THE ZOMBIE LIFE

Zombies never second guess. Zombies have no regrets. Are you ready to be converted?

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: August 18-29, 2021. August 18-20, previews. August 21 Premiere. Limited seating due to COVID. All audience members must be fully vaccinated and wear masks inside The Firehouse. Remaining tickets sold out online as of Friday, October 26, but call the Box Office to check if seats have opened up.

Ticket Prices: $33

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

The premise of Chris Gavaler’s new play, The Zombie Life, is that life is better as a Zombie. Zombies do not feel guilt, shame, or emotional pain. They have no responsibilities, don’t have to plan for the future, and have no regrets about the past. So, we find ourselves in the audience as Gavaler’s unnamed* Therapist (Ken Moretti) begins a self-help seminar, the purpose of which is to hear Zombies share their experiences and, hopefully, be convinced to join their ranks. *[The Therapist is unnamed on the program, but elsewhere identified as Dr. Steve Brandeis.]

One Woman (Shalandis Wheeler Smith) comes to the seminar weighed down by the demands of life and her over-stuffed tote bag. She interrupts the Therapist and decides to commit to becoming a Zombie even before the demonstration begins. For the rest of the play, which runs an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission, the Woman learns the ropes of The Zombie Life as her four mentors demonstrate for the audience.

“Being dead is so much easier, so much safer.”

The Therapist uses objects recycled from their past lives and other found objects to trigger memories of the futility of searching for the meaning of life: a pair of doctors involved in Zombie research, a creepy mortician, a mindless soldier, a couple of cannibals, a group of confederate sympathizers, a sex worker, and the mother of a stillborn baby are among the object examples of human pain, suffering, and foibles. But try as he might, the Therapist has a hard time controlling his little band of Zombies, played with varying degrees of creepiness, conviction, and overacting by Marjie Southerland, Jacqueline Jones, PJ Freebourn, and Keaton Hillman.

“Uncertainty. That’s your soul trying to get your attention.”

I was never sure if the creepy asides and overacting was intentional. I have seen and thoroughly enjoyed all six of these actors in many productions over the years, and I know that they are all capable of giving stellar performances. But Chris Gavaler’s script just didn’t reach stellar levels. The script is scattered and awkward and not even a highly professional cast, or earnest direction by Gavaler’s sister, Joan Gavaler, or interesting movement sequences by Dan Plehal could bring a sense of cohesiveness and focus to this production.

The Zombie Life is different, for sure, and there are more than a few moments of humor. It is thought-provoking, and incorporates relevant social, philosophical, and spiritual issues. It just doesn’t work in its present form. Tickets for the remaining performances are sold out, but if you dare or care to see it for yourself, do call The Firehouse Box Office (804) 355-2001 as a few of the limited and socially distanced seats may open up at the last minute.

Production Team:

Written by Chris Gavaler

Directed by Joan Gavaler

Movement Director – Dan Plehal

Production Designer – Todd Labelle

Costume Designer – Annette Hairfield

Prop Designer – AC Wilson

Crew – Emma Avelis & Scott Shepardson

Stage Manager – Grace Brown

Cast:

Therapist – Ken Moretti

Woman – Shalandis Wheeler Smith

Zombie #1 – Marjie Southerland

Zombie #2 – Jacqueline Jones

Zombie #3 – PJ Freebourn

Zombie #4 – Keaton Hillman

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Performance schedule:

Wed Aug 18 7:30pm (preview)

Thu Aug 19 7:30pm (preview)

Fri Aug 20 7:30pm (preview)

Sat Aug 21 7:30pm

Thu Aug 26 7:30pm

Fri Aug 27 7:30pm

Sat Aug 28 7:30pm

Sun Aug 29 3pm

Tickets:

$33

Photos: Bill Sigafoos

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS

Who Knew History Could Be This Much Fun?

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Heritage Gardens, 900 E. Broadway, Hopewell, VA 23860, August 7 & 8; Battersea Park, 1289 Upper Appomattox St., Petersburg, VA 23803, August 14 & 15; Children’s Home (Chesterfield), 6900 Hickory Rd., Petersburg, VA 23803, August 21 & 22.

Performances: August 7-22, Saturdays & Sundays, at 4:00 PM. All performances outdoors; bring your own chair. Tickets: $10 in advance only.

Info: theheritageensemble.org

As a young adult in Brooklyn, I used to listen to a black DJ who frequently used the term “edutainment.”[i] Whatever the source, that seems to be just the right word to describe Margarette Joyner’s production of BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS. A perfect vehicle for children, most of those in attendance at Battersea Park[ii] in Petersburg on Sunday afternoon were adults. Tellingly, we enjoyed ourselves as much as the little one who sat front and center.

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS follows much the same formula as Joyner’s What They Did For Us: Black Women Who Paved the Way, presented at Richmond Triangle Players Robert B. Moss Theatre in February and March of this year. But after I fought and won a battle with the mosquitos and came to a livable compromise with the heat and humidity, I found this wild west historical romp to be one of Joyner’s most enjoyable productions to date. The formula is roughly a series of monologues, performed by a lively cast, many of whom have experience as historical interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. In this casual outdoor setting, the wild west theme, with the actors walking around in cowboy boots with six-shooters strapped to their thighs while greeting the audience by tipping their hats and drawling “howdy, ma’am,” was just what was needed to draw the audience into this rowdy tale.

First up was Clara Brown. Born into slavery right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Clara Brown became Colorado’s first black settler and a pioneering entrepreneur and philanthropist. Then there was Willie Kennard, a sharp-shooting cowboy and arms instructor for the military who became a town marshal in Yankee Hills, Colorado, where he defeated the town bully. Moving on to more familiar names, we also heard from Nat Love aka Deadwood Dick, who recorded many of his exploits in an autobiography, and Mary Fields, perhaps better known as Stagecoach Mary, the first African-American woman driver for the US Postal Service, as well as Bill Pickett, the cowboy and rodeo superstar credited with inventing the rodeo event known as “bull dogging.” This dangerous feat involves the cowboy dropping from his horse onto a steer then wrestling said steer to the ground by its horns. According to legend, Pickett added the sensational flourish of biting the bull’s lip after twisting his head. (Yes, it sounds cruel and gruesome, but this is a theater review, and I am simply reporting historical facts, so no comments, please.)

