Reviews of NATHAN THE WISE at Theater J & Folger Theatre
Here is what they are saying about the show:
*Washington Post, “Immerwahr’s actors — particularly Ebrahimzadeh, Eric Hissom as the title character and Em Whitworth as Nathan’s daughter — breathe humanity into the portrayals… ”
*TheatreBloom, “…played masterfully by another Folger regular, Ebrahimzadeh never fails to stun, and this performance is no exception. With his naturally commanding presence, the Sultan could easily have become an intimidating character, but Ebrahimzadeh’s charm, understated humor, and control of breath and gesture made him a crowd favorite.”
*DCTheaterArts, “Played with convincing restraint by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh… the quintessential reasonable man, who achieves his objectives not only by military prowess and political shrewdness but by compassion, mercy, and willingness to learn from others… a master of self-control….”
*BroadwayWorld, “While each member of the cast is individually strong, it’s also their wonderful stage chemistry that elevates their performances. The cast’s comedic timing, exchanged glances, and asides to the audience all elevate this to a truly great production.”
*MDTheatreGuide, “Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is similarly excellent as a commanding yet likable Salah-ah-Din…”
How does ‘Homebound’ happen? A peek behind the screens
The techies are the actors. Their homes are the set. The series is addicting.
There has been oodles of well-deserved praise for Round House Theatre’s homegrownHomebound, an original ten-installment web series exploring life under stay-at-home orders. Penned by some of the DC area’s top playwrights and performed by a top-notch nine-member cast, Homebound is a vivid, transfixing addiction. Week after week, it tells personal stories that take on major in-the-moment issues of our times through both comedy and drama—issues well beyond being isolated at home because of COVID-19.
If you’re like this theater fan—hooked on the series so far—you might well be wondering by now about this fundamental technical question: How in the world do they do it?
To find out, I went directly to three of the theater artists assembled by Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette and Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson: Matthew M. Nielson, who does Homebound’s sound and music composition; Howard F. Burgess II, who serves as lighting advisor; and Round House resident artist Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, who plays “Maboud” and also took on responsibility for video production and cinematography. These three had not only technical know-how from live theatermaking but also skill sets in digital production to turn words on a page into a handsome viewing pleasure.
As I quickly learned, the critical set of techies on the production were the actors. Given the DMV stay-at-home orders, it was the actors who, without the aid of a crew, recorded all the video and audio themselves from their own homes. The Homebound actors not only delivered dialogue but became the streaming Zoom lens for viewers.
So how was all of this accomplished while not being in the same physical close spaces as is usual for live theater?
The timing for producing each episode of Homebound is very compressed—it is just a few days from script delivery to developing the technical aspects to shooting to final edit of what viewers see and hear. As Matt Nielson told me, “For theater, we have weeks—sometimes months—of discussion. Then, during the four to six weeks of rehearsal, we’ll get notes, all leading up to roughly a week of tech and a week of previews, during which things can change significantly. Not so with Homebound.”
Nielson needs to balance sound from actors who have recorded in different locations under different conditions; and for him, the credibility of the ambience and making the recorded dialogue clear, streamlined, and similar-sounding are critical. “One of my biggest jobs on Homebound,” he told me, “is the painstaking work of the dialogue edit—taking all of the recorded dialogue tracks and in effect ripping them from one another and the visuals—stripping them of all background noises. I make them all sound as pristine and related to each other as possible, and then add back in ambiences that help tell the story.” Nielson must work with Zoom’s latency (delay and lag) so that “dialogue is balanced to have a similar sound,” which is no simple feat. He also develops Homebound’s original music and drops in transitional music and underscoring.
Early on, I learned, there were at-a-distance video walkthroughs of the actors’ homes to see what lighting and sound existed and what might need to be added so that the production would appear effortless and natural to viewers. Harold Burgess II chatted with me about the additional equipment provided each actor to support the filming of each episode of Homebound following that virtual tour of their home “to see how it looks and its lighting.”
For Burgess, that means evaluating what the actors have available for color balance, artificial versus natural lighting, and even the time of day for the final shoot—then deciding where additional lighting is necessary. “The primary goal with this equipment was to have on hand some functional lighting, in addition to a sound recorder and other items that help to enhance the existing environmental light within each location, which was typically the performers’ homes.”
As for the equipment itself, it was to be “affordable, lightweight, and relatively simple in setup and operation. Since each episode takes place in two distinct locations, we have two tech kits that are delivered directly to the performers each week. The equipment is cleaned after or before each weekly shoot.” Typically, Burgess told me, Homebound equipment kits for the actors include additional sound and lighting instruments such as Zoom recorders to enhance the audio, various LED lighting, as well as reflectors and tripod units, with Round House staff including electricians always available to assist the actors.
