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Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C., United States

Washington, D.C., Washington, D.C., United States
Band Comedy Comedy


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"Original Sin"

Before you continue reading, here's a tip: Open up another tab on your web browser and buy tickets to "The Sin Show" before the thing sells out, because it's only a matter of time. It's that good.

Seaton Smith takes on envy in "The Sin Show." (Alexander Morozov)

All done? Okay. Now I'll tell you why, if you go to a single Fringe performance this year, it should be this one. SpeakeasyDC, the organization that reveres the ancient art of storytelling above all else, is back at Fringe with yet another winner.

This year the show is focusing on the deadly sins: seven actors lay themselves bare on stage to describe their own battles with gluttony, sloth or greed. Each story is impeccably written, blending the humor and sadness that comes with the self-awareness of hindsight.

John Kevin Boggs kicks things off on the right note with his tale of trading in a cigarette addiction for binge-eating. The audience roars with laughter at his self-effacing descriptions of multi-course meals and late-night snacking, then gasps when he reveals how much weight he gains in a four-month period. These emotional ups and downs are what make the individual stories work so well. The audience becomes invested in the narrators, because it's hard not to like someone who's so honest about his or her foibles.

Well, maybe with the exception of pride. But even if Joseph Price didn't prove himself to be likable, his droll delivery in telling an unapologetically arrogant story about his meteoric rise as a college playwright made it one of the strongest segments. Other standouts were Seaton Smith (who's double-booking apparently, since he also has a role in "Slow News Day") and his inexplicable hatred for a popular classmate, and Saurabh Tak, who probably had the most uproarious story of the evening with his tale of lusting after a friend's wife.

Thinking about the show later, it's remarkable how much can be done with so little. True, there was a mesmerizing video installation that punctuated each performance with a bit of thumping music, but none of that was really necessary. In the end, the power came solely from each individual's pared down descriptions of personal flaws. - Washington Post

"True Lives, Under a Spotlight"

Many people don't like to advertise that they date online. But Suji Brown, a self-described "IT wonk" in black-framed glasses, stood under a spotlight in a U Street lounge Tuesday night and told a room of 200 strangers about weeding through the misspellers, the married men and "the guy who asked me if I had a fat" posterior.

Matt Sherman told of a terrifying ride on a Bangkok motorcycle taxi whose driver sang the John Denver song "Country Roads" while delivering him to a sordid nightclub. Meredith Maslich admitted that she had enjoyed tormenting her Mormon college roommate with raunchy music. The audience, slouched in sofas and lounge chairs in the darkened room, ate it up.

This is SpeakeasyDC, a monthly gathering of storytellers that has become so popular it has had to change venues to accommodate the crowds. The stories are autobiographical, often funny, sometimes painful. And in a city where many feel they must erect emotional walls to get ahead, they can be cathartic.

"It's got me to relax a bit about sharing parts of me," said Shaw resident Joseph Price, a fresh-faced young man whose repertoire includes an embarrassing story about going home with a married woman. "There is something in just saying, 'The devil may care.' "

SpeakeasyDC is modeled after the Moth, a regular gathering of storytellers in New York. It has a few rules: The stories have a seven-minute limit and must be true. Details can be tweaked for a tighter narrative, but the main facts should have what the organizers call an "emotional truth."

Each show is organized around a theme, such as coming of age, cyber life or the kindness of strangers. This week's theme was "Mix Tape" -- stories about a single song that made an impact. Each storyteller approached the stage accompanied by a loud, prerecorded blast of his or her song.

As waiters swooped around the couches with plates of burgers and drinks in plastic cups, Brown explained to the crowd what happened to a potential suitor who professed to share her love for the Smiths.

"What's your favorite Smiths song?" she described asking him.

"Name one."

"Uh. . ."

The audience snickered.

" 'Dancing Queen?' "

They roared.

