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Flashpoint - ARCHIVE
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October 31 - November 22, 2008
Punch - that's the way we do it!
Reviewed November 8 by David Siegel

Running Time 1:00 no intermission
A sexualized Punch and Judy Show that is
not for the faint of heart

If you can leave your hard-earned maturity at home and can quickly fall into your deeply forgotten past of youthful zeal, loopiness and a desire to confront your elders; or if you are a bit more youthful right now and came of age with Sponge Bob Square Pants as a source of cartoon amusement and cheerful vulgarity, then here is a show for you. This reviewer left a recent performance with a grin on his face, but with a sense that the production was way too overboard to have any redeeming entertainment value beyond efforts to offend. And then your reviewer slept on those first instincts and woke wondering if there were some recent productions that also stretched the blood-and-guts boundary from more high-brow area theaters he had witnessed. Low and behold there are. The recent production by Signature of The Lieutenant of Inishmore had gallons more blood on stage as well as loud weaponry, sharp razors about to cut a nipple off and saws cutting through dead bodies. Yet a redeeming value was found by critics and audiences alike. And any number of David Mamet pieces, though less often professionally produced in the DC area, feature the "f" word ad nauseum. So what is it about Punch that is still not quite satisfying if not off-putting? Perhaps the free-for-all fight scenes when cast members, including a very winsome female, go at each other with total abandon. Or the final denouement without a resolution. (It is the rubbery cartoon ending as we all knew as children when no matter how high the fall, coyote always was back for more fun with road runner the next week.) Or was it was that a juvenile prurient script performed with blunt force became just a too-long gas-passing joke?  This is a subversive attack on the morality of the day; harassing the authorities from places the high-minded rarely venture. Decide for yourself if you are game for this piece of nasty whimsy.

Story Line: Adult-sized, sexually-attuned update of the traditional Punch and Judy puppet show. Includes the usual elements of a Punch show including Punch's wife Judy, a clown, a baby, a policeman, a hangman as well as “sausages” and a cute dog.

Writer Wyckham Avery in program notes states that Punch is “an investigation of violence and comedy…exploring how violent and fun a show can be.” That is an understatement. Avery takes all the traditional centuries’ old Punch and Judy pieces and finds a place for them but in a very openly sexualized context. She writes to destroy whatever is considered high-brow and “cultured.”  While Punch gets the best in most of the sequences, Judy is not a weakling pre-feminist woman. She fights back hard with her fists and her own vulgar mouth and seems victorious often enough to balance out victor and vanquished so that they both live to love and fight another day. Avery’s direction seems simple; learn your lines, improvise when needed and totally egg on the audience into a frenzy to repeat out-loud this mantra, “Eat, F*ck, Kill.” Your reviewer will say this, at the performance attended it was the women in their twenties who seemed most comfortable in what they were seeing and saying. Who knew that this theater of cruelty style performance would connect with them? 

The youthful ensemble does not lack for passion and energy. The most endearing character is the handmade puppet dog Toby. Assisted by two real life actors who provide soulful whimpers, barks and loud breathing sounds, Toby projects love, sadness, a desire to please and heaps of feeling rejected with a tilt of his Data-looking head and body. Oh yeah, his body includes legs and paws consisting of objects like a whisk broom, a golf club head and various tubes and wires. It is Toby’s long red tongue that makes him almost anthropomorphic. Josh Drew is Joey the Clown and the master-of-ceremonies. Exuberant and cynical, he plays with a wink and a nod, goading the audience into reacting. Niki Jacobsen’s Judy takes much sexual abuse from Punch (Dan Van Hoozer) and yet gives as much as she takes in all scenes. She plays it “straight” and never loses her character even in free-for-all sex and fight sequence. Van Hoozer is the loud unlikable bore, ruffian and politically incorrect oaf. Yet he survives each sequence to play again against one of the other characters. Without him, there is no show. For an interesting turn Van Hoozer dresses into character before the audience’s eyes just before lights-up.  Lee Leibeskind is the all-purpose multi-character cast member. With his various masks he takes on a different attitude with each role.

A traditional, but adult size, brightly painted Punch and Judy puppet booth is the set for the action at the small Flashpoint black box. A manually moved curtain is manipulated when necessary. Of interest for audiences, all the seats are covered with black plastic garbage bags and the front two rows have additional garbage bags for the audience to wear. Some of the walls of the Flashpoint space are also covered with black vinyl-like sheets. Avery’s hand-made Venetian-style masks are not fully face-covering but rather conceal from the top lip over the nose, the eyes and the forehead. The colors are strong from green to black and red and beyond. Characters do emote differently depending on the mask worn.

