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ROMEO AND JULIET: Romance Rebooted

ROMEO AND JULIET: Young Love and Old Problems Revisited

A Theater Review and Reflections by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre/20th Annual Richmond Shakespeare Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES: Not for the Faint of Heart

GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES: An Unconventional Love Story

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

TheatreLAB’s The Cellar Series 2018: This Beautiful Mess

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

Performances: June 11-23, 2018

Ticket Prices: $15

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Louise Ricks

 

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

PRELUDES: An Inspired Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

 

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

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG: This, Too, Is America

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

Ticket Prices: $30 general

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

 

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ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID: Southern Hospitality in a Comedy of Recognition

ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID: Southern Women Ensemble Humor Strikes Again

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Robyn O’Neill

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RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL 2018: Week Three

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

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Richmond Dance Festival production photos by Mike Keeling

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

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

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Richmond Dance Festival production photos by Kate Prunkl

Dogtown Dance Fest-1

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

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

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

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

Ticket Prices: $10-35

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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Photo Credits: Jason Collins Photography

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

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

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

Ticket Prices: $15 General Admission

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits:

Catherine Cabeen by Joe Markwalter

iMEE by Roi LeMay

Luisa Martinez by Evan Zimmerman

Motion X by Ruth Judson

Rain Ross by Brian Mengini

Starr Foster Danc

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

e by Doug Hayes

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RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL 2018 @ DOGTOWN: Spring Has Sprung Diversity

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

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

ONE IN FOUR: An Out of This World Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

A Nu Puppis Production

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

 

One in Four-3
Matt Riley and Rachel Hindman

One in Four-2

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

CONSTELLATIONS: A Play of Infinite Possibilities

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

TheatreLAB’s The Cellar Series 2018: This Beautiful Mess

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

Performances: April 23 – May 2, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10 general; $5 students

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Destiny Martinez

 

Constellations
Audra Honaker and Trevor Craft
Constellations2
Trevor Craft and Audra Honaker
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MOTH: The Third in TheatreLab’s “Taking Sides” Series

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 13-28, 2018

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

 

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

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: April 18-May 12, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-30

Info: (804) 346-8113or rtriangle.org

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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RVA Dance Collective Presents: VOICES

RVA Dance Collective Presents: VOICES

A Dance Pre-Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Mike Keeling

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 6-May 13, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

pinkalicious_tyandria_jackson_pr_sbpinkalicious_illus_topPinkalicious

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

LUCKY ME: Finding Joy in the Cracks and Flaws

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 6-21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bill Blair, Amy Berlin, Matt Hackman, and Todd Schall-Vess in “Lucky Me”
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Amy Berlin (as Sara) and Matt Hackman (as Tom)
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Amy Berlin and Matt Hackman
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Matt Hackman and Amy Berlin
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ROMEO AND JULIET: When Society Fails its Youth

ROMEO AND JULIET: Young Love and Old Problems

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced By: Quill Theatre

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

Performances: April 6-22, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Quill Theatre

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AN OAK TREE: The Physical Substance of a Thing

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

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

RADAR Dance:  Impetus

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 24-25, 2018

Ticket Prices: $15 Adults; $10 Students

Info: radardance.com or radardance@gmail.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

 

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

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Photo Credits:

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

RADAR

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

RADAR Impetus Poster 2

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

RICHMOND BALLET:  Studio Two New Works Festival 2018

An Extended Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 20-25, 2018

Ticket Prices: $22.50-$42.50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits:

Sarah Ferguson

 

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

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits:

5th Wall Theatre

Pumpboys

Pump Boys_1
Michael Bamford, John Mervini, Rachel Marrs, and Desiree Roots Centeio
Featured

DAMES AT SEA: Making Waves at Swift Creek

DAMES AT SEA: Pint-sized Extravaganza

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: March 8-May 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits:

Swift Creek Mill Facebook page

 

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ERMA BOMBECK: End-to-End Wit

ERMA BOMBECK: At Wit’s End

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

VirginiaRep

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

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

Ticket Prices: $42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits:

Aaron Sutton

 

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

Acts of Faith

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

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players in Collaboration with 5th Wall Theatre

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

Performances: March 8-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits:

John MacLellan, WomeninEuropeanHistory.org, and RTP website

 

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

I Am My Own Wife

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HELEN SIMONEAU DANSE: Land Bridge

HELEN SIMONEAU DANSE: Land Bridge

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

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

Performances: March 3, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20 Adults; $15 Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits:

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

 

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JOHN & JEN: A Musical of Second Chances

JOHN & JEN: A Story of Second Chances

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

At: HATTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Dr., RVA 23238

Performances: March 2-17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits:

Jason Eib Photography

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WINGS: A brilliant stroke of a musical

WINGS THE MUSICAL:

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

Ticket Prices: $20-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits:

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

 

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BRIGHT HALF LIFE: A Beautiful Mess

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 17-24, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credit:

Louise Ricks

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

Acts of Faith

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

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

Some Thoughts & A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

By: Virginia Repertory Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Note:

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

 

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

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Photo Credits:

Photos by Jason Collins Photography

 

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

A Raisin in the Sun

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

A Raisin in the Sunshow_raisin_in_hansberry2 - CopyActs of Faith

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SONGS FROM THE SOUL: The Story of Black Music in America from Slavery to Hip Hop

SONGS FROM THE SOUL: The Story Black Music in America

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

By: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn

At: 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Richmond, Virginia 23230

Performances: February 2-25, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20

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

William Dye wrote and directed Songs from the Soul, a foot-tapping musical revue that traces the history of black music in America from slavery to the present. Aimed at theater-goers aged 7 and up, the show runs for a delightful one hour with no intermission.

On Sunday afternoon the three-actor ensemble of William Anderson, Anthony Cosby, and Nicole Pearson took a diverse audience (age, race, gender) that nearly filled the house on a musical journey from Negro spirituals and slave songs through contemporary hip hop and rap. Young and old, black and white calmly patted their feet or clapped along to the music for the first few minutes until Anthony Cosby, who appears to be the baby of the group, came out in a permed wig and sparkly jacket and threw his leg up on the piano during his spirited rendition of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” That seemed to loosen up the audience considerably.

While Anderson, Cosby, and Pearson maintained a lively and fictitious rivalry, it was Cosby who repeatedly sought to engage the audience, at one point involving the three sections (east, west, and south) in a three-part chant of “Whoomp, There It Is!” Anderson and Cosby donned fluffy retro Afro wigs for the “Soul Medley” (“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “Respect/Think”) the trio moved some to tears with a “Civil Rights Medley” including excerpts of “Precious Lord,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “We Shall Overcome,” complete with a portrait of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And was it just me, or did Pearson’s coat, head scarf, and grocery bag remind anyone else of Rosa Parks?

