‘Our Lady of 121st Street’
Directed by John Vreeke
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
• Our Lady of 121st Street — Woolly Mammoth Theatre
Company — ***1/2. In Stephen Adly Guirgis' rancorously funny play, a wake
in a Harlem neighborhood for the formidable nun Sister Rose, whose corpse
has been stolen, brings out the true colors of those who knew her. Mr. Guirgis,
who sees profanity as an art form, doesn't paint a pretty picture in this
spiky character study. The production is staged under the flinty direction
of John Vreeke, who makes talky plays float and glide and can coax unexpected
performances out of actors. The pairing of Mr. Vreeke and Mr. Guirgis is
inspired, resulting in a production that revels in roughness and urban despair
but still manages to address matters of spirituality. At the Kennedy Center
|December 8, 2004 - January 2, 2005
Our Lady of
Running time 2:20 - one intermission
Stephen Adly Guirgis, the author of the
powerful verbal battle play Jesus Hoped The A Train that
was so intriguing at Round House last Spring, wrote this equally powerful,
equally verbal play. Woolly is giving Potomac Region audiences their
first chance to see and hear this fascinating piece in a short run as
their last production in the Kennedy Center's Film Theatre before they
move in to their own new home at 7th and D Streets NW. When they have
completed the move there will be some nostalgia for the good work they
did at the Kennedy Center and this will be one of the fondly remembered
evenings. It starts off powerfully and remains fascinating through to
the final moments. However, those final moments do not provide answers
to many of the questions raised during the course of the play, leaving
a feeling that you've just witnessed parts of a number of fascinating
plays - just not one complete one.
Storyline: The people
who cared most for Sister Rose, a nun known for her needle exchanges,
anti-alcoholism and anti-gang violence programs, gather at a funeral
home in Harlem to pay their last respects, only to find that her body
has been stolen. One of those whose life she affected is the police
detective assigned to investigate the disappearance of the corpse. The
stories of the mourners are explored during the long night awaiting
the scheduled funeral.
Guirgis created a dozen really
intriguing characters on the pages of his script and this cast brings
each to life with an energy and panache that keeps the evening fascinating
right up to the final moments when you realize that many of their quirks
and much of their history will remain unexplained. There is Ted Feldman
as the cynical policeman who seems more interested in remembering Rose
than finding her remains. There's Doug Brown as the talk-show host with
loads of blame for his failed marriage and Aahku Freeman as his former
wife who really lets him have it for his shortcomings after he fails
to get all the way through his list of sins in his first confession
in twenty years. There's John Dow as the aging priest hearing that confession
with a load of problems of his own. There is the bluster of Brian Hemmingsen
which opens the play but it isn't clear just what spurred his affection
for Rose (and where are his pants, anyway?).
Many of the most intriguing characters
come in pairs. There's the same-sex, mixed-race couple Craig Wallace
and Brian McMonagle who have some baggage with Rose's church. There's
the equally intriguing pair of actors reunited after appearing in Guirgis'
previous play at Round House, Michael Ray Escamilla as the protective
older brother and Mando Alvarado as his retarded younger sibling who
apparently relied on Sister Rose, but it isn't quite clear for what.
Each of these, and each of the others, have fascinating personality
characteristics that point to something. But, what?
Director John Vreeke moves the
evening along at such a pace that there's precious little time to ponder
questions of meaning. Instead, there are delights to be witnessed and
then another quickly comes along to distract. Dan Conway provides yet
another marvelously workable set in the challenging space of the Film
Theatre which was, after all, not originally designed to house staged
productions. His swiveling panels switch locale with assurance while
the empty coffin hovers over everything. The only design element that
disappoints is Colin K. Bills' lighting which is a bit overactive and
at times too tightly focused with shadows distracting attention from
Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis.
Directed by John Vreeke. Design: Dan Conway (set) Kate Turner-Walker
(costumes) Jennifer Peterson (properties) Colin K. Bills (lights) Mark
Anduss (sound) Stan Barouh (photography) Michael Kramer (stage manager).
Cast: Lindsay Allen, Mando Alvarado, Doug Brown, Maia DeSanti, John
Dow, Michael Ray Escamilla, Ted Feldman, Aakhu TuahNera Freeman, Brian
Hemmingsen, Brian McMonagle, Roseanne Medina, Craig Wallace.
