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SONGS FROM BEDLAM: The Lunatics Take Over the Asylum

SONGS FROM BEDLAM: Tu Es Fou

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: October 18 – November 4, 2018; Daily Planet Health Services benefit w/ post show talkback on October 28 and Friends 4 Recovery benefit w/ post show talkback on November 4

Ticket Prices: $15 – $30

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

 

Songs From Bedlam is a new production of Richmond playwright Douglas Jones’ play that gives voice to the insane, the homeless, the alcoholic, and the overlooked. First produced by Barksdale Theatre (now VirginiaRep) in 2003, the script has been revised, the direction has been placed in the hands of Todd LaBelle, Jr. who allows the characters to unfold naturally and unadorned, and the actors are placed on display in a three-dimensional, interactive box designed by Chris Raintree.

And I use the phrase “placed on display” quite deliberately. The characters are placed on display like fish in an aquarium, like animals in a zoo, like freaks in a sideshow, like the conjoined twins and women from Africa who were considered curiosities during the World’s Fair. In a way, it appeals to our baser instincts, yet it is hard to look away. At times, I felt that by sitting in the audience, we had stolen the final shreds of dignity and privacy that these poor people had. Songs From Bedlam is compelling and brutal, and meant more for discussion and introspection than entertainment.

LaBelle has a strong ensemble to work with: Axle Burtness, Claire M. Gates, Irene J. Kuykendall, Jonathan Hardison, Granville Scott, and Linda Snyder fill the generic roles of nameless characters identified only as Young Man, Young Woman, Woman, Man, Old Man, and Old Woman.

Burtness, for instance, portrays an affable but obsessed man who is driven to visit the aquarium every day and stare at the same exhibit, while Kuykendall tells the compelling story of a prostitute who killed a client who violated her one rule, “don’t kiss me.” Later she tells the heartrending story of a woman who could not let go of her dead baby and Gates uses sign language for her monologue because her character has cut out her own tongue. Snyder’s character speaks of childhood abuse and Scott’s alcoholic character is, perhaps, the most familiar – sort of like the philosophical alcoholic uncle at the family reunion.

The set has a top, and the back wall has panels that slide out to provide walls and benches, but the front and sides are open, and a handful of audience members were invited to sit onstage, in observer seats provided for that purpose – a reminder that Elizabethans in the 16th century would pay a fee to visit Bethlehem Hospital, from which Bedlam got its name, and watch the “lunatickes.”  There are also some interesting lighting effects by Andrew Bonniwell, especially at the beginning when Burtness is inside the aquarium. This is, indeed, an innovative format, and an all-encompassing environment, but the historical precedent and subject matter are somewhat distasteful, and this is theater that deliberately and bravely sets out to discomfort rather than entertain its audience.

The characters are costumed in plain, off-white scrubs, like prison uniforms, which Nic Charlie Perez has decorated with words and pictures that are significant to each character. Burtness, for instance, wears eyes and Snyder has the image of the Virgin Mary and the words “you are my angel” and “smack.”  Hardison’s top bears the words “silly fellow” while Kuykendall sports the warning “do not kiss me.”

For all its harshness, Songs From Bedlam is filled with beautiful, poetic language. Jones has a way with words, and in addition to the sign language (which I thought went on too long without interpretation or at least captioning), there are liberal sprinklings of French, Spanish, and Latin, all enhanced by Ryan Dygert’s subtle sound design that includes echoes and whispers as well as music, including some original music composed by Kelly Kennedy.

For this production, the Firehouse Theatre is partnering with community organizations, the Daily Planet Health Services and Friends 4 Recovery Whole Health Center, with talkbacks and receptions for the October 28 and November 4 productions. There is also a related PhotoVoice exhibit in the lobby. The post show talkbacks should prove to be interesting, as the serious, real life, depressing nature of this subject matter is not the usual subject matter of an evening of theater. Do not go to Songs of Bedlam expecting a musical.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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GUTENBERG! The Musical! (with two exclamation points!!)

GUTENBERG! The Musical! (Really)

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

At: Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse, Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace Street, RVA 23219

Performances: October 12 – November 3, 2018, Thursdays-Saturdays @8:00pm & Sundays @2:00pm.

Ticket Prices: $32 Adults; $27 Seniors; $22 Students & RVATA Members (with ID)

Info: (804) 353-4241 or quilltheatre.org

 

Gutenberg! The Musical! is a play-within-a-play written by Anthony King and Scott Brown who present their comedic farce as a backer’s audition of an historical fiction about the German printer Johannes Gutenberg. Got that? Stay with me, because it doesn’t get any simpler.

Chris Hester and Paul S. Major play the authors Doug Simon and Bud Davenport, who are pitching their musical in hopes of finding someone to back them in a Broadway run. The show is hyped as big, splashy, and better than all others of its genre. But they have no actors, just a few props and a collection of baseball hats with the names of all the characters (e.g., Drunk #1, Drunk #2, Mother, Daughter, Gutenberg, Monk, Helvetica, Old Black Narrator). Doug and Bud switch hats as they rotate through the characters, sometimes stacking them for efficiency, or wearing one on their head and one on each hand to simulate crowd scenes. They string hats on a line, held up with the assistance of two audience members, and are even able to create a chorus line. Musical numbers from honkytonk to rock ‘n roll and romantic ballads are interspersed with puns, explanations of musical theater terminology, such as the definition of a metaphor, an example of a charm song, and a running gag recurring line involving dirty thatched roofing.

Early in the play the authors admit that their “research” consisted of a brief Google search, the result of which was that there is very little known about the life and times of Johann Gutenberg. So. . .they decided to just make up stuff, hence the historical fiction. Among the things they made up is the name of Gutenberg’s fictitious love interest, Helvetica and, apparently, the name of the town, Schlimer – a word that is suspiciously similar to schleimer, which loosely means “ass-kisser.” There is also a totally unrelated connection to the Holocaust, and several unkind and politically incorrect references to stupidity. Monk, the evil monk, calls Helvetica a “dumb German anti-Semite,” and Helvetica later sings that “history is paved with the hearts of the stupid.” Oh, and Gutenberg starts out as a winemaker, who handily turns his wine press into a printing press, quite forgetting to tell his lovely, love-truck assistant that she can stop tromping on her bucket of grapes.

Hester and Major, of necessity, remain on stage the entire time, and they are accompanied by Charlene (musical director Leilani Fenick). Both are enthusiastic, energetic, and affable, as Jan Guarino’s direction and choreography keep everything moving along at a fast clip. The eighteen or so people in the Sunday matinee audience seemed to have a great time. There was lots of laughter and applause, and a woman I chatted with during intermission made a point of telling me, completely unsolicited, that she was very happy that she could clearly hear and understand all the lyrics – something that is often a problem in musicals.

There’s just one major problem. Rather than humorous, or zany, I just found the whole thing silly. It tries too hard and, at least for me, there was no “aha” moment that made it all worthwhile. I don’t care that it isn’t big and splashy, that there are just two actors, no sets, and no laser lights, but, I’m sorry, Doug and Bud, Gutenberg! The Musical! isn’t better than Cats!!

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Photos from Quill Theatre’s Facebook page

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Paul S. Major and Chris Hester
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Chris Hester and Paul S. Davenport
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BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY: Location, Location, Location

BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY: The Family We Choose Sometimes Chooses Us

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

At: Theatre Gym, Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220

Performances: October 13 – November 4, with previews on October 11 & 12 and talkbacks October 21 & 28

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

 

Written in 2014, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s multiple-award winning play, Between Riverside and Crazy, could have been ripped directly from current headlines about police shootings of black men in America, but it was actually inspired by the shooting of a black undercover officer by an off-duty white officer on a New York City subway train in 1994.

Add to a controversial shooting the additional components of illegal activities, drug and alcohol addiction, strained relationships, faltering faith, and unresolved grief, and you have the makings of a compelling drama. Walter “Pops” Washington, the cantankerous patriarch, is played by David Emerson Toney, an experienced actor who is an Assistant professor of Acting and Directing at VCU, but new to the Richmond stage.

Toney’s portrayal of Pops is a delicate balancing act of rage, hurt feelings, loss, love, and longing. At any given time, the audience is not sure which emotion is going to come bubbling up and erupt over Rich Mason’s set – the kitchen and living room (later bedroom) of what is described as a “pre-war apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City.” It’s important to know that this is an unusually spacious apartment, in a highly desirable neighborhood, that it is protected by long-standing rent control laws that prevent the landlord from pricing the coveted units out of the reach of (mostly elderly) residents. Pops starts drinking early in the morning and is so fond of the word m—–f—– that it appears that it’s even the preferred name for his dog.

After the death of his wife, Pops opened his home to his son Junior (Jerold E. Solomon) who shares more than a name with his father. It was interesting to see Solomon, who is often cast in the role of the father figure, placed in the position of prodigal son. The chemistry and conversations between father and son provided some of the most fascinating and revelatory moments in the entire play.

In addition to father and son, the household includes Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Juliana Caycedo) and Junior’s friend Oswaldo (Thony Mena). Lulu is a somewhat mysterious figure, simultaneously portrayed as a good girl and a “working girl.” She is genuinely caring, but there is something off about her, which is never really explained. Oswaldo is presented as a strong, sympathetic figure – a set-up for one of two completely shocking events in this two-act play. Individually both Lulu and Oswaldo share a special relationship with their host, and both call Pops “Dad.” I loved everything about both Mena and Caycedo, right down to her skin tight clothing and his Nuyorican accent.

Supporting characters included Bianca Bryan as Pop’s former partner, Detective Audrey O’Connor and Larry Cook as her fiancé, Lieutenant Caro.  They take turns playing good cop/bad cop and frequently confuse the difference between caring and coercion. I found the dynamic between Bryan and Cook interesting, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe Bryan’s tears when her character tried to play the victim; she just seemed too strong for that. Last but not least there was Maria Hendricks as the Church Lady, an almost mythic creature who appearance, long after we had been told to expect her, was a startling contrast to what I had been led – or lulled – to expect. Hendricks provided the second big shock of the evening, in a most delightful and humorous way, blending sex and spirituality with an unexpected cultural twist.

Between Riverside and Crazy reminds me of those commercials that point out that families are what we make them. There is nothing standard about this family, but there is something unsettlingly familiar about each member and the family unit they have created. The final scene raises more questions than it answers. “Does it have a happy ending?” asked the woman I met and chatted with pleasantly throughout the evening. “That depends,” I responded. It depends on what constitutes happiness for you. It depends on which questions are important to you, what you need answers for, and how much ambiguity you can live with. What is important to you, and what can you live without?

Rich Mason’s set manages to achieve an elaborate sense of spaciousness, but the aged and drab furnishings contrasted oddly, to my eye, with the tall elegant windows, and the kitchen appeared outdated, even though the exact time-frame was never clear. And maybe it was just me, but the family’s entrances and exits from both an upstage door and a downstage corner and their sudden appearances on the rooftop sometimes seemed to defy the laws of physics. Jesse Senechal included some subtle and appropriate effects in the sound design while Sarah Grady’s costuming was appropriate and consistent for each character – although I did wonder, if is it common for police officers to come to dinner in uniform.

Tawnya Pettiford-Wates has directed Between Riverside and Crazy with sensitivity and perception. The cast has responded with authenticity that defies perfection. The resulting experience makes for unforgettable, must-see theatre.

NOTE: Between Riverside and Crazy contains adult language and is recommended for viewers ages 16+.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Jason Collins Photography

 

 

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Jerold E. Solomon, Juliana Caycedo, Bianca Bryan, and David Emerson Toney
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Bianca Bryan, Larry Cook, and David Emerson Bryan
Between Riverside and Crazy
David Emerson Toney. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.
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Jerold E. Solomon and Juliana Caycedo

 

Between Riverside and Crazy
David Emerson Toney and Maria Hendricks. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.
Between Riverside and Crazy
Thony Mena and David Emerson Toney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LIZZIE: An Axe Musical

LIZZIE:  The Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

5th Wall Theatre

At: TheatreLAB The Basement, 300 E. Broad St. RVA 23219

Performances: October 11-November 3, 2018

Ticket Prices: $32 General Admission; $20 Students; $20 RVATA Cardholders

Info: (804) 359-2003 or https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3613679

 

Lizzie Bordon took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one. Who would ever think of turning the story of Lizzie Borden into a musical? Well, apparently the team of Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Steven Hewitt (music), Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner (lyrics), and Maner (book and additional music). The punk rock opera got its start as an experimental theater piece in 1990, and by 2013 had evolved into a two-act rock opera with an all-female cast and hard-driving (but thankfully not deafening) music.

Thanks to the opening number and finale, that old jump-rope rhyme will be stuck in my head for days, as will bits and pieces of this fascinatingly odd and weirdly satisfying piece of theater. Rachel Rose Gilmour is Lizzie Borden, while Rachel Marrs plays her sister Emma Borden, Anne Michelle Forbes takes the role of Lizzie’s friend Alice Russell, and Michaela Nicole fills the high-top sneakers of Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, the Borden’s maid.  Pualani “Lani” Felling and Morgan Lynn Meekins both pull triple duty “Roadies” who sing with the onstage band and also act as stagehands, moving the microphone stands and trunks that serve as the only props; they are also the understudies for the four main characters.

The five-piece band, under the very capable direction of Starlet Knight, is not merely accompaniment, as the music is the driving force behind this entire concept, and what a concept it is! The story of the bloody murders of Lizzie Borden’s stepmother and her father have been the subject of so many tales – in literature, movies, an opera, a television series, a ballet – that it seems more legend than fact. This production seems to freely mix fact and fiction as well as to attempt to time travel, placing the events of 1892 into the modern era of punk rock. Alex Valentin’s costumes are a blend of Victorian couture, 19th century bordello, and punk rock. Vinnie Gonzalez’ set design looks like the backstage area of a rock concert, consisting of stacks of trunks, speakers, and microphone stands. The band and their instruments and the roadies occupy the upstage area, and the actors and roadies often strut and stride, sometimes confronting the audience up close.

Lizzie, the Musical creates a big feel in an intimate space and I could not imagine it in a larger space. It needs to be seen and heard and felt from up close. Rachel Rose Gilmour gives a dynamic performance, running through a range of emotions from rage to fear, from crying out in desperation to vulnerability. There are intimations of abuse, incest, and lesbian relationships. There is murder and mystery, and while in real life Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murders and lived out the rest of her life in the same town where the murders took place, Fall River, Massachusetts, there also seems to be a confession and a cover-up.

The entire cast is powerful, but in addition to Gilmour, I must mention Michaela Nicole. Not only does she give Bridget/Maggie a mysteriously strong attitude, but the woman can rock and roll with the best of them, and clearly makes this maid more than a supporting role. Marrs brings an edge to the sister, Emma and Forbes shows the friend Alice caught in the conflict between loyalty and truth.

If blood, gore, murder, mystery, strong women, and loud music with a head-banging beat appeal to you, you won’t go wrong with Lizzie, the Musical.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: 5th Wall Theatre

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THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME: Mystery of the Mind

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME: Touching But Don’t Touch

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: September 21 – October 14, 2018

Ticket Prices: $30-52

Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org

Every now and again a play comes along that stands alone, defies description, breaks away from the normal genres. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time seems to be one of those plays. Written by Simon Stephens and based on the novel by Mark Haddon, the play concerns an exceptional teen, his adventure, and his relationships with others. What makes it different is that the young man, Christopher, appears to have some form of autism, and he is a savant, a mathematical genius, as well as the author’s device of staging the story as a play within a play, and the designers’ decisions to include lots and lots of technology, mostly in the form of multiple projections.

The title refers to the death of a neighbor’s dog, for which Christopher, played by Michael Manocchio, is initially blamed. In the course of his detecting, Christopher upsets neighbors, infuriates his dad, and uncovers disturbing news about his mother. He also learns some astonishing and life-affirming things about himself. Manocchio, who is new to the Richmond theater community, is believable in this role. His reactions to being touched and his sharpness of mind, along with his apparent deficit of social skills that make him sound alternately arrogant and childlike remind me of students I have encountered over the years.

Some years ago, I came across a book written by Temple Grandin, PhD, a professor and autistic savant known for her work in the field of animal behavior. What struck me about Dr. Grandin’s book as well as about this play is the authors’ ability to present the point of view of the autistic person in a way that draws others into an entirely new and unfamiliar world. It is sometimes uncomfortable, and many of us do not have the tools to navigate this world. The use of technology, including sound, lights, and screens, helps create this world for us, the audience. It may as close as many of us will ever come to understanding the point of view of someone on the autistic spectrum.

A device and a strength of The Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is that it tells a story, tapping into a history and culture of storytelling, sometimes using a narrator.  Emelie Faith Thompson flawlessly fills this role as Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher or paraprofessional aide – it’s never quite clear exactly what her job description is. In her role as narrator and caretaker, Thompson is omnipresent and caring, carrying the story line, explaining, sometimes digging for clarity, but her own character is never given depth or definition. Both Joe Pabst as Christopher’s dad, Ed and Laine Satterfield as the mom, Judy are presented as loving, caring people who are also deeply, humanly flawed. The rest of the cast, including Sara Collazo, Matthew Radford Davies, Adam Valentine, Andrew C. Boothby, Raven Lorraine Wilkes, Irene Ziegler, Axle Burtness, and Sanam Laila Hashemi play multiple roles as school staff, neighbors, passengers on a train and more; they even portray inanimate objects such as an ATM.

Set in Swindon, a town in South West England, and in London, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time requires the cast to maintain British accents. I think they do most of the time, but I became so consumed in the play that I really didn’t pay much attention to that detail. The dialect coach was Erica Hughes. The design team responsible for this simultaneously bright and dim set, filled with little surprises, like the model train that takes a symbolic journey across the stage, includes scenic design by Tennessee Dixon, costumes by Sue Griffin, lighting by BJ Wilkinson, and sound design by Julian Evans.

Virginia Rep artistic director Nathaniel Shaw’s direction includes lots of organic movement, which the program lists as choreography – something seldom seen in a non-musical production. Shaw’s direction and storytelling techniques here reminded me of last season’s River Ditty, a play I found difficult to embrace, but here his distinct style of directing seemed to work much better or at least I was able to connect with it on a more organic level. He established an environment that drew his excellent cast and his audience into an alternate reality for some two and a half hours, creating a cohesive theatrical experience that simultaneously entertains, makes you think, and touches the heart. There’s also an amazing little scene after the final curtain in which Christopher very entertainingly gets to explain his favorite mathematics problem from his Level A exams. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a curiously satisfying production.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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DRACULA: Sink Your Teeth into This

COUNT DRACULA: A Comic Vampire Tale

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Colonial Heights, VA 23834

Performances: September 14 – October 20, 2018

Ticket Prices: $40 Theater only; $57 Dinner & Theater

Info: (804) 748-5203 or swiftcreekmill.com

 

There is no shortage of flying bats, howling wolves, secret passages, or sudden and mysterious appearances and disappearances by Count Dracula himself.  There actually are smoke and mirrors involved in this production, along with a few other tricks of the trade. These are things Tom Width, producing artistic director of Swift Creek Mill Theatre does very well indeed. But in yet another sleight of hand, Width did not direct Count Dracula, the opening show of the 2018-2019 season. Instead, that honor went to guest director Mark Costello, a Mill alum who was a teenaged intern on the Mill’s very first opening night in 1965.

Costello keeps things moving during this two-act play, based on Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. The show runs for two hours and 45 minutes, and the well-chosen cast of nine has some standouts. Kerrigan Sullivan, in the role of Sybil Seward, sister of Dr. Seward, exemplified the comedy horror genre, both in delivery of her lines and with her physical presence, as when she slipped a bottle of sherry into the folds of her robe. For some reason, most of Sullivan’s dresses were sadly ill-fitting, in contrast to the more elegant garments that adorned Caity Brown, who portrayed Mina Murray (the object of the Count’s affections), or the formal suits favored by the male cast members. Credit Maura Lynch Cravey with the costuming.

Levi Meerovich was a solid and lumbering presence as Dr. Seward’s multi-talented servant, nursing assistant, and patient-wrangler, Hennessey, and Joey Gravins was close behind him as his second in command, Wesley. I enjoyed Chandler Hubbard as Mina’s doting fiancé, Jonathan Harker, and Jon Cobb gave a strong performance as vampire expert Heinrich Van Helsing.

Mike White seemed fully committed to his role as Dr. Arthur Seward, in whose Asylum for the Insane the play was set, but one thing I found confusing was what made Seward and Harker suddenly believe in the vampire lore that Van Helsing kept expounding upon.  Caity Brown was perfectly cast as Mina Murray, pale and waif-like, yet capable of projecting a powerful, gravelly alter-ego when voicing the soon-to-be-bride of Dracula. I loved Bartley Mullin as Renfield, the fly-eating mental patient and minion of Count Dracula who brings a chillingly weird energy to each scene in which he appears. I have a great admiration for actors who can convincingly and respectfully play the role of an insane, blind, or autistic character.

Last but not least there was Jeremy Gershman in the title role. Gershman appeared to take great delight in his role, swirling his voluminous cape, lurking, looming, and leering in that seductive yet chilling manner that characterizes the best Draculas. I knew where he appeared and disappeared from, but even from my front row seat, I was never once able to detect him getting into position or exiting the space!

The attractive wood paneled set was designed by Frank Foster, with lighting by Joe Doran, special effects by Tom Width, and technical direction by Jason “Blue” Herbert. There are lots of laughs, sufficient chills and thrills, and no blood or gore – the elements of horror that I find off-putting which is why I am not a fan of the horror genre.  The strong ensemble, beautiful set, and well-timed tricks and effects are all worth a trip to The Mill, but I did find that the 2:45 running time seemed to drag on a bit, and sometimes there was just too much talking! This talented and confident cast is perfectly capable of telling the story without spelling it all out.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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DARK SIDE OF THE MOON: 2018 Dogtown Presenter’s Series

DOGTOWN PRESENTER’S SERIES: Dark Side of the Moon

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th Street, RVA 23224

Performances: September 21-29, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:00PM & Saturdays at 3:30PM

Ticket Prices: $20 General; $15 Students/Children

Info: (804) 230-8780, dogtowndancetheatre.com or https://darkside.brownpapertickets.com/

 

Dark Side of the Moon is Jess Burgess’ most ambitious project to date. Some eighteen years in the making, from inspiration to manifestation, this 40-minute long evening-length work is a celebration of movement in collaboration with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, released in 1973 (the year I graduated from high school and started college). Dark Side of the Moon – the album – explores themes of conflict, greed, time, even mental illness. For choreographer Burgess, Dark Side of the Moon is about “philosophical and physical ideas that can lead to an unsatisfied life, and ultimately to a person’s insanity.” For me – a product of the inner city and modern dance classes, who had no experience with Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon, the collaborative dance work, is a satisfying amalgamation of movement wed to music that appeals equally to lovers of music and contemporary dance.

The ten sections flow seamlessly and are named for tracks on the album, which was presented as a continuous piece of music with five tracks on each side. Performed by Burgess’ RVA Dance Collective in collaboration with Dogwood Dance Project, and RADAR, the 23 dancers move through a surrealistic environment with wooden boxes and columns on either side of the stage and two large constructions dominating the upstage corners. On one side is a large drum-shaped moon that is sometimes occupied by a dancer walking or running like a hamster in a wheel, and on the other is an impossibly tall slide that dancers use for entrances. The dancer-friendly décor was created according to Burgess’ mental image and executed by artist Mike Keeling.

The movements are often simple: a line of dancers move in unison or canon, occasionally interrupted by bodies unexpectedly popping up or dropping down like figures in a game of whack-a-mole; boxes are rolled out with dancers posed inside or perched on top. At other times an aimless walk turns into a scattered, wild run, with one or more dancers attempting to scale the giant slide or leaping into the arms of a partner. Even when at its most simple, the movement is layered – much like the music – as some dancers wait or watch while others interact, or a line of dancers moves in unison as a small group of five or so create more complex patterns in space by rolling, tumbling, twirling with arms uplifted like whirling dervishes or spinning with a partner like children pretending to be a pinwheel.

Sometimes one isn’t quite sure where to look as the movement lines draw the eye across the stage. Who’s in the box? Who’s coming down the slide? What are they going to do next? The music, the movement, and the visual set and ethereal lighting – often from the side – are complemented by costumes that start off mostly in soft, earthy tones and flowing fabrics but gradually morph into black and gray athletic wear.  From soulful to jazzed up instrumentals to cash registers ringing and synthesizers, the music suggests concepts that are reflected in the movement. The three dance companies were so well integrated that even though the program specified which company or companies were performing it was never obvious that this was not one unified group. I am sure my experience as someone new to Pink Floyd was very different from that of someone who knew the music, who grew up with the music, but this work was so well integrated that it could be experienced in multiple ways – and I am convinced that seeing it a second time will result in an entirely new and equally valid experience.

Dark Side of the Moon is a beautifully conceived and executed work of art that fulfills a need in the Richmond dance scene.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Dave Parrish Photography

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SIGNIFICANT OTHER: Plus None

SIGNIFICANT OTHER: Love And. . .

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219

Performances: September 19 (Preview)/September 20 (Opening) – September 29, 2018

Ticket Prices: $30 general; $20 seniors/industry (RVATA); $10 students/teachers (with ID)

Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org

Significant Other (written by Joshua Harmon, who also wrote Bad Jews, which TheatreLAB produced in 2016) is a heartwarming comedy about a group of friends looking for love in 21st century New York – until somewhere in the second act when it takes a sudden heart-wrenching turn.

On opening night, the cast still seemed to be feeling its way, and when, during one scene, Deejay Gray held onto his shirt in hopeful anticipation that his upcoming date would turn out to be “the one,” the energy generated was electrical. This may have been a combination of opening night jitters and his characters’ palpable expectancy. It was good to see Gray, the artistic director of TheatreLAB, onstage after an absence of three years [this is a correction] while he has been managing the affairs of running a company.

It may have taken me a while to warm up to these characters, but they started delivering laughs as soon as the lights came up. Matt Shofner has directed this dynamic ensemble with a fast pace that still manages to provide depth and perspective to this group of long-time friends whose lives are being changed as they move into “adulting.”  The wide center aisle – seldom used in this flexible space – is used to physically and emotionally extend the space. At times there is unseen action off in the distance, cued by disco lights and music. Other times the space is used as an actual aisle for actors to move on and off the stage, and then there are the times when characters stare off into the space, pulling us deep into the mind of the author right along with them.

Jordan Berman (Deejay Gray) is in search of Mr. Right, even as his closest friends find true love, become engaged, and marry. The opening scene, in fact, is one of numerous bachelorette parties and weddings that populate this two-hour, two-act play. Gray is onstage for just about every scene, and his energy slowly, inexorably draws us into Jordan’s world and concerns. Jordan is the only character given a last name – perhaps to emphasize his Jewishness? The wonderful Jacqueline Jones has a supporting role as Jordan’s grandmother, Helene. She makes her entrances and exits along that wide aisle, using a pink walker whose seat holds a photo album that she and Jordan review reverently and lovingly each time they meet. There is something about the ritual of their interactions that brings groundedness to Jordan and to the play. But it is Jordan’s interactions with his tight-knit group of girlfriends that is the foundation of Significant Other.

Kiki, the party girl, is the first to find love and happiness. Mallory Keene navigates the play in formfitting dresses and stilettos – even when, in the final scene, Kiki is eight months pregnant! Vanessa is the more down to earth friend – and the black friend. The second to get “boo’d up,” she meets her mate at Kiki’s wedding. Jessi Johnson’s character is beautiful and cosmopolitan; she wears wedge heels and dresses professionally. Laura is a teacher, and because she and Jordan were once roommates, her relationship with Jordan is both the closest and the most volatile. When Laura finds love at work, it catapults their relationship into new and unforeseen directions. Laura wears flats and an eclectic Bohemian wardrobe. This role seems to have been written for Kelsey Cordrey. Some of the most poignant moments between these two are silent, as when Cordrey and Gray stand side by side, dancing or swaying, or when he tiptoes to rest his head on her shoulder. Their big scene, a second act argument, is – in contrast – explosive. As Jordan’s friends pair up and move on, he finds himself without a dance partner or a “plus one” for Laura’s wedding.

