Jun 082015
BWW Reviews:  A Mesmerizing, Memorable TRAP At Ambassador TheaterIt’s easy to misunderstand the avant-garde: we come to the theatre expecting a normal story told by actors who are easy to follow, with sets that are exactly what they appear to be. And when a production deviates from the norm we tend to squirm, flip through the program and hope the intermission comes soon so we can split for the bar down the block. 

Why can’t they just give it to us straight? Because for many of us life is irreparably complex, our experience shattered by tragedies and burdens that typical audiences cannot begin to imagine. In order for the artist to tell that story and do it justice, nothing about it could possibly be normal.

Consider Samuel Beckett, who spent years in the Resistance during World War II roaming the desolate, war-torn French countryside waiting for his next contact-an experience echoed in his masterpiece Waiting for Godot. Now consider the life of another artist whose country’s existence has hung repeatedly in the balance, a man who experienced Nazi occupation, bore witness to the Holocaust and then endured over forty years of Communist dictatorship. How can you express the psychological devastation of all those years, combined with the artist’s indomitable will to rise from the ashes again and again? To stage this experience as if it were normal would render it ridiculous.

Ambassador Theater, with their production of Polish poet Tadeusz Rózewicz’s masterpiece The Trap, has introduced Washington audiences to another theatrical genius of Beckett’s stature. Like Beckett, Rózewicz fought the Nazis; unlike Beckett, Rózewicz did not have the luxury of spending the rest of his career writing as he pleased in the democratic West. Instead he had to navigate the treacherous waters of Soviet rule, where literature became a battleground and attacks needed to be carefully staged indeed. Through his collaboration with artists like the great director Tadeusz Kantor in Krakow, Rózewicz developed theatrical techniques that reflected his own life and enabled his audiences to think deeply about what they were living through.

The Trap was inspired by Rózewicz’s love for the Czech author Franz Kafka; but because Kafka was Jewish, and because works like Metamorphosis, The Trial and The Castle anticipated the nightmares of Nazism and totalitarianism which came soon after his death (he died in 1924), his works were banned throughout Eastern Europe. Kafka was forbidden at the very moment when people needed his artistic vision the most.

It is easy to see why Rózewicz found a kindred spirit in Kafka, someone who understood what the future held and who could give voice to the suffering that plagued so many for so long. What makes Kafka even more compelling is the way his suffering was largely self-imposed; imprisoned by his need to write and struggling with ailments that would send him to an early grave, he tried desperately to live but was plagued by self-doubt. A self-doubt so deep that he asked to have his writings burned after he died; (fortunately for us his best friend, Max Brod, refused to do so).

The Trap traces key elements in Kafka’s life-his domineering father, his sympathetic (and mischievous) sisters, his serial engagements to women, his affairs, etc. Rózewicz’s masterstroke is the way he weaves the much darker future-the rise of Nazism, his sisters’ death in the Holocaust, and the long Soviet occupation-with the troubled ‘present’ of Kafka’s time.

Rózewicz creates a space in which past, present and ominous future occur simultaneously; Franz, the Kafka character, is accompanied throughout the show by Animula (“little soul,” played affectingly by Alexander Rolinski), a young boy who accompanies Kafka and witnesses everything. We’re free to interpret Animula as we see fit – is he Kafka’s pure soul? Is he Kafka as a boy, a reminder of lost innocence? Does he represent the child-like vision of the artist? Whatever we choose to see in him, his presence haunts much of what follows.

Meanwhile a small phalanx of Soviet-era, trench-coated secret police (costumed by Sigrídur Jóhannsedóttir) move in and around the stage, performing set changes and quietly reinforcing our sense of paranoia. Kafka’s paranoia was primarily personal, but would soon become a defining experience for the generations that followed. These police also greet you in the lobby, conducting you upstairs to the theatre in stiff, formal fashion-a reminder that even in the pre-internet age, privacy in some places had already disappeared.

Leading the cast is Matthew Payne, who as Franz captures the anxiety and exuberance of the artist. His delivery is rushed at times, and is of a piece with a young man who suspects that his end is near, but who has a world of words to communicate. Colin Davies, as the Father, rules the stage as the petty dictator of Franz’s household, (Kafka fans will remember he wrote an epic diatribe against him). Davies’ forceful performance calls to mind Steven Berkoff, whose interpretations of Kafka are themselves legendary.

It would be a very long review to list all the fine performances in the supporting cast; but well worth mention is Madeline Burrows who shines as Ottia, Franz’s ever-cheerful sister; Burrows also has a chilling pre-show role as TV journalist/interrogator in the theatre lobby, a spectacle in which she questions a caged Franz. Morganne Davies and Ariana Almajan likewise light up the stage as Felice and Grete, two of the most important women in Franz’s life. And Benjamin Koontz gives a solid performance as Max, Franz’s close friend, his anchor in reality and-by virtue of receiving his papers for burning-Franz’s de facto literary executor.

Director Hanna Bondarewska has assembled an inventive creative team, who give us a vivid glimpse of the Polish avant-garde. Set designer Carl Gudenius has filled this bare, experimental space with trapezoidal projection screens and, most intriguingly, ominously-shaped oblong boxes. In this world, things are never really as they seem; when standing the boxes appear to be wardrobes and fireplaces, and when laid flat they can be beds, benches, dinner tables – and yet the inescapable image of the coffin is there as well. Bondarewska and Kathy Gordon choreograph scene changes to forefront the ever-changing nature of life in Kafka’s Prague, accompanied by composer Jerzy Satanowski’s haunting score; Satanowski incorporates a variety of instruments and themes, which comment on and aid the momentum of each scene.

