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RICHMOND BALLET 2021/22

STUDIO ONE: SEPTEMBER

RICHMOND BALLET 2021/22

STUDIO ONE, SEPTEMBER

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Richmond Ballet, Canal Street Studios, 407 East Canal Street, RVA 23219

Performances: September 14 – 24, live. September 23 – October 3, virtual.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets start at $25; Virtual Tickets are $25.

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

All audience members, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear a mask covering both the nose and mouth at all times while in the Richmond Ballet building. Visit richmondballet.com/covid to view the company’s updated health and safety protocols.

REPERTORY:

Three Preludes

Choreography by Ben Stevenson, O.B.E.

Staged by Dawn Scannell

Music by Sergei Rachmaninoff          

            Ten Preludes for piano, Op. 23, No. 1 and Thirteen Preludes for piano, Op. 32, Nos. 9 & 10

Lighting Design by William Banks

Pianist: Dr. Douglas-Jayd Burn

            World Premiere September 1969, Harkness Youth Dancers, NYC

            Richmond Ballet premiere May 10, 2000, Jepson Theatre, RVA

Pas de Deux from Vestiges

Choreography by Colin Connor

Music by Michael Nyman, The Garden is Becoming a Robe Room

Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker

Lighting Design by Stacie Johnson

World Premiere May 10, 2000, Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre

Glare (World Premiere)

Choreography by Ma Cong

Music by Michael Nyman and David McAlmont from The Glare album

In Rai Don Giovanni; Secrets, Accusations and Charges; Going to America;

In Laos; The Glare

Costume Design by Monica Guerra

Lighting Design by Trad A. Burns

HOUSEKEEPING

Okay, first the housekeeping, as they say. During 2020/21, the Richmond Ballet delivered five productions, for a total of 96 shows, during a pandemic. With the help of their own medical task force, they returned to in-person classes with virtual options, limited the number of people in the building, and required everyone in the building to mask up. For performances, seating was limited from a maximum of about 250 to 50-75, and both audience and performers wore masks. In addition, the choreographers and dancers modified the choreography to increase the space between dancers, and only dancers who were married to each other or lived in the same household were allowed to partner. Programs ran about an hour, eliminating the necessity of having an intermission, and the popular Ballet Barre was closed to cut down on people mingling in public spaces. And it worked. There were no reported cases of COVID-19 transmission at the Richmond Ballet. Not only did the company weather the storm, in the words of company Artistic Director Stoner Winslett, “We are thriving.”

Emboldened by their pandemic success, the 2021/22 season opened up with no restrictions on seating. However, the audience must remain masked, and for the first Studio One series of performances, there is still no intermission or bar service. The dancers and staff are 100% fully vaccinated, and the masks have come off.

STUDIO ONE: OPENING NIGHT

Opening night at the Richmond Ballet’s Studio Series is a star-studded affair. The elite Choreographer’s Club members pay extra (more than double the standard subscription price) to show their support. In exchange, they get a post-performance Q&A with the guest choreographers and members of the cast and design team, followed by a reception where they get to mingle with the company. While the receptions are on hold until it is deemed safe, the Q&A is still allowed. The first program of the 2021/22 Studio One series opened Tuesday, September 14, with a stunning trio of works and a warm in-person welcome for Ma Cong. Cong, who premiered a new work, was installed as the company’s Associate Artistic Director in June of 2020 and has spent the last year working with the company via Zoom.

The evening opened with “Three Preludes,” choreographed by Ben Stevenson. It featured Izabella Tokev and Joe Seaton, one of nine new dancers. The sweet and innocent duet takes place in a ballet studio and, in fact, mirrors the structure of a ballet class. It begins at the barre, moves to the center floor, ends up traveling across the stage in sweeping phrases with Dr. Douglas-Jayd Burn at the piano playing the romantic Rachmaninoff preludes. The intimate lighting made me feel like a voyeur peeking in on a private moment between two lovers.

In the first section, they explore mirroring and opposition as if learning one another’s bodies. Seaton’s arm and Tokev’s leg mimic the same movement on opposite sides of the barre. Once they move to the center, the barre is removed, and Tokev allows her partner to replace it. Finally, they make a grand entrance for a pas de deux set to a brighter tempo that supports more daring lifts and encourages Tokev to run, spin, and jump into Seaton’s awaiting arms. It was almost as if the two dancers were trying to cram all the closeness we missed for the past 18 months into this one short ballet. Some of the partnering required awkward positioning, and a few times, I saw what might have been a misstep, but everything worked out in the end.

Next came the pas de deux from Colin Connor’s “Vestiges.” There are no classic, straight lines in this powerful duet performed by Sarah Joan Smith and Jack Miller. They are both in their first season with Richmond Ballet (although Smith did dance with RBII before joining Kansas City Ballet in 2016). When Smith ran out at the beginning, dressed in an earth-toned crop top and flared shorts, she reminded me of the Puck character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Back arched, knees turned in, with Stacie Johnson’s lighting creating a fiery glow, and Michael Nyman’s score creating high drama with lots of emphasis on strings, it would have been easy for Smith to dominate this duet. But instead, it was a beautifully balanced collaboration powered by dynamic, spiraling interactions. Whereas the opening duet seemed to explore tender, growing love, this one was more about fiery passion.

The program closed with the premiere of Cong’s “Glare,” a work he said he had been holding in his pocket for four years, waiting for the right moment. “2021/22 is the right moment.” “Glare” was inspired by “The Glare,” an album with music by Michael Nyman (yes, the same Michael Nyman as in Connor’s work) and lyrics by David McAlmont. “The key point,” said Cong, “is to watch the music and listen to the dance.” “Glare,” speaks to recent events in history, all across the globe, but its ultimate message, in keeping with the Richmond Ballet’s mission, is uplifting.

At the beginning of the work, one dancer walks out casually and pulls the light switch of a hanging lamp. Various lights populate each section of the work, creating “the glare.” The ballet is performed by six dancers dressed in diverse patterns connected by a warm color palette. The men all wore shorts, but Monica Guerra mixed up the patterns, layers, and textures, giving each dancer an individual look and personality.

Just as the costumes were varied, Cong also varied the movement styles, blending ballet with folk dance, jazz, and hip hop movement in a beautiful jumble of organized chaos. The work is set to five songs from “The Glare” album. “In Roi Don Giovanni” is about sexually charged world leaders, while “Secrets, Accusations and Charges” seems to be about corruption and power. One of my favorite sections was “Going to America,” which features the entire cast mixing it up on stage to a song that is actually about Somalian pirates! “I’m going to America as a prisoner, as a number,” the vocalist croons. But one gets the idea that going to America escorted by the FBI and Navy Seals is preferable to the alternatives.

Couples slow dance in “In Laos” to lyrics that speak of drug mules and drug trafficking. The title song, “The Glare,” is a song about reality television. This final section has the dancers clustered downstage center staring into a light that emanates from somewhere over the audience, bringing the spectators into the midst of the action and reminding us that if we just sit quietly and observe, we are part of the problem.

It was great to be back in the theater, even with restrictions, but most of all, it was a pleasure to be in the theater watching this perfect program. Studio One set a high bar (or barre?) for the rest of the season.

NOTE: Virtual tickets are $25. For patrons who would prefer to watch from the comfort of home, the Richmond Ballet offers virtual access to Studio One. On Monday, September 27th, virtual ticket buyers will receive an email with information on how to access the performance recording, which will be available to stream through Sunday, October 3rd, 11:59 pm. Tickets can be purchased online at etix.com or by phone at (804) 344-0906 x224. Only one virtual ticket is required per household. The deadline to purchase virtual tickets is noon Friday, October 1st. Finally, please note that the Richmond Ballet may be unable to stream this program in its entirety due to music rights restrictions.

Photos by Sarah Ferguson/Richmond Ballet

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Featured

I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE

A Modern Romantic Musical Comedy: “Everything you have ever secretly thought about dating, romance, marriage, lovers, husbands, wives and in-laws, but were afraid to admit.”

At: The Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Chesterfield, VA 23834

Performances: September 11 – October 23, 2021

Ticket Prices: $44-$49

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

I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE is musical comedy balm for the over-whelmed pandemic soul. After a year and a half of pandemic restrictions, and one year after bailing out of the worst flood in the building’s history (https://www.chesterfieldobserver.com/articles/historic-flooding-leaves-swift-creek-mill-theatre-under-water/), The Swift Creek Mill Theatre has reopened its doors to a live audience. This delightful romantic musical comedy was originally scheduled to open in 2020, but the work was put on hold due to the pandemic.

Opening at full capacity, with no social distancing between seats, a fully masked staff welcomed a fully masked audience that had access to digital programs. Love them or hate them, digital programs are here to stay. Opening night featured a pre-show reception with a light buffet instead of a full dinner, but going forward, dinner will be served prior to the show (with plated table-side service instead of a buffet line), and the bar is open.

But enough about housekeeping. Let’s talk about the show; after all, that’s why you came here. It appeared that dynamic quartet of actors – Rachel Marrs, Nicole Morris-Anastasi, Ian Page, and Luke Shares – found just as much enjoyment in their multiple roles as we did. Tom Width first directed this show in 2006, and it has since been updated. Sprinkled throughout the vignettes are references to Google and Netflix, Tinder dating profiles, and the Jennie Craig weight management system. There are local references to Joe’s Inn and the VMFA as well.

I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE was written as a series of vignettes, each of which could stand alone, but which, taken all together, follow a more or less chronological timeline of relationships from dating to marriage, concluding with a charming encounter by an elderly couple. The scenes are familiar, relatable, and consistently amusing. Oh, and the actors’ voices are perfect for their roles, whether singing or speaking.

Among my favorites: Morris-Anastasi and Page were hilarious as two awkward people who turned out to be made for each other in “A Stud and a Babe.” Then there was Schares and Marrs at the movies, where he tried to maintain a tough, macho attitude only to be drawn into all the feelings in “Tear Jerk.”

My initial question about whether a scenic element represented a fireplace or a headboard was answered in “And Now It’s Sexy Time,” a scene that explored the wisdom of employing a lawyer to negotiate a couple’s intimacy requirements. “When a Man Texts a Woman: A Picture of His” tackled one of the more contemporary sticky issues with a balance of humor and insight, while “Scared Straight” was assuredly the most outrageous scene. Here, a singles group facilitator took a small gathering to prison to receive relationship advice from a serial killer played by Schares. Schares’ prosthetic teeth slipped out at one point, and he deftly replaced them, earning a laugh without missing a beat.

There was a scene with a family of doting parents composed of two dads and a vignette about driving with the family that included ingenious choreography for four rolling office chairs. Marrs and Schares brought warmth and tenderness to the final scene, “Funerals are for Dating.” It was delightful to watch Marrs’ character shed her stodgy church-lady demeanor and spontaneously dance with her flirtatious partner. And I must mention Marrs’ expressive face throughout. She has an excellent command of physical comedy – at times reminding me of Lucille Ball.

With a total of twenty scenes spread over two acts, there truly is something for everyone. I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGEis a wonderful welcome back to SCM. If you need a relaxed, enjoyable evening of theater, with good, solid performances and lots of laughs, you can’t go wrong here. In his Director’s Notes, Tom Width refers to “the shock of recognition” principle that allows us to take comfort in knowing that you’re not the only one who has thought or gone through this – whatever “this” is for you.

 I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE is timeless and inclusive. The authors apparently made provision for including local and updated references.

While not the familiar, sing-along type, the lyrics are straightforward, and you can understand every word. It helps that the music, played by an unseen four-piece orchestra, is upbeat and supports the song lyrics, spoken dialogue, and action. Joe Doran’s lighting is subtle yet effective, and Maura Lynch Cravey has fun with the costumes. Her ugly bridesmaid’s dress may have reached a new pinnacle of hideousness. I wouldn’t change a thing about I LOVE YOU, YOU’RE PERFECT, NOW CHANGE!

Cast:

Rachel Marrs

Nicole Morris-Anastasi

Ian Page

Luke Schares

Production Team:

Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro

Music by Jimmy Roberts

Directed by Tom Width

Costume Design by Maura Lynch Cravey

Lighting Design by Joe Doran

Scenic Design by Tom Width

Technical Direction by Liz Allmon

​​

Orchestra:

Conductor/Keyboard: Shellie Johnson

Reeds: Sheri Oyan

Drums: James Oyan

Guitar/Bass: Greg DeBruyn

Run Time:

150 minutes

Performance schedule:

Thu, Fri, Sat @8:00PM Sept 11, 17, 18, 24, 25, 30

Sun, Wed @2:30PM Sept 19, 29

Thu, Fri, Sat @8:00PM Oct 1, 2, 7, 8, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, 23

Sun, Wed @2:30PM Oct 6, 17

Tickets:

$49

$44 for seniors, students, military, and first responders.

Rush – $25 Theatre Only tickets and $15 Student Theatre Only tickets, based on availability one hour prior to any show.

Photos: Robyn O’Neill

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Featured

THE ZOMBIE LIFE

Zombies never second guess. Zombies have no regrets. Are you ready to be converted?

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: August 18-29, 2021. August 18-20, previews. August 21 Premiere. Limited seating due to COVID. All audience members must be fully vaccinated and wear masks inside The Firehouse. Remaining tickets sold out online as of Friday, October 26, but call the Box Office to check if seats have opened up.

Ticket Prices: $33

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

The premise of Chris Gavaler’s new play, The Zombie Life, is that life is better as a Zombie. Zombies do not feel guilt, shame, or emotional pain. They have no responsibilities, don’t have to plan for the future, and have no regrets about the past. So, we find ourselves in the audience as Gavaler’s unnamed* Therapist (Ken Moretti) begins a self-help seminar, the purpose of which is to hear Zombies share their experiences and, hopefully, be convinced to join their ranks. *[The Therapist is unnamed on the program, but elsewhere identified as Dr. Steve Brandeis.]

One Woman (Shalandis Wheeler Smith) comes to the seminar weighed down by the demands of life and her over-stuffed tote bag. She interrupts the Therapist and decides to commit to becoming a Zombie even before the demonstration begins. For the rest of the play, which runs an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission, the Woman learns the ropes of The Zombie Life as her four mentors demonstrate for the audience.

“Being dead is so much easier, so much safer.”

The Therapist uses objects recycled from their past lives and other found objects to trigger memories of the futility of searching for the meaning of life: a pair of doctors involved in Zombie research, a creepy mortician, a mindless soldier, a couple of cannibals, a group of confederate sympathizers, a sex worker, and the mother of a stillborn baby are among the object examples of human pain, suffering, and foibles. But try as he might, the Therapist has a hard time controlling his little band of Zombies, played with varying degrees of creepiness, conviction, and overacting by Marjie Southerland, Jacqueline Jones, PJ Freebourn, and Keaton Hillman.

“Uncertainty. That’s your soul trying to get your attention.”

I was never sure if the creepy asides and overacting was intentional. I have seen and thoroughly enjoyed all six of these actors in many productions over the years, and I know that they are all capable of giving stellar performances. But Chris Gavaler’s script just didn’t reach stellar levels. The script is scattered and awkward and not even a highly professional cast, or earnest direction by Gavaler’s sister, Joan Gavaler, or interesting movement sequences by Dan Plehal could bring a sense of cohesiveness and focus to this production.

The Zombie Life is different, for sure, and there are more than a few moments of humor. It is thought-provoking, and incorporates relevant social, philosophical, and spiritual issues. It just doesn’t work in its present form. Tickets for the remaining performances are sold out, but if you dare or care to see it for yourself, do call The Firehouse Box Office (804) 355-2001 as a few of the limited and socially distanced seats may open up at the last minute.

Production Team:

Written by Chris Gavaler

Directed by Joan Gavaler

Movement Director – Dan Plehal

Production Designer – Todd Labelle

Costume Designer – Annette Hairfield

Prop Designer – AC Wilson

Crew – Emma Avelis & Scott Shepardson

Stage Manager – Grace Brown

Cast:

Therapist – Ken Moretti

Woman – Shalandis Wheeler Smith

Zombie #1 – Marjie Southerland

Zombie #2 – Jacqueline Jones

Zombie #3 – PJ Freebourn

Zombie #4 – Keaton Hillman

​​

Performance schedule:

Wed Aug 18 7:30pm (preview)

Thu Aug 19 7:30pm (preview)

Fri Aug 20 7:30pm (preview)

Sat Aug 21 7:30pm

Thu Aug 26 7:30pm

Fri Aug 27 7:30pm

Sat Aug 28 7:30pm

Sun Aug 29 3pm

Tickets:

$33

Photos: Bill Sigafoos

Featured

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS

Who Knew History Could Be This Much Fun?

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Heritage Gardens, 900 E. Broadway, Hopewell, VA 23860, August 7 & 8; Battersea Park, 1289 Upper Appomattox St., Petersburg, VA 23803, August 14 & 15; Children’s Home (Chesterfield), 6900 Hickory Rd., Petersburg, VA 23803, August 21 & 22.

Performances: August 7-22, Saturdays & Sundays, at 4:00 PM. All performances outdoors; bring your own chair. Tickets: $10 in advance only.

Info: theheritageensemble.org

As a young adult in Brooklyn, I used to listen to a black DJ who frequently used the term “edutainment.”[i] Whatever the source, that seems to be just the right word to describe Margarette Joyner’s production of BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS. A perfect vehicle for children, most of those in attendance at Battersea Park[ii] in Petersburg on Sunday afternoon were adults. Tellingly, we enjoyed ourselves as much as the little one who sat front and center.

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS follows much the same formula as Joyner’s What They Did For Us: Black Women Who Paved the Way, presented at Richmond Triangle Players Robert B. Moss Theatre in February and March of this year. But after I fought and won a battle with the mosquitos and came to a livable compromise with the heat and humidity, I found this wild west historical romp to be one of Joyner’s most enjoyable productions to date. The formula is roughly a series of monologues, performed by a lively cast, many of whom have experience as historical interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. In this casual outdoor setting, the wild west theme, with the actors walking around in cowboy boots with six-shooters strapped to their thighs while greeting the audience by tipping their hats and drawling “howdy, ma’am,” was just what was needed to draw the audience into this rowdy tale.

First up was Clara Brown. Born into slavery right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Clara Brown became Colorado’s first black settler and a pioneering entrepreneur and philanthropist. Then there was Willie Kennard, a sharp-shooting cowboy and arms instructor for the military who became a town marshal in Yankee Hills, Colorado, where he defeated the town bully. Moving on to more familiar names, we also heard from Nat Love aka Deadwood Dick, who recorded many of his exploits in an autobiography, and Mary Fields, perhaps better known as Stagecoach Mary, the first African-American woman driver for the US Postal Service, as well as Bill Pickett, the cowboy and rodeo superstar credited with inventing the rodeo event known as “bull dogging.” This dangerous feat involves the cowboy dropping from his horse onto a steer then wrestling said steer to the ground by its horns. According to legend, Pickett added the sensational flourish of biting the bull’s lip after twisting his head. (Yes, it sounds cruel and gruesome, but this is a theater review, and I am simply reporting historical facts, so no comments, please.)

All these stories were told with great flourishes, lots of “oohs” and “aahhs” and exaggerated body language. The actors performed on and around the front porch of the historic Battersea estate, with the audience seated on folding chairs (“new-fangled contraptions”) or blankets on the grassy lawn. Much as I dislike mosquitos, this setting greatly enhanced the experience for me. The only thing that might possibly have made it better would have been seeing and smelling a plume of smoke rising from the kitchen and someone handing me a plate of BBQ, baked beans, and cornbread with a mason jar of sarsaparilla (root beer would suffice).

Kudos to the versatile and enthusiastic cast. (I haven’t matched names with roles, as there was no printed program, and I don’t want to make any mistakes. But it is an ensemble, so equal kudos to all. Well, okay, a little extra to Dorothy Dee-D Miller for her swagger – and her beard, but don’t tell the others) As of this writing, there are two more opportunities remaining to see BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS or this run. I hope it becomes a regular part of the Heritage Ensemble’s rotating repertoire. Yeehaw, ya’ll. Now git (out there and see the show).

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS

Written & Directed by Margarette Joyner

Produced by the Black Seed Grant

CAST (in alphabetical order):

Ray Bullock

Zakiyyah Jackson

Dorothy Dee-D Miller

Jeremy Morris

Chris Showalter

Shalandis Wheeler Smith

Michelle M. Washington

Willie Wright


[i] The term has been credited to The Walt Disney Company, but some sources trace it back to Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanac).

[ii] Built in 1768 as the country estate of John Banister, Petersburg’s first mayor, Battersea is a Virginia Historic Landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is “one of the finest surviving examples of Palladian architecture in America.” batterseafound.org

Featured

THE PINK UNICORN

Activists Come in Many Guises

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: On Stage and On Demand, July 28 – August 15, 2021. On Demand: check at rtriangle.org

Ticket Prices: $30-35; $10 for Students. On Demand Edition: check at rtriangle.org

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. Richmond Triangle Theater has returned to full-capacity seating. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, and more.

Every now and then a play comes along that takes you completely by surprise and just sweeps you off your feet. The Pink Unicorn is one such play. I was not familiar with Elise Forier Edie’s award-winning story, independently published in 2018. In brief, it is about how the life of a young widow who lives in a conservative Texas town where “everyone” goes to church on Sundays is turned upside-down when her teen-aged daughter announces she is genderqueer. That blow is accompanied by the knock-out punch that she also plans to start a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance at their local high school. I didn’t really have any idea what to expect when I went to Richmond Triangle Players’ Robert B. Moss Theatre for the opening night of the play. Once there, I laughed a lot, cried a little, and went through a plethora of emotions including outrage, anger, frustration, admiration, compassion, and love. The Pink Unicorn, a one-person show, does all the things theater is supposed to do and it does them all well.

Maria Lucas plays the role of the mother, Trisha Lee. Lucas, a VCU Theatre Department graduate, has recently returned to RVA after a decade or so working in Chicago, and what a phenomenal return this is.  The play runs about 75 minutes without intermission and Lucas never once lost my full attention. Those sitting around me in the nearly full theater laughed out loud a lot and I am sure I saw more than one other theater goes wipe away an escaping tear.

“I’m genderqueer,” Jo announces, followed by a snarky, “Maybe you should look it up.” But Trish, apparently an equal match for her teen’s sharp repartee responds without missing a beat, “I’m not in the habit of looking things up.” I’m not entirely what a conservative Christian Texas accent sounds like, but I’m pretty sure Lucas nailed it. From her comic reaction every time she mentions her child’s pet tarantula to her hilarious characterizations of “the lesbian underground railroad” and “consorting on the phone with demons,” the latter in reference to a conversation with the ACLU, delivers a non-stop, well-paced stream of consciousness story that is simply perfect. And informative. And relevant.

Wearing dusty brown coveralls, bare feet, pigtails, and a toolbelt of multi-colored chalk sticks, she performs on a bare stage against a backdrop of chalkboard painted walls on which she draws an ever-changing mural while telling her story. Under the direction of Raja Benz (described in the program as a trans, Filipina-American theatre maker, intimacy educator, and cultural theorist, who uses the pronouns she/her/siyá*), Lucas transforms a few pre-drawn rectangles and a generic head into her child, her child’s friends, her child’s pet tarantula, Beetlejuice, a telephone, a school, a church, a name tag, and whatever else will help her story to move forward. The interactive mural was apparently not part of Edie’s script, but the brainchild of Benz and Lucas. After my initial skepticism, I was completely sold on the chalk drawings and couldn’t wait to see what Lucas would create next. Candace Hudert’s sound design is seamlessly woven into the script and Austin Harber’s lighting adds depth and atmosphere without being intrusive.

The Pink Unicorn, a reference to a little girl’s imaginary comforting friend, is also a nod to a parody religion used by atheists to illustrate the arbitrariness of religious faith, but you can look it up if you want to know more about that.  This play is not just about laughs. It addresses transphobia, homophobia, Christian fundamentalism, family schism, and other real-life issues that are currently affecting families, schools, communities, and our legal system. And yes, you should go see it.