All these stories were told with great flourishes, lots of “oohs” and “aahhs” and exaggerated body language. The actors performed on and around the front porch of the historic Battersea estate, with the audience seated on folding chairs (“new-fangled contraptions”) or blankets on the grassy lawn. Much as I dislike mosquitos, this setting greatly enhanced the experience for me. The only thing that might possibly have made it better would have been seeing and smelling a plume of smoke rising from the kitchen and someone handing me a plate of BBQ, baked beans, and cornbread with a mason jar of sarsaparilla (root beer would suffice).

Kudos to the versatile and enthusiastic cast. (I haven’t matched names with roles, as there was no printed program, and I don’t want to make any mistakes. But it is an ensemble, so equal kudos to all. Well, okay, a little extra to Dorothy Dee-D Miller for her swagger – and her beard, but don’t tell the others) As of this writing, there are two more opportunities remaining to see BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS or this run. I hope it becomes a regular part of the Heritage Ensemble’s rotating repertoire. Yeehaw, ya’ll. Now git (out there and see the show).

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS

Written & Directed by Margarette Joyner

Produced by the Black Seed Grant

CAST (in alphabetical order):

Ray Bullock

Zakiyyah Jackson

Dorothy Dee-D Miller

Jeremy Morris

Chris Showalter

Shalandis Wheeler Smith

Michelle M. Washington

Willie Wright


[i] The term has been credited to The Walt Disney Company, but some sources trace it back to Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanac).

[ii] Built in 1768 as the country estate of John Banister, Petersburg’s first mayor, Battersea is a Virginia Historic Landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is “one of the finest surviving examples of Palladian architecture in America.” batterseafound.org

THE PINK UNICORN

Activists Come in Many Guises

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: On Stage and On Demand, July 28 – August 15, 2021. On Demand: check at rtriangle.org

Ticket Prices: $30-35; $10 for Students. On Demand Edition: check at rtriangle.org

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. Richmond Triangle Theater has returned to full-capacity seating. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, and more.

Every now and then a play comes along that takes you completely by surprise and just sweeps you off your feet. The Pink Unicorn is one such play. I was not familiar with Elise Forier Edie’s award-winning story, independently published in 2018. In brief, it is about how the life of a young widow who lives in a conservative Texas town where “everyone” goes to church on Sundays is turned upside-down when her teen-aged daughter announces she is genderqueer. That blow is accompanied by the knock-out punch that she also plans to start a chapter of the Gay Straight Alliance at their local high school. I didn’t really have any idea what to expect when I went to Richmond Triangle Players’ Robert B. Moss Theatre for the opening night of the play. Once there, I laughed a lot, cried a little, and went through a plethora of emotions including outrage, anger, frustration, admiration, compassion, and love. The Pink Unicorn, a one-person show, does all the things theater is supposed to do and it does them all well.

Maria Lucas plays the role of the mother, Trisha Lee. Lucas, a VCU Theatre Department graduate, has recently returned to RVA after a decade or so working in Chicago, and what a phenomenal return this is.  The play runs about 75 minutes without intermission and Lucas never once lost my full attention. Those sitting around me in the nearly full theater laughed out loud a lot and I am sure I saw more than one other theater goes wipe away an escaping tear.

“I’m genderqueer,” Jo announces, followed by a snarky, “Maybe you should look it up.” But Trish, apparently an equal match for her teen’s sharp repartee responds without missing a beat, “I’m not in the habit of looking things up.” I’m not entirely what a conservative Christian Texas accent sounds like, but I’m pretty sure Lucas nailed it. From her comic reaction every time she mentions her child’s pet tarantula to her hilarious characterizations of “the lesbian underground railroad” and “consorting on the phone with demons,” the latter in reference to a conversation with the ACLU, delivers a non-stop, well-paced stream of consciousness story that is simply perfect. And informative. And relevant.

Wearing dusty brown coveralls, bare feet, pigtails, and a toolbelt of multi-colored chalk sticks, she performs on a bare stage against a backdrop of chalkboard painted walls on which she draws an ever-changing mural while telling her story. Under the direction of Raja Benz (described in the program as a trans, Filipina-American theatre maker, intimacy educator, and cultural theorist, who uses the pronouns she/her/siyá*), Lucas transforms a few pre-drawn rectangles and a generic head into her child, her child’s friends, her child’s pet tarantula, Beetlejuice, a telephone, a school, a church, a name tag, and whatever else will help her story to move forward. The interactive mural was apparently not part of Edie’s script, but the brainchild of Benz and Lucas. After my initial skepticism, I was completely sold on the chalk drawings and couldn’t wait to see what Lucas would create next. Candace Hudert’s sound design is seamlessly woven into the script and Austin Harber’s lighting adds depth and atmosphere without being intrusive.

The Pink Unicorn, a reference to a little girl’s imaginary comforting friend, is also a nod to a parody religion used by atheists to illustrate the arbitrariness of religious faith, but you can look it up if you want to know more about that.  This play is not just about laughs. It addresses transphobia, homophobia, Christian fundamentalism, family schism, and other real-life issues that are currently affecting families, schools, communities, and our legal system. And yes, you should go see it.

*If you’re reading my blog, I know you ARE in the habit of looking things up, but here’s one for free: In the Tagalog language the word siyá is a pronoun that means both he and she; it is commonly pronounced “shah”

THE PINK UNICORN

Written by Elise Forier Edie

Directed by Raja Benz

CAST:

Marie Lucas as Trisha Lee

CREATIVE TEAM:

Scenic Design by Dasia Gregg & Michael Riley

Costume Design by Claire Bronchick

Lighting Design by Austin Harber

Sound Design by Candace Hudert

Properties Design and Technical Direction by Lucian Restivo

Dialect Design by Louise Casini Hollis

Hair and Make Up Design by Luke Newsome

Assistant Director: Kathrine Moore

Production State Manager: Dwight Merritt

Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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THE BOTTOM SHOW: A “New” Play by William Shakespeare (Mostly)

THE BOTTOM SHOW: or ‘The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom the Weaver

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road, RVA 23221

Performances: Fridays, July 9 – August 13, 2021

Ticket Prices: $33 ($28 for Seniors and Groups 10+, $23 for RVA On Stage, $20 for Students)

Info: (804) 340-0115 or quilltheatre.org

The Bottom Show: A New Play by William Shakespeare (Mostly), directed by Quill Theatre’s artistic director James Ricks, comes with a WARNING: “This show is devoid of anything vaguely intellectual, serious or romantic. Contains low-brow humor and semi-popular music.” Perhaps the best way to describe The Bottom Show to anyone who hasn’t seen it is that it is Shakespeare for those who think Shakespeare is too high-brow or too difficult to understand – as well as for those who don’t. In other words, it’s for everybody!