Gudenius’ scenic flats become the locus of a series of fascinating projections, designed by Riki Kim; alternating between abstract figures, barbed wire and blossoming flowers (often shown as photographic negatives), Kim’s work heightens the sense of alienation and fragmentation experienced by the characters onstage.

The Trap is a rarity for Washington; a glimpse of an avant-garde movement whose techniques were forged in the crucible of two world wars and decades-long Communist dictatorship. The result is a fascinating evening of theater, and one that artists in DC would do well to study.

Production Photo: Matthew Payne as Franz, with Madeline Burrows as Ottia. Photo by Valentine Radev.

Advisory: the show includes brief nudity, dramatizations of the Holocaust, and is more appropriate for audiences 16 and older.

Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes, with one intermission.

The Trap plays at the XX Building (a former church), 814 20th St. NW. Tickets at:

http://www.aticc.org/home/category/get-tickets .


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Jun 022015

‘The Trap’ at Ambassador Theater

by  on May 31, 2015
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The gaunt and haunted figure of Franz Kafka obsessed the renowned Polish poet, novelist, and dramatist Tadeusz Różewicz (1921-2014). His two-act play The Trap—part expressionistic, part realistic—poetically thrusts Kafka’s anxieties and nightmares front and center. First published in 1982, The Trap as translated by Adam Czerniawski is now getting its U.S. premiere in an imaginative and fittingly Kafkaesque staging directed for Ambassador Theater by Hanna Bondarewska.

Abigail Ropp (Elli), Emily Gilson (Vallie), Alexander Rolinski (Animula), Colin Davies (Father), Melissa Robinson (Mother), Matthew Payne (Franz), and Madeline Burrows (Ottla). Photo by Valentin Radev.L to R: Abigail Ropp (Elli), Emily Gilson (Vallie), Alexander Rolinski (Animula), Colin Davies (Father), Melissa Robinson (Mother), Matthew Payne (Franz), and Madeline Burrows (Ottla). Photo by Valentin Radev. 

In the lobby a short pre-show scene plays out: Inside a cage labeled “Hunger Artist,” the actor who will play Franz (a lean and anguished Matthew Lindsay Payne) rants about why he is starving: as a political rebuke those who overconsume. (Kafka did himself write a story called The Hunger Artist, and Różewicz loosely based a play upon it.) Nearby stand ominously authoritative figures in long black trench coats and dark glasses who usher us into the theater.

More of a fan’s fantasia on Kafka’s life than a fact-based biography, The Trap is an ingenious amalgam of lively sketches and punchy scenes. Among them are episodes from Kafka’s childhood with his overbearing Father (a fearsome Colin Davies), incidents from his serial courtships with women to whom he could not commit—Felice (Morganne Davies), Grete (Ariana Almajan), and Jana Slowik (Abigail Ropp), and badinage with his best friend Max Brod (a robust Benjamin Koontz). (It was the real Max Brod whom Kafka made promise to burn his writings upon his death but who, recognizing their worth as literature, preserved them instead. Were it not for Brod’s posthumous betrayal, we’d have bupkis of Kafka.) Flash-forwarding in time, The Trap also shows scenes evoking the Holocaust and imagining Kafka’s family being caught up in it (though their lifetimes were actually earlier).

Ambassador Theater is known for importing edgy and important European dramatic literature to DC, and The Trap is its biggest production yet; usually the company’s runs are in smaller venues. The set designed by Carl Gudenius consists of large trapezoidal panels on casters and heavy wooden boxes that, along with other furniture, the actors heave and maneuver into different positions to set each successive scene. The angular, expressionistic flexible playing spaces created thereby are impressive and visually striking—though the scene changes themselves at times seemed to take longer than the scenes in between. These pace-slowing intervals did, however, have an upside: They provided opportunities to appreciate the exquisite incidental music that was specially scored for this production by Jerzy Satanowski.

An eminent Polish composer with whom Bondarewska has collaborated before, Satanowski has created an extraordinary musical environment that like the play is also an imaginative amalgam—piano, cello, percussion, and assorted other effects evoking bubbling and circuses and a world of wonder all its own. Rarely during a play do I think to myself, as I did during The Trap, that I wished I could listen to its music cues again and again.

Alexander Rolinski (Young Franz) and Matthew Lindsay Payne (Franz Kafka). Photo by Valentin Radev.Alexander Rolinski (Young Franz) and Matthew Lindsay Payne (Franz Kafka). Photo by Valentin Radev. 

What this mounting lacked in momentum it more than made up for in layers of momentous meaning. Among them is the luminous performance of Alexander Rolinski, who plays Young Franz as well as a character identified as Animula, which means “little soul.” The boy has but one scene with dialogue, sick in bed cared by his nanny Josie (Ariana Almajan).

But during many other passages this little soul moves about, unseen by other characters, as if in silent witness to the inner torment of the elder Franz. In Rolinski’s expressive face can be read a fascinating perspective on the play we are watching: It is the point of view of the inner child who necessarily stays alive in every great artist—and who is here made transparent through the inner life of a exceptionally promising young actor.