*If you’re reading my blog, I know you ARE in the habit of looking things up, but here’s one for free: In the Tagalog language the word siyá is a pronoun that means both he and she; it is commonly pronounced “shah”

THE PINK UNICORN

Written by Elise Forier Edie

Directed by Raja Benz

CAST:

Marie Lucas as Trisha Lee

CREATIVE TEAM:

Scenic Design by Dasia Gregg & Michael Riley

Costume Design by Claire Bronchick

Lighting Design by Austin Harber

Sound Design by Candace Hudert

Properties Design and Technical Direction by Lucian Restivo

Dialect Design by Louise Casini Hollis

Hair and Make Up Design by Luke Newsome

Assistant Director: Kathrine Moore

Production State Manager: Dwight Merritt

Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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Featured

THE BOTTOM SHOW: A “New” Play by William Shakespeare (Mostly)

THE BOTTOM SHOW: or ‘The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom the Weaver

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road, RVA 23221

Performances: Fridays, July 9 – August 13, 2021

Ticket Prices: $33 ($28 for Seniors and Groups 10+, $23 for RVA On Stage, $20 for Students)

Info: (804) 340-0115 or quilltheatre.org

The Bottom Show: A New Play by William Shakespeare (Mostly), directed by Quill Theatre’s artistic director James Ricks, comes with a WARNING: “This show is devoid of anything vaguely intellectual, serious or romantic. Contains low-brow humor and semi-popular music.” Perhaps the best way to describe The Bottom Show to anyone who hasn’t seen it is that it is Shakespeare for those who think Shakespeare is too high-brow or too difficult to understand – as well as for those who don’t. In other words, it’s for everybody!

Populated, with but one exception, by the same cast who carry the roles of Twelfth Night Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, The Bottom Show – named for a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is a comic adaptation of that play – runs on Fridays in tandem with Twelfth Night. And if physical humor was evident in Twelfth Night, it is the very foundation of The Bottom Show – so much so that each cast member deserves a large bag of Epsom salts, a jar of tiger balm, and a painkiller of choice for each week of the run.

The premise of The Bottom Show is that a group of amateur thespians – “mechanicals” or tradesmen by day – set to work to put on a show for the entertainment of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his lovely lady, Hippolyta. But, of course, their plans run afoul of a group of fairies who are involved in some soap opera style drama of their own. Toss in snippets of popular and vaguely familiar rock and pop songs and sprinkle liberally with references to the plague that shall not be named, spread out some lawn chairs and break out the snacks and you have the makings of a perfect summer night’s entertainment. Musical highlights included Levi Meerovich playing an accordion and singing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and a moment of four-part harmony on “Life Could Be a Dream” that somehow managed a seamless segue into The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”

Kurt Benjamin Smith works hard – and quite successfully – at portraying Bottom as a terrible yet pretentious actor while Erica Hughes provides a wonderful counterbalance as a voice of reason keeping this rowdy band under control. Michael Blackwood is pretty much a straight arrow as Theseus, but lets loose his inner drag queen as Titania, the queen of the fairies, in one of the breakout musical sequences of the show. Lucretia Marie plays Oberon, the king of the fairies whose desire to exact revenge on the stubborn Titania sets in motion much of the havoc and hijinks of both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Bottom Show and later appears as Hippolyta – the latter in a white pantsuit that gives a nod to recent political events that shall also remain unnamed.

The amateur thespians’ show includes lengthy prologues designed to ease the fears of the “ladies” – at one point drawing a disdainful sidebar from Penny Quince. There is a delightfully annoying portrayal of the moon (I think that was Michelle Greensmith, but it’s hard to keep everyone and their shenanigans straight) and a scene with “The Wall” (Foster Solomon) that teases out alternate meanings of the word “bottom.” And, of course, one can never overlook Puck – Emily Berry leapt and flipped about the stage with supernatural energy. The entire evening, running about 90 minutes without an intermission, is magical.

The Bottom Show

By William Shakespeare

Cast

Bottom – Kurt Benjamin Smith

Penny Quince – Erica Hughes

Flute – Mitchell Ashe

Snug – Levi Meerovich

Snout – Foster Solomon

Starveling – Michelle Greensmith

Titania/Theseus – Michael Blackwood

Antonio – Lucretia Marie

Oberon/Hippolyta – Lucretia Marie

Puck/Philostrate – Emily Berry

Musician – Lennon Hu

Direction & Design

Director:  James Ricks

Assistant Director: Cole Metz

Stage Manager: Nata Moriconi

Technical Director: Ryan Delbridge

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Costume Design: Cora Delbridge

Music Direction: Levi Meerovich

Choreography: Nicole Morris-Anastasi

Sound Mixing: Todd Schall-Vess

Additional Dialogue: James Ricks, Bo Wilson, Bradley Carter

Assistant Stage Manager: Lane Woodward

Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Jewell

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 & Quill Theatre Facebook page

Featured

TWELFTH NIGHT: Shakespeare on the Back Lawn

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road, RVA 23221

Performances: July 8 – August 14, 2021

Ticket Prices: $33 ($28 for Seniors, $23 for RVA On Stage, $20 for Students)

Info: (804) 340-0115 or quilltheatre.org

For their first show at Agecroft Hall after “the plague that shall remain nameless” the Quill Theatre chose Shakespeare’s zany romantic comedy, Twelfth Night. The play takes its name from the Twelfth Night as it was created as holiday entertainment marking the Epiphany, or the end of the Christmas season. In addition to the shipwreck, unrequited love, deception, revenge, mistaken identities, cross-dressing, androgyny, and numerous other elements that Shakespeare wrote into the plot, Quill Theatre updated the play with colorful and whimsical costuming (e.g., Feste’s flower child ensemble, Malvolio’s bell bottoms and yellow stockings) and a sound score that featured 1960s pop hits (think the Beatles, the Monkees, and Elvis).

Meerovich, who plays the fool Feste as well as serves as musical director, opens the show with a lively serenade that sets the tone for the evening and Lucretia Marie who plays the minor but nonetheless important role of the sea captain, Antonio, who saves the shipwrecked Sebastian, reads the evening’s announcements. Before you know it, the play has begun, with some major characters popping up from amidst the audience from time to time. The show runs about 2.5 hours, with one intermission, but director Jan Powell established an easy, organic pace that complemented the casual layout, with the audience spread out over the back lawn under a clear sky, accentuated by a lovely sunset, a pastoral setting, and welcome breezes from the nearby river – as well as the occasional passing train.

For those who need a refresher – or an introduction – Twelfth Night recounts the tale of noble-born twins Viola and Sebastian who are shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria, a region of the Balkan Peninsula. The twins are separated, each thinking the other has drowned. Sebastian is rescued by Antonio, a sea captain, and the two remain peripheral for much of the play while Viola, after being saved by an unnamed rescuer, disguises herself as a boy, takes the name Cesario, and becomes a servant to Duke Orsino, who is in love with the fair Olivia, who is mourning her deceased brother. To complicate matters, Viola/Cesario falls in love with Orsino, and Olivia falls in love with Cesario who has come to plead the case of Orsino. While all this is going on, Olivia’s maid Maria, Olivia’s rowdy uncle Toby and his friend Sir Andrew conspire to convince Olivia’s household steward Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him. Feste, a court jester and roving musician, weaves between all the characters, collecting tips and keeping the audience entertained with musical divertissements.

Emily Berry and Mitchell Ashe played the shipwrecked twins, each believing the other had drowned until the final scene. Dressed identically, with Berry disguised as a boy, both become involved in relationships that bend and blend gender boundaries. Berry’s character is in a triangle with Olivia and Orsino while Ashe’s character inadvertently risks breaking the bonds of trust established with the sea captain who helped him at great personal risk. Both ultimately end up in conventional male-female couplings. Berry has a lot more stage time than Ashe, increasing the audience’s anticipation of their ultimate reunion – which drew cheers on Thursday night.

Michael Blackwood and Lucretia Marie, as the benefactors of the twins, provided solid dramatic counterpoint to the constant hilarity delivered by Cole Metz, Levi Meerovich, Foster Solomon, and Kurt Benjamin Smith, much of which was instigated by Erica Hughes’ character. Thanks to their unrelenting and often physical humor, it was easy to keep up with the flow of the action even when the sound system failed us. Sometimes, it seems depending on where the actors were standing, words and lines got lost, and for awhile there was a bit of static coming from some of the speakers. But this was a new configuration for the Richmond Shakespeare Festival, and I trust that these issues will be worked out during the run of the show.

A modest set (no credit given on the PDF version of the digital program I have) consisting of a simple wooden fence with a few green vines and some lovely rainbow colored lighting by BJ Wilkerson provided atmosphere without overwhelming the backdrop – Agecroft Hall, a Tudor mansion that, we were reminded, stood in England while Shakespeare was still alive. The audience saw scattered across the spacious lawn on lawn chairs and blankets, in clusters as close to others as you chose to be. I don’t recall seeing any masks, but you could certainly wear one if you want to. All in all, Twelfth Night delivered a delightful night of theater, and its utter nonsense provided a welcome sense of normalcy.

Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare

Cast

Viola – Emily Berry

Olivia – Michelle Greensmith

Orsino – Michael Blackwood

Malvolio – Cole Metz

Feste – Levi Meerovich

Toby Belch – Foster Solomon

Andrew Aguecheek – Kurt Benjamin Smith

Maria – Erica Hughes

Sebastian – Mitchell Ashe

Antonio – Lucretia Marie

Direction & Design

Director:  Dr. Jan Powell

Assistant Director: Melissa Rayford

Stage Manager: Nata Moriconi

Technical Director: Ryan Delbridge

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Costume Design: Anna Bialkowski

Music Direction: Levi Meerovich

Sound Mixing: Todd Schall-Vess

Intimacy Director: Lucinda Piro

Assistant Stage Manager: Lane Woodward

Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Jewell

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 & Quill Theatre Facebook page

 

Featured

ELLA AND HER FELLA FRANK:

A Match Made in Heaven

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Arenstein Stage. 114 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: July 9 – September 12, 2021 (Preview July 8)

Ticket Prices: $58. Discounted group rates and rush tickets available.

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

The theme for opening night was “Richmond theater is back!” The occasion was festive, with a classic Rolls Royce convertible parked in front of the November Theatre, a ribbon cutting, and after the show, a ceremonial darkening of the lights in honor of the late Randy Strawderman, who first conceived of this heavenly duo.

The word heavenly is not thrown around lightly, as the premise of this show – more a concert than a play or even a musical – is a reunion in heaven of these two real-life friends and musical collaborators. The result is a nostalgic concert of classics and favorites.

Highlights of the evening (not counting being out at a live theater event) included Desirée Roots’ skillful and confident demonstration of Fitzgerald’s signature scatting technique on Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) and Scott Wichmann’s nuanced and intimately articulated delivery of “One For My Baby and One More For the Road.” There was even a good-spirited vocal battle set off when Wichmann tried to sing Sinatra’s signature “New York, New York.” Roots threw every city or geographically related song she could think of at him before allowing him the pleasure of completing the song: “I Love Paris,” Girl From Ipanema,” “My Kind of Town (Chicago),” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Tale the A Train,” and more.

Roots is no stranger to the music of Ella Fitzgerald, having written and starred in a 2017 tribute, Ella at 100 (since renamed Forever Ella). Roots was both amusing and elegant, portraying “The First Lady of Song” in three elegant gowns – a blinding gold metallic number, a lime green satin ensemble, and an angelic white finale creation adorned with feathers and glitter – each with matching shoes and a color-coordinated handkerchief. Kudos to Sue Griffin and Keith Walker for the costume design. Wichmann was a natural choice for the popular singer nicknamed “Ol’ Blue Eyes.” Between the two of them, Fitzgerald and Sinatra earned 25 Grammy awards (13 for her and 11 for him), and sold somewhere in the vicinity of 200 million albums.

Seeing these two musical icons portrayed by two familiar theater stars would have been a treat at any time, but it was especially heart-warming as the inaugural show of the great re-opening. Too bad Friday night’s performance was marred by a wonky sound system. Both singer’s voices were under-amplified and at times distorted while singing, and much of their light banter was completely lost. (I understand this was not the case during the previous night’s Preview performance, and I hope it doesn’t affect any other shows.)

A live 7-piece orchestra was placed onstage – socially distanced – in a simple and elegant setting of white balloon-like globes that at times reflected different colored lights. The beautifully subtle lighting was designed by BJ Wilkinson. As at any good concert, the musicians got a chance to solo, and even the Overture (Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump) and the Encore (Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a Strong”) drew enthusiastic applause. Larri Branch, the Music Director, was also the pianist – who had a single line, a long-drawn out “yep!” in response to questions like, “Are they (meaning us, the audience) real? There was even a bit of audience participation – some planned and some that I think was spontaneous.


Katrinah Carol Lewis’ direction was unobtrusive and organic – except when the two vocalists briefly paced around one another like caged cats. Their initial attempts to hug one another were hilariously rebuffed by an invisible force shield that prevented them from touching – another nod to COVID-19 conventions, yet highly unlikely to happen in heaven.

Written by Richmond-based playwright Bo Wilson and featuring nearly 30 songs, Ella and Her Fella Frank runs about 80 minutes, with no intermission. In accordance with Actors’ Equity Association COVID-19 Guidelines, face masks are required to be worn by all patrons while in the building and no food or drinks are being served at this time.

In honor of Randy Strawderman, who conceived of the original concept of this show, a moving tribute was held after the show, with Debra Wagoner singing from the balcony above the theater’s restored original entrance and a ceremonial darkening of the theater lights. A detailed tribute is available in the digital program – another COVID-19 theater convention that is likely to be around for awhile.

Ella and Her Fella Frank

by Bo Wilson

Based on an original concept by Randy Strawderman

Cast

Desirée Roots as Ella Fitzgerald

Scott Wichmann as Frank Sinatra

Direction & Design

Direction: Katrinah Carol Lewis

Scenic Design: Josafath Reynoso

Costume Design: Sue Griffin and Keith Walker

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Music Direction Larri Branch

Stage Management: Jocelyn A. Thompson

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

Find these books by Julinda on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/bookshelf

Featured

COMPANY | E

NEXT: WARMER. An evening of performance on climate change

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 25 & 26, 2021.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $20. Streaming Tickets: $8 to see NEXT: WARMER right from your home: https://dogtown.vhx.tv/pro…/company-e-presents-next-warmer

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

REPERTORY:

The Art of Looking Back. Choreography: Emese Nagy (Hungary). Music: Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms; Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree  and Winter Wonderland by Brenda Lee; Mandolin Concerto I  C Major by Antonio Vivaldi; A rich life with less stuff | The Minimalists  TEDxWhitefish

These Frames. Choreography: Robert Rubama (Brooklyn, NY, USA). Music: Organization: Foundation Foundation by Dylan Lambert; Frames by Robert Rubama

Current. Choreography: Maddie Hanson (Canada). Music: Midnight by Kyle Preston; Behind Every Decision by Yehezkel Raz; Dark Tension by Kyle Preston; Hibernation by Peter James Johnson

Y zero. Choreography: Ashley Lobo (India). Music: Original score by Chirag Agarwal & DWC

Passenger. Choreography: Rayven Leak (USA). Music: Original score by Clifton Brockington; additional music by Solange

Having sent out a call for entries on climate change, Company | E, under the artistic direction of Paul Gordon Emerson and Pilkington, selected works by Maddie Hanson (Canada), Ashley Lobo (India), Emese Nagy (Hungary), and Robert Rubama (USA). A fifth work, by Rayven Leak, marked the debut of the Liz Cherry Jones Memorial Commission, awarded to a current student or recent graduate, in collaboration with the Company’s partner, Howard University. All five works came under the umbrella of the title Next: Warmer, a concert of works exploring the theme of climate change and reducing the company’s own footprint in ways large and small.

Emese Nagy’s The Art of Looking Back was at once ridiculously awkward and surprisingly graceful. Dancer Horizon Miguel donned layers of clothing and flung his body around a confined space that was also home to a rotary phone, a mermaid fishtail, a belly button brush, and several boxes. Meanwhile, his partner, Kelsey Rohr, rummaged through piles of clothing and unidentifiable debris. They appeared to be a pair of hoarders reveling in – and being consumed by – years of uncontrolled consumerism.

[https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2236274489837111]

Robert Rubama’s quintet, These Frames, used abstract movement hung on a framework of architectural design in an ambient soundscape that was oddly soothing.  The opening solo made me think of a bird doing yoga. Rubama employed a transient center of gravity, with asymmetrical motifs and off-kilter spines that seemed physically and logically incapable of supporting the moving bodies that enveloped them. This may be his way of metaphorically addressing the larger issue of sustainable practices in architecture and construction and its impact on global carbon emissions.  I was particularly struck by a repeating motif in which the dancers placed their hands at their hip in a diamond shape and lifted them upwards. It was so simple yet so powerful to watch these earthen vessels learn to construct new earthen homes.

[https://m.facebook.com/watch/?v=1219141105185056&_rdr]

Maddie Hanson’s Current – first introduced to Richmond at the previous weeks RDF21 Weekend Two – was performed against a video background of earth, sky, and water. The dancers embodied an undulating spiraling body roll and moved as a unit, giving the impression of being part of a whole even when not touching. Our connection to the Earth and our relationship with water were the focus. Again, I felt that gravity was relative. It was fascinating how connected the various works – each by a different choreographer – appeared to be as the program progressed.

[https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1126442894518799]

Ashley Lobo’s Y zero examined our relationship to planet Earth and looked at the Earth as a living being. The women’s tunics were reminiscent of the ancient Greek peplos or the ancient Roman chiton, and the men’s garments reminded me of monk’s attire. Both drew the mind back in time and supported a sense of history as the dancers moved through this very grounded and immersive work. Lobo’s work seemed to be not so much about the movement as it was about the atmosphere it created.

[https://m.facebook.com/watch/?v=2895562947384103&_rdr]

The program closed with Passenger. Rayven Leak, a 2020 graduate of Howard University, crafted this movement collage of broken, boneless postures infused with hip hop and lyrical movement. A Rasta walk, smooth spins, and catwalks were all embraced by the dancers, who were wrapped in an original score by company resident artist Clifton Brockington, mixed with additional music by Solange.

It was deeply satisfying the way the five works by five different choreographers fit together into a seamless thematic movement. This is as it should be.

Photos from Company | E and Dogtown webpages. Video clips from Company | E website. Photo by Dave Parrish Photography.

Featured

ALL NEW RDF21: WEEKEND TWO!

DOGTOWN DANCE THEATRE PRESENTS THE 2021 RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL LIVE AND IN-PERSON

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: Week One: June 11-12, 2021. Week Two: June 18-19. Live and streamed on Dogtown STREAM.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $20 General; $10 Students. Virtual Access $39.99 annually (Free Trial currently in effect. https://www.dogtowndancetheatre.com/dogtownstream)

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

WEEK 2 REPERTORY:

Perceived Threat by Leah Glenn Dance Theatre (Williamsburg, VA). Choreography: Leah Glenn. Music: Max Richter.

Marathon by Trybe Dance Collective (a safe space for emerging artists). Choreography: Danielle Lyndsay. Asst. Jaedyn Cameron, Daneya Celestin, Kendall Parker, Chloe Ruffin, Mia Watkins. Music: “Marathon (In Roses)” by Gem Club.

Equinox a film by Jonah Haber

Vacancy by Baran Dance (Charlotte, NC). Choreography: Audrey Baran. Music: Nicholas Jaar.

Kalika Stuthi by Sri Sai Dance Academy. Choreography: Sarada Jammi. Music: Satyagopal Tumuluri.

A Mother’s Soliloquy a film by Cameron Kostopoulos. Directed & written by Cameron Kostopoulos. Music: Prateek Rajagopal.

One hundred years flicker; I kiss the Snow by Jenna Beardsley (Richmond, VA). Choreography: Jenna Beardsley. Videography: Taylor Bonadies. Music: “Flora” by Elysia Crampton ft. Jeremy Rojas & “When I Rule the World” by Liz

desasosiego. by Aina Lanas (Spain). Direction, Choreography & Writing: Aina Lanas.

Retentions by CLAVES UNIDOS (Richmond, VA). Choreography: Kevin LaMarr Jones with Alyssa Frye, Diamond Hudson & the performers.

Salad Days by Sara Hook. Choreography by Sara Hook. Music: “Anfangs wollt’ ich fast Verzagan (At First I Almost Despaired)” by Robert Schumann

Canis Major an award-winning film by Charli Brissey. Direction, Choreography & Animation: Charli Brissey.

CURRENT by Company | E (Washington, D.C.). Choreography: Maddie Hanson. Music: “Midnight” by Kyle Preston, “Behind Every Decision” by Yehezkel Raz, “Dark Tension: by Kyle Preston & “Hibernation” by Pete James Johnson.

The Richmond Dance Festival came back for a second week with all-new programming. Like the first week, the program consisted of a mix of live performances and dances created on and for video. There were some truly outstanding performances, but this time there seemed to be some unevenness in genres, execution, and programming.

Leah Glenn set the bar high with the opening work, Perceived Threat. Jamal Story started standing on one leg, with the other suspended in the air somewhere in the region of his ear while he turned. It brought to mind images of Fred Benjamin and Eleo Pomare, two icons of American modern dance for those of a certain age. The work itself, a duet Story performed with partner Kylie LeWallen, is contentious and gravity-defying, and marked by some of the strongest technique I’ve seen in quite some time.

Another highlight of the program was Sara Hook’s zany and breathless duet Salad Days. The title is taken from a Shakespearean reference to the “salad days” or heyday of youth. Throughout most of the dance, Rachel Rizzuto counted aloud from 1-10, varying the tempo and accent and sometimes counting to 12. Occasionally her voice waned, her partner wearied of the pace, only to rally and rejoin the game. For some reason, at one point, Rizzuto takes off her shirt and stands topless while her partner politely averts his eyes, but humor doesn’t always have to make sense to make us laugh. The program included six more live dances and four dance films.

The Trybe Dance Collective’s group work, Marathon, featured a troop of young dancers with tight buns and purple leotards.  Though it is constructed of basic studio moves – bridges, contractions hinges – it brought to mind Balanchine’s “Serenade,” as it, too, was created as a showcase for young dancers and an introduction to the choreographer’s technique for the audience.

In Audrey Baran’s Vacancy ritual, repetition, and meditative poses were set against a soundscape of words, music, conversation, and children’s voices. A program note included the question, “How do we navigate or occupy the space and time left behind after a loss, and should we?” I wasn’t quite sure what was happening, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the riveting motion.

Ameya King performed the classical Indian piece, Kalika Stuthi, on Saturday (Manaswi Gonela danced the role on Friday), and I found it interesting that the song sounded familiar as it was written by the choreographer’s father, Satyagopal Tumuluri. (It reminded me of a song I heard on a segment of Rhoda Grauer’s 1993 Dancing video series, but I couldn’t find any music credits for the series.) King’s long bejeweled braid and ankle bells helped accentuate the polyrhythms as each and every part of her body danced: eyes, fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, torso, hips, legs, feet – each subdued to the discipline of her craft. It was possible for one unfamiliar with the genre to follow parts of the story, even if we had no knowledge of the demands of the technique.

The second half of the program began with Jenna Beardsley’s solo, One hundred years flicker; I kiss the Snow, featuring the specter-like figure of a gauze-covered dancer on stage and a grainy black and white film on the screen behind her.  The work ends with a bizarre juxtaposition of the waif-like figure – is it human or human-like; is it living or no longer living – moving to the empowering anthem “When I Rule the World.” The unusual title comes from a line in Scottish singer SOPHIE’s song, “Is It Cold in the Water?” – the same artist who produced “When I Rule the World” – and the work is dedicated to the mysterious artist who identified as a trans woman and tragically died after a fall from a balcony earlier this year.

