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Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die From FlyinG V

by John Bavoso

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be found on their site here.

When asked about how she comes up with ideas for her plays (which, let me tell you from personal experience, is every writer’s favorite interview question), playwright, director, and filmmaker Young Jean Lee has said that she focuses in on what scares her the most to write about at that particular moment in her life and then dives in head-first. Sometimes this results in a show that’s about a very specific topic—privilege, for example, in the case of her hit play Straight White Men, which made history by being the first work by an Asian-American woman playwright produced on Broadway… in 2018.

But in the aptly named We’re Gonna Die, Lee tackles what is perhaps the most universally frightening subject of all—our own mortality—through an irreverent combination of storytelling and song. In a new production ably directed by Josh Sobel and featuring the captivating Farrell Parker, Flying V has created what is easily one of the most hilarious, harrowing, and exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had in a Washington theater.

Review: Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die from Flying V

May 28, 2019 by John Bavoso Leave a Comment

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When asked about how she comes up with ideas for her plays (which, let me tell you from personal experience, is every writer’s favorite interview question), playwright, director, and filmmaker Young Jean Lee has said that she focuses in on what scares her the most to write about at that particular moment in her life and then dives in head-first. Sometimes this results in a show that’s about a very specific topic—privilege, for example, in the case of her hit play Straight White Men, which made history by being the first work by an Asian-American woman playwright produced on Broadway… in 2018.

Young Jean Lee and Future Wife performing We’re Gonna Die, 2011. (Screenshot from video, Young Jean

But in the aptly named We’re Gonna Die, Lee tackles what is perhaps the most universally frightening subject of all—our own mortality—through an irreverent combination of storytelling and song. In a new production ably directed by Josh Sobel and featuring the captivating Farrell Parker, Flying V has created what is easily one of the most hilarious, harrowing, and exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had in a Washington theater.

Before I get too far, a warning of sorts: this is a review that I’ve been both excited and terrified to write. Excited, frankly, because it’s an easy rave for a show I think everyone should see. But also terrifying, because in order to explain why I found We’re Gonna Die so profoundly moving, I have to get a little personal—and in doing so, reveal why Lee’s writing and Parker’s performance are so universally relevant. It’s a bit of vulnerability that I hope you’ll indulge me in.

But before we get to the show itself, we should start with the opening act. Flying V has enlisted local artists to go on before each performance. In the case of the first weekend of the run, Zia Hassan, a local singer-songwriter, kicked us off. With just an acoustic guitar and a voice that, to me, is akin to the bands that remind me of my college years—Dashboard Confessional and Jack’s Mannequin come to mind—I was instantly transported to a simpler, more innocent time in my life.

Many of the songs Hassan performed were about the recent birth of his son, which provided a poignant counterpoint to the examination of death and deterioration to follow. I don’t know if this pairing of subject matter was intentional on Flying V’s part, but it created a beautiful full-circle experience. I can’t vouch for the acts preceding the rest of the performances, but I hope they’re as appropriate and heartfelt as Hassan’s.

Following a brief, pre-show intermission, it was time to get downright rock ‘n’ roll existential! Lee developed and staged We’re Gonna Die with the since-dissolved self-producing playwrights’ collective 13 Playwrights Inc., a company not unlike DC’s own The Welders. The show featured Lee herself in the 2011 premiere at Joe’s Pub in New York, singing and speaking about her own (presumably heightened-just-a-touch) life experiences.

Parker, a Flying V company member, takes on the potentially daunting task of relaying a set of deeply personal moments that do not belong to her and making the audience forget that fact. She not only accomplishes this, but does so with a belting swagger and enthralling plaintiveness. From the moment she steps on stage, the audience is firmly in her tough-yet-tender grasp, thanks in no small part to a killer backing band comprised of Alex Green on guitar, David Hutchins on drums, Jason Wilson on bass, and Marika Countouris (who also provided musical direction) on the keyboard.

From her position on stage, Parker leads the audience through stories from her character’s life—from her sad, isolated Uncle John, to her first romance and breakup, and finally through the heart-rending death of her father. Interspersed between these tales are rollicking rock songs and soulful ballads. Early on, she clarifies that the purpose of the evening is not merely to wallow in emotional torture porn: “I have always wished that there was some sort of comfort available to us so that when we’re in that isolated place of pain, there would be something to make us feel better and not so alone.”

