My Calamitous Affair with the Minister of Culture and Censorship or Death of the Dialogic in the American Theater
Directed by John Vreeke
"Director John Vreeke shrewdly meets the challenge of how to stage this text fest with a polished production that is both provocative and dynamic."
- DC Theatre Arts
'Ari Roth’s roman à clef displays his feet of clay'
title is long — 'My Calamitous Affair with the Minister of Culture and
Conscience — the sense of the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior — is a curiously elusive human capacity. Some people’s conscience is attuned to both self and others; some people’s conscience is indistinguishable from egocentrism. One cannot know which is which except by watching and evaluating how someone acts. Theater happens to be an art form ideally suited for observing a character’s conscience in action in real time and thereby discerning who that person is. In the case of Ari Roth’s scaldingly self-inquisitional semi-autobiographical new play My Calamitous Affair…, theater can also be a public forum for putting one’s own conscience on trial.
The title is long — My Calamitous Affair with the Minister of Culture and Censorship or Death of the Dialogic in the American Theater — and the play is a lot. In it, the playwright and former founding artistic director of Mosaic Theater Company proffers his account of what went wrong that led to his resignation under a cloud two years ago. He does so in a sprawling two-act script, an ambitious attempt at moral reckoning that assays his own situational culpability by ping-ponging between prosecution and defense.
My Calamitous Affair centers on the bitter, geopolitically inflamed backstage drama that nearly blew up an actual production in Mosaic’s 2018–2019 season. That play was titled Shame 2.0, fictionalized here as Humiliation; and so essential is that play to comprehension of the plot of My Calamitous Affair that I recommend some prior familiarity with it (read, for instance, my review).
The salient storyline begins when Roth’s alter ego — a character named AD (Founding Artistic Director Until Recently) — visits a fringe theater festival in Israel and discovers a two-character pro-Palestinian play coauthored and performed by an Israeli Jew named Eilat Herzog and a Palestinian-Muslim with Israeli citizenship named Samad Hussein. AD invites the two theater artists to DC to workshop their play, which at the time consists of two monologues, one Eilat’s and the other Samad’s. AD, acting in his capacity as producer and artistic director, interposes himself as adapter, altering the script by adding dialog and inserting a third character, an antagonist, a political opponent of Palestinians named Miri Rekev, modeled on Israel’s actual censorious Minister of Culture & Sport.
“When we get new stories, we work on ’em; make sure they hit our special audience in a special place,” explains AD, a first-generation German-Jewish-American child of refugees.
But to Eilat and Samad, AD’s script doctoring is toxic. “It is impossible for American audiences to see the truth about Palestine because it is obscured by Israel,” says Samad.
Tensions get so fierce that by Act Two, Samad laces into AD in this blistering scene:
If My Calamitous Affair were simply Roth’s self-exoneration, it’s doubtful that speech would stay in the script. And there’s lots more self-crit where that comes from. He has the Minister of Culture call him out:
Even Virginia B. Lawrence, AD’s right-hand Executive Director, throws him shade:
Director John Vreeke shrewdly meets the challenge of how to stage this text fest with a polished production that is both provocative and dynamic. The sleek, white-walled street-level space at the corner of 14th and R has see-through windows reflecting transparency as theatrical intent. Upon the wide upstage wall appear Projections Designer Devin Kinch’s scene-setting images and videos, a brilliant word cloud that punches up the fast-paced dialogue, and at one point a live stream of Eilat from Samad’s phone cam. It is impossible to picture My Calamitous Affair in performance apart from this eye-catching animated backdrop.
The cast is superb.
Ilasiea Gray as Virginia B. Lawrence, Karl Kippola as AD, Lisa Hodsoll as Miri Rekev, Anat Cogan Eilat Herzog, and Hassan Nazari-Robati as Samad Hussein keep the playing area in diagrammatic motion as they fill the script’s fragmentary, staccato exchanges with sense and long speeches with passion. Their impressively heightened acting style both intensifies and illuminates the knotty drama, and Costume Designer Anna Marquardt smartly color codes each character — red (Virginia), blue (Miri), brown (AD), yellow (Eilat), and purple (Samad) — for added clarity.
Branching off from the throughline of AD’s moral reckoning are passages of enormous emotion — AD’s memories of his mother and father, and graphic evocations of Arab–Israeli conflict. While these exquisite digressions add depth and context, they also deflect somewhat from AD’s extraordinary conscience project, like time-outs from public self-scrutiny.
My Calamitous Affair may not give us a comprehensive narrative about what went wrong on Roth’s watch. But we do get something particular that is rare on stage and worthy: vivid and edifying evidence of what it might look like in retrospect to examine and own one’s flaws and errors along with one’s slings and arrows.