History is an ongoing struggle, and so is the effort to make sense of it as the Capital Fringe Festival continues to roll out. Celia Wren observes Henry VIII’s wives dealing with the dead king in “Ladies in Waiting”; Roger Catlin reviews a post-election catalogue with the Elizabeth Warren-inspired title “Nevertheless, She Persisted”; and Maia Silber ponders a Bill Clinton lecture in “Thomas Jefferson Hoochie-Coochie Man.”
“Ladies in Waiting”
Is there couples counseling in the afterlife? If there is, could someone arrange for a session with five spare chairs? Henry VIII has just died, and he and his spouses have a whole lot of pent-up rancor to work through.
In James Cougar Canfield’s bombastic drama “Ladies in Waiting: The Judgement of Henry VIII,” the deceased Tudor monarch awakes in the hereafter only to find himself facing down his six exes. One by one, with histrionics and diligent reference to 16th-century events, the wives remind Henry of old resentments and reveal to him new reasons for self-reproach. Along the way, the talk casts revisionist light on the king’s legacy, so that the multistage showdown in the Great Beyond begins to resemble a Purgatorial ordeal crossed with an AP History lesson.
Featuring Canfield as a moody Henry and six fine actresses as distinctive consorts, the play has been adeptly directed by Mitchell Glass, who keeps the haunting and squabbling moving at a brisk clip. A particularly well-paced early sequence, in which the wives hurl reminders or reproaches at the just-arrived sovereign, recalls a madrigal.
Dressed in Renaissance-evoking corseted attire, the royal women take seats and look (fittingly) bored when not engaging one-on-one with Henry. (Presumably for the sake of dramaturgical factors such as tension, the confrontations do not correspond with the chronology of the marriages.) Among the memorable wifely portraits are Amy Frey’s tempestuous, controlling Anne Boleyn (executed); Margaret Gorrell’s poignantly ditsy Catherine Howard (executed); and Hilary Kelman’s regal Catherine of Aragon (divorced). Laryssa Schoeck, Jennifer Haining, and Claiborne Tomlinson play the other erstwhile brides.
Presented by Tier 5 Theatre Project, “Ladies in Waiting” has reportedly had successful runs at the Edinburgh and Hollywood fringe festivals. Its air of self-importance and dutiful snapshot-historicism irked this D.C.-area reviewer, who nevertheless welcomed its feminist message.
— Celia Wren
70 minutes. July 8, 9, 12, 13 and 15 at the Eastman Studio Theatre, Gallaudet University.
“Nevertheless, She Persisted: Stories of Connection in a Disconnected Society”
The anticipated political undertone to the 2017 Capital Fringe Festival marches directly to the fore in one of its first offerings, “Nevertheless, She Persisted: Stories of Connection in a Disconnected Society.” Playwright Lauren Hanna didn’t so much write as “curate,” with permission, reactions to the 2016 presidential election from the outpouring of posts in assorted spontaneous online “safe spaces” that emerged in November’s aftermath.
Organized chronologically, the often-personal passages begin with hopeful, even assured feelings during early campaigning, turning to worries and election night shock. Fear, horror and numbness make way for sharp questioning, defiance and even a glimmer of hope. Though it borrows its title from Senate leaders’ attempt to silence Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), “Nevertheless, She Persisted” never otherwise refers to it.
Some messages are effective in illuminating aspects of the political season, from rampant fear in the Muslim community to the questioning of rage amid entrenched camps in the Democratic primaries. Most, though, are things that have been expressed widely, even constantly, online, in cable TV panels or at dinner parties.
The chosen prose, though often heartfelt, is not the stuff of readings, but that’s just how this is presented: Four women on chairs rise to read from a bulging script. Some, such as Emily Crockett and Carolyn Diaz, show enough familiarity with the material to inject some feeling into the words, often just by pausing long enough to sigh. Others seem to be seeing the text for the first time.
The four, who also include Suzanne La Rue and Mandeep Mandi, are dressed in funereal black, save for splashes of telltale pink — in an wristband, headband, heels or sneakers. And that’s it for stagecraft. There weren’t even any programs or handbills crediting those who helped create it. Crowdsourcing, it turns out, is not the best on detail.
— Roger Catlin
65 minutes. July 9, 15, 19 and 22. Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE.
“Thomas Jefferson: Hoochie-Coochie Man.”
Call it the “Hamilton” effect. Take a Founding Father, add a dose of irreverence, and you’ve got a hit, right?
That seems to have been the idea behind Clyde Ensslin’s Capital Fringe debut, “Thomas Jefferson Hoochie-Coochie Man.” The one-man show, which premiered Thursday at the Pursuit Wine Bar, imagines Jefferson as the womanizer of Willie Dixon’s blues standard. Ensslin, as “Professor Clinton,” tells the story of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a slave with whom Jefferson fathered several children. Like Jefferson, Professor Clinton tells us, he’s a former president, a Southerner and has been “in the hound house” himself.
It’s a dubious comparison: There are significant differences, ethical and historical, between Clinton’s tryst with a White House intern and the horrific system of chattel slavery. Ensslin’s Arkansas accent fades out after the first few minutes of his monologue, as does the Professor-Clinton premise. Which leaves us with Ensslin, handing out stapled packets of excerpted texts, giving us a history lecture.
Ensslin’s commentary consists mostly of chronicling previous, more interesting attempts to tell the story of Jefferson, Hemings and their children. If the subject interests you, you’re better off reading Annette Gordon-Reed’s excellent book, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.” No Bill impersonation, but a better history, and a better story, too.
— Maia Silber
70 minutes. July 8, 13, 15, 18 and 22 at Pursuit Wine Bar, 1421 H St NE.
IF YOU GO:
Fringe tickets $17, plus one-time purchase of a $7 Fringe button. Available online at www.capitalfringe.org, 866-811-4111 and at Fringe venues.