Kirk Douglas Theatre
Review: In ‘Until the Flood,’ Dael Orlandersmith searches for truth after Ferguson
- Created on Saturday, 01 February 2020
- Written by Charles McNulty
-- Los Angeles Times January 31, 2020
At first glance, Dael Orlandersmith’s solo piece “Until the Flood” resembles a documentary collage by Anna Deavere Smith. But the rawness of the pain and poetry betrays Orlandersmith’s unmistakable stamp, as do the clarifying gusts of backlogged fury.
The play, which opened Wednesday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, examines the community fallout after the fatal officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Like Smith, Orlandersmith is hunting for deeper societal truths that journalism usually doesn’t have the bandwidth to handle.
Commissioned by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where “Until the Flood” had its premiere in 2016, the work was informed by interviews Orlandersmith conducted with a cross-section of people in and around Ferguson who have vastly different perspectives on the incident that turned the town into a flashpoint in America’s never-ending struggle for racial justice. Conflict, the Aristotelian crux of drama, is in oversupply.
But Orlandersmith isn’t shaping verbatim testimony. Her research laid the ground for her imagination to take over. The characters are composites. She’s written them in a way that will resonate with those who have seen “The Gimmick,” “Monster,” “Yellowman,” “Beauty’s Daughter” or any of her overpowering works that set wrath and resiliency against each other in the soul’s fight for survival.
The production, directed by Neel Keller with a finesse that never calls undue attention to itself, presents a stage with a few different seating options representing a living room, a flexible public venue and a barbershop. These spaces coexist as Orlandersmith transforms herself from one figure to the next by merely throwing on a shawl or a baseball jacket.
Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting adds grace notes to Takeshi Kata’s scenic design, which turns the perimeter of the stage into an impromptu street shrine. Kaye Voyce’s costume suggestions offer Orlandersmith all that she needs to paint full-scale theatrical portraits. Collaborating again with Keller, she seems in relaxed command of her artistry.
Contradiction interests this playwright, actor and performance artist more than confirmation. Connie, a university teacher, recalls a conversation at a Ferguson wine bar that ended a friendship. After contending that “both lives are tragic” (meaning Michael Brown and the police officer who killed him), she’s confounded by the reaction of her friend, who tells her, “My God! How I hate liberals. At least with an out-and-out bigot, I know where I stand.”
Louisa, a retired black educator who left Ferguson to go to New York’s City College, remembers the way the white proprietor of a store her family had long frequented accused her of being uppity after she returned from college. What enraged Louisa, however, wasn’t so much the hackneyed racism of this assumption but the smirk on the face of the black girl who worked there — a smirk Louisa took to mean, “You think you’re better than me? You think ’cause you went east, talk different, that you’re better than me?”
Orlandersmith doesn’t focus on the controversial question of whether the officer was operating in self-defense. Instead, she explores how the tragedy resonates among black and white residents. “Until the Flood” exposes the way the long-standing racial division in this community isn’t simply a historical memory but a living reality reinforced by the entrenched prejudices of a white-dominated police force.
Black psyches bear the wounds of slain, harassed and incarcerated black bodies. Paul, a young man who plans to study art history at Berkeley, prays that he’ll be able to escape the town before he’s gunned down like Brown. Stopped by a cop while walking with some art books, he knows the odds are stacked against him if he remains.
Progressives, such as the two Northwestern University students who paid a visit to the barbershop while doing a project on Michael Brown as a show of solidarity with “victims” of racial oppression, are briskly satirized. Rabid racists such as Dougray, a white father who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, are treated with more patience. Orlandersmith doesn’t conceal the monstrousness of their views. In fact, she lances the abscess of their hate to shed sterilizing light on the infection.
But evil fascinates her because she knows it usually has a back story of suffering. Brutality begets brutality. White supremacists aren’t exonerated by any means, but Orlandersmith refuses to sacrifice her compassion on the altar of vengeance. She recognizes violence as a universal scourge.
This approach is not to be confused with Connie’s belief that there is a balance of tragedy or with President Trump’s inflammatory Charlottesville comment about “very fine people on both sides.” History has definitely not been evenhanded. But though centered on an incident that peels back the deplorable disparities in social justice, the play is written with as much empathy as outrage.
At the end of this 70-minute piece, Orlandersmith unbinds her dreadlocks and gives expression to America’s racial stalemate with lyrical flow. “Has the ‘we shall overcome’ — come/and/Gone?” she asks. Compact yet encompassing, “Until the Flood” quietly assures that the struggle lives on.