Populated, with but one exception, by the same cast who carry the roles of Twelfth Night Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, The Bottom Show – named for a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is a comic adaptation of that play – runs on Fridays in tandem with Twelfth Night. And if physical humor was evident in Twelfth Night, it is the very foundation of The Bottom Show – so much so that each cast member deserves a large bag of Epsom salts, a jar of tiger balm, and a painkiller of choice for each week of the run.

The premise of The Bottom Show is that a group of amateur thespians – “mechanicals” or tradesmen by day – set to work to put on a show for the entertainment of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and his lovely lady, Hippolyta. But, of course, their plans run afoul of a group of fairies who are involved in some soap opera style drama of their own. Toss in snippets of popular and vaguely familiar rock and pop songs and sprinkle liberally with references to the plague that shall not be named, spread out some lawn chairs and break out the snacks and you have the makings of a perfect summer night’s entertainment. Musical highlights included Levi Meerovich playing an accordion and singing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and a moment of four-part harmony on “Life Could Be a Dream” that somehow managed a seamless segue into The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”

Kurt Benjamin Smith works hard – and quite successfully – at portraying Bottom as a terrible yet pretentious actor while Erica Hughes provides a wonderful counterbalance as a voice of reason keeping this rowdy band under control. Michael Blackwood is pretty much a straight arrow as Theseus, but lets loose his inner drag queen as Titania, the queen of the fairies, in one of the breakout musical sequences of the show. Lucretia Marie plays Oberon, the king of the fairies whose desire to exact revenge on the stubborn Titania sets in motion much of the havoc and hijinks of both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Bottom Show and later appears as Hippolyta – the latter in a white pantsuit that gives a nod to recent political events that shall also remain unnamed.

The amateur thespians’ show includes lengthy prologues designed to ease the fears of the “ladies” – at one point drawing a disdainful sidebar from Penny Quince. There is a delightfully annoying portrayal of the moon (I think that was Michelle Greensmith, but it’s hard to keep everyone and their shenanigans straight) and a scene with “The Wall” (Foster Solomon) that teases out alternate meanings of the word “bottom.” And, of course, one can never overlook Puck – Emily Berry leapt and flipped about the stage with supernatural energy. The entire evening, running about 90 minutes without an intermission, is magical.

The Bottom Show

By William Shakespeare

Cast

Bottom – Kurt Benjamin Smith

Penny Quince – Erica Hughes

Flute – Mitchell Ashe

Snug – Levi Meerovich

Snout – Foster Solomon

Starveling – Michelle Greensmith

Titania/Theseus – Michael Blackwood

Antonio – Lucretia Marie

Oberon/Hippolyta – Lucretia Marie

Puck/Philostrate – Emily Berry

Musician – Lennon Hu

Direction & Design

Director:  James Ricks

Assistant Director: Cole Metz

Stage Manager: Nata Moriconi

Technical Director: Ryan Delbridge

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Costume Design: Cora Delbridge

Music Direction: Levi Meerovich

Choreography: Nicole Morris-Anastasi

Sound Mixing: Todd Schall-Vess

Additional Dialogue: James Ricks, Bo Wilson, Bradley Carter

Assistant Stage Manager: Lane Woodward

Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Jewell

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: Dave Parrish Photography & Quill Theatre Facebook page

TWELFTH NIGHT: Shakespeare on the Back Lawn

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road, RVA 23221

Performances: July 8 – August 14, 2021

Ticket Prices: $33 ($28 for Seniors, $23 for RVA On Stage, $20 for Students)

Info: (804) 340-0115 or quilltheatre.org

For their first show at Agecroft Hall after “the plague that shall remain nameless” the Quill Theatre chose Shakespeare’s zany romantic comedy, Twelfth Night. The play takes its name from the Twelfth Night as it was created as holiday entertainment marking the Epiphany, or the end of the Christmas season. In addition to the shipwreck, unrequited love, deception, revenge, mistaken identities, cross-dressing, androgyny, and numerous other elements that Shakespeare wrote into the plot, Quill Theatre updated the play with colorful and whimsical costuming (e.g., Feste’s flower child ensemble, Malvolio’s bell bottoms and yellow stockings) and a sound score that featured 1960s pop hits (think the Beatles, the Monkees, and Elvis).

Meerovich, who plays the fool Feste as well as serves as musical director, opens the show with a lively serenade that sets the tone for the evening and Lucretia Marie who plays the minor but nonetheless important role of the sea captain, Antonio, who saves the shipwrecked Sebastian, reads the evening’s announcements. Before you know it, the play has begun, with some major characters popping up from amidst the audience from time to time. The show runs about 2.5 hours, with one intermission, but director Jan Powell established an easy, organic pace that complemented the casual layout, with the audience spread out over the back lawn under a clear sky, accentuated by a lovely sunset, a pastoral setting, and welcome breezes from the nearby river – as well as the occasional passing train.

For those who need a refresher – or an introduction – Twelfth Night recounts the tale of noble-born twins Viola and Sebastian who are shipwrecked off the coast of Illyria, a region of the Balkan Peninsula. The twins are separated, each thinking the other has drowned. Sebastian is rescued by Antonio, a sea captain, and the two remain peripheral for much of the play while Viola, after being saved by an unnamed rescuer, disguises herself as a boy, takes the name Cesario, and becomes a servant to Duke Orsino, who is in love with the fair Olivia, who is mourning her deceased brother. To complicate matters, Viola/Cesario falls in love with Orsino, and Olivia falls in love with Cesario who has come to plead the case of Orsino. While all this is going on, Olivia’s maid Maria, Olivia’s rowdy uncle Toby and his friend Sir Andrew conspire to convince Olivia’s household steward Malvolio that Olivia is in love with him. Feste, a court jester and roving musician, weaves between all the characters, collecting tips and keeping the audience entertained with musical divertissements.

Emily Berry and Mitchell Ashe played the shipwrecked twins, each believing the other had drowned until the final scene. Dressed identically, with Berry disguised as a boy, both become involved in relationships that bend and blend gender boundaries. Berry’s character is in a triangle with Olivia and Orsino while Ashe’s character inadvertently risks breaking the bonds of trust established with the sea captain who helped him at great personal risk. Both ultimately end up in conventional male-female couplings. Berry has a lot more stage time than Ashe, increasing the audience’s anticipation of their ultimate reunion – which drew cheers on Thursday night.

