Tag Archives: The Washington Examiner

All Bite: Scena’s Sink the Belgrano! reviewed

Nothing shores up a foundering head of state’s popularity among the electorate like a quick war, decisively won. The British response to Argentina’s 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands looks from three decades on something like what the Bush Administration promised the seven-plus-year-old war in Iraq would be: The Falklands War lasted only 74 days, and the U.K.’s victory helped propel the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to big electoral gains the following year.

Sink the Belgrano!, a 1986 play by British actor and director Steven Berkoff, is not a cool-headed history of the conflict or anything close. It’s an astringent piece of agitprop condemning what Berkoff sees as a violent overreaction by Thatcher — called “Maggot Scratcher” here, in the plainest example of his appropriation of sing-songy, infantile language — whom the playwright argues rebuffed all attempts at diplomacy, knowing her political aims would be better served by bloodshed. The title refers to an episode a month after the Argentine invasion, wherein the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror fired upon and destroyed the vessel ARA General Belgrano, killing 323 crewmen.
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Hamlet Syndrome? Not hardly.

“Cast thy nighted color off,” Hamlet’s mom Gertrude, hastily remarried to his fratricidal uncle Claudius, begs of her mournful son. She might have been speaking to Joseph Haj, director of the Folger’s slick and unencumbered new gloss on what we’re used to thinking of as the Bard’s most psychologically complex play.

James Kronzer’s blocky, all-white set offers the first clue of what we’re in for, a visual metaphor for the production’s clean simplicity. Elsinore? Try Apple Store. Deposed King Hamlet’s ghost (a suitably traumatized Todd Scofield) has scarcely begun lobbying his son for vengeance before we see it isn’t just the castle that Haj and star Graham Michael Hamilton have lifted from the shadows: It’s the once-overgrown psychological landscape of the melancholy Prince himself.

Clear-cutting decades or centuries of accumulated inference — Hamlet’s Oedipal lust for Gertrude, his existential disdain of action for action, his self-awareness as a participant in a fiction — this feels like Hamlet for beginners, but that’s no slight. Unburdened of contradiction and played almost as a straight-ahead potboiler — close as it can be without cutting out Hamlet’s iconic half-dozen soliloquies, anyway — the show feels fresh, like a revelatory solo acoustic take of a song you’d thought you could never stand to hear again. Continue reading

Waiting for Goodman, the Comedian‘s Son

When he was writing Rooms: A Rock Romance, the two-person musical that premiered at Alexandria’s MetroStage in 2008 before going on to a warmly-reviewed off-Broadway run last year, Paul Scott Goodman inserted a layer of remove from direct autobiography: He based the show’s female character, rather than her male paramour, on himself.

When he returns to MetroStage this weekend, he’ll have no such veil.

Son of a Stand-Up Comedian is the story of a moment in the life of Paul Scott Goodman as written and performed on 12-string guitar by Paul Scott Goodman, 22 or 52 years in the making, depending. The composer/lyricist began working on his solo musical — which he performs in front of a microphone, concert-style, “a rock-and-roll raconteur kind of thing” — in the middle of 1988, when his wife, director Miriam Gordon, was pregnant with Shayna, their first child. Now 21, Shayna is set to graduate from Sarah Lawrence College next month.

“That summer was one of the hottest on record in New York,” Goodman says in the Scottish brogue he’s retained since moving to Manhattan in 1984. “I was working on my first musical, trying to get it on. I was trying to be a father, trying to be a writer, trying to be a husband. It was very trying.” Continue reading

Viva la Evolution: LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty at Studio

Another LaButian bromance: Thom Miller and Ryan Artzberger./Photo: Carol Pratt.

Something surprising has happened to Neil LaBute in the last five years: He seems to have met some people. Not necessarily anyone specific. Just people, whose appetites and impulses are selfish, sure, but not malevolent to the point of abstraction, like so many who populate his earlier oeuvre of men behaving badly. Regular, you might call them, to use the baby-shampoo-mild insult that brings regular-guy Greg so much misery in Reasons to Be Pretty, the initially shaky, ultimately rewarding dramedy that’s landed for what could be another long engagement at the LaBute-loving Studio Theatre.