The contrast between the emotionally lacerating stories, darkly comic banter, and up-tempo ditties keeps the audience on the edge of its seats and a little off-kilter—which is one of the hallmarks of a Young Jean Lee show. These painful moments are offered not as a form of self-flagellation but as a source of comfort in the universality of human suffering and a celebration that, in fact, we’re all going to die one day and our suffering will end.

A good bit of the enjoyment of attending We’re Gonna Die comes from watching your fellow audience members watching what’s happening on stage. Every single person brings a different perspective and frame of reference into the theater and these clearly inform their processing of the material. My guest saw the original production years ago and, for him, one of the most profound parts of seeing it again was how differently it washed over him now that he has a bit more life experience—and, frankly, trauma—under his belt. (By the way, said guest made the bold pronouncement that Flying V’s production is better than the Joe’s Pub version.)

At certain moments, the direct parallels to the past year of my own life and what was happening on stage took my breath away. Within the span of less than a year my older sister died suddenly and without warning, my father had a heart attack and emergency double coronary bypass (while I was home for Thanksgiving), and my family endured a number of other health scares and small sorrows. So, when Parker relayed the story of her father, with a breathing tube down his throat, awakening panicked and confused several times the night before he died of lung cancer, I felt a small moan escape my lips in recognition of what my own father experienced coming out of the anesthesia following his surgery. (And, let me assure you, I am not a person who involuntarily makes noises during a show.)

When our protagonist’s friend Beth writes her a letter imparting wisdom gained from her own personal struggles and says, “Horrible things, they happen all the time. What makes you so special that you should go unscathed?” I was brought back to so many moments during the past year when I genuinely wondered whether my family had been cursed—and in addition to feeling sorrow, I felt seen.

And yet, that experience wasn’t necessarily shared equally by all. You could feel palpable discomfort in the ranks as the show swung from a tear-filled monologue into the final number in which the audience is encouraged to exuberantly chant “we’re gonna die!” while beach balls and bubbles bounce overheard. The enthusiasm with which my fellow audience members fist pumped along to lyrics like “I’m gonna die, gonna die some day… and I will be okay!” varied tremendously. We were all in our own individual worlds reflecting on our personal losses, but we were also bonded together in celebration in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible a mere two hours before. Afterward, my guest referred to We’re Gonna Die as a “contemporary requiem” and we both agreed that it would make a fitting memorial service when we do eventually shuffle off this mortal coil.

The term “catharsis” gets tossed around a lot when it comes to art, but I can honestly say that I’ve never stood in front of a painting and felt so ripped open and then put back together again as when leaving We’re Gonna Die. I not only would enthusiastically attend this show again, but I’d want to bring everyone I know with me—and that’s about the best compliment as I can pay Parker, Sobel, and the entire Flying V team.

God of Carnage at Keegan Theatre

by John Bavoso

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be found on their site here.

“In the end, we’re all just taller children,” croons Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Elizabeth Ziman on her band, Elizabeth & The Catapult’s, aptly title 2009 song, “Taller Children.” This is the lyric that immediately sprang to mind as I watched Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage unspool in front of me at the Keegan Theatre—a finely designed and executed production about the failings of human nature that is occasionally hampered by a somewhat stilted translation of the original text.

Originally written in Reza’s native French, Christopher Hampton’s English translation of God of Carnage was first produced in London in 2008 and on Broadway in 2009, earning the play critical acclaim and Laurence Olivier and Tony awards in the process.

Typical of Reza’s biting humor at the expense of the middle class, God of Carnage centers on two couples (in the original version, they’re Parisians; here, they’ve become Brooklynites) who have come together to make peace after a violent incident between their children on a playground in Cobble Hill Park. What begins as an agreeable enough detente over apple-pear clafoutis and espresso quickly devolves into something much nastier, as you may have guessed from the ominous title of the play. As one character wistfully asks early on in a moment of foreshadowing, “How many parents standing up for their children become infantile themselves?”

The meeting has been convened by Veronica Novak (Lolita Marie), a social justice warrior and writer who is finishing up a book on the genocide in Darfur, and her husband, Michael Novak (DeJeannette Horne), who owns a home goods wholesale business. They’re joined by Annette Raleigh (Susan Marie Rhea), who works in the nonspecific “wealth management” field, and her husband, Alan Raleigh (Vishwas), a high-powered lawyer currently representing a shady pharmaceutical company who’s physically incapable of separating himself from his cell phone.

