Act 1 begins as a bedroom farce. A young Egyptian-American couple, Leila (poised, emotionally riveting Alia Attallah) and Rashid (Karan Oberoi as her reluctant and defensive boyfriend) await the entrance of an acquaintance, Doug (hilarious, multi-faceted Quinn Franzen) for what is supposed to be a night of hot three-way sex. And what an entrance it is! Franzen’s naked insouciance catalyzes the differences among the three, transforming the evening into an emotional battlefield of conflicting needs and expectations – a pretty accurate depiction of most three-ways (if that’s not TMI…)
Things quickly go south among the three as details emerge about their respective secrets, deceptions, wounds, and motives. To say much more would be too revealing, but be assured that “Threesome” is not all laughs. As playwright El Guindi states in an interview printed in the program notes, “I think we're funny as a species.... So even when I stray into dark areas, I still find human behavior weird and comical at times....[My] intention was not to be funny. It’s that the characters find themselves in a very awkward, and somewhat comical, situation. When their situation shifts, so does the tone of the play.” That situation changes moment-to-moment throughout the play, which is one of its many appealing aspects, and though we can laugh at the awkwardness and confusion that prevails in the first half, the disaster that follows is wrenching.
By the second act, Leila’s book is about to be published that will reveal her hitherto untold experiences during the 2011 popular uprising in Egypt against the government. As her secret becomes known to both Rashid and Doug, their responses drive the story deeper into raw truth. The complex interweaving of vulnerability and need with harsh and even brutal realities of domination and power are fodder for debate and reflection at the end of this utterly engaging work.
El Guindi’s clever script subtly but pointedly suggests how interpersonal events are microcosms of larger forces in the world -- not only between men and women, for example, but among countries and cultures who mutually misinterpret each other’s histories and motivations. Sexual desire stands in for international relations; who’s in or out of bed signals both personal and political realities; dressing and undressing become metaphors for shifting power and purposes.
Ultimately, the demand “Give me my clothes!” encompasses the anger, power, and desperation of an entire revolution. It is a testament to the skill of the writer, director, and actors that the underlying story remains viscerally grounded in feelingly portrayed human desire and conflict while barely ever sounding a didactic note.
The set design and lighting provide space for the action without drawing attention – a stark industrial backdrop with bed, end tables, a few props in Act 1, then a garish heap of rugs and "eastern bazaar" props for the book cover photo-shoot in Act 2 – and that’s it. Costumes – and occasionally the lack of them – send signals, too, capturing the modern era in both cultural worlds. This is not a gimmicky production, but a confidently acted and directed rendering of a new script that, despite one or two uneven seams, lands with profound emotional impact.
“Threesome” is a captivating, thought-provoking experience, and deals frankly with themes of sexuality, power, gender roles, and violence. ACT, to its credit, explicitly states at the theater entrance that the play is recommended for ages 16 and up, but goes on to say that it leaves the decision about younger audiences seeing this play to parents, guardians, and teachers. Much is revealed, and much is omitted -- enough that viewers will project their individual conclusions onto the silences that remain.
Whatever your age or attitude, “Threesome” will challenge you, provoke you, and possibly influence your sex life. Now that’s live theater.
The Most Deserving -- Theater Schmeater
King Charles III -- Seattle Repertory Theater
Holiday of Errors - Sound Theatre Company
Dirty -- Washington Ensemble Theater / ACT Theatre
The Art of Bad Men -- MAP Theatre
A Delicate Balance -- Theatre 9/12
Frank Ferrante’s uncannily spot-on portrayal of Groucho Marx at ACT Theater’s Cabaret pulls no punches. Groucho’s acerbic wit and unabashed lechery come alive both onstage and in Ferrante’s lengthy improvised meanderings among the audience, horsing around with the audience much as the master of madcap himself might have done and ruffling a few feathers along the way. The badly-dressed, the balding, the bored, the bearded – all feel the offhand lash of Groucho’s whip. Be prepared to cringe, and to be utterly charmed.
You won’t find a performer with better pedigree than Frank Ferrante for a one-man show on the life and character of Groucho Marx. Ferrante was a drama student in 1985 at University of Southern California when he was discovered by Groucho’s son Arthur Marx and cast in his biographical play “Groucho: A Life in Review,” in which the young Ferrante played Groucho from age 15 to 85. Since that early success in New York, London, and PBS television productions, Ferrante’s many accomplishments in show business have been overshadowed by his mastery of the seemingly inimitable Groucho.
The cleverly structured script consists largely of anecdotes, recounted by Groucho conversationally with his audience, that shed light on the Marx family and the comedy team’s background, the origins of their act in vaudeville and early films, and the evolution of the Marx Brothers into one of the top comedy acts of the 20th century.
Dialogue, jokes and one-liners from the films, plus a number of songs with lively piano accompaniment by Mark Rabe, punctuate the show with laugh moments and glimpses into an era of corny but classic vaudeville entertainment. Ferrante masterfully milks both the hooters and the bombs, in true Groucho style, throwing in plenty of recognizable Groucho schtick: the low-rider walk, the waggling eyebrows, the physical highjinks, the crazy side-kick knee-twist dance step, and the ever-present cigar.