Michael Blackwood and Lucretia Marie, as the benefactors of the twins, provided solid dramatic counterpoint to the constant hilarity delivered by Cole Metz, Levi Meerovich, Foster Solomon, and Kurt Benjamin Smith, much of which was instigated by Erica Hughes’ character. Thanks to their unrelenting and often physical humor, it was easy to keep up with the flow of the action even when the sound system failed us. Sometimes, it seems depending on where the actors were standing, words and lines got lost, and for awhile there was a bit of static coming from some of the speakers. But this was a new configuration for the Richmond Shakespeare Festival, and I trust that these issues will be worked out during the run of the show.

A modest set (no credit given on the PDF version of the digital program I have) consisting of a simple wooden fence with a few green vines and some lovely rainbow colored lighting by BJ Wilkerson provided atmosphere without overwhelming the backdrop – Agecroft Hall, a Tudor mansion that, we were reminded, stood in England while Shakespeare was still alive. The audience saw scattered across the spacious lawn on lawn chairs and blankets, in clusters as close to others as you chose to be. I don’t recall seeing any masks, but you could certainly wear one if you want to. All in all, Twelfth Night delivered a delightful night of theater, and its utter nonsense provided a welcome sense of normalcy.

Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare

Cast

Viola – Emily Berry

Olivia – Michelle Greensmith

Orsino – Michael Blackwood

Malvolio – Cole Metz

Feste – Levi Meerovich

Toby Belch – Foster Solomon

Andrew Aguecheek – Kurt Benjamin Smith

Maria – Erica Hughes

Sebastian – Mitchell Ashe

Antonio – Lucretia Marie

Direction & Design

Director:  Dr. Jan Powell

Assistant Director: Melissa Rayford

Stage Manager: Nata Moriconi

Technical Director: Ryan Delbridge

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Costume Design: Anna Bialkowski

Music Direction: Levi Meerovich

Sound Mixing: Todd Schall-Vess

Intimacy Director: Lucinda Piro

Assistant Stage Manager: Lane Woodward

Assistant Stage Manager: Hope Jewell

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: Dave Parrish Photography & Quill Theatre Facebook page

 

ELLA AND HER FELLA FRANK:

A Match Made in Heaven

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Arenstein Stage. 114 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: July 9 – September 12, 2021 (Preview July 8)

Ticket Prices: $58. Discounted group rates and rush tickets available.

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

The theme for opening night was “Richmond theater is back!” The occasion was festive, with a classic Rolls Royce convertible parked in front of the November Theatre, a ribbon cutting, and after the show, a ceremonial darkening of the lights in honor of the late Randy Strawderman, who first conceived of this heavenly duo.

The word heavenly is not thrown around lightly, as the premise of this show – more a concert than a play or even a musical – is a reunion in heaven of these two real-life friends and musical collaborators. The result is a nostalgic concert of classics and favorites.

Highlights of the evening (not counting being out at a live theater event) included Desirée Roots’ skillful and confident demonstration of Fitzgerald’s signature scatting technique on Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) and Scott Wichmann’s nuanced and intimately articulated delivery of “One For My Baby and One More For the Road.” There was even a good-spirited vocal battle set off when Wichmann tried to sing Sinatra’s signature “New York, New York.” Roots threw every city or geographically related song she could think of at him before allowing him the pleasure of completing the song: “I Love Paris,” Girl From Ipanema,” “My Kind of Town (Chicago),” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Tale the A Train,” and more.

Roots is no stranger to the music of Ella Fitzgerald, having written and starred in a 2017 tribute, Ella at 100 (since renamed Forever Ella). Roots was both amusing and elegant, portraying “The First Lady of Song” in three elegant gowns – a blinding gold metallic number, a lime green satin ensemble, and an angelic white finale creation adorned with feathers and glitter – each with matching shoes and a color-coordinated handkerchief. Kudos to Sue Griffin and Keith Walker for the costume design. Wichmann was a natural choice for the popular singer nicknamed “Ol’ Blue Eyes.” Between the two of them, Fitzgerald and Sinatra earned 25 Grammy awards (13 for her and 11 for him), and sold somewhere in the vicinity of 200 million albums.

Seeing these two musical icons portrayed by two familiar theater stars would have been a treat at any time, but it was especially heart-warming as the inaugural show of the great re-opening. Too bad Friday night’s performance was marred by a wonky sound system. Both singer’s voices were under-amplified and at times distorted while singing, and much of their light banter was completely lost. (I understand this was not the case during the previous night’s Preview performance, and I hope it doesn’t affect any other shows.)

A live 7-piece orchestra was placed onstage – socially distanced – in a simple and elegant setting of white balloon-like globes that at times reflected different colored lights. The beautifully subtle lighting was designed by BJ Wilkinson. As at any good concert, the musicians got a chance to solo, and even the Overture (Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump) and the Encore (Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a Strong”) drew enthusiastic applause. Larri Branch, the Music Director, was also the pianist – who had a single line, a long-drawn out “yep!” in response to questions like, “Are they (meaning us, the audience) real? There was even a bit of audience participation – some planned and some that I think was spontaneous.


Katrinah Carol Lewis’ direction was unobtrusive and organic – except when the two vocalists briefly paced around one another like caged cats. Their initial attempts to hug one another were hilariously rebuffed by an invisible force shield that prevented them from touching – another nod to COVID-19 conventions, yet highly unlikely to happen in heaven.

Written by Richmond-based playwright Bo Wilson and featuring nearly 30 songs, Ella and Her Fella Frank runs about 80 minutes, with no intermission. In accordance with Actors’ Equity Association COVID-19 Guidelines, face masks are required to be worn by all patrons while in the building and no food or drinks are being served at this time.

In honor of Randy Strawderman, who conceived of the original concept of this show, a moving tribute was held after the show, with Debra Wagoner singing from the balcony above the theater’s restored original entrance and a ceremonial darkening of the theater lights. A detailed tribute is available in the digital program – another COVID-19 theater convention that is likely to be around for awhile.

