Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: We Are Proud To Present…

We Are Proud To Present Woolly MammothAndreu Honeycutt, Dawn Ursula, Joe Isenberg, Holly Twyford. Photo courtesy of Stan Barouh.

The experience of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company‘s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 starts as soon as you walk onstage. Yes, onstage. In another effort to explore integrating the audience further into the experience of Woolly’s 34th season (earlier in the season Woolly split the house in half for productions of Detroit), audience members are ushered into the house through the backstage. Drinks are served in the wings and there is a set of risers where patrons can enjoy the show from the back of the stage looking into the house. The new seating configuration for We Are Proud to Present… is very much theater-in-the-round. Placing the audience all around the actors also makes sense for a show where the actors are going back-and-forth between acting in a show and revealing the process of putting on the show. It’s a level of meta-physical that is beyond simple Frank Underwood-like asides.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s piece isn’t really about the African history lesson described in the title but rather the process of telling that story, and how even true stories can be influenced by the people who tell them. It is within that process that We Are Proud to Present… finds both its most comedic and strikingly powerful moments.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Pajama Men – Just The Two Of Each Of Us

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Mark Chavez and Shenoah Allen. Photo courtesy of The Pajama Men.

The PJ-donned duo of Mark Chavez and Shenoah Allen return to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company for a show this holiday season called Just The Two Of Each Of Us. Of course there’s nothing to read into the title, their surreal, imaginative, and somewhat improvised comedy style hasn’t changed for those that caught them last year. Those that have yet to experience The Pajama Men need to do so as soon as possible. Chavez and Allen once again bring a heavy dose of physical humor, with amazing vocal and facial performances that result in a night of good ol’ clean fun.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Appropriate

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Deborah Hazlett and David Bishins in Woolly Mammoth’s Appropriate. Photo credit: Stan Barouh

“I try to go back home to visit family when I can.”

These were the words spoken to me by my cousin, who was in Washington, DC attending a medical conference. We were enjoying the delectable cuisine of José Andrés at Jaleo, right down the block from where I would soon be reviewing Woolly Mammoth‘s latest production: Appropriate.

“Otherwise the only time you see them is either when someone gets married or when someone dies. ”

It only seems fitting that we had this conversation before I attended Appropriate‘s opening night. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s dramedy brings a family together in a situation similar to what my cousin and I discussed: taking care of the estate of their recently deceased father. Three siblings meet at the Southern plantation home of their late father to sell it off to the highest bidder in hopes of covering the debts and expenses he left behind. However instead of feeling a sense of unity through the ability to grieve with family, the three grow even further apart as their dysfunctional relationships have to support the weight of a startling discovery about their father. The ensuing drama will push and pull the audience in every direction.

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The Features, We Love Arts

In the House with Howard Shalwitz

Howard Shalwitz

Howard Shalwitz of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

In the House is a feature interview series about the theater-makers that keep our most precious institutions up and running. We want to know what artistic and executive directors love about their jobs, how they see their work affecting the city’s theater culture, and what they hope for the future of the craft.

Howard Shalwitz is the co-founder and artistic director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which is currently in its 34th season of producing and developing contemporary new plays that “defy convention.”

Joanna Castle Miller: What does your job as an artistic director involve, and what is its purpose?

Howard Shalwitz: I used to say that my job was the guardian of the soul of the institution – and now I hate the word “institution” so I don’t say that anymore. You would think you’d define the job according to what plays we select, and the artists who work here, and the character of the work, and that’s all true; but I actually think more of my time goes into the long-term vision of the organization: What is the mission? How are we expressing our mission right now? I think I have an important role – because I’ve been here so long – as a kind of guardian of the institutional memory of the organization.

