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THE TAMING OF THE SHREW: Girl Power!

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW: Girls Night Out

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

At: Agecroft Hall & Gardens, 4305 Sulgrave Rd., RVA 23221

Performances: July 11 – August 4, 2019

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

Info: (804) 340-1405, quilltheatre.org or https://agecrofthall.tix.com/Schedule.aspx?OrgNum=1528

It is well known that in Shakespeare’s day all the roles, including the women, were played by male actors. Recently, we have seen role reversals in which key characters such as Hamlet have been played by women. The Richmond Shakespeare Festival has taken this twist to its ultimate conclusion with an all-female cast and mostly female crew. (On Sunday night, even Festival Manager Noah Downs kept a low profile – although I did miss his usual group selfie moment.)

This is not the first time The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare’s most misogynistic plays – perhaps one of the world’s most misogynistic plays – has been done with an all-female cast. It has been done by the Chicago Shakespeare company, where it was set in the twentieth century during the suffragette movement, it’s been presented in New York City’s Central Park, and has even been performed by Shakespeare’s Globe theater in Hong Kong. Among the many versions, there was also the musical, Kiss Me, Kate¸ which gets a humorous nod from our own Quill Theatre, at Agecroft Hall, with a cast that includes many familiar faces.

Among the many impressive performances by this outstanding ensemble, I must say that Bianca Bryan as Petruchio and Melissa Johnston Price as Baptista are standouts. Both seemed to have tapped into their inner male and it was awesome. I don’t mean that they were acting butch or doing a reverse drag, but Bryan’s swagger and Price’s doting but clueless father really captured the maleness of their characters in the best way, and they seemed to have so much fun doing it.

The Taming of the Shrew is an early Shakespearean comedy in which Petruchio, a bachelor from Verona who apparently has recently come into possession of his late father’s estate, arrives in the town of Padua, where he has friends, in search of a wealthy bride. His friend Hortensio (Desirée Dabney) suggest he marry Katarina/Kate (Michelle Greensmith), the beautiful but ill-tempered eldest daughter of Baptista. Hortensio, of course, has ulterior motives. He wants to marry Kate’s younger, more mild-mannered sister, Bianca (Christina Ramsey), but according to custom, the eldest sister must marry first.

There is no backstory, so we don’t know why Kate is such a spoiled brat, but she has few or no social graces. She is self-centered and verbally – even physically – abusive to everyone, even her father. There is no mother in sight, which may explain why Baptista allows her to behave so badly. Greensmith is so well cast for this role that at the beginning and the end, it’s almost possible to hate her. But looking at the perplexed expression of her face when Petruchio implements his devious plan, we get a glimpse of her character’s humanity. She’s someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, and like the difficult student in class, she has special needs.

There are subplots involving a trio of suitors for Bianca’s hand; Hortensio, Lucentio, and Gremio (not to be confused with another character, a servant named Grumio) and, of course, there are misunderstandings, disguises, and characters switching places with their servants. Desirèe Dabney plays Hortensio with broadly comic affability. Hortensio disguises himself as a music teacher in order to gain access to Baptista’s household and to his daughter, Bianca. Nora Ogunleye plays Lucentio, who, likewise, disguises himself as a tutor in order to woo Bianca.

In a memorable and hilarious supporting role Maggie Bavolack plays the elderly suitor Gremio. At one point Bavolack, whose character is bent over and a bit wobbly at the knees, passes her cane to a friend and performs a precarious but full somersault. It was a highlight of the evening!

Now, getting back to Kate, the use of a word like “shrew” to describe an unpleasant, nagging (another misogynistic word) woman is, itself sexist – but consider Kate’s personality. The woman has issues. Petruchio seems to be the only one who is not afraid of Kate, but the methods he uses to “tame” her terrible personality are questionable: he deprives her of food and sleep, offers her food and new clothes and withdraws them, and belittles his servants in front of her. He throws food and rips the sleeves off a dress. In short, he fights fire with fire. The bad behavior starts when he shows up late for their wedding and inappropriately dressed, but that’s the first clue that Petruchio isn’t crazy, but rather has a well-thought out plan of behavior modification to address Kate’s behavior.

And then there is Kate’s final monologue. At a wedding party for three couples – Petruchio and Kate, Hortensio and the Widow (Erica Hughes), Bianca and Lucentio – Petruchio makes a bet; each man is to send for his wife and the man whose wife most obediently responds will be declared the winner. Not only is Kate the only wife to respond, but she then makes a long speech in which she berates the other wives for not being obedient and submissive. She has been completely reformed – the shrew (which is also the name of a small mouse-like mammal) has been tamed. Just when you think it couldn’t get any more sexist or Stepford-wives-like (not a word, but I think you know what I mean), the cast breaks out into song, “Just a Girl,” which includes the lyrics, “I’ve had it up to here.”

Instead of the play’s original introduction or induction, there are songs, and between acts there are songs. Songs like The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” (“Every move you make. . . .every breath you take, I’ll be watching you) that slyly and humorously remind us that this Taming of the Shrew is a smart, aware production led by a team of kick-ass women.

Chelsea Burke is the director of this awesome cast. There isn’t much in the way of a set, just a small platform centerstage and a couple of trunks. The most noticeable design element is the costumes, and I found Cora Delbridge’s costuming a hodgepodge of period, contemporary, and hybrid pieces that are often colorful and fun, but didn’t make any clear or cohesive statement. I did enjoy Kate’s first ensemble – a red hi-lo open front number – and Gremio’s suit was fully compatible with his character. Kate’s transformation was accompanied by changing her body skimming wedding dress for a formal pageant gown. I also liked Baptista’s power maxi-coat, but I found Bianca’s frilly dress unattractive and frankly confusing. It looked out of time and out of character.

Overlooking the bugs and the heat, it was a beautiful evening, and well worth it. The Taming of the Shrew is one of this season’s most intriguing productions, and the cast is a dream team of talent.

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

———-

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

Shrew
The Women of The Taming of the Shrew

 

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DANCE NATION: Five, Six, Seven, Eight

DANCE NATION: Teen Awakening, Gandhi, Power, & Competitive Dance

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: July 11 – August 3, 2019

Ticket Prices: $35 general admission; $25 seniors & industry/RVATA; $15 students and teachers with ID

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

Dance Nation makes you laugh and cringe. Clare Barron’s 2018 play captures a painful, awkward, and gloriously empowering moment in time in the lives of Dance Teacher Pat’s pre-teen and early teen competitive dance team. (Yeah, that is a little confusing but in the play the characters are referred to both as pre-teens and as thirteen-year-olds.)

I, gratefully, have very few clear memories of my teen years, but a post-performance discussion with a much younger acquaintance who grew up in a local dance studio owned by her mother painted a much different picture of Dance Nation.

For me, it was a sometimes amusing, sometimes horrific picture of adolescence with an unusual, even shocking focus on female empowerment. For some younger female viewers, it was a theatrical manifestation and perhaps even validation of their own sometimes tortuous awakening. Some male viewers were enthralled, others, I am sure, are still not sure what to make of teenaged girls talking about masturbation and virginity, and scenes involving blood (menstrual and otherwise) and dancers with vampire teeth hissing at the audience.

This is not the usual rehashing of adolescent angst and teenage trauma. Barron blends hormonal horrors with feral ferocity and Maggie Roop seems to understand and honor this with her mostly clear and unencumbered direction. Dasia Gregg’s locker room set brings the action right up in the face of the audience. There are only two rows, and the second row has the advantage of receiving the full effect of the audio transducers that generate sound you can feel through your seats – reminiscent of the effects in Disney’s “A Bug’s Life” show in the Animal Kingdom theme park.

There is also original music by Joey Luck, with vocals by a team that includes Breezy Lee Potter, Ali Thibodeau, and John Paul Hodge. Michael Jarett’s lighting and Joey Luck’s sound design (that includes lots of heavy breathing) are integral elements of this production and Nicole Morris-Anastasi provided the choreography, which was quite lively in the first act, with the members of the dance team dressed as sailors, their wide smiles painfully pinned in place, their eyes focused on the winner’s trophy.

In the first scene one dancer, Vanessa, played by Maggie McGurn who later plays the moms of many of the dance team members, is eliminated after a leg injury that sends her to the hospital and sidelines her from the team.

The strongest and at the same time most strained relationship is that between Amina (Lydia Hynes) and Zuzu (Trinitee Pearson). Amina is admittedly the strongest dancer on the team, and Zuzu has wanted to be a dancer more than anything since the age of two – but she isn’t quite as good as Amina and struggles to reconcile her friendship with her own self-doubt and Amina’s ambition. Both Hynes and Pearson give searing performances that attempt to cut to the heart of the matter.

But neither comes close to the explosive monologue given by teammate Ashlee, played by Amber Marie Martinez at, the end of Act One. Martinez’s gutsy and raw outpouring on sexuality and power includes words like “beautiful” and “smart” and “SAT,” as well as “bitch,” and the, as far as I know, original phrase, “mo****-fu*****, cun*-munching, piece of sh**” a phrase I don’t recall ever saying or even thinking, at 13 or even at 64.

During the first act, the team warms up at the ballet barre, injecting giggles and wiggles as each of the girls – and the one guy – take turns whispering “pussy,” which later develops into a “perfect pussy” mantra recited by the entire team during the second act – accompanied by an audience-teasing sampling of seat-vibrating audio transducers. (That was my favorite special effect and requires that you get seats in the second or back row to experience the full effect.)

I was never quite sure whether Chris Klinger’s portrayal of Dance Teacher Pat was authentic or creepy. I leaned toward the latter when he lightly tapped Amina on the butt after a private talk, but although she appeared startled and hesitated a moment as she walked away that angle was never pursued. The dance teacher kept his focus on the prize – the regionals, the nationals, whatever winning meant – and had little time for developing the self-esteem or character of his girls. To him, they seemed to be not individuals, but tools to achieve another trophy.

The girls include Amina (Hynes), Zuzu (Pearson), and Ashlee (Martinez), as well as Connie (Sanam Laila Hashemi), Maeve (Kylie M.J.  Clark), Sofia (Nicole Morris-Anastasi) and Luke (Marquis Hazelwood). Yes, Luke is the only boy on the team, but the team is always referred to as “the girls,” and there is no indication of Luke’s sexuality, other than a suggestion that he has a crush on Zuzu. Maeve shares a tender scene with Zuzu, where she talks about flying, and Luke also shares a scene with Zuzu, in which she proposes two possible scenarios of her future life as an adult. Luke seemed a little disappointed that neither scenario included him. Pearson handles a variety of delicate situations with great sensitivity, and Hazelwood, while not a central figure, seems sympathetic and sweet.

The characters of Zuzu and Amina are the most highly developed, and there are intriguing scenes involving Ashlee, Connie, and Maeve. The rest of the team, Sofia and Luke are more peripheral, and little is known of Dance Teacher Pat, who is always referred to as Dance Teacher Pat. The Moms add a spark of insight and even humor but are apparently not meant to be any more significant than the trombone-voiced adults in Peanuts cartoons.

Powerful and intense, Dance Nation  may stir up long forgotten memories or sound an alarm, depending on your age, gender, or how much you remember of being thirteen years old. The one thing it won’t do is leave you untouched.

 

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

Dance Nation.10
Clockwise from back, center: Chris Klinger, Marquis Hazelwood, Nicole Morris-Anasasi, Kylie M.J. Clark, Trinitee Pearson, AMbe Marie Martinez, Lydia Hynes, and Sanam Laila Hashemi
Dance Nation.9
Lydia Hynes
Dance Nation.8
Trinitee Pearson
Dance Nation.7
Sanam Laila Hashemi
Dance Nation.6
Marquis Hazelwood
Dance Nation.5
Kylie M.J. Clark
Dance Nation.4
Nicole Morris-Anastasi
Dance Nation.3
Amber Marie Martinez
Dance Nation.2
Maggie McGurn
Dance Nation.1
Chris Klinger

 

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Alvin Ailey

 

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POLKA DOTS: A Musical About Segregation

Polka Dots: The Cool Kids Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: July 12 – August 11, 2019

Ticket Prices: $21

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

Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical is based on the real-life events of the Little Rock Nine. In 1957 nine black students enrolled in the formerly all-white Little Rock Central High School, a test of the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. For Polkadots, Melvin Tunstall, III (book) has set the  story in Rockaway elementary school, in an undetermined state. Instead of black and white, the tension takes place between the blue skinned squares and the pink skinned polkadots. The squares believe they are the superior group, and don’t want to share their school or their town with polkadots.

Eight-year-old Lily Polkadot, played by Caroline Lynch, is the first polkadot to integrate the school, and the plot revolves around Lily’s efforts to make a friend and assimilate into her new school. Serious and sensitive issues are handled with care under the gentle direction of Jan Guarino.

Lily puts up a brave front, standing up to the mean spirited Penelope Square, singing “Sticks and Stones” as an affirmation, but she still privately wishes her skin was covered with squares instead of polkadots. The children’s teacher, Ms. Square, played by Sydnee Graves, who also plays the role of Mama Square, is warm, friendly and accepting of Lily, but at the same time she doesn’t want to make waves.

On the first day of school, Lily must remain alone in the classroom during the bathroom and water break because the polkadots’ water pump has not yet been installed, and Lily must not drink from the squares’ water sprinkler. A separate water fountain is eventually rolled out for Lily, and this marks one of many times I wondered just how much the younger members of the audience really understood the historical significance of what was taking place.

This was one of the few times I did not have my grandsons Kingston (10) and Emmitt (who just turned 5) along to consult with. As a matter of fact, the volunteer ticket taker took one look at me and asked, “Where’s your grandson?” I almost felt like some sort of pervert attending the Children’s Theatre without a child or two in tow, and I really would like to know what they would have taken away from this show.

Interesting, the cast, including Quan Chau as Sky Square, Sydnee Graves as Ms. Square/Mama Square, Caroline Lynch as Lily Polkadot, and Madeleine Witmer as Penelope Square is quite diverse (white, black, Asian), and all are making their debuts at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn. The quartet was uniformly energetic, and all boast strong singing voices. Douglas Lyons’ lyrics are surprisingly sophisticated for a children’s show – more throaty ballads than bouncy ditties and the music by Greg Borowsky and Lyons provides a firm foundation for Mallory Keene’s choreography. There is even one number, where Sky and Lily create a silly dance, the Squa-Dot, that invites audience participation, but on Friday night, although there was one enthusiastic row of youthful audience members bouncing in their seats, no one was brave enough to stand up and join in the dance.

Graves was almost annoyingly prim and proper in her role as the teacher and seemed like an authentic school counselor when she shared with Lily her own trials as the first “lady teacher” at their school. Witmer was almost satisfyingly snarky as the mean girl big sister, and was visibly disappointed when her big song, “Cool Kid,” which was meant as a put-down for Lily missed the mark, because Lily wasn’t in the audience to hear it. Chau was adorable as little brother, Sky, and Lynch was perfectly cast as the spunky yet vulnerable Lily.

Kyle Artone’s costumes are colorful and cartoonish, and the square women’s full-skirted dresses, stretched over stiff and puffy crinolines, are especially pretty. Lily’s dress is simpler and less elaborate than the dresses of the squares. I found the pink and blue skin (part fabric and part makeup) and cotton candy colored hair a bit creepy, but it didn’t seem to bother the younger members of the audience.

Emily Hake Massie’s set was surprisingly simple. A huge square platform in the center of the stage served as Penelope’s bed, Ms. Square’s classroom, and Mama Square’s dining table. Cubes served as props and seating and doubled as steps to allow the performers access to sit and dance atop the square platform. Lynne Hartman’s lighting was also minimal, with a few special effects that highlighted the segregated fountains.

Unlike in real life, there is a happy ending, with everyone becoming friends – or at least, agreeing to live and work together – but as a lesson, it’s a start. Looking around at the faces of the children in the audience, mostly 6-10 years old, they appeared to be having a good time, but it would take a post-performance discussion to determine how much they actually learned.

Polkadots: The Cook Kids Musical runs just under an hour, with no intermission, and will be playing at The Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn through August e.

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

Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Madeleine Witmer. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Quan Chau, Caroline Lynch. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Madeleine Witmer, Sydnee Graves, Quan Chau. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Caroline Lynch, Quan Chau, Madeleine Witmer, Sydnee Graves. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical
Caroline Lynch. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

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ANIMAL CONTROL: THE SECOND WORLD PREMIERE

ANIMAL CONTROL: THEY’RE BACK

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: July 3 – 27, 2019

Ticket Prices: $15/student; $25/military; $35/general admission

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

About three months ago I wrote about the world premiere of Chandler Hubbard’s new play, Animal Control. It may be unusual, but here we are again. The Firehouse Theatre’s summer offering is a re-working of Hubbard’s play, with two new cast members, and director Joel Bassin, Producing Artistic Director of the Firehouse Theatre, jokingly and lovingly referred to this production as a revised world premiere.

[For my April 21 review of the original world premiere, visit

https://wordpress.com/posts/jdldancesrva.com?s=animal+control]

For this production, Chandler’s original three acts or scenes – The Prosecution, The Defense, and The Verdict – have been somewhat condensed. The combined effects of the script changes and the chemistry of the new cast has led to a leaner, tighter production, with greater dramatic intensity. It still evokes a strong sense of compassion, and it still brings tears to the eyes of pet owners and animal lovers, but it also seems to focus more on the development of character Kim Hawkins, the newly appointed manager of the Carson County Pound, so that she seems less incompetent and more a victim of a series of unfortunate circumstances leading to the tragic culmination.

Donna Marie Miller still plays the role of Kim Hawkins and appears to have honed it to a masterful depiction of a caring woman who is tested by the unmitigating stresses and pressures of a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Similarly, Adam Turck has returned to play the role of the somewhat neurotic Marc Hanson, owner of Winnie (short for Winston, as in Churchill), the dog who was attacked by Bailey, the three-legged bully of the dog park. Turck has tweaked Marc’s characteristics, making him at once more focused and more distracted. As an example of the former, he sits with his body squarely facing the audience but his head is turned perpendicular to his body, zoned in on Hawkins; as for the latter, he seemed to take extra care to make sure we noticed his need to place a fork in the sink, cover a lunch container and put in into the mini-fridge, or examine the canine graphics on Hawkins’ coffee mug.

Young Journey Entzminger (a junior business management major at VCU) also returned as the intractable office assistant, Corrine Lowell. I would not have believed it possible but Entzminger was even sassier than before while somehow managing to steal hearts and nearly steal the show whenever she appears onstage – or even while making outrageous exits.

New to this cast are Stevie Rice as Dan Stanley, a role previously played by the 6’7” Arik Cullen, and Margarette Joyner as Patty Smith, a role previously portrayed by Lucretia Marie Anderson. When I first heard that Rice would be playing the role of Stanley I couldn’t image anyone other than Cullen whose mere presence was intimidating. But I quickly grew to admire the versatile Rice in the role. He was nearly unrecognizable as himself, hidden behind a baseball cap and a denim vest, both emblazoned with confederate flags. As much as you despise him at the beginning, you can’t help but feel compassion for him in the final scene, where even the irreverent Corrine feels compelled to gently brush back his hair while declaring the final words of the play, “he was a good dog.”

Last but not least, Joyner brought a more militant, more forceful interpretation to the role of Patty Smith, the beleaguered neighbor whose frequent complaints about Bailey were both cause and effect of the plot twists leading to the scene three denouement.

Much as I enjoyed the original production and cast, it is clear that Bassin, Chandler, and this cast have worked hard to solve problems and issues –both perceived and imperceptible – with the original. The result is, indeed, a better, more compact, more intense play.

BTW, when I walked into The Firehouse, Bassin was quick to explain his concept for the set, because in the original production, I wrote, I was distracted by the set with its chain link fences on either end. Bassin’s aesthetic leans towards the unrefined, minimalist look, while my OCD tendencies prefer things more refined and polished. But, point made and taken, it’s an aesthetic choice, and does not interfere with the average person’s ability to enjoy the production.

Animal Control is a surprising play in many ways. It presents many sides of a story, demonstrating how difficult it is to judge others. It makes subtle parallels between the behavior of people (Corrine, the student worker, who was been, in a way, rescued from juvenile detention) and animals (Bailey, a former bait dog abused by breeders of fighting dogs). And mostly it reminds us that even the most unlikely person may be deserving of compassion.

 

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

7_Journey Entzminger, Donna Marie Miller (photo by Bill Sigafoos)-1
Journey Entzminger and Donna Marie Miller
6_Margarette Joyner, Adam Turck (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Margarette Joyner and Adam Turck
5_Donna Marie Miller, Stevie Rice, Margarette Joyner, Adam Turck (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Donna Marie Miller, Stevie Rice, Margarette Joyner and Adam Turck
3_Stevie Rice, Adam Turck (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Stevie Rice and Adam Turck
2_Donna Marie Miller, Journey Entzminger (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Donna Marie Miller and Journey Entzminger
1_Donna Marie Miller (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Donna Marie Miller

 

 

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girlfriend: a tender tale of first love

GIRLFRIEND: A Summer Romance

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: June 24 – July 9, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-20

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Girlfriend, a two-person musical, is a summer romance about first love. Set in a small town in Nebraska in 1993, in the weeks following high school graduation, the story follows two young men as they explore their first love. The girlfriend of the title is an unseen but central character – much like the adults in Charlie Brown’s world – and one begins to wonder if she really exists at all. The budding love, so tenderly explored by Todd Almond’s book and carried along by Matthew Sweet’s punchy and energetic rock music and lyrics, is between Will, a sort of nerdy young man with a charming sense of humor and no plans for the future, and Mike, a popular jock who struggles with his attraction to Will as well as with his father’s plans for his future.

Cooper Sved, who was most recently seen in RTP’s Corpus Christi, plays Will, and infuses his character with energy, and endearing insightfulness. I am less familiar with Ray Wrightstone, who was recently in the cast of Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England (as an Early Man in a museum diorama). Wrightstone, who looked every inch the handsome jock, struck a tenuous balance that admirably captured Mike’s tension as he navigated the treacherous waters between his father’s expectations that he attend medical school, his teammates who hungrily chomped at the bit at any hint of homosexuality, his attraction to Will, and his desire to please everybody and not upset the boat. Of course, it is an impossible challenge.

Sved and Wrightstone are supported by a rocking four-piece band, under the musical direction of Levi Meerovich on keyboards. The band, especially the women, Hannah Goad and Roxanne Cook, provide background vocal support and even get a number of their own. My only complaint is that the music was sometimes too loud and overpowered the dialogue.

Chelsea Burke’s direction kept the one act play – running about an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission – moving along at a great pace, assisted by some lively choreography by Aza Raine. Running in tandem with Grey Gardens, The Musical, girlfriend remarkably managed to transform the larger production’s set so that it was unrecognizable. Michael Jarett provided the moody lighting, and Dylan Eubanks provided the sound design – which included some very amusing movie sound effects. A running joke in the show is that Will and Mike keep attending the same movie all summer.

Something about the intensity and intimacy of this story reminded me of The Last Five Years, another powerful musical duet that was produced at TheatreLAB The Basement during their 2017/2018 season. After just a little digging around I found that Chelsea Burke also directed that show. So now, I’m not sure if the similarities I felt were due to the story lines or the genres or to the director’s special touch. It could be a combination of all of the above. At any rate, it makes me want to pay special attention to Burke’s future work. At this writing only two performances of girlfriend remain – on July 8 and 9, so don’t put it off if you plan to see this touching musical duet.

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: RTP website and Facebook page

 

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THE WIZ: Ease on Down the Road

THE WIZ: Everybody Rejoice!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: June 21 – August 4, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

 

OMG! I can’t think of a better time than the night I spent at Virginia Rep’s production of The Wiz!

The Wiz is a familiar story, based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The all-black version is familiar to many, from the 1975 Broadway show, starring Stephanie Mills as Dorothy (with book by William F. Brown, lyrics by Charlie Smalls, and choreography by my former teacher, George Faison) or from the 1978 film version starring Diana Ross as Dorothy and Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow.
Virginia Rep, under the direction of Artistic Director Nathaniel Shaw and Director/Choreographer Kikau Alvaro uses the Brown/Smalls script, but with re-imagined staging, using scenery by Kimberly V. Powers and costumes by Jeanne Nugent that were inspired by Afrofuturism and visual artists of the African American diaspora (e.g., Romare Beardon and Lina Iris Viktor). In layman’s terms, think Wakanda, and you have a pretty good idea: African prints meet modern technology and run into urban swag. It may not have lived up to the verbal description, but the colors and styles really popped and worked well with Alvaro’s dynamic choreography.

The movement ranged from ballet to urban to tap. I sat up and took notice of the tornado, created by the dancing ensemble and the orchestra and my respect for the choreography and dancing remained at an all-time high throughout the first act. I recognized the dance expertise of Ira White – a member of the Richmond Ballet – before I could even see his face, and other ensemble dancers, including Michelle Mercedes and Rachel Seeholzer brought the ensemble up a notch or two from the usual ho-hum musical theater dancing. When D. Jerome Wells, the Tin Man, broke out into a smooth tap dance, my heart melted – for about the fourth time, and it was only the first act!

My heart started melting with the orchestra’s Overture, under the able musical direction of Anthony Smith. The entire score – which gave equal weight to the instrumental and the vocals throughout the production – was absolute perfection. The sound quality was very good, and vocals were clear, even when spoken off stage. My heart melted yet again when Toto ran across the stage at the beginning of Act One, and for the third time when Desirée Roots, as Aunt Em (one of THREE roles she plays) serenaded Dorothy with “The Feeling We Once Had.”

I know people were smitten with Brandon LaReau’s Lion, and rightfully so, as he owned that role and played it for every laugh and tender moment he could wring out of the very willing audience, but I quickly developed a soft spot for Dylan T. Jackson’s Scarecrow, whose insightful comments throughout belied his lack of a brain. When the Tin Man described how, as a flesh-and-blood woodcutter, he had cut of first one leg and then the other, Scarecrow asks why he didn’t think that, perhaps, he needed to get rid of the cursed ax. And speaking of the Tin Man, not only did Wells win me over with his tap dancing, but he closed out Act One with a soulful rendition of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” that was worthy of an R&B concert date night.

By the end of the first act, my face hurt from smiling and laughing, my eyes were leaking from laughing and an overload of joy, and my heart was a puddle on the floor at my feet. But this show wasn’t done with me yet. It wasn’t enough that Desirée Roots melted my heart with her ballad to Dorothy, she then killed it with an over-the-top performance as the good witch Addaperle. Her wand didn’t work, she couldn’t make herself disappear, and she carried her magic paraphernalia in a gigantic glittery handbag. She was like a magical, bedazzled version of everybody’s favorite, slightly inebriated aunt at the family cookout. Then in the second act she threw down as a punk-rock styled Evillene in black lace, a bustier, and thigh-high boots. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” was never sung better.

Jessi Johnson didn’t appear until midway through the second act, as Glinda, a good witch. Dressed regally, with a torch-carrying entourage, she graced us with her powerful and sensuous voice in “A Rested Body” and a reprise of “Believe in Yourself” before making a diva-worthy exit.