Another rich layer of meaning in The Trap is the puzzling and provocative relationship between Różewicz and Kafka, which I found myself pondering all evening. Is Różewicz somehow playing Boswell to a Johnson here? Is Różewicz appropriating and riffing on another artist’s life as if to extoll it but actually to undermine it by insinuating himself into his subject’s aura vicariously? Is Różewicz actually putting Kafka in his place, thereby ennobling himself?

These speculations were prompted by the odd way the character of Kafka is written in the script of The Trap. Pretty much everyone in Kafka’s life bluntly calls him out on his character defects. Not only does young Franz get damagingly critiqued by his distant and judgmental father (who in a biblical nightmare scene that Franz dreams plays Abraham about to slay his son). Franz also gets dissed by the several women he courts who (somewhat unaccountably) fall in love with him, as well as his best bud Brod, who (somewhat unaccountably) is genuinely fond of him. They all have his number dead on: Franz can’t relate to reality; he’s got lousy social skills; he doesn’t reciprocate their regard for him; he’s a self-obsessed downer and a drag. Basically the script offers little in the way of redeeming features for its central character, unless you remind yourself, Oh right, the historical figure this dude is based on wrote some amazing shit. The upside of this textual vacuum is that it thrusts a provocative dynamic between author and main character front and center. The downside is that the play as written offers an audience little reason to care about the main character or what happens to him.

Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I overstate this case in order to point out that the role of Franz as written is a heckuva challenge for an actor. That actor has to overcome the script’s negativity about the character and portray someone we’ll enjoy the company of long enough to hang with for a couple hours. Matthew Lindsay Payne rises to the challenge commendably. His agile performance is characterized by lots of sudden tone and mood swings—like, really abrupt, as if he’s switching among multiple personalities. This has the salutary effect of conveying Kafka’s inner conflicts while at the same time opening opportunities for the actor to bring to the role his own personable, attractive, and charming qualities—all of which the historical Kafka sorely lacked.

This production is large scale also in the size of its cast, which besides those named above includes Ariana Almajan, Madeline Burrows, John Brennan, Marlowe Vilchez, Emily H. Gilson, Peter Orvetti, and Ed Klein (who gave a particularly shattering turn in a brief barbershop scene).

Colin Davies  (Father), Alexander Rolinski (Young Franz), and Melissa B. Robinson (Mother). Photo by Valentin Radev.Colin Davies (Father), Alexander Rolinski (Young Franz), and Melissa B. Robinson (Mother). Photo by Valentin Radev. 

Sigridur Jonnesdottir’s costume designs, especially for the women actors and the boy, were really lovely to look at. (I did not observe the multimedia projections designed by Riki Kim, which I’m told were not working the night I saw the show; Michael Stepowany’s lighting also seemed to be operating uncertainly. I have no doubt that will all be fixed.)

Franz Kafka looms over world literature; the mark he made is both indelible and enigmatic. By putting this writer’s troubled persona front and center—as seen through the eyes of a poetic writer distinguished in his own right—The Trap offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on this fascinating figure. And Ambassador Theater’s production plays the compelling and complex portrait to the hilt.

Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes, including one intermission.

The Trap plays through June 21, 2015 at The Ambassador Theater performing at XX Building at the George Washington University – 814 20th Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, purchase them online.


Mar 292015

Hanna Bondarewska: Ambassador on Stage

By Kasia RaniÅ›

When you first meet Hanna Bondarewska, the Artistic Director of the Ambassador Theater International Cultural Center (ATICC), you see her as a typical artist: spontaneous, energetic, passionate, perhaps slightly disconnected from reality… yet, full of practical ideas that can turn a seemingly impossible dream into reality.

She grew up in Warsaw in a home where attending theater, concerts and cultural events was part of regularly practiced family traditions. As a child, she performed in dance groups and school theater productions where her native talents were quickly recognized and she soon appeared on professional stage. She took her first acting steps in the Ochota Theater in Warsaw, under the watchful eyes of the prominent Polish film and theater director Jan Machulski and his wife Halina, known from multiple film and theater roles. Pursuing her passion, Hanna received her acting diploma from the Polish Ministry of Culture and incarnated various roles on stages throughout Poland, from Warsaw, Białystok, Olsztyn, Katowice to Toruń, among many others.

Hanna Bondarewska as Negma Sadiq in “The Visitor” by Alfred Farag

When eventually life took her to America in early 1990s, she continued to hone her acting, as well as directorial and management, skills in Washington, DC, Florida, and New York. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Mt. Vernon College of the George Washington University and later worked as Executive Director at the Institute for Education. She performed at Washington Shakespeare Theater, Classika/Synetic Theater, Spectrum, The New York Polish Theater, Hippodrome and Acrosstown Theaters in Florida, to name a few.

However, Hanna’s lifelong dream was to open her own theater and in 2008, she turned that dream into reality. While she was teaching acting to young students, one day, a four-year old pupil overheard the conversation his teacher had with his parents, wishfully “dreaming” out loud: “If only each person living in America spared one dollar for my theater…”. Little Thomas came up to her, pulled a dollar bill from his pocket and said “Here is my dollar Miss Hanna, please start the theater”. She dared not to disappoint such hope and inspiration from a child.