SpeakeasyDC started 12 years ago out of the Washington Storytellers Theatre. The shows have been packed recently; organizers can't explain why exactly, but Amy Saidman, the show's executive director, had a theory. "I've decided we're the hot dogs of the theater scene in D.C. You know, in hard economic times, you eat hot dogs? Well, it might cost $85 to go to the Warner, but here, for $10 or $15, it's so cheap."

Unlike the Moth, SpeakeasyDC has a coach who helps shape and sharpen the tales. "She works on things like telling rather than summarizing, the importance of details and opportunities for humor," Saidman said. For those who want to take it further, the organization offers classes.

Also, unlike the New York shows, where judges rate the stories and pick a winner, SpeakeasyDC is not competitive. "We tried it twice," Saidman said. "It didn't go well. . . . We realized it's not New York. People in New York are a lot more used to auditioning, to being judged. They have much thicker skin. We realized that D.C. really wasn't that environment."

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, many storytellers are government employees or lawyers.

"It rounds out your existence, if you're spending all day every day at a desk staring at a computer," said Edwin Kubal, a District lawyer whose three years of storytelling at SpeakeasyDC have led to performances at the Capital Fringe Festival and classes at the Washington Improv Theater.

For people unused to being onstage, the thought of publicly flaunting their character flaws and emotional weaknesses can sound like torture.

"I'd never done anything like that before," said Maslich, 32, of Oakton, recalling her first time three years ago. "I was scared out of my mind. I was shaking -- you could hear it in my voice."
This Story

True Lives, Under a Spotlight
Scenes from SpeakeasyDC

But the laughter relaxed her. "I got tons of applause, and everyone was coming up to me telling me how much they liked it. . . . I was hooked after that."

For Maslich, now SpeakeasyDC's board chair, and other regulars, it has also created a social world. They go see each other in other shows and often go to dinner afterward.

Price, a projects manager for a Web design company, said thinking about his life in terms of narratives helps him make sense of it. "I think to have a body of stories gives me the feeling that I've had a full life in my brief 26 years," he said. "It kind of justifies my existence."

It can even help the lawyers. "I'm an attorney, and I tell stories for a living," said Latif Doman, 38, of Fort Washington. After taking a SpeakeasyDC class, he can more easily put himself in his client's shoes, he said, and he now adds arresting imagery and details to his courtroom presentations.

"I could tell the difference in the jurors as I was telling it," said Doman, a long-limbed, imposing figure with a shaved head. "The jury identified with my client. . . . It's the focus on detail, because that gives the truth to it."

Regulars say their gatherings counteract the stereotype of Washington as a cultural wasteland, a mean city, a town that takes itself too seriously.

"This is one of the most genuine cultural gatherings in D.C.," said Jonathan Cohen, 41, a D.C. resident who works for Amnesty International. "It's so incredibly supportive. People are rooting for you, and that's not the norm in D.C. This is a city where people, if you're in the public sphere, will chop you down."

But here, the more embarrassing the stories, the more the crowd cheers.

Maslich noted that storytelling taps an archetypal need. "The act of listening to other people's stories is a really powerful experience," she said. "People have come together to tell stories since the beginning of time -- for entertainment, for communicating social norms, for cautionary reasons."

Not all participants are neophytes, but even professional actors can gain new perspectives by doing it. "You get to write your own script, so you get to take people where you want to take them," said Kevin Boggs, 45, an actor who lives in Logan Circle and told a story Tuesday about his ex-boyfriends dating each other.

And there's no pressure to be a pro. "It's kind of like joining those kickball leagues -- you don't have to be really good," Boggs said.

In fact, being too polished can work against a storyteller. "Our audience is great, but if they get the feeling that it is ingenuine, then they turn on you," said Stephanie Garbaldi, who coaches the storytellers and moderated Tuesday's show. "If they don't feel you're telling the truth about your life, then they feel you've broken the trust."
This Story

True Lives, Under a Spotlight
Scenes from SpeakeasyDC

You can be a regular without ever stepping onto the stage. Ute Mai, 53, of Bethesda comes with her husband just to watch -- and to admire the storytellers' courage. "People are just so open to go up there and tell these stories," she said, adding that she had never seen such a thing in her native Germany.