The “Rap Medley” began with the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which is usually held to be the original herald of hip hop and included the all-too familiar lyrics to “The Breaks” and “Whoomp, There It Is” as well Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First” and Eric B and Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique.” This medley sparked an interactive conversation at Sunday afternoon’s Act of Faith talkback. One local pastor in the audience had questions about rap, hip hop, and Christian values, while Virginia Rep’s Founding Producer Bruce Miller, who moderated the Talkback, shared some amusing anecdotes from the point of view of a “liberal white guy.”

The long and the short of it is that music can be a universal, unifying force that brings people together. As an example, Writer/Director William Dye expressed pleasant surprise that white members of the audience stood for the closing song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, John Rosamund Johnson, it was first performed February 12, 1900 for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and has since become known as the Negro or Black National Anthem. As such, it is traditional for black people to stand in respect, as for any national anthem, when sung in churches and for community programs.

Songs from the Soul includes an historical narrative that manages never to get bogged down – even when addressing such weighty subjects as slavery and civil rights. That’s what happens when you have a theatrical professional who is also a teacher in charge of the production. (The term “edutainment” which accurately describes this merging of entertainment and educational content was coined in the 1970s by former Harvard professor Robert Heyman.)

Simple additions to basic costumes – a wig, a jacket, a dashiki – create atmosphere, identify the time period, and indicate identity. Sue Griffin’s costuming, Skyler Broughman’s lighting, and Terrie Powers’ set design are all simple and unobtrusive, keeping the music centerstage. A fourth cast member, Michaela Nicole, serves as the swing or understudy, but we did not have the pleasure of her presence on Sunday.

My trusted and experienced consultant for all children’s shows, my 9-year-old grandson, Kingston, gave Songs from the Soul two thumbs up, but did not add any details.  To my surprise, he did participate in the talkback, asking the cast members about their favorite types of music.  While there was a wide range of preferences, nearly all, including Director Dye, showed a preference for Christian and Gospel music, and Cosby confessed to a strong preference for jazz and big and sounds. Sounds from the Soul offers everyone a chance to enlarge their musical vocabulary.

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

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Photo Credits:

Photos by Aaron Sutten

 

Featured

FREE MAN OF COLOR: The Story of One Man’s Search for the True Meaning of Freedom

FREE MAN OF COLOR: The Story of One Man’s Search for the True Meaning of Freedom

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Rd, Richmond, VA 23227

Performances: February 8th, 9th, 10th, 15th, 16th, 17th @8:00pm; February 10th, 17th @4:00pm; February 14th @10:00am

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

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

“Your people will never live in harmony with white people in America.” These words might have been taken from the latest news coverage of white supremacists in the local news. But on stage at Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, they were spoken by Reverend Robert Wilson, President of Ohio University in the 1820s, acting, as he believed, under direct orders from God.

Robert Wilson, played by actor Ken Moretti, is one of three characters in Charles Smith’s very literate and very relevant play about John Newton Templeton (Jamar Jones), the first African American to graduate from Ohio University – 35 years before slavery was officially abolished in the USA. Free Man of Color, first published and produced in 2004) is not just a recounting of yet another African American first – it is a thought provoking look at an American figure most of us have never heard of, an examination of the institution of slavery from an entirely different perspective, a revelation of the conflict and contradictions that complicate the conjunction of black freedom and women’s rights, and – to paraphrase director Toney Q. Cobb’s notes – it seeks the meaning of freedom, rather than the definition.

Most would think John is privileged to be brought into the home of Wilson, a university president, and his wife Jane (Mara Barrett) to work as a student servant while studying for a liberal arts degree. But wait, not so fast. John is immediately met with hostility from Jane, who appears to have a deep disdain for John and is not averse to calling him stupid or even a nigger. “I hated that woman,” John tells the audience in a narrative aside.  “Every time I looked at her, I could visualize my fingers wrapped around her throat.” Many in the audience at Saturday’s matinee felt the same way, and I felt a great respect for Barrett who executed a flawless performance of her hateful role in front of an all-black audience.

There is more to Jane’s character than we see at first glance. As the story unfolds, we learn that she is not allowed to ride her beloved horse, because ladies are not allowed to straddle a horse, but may only ride sidesaddle – an inefficient if not impossible proposition in rough terrain. Furthermore, Jane, the wife of the president of the university, cannot set foot into a classroom or lecture hall at the university in 1824, again, because she is a woman. Yet here is John, a freedman, an ex-slave, living in her home, enrolled in the university, and riding her horse.

Jones, who appeared in last year’s Richmond Triangle Players production of Choir Boy and spends his days portraying enslaved and free black people in Colonial Williamsburg, initially appears to portray John as the perfect negro – polite, docile, compliant. But that is only one side of this multi-faceted character. As he learns the difference between training and education, Jones’ character shows his benefactor, Rev. Wilson, and the audience that while one may be trained and manipulated to follow, he has been educated to reason for himself. The decisions he makes may not please his mentor, but he is adamant that “if I don’t look after my soul, no one else will.” Jones is fully committed to this role, and entirely believable.

Moretti also gives a fully fleshed, nuanced performance. As Rev. Wilson, Moretti renders a heart-felt rendition of “Amazing Grace” that is marred only by the realization that his character is using the song to justify white supremacy. All three actors are well cast in their roles.

Free Man of Color is an important work that addresses serious issues and raises important questions. Free Man of Color addresses the issues of slavery and women’s rights, but also brings up the treatment of native Americans and indigenous people in Liberia, which was home to a settlement of expatriated black Americans and it examines the motives of the American Colonization Society. A group created in 1816, purportedly to assist free blacks and former slaves emigrate to Liberia, to our contemporary eyes, it bears a striking resemblance to white supremacist organizations and ideologies.

In two acts, performed over approximately 2 hours and twenty minutes, including one intermission, we are taken on a journey that leaves us stunned, angry, outraged, and hopeful – sometimes all at once. Jones, Moretti, and Barrett work well as an ensemble, with only a few stumbles, and Cobb’s subtle yet intentional direction keeps the audience engaged. Free Man of Color is excellent theater and marks a new high for the Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company and for Toney Q. Cobb as director.

The Pine Camp venue offers challenges any theater company’s technical crew. One is that all sets must be free standing, and here Artistic Director Margarete Joyner has done an amazing job in creating the Wilson’s home office. She is listed on the program not only as Artistic Director and Costume Designer – a job she does with the eye of a fashion designer – but also as Set Designer and Master Carpenter! The lights were designed by Geno Brantley and the sound (including subtle and perfectly placed touches of period music, the sounds of a horse galloping, and more) was designed by Pamela Archer Shaw.