The establishment of Ambassador Theater International Cultural Center was truly a leap of faith. In a city like Washington, which teems with theaters big and small, each competing for audiences and financial support, it was indeed an act of courage to pursue such an endeavor. Yet, it was done and after more than five years, Hanna’s theater continues to exist and is recognized as an important cultural institution. ATICC partnered with various embassies as well as organizations such as Institute for Education, Kosciuszko Foundation, American and George Washington Universities, to name a few. What started with that one dollar bill attracted others to join and become regular contributors. Of course, there is a constant need to develop more support in order to thrive and present interesting works from around the world and develop an international cultural dialog.

The Ambassador Theater and its performances target audiences of all ages while the ATICC’s education arm embraces children and youth. Its first highly recognized undertaking was a year-round in-school program put together with collaboration of Hanna Reiter, the wife of former Ambassador, Janusz Reiter at the Polish Embassy, the Washington Performing Arts Society, Embassy Adoption Program, and DC Public Schools. It culminated in the production called “Poland the Beautiful: An Imaginary Flight.” At the initiative of Poland’s First Lady, Maria KaczyÅ„ska, the students were rewarded with a trip to Poland, where they visited Warsaw, Krakow, ToruÅ„, Mazury, climbed the Sudeten Mountains, and performed at the Presidential Palace, as well as at other places across the country. Today, the center offers participation in drama classes, summer camps, in-school outreach programs and educational workshops. Its mission is to help students become well educated through the use of interactive learning method through theater games and art, and to develop essential communications skills. ATICC’s work also comprises discussions, play readings, bare bone productions and Literary Cafés projects, offering evenings of poetry and music.

Hanna Bondarewska as George Sand

Scene from “Summer at Nohant” by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz

Hanna’s Polish roots are often reflected in ATICC’s activities. The first theater production at the Ambassador was the DC premiere of SÅ‚awomir Mrożek’s Polish masterpiece “Out at Sea” (Na peÅ‚nym morzu). As of today, the theater boasts fifteen premieres, including many Polish plays, such as “The Forefathers” (Dziady) by Adam Mickiewicz, “The Madman and the Nun” (Wariat i Zakonnica) by StanisÅ‚aw Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy), or “The Third Breast” (Trzecia PierÅ›) by Ireneusz IredyÅ„ski. The next production will feature “The Trap” (PuÅ‚apka) by the internationally acclaimed and highly respected Polish poet, Tadeusz Różewicz, who died in April 2014.

As the head of ATICC, Hanna Bondarewska wears many hats: she is a business manager, developer, artistic director, box office manager, house manager, and production manager, marketing director, PR and an actress herself. She says her acting skills, determination and enormous energy derived from her parents and God: “I believe, they were essential to get the Ambassador Theater on its feet and steadily proceed with its mission. I believe in honesty and love; these are the main driving forces behind it all. Passion!!!!!”

Hanna Bondarewska is a member of the Polish American Arts Association. For more information about her, the ATICC and all the wonderful people involved in it, see: http://www.aticc.org/home/ If you like what you see and want to invest in this endeavor, there is a “Donate Now” button you can click on and make your tax-deductible contribution.

Tadeusz Różewicz

Tadeusz Różewicz was born in Radomsko, Poland, on October 9, 1921. During World War II, he was a soldier in the Home Army, the underground resistance movement in occupied Poland. For two years, he fought in a guerrilla unit and wrote his first poems. After studying the history of art at university in Krakow, he began to publish both poetry and plays. His first volumes of poetry were Anxiety (1947) and The Red Glove (1948). After 1956, he primarily wrote plays, including The Card Index, The Witnesses or Our Little Stabilization, and The Old Woman Broods. In 1999, he published a collection of poems, family documents, photos and essays entitled Mother Departs, which won the Nike prize, the most eminent Polish literary award. He died on April 24, 2014, at the age of 92. Tadeusz Różewicz is widely considered one of Poland’s most important and influential writers. His works tend to focus on universal themes, but speak particularly to the generation of Polish adults whose memories of youth, like his own, are filled with the horrifying experiences of World War II. Różewicz often scorns the conventional techniques and philosophies of literature and frequently questions the validity of poetry itself. Różewicz explored the life of one of his literary heroes, Franz Kafka, in the loosely biographical play The Trap (1982). The play also depicts the demise of artistic creativity, played out against visions of the impending ‘‘final solution’’—Hitler’s largely executed plan for the systematic murder of all Jews in Europe. Washington audiences will have the opportunity to see The Trap in a production by the Ambassador Theater, scheduled for May-June 2015. It will be presented in the original translation by Adam Czerniawski, Polish poet, essayist, and author of short stories, now living in Wales. 5 The Ambassador Theater presents “The Trap” by Tadeusz Różewicz May 28 – June 21 Thu-Sat at 8 pm, Sun at 2 PM George Washington University, Building XX 814 20th Street NW, 2nd Floor Washington , DC 20052 http://www.aticc.org/home/upcoming-the-trap


Oct 312014

October 30

Ariana Almajan as counselor Laura Whalen as and Marlowe Vilchez as Raymond (Rage) Stitt in Rage (Photo Credit: Val Radev)

At Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab in downtown DC, Ambassador Theatre continues its tradition of provocative, daring theatre with its US premiere of Canadian playwright Michele Riml’s hard-charging, intensely relevant two-actor script, RAGE.

