Every Brilliant Thing ~ Studio Theatre

Jordan Wright
June 24, 2019 

Studio Theater’s new Milton Theatre is looking to attract a summer crowd and last night it did.  Called SHOWROOM it is a casual space offering specialty cocktails and snacks at the bar.   Olney Theatre Center’s production of Every Brilliant Thing, by playwrights Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe, is a one-man, one-act play about suicide and was the first of the off-beat performances of the season.  Pleasantly ensconced at café tables lit with candles, the youngish crowd had bought their drinks and looked ready for a Friday date night that promised audience participation.  Touted as a comedy, it seemed as though fun was just around the corner.

Alexander Strain and an audience member in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

So, maybe I should have had what they were drinking, or snagged one of the cards that was handed out in advance to a smattering of guests so they could call out some of the “brilliant things” Alexander was grateful for while his mother lay in hospital after another suicide attempt.  But for me, no amount of jokes or self-deprecating comedic schtick could subtract from the fact that a family was being torn asunder by a mother’s crushing depression and nothing could stop that fateful train from jumping the tracks.

Alexander Strain and an audience member in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

Thinking about my feelings for the play, I drifted off to sleep that night and had a dream about it – a dream as quirky as the play itself.  I dreamed that Amy Schumer was in a play she had written and was eager to get a group of us into the theater to see it.  She described it as a story about her mother’s suicide.  We didn’t want to see her act out her personal tragedy, but she begged us to participate.  We entered the theater (in Greece, no less) and the more we listened, the more we wanted her to stop.  Because though it seemed to be alleviating her sorrow, we couldn’t bear to hear the whole dismal story.

The audience and Alexander Strain in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

That’s what this play is about more or less, except that the audience is conscripted to shout out these brilliant things like “ice cream”, “staying up past bedtime”, “things with stripes”, etc.  Much of the time these non-actors couldn’t be heard across the room.  My seatmate turned to me on several occasions with a quizzical look, as if hoping I would tell him.  That left us wondering what the brilliant thing was that Alexander as the child, who later presents as a teenager, and ultimately a college student with his own crushing depression, might have said.

I’ll grant you it might seem like a healthy psychological exercise to look for the sunny side of life while everything around you is crumbling, but nonetheless, it doesn’t work out in the end for Alexander, even though a woman from the audience has been asked to play his dying dog’s vet, another has been asked to play his guidance counselor, and a man is challenged to play Alexander’s father, a man so removed from his child’s life, he closets himself away when the going gets tough.

Audience members and Alexander Strain in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

Once in college Alexander learns of Goethe’s notions about suicide and subs an audience member to play the part of his college professor.  He references ‘social contagions’ and agrees with the notion that we are unconsciously affected by the behavior of our peers – as in copycat suicides.  It’s called the ‘Werther Effect’ after Goethe’s notable character.  As Alexander tells us, “Children of depressed mothers have a heightened sense of stress.”  It would be good to keep this warning in mind when writing a play about suicide.

The evening’s oddest moment came when a pretty girl who was asked to pretend she was Alexander’s girlfriend didn’t understand how the game was played.  Everyone else in the audience had understood they were to parrot the words he voiced aloud to them but even after he repeatedly fed her the lines, she opted to concoct her own responses until she finally had that aha moment and played along.  LOL… or not.

Alexander Strain and an audience member in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

So, see it if you’ve never known anyone who has committed suicide.  That’s my warning.  Just be sure to order a cocktail first.  Who knows?  You might find it amusing.

Directed by Jason Loewith and starring Alexander Strain.

Through July 7th at Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005.  For tickets and information about the remaining shows in the run, visit www.StudioTheatre.org or call 202 232.7267

P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle ~ Studio Theatre A Studio X Production

Jordan Wright
April 9, 2019 

We all want to “stay woke”.   Right?  To be up on the issues of racial injustice and political correctness we need to keep current and stand up when it’s called for.  For Dorian Belle, a Canadian pop star with a huge, fan-based, reality TV show, it’s more than that.  He wants to stay woke while being black and get in on the black music scene.  Unfortunately for Dorian, he’s white.  Think Eminem and other white hip-hop celebs who have appropriated black culture in both music and style.  It goes much further back than that with blackface, Elvis, the Rolling Stones and musicians who adopted (or outright stole) black music genres as their own.  In truth, it’s complicated and that debate is the undercurrent of playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Pygmalion-inspired play.