'Until the Flood'
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, through Feb. 23 (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $30-$75 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour and 10 minutes (no intermission)
Until the Flood Begins January 24 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles
- Created on Sunday, 26 January 2020
- Written by Dan Meyer
--Playbill January 24, 2020
Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood begins performances January 24 at Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles. The Pulitzer Prize finalist of Forever explores the social uprising in Ferguson following the shooting of teenager Michael Brown.
Using her own interviews with Missouri residents, Orlandersmith examines the roots of the protests and searches for healing by creating a set of characters that highlight the varying perspectives and individual experiences of race.
The production, scheduled through February 23, is directed by Center Theatre Group Associate Artistic Director Neel Keller, with scenic design by Takeshi Kata, costume design by Kaye Voyce, lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger, sound design and compositions by Justin Ellington, and projection design by Nicholas Hussong.
Until the Flood made its debut Off-Broadway in 2017 at Rattlestick Playwrights.
Review: Put On Your LITTLE BLACK DRESS and Be Ready to Party, Hoot and Holler at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
- Created on Thursday, 12 December 2019
- Written by Shari Barrett
--broadwayworld.com December 10, 2019
From Coco Chanel's 1926 Ford dress, Audrey's Breakfast at Tiffany's, Lady Di's revenge dress to Liz Hurley's jaw dropping, safety-pinned Versace, the little black dress' silhouette has changed over the years. And given how often and in so many difference circumstances a LITTLE BLACK DRESS can be worn, most likely there are many important life-changing moments during which the memory of wearing it at that time opened up the capacity for limitless personal reinvention.
No doubt every woman, and probably a few men, have a little black dress in their closet just waiting for the next moment when the right wrap, jacket or string of white pearls to adorn it will create another life-long remembrance. That LBD is the inspiration behind LITTLE BLACK DRESS The Musical, a world premiere production featuring an original script and score from the hilarious women of Spank! The Fifty Shades Parody including writer Danielle Trzcinski, writer/music by Natalie Tenenbaum (Tony-nominated Mean Girls Broadway), writer Amanda Barker (Sirius XM's Canada Laughs), and writer/director Christopher Bond (DISENCHANTED, Evil Dead The Musical!).
Beside that LBD in your closet, I know how the entire Fifty Shades phenomenon opening up a world of sexual exploitation for women everywhere, making the outrageous seem common place when it comes to sexual encounters. Certainly the LBD you own has been along with you on a first date, job interview, or perhaps several sexual conquests since the power of the dress as it hugs your curves and makes you feel like Wonder Woman can inspire you to be even more than you think you are!
Such is the story line in LITTLE BLACK DRESS, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through December 15. In it, we follow the heartfelt and utterly comical story of Dee (Trzcinski) and her best friend Mandy (Jennette Cronk) experiencing life through their little black dresses, including realizing their own mothers' LBD most likely led to their conceptions, as well as their first job interview, first date, first awkward sexual experience, second awkward sexual experience and more! Using hilarious improv, catchy songs, and a story that will ring true with women everywhere, LITTLE BLACK DRESS will continue to make audiences across the globe laugh, cry, and party!
Along with the talented Trzcinski and Cronk, Review: Put On Your LITTLE BLACK DRESS and Be Ready to Party, Hoot and Holler at the Kirk Douglas Theatrethe touring cast includes Jenna Cormey who was in the recent National Touring production FRIENDS! The Musical Parody at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. These three women play more characters and wear more LBDs than I could count, with each scene a standout on its own with enough off-color humor to inspire the audience's hooting and hollering! But he prepared - several will be called upon to participate, with the cast using their spectacular improv skills to make your story part of the play. This, of course, guarantees every performance will be unique and utterly personal for many who attend.
But just like Fifty Shades, there has to be a hot man to inspire us to reach for the stars, so to speak, and LITTLE BLACK DRESS features the perfect sexy guy in the form of Clint Hromsco who changes costumes continuously and often disrobes onstage to the delight of the audience. Sure, his policeman stripper provided the necessary and so-expected half-naked eye candy, but it was his stepping out in several LBD variations that stole the comical cake!
