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BWW Review: DIGGING UP DESSA at Kennedy Center

BWW Review: DIGGING UP DESSA at Kennedy Center
L-R Alina Collins Maldonado and Chris Stinson in Kennedy Center's TYA production of Digging up Dessa. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

Sometimes playwrights have a good idea for a script, but can't leave well enough alone. Such is the case with Laura Schelhardt and her world premiere commissioned play Digging Up Dessa, now playing in the Family Theater at Kennedy Center as part of the Women's Voices Theatre Festival.

BWW Review: DIGGING UP DESSA at Kennedy Center
L-R Jackie Renee Robinson and Alina Collins Maldonado in Kennedy Center's TYA production of Digging up Dessa. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

I always say that theater is meant to educate as well as entertain and here Schelhardt tries to educate us about a female paleontologist named Mary Anning (Jackie Renee Robinson) who lived in the 19th century. As explained in the play, many discoveries that renowned scientists like Charles Darwin took credit for were actually Anning's. In my opinion, this historical scenario should have been the focus of Schelhardt's script.

Instead, we have a play where the main character is not Anning, but a whiny, angry teenager named Dessa (Alina Collins Maldonado). Now, to be fair, if you lost your father in a car accident, you might be angry also, especially if you and your mom were in the car at the time. Dessa has an interest in paleontology and she has an imaginary friend who is none other than the ghost of Mary Anning. Dessa visits a museum and learns, from the ghost, that male paleontologists took credit for everything that Anning accomplished. This upsets Dessa so much that she actually punches a hole in Charles Darwin's portrait. This, as you might guess, does not sit particularly well with the head of the museum.

Meanwhile, we meet Nilo (Chris Stinson), a stuck-up rich kid whose daddy is (wait for it) the head of the museum. With a science fair fast approaching, Nilo's Daddy (never seen) decides it would be a good idea if Nilo and Dessa team up on a project; he wants to make something of his son. This of course means Nilo's perfectly white clothes might have to get a little dirty. Dessa suggests to Nilo that they should do a project on sexism in science, providing the perfect opportunity to talk about the injustices that befell Mary Anning. They devise a plan that Nilo would take credit for the project and then - when and if they win the competition - he would come clean and give credit to Dessa. I'm not saying where the story goes from that point, but I think you are smart and savvy enough to see where this is going.

As much as I did not really care for the misguided script, I very much appreciate all the talent that tries to bring the best out of it.

First, there are the performances. As Dessa, Alina Collins Maldonado commands the stage. She embodies a teenager with tons of angst. The same can be said for Chris Stinson as Nilo. He is the perfect match for Maldonado's Dessa. Both characters are, as drawn, pretty grating - and Director Rives Collins does nothing to soften them - but both of the talented actors work with what they have.

BWW Review: DIGGING UP DESSA at Kennedy Center
L-R Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan and Alina Collins Maldonado in Kennedy Center's TYA production of Digging up Dessa. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan's, as Dessa's mythical and spiritually guided mother Esther, brings a little bit of light heartedness to the proceedings. If you only know Keegan as a superb dramatic actress, here is your chance to hear her sing a few ditties by Deborah Wicks La Puma equally as well.

Jackie Renee Robinson gives a really strong performance as the underappreciated paleontologist Mary Anning. It just reaffirms that this woman's voice deserves to be heard.

The production elements are great as well. Veteran scenic designer Deb Booth's unit set includes all kinds of fossils as a background. It is able to convey multiple locations extremely well. The set is complimented by Martha Mountain's lighting design and the projections of Patrick Lord.

Overall, Digging up Dessa feature some great acting and technical elements. However, as an entry in a festival that is supposed to showcase women playwrights, the script has the wrong focus. This unfortunately leaves the performers and the production team doing their best to fill a big hole.

Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.

Digging up Dessa runs through February 18, 2017 in the Family Theater at Kennedy Center, which is located at 2700 F Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets, click here.

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