THE NICETIES

“Get over it! It did not happen to you!”

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced by: The Conciliation Lab

At: The Basement, 300 E. Broad Street, RVA 23219

Performances: October 1-16, 2021.

Ticket Prices: $30 General Admission; $20 Senior/Industry (RVATA); $10 Student/Teacher (with valid ID)

Info: (804) 506-3533; 349-7616 or https://theconciliationlab.org/

NOTE: Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours of the performance must be shown at the box office.

The title of Eleanor Burgess’ two-person play is deceptive, to say the least.

THE NICETIES.

n. pl. ni·ce·ties

1. The quality of showing or requiring careful, precise treatment: the nicety of a diplomatic exchange.

2. Delicacy of character or feeling; fastidiousness; scrupulousness.

3. A fine point, small detail, or subtle distinction: the niceties of etiquette.

4. An elegant or refined feature; an amenity: the niceties of civilized life.

(freedictionary.com)

Under the precise, insightful, and nuanced eye of director Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, an encounter between Zoe, a black student at a liberal arts college in a prestigious university and her white history professor, Janine, a 1960s style feminist, turns into an explosive debate that leaves fallout on a nuclear scale.

The two disagree on a key tenet of Zoe’s paper, the impact of slavery on the outcome of the American Revolution. At first I was unclear who initiated this meeting. A synopsis of the play in the program indicates that Zoe is called into her professor’s office to discuss her paper, while Dr. T. and Zoe (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew) hold the view that Zoe initiated the meeting to make sure she’s on the right track before submitting the final paper. It’s a small detail, but knowing how the actors see it provides some insight into the development of the play.

“It is easier to be pro-equality

when there is a subjugated minority in your midst.” – Zoe

Burgess apparently does not subscribe to the minimalist school. THE NICETIES is complex and wordy – and you will want to hold on to every word in this dense and razor sharp script. This is a version of the historical realism genre; it is intense and relevant, with mentions of President Obama, the election of Trump, and the possibility of a woman president. It is a play that made the audience talk back, bringing to mind the experience of attending a predominantly Black church or attending a movie in a Black neighborhood – until the final scene of Act One sent the entire theater into an uproar. No need for a spoiler alert, ’cause I’m not telling – I want you to see this for yourself.

“Evidence drives back ignorance.” – Janine

What started out as a seemingly simple discussion about the proper placement of commas, subject-verb agreement, and grammatical parallelism subtly escalates into a debate about history, politics, and racism. Debra Clinton plays the role of Professor Janine Bosco. I know Debra Clinton as an actress and director, but I did not see Clinton on stage at The Basement. Clinton inhabited the role of Janine and all I saw on stage was Janine. Thanks to Janine’s inability to listen, we learned a lot more about her that we – or Zoe – needed to know. Thanks to Janine’s inability to listen, we learned of Janine’s struggles to become a tenured woman professor in a previously all-male academic environment. This made it all the more difficult to see her as a monster, as indeed she is.

“Everyone is tired of hearing about racism.” – Janine

Zoe initially appears, in turn, distracted by her constantly buzzing cell phone and on the verge of exploding. She is smart, opinionated, and a deeply committed social activist (and I quickly identified Bartholomew as an academic and spiritual protégé of Dr. T). If she were white, especially a white male, she would be called confident, but she is Black and a woman, so she is most likely to be labelled as aggressive, angry, threatening. But Burgess and Dr. T. make sure we also see her as vulnerable and hurting. “What do you want?” Janine asks her at one point. To which Zoe responds, “I want this to be your problem!”

“Greatness does not come from a supportive environment.” – Janine

This is my first time seeing Bartholomew on stage, and I hope it won’t be the last. She gave a nuanced and intense performance as Zoe, making us empathize with her but without sugar-coating her flaws. Zoe wants, needs, and demands to be heard. She wants to be respected. She is tired of waiting and being “nice” so others will feel comfortable. The character of Zoe embodies if not personifies the mission of The Conciliation Lab: a social justice theater organization dedicated to the process of CONciliation, not REconciliation, because you cannot re-do something that has not been done before.

“In all my classes, I write down what I shouldn’t have to hear.” – Zoe

Act Two is one of the rawest and most revealing scenes I have ever witnessed in theater. A large portrait of George Washington on a horse has been removed from Janine’s office wall, but a copy of Kathleen Stockett’s 2009 novel, The Help is prominently displayed on a table and Janine proudly pulls out a copy of a book by journalist Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates, widely known for his work on African Americans and white supremacy. It’s the academic equivalent of saying, “but, I have Black friends!” Micro-aggressions in academia take many forms. But there’s more. Much more. The fallout from Act One also leads to some not-so-subtle consequences, from articles and blogs to marches and death threats. So how does it end? How is it all resolved? Well, that depends on which worldview you most relate to, and which experiences you bring to the table.

