Kirk Douglas Theatre
Review: In Lucas Hnath's 'Dana H.,' a kidnapping survivor's truth hides in the shadows
- Created on Tuesday, 04 June 2019
- Written by Charles McNulty
--Los Angeles Times June 2, 2019
Lucas Hnath, part of a bumper crop of playwrights rethinking the parameters of American drama, has written a play about his mother that is rife with contradictions.
“Dana H.,” which is having its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre while Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton” is on Broadway and his wildly successful “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is being produced across the nation, is composed from interviews yet is stranger than most fiction. Hnath uses not only his mother’s actual words but also her recorded voice, yet her character remains elusive.
But the most curious incongruity is the one that makes me want to see this fascinating 75-minute play a second time: It’s impossible to sort out fact from falsehood in Dana’s story, yet by the end a truth as profound as it is slippery is revealed.
“Dana H.” tells a story of trauma, terror and the way victimization continues even after the threat of violence has subsided. It dramatizes the inherent challenge in giving testimony to experiences so overwhelming that they undermine the ability to translate memory into coherent narrative.
The play recounts the months-long ordeal in which Dana, a chaplain working on a psych ward, was abducted and abused by an ex-con named Jim, whom she had been counseling while he was recovering from a brutal suicide attempt. Timelines and geography are fuzzy; details don’t add up. One of the unfortunate legacies of trauma is that it turns the victim into an unreliable narrator of her own experience.
But what might seem like an investigation into what happened to Hnath’s mother, a vetting of her tale, turns out to be something more complicated. “Dana H.” is a sly referendum on how we process a survivor’s story. Our resistance is as much a subject as Dana’s wobbly act of remembering.
The production, directed by Les Waters with unflagging concentration, is unorthodox to say the least. Andrew Boyce’s scenic design is a fluid cross between an analyst’s office and a shabby motel room evoking Florida interstates and dubious drifters.
The play unfolds as a dialogue between Dana and Steve Cosson, the artistic director of the Civilians, who interviewed Hnath’s mother. Cosson has a wealth of experience with what his company calls “investigatory theater,” and Hnath may have felt that a more objective witness might elicit a fuller version of his mother’s testimony.
The title, “Dana H.,” has the ring of a Freudian case study, and a delicate mother-son dynamic lurks in the background of a story Dana believes may be too disturbing for Hnath to psychologically handle. His active, artful silence haunts the piece.
For most of the play, Deirdre O’Connell, who plays Dana, is alone onstage. Dressed in red and black, she comes across as an attractive middle-aged woman with a healthy concern for her appearance. The manuscript she clutches and occasionally consults from her chair is her own rendition of the events that she finds so hard to keep straight.
O’Connell is one of the underrecognized great talents in the American theater. An Obie-winning veteran who worked for several seasons at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, she’s a playwright’s actor if ever there was one, able to make the divergent styles of Sam Shepard, María Irene Fornés, Annie Baker and Lisa Kron seem tailor-made for her lived-in qualities.
I’ll admit my heart sank momentarily when I was reminded as I entered the theater that O’Connell would be lip-syncing to an audio track of Hnath’s mother’s voice. But my fears of a gimmicky performance were instantly dispelled once the play began.
The track provides both Cosson’s questions and Dana’s responses, but it’s nearly impossible to tell that O’Connell isn’t speaking Dana’s story. In an uncanny feat of acting, O’Connell makes not only every word but every hesitation, stammer and punctuating laugh her own. Her gestures when she’s not speaking seem to be the only gestures possible in the moment. Sound designer Mikhail Fiksel and illusion and lip sync consultant Steve Cuiffo contribute to the production’s seamlessness.
Hnath, a formalist with a heart, has constructed a theatrical experience that operates on two levels: the raw material of his mother’s testimony and the artistic filter that edits, arranges and keeps at a slight intellectual remove what we’re hearing.
The jumps in the track are audible as the harrowing story unfolds of how Jim kidnapped Dana. Described as a monstrous figure in prisoner tattoos, this hardened felon convinces Dana that he is part of the underground Aryan Brotherhood, whose power intimidates even law enforcement.