Billed as the closing chapter of a trilogy that includes the substantial The Shape of Things and the more lightweight Fat Pig, both of which got comfy at Studio in ‘02 and ‘06, respectively, Reasons purports to continue its precursors’ investigations of physical beauty, once again proding and twisting the loyalties among two women and two men. And for a restless first pair of scenes — another protracted, profane screaming match, another depressing conversation between our nominal hero and an at-work frenemy who seems too venal and stupid to function in any nonfictional environment — it feels like a rehash of ideas LaBute has mined more profitably in the past. But what gradually reveals itself to be the play’s true subject is the problem of fidelity. Continue reading

Some Girl(s) Get the Shirt Off My Back and Leave Me with a Lethal Dose

Brian Sutow and Lisa Hoodsoll in Some Girl(s)

The moment in Some Girl(s) wherein the drama first gives away something of its intentions comes early: At the end of a hotel-room interview with the high school beau who dumped her more than decade earlier, a woman slaps a man with the feeble, constrained strike of someone who isn’t accustomed to raising her voice, much less her fist. After she flees, the man touches his cheek in amazement, then allows a wolfish smile to unfurl across his face.

Yep, this is a Neil LaBute play.

The prolific vivisectionist of emotional cruelty is once again poking the bloody viscera beneath the skin of romantic relationships, even if this five-year-old effort isn’t as jagged with malevolence as prior LaButian beatdowns like the play Fat Pig or the film In the Company of Men or the play-and-film The Shape of Things. This compelling production comes from a new company, No Rules. Director Joshua Morgan and a cast led by Brian Sutow (the pair are the startup’s co-artistic directors) have limned enough humor and revelation from the material to whet our appetite for whatever they do next.

Like Nick Hornby’s popular novel High Fidelity, Some Girl(s) follows a youngish cad on a tour of the casualty ward of his exes. Though his ostensible purpose is to make amends before his marriage, the first of his appointments (mousy Clementine Thomas) has barely removed her coat and started panting at him before we get that he’s a scab-picker and probably worse. Later, he tells Bobbi (Emily Simonness), a more recent former lover, “This is all just part of the honesty thing I’m working on,” as though asking a waiter to leave the mayo off his sandwich. Continue reading

Joyless Division: The Magnetic Fields bring Realism to the grand old seat of precious freedom and democracy

The Magnetic Fields have roughly the cultural and commercial footprint of an arthouse cinema hit. But a few weeks ago, Stephin Merritt — the group’s songwriter and chief creative officer —found himself staring straight into the ruddy, swollen face of his blockbuster competition.

“I was sitting in a bar, listening to thumping disco music, trying to write songs,” says Merritt from his home in Los Angeles, 10 days before the start of his band’s tour, which opens tonight at Lisner Auditorium. (Drinking in a loud bar is his customary songwriting environment, yes.) “Suddenly there was this television show with the sound on — usually it’s off. And the music, even when they were praising it, was so terrible it was like watching a car accident from different angles.”

Confirmed, then: The Magnetic Fields Guy? Not a fan of American Idol.

What is he a fan of? Irving Berlin. Judy Collins. And of swatting down the stubbornly pervasive idea that songs are primarily the product of something more mysterious than talent and work.

“There’s this book called Songwriters on Songwriting. I think the interviewer must have been asking leading questions, because maybe two-thirds of the people in the book say they feel their songs are basically written by God,” he says. “I just literally cannot believe that they really think this. I tend to write songs while I’m tipsy-to-drunk. But I still don’t feel like they’re written by some supernatural entity.” Continue reading

Loneliest Number: The Four of Us

Dan Crane and Karl Miller

We’re supposed to forgive our enemies, drink less, play fair, love but one person at a time, measure ourselves not against others. When our friends succeed, we’re expected to be happy.

That is what is supposed to happen.

Of easy choices and pain-free obedience are boring stories made. Itamar Moses 2008 two-man-play The Four of Us is never dull, and given the picayune-ity of its stakes, that’s much more than the faint compliment it sounds like.

Moses’s deliberately paced narrative dissects a friendship among two boys-to-men over a ten-year period. We meet David and Benjamin in their mid-twenties. One’s a playwright, the other a novelist who, as comes to light during an increasingly fraught after-dinner chat, has just had the nullifying prefix “aspiring” blasted off of his title in spectacular, quit-your-day-job fashion.

David is still struggling, and Benjamin’s sudden promotion to a more rarefied realm of the cultural stratosphere — and his insufferable aloofness about it, believably conjured by actor Dan Crane — is tough for him to take. He worries aloud if his pal has considered that his $2 million payday mightn’t be, “in some way, totally spiritually corrupting.” It really isn’t about the Benjamins for Benjamin, but try telling that to a guy who doesn’t have any. Continue reading

Constellation’s Three Sisters, Give or Take

Amy Quiggins, Nanna Ingvarsson, and Catherine Deadman

Life is hard. Life is hard and long. Life is hard and long and cold and pointless, and so it shall be for our descendants a thousand years from now, until at last, perhaps, the mystery of creation is revealed. Until then, we must suffer and endure. Any respite from said suffering and endurance shall be brief, and shall chiefly take the form of alcoholism, gambling, infidelity, and should we be so lucky, duels.

