THE TAMING OF THE SHREW: Girl Power!

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW: Girls Night Out

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

At: Agecroft Hall & Gardens, 4305 Sulgrave Rd., RVA 23221

Performances: July 11 – August 4, 2019

Ticket Prices: $30 Adults; $25 Seniors; $20 RVATA & Students (with ID)

Info: (804) 340-1405, quilltheatre.org or https://agecrofthall.tix.com/Schedule.aspx?OrgNum=1528

It is well known that in Shakespeare’s day all the roles, including the women, were played by male actors. Recently, we have seen role reversals in which key characters such as Hamlet have been played by women. The Richmond Shakespeare Festival has taken this twist to its ultimate conclusion with an all-female cast and mostly female crew. (On Sunday night, even Festival Manager Noah Downs kept a low profile – although I did miss his usual group selfie moment.)

This is not the first time The Taming of the Shrew, one of Shakespeare’s most misogynistic plays – perhaps one of the world’s most misogynistic plays – has been done with an all-female cast. It has been done by the Chicago Shakespeare company, where it was set in the twentieth century during the suffragette movement, it’s been presented in New York City’s Central Park, and has even been performed by Shakespeare’s Globe theater in Hong Kong. Among the many versions, there was also the musical, Kiss Me, Kate¸ which gets a humorous nod from our own Quill Theatre, at Agecroft Hall, with a cast that includes many familiar faces.

Among the many impressive performances by this outstanding ensemble, I must say that Bianca Bryan as Petruchio and Melissa Johnston Price as Baptista are standouts. Both seemed to have tapped into their inner male and it was awesome. I don’t mean that they were acting butch or doing a reverse drag, but Bryan’s swagger and Price’s doting but clueless father really captured the maleness of their characters in the best way, and they seemed to have so much fun doing it.

The Taming of the Shrew is an early Shakespearean comedy in which Petruchio, a bachelor from Verona who apparently has recently come into possession of his late father’s estate, arrives in the town of Padua, where he has friends, in search of a wealthy bride. His friend Hortensio (Desirée Dabney) suggest he marry Katarina/Kate (Michelle Greensmith), the beautiful but ill-tempered eldest daughter of Baptista. Hortensio, of course, has ulterior motives. He wants to marry Kate’s younger, more mild-mannered sister, Bianca (Christina Ramsey), but according to custom, the eldest sister must marry first.

There is no backstory, so we don’t know why Kate is such a spoiled brat, but she has few or no social graces. She is self-centered and verbally – even physically – abusive to everyone, even her father. There is no mother in sight, which may explain why Baptista allows her to behave so badly. Greensmith is so well cast for this role that at the beginning and the end, it’s almost possible to hate her. But looking at the perplexed expression of her face when Petruchio implements his devious plan, we get a glimpse of her character’s humanity. She’s someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, and like the difficult student in class, she has special needs.

There are subplots involving a trio of suitors for Bianca’s hand; Hortensio, Lucentio, and Gremio (not to be confused with another character, a servant named Grumio) and, of course, there are misunderstandings, disguises, and characters switching places with their servants. Desirèe Dabney plays Hortensio with broadly comic affability. Hortensio disguises himself as a music teacher in order to gain access to Baptista’s household and to his daughter, Bianca. Nora Ogunleye plays Lucentio, who, likewise, disguises himself as a tutor in order to woo Bianca.

In a memorable and hilarious supporting role Maggie Bavolack plays the elderly suitor Gremio. At one point Bavolack, whose character is bent over and a bit wobbly at the knees, passes her cane to a friend and performs a precarious but full somersault. It was a highlight of the evening!

Now, getting back to Kate, the use of a word like “shrew” to describe an unpleasant, nagging (another misogynistic word) woman is, itself sexist – but consider Kate’s personality. The woman has issues. Petruchio seems to be the only one who is not afraid of Kate, but the methods he uses to “tame” her terrible personality are questionable: he deprives her of food and sleep, offers her food and new clothes and withdraws them, and belittles his servants in front of her. He throws food and rips the sleeves off a dress. In short, he fights fire with fire. The bad behavior starts when he shows up late for their wedding and inappropriately dressed, but that’s the first clue that Petruchio isn’t crazy, but rather has a well-thought out plan of behavior modification to address Kate’s behavior.

