RIVER DITTY: A Contemporary Folktale of Generational Violence and Bigotry

RIVER DITTY: An American Folktale of Generational Violence and Bigotry – A World Premiere by VirginiaRep

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage, 114 W Broad St, Richmond, VA 23220

Performances: April 20-May 6, 2018

Ticket Prices: $30-50*

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

It starts on a train and it soon becomes apparent that none of the riders have paid their fare. It’s 1892, in an America that has been romanticized by Mark Twain as the Gilded Age, and two of the main characters are en route from New Orleans to Baltimore, with a life-changing detour in a cabin in Arkansas where they have a scenic view of a river that borders Tennessee.

Subtitled, An American Folktale, Matthew Mooney Keuter’s River Ditty has the allegorical look and rustic feel of a traditional folktale, but like the historical Gilded Age – that period of American history between the 1870s to about 1900 – all that glitters is not gold, and the ugliness and corruption run deep. There are visual hints in Craig Napoliello’s jagged set of diagonally patterned flats that break apart almost as if they are bleeding their characters out onto the stage – and there is blood aplenty. A little wooden cabin provides a haven of warmth and comfort and the unseen river – which would be where the audience is seated – provides the only certain peace.

River Ditty opened with a lot of fanfare and promise. Several years in the making, it made its world premiere here in RVA with Virginia Rep’s Artistic Director Nathaniel Shaw as director, produced in collaboration with the London-based Glass Half Full Productions, support from the Muriel McAuley Fund for New Plays and Contemporary Theater, and a powerhouse cast, including Katrinah Carol Lewis, Matt Polson, Alexander Sapp, and Scott Wichmann. Director Nathaniel Shaw and author Matthew Mooney Keuter are siblings who worked closely on the concept and execution of River Ditty. But somewhere between concept and execution, someone forgot to clear up the confusion, and maybe it was just me, but there seemed to be plenty of it.

If I had not seen or heard a pre-show promo video and podcast, it would have taken me an inordinate amount of time to figure out that the loving interracial couple, Sunshine (Katrinah Carol Lewis) and Arlo (Matt Polson) are brother and sister and not lovers. And that Lily (Wendy Carter) is Atticus Dye’s (Bostin Christopher) baby mama, and apparently the sometime madam of his “gentlemen’s establishment,” but is she also his wife? And if so, why is he planning to go after Sunshine, and whose runaway bride exactly is she? Oh, and why, because I seemed to have missed it, did Atticus Dye (who seems to be the only character who has a last name) kill his own brother, whose wife was Sunshine’s mother? But wait, wouldn’t that make Sunshine and Arlo cousins rather than siblings? None of these questions was ever really answered for me.

If you are fine with a little confusion and ambiguity, there is plenty else to like, admire, or be challenged by. River Ditty is emotionally heart-wrenching and filled with human and historical insights. The rangy Jonathan Brent Burgard delivers an awesome performance as Harlan. His monosyllabic grunts become a running joke; his awkward posture and obvious lack of social experience become endearing; and his human insight and unwavering loyalty are the stuff of which legends – and folktales – are made. Harlan’s friend Owen (Alexander Sapp) is simultaneously a comic rube and a sensitive, insightful artist. Scott Wichmann is almost unrecognizable as Harlan’s train robbing father, Toe. (The reason for the moniker is one of the best running jokes of many.) Wichmann also revealed another little-known talent – the train version of sea-legs; he has mastered the swaying motion of a moving train while standing on a flat stage. And then there is Arlo – innocent and oblivious, and in need of protection from his sister, even as he shelters her. Arlo is a dreamer and writer of children’ stories, because, as Frederick Douglass, whom he is fond of quoting, would say, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” There are a lot of broken people in this play. There’s also racism, misogyny, and homophobia – the latter unspoken but unmistakable. There’s even a discussion about guns and why we need them and make them which seems particularly contemporary and relevant.

But even as we begin to understand the characters’ motivations, the nature of their relationships remains unclear and since this was central to the play, this was a problem for me. Sue Griffin’s turn of the century costumes were accurately detailed, as usual. B.J. Wilkinson’s lighting and Derek Dumais’ sound designs were subtly complementary, and recorded music by Red Tail Ring (vocals, banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle) had some audience members bouncing and swaying down the aisle on the way to their seats.

A lot of time, attention, and detail went into A River Ditty, and I was disappointed that I was underwhelmed by the total effect.  In all fairness, the show one sees on opening night often bears little resemblance to the show one sees later in the run, but to paraphrase Arlo, you can’t just unmake it.

 

* Expanded Ticket Information:

Box Office 804-282-2620

http://www.virginiarep.org

Full Price Tickets: $30 – $50

Discounted Group Rates and Rush tickets available.

U-Tix for college and high school students $15. Available by phone or in person, day of show only. Valid Student ID required.

** Performance Schedule:

Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Wednesdays and every Thursday

Evening performances at 8:00 p.m. every Friday and Saturday

Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. on select Wednesdays and Saturdays and every Sunday

 

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

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: April 18-May 12, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-30

Info: (804) 346-8113or rtriangle.org

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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RVA Dance Collective Presents: VOICES

RVA Dance Collective Presents: VOICES

A Dance Pre-Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Mike Keeling

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 6-May 13, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

pinkalicious_tyandria_jackson_pr_sbpinkalicious_illus_topPinkalicious

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Tyandria Jackson and Anthony Cosby
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Brent Deekins, Tyandria Jackson, and Anthony Cosby
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Anthony Cosby, Rebecca Turner, Brent Deekens, Tyandria Jackson, and Audrey Kate Taylor

LUCKY ME: A Comedy Exploring the Joys of Being Flawed

LUCKY ME: Finding Joy in the Cracks and Flaws

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 6-21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bill Blair, Amy Berlin, Matt Hackman, and Todd Schall-Vess in “Lucky Me”
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Amy Berlin (as Sara) and Matt Hackman (as Tom)
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Amy Berlin and Matt Hackman
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Matt Hackman and Amy Berlin

ROMEO AND JULIET: When Society Fails its Youth

ROMEO AND JULIET: Young Love and Old Problems

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced By: Quill Theatre

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

Performances: April 6-22, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Quill Theatre

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AN OAK TREE: The Physical Substance of a Thing

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

AN OAK TREE - Landon Nagel (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Landon Nagel in “An Oak Tree”
1_AN OAK TREE - Landon Nagel (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Landon Nagel in “An Oak Tree”