I didn’t forget Dorothy. Mariah Lyttle, a recent graduate of Ithaca College, has a voice to be reckoned with. While she was strong and clear in “Soon As I Get Home” and other songs with the ensemble and her motley entourage, she was really able to shine in the heartfelt Finale, “Home.”

Jerold E. Solomon also did double duty, as Uncle Henry in the first act and as The Wiz in the second. Solomon more than met the challenge of “Ya’ll Got It” after revving up, so to speak, from the mild-mannered misfit who became The Wiz to a hyped-up revivalist-style preacher who poured a heavy dose of self-empowerment on the citizens of Oz before disappearing in his magically restored hot air balloon.

There may be no such thing as perfect, but I couldn’t find a single thing I didn’t like – no, love – about this production of The Wiz. There are a few, shall we say, strong words or innuendos, but this is, overall, a family-friendly production. The couple sitting next to us was a grandmother on a date with her pre-teen grandson. There were lots of children in the audience, which was more diverse, overall, than one usually finds in the November Theatre. With all that’s going on – the scene changes, the sparkling lighting effects, the music, the songs, the dancing that moves off the stage and into the aisles – the entire production runs just slightly over two magical hours. I hope I have time to see this beautiful show again before it closes on August 4. It’s pure happiness on a stage.

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer (who was once a poppy in a scene from The Wiz), teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

The Wiz
D. Jerome Wells (Tin Man) and Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy) and Jerold E. Solomon (The Wiz). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Desirée Roots (Evillene). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
The Wiz
Mariah Lyttle (Dorothy) and cast. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Wiz.1
Desirée Roots as Aunt Em, Addaperle, and Evillene.

 

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GREY GARDENS, THE RECLUSIVE MUSICAL

GREY GARDENS: Poor Little Rich Girls

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: June 24 – July 27, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-40

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Grey Gardens, The Musical, with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie is a two-act musical that is full of humor and drama and emotion. But the two things that make this musical stand out are the fact that it is about real people and that both of these people are brought to life by the enormously talented Susan Sanford.

On the advice of a friend and colleague, I watched Albert and David Maysles’ 1976 documentary Grey Gardens prior to attending the musical. The award-winning cinéma-vérité chronicles the tragedy and wonder of these two women, both named Edie, both of whom defied the laws of society and blazed a trail that few would want to follow. Like a road-side accident, I didn’t want to watch, but it was impossible not to look and as fascinating and heart-rending as the documentary was, it didn’t even come close to the emotional roller coaster that Wright, Frankel, and Korie created in this musical, brought to life on the RTP stage by director Debra Clinton and musical director Kim Fox. I may have laughed at Sanford’s antics, both as “Big” Edie in the first act and “Little” Edie in the second act, but I was in tears by the time the cast took their final bows.

Grey Gardens, for those, like me, who do not follow society, was the estate of Edith Bouvier Beale, an aunt of our former First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and her daughter, “Little” Edie Bouvier Beale. “Little” Edie was a debutante in the early 1940s, apparently with somewhat of a reputation, as she was nicknamed “Body Beautiful Beale.” Her young cousins Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier and her sister Lee Radziwill were apparently frequent visitors to the 28-room East Hampton Estate in its heyday. My favorite line, spoken by “Little” Edie in the second act: “It’s a mean, nasty Republican town.”

The first act of Grey Gardens, The Musical mixes fact and fiction, and it’s not clear where the line is drawn. But it seems that mother Edie’s love of singing went against her husband’s puritanical grain, and he took off to Mexico with his lover Linda and obtained a quickie divorce. After that, things quickly went downhill at Grey Gardens, and by the time we get to the second act – and by the time the Maysles show up with their cameras – the place has fallen into disrepair. Much of the dialogue in the second act is taken straight from the documentary – another reason to do the homework and watch it before seeing the show.

There are holes in the walls that allow free access to all the stray cats and racoons the two women have adopted, the mansion is full of fleas, and there is apparently little or no working plumbing. When “Little” Edie prepares a plate of pâté for her mother, the woman sitting next to me and I gasped, unsure if the surely expired can contained pâté or cat food. The Suffolk County Board of Health was on the verge of condemning the house and evicting the two Edies until their more solvent relatives stepped in and made the necessary repairs. It is unclear whether this made much of a difference in the Edies’ lifestyle – and I kept wondering how they were supporting themselves. Who was paying the taxes, and the grocery bill, and how is it that the lights were still on?

Practical considerations aside, Gray Gardens, The Musical is equally hilarious and heartbreaking. In addition to Susan Sanford, who acts and sings her heart out and is outrageously funny, first as the overbearing mother Edith Bouvier Beale in Act One and then as “Little” Edie in Act Two. Sanford does an impressive job balancing “Little” Edie’s desire to break away from her mother and become independent against her sense of responsibility to stay and take care of her mother. This dilemma is beautifully foreshadowed in Act One by Grey Garrett, who plays the Young “Little” Edie Beale. One minute Garrett is begging her mother, played by Sanford, not to sing, the next she is defending her right to do so when her grandfather, “Major” Bouvier, played by Kirk Morton, denigrates his daughter for her eccentricities and quiet consent to her absent husband’s affairs. Boomie Pedersen as “Big” Edie, the mother, in the Prologue and Act Two has mastered the role of the screaming, overbearing mother – possibly in the early to mid- stages of dementia, although with manipulating, narcissistic personalities it’s sometimes hard to tell – to the point where you almost forget she’s just acting. The dysfunctional chemistry between Pedersen and Sanford is a force to behold.

Also doing double duty were Durron Marquis Tyre, as the servant Brook, Sr., in Act One and his son, Brook, Jr., in Act Two and Elijah Williams as “Little” Edie’s fiancé Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. in Act One and “Big” Edie’s friend Jerry in Act Two. It was interesting that Brook, Sr., seemed more refined that his son. Sr. wore a cutaway suit, while Jr. wore overalls – a reflection of the state of the house. I liked Williams in his role as Jerry more than as Kennedy, perhaps because the second character and his relationship to the family more closely reflected the oddities and conflicts of these fascinating women.

Caroline Berry and Anya Rothman were sweet and adorable as the young Jackie and Lee Bouvier, and Eddie Webster had an interesting supporting role as George Gould Strong, “Big” Edie’s accompanist and companion.

Frank Foster’s scenic design was serviceable, but unremarkable, although the production did a good job changing from relative grandeur in Act One to shabbiness in Act Two. Matthew Banes’ lighting and Joey Luck’s sound design both enhanced the overall effects, but Ruth Hedberg’s costumes and Joel Furtick’s hair and makeup really nailed it. “Little” Edie’s costumes for Act Two were spot on and would probably get a word of approval from the real “Little” Edie.

The broad and flat Boston-Long Island accents were often startling – even to this Brooklyn girl – but seemed pretty accurate. Director Clinton even choreographed some lively dance steps, and musical director Kim Fox and her musicians helped keep things moving along at a nice pace.

Grey Gardens, The Musical is one of the most heart-wrenching musicals you will ever see – and I hope you do see it. After the first week of performances, Richmond Triangle Players had to extend the run from July 13 to July 27, and tickets will likely be hard to come by for the remainder of the run.

 

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

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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THE TEMPEST: Sublime or Subliminal?

THE TEMPEST: It’s Complicated

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

At: Agecroft Hall & Gardens, 4305 Sulgrave Rd., RVA 23221

Performances: June 6-30, 2019

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

Info: (804) 340-1405, quilltheatre.org or https://agecrofthall.tix.com/Schedule.aspx?OrgNum=1528

The current Quill Theatre production of The Tempest is sublime – though not perhaps for the reasons you might expect. It was not just the play, but all the components that came together to make up the entire evening. Saturday’s weather was perfect – not too hot, not too cool, not humid, no rain, and the bugs remained mostly at bay during the first act. The atmosphere was festive, with pre-show picnickers scattered across the spacious lawn, and vendors selling fruity ice pops, ShakesBeer and wine. The sixteenth century manor house and its tiered gardens, where one might encounter The Festival Young Company wandering about reciting monologues or go for a stroll during intermission provided the perfect setting for a festival.

The Tempest is complicated. Prospero, the lead figure, is the usurped Duke of Milan but he is also a powerful sorcerer. I’m not clear on whether he was a sorcerer before he was deposed and set adrift and landed on this remote island, or if he became a sorcerer as a result of his betrayal by his own brother, Antonio. John Cauthen and director James Ricks together give us a Prospero who is multi-faceted, showing a softness for his young daughter, Miranda, played by newcomer Madison Munson. She and her love interest Ferdinand, played by another newcomer, Dean Hall, brought a sense of innocence and normalcy to this otherwise convoluted tale. But Prospero is a complicated hero. He treats his servants Ariel and Caliban callously, forgives those who wronged him, and in the final scene begs the audience to release him. And he is so magically convincing that we comply.

Jeff Clevenger in the role of Trinculo, the king’s jester, and Adam Valentine as Stephano, the king’s drunken butler team up to bring much needed humor and physical comedy to this sometimes dark comedy, liberally sprinkled with betrayal, romance, and tragedy. But the two most noteworthy characters for me were Ariel and Caliban.

I absolutely adored Adam Turck’s portrayal of Ariel, Prospero’s spirit servant. Painted in blue, and draped in nondescript layers of identically painted fabric, Turck has adopted quirky movements that add to his otherworldly persona. At one point he appears on top of the wall that separates the stage from the gardens, where he crouches to deliver his lines. Often lurking in the background, where he nearly blends in, it is almost possible to believe that he is invisible to all but Prospero – and the audience.

Now as for Caliban – I don’t know if anyone else has said this but. . . .Why is the black actor (a) a slave and (b) called a monster and a savage? Okay, I understand that this is the character that Shakespeare wrote, but Walter Riddle is the obviously a POC and he plays a savage monster. I’m not saying he didn’t do a good job, but I just couldn’t get past that casting choice. I am not the first to say this, but Prospero, you are a Colonizer! The subplot of Prospero’s treatment of Ariel and Caliban and the vastly different ways they respond to their oppressor is more intriguing than Prospero’s story.

James Ricks’ direction kept things moving along at a nice pace; there was lots of action, and Ricks’ sound design included a few subtle touches that enhanced the overall experience. BJ Wilkinson doesn’t have much to do in the way of lighting as it’s still daylight until the second act, and Anna Bialkowski’s costumes, which put the noblemen in modern day suits, was visually cohesive and aesthetically pleasing. There are also a few delightful musical moments, with original music by Jason Marks.

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 by Aaron Sutten; Group selfie by Noah Downs

Tempest.5
Adam Turck
Tempest.4
Cedar Curran, Travis Williams, Chris Dunn, John Cauthen, Jonathan Hardison, Derek Kannemeyer, Jeff Clevenger
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John Cauthen
Tempest.2
Jonathan hardison, Adam Turck, Chris Dunn, Derek Kannemeyer, Travis Williams
Tempest.1
Shakespeare Festival Audience Selfie, 06/15/2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

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OFFICE HOURS: QUITTING TIME

OFFICE HOURS: Six Actors; Sixteen Characters; Six Stories in Search of a Laugh

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 7-22, 2019

Ticket Prices: $23 General admission; $18 RVATA Members; $13 Students

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

CAT Theatre’s 55th season has featured some interesting productions and some novel premises. The season opened with Boeing, Boeing, a French farce from the 1960s, followed by A Doublewide, Texas Christmas¸ written by the trio of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten who also wrote The Savannah Sipping Society that is currently playing at Swift Creek Mill Theatre. The new year brought a revival of Becky’s New Car, which I first saw some years ago at Hanover Tavern – both times I was one of those selected from the audience to assist “Becky” with her onstage wardrobe change. Earlier this spring they offered a musical comedy, BINGO! that included audience participation with real bingo cards, markers, and prizes. The final offering of this season is Office Hours, a comedy by Canadian playwright Norm Foster.

Office Hours is a series of six vignettes, each set in a different office in the same city on the same day, near quitting time. A cast of six versatile actors plays sixteen different characters with great energy and enthusiasm, but with varied levels of success. The first act, consisting of four scenes, seemed to drag at times, but I’m not sure whether it was due to Andrew Bryce’s direction or Norm Foster’s script. Maybe Canadian humor is different from ours. At any rate, the second act seemed to hit the laughs more accurately, and the play ended with a surprise twist I truly didn’t see coming.

The six scenarios are separate but intertwined. Hints and clues are sprinkled throughout that help keep the viewer engaged and provide a sense of smug satisfaction when the plot twists are revealed. Throughout the various scenes characters refer to the beautiful office space and the nice furniture. This provides an unintentional running joke as Hunter Mass’s set looks like a collection of mismatched thrift store items: a desk; a sofa; 2 or 3 chairs in different styles and sizes; a bookcase that doubles as a bar; 3 small tables. The office desk and chair seem too small, and when one or two of the character remark on its large size and the general tidiness of the office I wondered how they could do so with a straight face. There are also two doors, two tall windows, one of which has a latch that allows for access to a ledge, and a picture on one wall that is changed at the beginning of each scene.

For some inexplicable reason, there are different styles and different eras of telephones in each office scene, but the furniture remains the same, and even though the set is carefully rearranged for each scene, there is too little to distinguish the various scene. Oddly, on the night I was there, there was a noticeable but inexplicable dip in the lighting near the top of the first few scenes. Chris Stepp did the lighting and sound design, and while there were interesting and tuneful musical selections between scenes, I think more could have been done with the lighting to make each office unique.

Running themes that tie the separate scenes and characters together include the office setting, the phones, the furniture, and most interestingly, ledge jumper, a leather bound Day-at-a-Glance planner and a thick book by an erotic novelist who uses the pseudonym Margaux Kenyon.

Bill Blair is one of the more imposing members of the cast, and makes a lasting impression as Warren Kimble, a on-air journalist who is demoted as the result of age-ism and Lloyd Penny, the seemingly hen-pecked husband of a domineering wife and father of two sons: one a gay lawyer and the other a straight figure skater.

PJ Freebourn’s characters include an unnamed One-Armed Man and a shallow cheater named Mark who concocts the most amazing excuses for his infidelities and tries to use them to manipulate his young wife, Ellie.

Madeleine Gish played three very different character. In the first scene she was Pam Gerard, the overly confident and self-promoting production manager who demoted Warren Kimble. She next appeared as Ellie Young, the savvy young wife who hired a private eye to document her husband’s infidelities, and finally Sharon Freeman, a love-starved psychiatrist  looking for to a long awaited weekend tryst, who put her own needs above those of her client who inconveniently decided to end their Friday afternoon session on the window ledge of her office. Gish did a great job making each of her characters distinct.

Hogan Holt also played a trio of characters, but my favorite was Artie Barnes, the overweight jockey. Foster, the playwright, seems to like tossing a monkey wrench of realism or tragedy into the midst of his most comic moments, and in the case of Artie he did not disappoint. It seems that during one race, Artie’s horse suffered a heart attack and died on the track. Yet Artie, who fluctuates in and out of denial at the drop of a hat – in his case a slightly bedazzled and bedraggles cowboy hat—insists he’s a svelte 112 pounds.

Paige Reisenfeld plays both Francine Majors, a frustrated production partner, and Rhonda Penny, the mother of the gay lawyer who insists that gay sons are the result of a domineering mother. In one of the funniest scenes of the night, she brings lunch to her son’s office, in an oversize picnic basket. The food choices inside warn us that something is not quite right with her: a large jar of giant gherkins (pickles), a cucumber, orange-aid, a polish sausage, and an uncooked eggplant. Her husband carries a bag with a McLobster sandwich. (I don’t know if that is a real thing and didn’t dare check!)

Joel White’s character included the gay son and a has-been movie director, Bobby Holland with an obvious drinking problem who tries to pitch a new project that sounds like a barely doctored revival of the Tarzan story.

There is a lot going on, and I enjoyed following the twisting threads of the various stories and discovering how they were connected. Yet, with all that – and a pretty good cast, to boot – Office Hours falls short of the comedic gem it wanted to be.

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

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Photo Credits: Jeremy Bustin Photography

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THE SAVANNAH SIPPING SOCIETY: Life on Randa’s Veranda

THE SAVANNAH SIPPING SOCIETY: Hilarious Southern Women’s Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 1 – July 13, 2019

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

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

The Savannah Sipping Society is another celebration of southern women from the comedic writing of the trio of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten, who also brought us The Golden Girls, The Hallelujah Girls, and The Dixie Swim Club. Director – and Swift Creek Mill Theatre Artistic Director – Tom Width fondly referred to it in his pre-show curtain talk as a “comedy of recognition” as the characters are so familiar and the situations so relatable.

Set in Savannah, Georgia, in the present day, the story takes place over a period of a little more than six months, and mostly on the second story veranda of Randa Covington’s home. The authentically and lovingly detailed set designed by Width, fashioned from wicker and bright colors, hanging plants, features a little table that serves as a bar – an all important focal point for most of the shenanigans that take place. (Not being familiar with Savannah homes, I did wonder if the kitchen and living room were also on the second floor – and found this mildly distracting each time Randa or one of her friends ventured inside to get grab some glasses or check on something in the oven.)

The four women who fuel this feverish frolic initially meet at a yoga class – or more precisely in the lobby juice bar of a yoga studio where they all found the class more than they had bargained for. “Honestly, I’m at an age where all I usually exercise is caution,” Dot pants after collapsing into a chair, putting her feet up, and fanning herself vigorously. The juice bar and a few other locations where the women stand to give monologues are unadorned corners of the stage defined only by bright spots of Joe Doran’s otherwise subtle summery lighting.

Width has assembled a fabulous cast who exuded such warm and natural chemistry on opening night one can only imagine how tightly knit they will be halfway through the run, Joy Williams is the smart and quirky Randa Covington, owner of the veranda. She is a single and independent career woman, an architect who recently lost her job. Jacqueline Jones is Dot Haigler, recently widowed just as she and her late husband were about to start their life-long dream of a retirement near the water. Widowhood is nearly eclipsed by more pressing problems, but her friends pulls together to provide life-giving support.

Robin Arthur is Marlafaye Moseley, a gum-chewing divorcee who recently relocated from Texas. Marlafaye is the most physical comedian. At one point she proclaims, “My mama didn’t raise no fool,” as she places a jester’s hat on her head. Jennifer Frank plays Jinx Jenkins, a make-up artist and self-proclaimed life coach who came to Savannah to care for her sister, who is suffering from dementia. The four, ranging in age from 49 to 69 are united by their circumstances. All are stuck in a rut of some sort, and in need of adventure, romance, and most of all friendship and it is this bond of friendship mixed with unique southern twists that is the heart and soul of this play.

Marlafaye gave up a career in nursing to become a representative for a liquor company, so the four unlikely friends are never short of adult beverages – hence the title. The laugh-a-minute first act imperceptibly morphs into more serious situations as life encroaches on these lovely ladies, and just as it seems the second act is about to end on a sad and introspective note, the writers toss in a happy surprise ending. Rather than feeling cheated – as one would if this had been a drama – this is a vindication of both the genre and the geography.

The Savannah Sipping Society has the pacing and staging of a situation comedy. The audience even sounded like a sitcom laugh track, offering frequent and loud outbursts of sometimes raucous laughter. Having previously enjoyed several plays by this trio of writers, I came prepared to enjoy The Savannah Sipping Society. The Dixie Swim Club (in which Jennifer Frank, Jacqueline Jones, and Joy Williams have all appeared) has remained my favorite, but The Savannah Sipping Society may be a close second as far as characters and may be a tie for laughs.

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

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Photo Credits: Robyn O’Neill

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WRONG CHOPPED: Experimental Comedy

WRONG CHOPPED: Dumb Fun

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 17 – June 8, 2019

Ticket Prices: $22 General Admission; $12 Students

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

 

Dumb & fun.

The world premiere of Wrong Chopped at the Firehouse Theatre is a new iteration of Levi Meerovich and Dixon Cashwell’s absurdist theater piece that was first workshopped at the Firehouse last fall. Lest you think I’m being critical, “fun and dumb” are words that co-writer Meerovich used to describe the work. Other words used by the production team include the phrase “stupid comedy,” a sort of disclaimer that the participant viewer should not expect “high intellectual property.”

Although it may appear to be improvised, the organized chaos on the stage is quite intentional. The entire play – and I use that word loosely – is scripted, down to the grunts and stutters. But what is it about? As the title suggests, Wrong Chopped is a parody of Food Network cooking shows. Four chefs compete for a $10,000 prize. They must create an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert using the mystery items in a basket. The food items range from bones to eggs, but there are other items as well, things like a part of a sentence and a framed photo of actor Stanley Tucci who apparently has something of a cult following among this crowd.

The chefs are Jenny Brackish (Tyler Stevens), Bolton Kane (Chandler Matkins), Darude “Blaze” O’Ronald (Cheslea Matkins), and Goo Henry (Dante Piro). Brackish seems to be a stay at home mom, Kane is a New Age philosopher, Blaze is a street chef who operates a food truck, and Henry is, well, I’m not quite sure, but Henry apparently has a long-standing feud with the show’s host, Ted Allen, played with manic intensity by John Mincks.

The judges include a woman (Tara Malaka as Daniel Craig) who insists she is an actor who plays James Bond and “a rhyming holy woman,” who goes by the name Cardinal Bigsauce (Abbey Kincheloe). I never caught the occupation of the third judge, Marlas Jones (played by Doug Blackburn).

There’s also a camera person, Payton Slaughter, who captures odd angles of the actors and at one point gets usurped by Chef Kane who brings the camera into the audience and takes video selfies with audience members. And then there was Levi Meerovich, a co-writer who was also The Watcher. One of my favorite parts of the show was the opening scene or prologue when Meerovich, looking very handsome with a fresh haircut and a formal tuxedo jacket, approached the keyboard placed in a corner in front of the stage from where he accompanied the actors, occasionally made comments, and directed the projection of videos of old television shows and other, assorted images. When he first came out, Meerovich took off his jacket. And his shoes. And his vest. Then he put on his shoes and pulled his jacket on over his white dress shirt and red boxer briefs, and that’s how he very comfortably completed the show.

You may notice that in the first paragraph I used the phrase participant viewer – well, that’s because the audience isn’t merely observing. The cast sometimes invades the audience space, making the audience participants in the action. And then there are those, like the row of young people directly behind me, who laughed so loudly and so often that they virtually became part of the show.

There is really no point in giving a plot summary – there isn’t any. This is a messy play – physically and metaphorically. There is lots of rice and popcorn and catsup. There are references to James Bond, Hamlet, and numerous movies and television shows, as well as many more references I probably didn’t get because I’m of a different generation. But in answer to a friend’s question, did this show make me feel old? – not at all. It did not make me feel old, but it probably does have greater appear to people who are in their 20s and 30s. People in this age group laughed the longest and loudest. One woman closer to my generation said she laughed but sometimes didn’t know what she was laughing at. And do you know what? I think that Meerovich and Cashwell would find that perfectly acceptable.

Wrong Chopped may be classified as theater of the absurd. It’s also been referred to as avant garde and dada. By whatever label, it is non-traditional theater, and offers a viable alternative for those who want something different, funny, and irreverent. I would not place myself among that group. If you like a linear plot, a play with a clear beginning, middle, and ending, and a conclusion that neatly ties up everything – this isn’t it. If you’re looking for something totally different than what you usually find on Richmond theater stages, and you don’t even know what the term “comfort zone” means, then you might be the target audience for Wrong Chopped.

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

5_Tara Makala, Payton Slaughter, Tyler Stevens, Doug Blackburn, Chandler Matkins, Dante Piro, Chelsea Matkins, John Mincks, Abbey Kincheloe (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Tara Malaka, Peyron Slaughter, Tyler Stevens, Doug Blackburr, Chandler Matkins, Dante Piro, Chelsea Matkins, John Mincks, and Abbey Kinchelow,
4_Abbey Kincheloe (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Abbey Kinchelow
3_Tara Malaka, Abbey Kincheloe, Doug Blackburn, John Mincks (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Tara Malaka, Abbey Kincheloe, Doug Blackburn, and John Mincks
2_Tyler Stevens (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Tyler Stevens
1_John Mincks, Dante Piro (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
John Mincks and Dante Piro

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AN OCTOROON: We Need to Talk

AN OCTOROON: The Point is to Make You Feel Something

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 16 – June 1, 2019

Ticket Prices: $35 general admission; $25 seniors & industry/RVATA; $15 students and teachers with ID

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

When is it okay to laugh at racist stereotypes?

When a smart award-winning playwright named Branden Jacobs-Jenkins writes a play called An Octoroon and incorporates racist stereotypes and historical images that are guaranteed to make every member of the audience feel uncomfortable at some point, even while laughing – especially while laughing. Every. Single. Member. Not you, you say? We’ll see about that.

There is a plantation. In Louisiana. The kind with slaves. There is a cast system with field slaves and house slaves. The title character is a slave who is the daughter of the recently deceased master. The old master’s wife – who is never seen, because she spends the entire play on her deathbed – has an affection for her late husband’s love child. A neighboring overseer plots to buy the failing plantation and have his way with his former rival’s illegitimate daughter, the octoroon. There is a black man wearing blackface with huge red lips, a black man wearing white face with a blond wig, and a white man wearing red face and a feather headdress. There is a lot of shucking and jiving — or dancing elaborately for the entertainment of the white man. There is lying, cheating, stealing, and classism, sexism, and age-ism. There is a noose. And there is a creepy rabbit. An Octoroon is an equal opportunity oppressor.

I think people who attended opening night could be divided into three types. The majority loved it. A few hated it. And a large portion were not sure what to think. And this is one play where race does matter! Everyone’s reaction was tempered not only by aesthetic preferences, but by the viewer’s race as well. Black viewers may have felt freer to laugh but may also have identified more closely with the characters and the historical and social time period. White viewers, on the other hand, may have hesitated to laugh for fear of seeming insensitive, or being accused of appropriating black culture. These dilemmas may have been heightened by recent news stories of politicians, teachers, and prom-posers wearing blackface, and of possible lynchings – even though the last officially documented lynching in America occurred in 1981 (Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama).

So, what could there possibly be to laugh about?

An Octoroon is a classic melodrama that is anything but standard. It deconstructs not only the genre but the whole idea of what theater should be, how the performers should interact, and how the audience should perceive it.

Jacobs-Jenkins won the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2014 for An Octoroon as well as for his play Appropriate (produced here in Richmond by Cadence Theatre last fall). An Octoroon is an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s similarly-titled play The Octoroon, written in 1859. An Irishman wrote a play about slavery in America, and now a black American playwright has revamped it. Using the original characters and plot,  (BTW, an octoroon is a person who is one-eighth black, invoking the “one drop” rule that was used to legally classify people of mixed race as black) Jacobs-Jenkins has included contemporary language (e.g., women referring to one another as “girl,” and the use of the word “ghetto” as an adjective) and modern-day references (e.g., contemporary dances, a boom box, some R-rated rap music, and a cell phone).