Matt Polson and Dan Cimo round out this wonderful ensemble, playing all the male characters in the lives of these four friends, from coworkers to lovers. Polson adapts different facial expressions and postures for each of his characters, from Kiki’s country-boy husband to Laura’s mild-mannered Tony. It was fascinating to watch Cimo transform seamlessly from the gloriously gay coworker to Vanessa’s passionate date. Seven actors play eleven characters, and somewhere in this group there is someone you know. It might even be you.

Adam Dorland’s simple set is monochromatic black: three benches, a coffee table, a shelf, some doorways and windows work with Michael Jarett’s sometimes subtle, sometimes flashy lighting to create the office where Jordan works, his apartment, and the various bars, clubs, and wedding venues where the scenes take place. Ruth Hedberg designed the costumes – which vary from office casual to matching bridesmaid dresses and wedding gowns and seems to have used shoe styles to symbolize the women’s characters. Joey Luck did the sound design, which includes some original music. The program lists three songs by Luck and Hannah M. Barnes and an original song by Ali Thibodeau.

Significant Other is very different type of play, and very appropriate to open TheatreLAB’s Season 6, themed “In Pursuit of Happiness.” Significant Other runs through September 29.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

 

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LIVING IN THE KEY OF “B” UNNATURAL: Where Friendship, Faith & Fantasy Collide

LIVING IN THE KEY OF “B” UNNATURAL: At the Intersection of Friendship, Faith & Fantasy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Hickory Hill Community Center, 3000 E. Belt Boulevard, Richmond, VA 23234

Performances: September 19 @ 12:30PM; September 21, 21, 22 @ 8:00PM & September 22 @ 4:00PM

Ticket Prices: $10 for Groups of 10 or more; $12 for Students and Seniors; $15 General Admission

Info: thetheatreubuntu@gmail.com; http://theheritageensemble.wixsite.com/thetc

 

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how the poetically titled Living in the Key of “B” Unnatural managed to move me as deeply as it did. Written by Jerry Maple, Jr., who was also the author of last’s year’s The Dream Seller and the Forest Dwellers, a children’s play produced by Heritage Ensemble, Living in the Key of “B” Unnatural is described as “a light-hearted serio-comedy.” I would describe it more as an intersection or perhaps a collision of friendship, faith, and fantasy.

 

Running one hour and twenty minutes with no intermission (but with an inexplicably long pause that obviously did not involve a change of costume or scenery), the play takes place in the single room residence of Dr. Enola VanderHorn-Bernard (Crystal Wiley-Perry). The plot revolves around Enola, a Harvard educated M.D. who one day walked away from her medical practice, her husband, and two daughters. The words depression or mental illness are never mentioned, although Enola’s friends are not exempt from calling her “crazy,” but this is clearly a case of at least clinical depression, and possibly something more. And that is why it requires a tremendous suspension of belief to accept that Enola suddenly snaps out of it.

 

Enola is a brilliant woman with a heart for people, a dislike of privilege, and an unfulfilled desire to be a missionary. Describing her past life with her husband, also a prominent physician, she says that he was “lost in prominence.” Enola’s best friends are now Shummay St. Catherine, a Guyanese short-order cook at a downtown diner (played by Haliya Robert with a flawless accent that impressed even a Guyanese audience member), and her landlord Manfred Monroe (played by Isaiah Entzminger). Enola has “rented” a room in Manfred’s Harlem brownstone for twenty years, but Manfred, who describes himself as stingy, has allowed her to go months, if not years, without paying the rent, which becomes something of an ongoing joke. More concerning, Enola has not seen her family for twenty years, and has not looked in a mirror for nineteen of those years.

 

A fourth character, Dr. Latooza Wellington (Whitney Tymas), was Enola’s Harvard classmate, and suddenly reappears in her life after more than twenty years. Latooza plays a key role in Enola’s final scene breakthrough, and there is a distinct difference in the interactions between Enola and Latooza and those between Enola and all the other characters, but to tell more would spoil the surprise. Toney Q. Cobb has directed with a keen eye for detail, humor, and the storyteller’s pace that is a trademark of this company and its artistic director, Margarette Joyner.  That storyteller’s pace sometimes drags a bit, especially as there is no intermission. I’m not sure if it that was an artistic or directorial choice or a requirement of the author. If given an opportunity, I would ask Maple about that as well as about the characters’ names – unusual even for a group of African Americans.

 

The multi-talented Joyner designed the set (a cluttered, tiny room at the top floor of a brownstone), Pamela Archer-Shaw designed the sound (which included appropriate popular mood music, including “Beautiful,” which I believe is a popular Christina Aguilera song at a key moment in Enola’s evolution), and LaWanda Raines did the costumes (a task made somewhat easier by the lead character’s refusal to change clothes until the final scene).

 

There is much about this production that some might dismiss as unbelievable, unpolished, or just generally flawed. Why, for instance, is such a big deal made of Enola changing from shoes to house slippers each time she enters her room? Could Enola’s frequent long monologues with herself have been handled differently? But then, there is something magical that happens in that intersection between friendship, faith, and fantasy that I mentioned above, something that inexplicably tugs at the heart and perhaps even dampens the eyes. And that is enough for me to recommend that you see this touching and unusual play and its earnest ensemble during its short run of just four days (the original opening was postponed due to last week’s impending hurricane warnings), ending with two shows on Saturday, September 22, one at 4PM and another at 8PM.

 

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Photos Courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company

Key of B Unnatural

Key of B
Crystal Wiley-Perry, Isaiah Entzminger, and Haliya Roberts
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VICTOR, THE TRUE SPIRIT OF LOVE: Love, Light, and Faith; the Healing Power of Dance

The Latin Ballet of Virginia: VICTOR, THE TRUE SPIRIT OF LOVE

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Grace Street Theater, 934 West Grace Street, RVA 23220

Performance: September 7-9, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7, 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9.

Ticket Prices: $10-$20

Info: (804) 828-2020 or http://www.latinballet.com

I’ve seen many performances by the Latin Ballet of Virginia (LBV) over the years. Some have been fiction, some fantasy, and others, like, Victor: the True Spirit of Love, are based on fact. But this one was different. This one touched my heart and had me weeping unashamedly in my seat.

Unlike many LBV programs, this one did not have elaborate scenery, although there were larger-than-life projections of photographs from Victor Torres’ life, scenes from the documentary about his life, and background photos of buildings and cars and alleyways representing Brooklyn, NY in the 1960s. These projections were often so well integrated into the live performance that they became part of the choreography.

Rather than a range of choreography representing the Latino music and dance, heritage, and history, there were poignant selections ranging from R&B to Mambo to Christian songs and instrumental music. Some were upbeat, but all seemed carefully chosen to help carry the emotion and narrative of the story, using movement and music and very few words – so when words are used they have the utmost impact.

Victor tells the story of Victor Torres, a former gang member and drug addict and current pastor of the New Life for Youth Ministries and New Life Outreach Church, right here in Richmond, VA. But more than that, Victor is a story of redemption, of hope, of people helping people. It is a story of victory. It is about finding God, but it is not about religion. It is about faith, but it does not preach. It is about the power of a mother’s love.

It’s not so much the choreography, which is sometimes powerful but mostly quite simple. It is not so much the dancers’ technique, which is sometimes quite stunning, but sometimes uneven – involving, as it always does, both professional and pre-professional dancers and children. But the collaboration of all the elements, culminating in the surprising appearance of three graduates of Pastor Torres’ program as their recorded images and voices give testimony of their dark past and hopeful present – and shines light on their future. This is dance with a purpose that is more than just entertainment. It tells a story. It offers the possibility of healing.

Pastor Torres came onstage after Saturday evening’s performance to take questions, and to offer congratulations to the performers. Roberto Whitaker danced the role of the young Torres – bringing the man himself to tears, by his own admission. Whitaker, who I have watched grow from a promising young hip hop dancer to a versatile professional, led the company, appearing in nearly all of the twelve scenes, from a hip hop and capoeira infused fight (“The Roman Lords”) to a 1960s style jitterbug (“Rock & Roll with My Mama”) to acted and pantomimed scenes of overdosing and recovery and a lyrical dance duet of faith with his savior. Artistic director Ana Ines King danced the role of Victor’s mother, Layla, and with her usual enthusiasm moved from mambo (“It is Mambo Time!”) through ballet, modern, and lyrical (“The Power of Mother’s Love” and “La Esperanza/Our Only Hope”), with an extra dose of drama (going into her prayer closet, and running to the rooftop to save her beloved son from being tossed off by gang members).

Teri Buschman and Marisol Cristina Betancourt Sotolongo made beautiful angels, while DeShon Rollins wore white as the spirit of hope and the saving grace of love. The scenes featuring four of the company’s men were powerful and beautiful, whether they were fighting or creating a smoke-filled, surrealistic scene of drug-fueled gang activity. This production would be a valuable contribution to the programs of churches, community centers, and youth agencies. I’ll just close with the words of the final selection, “Si Dios ama a un rebelde como yo, todo es possible/if God can love a rebel like me, anything is possible.”

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

Photo Credit: Jay Paul

Video Link: Victor, motion picture, official trailer: https://youtu.be/m9ub4w-DJVg

Video Link: One More Life, the Victor Torres Story, full documentary: https://youtu.be/i2UlLWJQFZY

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BOEING BOEING: CAT’s 55th Season Opens with a French Farce

BOEING BOEING: Who’s Behind Door Number 2?

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: CAT Theatre, 419 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227

Performances: September 7-22, 2018

Ticket Prices: $23 Adults; $18 RVATA Members; $13 Students

Info: (804) 804-262-9760 or cat@cattheatre.com

 

  • Desperate times call for laughter. This was my second night in a row attending a comedy (see my discussion of Invalid at The Firehouse Theatre, September 6, 2018).
  • In addition, after 54 years of producing theater in Richmond, CAT Theatre announced barely a month ago that they would be going dark after this show. They had not been being able to secure a lease for the space they’ve been renting long-term. Just hours before the opening night curtain of what would have been their final show, it was announced that the matter has been resolved. The company will be staying at the No. Wilkinson Road space they rent from the Northern Henrico Civic Association for the remainder of this season and possibly into the future. In a press release from the Virginia Repertory Theatre, CAT Board President Kelly St. Clair stated, in part, “We have every expectation that this will be a long term fix to our short term challenges,” and added, “Plans call for CAT’s productions to continue in place for many years to come.”

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Boeing Boeing is a 1960 French farce, written by Marc Camoletti and translated into English by Beverley Cross and Francis Evans. I first (and last) saw it at Hanover Tavern in 2011. A fast-paced romp that depends on physical comedy, slamming doors, and perfect timing, the three-act play drew barrels of laughter from the opening night audience, but dragged noticeably during the third act, which comes after the intermission.

 

The plot revolves around Bernard (Brent Deekins), a Paris-based American architect who spends most of his time juggling his three fiancées. Yes, three. Each is an airline hostess with a different airline. Gloria (Rylee Daniels) is American, Gabriella (Marcia Cunning) is Italian, and Gretchen (Paige Reisenfeld) is German. Each is distinguished by the color of her airline uniform, red, blue, or yellow. Bernard has a French maid, Berthe (Sara Sommers) who spends more time bemoaning her fate as a servant and her role in helping Bernard keep his airline schedules straight than actually cooking and cleaning. Berthe changes the sofa cushions to match the uniform of each fiancée. The cast is rounded out by Bernard’s old school friend Robert (Travis Williams) who drops by for an unexpected visit just hours before the airlines change their schedules resulting in the obligatory comedy of errors.

 

Pat Walker’s bright and serviceable set included seven doors, most of which were thrust open and slammed with regularity during the two and one half hours or so running time, but there were few clues to indicate that this was set in Paris, or near Orly airport, or in the 1960s. It did seem odd that the front door opened into the hallway, as outer doors traditionally open into the house or apartment. Another oddity is that, at the end, Travis Williams took the stage last for the final bow, rather than Brent Deekins, suggesting that Robert was the star rather than Bernard. Hmm.

 

There’s a lot of shouting and loud cross talking, which makes it unlikely that anyone in one room would not have heard what was going on in the other rooms – but the nature of a farce often requires the audience to willingly relinquish any remaining remnant of reality. I thought Reisenfeld had the best handle on her character, striking a good balance between physical comedy, emotional swings, and comedic timing. Cunning’s character was, ironically a bit too trusting, but Daniels’ character was too cold and calculating, and while that artistic decision suited the final scene, it made her less likeable overall. I thoroughly enjoyed Sommer’s portrayal of the salty maid, but I found the men’s characters were painted broad and flat, making them appear to be flat and cartoonish. The result was that their loud outbursts of laughter and increasingly ineffectual attempts at subterfuge seemed more forced than farce. Glenn Abernathy, who directed, is a recent graduate of Christopher Newport University’s theater department, and this is his first time directing in the Richmond community.

 

There is much to enjoy about Boeing Boeing, and when I did laugh – which was frequently – I was laughing with the characters as well as at their antics, but things speed towards an inevitable conclusion that is not what one would expect. As in real life, people often don’t get what they deserve. Go, enjoy, be entertained. There really isn’t anything deep or serious hiding here.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Jeremy Bustin Photography

Boeing-4
Paige Reisenfeld and Travis Williams. Brent Deekins and Marcia Cunning.
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Sara ommer and Paige Reisenfeld
Boeing-2
Travis Williams and Sara Sommers
Boeing-1
Brent Deekins and Travis Williams
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INVALID: When What Ails You Hits the Fan

INVALID: Modern Adaptation of a Classic Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: August 30 – September 29, 2018, Thu-Sat @ 7:30pm; Sun @ 4:00pm [check the website for specific dates as the days vary each week]

Ticket Prices: $15 – $35;

Info: (804) 355-2001 or info@firehousetheatre.org

 

If silliness and slapstick are your schtick, Josh Chenard and Jane Mattingly’s modern adaptation of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid (aka The Hypochondriac) is right up your alley. If not, the Firehouse production of Invalid is still worth seeing, for a number of reasons.

First, there is Chris Raintree’s set. Simple, yet elegant, the tiled floor and single wall remind you of those perspective rooms in the children’s museums – you know, the ones that make you look very tall or very short, depending on which side you stand. The set also includes a quartet of beautiful metal chairs – ornate barstools, really – for which Blair Rath is given a credit in the program as “chair fabricator.” They really don’t have anything to do with either the 19th century in which the play is set, the 17th century, in which the original version premiered, or today, but they are quite lovely, if a bit uncomfortable without the addition some plush cushions.

The pre-show curtain talk includes some discussion about the pronunciation of the title, whether it should be IN-va-led (i.e., unwell) or in-VAL-ed (i.e., null and void). It is, of course, open to interpretation. The main character, Argan (Andrew Firda), is, after all, a hypochondriac, but the modern references to universal healthcare and politics – there’s even a reference to the Artsies nominations – make the second definition just as, well, valid. And, to get the audience warmed up, everyone passes through a team of medical professionals on the way to their seats and gets treated to a taste of “laugh yoga” by Slash Coleman. Don’t forget to fill your prescription at the bar and get your bill on the way out! Yes, there is a lot going on here.

Moliere’s three-act farce has been adapted as a two-act comedy, with many modern references, but it retains most of the original characters and plot.  Argan, a wealthy hypochondriac, plots to marry his daughter Angelica (played with delightful gusto by Allison Paige Gilman) to Thomas Diaforus (Kenneth W. Putnam), the inept son of his physician, Dr. Diaforus (Christopher Dunn). But Angelica is in love with Cleante (Jamar Jones) and enlists the help of her father’s sassy maid, Toinette (Donna Marie Miller) to thwart her father’s plans as well as protect her inheritance from her scheming stepmother, Beline (played by Kirk Morton in elegant drag). And if no one else has mentioned it, I will: the hesitation over the unannounced appearance of Cleante took on a whole new dimension given that Jones is, shall we say, “not white.”

There ensues a comedy of error with much slamming of doors (even though there are only two actual doors) and people hiding in plain sight or behind silly masks that disguise nothing.

It’s all done in good fun, and rhyming couplets. The play retains a deliberately inserted unnecessary musical number, a hilariously bad operetta, countless fart jokes, a messy enema scene that requires the assistance of a stagehand and some plastic ponchos (I thought I could actually smell the. . .never mind), and the voice of Mel Brooks as God. And yes, Brooks gets a credit in the program, too. (This is a program that deserves to be read.)

Miller is delightfully over the top as Toinette. I enjoyed Firda as Argan and Gilman as his daughter, Angelica. Dunn brought a slightly sinister edge to Dr. Diaforus, and Putnam was hilarious as Thomas (with the accent on the second syllable), providing the best physical comedy of the evening. Morton’s portrayal of Beline was divine, and Jones’s constant correction of everyone’s mispronunciation of his name may or may not have been a sly reference to the difficulty many people have with some “black sounding” names. Hmm. Race. Gender. Politics. Class. Misogyny. Did anyone or any issue get overlooked?

There’s a lot going on, and the laughs flowed steadily throughout the evening – which runs just under two hours, including an intermission. Chenard’s well-paced direction reflects not just an eye and an ear, but a heart for comedy. But for all the effort and effects and interaction, at the end, I felt maybe they tried too hard, maybe there was a bit too much hype, maybe they raised our expectations too high. It was a delightful evening, but I somehow expected just a little more.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

 

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SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM: A Musical Revue Featuring Stephen Sondheim Himself

SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM: A Musical Love Fest

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

At: The Robert B Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230

Performances: August 8 – September 1, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-30

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

 

I generally get to new shows during the first week, but Sondheim on Sondheim opened while I was away on our annual family vacation, and shortly after returning I went into the hospital for a knee replacement. Much to my surprise, I had no pain after surgery, so I found myself tiptoeing into RTP with crutches in the middle of a rainstorm on closing night. I am SO glad I got a chance to see this show.

The night I attended was also a popular night for many industry professionals, at least one of whom wept openly during a particularly touching number. Sondheim on Sondheim (with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, conceived and directed on Broadway by James Lapine) is not at all what I expected from a musical – but it is what I have come to expect from Richmond Triangle Players, which is not above bringing even a reviewer to tears on occasion.

This autobiographical musical features about 40 – yes FORTY – musical numbers, and a stellar cast of eight, each of whom had a chance to shine in at least one song. Frank Foster’s set reminded me of a museum exhibit, with its three slim columns, each holding a memento of Stephen Sondheim’s life and career, some notes, and a light. There were posters from Sondheim’s many productions, and a screen where we got to see and hear the man himself talk about his work and share heartbreaking memories of his childhood. Talk about dysfunctional! Now that it’s over, it won’t be spoiler to say that his mother once sent him a note telling him that her only regret in life was giving birth to him!

While I cannot say that I love every song or even every play he ever worked on (and no, I have not seen all of them), I can honestly say that I am so glad he overcame the seemingly impossible obstacles in his life to leave us with a legacy of musical theater that includes a range of such diverse works that have earned him 8 Tony awards, 8 Grammy awards, a Pulitzer Prize, a Laurence Olivier award, and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. As a composer and lyricist, who is NOT known for hummable tunes, he left his mark on West Side Story, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Merrily WE Roll Along, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Assassins, and many others.

Standouts of the evening included Durron Tyre singing Being Alive and Susan Sanford’s rendition of Send in the Clowns. Then there was Alona Metcalf (Do I Hear a Waltz) and Dan Cimo, Matt Polson, and Rachel Rose Gilmour (Franklin Shepard, Inc.), and the entire company, including Mariah Mazyck, and Scott Melton) in Weekend in the Country, Sunday, and the finale Company – Old Friends and Anyone Can Whistle.

I call it a love fest not only because the audience was so vocal in its enthusiasm and praise, but also because the entire cast seemed to so thoroughly enjoy this often challenging work. In addition to Sondheim’s pitiful family life, we also learned of his life-saving friendship with Oscar Hammerstein and his family and heard his thoughts on his life’s work. Assassins came closest to meeting the writers’ vision, and Sunday in the Park with George was the closest to his own heart, while he didn’t much care for Do I Hear a Waltz.

With direction and vocal coaching by Doug Schneider, and musical direction by Kim Fox (I think she said there are several books and more than 400 pages of music!), all the elements just seemed to come together flawlessly. Sheila Ross designed the costumes, Michael Jarett did the lighting and projections, with video by Peter Flaherty, sound design by Joey Luck, and choreography by Emily Dandridge. What a delightful start to this theater’s 26th season!

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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Durron Tyre singing “Being Alive”
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L-R: Alona Metcalf, Scott Melton, Rachel Rose Gilmour, Marian Mazyck, Susan Sanford, Durron Tyre, Dan Cimo, Matt Polson. The cast of “Sondheim on Sondheim”
SONDHEIM_0268
Rachel Rose Gilmour
Featured

CRIMES OF THE HEART: A Southern Sister Reunion

CRIMES OF THE HEART: Tales of Southern Sisterhood

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

VirginiaRep

At: Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: July 20 – August 26, 2018

Ticket Prices: $42

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

The final show of the 2017-2018 season,  Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning three-act southern tragicomedy, boasts outstanding performances by three highly individual women and a beautifully designed and detailed set created by Terrie Powers. It also has near flawless direction by Steve Perigard (who also directed Da and Brighton Beach for this same stage – “near flawless” because, with three acts, it does seem to get lulled into a light sleepy southern languor about halfway through.

There was a time when I would, if given a chance, watch daytime talk shows because the dysfunctional guests made me feel so much better about my own life. To some extent, the quirky Magrath sisters make me feel the same way about my own family. Irene Kuykendall deftly navigates the surprising complexities of Meg, the black sheep of the family, gradually revealing that she is not a complete narcissist, but has hopes and dashed dreams, and holds a deep and abiding love with her two sisters. She’s also the middle child.

Lexi Langs, who last appeared in a VaRep performance ins 2007, is fascinating as the youngest sister, Babe or Rebecca. Physically enchanting with her wide eyes and sometimes vacant stare, we first meet Babe when she returns to Old Grandad’s home after being released from jail where she spent the night after shooting her husband in the stomach. Langs gives Babe a childlike quality that is unnerving; we are never quite sure if Babe has a true mental illness or just an advanced case of “the vapors.”

But the true star of this ensemble is Maggie Roop who shoulders the burdens of the family upon the sloping shoulders of Lenny, the eldest of the three sisters. There’s usually one in every family – the one who takes care of everyone and everything, but no one ever thinks she needs taking care of.  Roop spends much of the play trying to keep the peace; there are dark circles under her eyes, and she is obsessed with cleaning, which is, perhaps, the only thing over which she has any control. Roop brings unforced depth to the character of Lenny. For most of the three acts, I wanted to give Lenny a hug, so it was doubly rewarding when, in the third act, she took a broom to the butt of her obnoxious, social climbing first cousin, Chick (Maggie Bavolack). Whiny and annoying, Chick opens the first scene with a hilarious and unexpected reverse strip-tease, in which she elaborately squeezes into a pair of “petite” pantyhose.

Crimes of the Heart tackles real-life trauma: suicide; the illness of an aging grandparent; spousal abuse; dishonest politicians; social pressure; regret; vendetta; attempted murder; low self-esteem. Set in the small town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi (a real town about 30 miles south of the state capital of Jackson) five years after Hurricane Camille (which blew through in August of 1969), there are subtle references to the racial politics of the day, but more disturbingly, because of the racial politics of the times, a major issue of statutory rape is swept under the table, so to speak.

The overall outstanding ensemble is focused on the relationships between the women, but there are also credible performances by Arik Cullen as Meg’s former love interest, Doc Porter, and Tyler Stevens as the young lawyer, Barnette Lloyd.

There are thought-provoking lines, like, “She works out in the garden wearing the lime green gloves of a dead woman” physical humor, as when Babe prepares a glass of lemonade for Meg that makes Meg’s face – not just her lips, but her entire face – pucker, but adds so much sugar to her own glass that we can almost hear it crunch when she sips it. But despite – or maybe because of – our better judgment, Crimes of the Heart makes us laugh at such taboo topics as attempted murder and an old man falling into a coma. Babe may have shot her husband, but each sister has to face up to her own “crimes of the heart.”

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutton

Crimes of the Heart
Lexi Langs, Maggie Roop, and Irene Kuykendall
Crimes of the Heart
Lexi Langs, Maggie Roop, Irene Kuykendall. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Crimes of the Heart
Maggie Roop, Lexi Langs, and Irene Kuykendall
Crimes of the Heart
Lexi Langs, Maggie Roop, Maggie Bavolack. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Crimes of the Heart
Maggie Roop, Maggie Bavolack, Irene Kuykendall. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
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TOMFOOLERY: Swift Creek Shenanigans

TOMFOOLERY: A Politically Incorrect Musical Satire

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Colonial Heights, VA 23834

Performances: July 14 – August 18, 2018

Ticket Prices: $38 Theater only; $55 Dinner & Theater

Info: (804) 748-5203 or swiftcreekmill.com

 

Swift Creek Mill Theatre’s final show of the 2017-2018 season, Tom Lehrer’s Tomfoolery, features four cast members, 28 musical numbers, a five-piece orchestra, and a sense that anything goes. The satirical musical revue, whose title has nothing to do with Swift Creek Mill Theatre’s artistic director Tom Width, has no plot. Rather, it allows Width to share with the Mill audience his own love of the silly, satirical, politically incorrect songs written and performed by Lehrer between 1953 and 1965 – and even one he wrote for the PBS children’s show, The Electric Company, popular in the 1970s. Surprisingly, other than the era-specific references, such as the names of political candidates and talk of bombs and drills to prepare for nuclear war, much of the humor remains relevant, while the music (book, music, and lyrics are all by Lehrer, adapted by Cameron MacKintosh and Robin Ray) seems more attuned to the ears of those whose college years were marked by folk songs and protest marches.

Width keeps things moving, with a simple, colorful set with the musicians settled upstage right and a small bar set up stage left where the actors congregate while waiting their turn. Maura Lynch Cravey has Richard Koch in a vested suit that is vaguely vaudevillian, while Bryan Harris and PJ Llewellyn are dressed less distinctively, and, but for one outstanding exception, Debra Wagoner’s wardrobe seems to be mostly an afterthought. Robes, suspenders, hats, canes, stools, and other props provide visual interest and cues, and the actors use their own names throughout the revue, which runs under two hours, including one fifteen-minute intermission.

Tomfoolery opens with “Be Prepared,” an homage to the Boy Scout oath, and closes with “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” an irreverent post-apocalyptic sendup. In between, no topic is off-limits. “Bright College Days” (Richard and Bryan) contains my favorite lyric of the evening: “Soon we’ll be sliding down the razor blade of life.” Bryan sings my favorite song, “Elements,” which sets the periodic table of the elements to the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan (to the theme of a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance). “The Hunting Song” tells of bagging “two game wardens, seven hunters, and a cow,” while “Smut” is an ode to pornography.

There’s a song dedicated to Wernher Von Braun, a German engineer and rocket scientist who was a member of the Nazi party and an SS officer before coming to the US to work for NASA while “Who’s Next” speculates on which nation will be next to get a bomb. And just in case you haven’t been offended by the end of the first act, “National Brotherhood Week” reminds you of who hates you and who you should hate in return.

Oh, and the one time Debra Wagoner was dressed in a glitzy glamourous dress with a blinged out feather boa was for “Oedipus Rex,” her second act homage to incest which allowed her to belt out a song full-out as only she can and make you wish you could sing like that, too.

Great theater? By no means. An entertaining evening with good music that is beautifully played under the direction of Paul Deiss (who even gets to sing one number, “The Old Dope Peddler”)? Absolutely. And don’t forget to get your Swift Creek Mill “sippy cup” so you can take your preferred beverage – hot, cold, or alcoholic – into the theater (new this season).

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Robyn O’Neill

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KNUFFLE BUNNY: Musical Theater for the Whole Family

KNUFFLE BUNNY: A Cautionary Musical

A Family Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis, with input by Emmitt, Kingston, and Soleil

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Richmond, Virginia 23230

Performances: July 13 – August 12, 2018

Ticket Prices: Start at $18

Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org

Knuffle Bunny is a hilarious family-friendly musical that held the attention of even the youngest audience members. With a running time of just under 45 minutes, and no intermission, I thought it might be worth a test run with my youngest grandson, Emmitt, who just turned 4.