  • FYI: Here is a link to the actual commencement speech delivered in 1828 by the real John Newton Templeton. “The Claims of Liberia” is mentioned several times in the play, but Jones/John never actually delivers it.

http://www.seorf.ohiou.edu/xx057/john_newton_templeton.htm

  • NOTE & SPOILER ALERT: While John was offered an important position in the colony of Liberia, a bit of research indicates that the Edward Roye mentioned at the end of the play was actually the fifth president of Liberia, not the governor. It seems that Charles Smith may have taken some artistic license with the historical facts, but there is plenty of substance – not “fake news.”

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 & Posters Courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company

 

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Richmond Ballet’s THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

Richmond Ballet’s THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace St., RVA 23219

Performances: February 9th @ 7:00pm; February 10th @2:00pm and 7:00pm; February 11th @2:00pm

Ticket Prices: Start at $25

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

The Richmond Ballet’s large-scale production of the timeless fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty, staged by Malcolm Burn is simply beautiful. From the classical choreography by Marius Petipa, with additions by Burn, paired with the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky to the stunning technical execution by the dancers to the elegant three-dimensional set by Michael Eagan, The Sleeping Beauty is a masterful piece of theater. The music is played live by The Richmond Symphony under the direction of Resident Conductor Erin Freeman.

The work, onstage at The Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center for one weekend only, features company members Cody Beaton as Princess Aurora, Marty Davis as Prince Florimund, Lauren Archer as The Fairy of the Lilac (Wisdom), and Mate Szentes as her Cavalier. Petite Elena Bello dances the role of Carabosse, the Wicked Fairy, with Peter Elverson as King Florestan and Ballet Master Jerri Kumery in a rare character role as his Queen. Another character role, that of The Nurse, is filled by faculty member Susan Israel Massey, and Richmond Ballet II member Khaiyom Khojaev is featured as Puss ‘n Boots.

The scale of this production involves just about every company member (Ira White, recovering from an injury, was helping out at the box office on Friday night, and Maggie Small was absent recovering from a recent injury) as well as members of Richmond Ballet II, the Richmond Ballet Trainees, and students from the School of Richmond Ballet along with students from the Ballet’s Minds in Motion outreach program. Imagine the sheer power generated by twenty or thirty dancing bodies or more sharing the same stage.

The Sleeping Beauty is Tchaikovsky’s longest ballet, running nearly 4 hours, with intermissions, when performed full length – including a prologue and three acts. The Richmond Ballet production has been pared down to two acts and runs two hours, including one intermission. If that is still too long for the youngest members of the audience, they might be kept interested by frequent appearances in the second act of characters such as Puss ‘n Boots and his paramour The White Cat (Abi Goldstein), or Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf (Savannah George and Thel Moore, III). Even the four little boys who portrayed the Trees – Carter Bush, Oliver Gardner, Hart Isacoff, and Zachary Owen – received an ovation from one gentleman in my row, and I don’t even think he was related to either of them.

The highlight of the ballet remains the Grand Pas de Deux, performed by Cody Beaton and Marty Davis. Beaton brought beauty, grace, resilience, and a touch of humor to Princess Aurora. Davis was technically crisp, noble in demeanor, and confident as Prince Florimund (originally named Prince Désiré) – as he should be after restoring the lovely Princess to life and earning her hand in marriage after a century’s long nap due to the spell cast by Carabosse on Aurora’s 16th birthday. Beaton dances with precise abandon, flinging her torso first to one side then the other, and obvious enjoyment, now leaning forward to watch the play of her arms. The couple makes the simplest choreography, like synchronized little hops backward, look beautiful, and the audience pleasing dips, lifts, and extensions look elegant and easy.

There are far too many dancers and characters to make mention of them all, but I would be remiss not to mention the lovely Eri Nishihara – a first year member of the company, she stands out as a quick, lithe, and powerful dancer in her role as Princess Florine in Act II.  Khaiyom Khojaev brought confidence and sass to his role as Puss ‘n Boots, making the most of his featured moments with nuanced tilts of his masked head and eerily authentic feline swipes of his paws – I mean hands. The Sleeping Beauty ballet is a treat for the eyes, ears, and soul.

 

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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BRAVE NEW WORLD: an uneven adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s novel

BRAVE NEW WORLD: David Rogers’ adaptation from the novel by Aldous Huxley

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Quill Theatre at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Rd., Glen Allen, VA 23060

Performances: February 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $28 Regular; $15 for Students (with valid ID)

Info: (804) 261-ARTS or quilltheatre.org

It’s no surprise that Quill Theatre would consider Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World as appropriate source material for the current season. After all, as Production Manager James Ricks pointed out at Sunday afternoon’s audience talkback, there is a resurgence of a national discourse, of talking points about truth and fact (what we now call “fake news”), scientific truth (the CDC was recently issued a list of forbidden words), emotional truth (can there be any compromise between white supremacists and all those whose existence they would deny). The question was asked, why is this an Acts of Faith Festival offering? That’s self-explanatory. Our beliefs, what we value, our gods or lack thereof, our idols (in this case, Ford, which forges links with technology and conveniently rhymes with Lord) provide logical points of departure for discussions of faith. Brave New World offers an entry point for comparative discourse on the hard topics that should be discussed.

Another albeit more lightweight reason this is a choice for Quill is that one of the main characters, John (Caleb Wade), communicates largely through Shakespearean quotations. Ironically, John is considered a savage in Huxley’s dystopian world, where babies are genetically manufactured, workers are cloned in factories, hypnopedia or sleep-training is the preferred method of socialization, and the government distributes happy pills to every citizen.

The problem with this production (well, actually, there is more than one) is that David Rogers’ 1970 adaptation o Huxley’s novel and the Quill staging, directed by Maggie Roop, whose work I admire tremendously, works better as a book than it does on stage. As fascinating and as timeless as the story may be, and as strong as the cast may be, both individually and collectively, the first act drags, and I found it difficult to fully engage.

Quill is adept at placing actors in multiple roles. They have, after all, successfully staged the complete works of William Shakespeare with just two actors. Brave New World, the play, was written for 19 men, 13 women, and three children, or 14 men and 9 women with some in multiple roles. Quill staged the production with a cast of 11, composed of six men and five women. The result of this paring down was that at times it was difficult to tell who was playing which character when, and it didn’t help that the entire cast wore uniforms: silver-gray pants and shirts or burgundy dresses, both topped by awkward little epaulet capelets.