THE NICETIES is the kind of play that should have a discussion after each performance – especially when the audience is as diverse as it was for Saturday’s opening night performance. There was so much said, so much packed into Burgess’ many words, and so much that still needs to be unpacked. The beauty of the arts is that art can open the door to the hard conversations, and we need to take advantage of these opportunities when they are made available – especially in safe spaces. Note the dates, below, when post-show conversations will be available, when planning to buy your tickets.

Faith Carlson has created a professor’s office that is stereotypical and filled it with familiar props: books, pictures, a laptop. I especially liked her “fourth wall,” a super low bookcase that framed the space, with the audience (about 50 seats for this production) seated on three sides. Austin Harber’s lighting was subtle and washed the actors in a warm light that was often gentler than their words demanded, and Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design heavily favored hyped hip hop beats that fuel the train that Janine called a quest for freedom and Zoe described as an engine for racial oppression.

THE NICETIES

Written by Eleanor Burgess

Directed by Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates

CAST:

Mikayla LaSahae Bartholomew as Zoe

Debra Clinton as Janine

CREATIVE TEAM:

Scenic Design: Faith Carlson

Lighting Design: Austin Harber

Sound Design: Kelsey Cordrey

Costume Design: Amber Martinez

Props Design: Faith Carlson

Production Stage Management: Crimson Piazza

Assistant State Management: Emily Ellen

Associate Direction: Heather Falks

Photo Credits: Production photos by Tom Topinka.

Performance Schedule:

Friday, October 1 at 8pm – Preview

Saturday, October 2 at 8pm – Opening Night

Thursday, October 7 at 8pm – College Night with post-show discussion

Friday, October 8 at 8pm

Saturday, October 9 at 8pm

Sunday, October 10 at 3pm – Matinee with post-show discussion

Tuesday, October 12 at 8pm – Industry Night

Thursday, October 14 at 8pm

Friday, October 15 at 8pm

Saturday, October 16 at 8pm – Closing Night

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SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS

The Cadence Theatre Company Reboots Show Interrupted by Pandemic

“Once you see the ocean, you may not be able to return to the well.”

A Second-Look Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

At: Theatre Gym, Virginia Repertory Center, 114 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220

Performances: September 23 – October 3, 2021.

Ticket Prices: $40.

Info: (804) 282-2620 or https://va-rep.org/_small-mouth-cadence-theatre.html

NOTE1: This show contains brief nudity, adult content, and the burning of incense and herbal cigarettes. Recommended for patrons 18+ (ID required). Patrons under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

NOTE2: Due to the staging requirements of this production, we will not be offering late seating.

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS originally opened in March 2020 and was cut off mid-run by “The Great Pandemic.” I reviewed it here under the title SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS: A Play Without Words, and was more than happy to return for the reboot that opened in the same space September 23. (Hmmm, I wonder if Emily Hake Massie’s lovely new-age yurt set remained in place during the long intermission?) At any rate, it didn’t seem to be necessary to write a whole new review, since what I wrote the first time seemed to withstand the test of time. (I even enjoyed reading it myself!) What I will do is note the differences, changes, updates, and tricks of my own mind, and then re-post the original review below to save you the time of having to search for it. (You’re welcome!)

There have been a few changes since the time BC*. The actors enter wearing masks, which they remove on entering the yurt, and they pass around a bottle of hand sanitizer when the unseen Teacher has an uncontrollable coughing fit. There is also an amusing little bit of choreographed movement involving the choice of whether to shake hands or substitute a fist bump or elbow bump. And perhaps most significantly, Evan Nastaff has replaced Adam Valentine as Rodney, the passive-aggressive instructor.

I don’t know whether it was an effect of memory or time or actual changes, but it seems that the first time around I learned more about some of these characters. Memory does deceive, but I thought Ned, the only character who has a sizeable speaking role, had two meetings with The Teacher, and my memory insisted that not only had Alicia managed to receive a strong enough signal in the mountains of upstate New York to leave a message for her estranged boyfriend, Fred, but that we had learned more detail about the strained relationship between Joan (Jenny Hundley) and Judy (Lauren Leinhaas-Cook). Well, after reading my original review I concede that memory is not a reliable witness. But this much is true: Jenny Hundley appears to have developed her character, Joan, even further; her facial expressions are hilarious.

Still, I am SURE Adam Valentine gave us a full frontal, whereas Evan Nastaff teased the audience and flashed his fellow cast members. Nastaff filled this role nicely and fit in with the original cast as if had been born for the role.

*NOTE: Yes. You guessed correctly. “BC” means Before COVID-19.

