Intiman’s Big Opening
A Theater in Crisis Bounces Back with Four Plays at Once
Photos by Chris Bennion
Last week, Intiman threw a four-day party. Theater people from around the city—and some from across the country—showed up, curious to see what would happen. The 40-year-old, Tony Award–winning Intiman abruptly buckled last year when the board discovered it was millions of dollars in debt. But a young director and theater employee named Andrew Russell had an idea to revive the theater: a four-play summer festival with one repertory company of actors and designers.
For four nights, Intiman's courtyard and lobby were full of people drinking, gossiping, and talking (sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing) about the shows: Dirty Story, Romeo and Juliet, Miracle!, and Hedda Gabler. Russell and his team designed the lineup as a careful balancing act. For the sake of the old donors and subscribers, Intiman had to prove it was still serious enough to produce Shakespeare. But those old donors aren't going to live forever, and, to coax a younger audience, the theater had to prove it had the guts to commission something bold and new—in this case, a drag musical about Helen Keller by Dan Savage. And Russell decided to show his own skills by directing Henrik Ibsen's challenging Hedda Gabler. We sent four critics to see the shows, which run through the last weekend of August. Some shows work well, some not so much, but either way, Intiman put itself back on the map.
directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton
It's not clear why Dirty Story was chosen to accompany the other plays in this festival; John Patrick Shanley is a respected playwright and screenwriter (Moonstruck, Doubt), and this show is not without its merits in a certain context. But as a quarter of Intiman's summer series, Shanley's outlandish sexual/political psychodrama feels odd. (The rumors are that it was a last-minute replacement for an "American classic" by a playwright who may or may not have been Edward Albee.)
The cadence of the play's dialogue is strange—sometimes off-putting, occasionally peppered with one-liners and dry jokes so good it takes you a beat before the laugh hits, and all are delivered well. It opens with an aspiring writer, Wanda (Carol Roscoe), meeting an author she admires, Brutus (Shawn Law), at an outdoor chess table. His casually spit assaults on her writing and her person, and her bewildered, dopey-but-persistent responses make for a dynamic that's sly and funny with a distinctly creepy undercurrent. "Don't you think we should aim high?" she asks. "Not if you want to hit things," he says. He dismisses her manuscript as "all sugar and no shit." "You don't have to be vulgar," she chides. He snaps back, "How do you know?"
Law's Brutus is all dumb venom, a kind of faux-academic with a coating of bristling misanthropy, and Roscoe's Wanda is so big-eyed and desperate for approval that by the time she ends up tied to a ladder in his apartment, facing the wrong end of a circular saw, it's not that surprising.
What is surprising, unless you're already familiar with the play, is the realization you'll have at some point in the second act, when the tone changes dramatically and the heavy-handed costumes come out. It sinks in that Dirty Story is all one big metaphor. Guess who Wanda and Brutus represent? (Hint: She's now wearing an Israeli Defense Forces T-shirt and he's wearing a kaffiyeh!) Guess who a gun-toting guy in a cowboy hat represents? And that guy with a British accent? Hooray for subtlety!
Wanda and Brutus are fighting over an apartment that Wanda's grandfather once lived in but to which Brutus holds the current lease—a fight mediated by that cowboy and his British barkeep (played by Quinn Franzen and Allen Fitzpatrick, respectively). Those two supporting characters are fun to watch, especially Franzen. He's long-limbed, has a padded paunch, and plays his stupid, good-natured cowboy with a cartoonish energy. But the whole Hey, look, there's a metaphor here! nature of the thing makes for two possible experiences: You haven't gotten it yet, which makes every line sound like a stilted slogan. (As the Brit says to the cowboy: "You have no moral authority as long as you make and sell so many guns! So many guns!") Or you have gotten it, and it still sounds sloganistic, except now you know why. And you haven't learned anything new about (spoiler alert!) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The actors are playing, gamely, from a script that might not actually work off the page. But director Valerie Curtis-Newton makes the most of the stage, sending the characters jumping or stomping or cowering across every surface. Still, the two acts are supremely disjointed. Dirty Story is a fun experiment that crumbles into something frustrating, and it's hard to tell if the fault lies with the production or with Shanley. ANNA MINARD
directed by Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell's decision to direct Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen's 1890 masterpiece, was a bold move—especially since, as Intiman's new artistic director, he had to oversee all the other productions happening at the same time.