On the positive side, I appreciated the gender-neutral casting of Lucretia Anderson as Mustapha, the Resident World Controller. Michael Oppenheimer initially held out a promise of change in this totalitarian society as the rebellious Alpha+ male Bernard, but when given a taste of power, he caved in.  Alex Wiles as the beautiful Lenina remained steadfastly committed to the program and the emotion deadening effects of the government supplied narcotic, soma. Caleb Wade brought a welcome intrusion into this world as the so-called savage, John, with his curiosity and literary worldview, and his shirtless second act was the highlight of the show for some. The cast also included Joseph Bromfield, Axle Burtness, Christopher Dunn, Rachel Hindman, Jacqueline Jones, Jimmy Mello, and Nicole Morris-Anastasi.

Mary Sader’s austere faux stone set was simple and attractive, but during the first act I was distracted by my view of an unpainted support that was clearly visible from my seat on the far left of the auditorium. At the start of the second act, a member of the stage crew pulled the curtains to meet the edges of the set, solving the problem. James Ricks’ sound design included an electronic effect that sounded a lot like an Australian didgeridoo, which was simultaneously evocative and unfortunately hegemonic for the scenes involving John and the residents of the compound where New World residents would occasionally vacation in order to experience the primitive past.

Rogers adapted Huxley’s novel, and Quill made a few more adaptions. Originally set in futuristic 26th century London, the production was free of English accents or any geographical references. When Bernard decided to vacation in New Mexico, there was no indication how far it might be from where he started, or even if it was in another country. The production chose to call the undeveloped areas compounds rather than reservations and also downplayed Huxley’s emphasis on sexuality and required participation in orgies, while adding a snake-handling scene near the end.

I suspect that the theatrical experience might be quite different for those who read and remember the novel, those who read it decades ago in high school (if it was allowed), and those who never read it at all. This is a production that the cast seemed to enjoy immensely. Axle Burtness indicated during the talkback that it was exciting to be immersed in Brave New World because of the lack of realism. Unfortunately, as an audience member, I was not able to attain that level of immersion and felt a bit left out. In a Brave New World, I would probably be a candidate for exile to an island. Thank Ford!

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

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Photo Credit:

Quill Theatre promotional photos

BNW-Slider-1
Lucretia Andlerson, Axle Burtness, Rachel Hindman, Nicole Morris-Anastasi, Michael Oppenheimer

BNW-Slider-2Acts of Faith

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I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD: When prayer is a curse

I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD: by Halley Feiffer

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $35 – VIP Seating, $30 – General Admission, $20 – Senior / RVA Theatre Alliance, $10 – Student (with valid ID)

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

Like many of the Acts of Faith Festival offerings, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is not intended for mere entertainment. It left Saturday night’s TheatreLAB at The Basement audience mentally battered and bruised and most in the audience sat in utter silence collecting themselves for more than a full minute at the end.

This provocative two-character play deals with the toxic father-daughter relationship of David (Alan Sader), a renowned playwright and his daughter Ella (Liz Earnest) and aspiring actress who alternately basks and languishes in her famous father’s success. The second installment of Artistic Director Deejay Gray’s “Taking Sides” project, Gray has staged the play in David’s living room that appears to have been snatched from New York and dropped into the middle of The Basement, with audience members sitting on two sides peering through the torn away walls. At some point we became unwilling voyeurs, sort of like having noisy neighbors in an apartment building. This feeling is reinforced by the opportunity to watch the viewers on the other side of the stage watching the action – and you. One woman even gasped aloud at a particularly egregious action by David. The intimacy of the setting amplifies whatever you might be feeling as you watch this story unfold.

There is no doubt that Ella loves her father. The way she kneels submissively before him with his refilled wine glass in her outstretched hands is profoundly disturbing, as is her constant need to apologize. David obviously has deep feelings for his only daughter, but it is a love tainted by a narcissistic and perhaps even psychopathic personality.

Gray decided to stage this 90-minutes without interruption play as a two-act play with an intermission after about an hour in. In the first act, Sader commands the stage and monopolizes the conversation with his daughter. He reminisces about his character’s early life, throws shade on well-known playwrights (“Arthur Miller was a hack”), and rants relentlessly about theater critics. (I thought long and hard before I put the actors’ names in parentheses after the names of their characters – apparently one of Davis’s pet peeves.) David is the kind of self-centered father who calls his fawning daughter ugly and then says it’s a joke. He takes off his shoes and thrusts his feet into Ella’s lap for a foot rub but callously pushes her away when she puts her feet in his lap, so he can return the favor. Sader maintains a deceptively calm exterior through many of these exchanges, speaking with a marked softness that makes his increasingly frequent explosions all the more harrowing.

Davis is not likely to win any awards for father of the year. Not only does he exploit Ella’s insecurities, he fuels them with wine, hits from a bong, and lines of cocaine. But if the first part of the show belongs to Sader, the shorter second act presents Earnest as a greatly transformed Ella.  No longer fawning and seeking the approval of her father – who appears only as a sort of ghost-of-the-past figure – she has, instead, become her father. As the now confident, successful, and beautiful Ella, Earnest is beautifully put together in a chic top, slim high waited pants, and thick heels that command respect – no slutty stilettoes for her. But, it’s all just acting, and it’s a role she cannot maintain.

Given that playwright Halley Feiffer is the daughter of prolific cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer (currently 89, he married his third wife in 2016), one cannot help but wonder how much of I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is autobiographical. Nonetheless, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard (a line and a lesson taken from David’s mentor) offers an intriguing look into the home life of an award-winning, if fictional, playwright as well as two coveted roles of the type both characters debate in their alcohol fueled family night.

David Melton’s set is beautifully detailed and also utilitarian; it takes a beating before the evening is over. Ella sits and lounges on the coffee table, jumps in the sofa, and soaks the carpet with wine more than once. A mirror does double duty as a tray for cocaine, and a trash basket plays a featured role in a bloody accident. I did wonder, however, about one wall that featured a window and a single-panel door that appeared to be an apartment style door. It was not clear whether this door opened onto a corridor – in which case, why the window? – or onto the street. Michael Jarett’s lighting is subtle and takes a dramatic turn during key moments in the dialogue. Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design was equally subtle, at times almost imperceptible, as when the strains of West Side Story’s “Somewhere” supported Sader’s humming of the tune.

I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is gritty, meaty, and oh so worth your time, and David and Ella are two characters you’ll not soon forget.

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

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Photo Credit:

Tom Topinka

Featured

THE DIVINERS: acts of faith vs crises of faith

THE DIVINERS: by Jim Leonard, Jr.

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

At: CAT (Chamberlayne Actors Theatre), 319 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227

Performances: February 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $13, $18, $23

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

 

For the first time in all the years I’ve gone to CAT, the space was totally reconfigured. Director Zachary Owen reversed the positions of the audience and the stage to build a raked thrust platform with the audience seated intimately on three sides of the stage for the current production of Jim Leonard, Jr.’s depression-era drama, The Diviners.