The topic of their tête-à-tête is a recent playground incident during which the Raleighs’ son hit the Novak’s son in the face with a tree branch, knocking out two of his teeth. Things start out with an air of civility, but as the evening goes on and the Raleighs are unable to extricate themselves from the apartment, human nature, power, and marital dynamics all get called into question.

Director Shirley Serotsky has a deft hand with keeping her actors moving around the space in a way that feels natural and often hilarious. She also does an excellent job building tension and then releasing it—with such a high-pitched, mannered comedy, the tendency to go too big too soon can be tempting, but Serotsky employs the right amount of restraint to allow the show-stopping moments to truly land. The shifting allegiances laid out in the text are made delightfully physical by the actors’ movements around the set.

Similarly, the actors get high marks for how well they embody their characters. Particularly of note is Rhea, whose physicality telegraphs a woman who’s barely containing all the stress and frustration inside her before she even says a word, so that by the time her explosive relief comes, it’s nearly as welcome as it is off-putting. Vishwas plays Alan in the opposite way—he’s cool as a cucumber and a snakelike charmer who gleefully refers to his own son as a savage and lists Spartacus as his role model. Marie, as the high-strung, woke Veronica excellently portrays a woman who’s been holding onto a mask of serenity and politeness and may be ready to tear it all down in spectacular fashion.

Unfortunately, the one thing working against the performances and the direction is the text itself. Hampton—a British playwright, screenwriter, translator and film director—initially translated Reza’s dialog for the West End production and then further tweaked it for American audiences, and was no doubt true to the original. Still, for a casual evening between two couples in a Brooklyn apartment, the language is distractingly heightened. The idea that Michael would refer to himself as a “fucking Neanderthal” just after going on at length about toilet parts to undercut Alan’s snootiness, and then, in the very next breath, refer to his treatment as “intolerable,” “incomprehensible,” and “detestable” strains the audience’s credibility. The audience can easily be taken out of the action as we watch the actors wrestle with making the language sound natural.

To return to a high note, all this madness takes place on a gorgeous set designed by Matthew J. Keenan. What could have been a typical, bland living room set is made more interesting by setting things off at odd angles and not making them match up perfectly—the setting prepares the audience for a schism and plays with multiple perspectives before a single character even enters the space. Liz Gossens Eide’s costumes complement the characters perfectly and offer the director and cast opportunities to create moments of comedy around the taking off and putting on of overcoats and briefcases. Niusha Nawab’s sound design and Katie McCreary’s lighting design are subtle but provide the perfect realistic backdrop upon which some over-the-top bad behavior can unfold.

Even though the play was written more than a decade ago in another country, God of Carnage proves to be a timely and relevant piece of dark comedy that speaks expertly to the present American moment, and Keegan Theatre should be applauded for its thoughtfulness in programming it into this season. When Annette exclaims toward the of the play, “To my mind, there are wrongs on both sides. That’s it. Wrongs on both sides,” and Veronica lectures the room on polite society and the need for vigilance, it’s hard not to draw parallels to our present attempts to live in an increasingly fractured world. God of Carnage may not offer any answers as to how to better coexist as human beings, but it does give us an opportunity to laugh at outsized versions of ourselves… even if it’s mostly to keep ourselves from crying.

Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven

by John Bavoso

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be found on their site here.

There’s a notion these days in theatrical circles that the hallmark of a great play is that it can only be a play; that the story being told wouldn’t work in any other medium. As I was watching Rorschach Theatre’s production of Reina Hardy’s Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven, I was struck by what a good TV show, animated film, or podcast it also would make.

This is in no way intended to be a slight; Hardy and Rorschach have once again joined forces to create a stellar evening of theatre that takes the best elements of contemporary cultural references, social media, and pop science and turns them into something more than the sum of those parts—an out-of-this-world, all-ages celebration of nerdiness, empowerment, and love.

Rorschach and Hardy previously collaborated in 2014 on Glassheart, an off-beat, mature riff on Beauty and the Beast. They return to a similar format in Annie Jump, tackling science and the mysteries of the universe in an irreverent way that will appeal to pre-teens and more… well, let’s say seasoned theatre-goers, alike. Under Medha Marsten’s capable direction, the play approaches its teenaged characters with respect and reverence rather than the condescension that can often come from adult playwrights writing about similar topics.