Emmitt sat attentively for the entire show, sometimes singing along, eyes big as saucers, feet swinging happily. He was the first in our party of four to predict that the “rat with wings” would be making a comeback – an event which would open up the possibility for a sequel. His final pronouncement, “Awesome!”

Knuffle Bunny – much to my surprise, the “k” is pronounced – is based on the book of the same name by Mo Willems, who also wrote the script and lyrics. The music is by Michael Silversher. Upbeat and colorful, with a simple, uncluttered set designed by Emily Hake Massie and lighting by BJ Wilkinson, Knuffle Bunny is a cautionary tale about the adventure that ensues when pre-verbal toddler Trixie, played by Christina Ramsey, leaves her beloved stuffed bunny at the laundromat. Her poor dad (David Janosik) is cast as the somewhat incompetent rube by his beloved wife (Louise Ricks) who from the beginning doubts his ability to successfully take a basket of laundry to the laundromat with Trixie in tow. Hilarity ensues.

There is a chorus kick line, some striking air guitar play, animated puppetry of gigantic pieces of laundry (a necktie a onesie, a brassiere, and a man’s shirt), and a local geography lesson as the ensemble (Brandon James Johns and Corinne MacLean) runs across the stage holding signs reading Broad Street, Boulevard, and Cary Street as the little family makes their way from their house to the laundromat.

There is plenty for the adults to enjoy, as well. Trixie’s sad ballad to her beloved Knuffle Bunny has the ensemble holding up their lighters, as is customary at concerts – a feature that may be over the heads of the littlest audience members but did not go unnoticed by the adults.  (I couldn’t resist – here’s a link to an article on the practice of holding up lighters at concerts: https://beat.media/history-of-the-lighter-at-concerts)

My adult daughter, Soleil, could hardly contain her composure as Trixie’s big number was set up – the dramatic lighting, the mood music, all to accompany a heart-wrenching song made up entirely of nonsense syllables, “Aggle Flaggle Klabble.”  When asked by the cast members during the post-show meet and greet what he thought of the show, my seasoned assistant Kingston (older brother to Emmitt) responded that he enjoyed the songs and wanted more like “Aggle Flaggle Klabble.” I know that Willems wrote lyrics, but I wonder if the “words” to “Aggle Flaggle Klabble” come out the same each time – and if they didn’t, would anyone notice?

Susan Sanford directed this delightful musical – which really caters to the youngest of audiences without boring older siblings or the adults who accompany them. Go. Enjoy. And don’t forget to take a young person or two. Copies of the book Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale are available for purchase at the bar.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Knuffle Bunny
Christina Ramsey and Louise Ricks
Knuffle Bunny
David Janosik, Christina Ramsey, Knuffle Bunny, and Louise Ricks
Knuffle Bunny
Louise Ricks, Christina Ramsey, Knuffle Bunny, and David Janosik
Knuffle Bunny
Knuffle Bunny, Christina Ramsey, and David Janosik
Featured

HAND TO GOD: The Invention of the Devil

HAND TO GOD: The Devil Made Me Do It

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

A co-production of  TheatreLAB and 5th Wall Theatre

At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219

Performances: July 13-28, 2018

Ticket Prices: $15

Info: (804) 359-2003 or 5thwalltheatre.org

 

Weird – in a very creepy way – and funny – in a very irreverent way – Robert Askin’s Hand to God is probably the most unsettling study in family dysfunction I’ve yet so see on a stage. A co-production of TheatreLAB and 5th Wall Theatre directed by Gary C. Hopper, Hand to God features a remarkable performance by Adam Turck and a commendable performance by Kimberly Jones Clark – who will not soon be nominated for mother of the year.

The recently widowed Margery (Jones Clark) and her teen-aged son Jason (Turck) have not fared well in the six months or so since Margery’s husband died of a heart attack. Margery has been depending on her son for support and Jason seems to alternate between blaming his mother for his father’s death and blaming his father for abandoning the family. Their kind-hearted Pastor Greg (Fred Iacovo) – who apparently skipped the seminary coursework in grief counseling – has ill-advisedly placed Margery in charge of the church’s puppet ministry, hoping to fill her idle time and distract her from her grief.  Iacovo initially comes off as mild-mannered as Mr. Rogers, but in the second act he boldly and surprisingly confronts the evil Tyrone. I guess this is where I should mention that Tyrone is Jason’s puppet.

Hand to God is set in a church basement in a small town somewhere in Texas. On entering The Basement, many of  us will take one look at David P. Melton’s set design and immediately have flash backs to Vacation Bible School, otherwise known simple as VBS. There are the inspirational posters, the pictures partially colored by children, and the ubiquitous puppet stage.

In spite of the popularity of the puppet ministry in many churches, many children are terrified of puppets. My own son, in his youth, would scream at the sight of clowns, masks, mimes, and puppets. But Tyrone takes it to a whole new level. Tyrone actually opens and closes the show with his own prologue and epilogue, and in Acts 1 and 2 he demonically possesses young Jason. We’re talking bloody mutilations and violent sexual acts. We’re talking foul-mouthed verbal assaults and  blood curdling laughter. Imagination? Psychological transference? Doesn’t matter – we’re talking spine-tingling horror.

Turck switches between the mild-mannered Jason and the evil Tyrone throughout the show, which runs nearly two hours with one intermission. The rough-edged voice he uses for Tyrone as well as the shouting must wreak havoc on his vocal cords, but he doesn’t hold back. He goes full out and is the only character that really earns our sympathy. Jones Clark turns in an edgy performance as his mother, and as much as she’s obviously hurting, her actions do not generate much sympathy. One wonders what’s going on in this small town, as Margery is pursued by both Pastor Greg (Iacovo) and the foul-mouthed bully, Timmy (Adam Valentine), who reluctantly attends the puppet ministry while his mother is otherwise engaged in her AA meetings. The third young member of the puppet ministry is Jessica (Anne Michelle Forbes), a shy teen who uses her buxom female puppet to get through to Jason/Tyrone in a most surprising way in the second act.

Hopper’s direction keeps things moving, but I found some scene changes in the first act ran a little long, and while Melton’s set authentically captured VBS, it was surprisingly unsteady and had a noticeable gap in the rear wall – both of which are probably due to the need to unfold several panels to reveal the pastor’s office in the second act. The puppet theater, also designed by Melton, actually seemed much sturdier than the actual set. Joey Luck created the sound design with his usual impeccable touch, and Michael Jarett did the  lighting – which included some impressive lightning.  Heidi Rugg is credited with the puppetry, ranging from Timmy’s simple sock puppet to Jessica’s femme fatale and Jason’s two versions of Tyrone – one of which featured teeth and horns.

There is nothing delicate about Hand to God: Askins – and this well-chosen cast – tackle family dynamics, sexual issues, religious hypocrisy, and more with rawness and humor. There is no happy ending. There is no clear-cut good or bad. Major, life-changing decisions made by the characters raise more questions than they answer – all of which sounds, to me, like the elements of good theater.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

Hand to God.5
Fred Iacovo, Kimberly Jones Clark, Adam Valentine, Adam Turck, and Anne Michelle Forbes
Hand to God.4
Tyrone
Hand to God.3
Adam Turck and Anne Michelle Forbes
Hand to God.2
Tyrone and Adam Turck

 

Featured

AS YOU LIKE IT: All the World’s a Stage

AS YOU LIKE IT: Pastoral Comedy Under the Stars

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre/20th Annual Richmond Shakespeare Festival

At: Agecroft Hall & Gardens, 4305 Sulgrave Road, RVA 23221

Performances: July 6-29, 2018, Thursdays – Sundays at 7:30pm

Ticket Prices: $30 Adults; $25 Seniors; $20 Students & RVATA Members (with ID)

Info: (804) 353-4241 or quilltheatre.org

 

As You Like It is one of the bard’s zaniest comedies. Set initially in the French court of the evil Duke Frederick, formerly the domain of his banished brother Duke Senior, but mostly in the idealized Forest of Arden, As You Like It is filled with improbable disguises and misidentification, sibling rivalry and love at first sight. There’s also an awesome wrestling scene in the first act (fight choreography by James Ricks) and a rowdy dance at the end (choreography by Nicole Morris-Anastasi). There’s plenty of action, plenty of laughs, and – as they say – it’s complicated.

C.J. Bergin plays the love-struck Orlando, the youngest and sadly disinherited son of the late Sir Rowland de Boys. Bergin is both sympathetic and brave, first facing the ferocious wrestler, Charles, then posting odes to his beloved Rosalind on trees in the forest. Rebecca Turner is Rosalind, the object of his affections and daughter of the banished Duked Senior. Shortly into the play, Rosalind finds herself fallen head over heels for Orlando after he quite unexpectedly overpowers the professional wrestler Charles (Tommy Ryan). Accompanied by two ring girls dressed as Shakespearian wenches, Charles is a real moustache-twirling villain. His satin embroidered robe and vainglorious long locks, in stark contrast to the women’s more traditional costumes, typifies Cora Delbridge’s time-bending, era-mixing costumes. The fight was fixed by Oliver (Matt Bloch), Orlando’s older brother, but Orlando, facing defeat and having nothing to lose, knocked out Charles with a folding chair, WWE style, and as a result must flee for his life.

Rosalind’s mercurial uncle, Duke Frederick (John Cauthen – who also plays the brother, Duke Senior) not only has it in for his own brother, but also counted Orlando’s father among his enemies. After the wrestling match does not go according to plan, Duke Frederick turns his wrath on the fair Lady Rosalind, his niece and his daughter’s best friend. He gives her ten days to vacate the court, but his daughter, Celia (Jocelyn Honoré) decides to join her.

Rosalind, disguised as a young man with the fictitious name Ganymede, embarks on a hair-brained scheme to join her father and his band of merry men who have been subsisting in the forest, and here Turner get to shine as a woman impersonating a man who is in turn impersonating a woman. [In Shakespeare’s day, when all roles were played by men, Rosalind would have been a male (actor) impersonating a woman (Rosalind) impersonating a man (Ganymede) impersonating a woman (Rosalind).] Celia sticks by her cousin, but once in the forest, Honoré seems to fade into obscurity more than necessary. The character of Rosalind is, undoubtedly, the most developed female character of the play and perhaps of Shakespeare’s entire body of plays, and Turner embodies equally well the sometimes overlapping comedic, dramatic, and romantic aspects of her character.

John Mincks, as Touchstone, the court jester and Rosalind and Celia’s servant and protector, is a standout. His dandy wardrobe of plaid jacket and straw hat marries the look of the traditional court jester with the more modern look of a minstrel, his lines consist of humorous sometimes rhyming, sometimes philosophical speeches that are delivered with a speed and sassiness that could easily trip up any lesser actor. In the second act, a shepherd couple, Silvius (Cooper Sved) and the unresponsive Phoebe (Nicole Morris-Anastasi) provide a humorous diversion, with Morris-Anastasi’s character falling for Ganymede – not knowing the object of her affections is actually Rosalind in disguise. The quick-tongued Rosalind/Ganymede delivers one of the play’s most cutting lines – and perhaps one of literature’s first recorded instances of body-shaming – to Phoebe, telling the nerdy-looking and socially awkward young woman, “Sell when you can, you are not for all markets.”

Another favorite is the melancholy Jaques, played with laid-back élan by Luke Schares. A nomadic traveler who also frequents the forest, it eventually becomes clear that he is actually the middle son of Sir Rowland de Boys, younger brother of Oliver and older brother to Orlando. You may not be familiar with Jaques or the play, but you will remember his line, “All the world’s a stage. . .” If it seems difficult to keep all these characters straight, it is. It’s helpful to read the synopsis and list of cast members before the show – and again during intermission. It doesn’t help that several cast members play multiple roles.

My daughter and I went on Friday, opening night, but after a fifteen-minute rain delay and wearing a poncho as protection from the light rain that fell during the first act, the show had to be cancelled due to a storm cell and lightning. So, having a second chance to watch the first act was actually helpful in keeping all the characters and their relationships straight. The humor is unrelenting, but it’s even better when you can keep the players organized. The cast also included Derek Kannemeyer as Orlando’s faithful old “yet strong and lusty” servant, Adam; Taylor Lyn Dawson as both Amiens, Duke Senior’s musician and Audrey, the object of Touchstone’s affections; and Bill Blair as both Corin, an elderly shepherd, and Le Beau, a member of Duke Frederick’s court.

Rain pace or fair weather – and Saturday was perfect, with clear skies, cool temperatures, no humidity – As You Like It is hilarious, with well-timed direction by artistic director James Ricks, atmospheric music provided by Juan Harmon on accordion, and satisfying ensemble work by a cast of thirteen actors.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Photos by Aaron Sutten; Audience selfie by Noah Downs.

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SMALL PLATES CHOREOGRAPHY FESTIVAL: Whetting the Appetite for Dance in RVA

SMALL PLATES CHOREOGRAPHY FESTIVAL: Merging Emerging Choreographers and Audiences

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th Street, RVA 23224

Performances: June 29 & 30, 2018 @ 8:00pm

Ticket Prices: $10 General

Info: (804) 230-8780, dogtowndancetheatre.com

Kelly Hamlin, founder and artistic director of Krash!Dance Theater, and Jess Burgess, artistic and executive director of Dogtown Dance Theatre and founder and co-artistic director of RVA Dance Collective, Dogtown’s resident dance company, are on a mission to make Richmond as much a home for dance as it has become for theater. Hamlin hosted the Small Plates Choreography Festival at Dogtown June 29 and 30. The curated performance series accepts applications for ensemble works up to 10-minutes in length and solo works up to 8-minutes long. Festival performances occur over a 2-day period, with a Q&A session after each performance. Upcoming performances are scheduled for Brooklyn, NY, Newburgh, NY, and Lorton, VA.

The June Festival at Dogtown provided a showcase for more than a dozen choreographers – some local and some from as far away as Pittsburgh, PA and Brooklyn, NY. Saturday evening’s program was a virtual smorgasbord of dance: contemporary, hip hop, lyrical/liturgical. There was spoken word and live music – all done with a minimum of lighting and little or no props.

The handstands, headstands, and hair tossing of marge dances + Shelleysillerdance demonstrated awesome physical control, and no wonder as choreographer Margaret Allen, a graduate of the VCU dance program, is a professional circus artist with a specialty in hand balancing and dance acrobatics. Allen partnered with Shelley Siller, who has a strong background in ballet, for Las Brujas (The Witches), a sort of modern-day incantation filled with the aforementioned handstands and headstands, and delightfully awkward positions that reminded me of historic photos of Mary Wigman’s Hexantanz (Witch Dance). It was a memorable opening piece that made you want to see more work by these choreographers, but for some reason, the moments when the two touched did not fully connect for me. Allen (RVA) and Siller (DC/VA) also each presented solos for the Friday evening program.

The second half of the program also opened with a strong, memorable work. A Memorable Diversion is a duet filled with exuberant and childlike enthusiasm – mostly on the part of  William Sterling Walker, who seemed determined to meet and interact with the object of his affection, LaWanda Raines. These two have a natural chemistry – familiar to those who saw them dancing together with The Latin Ballet of Virginia, where both were long-time members before pursuing independent work. At one point, Sterling’s feet lifted off the floor into that “happy feet” movement often performed by toddlers when they get a taste of their favorite food! In perfect contrast to this beautifully free and uninhibited delight was the beautifully classic live music, a Rachmaninoff song sung by Marjory Saunders accompanied by Miriam C. Walton on keyboard.

During the audience discussion, another piece that drew notable comment was the Inner City Blues: Excerpt, a solo choreographed by Michelle Isaac of Ntrinsik Movement (Brooklyn, NY). The solo, performed by Briana Raheem to a Marvin Gaye’s Wholy Holy had a soulful, liturgical feeling, no doubt a reflection of Isaac’s early start, dancing in church at age 4.

Desmin Taylor (RVA) presented Rebuild, an intimate, introspective solo that is actually his first solo creation. Host Kelly Hamlin performed an amusing solo to a short story written and read by Chris McDaniel (who is also Dogtown’s operations manager and grants writer). White employed a variety of colorful masks and even a sweater or two tossed from the wings as Hamlin danced to, acted out, and sometimes mimed the lovingly awkward story of a first date, punctuated by easy eye-ball interactions between Hamlin and McDaniel.

Jess Burgess’s Continuum, performed earlier this year, was tightened and condensed in order to fit with the time limits of the Small Plates Festival, and somehow, without the atmospheric fog and full lighting, it seemed sharper, more emotional and impactful. Kista Tucker (Kista Tucker Insights, Bristow, VA) presented excerpts from The Factory Project, complete with train or factory engine sounds. Another work with an industrial theme or feel was Marissa Graham’s ((in))teroception. Graham, a member of eSKay Arts Collective (NY), appears to have conceived of this intriguing work as a study in contrasts – machine versus organism, mechanical versus organic, interacting versus co-existing.

Fixated, a solo by Therese Gahl (NOVA/DC) created a unique physical and emotional effect by using the very detailed instructions on how to suture a wound. Gahl’s loose-jointed, flexible movement vocabulary made me wonder if she was the wound or the suturing thread closing the edges of the wound. Kaitlin Flynn Goodwin (Pittsburgh, PA) presented Standing in the Gap, a solo of controlled, measured release; but once she released, there was no holding back. Heartbeats, blips, beeps, and pings accompanied Heidi Murr’s (MURRdance, Pittsburgh, PA) What I Know About Living, an unusual and mysterious piece to close the evening.

Other works on the program included a high-impact hip hop work, Power, collaboratively choreographed and presented by Studio 4 Dance Company (Richmond, VA), under the direction of Deandra Clarke and  Jelani Taylor’s The Cry, a dark work punctuated by gunshots that I interpreted as a statement on today’s political atmosphere and oppression in general. Taylor, also a product of the VCU dance program, was, unfortunately not available for the post-show discussion.

It was inspiring to see the variety of works as well as the diversity of the audience. During intermission and after the show, performers could be overheard praising the works and accomplishments of other artists, and many – performers as well as audience members – were exposed to works and performers they had never seen before. The works are generally finished, as in not works-in-progress, but neither are they fully set with unlimited or extended time, props, full lighting, and complex production elements. The Small Plates Choreography Festival, like its culinary namesake, allows the audience to sample a lot of different “dishes” in one sitting, and whets the appetite for more of the ones that seem particularly interesting or appetizing. The Small Plates Choreography Festival was created by Beth Elliott for the purpose of “merging choreographers and dance audiences in meaningful performance experiences.” [https://smallplatesdance.com/] Kudos to Kelly Hamlin and Jess Burgess for this summer dance treat.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Video Links:

MURRdance

https://www.facebook.com/smallplatesdance/videos/1860386244021784/

 

Margaret Allen

https://www.facebook.com/allenmh/videos/10211627484393746/UzpfSTgwMjg4MTE1MzEwNTYzNzoxODUyNTQzOTgxNDcyNjc3/

 

Jelani Taylor

https://youtu.be/x-kcNuYWVa8

 

RVA Dance Collective

https://youtu.be/jPOMN1mOaKE

 

Photo Credits: Small Plates Choreography Festival Richmond, VA production photos by Mike Keeling

Dogtown - Small Plates 1
Beth Elliot – Small Plates creator, and Kelly Hamlin, Small Plates Richmond host

Dogtown - Small Plates 2

Dogtown - Small Plates 3
Kelly Hamlin and Chris McDaniel
Dogtown - Small Plates 4
Desmin Taylor
Featured

WEST SIDE STORY: Love and Musicals

WEST SIDE STORY: A Summer of Love and Musicals

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: June 22 – July 29, 2018

Ticket Prices: $36-62

Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org

 

With a large cast featuring many new (to Richmond) faces, the familiar and beloved musical, West Side Story, soared on the November Theatre/Arenstein Stage on opening night. Having just seen Romeo and Juliet at the Richmond Shakespeare Festival last week, it was insanely fitting to see West Side Story just days later. One is set in the 16th century in Verona, Italy, and the other in New York City in the 1950’s, but not much has changed about human nature in the intervening centuries.

The rivalry between the Sharks, a group of Puerto Rican immigrants, and the Jets, a gang of white Americans who want to hold on to their turf, erupts in a rumble. When Maria, sister of the Shark’s leader Bernardo, and Tony, one of the founders of the Jets, meet at a dance and fall in love, the inevitable tragedy is set in motion. The intolerance of the Jets, most of whom are only first or second-generation Americans – Tony, for instance, is the son of Polish immigrants – towards the recently arrived Puerto Ricans eerily echo recent headlines and newsfeeds. At one point, Anita bemoans the fact that most Americans don’t even realize that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. It doesn’t help that both groups repeatedly refer to Puerto Rico as my/your country.

Brittany Santos, in the lead role of Maria, was a surprise. Her voice is outstanding, powerful, and has an angelic clarity that is perfect for the role – a role she has, in fact, performed previously, at Arizona Broadway Theatre and Cortland Repertory Theatre. Physically, she fits the role as well, bringing a petite, youthful innocence with a burgeoning sense of self-determination. In her first scene, she is a timid and obedient young girl; in her final strut across the stage, she is a young woman who has looked tragedy in the eye and overcome some of the trials of adulthood.

Justin Luciano, as Tony, is a young man in search of himself, and as such, is harder to pin down. His singing is strong and clear, but his speaking voice was, at times, muffled, and it was hard to tell if it was a technical difficulty or a speech impediment. His singing of the signature song, “Maria” was appropriately haunting. Maria does not have any real solos, but duets with Tony, “One Hand, One Heart,” and “Somewhere” are the songs people who have never seen the show on stage or film are familiar with. Both are songs that introduced many people to the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, and in the hands – and mouths – of Santos and Luciano, they came alive again.

I must confess that anything I have to say about the role of Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, will be colored by my fond memories of playing that role in community theater as a teenager.  Maria Cristina Slye brought a balance of sassiness and humanity to the role and did not disappoint in her big musical number with the rest of the Shark girls in Act 1, “America.”

Other lead roles included Eddie Maldonado as Bernardo and Corey Mosello as Riff, the leader of the Jets. Among my favorite characters is Anybodys, the tomboy who so badly wants to be accepted as a member of the Jets. Carly Natania Grossman played this role with spunk.

For the most part, the adults in West Side Story are peripheral characters, almost like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. But Jay O. Millman was a strong, conciliatory figure as Doc, the owner of the local drugstore and soda shop – similar to the Friar in Romeo and Juliet. Andrew C. Boothby as Lt. Schrank and Gregg Lloyd as Officer Krupke are portrayed as somewhat comic characters, often the butt of jokes, as in the Jets, “Gee, Officer Krupke” number, but also complicit in the discrimination. While they go through the motions of keeping the peace, their words and actions indicate that they, too, have issues with the new immigrants.

The original production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and the Richmond production was directed by VirginiaRep artistic director Nathaniel Shaw with original choreography reproduced by Matthew Couvillon.  The choreography is bigger than life, bold, hard hitting, sometimes awkward, rather than pretty – like the surrounding tenements and chain-link fences. West Side Story has some of the best original choreography of any musical, and this production meets all expectations on that front. The women’s kicks and leaps seem to pull their legs right out of the socket and the men are ferocious – leaping over one another and attacking the fight choreography with relish.

Shaw’s direction is organic and seamless. Scott Bradley’s soaring two-story set design is suitably gritty, and imaginatively lit by BJ Wilkinson, who has roving lights that mimic the activity of the urban setting. Sarah Grady designed the costumes, which make it easy to distinguish between Jets and Sharks when they are onstage together, and Derek Dumais designed the sound.  A live band keeps things moving, under the able and energetic direction of Anthony Smith (Mary Poppins, Fun Home, The Color Purple).

There’s also new balcony seating, a Puerto Rican Rum Punch at the bar, and a Leonard Bernstein display will be exhibited at Virginia Rep outlining Bernstein’s contributions to the theatre, If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet, ¿que estas esperando?

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

 

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ROMEO AND JULIET: Romance Rebooted

ROMEO AND JULIET: Young Love and Old Problems Revisited

A Theater Review and Reflections by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre/20th Annual Richmond Shakespeare Festival

At: Agecroft Hall & Gardens, 4305 Sulgrave Road, RVA 23221

Performances: June 1-24, 2018, Thursdays – Sundays at 7:30pm

Ticket Prices: $30 Adults; $25 Seniors; $20 Students & RVATA Members (with ID)

Info: (804) 353-4241 or quilltheatre.org

Quill Theatre staged Romeo and Juliet at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts just two months ago, in April. I thoroughly enjoyed it and did not plan to see the re-staging at Agecroft Hall. (Beautiful as it is, it’s outside, and there’s the question of weather and bugs, and all that goes with it, and besides, I’m recovering from back surgery and the seats might not be comfortable, etc., etc., etc.) But I heard several friends and colleagues speak so positively about the restaging, which is directed entirely by James Ricks, whereas the April version was conceived and started by Dr. Jan Powell, whose vision was completed by Ricks after Powell was called away due to a family emergency. So, on June 14, near the end of the run, I found myself seated comfortably on a cushion I brought with me, on a very pleasant, bug-free night – thoroughly enjoying Romeo and Juliet and appreciating the nuances Ricks brought to this remounting.

First of all, Agecroft Hall is thoroughly conducive to Shakespeare. The court and building backdrop, the garden, even the birds and bugs, provide a natural setting that requires little else to transport the audience to Verona and the world of Shakespeare. Then, given that the story and the script are the same, and most of the cast is the same, it was fascinating to watch a very different experience unfold before my eyes.

One of the most striking things was when, during the balcony scene that is probably familiar even to those who have never seen a performance of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet jumps down from the balcony to meet Romeo. I saw Liz Earnest in the role both times – Claire Wittman played Juliet opening weekend at Agecroft Hall – but I found her character to be both funnier and more empowered this time around.

Tyler Stevens, who first caught my attention and admiration as the younger son in the VirginiaRep Hanover Tavern production of Brighton Beach Memoirs in 2016, played the role of Romeo. Stevens brought a balance of passion and youthful impulsiveness that made his character endearing; we were able to see him through the eyes of Juliet.

Another major cast change was Todd Patterson in the role of Romeo’s friend Mercutio.  I absolutely loved Matt Shofner’s over-the-top performance at VMFA and was equally enamored of Patterson’s very different interpretation.  Patterson’s Mercutio seemed to be played less for comedy and more as a young man clinging to childish ways in a last-ditch effort to avoid adulthood – something we teachers and parents see all too often in real life!

Melissa Johnston Price’s Nurse and Bo Wilson’s Friar Lawrence remained stalwart figures with solid roles that anchored the action and their young mentees’ characters. Johnston Price’s scene with Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet, seemed less drawn out while Wilson’s interactions with Romeo seemed more fatherly and his character’s actions overall seemed more like that of an elder or wiseman focused on establishing peace and reason between the families.

I was able to get a close-up look at the inspired construction of Cora Delbridge’s costumes. She seemed to be going for a blend of contemporary and traditional, often achieved by ripping open seams and patching them back together, leaving them partially open – sort of like the contemporary ripped-jeans look. After this show, I am angling to get my hands on Lady Capulet’s fitted black and silver mermaid dress. Aaron Orensky’s fight choreography is exciting and BJ Wilkinson’s lighting works with the natural lighting of dusk to create haunting scenes, especially those in the tomb and at the end.

This popular and well-known tragedy – interspersed with moments of humor – is well worth seeing, whether for the first time or again, if you saw the VMFA production. Interestingly, just as Romeo and Juliet comes to a close, on June 24, Virginia Rep will be opening the modern-day version of the young love story, West Side Story, beginning June 22 at the November Theatre.