Ella and Her Fella Frank

by Bo Wilson

Based on an original concept by Randy Strawderman

Cast

Desirée Roots as Ella Fitzgerald

Scott Wichmann as Frank Sinatra

Direction & Design

Direction: Katrinah Carol Lewis

Scenic Design: Josafath Reynoso

Costume Design: Sue Griffin and Keith Walker

Lighting Design: BJ Wilkinson

Music Direction Larri Branch

Stage Management: Jocelyn A. Thompson

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

Find these books by Julinda on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/bookshelf

COMPANY | E

NEXT: WARMER. An evening of performance on climate change

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 25 & 26, 2021.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $20. Streaming Tickets: $8 to see NEXT: WARMER right from your home: https://dogtown.vhx.tv/pro…/company-e-presents-next-warmer

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

REPERTORY:

The Art of Looking Back. Choreography: Emese Nagy (Hungary). Music: Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms; Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree  and Winter Wonderland by Brenda Lee; Mandolin Concerto I  C Major by Antonio Vivaldi; A rich life with less stuff | The Minimalists  TEDxWhitefish

These Frames. Choreography: Robert Rubama (Brooklyn, NY, USA). Music: Organization: Foundation Foundation by Dylan Lambert; Frames by Robert Rubama

Current. Choreography: Maddie Hanson (Canada). Music: Midnight by Kyle Preston; Behind Every Decision by Yehezkel Raz; Dark Tension by Kyle Preston; Hibernation by Peter James Johnson

Y zero. Choreography: Ashley Lobo (India). Music: Original score by Chirag Agarwal & DWC

Passenger. Choreography: Rayven Leak (USA). Music: Original score by Clifton Brockington; additional music by Solange

Having sent out a call for entries on climate change, Company | E, under the artistic direction of Paul Gordon Emerson and Pilkington, selected works by Maddie Hanson (Canada), Ashley Lobo (India), Emese Nagy (Hungary), and Robert Rubama (USA). A fifth work, by Rayven Leak, marked the debut of the Liz Cherry Jones Memorial Commission, awarded to a current student or recent graduate, in collaboration with the Company’s partner, Howard University. All five works came under the umbrella of the title Next: Warmer, a concert of works exploring the theme of climate change and reducing the company’s own footprint in ways large and small.

Emese Nagy’s The Art of Looking Back was at once ridiculously awkward and surprisingly graceful. Dancer Horizon Miguel donned layers of clothing and flung his body around a confined space that was also home to a rotary phone, a mermaid fishtail, a belly button brush, and several boxes. Meanwhile, his partner, Kelsey Rohr, rummaged through piles of clothing and unidentifiable debris. They appeared to be a pair of hoarders reveling in – and being consumed by – years of uncontrolled consumerism.

[https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2236274489837111]

Robert Rubama’s quintet, These Frames, used abstract movement hung on a framework of architectural design in an ambient soundscape that was oddly soothing.  The opening solo made me think of a bird doing yoga. Rubama employed a transient center of gravity, with asymmetrical motifs and off-kilter spines that seemed physically and logically incapable of supporting the moving bodies that enveloped them. This may be his way of metaphorically addressing the larger issue of sustainable practices in architecture and construction and its impact on global carbon emissions.  I was particularly struck by a repeating motif in which the dancers placed their hands at their hip in a diamond shape and lifted them upwards. It was so simple yet so powerful to watch these earthen vessels learn to construct new earthen homes.

[https://m.facebook.com/watch/?v=1219141105185056&_rdr]

Maddie Hanson’s Current – first introduced to Richmond at the previous weeks RDF21 Weekend Two – was performed against a video background of earth, sky, and water. The dancers embodied an undulating spiraling body roll and moved as a unit, giving the impression of being part of a whole even when not touching. Our connection to the Earth and our relationship with water were the focus. Again, I felt that gravity was relative. It was fascinating how connected the various works – each by a different choreographer – appeared to be as the program progressed.

[https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1126442894518799]

Ashley Lobo’s Y zero examined our relationship to planet Earth and looked at the Earth as a living being. The women’s tunics were reminiscent of the ancient Greek peplos or the ancient Roman chiton, and the men’s garments reminded me of monk’s attire. Both drew the mind back in time and supported a sense of history as the dancers moved through this very grounded and immersive work. Lobo’s work seemed to be not so much about the movement as it was about the atmosphere it created.

[https://m.facebook.com/watch/?v=2895562947384103&_rdr]

The program closed with Passenger. Rayven Leak, a 2020 graduate of Howard University, crafted this movement collage of broken, boneless postures infused with hip hop and lyrical movement. A Rasta walk, smooth spins, and catwalks were all embraced by the dancers, who were wrapped in an original score by company resident artist Clifton Brockington, mixed with additional music by Solange.

It was deeply satisfying the way the five works by five different choreographers fit together into a seamless thematic movement. This is as it should be.

Photos from Company | E and Dogtown webpages. Video clips from Company | E website. Photo by Dave Parrish Photography.

ALL NEW RDF21: WEEKEND TWO!

DOGTOWN DANCE THEATRE PRESENTS THE 2021 RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL LIVE AND IN-PERSON

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: Week One: June 11-12, 2021. Week Two: June 18-19. Live and streamed on Dogtown STREAM.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $20 General; $10 Students. Virtual Access $39.99 annually (Free Trial currently in effect. https://www.dogtowndancetheatre.com/dogtownstream)

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

WEEK 2 REPERTORY:

Perceived Threat by Leah Glenn Dance Theatre (Williamsburg, VA). Choreography: Leah Glenn. Music: Max Richter.

Marathon by Trybe Dance Collective (a safe space for emerging artists). Choreography: Danielle Lyndsay. Asst. Jaedyn Cameron, Daneya Celestin, Kendall Parker, Chloe Ruffin, Mia Watkins. Music: “Marathon (In Roses)” by Gem Club.

Equinox a film by Jonah Haber

Vacancy by Baran Dance (Charlotte, NC). Choreography: Audrey Baran. Music: Nicholas Jaar.

Kalika Stuthi by Sri Sai Dance Academy. Choreography: Sarada Jammi. Music: Satyagopal Tumuluri.

A Mother’s Soliloquy a film by Cameron Kostopoulos. Directed & written by Cameron Kostopoulos. Music: Prateek Rajagopal.

One hundred years flicker; I kiss the Snow by Jenna Beardsley (Richmond, VA). Choreography: Jenna Beardsley. Videography: Taylor Bonadies. Music: “Flora” by Elysia Crampton ft. Jeremy Rojas & “When I Rule the World” by Liz

desasosiego. by Aina Lanas (Spain). Direction, Choreography & Writing: Aina Lanas.

Retentions by CLAVES UNIDOS (Richmond, VA). Choreography: Kevin LaMarr Jones with Alyssa Frye, Diamond Hudson & the performers.

Salad Days by Sara Hook. Choreography by Sara Hook. Music: “Anfangs wollt’ ich fast Verzagan (At First I Almost Despaired)” by Robert Schumann

Canis Major an award-winning film by Charli Brissey. Direction, Choreography & Animation: Charli Brissey.

CURRENT by Company | E (Washington, D.C.). Choreography: Maddie Hanson. Music: “Midnight” by Kyle Preston, “Behind Every Decision” by Yehezkel Raz, “Dark Tension: by Kyle Preston & “Hibernation” by Pete James Johnson.

