‘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 Film Theater.

December 8, 2004 - January 2, 2005
Our Lady of 121st Street

Reviewed December 12
 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 the dialogue.

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.
Our Lady of 121st Street
To 1/2/05
Woolly Mammoth

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 Empress. "

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 that way.  

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 Festival.

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 didn't protest.

"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.

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