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John Bavoso

How to Keep an Alien, a comedy about love and red tape

by John Bavoso

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.

Several years ago, a good friend of mine married a Swiss citizen. Over many glasses of wine, she detailed to me having to provide emails, OkCupid messages, photos, and receipts to prove they actually loved each other so he could gain his American citizenship. At no point during her tales of navigating red tape like a member of the Mission Impossible team dodging laser alarm systems did I think to myself, “This would make a hilarious comedy!”

Not true for Irish playwright and standup comedian Sonya Kelly, apparently, who used a similar experience from her life as the basis for her romantic comedy How to Keep an Alien, which is being given its regional premiere courtesy of Solas Nua at the Dance Loft.

This production represents not only the first time the piece has been performed in DC, but also the first time the playwright has not played herself on stage. In Solas Nua’s lighthearted and spirited production, that duty falls to the dynamic and captivating Tonya Beckman. Kelly admits to being influenced by table monologists like Spalding Gray, but Beckman isn’t alone on stage—she’s joined by the versatile Nick Fruit, who plays Sonya’s stage manager, Justin, as well as a variety of roles including a snobbish choreographer; two drunken, brawling nightclub patrons; a taxi driver; and the object of Sonya’s affection herself, Kate from Queensland.

Kate, you see, is our inciting incident. Sonya, a disaffected Dublin-based actor, meets Kate when they’re working together on a production of a Russian play, produced in an Irish castle, during which everyone speaks with a British accent. The two fall head first into a whirlwind romance that’s cut short by the expiring of Kate’s one-year work visa and her deportation back to Australia. What follows is an unconventional journey through Ireland’s immigration system to try to get Kate to stay permanently in the country, all while trying to navigate a new romance.

Kelly’s background as a comedian shines through in her snappy bon mots (I particularly related to line, “I hate camping… it defeats the purpose of evolution!”), which Beckman delivers with wit and a wink. Director Tom Story keeps action moving and creates rousing bits of physical comedy and tender moments between Sonya and Justin. These two characters have an easy and lived-in relationship that would suggest years of working together.

Beckman and Fruit do their work on a set designed by Brigid Kelly Burge, who created a space that’s warmer and softer than any made up of shelves, desks, file boxes, binders, and other bureaucratic detritus has a right to be (I’d love to get some tips on her paper plane-making techniques, if nothing else). Marianne Meadows’ lighting design and Michael Winch’s sound design come together seamlessly to create magical moments and transport the audience across the globe and through time.

How to Keep an Alien is billed as “a comedy about falling in love and proving it to the government.” This may be the ultimate proof that I’ve been living in DC too long, but my main quibble with an otherwise fantastic script is that I wanted to know more about the bureaucratic red tape the couple is forced to deal with—for as boring as governmental policies and procedures are, when they intersect with real lives, the results can be quite dramatic. While, as an audience member, I appreciated the play’s overall comedic tone, I couldn’t help but think about how Sonya and Kate were in some ways charmed, especially compared to the nightmare that so many are going through with regards to the immigration system these days. I’m not faulting Kelly for this—her goal was clearly not to make a documentary of the minutia of Ireland’s immigration system—but it was something tugging at me from the back of my mind each time I laughed at a cartoonish portrayal of their visa agent.

What Kelly has created—and Solas Nua has so expertly brought to life—is a new twist on a rom-com set against the unlikely backdrop of deportation and paperwork. How to Keep an Alien gets to the heart of one particular couple going through the immigration process with humor and humanity—something the real-life immigration process is often deeply lacking.

How to Keep an Alien by Sonya Kelly. Directed by Tom Story. Featuring Tonya Beckman and Nick Fruit. Scenic and props designer: Bridgid Kelly Burge. Lighting designer: Marianne Meadows. Sound designer: Michael Winch. Artistic director/movement director/producer: Rex Daugherty. Assistant director: Jake Owen. Associate producer: Daven Ralston. Stage manager: Sam Reilly. Produced by Solas Nua.

In This Hope: A Pericles Project

by John Bavoso

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.