Gary L. Perkins III, Simon Kiser, and Seth Hill in P.Y.G. or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle. Photo: C. Stanley Photography

Dorian believes that taking on more of a black identity, would add to his street cred.  To that end he invites rappers, Alexand Da Great and Blacky Blackerson of P. Y. G. (Petty Young Goons), to his posh pad in hopes he can sign them to his record label, learn their fly moves and adopt their southside of Chicago brand of gangsta rap.  There’s a reference to building your narrative while using someone else’s and Blacky is accused of fostering black stereotypes to please Dorian.  You have to stay woke, because the humor and the irony come at you with hurricane-like force.

Seth Hill, Simon Kiser, and Gary L. Perkins III in P.Y.G. or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle. Photo: C. Stanley Photography Photo: C. Stanley Photography

Alexand and Blacky are eager to get their hands on “white people’s money” but have their limits as to how much they are willing to take from this rube, especially Blacky who teases Dorian unmercifully when he pontificates on what he thinks it means to be black while taking notes on how they demand he defer to them.  It’s hysterical watching the three men analyze what’s blacker, what’s outright appropriation, and why Dorian may not use the “N” word, but they can.  Blacky says it so often that Alexand gives him a pocket beeper to substitute a beep for each time he wants to use it.  There’s a lot of beeping.

Seth Hill and Gary L. Perkins III in P.Y.G. or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle. Photo: C. Stanley Photography Photo: C. Stanley Photography

When the men finally buy into Dorian’s experiment, Blacky finds he likes all the things he never experienced in the hood and he becomes bros with Dorian, much to Alexand’s dismay.  After all their attempts to “mis-edumacate” Dorian, they start to drift into Dorian’s white world.  Question: Will Dorian ever truly relate to black culture and the racial injustices that come along with it, or does he just want to appropriate the style and the music to be cool?   “You need to sound like the joy and the suffering of slaves,” Blacky tells him in no uncertain terms.

Gary L. Perkins III and Seth Hill in P.Y.G. or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle. Photo: C. Stanley Photography Photo: C. Stanley Photography

Rap and dance are a big part of this production especially in the explosive scene where the “brothas” demonstrate the hip-hop and breakdancing styles by region from New York to California and Senegal to Zambia.  Their dance demos are epic.

Impressive direction from Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm who also wrote last year’s Helen Hayes Award-winning play, Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies.  Add to that, super fantastic performances by Seth Hill as Blacky Black, Gary L. Perkins as Alexand Da Great, and Simon Kiser as Dorian Belle.

Assistant director Mari Andrea Travis, fantastic projections by Kelly Colburn, costumes by Danielle Preston, lighting by Jesse Belsky, sets by Richard Oullette, and sound design by original music by composer Gabriel Clausen, make this world premiere play a must-see.

Outrageously funny, insightful and provocative.  Highly recommended.

Through April 28th at Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005.  For tickets and information visit Studio or call 202 232.7267

Bad Jews – Studio Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 11, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

If you find the title Bad Jews off-putting, that’s precisely what Playwright Joshua Harmon is aiming for.  Go ahead.  Feel uncomfortable.  But you’ll laugh your head off while you’re squirming in your seat.

Irene Sofia Lucio (Daphna), Maggie Erwin (Melody), and Alex Mandell (Liam). Photo: Teddy Wolff.

Irene Sofia Lucio (Daphna), Maggie Erwin (Melody), and Alex Mandell (Liam). Photo: Teddy Wolff.

Three college-age cousins are gathered in the Manhattan apartment of Liam and Jonah for the funeral of their grandfather, Poppy.  In this funny-cause-it’s-true comedy they debate, denigrate and question each other over who has the right to have Poppy’s “chai”, a chain on which hangs the Jewish symbol for life.  Which one of them is most deserving of its ownership?  Which one of them is more Jewish?  Who is the True Believer?  Each offers a salient argument to the age-old question.

Irene Sofia Lucio (Daphna). Photo: Teddy Wolff.

Irene Sofia Lucio (Daphna). Photo: Teddy Wolff.

Daphna (Irene Sofia Lucio), a young woman with plans to take up rabbinical studies in Jaifa and later enlist in the Israeli Army, thinks she should have it since she is the most religious and insists her cousins respect the sacrifices that “Poppy” made to safeguard it during his internment in a concentration camp.  Jonah (Joe Paulik) is insistent that, by tradition, it should go to the eldest son – – especially since he wants to gift it to his Wasp girlfriend Melody (Maggie Erwin) as a symbol of his love, in the same way their grandfather presented it to their grandmother upon their engagement.  Liam (Alex Mandell), Jonah’s brother and a video game addict, is non-committal, determined to stay out of the fray, while all hell breaks loose around him.  He calls himself a “Bad Jew” for eating cookies on Passover and considers himself an atheist, leaving the debate to Jonah and Daphna, whom Jonah angrily refers to as “the Super Jew” for wanting to observe the most Orthodox interpretation of Jewish tradition.

