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TUCK EVERLASTING: Don’t Be Afraid of Being Truly Alive

TUCK EVERLASTING: It’s a Family Affair

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: October 18-December 1, 2019

Ticket Prices: $21

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

Virginia Rep opened is 2019-2020 Children’s Theatre season with a magical foray into the world of Tuck Everlasting. The musical, based on Natalie Babbitt’s children’s novel about a family that finds immortality in the waters of a remote spring in the New Hampshire countryside and the grieving young girl who befriends them, was performed on Broadway in 2016. Virginia Rep shared this co-world premiere of this Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) Edition with Nashville Children’s Theatre. (The Nashville premiere was actually in September 2018, so I don’t quite understand how that makes this a co-world premiere.) Pushing that question aside, Tuck Everlasting is a beautifully conceived play that thoughtfully poses serious questions about life choices while resonating with audiences of all ages. The story was new to me, as I had not read the book, had not seen previous productions of the play, and had not seen either the 1981 film by One Pass Media or the 2002 Disney film. Now, I cannot imagine how I missed out.

Unlike many Children’s Theater productions that seem geared towards the youngest audience members from around 4 to 10, Tuck Everlasting is a bit more sophisticated, and seems most appropriate for pre-teens through adults. This is also a production you can feel confident in attending without a child, although I recommend you bring along at least one.  Part of the joy of Tuck Everlasting is watching the faces of the young audience members. My minor cohort on opening night was Nicole, just two days from turning 11, the same age as our story’s protagonist. For most of the show, which runs about 75 minutes, with no intermission, Nicole sat wide-eyed, on the edge of her seat. Just what held her attention – and mine? I’m glad you asked.

Lucy Caudle, a ninth-grader at Maggie Walker Governors School who was recently seen as Alexa in the Virginia Rep production of Atlantis, took full ownership of the lead role as 11-year-old Winnie Foster. Winnie’s father died less than a year ago, and her conventional mother demands that she wear mourning clothes for a full year. But Winnie has gotten wind of an itinerant fair coming to their small New Hampshire town of Treegap, and she wants to go. Caudle genuinely captures the longing and frustration of her character in musical numbers like “Live Like This” and “Good Girl Winnie Foster,” but also in her face and posture. She frequently looks upward and outward into the future or stands with her weight on the balls of her feet, ready to sprint off on the next long-awaited adventure.

It is her need for adventure that sends her off into the nearby woods – woods owned by her family – where she meets Jesse Tuck, younger son of the mysterious and reclusive Tuck family. Taylor Witt, a DC-based actor new to the Virginia Rep stage, makes a charming Jesse, the free-spirited younger brother who exasperates both his older brother Miles and his parents Mae and Angus. Witt emanates non-stop energy and even on opening night seemed to strike just the right chemistry with Caudle.

Todd Patterson is Miles, the older brother who is the voice of reason, but with a dark secret. In a touching scene, Miles finally reveals the source of his deep-seated anger to Winnie. Patterson does a marvelous job balancing the layers of his character’s personality and the reveal is skillfully timed.

Casey Daniel Payne, also making her Virginia Rep debut, added a bit of humor as Mae Tuck. She had grown resigned to her fate and the years have taught her to take pleasure in the small things like not having to keep a clean house, because no one comes to visit. I took particular notice of Walter Riddle as Agnus, the head of the Tuck household. Having kept his family safely secluded for more than 80 years, Agnus appears unruffled by impending disaster and spends his free time fishing. Riddle appeared natural and easy in the role of the father figure, reluctantly dispensing words of wisdom to Winnie and treating Mae with respect and affection that seemed somewhat startling for the time period, the late nineteenth century. It seemed perfectly natural when, sitting back to back with their fishing rods in hand, Winnie leaned her head on Agnus’ shoulder. She was missing her father, and he was remembering what it was like to hold a real child.

Dan Cimo was both sinister and hilarious as the “Man in the Yellow Suit,” a carnival barker who had heard of the magical water that granted eternal life and hoped to become rich from bottling and selling it. One of the most memorable lines in the play was delivered by Winnie’s mother, who asked where one would find a suit in that color, and having found it, why would one buy it? Lisa Kotula played the role of Winnie’s mother with both firmness and compassion. Her role required her to wear Victorian widow’s weeds – a plain black dress – the entire play.

The cast was rounded out by Jon Cobb as the bumbling Constable and Harrison Gray as his deputy, Hugo.  Hugo also has a surprise to reveal in the final scenes. All were ably directed by Matt Polson, who kept the ensemble moving at a swift but manageable pace. The cast was also in charge of scene changes, which consisted mostly of moving a bench, a trunk, a gate, and numerous trees in a heavily forested but uncluttered set designed by Tennessee Dixon, enhanced by BJ Wilkinson’s lighting. The floor was painted with leaves, and larger leaves were projected onto them. A portion of a cottage façade and doorway was the most stable structure – or suggestion of a structure – and there was a grotto of trees surrounding a pile of rocks or boulders that sheltered the magical spring waters. Early on, Winnie pulled a small toad – her only friend at that time – from her pocket; later we saw a somewhat larger, animated toad (a hologram, perhaps?) projected onto the rocks. This toad plays an important part in Winnie’s decision on whether to drink the magical waters.

Set in a small New Hampshire town (it did seem odd that the Tuck family moved east, rather than westward) beginning August 1, 1893, Tuck Everlasting is clothed in period costumes, right down to the shoes, yet the story, the language, and the ideas remain relevant. Ruth Hedberg’s period costumes are whimsical, but she gives full reign to her creativity with the colorful costumes of the carnival people, including a strong man, a physic, clowns, and more. Mallory Keene’s choreography is not so much dance as rhythmic movement sequences organically incorporated into the actors’ actions and characterizations. All of the movement was guided by Jason Marks’ musical direction.

Tuck Everlasting was written by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle, with music by Chris Miller and lyrics by Nathan Tysen. The musical orchestrations are by John Clancy, with vocal arrangements by Chris Miller and ballet music arranged by David Chase. The musical selections were catchy and clearly delivered, from the different perspectives of longing, loss, and hopefulness of the opening “Live Like This,” sung by Winnie, Mae, Miles, Jesse, and the Man in the Yellow Suit to Winnie singing about how some days she wanted to “raise a little more than heaven,” to Hugo and the Constable’s pun-filled, “You Can’t Trust a Man in a Yellow Suit.” (Hugo accused the Man in the Yellow Suit of “fabricating” and the Constable interprets it as “fabric hating.”)

While all of this is going on, the audience, both young and old, is challenged with some real-life challenges: Don’t be afraid of death; it’s part of life. One path can lead to two different conclusions. Sometimes loving someone means letting them go. What are the positives and negatives of living forever? The one point my young cohort found confusing was the final scene, where we find out what Winnie decided to do with the double edged sword of eternal life – the vial of magical water that Jesse presses into her hand as a parting gift. The scene, and the entire play, offers an entry into discussing difficult and challenging topics with your children. Tuck Everlasting is a play that should be seen by families and discussed later.

NOTE: The Tuck family includes one black parent and one white parent, one white son and one black son. This is truly color blind casting, as the issue of race is never once mentioned.

Sensory Friendly Performances
Virginia Rep offers sensory friendly performances for children with autism and other
sensory or social disabilities. During these select performances, changes will be made in
lighting, sound, seating arrangements, and length of performance to create a more welcoming environment for this audience. A Sensory Friendly performance will be offered at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, November 16. Please see the website for more details:
http://va-rep.org/sensory_friendly.html

Audio Described Performances
In collaboration with Virginia Voice, Virginia Rep offers Audio Described
performances, in which actions, expressions and gestures are described during gaps between dialogue throughout the performance for patrons with low vision or blindness. In addition to live audio description during performances, patrons are also invited to participate in a tactile tour before the performance. An Audio Described performance will be offered at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 3. Please see the website for more details: https://va-rep.org/access_for_the_blind.html

Community Tickets Grant
Virginia Rep offers a free Community Tickets Grant for nonprofit organizations. Organizations who have a demonstrated need for complimentary tickets are encouraged to fill out the application found on the website: bit.ly/CommunityTix

Performance Schedule
Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Fridays
Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday
Matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on select Saturdays

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

———-

Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

Tuck Everlasting
Walter RIddle (left) and Lucy Caudle (right). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Tuck Everlasting
Taylor Witt (left) and Lucy Caudle (right). Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Tuck Everlasting
Lisa Kotula, Todd Patterson, Lucy Caudle, Jon Cobb, Harrison Gray, Taylor Witt, Walter Riddle and Casey Daniel Payne. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Tuck Everlasting
Taylor Witt, Casey Daniel Payne, Walter Riddle and Todd Patterson. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Tuck Everlasting
Lisa Kotula, Lucy Caudle and Dan Cimo. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

 

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Featured

BROKEN BONE BATHTUB: Therapeutic Theater Richmond Remount

BROKEN BONE BATHTUB: An Immersive Experience

A Few Notes and Observations by Julinda D. Lewis

A Firehouse Theatre Fringe Production

At: Secret site-specific bathtub locations; the address will be revealed upon purchasing a ticket*

Performances: October 16-20, 2019

Ticket Price: $25

Info: (804) 355-2001, firehousetheatre.org or https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4357334

We often say or hear that a particular performance is totally unlike any other. Well, Broken Bone Bathtub is truly unlike any theater I have ever experienced. Based on Siobhan O’Loughlin’s real-life experience of a traumatic bike accident that left her with a broken left hand, Broken Bone Bathtub takes place in a bathtub in someone’s home. Each performance is hosted in a different home (dates and neighborhoods are listed below; addresses are emailed after you purchase a ticket, and attendees are required to sign a waiver).

Siobhan (and I am breaking with convention here and using her first name, because I spent a little more than an hour with her as she sat, covered only with bubbles, in a bathtub – so I think we are now on a first name basis), interacts with the audience, so each performance will be quite different; even the timing will vary, based on the participants’ responses. After helping Siobhan shampoo her hair, I don’t even feel it would be responsible to call these sentences a review.

Broken Bone Bathtub is the most intimate piece of theater I have ever experienced. One Sunday afternoon this past March I attended David London’s production – part history, part storytelling, part séance – Humbug, the Great P.T. Barnum Séance at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. The audience was limited to those who could fit around the custom-made séance table, with room for about 4 observers. In August, I attended Dante Piro’s one-man show, The Verge, in that same space. Piro’s play was limited to those who could fit around a conference table. Both of those shows – also produced by The Firehouse, under the artistic direction of Joel Bassin – were intimate, and performed before a limited audience. But both were performed in a public space – and both London and Piro kept their clothes on!

Make no mistake, Siobhan’s bathtub drama has form and structure, meaning and purpose. She recounts her bike accident in carefully segmented portions, interspersed with questions to the audience – the 6 or 7 people gathered in an average-sized bathroom, seated shoulder-to-shoulder, or knee-to-tub on stools of varying heights. Several helpers were enlisted to help her perform tasks one cannot do alone when one’s hand and wrist are encased in a plaster cast. Everyone participated in the dialog on Wednesday night, sharing personal experiences ranging from expressions of childhood jealousy to crying in public, from shared showers to the dimensions of personal space and the difficulty of asking for help when you really need it.