Kevin LaMarr Jones’ Retentions featured a multi-generational cast of women and a toddler girl dancing to music fired with the passion of Spanish guitar. The little one tentatively ventured from her mother’s arms to explore the striding steps of the other women and took a few test strides of her own. One woman moved alone, slowly traversing the back of the space, emphasizing a sense of being along but together. Like much of Jones’ work, Retentions speaks of history and geography and cultural diffusion.

The program closed with Company | E’s CURRENT, a complex work that is at once overly long, ambiguous, and committed. A section that dealt with the acquisition of an air fryer was hilarious while hammering home its point about unnecessary consumption. But I will be covering this company more in-depth next week when they return for an entire evening of works from their WARMER series.

By far, my favorite of the films was Aina Lanas’ desasosiego (Restless). Lanas, described in the program as a “reference for urban/contemporary dance in Spain,” provided an immensely entertaining film featuring four women in deconstructed suits entertaining themselves – and their audience – by playing with and tasting lemons. At some point, their jackets and pants fall away, and there is even a moment of flamenco, of course. [https://vimeo.com/486618048]

Jonah Haber’s film, EQUINOX, featured a woman wearing a black dress walking in a geodesic dome. The work is filled with many structures and has a sci-fi feel. Cameron Kostopoulos’ film, A MOTHER’S SOLILOQUY, was a depressing tale of addiction. A crumbling room of mirrors and broken glass reflected a woman’s rapid deterioration, and I was outraged that this film closed out the first half of the program. Near the end of the second act, Charli Brissey’s award-winning animated film, CANIS MAJOR, explored a writer navigating through a severe case of writer’s block with the help of their dog. The writer contemplates the relationship between dancing and surviving the end of the world. [https://www.charlibrisseyisananimal.com/canis-major-2019]

All-in-all, Weekend Two was marked by diversity and variety, yet it lacked the visceral and artistic impact, the “wow” factor of Weekend One. 

Featured

RDF21:

DOGTOWN DANCE THEATRE PRESENTS THE 2021 RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL LIVE AND IN PERSON

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: Week One: June 11-12, 2021. Week Two: June 18-19. Live and streamed on Dogtown STREAM.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $20 General; $10 Students. Virtual Access $39.99 annually (Free Trial currently in effect. https://www.dogtowndancetheatre.com/dogtownstream)

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

WEEK 1 REPERTORY:

Affected | Karar Dance Company | Choreography by Kara Robertson | Music: Original Score by Ryan Davis | Costumes: Damian Bond

En el Vació (In the Vacuum) | Choreography by Eric Rivera | Music: “Una Palabra” by Carlos Varela and “Contrastes” (La Periferia feat. Renzo Baltyzzi) by Damian Verdun | Costume: Johan Stegmeir

when you are looking, what do you see? (FILM) | Dogwood Dance Company | Choreography by Joanna Chocklett with collaboration from performers | Music: “Epilogue” by Olafur Arnaulds

Collective Fortitude | RADAR | Choreography by Megan Rivero | Music: “Outro” by M83

Fiscal Relations (2018) | Choreography by Julianna Raimondo | Music: “Between Water and Wind” by Colin Stetson

Exhale (FILM) | Directed by Moniek van der Kallen

Tribal (Improvisational Belly Dance) | Ajna Tribal Belly Dance Troupe | Choreography & Performance by Stephanie Wagner, Missy Moore, Lois Milone, Alicia Hagy | Music: “Land Back” by A Tribe called Red, “Trøllabundin” by Eiver, “Pow Wow” by A Tribe Called Red

Personal Tea Ceremony | Human Landscape Dance | Choreography by Malcolm Shute | Music: “Meditation” by Jules Massenet

DRY ONE’S EYES (FILM) | Directed by Botis Seva & Ben Williams

Two’s Too Much | Choreography & Performance by Luisa Innisfree Martinez & Kayla Xavier | Music: “Put Your Head on my Shoulder” by Paul Anka & “Little Story” by Janusz Wojtarowicz, Motion Trio

Ulrichs 1867 (FILM) | Directed by Sven Niemeyer

Malong Dance and Fan Dance | Sayaw! Diversity | Choreography by Dhol Tuason | Music: Kapa Malong-Malong & Philippine tribal music dance

The Richmond Dance Festival is back, and the dance community has obviously been starving for live dance. Dogtown Dance Theatre welcomed a full house (that’s about 80-ish people), and masks are optional if you are fully vaccinated. People seemed comfortable with the mix of social distancing accented with elbow bumps and a few actual hugs. The joy of being back in the theater for a live performance enhanced a dynamic and diverse program consisting of 8 dances and 4 films. (There will be an entirely new program for the second week. See below for details.)

Highlights of the program included Ajna Tribal Belly Dance and Sayaw!, Eric Rivera’s solo, and the film by Seva and Williams.

It’s hard to believe that the smoothly synchronized poly-rhythmic movements of Ajna Tribal are improvised. The quartet of women mesmerized with heads, shoulders, hips, and hands all moving to different rhythms simultaneously. Two of them even did this while balancing curved swords (scimitars?) atop their heads. The finger cymbals, colorful costumes, and music used in this American Tribal Style belly dance seemed to represent a fusion of cultures: Middle Eastern, Asian, African, and more.  What a way to end the first act!

The final work, Malong Dance and Fan Dance, was no less impressive. Dhol Tuason presented two traditional Philippine dances. “Pagapir,” performed with glittering fans is a royal court dance of the Maranao people and from the Lake Lanao area, features elegant movements of the large fans while the women’s feet take tiny steps emphasizing their prominent family background and good manners. “Malong” is the name of the gorgeous tubes of fabric worn by the dancers and gracefully manipulated from skirt to shawl to mantle, alternately covering and revealing. As beautiful as the fans and fabric were the women who represented a wide range of ages from youth to elders, a gentle reminder that dance is for everyone.

Eric Rivera’s intense solo, En el Vació,was performed by Alisha Agrawal, in a fiery red dress that boldly reflected a flamenco influence. The work, which in English translates to In the Vacuum, incorporated horizontal rolls on a wide bench. It is described as an exploration of the sense of urgency surrounding the return to normalcy – something that has been on our minds recently. Do we cling to the past, or move ahead into an uncertain future? En el Vació does not answer these questions, but it certainly makes contemplating them more interesting. Rivera is a prolific choreographer, having spent 13 seasons with Ballet Hispanico of New York where he created or helped to create more than 20 original works.  He has also performed with Minnesota Ballet, Ballet Teatro Municipal de San Juan, P.R., and in the European tour of West Side Story.

The beautiful brown bodies and clear eyes of the women and girls in the film Dry One’s Eyes seem to be on a journey in search of identity. Close-ups of faces beautifully devoid of makeup, and one inexplicably masked in white powder (does it represent oppression or tradition?) are arranged in stark contrast to tortured and sometimes invasive movements and situations (as when gloved hands roughly explore one’s teeth) and the presence of a black Barbie doll is at once innocent and ominous. This is the sort of art that relies equally on the movement and the film – a delicately balanced and perfect marriage of mediums. Dance artist Botis Seva often uses hip hop and autobiographical experiences to propel his narratives and the results are compelling and cutting-edge.

While these were my personal favorites of the evening’s dozen offerings, the rest of the program was outstanding.

The program opened with Karar Dance Company’s duet, Affected. The work has extraordinary use of energy, from sustained and to lyrical to robotic and ritualistic. Karar presented their first evening length work, Circadian, and at Dogtown in 2019 – in the “before” times – and has presented work, including Affected in Philadelphia in collaboration with the NYC’s Vanessa Long Dance Company. Karar Dance Company is definitely a company to watch.

RADAR’s Collective Fortitude, first presented in 2016 as part of the company’s evening length work, beingHUMAN, employs majestic music and tense movement in an exploration of human connection and relating to others. Washington, D.C.-based Human Landscape Dance is contemporary company whose work often focuses on human struggle and relationships and each of their dances is framed by some sort of container (such as a box or an egg) or employs foundational props. Julianna Raimondo’s Fiscal Relations is populated with monstrous possessions, poses from classic hip hop album covers, and dancers wearing jackets, irregularly buttoned shirts, and lots of noise! Raimondo’s work reflects an eclectic background, having worked with DanceWorks Chicago, Matt Pardo, and Urban Bush Women, among others,

Personal Tea Ceremony, a beautifully intimate and gentle work performed by Alexander Short and Malcolm Shute, is an exploration of an experience Shute had while traveling in Japan. “I encountered a Japanese man who spoke as little English as I speak Japanese,” he said in a Dogtown spotlight, “and offered me a ride to a remote location. After I took my photos, he led me to a temple for a tea ceremony. The event forged a bond between us, despite our differences.” The leaves and petals on the floor and on the dancers’ shirts could represent tea leaves or the flora of the remote location where the tea ceremony took place.

Two’s Too Much, choreographed and performed by Luisa Innisfree Martinez and Kayla Xavier, was by far the most amusing work on the program. The piece involved two women, a rug, and a bottle of wine, and carries the brief but poignant descriptor, “What’s mine isn’t yours…” Like Personal Tea Ceremony, the work makes use of props and explores relationships, and delightfully displays Martinez’ focus on women’s characteristics and mannerisms and using tangible objects to disrupt space.

Other films shown included Dogwood Dance’s when you are looking, what do you see? – a mostly black and white interlude set in a wide field, it addresses the ways in which we categorize and compare, how we take in the world. Do we really look? Do we really see? It is a beautiful first film by Joanna Chocklett, a Richmond native and graduate of the JMU dance program.

Hailing from the Netherlands, Moniek van der Kallen’s Exhale is another emotionally impactful film that seems to be about drowning and rebirth – or some sort of resurrection. It is beautifully filmed, in and under water. Last, but certainly not least, was German dancer and filmmaker Sven Niemeyer’s documentary-like film, Ulrichs 1867. Raw and heart-wrenching, it deals with violence against the LGBTQ community.

A dozen pieces is a lot. I normally would call it overkill, but in this case Dogtown artistic director Jess Burgess outdid herself in selecting works that all stand out in their own right and that worked together to create a festive atmosphere for this first RDF21 program. But wait, there’s more. June 18 and 19, Weekend Two will have a whole new repertory:

Perceived Threat by Leah Glenn Dance Theatre (Williamsburg, VA)

Marathon by Trybe Dance Collective (a safe space for emerging artists)

Equinox a film by Jonah Haber

Vacancy by Baran Dance (Charlotte, NC)

Kalika Stuthi by Sri Sai Dance Academy

A Mother’s Soliloquy a film by Cameron Kostopoulos

One hundred years flicker; I kiss the Snow by Jenna Beardsley (Richmond, VA)

desasosiego. by Aina Lanas (Spain)

Retentions by CLAVES UNIDOS (Richmond, VA)

Salad Days by Sara Hook

Canis Major an award-winning film by Charli Brissey

CURRENT by Company | E (Washington, D.C.)

My only complaint: Since re-opening, the risers have not been set up, so if you’re sitting beyond the second row, it’s hard to see. Several people chose to stand at the back of the theater to see better.

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WALLED IN WITH WALDEN

a new play by Andrew Gall with material adapted from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: May 27-June 26, 2021, live and streamed. May 27-29, previews. June 3 Premiere. June 18-20 live & live stream.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $33 in person & live stream

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

What is more appropriate as we emerge from more than a year of pandemic restrictions than a play based on the experiences of a man in prison (Andrew Gall’s fictional Lester Franklin) reading a book about a man who spent two years living in isolation in the woods (the American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau)? Andrew Gall’s new play, Walled In, is, indeed, a play on Thoreau’s Walden, and while Gall liberally utilizes Thoreau’s words, his character, a MAGA-hat wearing Republican corporate lawyer who is in jail “taking one for the team” and wondering what happened to his promised pardon is very much a man of the twenty-first century. White, privileged, on the far side of middle age, Franklin is an angry, foul-mouthed, entitled creature whose own wife and daughter seem eager to sanitize their hands of his particular brand of filth. Whew. If that seems wordy, it’s just a hint of what to expect when you see Walled In.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things…” – Henry David Thoreau

The exact details of how Franklin landed in prison are not necessary. We first meet him having a hissy fit after being assigned to clean the prison toilets. It doesn’t take long for him to be assigned to a prison education program where his class is assigned to read and journal about Thoreau’s two-year social-spiritual experiment, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days living in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, a far shorter sentence than what our friend Franklin might expect.

Doug Blackburn plays the role of Franklin in this one-person play (although two other actors lend their voices as the unseen Instructor (Todd Labelle, who is also the Production Designer) and Hicks, a prisoner in an adjacent cell (Rudy Mitchell). I could say Blackburn is a strong presence, but the playwright doesn’t really give him any other option. Franklin is an angry man. He strings together lines of expletives as if he were training for an Olympic competition in obscenities. (The program includes the “WARNING: This play contains very strong language that some may find offensive.”) It comes as no surprise when Act One ends with Franklin collapsing on the floor after yet another round of screaming into the wall phone – a phone to which he apparently has unlimited access. But there are also beautiful if rare poetic interludes, as in the description of an old unwashed coat that smells of Old Spice and bonfires.

Act Two begins with Franklin lounging on his cot reading. Hicks, the closest thing he has to a friend, refers to him endearingly as Heart Attack, and the bean plant he had tossed into the toilet is inexplicably flourishing on his nightstand. Yes, Hicks says he replanted it, but how did he retrieve it from the toilet and get it onto Franklin’s nightstand? Hmm? I do not consider it a SPOILER to tell you that Franklin’s journey of self-discovery while reading Thoreau does not result in a magical transformation. It does not make him any more likable. In the end, he is not redeemed but instead released on house arrest after Hicks dies of COVID-19, which Franklin refers to as the “China virus.” The point is not the destination but the journey. There is a lot of kicking and screaming; the two hours (with an intermission at the 80-minute mark) must be exhausting for Blackburn. It certainly is not an easy ride for the audience. Still, it is timely and raw and for some, seeing the character Franklin, who represents so much of what we hate about politics and privilege, in prison and no longer able to call the shots, is smugly satisfying. In a recent interview with Jerry Williams on the “Curtain Call” podcast, Gall described Lester Franklin as “a sort of Ebenezer Scrooge,” yet I doubt Franklin achieved any real redemption. Lester Franklin is an awful person; Doug Blackburn is a wonderful actor (assuming he is nothing like Franklin).

Gall relocated to RVA from North Carolina during the pandemic, and this is his first offering as part of the local theater community. Gall wrote and directed Walled In. Blackburn has been seen previously in the Firehouse production of Wrong Chopped. The lights, projections, and sound score for Walled In are fabulous. Production Designer Todd Labelle and Composer/Sound Designer Mark Messing have created a simple set (a wall phone, a cell featuring a toilet, night table, and cot, and a single wooden school desk) that is beautifully enhanced with a soundscape featuring train whistles and bullfrogs, owls and whippoorwills and other sounds. Lights and projections effectively transform the bare walls into the woods surrounding Walden Pond, adding depth and dimension to an otherwise flat space.

Walled In is not the kind of play you leave smiling and telling everyone how much you liked it. It is a play that makes you angry. It makes you think. And you leave feeling that things have got to change. Redemption isn’t just for individuals; it’s for systems.

Production Team:

Written and directed by Andrew Gall

Performed by Doug Blackburn

Featuring the voices of Todd Labelle and Rudy Mitchell

Sound Designer – Mark Messing

Costume Designer – Colin Lowrey II

Production Designer – Todd Labelle

Assistant Director – Grace Brown

Production Associate – Claire Bronchick

Stage Manager – Kasey Britt

Performance Schedule:

Thu, May 27 @ 7:30pm / invited preview

Fri, May 28 @ 7:30pm / invited preview

Sat, May 29@ 7:30pm / invited preview

Thu, June 3 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 4 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 5 @ 7:30pm

Sun, June 6 @ 3:00pm

Thu, June 10 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 11 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 12 @ 7:30pm

Sun, June 13 @ 3:00pm

Thu, June 17 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 18 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)

Sat, June 19 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)

Sun, June 20 @ 3:00pm (live + live stream)

Thu, June 24 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 25 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 26, 7:30pm

Tickets:

$33 live and live stream 

Featured

RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO SERIES/MAY

BALLET CLOSES SEASON WITH GUEST CHOREOGRAPHER

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Program

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Richmond Ballet, Canal Street Studios, 407 East Canal Street, RVA 23219

Performances: May 11-23, 2021, live and streamed.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets start at $25 [most performances sold out]; Virtual Tickets $20. [NOTE: On the evening of Sunday, May 23rd, virtual ticket buyers will receive an email with information on how to access the performance recording, which will be available to stream for one week. Virtual tickets for Studio Series: May must be purchased by 11:59 PM on Saturday, May 22nd.

(Please note that due to music rights restrictions, we may be unable to stream this program in its entirety.]

Info: (804) 344-0906, etix.com, or richmondballet.com. See the Richmond Ballet’s website for their COVID-19 precautions and more.

REPERTORY:

some kind of peace

Choreography by Levi Philip Marsman

Music by Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm

Costume Design by Emily Morgan

Lighting Design by Christopher Devlin Hill

World Premiere: May 11, 2021, Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, Richmond, Virginia

sweet bitter love

Choreography by Carmen de Lavallade

Music sung by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway

Costume Design by Geoffrey Holder

Lighting Design by Chenault Spence

Costumes courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

World Premiere: December 7, 2000, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York City Center, New York

Richmond Ballet Premiere: May 7, 2019, Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, Richmond, Virginia

excerpts from who cares?

Choreography by George Balanchine

Music by George Gershwin Adapted and Orchestrated by Hershy Kay

Staging by Jerri Kumery

Costume Reconstruction by Tamara Cobus after Original Design by Karinska

Original Lighting Design by Richard Moore

World Premiere: February 5, 1970, New York City Ballet, New York State Theater, New York, New York

Richmond Ballet Premiere: November 14, 1986, Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, Richmond, Virginia

            Concluding its ground-breaking pandemic season, The Richmond Ballet premiered a new work by its first and only guest choreographer of the year. Levi Philip Marsman, Artist-in-

Residence at the Boston Arts Academy, created Some Kind of Peace in response to the loneliness and isolation of 2020. It is a ballet about hope and connection, and the first two sections are fueled by a sense of anticipation and undergirded by the faint sound of a ticking clock. Much of the music comes from Ólafur Arnalds’ recent project of the same name, some kind of peace, and the rest was composed by Nils Frahm.

            The cast members all wear leotards in various shades of blue with darker blue sheer overlays. The women’s have slits that allow them to open partially before being shed entirely by the final section. I found the more awkward and less refined movement of the first half more interesting than the smoother, more lyrical phrases that evolved at the end. The social distance and quick stops of the ensemble in the “Personal Space” opening section and Khalyom Khojaev’s solo, “Panic,” which expresses the complexities of being home alone for an extended period of time, were directly influenced by the events of 2020.  One audience member summed up the work as being “impactful.”

Marsman’s work was followed by Carmen de Lavallade’s Sweet Bitter Love, conceived initially as a solo for the choreographer to a song by the same name sung by Roberta Flack. De Lavallade later added a song performed by Donny Hathaway, “For All We Know,” to incorporate the male perspective. This transformed the dance into a duet, and she then added and closed with a third song, also sung Flack, “Until It’s Time for You to Go.” Dramatically sustained movement and endless jazz hinges add visual interest to this tale of two lovers who were never meant to be. Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis met the challenge of this non-traditional duet. At times Beaton arched backward until she appeared to be folded in half, and the couple mastered movements initiated from a hip, an elbow, a wrist instead of from the core. But as visually striking as the movement vocabulary may be, the piece is tormentingly sad.

It was both a relief and somewhat jarring to move from two sober and introspective works to George Balanchine’s Who Cares? Balanchine choreographed this jazz ballet to 16 songs composed by George Gershwin between 1924 and 1931, and Richmond Ballet presented ten of them.  Bright and fun, the piece opened with the women dancing to “Somebody Loves Me,” followed by the men stepping up with “Bidin’ My Time.” There was a fun duet performed by Eri Nishihara and Ira White and some heel and toe action by Marty Davis before the ensemble finished up with “I’ve Got Rhythm.”

For the first time since returning to the stage last September, some of the dancers were allowed to take off their masks, thanks to vaccinations and the easing of some pandemic restrictions. Yes, it was wonderful to see some smiling faces, but I also felt what seemed like weariness or heaviness. Whether it was from the psychological impact of the first two dances or the physical strain of social distancing and dancing with masks for the past eight months, this program moved me, yet I left feeling oddly weighed down, connected yet concerned.

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DOGTOWN PRESENTER’S SERIES: THE DANIEL NAGRIN CELEBRATION

Five Men, Six Dances:  A Concert of Solos by the Rebel of Modern Dance

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: On Stage April 30 & May 1, 2021.  Streaming beginning May 7, 2021.

Ticket Prices: $20 General; $15 for Students (no tickets sold at the door as part of COVID-19 precautions).

Info: (804) 230-8780, dogtowndancetheatre.com or www.dogtown.vhx.tv. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions.

I love watching the look on my undergraduate dance history students’ faces when I show them videos of dancers I watched and loved when I was their age — more than four decades ago. One that usually gets their attention is a video of solo dance artist Daniel Nagrin performing his signature work, “Strange Hero.” Created in 1948, the work is a caricature of and homage to the American gangster.

“Strange Hero” was the opening work of the Daniel Nagrin Celebration Concert at Dogtown Dance Theatre last weekend. Matt Pardo, an assistant professor of dance at James Madison University, performed the piece, dressed in all black, minus the tight-fitting, broad-shouldered blazer Nagrin often wore when performing it. Pardo seemed less menacing than I remember, but at the same time seemed to exhibit more technical control than Nagrin – if that is even physically possible. The dangling cigarette (unlit), the hand that mimics a gun, the syncopated stabbing motions, and the juxtaposition of smooth, sharp, and elongated movement phrases may be employed in reconstructing a dated stereotype but the solo is as compelling now as 73 years ago. “Strange Hero,” is, like many of Nagrin’s solo works, a deeply reflective character study that explores the human condition, and much, perhaps all, of his work reflects a love of rhythm, jazz music, and jazz dance. “Strange Hero” features music by Stan Keaton and Pete Rugolo, while “Man of Action” has music by John McCoy and Count Basie.

“Man of Action,” another work created in 1948, was performed by Shane O’Hara.  A professor of dance at JMU, O’Hara has worked closely with the Daniel Nagrin Foundation and has an intimate knowledge of Nagrin’s work. Dressed in a shirt, tie, slacks, dress shoes, overcoat, and hat, O’Hara adeptly demonstrated the humor and drama of Nagrin’s artistic vision. The work mines the simple beauty of walking, running, leaping, and skipping, but suddenly the dancer is suspended in the air, and you’re not sure how he got there. There is even a delightful resurrection of that old trick where someone pretends to walk down invisible stairs.

On a side note, O’Hara brought the Virginia Repertory Dance Company, a pre-professional ensemble made up of select JMU dance majors, to Dogtown a little more than a year ago. They were the last live company to perform there before the big shutdown. How appropriate that O’Hara would be instrumental in Dogtown’s return to live performances.

Another of Nagrin’s popular dances, “Spanish Dance” (1948), a nod to Flamenco, was performed by Donald Laney, a faculty member in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Western Illinois University and dance instructor at WV Governor’s School for the Arts. Chest thrust forward, arms lifted, Laney embodied the controlled power of the Flamenco dancer, in a black tank top and bare feet. Laney was the last dancer to learn “Spanish Dance” from Nagrin, who died in 2008 at age 91 after half a century in dance.