And then there is Kate’s final monologue. At a wedding party for three couples – Petruchio and Kate, Hortensio and the Widow (Erica Hughes), Bianca and Lucentio – Petruchio makes a bet; each man is to send for his wife and the man whose wife most obediently responds will be declared the winner. Not only is Kate the only wife to respond, but she then makes a long speech in which she berates the other wives for not being obedient and submissive. She has been completely reformed – the shrew (which is also the name of a small mouse-like mammal) has been tamed. Just when you think it couldn’t get any more sexist or Stepford-wives-like (not a word, but I think you know what I mean), the cast breaks out into song, “Just a Girl,” which includes the lyrics, “I’ve had it up to here.”

Instead of the play’s original introduction or induction, there are songs, and between acts there are songs. Songs like The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” (“Every move you make. . . .every breath you take, I’ll be watching you) that slyly and humorously remind us that this Taming of the Shrew is a smart, aware production led by a team of kick-ass women.

Chelsea Burke is the director of this awesome cast. There isn’t much in the way of a set, just a small platform centerstage and a couple of trunks. The most noticeable design element is the costumes, and I found Cora Delbridge’s costuming a hodgepodge of period, contemporary, and hybrid pieces that are often colorful and fun, but didn’t make any clear or cohesive statement. I did enjoy Kate’s first ensemble – a red hi-lo open front number – and Gremio’s suit was fully compatible with his character. Kate’s transformation was accompanied by changing her body skimming wedding dress for a formal pageant gown. I also liked Baptista’s power maxi-coat, but I found Bianca’s frilly dress unattractive and frankly confusing. It looked out of time and out of character.

Overlooking the bugs and the heat, it was a beautiful evening, and well worth it. The Taming of the Shrew is one of this season’s most intriguing productions, and the cast is a dream team of talent.

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: Production photos were not available at the time of publication.

Shrew
The Women of The Taming of the Shrew

 

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GREY GARDENS, THE RECLUSIVE MUSICAL

GREY GARDENS: Poor Little Rich Girls

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: June 24 – July 27, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-40

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Grey Gardens, The Musical, with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie is a two-act musical that is full of humor and drama and emotion. But the two things that make this musical stand out are the fact that it is about real people and that both of these people are brought to life by the enormously talented Susan Sanford.

On the advice of a friend and colleague, I watched Albert and David Maysles’ 1976 documentary Grey Gardens prior to attending the musical. The award-winning cinéma-vérité chronicles the tragedy and wonder of these two women, both named Edie, both of whom defied the laws of society and blazed a trail that few would want to follow. Like a road-side accident, I didn’t want to watch, but it was impossible not to look and as fascinating and heart-rending as the documentary was, it didn’t even come close to the emotional roller coaster that Wright, Frankel, and Korie created in this musical, brought to life on the RTP stage by director Debra Clinton and musical director Kim Fox. I may have laughed at Sanford’s antics, both as “Big” Edie in the first act and “Little” Edie in the second act, but I was in tears by the time the cast took their final bows.

Grey Gardens, for those, like me, who do not follow society, was the estate of Edith Bouvier Beale, an aunt of our former First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and her daughter, “Little” Edie Bouvier Beale. “Little” Edie was a debutante in the early 1940s, apparently with somewhat of a reputation, as she was nicknamed “Body Beautiful Beale.” Her young cousins Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier and her sister Lee Radziwill were apparently frequent visitors to the 28-room East Hampton Estate in its heyday. My favorite line, spoken by “Little” Edie in the second act: “It’s a mean, nasty Republican town.”

The first act of Grey Gardens, The Musical mixes fact and fiction, and it’s not clear where the line is drawn. But it seems that mother Edie’s love of singing went against her husband’s puritanical grain, and he took off to Mexico with his lover Linda and obtained a quickie divorce. After that, things quickly went downhill at Grey Gardens, and by the time we get to the second act – and by the time the Maysles show up with their cameras – the place has fallen into disrepair. Much of the dialogue in the second act is taken straight from the documentary – another reason to do the homework and watch it before seeing the show.

There are holes in the walls that allow free access to all the stray cats and racoons the two women have adopted, the mansion is full of fleas, and there is apparently little or no working plumbing. When “Little” Edie prepares a plate of pâté for her mother, the woman sitting next to me and I gasped, unsure if the surely expired can contained pâté or cat food. The Suffolk County Board of Health was on the verge of condemning the house and evicting the two Edies until their more solvent relatives stepped in and made the necessary repairs. It is unclear whether this made much of a difference in the Edies’ lifestyle – and I kept wondering how they were supporting themselves. Who was paying the taxes, and the grocery bill, and how is it that the lights were still on?