It’s really those long-term mission and vision parts of the job that I think are most important; and if you neglect that, then the theater’s really in trouble.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Detroit

(left to right) Tim Getman, Gabby Fernandez-Coffey, Danny Gavigan, Emily  Townley. Photo: Stan Barouh

(left to right) Tim Getman, Gabby Fernandez-Coffey, Danny Gavigan, Emily
Townley. Photo: Stan Barouh

For a show that’s not set in wartime or a musical it’s odd to find myself writing about the wonderful special effects in Woolly Mammoth‘s production of Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit. However I’d be remiss to not point out the notable use of grills that appear as if they are sizzling burgers, blood that looks real enough to cause concern, vomit that looks real enough to disgust, and a fire that’s climatic enough to make Michael Bay spin in circles. The pizzazz factor in this production of the Pulitzer Prize finalist (it lost out in 2011 to Clybourne Park, another show Woolly produced) is certainly noteworthy.

But the show is more than just a spectacle of stagecraft details. It is a smart, dark comedy that’s well written and well directed (John Vreeke, of The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity fame). D’Amour explores the downfall of the idyllic neighborhoods of the 50s, closely knit communities that declined alongside the manufacturing industries that supported them. Through her prose, D’Amour skims the surface of changing suburbia but does so with a fresh story that is truly entertaining and endearing.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: America All Better!!

America All Better!! Photo: Todd Rosenberg

I’ve seen two of the past three collaborations between Chicago’s famed Second City and Woolly Mammoth. America All Better!! (make sure you use two exclamations to differentiate it from an older revue with the same title) has less of an overall theme that unites the show compared to Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies or A Girl’s Guide To Washington Politics. However this show is the funniest of the Second City shows I’ve seen yet. The material is fresh, quick-hitting, and topical. It is two acts of intense, in-your-face comedy that will leave your face aching from laughter.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: WLDC 2012-2013 Theater Review

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Spring is in the air, Cherry Blossoms are coming and going, pesky tourists return to stand on the left side of the escalator.

As the temperature goes up, the DC Theatre season is winding down. With a couple of months to go til we enter the “Summer Reruns”, the We Love DC Theater team got back together at The Passenger to look back at what we said in our earlier preview and how it all shook out.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: American Utopias

Mike-Daisey---Credit-Ursa-Waz
Photo: Ursa Waz

If there were any concerns that Mike Daisey’s infamous This American Life scandal that rocked both the tech and theater worlds last year would leave any lasting marks on Daisey’s ability to draw an audience, they disappeared the minute I walked into the packed lobby of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Instead of doubt there was a palpable energy of anticipation among patrons waiting to see his latest piece, American Utopias. The buzz was heightened by the club-like atmosphere of the decorated lobby. I stood  next to a carousel horse with a sign that said, “Ride Me”. In fact almost everything in the lobby had instructions for patrons like, “Tweet Me” and “Feel Me.” Also there was fur. So much fur.

There was one reminder of the events of last year. In the program Woolly Mammoth disclosed the following: “The management also wishes to remind you that this is a true story, and like every story told in every medium, all stories are fiction.”

However, the past was out of sight and out of mind as Mike Daisey performed in front of a packed house and not only delivered the brand of thought-provoking and comedic storytelling that he is known for, but also managed to take his monologue game up a level — something I did not think was even possible until now. Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Convert

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Photo: Scott Suchman

Danai Gurira’s The Conert opens in 1895 Southern Africa where Nancy Moricette’s character Jekesai runs onto the Woolly Mammoth stage wearing nothing but some Zimbabwe tribal neckware and a small animal hide skirt. The image is striking and reminiscent of a photo you would perhaps see in an old issue of National Geographic.

Seeking refuge from becoming a wife to her Uncle (Erik Kilpatrick), Jekesai reaches out to her aunt Mai Tamba (Starla Benford) who is a maid at the home of Chilford (Irungu Mutu), a Christian missionary. Jekesai is taken in and given a job, schooling, and the opportunity to convert from her pagan religion to Catholicism. Grateful for her newfound situation, we see Jekesai slowly shed her native identity (which includes changing her name to Ester) and turn into a devout missionary. Her new faith however will find her in the middle of rising tensions between the Zimbabwe natives, the European settlers, and the converted missionaries in the middle.