Set in the drab, basement office of high school “Peace Counselor” Laura Whalen, RAGE revolves around the escalating encounter of the counselor with agitated, about-to-be-expelled high school senior Raymond Stitt. Played with tremendous dexterity and fluid theatricality, actors Ariana Almajan as Ms. Whalen and Marlow Vilchez as Raymond move across the stage like prize fighters defending their titles to the death: she, the champion of Pacifism and the gentler angels of our nature, and he, the champion of realism and the darker angels of our souls. Who among them will win this battle for heavyweight championship of the world?

The student Raymond, known as “Rage” by his only two friends, has grown increasingly marginalized within the high school’s social milieu. Yet, even his two lone friends deserted him when his disaffection with hypocrisy and myopia exploded in history class. And certainly the history teacher’s patience was exhausted by Raymond’s intense inquiry into Hitler’s political appeal, and Raymond now faces suspension. We learn of Raymond’s chilling impersonation of Hitler as if he were making an impassioned speech to the Nazi Youth Brigade, though Raymond insists his speech was merely theatrical provocation.

Peace Counselor Whalen has nonetheless persuaded the history teacher to let her talk to the young man, and persuade him to embrace a more pacifist perspective. Raymond appears in her office just as she was about to leave to see Le Mis with her live-in (but still non-committal) boyfriend. Raymond challenges her to stay, and she soon acquiesces to his insistence.

Over the course of the play’s 90 minutes (without intermission), the confrontation between the two of them advances and retreats and ultimately escalates to an urgency that has become achingly real in schools across the continent. Yet, rarely is the anguished reasoning of disaffected and marginalized youth presented as clearly and articulately as it is in RAGE, and keen applause to playwright Riml on her incisive script.

Under Director Joe Banno’s able direction, Ariana Almajan and Marlow Vilchez excel at the verbal & eventually physical dual between them. As the 38-year-old, engaged-but-not-married peace educator Laura Whalen, Almajan brings a persuasive single-mindedness the role. Indeed, her character’s very identity, as well as her livelihood, depend on her unflinching embrace of peace and the promise of pacifism to quiet the heady waters of our times. She is at once calm, compassionate, insistent, and explosive. Marlow Vilchez’s portrayal of the young man Raymond embodies the accumulated outrage of the outcast. Vilchez fills the character of Raymond with brooding intelligence and grim conclusions disallowed by officialdom. Disillusioned and angry beyond what his young consciousness can bear, Vilchez brings Raymond’s pain full throttle onstage.

Set & Lighting Designer Jonathan Rushbrook has created an appropriately dreary, low-light basement space, and Sound Designer George Gordon gives us a precise and convincing soundscape. Costume Designer Sigridur Johannesdottir has clad the actors in contemporary attire that clearly evokes each the character’s personalities. Special applause to Stage Fight Choreographer Cliff Williams for the deft and effective physical confrontations.

A grueling, unwavering gaze at the limitations of ideology and the tragedy of marginalization, RAGE brings us to the brink.

Photo by Vak Radev.

Through November 16, 2014, at Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab, 916 G St, NW

Tickets & information http://www.instantseats.com/index.cfm?r=D76A&fuseaction=home.venue&venueID=280

Advisories: Physical violence and strong language and content.

Appropriate for ages 15 and above.


Oct 312014

Rich Massabny
“Arlington Weekly News TV”
Comcast CHANNEL 69 –FIOS Channel 38
Broadcast 2014: Thurs., Nov. 6, 6 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 8, 10:30 a.m.; Mon., Nov. 10, 8:30 p.m.
In the last two weeks, I’ve seen two of the finest two-person plays in a long time.
This one is the Ambassador Theater’s (D.C.), “Rage” by Canadian playwright Michele
Riml, winner of the 2005 Sydney Risk prize for Outstanding Original Play. “Rage” is a
hold-your-breath drama between a gun-toting high school student and a pacifist female
school counselor. With no intermission, this ready to die or kill student, Raymond “Rage”
Stitt (Marlowe Vilchez) and counselor Laura Whalen (Ariana Amajan) are locked in a
showdown in the counselor’s basement office. The acting between these two is so real,
especially in light of recent school shootings. Directed by well-known Helen Hayes
Award winner Joe Banno and produced by Ambassador artistic director and founder
Hanna Bondarewska. Do Not Miss This One!! “Rage” runs Wednesdays through
Sundays through November 16 at the Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. For
more information and tickets, call 703-475-4036 or check the website at www.aticc.org.

Oct 282014

Theatre Review: ‘Rage’ at Ambassador Theater

October 27, 2014 by 
Ariana Almajan as counselor Laura Whalen as and Marlowe Vilchez as Raymond (Rage) Stitt in Rage (Photo Credit: Val Radev)Ariana Almajan as counselor Laura Whalen as and Marlowe Vilchez as Raymond (Rage) Stitt in Rage (Photo Credit: Val Radev)

It is not every day that many of us find ourselves staring down the nozzle of a gun from either side of the trigger, but if you go see Rage at Ambassador Theater–and you should go see it–then that is exactly what you will experience. Guns, violence and the puzzle of peace face to face, close up and personal. Written by critically acclaimed Canadian playwright Michele Riml, this two-person, award-winning play is directed by Joe Banno and produced by Hanna Bondarewska for the Ambassador Theater’s 5th season and the play’s US premiere.

