.  Daily offerings must be made to ensure protection, and usually consist of whatever the occupants of the house are eating that day.  To the same extent, Aunt Elegua asks for a little bit of what Oya has.  First it’s her mother’s jewelry, and then, jokingly, a sexual experience with Shango.  The spirituality that the Yoruba traditions bring to the piece is reinforced by the use of rhythmic clapping, chanting and drums, which create an other-worldly feel to the whole production.

Though the play is set in the “distant present” in Louisiana and has some pop-culture references, the tone is far more classical than the music and lexicon used would imply.  The stage is in the theater-in-the-round style, further contributing to the thematic threads of Greek tragedy as the audience must endure Oya’s descent into dependence and emotional instability.

‘Red and Brown’ mystifies Studio Theatre

By Elizabeth Ward
ArtsPost staff writer

Photo courtesy Studio Theatre

The chorus cries, “She wasn’t crazy… just sad.”

Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In the Red and Brown Water” tells the story of Oya, a girl wrapped in promise and love. Yet through a series of missed chances and unexpected choices, she takes on an accessory role to the characters molding her life path.

The play is the second installment of McCraney’s Brother/Sister trilogy being showcased in sequence at Washington’s Studio Theatre in the intimate Milton Theater. The bold theater-in-the-round setting offers director Serge Seiden the chance to tell the story in an abstract form, breaking down the fourth wall and encouraging our identification and connection with the characters.

McCraney uses incredibly impressive language — a unique and inventive attitude with one foot in the harsh reality of life and the other in a magical dreamland. It is a poignant, refreshing narrative that uses rhythm and music as the interweaving fabric.

The characters, named for Yoruban deities, speak their actions aloud as almost self-narrative statements of purpose.

“Oya smiles,” Oya states to the audience. Then Oya gleams at her mother.

At first, the self-narrating stage directions are surprising but offer pertinent introductions for which the audience is thankful. But as the play unfolds, this self-direction provides a rhythmic, emotional weight — adding comedy and omniscient honesty to the all-feeling characters.

“In the Red and Brown Water” is storytelling in its most authentic form. The tone is revelatory in this melding of poetry, rap, tragedy and drama as it speaks directly to human connectivity and emotions. This pulls from contemporary African American culture, as well as Yoruban gathering traditions and fire circles, African spirituals and dance, the Greek choral dramas and Shakespearean rhythms. This sampling from old traditions is echoed in the live DJ music during scene changes, and includes new takes on recognizable songs.

Continue reading ‘Red and Brown’ mystifies Studio Theatre

Taking Broadway in as a theater-lover: USA TODAY’s Elsya Gardner talks about her job

Elysa Gardner’s love of theater and writing takes her to Broadway two or three times a week, but she sees herself as an audience member as much as she does as a critic for USA TODAY. “I try to be as much a theater-goer as much as I can be,” said Gardner, explaining she tries to determine if a show “affects me on a gut level or really makes me think or feel,” in trying to describe being able to walk out of the theater with a sense of emotion — high or low, funny or sad.

What qualities does she look for in a Broadway show? “I try really really hard not to over-analyze … it has to be about the experience. It has to be a visceral experience: ‘Wow, that’s really smart or that’s really clever,’ doesn’t mean as much as if something really moves me,” she said in a recent interview via Skype with the AU arts criticism class. Gardner sees an average of three shows a week, usually in New York though she does some limited reviews or advances on regional theater around the country and has also written about the London stage. In addition, she writes features about actors and playwrights, and is on a team of staffers who write music reviews for the national newspaper. She hopes to institute an off-Broadway/regional column at the paper soon.

But she keeps her own work in perspective. “My opinion really holds no more weight than anyone else’s … I take it (my job) seriously, but these are all opinions,” she said. Her background in college was in English, with an emphasis in theater. Her mother was a professional singer, and Gardner herself performed in some theater productions.

After college, she got an internship at Spin magazine, and from there was hired as an assistant editor at Entertainment Weekly. “And from there, I was able to sort of meet people, and I … had access. You can promote yourself … there any freelance opportunities … I always loved music and theater … I loved this opportunity to cover it about 10 years ago.”

— Lynne Perri

A few of Elysa Gardner’s recent reviews:

Best and most overrated of 2009:

Angela Lansbury in A Little Night Music:

David Mamet’s Race:

Scarlett Johansson on Broadway: