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Silent, spectacular performance from Dublin’s Fishamble

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

It’s a rare gift for a play to present a despairing character with both lightness and the sincerity he deserves. Silent and its subject, Tino, are by turns funny, bleak, and feverish, but always riveting. One minute into this show, as Tino slowly emerges from beneath a blanket on stage in a kind of haunting, playful dance, you’ll know what you’re in for: a keenly observed, carefully crafted, fluidly executed character study brought to life by a spectacular performer.

A solo play, written and performed by Pat Kinevane and directed by Jim Culleton for Dublin-based theater company FishambleSilent is making its DC debut this month at the Atlas Performing Arts Center thanks to Solas Nua, a contemporary Irish arts organization in DC. The play netted a coveted Olivier Award in 2016 and has been staged around the world, but stepping into Atlas’s Lab Theatre II, you’d think it was tailor-made for that space. The all-black theater engulfs the audience in total darkness, and the smartly directed lighting creates a cinematic array of spotlights, alleyway glows, looming shadows, and even disco flashes in one terrifying scene. The small room and low-lying seats allow Kinevane to walk among the audience with ease and strike up conversations as he goes. Tino isn’t soliloquizing; he’s looking us in the eye, telling us a story, and making sure we’re listening.

This direct, down-to-earth communication does nothing to diminish the subject’s flair for the dramatic. Named after Rudolph Valentino by a mother obsessed with silent film, Tino is capable of his namesake’s wild theatrics. Present-day Tino is a homeless man in County Cork, but he inhabits various times, bodies, and personas throughout the show. In one of the play’s running jokes, he dials a mental health line with an absurdist automated menu: “If you have multiple personalities, please press 1, 2, 5, and 6.” Through Tino’s multiplicity—and Kinevane’s genius ability to transform objects, negative space, and himself into absent people—we meet his strict, self-conscious mother, his beloved older brother Pierce, his long-suffering wife Judy, his childhood self, and a cast of fleeting characters.

Tino mostly relays these characters to us in conversational style, but at times he launches into pure performativity. Silentgives us a new take on the play-within-a-play. Over the course of the show, we watch five “films” complete with titles, pre-recorded dialogue booming through the speakers, and Tino acting out every part with dancerly panache. The films center on his brother Pierce’s attempts on his own life. Tino obsesses over Pierce throughout the play, and traces many of his problems—clinical depression, alcoholism—at least in part to his suicide.

It is through this storyline that the theme of silence is most wrenchingly reinforced. Pierce was queer, and harangued for it by other boys and his own mother from a young age. Tino blames himself for never speaking up in his brother’s defense. Even after his death, Pierce’s story remains shrouded in silence; no one at the funeral will say the word suicide, even though, Tino tells us in a fury, “the word was always there, begging to escape, behind the corners of everyone’s downturned mouths!”

Silent film stars made their facial expressions and gestures speak the volumes they could not. Tino uses the medium to turn a story that was muted and swept under the rug in his own life into an epic for all to see.

Pierce and Tino’s relationship is most moving because the play devotes so much time to it. Tino reminisces about what his brother would say in his sleep when the boys bunked in the same childhood room, about finding Pierce’s pornography (Cockatoo Magazine), about how he dressed and who he hung out with. Some other elements of Tino’s story are less convincing. The tale of his wife kicking him out of the house for drunkenness and his distance from his adolescent son feel more like tropes because these moments and figures in his life are never fleshed out. In attempting to present a complete tapestry of Tino’s life, Silent leaves some areas a little threadbare. This never throws off the show’s balancing act, though, because we’re sufficiently invested in Kinevane’s entrancing voice, fitful bursts of madness, and elaborate choreography.

Solas Nua has arranged to make a certain number of tickets available to those experiencing homelessness in DC for every show. Upcoming performances will also feature a series of talkbacks with Kinevane and representatives of local organizations fighting poverty and providing services to DC’s homeless community. These practical conversations on what can be done to alleviate the suffering presented in this play are a crucial follow-up. It’s one thing to walk away from Silent with renewed empathy for marginalized members of our own community, and another to work toward dismantling their marginalization. This production takes experiences we often overlook, and will not let us turn away. Nor will you want to.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘Richard III’ explores public’s complicity in tyranny

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

How often have you flung up your hands and decried this moment of “political theater” in the United States? Richard III — showing through Sunday at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall — stands among Shakespeare’s great works of conscience not only in its exposure of power-hungry depravity, but also in demonstrating how the public’s participation is what makes such depravity possible. Fling up your hands no more: You play an essential role in this production.

Director David Muse highlights the play’s “great treatment of complicity,” which makes it an excellent choice for the present day — a point made not only in his production notes but also in “Bookends,” a Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) audience engagement program designed to deepen and democratize the conversation between theater and audience. The pre- and post-show event is held for one performance night of every play the STC stages, beginning with a facilitated dialogue about the historical context of the play and its place in popular imagination, and ending with a cast Q&A.

Samantha Wyre Bellow, senior director of education, and Drew Lichtenberg, literary manager, kicked off the Feb. 13 discussion by emphasizing the vast interpretive possibilities of Shakespeare’s living texts while providing a helpful framework for critically viewing this particular production. Fracturing the lens of centuries past, they encouraged the audience to watch for echoes of our own era in the play — and to be wary of the ways in which, Wyre Bellow argued, “the villain takes us along as accomplices.”

Richard III chronicles the Duke of Gloucester’s murder- and manipulation-paved rise to the crown, and his ultimate demise. A play whose first act sees Richard engineer his brother’s imprisonment and assassination is not about the making of a tyrant so much as the way the world responds to tyranny. We watch as lords ally themselves with the Duke for personal gain, only to lose their heads when their utility expires; attendants do his bidding with blind loyalty, and the public eats up his campaigns of misinformation.

Despite its overt politicism, Richard III is only as cutting as the director’s editorial eye. One of Shakespeare’s early plays — and one of his longest — it is bogged down by references to British history and a parade of minor characters. For the STC’s production, Muse has winnowed away 40 percent of the original text. Though the play remains dense, uneven and occasionally prosaic, Muse’s excerpting helps propel the plot.This serves his overarching goal of clarity, as does his gift to the audience of a dramatis personae projected in lights above the stage as each character enters. 

This production is contemporary, but avoids the limiting trope of tying Richard to any one moment or figurehead. Costume designer Murell Horton’s clean-cut gray suits and neutral gowns feel austere and timeless. Debra Booth’s chilling set places us in an abattoir of gray, rusting walls and industrial machinery, lit by an enormous operating-room light — anywhere’s underbelly.

In this wintry hell, Matthew Rauch plays the title character as an understated devil. His hasty delivery of Richard’s opening soliloquy establishes a steely and expedient villain with whom we won’t be asked to empathize. Though never plumbing beyond a sociopathic interpretation of the character, Rauch swings an impressive arc. His early magnetism comes from quick-tongued repartee and limitless audacity. His confidence grows along with his body count, but his giddiness diminishes as he adjusts to success. When allies dissipate and his downfall nears, he physically disintegrates before our eyes; inconspicuous in earlier acts, the disability he obsesses over crystallizes as a property of his own fear and self-loathing.

Rauch is surrounded by strong performances of underdeveloped characters. Cara Ricketts is a firebrand Lady Anne, whose deeply ambiguous wooing scene suggests that she is not stupidly seduced by Richard, but is making a calculated move to align herself with political power. Derrick Lee Weeden’s Lord Hastings blusters through his misgivings all the way to the chopping block. More cog than character here, Christopher Michael McFarland’s Buckingham has little personality beyond the obedience he mistakenly thinks will buy Richard’s good graces. As the young princes standing in the way of the Duke’s succession, Charlie Niccolini and Logan Matthew Baker play up their boyishness, demonstrating how two royals might place trust in such an unsettling uncle.

Then there’s the ensemble, who stamp their feet and whet their knives to foreshadow bloodshed. No murder takes place in off-stage secrecy as envisioned in Shakespeare’s text. Instead, the ensemble chants, dances, and encircles the bodies. This dramatization often feels heavy-handed, especially when coupled with the too-sinister score. In moderation, though, it could have been a good device to implicate the whole kingdom — and ultimately the rapt audience — in the villainy afoot.

Throughout the show, center stage is occupied by a misogynistic Richard, yet in this production the women wield the greatest power. Although the Duchess of York (Sandra Shipley) and Queen Elizabeth (Robynn Rodriguez) are played one-note, they are the only ones in Richard’s circle to truly defy him. Lizan Mitchell’s Margaret of Anjou reverberates with the presence of an oracle when issuing her prophetic curses — perhaps delivering too much spectacle, though it’s fitting that the conscience of such a play would feel out of place. 

Importantly, women aren’t limited to providing the play’s moral compass; Sofiya Cheyenne is a compelling Mayor of London who decides to play Richard’s pawn to save her own skin. Evelyn Spahr — a young woman — is cast as the Earl of Richmond, who ultimately defeats Richard and restores order to England. The choice to cast women in these traditionally male roles dominated the discussion in the “Bookends” closing Q&A. “I think there is power in a woman holding power at the end of the show,” Cheyenne commented.

The show ends with a resounding inhalation, ostensibly a breath of hope. It should also serve as a suspenseful pause. History has shown us that the toppling of one Richard does nothing to impede the rise of the next. Real tyrants’ magnetism often draws us in until our own hands are covered in the blood they’ve spilled. At its best, this involving production is not a diversion, but a useful wake-up call.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Richard III opened Feb. 5 and continues through March 10 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets cost $44 to $125.

Next Stop: North Korea. John Feffer’s latest looks inside the world’s most secretive society

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Few foreign lands loom larger in the American imagination than North Korea, despite and because the average outsider knows almost nothing about the country. We’re in the dark by design: the U.S. restricts and currently bans tourist travel, the North Korean Central News Agency emits pure propaganda every day, and our countries’ diplomatic communications are tenuous at best.

Playwright, performer, and foreign policy scholar John Feffer’s new one-man show aims to bring the audience “as close to North Korea as you can get without a visa.” What a tantalizing proposition. It’s also too tall an order for any play devised by one American man, however extensive his expertise may be. Instead of giving me new access and insights into the country, Next Stop: North Korea made me feel the limitations of my understanding more acutely. Not what the playbill advertises, but perhaps the show’s principal achievement.

Feffer made three trips to Pyongyang and surrounding areas when working for the American Friends Service Committee in the late 1990s and 2000s, not long after North Korea’s infamous four-year famine. The plot of the play is framed by his own story: his observations, ethical dilemmas, and frustrated efforts to provide resources to local agriculture collectives and establish a variety of Korean-American exchanges.

Into his personal narrative, he interweaves scenes featuring a cast of locals he encounters along the way. We meet a Juche tower tour guide, a woman who has memorized all of Kate Winslet’s lines in Titanic and speaks impeccable English, but espouses fiercely patriotic rhetoric. There is the minder, a government official who guides Feffer on his tour of North Korea and is assigned to surveil his every move, who performs a peculiarly dissonant rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” as Kim Il Sung’s image is projected behind him. We hear from a driver who has chosen to stay put in North Korea after considering the possibility of opening up a cold noodle shop across the southern border, and a defector who both decries his country’s human rights abuses and feels nostalgic for home.

The most interesting moments in these character vignettes are when they make us question how the performances with which we are presented align with the true feelings of the speakers. The Juche tower guide spews anti-American vitriol and never strays from the strictures of the regime’s party line. However, the Titanic dialogue she chooses to recite to demonstrate her love of the movie suggests we may be overlooking signs of a distress she is afraid to voice: “I feel I’m standing in the middle of a crowded room, screaming at the top of my lungs, and no one even looks up.”