MY ORIGINAL REVIEW OF MARCH 8, 2020:

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

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

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

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

This group of seekers comes under the care and watchful eye of a gruff-voiced guru, an unseen and nameless Teacher who coughs and sneezes into her microphone and appears to be on the verge of a breakdown. The audience never sees the Teacher, Marisa Guida, until she comes out to take her bow at the end. Guida is the only character allowed to speak throughout the play. [Note: Guida did not come out for a bow in the reboot.]

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

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

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

[NOTE: The final paragraph of the original review was omitted as it contained the March 2020 production dates, which might have proven confusing to readers.]

**********

SPOILER ALERT

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

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

**********

To provide the highest level of safety, all patrons attending a show at the theatre are required to show proof of vaccination, or proof that they have received a negative COVID test by a professional technician within 48 hours of the performance date/time.

Patrons may show the vaccination card or a photo of the card on their phones when they arrive for the performance. If you are unable to be vaccinated, you may provide proof of a Rapid COVID-19 antigen test taken within 48 hours of your performance. At home tests will not be accepted.

In accordance with current city, state, and CDC guidance, face masks are REQUIRED at all times while you are in the building, regardless of whether or not you have been vaccinated.

Please see the VaRep Covid Safety FAQ for details.

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS

Written by Bess Wohl

Directed by Laine Satterfield

CAST:

Teacher: Marisa Guida

Judy: Lauren Leinhaas-Cook

Joan: Jenny Hundley

Alicia: Maura Mazurowski

Ned: Jim Morgan

Rodney: Evan Nasteff

Jan: Larry Cook

Voice-Over Credits: Rusty Wilson as “Fred,” Irene Ziegler as “Voicemail Guidance,” & other recorded vocal sounds including “The Bear,” performed by The Cast

CREATIVE TEAM:

Assistant Director: Kelsey Schneider (original, pre-pandemic); Jessie Fidler (current reboot)

Scenic Designer: Emily Hake Massie

Costume Designer: Sarah Grady

Lighting Designer: Andrew Bonniwell

Properties Designer: Ellie Wilder

Scenic Charge: Emily Hake Massie

Sound Designer: Joey Luck

Dramaturg: Lissa Ray

Technical Director: Tommy Hawfield

Stage Manager: Alleigh Scantling

Production Managers: Alleigh Scantling (both original & reboot); Kerri Lynch (original) & Ginnie Willard (reboot)

SETTING & TIME:

Upstate New York. Present day. Late summer.

DETAILS:

Performed in one act without intermission.

There is brief nudity, adult content, and the burning of Palo Santo wood and herbal tobacco.

Parental discretion advised.

Photos by: Jason Collins Photography

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VINCENT RIVER

Shattering the Safety of Home

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 23 – October 10, 2021.

Ticket Prices: $30-35; $10 for Students.

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org. Richmond Triangle Theater has returned to full-capacity seating and requires proof of vaccine or recent negative PCR test results for entry. See the theater’s website for their COVID-19 precautions, digital programs, and more.

VINCENT RIVER, a two-character play by Philip Ridley, is both stunningly simple and amazingly convoluted. Jill Bari Steinberg and Keaton Hillman keep the audience enthralled for an hour and 45 minutes – with no intermission – as the story unfolds. It’s almost a theatrical form of clickbait. You couldn’t turn away even if you wanted to because you have to find out how the story ends and once you do you almost wish you had never stumbled across the announcement or whatever it was that drew you into this dark and sticky web of events. Yes, it’s that intense. For some, this story will bring back memories – or flashbacks – of The Laramie Project, produced by RTP in September 2018.

For starters, it’s prerequisite to read the advertisement or teasers for VINCENT RIVER or you might start out at a disadvantage. By intent, not much is revealed in the first scenes. The entire play takes place in the shabby apartment (well, they call it a flat, since the story takes place in East London) of Anita, a woman of apparently modest means with a long and troubled past. Her only child, Vincent River, was recently found murdered in an abandoned rail station and the newspapers had a field day composing sensational and scandalous headlines like, “Vincent River, Homosexual Victim.” Things got so bad Anita had to move from the flat she had shared with her son.

One rainy day there is a knock at Anita’s door and in stumbles Davey, a young man (I thought he initially said he was 17, but later announced he was 16) with an astonishing and painful story to tell – if only he could bring himself to speak. We know something is up because Davey has been stalking Anita for some time, and when he finally gets up the nerve to approach her, he appears reluctant to talk. It seems that Davey was the one who found Vincent’s body. But, of course, there’s more.