After bashing her in the face and controlling how and when she receives medical treatment, Jim perversely sets himself up as her protector, the only person who can keep her — and, in a menacing innuendo, her family members — safe. Slowly and systematically, she becomes brainwashed, accepting his vision of the world as her sense of helplessness grows more complete.
The drama is fueled in part by the question of how Dana eventually escaped her living nightmare. But the conflict that gives “Dana H.” its expansive dimension exists between the audience’s skepticism and Dana’s own unreliability.
Dana sprinkles in remarks about her past — her dabbling in satanism, for instance — that complicate our trust. Her psychologist mother, she tells us, was convinced that Dana was evil from the age of 3 and sanctioned the beatings that scarred her childhood. None of this is elaborated or integrated. Hnath doesn’t want us to resolve our doubts. They are part of his mother’s story.
Frustration builds as Dana fails to take advantage of opportunities to get away from Jim, but the psychology of her situation is difficult to imagine. The tendency to blame the victim as a way of making the world seem less dangerously anarchic becomes a tempting defense for the audience even though it’s painfully evident the way trauma draws further trauma.
Violators detect vulnerability, sensing their violence won’t be unfamiliar. The abnormality of the situation keeps other people at bay. Not even the police want to get involved. The gender politics of Dana’s victimization isolates her further.
“Dana H” is divided into three parts: “A Patient Named Jim,” “The Next Five Months” and “The Bridge.” The story, accelerating in a frenzy that shakes up not only the staging but our hope in definitive answers, leaves us wondering perhaps as much about what Dana didn’t reveal as what she did.
In “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk defines “soul murder” as the loss of ability to “trust our memories and be able to tell them apart from our imagination.” This description of trauma seems painfully applicable to Dana’s case, though Hnath offers an alternative perspective in “The Bridge” section.
In talking about her later work with hospice patients, Dana reveals how she helps the dying ease their journey to the other side. Eliciting their visions, she provides them with a comforting story that blurs the distinction between truth and fiction. Or rather she finds in what remains partly incommunicable the correspondence between them.
At the curtain call at Sunday’s opening, Dana Higginbotham took a bow alongside O’Connell. Together with Hnath, they have made a profound contribution to the theater of trauma.
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends June 23 (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $25-$79 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (no intermission)
Channeling Oral History
- Created on Sunday, 26 May 2019
- Written by Argonaut Staff
--The Argonaut May 22, 2019
Power, perception and belief are recurring topics of interest for playwright Lucas Hnath. “Hillary and Clinton,” currently on Broadway, views the marital and partisan politics of its namesake leads through a cosmic lens; the Obie- and Outer Critics Circle Award-winning “The Christians” contemplates doctrinal disputes in a megachurch; and the Tony-nominated “A Doll’s House, Part 2” imagines Nora’s life after she fatefully slams that door on Ibsen’s Torvald.
Then there’s “Dana H.,” a drama getting its world premiere this week at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. It’s as intellectual as Hnath’s other plays, yet also more personal.
“Dana H.” was “developed” from interviews conducted with Hnath’s mother, Dana Higginbotham, a hospital chaplain who was kidnapped and held hostage in the 1990s by an ex-convict patient. Those interviews were conducted not by Hnath (pronounced “nayth”) but by sometime collaborator Steve Cosson, presumably to allow for more guileless questioning. “Dana H.” is essentially a one-woman show starring veteran character actress Deirdre O’Connell, with a Samuel Beckett-esque twist: when O’Connell opens her mouth, the voice that emerges is Higginbotham’s.
“It’s good old-fashioned lip-synching,” O’Connell explains, laughing, at the end of a day’s rehearsal in New York, where Hnath has regularly been present. “Lucas took hold of those [interview] hours and honed it into what it is now. It’s me talking, but it’s her voice you hear. That’s the thing that’s been so completely fascinating to try to do. … It’s really incredible because it’s very purifying. You don’t get to do any tricks.”
