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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos: Richmond Triangle Facebook page.

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The COMMON wealth & The COMMON debt

Stories in the Soil by The Conciliation Project

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

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

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

Ticket Prices: free

Info: https://youtu.be/yrbIGTA0WYg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO SERIES/NOVEMBER

Diversity and Mastery Bring Hope in Challenging Times

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: November 10-22, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO SERIES/OCTOBER

Separate and Together: Dances for a Pandemic Audience

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: October 13-25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos by Sarah Ferguson:

Cody Beaton & Trevor Davis in “Always a Way”

Matthew Frain in “Djangology”

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

Lauren Archer in “The Waiting Room”

GRIEF, GUILT, AND PARANOIA: The Madness of Poe

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

A Live Theatrical Experience Reviewed by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

Ticket Prices: Pay-What-You-Can

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edgar Allan Poe Trivia

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

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

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

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

A slideshow of auction items follows.

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

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 16 – October 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call ’em out!”

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

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RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO SERIES/SEPTEMBER

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

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 15-27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2020 ARTSIES AWARD WINNERS ANNOUNCED

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Best Musical
“Urinetown”
TheatreLAB


Best Direction, Musical
Matt Polson
“Urinetown”


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


Best Actress, Musical
Bianca Bryan
“Urinetown”


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


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


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


Best Choreography
Nicole Morris-Anastasi
“Urinetown”


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


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


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


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


Best Play
“Fences”
Virginia Rep


Best Direction, Play
Alison Devereaux
“Stupid Kid”


Best Actor, Play
James Craven
“Fences”


Best Actress, Play
Terri Moore
“The Cake”


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Breakout Performance
Lorin-Hope Turner
“Stupid Kid”


Outstanding Original Work
Level 4, TheatreLAB


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


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

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SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS: At the Edge of the Ocean

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS: A Play Without Words

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

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

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

Ticket Prices: $37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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SPOILER ALERT

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

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

**********

 

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

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Photo Credits: Jason Collins

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

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

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

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

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

 

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