Life in the Capital, People, We Love Arts

Taking Theater Into Their Own Hands: Interview with Jojo Ruf of The Welders

Jojo Ruf and The Welders / Teresa Castracane

Jojo Ruf and The Welders / Teresa Castracane

Among many other roles in local and national theater, Jojo Ruf is the Executive and Creative Director for an exciting new playwrights’ collective called The Welders.

Over the next three years, The Welders intend to produce a new play by each of their 5 members. At the end of that time, they will pass on the entire project to a different set of writers, thus ensuring the collective continues.

I sat down with Jojo to talk about DC theater, The Welders, and the state of new plays in our area.

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We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Andy and the Shadows

Jennifer Mendenhall & Alexander Strain in Andy and the Shadows at Theater J / Photo by Stan Barouh

Jennifer Mendenhall & Alexander Strain in Andy and the Shadows at Theater J / Photo by Stan Barouh

Memories lost and found, tragedy and forgetting, fact and fiction, dreams and reality: it all comes to a head in Andy and the Shadows at Theater J.

Written by Theater J artistic director Ari Roth and directed by Daniella Topol, Andy and the Shadows is part of Theater J’s second annual Locally Grown Festival, which brings to the stage new works by local playwrights.

The story centers around the Glickstein family from the perspective of neurotic, angst-ridden Andy – the middle child of his Holocaust survivor parents. Each of the three children choose to deal with their parents’ dark history in different ways. Andy chooses to wrestle with his family’s ghosts at home.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Imagining Madoff

Photo: C. Stanley Photography

If you want to learn about one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history, this show isn’t for you. If you want to learn more about the man that ran off with the savings of individuals, charitable organizations, and others- this show may not be for you.

Try one of the documentaries out there on the topic.

Instead of retelling history, Theater J’s Imagining Madoff focuses on a fictionalized meeting between Bernie Madoff (Rick Foucheux) and Solomon Galkin (Mike Nussbaum), one of his clients/victims. Despite the show’s fictional premise, playwright Deb Margolin creates an engaging narrative that whets our appetite as we collectively wonder who was this notorious criminal and how could he steal so much from so many.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Moscows Of Nantucket

All my friends must think I have some sort of problem. Then again as a blogger they must be used to the fact I am always glued to my netbook.

Right now I am soaking up the rays in a lounge chair poolside at a lovely beach house on Hateras Island. It’s an annual trip that 20 of my friends and I take every year. It’s a nice week with friends, sun and surf hundreads of miles away from our normal lives.

The setting of Theater J’s The Moscows of Nantucket is much like the trip I am on right now. Set in a summer beach home on the New England get-away of Nantucket, set designer Robbie Hayes captures the picturesque and the kitsch one would find if they were vacationing on the Outer Banks or Nantucket.

Benjamin (James Flanagan) and Michael (Michael Glenn) Moscow look for a temporary escape from their current troubles by joining their parents at the family summer home in Nantucket. Their stay is a double-edged sword, offering an escape from the outside world but in return they find themselves in an isolated environment with a much more disrupting force: the family. The premise reads “dysfunctional family conflict” and the show certainly doesn’t shy away from it.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Photograph 51

Elizabeth Rich and Alexander Strain in Theater J's "Photograph 51." Photo credit: Stan Barouh.

Biographical plays can be tricky. The best – works like Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus or Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code – have come to brilliantly define the genre but also created conventions that theater audiences now take for granted. There are the poetic monologues illustrating the main character’s motivations, the chorus or narrator trying to shape the life for you (either trustworthily or not), crazy jumps in time, and an overall attempt to make some philosophical sense out of a life. The pitfall is, a life may not necessarily have a theme other than the playwright’s desire for one.