These are genuine topics, and participants offered authentic responses. One woman was brought to tears when a question – and her response – triggered a sensitive memory. There was lots of laughter and, from my vantage point, I could see Siobhan’s eyes welling up more than once. Broken Bone Bathtub is experimental theater, but it is also a healing experience, equal parts theater and therapy. First, the project was Siobhan’s personal journey to physical recovery. Second, it was a way for her to connect with others – who do you call on in time of need? And finally, it is a cathartic experience for the audience-participants who were surreptitiously encouraged to tap into their own feelings, fears, and personal experiences, in the guise of a theatrical performance. At the end, Siobhan concluded her story, weaving in bits and pieces of the shared experiences, including the names of the contributors. Make no mistake, Broken Bone Bathtub may be experimental theater, but it is not random; it is organized and smart. Broken Bone Bathtub is also warm, intimate, and ultimately it is a liberating experience that links the participants with an indelible bond of humanity.

 

*Note Performances and Locations for Broken Bone Bathtub:
Wed., Oct 16 @ 7pm, Richmond Fan District, NO PETS
Thurs., Oct 17 @ 7pm, Gum Spring/Goochland, YES PETS
Fri., Oct 18 @ 7pm + 9pm, Bonair, YES PETS
Sat., Oct 19 @ 7pm + 9pm, Glen Allen, NO PETS
Sun., Oct 20 @ 2pm + 4pm, Midlothian/River Downs, YES PETS

​Some of the locations have pets on the premises. Please be aware if you have allergies. If you are dangerously allergic to animals, we do not recommend purchasing tickets for those locations.

​Unfortunately, none of these venues are wheelchair accessible. If you live in Richmond and have any ideas about making the show happen in an accessible space, please reach out to hello@brokenbonebathtub.com.

By the Way: Siobhan is, indeed, naked in the bathtub, but keeps herself covered with a thick layer of bubbles. There were men and women present, and at no time was any part of the show sexual or suggestive. Broken Bone Bathtub is, in fact, quite suitable for audiences of all ages!

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: Firehouse Theatre and Broken Bone Bathtub website

 

My books available on Amazon.com:

 

 

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AN AUDIENCE WITH THE QUEEN: Queen Latifah Hosts American Evolution’s Women’s Achieve Summit

This post was originally written for Richmond Magazine, but could not be run because the event was sold out – and the magazine doesn’t want to tease it’s readers. So, it’s not a dance or theater review or observation, but when given the opportunity to have an audience with the Queen, who can say no? Here’s my 5-minute one-on-one interview with the one and only Queen Latifah:

AN AUDIENCE WITH THE QUEEN: Latifah That Is

An Audience with the Queen by Julinda D. Lewis

Women’s Achieve Summit

At: The Greater Richmond Convention Center, 403 N 3rd Street, RVA 23219

Conference: October 15, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25 Registration

Info: AmericanEvolution2019.com

This post was originally written for Richmond Magazine, but could not be run because the event was sold out – and the magazine doesn’t like to tease its readers. So, with a few adjustments, here’s my interview with the one and only Queen Latifah:

The Women’s Achieve Summit held at the Greater Richmond Convention Center October 15th commemorated the achievements of trailblazing women who have contributed to Virginia and American history. Award-winning performer, renowned actress, and groundbreaking female rapper Queen Latifah was selected as the Summit’s host.

The media was granted an audience with the Queen early Tuesday morning. I left my house in the pitch black dark – before sunrise, at 6:30am. At 7:30am, The Queen, born Dana Elaine Owens in Newark, NJ on March 18, 1970, swept regally into the room, face flawless, hair perfectly coifed. She is more beautiful in person that on screen. She was not up so early to perform or model, but rather to share with us the wisdom gained from 30 years as a public figure in the arts, business, and activism.

Latifah, who grew up in New Jersey, has family ties in Northern Virginia. “Having traced my roots to Virginia six generations, before America was America,” she said, “I know there’s strength in our lives, strength in our bloodlines, intelligence, and resilience, and power that we have yet to tap into on a continuous basis.” It is, perhaps, these deep family ties that anchor her strength and keep her focused on power, resilience, and self-identity. She credits her grandmothers, aunts and other strong family members and counts public figures like Patti LaBelle, Teena Marie, Dr. Betty Shabazz, and Gloria Steinem among those who contributed to making her the force that she is.

What do you see as the greatest challenges and achievements of women living here in Virginia, in the former capitol of the Confederacy, I asked her? Speaking of fighting an uphill battle for women to achieve power, she commented that, “those in power hold onto power, and greed knows no end. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of an addiction; people need some greed intervention.”

“Women locking arm in arm is one powerful way to do it in what has been a patriarchal society. Let a woman lead. We have led – we just don’t get the credit for it. We have to believe that it’s okay to use our power. Own it. We can do a lot more together than we can separately.”

In our brief five minutes together, she spoke of owning your power. “Use your voice. Own your voice. Believe in yourself. Speak on your own behalf,” she said. What would she like our young women to know? “Never lose your idealism. Don’t let this world tell you that you can’t do things. Don’t let the negativity that you see in the media infiltrate your positive thinking. It’s just the TV; turn it off!”

By the way, I opened our conversation by showing the Queen a photo of her with my mother, in New York, when Latifah was the host of CBS’s syndicated “The Queen Latifah Show” from 1999-2001. “That’s the original joint,” she remarked when she saw her former set, adding, “I haven’t seen myself in pink in a long time.”

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

———-

Photo Credits: Julinda D. Lewis & the Lewis Family Photo Album

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CONCERT BALLET OF VIRGINIA: A Family-Friendly Affair

THE CONCERT BALLET OF VIRGINIA: Fall Repertory Gala

Observations on the Fall Repertory Gala by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performance: October 13, 2019

Ticket Prices: $4-$18

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

The Concert Ballet of Virginia marked the start of its 43rd year of dance performances with its annual Fall Repertory Gala at The Woman’s Club on Sunday, October 13. The company operates “within the framework of a full-scale professional dance company” but is run by a “marvelous collection of unsalaried Virginians – dancers, choreographers, technicians, craft and stage people and volunteers.” The mission of CBV is to accept and promote those who are interested in performing, providing a professional company experience regardless of skill level.

The 2019 Fall Repertory Gala differed from previous galas in that the program, consisting of a half dozen works ranging from classical to contemporary, incorporated the Diane Hale dancers, including a work choreographed by their instructor, Lindsay Rhyne Hudson, a CBV alumni.

One thing CBV does very well is scenery and set design. The French Scenic Reproduction of a glamorous manor house and lawn for “Biedermeier Waltzes” was donated by Wilton House, but the décor for “The Hunt,” and the trio of purple arches and blue panels for “Litany” were designed by deVeaux Riddick, a creative team member and long-time Technical Director for Ballet Impromptu, the Richmond Ballet, and then Concert Ballet of Virginia until his passing September 7, 2019.

The quintet of dancers in Biedermeier Waltzes” appeared to be the least experienced, as demonstrated by the simplicity of their choreography, soft shoes (no pointe work), and several stumbles. The lighting – or the dancers’ placement – often left their faces unlit, which was a bit of a distraction. But things picked up with “The Hunt,” a lively number featuring dancers dressed in clever red hunting jackets and black riding boots. The dancers prancing in a circle and forming a Rockettes-style kick line drew applause from the audience.

Ilie Davis, the soloist for the slightly dark, introspective and contemporary styled “Dysmorphic,” demonstrated clean lines and an enticing ease on stage. The four women in “Litany wore long-sleeved aubergine-colored dresses reminiscent of Martha Graham. Their movements were also reminiscent of classic modern dance: sustained; low dynamic; and repetitive, ending in a reverent tableau vivant. “Full Moon and Empty Arms” similarly ended in a tableau, although the latter was a classical ballet, with four ballerinas wearing black classic tutus, and a lead dancer in an ivory tutu to match Scott Boyer who partnered all of them. These were apparently the more experienced or advanced dancers, as this piece included pointe work.

The Concert Ballet of Virginia is as much – or more – about the experience than the dance technique. It is a family-friendly affair, with hand-crafted items for sale in the lobby boutique and cabaret style tables where desserts, coffee, tea, wine, and lemonade are served.

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

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Photo Credits: Concert Ballet of Virginia webpage

Concert Ballet of VA

 

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LOST BOY FOUND IN WHOLE FOODS: “To understand metaphor, you must imagine”

LOST BOY FOUND IN WHOLE FOODS: When Helping Hurts

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: 5th Wall Theatre

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

Performances: October 11 – November 2, 2019

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

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

Internal conflict in Sudan spanning the period 1987-2005 resulted in an estimated 2 million deaths. Tens of thousands of children were left orphaned. Many of the boys, some as young as six years, traveled hundreds of miles east to refugee camps in the bordering nations of Ethiopia and Kenya. Many settled in the Kakuma camp in Kenya. In 2001, about 3,600 of these boys were offered refuge and resettlement in major US cities, as part of a program established by the US government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Tammy Ryan’s 2012 play, Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods, picks up in October 2004, where a former “Lost Boy” named Gabriel is working in the produce section of a Whole Foods store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There he encounters a customer named Christine; a middle-aged, middle class, recently divorced white woman. Christine ends up inviting Gabriel to live with her and her sixteen year old daughter, Alex. Ryan was awarded the Francesca Primus Prize by the American Theatre Critics Association in 2012 for this play which examines the impact of the intersection of these two lives.

Daniel Hurt, who majored in theater at John Tyler Community College, plays the lead role Gabriel in this ensemble cast. I’m not sure whether the script of the director, Keith Fitzgerald, calls for Gabriel’s transformation, but he starts out presenting as a upbeat, always smiling, hard-working young man, and shortly into the second act he has become a morose teenager – at least that’s the way Christine describes him to Segel Mohammed, the refugee aid worker enlisted to help locate Gabriel’s mother. Great pains are taken to point out that neither Christine nor Alex can truly understand Gabriel’s plight, but the transformation is, nevertheless, uneven, jagged, abrupt.

Lian-Marie Holmes, who brings New York and regional credits to her Richmond debut as Christine, plays the role with great earnestness and heart, but I always felt she was on the edge of a breakdown. Kristin Bauer, who plays the daughter, Alex, seemed to be the voice of reason and stability – despite being a bratty teenager with a chip on her shoulder because of her parents’ divorce and all the changes that had brought to her life. While Bauer’s character isn’t very likeable at the start, she is the one character that shows growth and development over the course of the two acts.

Tarneé Kendell Hudson brings strength and authority to her role as Segel Mohammed, but the contrast with the nervous Christine often results in unintended moments of humor. The cast also includes Joe Walton as a former Catholic Charities worker, Michael Dolan and Ashton Lee as Panther, the very large, very menacing Sudanese friend of Gabriel. We never do learn exactly how he earns his money, but his presence makes everyone uneasy.

Ryan tells a story that should be, could be touching, based on real-life events, but somehow it just doesn’t feel authentic. Panther’s monologue, that closes the first act, is unsettling, but doesn’t seem to have a point. Michael Dolan is presented as a helpful liaison with an annoyingly non-committal attitude. The characters seem raw and unfinished, their dialogue seems stilted or censored, and just doesn’t flow freely. I’m familiar with East African accents, but there were times when several of the actors – not just Hurt and Lee – could not be heard clearly, not even in the second row of the intimate space of TheatreLAB’s Basement, The play opens with Gabriel narrating and closes with a narration by Christine – an neither monologue seemed to fit with the genre.

