‘A Midsummer Night’s Riot’ at The Keegan Theatre

Watching the world premiere of A Midsummer Night’s Riot is like watching theatrical lighting strike. For the third time. In the exact same place (the Keegan Theater). With the exact same writer (Rosemary Jenkinson) and director (Abigail Isaac). And the same amazing actor, Josh Sticklin, who in a virtuoso solo performance commands the stage with such singular verve and artistry that it must be seen to be believed.

Josh Sticklin. Photo by C.Stanley Photography.
Josh Sticklin. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

I’ve witnessed this highly charged convergence of creative force fields twice before.

In 2011 the Keegan presented the world premiere of a one-act, one-person play set in Belfast called Basra Boy. It starred Sticklin, was written in Belfast dialect by the Northern Irish playwright Jenkinson, and was directed by Isaac. Sticklin played Speedy, a hyper, foul-mouthed young punk, plus a cast of supporting characters who came equally and instantly alive before our eyes by sheer dint of Sticklin’s quicksilver talent. I was knocked out.

Following that production’s success, Keegan presented in 2013 another world premiere of another one-person play set in Belfast, Cuchullain, written in Belfast dialect by the same author, directed once more by Isaac, and starring again Sticklin—as a hyper, foul-mouthed young punk who is this time named Aaron.

In A Midsummer Night’s Riot Sticklin plays Ross, a witty, randy Belfast teenager who has a dream: to be a famous pro golfer with a gorgeous girlfriend. But he is pitched into nightly summertime street riots between Protestant and Catholic youth, and he’s so strapped for cash he cannot afford golf clubs.

As in Basra Boy and Cuchullian, Sticklin bounds about the stage, peoples it with a cast of sharply drawn characters through uncanny insta-impersonation (male and female, young and old), and captivates with a torrent of waggish jokes and lickety-split narration of a transfixing tragicomic story.

When I first saw Sticklin’s performance in a one-person work by Jenkinson, I could have sworn that he, like the writer, is a Belfast native. He’s not, but onstage he still sure seems so. In A Midsummer Night’s Riot, the part and the player are a perfect fit.

Projections designed by Lighting Designer Allan Weeks contribute strikingly to the play’s vivid sense of place. Costume Designer Kelly Peacock has given Ross clothes to wear (when he’s not in his bedroom undressed) that clearly speak teen street style. The utilitarian set by Michael Innocenti and Colin Smith, serves ably as Stiklin makes each space, stairway, and platform his own.

Jenkinson’s script is a remarkable piece of writing. Composed as one long prose-poem monologue (with nary a stage direction), it’s loaded with local slang—some of which is explained in a one-page glossary handed out with the program. (And some of it offers a bemusing glimpse into the mind and appetites of a teenage male—e.g, buckfast means booze and stridener means hard-on.) But as rich as are the idioms and the authenticity of dialect, one’s ear quickly adjusts to catch the gist, the way one listens to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English spoken aloud. In fact the aptness of that comparison extends further, because Jenkinson’s use of language is mind-blowing. The text that Sticklin animates is utterly alive with poetic diction. For anyone with a taste for Bard-ish word play, the world of A Midsummer Night’s Riot is like entering a shop full of ear candy.

Josh Sticklin. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Josh Sticklin. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

If you missed Basra Boy, if you missed Cuchullain, don’t let this one pass you by. It’s lightning in a bottle—as electrifying as solo theater gets.

Running Time: One hour 15 minutes, with no intermission.

A Midsummer Night’s Riot plays through June 5, 2014 at The Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street, NW, in Washington D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 892-0202, or purchase them online.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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