It is a powerful story and the latest piece by Gurira, who you may know from her role in AMC’s Walking Dead. She is no stranger to Woolly Mammoth, she performed on stage in 2006′s Continuum and premiered her play Eclipsed at Woolly back in 2009. A child to Zimbabwean parents, Gurira has been deeply interested in telling the story of her native homeland and delivers the first of a trilogy of plays about Zimbabwe in the form of a moving drama that is new and refreshing.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Pajama Men: In The Middle Of No One

When the duo of Mark Chavez and Shenoah Allen first take the stage you might notice they have dressed a little too casual for a night out at the theatre. Forget t-shirts and jeans that yours truly usually wears to review shows or the growing fashion controversy of leggings as pants. Chavez and Allen perform in nothing but two piece pajamas and bare feet. Of course that’s probably why they are called the Pajama Men; and in their latest show, The Pajama Men: In The Middle of No One, they march upon the stage at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in outfits that make them looks like eight-year olds goofing around at a sleepover. Without any props or sets (outside of two chairs), they create and paint scenes out of thin air with that same child-like intensity and passion. Two sets of hands come together and all of a sudden you see a horse’s mouth. One stands behind the other and their arms join to create an alien being. What makes these two performers such a delight are the ways that they use their bodies to visualize scenes to the audience.

Combine that with non-stop jokes, wordplay, and vocal bits and the PJ men are the must-see comedy show of this holiday season.

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The Features

Q&A with Playwright Mia Chung

Mia Chung / Courtesy Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

Playwright Mia Chung is a member of New Dramatists and the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. She is a Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA) playwriting fellow and a Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Global Connections grantee.

Her work has appeared on many stages, but most recently can be seen at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s You for Me for You—a magical realism play about two North Korean sisters separated from each other against their wills. You for Me for You is the first show of Woolly Mammoth’s Free the Beast initiative, which aims to produce 25 new plays over a ten-year period (2013-2022).

Mia recently spoke with me about playwriting, Asian-American representation in theater, and what the DC theater world has done to encourage her continued success.

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The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: You For Me For You

You For Me For You / (left to right) Jo Mei, Ruibo Qian (photo by Scott Suchman)

Rarely does any show depict North Korea, let alone without jokes about the crazy Kim family or nuclear missiles. The people who struggle there, and who risk everything to flee, remain somewhat mysterious to most Americans. But they take center stage in the innovative and provocatively told You for Me for You at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

The show centers around two sisters who bargain with a smuggler after facing starvation at home—bargaining that spans the globe and requires everything they have. Told through magical realism, the production uses music, poetry, and very thoughtful set design to guide the story. A revolving stage accentuates the element of running away. A nearly impenetrable wall represents the closed-off North Korea.

On the surface, the show might sound rather dreary; but playwright Mia Chung and director Yury Urnov avoid being overly didactic or political, and as a result the setting never weighs down the piece. Instead, the storytelling feels well-balanced between comedy and tragedy, between light and darkness.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. Photo credit: Scott Suchman.

The determination to keep what’s lost alive, to create elusive meaning out of chaos, is at the heart of theater’s beginnings. Sounds lofty, but it’s behind both great drama and crass comedy. Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play is all of the above, a brilliant mash-up of The Simpsons, apocalyptic movies and origin myths. Above all, it’s the universal cry to make sense and keep laughing after a devastating crisis. And it proves true that one generation’s pop culture can morph into classical canon in one hundred years.

Everyone who loves The Simpsons has a favorite episode, one that they can still recite lines from (I used to do a killer Ralph Wiggum, “You choo-choo-choose me?” and yes, I own a beer can opener that sings out Homer proud, “Beeeeer. Yes oh yes whoo-hoo!”). If you can’t quite remember the line, well, just pull it up instantly online and push play, keeping your memory evergreen. Simple. But what if you could never refresh your memory, not for your favorite line, song, anything? In a “post-electric” world, the work would eventually be lost.