The second half of the program included some works that were new to me. Paul Dennis, a graduate of the Juilliard School and a former member of the José Limón Dance Company, performed “Indeterminate Figure” (1957). One of Nagrin’s works from that decade dedicated to finding self, “Indeterminate Figure” is filled with ambiguity and juxtaposition. For starters, the dancer wears a pair of silky pajamas that resemble military fatigues, and the sound score is filled with a variety of sounds from rain to exploding bombs, from footsteps to the sounds of a beating heart. The soloist sometimes dances gracefully with an invisible partner, sometimes moves as if scrambling to safety from the effects of a crumbling foundation. Nagrin’s evolving signature style is evident in the dance’s gestures and the use of core strength that smoothly lifts the dancer from a kneeling position and seamlessly returns him, all without using his hands.

“Path” (1965), performed by local artist and member of the RVA Dance Collective Desmin Taylor, is a rare minimalist work. Performed without music, the soloist traverses a diagonal path carrying a long wooden pole or beam perhaps 10 feet in length.  Step, step, cou-de-pied­, pas de bourree, pause, repeat. Step, step, cou-de-pied­, pas de bourree, pause, repeat. “Path” is simple and mesmerizing – the kind of piece where you find yourself exhaling at the end, not realizing you had been holding your breath.

On an interesting side note, I came across a contract housed in the Library of Congress that is signed by Bill T. Jones, but not Nagrin, granting Jones performing rights to this solo. Mysteriously, two conditions of this contract state that “the dancer will never divulge the inner meaning(s) of Path as confidentially represented to him by the Choreographer to anyone,” and “the Dancer will never divulge his personal thinking as to the meaning(s) of Path to anyone.” I don’t know whether Nagrin ever signed this contract, but Jones has choreographed several works for the Daniel Nagrin Dance Theater.

The Celebration concert closed with “Wordgame: A Cartoon” (1968), also performed by O’Hara, with a sound design by Nagrin. Created from the full-evening work “Peloponnesian War,” about the conflict between Sparta and Athens, “Wordgame” was made as a commentary on the Vietnam War. Dressed in a shirt, tie, and light gray suit, the dancer tosses cash and moves with passive-aggressive disdain against a background peppered with unintelligible text, dramatic organ chords, and pinball noises. As with many of his solos, the interpretation is left open to the viewer, but social commentary was not unique to Nagrin. He was married to and collaborated with Helen Tamaris, who was also known for her American-themed solo works, many of which addressed social issues like racism and war.

What a wonderful opportunity, a unique marriage of history and artistry, all in one neat hour-long package. It was both interesting and fulfilling to see a variety of male dancers – black, white, different ages, different sizes – performing these iconic works.

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4000 DAYS

Soap-Opera Style Amnesia-Themed Play is Both Witty & Worrisome

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1200 Altamont Ave, RVA 23230

Performances: On Stage and On Demand, April 29 – May 22, 2021. On Demand beginning May 8.

Ticket Prices: $35; $10 for Students. On Demand Edition: $25; $10 for Students.

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, online drink orders, and more.

Michael wakes up in the hospital to find his mother sitting patiently by his side. “What happened to you?” he queries. “You’re so old.” We soon find out the reason for this odd exchange. Michael landed in the hospital as the result of a sudden and unexpected blood clot in his brain that left him in a coma for three weeks. When he wakes up, he has lost the last 11 years (4000 days) of his life – years that included a decade with his lover Paul, who is now a stranger to him.

The familiar plot is straight off the pages of the popular soap operas my grandmother used to watch. She called them “stories.” The plot came to prolific British playwright Peter Quilter in a dream and evolved into a three-person play that explores the themes of amnesia, the relationship between gay men and their mothers, and conflicts between lovers. The Richmond Triangle Players production stars Carlen Kernish as Michael, Jacqueline Jones as his mother Carol, and Todd Patterson as his lover Paul.

Kernish is suitably foggy and somewhat fluffy (like a life-sized teddy bear) throughout the two-act play. Jones digs in to her role as the cantankerous mother who doesn’t like her son’s partner. Making sure he knows that is one of her chief pleasures. After three failed marriages (some ended by divorce, some by widowhood), she has no other focus in life than her adult son. And Patterson shows a range of emotion as he navigates the complicated revelation that, as far as Michael is concerned, he never existed.

There is some witty dialogue that draws laughs at appropriate times, but on the first Friday night of the run, the trio of thespians had not yet reached that place where their characters seemed to be fully and organically at ease with one another. Additionally, they drifted in and out of British accents, which was mildly distracting. I don’t think any of the problems originated with the actors or the direction, however. Lucian Restivo kept the play moving along at a comfortable pace, but the script didn’t seem to flow effortlessly.

Other distractions came from the set. 4000 Days is supposed to be set in a private room in a British hospital, but the room’s proportions seemed off, and the perspective seemed forced. The room was too large. A window stage left was a focal point in several scenes but could not be seen by anyone sitting on the right side of the audience. The headboard or wall behind Michael’s bed seemed oddly out of place, and the door to the room, set dead center, was constructed with an asymmetrical crossbeam – or whatever you call the top of a door jamb. Anyone with the slightest OCD tendencies will find that door very distracting. (Okay, I looked it up. The horizontal beam at the top of the door frame is called the “head.” Only this head wasn’t truly horizontal.) I wasn’t sure if the design was accidentally off-center or intended to have a cartoon-like effect.

Given that the play, which premiered in 2016, takes place in current times, Michael thinks it is 2010 when he wakes up. In an attempt to jog his memory, Paul brings him stacks of newspapers. Then the audience is treated to two video montages that capture the highs and lows of the past 11 years. The flood of memories winds down with images of Megan Markle, the Coronavirus vaccine, and LGBTQ and BLM activity. Oddly, when Michael takes up the painting he abandoned to please Paul, he starts a mural on the wall of his hospital room. The resulting haphazard splashes of vibrant color may offer some insight into why Paul discouraged his partner’s painting.

On the creative team, Dasia Gregg is responsible for the production’s satisfying projections and the troubling scenic design. Restivo created an excellent sound design, and Nia Safaar Banks’ costumes added style and color. I wondered if some of Jones’ stylish asymmetrical peplum tops were taken from her personal wardrobe. Michael Jarett provided the lighting. Amanda Durst was the dialect coach (for the accents the actors sometimes forgot to use). Most curiously, Tippi Hart was the intimacy director. The need for an intimacy director was curious because, unlike the Triangle Player’s recent production of This Bitter Earth, there weren’t any genuinely intimate scenes in 4000 Days.

I left 4000 Days feeling as if some of the questions I had might resolve after another week or two of production. While it wasn’t one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen, I did enjoy myself, and it was good to be out among people who aren’t confined to tiny rectangles on a screen. There is a 27 seat maximum per performance. All audience members wore masks.  (Oh, on an amusing note, the stagehand wore scrubs and a hospital mask or clear plastic face shield each time he emerged to modify the set or change the props.) Everyone I spoke to made sure to announce to their friends that they had been fully vaccinated, so a few cautious hugs were exchanged. Al-in-all it was a good evening – if I could only shake the image of that crooked doorway.

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K Dance

The 22nd Annual YES! Dance Festival: A Virtual Screening Event

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: April 26-28, 2021 at the Firehouse; Remote stream April 29-May 13

Ticket Prices: $15

Info: (804) 355-2001, firehousetheatre.org, or https://firehousetheatre.org/e/yes-dance-festival/

Like just about everything else in life these past 13-14 months, K Dance company, under the direction of Kaye Weinstein Gary, pivoted into the new and produced the 22nd annual YES! Dance Festival as a virtual event. For those who wanted the experience of going to the theater, the program was available April 26-28 to live audiences of up to 10 people, followed by a post-performance conversation with Gary. Following the three large-screen showings, Gary and The Firehouse Theatre, her home base since becoming company-in-residence in 2019, also offered a remote stream of the program, available for two weeks.

For the past ten years the Yes! Dance Festival (formerly Yes, Virginia Dance) has hosted dancers and choreographers from Dance Magazine’s prestigious “25 to Watch” list, and this year was no different.

Boston Dance Theatre (BDT) (Boston, MA; Dance Magazine‘s “25 to Watch” January 2021) has been described as a company that has “appeal far beyond Boston’s city limits.” Their work, Surge Film Preview, was filmed on a sandy finger of land called Jeremy Point in Wellfleet in Cape Cod as part of the company’s Sea-Level Rise Project, a series of virtual events about the ocean, environmental activism, and a sustainable future. Accompanied by an urgent sound score, the five dancers shake, jerk, roll, and sometimes float or suspend just beneath the surface of the water. It is a beautiful and soul-stirring collaboration between choreographer Jessie Jeanne Stinnett, the dancers, oceanographer Larry J. Pratt, and the unidentified composer.

BDT also presented Shadows and Flame, a work originally commissioned for the Jewish Arts Collaborative for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ 2020 Hanukkah celebration. Envisioned as an exploration of light, shadow, and the dancing body, the opening scene, with five dancers lined up in a tight diagonal, and another section mid-way through where the dancers rise from the floor, remind me of those drawings that illustrate the evolution of mankind. Inspired by an 18th century Hanukkah oil lamp, the work has a grounded and ritualistic feel that is reminiscent of some of the works of Pilobolus – the unisex flash-toned tunics obscure the dancers’ individual identities and the dancers morph into and out of shapes, not emulating but rather embodying flames.

Paige Fraser (Chicago, IL, Dance Magazine‘s “25 to Watch” 2017 has performed in the YES! Dance Festival before. This time she offered a tiny solo, Silenced Cries, choreographed by Eric Bean, Jr., and set to “Le Jeune Fille et les Loups” (the maiden and the wolves) by Armand Amar. Set in a studio against a brick wall, the soft, spiraling lyrical phrases of Silenced Cries might well be one person’s response to the isolation and imposed loneliness of a year of pandemic restrictions. Fraser’s final gesture seems to be a plea for a time out. Fraser, a dancer with scoliosis (a sometimes disabling spinal curvature) is also founder of the Page Fraser Foundation, a safe space for dancers with (and without) disabilities.

slowdanger (Pittsburgh, PA, Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” 2018) described their work, for shadowing, as “created to embody the liminal space we are existing in, caught between two paralleling realities, a portal to the old world and a portal into shifted space.” Regretfully, the duo’s ethereal movement and original ambient soundscape was the one work of the evening that failed to move me or even leave much of an impression. I hope to have something more substantive to say after another visit by this group, consisting of Anna Thompson and Taylor Knight, who apparently constructed their name from a combination of road signs.

Marcat Dance (Jaén, Spain, Dance Magazine‘s “25 to Watch” 2017) was also a repeat visitor. The group’s work, Adama, choreographed by Mario Bermudez Gil, is a breath-taking trio performed in a patch of dirt in a large field backed by mountains. It is no coincidence that Adama is the Hebrew word for earth. As the dancers jump, turn, and interact with childlike simplicity, the work visually and viscerally connects with the earth and the natural landscape.

The program’s most provocative work was undoubtedly Jabberwock presented by LED (Boise, ID, Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” 2020). Lauren Edson’s color-filled and zany choreography partnered with nonsensical lexicon of Lewis Carroll’s poem, “Jabberwocky” to delightfully explore “themes of good versus evil, resilience, autonomy and truth.” The electric colors – like hot pink shoes and a brilliant blue jumpsuit – power a dynamic blend of flavors and genres. Imagine a world where break dance meets the blues, Kurt Jooss’ “Green Table” shakes hands with disco and the asylum is the penthouse of the dungeon.

Perhaps the intimate and intricate marriage of movement and musical genres is no surprise to those familiar with LED, but for us new to the group, they are described as much about music as they are about dance, with much of the company’s music begin created by Edson’s husband, composer Andrew Stensaas.

And what YES! Dance Festival would be complete without a work by K Dance’s artistic director, Kaye Weinstein Gary. Dressed in short coveralls, Gary danced the role of Kitty in a quirky and charming short written by Irene Ziegler. The little girl, sent to the corner for some unknown infraction, discovers that her imagination is her super power. She becomes so enmeshed in her meditation with her chair that when she is finally released she decides to stay.

Making the best of a challenging situation forced some dancers and artists to stretch beyond their comfort zone, embracing technology and finding new ways to create – because that is what artists do. None of these works seemed to have suffered for the effort and the intimate audience at the Tuesday evening performance seemed happy to be there. Given that many dance festivals often feature works created for film, we didn’t feel cheated, but perhaps the next step will be a hybrid program including a mix of live and video dance. Then all will be right with the world.

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FIRES IN THE MIRROR: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities

“American character lives not in one place or the other, but in the gaps between the places.” – Anna Deavere Smith

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Theater Review – and some rambling thoughts – by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: March 26 – April 25, 2021, live and streamed

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $33 live & streamed

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, drink orders, and more.

August 19, 1991. Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York. It had been a clear day, with temperatures in the 80s. The air resonated with the rhythms of Gil Scott Heron (BTW, he was wrong, the revolution WAS televised) and James Brown, occasionally punctuated by traditional Jewish melodies. LL Cool J’s mama advised him to knock somebody out and Public Enemy was fighting the powers that be. The aromas of Kosher kitchens and Caribbean cooking may have wafted in the air, reflecting the diverse heritage of the neighborhood. At about 8:30 PM, seven-year-old Gavin Cato and his cousin Angela, same age, same last name, were taking turns on Gavin’s bike, under the watchful eye of Gavin’s Guyanese-born father, when a car, part of a three-car motorcade escorting Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson home from a visit to his late wife’s grave, struck the children, killing Gavin and injuring Angela. Within hours a visiting Hassidic scholar from Australia was attacked and killed by a group of young black men, and just like that, the community was embroiled in a series of race riots that rocked the city for three days. David Dinkins, the city’s first – and only – black mayor, had taken office in 1990. The Reverend Al Sharpton was prominent in calling for justice. There were allegations of racism and favoritism. There were allegations that outside agitators were coming into the already tense community to fan the flames of discord. The evening news reports and the daily news commentary would resonate with familiarity to the pandemic-stricken populace some thirty years later.

In the aftermath of the incident that came to be known as the Crown Heights Riots, playwright, actor, and professor Anna Deavere Smith interviewed more than 100 people. Some, like an anonymous Lubavitcher woman, a rabbi, activist Rev. Al Sharpton, Crown Heights resident Henry Rice, and Carmel Cato, father of Gavin, were directly involved in or impacted by the events. Others, like playwright and poet Ntozake Shange, activist and scholar Dr. Angela Davis, MIT physicist Aaron M. Bernstein, and New York Shakespeare Festival director George C. Wolfe offered social, political, and even poetic perspectives. From these 100 or so interviews, Smith culled 29 monologues by 26 people (the Rev. Al Sharpton, Ms. Magazine founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebrin, and Norman Rosenbaum, brother of the young Australian scholar who was murdered that fateful night each speak twice).

All the dialogue is in the words of those interviewed. The play – a totally inadequate word to describe this form of presentation – encompasses several themes. The first act includes the themes of Identity, Mirrors, Hair, Race, Rhythm, and Seven Verses (referring to seven biblical verses that seal the Old Covenant of the Chosen People). The second act focuses on the people and events of August 1991.

Smith conceived of this as a one-person play and performed all the roles herself in the workshop and original production. Onstage at Richmond’s Firehouse Theatre, Jamar Jones fills Smith’s metaphorical shoes – there aren’t many real ones, as most of the characters are portrayed in bare feet – under the more than capable direction of Katrinah Carol Lewis. Lewis, some may remember, starred in another of Smith’s one-person, verbatim plays, TheatreLAB’s 2017 production of Twilight Los Angeles, 1992, based on the Rodney King incident. For about two and a half hours, including the intermission, Jones held us spellbound to this all-too-familiar yet at the same time overlooked take on America’s troubled racial and religious history.  

The space is sparsely furnished with a few black tables, a chair, a stool. Prominent in the space are two clothing racks topped with wig forms holding a variety of hairstyles and headwear. Kudos to Production Designer Todd Labelle and Costume Designer Margarette Joyner. This production even required a Wig Maintenance position, skillfully filled by Delaney Theisz. A quick change of wig, headgear, shirt, jacket, or accessories, and Jones was fully transformed into another character. Jones, who has proven his skill and agility again and again in diverse roles in many different productions including, but by no means limited to, Passing Strange (Firehouse), Fences (Virginia Rep), An Octoroon and Topdog/Underdog (both at the newly named Conciliation Lab) danced his way through numerous costume changes. A headwrap, oversized hoop earrings, and bangle bracelets for Ntozake Shange, a majestic black and white African print jacket with matching headwear to capture LA rapper Monique “Big Mo” Matthews, a kippah and prayer shawl for a Lubavitcher resident, a full beard and wide-brimmed hat for the rabbi, different wigs and styles to define a black teenager and a Hassidic mother. Each character had its own costume as well as mannerisms and sometimes props. Prof. Angela Davis’ tangled tango with a corded phone inspired a verbal metaphor as well as some welcome laughter.

More humor was provided by Rev. Al Sharpton, explaining how his signature hairstyle was inspired by his mentor, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. This was before Rev. Al lost weight, so Jones paired the good reverend’s signature gold chain with a wide-legged stance, leaning back and walking with a waddle. Jones and Lewis nailed the familiar characters, Prof. Davis, Rev. Al, activist Sonny Carson, Ntozake Shange, with a few accessories and physical attributes. For the less familiar, a hair toss, a speech pattern, the length of a skirt, or an accent or turn of phrase centered the character in Crown Heights, Brooklyn – not far from where I was living in Fort Green-Clinton Hill at the time these incidents took place.

Jones also applied mannerisms to each character. A Lubavitcher woman folded her laundry as she spoke. A man – it might have been George C. Wolfe – had an annoying habit of loudly tapping his sugar packets and vigorously stirring his tea. Some voices were soft, hesitant, while others were angry, sharp, caustic. The most memorable voices were those of Norman Rosenbaum and Carmel Cato, the two men who lost their son and brother respectively as a result of an accident and a retaliatory reaction that forever changed their lives and left a dark skidmark on American history. Jones delectably and respectfully embodied each of these people. These were not just characters but real lives he was entrusted with, and the weight of this responsibility was not light. Like them or not, likable or not, each speaker was given a stage, unrushed and without judgment. Oh, we, the audience, may have judged or taken a position, but Smith, and by extension Jones and Lewis, presented this cast of characters as honestly as possible, leaving us to ponder at our leisure. There was and is no final resolution, no closure that satisfies any of the affected parties. Charges may have been pressed, accusations may have been made, cases may have been given due process, but none of that addresses the humanity of why. Why did this happen? Why do we react the way we do? Why is there still racism and oppression? Why can’t we all get along? How did we get here, and when will it end?

In the end, Jones sheds the final costume. The clothing rack stands empty, relieved of its colorful burden. He heaves a huge sigh, releasing the weight of the characters he has inhabited for the past two hours, then symbolically turns the mirror he used for his transformations slowly, reflecting the audience. There was soft weeping behind me. No one moved right away.

Fires in the Mirror is not light entertainment. It is the sort of theater that stays with you long after the final curtain, long after the players have gone home. See it. Live or streamed. You must see it.

“These are the things I never dream about.” – Carmel Cato

—–

ADDENDUM: I am not one to follow conspiracy theories but I have to share this bizarre incident that occurred while I was watching Fires in the Mirror. One of the characters in the first half was Prof. Leonard Jeffries, then a professor of Black Studies at City College of New York. I do not know Prof. Jeffries (not then or now) and was not familiar with him or his work. During the intermission, I decided to check my messages and happened to look at my Facebook page, only to find Prof. Jeffries as a friend suggestion. He was wearing a dashiki and matching kufi (cap) similar to those Jones had worn only minutes before. Hmmm. . .

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RICHMOND BALLET:

RICHMOND BALLET:

STUDIO SERIES/FEBRUARY – DANCES BY OUR DANCERS

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Program

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Richmond Ballet, Canal Street Studios, 407 East Canal Street, RVA 23219

Performances: February 9-21, 2021, live and streamed.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets start at $25; Virtual Tickets $20. [NOTE: On Sunday, February 21st, virtual ticket buyers will receive an email with information on how to access the performance recording, which will be available to stream for one week. Only one virtual ticket is needed per household. Virtual tickets to Studio Series: February must be purchased by 11:59 pm on Saturday, February 20th.]

Info: (804) 344-0906, etix.com, or richmondballet.com. See the Richmond Ballet’s website for their COVID-19 precautions and more.

REPERTORY:

New Works by Marty Davis, Sarah Ferguson, Eri Nishihara, Ira White

Pas de Deux from The Sleeping Beauty

Choreography after Marius Petipa

Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Stolen Moments V.2

Choreography by Val Caniparoli

Music by Jean-Philippe Rameau

[NOTE: If you want to skip my introductory musings, jump to the third paragraph. But if you really care about me, you’ll bear with my rambling train of thought…]

In September 2020, I wrote:

For decades I have attended live performances of dance and theater multiple times a week – occasionally squeezing in two shows in one day. But it has been six months since I have attended a live show, six months since the COVID-19 Pandemic turned out world upside down, six months since COVID-19 made us rethink everything in our lives – including our life-giving arts. In July, I forayed out to a socially-distanced exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and in September, I received an email from the Richmond Ballet asking if I wanted to attend a live performance of their Studio Series.

That was five months ago, and now we are nearly one year into the most life-changing event that any of us has ever experienced. In September, I was impressed by the protocols established by the Richmond Ballet to make everyone, including dancers, staff, and patrons of the arts, feel safe and welcome. These measures include digital tickets and programs, staggered arrival times, socially distanced seating and staggered dismissal, a shortened program without intermission, and no Ballet Bar (the drinking kind, not the exercise kind). The audience must remain masked at all times, and perhaps even more impressive, all the dancers wear masks, even while dancing. The artistic leadership has creatively sought out repertory for solos, duets, or pieces that work with social distance guidelines in place. Only dancers who are married to each other or live in the same household partner one another. The company concluded the fall season with 50 live performances and streaming performances of the holiday classic, “The Nutcracker.”

Out of this spirit of resilience emerged the latest program, “Dances By Our Dancers.” The four new works represent “another way the Richmond Ballet has pivoted during the pandemic,” noted Artistic Director Stoner Winslett, who put out a call for new choreography. Three company dancers and the company photographer – a graduate of the VCU Department of Dance and Choreography – responded. The result was a diverse program of contemporary works, averaging about 5 minutes each. The program concluded with the classic “Wedding Pas de Deux from The Sleeping Beauty after Marius Petipa and Val Caniparoli’s “Stolen Moments V.2.” The latter was originally commissioned by the Richmond Ballet in 2015 and rechoreographed for social distancing.

First up was “Closer Than You Think” by Marty Davis (now in his eighth season with the company.) The duet, set to Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” for piano and cello, is a lovely contemporary work full of spirals and turns that seem to represent how the couple approaches their relationship. The unusual 9/8 time signature keeps both the dancers and audience on their toes. Opening night dancers were Abi Goldstein and Jackson Calhoun. (Goldstein is a 7-year company member, while Calhoun is a member of RBII.) Dressed in casual pants and muted colors, the two embodied the spirit of Debussy’s movement poem with its contemplative and somewhat introspective feel – perfect for these times.

In a post-performance discussion for the opening night Choreographer’s Club, Davis confessed that choreographing was “definitely more challenging than I thought it would be.” Veteran choreographer Winslett compared choreography to painting. “The choreographer is the painter,” she said, “and the dancers are the paint – paint with two eyes staring at you!”

Since 2005 Sarah Ferguson has filled several different positions with Richmond Ballet, from arts administrator to tour coordinator to company photography. She can now add choreographer to her vitae. Ferguson’s duet, “Stay,” performed on February 9 by Izabella Tokev and Khalyom Khojaev (both of whom started dancing with RBII in 2016 before moving on to the main company). Against the background of music by Dean Lewis, the piece opens with the drama and intensity reminiscent of flamenco. The dramatic theme is carried forward in the costuming, with Khojaev is dressed in black and white, ad Tokev in a soft pink or mauve. Tokev approaches her partner from behind, softly, and they begin interacting within the framework of a classical structure, using contemporary movement that blends organically with the music. At the end, I wondered if she was real or just a memory of lost love.