Laura Whalen, played by Ariana Almajan, is a perky, pretty-in-pink high school counselor who enshrines Gandhi in her office and follows a pacifist lifestyle. At the play’s opening, her workday has drawn near its close, and though mentally checked out and ready to go enjoy the play Les Miserable with her boyfriend, she has one last appointment to squeeze in: the troubled Raymond. When Raymond comes in, we quickly learn two things; that he prefers to be called “Rage,” and that he gave a violent presentation in class and may be expelled. Before the session is over, Rage takes Laura hostage at gunpoint and tells her only one of them will be leaving the room. Who gets to leave is her choice. Will she choose to die at his hand for her pacifist lifestyle, or will she kill him and save herself, and presumably, others?

‘Rage’ is wonderfully executed, terrifyingly brilliant, and seriously scary.

Almajan gives such an excellent performance as Laura that at the beginning you might think, wow, she is not that good of an actress. You rapidly realize, however, that she is acting as someone who is poorly pretending to be someone and something she is not. With the shedding of layers, Ariana creates a character in Laura that is so real and vivid that the experience of it will likely leave you raw and shaken along with her.

Vilchez, playing Rage, will leave you rapt and held at terrified attention with his explosive performance. “I go off,” Rage comments, and throughout the play you never know when he will “go off” again, how many more times he might blow up and what he might do to Laura as she struggles desperately to find a way for them both to live.

Almajan and Vilchez allow the audience to step into their shoes and experience with them the situation unfolding in the tiny basement office. “If you can get in someone’s head, you have a better chance of understanding them,” Rage says towards the play’s opening, defending his presentation. This is exactly the idea of this production, and the artistic director, Hanna, hopes that in watching the play, a space for dialogue can open up and audiences will start engaging in the questions that shape the play. Rage allows the audience to step for a very long, unforgettable moment into the shoes of the gun wielders so often taking over the headlines and to experience what having to make life and death choices is like, and to question our own beliefs. To paraphrase one line of the play, “It’s easy to have ideas when you’re not confronted with anything,” and Ragedefinitely confronts the ideas society has built up around violence and peace.

Everything within this production pulls audience members into the experience of Rage; the spot-on lighting and sound effects; the intimate set that lets audiences practically sit in the closet-office with the action; the fast-fired dialogue and completely natural reactions of the characters–even the occasional joke or witticism that has the audience laughing in the darkness. Even the subtle details echo and engrave the heart of the play, like the way that Laura goes from happy-pink cheerfulness with tied back, tight hair at the beginning to an unbuttoned, colourless, messy haired, utterly undone being as Rage wreaks havoc on her and her beliefs. “You can’t be who you are with a gun in your face,” Laura screams back at Rage as he yells at her again about “being peace.” “Why not?” He asks her back. “There was always a gun somewhere.”

This gun itself; you, too, will come face to face with it due to the intimate set. From every angle of the stage, looking up and down its nose, watching it wave, waiting for it to go off along with Rage. There is nothing sheltering about this production, it is a powerful piece with no holds barred. This is Halloween, and everything right now is all about cool costumes and the scare factor. But if you really like scary and you want to be scared, then come see this production. Rage is wonderfully executed, terrifyingly brilliant, and seriously scary. Don’t expect to walk away unscathed: this is theatre at its most palpable.


Oct 272014

‘Rage’ at Ambassador Theater

by  on October 26, 2014


Michele Riml’s Rage made its US premiere this week at Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab. A production of Ambassador Theater, directed by Joe Banno, Rage explores the dynamics of adolescent rage from a Canadian perspective.

Ariana Almajan (Laura Whalen) Marlowe and Vilchez (Raymond Stitt). Photo by Val Radev .Ariana Almajan (Laura Whalen)  and Marlowe Vilchez (Raymond Stitt).
Photo by Val Radev . 

The taut 90-minute drama pits a highly intelligent, disaffected high school senior against a pacifist 38-year-old student counselor. The results are engaging and provocative even if on occasion you might find yourself exhausted by the intensity of the exchange.

The violence of disassociation, estrangement, and disgust permeates the world. The violence of State agents also rages on around the globe, with the arms industry the only true winner. People who believe, as Gandhi did, that violence even when “it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent,” have little sway, particularly in the United States where military spending even in sequestration far outstrips military spending worldwide.

Rage’s two-person dialogue–one part human drama, one part sociological experiment–depicts the emotional and intellectual landscape produced when the power of violence confronts a commitment to peace.

Ariana Almajan plays Laura Whalen, a part-time high school counselor, whose office is seemingly buried in the school’s basement. A committed peace activist, she truly believes that discussion will solve not only the world’s problems but more specifically the problems confronting young people as they struggle with issues of power and love. Her low status at the school and in society, however, demonstrates just how ill-regarded this pacifist approach to solving issues has become.

Marlowe Vilchez plays Raymond Stitt, aka. Rage, an emotionally explosive high school senior unable to come to grips with the hypocrisies of the adult world, or with the absurdities of his domineering mother and overly passive father.

Rage’s day has not gone well. During an oral history report on the rise of Hitler to power in Germany, during which he stepped into the shoes of the fiery orator and railed against the Jewish people, he and his ranting scared classmates and teacher alike. Now, he’s threatened with expulsion.

Laura has intervened in hopes of saving his high school career. She meets with Rage at the end of the school day. She successfully gets him to open up about the purpose of his oral report as she tries to understand his behavior and motives. When Rage pulls a gun on her, however, the counseling ends and Rage’s thought-experiment begins. Where it might end is up to the players.