Playwright Anna Ziegler teases some sadly beautiful metaphors out of the life of scientist Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51, now playing at Theater J. It’s a swift ninety minute production with no intermission, befitting the race it depicts but perhaps also the difficulty in breathing theatrical life into what was an intellectual and lonely pursuit. If you have a young niece or daughter whose interest in science you want to encourage, this may be the play to take her to – or not, considering it’s a deeply discouraging look at the boys’ club Dr. Franklin struggled against in her quest to map the contours of the DNA molecule.

It’s this struggle that Ziegler focuses on, and she makes us feel it keenly. We cringe every time the mature and learned Dr. Franklin is addressed by her backbiting colleagues as “Miss Franklin.” But there’s something else going on here as well, the suggestion that it was this prejudice alone that resulted in her not being the first to win the DNA mapping race. Does Ziegler want us to be convinced of that at the play’s end, or is it simply that Franklin’s pride was the block to success? Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Chosen

Joshua Morgan and Derek Kahn Thompson in Theater J's production of "The Chosen." Photo credit: Stan Barouh.

There’s something old-fashioned about Theater J’s production of The Chosen, presented with a quiet sensitivity in the staging and the acting, echoed in the warm wood of James Kronzer’s set. To call it old-fashioned is to by no means denigrate its power. It has a sepia-toned subtlety.

Theater J first produced an adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel ten years ago, and is returning to it now under the aegis of Arena Stage. Setting a play of such intimacy in the airy round of the Fichandler is a bit of a risk – a play about the complicated relationships between fathers and sons requires a closer access than that large theater can provide, and sometimes I longed for the smaller confines of Theater J’s usual home. But it’s thrilling to see a company I’ve long admired in the gorgeous space by the waterfront, and it expands the audience capacity to see two Washington powerhouses – Edward Gero and Rick Foucheux – command the stage regardless of its size.

“Acquire a teacher, chose a friend.” This is the advice David Malter (Edward Gero) gives his son Reuven (Derek Kahn Thompson) as essential to start becoming a man. He’s just met his unlikely friend Danny (Joshua Morgan), after a baseball game that turned into a battle between Hasidic Jews and those Jews they consider “apikorsim” – heretics. Unbeknownst to Reuven, Danny has just met his unlikely teacher, Malter himself, whose reading suggestions include Freud and Darwin. Not exactly what his father Reb Saunders (Rick Foucheux) would want his son to be reading in preparation to become a “tzaddik” – the spiritual leader of his community.

The adaptation written and directed by Aaron Posner takes its time exploring the nuances between the four men, building to a shattering moment between a father and the son he raised in silence. Continue reading

Dupont Circle, Entertainment, Special Events, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Return to Haifa

Raida Adon and Rozina Kambos in The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv's "Return to Haifa" at Theater J. Photo credit: Stan Barouh.

Two women are arguing about their son. One gave birth to him, the other raised him. The adoptive mother makes a cutting comment about the son being more likely to listen to her than his birth mother. Many in the audience laugh. It’s a grim laugh, low and knowing.

A women next to me says out loud in frustration and disbelief, “Why is that funny?”

It was a strange preview night at Theater J, watching the production of Return to Haifa performed by the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv in Hebrew and Arabic. Uncomfortable for some, painful for others, odd for me in my role as critic – as the talkback session afterwards becomes a bit of theater unto itself, worth investigating just as much as reviewing the play. I didn’t know what to make of the whole thing when I left. I still don’t.

Two mothers. One Jewish, one Muslim. One Israeli, one Palestinian. And their son, all of the above, or none of any of it. Questions arose at the talkback with Anton Goodman, Jewish Agency Shaliach, and Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J, that still whirl in my head: Is it a play appropriating a beloved piece of Palestinian literature, as one member of the talkback accused? Is it a play attempting to own a dual narrative, to both celebrate and mourn at the same time, as Goodman believed? A play that makes soldiers unable to be strong for their country, as a mother in the audience feared?

What I can tell you about Return to Haifa… is that you will leave with many questions. Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Kinsey Sicks

The Kinsey Sicks in "Oy Vey in a Manger," photo courtesy of The Kinsey Sicks.

