Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
In 2002, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson was sent to the the African nation of Niger to assess whether Iraq was buying uranium ore to build nuclear weapons. Wilson’s investigation found no such evidence, but in the 2003 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush said, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Four months after, the U.S. invaded Iraq, basing that military operation on the erroneous information that Saddam had “weapons of mass destruction.” Wilson wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times titled, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” basically accusing the Bush Administration of lying to justify the war.
Retaliation against Wilson zeroed in on his wife, Valerie Plame, a career CIA operative whose identity was leaked to the press by members of the Bush Administration and first published in the Washington Post by conservative columnist Robert Novak. Plame’s outing effectively ended her career and also placed any assets she had worked with in danger. Although Plame did not send her husband to Niger, she also was held responsible for that decision, bringing about charges of nepotism.
Hannah Yelland and Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman
Jacqueline E. Lawton’s aptly titled Intelligence, now playing at Arena Stage, purports to tell Plame’s story. First commissioned in 2015 as part of Arena’s Power Play initiative, Lawton’s work is well-timed. Intelligence leaks are in the news, but as Intelligence shows, those leaks are not new. In a tight and tense 90-minutes, Intelligence imagines Plame’s double life – on one hand, an undercover CIA operative, and on the other, a wife to Wilson and mother to their three-year old twins.
In Playwright’s Notes included in the program, Lawton said that she writes “out of a deep frustration for the lack of strong, complex and engaging roles for women in the American theater.” She was drawn to Plame’s story about a woman “fighting to ensure the national security of the United States.” Intelligence is directed by Daniella Topol, artistic director of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York.
In Arena’s Kogod Cradle, Misha Kachman’s set design, dominated by dark gray moveable walls, creates the perfect backdrop for clandestine activities. On the left side of the stage, couches and a coffee table represent the more intimate and comfortable Wilson/Plame living room. The columns also work as screens where video scenes from 9/11 are played, along with snippets of speeches made by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Ethan Hova, Nora Achrati, and Hannah Yelland
Working for the CIA’s counter-proliferation division, Plame (a passionate performance by Hannah Yelland, who also resembles Plame) is investigating whether Iraq is amassing weapons. The importance of her mission cannot be understated. Not only will her findings produce valuable evidence that may or may not result in the U.S. attacking Iraq, but any assets who provide that information might be targeted for death. Intelligence is a fictionalized account of what might have transpired as Plame went about her duties.
Dr. Malik Nazari (a searing performance by Ethan Hova), representing one of Plame’s assets, is an Iraqi who once tested chemical weapons for Saddam’s regime. Often the most unpleasant part of a CIA agent’s job is pressuring, even blackmailing, those who are innocent. Leyla Nazari (Nora Achrati) Malik’s niece, is a dress designer who makes frequent trips to Jordan. Plame coming to Leyla’s shop, ostensibly to pick up a scarf, threatens to turn over information about those trips to the government unless Leyla convinces her uncle to meet with her.
Nazari agrees to the meeting, in the coffee shop he now runs. Now out of Iraq, he’s still wracked with guilt over testing chemical weapons on prisoners and others who were unable to defend themselves. He agrees to go back to Iraq to gather information, not for Plame or the U.S., but for his people, he tells her. Plame promises to go with him to Iraq, but is ordered not to do so by her supervisor, Elaine Matthews (Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman). That won’t be the only promise Plame is forced to break. After she’s outed, she’s barred from the CIA (on her next visit, she’s given a visitor pass), and is unable to contact or protect Nazari or Leyla.
Hannah Yelland and Lawrence Redmond
Plame’s situation takes a toll on her at home, too. While her husband (Lawrence Redmond) is depicted here as being less than supportive about her job, complaining when she has to work late or travel (she’s a CIA operative!), he also doesn’t stop to think about what effect his Times column might have on her career. Seeing her name in print in Novak’s story, Plame lashes out at him, pointing out that he has placed her and the children in danger. (In real life, Plame and Wilson eventually relocated from Washington, D.C. to New Mexico, after receiving death threats.)
