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The first “yo” jolts the audience before the lights go down at the Studio Theatre—a bolt from the turntables spun by DJ Moni (aka Monica Pineda), who thereafter provides a soundtrack for the tales spun by rap dynamo Will Power.
Power’s hiphop stylings have made him a theater sensation in San Francisco and earned him a spot on Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry on HBO, and he’s an arresting presence as he rushes the stage, rail-thin, barefoot, attired in neutral grays. His first few words set the tone for the staccato rhythms that follow, syllables meted out to match the beat scratched out by the DJ. “Se-ven. On-ly Se-ven. There were on-ly se-ven sto-ry-tell-ers in the neigh-bor-hood.” And over the course of 80 minutes he embodies all seven of them.
Power is backed by a wall of bright colors and a screen on which skittering bugs and artists can be projected, but the stage itself is simple—just three cardboard boxes, a stool, and a black floor with a ring of white sand. It’s a quasi-ceremonial space for the telling of tales, a contemporary cave where urban heroism becomes the stuff of legend, passed on from teller to teller in flickering light that sometimes gives Power’s movements the jerkiness of film images running too slowly through a projector.
Sometimes. Other times, he is grace itself, doing a barefoot tap dance or extending slender fingers toward his audience in supplication. His movements vary with the characters. Alcoholic Breezy, who raps in parables about cockroaches, has a hunched-over stance when he’s not hustling for a quarter or wriggling his antennae (those delicate fingers). Jacoba, a potential “project ho” who escaped that fate when she took up teaching, has a laid-back posture and a flirty but businesslike air. An older man who speaks of urban history as a sort of tour guide (“the trading trail that is now 2nd Street”) adopts a smooth gait and a more melodic tone than the others. Dan the Preacher Man has a mousy, nervous air about him as he spars with the folks who come into his health-food store, but he can rouse a spirit within when called upon to lead a clap-along impromptu church service. An arms-akimbo teenage freestyler chatters with an old-school rhymer who jams his fingers into his armpits and hold his elbows high.
Power inhabits all these characters and perhaps a dozen more, as he creates delirious conversational riffs referencing everything from environmentalist smokers to moms on crack to Richard Gere and gerbils. He’s both an ingratiating and an electrifying presence, with a gentle smile and a zigzag part that cuts through his cornrows like a lightning bolt. There’s a bit of Norah Jones to his style and a lot of Spalding Gray in his storytelling, which uses irony and guarded cynicism to arrive at an affirmative, hopeful view of life. He’s currently working on a hiphop adaptation of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes for the New York Theatre Workshop, and on the evidence presented here, it won’t be all that big a stretch for him. Hiphop theater may sound like a limited genre, but Power makes a pretty stunning case for it in Flow.
There can’t be many cities—at least not this side of London—that have recently opened three professional Shakespeare productions in one week. And even if there are other Bard-fixated burgs, they aren’t likely to have been treated to stagings as eccentric as the ones that opened here last week: the Shakespeare Theatre’s fairy-tale Pericles, with its avant-garde flourishes; the Folger’s the-supernumeraries-are-the-stars Two Gentlemen of Verona (where the two—and only two—gents get clowned off the stage by three masked women playing nearly everyone else); and now the Washington Shakespeare Company’s Iraq-inflected environmental staging of Titus Andronicus.
Designer Matt Soule has feathered playing areas throughout the auditorium, so that no matter where you’re sitting, you’re pretty much in the middle of things. If you’re not close enough to the barbed wire to flinch when masked terrorists behind it start screaming, or so near the toilet you worry about getting splashed when someone’s given a swirly, you’ll likely be either front and center for the leading lady’s rape and dismemberment, or close enough to the office paper-cutter to hear the crunch as it chops off the hero’s hand.
Such proximity may strike some as a mixed blessing, but there are advantages to being surrounded by a director’s vision. Chief among them is a feeling of involvement, so important in a production ferociously intent on happening in the here-and-now. As the lights come up, you’re in election-week America, with red-white-and-blue bunting everywhere as politicos debate family values, Middle Eastern POWs vow vengeance, and children of leaders snort coke and sniff glue. Business suits and military uniforms mingle at a funeral where returning general Titus (Ian Armstrong) relinquishes all claim to ruling the ancient empire he’s just conquered, little realizing he’s setting the stage for a horror show. The conquered have no qualms about bringing down upon the conquerors the very atrocities visited on them in the war, and a bloodbath ensues.
It all seems every bit as familiar as director (and Washington City Paper opera critic) Joe Banno intends. He’s been quite clever about positioning the show in a plausibly brutal present, and if some of his contemporary parallels aren’t entirely persuasive, they’re always at least thought-provoking. Raping Titus’ daughter Lavinia (Kate Siegelbaum) atop the corpse of her husband, for instance, has a nice urban-gangsterish sadism to it. And even in a production that seems geared to favor intelligence of conception over feeling more often than not, the nighttime scene in which Lavinia’s uncle (John Michael MacDonald) finds his niece naked and bloodied at roadside is genuinely haunting.
A decently strong cast—MacDonald as a quietly rational conscience for the Andronicus household, Rahaleh Nassri as a vitriolic queen, Alexander Strain as a temperamental emperor, and Armstrong as the bullheaded title character—does its damnedest to keep things moving briskly without tripping over body parts. And Banno has drilled the supporting cast so that the roughness that sometimes infects the edges of WSC productions is seldom in evidence.
If Sam Shepard were a bit more bloody-minded he could easily have made True West a fratricidal horror show, red-state variety, but he opted for comedy instead. Clean-cut, cardigan-wearing Austin (Eric Lucas) and dissolute brother Lee (Mark Rhea) may be at each others’ throats for a good part of the Keegan Theatre’s production, but at heart, they’re just an all-American odd couple. Austin’s a screenwriter, Lee a petty thief. Each believes that he could top the other at his game, and when drunk, each will get a chance to prove it.
Meanwhile, they have at each other verbally in their mother’s kitchen, Lee chugging beers and resting his elbows on the counter and his feet in the sink as he carps about his lot in life, Austin tapping his typewriter keys in annoyance as he tries to concentrate on the movie script he’s preparing on spec for producer Saul Kimmer (Kevin Adams). That Lee weasels his way into a golf date with Saul, reducing Austin to his reluctant amanuensis, is merely the first in a series of reverses and indignities that will lead to acts of violence against typewriters and send the aroma of fresh toast (don’t ask) wafting through the auditorium.
Shepard’s brand of cowboy contentiousness is a Keegan specialty—Rhea and Lucas co-starred in a rep of his Buried Child and A Lie of the Mind a couple of seasons back—and the troupe lunges at True West with a finely honed vulgarity. Whether airing his filthy socks at the kitchen table or practicing a potentially lethal golf swing, Rhea is amiably uncouth, and Lucas, once his more subdued character is in his cups, is very much his equal. As staged by Susan Marie Rhea (the actor’s wife), the evening starts a bit lackadaisically, then roughhouses its way to a slapstickily violent conclusion.
True West seems an apt choice to inaugurate Keegan’s new digs, which are a big step up for the previously nomadic troupe. Alexandria’s Old Town Theater—a comparatively cozy onetime vaudeville house that now mostly hosts films and concerts—has an apron stage in front of its high, ornately decorated proscenium arch. Scenic designers will want to angle the stage a bit in the future—there’s not much rake to the auditorium, so for decent sightlines, there needs to be a fairly steep slant to the playing area. Still, the house works nicely for the play at hand, and it should provide the company a sense of home.CP