Director Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates recognizes, in her director’s note, that this melodrama is challenging for both the audience and the actors. Participating in the experience of An Octoroon, one might even begin to question the role of the director! But Pettiford-Wates raises some questions of her own. “How did we arrive at the place where race, class, and identity are what determines who succeeds and who does not?” she asks. And further, “And more importantly, where do we go from here?”

An Octoroon opens with a lengthy prologue that introduces us to BJJ, a black playwright working through an identity crisis with his therapist. BJJ is played by Jamar Jones, a young black male actor whose recent roles in Red Velvet, Free Man of Color, and Choir Boy have shown him to be a highly talented and versatile actor who is rapidly rising to the top of his game. Here Jones plays the characters of BJJ as well as the two white slave masters, George and M’Closky. At one point he appears in a vest with different patterns on each half and wears half a mustache, as he has to portray both characters onstage in the same scene.

The prologue also introduces us to Playwright, a character based on Dion Boucicault, the author of the original The Octoroon. Cole Metz also plays the roles of Wahnotee, a Native American and Lafouche, an auctioneer who has come to help dispose of the Terrebone Plantation, including its slaves. Each of Metz’ characters has an affectation that makes him either endearing or unbearable. Playwright is pompous, entitled, and bitter. Wahnotee speaks in broken, Pidgeon English and some version of patois. He walks with a lumbering gait and makes that stereotypical open-palmed “how” hand sign. Lafouche walks with a little catch step and keeps scratching the reddened side of his face. Metz can make his normally innocent, rosy-cheeked baby face turn pouty and whiny or menacing in the blink of an eye. He uses physical humor with restraint and allows his face to express his every thought.

The Playwright’s Assistant is played by Jeremy V. Morris, who is silent and seemingly resentful in his service to the Playwright, but overly enthusiastic in his later portrayal of two of the plantation’s slaves, the elderly Pete who manages the household, and the young Paul who is allowed to run freely with Wahnotee, and has been given few if any chores. Like the octoroon, he is also a favored child, but his circumstances are much lower down the social scale – even in the slave hierarchy.

Minnie and Dido (Asjah Janece and Khadijah Franks) are two house slaves who are friends. Dido has recently arrived from another plantation, and Minnie was born and raised on the Terrebonne Plantation. She believes there is nothing beyond the swamps, but by the end of the play both are looking forward with hope and fear to life beyond the plantation. Realizing they are not ready for freedom, they determine that working on a steam ship is the next best step.

Trinitee Pearson has the role of Grace, a pregnant field slave who shows attitude whenever she is in the presence of Minnie and Dido. Pearson also has the role of Br’er Rabbit, who serves as a sort of cautionary mascot for An Octoroon. Br’er Rabbit is a reminder of the trickster who lives by his wits, a sort of Anansi figure with both African and Cherokee roots. I personally found the Br’er Rabbit character somewhat creepy. Perhaps it was because rabbits are usually not the size of a petite woman, or maybe it was the mime-like half-mask Pearson wore and the limp-wristed, hovering stance she adopts.

Maggie Roop plays Dora, a wealthy white heiress who has her eye on George, even though she knows his only interest in her would be because of her ability to save the family plantation from a short sale. Roop is deliciously over the top in her stylized interpretation of the delicate southern belle, dressed in a bell-shaped white dress with crinolines and hoops, and enough pink bows and frills to stock a small emporium. In her first scene, she demands that Minnie fan her. Even though she is a socialite, it seems Dora’s only friend is Zoe, the Octoroon.

The octoroon is played by Juliana Caycedo, who I have only ever seen before in Cadence Theatre’s production of Between Riverside and Crazy. Caycedo looks the part of the beautiful octoroon with her olive skin, long curly hair, and huge, innocent eyes.  She happily joins in with Roop in prancing and flouncing around the stage, twirling in her green dress, also supported by crinolines as she and her friend and so to be rival, Dora, feign fainting spells and swoon at the drop of a hat. It is obvious these are ladies who never sweat but merely “dew.” Caught between two worlds, Zoe belongs to neither.

Also in the cast, is Liam Joseph Finn, holding down the small but significant roll of Ratts, a tall, handsome ship’s captain who comes to the auction to buy slaves. Dasia Gregg’s scenic design is deliberately rustic and dusty looking. She has lined the walls with jagged boards and littered the floor with crates and overturned chairs. This setting suggests a sense of impermanence, decay, and danger. Erin Barclay’s lighting maintains the dark and dreary theme, making it all the more startling and effective with the space lights up with the flash of George’s old-fashioned camera – the kind with a black curtain on a tripod. Projections by Gregg and Kelsey Cordrey keep the audience informed of the progress of the five acts, written in an elaborate old-fashioned font, and occasionally draw interest with animated flames, or the photograph of an actual modern day lynching. The latter is so disturbing that even BJJ asks to have it removed.

Breaking with all sorts of tradition, instead of performing the fourth act or the “sensation” act of the melodrama, BJJ, Playwright, and Assistant tell us about it, using a few props, and even rewinding to back up when BJJ loses his train of thought.

An Octoroon raises so many questions. This is the sort of play that cries out for a talk-back. (Dr. Pettiford-Wates indicated three are scheduled for later in the run.) There is more here than meets the eye. As one actor says at the end of Act Four, “the point of this whole thing was to make you feel something.” Having tapped into those feelings, they need to be discussed, examined, analyzed, and shared with others. This is not theater designed to merely entertain. Few would leave saying, “I liked it,” or “I enjoyed it.” More likely, others, as I did, left saying, “we need to talk about this!”

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

An Octoroon 3
Jamar Jones
An Octoroon 2
Maggie Roop as Dora in An Octoroon
An Octoroon 1
Jamar Jones as playwright BJJ in An Octoroon

 

 

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MISS GULCH RETURNS!: When Fiction Becomes Reality

MISS GULCH RETURNS!: The Bitch is Back!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: May 15-25, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Ding, dong, the bitch is back!

Some shows teach lessons, some force the audience to adjust their perspective, some raise questions, and others tug at your heartstrings. Fred Barton’s one-man show, Miss Gulch Returns!, does not require anything of its audience but that you sit back and enjoy it – preferably with a drink at hand. Performed by Robert Throckmorton, who is revising the role he first performed more than a decade ago, to great acclaim Miss Gulch Returns! is a musical parody, based on the character of Almira Gulch, the bicycle riding neighbor of Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and Dorothy in the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz.

In the film, Gulch threatens to have Dorothy’s dog, Toto, put to sleep, claiming he has bitten her. Aunt Em is not intimidated, and tells Miss Gulch, “Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn’t mean you have the power to run the rest of us.” Later, Dorothy sees Miss Gulch transform into the Wicked Witch of the West, and her bicycle transform into a flying broom.  Barton has woven many Oz-related references into Miss Gulch Returns!

What makes this even funnier is that Barton’s Miss Gulch is a spin-off of a fictional character who is the “real-life” embodiment of a fictious character!

Throckmorton first appears onstage in dark pants and a jacket – with a piano on one side and a bar on the other, it looks and sounds as if we are about to experience a traditional cabaret. The Robert B. Moss Theatre has been slightly rearranged; where there are usually a few tables at the rear, tables have been added to alternate rows, starting with the very front row – where I sat. And there is an extra table set up at the foot of the stage with a candle, a drink, and a basket with Miss Gulch’s hat on top.

After just brief introduction and a couple of songs, Throckmorton approaches this little table and engages in a seductive conversation with an invisible Miss Gulch before suddenly ripping off his tear-away clothing to reveal Miss Gulch’s spinsterly gray dress and the show is off and running at breakneck speed with nonstop laughs fueled by double and triple (if that’s possible) entendre.

Barton’s Miss Gulch assumes that the Wizard of Oz Miss Gulch has a life as an actress and cabaret singer after the film and follows her life in songs, some half spoken and some sung full out with Throckmorton’s subtle but delightfully strong voice. These include self-descriptive and advice-filled torch songs, including “I’m a Bitch” and “Pour Me a Man” in the first act and “I’m Your Bitch” and “I Poured Me a Man” in the second act. My favorite one-liner, bar none, was venomously delivered near the top of the second act, when Miss Gulch was bemoaning being the recipient of all her married and partnered friends’ complaints: “Defecate or de-commode!”

The music and lyrics are by Barton as well as the book, Joshua N. Wortham, the musical director, accompanies Throckmorton on piano, and occasionally acts as Miss Gulch’s straight man or handler. Miss Gulch Returns! is staged by Throckmorton and Steve Perigard, with moody lighting by Amy Ariel (who has a lengthy resume of lighting designs and just finished her third year as a lighting design and engineering student at VCU) and the scenic and sound design is by RTP associate producing director Lucian Restivo. The set, on three levels, had a sort of timeless feel of unspecified era, and there was a lovely slide show of iconic movie stars (e.g., Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Cher, and Lena Horne, to name a few) that heightened the vintage visual element.

I never saw Throckmorton’s earlier portrayal of Miss Gulch, but there were many in the audience who did. At least one came specifically because she had heard that Throckmorton was recreating the role and she had retained fond memories of it for more than a decade. Ready or not, perhaps it’s time for a new generation to meet Miss Gulch as she continues to hilariously blur the line between reality and fiction.

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: as noted

MissGulch_468
Robert Throckmorton as Almira Gulch (Dorothy’s nemesis from “The Wizard of Oz”) in the musical comedy “Miss Gulch Returns!”, playing at Richmond Triangle Players’ Robert B. Moss Theatre through May 25. Photo by John MacLellan
MissGulch_289
Robert Throckmorton as Almira Gulch (Dorothy’s nemesis from “The Wizard of Oz”) in the musical comedy “Miss Gulch Returns!”, playing at Richmond Triangle Players’ Robert B. Moss Theatre through May 25. Photo by John MacLellan.

Miss Gulch 1

Miss Gulch 2
Photo by Joshua N. Wortham

 

 

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GLORIA: In Trouble or In Excelsis Deo

GLORIA: In All Its Glory

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: May 11 – June 2, 2019

Ticket Prices: Single tickets start at $35

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

Gloria is an intriguing play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who also wrote Appropriate, which Cadence Theatre produced in 2018 and An Octoroon, which opens at TheatreLAB the basement on May 16. Not only does Jacobs-Jenkins appear to be a prolific playwright, but several of his works have won awards and other have been recognized by being nominated.* Of the two works I have seen so far, Appropriate and now Gloria, it is clear why Richmond theaters and directors want to share his work with our local theater audiences. His work is relevant and thought provoking, often addresses sensitive issues such as racism, suicide, mass shootings in the workplace, and family and social dysfunction with a clear eye and familiar settings that augment the surprise of the deliberately shocking actions or revelations of his otherwise ordinary characters.

In order not to spoil the surprises of Gloria, it may be necessary to talk around some issues and scenes, rather than to address them directly. With little knowledge of Gloria prior to attending the opening on Saturday night, I was totally unprepared for the culminating actions in the first act. Suffice it to say this play does come with a warning: “Please be advised that Gloria contains sudden, loud sound effects and realistic depictions of violence that may not be suitable for all audience members. For more information, we encourage patrons to contact the box office at 804-282-2620.”

Set in the offices of a prestigious but fictitious Arthur Kimble Publishing company in Manhattan, the first act of Gloria draws us into the stressful workday lives of a group of young editorial assistants who are all striving to succeed in the cutthroat world of writing and editing. Friendships aren’t really about social interaction as much as they are about networking and keeping the enemy in plain sight. Even interns are regarded as potential threats to one’s job security.

Cadence’s artistic director Anna Senechal Johnson directed a dynamic cast in this two hour production – including one intermission – with an intensity that made the viewer forget all about time. Laine Satterfield played the title role of Gloria with a wide-eyed and wild-eyed edginess that affected the energy and actions of all the other actors even when she wasn’t onstage. Satterfield also plays the role of Nan, a senior editor who is heard during the first act but not seen until the second act. Described by her employees as cold and distant, Satterfield focuses attention on the humanity of her character during the second act.

Anne Michelle Forbes as the hyper-active Kendra brought humor and style to the office and the stage and I was delighted to be introduced to Joel Ashur, who played the intern, Miles. One of several cast members who played multiple roles, Ashur indicated after the show that Miles was his personal favorite. Other roles include a very attentive barista and a vapid film producer.

The cast also included Jessie Jennison as a young office assistant named Ani, Matt Polson as a senior office associate named Dean, and Happy Mahaney as the disenchanted Lorin, a fact checker who works in an office down the hall from the cubicled quartet. While the play is called Gloria the character of Gloria touches the thoughts and actions of all the other characters from the beginning of the first act to the closing scene of the second act – which occurs some two years later.

A major theme of the play is how people perceive and process trauma and grief. Kendra, Dean, Nan, and Lorin all have different memories and perspectives of the trauma that ties them together. This seems to be a strength of author Jacob-Jenkins – presenting the good, the bad, and the ugly of his characters, making them three-dimensional and real to the viewer. Their responses to loss and their differing personal experiences with the same trauma make one question who owns loss? Who owns trauma? Who, if anyone, has the right to profit from it? To this end, Johnson has included detailed program notes, including a full paragraph about the setting, an organizational hierarchy of the fictitious publishing company (identifying staff members as Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, and Generation Z), and discussion questions to guide viewers through this experience.

Music plays a prominent role in this play – which is not a musical. There is original music by Nicholas Caviness and Ali Thibodeau, with Thibodeau credited with the unseen role of singer Sarah Tweed. There is also some very amusing singing by Forbes and Jennison in a major scene in which they mourn the death of the singer. The Sarah Tweed of Gloria is fictitious, but I did find a real singer named Sarah Tweed in an online search after the show.

Rich Mason is the scenic designer for Gloria. The set features clean lines and multi-use wooden tables and translucent panels that reflect the natural lighting effects created by Weston Corey and Michael Jarett and changes from a New York publishing office to a familiar facsimile of a Starbucks coffee shop to the offices of a television and film production company in Los Angeles.

Having presented the audience with multiple perspectives, neither the author nor the director wraps up with a tidy ending or even explanations for the questions that are raised, explored, but never answered. Of course, people lingered in the lobby after opening night, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this occurs every night. Gloria could very well have been offered as an entry into the Acts of Faith festival. This is not theater for those who want to be entertained, but for those who desire to be challenged.

 

*Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has won numerous awards, including the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for Drama, the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation Award, the Benjamin H. Danks Award, the Steinberg Playwrights Award, the Sundance Theatre Institute’s Tennessee Williams Award, the Helen Merrill Award, the Paula Vogel Award, and the  Princess Grace Award. Gloria was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and received two Lucille Lortel Award nominations as well as a 2016 Drama League Award for Outstanding Production of a Broadway or Off-Broadway Play and two 2016 Outer Critics Circle Awards.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Jason Collins Photography

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RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO THREE

Richmond Ballet Studio Three: Three Beautiful Dances

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 7-12, 2019

Ticket Prices: $26-$46

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

The Richmond Ballet concludes its current Studio Series with a program of three beautiful ballets, each different in style, look, and feeling.

Ron Cunningham, who spent 30 years as director of the Sacramento Ballet (along with his wife, Carinne Binda) choreographed Summerset in 1981. (The couple transitioned to Emeritus status with the Sacramento Ballet in 2018.) Summerset was first performed by the Boston Ballet in 1981 and the Richmond Ballet introduced it on the stage of the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in 1988.

Performed by three couples, led by Sabrina Holland and Mate Szentes, with Lauren Archer and Thel Moore, III and Abi Goldstein and Anthony Oates, the ballet features contemporary choreography with classic lines and vocabulary. Said to have been inspired by the royal wedding – not, not that one, but the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana – Summerset is mostly flirtatious and light, but there were some moments that seemed out of character, as when Archer was pulled across the floor while in a full split or when the three women all landed in a split and were pulled up by their partners. That particular movement and posture seemed overly gymnastic and less, well, royal, and took me out of the lyrical fantasy and romantic mood created by the otherwise winning combination of Cunningham’s choreography with Edward Elgar’s music. The most beautiful moment, for me, was an incredibly gentle and sustained phrase where Szentes slowly lowered Holland from his shoulder to the floor, as if she were the most precious woman on earth and he did not want to shatter her, and the very thought of her feet touching the floor was troublesome.

The lovely and ageless 2017 Kennedy Center Honor award winner Carmen de Lavallade returned to set Sweet Bitter Love on the company, having first worked with Richmond Ballet on Portrait of Billie in the fall of 2017. Initially created as a solo for herself, Sweet Bitter Love (2000) developed, over time, into a duet, set to two songs sung by Roberta Flack (“Until It’s Time For You To Go” and “Sweet Bitter Love”) and one sung by Donny Hathaway (“For All We Know”). It’s the kind of music you listen to when you are home alone, with the lights dimmed, and a glass of wine nearby.

Performed by my favorite dance couple, Maggie Small and Fernando Sabino, Sweet Bitter Love presents both the woman’s and the man’s perspective of a love affair that must end – seemingly before it has even had time to really begin. From Sabino’s hinged jazz turns to Small’s sustained movements and poignant moments of stillness, the work pulled on the acting skills of the two dancers as much as their dance technique. There are heartrending moments as when Sabino backs away from Small, who is kneeling with her back to him. While backing away, he shakes his hands in helpless frustration. Later, as she mourns the loss of love, arms stretched over head and then reaching empty arms in front, we see him briefly in an upstage corner, buttoning his jacket as he takes one last glance. The costumes for Sweet Bitter Love were designed by de Lavallade’s husband, the late Geoffrey Holder, and Chenault Spence lighting lovingly echoed the blues of Smalls’ gown and caught the delicate sparks of glitter in her hair, gown, and shoes. The overall effect – music, movement, costumes – is breathtaking.

The program closed with Symphonic Dances (world premiere, May 7, 2019), created by the London-born choreographer Rex Wheeler, who also created Lenten Rose for the Richmond Ballet in 2015. Bringing the program full circle, Wheeler also has a history of creating works for the Sacramento Ballet.

Symphonic Dances, performed by six couples, is a work in two parts set to the first and third sections of Sergei Rachmaninov’s music of the same name, which he composed in 1940. Interestingly, Rachmaninov is believed to have discussed the possibility of Russian choreographer Michel Fokine creating a ballet set to this work, but Fokine’s death in 1942 prevented any collaboration on this work between the two artists.

In the first part, the dancers wear lavender and fuchsia, the partnering is more traditional, and the lighting more muted. In the second part, the dancers wear bold red and blue (more of a turquoise blue, perhaps), and the lighting, likewise, shifts into bold washes of red, purple, and blue that seems to reflect the boldness of the music in this section, as well, which has rhythmic drums and clashing cymbals. The colors and movements are in harmony with the shifting tones of the music, creating a total environment of sound, color, and movement as the dancers move both gracefully and energetically through Wheeler’s three-dimensional shifting patterns.

It was a wise decision to place intermission between Sweet Bitter Love and Symphonic Dances. Pretty as Symphonic Dances appeared, and as good as it sounded, it was somewhat of a difficult transition to move from the drama of de Lavallade’s love ballad to the more contemporary interactions of Wheeler’s work.

The Studio Three performance run through Mother’s Day (hint, hint), with the remaining performances on Friday and Saturday at 6:30pm and 8:30pm, and Sunday at 2:00pm and 4:00pm.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Sarah Ferguso

RB Studio 3.1
Abi Goldstein and Anthony Oates, Sabrina Holland and Mate Szentes, Lauren Archer and Thel Moore, III in Summerset
RB Studio 3.5
Abi Goldstein and Anthony Oates, Sabrina Holland and Mate Szentes, Lauren Archer and Thel Moore, III
RB Studio 311
Maggie Small and Fernando Sabino in
RB Studio 310
Fernando Sabino and Maggie Small in Sweet Bitter Love
RB Studio 3.9
Abi Goldstein and Thel Moore, III
RB Studio 3.8
Cody Beaton and Trevor Davis
RB Studio 3.7
Cody Beaton and the men of Symphonic Dances
RB Studio 3.6
Abi Goldstein and Thel Moore, III
RB Studio 3.4
Eri Nishihara and Mate Szentes in
RB Studio 3.3
Eri Nishihara
RB Studio 3.0
Mate Szentes, Eri Nishihaqra and the company in Symphonic Dances

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6th RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL: Week 2 of 3

RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL 2019: Entanglements – Week Two

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 26-27, May 3-4 & May 10-11 @ 7PM + Next Generation May 4 @ 2:30PM

Ticket Prices: $20 General; $15 Students

Info: (804) 230-8780, dogtowndancetheatre.com or https://rdf2019.brownpapertickets.com/

I couldn’t attend the first weekend of the 6th Annual Richmond Dance Festival presented by Dogtown Dance Theatre. After seeing Weekend Two I feel even worse about missing the first weekend.

The program featured 8 dances and 3 dance films which showcased works by local choreographers (Len Foyle of Snap Soup Dance, Kara Robertson of Karar Dance Company, Boris Karabashev of RVA Salsa Bachata Foundation, LaWanda Raines of RVA Dance Collective, and Shannon Hester of Pole Pressure), and choreographers from the DMV region (Natalie Boegel; and Paul Emerson Gordon of Company | E,  and Robbie Priore of Prioredance, both of Washington, D.C.­). The dance films hailed from the USA and abroad (Holly Wilder, Wilton, CT; Mateo Galindo Torres, Toronto, Canada; and Maria Piva, London, England). It may look overwhelming when spelled out like this, but all 11 works were spaced out in a well-paced program that ran just a bit over two hours, including one intermission.

It was a diverse program, but I had several personal favorites. The film Weightless, directed by German Prieto with Mateo Galindo Torres and Falciony Patiño, and choreography by Torres and Patiño broke all the physical laws. After a while, I stopped trying to figure out which way was up, and whether the dancers were pushing off from or suspended over a wall, the ceiling, or the floor and disembodied body parts drifted into our field of vision or a dancer twisted impossibly on the back of his wrist while suspended seemingly in midair. This beautifully made film created a whole new dimension of movement.

Another film, The Field, by Holly Wilder movingly showed a woman freeing herself from the ties that bound her. Her Inner Monologue, The Past, her Body Image, and her Support System were literally and figuratively woven into her hair with yards of rope held by others who gave voice to the voices in her head, until, using a pair of golden shears, she cut herself free. With each cut, a voice was silenced, leaving her free – in a large field. This piece was so simple, yet so powerful, and ultimately so relatable.

Another piece I could relate to was LaWanda S. Raines’ precautionary tale, Inappropriate Miss. Six dancers, four of whom emerged from beneath a giant white billow, moved as they spoke words of caution that many young girls are taught: don’t tell all your business; don’t tell the truth; don’t talk to strangers; sit with your legs closed; and most of all, don’t try to save nobody! The trouble is, many of these cautions are inhibiting and Raines did an excellent job giving voice to the duality of growing up female. Even more poignantly, one of the dancers was her own 16-year-old daughter, and one was male.

The program also included Paul Gordon Emerson’s duet Entangled, set to Ella Fitzgerald’s Summertime. The lyrical duet included some of the heat of a tango, an effect that was enhanced by a touch of acoustic guitar. Natalie Boegel’s Loud Right was accompanied by the dancers making murmurs, clicks, and raspberries (you know, that thing you do with your tongue on babies’ tummies), graduating to screeches, claps, and even spanking. At one point, they ask, “Do you wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?”

Len Foyle and Jonathan Starr had the duo in Just Who Are You to Tell Me So? approach the stage from behind the audience. Their simple movements of walking, skipping, and jumping were accented with gestures from a simple turn of the head to one dancer poking the other with her foot – all done with poker faces that made it feel less supernatural and just a tad humorous. The red splotches of Katy Pumphrey’s projections for Kara Robertson’s The In-Between reminded me of splatters of menstrual blood while the dancers’ actions of walking, running, gathering, watching and waiting took on classical lines, ending with a formal procession.

Perhaps most unusual or unexpected were RVA Salsa Bachata Foundation Team’s performance of I Want You Back, with three couples dancing to Tony Succar’s cover of the song of the same name, from album The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson, and Schannon Hester’s Shore Leave, a beautifully athletic work performed on two poles.

Maria Piva’s film, Respira, featured four women wearing masks attached to long hoses, and the program closed with an excerpt from Robert J. Priore’s Casita, a contemporary dance using a folk dance vocabulary infused with humor and costumed in black lace.

So often, when there are this many works on a single program, they all start to run together, creating a blurry memory. Not so with this program; each work was distinct and memorable on its own terms, and each choreographer’s voice was unique and legible, if that word can be applied to choreography. This program runs one more time, Saturday, May 4 at 7:00pm, and there is a new program for the third and final weekend, May 10 & 11. Also, on Saturday, May 4 at 2:00 in the afternoon, more than 164 youth from RVA, Harrisonburg, and my hometown of Brooklyn will perform in the second annual Next Generation program. Dogtown Dance Theatre’s Artistic & Executive Director, Jess C. Burgess, believes Richmond has all it needs to be a “dance destination city.”

 

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: See individual photos.

RDF

RDF Snap Soup
Snap Soup Dance, Richmond
RDF Salsa Bachata Foundatiob
RVA Salsa Bachata Foundation Team, Richmond
RDF Karar Dance
Karar Dance Company, Richmond
RDF Maria Piva
Director: Maria Piva, London

RDF2

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ATLANTIS: The Truth Will Rise. . .

ATLANTIS: A New Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: April 12 – May 5, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

Keep in mind that Atlantis is the fictionalized representation of an ideal society – a utopia – and you will have an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the new musical, Atlantis: a new musical. Atlantis is being developed by Virginia Rep in partnership with Glass Half Full Productions and Greg Schaffert (Peter and the Starcatcher) as well as PowerArts and support from the Muriel McAuley Fund for New Plays and Contemporary Theatre.

This production boasts a boatload of designers and artists. Matthew Lee Robinson wrote the music and lyrics, while the book was a joint effort of Ken Cerniglia, Robinson, and Scott Anderson Morris. The story, which involves the uncovering of secrets that make this idyllic island possible and a young girl who questions the status quo, reminded me of the Disney children’s film, Moana, that I unwittingly watched while spending quality time with my Miami grandchildren one visit. The music was well written, but the lyrics were not memorable – and not always easy to understand.

Jason Sherwood’s seaside fantasy set with its billows of fabric that suggested fish scales and waves, the neon arches, and the moveable structure that could be a mountain, a boat, or whatever it needed to be, was attractive and purposeful, creating a feeling that was both ancient and futuristic at the same time. BJ Wilkinson’s lighting and Derek Dumais’ sound design enhanced this effect and the overall feeling of another world, sometimes shadowy and sometimes brilliantly colored. Anthony Smith was the musical director and Kikau Alvaro did the choreography – both of which worked with Tony award nominee Kristin Hanggi’s direction to keep things moving along at a good pace. Amy Clark’s costumes seemed to be in search of an era, with some garments – as well as hairstyles – appearing to be inspired by ancient times and other by futurism. Think Star Trek meets Ancient Greece.