The  20th Annual Richmond Shakespeare Festival will continue on the courtyard stage at Agecroft Hall’s sixteenth century English manor house with two more productions: The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr, Abridged June 30, 2018 at 7:30pm and As You Like It, July 5-July 29, Thursdays-Sundays at 7:30pm.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES: Not for the Faint of Heart

GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES: An Unconventional Love Story

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

TheatreLAB’s The Cellar Series 2018: This Beautiful Mess

At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219

Performances: June 11-23, 2018

Ticket Prices: $15

Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org

 

Whenever anyone describes a particularly gruesome injury, I get an unpleasant, bone-chilling, tingly feeling that starts in my core and runs down my limbs. Rajiv Joseph’s 2009 play, Gruesome Playground Injuries, provided many such opportunities over the span of two hours (real time) and thirty years (scripted time),

Rachel Rose Gilmour and Jeffrey Cole both give compelling performances as the couple in this intense and intimate story that follows the lives of Kayleen and Doug, as they mark the significant moments in their lives by their injuries – both physical and emotional. Kayleen and Doug first meet in the nurse’s office of their elementary school, St. Margaret Mary’s.  Kayleen is nursing one of her chronic stomachaches, while Doug has ridden his bike off the roof of the school in an attempt to mimic daredevil Evel Knievel. How did he get his bike to the roof of the school, you might ask? He climbed a tree, with his bike. Yeah, he’s that kind of kid. The result, of course, is that he has extensive damage to his face.

Other young lovers exchange kisses or friendship bracelets, but not these two. Oh no…they decide to mix the most unlikely of bodily fluids in a bucket. Doug’s life is marked by a series of accidents, usually the result of, to use his word, being “brave.” Without giving away too much, I’ll just share the titles of some of the scenes: “Face Split Open,” “Eye Blown Out,” “Pink Eye.” Kayleen, who has a special gift when it comes to saving Doug, is, ironically, unable to save herself, and descends into a spiral of depression and mental illness, some of which results in physical harm. How timely, that this production should open just as we are reeling from the recent suicides of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef and travel foodie Anthony Bourdain.

Author Rajiv Joseph has set this story in a series of eight scenes, occurring in five-year intervals, starting when the character are 8 years old and ending when they are 38 – but the scenes are not performed in strict chronological order. This requires the characters, who change clothes onstage at the start of each scene – to transform into different ages before our very eyes. They each have a folding chair, the type you’d find in a typical, basic dressing room, and a small mirror, and they often keep an eye on one another as they change their attire and scars. Oh yes, there are bandages and blood aplenty.

Each scene is also accompanied by a transition statement and song. For example, Scene 1 includes the transition “Can you save me?” accompanied by the song “Save Me” by Aimee Mann, and Scene 7, “Just because it hurts doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it,” is accompanied by Maria Mena’s “Growing Pains.”

In spite of its gruesome nature, there are many moments of lightness and laughter – Doug becomes an insurance claims adjustor and, of course, gets injured inspecting the roof of their former school. And, more than once, I was reminded of the mother in A Christmas Story¸ constantly warning Ralphie that he would shoot his eye out. But make no mistake, this is an intense and moving play about people with real problems: accidents, injuries, hospitalizations, family stress, death, cutting, and more. And it is a story about love: young love, healing love, forgiving love, unrequited love, blind love, enduring love. Melissa Rayford has directed this production with a sure hand; it is intimate and funny and handles difficult subjects with delicacy but without sugar-coating anything. The pacing is just right, without lags or awkward pauses, and the moments of silence or stillness are heavy with meaning.

This is not a play for the faint of heart, or for anyone who is looking for a fairy tale ending with all the loose ends neatly tied up. Kayleen says at one point, Doug has gotten “caught up in the spokes of my train wreck.” In response, Doug reminds her that trains do not have spokes.

Gruesome Playground Injuries uses the same set as Topdog/Underdog, which is still running in the same space on alternate nights. The basic scenic elements have been rearranged so that it is actually an entirely new setting. Kudos to the production team: scenic design by David Melton, lighting by Michael Jarett, sound and costume design by Melissa Rayford and the cast. This is a Cellar Series production, the theme of which is “This Beautiful Mess,” and in addition to a minimal budget and borrowed design elements, it has a very short run: June 12 & 13, June 21-23, so don’t mess around and miss it.

NOTE: During Monday night’s preview, outside construction created a bit of a sound distraction for half the show, but not enough to spoil the play and Rachel Rose Gilmour and Jeffrey Cole never let it show that they were competing with jackhammers and steam rollers and all the other big machines. Carry on!

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Louise Ricks

 

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Jeffrey Cole and Rachel Rose Gilmour
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Jeffrey Cole and Rachel Rose Gilmour
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Jeffrey Cole and Rachel Rose Gilmour
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PRELUDES: Folk, Fate & Fantasy

PRELUDES: An Inspired Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: May 23 – June 30, 2018 [Recently extended through June 30!] Wed-Sat @ 7:30pm; Sun @ 4:00pm

Ticket Prices: $15 – $45; Special Date Night Romance packages available for $60 per couple

Info: (804) 355-2001 or info@firehousetheatre.org

 

Historically, the Firehouse Theatre’s current production of Dave Malloy’s inspired musical, Preludes, is significant. The work, a hybrid of classical music and an amalgam of various styles from folk to contemporary, has been mounted only twice before: it premiered at Lincoln Center in 2015 and made a German-language debut in Austria in 2017. When you see the musically complex and visually layered production, it’s easy to understand why this unorthodox musical has not been widely produced.

Preludes has all the elements of musical theater, but with an operatic demeanor, and then there are substantial sections that are purely instrumental.  The cast is uniformly and outstandingly talented and versatile, acting, singing, and occasionally playing instruments.

Actor Travis West, one of the play’s two Rachmaninoff’s, spends the entire 2 hours and 10 minutes onstage at the grand piano – which he actually plays! Not only does he play music by Sergei Rachmaninoff (a noted composer and pianist of the late Romantic period), but he appears to have mastered the folk songs, samplings of other classical composers, and contemporary sounds while musical director Susan Randolph Braden on synthesizer fills in the rest of the beautifully eclectic score.

PJ Freebourn plays the role of Rach, the social, emotional, and less musical side of the main character. Freebourn’s portrayal of the composer very successfully and sympathetically draws us into the world of the composer during the three years of his deep depression that resulted in a writer’s block. His therapy with Dr. Dahl (a surprisingly subdued and self-contained Georgia Rogers Farmer), his relationship with his fiancé, Natalya, who is also his first cousin (Isabella Stansbury) are explored in realistic detail, quite in contrast to the time-changing setting and costuming choices that place this production squarely in a space that is neither the 19th century nor the 21st century, but both at the same time.

Jody Ashworth brings moments of insight and humor as Rachmaninoff’s friend, Chaliapin, and Levi Meerovich (yes, he really is of Russian descent) takes on multiple roles as several well-known Russian figures: Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov, Tsar Nicholas II, and The Master – all of whom were key figures in Rachmaninoff’s life and musical development. His wheezing, asthmatic Tsar was particularly memorable. As Meerovich explained in Thursday night’s talkback, it was not so much that he had to play each of these figures, but that he had to portray how Rachmaninoff saw them in his mind.

Free-flowing and with an often tenuous relationship to expected concepts of time and place, of what is real and what is embellished, Preludes is a surprisingly warm and intimate production that makes the audience feel as if we truly have a better understanding of both the man and his music. Why, for instance, die he consider C sharp minor to be the coolest key? What’s it like to produce a seminal work at age 19 and then spend years trying to figure out what is success and failure?

Director Billy Christopher Maupin insists he started with and still has more questions than answers about this production, and that appears to be a good thing, because he has directed with a hand guided by questions seeking answers and a respect for the ambiguous. Leslie Cook-Day’s costumes, likewise, have an ambiguity. Black, white, and gray blend in clothes that are at once contemporary and from a century or two ago. Ryan Dygert’s sound design is filled with ghostly sighs and breaths, heartbeats, and rattling chains.  Visual chains are draped around the actors and the sets, some of them symbolically broken.

Emily Dandridge contributed some intense and well-integrated choreography, and Tennessee Dixon’s set and projections were almost a character on their own: four separate seating areas – a café table, the piano, a porch swing, and a psychiatrist’s office – were spread across the stage while animations and looped video and slow-motion video of the pianists’ hands subtly connected all the disparate elements.

Preludes is not a show I would recommend to someone who has never seen a musical or an opera, or anyone who likes things to turn out with all the ends neatly tied up – but it is a production I would highly recommend to anyone and everyone who likes excellent theater, good music, and stunningly creative theater.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

 

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Georgia Rogers Farmer, PJ Freebourn, and Jody Ashworth
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PJ Freebourn and Travis West
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TOPDOG/UNDERDOG: America Here & Now

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG: This, Too, Is America

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219

Performances: May 25 – June 9, 2018 / NOTE: Production has been EXTENDED with additional shows June 15 & 16 @8:00pm.

Ticket Prices: $30 general

Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org

 

Suzan-Lori Parks’ award-winning Topdog/Underdog is one of those challenging plays that is easy to dismiss as a race play or a social play or some other specialty nook. But even though the two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, are black, and even though they are hustlers, and even though they come from an unbelievably dysfunctional background, there is something universal and far-reaching about their story. Topdog/Underdog is a story about family and striving, and, as the lyrics of Childish Gambino’s “This is America” remind us at the closing scene, it is about America.

Gambino’s lyrics and music video did not yet exist when Parks wrote Topdog/Underdog in 2001, but it’s existence today makes for some interesting comparisons. Cultural sociologists have taken the time to dissect the symbolism in the song; there are also symbols in the play. For starters, the two brothers are named Lincoln and Booth. We all know the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. And let us not forget that Booth was, in real life, an actor. In Gestalt Therapy, there is a kind of self-torture game, Topdog vs Underdog, in which people learn to face their anxieties by weighing the “topdog” or should do’s and ought to’s against the “underdog” or internal excuses. It also refers to the dominant and the submissive.  On one level, this is exactly what these two brothers do; they weigh their options and take turns trying to dominate one another. Then there is the symbolism of Lincoln, a black man, named for the white man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Parks’ Lincoln, however, portrays the historic Lincoln by wearing a long coat, a stovepipe hat, a fake beard, and white face, and his job is to sit in a chair in an arcade where tourists come and shoot him with fake bullets. His job is to die, over and over, every day.  At what point does the fake become a reality?

Similar discussions could be developed around the symbolism of the card game, Three-Card Monte, that the older brother has given up and the younger brother is trying to take up. Booth, in the play, even adopts the name 3-Card, and the game ultimately plays an important role in the devastating final scene. The gun is another incendiary symbol, appearing in both the opening and closing scenes.

This production is directed by Katrinah Carol Lewis, who is certainly no stranger to the stage, and marks her Richmond theater community directorial debut. Running about two and a half hours, with one brief ten-minute intermission, Topdog/Underdog is unrelenting in its intensity and presents a challenge for the audience as well as for its two actors, Jamar Jones (Booth) and Jeremy V. Morris (Lincoln). Set in the here and now, in a tiny rundown apartment, furnished with a mattress set on cinderblocks, a couple of mismatched chairs placed around two stacked milk crates with a cardboard square on top, and a recliner that has seen better days, David Melton’s set, holds the audience intimately close and aware.

As Booth, the younger brother, Jones maintains a rebellious anger from start to finish. In a few rare instances, usually when reminiscing about the parents who abandoned the brothers when they were ages 16 and 11, or when speaking of his on-again, off-again relationship with the unseen Grace, he allows his vulnerability to show through. Morris, as the older brother Lincoln, shows more control, partly due to character but mostly because of experience. After trying to put his street hustling days behind him, he finds his marriage to the also unseen Cookie has crumbled, and he is relying on his younger brother for a temporary place to rest his head. Lincoln’s speech is more measured, and his actions slower but he is no less passionate. Spit flies generously during the brothers’ usually heated exchanges – which are often nose to nose. I can’t help but wonder if the play would be just as effective if it were shortened by, say thirty minutes.

A few minutes into the play, I realized that it was not, in fact, my first time seeing it. I actually reviewed the Sycamore Rouge production in February 2012.  At that time, I commended the Petersburg-based (and, sadly, now defunct) theater company for mounting such a challenging work but found that the two actors did not connect – at least for me. I think director Katrinah Carol Lewis and actors Jamar Jones and Jeremy V. Morris were much more successful in creating seamless transitions and an authentic theater experience. (But. . .it’s still too long.)

(Here’s a link to that 2012 review: http://www.richmond.com/entertainment/theater-review-topdog-underdog/article_0f45bd5f-5c6b-5ed8-bb80-8cc79651fff2.html)

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

 

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ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID: Southern Hospitality in a Comedy of Recognition

ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID: Southern Women Ensemble Humor Strikes Again

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Colonial Heights, VA 23834

Performances: May 19 – June 30, 2018 [Note: Opening weekend was postponed due to flooding from regional spring storms]

Ticket Prices: $38 Theater only; $55 Dinner & Theater

Info: (804) 748-5203 or swiftcreekmill.com

 

Director Tom Width fondly refers to Always a Bridesmaid as a “comedy of recognition” because viewers are likely to recognize themselves or a family member or friend in the broadly drawn, zany characters. Written by the trio of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jaime Wooten, who also gave us The Dixie Swim Club and The Hallelujah Girls, Always a Bridesmaid is an amalgam of  television sitcom and every southern woman ensemble play you’ve ever seen – from Dixie Swim Club to  Hallelujah Girls and let’s not forget Steel Magnolias.

There’s nothing deep here, no life-changing moral theme, no political controversy, just good-natured female bonding and free-flowing laughs, built around the premise of four friends who made a vow during their high school prom to be bridesmaids at each other’s weddings. Who knew, at the time, that some of them might get married multiple times and this promise might evolve into a life-long, even multi-generational covenant?

The best thing about this production of Always a Bridesmaid is the cast. Amy Berlin is the statuesque and sharp-tongued Monette. In the first scene she is about to jump into the murky waters of her third marriage – to a man she has known for just about two weeks. Already the tallest of the quartet, Monette favors stiletto heels, which sets up the foundation for a running joke as well as some not so subtle physical humor. Jacqueline Jones is Libby Ruth, who in good southern form is always referred to by both names. For most of the play, Libby Ruth is the level-headed, perpetually cheerful member of the group, the one who always sees the bright side of things and finds a solution to every problem. But in the final scene, when it’s her own daughter who is getting married, she folds up like a lace fan.

Debra Wagoner is Deedra, a high-powered judge who uses a smile and southern charm to mask her steel trap legal mind. Wagoner, whose own real-life wedding to husband Joe Pabst took place at Swift Creek Mill 23 years ago, is walking with a slight limp in her first role after her debilitating fall resulting in a broken ankle during last fall’s production of Mary Poppins, but it never showed on her face. Jennie Hundley completes the quartet as Charlie, perhaps the quirkiest of them all. A landscaper, Charlie prefers pants and Birkenstocks and when we first meet her, her friends are trying to tame her wild nest of  hair, which is home to leaves and other bits of flora. Watching Charlie stumble about in a pair of heels during one of the weddings is one of the most hilarious moments of the evening.

It is worthy of note that with the exception of Libby Ruth, who appears to be a happily married housewife and mother, these southern women are independent business women and professionals.  Deedra is a judge, Monette owns a club, and Charlie owns her own landscaping business. But they are not the only characters bringing something to this table.

Jody Smith Strickler plays Sedalia, the owner of the elegant venue where all the scenes take place. Historic Laurelton Oaks, in Laurelton, Virginia, twenty miles northwest of Richmond is the setting for the entire play, which takes place over a period of seven years. Sedalia is known for providing top notch wedding services, but she rules her domain with an iron fist – and occasionally wields an axe to keep recalcitrant brides in line and on schedule. You’d better be at that top step when the first note of the wedding march begins – or else! Last but not least, there is Rachel Hindman as Kari, Libby Ruth’s daughter, who appears as a bride giving her reception speech at the start of each scene.  Sipping from a champagne glass, Kari becomes increasingly tipsy at each appearance, and shares such tidbits as the restraining order on her uncle was temporarily reduced to 30 feet from his estranged wife so that both could attend her wedding. In a “small world” turn of events, Kari is marrying Sedalia’s son.

It’s all very cozy and nothing really bad ever happens. There is an off-stage fight, but no one dies and it’s all love and kisses at the final curtain. Physical and visual laughs are provided by a fashion parade of ugly bridesmaid dresses, including a French maid, and a Marie Antoinette costume worn by Monette that is so big Charlie can hide behind her without even bending down. Kudos to Maura Lynch Cravey for her creativity and diversity in costume design for this show. Tom Width designed the elegant sitting room.

Personally, after some three-weeks of being housebound after two surgeries, this was the perfect outing for me. While I did not recognize any of these women from my immediate circle – I am after all, from Brooklyn – I did recognize them from other plays and sitcoms, and I thank them for bringing laughter and joy, with a nod to loyalty and love.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Robyn O’Neill

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RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL 2018: Week Three

RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL 2018: Week Three – From Trilogies to Meeping Peeps

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th Street, RVA 23224

Performances: April 27-28, May 4-5 & May 11-12 @ 7PM + Next Generation May 5 @ 2:30PM

Ticket Prices: $15 General; $10 Students/Children

Info: (804) 230-8780, dogtowndancetheatre.com or https://rdf18.brownpapertickets.com/

 

The Richmond Dance Festival closes out its three-weekend run with a new program of diverse works, six live dances and three short films. Richmond choreographer Lawanda Raines opened the program with Trilogy of Womanhood, set to music by Quincy Jones, Peggy Lee, and Nina Simone, was performed by a quartet of dancers from the RVA Dance Collective. The opening feels a bit like a strip tease, and during the course of the work the dancers do, in fact, shed their blazers, then their bras, and shed their hi-low skirts for pants. The movement is by turns elegant, sassy, and quirky, and while there is a bit of narrative (e.g., “Is that all there is?”) the dance ultimately feels unfinished.

The second half of the program began with Losing a Good Thing. Luisa Innisfree Martinez’ biography lists her occupations as choreographer, dancer, and baker, and her homes as Brooklyn, NY and Baltimore, MD. Her diverse background and peripatetic lifestyle seem to have informed her smart and amusing solo, Losing a Good Thing. Martinez begins by fighting with a white sun dress, eventually giving up and asking an audience member to zipper it up for her. All dressed up (in the white dress, a black sports bra, black trunks, and black socks) with nowhere to go, the second part of the solo is spent waiting for the phone to ring – a red corded phone. Martinez is lovable and engenders laughs with her shoulder isolations and an awesome balance on her shoulder ending in a slow spin out, sort of like a 1980s break dancer in slow motion. [See video here: http://www.luisainnisfree.com/losing-a-good-thing/]

Megan Ross (Durham, NC) closed the program with the highly satisfying and very amusing To Meep Like a Peep. You can look for meaning if you want (a video game, colorful marshmallow peeps, slang for “people,”  the sound the cartoon character Road Runner made, and more) but that’s totally unnecessary. Meep Like a Peep is a colorful dance full of wiggles and jumps, shakes and balances, and side-long looks at the audience. Set to percussion by Dj Plie, the dance is pure fun freed from restrictions of technique and style. One moment the dancers seem to mimic dogs chasing their tails, the next a marching band. Movements originate from unexpected places – a hip, a knee, a hand attached to the head like a unicorn’s horn. Audience members could not help but giggle and guffaw out loud; what a great way to end the evening.

Other dance offerings included Navigating Around Saturn and Around and Around, a contemporary ballet choreographed by Juliana Utz of Turning Key dance (Boston, MA); Run, Rerun, by Kara Priddy of RADAR (Richmond, VA); and Amid by Kara Robertson of Karar Dance Company (Richmond, VA).  Lulo Rivera’s short film, Impetu’s: Flamenco’s Driving Force, features beautiful backdrops, like a beach and a pedestrian walkway.  Dancer Jesus Carmona dances contemporary flamenco perched on a bridge beam seemingly just feet from the water, reminiscent of a seagull. Unfortunately, the captions are all in white and most fade out against the sandy and light backgrounds while others are obscured by being at the bottom of the frames and therefore out of sight of many viewers in this space where the lovely, large screen goes all the way down to the floor. Nick Zoulek’s Symmetry n Memories has dancer Claire Curry performing simultaneously in a ballet studio and outdoors creating layers of symmetry and perspective.  And last, but not least, Dylan Wilbur’s short film, Trussed, with choreography by SubRosa Dance Collective, has dancers Kailee McMurran and Zohra Banzi dancing with their hair eerily braided together into a single braid. The work, an excerpt from a larger work called Living the Room, also features one dancer in a bathtub, first in a classically tiled bathroom and then, quite suddenly, in a remote field.

The Richmond Dance Festival successfully brought the world of dance to Richmond, with works by local and familiar choreographers as well as works by new and unfamiliar artists. The dance films were especially well curated. Overall, Program Two (the second week) seemed to be the strongest, but there were excellent and noteworthy works all three weekends. At the time of this writing, there is one final performance, on Saturday, May 12 at 7:00pm. If you have not been, it is definitely worth your while.

And finally, kudos to Dogtown Dance Theatre. This week Artistic and Executive Director Jess Burgess announced that Dogtown is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Art Works grant in the amount of $10,000 to support performances and programming for dance artists.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Richmond Dance Festival production photos by Mike Keeling

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RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL 2018, Week Two: A Little Night Dancing

RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL 2018: Week Two, in Which Imagined Deities Shift the Permeating Presence of the Fantastic Plums of Paw Creek

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th Street, RVA 23224

Performances: April 27-28, May 4-5 & May 11-12 @ 7PM + Next Generation May 5 @ 2:30PM

Ticket Prices: $15 General; $10 Students/Children

Info: (804) 230-8780, dogtowndancetheatre.com or https://rdf18.brownpapertickets.com/

Oh my – I was completely blown away by Week Two of Richmond Dance Festival 2018. Eight works: five live dance performances and three dance films and each and every one of them was engaging and compelling. Normally, I would not talk in detail about each work on a lengthy program, but each of these dances and films is deserving of its own mention.

The program opened with Permeating Presence, a quartet by Maryland-based LucidBeings Dance choreographed by Franki Graham and Jeanna Riscigno. The movement comes from the inside out, and is affected by gravitational pull, variable balances, and other outside forces. The words that come to mind in describing this dance are organic and organism. There is a fascinating juxtaposition of nature and science fiction, which provided a natural segue into British filmmaker Barney Cokeliss’ short film, Night Dancing. This mysterious and intriguing dance film has a narrative involving a man who is haunted by the bitter sweet memory of a dancer, a lost love who may or may not be real.

Adventure of Fantastic Plum, choreographed and performed by Ching-I Ching Bigelow and Marsell Chavarria of Nina Simone’ – an embryonic “dance practice project” that embraces improvisation and “people/environment watching.” The pair initially caught our attention with their elaborate preparation; they created a stage-covering pathway of crinkly tarp that wound around the edges of the floor, ending in the center with a colorful pile of clothes or fabric. Bigelow and Chavarria travelled this path, sometimes struggling, sometimes helping one another. Along the way, they danced a bit of salsa and some West African dance steps, and at one point simultaneously balanced on one leg with the other suspended in an impossible position for an insane amount of time. Their journey ended n the center with a rather violent tussle, ending in a sea of calmness. The original score included narrative about “patterns of love in people of the diaspora” and the “loss of home place.” It reminded me of earlier ancestor-conscious works by LaWanda Raines, Kevin LaMarr Jones/Claves Unidos, and Annielille Gavino-Kollman/Malayaworks and seemed to share DNA with the work of Alicia Diaz, seen in the second half of this program.

The first half of the program closed with Francesco Belligerante’s short film, Sifting, filmed in China at several beautifully diverse locations, including a mountain museum and a dam. Beginning with the dancers running through stone or cement corridors, up ramps and up long flights of stairs, the scene suddenly changes to mountains and water, and the dancers slow down, arms wide, heads back, reminding us to take the time to connect with nature and enjoy the moment.

The second half of the program began with Richmond-based choreographer Alicia Diaz/Agua Dulce Dance Theatre’s Portrait of an Imagined Deity. The dancers and Diaz painted a large mandala on the floor with colored sand – a combination of male and female symbols, the peace symbol, and perhaps other images as well. Shoulders back, hips forward, buttocks up, the trio of dancers, all dressed in white, performed a series of vaguely tribal, universally familiar rituals to percussive music, ending with the sound of crashing waves. The deity may have been imagined, but the humanity was real.

North Carolina-based Eric Mullis initially reminded me of a dance minister I had met and worked with at a conference in Dallas, so it should have come as no surprise when his solo, Paw Creek, turned out to be a powerful display of sometimes fractured movement performed to an original score featuring an audio sampling of a charismatic Pentecostal minister.

Curing Albrecht, the third and final film, turned out to be an amusing turn by the English National Ballet. In this beautifully produced short, filmed in the Victoria Baths, a man checks himself into an institution, seeking a cure for his dancing addiction. [See the video here: https://youtu.be/pQYP96phKKE]

Finally, there was /Shift/, choreographed by Jeanne Mam-Luft and Susan Honer  of Mamluft&Co. Dance (in collaboration with the original performers, Rubio and Hannah Williamson). Tense and confrontational, dancers tentatively approach one another from opposite sides of the stage with extended, open hands – only to turn away, to jump as if singed by a hot wire, or to poke at one another with curiosity. At the end, as in life, nothing is resolved, and we are left with the hollow resounding words: “You are not machines; you are not cattle; you are men!”

I am not saying this program was perfect, just that I have nothing to complain about. This program will be performed again on Saturday night, May 5. On Saturday afternoon, the RDF Next Generation youth dancers will perform. The third and final weekend, May 11-12, will feature an all new program of choreographic works by RVA Dance Collective, Turning Key Dance, RADAR, Luisa Innisfree Martinez, KARAR Dance Company, and Megan Ross. There will also be films by Lulo Rivero (flamenco), Nick Zoulek, and Dylan Wilbur.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Richmond Dance Festival production photos by Kate Prunkl

Dogtown Dance Fest-1

Dogtown - RDF 2.5
Mamluft and Company
Dogtown - RDF 2.4
LucidBeings Dance
Dogtown - RDF 2.3
Eric Mullis
Dogtown - RDF 2.2
Marsell Chavarria and Ching-I Ching Bigelow of Nina Simone’
Dogtown - RDF 2.1
Christina Carlotti-Kolb, Christine Wyatt, and Marsell Chavarria with Agua Dulce Dance Theater
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APPROPRIATE: Of Race, Sex, Family Dysfunction, History, and Ghosts

APPROPRIATE: Race, Sex, Family Dysfunction, History, and Ghosts

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

At: Theatre Gym, Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220

Performances: April 28-May 20, with Previews on April 25 & 27. Showtimes 7PM Thursday; 8PM Friday & Saturday; 2PM Sunday. Talkbalk after the May 6 matinee.

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

 

Appropriate, an award-winning -play by young playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is one of the most shocking, inappropriate, and well-done productions of the season. And to be clear, there is very little that takes place in this play that could be called “appropriate” by any stretch of the imagination.

The patriarch of the Lafayette family has died, and his three heirs reunite at his Southeast Arkansas plantation house to settle his decrepit estate. The siblings, Antoinette “Toni” Lafayette (Susan Sanford), Beauregarde “Bo” Lafayette (Joe Pabst), and François “Franz/Frank” Lafayette (Happy Mahaney) have been estranged, and Frank’s ill-timed attempt to reunite leads to the uncovering of long-buried family secrets.

As the only girl, Toni was left with many of the household responsibilities after the death of the trio’s mother, including caring for her troublesome younger brother, Frank, and their dying father. This has left her bitter and, apparently, emotionally unstable. Sanford played this role to the hilt and it was the first time in my life I ever felt like strangling the affable actress. Sanford made Cruella de Vil, or whatever female villain comes to mind, look like mother of the year.

Mahaney, turned up unexpectedly for his own father’s estate sale and auction, climbing in through an open window with his new-age fiancé, River Rayner (Kathryn Humphries). Mahaney’s lovable inability to complete a sentence, or indeed to make sense at any time, along with his boyish good looks and his character’s bad-boy background made it difficult to trust Frank’s assurances of having put aside his old ways. Toni’s repeated questions to anyone in earshot as to whether Frank was high or drunk were initially annoying – but an explosive revelation in Act 3 brought clarity to those accusations and make her seem just a little less crazy. (But I still wanted to strangle her.)

Tyler Stevens plays Toni’s teen-aged son, Rhys Thurston, who seems to be following in his estranged uncle’s footsteps. And for some reason, most of the family seems to be okay with the possibility that Bo’s daughter, Cassidy seems to have a crush on Rhys – who happens to be her first cousin, by my reckoning. I know the play is set in Arkansas, but the characters now live in New York and Portland, Oregon, and other places where that sort of thing is not condoned. On opening night, Cassidy was played by Caroline Johnson, a former elementary student of mine, I am proud to say, but probably not as proud as her mother, director Anna Senechal Johnson. Lola Mühlenfeld and Grace Connell are also listed for this role in the program.

