Archive | Magic Time!

This column is named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it John Stoltenberg explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees.


‘Golda’s Balcony’ at Theater J

There’s not a long list of great actors who, through their indelible bravura depiction of a great historical figure in a solo performance, warrant substituting the word “is” for “as,” in billing like “So-and-So Is Famous Person.” On audiences’ mental marquees, the actor and the role become one, such that people come to know and […]

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Magic Time! ‘Arguendo’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by John Stoltenberg

Watching Arguendo—an actual Supreme Court transcript staged cheekily for chuckles by Elevator Repair Service, the New York–based troupe specializing in literary vérité—is like watching a 70-minute Saturday Night Live sketch. The text faithfully depicts arguments before the Court in a 1990 case called Barnes vs. Glen Theatre,which litigated whether women dancing onstage for pay in a non-alcohol adult […]

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‘If/Then’ at The Richard Rodgers Theatre

If/Then, the musical with the biggest heart you can imagine, is now back home in the Big Apple, and just like its main character, Elizabeth (the incomparable Idina Menzel), it is starting over in Manhattan, right where it belongs. I admit to having first met and fallen in love with If/Then during its out-of-town fling […]

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Magic Time! ‘Hair’ at The Keegan Theatre

When I saw the original Broadway production of Hair in the late sixties, my hair was shoulder length, and the slogan “Make love not war!” referred to pacifism pre-9/11 and fluid exchange pre-AIDs. Times have changed a lot (and I’m more shorn), yet this legendary “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” rocks on, its spirit and heartbeat […]

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‘Normal’ at Molotov Theatre Group

Molotov Theatre Group has an uncanny knack for converting its tiny black-box nook into an auditorium-scale operating theater for surgical dissection of the dark side of human nature. With its new production of Normal, observers in attendance at the unflinching examination get an artfully horrifying experience that is both fascinating and profound. As dextrously directed by […]

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‘American Idiot’ at The National Theatre by John Stoltenberg

Among the exhilarating pleasures of seeing American Idiot now on tour at the National Theatre is experiencing this angsty, amped-up ode to antiestablishment disaffection performed full force in DC’s treasured temple of high culture. It’s a discombobulating blast. And Billie Joe Armstrong’s wildly imagined lyrics—scathingly antipathetic to conventional patriotism—keep detonating like verbal grenades. Don’t want to be […]

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Magic Time! ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater by John Stoltenberg

It takes a wagonload of courage to take on Brecht these days. His “alienation effect” esthetic challenges every theatrical convention that makes a show a contemporary commercial success. He explicitly intended that audiences not get emotionally caught up in his stories and characters. He eschewed sentimentality; he embraced skepticsm and cynicism. He expected the political […]

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‘Yellow Face’ at Theater J by John Stoltenberg

If there was an open casting call for the role of you, who should get the part and who shouldn’t? Must the actor be descended from a gene pool that arose in the same area on the globe that yours did? Or could the actor’s family tree be traced back to some otherforest on the planet? Theater J’s […]

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Playing (with) Gender in WSC Avant Bard’s ‘Orlando’: Acting Insights from Sara Barker and Jay Hardee by John Stoltenberg

Orlando, WSC Avant Bard’s upcoming production, is based on Virginia Woolf’s classic 1928 novel in which Woolf based the character Orlando on the woman she was madly in love with. In both the book and in the play—adapted for the stage by renowned playwright Sarah Ruhl—Orlando starts out as a boy then midway through becomes […]

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Magic Time! ‘The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess’ at The National Theatre by John Stoltenberg

History hit an astounding “rewind” and “refresh” button last night at The National Theatre. An abundantly assorted audience of  Washingtonians rose as one to applaud an iconic work of musical theater with a past so complicated and conflicted that such heartfelt unanimity would have been unthinkable back in 1936 when the show first came to […]

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dog & pony dc’s ‘Toast’ (a Workshop Production) by John Stoltenberg

“Audience integration” is a buzzword that has been flying around awhile but only recently landed in my brain. In live theater, it means going beyond removing the fourth wall; it means erasing the line between spectator and performer altogether. It’s different from “audience participation” because it’s not a rehearsed performance into which audience members are […]

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‘Man in a Case’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by John Stoltenberg

It is one thing to amble through a modern art gallery and appreciate an innovative multimedia installation—some videos and audio here, some projections and lighting effects there, perhaps some human performers moving and speaking with random disjunction and non sequitur connotation. One is at liberty in such esoteric circumstances to  interpret free-associatively, to mentally assemble […]

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‘If/Then’ (Revisited) by John Stoltenberg

The first time I saw If/Then, I knew I would be seeing it again. The show’s beauty, originality, and heart won me over, and that experience increased all the way through. I wrote a review for DCMetroTheaterArts in which I called If/Then “an inspiration to fall back in love with one’s own life.” Days after, […]

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‘Magic Time!’ ‘The Laramie Project’ at Ford’s Theatre by John Stoltenberg

If you’re a theater buff who’s worried that the shutdown’s shuttering of Ford’s Theatre and the shunting of The Laramie Project to a nearby church means audiences there must be getting something second rate, I have a news flash: The show temporarily onstage at the First Congregational United Church of Christ is not only first rate; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime […]

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