How much of the news we get about North Korea is reality, and how much is a show? What do we fail to understand about the country and its people because its government deliberately conceals information from outsiders–and what do we fail to understand simply because of the depth of the cultural gulf between us? In 2017, Evan Osnos was permitted to visit Pyongyang for New Yorkerstory, one of very few journalists invited for an official tour including interviews with government officials. Reflecting on what it means to report on a carefully constructed tour of an authoritarian country, Osnos wrote, “the experience is less akin to normal foreign correspondence than to theatre criticism…Proving it to be theatre is beside the point; we already know that. It is difficult and important enough just to describe the show with fidelity and detail.”

Feffer’s play gives us detail: He describes the sights, sounds, and textures of the mausoleum housing Kim Il Sung’s embalmed body. He contrasts the gritty rice and bony chicken he shares with farmers in the countryside with the spread at a banquet the government requires him to attend. As for fidelity, it’s a fairer standard for journalism than for art. Mostly, Feffer sticks to the facts in depicting his own experiences, occasionally rearranging the timeline of conversations and encounters to suit narrative flow. Some of the other characters, he said in a talk-back following the performance, are modeled closely on individuals he has met or interviewed, while others were more imaginatively constructed.

Feffer has written the characters’ monologues with distinctive voices and performs them with impressively varied energies, from the jittery Juche Tower guide to the rigid minder to the easygoing driver. However, it is important for the audience to remember that the show does not “[introduce us] to four North Koreans,” as Feffer suggests in his preview, but to four characters reconstituted from Feffer’s memory of the limited portion of the North Korean population he was able to meet, individuals who were no doubt performing the versions of themselves that were safest for them to enact in his presence.

This performative layering, this distance, is the natural limitation of an American-made play about North Korea. It’s also fascinating in its own right. As long as we approach Next Stop: North Korea as a spark for more nuanced questions about Korea and the U.S. relationship to the country, not as a key to understanding its people, this is a useful and timely production.

Next Stop: North Korea also features nightly talk-backs with Feffer and different Korea experts. The show I attended included Dr. Immanuel Kim, a professor at George Washington University whose latest book looks at the honest depiction of social issues in North Korean literature.


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.

John Cameron Mitchell’s Origin of Love Tour

by John Bavoso

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

They say you should never meet your heroes, but what about crowd-surfing them? That was what I was thinking the night of February 8, as I helped keep John Cameron Mitchell aloft as he made his way through the orchestra on the hands of adoring Hedwig and the Angry Inch fans. We had gathered to bask in the glow of The Origin of Love, a punk-rock live Behind the Music episode of sorts and a gift to Hedwig heads everywhere.

The evening of songs, storytelling, and sass was the first stop on a national tour, and DC audiences got a tailored experience that few other audiences may have. Mitchell lived for a bit in Falls Church, his grandfather owned a house in Bethesda, and he had even had cousins in the audience. Throw in a few jokes from Hedwig about Melania, and you had a concert experience that was unique and surprisingly personalized.

Mitchell—who was joined on stage by members of his original Broadway band and powerhouse performer Amber Martin—sported a black, white, gray, and red costume that transformed into six different outfits over the course of the night. He also was crowned with Hedwig’s classic wig, this time tinted light gray or white, a sly nod to the fact that Mitchell has been embodying the trans East German rock ‘n’ roll songstress for literally decades at this point.

As Mitchell worked through some of the most beloved numbers from the Hedwig songbook—“The Origin of Love,” Sugar Daddy,” “Wig in a Box,” and “Wicked Little Town” among them—he filled in bits of personal history and trivia to give context to each song. Whether it was a story about meeting songwriter and co-Hedwig creator Stephen Trask on an airplane, or describing his first time taking the stage as Hedwig in a downtown punk rock drag club (and being way too theatre-kid prepared), he spun bits of lore behind one of the most beloved cult musicals ever created. When he explained that he and Stephen originally performed “The Long Grift” on the lawn of the rehab clinic where Jack, Stephen’s bass player and John’s lover, was trying to get sober, there was nary a dry eye in the house.

Ever the magnetic and dynamic performer, Mithell held the crowd in the palm of his manicured hand the entire night, despite moments he described as “more punk rock than Broadway.” Yes, he forgot the lyrics to a couple of songs and had to start “Sugar Daddy” over completely (although my guest had a theory that the band and lights reset so quickly, that that might not have been a totally spontaneous restart), and there was a mic stand he simply could not get to stand up straight, but not a single member of the audience cared—if anything, it only made him more human and relatable.