With so many variations on display during the show, I would love to know where Costume Designer Gwyneth Barton found all the different types of dresses which worked so well on all the body shapes of the cast as I really would love her advice on where to find the perfect LBD for my own curves and closet. Review: Put On Your LITTLE BLACK DRESS and Be Ready to Party, Hoot and Holler at the Kirk Douglas TheatreKudos to director Christopher Bond for keeping the action moving along at a steady pace and for allowing the utmost in personal expression to feel perfectly normal throughout the show, both on stage and in the audience.
The only advice I have to make the show even better is to drop the severe speech impediment used early in the show by one of the characters as it made her words difficult to understand and ruined some of the humor in the scene. And honestly, since it was put on and not her real speech pattern, ultimately, I found it rather demeaning and out of place given the humorous nature of the musical. Choose something else to denote that character, please.
LITTLE BLACK DRESS is a fearlessly funny girls' night out musical and the perfect show for every bachelorette party, birthday, anniversary, reunion or date night. And though not required, please feel free to wear your own LBD and pose for photos with the cast after the show, which is also a must-see for any man looking to decode the mystery of every woman's secret weapon - the LBD. With hilarious show-stopping musical numbers, "Magic Mike" influenced dancing, and loads of improvised audience mayhem makes for one wild and unforgettable evening!
To give you a taste of what to expect, here are a few of the songs you will hear: "The Power of the Dress," "He Must Really Like Me," "I Knew It," "Whatever You Want," "A Night You'll Never Forget," "Tequila to my Lime," and "Call Your Girls" which celebrates the many moments in which we girls need to stick together whether in a LBD or not. So grab a few of your besties and get to the Kirk Douglas Theatre this week to celebrate your feminine wiles and be sure to wear that LITTLE BLACK DRESS hiding in the back of your closet!
For Bill Irwin, master interpreter of Samuel Beckett, even the unspoken word matters
- Created on Thursday, 03 October 2019
- Written by Charles McNulty
--Los Angeles Times September 20, 2019
Samuel Beckett is widely revered as the master playwright of the theater of the absurd, as well as a fearless chronicler of the human condition. Bill Irwin adds another accolade: Author of some of the best stage directions ever.
“Take this one from ‘Waiting for Godot’: ‘They stand motionless, arms dangling, heads sunk, sagging at the knees,’” the veteran performer said with childlike enthusiasm.
Indeed, the sentence is quintessential Beckett: Highly specific, and yet ambiguous in terms of its effect. It’s up to the performer, and the audience, as to whether the resulting stage image is depressing, amusing or both.
Irwin is an acclaimed dramatic actor (he won a Tony Award for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — a role he reprised at the Ahmanson Theatre in 2007) and an astonishingly agile physical comedian. Irwin has been haunted by Beckett’s writing for most of his adult life. Over the years, he has performed in two high-profile New York productions of “Godot” — one featuring Steve Martin and Robin Williams, and another opposite Nathan Lane.
Nearing his 70th birthday, Irwin has channeled his obsession into the show “On Beckett,” which began previews Friday and opens Wednesday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. “It grew out of a nagging impulse,” he said. “I analogize it to a pearl — an irritant that becomes a beautiful gem — although I won’t make that claim for it!”
No need; others have remarked on its illuminating polish. The New York Times called it “a reminder of a crucial paradox of great art, in which precise craft becomes a vehicle for profound mystery.” Lane put it more simply: “He’s so brilliant in the show. His fascination with Beckett is infectious.”
That intense interest was piqued just a few miles from the venue he’ll be performing in — at UCLA, where the Santa Monica native began his college education. (He went on to CalArts, which he attended the year it opened, and ultimately Oberlin College, where he earned his degree in theater.) He recalls coming across Beckett’s “Act Without Words” in a literary anthology — a dialogue-free one-act play that consists entirely of stage directions.
At CalArts, he had the good fortune of studying with Ruby Cohn, who was a friend of Beckett’s and a scholar of his work. In those days, Irwin said ruefully, his attitude toward the playwright’s work was one of youthful arrogance.
“I remember looking at ‘Godot’ and thinking, ‘You could save this,’” he recalled.
His attitude had shifted enormously by the 1980s, when director Joseph Chaikin, another Beckett collaborator, invited him to perform the prose pieces “Texts for Nothing.” “Ever since then, I have not been able to get that language out of my head,” Irwin said. “Other things I memorize are gone as soon as I don’t need them anymore. This stuff has stayed with me to an amazing degree.
“I asked myself, ‘Why is that?’ Well, theater people have a coping mechanism. We take something we’re trying to work through and make a theater piece out of it.”