I enjoyed the cast, although many of the characters seemed underdeveloped. There were a lot of people in the cast, but it seems only a few had names we needed to learn or remember. Antoinette Comer was both skillful and interesting in the lead role of Maya, the ruler’s daughter who was determined to rock the proverbial boat, but the role of her counterpart, Kaden, played by Julian R. Decker seemed to have been given less thought – although he did get the most soaring solo of the show,  with  “Let’s Start a War.” Marcus Jordan was interesting but a little stiff as the ship wrecked stranger, Arah, who washed ashore and confirmed Maya’s long-held suspicions and The Order’s worst fears – that there was, indeed, something beyond “the seam” where the sky meets the ocean. A favorite character was Lucy Caudle as the ever-present and deeply observant little sister, Alexa.

Jerold E. Solomon, Katrinah Carol Lewis, Susan Sanford, and Debra Wagoner as some of the adult leaders and parents all had distinct and interesting roles that were not yet fully developed – sort of like the adults in Peanuts who are often depicted as instruments whose sounds are not fully articulated. Of course, this could have been done on purpose, to emphasize the secrecy that shadowed this utopian community.  It will be interesting to see how, as this work is developed and refined, these characters are developed without substantially lengthening the show, which currently runs around two and half hours, with one intermission.

So, like a true utopia, which exists only in the mind, Atlantis is not perfect, but it is an enjoyable musical that is quite unlike all the other offerings of this current season. And it’s definitely worth seeing. For some, it’s pure entertainment, and for others, it represents an opportunity to study a production from its inception and watch how it changes over time.

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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BINGO! The Winning Musical: Grab Your Dauber and a Rabbit’s Foot

BINGO! The Winning Musical: A Birthday Tribute

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 19-May 4, 2019

Ticket Prices: $23 General admission; $18 RVATA Members; $13 Students

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

The invitation to “come play Bingo with us” is not just hollow words. The first thing I noticed when I entered the CAT Theatre space on Tuesday evening was the aroma of popcorn. After checking in at Will Call and obtaining my program, I was given a set of bingo cards, a dauber, and a ticket that could be exchanged for a cup of popcorn before the show or during intermission. Inside the theater half the audience seats had been replaced by tables for six, transforming the space into a reasonable replica of a bingo hall.

Bingo! The Winning Musical, with book by Michael Heitzman and Ilene Reid and music and lyrics by Hietzman, Reid, and David Holcenberg, is an interactive comedy that kept the audience engaged with three fairly fast-paced rounds of standard bingo (five-in-a-row) while the actors participated in more advanced versions of the game, such as covering numbers in the shape of a happy face or an airplane. The play, directed by Pat Walker, opens on three friends staring out the window observing a raging storm, and briefly debating the wisdom of attending their weekly bingo storm. Bingo wins out over safety, and they show up late at their favorite bingo hall only to find that they have missed the early bird game and even worse, some newcomers (i.e., theater patrons) have taken their lucky seats.

Honey (Caitlin St. Clair) is a blonde bombshell with a heart of gold. A rather dim bulb, she is three-times divorced and has her eye on Sam (David Atkins), an ex-con auto mechanic who calls the numbers for the bingo games. Patsy (Sandra Clayton) is a petite woman in a brightly colored jogging suit who has adopted a number of superstitious rituals involving troll dolls and rabbits’ feet. She won’t play bingo without performing her rituals, although it has apparently been years since she has actually won a game. Finally, there is the sharp-tongued Vern (Amber Dawn dePass), the leader of ladies’ night out by virtue of her strong personality.

Bingo! The Winning Musical is set in a fictitious suburb in Pennsylvania in current times on the 90th anniversary of the birth of bingo. For some reason, it seems as if the group is celebrating the birthday of Edwin S. Lowe, who popularized – but did not invent – the game of Bingo. Lowe’s portrait has a prominent place center stage, there are birthday cakes, and the cast sings “Happy Birthday” as a postlude. (Interestingly, while it is known that Lowe died on February 23, 1986 in his Manhattan home, his exact birthdate is unknown, other that it was sometime in 1910 in Poland.)

In flashbacks, we learn that fifteen years ago Vern had a major falling out with her best friend, Bernice (Vanessa Fetcher) over a winning bingo card, and the two haven’t spoken since. Since this is a comedy, Bernice’s daughter Alison (Emma Grace Bailey) shows up in the present to try to reconcile her mother and Vern as Bernice is dying. And since this is a comedy, Alison has disguised her long brown hair with a long brown wig – and no one recognizes her except Minnie, the manager of the bingo hall, who tags her as a soap opera actress.

At one point Vern heckles an audience member who is sitting in “her” lucky seat because he has won the door prize – which she even attempts to take from him. Minnie Martinelli, the manager of the bingo hall, maintains order among the ladies, assists the patrons of the bingo hall (including the audience members), and does basic maintenance. This includes everything from keeping everyone calm when the power goes out because of the storm to sweeping up discarded bingo cards to sucking the gas out of a patron’s car to refuel the generator when it runs out of gas.

 

Martinelli, who is played by Cynthia Mitchell, Executive Producer of the Bifocals theater of senior actors and a CAT Theatre Board member, does of all this with a soft voice and surprisingly subtle comedic timing, while dePass and Fletcher carry off the broader, more physical comedy. Bailey’s over the top solo, Nurse Ratched’s Lament from Cuckoo, the musical version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had actors in the audience roaring with laughter.

There are humorous scenes involving a moving portrait and a hidden door, and a “surprise” ending. With all of this going on, it’s a mystery that the first act seemed to drag on far longer than the hour it actually took. And it’s almost possible to forget this is a musical, even though there are at least half a dozen songs and reprises of several. The reason for this, I think, is that while the actors have pleasant voices, they rarely project and soar, but rather sing as if trying not to disturb the neighbors. I’m not sure if this was an artistic decision by music director dePass or due to acoustic limitations. There’s that and also that the music is recorded rather than live. At one point I found myself considering the word parody to describe this show.

In addition to dePass who played Vern and was Music Director, St. Clair did double duty as Honey and the show’s Dance Captain. And Pat Walker was both Director and set designer.  There were several dance numbers featuring umbrellas as props. The minimal set – unusual for CAT Theatre – consisted mostly of black walls, a portrait, a desk for Sam, a table for the Bingo!  ladies, and, of course, the tables for the audience.  Atkins, Fletcher, and Mitchell were all making their debut on the CAT stage. Walker previously directed Enchanted April for CAT a few years ago and has directed the Bifocals senior theater for both Barksdale/Virginia Rep and now Bifocals at CAT.

On leaving the theater, many people remarked how cute Bingo! is, with one describing it as adorable. There is nothing remarkable about Bingo! The Winning Musical. It is an enjoyable, stress—free two hours of musical comedy that doesn’t require the audience to think or make decisions or judgments. And you get to play along.

 

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: Courtesy of Ann Davis

Bingo.1
Sandra Clayton, Amber Dawn dePass, and Caitlin St. Clair
Bingo.2
Sandra Clayto, Caitlin St. Clair, David Atkins, Emma Grace Bailey, and Cynthia Mitchell
Bingo.3
Sandra Clayton, Emma Grace Bailey (front), Amber Dawn dePass (rear), and Caitlin St. Clair
Featured

ANIMAL CONTROL: People Are Just Animals Who Talk and Wear Clothes

ANIMAL CONTROL: A BAD DAWG TALE

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 17 – May 12, 2019

Ticket Prices: $15/student; $25/military; $35/general admission

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

 

Richmonders who are familiar with the name Chandler Hubbard probably know him as an actor, but this month Hubbard is making his debut as author of the new play Animal Control for which he received the 2019 Martha Hill Newell Playwrights Fund award. Like most comedies, Animal Control tackles some tough, real-life subjects and their accompanying emotions – anger, blame, justice, and ultimately compassion. Sometimes it’s difficult to decide whether to laugh or cry.

Director Joel Bassin, Producing Artistic Director of the Firehouse Theatre, noted that during the dress rehearsal and first two showings it became obvious that pet-owners were more likely to take the quiet route as they found the issues close to their hearts. Set in a dingy office in the Carson County Pound, the play opens as the center’s newly appointed director, Kim Hawkins (played by the versatile Donna Marie Miller), deals with complaints and repeat offenders. The main offender, a three-legged pit bull rescue named Bailey, who has been adopted by the equally menacing owner, Dan Stanley (played by Arik Cullen who towers over everyone at well over 6’), has allegedly attacked another dog at the dog park.

Adam Turck plays Marc Hanson, the persnickety owner of Winnie – short for Winston, as in Churchill – who files the most damning complaint against Dan and Bailey.  Marc (with a “c” he takes pains to explain) has pictures of the injuries his dog sustained and as the tension piles on, Dan’s neighbor, another frequent phoner of complaints, Patty Smith (Lucretia Marie Anderson) also shows up in Ms. Hawkins’ office. All of this is overwhelming for Hawkins, who would rather deal with dogs than people, but she has the dubious back-up of her office associate, Corrine Lowell (Journey Entzminger), an insolent college student who has an affinity for the dogs and an unlikely friendship with her frazzled supervisor.

Bassin directs this eclectic cast of characters with an ebb and flow, a cycle of tension and release that sometimes reaches explosive levels. Expletives fly, Dan towers over everyone, and Corrine is an ever constant presence with her irreverent but much needed wit and sarcasm. Patty seems at first to be an extraneous presence, but she has a key scene with Hawkins and her role is integral to the final resolution. Miller makes Hawkins sympathetic, offsetting moments of indecision with insight and clarity. I’m not familiar with Entzminger, so I’m not sure how much of a stretch it was for her – a junior Business Management student at VCU – to play the insolent college student so convincingly. Surprisingly, she has the final word. Adam Turk is fittingly annoying as the owner of the injured dog, and Arik Cullen, who seemed to enjoy the role of the bad boy, holds the key to the compassionate conclusion.

At the beginning of each scene two actors stand behind the chain link fences on either side of the stage, smoking, texting, or just thinking. While I found this transition interesting, I was distracted by the set. Phil Hayes designed an authentically drab break room that doubles as Kim Hawkins office – with just a folding table for a desk. What bothered me was that the sides of the set were not built all the way out to the theater’s walls, so we could see the scaffold-like edges and supporting brace just behind the chain link fences. I know it’s a set, but I don’t want to see the behind-the-scenes workings. Andrew Bonniwell designed the lighting – no special effects needed here – and Ryan Dygert designed the sound – with dogs barking in the background.

Without giving away too much of the show, Hubbard makes it impossible to take sides by presenting multiple sides of the issue and throwing in a couple of emotionally loaded surprises.

Animal Control is written in three scenes (The Prosecution, The Defense, and The Verdict), with two intermissions and runs a little over two hours, including the intermissions. I thought it was rather well paced, but my partner found it a bit too long. It should be mentioned that neither of us owns a pet, which I think makes a difference. I heard more than one sniffle, that I do not attribute to seasonal allergies, and observed at least one attendee feeling a bit verklempt, waving a hand to ward off tears in the lobby after the show.

 

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

Animal Control.7_Donna Marie Miller, Lucretia Marie Anderson, Arik Cullen, Adam Turck (photo by Tom Topinka)
Donna Marie Miller, Lucretia Marie Anderson, Arik Cullen and Adam Turck
Animal Control.6_Adam Turck, Arik Cullen (photo by Tom Topinka)
Adam Turck and Arik Cullen
Animal Control.4_Donna Marie Miller, Adam Turck, Arik Cullen (photo by Tom Topinka)
Donna Marie Miller, Adam Turck and Arik Cullen
Animal Control.3_Donna Marie Miller, Journey Entzminger (photo by Tom Topinka)
Donna Marie Miller and Journey Entzminger
Animal Control.2_Donna Marie Miller, Journey Entzminger (photo by Tom Topinka)
Donna Marie Miller and Journey Entzminger
Animal Control.1_Donna Marie Miller (photo by Tom Topinka)
Donna Marie Miller

 

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SEVEN HOMELESS MAMMOTHS WANDER NEW ENGLAND: Who Needs a Sub-heading After That?

Seven Homeless mammoths Wander New England: & Alternative Kinship Structures!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: April 10 – May 4, 2019. (Opening Night – April 12)

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Some works of art just defy categorization. Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England  by Madeleine George is described as a comedy, but even though there is no lack of humorous moments, the play’s focus on complicated relationships and the academic community make it so much more. There are actually three entwined stories that are related but barely connect onstage, and each has its own cast of characters.

The main story revolves around the volatile relationship between a hyperactive, middle-aged college administrator, Dean Wreen (Annie Zanetti); her former lover Greer (Shaneeka Harrell), a professor of philosophy who has stage four cancer; and the Dean’s new, young lover, Andromeda (Meg Carnahan), a recent graduate of the university and new age apprentice. Wreen invites Greer to move in with her and Andromeda while Greer undergoes experimental treatment for her cancer, leading to awkward moments of stifled and raucous love-making between Wreen and Andromeda and tests of jealousy and monogamy involving Greer and Wreen, Greer and Andromeda, and Wreen and Andromeda.

The three women are each so fascinatingly different, but I was particularly drawn to the character Greer. Harrell has a deep, rich voice and a malleable face that speaks volumes even when her mouth isn’t moving. But it should come as no surprise that Harrell is so physically engaging, as she has extensive experience working with two of my all-time favorite dance companies: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and Urban Bush Women.

Meg Carnahan was appropriately spacy as Andromeda – whom Greer initially called by a variety of celestial names, other than her chosen one – but there’s more to Andromeda than aimless passion. She is at odds with the Dean about closing the dusty and underutilized natural history museum and becomes active in the protests to save the museum. Her obsession with watching reruns of “Friends” leads to a memorable moment of tenderness with the bristly Greer, and even brings the three women together in unexpected kinship.

Annie Zanetti, whose performance I most recently admired in a Whistle Stop Theater production of The Little Match Girl, gave the same commitment to Dean Wreen as I remember her giving to previous roles. And while it was fascinating watching her navigate the nuances of her past and present love relationships, one of the most notable scenes was with David Clark, The Caretaker of the university’s little museum that was the object of academic and personal controversy. Stopping by The Caretaker’s office to offer him an alternative position, he silently offered her a flask from his desk drawer, and Dean Wreen unexpectedly accepted. She poured out her soul to the man who had, up until then, acted as the play’s raconteur, and left his office more than a little tipsy. I think she walked home.

Clark has a solo role as a sort of narrator, keeping the audience informed of updates in the progress of the plans to shut down the university’s museum – home to seven rare mammoth skeletons, and a few dioramas of indigenous life – by reading aloud from the local newspaper. The details of planned student protests and the activities of the local town council are both informative and amusing, as read with gusto by Clark.

The final section of this trilogy is the strangest and, in some ways, the funniest – or at least the oddest. Maura Mazurowski and Ray Wrightstone play Early Man 1 and Early Man 2, respectively. They are figures in the museum’s dioramas who give voice to the random students who come into the rarely used museum. In fact, the museum is so rarely used that it has become a favorite rendezvous spot, where students can engage in romantic activities in relative privacy – except for the supposedly unseeing eyes of the mammoths and the diorama figures.

Listening to the two caveman-like figures speaking in the vernacular of modern-day students is both amusing and disturbing. In fact, it takes, like, a few scenes to figure out what’s really going on here. To make these supporting characters more challenging, they are allowed to move only their mouths, while maintaining their frozen poses.

Relationships, commitment, change, love, and passion fuel Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England and its tightly knit and eclectic cast. Lucian Restivo’s direction provides a variety of pacing choices. The women’s characters ring true, right down to their rituals and bickering The Caretaker’s character provides direction and humor, and the diorama characters are. . .well, different.

Chris Raintree’s multileveled set provides separate work and living spaces although I’m not sure if the ancient refrigerator was just something Dean Wreen was holding onto out of eccentricity or of it was a true marker of the time period. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the complications of her life.

Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like satire and droll humor, and have an interest in alternative kinship structures, you ought to go see this production.

 

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

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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WOMEN’S THEATRE FESTIVAL: The Bug Guy is Looking Pretty Good

WOMEN’S THEATRE FESTIVAL: Bad Dates

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 30 & April 5, April 11, April 16 & April 20, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25 general admission; $20 for RAPT card holders; $15 for students

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

Fresh off another one-woman show (if you disregard the two supporting angels in RTP’s An Act of God), Maggie Bavolack is tackling another comedic role, this time as a single mother and idiot savant restaurateur in Theresa Rebeck’s Bad Dates – a play that features more than two dozen pairs of shoes and a mysterious shoebox full of cash. Briefly referencing Imelda Marcos, our heroine admits to owning 600 pairs of shoes, including designs by Jimmy Choo, Joan & David, and Chanel. (The red stilettos are hot, but I personally prefer the purple suede platform pumps.)

Bavolack plays Hayley Walker, the successful manager of a restaurant whose Romanian owner is in prison for money laundering. She is divorced and has a daughter named Vera (who is described in the first act as 13 years old and later in the second act as 12 years old), a ride or die friend named Eileen who is her bartender, and a brother named BJ who gives her dating advice.

We hear Vera’s rock music selections emanating from her room each time Hayley goes to ask her fashion advice and all the communications between Hayley and the unseen Eileen and BJ take place on Hayley’s animal print princess phone. At one point Hayley produces an actual phone book – something my friends aged 30 and under may have never seen, much less used – but I wondered why she was using the yellow pages (which listed business numbers) when she appeared to be making a personal call to her cheating boyfriend’s home (residential numbers were listed in the white pages). Bad Dates was first produced in 2003, when both wired and cell phones were in use in many homes, but the telephone, the phone book, Hayley’s eclectic wardrobe, and the nondescript setting make it difficult to identify the time and place.

The heart of the play revolves around Hayley’s horrible dating experiences which range from fantasizing about the “bug guy” at a Buddhist party where everyone sat in the rain to a date with a gay lawyer that her mother arranged to a short-lived relationship with a man named Lewis who seemed like the perfect guy until he failed to show up one night. Hayley doesn’t just have bad luck with men, she’s been out of the dating game for a long time and some of the men she meets are perfectly awful!

Bavolack evokes endless chuckles discussing Hayley’s trials and tribulations while parading through a seemingly endless collection of shoes and changing clothes several times with ease – without benefit of a mirror. But even with the intimacy of the TheatreLAB Basement space, I often felt that Rebeck’s script was lacking. Hayley addressed the audience, breaking the wall, but Rebeck never really allowed her to connect with the audience. Director Melissa Rayford kept the pace moving, and I enjoyed Bavolack’s effortless familiarity with the material, but the script just seemed to lack consistency and did not take advantage of opportunities to connect more closely with the audience.

Speaking of inconsistencies, the set (I did not see a designer credit) featured a single bed with a nice comforter and a comfortable looking hassock, but the dressing table and chair were scarred and battered, and Hayley’s closet was just a metal clothing rack. A simple black curtain separated Hayley’s room from the rest of the apartment which seemed to be a dark, windowless space that could have been in a basement. I would have expected at least a nice rug and painted walls for a woman who was managing a successful restaurant. This threadbare setting made the line, “Brooklyn, it’s not as bad as you think it is,” seem quite odd. Later, describing a scene in a Manhattan police station, Hayley says, “What we see on television is really quite accurate.” The same cannot be said of Bad Dates. It is quite amusing, but somewhat less than accurate.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Destiny Martinez Photography

Bad Dates.1
Maggie Bavolack
Women's Theatre Festival.1
The Women’s Theatre Festival Team

Women's Theatre Festival.2

 

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PINOCCHIO: Bright and Shining Son

Pinocchio: The Nose Knows

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis (with input from Emmitt, Kingston & Soleil)

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

Performances: Mach 29 – May 5, 2019

Ticket Prices: $21

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

The third production of the Virginia Rep Children’s season at Willow Lawn is the children’s classic Pinocchio. I’m glad I usually take children with me to these shows, because our perspectives are often vastly different.

First, a disclaimer. I am truly glad that Pinocchio is played by a real person, Bridget Sindelar, who last appeared on this stage as Ginny/Little Blue in The Little Engine That Could. I find articulated marionettes creepy – almost as creepy as ventriloquist dummies. Sindelar adopted a herky jerky walk, like a windup toy about to wind down, with uplifted elbows to mimic the posture of a marionette.

Sunday afternoon found a nearly full house for this show, with book, lyrics, and direction by Bruce Craig Miller, who will soon start his new job as head of the Chesterfield Cultural Arts Foundation. Running a little under one hour with no intermission, Pinocchio is recommended for ages 4 and up, and that seems about right. There were a few criers in the audience, but most of the young attendees were enthralled. My 4-year-old grandson Emmitt was fully attentive. As always, he is especially fond of the musical numbers. His favorite was “The Eating Song.”

When asked which characters he liked the most, his first response was the Blue Fairy (played by Renee McGowan) but then he changed it to Pinocchio. He also did not hesitate to let his mom know that he did not like the scene where Pinocchio got tied up with a noose. (It might have been around that time that he moved from his seat to her lap.) The set, by Terrie Powers, also caught his attention, “It looks like a real city,” he said in unsolicited awe shortly after we took our seats.

Kingston, at 10, is the more seasoned theater-goer, but he liked the entire show, especially Tevin Davis as the Fox and Eve Marie Tuck as the Cat. He did not have any problem with the rope scene or even with what I saw as totally improbable, illogical, and unsubstantiated scenes and events. Their mom, Soleil, who between the ages of 7-17 spent more time on stages than in theater seats, acknowledged the inconsistencies, but was most struck that this version of Pinocchio reminded her of the book of classic fairy tales her father and I had bought for her and her siblings. One scene she reminisced about was the scene where Pinocchio and his father Geppetto are reunit4ed in the belly of a giant dogfish – a scenario I did not remember at all. So, thank you, family, for your input. I appreciate your perspectives, but do not fully agree.

From my perspective, I found Bridget Sindelar charming as Pinocchio, but I was repelled by Pinocchio’s bratty behavior. I, too, was enamored of Tevin Davis’s Fox, a rakish character who seemed to have adopted some of the mannerisms of a 1970s Blaxploitation movie pimp. Geppetto, played by Landon Dufrene, seemed underdeveloped, as was the relationship between Geppetto and Pinocchio. The jump from freshly carved puppet to a runaway puppet to real boy was sudden and lacking in explanation. Okay, I know it’s a fairy tale, so logic isn’t required, but still, it seemed to me as if chunks of the story were missing. This is why I think it’s helpful to attend a children’s show with children – especially if I’m going to write about it. They weren’t bothered by, in fact didn’t even notice, any of the things I found lacking or distracting.

Over all, Miller kept the pacing swift but smooth; the time passed quickly. The cast performed with energy and enthusiasm, often making light contact with the audience, asking a question or pointing to a child or two to include them in the decision making process. I liked the opening, with the actors switching between English and Italian to set the scene – but they dropped that after the opening scene. The costumes by Marcia Miller Halley were quite well done and enhanced the fairy tale atmosphere while complementing Powers’ colorful little village set design.

Pinocchio delighted its intended audience and is largely devoid of the double entendre that so many playwrights cleverly insert into children’s plays, apparently in an attempt to keep the attention of the accompanying adults. Like most good children’s tales, there is an underlying lesson or two. In this case, the messages that are woven throughout are about telling the truth and not being afraid to grow up.

 

Sensory Friendly Performances

A Sensory Friendly family performance will be offered on Saturday, April 27, 2019 at 10:30 a.m. Please see the website for more details: http://va-rep.org/sensory_friendly.html

 

Audio Described Performances

In collaboration with Virginia Voice, Virginia Rep is pleased to offer Audio Described performances, in which actions, expressions and gestures are described during gaps between dialogue throughout the performance for patrons with low vision or blindness. In addition to live audio description during performances, patrons are also invited to participate in a tactile tour before the performance. An Audio Described performance will be offered on Sunday, April 7, 2019 at 2 p.m. Please see the website for more details: https://va-rep.org/access_for_the_blind.html

 

Performance Schedule

Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Fridays

Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday

Matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on select Saturdays

 

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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17th ANNUAL MID-ATLANTIC CHOREOGRAPHERS SHOWCASE: Selected for Diversity

17th ANNUAL MID-ATLANTIC CHOREOGRAPHERS SHOWCASE

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 30 at 5:00 and 8:00 pm and March 31 at 2:00 pm

Ticket Prices: $15

Info: (804) 304-1523, www.showwclix.com, or www.starrfosterdance.org

For 17 years, Starr Foster has curated the Mid-Atlantic Choreographers Showcase of internationally recognized choreographers – and one university student.

This year’s program included works by Megan Payne (Charlotte, NC), Sadie Weinberg of LITVAK Dance (San Diego, CA), Mariah Eastman (a Seattle, WA native who graduated from the VCU Dance program), Zachary Frazee (Rochester, NY), Lauren Lambert (a University of Richmond senior majoring in Psychology with minors in Dance and Healthcare Studies), and Starr Foster (Richmond, VA).

Payne was the only choreographer to have two works on the program with one of them a dance on film, “rib.” The title immediately made me think of biblical themes, of Eve, and the work, in fact, is an exploration of the female experience. Set in a dark, damp, windowless room, the trio is lit primarily by a single, bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. It reminds me of the light in an interrogation room on a television detective show. Rather than an outward focus on line and technique, the movement is internally focused and motivated. The dancers move as a group, suggesting the three women may be components of a whole – a sort of trinity – and the two most striking movements, for me, were when they faced a blank wall, searching it with their hands, and when one violently swung her hair.

Payne also presented a live work, “Bleached Dreams.” This duet is an exploration of how our bodies experience grief and seemed mysterious and somewhat alien as it began with the two women bent over, backsides to the audience – a position they held for quite some time. Much of the movement took place on the floor, such as a head-to-head crawl, with one dancer moving forward while the other moved backward – picture conjoined twins, with the dominant twin controlling the direction of travel. The lighting and sound contributed to the alienated, shadowy effect.

Speaking of lighting, Lauren Lambert’s work, “Eudaimonia,” described in a quote from Dr. Colin Zimbleman (likely one of the psychologists Lambert encountered in her major) as “a chance to glimpse an awe-filled vision of the world,” included some beautiful lighting effects – a “cyclorama lighting design concept” by Shanna Gerlach. Golden streaks occasionally flashed in the background, creating an other-worldly effect, and I liked the simplicity of the rotating circle of women moving as if supported by water, washed in a golden pool of light. “Eudaimonia,” by the way, translates from the Greek as happiness or prosperity.

I enjoyed the evocatively lit opening and period costumes of “considering the difference between stillness and waiting” by Sadie Weinberg and dancers of LITVAKdance. Inspired by Arthur Schnitzler’s controversial 1897 play, “La Ronde,” the duo moved through interesting partner variations – but without the sexually provocative nature of the work that inspired it. Mariah Eastman’s solo, “Efforts of Contemplation,” displayed a quiet intensity powered by detailed, articulated movement phrases, while Zachary Frazee’s “Remain in My Heart” had six dancers in primary colors transitioning through a variety of interactions. The satisfyingly diverse program closed with “Stray,” a work by Starr Foster which, despite its title, demonstrated the smooth, organic quality of Foster’s movement vocabulary and the mesmerizing mastery of her ensemble.

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: accompany each photo.

