Theater: ‘Holly Down in Heaven’

September 25, 2012

“Holly Down in Heaven,” the play by Kara Lee Corthron that is enjoying its world premiere at Forum Theatre, marks Forum’s first run with a resident playwright.

“I’m learning how exciting it is to have that type of collaboration,” said Forum’s artistic director, Michael Dove, who is directing the production. “Having every brain in the room . . . really informs [the play] in a great way.”

Holly is a pregnant, 15-year-old born-again Christian who holes up in her basement with her enormous collection of dolls, which serve as her only confidants.

Allow me to admit some bias here: I hate dolls. I hate them because they are terrifying. Like robots in the uncanny valley, dolls are far too lifelike for comfort. For me to embark on a story about “Holly” is like Indiana Jones lowering himself into the snake-filled Well of Souls. But these are the kinds of sacrifices I make for you, dear Backstage readers: I bravely go where many small, apparently fearless children have gone before.

“Every time I tell people about this play, that’s the reaction I get,” said Dove, when I revealed I found the prospect of a stage filled with 230 dolls to be extremely creepy. “There’s plenty of reasons for these dolls to be creepy, to be honest. They try to do some fairly nefarious things to Holly.”

That’s reassuring! But to Dove, the dolls were a big part of the play’s appeal. “I’m a big puppetry nerd,” he said. “[In] this play, there’s a whole mix of different types of puppetry. A lot of unconventional puppetry. There’s only one traditional puppet in the play.”

He is referring to the Carol Channing ventriloquist’s dummy (the seemingly random selection of Channing is based on a real doll that belongs to Corthron’s niece) that is operated by Vanessa Strickland. “[She] serves as a sort of psychotherapist to Holly,” said Strickland. “Whenever Holly gets upset or angry, you hear my voice coming from offstage. . . . I’m the one who she listens to and I’m the one who knows her best.”

“I’m just a grown man playing with dolls,” said puppeteer Luke Cieslewicz, who manipulates many of the dolls in the show. They operate in a kind of “Toy Story” reality — with the exception of Holly, humans rarely, if ever, see the dolls moving and talking. “They’re kind of projections of Holly’s thoughts and the arguments going on in her head,” Cieslewicz explained.

Thursday to Oct. 20, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, 240- 644-1390, www.forum-theatre. org.

‘Dying City’: A family at war

“Dying City” at Signature Theatre is Washington’s latest installment in the “war ain’t over when it’s over” genre (see also: “Time Stands Still,” “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,”). Peter and Craig are twin brothers. Craig dies in Iraq under unclear circumstances; a year later, Peter shows up at his sister-in-law Kelly’s apartment, despite having not spoken to her since Craig’s funeral.

Thomas Keegan, who plays Peter and Craig, and Rachel Zampelli, who plays Kelly, brought the Christopher Shinn script to director Matt Gardiner together.

Gardiner, who was the director of “Xanadu” at Signature this summer, says he’s often given scripts by actors and usually reacts by “scream[ing] and running away, and I read the script thinking about how I’m going to tell them I’m not interested. But somehow, reading this play. . . . It really struck me.”

Part of the allure was the close-to-home twin brother connection (Matthew’s twin is local actor James Gardiner). “And the idea of violence in the everyday, set against the war, was something that was really intriguing to me.”

“It’s a play about war without being about war,” said Keegan. “It’s a play about the war we have with each other, and the stress that the world puts on us, and how that’s compounded by actual wartimes.”

“And the violence that’s hidden in the everyday,” added Gardiner. “It’s a subtle thing.”

For much of the play, Keegan and Zampelli are the only people onstage. “I was dreading it but really wanted to do it,” said Zampelli of the first run-through. “Once you start, you can’t stop. . . . Before you know it, you’re done, and I feel broken. But fine! We just do it.” Still, she said, “it’s exacting.”

“The other thing is — this will sound a little precious-actor-y — but there is a third person,” said Keegan. “Peter is in the room, or Craig is in the other room, and one of the things we’ve found in rehearsal is that the other person has a lot of pull.”

Oct. 2 - Nov. 25, 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, 703-820-9771, www.signature-theatre.org.

A very Catholic education

All right, John Going. You’re directing “Over the Tavern” at Olney Theatre Center. It’s a play by Tom Dudzick based on Dudzick’s experiences in Catholic school in 1959. A young boy faces off against Sister Clarissa, who, in a shocking twist, is a very strict nun. Let’s hear your Catholic kid cred.

“I went through 16 years of Catholic school,” Going said. “I went to Catholic University here in Washington. It’s all very, very familiar territory to me. I remember it all very, very well. Being taught by the nuns and all of that. I told the cast on the first day of rehearsal . . . ‘If you have any questions, let me know. Because I have all the answers.’ ”

That’s . . . okay; actually that’s pretty impressive as far as Catholic cred goes. You may continue.

“The church today is very different from the way the Catholic Church was in 1959,” said Going. “The play takes place right on the brink of a lot of these changes.”

Dudzick described the work as “semi-autobiographical,” which is why he almost didn’t write it. “I’d been resisting it! I think [it was] the Catholic thing about modesty — you should be modest, don’t shine a light on yourself — something about that upbringing made me want to keep my light hidden under a bushel. But I decided it was just too strong.”

The cast of seven features four teenagers (age-appropriate casting: quite the trend these days), and Rudy, the precocious protagonist, will be played by Noah Chiet, who has appeared in “The History of Invulnerability” at Theater J, “The Hollow” at Signature Theatre, and “Liberty Smith” and “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre.

Going said he auditioned actors in their 20s for the kids’ roles, but “there was something really touching, a poignancy, about kids the real age playing these parts.”

Through Oct. 21, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, 301-924-4485, www.olneytheatre.org.

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