Review: EXCLUSION at Arena Stage

Thought-provoking and witty world premiere.

By: May. 21, 2023
Review: EXCLUSION at Arena Stage
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Review: EXCLUSION at Arena Stage
Josh Stamberg (Harry) and Karoline (Katie). Photo by Margot Schulman.

What's more important - what is true or what sells?

In Exclusion, a thought-provoking and witty world premiere by Kenneth Lin at Arena Stage, an academic is thrilled when her definitive depiction of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the racially motivated violence it spurred is optioned for a miniseries by an experienced Hollywood insider. Katie believes it is important to bring her depiction of the "Yellow Peril" era of cruelty and stereotyping to a wider audience. Yet she must constantly defend and hold firm to her book's authenticity as it makes its way to a television series.

"Art is more true than facts," asserts Harry, the television mogul who wants to bend the details of Katie's work to shape a "palatable" television miniseries. Harry (who is aiming for a "medium brow" production - as opposed to a high or low brow work) wonders why he can't change the staid seamstress to a prostitute to generate interest? And isn't a doctor really a "mystical medicine man" - and why can't the doc use martial arts to escape a brutal lynching?

Exclusion is "a play about who gets to tell the stories we hear and what happens when the original storyteller gets shoved to the side," says Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith. Exclusion is Arena's tenth Power Play new work commission designed to elevate unheard American voices and examine truth and power.

The premiere is written by acclaimed theater and TV writer Kenneth Lin whose credits include Kleptocracy and Netflix's House of Cards. It is directed by Drama Desk nominee Trip Cullman. The well-paced 90-minute production is tight and smart with each scene further revealing the stakes and expectations of each character. Exclusion balances humor and gravity to keep the audience thoroughly engaged.

Historian Katie, played by Karoline, evolves from an awkward misfit in the shiny world of Hollywood television to a measured player who knows her worth. In Karoline's capable hands we see Katie progress from unsure conversations punctuated by shrill laugher to a centered and skilled negotiator with eyes on the big picture.

Josh Stamberg as TV exec Harry pings from idea to idea with manic energy. But Stamberg also effectively mines the quiet moments, showing us a multifaceted Harry's drives and influences.

Scenes with Katie and partner Malcolm (Tony Nam) effectively shift the tone of the production from the glitzy go-go-go of Hollywood. Nam is genial and engaging, though while propping up Katie as she defends her book it is clear that Malcolm is compromising his work (but a CBD gummy or three makes that a bit more palatable). There is both solidity and lightness to the couple - and their scene of checking the weather back home in Michigan is especially memorable.

Review: EXCLUSION at Arena Stage
Karoline (Katie) and Tony Nam (Malcolm). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Michelle Vergara Moore brings wonderful power and depth to Viola, the lead of the miniseries, who must deftly weigh the career implications of the depiction of her television character with her personal beliefs and needs.

Set designer Arnulfo Maldonado's coffee shop earned audience chuckles as soon as the lights hit the menu. From the awards and posters of Harry's office to the softer upholstery of Katie and Malcolm's home, each scenic element is carefully curated for maximum impact. Lighting design by Adam Honoré, sound by Sun Hee Kil and original music by Hsin-Lei Chen effectively shapes the world of the play. Costumes by Sarah Cubbage are a delight from Viola's stacked heels and bright Hollywood flair to Harry's wannabe youthful casualness or the contrast of Katie's campus-ready sneakers, tote bag and blouse versus her sleek and sophisticated award attire.

Review: EXCLUSION at Arena Stage
Karoline (Katie) and Michelle Vergara Moore (Viola). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Exclusion marked Molly Smith's last opening night after 25 years at the helm of Arena Stage and more than 200 productions. With Smith's commitment to champion the work of emerging and established playwrights it was apropos that the final production under her leadership is a commissioned world premiere of such quality and substance.

Exclusion is a smart and significant production - an expert script coupled with accomplished direction and a skilled and winning cast. The work is sure to have an afterlife in subsequent regional theater productions. Once again, D.C. audiences have a chance to see it here first.

Runtime: 90 minutes with no intermission

EXCLUSION by Kenneth Lin runs through June 25 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets, special performance information, Covid protocols and more information, see the Arena Stage website.


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