Produced in association with the Goodman Theatre, the play will head to Chicago for another run after closing in Culver City. “We’re lucky to have two whole runs at it,” O’Connell wisecracks, “because it is quite the beast.”
The role is technically and physically challenging for an actress, particularly one who projects as much warmth as the expressive O’Connell. Working for months with the interview recordings, she’s internalized Higginbotham’s breath, intonation and speaking style. Laughing, she says that includes “speeding ahead of a section that I, as an actor, probably would have wanted to slow down to make sure the audience got the laugh or whatever.
“I’ve been listening to her a lot,” she continues. “I actually don’t know her, but I feel like I know her really well. It would be like singing someone’s music all the time. I don’t even know how to describe the weird empathy beast that you turn into doing it. The closest thing I’ve ever done to this was working with Anna Deavere Smith a long time ago on her play ‘House Arrest.’”
As O’Connell would with any role, she’s asking questions to gain insight into the character. But rather than helping her interpret specific lines, the answers are showing her how to stay true to Higginbotham’s lead.
“It’s a little spiritual reversal to how I usually work,” she acknowledges. “I’m trying to step out of the way as opposed to leading with my head. This has been a real act of surrender.”
Surrender would seem to provide key subtext for the play, whose setup is dramatically rich: psychologically damaged, redemption-hungry ex-con kidnaps chaplain who’s been trying to help him, then drags her from motel to motel across Florida for five months. It’s a weighty shift from uplifting spiritual counselor to defensive victim. Did the ordeal cause Higginbotham to question the value of her work? Did her beliefs sustain her? O’Connell is hesitant to speak for the “fascinating” Higginbotham, who has continued her practice as a hospice chaplain.
“My impression is that this work she does as a chaplain has always transcended her own personal life in a way,” she observes. “She has a gift and she uses it in service of others, no matter how she feels her relationship with God is going on that particular day. … There is never a clear line when the relationship completely changes from one where you have a lot of empathy for the person, to one where you see the other person as the enemy. And that’s part of what the play is about. But again, that’s my impression of the material, not what she would necessarily say.”
O’Connell is more forthcoming about how the “weird meditation” of learning Higginbotham’s voice has helped her perceive unexpected relationships between past events in her own life. And she forthrightly admires Hnath’s timely interest in understanding women.
“It’s an interesting moment in the world right now to be a woman and a feminist, and to note some voices of men who have been raised, or mentored by, or who grew up honoring women,” she says. “They are deep feminists, and there is a lot to be learned from them. There is a way that a son can regard his mother that has a lot to teach all of us about feminism.”
“Dana H.” begins previews on Sunday, May 26. The play opens Sunday, June 2, with more shows through June 23 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 98200 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $25 to $72 via (213) 623-2772 or centertheatregroup.org.
Center Theatre Group Hosts the Second Annual L.A. Writers' Workshop Festival
- Created on Saturday, 18 May 2019
- Written by BWW News Desk
--Broadway World Los Angeles May 10, 2019
Center Theatre Group has announced the second annual L.A. Writers' Workshop Festival: New Plays Forged In L.A., which celebrates some of the freshest and most thrilling voices in Modern American Theatre coming out of Los Angeles and Center Theatre Group's long-standing L.A. Writers' Workshop. Held at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and open to the public, the festival features readings of three new plays by three L.A. Writers' Workshop participants from throughout the program's 14-year history. This year's festival will take place on June 29 featuring readings of "Campaign" by Laura Jacqmin, "Sleeping Giant" by Steve Yockey and "Confederates" by Dominique Morisseau.
"June 29 will be a very busy, exciting day at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Laura, Steve and Dominique have written surprising, fun, powerful plays. We are thrilled to share them with the public and to celebrate the rich and diverse community of L.A.-based playwrights," said Center Theatre Group Associate Artistic Director Neel Keller. "Over the last 14 years, our Writers' Workshop has been a creative home to 96 playwrights. We are honored to have supported all their voices and look forward to giving audiences a sneak peek at some of the wonderful new work being created by those who call Los Angeles home."