Pabst plays Bo with shaking hands and tense, terse verbal exchanges. Bo is a ticking time bomb, caught between the needs of his wife, Rachel (Jill Bari Steinberg) and the unreasonable demands of his sister, Toni. I do not envy his position. He has problems of his own, and little or no space to deal with them, and his third act breakdown is much needed.

As the outsiders, Rachel and River become friends, but when things come to a boil and an honest to goodness brawl breaks out in the cluttered living room of the old manor house, they find themselves caught up in the fray. John Chenard must have had a ball staging the choreography for this fight: furniture is tossed, Rhys jumps on his uncle’s back – or was it his dad’s back? – pillows are smashed into faces, and words are thrown out that make it impossible to look the others in the face the next morning.

As the family struggles to make sense of their past, their loss, and their future, they uncover some disturbing memorabilia about their deceased father: an album full of pictures showing the lynching of black people, and jars containing souvenirs ears and bones and such. What does this all mean and how do they reconcile this with the father they knew? Sometimes a sheet is just a sheet, and sometimes it’s not. . .

It’s interesting that Appropriate is playing in the Theatre Gym while right next door in the larger November Theatre space River Ditty is also exploring themes of family secrets and dysfunction, societal intolerance and racism. And it seems more than a coincidence that Appropriate is playing this season while Richmond, Charlottesville, and other locales are still reeling from the discussions of whether statues of Confederate generals and Confederate flags are simply history or heritage or hurtful symbols of a deeply rooted institutional racism.

 Appropriate was directed by Cadence Theatre Company’s Artistic and Managing Director, Anna Senechal Johnson. The beautifully detailed set was designed by Rich Mason. Special note should be made for Daniel Burgess’ set dressing and all the stage and properties managers who transformed the stage. The opening act showed the cluttered living room of a bonafide hoarder; the second act showed a cleaned-up room; and in the final scene of Act Three, a crew destroyed the room in a matter of seconds – tearing up the floor, smashing down bookcases, taking down pictures, staining the walls. There were even plants climbing in through the shattered windows!

Michael Jarett designed the lighting – I think I mentioned in another post that he’s designed the lighting for all but possibly two shows that are running this month, including several dance productions! Albert Ruffin, my date for opening night, declared repeatedly on the walk back to the car that Appropriate is “the best show I’ve seen all season.” It is, without a doubt, powerful, memorable, well-written, superbly acted (I still want to strangle Susan Sanford/Toni), and deftly directed. I highly recommend it.

 

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Jason Collins Photography

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16th ANNUAL MID-ATLANTIC CHOREOGRAPHERS SHOWCASE: Eclectic Dance and Exposed Bras

16TH ANNUAL MID-ATLANTIC CHOREOGRAPHERS SHOWCASE: A showcase of female choreographers from NYC to Miami

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Grace Street Theater, 934 West Grace Street, RVA 23220

Performances: April 28 @ 5pm & 8pm and April 29 at 2PM

Ticket Prices: $15 General Admission

Info: (804) 304-1523, starrfosterdance.org, or http://www.showclix.com

 

The 16th Annual Mid-Atlantic Choreographers Showcase, formerly known as the Richmond Choreographers Showcase, featured 9 works by 7 female choreographers representing 6 companies. In the dance world, most dancers are women, but try to name a choreographer, and you usually come up with a male name, so this in itself is noteworthy. (This is such a controversial topic that dozens of articles will pop up on a cursory Google search.)

Produced by Starr Foster Dance, Inc., the goal of the Showcase is to expose audiences to “eclectic and engaging” dance and so far, some 120 choreographers representing 60 cities have participated. This year’s selection included some hits and a few misses (no pun intended).

One of the most engaging works opened the second half of the program. Catherine Cabeen, founder of the interdisciplinary performance group Hyphen (NYC) created and performed . . .yet again. Danced to music by Westin Oxking Portillo and a text in which Cabeen and Jeff Morrison have an infuriatingly civil conversation about women’s choice and oppression – filled with words and phrases like “emotional” and “your kind” and “your place” – Cabeen’s lanky body moves from agitated angular movements to swirls and curves that exude confidence and control. A former member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Cabeen’s style seems grounded in the self-exploratory kinetics of early works by Jones. . . .yet again is visually satisfying and emotionally cathartic.

Another solo, Little Red Crush, choreographed and performed by Lisa Innisfree of Richmond proved to be quite humorous and mildly reminiscent of the classic mime work of the late Marcel Marceau.  Dancing to My Boy Lollipop by Millie Small, Innisfree arrives onstage with a red balloon. She dances with it, hugs it, kisses it, and eventually puts it under her dress like a mock pregnancy. But the balloon pops, the baby miscarries, and Innisfree embarks on a period of mourning to the music Sur Le Fil by Yann Tiersen, during which she folds herself into a red milk crate and performs a number of acrobatic stunts, many of which involve balancing on her head or shoulder and demonstrate astounding flexibility in floorwork. It was an unfortunate distraction that many of these stunts resulted in an inordinate amount of what can only be called crotch shots – involving generous and frequent displays of her red briefs. When she is done grieving for her “little red crush,” she adopts a new blue crush, strips off her red dress, revealing a blue sports bra, and walks off with her new friend.

In Whatever. Wherever. Whenever. Rain Ross of Rain Ross Dance (Philadelphia) put her six female dancers in 1960s style prom dresses, with some in ponytails, to dance to songs by Doris Day: Que Sera, Sera; Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps; and Fly Me to the Moon. Day, who recorded all three songs in 1964, is still alive and just turned 96 on April 3. The piece, for eight dancers, is nostalgic and shamelessly girly.

Foster’s own company closed the first half of the program with The Space Between the Echoes, set to an original score by Billy Curry that features a very contemporary beat drop, some jazzy riffs, and an industrial/mechanical sound that has six dancers moving through various permutations: three sets of two, two sets of three, a soloist, a duo, and a trio. The movement and the title remind me of that quotation about jazz attributed to Miles Davis, that jazz is “the notes you don’t play.”  The piece is very musical in that way and seemed more sophisticated than the pieces that preceded it. Foster also choreographed the final piece on the program, a new work entitled Waiting Room, performed by her company and six additional guest dancers. The work features three ceiling-to-floor red panels, and the dancers are dressed in red and/or black for this intriguing and intense work.

Other works on the program included Her and She, a duet by Andrea Dawn Shelley of iMEE (iNFINITE MOVEMENT EVER EVOLVING) of Miami; Comme je Suis (As I Am)  by Stephanie L Dorrycott of Motion X Dance DC (Washington, DC); Here We Are. We Are Here. By Rain Ross and Caroline Fermin of Rain Ross Dance; and Intransigent by Kristina Ancil Edwards of Motion X Dance DC.

Now, while there was some humor and some liberation and some womanist work, the program, overall, was dark – both literally and figuratively – and many of the choreographers felt compelled to display bras and panties. Enough, already! I don’t have any moral or fashion motive for this outburst – I just found it excessive and after several iterations (4 of 9 dances featured exposed bras and one featured red panties), it became a distraction. Okay, rant done. Thank you for another year of bringing new dance to RVA!

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Catherine Cabeen by Joe Markwalter

iMEE by Roi LeMay

Luisa Martinez by Evan Zimmerman

Motion X by Ruth Judson

Rain Ross by Brian Mengini

Starr Foster Danc

Mid-Catherine Cabeen_Photo by Zoe Markwalter
Catherine Cabeen. Hyphen Dance.
Mid-iMEE_ Lize-Lotte Pitlo and Melanie Martel, Photo by Roi LeMay
Lize-Lotte Pitlo andMelanie Martel. iMEE (iNFINITE MOVEMENT EVER EVOLVING).
Mid-Luisa Martinez_Photo by Evan Zimmerman
Luisa Inisfree Martinez.
Mid-Motion X Dance_Emily DiMaggio and Marina Di Loreto_Photo by Ruth Judson
Emily DiMaggio and Marina Di Loreto. Motion X Dance DC.
Mid-Rain Ross_ Photo by Brian Mengini
Rain Ross. Rain Ross Dance.
Mid-Starr Foster Dance_Ryan Davis, Caitlin Cunningham, Angela Palminsano_Photo Doug Hayes
Ryan Davis, Caitlin Cunningham, and Angela Palminsano Starr Foster Dance.

e by Doug Hayes

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RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL 2018 @ DOGTOWN: Spring Has Sprung Diversity

RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL 2018: Bringing the World of Dance to Richmond – Week 1

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th Street, RVA 23224

Performances: April 27-28, May 4-5 & May 11-12 @ 7PM + Next Generation May 5 @ 2:30PM

Ticket Prices: $15 General; $10 Students/Children

Info: (804) 230-8780, dogtowndancetheatre.com or https://rdf18.brownpapertickets.com/

 

The 5t Anniversary of the Richmond Dance Festival opened Friday, April 27 with a jam-packed program of diverse works. There was truly something for everyone (well, nearly everyone, if you’re that picky).

With ten works on the program – and three of those short films – it’s easy to get a sense of dance overload; shortly after leaving the theater, you can’t remember which dance was which! Phone numbers are seven digits because science has shown that the average human can accurately retain about seven chunks of information – and sometimes seven dances is pushing it! But, as usual, I digress.

Artistic and Executive Director Jess Burgess believes this years selection of eighteen choreographers and nine dance filmmakers is “an excellent representation of Dogtown’s vision to support all dance and movement artists spanning a vast variety of dance forms and backgrounds.” The first week’s program included local dancer and choreographers as well as artists who hail from as far away as Canada and even South Africa.

Four works particularly stood out for me. First, and possibly the most unusual of all, was Shane O’Hara’s True Confessions: My Boyfriend Mic. This is a fantastic ollaboration of stand up comedy, dance, music, spoken word, and experimental theatre – and it works! Dancer Sarah McCullough initially startles the audience by walking head first into a standing mic. As if to make sure we knew that was intentional, she did it again! McCullough proceeds to tell a somewhat fractured narrative from which we glean that her boyfriend is names “Mic” and he’s tall and skinny.  She dances with and without her “boyfriend,” sometimes using spoken word, sometimes dancing to music. She employs Broadway style jazz, acrobatics, and explosive movements of no predetermined genre.  At one point she dons a football helmet and later places black tape over her eyes and grabs a cheerleader-style megaphone or bullhorn.

True Confessions is bold and shocking and hilarious – a perfect way to end the first act. Choreographer Shane O’Hara, a Professor of Dance at James Madison University, is no stranger to the Richmond dance community and Dogtown Dance Theatre. Developed in collaboration with his daring soloist, O’Hara fashioned a dance theater work about “a lone female warrior. . .fighting passionately. . .to protect her heart.” Yep. That. And then some!

The second part of the program opened with Stewart Owen Dance’s duet, After Party, choreographed by founding partner Vanessa Owen, and performed by Owen and partner Gavin Stewart.  The Asheville, North Carolina-based company “aims to engage communities and maintain an environmentally conscious approach to art and performance,” but After Party is a sweet and amusing dance that contrasts elegant lines and poses and purely pedestrian transitions and humorous asides. My favorite? When Owen reaches into her lovely blue ball gown, removes the socks that have been padding her bosom and pull a pair onto her slim bare feet!

After Party is apparently a remake of a solo version, but I thoroughly enjoyed the inclusion of Owen’s bow-tied partner.  We don’t know whether the part of the title was a wedding, a ballroom dance, a banquet, or what, but it was apparently successful, and has left these two feeling tired, mellow, and in the mood to reminisce a bit for calling it a night.

I was also highly intrigued by S.J. Van Breda’s short film, Grey. Performed by Kioma Pyke and Kevin Navia who, between the two of them, attempt to singlehandedly cover multiple bases on the diversity front. Grey is about diversity, equality, race, and gender. The film depicts bold, strong images, mostly in shades of gray. Pyke, who appears to be, for lack of a better term, mixed-raced woman of color, begins with her skin and hair colored white, or pale gray. She dips hers hands into a bucket of chocolate-colored liquid and allows it to coat her skin. Her partner, Navia, who appears to be Asian and/or Latino and/or Native American, similarly explores the opposing end of the color spectrum.

Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed Subjective Dance Company’s OHMY! Adventures: Meet Queen Jeia. Performed by the SDAnimals crew, the five male dancers under the direction of Choreographer and Coach Greg Whitlock performed a high-energy, high-impact work that combined classis and contemporary hip hip with contemporary and jazz and other movement genres. The adventure is initiated or controlled, apparently, by a “battle box” and the competition-style movements include the sort of group unison and canon that we have grown familiar with from the televised dance competitions. Onstage, live, however, it is so much more fun! I was not quite clear on the mission to recover the missing dancer – where was he? How did the get him back? – but group Subjective Dance Company, also known as Subjective Dance Crew, is well on their way to fulfilling its mission to bridge the gap between stage and street dancing.

The July 27-28 program also included works by choreographers Taylor Black and Brianna Rivera; Jennifer Klotz of Stavna Ballet; films by Elian Djemil (The Flow), and Simone Wierød (Solus); a duet by Carolyn Hoehner and Emily Karasinski of DC-based Klynveldt&Peat; and a duet by Ilana Puglia of the Dogwood Dance Project. This program may be see once more, on Saturday, April 28, at 8PM.

Next weeks’ line-up: Lucid Beings Dance from Maryland/Northern Virginia; a short film by Barney Cokeliss; a dance by Nina Simone’, the love child of dance twins Ching-I Change Bigelow and Marsell Chavarria (a faculty member and student, respectively, from VCU Dance); a short film by Francesco Belligerante; Alicia Diaz’ Portrait of an Imagined Deity for her local group Agua Dulce Dance Theater; a solo by North Caroline-based artist Eric Mullis; a short film by Jessica Wright/The National English Ballet; and a collaborative work by Mamluft&Co Dance.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Richmond Dance Festival production photos by Kate Prunkl; images of Grey from the director’s website.

 

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ONE IN FOUR: Nu Puppis’ Out of This World Comedy

ONE IN FOUR: An Out of This World Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

A Nu Puppis Production

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: April 20-28, 2018. Previewed on April 20; just two shows left at the time of this posting: April 27 & 28 @ 7:30!

Ticket Prices: $15 general/employed humans; $7 students & all others

Info: (804) 355-2001 or info@firehousetheatre.org

 

I left The Firehouse Theatre with a silly grin on my face and a question on my lips: what just happened here? Levi Meerovich’s madcap comedy, One in Four is ostensibly about four roommates who happen to all be aliens on assignment to Planet Earth. Unknown to each other, quite by chance they all end up living in the same apartment. (The experimental theater producing company, Nu Puppis, takes its name from a blue-hued star, although I have heard some pronounce the name as if it refers to infant canines.)

With its life-sized cutout of Robin Williams (in homage to Mork & Mindy, 1978-1982), a morphing portrait of Danny DeVito (Taxi, 1978-1983) on the rear wall, and numerous references to Seinfeld (1989-1998), the play, which runs just under an hour, with no intermission, is a wacky, unpretentious experiment that relies entirely on interesting writing and good acting skills. Remarkably, it seems that Meerovich was only 19 years old when he (recently) wrote One in Four; if so, he could only have seen these sitcoms and sit-com stars on reruns. The production is deftly directed by Connor Scully and Mahlon Raoufi.

Dixon Caswell is the ostensible lead, Sid. It is, after all, Sid’s Portland, Oregon apartment that is the setting. Cashwell, a founding member of this theater group, has turned himself in a spastic, nerdy alien type who walks with a round shoulder, slack-armed gait and startles easily. Sid is given to spurts of f-bombs and follows his outbursts of temper with profuse apologies. He wears his Hawaiian shirt tucked in.

The first roommate to arrive is Lou, played by Matt Riley with a black wig that looks like a mullet turned backwards. Lou is very sensitive, and pretends to be from Louisiana, because it’s easy to remember. Next up is Carrie, a free spirit played by Jess Rawls. Last to arrive is Lucy, a tightly-wound character who carries a guitar she quite obviously cannot play, along with a shopping bag of raw steak that is not meant to be eaten. Lucy is played by Rachel Hindman. Each roommate must wait to be let in because the unlocked door keeps locking – one of several running jokes in a play that is all about the jokes.

Another is that each time one of the four inadvertently mentions the word “alien” the lights dim – one of the few lighting cues needed or noted. There’s not much in the way of a set either, just an odd collection of objects one might find in a thrift store or at the curb: a single school desk with a lady’s vanity chair, a round table with a globe, an uncomfortable-looking armchair, and a torso suspended from the ceiling that oddly enough has lights emanating from the leg openings.

There may or may not be anything important or deep or subversive about this play, and there doesn’t have to be. It’s funny. It’s hilarious. It makes you laugh. That’s all it needs to be. As Sid says, “If you give somebody a boat, they’re gonna row, even if they don’t know how.”

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

 

One in Four-3
Matt Riley and Rachel Hindman

One in Four-2

One in Four-4
Matt Riley and Dixon Cashwell
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CONSTELLATIONS: Quantum Mechanics, String Theory, and Honeybees

CONSTELLATIONS: A Play of Infinite Possibilities

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

TheatreLAB’s The Cellar Series 2018: This Beautiful Mess

At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219

Performances: April 23 – May 2, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10 general; $5 students

Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org

 

Audra Honaker and Trevor Craft are perfectly paired in this fascinating two-hander. Maggie Roop deftly directs the two, maintaining both interest and tension. It is a testament to the skill of all three that Constellations works so well, since it is plopped into the re-purposed set of the still-running Moth (which I reviewed just three days before).

Chris Raintree’s long, narrow multi-leveled set is basically a runway, with the audience placed on both sides, so there wasn’t much that could be done about that, and Roop had her actors move in patterns sometimes similar to those traced by Kelsey Cordrey and John Mincks under the direction of Josh Chenard – but at a much less frenetic pace. Craft and Honaker are most often side by side or facing one another at opposite ends of the set, and when they do come together, face-to-face, it is often at a critical moment in the narrative.

As far as narrative goes, British author Nick Payne has written a love story that is informed by quantum mechanics, string theory, and multiverse theories – with a bit of honey thrown in. The idea that multiple universes exist, and with them, endless possibilities, is virtually the third character in the play, and provides both structure and tension. It is a device, and an obvious one, but never became rote or annoying for me.

Marianne (Honaker) and Roland (Craft) meet at a barbecue, but, as in most of the subsequent scenes, there are multiple versions of the meeting. In one version, Roland is married, in another he’s recently broken up, and so on.  Each scene in this one act play (running about one hour, with no intermission) is played over three or more times, with slight variations in the script or the actors’ tone, leading to different outcomes.

Marianne and Roland are an unlikely couple; they sort of remind me of Penny and Leonard on the television series The Big Bang Theory – only in this case it is Marianne who is the scientist and Roland is a beekeeper. Marianne, a cosmologist at Cambridge, initially laughs incredulously when Roland reveals he makes his living caring for bees and selling honey, but after several false starts, the two embark on a relationship that would be unremarkable if not for the multiple outcomes.

Confessions of infidelity lead to an eventual breakup. Confessions, plural, because in one scenario Marianne cheated with a coworker, and in another Roland cheated with a fellow beekeeper. A chance encounter at a ballroom dance class – for which there are, of course several possibilities, leads to a reconciliation. Which of the many possibilities was the reality? Ahh, that’s where the tension comes in: any and all of the possibilities could be the reality in a multiverse.

Endearingly, Roland is turned on by Marianne’s explanations of quantum mechanics and string theory, while Marianne’s stiffness and apparent fear of intimacy are gradually revealed to have two very human and devastating causes.  The fits and starts in Marianne’s language foreshadow the bumps in her relationship with Roland. The beauty of Constellations is that, despite, or perhaps because of the infinite possibilities, this director and cast never loose site of, as Roland would describe it, the “unfailing clarity of purpose” that remains central to Payne’s vision.

Constellations could be a beautiful love story – depending on which multiverse you inhabit. It is well-acted in its borrowed space – although Michael Jarett has created its own lighting that is much brighter than that for Moth. Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design is appropriately celestial, and there is some intense fight choreography by Mark Caudle – made all the more shocking as it involves some very physical movement for a man and a woman.

Honaker has a noticeable English accent, thanks to vocal coaching by Erica Hughes, while Craft (who played the role of an Irishman in Da) has a subtler, less noticeable accent. Both wear boots, jeans, and comfortable tops throughout, and with little in the way of a set and no props at all, the passage of time and change of scenes is communicated almost entirely through words, enhanced by body language and tone, with the assistance of blocking and lights.

Constellations previewed Monday, April 23 and opened Tuesday, April 24, and there are only four more opportunities to see it (all for the newly reduced price of $10) during this limited run: Saturday, April 28, Sunday, April 29, Monday Tuesday, May 1 and Wednesday, May 2.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Destiny Martinez

 

Constellations
Audra Honaker and Trevor Craft
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Trevor Craft and Audra Honaker
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MOTH: The Third in TheatreLab’s “Taking Sides” Series

MOTH: The Intersection of Anime, Bullying, Emo, Friendship, and Mental Illness

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219

Performances: April 13-28, 2018

Ticket Prices: $30 – General Admission; $20 – Senior/RVA Theatre Alliance; $10 – Student/Teacher (with valid ID)

Info: (804) 506-3533 or theatrelabrva.org

 

The third in this season’s Picking Sides series at TheatreLab The Basement, Moth is a two-person play by Australian playwright Declan Greene. The two actors are Kelsey Cordrey and John Mincks, who portray the friendship of Claryssa and Sebastian, two misfit teenagers who are each other’s only friend. The relationship can best be described as, “it’s complicated” as are these two teens.

Claryssa’s school uniform consists of a traditional plaid skirt and shirt enhanced with ragged black fishnets, a strategically cut-out sweater, combat style boots, and black lipstick. If I am not mistaken, the small cross on her sweater has been turned upside down, indicating she is also a wiccan. She is described several times by Sebastian as an emo – a term I had to look up when I got home: “Goth is when you hate the world. Emo is when the world hates you.” – The Urban Dictionary.

Sebastian is an anime-obsessed nerd who is often the target of bullying and occasionally coughs up blood – a situation which is of deep concern to Claryssa. He also seems to have a mental health issue that both Claryssa and his mother are aware of.

Claryssa wears a full-body mask of anger and outrage and non-conformity, but no matter how foul the words that come out of her mouth, or how hard she pushes him, she always has a tissue handy to check the content of Sebastian’s cough. At one point, she even presents her friend with a touchingly childlike note, asking him to the prom; he is requested to check yes or no.

Interestingly, Cordrey and Mincks both attended the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology and were there at the same time for at least one school year. This may account in some small part for their strong and sometimes volatile onstage chemistry.

Moth is a unique and dynamic theatrical experience, and while it does unfold in a chronological and lineal order, the perspective is from the minds of the characters, rather than the author, and both actors switch between acting their roles and narrating them. Each also plays several characters, sometimes in rapid succession. This device, along with Michael Jarett’s creative lighting that includes green laser points and strobe lighting, draws us, the audience, deeper into the characters’ complex emotional world.

Chris Raintree’s set places the audience on two sides of an elongated set, with a space-aged triangular prism that opens and closes remotely instead of the usual wings and flats, a stepped platform, leading to an AstroTurf field, ending in a large dumpster. (At the start of the show, there are signs warning the audience to keep off the grass.) Long and narrow as it is, the space has ample room for Cordrey and Mincks to run about and they do plenty of running and falling. There is even a hilarious slow-motion, strobe-lit fight scene during the first few minutes of the show, which runs about 75 minutes with no intermission. Josh Chenard directed and created the sound design as well. I found his direction compelling and very physical, while I didn’t really focus on the sound design because I was entranced by Jaretts’ lighting, which was as physically engaging as the direction and acting.

This, like several other recent local productions, is not the type of play one “likes.” It takes an intimate look at real-life contemporary issues, such as bullying and the results it can have on its young targets. Sebastian, at one point, seems to go off the deep end, and his mother tries to take him to the hospital for a mental health check. The two friends’ night of drinking on the field is not as private as they had believed, and this takes its toll on Sebastian, who, in the final minutes, is suspected of having a bomb in his backpack, with devastating effects.

Curiously, Australia and Australian culture does not seem to figure into the play at all. Claryssa and Sebastian refer to their school’s administrator as a headmaster, rather than a principal, but they also toss around terms like “bro” and mention Walmart, which does not have a presence in Australia. I’m not sure whether regional productions have the freedom to make idiomatic changes or if the original script is generic. The actors do not attempt to use Australian accents, either.

Moth is not pretty; it is rough and raw and loud and glaring. It makes you think and gives you something to talk about. It sometimes pulls you to the edge of your seat, and I suspect it may have a more visceral impact on people in their twenties or thirties for whom memories of high school are not quite so distant as they are for me. I recently received an invitation to the 45th reunion of my graduating class at the Bronx High School of Science in NY.

I was out of town opening weekend, so I caught Moth in the middle of its run; at the time of this writing, there are just four opportunities left to see this explosive production. It may not be for everyone, but if you do plan to see it, there’s not much time left.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

 

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John Mincks and Kelsey Cordrey
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John Mincks
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Kelsey Cordrey and John Mincks
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Kelsey Cordrey and John Mincks
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John Mincks and Kelsey Cordrey
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THE NORMAL HEART: The Provocative Chronicle of America’s Deadliest Plague

THE NORMAL HEART: The Provocative Chronicle of America’s Deadliest Plague

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

At: The Robert B Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230

Performances: April 18-May 12, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-30

Info: (804) 346-8113or rtriangle.org

 

I usually go to the theater without reading too much – if at all – about the show I am about to see. I don’t want to be influenced by others’ opinions. In the case of The Normal Heart, which opened Thursday night at Richmond Triangle Players’ Robert B. Moss Theatre after a Wednesday night preview, I was totally unprepared for the impact – direct and personal – Larry Kramer’s play would have on me.

Playwright Larry Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York in 1981 in response to the growing and alarming AIDS epidemic. That crisis, the “plague” of the title, is the foundation of this autobiographical recounting of one of the most terrifying episodes in American health history.

This is not a play that you go to for entertainment; it made me cry and it made me recall the names of people – friends and coworkers and teachers – I had not thought of in twenty or thirty years.

Jim Morgan plays the role of Ned Weeks, the confrontational founder of a gay men’s health organization, with passion and sincerity. Weeks is, unquestionably, an annoying character – even by his own reckoning – but he is fighting for people’s lives, including the life of his own lover. Chris Hester plays the role of Bruce Niles, Ned’s polar opposite who is elected president of the fledgling organization because of his more conservative stance. There is a great deal of dramatic tension between Morgan and Hester’s characters, but as Tommy Boatwright (played by Dan Cimo) points out – both are leaders, and both are needed. Cimo’s sassy character, who has a not-so-secret crush on Ned, provides some much-needed humor, but also comes through in a pinch when a level head and a shoulder to cry on are what’s needed.

The intricacies of these interactions are a model of how all these characters interact, and the ensemble, which includes Lucian Restivo (who also did the sound and props), Dan Stackhouse, Joseph Bromfield, Stevie Rice, and Andrew Boothby – some alternating in several roles – is a tight and well-oiled machine under the direction of George Boyd. Dawn A. Westbrook, shares the stage with this thoroughly satisfying cast as Dr. Emma Brookner, the first medical professional dedicated to HIV/AIDS research. Westbrook performs most of her scenes in an electric wheelchair as the doctor, a polio survivor, was figuratively and literally hell on wheels in her hunger to get to the bottom of this new virus.

Set in New York City between 1981-1984, The Normal Heart, chronicles the early history of the HIV/AIDS crisis with near clinical meticulousness, but it also deals clearly and authentically with the toll it takes on family relationships and friendships, the economics and politics of sex and health, fear and the screeching halt it brought to the freedom of the sexual revolution. We were only a few minutes into the first act when I realized that this was the real deal.