As in the movies, moments of poignancy provide some balance to the general mayhem. Groucho’s joke about being “married 47 years – to three different women” stirs a predictable laugh; another side emerges as he tenderly holds a framed picture of Margaret Dumont and reminisces about that statuesque and clueless butt of many a cruel joke. The affection he holds for her is palpable -- I’m sure Groucho could make a ribald quip of that.
Another sweet touch, if a little more prolonged than necessary, is Ferrante’s selection of a 10-year-old boy sitting with his parents (“and these are your parole officers?” he asks), bringing him onstage to have his upper lip painted black and a cigar stuck in his mouth. Ferrante shares the spotlight compassionately and gives the boy – and probably many a child in his hundreds of performances – an unforgettable experience.
Ferrante has a well-packed quiver of one-liners to shoot as he works the crowd. Still, much of the charm and enjoyment of the evening comes from moments that seem unscripted. Though Ferrante has been performing this piece for over 20 years, it never feels stale. His new piano accompanist, Mark Rabe, keeps pace admirably, with enough faux pas, real or staged, to give Groucho even more fodder for wise-cracks. Suitably low-key and deferent, Rabe provides an effective foil to Ferrante’s eruptive and irreverent energy.
Marx Brothers aficionados will doubtlessly gain the most from this over-the-top celebration of a long-gone comedy team, whose influence is huge if largely unknown to younger audiences today. For those who have never chuckled and groaned their way through Duck Soup or Animal Crackers, watched Chico work his finger magic on a piano keyboard, or been moved by Harpo’s astonishingly angelic beauty as he plucks his harp, Frank Ferrante nonetheless offers an engaging and hilarious introduction.
While the Marx Brothers of yesteryear are frozen in celluloid and digitalized on disk, an evening of “Groucho” with Frank Ferrante accomplishes what not even the magic of cinema can: the privilege of hobnobbing with the living presence of one of America’s great comedians, and with an actual scion of the Marx lineage. I bet Groucho could make a joke of that, too. If he did, you will probably hear it in “Groucho.” Don’t miss the chance.
“Groucho” at ACT Theater, Bullitt Cabaret, June 13-30, directed by Dreya Weber, with Frank Ferrante and Mark Rabe
Period furniture, costumes, props, art deco cityscapes, live music, stage magic, and terrific acting by a powerhouse ensemble make Book-it Repertory's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" an unforgettable journey. An inside look at the true stories of some of the comic book world's founding writers, artists and publishers, the evening has something of the feel of a night at home watching four consecutive episodes of "Mad Men," but with a good deal more laughter, depth, virtuosity and heart.
Michael Chabon's 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is itself a wildly creative romp through the roughly two decades of the Golden Age of Comics and a more sober view of the destruction of a family in the holocaust of the second World War and its Phoenix-like resurrection in post-war America.
Though fiction, the stories of Czech immigrant Josef Kavalier (played with convincing Czech stoicism by Frank Boyd) and his American cousin Sam Clay (David Goldstein, in a character whose layers slowly peel away to the bare soul) are based on actual writers and artists behind such Golden Age creations as Superman, Wonder Boy, Captain America, and dozens of others. Fact and fiction flow side by side in this story, like the truths and lies its protagonists tell each other and themselves, like the stage magic that deceives, mystifies, entertains, and provides both literal and figurative escape.
With its customary inventiveness, the Book-it team under Myra Platt's inspired direction labored through many drafts of the script (adapted by Jeff Schwager) to bring Michael Chabon's book to life. Vivid set, lighting and costume designs animate dozens of rapid changes to locales as diverse as an office in the Empire State building, a train station in Prague, a New York City subway, a Los Angeles mansion and an isolated military outpost in Antarctica. In a brilliantly amusing set-piece in the second half, one of the comic book stories comes to life on stage as the character of "Luna Moth" is born in the basement of the New York Public library; the conventions of comic book form, character, dialogue and suspense come to life almost magically, like so much else in this riveting production.
Despite the show's 5-hour duration (including an intermission in each of the two parts separated by a 40-minute dinner break with meals available upstairs), the entertainment never flags. Myra Platt's well-practiced directorial hand keeps the pacing swift and the timing sharp; set changes are handled dexterously; live and recorded music provide just enough atmosphere; character and scene transitions and seem pulled from a magician's hat. It is a long evening, but the actors seem tireless and the story has enough twists and turns and interesting characters to hold an audience riveted.
Amongst the huge and talented cast the quality of performance is consistently high; a few characters do stand out: Richard Arum conveys the somehow likeable but crass publisher Sheldon Anapol, bent on making the most he can from the "trash" his underpaid writers and artists produce, with seeming ease, while also shifting into the role of Kavalier's Czech father in Prague and other characters; Bill Johns and Michael Patten jump from one role to another with delightful virtuosity (Michael Patten's wheelchair-bound arch-villain in the Luna Moth sequence is especially memorable); Opal Peachey crafts a convincing and emotionally grounded character arc from young avant-garde artist in Hollywood's very contemporary feeling art world to a loving mom and lonely housewife in post-war suburbia. The young Nate Kelderman impressively switches from Kavalier's brother left behind in Prague to his very American and independent-minded son in America; Carol Silverstein and Amy Korver fill various amusing character roles with delightful attention to details.