And speaking of things that seem raw and unfinished, I was disappointed with TJ Spensieri’s set. The back wall was very flimsy, appearing to be made of butcher paper and duct tape. You could even see the red EXIT sign through the fabric panel. The furnishings of Christine and Alex’s home seemed to be too shabby and tired for a middle class home. And finally, the set was divided into four sections: a living room/kitchen (that oddly seemed to be where Christine stored her clothes, because she made several costume changes there); a park bench; an office; and a Whole Foods produce section, containing numerous boxes of bananas and papaya. There was a slight elevation for the park bench, but little or nothing was done to delineate the other areas, such as a change of color or texture.

Sadly, my first impression on seeing the set was that it looked like a high school drama class set. That said, I attended on the second night. Perhaps the ensemble will develop stronger chemistry or Fitzgerald will tweak the timing and interplay between the actors. Perhaps not. On Saturday evening, I just wasn’t moved – at least not in the right direction.

 

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 & 5th Wall Theatre Facebook page

 

 

 

 

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ART OF MURDER: And Then There Were…

THE ART OF MURDER: Die Laughing

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 27 – October 12, 2019

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

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

About halfway into his second line, I wanted Jack Brooks dead. The man, played by Aaron Willoughby, is so obnoxious, narcissistic, and misogynistic, I could never develop any sympathy for him. And it only gets worse after the opening scene, where he emerges from his isolation tank and proceeds to strut around in his swim trunks and an open robe. I don’t know Willoughby, a teacher at the Center for Communications and Media Relations at Varina High School who is performing in his first CAT production, but I attribute Brook’s rotten demeanor to Willoughby’s acting abilities – and the script – and not to any personal shortcomings.

Joe DiPietro’s Art of Murder, a 2000 Edgar Award winner for Best Mystery Play, is a comedy murder mystery full of plot twists and turns and laugh-out-loud moments. The problem is that with the exception of Kate, the Brook’s Irish maid, none of DiPietro’s characters is likeable. And even Kate, played by Charlotte Topp with a warm-as-fresh-baked-bread Irish accent, seems to have something up her sleeve, too.

Jack Brooks is despicable, and his treatment of Kate and his wife Annie, played by Emily Turner, make him a likely candidate for murder. Turner’s character is complex, in turn angry, beleaguered, soft, and sharp. The winding path of the plot keeps her deliberately enigmatic. We don’t like to see women abused, but Annie. . .well, you have to meet her and decide for yourself what her story really is.

There is nothing subtle or enigmatic about the Brooks’ art dealer and friend, Vincent Cummings. Cummings is played with over-the-top flamboyance by D.C. Hopkins (not to be confused with dl Hopkins). Without giving away too much of the mystery, Cummings walks unwittingly into a set up, but he brings his own baggage, so I couldn’t muster up much sympathy for him, either.

All-in-all, Art of Murder is 100 minutes of comedic dysfunction, kept moving along at a fairly swift pace by director Zachary Owens. It’s just a matter of who gets murdered, and when, and by whom – we don’t really care why.

Art of Murder, set in a large country house in Connecticut (a murder mystery standard), on an autumn evening about 10 years ago, opens with Jack and Annie, a wildly famous celebrity artist and his less-celebrated artist wife, awaiting the arrival of their art dealer, Vincent. Jack has a grudge against Vincent, and he and Annie have summoned Vincent for dinner, where they are plotting to execute Vincent’s murder. Or are they? At one point Annie says to Vincent (yes, Vincent, not Jack) “I’ve never killed anyone before.” His response is “It’s always good to try new things.”

There’s – possibly – murder and suicide, red herrings and mis-direction, a gun filled with blanks (or are they?) and props that turn up in the wrong place, an escape from a locked box, a disembodied voice, and all manner of deceptions. Elizabeth Allmon’s set is a standard murder mystery genre room but lacks the elegance of a large country estate owned by a wealthy artist, and Sheila Russ’ costumes for Annie and Jack look more like they came from a thrift store than from a couture boutique, as their lifestyle demands. One prominent prop, Jack’s isolation tank, is a roughhewn black box, more reminiscent of a coffin than a sleek example of spa-inspired technology. Alan Armstrong gets to have fun with lighting, and Hunter Mass gets creative with the sound design. Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” plays before the show starts, and “Ave Maria” ushers in the intermission. Aaron Orensky’s fight choreography is graphic, but I found it visually dissonant and unconvincing that Jack could so easily manhandle Vincent, given that Hopkins is so much more solidly built than Willoughby.

Art of Murder raises many questions. Most of the plot questions are eventually answered, leaving questions like what was the playwright thinking, and are the over-the-top performances intentional, and are the outbursts of anger meant to move the plot along by layering levity with a shot of reality, or were they thinly disguised rants by the playwright? There are only four people in the cast, so the possibilities – who gets murdered and who does the murdering – are not endless, yet DiPietro still manages to throw in some head-scratching surprises.

It’s interesting that of the current fall productions – and this one is the opening of CAT Theatre’s 56th consecutive season of providing community theater in Richmond – there are three mysteries, including Holmes & Watson a contemporary Sherlock Holmes style mystery at Swift Creek Mill (https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/09/21/holmes-and-watson-its-not-what-you-think), and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder a comedic musical murder mystery at Virginia Rep (https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/10/03/a-gentlemans-guide-to-love-murder-whos-turn-to-die).

 

FYI:

D.C. Hopkins, a graduate of Christopher Newport University, has toured with Virginia Rep for their shows “I Have a Dream” and “The Jungle Book.”

dl Hopkins is an award winning actor, veteran poet, and former Artistic Director of the African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia who was aa founding member of Ernie McClintock’s Jazz Actors Theatre.

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Ellie Wilder

 


 

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A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE & MURDER: Who’s Turn to Die?

A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER: A Musical Comedy Tour de Force!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: September 27 – October 20, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder has a love triangle, dysfunctional family dynamics, people who marry for money over love, a leading man who is a serial killer, and Scott Wichmann playing 8 different characters.

Written by Robert L Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), based on a novel by Rod Horniman, and directed and choreographed by Kikau Alvaro, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is a delightful musical comedy in the hands of a dynamic and talented cast.

After an opening prologue by the ensemble, dressed in elegant mourning attire – a premonition of what is to follow – the audience meets Monty Navarro, sitting at a small desk on the eve of his sentencing for murder, writing his memoirs, including a full confession of how eight members of his family mysteriously died in less that a year. Alexander Sapp plays Navarro, the son of a recently deceased washerwoman who, it turns out, is related to the D’Ysquiths, a wealthy family who made their fortune in banking and finances. In fact, Monty is eighth in line to becoming the Earl of Highhurst, and Sapp seems to have as much fun playing Monty as the audience does watching him plot and plan his way to success, with time out to for romance. Never mind that his love interest, Sibella Hallward, decides to marry someone else. Grey Garrett’s portrayal of the vain and materialistic Sibella is spot on – a perfect balance of comedy and musical theater diva.

Debra Wagoner, as the mysterious Marietta Shingle, has a couple of surprises that are integral to the plot. She is supported by an ensemble that includes Georgia Rogers Farmer, Maxwell Porterfield, Daniel Pippert, Adrienne Eller, Lauren Leinhaus-Cook, Theodore Sapp, and Derrick Jaques.

 

No, I did not forget to mention Scott Wichmann. This is one of those awkward situations in which the most memorable character is not the leading man, but a supporting character – in this case eight supporting characters, all played by Wichmann. It’s not even fair to call Wichmann a supporting character, as he portrayed all the D’Ysquith heirs in line for the title Earl of Highhurst – including an inebriated cleric, a body-building lord mayor, and a country squire who is married but seems to prefer the companionship of men.

There’s Lady Hyacinth, whose interest in helping the poor and disadvantaged provides a perfect opening to send her off to her death in poverty stricken Egypt or serving the lepers in India. Surviving these dangerous missions, Monty sends her off to deepest, darkest Africa to work with a tribe of cannibals. (It’s 1909, and no one had yet been warned to be politically correct or culturally sensitive.) Lady Salome D’Ysquith Pumphrey is such a bad actress that when Monty replaces the blanks in her prop gun with real bullets and she shoots herself on stage, the audience applauds her death, perhaps not realizing she has really died. Both Lady Hyacinth and Lady Salome are played by Wichmann. Each character has a different voice, posture, and gait. The Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, for example, has a distinctive, stylized teetering walk.

Each also has a distinct style of dressing, thanks to costume designer Sue Griffin. Visually, the production is also enhanced by Chris Raintree’s expansive set, characterized by multiple movable set components (ranging from Monty’s modest home to Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith’s mansion – an expansive mansion so grand that it offers tours to tourists.

Sandy Dacus’ music direction, along with Alvaro’s direction kept things moving along at a fair clip, although there were a few moments when I thought something should have been tightened up. The first act lasts nearly 90 minutes, with a total run time of about 2 ½ hours. For the most part, the musical selections do not cater to foot-tapping show tunes, but rather to sung narrative that advances the story line – when all the words are clear; sometimes they were not at Wednesday’s matinee.

The surprise ending brings about an unlikely alliance and opens the door to a sequel. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Marriage is delightful musical comedy, satisfyingly delivered by a death-defying cast.

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Lauren Leinhaas-Cook, Adrienne Eller, Alexander Sapp, Grey Garrett and Scott Wichmann. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Adrienne Eller and Alexander Sapp. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Grey Garrett and Alexander Sapp. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Scott Wichmann. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

 

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RICHMOND BALLET: Contemporary Classics Ushers in New Season & Says Good-bye to Popular Ballerina

RICHMOND BALLET: Contemporary Classics

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dominion Energy Center for the Performing Arts | Carpenter Theatre | 600 E. Grace St., RVA 23219

Performances: September 27-29, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25-$125

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

I had forgotten how beautiful the ballet “Carmina Burana” is. Choreographed for the New York City Opera in 1959 by John Butler, the ballet is based on a collection of thirteenth century songs and poems discovered in a monastery in Bavaria. The songs were composed and arranged by Carl Orff in three highly dramatic sections – Spring, In the Tavern, and The Court of Love – that are intended to be performed by a collaborating team of orchestra, chorus, and dancers.

The Richmond Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Erin Freeman and a chorus of about 100 singers composed of members of the VCU Commonwealth Singers and the Richmond Symphony Chorus, divided into four groups on two levels of the theater provided what my daughter described as “surround sound.” Tenor Andrew Sauvageau, Baritone Jeffrey Grayson Gates, and Soprano Zarah Brock stood onstage and wore monastic black for their solos. At one point Brock held an impossibly long note.

The dancers moved through a range of human emotions using a stylized vocabulary of movement that seems to have been inspired by the figures on the Wheel of  Life or perhaps the characters illustrating a deck of tarot cards. The music is structured in three major sections, beginning and ending with the familiar “Fortune, Empress of the World,” for which the dancers don monastic black robes and rush about with determined steps and postures. But having seen all that occurred between the Prologue and the Finale, these same movements and garments have vastly different connotations at the end than at the beginning. [Link to “Fortune Empress of the World” – https://youtu.be/PG8U2vast6k]

In between we see two couples seemingly caught up in a web of sexual betrayal reminiscent of the story of Othello and first one man and then a group of women wearing costumes that bare – or use flesh-toned fabric to skillfully mimic baring – half their bodies and much more. Although the movement is not tied to any narrative it is easy to find familiar story lines.