Our eponymous protagonist is Annie Jump (an irrepressible Vanessa Chapoy), a 13-years-old science prodigy living with her single father in the tiny town of Strawberry, KS. Annie is wise beyond her years, which, in the world of middle of high school, might as well be a social death sentence—she feels lucky that she’s mostly ignore rather than actively bullied by her peers. Her aforementioned father, Dr. Jump (an earnestly bumbling Zach Brewster-Geisz), isn’t so lucky—his history of mental illness and all-consuming drive to establish contact with and prove the existence of extraterrestrial life make him an easy target for their more narrow-minded neighbors.

As the play begins, the instigator of one of these pranks on Dr. Jump and new kid in town, KJ Urbanik (Aron Spellane, alternately awash in awkwardness and bravado), upon realizing that Annie is his target’s daughter, explains that he just wanted to make a good impression on the other teenaged boys in town—an excuse that Annie meekly accepts. Despite the best efforts of her favorite teacher, Mrs. Gomez (a Ms. Frizzle-esque Robin Covington), Annie feels alone and misunderstood, driving her to head to the outskirts of town to watch the Perseid meteor shower on her own.

While she’s taking in Mother Nature’s fireworks, a billiard ball suddenly crashes into the ground, marking the arrival of Althea (a hysterical Emily Whitworth), an intergalactic AI who assumes the form of geeky Annie’s worst nightmare—a Kylie Jenner-adjacent Instagram influencer complete with loudly dyed hair, a crop top, and a popped hip. She brings with her the unexpected news that small-town Annie is in fact the Chosen One who can be granted access to the Library of Heaven, a repository of all the knowledge in the universe. What ensues is the kind of unexpected friendship that is the foundation upon which many a great teen movie has been built.

There is a lot that will be familiar to audiences in Annie Jump, but each aspect is rescued from cliché by a clever or emotionally grounded twist. This is due in no small part to the way Marsten has coaxed some fantastic performances out of her cast. Whitworth, in particular, brings impressive specificity and physicality to her role—she has the challenge of playing not a robot and not a popular teen girl, but an intergalactic supercomputer’s interpretation of what a popular teen girl is like. The platonic chemistry between her and Chapoy is palpable, as the opposites attract and impart life lessons to one another. Similarly, Spellane, as the clueless teenage boy trying, and often failing, to do the right thing, evoke empathy from the audience. One particularly memorable moment is when, at Althea’s insistence, Annie stands up herself and rebukes KJ—but takes it perhaps too far, obviously wounding him deeply. That an observer can feel both proud for Annie and sad for KJ is the mark of a nuanced narrative.

One of the strengths of Hardy’s script is the willingness to engage with serious subject matter in between the moments of levity. These topics include the death of Annie’s mother when she was a small child, the ensuing custody battles between her father and her maternal grandparents, and her need to take care of a parent struggling with taking care of his mental health. These moments are woven  into the magical realism and comedy naturally and without melodrama. It’s a credit to the writer, director, and cast that the audience isn’t left with emotional whiplash and the tone is kept believable throughout. Even when the plot and the rules of the (literal) universe get kind of muddled (wait, what does Annie have to do to get into the library again?), the emotional beats remain true.

It wouldn’t be a Rorschach show without some outstanding design work, and Annie Jump doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The highlight of this particular show is the combination of Katie McCreary’s lighting design, Kylos Brannon’s video design, and Veronica J. Lancaster’s sound design to create an awe-inspiring multimedia journey. At several points, while sitting in the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lab II, it almost felt more like being in an alternate version of the Space Mountain ride—in the best way possible. Matt Wolfe’s set design is clever is in versatility if occasionally cumbersome in its execution (although the evening I saw the show, a falling bit of set dressing provided Chapoy and Whitworth the opportunity to ad lib in character in a way that elicited a round of applause of its own).

Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven pulls off the rare trick of being appealing to audiences of all ages, boasting laugh-out-loud and more tender moments. As Nietzsche once wrote, “you need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.” And with a little theatrical magic mixed in, you can create a fun and exuberant evening that brings you closer to your fellow Earthlings.

Clothes for a Summer Hotel: Zelda and Scott and Tennessee

by John Bavoso

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be found on their site here.

