BWW Review: An Epic DESCRIBE THE NIGHT at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Notable for being the final selection of Woolly's incomparable Founding Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, Rajiv Joseph's Describe the Night is a must-see for any serious DC area theatergoer. Despite some baffling staging decisions by John Vreeke (at least for some members of the audience), the show features some of the season's strongest ensemble acting and an epic story that will keep you interested for close to three hours.
Pulitzer Award-winner Rajiv Joseph's story spans 1920 to almost present day (2010). Writer Isaac Babel (Jonathan David Martin, giving his best DC area performance to date) encounters Nikolai (Tim Getman), a soldier, in the Polish countryside during the Russo-Polish war. While both Russian, they could not be more different. Nikolai is obsessed with facts and rules, in part due to his military service. Babel sees the world around him, and the actions of his country more specifically, in terms that are much less black and white. Perception matters, and he takes great care to detail what the world looks like around him - physically and otherwise - in his journal and later, his books and screenplays.
Joseph takes these ideas of fact vs fiction and truth vs lies and weaves them throughout his story, which not only spans multiple decades, but multiple countries (Poland, Russia/Soviet Union, and Germany). A jigsaw puzzle emerges - how Isaac and Nikolai (and his wife Yevgenia, well played by Regina Aquino) are connected to Feliks (Justin Weaks), a car rental employee in Poland in 2010 and Mariya (Kate Eastwood Norris), the reporter Feliks meets on the night the President of Poland and other senior leaders are killed in a plane crash. How are they connected to Vova (Danny Gavigan), the KGB officer turned Russian leader, and Urzula (Moriamo Temidayo Akibu), the young girl living in Dresden who he's tasked to prevent escaping to the West? In an effort not to spoil all of the twists and turns here, let's suffice it to say that the pieces (and how they all fit together) become increasingly clear in Act Two. Isaac's journal is the key not only to their connection, but how each person has been personally impacted by manipulations or interpretations of the truth - truth that can be traced back decades.
Joseph's play is - without a doubt - long. While there are some moments that go on for slightly too long (the initial scene between Feliks and Mariya is but one example), he is a master at presenting a cohesive and compelling story featuring rich and well-defined characters. While there are many twists and turns, the story is never convoluted and is always interesting. Perhaps with a lesser acting company it might be a slog at times, but this is most definitely not the case at Woolly.
Each cast member is on equal footing, approaching each character with a similar level of understanding of who they are as individuals, how they are connected to others, and how they fit into the big picture - without showing all their cards to the audience too soon. Even if a particular character is not involved in a particular scene, there's a good chance they will (at least at one point or another) be sitting on a bench onstage or up on a platform quietly watching the proceedings. These proceedings, of course, have profound implications for their own character's journey.
If I were to offer one quibble about Vreeke's direction, I would suggest that deciding to present the show with alley staging was a misstep. If anything, a least for those of us sitting in folding, padded chairs in the North Bank (which is essentially where the backstage/stage area usually is), this staging eliminated any opportunity to fully immerse ourselves in the story and forget that we're watching actors perform scenes within the confines of a theater space. From my vantage point, I could see crew running the fly system, setting props, getting set pieces ready, or moving lights. While this is clearly intentional - perhaps to emphasize the "truth vs fiction" or "reality vs. created reality" aspects of the story - it was, in a word, distracting (at least for me). Their movements often took me out of the moment and wonder if I would have felt the same way if I was sitting in the traditional seats.
I've been going to see shows at Woolly for years - in a reviewing and non-reviewing capacity - and this is just yet another example of how decisions to change up the seating don't always make for a pleasant viewing experience for the entire audience. At least, in this case, set pieces didn't block my view like in some other productions. I admire the creativity though even if it didn't really work.
Other strong technical elements - from Misha Kachman's easily transformed set, and Roc Lee's sound design that provides just the right ambience for any scene, to Colin K. Bills' appropriately harsh lighting design - add interest and complement the story.
All in all, this show is an incredibly strong way for Mr. Shalwitz to end his time selecting shows for Woolly. While I may not have liked every show he selected since I've been going to Woolly, there's absolutely no denying the fact that he was keen on selecting shows that would challenge his audiences and provide them an opportunity to see shows they would not be able to see anywhere else in town - even with the number of choices we have. His unique artistic vision will be missed, but I look forward to seeing what Maria Manuela Goyanes has in store for us as the new artistic director. Looking at her selections for next season, I think the company is in good hands.
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.
DESCRIBE THE NIGHT plays at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, located at 641 D Street, NW in Washington, DC - through June 23, 2019. For tickets, call the box office at 202-393-3939 or purchase them online.