After much fiery deliberation the two strangers, Vincent’s mother Anita and young Davey, make a pact to tell each other all they know about Davey, in an attempt to fill in the gaps surrounding his mysterious murder. Given the seedy location and the gory details, it’s pretty obvious this was a homophobic hate crime, but why, exactly is Davey here, and what does Vincent’s death matter to him – those are the burning questions. The answers elicit shock, anger, grief, anger, disbelief, and anger. But you’ll have to go see the play to find out all the details.

At one point in his retelling, Davey tells a story about riding on a roller coaster with his mother as a youth. The roller coaster is an apt metaphor for the way this this dramatic narrative unfolds, just as the lost innocence of youth implants suggestions that make it possible to feel empathy for Davey even as we condemn his actions. Initially, I found Davey’s demeanor and reluctance to talk annoying and I thought some of facial expressions were overly exaggerated, but as the story unfolds he settled into a rhythm that seduced his audience and carried us along with him to the dark and tangled end.

Gradually, the balance of power shifts from Anita to Davey. It’s fascinating to follow this transfer, that is aided and abetted by a variety of addictive agents, including booze, pills, marijuana, sex, and even reflexology, but mainly by Davey’s words. Much of the story is told as a lengthy and emotional monologue by Davey (something Hillman has proven himself adept at in more than one show) as Anita sits quietly, allowing every imaginable emotion to pass over her face and through her posture. The two actors must be physically and emotionally exhausted after each performance of VINCENT RIVER.

All of this – the story, the emotions – is supported by Candace Hudert’s sound design which includes subtle undertones of music so soft they are mere suggestions, and a soundscape of rain that is every bit as affective in guiding the audience’s emotions as the musical cues in classic horror films,

Director Vinnie Gonzalez has done his job with transparency and gentleness even though much of the language is explosive, the actions harsh, and the consequences disastrous. Moments of humor – as when Anita raises the wide blinds to expose a tiny window – take the edge off and give the audience a chance to breathe. Gonzalez’s set, built with angled walls and recessed a bit deeper than most sets at RTP, is filled with shabby furniture, peeling paint, unintentionally exposed brick, and dangling crown molding. A floor made of salvaged wooden boards provides a surprisingly sturdy foundation for the chaos that inhabits the room. Cigarette and marijuana smoke (theatrical, of course) waft through the air and there’s also plenty of booze and pills – even though the flat’s water has been shut off.

Costume designer Margarette Joyner has arrayed Steinberg in a jumble of bright colors, including disparately patterned socks and shoes and animal print bell bottoms while Hillman wears a conservative suit, dress shoes, a white button down shirt and tie. Both characters are given colorful language as well. Speaking of language, kudos to dialect designer Erica Hughes for coaching Steinberg and Hillman in what sounded to my ear like authentic British accents. VINCENT RIVER reminds us to be careful what we ask for.

VINCENT RIVER

Written by Philip Ridley

Directed by Vinnie Gonzalez

CAST:

Jill Bari Steinberg as Anita

Keaton Hillman as Davey

CREATIVE TEAM:

Scenic Design by Vinnie Gonzalez

Costume Design by Margarette Joyner

Lighting Design by Austin Harber

Sound Design by Candace Hudert

Intimacy Direction by Raja Benz

Dialect Design by Erica Hughes

Hair and Make Up Design by Luke Newsome

Properties Design by Tom Moehring

Projection Design by Aisthesis Productions and Undefined Media LLC

Production Stage Manager: Lauren Langston

Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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WAR IN PIECES

Four New One-Act Plays Written by Four Veterans

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Presented by: The Firehouse Theatre in partnership with the Virginia War Memorial Foundation and the Mighty Pen Project; Co-Produced by David Robbins

At: The Firehouse, 1609 West Broad St., Richmond, RVA 23220

Performances: September 23 – October 30, 2021

Ticket Prices: $35 general & $30 military

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

We have grown accustomed to being asked for proof of vaccination and being required to wear masks inside theaters, but this is the first time I remember a pre-show warning to Veterans in the audience: These productions include moments of loud sound effects of combat, gunfire, and explosions, harsh and graphic language, and content.

I vaguely remember writing a preview about this festival back in the pre-pandemic days. Producing Artistic Director Joel Bassin shared, in his pre-show greeting, that the first reading and initial meet and greet for this festival was held in December 2019 – in the “time before.” The real deal far exceeded any expectations I may have held. The point is this festival is a collection of four new plays written by military veterans who share not only “tipping-point” life or death moments from their lives, but also, in black and white videos, the process that led them to the finished product. And these finished – or evolving – products are compelling pieces of theater that bear the imprimatur of authenticity.

In GUARDIAN ANGELS, a severely wounded Marine is rescued by an Army medivac. But this rescue is extraordinary on several levels. The Army helicopter wasn’t even supposed to be in the area, and in spite of the dire situation, author Robert Waldruff manages to wring out a moment of humor when he requires the Marine Lieutenant (Dean Knight) to utter words of respect for the rival Army rescue team. There is also a supernatural element provided by Alvan Bolling II as the Chaplain and Dani Brown who plays multiple characters wearing a traditional white nurse’s uniform. The one scene I found odd – and distracting – was the robotic voice used by the Doctor (Dean Knight). Perhaps there is a reasonable, military reason for this choice.

The first half of the program closed with SOAR, the only one of the four one-act plays written by a woman Veteran. Rachel Landsee. Irene Kuykendall was outstanding as the military lawyer and wife, Rachel. Her husband, Adam (Dean Knight) was also an officer, and the focus of SOAR included the strains military life puts on relationships, the demands made on women, especially if they become pregnant while in service, as well as philosophical discussions of the validity of sending US troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. For me, this was the most complex and layered of the four pieces, and its appeal is enhanced by the presence of a sort of Greek chorus meets four-part harmony a cappella group composed of four of the male ensemble members. SOAR turned out to be a mini-musical, powered by foot-stomping, finger-snapping military cadence, soulful rhythms, and the bluesy strains of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”

Birds flying high, you know how I feel

Sun in the Sky, you know how I feel

Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn

It’s a new day

It’s a new life for me…

Whereas the works in the first half of the program focused on some of the more practical, blood and guts aspects of war in sometimes poetic ways, the works in the second half tackled similar subject matter in a somewhat more abstract, yet at the same time more emotionally powered and even spiritual manner.

In BONNE ANNÉE, directed by Firehouse Producing Artistic Director Joel Bassin, playwright David M. Aldridge invites the audience to meet his inner voice. This voice, audible only to him, told him when to stop, where to look for booby traps, when the enemy was coming, and continued to serve him well after returning home. BONNE ANNÉE is staged as a monologue featuring Jonathan Hardison as David, just ten days back from Viet Nam and obviously fragile in ways yet unrevealed. As David speaks, in a surprising soft and controlled voice, he gradually reveals details of the horrors he encountered, as well as one quirky but important little detail: Bonne Année, the French phrase for Happy New Year, has been assimilated into Vietnamese culture. These two simple words take on a chilling and supernatural effect in the final moments of the play.

BONNE ANNÉE includes a few supporting roles played by Linda Beringer, Dean Knight, and Dani Brown, and a quartet of menacing Young Men (Alvan Bolling II, Erik DeMario, Jimmy Mello, and Makai Walker). As if sight and sound were not enough, BONNE ANNÉE engages the sense of smell with a pan of sizzling bacon playing a subsidiary role in a key part of David’s monologue.

Last but certainly not least, the evening closed with Chuck Williamson’s introduction to SKYLINE in which he speaks about life in Fort Polk, Louisiana, before guiding us into a story of a convoy where everything that can go wrong goes wrong. Set in Bagdad, SKYLINE is packed with endearing and very human details, such as the men playing cards for snacks, and ends with the team (Erik DeMario, Keydron Dunn, Dean Knight, and Jimmy Mello) assuming a kick-ass superhero pose that encapsulates the heart and soul of each of these characters, who are all obviously real people. The convoy may not have been a successful mission, but these four actors conveyed a genuine sense of comraderie that was unmistakable and moving.

While each play stands alone, presenting them together draws a more comprehensive picture of war and its personal consequences. The ensemble and directors started the evening in unity. All 10 actors entered and took seats on the scattered wooden crates. Their backs were to the audience as they joined us in watching Robert Waldruff’s introductory video, setting the tone and pace for the scenes that followed. WAR IN PIECES is not for the faint of heart.

“There is no movie

that can show the terror

of one little firefight.”

The set has been kept simple, with a series of boxes serving as buildings, vehicles, furniture, and other assorted props. The space is beautifully lit by Andrew Bonniwell whose camouflage shaded lighting has a three-dimensional quality, and Mark Messing’s sound score is outstanding. Transitions on opening night were surprisingly smooth, and I have no doubt that this production that will mature beyond mere theatrics as the ensemble continues to work together sharing these very personal and very graphic stories. This is the sort of production that lingers with the performers and the audience.

Irene Kuykendall made a deep impression as Rachel in SOAR. Dean Knight proved versatile in multiple roles, and showed unexpected discernment as Rachel’s husband, Adam. It was good to see Jimmy Mello onstage again, as well as Jonathan Hardison, Alvan Bolling II, and Dani Brown. Keydron Dunn may be almost unrecognizable to those who remember him from pre-pandemic productions as he cut his locs after being drafted into this production, but his distinctive voice remains the same. Linda Beringer, who has an impressive acting resume, assumed only a small supporting role here (but it did involve bacon!), and I am not yet familiar with the work of Erik DeMario or Makai Walker, both of whom are third year theatre students at VCU. I expect we will see more of them in the near future.

WAR IN PIECES

Cast:

Linda Beringer

Alvan Bolling II

Dani Brown

Erik DeMario

Keydron Dunn

Jonathan Hardison

Dean Knight

Irene Kuykendall

Jimmy Mello

Makai Walker

Production Team:

GUARDIAN ANGELS Written by Robert Waldruff & Directed by Foster Solomon

SOAR Written by Rachel Landsee & Directed by Kerrigan Sullivan

BONNE ANNÉE – Written by David M. Aldridge & Directed by Joel Bassin

SKYLINE – Written by Chuck Williamson & Directed by Todd Labelle

Costume Designer – Anna Bialkowski

Lighting Designer – Andrew Bonniwell

Sound Designer – Mark Messing

Set & Projection Consultant – Dasia Gregg

Choreographer for SOAR – Kayla Xavier

Dramaturg – Lindy Bumgarner

Stage Managers – Emma Avelis, Kasey Britt, Claire Bronchick, Grace Brown, Emily Vial

Festival Co-Producer – David Robbins

Festival Coordinator – Emily Vail

Run Time:

About 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission

Performance schedule:

Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, September 23 – October 30 @ 7:30 PM

Sundays, October 3, 17 & 23 @3:00 PM

Sunday performances include a Post-Performance Talkback

Tickets:

$35 general

$30 military, and first responders

Photos: Bill Sigafoos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos: Richmond Triangle Facebook page.

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SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS: At the Edge of the Ocean

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS: A Play Without Words

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

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

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

Ticket Prices: $37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

**********

SPOILER ALERT

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

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

**********

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Jason Collins

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

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

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

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

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

 

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THE REVOLUTIONISTS: Find the Heart, Not the Art (Marianne Angelle)

THE REVOLUTIONISTS: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Gil Scott-Heron)

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 27 – March 21, 2020

Ticket Prices: $30 Regular Admission; $20 Seniors & Industry/RVATA; $10 Students and Teachers with ID

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

Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, first produced in 2015, may be the only comedy that begins and ends with an execution. The Revolutionists is a play about a woman writing a play during the French Revolution. It is hysterically funny, and it is real. Three of the four characters are historical (not hysterical) figures:

Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) was a French playwright and political activist. She was executed by guillotine for seditious behavior and attempting to reinstate the monarchy – based on the “evidence” found in the contents of an unfinished play about former Queen of France Marie Antoinette.

Women have the right to mount the scaffold;

they should likewise have the right to mount the rostrum.

-Olympe de Gouges played by Maggie Roop

Charlotte Corday (1768-1793) was a political activist who was executed by guillotine for the assassination of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, a leader of the Reign of Terror. She stabbed him in his bath.

I killed one man to save 100,000.

-Charlotte Corday played by Lydia Hynes

Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) was the last Queen of France before the French Revolution. She was convicted of treason and executed by guillotine.

No one understands my ills, nor the terror that fills my breast,

who does not know the heart of a mother.

– Marie Antoinette, played by Maggie Bavolack

Marianne Angelle is a composite of the free black women revolutionaries of the island nation of Saint Domingue (now Haiti). The island was rich in sugar, coffee, and cotton with a population of 500,000 slaves, 32,000 white people, and 28,000 free black people. In August 1791 the Saint Domingue revolutionaries started the first successful slave revolt in history.

You can’t be a hero if you’re too scared to show up!

– Marianne Angelle played by Katrinah Carol Lewis

For two hours (including one ten-minute intermission), these four women gather in Olympe’s Parisian office to talk philosophy and plan how to change the world. The Revolutionists is a smart, fast-paced, bold tragi-comedy. It is a play that embraces a love of words and language, and Chelsea Burke’s thoughtfully irreverent and well-timed direction dares the audience to come along for the ride and keep up. Dasia Gregg’s understated set (some framed wall sections, a tiny desk and a few seats that are removed after the first act) has the audience seated in the four corners of the intimate space. Some audience members were sitting just a foot or two away from the performers when they sat on a chair on chaise lounge.

It wasn’t until the end of this riotous yet serious discourse that we realized we were not ordinary participants, but extras cast in the role of audience members. It was something like going along for a ride in your friend’s new car, only to find out later that the car was stolen, and you were the designated getaway driver for the crime they planned to commit.