There is so much vitriol flying around for the sake of determining the “best” Jew, that the audience literally gasped and groaned in shock – – not only for the meanness demonstrated by Daphna and Liam but also for the brutal honesty on often glazed over issues that can be ignored, hotly debated or even fervently embraced.  There is nothing facile in here.  Nonetheless it is riveting and hilarious in its presentation and the actors do a bang-up job interpreting their roles.

Alex Mandell (Liam), Irene Sofia Lucio (Daphna), Maggie Erwin (Melody), and Joe Paulik (Jonah). Photo: Teddy Wolff.

Alex Mandell (Liam), Irene Sofia Lucio (Daphna), Maggie Erwin (Melody), and Joe Paulik (Jonah). Photo: Teddy Wolff.

Director Serge Seiden has a firm grip on the action, setting the characters in constant motion and keeping the pace locked and loaded for the next brawling barb.

A+ for provoking honesty, evoking laughter and encouraging introspection and discussion.

Through December 21st at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St., Washington, DC 20005.  For tickets and information call 202 332.3300 or visit www.StudioTheatre.org.

Belleville – Studio Theatre

Jordan Wright
September 8, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

In Amy Herzog’s Belleville the viewer is afforded a plate glass window onto the seemingly idyllic Parisian life chosen by an attractive young American couple.  Eager to absorb the culture, Abby and Zack, bring their hipster lifestyle to the City of Lights, “Or is it City of Life?” Abby posits.  In their case it becomes a mirror reflecting back their secrets, lies and insecurities.

Jacob H Knoll (Zack) and Gillian Williams (Abby) in Belleville. Photo: Igor Dmitry.

Jacob H Knoll (Zack) and Gillian Williams (Abby) in Belleville. Photo: Igor Dmitry.

Zack has taken a job in Paris working on children’s AIDS research – a cause Abby finds “noble”.  It appears to be somewhat of a charmed life.  But the innocents abroad have brought along more than their dreams and suitcases to the multi-cultural neighborhood of Belleville.  They have packed their emotional baggage too.  And a horrid Freudian-filled brew it is.

The first two scenes (there’s no intermission) unwind slowly with an overlong set up that lays out the dynamics of the couple.  It lingers on their interpersonal issues, and a budding friendship with their landlord, Alioune (Maduka Steady), a successful 25-year old Senegalese who lives in the building with his wife and two children.  Abby’s self-effacing responses to the landlord and her forgiving manner towards Zack, lull us into a false sense of ease about the couple’s relationship.

Gillian Williams (Abby) in Belleville. Photo: Igor Dmitry.

Gillian Williams (Abby) in Belleville. Photo: Igor Dmitry.

Gillian Williams shows us a lithe, vulnerable Abby, caught up in a Parisian fantasy of her own imagining.  With pressure to compete with her sister’s successful marriage and win her father’s affection, she alternately needles Zach and coddles him.  “I can be emotionally abusive,” she confesses.  Williams’ ability to shift gears from kittenish to claws-out tigress to emotional wreck and back again is riveting.  To counterbalance her neuroses Jacob H Knoll gives an equally taut performance as Zack, an emotionally stunted husband who seeks her approval.

In an accompanying media kit, reviewers were asked to “not reveal any major plot details” – rightfully calling out a new wave of unprofessional “critics” who feel it’s necessary to tell the entire plot as if it’s CliffsNotes.  So don’t expect any further revelations in this review as to where the play is headed.  We honor the playwright’s sense of suspense and surprise.  But be forewarned, it’s explosive and chilling, and sharp objects are involved.

Joy Jones (Amina) and Maduka Steady (Alioune) in Belleville. Photo: Igor Dmitry.

Joy Jones (Amina) and Maduka Steady (Alioune) in Belleville. Photo: Igor Dmitry.

Both Maduka Steady and Joy Jones, as his wife, Amina, give solid performances as the landlord and his disapproving wife.

Through October 12th at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St., Washington, DC 20005.  For tickets and information call 202 332.3300 or visit www.StudioTheatre.org.