Doors open at noon for the festival and there will be a 9 p.m. reception in the Kirk Douglas Theatre lobby following the final play reading. Refreshments will be available throughout the day.
The first reading at 1 p.m. will be "Campaign" by Laura Jacqmin. "Campaign" follows four men, on an island in the middle of nowhere, fighting for The Mission. Four men, perfectly content to keep watch (over nothing) and swear allegiance (to even less than nothing)-to "protect what's theirs." Then, a woman shows up...and suddenly the mission isn't quite so clear anymore. "Campaign" is a hilarious and absurd exploration of toxic masculinity, male trauma and bagel bites.
Readings continue at 3:30 p.m. with "Sleeping Giant" by Steve Yockey. In "Sleeping Giant," when a firework-filled marriage proposal goes very wrong, the accompanying explosions wake up something very old that's been sleeping in the nearby lake for thousands of years. What follows are intimate, darkly comic, and sometimes startling vignettes about the lengths people go when they desperately want something to believe in.
The festival's final reading at 7 p.m. is "Confederates" by Dominique Morisseau, which she first developed during her time in the Writers' Workshop. In "Confederates," Sarah, a savvy slave turned Union spy, and Sandra, a brilliant professor in a modern-day private university, are facing similar struggles, even though they live over a century apart. "Confederates" leaps through time in order to trace the identities of these two black American women and explore the reins that racial and gender bias still hold on American educational systems today.
Ethan Coen, Bill Irwin, Heidi Schreck on the Bill for Taper, Douglas Season
- Created on Saturday, 18 May 2019
- Written by Dano Nissen
--Variety May 2, 2019
Screenwriter and director Ethan Coen kicks off the Mark Taper Forum season Sept. 11 with a collection of short plays titled “A Play Is a Poem,” while the Kirk Douglas’ season opens with “On Beckett,” conceived and performed by Bill Irwin, on Sept. 13.
Center Theatre Group’s 2019-20 season features two world premieres and plays from Pulitzer, Academy Award, Peabody and Tony winners. Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie said, “The 2019-2020 seasons at the Taper and Douglas are stacked with great American stories and storytellers. It is a collection of artists, some that we have worked with over the years but many are new voices that are joining us for the first time.”
Ruben Santiago-Hudson directs his Tony Award-winning production of August Wilson’s “Jitney” at the Taper, followed by Tony nominee Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me.” “It’s a boundary-breaking piece of theater that will have you seriously considering the Constitution in a radically new light,” Ritchie said. Annie Baker’s “Antipodes,” a comedy set in a writers’ room, follows. The season closes with Rajiv Joseph’s “King James,” an exploration of NBA star LeBron James’ impact on Cleveland.
Taper subscribers will also receive tickets to one of two powerhouse shows recently announced at the Ahmanson — John Leguizamo in “Latin History for Morons” or Mike Birbiglia in “The New One.”
Besides Irwin’s play about Samuel Beckett the Douglas Theatre’s season includes Dael Orlandersmith’s play “Until the Flood” about Ferguson, Miss., following the shooting of Michael Brown and Aasif Mandvi of “The Daily Show” fame will bring his one-man show about an Indian immigrant in search of the American dream “Sakina’s Restaurant.”
“This promises to be an exciting year at the Taper and Douglas,” Ritchie said. “One filled with artists that grab our imaginations and bring us with them into different times and places, into their process and obsessions and, in doing so, they let us in on experiences we might never have and offer new ways to see the everyday world around us.”
NATIVE SON Opens at the Douglas
- Created on Sunday, 21 April 2019
- Written by BWW News Desk
--Broadway World April 19, 2019
Antaeus Theatre Company's production of "Native Son," which Center Theatre Group is remounting at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of the third annual Block Party: Celebrating Los Angeles Theatre, will open Saturday, April 20 at 8 p.m. Written by Nambi E. Kelley, based on the novel by Richard Wright and directed by Andi Chapman, "Native Son" is currently in previews and will close April 28.