While the four main dancers and corps of 6 couples were uniformly dynamic, this weekend’s performance hold special significance for 13-year company member Maggie Small who is retiring her pointe shoes after her final performance of “Carmina Burana.” Like the Wheel of Fortune that inspired this work, Small’s career has come full circle, as she closes her performing career with the ballet that marked the start of her professional career. [Here’s a link to a Richmond Times Dispatch article about Small’s career and retirement: https://www.richmond.com/entertainment/art/richmond-s-homegrown-ballerina-maggie-small-set-to-retire-with/article_e5c1067b-703f-5549-bb3a-c957fd177da3.html. And another from Style Magazine: https://rvamag.com/art/dancetheatre/with-contemporary-classics-richmond-ballet-says-goodbye-to-maggie-small.html.]

Small’s long-time partner, Fernando Sabino, will retire in the spring, and it looks as if Ira White, now in his fifth year with the company, is ready to step up and into Sabino’s shoes. White, who like Small, came up from the company’s Minds in Motion program (for fourth graders) and the trainee program before joining the company, has shown tremendous growth and maturity as a dancer over the past two years, and shows promise of contributing a high level of professionalism as well as charisma to the current season.

The Contemporary Classics program marks the start of the Richmond Ballet’s new season and opens with the stunningly beautiful Theme and Variations by George Balanchine. Set to the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Suite No. 3 for Orchestra in G major, Op. 55,” “Theme and Variations” is a grand ballet, traditionally styled with white tutus, a series of pas de deux by the lead couple, and a grand procession or polonaise for all the dancers to show off their technique and gorgeous lines. As I watched the dancers move through the intricate patterns, I thought this is one ballet I’d prefer to see from the balcony, which affords a bird’s eye view of the design. My daughter, who arrived a little late after hunting for parking, did get a chance to see “Theme and Variations” from the balcony and confirmed my suspicions. She said the experience of seeing the ballet from above was the silver lining to arriving late.

“Theme and Variations” was staged by Jerri Kumery with Sabrina Holland and Anthony Oates dancing the lead roles. “Carmina Burana” was staged by Malcolm Burn featuring partners Cody Beaton and Ira White and Maggie Small and Fernando Sabino. The Balanchine classic was first performed in 1947 while the Butler opus premiered in 1959, yet both remain fresh and engaging to today’s audiences. The final performance of this short run will take place Sunday afternoon, September 29, at 2:00pm. The season continues with Studio One performances November 5-10, featuring Artistic Director Stoner Winslett’s “Ancient Airs and Dances” and a World Premiere by popular choreographer Ma Cong.

Here’s an excerpt of Maggie Small’s bio, from the Contemporary Classics program: Maggie Small, a native of Richmond, Virginia, began dancing at the School of Richmond Ballet. She completed the trainee, apprentice, and Minds in Motion programs before joining the company. In 2012 she was featured on the cover of Dance Magazine as Richmond’s “Homegrown Ballerina.”

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

———-

Photo Credits: Sarah Ferguson

 

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CAMILLE A. BROWN & DANCERS: More Than Art

CAMILLE A. BROWN & DANCERS: Celebrating Black Identity in the Arts

Reflections on a Performance Art Experience by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Alice Jepson Theatre, Modlin Center for the Arts at University of Richmond, 453 Westhampton Way, Richmond, VA 23173

Performance: September 27, 2019 at 7:30pm

Ticket Prices: $40 General Admission; $32 Subscribers; $20 Students

Info: (804) 289-8980 or modlin.richmond.edu

When Camille A. Brown & Dancers (CABD) comes to town (from NYC) it’s worth rearranging your schedule to make sure you see them. It’s been five years since Richmond was last graced by CABD and the dynamic company’s recent visit to the River City culminated in one-night of performances at the Modlin Center for the Arts. One night is not enough.

The program consisted of a trilogy of CABD’s work on black identity: Act I of the evening-length work “Mr. TOL E. RAncE” (2012); an excerpt of  “BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play” (2105); and excerpts of  “ink” (2017). “Mr. TOL E RAncE” was performed in its entirety when the company performed at VCU’s Grace Street Theater in 2014, and if memory serves correctly, it has changed and evolved since then. (A link to my review of that 2014 performance is attached, below.)

“Mr. TOL E RAncE” is a complete theatrical event all on its own. In the beginning, CABD highjacks the usual pre-show housekeeping message, using the performers’ voices to remind people to turn off their cell phones and pointing out the locations of the exit doors. Animation by Isabela Dos Santos provides a humorous and historic homage to black entertainers and artists from the early days of minstrelsy to recent television shows featuring black actors – mostly sit coms. There a projection of a red theater curtain as animated figures with over-sized heads of the likenesses of Dave Chapelle, Moms Mabley, Flip Wilson, Amos and Andy, Whoopie Goldberg, Sherman Helmsley, Richard Pryor, and many more usher the audience into the world CABD has created for us.

And what a world it is, full of color, and rhythm, resonating with sound and movement and history. The piece moves in the vocabulary of minstrelsy, tap, soft shoe, jazz, even children’s games. We catch glimpses of JJ Walker and the Carlton Dance. On at least two occasions the dancers break out into song, jamming to the themes of “The Jeffersons” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” And in case you had forgotten – or never knew – there was also “Living Single,” “The Cosby Show” and more before “Black-ish” or “Insecure” ever hit the small screen. Mr. TOLE E RAnCE is both commentary on the stereotypes of minstrelsy and a celebration of the resilience of black artists.

“BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play,” performed by Catherine Foster and Camille A. Brown, is a celebration of Black Girl Magic, filled with hand-clapping games, rhythmic sassiness, double dutch, stepping, and tap. And there are distinct, if fleeting, glimpses into the African roots of it all.

Finally, “Ink” began with a similar perspective of Black Boy Joy, as two of the men from the company performed a duet that carried us from the carefree days of childhood to the complexities of discovering you are a Black man in America. The rapid interplay of rhythm in collaboration with live musicians brings new life to old rituals and moves into the Afro-futurism of superheroes with superpowers. The exercising of superpowers, we realize with a jolt, is the normative operating mode for black people in America.

Brown and her dancers – most of whom are also choreographers and many of whom are conversant in visual and spoken arts as well – are not just dancers. They are actors. They are musicians. They are consummate artists whose work is not just a reflection of their lives, but whose work is a mirror that reveals our own lives. Artistically, Brown’s work most reminds me of the work of Dianne McIntyre and her former group, Sounds in Motion. (If you are not familiar with the work of this phenomenal artist, then look her up!) The music is such an integral part of the work, with Kwinton Gray remaining onstage the entire evening, playing the piano that sometimes provides a resting place – or a hiding place – for the dancers.  There is no separating the movement, the music, the word, the costumes, the lighting, the animation. This work is restorative. It is refreshing. It is healing. It is exhausting. It is art.

———-

Here’s a link to my review of Camille A. Brown & Dancers in Richmond in 2014:

https://www.richmond.com/entertainment/dance-review-dancers-more-than-entertaining/article_3f67e7bf-dc15-5b77-a408-110f7cde5f3c.html

 

Here’s a link to my preview and interview of Camille A. Brown for the company’s 2019 Richmond program:

https://richmondmagazine.com/arts-entertainment/stage-screen/camille-a-brown-and-dancers-modlin-center/

 

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: Christopher Duggan, Whitney Brown, Modlin Center for the Arts website

 

 

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STARR FOSTER DANCE: HERE and Now

STARR FOSTER DANCE: New Works

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 20-22, Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm, Saturday and Sunday at 3:00pm

Ticket Prices: $20; $15 for students

Info: (804) 304-1523, https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4331425

Starr Foster Dance presented six works, including two premieres and one Richmond premiere. A highlight of the program was a purposeful and compelling new work, HERE, part of the company’s domestic violence initiative.

Piercing lighting design by Michael Jarrett and dramatic music by Eighth Blackbird (“Doublespeak”) and Snowflake, Wolf Sebastian & Spinning Merkaba (“Orc March”) guides the movement and the narrative from the mundane to the explosive. In the beginning, dancers remove their button down shirts. In retrospect, what started off as innocently as Mr. Rogers removing his jacket and exchanging it for a sweater is much more ominous. In the context of domestic violence, it becomes the passing along of a generational curse, normalizing the abnormal. The almost hypnotic intersecting chains of movement phrases become the links that bind victims of domestic violence like vines that start off gently winding around a trellis and eventually chokes all other growth and pulls down the entire wall. The piece ends in a brilliant, explosive outburst.

HERE, the dance, and HERE, the project, were created by Foster and company under the mentorship of domestic violence survivor Lisette Johnson to share information and resources. As part of the project, Foster’s company has initiated a program to collect gas, grocery, and cell phone gift card to distribute through the YWCA. For more information on HERE, visit Starr Foster Dance https://www.starrfosterdance.org/heredetail and for information about domestic violence, visit Lisette Johnson’s website http://shamelesssurvivors.com/.

A second premiere, Land Shadows, is set to apprehensive music by Teho Teardo (“Wake Up the Bear” and “A Bit About Ghosts” ). Foster’s musical choices are original, intricate, and have deep psychological impact. Land Shadows, a work eight dancers, is an intriguing interplay of balance, weight, and dynamics in a three-dimensional setting made of shafts and cones of light, enhanced by a bit of smoke. The dancers’ lime green and teal tanks and matching briefs are unobtrusive yet attractive and add a surprising touch of color to this world of shadows.

I’ve often remarked how dark many of Foster’s works are – both in content and visually, but this show seemed brighter than many in the past. Ironically, this was true even of  At Your Darkest, a duet performed on Saturday by Caitlin Cunningham and Fran Beaumont (and by Cunningham and Erick Hooten on Friday and Sunday). The two dancers begin in separate shafts of line, move into a shared space in the middle of the work, and end up entwined and rolling downstage. Helping to lighten the darkness of this Richmond premiere was Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Stop Falling in Love with You” and Anne Muller’s “Walzer fur Robert.”

The program also included Saltwater Bones, a beautiful solo performed by Erick Hooten against a backdrop of ripping water (film by Douglas Hayes and original music score composed and performed by Joey Luck). Hooten, who is topless, manipulates yards and yards of white fabric in a diaphanous white skirt. The skirt is both costume and prop, and creates fascinating images: a cloud, a comforter, a wedding dress, an entrapment, and more.

Saltwater Bones was part of Foster’s January 2018 program at TheatreLAB The Basement, Spitting Image, a collaborative series of eight dances inspired by the works of eight photographers.  On that program, however, Saltwater Bones was performed by Heather Rhea O’Connor, and I wrote:

The second half of the program began with what turned out to be one of my personal favorites of the evening, a voluminous skirt solo, Saltwater Bones, inspired by the underwater photography of Cristina Peters. O’Connor’s white skirt, designed and constructed by Foster, performed doubly duty as costume and prop. Sometimes it billowed out gracefully, other times it appeared to entrap her. At the end, I found myself releasing the breath I did not realize I had been holding.

I think I found it even more beautiful and more powerful when performed by Hooten. (See my full review of that program here: https://jdldancesrva.com/2018/01/13/spitting-image-a-collaboration-of-dance-and-photography-featuring-choreography-by-starr-foster.)

The program was rounded out with the mysterious ripples of movement in Stray and the rituals of Falling to Earth. All choreography is by Starrene Foster, with lighting by Michael Jarett. This season the company of dancers consists of Fran Beaumont, Anna Branch, Caitlin Cunningham, Kylie Hester, Kierstin Kratzer, Shelby Gratz, Erick Hooten, Cristina Peters, and Mattie Rogers.

