“My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion” defies genre. It defies any sort of easy categorization. In many ways, it even defies a label like “play,” and that is precisely why it is so mesmerizing to watch. Playwright Sasha Denisova has created something that speaks to the heart of what experimental theatre strives to do but with a commercial edge that makes it a production that just about any audience can appreciate and enjoy. In other words, this piece seems absolutely perfect for Woolly Mammoth given their mission of presenting work that “radically redefines theatre.”
…so mesmerizing to watch…speaks to the heart of what experimental theatre strives to do…Twyford, Smiling, and Holum…the perfect cast…Yury Urnov’s direction, much like the piece itself, proves playfully frenetic and utterly refreshing.
Denisova’s irreverence is on full display here. It’s the kind of artistic irreverence that theatre goers, at least the theatre goers in attendance on opening night, wholeheartedly and quite wildly cheered for. The ostensibly autobiographical piece is a dialogue of sorts between a “Mother” (Holly Twyford) and “Daughter” (Suli Holum). As many mother/daughter relationships tend to be, this one is complicated—and that’s an understatement. We learn just how complicated it is as the show progresses. Olga, Sasha’s 82-year-old mother, is deep inside of Ukraine. Over a prolonged span of time, Sasha repeatedly visits (or tries to), calls, and checks in on her mother. In a fantastical sequence of events, the concerned daughter envisions her mom engaging in a series of typical, albeit somewhat absurd, wartime activities—swatting down drones, shooting at planes, even calling up President Zelensky on the phone to have a “chat.”
Beyond the Walter Mitty-esque montage moments, we also get a few flashbacks that reveal a little more about how mother and daughter arrived at this very complicated intersection of their relationship. Not pretty enough, not mathematically inclined enough, and too bookish, Sasha is constantly trying to live up to the standards her mother sets. This is a pattern that apparently is an inherited one as Olga herself endured her own mother’s seeming disappointment.
Along with the two female leads, there is also the role of “Man” (Lindsay Smiling), tasked with playing all of the male parts including, and quite hysterically, that of God. At one point, Smiling, under his breath and to great comic effect, makes note of the rather long list of roles he must undertake. The meta element of this piece gives it an even more humorous, in-your-face kind of vibe. Then again, this production is nothing if not an in-your-face, tell-it-like it is romp filled also with deeper, trenchant messages about life, war, love, and loneliness.
There is almost a variety show aspect to this piece. It includes some quasi-standup, dancing, numerous costume changes, as well as impersonations (Biden and Putin may have cameos). The very deftly coordinated kitchen-sink approach to storytelling here requires, of course, a skilled storyteller (Denisova) and also a cast that is eager to roll with some bizarre and provocative punches. Twyford, Smiling, and Holum seem to be the perfect cast for this world premiere production.
Twyford quite convincingly transforms into a “Russist” resenting, chain-smoking, and nation-defending rebel. Her spirit is palpable. The actor fully commits to this larger-than-life character who is a bit off the rails but also possesses a homespun, matter-of-fact sensibility which almost immediately endears her to audiences. Twyford’s performance is a triumph. For her part, Holum is wonderfully familiar and easy to side with as she provides the more wry, deadpan reflections that propel the narrative forward. Smiling is brilliant as he morphs from Olga’s current husband into her numerous past husbands, a frustrated alien, and an even more frustrated God.
Yury Urnov’s direction, much like the piece itself, proves playfully frenetic and utterly refreshing. There is always something to watch, someone moving or dancing, some new image popping up on the screen, something to consume your senses. Misha Kachman’s set is a very clever commentary on the everyday home that finds itself unfathomably located in the midst of a war. All facets of this production are incredibly well-done, to include lighting design by Venus Gulbranson, projection design by Kelly Colburn, costumes by Ivania Stack, and sound design by Michael Kiley.
Woolly Mammoth is not afraid to traverse some controversial and avant-garde theatrical territory. This play is certainly no exception. As I said in the beginning, “My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion” really does defy any sort of definitive description. You’ll just have to go and see it for yourself. I highly recommend that you do.
Running Time: Oe hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
“My Mama and the Full-Scale Invasion” runs through October 8, 2023 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St NW, Washington, DC 20004. For more information and tickets, call the Box Office at (202) 393-3939, Wednesday – Sunday, 12- 6pm; Email: email@example.com; or go online. COVID Guidelines: Masks are highly recommended but no longer required while in the theatre and lobby.