The cast includes Noel Arthur, Gigi Bermingham, Jon Chaffin, Ellis Greer, Matthew Grondin, Mildred Marie Langford, Ned Mochel, Victoria Platt and Brandon Rachal.
The design team includes scenic design by Edward E. Haynes Jr., costume design by Wendell C. Carmichael, lighting design by Andrew Schmedake, sound design by Jeff Gardner, and projection design by Adam R. Macias. The production stage manager is Taylor Anne Cullen.
"Native Son" is set in 1930s Chicago, where a longing for social justice ignites a palpable rage within protagonist Bigger Thomas. "Native Son" is a gripping adaptation of the classic Richard Wright novel and focuses on the inner workings of Thomas' mind as events violently and irrevocably seal his fate.
Tickets for Block Party are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, at the Center Theatre Group Box Office at the Ahmanson Theatre or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre Box Office two hours prior to performance. Tickets for each individual production range from $27 - $77 (ticket prices are subject to change).
Rotterdam at Kirk Douglas Theatre
- Created on Tuesday, 02 April 2019
- Written by BWW News Desk
--Broadway World April 1, 2019
Skylight Theatre Company's production of "Rotterdam," opened this weekend at Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Written by Jon Brittain and directed by Michael A. Shepperd, "Rotterdam" will close April 7.
The cast includes Ryan Brophy, Audrey Cain, Ashley Romans and Miranda Wynne.
The design team includes scenic and lighting design by Jeff McLaughlin, costume design by Naila Aladdin Sanders and sound design by Christopher Moscatiello. The production stage manager is Garrett Crouch.
"Rotterdam" begins in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on New Year's Eve when Alice finds the courage to come out to her parents. Alice's decision inspires her girlfriend Fiona to make an announcement of her own. Before Alice hits send on her email, Fiona reveals that she has always identified as a man and now wants to live as one, sending their relationship into a tailspin.
Review: The drama flies with the elbows in the 'Roller Derby Play' at the Kirk Douglas
- Created on Tuesday, 12 March 2019
- Written by Gary Goldstein
--Los Angeles Times March 11, 2019
Center Theatre Group kicks off its third annual Block Party program, which remounts successful recent productions from three local theater companies, with Gina Femia’s lively and enjoyable sports dramedy “For the Love Of (Or, the Roller Derby Play).”
The inventively staged show premiered in L.A. last spring at Theatre of Note with mostly the same cast and key crew members. It won’t make you an expert on the ins and outs of all-female roller derby — that raucous, bruising contact sport with a long and checkered history — but it will certainly give you enough working insight to follow along.
Femia gets the basics out of the way from the jump as Lizzie Lightning (Tania Verafield), take-no-prisoners star “jammer” (designated scorer) of the amateur Brooklyn Scallywags, offers a snappy and admittedly cursory recount of the rules. The fun, chase and excitement of the sport are perhaps the chief takeaways — and certainly what drive the play.
We don’t really see the games in action — and that’s fine. The colorfully clad actors cleverly conjure up the “jams” (matchups) through stylized dance moves, creatively choreographed by director Rhonda Kohl. (The cast cavorts between scenes as well, backed by Gilly Moon’s dynamic sound design.)
We follow the course of a season through games that, along with bout-announcer intros, often transition us between the show’s movie-like string of dramatic interactions. Eli Smith’s flat-gray set, with a roller derby track at its center, transforms with the help of Rose Malone’s lighting and a collection of painted boxes that evoke various locations: a locker room, a tattoo parlor, a dance club, a car, different apartments — though it all looks a bit rudimentary on the Douglas’ large stage.
The main thrust of the non-derby scenes involves talented tyro teammate Joy Ride (cast newcomer Briana Price) as she finds herself torn between her growing passion for the sport and her waning feelings for longtime love Michelle (Elinor Gunn), a recently unemployed artist with a jealousy streak.