Practical considerations aside, Gray Gardens, The Musical is equally hilarious and heartbreaking. In addition to Susan Sanford, who acts and sings her heart out and is outrageously funny, first as the overbearing mother Edith Bouvier Beale in Act One and then as “Little” Edie in Act Two. Sanford does an impressive job balancing “Little” Edie’s desire to break away from her mother and become independent against her sense of responsibility to stay and take care of her mother. This dilemma is beautifully foreshadowed in Act One by Grey Garrett, who plays the Young “Little” Edie Beale. One minute Garrett is begging her mother, played by Sanford, not to sing, the next she is defending her right to do so when her grandfather, “Major” Bouvier, played by Kirk Morton, denigrates his daughter for her eccentricities and quiet consent to her absent husband’s affairs. Boomie Pedersen as “Big” Edie, the mother, in the Prologue and Act Two has mastered the role of the screaming, overbearing mother – possibly in the early to mid- stages of dementia, although with manipulating, narcissistic personalities it’s sometimes hard to tell – to the point where you almost forget she’s just acting. The dysfunctional chemistry between Pedersen and Sanford is a force to behold.

Also doing double duty were Durron Marquis Tyre, as the servant Brook, Sr., in Act One and his son, Brook, Jr., in Act Two and Elijah Williams as “Little” Edie’s fiancé Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. in Act One and “Big” Edie’s friend Jerry in Act Two. It was interesting that Brook, Sr., seemed more refined that his son. Sr. wore a cutaway suit, while Jr. wore overalls – a reflection of the state of the house. I liked Williams in his role as Jerry more than as Kennedy, perhaps because the second character and his relationship to the family more closely reflected the oddities and conflicts of these fascinating women.

Caroline Berry and Anya Rothman were sweet and adorable as the young Jackie and Lee Bouvier, and Eddie Webster had an interesting supporting role as George Gould Strong, “Big” Edie’s accompanist and companion.

Frank Foster’s scenic design was serviceable, but unremarkable, although the production did a good job changing from relative grandeur in Act One to shabbiness in Act Two. Matthew Banes’ lighting and Joey Luck’s sound design both enhanced the overall effects, but Ruth Hedberg’s costumes and Joel Furtick’s hair and makeup really nailed it. “Little” Edie’s costumes for Act Two were spot on and would probably get a word of approval from the real “Little” Edie.

The broad and flat Boston-Long Island accents were often startling – even to this Brooklyn girl – but seemed pretty accurate. Director Clinton even choreographed some lively dance steps, and musical director Kim Fox and her musicians helped keep things moving along at a nice pace.

Grey Gardens, The Musical is one of the most heart-wrenching musicals you will ever see – and I hope you do see it. After the first week of performances, Richmond Triangle Players had to extend the run from July 13 to July 27, and tickets will likely be hard to come by for the remainder of the run.

 

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

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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THE TEMPEST: Sublime or Subliminal?

THE TEMPEST: It’s Complicated

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

At: Agecroft Hall & Gardens, 4305 Sulgrave Rd., RVA 23221

Performances: June 6-30, 2019

Ticket Prices: $30 Adults; $25 Seniors; $20 RVATA & Students (with ID)

Info: (804) 340-1405, quilltheatre.org or https://agecrofthall.tix.com/Schedule.aspx?OrgNum=1528

The current Quill Theatre production of The Tempest is sublime – though not perhaps for the reasons you might expect. It was not just the play, but all the components that came together to make up the entire evening. Saturday’s weather was perfect – not too hot, not too cool, not humid, no rain, and the bugs remained mostly at bay during the first act. The atmosphere was festive, with pre-show picnickers scattered across the spacious lawn, and vendors selling fruity ice pops, ShakesBeer and wine. The sixteenth century manor house and its tiered gardens, where one might encounter The Festival Young Company wandering about reciting monologues or go for a stroll during intermission provided the perfect setting for a festival.

The Tempest is complicated. Prospero, the lead figure, is the usurped Duke of Milan but he is also a powerful sorcerer. I’m not clear on whether he was a sorcerer before he was deposed and set adrift and landed on this remote island, or if he became a sorcerer as a result of his betrayal by his own brother, Antonio. John Cauthen and director James Ricks together give us a Prospero who is multi-faceted, showing a softness for his young daughter, Miranda, played by newcomer Madison Munson. She and her love interest Ferdinand, played by another newcomer, Dean Hall, brought a sense of innocence and normalcy to this otherwise convoluted tale. But Prospero is a complicated hero. He treats his servants Ariel and Caliban callously, forgives those who wronged him, and in the final scene begs the audience to release him. And he is so magically convincing that we comply.