Beyond his Homebound acting, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh has responsibility for video production and cinematography. That includes blocking not for the eyes of a live audience but for the lens of a cellphone camera. That means storyboarding and other pre-filming work to position the camera and other equipment. He also had editing responsibilities.
Ebrahimzadeh has a previous history with film work that gave him “an understanding of the difference between film and theater storytelling, and the details involved that are accomplished in a matter of days from script to final edited work for streaming.” That included making sure that scene changes were not jarring from one scene to another, that each episode was “tied together.” For the streaming Homebound web series, there is storyboarding, technical walk-throughs, notes taken and provided to the actors, then more walk-throughs and filming for the final editing to tie things together into the final product.
Ebrahimzadeh made clear some of the differences between a live theatrical production and a film. In theater there is a live audience within feet of the actors and the stage. The audience enters the live performance through their eyes. It is a multidimensional experience that includes the imagination. For film, the viewer enters the production through the lens of the camera. The camera lens focuses audience attention. “The camera helps to provide subtext.”
Screen time of 20 seconds or less might take hours to shoot and then develop into the final scene that viewers see and hear, Ebrahimzadeh said. As I rewatched Homebound episodes, I had a new appreciation for what it takes to create a scene in which, say, Embrahmzadeh is on the phone with the unemployment office in Episode 2 or wearing earbuds talking to his mother in Episode 4. Or in Episode 3 actor Craig Wallace playing “Craig” is chatting on his front porch and Chinna Palmer is dancing in her bedroom. I had a richer appreciation for all the technical details that went to the scenes, from Robocall voices on a phone, to bird songs and neighborhood activity, to actor Jaimie Smithson in Episode 4 in his actual basement being rather clumsy.
Ryan Rylette added: “Our first impulse was to edit Homebound internally. The experimental nature of the project, however, means that we are continually fine-tuning the process week to week, and it quickly became clear that the tight production timeline would require some external resources. Maboud connected us to Digital Cave Media, an award-winning collective of filmmakers based in Baltimore, who have provided us incredible professional support.” Digital Cave is responsible for the editing and post production of episodes.
If you haven’t already, take the opportunity to put Homebound on your calendar. You will be well rewarded. The little details make it feel so real, and multiple viewings have left me in awe of the actors and the technical team who make the web series so addicting. All associated with Homebound should be very proud.
Contemporary American life can be summed up in the cry from the heart issued by Craig Wallace in the first episode of the covid-19-era Web series “Homebound.”
“Please help,” the actor says. “I’ve become a potato.”
In virtual terms, he means this concretely. He’s managed, through some bumbling misuse of his keyboard, to convert his online face into a talking spud. But it’s also true that, as Alexandra Petri’s endearing script suggests, potato conversion is a not a bad way to conceptualize our collective pandemic stasis.
That Petri’s metaphor requires no further explication is as meaningful a statement as any about our national predicament, and the funniest one in “Homebound,” a wholesome slice-of-life Web series created by Bethesda’s Round House Theatre. Intended both to give work to Washington-area playwrights and actors and to take the temperature of this odd moment, the series is a modest tonic. A 10-minute episode once a week seems absolutely the right dosage for this refreshingly lighthearted regimen.
Round House describes the project as a “chain” Web series: the bare essentials of the plot were outlined at the start by the company’s artistic director, Ryan Rilette, who guides the episodes with Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson. Set in and around the District, the continuing story concentrates on the housebound travails of two characters named for the actors who play them: Wallace and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh. Each writer receives a script from the author of the prior episode, to take the plot in practically any direction they want. Several other actors — Chinna Palmer, Alina Collins Maldonado, Jamie Smithson, Yao Dogbe, Lynette Rathnam, Helen Hedman and Maya Jackson — make single episode appearances.
Petri, a Washington Post columnist and playwright with a bionic funny bone, kicked off the series on April 27. This week, Episode 4, by Liz Maestri, debuted. The entire series is archived on Round House’s website, with the final installment expected to post on June 29.
“Homebound” is a particularly inspired deployment of a theater company’s resources during the shutdown. Other groups in the region, such as Signature Theatre (“Signature Strong Live!”), Shakespeare Theatre Company (“Shakespeare Hour Live!”) and Olney Theatre Center (“Streaming Saturdays”) have gone the talk-show route with original online programming. (Disclosure: I’ve appeared on all three and moderate some of Olney’s Facebook Live panels.) But Round House has stepped up with narrative-driven content of a more interpretive nature. While the series is offered free, you wonder whether it could be the planting of a new offshoot with deeper roots. The tag of every “Homebound” episode has Rilette, a la a PBS pitch person, making a plea for viewer support.