Meanwhile Lizzie, the ex-girlfriend of Scallywags coach Andrea the Vagiant (standout Alina Phelan), shamelessly flirts with Joy, who’s intrigued, if wary, around her surly and seductive new friend. Although this romantic triangle’s emotional quotient plays credibly enough, it skitters into light melodrama in ways that Femia’s generally hard-edged script largely avoids.
The other teammates are given just a few broad-stroked scenes to flesh out their personal lives, resulting in a somewhat lopsided feel to the show’s ensemble vibe. Still, we’re stirred or amused just enough to connect with these vitally different women.
They include the feisty, 40ish Anna-Stecia (Yolanda Snowball), who’s also a caring night nurse; Diaz de los Muertos (Crystal Diaz), a fierce competitor haunted by her brother’s untimely death; Squeaky Mouse (Liesel Hanson), an offbeat college student who finds her voice; Hot Flash (Lynn Odell), a brassy mom in her early 50s; and brainy, stressed-out law student Prosecute-Her (Jenny Soo).
The cast members commit to their brash-talking, invective-hurling, take-me-as-I-am parts, wearing their characters’ at times shaky self-possession and arm’s-length warmth with a lived-in authenticity. Even when Femia’s dialogue feels a tad warmed-over, the actors keep us invested.
There’s a more propulsive, full-length one-act at the heart of Femia’s two-hour, two-act play. But for now, you could do worse than to strap yourself in for this gritty, exuberant lap through the rough-riding world of roller derby and the eclectic women who play offense and defense, on and off the track.
‘For the Love Of (Or, the Roller Derby Play)’
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 W. Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday; ends Sunday
Tickets: $25-$62 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours (including one intermission)
Dixie’s Tupperware Party at Kirk Douglas Theatre Nov. 28-Dec. 30, so fresh & fabulous!
- Created on Saturday, 01 December 2018
- Written by Margie Barron
--Entertainment Today November 23, 2018
“Dixie’s Tupperware Party” is an ultra-fabulous and funny theatrical experience. It recalls a time when the most fun a housewife could have was an evening gushing over the latest air-tight lids keeping things fresh in plastic containers, while sipping a glass of wine at a friend’s Tupperware party.
Well, brace yourselves gals, “Dixie’s Tupperware Party” is a refreshing trip back in time. The wild off-Broadway show stars the super-sassy Dixie Longate. And the hysterical experience is being presented at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California, for a limited engagement November 28 to December 30.
“Tupperware parties were the first social network, a reason to come together and share some fun,” said Dixie, the fast-talking Southern belle in the red bouffant wig. “That’s what I do. I took the private parties out of the living room and on to the stage. It’s an interactive experience too, getting audience members to laugh and assist with product demos, games and giveaways. People give testimonials about their treasured Tupperware heirlooms. It’s very nostalgic about how plastic containers gave women empowerment with an option for income and independence thanks to the Tupperware party pioneer Brownie Wise. I knew this was for me when I learned I could make money and drink on the job. It’s awesome going out into the world, taking charge, and making the world a better place. That’s my hope every time I walk out on stage.”
Dixie noted, “This show isn’t just for the ladies. When guys come out they have just as much fun. Everyone has a good time. Bring a date, come with friends, it’s a show for everyone, cheeky but not vulgar. Just leave the little kids at home, they don’t have to know about food storage anyway.”
This Drama Desk Award nominated show is filled with outrageously funny stories and homespun wisdom. It is the sweetest treat for the upcoming holidays, because it is a hilarious experience that will lift your spirits and can be enjoyed by couples, groups of friends, and individuals who just want the laughter to flow and forget their worries. Dixie said, “The Party will leave your heart a little bigger and your food a little fresher.”
Produced by Down South LLC, directed by Patrick Richwood, and written by Kris Andersson, the production is part of the 11th season of “Dixie’s Tupperware Party” national tour that has so far logged over 1,300 performances worldwide. The show contains some risqué content, but would be enjoyable for ages 16 and up.