The Revolutionists boasts a dynamic cast with Maggie Roop as Olympe de Gouges, full of fiery talk but coming up short when it’s time to take real action. Lydia Hynes portrays Charlotte Corday with youthful energy and commitment – and she’s loud (and that’s not a criticism, but a comment from her mentors, Olympe and Marianne). Maggie Bavolack is very pink and fluffy (especially her hair and bosom) and is hysterically funny as Marie Antoinette. But she also expresses an unexpected warmth and compassion that develops as she spends time with Marianne and Olympe.

And then there’s Katrinah Carol Lewis as the free-black freedom fighter Marianne. Marianne is the character we learn the most about, from her family to her political and womanist philosophies and Lewis takes full ownership of this character and the show, from the moment she strides into Olympe’s office, assesses the situation, and applies her sense of righteous indignation tempered with wisdom beyond her years.

In fact, all the woman exhibit knowledge beyond their years – or at least beyond their time period – as their dialogue and declarations are interspersed with contemporary language and well-seasoned with swear words.

The production team includes period costumes by Ruth Hedberg (some attractive, some serviceable, some versatile, and some for fun), sound design by Kelsey Cordrey (filled with crowd sounds, heavy breathing, ticking clocks, gunshots and other ambient sounds), and dramatic lighting by Michael Jarrett that goes black to tastefully yet ominously indicate that the guillotine has dropped.

The Revolutionists, a part of the Acts of Faith Festival, runs through March 21. To paraphrase Marianne, “You can’t be a participant if you’re too scared to show up.” Don’t be that person.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

 

 

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STUPID KID: It’s Not What You Think

STUPID KID: An Unwelcome Homecoming

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: January 23 – February 16, 2020

Ticket Prices: $35 General Admission; $25 Military & RVATA; $15 Students

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

I often choose not to learn too much about a new play prior to seeing it. I want to enter the space unbiased; I like to be surprised. Well, no amount of preparation would have fully prepared me for Sharr White’s Stupid Kid. The two-act play, making it’s east coast debut at The Firehouse Theatre, is populated with strong characters, filled with twists and turns, and offers a surprise ending that leaves as many questions unanswered as it resolves. Kudos to the cast and director Alison Devereaux for a physically demanding performance that made us laugh, gasp, cheer, and even boo.

From the start we know something isn’t quite right – there are secrets and things are not what they appear to be. When Chick Ford (Adam Valentine) arrives home a day early after being in prison for 14 years, his parents are not pleased. His father Eddie, played by Andrew Firda, pretends not to know him and his mother Jeanette or Gigi (Boomie Pedersen) greets him with an expletive. Well, most of her comments are bookended by expletives, so it may not be entirely personal.

The plot thickens when we learn that Chick was sentenced to life for murder, that his parents lives were shattered by the fallout, and his father has become disabled with back pain and has become dependent on painkillers. The details come slowly with the aid and sometimes despite the active interference of nosy neighbor Franny Hawker (Jeannie Goodyear) and Gigi’s brother Mike (Arik Cullen).

This may be the world’s most dysfunctional family, but White’s characters are mostly familiar, believable, and multi-dimensional. Eddie and Gigi seem to be constantly bickering but scattered among the expletives are pet names and hints of true concern and genuine love. Whenever Chick tries to talk about the crime he confessed to, he gets shut down, and no one believes there is any possibility he could be innocent – despite the fact he was released based on new DNA evidence. Uncle Mike is the story’s obvious villain. Vain, narcissistic, and sadistic, he was once the sheriff of the small unnamed Colorado town where the story takes place – and rather than trying to hide evidence of his prior and current corruption, he rubs everyone’s nose in it. I can’t say much more without giving away important and juicy plot elements.

So many of the cast members stand out. Both Boomie Pederson and Andrew Firda seem to land strong, often quirky, and interesting roles. Pedersen gives a satisfying and delightful performance in Stupid Kid, projecting sarcasm when needed but switching to a well-hidden tenderness that makes Gigi seem more authentic. Andrew Firda spends much of the play in a bathrobe and socks, bent over with back pain, yet still manages to display the strength and humanity of Eddie; Eddie has real problems, but there is something solid and dependable underneath it all. Firda never allows Eddie to become a figure of pity.

Adam Valentine portrays Chick as a young man whose life has been controlled by others – his parents, the prison system, his Uncle Mike – but has somehow managed to hold onto a sense of self. And then there’s Arik Cullen, who played Uncle Mike as a straight up bad guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Some in the audience booed when he came out for his bow. Let’s not forget about Uncle Mike’s young ward, Hazel, played by Lorin Hope Turner.