Eri Nishihara offered a solo, “A Muse,” to one of her long-time favorite Tchaikovsky piano compositions, “Meditation.” Christopher Devlin Hill’s lighting design painted shadowy trees on the floor, adding to the overall effect of nature and sunset. Sabrina Holland embodies the Muse and the music, and I enjoyed that Nishihara was not afraid to linger in a movement and choreographed expressive moments of stillness. There was one brief moment that took me out of my reverie when the Muse lay on her back with her legs splayed. But the ballet ended with all the feel-good memories of a ballerina spinning atop a wind-up music box.

Company dancer Ira White is a Richmond native who came up through the Richmond Ballet’s outreach program, Minds in Motion, became a trainee, danced with RBII, and is now in his sixth season with the main company. For this program, he offered “Pushing Buttons,” a jazzy elevator encounter set to music by Vince Guaraldi and premiered by dancers Abi Goldstein and Patrick Lennon. Goldstein entered a space already occupied by Lennon. Right away, one could see that she was light-hearted and fun-loving in contrast to Lennon’s no-nonsense demeanor. Goldstein wore a cropped top and causal pants with suspenders, while Lennon wore a button-down white shirt, business slacks, and a vest. Lennon tried, unsuccessfully, to hide behind a newspaper, but Goldstein successfully drew him out to dance with her until, apparently, the elevator reached its destination, and they each departed their separate ways.

After this delightful first course of new works, the program concluded with a pair of more familiar works. Guest artists in residence Sarah Lane and Luis Ribagorda, both visiting from American Ballet Theatre, where she is a principal dancer, and he is a member of the corps de ballet, performed the “Wedding Pas de Deux” from The Sleeping Beauty, with choreography after Marius Petipa. During these wild and crazy times, what a delight to have the opportunity to see stellar dancers from another company sharing their gifts and performing a familiar and romantic duet.

The evening ended with al Caniparoli’s re-imagined “Stolen Moments V.2,” a group work adjusted for social distancing. With eight dancers, no more than six shared the stage at any given time as they executed a series of lively yet graceful solos, duets, trios, and ensemble sections that embodied this company’s mission: to awaken and uplift the human spirit.

Check the company’s website for information on live and streamed performances.

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KRAPP’S LAST TAPE:

“Perhaps my best years are gone.”

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: February 4-20, 2021, live and streamed.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $30 in person; $25 live-streamed

Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, drink orders, and more.

Two days, two plays. I would describe both as the type of play meant to make you think, more than just entertain you. (What a treat to even be able to see two live productions in a single week during a pandemic: THIS BITTER EARTH at Richmond Triangle Players and KRAPP’S LAST TAPE a little more than a mile away at The Firehouse.) And both were well done. But now, to get to the play at hand.

Alan Sader is Krapp. (I just had to say that!) But seriously, veteran actor Alan Sader steps into the role of Krapp, a 69-year-old man contemplating his life, as if he had been born for this role. I know Alan Sader, and watching this one-person one-act play, I didn’t see an actor I knew in a role; I saw Krapp.

Written by Samuel Beckett, known for his absurdist style, and directed by James Ricks, Artistic Director for Quill Theatre, KRAPP’S LAST TAPE is a perfect play for a pandemic. Solitary. Isolated. Defeated. The play takes place on Krapp’s 69th birthday. I don’t think he has a first name. To celebrate, for lack of a more appropriate word, Krapp rummages through the archives of tapes he’s made over the years, chronicling his life.

The setting is important – it takes on the aspect of another character. There is a wall of file cabinets, stacked one atop another and interspersed with odds and ends and brick-a-brack. A reel-to-reel tape machine and a portable staircase are supporting actors.

There is an introductory struggle with the ancient tape player – a heavy monstrosity of a machine that nearly gets the best of the old man before he places it precariously on an old rickety desk that seems barely able to support its weight. But that’s not the end of it. Oh, no. The tape machine’s electrical cord falls short of reaching the wall outlet, necessitating not one but two duets with the staircase. Old age and misery are not without their moments of humor.

To access the 30-year-old reel-to-reel tape he needs, Krapp consults a ledger for the carefully cataloged location of the specific tape he needs.  He then has to interact in a comedic duet with a moveable staircase to get to the right file cabinet where the electrical cords are stored. Sader makes climbing the steps a full-on drama, complete with grimaces and groans. In fact, it is quite a few minutes into the play before Sader actually speaks a legible word. The opening is entirely physical – sort of a combination of comedic actor Charlie Chaplin and mime Marcel Marceau.

Speaking of old age, I had to remind myself that this play premiered in 1958 when age 69 might have been considered ancient. Today, 69 is rarely seen as the end of life – except perhaps to people younger than 25. But I digress.

Before finally settling in to reminisce about his younger self, Krapp has one more trick to execute: an orgasmic experience with a banana – which he temporarily stores in his pocket – and an obligatory slipping on the banana peel. Oh, and let’s not forget the delight he takes in saying the word “spool,” drawing it out and repeating it several times.

Once Krapp has settled in, we hear his younger voice on tape (kudos to director James Ricks for his superb sound design), and Sader spends long periods in palpable silence. He hears the optimism of his younger self, aged 39, and doesn’t seem to react much but saves his regret for lost love. The people who passed through his life are ephemeral, but these recorded memories are his reality now.

Like most Beckett plays I’ve seen, this work is not for everyone – certainly not for those who crave action and movement and verbal sparring – but it seems to be the perfect vehicle for this trio: Beckett, Sader, and Ricks. I don’t know how Beckett would have felt about this production, but Sader and Ricks must certainly feel immense satisfaction in their flawless execution of KRAPP’S LAST TAPE.

The live performance, limited to no more than 10 in the audience, was preceded by a live performance by Ryan Phillips on solo acoustic bass – a perfect introduction to KRAPP’S LAST TAPE. The live program runs through February 20 (if there are any tickets left).

Photos by James Ricks:

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THIS BITTER EARTH

Class, Race and Political Apathy. The Bottle, The Beer, The Blood

A COVID-conscious Pandemic-appropriate Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1200 Altamont Ave, RVA 23230

Performances: January 29 – February 13, 2021. Limited live performances, and ON DEMAND performances beginning February 5.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $30 & $30; $10 for Students. On Demand Edition: $25; $10 for Students.

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, online drink orders, and more.

Harrison David Rivers’ two-man play, THIS BITTER EARTH, is at once contemporary, relevant, and ageless. Like most two-person plays, it has a certain intensity; it is nearly as impossible for the audience to distance from the characters as it is for Jesse and Neil to distance themselves from the roles they were created for.

Although not autobiographical, parts of THIS BITTER EARTH mirror the playwright’s own life. It is about a black Queer man in an interracial relationship. Andrew “Rou” Reid plays Jesse, the black half of this partnership, while Evan Nastaff is Neil. Jesse is a soft-spoken, introverted writer, while Neil is an extroverted BLM activist. The issues of class, race, and political apathy are addressed head-on, but not always in the way one might expect – and I don’t mean just the fact that the white partner is the social justice activist.

Jesse is an interesting case study. At first, I found his mild-mannered passive-aggressive personality endlessly annoying and “extra.” And then I remembered that I know one or two people who are very much like Jesse. Jesse appears to be apathetic, but he keeps quoting the late Queer black poet and activist Essex Hemphill. “Take care of your blessings,” Hemphill’s signature signoff, became Jesse’s moving benediction to the audience. There is more to Jesse than we see on the surface. His quiet demeanor is a protective armor that keeps him alive.

Neil has as hard a time understanding this as we, the audience. Unbelievably, Neil has to explain to Jesse why “all lives matter” is an offensive statement. Neil has his own burdens – he comes from a wealthy family and struggles to conceal the extent of his privilege.

The play is not without its moments of humor, as when Jesse, in one of his introspective monologues, pronounces a curse on middle school teachers or when the two men break out in dance to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”  But such moments of levity are few and far between. Rivers has constructed THIS BITTER EARTH in a series of flashbacks, but he neglected to let us in on this little device, so sometimes it’s hard to know where or where we are in the storyline.

A recurring scene takes place outside a bar where the two had apparently indulged a bit too much. Each time it replays, we learn a bit more about what happened. It’s complicated. It’s complex. It’s nuanced. And in spite of all the makings of a stereotypical gay play, it cleverly sidesteps being stereotypical. In the end, it is thoughtful, and provocative, and sad. And that is why, when Jesse finally opens his mouth and SCREAMS, it feels so authentic.

This is the first time I remember seeing Reid and I hope to see more of him; he and Nasteff were well paired, and bounced off one another with the sharpness of a well-served tennis ball. Brandon Rashad Butts’ direction was so on point you weren’t aware of his presence most of the time. Running about 90 minutes, with no intermission, I was never aware of the passage of time.

The play is set in New York City and St. Paul, Minnesota, between 2012 and 2015, but like the flashbacks, it’s not crystal clear where or when what takes place. Lucien Restivo’s set includes a tiny apartment, with a bed, a small sofa, a home office behind the sofa, and a small modern table. There are tiny wall shelves with candles. It is sparse and eclectic but warmed with rich colors. Two screens serve as windows to the outside and as screens on which to project the inside of the two characters’ lives. Austin Harber’s creative and evocative lighting added texture.

Kudos to the entire creative team, including an Intimacy Director, Raja Benz, for designing a production that both addressed and avoided the pitfalls of stereotypes. At the time of this writing, the remaining live performances – limited to 20 people – are sold out, but the streaming option is still available. It is well worth you while.

Photos by John MacLellan

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THROUGH THEIR EYES: Raymond Goode Walks a Mile in Their Shoes

Ripped From the Headlines, From the Page to the Stage: An Evening of Monologues, Music, and Art

Some Observations on a COVID-Conscious Theater Experience by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The ARTS Community Center, 10179 Hull Street Rd., Midlothian, VA 23112

Performances: December 5, 2020, at 6PM, 7PM, 8PM & 9PM

Ticket Prices: $25

Info: rd.goode@yahoo.com

Some theater is meant to entertain, to make you laugh, or to be a diversion from your everyday life. And some theater is meant to move you, to educate you, to stir you to action or make you uncomfortable. Raymond Goode’s THROUGH THEIR EYES falls squarely into the latter category. In his book of the same title (which I promise I will read as soon as I clear my schedule of over-due assignments), Goode crafts short stories from the real-life situations he has culled from the headlines or in some cases from history. In each story, Goode has placed himself in the shoes of the protagonist (I try to avoid using the word “victim”), and the result is a series of moving, sometimes raw monologues.

With minimal set (a podium, a veteran’s flag encased in the traditional triangular frame) and live musicians (David Thompson on saxophone, Eugene Harris on keyboards, and Orisegun Olimidun on drum), there were few distractions from the gravity of the words. Conceived as a series of monologues, the work is fluid, with each of the four performances having a different line-upof monologues and entre’actes. The program, in its current form, has more of the feel of a staged reading or an open mic night, as one viewer told me. Goode is both author and director, and future iterations might benefit from the vision of another pair of eyes in the directorial chair.

My introduction to the Goode experience began with Benny Blonkoe Perry’s retelling of “Step in the Name of Love.” It is the story of a man remembering how, as a little boy, his father took him on a rare trip to McDonald’s, only to be shot to death in front of his son, for the paltry contents of his wallet. “That night haunts me to this day,” the now adult son remembers. “I was the last person to see my father alive.” The R Kelly hit tune “Step in the Name of Love” was playing on the radio and forms the haunting background to this memory.

In the second set, Katrina Robinson, who also performed as vocalist, stepped into the painful shoes of a mother who learned to come to terms with her son’s coming out, only to have him die from AIDS shortly after graduating from Morehouse College. “He Was My Son” should come with a warning to bring tissues or a handkerchief – and I think Robinson’s tears were genuine as she stumbled off the stage.

Royal Coakley stirred hearts and rage as she told the story of an enslaved woman who was raped in front of her husband, who sat helplessly and watched the violation unfold. When Coakley stormed offstage to find Harriet Tubman and get a ticket on the underground railroad at the end of “Still He Was,” the audience was ready to follow her.

Other stories brought to life included “Trayvon Martin” performed by Tandylyn Cooke, “Treatment Facility,” with Ken Moretti in the role of the broken veteran, “Homicide,” and “Goodies” with Goode in the role of the desperate father and fallen addict, respectively. Other performers included vocalists Lakesha Walker and TC, Dana Terry with dance interpretation, and my personal favorite, “Krumpologist” Casey Kingversastylez Inneigh who mesmerized the audience with his mind-bending, shape-changing movement to “Black Mothers’ Rules” and Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit.”

The few spaces that have stepped back into the world of live performances have done so under the guidance of strict pandemic regulations and guidelines that include temperature checks, scanned tickets, and digital programs. They require masks (a major ballet company even has the performers wear masks), and have greatly reduced the seating capacity. Given that ticket prices cover only a portion of the expenses involved in a production, reducing seating capacity from 250 to 75 or from 100 to 25 certainly doesn’t make economic sense, but instead speaks volumes to the dedication of performers to put on a live show. These are desperate times.

All that to say, with a socially-distanced capacity of 25 (in a space that could easily seat more than 100), it was heart-breaking to see only two other couples in attendance at the two shows I attended. One couple arrived late (for a 45-minute show) and one couple left early from each show. I would love to know if they left because the material was so intense they couldn’t bear to relive it, or because they were not satisfied with the quality, or if they just had other plans for the rest of their evening.

Even in it’s rough-edged state, in an open space without benefit of theatrical lighting or other accoutrements, with the restraints of social-distancing and all that entails, THROUGH THEIR EYES has the power to move. It’s dynamic. It isn’t perfect, but neither are we. And that makes it worth a look – or two or three.

Click here to visit Raymond Goode’s website: https://www.raymondgoode.com/about

Check out Raymond Goode’s social media pages to find out more about his books: Through Their Eyes, The Road to Oprah, 350 Goals of a Leader, and more.

For a promo clip of Goode’s work on WTVR News6: https://www.wtvr.com/news/local-news/through-their-eyes-author-brings-short-stories-to-the-stage-with-live-performances

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THE SANTA CLOSET: The Door is Open and Santa’s Coming Out

The Santa Closet: Where Theatrical Journalism & Non-Binary Humor Meet

A COVID-conscious, Pandemic-appropriate Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: November 18-December 19, 2020. Live & Streaming options.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $30 & $35; $10 for Students. Streaming Edition: $25; $10 for Students. Choice of Eddie Webster or Levi Meerovich.

Info:(804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, online drink orders, and more

Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic we can depend on the Richmond Triangle Players to give us a unique, memorable, and satisfyingly humorous holiday show. This year’s one-man production of Jeffrey Solomon’s The Santa Closet fulfills all those requirements and does not disappoint!

Originally titled Santa Claus is Coming Out when it premiered some ten years ago, starring the author, the title was changed to indicate the play is not just a silly, vapid little play about coming out. The Santa Closet, on the other hand, implies all the depth and layers and “stuff” that are in that closet – and that make this play such a delightful journey.

It all starts with a young child’s letter to Santa. We first meet little Gary when he writes a letter asking Santa for a “Sparkle Ann” doll – a Barbie look-alike. Gary’s best friend, a feisty little girl named Cheyenne, defends him every step of the way. She, after all, is the recipient of Gary’s creative skills in designing doll clothes and hair styles. But his mother, Trish, is floundering on the edge of tolerance while his father, Frank, is lovingly homophobic (yes, it’s possible to be both of those things).

But Santa disappoints little Gary, who receives a truck instead. The following year, Gary tries again, asking for a Dream Date Norm (if you’re with me, you’ve already figured out that’s similar to a Ken doll). Once again, Santa doesn’t deliver, and Gary’s faith begins to wane.

Cut to the big guy himself. We find a conflicted Santa first having drinks in a gay bar in Manhattan, and then being reluctantly drawn into participating in the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969. (For those not familiar with the history, this was a series of what the LGBT community of the time referred to as demonstrations and the police and city administration referred to as riots. The movement was sparked by a police raid of the Stonewall Inn in NYC’s Greenwich Village.)

Eddie Webster stars in the Richmond production, with Levi Meerovich performing a limited number of performances. I had the pleasure of watching Meerovich performing on Saturday night. Wearing the familiar COVID uniform of pajamas and robe, Meerovich used a variety of accents and mannerisms – and the occasional hat or glowing red nose – to smoothly transform into about a dozen distinct characters.

Besides young Gary, his mother Trish, and his father Frank, the actor must portray Santa; Santa’s agent Sidney; Pete the head Elf; Rudolph the head reindeer (pronouns he, him, his); Gary’s BFF Cheyenne; Santa’s Italian lover Giovanni (a great-great-great-great-great grandson of Pinocchio), the family’s pastor, a waning actress, Beatrice Pond (known for her one-woman portrayal of The Cherry Orchard) who is hired to portray Mrs. Clause; Santa’s gay friend Jose; and Mary Ellen Banford who is the leader of the local branch of Families Against the Gay Agenda, or FAGA for short.

The Santa Closet establishes a delicate balance of humor and tenderness. Solomon wrote the play as if each of the characters is being interviewed and there are “Breaking News” interruptions several times as the drama unfolds. Damage control is required after the Stonewall incident, and reflecting the original title, Santa and Giovanni go missing, never to be seen again. Of necessity, most of the gay characters are over the top. With Meerovich portraying so many different characters in rapid succession, that helps the audience keep up. It also makes the moments all the more sensitive when Gary accepts being different, or when his parents join a support group to help them along their journey to accept their now-adolescent child.

Director Nora Ogunleye has directed with a gentle but steady hand that left Meerovich plenty of room to do what he does so well, while expressing the nuances Solomon wrote into the play. Richmond Triangle artistic director Lucien Restivo kept the costume and set simple (pajamas and slippers, three arched openings, an angled platform, a stool, some holiday lights, a couple of Christmas trees that appear to be fashioned from children’s letters to Santa). This provides a pleasant and seasonal backdrop but allows the audience to focus on the actor and the many characters he portrays. Anything else would have been far too busy and distracting.

Two small wall-mounted screens contain relevant projections, but perhaps I should have said “too-small wall-mounted screens. Even from my fairly close seat in the second or third row from the stage, it was difficult to see the detail on some of the projections. This size may have been a well-reasoned choice, but I am sure that many others with “mature eyes” may also feel they are missing some of the visuals.

Speaking of the audience, the already-intimate theater has been further limited to a maximum of 27 patrons for live performances. Seats are socially distanced in pods of 1, 2, or 4. Masks are required, there is no intermission, drinks may be ordered and paid for online, everyone’s temperature is taken on entry, and programs are fully digital (a pandemic adaptation that many theaters will likely continue when this is all over).

Other members of the creative team – yes, it takes as many people to produce a one-person show as it does to produce a show with a larger cast – include Joey Luck, sound; Deryn Gabor, lighting; Yara Birykova, projections; Sheamus Coleman, technical direction; and Erica Hughes for some really fun dialects.

There are live performances Thursdays through Sundays, with one Wednesday performance. Check the theater’s website for details and to order tickets or purchase the link to purchase one or both of the streaming editions (one features Eddie Webster and the other Levi Meerovich). [I haven’t yet seen Webster’s portrayal, which I expect may be quite different and I will add an addendum to this post after I’ve seen him in the streamed version.] In the meantime, if you’re looking for a little holiday cheer (with a bit of an edge, due to the history), this should fit the playbill. The Santa Closet is highly recommended (for those over age 15).

Photos: Richmond Triangle Facebook page.

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The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt

Stories in the Soil by The Conciliation Project

Observations on a Research-based Performance by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Pre-recorded at the VCU’s ICA (Institute for Contemporary Art) and on location in Richmond; live-streamed on YouTube

Performance: Sunday, November 15, 2020 at 3:00 PM; available for a limited time thereafter (see link below)

Ticket Prices: free

Info: https://youtu.be/yrbIGTA0WYg

There is no getting around the fact that 2020 has been a most unusual year. It has brought unprecedented challenges to our arts. Yet, as history confirms, art always prevails. Theater and dance has found new ways to exist and mined new ways to create.

The Conciliation Project is a Richmond-based social justice theater company under the direction of Dr. Tawyna Pettiford-Wates (Professor of Graduate Pedagogy in Acting and Directing at Virginia Commonwealth University) and Dr. Ram Bhagat (educator, peace-builder, community healer, and co-founder of Drums No Guns). With heavyweights like these at the helm, it should come as no surprise that The Conciliation Project offers research-based programming that reveals, examines, and demands a response to racial stereotypes and racial injustice.

The script for “The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt” was developed from conversations with Richmonders, with a focus on the history-defining events of 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial (in-)justice protests that resounded around the world in the weeks and months following the murder of George Floyd.

“The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt” is not a play in the traditional sense. It is reminiscent of Ntzoke Shange’s self-described “choreo-poems” or the eye-opening work I saw as a teen-ager at what was then the mecca of Brooklyn’s Black culture, The East. (For a description of The East, look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_East_(Brooklyn) and http://www.corenyc.org/omeka/items/show/320). In other words, this is work that exists to educate and enlighten as well as to entertain.

Conciliation: The process of winning over from a state of hostility or to gain the goodwill of. The building of bridges to connect two points that are distant, and/or disconnected from one another.

Among the topics presented by the voices in “The Common wealth & The Common debt” are the definition of the word “commonwealth,” diverse perspectives on the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia (the middle passage, slave markets, Jim Crow and other racial injustices), the value of Richmond monuments, the Civil War, racism, power, segregation, urban farming, and more. In one moving scene, Keaton Hillman has a conversation with an ancestor, Callie, a woman sold into slavery and later freed. “Help break the cage for someone else,” she says before returning to the ancestral plain. The next scene shows a group of protesters marching in cadence to “no justice, no peace.”

Against the backdrop of a chain link fence and passing traffic, masked performers sing, “We Wear the Mask.” Contemporary voices blend with traditional fables, history, and storytelling in a non-linear way that the modern western mind might struggle to comprehend. Experiencing “The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt” is a bit like being inside the production while watching it; similar to the way one might dream and awaken to wonder where the dream state ends and reality begins.

“I think we could definitely do a better job at creating monuments that glorify actual heroes instead of being used as an intimidation tactic, which is what they were originally put there for.”

The creative team organized a solid ensemble consisting of Calie Bain, Juliana Caycedo, Keaton O’Neal Hillman, Zakiyyah Jackson, Dylan Jones, Jamar Jones, Todd Patterson, and Mariea Terrell. The acting ensemble is supported by Drummers lead by Ram Bhagat and dancer Alfumega Enock. In a live post-performance discussion, we learned that the stories and interviews were collected by the Graduate Applied Theatre Class at VCU as well as members of the Ensemble, with support from the ICA. “The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt” should be accessible for the remainder of the week of November 15. Catch it, if you can.

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RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO SERIES/NOVEMBER

Diversity and Mastery Bring Hope in Challenging Times

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Richmond Ballet’s Canal Street Studios, 407 E. Canal Street, Richmond, VA 23219

Performances: November 10-22, 2020

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets:$25-$101; Virtual Tickets: $20/One-week access to recorded performance, only one ticket required per household

Info: (804) 344-0906 x224 or etix.com

In September I was impressed by the precautions the Richmond Ballet had taken to make sure dancers, staff, and audience members felt safe to return to the studio. The November program is the company’s third COVID-conscious production, and it seems that experience and resilience have come together to make this the most moving show yet.

The collection of short works and excerpts began with the Romantic-era “Rachmaninoff Rhapsody” choreographed by Artistic Director Stoner Winslett, and concluded with a new work by the company’s newly appointed Associate Artistic Director Ma Cong, “To The End.” These two works, both of which premiered November 10, book-ended Salvatore Aiello’s introspective solo, “Extensions,” (a 1990 work that is also new to the Richmond Ballet) and an excerpt from William Soleau’s “Closing Doors” (2002). Clocking in at just under an hour with no intermission, this program was as near perfect as one could hope for.