The Richmond Dance Festival came back for a second week with all-new programming. Like the first week, the program consisted of a mix of live performances and dances created on and for video. There were some truly outstanding performances, but this time there seemed to be some unevenness in genres, execution, and programming.

Leah Glenn set the bar high with the opening work, Perceived Threat. Jamal Story started standing on one leg, with the other suspended in the air somewhere in the region of his ear while he turned. It brought to mind images of Fred Benjamin and Eleo Pomare, two icons of American modern dance for those of a certain age. The work itself, a duet Story performed with partner Kylie LeWallen, is contentious and gravity-defying, and marked by some of the strongest technique I’ve seen in quite some time.

Another highlight of the program was Sara Hook’s zany and breathless duet Salad Days. The title is taken from a Shakespearean reference to the “salad days” or heyday of youth. Throughout most of the dance, Rachel Rizzuto counted aloud from 1-10, varying the tempo and accent and sometimes counting to 12. Occasionally her voice waned, her partner wearied of the pace, only to rally and rejoin the game. For some reason, at one point, Rizzuto takes off her shirt and stands topless while her partner politely averts his eyes, but humor doesn’t always have to make sense to make us laugh. The program included six more live dances and four dance films.

The Trybe Dance Collective’s group work, Marathon, featured a troop of young dancers with tight buns and purple leotards.  Though it is constructed of basic studio moves – bridges, contractions hinges – it brought to mind Balanchine’s “Serenade,” as it, too, was created as a showcase for young dancers and an introduction to the choreographer’s technique for the audience.

In Audrey Baran’s Vacancy ritual, repetition, and meditative poses were set against a soundscape of words, music, conversation, and children’s voices. A program note included the question, “How do we navigate or occupy the space and time left behind after a loss, and should we?” I wasn’t quite sure what was happening, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the riveting motion.

Ameya King performed the classical Indian piece, Kalika Stuthi, on Saturday (Manaswi Gonela danced the role on Friday), and I found it interesting that the song sounded familiar as it was written by the choreographer’s father, Satyagopal Tumuluri. (It reminded me of a song I heard on a segment of Rhoda Grauer’s 1993 Dancing video series, but I couldn’t find any music credits for the series.) King’s long bejeweled braid and ankle bells helped accentuate the polyrhythms as each and every part of her body danced: eyes, fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, torso, hips, legs, feet – each subdued to the discipline of her craft. It was possible for one unfamiliar with the genre to follow parts of the story, even if we had no knowledge of the demands of the technique.

The second half of the program began with Jenna Beardsley’s solo, One hundred years flicker; I kiss the Snow, featuring the specter-like figure of a gauze-covered dancer on stage and a grainy black and white film on the screen behind her.  The work ends with a bizarre juxtaposition of the waif-like figure – is it human or human-like; is it living or no longer living – moving to the empowering anthem “When I Rule the World.” The unusual title comes from a line in Scottish singer SOPHIE’s song, “Is It Cold in the Water?” – the same artist who produced “When I Rule the World” – and the work is dedicated to the mysterious artist who identified as a trans woman and tragically died after a fall from a balcony earlier this year.

Kevin LaMarr Jones’ Retentions featured a multi-generational cast of women and a toddler girl dancing to music fired with the passion of Spanish guitar. The little one tentatively ventured from her mother’s arms to explore the striding steps of the other women and took a few test strides of her own. One woman moved alone, slowly traversing the back of the space, emphasizing a sense of being along but together. Like much of Jones’ work, Retentions speaks of history and geography and cultural diffusion.

The program closed with Company | E’s CURRENT, a complex work that is at once overly long, ambiguous, and committed. A section that dealt with the acquisition of an air fryer was hilarious while hammering home its point about unnecessary consumption. But I will be covering this company more in-depth next week when they return for an entire evening of works from their WARMER series.

By far, my favorite of the films was Aina Lanas’ desasosiego (Restless). Lanas, described in the program as a “reference for urban/contemporary dance in Spain,” provided an immensely entertaining film featuring four women in deconstructed suits entertaining themselves – and their audience – by playing with and tasting lemons. At some point, their jackets and pants fall away, and there is even a moment of flamenco, of course. [https://vimeo.com/486618048]

Jonah Haber’s film, EQUINOX, featured a woman wearing a black dress walking in a geodesic dome. The work is filled with many structures and has a sci-fi feel. Cameron Kostopoulos’ film, A MOTHER’S SOLILOQUY, was a depressing tale of addiction. A crumbling room of mirrors and broken glass reflected a woman’s rapid deterioration, and I was outraged that this film closed out the first half of the program. Near the end of the second act, Charli Brissey’s award-winning animated film, CANIS MAJOR, explored a writer navigating through a severe case of writer’s block with the help of their dog. The writer contemplates the relationship between dancing and surviving the end of the world. [https://www.charlibrisseyisananimal.com/canis-major-2019]

All-in-all, Weekend Two was marked by diversity and variety, yet it lacked the visceral and artistic impact, the “wow” factor of Weekend One. 

RDF21:

DOGTOWN DANCE THEATRE PRESENTS THE 2021 RICHMOND DANCE FESTIVAL LIVE AND IN PERSON

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: Week One: June 11-12, 2021. Week Two: June 18-19. Live and streamed on Dogtown STREAM.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $20 General; $10 Students. Virtual Access $39.99 annually (Free Trial currently in effect. https://www.dogtowndancetheatre.com/dogtownstream)

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

WEEK 1 REPERTORY:

Affected | Karar Dance Company | Choreography by Kara Robertson | Music: Original Score by Ryan Davis | Costumes: Damian Bond

En el Vació (In the Vacuum) | Choreography by Eric Rivera | Music: “Una Palabra” by Carlos Varela and “Contrastes” (La Periferia feat. Renzo Baltyzzi) by Damian Verdun | Costume: Johan Stegmeir

when you are looking, what do you see? (FILM) | Dogwood Dance Company | Choreography by Joanna Chocklett with collaboration from performers | Music: “Epilogue” by Olafur Arnaulds

Collective Fortitude | RADAR | Choreography by Megan Rivero | Music: “Outro” by M83

Fiscal Relations (2018) | Choreography by Julianna Raimondo | Music: “Between Water and Wind” by Colin Stetson

Exhale (FILM) | Directed by Moniek van der Kallen

Tribal (Improvisational Belly Dance) | Ajna Tribal Belly Dance Troupe | Choreography & Performance by Stephanie Wagner, Missy Moore, Lois Milone, Alicia Hagy | Music: “Land Back” by A Tribe called Red, “Trøllabundin” by Eiver, “Pow Wow” by A Tribe Called Red

