Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy
Through Sept. 2
Bassist Daemon Brown fingers a sinister riff as the lights go low, and Matthew-Jason Willis' choreography is about as tight as that white T-shirt actor Jason Dolby wears as he leisurely prowls the Kennedy Center stage.
He leers at the audience, just now his chosen prey. "It's 4 in the morning in Harlem," he drawls, with his biceps, trapeziums and deltoids flexing into a muscular Rorschach that makes the young girls whisper and giggle in the stands.
"Everybody's here but the police," he observes, and the music stops dead for a moment. He looks around, unconcerned, and then dryly adds, "and they'll be here any minute." Music—and breathing—resumes.
When you factor in the wicked grin and that tilted bowler hat, you'd swear for a moment that McCrae Hardy's seven-piece band should be on the verge of grooving into Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife" in some funky update of The Threepenny Opera.
But Dolby moans "I dreamed about a reefer, five feet long" instead, reverently drawing a thin cylinder of white from behind his right ear. He gestures with the unlit cigarette, and from a darkened table three women flick their lighters simultaneously.
Cabaret doesn't get much hotter than the expert staging of "The Viper's Drag" in the second act of Hot Summer Nights' version of Ain't Misbehavin'. If every element of this tribute to the music of Thomas "Fats" Waller were as accomplished, we'd forget all about the original cast whose names needlessly distract us when they're incorporated here.
The choreography was cool in "How Ya Baby," the women's harmonies tight in "Handful of Keys," and the comic delights of "The Ladies Who Sing with the Band" sent up popular radio entertainment during the era of World War II. Still, Thursday night's performance didn't truly hit its stride until the end of the first act.
By the time Dale Sanders triumphantly wallowed through that musical burlesque, "Your Feets Too Big," he had shaken off his top-of-the-show discomfort. Afterward, sound designer Brian Hunt helped Tina Morris-Anderson gently torch the house in an almost breathless "Mean to Me." Yolanda Rabun's character shone in "Two Sleepy People" after the delectable comedy of act one's "Yacht Club Swing."
Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby's book contrasts the profane and profound in Waller's world. Willis and Hardy's staging made a sobering choral racial statement of "Black and Blue." Before that, Nina Gunnell's dramatic lead gave "Lounging at the Waldorf" its subtle, devastating sting. In it, Maltby's lyrics stylishly indict the upper classes of the time who made their way to the Apollo: "They like jazz/ but in small doses./ No shock: Bop/ and you could cause them thrombosis." Gunnell's work here fully redeemed momentary problems with pitch and timing earlier in the show—even if nothing could redeem the frumpy purple costume Casey Watkins dumped on her. Garb more befitting a McDonaldland character than a jazz and blues revue suggested Waller's famous tag line once again: "One never knows, do one?"
Free Association Theatre Ensemble
Market Street Books
Through Sept. 8
FATE is always looking for the twist. We're not talking metaphysics. The term here refers instead to Free Association Theatre Ensemble, a curious, fledgling theater company known thus far for delightfully off-beat shows in equally off-beat locales.
After its ambitious production of Trace of Arc staged consumer criticism at Southern Village's Market Street Books and Maps last spring, we wondered what they would come up with for an encore. News of a new season including Neil LaBute's Fat Pig, Dario Fo's Abducting Diana and the world-class mind games of Marat/Sade heightened our anticipation.
But their season opener, David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, seems a misstep, albeit one taken in faithful pursuit of the kind of improbable hypotheses that is this company's cup of tea. What would happen if you take Mamet's envenomed tribute to Hollywood politics out of the boy's club and make one of the two studio insiders a woman? How might that recalibrate the tug-of-war between Karen, a female temporary secretary, and Charlie, the jaded associate producer, as they square off for the ostensible soul of Bobby, the head of production—plus 10 percent of the gross?
Now we know: It doesn't work so well. Despite occasional glimmers, the resulting show frequently seems about as kludgy as the bookstore set FATE revisited for this production. Matters aren't helped when unseasoned director Zachary Roberts' lack of film world insight misreads—and at times, erases—Mamet's slams on its monumental ego and superficiality. In doing, he reduces Bobby and Charlie from laughable masters of the universe, West Coast division, to mere mortals instead. John Paul Middlesworth lends trademark integrity here as Bobby, but his troubled urbanity mainly points to a director who doesn't understand his character, his world or the satirical genre both inhabit.
Later, a proposed film based on a suspiciously familiar half-science fiction, half-religious text enters the story. Here, Mamet subtly makes the fight between two different film projects one between religions, as sensuous Scientologist-come-lately Karen (Tracey Coppedge) tries to derail not only a green-lit film, but a discourse more than occasionally laced with phrases from the Torah between Bobby and Charlie (played by the game and driven Cheryl Napier). Several inversions take place as characters grapple with meanings, idealism and commerce at play's end. But the gender games muddy more than they clarify here, in a work that a director more able could conceivably have finessed.
Performance Art Night
Common Ground Theatre
Friday, Aug. 24
Just enough room left to mention the most uneven—and refreshing—evening I've had in a theater lately: Verynormal Productions' Performance Art Night at Common Ground Theatre, in which six artists got 15 minutes apiece to explore their latest obsessions. Host Anthony Hughes' opening primate character evolved into Brian Eno after being exposed to studio electronics, an act followed by suspenseful moments in Dana Marks' movement theater piece that trumped much of what I saw at American Dance Festival this summer. Most moving: Michelle Lanier's resurrection ritual for innocence lost, and Jesse Marie Haftel's surprisingly intimate demonstration of yoga. The latter was a service, in which belief and something unashamed and good was publicly enacted in a human form that, just this once, wasn't over-aestheticized.
The next Performance Art Night is scheduled for Jan. 4, 2008, and slots are still available. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
E-mail Byron at email@example.com.