The night wasn’t only about Hedwig; Martin was given her time to shine with a David Bowie cover and solo performance of the song “Bermuda” from the soundtrack to Mitchell’s 2017 film, How to Talk to Girls at Parties (which, yes, also got me a little misty-eyed, thanks for asking). As part of the encore, he sang a couple of songs from and previewed his new musical, Anthem, a six-hour epic that will be released as a podcast first, and will feature the talents of legends like Glenn Close, Patty Lupone, and Cynthia Erivo.

The Origin of Love was a love letter to Hedwig and John Cameron Mitchell’s gift to fans less than a week before Valentine’s Day. Leaving the theater with a crowd of people filled with such love and joy in their hearts, just blocks away from the White House, was an experience I won’t soon forget and would happily repeat anytime.

The Origin of Love performance was one night only: Friday, February 8, 2019.

Ouroboros: Dawn of the Cabaret iS choose-your-own adventure in a DC mansion

by John Bavoso

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

Few words strike fear into the hearts of wide swaths of the theatre-going population than ‘Audience Participation.’ But when said participation involves sipping champagne, swanning around a mansion in Dupont Circle, watching fire spinners perform in the snow, and solving puzzles with strangers, that pill becomes a lot easier to swallow. Thus is the experience created by TBD Immersive in their new interactive performance piece, Ouroboros: Dawn of the Cabaret.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, well, that’s just the beginning. As an audience member, it’s up to you to join a side and undertake quests at the request of your fellow guests. There are at least three or four paths you can take, which is exciting, but can also lead to wide variations in not just the content, but also the quality of the experience amongst audience members.

For instance, my guest and I started out on one track at the beginning of the evening, but then unintentionally switched halfway through, meaning we never really got the whole story for either path. As we watched a climactic fight play out in front of us, for example, we had no clue what was going on, because the inciting event occurred upstairs while we were down in the basement. While this is realistic in terms of how things actually work at real-life parties, it did create some moments of confusion that weren’t always of the fun and intriguing variety. Perhaps a slightly more streamlined narrative arc may have led to certain attendees not being left out in the proverbial cold.

This is not the say that I didn’t enjoy my time at the Wescotts’ abode; in fact, I had a marvelous evening. This is due in large part to the wildly talented cast, who almost universally nailed both their scripted scenes and 2+ hours’ worth of improvised interaction. Lange ate up the role of the despised stepmother with the suspiciously short courtship and abrupt elopement, and was liable to break into song at any moment (much to the chagrin of many of the other characters). Bradshaw’s Drew practically vibrated with nervous energy, while Hart’s Astrid hid her cunning and desperation to get to the bottom of what really happened to her mother behind a ditzy, party girl façade.

The Whittemore House proved to be the ideal venue for this performance, offering three levels of indoor and outdoor space for the cast and audience to play with. From the fortune teller in the parlor to the burlesque dancer in the ballroom to the fire performers working their magic in the garden, there was always something to engage with and admire. Despite the mansion’s sprawling nature, the cast managed to create small moments of genuine intimacy and delight. For example, my guest and I and about five other people were treated to a stunning command performance by Angelique (Chaseedaw Giles) in a linen closet in the basement barely big enough to fit us, in what turned out to be the most memorable moment of the evening.

Many theatre companies have mission statements that include nods to breaking down the fourth wall and inviting the audience to participate in the creation of the work, but few have made good on this promise to such a high degree. With Ouroboros, TBD Immersive has created an event that is impressive in both its scope and its nuance, and in doing so, has filled a vital niche in the DC area theatre landscape. I, for one, am excited to see where they lead audiences next.