Personal Tea Ceremony | Human Landscape Dance | Choreography by Malcolm Shute | Music: “Meditation” by Jules Massenet

DRY ONE’S EYES (FILM) | Directed by Botis Seva & Ben Williams

Two’s Too Much | Choreography & Performance by Luisa Innisfree Martinez & Kayla Xavier | Music: “Put Your Head on my Shoulder” by Paul Anka & “Little Story” by Janusz Wojtarowicz, Motion Trio

Ulrichs 1867 (FILM) | Directed by Sven Niemeyer

Malong Dance and Fan Dance | Sayaw! Diversity | Choreography by Dhol Tuason | Music: Kapa Malong-Malong & Philippine tribal music dance

The Richmond Dance Festival is back, and the dance community has obviously been starving for live dance. Dogtown Dance Theatre welcomed a full house (that’s about 80-ish people), and masks are optional if you are fully vaccinated. People seemed comfortable with the mix of social distancing accented with elbow bumps and a few actual hugs. The joy of being back in the theater for a live performance enhanced a dynamic and diverse program consisting of 8 dances and 4 films. (There will be an entirely new program for the second week. See below for details.)

Highlights of the program included Ajna Tribal Belly Dance and Sayaw!, Eric Rivera’s solo, and the film by Seva and Williams.

It’s hard to believe that the smoothly synchronized poly-rhythmic movements of Ajna Tribal are improvised. The quartet of women mesmerized with heads, shoulders, hips, and hands all moving to different rhythms simultaneously. Two of them even did this while balancing curved swords (scimitars?) atop their heads. The finger cymbals, colorful costumes, and music used in this American Tribal Style belly dance seemed to represent a fusion of cultures: Middle Eastern, Asian, African, and more.  What a way to end the first act!

The final work, Malong Dance and Fan Dance, was no less impressive. Dhol Tuason presented two traditional Philippine dances. “Pagapir,” performed with glittering fans is a royal court dance of the Maranao people and from the Lake Lanao area, features elegant movements of the large fans while the women’s feet take tiny steps emphasizing their prominent family background and good manners. “Malong” is the name of the gorgeous tubes of fabric worn by the dancers and gracefully manipulated from skirt to shawl to mantle, alternately covering and revealing. As beautiful as the fans and fabric were the women who represented a wide range of ages from youth to elders, a gentle reminder that dance is for everyone.

Eric Rivera’s intense solo, En el Vació,was performed by Alisha Agrawal, in a fiery red dress that boldly reflected a flamenco influence. The work, which in English translates to In the Vacuum, incorporated horizontal rolls on a wide bench. It is described as an exploration of the sense of urgency surrounding the return to normalcy – something that has been on our minds recently. Do we cling to the past, or move ahead into an uncertain future? En el Vació does not answer these questions, but it certainly makes contemplating them more interesting. Rivera is a prolific choreographer, having spent 13 seasons with Ballet Hispanico of New York where he created or helped to create more than 20 original works.  He has also performed with Minnesota Ballet, Ballet Teatro Municipal de San Juan, P.R., and in the European tour of West Side Story.

The beautiful brown bodies and clear eyes of the women and girls in the film Dry One’s Eyes seem to be on a journey in search of identity. Close-ups of faces beautifully devoid of makeup, and one inexplicably masked in white powder (does it represent oppression or tradition?) are arranged in stark contrast to tortured and sometimes invasive movements and situations (as when gloved hands roughly explore one’s teeth) and the presence of a black Barbie doll is at once innocent and ominous. This is the sort of art that relies equally on the movement and the film – a delicately balanced and perfect marriage of mediums. Dance artist Botis Seva often uses hip hop and autobiographical experiences to propel his narratives and the results are compelling and cutting-edge.

While these were my personal favorites of the evening’s dozen offerings, the rest of the program was outstanding.

The program opened with Karar Dance Company’s duet, Affected. The work has extraordinary use of energy, from sustained and to lyrical to robotic and ritualistic. Karar presented their first evening length work, Circadian, and at Dogtown in 2019 – in the “before” times – and has presented work, including Affected in Philadelphia in collaboration with the NYC’s Vanessa Long Dance Company. Karar Dance Company is definitely a company to watch.

RADAR’s Collective Fortitude, first presented in 2016 as part of the company’s evening length work, beingHUMAN, employs majestic music and tense movement in an exploration of human connection and relating to others. Washington, D.C.-based Human Landscape Dance is contemporary company whose work often focuses on human struggle and relationships and each of their dances is framed by some sort of container (such as a box or an egg) or employs foundational props. Julianna Raimondo’s Fiscal Relations is populated with monstrous possessions, poses from classic hip hop album covers, and dancers wearing jackets, irregularly buttoned shirts, and lots of noise! Raimondo’s work reflects an eclectic background, having worked with DanceWorks Chicago, Matt Pardo, and Urban Bush Women, among others,

Personal Tea Ceremony, a beautifully intimate and gentle work performed by Alexander Short and Malcolm Shute, is an exploration of an experience Shute had while traveling in Japan. “I encountered a Japanese man who spoke as little English as I speak Japanese,” he said in a Dogtown spotlight, “and offered me a ride to a remote location. After I took my photos, he led me to a temple for a tea ceremony. The event forged a bond between us, despite our differences.” The leaves and petals on the floor and on the dancers’ shirts could represent tea leaves or the flora of the remote location where the tea ceremony took place.

Two’s Too Much, choreographed and performed by Luisa Innisfree Martinez and Kayla Xavier, was by far the most amusing work on the program. The piece involved two women, a rug, and a bottle of wine, and carries the brief but poignant descriptor, “What’s mine isn’t yours…” Like Personal Tea Ceremony, the work makes use of props and explores relationships, and delightfully displays Martinez’ focus on women’s characteristics and mannerisms and using tangible objects to disrupt space.

Other films shown included Dogwood Dance’s when you are looking, what do you see? – a mostly black and white interlude set in a wide field, it addresses the ways in which we categorize and compare, how we take in the world. Do we really look? Do we really see? It is a beautiful first film by Joanna Chocklett, a Richmond native and graduate of the JMU dance program.

Hailing from the Netherlands, Moniek van der Kallen’s Exhale is another emotionally impactful film that seems to be about drowning and rebirth – or some sort of resurrection. It is beautifully filmed, in and under water. Last, but certainly not least, was German dancer and filmmaker Sven Niemeyer’s documentary-like film, Ulrichs 1867. Raw and heart-wrenching, it deals with violence against the LGBTQ community.