Written and directed by Wyckham Avery. Design: Colin K. Bills (set and lights) Margo Beirne (costumes) Wyckham Avery (masks) Betsy Rosen (puppets), Lorraine Resseger (combat choreography) Casey Kaleba (blood designer) C. Stanley (photography) Caitlin Smith (stage manager). Cast: Josh Drew, Niki Jacobsen, Lee Leibeskind, Dan Van Hoozer.

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May 29 - June 25, 2008
The Bridge of Bodies
Reviewed June 7 by David Siegel

Running Time: 1:25 – no intermission
A very personal work about a rarely dramatized issue: Haitian immigrants

A swiftly moving, very personal work that is one woman story-telling of the diaspora of Haitians who have left that island country for a better life here in the United States over the past decades is the generally appealing The Bridge of Bodies by Kathleen Gonzales. Her work was written not only to raise the Haitians' plight to a larger public, but also to provide some closure for her own journey of discovery. It is a very sobering and heartfelt journey, but one that includes some well-placed and gently accomplished levity to provide a touch of laughter to an otherwise tormented excursion. Depicting 15 distinct characters including the central character, Marie-Therese; women and men, old and young and between, Haitian-Americans, Haitians and those born in the United States, Gonzales makes the audience aware of what drives a family to leave for the complete unknown. It is a story both universal to America’s growing multi-cultural sense of itself and specific to a group rarely depicted on stage. The character portrayals of so many are uneven, but that does not reduce the overall impact of this production which is to educate and enlighten an audience. The strength of this production is how Gonzales, under Director Patrick Crowley’s guidance, takes the audience through so many twists and turns without making the journey feel contrived or unbelievable even with magic and voodoo included. Gonzales is able to evoke much through her deep sense of the characters she portrays. Her characterizations provide a glimpse of the struggles they endure and how they react to the unexpected in their lives. There are several sections of this production that can be a bit flat, but it is rare that the audience becomes distracted.

Storyline: A one woman show of a Haitian woman who came to America at a young age with her mother to escape doom after her father was murdered. Later she returns to the island of her birth in search of an understanding of her roots and the reasons why her father was murdered before her eyes. Note: The "bridge" reference in the title is to the connections to be made with those alive and dead, while the "bodies" reference is to a book that lists all the murdered and martyred Haitians in the past decades.

A one-actor evening is a tight rope act. In this case, the high-wire work is compounded since Kathleen Gonzales is both the actor and the playwright. Fortunately there is a director who helped mold the piece and brought in a skilled group of technical artisans. This production was initially performed at Ohio State University where Gonzales received her MFA in acting. In building her play, Gonzales found a way to educate the audience without being either overbearing or pedantic. The universality of the lives depicted may be a stretch at times, but it is refreshing to be witness to new immigrant stories as America becomes a majority minority country over the next few decades. Director Patrick Crowley is a member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab and a 2008 winner of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities Artist Fellowship and Young Artist Program Grant. He has a nice touch for keeping things moving and bringing the action to life rather than making this merely a monologue. The production has some unexpected moments of alarm as the arc of the play progresses. That arc moves from Gonzales in America not knowing much of her past and why she has no father in her life, through a passage to Haiti and what she learns there, to her return to America with knowledge gained and resilience intact.

Gonzales is a likable, earnest actor who works hard to entertain her audience. She moves with great authority through this short evening as the central anchor surrounded by those characters who impact her life. The characters are a rangy and intriguing lot from American street kids who mock her to an overbearing therapist trying to reach her, to adults and family members both dead and alive who are sometimes represented in voice overs or short scene work. Gonzales is most adept in portraying a certain number of the characters including the therapist with a sing-song voice and high pitched inflection, big waving arm moments and desire to “just be so helpful,” as well as several American adolescents who give Marie-Therese a difficult time in her early years and males such as a taxi driver with the directness of words and lilt of speaking. She also sings and speaks in a French-patois that sounds enchanting. With her ability to channel stereotypical urban youth, she also gives the production some wonderful moments of laughter. However, as the script progresses Gonzales is less able to effectively differentiate characters distinctly. When she depicts the death of her father at the hands of those who were seeking retribution for his independent nature, Gonzales has the audience with her at the moment of his murder in a way that this reviewer could feel many jump from their seats in reaction to the words and sounds they were hearing.