What says the holiday season better than a Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet? Rambling, raunchy, rude dragapella, with no pesky plot or fourth wall realism! Singing, dancing, kvetching dragapella – the perfect antidote to any holiday-induced blues you may be harboring.

Through January 2nd at Theater J you can catch The Kinsey Sicks, who’ve been fabulously hilarious since their beginnings years ago in San Francisco. This little variety show, clocking in at about 90 minutes, features belting queens Trampolina (Spencer Brown), Winnie (Irwin Keller), Trixie (Jeff Manabat) and Rachel (Ben Schatz) satirizing popular Christmas carols and Hanukkah songs. Don’t expect much of a plot (the girls are trying to sell their home – a manger, gotten long ago from the Christ family) but do expect to laugh your ass off at some very irreverent humor.

After all, it’s called Oy Vey in a Manger. Continue reading

Entertainment, Special Events, The Daily Feed

Theater J Ticket Discount

Image courtesy of Theater J.

If you enjoyed my theater profile of director Eleanor Holdridge and are intrigued to see a play exploring the fine line between ardent activism and violent radicalism, Theater J is making it easier with $15 tickets to six select performances of Willy Holtzman’s Something You Did.

Just use the special discount code DCBLOGGER when you purchase tickets to the following shows on their website: 8/28, 9/2, 9/4, 9/5 (both matinee and evening performances) and 9/6.

Something You Did looks at what happens when a former anti-war activist attempts to mend the consequences of her radical actions, and based on my interview with the director I think it’s bound to be highly impassioned and thought-provoking. Watch for Don’s review following the official opening on August 31.

Entertainment, Interviews, People, The Features, We Love Arts

Theater Spotlight: Eleanor Holdridge

Eleanor Holdridge, director of Theater J's "Something You Did" by Willy Holtzman. Photo courtesy of Eleanor Holdridge.

First in a series of interviews with the many theater professionals who call DC their artistic home.

Eleanor Holdridge had been freelancing as a director for twenty years. It can be a grueling profession, on the road sometimes for eight months at a time to make a living. She was ready for a home.

“Welcome to DC! Now, direct a play that’s political,” she jokes.

Having recently moved here to head the directing program at The Catholic University of America, Holdridge is out of the gate directing Theater J’s season opener, Something You Did. Playwright Willy Holtzman has updated the piece from its 2008 incarnation to reflect the current polarized political climate. Replacing the controversial Imagining Madoff with a play about 1960’s idealist turned imprisoned radical facing off against a neo-conservative media pundit prone to conspiracy theories may seem a bit out of the frying pan, but that kind of daring choice is what makes me admire Theater J.

With warm enthusiasm and infectious humor, Holdridge graciously shared a rehearsal coffee break with me to talk about her move to DC, her impressions of theater here, and what’s in store for audiences when Something You Did opens with previews beginning August 28.

As a Baltimore area native, Holdridge grew up coming to DC to see plays at Arena Stage. So perhaps it was inevitable that one day DC theater would call her back. 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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The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Mikveh

Rachel Condliffe, Carla Briscoe, Tonya Beckman Ross, Sarah Marshall in Theater J's production of "Mikveh." Photo credit: Stan Barouh

What is our personal responsibility to others in the face of repression and abuse? Do you interfere in someone else’s life when you see injustice? To act or to collude in silence… and while we argue about the need for action, what’s happening to those suffering right behind our backs?

Mikveh, playing now through June 5 in its English language world premiere at Theater J, is not really a play about religion, though it takes place in the confines of an orthodox community in Israel. Rather, it’s a play about the moral battle between action and inaction. It also highlights how women’s territorial natures cripple them – as they police themselves from within, they are being policed by others from without. Their inability to rise above petty jealousies can be detrimental, sometimes to the extreme.