Most of the performers are in their 20s through 40s, but no one is too old. Sherry Geyelin, 84, a former board member of the Washington Storytellers Theatre, has told about the time when her children, after years of listening to Geyelin and her husband warn against drugs, asked them if they had ever tried any.

It was a rare evening at home for her husband, then-editor of The Washington Post's editorial pages, when the country was embroiled in the Vietnam War and Watergate. The couple agreed to try marijuana.

"Nobody told us we didn't have to puff on it every time it came around," Geyelin said in a recent interview. By the time the phone rang, they were a puddle of giggles. It was Henry Kissinger. Her husband muddled through the call, and they did not smoke pot again.

Nor is anyone too young. Brown, 41, of Burke bared her soul Tuesday not only to strangers but also to her mother and two daughters.

It must not have looked too scary, because her daughter Meera, 10, summoned the courage to be one of the three spontaneous storytellers who go up at the end and tell three-minute, uncoached stories.

The spotlight shone in her eyes. She stepped up to the microphone with a big smile.

"You know how you look back at elementary school and say, 'God, I was stupid'? Well, even though I'm still in elementary school, fourth grade will always come back to haunt me."

The room dissolved in laughter.

To find out where to watch or participate in SpeakeasyDC, including during a special Valentine's weekend event, visit http://www.speakeasydc.org.

- Washington Post

"Chocolate Jesus: Faith Fringe-ified"

When you find yourself cupping the balls of a bull, you know your life has taken a turn for the weird.

At least, that's what Stephanie Garibaldi found after spending time in a Mayan village, just after deciding Ivy League College was not for her. Garibaldi's is one of four stories involving faith and self-discovery showcased in Chocolate Jesus.

The work is performed by regulars from SpeakeasyDC, a monthly storytelling night featuring seasoned regulars and first-time open mic participants. While those evenings can be hit or miss affairs, these folks have clearly honed their material and delivery for Chocolate Jesus. The stories are reportedly all true, and never lose our interest.

Garibaldi's tale is the hardest to swallow, but she sells it with self-deprecating flair. Amy Saidman, who tells how she got from the world's strangest Jewish summer camp to becoming an ineffective State Department protester, has a meandering delivery that still commands attention. Travis Wright's monologue is easily the most moving, a genuine retelling of what happens when an active Southern Baptist realizes there's a little more behind his love of Dolly Parton and fishnets, which reaches its climax when Wright has to come out to his conservative mother. But this is no mere sob story; Wright's opening anecdote of an eight year old's laughable misdiagnosis of Toxic Shock Syndrome, as well as his talents in the unorthodox hobby of clogging, balance out the heartbreaking moments. And Eva Salvetti is the group's best storyteller, introducing us to her wacky Argentinian childhood and Catholicism as an unlikely source for childhood rebellion.

They're just stories -- this is not a Fringe piece driven by carefully crafted dialogue -- but that's precisely what appeals about Chocolate Jesus, a piece that tackles big themes and life-shaping moments with plainspoken humor rather than showy spectacle.

Catch Chocolate Jesus July 20, 26, and 27 at 8 p.m. or July 28 at 10 p.m. at Playbill Cafe. Tickets can be secured through the Fringe Festival Web site. - DCist

"Chocolate Jesus"

It’s Friday evening, I arrive home from a long day at the office, I was not sure I was ready for a show called Chocolate Jesus. What I witnessed however was something akin to Toastmasters on steroids — poignant, funny stories strengthened by honesty that had the audience roaring with laughter. Growing up with Catholicism in Argentina, children’s day camp for future Jewish activists, traveling fertility goddesses and coming out of the closet in the Bible Belt. Each story is a gem but Travis Wright who performs last is fabulous. He is performing on stage for the first time but you would never guess it after listening to him tell his sincere account of coming out to his bible thumping mom.