The curtain came up on a stage lit entirely in blue, highlighting a corp of four ballerinas in the stiff, tulle classical tutus that fill little girl’s dreams. On Thursday night, Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis performed the pas de deux set to the modest pace of the score that allows the viewer to observe in detail the articulation of each step. Stoner’s choreography is a contrast in control and abandon that juxtaposes clean, simple lines, symmetry, and diagonal formations. The dancers linger in luxurious movement phrases that demonstrate virtuosity without conceit.

Ira White performed the Aiello solo. Dressed in practice shorts and a tank top, he stood silently, listening to pianist Douglas-Jayd Burn playing Alexander Scriabin’s score. These unhurried moments of stillness before the dance began were a poignant introduction to a work that highlights the choreographer’s intimate relationship with the music. Once inspired, the dancer returned to the barre and began to move reflectively, at one with the music, taking his time, warming up and exploring movement that brought the music to life. An unexpected plunge over the barre was breathtaking, and at the end I heard an audience member whisper, “he’s amazing!”

The section chosen from Soleau’s “Closing Doors,” was an amusing quartet (Kate Anderson, Eri Nishihara, Naomi Wilson, and Marty Davis on Thursday) performed to the ornamental Baroque deliciousness of Bach’s “Sonata in E Minor.” Davis’ part in this brief divertissement, lasting barely five minutes, consisted of him moving his chair from spot to spot while reading a book and essentially ignoring the three women (Kate Anderson, Eri Nishihara, and Naomi Wilson) in deep pink flowing dresses who were energetically dancing around him. The sound of a door shutting brought him out of his reverie, but, as in real life, it is too late, and he had missed his opportunity.

Ma Cong was born in China and has served as Resident Choreographer of the Tulsa Ballet for 12 years. I have been enamored of his work since I first saw the Richmond Ballet perform “Ershter Vals” in 2009. Since then, Stoner Winslett has commissioned Cong to create several more works, including including “Lift the Fallen, “Winter’s Angels,” and “Chiaroscuro.” This newest work, “to the end,” is a sort of companion piece to September’s “alone, beside me,” which taken together are described as works that pay “homage to society’s reactions to the pandemic and the hope for a brighter future.”

“to the end” was created as a double pas de deux. Cong taught the choreography in collaboration with the Tulsa Ballet to two couples simultaneously in Tulsa and Richmond, creating both live and virtual versions of the work. The Richmond dancers learned the piece entirely via Zoom.

Performed on Thursday by Cody Beaton, Eri Nishihara, Sabrina Holland, Marty Davis, Trevor Davis, and Ira White, the work explores post-pandemic adjustment in stages that, much like grief, range from confusion to survival to relief. The dancers’ black and white costumes (designed by Emily Morgan) are simple and stark, and at one point thin stripes of light on the floor (designed by Christopher Devlin Hill) reflected the pattern of the women’s tops. The small groups, limited contact (only dancers who live in the same household ever actually touch), and masks reflect the restrictions we have grown all too accustomed to living with these past eight months. But the purpose of this work is to inspire hope and invoke gratitude.

There are unexpected floor-sweeping movements, with hair freely flowing and tossed about. Body rolls engage the dancers from the soles of their feet to tops of their heads, while precariously off-center suspensions appear to reflect how many of us have been navigating the world of late. The work is sensual, but not sexual. An offering of white pillar candles in glass cylinders remind me of the candles at an altar. “to the end” was not so much about the dancer’s technique or even the sequences and construction of movement, as it was about the feeling. It’s public yet personal, and deeply moving. “Hope and love are gonna bring us together very soon,” Cong concluded in a video interview with Winslett.

Photos: Top – Eri Nishihara in “Rachmaninoff Rhapsody”; Ira White in “Extensions”. Middle – Naomi Wilson, Eri Nishihara, and Kate Anderson in “Closing Doors”; Ira White in “to the end”; Eri Nishihara in “to the end”; Bottom – Ira White and Abi Goldstein in “to the end” and Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis in “to the end”. Featured image at top of page – Ira White and Marty Davis in “to the end”. All photos by Sarah Ferguson. All Rights Reserved.

Purchase Whistlin’ Women and Crowin’ Hens and Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance on Amazon.com!

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RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO SERIES/OCTOBER

Separate and Together: Dances for a Pandemic Audience

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Richmond Ballet’s Canal Street Studios, 407 E. Canal Street, Richmond, VA 23219

Performances: October 13-25, 2020

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $26-$101; Virtual Tickets: $20/One-week access to recorded performance, only one ticket required per household

Info: (804) 344-0906 x224 or etix.com

It seems that recently isolation, loss, separation, togetherness, loneliness, and mental health issues have dominated many conversations on social media – where most conversations have, of necessity, occurred. So it, it comes as little surprise when some or all of these themes are reflected in our arts. The Richmond Ballet’s second Studio Series program for 2020/2021 focused on works that tackle separation and togetherness – some with more clarity and relevance than others.

The program includes two world premieres, one by the Richmond Ballet’s Artistic Associate and Ballet Master, Malcolm Burn, and one by local choreographer, teacher Starrene Foster, the founding Artistic Director of the Richmond-based modern dance company Starr Foster Dance.

Burn’s duet, “Another Time, A Different Rose,” pays homage to Michel Fokine’s classic “Le Spectre de la Rose” (made famous by Nijinsky, dressed in a rose-petal costume, leaping through a window at the end of the ballet). Burn used the same piano composition by Carl Maria von Weber, and dressed the male half of the duet, danced by Marty Davis on Saturday, in a simplified version of the rose-petal costume. (The one-shouldered, rose-colored body suit with its ruffled top may have been confusing if you didn’t know Davis was the Spirit of the Rose.) Naomi Wilson (who is in her first year as a company member, after two years dancing with Richmond Ballet II) danced the role of the Young Girl, but this duet is really a showpiece for the male dancer. Davis’ steps grew increasingly light-hearted as the fantasy developed, but there was no extravagant leap, and the piece is really too short to allow for extended development, so I felt a bit disappointed at the end, as if the Young Girl had awakened from her dream before the final climax.

Starr Foster – who knows I have often described the works she composes for her own company as dark, both physically and psychologically – created a new work, “Always a Way,” that explores the highs and lows of sheltering in place during a pandemic, with original music by Dave Watkins. Somewhat somber but not dark, the contemporary duet, danced by Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis, features weight sharing that manifests as lifts, planks, and hinges, and explores tension and resolution via intricate spirals. One brief but lingering expression occurred when Davis curved over Beaton, emanating warmth and protection.

The program included portions of the lighter-than-air romantic ballet “Pas de Trois from Swan Lake” (Nicholas Beriozoff after Marius Petipa), danced by Lauren Archer, Izabella Tokev, and Khaiyom Khojaev, Salvatore Aiello’s “The Waiting Room,” and Val Caniparoli’s “Djangology.” In “The Waiting Room,” there are three women, three chairs, and a light hanging from the ceiling. Set to the music of Arvo Part, the work explores the possibilities of the unknown and possible suggests there is no relief from the harshness of reality – not exactly what we want to hear right now, but thankfully, it is in the middle of the program. The program, which runs for under an hour, with no intermission – because, well, there’s still a pandemic – concluded with on an upbeat note with excerpts from Val Caniparolli’s sassy jazz-on-pointe ballet, “Djangology,” set to music by Romani-French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.

All together, this Studio Series was an interesting evening of dance that (a) was over all too soon and (b) for me, didn’t quite live up to the promise of the theme. I personally would have preferred three works that went a bit deeper rather than five works that allowed enough time for some to only scratch the surface. And finally, (c) it’s great to be back in a theater!

All photos by Sarah Ferguson:

Cody Beaton & Trevor Davis in “Always a Way”

Matthew Frain in “Djangology”

Lauren Archer, Raquel Smith & Izabella Tokev in “Djangology”

Lauren Archer in “The Waiting Room”

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GRIEF, GUILT, AND PARANOIA: The Madness of Poe

Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia: Poe in October, How Perfect!

A Live Theatrical Experience Reviewed by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Hanover Arts and Activities Center, 500 S. Center Street, Ashland, VA 23005

Performances: October 16, 23 & 30, 2020 @5:00PM [Recommended for ages 13+]

Ticket Prices: Pay-What-You-Can

Info: http://www.WhistleStopTheatre.weebly.com or (804) 798-2728 (Venue)

On Friday evening (October 16) the rain let up just in time for a live “pandemic appropriate” performance of Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia: The Madness of Poe, staged under a wide-spreading tree on the spacious lawn of the Hanover Arts and Activities Center. It was a cool 55 degrees and cloudy, but not uncomfortable. Attendees are required to bring and wear a mask as well as a lawn chair or blanket to sit on. (I would also advise a blanket for the cool weather.) About a dozen people claimed socially distanced in squares marked off in the grass as a pre-show playlist of Poe-inspired songs filled the air. (Three trains passed on the nearby tracks during the 45-minute show, but the program was so riveting the interruption was negligible.)

I don’t like to know too much about a show before I see it, so as not to be unduly prejudiced before I get there, so Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia: The Madness of Poe was a total surprise. Whistle Stop Theatre Company’s founding artistic director Louise Keeton conceived of Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia as a multi-faceted work that includes multiple historical and artistic influences. It takes place, for instance, not far from a home once occupied by Poe’s childhood sweetheart (and later fiancee) Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton. Created in partnership with the Ashland Museum, the work includes three voice artists representing the different “voices” of Poe (also represented by three different masks created by Keeton).

Those familiar with the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe and those who are not may relate differently to this work that uses Poe’s own poetry, original music by Paul Loman, and choreography by Katherine S. Wright. Wright, who eerily embodies Poe (wearing theatrical masks and a long-coated suit), doesn’t ever speak, but rather uses pantomime and dance in a riveting and passionate display of non-verbal communication while Poe’s words are voiced by Lucretia Marie, Barbara Keeton, and Craig Keeton. Sophia Manuguerra is the vocalist, and all the voices and music were created and recorded virtually.

The artistic choices – including Keeton’s masks and artwork by local artists that is all being auctioned off – are diverse and unconventional, making them all the more appropriate for the subject at hand. In addition to honoring and appreciating the poetry of Poe, Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia is about missing the people we love and the ways in which that can drive us mad – an obvious reference to the current pandemic and our similar and diverse reactions to it.

Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia digs into love and loss, life and death, verbally and visually mining the depths of “Annabell Lee,” “Elenora,” “The Premature Burial,””The Telltale Heart,” and of course, “The Raven.” The Hanover Arts and Activities Center had already constructed a small stage under a tree, and Keeton and company added three black cubes with hinged lids that provided all the set, the furniture, and the props needed for this production.

There are two remaining performances of Grief, Guilt, and Paranoia: The Madness of Poe on October 23 and 30. To view and bid on the art work visit the Whistle Stop Theatre Company’s website: whistlestoptheatre.weebly.com. Opening bids start at $10 for the masks and prints, and $5 for artwork delivered via high res digital files. All bids are due before October 29, 2020.

Edgar Allan Poe Trivia

The Baltimore Ravens NFL team is named for Poe’s poem, “The Raven” and the team mascot is named Poe.

Poe married his first cousin, Virginia Clemm when she was 13 and he was 27.

To this day, the cause of Poe’s death remains unknown. In 1849 he “went missing” for five days and was found, delirious, in Baltimore. He died in a Baltimore hospital and was buried two days later, without an autopsy.

Photos: From the Whistle Stop Theatre Company website. Katherine S. Wright as Poe.

A slideshow of auction items follows.

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JACQUELINE JONES IS “ANN”: One Woman Show at the Firehouse Theatre

Jacqueline Jones Lends Her Voice to the Story of Ann Richards, Fearless & Feisty Female Democratic Governor of Texas

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220 [live and streamed options available; live performances have a limited capacity of 2, 4, 6, or 8]

Performances: September 16 – October 25, 2020

Ticket Prices: $30 suggested donation; pay what you will

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

Wearing a blue suit, accessorized with a double strand of pearls and bronze metallic pumps with a matching bottomless tote bag, Jacqueline Jones looks – dare I say it? – presidential as she portrays Ann Richards, the first female Democratic governor of the great state of Texas.

I did not want my tombstone to read, ‘She kept a really clean house.’ I think I’d like them to remember me by saying, ‘She opened government to everyone.’

And in case you were wondering, as I was, who holds the honor of being the first female governor of Texas, it was Miriam Amanda Wallace Ferguson, known as “Ma” Ferguson who served two terms as Governor of Texas, from 1925-1927 and again from 1933 to 1935. And somebody please correct me, if necessary, but my cursory research shows that “Ma” Ferguson, who basically took over after her husband was impeached, was a Democrat, so unless I’m missing something that would make Ann Richards the SECOND female Democratic governor of Texas…but I digress.

I get a lot of cracks about my hair, mostly from men who don’t have any.

I may or may not have heard of Ann Richards (born 1933, served as Governor 1991-1995, died of esophageal cancer in 2006), but Jones brought Richards to life in a way that made me feel as if I might have known her, and would definitely have liked her if our paths had crossed. The humor, the perfect delivery of Richard’s famous one-liners, even a naughty joke, all worked together to create a sense of intimacy that was entirely captivating.

“I suppose I owe you an apology. Well, you ain’t gonna get one. ‘Bye!”

Due to COVID-19, Ann was an ideal choice as a one-woman show, and The Firehouse Theatre restricted live performances to 2, 4, 6, or a maximum of 8 patrons. Scattered as we were, for social distancing, it felt as if Jones/Richards was speaking directly to each of us. Part of this may be due to the extensive research and care that playwright Holland Taylor put into Ann. Taylor, herself an Emmy winning actor, portrayed the legendary Governor on Broadway – as well as in Texas.

Hate the evil and love the good, and establish justice in the court. – Amos 5:15

During his customary pre-show curtain talk, Firehouse Producing Artistic Director Joel Bassin asked audience members to share their experiences and memories of Governor Richardson. Comments ranged from graceful, humorous, and forceful to “wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Jones gave us all of that. The play starts with Richards giving a commencement speech as the University of Texas, and ends with her commenting about her own funeral. In the space between, we are gifted with 100 minutes of compelling storytelling, wit, history, and inspiration.

“I have always had the feeling I could do anything and my dad told me I could. I was in college before I found out he might be wrong.”

We learn of her ground-breaking accomplishments, her commitment to service, her concern for civil rights and social justice. But we also see her as a wife, a mother, a real person with real challenges – she had to check herself into rehab for alcoholism. I came away with a picture of a woman who understood being Governor was more about others than her own personal interests, someone who worked for unity in diversity, which I found surprising for her time and her state. And to bring things into perspective, if you yearn for relevance, or like to make things connect: Ann Richards’ granddaughter, Lisa Adams, worked as an aide for Hilary Clinton during her 2016 presidential campaign and was director of communications for Senator Kamala Harris during her presidential bid.

“Bad things happen when they don’t vote.”

One thing that is quite remarkable is the way Jones kept up her energy and the connection with the audience, given the limited number of people and less of feedback. But this play, with this actor, and this director – Billy Christopher Maupin, who starred in the Firehouse’s first pandemic-style contactless show the past summer – did more than just make do. They made beautiful theater.

The government is not “they,” the government is us!

Kudos to costumer Ruth Hedberg for the presidential suit and the Ann Richards wig. (See the photos below of Richards and Jones with the Richards wig. The photos, by the way, do not do justice to Jones, who looked radiant throughout this production.) While it was a one actor show, Erica Hughes lent her voice as Nancy Kohler, Richard’s secretary (as well as the show’s vocal coach) and Partricia Alli was the voice of the College President.

“Men are great fighters, women have the power to bring consensus.”

Performed with one ten-minute intermission, “Ann” is among the first of the live theatrical experiences to return to Richmond theater venues. Joel Bassin and the Firehouse staff have gone above and beyond to make the audience feel comfortable and safe. Masks are required of all patrons and staff. (Jones does not wear a mask on stage for her solo performance.) A staff member meets and greets you at the door with a contact-less thermometer. Everyone is assigned a seat number and even a designated bathroom. You are asked to wash your hands before taking your seat, during intermission, and before leaving. There is no lingering or fraternizing in the lobby. Unlike some other venues, The Firehouse is still providing printed programs (no need for tickets for 2, 4, 6, or 8 people) and the programs are placed in a taped off, numbered space as you check in. The bar is closed, but drinks may be pre-ordered (beer, wine, soda) and magically appear on the bar in a taped off space -identified by your number. Email confirmations are sent out with detailed instructions (it’s a lot to remember).

“Call ’em out!”

If you’re ready to venture outside of your quarantine quarters, this show, running though October 25, is a good place to start your journey.

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RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO SERIES/SEPTEMBER

THE RICHMOND BALLET OPENS THE 2020-2021 SEASON: Studio Series with Precautions

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Richmond Ballet’s Canal Street Studios, 407 E. Canal Street, Richmond, VA 23219

Performances: September 15-27, 2020

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $25-$101; Virtual Tickets: $20/One-week access to recorded performance, only one ticket required per household

Info: (804) 344-0906 x224 or etix.com

For decades I have attended live performances of dance and theater multiple times a week – occasionally squeezing in two shows in one day. But it has been six months since I have attended a live show, six months since the COVID-19 Pandemic turned our world upside down, six months since COVID-19 made us rethink everything in our lives – including our life-giving arts. In July I forayed out to a socially-distanced exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and in September I received an email from the Richmond Ballet asking if I wanted to attend a live performance of their Studio Series.

The Richmond Ballet is one of the first – if not the first – major dance companies in the US to return to live performances. To be sure, even if they are not the first, all eyes will be on them to see how this turns out. So, before I even address the actual performance, let me tell you how Richmond Ballet has addressed COVID-19.

First, Richmond Ballet is in the unique position of having a studio theater in their own space. That means they have control over the space, who enters, and how many. Seating capacity has been reduced from 250 to 70.Seats are blocked off with large, easy-to-read signs; and if you don’t see the sign, there’s a large metal hook over the seat holding it in place that’s sure to get your attention if you accidentally lean back against it. (No, I didn’t do that, just conjecturing.) The seats are reconfigured for each show, and Brett Bonda, the company’s Managing Director, says it takes 45 minutes to complete each set-up. If you come with friends or family, you will be seated together, but apart from other attendees.

The tickets have been digitized for touch-less entry; just scan your phone at the kiosk in the lobby. The programs have also been digitized; I advise you to read them on a tablet rather than a phone if you are over age 35. But there’s more. Ticket holders receive an email with the House Notes for their performance. Arrival times are staggered by row and seat number. Other precautions are also included in the email, and are shown on a large screen before the start of the show. Masks must be worn at all times; even the dancers perform in masks. The bar is closed, and there is no intermission. That reduces contact with other people even further. At the conclusion of the program, the audience is asked to remain seated until the row in front of you has left. There was even a can of hospital-grade disinfectant spray in the women’s restroom.

Nothing has been overlooked. The Richmond Ballet has been very, very thorough in their efforts to make people feel comfortable, safe, and welcome.

Studio performances have generally followed a formula. There is most often a classic work, a contemporary work, and a new work. This program differs somewhat. There were six works, ranging from a brief 3 or 4 minutes to 20 minutes in length. The entire program, without intermission, ran just under an hour, yet it did not feel rushed. Also, the number of dancers was limited to just eight, performing in solos, duets, trios, and quartets.

The program, overall, was a triumphant tribute to the power and joy of dance, beginning with excerpts from Dennis Spaight’s “Gloria.” Abi Goldstein, Izabella Tokev, Lauren Archer, and Matthew Frain performed the “Laudamus Te,””Domine Deus,” “Qui Sedes,” “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei,” “Domine Fill Unigenite,” and “Cum Cancto Spiritu” sections of Antonio Vivaldi’s lush music. Craig Wolf’s original lighting and a few simple projections created a cathedral-like atmosphere. The women, dressed in claret-colored and purple dresses that swirled around their legs, appeared to move spontaneously and reverently, embodying Spaight’s musicality in this beautifully complex yet simple work that pays homage to the choreographer’s mother’s faith.

On Wednesday I saw Thel Moore, III dance Matthew Frain’s “To This Day,” one of two new works by current company members. Dressed in jeans and a black tank and using an umbrella as a prop, Moore began this contemporary work by throwing a handful of light against the backdrop. This beautiful solo is a contrast of light and darkness, and builds up in mood and intensity along with the dramatic music by Shy, Low. At one point Moore sits in a golden circle of light, reaching up. “To This Day” could be about loss, or making a decision, or life changes, or a pandemic. . .It lasts only 5 or 6 minutes, but “To This Day” may become one of my favorite contemporaty works by this company, and I applaud artistic director Stoner Winslett for supporting new works from inside the organization. Moore alternates in the role with Ira White and I would love to have a chance to see if White brings different nuances to this solo.

Izabella Tokev and Khaiyom Khojaev performed “Alone, Beside Me,” a work by Associate Artistic Director Ma Cong, one of my long-time favorite choreographers whose work I first saw performed by The Richmond Ballet. Pianist Douglas-Jayd Burn played the Franz Shubert score that accompanied the duet. Shirtless and wearing black pants, Khojaev contrasted with Tokev’s negligee-like white dress, but the major contrast was between the soft piano chords and the often angular and sometime harsh movements of the dancers. The contract and release, clinging and lifting, and the physical and emotional tension were palpable and riveting. And as for social distancing, Tokev and Khojaev are married to each other in real life.

The company’s artistic directors were deliberate in their choreographic choices and in keeping the program socially distant, physically safe, and relevant, there were several subtly humorous moments incorporated in the evening. For the “Drum Trio” from Val Caniparoli’s “Street Songs,” Thel Moore III, Abi Goldstein, and Mate Szentes came loping out, each claiming an individual circle (more social distancing). For 3-4 minutes they performed a series of movements that, with the drum accompaniment, reminded me of classic modern dance classes from the 1940s.

In contrast to the tribal delights of “Drum Trio, “Salvatore Aiello’s “Solas,” performed by Elena Bello, was a stark lament with all the drama, but not the sound, of a classic flamenco solo. Bello entered in darkness, treading the path of a stream of light, shrouded in a dark fringed shawl over a dark dress. She sat on a chair and rocked back and forth to the wordless lament of a woman’s voice in the music by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Bello looks back, mourning an un-named loss that seems to pull her back to the past. When a light appears that seems to draw her into the future, she moves towards it, stretched beyond her physical limits, but circles back, knocks over the chair, crawls back to it, and pulls her shawl back over her head, keening as the lights go out. She leaves us to wonder, is she mourning the loss of a loved one, or of something bigger…

The evening ended with “Waltzes Once Forgotten,” an exuberant new work by company member Mate Szentes. The dancers, seen in silhouette, move forward as if emerging from the pages of a long forgotten photo album. Their ivory-colored costumes have a vintage feel, with one of the women wearing a little hat and one of the men wearing a newsboy cap and short pants. There is a little humor a little rivalry, a little nostalgia. Szentes was inspired by the Spanish Flu of 1918, which introduced masks and social distancing to a world reeling under the effects of a pandemic much like we are today.

Without saying a word, The Richmond Ballet reminded us that the more things change, the more they stay the same, that there is nothing new under the sun, and that we are resilient, and we survive.

The September Studio Series runs through September 27, with a total of 16 performances. The October Studio Series will be October 13-25, and the November Studio Series will run November 10-22. For the first time since 1980, the company will not be performing the traditional holiday classic, “The Nutcracker.” It simply requires too many people, too many rehearsals, and too much of everything we have to put on hold for now.

Left: Ira White and Thel Moore III in rehearsal with Matthew Frain. Right: Cody Beaton and Sabrina Holland in rehearsal. Photos by Sarah Ferguson.