Both actors do a fantastic job navigating the emotional rollercoaster that is Rage. Ms. Almajan realistically captures the vulnerability and the fear of the situation, while Mr. Vilchez keeps his disgust with the world specific and credible. Director Joe Banno’s pacing of the show is well modulated, even as the script dips into repetition a little near the end.

The design team of Jonathan Rushbrook (sets), Sigríður Jóhannesdóttir (costumes), Cliff Williams III (fight director), and George Gordon (sound) has used the Flashpoint space to good effect as well as contemporary iconography, both musical and visual.

Ariana Almajan (Laura Whalen) Marlowe and Vilchez (Raymond Stitt). Photo by Val Radev .Ariana Almajan (Laura Whalen) and Marlowe Vilchez (Raymond Stitt).
Photo by Val Radev . 

There’s little doubt that the concerns raised by Rage are on the minds of many Americans, even if individual gun ownership and “stand your ground” laws (not pacifism) are the doctrines most in vogue in the United States these days.

Rage can’t be beat for sheer intensity, and its issues are as pressing as tomorrow’s news.


Mar 192014

The Washington Post

By Jane Horwitz, Wednesday, March 19, 3:36 PM

‘Happily Ever After’ is a winningly acted meditation on dysfunctional relationships

(Courtesy Ambassador Theater ) – Karin Rosnizeck and Doug Krehbel in Happily Ever After from Ambassador Theater.

Many are the ways in which men and women misconstrue, misapprehend and just plain miss the boat when it comes to love and marriage. These are enumerated in Cristina Colmena’s amusing trio of playlets under the title “Happily Ever After,” having its world premiere in a winningly acted bare-bones production by Ambassador Theater.

It’s a lean staging and a mere hour of theater — but a pretty full hour, all the same, at Flashpoint’s intimate Mead Theatre Lab. However, a more accurate title might be “Happily Ever After — Not.”

Colmena’s playlets hit the mark more often than they miss. As staged rather broadly for such a small space by Hanna Bondarewska (Ambassador Theater’s artistic director), they still elicit laughs of recognition. Who, after all, hasn’t had one or two dysfunctional relationships?

The three pieces are not equally funny or incisive, but they show that dramatist Colmena has flair, and a subtly European mind-set when it comes to romance. That follows, since she hails from Spain, though lives in New York now. The Washington-based Ambassador Theater, now in its fifth year, is devoted to staging theatrical works by authors from around the world. (“Happily Ever After” is performed in English.)

Actors Karin Rosnizeck and Doug Krehbel play the couples in each playlet, all named merely He and She. Brief blackouts allow them to switch with simple changes of costumes and props. A 45-degree turn of the large table, which sits lengthwise during the first scene, transforms it into a bed for the second and third scenes.

A title projected at the rear of the stage announces the first piece — “Misunderstandings.” While not unamusing, it is the least emotionally resonant and most artificial of the three. The lights come up on a young woman and young man, probably 20-somethings, sitting at opposite ends of the table. They were supposed to meet and patch up a quarrel, but one of them got the name of the bar wrong, so they each wait alone, too stubborn to call the other. They fume, but only to the audience. Once or twice, the actors move into the same space, reenacting flashbacks of the earlier, happier days of their affair.

In “Don’t Take It Personally,” the strongest of the three pieces, a pair of 40ish sophisticates smoke languidly after an anonymous liaison that led from a bar to her bed. Now she’s ready for him to leave, though by the clock it’s only pre-dawn. He wants to linger and cuddle. When she demurs, he calls her “cold.” She claims it’s self-protection, listing what can happen when you open your heart even a little: dating, then marriage, then children, then an apartment at the beach, then divorce. “Don’t Take it Personally” comes the closest to a bull’s-eye in performance, direction and authorial insight. It includes fewer speeches to the audience and more interaction between characters, which gives it a dramatic punch that goes beyond mere wit. And a tango interlude, in which the couple have a second erotic encounter imagined in steamy choreography, is fun, if constricted, on the tiny stage.

A married couple in their 60s take the spotlight in “Melodrama.” He snaps photos of Her for a 30th-anniversary celebration that their daughter is planning. While he clicks away, his wife breaks her pose to excoriate him and vent about her long marital misery. But her speeches are for the audience’s ears only. And when he finally pipes up, his words, too, are just for the audience. In the end, their fights remain unfought, except in their heads and our ears.

Lots of elements in “Happily Ever After” invite a more avant-garde approach than director Bondarewska takes. She mines the humor and familiarity in Colmena’s script, but this set of plays, because of how it is constructed, offers both professionals and students a chance to experiment.

“Happily Ever After” and “Typing,” another play by Colmena, have been published in “New Plays From Spain: Eight Works by Seven Playwrights” (Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications, New York, 2013), where the scripts appear side by side in Spanish and English.

Jane Horwitz is a freelance writer.

‘Happily Ever After’

By Cristina Colmena. Directed by Hanna Bondarewska. Sound and video design, David Crandall; set, Greg Jackson and Jonathan Rushbrook; lighting, Stephen Shetler; costumes, Basmah Alomar; choreography, Francesca Jandasek and Dan Istrate. Tickets $22-$37. About one hour. Presented through March 30 by the Ambassador Theater at Flashpoint’s Mead Theater Lab, 916 G Street, NW. Visit www.aticc.org.