A dozen pieces is a lot. I normally would call it overkill, but in this case Dogtown artistic director Jess Burgess outdid herself in selecting works that all stand out in their own right and that worked together to create a festive atmosphere for this first RDF21 program. But wait, there’s more. June 18 and 19, Weekend Two will have a whole new repertory:

Perceived Threat by Leah Glenn Dance Theatre (Williamsburg, VA)

Marathon by Trybe Dance Collective (a safe space for emerging artists)

Equinox a film by Jonah Haber

Vacancy by Baran Dance (Charlotte, NC)

Kalika Stuthi by Sri Sai Dance Academy

A Mother’s Soliloquy a film by Cameron Kostopoulos

One hundred years flicker; I kiss the Snow by Jenna Beardsley (Richmond, VA)

desasosiego. by Aina Lanas (Spain)

Retentions by CLAVES UNIDOS (Richmond, VA)

Salad Days by Sara Hook

Canis Major an award-winning film by Charli Brissey

CURRENT by Company | E (Washington, D.C.)

My only complaint: Since re-opening, the risers have not been set up, so if you’re sitting beyond the second row, it’s hard to see. Several people chose to stand at the back of the theater to see better.

WALLED IN WITH WALDEN

a new play by Andrew Gall with material adapted from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: May 27-June 26, 2021, live and streamed. May 27-29, previews. June 3 Premiere. June 18-20 live & live stream.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $33 in person & live stream

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

What is more appropriate as we emerge from more than a year of pandemic restrictions than a play based on the experiences of a man in prison (Andrew Gall’s fictional Lester Franklin) reading a book about a man who spent two years living in isolation in the woods (the American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau)? Andrew Gall’s new play, Walled In, is, indeed, a play on Thoreau’s Walden, and while Gall liberally utilizes Thoreau’s words, his character, a MAGA-hat wearing Republican corporate lawyer who is in jail “taking one for the team” and wondering what happened to his promised pardon is very much a man of the twenty-first century. White, privileged, on the far side of middle age, Franklin is an angry, foul-mouthed, entitled creature whose own wife and daughter seem eager to sanitize their hands of his particular brand of filth. Whew. If that seems wordy, it’s just a hint of what to expect when you see Walled In.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things…” – Henry David Thoreau

The exact details of how Franklin landed in prison are not necessary. We first meet him having a hissy fit after being assigned to clean the prison toilets. It doesn’t take long for him to be assigned to a prison education program where his class is assigned to read and journal about Thoreau’s two-year social-spiritual experiment, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days living in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, a far shorter sentence than what our friend Franklin might expect.

Doug Blackburn plays the role of Franklin in this one-person play (although two other actors lend their voices as the unseen Instructor (Todd Labelle, who is also the Production Designer) and Hicks, a prisoner in an adjacent cell (Rudy Mitchell). I could say Blackburn is a strong presence, but the playwright doesn’t really give him any other option. Franklin is an angry man. He strings together lines of expletives as if he were training for an Olympic competition in obscenities. (The program includes the “WARNING: This play contains very strong language that some may find offensive.”) It comes as no surprise when Act One ends with Franklin collapsing on the floor after yet another round of screaming into the wall phone – a phone to which he apparently has unlimited access. But there are also beautiful if rare poetic interludes, as in the description of an old unwashed coat that smells of Old Spice and bonfires.

Act Two begins with Franklin lounging on his cot reading. Hicks, the closest thing he has to a friend, refers to him endearingly as Heart Attack, and the bean plant he had tossed into the toilet is inexplicably flourishing on his nightstand. Yes, Hicks says he replanted it, but how did he retrieve it from the toilet and get it onto Franklin’s nightstand? Hmm? I do not consider it a SPOILER to tell you that Franklin’s journey of self-discovery while reading Thoreau does not result in a magical transformation. It does not make him any more likable. In the end, he is not redeemed but instead released on house arrest after Hicks dies of COVID-19, which Franklin refers to as the “China virus.” The point is not the destination but the journey. There is a lot of kicking and screaming; the two hours (with an intermission at the 80-minute mark) must be exhausting for Blackburn. It certainly is not an easy ride for the audience. Still, it is timely and raw and for some, seeing the character Franklin, who represents so much of what we hate about politics and privilege, in prison and no longer able to call the shots, is smugly satisfying. In a recent interview with Jerry Williams on the “Curtain Call” podcast, Gall described Lester Franklin as “a sort of Ebenezer Scrooge,” yet I doubt Franklin achieved any real redemption. Lester Franklin is an awful person; Doug Blackburn is a wonderful actor (assuming he is nothing like Franklin).

Gall relocated to RVA from North Carolina during the pandemic, and this is his first offering as part of the local theater community. Gall wrote and directed Walled In. Blackburn has been seen previously in the Firehouse production of Wrong Chopped. The lights, projections, and sound score for Walled In are fabulous. Production Designer Todd Labelle and Composer/Sound Designer Mark Messing have created a simple set (a wall phone, a cell featuring a toilet, night table, and cot, and a single wooden school desk) that is beautifully enhanced with a soundscape featuring train whistles and bullfrogs, owls and whippoorwills and other sounds. Lights and projections effectively transform the bare walls into the woods surrounding Walden Pond, adding depth and dimension to an otherwise flat space.

Walled In is not the kind of play you leave smiling and telling everyone how much you liked it. It is a play that makes you angry. It makes you think. And you leave feeling that things have got to change. Redemption isn’t just for individuals; it’s for systems.

Production Team:

Written and directed by Andrew Gall

Performed by Doug Blackburn

Featuring the voices of Todd Labelle and Rudy Mitchell

Sound Designer – Mark Messing

Costume Designer – Colin Lowrey II

Production Designer – Todd Labelle

Assistant Director – Grace Brown

Production Associate – Claire Bronchick

Stage Manager – Kasey Britt

Performance Schedule:

Thu, May 27 @ 7:30pm / invited preview

Fri, May 28 @ 7:30pm / invited preview

Sat, May 29@ 7:30pm / invited preview

Thu, June 3 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 4 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 5 @ 7:30pm

Sun, June 6 @ 3:00pm

Thu, June 10 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 11 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 12 @ 7:30pm

Sun, June 13 @ 3:00pm

Thu, June 17 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 18 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)

Sat, June 19 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)

Sun, June 20 @ 3:00pm (live + live stream)

Thu, June 24 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 25 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 26, 7:30pm

Tickets:

$33 live and live stream