Review: Source Festival 2016: ‘Buried Cities’

This year’s edition of the DC Source Festival continues with its central mission to present works fresh to the DC area. The new theater works at Source receive their first full production at one of the DC area’s oldest still-operating theater venues in what is the ever bustling 14th Street, NW. (How much has changed in the Source Theater neighborhood since I first went to terrific edgy shows in that venue in the later 1970’s when theater was first raising its flag as a source of appealing less-then-conventional entertainment for then young Washington bureaucrats looking to step away from their conservative dress requirements).

Now, the Source Festival is a great addition to the early summer theater scene in the DC area as mainstream theaters begin to take their well-deserved quick hiatus from gearing up for the 2016-17 theater season. The Source Festival is also held in the weeks just before the Capital Fringe Festival gets into full gear.

The opening production of this year’s Source Festival is Buried Cities by Jennifer Fawcett. It is one of three plays selected for a full production selected from more than 140 scripts submitted to the Festival by invitation. Buried Cities is in a grouping of productions called Heroes and Home that includes a number of 10-minute plays and Artistic Blind Dates performances in the 2016 Source Festival. 

Yesenia Tglesias and McCaul Baggett. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.
Yesenia Iglesias and McCaul Baggett. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

Jennifer Fawcett may not be well known to theater-going audiences in this area. But, her resume is long, strong and serious. She is a founder and Co-Artistic Director of Working Group Theatre. She is the winner of the 2015 NNPN Smith Prize for Political Theatre, the 2014 NEFA National Theatre Project Award (with Working Group Theatre), the National Science Playwriting Award (KC/ACTF) and she was nominated for the 2013 ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award. Most recently she developed a new play with Sean Lewis at Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor.

Fawcett’s Buried Cities raises many a critical questions for its “progressive-minded” audience to chew on during and after the performance. So go in with an open mind and ready for plenty of well-presented nuance argument, especially if you have deeply-held and totally solid viewpoints about gun control and the role of guns to provide safety for those who may consider having a weapon in their home or possession.

Fawcett is adept at providing various positions rather than mere political monologue representing one point of view against a hateful, ignorant “Trump-like” straw character. She does not write in speeches presenting only one side of what is such a contentious matters. Rather she provides value to each side’s points in the raw dialogue coming out of her characters’ mouths.

The synopsis of the show is this per the Source marketing material (with my comments within it):

One night, Maya (Yesenia Iglesias in a well-accomplished performance as a woman no longer secure in her life) and Louis (McCaul Baggett as a bit too soft spoken, now off-kilter professor with a made-up mind, or is it?) are held up at gunpoint in their home. Even though they are supposedly unharmed, their marriage begins to fall apart as each tries to find safety in the world again. Their nephew Brandon (Frank Cevarich doing nice work as a teenager) is mourning a step-father who was lost to war and feels more real in the imaginary world of violent video games than in the world where he is trying to learn how to be a man. Leah (a wonderfully performing Lee Gerstenhaber who brings both steel and insecurity to bear in an intimate play space), who has spent her life hiding the two small horns on her forehead, begins to gain power as she learns about her mysterious conception in a labyrinth in Crete. 

Playwright Fawcett’s play is most secure and affecting when it depicts the bickering between husband Louis and wife Maya. There is a real sense of how even a loving couple can be thrown off their normal devotion to each other when an unexpected wretched event happens to them both as a couple and individual people. Iglesias especially has a way of giving off a sense of bewilderment and the need for space to get back in balance. The gaming scenes are not quite as strong, and at times can seem tacked-on with as a weak-link. Yet, the acting in the game scenes had an affecting attitude as the influence of a deceased military service member can hit its marks. All together as a full production, Buried Cities gives off plenty of complexity with a richness of dialogue and situations.

The six performance production run of Buried Cities is directed by Ryan MaxwellMaxwell has been involved with new play development in the DC area working with the The Hub, Pinky Swear, Rorschach,  Flying V, and  Young Playwrights Theater, to name a few.

Given the requirements the three full-production Source Festival plays share the single intimate space, Maxwell and his design team developed an interesting way to present scenes that take place in a real-life apartment and in the mind of two game players. For scenes in the apartment, events take place on a one step-up, raised stage floor with a table and two chairs. For the gaming scenes, events take place in the aisle between the raised stage and the audience. The fine Buried Cities design team incudes Mark Routhier (Dramaturg), Deb Crerie and Kay Rzasa (Properties Designers), Roc Lee (Sound Designer), and Will Blanchette (Rehearsal Stage Manager/Set Design Intern.

Frank Raymond Cervarich III and Lee Gerstenhaber. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.
Frank Raymond Cervarich III and Lee Gerstenhaber. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

Now, here was a line of dialogue (as I wrote in the theater darkness) spoken by the character Maya, that hung in my heart and mind as I left the theater.  Maya wanted to feel safe again. She didn’t quite understand how her husband had tried to help her feel safe not only safer the robbery but during the robbery. Maya was discussing why she purchased a gun to keep in their home to decide if they should keep it.

We are not statistics, this is us.

She wanted to feel safe and just wasn’t accepting her Louis’s more intellectual, cold statistics for why they should not have a weapon in their bedroom. So much is buried like ancient cities inside each of the four characters for the audience to discern and discover.

I will leave it to you to see the play and then to make up your mind about what transpires at the final black-out. Fawcett raised the critical question for an audience to ponder: “What would you do if you had been in such a situation?”

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.


Buried Cities played on June 8, 2016 at The 2016 Source Festival performing at Source – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Performances continue on June 18th at 1 PM and 8 PM;June 22nd at 8 PM; June 26, 2016 at 4:30 PM; and July 1st at 9 PM. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.



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