At the Kirk Douglas, ‘Quack’ doesn’t duck issues, but it raises too many
- Created on Wednesday, 31 October 2018
- Written by Danny Margolies
--Los Angeles Daily News October 30, 2018
When Neel Keller directs a play, the audience is sure to see two elements. One is memorable scenic design, with settings and scene changes we could only have imagined. The other element is atypical characters with something of import to say. In the case of “Quack,” they have a bit too much to say, and that puts a damper on an otherwise intelligent script.
In this handsome world premiere at Culver City’s Kirk Douglas Theatre through Nov. 18, playwright Eliza Clark tackles misogyny, the medical profession, weight and body image, friendship, the workplace, the internet, marriage, money, status and probably more. Her play talks so much, for two hours, without intermission, without taking a breath, that she has made it difficult to fathom what it’s about at its core.
We remember the characters, though, helped in large part by a committed cast. The story centers on Dr. Irving Baer (Dan Bucatinsky), a physician who has become a major celebrity, dispensing medical advice via his popular television show. He says he’s guiding people toward health — or, it seems, toward whatever the majority of them want to hear.
His first concern about his audience seems to be weight control. But, his having commented on vaccinations, now those repercussions are slamming into him.
Wow, can Dr. Baer argue both sides of a medical debate, coming down right on the fence pole. He talks about healthcare to millions of viewers, never consulting with a single one of them, and yet when necessary he hides behind specializing in endocrinology.
He’s making money hand over fist (which, by the way, best describes his golf stance). And then a hit piece on him comes out, written by blogger River Thumbolt (Shoniqua Shandai), and she becomes an instant celebrity while his reputation is damaged, perhaps irreparably. But she’s seemingly untruthful, in her blogs and in her book about her weight-loss journey, though her tale of growing up obese rings genuine and personal.
Here, Clark gets in her digs about the internet era. “Can you imagine a life where everything you’ve ever said is being written down for people to pore over later, to meticulously comb through for mistakes?” the doc asks.
The doctor’s wife, Meredith (Jessalyn Gilsig), who runs a diet empire, is fuming. Her personality is tightly wound, but so are her finances, in this case around his. The doctor’s TV sidekick and self-appointed office assistant, Kelly (Jackie Chung), seems much more docile, rational, protective.
Both women try to tell Dr. Baer how to handle the onslaught of negative publicity. Instead, he turns to Brock Silver (Nicholas D’Agosto), a blogger with a rapidly increasing following of angry men who believe women are emasculating them, who through Brock have a forum where they can “express our immense and legitimate rage.”
Here, Clark drills down on the men who until recently have somewhat silently seethed at the “progress” of women. Baer’s perpetual insistence on how much he has “helped” women begins to feel self-soothing yet self-congratulatory.
Keller keeps the dialogue bubbling, mostly thanks to the lively, quirky Bucatinsky. But Keller also keeps the action literally moving along. Near the play’s end, a little mercifully, because we may have been wondering how it all gets done, and a little boastfully, because we get to see the magic between the last several scenes, the set, designed by Dane Laffrey, reveals its secret.
In the last scene, Baer and Silver have lunch in the seedy joint around the corner from the TV station. Are we meant to wonder how a man concerned with health can eat at a less-than-pristine establishment? How far has Baer fallen, now gazing hungrily at the meatball sub untouched by the man who has taken his place in the high-status/low-status game of life? Then fame beckons again.
So if this story looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, at least we’re left wondering whether it is a duck, leaving us debating the issues it raises. Or perhaps it’s showing us that occasionally, if provoked enough, each of us can act like a quack.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 18
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
Length: 2 hours, no intermission
Suitability: Teens and adults, though probably not of interest to teens, with salty language
Information: 213-628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Review: 'School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play' is a refreshing take on youthful rivalries and machinations
- Created on Tuesday, 11 September 2018
- Written by Charles McNulty
--Los Angeles Times Septenber 10, 2018
The title of Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” is an accurate description of this entertaining comedy, which transplants a familiar American scenario to a new cultural context.