No wonder Anton Chekhov thought his plays were comedies!

Constellation’s Theatre Company’s new production of his Three Sisters finds some levity amid its pervasive existential gloom, but not nearly enough of it to prevent this handsome but staid production from feeling like a march through the Russian winter. That isn’t automatically a reason to stay away, but we don’t feel the weight of its tragedy, either — the characters seem to be miserable mostly because their creator says so. The result, despite a handful of memorable performances, feels listless and underdeveloped. Continue reading

Signature’s goodly Wife, Long on Persuasion

Whatever scenario Doug Wright had in mind when first he interviewed Charlotte von Mahlsdorf with the aim of writing a play about her, we can safely assume it was something more conventional than his prismatic meta-biography, I Am My Own Wife.

Wright’s single actor, multi-character opus won the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2004, more than a decade after Mahlsdorf first began recounting her strange (and possibly tall) tale into his tape recorder. Along the way, the playwright grappled with a Berlin Wall of writer’s block, beguiled by premise-thickening revelations about a subject he’d initially hoped to venerate as a hero. But the complexity that so confounded him turned out to be the very thing that gives his play about a cross-dressing furniture collector in fascist East Germany an unlikely universal resonance.

Director Alan Paul’s absorbing new Signature Theatre production of I Am My Own Wife is — sorry — an ideal marriage of performer and material, entrusting its 36 roles to the versatile craftsman that is Andrew Long. Biographies seem more suited to the solo-performer approach than do other kinds of stories: We are vast, we contain multitudes, etc. Continue reading

Young Frankenstein, Getting Older by the Minute

It’s aliiiiiiive!

Well, sort of. In places. For a while.

But not really.

The stage-musical adaptation of Mel Brooks’s beloved 1974 horror film spoof Young Frankenstein will haunt the Kennedy Center Opera House through the holidays, and it’s an utterly explicable choice for this season of multi-generational out-of-town guests: bland and familiar even if you’ve never seen the movie, offering neither challenge nor much reward.

Sporting a brow even lower than that of the stitched-from-corpses creature at its center, and with about as much to say, the show — which began its 14-month Broadway run two years ago — represents Brooks’s attempt to repeat the success of The Producers. As with that 1968 film-cum-2001 Broadway smash, Brooks once again joined new music and lyrics to a story he brought to the screen more than three decades earlier. Continue reading

Please Allow Me to Re-Introduce Myself: The Screwtape Letters Returns

Karen Wright (foreground) and Max McLean in The Screwtape Letters. (Jonny Knight)

Actor and dramatist Max McLean was thinking hard about hubris versus humility even before he had a hit show on his hands.

“According to [C.S.] Lewis — and he gets most of his ideas from John Milton —pride is the first sin, the real sin,” McLean says. “All other sins are byproducts of that.”

The star of The Screwtape Letters — a wickedly seductive adaptation of Lewis’s 1942 novella about a senior demon in Hell advising an apprentice demon on Earth as he tries to effect a man’s damnation — has reason to be cautious. His show, which is of course about the very process by which a man may be corrupted, is enjoying boffo success. It begins a return engagement at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Landsburgh Theatre tonight. Continue reading

An As You Like It Gone Hollywood

Francesca Faridany’s Rosalind and John Behlmann’s Orlando.

All the world’s a stage, except when it’s a film set.

The Shakespeare Theatre’s new production of As You Like It, the philosophizing romantic comedy set largely in a curative mystical forest, has adopted the trappings of an altogether different wood, one that no one ever accused of being good for you. (That’d be the one that starts with Holly.) The show begins ingeniously as a flickering silent film with title cards, but quickly assumes the props and types of a modern movie shoot, with boom-mic operators and cameramen and headset-wearing production assistants scurrying between scenes. We even hear Ted van Griethuysen growl “Cut!” now and again. Continue reading

The Last Days of Disco Pigs

Solas Nua’s current production of Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs runs only 60 minutes, and you’re relieved when it’s over. Not because it’s bad — on the contrary, it’s a work of sparkling, propulsive genius, astutely staged and brilliantly performed.

But know this: Its brilliance is of the combative, exhausting variety. Its pace? Frenetic! Its language? Formidable. Our protagonists/narrators, Pig and Runt, don’t communicate in mere Irish slang, but in their own intimate, infantile, often impenetrable argot, one that recalls the Russian-influenced dialect Anthony Burgess concocted for his novel A Clockwork Orange. (Malcolm MacDowell memorably cooed it while terrorizing London with his “droogs” in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation.)
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Forum’s “Angels in America,” preview’d

Michael Dove

And that handsome guy right there is Michael Dove, artistic director of Forum Theatre and director of Angels in America: Perestroika. They’re doing that one, which is Part II, and Millennium Approaches, which is Part I, in rep, together.