Set in the tiny fictitious town of Zion, Indiana, the story revolves around Buddy Layman, a fourteen-year-old boy with developmental challenges and a paralyzing fear of water. It appears that he has not taken a bath since his mother died – and we never find out exactly how long ago that was but suffice it to say that it’s been long enough that Buddy is encrusted with dirt and infected with ringworms to the point that he can no longer sleep. Stone Casey, a high school freshman, handles this role with the confidence of a seasoned professional. (He has been performing in school for five years, and apparently, he’s been paying attention.) Casey may be on his way to finding his purpose in life; the role of Buddy is emotional and nuanced, and he navigated it like a true professional.

Buddy is, nonetheless, a charismatic child, prone to speaking of himself in the third person, and gifted with the ability to find well or to divine water. In fact, the first act finds him searching for a new well for local farmer Basil Bennett (Charles A. Wax) who also doubles as the town doctor, albeit without benefit of medical school – which was not uncommon in bygone decades. Basil’s wife, Luella (Sandra Clayton) is skeptical of Buddy’s divining abilities and urges her husband to hire some contractors with well-digging machinery.

The town is so small they have been without a church or a preacher since their one church burned down, but the local dry-goods proprietor, Norma Henshaw (Crystal Oakley) has stepped up to the plate. Toting her bible and singing hymns, she is determined to pray up a preacher. Her skills may be at least partially commended, as the town is soon visited by one C.C. Showers (Arik Cullen), a preacher in the flesh. The only problem is that the tall, handsome, well-spoken C.C. has given up preaching. He is so adamant about this that when the local diner owner, Goldie Short (Ann Davis) asks his to pray a blessing over a donut he rudely refuses.

Baggage or no – and there’s a who ‘nother story about his luggage – a single man and a preacher are hot commodities in a small town like Zion and catches the attention of several women and girls – including pretty teen, Jennie Mae Layman (Rachel Mae Dilliplane). Unfortunately, Jennie Mae is not only the sister of young Buddy, but also the daughter of C.C.’s new landlord and employer, Ferris Layman (Cary Nothnagel), who is the local mechanic.

I found out from the program that The Diviners is Nothnagel’s favorite play – one he teaches every spring to his high school students. He performed the role of C.C. as a high school student himself (a historical fact that was not lost on one audience member who recognized him from that earlier production). When Nothnagel heard that CAT was producing The Diviners, he made sure he would be included in the cast.

It would not be a spoiler to tell you that Buddy has died when the play starts, and the body of the production is his story neatly bookended by his family and friends telling of his recent death. The 11-member cast, which also includes Annie McElroy as Norma’s niece Darlene, and Chris Craig and Patrick Siegmund as local yokels Melvin Wilder and Dewey Maples, works seamlessly together and in close proximity to the audience – sometimes resulting in awkward angles with their backs to a one section or the other, but they were always audible.

Wilder and Maples added some necessary humor throughout, as the clueless Melvin instructed the naïve Dewey in the ways of the world – chiefly in how to get a date with the dangerously lovely and bored Darlene.

An Acts of Faith festival entry, The Diviners deals with C.C.’s crisis of faith as well as Norma’s fanaticism. The combination of the two leads to misunderstanding and propel the ultimate tragedy at the end. But other characters have issues of faith as well. Ferris has been lost since his wife died and has left his children to fend for themselves like feral cats. C.C.’s unexpected friendship is a godsend for the Layman family (no pun intended). Goldie is waiting for a revival of faith to bring a revival of business to her diner; her best business was on Sundays when church-goers traditionally go out for brunch or dinner. Buddy’s problems stem as much from any congenital challenges he may have had as from his mother’s death and his subsequent inability to comprehend where she has gone. We, the audience, are left with a bunch of questions at the end of Act One. Why is Buddy so afraid of water? What happened to his mother? What is C.C. running away from—and what is his full name, anyway? Two of these three questions are answered in Act Two.

Playwright Leonard’s choice of character names is also interesting. Layman, for instance, is another word for nonordained church workers. C.C.’s last name is Showers, and rain is a recurring theme; in fact, it seems that is has not rained in a very long time until he shows up. In the Urban Dictionary¸ Henshaw is defined as a substitute for a common expletive, or a vulgar term for female genitals.

The Diviners is a thought provoking play; not one you would say you enjoyed as much as it is one that draws you in and that will linger with you afterwards. Director Owen has done a masterful job pulling his audience in. Sheila Russ’s costumes are a little corny; Jennie Mae and Dewey wear overalls, and Darlene wears stereotypically shapeless dresses.  Bill Miller’s lighting design is quite effective, especially during the tragic accident scene, and Nicholas Ray Creery does a good job with the sound design, which includes rain and a storm. Zachary Owen and Ellie Wilder designed the simple, somewhat dreary, but functional set, consisting of a couple of boxes and some brown mottled flooring. It is, after all, the 1930s, and we, the audience, are experts as suspending belief.

Take note that the title is “diviners,” plural. Yes, Buddy is a diviner in the sense of one who finds water, but the other characters – and even the audience – are diviners in the sense of foretelling or prophesying what is to come.

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

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Photo Credit:

Daryll Morgan

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CORPUS CHRISTI: The New Testament told in a radically new way

CORPUS CHRISTI: by Terrence McNally

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Richmond Triangle Players performing at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, Richmond, VA 23230 [Part of the Acts of Faith theater festival]

Performances: January 31 – February 24, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $10-$30

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

 

Humor me for a minute – this really is going somewhere. In a post in the “tcgcircle” (Theatre Communications Group, 2014) blog, Kevin Brown generated a list of “The Top Ten Reasons Why Theatre is Still Important in the Twenty-First Century.” In short, from #10 to #1 (the most important reason), David Letterman style, they are:

10. Human beings

9. Self-Expression

8. Self-Knowledge

7. History

6. The Body

5. Globalization

4. Self-Empowerment

3. Social Change

2. Education

1. Creativity

Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally’s passion play about a gay Jesus, hits all ten of these reasons in significant ways – but don’t worry, I won’t go into detail on all ten of them. My point is that when this play was first staged in New York in 1998 – and at many subsequent productions and attempted productions – Corpus Christi was condemned as blasphemous and worse.  It was the target of protests and threats of violence. It was condemned by The Catholic League and others, often sight unseen. Even when invited to come into the theater to see the show and engage in dialogue, many protesters refused.  The playwright even received death threats. Perhaps this is why a police officer was stationed outside the theater on opening night – an uncommon sight at a Richmond theater. Check the list – I think the events surrounding the production as well as the content of the play itself covers all ten items, except perhaps Globalization.

