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It’s hard to be the pussycat — especially when you know that your gay audience is going to be comparing you to Babs. So if you’re going to try to recreate the role that Barbra Streisand branded in the film version of The Owl and the Pussycat, you have to jump in with both feet (or, rather, both go-go boots).
The Actors’ Theatre of Washington’s production of The Owl and the Pussycat revives the endless battle of wits between the bookish Felix (Rick Hammerly) and world-wise yet vocabulary-challenged Doris (Jeffrey Johnson). Obviously, what makes ATW’s version unique is the gender-bending twist on the familiar story. While this casting lends itself to a couple of witty double-entendres, it’s not enough for the play to live up to its ”hilarious” billing. Entertaining? Yes. Hilarious? Not even close.
Sparring partners: Johnson and Hammerly
(Photo by Ray Gniewek)
Felix is a wannabe writer who is more successful as a Peeping Tom than as a published author. When he rats out his neighbor for turning tricks, ”she” gets even by barging into his apartment and setting up camp. After much verbal warfare, the two end up as bed buddies, if not bosom buddies. As they continue to fight and degrade one another, there just isn’t enough chemistry between the actors to sufficiently answer ”Why bother?” Bill Manhoff’s comedy is filled with snappy one-liners, but most of them fall flat on the edge of the stage.
|OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT
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Independently, both actors deliver commendable performances. Hammerly is strongest when Felix is a complete ass to Doris; his scared, overwhelmed Felix lacks the same conviction. Johnson is best when he lays Doris bare, both physically and emotionally. For audiences who are accustomed to drag, his portrayal of a woman rather quickly becomes unnoticed. He’s simply Doris, sporting a wig, go-go boots, and one of several psychedelic short dresses. However, when he’s on stage without the wig, the fake boobs, and the make-up, he conjures the real magic of casting a man to play Doris.
The quality of the show builds steadily and finally peaks in the second act, specifically when the pretense of humor is dispensed with and Felix and Doris show their darkest sides. This is when the play truly hums and tension radiates from the stage. Hopefully Johnson and Hammerly will migrate the chemistry they create in the dark moments to some of the lighter ones. Otherwise, it’s really tough to give a hoot about the owl or the pussycat.
Nat Turner. The B-52’s. Fox News. Time travel. Coming out. Infanticide. The Wizard of Oz. Lynyrd Skynyrd.
It sounds like the Theater Alliance’s latest production is a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? But under Timothy Douglas’s careful direction, Robert O’Hara’s innovative play, Insurrection: Holding History, is a wonderful combination of wit, humor and sorrow that is not to be missed.
Insurrection is the story of TJ (Cedric Mays), a 198-year-old former slave who convinces his great, great grandson to take him on a road trip back to where he lived when he was a slave. As they return to Virginia, the pair travels back through time to the days just before Nat Turner’s insurrection. Any skepticism that this plot may cause is dispelled within the first two minutes — the energetic and vibrant cast members quickly embrace the audience and don’t release their hold until it’s all over. In fact, if not for such a strong ensemble cast, the show might easily get lost in the myriad pitfalls that exist for such an inventive play.
TJ’s grandson, Ron (Frank Britton) is smart, well-spoken, polite, educated — in other words, clearly he’s gay. Ron’s biggest problem is finishing his thesis on Nat Turner and American slavery. Once he starts to hear TJ’s voice in his head, he realizes that the history he’s trying to study is living right in front of him.
In a Wizard of Oz-inspired move, actors play multiple roles, both in the present and in the past. Ultimately, even the time periods get crossed as the lines between worlds blur. The utter confusion of the characters is laugh-out-loud funny, though moments later the horrors of slavery again cast a pall over the audience. The science fiction aspects of the plot are so secondary to the acting, it’s easy to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.
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The biggest hitch in the show is Nat Turner’s (KenYatta Rogers) evangelical speech to rally the other slaves to revolt. Though no fault of Rogers, who brings a fiery charge to the scene, the obvious allusion to televangelists is simply overkill. The rest of the second act is spent recovering from this misstep. Fortunately, the strength of women is enough to turn it around. Jessica Frances Dukes, previously seen in the Theatre Alliance’s production of The Bluest Eye, returns to the stage with another stellar performance, and Maya Lynne Robinson is simply outstanding.
Ultimately, the gay subplot is the most extraneous portion of the play. In fact, several poorly placed gay jokes threaten to derail the final moments. However, the show has strong roots and overcomes the little mistakes.
For a play caught up in examining the past, Insurrection: Holding History has a bright future.
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