17th.Mariah Eastman_Kyle Netzeband Credit
Mariah Eastman. Photo by Kyle Netzeband.
17th-Frazee Feet Dance_Demian Spindler Credit
Frazee Feet Dance. Photo by Demian Spindler.
17th-Lauren Lambert_Eibhlin Villalta credit
Lauren Lambert. Photo by Eibhlin Villalta.
17th-LITVAKdance_Manuel Rotenberg
LITVAKdance. Photo by Manuel Rotenberg.
17th-Megan Payne
Megan Payne Dance. Photo by Taylor Jones.
17th-Starr Foster Dance_Doug Hayes Credit
Starr Foster Dance. Photo by Doug Hayes.

 

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SHORTS 2019: Small Plays with Dance Make Big Impact

K DANCE PRESENTS SHORTS: Short Plays & Contemporary Dance

A Dance & Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 28-30, 2019 at 7:30pm & March 30 at 4:00pm

Ticket Prices: $25 general; $15 for RAPT (RVA Theatre Alliance) & Students

Info: (804) 270-4944 or firehousetheatre.org

K Dance’s 2019 production of Shorts, five short plays interwoven with choreography by Kaye Weinstein Gary, challenged performers to express themselves through words and dance and treated the audience to a delightfully diverse evening of performances. Now in its seventh year, the Shorts brand appears to have been refined and enhanced in terms of timing (the program ran just under 90 minutes, including intermission), talent (there were some new faces and bodies onstage and off), and technical aspects (the lighting, sound design, and costuming seemed particularly creative).

Jacqueline Jones directed two of the small plays. “Chicks (Biology Etc. Day 3)” written by Grace McKeany featured Dean Knight as Miss Mary Margaret Phallon (I’m surprised he wasn’t Sister Mary Margaret) as a Kindergarten teacher giving life lessons on wholly inappropriate topics, such as sex and adult deception. The lesson relied on word play that resulted in double entendre and other age-inappropriate pronouncements. Knight, by the way, looked the part in what I’ll call light drag – a simple dress and conservative wig.

Jones also directed one of the more serious scenarios of the program. “Just Before the Drop” written by David-Matthew Barnes, featured Kaye Weinstein Gary and Andrew Etheridge in a weird and strangely touching story about a wife who first meets her husband’s male lover right after the husband has jumped to his death from the roof of a building. The encounter occurs on the roof top after the police and ambulance and nosy neighbors have left, and between the delicate steps of a deadly dance discuss which of them will keep their loved one’s shoes.

Luke Schares and Patrick Rooney contributed perhaps the funniest moments of evening as a pair of cockroach brothers who, along with a lone critic, were the only survivors of an apocalypse that apparently occurred in and around a struggling theater. Surrounded by trash and a gigantic candy bar wrapper, the two wore hilariously accurate cockroach costumes – complete with extra legs and arching antenna – designed by Kylie Clark. Reminiscent of the adults in “Peanuts” cartoons who are represented only be a saxophone sound, the critic was represented by a piggish grunt. (“They were not looking in your direction,” a friend reassured me after the show.) This humorous tale by Jacquelyn Reingold bears the improbable title of “Joe and Stew’s Theatre of Brotherly Love and Financial Success.”

But wait, there’s more. The lovely and lithe Mara Elizbeth Barrett and Tim Herrman warily negotiated the roles of a couple attempting to reunite after some sort of unspecified absence or separation. Andrew Etheredge directed the piece which effortlessly integrated contemporary dance movements into the fabric of the story and speaking of fabric, he also designed the actor/dancers’ patterned bodysuits. This was the one play that left me with unanswered questions. Why did they break up? Why did he come back? Without some background information or additional context, “In Transit,” written by Steve McMahon, was decidedly unfulfilling.

Thankfully, this was not the final play. That honor was saved for “The Closet,” by Aoise Stratford. “The Closet” gave us an inside look at abandoned toys. Etheredge, a gruff-voiced toy dinosaur named Bernard was the senior resident of the closet, along with Twinkles, a simple-minded and somewhat annoying “Tubby” toy names Twinkles, played by Katherine Wright with a vertical red pony tail. (You might want to Google “tubby toys” to get the full effect.) These two abandoned toys were joined by a reluctant Bart Sponge (Round Trousers), played by Dean Knight in a button down shirt and khaki shorts with suspenders. Like every good movie villain, he pleaded his innocence until Bernard/Etheredge pulled a confession out of him – thanks to his cigarette fueled gravelly voice, no doubt.

Even though Shorts is a dance theater experience, like most Richmond dance programs it has a short run (no pun intended) of just a few days, so if you’d like to see it – and I think you should – don’t hesitate but purchase your tickets and go – just do it!

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

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Photo Credits: Sarah Ferguson

 

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WOMEN’S THEATRE FESTIVAL: A Warm Memoir

WOMEN’S THEATRE FESTIVAL: Pretty Fire

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 27, March 31, April 6,  April 12, April 17, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25 general admission; $20 for RAPT card holders; $15 for students

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

5th Wall Theatre (Carol Piersol) and TheatreLAB (Deejay Gray) have joined forces once again, this time to co-produce the Women’s Theatre Festival, featuring 4 shows in 4 weeks by 4 companies. The festival opened Wednesday, March 27, with 5th Wall Theatre’s production of Charlayne Woodard’s 1995 autobiographical work, Pretty Fire, directed by Piersol starring Haliya Roberts.

I first remember seeing Haliya Roberts last fall in the Heritage Ensemble production of Living in the Key of B Unnatural. Then she caught my attention again with a strong performance as the assistant producer of a radio show, Linda MacArthur, in the 5th Wall Theatre production, Talk Radio earlier this year. Roberts has raised the bar and moved to a whole new level with her stellar performance in Pretty Fire.

Woodard’s one-woman play is a warm and familiar memoir of a black woman who, wonder of wonders, grew up in a strong, loving family just outside of Albany, NY – with both parents and two sets of grandparents. The story begins with Charlayne’s premature birth in the family’s bathroom on a snowy winter night. For those who are not familiar with upstate New York, Albany is quite rural. The baby weighed less than two pounds and the doctors had little hope that she would survive the night. She was “blue black and fuzzy” and her fingers were still webbed but her paternal grandfather found the hospital chaplain, went to the chapel, and prayed with confidence and conviction.

Roberts takes ownership of this character so that, as one friend said after the opening, it would be hard to imagine anyone else playing this role. Piersol has staged this show very simply, with just a bench and some lights (credit Erin Barclay) and some very effective and well-placed sound effects (Kelsey Cordrey is the Festival sound designer). I don’t know what Piersol told Roberts, or how much guidance she provided, but whatever it was, it was just right.

Roberts mastered the little girl’s voice, the grandmother’s testimonials and hallelujahs and the mother’s sometimes unconventional and unexpected words of wisdom. She also captured the history and anecdotes with authenticity and accuracy. Her recounting of taking a bath with her younger sister in a large tin tub in her maternal grandmother’s home in Georgia brought back memories of my own childhood, taking baths in a similar tub in my great-aunt’s house on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. The water had to be obtained from a spigot (or in my case, from the backyard pump) and then heated on top of the kitchen stove before being poured lovingly into the tub set on the kitchen or dining room floor.

The revelation of her secret – being bullied and molested by a neighbor who lived between her house and the local grocery store – brought me to the edge of my seat, ready to seek revenge on her behalf. But Pretty Fire isn’t about abuse or defeat; it is positive, uplifting, life-affirming – and there are only four more chances to see it!

BTW, playwright Charlayne Woodard, may be familiar to some as an actress who appeared in the Tony Award-winning Broadway show Ain’t Misbehavin’ and on television in the recurring roles of Janice on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Sister Peg, the nun with a mission for prostitutes and junkies, on Law and Order: SVU (2002-2011).

 

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: 

 

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RICHMOND BALLET STUDIO TWO: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Richmond Ballet Studio Two: The Moor’s Pavane & Figure in the Distance

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 26-31 @ 6:30pm Tuesday-Saturday; 8:30pm Friday & Saturday; 2:00pm & 4:00pm Sunday

Ticket Prices: Start at $25

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

On Tuesday night Richmond Ballet’s artistic director, Stoner Winslett, reminisced on the theme “Looking Back, Looking Forward.” As an example of looking back, she gave us Ira White, once a “cute fourth grader” participating in the Minds in Motion outreach program at Mary Munford Elementary School. On Tuesday night, White danced the role of The Moor in José Limόn’s legendary ballet, “The Moor’s Pavane” choreographed in 1949. For looking forward, she brought us the Chicago-based choreographer Tom Mattingly and his new collaborative ballet, “Figure in the Distance,” based on a sketch he presented for the Richmond Ballet’s 2018 New Works Festival. Mattingly choreographed one of his early works for the Richmond Ballet trainees.

Mexican-born José Limόn (1908-1972) remains one of my favorite choreographers of all time, and “The Moor’s Pavane: Variations on the Theme of Othello” is probably his most well-known work. Set to music by Henry Purcell, the stately framework of the pavane – a courtly dance – contains and restrains the passion of the tragedy of Othello. On Tuesday The Moor was danced by Ira White, His Friend/Iago was Trevor Davis, Iago’s Wife was Lauren Archer, and The Moor’s Wife/Desdemona was danced by Sabrina Holland. On alternate programs, the roles are filled by Fernando Sabino, Matthew Frain, Maggie Small, and Cody Beaton. “Follow the hanky,” Winslett advised; that is the secret to uncovering the deception that results in Desdemona’s unfortunate death.

This is one ballet that does not set the women on pedestals. As the quartet moves through the figures of the pavane, they maintain a distant, courtly demeanor, but we see the women grasped tightly by an upper arm, pushed or pulled, and ultimately the Moor’s wife is killed. White and Davis were often at odds, sometimes even combative. Archer and Holland were treated like trophy wives, commodities more than true loves. The rich – and most likely heavy – costumes are constructed after the original design by Pauline Lawrence, with full, layered skirts for the women with puffy, detached sleeves (showing lots of bare shoulder), and princely robes or tunics for the men.

But even with all its historic status, “The Moor’s Pavane” was not the highlight of the evening. Rather, that honor goes to Tom Mattingly’s “Figure in the Distance,” a work inspired by the artwork of Taylor A. Moore – work Mattingly first encountered on Instagram. An even dozen dancers move through a succession of phrases and configurations. Some of the group phrases brought me to the edge of my seat, including a line of dancers that rippled from front to back, and a moment when the men lifted the women straight up in front of them, one by one. I was also intrigued by a couple walking offstage: the woman walking backwards while her partner mirrored her, walking forward. There was just something somewhat frightening or menacing about that, in contrast to another pair of dancers who shared a gentle caress. There was such a range of emotions, all backed by a series of paintings by Taylor A. Moore. First there was a blue painting of what appeared to be a lake with faint figures in the background. Most striking was a red painting with bold strokes that suggested both a forest and figures hidden in the trees. Another had the shape of a cat’s eye, but the slit of the eye could have been the opening to a cave, and a final had only faint brush strokes except on the far right where there was a large. . .limb? But all the bold, unidentifiable brush strokes could be interpreted as figures, hence, “Figure in the Distance.”

Emily Morgan designed the dark red body suits worn by both the men and the women. The fabric was richly yet subtly patterned, with sheer sleeves and back panels so that, at first glance, it seemed one dancer had a tattoo on her shoulder, and then I noticed more shapes and colors. It turns out that Morgan hand painted sections of the fabric to coordinate with the paintings. The work was set to the multi-layered music of Philip Glass: “Violin Concerto No. 1,” “Piano Etude No. 2” and “String Quartet No. 2” (also known as “Company”), and “Primacy of a Number.”

The lighting was designed by Catherine Girardi who has worked as assistant lighting designer for the Ballet’s “Nutcracker” performances. This was her first original design on her own for the Richmond Ballet.

What made this a collaboration more so than many other ballets is the communication that occurred between the artists (choreographer, painter, costumer designer and lighting designer) during the creative process. Mattingly was given three works to work with the company. Mattingly’s impetus was Moore’s paintings and Morgan had to dress the moving bodies in garments whose brush strokes would reflect the paintings at appropriate times, with Girardi’s lighting. All worked together to suggest what Mattingly conceived of as “an idealized version of yourself,” making the audience, in a sense, collaborators after the fact. “Figure in the Distance” is a beautiful work that is highly satisfying on many sensory levels.

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 to follow.

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BRIGHT STAR: A Bluegrass Musical

BRIGHT STAR: If You Knew My Story

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 23 – May 11, 2019

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

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

Bright Star is a refreshingly different kind of musical with a lively bluegrass score. Written and composed by Steve Martin (yes, THAT Steve Martin) and Edie Brickell (a singer-songwriter who is married to singer-songwriter Paul Simon), Bright Star was preceded by Martin and Brickell’s Grammy Award winning bluegrass album, “Love Has Come for You” (2013).

Based on a true incident – the gruesome story of “The Iron Mountain Baby,” who was tossed from a moving train in 1902 – Bright Star premiered in San Diego in 2014 and had a short run on Broadway in 2016. The toe-tapping score, under the very capable musical direction of Paul Deiss and the alternately heart-warming and heart-rending story of love, loss, forgiveness, and redemption make Bright Star a perfect vehicle for the Swift Creek Mill stage.

Megan Tatum’s choreography, which ranged from a square dance to the Charleston, interjected many enjoyable moments, and Tom Width’s direction kept the cast moving along at a good pace as they moved props and repeatedly skipped from 1945-46 back to 1923-24.

Grey Garrett brought a strong voice and an amiable charm to the lead role of Alice Murphy – a woman definitely ahead of her time – and Jim Morgan brought more depth to the complementary role of Jimmy Ray Dobbs – the man who loved her – than the script seemed to call for.  I also enjoyed Jacqueline O’Connor and Ray Green as Alice’s parents, and took particular notice of Carlen Kernish as Daryl, the adult Ms. Murphy’s assistant, and of Jon Cobb as Daddy Cane.

But not even a solid cast, good acting, and tight direction could help with the patchy structure of the scenes. The program required notes almost like the synopsis that comes with a three-act ballet or an opera in a foreign language to keep up with the 26 scenes in two acts. Maura Lynch Cravey’s costumes were lovely, especially the mostly pastel and muted shirt-waist and dropped-waist dresses for the women, but they didn’t help distinguish the sometimes rapid changes between decades.

Tom Width also designed the set, a simple, rustic, multi-leveled, indoor/outdoor shell with fences rails and chairs and a table with multiple pre-set tops which the actors rearranged to indicate a home, a porch, an office, a bookshop, and various other locations. From where I sat, front row on the right, Joe Doran’s lighting unfortunately often created a glare that obscured the actors’ faces, but the smaller, decorative lights and the train – with full lighting and sound effects (was this thanks to Jason “Blue” Herbert’s technical direction?) added to the overall charm of this musical – even during moments meant to break your heart.

[On a side note: Tom Width announced that the Swift Creek Mill restaurant’s pickled watermelon rind – a buffet favorite – is now available to take home from the gift shop! Yum.]

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

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Photo Credits: Robyn O’Neill

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BROADWAY BOUND: On the Brink

BROADWAY BOUND: Brighton Beach Revisited

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Repertory Theatre at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: March 15 – April 28, 2019

Ticket Prices: $44

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

Neil Simon’s Broadway Bound, the third in his semi-autobiographical trilogy about Eugene Jerome and his family, is a heartwarming story that tackles real-life issues. In the hands of director Steve Perigard, who also directed the first part of this trilogy on this same stage in 2016, along with this talented cast – many of whom also appeared in Brighton Beach Memoirs, it is a masterful piece of storytelling. It is some years later, and the brothers are trying to break into comedy writing. They finally get their big break, and just as things begin to work out for them, things begin to fall apart for their parents.

Running about two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission, the story unfolds in a leisurely manner that allows the dialogue – and there is a lot of dialogue – to unfold in a natural manner; it almost feels as if we are reminiscing about family matters or listening in on our elders – which young Eugene and his grandfather, Ben, do frequently – who pretend they do not know we can hear them.

Tyler Stevens, who first caught my attention as an actor in Brighton Beach Memoirs, has returned in the role of Eugene, the younger son of the Jerome family of Brighton Beach*. He also narrates the story. If anything, he has grown stronger and brings even more to this character than before. Eugene’s thoughts on intimacy are mature beyond his years and strike a contrast with many of the indecisive comments he often makes when talking to his brother. CJ Bergin makes his Virginia Rep debut as older brother Stanley, and he ably captured Stanley’s enthusiasm as well as his moments of doubt, but he did not seem to wear his role as comfortably as Stevens. Perhaps because I held such fond memories of Stevens in the role of Eugene, this contrast was more palpable.

Jill Bari Steinberg stepped back into her role as the mother, Kate, like a favorite pair of house slippers. Her need to nurture and even her eccentricities are familiar. Jewish mother, Italian mother, Greek mother, black mother, universal mother – Kate is not a caricature, but a memory. One of the most touching scenes occurs when Kate reminisces with her son about her youth, her love of dancing, and how she finagled an opportunity to dance with 1930s and 40s film star and noted dancer, George Raft. Steinberg and Stevens dance together – mother and son – and time stands still. Eugene later narrates how awkward such an intimate moment with one’s mother can be and this, too, feels authentic.

One cannot mention memories without noting that Jeff Clevenger stepped into the role of Kate’s husband, Jack – a role that had previously been performed by the late Andrew C. Boothby, to whose memory this production has been dedicated. Clevenger managed to bring humanity and depth to Jack. Yes, Jack betrayed his wife and family, but he was also a loyal friend to his former lover, staying by her side through an unnamed terminal illness, and his sons loved him. Like real life, things are not just black and white.

The cast also included Ken Moretti, also making his Virginia Rep debut as Ben, Eugene’s grandfather and Kate’s father. Ben clings to the past, and his socialist beliefs, and while he is not demonstrative, he fiercely loves his daughter and grandsons. Moretti more than adequately reveals these qualities, often with his posture and actions rather than with words. Sara Collazo, another returning cast member, rounded out the cast – and the family – as Kate’s sister, Blanche, who married up the social ladder, much to the dismay of her father, Ben.

Terrie Powers’ multi-level set is divided into four separate spaces: the brothers’ bedrooms upstairs and a comfortably nondescript living room and dining room downstairs, with doors leading to the kitchen and the front entrance. The black metal mailbox on the door-frame and the mezuzah (prayer scroll) that Jeff touched – one of his few tender acts – on entering through the door could have been taken from my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn where I grew up. (No, we were not Jewish, but the previous owners of our house were.)

Lighting by R. Jonathan Shelley further defined the spaces, and Corbin White provided the sound design, which seemed a bit uneven on opening night. (There was one effect in act one that startled me; I wasn’t sure if it was a toilet flushing or the nearby train rumbling by.) Sue Griffin costumed the men in neatly creased trousers, dress shirts, and fedoras. Jack sported suspenders. Kate wore a uniform of modest, printed house dresses with coordinating sweaters and a pair of open toed casual wedges that looked identical to the ones my grandmother wore. And as a born Brooklynite, the Jerome family’s accents sounded nostalgically familiar.

Broadway Bound certainly addresses the brothers’ show biz dreams, even including a lengthy radio show excerpt, but the focus is on the people and their relationships and that is what makes this a fitting offering for the Acts of Faith theatre festival and a memorable drama you will think about long after the final bow.

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*For non-New Yorkers: Brighton Beach is a part of the Borough of Brooklyn, which is part of the City of New York. But for people in Brooklyn – as well as the other “outer” boroughs of Queens, Staten Island, and The Bronx, going into Manhattan is called going to “the City.”

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: And Proposals of Marriage

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: “People Who Do Not Complain Are Never Pitied”

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

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

Performances: March 8-24, 2019

Ticket Prices: $30 Adults; $25 VMFA Members & Seniors 65+; $20 Students (with ID)

Info: (804) 340-1405, quilltheatre.org or https://reservations.vmfa.museum/

 

The Quill production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, adapted for the stage by Christina Calvit, is quite possibly the most fun I’ve ever had at a Quill production. Running just over two hours, the show is a delightful comedic romp that follows the trials and tribulations of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett as they – well, mostly Mrs. Bennett – try to find husbands for their five unmarried daughters.

Calvit has limited the novel’s multiple subplots and kept the story fairly simple and easy to follow, as is the language, and director Christopher Owens keeps the cast moving at a fair pace that is upbeat and maintains the classic character and deportment. Jeremy Gershman’s Regency era choreography adds an element of cultural authenticity while keeping the cast literally moving along at bubbly pace.

Irene Kuykendall and Axle Burtness have the lead roles of Elizabeth, the Bennett’s smart, beautiful, and stubbornly independent second daughter, and Mr. Darcy, the tall, handsome, and arrogant stranger who steals her heart. In one of the early ballroom scenes, the two admirably kept their conversation going while dancing, without missing a syllable or a step. If you’re looking for well-roundedness or depth of character, I don’t think you’ll find it here, but that’s not necessarily a shortcoming – just an observation of the adaptation’s purpose and the director’s vision. The comedic pacing was fine, while the characters’ chemistry was not developed in a way that made their ultimate passion convincing.

Kuykendall and Burtness may have had the lead roles, but Melissa Johnston Price commanded several scenes, first as the openly gold-digging mother, Mrs. Bennett, and then as the demanding matriarchal patron, Lady Catherine Debourgh – the aunt of Mr. Darcy. If Kuykendall and Burtness did some fancy stepping on the dance floor, Price did some fancy quick changes from Mrs. Bennett’s matronly dress, that resembled nothing so much as wallpaper, to Lady Debourgh’s elaborately layered widow’s weeds and cane. Price sums up Mrs. Bennett’s character with one line: “People who do not complain are never pitied.” (For Lady Debourgh, one might paraphrase that to, “People who do not bully others are never feared,” but that carries much less panache.)

Joe Pabst, in the quadruple roles of Mr. Bennett, Sir William, Colonel Forster, and Fitzwilliam was also no slouch in the quick change department. I’m sure kudos are due to unnamed backstage assistants. Pabst seemed to enjoy his roles as much as the audience, but I found his delivery of my favorite line a bit too subtle. When Elizabeth declines the proposal of Mr. Collins, her father asks if she understands that “your mother will never see you again if you don’t marry him. . .and I will never see you again if you do.” Here, it might be helpful to know that she is the daughter who spends the most time with her father, apparently helping him with the family’s business.

We learn more about Elizabeth and Jane, the second eldest and eldest, respectively, and the headstrong youngest daughter, Lydia, but very little about the other two – Kitty and Mary.

Tradition dictates that the eldest, Jane, played by Maggie Quick, must marry first, but Lydia, played with great energy and enthusiasm by Annie McElroy, has no regard for tradition, and places the family name in jeopardy with her impetuous actions. Mary, who is traditionally described as the plainest in looks, is played by the lovely Allison Gilman, and Kitty, gets so little attention that the considerable comedic skills of Nicole Morris-Anastasi are sadly underutilized.

I also enjoyed Joel White’s portrayal of the obsequious cousin and heir, Mr. Collins, whose annoying speech quirk of adding “mmmmm” in the spaces between words while gesturing as if holding a large, invisible hat with a large feather are strangely endearing. As Mrs. Bennett’s brother-in-law, Mr. Gardiner, he is the picture of manners and gentility. And I must include a brief mention of Audrey Sparrow and Ethan Cross, two high students who played the role of servants – welcome to the company of Quill Theatre.

Reed West designed the set, which contains many architectural elements that rotate to create the various environments, with the support of lighting by Gregg Hillmar. Patricia Wesp designed the costumes, which I thought were much more elaborate and well-constructed for the men than for the women. While the daughters generally had dresses appropriate for the unmarried young women of a gentleman of little means, Mrs. Bennett’s shapeless dress was dangerously close to resembling a flannel nightgown. Several members of the Regency Society of Virginia attended Saturday’s performance wearing period attire that rivaled that of the actors onstage.

Pride and Prejudice is a delightful production of a classic love story that reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s become a classic for a reason: we recognize these people; it appeals to a wide range of ages; it crosses class; and it addresses real problems with humor. Pride and Prejudice has a run of only ten shows, so don’t hesitate if you like to see it.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Photos not available at the time of publication.

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EVERY BRILLIANT THING:#1 Ice Cream

EVERY BRILLIANT THING: What Hope Is

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: HATTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Dr., RVA (Tuckahoe) 23238

Performances: March 1-15, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 Seniors; $15 Youth, Groups, Students & $12 with RVATA card; Reservations Required – No tickets at the door

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

It’s hard to imagine a warm and engaging comedy about mental illness and suicide but that is exactly what the team of Vicky L. Scallion/Artistic Director, Chris Hester/Actor, and Frank Foster/Director and Scenic Designer have pulled off with Duncan MacMillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing, now running in the far West End’s HATTheatre.

In short, the one-man play is about a man looking back over his life and telling the story of how he survived as the child of a mother whose first attempt at suicide occurred when he was a 7-year-old school boy waiting for his mom to pick him up from school. While Hester is the only professional actor on stage, the script calls for him to enlist the help of numerous audience members. Some read lines from a card when their number is called. For example, #1 Ice Cream. Others have actual roles and characters with coached or adlibbed lines. There is the veterinarian who is called to euthanize the family’s elderly dog, Paws McCartney, and Mrs. Patterson, who is a school counselor with a Snoopy sock puppet. There is his dad and his girlfriend Sam. Interestingly, Hester’s character, the main character, remains unnamed.

Every Brilliant Thing is one boy’s attempt to fight depression. By the time his mother gets out of the hospital, he had begun a list of things worth living for. Ice cream. Yellow. People falling down. Peeing in the ocean. Many of these things are so simple, and others are quite funny. But even though he keeps adding to the list, his mother doesn’t get better. The boy grows into a man, and fears, too, will succumb to the demons of depression. His father, unable to help, copes by retreating into his home office with his records. In an early poignant moment – and there are many – the boy stands outside the door of his father’s study waiting to see what type of music he will play. That will let him know whether to enter or head downstairs and fend for himself.

Every Brilliant Thing reminds us that it is natural for the children of suicidal parents to blame themselves. There have been many studies completed, and it has been determined that suicide is contagious. After a high-profile or celebrity suicide, suicide rates spike sharply. There is even a name for the phenomenon of copycat suicides: the Werther effect, which takes it name from Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther.

The audience interaction creates a distraction or diversion that balances the serious nature of the subject with unexpected interjections of humor. Foster has also created balance with his design elements. He has transformed Scallion’s tiny black box theater into a comfortable living room with a variety of chairs and sofas set on both ends of the room, including the area that is usually reserved as the stage, and small tables that hold conversational lamps, trivia cards, a chessboard. There’s even complimentary coffee and hot chocolate and warm chocolate chip cookies for the audience. Erin Barclay designed the lighting, which incorporates all the little lamps. Hester has the area between the two banks of seats, with occasional forays into the audience. At one point he breathlessly attempts to high-five every member of the audience. His sweaty brow and panting are genuine and endearing, as is the rest of his performance.