That process began roughly three years ago, when Irwin brought the idea to Carey Perloff, then the longtime artistic director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre. “She gave me a space to work in, and some students to work with,” he said. He premiered the show in San Francisco in 2017 but continued to refine it in subsequent stagings, including an off-Broadway run in 2018. It reached its more or less final form — he is still tinkering with certain sections — at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York last year.
“It’s as much about Bill as it is about Beckett,” Lane said.
Indeed, between readings from the plays and various prose works — and inevitable forays into baggy-pants comedy — Irwin discusses his journey through the writing, delving into the intricacies of Beckett’s language, which somehow manages to be simultaneously precise and ambiguous. “It’s a very particular voice,” he said. “His pronouns are very slippery.”
Irwin finds Beckett’s remarkable use of language something of a balm at a time when the use of words has grown so imprecise. “Our culture runs away from words,” he bemoaned. “It seems to me one of the things this language can do is help us reconnect with human intelligence, as distinct from artificial intelligence. A lot of Beckett’s language is a portrait of consciousness — of how the mind works.”
Irwin met Beckett once, in 1988, and feels he squandered that encounter.
“He was so shy, and I was so shy, we both looked at the Formica table more than each other,” Irwin said. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have asked him so many questions!”
Instead, they remained in his brain, ultimately taking the shape of a one-man show. “In part, that’s what ‘On Beckett’ is,” he said. “A do-over.”
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, through Oct. 27
Tickets: $30-$75 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772, www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Theater review: ‘Friends! The Musical Parody’ proves they’re still there for us
- Created on Wednesday, 24 July 2019
- Written by Dany Margolies
--Los Angeles Daily News July 23, 2019
As promised by the title, everything our powers of reason apparently glossed over while we watched the decade-long run of the NBC sitcom “Friends” is parodied onstage in “Friends! The Musical Parody.”
This guest production by Right Angle Entertainment at Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City hammers those “Friends” nails that started sticking farther and farther out as the seasons progressed, 1994 through 2004.
Bob and Tobly McSmith penned this musical parody. Tim Drucker directs, with a few dance breaks by choreographer Billy Griffin. With help from the cast, they revive the perpetually hangdog Ross (Tyler Fromson) and the perpetually unfunny Chandler (but, boy, Aaron C. Rutherford is funny playing him and other of the series’ recurring characters).
Rachel (Sami Griffith), the girl who has everything, remains on the verge of tears, while Joey (Domenic Servidio), the terrible actor, remains employed on “Days of Our Lives.” Monica’s (Maggie McMeans) obsessive tidiness and Phoebe’s (Madison Fuller) astonishing ditziness round out the clan’s idiosyncrasies.
The actors supply all the memorable physical quirks and vocal tics. David Rigler supplies the costumes (including Ross’s leather pants), and Dee Spencer provides the wigs (including “the Rachel” that emblematized hair in the 1990s).
The songs include sly takeoffs on blockbuster musicals. “Moistmaker” (Ross’s recipe for the ideal sandwich) is sung to the melody of “Matchmaker” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Recognizing the size of Monica’s New York City apartment and the characters’ seeming lack of sufficient salaries, “How Can We Afford This Place?” is sung to the tune of “Cell Block Tango” from “Chicago.”
And lest the mention of the actors’ salaries slip our memories, “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” becomes “The One Where We Make a Million Dollars an Episode.”
The writers also make songs out of the moment when Monica and Rachel fought over the one condom, Monica and Ross’s dance routine on Dick Clark’s show, and the way Ross and Rachel got together and broke up with every change in the weather.
In sum, this makes for a strangely nostalgic, often clever, sometimes hilarious look back at a series that logic says wouldn’t have lasted a season. And yet, some of us watched all of them.
For an additional jaunt back in time, stay in the theater through intermission for the Hansen songs and 1990s TV commercials.
Dany Margolies is a Los Angeles-based writer.
‘Friends! The Musical Parody’
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Free three-hour covered parking at City Hall, with validation (available in the Kirk Douglas Theatre lobby)
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, through Aug 4
Tickets: $25-$75 (subject to change)
Length: 1 hour and 50 minutes, including intermission
Suitability: Recommended for ages 13 and up
Information: 213-628-2772, www.KirkDouglasTheatre.org
‘Friends: The Musical Parody’ brings a reimagined classic to Kirk Douglas
- Created on Thursday, 18 July 2019
- Written by Christian May-Suzuki
--Culver City News July 18, 2019
One of the most iconic shows of the modern age will be making its return, but not in the way you might expect. “Friends: A Musical Parody” will grace the stage at the Kirk Douglas Theater from July 16 to August 4.