As staged by Richmond Triangle Players, a cast of 13 men portray the New Testament commonly known as The Passion of Christ, from birth through crucifixion. Dexter Ramey directed in a brilliantly unobtrusive way that allowed the familiar story to unfold with several unusual twists, well-placed and generous doses of humor, an earnest and overwhelmingly successful attempt to get to the heart of the matter, and simple staging consisting of a few benches, a large crucifix, and a trunk of props (e.g., a crown of thorns, a crucible, a flask of vinegar, large nails, a hammer, a flagrum – the type of whip used to scourge Jesus).

In the tradition of a medieval morality play, there is little or no scenery. There is no suspense; the audience already knows how the story ends.  The purpose is to open dialogue, to use the familiarity of ritual and repetition to make us think in new ways about things we already know. “This is how we pray – arms open, heads up.” Joshua teaches his disciples not to bow their heads in fear. This is something we can all relate to but may hold special significance to the LGBTQ community.

At the start of the play, the actors change into white shirts and khakis and each member of the cast is identified by name and baptized by John (Matt Bloch) who gives each his biblical name. The play freely blends New Testament theology with modern-day anachronisms; there are Roman centurions and crucifixions, and there are also twentieth-century clothes and occupations.  Andrew (Andrew Etheredge, who quite by chance gets to keep his real name) is a masseur, Matthew (Tim Goad) is a lawyer, and Judas Iscariot (Chandler Hubbard) is a restaurateur.  Other disciples include John (Matt Bloch) a writer, James (Eddie Webster) a teacher, Peter (Bartley Mullin) a fisherman, Philip (Stevie Rice) a hustler, Bartholomew (Trevor Worden) a doctor, Thomas (Lucian Restivo) a doctor, James the Less (Cooper Sved) an architect, Simon (TeDarryl) a singer, and Thaddeus (Ethan Williams, a senior at The Steward School who, at age 18 is the youngest cast member) a hairdresser.

Corpus Christi is set in the 1950s in the south Texas city of the same name. There Jesus – named Joshua because Jesus sounds “too Mexican” is born in a cheesy motel.  A couple can be heard having loud, vocal sex in the next room.  Little baby Jesus is a rather large rag doll with long blonde pigtails. The Virgin Mary, as are all the other characters, is played by a male. Adam Turck, who plays Joshua/Jesus, gives voice to the baby Jesus and transitions seamlessly into the role as the Messiah grows into a child, and later a troubled and friendless teen who struggles with his sexual identify and leaves home as soon as he can to begin his role as The Son of God.

A true ensemble, each actor, except Turck, I think, plays multiple roles, both biblical and modern. Turck and Hubbard have the most intense and intimate situations – but Joshua makes it clear that though people can touch his body, they can’t touch Him.  I am sure this would not assuage the protesters — if they took the time to hear it. Some situations that arise are less controversial than others.  For instance, what would it have been like for The Son of Man to attend a Catholic School or a public high school in Texas? What was it like for Mary to take care of Him? In Corpus Christi, she makes an attempt to bring normalcy to His life by enrolling Him in Boy Scouts, ballroom dancing lessons, and drama class – all of which, it seems, fail to help him fit in.

McNally, in the preface to his play, wrote, “it would be naïve of me to think I could write a play about a young gay man who would come to be identified as a Christ figure without stirring up a protest.”  What an understatement. It probably doesn’t help that much of the dialogue in the second half of the play (about 110 minutes long without intermission) is read or quoted directly from the Bible.  In one scene Joshua officiates a same-sex marriage between James and Bartholomew. There are sexual situations and lots of foul language. The line between church and theater is often blurred.

Controversies aside, Corpus Christi opens up a dialogue about the role of gay men in the contemporary Christian church. It is a dialogue many do not want to address.  In a documentary about a production of the play staged at the MCC in the Valley Church in North Hollywood, CA, McNally is quoted as saying, “I’m as made in God’s image as the next person.”  In the final analysis, Corpus Christi does much of what theater is intended to do, and some of what the church thinks it does. McNally’s closing words stand for themselves: “If we have offended you, then so be it. He loved everybody.”

Note: A documentary about a production of the play at the MCC in the Valley Church in North Hollywood, CA can be found on Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.com/Corpus-Christi-Terrence-McNally/dp/B00NK9J4OQ/ref=tmm_aiv_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-2&qid=1412626097

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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CorpusChristi-imagePhoto Credit:

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ALL MY SONS: a family drama of greed and guilt by Arthur Miller

ALL MY SONS: by Arthur Miller

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: January 19 – February 24, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $38 (Theater only); $55 (Buffet & Theater)

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

Arthur Miller’s tragic family drama, All My Sons, is based on a true story of events involving the Ohio-based Wright Aeronautical Corporation. During WWII the company knowingly shipped defective engines for use in military aircraft. Miller adapted the story into a multi-layered tragedy of moral conflict that addresses the question, is family everything?

At the heart of the play is Joe Keller (portrayed as a longsuffering cynic by Barry Pruitt). It is gradually revealed that Keller and his former business partner, who is still in prison, were convicted of supplying the defective engine cylinder heads, putting profit above the lives of US servicemen, and possibly contributing to the deaths of at least 20 young men. Keller, much to the dismay of many of his neighbors, was exonerated and released.

The play opens as Keller enjoys a Sunday morning in the backyard of his home, along with his son Chris (a returned veteran, played by George Dippold) and neighbors Jim Bayliss (a physician simmering in a mixture of disillusion and idealism, played by Adrian Grantz) and Frank Lubey (just a regular guy, played by Frank Creasy). The Keller men share the morning paper, with the younger telling his father he reads the book reviews but never reads the books, because, “I like to keep abreast of my ignorance.” The elder Keller’s relentlessly boisterous repartee is obviously covering up something, but the depth of the devastation isn’t revealed until the second act.

Meanwhile, there are many odd and interwoven interactions and conversations. Kate Keller (played with appropriate hysteria by Jacqueline O’Connor) refuses to accept that her son Larry, who has been MIA for more than three years, is dead and won’t be coming back. His room is ready for his return, right down to freshly polished shoes. How do we know this? Well, Larry’s girlfriend, Ann Deever (Maggie McGurn), who grew up next door to the Kellers, is staying in his room. No, she hasn’t been there waiting patiently for three years. She moved to New York after her father, Joe’s business partner, was imprisoned, but has returned for a visit so that Chris can break the news to his father and emotionally unstable mother that he plans to marry his brother’s girl.

