Tradition is nothing if not useful. Whether mealtime practice or religious ritual, musical form or military code, it is among the most powerful of the elements that divide and define us; it gives us things to live up to and other things to live down, things to celebrate and to mourn. Things to write plays about.
Keith Glover’s agreeably fanciful blues musical Thunder Knocking on the Door is such a play, as is Sara Felder’s solo show June Bride, though the flier for Felder’s run at Woolly Mammoth calls it, more elaborately, “the tale of a traditional Jewish lesbian wedding, only with a little more juggling.”
Which, I suppose, gives you a sense not only of the evening’s shape, but of Felder’s brand of humor.
Like Signature Theatre’s Nijinsky’s Last Dance, which also opened last weekend, June Bride is a monologue set in a specific present and reaching back into memory in flashback and reverie. If Nijinsky punctuates its narrative with dance-inspired movement, June Bride finds inspiration for Felder’s balletic, athletic juggling feats in the various moodslighthearted, not sothat she moves through as she recalls meeting, courting, and marrying the woman of her dreams.
She begins, naturally enough, with an image of happiness, standing under the chuppah, the square sail of cloth that has canopied the bride and groom at Jewish weddings for millennia. She is ready to break the napkin-wrapped glass under her foot, and so, reaching into the tradition that informs that gesture, she speaks not of the joy of the wedding day but of heartbreak: of the first death of a loved one, of the leaving of a father. And of discovering bad theater.
Again, this is indicative of Felder’s way with humor.
Remembering her mother’s playgoing habits, her parents’ separation, the loss of the favorite aunt who’d bestowed Cinderella watches and exotic, unsuitable foods, she flirts with profundity, dallies even with the sentimental and saccharine, then dodges abruptly into the wry. It’s a deft performance, and June Bride is structurally more clever than it may at first appear: Felder uses her anecdotes not just as setups for jokes or cues for segues into knife-juggling, but to explore the traditions in which her relationshipthat thing she is onstage to celebrateis rooted. The memory of that aunt’s death is an occasion for describing rituals and explaining their origins (mirrors in the deceased’s home are veiled because “today of all days you must look beyond your own appearance”), but it is more besides. It also introduces a character who’ll come to embody for Felder the very idea of traditiona force to be reckoned with and respected, a thing certainly to be celebrated but also to be questioned.
The wordplay is accomplished and insightful if not ever really profound, and the bouts of physical as opposed to verbal acrobatics range, as one might suspect, from labored to evocatively fascinating. A straitjacket escape, inevitably involving a member of the audience, is a too-easy metaphor for the coming-out process (and leads to a groaningly obvious “I’m tied up right now” joke), but a nervous tic during Felder’s depiction of her first date becomes a rhythmic slapping of thighs and chest that becomes an auditory metaphor for the specific, unmistakable rhythms of lovemaking.
And at two different spots, a series of arcing movementsfirst with a glass sphere, then with only its memorybecomes a fluid, rolling gestural poem that illustrates and illuminates the prayer Felder is speaking. Which, come to think of it, is itself more than a genuinely heartfelt plea for blessing: It is a catalog of her lover’s qualities, a hymn of thanksgiving, even, for the goodness of that creation and for the enduring, elemental thingsriver, trees, mountainsto which Felder compares her. June Bride is not as miraculous as relationships or landscapes, but it has something of their quirky pleasures.
Arena Stage’s production of Thunder Knocking on the Door has pleasures of its ownchiefly, they’re to be found in stylish design, a couple of sizzling performers who stand out in a fine cast, and a dazzling 11-o’clock number for the female leadbut Keith Glover’s “blusical” is, alas, not as rich as the musical tradition it celebrates.
It begins with a wash of red light on the two guitars that hang suspended over the bare playing area. Then darkness, a crash of thunder, and that thrilling ritual invocation that gives kids and imaginative adults such shivers: “Once upon a time.”
It involves a shape-shifting proselytizer for the blues, the twin children of the only man ever to best him in a guitar-playing contest, and a mystical musical grudge match at “the place where two roads meet.” Which is a supernatural locale, of course, but one within easy walking distance of Bessember, Ala., circa 1966.
Glover directs his own work without much of a sense of tension, though that impression may linger because the magical interloper Marvell Thunder (sexy, smooth-voiced baritone Peter Jay Fernandez, in pleasingly freaky blue contact lenses) turns out to be not so much a villain as an imp in need of some good lovin’. This being a fairy tale, he finds it in Glory Dupree (Marva Hicks), the blind girl twin who holds the last talisman he needs to shore up the immortality he’s been losing since her father played him into submission a couple of decades before. And so the musical showdown we’ve been promised since the show’s opening moments turns out to be a languid love duet and an abortive guitar duel in which Fernandez and Hicks mime riffs while Anderson Edwards’ (smokin’) pit band plays. Because he loves her, Thunder won’t risk beating Glory, which would mean taking away the sight he’s just restored to her. Instead he backs out of the battle, and motivations get murky as she convinces herself he doesn’t really care and he trades in his role as blues messenger, becoming human again to win her back.
There is the consolation of that defiant final tune, a rousing shout called “Movin’ On” that Hicks sells to the very last row of the Fichandler. Would that all of Keb’ Mo’s songs were that memorable; he shows he can swing nicely in “Believe Me,” a duet for Glory’s mama Good Sister (a deliciously tart Terry Burrell) and Good Sister’s swain Dregster (Doug Eskew, a Five Guys Named Moe veteran with a thrilling tenor wail), but too many others seem merely serviceable simply as blues, and almost none work as traditional musical-theater numbers.
As a companion at the theater pointed out, that’s probably at least partly the result of the formal requirements of a blues songthe repetitive structure, the one-joke-per-verse restrictionbut knowing that doesn’t make a lot of difference to the way they play on stage.
Happily, Glover’s book has enough sassy humor to make the evening a lighthearted charm. One thing in particular contributes to its appeal: the fancifully sly costumes, from Marvell Thunder’s primary-colored patent shoes and stingy-brim hats to Good Sister’s wasp-waisted dresses and pouffed petticoats to the eye-popping leopard-skin suits (and pajamas!) for her son Jaguar Jr. (Kevyn Morrow).
Designer Michael Alan Stein, clearly, understands that fashion traditions, at least, can be celebrated and winked at at once.CP