Or rather, it would mutate into something different, perhaps equally valid, or even greater.

That’s the challenge facing the characters in Washburn’s play. They’re clearly survivors, but we don’t know the precise nature of the catastrophe that’s blown the grid, causing nuclear meltdowns and the disintegration of society. They aren’t sure themselves, as they huddle together in uneasy social alliances for safety and warmth, exchanging lists of loved ones with every outsider in an attempt not just to find the lost but keep their memory alive. In the dark of night, they start to do what humans have always done to keep fear at bay – tell stories.

In this case, recreating The Simpsons’ “Cape Feare” episode. Sideshow Bob as Robert De Niro as murder Max Cady? Singing HMS Pinafore? Unfamiliar? You might want to watch it before you go. It’s not essential, but the play is stuffed with rich references.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Civilization (all you can eat)


Photo: Stan Barouh

As the sun rises on the stage of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s “Civilization (all you can eat)”, we are shown a farm full of animals. A group of pigs sleep soundly as dawn breaks. All appears well by the barn.

Except this isn’t any ordinary farm- it’s a slaughterhouse.

As the pigs sleep and play, unaware of their impending doom, one pig rises above the rest. Known as Big Hog (Sarah Marshall), this not so little piggy demonstrates an awareness above the rest of the herd and has a plan for freedom.

And thus starts Jason Grote’s world premiere of “Civilization”- his take on the values of America prior to the 2008 election. Grote examines the ideas of consumption, commercialization, and the inner struggle to succeed through several interconnected characters.

David (Daniel Escobar), is a struggling actor who gains notoriety after starring in a funny but crude Twix ad campaign. The commercials were directed by his friend Zoe (Tia James) who hopes to make the leap from ad work to feature films. Also working to make a name for herself is David’s friend Karen (Jenna Sokolowski), who dreams of becoming a reality TV star. Zoe’s husband Mike (Sean Meehan) is an aspiring motivational speaker who hopes to find the answer to the universe through chaos theory. Mike’s sister Carol (Naomi Jacobson) is struggling to make ends meet which has forced her daughter Jade (Casie Platt) to try her hand in amateur porn.

Their stories are intertwined along with Big Hog’s escape from the slaughterhouse in a series of scenes that are broken up with interludes of choreographed movement that depict a society that is always moving, yet the individuals inside it sometimes struggle to keep up.

Grote’s collection of stories come together to form a view of a lost America that knows that they want to make a difference in the world- but are having difficulty trying to find the way to do that. While entertaining and striking, the impact of Grote’s message is loss through a narrative that is a mixed bag in regards to impact.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies


Photo by Michael Brosilow

In my previous job I analyzed the prevalence of fear and risk in current events and news. So if I know anything about society, it’s that we love to worry.

We are afraid of a lot of things: invasion of privacy, food contamination, and deadly diseases. West Nile, Cancer, and Swine Flu are just some of the buzzwords that have infiltrated the evening news in recent times.

The problem is we have become so scared stiff we have lost all perspective in measuring and weighing risk. In the summers of 2001 & 2002 it was “The Summer of the Shark”, to which The Daily Show pointed out- more people are killed by falling coconuts than by shark attacks.

Does that mean we should wear helmets outside? Does that mean we need to constantly sanitize our purses and make sure our kids don’t eat french fries so they don’t get cancer?

My answer is no- but don’t take my word for it, the players of Chicago’s Second City are here to shine the light on death, doom, and gloom in their production of Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies. The renown Chicago-based comedy troupe returns to Woolly Mammoth Theatre to offer up another show of sketches, songs, and shtick.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Clybourne Park


Photo Stan Barouh

Before this weekend, I rarely used the word gentrify except when describing neighborhoods like Columbia Heights or H-Street NE.

“Yes I know it looks a little rough- but hey it’s gentrifying! Now let’s go hit up Wonderland Ballroom!”

This weekend brought two events that have given new meaning and significance to the word, first Washington Post columnist/grouchy old man Courtland Milloy decided to stereotype DC’s youth into hipsters out to improve property values and find great Happy Hour specials.