Never before has gathering intelligence been more important. And never before have these dedicated people who place their lives on the line every day to perform these duties come under such unrelenting attack. Intelligence is a cautionary tale that we have to do better, recruiting the best and brightest for these challenging assignments and then giving them the tools and the support they need to succeed in their missions to keep America safe.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Intelligence Written by Jacqueline E. Lawton Directed by Daniella Topol Kogod Cradle Arena Stage Extended through April 9, 2017
Nibbler is an odd beast. By that I mean the play and the (we can surmise) titular character. The latter is a gangly green guy with a habit of popping up when people are at their most vulnerable, in flagrante delicto or enjoying some solo stimulation. (There are quite a few adult situations in this 90-minute play, not to mention an abundance of male nudity and some downright saucy—if sometimes hilariously purple—language. So ends the parental advisory.) The green beast shows up and promptly wreaks havoc on the group of recent high school graduates, bringing them forced enlightenment compliments of its mind-altering sexual predation. After encountering the creature, the quintet is changed irrevocably. It’s all very American Graffiti. But, you know, with an alien.
Matthew Lawler as Officer Dan, Rachel Franco as Tara
Nibbler was mostly written in in 2004, though almost all of the action takes place in the New Jersey pine barrens in 1992. The performers go above and beyond, considering the abundant nudity, the very mature scenes and the incredibly compromising positions with some creatively chosen props. And nearly all of them accompany moments of pained desperation, the symptoms of deep emotional damage, which the actors perform with admirable fervor. If you are the type for whom the human form brings blushes and giggles, this is not the play for you. For everyone else, it will likely touch some feelings and memories close to home—if not of yourself than probably of someone you knew when you were that age.
James Kautz is Adam, the de facto narrator. The story unwraps itself in flashback as he sorts through a box of mementos from the summer after high school graduation. His friends way back when are an eclectic mix: Elizabeth Lail is the blonde and secretly super-sexual Hayley, Matthew Lawler is local boy-turned-fuzz Officer Dan, Spencer Davis Milford is Matt, the über-Republican politician’s son, Rachel Franco is anxious overachiever with daddy issues, Tara, and Sean Patrick Monahan is Pete, the boy who secretly pines for his best friend, Adam.
James Kautz as Adam, Rachel Franco as Tara
A simple telling could be that sex changes things and makes people grow up. The creature, after all, is drawn to people in the throes of sexual excitement, and after this initial encounter those people are forever changed. Another telling could use the alien as symbolic of the college experience, something that’s scary at first but ultimately brings us wisdom and catalyzes change to help us become the people we are ‘meant’ to be. Or maybe it’s just about longing for what has passed, a simpler time before adult responsibilities and difficult choices made it impossible to keep on keeping on. Either way, the characters change in dramatic ways, ways that make them happier in the end because they have become comfortable with themselves, but also sadder for never being able to go back to how things were.
Elizabeth Lail as Hayley, Spencer Davis Milford as Matt
The whole thing is amusing, even if a little heavy-handed with the sterotypes. The one part that didn’t work, on multiple levels, was the musical number at the end, which does, in fact, sound as if it was written by a teenager trying to be deeper and more philosophical than they really have in them. Problems with mic balance and not entirely on-tune singing added to the effect, as did the brief pauses in between singing when the characters went back to their former selves, joking around in their favorite local diner hangout. It’s the kind of scene that may look good on paper but just doesn’t work in a live performance.
What it does well is point out how the political climate in 1992 had so many parallels to what is happening today. Not quite as extreme, mind, but certainly interesting. Playwright Ken Urban and director Benjamin Kamine have done good work with the set, props, and the 90s grunge feel, both the clothes and the attitude. The attention to detail is also so true to Southern New Jersey in the early-to mid-90s. From the clothes to the music to the diner snacks, it rings true. So visit the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on Waverly, then maybe make your way over to MacDougal for some frites with gravy and cheese. Think about who you were, who you are, and enjoy the moment for what it is: the bridge between what was and what will be.