In his note in the program of Rainbow Theatre Project’s new production of Tennessee Williams’ lesser-known play Clothes for a Summer Hotel—his last to be produced on Broadway in his lifetime—director Greg Stevens notes that the piece was a critical and commercial flop that drove the playwright further down the path of dejection and substance abuse. Now, I’m all for challenging oneself, but that seems like an inauspicious starting point when it comes to season planning. Indeed, the result is an admirably designed and executed production of an unfortunately flawed and not particularly engaging play.

The subject of Clothes for a Summer Hotel is the denouement of the infamously turbulent relationship between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story unfolds over the course of one day, during which Scott, at this point living in Hollywood with another woman and suffering from cardiac episodes, visits Zelda at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, NC, where she has been committed and has returned to her love of ballet. During this visit, the couple’s past is explored through conversation, memory, and fantasy.

Williams resented that the play was panned by detractors as a straightforward biography of the celebrity couple that got its facts wrong. He—and Stevens—insisted that the Fitzgeralds are merely a jumping off point for exploring his relationship with his own mentally ill sister, Rose, and his internal grappling with the end of his writing career (the play premiered in 1980; Williams died in 1983). However, as loaded down as the script is with references, allusions, and exposition about real-life figures, I can’t really fault the play’s original critics for viewing it more as a work of edification than entertainment.

One of the more intriguing parts of the play is its framing device. Billed as a ghost story, the characters are aware, to a certain extent, that they’re long-dead apparitions who have been conscripted into a work of theatre. This idea is reinforced by the character of The Writer (Matty Griffiths), who sits to the side of the stage, typing, drinking, smoking, announcing the beginning of each new scene, and reading stage directions. Griffiths does an excellent job staying in character while not actively part of the scene, and Stevens has created some clever moments for him to interact with the other characters.

Given a heavier load to carry are Aidan Hughes and Sara Barker as Scott and Zelda, respectively. The ways in which Williams has structured the script—jumping between times and locations—and his use of heightened language makes it somewhat challenging to establish an authentic-feeling relationship between the two leads, and in turn for the audience to become invested. Given Zelda’s volatility, Baker has more frequent opportunities to display an emotional range; Hughes’ Scott, however, falls a bit flat. They have some interesting moments together—particularly when discussing how Scott used Zelda’s life for his novels while also preventing her from pursuing a writing career of her own—but I never truly bought them as a couple simultaneously desperately in love and passionately at odds with one another.

A play with eight actors—most of whom play two roles—and multiple locations would be a logistical challenge for any playing space, but the compact nature of the black box at the DC Arts Center only heightens that complexity. Big kudos go out to Greg Stevens and his design team for maximizing the performance area and creating moments of separation and intimacy on a crowded stage—particularly for scenes between Zelda and her lover, Edouard (Brian J. Shaw), and snippets of levity featuring the nuns at the asylum (Mary May and Barbara Papendorp).

Pulling double duty as director and scenic designer, Stevens deftly creates five or six different areas on the tight stage, while Elliott Shugoll’s lighting design and Cresent Haynes’ sound design are a constant presence that add to the story and aid in differentiation rather than pull focus.

Overall, I left the theatre impressed with the artistry and professionalism of those involved, but not very fond of the piece itself. I am still rather puzzled as to why this particular company would choose this particular play at this particular time. Stevens mentions in his note that his goal with this production is to resurrect and give new life to Clothes for a Summer Hotel; unfortunately, I think it may better serve as proof that some ghosts from our theatrical past are better left to rest.

Resolving Hedda IS whip-smart and hilarious

by John Bavoso

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be read on their site here.

“We’re in a strange relationship with our fiction, you see,” Warren Ellis, the English comic-book writer, novelist, and screenwriter, once wrote. “Sometimes we fear it’s taking us over, sometimes we beg to be taken over by it… and sometimes we want to see what’s inside it.” In Jon Klein’s Resolving Hedda, currently being brought to life in a whip-smart and hilarious production by Washington Stage Guild, one fictional character in particular has most definitely taken over—and she’s taking the audience with her on a wild, bumpy ride.

Klein, currently the head of the MFA Playwriting Program at the Catholic University of America, takes a classic play that he’s taught for decades—Henrik Ibsen’s vaunted Hedda Gabler—and imagines what would happen if a self-aware Hedda tried to change the course of the play’s event from within it. It turns out what happens is that you get a cheeky, anachronistic, self-referential romp that makes for a truly entertaining evening.

This is the point where your reviewer must make a deeply shameful confession—I am, at best, only passingly familiar with the canonical Hedda Gabler. And by “passingly familiar,” I mean that I have neither read the play nor seen it fully produced.