Speakeasy DC (the folks behind this funny stuff) have developed quite a following around town with their story telling cafe shows. Be sure to get your tickets for this one fast, the first two fringe performances of Chocolate Jesus have sold out. Get to 1409 Playbill a little early and try the meatloaf it goes well with chocolate. - DC Theatre Scene

"Capital Interests"

Now in its third year, Washington D.C.'s Capital Fringe Festival -- which runs through July 27 -- boasts over 100 productions spread out over several venues. Like all fringes, the quality of offerings varies quite widely from show to show. However, during the festival's opening weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend two very worthwhile pieces, as well as a couple of less engaging ones.

My favorite show was Chocolate Jesus, a collection of four monologues on religious themes, written and performed by members of SpeakeasyDC, which is dedicated to autobiographical storytelling. Artistic executive director Amy Saidman opens the performance with a tale of how she got in touch with her Jewish identity -- starting with being enrolled in a socialist Zionist camp where the counselors put the attendees through simulations that included waking them up in the middle of the night in order to "flee Russia." Eva Salvetti shares a funny but moving account of how the Catholic Church "provided a place to rebel" against her permissive Argentinian parents. In the most bizarre story of the evening, Stephanie Garibaldi talks about a time she spent in Mexico impersonating -- or perhaps actually channeling -- a Mayan fertility goddess. Finally, the charming Travis Wright discusses growing up Baptist and reconciling his faith with his gay sexuality. Each tale contains a wonderful blend of humor and more serious content. While Saidman is the most "polished" performer in the group, all four exhibit a wonderful energy, a real connection with their audience, and a sheer joy of sharing their stories. - Theatermania

"The Revenge of the Cat-Headed Baby"

There were a couple of empty chairs at the showing of The Revenge of the Cat-Headed Baby and Other True Tales yesterday at Cole Studio.

You fools!

From the story of how Vijai Nathan lost her hair to the tale of how Edwin Kubal lost his fear of the things they warned him about on ABC’s After-School Special, The Revenge of the Cat-Headed Baby (the title gets shorter with each repetition) is a celebration of loss, recovery and redemption as experienced by ordinary people who happen to have brilliant comic timing and storytelling skills.

The ordinariness of the storytellers cannot be overemphasized. These are men and women just like us, who have experienced the threat of uterine cancer (Tabbie Mann) or waited to be called into combat in Iraq (Twain Dooley). Darrel Perry serves as sort of a hip-hop moderator, and his story seems at the beginning to be lighter than the rest, a story about nothing. Then, all of a sudden, something happens and it turns out to be a story about everything.

Perhaps that is how it is for all of us. Our lives seem to be a story about nothing, and then something happens and it is a story about everything.

It would be an interesting but purely academic exercise to determine which story is the most compelling. Nathan, a stand-up comedian, gives the most polished performance but every one of them is touching, funny and, in theater’s best tradition, helps us to understand each other and ourselves. I particularly enjoyed Dooley’s account, which shows us what an ordinary grunt feels when he watches gunfire in the distance.

Cat-Headed Baby is the product of SpeakeasyDC, an organization dedicated to the loving preservation and advancement of the storytelling tradition, and thus to bringing truth to art. With stories as well-crafted and well-told as this, they are going to be around for a long time. - DC Theatre Scene


Still working on that hot first release.



SpeakeasyDC produces original performances with a cast of 4-8 artists telling true stories on a common theme. We customize shows to any topic or you may choose from themes we have already created, such as "Wetbacks, Aliens, & Towelheads: Stories from the First Generation", "Chocolate Jesus: Stories about Faith & Identity", or "Sucker for Love: Stories about Loves Found, Lost, and Imagined". Dozens more can be found at speakeasydc.com. The stories told are funny, poignant, gripping, and eye-opening. Storytelling resembles other art forms, but is distinct from poetry and stand up in that we tell honest-to-goodness true stories with a narrative arc. It is distinct from a reading because these stories are performed, not read, nor is it improv. Each story is meticulously crafted.