A mesmerizing queer parable in ‘Agreste (Drylands)’ at Spooky Action Theater

From Brazil, a lyrical retort to heteronormativity.

Like an ancient tale retold, like a ritual recollected, like a legend come to life, a story unfolds onstage in Agreste (Drylands) that seems from a distant, mythic past — but it could easily have happened in yesterday’s news cycle. It is a story of a singularly pure love between two soulmates who are cruelly confronted by religion-enflamed intolerance in the arid Brazillian hinterland — but it could easily have happened in Anywhere, USA.

Now playing in a mesmerizingly beautiful production at Spooky Action Theater, Agreste (Drylands) is a haunting queer-themed narrative in poetry composed by renowned Brazilian playwright Newton Moren, stunningly directed by Brazil native Danilo Gambini, who also translated.

A more lyrical retort to heteronormativity would be hard to imagine.

Irene Hamilton, Kate Kenworthy, and Raghad Almakhlouf in ‘Agreste (Drylands).’ Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

The set (designed by Giorgos Tsappas) is a terra cotta expanse that separates two halves of the audience and evokes a sun-scorched landscape where only gravel grows. Onto this barren playing area enter an empathic ensemble of four who seem in sync as if the same self — Raghad Almakhlouf, Irene Hamilton, Kate Kenworthy, and Miss Kitty. Costumed (by Danielle Preston and Imari Pyles) in gender-undifferentiated tan tunics, headwraps, vests, and boots, they are a multi-narrator chorale, melding with one another in voice and movement, blending in and out of the story’s characters, and transporting us by their grace into a most precious ritual trance.

The first half of the play is a lovely, long prelude to a shocking revelation midway through (which I’ll not reveal) that changes everything. Two characters we know only as he and she slowly meet chaste at a fence that stands between them. One day a hole appears in the fence — represented by a stark spotlight (Colin K. Bills’ lighting astutely carrying the story). Slowly, very slowly, he and she get to know each other, in poetry so profound and exquisite it leaves one breathless.

Here for instance is the passage that tells how he and she began their home (the ensemble intones the text both solo and in unison):

Something warm grew in their souls. It was a steam in the oven, in the cradle, in the shape of a new affection. They were on the verge of collapse. Reason was drowning in the high noon sun, when a woman delineated in the distance, like mirage. She came as slow as justice. Drew closer. She spoke to them, but they didn’t hear a word. Instead of words, they could only hear the sounds of waters. From her mouth everything sounded drops of rain, filled barrels, spilling dam, drained gutter. Her sounds were all wet. She spoke like a river, watery. It was this woman who saved them.

She took them to the village and lodged them. They alighted in this settlement. A little bit of jabá dried beef, some shade and muddy water, and they found their footing.

There, they planted their lives.

And thus, as the story goes, they lived as husband and wife for 22 years.

The indicated rain (made present in Aria Velz’s superb sound design) turns later to tears, indicated by the ensemble dropping handfuls of rubber pebbles.

TOP: Irene Hamilton, Raghad Almakhlouf, Kate Kenworthy, and Miss Kitty; ABOVE: Kate Kenworthy, Irene Hamilton, Miss Kitty, and Raghad Almakhlouf in ‘Agreste (Drylands).’ Photos by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Two songs bracket the production, both performed movingly by Miss Kitty. First, she sings the well-known one that begins “There was a boy…[“Nature Boy”]”:

…The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
is just to love and be loved in return

And at the end, she sings:

…If you love me, really love me
Then whatever happens, I won’t care

In between is a heartbreaking story about two people for whom love is love is love — in a play that challenges fundamental assumptions about human embodiment. Who are we if not essentially our sexedness? Are we anyone? Do we not exist otherwise?

Agreste is a powerful parable of a societal battleground about the body where war is waged with ignorance and hate.

See it and you’ll see: The story is timeless. And it’s right on time.

Running Time: Approximately 45 minutes, no intermission.

Agreste (Drylands) plays to November 19, 2023 (Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.) presented by Spooky Action Theater performing at The Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets (general admission, $37.50; students with valid ID, $20; seniors 65 and over, $35.50) are available online.

The program for Agreste (Drylands) is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional except for mask-required performances on November 5 at 3 p.m. and November 11 at 7:30 p.m

Agreste (Drylands)
By Newton Moreno
Directed and translated by Danilo Gambini

Raghad Almakhlouf, Irene Hamilton, Kate Kenworthy, and Miss Kitty

Giorgos Tsappas: Scenic Design
Colin K. Bills: Lighting Design
Danielle Preston: Costume Design
Imari Pyles: Assistant Costume Design
Aria Velz: Sound Design
Caroline Johnson: Production Stage Manager
Caroline Hunt: Associate Stage Manager
Samuel Morreale: Dramaturg
Barrett Doyle: Technical Director
Gillian Drake: Associate Producer
Jenn Pallas: Scenic Charge

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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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