If you’re reading this Saturday night or Sunday morning, there is one more chance to see this fulfilling program, Sunday afternoon at 3:00pm.

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

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Photo Credits: Starr Foster Dance by Starr Foster and Douglas Hayes.

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HOLMES AND WATSON: It’s Not What You Think

HOLMES AND WATSON: To Tell the Truth

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 14 – October 12, 2019

Ticket Prices: $40 Theater only; $58.95 Dinner & Theater; $10-$20 rush tickets available depending on availability

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

They got me. They got me good!

Jeffrey Hatcher’s Holmes and Watson is not your traditional Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes mystery. Published in 2018, this fast-paced one-act mystery takes place after the death of Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls. Mysteriously, the bodies of Holmes and his arch nemesis Moriarty were never found. So. . .

On a remote island off the coast of Scotland in 1894, Dr. Watson is summoned to identify which of three mysterious men all claiming to be Sherlock Holmes is the real sleuth. And that, my friends, is about all I can tell you without giving away the plot and spoiling the fun. This is, after all, a mystery, and it is chock full of clues and red herrings, misdirection and rabbit holes. Fakes, frauds, telegrams, and mad men, oh my!

Running under 90 minutes, and performed without intermission, returning guest director John Moon keeps the pace fast with a tight-knit ensemble and there is nearly as much laughter as mystery. Joe Pabst is Watson, Richard Koch plays Dr. Evans, and there are three Holmes characters. Daniel Moore is Holmes #1, a somewhat menacing figure with a tendency to violent outbursts. Axel Burtness is Holmes #2, who wears a crazed look to match his straight jacket. And Jonathan Hardison is Holmes #3, who is deaf and mute. The cast is rounded out by Irene Kuykendall as the Matron and Travis Williams as the Orderly. But no one and nothing is what it appears to be.

There were some scenes where I questioned the behavior of an actor, but the final scene revealed all and explained what might otherwise appear to be lapses or omissions. Ahh, hindsight.

Joe Doran’s lighting adds depth and drama to Tom Width’s relatively simple and minimalist set – a former fortress turned lighthouse turned asylum, it is appropriately dark and shadowy. Maura Lynch Cravey’s costumes add a bit of color and visual appeal, and there are several gun shots and loud noises.

Holmes and Watson is quite an enjoyable evening and keeps the audience engaged. There is enough mystery to please a true Sherlock Holmes or mystery fan, but you don’t have to know a lot about Sherlock Holmes to appreciate the puzzle. I actually enjoyed having the wool pulled over my eyes because it was done so cleverly.

 

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

H&W-164H&W-82

H&W-34
Richard Koch, Irene Kuykendall, and Joe Pabst
H&W-21
Daniel Moore, Axel Burtness, and Johnathan Hardison

 

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CHRISTINE WYATT: Affirmative Reactions

PROVOCATIONS PERFORMANCE: Christine Wyatt | Affirmative Reactions

Observations on a Performance Art Experience by Julinda D. Lewis

At: ICA (Institute for Contemporary Art), 601 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: September 20 & 21, 2019 at 4:00pm

Ticket Prices: FREE

Info: (804) 828-2823 or ica@vcu.edu

Stepping off the spacious and artistically designed elevator at the ICA into the soaring space of the third floor True Farr Luck Gallery on Friday afternoon was a transformative experience. The open airy space is filled with Rashid Johnson’s installation – a modern yet historically and culturally evocative structure ironically titled Monument. Constructed of steel, it is simultaneously modern architecture and ancient temple. It invites the viewer/participant to sit in quiet contemplation or to walk around and through its structure and absorb the rhythms of long-forgotten memories.

Both calming and energizing, it is provocative, and on this occasion, the space was being activated by an Africanist dance ensemble led by choreographer Christine Wyatt. A libation was poured, and  ancestors acknowledged. Some of the participant/observers joined in, others were shy or unfamiliar with the custom. Six dancers and three musicians – although these are both artificial and arbitrary labels, as the musicians move through the space and the dancers sing and speak – then began to move around Johnson’s structure, first walking in silence, gradually adding gentle movements that hinted of ritual and blood memories.

One woman activated our heartstrings, pulling a bow across her violin. Soon, the space was activated with childhood stories of constructing and playing Chinese jump-rope, the soul-stirring strains of spirituals, and the wordless and universal communication of scat. At one point, the energy rose, the dancers moved faster, slicing through space and time. Some of us rose from our seats to follow their movement while others remained seated in quiet contemplation, as wave after wave of movement was birthed. Both responses were correct and necessary. At one point, the dancing women removed their royal blue dashiki-patterned caftans, stripped down to white tank tops and black leggings. They built a pyramid – that echoed the Johnson’s structure – only to collapse in laughter. The gathered in a circle on a rug – sharing a moment of unity, sharing this time of contemplation and collaboration. Their final act was to gather quietly in the center of the space and just. . .breathe.

Provocations offers a new/old way of experiencing art. It is not visual art or sculpture or music or dance. All the elements, sight, sound, movement – even smell, as I was taken back in time by the aroma of Florida water from the libation – united to create a life-affirming experience. “Affirmative Reactions” is a much-needed reminder to breathe, to take time to remember who and where we come from, to recognize and honor our ancestors and each other. It connects the past, the present, and the future.

It is a liberating experience and if you have the time and ability to get to the ICA on Saturday, please go. “Affirmative Reactions” starts promptly at 4:00pm and runs for about 30 minutes.

ADDENDUM: The cast of “Affirmative Reactions” includes Amena Durant, Lani Corey, MiKayla Young, Mary Manzari, Christina Collins, Jaylin Brown, Kenneka Cook, Reyna Pannell, and Christine Wyatt.

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

———-

Photo Credits: Julinda D. Lewis & additional photos courtesy Christine Wyatt

 

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ADMISSIONS: What is Fair?

ADMISSIONS: Power & Privilege

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 12-28, 2019

Ticket Prices: $30 general admission; $20 seniors & industry/RVATA; $10 students and teachers with ID

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

How ironic that Joshua Harmon’s award-winning play, Admissions, opened at TheatreLAB the Basement just two days after actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced to serve 14 days in prison, community service, and $30,000 in fines for her part in a huge college admissions scandal. Huffman and several other well-to-do parents bought inflated test scores and falsified their children’s athletic talents in order to secure admission into the “best” schools. The family in Admissions didn’t go quite that far to secure an Ivy League admission for their son, Charlie, but the extremes they did resort to were entirely out of alignment with their purported liberal-leaning philosophy and cast a shadow on the integrity of their way of life.

Donna Marie Miller plays Sherri Rosen-Mason, the admissions officer of a private prep school in New Hampshire where her husband Bill, played by David Clark, is headmaster and her son Charlie (Tyler Stevens) is a student. Sherri has made it her life’s mission to bring diversity to the campus – even when it stirs up tension with long-term administrators like Roberta (Jacqueline Jones). Her husband brings her flowers and wine to celebrate reaching 20% minority enrollment after years of efforts to diversify.

When Charlie, a senior, finds his plans to attend Yale are dashed, while his best friend, who is biracial and can “check the boxes” is accepted, he goes on a ferocious tirade, pitting white privilege against affirmative action. This is one of those monologues that is at once a remarkable, challenging accomplishment for a talented young actor, such as Stevens, while at the same time it is such an ugly, entitled, intolerant tirade that it keeps the audience glued to the edges of their seats. At the end, Charlie’s dad scornfully spews out, “Well! Looks like we successfully raised a Republican!”

Charlie’s deferred admission status raises the question, What is fair? And it seems the answer depends on who you are. Director Deejay Gray warned the audience at the start of the show to be prepared to be made uncomfortable and encouraged discussion with those seated nearby.

It wasn’t that long ago that Miller was playing the reluctant administrator of an animal shelter in Animal Control [https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/07/07/animal-control-the-second-world-premiere]¸ and this role invites comparison. In Animal Control  Miller portrayed a uniformed bureaucrat who reluctantly assumed a position that was thrust upon her. In Admissions it is almost the opposite; when we first meet Sherri, she is self-assured and righteous. As the play goes on, she exposes the cracks in her chic, pant-suited demeanor. At one point Miller’s character resorts to a reversal of that bastion of inclusion and tolerance when she utters the defensive sentence, “Some of my bet friends are white men.”

As the father, Clark seems to be a voice of reason until it comes to the possibility of his own son attending a community college. (Sorry, but nothing nice is said in support of community college in this play.) Stevens gives a high-spirited performance as Charlie, and I especially enjoyed the counterpoint to his fiery monologue, when he presents his mother with an alternative plan for college. In this proposal, playwright Harmon has brilliantly allowed Charlie to be innovative, sensitive, and rebellious all at the same time.

Supporting characters enhance the story, providing social and historical context as well as several delightfully amusing moments. Sara Collazo plays Sherri’s friend and neighbor Ginnie Peters, mother of the biracial best friend, Perry, who is never seen, while Jacqueline Jones takes on the role of Roberta, the stalwart administrator who appears to have come along with the school as a package deal. Ginnie points out the hypocrisy of caring more about how it looks for the school to have an acceptable number of minority students than actually caring about the students; a “star” student that Sherri had expected to make a generous donation had confessed to Ginnie that he was miserable and neglected while attending Hillcrest.

Roberta is an undercover racist who couches her racism under the smoke screen of “I don’t see color.” Wearing stylish red eyeglass frames, Jones milks a scene in which she leaves Sherri’s office after a less than successful review of her work on the school’s admission book, taking her sweet time as she exaggeratedly puts on her scarf, buttons her coat, deliberately positions her hat and snaps on her gloves before flouncing out of the office.

Ruth Hedberg is the costumer and has selected appropriate contemporary outfits for the play, set in rural New Hampshire during the 2015-2016 academic year. Connor Scudders set is attractive and built to withstand quite a bit of door slamming. One thing I found innovative was the way he built two rooms parallel to one another, with Sherri’s office occupying the downstage third of the stage and her kitchen taking up the rear two thirds or so. The variation in colors and textures and Michael Jarett’s subtle lighting cleverly drew our eyes to the appropriate space without distraction. Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design included several dance-able and very urban sounding song selections, some of which I would have been quite surprised to hear in rural New Hampshire.

Deejay Gray’s direction so thoroughly engaged his cast and audience that when intermission came, roughly half-way through this two-hour journey, I was shocked that forty-five minutes had passed so quickly. The intermission, by the way, was Gray’s idea, as it was not written into the script. Roberta’s insolent attitude, however, was delightfully scripted by the author in great detail.

Admissions couldn’t be timelier. Deejay Gray could not have engineered the national news to be any more relevant than the latest headlines. The theater provides a safe space to talk about uncomfortable topics. Unfortunately, as at least one audience member commented after Saturday night’s show, the people who most need to talk about this, and with whom we’d most like to share this, probably don’t come to the theater.

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

———-

Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

 

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FALSETTOS: Who Do You Call Family?

FALSETTOS: Four Jews in a Room Bitching

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: September 4 – October 5, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10 (student) – $40 (general admission)

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

I knew a little – very little – about Falsettos prior to seeing the show. The Richmond Triangle Players website tells us this musical “revolves around the life of a charming, intelligent, neurotic gay man named Marvin, his wife, lover, about-to-be-Bar-Mitzvahed son, their psychiatrist, and the lesbians next door.” That description doesn’t even come close to preparing the viewer for the emotionally immersive theatrical experience that is Falsettos.