In fraught times, where do you go to find hope? Assuming the answer is not “within yourself,” might I suggest the basement of a church where, seated in a circle with a group of strangers, you recount personal stories and cherished memories? If it sounds like I’m pointing you in the direction of a support group, well, I am, sort of—in the form of Hannah Hessel Ratner’s In This Hope: A Pericles Project, being produced now by The Welders at Spooky Action Theater.

Using Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre as a starting point, an ensemble of four actors tell the tale of not only the Greek hero, but also their own personal and family histories, and coax the audience to do the same. In doing so, they transform the classic tale into something more modern and personal, updating some (generally the sexist) parts and finding relevance in contemporary life in the process. And in doing so, the cast of In This Hope stitches together an evening filled with memory, storytelling, and community.

Upon entering the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street, audience members are led downstairs and through the kitchen to a big, open space filled with a circle of wooden chairs. On the walls surrounding this circle is a map of the ancient world with the cities of Tyre and Antioch and the like marked off. Above the space hangs several ropes or cords crisscrossed, like a tapestry waiting to be woven.

Our guides and our bridge between the ancient source text, the Jacobian retelling, and the present interpretation are four talented and versatile actors— Lida Maria Benson, Rocelyn Frisco, Raghad Makhlouf, and Lori Pitts. Under Anna Brenner’s deft direction and using little more than a few infinity scarves and a crown made of forks, these four assume a variety of roles from Pericles, but also play themselves, sharing bits of memory and personal anecdotes from the Ukraine (Benson), the Phillipines (Frisco), Lebanon (Makhlouf), and here in DC (Pitts).

In This Hope is billed as a ritual as well as a performance, and the audience is encouraged to not only participate, but help to create the piece from the ground up—this play literally could not exist on a proscenium behind a fourth wall. Given that Hessel Ratner’s primary vocation is that of a dramaturg rather than a playwright, it’s no surprise that deep excavation and group work are main features of the piece. From sharing a memory with a neighbor to inviting an audience member to play a role in the original tale, but with a choose-your-own-adventure twist, the audience is welcomed in and made to feel a part of the story in a genuine, non-threatening way.

The interwoven nature of the past and present, of myth and memory, is interesting and thought-provoking, but at times can lead to a somewhat muddled experience. For example, the death of Pericles’ wife, Thaisa, as she gives birth to the couple’s daughter, Marina, is used as a touchpoint for discussing how the maternal mortality rate in DC is more than twice the national average, especially among African American women.

While this aligns with the idea of blending the past and present, and literature and reality, it doesn’t seem to fit as neatly with either the world of the Pericles story or the personal lives of the actors—it’s important information, but it feels slightly out of place. Similarly, there are other moments when the drama of Pericles or the stories of the actors or the memories of the audience is reaching its height, only to be cut off by another narrative. When the intermingling of these different threads works seamlessly, it casts a spell; when it doesn’t, it can be jarring for the audience.

“What world is this?” This line, written by William Shakespeare and repeated several times by In This Hope’s cast, is not one that is easily or happily answered by many people these days. But the team behind In This Hope: A Pericles Project is creating its own world from scratch, in which strangers are vulnerable and open and stories are shared without judgement—and that’s a space I wouldn’t mind inhabiting for more than 2 hours at a time.

In This Hope: A Pericles Project by Hannah Hessel Ratner. Directed by Anna Brenner. Associate Director Jess Phillips . Featuring Lida Maria Benson, Rocelyn Frisco, Raghad Makhlouf, and Lori Pitts. Environmental designer: Colin K. Bills. Costume designer: Pei Lee. Sound designer: Roc Lee. Design assistant: Cody Whitfield. Artistic consultant: Isaiah Matthew Wooden. Stage manager: Emma Heck. Assistant stage manager: JJ Hersh. Production manager: KayCee Tucker. Produced by The Welders.

Sing to Me Now (Overworked muse seeks intern)

by John Bavoso

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.

In the promotional materials for their production of Iris Dauterman’s Sing To Me Now, Rorschach Theatre has been highlighting one particular quote from the script: “Every second you hesitate, every moment you’re not writing, furiously writing, or dancing, or singing, things are getting worse. So hurry. Up.”

