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CurtainUp DC  Report: January 1998
Part 2: All About Evolution

by Les Gutman

January DC Report Topics
NOTE: The January Report is divided into two parts. If you missed the first part, you can return there simply by clicking on one of its topics, as listed below.

Playing Juliet/Casting Othello, by Caleen Sinnette Jennings - in Part 1
Shooting in Madrid, by Tug Yourgrau - in Part 1
Jails, Hospitals and Hip Hop (formerly called Evolution of a Homeboy), by Danny Hoch
The Gene Pool, by Christi Stewart-Brown
Web pages mentioned in this report
Report of Danny Hoch's Evolving Performance
Center Stage in Baltimore produced a gold mine (some might call it a minefield) of performance art this month in its ten-day festival called Off Center. One of the frustrations of this snapshot of the "state-of-the-art" is that it came and went before it could be reviewed.

The festival performers included Hot Mouth, Eve Ensler, Ntozake Shange, Roger Guenveur Smith, Dael Orlandersmith and, the one I caught, Danny Hoch. Hoch performed his new show, originally known as Evolution of a Homeboy but reëntitled Jails, Hospitals and Hip Hop, which premiered recently at Berkeley Rep. Still evolving, this work-in-progress is enroute to P.S. 122 in NY in March.

Hoch's last one-man show, Some People, won an Obie and was filmed for cable television. He has since starred in New York in New Group's production of The Flatted Fifth (CurtainUp's review is linked below). The current production, directed by Jo Bonney, who was very much in evidence (and who also directed The Flatted Fifth), continues Hoch's parade of character portrayals drawn from his involvement in inner city institutions: prisoners, hospitals, schools and the like.

A self-defined Jewish home boy, Hoch's "act" crosses Latino, Hip Hop and other urban cultures. It is tempting to view him and his appeal as exploitive, superficial and even offensive, but in fact his performance resonates with meaning. His carefully chosen words and the serious themes he develops belie the chuckling his characters provoke. It is the kind of laughter that is often broken by a sigh.

Rumor has it there are other characters still to be revealed before this show is completed. Hoch, who performed in spite of obviously being "under the weather" in Baltimore, is working hard to sketch images his audience will not soon forget.
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Review: The Gene Pool
If the plot of this new play by Christi Stewart-Brown tempts you to roll your eyes and expect the worst, don't. It's a delightful, well-crafted comedy that swims in potentially dangerous waters without being pulled down in the eddys of taking itself too seriously or of being too silly.

The Gray's are a typical American family, living in a typical suburban Colonial: two parents and a son reaching his 18th birthday. It happens that the parents are lesbians.

What's most unusual here is that the play is not in any serious way about that. Mira (Jennifer Mendenhall) and Claire (Kimberley Schraf) (and yes, they share the last name Gray, a logical consequence of their maiden names, White and Black) are moms to their only child, Peter (Jeff Lofton). Now seemingly in their early forties, the couple is confronting and coping with a decidedly standard set of issues: the breadwinner, Claire, feels her motivations for becoming a veterinarian have little relation to what she spends most of her day doing ("billing for killing"); Mira, a self-described "math whiz" who has spent her adult life as a stay-at-home mom, feels unappreciated and unloved; both are feeling premature pangs of "empty nest syndrome" as their teenager, possessed of an insatiable appetite and raging hormones, gets a girlfriend (Tina Frantz) and looks forward to leaving home for some yet-to-be-decided higher education.

In the midst of all of this normalcy, Peter asks a logical question that hadn't previously occurred to him: who is his father? The answer is that his father was a sperm donor who had signed a "yes" card, allowing his identity to be revealed when Peter reaches age 18. Peter's desire to meet his father (Michael Russotto) opens wounds as well as windows, including an intelligent but never ponderous examination of many facets of parenthood. This is unrepentant comedy, but not at the expense of fully developing its characters; it sacrifices neither its sincerity nor its "heart".

The Gene Pool reflects the kind of play-making collaboration that succeeds. The footprints of hard work are all over the result. Stewart-Brown writes smartly but "economically"; her script is a launching pad for the creative imagination of a director like Lee Mikeska Gardner, who adorns playfully and to good effect, and actors like Schraf and Mendenhall. It doesn't hurt that the zany Ms. Mendenhall is an experienced collaborator with the playwright, having herself directed Stewart-Brown's Morticians in Love, both in DC and New York. I am reminded in several respects of Joan Ackermann's much-heralded The Batting Cage, which was the hit of the 1996 Humana Festival. Both rely heavily on women and on the balance between physical, almost slapstick comedy and wit. This play strikes me as more successful overall. (A link to my review of the NY production of The Batting Cage can be found below.)
This praise does not mean that The Gene Pool is without its faults. There is the occasional exploitation of predictable stereotypes, and the craziness occasionally gets a bit out of hand, but these are most noticeable because they are infrequent. If nothing else, they remind us of how unpleasant this production could have become in less capable hands.

Schraf and Mendenhall lead a cast that is as genuine as it is funny. Schraf's sly reserve is the perfect foil to the boisterously vulnerable Mendenhall. Jeff Lofton blends the terror, innocence and infallibility of late adolescence quite naturally (perhaps it is), and makes his mothers' affection easy to understand. Frantz plays the ubiquitous nose-ringed girlfriend convincingly, and Russotto makes Peter's genetic antecedent particularly believable as well. Robin Stapley's indoor/outdoor set design is quite attractive as well as functional. Lynn Steinmetz's costumes are particularly expressive.

The Gene Pool is the first product of Woolly Mammoth's new play development series known as ForePlay. It has set the mark very high.
by Christi Stewart-Brown 
with Jeff Lofton, Tina Frantz, Jennifer Mendenhall, Michael Russotto and Kimberley Schraf 
Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner 
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 1401 Church Street NW (202) 393-3939 
January 14- February 8, 1998
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Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report
CurtainUp's review of The Flatted Fifth
Center Stage website:
CurtainUp's review of The Batting Cage

©January 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
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