Written by William Finn (book and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), Falsettos a two-act musical that runs about 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission, was originally two separate one-act plays. The first, March of the Falsettos, was written in 1981. The second act, originally Falsettoland was written nearly a decade later, in 1990. The two have been knit together so seamlessly, with the first act providing introductions to the characters and fleshing out their backstories, that I cannot imagine watching the production as two separate plays.

Debra Clinton directs with a great sense of timing and an innate sense of when to turn from humor to drama. She also choreographed the show with energetic and sometimes comedic movement that is both organic and perfectly suited to actors who are not necessarily dancers. Natan Berenshteyn is the musical director, and three musicians are disappointingly but understandably offstage – unlike most musical productions at Triangle where the musicians are either onstage or at least partially visible. Jonathan Sparks’ sound design included several familiar popular songs from the 1980s and this connected with much of the audience on Friday night.

Kevin Johnson’s set was simple, versatile, and somewhat bland, with a linoleum-patterned painted floor, a trio of crates that served as furniture and props, a truncated bed that cleverly slid out from a wall, and a half-dozen empty picture frames on the walls. They were deliberately hung crooked and at significant moments they were reversed from their plain white sides to colorful sides then back again and in the final scene a seventh frame was added – and it was plumb-line straight.

Sheila Russ’s costumes looked like they came from a 1970s consignment shop, from the Richard Simms style jogging suits worn by characters Trina and Mendel to the pattern of Trina’s Act One shirt. Attention was paid to the most minute detail, such as the way Mendel’s slacks picked up one of the color’s in Trina’s shirt, and Trina’s culottes matched Mendel’s shirt. Michael Jarrett’s lighting captured it all in a golden halo of light – especially in scenes enacted on the extended runway of the stage that ran half the length of the center aisle. If I’ve omitted any elements, please understand that all the technical components worked in complete harmony and I didn’t notice any glitches.

The cast turned in all-around stellar performances – some of which were surprising for actors I’ve seen and become familiar with over the past few years. Matt Shofner, in the principal role of Marvin, developed his character with a certain amount of restraint and internal reserve that runs counter to his usually larger-than-life performances. If there was such a thing as the opposite of melodramatic, then that would be it – natural, realistic, yet intense. The gradual transformation of Marvin from an entitled, obnoxious man with a bad temper in Act One to a man aware of his own shortcomings and making strides to work on them in Act Two was remarkable.

Similarly, Dan Cimo, as Mendel, Marvin’s psychiatrist who ends up marrying Marvin’s ex-wife, showed an entirely new side of his acting chops. When I think of Dan Cimo, the first thing that comes to mind are his unnaturally wide eyes, yet here he seemed to have commanded them to assume, at least temporarily, a new, slightly subdued shape. Cimo was the strong yet sensitive man, the voice of reason and conciliation as he navigated the tenuous territory that comes with a doctor falling in love with his patient’s ex-wife and becoming step-father to his son.

Durron Marquis Tyre also turned in a touching performance as Marvin’s gay lover. His unlikely friendship with Marvin’s son, Jason, developed with remarkable subtlety and gentleness. Tyre also had a show-stopping number with “The Games I Play” near the end of Act One. Near the end of Act Two, he sings “You Gotta Die Sometimes,” and there was audible sniffing and sniveling throughout the audience. Boxes of tissues should be placed under the seats.

Two newcomers not only held their own, but nearly stole the show. Fourteen-year-old Rowan Sharma [this is a correction as I originally reported his age as 12] turned in a stunningly strong and touching performance as Marvin and Trina’s traumatized son – nearly buried under the rubble of his parent’s crumbling marriage after Marvin left Trina to seek his new identity as a gay man, while refusing to let go of his family. Casey Payne, as Trina was responsible for possibly the best and most hilarious musical number of the show with “I’m Breaking Down” in the middle of Act One. There are no spoken lines in Falsettos, every word is sung, and “I’m Breaking Down” perfectly captures the heightened emotion of a woman who finds out that her husband is gay and doesn’t know how to navigate life from there.

Shofner, Cimo, Payne, Tyre, and Sharma are joined, in Act Two, by Kelsey Cordrey and Rachel Marrs, as a lesbian couple. Cordrey, as Dr. Charlotte, enhances the dramatic content with her work on the cutting edge of New York’s AIDS epidemic, while Marrs, as her partner Cordelia, as some of the shows best comic moments as a new-age Kosher caterer whose food tastes terrible! There are few scenes that include all seven cast members, but one of those that does, “The Baseball Game” is a hilarious and touching commentary on family and the social observation that Jewish kids don’t play baseball.

In both plays, in both acts, family is the pivotal element. There is the nuclear family, and then there are the families that we choose – and the families that choose us. Sometimes they intersect and the interactions can ignite sparks or explosions. Family and love and the complexities of love are woven throughout. “Love is Blind.” There is the “Thrill of First Love.” Sometimes, “I Never Wanted to Love You.”

Falsettos is an interesting production that has been brilliantly mounted by a director and cast that seem to be perfectly matched to each other and to the show. I laughed. I cried. I was touched. I experienced theater at it was meant to be.

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Photos courtesy of Phil Crosby, RTP.

FALSETTOS_0081
(clockwise from upper left) Matt Shofner, Rowan Sharma, Casey Payne, Durron Marquis Tyre and Dan Cimo in Richmond Triangle Player’s production of “Falsettos,” running now through Oct 5 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre. http://www.rtriangle.org
FALSETTOS_0836
Matt Shofner and Durron Marquis Tyre (partially under the covers) in Richmond Triangle Player’s production of “Falsettos,” running now through Oct 5 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre. http://www.rtriangle.org
FALSETTOS_0310
Casey Payne is “Breaking Down” in Richmond Triangle Player’s production of “Falsettos,” running now through Oct 5 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre. http://www.rtriangle.org

 

 

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PASSING STRANGE: If It Were Any More REAL, It’d Be Fiction!

PASSING STRANGE: A Rock Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 4 –6 previews; opening September 7 – October 18, 2019

Ticket Prices: $20/student; $25-30/military & RVATA; $30-45/general admission

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

All musicals are not created equal. Passing Strange, billed as “a new rock musical” is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young man’s search for his identity – “the real.” Nothing out of the ordinary in that but Passing Strange is written by Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald, musicians with the band The Negro Problem.

The upbeat and energetic score is made up of rock and roll infused with gospel, blues, jazz, and punk rock. A four-piece band led by musical director Leilani Fenick is placed prominently on a platform upstage center, and occasionally gets drawn into the onstage action. Jeremy V. Morris, the narrator, hypes up the audience, introduces the band, narrates the story, and occasionally merges into the story. It soon becomes clear that the Narrator is an older version of the lead character, an unnamed Youth played by Keaton Hillman in what I believe is his first leading role.

The Youth’s search for identify takes us from a middle class home in South Central Los Angeles in the 1970s to a communal family of young artists in free-spirited Amsterdam to a collective of revolutionary performance artists in Berlin. Ironically, it is the German anarchists who teach him the value of family – but not before it is too late.

The tightly knit ensemble – Patricia Alli, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Dylan Jones, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, and Jeremy V. Morris – has no weak links, with each of these performers giving their all throughout the two-act musical that runs about 110 minutes, with one intermission. They act, dance, sing, and set the stage, moving large black packing crates, sometimes discretely wiping their streaming faces with conveniently stashed towels as they pass one another.

Ahh, passing – now there’s a word packed with symbolism. The actors pass one another on stage. The Youth passes through the spaces and stages of his life. Time passes from Youth to Narrator. Blacks passed for white in order to get better jobs. The Youth passes as a poor young man from the ghetto to achieve artistic recognition. Black actors pass themselves off as white Europeans. And Stew, who played the role of Narrator in the original production, was inspired, in passing, by none other than Shakespeare whose Othello, the Moore of Venice uttered the phrase “passing strange” in Act 1, Scene 3.

Passing Strange is directed by Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T.), and it seems that her projects (e.g., last season’s An Octoroon at TheatreLAB The Basement) often deserve at least a second viewing and a talk-back, if not an entire seminar. Dr. T.’s staging, along with dynamically interwoven choreography by Christine Wyatt, a recent graduate of the VCU Dance program, keeps everyone moving at a swift pace that frequently contains hints of the minstrel show. The show is largely comedic until the final two scenes, but even the humor is rich in historic, racial, ethnic, sexual, regional, and cultural references. Some may be familiar, some may pass over the heads of many, and others fly by so fast that even the knowledgeable might miss them while savoring a previous nugget.

While this is clearly an ensemble masterpiece, there were standout moments and roles. I’ve seen Keaton Hillman perform in supporting roles in VaRep’s 1776, and  The Wiz, and Richmond Triangle Players’ A Chorus Line, handle puppets in the Children’s Theatre’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and portray a snake in The Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company’s

The Dreamseller and the Forest Dweller and deliver a tear-jerking monologue in Oedipus: A Gospel Myth at The Firehouse, but this is his first leading role. He nailed it. He was silly and frustrating, frustrated and innocent. Sometimes you wanted to shake him, and other times you wanted to hug him.

Jeremy V. Morris was part hype man, part mentor as the Narrator, sometimes watching, sometimes guiding, sometimes participating. We, the audience, didn’t know what to expect, but what he gave was just what was needed. Jamar Jones, who often shares a stage with Morris, used his malleable expressions to create a host of characters, from an LA youth to bible thumping preacher, from a gender fluid artist to a macho ex-boyfriend. The versatile and highly skillful Katrinah Carol Lewis also played several characters, but the one that made the strongest impact on me was Desi, the revolutionary artist who believed that the only thing that really matters is love. Keydron Dunn’s repertoire of characters included Mr. Franklin, the closeted gay son of the Baptist preacher. He initiated his newest choir member with a weed-smoking session in his car and introduced his youthful proteges to more than just harmonies and hymns. That made The Youth’s rejection of him all the more painful and poignant. Patricia Alli portrayed the mother with empathy and realism, all while maintaining a high level of first humor and later drama. Last but not least was Dylan Jones, making her Richmond debut, delightfully portraying three characters that ranged from teen-aged seductress to pornographic performance artist.

Chris Raintree’s simple set of a raised platform for the band and moveable boxes and chairs to create the environments through which the Youth passes was enhanced by lighting by Bill Miller, including some colorful LED lights on the walls. Alex Valentin’s costumes were appropriate but largely unremarkable – until the Mother’s final scene in which she appeared in the beautiful rose-colored gown she had dreamed of in Act One. September and October are busy months for theater and dance in Richmond, but I hope to squeeze in one more performance of Passing Strange before it closes October 18, and I highly suggest you get there as soon as you can. I wouldn’t be surprised if tickets become scarce after words get out about this one.

