BWW Reviews: Female Solo Artists Play the Capital Fringe MEDEA'S GOT SOME ISSUES and MANDARIN ORANGE
My Saturday afternoon covering the Capital Fringe Festival brought me to two solo shows featuring female characters that are put into unexpected situations, but that's where the similarities end. There's the twist on a classic story written by a male Spanish playwright and interpreted by an actress that's done a lot of work around town, and a familiar, personal, and modern story of small town girl that goes overseas, and conveyed by the writer herself. When Medea's Got Some Issues and Mandarin Orange are taken in on one afternoon, one can leave with the feeling that solo plays can achieve success in a variety of forms. They also reinforce the idea that having an engaging performer to bring the script to life is half the battle.
No Rules Theatre Company is a well-known quantity in the DC theatre scene and one that's usually not afraid of taking on a work that's new and unexpected. Presented in partnership with SPAIN Arts & Culture and directed by No Rules Artistic Director Joshua Morgan, Medea's Got Some Issues is one of those plays that is both new and different. This production also benefits from having an extremely capable performer at the center of it.
Playwright Emilio Williams takes the fierce and strong, but very flawed Medea we know from Greek literature and gives her the stage to express her angst - mostly with Jason (you know, the Argonaut) - and help us understand how her experience with him, influenced by her place within that Greek society, led her to do an act that's forever captured in literature. What we have is not the story of Medea, but rather Medea explaining herself and her predicament to a modern audience. But there's even more of an interesting twist. Much like Medea, the fierce but far-from-perfect actress (Lisa Hodsoll) tasked with portraying her - because the star was unavailable - has her own set of issues. In this case, they aren't associated with ancient Greece, but with the DC theatre scene. Hilarious rants from today and years ago about those who have the power and those who don't, and other contentious issues (some gender-influenced) ingeniously take on a similar form. This makes it rather easy to draw parallels between the journeys of these two imperfect women.
From the moment Hodsoll - rather ungracefully - enters onto the stage from behind a red curtain hung on a rod low to the floor (yes, as she whines, it's not a theatre with a real red velvet curtain), she has such a commanding presence it's easy to become immersed into her plight/story almost instantaneously. Vulnerability mixed with confidence, she grapples with the difficult situations that Medea faces as well as the own difficult situation she faces (standing in for the "perfect" actress) with humor and a fierce sense of self. In a lesser actress' hands (and probably with a lesser director), the flaws in Williams' script might have shown through more. Weaknesses include the repetitive moments he has our protagonist endure and jokes that go on far too long. What might have been a grating, whining fest - albeit a creative one - turned out to be an hour in which the best and worst of human nature is shared in a compelling and often humorous way. This is in part due to Hodsoll's tour-de-force performance. Featuring technical elements that are step above what one usually finds in Fringe settings (Cory Ryan Frank's Greek-inspired set with a double meaning), this one is a polished production that deserves to be seen.
The story Kate Robards tells in Mandarin Orange (directed by Jill Vice) may not be as supremely different and creative as the one told in Medea's Got Some Issues, but this play also has an engaging performer at the center of it. Kate grew up in the small town of Orange, Texas (think more Cajun than cowboys) just in the same way everyone else did in that town (you know, church on Sundays). Her mother - a local radio show persona - knew everyone and so did she so privacy wasn't commonplace. After setting off for DC presumably after college, she leaves with her boyfriend Josh for Shanghai, China because he's been offered a job there. Situations of culture shock - particularly for a girl from small town Texas - come into play and she initially finds friends within a group of expat women (the Shanghai dolls) who don't exactly interact with the locals except for when it comes to their ayi (essentially a nanny-maid combo). She finds herself in that journey to China, and one particular experience there makes her internalize more where she came from - her roots as it were - and appreciate the overseas experience in a way that's deeper and more lasting than just having the opportunity to go to an exciting new place.
While Robards is an engaging performer with an easy, natural presence onstage, nothing can change the fact that her story is far from unique. A look at her distant and more immediate pasts is probably very similar to many a small town girl who had the chance to experience the world outside of where they grew up. Her most interesting stories focus on the relationship she builds with a Chinese co-worker who was initially not her favorite person. A brief glimpse into the Chinese culture and the life of a young girl in China through the eyes of the co-worker - especially when juxtaposed with Kate's experience growing up - is particularly touching and different though far too brief. That element is far more interesting, for example, than regaling us with your standard "fish out of water" stories about what it was like to first take the subway in that city, dodge electric scooters, and try to cross at intersections when there are no traffic rules. The challenges of adapting to a new lifestyle/city are kind of a "been there, done that" anywhere-in-the-world kind of thing. Still, thanks to Robards' skill, it's still a pleasant enough way to spend an hour or so.
"Medea's Got Some Issues" is being presented as part of the Capital Fringe Festival at the Warehouse Theatre - 645 New York Avenue, NW in Washington, DC - through July 27. For tickets, show schedules, and additional information, visit the show page on the Capital Fringe website. Run time is about 60 minutes.
"Mandarin Orange" is being presented as part of the Capital Fringe Festival at Caos on F - 923 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through July 26. For tickets, show schedules, and additional information, visit the show page on the Capital Fringe website. Run time is about 50 minutes.
Graphics: Courtesy of Capital Fringe website.