Joshua Harmon’s scathing comedy ‘Admissions’ big hit with Studio audiences

by John Bavoso

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

A couple of weeks ago, the satire site McSweeney’s published an article entitled, “How Can I Help to Promote Diversity Without Relinquishing Any of My Power?” This title alone could serve as an incredibly succinct synopsis of Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, now playing at Studio Theatre, where Harmon’s previous play Bad Jews holds the distinction of being the company’s best-selling production ever.

Like Bad JewsAdmissions skewers a very specific subset of the population—in this case, upper-middle class white progressives. Harmon comes by his disdain for this particular kind of liberal sanctimoniousness honestly, having grown up in Westchester, NY, a wealthy suburban community just outside of the city. “The people who were the most progressive and vocal also tended to be the first people to pick up the phone and make a call to make sure that their kids got everything they wanted out of life,” Harmon explains to dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen.

Admissions is set at Hillcrest, an elite boarding school in rural New Hampshire. Sherri Rosen-Mason (Meg Gibson) oversees admissions for the school, and is proud of the fact that, under her decade-and-a-half watch, the number of students of color has jumped from 6% to 18%. We’re introduced to her particular brand of cold professionalism in the opening scene, in which she chastises Roberta (Sarah Marshall), a member of the institution’s development department whose ties to the school go back generations, for not including enough people of color in the new admissions brochure.

When Roberta protests that she included Perry, the son of a white mother—Ginnie Peters (Marni Penning), Sherri’s best friend—and half-Black father, Sherri counters that while Perry counts as Black for the purposes of her statistics, he doesn’t photograph Black enough to count for the brochure. Right off the bat, we know we’re in for a wild ride.

Back at home, Sherri opens a bottle of wine to share with Ginnie while they both wait to hear whether their sons—best friends Perry and Sherri’s son, Charlie (Ephraim Birney)—have gotten into Yale. Ginnie is delighted to get the call that Perry has been accepted, while Sherri and her husband, Bill (Kevin Kilner, who you may recognize from The Good Wife or House of Cards), who is also the school’s headmaster, are left to wait until Charlie comes home from screaming in the woods for four hours to learn that his application has been deferred.

This propels Charlie into suggesting that Perry only got in because he’s mixed race and launches him into a screed (that impressively goes on for 15 to 20 minutes, easily) about the entire notion of diversity and seats at the table and who even counts as a person of color anyway. It also sets into motion a series of events that tests his parents’ convictions and puts all of their relationships in jeopardy.

Director Mike Donahue keeps things moving at a quick clip as the characters move around the bland affluence of scenic designer Caite Hevner’s kitchen set and open endless bottles of white wine. Birney’s work is a true standout for that marathon-length monologue alone, but he’s given a harder bill of goods to sell in the second half of the play (I’ll get to that in a moment). The B plot scenes between Gibson and Marshall are quite funny, highlighting generational differences and the imprecision of language around race and diversity.

Overall, though, Harmon’s words are the real star of the show, and this can be both a boon and a detriment. The monologues sparkle and Harmon’s capacity for glancing one-liners seems infinite, but some of the dialog can feel more wooden than natural. And this may be in part because he sometimes takes his characterizations to the extreme—Bill, for instance, basically calls everyone in the world a racist at one point or another without allowing for any nuance whatsoever.

The thing that most pulled me out of the story, however, is the aforementioned action that Charlie takes (and I won’t spoil here) about two-thirds of the way through the play, which reveals his parents’ true hypocrisy. My problem is that the change of heart that inspires this act seems totally unearned—there’s no moment of epiphany that the audience is privy to, nor are there any consequences for Charlie’s previous diatribes that incentivize him to change his attitude. It struck me that what he does he only does so that he can move the plot along and say the lines Harmon wants spoken at the end of the play. These moments feel more like the playwright speaking directly to the audience rather than a character speaking genuinely from his heart, and threatens to turn character into caricature.

Harmon and the entire Admissions team give audiences a lot to think and talk about as they exit the theater. In fact, a gentleman behind me, when the lights went up at the end of the show, wondered aloud whether the composition of the audience itself even remotely approached the 6% Hillcrest’s student body began with. These are important conversations to be having, and while Admissions may not offer up any solutions, it does give the audience the chance to laugh—primarily at itself.