I remembered sitting with members of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in a board room at the Joyce theater planning a fund raiser. I suddenly thought of Nick, the music teacher in the public school where I taught. When he began to grow weak and tired, the students would rub his back and shoulders to make him feel better. I thought of the countless dancers I knew, some friends, some teachers. There was Al, whose friends knitted him scarves because he was always cold. There was my good friend Larry, an ardent arts supporter with whom I shared many trips to the theater, who refused to name the sickness that took him away from us so soon.

When I wrote a young adult book on the legendary choreography Alvin Ailey, my publisher required that I say he died of a “blood disorder.”  My mother, a nurse’s aide at Bellevue Hospital for more than three decades, took special training to work with HIV/AIDS patients. When she went into the break room, other aides and nurses would get up and leave because they were afraid to be near her.

Everyone was afraid then. That comes across in The Normal Heart in palpable ways. Friends turn against one another.  Dan Stackhouse, as Mickey, has an epic melt-down I the second act. Ned is pushed out of the organization he started.

The Normal Heart is not theater as usual; it should be seen, but not alone. The opening night audience cried real tears. This is moving theater. This is real life. As the audience left, ushers handed us copies of a letter from Larry Kramer, dated July 2011, that reminded us that these things really happened to real people, and much as it hurts, and as ugly as it gets, we need to remember so we will remember to act.

As for the technical elements: On opening night there were a few mysterious bumps and bangs from backstage and I was occasionally blinded by the glare of the light bulb behind the screen on which the timeline of the epidemic was projected.  Frank Foster’s scenic design, with its black and white tiles and red chairs, was something of a mashup of a New York City subway, a hospital, a gym, and what I imagine the infamous gay bathhouses must have looked like. Michael Jarett designed the lights and projections. Sheila Russ and Joel Furtick did well with the costumes and hair and make-up, respectively.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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RVA Dance Collective Presents: VOICES

RVA Dance Collective Presents: VOICES

A Dance Pre-Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th St., RVA 23224

Performances: April 13 & 14, 2018 at 7:00pm

Ticket Prices: $20 Adults; $10 Students & Children under 13

Info: (804) 230-8780 or rvadancecollective.com or dogtowndancetheatre.com

[NOTE: Due to out-of-town obligations, I could not attend the weekend performance of RVA Dance Collective, so before leaving, I attended part of the dress rehearsal on Thursday, April 12.]

It wasn’t until I spoke with Artistic Director Jess Burgess that I realized the dancers in Mondrian in Frame were all students – specifically, advanced students from The Dance Company in Mechanicsville. The eight dancers were dressed in solid red, blue, or black attire that can best be described as classic swimsuits which seemed appropriate since their movements, while intentionally not all in unison all the time, reminded me of a synchronized swim team. Athletics, gymnastics, and competition all came to mind fleetingly as the dancers performed a series of lifts and splits and standing stretches punctuated by cartwheels and body rolls. At one point some dancers would crouch as if spotting the others, and in the midst of the piece they formed a classic chorus line formation and created a wave or ripple effect, further reinforcing the swimming reference. But then there were the three larger-than-life-sized frames they moved around the stage and moved in, around, and through, as if to prove to us that dance is, indeed a three-dimensional art form.

Lloverá, also choreographed by Burgess, is a duet for Jasmine Tubach and Desmin Taylor (the company’s only male dancer). Mostly romantic, the physicality of the piece is driven in part by the physical shape of the choreography but equally by the disparity in size of the two dancers: Tubach is quite petite, and Taylor is very tall. This physical opposition is mirrored in the give and take, the tension of the movement and the feelings that flash across the dancers’ faces and lingers in their touches, Memorable moments include a section where she lies spooned atop her partner, and he cups her head and turns it in sync with his own, and later he rests lightly atop her, his head cradled in the curve of her torso. She runs and he follows. But there were also odd moments, as when Taylor spins Tubach around, holding her by her knees while her head is mere inches from the floor, and later when he drags her across the stage. The two seem suspended in time, but at the end she walks away with a gentle but firm gesture, as if to say, stop, stay. The dancers’ lines are mostly classic, almost balletic, but the shapes are designed, Burgess said, to mimic the shape of rain drops. Lloverá is Spanish for “it’s gonna rain.”

The final piece, Continuum, is a group work, also by Burgess, that has the dancers moving downstage on a diagonal, emerging from a cloud of smoke or fog. Some run, some walk slowly, but all pass, occasionally interacting with, a hooded figure who starts out lying on the floor.  As the dance progresses, the eye is caught by the variety of interactions – or distractions. Some fall, some lift others in a fireman’s carry, some nearly step on the prone figure, passing by seemingly without looking, and occasionally a dancer or two or three will whip out a lightning fast turn in the air. But without exception, as all move out of the cloud, they seem determined to return the one dancer to the darkness; at the end, hood thrown back, she is the only one left standing.

The program also includes two additional works by Burgess: a restaging of her trio, To Care (Like You) and a solo, Fractured Light, in which dancer Carrie Moore dances with her own shadow. There is also a work by Brooklyn-based choreographer Shannon Hummel (Cora Dance) – a full company work called In Passing; as well as Heartbeat, a solo by Schannon Hester (Pole Pressure) who competed in the world pole competition in Greece in the fall of 2017; a work by company member Katy McCormack, Fear of Being; and a new work commissioned from Richmond-based choreographer LaWanda Raines, Trilogy of Womanhood.

During the dress rehearsal, I was able to see each work twice, which presented a rare opportunity not available during a performance to re-see movement, and to discover or consider nuances that were not apparent or missed the first time. The dancers’ energy and attitude, the costuming, the lights, music, even the fog – which, on the final take, set off a fire alarm – all showed growth and artistic development even over a short period of time. Jess Burgess is Co-Artistic Director and Founder of RVA Dance Collective along with Danica Kalemdaroglu, and with this program, “Voices,” the company seems to be reaching for new inspiration and challenging the dancers and choreographers to be more and do more.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Mike Keeling

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Full Company in “Continuum”
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Jasmine Tubach and Desmin Taylor in “Llovera'”
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Shannon Comerford in “Continuum”
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Kacey Lindsay, Kayla Xavier, and Constance Yunker in “To Care (Like You)”

 

 

 

 

 

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PINKALICIOUS, THE MUSICAL: Tickling the Audience Pink at Willow Lawn

PINKALICIOUS, THE MUSICAL: You Get Just What You Get and You Don’t Get Upset

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Richmond, Virginia 23230

Performances: April 6-May 13, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20

Info: (804) 282-2620 or virginiarep.org

 

Pinkalicious, the newest offering at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn, starts of with a bang and maintains a high level of energy – and pinkatasticity – for a solid hour.

 

Tyandria Jackson, an 18-year-old senior at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, adeptly captures the imaginative spirit of the little girl known as Pinkalicious who first came to light in the book of the same name written by sisters Elizabeth Kann and Victoria Kann. It helps that Jackson is petite, but when she dons the Pinkalicious wigs and pink pajamas or pink fairy princess dress, we are completely won over.

 

Anthony Cosby, a Children’s Theatre veteran, who recently appeared in Songs from the Soul, may have been acting since the age of 10, but he is an adult now, and quite a bit taller than Jackson – so it was quite amusing to see him play the role of Peter, Pinkalicious’ little brother. Cosby’s child-like wonderment and enthusiasm also won me over.

 

Rebecca Turner and Brent Deekens played the parents – Mr. and Mrs. Pinkerton. Turner plays the mother as a tiny dynamo who keeps the household running smoothly, while Deekens’ father starts off distant and clueless until midway through when he makes a startling confession.

 

Like most Children’s Theatre productions, Pinkalicious has a moral foundation. This time it is about accepting yourself for who you are. The story drives home the point that this applies to adults as well as to children. At one point young Pinkalicious has somewhat of a meltdown over her parents’ cupcake restriction, leading to the song, “You Get What You Get and You Don’t Get Upset.”

 

Young viewers are probably quite familiar with the characters from the book series, or the television series, neither of which I have ever perused. This is where I must make a confession: I do not like the color pink – never have! So, while I have seen the books and I have heard the name Pinkalicious, I never read the books, the first of which appeared in 2006, to any of my grandchildren. Speaking of grandchildren – you will not find the usual assessment by Master Kingston: at the last show, when he found out the next production would be Pinkalicious, he informed me in no uncertain terms that he would not be my date for the next show.  So, with this backstory in mind, I attended and enjoyed every minute of Pinkalicious – despite all the pinkness and in spite of being abandoned by my favorite date.

 

Leslie Owens-Harrington, most often credited with choreography, directed this rose-colored musical with a dancer’s eye and Billy Dye directed the music (music and lyrics by John Gregor), keeping everything moving along at a tickle-me-pink pace. The fifteen musical numbers that were all great fun, but two stood out for me. When little Peter, tired of being ignored and having to shrink under the bright pink light of his attention-seeking older sister, just can’t take it anymore, he whips out dark glasses and sings a soul-stirring rendition of “I Got the Pink Blues.” Immediately after that, Pinkalicious, having eaten one too many pink cupcakes, has turned completely pink and gets mistaken for a flower by a bee and a bird in the park, leading to the amusing “Buzz Off” number.

 

One of the lessons about acceptance is that it’s okay for boys and men to like pink. Looking around the nearly full house at the Sunday matinee, I counted only about four young boys and perhaps half a dozen dads and grandfathers. As pink as it is, and for all the focus on the title character, Pinkalicious is not just for girls. It is a bright and peppy production that is family-friendly. There is a complete absence of any of the adult-level innuendos that are so often sprinkled into children’s shows, so families should feel confident in bringing everyone from the suggested age of four and up. I would feel comfortable bringing a three-year old who could sit for a one-hour show, no intermission.

 

Desiree Dabney and Audrey Kate Taylor round out the cast as Dr. Wink and Allison, Pinkalicious’ best friend, respectively. They fill ensemble roles: bee, bird, cupcake monsters, etc. In addition to Owens-Harrington and Dye, the creative team includes Terrie Powers (colorful set with oversized cartoon-like props), BJ Wilkinson (simple and effective lighting with a few special effects), and Ruth Hedberg (costumes with flair, especially Pinkalicious’ garb and Mr. Pinkerton’s Liberace-like finale jacket). There are cupcake monsters, atmospheric smoke, and an almost magical costume-change. Even I was almost tickled pink.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

pinkalicious_tyandria_jackson_pr_sbpinkalicious_illus_topPinkalicious

Pinkalicious
Tyandria Jackson and Anthony Cosby
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Brent Deekins, Tyandria Jackson, and Anthony Cosby
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Anthony Cosby, Rebecca Turner, Brent Deekens, Tyandria Jackson, and Audrey Kate Taylor
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LUCKY ME: A Comedy Exploring the Joys of Being Flawed

LUCKY ME: Finding Joy in the Cracks and Flaws

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: CAT Theatre, 419 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227

Performances: April 6-21, 2018

Ticket Prices: $23 Adults; $18 RVATA Members; $13 Students

Info: (804) 804-262-9760 or cat@cattheatre.com

Hilarious – but with substance. That is pretty much all you need to know about Robert Caisley’s Lucky Me, but I’ll elaborate a bit anyway.

I would be remiss not to mention the stellar cast. First and foremost, there is Amy Berlin as Sara Fine. Sara isn’t just having a bad day; she’s had a couple of bad decades. When we meet Sara, she’s coming home from the hospital on crutches with her foot in a boot. She fell off the roof. Oh, and it’s New Year’s Eve. Berlin is so well-suited to this role you might think it had been written with her in mind. Cautious, caring, sarcastic, and complex, this is a big, multi-layered role that gradually reveals Sara to be much more than what we see on the surface.

Accompanying Sara is Tom, her new neighbor who kindly rescued her from the bushes and took her to the hospital. Tom is played by Matt Hackman who achieves a heretofore unknown balance of persistence and incredulity. Who knew there would ever be a need for such a balance? A new single male neighbor and a single woman always suggests the opportunity for romance, but these two have so much baggage – or backstory, as Yuri would say. Tom initially appears painfully awkward, but we soon learn that all of Caisley’s characters have more quirks and cracks than seems humanly possible, and that’s what keeps the laughs rolling in waves.

Bill Blair stumbles about – or more precisely hobbles, lifting the left foot as if climbing the stairs or approaching a curb with each step – blindly because his character, Leo, who is Sara’s father, is blind and apparently in the early stages of dementia as well. But the wily Leo has, as Tom so rightfully points out, selective memory loss, and conveniently calls Tom by the name Brad – but telling you why would require a spoiler alert and I think this show is worth seeing for yourself, so that I won’t reveal it here.  Leo’s blindness seems to be selective also, as he navigates the apartment, its step leading to the bathroom and bedrooms, and its kitchen with ease and he conveniently “smells” when Tom is wearing his TSA uniform.

And then there’s Yuri, the buildings landlord who always seems to be hungry and makes most of his entrances from Sara’s bathroom. Todd Schall-Vess, who appears only in the second half, plays Yuri. Sara and her dad live in a second-floor, two-bedroom apartment in Denver, Colorado. That’s important – at least the second-floor part is – because Sara is perpetually plagued by a leaky roof. No matter where she places her fish bowl, the leak will appear over the fish bowl, upset the pH of the water, and kill her fish. Sara also has a light bulb problem. Even when she buys the new squiggly fluorescent kind that are supposed to last for thousands of hours, her light bulbs always burn out. She spent $4700 on light bulbs in one year. Her cat disappeared. The kid across the street keeps breaking her window with a hockey puck and a variety of balls representing different sports. It’s no wonder Yuri feels entitled to help himself to a snack or two. And there’s more. At one point Yuri tries to warn Tom against getting too involved, using a word that probably translates from the Ukrainian as unlucky or cursed, followed by spitting twice in the air.

This quartet works so well together that it must have made director Billy Christopher Maupin’s job that much easier. I liked Eric Kinder’s extremely colorful set, with its fairly spacious living room, narrow kitchen, and detailed hallway leading to the rear of the apartment. Buddy Bishop also did a great job with the sound design, keeping it interesting but subtle. Theo DoBois designed the costumes, and Gracie Carleton the lights. I was slightly disturbed by the stagehands whose frequent appearances seemed too long or too frequent or both – maybe it was because it was so obvious. During one set change, Berlin remained on stage and the audience applauded after the stage hands left; I wasn’t sure if they were applauding the close of the scene or the stagehands.

Lucky Me isn’t an entirely light and fluffy comedy. There are some questions about what is meant by Leo’s wife being gone and how exactly did Leo lose his sight and who was Brad and what happened to him? Some of these questions are answered satisfactorily, but others are not. This helps this quartet seem more human, so that we laugh with them – not just at them.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Daryll Morgan Studios http://www.daryllmorganstudios.com

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Bill Blair, Amy Berlin, Matt Hackman, and Todd Schall-Vess in “Lucky Me”
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Amy Berlin (as Sara) and Matt Hackman (as Tom)
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Amy Berlin and Matt Hackman
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Matt Hackman and Amy Berlin
Featured

ROMEO AND JULIET: When Society Fails its Youth

ROMEO AND JULIET: Young Love and Old Problems

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced By: Quill Theatre

At: The Leslie Cheek Theater at the VMFA, 200 N. Boulevard, RVA 23220

Performances: April 6-22, 2018

Ticket Prices: $35 Adults; $30 VMFA Members; $25 RVATA Members; $20 Students

Info: (804) 340-0115/340-1405 or quilltheatre.org or http://reservations.vmfa.museum/state/Info.aspx?EventID=128

Millions of students read Shakespeare every year, and Romeo and Juliet is one of the more popular plays. Most people are probably familiar with the name, and many probably think they know the story. But Romeo and Juliet was meant to be seen, not just read, and this Quill Theatre production makes Romeo and Juliet accessible to today’s audience. It’s not that the language has been changed, but rather that director James Ricks and his very solid cast reveal the basic humanity of the work: the artistry; the layers; the love; the senseless feud; the disconnect between parents and children; grief; and the consequences of not listening to one another – at any age and in any language.

Nate Ritsema, in his first show with Quill Theatre, is a young and earnest Romeo, full of energy and enthusiasm. He is well cast for the part, having made his professional debut in 2016 with the Virginia Shakespeare Festival production of Romeo and Juliet. Liz Earnest, recently seen in the tense drama I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, at TheatreLAB is hardly recognizable as the same person as Juliet. Earnest’s Juliet is unmistakably a teenager. Her mother and nurse make a point of emphasizing near the top of the first act that she is just weeks away from her fourteenth birthday, and her impatient response to her mother’ bidding, her naivete about love, and her lightning quick changes of emotion further attest to her youth. It’s interesting, on some level, that Earnest’s last two roles are as a daughter seeking the approval of a strong and capricious father figure; the outcomes are vastly different.

Matt Shofner is hilarious and more than a little over the top as Romeo’s close friend Mercutio. Of course, he gets killed off in the first half, and no one quite fills his shoes for the remainder of the play. Other humorous moments are provided by Melissa Johnston Price as Juliet’s nurse. Price momentarily steals the show in her big scene with Juliet and her mother as she runs on at the mouth, barely stopping to catch her breath, and starting in again every time Lady Capulet thinks she has found an opening to talk to Juliet. Price’s counterpart is Bo Wilson, making his acting debut with Quill Theatre, where he has more often been credited as writer or director. Wilson was delightful as Friar Lawrence, who unwittingly initiates much of the trouble by marrying Romeo and Juliet against their feuding families’ wishes.

Seen in terms of today’s news, Romeo and Juliet has bullying and gang violence (i.e., the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues), sexual harassment (Lord Capulet’s treatment of his daughter Juliet and his wife Lady Capulet), suicide (both Romeo and Juliet ), drug abuse if you count poison as a drug), and child marriage (Juliet’s marriage to the also-teenaged Romeo, and her father’s plan to marry her off to the obviously adult Paris, played by Axle Burtness). I’m sure there are some other hot topics in there but that’s plenty to start a discussion or two or three. Lady Capulet (Irene Kuykendall) is elegant and obviously oppressed, while Lord Capulet (Colt Neidhardt) comes across as something of a despot not deserving of our sympathy. Other than the lead characters of Romeo and Juliet and the supporting characters of Nurse and Friar Lawrence – and Mercutio – most of the other characters seem intentionally underdeveloped. The reason may be found in the title of the play. It is noteworthy that I attended a preview – prior to opening night – and found few if any of the quirks and rough edges that often mark an opening night. Actors, lights, sounds, fight scenes, all ran remarkably smoothly and aided in the audience’s suspension of belief and overall enjoyment.

Fight choreographer Aaron Orensky had plenty to keep him busy, as the play opens with a brawl and there is swordplay throughout. Costume designer Cora Delbridge created some brilliant designs and some that seemed rather predictable; I think the goal was to strike a balance between traditional and contemporary. If so, some costumes achieved this more than others. Some open sleeves, for example, appeared stylish and elegant and others just looked ripped and torn.  Reed West’s set has simple, clean lines – a balcony, some steps, a bier that serves as a bench, a bed, and a funeral slab – and is given more depth by Michael Jarett’s lighting. All-in-all I somehow enjoyed this production much more than I expected and relished the challenge of comparing traditional versus contemporary themes, thanks to Dr. Matteo Pangallo’s “dramaturge essay” that twice asked why we continue to read and perform Romeo and Juliet couched in terms of older generations that fail their youth and confronting the constraints of the past.

Romeo and Juliet runs for just over two and one half hours, with one intermission, through April 22 with a preview on April 5 and opening night on April 6, Fridays and Saturdays @7:30pm, Sundays @1:30pm. Sunday performances will be followed by a talk with the cast and director.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Quill Theatre

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AN OAK TREE: The Physical Substance of a Thing

AN OAK TREE: in which nothing is what it appears to be

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: April 4-14, 2018 (8 performances only)

Ticket Prices: $25 General; $10 Students/Military/RVATA

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

 

Every playwright, director, artistic director thinks their work is unique. In the case of Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree I can quite honestly say this is not like any play you’ve ever seen before.

Landon Nagel plays the role of the Hypnotist each night, but the other actor, the Father, is played by a guest actor who has not seen the script before the show. These guest actors, as they are called, will include Aaron Anderson, Brandon Carter, Audra Honaker, Boomie Pedersen, Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, Alan Sader, Foster Solomon, and Tyler Stevens. I went on Wednesday, the preview night, and Audra Honaker had the honor of being the first of the guest actors. For those who are curious how the show might differ with different cast members, the Firehouse is offering an Acorn to Oak Upgrade: for $20 you can come to as many of the performances as you like. I assume the guest actors are forbidden from reading reviews – so if any of you happened to get this far: STOP HERE! Do not read this until April 15!

Without giving away any secrets to legitimate, paying audience members, An Oak Tree does, in fact, have a plot. The Father lost his daughter who was killed after getting hit by a car while walking to her piano lesson. The Hypnotist was the driver of the car. Both men have been affected by the accident. The Father has transferred his love and grief for his daughter onto an oak tree at the side of the road near the accident scene, while the Hypnotist has lost his powers of suggestion. The Father has come to the Hypnotist’s stage show to find answers. After that, things become, well, confusing. Everything that happens, everything that is said is scripted, yet nothing is what it seems to be.

Landon Nagel, who at the beginning of the play describes himself perfectly – 6’2”, thick brown hair – is perfectly cast for the role of Hypnotist. I could not tell whether his frequent verbal stumblings and reversals were scripted or opening-night jitters. Given the Hypnotist’s state of mind, I’ll opt for the former and find out later. Like a true hypnotist, Nagel draws his audience in, and at the end, we’re not quite sure of what we have seen and heard.

Honaker appeared quite confident in her unrehearsed role and even said afterwards that she loved the freedom of not having to over-rehearse. Honaker provided several moments of humor in this otherwise dark play. Nagel feeds her lines, some of which we can hear, and some delivered through an earpiece so that only she can hear. When he asks for volunteers from the audience, Honaker is assigned all the roles, and when the Hypnotist introduces the faux volunteers, Honaker uses a different voice and body language for each. Later, as the Father, after being hypnotized into believing she is naked, she climbs over a piano stool and slips behind the raised stage. Nagel and Honaker worked well together.

About those volunteers: Nagel makes an announcement at the beginning of the play that when he asks for volunteers, the “real” audience is not to respond. On Wednesday night, one audience member either did not hear or choose not to follow those directions and proceeded to behave as if this was a show with audience participation. I did check to see if this was scripted and confirmed that he was, indeed, an actual heckler. Did I mention he was wearing a hat. . .?

The title, An Oak Tree, is taken from Michael Craig-Martin’s conceptual art work of the same name. Created in 1973, Craig-Martin’s work consists of a glass of water on a glass shelf, and an accompanying text. The text, in the form of a Q&A or interview, includes the statements: “I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn’t change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present, but in the form of a glass of water.”

In the play, the father has changed the physical substance of his daughter into a tree, and the hypnotist has adopted Craig-Martin’s philosophy that the artist speaks to a receptive audience. An Oak Tree is directed by Mark J. Lerman. Tennessee Dixon is the production designer, and Todd Labelle designed the lights. Robbie Kinter’s sound design, which included some original music, was especially effective, subtly creating the perfect hypnotic atmosphere. The technology was seamless. Honaker received a lot of her direction through an earpiece, and Nagel had handle a hand-held mic (which, to my surprise, was not annoying), and tap a foot pedal to switch from talking to the audience to speaking into Honaker’s earpiece.

An Oak Tree is not your usual play; it is, after all, based on a conceptual work of art. What did I think of it? I didn’t know what to expect, and it’s not what I expected. To take a cue from the director, Lerman, “That’s all I have to say….Still need more? Then it’s time to watch the play.” An Oak Tree runs just over an hour, with no intermission.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

AN OAK TREE - Landon Nagel (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Landon Nagel in “An Oak Tree”
1_AN OAK TREE - Landon Nagel (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Landon Nagel in “An Oak Tree”
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IMPETUS: A Collaboration of Dance and Art

RADAR Dance:  Impetus

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th Street, RVA 23223

Performances: March 24-25, 2018

Ticket Prices: $15 Adults; $10 Students

Info: radardance.com or radardance@gmail.com

Using the work of visual artists as inspiration, Richmond-based dance company RADAR presented Impetus, a spring concert of diverse works by choreographers Pam Gamlin, Laura Gorsuch, Elliott Hartz, Carli Mareneck, Kendall Neely, and Katherine Saffelle, [If this sounds vaguely familiar, another local choreographer, Starr Foster, recently presented an evening of works in collaboration with a series of photographs. For my review of Spitting Image, see RVArt Review, 01132018.]

The works on the Impetus program ranged from the whimsical to the intimate to the humorous. I became thoroughly immersed in the multi-layered Passages: Arising, Form, Transit, the program’s first offering, by Carli Mareneck, inspired by multiple paintings of various artists including O’Keefe and Van Gogh.  The first part struck me for it unity, rather than unison, as seven women moved together as an organic unit. Oddly enough, it was not until the second section, a quartet for four women with chairs, that I became aware of the music – a soulful composition by Canadian-born cellist and composer Zoë Keating. The third section, aptly titled “Transit,” if I can take the program at face value, is what I called the running section, in which the seven women were joined by a shirtless man.  The work builds naturally in layers to a very satisfying place that is more of a transition than a terminal conclusion.

One young audience member, 3 ½ year old Rowan, was quite concerned that dancer Elliott Hartz, his uncle, was shirtless.  As audience members go, he was very observant, and comported himself rather well given his age.

The impetus for Katherine Saffelle’s work, Her Muddled Mind, was Etam Cru’s mural Moonshine, part of the Richmond Mural Project. The painting shows a woman bathing in a jar filled with strawberry jam.  By the time I wrapped my mind around the mural and Saffelle’s duet, set to the music of Max Richter, it was over! The beautiful ending features a sudden lift and then the lights go out, and I almost wished the work would repeat so I could have time to properly contemplate. Oh yeah – it’s about societal pressures and expectations in a fast-paced world, so we’re probably not supposed to have time to think about it.

One of the most intriguing pieces on the program was Pam Gamlin’s Manipulating Time Among Mayhem. Set to the music of El Ten Eleven, Gamlin’s trio was not just inspired by Jere Williams’ sculpture, Satellite Lounge, but the dancers took turns wheeling the mobile piece through the space. Built on a lawn chair, the work includes a stove, a shopping cart, a vacuum cleaner, a bicycle, a dressmaker’s mannequin wearing a bra, a Dora the Explorer backpack, a clock, a rake, and more. Resembling an ancient peddler’s cart, the work brings up metaphoric images of baggage, burdens, never letting go of the past.  The three dancers, Megan Baker, Laura Gorsuch, and Kara Priddy, executed athletic-like movements, as if prepping for the Olympian task of carrying this monument through life.  I was, however, somewhat distracted by their black warm-up pants because the white piping framed their derrieres with the outline of a heart!

Kendall Neely offered the most amusing work on the program. Sorted, inspired by Alexander Pope’s Sound and Sense and set to music by Imogen Heap was “loosely inspired by” Pope’s poem. Beautifully adorned in red and black, the dancers start off with a well-regulated cadence and explores rhythm schemes and predictability.

The program also included Laura Gorsuch’s Agitation Manifests, a dance for four women and four lamps and a beautiful movement phrase that features a clapping sound produced by bringing a cupped hand to the opposite arm, and Elliott Hartz’ Current, another very brief work that explores simultaneity and connections.

The audience was encouraged to linger in a mini-gallery of the art works that inspired or in some cases was inspired by these dances. Six works, presented in about an hour and a half; unhurried, family-friendly, and visually stimulating offered a welcome weekend interlude and potentially provided the impetus for more people to partake of the local art offerings.