Though the action centers around the mikveh itself (a ritual bath, here used mainly to purify post-menstruant women), you don’t need a background in the Talmud or Family Purity Laws to understand the play. That’s what I love about Theater J, no matter the subject, there’s a dedication to clarity and consistent storytelling, always marked by strong ensemble acting and high production values. Mikveh is no exception – though at times the play veers dangerously close to a Jewish Orthodox version of The Women (the gossipy babymachine, the uppercrust bitch, the abused wife, etc.) – it’s worth it to explore these issues with such powerful actors. They are ably helmed by director Shirley Serotsky, whose handling of Hadar Galron’s engaging script mines the truth behind stereotypes.

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Dupont Circle, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: In Darfur

Erika Rose in Theater J's "In Darfur," photo credit: Stan Barouh.

“Plays like this make me so grateful I was born at the time and place I was,” my friend says as we exit Theater J Saturday night. We’d just seen In Darfur by Winter Miller, and as a Western woman who’d spent the day shopping for frivolities, I felt the cold twist of shame in my stomach. But this isn’t a preachy production. Its simplicity provides the horror, and it’s truthful. These things happen. We ignore them. Then we see a simulation of a woman’s legs being cracked apart like a wishbone, and our silence feels culpable.

This is a hard sell, no denying it, but I urge you to go see In Darfur, playing now through April 18. The play is inspired by Miller’s own trip to refugee camps along the Chad-Sudan border, in the company of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times. Strangely, its flaws have to do with that prism of experience, as the two Westerners who serve as our entre to this world – an American journalist and an Argentinian aid worker – are simply not as compelling as the Africans they encounter. But I still urge you to see it, for Erika Rose’s central performance as Darfuri refugee Hawa is absolutely riveting.

The action unfolds in 2004, the aftermath of the initial atrocities committed during the conflict between the Darfur rebel groups, the Sudanese government, and the government-armed militias known as Janjaweed. Hawa, a Darfuri Muslim, has lost her entire family and been brutally raped – she is then further brutalized for being raped. Pregnant and wounded, she becomes the central pawn in hardened journalist Maryka’s (Rahaleh Nassri) quest to get Darfur on the front page, blocked by aid worker Carlos (Lucas Beck) in an ethical battle over whether endangering Hawa’s life to get the story out is worth the price she’ll pay. Continue reading

Dupont Circle, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Seagull on 16th Street

Naomi Jacobson and Jerry Whiddon in "The Seagull" at Theater J. Photo credit: Stan Barouh

Naomi Jacobson and Jerry Whiddon in "The Seagull" at Theater J. Photo: Stan Barouh

Most people don’t associate Chekhov with comedy. We think Russia in all caps, passion with a punch, alcoholics, suicides, depressives. And yes, there’s a lot of that. Except it can all be pretty hysterical stuff, as Theater J’s adaptation of “The Seagull” proves. It’s a thin line between tragedy and comedy, and Chekhov certainly meant us to see the absurdity in our own hyperbolic neuroses. Or put more simply – when a guy presents a dead seagull to his girlfriend, it’s ok to laugh.

Theater J’s mandate is to explore the Jewish cultural heritage and they usually tackle bold new plays. To pull Chekhov into this mandate involved a new translation by Carol Rocamora and an adaptation by Artistic Director Ari Roth that weaves in Jewish cultural references, mostly at the top of the play. If you aren’t familiar with “The Seagull,” these changes will barely register. If you are, they are easily accepted, unless you’re a hardcore Chekhovian scholar. And so we have “The Seagull on 16th Street,” a reference to 16th Street’s Jewish history and a nod to “Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street.”

The core of “The Seagull” is the idea of faith – in oneself, in one’s work and talent – and the terrible capacity to do both good and evil, on a whim. Director John Vreeke delicately pulls this out in a production that makes an excellent introduction to Chekhov. And an ensemble cast of Washingtonian theater regulars is admirably up to the task. Continue reading