The trio of plays--Lee Blessing's Chesapeake, and Will Kern's Hellcab--are a bracing antidote to the usual sugary holiday fare. As the Source's artistic director, Joe Banno, likes to say, "Holiday Rep" is designed "to put the 'X' back in X-mas."
Chesapeake is a one-woman show starring local stage luminary Holly Twyford in the role of an outrageous performance artist who finds herself reincarnated as the dog of her nemesis, a right-wing U.S. Senator; the comedy/fantasy reunites director Banno and Twyford after their award-winning Shakespeare collaborations at DC's Folger Theatre. The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is a high-camp, fractured fairy tale directed by Jeff Keenan that presents the story of creation as seen through the eyes of gay couples Adam and Steve and Jane and Mabel, taking us from the Garden of Eden to a contemporary Yule in Greenwich Village. And Hellcab--directed by Ian Allen in a late night co-production with the capital city's resident artistic anarchists, Cherry Red Productions--is a study of humanity via a taxi tour of the streets of Chicago a few days before Christmas.
With not a single dark night scheduled at the theater through December and well into January, "Holiday Rep" is both an artistic challenge and a test of endurance, according to Delia Taylor, Source's director of business and marketing. "We're operating on fumes, pretty much," she Taylor says. "None of us knows how it's going to come out--whether we're going to be ahead or behind. We're using up lots of energy, but there's more opportunity for people to come to our theater."
By presenting as many performances as possible, inviting Cherry Red Productions into a co-production (or "liaison"), and opening its doors to other performance groups, Source hopes to create artistic synergy at its 14th Street playhouse. "A small theater company, all by itself in this big space, probably couldn't afford to be here," explains Taylor. "That's the fiscal reality. We can share the space with others for very little money, enough to help cover costs. The artistic part is that all of this makes it a more vital, exciting place to be." Or, as Joe Banno says: "It's thrilling, but it's madness."
Of course, the success of the "Holiday Rep" experiment rests on the strength of the shows. Source should be encouraged on that score; this tinsel-time trio is a triumph. Holly Twyford is brilliant in Chesapeake as a performance artist named Kerr (pronounced "cur," in abit of foreshadowing). The artist is used as a political football by a right-wing Senator seemingly bent on destroying the NEA, and she decides to get even by kidnapping the senator's beloved Chesapeake retriever.
Writer Blessing skewers all sides of the controversy equally, including the subject of artistic pretension. "Art is not a form of communication," Kerr tells the audience. "That's just what people say when they're after grant money." At the end of act one, Kerr and the stolen dog plunge over a dam, ostensibly to their deaths. In the immediate black-out, Kerr asks, "Isn't that what you hate about performance art?" Political poses are pricked when the Senator admits that the NEA is "the perfect tool to beat liberals over the head." The engaging, fresh-faced Twyford plays all five characters in Chesapeake so adroitly that the pacing never flags. Moving about the bare stage, she creates a world in which it seems logical that man's best friend is also his enemy, who then becomes his friend. Twyford and Banno succeed in making a carefully planned performance seem totally spontaneous.
Despite lurid advertising that shows an apparently naked Twyford wrapped in an American flag, Chesapeake is actually a gentle experience for mainstream audiences. No flags and no nudity here! The secret to mounting three different productions in one space within a few hours of each other is to keep the stage easy to change. So, using the same backdrop as Chesapeake, director Ian Allen moves in a full-sized but abstract taxi shell to take us to the world of Hellcab. (In a tribute to efficiency, the cab at one point transforms into an office.)
The 11pm weekend show times and the reputation of co-producer Cherry Red Productions, self-described as "a sleazy bunch" dedicated to "premiering newfound filth," might scare some theatergoers away from this production; but they needn't worry. Hellcab is a thoughtful and entertaining mixture of comedy and drama that all audiences will find accessible, especially after indulging in a few of the Jell-O shooters on sale in the lobby before the show.