Luckily, this puts me in the ideal position to let you know that having a similar blind spot will not detract from your enjoyment of Resolving Hedda even one iota. The fine folks at Washington Stage Guild have provided a succinct and sufficient synopsis in the program and our protagonist gives us enough of the beats along the way to help us noobs keep up; also, Wikipedia is a thing that exists, for those overachievers who wish to do their homework in advance. Sure, those with a deeper familiarity of the text may find some additional moments of nuanced humor, but it’s certainly not mandatory.

On entering the Undercroft Theatre beneath the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, audience members are greeted by scenic designer’s Tara Lyman-Dobson’s traditional set—all the usual suspects are present and accounted for, including oil paintings, a chaise lounge, and loads of books. Ditto Sígríd Jóhannesdóttir’s 19th century costume design. But that’s pretty much where convention ends.

Even before artistic director Bill Largess has finished his curtain speech, Hedda herself, played here with commanding personality and undeniable charisma by Kelly Karcher, alerts us to the fact that this won’t be any old production of Hedda Gabler. This version of Hedda knows she’s in a play, knows she’s going to die in the end, knows who her murderer is (Ibsen—or Ibsy as she calls him, naturally), and is hell-bent on changing her fate and surviving this night. More than 100 years of following the same script around the world has left Hedda furious, foul-mouthed, and feminist as… well, you know. Karcher is a force of nature in this role as our fed-up guide straining against a nature devised for her by a dead Norwegian.

The rest of the characters, however, have arrived expecting just another night. Hedda’s nerdy husband George (played with slapstick haplessness by Jamie Smithson), beautiful and blonde friend Thea (a hilariously confused Emilie Faith Thompson), meddling Aunt Julia (the delightfully dotty Jewell Robinson), stereotypically evil Judge Brack (a deliciously devious Steve Beall), and earnest Eilert (a brash and haughty Matthew Castleman) are all baffled by the suddenly changed Hedda in their midst. (Poor Bertha is given the night off—too small a role, Hedda explains.) And, as Hedda tries and tries to steer the action in a different direction, the rest of the characters unwittingly thwart her every attempt.

Fans of metatheatricality will adore Klein’s script, and director Steven Carpenter’s impeccable execution of it, complete with anachronism, inside jokes, fourth wall breaks, and audience interaction. This new, feisty Hedda, who tries fiercely to break free from her pre-ordained path, is the self-confident feminist protagonist that will have contemporary audiences cheering. Klein’s Hedda isn’t just representing herself; she’s taking up the torch for all the classical anti-heroines with ICD (Impulse Control Disorder) who are driven by motives that are far less developed than those of their male counterparts.

There’s a well-known notion in the industry that audiences don’t really want to see theatre that’s about theatre—but based on the uproarious laughter and utter investment of the people sitting around me, I’d say that “inside baseball” can still be a home run. While watching Resolving Hedda, you’ll likely find yourself more engaged in a period piece than you’ve ever been before—and glued to your seat until the final defiant moment.

The Seagull from The Wheel

by John Bavoso

This article was first published by DC Theatre and can be found on their site here.

Was Anton Chekhov touched with the gift of prophecy when he wrote the first of his four major plays, The Seagull? Or, even rarer, with self-awareness? The piece, which begins with a disastrous performance of an avant-garde play, was considered an epic failure upon its debut in Petersburg in 1896. The situation was so dire that Chekhov swore off writing plays all together. For all the angst it surely caused its writer at the time, the piece endures as a meditation on the new vs. the old, the nature and purpose of art, and the merits or lack thereof of fame—all fertile ground for the young artists at The Wheel Theatre Company to dig into in a new adaption written and directed by Jack Read.

The Seagull has, of course, been adapted many times before—as The Notebook of Trigorin by Tennessee Williams, and Aaron Posner’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and as musicals, films, and operas. Read’s version, through trimmed down to 100 minutes without an intermission, is fairly true to the original text in terms of the four-act structure, the characters, and many of the jokes. Where the The Wheel puts its own stamp on the classic is the casting and in the form of a prologue and epilogue of Read’s own devising.