On its own, Hedda is a challenge for any director. People know it's canonical but aren't very familiar with it, and its action is minimal: Seven characters talk in a parlor until Hedda Gabler, a bored and nihilistic housewife, kills herself. A 2007 version of Hedda by On the Boards and Washington Ensemble Theater was titled blahblahblahBANG—which is also a perfect plot summary.
Hedda is the daughter of a famous general, nearing 30, recently married to a naive academic who hasn't gotten as rich and famous as she'd hoped, and pregnant with a child she doesn't want. The critic Harold Bloom says Hedda is "hideously bored" with her husband. "Hideously" is the right word for it—Ibsen, a Norwegian, was fascinated with mythological trolls, and Hedda falls into that lineage. The huldra, for example, is a Norwegian troll that takes the form of a beautiful (often naked) woman who demands sex from passers-by. If you refuse her, she might kill you or drag you into the underworld.
Hedda has trollish impulses, but she is confined inside a disappointing marriage while two of her former lovers—who pretend to be her husband's friends—circle through her parlor. Her inner frustration builds and builds and bits of it hiss out like poison gas as she flirts, rejects, teases, and lies her way through small social interactions. She begins to send people—including herself—around the bend. "My whimsicality," she says to one of her suitors, "has its consequences."
Marya Sea Kaminski played Hedda Gabler in blahblahblahBANG, but she's even colder and more cutting in this version. That is partly thanks to the text—Russell, with some help from the cast, cut it to its bones, giving the play more urgency and momentum. The clarity and accessibility also add nuance: Slicing down on the flourishes and euphemisms of parlor conversation lets us see more deeply and empathetically into why these people are doing what they do. Hedda's former suitors also give strong and confident performances: Timothy Piggee as the composed but wily Judge Brack and Michael Place as the drunken, unhinged genius Lovborg. Ryan Fields, who plays Hedda's credulous and good-natured husband, is a little weaker and more tentative than the rest. One gets the sense that the others are acting around him instead of with him, as if he is part actor and part piece of furniture.
But this Hedda is perfectly serviceable, even electric at times, until the very end, when Russell makes an odd directing choice—instead of having her walk off quietly and shoot herself, as she does in the text, Russell sends Hedda into a minutes-long chunk of modern dance to show us the turbulence of Hedda's inner life. Choreographer Olivier Wevers has Kaminski repeating gestures she's made throughout the show (stretching her arms above her head, holding one arm behind her back, etc.) while undulating around the stage.
This chunk of interpretive dance is bizarrely disruptive and out of character with the rest of the play. Then, at the end of the choreography, instead of a gunshot, Kaminski reaches out toward the audience with a gesture that seems more Michael Jackson than Henrik Ibsen. Then the lights go down.
Afterward, I asked Russell why he decided to direct Hedda so clearly and literally but end it with that strange choreography instead of a gunshot. He said he wanted the audience to get a sense of Hedda as a desperate person, trapped beneath the weight of the play's small moments, and to condense her gestures into one crucible of movement. "Even if you don't connect with that movement sequence emotionally or artistically," he said, "you go on the journey of the play."
He's right—you do. And this Hedda is worth seeing. But when she starts dancing, you might want to close your eyes and think bloody thoughts. BRENDAN KILEY
directed by Allison Narver
The set for this play commanded my attention immediately—the three metal slide doors, the street on the upper level, the numerous fences and posts, the sky space at the top of it all. Indeed, one wonders how the stage crew transported and fit all of these materials into the theater. The set, designed by Jennifer Zeyl, is huge and imposing. It says: "We are not fucking around." It says: "Surrender." And I did. My defenses were down when the theater went dark. Only a truly terrible play could ruin the instant impression of the set.