Set at a boarding school in central Ghana in 1986, the play, which opened Saturday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, follows the youthful rivalries and machinations of a group of high school girls. (Fans of the “Mean Girls” movie with Lindsay Lohan or the musical version based on Tina Fey’s screenplay will appreciate how Bioh has made the underlying concept completely her own.) This clique is under the dominion of a fellow student named Paulina Sarpong (MaameYaa Boafo), whose edicts on dieting and fashion carry the weight of punitive law.
To Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), a large-framed classmate trying to enjoy her porridge, Paulina is particularly blunt: “So…do you want to be fat-fat? Or fit and popular?” The other girls at the cafeteria table must gigglingly go along with whatever Paulina decrees or face the adolescent tyrant’s wrathful gaze.
Two developments shake up the normal order at the Aburi Girls Boarding School. A transfer from America, Ericka Boafo (Joanna A. Jones), has just arrived, and Headmistress Francis (the indispensable Myra Lucretia Taylor) has asked the students to help the newcomer find her way.
The even bigger news is that a recruiter for the Miss Ghana Pageant, Eloise Amponsah (a formidable Zenzi Williams), is planning a visit to the school. Paulina is sure that she will be selected, and her minions have no reason to doubt her. But Ericka, who carries herself with quiet confidence, is strikingly pretty. The daughter of a Ghanaian cocoa factory mogul and a white mother, she quickly wins over the other girls with talk of her lotions, makeup and Bobby Brown poster.
Paulina grows increasingly agitated when she learns that Ericka has signed up for the pageant. She blackmails Nana into stealing the new girl’s file to see what dirt she can find on the only student who poses a threat to her. A future beauty queen can’t leave anything to chance.
The situation is as tightly constructed as a network situation comedy. The plotting is formulaic, but the cultural setting introduces new wrinkles into the familiar setup.
Eloise, who regularly reminds everybody of her title (“I’m Miss Ghana 1966”), wants to find a girl who can appeal to a worldwide audience. She knows the reality of colorism, having been victimized by it herself, and she wants the next Miss Ghana to have a chance at the Global Universe Pageant. Eloise believes the country’s future depends on breaking through to a universal stage, and no one would dare argue with this imperious former contest winner, who sees opportunity in lighter-toned Ericka and a reflection of herself in determined and darker Paulina.
The play doesn’t say anything astonishingly new. Appearances turn out to be reliably misleading; truth, as we might suspect, lurks beneath the surface. But the experience of these young women is deliciously brought to life by a terrific ensemble.
The production, which originated off-Broadway at MCC Theater, where the play had its premiere last year, is under the pitch-perfect direction of Rebecca Taichman. It’s hard to imagine a better staging.
Every character, no matter how cursorily outlined, becomes fully individualized by the bearing and byplay of the actors (many of whom were in the original New York cast). The deadpan expressions and head-tilts of Latoya Edwards’ Ama, Paige Gilbert’s Gifty, Mirirai Sithole’s Mercy and Mensah-Bonsu’s Nana reveal everything you need to know about the shifting hierarchical dynamics at the school.
The simmering war between Boafo’s Paulina and Jones’ Ericka is handled in such a way as to lead us deeper into what the girls ultimately have in common. And the adults in the room, Taylor’s headmistress and Williams’ Eloise, expose just how sadly entrenched discriminatory attitudes are in the culture.
Bioh, an actor as well as a writer, provides room for the characters to grow. The situation may be confined to the cafeteria but brief glimpses into the inner worlds of the girls expand the territory.
The setting by scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado is electrified by Jen Schriever’s lighting and Palmer Hefferan’s sound design. Bursts of R&B between scenes heighten the energy.
“School Girls” isn’t especially ambitious, but it is exceedingly well pulled off. You’d be hard pressed to find a more refreshing 75-minute comedy on television, never mind one with the added benefit of righting a wrong of under-representation.
‘School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play’
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends September 30. Call for exceptions.
Tickets: $25 to $72 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (no intermission)