Photo credit: Russ Rowland Top: James Kautz as Adam, Elizabeth Lail as Hayley, Spencer Davis Milford as Matt, Sean Patrick Monahan as Pete, Rachel Franco as Tara
Nibbler Playing at The Rattlestick Playwrights Theater 224 Waverly Place Through March 18, 2017
This is the time of year when many people take a moment to contemplate the things in life for which they are thankful. It may be a difficult thing for many people to do right now, what with the surplus of hate and fear that has heretofore barely been kept at bay now rearing its many ugly heads. The world seems a little darker than it was only a few weeks ago. That’s why here and now I’m thankful for Gideon Irving. His ever-evolving show, My Name is Gideon: I’m Probably Going to Die Eventually (now in its ninth version of the same first show) is a balm for what ails the psyche. There is magic in his work, and I don’t just mean the playing cards.
We are lucky to have people like Gideon, artists with big, wide-open hearts who can offer a respite from the dull ache of everyday life. He speaks sweetly and appears almost shy as he encourages his audience to follow him into a place warmed with fairy lights, folk songs, fresh-baked cookies, and surprises to delight and astonish. The feeling he exudes is one joyful whimsy, and the small dashes of Dadaist (non)sensibilities sprinkled liberally throughout surprise and delight. Just walking into the theater is an experience.
Nearly every square inch of the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater has been covered in mementos and props culled from Gideon’s life and previous performances. This is quite an achievement in stage design, especially considering that the stage was doubled in depth just for this show. it’s a treat for the eyes and as full of surprises as the performance itself. The attention to detail is remarkable.
Coming to his show is, as he said he hopes, like coming into his home. Gideon welcomes everyone on the stage afterward for a chat and to take a closer look at what he has going on, though I can’t really tell you much of what’s there because it would ruin the surprise. But know there are literally hundreds of interesting things to see and a handful of lovely projects you can sign up to be a part of.
As a performer, Gideon is unassuming but obviously insanely creative. He and his production team have created a lovely, intricate, wholly safe space for people to come and experience something different and quietly wonderful. He’s a talented songwriter, too, and his music is the kind that uplifts and helps you forget what you left behind on the outside. It was a breath of fresh air, a respite from the sadness and anger that some of us are feeling now like a constant ringing in the ears.
For two hours, and more if you come early to check out the décor and stay afterward to talk, there is a chance for peace and calm. He’s also subtly brilliant at inspiration and motivation. Take, for instance, how he talks about his next planned project, for which he’s only just working out the details. It seems like an extraordinary goal, but he breaks it down in a way that makes it seem like just a matter of preparation and taking the first step.
There isn’t much I can say to describe what happens in the show—again, even if it wasn’t requested I wouldn’t tell you for fear of ruining the surprise—but I can say that it was something I will remember for a long time to come. Take a chance on this unknown. You won’t regret it.
Photos by Maria Baranova
My Name Is Gideon: I’m Probably Going To Die, Eventually Rattlestick Playwrights Theater 224 Waverly Place Limited run through December 11, 2016 Tuesdays – Saturday’s at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday’s at 3 p.m., exceptions are December 3rd and 10th at 7 p.m. Dark nights are November 30 and December 7. Tickets can be purchased by visiting Ovation Tix or calling (866) 811- 4111.
Darja (Marin Ireland) and Tommy (Morgan Spector) are having a heated argument at a bleak, highway bus stop in New Jersey. She’s a volatile Polish immigrant in her early forties with a decided accent (wonderfully executed) who works in a factory and cleaning houses. He’s a slightly younger, loosely wound, American postal worker with a tattoo on his leg.
Tommy is Darja’s third formal liaison after a first husband with whom she came to the states and a second who physically abused her. They’ve been together six years. Twenty-two year-old son, Alex, who has a serious drug addiction, has disappeared from home. The need to find him is eating his mother alive. Though this argument is provoked by that anxiety, it centers on Tommy’s infidelity. He’s been bedding a rich Montclair woman whose house Darja cleans.