The play, Romeo and Juliet, was, thankfully, far from terrible and intelligently utilized the set—shops, homes, streets, alleys, tombs. In this adaptation, directed by the former and final artistic director of Empty Space Theater, Allison Narver, the play's setting of Verona is a big, dense late-20th-century American city. This is the hood, the violent conflicts between Montagues and Capulets increase the inner-city pressure, and the love between Romeo and Juliet is, amid all of this violence and stress, a brilliant but doomed spot of ghetto heaven. Narver, however, wisely doesn't make this Romeo and Juliet into a comment on urban poverty or gang violence or urban politics. It's about two kids who meet, fall madly in love, and pay for this love with their young lives.
Two performances stand out: Timothy Piggee as Lord Capulet and Marya Sea Kaminski as the nurse—Piggee for the utter lack of effort in his presentation, and Kaminski for her brilliant comic timing. Piggee adds more polish to the marble of his stately character, and Kaminski vivaciously dynamites hers out of the continuum of the plot into its own dimension. Two things I would have changed: The hiphop could have been a touch less corny, and there was no need for the projected images of faces in the sky area of the set during the play's opening and end. Altogether, this is a solid piece of theater. I hope Intiman survives. CHARLES MUDEDE
directed by Dan Savage
Dan Savage's synopsis of Miracle! in the program: "What if Helen Keller was a deaf, blind drag queen?" Which is an offensive premise, and there were several warnings about the play on opening night, including a banner hanging over the stage that read: "The play you're about to see is offensive to the deaf blind community. Do not tell them about it. Keep your hands shut."
In the first act, we learn that drag queen Crystal Pain's brief, disastrous church-imposed marriage yielded a deaf-blind child who Pain raised in her drag bar called the Brass Connection (also known as "the Ass Infection") and that the now-adult child is an aspiring drag queen named "Helen Stellar."
An elderly couple walked out during the first act when a drag queen called Bailey Legal sat repeatedly and enthusiastically on the leg of an upside-down bar stool—but the only scene that delivered the stomach-dropping offensiveness I'd hoped for was the first appearance of Helen Stellar. She stumbled onstage making atonal howling sounds, wearing what appeared to be several half-dresses, and was shocked with a dog collar when she approached the edge of the stage. The theater was filled with muffled laughter and gasps.
The first act is packed with amusing, quotable dialogue—one character says of another's choice of performance music: "The Andrews Sisters? They so tired, they dead." But the drag performances, well, drag a bit. Each of the Brass Connection's performers does a proficient but standard lip-synch and dances to a drag standard. This, however, provides a drum roll for Helen Stellar's first "act."
In the second act, Annie Sullivan, sent by CPS, attempts to rehabilitate Helen by taking her away for two weeks to perform at a lesbian bar called Acres of Clams. There is a cringe-inducing, spot-on re-creation of a terrible open mic: "I wrote this poem. It's not for you; it's for me. It's called 'Your Tax Dollars.'"
It was enjoyable to see a man next to me, who had been stony-faced during the bar-stool assfucking, obviously uplifted by Annie and Helen's growing rapport. Or perhaps he was smiling because deaf-blind drag queens give him a boner. (Who knows?) Either way, the musical finale was greeted with laughter and cheers. There were standing ovations. Watching Annie teach Helen to give the finger, I realized that perhaps the best things about this play (besides the line "I will cut you and then fuck the cut") are such unique moments of realism and humanity, which would not be possible without its absurd, offensive premise. Life, after all, is absurd and offensive. And Miracle! doesn't shy away from absurdity or offensiveness—or the moments in life that involve sex with furniture. SARAH GALVIN