Bayliss’ wife, Sue (Louise Mason) turns out to be a pretty shrew who delivers a devastating ultimatum to Ann while Frank’s wife, Lydia (Tara Callahan Carroll) is a bubbly housewife known mostly for laughing too much. A cute neighborhood kid, Bert (played on Saturday by Jude Yaktin, who alternates in the role with Aidan Montefusco) has been deputized by Joe as a sort of neighborhood watch, but the jokes about Joe having a jail in his basement turn out not to be so funny in the end. Matt Hackman makes a brief, game-changing appearance as Ann’s brother George, a New York lawyer by description but not in his frenetic demeanor.

It’s hard to believe that all this action takes place over the course of a single day, as lives and even generations are adversely affected by the words and actions shared. All My Sons is one of those theater experiences that left me sitting in stunned and contemplative silence as many around me rose to their feet applauding.  I understand that it is customary to applaud the work of the actors, but the dark side of human selfishness and greed that had just been revealed seemed to merit something other than applause.

Given the depth and scope of the story, I was somewhat disappointed in the delivery, which was overall too broad and too affected. Something seemed off kilter, not just in the characters’ moral development but in the actors’ execution. Some staging and body placement – especially as things became heated – even distracted me from the dialogue. Director Width, in a rare occurrence, seemed to miss the mark of recreating for me the magic that marked All My Sons as one of his favorite plays in the late 1960s when he designed the set for a community theater production. Maura Lynch Cravey’s costumes are appropriate for 1947, and Tom Width’s house exterior with its back porch showing a glimpse into the home’s hallway and part of a backyard is generically inviting. It’s not until you get to know the Kellers that you realize that first impressions are not always correct.

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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‘THE LATIN BALLET OF VIRGINIA: LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA 2018’

This is the post excerpt.

‘THE LATIN BALLET OF VIRGINIA: LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA 2018’

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

When: January 7-10, 2018

Ticket Prices: Children 6 years and younger FREE; Military/Seniors/Students with ID $15; General Admission $20

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


Many of us have holiday traditions. For some it is a special meal, or a decorating ritual. For others it is a trip to see The Nutcracker ballet. For a growing number of Richmonders, it seems to have become an annual trip to see The Latin Ballet of Virginia’s annual production of The Legend of the Poinsettia. A nearly full house on a cold winter day when the temperature remained stubbornly in the teens bears witness to the lure of this production.

I have seen several incarnations of this annual feast of dance, music, pageantry, and cultural immersion, but did not realize that 2018 marks the seventeenth year of this uniquely Richmond gem. Under the direction of Ana Ines King, the choreography, costumes, and setting have been somewhat modified or tweaked over the years, and of course the cast has changed, but some things – especially the sentiment – remains the same.

The Legend of the Poinsettia tells the story of Little Maria (portrayed on Saturday afternoon by a very confident Emery Velasquez, and to be played on Sunday afternoon by Daniela Wheeler), who, after the sudden death of her mother, finds herself in need of a gift to present to the Baby Jesus on Epiphany Day. [NOTE: 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.] It is also the story of “the true spirit of giving,” as well as a history, of sorts, of how the poinsettia came to be a symbol of Christmas.

In the hands of King and the performers of The Latin Ballet, The Legend of the Poinsettia is an all-inclusive festival featuring the dances, music, and costumes of Mexico (the origin of the legend and of the poinsettia plant), Colombia (King’s birthplace), Venezuela (the home of the gaitas or festive songs), the Dominican Republic (home of the bachata, a mixture of Cuban bolero and son), and Spain (home of flamenco and the Christmas novenas).

This year, performers ranged in age from 4 years old to 98 (special guest artist Frances Wessells, Professor Emerita of VCUDance, appears in her recurring role as Abuelita/the grandmother). 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. Marisol Betancourt Sotolongo, currently the director of the LBV Junior Company, first appeared in The Legend of the Poinsettia at age 4, has appeared in every production – meaning all 17 years!

It is always a treat to witness the chemistry between King and Paz. This year, the company also boasts a quartet of strong male dancers: DeShon Rollins; Nicolas Guillen Betancourt Sotolongo, who, like his sister, has practically grown up in the company; Roberto Whitaker; and Jay Williams. Each has a distinctive style, with Whitaker and Williams coming from a hip hop infused background and Rollins exhibiting the strength and technique of Joffrey Ballet training.

The Legend of the Poinsettia is a family-friendly production that offers something for everyone. During intermission, I overheard two women chatting about the beauty of the production and the stamina of the dancers. They had some kind words for Wessells, who embodies my personal motto (borrowed several decades ago from the Urban Bush Women): I don’t know, but I’ve been told, if you keep on dancing, you’ll never grow old. Personally, I was struck by the color, the energy, and the genuine joy.  I could put on my critic’s hat and note that the music could have been louder, and sometimes the chorus of village children were not quite in sync, but none of this dampened the fire. As an added treat, the cast lines up in the lobby to greet you after the show. If you get a chance, catch the final performance on Sunday afternoon. It will warm your heart, and the constant smiling and clapping along might even warm the rest of you.


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

 

 

 

 

A CHORUS LINE: For the Dancer in Us All

A CHORUS LINE: What We Do for Love

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: June 6 – July 14, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-40

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

 

When you think A Chorus Line you think of Broadway, or a touring show to some large venue such as, perhaps, the Altria Theatre. Think again. A Chorus Line, the ground-breaking, iconic musical, the musical “that celebrates the dancer in us all,” originally conceived and choreographed by Michael Bennett, with book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante , lyrics by Edward Kleban, and music by Marvin Hamlisch – yes, THAT A Chorus Line – opened at the Richmond Triangle Players. . .AND IT IS AWESOME!!!

Who would have thought you could fit a chorus line of 17 people across that stage? Well, now we know. This production, directed and choreographed by Justin Amellio, features Alexander Sapp as Zach, the intimidating Broadway director who is conducting an audition for an unnamed Broadway show, and Andrew Etheredge as his assistant, Larry. The entire show takes place on the bare stage of an unnamed Broadway theater, where the dancers who have come to audition for a show are unnerved when Zach not only puts them through the paces of jazz, ballet, and tap combinations, but asks each potential chorine to tell him something about his or her life.

There are about 21 dancers at the start of the show, but four are quickly eliminated. Of the remaining 17, Zach is looking for just four men and four women. To complicate matters, one of the women, Cassie, is Zach’s former girlfriend, who has recently returned from Los Angeles after an unsuccessful run at becoming an actress, something, it seems Zach wanted for her more than she wanted for herself.

This is a true ensemble piece, and when the dancers perform their routines – some deliberately missing a step or turning the wrong way – they transport the audience to another world. This is oh so much better than watching any dance program on television. While it’s all about the dance, A Chorus Line has some notable dramatic moments – and humor, too.