As one might expect from a Web series emerging not from one writers’ room but from the laptops of 10 free agents, the style and tone of each installment of “Homebound” diverges pretty distinctly from the one before. That feels like a fringe benefit on this occasion: The voices and predilections of each writer permeate this short-subject entertainment. In Petri’s episode, “Connect!,” there’s a playful absurdist development of how we can easily — even accidentally — adopt an online alter ego. Then, in Karen Zacarias’s second episode, “Human Resources,” an embryonic romantic comedy begins to take shape.
Farah Lawal Harris’s Episode 3, “We Wear the Mask,” goes in a more contemplative, epistolary direction, illuminated by the serenity of Chinna Palmer’s character: She trades FaceTime messages with her uncle Craig and dances by herself at home. For Episode 4, “Together Alone,” Maestri shifts into a farcical gear, with a Zoom therapy session interrupted by a minor, um, bathroom emergency.
The gentle, sweet-and-sad countenance of Ebrahimzadeh’s Maboud — unemployed and single — is a winning match for Wallace’s upbeat, indefatigable Craig. The writers so far all understand how to draw on the actors’ personalities; like guests on a cable comedy series by Larry David or Lisa Kudrow, the supporting cast seems delighted to be playing along.
The one major character not credited is portrayed by Technology. By dint of theme, exposition, production and means of distribution, “Homebound” would not be possible without this key player. And the more the writers, designers and technicians have fun with the digitizing of our relationships in this stay-at-home period, the more engaging the series becomes.
So far, it is fair to say that “Homebound” is a pretty well-baked potato.
Homebound, a chain Web series directed by Ryan Rilette and Nicole A. Watson. Costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Harold F. Burgess II; original music, Matthew M. Nielson. A new episode free every Monday through June 29. roundhousetheatre.org.
A screenshot of Maboud Ebrahimzadeh rehearsing the first episode of “Homebound.” The strangeness of life on Zoom plays a role (cue potato head).via Round House Theater
If the Washington Post political humor columnist Alexandra Petri could give her pre-pandemic self a piece of advice, she might suggest skipping the play she went to write about in late February at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland.
“It was bad, and I was glad I got to say that it was bad,” she said recently from Washington. But ever since a conference attendee tested positive for the coronavirus, she has been in lockdown at home, starting what she called “a bonus week” earlier than most people. So: probably not worth it, all in all.
“If I could go back to previous me,” she said, “and be like, ‘Hey, listen, you won’t be able to go have a respectful handshake with your dad for, like, months — ’” She broke off to explain, deadpan: “We’re not a big hugging family, so I was trying to be realistic within my time travel.”
Petri, who is also a playwright, was on the phone to talk about writing the first episode of “Homebound,” a free weekly web series of 10-minute shorts from Round House Theater, in Bethesda, Md. Kicking off on YouTube on Monday at 9 a.m., the series is about isolating in the nation’s capital during the coronavirus shutdown — the company’s attempt to give structure and meaning to the worries, what-ifs and whipsaw mood changes of the strange new present.
The project is also intended to provide at least a bit of employment for artists at a time when stage work has evaporated. Performed by a cast of nine local actors who, like the series’s design team, lost jobs when Round House’s season screeched to a socially distanced halt last month, “Homebound” will be written by a different Washington-area playwright each week and shot by the actors in their homes on their phones and tablets.
There is no showrunner and no preordained arc to the 10-episode series, which will develop, relay style, over the course of the spring, with each writer handing off to the next. Assigned two actors, the writers are free to use their own voices and lead the story where they will, keeping an eye on continuity and character development. The progress of the pandemic will surely influence the show’s shape, while its tone may be as variable as the emotional tenor of these lockdown days.
Is it theater, though? As companies with darkened stages put productions online, questions of form and medium have become surprisingly contentious.
Petri, for one, thinks of her episode — a comedy about the disembodied weirdness of Zoom life and the solace of human connection — “as fundamentally a 10-minute play, but it happens to be set inside your computer.” Round House’s artistic director, Ryan Rilette, is adamant, though, that the pieces that will make up “Homebound” are not plays, and the series is not theater.
“You can’t actually capture the quality of being with a group of people, breathing the same air, listening to a story together,” he said from his home in Potomac, Md. “There’s just nothing that is really like that. And so we’re not trying to replace that.”
Rather, Round House is trying to respond to this destabilizing moment with immediacy and artistry, using the tools it has to maintain a connection with its audience. But the internet, an unfamiliar performance medium for the company, has considerable limitations.
