Obscure references that are more meaningful to a playwright than her audience won’t make or break a script, but they can keep a good play from being great.
Writerly proclivities are what restrain two shows receiving strong productions at small theaters here in end-of-summer Washington. One is by a MacArthur Fellowship recipient, the other by an ambitious local. One is hung up on the Italian word for almond and early modern physiology, while the other is a little too obsessed with Ray Bradbury and Babylonian archeology.
If you haven’t thought much about the Code of Hammurabi since the 1990s (perhaps while playing an educational computer game on your family’s first PC), you may find the nearly three-hour The Interstellar Ghost Hour a bit tedious. Writer/director Kathleen Akerley is D.C.’s most cerebral playwright, and to sit through this play is to marvel at her polymathematical brain, which has woven an intricate drama about death, space travel, the ubiquity of television cooking shows, and ancient Mesopotamia.
Longacre Lea, the local collective Akerley leads, puts on a show each August in Catholic University’s black box, but The Interstellar Ghost Hour looks like it’s been years in the making, or at least in the ruminating. The production value—sets, costumes, lighting, projections—is as high as any you’d find in one of D.C.’s Equity theaters, and that’s particularly important in a play that begins with an actress stepping out of her orange space suit in the eerie glow of green overhead lights.
The protagonist in The Interstellar Ghost Hour is Iris, played by Christine Alexander, an adult orphan who travels through space and time, concepts that are nearly synonymous here, to ask her parents the obtuse question, “Did I mourn you well?”
Iris has some parental relationship baggage. On the macro level, this premise is the play’s strength. Who hasn’t wanted to go back in time—whether to repair or savor your bond with a deceased loved one? The Interstellar Ghost Hour assumes that dream is a possibility, although there are still some glitches with the technology. Visiting “astronauts,” we learn, disrupt television programming, and Iris finds the flatscreen at her parents’ home tuned to Cooking with Hammurabi, a Top Chef-like reality show featuring the guy who coined the phrase “an eye for an eye.” Hammurabi’s not only a judge, he’s the despot who gets to decide if an appetizer is so bad, the contestant should lose an appendage for over-roasting it.
The acting—both in the play and in the pre-recorded material—is sensitive and mostly well timed. Julie Weir plays Iris’ undead mom like a kindly robot. Scott Ward Abernethy is a bit problematic as her father, both in his acting and textual insinuations that Iris was abused. It’s unclear how literally viewers are supposed to take his attempts to strike her; if Iris was beaten, the whole revisiting-her-childhood trope takes on a disturbing level of eye-for-an-eye sadomasochism that doesn’t jive well with the play’s fantastic comic relief.
Because Iris is having some technical issues with her “time phasing,” occasionally lights flicker, DOS warnings flash on the big screen, and the sound of a siren fills the theater. Now instead of her parents occupying the home, Iris finds herself haunting a poor future owner named Brian, played by Ryan Sellers. To stop Iris from knocking over antique ashtrays and rifling through his books, he hires Sam, a “ghost mediator” that M. Temidayo Akibu imbues with kooky verve.
“Ooo! You have an astronaut!” Sam tells Brian after fooling around with crystals and notebooks she totes in what appears to be a ghostbuster’s diaper bag.
“Is it Neil Armstrong?” Brian asks, excitedly.
“No, it is not Neil Armstrong,” Sam says, exasperated. “Everyone always thinks they have a celebrity.”
Akibu nearly redeems this overly talky show. If Akerley were going to make cuts, several long, puzzling video scenes from a fictional cop show should go. Ditto with the host of Cooking with Hammurabi, a Babylonian chef wandering around onstage mixing subatomic particles with a mortar and pestle who also haunts the house and badgers Iris with esoteric questions. He claims to be the author of the world’s oldest cookbook, and sure enough— thank you Atlas Obscura—Yale University owns stone tablets that are likely Earth’s oldest recipe cards. They are inscribed in ancient Akkaddian, and date to the time of Hammurabi.
Sarah Ruhl’s Melancholy Play will especially resonate with anyone who studied Shakespeare in graduate school, and/ or is hung up on Freud, and/or has seen the George Balanchine ballet “The Four Temperaments.” As Balanchine knew, Hippocrates thought human personality traits were driven by four bodily fluids, or humors: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. Should those levels become out of balance, one temperament could become unfavorably dominant.
Mankind’s understanding of anatomy hadn’t advanced much by Shakespeare’s day, so when Shylock complains that his blood runs hot in The Merchant of Venice, he’s basically admitting he has an early version of what is now called a personality disorder. Ditto for Edmund who has “too much melancholy” in King Lear.
Freud was also intrigued by the concept, so that explains why one of the six characters in Ruhl’s 2002 play, which is receiving an unrepressed, dream-like staging at Constellation Theatre, is a shrink, and one of the only set pieces onstage is a settee that also serves as a couch and a bed.
Ruhl subtitles her play “a contemporary farce,” so what she’s doing, essentially, is mashing up four centuries of psychobabble into one 90-minute comedy of manners. We’ve got unrequited love, a love triangle, and a Shakespeare favorite—long lost twins.
“It seems that you enjoy this melancholy of yours,” Lorenzo, the shrink played by Christian Montgomery, says to Tilly, the afflicted bank teller played by Billie Krishawn, who soon finds herself fighting off four suitors. She’s like an Ophelia who, instead of drowning herself, attracts a shrink, a tailor, her hairstylist, and a nurse.
Nick Martin helms this beautifully designed, expressively acted production. Wytold composed appropriately sweet and sad music performed by Kate Rears Burgman, an onstage cellist. (A musical version of this show, created by composer Todd Almond in collaboration with Ruhl, is also available.)
The only thing out of sorts in this whimsical world is the constant reference to almonds. People “look like almonds,” people eat almonds, people turn into almonds. This surrealist nonsense seems out of place unless you have access to a hard copy of the script, which includes in its lengthy preface the Italian word for almond, “mandorla,” a term derived from an ancient symbol of interlocking circles.
Well then. Now everything makes sense! Or maybe not.
By all means, people who write plays should be well read, like cyphers for centuries of wisdom. They should remember, however, that we audience members are merely visiting for 90 minutes (Or three hours. Whatever.) Not all of us are holding scripts, and no one else has access to what is obviously a vast cerebral cortex.
The Interstellar Ghost Hour at the Callan Theatre at Catholic University to Sept. 9. 3801 Harewood Road NE. $15–20. (202) 460-2188. longacrelea.org. Melancholy Play: A Contemporary Farce at Source to Sept. 2.1835 14th St. NW. $19–$45. (202) 204-7741. constellationtheatre.org.