'Our Lady of 121st Street' at Wolly Mammoth
Woolly Mammoth's prickly Our Lady of 121st Street.
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ sharp dramedy spins a beautiful spider’s web of pop
psychology, scathing humor, and dubious insight smack dab in the middle of
Harlem. Sins are confessed, perceptions shift, and people are forever changed
in Guirgis’ compelling story about a missing nun and the lives she touched.
Lady of 121st Street
Sister Rose’s death -- and subsequent disappearance from her casket
-- serves as catalyst for the arrival of Guirgis’ clan of old friends and
foes, who meet at the funeral home only to learn that their beloved teacher
has vanished. Once the blame game gets underway, each schoolmate bares their
own individual set of issues plaguing their lives now. Guirgis’ script is
swollen with bloated egos and plenty of saucy speeches (crabby Victor asserts
his disapproval with acidic lines such as, "demons should shit in his mouth
daily "), which makes for sensational writing from the author of Jesus
Hopped the "A" Train. And under the microscope lens of director John
Vreeke, Our Lady is always engaging.
Vreeke’s terrific ensemble uses all available playing space, moving
up and down all over the place in a constant rush of motion, much like the
streets of upper Manhattan. And thanks to the traffic noises and music designed
by Mark Anduss, it sounds as though we’re already there.
Woolly’s strength is always in its superb casting. Doug Brown is
the center of catharsis for Guirgis’ storyline, and his portrayal of disc
jockey Rooftop only solidifies his standing as an actor unafraid of emotional
exposure. John Dow is perfect as a sympathetic priest who has suspended his
trust in God, and Roseanne Medina is as deliciously caustic as her name --
Nasty Norca -- suggests. Craig Wallace is a standout with his tempered performance
as the afflicted half of a gay couple, and Brian McMonagle is a riot as his
partner, an "exceedingly gay " actor from Wisconsin. McMonagle’s stereotypical,
limp-wristed portrait earns him the title he is bestowed by Wallace as "Drama
DECEMBER 17, 2004
Woolly Mammoth’s powerful ‘Our Lady of 121st Street’
depicts diverse characters
By Patrick Folliard
Stephen Adly Guirgis' plays are noted for their ethnically diverse cast of
characters, gritty urban settings and street-inspired dialogue. More often
than not, his characters make frequent and effective use of the f-word, the
n-word, and every other word you can’t spell out in most publications.
Woolly Mammoth’s electric production of Guirgis’ funny, insightful play “Our
Lady of 121st Street” explores the playwright’s usual urban and emotional
terrain. Stunningly acted and dynamically staged by gay director John
Vreeke, this production is brimming with searing pathos and scathing humor.
The action begins when about a dozen childhood friends come together in an
unplanned reunion to mourn the death of their one-time schoolteacher, Sister
Rose. Creepily, there is no body to view, only an open white casket
lined in pink satin, which hangs suspended above Dan Conway’s inventive set
throughout most of the show.
Rose's Corpse has been stolen from the seedy funeral home in the tough Harlem
neighborhood where the mourners grew up and a few still live. As it turns
out, she was a rough old drunk who literally fell into the gutter and died,
but because she left behind a life of good works and some indelibly fond
memories with each of her students, a stream of people have turned up to
pay their respects.
Rooftop (Doug Brown), now a big-name radio personality, has flown in from
L.A., ostensibly for the wake but more likely to
connect with his ex-wife, Inez (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman). In the last 15 years,
Inez has made a good life for herself with a new husband, and is no longer
interested in the man who scorched the secret garden that once was her heart.
Flip (Craig Wallace), a successful attorney in Wisconsin, arrives with his
white boyfriend Gail (gay actor Brian McMonagle), a nervous, community-theater
queen. Flip isn’t out in the old neighborhood and wants to keep it
Marcia (Maia DeSanti), Rose’s very neurotic niece, is in from Staten Island.
She immediately attaches herself to Edwin (Michael Ray Escamilla),
a local apartment house superintendent. Edwin remains in the ’hood because
his mentally challenged brother Pinky (Mando Alvarado) is comfortable there.
And since it was Edwin who accidentally dropped the brick on Pinky’s head
that long ago rendered him sweet but simple, he feels indebted.
Balthazar (Ted Feldman), an alcoholic detective, is investigating the disappearance
of the body. He suspects that Norca (Roseanne Medina), the foul-mouthed,
neighborhood crack whore, might have something to do with it.