**********

Again – and I cannot say this enough – one of the biggest problems with the Richmond dance community is that most performances run for only a single weekend and by the time many people hear of a performance, it’s gone! I make it a point to see as much of Richmond dance as I can, but this weekend was highly unusual.  I was performing in the ensemble of MK Abadoo’s Octavia’s Brood: Riding the Ox Home on Friday and Saturday at VCU’s Grace Street Theater, K Dance opened their annual program of Shorts at Richmond Triangle Players Thursday through Saturday, and RADAR presented its Spring concert at Dogtown Saturday and Sunday. At the same time, Richmond Ballet was concluding the March 20-25 run of it’s New Works Festival.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Impetus photos by Gianna Grace Photography; photos of art work by Julinda D. Lewis

RADAR

RADAR-2
“Satellite Lounge” by Jere Williams
RADAR-1
“Moonshine” a mural by Etam Cru

RADAR Impetus Poster 2

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RICHMOND BALLET: NEW WORKS – Sleeping Cats and Distant Figures Lose Melodies in 2Rooms

RICHMOND BALLET:  Studio Two New Works Festival 2018

An Extended Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, 407 E. Canal St. RVA 23219

Performances: March 20-25, 2018

Ticket Prices: $22.50-$42.50

Info: (804) 344-0906 or richmondballet.com

The Richmond Ballet first presented the New Works Festival in 2008 and the 2018 Festival is the sixth program offering new works by guest artists. Each of the four choreographers is given 25 hours to work with the company to set an original 10-minute work or portion of a larger work on the Richmond Ballet. This year, four extremely diverse choreographers created works that stretched the dancers with quirky new movement vocabularies and non-traditional choreography that challenges the audience to look at and think about ballet in new ways.

For Studio Two, four choreographers who have never created for Richmond Ballet were selected, and those who attended the Choreographer’s Club on Tuesday got to meet each of them. In order of their works on the program:

Tom Mattingly (freelance dancer, choreographer; Chicago, IL) was an apprentice with Richmond Ballet at age 17. Mattingly’s new work, Figure in the Distance is an earth-toned work set to music by Philip Glass (“Concerto for Violin and Organ”) against a backdrop of artist Taylor Am Moore’s original work, The Dancer. Deliberately ambiguous, I see it as a dance of opposition or perhaps duality would be a better word choice. There is opposition or duality in the use of the dancers’ arms and legs, in the choreography’s directional choices, and in the dynamics that shift swiftly from quick to sustained or waiting – and even in the dancers’ costumes. The women have long sleeves and short legs, the men have long legs and no sleeves.

There is even a duality in Moore’s painting, which could be figure in the distance or the pen – and energy – that drew it. There is a sense of striving and anticipation reflected in the slow deliberate walks that are graceful yet strong.

In the post-show talk, Mattingly indicated he likes a vague story line that doesn’t hit the audience over the head, but I suspect the work may be a bit autobiographical as well – a bit of a reflection of his ongoing transition from dancer to choreographer. He may be getting closer to seeing who that “figure in the distance” really is.

Bradley Shelver (born in South Africa; principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, NY) presented 2 Rooms, a work that depicts compartmentalized moments on segmented worlds. The first of two very quirky works on the program, 2 Rooms gives the audience options. There are alternative points of focus, provided by a set of moveable red panels that separate the space and the dancers. Dancers appear on either side of the panels, between the panels, and move around the panels. We see their feet moving below them, and they sometimes peak over the top.

Two memorable shapes are a wide-legged crab scrabble the dancers use to travel side-to-side and a waiting crouch that verges on a parody of a horror movie posture. There are also sudden falls and rolls, percussive gestures, tickling, an overly long kiss, and frantic shaking motions. There was one fall that appeared unplanned, when Elena Bello jumped onto her partner Matthew Frain, and an odd and awkward pause in the music that may or may not have been intentional. Nothing about 2 Rooms is predictable or ordinary.

Music is a big deal for Shelver, and 2 Rooms plays freely with the juxtaposition of “Ciaconna” (The Hilliard Ensemble, mixed with fragments of J.S. Bach) and “Adagio in G Minor” (R. Glazotto; Helmut Müller-Brühl/Cologne Chamber Orchestra) that complements the nuances of his quirky and fast-paced choreography. As much as I loved the quirkiness as a technique and an exercise, however, it did dominate the work, making the choreography seem somewhat unfinished. Given that this work was created in 25 hours, it would be interesting to see if a subsequent performance might have progressed to a different place in this compartmentalized world.

It’s probably just a coincidence that the first half of the program featured male choreographers, and the second half featured female choreographers.

Mariana Oliveira (born in Brazil; Artistic Director of The Union Project Dance Company, Los Angeles, CA) created My Lost Melody around the theme of falling in love, but the title, the predominantly black color palette, and the focus on some of the lesser known songs of Édith Piaf are a big clue that this is not all about the lighter side of love. Oliveira, the only choreographer of the four who said she comes to a new project with the work fully formed – right down to the costumes and lighting – created My Lost Melody on twelve dancers, with flowing permutations of three groups of four that guide the viewers’ eye across the stage.

Control and direction seem important in Oliveira’s work. A duet for Abi Goldstein and mate Szentes (in their fourth and third years with Richmond Ballet, respectively), reminded me of Fred Astaire, but rather than Ginger Rogers, Goldstein’s role was given a humorous twist that completed her phrases with a frivolous fold-over rather than an elegant fanfare. One brief trio (in white) was performed to the sound of rain. The darkest of the four works, My Lost Melody was also the most dramatic, and the one that came closest to telling a story.

Francesca Harper (Artistic Director of The Francesca Harper Project, NY) explored the role of gender and specifically strong women in The World of Sleeping Cats, set to the music of hip hop violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain. The movement is infused with bold walks and, like the work of Shelver, more quirky and breathtakingly unexpected phrases, while the music is infused with bold drum-line beats and electronic sounds that suggest we are in new and uncharted territory.

This work also uses a black color palette, distinguished by hilariously ridiculous wired tutus. Elena Bello’s tutu is the first to come off – where it occupies an unceremonious position in the spotlight, center stage. A work for ten dancers – five couples, The World of Sleeping Cats is nontraditional but grounded in tradition. The dancers wear toe shoes, but the partnering doesn’t follow traditional gender assignments. Harper’s title is intriguing. Sleeping cats make you think of softness, but cats have claws. Sleeping cats may alert and spring into action at a moment’s notice.

One acquaintance who tried to get me to talk about the performance shared that she was excited about this piece because it addresses gender issues. A long-time Richmond Ballet supporter, William (Billy) Hancock (Campaign Director and Major Gifts), shared that the New Works Festival is his favorite Studio production because, to paraphrase his words, where else can you see all this original work in one place?

The choreographers themselves gushed about their experience with Richmond’s dancers, calling them brilliant and easy to collaborate with as well as passionate and dedicated.  While the company was excellent overall, special notice is due to dancers Elena Bello and Matthew Frain, Abi Goldstein and Mate Szentes, and Bello with Fernando Sabino who were featured in the new works. Lighting designer MK Stewart and costume designer Emily DeAngelis also earned well-earned kudos. For Artistic Director Stoner Winslett, the New Works Festival is not about competition, but about making The Richmond Ballet a safe place to be open and vulnerable – the best place to create a new ballet.

Keep in mind – these are not polished, full-fledged works. They are not meant to be finished and perfect. That is part of the appeal. All are different and challenging. All bring out the best in the dancers. All are worth seeing and talking about – but you can only do that if you go see them:

Tuesday, March 20th at 6:30pm (Choreographer’s Club) $65-$100
Wednesday, March 21st at 6:30pm
Thursday, March 22nd at 6:30pm
Friday, March 23rd at 6:30pm and 8:30pm (Club 407/Young Professionals) $35*
Saturday, March 24th at 6:30pm and 8:30pm
Sunday, March 25th at 2pm and 4pm

Club 407 For Young Professionals – Richmond Ballet is excited to offer discounted tickets, special events, and more through our new Club 407. Designed for a premiere group of ballet enthusiasts and novices alike under the age of 40, Club 407 provides exclusive experiences for Richmond’s young professionals. We invite you to become more involved with Richmond Ballet by attending performances, networking opportunities, and special behind the scenes access!

Studio Series – Club 407 tickets for our Studio Series shows include a pre-performance happy hour with food and drinks (cash bar) at Wong Gonzalez’s Beauty & Grace Room, a performance in the intimate Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, and a post-performance beer and wine reception with the dancers.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Sarah Ferguson

 

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PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES: A “Pump Rock” Country Musical

PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES:  A “Pump Rock” Country Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

A Collaboration of Richmond’s 5th Wall Theatre and Hampton’s American Theatre

At: TheatreLAB The Basement, 300 E. Broad St. RVA 23219

Performances: March 10-31, 2018 [Note this show will be performed in Hampton, VA April 13-22]

Ticket Prices: $32 General Admission; $15 Students; $20 RVATA Cardholders

Info: (804) 359-2003 or https://5thwallpumpboys.brownpapertickets.com/

 

Pump Boys and Dinettes is not your ordinary musical. Created by a performance group of no less than six, who are all credited with the music, book, and lyrics, one might expect this musical to be all over the place. One would be wrong. Don’t care for country music? Doesn’t matter; this isn’t the whiny, twangy, my-woman-is-gone-and-my-dog-is-dead kind of country music. Don’t care for musicals, you say? Go back and read my first sentence.

Pump Boys and Dinettes is the most fun I’ve had in the theater in recent weeks and that’s saying a lot, since the Richmond theater community has produced some excellent theater this year. The ensemble is dynamic; the entire cast sings, acts, and plays instruments (okay, that might be stretching it a bit, but keep reading). The musical numbers are high-powered, and there are even a couple of a capella numbers that feature some rather awesome harmonizing that even my untrained ear could recognize and appreciate. Then the Dinettes pick up wooden spoons and play percussion on pots. So that’s why the pots are out front instead of back in the kitchen. . .Oh, and then there is tap-dancing – in cowboy boots!

While there isn’t really a narrative in the traditional sense, we do get to meet some of the residents of Frog Level, North Carolina who work on Highway 57 at the Pump Boys service station and the nearby or attached Double Cup diner. The Pump Boys consist of Jim (John Mervini on rhythm guitar), L.M. (Mike Cefalo on keyboard, including a brief stint on an accordion), Jackson (Michael Bamford, lead guitar) and Eddie (Sean Powell on bass and harmonica). Not much work gets done at the service station, since the Pump Boys are all playing music a lot more than pumping gas. Indeed, when a customer calls to check on the status of his Winnebago, he is told it will be ready, maybe, next week. The customer is put on hold – on the ancient phone held together with duct tape – so the Pump Boys can give him a status update singing “Taking It Slow.”

Rachel Marrs (Rhetta Cupp) and Desiree Roots Centeio (Prudie Cupp), the sisters who run the diner, seem to somehow get more work done. The Dinettes serve coffee, moon pies, and slices of pecan pie to the audience at the beginning of the show and collecting tips in Act 2. “Tips” is the title of a sassy duet in Act 2, with the money collected going to the 5th Wall Development Fund. In addition to feeding the audience with art and food, Centeio sits on gentlemen’s laps and dances with an audience member (Friday night it was my fiancé Albert Ruffin) while singing “The Best Man” and the sisters escort a female audience member onstage, so Jackson/Bamford can serenade her in “Mona,” a song about his crush on a mall cashier.

“The Fisherman’s Prayer” is a beautifully harmonized number by the Pump Boys in Act 1, which also features a heat-warming ballad, “Mamaw,” sung by Jim/Mervini. Act 1 ends with The Dinettes and L.M. donning cowboy boots and Eddie donning tap shoes for “Drinkin’ Shoes.” Highlights of Act 2 include L.M.’s “T.N.D.P.W.A.M.” which stands for The Night Dolly Parton Was Almost Mine, and the hilarious “Farmer’s Tan,” again featuring L.M. with the Dinettes. Everyone gets at least one featured number except Eddie, but he does get to do an awesome “duet” with his upright bass. While each cast members shines individually, Mervini, Marrs, and Centeio are standouts and Cefalo is a surprise when he emerges from behind his keyboard, it is the magnetism of the ensemble that makes Pump Boys and Dinettes a hit.

There are 19 musical numbers, plus a reprise of the opening “Highway 57” and a closing medley of the show’s “Greatest Hits.” Most are hard-pumping, foot-tapping, danceable numbers that keep a smile on your face from start to finish. The show runs about 100 minutes, with a fifteen-minute intermission, under the seamless direction of Richard M. Parison, Jr. with musical direction by Christian Storm Burk and choreography by Karen Getz (whose work I adored in VaRep’s Fiddler on the Roof in 2013).

I also admired Rich Mason’s scenic design – a simple but authentic looking little diner on the audience’s right, and a somewhat less detailed and extremely clean service station to the audience’s left. Most of the action takes place center to right, but there weren’t many people seated on the left side on Friday night. Michael Jarrett designed the lighting, which featured a few nicely mottled effects in Act 1, and Sue Griffin and Marcia Miller Hailey did the costumes. The Pump Girl’s waitress uniforms were adorably attractive.  Let’s not forget Amy Ariel, who assisted with the lighting, Roger Price who designed the sound, and Barry Green who designed the props – of which there are quite a few. And let’s not forget to thank 5th Wall’s Artistic Director Carol Piersol and The American Theatre’s Artistic Director Richard M. Parison for selecting this show to partner.

Pump Boys and Dinettes is beautifully showcased in the intimate space of TheatreLAB’s basement. Make it a point to find your way down the steep steps that lead to this marvelous space before they close.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

5th Wall Theatre

Pumpboys

Pump Boys_1
Michael Bamford, John Mervini, Rachel Marrs, and Desiree Roots Centeio
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DAMES AT SEA: Making Waves at Swift Creek

DAMES AT SEA: Pint-sized Extravaganza

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Colonial Heights, VA 23834

Performances: March 8-May 15, 2018

Ticket Prices: $38 Theater only; $55 Dinner & Theater

Info: (804) 748-5203 or swiftcreekmill.com

Dames at Sea, with book and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller and music by Jim Wise first opened Off-Off-Broadway in 1966 but is perhaps best known for its 1968 production which introduced a new actress named Bernadette Peters. Twenty-six years ago, Dames at Sea was produced at Swift Creek Mill and two of the 1992 cast members – Robyn O’Neill and Steve King – apparently enjoyed it so much they have returned for another run.

A parody of the 1930s-style musical extravaganza, Dames at Sea is dated and corny and probably the most fun you’ll have in a month. The first act is set in a down-trodden Broadway theater, and Act 2 is set on the deck of a naval ship. Sweet-faced and innocent Ruby (Anne Michelle Forbes) arrives on Broadway from a small town in Utah with a suitcase containing only a pair of ruby red tap shoes and by the end of the day she has been hired as a chorus girl, meets a guy, becomes a star, and gets married. I don’t know how many hours are in this day, but if they can bottle and sell days like this, I’m placing my order right now.

Part of the tremendous charm of this two-act show is that all the impact and energy of a Busby-Berkeley movie musical, including showgirls, props, dancers creating geometric floor patterns, lots of color and movement, are all accomplished with a cast of six. In addition to Forbes, who is a 2016 TheatreVCU graduate making her Swift Creek Mill debut, there is Nicole Morris-Anastasi as Joan, a wise-cracking chorus girl who befriends Ruby; Travis West as Ruby’s sailor boyfriend Dick; and Derrick Jaques as Dick’s friend Lucky, who also happens to be Joan’s on-again, off-again boyfriend.

Returnees Steve King in the dual roles of theater entrepreneur Hennesey and the naval officer Captain Courageous and Robyn O’Neill as the diva Mona Kent together generate some of the show’s most humorous moments with a touching number called “The Beguine” that recreates their youthful romance. King alternates between sweet, shy glances and lascivious ogling of O’Neill’s bosom. O’Neill may portray a star who is losing her luster, but it’s impossible to feel sorry for her character as she also acts as the protagonist, jealously trying to hang on to the ingenue role while maintaining leading lady status – a dangerous game that wreaks havoc on Ruby and Dick’s budding romance and nearly sidelines the entire show within the show.

In the spirit of a large-scale musical, everyone sings and everyone dances. O’Neill gets to strut her stuff in the opening number and to belt her heart out in “Wall Street” and “That Mister Man of Mine.” Forbes shines in her lovelorn ballad, “Raining in My Heart,” which is more touching than her big show-saving number, “Star Tar.” On Saturday, parts of “Choo Choo Honeymoon,” one of two big numbers for Morris-Anastasi, were unintelligible from my seat on the right side of the audience. I don’t know if the same was true for those further left, but this is something that is certainly easily fixed through technology, staging, or a combination of the two.

I was quite pleased to see – and hear – that Dames at Sea is one musical that takes its dancing seriously. The work is infused with tap dancing – and while it appeared to leave O’Neill a bit winded, Forbes, Morris-Anastasi, Jaques, and West came with the energy. What they may have lacked in technique (none would fare well, hypothetically speaking, in a contest with Savion Glover) they more than made up for this potential shortcoming with big attitudes and a facility for handling props (mops, umbrellas, and more). We have choreographer Alissa Pagnotti to thank for this enthusiastic, period-style tap choreography.

Tom Width directed with his usual innate joy – every play he directs seems to be his favorite – and did the scenic design as well. There was no magic in this script, but Width did manage to work in an avalanche of falling bricks and oversized wrecking ball in Act 1, and a couple of cannons blasting confetti at the finale. Leilani Fenick is the musical director, conducting an 8-piece orchestra hidden behind the set. Zachary Townsend designed the lighting, which includes a follow-spot intentionally designed to recreate the authenticity of the period, and Maura Lynch Cravey designed the costumes. I was particularly fond of Ruby and Joan’s tap shorts. (Yes, I did mean shorts, and not shoes.) Dames at Sea is a leave-your -worries-at-the-door and just enjoy yourself kind of musical.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Swift Creek Mill Facebook page

 

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ERMA BOMBECK: End-to-End Wit

ERMA BOMBECK: At Wit’s End

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

VirginiaRep

At: Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: March 2-April 15, 2018; Acts of Faith post-show discussion Sunday, March 18  UPDATE: This show has been extended through April 29! 03/26/2018

Ticket Prices: $42

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

Writers Allison Engel and Margaret Engel pulled much of their material for their one-woman play, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End, directly from Bombeck’s own words. The syndicated columnist and best-selling author who was active from the 1960s through the 1990s was known for her often self-deprecating and invariably witty assessments of her own life as a suburban housewife.

Catherine Shaffner steps easily into the role, so much so that one nearly forgets she is acting. Bombeckian one-liners like “never go to a doctor whose office plants have died” roll off her tongue with ease. Occasionally, the humor becomes pure poetry as when Shaffner relates Bombeck’s reminiscence on pregnancy: “the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.”

Along this one-hour journey, we learn that Bombeck started out making a mere $3 per column, but at her peak her work was syndicated in 900 newspapers throughout the US. One of her 3 children described her job as a “syndicated communist.” Bombeck also published 15 best-selling books which provided her with the celebrity and the currency to travel around the country with Betty Friedan as a champion of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). The woman who once characterized feminists as “roller derby dropouts” became an ardent supporter of women’s rights and a member of the President’s Advisory Council for Women. Much to her disappointment, the amendment failed three votes short of the 38 needed for ratification.

The period from the 1960s to the 1990s was a significant time for women who were seeking to establish a balance between family and career and that is illustrated in some humorous and subtle ways in the play. Most strikingly, see Shaffner/Bombeck locked away in her bedroom, perched on the edge of her bed, using an ironing board for a desk, banging away on a portable manual typewriter, as her children slip notes under the door asking for money to go to McDonald’s. (After digging around in the cushions of a chair, Shaffner/Bombeck slides the pile of coins under the door in response.)

Marcia Miller Hailey has dressed Shaffner in black slacks, a print blouse, and flats. She may be a nationally known author and feminist supporter, but she looks like a car pool mom. John Moon directed Shaffner – a job that I am sure was made all the easier because of Shaffner’s laidback expertise and natural wit. Her pacing and timing were perfection – never rushed, never hurried, but rather intimate and inviting. Several times the corded push-button phone on Bombeck’s bedside table rang and she informed her husband, Bill, that she had people over – meaning us, her audience. The size of the theater, with seats on three sides of the stage, reinforces this sense of intimacy and inclusion.

One thing I found a little odd was Terrie Powers’ set. It depicts a modest suburban home, supposedly in a subdivision in Dayton, Ohio, with the usual elements such as a raised step at the front entrance with a bit of decorative railing, and sections of a sitting area, a nearly complete bedroom, and a dining area with neatly some appliances neatly ensconced on shelves. I understand that the bedroom was centerstage because it was Bombeck’s office, but I found the placement of the bedroom and the proportions of the partial rooms around it peculiar and distracting – and little homey touches like an apron, a laundry basket, a visibly cordless iron, or a vacuum cleaner that seemed slightly out of sync with its recorded sound didn’t help matters.

Decorating dilemmas aside, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End is a delightful hour of theater (sans intermission) that will send you home with the corners of your mouth upturned and your cheeks sore from smiling.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Aaron Sutton

 

Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Catherine Shaffner
Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Catherine Shaffner
Erma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Catherine Shaffner

Acts of Faith

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I AM MY OWN WIFE: One man, 30+ characters

I AM MY OWN WIFE: One man, 30+ characters

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players in Collaboration with 5th Wall Theatre

At: The Robert B. Moss Theatre at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230

Performances: March 8-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-30

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

I Am My Own Wife is undoubtedly one of the more unusual plays of the season. Written by Doug Wright, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning production is a one-man show about a man living as a woman in East Berlin up to and beyond the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. And it is so much more than that. Scott Wichmann plays all of the more than 30 characters, but the focal point is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, perhaps one of the most well-known transvestites in history.

Charlotte earned a living as curator of the Gründerzeit Museum – a mansion filled with an eclectic collection of everyday objects, mostly salvaged from war-torn Germany during the time of the Nazi regime. Needless to say, antique bureaus, gramophones, original Edison phonographs, and cuckoo clocks were not nearly as rare as a man wearing a dress in Nazi Germany. The fact that Wichmann does not make an attractive woman is all the more realistic, as by all accounts, Charlotte was not your usual glamorous drag queen, but rather preferred to wear a plain black dress, her own hair – quite white in later years – and a simple string of pearls. As if this isn’t intriguing enough, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, nee Lothar Berfelde, was a real person (1928-2002).

Wright based his play on a series of interviews he conducted with Charlotte between August 1992 and January 1993. Much of what he discovered was unverifiable or contradicted by written accounts – many of which, themselves, were suspect. The plot thickens with accusations and evidence of Charlottes spying for the Stasi, or German secret police, which stood in stark contrast to her being honored in 1992 with the Bundesverdienstkreuz or  Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for her work in preserving German artifacts. Wright, who wrote himself into the play as one of the dozens of characters, raises questions and leaves his audience to draw our own conclusions.

Wichmann, who has mastered the one-man show with several productions, including the 40+ characters in the wild and witty Totally Committed and a spot-on portrayal of comedian George Burns, has experience with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, having played this role before, in 2006, with the same director, Morrie Piersol. I did not see that production, but can only assume that both brought new insight, depth, and maturity to the current production.

I Am My Own Wife, a statement Charlotte made dismissively when her mother suggested it was time to marry, is a riveting production, anchored by Wichmann’s razor sharp and eerily effective character transformations. Each character has his or her own distinct voice, accent, facial expressions, posture, and mannerisms. To my wholly inexpert ears, Wichmann’s Texan accent and German phrases sounded quite authentic and I was actually quite pleased with myself at being able to pick out many of the German words and phrases. How so many different people can inhabit one fairly compact body without any physical or visible damage is amazing.

One may choose to agree or disagree with von Mahlsdorf’s lifestyle, one may choose to sympathize with or loathe her decision to become a spy, one may even question Wright’s choices about what to include in the play and what to exclude. Wright states in a program note that he used “somewhat selective remembrances” of his encounters with von Mahlsdorf and took the “customary liberties of the dramatist” in editing the work, but there is no denying that this is a fascinating piece of theater, well cast, and brilliantly executed. The subject is no laughing matter, but there are a few well-placed moments of humor – something the opening night audience seemed not too sure of at first. It could have been due to Charlotte’s enigmatic nature; in describing the reconstructed gay bar in the basement of the manor house, for example, Charlotte/Wichmann says the original owner catered to homosexuals because they didn’t get drunk, didn’t fight, and always had money to pay the bill.

Kudos to Piersol for his unobtrusive direction, to Frank Foster for a simple yet elegant, sharp edged set, Andrew Bonniwell’s subtle lighting, and Lisa Lippman’s plain yet effective costume design. I Am My Own Wife has a very short run – just eight performances – so don’t hesitate it if you think you might want to see it. You won’t be sorry.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

John MacLellan, WomeninEuropeanHistory.org, and RTP website

 

I Am My Own Wife_John MacLellan
Scott Wichmann as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf
My Own Wife Charlotte
the real Charlotte von Mahlsdorf

I Am My Own Wife

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HELEN SIMONEAU DANSE: Land Bridge

HELEN SIMONEAU DANSE: Land Bridge

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

At: Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts W. E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts, 922 Park Avenue, RVA 23284

Performances: March 3, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20 Adults; $15 Students

Info: (804) 828-2020 or http://arts.vcu.edu/dance/

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Dance & Choreography is hosting the 2018 Mid-Atlantic South Regional Conference of the. American College Dance Association March 4-7, 2018. More than 400 students and faculty from college and university dance programs around the region and the nation are expected to attend the four days of adjudicated performances, master classes, scholarly research presentations, and myriad opportunities for student and faculty exchanges both in and outside of the studio. Build around the theme of Bridging Community, the conference will celebrate “dance as a means of forging empathy and connection through inquiry and effort.”

On Saturday the North Carolina-based contemporary dance company of Helen Simoneau offered a pre-conference concert for one night only. Simoneau’s first evening length work is aptly titled “Land Bridge,” and is based on an investigation of heritage, assimilation, and identity as seen through the lens of a herd of caribou. (This makes sense once you realize that Simoneau is a native of Québec, Canada where caribou, also know as reindeer in this part of the world are a threatened species – that’s a step down from endangered.)

Simoneau’s diverse troupe of eight dancers is sublimely athletic and it is mesmerizing to watch them move through this piece. The work begins with the dancers moving in slow procession to the beat of a drum. They sink majestically into a one-legged plié, as if trudging or migrating unhurriedly through deep snow. The silhouette of the dancers’ bodies, with heads bowed and shoulders and upper torsos rounded also suggests those pictures of the evolution of man.

“Land Bridge” is about cycles and repetition. The opening processional repeats several times before the herd changes direction and the movement reappears in abbreviated form later in the hour-long work. At one point all eight dancers connect and spin apart like a centrifuge, then balance on one leg with both hands held at the sides of their heads, fingers pointing up, suggesting antlers. A tandem crawl, with one dancer face up atop the back of the other, suggest the communal nature of this work and at the same time is a typical tableau. Another is a bottoms-up posture with the head on the ground – a reference, no doubt, to the caribou’s manner of digging into the snow in search of food, and to the etymology of the French-based word “caribou” which can be translated to mean “snow shoveler.”

In a post-show talk, Simoneau elaborated on how her work often focuses on the individual within the group and the many ways in which the dancers’ connections reflect variations of locking antlers, sharing weight and power. This is especially clear in a section where two men meet center stage and fall into one another, forcefully dragging and tossing one another in a great display of power. “Land Bridge,” in which the patterns and cycles of animals and humans merge and become one is set to an original score by Nathalie Joachim that blends human and electronic sounds.  Chanted sighs and percussive gurgles cycle and repeat while the lighting by Carrie Wood at times makes the dancers look as if they were lit from within.

Dancer Burr Johnson, now in his eighth season with Helen Simoneau Danse, is a VCU Dance alum. It’s always a pleasure to see successful students return to show off their results of their hard work. Personally, I can hardly wait for this company to return to Richmond for another public performance – hopefully for more than one night.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Company photos by Peter Mueller; Helen Simoneau’s portrait by Todd Turner Photography

 

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JOHN & JEN: A Musical of Second Chances

JOHN & JEN: A Story of Second Chances

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

At: HATTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Dr., RVA 23238

Performances: March 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 Seniors; $15 Youth, Students, Military w/ID; $12 RVATA Card Holders; Reservations Required – No tickets at the door

Info: (804) 343-6364 or hattheatre.org

Any excuse to spend an evening with Georgia Rogers Farmer (Jen) and Chris Hester (John) is an evening well spent. In this two-person chamber musical that fits perfectly in the intimate black box that is HATTheatre, Farmer and Hester do not disappoint.

For those who don’t like spoilers, do not read any further until after you have seen this show. There is no way to write about this show without giving away a key component that some might consider a spoiler.