While the creative types among us might hear a call to action (or a call to curl up into the fetal position and hide under our covers), in the context of the play, it’s more like an epithet hurled by a beleaguered muse at her Pollyanna human intern in order to intimidate and provoke her. And in the world that Dauterman’s skillfully crafted script and Rorschach’s team of theatrical sorcerers have created, that all makes perfect sense.

As director Jenny McConnell Frederick noted before the opening night performance, Rorschach fell in love with the script for Sing To Me Now as they helped to develop it through the company’s inaugural MAGIC IN ROUGH SPACES PLAY LAB earlier this year. Many of the actors from that initial workshop transferred to this full production, which is evident in the passion they bring to their roles and the lived-in, authentic performances that McConnell Frederick has elicited from them.

For Sing To Me Now, Rorschach has transformed the intimate Lab II black box at the Atlas Performing Arts Center into a land of dreams and myth. It is here that we meet Calliope (or Callie to her friends), nearly drowning in paperwork and angst. Chloe Mikala masterfully embodies the jaded muse of epic poetry, all hard edges gained from working too hard for too little recognition (no one looking for inspiration for their novel, or next song, or cheesecake recipe even addresses her by her real name!).

Callie’s workload is so overwhelming due to the fact that, owing to a set of circumstances that I will not spoil for you, she is the only one of the muses left to provide inspiration to the ungrateful humans below. Her best friend, Mo (short for Morpheus, and played with both snark and awkward vulnerability by Erik Harrison), the god of dreams, keeps her company and tries to convince her to sleep. But when she sleeps, she dreams of her sisters, and that’s something she’s definitely trying to avoid.

Her only other companions are her mother, Mnemosyne, goddess of memory (a warm and funny Cam Magee), who exhibits dementia-like symptoms caused by having, of all things, too many memories in her head, and Hades (played with the perfect combination of pomposity and self-pity by Ian Armstrong), who enters and exits via an old-timey elevator to the underworld. “He’s my sister’s asshole ex-boyfriend and also my asshole uncle…. because that’s how we roll,” Callie quips.

But Callie hasn’t resigned herself to wallowing—in fact, she’s put out a Help Wanted call to the universe; our muse, you see, is looking for an intern. And she gets one, much to her chagrin, in the form of Claire, who Callie insists on calling Yankee, a wide-eyed, naïve college graduate who’s having trouble finding a “real” job. Tori Boutin imbues Yankee with the right amount of self-awareness and chutzpah to keep her from being too cloying or irritating, but also with enough youthful optimism and exuberance to rub Callie the wrong way… at least at first. Soon enough, the two become what must be among the most unlikely work-friend pairings in history.

The cast is rounded out by Desiree Chappelle and Jonathan Del Palmer, who show great range as everything from aquatic ballet dancers to muses to Marcel Duchamp. Their cameos often serve to inject some levity into some otherwise fraught situations.

McConnell Frederick does an excellent job of using every inch of the small space and filling it with action in a way that feels purposeful and natural. Under her deft direction, the performances are rooted in realistic, relatable emotion, despite the fact that most of her actors are playing supernatural beings. In combination with Dauterman’s nuanced writing, she helps to bring mythic events down to a human scale in the best way possible—even when the stakes are the literal survival of the human race and art itself.

And it wouldn’t be a Rorschach show without some seriously nifty design work. A fair bit of the action involves the characters fishing ideas and dreams from a river, made possible thanks to Swedian Lei’s ingenious set design. Similarly, Rachael Knoblauch’s props design, Sarah Tundermann’s lighting design, and Gordon Nimmo-Smith’s sound design come together for an effect that transforms mundane objects into pure magic.

At its heart, Sing To Me Now grapples with a lot of weighty topics, including what the role of art is in a cruel, chaotic world; whether the human race is even worth fighting for; and how we cope with unimaginable grief. And like the best of art, what it offers is not so much clear answers as the hope we need to keep going, keep fighting, even after we leave the theater.

