Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Washington Ensemble Theatre: B

Saw Washington Ensemble Theatre’s production of Guillermo Calderón’s B last Sunday at the 12th Ave. Arts playhouse.  It was bad.  Set in a Latin American country (possibly the author’s native Chile), it tells the story of Alejandra and Marcela, two young woman committed to performing acts of terrorism.  Into their apartment comes Jose Miguel, also a terrorist, and bearing a package containing a bomb.  The girls soon discover, though, that the bomb is much more deadly than they expected.  They wanted a noise-bomb which would mostly break windows, but this one is packed with nails, ball bearings and feces.  It’s designed to kill as many bystanders as possible.  Jose Miguel insists that they use the deadlier one, but the girls balk at that.  Strife ensues, punctuated by occasional visits from Carmen, the girls’ loud and chipper non-terrorist next door neighbor who brings them baked goods. 

The main problem with this play is that none of these people are convincing as terrorists.  We never discover why they are terrorists; the reasons given are too vague or silly to be taken seriously.  We never find out what their cause is.  They’re certainly not fired with any revolutionary or religious zeal.  They all seem like normal middle-class 20-somethings who in their heart would prefer to just go to the mall.  A spa day is more their style.  In fact, get rid of the bomb and this is a new show on the CW.  Now maybe that’s Calderón’s point - that terrorists are a bunch of bourgeois phonies.  If so, it’s not a particularly interesting one and neither, it should be noted, is it true.  In short, it’s not clear that Calderón really has anything significant to say about this topic, so he just winds up falling back on hackneyed theatrical devices.  This is terrorism as a successful contemporary playwright imagines it, full of monologues and Pinteresque pauses and overly obvious awkward moments and clichéd comic characters and then more monologues…  Jay O’Leary directed and even though she's not responsible for the script a note from her in the program perfectly captures this play’s annoying theatrical twee-ness: “What is joy?” she asks, “Can you define it? Do you have it right now?  What happens when your joy is imprisoned?  Who is responsible for your joy's liberation?” etc.  Oy vey.

If, though, you need to see this play there are one or two good things you can look forward to.  The set by Lex Marcos is magnificent.  It’s a stark all-white apartment; it radiates Scandinavian cosiness.  In fact, if they had cancelled the play and let those of us in the audience lounge around on that set for a while - just ten minutes or so per person, hanging out, living the dream - that would have been much more satisfying than the actual play.  Ricky German did an excellent job with the costumes.  When Jose Miguel enters the apartment he’s wearing a large blocky bright red jacket.  Underneath he’s all in black, and on his face he wears a black and white mask.  It’s quite striking.  The minute he walked on stage I thought “Damn!  Somebody raided Grace Jones’s closet!”  The lighting design by Tristan Roberson is also very effective.  Sometimes when the bomb is handled or threatens to go off, the lights begin to dim and flickering wildly or the stage turns red.  And the finale is a wonderful chance for Roberson to display his chops.  As for the cast - Sophie Franco as Alejandra, Clarissa Marie Robles as Marcela, Craig Peterson as Jose Miguel, and Shermona Mitchell as Carmen - they gave it their all, but couldn't redeem the mediocrity of the script.

B will run at 12th Ave. Arts until January 28th.

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