John & Jen spans some forty years, from about l950 or 1952 until 1990 in the life of Jen and the two Johns in her life. In Act 1, Jen welcomes her little brother into a world that proves to be filled with both love and chaos.  Interestingly, the same father that Jen considers to be a source of chaos is a source of stability and love for John. Perspective matters from start to finish in this intriguing and intimate work, written by Tom Greenwald and Andrew Lippa, with music by Lippa and lyrics by Greenwald.

In his director’s note, Doug Schneider indicates that he did not like the first version he heard of this show, which was first performed Off-Broadway in 1995, but became hooked on this newer version, a 2015 revival, which included some new songs and arrangements and dropped some of the original songs. I’m curious about the original version, as I found the current songs and music somewhat uneven.

In Act 1, Hester was quite funny in the sister-teasing “Trouble with Men” and the duo was rough and intense in the scene-closing “Run & Hide.” Likewise, in Act 2, Hester got a chance to shine with boyish exuberance in “Bye Room,” and the two had a touching closing number with “Every Good-Bye is Hello.” Throughout both acts there were touchingly sweet moments that allowed Farmer’s epic voice and presence to soar, but the material she had to work with just didn’t seem to be. . .well. . .big enough. I want to find a phrase that is the opposite of “sung-through musical”; that would be a musical in which some lyrics are spoken to music rather than sung. While that makes it easy to follow the story, it seems to be something less than musical. While I enjoyed the performers and their portrayals of their characters, this is not the kind of musical that makes you want to run out and buy the soundtrack.

The four-piece chamber orchestra, under the musical direction of Joshua Wortham was quite good, with Wortham on keyboard, Michael Knowles on cello, Marissa Resmini on violin, and Nick Oyler on percussion.  But again, at times the score was stunningly beautiful while often it disappeared into the background – not what one expects in a musical.

One of the most interesting aspects of John & Jen is that Jen is the same character for both acts, whereas John is Jen’s little brother in Act 1 and her son in Act 2. So, Hester has to, in effect, play two different roles with different personalities, growing up in different decades, opposite the same mother figure, while answering to the same name, John. Jen, the sister, promises to always be there for her little brother, but then he goes off to Vietnam and they never see each other again. Knowing the backstory of Act 1 gives the audience inside knowledge that helps us understand Jen’s overprotective parenting of her son.

The nature and familiarity of these relationships is what makes this an Acts of Faith production. Jen wants to replace her missing brother with her son, and it takes a “Talk Show” scene to expose her fears and a “Graduation” to open the door to a resolution. The device of using a talk show format, which almost but not quite involved the audience, to air one’s dirty laundry was a much-needed tension reliver and weirdly amusing break from the intensity of the relationships. Christmas traditions, feuding parents, Little League, rebellious children, first dates, leaving for college, differing political views, hippies, draft dodging (do today’s young people even know what the draft was?) are all familiar to most families, which may be why a few scenes may be misted not by the lighting designer but by the viewer’s own eyes.

Michael Jarrett has designed some lovely projections that carry us through the decades and life events of Jen and her two Johns, while Erin Barclay designed the lights, Frank Foster created the scenic elements that consisted of two straight-backed chairs on opposite sides of the stage with a storage bench stage center, and Linda Shepard designed the simple wardrobe that allowed Hester and Farmer to make subtle but key changes – a Christmas sweater, a blanket, a tie-dyed skirt –  right on stage.

John & Jen is a tightly-woven, intense, and intimate musical and Hester and Farmer bring far more for it than it gives to them.

 

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Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Jason Eib Photography

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WINGS: A brilliant stroke of a musical

WINGS THE MUSICAL:

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220

Performances: February 15 – March 10, 2018; Post-performance talkbacks March 1 & 8

Ticket Prices: $20-35

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

Bianca Bryan is brilliant as Emily Stilson, a former wing walker (a daredevil who performs acrobatics or stunts on the wings of a moving plane) navigating through the darkness and struggling to recover her memories and her words after suffering a stroke. Jeffrey Lunden’s Wings: The Musical is a not a musical in the traditional sense. Described in the Firehouse Theatre’s press release as a chamber musical because of its small cast of five and trio of musicians, Bryan’s role is written with a sometimes-operatic musicality that represents the depth and scope of Emily’s reach for her former self.

The focus is almost entirely on Emily, and Bryan remains on stage for the entire 80 minutes. Her mastery of the garbled speech patterns of a stroke patient are all too familiar and make the clarity of her singing even more dazzling.  As is so often the case this season, there is no intermission. Lauren Elens has a strong supporting role as Emily’s discerning therapist and friend, Amy, and Landon Nagel has a shining moment as a fellow patient in Emily’s rehabilitation center as, Billy. A former baker or chef, Billy has trouble remembering his signature recipes, but finds putting his thoughts into song during a music therapy session helpful. The result is a fabulous song about cheesecake.

Andrew Colletti and Lucinda McDermott round out the cast, playing dual roles, first as Emily’s somewhat stern and distant doctor and nurse and later as fellow patients and group members Mr. Brambilla and Mrs. Timmins. Bryan sings most of her lines; the rest of the cast speaks most of theirs.

On a raised platform, Music Director Kim Fox plays keyboard, with Maddie Erskine on cello and Taylor Bendus on Flute. (Even with the raised platform, the petite Fox was invisible behind her music stand, but her signature musical style and direction were unmistakable.) The music is quite good and combined with the sound design and lights Wings is a small musical that carries a big impact.

Vinnie Gonzalez designed a clean and spare set, populated with a couple of movable benches, a serving art, and a wheeled chair – not a wheelchair – for Emily. Two platforms adorned with wires added depth and there were subtle touches like the protective griffin symbols painted on the blue walls and the double winged ceiling fan over the stage. Bill Miller’s lighting was at times breathtakingly beautiful, especially at the end, and Jason Blue Herbert’s sound design added depth and texture, peppered with realistic roaring engines. All of this was beautifully woven together by Kerrigan Sullivan’s sensitive direction, bringing a gentle and empathetic perspective to a difficult and seldom explored subject.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Bill Sigafoos — Bianca Bryan, Lauren Elens, Landon Nagel, Lucinda McDermott, Andrew Colletti, Maddie Erskine, Kim Fox, Taylor Bendus

 

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BRIGHT HALF LIFE: A Beautiful Mess

BRIGHT HALF LIFE: a part of The Cellar Series: This Beautiful Mess

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLAB The Basement, 300 E. Broad St., RVA 23219

Performances: February 17-24, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $20

Info: (804) 505-0558 or theatrelabrva.org

I would try to explain what this Cellar Series is about, but TheatreLAB Associate Artistic Director Katrinah Carol Lewis has already stated it so well: “This series takes the traditional love story – we meet, we fall, we fight, we figure it out, or we flee – and turns it inside out and upside down. These explorations of romantic relationship ask us to abandon our notions of time, space and reality to expose the true essence of our connections to each other. It’s beautiful and it’s messy and it’s ours: this beautiful mess.”

Bright Half Life, written by Tanya Barfield and directed by Melissa Rayford, is the first of three works in this series. A two-woman play performed without benefit of set or props (it uses the stripped bare apartment set of the space’s previous show, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard) adorned simply with 9 black boxes that I’m sure I’ve seen on other stages in other productions.

Kylie M.J. Clark plays Erica and Amber Marie Martinez plays Vicky, two women involved in a decades-long relationship. It’s helpful to know this before the play starts, because once it begins, the actors and audience abandon all sense of linear time. This relationship unfolds emotionally, not chronologically. Lines and scenes are repeated, from different places and perspectives, and in the repetition, layers are peeled back, and lives revealed based on what has occurred since the last time we heard those words and phrases. In a way it is radical and messy, but on the other hand, it is a strangely accurate reflection of how many of us think.

The audience is seated on both sides of the set and limited seating brings the audience up close and right in the faces of the two characters. This allows us to see the fear on the face of Erica as she sits, white-knuckled, in the gondola of a ferris wheel or attempts sky-diving, all to please the more adventurous Vicky. Clark’s face is open and while sometimes we can read her like a book, it is a book with secret and untranslatable passages. Martinez brings authenticity to her role: while Vicky is obviously more adventurous than her partner, she is also more uptight. Years go by before she actually comes out to her Latino family; they refer to Erica as her “special friend” and helpfully pretend that she is a roommate helping Vicky care for their daughters.

There are several running themes, the most memorable being the sky diving scenes and the alphabet game the two women have developed. Sometimes it’s funny and other times it turns inward and cruel, as games sometimes do. A bell or other sound signals the rapid changes of time and scene and it is indeed fascinating to witness the clarity and speed with which both Clark and Martinez switch back and forth in time.

Dressed simply in contemporary casual clothing – although Erica’s shirt is a little more “butch” – there is nothing other than the dialogue to indicate time, place, or age, so we must rely on the skill of the actors. Both are successful because by the time we have followed their journey from first date to first and second marriage proposal to childbirth and divorce, the marriage of their daughter, and reconnection as an older, more traditional Vicky comes to terms with failing health, they have completely captured their audience, and their final leap was met with joy, relief, and perhaps not entirely dry eyes.

Rayford’s direction is seamless and natural with the able assistance of Michael Jarett’s lighting and Lucian Restivo’s sound design. What is less than satisfying is the probably intentional vagueness about exactly what kind of company the women work for, what Erica’s vocation is prior to starting her teaching career, and – to a much lesser extent – the nature of Vicky’s illness. Vicky’s Latino heritage is significant for her character, but I noticed that off-Broadway in New York the two women were black and white, rather than Latino and white, and I wonder if the script adjusts for these differences. Could one character be Asian and the other white – or some other ethnic combination – and how would that change the dynamics?

Bright Half Life – named for the scientific concept of the time it takes for a property, in this case love, to decrease by half – is part of the 2018 Acts of Faith Fringe Festival. The Fringe Festival is a category for productions that do not meet all the criteria for the Acts of Faith Festival, perhaps because of a short run or a community rather than professional production company. At the time of this writing, only two performances remain (Friday and Saturday) and this is one heart-warming production you will not regret seeing.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credit:

Louise Ricks

Bright Half Life
Amber Marie Martinez, facing front & Kylie M.J. Clark facing away
Bright Half Life2
Amber Marie Martinez

Acts of Faith

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A RAISIN IN THE SUN: What happens to a dream deferred?

A RAISIN IN THE SUN: “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Some Thoughts & A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

By: Virginia Repertory Theatre

At: The November Theatre at Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220

Performances: February 16 – March 11, 2018; Previews February 14 & 15; Pre-Show Discussion Sunday, February 25; Post-Show Talk Backs Thursday February 22 & March 1

Ticket Prices: $30-50; $15 for students with ID

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

When A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway in 1959, it marked the first time the work of an African American woman was produced on the Great White Way. Who knew, when Broadway was given that nickname in 1902, how ironic it would later become. The Great White Way did not refer to racial segregation, but rather referred to the mile or so of the New York City theater district that was illuminated with Brush arc lamps, making it one of the first streets in the USA to be illuminated with electric lights.

A Raisin in the Sun is considered the seminal work of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, although it was initially considered a risky investment, with its focus on black life and there was concern as to whether African American life issues could be considered universal. Fast forward 59 years. The Richmond opening of the VaRep production of A Raisin in the Sun coincides with the opening of the Disney movie, Black Panther, and there is considerable Internet chatter as to whether white audiences can relate to an African superhero. Coincidence or serendipity; the more things change, the more they remain the same.

A domestic drama that offers sharp insights into black American life, A Raisin in the Sun has the occasional moment of humor that helps us navigate through the day-to-day setbacks and life-changing tragedies of life. Interestingly, during intermission, one friend remarked that during the previous night’s preview, the audience laughed as if they thought the play was a comedy. After the opening night show, while retrieving our car from the parking lot, another theater-goer remarked to me how much she appreciated the humor. This second encounter and comment gave me pause, and I wondered whether this play reads differently to different audiences, based on race and generation. For me, it was and is a very realistic play and the character of Lena or Mama, especially as played by Trezana Beverley, reminds me of my own grandmother, who was born in 1913 and was 46 in 1959, placing her in roughly the same generation as the elder Mrs. Younger character. The cadence of their speech, their very posture was the same; these women were matriarchs whose word was law. One look from their laser eyes could stop a word that was halfway out of your mouth and send it ricocheting back into your throat where it would lodge and choke you back into the realization of who was really in charge in this house.

Whether you approach it from the emic perspective of one who sees a reflection of their own family or the etic perspective of one who is looking into the window of black life, A Raisin in the Sun can be a powerful and intense theatrical experience. Running nearly three hours with one intermission, it takes its time developing, allowing the intricacies of the characters and situations to sink in, to marinate, and it does so without seeming to drag or get weighed down. This I credit to Hansberry’s writing, the intimate direction of Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Waites, and the cast, led by Tony Award winning actress Trezana Beverley as Lena “Mama” Younger, Jerold E. Solomon as Walter Lee Younger, and Katrinah Carol Lewis as Ruth Younger.  (Beverley was the first African American actress to receive the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play, for the 1977 production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.)

Walter Lee has dreams. Having spent most of his life as a chauffeur, he is at a crisis. Now 35 years old, he and his wife live with his mother and his sister in a one-bedroom tenement apartment. His 10-year-old son, Travis, sleeps on the living room sofa, and the family shares a bathroom in the hall with the other families on the same floor of their apartment building. The recent death of Walter Lee’s father has the family anxiously anticipating the delivery of a $10,000 insurance policy check – the most money any of them has ever seen.  What’s to be done with this money? The family could use a house of their own. Walter Lee’s sister, Beneatha needs tuition money to attend medical school. Walter Lee needs capital to invest in a liquor store business venture and has two partners waiting in the wings – Bobo, played by Joseph Marshall, and the unseen and unscrupulous Willy.

Beverley, who has played this role before, is authentic, strong, and steady as Mama Younger. She thoroughly embodies the strong but loving Christian matriarch, who wears her housedresses like royal robes and doesn’t leave home without a proper hat. When she does raise her voice, or lift her hand to strike, the audience sits at attention and sucks in its collective breath.

Solomon gave a strong performance on opening night but seemed to still be feeling his way as Walter Lee. His transitions from desperately seeking entrepreneur to loving husband to playful brother to intentional father were not always even or believable. Perhaps, internally, the struggle was all too real.

Lewis, who seems to become every character she plays, was visibly controlled as Walter Lee’s wife.  It was as if she was a bomb squad technician expertly trained to defuse bombs – only her assignment was a human time bomb, Walter Lee. The interaction between Lewis and Beverley was easy and unaffected, as if they had developed a secret and silent communication out of the necessity of navigating a safe path around Walter Lee.

Jasmine Eileen Coles had one of the most interesting of supporting roles. Beneatha is not just a supporting role, but a pivotal plot point, illustrating the balancing act black Americans must negotiate between assimilating into white American culture or seeking identity in African culture. Her two love interests further reinforce these opposing options. George Murchison, the rich black American, played by Kevin Minor, is smug and secure in his assurance that he has learned to play the game.  The purpose of going to college, he assures Beneatha, is not to learn to think, but to get the degree. Walter Lee doesn’t realize how deeply he has really offended George when he teases his about his clothes and his proper speech. Then there is Beneatha’s Nigerian beau, Joseph Asagai, played by Bru Ajueyitsi, whose name and resume suggest that his Nigerian accent is not fake but inherited.  Asagai not only reminds Beneatha of her roots, but offers a different perspective of the American dream, seen through the eyes of one whose colonial experience has been, perhaps, somewhat less oppressive or more liberating than the American slave experience and its residual effects. Ajueyitsi delivers his character’s wisdom with warmth and freshness that helps shed light on this family’s darkness.

Matthias Williams, a middle school student, played Travis Younger with sass and assurance. He rotates in the role with Caleb Brown McWhite. Doug Blackburn is the sole white character, Karl Lindner, a representative from the white neighborhood association sent to dissuade the Younger family from becoming the first colored family to move into an all-white neighborhood. As such, he is politely rude and dismissive, issuing a constant stream of what we now call micro-aggressions, such as referring to the Youngers as “you people.”

On the production side, Katherine Field has designed a comfortably shabby 1950s apartment. Lynne Hartman’s lights often yield creative patterns, and Derek Dumais’ sound design includes such details as the sound of the upstairs neighbor’s vacuum cleaner.  Emily Tappan’s costumes are era appropriate and include some lovely poufy dresses for Lewis and Coles.

As with past year’s productions such as The Color Purple and Dream Girls, A Raisin in the Sun drew a more racially diverse than one usually sees on a typical night at the November Theatre – or any Richmond-area theater, for that matter. There is no shortage of quality theater in Richmond, but, as the play shows us, and as Karl Lindner suggests, people seem to feel more comfortable staying separate, with their own kind, and maybe it’s long past time for a change.

A Raisin in the Sun is, unfortunately, still as relevant for as it was in 1959, and that a talking point right there. The production runs through March 11, and there are free discussions scheduled before the show on Sunday, February 25 and after the show on Thursday, February 22 and March 1. For those who have seen A Raisin in the Sun years ago, it’s time for another look. For those who’ve never seen it, now is the time.

Historical Note:

When A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959, not only was it the first Broadway play written by a black woman, it was also the first Broadway play featuring a black director, Lloyd Richards. The original cast included Sidney Poitier (Walter Lee Younger),  Claudia McNeil (his mother, Lena Younger), Ruby Dee (Walter’s wife, Ruth Younger), Diana Sands (Walter’s sister, Beneatha Younger), Ivan Dixon (Joseph Asagai, Beneatha’s Nigerian love interest), Louis Gossett (George Murchison, Beneatha’s wealthy African American love interest), Glynn Turman (Travis Younger, Walter and Ruth’s son), Lonne Elder, III (Bobo, one of Walter’s business partners), Douglas Turner and Ed Hall as the moving men, and John Fiedler as Karl Lindner, the play’s only white character. Ossie Davis later took over the role of Walter, opposite his real-life wife, Ruby Dee. Many of these names are familiar and the play launched the careers of some of these stellar actors.

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits:

Photos by Jason Collins Photography

 

A Raisin in the Sun
Front: Matthias Williams, Trezana Beverley, and Jasmine Eileen Coles. Back: Katrinah Carol Lewis and Jerold Solomon. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.
A Raisin in the Sun
Trezana Beverley. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.
A Raisin in the Sun
Jerold Solomon. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun
Matthias Williams. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

A Raisin in the Sunshow_raisin_in_hansberry2 - CopyActs of Faith

THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY: Who Dared to Be Different

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey: The Price of Being Different

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

At: The Robert B Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230

Performances: October 6-15, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-20

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Sweet. It’s not a word one would normally attach to the story of a 14-year-old murder victim, but in the case of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey it fits.

This one-man show written and originally performed by James Lecesne is the simply and intimately told tale of a young boy who, when life served him lemons, made a huge bowl of punch and shared it with the entire town. Leonard, who was sent to live with his non-biological aunt (you know, the extended family kind of aunt) was unapologetically different with his green plaid capri pants and his rainbow colored platform sneakers, made by gluing layers of flip-flop soles to the bottoms of a pair of Converse sneakers.

Jeffrey Cole, under the careful and understated direction of Melissa Rayford, allows the story to unfold with sensitivity and even a bit of humor as he portrays nine different characters in a small Jersey shore town where being different will get you chased home from school with sticks – and, ultimately, tied up in fisherman’s knots, wrapped in a net, and dumped in a lake. Some of the most touching and revealing speeches are given by Leonard’s cousin Phoebe Hertle (16, going on 45); his drama teacher, the locally famous Buddy Howard; his aunt’s client, the “high-hair redhead” Marian Tochterman; and the old clockmaker, Otto, in whose shop Leonard seeks refuge from the neighborhood bullies. The story is largely narrated by Chuck DeSantis, the detective assigned to Leonard’s case. In a surprise ending, the detective’s life is touched maybe more than any other.

Perhaps because it was originally a young adult novel, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey lacks the rawness, the intensity of The Laramie Project. Leonard is running in tandem with The Laramie Project and uses the same set – stripped bare of the locational identifiers. In fact, Leonard requires only a single folding chair, a small work table, and an evidence box. The rest of the atmosphere is created by Michael Jarett’s subdued lighting and a rather agreeably layered sound design by Lucian Restivo, who also did the set.

Some of the characters seem more caricature than genuine. Marian, for example, bears more than a little resemblance to Alice from the 1970s sitcom of the same name – yes, the Alice, who with her own “high-hair” coined the phrase, “kiss my grits.”  Cole subtly varies the nuances of each character, changing his posture, adding a gesture or a tilt of the head, but it sometimes took a moment or a few words before I was certain which character he was portraying. He did not seem to have the lightning fast reflexes of Stevie Rice or Scott Wichmann – both of whom are currently appearing in The Laramie Project, but in the end, he delivered the story with a sensitivity, gentleness, and sense of wonder that left the audience with a feeling of comfort that did not excuse the horror of what happened, but somehow tinged it with a veneer of sweetness. This sweetness was, I think, more a reflection of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey¸ of the character of that young man, and the lasting ways in which he touched those around him, than any attempt to downplay the very real dangers of homophobia and hate crimes.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey runs about 75 minutes, with no intermission. I am glad I went, but before recommending it to others, I would caution that seeing both The Laramie Project and The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey might prove overwhelming to some. To paraphrase Leonard Pelkey’s friends – you might be doing too much.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Louise Ricks

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STARR FOSTER DANCE: Anthology & Thoughts

STARR FOSTER DANCE: Anthology

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Grace Street Theater, 934 West Grace Street, RVA 23220

Performances: September 27-30, 2018; Thursday, Friday & Saturday @ 8PM; Sunday @2PM

Ticket Prices: $20-25 General Admission

Info: (804) 304-1523, starrfosterdance.org, or http://www.showclix.com

The final performance of Starr Foster Dance’s Richmond production of the Anthology program was special in that it marked the final performance of long-time company member and rehearsal assistant Jordan Livermon Glunt. (Glunt will be touring with the company, but this marked her last Richmond appearance.) After the final curtain, Glunt was showered with flowers from cast members and a standing ovation from an audience filled with family and friends.

The Anthology program included two new works by company artistic director Starrene Foster, Falling to Earth and Grudge. Falling to Earth has a quartet of dancers dressed in light clothing performing soft variations of falling, ending with arms raised. Set to the music of Murcof, (Mexican electronica artist Fernando Corona) the piece creates an other-worldly atmosphere that allows for multiple interpretations of the descending and suggestion of a return. Grudge, on the other hand, has an entirely different energy. It is aggressive and instead of the easy give and take between dancers, there is attitude, pushing and shoving, kicks and the sort of tension found in capoeira or a choreographed street fight. The music by the late French film composer Hugues Le Bars often has an urban edge that fuels this roughened sensibility.

An audience favorite was the program’s only solo, Garland (The Day the Sky Fell), created in memory of Robert Garland Gill and performed by Jordan Livermon Glunt. Wearing a black dress and dancing in a cone of light, with a wooden chair at the end as prop and partner, to an Arvo Part choir song, “Nun eile ich zu euch (Now I Hasten to You),” Glunt’s performance was sweetly evocative. At the end confetti falls around her, in memory and in celebration of life.

The program also included Waiting Room, a shadowy dance in red and black in which the play of light and shadow becomes both setting and character; and the mysteriously touching Apartment No. 9, which features six dancers connecting and reconnecting under a string of bare light bulbs with two chairs facing one another, giving the feel of an interrogation room. The program closed with The Space Between the Echo¸ a dance inspired by a work by local photographer Dennis Lieberman which features a mysterious and mechanized original score by Billy Curry.

There are several things that stand out about all of Foster’s works. I have often remarked that she prefers dim, eerie, evocative lighting that often obscures the dancer’s features. Foster also connects with interesting music that is often strikingly out of the ordinary, but always a perfect fit for the movement. Many works include original music composed for the dance. Finally, there is the humanity of her works. Weather humorous, aggressive, sweetly touching, or quirky and moody, the dancers always maintain an extra-sensory connection; they move as a unified organism that feels like family. The way they hold and slide over one another, often with a smaller dancer lifting a much taller or larger dancer, exudes a sense of safety and trust that makes you feel as if they want to do more than just entertain you, they want to tell a story that draws you into their world and connects us all.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Starr Foster Dance by Douglas Hayes.

Starr

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Jordan Livermon Glunt
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Mattie Rogers, Jordan Liverman Glunt and Erick Hooten
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Jordan Liverman Glunt
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Mattie Rogers and Kelsey Gagnon

RICHMOND BALLET: A Celebration of 35 Years of Dance

RICHMOND BALLET: 35th Anniversary Celebration

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center, 600 East Grace Street, RVA 23219

Performances: September 28 & 29, 2018

Ticket Prices: Starting at $25

Info: (804) 344-0906 or richmondballet.com

The Richmond Ballet celebrated their 35th year as a professional dance company in high style. There were highlights from the past 35 years, choreography by the iconic George Balanchine, appearances by favorite dancers who have retired, acknowledgements of long-time partnerships, video memories from choreographers who have worked with the company, and confetti.

The first half of the program consisted of excerpts from various ballets and moved rather quickly. The evening opened with Jerome Robbins’ Circus Polka¸ with Igor Antonov as the Ringmaster, softly cracking his oversized whip over the baby ballerinas. There were three groups of students from the School of Richmond Ballet – blue, green, and pink – 16 in each group, who danced adorably, ending in the formation of “35!”

Before intermission, we were treated to a retrospective that included Maggie Small and Fernando dancing the balcony pas de deux from Malcolm Burn’s Romeo & Juliet; a light-hearted Titania and Bottom pas de deux from William Soleau’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream danced by Sabrina Holland and Matthew Frain, with Elena Bello as the mischievous Puck; the first and second movements of Val Caniparoli’s contemporary and humorous Stolen Moments; and the playful, folk dance infused finale of Ma Cong’s Ershter Vals. There was also the duet from Jessica Lang’s To Familiar Spaces in Dream¸ performed by Lauren Fagone and Philip Skaggs; and the heartwarming Section IV of Stoner Winslett’s Windows, a work that speaks of hope and the future and ends with a group of dancers whirling around in a circle holding lighted globes. As the dancers peel off, they reveal two little students, a boy and a girl, dressed in white, representing the future. If the evening had ended right there, I would have been satisfied.

There was, however, a second act. George Balanchine’s Who Cares? Was set to 17 songs by George Gershwin (16 of which were listed on this program) and consists mostly of solos and duets that allow various company members to shine in light-hearted, quirky, and often sassy passages of movement that blend ballet and jazz. Elena Bello and Mate Szentes in “’S Wonderful,” Lauren Archer and Fernando Sabino in “The Man I Love,” Eri Nishihara in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” Maggie Small in “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis in “Who Cares?” and Sabrina Holland in “My One and Only” were personal favorites. The finale features the entire cast dancing to “I Got Rhythm,” played by the Richmond Symphony, under the direction of resident conductor Erin Freeman. It’s always a delight to attend the Richmond Ballet performances at the Carpenter Theatre, where we are promised the special treat of live music.

In addition to video memories shared by Malcolm Burn, William Soleau, Val Caniparoli, Ma Cong, Jessica Lang, and Stoner Winslett, at the top of the show, during her curtain talk, Winslett honored Charles Caldwell with the designation of Richmond Ballet Set Designer Emeritus, and Ron Matson with the honor of Richmond Ballet Conductor Emeritus. There was no proclamation or resolution by the Board of Trustees, but it was also Stoner Winslett’s special day – she nurtured the School of Richmond Ballet into a professional company that carries the designation The State Ballet of Virginia (so designated by then Governor Douglas Wilder in 1990) and has represented us well in New York (2005), London (2012), and China (2015).

 

 

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Sarah Ferguson

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Igor Antonov and dancers from The School of Richmond Ballet in ‘Circus Polka’ by Jerome Robbins.
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Maggie Small and Fernando Sabino in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Malcolm Burn.
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Maggie Small and Fernando Sabino in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Malcolm Burn.
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Sabrina Holland and Matthew Frain in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ by William Soleau.
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Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis in ‘Ershter Vals’ by Ma Cong.
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Lauren Fagone and Phillip Skaggs in ‘To Familiar Spaces in Dream’ by Jessica Lang.
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Elena Bello and Trevor Davis in ‘Windows’ by Stoner Winslett.
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Richmond Ballet dancers in Who Cares? Choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust.