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Catalyst Theater Company - ARCHIVE
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August 27 - October 5, 2008
Reviewed August 30 by David Siegel

Running Time 2: 15 one intermission
A modern nightmare played to disturb … and successfully
Click here to buy the novel

Retaining the power of the iconic post-World War II book while turning it into a worthy theater adaptation is no easy task. Reprising the production only 4 years after the original (in a much larger and less claustrophobic venue no less) only adds to the risks. But, fret not, George Orwell’s masterful modern nightmare about frightening life under the leadership of Big Brother does come through. And the unsettling second act makes this production a keeper once again. This is an agit-prop warning calibrated to disturb which succeeds thanks to intimate performances by Scott Fortier and Ian LeValley. Christopher Gallu may have removed a great deal of sub-text and nuance and telescoped things into a too-neat package, but he has retained all the key ideas of Orwell’s warning about big government with a one party state. His adaptation possesses an ability to make an audience shudder as they endure the on-stage mental violence and physical degradations. Jim Petosa’s sharp direction, at least for the central relationship between Scott Fortier (reprising his role as the naïve Winston Smith) and Ian LeValley in a disturbing performance as the seemingly paternal figure who is really a malevolent senior Party member is core to this production’s lasting value. The terrifying power to bring suffering and torment to another human being is not easily witnessed. Other characters and relationships so central to the book’s power, including even Smith's elicit lover played by Laura C. Harris, fall away from view. This is an absorbing production when all is focused on Fortier and LeValley. It wilts when they are not in the spotlight.

Storyline: Under the always watchful eye of Big Brother in a world in continual war, Winston Smith is a party member who struggles with his day-to-day life and senses there is something amiss under Party rule. He dreams of freedom and follows his desire for love beyond the Party’s reach. How far the Party will go to bring him back into the fold is the key.

Gallu has used the major points of Orwell’s left-leaning warnings of a futuristic dystopia and creates an evening that will not be easily dismissed as just old style propaganda. His adaptation presents a world where there is no underplaying of dangers. Characters must always be on alert for menace and terror is all around. There is no respite, and they learn, too late it turns out, that even those who seem kind and friendly are not to be trusted. With pronouncements by an unseen voice constantly warning of the “they” that are the enemy, rest and relaxation are not possible either by cast or audience. Director Patosa has a way with small scenes and intimate moments … and there is intimacy between a torturer and his prey rather than two lovers. He has his featured actors almost sensual in the way the torturer touches his victim … caressed at one moment and having electricity applied at the next. Patosa’s guidance for the other characters, however seems to make them mere mechanical afterthoughts. The expected intimacy between two lovers seems without real connection. It does not provide a sufficient drive for the risks taken by the lovers nor the dissolution of their love because of their mutual betrayals that are key to lifting this production beyond its astonishing depiction of torture’s twisted relationship.

As the main protagonists, Fortier and LeValley are bound together tightly. Torture is delivered and received almost as unrushed affection in Act II. LeValley has a manner of touching that could bring pleasure if not for what is behind it. His hands are sensual as they caress Fortier or when he holds Fortier’s head to take away the pain that he just inflicted in an effort to turn him away from his wrong thinking and desire to feel beyond what the Party condones. Fortier almost melts at the touch from his torturer. And so much more feeling is there with LeValley then the lovers’ kisses he delivers to his erstwhile female companion, Laura C. Harris. With Harris, he is quick and almost uncaring … he wants, she wants, they get and they go on. Ellen Young’s member of the proletariat underclass is all off-center, endearing and friendly, at first. But it is all a mask to betray others. Her presentations make her later betrayals that much more unexpected even for those who may recall the character from the book.

The set design by James Kronzer at the Atlas Performing Arts Center provides for constant movement as screens and walls are moved about to form rooms, cells, work spaces and the open world as the cast moves them about. The lighting design emphases ugly Halloween orange and blood crimson placed over murky, somewhat off-white lit egg-crate walls. The sound work, including the unseen voice of State authority, is a constant assault of mechanical noise, industrial sounds, buzzes and voiceovers. Costumes are especially noteworthy in Act II when prisoners are dressed in filthy, grey undergarments. Michael D’Addario’s video projections are used throughout the production with great value to push words into visual movement.

Based upon the book by George Orwell. Adapted by Christopher Gallu. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: James Kronzer (set) Michael D’Addario (video) Pei Lee (Costumes) Andrew Cissna (lights) Matthew M. Nielson (sound and original music) Stan Barouh (photography) Jess W. Speaker, III (stage manager). Cast: Scott Fortier, Laura C. Harris, Ashley Ivey, James Konicek, Ian LeValley, Elizabeth Richards, Andres Talero, Ellen Young.

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May 7 - June 7, 2008
Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake)
Reviewed May 10 by David Siegel

Running time 1:25 – no intermission
A little enthralling exploration of a family’s life living in a talking Apartment

There is an enthralling exploration of a catastrophic year in one family worthy of your attention at Catalyst Theatre. The production is praiseworthy not for any one particular dramatic device, but for what a solid ensemble backed by a first rate technical team can do to bring alive a fascinating script. Sure, the untimely death of a husband and father does not make for a light evening. And the havoc that his death creates for his wife and pre-teen daughter may not be what you might want to see on a nice spring night; but resist a desire to let this production pass by. If you miss Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake) you will miss a striking technical production with tightly honed acting by a small ensemble. Sheila Callahan’s script takes the audience on a journey of discovery into coping that includes an anthropomorphic apartment. Her dialogue is crisp and radiates real language from real life. The acting under the direction of Shirley Serotsky is deft and even throughout. She has her cast clearly realize that they are just a few feet from the audience. They use their facial expressions and the minutest movements of fingers and feet as tools as important as the words they speak. In the teeny-tiny space that is the theater in the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, there is an almost magical set design execution. Ultimately, and without a saccharine flavor to it, the end game comes and a warm morning sun does come up because of the characters' doggedness. There are several standouts in the ensemble. They include Casie Platt who has the sullen mannerisms of a pre-teen so well in her head that this reviewer wondered if she conjured up her own life on stage. Elizabeth H. Richards is the always anxious and insecure with herself mother who uses gourmet cooking and rapid speech to hide herself away from the real world, with consequences she has not a clue of until almost too late. Jason Stiles as The Apartment is a weighty gadfly in his acting.

Storyline: A young, lonely girl who fantasizes about Justin Timberlake; her widowed mother, who fantasizes about Harrison Ford; and the underappreciated apartment, who fantasizes about the days it was better cared for, all try to cope with the untimely death of the father/husband/leaseholder which occurred one year before.

Sheila Callaghan is a member of the Obie winning playwright’s organization,13P, and resident of New Dramatists. She has received a number of regional theater awards and her plays have been produced regionally throughout the United States. She displays a sure hand with this script. She seems to really know these people, as if they are her and her own life. This tiny morsel of a play allows the dialogue to sing rather than be stuffed. When her ideas begin to run out, she ends the play; a bit quickly and with some comic relief, but natural none-the-less. The sullen teen, the anxious mother, the affected sister, and even the apartment speak lines that are all too real. Serotsky's direction does not let the actors become too operatic with their suffering, which would ruin the intimacy of the show. One bit of unreality is the initial set up scene when each character appears and moves in stylistic, mechanical reaction to propulsive music and the sound of a broken steam radiator trying to bring up heat on a cold December night. Serotsky has a technical team that has filled the set with much that looks right and true in a little space, with no wasted areas or details.

Casie Platt, in her baggy pajamas, has pre-teen mannerisms down pat, from sullenness and silences to her ability to speak to dolls and her giggly crush on Justin Timberlake. She moves from all out energy to absolute silence and venom in seconds. She purses her lips and squints her eyes in disgust through a glance. It is as if she watched an endless loop of pre teen girls or has one from her own life to call up in her head. Elizabeth Richards plays the mother as one so anxious and fearful that she can only babble away, knowing that she is babbling. Her face is constantly fraught with anguish as she repeats “it is all my fault” in response to everything. She pines for her husband and curls into chairs to dream of him with a soft internal voice of caring and love. She is awakened to her own failing when her own crush, Harrison Ford, enters her dreams. Kathleen Akerley’s sister to Richards is the intellectually affected owner of 57 cats who is all smarts and no self-knowledge. Her life is pain too, but she covers it until her inability to have children forces her to confront herself.  With her baggy clothes, glasses and haughty demeanor, she is lost as a person until the last moments of this short play. Eric Messner gives life to both Timberlake and Ford in short appearances that are hoots in how close to over the top he goes, but then pulls back just a bit in order to avoid being totally laughable without purpose. Jason Stiles (Apartment) has some Beetlejuice in his moves and speech. He walks about with an old metal steam pipe and fittings as his cane and pieces of plaster as he verbally depicts his sad state of disrepair and his unhappiness with the trajectory of his life from a grand House to only an Apartment. He longs to be touched and loved and cared for.

The Capitol Hill Arts Workshop is so small and yet the set is so full and deep that one is immediately taken away. Then the sound work for this show, from the opening cacophony of sounds like heating pipes trying to move steam up, to the tick-tock-tick-tock of a night time, gets to the center of the audience’s heads as cast members come into view in a preface to the opening scene. Not one inch of the set is wasted. It is hard even to take in all that is before the audience. Lighting is wonderfully evocative, whether the flickering of bad wiring or deep shadows, focusing the audience’s attention on what is before them. The properties include the dreams of a pre-teen girl: little plush animals that end up being thrown about in anger, or Barbie dolls to talk to and game with.

Written by Sheila Callaghan. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Design: Robbie Hayes (set) Debra Kim Sivigny (costumes) Carey Stipe (properties) Melissa-Leigh Douglass (choreographer) Jason Cowperthewaite (lights) Matthew M. Nielson (sound/original music) Joe Shymanski (photography) Cecilia Cackely (stage manager). Cast: Kathleen Akerley, Eric Messner, Casie Platt, Elizabeth H. Richards, Jason Stiles.

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February 6 - March 8, 2008
Swimming in the Shallows
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

1:20 - no intermission
A slight comic fantasy with a bizarre twist

Click here to buy the script

After two Helen Hayes Award Nominations for acting, Artistic Director Scott Fortier takes up director's duties for the first time with a slightly schizophrenic comedy by Adam Bock. Fortier imposes no grand concepts on this already concept-laden piece, and this is a good thing, for the feather-light comedy would collapse under the pressure of an individual theater's effort to make its production stand out from the others the play has had. It has had quite a few ever since it was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland six years ago. Its popularity among small theater groups seems to be based on the immediate interest of potential audiences when they learn that it is a "man falls in love with shark at the aquarium" story, but there really is more going on here than this twist. Yes, the theme from Jaws can be heard just before the shark makes his entrance, and there is the requisite dorsal fin in the costume design. But the "man loves shark / shark loves man" story is just one of the light and slight stories of pairs striving to be couples.

Storyline: Three couples struggle with desires and commitment. A married couple face strife as she tries to simplify her life by getting rid of extraneous physical possessions while he plies her with gifts. A lesbian couple think they will live happily ever after if only the smoker in the pair could quit. The strangest of the couples, however, is a gay man who thinks he has found the love of his life but his intended is, literally, a shark he first saw swimming in the giant tank at the aquarium.

Bock is a Canadian-born playwright now working in San Francisco, where he revels in the title "a gay playwright." He says "it's who I am!" He wrote The Thugs which won a 2006 Obie Award. Swimming in the Shallows brought him a 2006 nomination for the GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Award for theater which features fair, accurate and inclusive representation of gay people. He's got two new plays premiering in New York this season. This is the Potomac Region premiere of this play and it gives Catalyst and Fortier a chance to try something a bit lighter than their usual fare but still feature a sense of the off-the-wall or unusual which seems to attract their attention. At its essence, it is a "be careful what you wish for" play that mines the topic for quirky humor. At just about the length of a movie, and with Catalyst's pricing policy making a ticket only 75 cents more than a movie at the nearest cinema (Union Station theatres now charge $9.25 for evening movies), this diversion is competitive with a light "date flick."

Christopher Janson and Patrick Bussink team up as the cross-species pair. Janson avoids overdoing affectations as the openly gay man who has a history of short love affairs that constitute not much more than one night stands, and Bussink manages to look appealing in his fin-equipped wet suit, always moving at least just a bit because, as we all know, a shark needs to keep moving in order to keep water flowing through his gills. There is an honest sense of sexual chemistry between them which helps make this portion of the multi-couple, interconnected-stories play work fairly well.

The same-species couples are Scott Bailey and Ellen Young as the married heterosexual couple and September Marie Fortier and Adrienne Nelson as a lesbian couple struggling with nicotine addiction. Ms. Fortier's performance seems driven by just how strong the urge to smoke has become for each scene which makes her plight completely understandable to anyone who has taken up smoking and then tried to stop.

Written by Adam Bock. Directed by Scott Fortier. Design: Tom Donahue (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Brian S. Allard (lights) David Lamont Wilson (sound) Joe Shymanski (photography) Carey Stipe (stage manager). Cast: Scott Bailey, Patrick Bussink, September Marie Fortier, Christopher Janson, Adrienne Nelson, Ellen Young.

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October 3 - November 3, 2007
The Trial
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:10  - one intermission
A stage adaptation of Kafka's unfinished novel

Click here to buy the script

Christopher Gallu directs his own stage adaptation of Franz Kafka's posthumously assembled and published novel, the story of a man arrested without ever being informed of the charges against him. Using an effectively claustrophobic set including two large screens for rear projection visuals, narration by the disembodied voice of Ralph Cosham and an eight-member cast for the more than two dozen characters, Gallu gets the story across with clarity and a sense of style. What doesn't come across, however, is any rational reaction to the situation by the accused man, played with a supremely civilized sense of propriety by Dave Johnson. He takes the character through emotions from curiosity through bemusement and finally to irritation. What seems missing is fear, foreboding, apprehension, frustration, anxiety and exasperation - all of which would surely beset a man finding himself in such a situation. Whether it is his choice or Gallu's, the blandness of Johnson's reactions seem to minimize the importance of the dilemma facing Kafka's hero and, thus, the importance of the story itself.

Storyline: A mid-level bank official is informed that he is under arrest, but no one will let him know the charge against him and he isn't detained or kept from going to the office to conduct business. He's advised to hire a lawyer, but the lawyer proves to be little help, principally just telling him how serious the matter is and how much he needs his services - but never actually mounting a defense or even sharing any information with him about the case against him.

Catalyst produced another stage adaptation of a Kafka novel two years ago. Metamorphosis, the story of a man who awakes one morning to learn not that he's under arrest for an unspecified crime but, rather, that he's turning into an insect. That production was directed by Jim Petosa and featured a script by Steven Burkoff and the highly emotional leading performance of Scott Fortier. That this production is less compelling and less satisfying than that earlier one might be in part because it is being directed by its own author - always a tricky business because the interchange between author and director is an important part of a work's premiere presentation. Or, it may just be that Gallu's script isn't as strong as Burkoff's, that his direction isn't as effective as Petosa's or that Johnson is no Fortier. But, truth to tell, it seems that it is a result of the fact that Kafka's earlier story is more suited to a theatrical presentation than is this later piece which was never actually completed in Kafka's lifetime. It was assembled from his papers and published after his death.

Gallu's script takes advantage of Kafka's descriptive writing about the many minor characters which populate the accused man's world. This gives the talented group of supporting actors something to sink their teeth into as they move from character to character. Ashley Ivey is particularly good at distinguishing between the three specific characters he's portraying - especially that of another man caught up in the maw of the judicial system who has been completely worn down by five years of bureaucratic nonsense. Grady Weatherford is distinctive as the artist who, having painted the portraits of many of the judges of the court, claims to know a good deal about how they work. Christopher Janson and Jim Jorgensen pair up to make the arresting officials (Police? Bailiff? Sheriff?) something of a vaudeville team, while Ellen Young is strongest as the accused man's landlady.

Catalyst has made a habit of filling the east end of the confining space of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop's black box theater with striking structures for their shows, and Michael D'Addario's elegantly efficient set for this production is no exception. Two large rear-projection screens flank a triangular playing space throughout most of the evening. But when the world begins to close in on the hero, the walls pivot inward to literally close in on him. Throughout the production, projections, designed by D'Addario, expand the world being represented by revealing details of time and place and providing labels for the scenes. (There are actually three projection surfaces, for D'Addario also uses the back wall as a screen at times.) Adding atmosphere to the piece is a fine soundscape from Brendon Vierra.

Directed and adapted for the stage by Christopher Gallu. Based on the novel by Franz Kafka. Directed by Christopher Gallu. Design: Michael D'Addario (set and video) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Jason Cowperthwaite (lights) Brendon Vierra (sound) Joe Shymanski (photography) Lacey Talero (stage manager). Cast: Catherine Deadman, Ashley Ivey, Christopher Janson, Dave Johnson, Jim Jorgensen, Elizabeth Richards, Grady Weatherford, Ellen Young and the voice of Ralph Cosham.