While Rilette said he would like “Homebound” to attain the same quality level as Round House’s stage work, he knows the project’s make-do constraints might not allow that. So, with designers on hand to refine the sound and visuals, he is aiming for an aesthetic that feels like a slightly elevated version of homemade.
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, who stars in the series alongside Craig Wallace, likened the whole undertaking to improv. This is, after all, not what any of the participants thought they would be doing with their spring and early summer.
A resident artist at Round House since 2018, Ebrahimzadeh had expected to wrap up his residency in productions of Charles Mee’s “Big Love” and Rehana Lew Mirza’s “Hate____.” Instead, he will perform solo in his Washington apartment, where his partner, Katrina Clark, also an actor, will likely be drafted to help with filming, and where their cats, Floyd and Marley, may or may not deign to appear on camera.
It is all very much a work in progress, with only a couple of scripts written so far. When Petri filed her first draft last week, Karen Zacarias, the Episode 2 playwright, had just seven days to submit her own first draft. And on it goes.
Each episode will get a table read on Zoom, and then it’s up to the cast members to videotape their scenes, keeping an eye on details that aren’t usually their responsibility, like camera angles, lighting and sound. Rilette and Nicole A. Watson, Round House’s associate artistic director, will direct the series, but of course neither they nor any technical crew will be with the actors during shooting.
“We’re putting a lot of pressure on the performers,” the lighting designer, Harold F. Burgess II, said from his home in Columbia, Md., where he will do virtual walk-throughs of each actor’s home to see what lighting is available — natural and otherwise — and whether he needs to supplement it.
“That’s the thing I worry about most,” he said, “that there’s just not enough light for the video to read clearly so you can really see people.”
The actors will get kits containing tripods, selfie sticks and basic lighting equipment, and the idea is to keep technical elements simple. Still, how will the actors accomplish so many additional tasks and still do their primary job well?
“I have no idea,” Ebrahimzadeh said, and laughed. “I think it really comes down to trust, and embracing the chaos of it as opposed to fighting against it. Which is kind of what I think we all have been tasked to do, and I mean this broadly — the chaos of this moment that we’re all living in.”
For Caleen Sinnette Jennings, the playwright who comes last in the lineup, with Episode 10, that chaos has already been instructive. A professor of theater at American University, she had to learn recently how to teach her classes online, and the experience surprised her.
“I’ve discovered how amazing it is to see students prepare work and share work from their living rooms — something I could never have predicted,” she said from her home in Rockville, Md. “I’m enjoying, and tremendously moved by, the community we’ve been able to create online.”
She expects something similar may be afoot with “Homebound.”
“So will I miss live rehearsals?” she asked. “Of course. That’s my heart, and the screen will never replace that. But if I let my curiosity outweigh the terror, and if I let my sense of adventure outweigh my being fixed on what theater has to be, it could be really awesome.”
What “Homebound” will become by the time it wraps up on June 29 is, by design, unknown. It could be, Rilette said, that people will be out and about in Washington by then.
“I mean, I would love it,” he said, “if the last episode of the series was our two resident artists who are the stars going to see a Nats game together or something, you know?”
However the series and the pandemic morph by then, Jennings knows already that one thing will be different about the way she writes her part of it: the obligation she feels, suddenly, to “hold the audience in my heart as I create this.”
“I’m going through exactly what they’re going through, in an enormous event that is changing all of us,” she said. “The audience will be much more in the room with me — in my mental room, anyway.”
A version of this article appears in print on April 24, 2020, Section C, Page 3 of the New York edition with the headline: Playwrights Use Web Series for Structure. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
The cast of Round House Theatre’s “Homebound,” from left to right, top to bottom: Alina Collins Maldonado, Yao Dogbe, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Helen Hedman, Maya Jackson, Chinna Palmer, Lynette Rathnam, Jamie Smithson and Craig Wallace. (Photos courtesy of the artists/Artwork courtesy of Round House Theatre)
What’s it like to be hunkered down at home as the coronavirus pandemic rages all around us? Round House Theatre thought the question was so ripe for exploration that it hired 10 playwrights to ponder the dramatic consequences.
The result is “Homebound,” an original Web series starring local stage favorites Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and Craig Wallace that kicks off Monday on the Bethesda theater’s YouTube page. Humorist (and Washington Post columnist) Alexandra Petri launches the series, with a new playwright — including Karen Zacarías, Dani Stoller, Tim J. Lord and Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi — picking up each week where the previous writer left off. The 10-minute episodes will post every Monday at 9 a.m. through June 29.
“It’s certainly an ambitious project,” Wallace said. “For the most part, actors act, directors director, designers design. [With ‘Homebound,’] we’re having to do a little bit of all of it.”