Mar 182014

‘Happily Ever After’ at Ambassador Theater

by Eliza Anna Falk on March 17, 2014

Cristina Colmena’s Happily Ever After is no fairy tale! If you are in a mood for a spicy dark comedy about love’s tribulations, leave your children with a nanny and head to the Mead Theatre at Flash Point for an evening of laughter and self-reflection. The compelling play which had its world premiere on March 13th, delivers a truly entertaining experience with high emotional resonance. The play’s three acts have distinctive titles as each presents a different male-female scenario. We see young lovers destined to part in ‘Misunderstanding’; a promising one night stand which fails to blossom in ’ Don’t take it personally’; and keeping appearances after thirty years of marriage in ‘Melodrama.’ What bounds the three couples together, is their inability to act on their true needs due to fear, insecurity and pessimism. “These scenes are only snapshots of love stories, or better said, “un-love” stories”, says the author, who also writes, that the characters “could be anyone of us at some moment of our lives: we recognize these people, sometimes they even say the same things that we say.”

Karin Rosnizeck and Doug Krehbel. Photo by .Magda Pinkowska Gorman.Karin Rosnizeck and Doug Krehbel. Photo by Magda Pinkowska Gorman. 

The author’s choice to present three age groups symbolic of a lifetime worth of romantic vicissitudes and focus entirely on unhappy side of love does not necessarily fill one with optimism, especially those who are still waiting to experience couples’ bliss. Nevertheless, the play’s message is clear – if you keep sitting on a fence and do not overcome your fears and insecurities, happiness may pass you by. The impact of the play on the audience promptly materializes and is clearly heard, the response accentuated by bursts of laughter and sounds of disbelief, pity, approval or silence. Judging by the reactions of my two female friends sitting nearby, one in her thirties and happily married, the other in her sixties, deeply hurt and disappointed by a failed marriage, the amount of laughter may have depended on one’s life experiences. My younger friend appeared to be thoroughly entertained, the older rather silent and somber, likely touched in a painful place and forced to reflect on a sad past and loneliness of the present.

Ambassador’s Theater‘s production directed by Hanna Bondarewska, starring Karin Rosnizeck and Doug Krehbel, cleverly blends words with movement, music, light and dance. The impact of the Director’s vision makes its mark early in the play. The first act, in which the characters oscillate between moments of past and present, has been orchestrated like a musical piece with a clear rhythm, carefully measured movements, shifts, and light changes. The blackouts, accentuating and helping with transitions continue throughout the play, as does the projected image of a clock, reminding us about the importance of time and timing, and prompting us to act fast or we may end up old and unhappy. Harmonious synchronization of actors’ gestures is effectively used to create and magnify dramatic effects. Seeing the two one-night-standers in bed the morning after smoking cigarettes in unison, does not only heighten the comic effect of the scene, but also expertly kills any romantic vibes between the couple. The passionate tango scene choreographed by Francesca Jandasek and Dan Istrate, acts not only as an expression of chemistry between the lovers, but also adds to the overall melodic feel of the show.

The actors meet the challenges of having to incarnate different characters of distinctly different age groups with flying colors. With no characterization and only a costume change and few props at hand, they brilliantly combine facial expressions, voice modulation, body language, and age appropriate mannerisms to fool us into believing they are in their twenties or sixties. Whilst they play their own age effortlessly as ‘one-night-standers’, they surprisingly shine the brightest as ’60-somethings’ in the third act.

Costume Designer Basmah Alomar (Costume Designer) makes excellent choices of costumes and props. Set Designer Jonathan Rushbrook was faced with a different challenge of having to switch from a bar to a bedroom setting with minimal transition time. A big single platform is used as a table top in a cafe scene as well as a bed in the next two acts and serves its purpose perfectly, transformed only with handful of accessories such as side lamps, bar stools, bed linen and a few basic props. Lighting, designed by Stephen Shelter, is crucial in marking the time transitions, creating ‘flash-backs’ and facilitating swift set changes between the acts. So are the sound and music, which under the expert care of Sound and Video Designer David Crandall  define the setting of each act, emphasize the mood and fill our ears with beautiful music.

Spring is only three days away (believe it or not!), and is a great time to reflect on our love lives – and to make adjustments or start over. Don’t miss Happily Ever After! It delivers a valuable opportunity to reflect on love and its challenges, and to learn from mistakes made by unlucky lovers. Take the melodrama personally or just relax and enjoy the show because you will be thoroughly entertained!


Mar 182014



Playwright Cristina Colmena on “Happily Ever After”

March 18, 2014 by hola
Love’s complicated — and so is translation!
Happily.3After moving to New York a few years ago, Cristina Colmena wrote “Happily Ever After,” a play about the difficulties of romantic love that received its world premiere earlier this month at Flashpoint’s Ambassador Theater. As a challenge, the Spanish playwright decided to write it in English. So when her government asked to publish the piece in a bilingual compilation of new works by Iberian playwrights, she was faced with the unusual task of translating her own words into Spanish. At Flashpoint last Friday night, she explained that it was like “translating in stereo.”

Watch our clip of Colmena speaking after the performance:

The dark comedy has been described as Beckettian by director Hanna Bondarewska. It stars Karin Rosnizeck as “she” and Doug Krehbel as “he.”

For a more about the play, read the article on the DC Metro Theater Arts website.

Performances Tuesday-Saturday through March 30
Ambassador Theater
Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint
916 G St, NW