One of the best parts about Every Brilliant Thing is the sound design, by Scallion, based on the authors’ instructions. Music cues the young boy on whether to interact with his father. Music marks the family’s happy times – when they gather around a piano in their kitchen, of all places, and sing soul songs. There’s a record player and an album in a yellowed jacket that Hester plays at the end. And there is a soundscape that includes Ray Charles and Cab Calloway and other music appropriate to the time (which in this case begins in 1982 and covers several decades as the boy becomes a man).

Every Brilliant Thing will be different each time it is performed, as the new audience members bring new inflections to their lines. At Sunday’s Acts of Faith talkback, Hester revealed that he looks forward to relating to new audience member at each performance. He himself is no stranger to depression and mental illness in the family. When the audience was informally polled to see how many had been affected either personally or with mental illness in their families, every single person present raised a hand. Maybe the list couldn’t save this boy’s mother, but it seems to have saved him, and making lists and keeping journals are components of many self-help programs and therapies.

I recommend Every Brilliant Thing because it is an intriguing production. It will make you laugh, it may make you cry, as it did the young woman who played the role of Sam on Sunday afternoon. But more importantly, it provides a non-threatening opening to discuss these very real and very timely issues: depression; mental illness – or better yet, mental health; suicide. Every Brilliant Thing puts the audience to work and reminds us that there is always hope.

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 uncredited at the time of publication

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IN MY CHAIR: Sorry, Not Sorry!

IN MY CHAIR: A Journey of a Thousand Miles
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 2-31, 2019 with talkbacks on March 10 & 17
Ticket Prices: Single tickets start at $35
Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

It is hard to think of In My Chair, a one-woman show written and performed by Eva DeVirgilis, as a play. Yes, it’s produced by the Cadence Theatre Company, under the artistic direction of Anna Senechal Johnson. Yes, it has a director – Lisa Roth, co-artistic director of The Actor’s Center in New York – and all the other accoutrements of a play: minimal scenic design and a variety of photographic and video projections by Tennessee Dixon; costume design by Sarah Grady; some evocative lighting design by Andrew Bonniwell; and some subtle and authentic sound design by Robbie Kinter. And it is performed in a theater, before an audience, but. . .

In My Chair is part Ted Talk, part therapy, part intervention, part standup comedy, part self-care. . .I could go on. Based on the true stories of women who have sat in DeVirgilis’ make-up chair – which is both the center of the set and a character on its own – In My Chair is told in the first person. After the success of her Tedx Talk on the same subject, actor and makeup artist DeVirgilis set out on a world tour to ask the question, “What is Beauty?” while comparing cross-cultural attitudes towards body image, body shaming, self-esteem, ever-changing beauty standards, and the peculiar phenomena of preventive defense and normative discontent that overwhelmingly affect women all over the world.

I’m sorry. My hair is a mess. I’m so fat. I hope I don’t break your chair. When I look in the mirror, I look old. OMG. That last statement could have been mine. For some time now, I have told myself – and occasionally said aloud to others – that when I look in the mirror, I see my grandmother looking back at me.

DeVirgilis uses the familiar landscape of the make-up chair to empower women. It can be as simple as learning not to dropkick the gift of a compliment. I remember telling a friend I liked her hair. Her response was to tell me it needed washing. That’s dropkicking the gift of a compliment. Stop apologizing. Say it louder for those in the back: STOP APOLOGIZING!

To create In My Chair DeVirgilis took her makeup chair to Nevis, Thailand, Malaysia, Ireland, and more. She spoke with women who wear hijabs, a cancer survivor, sex workers, a journalist. She gave a note of encouragement to a nun accompanying a deaf woman on a London subway car and brings each one of these women to life with a voice, an accent, and perhaps a scarf, a change of shoes, or a few gestures of their own. All the while, she is shadowed by Norma – the manifestation of her own insecurities and normative discontent. DeVirgilis is not new to multi-character solo shows, but this one blends her gift for comedy and her acting skills with her passion for activism and a real-life mission to help women.

She comes into the audience, coaching one woman through the affirmation, “I am a leader,” while the rest of the audience responds, “We support you!” The audience is also prompted to chant “Whoo” or “Boo” after a series of statements that link significant events in history to women’s beauty standards. Sometimes we laugh because the statements and DeVirgilis herself are hilarious, and sometimes we laugh because the only other thing to do would be to cry. Heartfelt, gripping, hilarious – sometimes all at the same time.

After the show, audience members are encouraged to write PositivePostPal messages and leave them in a bag – and to take a message from the bag. Some are as simple as, “You are beautiful.” I pulled one that said, “Ahlan wa Sahlan (welcome in Arabic).” In My Chair runs 90 minutes without intermission, and as part of the Acts of Faith Theatre Festival there will be talkbacks after the show on March 10 and March 17.

FYI: Here is a link to Eva’s TEDx talk: https://youtu.be/gto6w0a13B0

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

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Photo Credits: Jason Collins Photography

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AN ACT OF GOD: The Beginning and the End

An Act of God: Thou Shalt Laugh

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: February 27 – March 23, 2019. (Opening Night – March 1)

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

An Act of God is an irreverent comedy in which the One and Only God settles casually into a talk-show set to chat and rant about what’s wrong with the universe. The Richmond Triangle Players production marks the Richmond debut of David Javerbaum’s play, first produced in New York in 2015.

The all-female cast is headed up by Maggie Bavolack as God, supported by Kylie M.J. Clark as the Michael and Anne Michelle Forbes as Gabriel. Michael starts out helpfully fielding questions from the audience but becomes increasingly insolent, challenging God like a precocious child. This eventually brings on the wrath of God, causing Michael to lose a wing – which we later see bent and reattached with a generous application of duct tape. The more compliant and sweet-faced Gabriel is the keeper of the Guttenberg bible – which is housed in a guitar case – and dutifully reads verses as God updates The Ten Commandments. Both archangels are smartly dressed by Sheila Russ in white pant suits and glittery silver boots.

But this show mostly belongs to Bavolack who, despite a few opening night stumbles, smoothly navigated Javerbaum’s script, which started as a series of tweets and then became a book before manifesting as a play delivered in the form of a list. Director Jan Guarino must have given Bavolack free reign because her performance is an intriguing balance of warm and natural, sarcastic and funny, as she enumerates the new commandants. (A few old ones were kept because they were just that good.)

Bavolack wears a gold trimmed white caftan with fluffy white unicorn slippers – sort of the sartorial equivalent of the mullet (you know, business in the front, party in the back). Her hilarious delivery of the list is varied in style and tempo. God’s updates to The Ten Commandments range from the relatively mild (Thou shalt not tell me what to do) to the controversial (Thou shalt not tell others whom to fornicate). Some commands are delivered almost matter-of-factly while others require extensive anecdotes or take long detours.

Bavolack also interacts with the audience, calling out a pair of latecomers and directing other comments directly to those who occupied front row seats – make that the first two or three rows. Oh, and there is a runway that extends the stage into the aisle.

The script has adlibs built-in, allowing for a sprinkling of timely or local references. There’s a fleeting mention of our Commander in Chief and one particularly impressive local reference that Richmond has almost as many houses of worship as confederate monuments. (I wonder what an actor would insert here if performing in Brooklyn, or Philadelphia, or Miami…) There’s even a song at the end, “I Have Faith in You,” when quite suddenly things take a bit of a surprise turn, and the celestial trio takes pleasure in belting it out like rock stars.

Chris Raintree’s design, with its set of double steps (which did not succeed in suggesting a stairway to heaven, if that was the intention), a white sofa, a “poof” or ottoman, a coffee table, and a podium, looks like a celestial talk-show set. Bavolack’s eyes are projected onto the backdrop and emblazoned on the “merch” – a mug, tee-shirt, and magnet are among the show-themed items for sale at the bar. Michael Jarett’s lighting includes a few lightning strikes and there’s a bit of smoke as well.

I would not categorize An Act of God, which is, of course, a part of the Acts of Faith Theatre Festival, among my favorite scripts, but the performance delivered by Bavolack and company is a delightfully entertaining way to spend 75 minutes.

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

 

(L to R) Anne Michelle Forbes (Gabriel), Maggie Bavolack (God), and Kylie Clark (Michael) clear up some misconceptions about the Holy Word in David Javerbaum’s comedy “An Act of God”







Maggie Bavolack delivers the new Word
Anne Michelle Forbes as God’s wingman Gabriel
Kylie M.J. Clark as the questioning archangel Michael
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HUCK & TOM: Rolling on the River

Huck & Tom: And the Mighty Mississippi

A Theater Review (& some other thoughts) by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: January 25 – March 3, 2019

Ticket Prices: Start at $21

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

The latest production of the Virginia Rep Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn is Huck & Tom and the Mighty Mississippi, a collection of short adventures from Mark Twain’s books about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The production is adapted from the works of Mark Twain, with book and lyrics by Peter Howard, and music and lyrics by Ron Barnett. Colorful and lively, with a few pleasant songs, some period costumes (Becky’s is especially pretty), and creative use of crates to change scenes (the cemetery was quite inspired), this production is recommended for ages 6-12 but is probably best suited for the higher end of this age range, through middle school.

James Hendley and Joel White share good chemistry as Tom and Huck, respectively, with Caitlin Sneed bringing balance as Aunt Polly and Rachel Jones as an adorable Becky. Alvan Bolling II rounds out the cast as Jim.

Throughout the show, which runs just under an hour, with no intermission, characters remind one another and the audience that there isn’t enough time to tell the entire story and encourage audience members to check out the books from their libraries to find out the rest of the story. David Tousley’s set, which includes movable fences, a raft, and the aforementioned crates, includes a background of fencing and gigantic books.

I always like the program for the children’s productions. One side is a frameable poster keepsake, and the other contains all the usual program information. This one includes “Five Fun Facts” about the author and his books, such as Mark Twain’s real name, a nautical term named for Twain, Twain’s early jobs, and some facts about the Mississippi River. In keeping with this theme, I will offer five observations about this production.

One. First, let me defer to my panel of experts: Kingston and Nicole, both age 10, and Emmitt, age 4. Emmitt said he liked “everything” but was not able to offer any details. Kingston and Nicole also said they liked everything, but given that they are in double digits, I couldn’t let them get away with that. Nicole then offered that she found it confusing with one actor just fell down on the floor when the narrator said he’d been shot in the leg. An audible “bang,” she and Kingston agreed, would have made it better. When I asked them how they felt about Huck trying to decide whether to turn in Jim for the runaway slave reward and save himself or to help Jim escape to freedom, neither of them was mature enough to have fully grasped the gravity of the situation. Most of the audience was probably in the 4-10 year age range, so I’m not sure many of them grasped the significance of this dilemma.

Two. Throughout the production, young audience members were urged to read the books for themselves. Most if not all raised their hands when they were asked if they liked to read. I wonder how many of the parents present are aware that these beloved classics are among the most frequently banned books in the USA? Mostly because in the original texts there is liberal use of the word “nigger,” as Jim is referred to as Nigger Jim. Is this something you want to discuss with your elementary school child?

Three. Kingston was able to relate to some of the historical references, remembering that they had been covered in his fourth grade SOLs.  So, kudos for making theater both educational and entertaining, and finding connections with what the kids are learning in school.

Four. Emmitt, age 4, is usually completely enthralled by theater, especially if there is music involved. But this time he was ready to leave about halfway through.

Five. Huck & Tom is a colorful, lively production, with lots of visual interest, movement, and energetic performances by its cast of five, and is well-directed by Kikau Alvaro. Based on my experience, it is best suited for children ten or older, and should be accompanied by sort of discussion. This production is a part of the Acts of Faith Theatre Festival, and the suggested faith connection is “growing up,” which is linked to the scripture Proverbs 22:6 – “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Depending on the age and maturity of the child, and the personal beliefs of the family, there are so many directions this discussion could take.

 

Sensory Friendly Performances

A Sensory Friendly family performance will be offered on Saturday, February 16 at 10:30 a.m. Please see the website for more details: http://va-rep.org/sensory_friendly.html

Performance Schedule

Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Fridays

Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday

Matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on select Saturdays

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi
Rachel Jones. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi
James Hendley, center. Alvan Bolling II, Caitlin Sneed, left. Rachel Jones, right. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi
Alvan Bolling II and Joel White. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

Huck and Tom and the Mighty Mississippi
Joel White, Alvan Bolling II, Caitlin Sneed, Rachel Jones, and James Hendley. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

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STARR FOSTER DANCE: CRAVE…what if?

STARR FOSTER DANCE: Crave – a New Work

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 1-3: Friday @8PM; Saturday @3:00, 5:00 & 8:00 PM; Sunday @1:00 PM & 3:00 PM

Ticket Prices: $12

Info: (804) 304-1523, https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4033169

Starrene Foster’s new work, Crave, poses the question, “What if, in one moment, you had changed your mind during your journey. And if so, how would that change affect the final outcome?” The ways in which she responds to this prompt are intriguing, thought-provoking, and sensual.

On entering The Basement performance space, there is a small exhibit by four participating artists. Douglas Hayes (the company’s art director) showed a pair of digital duotone prints showing the same model, in the same pose and lighting, but one was taken in 2003 and the other in 2019. Wolfgang Jasper’s charcoal drawing, “Frictionless Pivot” and digital print “Communal Madness” show the same elements, but one has been digitally reconfigured. Beth B. Jasper’s “Negotiation,” created with pen and ink on rice paper started as two separate drawings but ended as two panels, with the initial shape in one flipped over. And Fiona Ross’ “Staves #25C” and “Staves #28C” follow specific rules of placement that lead to different outcomes. A brief study of the artwork will prove helpful when watching Crave.

Our programs were marked with a letter “N” or “S,” indicating whether we were to start out seated on the North Stage or South Stage of the performance space.  There are about twenty seats on each side, and a wall – I mean a curtain – separates the two sides. During the 10-minute intermission, the audience members change sides.

We started on the North Stage, where Kierstin Kratzer and Mattie Rogers danced with a quiet intensity that sometimes pulled me to the edge of my seat. Billy Curry’s original score was a soundscape of trains, industrial noises, and rhythmic music. Foster, who frequently uses dark lighting, did not disappoint, but there were bright lights overhead that created a not unpleasant, somehow softened glare. We could see the dancer’s faces, but not their features. We knew they were looking at each other, but we couldn’t see their eyes. They were dressed in monochromatic slightly loose, softly flowing tunics and pants that became part of the choreography.

Kratzer and Rogers sometimes flowed together organically, sometimes challenged one another, lifting, pushing, pulling; one would occasionally head butt the other in the belly, and one stood vibrating as if receiving an electric shock from her partner’s fingers. The flow and variety of movement was mesmerizing, and before you knew it, it was intermission.

Changing to the South Stage, we saw Caitlin Cunningham and Kelsey Gagnon dancing, and like Wolfgang Jasper’s drawings, the elements were the same as those used by Kratzer and Rogers, but reconfigured. They were dressed identically to the other duo. They started from a similar position. There was that kick and high leg swing. That’s the same grab of the toe. There’s the vibratory movement – but different. It was all familiar, but all new. There was the sound of the train and yes, that upbeat rhythm. But there was a sense of déjà vu, a time shift or a manipulation of time and space.

One had a sense that the other duo was happening on the other side of the curtain, but try as I might, I never actually heard them. Having the audience move is rare, but it has been done before. It’s not always possible and the flexible and intimate space of The Basement was ideal for this elemental manipulation. It enhanced the sense that time and space had shifted. The cast members change, too. For some performances, Fran Beaumont and Cristina Peters will dance on the North Stage, while Shelby Gratz and Erick Hooten dance on the South Stage. With a running time of just about 45 minutes including intermission, Crave packs a lot of punch in a small space in a short time. There are only 6 performances over a 3-day period, so if you can this piece is worth seeing. Try really hard. I love the way Foster has manipulated all the elements – including her audience.

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.

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RED VELVET: The Politics of Theater

RED VELVET: The Terrors of the Earth

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

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

Performances: January 18 – February 9, 2019, Thursdays-Saturdays @8:00pm & Sundays @2:00pm.

Ticket Prices: $22-$32

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

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of Ira Aldridge. Those words are a program note for the 2012 play, Red Velvet, but also the opening line of the Acts of Faith Preview on Monday, January 14. But seriously, have you ever heard of him? I had. Like many other black American performers, Ira Frederick Aldridge (1807-1867) found that he had to leave the USA in order to pursue his craft. And from what we can see from Lolita Chakrabarti’s two-act play, life wasn’t exactly a piece of cake in Europe, either. (Okay, so “red velvet” does not refer to cake but to stage curtains.)

The play opens and ends with Aldridge, touring as King Lear near the end of his career, being pursued by a pushy Polish woman journalist – whom he derisively refers to as a “skirt.” Jamar Jones stars as a larger than life Aldridge, and at times the drama of Aldridge’s life and the drama he portrays onstage overlap. The journalist, Halina, played by Rachel Dilliplane, digresses into a tirade on the unfairness of being the only woman in her office – a valid complaint, but this story is about Aldridge, and there just isn’t time to focus on her. Halina’s questions about Aldridge’s ground breaking performance as the first black actor to portray Othello at London’s Covent Garden in 1833 lead the aging and apparently ailing Aldridge to review his life – and this is the gist of Chakrabarti’s play.

Aldridge arrives in London to replace the legendary Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean who has collapsed while playing Othello. Kean’s son, Charles, played with supercilious contempt by Cole Metz, who is also a member of the company, expects to step into the role. But the entire company, with the exception of a delightfully smug young cast member, Henry, played by Stevie Rice, are shocked when Aldridge arrives. At one point, Charles throws a full-blown temper tantrum, complete with stomping and screaming. One actress, Betty Lovell, also played by Dilliplane, remarks that when she read the reviews about Aldridge’s “dark” performance, she thought they were referring to his demeanor, not his complexion.

Although it is not entirely clear, what with all the ambient sound, the flurry of accents, and the period language, England is in the midst of riots about the abolition of slavery, and members of the theater company are firmly rooted on both sides of the slavery versus anti-slavery debate. Bernard, played by John Cauthen, just wants sugar for his tea, and doesn’t care how it’s made. Echoing the headlines of recent news, Bernard advocates for “closed borders.” Some players just want to get on with the show. Some are appalled at the idea of Aldridge interacting with leading actress Ellen Tree, played by Frances Saxton. Ellen is also engaged to Charles, and soon rumors of physical abuse and sexual impropriety begin to fly.

Key to this entire experiment is theater manager Pierre Laporte, played by Eddie Webster complete with a French-ish accent. It seems Laporte and Aldridge are long-time friends, and Laporte is brave enough, and European enough, to buck conservative British tradition and shake things up a bit. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough, and there is an intense second act fight between Laporte and Aldridge that actually gets physical. “Theater,” Laporte assures us, “is a political act.”

At one point, the actors read the racially charged reviews that begin to come in after Aldridge’s first performance. Some refer to the absurdity of a black man playing Othello, the Moor, while others completely ignore Aldridge’s talent, but focus on the shape of his lips, which, the assert, prevent him from properly pronouncing the words. Watching it all from the rear is Connie, a Jamaican-born servant who quietly serves tea to the actors. Connie, played by Desirèe Dabney, could be just another stereotype – the “mammie” caricature, or the always stout black woman who takes care of everything. I was pleased when she was, briefly, given a voice in the second act, where she reminded Aldridge that people see what they want to see, but her supporting role never completely broke the stereotype.

Director James Ricks has done an excellent job corralling all this intense material into something that makes sense most of the time, but the first act seemed to get bogged down. The second act ramped up in intensity, often pulling me to the edge of my seat. This is not a story that can be told in one two-act play. David Melton kept the scenic design simple, yet effective: a chaise lounge, a desk, a few chairs, a screen that were moved between scenes. I also liked Cora Delbridge’s dresses for the women, as well as Charles’ foppish ensemble, complete with walking stick.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Photos from Quill Theatre’s Facebook page

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Jamar Jones

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ROGER B. HEARD & THE TIGHT 45: A Man with a Deadline

ROGER B. HEARD & THE TIGHT 45: Voiceover Master with a Deadline

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: HATTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Dr., RVA (Tuckahoe) 23238

Performances: January 11-19, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 Seniors; $15 Youth, Groups, Students & RVATA; Reservations Required – No tickets at the door

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

It was interesting that two of the first shows of the new year shared a theme. On Friday night I attended 5th Wall Theatre’s production of Talk Radio at TheatreLAB the basement, then on Saturday I attended Roger B. Heard & the Tight 45, which made its world premiere on Friday. A coproduction of Free Jambalaya and HATTheatre at HATTheatre’s west end black box theater, Roger B. Heard is a three-person production written by Alex Mayberry and directed by James Nygren.

Dale Leopold plays Roger B. Heard, a veteran voiceover actor with a great talent but, unfortunately, a small bank account. The rent is due, and he has several projects to record, but his studio time has been limited. It seems a musician by the name of Dirty Metal Lefty has reserved all but 45 minutes of the available studio time. With the help of the studio operator Betty Robb, delightfully played by Emily Turner, Roger churns out one assignment after another. A perfectionist, he doesn’t have time for mistakes or retakes. Wouldn’t you know, a picky client calls in and wants him to redo a single line in a previously recorded ad – over and over and over. In a flash of brilliance, Betty Robb suggests playing back the original version. Problem solved! Betty Robb keeps things moving with her snappy comebacks and no-nonsense demeanor, adding moments of humor and balance to Roger’s feverish personality.

Roger and Betty Robb (she is always referred to by her full name) embark on an impossibly tight schedule, hoping to complete an ambitious roster of voice overs in 45 minutes: a morning motivation; Tales of Fantastica, in which Roger voices six characters and a narrator; a chair sales pitch; a multi-lingual bait shop phone menu, in which one of the languages was a pseudo hillbilly dialect; a congressional campaign ad that seemed guaranteed not to get the candidate elected; the reading of a chapter of a celebrity memoire; a monster bass fishing tournament; TV dubs for an action movie; the voices and sound effects for a game called Dojo Crusader; and a tribute to a religious leader performed in English and Swahili. Listening to Leopold transition from voice to voice, character to character is both amusing and anxiety inducing. We know he’s on a deadline, and Betty Robb keeps us aware of the time.

The only other character is Dirty Metal Lefty, aka Doc Thomas, a musician and songwriter who fills the pre-show space and a final scene with Roger B.  Dirty Metal Lefty is billed as a Richmond musician, so that leaves unanswered the question of her British accent. And I guess I was the only one who was a little slow and didn’t realize that Dirty Metal Lefty played a left-handed guitar until she asked that Roger be given a right-handed one to join her in a song.

There is even some audience participation. For instance, I found myself assigned as a last-minute “intern” assigned to play the tambourine for Dirty Metal Lefty, and a couple sitting behind me had been assigned to participate in a call and response. Due to the threat of severe weather, there were only about 10-12 people in Saturday’s audience, and the Sunday performance was cancelled, but there are two more opportunities to see this show on January 18 and 19 at 8:00 PM.

This is one of the quirkiest shows ever, it runs under an hour with no intermission and the only pretense at a plot is Roger’s deadline. And, if he’s so good, why is he so broke?

 

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 uncredited at the time of publication

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Dale Leopold

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Dirty Metal Lefty (Doc Thomas), Dale Leopold, and Emmy Turner

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THE LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA: 18 Years Strong

THE LATIN BALLET OF VIRGINIA: LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA 2019

A Dance Review and Related Thoughts by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Road, Glen Allen, VA, 23192

Performance Were: January 10-13, 2019

Ticket Prices Were: $10 – $20

Info: (804) 356- 3876 or http://www.latinballet.com

This won’t be the first time I’ve said that The Latin Ballet of Virginia’s annual production of The Legend of the Poinsettia has become, for many, a new or alternative holiday tradition. But this year I had the pleasure of introducing the production to ten people, children and adults, who had never before seen it. Everyone I had a chance to speak to during intermission or after the show was enthralled by the variety and range of the dancing, the colorful costumes, and the energy of the music and dancing. One mother said she had a hard time following the story, which is told in Spanish and English, mostly Spanish, but I suggested she read her program later – it explains pretty much everything, much like the synopsis of an opera.

This year the fickle Richmond winter weather caused some concern, with a wintry mix of snow, sleet, and rain predicted around the time of the two Saturday performances and the Sunday matinee. The company generously offered to allow people who had made reservations for Sunday afternoon to exchange their tickets for one of the two Saturday performances. The Saturday matinee seemed to be a full house, and snow flurries were swirling around the parking lot of the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen as we made our way out after the show and the cast prepared for the evening show.  As of this writing, the weather seemed to be kind enough to allow the Sunday matinee to go on as planned.

The Legend of the Poinsettia tells the story of Little Maria (with Rebeca Dora Barragán and Emery Velasquez alternating in the role), who, after the sudden death of her mother, with whom she was weaving a colorful blanket, finds herself in need of a gift to present to the Baby Jesus on Epiphany Day. January 6 is Three King’s Day or Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos, which celebrates the 12th day of Christmas and the legend of the three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Christ Child. So, for those who did not take down their Christmas trees on January 1, just say you were waiting to celebrate Epiphany! It is also the story of “the true spirit of giving,” as well as a cultural history of how the poinsettia came to be a symbol of Christmas.

The Legend of the Poinsettia is a family-friendly, multi-cultural, multi-generational festival featuring the dances, music, and costumes of Mexico (the origin of the legend and of the poinsettia plant, with Micas de Aguinalda or Christmas Masses and nine days of posadas leading up to Christmas, with reenactments of the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph), Colombia (King’s birthplace, which also celebrates the nine nights before Christmas with las novenas including songs, prayers, and nativity scenes), Venezuela (the home of the gaitas or festive songs that blend the Spanish and African cultures), the Dominican Republic (home of the bachata, a mixture of Cuban bolero and son), Puerto Rico (home of the Christmas parrandas or musical festivities) and Spain (home of flamenco and the Christmas novenas). A blend of solemn candle lighting and prayers with festive singing and dancing is the common thread that ties together the many cultures and traditions, concluding with the miracle of the poinsettia plant, represented by dancers in red and green.

This year’s cast included new and familiar faces. Young Marisol Betancourt Sotolongo has appeared in all eighteen productions. Antonio Hidalgo Paz, of Spain, and artistic director of Flamenco Vivo, has become a staple figure, partnering King in a flamenco duet and taking on the role of Papa. Frances Wessells, Professor Emerita of VCUDance appeared in her recurring role as Abuelita/the grandmother. She was greeted with cheers of “go Frances, go Frances,” in deference to her still performing at the age of 99! One of my students was most impressed by the energy or “hype” of the men: Roberto Whitaker, Jay Williams, Glen Lewis, Nicolás Guillen Betancourt Sotolongo, and DeShon Rollins.

There are daytime school productions and a weekend of family shows, but if you missed them all, keep your eyes open for next year’s production. It’s a must see.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Photos from Latin Ballet Facebook page.