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

———-

Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

Passing Strange - Patricia Alli, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Patricia Alli
Passing Strange - Keydron Dunn, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Keydron Dunn
Passing Strange - Keaton Hillman, Jeremy V Morris, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Keaton Hillman and Jeremy V Morris
Passing Strange - Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, Keydron Dunn, Dylan Jones, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, Keydron Dunn, and Dylan Jones
Passing Strange - Jeremy V Morris, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Jeremy V Morris
Passing Strange - Jamar Jones, Keaton Hillman, Jeremy V Morris, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Jamar Jones, Keaton Hillman, and Jeremy V Morris
Passing Strange - Dylan Jones, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Dylan Jones, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, and Katrinah Carol Lewis

 

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RENDEZVOUS: 1 Woman, 2 Men, 3 Choreographers, 4 Nights

RENDEZVOUS: A Meeting of 3 Choreographers

An Extended Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St., RVA 23220

Performances: September 6 & 7 and 13 & 14 at 8:00pm

Ticket Prices: $10 general admission

Info: Grace Street Theater Box Office (804) 828-2020 or https://bit.ly/2Z1dtdk

RENDEZVOUS: A Meeting of 3 Choreographers is the first dance performance of the 2019 Fall season. It is also the first joint performance by this trio of young, contemporary performers. So, this is not going to be a traditional review, but more of an introduction and overview of some of the artists and the works that represent the future of contemporary dance in RVA and the region.

In a brief program, running exactly one hour, Callie Moore, Robert Rubama, and Jelani Taylor offered a sampling of their new and recent works.

Moore’s three selections stood out due to her use of videography.  In “Snap Soup” she has her dancers placed against a blindingly white background that delightfully challenges the viewer’s sense of space and perspective. Due to the lack of shadows six dancers, dressed in black tops and pants in shades of blue and purple, appear to float when they lay down. When one dancer passes behind another, it creates the illusion that she is rising to another level. Moore’s movements, accompanied by Julia Wolfe’s “Dark Full Ride,” a composition of light percussion (snare drums, cymbals) are playful and athletic, punctuated by unusually long pauses and empty white space. The performers: Hallie Chametzky, Courtney Darlington, Eslie Djemmal, Len Foyle, Katlyn Lawhorne, and Zoe Wampler.

“Melodramatic and Self-Indulgent” is almost the complete opposite of “Snap Soup.” In this solo, a woman (Callie Moore) in denim shorts and a white tank top performs small movements, subtly shifting her weight or wrapping her arms around her torso. She is backed into a dark corner and accompanied by a sound score of  “Brown Noise” (think super-amplified white noise and you get an idea of what it sounds like). The subtlety of the movement and occasional close-ups, focusing on the pulsing of the dancer’s breathing, her hand pinching the tight skin of her sternum, or her taped and battered toes, is a philosophically interesting exercise, but eventually becomes less and less interesting to watch.

In Moore’s third selection, “Rosy,” two women (Brittany Powers and Jada Willis) drive to the country, park their car, and dance outdoors in beds of leaves, on gravel, and on the pedestrian crosswalk of a bridge. Nature and traffic provide abundant scenery and I was enamored of the opening scene where the two women walked off into the distance and as they faded away in the background they simultaneously re-emerged in the foreground – a sort of reverse fade out leading to the main movement. Overall I truly enjoyed Moore’s experiments with videography. Her work is visually compelling and emotionally challenging.

Robert Rubama, interestingly, presented the opening and closing works. The program opened with his duet, “::flux,” which he performed with Robin Auerswald to the accompaniment of Steve Reich’s “Music for 18.” Rubama established a motif of organic movement fueled by loops and spirals that extend. His solo, “Down,” set to Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely” and “A fool persists” by Infinite Body (an instrumental piece that reminds me of the opening of an epic film) is a sensuous indulgence, long-limbed and languid. Even his sharp movements are smooth. His falls are soft, and he offered more of those lush spiraling movements that extend into infinite space as he articulates every possible muscle – back, neck, wrist.

Jelani Taylor – who, disappointingly did not dance in any of the works – presented two duets, “Solemn Wish” performed by Michelle Knight and Sydney Wiggins to the plaintive, prayerful song, “Father, Father” by Laura Mvula with Metropole Orkest and “Remembering Memory,” performed by Jenna Beardsley and Taylor Bonadies to the familiar Joni Mitchell song, “Both Sides Now.” Both duets are emotionally charged and full of yearning. “Solemn Wish” repeats variations of a slow walk with one arm raised, and the dancers execute long, slow looks that seem sadly unfulfilled. “Remembering Memory” begins with the dancers entwined, and at one point they roll, pressed together, as if clinging to life. Holding hands leads to a fall, which leads to a spin, which leads to a lunge. The movements are simple, what is compelling is the transitions, which are subtle and almost imperceptible, making the work fluid and organic.

It’s hard to produce new work. It’s hard to produce dance here in Richmond. People are familiar with the Richmond Ballet; the Latin Ballet of Virginia has a target audience and loyal following; Starr Foster has been around long enough to have developed a reputation, and Kaye Weinstein Gary has integrated dance and theater to find her niche, and both Foster and Gary annually produce festivals that bring a wide range of dance from the region and sometimes from abroad to enrich Richmond. The University of Richmond annually brings at least two internationally known dance performances to the Modlin Center, but the world of dance in Richmond does not attract the numbers that the Richmond theater community can expect – and many of them struggle to fill seats. If residents are surprised at the variety of theater companies we have, many know even less about our dance talent. That said, I have a few thoughts about Rendezvous.

The printed program was nicely executed and attractive, but I would have liked a bit of information about the participants and a few moments between dances when the house lights come up enough to allow the audience to glance at the program, so we know what’s coming up next. I overheard someone in the lobby remark that there were no posters advertising the show. I heard about it through social media, and posters can be posted there – saving both printing costs and trees. One thing the presenters were able to do that I have been advocating for is that the program is being presented over two weekends, not just one. So, while opening night had, sadly, fewer than a dozen audience members in attendance, there is still time to get out there and support our local artists. The show runs exactly one hour and it’s only $10!

Need some additional encouragement? Below is a link to Jelani Taylor’s work, “Remembering Memory” and some biographical information on each of the three choreographers. My work here is done.

Follow this link to Jelani Taylor’s work, “Remembering Memory.”

https://www.facebook.com/eradanceco/videos/421815151760206/

Choreographer, film-maker, and dancer Callie Moore graduated from VCU with a BFA in Dance and Choreography in May 2017 and founded her company Snap Soup Dance (yes, the same as the name of one of the works she presented) in 2018, with the goal of captivating everyone with her work, not just “dancers” and “artists.” Based in Richmond, VA, Snap Soup seeks to work with artists and creators across all disciplines to further their mission of making dance and art more accessible to all.

Robert Rubama is a native of Virginia Beach, Virginia and a graduate of George Mason University with a BFA in Dance. He has performed in works by Andrea Miller, Donald Byrd, Mark Morris, Soon Ho Park, Nick Pupillo, Ivan Perez, and Yin Yue as well as with Agora Dance and RawArts Dance at various venues in the Washington D.C area. He is the founder of Terre Dance Collective, a DC-based dance company that has presented works in New York City and Washington D.C.

Jelani Taylor is a dancer and choreographer from Virginia Beach, Virginia and a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a BFA in Dance and Choreography. At VCU Jelani performed in works by Melanie Richards, Martha Curtis, Helen Simoneau (Guest Artist), Ching-I Chang Bigelow (Guest Artist), Scott Putman, and Dr. E. Gaynell Sherrod. He has also performed in works by Johnnie Cruise Mercer and Rady Nget. Jelani’s own choreography has been showcased at Inside/Out at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference (IABD), American College Dance Association’s (ACDA) National College Dance Festival, National Dance Society Conference (NDS), Sans Limite Dance Festival, Small Plates Choreography Festival, Dogtown Dance Theater, Grace Street Theater, and ODU University Theater. Jelani is the artistic visionary of Richmond-based ERA Dance Company, a contemporary modern dance company with a mission to create a body of work that is reflective of cultural truths that are intended to engage and empower the larger community.

 

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 and posters courtesy of Jelani Taylor.

Rendevous1

Rendezvous1
Callie Moore
Rendezvous3
Robert Rubama
Rendezvous2
Jelani Taylor

 

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LEVEL 4: Beating the Game

LEVEL 4: Game Over

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: August 15-31, 2019

Ticket Prices: $30 general admission; $20 seniors & industry/RVATA; $10 students and teachers with ID

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

Level 4, a smart and funny new play by Dante Piro that made its debut at TheatreLAB the basement is the second collaboration between Piro and director Chelsea Burke in as many months. (The Verge, was produced by The Firehouse and presented at The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design in July and August, https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/08/03/the-verge-good-things-come-in-small-packages). They make a great creative team.

That being said, I am entirely out of my element with Level 4, a clever and colorful play that takes us inside the world of a video game, Karma Quest, where we get to explore life, loss, loneliness, and very human characteristics and relationships as experienced by the Light Lord whose domain is a battle chamber. I am not a gamer. Since the ancient days of TRS-80, when we had to type in code line by line in order to play game, my gaming has been pretty much limited to Words with Friends, Simon’s Cats, Family Feud, and Wii Fit.. So yeah, the world of the Light Lord, Strobe, Mertens, Gauntlet, the Hero, the Heroine and Tammy is out of my league.

Nonetheless, thanks to Piro’s story – which struck a nice balance between drama and comedy – and Burke’s direction, that kept things moving along at a nice clip (the first act seemed to fly by, while the second act seemed a bit long to me), I was able to enjoy the action and laugh a lot.

The very strong and well-chosen cast consists of Chris Klinger as the likeable villain Light Lord, Adam Valentine as his loyal right hand man Strobe, Adam Turck as The Hero (a real-life human who apparently spends so much time playing the game that he eventually finds himself inside the game), Levi Meerovitch (who also seems to have been very busy working on numerous stages around RVA in the past few months) as the melancholy and introverted guardian of the armor and the giant Gauntlet hand, with Breezy Potter representing the under-represented female demographic as The Heroine and the unpopular gamer Tammy.

Interactions between Klinger and Valentine, Klinger and Turck, and Klinger and Meerovitch are especially interesting as the video game experiences glitches, the characters play the same scene over and over with various results, the game restarts, and, in the end, gets resurrected. Meerovitch and Potter sometimes appear as disembodied heads in windows on either side of Dasia Gregg’s video game set and the emotionally flat affect sometimes adopted by Valentine and Meerovitch was intriguing.

The simplicity of Gregg’s set and projections and the stylized movements of Klinger and Turck during the fight scenes suggests to this video game novice that this is a game from an earlier time period and is not one of the more modern programs. This is supported as the second act concludes with the revelation that time has passed. The Hero has married, his son is now an adult, but to tell any more would spoil the dramatic surprise of the ending.

Visually, Level 4 pulled the audience close into Gregg’s set. Lighting by Michael Jarrett included strobe effects and strands of LED lights, familiar Mario Brothers/Nintendo 64-era tunes infused the sound design by Joey Luck, and elaborate fight choreography by Emily Turner all enhanced the audience’s overall immersive experience. The one thing I thought didn’t quite fit – no pun intended – was Ruth Hedberg’s costumes. They looked somewhat like a child’s attempt to create a video game character’s garment. The Light Lord’s cape-like uniform was the most troublesome for me, closely followed by the shoe covers or spats that were simply socks with the heels and toes cut out. But the Light Lord mentioned that he had been planning to update the uniforms, so perhaps this look was intentional.

I enjoyed the intrinsic humor of the script and the pixelated quirkiness of the characters, but I am sure I missed major references and important nuances that would have been obvious to an experienced video game player. That anyone can enjoy Level 4, regardless of video experience of level, attests to the inclusiveness and universality of the subject as well as the strength of the  individual and ensemble performances.

