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Broadcasting turned into narrowcasting ages ago, and multiplexes arose to satisfy diverging cinematic tastes, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise anyone that live theaters increasingly target niche audiences. Some area stages court classicists, others go after avant-gardists, and still others distinguish themselves linguistically (Gala Hispanic Theater), politically (Potomac Theater Project), racially (African Continuum Theater Company), generationally (Project Y), or by sexual orientation (Actors’ Theater of Washington).
Two recent openingsThe Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women, performed by the Venus Theatre, a troupe that concentrates on “setting flight to the voices of women,” and Bee, by Asian Stories in Americarepresent the nicherie market in what you might call its group-identity mode. The plays don’t just tell stories about characters from their respective communitiesthey address as their primary issue what it means to belong to the community. And intriguingly, both tales center on protagonists who are outsiders not just to their social groups, but also to society in general.
Bee’s main character is Devon (Steve Lee), a Korean-American gay man who wears his double-minority status proudly on his sleeve. Alas, the sleeve is attached to what amounts to a cloak of invisibility in playwright Prince Gomolvilas’ comic fantasy. The play makes literal a metaphor that’s often used to describe how members of minorities feel in modern America: Devon has, for some time now, been invisible to the people around him, unable to catch their attention or indeed communicate in any waywhich explains why he’s euphoric when Gina (Debbie Minter Jackson) speaks to him at a Las Vegas bus stop.
“You can see me?” he asks in astonishment, instantly making Ginaan African-American mother with invisibility issues of her ownwish she’d kept her mouth shut. But when she tries to disengage, it quickly becomes clear that Devon, having been acknowledged, won’t retire quietly to the shadows he’s known for almost a year. She reluctantly agrees to help him figure out how he got into this fix and how he might now get out of it. With Gina doing all the interacting, and Devon kibitzing campily from the sidelines, they consult a garrulous taxi driver, an alcoholic physics professor, a faith-questioning priest, and a romance-obsessed paranormal investigator, none of whom have the faintest notion how someone might come to be invisiblebut all of whom, as social outcasts in their own limited ways, can at least identify with the problem.
Along the way, Gina and Devon trade plenty of anecdotes, discovering that their lives intersectGina’s son is in jail for torching a business owned by Devon’s motherand that a surprising number of their concerns dovetail, too. By play’s end, they’ve reached the not terribly surprising conclusion that by working together, they’ll have a stronger impact on society than they would if they simply struggled along solo.
Gomolvilas has created a world in which flashbacks, fantasy radio interviews, history lessons, and audience asides mix casually with more conventional dialogue, and director Edu. Bernardino has designed a settingmostly just flooring patterned in a spiralthat looks like the start of the yellow brick road. If the evening feels attenuated as it makes what amounts to the same point three times over, ASIA’s production is amiable enough, with Lee and Jackson sparring winningly, and Rosemary Regan and Lonny D. Smith making variously amusing impressions as the eccentrics who stand in for society at large.
The Venus Theater has set itself a trickier task in producing The Anastasia Trials in the Court of Women, an overwritten if elegantly conceived piece of agitprop addressing the enforced invisibility of one of the 20th century’s more enigmatic figures: Anastasia, daughter of Czar Nicholas II. The play concerns a feminist theater troupe (the Emma Goldman Theatre Brigade) and its efforts to mount
a play about the post-Russian Revolution predicament of this Romanov empress in exile, whose obscurity is envisioned by playwright Carolyn Gage as being partly of her own making and partly stemming from
the duplicity of the women around her.
The Goldman Theatre Brigade’s dilemma is that remaining simultaneously true to its subject, to its own anti-patriarchy principles, and to the aim of personal empowerment for its troupe members is very nearly impossible. With a ferociously determined playwright (Katie Atkinson) doing rewrites right up to curtain time, a competitive cast struggling to memorize every line of her play so that parts can be assigned by lottery before each performance, and an Anastasia (Jenn Book) who sits mannequinlike through her own story covered in a black veil until an eleventh-hour eruption of ferocious soliloquizing, the show at times seems a distaff take on Noises Off.
During the first half of the evening, the trialin which five women are accused of denying Anastasia her identitytakes a back seat to a raucous backstage story. The complicated rivalries between the Goldman troupe’s assertive founder (Lakeisha Raquel Harrison), its snarky leading lady (Fiona Blackshaw), its haughty cabaret wannabe (Sheri S. Herren), and its stage-frightened lighting designer (MaConnia Chesser) work themselves out in amusing fashion, with assists from a firm believer in feminist orthodoxy (Toni Rae Brotons), a devoted knitter (Amanda Warren), and a flighty airhead (Jiehae Park).
Along the way, there’s a good deal of chatter about Anastasia’s plight, all of it persuasive enough in its way, but less dramatically interesting than the emotional fireworks surrounding its delivery. If the play-within-a-play conceit feels a bit labored in its setup (and in some silly lobby improv), it’s still easier to digest than the ideological harangues in the trial. Let’s acknowledge, however, that this quibble can reasonably be dismissed as a male viewpoint on an evening that doesn’t think much of male viewpoints.
In any event, audiences don’t much like being hectored, whatever their gendersomething Kerri Rambow’s staging takes into account by keeping the action lively and the volume level high. She can’t finesse the play’s lengthat two hours, it’s at least a half-hour longer than it needs to be, particularly with a starting time of 10 p.m.but she and her cast make the time pass briskly, with a good deal of theatrical flair. CP