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TALK RADIO: Late Night With Barry Champlain

TALK RADIO: When They Go Low, Barry Goes in For the Kill

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

5th Wall Theatre

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

Performances: January 10-26, 2019

Ticket Prices: $32 General Admission; $20 Students; $20 RVATA Cardholders; $10 ARGS Students

Info: (804) 359-2003 or https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3921247

Barry Champlain (Scott Wichmann) is a talk radio host, a provocative shock jock of a nightly show. He is quick to mock his callers and even quicker to cut them off mid-sentence when they begin to bore him. Barry is caustic and cruel; he drinks too much, smokes too much, and washes down his drugs with liquor. He is brilliant but unlikeable, and he is mesmerizing. He brings in ratings.

Talk Radio was written in 1987 by Eric Bogosian who originally played the starring role. Based on an original idea by Tad Savinar and created by Bogosian and Savinar, the play is loosely based on the story of real-life talk radio host Alan Berg who was gunned down in his Denver, Colorado driveway in 1984. There is one brief hint of this bit of history when a mysterious package is delivered to Barry at his Cleveland, Ohio studio at WTLK Radio.

Director Morrie Piersol deftly manages to avoid making Talk Radio feel dated, most of the time. It’s both frightening and illuminating to find that the concerns of late night callers have not changed much in thirty years. It’s also hard to imagine anyone other than Wichmann playing this role with its multiple and often overlapping layers of darkness, humor, edginess, and impending doom.

There is an onstage support team surrounding Barry that is supposed to keep him from running off the track. There’s his Executive Producer, Dan Woodruff (Chandler Hubbard) who brings the news that Barry’s show is about to be nationally syndicated. Stu Noonan (PJ Freebourn) is Barry’s operator who screens and feeds his callers; Spike (Jimmy Mello) is the long-suffering and mostly silent sound engineer; Linda Macarthur (Haliya Roberts) is the Assistant Producer and Barry’s sometimes girlfriend.

In brief monologues, Woodruff, Freebourn, and Roberts share background and insight into Barry. This makes him more human, but no less caustic. When told that the show is going to be nationally syndicated, he deliberately says outrageous things about the sponsors. The most interesting interactions are between Barry and his unseen callers, voiced by Darrelle Brown, George Dippold, Chandler Hubbard, Gina McKenzie, John Mincks, and Paige Reisenfeld.

There are the sad people like the panda lady and the guy who eats dinner with his cat. There’s a sixteen year old girl left pregnant by her apparently much older boyfriend, and the lady who wants to know why there aren’t any new episodes of I Love Lucy. And then there are the right wingers, the anti-Semites, the racists, and the crazies, like Chet who calls back after sending that threatening package to Barry at the studio. For most of them, Barry calls their bluff, mocks them, leads them on, gains their trust, then cuts them off. But then there’s Kent (John Mincks), the kid who parties while his parents are away. He calls in with a scary story about his girlfriend overdosing, and against all advice and common sense, Barry calls him a liar. Of course, he was right, and the next thing you know Kent shows up at the station and joins Barry at his desk for some live on-air repartee that gets quite wild and out of control. Dan says he’s in control of this train, but one wonders. Barry seems headed for an on-air breakdown, but the more outrageous he becomes, the more the listeners like it!

Darrell Brown also plays the brief opening role of financial talk show host Sidney Greenberg with George Dippold as his operator Bernie. Gina Maria McKenzie is Dr. Susan Fleming, a psychologist, who share the closing scene with her assistant, Rachel (Paige Reisenfeld). They all do multiple duty as the invisible callers, using a variety of dialects and accents.

TJ Spencer designed and constructed the authentic-looking set. Roger Price did a great job as sound designer and sound technician. I don’t know, but since this was done in the style of an on-air radio show, it seems that a bit more was involved than in most productions, and it all worked seamlessly. Erin Barclay designed the lighting, which did not require any special effects, and Sheila Russ designed the costumes.

Talk Radio is an intense and disturbing show that often pulled me to the edge of my seat. It covers a lot of ground, from people to politics. It’s harsh and raw and surprisingly still relevant – perhaps even more so in today’s political climate. Oh, and there is a full page advertisement near the back of the program that reads, “Radio’s dead. Start a Podcast!” Hmm.

 

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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Scott Wichmann and John Mincks
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Scott Wichmann
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Rear: PJ Freebourn, Chandler Hubbard, Haliya Roberts, and Jimmy Mello. Front: Scott Wichmann.
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Darrelle Brown

Featured

THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL: A Creatively Inclusive Take on a Classic

THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL: Classic Meet Inclusion

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Whistle Stop Theatre Company at The Hanover Arts & Activity Center, 500 South Center Street, Ashland, VA 23005

Performances: December 1, 7, 14 & 15, 2018

Ticket Price: $10

Info: https://whistlestoptheatre.weebly.com/ or email whistletoptheatre@gmail.com with any questions or concerns. The Whistle Stop Theatre Company does not have a phone number.

The holiday season, spanning Halloween through New Year’s Day (or even through Three Kings Day in January) is often seen as a time for traditions. Families get together and reminisce, pull out old photos, resurrect games and decorations and recipes from previous generations. For some, it means an annual trip to see The Nutcracker or a marathon showing of A Christmas Story (which is now considered politically incorrect).

Richmond’s theater community has many holiday offerings, ranging from the adults-only Who’s Holiday with a grown-up Cindy Lou Who at RTP to the wacky whodunit The Game’s Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays at Hanover Tavern and the trailer park trashiness of A Doublewide, Texas Christmas at CAT. There’s also A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, and the very intense A Doll’s House (which is not a Christmas story but does have a Christmas tree in it) at The Basement. (My apologies if I omitted any shows from this informal and unofficial list!)

For family oriented entertainment, there’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins at VaRep at Willow Lawn, which my 4- and 10-year-old grandsons enjoyed. On Friday, December 14, 2018, I made my way out to Ashland, VA (aka “the Center of the Universe”) for my first experience with the Whistle Stop Theatre Company, whose director, Louise Ricks, has fashioned an inclusive version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Little Match Girl. Like many classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes, Andersen’s story is rather gruesome and graphic in the details of a young girl selling matches to help support her family. It’s cold, and she has only a thin wrap and a pair of slippers that belonged to her late grandmother are a poor substitute for boots or proper shoes. Even these are taken from her and she has no luck selling matches to the hurried and preoccupied townspeople who brush past her as she called out New Year’s greetings. In the end, she dies. Before the end, however, she strikes her matches to provide a bit of comfort for herself and her only friend – a cat named Gerda. “You’re not mangy,” The Little Match Girl assures her companion, “You’re. . .unkempt!” The glow of the fire illuminates her dying visions.

But Ricks has taken these moments and expanded them to include tales from other cultures, providing levity, insight, empathy, morality, hope, and cultural inclusion. There’s “The Uninvited Guest” (Jewish folktale for Hanukkah), “Babushka” (a Russian tale about the Three Wise Men), and “Uwungalama” (a South African folktale about a magical tree that provides unending fruit). So, there’s acknowledgement of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s and even Three Kings Day, all in one play that runs about 45 minutes.

Set in the round, using only a square platform and three black boxes, The Little Match Girl intimate and as much a night of storytelling as it is theater. The cast consists of a multi-generational, multi-ethnic ensemble of nine, most of whom play multiple roles. Sweet and natural, Ziona Tucker plays The Little Match Girl, with Caroline Beals as Gerda, her cat. Caroline’s gestures and mewls are perfectly on point.

Shalandis Wheeler Smith played the Wind, a Thief, a Venomous Snake, an Elderly Townsperson, and one of the Three Kings. Marcos Martinez is a Passerby, an Elderly Person, the African King, and one of the Three Kings. Annie Zanetti, one of my personal favorites for her generous caricatures, accents, and unrelenting commitment to her characters, played the Mother, the Wide, a Townsperson, and Babushka. She was also spirit of The Little Match Girl’s Grandmother who welcomed her into heaven. Walter Riddle was the Wind, a Thief, a Beggar, and a Townsperson, while Justin Sisk was a Sales Person, Father, Husband, Townsperson, and one of the Three Kings. Finally, Prudence Reynolds was The Child and Sarah Rose Wilkinson played guitar – the only accompaniment.

Great theater? No. Prudence, at one point kept looking towards the door. I assume a family member or friend had just entered. Given the minimal set and props, the ensemble had to mime such details as a dinner table and the gifts of the Wise Men. It was difficult to tell exactly what sort of work Babushka was performing, we just knew it was all-consuming and had Zanetti winding her bottom like a Jamaican dancehall girl.

One young audience member, presumably one not acclimated to live theater, at one point broke out into uncontrollable laughter. Zanetti handled this beautifully, including the young lady and her friends in an interactive search for “the Newborn King,” An inviting family-friendly experience? Yes, and well worth the trip to the unfamiliar territory of Ashland! Not only is this a welcoming environment for families with children of all ages, the program began with a gentle introduction to theater etiquette, and can be enjoyed by audience members from ages 3 and up on age-appropriate levels of understanding. In keeping with the outreach and communication, on Friday audience members who arrived early on Friday were able to take photos with The Snow Queen (Ricks), and on Saturday there are holiday crafts before the 3:00pm show.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Louise Ricks & Whistle Stop Theatre Company

Little Match Girl 6
Marcos Martinez, Shalandis Wheeler Smith, Ziona Tucker, and Walter Riddle

Little Match Girl 4
Annie Zanetti and Prudence Reynolds

Little Match Girl 5
Ziona Tucker and Caroline Beales

Little Match Girl 2
Ziona Tucker

 

Featured

A DOLL’S HOUSE: Well, Shut the Door!

A DOLL’S HOUSE: Love and Marriage

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: December 6 (Preview)/December 7 (Opening) – December 22, 2018

Ticket Prices: $30 General; $20 Seniors/Industry (RVATA); $10 Students/Teachers (with ID)

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

The theme of TheatreLAB The Basement’s current season is “In Pursuit of Happiness.” Following on the heels of the season’s memorable opening show, Significant Other, is a most unlikely production – the thee-act Henrik Ibsen classic, A Doll’s House. First produced in 1879, A Doll’s House created a sensation then because of its unconventional take on marriage and the roles of husbands and wives. One hundred thirty-nine years later, the show remains on the cutting edge, due in no small part to the forcefulness of the cast and the nail-biting intensity of Josh Chenard’s direction.

In what some refer to as color-blind casting, Katrinah Carol Lewis inhabits the role of Nora Helmer, with Landon Nagel as her husband, Torvald. Lewis has tackled some emotionally challenging roles in recent years, from Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, both at TheatreLAB, to A Raisin in the Sun and River Ditty with Virginia Rep, but this may be the most highly charged of them all. With her naturally large eyes accented by makeup, and in the intimate space of The Basement, it was easy to see every nail biting emotion, to hear every breath, to practically feel her trembling. Nagel, whose character at one point remarked how warm it was in their staged apartment, was sweating real beads of perspiration. A Doll’s House is not a play for the faint of heart; it’s hard work for the audience, too, not just for its emotional intensity, but the three acts run nearly three hours, including two intermissions. It also took awhile to adjust to the mannerisms and affectations of the main characters.

On the program, the women’s names are flush left, and the men’s names are slightly indented. This is, no doubt, part of Chenard’s homage to women: the women in his life; the women on stage; the women on the production team; even the women on the awesome playlist he assembled for this production: Bessie Smith, Marianna Faithful, Marian Anderson, Loretta Lynn, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Carole King, and Adele.

Amber Marie Martinez is calm and insightful, in contrast to Lewis, in her role as Nora’s childhood friend, Kristine Linde. Jocelyn Honoré has a supporting role as the family’s maid and nanny, Anna, but all three women are linked by the social mores of their time that require they surrender their own thoughts, feelings, and needs to those of the men in their lives or the needs of their families. Kristine entered into a loveless marriage in order to support her mother and younger siblings. Anna gave up her own daughter and went into service to others. Nora has gone from her father’s house to her husband’s house, and doesn’t even know who she is, other than a doll to be played with at the whim of first her father, and now her husband. These three women are bound together, whether they want to be or not. Their interactions are sometimes sharp, sometimes brittle, but always there is the knowing glance, the slightest turn of the head, the knowing eye toward whichever man is currently acting clueless.

Nagel is positively frightening in his ability to switch effortlessly from domineering husband to sweet-talking lover. Torvald has an unending list of pet names for Nora; literally – he keeps calling her different kinds of birds! For his role as the ill-fated employee Nils Krogstad, Axle Burtness holds his left arm close to his body and limps slightly on his left leg, nursing an unnamed handicapping affliction. Torvald’s close friend and daily visitor, Doctor Rank, played by Todd Patterson (more color-blind casting) also has an unnamed debilitating disease, but it seems his spinal affliction is due to a venereal disease inherited from his philandering father.  Young Faris Alexander Martinez was adorable as Nora and Torvald’s enthusiastic if neglected young son, Jon. (Faris did not appear for the opening night curtain call, presumably because it was past his bedtime.)

The family dynamics and levels of dysfunction in A Doll’s House may have been endemic to the 19th century, but they are all to frequent even today, which makes the play as much a horror story as a drama. Women giving up their own hopes and dreams to take care of aging parents or young siblings, women burying their own desires in order to please their husbands, women living in fear or thinking they do not deserve better, men who view women as possessions or objects, men who think women’s thoughts, feelings, intellect, contributions are worth less than those of men: all of these themes remain as prevalent in 2018 as they were in 1879. So, when Nora takes her final steps out the front door, slamming it behind her with the finality of nails in a coffin, not only is it the most dramatic exit ever in the history of theater, it is, as Chenard wrote in his director’s notes, “a celebration of. . .resilience and strength.”

Chris Raintree’s scenic design is a black and white outline or blueprint, with the names of the rooms – sitting room, playroom, main hall, study – printed on the floor, along with the room’s measurements, and a door opening that the actors mostly respect as they navigate the space. There are a few period pieces, a sofa, a desk, a child’s toy horse, and at the end of the main hall, where we, the audience sit, there appears to be a mirror, as Nora always stops, stares, and adjusts her hair and before going into her husband’s study. Ruth Hedberg’s period costumes make it clear where each character stands in the social hierarchy, and the overall look is one of a slightly shabby middle class striving.

Chenard’s direction is both gentle and shattering. Lewis’ performance is electric and the interaction between Lewis and Nagel is painful and shocking. Lewis’ side-eye when Nora makes her mental shift is epic. The end of each act is met with a blackout and gasps from the audience – both for emotional release and in recognition that one has been holding one’s breath for the last five minutes.

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

a dolls house 2
Katrinah Carol Lewis and Landon Nagel

a dolls house 1
Amber Marie Martinez and Katrinah Carol Lewis

a dolls house 3

Featured

THE GAME’S AFOOT: Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem for the Holidays

THE GAME’S AFOOT: Holmes for the Holidays

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

VirginiaRep

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

Performances: November 30, 2018 – January 6, 2019

Ticket Prices: $44

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

Ken Ludwig’s hilarious whodunit, The Game’s Afoot, continues the comedic theme of this season’s holiday shows. (See my reviews of A Doublewide, Texas Christmas November 30, A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol November 25, and Who’s Holiday November 18). Debra Clinton directs this murderous farce that has more twists and turns than a roller coaster, a task that must have been made easier by her stellar cast of characters, most of whom are no strangers to the Hanover Tavern stage.

Scott Wichmann stars as Broadway actor William Gillette (a real life actor who made a name for himself playing Sherlock Holmes on Broadway). There’s a play within a play, and life imitates art as Gillette is shot by an unknown assailant while taking his bows at the end of his show. Recuperating at his palatial Connecticut mansion (also real, and now known as Gillette Castle State Park, in Lyme, CT), Gillette invites his friends and fellow cast members to spend the Christmas holidays with him and his mother, Martha (Catherine Shaffner).

Gillette, however, has an ulterior motive. Having blurred the line between his own life and that of the character he portrayed for two decades, he fancies himself a sleuth and sets out to uncover the identify of his mystery assailant – and solve a few other mysteries along the way. Mayhem and misdirection ensue, and Clinton keeps things moving at a fast pace. There is physical comedy and lines that depend on split second timing are delivered flawlessly. There are plenty of clues and possible motives, so it’s not a complete surprise when we find out “whodunit,” but the ride is so much fun that the end is not the focal point.

Wichmann makes Gillette, who tends to be pompous, a bit more endearing, but there’s no mistaking who is the star here. Shaffner is hilarious as his mother, who always has a flask close at hand. Joe Pabst plays the role of Gillette’s best friend, Felix and his bumbling attempts at subterfuge are a highlight of the show. Donna Marie Miller is the villain here – a vengeful theatre critic named Daria Chase who has dirt on everyone and knows how to use it.  However, I was taken aback when she had a meltdown and demanded to be left alone – in Gillette’s house. Umm, that’s now how things work. . .

Meg Carnahan and Caleb Wade play the newlywed couple Aggie Wheeler and Simon Bright and Lisa Kotula is Felix’s wife, Madge whose big scene involves a seance. All have secrets that come to light when a strange detective, Inspector Goring, arrives to investigate a murder that may or may not have happened. Audra Honaker makes the role of Goring most interesting, alternately staring off into space or spouting off lines from Shakespeare. Given that the characters are all actors, there is much grandstanding, with each trying to outdo the other with dramatic delivery of drama and poetry.

The play’s isolated location and limited pool of suspects give this all the major requirements of the locked-room mystery genre, and Terrie Powers’ set attempts to capture the spirit of the genre as well. Derek Dumais and B.J. Wilkinson apparently had great fun with the sound and light design, creating lightning (it must have been a thundersnow storm) and thumps, bumps, and mysterious knocks and Sue Griffin’s costumes are in keeping with the period and the holiday spirit.

If this sounds a bit vague, some of the best moments and funniest situations cannot be mentioned here without spoiling it for those who have yet to see it. What I can say is that there are multiple doors and a secret room, as well as a wall full of weapons, which may or may not be loaded.  There are plots and subplots, motives and alibis, and even false confessions. Everyone is a suspect except the butler, because he was given the night off, it being Christmas Eve and all.

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten.

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YES! DANCE FESTIVAL: Nationally Acclaimed Dance on a Local Stage

20TH ANNUAL YES! DANCE FESTIVAL: Presented by K Dance

A Dance-Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: November 30 & December 1, 2018

Ticket Prices: $25; $15 Students & RVATA Members

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

This year marks the 20th anniversary of artistic director Kaye Weinstein Gary’s Yes! Dance Festival. The festival has brought 150 national and international artists to Richmond and enriched the small but resilient local dance community. This year’s program was quite remarkable for its scope and diversity, with performances by Lucky Plush Productions from Chicago, Illinois; Sandra Lacy from Maryland; Pas de Monkéy from Ohio; slowdanger (Taylor Knight and Anna Thompson) from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Courtney D. Jones/CDJ Dance from Houston, Texas; and Carrots Carrying Water (Logan McGill and Ching Ching Wong) from Salt Lake City, Utah; as well as an offering from the host company, K Dance of Richmond, Virginia.

Pas de Monkéy proved to be a surprising departure from previous years’ guest artists and stood out from others on this year’s program as well due to the hip hop infused genre and subject matter that touched on political hot topics. “Lose It All” was the first dance on the program, following an opening video of excerpts from previous festivals. Kweku Bransah choreographed and performed the solo that held the audience spellbound with his isolations, flowing transitions, and breathtaking muscular control. Bransah pops, waves, breakdances, and glides and his movements also reflect a foundation of pantomime that carries a story of lost love.

Bransah returned in the second half of the program to perform Robin Prichard’s “The Art of Making Dances (Not About Ferguson).”  Set to the music of The Whites, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Sweet Honey in the Rock and the voice of a grieving mother, “The Art of Making Dances” is overflowing with negative social, political, and racial symbolism. Bransah begins the solo with a noose around his neck, one gigantic clown shoe and one bare foot, and an oversized boutonniere, dancing to the lyrics, “Keep on the sunny side of life.” He looks like a caricature of an American minstrel, a representation that was already an unflattering caricature of black people.

Freed from the noose, Bransah speaks, asking, “How can dance be meaningful when people are getting shot in the streets?” A mother’s voice grieves, a youth cries, and song lyrics urge the dancer to “smile.” This intriguing solo blends hip hop with ballet, turning the dancer upside down to perform pas de bourée while standing on his head, and leaves the audience with the question, “How do you take actions that matter?”

Another highlight of the program was “Let’s Be Honest,” performed by Logan McGill and Ching Ching Wong from the Salt Lake City-based company with the fascinating name of Carrots Carrying Water. A world premiere, the duet featured a couple dealing with and avoiding their emotions. They started in business attire, she in a pencil-skirted suit and heels (worn with socks) and he in a light-toned suit, but the stage was soon strewn with their clothes and shoes as the two engaged in a tension-filled test of wills. The way the two connected – whether touching or not – was intimate and palpable.

Not all was tense or political. Lucky Plush Productions out of Chicago presented a delightfully refreshing trio, “Cinderbox 2.0 Remix” choreographed by founder and artistic director Julia Rhoads, that reshapes parts of an evening length work based on reality culture experiences. The three dancers, Michel Rodriguez Cintra, Elizabeth Luse, and Meghann Wilkinson dance in unison, upstage one another, and take turns sitting on metal folding chairs and one another – all while sipping from a shared bottle of Fiji water. Their dialogue incorporates moments from earlier dances on the program, including the feathers from Sandra Lacy’s “Giving Up the Ghost,” and the teapot table from K Dance’s short play, “Helen Keller visits Martha Graham’s Dance Studio.”

Written by Stephan Kaplan and directed by Jacqueline Jones, “Helen Keller visits Martha Graham’s Dance Studio” is the program’s second premiere. Based on real life, the short scene introduces the audience to an intimate moment in which Helen Keller (Maggie Roop) visits the studio of her friend choreographer Martha Graham (Kaye Weinstein Gary) Kelly Kennedy fills the role of Polly Thompson, Keller’s interpreter and companion. Not only was this friendship news to me, a student of dance history, but the piece also made an impression because of a unique teapot shaped table created especially for this work by Juliet Wiebe.

The program also included Sandra Lacy’s spiral-filled and feather-finished solo, “Giving Up the Ghost,” Courtney D. Jones’ intense solo about life in solitary confinement, “Hell is a Very small Place,” and slowdanger’s sci-fi thriller, “hybrid memory | reflector,” choreographed and performed by Taylor Knight and Anna Thompson. Kudos to Kaye Weinstein Gary for an all-around excellent program and for bringing international and nationally known artists to our local stages. Among this year’s guest artists, Courtney D. Jones, Ching Ching Wong, Julia Rhoads, and slowdanger have been included on Dance Magazine’s prestigious 25 to Watch list. All are well worth watching.

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: individual photos as labeled

Yes.2
Kweku Bransah. Photo by Dale Dong.

Yes.1
Robin Prichard. Photo by Chris Golden.

Yes.5
Sandra Lacy. Photo by Marlayna Demond.

Yes.3
Courtney Jones. Photo Credit: dabfoto creative, University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts

Yes,4
slowdanger. Photo by Umi Akiyoshi.

 

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A DOUBLEWIDE, TEXAS CHRISTMAS: A Trailer Park Carol

DOUBLEWIDE, TEXAS CHRISTMAS: The Tiny Town Tackles the Nativity

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: November 30 – December 15, 2018

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

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

The citizens of the tiny town of Doublewide, Texas, population 10, are back and so is the fun. A Doublewide, Texas Christmas, written by the trio of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten, is written, directed, and played strictly for laughs. There is no hidden agenda, no deep message, just plain old stupid fun, filled with Texas stereotypes, exaggerated hair and costumes, and a set that looks like a cross section of a dilapidated doublewide trailer park home.

Picking up where Doublewide, Texas left off last June, the town, under the leadership of Mayor Joveeta Crumpler is eagerly awaiting their incorporation papers from the country board, but there are complications. The county is making one more attempt to annex Doublewide, and then there are the added twists of revenge and reunion.

Three actors have returned in their same roles: Crystal Oakley as the beleaguered and frumpy Joveeta, Jeanie Goodyear as Joveeta’s barfly mother, Caprice Crumpler, and Wally Jones as the once crotchety Haywood Sloggett.

Other roles were recast, with Laura McFarland-Bukalski as the hilariously droll Big Ethel Satterwhite and Lisa Way Piper as Georgia Dean Rudd, manager of the local Bronco Betty’s Buffeteria. Lorin Hope Turner now plays the millennial flower child Lark Barken, and Hunter Mass, who simultaneously serves as Assistant Stage Manager is Norwayne “Baby” Crumpler. New characters include Rebekah Spence as Haywood’s vengeful sister Patsy Sloggett Price and Michael Edward McClain as the long lost Harley Dobbs, who is Haywood’s estranged son and Lark’s unknown father. If this all sounds like a soap opera, I am sure that was the intention.

Highlights include Big Ethel’s scenes with the residents of the Stairway to Heaven Retirement Village at the beginning of each act, and Caprice’s overly inflated pretensions of celebrity as the spokesperson for the local funeral home. This time there is only one commercial recording scene, and Caprice is called upon to use her celebrity to entice new residents to move to Doublewide within the week – a condition of approving the town’s incorporation papers.  Big Ethel must lecture the retirees on their extra-curricular activities, having found yet another pair of boxer briefs and a peek-a-boo nightie hooked in the bushes on the retirement village grounds.

“Baby” was not required to wear a dress or heels this time, but he did don a pink frilly apron while preparing a sweet potato casserole and the town entered a Battle of the Mangers competition with the patriotic theme of “Nativity at the Alamo.” Plot twists and turns involve Patsy’s narcissistic need to get revenge on a competitor from her former town, which she was forced to leave in disgrace, a family of belligerent raccoons, a celebrity yam, a budding attraction between Caprice and Haywood, and a Christmas wish that Lark’s father, who is also Haywood’s son and Georgia Dean’s long lost true love, might be found and enticed to return home for the holidays.

It was interesting to see the evolution of Haywood from crotchety old man to loving family member, but I think there was more comedic value in the role of villain. Patsy partially filled this much-needed role, and Spence embraced ownership of this role; she even threw in an evil laugh or two for good measure.

Crystal Oakley had to be mic’d on opening night as she was just getting over a case of laryngitis. Her character, Joveeta, was plagued by back pain, so Oakley, a real trooper, was beleaguered on two fronts. Other cast members were also hit with illnesses and accidents, requiring last minute and behind the scenes adjustments. Considering all that CAT Theatre has had to go through this year, starting with the uncertainty of whether they would, in fact, be able to have a season due to the looming possibility of losing their long-time home, it is nothing less than amazing that opening night went as smoothly as it did and this cast and crew, including Mike Fletcher who directed both Doublewides on the CAT stage, deserve an extra round of applause for pulling this off without any obvious signs, other than Oakley’s microphone.

