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

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

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

Ticket Prices: $15 General Admission

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

———-

Photo Credits:

Catherine Cabeen by Joe Markwalter

iMEE by Roi LeMay

Luisa Martinez by Evan Zimmerman

Motion X by Ruth Judson

Rain Ross by Brian Mengini

Starr Foster Danc

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

e by Doug Hayes

Advertisements

RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL 2018 @ DOGTOWN: Spring Has Sprung Diversity

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

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

———-

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

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

ONE IN FOUR: An Out of This World Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

A Nu Puppis Production

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

 

One in Four-3
Matt Riley and Rachel Hindman

One in Four-2

One in Four-4
Matt Riley and Dixon Cashwell

CONSTELLATIONS: Quantum Mechanics, String Theory, and Honeybees

CONSTELLATIONS: A Play of Infinite Possibilities

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

TheatreLAB’s The Cellar Series 2018: This Beautiful Mess

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

Performances: April 23 – May 2, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10 general; $5 students

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Destiny Martinez

 

Constellations
Audra Honaker and Trevor Craft
Constellations2
Trevor Craft and Audra Honaker

MOTH: The Third in TheatreLab’s “Taking Sides” Series

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 13-28, 2018

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

 

Moth
John Mincks and Kelsey Cordrey
Moth.5
John Mincks
Moth.4
Kelsey Cordrey and John Mincks
Moth.3
Kelsey Cordrey and John Mincks
Moth.2
John Mincks and Kelsey Cordrey

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.

———-

Photo Credits: Jason Collins Photography

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

———-

Photo Credits: John MacLellan

This slideshow requires JavaScript.