A true ensemble piece, The Seagull is nonetheless, at its center, the story of Boris Trigorin (Thomas Shuman), a wildly famous but insecure writer; his lover, Irina Arkadina (Olivia Haller), the aging actress; her son, Konstantin Treplyov (Aron Spellane), an experimental writer; and the object of his affection, the ingénue Nina Zarechnaya (Gracie Eda Baker). In the orbit of this foursome are the estate’s manager, Ilya Shamrayev (Adrian Iglesias), his wife, Polina (Elizabeth Floyd), and his daughter, Masha (Madeline Mooney); Arkadina’s brother, the retired civil servant Sorin (Axandre Oge); Semyon Medvedenko (Amber James), a schoolteacher; and Yevgeny Dorn (Colton Needles), a country doctor and unrepentant ladies’ man.

As previously mentioned, the action begins with a play within a play, written by Konstantin and performed by Nina, which is cut short by the laughter and scorn of Arkadina for her son’s inaccessible and dour work. This act is the jumping off point for multiple love triangles, musing about creation and notoriety, and, against all odds, some very funny jokes.

Read and his team have made some interesting choices to update this classic. The first, that he has cast young actors to play a variety of age ranges without attempting to visually age them in any way. This choice does well to highlight the universality of questions about one’s purpose and identity. It also runs the risk of making Chekhov’s characters sound like petulant, bratty 20-somethings—but Read and his cast steer away from any impulse toward caricature. The choice to cast the male character of Medvedenko as a female actor brought an interesting spin and welcome queerness to the role and the impoverished schoolteacher’s relationship with Masha.

The contemporary costumes—the design for which go uncredited, leaving me to assume they have come out of the cast’s own closets—suit the reimagined characters well without taking the audience out of the story. And Elizabeth Floyd’s props and sets work well with the small space in the DC Arts Center. The Wheel’s production feels rather thrown together in a way that complements the text and subject matter rather than detracting from it.

The real draw here is the performances. Shuman brings to the role of Trigorin an alluring mix of self-confident charm and vulnerability. This is especially the case in a prologue of Read’s own devising that has the fictional writer narrate excerpts from Chekhov’s actual letters about The Seagull, further blurring the lines between the creation of the play and its subject matter. Haller seems to be taking immense pleasure in embodying the haughtiness and cutting tongue of Arkadina—my guest likened her rendition to that of Moira from Schitt’s Creek, and it’s not a parallel I could not argue with.

Spellane brings the right notes of earnestness and thin skin to the role of Konstantine, and shines in an original epilogue, during which the actor conveys so much emotion without uttering a single word. Baker, despite her youth, feels more natural and resonant as the older, world-weary version of Nina than as the young, striving actress. Iglesias, James, and Mooney—whose extra emo Masha wouldn’t be out of place at a My Chemical Romance concert—provide delightful moments of comic relief.

Even in this slimmed-down version of the play, and despite Read’s capable direction, the action drags a bit in middle, especially without an intermission to break things up. At the same time, certain characters suffered slightly in the trimming—Masha, for example, seemed to lose a bit of robustness in the way her story was cut up, leading to a more one-note characterization than the original.

Minor flaws aside, Jack Read and his cast have presented a version of The Seagull that manages to be both timeless and of-the-moment. The seagull is symbolic of something that returns home again and again, and the fact that a production of a 123-year-old play can still be relevant and reveal truths about the world we’re living in today is a testament both to Chekhov and The Wheel’s team of passionate young artists.

Joe Calarco’s Separate Rooms: From a young man’s death come the two biggest questions of life

by John Bavoso

This article was first published on DC Theatre Scene and can be found on their site here.

Morrie Schwartz, the sociology professor and subject of Mitch Albom’s bestselling book, Tuesdays with Morrie, once said, “Death ends a life, not a relationship. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on—in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here.”

Leave it to a playwright like Joe Calarco to take a sentiment like this literally and put it up on the stage. The result is 4615 Theatre Company’s world premiere production of Separate Rooms, a haunting and sometimes hilarious look at the tiny ripples and huge waves the death of a loved one can send through the lives of those left behind—and a showcase for a supremely talented cast.

Calarco—a prolific playwright and the Director of New Works at Signature Theatre—refers to Separate Rooms as his Big Chill, which began its life years ago as a short play written while the author was living and working in New York. As Calarco grew up, so did the characters, and so did the page length, eventually becoming the 95-minute work that’s been entrusted to 4615 Theatre Company, a relatively young and new-on-the-scene company based in Silver Spring.

