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Call it a rethink, call it an experiment, or call it, as Catalyst Theater does, “Macbeth remixed”: Whatever label you pick, Shkspr Prjct is stress-nightmare Shakespeare: an intense, impressionistic ride through the mind of the Bard’s woefully human villain—the dark and fractured version of the tale that your subconscious might serve up if you’d been cramming for a midterm and nodded off over your Arden. You’ll love it or you’ll hate it—it’s that kind of show. But hey, it’s a brief evening, and if nothing else, it’s not your everyday Shakespeare—and how lucky are we, here in D.C., to be able to shrug out that phrase and go check out a show like this?
Sound and fury Shkspr’s got, and in spades. Director Kathleen Akerley drilled her troops in the strange and strenuous theater method of Jerzy Grotowski, which basically asks actors to internalize a text, shake the intellectual barnacles off it, and fool around with fragments of speeches, using voice and body to draw some subconscious truth up and into the light. And some onlookers, more accustomed to the classical techniques practiced among the city’s Elizabethan establishmentarians, will harrumph that it sure ain’t signifyin’ nothing—one exceedingly cranky-looking silver-haired lady sat stubbornly on her hands throughout the curtain call on opening night, even as her companion clapped lustily. I have the distinct feeling they won’t be the last couple bickering amiably all the way home from the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop over the next few weekends.
That’s because plenty of patrons will get a charge out of the swift savagery and striking stage pictures Akerley and her ensemble conjure in their compact reduction. Most vivid, perhaps, is when a hauntingly lit Jonathan Church, arrayed in an angular groan of a posture, negotiates a snippet of the “I am in blood stepp’d in” speech while Melissa-Leigh Douglas’ disturbingly arachnoid Lady Macbeth articulates a predatory leg in his general direction. Or when the murdered Banquo and the ghost-kings accompanying him emerge in gruesome silhouette from within the liquid-seeming purgatory of an elastic swath of undulating fabric. Or when Kip Pierson’s newly orphaned Fleance materializes out of a blackout with a raptor’s screech, looming over Church’s ashen Macbeth—an efficiently chilling image drawn, as far as I can tell, from two slim lines of portent about how “a falcon, towering in her pride of place, was by a mousing owl hawked at and killed.”
Language that rich goes mostly begging in this production, it’s true—it goes mostly unspoken, come to that, in an evening that clocks in at an hour and a quarter. And Akerley’s faith that audiences know the story well enough not to mind the fragmentation may be misplaced; I had a little trouble keeping up with characters myself, to be frank, as actors traded off parts and scenes and sequences got put through the Grotowski blender. But that’s less a side effect of the technique than part of its point, or so I gather, and in any case, the grinning bones of Shakespeare’s tragedy are discernible enough. And in the shadowy stretches of Shkspr Prjct’s darkest and best moments, they’re every bit as disturbing as ever.
Charlayne Woodard’s episodic solo show Pretty Fire charts the author’s life from premature birth (a pound and a half!) to first public performance (the Holy Spirit touched that church!), and in the company of the tremendously appealing Erika Rose, star of the African Continuum Theatre Company’s modest but polished production, it’s a path you won’t mind walking.
The wayposts are deftly written vignettes about first encounters with elementary-school prejudices and street-corner menaces, Deep South discoveries and dark-night illuminations, each story peopled with wise, no-nonsense grandmothers and God-fearing grandfathers and comely adolescent church-choir directors. If it begins to sound like a sentimental—not to say saccharine—journey, it never for a moment feels that way in Rose’s hands.
There’s horror and humor, not least in the tale of a New York girl’s visit to her grandmother’s rural Georgia home, which incorporates the memory of a cross-burning—“pretty fire,” says the wide-eyed child, who doesn’t yet know what aggression and violence are being telegraphed in the flames—and in a sunnier recollection about Miss Minnie Gowild and the wedding of her daughter Pearline, which tale trips lightly through neighborly nastiness and ends with a tart grandmotherly suggestion amusing for its anatomical impossibility. The same sequence includes a reminiscence of red-clay days and warm dining-room tub-baths—a passage that’s quietly lovely for the sheer sensuality of the experiences it recalls.
Rose delivers these stories, like the others, with no small poise and no little craft. Superbly confident, utterly relaxed, and wonderfully chameleonic, she’s so anchored in the part that you forget after a few minutes that these aren’t her own family stories—and you surrender to the intimacy and the warmth of the telling. She’s the terrific host at a one-woman family reunion—and Pretty Fire is a fine benchmark for ACTCo as it takes up residence in its new home at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
“Real women have curves,” exults onetime indocumentada Josefina López in her big-hearted comedy about onetime indocumentadas, which takes that agreeably defiant sentiment as its title. López wrote the show, it turns out, when she wasn’t quite 20 years old—which is presumably why in the Gala Hispanic Theatre’s bright, cheerful production, the play feels like the work of a talented if overearnest teenager.
That’s who its narrator is, in fact: It’s late-’80s Los Angeles, and aspiring writer Ana (Kathleen Gonzales) works in what’s not quite a sweatshop; her older sister, not some corporate foreman, is the boss pushing her recently legalized seamstresses to spend long days making expensive dresses for $67 a week. Inside, our heroine wrestles with family politics, her own college-bound-young-feminist ambitions, and the physical and psychological expectations of two very different cultures, while outside, la migra circles the block looking for illegals to cart back to Mexico. One recurring gag has Ana and the ample, amiable scatterbrains she works with diving under tables at every mention of the border patrol, their recently acquired papers notwithstanding. The scars from our rough handling of los indocumentados, López wants us to understand, are slow to fade.
The plot’s pretty slender—will Estela (Cynthia Benjamin) and her troops finish up the order of 200 ball gowns by Friday, in time to collect the check that’ll fend off the repo men threatening to make off with the sewing machines? Will the weight-obsessed Rosali (Wendy Nogales) turn out to be popping pills or just pushing her fingers down her throat during all those trips to the bathroom? Will la migra swoop in to collect Estela, whose papers may not be in order after all? It’s a comedy, this, and even the Rosali question gets resolved without too much fuss. But there is at least an urgency and an authenticity in the way the playwright lays out what’s bothering her.
Abel López’s handsome staging pops off the stage at Gala’s swank new Tivoli Theatre digs, and if the play never feels tremendously revelatory about the inner lives of its “real women,” it does transmit a warm sense of their externals and their everydays. Marycarmen Wila and Barbara Bonilla-Burnett are charmingly sassy and salt-of-the-earthy as two of the older workers, and if the younger cast members don’t always feel quite as relaxed as their more mature colleagues—well, that’s one of the nice things about maturity, now isn’t it? Real women do have curves, of course, even the skinny ones and the young ones, and if nothing else, Josefina López enjoys herself while tracing ’em. Chances are you will, too.CP