Director Allen says that Cherry Red has wanted to do a serious piece for some time; he chose Hellcab because it manages to be entertaining while taking an irreverent yet serious look at humanity. The play introduces us to a long-suffering Chicago cab driver, played with a weariness that never descends into cynicism by Craig Housenick. As the driver cruises the Windy City in the pre-Christmas chill, a series of vignettes unfolds in and around his cab that add up to an overview of the human condition. Misnamed, the cab actually is a refuge from the hell it navigates. Six versatile actors bring 29 characters and one dispatcher's voice to life, rapidly changing costumes and personas. As they have only a few moments to showcase their stories, the passengers are necessarily stereotypical: they include a pregnant woman, an amorous couple, a religious couple, a menacing enigma, a stoned crack-head and, of course, some obnoxious visitors from New York.
Housenick is generally confined to his seat behind the wheel and therefore relies only on his voice, his face, and the occasional slumping of his shoulders to show that he deeply cares about his fellow humans even while trying not to get too involved with them. Also outstanding is Raymond Harris, who convincingly portrays both a dignified, sensitive architect and a threatening gang member within the space of a few minutes. Caroline Kenney likewise shows great range as she switches from a predatory, slightly tipsy passenger who flirts with the cabbie to a distraught woman returning home after being raped.
Played without an intermission, Hellcab firmly holds the attention of the late- night audience, fresh from the party scene in the lobby preceding the show. Moving the cab set out of the way and utilizing the neutral backdrop, meanwhile adding a myriad of props from a simple rock to a living room full of kitschy Christmas decorations, director Jeff Keenan creates an entirely new world for The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. Or, rather, God--in the form of a leather-clad stage manager (Lynn Chavis)--creates that world, accompanied by a throbbing dance version of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (famous as the main theme of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Keenan might just as well have chosen to let us hear the old Flintstones theme, with those early humans singing "We'll have a gay old time!" We know what we're in for when Adam (Ty Hreben) gazes out over Eden and exclaims, "This garden is faaabulous. Of course, I'd put the lake over there." Adam soon meets Steve (Ian LeValley), and it's not long before both of the men are thrown out of paradise. The Old Testament may never be the same!
Adam and Steve soon meet the butch Jane (Kerri Rambow) and the graceful Mabel (Jennifer Phillips), and the two couples hilariously exploit broad, gay stereotypes. A series of skits introduces other colorful characters as we move through history to the present-day Greenwich Village Christmas party that is the basis for the second act. Joe Sampson, Joshua Marmer, Barbara Pinolini, and Kathleen Coons fill a variety of secondary roles here, with Sampson the production's comedic standout. In the first act, he is a flamboyant pharaoh who gives new meaning to the phrase "the mouth of the Nile." In the second act, he is Trey, a self-described "WASP from Connecticut" who is dressed as Santa and launches one bitchy comment after another. ("Oh, look, it's a poinsettia--the gift that won't die!")
Playwright Rudnick always goes for laughs in Act One, even as issues such as belief in God, the meaning of love, and the infallibility of the Bible are introduced. The comedy temporarily fades in Act Two as easy pathos is evoked through the revelation that Steve has AIDS; jammed in with all the gags, this subject seems mawkish and cheap. One is left wondering why Rudnick went there. After all, it's okay just to be funny.
It's also okay to be exhausted--especially if you are Source Theatre's production manager and resident stage manager, Heather L. Pagella. With three shows off and running, Pagella does not get a break. Her burden is especially arduous on Saturdays, when she runs three of the four performances, yet she remains cheerful and focused as she multi-tasks. "As I'm wrapping up a performance," she reflects in the midst of the controlled chaos between shows, "I'm thinking, 'What do I have to do to make the next production go smoothly?' But when I'm calling a show, which I prefer to do myself up in the booth, it's pretty much all I can think about."
According to Delia Taylor, Source Theatre's first "Holiday Rep" is very much an experiment. "If it's a big success, it would be hard not to consider doing it again," she says. With good ticket sales and favorable reviews being generated, the rep may just become a year-end tradition in the nation's capital.