Mike Fletcher’s pacing kept the laughs coming, although I found the actor’s blocking was sometimes awkward, making me aware that they were directed to face the audience. Scott Bergman’s set included dilapidated, mismatched furniture in a cut-away of a doublewide trailer with the standard wood panel walls, insulation showing, a Santa on the roof, and a plethora a blinking Christmas lights framing the entire set. Sheila Russ’s costumes ranged from Joveeta’s frumpy sweaters and slacks to Caprice’s holiday print leggings and wildly curled wig. It’s Texas, so almost everyone wore cowboy boots. And since it was Christmas, Buddy Bishop and Mike Fletcher’s sound design included songs from the traditional to the silly, such as “White Trash Christmas.” People who enjoyed Doublewide, Texas or Always a Bridesmaid, by these same authors, or those who enjoy the 1970s style sitcom genre, will feel right at home with A Doublewide, Texas Christmas, as will anyone who just wants an excuse to laugh steadily over a two hour period.

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

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Photo Credits: Jeremy Bustin Photography (photos to come)

Doublewide TX Christmas

Doublewide TX Christmas.2
Lisa Way Piper, Crystal Oakley, and Lorin Hope Turner

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SISTER ACT: The Singing Nuns Are Back!

SISTER ACT: Take Us to Heaven

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: November 23, 2018 – January 6, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

Sister Act is a familiar, feel good musical that does all the right things. On opening night there were moments when the audience spontaneously clapped along, and many jumped to their feet for a rousing standing ovation as the company belted out their final song, “Spread the Love Around.” I had nearly as much fun watching other audience members enjoying the musical as I had watching the musical itself.

Felicia Curry, the petite powerhouse from Dreamgirls (2016) and The Color Purple (2014) has returned to Richmond inhabit the role of Deloris Van Cartier, the singer on the run from her mobster boyfriend who goes into witness protection in a convent. Curry commands the stage with high voltage energy and a voice that seems too big to be contained by her physical body.

Curry shares the spotlight with Andrea Rivette as Mother Superior. Interestingly, Rivette’s role often requires her to use her clear and strong voice to sing through lines, rather than say her lines or sing actual songs. Both Curry and Rivette bring strength of character and a willingness to change or at least to compromise which imbues these near-caricatures into more full-fleshed characters. These two – the showgirl and the Mother Superior – both embody growth, strength, and sisterhood from vastly different perspectives, and in doing so demonstrate a level of tolerance that many of us could benefit from in today’s world.

One of Deloris’ tasks, as the newly appointed director of the choir, is to bring the shy Sister Mary Robert out of her shell, and Gwynne Wood fills this role to perfection. Her round-faced innocence makes Wood’s second act solo, “The Life I Never Led,” even more stunning. When she sheds her mousy demeanor and allows her voice to soar and holds that final note, there is no turning back.

Other supporting characters that added color, flavor, and humor included Durron Marquis Tyre as Eddie, the police officer who helps Deloris; and two of my favorite nuns – the exuberantly optimistic Sister Mary Patrick (Kelsey Cordrey) and the cranky Sister Mary Lazarus (Susan Sanford) under whose leadership the choir couldn’t carry a tune if it had been placed in a bucket for them. And we cannot forget Michael Hawke as Monsignor O’Hara, the priest whose calling seems to have been sidetracked by the need for fiscal restraint in the face of a dying congregation and the threat of the church being sold to a pair of antiques entrepreneurs. As the church’s bottom line goes up, and the church’s books move from red to black, the Monsignor’s priestly garments become increasingly flamboyant.

While women were the stars of this show as well as the show-within-the-show, the men of the cast also turned in some notable performances. Sincée J. Daniels played the role of the notorious Curtis whose big number is the darkly humorous “When I Find My Baby” and its subsequent reprise. Daniels’ afro wig, slick suits, and thuggish demeanor, however, relied almost entirely on parody. He reminded me of Eddie Murphy in one of his less savory character roles. Sister Act offer no redemption for Curtis or his trio of bumbling sidekicks: nephew TJ (the versatile Anthony Cosby); Joey (the consistently and confidently funny Paul S. Major); and Pablo (the hilarious Mark Parello, Jr.) who always speaks Spanish even though no one else around him speaks or understands the language. The trio plots to break into the convent, seduce the nuns and abduct Deloris via the song “Lady in the Long Black Dress.” Their old school seduction lines (you know, the old name and zodiac sign line) and accompanying dance movements make this one of my favorite numbers of the show.  Major dropping to the floor in his sexy pose and Cosby doing a body role are indelibly etched on my retinas. Their actual execution of the ill-fated raid on the convent is a hilariously well-timed bit of choreographed movement.

On opening night, something weird was going on with the lights. A light in the lobby seemed to be going on and off, and the dimmer on the house lights kept going up and down at odd intervals prior to the show. But once the show started, there didn’t seem to be any electrical problem, although I did find the lights that illuminated the upper arches of the set distracting, as they seemed to be moving or waving at times. Otherwise, I was quite impressed by some of designer BJ Wilkinson’s work, especially the heavenly light that spread over the choir of nuns in Act 2.

Sarah Grady designed the costumes, and there were some wonderful moments involving costumes and choreography. If you want to be surprised, do not read the rest of this paragraph, just skip down to the start of the next paragraph. But, given that some of these changes happen so suddenly, you might want to know what to watch out for. Officer Eddie delighted with a double tear-away costume: he appeared in a police uniform, worn over a white Saturday Night Live vest and slacks ensemble, which was in turn worn over another police uniform. The choir had several changes of habit, adding increasingly glittery scapulars or aprons to their basic black dresses as their vocal talents increased, ending in full-glitter habits. And of course, there are the increasingly ornate cape-like chasubles worn by the monsignor.

Ron Keller’s set included soaring arches and cathedral windows. I did not have any preconceived ideas of how the set should look but I was surprisingly disappointed; I found it functional but minimal. And the three holes in the floor – for the orchestra and a surprise “cameo” appearance near the end of Act 2 – made the choreography and the wild chase scene just a bit more challenging and breathless than they needed to be.

Set in Philadelphia in 1977, Sister Act is filled with 1970s icons and references and local signatures from Philly cheesesteaks and “Rapper’s Delight” to R&B, Pop, and Disco complete with a spinning disco ball. As with other highly popular musicals which have also been movies (e.g.  The Color Purple, Dreamgirls, West Side Story), I suspect Sister Act will bring people to the theater who don’t normally come to many of the local theater productions. At intermission, I overheard one man say, “What a wonderfully fantastic show.” My companion liked the 1970s musical genres, the Philadelphia-specific references, and “a story I could follow.”

Sister Act, based on the 1992 film starring Whoopie Goldberg, is written by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater and additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane. Robin Arthur, who directed last year’s Beauty and the Beast, directed and choreographed – keeping things moving at a lively pace.  The Virginia Rep website admonishes that Sister Act has adult themes and language, but I didn’t find it particularly strong and not at all offensive. The show runs about 2 ½ hours, with one intermission, but it moves along at such a good clip that you’re not even aware of the passage of time.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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WHO’S HOLIDAY: A Christmas Parody for Adults Only

Who’s Holiday!: The Story Dr. Seuss Didn’t Want You to See

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: November 14 – December 15, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

 

Who’s Holiday! is an irreverent, adult Christmas story. This one-woman show told by a grown-up Cindy Lou Who takes the audience on a rip-roaring sleigh ride that provides eye-opening details about Cindy Lou Who and her pal the Grinch.

Cindy Lou has outgrown her cute pink pajamas in favor of a bright red shirtwaist dress with multicolored trim which is turn gives way to a green corset with a sparkly red skirt. Both are worn with glittery gold stilettos and a curly blond wig. Thank Ruth Hedberg for the festively tacky costume design.

Cindy Lou has only recently returned home after a rather long stint away. She now lives in a trailer left to her by her late uncle, and it’s parked on Mount Crumpit, apparently not far from the Grinch’s old lair. The sparsely furnished interior feature lots of green accents – and there’s a reason for the Wicked poster on the wall – but T. Ross Aitken’s design seemed surprisingly spacious for a trailer.

And where, exactly is the old green Grinch, and how has he fared over these past years? Well, to tell you that would give away most of the plot. It’s not for nothing that this play is subtitled “The Story Dr. Seuss Didn’t Want You to See!” Apparently, in 2016, Dr. Seuss Enterprises took playwright Matthew Lombardo to court for copyright violation, but Lombardo successfully countersued claiming parody is protected under “fair use” laws and the play opened off-Broadway in 2017.

Kids would not recognize this Cindy Lou Who, played by the talented and versatile Kimberly Jones Clark, most recently seen as Margery in Hand to God co-produced by TheatreLAB and 5th Wall Theatre. I’m not trying to say Clark is making a habit of playing dysfunctional middle-aged women, but lately she has done it extremely well. Middle-aged Cindy Lou starts off greeting the audience, including a shout-out to “the queer in the rear.” She tests the waters of offensiveness with gays and lesbians, as well as Jews, and at one point asks if the word “ghetto” is offensive, but quickly dismisses that suggestion with a flippant, “it gets worse.”

Cindy Lou scrounges a Tramadol from the floor and washes it down with liquor. She takes a hit from a bong and describes some parts of the Grinch that most of us never thought of – and hope never to see – in great detail. Who’s Christmas! is hilarious and also quite dark (and I’m not sure if this is the intent of author Matthew Lombardo, director Dexter Ramey, star Kimberly Jones Clark, or a combination of the three): it deals with drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, bestiality, animal cruelty, murder, and prison culture. Along the way, Jones grabs a handheld microphone and throws in a totally unexpected rap, a deadpan execution of “Merry Little Christmas,” which invited audience participation, and – my personal favorite – a rather skillful rendition of “Blue Christmas.”

There are laughs aplenty; the audience seemed well-pleased, and Clark did an excellent job holding down this zany one-woman show. It just wasn’t my cup of tea – I laughed, I enjoyed it, but it isn’t my favorite adult Christmas show. Maybe I was hoping it would be more like Christmas on the Rocks whose grown up Ralphie, Cindy Lou Who, Charlie Brown, and other characters simultaneously tore and warmed my heartstrings.

Who’s Holiday! runs just about an hour, with no intermission, and is followed by a holiday cabaret with Joshua Worsham on piano and Georgia Roger Farmer and/or Shannon Gibson Brown. I didn’t stay for the cabaret, but it seems like a great deal – an unexpected after party!

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

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Photo Credits: Photos from RTP Facebook page

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LIVIN’ FAT: Living Large

LIVIN’ FAT: The Return of Good Times

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Pine Camp Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Road, RVA 23227

Performances: November 8-17, 2018 with performances at 8:00 pm November 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 & 17; 10:00 am November 14 and 4:00 pm November 17.

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

Info: thetheatreubuntu@gmail.com or https://livinfat.brownpapertickets.com/

If Livin’ Fat, the current production by the Heritage Ensemble Theatre at the Pine Camp Cultural Arts and Community Center has the look and feel of a 1970s era sitcom, there is a good reason. It was written by Judi Ann Mason, whose work includes Good Times, Sanford and Son, and A Different World, as well as the film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Director dl Hopkins remained true to the sitcom genre, using snappy pacing and staging that made the audience feel as if we were, at times, peering into the Carter family’s living room through an invisible screen. Characters even approached the edge of the stage to look out the window, and often crossed one another precariously close to the edge of the stage.

What’s even more remarkable about Livin’ Fat is that Mason (1955-2009) wrote it when she was a 19-year-old drama student at Grambling State University and it earned her the Norman Lear Award for comedy writing. Given that distinguished history – and the strong cast – I’m upset that I did not, could not love this production.

Livin’ Fat takes place in the “front room” of the Carter family home in the Black Quarter of an unnamed southern town. Yes, that’s what my grandmother called our living room, too. The room is spotless but shabby, and on the wall behind the sofa is the obligatory triptych: Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. Big Mama (Sharalyn Garrard) is a disillusioned widow, given to snappy comebacks. She also has a surprising affinity for the young people in her life and often sides with her grandchildren much to the chagrin of her daughter. Mama (Andrea Shantell Dunnaville) has a direct line to God and can quote scripture for any situation. She is equally yoked to husband Calvin (Arthur Muhammad), who works two jobs to support his family and is a stalwart deacon at their church. The parents’ faith and the family’s future are tested when their son, David, comes into an unexpected windfall.

David (Akiel Baldwin) is a college graduate who, upon returning home, could find no other work than as a janitor at a bank. A fate would have it, one day while working at the bank, the bank gets robbed and no one noticed that a bundle of money was dropped on the floor where it found its way into David’s dust rag. Later references to the “dust” in his pocket, therefore, have two meanings – the “dust” from his cleaning rag and an old slang term for being so poor there is “nothing but dust” in your pockets.

Garrard is consistently funny, tossing off sarcasm like breathing, waving her wig in the air, referring to her television set as if it were her lover, eating ex-lax chocolate laxatives like candy to soothe her unnamed “condition,” and being contrary just for sport. Dunnaville takes broad comedy to extremes, often to the point of making her character a caricature. On the positive side, her projection and diction are excellent, and we never have any trouble understanding her, even when her daughter Candy (Imani Banks) is blasting music from her bedroom. Muhammad’s portrayal of the father is the most moderate, contained, and realistic of any of the play’s six characters. He is, therefore, a positive role-model and a model black father. Candy is the least developed of the characters in the family, yet Banks takes advantage of every moment on stage. She is the cute but annoying little sister, given to exaggeration, and does not know the meaning of giving up. When sent to her room, she silently reappears in the background, listening to what the grown-ups don’t want her to hear.

As David, Baldwin must walk a delicate line. College educated – and probably the first in his family to attend college – he is expected to do better than his parents’ generation yet must show respect while living in their home. He does not complain about his menial job, but he talks of his dreams with his best friend. For the most part, Baldwin achieves this balance with aplomb, with the assistance of his side-kick Boo (Marsalis McKeever). Boo, who has not gone to college and seems to have no plan at all for his life, is David’s ride-or-die friend who stands out for two characteristics: when he comes into some money, he spends it all on loud clothes; and he speaks out of the side of his mouth, as if he has marbles in his mouth, making it difficult to clearly hear anything he says.

As appealing as these characters are, and as much as they made me laugh, I found the overall production uneven and underwhelming. The juxtaposition of Dunnaville’s broad sitcom comedy with Muhammad’s more conservative portrayal, Dunnaville’s over-enunciation in contrast to McKeever’s muffled utterances, the frequent (and utterly accurate) use of the word “nigger,” (I hate the euphemism, “n-word”), and author Mason and director Hopkins’ adherence to the sitcom genre just didn’t connect for me. After the show, my constant companion and theater date suggested that (a) I wasn’t really black and (b) Livin’ Large would really, really appeal to older black churchgoers (except, perhaps for that word I mentioned above) and potential black theatergoers who don’t go to the theater because they don’t see enough representations of themselves and their lives onstage.

There is, after all a moral dilemma – a foundational element of good storytelling: should David be allowed to keep the “found” money or should he return it? Has he, in fact, committed a crime? Calvin, the head of the household, takes the question to God, and after a period of prayer, the family abides by his decision. To find out what he decided, and how the play ends, I suggest you go see Livin’ Fat for yourself. (Dates and times are listed above.)

Livin’ Fat: written by Judi Ann Mason; directed by dl Hopkins; with lighting by Geno Brantley; sound by dl Hopkins (a nice 70s playlist); costumes (character and period appropriate) by LaWanda Raines; set by Margarette Joyner; carpentry by Vinnie Gonzalez; photography by Pamela Archer-Shaw; and videography by Dewey Collins.

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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Link to WRIC interview with director dl Hopkins and Sharalyn Garrard (Big Mama): https://www.wric.com/community/-livin-fat-hits-the-stage-in-rva/1576260858

Photo Credits: Photos courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company

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RICHMOND BALLET: A Requiem Into the Night

RICHMOND BALLET:  Studio One

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: November 6-11, 2018

Ticket Prices: $26-46

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

The Richmond Ballet Studio Series is unique and alluring for the intimacy of the space and the presentation of two or three works in an atmosphere that encourages reflection. The current Studio One production continues this tradition. On Tuesday, the Richmond Ballet presented Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, a company premiere of Robbins’ 1970 work for the New York City Ballet, and the world premiere of Nicole Haskins’ Requiem, inspired by the music of Gabriel Fauré.

In the Night is composed of three pas de deux featuring three couples of different temperaments, possibly different ages, at different stages of their relationships.  On Wednesday night, the couples were Melissa Robinson and Marty Davis, Eri Nishihara and Khalyom Khojaev, and Maggie Small and Fernando Sabino. Robinson and Davis embodied youthful elegance, she in a softly flowing purple dress, he is a blue-gray waistcoat and ascot. Their movements were sustained, romantic, controlled, yet effortless. Nishihara and Khojaev had a more mature posture, and the earth tones of their costumes added weight. At the same time, their movements were more fanciful, with bigger, bolder jumps and lifts. Finally, Small and Sabino presented a more passionate duo. Her black dress with red underskirt suggested a smoldering temperament, and his darker gray jacket was smoky, matching the teasing sensuality verging on conflict – sort of like classical ballet with a tango temperament. The final section of the beautiful Chopin nocturnes, played live onstage by pianist Joanne Kong, brought all three couple together. In one beautiful moment they briefly acknowledged one another before dancing off.

In her video reflections, Haskins described Fauré’s Requiem as “a lullaby for death, not dark or sad.” The women’s flowing skirts, designed by Emily Morgan, were designed to make the movement linger, like the memories of loved ones. The work opens with lights like memorial candles and the women, seated with their skirts pooled around them, also look like candles. The stage is kept dim, and groups of dancers are bathed in the amber glow of the lights. The dancers’ formations are fascinating and delightfully unpredictable: clusters, solos, duos, small groups, diagonal facings, patterns that flow and change organically. While Haskins assured us the work was not dark or sad, it did seem to go on just a little too long.

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:

Rehearsal Photos from Richmond Ballet Facebook posts & Photos by Sarah Ferguson

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Sabrina Holland and Fernando Sabino in In The Night by Jerome Robbins. Richmond Ballet 2018. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.

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Abi Goldstein and Thel Moore III in In The Night by Jerome Robbins. Richmond Ballet 2018. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.

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Dancers of Richmond Ballet in Requiem by Nicole Haskins. Richmond Ballet 2018. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.

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Dancers of Richmond Ballet in Requiem by Nicole Haskins. Richmond Ballet 2018. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.

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Richmond Ballet dancers rehearsing “Requiem”

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Choreographer Nicole Haskins with Richmond Ballet dancers Abi Goldstein and Mate Szentes

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Cody Beaton and Mate Szentes rehearsing “Requiem”

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Richmond Ballet dancers rehearsing “Requiem”

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MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS: A Holiday Heartwarmer

MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS: When Dreams Come True

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: October 27 – December 30, 2018

Ticket Prices: Start at $21

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

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a musical adaptation of a children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater, and the book for the musical is by Robert Kauzlaric with music and lyrics by George Howe. It is a book unfamiliar to me, my daughter, and my two grandsons, but after spending Sunday afternoon at the Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn it will likely find it way onto our bookshelves this coming holiday season. It has comedy, adventure, and penguins.

Richard Popper is a house painter and decorator of modest means; he and his wife Florence live on a strict budget that does not allow for the travel and adventures Mr. Popper dreams of. He is especially fond of Antarctic exploration and penguins. Of course, there’s more to the story. Imagine their surprise when the Poppers hear on the radio that Mr. Popper’s favorite explorer, Admiral Drake, has received Mr. Popper’s fan letter and is responding with a surprise. Soon a large crate is delivered to the Popper’s Stillwater, Minnesota home and inside is a genuine Gentoo penguin from Antartica that quickly becomes a part of the Popper’s little family. (In the book, it seems the Poppers were British and have two children, but in the musical the live in the USA and their only children are the feathered kind.)

The Popper’s household soon expands, as their male penguin, Captain Cook, eventually grows lonely, and an aquarium that Mr. Popper contacts for help has a lonely female penguin, Greta, that they generously ship to the Popper’s residence. The next thing you know, there are ten penguin chicks and the poor Poppers have to figure out how to keep all these penguin bellies full of fresh fish and frozen shrimp. Their solution – Popper’s Performing Penguins – leads to more hilarity and the gradual realization that touring on the vaudeville circuit is no way for a family of birds to live.

Yes, I said vaudeville. Mr. Popper’s Penguins was written in 1938 and vaudeville as well as references to the WPA (the federal government’s New Deal Administration program called the Works Progress Administration from 1935-1939, when it was renamed the Work Projects Administration), along with Mrs. Popper’s job search and the family’s focus on finances will likely go over the heads of the young audience members as well as most of their parents. Let’s face it, I’m a grandmother, and this was before my time, too. I only know about these things because I teach dance history! My daughter did ask what WPA was, but neither grandson seemed to notice or care.

All the shenanigans are skillfully handled by director Josh Chenard, with musical direction by Jason Marks and choreography by Wes Seals. A cast of five talented actors play all the roles – some thirteen different characters, with Derrick Jacques as Mr. Popper and Renee McGowan as Mrs. Popper. Keaton Hillman Emma-Claire Polich, (both ensemble) and Eve Marie Tuck (swing) play all the other characters. Both Kingston (age 10) and his mom Soleil were impressed by Keaton Hillman who changed characters, costumes and accents with the dexterity of a magician, and manipulated the Captain Cook penguin puppet as well.

Yes, the two adult penguins were large puppets (credit Kylie Clark with the puppet design – something Virginia Rep Children’s Theatre does so well) while the 10 penguin chicks were smaller, stuffed versions. Emmitt (age 4) was enthralled by the penguins. He spent most of the hour (no intermission) perched on the edge of his seat, his eyes wide open so as not to miss anything. He did tear his eyes away from the stage to lean in and ask his mom, “Can I have a pet penguin?” He made a second earnest plea out in the parking lot, adding that the penguin could live in the refrigerator.

With about six musical numbers, Mr. Popper’s Penguins moved at a fairly rapid pace – but never felt rushed. Jaques and McGowan carried most of the story, and their voices are strong and clear, making it easy for attendees of all ages to understand the lyrics. Jeanne Nugent’s costumes are lovely – especially the women’s wide-legged pants that remind me of Ms. Celie’s pants from The Color Purple. Mrs. Popper’s apron, Mr. Popper’s bow tie, and painter’s coveralls, and the props used by the various characters (a wooden dog, a hat with the gray hair attached, Mr. Popper’s painter’s ladder and pipe) are all overly exaggerated, almost cartoonish.

Taking this theme about as far as it could go, Chris Raintree’s set includes larger than life library books that open up to reveal entire rooms. “Atkinson’s Kitchen Companion” houses the Popper’s kitchen while their living room is housed within a tome entitled “432 Proudfoot Avenue” and the admiral’s ship is docked inside a book on Antarctic exploration. The production is visually stimulating but not over stimulating.

There’s also lots of word play. Captain Cook and Greta’s brood are given the names of famous explorers, such as Ferdinand, Columbus, and Magellan. There’s also Isabella and Victoria, who wears a tiara. Finally, but not least, there is all the alliteration! Mr. Popper’s Penguins alliterates just about every “p” word you can think of, and when they run out of “p” words they alliterate other letters of the alphabet.

Recommended for ages 4 and up, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a family-friendly production that is perfect for the younger members of the audience and is being offered as an alternative or addition to holiday staples, such as The Nutcracker. Unlike many productions of past seasons, there is none of the double entendre and innuendo that seemed to be intended for the adults. Here, the focus is all on the pleasure of the kids, and Kingston and Emmitt would give this production a combined two thumbs up.

 

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

Mr Popper's Penguins
Renée McGowan and Derrick Jaques. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

Mr Popper's Penguins
Renée McGowan and Derrick Jaques. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

Mr Popper's Penguins
Eve Marie Tuck, Derrick Jaques, Renée McGowan, Keaton Hillman, Emma-Claire Polich. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

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ANANYA DANCE THEATRE: People Powered Dances of Transformation

ANANYA DANCE THEATRE: How Do We Show Up For Each Other?

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Commonwealth University School Grace Street Theater, 934 West Grace Street, RVA 23220

Performances: October 26 & 27, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20 Adults; $15 Students

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

 

Ananya Dance Theatre, under the artistic direction of Ananya Chatterjea, presents dance within a social, feminist/womanist, human context. Entertaining is only a part of what they do. There were no spectators in the Grace Street Theater on Saturday night when I attended Shaatranga: Women Weaving Worlds. Oh, there were plenty of people in the audience, but Chatterjea and her troupe of seven powerful women did not allow us to sit and be entertained.

Several times the house lights came up and those who may have been under the impression they had come to see a show were asked to take a stand, to raise a fist, to clap and stomp our feet. We participated in an invocation of breath and watching a dance performance may never be the same. Stand up (one woman did). Raise your first (most did). Clap your hands. Stomp your feet. Chant: Public fury; public joy; public love; public dance!

Shaatranga, which means “seven colors” in Bānglā, is the culmination of a quintet of works exploring work women do. The dance was created in four movements and runs 95 minutes with no intermission and is based on research, history, and cultural connections. The two main themes are ancient Indian Ocean trade routes that connected Asia, Africa, and South America, and the shared practices of indigo-dyeing. Visually, an abstract navigation star represents the compass that “enables us to remain on the path of a complexly woven notion of justice.” At the beginning of the work, the navigation star is broken but by the end it has been healed. The sections of the dance bear names like “Voyage,” “Shipwreck,” and “Desolation.” There are “Rituals of Mourning” and “Dancing to Heal.”

Chatterjea’s movement vocabulary uses classical Indian dance as a foundation and there are layers contemporary dance woven throughout. There is yoga, martial arts, rage and joy. The movement that stood out most to me is a spiral that starts from deep inside the core then winds its way up and out. There is also spoken word, ritual, and sound: grunts, screams, the sound of helicopter rotors as the women’s hands reach up, the sound of feet slapping and stomping, the sound of drums, and even, I think, the faint sound of birds and monkeys chattering.

At the beginning, there was a curtain hung asymmetrically so that it reminded me simultaneously of a simple curtain or covering, a woman’s veil, and a ship’s sail. Later, the black curtains opened just a bit to reveal a portion of white wall bathed in red light with Chatterjea splattered on the wall, feet up, arms splayed out on the floor. There is beauty, hunger, pain, distortion, and there is power.

Projections and simple design elements created an all-encompassing world that kept me on the edge of my seat for most of the evening. There were rolling waves and animated billows of indigo that morphed into hands, and there were ceiling-to-floor ribbons of indigo, interwoven like the lives of the women represented, remembered, and honored. Throughout, the women wore loose-fitting dark blue pants (a knee-length Indian salwar, similar to Victorian knickers or bloomers) but changed their tops for each movement (peplum tunics, athletic leotards, high necked tops) in shades of blue, sometimes with splashed of color, but always indigo. Musical composition, vocals, sound design, poetry, costume, lighting, scenic design, animations and projections all united in a seamless manifestation of Chatterjea’s concept.

Often, a program is unnecessary, except to identify the names of the dances. In this case, the program was an essential guide to the work, filled with background, history, poetry, definitions, and questions: How do we show up for each other? This company, this work must be seen. Writing about it does not do it justice.

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

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Photo Credits:

Company photos and photos from the company website.

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SONGS FROM BEDLAM: The Lunatics Take Over the Asylum

SONGS FROM BEDLAM: Tu Es Fou

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

Ticket Prices: $15 – $30

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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