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At first glance, Jeanette L. Buck’s There Are No Strangers is nothing more than a lengthy account of a harrowing and violent personal ordeal. Told through the eyes of “Jeanette, ” the evening discloses the story of a woman who miraculously survived a brutal attack in the sacred space of her own kitchen. It’s a rather obtuse angle in a play where its very point of interest is a messy, chaotic intersection of all kinds of spiritual perpendiculars.
Just beyond her tough faÃ§ade of brave showmanship, Buck’s battered features and bruised psyche protects battle scars of an intangible variety — the emotional wounds of a woman struggling to reconcile her lack of memory with a serious quest for meaning within such a random act of violence. In just over an hour’s time, Buck manages to reveal bits and pieces of her uncomfortable memories and the grueling details from the night when her own house betrayed her and she realized there are no safe places anymore.
Now in her forties and still searching for answers to impervious questions surrounding how and why her home was invaded by a stranger, Buck turns to the stage to deliver her own personal thank-you note to the friends and perfect strangers in the D.C. area and around the country who supported her both financially and emotionally during her years of recovery and numerous surgeries.
Tottering between grateful soul-searching and haunted vigilante, Buck writes herself with equal parts strong survivor and fragile victim. “Everywhere there’s a potential threat, ” she warns, just before drawing upon her next breath to wonder, “If I can’t remember it, did it really happen? ” Buck’s gracious retelling reveals how one learns to recover from the mutilation of the soul by seeking greater purpose.
Under the brisk direction of Delia Taylor, Holly Twyford explores Buck’s story with all of the dogged determination and studied motivation that Washington audiences have come to expect from such a committed actress. She is a troubled — and efficient — narrator, relating the beating of a lesbian in Venice Beach that was never officially designated a hate crime by the police. There are sharp moments of bitterness and anger from Twyford that reverberate with a solemn stare or sudden burst of recollection. And Twyford’s performance is not without its share of laughter, as she aces Buck’s dry humor.
But ultimately, Twyford isn’t the right actress for the part. Even with cinematographer Richie Sherman’s choreographed filmed sequences, featuring black and white footage of Twyford in demonstrative scenery, the sense of reality is misappropriated by the casting of any woman other than Buck in the part. And after experiencing such a life-altering event, that risk may be too much to ask.
Though her story would prove more powerful coming directly from Buck, Twyford still manages a healthy rendering of a shattered woman grappling with shame, fear, and guilt.
Lisa Ogonowski’s lighting design and Adrianna Dougherty’s sound design add subtle artistic components to a stark story that doesn’t offer a polite smile or happy face to hide its pain. More than anything, There Are No Strangers leaves you with more gratitude for the kindness of strangers than you ever had before you stepped through the door.
They must have heard that laughter is the best medicine, because the folks at Washington Improv Theater (or WIT) prove it’s more than just a staid old theory with TONIC! The Musical Cure for What Ails You. TONIC! cobbles together a different musical that is “Completely Improvised Every Night ” in an unscripted, unrehearsed, and unbelievably delirious series of tightly-knit scenes featuring impromptu pop songs.
Of course it would help to cast singers in a musical, but WIT’s “mainstage ” cast, as led by artistic director Mark Chalfant, has enough raw moxie to carry on through their erratic notes with all the unbridled passion of a really bad American Idol contestant. Although seeing a performance of TONIC! is like watching a play disappear in quicksand, never to be seen or heard from again (as each and every night is an entirely new experience), last weekend audiences were treated to “Salvation! The Musical ” by a cast of six improv artists shunning costumes (all WIT performers are outfitted in street clothes, most likely for comfortable movement on stage). Not surprisingly, most of WIT’s humor is witty, and the ensemble knows each other well enough to let the audience in on their spry, nutty humor, providing some outrageously funny catch phrases invented on impulse.
Unlike most improv groups who struggle with smooth transitions, WIT has a strong command of the ebb and flow in action and reaction. Their plot practically organizes itself, moving seamlessly from one scene to the next, while the characters focus on a smaller subplot. WIT relies heavily upon the instincts and observations of the cast, and their talented actors work well together and off of one another.
Comedy is all in the timing, and as with any repertory company, some players are stronger comedians than others. There were several spontaneous and clever exchanges between Colin Murchie, Michael Bass, and B.J. Rudell, as well as a charming rendezvous between Natasha Rothwell’s homeless child of God and Mark Chalfant’s wealthy benefactor. But each performance is as varied as the myriad of themes possible in music theatre, and the story begins and ends at the crafty hands of Michael Kitces, credited as the evening’s “lighting improviser. ”
While WIT’s TONIC! may not “cure boredom, tone-deafness, or tertiary syphilis ” as their advertising claims would have you believe, it’s still a perfect way to have a romping good time downtown, compliments of Washington’s wacky little improv troupe that could.