The parody started in Las Vegas with authors/producers Bob and Tobly McSmith. They also gave birth to several other stage productions of beloved TV shows, including The Office! A Musical Parody (now playing Off-Broadway in New York City), Bayside! The Saved by the Bell Musical (NY Times Critics Pick), and Full! House! The Musical (Starring Perez Hilton).
The play attempts to collect some of the best moments from the iconic award-winning comedy while adding an original flair to the adventures of the group of 20-something pals that audiences have come to love.
While the play is normally contained within Las Vegas, the group is currently on a tour in California until mid-August, with Kirk Douglas Theater being their longest-tenured stop.
The play will feature all of your favorite characters from the show, including Rachel Green (played by Sami Griffith), Monica Geller (Maggie McMeans) Ross Geller (Tyler Fromson), Chandler Bing (Aaron C. Rutherford), Joey Tribbiani (Domenic Servidio), Phoebe Buffay (Madison Fuller), and more.
The play opened in Fall of 2017 and has seen several runs filled with success leading up to the modern-day.
Tickets for the show start at $25. More information can be found at friendsmusicalparody.com, or at friendsparodyontour.com
Grammy Winning Composer to perform at Kirk Douglas Theatre
- Created on Saturday, 13 July 2019
- Written by Olivia Gay
--Culver City News July 11, 2019
The Bill Holman Big Band will perform at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on Saturday, July 13 at 8 p.m. The band is made up of musicians who play bass, drums, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, trumpets, keyboards, trombones, and all of the saxophone players double on other instruments, such as alto flute and bass clarinet.
Tickets for the upcoming performance range from $30 to $40 in price and the details of the performance can be found on Eventbrite.com. The upcoming performance is made possible, through Culver City’s Performing Arts Grant Program, as well as Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Some of the compositions that will be performed during the event are, “Rain Check” by Billy Strayhorn, “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder, and original compositions by Holman, such as “Sweet Spot” and “A View from the Side”.
The founder of the band, Bill Holman, is an accomplished saxophonist, composer, and arranger who has won three Grammys for Best Instrumental Arrangement in 1987, 1995, and 1997, yet has been nominated for 14 Grammy Awards in total.
Holman’s musical career began in junior high school when he began to play clarinet after scoring well on a musical aptitude test, but before that, music had very little influence in his life. “I wasn’t exposed to music hardly at all… We didn’t even have a record player in the house,” said Holman in an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
In high school, Holman wanted to switch to saxophone so he and his friend went to a local music store. “ (The shop owner) had two saxophones, an alto, and a tenor. The tenor cost $15 more than the alto and I happened to have that extra $15 so that’s how I became a tenor player.”
This purchase led to a musical career that spanned the 1940’s and is still going strong to today as he continues to compose and arrange at age 92.
His dedication to music has been recognized around the world, so much so that in 2000, his collection of scores and memorabilia became a permanent part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection.
Casting Announced For Center Theatre Group's Second Annual L.A. Writers' Workshop Festival
- Created on Saturday, 29 June 2019
- Written by BWW News Desk
--Broadway World Los Angeles June 20, 2019
Center Theatre Group has announced casting for the second annual L.A. Writers' Workshop Festival: New Plays Forged in L.A., a one-day event at the Kirk Douglas Theatre celebrating some of the freshest and most thrilling voices in Modern American Theatre. The festival will take place on June 29 from 1 to 9 p.m. with readings of three new plays by three L.A. Writers' Workshop participants from throughout the program's 14-year history. The readings include "Campaign" by Laura Jacqmin, directed by Monty Cole; "Sleeping Giant" by Steve Yockey, directed by Michael Matthews; and "Confederates" by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Goldie Patrick.
The cast for "Campaign" includes Jon Chaffin, LaNisa Renee Frederick, Simon Helberg, Raymond Lee and Jason Ritter; "Sleeping Giant" features Philippe Bowgen, June Carryl, Shalita Grant and Michael Grant Terry; and the cast for "Confederates" includes Zibby Allen, Cherise Boothe, Sophina Brown, Nija Okoro and Cornelius Smith Jr.
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 will be "Campaign" by Laura Jacqmin at 1 p.m. "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.
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.