The story—or stories, really—revolve around the sudden and violent death of Him (Alex Mills), a young gay man who lived in New York City with his boyfriend, Josh (Stephen Russell Murray), circa 2011. He’s trapped in a void-like afterlife, where he watches his sister, Anna (Jenn Rabbitt Ring), and Josh’s coterie of friends from his Cornell University days grapple with their sudden loss in various rooms of their apartment following his funeral. In addition to this close-knit group, there are unexpected visitors, including Josh’s lusty downstairs neighbor, Simon (Reginald Richard), and The Guest, a mysterious woman (Melissa Carter) who appears to speak mostly in out-of-context movie quotes.

There are, in fact, nine characters in total, which is a lot for a tiny, one-bedroom Manhattan apartment (or even smaller black box in downtown Silver Spring) but director Jordan Friend—who’s also the Founding Artistic Director of 4615 Theatre Company—applies a deft hand in navigating his actors around the cramped space while giving them each moments to shine.

And shine they do, when given the chance. With so many characters to introduce, Calarco naturally had to prioritize the stories of some over others. As Him, Mills acts as our tour guide even as he comes to terms with the rules of his new reality. Mills brings variations of tenderness, sarcasm, bitterness, and longing to his role of the recently deceased, observing the world go on without him and being frustrated by not being to do anything but watch.

Jen Rabbitt Ring’s Anna is a tangled-up knot of stress and grief, the archetypal overworked non-profit executive who’s both tightly wound and completely unraveling. The character could easily devolve into stereotype in less-capable hands, but Ring brings an authenticity and relatability to the role. Similarly, Stephen Russell Murray embodies Josh’s neurotic copyeditor persona perfectly, while injecting convincing sexual energy to a number of his scenes. In too many plays with gay couples, the characters are given little in the way of reason for being attracted to one another than they happen to be gay and in the same play, but the connection between Him and Josh feels genuine (due credit also goes to intimacy director Jonathan Ezra Rubin).

Many of the characters who are given less in the way of backstory are offered other opportunities to dazzle. The perfect example of this is 4615 company member Alani Kravitz as Melissa, who steals the show in every scene she’s in. We may not know much about Melissa as a person, but her boisterous delivery of lines like, “I am often inappropriate!” and her one true flash of anger when her emotional labor is overlooked add up to delight whenever Kravitz steps foot on stage. Similarly, Reginald Richard as Simon, the interloping neighbor out to seduce Josh, had the audience riveted as he delivered a monologue—as much with his eyes as with his voice—about the co-mingling of his spiritual and sexual awakening. And Jenna Berk’s Janie, Josh’s friend who’s fallen out of touch with him, is the last character to be introduced, but creates some of the most indelible moments.

Still, with so many lives to juggle in such a condensed amount of time, it feels like some characters get elided over. The climax of the play, which allows for the introduction of an interesting and paradox-inducing theatrical device, feels rather abrupt and somewhat unearned in the context of everything that comes before it. I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps the elimination of a character or two may have allowed Calarco to go deeper rather than wider.

In addition to all the different characters to keep up with, the audience also is bounced around in time. Him, in his void, is able to call up different moments in time and space—essentially rewinding the action—so we can see different perspectives and understand how the characters got to where they are now. It’s a very cinematic device, reminiscent of movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Vantage Point. The trick is pulled off with the help of Katie McCreary’s subtle and nuanced lighting design and Jordan Friend’s sound design.

There’s an inherent challenge in having such a large group of people maneuver a very small space while also recreating different rooms within an apartment. Scenic designer Jennifer Hiyama has devised some ingenious puzzle-piece-esque, movable sets, but they seemed to also be a hindrance to the actors—more than one struggled to squeeze between set pieces and at one point a free-standing door had to be caught by an audience member lest it crash down on top of him. Tackling the ambitious feat of creating multiple locations within such a small space is a noble goal, but in this case the set served as more of a distraction than a way of bringing the audience deeper into the story. Hopefully these bumps in the road will get smoothed out as the production goes along.

Technical difficulties aside, Calaraco, Friend, and the stellar cast and crew of Separate Rooms have come together to create a work that’s sexy, entertaining, and wry, but also filled with moments of real depth and universal emotion. When Him asks the audience, “Will I be missed? What was my impact on the world?” I doubt there was a single person watching who hasn’t asked themselves that very same question. Especially in light of recent losses endured by the DC theatre community, Separate Rooms is a play that’s both timely and timeless—and one that’s sure to have a long life beyond this initial production.