Second was a performance of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park over at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. I’m happy to report the latter had a deeper impact on my life.

Woolly Mammoth made a wise choice in restaging the production they first brought to life in the spring of 2010. Not only can DC relate to the theme of race and gentrification, but also the show is still buzzing after winning a Helen Hayes award for outstanding resident play and the Pulitzer in Drama. With local theatre taking a bit of a summer break, crowds have been beating the heat and taking advantage of this second chance to see what I think has been one of the best plays I’ve seen this year.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Bootycandy

Photo by Stan Barouh

Bootycandy playwright Robert O’Hara breaks it down in a vignette in the middle of the show entitled, “Conference”. The skit presents a moderator questioning the four “playwrights” that wrote the previously presented vignettes in the show. The moderator cross-examines each author, trying to pigeon hole his or her work into his stereotype. The illustration is a  meta-point in the play that a statement that this piece provokes more than placates:

Moderator (to Playwright): What would you like the audience to take-away after seeing this show?

Playwright 1: I would like them to choke.

Moderator: Choke?

Playwright 2: After you choke and struggle, what goes down your throat isn’t easy- you know that it’s there.

O’Hara acknowledges that what you are witnessing may not be comfortable at times. Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s Bootycandy is like an Atomic Warhead Candy turned inside out.  The series of 10 short plays start out sweet, funny, and entertaining but the show will have moments that will make you pucker as a complex portrait of the author is created through exploration of various issues including sex, family, and homo-phobia.

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Entertainment, The Daily Feed

The DC Theatre Community Gears Up For Theatre Prom 2K11!

Photo courtesy of
‘IMG_2063′
courtesy of ‘dbking’

My pal Brieahn J. DeMeo calls it Theatre Prom.

I call it the fanciest event I ever had to get dressed for.

Sure I’ve been to weddings, but it’s easy when you know you just have to rent a tux and you are all set. For this one I had to call in the big guns- I rang up Brittany and she set me straight.

I’m talking about the Helen Hayes awards, the annual night where the local theatre community honors the outstanding plays and musicals of the past year. It’s kind of like the Tony’s- but for stuff that happens at Kennedy Center and Arena Stage. 26 awards will be presented tonight as well as three special awards to Ford’s Theatre (Innovative Leadership in the Theatre Community), Factory 449 and No Rules Theatre Company (Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company), and stage legend Tommy Tune will be honored with the he Helen Hayes Tribute.

Tonight also marks the debut of a Helen Hayes commemorative stamp issued by the United States Postal Service.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind Returns To Woolly

Photo Colin Hovde

Apparently We Love DC loves the Neo-Futurists. Fellow theatre writers Jenn and Don have also seen, “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind” during past visits to the area. The Chicago-based theatre troupe have been performing versions of the show for over 21 years with shows both in their home theatre (called The Neo-Futurarium) in Chicago and on the road.

Luckily our coverage of the show isn’t excessive, because no two TMLMTBGB shows are the same. The premise of the show is to perform 30 “plays” in 60 minutes. After each performance an audience member rolls dice to determine how many plays from the current list of 30 will be retired forever and replaced with newly written material.

The performances are chaotic, spontaneous, and audience driven- but it’s not Improv. The skits will invoke feelings of happiness, confusion, or outrage- but it’s not drama. What occurs on stage is performance art that’s somewhat unclassifiable.

On the scale of Orange Juice to Orange Crush- it’s Sunny D.

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Entertainment, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Photo: Stan Barouh

Mike Daisey wants to start an epidemic, a mind virus as he describes it.

The man behind last year’s The Last Cargo Cult and 2009′s How Theatre Failed America is back at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre with his latest monologue, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs“. The show is already in high demand with Woolly Mammoth already extending the show after a week of production. The show has local roots, Daisey developed and previewed the show at Woolly Mammoth during the summer of 2010.

However I didn’t know any of this previously.

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