Morgan Spector and Marin Ireland
“…What you gotta understand is that people fuck up…if you wanna classify me for one little…” Tommy protests, adding Darja knows he has trouble being alone. (She often works late.) The one little turns out to be at least 14 meetings over several years – and there were other women. She’s figured out his password and tapped his iPhone “There’s an app.”
Rage has blinded neither Darja’s independence nor her survival skills. She wants to know how much money Tommy will give her to stay. He thinks he rescued her. She feels she’s slaving for him and points out that his mistress sees him as a toy. They negotiate. She wants at least enough money for a car. He rationalizes “support,” then withdraws at further vitriol. “Get in the car!” Blackout.
Josiah Bania and Marin Ireland
From here, we open on the bus stop 22 years before. The play unfolds episodically back and forth from past to present. Though it takes a few minutes to get one’s bearing at the first shift in time, the story then flows with clarity. We’re always on the highway between Elizabeth and Newark. Limbo.
Darja and her first husband, Maks (Josiah Bania), are at insurmountable odds about his starry-eyed dream to go to Chicago and play blues. Still suffering from the first uprooting, she wants to stay where they both have jobs and things are secure. They argue about the importance of money above all else. Darja is pregnant, but doesn’t tell her husband. Clearly in love, the couple reluctantly part. Sensitively written and gently enacted.
Shiloh Fernandez and Marin Ireland
We never meet husband number two, formerly Darja’s boss at the factory, but one scene during that marriage finds her huddling against the night cold with a whopper of a black eye afraid to return home. She’s discovered by male prostitute Vic (Shiloh Fernandez), who looks and talks like a street thug, but is, in fact, just the opposite. This parenthesis is like watching Androcles and the Lion. Darja is skittish, suspicious. Vic is sweet and solicitous. Their eventual accommodation to each other is palpably genuine.
Polish to English syntax is pitch perfect. The heroine’s relationships with Maks and Tommy couldn’t be more different, yet both are filled with specifics that make them feel authentic. Darja knows nothing but poverty and struggle. Sometimes she steals a little something from a client. Men have been unreliable, cruel. Life centers around getting through each day and doing what she can for her son. She clearly cares for Tommy, but there’s an acknowledged mutual “using” present as well. They part. Will they reunite…when circumstances change?
This is a tough, tightly written, visceral play, yet it contains both tenderness and humor.
Marin Ireland and Morgan Spector
Morgan Spector (Tommy), as what we used to call a “big lug,” embodies an unworldly innocence that’s no match for the clever Darja. The actor is thoroughly grounded. Blow-ups come from the gut. A passage where he thinks he sees a different future for himself is touching, not cloying.
Josiah Bania plays Maks as a loving man with a dream that simply won’t be denied. Bania both speaks excellent Polish (is he of that nationality?) and plays outstanding mouth organ. Quite a casting feat. He’s unmistakably playful, tender, and resolved.
As Vic, Shiloh Fernandez so completely epitomizes a backstreet gang member, we’re thoroughly surprised when he turns out to be otherwise. Fernandez walks a fine line between the boy’s assumed persona and his sincerity with great finesse.
Marin Ireland is simply wonderful. There isn’t a crack in the fully formed woman she inhabits. Steely, plotting, desperate, proud, stubborn, and at least, at one point, in love, we see her viscerally fighting to endure. Though the experience may be foreign, Ireland offers affecting touch points at every turn.
Direction by Daniella Topol is both pithy and nuanced.
Justin Townsend’s Scenic Design couldn’t be aptly colder or more minimal.
Kaye Voyce’s Costumes add immeasurably to character definition.
Photos by Sandra Coudert Opening: Marin Ireland
Ironbound by Martyna Majok Directed by Daniella Topol Featuring: Josiah Bania, Shiloh Fernandez, Marin Ireland, Morgan Spector Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Co-Production with Women’s Project Theater 224 Waverly Place Through April 10, 2016