Featured

2020 ARTSIES AWARD WINNERS ANNOUNCED

For more information, contact:
Amy Wight , amyzzon@gmail.com


“Lucky 13” Annual Theater Awards Winners Announced
TheatreLAB wins ten “Artsies,” VA Rep honored for Children’s Theatre


Richmond, VA – September 14, 2020. The 13th Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Awards (Artsies), which is typically an in-person black-tie event, was all virtual this year. With a “Lucky 13” theme, the show highlighted the funny – and often outrageous – ways that theater can go wrong, elevating what is unique and vital about live performance: the thrill of the unexpected.


Not only are the Artsies the community’s recognition of excellence in Richmond-area theater, but they are the primary fundraising event for the Theatre Artist Fund of Greater Richmond (The Fund). The Fund provides emergency financial assistance to theater artists who have experienced an exceptional financial need related to a specific crisis beyond their control. Since
its inception, the Artsies have raised $83,446 for the Fund, which has written 21 grants totaling $30,468 for artists in need. While no tickets were sold for this year’s event, attendees were urged to consider donating in support of the Theatre Artist Fund of Greater Richmond .


Although the 2019-2020 theater season was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Richmond-area professional theaters staged a number of remarkable productions. Virginia Repertory Theatre received a special award this year for Excellence in Children’s Theatre for its productions of “Tuck Everlasting” and “Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” the
latter written by local playwright Douglas Jones. In addition, the theater came away with an impressive eight wins, including Best Play for its production of August Wilson’s “Fences.” Virginia Rep’s production of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” garnered four of those wins, including Scott Wichmann’s award for Best Actor in a Musical.


TheatreLAB swept the night with ten Artsies, most of them for its production of “Urinetown,” which was also the production that won the most Artsies. “Urinetown” received seven awards, including Best Musical; Best Direction of a Musical for Matt Polson; Best Actress in a Musical, which went to Bianca Bryan; Best Supporting Actor in a Musical for Luke Schares; and Best Supporting Actress in a Musical for Kelsey Cordrey. The show also picked up awards for Best Choreography for Nicole Morris-Anastasi’s work and Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Design in a Musical for Michael Jarett’s lighting. And, the first show of the season, TheatreLAB’s production of “Level 4,” was honored as Outstanding Original Work.


Among Firehouse Theatre’s four awards this year was the Best Acting Ensemble award to the cast of “Passing Strange,” which also won Jimmy Fecteau an award for his sound design. Lorin Hope Turner’s role in the theater’s production of “Stupid Kid” earned her an Artsie for Breakout Performance, and Alison Devereaux won an award for her direction of the play.


“Our organization has tried at this unprecedented time to support theater artists who continue making their art and sharing it with the world,” said Susie Haubenstock, RTCC President. “The RTCC embraces the rich diversity of backgrounds and perspectives that our local theater artists bring to their craft and is proud to honor and pay tribute to the excellence they bring to
Richmond-area theater.”

Best Musical
“Urinetown”
TheatreLAB


Best Direction, Musical
Matt Polson
“Urinetown”


Best Actor, Musical
Scott Wichmann
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”


Best Actress, Musical
Bianca Bryan
“Urinetown”


Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Musical
Luke Schares
“Urinetown”


Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Musical
Kelsey Cordrey
“Urinetown”


Best Musical Direction
Sandy Dacus
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”


Best Choreography
Nicole Morris-Anastasi
“Urinetown”


Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design, Musical
Sue Griffin
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”


Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Design, Musical
Michael Jarett
“Urinetown”


Outstanding Achievement in Set Design, Musical
Chris Raintree
“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”


Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design, Musical
Jimmy Fecteau
“Passing Strange”


Best Play
“Fences”
Virginia Rep


Best Direction, Play
Alison Devereaux
“Stupid Kid”


Best Actor, Play
James Craven
“Fences”


Best Actress, Play
Terri Moore
“The Cake”


Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Play
Joe Pabst
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”


Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Play
Maggie Bavolack
“The Revolutionists”


Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design, Play
Ruth Hedberg
“The Revolutionists”


Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Design, Play
Joe Doran
“Holmes and Watson”


Outstanding Achievement in Set Design, Play
Josafath Reynoso
“Fences”


Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design, Play
Nicholas Seaver
“Fences”


2020 Ernie McClintock Best Acting Ensemble Award
The cast members of Firehouse Theatre’s “Passing Strange”
are honored for their notable performance as a cohesive and compelling ensemble:
Patricia Alli
Keydron Dunn
Keaton Hillman
Dylan Jones
Jamar Jones
Katrinah Carol Lewis
Jeremy V. Morris


Breakout Performance
Lorin-Hope Turner
“Stupid Kid”


Outstanding Original Work
Level 4, TheatreLAB


Excellence in Children’s Theatre
“Tuck Everlasting” and “Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” Virginia Rep


To view the “Lucky 13” Artsies video, visit http://www.artsies.org/ .

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Featured

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS: At the Edge of the Ocean

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS: A Play Without Words

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: March 7-29 (with previews March 5 & 6), 2020

Ticket Prices: $37

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

It isn’t often that someone writes a play that requires the actors to take a vow of silence. But that is exactly what happens in Beth Wohl’s play, Small Mouth Sounds (premiered in 2015), when six people in search of themselves – or something or someone other than their themselves – arrive at an upstate New York center for a silent retreat. Small Mouth Sounds was inspired by the author’s own retreat experience.

Naturally, things do not unfold smoothly as each character reveals their special brand of quirkiness or unveils their personal demons. Judy and Joan are a couple – two middle-aged  women who are struggling to shoulder the burden of Judy’s cancer diagnosis. Alicia is a young woman who apparently just broke up with someone named Fred; she keeps dialing his number and is constantly distracted by her forbidden cell phone. She is perturbed to discover that she has been assigned a male roommate.

Ned and Rodney are two of the most interesting members of this unlikely collection of people. Ned has had an unimaginable string of bad luck: he fell off a mountain and broke his skull; his wife started sleeping with his younger brother; he started drinking and joined AA only to have his sponsor commit suicide, and his dog got run over by a car. That’s just a small sampling of all that he’s been through. Rodney is a passive aggressive yoga instructor who smugly and silently snubs everyone else, shows off his yoga skills, removes his wedding ring as soon as he arrives, and is the first to strip down for the clothing optional lakeside activities.

Oh yes, there is a bit of nudity – full frontal – and some “herbal tobacco” and Palo Santo wood gets burned onstage. This play is recommended for viewers 18 years and older. But, to get back to the cast, one of the greatest surprises comes in the final scene from the mild-mannered Jan.

This group of seekers comes under the care and watchful eye of a gruff-voiced guru, an unseen and nameless Teacher who coughs and sneezes into her microphone and appears o the verge of a breakdown. The audience never sees the Teacher, Marisa Guida, until she comes out to take her bow at the end. Guida is the only character allowed to speak throughout the play.

The marvelous cast consists of Lauren Leinhaas-Cook as Judy (the one with cancer); Jenny Hundley as her partner Joan (the bubbly one who always seems to have a small wrapped candy); Maura Mazurowski as Alicia (the young one with all the bags and baggage – and snacks); Jim Morgan as Ned (the one who has all the bad luck); Adam Valentine as Rodney (the passive-aggressive yoga instructor); and Larry Cook as Jan (the one whose secret I will not reveal here, but about whom I will post a nagging question at the end of this review). What makes them all so marvelous is that, except for a rather long monologue by Ned, and a brief but sharp exchange between Joan and Judy, we learn all we know about these characters through facial expressions, gestures, and a few grunts. In order to successfully carry off a play in which the main characters are all required to take a vow of silence, these actors had to act their butts off!

Running 70 minutes with no intermission, Small Mouth Sounds is set in a yurt-shaped structure with large open windows and chakra symbols painted on the walls. The only furniture is a few backless wooden stools (which Judy emphatically complains about) and some floor pillows. At night, the campers make do with their yoga mats as they fight mosquitos and shiver at the sounds of growling bears and other unknown animals. Actors enter down the center aisle, sometimes rather noisily, and the top of the set extends over the audience making us feel that we are inside the experience – or experiment, which I believe is the word used in the opening seconds – perhaps even in the position of the Teacher.

Joey Luck designed the sound – a variety of ambient sounds including insects and birds and a bear or two, assorted snorts and grunts, and a torrential rainstorm. Rusty Wilson, Irene Ziegler and the cast members contributed voice-overs and other vocals sounds. Sarah Grady’s costumes helped define the characters. This entire delightful production was directed by Laine Satterfield with a balance of structure and freedom that allowed humor to emerge quite naturally. The pacing was unhurried, yet never lagged, and the scenes perfectly captured the juxtaposition of the meditative environment with the characters’ personalities and problems. In her Director’s Note, Satterfield describes how, during their first week of rehearsal, the cast members lived key moments of their characters’ lives and even worked out timelines and bios.

Small Mouth Sounds runs through March 29 in the intimate Theatre Gym at the Virginia Rep Center on West Broad Street. A part of the Acts of Faith Theatre Festival, the play runs in tandem with a series of wellness workshops, Centered Stage, including topics such as meditation and feng shui. The series takes place after the shows on March 8, 12, 15, 19, 22, and 26.

 

**********

SPOILER ALERT

Now, for that question regarding Jan and his secret. . .Do not read this paragraph if you don’t want to know before you go. . .

So, in the final scene, it is revealed that Jan does not speak English. My question is, how was he able to read his information packet and follow the instructions of the Teacher? Hmm???

**********

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Jason Collins

Small Mouth Sounds
Adam Valentine, Jenny Hundley , Lauren Leinhaas-Cook, Maura Mazurowski, Jim Morgan, Larry Cook. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

August Wilson's Fences
Marisa Guida. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

Small Mouth Sounds
Maura Mazurowski, Jim Morgan. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

Small Mouth Sounds
Adam Valentine, Jenny Hundley, Lauren Leinhaas-Cook. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

Small Mouth Sounds
Jim Morgan and Maura Mazurkowski. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.

 

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THE GREAT GATSBY: Allusion, Delusion, Illusion

THE GREAT GATSBY: A Novel Approach

Performances: March 6 – 22, 2020

By: Quill Theatre

At: Leslie Cheek Theater at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard, RVA 23220

Ticket Prices: $40 Adults; $30 VMFA Members; $35 Seniors 65+; $30 RVATA (must show card); $20 Students (with ID)

Info: (804) 340-1405 or quilltheatre.org

Love lost and found, wealth and power, prohibition era bootlegging, corruption, infidelity, homosexuality, white supremacy, domestic abuse, the aftermath of war, mystery, lies, and more are all part of the plot, and it all hits the fan in Act Two. It would be impossible not to draw comparisons between the 1922 setting of The Great Gatsby and the state of the world nearly 100 years later, in 2020.

Simon Levy’s 2006 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic American novel, The Great Gatsby, now playing at the Leslie Cheek Theatre at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is the only version of the play authorized by the Fitzgerald estate. There’s a lot of history on that stage, but as important as historical context may be, it is human relationships and the human condition that are at the heart of this show. Indeed, the program notes are careful to point out that the lively and dynamic Charleston scene at the top of Act Two would most likely never have occurred, as that dance did not become popular – at least not outside the black community – until 1926, about four years after the setting of The Great Gatsby. Part drama, part comedy – perhaps unintentionally so – The Great Gatsby features a dynamic and diverse cast of major and minor characters.

Kurt Smith is Jay Gatsby. Since this is his debut in the Richmond theater community, I am not at all familiar with his range or abilities, but he elicited many of the laughs on opening night with his awkwardly affected portrayal; he would stick out a hand as if to shake and leave it extended for an inordinate amount of time, or stand in profile with one foot slightly ahead of the other, reminiscent of a figure on an ancient Egyptian painting. The character of Gatsby also, oddly enough, alternates between the confidence of a successful businessman – one who has made his fortune through illegal or illegitimate means – and the nervousness of a schoolboy about to ask a girl on a date for the first time. Somehow, these two sides of Gatsby never truly reconciled.

Rachel Rose Gilmour as Gatsby’s love interest, Daisy Buchanan, adopted the hand-to-forehead swooning persona of the southern bell for most of her scenes. Caught between two loves, she could not decide which to choose, instead allowing circumstances to make the decision for her.

Daisy, who seemingly has everything – a wealthy husband, big home, money and social standing – is actually a victim: a victim of domestic abuse; a victim of 1920’s social restraints placed on women.

Daisy’s husband, Tom, played by Cole Metz, is a pompous, bombastic, white male supremacist who is very much aware of and feels justified in his privilege. Tom is carrying on an affair with the wife of gas station owner whose business he frequents on his trips back and forth from New York City to Long Island. Metz’s character is the one you most want to boo. Each of these main characters has a distinct style and mannerisms – they just do not seem to have selected the same style or mannerisms from the same school or time period.

The play is narrated by Chandler Hubbard who plays Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway. The narrator guides the audience through this twisted tale, providing a sort of auditory synopsis, filling in the blanks for the audience members who may have forgotten or never read The Great Gatsby, while Nick seems to represent the voice of reason and the face of good. As the play progresses, and it becomes obvious that wrong-doers will not be held accountable for their actions, he distances himself from the others – even from his high-society girlfriend, Jordan Baker, played by Michelle Greensmith as an overly-confident, sometimes delightfully sarcastic, and generally loud caricature of a flapper – but without the fringes.

Speaking of loud, the un-mic’ed (is that even a real word?) actors were often difficult to hear in the Leslie Cheek Theatre – even from the fifth or sixth row from the front. As to other production elements: Gregg Hillmar’s lighting was sometimes used to effectively highlight scenes while at other times, perhaps because of the thrust of the stage, with steps and ramps downstage, or perhaps because of the structure and limitations of the house, the lighting seemed to extend into the houselights, illuminating the rows of people sitting in front of you as much as the actors onstage. James Ricks, the company’s Artistic Director, did the effective sound design himself, and there was no doubt that Tennessee Dixon had created the projections that added depth and visual interest in lieu of three-dimensional set construction. Among the stunning effects, flying birds and jonquils (a flower that earned prominent mention in another classic play earlier this season, The Glass Menagerie). Interestingly, jonquils are a type of narcissus, named for the character in Greek mythology from whom the word “narcissism” is derived.

Credit for the lively Charleston scene at the top of Act Two – a scene that prominently featured Keaton Hillman and Markell D. Holloway who played the role of the servants, among other roles – goes to Jeremy Gershman and Kayla Xavier. Reed West’s compact set design included a revolving platform that held a surprising variety of furniture and settings and Cora Delbridge designed the lovely and lovingly detailed period costumes that made generous use of sparkling fabrics and swinging fringes.

The cast also included LaSean Greene as the gas station owner, George Wilson, whose wife was involved with Tom Buchanan. Greene has a small part, but a significant scene in the latter part of Act Two. The versatile Amber Marie Martinez played George’s wife, Myrtle – another victim of the times. Melissa Johnston Price, Eddie Webster, and Jeff Clevenger are all well-known accomplished actors who played very small roles. The ensemble included Daniel Camargo (who also played the minor role of Frank), Mara Barrett, Jackie Cook, Kayla Xavier, Mallory Keene, Billy Heckman, Keaton Hillman, Reed Patterson, and Markell Holloway.

With all these features going for it, The Great Gatsby provided an entertaining evening of theater that generated laughs and made the audience confront many unpleasant facets of human nature. With such an accomplished cast and the skillful direction of former artistic director Dr. Jan Powell, I left with a slight feeling of emptiness, as if someone had left out an ingredient. I hope the remaining shows will tighten up and fulfill the high expectations that have been generated. The Great Gatsby has a short run, so freshen up your 1920s attire and catch it before it closes on March 22.

 

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 Maria V. Salova

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THE REVOLUTIONISTS: Find the Heart, Not the Art (Marianne Angelle)

THE REVOLUTIONISTS: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Gil Scott-Heron)

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 27 – March 21, 2020

Ticket Prices: $30 Regular Admission; $20 Seniors & Industry/RVATA; $10 Students and Teachers with ID

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

Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, first produced in 2015, may be the only comedy that begins and ends with an execution. The Revolutionists is a play about a woman writing a play during the French Revolution. It is hysterically funny, and it is real. Three of the four characters are historical (not hysterical) figures:

Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) was a French playwright and political activist. She was executed by guillotine for seditious behavior and attempting to reinstate the monarchy – based on the “evidence” found in the contents of an unfinished play about former Queen of France Marie Antoinette.

Women have the right to mount the scaffold;

they should likewise have the right to mount the rostrum.

-Olympe de Gouges played by Maggie Roop

Charlotte Corday (1768-1793) was a political activist who was executed by guillotine for the assassination of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, a leader of the Reign of Terror. She stabbed him in his bath.

I killed one man to save 100,000.

-Charlotte Corday played by Lydia Hynes

Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was the last Queen of France before the French Revolution. She was convicted of treason and executed by guillotine.

No one understands my ills, nor the terror that fills my breast,

who does not know the heart of a mother.

– Marie Antoinette, played by Maggie Bavolack

Marianne Angelle is a composite of the free black women revolutionaries of the island nation of Saint Domingue (now Haiti). The island was rich in sugar, coffee, and cotton with a population of 500,000 slaves, 32,000 white people, and 28,000 free black people. In August 1791 the Saint Domingue revolutionaries started the first successful slave revolt in history.

You can’t be a hero if you’re too scared to show up!

– Marianne Angelle played by Katrinah Carol Lewis

For two hours (including one ten-minute intermission), these four women gather in Olympe’s Parisian office to talk philosophy and plan how to change the world. The Revolutionists is a smart, fast-paced, bold tragi-comedy. It is a play that embraces a love of words and language, and Chelsea Burke’s thoughtfully irreverent and well-timed direction dares the audience to come along for the ride and keep up. Dasia Gregg’s understated set (some framed wall sections, a tiny desk and a few seats that are removed after the first act) has the audience seated in the four corners of the intimate space. Some audience members were sitting just a foot or two away from the performers when they sat on a chair on chaise lounge.

It wasn’t until the end of this riotous yet serious discourse that we realized we were not ordinary participants, but extras cast in the role of audience members. It was something like going along for a ride in your friend’s new car, only to find out later that the car was stolen, and you were the designated getaway driver for the crime they planned to commit.

The Revolutionists boasts a dynamic cast with Maggie Roop as Olympe de Gouges, full of fiery talk but coming up short when it’s time to take real action. Lydia Hynes portrays Charlotte Corday with youthful energy and commitment – and she’s loud (and that’s not a criticism, but a comment from her mentors, Olympe and Marianne). Maggie Bavolack is very pink and fluffy (especially her hair and bosom) and is hysterically funny as Marie Antoinette. But she also expresses an unexpected warmth and compassion that develops as she spends time with Marianne and Olympe.

And then there’s Katrinah Carol Lewis as the free-black freedom fighter Marianne. Marianne is the character we learn the most about, from her family to her political and womanist philosophies and Lewis takes full ownership of this character and the show, from the moment she strides into Olympe’s office, assesses the situation, and applies her sense of righteous indignation tempered with wisdom beyond her years.

In fact, all the woman exhibit knowledge beyond their years – or at least beyond their time period – as their dialogue and declarations are interspersed with contemporary language and well-seasoned with swear words.

The production team includes period costumes by Ruth Hedberg (some attractive, some serviceable, some versatile, and some for fun), sound design by Kelsey Cordrey (filled with crowd sounds, heavy breathing, ticking clocks, gunshots and other ambient sounds), and dramatic lighting by Michael Jarrett that goes black to tastefully yet ominously indicate that the guillotine has dropped.

The Revolutionists, a part of the Acts of Faith Festival, runs through March 21. To paraphrase Marianne, “You can’t be a participant if you’re too scared to show up.” Don’t be that person.

 

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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CONCERT BALLET OF VIRGINIA: Winter Gala Features American Themes & More

THE CONCERT BALLET OF VIRGINIA: Winter Gala 2020

A Dance Program Review

At: The Woman’s Club Auditorium, 211 East Franklin Street, RVA 23219

Performance: February 23, 2020

Ticket Prices: $12-$18

Info: (804) 798-0945 or http://concertballet.com/ or info@concertballet.org

The Concert Ballet of Virginia, a  civic company based in Hanover County, continued its 44th performance season with a Winter Repertory Gala at The Woman’s Club Auditorium on Sunday, February 23. The Winter Repertory Gala – a showcase for the junior, senior, and performing companies – shared the program with The Concert Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Iris Schwartz, alternating a musical composition with a ballet.

The Orchestra seemed to focus on patriotic music, American composers, and American themes, opening with a rousing rendition of the “George Washington Bicentennial March” by John Philip Sousa. This set the tone and expectation for the remainder of the program.

Additional musical interludes included a Cole Porter symphonic portrait, another march, and a medley of American music, including “Shenandoah,” which lays claim to a rather contentious proposal to be Virginia’s “interim state song,” and “My Country Tis of Thee,” which the conductor encouraged the audience to sing along with but there were no takers.

The first ballet, Lindsay Hudson’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” featured an ensemble of enthusiastic young dancers who, while they did not always keep their legs straight or keep their toes pointed en l’air, appeared steady on their pointes and brought an infectious element of joy to their performance. Scott Boyer’s period costumes with full tulle skirts coordinated with  deVeaux Riddick’s décor, with its life-sized pink and green plants, all of which were well suited to the genteel atmosphere with some patrons seated at tables, where they were served desserts and beverages, reminiscent of an 18th or 19th century salon. The ballet ended on a light note with a very charming back-to-back slide to the floor.

The first half of the program also included Valerie Shcherbakova’s “Bretagne,” set to music by Darius Milhand that seemed somewhat dark, even ominous, in contrast to the dancers’ white dresses with narrow fabric panels draped delicately along their arms. This ballet was set in an undisclosed period and locale (although the title suggests a French locations), with four blue panels painted with chandeliers and draperies and somewhat mysterious obelisks. The work is created with intentional symmetry, and ends with a lighter, livelier coda.

The second half of the program included Scott Boyer’s ‘The Gum Suckers,’ a contemporary ballet that swaddled the dancers in colorful layers and features several different lifts that were sturdy and well-supported.  There was a section in which it was unclear whether the two lines of dancers were supposed to be moving in unison or in canon, but the ballet, which featured a quintet of five pint-sized dancers, was undoubtedly an audience favorite and earned extended applause.

It should be noted that Boyer, a founding member and the company’s artistic director, is the only remaining member of the long-time artistic and executive team. The program pays homage to Robert Watkins (former Artistic Director), deVeaux Riddick (former Designer and Technical Director), and Eleanor Rennie (Executive Director).

The program closed with Karen Moore’s “Rainbow Room,” which saw the dancers dressed in glittery top hats and fringed dressed moving in a jazzy Bob Fosse style to the big band sound of Benny Goodman. Christopher Gangloff’s pretty rainbow lighting effects added an extra layer of pizzazz to this work that began with the dancers laying of the floor, legs up, like the petals of a flower. A sassy percussion beat guided the dancers into a rousing kick line that circled the stage and Boyer, Donald Myers, and an apparently uncredited male dancer escorted the bevy of young women, wearing white tie and tails (but, alas, no top hats!) to complement the women’s fringed frocks.

The Concert Ballet of Virginia’s Winter Repertory Gala 2020 offered a genteel afternoon of audience-pleasing dance and live music in a beautiful setting on a lovely Sunday afternoon.

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: Concert Ballet of Virginia Winter Gala 2020 program cover

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THE CAKE: A Slice of Life

New Show March 7 at 2 pm! Most Other Performances Almost SOLD OUT!  Tickets on Sale at 10 am Monday, February 24!

THE CAKE: A Ripped-From-the-Headlines Play

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players – An Acts of Faith production

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

Performances: February 12 – March 7,  2020

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Stepping into Della’s North Carolina bakery shop is like stepping back in time. In an opening monologue, Della sings the praises of real butter and sugar and tells us that cake made from a box is like Scotch tape dipped in Splenda®.