A casebook study of child abuse, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, and more, Hazel’s mistreatment at the hands of Uncle Mike culminates in a shocking display featuring the show’s most violent and physically challenging scene. Jeannie Goodyear, as the nosy neighbor Franny watched all this, often with a bag of chips or some other snack at hand, as if it was a soap opera. Goodyear added a sense of the absurd and was a perfect counterpoint to the melodrama unfolding around her, even reporting the latest news concerning the town’s outrage over Chick’s early release.

There’s so much going on in Stupid Kid, but one thing is for sure; these people may lack what we think of as formal education, but they are certainly not stupid. There is much worthy of discussion, making this an appropriate choice as an Acts of Faith offering.

Alan Williamson designed an appropriately drab set that reflects the financial and emotional status of the Ford family. There is a large patch of duct tape on the living room chair and an impressive complete set change during intermission, from interior to exterior.  If anything, the outside of the house looks a little less shabby than the inside. Emily Laurelle Tappan designed the costumes to look like discount sticker day specials from the local thrift store.

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

 

 

 

MISS GULCH RETURNS!: When Fiction Becomes Reality

MISS GULCH RETURNS!: The Bitch is Back!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: May 15-25, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Ding, dong, the bitch is back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———-

Photo Credits: as noted

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

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

Miss Gulch 1

Miss Gulch 2
Photo by Joshua N. Wortham

 

 

WHO’S HOLIDAY: A Christmas Parody for Adults Only

Who’s Holiday!: The Story Dr. Seuss Didn’t Want You to See

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: November 14 – December 15, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

 

Who’s Holiday! is an irreverent, adult Christmas story. This one-woman show told by a grown-up Cindy Lou Who takes the audience on a rip-roaring sleigh ride that provides eye-opening details about Cindy Lou Who and her pal the Grinch.

Cindy Lou has outgrown her cute pink pajamas in favor of a bright red shirtwaist dress with multicolored trim which is turn gives way to a green corset with a sparkly red skirt. Both are worn with glittery gold stilettos and a curly blond wig. Thank Ruth Hedberg for the festively tacky costume design.

Cindy Lou has only recently returned home after a rather long stint away. She now lives in a trailer left to her by her late uncle, and it’s parked on Mount Crumpit, apparently not far from the Grinch’s old lair. The sparsely furnished interior feature lots of green accents – and there’s a reason for the Wicked poster on the wall – but T. Ross Aitken’s design seemed surprisingly spacious for a trailer.

And where, exactly is the old green Grinch, and how has he fared over these past years? Well, to tell you that would give away most of the plot. It’s not for nothing that this play is subtitled “The Story Dr. Seuss Didn’t Want You to See!” Apparently, in 2016, Dr. Seuss Enterprises took playwright Matthew Lombardo to court for copyright violation, but Lombardo successfully countersued claiming parody is protected under “fair use” laws and the play opened off-Broadway in 2017.

Kids would not recognize this Cindy Lou Who, played by the talented and versatile Kimberly Jones Clark, most recently seen as Margery in Hand to God co-produced by TheatreLAB and 5th Wall Theatre. I’m not trying to say Clark is making a habit of playing dysfunctional middle-aged women, but lately she has done it extremely well. Middle-aged Cindy Lou starts off greeting the audience, including a shout-out to “the queer in the rear.” She tests the waters of offensiveness with gays and lesbians, as well as Jews, and at one point asks if the word “ghetto” is offensive, but quickly dismisses that suggestion with a flippant, “it gets worse.”

Cindy Lou scrounges a Tramadol from the floor and washes it down with liquor. She takes a hit from a bong and describes some parts of the Grinch that most of us never thought of – and hope never to see – in great detail. Who’s Christmas! is hilarious and also quite dark (and I’m not sure if this is the intent of author Matthew Lombardo, director Dexter Ramey, star Kimberly Jones Clark, or a combination of the three): it deals with drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, bestiality, animal cruelty, murder, and prison culture. Along the way, Jones grabs a handheld microphone and throws in a totally unexpected rap, a deadpan execution of “Merry Little Christmas,” which invited audience participation, and – my personal favorite – a rather skillful rendition of “Blue Christmas.”

There are laughs aplenty; the audience seemed well-pleased, and Clark did an excellent job holding down this zany one-woman show. It just wasn’t my cup of tea – I laughed, I enjoyed it, but it isn’t my favorite adult Christmas show. Maybe I was hoping it would be more like Christmas on the Rocks whose grown up Ralphie, Cindy Lou Who, Charlie Brown, and other characters simultaneously tore and warmed my heartstrings.

Who’s Holiday! runs just about an hour, with no intermission, and is followed by a holiday cabaret with Joshua Worsham on piano and Georgia Roger Farmer and/or Shannon Gibson Brown. I didn’t stay for the cabaret, but it seems like a great deal – an unexpected after party!

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

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Photo Credits: Photos from RTP Facebook page

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