Sing To Me Now by Iris Dauterman. Directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick. Featuring: Ian Armstrong, Tori Boutin, Desiree Chappelle, Erik Harrison, Cam Magee, Chloe Mikala, and Jonathan Del Palmer. Costume designer: Debra Kim Sivigny. Set designer: Swedian Lie. Properties designer: Rachael Knoblauch. Sound designer: Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Lighting designer: Sarah Tundermann. Production manager: Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Stage manager: Rebecca Talisman. Produced by Randy Baker, Jenny McConnell Frederick, and Jonelle Walker.

The Fall Remembers A Student uprising in Cape Town

by John Bavoso

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.

Imagine a large group of college students, surrounded by the international media, anxiously awaiting the moment when a statue depicting a key figure from their country’s racist past is toppled and removed from its place of prominence on their campus. While this scenario has played out recently at the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina, it also unfolded in 2015 at the University of Cape Town in South Africa—and you can see a vibrant and engrossing retelling of the events in some of the participants’ own words much closer to home in The Fall at Studio Theatre as part of the Studio X program.

When Studio’s Artistic Director, David Muse, saw a production of The Fall—an ensemble piece created and performed by students at UCT’s Baxter Theatre Center under the guidance of drama professor Clare Stopford—at the Edinburgh Fringe, he knew he wanted to bring it to DC. The Fall is deeply personal, rooted in the performers and country that created it, and universally recognizable to Americans of any age and political affiliation.

The inciting incident, as it were, for the events portrayed in The Fall is the moment on March 9, 2015, when UCT student Chumani Maxwele threw a bucket of human excrement onto a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in the late 1800s and early architect of South Africa’s apartheid system. The statue, despite years of petitions from black students, still stood more than 24 years after the end of apartheid, literally looking down on the UCT campus. Maxwele’s actions helped to inspire the birth of a movement, #RhodesMustFall, and transformed a group of otherwise unrelated students into activists determined to begin the work on decolonizing their campus.

Among those students were Ameera Conrad, Sihle Mnqwazana, Oarabile Ditsele, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Cleo Raatus, Tankiso Mamabolo, and Zandile-Izandi Madliwa, who fill the small stage at Studio with song, dance, spoken word poetry, and accounts of the kind of mistreatment and microaggressions they’ve endured as black students at their university. Driven by the earnestness of young revolutionaries, the ensemble powerfully—and often quite humorously—offers a behind-the-scenes look at the dawning of a movement.

Even united around the singular purpose of tearing down the statue of Rhodes, conflict and divisions within the movement begin to make themselves apparent. Once the statue does fall, the news is filled with images of the male students jumping on the plinth and whipping the statue—much to the chagrin of the radical black feminists in the group, who are sick of being pushed off camera by their hyper-masculine counterparts. And the group’s sole non-binary member has to constantly remind the rest of the characters about the erasure of contributions of queer and transgender individuals to the movement.

The internal debates and dynamics inherent in the early stages of the development of a group of activists is fascinating, but The Fallnever feels like a lecture or reading from a text book. The cast makes the most of the spare space and three plain desks, punctuating their discussions with choreography, beautiful vocals, and live footage from the protests. I began the show scribbling notes in a small notebook, and realized after I had the left the theater that I had quickly given up on my transcription, having become enthralled by a group of truly engaging storytellers.

For those of us past our early 20s, or who have just been paying too much attention to the daily news cycle leading up to the Midterm Elections, the cast’s sense of optimism and utter surety that they can change the world may seem laughably Pollyanna-esque. But if you are willing to really listen and pay attention to how much these young student-activists have already achieved—both personally and politically—you may instead find yourself reenergized and even a little more optimistic about the state of the world and its future after seeing The Fall.

The Fall co-created by Thando Mangcu, Kgomotos Khunoane, Clare Stopford, Ameera Conrad, Sihle Mnqwazana, Oarabile Ditsele, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Cleo Raatus, and Tankiso Mamabolo. Featuring Ameera Conrad, Sihle Mnqwazana, Oarabile Ditsele, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Cleo Raatus, Tankiso Mamabolo, and Zandile-Izandi Madliwa. Stage manager: Puleng B. Mabuya. AEA stage manager: Kelsey Sapp. Lighting designer: Michael Maxwell. Costume designer: Marisa Steenkamp. Scenic designer: Patrick Curtis. Produced by Studio Theatre.