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

———-

Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

Level 4.4
Chris Klinger and Adam Turck
Level 4.3
Adam Valentine, Levi Meerovitch (silhouetted), and Chris Kinger
Level 4.2
Adam Valentine
Level 4.1
Adam Turck and Chris Klinger

 

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THE VERGE: Good Things Come in Small Packages

THE VERGE: Small Theater

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: A Firehouse Theatre production at The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, 2501 Monument Avenue, RVA 23220

Performances: July 25 – August 14, 2019

Ticket Prices: $20 in advance/$30 the day of/$10 for Firehouse members

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

Sometimes when writing about a particular production we describe it as different or innovative. Well, all those times were just reviewers crying wolf. Dante Piro’s interactive play, The Verge, is truly different.

First of all, only 8 “guests” are allowed for each performance, and there is a dress code. Black tie is suggested. And the “guests” not only have assignments – along the lines of a mystery dinner theater, but without the food – but they also get to decide the ending, or at least to choose from one of two possible options.

Set in the elegant surroundings of the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, the “guests” gather around a small conference table for the reading of the will of the recently deceased John Randolph Bessenger, CEO of Bessenger’s Bits, an ice cream toppings and condiments company.

There is a legal assistant Alanis (not sure of the spelling, because there is no program) who helps organize the gathering, and an unnamed woman who sits quietly off to one side observing after greeting us at the front door. We “guests” are gathered to hear the reading of the will – a series of letters and puzzles, jokes, and sometimes disjointed ramblings by a dying man.

Dante Piro who wrote The Verge also plays Virgil, Mr. Bessenger’s faithful personal assistant. Virgil, who was given the nickname “Verge” by his employer, is a lovable character but he has a lot of quirks in speech and mannerisms. It’s fascinating to watch Piro work from such a close vantage point. Also fascinating was watching the eight “guests” pull together and work as a team; the play probably has a very different look and feel every time, based on the rotating cast of strangers. The Verge has the dynamics of a pick-up company or improvisation group. At one point, Virgil leaves the room, leaving the eight “guests” alone (under the watchful but unobtrusive eye of the legal assistant and the almost invisible helper) to decide his fate.

Chelsea Burke directed, but it’s hard to determine just how much she had a hand in it. Everything runs smoothly and the eight witnesses are surreptitiously directed as well. Credit Connor Scudder for the scenic design (part of which is the location itself), as well as the props, of which there are plenty – locked drawers, secret compartments, maps and puzzles and more. In fact, it’s the props that get the “guests” involved and working together to solve the mystery. There are twists and turns, not just in the plot, but in Virgil’s reactions and the deceased’s motives, and most noticeably in Piro’s use of language.

Leaving The Verge feels a lot like leaving on the last day of summer camp – the “guests” were just starting to bond, and suddenly it’s time to go back to the real world. The Verge, which has already been extended for five additional performances (August 6, 7, 8, 13 & 14), runs just under 90 minutes with no intermission. If you want to try something other than traditional theater, like a bit of role play, and enjoy a mystery, this production fits the bill.

The Verge runs through August 14 and on August 15,TheatreLAB The Basement opens the world premiere of Piro’s LEVEL 4¸ an existential drama in which the characters are in a video game. LEVEL 4 is also directed by Chelsea Burke.

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: n/a

Firehouse - VERGE2

 

41SR4yCI7aL._SL160_

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Alvin Ailey

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FOREVER PLAID: Songs & Shenanigans

FOREVER PLAID: Heavenly Harmony

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: July 19 – August 25, 2019

Ticket Prices: $44

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

Forever Plaid, the final production of the Va-Rep Hanover 2018/2019 season is a humorous heavenly harmonic hash guaranteed to make you pat your feet and smile. In the barely-there plot, a quartet of young singers on the way to a big gig at the Airport Hilton gets killed by a school bus full of Catholic high school girls (why this is important I’m not sure), on their way to watch the Beetles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show (which does become important later.) The four find themselves returning from some sort of limbo where they have spent the last 55 years for one last chance to perform in front of a big audience. The accident happened in the 1964, and one member of the quartet asks the audience what year it is. On Thursday, the audience member, perhaps flustered, initially gave a false date, in the 1950s, before admitting it was 2019.

This is not the only instance of audience participation. In another scene a compliant woman named Nora was charmed onstage to play piano with Sparky (while Travis is on his union break), and the entire audience is corralled into a sing-along on the song “Matilda.” The quartet brings instruments into the audience for those who care to participate in a hands-on experience, and Nora, by the way, left the stage with a commemorative plaid dental floss and a certificate with her name on it.

The shenanigans are carried on with amusing awkwardness – one member of the four is often out of step and depends on antacids to tame his nervous stomach, one hyperventilates, one has a mild speech impediment, and the fourth is prone to nosebleeds – by Mitchell Ashe (Sparky), PJ Llewellyn (Smudge), Ian Page (Jinx), and Caleb Wade (Frankie). Two, Jinx and Smudge, I think (it’s hard to keep up) are even step-brothers, and in one touching scene reminisce about a childhood tradition of family TV night. They watch, what else, “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The “band” consists of Travis West on piano and David Yohe on bass. They all sing well, even when making mistakes on purpose, while rotating through a veritable warehouse of wacky props, from six foot plumbers’ helpers (plungers) to straw hats and a traditional nun’s wimple.

Ashe, Llewellyn, Page, and Wade seem to have as much fun playing these characters as the audience does watching and listening to them. Wade, as the group’s leader, shows equal parts confidence and compassion, which seems even more amazing considering that the group leads off with, “We’re Forever Plaid, and we’re dead.”  My favorite part of the show, however, is when The Plaids perform the entire “Ed Sullivan Show” (that ran on CBS from 1948 – 1971) in three minutes and eleven seconds – including the animal acts, puppets, musical acts, comedians, and even Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse.

Forever Plaid, written by Stuart Ross and first performed off-Broadway in 1989, was directed by Wes Seals with musical direction by Travis West. Both keep the pace moving at just the right speed (45rpm). Terrie Powers’ set is simple – arches, silver curtains, stars, a rounded stage – and BJ Wilkinson’s lighting sets just the right tone. Marcia Miller Hailey’s white dinner jackets are simple and classy, and the long-awaited arrival of the group’s plaid tuxedo jackets doesn’t occur until near the end of the one-act show that runs just under 90 minutes. The sound design by Derek Dumais makes everything clear and easy to understand, and the choreography (no credit is given, so I assume they retained Ross’ original choreography) is charmingly corny.

There are more than a dozen songs, beginning with “Three Coins in a Fountain” and ending with “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” the song they were rehearsing in their red Mercury convertible when they were killed. In between there is a wide variety of musical numbers, from the Caribbean medley to Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” “Perfidia,” which was inspired by the quartet’s collective crush on their high school Spanish teacher, to one of my favorites, the energetic “Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby.” There are plenty of period and time-related references that might fall flat on anyone under the age of 50, and “The Ed Sullivan Show” seems to be a unifying thread, but Forever Plaid is a joyous, feel-good musical revue that favors naivete over controversy.

 

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

Forever Plaid
Ian Page, Mitchell Ashe, Caleb Wade, PJ Llewellyn. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Forever Plaid
PJ Llewellyn, Mitchell Ashe, Caleb Wade, . Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Forever Plaid
Ian Page, Caleb Wade, Mitchell Ashe, PJ Llewellyn. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Forever Plaid
Mitchell Ashe, Ian Page, Caleb Wade, PJ Llewellyn. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

 

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THE TAMING OF THE SHREW: Girl Power!

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW: Girls Night Out

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

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

Performances: July 11 – August 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

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

Shrew
The Women of The Taming of the Shrew

 

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Whistlin Women

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Alvin Ailey

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DANCE NATION: Five, Six, Seven, Eight

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: July 11 – August 3, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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

 

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Alvin Ailey

 

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POLKA DOTS: A Musical About Segregation

Polka Dots: The Cool Kids Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: July 12 – August 11, 2019

Ticket Prices: $21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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

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ANIMAL CONTROL: THE SECOND WORLD PREMIERE

ANIMAL CONTROL: THEY’RE BACK

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: July 3 – 27, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

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

 

 

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girlfriend: a tender tale of first love

GIRLFRIEND: A Summer Romance

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: June 24 – July 9, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-20

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

Photo Credits: RTP website and Facebook page

 

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THE WIZ: Ease on Down the Road

THE WIZ: Everybody Rejoice!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: June 21 – August 4, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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

 

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GREY GARDENS, THE RECLUSIVE MUSICAL

GREY GARDENS: Poor Little Rich Girls

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: June 24 – July 27, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-40

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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THE TEMPEST: Sublime or Subliminal?

THE TEMPEST: It’s Complicated

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

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

Performances: June 6-30, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Production photos by Aaron Sutten; Group selfie by Noah Downs

Tempest.5
Adam Turck
Tempest.4
Cedar Curran, Travis Williams, Chris Dunn, John Cauthen, Jonathan Hardison, Derek Kannemeyer, Jeff Clevenger
Tempest.3
John Cauthen
Tempest.2
Jonathan hardison, Adam Turck, Chris Dunn, Derek Kannemeyer, Travis Williams
Tempest.1
Shakespeare Festival Audience Selfie, 06/15/2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

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OFFICE HOURS: QUITTING TIME

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 7-22, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Jeremy Bustin Photography

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THE SAVANNAH SIPPING SOCIETY: Life on Randa’s Veranda

THE SAVANNAH SIPPING SOCIETY: Hilarious Southern Women’s Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 1 – July 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Robyn O’Neill

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WRONG CHOPPED: Experimental Comedy

WRONG CHOPPED: Dumb Fun

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 17 – June 8, 2019

Ticket Prices: $22 General Admission; $12 Students

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

 

Dumb & fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

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

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AN OCTOROON: We Need to Talk

AN OCTOROON: The Point is to Make You Feel Something

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 16 – June 1, 2019

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

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

When is it okay to laugh at racist stereotypes?

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

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

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

So, what could there possibly be to laugh about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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

 

 

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MISS GULCH RETURNS!: When Fiction Becomes Reality

MISS GULCH RETURNS!: The Bitch is Back!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: May 15-25, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Ding, dong, the bitch is back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: as noted

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

Miss Gulch 1

Miss Gulch 2
Photo by Joshua N. Wortham

 

 

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GLORIA: In Trouble or In Excelsis Deo

GLORIA: In All Its Glory

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

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

Performances: May 11 – June 2, 2019

Ticket Prices: Single tickets start at $35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Jason Collins Photography

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RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO THREE

Richmond Ballet Studio Three: Three Beautiful Dances

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 7-12, 2019

Ticket Prices: $26-$46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Sarah Ferguso

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

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6th RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL: Week 2 of 3

RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL 2019: Entanglements – Week Two

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

Ticket Prices: $20 General; $15 Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: See individual photos.

RDF

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

RDF2

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ATLANTIS: The Truth Will Rise. . .

ATLANTIS: A New Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: April 12 – May 5, 2019

Ticket Prices: $36-63

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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

BINGO! The Winning Musical: A Birthday Tribute

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 19-May 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Courtesy of Ann Davis

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

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

ANIMAL CONTROL: A BAD DAWG TALE

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 17 – May 12, 2019

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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

 

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

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

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

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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

WOMEN’S THEATRE FESTIVAL: Bad Dates

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Destiny Martinez Photography

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

Women's Theatre Festival.2