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May 2 - June 2, 2007
The Flu Season
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:10 - one intermission
A strong cast in a meandering play of perception versus reality
Click here to buy the script

Eno's bizarrely structured play of a couple in a mental health institution, and the staff who ignore their plight to concentrate on personal pursuits, is an example of the post-modern dramatic form which is to theater as cubism is to the visual arts. Here it is performed in a highly self-aware, very theatrical mode by performers who are a pleasure to watch. Three pairs of performers take turns in the forefront as Eno shifts the emphasis time and time again. It takes effort to keep up with the shifting ground in what may be one story or two ... or three. Director Jessica Burgess provides a staging that helps the audience at least try to follow the meandering piece, and keeps the point of focus clear even when the story isn't. Eno's language is often intriguing and there are many individual lines that sound as they go by as if they would be worth contemplating. On stage, however, little time is provided for contemplation and much of the verbal richness might well be better savored from the text in print than in performance.

Storyline: Prologue and Epilogue present a play about which they cannot agree. They can't even agree on its title. Prologue says it is "The Snow Romance." Epilogue says it is "The Flu Season." It concerns Man and Woman. They meet and fall in love. Or not. Man and Woman happen to be in a hospital for psychiatric patients. Can love flourish among the patients? Can they know their own minds - and hearts? The presence of Doctor and Nurse isn't going to effect the course of true love. But, then, true love isn't going to be allowed to effect orderly administration of the hospital either. Which play will prevail? Will either play prevail?

Eno seems more interested in the process of storytelling than in stories. Here he shifts rapidly from one view to another, while giving the audience careful clues as to which view is the topic of the moment before moving on to another. His language is precisely vague or vaguely imprecise - depending on the speaker. Catalyst would have served its audience better had they included some information about Eno in the program. (Why do we often get biographical information on everyone but the playwright?) For the record, Eno is a Massachusetts born, New York based playwright whose best known play, the strangely titled solo-performance piece THOM PAIN (based on nothing) was nominated for a Pulitzer, and who has received fellowships from both the Guggenheim and the Edward Albee Foundation. His plays are noted for wordplay and a concentration on structure.

Dan Via and Gillian Porter are the vulnerable, insecure couple who oh-so-tentatively reach out for intimacy. Via is good at the buttoned up restraint of the part and Porter makes her character's need for some human contact and affection painfully clear. Jim Jorgensen, who is so very good at awkward silence as well as the actual delivery of lines, is the Doctor, and Ellen Young gets the Nurse's conflict between the urge to nurture and the devotion to proper procedure just right. The play within a play aspect of the piece gives Alexander Strain and Michael John Casey, as Prologue and Epilogue, plenty of pithy lines as they struggle with each other for control of the play, debating its meaning and shifting its focus.

This is the second set that Tom Donahue has designed for the challenging space Catalyst uses at the Capital Hill Arts Workshop, and the second time he has produced an environment that allows the director freedom to move the cast about in the world of the play efficiently, creating different locales without breaking the flow. David C. Ghatan's effective use of the lights he can cram into the space helps a good deal too. Since the theater doesn't have any space above the stage, he's constrained both in how many lights he can use and where he can place them, but he keeps coming up with admirable designs despite the limitations.

Written by Will Eno. Directed by Jessica Burgess. Design: Tom Donahue (set) Debra Kim Sivigny (costumes) Jennifer Yu (properties)  David C. Ghatan (lights) Erik Trester (sound) Joe Shymanski (photography) Ellen Houseknecht (stage manager). Cast: Michael John Casey, Jim Jorgensen, Ghillian Porter, Alexandrer Strain, Dan Via, Ellen Young.

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January 31 - March 3, 2007
We Are Not These Hands
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:00 - no intermission
A confusing contemporary drama
v Includes some strongly sexual language

Director Shirley Serotsky does what she can with the dense text and static structure of Sheila Callaghan's story of two teenage girls who think the world wide web may be their ticket out of the limitations of life in poverty. She lets the actresses playing the girls strut and posture with Callaghan's cryptic dialogue. She brings in Scott Fortier to add polish and depth to the piece, and she gives free reign to her designers who create an intriguing world in the confines of CHAW's black box at on Capitol Hill. But she can't really bring the play to life because there isn't a lot of life in it. Instead, there is atmosphere and her production reeks with that. The un-specific locale, the detritus of the digital age and the view of the divide between the haves and the have nots, as viewed by those who have not, are all created in stark theatricality. But once you stop to think about it, there isn't a lot of "there" there - not much happens and not much can be expected for these kids. Perhaps that is the message. It certainly is the tragedy. But it isn't much of a drama.

Storyline: Two waifs outside an internet café in an unspecified but probably third-world city at an unspecified but probably current time. They see the connection to the world wide web as a link to the outside world and it stimulates hopes that they might bridge the gap between the reality outside the café and the wonder world beyond.

Callaghan is said to have developed her play after noting illicit internet cafés in China and reading about the case of two teenagers who set fire to one when they were kicked out. Her interest doesn't seem to be specific to any one city, country, region or continent - just the general prospect of places where life is rough and dreams of a life in some removed, rich and idyllic place can be fed by imperfect communication. Once it was Hollywood movies spreading the idea that everyone in America was either a gangster or a star. Now it is the internet that disseminates even wilder concepts. But, then, as Trekkie Monster tells Kate Monster on Avenue Q, "The Internet Is For Porn" and the content of the traffic in this café isn't quite as uplifting and edifying as, say, the daily content of Potomac Stages.

The pair outside the café are Rigina Aquino, so good in Dog Sees God at Studio's Secondstage, and Casie Platt, who was so very funny as a librarian reading scary stories to kids in Shawn Nothrip's Cautionary Tales for Adults in the 2005 edition of Madcap's Winter Carnival of New Works. They team up to deliver the baby talkish language that Callaghan wrote for the girls with an earnestness that almost makes you believe it is their natural form of communication. Still, many of the lines are descriptions in nearly nursery rhyme patois of the sleaziest of porno, so it is difficult to process it as childlike innocence. Scott Fortier is the misfit from the other side of the cultural divide: an adult seeming to study these children for some unspecified reason. His performance is stylishly satisfying with ticks and quirks enough to make any kid wonder about the older generation.

Catalyst has a strong tradition of striking use of the space in their small theater and set designer Nicholas Vaughan continues that tradition with his seemingly helter skelter construction of the detritus of the digital age. Erik Trester's projections hint at the topics of the traffic in the café without becoming a distracting parade of porn. However, with the Washington Post reporting a new program by the Government of China to stamp out that "grave social problem," addiction to the internet, Catalyst certainly has an up-to-the-minute topic. Talk about "ripped from the headlines!"

Written by Sheila Callaghan. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Design: Nicholas Vaughan (set) Deb Sivigny (costumes) Jennifer Yu (properties) Erik Trester (projections) Jason Cowperthwaite (lights) William Burns (sound) Lacey Talero (stage manager). Cast: Regina Aquino, Scott Fortier, Casie Platt.

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October 4 - November 11, 2006
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:35 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick as a superb production of a rarely seen historical farce
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for October  
Click here to buy the script

You don't need the sight of the swastika on the program to get the reference here. No, playwright Bertholt Brecht needed no help making it clear that his parody of a gangster movie about the rise of a thug to control of the cauliflower syndicate was really the story of the world going mad in 1941. But if you needed any help at all, the performance of Scot McKenzie as the gangster/Fuhrer would dispel any doubts. He's just about as captivating as some say Der Fuhrer was, while at the same time, making it easy to understand how others would see right through Hitler's bluster. It would be a relatively simple thing for an actor to slip into mere caricature with this part. After all, Brecht wasn't interested in any complexity in his subject's makeup. He was trying to scream his warning to the world at the top of his theatrical voice. That McKenzie finds a way to make this one-dimensional cutout of a villain somehow human flesh and blood without diminishing the demon at its core is remarkable, and also fascinating to watch.

Storyline: While projections of newsreel footage from the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler make crystal clear the real meaning of what is going on, the live cast adopts the style of a Hollywood gangster movie to perform the story of the rise of a dictator to power through bluster, fear and violence -  including arson (think Reichstag fire) murder (think the shooting of Hitler's henchman Ernst Rohm) and the elimination of competition (think the annexation of Austria).

Bertholt Brecht wrote this caustic farce of the rise of a Hitler-like despot at the height of World War II in Europe while he waited for a visa to enter the United States. He had fled Germany and roamed Europe as the area not under Nazi control became smaller and smaller. He also visited the United States on a tourist visa for a while, and while here, fell under the spell of the gangster movie aesthetic found in the films of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. This play, by the author of The Threepenny Opera, Galileo and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, was so strong and so troubling at the time that it wasn't performed until 1958. This may have been in part because the wound of World War was too fresh. It may also have been that farcical parables are just so outside of the mainstream of popular theater that many are turned off by the odd nature of the piece. The translation performed here is not credited but retains the hexameter verse structure that Brecht used to establish a semi-classical feel. Director Christopher Gallu gives the presentation the period feel it requires (although there is a short anachronistic lapse with the inclusion of a thumbs up gesture too reminiscent of the photos out of Abu Ghraib - or of Molly Smith's recent staging of the similar period Cabaret.) 

McKenzie is supported by a cast turning in sharply stylized performances of note, especially John Tweel in the role that represents Hitler henchman, Ernst Rohm, named here, just in case you miss the point, "Ernesto Roma," and Grady Weatherford as Dogsborough, the politician brought down by the ambitious Ui. Adding to the atmosphere of the piece is original music by Chris Royal played behind the scenes by three members of the cast, Monalisa Arias, Jason McCool and Andrew Price.

Sometimes adversity and not necessarily necessity is the mother of invention. Surely few theater companies have a space so challenging to a set designer than Catalyst does with its tiny performance space that is easily three times as long as it is wide. No flies. No wings. No backstage to speak of. What is a set designer to do? Catalyst has a track record of bringing out the best in set designers, and Giorgos Tsappas adds another fabulous design that uses every inch of space in a black-and-off-white cubist construction that is pushed into multiple configurations while serving as a surface for Mark Anduss' projections of newsreel footage of Hitler's rise to power which add a great deal to the visual excitement of the show. Tsappas' structure is a bit awkward for the cast to shove around (perhaps they could have gotten better casters?) which draws attention to their slipping out of character to act as stage hands but, once positioned, the compositions are varied and supremely functional for such a confined space.

Written by Bertold Brecht. Directed by Christopher Gallu. Music composed by Chris Royal. Projections by Mark Anduss. Design: Giorgos Tsappas (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Jennifer Yu (properties) Jason Cowperthwaite (lights) Joe Shymanski (photography) Sharon King (stage manager). Cast: Monalisa Arias, Jason McCool, Scott McCormick, Scot McKenzie, Andrew Price, Elizabeth Richards, John Tweel, Grady Weatherford.

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May 3 - June 10, 2006
Someone Who'll Watch Over Me

Reviewed May 6
Running time 2:05 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages pick for a searing emotional experience
Click here to buy the script

Capitol Hill seems to have 3 rooms right now - the searing Two Rooms playing at the H Street Playhouse in NE and this equally searing one room on 7th Street SE. Catalyst and The Theater Alliance have often had fine shows running simultaneously, but never have they had such a match in subject, feel and quality. Its almost as if the two companies are bookends flanking the United States Capitol at a time when terrorism, hostages, the clash of cultures, the holding of people incommunicado and similar issues are the exposed nerve endings in the body politic. For Catalyst, Christopher Gallu directs this thoughtful view of human resiliency in captivity with a suitably claustrophobic touch. Cecil E. Baldwin, Christopher Janson and Dan Via are imprisoned in the same room with the audience, it seems, as the small size and intimate feel of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop's theater is emphasized by the openness of Alexander Cooper's Moorish flavored basement set, making the experience as direct and emotionally affecting as possible. This is the first show of Catalyst's new pricing policy, setting a live theater ticket at the same level as a mere movie - $10 a seat. They certainly haven't scrimped on quality in order to lower the price.

Storyline: Three men are imprisoned, chained to the wall of a basement in Lebanon with no real understanding of why, or what will become of them. One is English, one Irish and one American. They each react differently to the terror of their situation and come to know and rely on one another - until one is killed by their captors and another released.

The inspiration for the play was the case of Brian Keenan, taken hostage in 1986 in Lebanon where he taught at the American University of Beirut, and not released until 1990. While playwright Frank McGuinness changes the names of the prisoners, much of the set up to the story is true to history. It isn't history that concerns him so much, however, as it is the question of how the human spirit handles such terror and deprivation. That is at the heart of the script as these three men search their psyches for coping mechanisms that will work for them. Do they trust each other or avoid further disaster through silence and secrecy? How, then, can the bond that is inevitably forged survive separation either through release or death?

Baldwin, Janson and Via deliver an impressive trio of performances, individually and as an ensemble. For the record, Janson is the American, Baldwin the Brit and Via the Irishman, but the nationality is neither the issue nor the defining characteristic for any of them. They have more in common than they have differences - their plight connects them and a bond is formed that is both stronger and different from any other, at least during the captivity. They come to rely on each other to such an extent that each is someone to watch over the others. It makes a fascinating and serious topic for consideration - are prisoners better off with companions as shown here or in a solitary confinement as shown over on H Street? See them both and discuss.

While the visual design elements for the production are all first rate and make substantial contributions to the experience, it is the more subtle touch of sound designer Mark Anduss that works the greatest wonder. A nearly inaudible clanking and rumbling seems to come from the pipes which run through Cooper's marvelous set of the isolated basement in which the characters are imprisoned. The sound not only emphasizes the depths to which they have been relegated but occasionally hints at the possibility that others are imprisoned just a stone wall away.

Written by Frank McGuinness. Directed by Christopher Gallu. Design: Alexander Cooper (set) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Jason Cowperthwaite (lights) Mark Anduss (sound) Joe Shymanski (photography) Sara Griffin (stage manager). Cast: Cecil E. Baldwin, Christopher Janson, Dan Via.

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February 1 - March 11, 2006

Reviewed February 4
Running time 1:40 - no intermission
A delight for lovers of language

Click here to buy the script

Words! A delight in words permeates this flight of the mind by the author of Thief River, Independence and A Walk in the Woods. Lee Blessing's scripts are always literate and precise in the use of language, but he has rarely reached this level of delight over the more obscure and evocative entries in the giant Oxford or Webster compilations. Here, the words reveal the relationships between a daughter who is a spelling bee champion, her mother who had little to do with her upbringing, and her grandmother who was really a mother to her. The play provides plenty of moments to enjoy three talented actresses who obviously take pleasure in their lines and the meanings the words on the pages of the script - those designed for spelling and those used for expressing a love of language.

Storyline: Three generations of women - Grandmother, Mother and Daughter - reveal their views of their relationships with each other when gathered in response to the grandmother's suffering a stroke and requiring support. Gradually, the reasons for the estrangement between the grandmother and the mother become clear as do the bonds that skip a generation.

Each of the three actresses establish individual characters but the three have much in common. Each is highly intelligent and each sets a high standard for herself. Lindsay Haynes is the youngest of the three, the spelling bee champion who won with the word "eleemosynary - having to do with charity, charitable activities or alms." She gets the devotion to the grandmother who raised her and her frustration with her mother just right. Ellen Young, as the grandmother, is delightfully erudite and demonstrates a keen delight in learning and pursuing the intellectual side of life. She also embodies some of the unorthodox values of a grown hippie quite nicely.

It is Kathleen Coons who provides the spice to keep the wholesomeness and affection between the other two from being either cloying or too nice to be believed. She does this not only with the words of Blessing, but with expressions and body posture that are fun to watch. Her body says "ah, Mom!" in so many ways, especially in a fabulous first scene as she recalls the day her mother forced her to don a pair of wood and cloth wings and try to fly - "Flap harder, honey!" Adding insult to potential injury, her mother recorded the whole thing on film! What's a girl to do? Her dilemma is compounded by a particular trait that seems to affect all three but which is most pronounced in her. As she explains "I have trouble with my memory. It can't forget anything." A cruel trick of nature, that.

Milagros Ponce de León carries the image of that early experience with attempted flight over into the set design, an assembly of wing-like forms that serves both as a playing space and as a visual metaphor. Under slightly over-active lighting from Alexander Cooper and with sharply individualistic costumes designed by Gail Stewart beach, the women form the ensemble of family while retaining distinctive personalities that make their relationships worth putting into words.

Written by Lee Blessing. Directed by Christopher Janson. Design: Milagros Ponce de León (set) Gail Stewart Beach (costumes) Alexander Cooper (lights) Matthew Nielson (sound and music) Joe Shymanski (photography) Jess W. Speaker, III (stage manager). Cast: Kathleen Coons, Lindsay Haynes, Ellen Young.

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September 8 - October 15, 2005

Reviewed September 17
Running time 1:25 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a unique physical performance supported by a quality ensemble
Click here to buy the novella

Scott Fortier must simply be the most physical actor now working in the Potomac Region. Last season he contorted his body while displaying intellect as The Elephant Man. Now he bodily transforms from man to insect while communicating emotion. In both performances, he astonishes with the physicality of his creation but avoids crossing over into the gimmick category, keeping the focus not on what is happening with and to his body but what it is doing to his character's mind and soul. The fact that both performances were developed under the same director should be noted. That director is Jim Petosa, coming into Washington from his home base in Olney as a visiting director with impressive results.

Storyline: The pressures of supporting his parents and sister as the only wage earner in the family finally get too heavy for a young man. After five years of never missing a day at work, he wakes one morning to realize he is beginning to metamorphosize into an insect. His family's reaction and that of his employer are completely self-centered and only serve to increase the pressure which has caused his condition.

Petosa's staging here is sharp and starkly beautiful in the confined space of the long and narrow, tiny theater at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Petosa uses the depth of the playing space to move the action forward and back giving a sense of spaciousness where there is very little space. Indeed, there are times when this very "in your face" approach almost becomes "in your lap." Petosa is again working with set and lighting designer Alexander Cooper whose starkly antiseptic construction of girders and chain link make a memorable metaphor for the industrial age pressures afflicting Fortier's character.

The trio of family members are fine as well. Valerie Leonard and Nigel Reed make the parents' concentration on their own financial stake in their son's health more repulsive than any insect. Leonard softens the innate selfishness of the mother's reactions with just a touch of repressed maternal instinct. Reed is particularly good at the hobble his character adopts to avoid any demands, but he sports long side whiskers that are too obviously stage makeup for such an intimate space.

The family unit includes September Marie Fortier in an outstanding performance as the sister who seems to be her brother's only defender, and becomes his only contact with the outside world. Her final rejection ("we must get rid of it") is explosive. James O. Dunn takes on two roles (the employer and the lodger to whom the family rents their son's room - explaining the presence of their bug/son in the home by saying simply "we keep a pet"). Dunn makes each a distinct individual passing briefly through this incredibly intriguing world.

Written by Steven Berkoff based on the novella by Franz Kafka. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: Alexander Cooper (set and lights) Kathleen Geldard (costumes) Mark Anduss (sound) Sarah Coleman (stage manager). Cast: James O. Dunn, Scott Fortier, September Marie Fortier, Valerie Leonard, Nigel Reed.

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January 13 - February 19, 2005
Cloud Nine

Reviewed January 15
Running time 2:25 - one intermission
Click here to buy the script

Halo Wines goes back to the play in which she won the very first Helen Hayes Award ever given for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play for her work at her then-home base, Arena Stage, in 1984. This time, however, she is directing Caryl Churchill's comparison of human relations in a colonial society in the 1880s with those of a century later. In its selection of director, Catalyst is fortunate, for this highly complex, extremely convoluted and decidedly unorthodox play requires a firm hand at the helm. Here it gets just that, and as a result, the confusions and interrelationships become as clear for the audience as possible. The challenge, and indeed the pleasure, for the audience is to keep all the connections and conundrums straight. Do that and this high-energy, bright and witty as well as deeply troubling piece is a delight. If you loose the thread, however, it can become a confounding confusion. Wines uses the skills of her quality cast with assurance to give the audience all the clues they need, and, thus, makes the piece work.

Storyline: With action split between British colonial Africa in the 1880s and a London teeming with ambiguity in the 1970s, the relationships within a family and the people who constitute their world are called into question as gender, race and age relationships are mixed up with abandon.

Churchill is well known for her challenging works. Three of her plays walked away with Obie Awards as Best New Play Off-Broadway (Top Girls, 1982, Serious Money, 1987 and this one in 1981) and her Far Away challenged audiences at Studio Theatre last year in a highly debated production. This play mixes techniques she has used before in creating a world filled with confusions and with clues. Her theme, the human tendency to try to live up to expectations even when those expectations may be beyond each person's capacity and even include conflicting elements, is both emphasized and illustrated through mixing up the casting as well as the characters. Thus the role of the wife is played by a man, the role of the black servant by a white man, the role of the girl child by a grown man and that of the boy child by a woman. Then, as act II takes up the stories of the characters as archetypes but not really as characters, a century has gone by but some characters have aged while others have shifted identities completely.

The rock around which all this confusion swirls is Dan Via as the patriarch of the family. He carries off that duty with aplomb. As his wife, Jesse Terrill pulls off the neat trick of not making his cross-dressing assignment seem camp or cute. He's just natural, which is what it is all about. Tricia McCauley makes the transition from young man of the past to young woman of the "present" without batting and eye. Bill Gillett makes the most complete transition (from grown male black slave to white girl child) with energy and menace shifting to beguiling innocence that is simply marvelous to watch.

The tiny space of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop imposes a great challenge to designers and directors alike. Giorgos Tsappas' abstract setting starts the challenge for the audience even before the play begins. On a stage painted with the British Union Jack and backed by a cloud filled blue sky are movable partitions of a color akin to the African veldt in the dry season, but striped in black. In contrast with this abstraction are the costumes of Franklin Labovitz which are true to time, place and character down to tiny details like cravats, ribbons and, in the case of Gillett's little girl, ill-fitting tights. All the elements of design help keep the relationships straight as the performers keep the energy level high, and Wines keeps it all straight so the audience can begin to ponder the issues Churchill raises. It makes for challenging theater.

Written by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Halo Wines. Design: Giorgos Tsappas (set) Franklin Labovitz (costumes) Meaghan Toohey (properties) John P. Woodey (lights) Clay Teunis (sound) Christopher Janson (photography) Laura Smith (stage manager). Cast: Bill Gillett, George Grant, Tricia McCauley, Elizabeth Richards, Jesse Terrill, Dan Via, Ellen Young.

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September 9 - October 16, 2004
The Elephant Man

Caution - partial nudity

Reviewed September 18
Running time 2:20
t A Potomac Stage pick for superb design, direction and acting
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for October, 2004

Click here to buy the Script

Catalyst kicks off a season of guest directors with a finely tuned production under Olney's Jim Petosa. Petosa's vision, accomplished through the vivid contributions of actors Scott Fortier and Peter Finnegan, set and lighting designer Alexander Cooper and oboist Jin-Young (Janice) Shin, is a highly atmospheric presentation that takes as its central feature a line from the play about its central character being equally highly polished "like a mirror that reflects each of us." Played out amid mirrors and reflective panels that distort like those in a side show fun house, the story of physically deformed but mentally and artistically gifted John Merrick and the people who populated his world at the end of his short life is given more than a surface shine, it is presented in all its multiple facets.

Storyline:  History records that the deformed John Merrick was plucked from a Victorian freak show to be protected and studied in a hospital in 1884. He became a mover in London’s high society before his death in 1890. Bernard Pomerance’s Tony Award winning play explores serious issues of social values and human worth.

It was the playwright's fortuitous choice to have the horribly deformed "elephant man" portrayed by an actor without any help from makeup or special prosthetic devices. Because the concentration on Merrick's humanity is achieved through this lack of artifice, it requires an actor of inordinate talent, skill and taste. Some chose to play it with only a hint of deformity, usually with a limp and a twisted arm. Here Scott Fortier twists much more than an arm. In the early scene where Dr. Treves presents his case at the London hospital where he practices, Fortier's posture and facial muscles take on the characteristics described. While none of the "grotesque protuberances" actually grow on Fortier's slight frame, his arm appears to shrivel up into his chest, his head seems to fall of its own weight over onto one shoulder and his face contorts to the extent that he is only barely able to speak. Yet speak he does, delivering with apparent difficulty but great dignity - and not a little humor - the lines Pomerance gives Merrick to reveal the intellect, the poise and the innate humor of the man. It is the mark of Fortier's own intellect, poise and humor that, having saddled his performance with the weight of its own version of elephantiasis, he manages to let the humanity of his subject shine through.

Equally impressive is the work of Peter Finnegan who creates a more fully rounded, substantial and sympathetic character as the doctor who sees more in Merrick's case than a medical curiosity. His own doubts about the value of his chosen profession, the adequacy of his skills and ultimately his own values surface subtly but substantially as the play progresses, making him much more than the narrator and dramatic convenience the role often is in lesser hands. The rest of the cast double or even triple up on smaller roles with Valerie Leonard, Jesse Terrill and John Tweel contributing nicely tuned contributions and James Konicek introducing the Potomac Region to his own strengths developed through the classical acting academy at San Diego's Old Globe and two seasons with Shenandoah Shakespeare. Among the characters he creates is a marvelously pompous Bishop.

Music has always been a feature of the play. The original Broadway production had a cellist playing works of Bach, Saint-Saëns, Elgar and others while the revival had incidental music composed by Philip Glass. Petosa uses an on-stage oboist, Jin-Young (Janice) Shin whose graceful presence adds one more facet to the reflections surrounding the action as she performs the pieces Jesse Terrill has composed for the production. It adds a period-proper feeling to this story of Victorian London and adds to the atmospheric feel of the marvelous set and Debra Kim Sivigny's fine costumes.

Written by Bernard Pomerance. Directed by Jim Petosa. Design: Alexander Cooper (set and lights) Debra Kim Sivigny (costumes) Suzen Mason (properties) Dan Ribaudo (sound) Jesse Terrill (original music) Ben Premeaux (photography) Zoia Wiseman (stage manager). Cast: James Konicek, Valerie Leonard, Peter Finnegan, Scott Fortier, Jesse Terrill, John Tweel, Ellen Young. Musician: Jin-Young (Janice) Shin.

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May 13 - June 19, 2004
The Altruists

Reviewed May 15
Running time1 hour 35 minutes
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a high count of laughs per admission dollar
Click here to buy the Script

Lovers of laughter will have a ball in the tiny black box theater on Capitol Hill that Catalyst calls home. Nicky Silver's recent play throws one verbal barb every fifteen or twenty seconds which means that there are about 270 opportunities to chuckle or at least smile knowingly in this short evening. Not a few of these stimulate explosive guffaws. The target of his humor is political correctness. The audience might be slightly embarrassed over laughing at some of the lines, but another line comes along to distract before there is a chance to look for the meaning behind the reaction. And just to make sure no one pauses to think it over, director Christopher Janson adds quite a few visual gags and keeps the pace just this side of hectic.

Storyline: In the bedrooms of three couples of varying levels of commitment - one gay, two somewhat heterosexual - confusion reigns over mistaken identities, mixed up allegiances and panic over the fact that one bed has a dead body in it. In the gay bedroom one man wants the other to move in after a one night stand. In another, a couple who fill their days with protests can't remember what this week's cause is. In the third, a soap opera actress worries about her looks, her job and - oh, yes - the fact that she shot her bedmate.

Nicky Silver has become a hot property over the last decade with delightfully politically incorrect plays like The Food Chain which takes on both obesity and anorexia and Pterodactyls, a black farce dealing with family relationships under the stresses of AIDS, gender confusion, alcoholism and much more. Twice nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play in the Helen Hayes process here (both for Woolly Mammoth productions) he won the award for Free Will and Wanton Lust in 1994. Not all of his works are as focused on using humor to make his points, but they are all known for his facility in constructing dialogue. He blends sharp observation with a certain pithiness, rarely an extraneous word. Silver can come up with sharp dialogue that, in its very precision, isolates a thought as if in a spotlight for just long enough to make a point, get a laugh or set up a concept. Witness the burning question:  "Hispanic gays. Black lesbians. Who suffers more?" One more word would have killed the moment (and the laugh).

Jesse Terrill gets things started with a black-out monologue as the lonely gay man who may have finally found true love in the person of Scott Kerns who wakes in a later scene and reveals his professional status as a prostitute with a total lack of inhibition - "Wonderful! I love a project!" enthuses Terrill. As his sister, the soap opera queen, Allyson Currin progresses from a totally self-absorbed view of small problems ("you make me feel small just because I once owned a fur coat") to a self-absorbed view of bigger problems - she just killed her boyfriend. Ah, but the boyfriend is, in fact, very much alive over in Eva Salvetti's apartment (Salvetti manages to maintain just the right earnestness while slipping into slogans from recent protest marches even when she gets them wrong. "Free Nelson Mandela!" she demands, only to be thunderstruck to find out that Mandela has already been freed.) Jason Lott is that wandering boyfriend who might be dead if he'd been in the other bed during the night. He's the very image of the free spirit who sees no requirement to be interested in anything but his own need of the moment.

This is the kind of tightly constructed comic play that benefits from being performed in a tightly constrained space. Not only does it help that the audience is not separated from the action by a proscenium or a raised platform, it feels right that the three bedrooms encroach on each other in Eric Licthfuss' cramped and crowded set. The audience looks through one bedroom to see the action in another one and can almost feel the actors in one room shift to the side when the actors in another lower the fold-up table from the bottom of the fold-up bed. For a play about people who are clueless about, among other things, the spatial niceties of civilized society, this works beautifully and it seems to amplify the laughter.

Written by Nicky Silver. Directed by Christopher Janson. Design: Eric Licthfuss (set) Rhonda Key (costumes) Jennifer O'Neill (properties) John P. Woodey (lights) Maya I. Robinson (sound) The Walk (music) Zoia Wiseman (stage manager). Cast: Allyson Currin. Scott Kerns, Jason Lott, Eva Salvetti, Jesse Terrill.

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January 22 - February 28, 2004

Reviewed January 24
Running time 2 hours 5 minutes

t A Potomac Stages Pick for emotional intensity

George Orwell’s novel of how life might be by the 1980s if the social trends he saw at the end of World War II continued struck a chord with a generation. It gave us such terms as “Big Brother” “newspeak” and “unperson” while the title of the novel became a codeword for a depersonalized society where conformity is valued above all. Christopher Gallu, a founding member of Catalyst, has adapted 1984 for the stage, and directs this premiere in the tiny space of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop theater. He and his designers and cast create a taut, intense and troubling evening in the world Orwell envisioned.

Storyline: A bleak view of a future world sees 81% of the human race under the control of an all pervasive central authority under “Big Brother” which controls their surroundings, their actions and even their thoughts. One minor clerk hasn’t been completely cured of independent thought and is brought back under control through a process of torture and compulsion.

Three elements combine to create a memorable experience: a tightly constructed script, an extremely effective design and the performances of a fine cast led by Scott Fortier as the hero and Ralph Cosham as his torturer. The rest of the cast is very good as well but it is these two who have to carry the load, for theirs are the only characters who have much substance. All the rest have been dehumanized in the system to the extent that any real showing of intellectual activity or emotional depth would be dangerous.

Michael d’Addario fills one end of the small theater with platforms, siding, partitions and a movable rack. Moving the pieces into various configurations results in a wide variety of playing spaces, all of which seem very much a part of this world Orwell feared. Three large television screens are the “telescreens” that bombard the population with propaganda while monitoring their activities. D’Addario also provided the videos that are shown on those screens, while sound designer Mark K. Anduss completes the feeling with original music, some extremely effective sound effects and a nearly constant humming that emphasizes the point of a story of people reduced to mechanical functions.

Gallu’s adaptation uses the simple structure of Orwell’s plot but streamlines it even further in order to concentrate its focus on the dehumanizing society about which Orwell was warning. He retains some of the key moments of the original such as “the two minute hate” and the torture in ”room 101” but things move along briskly as they must if most important messages from the 23 chapters of Orwell’s novel are to be covered.  He cut just enough to be able to tell the important parts of the story effectively.

Directed and written by Christopher Gallu based on the novel by George Orwell. Fight choreography by Valerie Fenton and Christopher Niebling. Design: Michael D’Addario (set and video) David Ghatan (lights) Michelle Reisch (costumes) Tim King (make-up) Mark K. Anduss (music and sound) Jesse Terril (additional music) Ben Premeaux (photography) Jenn O’Neill (stage manager). Cast: Ralph Cosham, Scott Fortier, September Fortier, Tim Hattwick, Christopher Janson, Irina Koval, Elizabeth Richards, Eric Singdahlsen, Dan Via, Ellen Young.

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September 6 - October 11, 2003 -

Reviewed September 13
Running time 1 hour 55 minutes

In 1709 the French playwright Alain-René Lesage produced a farcical satire of financial, social and sexual mores of Paris society that has survived to this day because of the strength of its structure and the humor of its dialogue - think of Moliére and such gems as Tartuffe or The Miser, not to mention The Learned Ladies which this company made so much fun in this same house last season. In this production the setting has been moved forward to the Paris of the 1920s and, given a running time of under two hours --the script must have been streamlined. But, while it fails to match last season’s fun of the Moliére, it is a bright, high-energy romp which gives a lot of chuckles and smiles but not a lot of belly laughs.

Storyline: The title character is a neuvo-riche scoundrel who has schemed and swindled himself into a fortune large enough to buy him entrée into society, but that society is populated by old-money scoundrels as well as would-be-rich servants and hangers on. A Baroness needs his money to maintain her lifestyle and her lover is having difficulty with the creditors as well. The servants get in the act, playing one wealthy character against another until all seems to have fallen apart. But, as you would expect, everything is not what it seems.

September Marie Fortier as the Baroness, all decked out in a 20’s style wardrobe including a smashing kimono-ish house dress, is as chipper as could be wished while her husband Scott is a mischievous servant who plots and plans in cooperation with Valerie Fenton whom he plants in the Baroness’ employ, saving her from her former job. (Seems “she worked for a couple who loved each other ... you could die of boredom in a place like that.”) Each of these and the rest of the cast do their best to generate a sense of style and a feeling of fun for the evening, but it is the arrival on stage of Richard Pelzman that provides the jolt of energy the show really needs. Pelzman, sporting at least four different checks in the suit that covers his oversize body, takes the power level up three notches as the oafish fellow who seems for a while the only one in this circle of fortune hunters who actually has any money. Never mind that he sends ridiculous poems to a lady love (says she: “no professional writer would dream of expressing himself this way” and he takes it as a compliment), dismisses arguments with “Fie, my lady, Fie! Enough of this Piffle” and lets loose with a burp as an exclamation point at the end of a sentence about manners and style.

Catalyst uses a translation by James Magruder whose excruciatingly funny book for the musical version of Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love proved his ability to use modern English in a way that is easy to follow for modern listeners but feels appropriate for historical works. Updating the setting to the 1920’s is accomplished not primarily by changes in the text but through set, costumes and sound. Giorgos Tsappas’ art deco set uses the space very well and Rhonda Key’s costumes are fun. Still, Lesage’s text had to be updated to allow one swindle to involve a luxury car rather than a coach and stallions.

Director Jesse Terrill also selected the music used to establish time and place. Place it seems to capture quite well but there is some confusion as to time. He has a marvelous hot jazz piece used for a brief choreographed scene which is just right and Cole Porter’s Let’s Misbehave from 1927 opens the second act. But he also has another nicely choreographed bit using Maurice Chevalier recording of “Louise” which didn’t appear until the very end of the 20s and the sound of Sing-Sing-Sing is a jolt as it wasn’t a hit until 1938.

Written by Alain-René Lesage. Translated by James Magruder. Directed by Jesse Terrill. Design: Giorgos Tsappas (set) Rhonda Key (costumes) Suzen Mason (properties) John P. Woody (lights) Jesse Terrill (sound) Jenn O’Neill (stage manager). Cast: Valerie Fenton, Scott Fortier, September Marie Fortier, Christopher Janson, Richard Pelzman, Ben Shovlin, Eric Singdahlsen, Wendy Wilmer.

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May 10 – June 14, 2003
The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail

Reviewed May 15
Running time 1 hour 35 minutes

Part personality profile, part political polemic this play by the team who wrote Inherit the Wind starts out capturing your imagination with its simple evocation of a time and a place that are very worth visiting and a central character who is very worth knowing. For most of its single act it charms you with the very human and quite charming portrait of the Massachusetts world of Henry David Thoreau before he took up residence on Waldon Pond. But it turns preachy before it is over.

Storyline: As America opens war on Mexico in 1846, the naturalist and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau is imprisoned for his refusal to pay taxes which would support the war. During his single night in jail his mind runs over the events of his past -- his brief tenure as a school teacher ten years before, his time working and living with Ralph Waldo Emerson, his relationship with his brother who died five years earlier and his courtship of Ellen Seawell. 

The entire play deals with serious issues but it manages to avoid becoming tedious or overbearing until near the end. In the early going it tackles some very important philosophical ground with an admirably light touch. Humor is used to very good effect as Scott Fortier’s charmingly unaffected Thoreau teaches the school board (in the marvelously malevolent presence of Steven Kirkpatrick) as much as he teaches his students. There is an easy sibling affection between he and John Horn as his brother and an even easier sense of growing fondness between he and September Marie Fortier as the woman who would reject his proposal of marriage. Issues of race relations, slavery and human rights are held up to the light through his unmannered acceptance of his black cellmate, played with uncomplicated honesty by George Grant. There is even a sense of lightness rather than a sense of portent in his interactions with the Emerson family. Environmentalism, transcendentalism, individuality, personal responsibility, humanism -- Thoreau’s take on each of these is put in the most positive and attractive light. It is only when the text turns to pacifism and civil disobedience that the play bogs down.

Director Dan Via manages to moderate the disconnect between the sections but can’t quite overcome the heavy-handedness of its treatment of Thoreau’s pacifism. Perhaps, he didn’t want to. His “directors notes” in the program make much of the fact that this production was in preparation just as America prepared for a war in Iraq and that the issues of today bear great similarity to the issues facing Henry David Thoreau at the start of the Mexican-American War and the authors at the height of the Vietnam War when the play was written. Still, a better balance would have made for better theater.

Via and his design team do wonders with the small flexible space at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. A central revolving platform set of the jail is surrounded by gossamer light set pieces for the scenes that take place in his mind. Sharp lighting by set and light designer David Ghatan smoothly moves the focus between scenes without falling into the trap of making the piece seem jumpy. Mark K. Anduss’ sound design is a marvelous combination of exactly right musical segments and sometimes extremely subtle sonic effects. The sound of children laughing in class, the footfalls on the street outside and the chirp of birds all help 1946 Massachusetts seem real - and his sound of an oar in water to accompany Thoreau’s courtship of Ellen as they take a canoe ride is so delicate it almost eludes notice but it works its magic.

Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Directed by Dan Via. Dialogue coaching by Steven Kirkpatrick. Design: David Ghatan (set and lights) Tracy M. Ward (costumes) Mark K. Anduss (sound) Wendy Flora (stage manager). Cast: Scott Fortier, September Marie Fortier, George Grant, John Horn, Steven Kirkpatrick, Steven Schatzow, Ellen Young.

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February 12 – March 22, 2003

Reviewed February 12
Running time
1 hour 40 minutes

In the early 1950s, Irish expatriate author Samuel Becket was active in the experimental theater movement in Paris, seeking something approaching the essence of theater. In his best known works like Waiting for Godot or Krapp’s Last Tape, he dispensed with such superfluous elements as plot or character development while emphasizing what he saw as the absurdity of the human condition. Endgame, came between those two better known plays. It dispenses with another traditional element of fiction, an element that playwrights have struggled to disguise but few had thus far simply eliminated: exposition. Endgame contains little clue as to when or where it is set, or just what has brought the characters to the state they are in. As a result, the audience is in the position of eavesdropping on a moment in the existence of four very different people in unique but not terribly clear situations.

Storyline (such as it is): A day in the life of a crippled blind man, and his servant who acts as his eyes, in a deteriorating world. The man lives in his wheelchair while his parents live in trash cans. The major event of the man’s day is not the death of his mother in her trash can but, like every day, the arrival of the time for his painkilling medication. On this day, the supply of medication has run out.

Catalyst Theater Company has made its reputation through creation of atmosphere. Here again they create a world that, as strange as it may be, is consistent and complete. None of the elements seem out of touch with the others. Scenery, properties, costumes, makeup and lighting all very much feel as if they are part of the same world. The simple looking set isn’t simple at all. In the small space of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop’s black box theater four windows, the central chair and a trash heap would seem to crowd the space. But in Thomas F. Donahue’s design, the windows frame the space, the chair dominates it and the trash heap (including the discarded computer keyboard and monitor) define it.   

The cast of four brings intensity and a continuation of that sense of consistency to the piece. Each creates a very real, distinct character in the confines of the single act. Eric Singdahlsen makes the blind cripple the energetic center of the piece while Jesse Terrill uses the humor and precision of a mime to make the servant something more than just a functionary in the cripple’s world – he is eyes, ears, limbs for him. The parents in the trash cans are Wendy Wilmer, in an all too short bit for her character dies off fairly soon, and Steven Kirkpatrick, whose stoic stare is the essence of pitiable acceptance of the unacceptable.

Becket’s plays are always marked by a concentration on language. Short, declamatory sentences carry key concepts (Cripple: “I can’t stand.” Servant: “I can’t sit.”) or explain the lack of explanation (“What time is it?” “Zero.”) Repetition helps drive important observations home (the repeated “What’s happening? “Something is taking its course.”)  Indeed, the script even includes the author's own view of theater, the exchange “What’s there to keep me here?" "The dialogue!” In Catalyst’s production, the atmosphere is in service to “The dialogue!”

Written by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Christopher Janson. Design: Thomas F. Donahue (set) Michele Reisch (costumes) Dan Ribaudo (lights) Bruce Robey (photographs). Cast: Eric Singdahlsen, Jesse Terrill, Steven Kirkpatrick, Wendy Wilmer.

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September 25 – October 26, 2002
The Learned Ladies

Reviewed October 3
Running time 2 hours 5 minutes
Performed at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop
Price range $10 - $20
t Potomac Stages Pick

Wit, rather than mere comedy, is a rare commodity on stage today but it is in abundance in Jeremy Skidmore’s staging of Moliére’s 1672 skewering of upper class pretensions. Under his direction, the excellent cast brings intelligence, style and energy for a fast paced but never frenetic performance. It provides just the right amount of time to savor individual lines and twisted development but moves right along without seeming to pause for effect. The result is an evening with more laughs and more smile inducing moments than many contemporary comedies.

Storyline: Henriette has a domineering mother, a dominated father, a jealous older sister and a truly strange aunt, but she has found true love with her older sister’s rejected suitor. They want to wed but her choice of groom becomes a contest between her parents and subterfuge is required to bring about the desired end.

The translation of Moliére’s comedy by Richard Wilbur provides Skidmore’s cast with crystal clear verse and they make the most of it. Well constructed verse like this helps rather than hinders the communication of meaning while adding layers of humor and imagery. For many performers, however, it is difficult to avoid slipping into a sort of sing-song rhythm which can damage the delicate creation of the poet. That all of the performers in the cast successfully avoid the trap must be credited to director Skidmore both in his coaching and in his casting.

Peter Wylie and Diane Cooper-Gould make a convincing central pair of lovers while Tim Carlin’s alternation between in-command head of the house to hopelessly henpecked husband is hilarious. Ellen Young is wildly wacky as the self-absorbed aunt, while Cam Magee is a tower of righteous ego as the mother and Jesse Terrill stops just short of overdoing the officiousness of the pretentious poet she has selected for her daughter’s hand. Terrill also provided the original music for the production including two tracks reminiscent of Henry Mancini at his wittiest in his Pink Panther scores. Skidmore uses these tracks as background for some sublime silent bits.

Adam Magazine’s sleek set places the action in a modern Los Angeles where intellectual pretensions are hardly unknown and Kate Turner-Walker provides costumes that are as slyly humorous as many of the nicer bon mots of Wilbur’s rendering of Moliér. Carlin’s Garfield-the-cat slippers, Young’s high-end casual ensembles and Eduardo Placer’s entire wardrobe as first houseboy then exercise coach then lawyer are a kick but Turner-Walker avoids going overboard, exercising just the right amount of restraint with the severe look for Magee and a would-be-wedding dress that is just right for Cooper-Gould.

Written by Moliére. Translation by Richard Wilbur. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Design: Adam Magzine (set and lights) Kate Turner-Walker (cotumes) Jesse Terrill (original music) Jennifer Mendenhall (vocal coach). Cast: Cam Magee, Tim Carlin, Dianne Cooper-Gould, Peter Wylie, September Marie Merkle, Ellen Young, Jesse Terrill, Christopher Gallu, Jim Breen, Rosanne Medina, Eduardo Placer.

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March 20 – April 20, 2002
No Exit

Reviewed March 22
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes

Fire and brimstone. Torture. A pit of burning flesh. A poorly decorated hotel room from which there is no exit. Which vision of hell is the most chilling? Catalyst Theater’s production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s one-act play makes the case for the later. Is an eternity of anything endurable? Sartre’s intriguing riff on the meaning of life as viewed from the afterlife is staged in the DCAC’s tiny space by a fine cast of four who seem to be having a fine time with their meaty parts.

Storyline: A man and two women, recently deceased in the prime of their lives, are shown to a room by the "bellboy." Each knows he or she has been doomed to hell but none expected it to be a simple room with no mirror, no window, no way to turn off the lights and no exit. Their fate will be an eternity facing each other’s imperfections and having their own shortcomings exposed.

Sartre’s most famous play, indeed, his most famous work of any kind, is founded on his philosophy of existentialism in which the meaning of life is what you make it. But the play is never preachy or academic. It suffers from some early clumsiness in the exposition as the first "sinner," played by Scott Fortier, is forced ask some pretty obvious questions in order to get the set up explained in what turns out to be a briefing for the audience. But it quickly moves on to its intriguing confrontations between the three occupants of the room who will spend eternity together without so much as the ability to blink, let alone sleep.

Fortier is full of energy as a suspicious, uptight fellow who thinks they can beat the system by ignoring each other. Toni Rae Brotons is smooth as silk as his polar opposite, the street-smart schemer who sees salvation only through domination of her environment including her two permanent roommates. September Marie Merkle gives the most complex performance as she makes her character’s apparently mindless flightiness a potent means of manipulation. She is simultaneously innocently funny and effectively controlling.

The intimate playing space at the DCAC is put to good use with four strips of white cloth, three garishly colored, uncomfortably angular "divans" (and Merkle’s character "hates angles") and an alter/mantle all credited simply to the production company rather than to a designer. Adam Magazine is credited for a very effective lighting design which captures the sameness of the eternal room. Early in the play the characters gaze off into the distance to view life as it goes on back on earth (a phenomenon which can only last as long as people there remember the departed.) Later they are presented with an opportunity to escape to an unknown fate. But the trio rejects this option in favor of their known hell. Magazine’s lighting design and the original music composed by Jesse Terrill subtly underscore those events without distraction.

Written by Jean-Paul Sartre. Adapted from the French by Paul Bowles. Directed by Christopher Janson. Design: Adam Magazine (lights) Jesse Terrill (music) Michele Reisch (costumes) Ross A. Dippel (fight choreography.) Cast: Scott Fortier, Toni Rae Brotons, September Marie Merkle, Christopher Gallu.

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November 19 – December 23, 2001

Reviewed November 28
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes

The inaugural production of the fledgling Catalyst Theater Company is an impressive first show, a stylish presentation of a strange play that seems very much a part of the modernist movement of the first half of the twentieth century, but was actually written in the first half of the nineteenth. Disjointed dichotomies, however, abound in this play about madness, so any mismatch in that regard seems to fit.

Storyline: Inspired by the true story of repeated attempts to determine the sanity of a czeck man by the name of Johann Christian Woyzeck who was accused and then convicted of murdering his lover, this loosely plotted collection of scenes reveals Woyzeck’s descent into madness in the face of real and imagined torments.

The play is by Czeck author, Georg Buchner. When he died he left the script unfinished and in disarray with, among other problems, no indication of the order in which the scenes should be presented. Director Jesse Terrill has pulled together the material in such a way as to make some sense of the flow of the work. Terrill is also a composer of incidental music (he composed music for J.B. for Rorschach and The Chosen for Theater J.) He composed a score here that acts as the glue to connect the scenes, creating a progression to the production that uses its very disconnection as an element in Woyzeck’s condition.

The show takes the Clark Street Playhouse stage in rep with the Washington Shakespeare Company’s Macbett using the same set, designed by Giorgos Tsappas with lights by the same designer, Don Slater. The world they create works better for this show than for the other as Terrill moves his cast of ten all over the place – in ice skating he’d get high marks for using all the ice – but leaving cast members who are not involved in a specific scene on-stage observing events from every angle.

Scott Fortier, who is the artistic director of Catalyst, plays the increasingly mad Woyzeck in a carefully paced performance that ties the piece together as surely as Terrill's music does. The other nine performers are uniformly good, a rare balance that serves the play quite well. Each uses distinct postures as clues to personality and those personalities are bizarre indeed. But this is a world of insanity they are presenting. The only question is, is their strangeness the cause of or a reflection of Woyzeck’s insanity?

Written by Georg Buchner. Direction and original music by Jesse Terrill. Design: Giorgos Tsappas (set) Don Slater (lights) Michele Reisch (costumes) Deric Jones (properties.) Cast: Scott Fortier, Scott McCormick, Peter Wylie, September Marie Merkle, Maggie Glauber, Ellen Young, Richard Price, Christopher Gallu, Christopher Janson, Wendy Wilmer.