Like the characters they are bringing to life, the actors will work in isolation and without knowing what happens in the next installment. And it will unfold at breakneck speed, said Wallace, who read Petri’s script only last week. “It’s like a prologue, a great way to introduce myself and Maboud,” he said. “And it’s Alexandra, so it’s funny.”
In Petri’s opening episode — the only one written so far — Wallace’s character calls his friend, played by Ebrahimzadeh, for technical advice before an important Zoom call. Ebrahimzadeh’s character recently attended a conference, where he may have been exposed to the virus.
“I pick the characters and their relationship, or at least imply it,” said Petri. She focuses on technology, which has an outsize role in our new “stay at home” normal. The storyhas to be specificto feel resolved in 10 minutes, but open-ended for the rest of the writers. “It’s not like ‘The Cherry Orchard.’ You can’t do that in 10minutes,” she said.
Round House created the project with two goals in mind: to give playwrights the opportunity to address this unprecedented event and to give actors and designers a little cash while they wait for a semblance of normalcy to return. Many regional theaters have moved to the digital realm while their stages are dark, but “Homebound” is unique because it features multiple writers spinning an evolving tale.
The playwrights were told the series stars a man of Iranian descent in his 30s and an African American man in his 50s, with a diverse supporting cast, said Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette.
“It’s about covid, has to be filmed in peoples’ homes. No nudity. Beyond that it’s truly up to them,” he said. “We said lead with your heart, with humor, and write the stories that you want and need to hear right now. There’s an immediacy to the trauma we’re going through that in six months or a year’s time will be lessened.”
Two actors are paired with a playwright for each episode, with Wallace and Ebrahimsadeh appearing throughout the series. The playwrights are able to video conference with their actors to get a sense of them and their surroundings, which will become part of the story.
The show is part of “Round House at Your House,” the free digital programming the theater is presenting during its forced closure. The theater is also live-streaming weekly interviews with well-known playwrights, cocktail-making classes from its Fourth Wall Bar & Café and educational programs for young audiences.
The project will cost $30,000, raised from board donations, with most of the money going to salaries, Rilette said. The raw production values and speedy turnaround will allow local theatergoers to get up close to the artists they usually see in a more traditional setting.
“You’re watching local artists you love creating on the spot, getting to watch the game of it a little bit,” he said. “You can enjoy the art and the process at the same time.”
Zacarías likened the project to a relay race that is built on the “yes and” rule of improv that invites and accepts all ideas. “Creativity always does well with some kind of structure and a little bit of randomness,” she said. “It’s a really generous exercise from Round House, to give us the opportunity to explore.”
The format fits the uncertain times, Rilette said, noting that the first episode will debut weeks before most are even written. The aspect of the unknown is both terrifying and appealing, Zacarías said. “There’s little time to think. There’s no luxury of doubt,” said the author of “The Book Club Play” and “Destiny of Desire.” “The fact that there’s a little bit of dread is exactly why I should do it. You feel a little bit exposed. I won’t be able to rewrite it, workshop it. We’re going to make it messy and throw it on the wall.”
The designers and cast members had been hired for the three shows that Round House had to cancel because of the pandemic. In addition to Wallace and Ebrahimzadeh, the cast features Helen Hedman, Alina Collins Maldonado, Yao Dogbe, Maya Jackson, Chinna Palmer, Lynette Rathnam and Jamie Smithson. Rilette and Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson are directing via video conferences. Lighting designer Harold F. Burgess II will advise the actors on how to light their homes, and costume designer Ivania Stack will help select pieces from their closets.
“Talk about vulnerable,” Wallace said. “People who know me will recognize my clothes.”
The theater has bags of basic tech equipment — a tripod, a selfie stick, extra cords — that are dropped off at each actor’s home to help them film their scenes. Round House staff will edit, add music and the opening and closing sequences and post the episodes online.
The project’s experimental feel attracted playwright Psalmayene 24.
“It’s treading in new territory, doing something that felt like it was new and fresh,” the creator of “The Freshest Snow Whyte” and other hip-hop fairy talessaid. “This is my first time working with Round House. I was looking for a way to work with them. And I’ve also been looking for a way to start exploring film and television, so that is right on time.”
He will write the fifth episode in a few weeks, after learning how the plot and characters have evolved over the earlier episodes. For now, he’s chronicling the roller coaster of emotions he’s experiencingin isolation.
“This idea of quickly going from despair to blame to tranquility to perverse delight in the moment,” he said. “Sometimes I find myself voyeuristically watching the world unfold.”
Starting Monday, the District’s theater community will be able to watch along.