This is a show on a minimal budget, but an audience will soon forget the shoestring funds and settle in on what is presented. The set is basically a chair, a scrim and a small square area set off by blue fabric on the floor. Jason Cowperthwaite has lit this show so that audiences can “feel” heat or terror or mystical worlds contained in caves. The nifty use of a scrim to give some depth to this intimate production is an example of what can be done to move something from mere story-telling to dramatic action. John Punsalan’s graphic work is projected on the scrim to provide both a delightful evocation of the country that is Haiti or the mind set of Gonzalez as she moves about the tiny set. The sound design brings chants and singing and voices from the beyond straight into the audience’s ears.

Written by Kathleen Gonzales. Directed by Patrick Crowley. Design: Ola Odeniran (set and properties) John Punsalan (projections) Jason Cowperthwaite (lights) Chris Baine (sound) Anu Yadav (photography) Rosemary Johnson (stage manager). Cast: Kathleen Gonzales.

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November 1 - 18, 2006
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:30 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for superb acting and
 a satisfying script
Ticket price - $15 - $20

A play first presented by the Round House Theatre's Kitchen program at the Kennedy Center's 2005 Page to Stage Festival, which went on to success in New York, has come back to the Potomac Region for a short run. It proves to be a powerful piece examining the phenomenon of post-traumatic stress disorder in the case of a veteran of the Iraq war. The play was written by Mando Alvarado, who is better known in the Potomac Region for his acting. He appeared in the Theater Alliance's Painted Alice and Tales from Ovid, Round House's Jesus Hopped the A Train and Imagination Stage's production of Cinderella Eats Rice and Beans.  Last year he appeared alongside Michael Ray Escamilla in Woolly Mammoth's Our Lady of 121st Street. Escamilla directs Alvarado's three character play. All of the cast turn in strong performances but it is Lisa Sauber, who is new to the region, who impresses the most.

Storyline: A veteran of the Iraq war, far from his West Texas roots, lives in a makeshift tent in New York City and works for a temp agency to make ends meet when his buddy from the war talks him into seeking help for obvious stress problems from a therapist just starting at a clinic. There's more to the relationship of the veteran to his buddy and of the buddy to the therapist, however, than first meets the eye.

Author Alvarado is from Pharr, Texas, about ten miles north of the Rio Grande. He's written one man shows such as We're 'Mericans and short children's shows like The Lion and the Mouse: a Radio Show. In this much more serious endeavor, he creates three interesting and even compelling characters and does a fine job of crafting the interaction between them. The plot turns on one or two coincidences too many , but you are not likely to notice this until after the hour and a half speeds by. A strength of the piece is that it avoids being about this particular war and concentrates, instead, on the human reactions to individual experiences. This brings home basic truths as no lengthy diatribe can.

Lisa Sauber creates a complex character as the woman who tries to come to the aid of the veteran. She's a free spirited bar hopping young woman one moment and a challenged professional therapist the next. She handles the multiple facets Alvarado wrote into the character without seeming to over play either the free spirit or the professional, allowing the two aspects to meld as the plot progresses. Raúl Castillo and Todd Spicer convey a sense of camaraderie that makes their status as combat buddies quite believable. Spicer is particularly good at throwaway lines that contribute to the atmosphere of the piece without drawing undue attention, while Castillo gives a feeling of intensity to the role of the disturbed vet.

The tight quarters of Flashpoint's Mead Theatre Lab with its 79 seats exposes any production to an intensity of audience scrutiny that can be withering. There's just no place to hide any imperfections. The audience is literally in contact with the performance as those in the front row have to watch where they put their feet and those in the second row worry about those in front sliding back to allow the actors room for entrances and exits. It also means that the audience itself becomes a palpable presence during the show. On press night one member of the audience fainted, falling into the playing space. (The cast continued on the opposite side of the space - about six feet away - while her companion helped her up.)  When a piece is performed as well as this one is, such intensity of exposure turns out to be a virtue, creating a shared experience with strong emotional rewards.

Written by Mando Alvarado. Directed by Michael Ray Escamilla. Design: Raul Abrego (set) Elisa Richards (costumes) Stephen Arnold (lights) Gregg Fisher (sound and music) Enoch Chan (photography) Zac Chandler (stage manager). Cast: Raúl Castillo, Lisa Sauber, Todd Spicer.