Della has a lot going on in her life right now. She’s living her dream of being a contestant on The Great American Baking Show when along comes Jen, her goddaughter, who announces her impending wedding and she wants Della, her late mother’s best friend, to bake her wedding cake. Della and her husband Tim, a plumber, are stunned to find that Jen plans to marry another woman – a black woman journalist. That step back in time is multi-faceted; it is physical, geographical, social, and political.

The strong cast compellingly engages in difficult discussions about topics that are emotionally laden, faith testing, and politically controversial. Terri Moore as Della, Nicole Morris-Anastasi as Jen, Zakiyyah Jackson as Jen’s partner Macy, and Gordon Bass as Della’s husband Tim are all more than up to the task. The audience is skillfully exposed to the different points of view and nuances of each character.

And this is where Terri Moore – who recently delighted audiences as Patsy Cline’s number one fan, Louise Seger, at Hanover Tavern – pulled out all the stops. Della convincingly struggled to balance her Christian faith with her love for Jen – even searching the scriptures to see if she really understood the word of God.

In turning to her husband Tim to talk through her dilemma, Della uncovered her own marital discontent and in the second half of the one-act play (running nearly two hours with no intermission) she touchingly, hilariously, yet unsuccessfully tried to spice things up by seducing Tim. The failed seduction involved soft lights, mood music, and whipped cream. Tim later countered in a hilarious scene that will forever make you look differently at mashed potatoes.

Jen breezed into her childhood town with unresolved issues surrounding her life as a gay woman and her need to earn the approval of her late mother. Significant discussions about difficult topics that are both emotionally charged and faith-challenging occur between Della and Tim and between Jen and Macy. Macy is confident and pragmatic; she’s not really interested in anyone else’s opinion, and the most difficult thing for the audience to accept may be how Macy and the self-deprecating Jen ever fell in love with each other, much less sustain a viable relationship.

The thing is that we are able to empathize with both Della and Jen. I credit this to the combined creative ability and social intelligence of Moore, director Dawn A.  Westbrook, and playwright Bekah Brunstetter (who is also a writer for the hit television show This Is Us). The Cake provides a template for how we might all deal with the difficult topics: gender; race; marriage and more. The cast of four is excellent, with Moore and Jackson’s characters standing out as more fully developed. The Cake is a charming play, made even more delightful thanks to Terri Moore.

I think I was enamored of this play because we see Della, Jen, Macy, and Tim as people, not as issues. Westbrook’s direction is gentle, and the humor flows freely and easily shares the stage with the serious topics, keeping the audience engaged.

This slice of life play is based loosely on the true story of a Colorado baker whose refusal to bake a wedding cake for two gay men went all the way to the Supreme Court. (The Court ruled in favor of the baker, based on his religious beliefs.)

David Allan Ballas designed an inviting bake shop that cleverly converts to two bedrooms with the aid of two murphy-style beds hidden behind the shop’s shelving. The Robert B. Moss Theatre lobby has also been decorated with a variety of tempting-looking cakes and sweets. Sheamus Coleman’s sound design includes very appropriate background music, while Michael Jarett’s lighting and Sheila Russ’ costumes supported the overall look and theme and Donna Coghill’s dialect coaching helped the North Carolina accent roll gently off the tongues of Della, Jen, and Tim.

 

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

TheCake_031
Terri Moore is Della, a well-known Southern bakery owner who is faced with a dilemma that will change her life in “The Cake,” a new comedy by Bekah Brunstetter (“This is Us”), directed by Dawn A. Westbrook. Playing at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre through March 7.

TheCake_337
Nicole Morris-Anastasi (left) and Zakiyyah Jackson as Jen and Macy, a couple in a bit of a crisis running up to their wedding in “The Cake,” a new play by Bekah Brunstetter (“This is Us”), directed by Dawn A. Westbrook. Playing at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre through March 7

 

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STARR FOSTER DANCE: In Rest and Sleep (a dance about love, loss, reflection, revenge & unlimited chances)

STARR FOSTER DANCE: In Rest and Sleep

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLAB The Basement, 300 East Broad Street, RVA 23219

Performances: February 13-15: Thursday & Friday @7:30pm; Saturday @3:00pm, 5:00pm & 7:30pm

Ticket Prices: $15; $25 on Friday (includes post-performance reception)

Info: (804) 304-1523, https://m.bpt.me/event/4497856

Starrene Foster’s new work, In Rest and Sleep, begins with a bit of audience participation. It would be impossible to describe my experience without giving it away, so *SPOILER ALERT*: If you plan to see it, and want to be surprised, skip the italicized paragraph.

 

*SPOILER ALERT*

The audience is held in the lobby and bar area until it is time to enter the performing space. Latecomers will not be seated. As we prepared to enter the space, we were each given a white calla lily – a symbol of holiness and purity, but also of death and resurrection; it is a popular Easter flower. This made me think of a funeral, a feeling that was reinforced as we processed through a black curtain to the sounds of somber music. Once inside the space, we observed three dancers laying face up on the floor and a fourth sitting on a tree stump in solemn contemplation. We were instructed to toss our flowers on the dancers.

*END OF SPOILER ALERT *

 

In Rest and Sleep is described as a dance about love, loss, and reflection. It is also described, in different settings, as a dance about revenge or a dance about unlimited chances. It is all of that, and more. After the show – which runs about 40 minutes, with no intermission – my theater companion asked what I thought it meant, and my response was, whatever you needed it to mean. This is the kind of work that, after the applause, leave the audience momentarily silent, speechless, mute and alone in the midst of a crowd.

I have, on more than one occasion, remarked to Foster that I found her work dark – not just emotionally, but physically, due to the subdued lighting she and her lighting designers prefer. Yet even though In Rest and Sleep may be thought of as a dark topic, the lighting, while subdued, is not very dark at all. In fact, there are moments when Michael Jarett illuminates the space with bright flashes, like shards of enlightenment. The set, designed by Foster and Brad Lebahn, consists of two rectangles of artificial grass and a tree stump. At the beginning and again later, one dancer sits quietly on the stump carefully observing the other dancers.

The combination of stillness that feels like waiting is juxtaposed with violent reaching, grabbing pulling, dragging, and writhing. There are supportive lifts and gentle touches, but there are also kicks and shoves and intertwining phrases of movement that create a perceptible level of anxiety, of unease.

Two distinct moments in time stood out for me, capturing my attention and stirring my emotions. In a duet, one dancer stood off to the side with her right arm extended, fingers trembling in a repetitive pattern while her partner, some distance away, explored the other side of the space until the two eventually tumbled together. While this interaction was unfolding, a third dancer sat on the tree stump watching intently, and the fourth lay curled at her feet on a patch of grass – resting, or asleep. I saw myself in the dancer with the outstretched arm – reaching, disconnected – as well as in the dancer who sat intently observing, waiting for her season to become involved. Others may have connected with the dancer who was moving through space, or with the sleeping figure.

The other moment that caused me to hold my breath occurred when the four dancers ran, one after the other, to a patch of grass, dropped, rolled to center stage, got up, and repeated the pattern several times! The movement was mesmerizing, but the energy emitted was like a volcano erupting. It was over all too soon.

In Rest and Sleep,  a premiere by Starrene Foster, has only five performances this weekend, and while the audience is seated on three sides of the space, there is limited seating. Everyone is up close to the action – and the resting. On Thursday and Saturday at 3:00pm the performers are Fran Beaumont, Caitlin Cunningham, Shelby Gratz Paez, and Mattie Rogers. On Friday and on Saturday at 5:00pm and 7:30pm the cast is Kylie Hester, Erick Hooten, Anna Lebahn, and Mattie Rogers.

The RVA theater community has an Acts of Faith festival – if dance were included, In Rest and Sleep would be a prime candidate for Acts of Faith, along with the accompanying talk-back opportunities for the audience to discuss works with the cast and creative team.

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. NOTE: Production photos were not yet available at the time of posting.

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BLOOMSDAY: An Irish-Time-Travel Love Story

BLOOMSDAY: Time Shifting & Love

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 7-22, 2020

Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 RVATA Members; $15 Students

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

I was not familiar with Steven Dietz’ play, Bloomsday. Published in 2017, the four-person play is  set in Dublin, Ireland and shifts between the present and 35 years earlier. The four actors play two characters – the present-day Cait and Robert and their younger embodiments, Caithleen and Robbie. Robert also acts as narrator.

Bloomsday is a tale of love, regrets, and “what ifs.” Robbie, a young American tourist on the rebound from a breakup, joins a walking tour of James Joyce’s Dublin – following the path of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. The tour guide, an attractive young Irish woman named Caithleen, has a group of 12 tourists ready to explore the streets of James Joyce’s novel as seen through the eyes of Leopold Bloom, but she needs another person so the tour group will not have 13 people (including herself). Robbie joins the group, then selfishly encourages the other tourists to abandon the tour (there are several pubs along the route) so he can have Caithleen all to himself – taking numerous pictures of her.

The two spend one day together. Robbie returns to Seattle where he obsesses over Caithleen until finally, 35 years later, he returns. What follows is a surreal tale in which it is sometimes impossible to tell what really happened and what is just a memory. Cait and young Cathleen, Robert and young Robbie all interact with one another, sometimes sharing the same space – which means time has warped so that the characters come face-to-face with their older/younger selves.

It’s an interesting device that forces the audience to work to keep up with these parallel universes. At one point Mike Fletcher (Robert) and Jordan Stroud (Robbie) are dressed alike. But Robbie’s messy hair and untucked shirt earn him a reprimand from his older self. The first encounter between Caithleen (Lydia MacFarlane Watt) and Cait (Martha Kelly) in Act 1 confirms for the audience, that time is, in fact, malleable in this play.

Mike Fletcher is the dominant figure. After all, his character Robert is both narrator and the one who travels back to Ireland. The interaction between Fletcher and Jordan Stroud, who plays his younger self, is interesting. It has the tension and contentiousness of a father-son relationship. I never got quite as strong an impression from Martha Kelley’s character. The mature Cait seems to have succumbed to the same unnamed mental illness that plagued her mother. Cait seems more contemplative and rational than the others, but I never got a real sense of who she was.

Lydia MacFarlane Watt was well cast as Caithleen, alternating between self-assured  confidence, self-righteous indignation, and anxious introspection. Alison Eichler has dressed Caithleen in sensible shoes, a tulip shaped skirt, white shirt and print sweater, with a large leather bag across her shoulder. The look – along with Watt’s attitude) is perfect. Eichler also created a wonderful costume with a flamboyant feather festooned had for Cait, in honor of Bloomsday – a celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses that takes place on June 16 and includes dressing up in period clothing.

Mike Fletcher and Joe Bly designed the set – a row of shop fronts, including a chemist, a pub, and a café – pasting yellowed book pages on the walls, floor, and steps. (I got up close to check to see if the pages were from James Joyce’s Ulysses but none of them were. Jimmy Mello created the sound design, which included some appropriate ambient sounds, while Jason Lucas’ lighting attempted – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – to emphasize the shifting.

While I found Bloomsday to be a hidden gem of a play, there were some areas that seemed to drag; the show runs only about 90 minutes with one intermission but I there is very little action and after a while the lilting rhythm of Irish accents (mostly good ones, that are easy to understand used by all but Robbie who is American). Mello and his cast made good use of the space, using the aisles as well as the stage. But it is the tenderness and unanswered or unanswerable questions that make this play special. An Acts of Faith Festival offering, Sunday’s nearly sold-out matinee was followed by the first of two audience talkbacks -the second will be Sunday, February 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: Daryll Morgan Studios

 

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DADDY LONG LEGS: A Period Gem

DADDY LONG LEGS: Life, Longing & Love at the Turn of the 20th Century

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: January 25 – February 22, 2020

Ticket Prices: $40 Theater only; $35 Seniors, Military & Students; $18 Dinner

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

Daddy Long Legs is a sweetly unconventional musical and love story, with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon (Jane Eyre) and book by John Caird (Jane Eyre, Les Misérables). As a musical Daddy Long Legs is unusual in that it has only two characters and the songs are not catchy show tunes but rather poignant ballads, solos that carry the narrative, and harmonious duets that allow the two characters to interact. Further, for most of the two-act play the story is moved forward through the epistolary device of alternately having Jerusha read from letters she writes to her benefactor, “Mr. Smith,” and “Mr. Smith” reading the letters in the privacy of his posh centerstage study.

Rachel Marrs (who recently appeared in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Bright Star at the Mill) plays Jerusha Abbott, the oldest orphan in the John Grier Home. Jerusha is skilled at writing essays and catches the attention of one of the asylum’s trustees, Jervis Pendleton. Under the pseudonym of Mr. John Smith, Jervis, makes Jerusha an offer she can’t refuse; he offers to send her to college for four years, room, board, and a monthly allowance, on the condition that she write him a monthly letter providing details of her progress. Jervis is played by Matt Polson (Sweeney Todd/TheatreLAB, River Ditty/VARep). He is given the nickname Daddy Long Legs, the name of the 1912 novel on which this 2009 musical is based, because his elongated shadow, that Jerusha sees outside the window of the orphanage, reminds her of a spider.

Marrs’ voice is sweet and nuanced. Over the course of the four years of the play we not only hear her development in words both spoken and sung, but we see it visually in Maura Lynch Cravey’s lovely period appropriate costumes that range from a simple work pinafore to neat skirts with high necked white blouses to sleek business suits with ruffled blouses. Jerusha’s hairstyles also reflect the passage of time. Marrs is vulnerable yet fiery, making some ahead-of-the-times statements in support of women’s rights and offering an unconventional, fresh perspective on everything from life to love to literature.

Polson’s character is a tougher nut to crack. He’s the lead character and the play bears his name. But he is jealous and manipulative and deceitful. While he means well, after all, it isn’t everyday someone sends a stranger to college, all expenses paid, no strings attached. But Jervis is led to examine his own character and motives mid-way through the second act in the song “Charity,” where he questions the effects of charity on the giver and the recipient. Symbolically, Cravey has Polson strapped into an unforgiving three-piece suit – the vest of which looks more like a straight jacket than any suit I’ve ever seen. Jervis is harder to like than Jerusha, adding depth to the character and tension to the play.

The music and lyrics are sometimes gentle, sometimes warm and fuzzy, and sometimes soaring. The three-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Paul Deiss, is partially hidden behind a scrim stage right (the audience’s left), so their presence is palpable but not intrusive. Artistic director Tom Width has invited guest director Steve Perigard to delicately guide this duo through their passionate yet halting journey. Guest designer Mercedes Schaum has designed a delightfully satisfying period set, with Jervis’s study commanding centerstage. There’s a sturdy desk, well-stocked bookcases, a solid classic typewriter, a classic candlestick telephone, and a beautifully ornate desk chair with what appears to be a woven wicker back. Other areas, from the orphanage to Jerusha’s dorm room, a rural mountain and the farm where Jerusha spends summers with her college roommates, are defined by a few large trunks, a small table and chairs, and one multi-purpose piece of storage furniture that holds props and Jerusha’s ballgown and provides a place to sit or stand as the action requires. Joe Doran’s mostly subtle lighting enhances the early 20th century ambience with soft illumination and welcoming shadows.

There were a few minutes, mostly in the first act, that seemed to drag a bit, but Marrs and Polson made these moments tolerable. (I think the slow moments were due to the script, rather than Marrs, Polson, or director Perigard.) Polson also manages to avoid the very real possibility of coming across as a predator – after all, he’s a wealthy man with a lot of money and Jerusha lives during an era when women did not have the right to vote and some considered a college education wasted on a woman. Yet these two manage to all in love because of her intellect and wit, rather than in spite of it. This along makes Daddy Long Legs remarkable. With its multi-dimensional characters, pleasant music, beautiful vocals, and visual appeal, Daddy Long Legs is quite a delightful evening. Even my most frequent theater companion, Albert, who rarely has much to say about the many shows we see together, enthusiastically declared Daddy Long Legs one of the best and most enjoyable shows he’s ever seen at The Mill.

BTW: I was curious, and you might be, too. The name Jerusha is a Hebrew name that means “her husband’s possession.”

 

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 Photography

 

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ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD: A Play That Balances the Philosophical and the Mundane

ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD: “Actors Are the Opposite of People”

Performances: January 26 – February 16, 2020

Ticket Prices: $35 Adults; $30 Seniors; $25 RVATA; $20 Students (with ID)

Info: (804) 340-1405 or quilltheatre.org

The night before attending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead a well-meaning acquaintance winkingly advised me to be prepared to spend three hours in the theater. A visiting family member from out of town warily declined to accompany me. Quill artistic director James Ricks has wanted to present Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead since he was in high school. He, like many others, are intrigued by the word play and the Calvinist philosophy and theology with its perspective on human mortality.

From hearing the comments of others, it would seem to be a play one either loves or hates. But my own experience was somewhere in the middle. I enjoyed the wordplay, I appreciated the humor – both the slapstick, physical kind and the deeper, more thoughtful kind, but I also, like my aforementioned acquaintance, felt that perhaps some sort of warning or preparation – not spoilers but at least a nod to the nature of this work – needs to be given to potential attendees who are not familiar with the play.

Two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet interact in a setting redolent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The puns and jokes and wordplay are a non-stop delight, and that along with the delightful interaction between Tyler Stevens (Rosencrantz) and Adam Turck (Guildenstern) makes the three hours (with two short intermissions) pass more quickly than one might expect. But make no mistake; it’s all about the words and the ideas. Jane Raine’s simple set consists of a thrust stage, three beams (two vertical, one horizontal), three steps across the upstage area, a few wooden boxes and barrels in the third act, and some hanging lights. When Rosencrantz wants to give Guildenstern his full attention, he plops down on the floor/ground.

Visually, Anna Bialkowski offers some period and some fanciful costumes, but director James Ricks has kept the attention on playwright Tom Stoppard’s words and uses movement as kinetic accents to deliver the message.

The play begins with a long, and eventually monotonous (or mesmerizing, depending on your personal perspective) coin toss game in which the coins land heads up more than 90 times in a row. Stoppard makes liberal use of Shakespeare, inserting vaguely familiar lines like, “When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” This just makes the listener feel all the more at sea when the characters say things like, “The toenails, on the other hand, never grow at all,” or when Rosencrantz screams “Fire” and then derides the audience because no one reacted, “they’d all burn to death in their shoes!”

“There’s so much to do just in the text itself,” Turck, a self-described existentialist, remarked at the Sunday afternoon talkback, during which he described his character, Guildenstern, as “an agent of chaos.” Stevens  evaluated Rosencrantz as being a little easier, less daunting. Director Ricks summarized the work as a young man’s irreverence leading to a new life form, but Joe Pabst, the lead Player of the Tragedians, interjected a bit of pragmatism into the discussion noting that much of what has led to dissertations being written and dissected on this play was “just Stoppard being a dick.”

Like all Acts of Faith productions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead has at least one or two talkbacks scheduled. I think this is one in which a talkback is very helpful, since the play itself is not self-explanatory, nor was it meant to be.

In addition to Stevens, Turck, and Pabst, the cast includes Liam Storm as Alfred, a much-put upon Tragedian, Joel White as a moody Hamlet, Mia Richards as Ophelia (a victim of domestic abuse, but that’s a whole other story), Travis Williams as Claudius, Donna Marie Miller as Gertrude, and Bill Blair as Polonius. Cedar Curran, Joel Kimling, and Josh Mullins complete the cast as unnamed members of the touring band of Tragedians.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is not a play you just walk in on cold. While not required, it helps to have at least some familiarity with Hamlet and Waiting for Godot. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a play that comes with prerequisites; one needs to prepare for it in advance:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Brief Notes

Calvinism: a branch of Protestantism established by John Calvin, it develops the doctrines of Luther, and emphasizes justification by faith, predestination, and the Grace of God

Existentialism: a philosophical theory that emphasizes the importance of the individual as a free and responsible, thinking, feeling human being capable of making choices

Theatre of the Absurd: dramatic works by European and American writers in the 1950s and 1960s that share elements of existential philosophy, such as human hopelessness; often include lots of word play and little or nothing happens to change the lives of the characters

 

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: Production photos were not available at the time of publication.

 

Featured

STUPID KID: It’s Not What You Think

STUPID KID: An Unwelcome Homecoming

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: January 23 – February 16, 2020

Ticket Prices: $35 General Admission; $25 Military & RVATA; $15 Students

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

I often choose not to learn too much about a new play prior to seeing it. I want to enter the space unbiased; I like to be surprised. Well, no amount of preparation would have fully prepared me for Sharr White’s Stupid Kid. The two-act play, making it’s east coast debut at The Firehouse Theatre, is populated with strong characters, filled with twists and turns, and offers a surprise ending that leaves as many questions unanswered as it resolves. Kudos to the cast and director Alison Devereaux for a physically demanding performance that made us laugh, gasp, cheer, and even boo.

From the start we know something isn’t quite right – there are secrets and things are not what they appear to be. When Chick Ford (Adam Valentine) arrives home a day early after being in prison for 14 years, his parents are not pleased. His father Eddie, played by Andrew Firda, pretends not to know him and his mother Jeanette or Gigi (Boomie Pedersen) greets him with an expletive. Well, most of her comments are bookended by expletives, so it may not be entirely personal.

The plot thickens when we learn that Chick was sentenced to life for murder, that his parents lives were shattered by the fallout, and his father has become disabled with back pain and has become dependent on painkillers. The details come slowly with the aid and sometimes despite the active interference of nosy neighbor Franny Hawker (Jeannie Goodyear) and Gigi’s brother Mike (Arik Cullen).

This may be the world’s most dysfunctional family, but White’s characters are mostly familiar, believable, and multi-dimensional. Eddie and Gigi seem to be constantly bickering but scattered among the expletives are pet names and hints of true concern and genuine love. Whenever Chick tries to talk about the crime he confessed to, he gets shut down, and no one believes there is any possibility he could be innocent – despite the fact he was released based on new DNA evidence. Uncle Mike is the story’s obvious villain. Vain, narcissistic, and sadistic, he was once the sheriff of the small unnamed Colorado town where the story takes place – and rather than trying to hide evidence of his prior and current corruption, he rubs everyone’s nose in it. I can’t say much more without giving away important and juicy plot elements.

So many of the cast members stand out. Both Boomie Pederson and Andrew Firda seem to land strong, often quirky, and interesting roles. Pedersen gives a satisfying and delightful performance in Stupid Kid, projecting sarcasm when needed but switching to a well-hidden tenderness that makes Gigi seem more authentic. Andrew Firda spends much of the play in a bathrobe and socks, bent over with back pain, yet still manages to display the strength and humanity of Eddie; Eddie has real problems, but there is something solid and dependable underneath it all. Firda never allows Eddie to become a figure of pity.

Adam Valentine portrays Chick as a young man whose life has been controlled by others – his parents, the prison system, his Uncle Mike – but has somehow managed to hold onto a sense of self. And then there’s Arik Cullen, who played Uncle Mike as a straight up bad guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Some in the audience booed when he came out for his bow. Let’s not forget about Uncle Mike’s young ward, Hazel, played by Lorin Hope Turner.

A casebook study of child abuse, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, and more, Hazel’s mistreatment at the hands of Uncle Mike culminates in a shocking display featuring the show’s most violent and physically challenging scene. Jeannie Goodyear, as the nosy neighbor Franny watched all this, often with a bag of chips or some other snack at hand, as if it was a soap opera. Goodyear added a sense of the absurd and was a perfect counterpoint to the melodrama unfolding around her, even reporting the latest news concerning the town’s outrage over Chick’s early release.

There’s so much going on in Stupid Kid, but one thing is for sure; these people may lack what we think of as formal education, but they are certainly not stupid. There is much worthy of discussion, making this an appropriate choice as an Acts of Faith offering.

Alan Williamson designed an appropriately drab set that reflects the financial and emotional status of the Ford family. There is a large patch of duct tape on the living room chair and an impressive complete set change during intermission, from interior to exterior.  If anything, the outside of the house looks a little less shabby than the inside. Emily Laurelle Tappan designed the costumes to look like discount sticker day specials from the local thrift store.

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