We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Gilgamesh

Ashley Ivey, Emma Crane Jaster, Jim Jorgensen, Joel David Santner, Manu Kumasi in Gilgamesh / Photography by Brittany Diliberto

Ashley Ivey, Emma Crane Jaster, Jim Jorgensen, Joel David Santner, Manu Kumasi in Gilgamesh / Photography by Brittany Diliberto

“I am a man,” Enkidu says. “What is a god, without man?” Such questions of mortality and divinity drive Constellation Theatre Company’s ambitious new work Gilgamesh

The ancient Mesopotamian myth “The Epic of Gilgamesh” tells of a violent ruler who, after losing his soul mate, sets out on an epic journey to bring new life back to his friend. In the process he learns humility and faces his own mortal limits.

Known for epic adaptations, Constellation attempts a sensual spectacle in Gilgamesh; but no particular element creates a consistent enough tone to hold interest throughout the show. We smell incense, we hear drums, but we never become fully invested in the characters. Gilgamesh’s journey is one to observe rather than join.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Zorro

Zorro Constellation Theatre

Photo: Andrew Propp

In Constellation Theatre’s new retelling of Zorro co-playwright and director Eleanor Holdridge cuts straight to the action. Unlike other hero tales which place emphasis on backstory and the journey towards a fully realized superhero, Holdridge spends minimal time before we see the iconic black mask of Zorro. Instead the 100 minute, single act production is packed with lots of swashbuckling that played out very well in the confined spaces of The Source Theatre. Fight director Casey Kaleba’s choreography is worthy of praise for it is one of the highlights of show. When swords aren’t drawn, barbs are exchanged through Holdridge & Janey Allard’s script. Audiences will see a familiar hero in Zorro (Danny Gavigan). When the mask is on Gavigan is charming, witty, and leaves his mark with three fell swoops of his sword.

However it is when our protagonist does not have his mask on that we see Holdridge and Allard’s new vision in this classic tale.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Taking Steps

Photo: Andrew Propp

Earlier this week I mentioned how much I love farce in our We Love DC Theater Preview. I blame Lauren Cochran, my high school drama teacher who managed to lure me away from the soccer team to the drama club through the works of Michael Frayn, Ken Ludwig, and Peter Shaffer. I don’t know if it is the frenetic action, the slapstick, or the absurd plot twists. There’s nothing more I enjoy than a good night of farce and when you add British accents, it’s just more cherries on top of the bacon sundae.

Constellation Theatre Company opened their 2012-2013 season with Alan Ayckbourn’s Taking Steps, a British Farce with many of the ingredients mentioned above. Armed with the right comedic elements and a unique theatre-in-the-round staging, the show does its best to rack up the laughs but suffers from a bloated plot and a lumbering pace.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Blood Wedding

Deidra LaWan Starnes in Constellation Theatre Company's production of Blood Wedding. Photo credit: Scott Suchman

Somewhere it must be written in a Surrealist manifesto that Death steals every scene. In Constellation Theatre Company‘s production of Blood Wedding, he stalks them too. A shadowy figure swathed in a black tulle hat, his manifestation gradually gains power until at last, veil cast off, he’s revealed as the primal force behind love, lust and revenge.

Through both his poetry and plays, Federico García Lorca explored the tragic beauty of deep primitive myths – only to become one himself after his murder in 1936 at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Three years earlier he’d written Blood Wedding, a play whose themes go beyond folk superstition to uncover the dark pagan nature within us all.

Constellation is normally very much at home in the realm of Surrealist drama and epic theater, however, this production can’t seem to find a cohesive vocal or physical style for Lorca’s poetic dance of death. The result is a lot of discordant emotive vocality that threatens to overwhelm the action and the poetry, even while director Shirley Serotsky presents us with some eerily beautiful tableaux by a talented ensemble.

The story itself is a simple one: a mother has misgivings about her son’s intended wife. Add in a spurned lover, repressed passion and a blood feud, and mother turns out to be terribly right. She always is, isn’t she?

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Arms and the Man

Amy Quiggins and Michael John Casey in Constellation Theatre Company's production of Arms and the Man. Photo credit: Scott Suchman.

A play about the hypocrisy of war and romantic illusions set against the lunacy of class warfare seems like a perfect win for our Operation New Dawn, Occupy Wall Street days. No doubt G. Bernard Shaw, a playwright and critic of scathing intelligence, would’ve had something to say about these times of ours. As the International Shaw Society puts it, he was a "jesting juggler of ideas in a world of nothing but spin." Shaw (despite some wacky ideas about grammar) was devoted to the possibilities of changing society for the better, through the power of words. What would he have said about our own spin culture?

Constellation Theatre Company’s production of Arms and the Man plays up the funny frolic aspect of the satire, with bright costumes and a clever set, while missing the bitter pill hidden in the "chocolate-cream soldier" dream of its lead character. That isn’t to say it isn’t delightful, it just needs more Shavian snap.

But it does make for a charming night, in no small part due to the pairing of Amy Quiggins’ adorable Raina and Michael John Casey’s forthright Captain Bluntschli, characters whose unlikely love is guided with delicacy by director Allison Arkell Stockman.   Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Ramayana (2011)

Andreu Honeycutt as Lord Rama in Constellation Theatre Company's 2011 remount of The Ramayana. Photo credit: Scott Suchman.

If you were one of the many potential audience members turned away at the doors of Source last summer for The Ramayana‘s sold-out run, you’re in luck. Constellation Theatre Company has remounted its production for a limited three week engagement now through August 21, and in many ways it’s a superior show than before. Subtle changes have tightened the pacing and streamlined the focus, certainly due to director Allison Arkell Stockman, and the cast’s confidence in embodying a multiverse of the sacred and profane is noticeably stronger, with several new faces to rediscover roles.

As with last year, three elements provide the visual, aural and emotional backbone of this production – the gorgeous pageantry of Kendra Rai’s costume design, the expressive sound design of percussionist Tom Teasley, and the journey of Hanuman the monkey god. Returning with the live music performance that won him the 2011 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Sound Design, Teasley’s magical beats propel the audience into another world. His continued collaborations with Constellation really help define their particular epic theater style. Rai’s costumes also help dissolve the modern world for the audience – still simply sumptuous (and I want to steal all the accessories).

But you don’t have to be familiar with the first run to enjoy the second. Playwright Peter Oswald’s take on one of India’s most beloved and scared texts weaves essential questions of philosophy and religion through the love story of Rama and Sita as they battle the demon Ravana. Though there’s plenty of humor to be had as they enlist the help of forest creatures like the monkeys and the bears, it’s essentially a serious quest, the interplay between divinity and humanity. Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Green Bird

Rex Daugherty in Constellation Theatre's production of The Green Bird. Photo credit: Scott Suchman.

With Carlo Gozzi’s The Green Bird, Constellation Theatre has found the perfect medium for their hyper-surrealist style in a play inspired by commedia dell’arte. It’s like a wild Ferrari driven by Max Ernst through a Brothers Grimm forest. Every piece – acting, design, script – is completely committed to the creation of a madcap fairy tale world.

A hilarious translation featuring quips like, “It’s as hard to find a true friend as it is to wipe your ass with a rose” is a strong reason for the success of this production, and it’s also ably adapted and directed by Allison Arkell Stockman. As the company’s artistic director, she’s honed the ensemble’s distinctive vocal and physical gymnastics to the point where now when I think of Constellation, the idea of a majestically plumed green bird bounding across the stage to perch and speak riddles seems absolutely believable.

And what a bird. As the Green Bird of the play’s title, Rex Daugherty manages to combine elegant sensibility with masculine power while looking like a feather-festooned Brazilian dancer at an acid-drenched Carnival. Every flick of his foot like a wink at the audience, and his first frenetic appearance is a signal that this play is going to be one wild romp. Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: On the Razzle

Michael Glenn, Matthew McGloin and Ashley Ivey in Constellation Theatre Company's "On the Razzle." Photo credit: Daniel Schwartz

Imagine polishing off several bottles of bubbly with your ditzy old Aunt. That’s the kind of delightfully dizzy night you’re in for with Constellation Theatre Company‘s madcap production of Tom Stoppard’s On the Razzle. There are more groaning puns and twisted tongues here than I can possibly quote. The completely ridiculous wordplay seems endless, gorging itself on a verbal box of chocolates until the farce bursts at the seams. You’ll feel like a goose stuffed with foie gras. Yes, I meant to mix those metaphors. That’s the beauty of the evening.

To lovers of Broadway musicals, the plot will be familiar. It’s Hello, Dolly! without Barbra Streisand, I mean, without the matchmaker. Stoppard based his play on the Viennese comedy that Thornton Wilder used to write the play Jerry Hermann used to write the musical – deep breath – it’s this kind of whirligig origin that director Nick Olcott calls “an analgram of stunning originality and blatant theft.” It’s no surprise this production is set on a revolving stage. The usual brilliant Stoppard wordplay is itself a swirling waltz, with malapropisms building on themselves in an excess of tomfoolery.

You could just sum it up as a play about two guys trying to pick up girls by pretending to be high rollers. Somehow, in a town gone mad for tartan, with the help of a wooden horse named Lightning, they become made men. Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Women Beware Women

Caley Milliken as Bianca in Constellation Theatre Company's production of "Women Beware Women." Photo credit: Daniel Schwartz.

The very walls seem to ooze misogyny in Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women. But strip that tacky wallpaper away and you’ll find a Jacobean-era playwright keenly aware of the plight of women in his day, no matter how harshly he seems to treat them at first glance. Basically sold at market, their only value virginity (for a proper wife) or beauty (for a proper whore), the few roles available to women in the 1600′s were fraught with danger and boredom.

It’s a world Constellation Theatre Company relishes, their epic ensemble style boldly walking the line between grand guignol scenery chewing and magical hyper-surrealism. And in a month where zombies lurch and vampires stalk, this is the perfect theatrical outing for Halloween.

The play’s anti-humanist self-loathing is deeply rooted in a Calvinist world view that may not be so alien to our own. The fear of the inevitable decline of the body, the perversion of purity into decay, love to lust, flesh to disease… what a great time to live! These fears were daily concerns to people who saw their world laid waste by bubonic plague and civil war. Constellation has cleverly chosen to shake up this grotesquerie with a Tim Burton flair. Though it takes a bit for that creepiness to blossom, when it finally does it’s twisted sick fun.

Of course nothing is creepier than a theremin… Continue reading

Life in the Capital, People, The Features, We Love Arts

Theater of Controversy

Photo courtesy of

courtesy of ‘erin m’

“Be sure that you go to the author to get at his meaning, not to find yours.” -Salman Rushdie

Recently I did something that I’ve rarely done in my life as a theater lover – I walked out of a production at intermission. Was I offended by a controversial subject? Well no, I did make it through Jerry Springer: The Opera after all. I was merely bored out of my mind by densely esoteric content. I didn’t become enraged and demand the play close, I merely chalked it up to a difference in artistic preferences. But I still left, and afterwards it upset me that I’d allowed myself to close my mind, and I started thinking about local theater controversy. As a former theater professional it was ingrained in me that we have a responsibility to open minds through art. But what happens when the audience won’t listen? Are DC audiences more likely to be vocal or take offense? How do theater companies handle that reaction, especially as its based on content and not value?

I set out to talk to three artistic directors of companies at various levels of development and experience with negative audience reaction to content- Allison Arkell Stockman at Constellation Theatre Company, Kate Bryer at Imagination Stage, and Ari Roth at Theater J – to get their thoughts. Not surprisingly, a common theme emerged, one which as a theater lover worries me greatly. When we move away from an audience’s desire to learn and instead towards its desire for safe entertainment, we’re in trouble as a society.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Ramayana

Andreu Honeycutt and Heather Haney in Constellation Theatre Company's "The Ramayana." Photo credit: Daniel Schwartz

Which would you rather be – a god, a demon, or a monkey? In Constellation Theatre Company’s production of Indian epic The Ramayana, the answer is definitely a monkey. I haven’t seen actors having so much fun on stage in ages. At times, maybe too much fun. Mounting a multi-character multi-location multi-verse is daunting, and I admire director Allison Arkell Stockman for attacking something so challenging even larger companies might balk. Constellation’s mission is to produce “epic, ensemble theatre” with “heightened physicality” – and The Ramayana is definitely all that. When it wavers, it’s the fault of being too generous, of allowing too many focal points and not streamlining enough. But it’s still an enjoyable night out, playing now thru June 6 at Source Theater.

The Ramayana is one of two of the most beloved and sacred texts of India (the other, The Mahabharata, was also put to stage in Peter Brook’s famous version some twenty years ago, see the film sometime to get a taste of how fantastic that theatrical experience was). It details the trials of Lord Rama as he endures exile and the kidnapping of his wife Sita by the demon Ravana. Rama is the incarnation of Vishnu and represents the ideal king on earth, his wife Sita is the incarnation of Vishnu’s wife Lakshmi and therefore the ideal queenly wife. Actually, every character in The Ramayana is an archetype of the ideal way to behave – from loyal brother Lakshman to devoted monkey Hanuman.

With so many characters travelling through many worlds, it’s vital to have a backbone and here Stockman has picked the best – live music composed and performed by percussionist Tom Teasley. From playing the doumbek to scat singing, he pulls the audience along as a kind of musical narrator, and it’s easily the second most riveting performance of the evening, grounding time and place far more effectively than any set design.

The actors are clearly envigorated by Teasley’s musical support, and no where is that more obvious than with those delightfully crazy monkeys, highlighted by a stellar standout performance by Joe Brack. If Brack doesn’t get a Helen Hayes nomination for his work as Hanuman, there is no theatrical justice in this town.

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The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Three Sisters

ThreeSistersAct4

Nanna Ingvarsson, Amy Quiggins and Catherine Deadman in Constellation Theatre Company's "Three Sisters." Photo credit: Daniel Schwartz

It’s been over 100 years since Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s death. We’re still struggling against a traditional view of how to perform, and indeed experience, a genius that straddled two very different centuries. Last year, Theater J attacked some sacred cows with a lively production of The Seagull. I expected a young company like Constellation Theatre to be able to blow away some of the same cobwebs with their take on Three Sisters. I certainly loved the gusto with which they attacked Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear.

However, this is a very respectful production, full of talented actors making safe choices. The love of the play is evident, but with a few notable exceptions, no one seems willing to break their established view of how Chekhov should be done. If you’re new to Chekhov’s work, then this is a fine place to start. But if you’re looking for any risk-taking, you won’t really find it here. There’s just too much reverence for that.

Director Allison Arkell Stockman makes two great choices from the start. She uses the Lanford Wilson translation, nicely accessible while retaining some lovely poetic phrases. She also has the play performed in the round, which gives the illusion of our eavesdropping on the lives of the Prozorov family – three sisters Olga, Masha and Irina and their brother Andrei. Her direction highlights the trap closing around the family as one by one their dreams of a meaningful, rewarding life are trampled on. Pretty depressing stuff, thankfully lightened by humor (Chekhov billed it as a comedy, after all).

The plot is a journey through several years with the Prozorov family, who live in a provincial garrison town with their daily routines enlivened by the soldiers. All they have is a dream of moving to Moscow and finding meaningful work (both metaphors would be humorous to an audience at the time, now they are symbols for any childhood dream held dear). Little by little, they lose their illusions, and become adults in a drab world. Continue reading

The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: A Flea in Her Ear

Joe Brack, Katie Atkinson, and Heather Haney in "A Flea in Her Ear," photo courtesy of Constellation Theatre Company

Joe Brack, Katie Atkinson, and Heather Haney in "A Flea in Her Ear," photo courtesy of Constellation Theatre Company

Missing suspenders, snapped frilly garters, a revolving bed, a man who can’t pronounce his consonants – Georges Feydeau’s “A Flea in Her Ear” takes some uptight French aristocrats and rattles them around in the Frisky Puss Hotel. It’s a tightly constructed “bedroom farce” that Constellation Theatre Company attacks with frenetic physical comedy. Lots of scenery is chewed in this production, but that’s a good thing!

Woeful Raymonde Chandebise (a sprightly Katie Atkinson) suspects her husband is unfaithful, because he’s stopped fulfilling his conjugal duties. Until she solves the mystery of his failed desire, she can’t rest – and certainly can’t take a lover until her mind is at ease! Devising a ruse with best friend Lucienne (Heather Haney, butter wouldn’t melt) to catch her husband in the act, she sets off a series of wildly implausible and ever more ridiculous situations of mistaken identity. Don’t bother trying to keep track of it all, just let the riot take over.

Anchored by a strong cast all showing great vocal and physical command, the production is clearly rooted in the world of farce. I honestly laughed to tears at several points. It makes for a truly hysterical night at the theater.
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