Ballsy. Expensive. Etc.

I’ve got all the details in today’s Examiner.

Oh, and Did We Mention There’s a U2 Concert Tomorrow Night?

U2 2009

It’s true! If U2’s uninspiring performance of “Moment of Surrender” on Saturday Night Live scared you off, perhaps my Examiner preview, offering a bit of historical context for the 360 Tour, can win you back. Because U2 really, really need the attention.

I’ll reviewing the show for DCist. Meanwhile, my sometime colleague Catherine Lewis digs into the curious phenomenon of a cappella groups covering U2 tunes. She’s a braver woman than I am.

Shut up. You know what I mean.

“Died Young, Stayed Pretty” at the Corcoran

Austin poster designer Rob Jones in Eileen Yaghoobian's documentary, "Died Young, Stayed Pretty."

I chatted with artist and first-time documentary filmmaker Eileen Yaghoobian for a piece about this week’s DC premiere of Died Young, Stayed Pretty, her movie about gig poster artists. I’ve written about our local gig poster scene here in DC more than once, so it’s a subject close to my heart, and her flick is a lot of fun. It screens Thursday night at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Details here.

Hey, Remember Living Colour? Sure You Do.

Living-Colour-by-Bill-Bernstein

You remember “Cult of Personality,” of course, especially if you had MTV in 1989. The 10-second preamble from Malcom X. Vernon Reid’a million-candlepower vamp, searing instantly onto your brain. Frontman Corey Glover’s whirling dreadlocks. His burly soul-sanger wail, lithe but authoritative, though he was not yet twenty-five. His unfortunate yellow bike shorts. (Look, it was the 80s. Axl was wearing them, too.)

“Cult of Personality” went to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Garmmy for Best Hard Rock Performance. But its real achievement was to embed a message of political skepticism in a mainstream hit for the first time in a long while. (Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” became an even bigger smash that same year.) Continue reading

And They Wanna Know How-ow-ow, Girls Rock . . .

hopper_2

I have a piece in today’s Examiner about Chicagoland music journalist and itinerant rocker / reformed publicist Jessica Hopper, who will be at Comet Ping Pong tonight at 1900 hours to read from her new book, The Girls Guide to Rocking. As its title implies, the tome tells all you aspiring Karen Os and Carrie Brownsteins everything you need to know. Jessica also wrote the influential essay “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t” for Punk Planet a few years back. You can find her writing in the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Weekly and her blog.

Jessica also chooses the interstitial songs heard This American Life, which is, of course, one of my favorite things that has ever existed. See my April 2008 interview with creator and host Ira Glass and/or my review of his last speaking appearance in town. My interview with comic Mike Birbiglia, whose stories have been featured on TAL several times in the last year or so, will be up in a few weeks.
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The Masters’ Keeper: Going Dutch with Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr.

Examiner-cover-Wheelock

Late in 1995, National Gallery of Art curator Arthur K. Wheelock was looking forward to unveiling the exhibit of his career. Johannes Vermeer brought together 22 of the enigmatic Dutch genius’s 35 known paintings. Three centuries had passed since the last time so many Vermeers could be seen in one place.

“That was something nobody ever thought would be possible,” Wheelock, curator of northern baroque paintings, says from his office in the Gallery’s East Building, with a view of the Capitol Dome. “You couldn’t get the loans.” And yet, after eight years of negotiations with museums and private collectors throughout the U.S. and Europe, he was about to make it happen. It would be the apex of a career that began when he’d penned his dissertation on Vermeer more than 20 years earlier. Continue reading

Wheelock’s Greatest Gets

Hendrick Ter Brugghen, Bagpipe player in Profile, 1624

Hendrick Ter Brugghen, Bagpipe player in Profile, 1624

When Arthur Wheelock came to the National Gallery of Art in 1973, its collection was a far cry from what it is today. Marine paintings were all but absent. There were no still lifes. Nothing from the group of Italian-influenced Dutch painters known as the Utrecht Carvaggisti.

Wheelock has spent much of his 34-year tenure as a curator filling those gaps. In the last two years, he’s scored major acquisitions of Dutch masterpieces by Salomon van Ruysdael and Hendrick ter Brugghen. Here he discusses some other favorites among the pieces he’s added to the nation’s art collection, all currently on view. Continue reading