Sheila (Zuri Petteway) is sassy, obnoxious, older, and a plus-sized woman. The gargantuan chip on her shoulder might have gotten her eliminated from any other audition, but Zach apparently saw something in her. During her interview, she opens up and reveals that she had a difficult childhood mitigated only by a love for ballet. Bebe (Ijsah Byrd) and Maggie (Rachel Marrs) join her in her reverie, “At the Ballet.” Beautiful, svelte Kristine (Katherine S. Wright) reveals that while she can dance rings around others, and act as well, her one shortcoming is that she cannot sing. Wright (who I am assured really can sing well), hilariously brings down the house with her tone-deaf screeching. It’s even funnier when Al (Derrick Jaques), Kristine’s over-protective husband who is also auditioning, steps in and finishes her sentences for her, singing on key.

Another humorous highlight was Val’s (Mallory Keene) performance of “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three,” a song I remember as the “T & A” song. Perhaps the name was changed for the sake of political correctness. At any rate, it is a humorous take on an all too real situation: a dancer or performer whose superior talent is overlooked because she does not fit the idealized standards of beauty. Val’s career finally took off after a visit to a plastic surgeon, to acquire the more marketable curves.

Cassie’s (Daria DeGaetano) solo, “The Music and the Mirror” was satisfyingly dynamic, and “What I Did for Love,” led by Diana (Alexa Cepeda) was bigger than life – or at least bigger than the RTP stage. Other memorable moments included a touching scene in which Zach comforted Paul (Steven Rada) after Paul haltingly revealed how difficult it was to reveal his sexuality and occupation to his parents, and later when Paul falls and re-injures his leg – effectively ending his dancing career – and has to be taken to the emergency room.

My only two observations are that I wish the tap combination could have been performed in tap shoes, and the beautiful glittery, golden finale costumes, which fit the men perfectly, seemed to have a weird pucker at the back zipper on the women’s rear ends.

Kudos to the entire cast – too numerous to mention all by name – and the phenomenal creative team, which included musical direction by Kim Fox, lighting by Michael Jarett, and sound design by Joey Luck. Originally scheduled to run through July 7, as of opening night A Chorus Line, has already been extended through July 14, and many performances are already sold out. Get your tickets now; this is not to missed.

 

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

A Chorus Line_1
A Chorus Line – Photos and Resumes, Please
A Chorus Line_3
Steven Rada as Paul
A Chorus Line_2
Alexa Cepeda as Diana
A Chorus Line_4
A Chorus Line – The Grand Finale

DOUBLEWIDE, TEXAS: A Hoot ‘n a Hollar

DOUBLEWIDE, TEXAS: Trailer Park Victory

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 1-16, 2018

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

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

 

Doublewide, Texas, now onstage at CAT, is written by the same trio – Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten – that created Always a Bridesmaid, which is currently running at Swift Creek Mill Theatre. True to form, Doublewide, Texas is a comedic farce, deliberately designed to be played over the top and it reaches for the broadest laughs possible.

Set in a tiny trailer park in Texas, the flimsy premise is that the trailer park is about to be annexed by the nearby town of Tugaloo, and the residents – mostly related – are banding together to fight the annexation and the accompanying high taxes. There are laughs aplenty, with plenty of puns and running gags, physical humor, and generous hints about deep dark secrets. The cast of nine is generally delightful and maintains a natural camaraderie that makes it easy and natural to laugh at even the most obvious groaners.

First up is Big Ethel Satterwhite (Catherine Cooper) who delivers a lecture on nutrition to the county inmates and parolees. The only problem is Big Ethel doesn’t believe in the program and succumbs to the temptation of a gigantic cookie, tossing a large, fresh cabbage over her shoulder, and, along with it, her job! By placing her podium on the floor in front of the stage, Big Ethel and director Michael Fletcher immediately engage the audience and draw us into the play.

Next, there’s Georgia Dean Rudd (Donna Marie Miller) who runs the local diner, Bronco Betty’s Buffeteria, where fried foods are the specialty every day.  Georgia Dean helps spearhead the  efforts to save the trailer park.  Her best friend, Joveeta Crumpler (Crystal Oakley) has vowed to fight the annexation tooth and nail – but has only a few days before escaping to a new job with a discount cruise line.

Joveeta is part of a zany and loving family that includes little brother Norwayne “Baby” Crumpler (Travis Williams), a lovable galoot who spends much of the show practicing for the womanless beauty pageant;  and their beer-guzzling mother Caprice Crumpler (Jeannie Goodyear) who is determined to break into show business as the star of a mattress commercial. She appears in a series of costumes, each more outrageous than the other, ranging from Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz to Marilyn Monroe to Cleopatra. I guess it’s a case of like mother, like son, because “Baby” wears one crazy get-up after another, starting with high heels, then adding panty hose, and finally an oversized, white satin, fringed cowgirl getup.

Lark Barken (Christiana “CC” Kaniefski) is a breath of fresh Oregonian air as the new age child – who happens to be heavy with child. A young widow with a secret, she is new in town, as are her strange habits of chanting and burning sage. She sets up and maintains a running gag with a series of nontraditional baby names, such as Saffron and Willow. No comedy would be complete without a villain, and in this one there are two. Neighbor Haywood Sloggett (Wally Jones) can’t wait to get rid of the “trailer trash,” until the tables are turned on him. Super tall, handsome, and swaggeringly obnoxious Lomax Tanner  (Kent Slonaker) is the newcomer who proves that things are not always what they appear to be. Olivia Laskin has a small but key role as the mayor’s wife, Starla Pudney.

Michael Fletcher keeps things moving in his mainstage directorial debut, but there were a few scene changes that lagged a bit, and the pace could be a bit faster overall.  Scott Bergman’s set is authentically finished with fake wood paneling and pink curtains. There are pink flamingoes in the small flower bed out front, and there is even pink insulation peeking out of the cutaway roof, but I’m pretty sure the CAT stage is deeper than a standard doublewide. Becki Jones probably had fun designing the costumes, especially the more outrageous ones for Caprice and “Baby.” CAT often features a show-themed raffle; this time the prize is Georgia Dean’s pinkety-pink quilt, which will be awarded at the final performance. Doublewide, Texas is a hoot and a holler, but does not quite rise to the standards set by The Dixie Swim Club or The Hallelujah Girls.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Daryll Morgan Studios

CAT Jeannie Goodyear -Travis Williams
Jeannie Goodyear and Travis Williams
CAT Jeannie Goodyear as Caprice
Jeannie Goodyear
CAT Donna Marie Miller
Donna Marie Miller
CAT Crystal Oakley-Kent Lonaker
Crystal Oakley and Kent Slonaker