Rather than the traditional dramatic arc, “Our Lady” unfolds in fastpaced,
episodic vignettes, allowing each member of this particularly stellar cast
his or her moment in the limelight.
The gay characters, especially the more effeminate Gail, land on the silly
side. McMonagle does his best with the shallow role, playing him as a sort
of less acerbic Paul Lynde.
It’s not a perfect play by any means. In this tapestry, certain figures are
very detailed and others very sketchy. The gay characters fall into the latter
category; Flip is a complete cipher, and Gail is little more than a
walking fag-joke, with as much authenticity as the drag queen director Philip
Seymour Hoffman played onscreen in the movie “Flawless.”
Joyce Carol Oates, Venturing Into Parallel Universes
By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page C05
"It's been a very collaborative experience. Already
I've done a lot of revisions," says Joyce Carol Oates of her play "The Tattooed
Girl," slated for a world-premiere run Jan. 11-Feb. 20 at Theater J.
Famously prolific as a novelist, essayist, short story
writer, poet (and professor of literature at Princeton), Oates wrote "The
Tattooed Girl" simultaneously as novel and play.
"I would write a scene as if it were a play. Then I
would work on [the scene] as if it were a novel," filling in "description
and interior psychological" details, she says.
She's taken the approach before: In 2000, her novel
about Marilyn Monroe, "Blonde," was published and her play on the subject,
"Miss Golden Dreams," was performed at the Contemporary American Theater
The tattooed girl is Alma Busch, a poor, uneducated
drifter damaged by an abusive childhood and an equally rough young womanhood.
She takes a job as assistant to a celebrated but very private author with
a debilitating neurological ailment. The author, Joshua Siegl, made his name
with a much-praised novel about the Holocaust based on the fates of his paternal
grandparents. Alma, who grew up listening to anti-Semitic rants, nurses a
hatred for her employer, plotting against him with her lowlife boyfriend.
Siegl, meanwhile, is attracted to Alma and eager to educate her.
Inspiration for "The Tattooed Girl" came both from Oates's
family history and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She learned fairly recently
that her paternal grandmother was Jewish, from a family that left Germany
in the 1890s. She's writing a novel about that, too. "It's something that's
very mysterious to me and has a lot of emotional significance for which I
have to find a metaphor," Oates says.
In the novel version of "Tattooed Girl," Alma comes
to a violent and tragic end, her anti-Semitism more or less unchanged. Oates
says she decided to let Alma evolve a bit in the play and to live, at least
through the final blackout. "I saw a way that the play could be more harmonious
and more optimistic about the future. When you end something bluntly, there's
a sense that there's no future. [But] after 9/11, there was 9/12."
The novel "seems to be making the point that an anti-Semite
will be punished . . . but the play allows an anti-Semite to change,"
the author says.
During an early rehearsal, actors Michael Russotto (Siegl)
and Michelle Shupe (Alma) did a highly charged scene in which Alma says the
Holocaust may have never happened. Oates suggested that Siegl's voice could
be "quavering with rage" while he cited evidence of the genocide. Director
John Vreeke agreed, then proposed a substantial cut to the scene, which Oates
"I gained some trust from her that I wasn't going to
impose my own take on the writing," says Vreeke, after Oates, a D.H. Lawrence
scholar, saw his stage adaptation last spring of "Lady Chatterley's Lover,"
with Shupe in the title role. "Joyce knows . . . what she has written, and
if I go astray, she'll tell me and pull me back," he says.
The Mourning After
New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis writes about what he learned in
the urban trenches, first in the prison story "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train"
and now in "Our Lady of 121st Street." The Woolly Mammoth production runs
through Jan. 2 at the Kennedy Center.
"I was a violence prevention specialist and HIV educator
in prisons and hospitals and shelters," Guirgis says, an experience that
shows in how his characters haul their emotional baggage. Many of them are
struggling to face "the truth of their circumstances or of themselves."
"Our Lady" opens at a funeral home, where the body
of a nun, everyone's favorite Catholic schoolteacher in the Latino and African
American neighborhood, has been stolen from the casket. One mourner, Vic
(Brian Hemmingsen), is ranting profanely as the play begins.
"What's underneath all his anger is
a tremendous amount of sorrow," says the playwright. "For him, it's easier
to . . . scream and yell and bellow than it is to get to what the real thing
is, which is grief.