Jeff Clevenger in the role of Trinculo, the king’s jester, and Adam Valentine as Stephano, the king’s drunken butler team up to bring much needed humor and physical comedy to this sometimes dark comedy, liberally sprinkled with betrayal, romance, and tragedy. But the two most noteworthy characters for me were Ariel and Caliban.

I absolutely adored Adam Turck’s portrayal of Ariel, Prospero’s spirit servant. Painted in blue, and draped in nondescript layers of identically painted fabric, Turck has adopted quirky movements that add to his otherworldly persona. At one point he appears on top of the wall that separates the stage from the gardens, where he crouches to deliver his lines. Often lurking in the background, where he nearly blends in, it is almost possible to believe that he is invisible to all but Prospero – and the audience.

Now as for Caliban – I don’t know if anyone else has said this but. . . .Why is the black actor (a) a slave and (b) called a monster and a savage? Okay, I understand that this is the character that Shakespeare wrote, but Walter Riddle is the obviously a POC and he plays a savage monster. I’m not saying he didn’t do a good job, but I just couldn’t get past that casting choice. I am not the first to say this, but Prospero, you are a Colonizer! The subplot of Prospero’s treatment of Ariel and Caliban and the vastly different ways they respond to their oppressor is more intriguing than Prospero’s story.

James Ricks’ direction kept things moving along at a nice pace; there was lots of action, and Ricks’ sound design included a few subtle touches that enhanced the overall experience. BJ Wilkinson doesn’t have much to do in the way of lighting as it’s still daylight until the second act, and Anna Bialkowski’s costumes, which put the noblemen in modern day suits, was visually cohesive and aesthetically pleasing. There are also a few delightful musical moments, with original music by Jason Marks.

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: Production photos by Aaron Sutten; Group selfie by Noah Downs

Tempest.5
Adam Turck
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Cedar Curran, Travis Williams, Chris Dunn, John Cauthen, Jonathan Hardison, Derek Kannemeyer, Jeff Clevenger
Tempest.3
John Cauthen
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Jonathan hardison, Adam Turck, Chris Dunn, Derek Kannemeyer, Travis Williams
Tempest.1
Shakespeare Festival Audience Selfie, 06/15/2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

OFFICE HOURS: QUITTING TIME

OFFICE HOURS: Six Actors; Sixteen Characters; Six Stories in Search of a Laugh

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 7-22, 2019

Ticket Prices: $23 General admission; $18 RVATA Members; $13 Students

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

CAT Theatre’s 55th season has featured some interesting productions and some novel premises. The season opened with Boeing, Boeing, a French farce from the 1960s, followed by A Doublewide, Texas Christmas¸ written by the trio of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten who also wrote The Savannah Sipping Society that is currently playing at Swift Creek Mill Theatre. The new year brought a revival of Becky’s New Car, which I first saw some years ago at Hanover Tavern – both times I was one of those selected from the audience to assist “Becky” with her onstage wardrobe change. Earlier this spring they offered a musical comedy, BINGO! that included audience participation with real bingo cards, markers, and prizes. The final offering of this season is Office Hours, a comedy by Canadian playwright Norm Foster.

Office Hours is a series of six vignettes, each set in a different office in the same city on the same day, near quitting time. A cast of six versatile actors plays sixteen different characters with great energy and enthusiasm, but with varied levels of success. The first act, consisting of four scenes, seemed to drag at times, but I’m not sure whether it was due to Andrew Bryce’s direction or Norm Foster’s script. Maybe Canadian humor is different from ours. At any rate, the second act seemed to hit the laughs more accurately, and the play ended with a surprise twist I truly didn’t see coming.

The six scenarios are separate but intertwined. Hints and clues are sprinkled throughout that help keep the viewer engaged and provide a sense of smug satisfaction when the plot twists are revealed. Throughout the various scenes characters refer to the beautiful office space and the nice furniture. This provides an unintentional running joke as Hunter Mass’s set looks like a collection of mismatched thrift store items: a desk; a sofa; 2 or 3 chairs in different styles and sizes; a bookcase that doubles as a bar; 3 small tables. The office desk and chair seem too small, and when one or two of the character remark on its large size and the general tidiness of the office I wondered how they could do so with a straight face. There are also two doors, two tall windows, one of which has a latch that allows for access to a ledge, and a picture on one wall that is changed at the beginning of each scene.

For some inexplicable reason, there are different styles and different eras of telephones in each office scene, but the furniture remains the same, and even though the set is carefully rearranged for each scene, there is too little to distinguish the various scene. Oddly, on the night I was there, there was a noticeable but inexplicable dip in the lighting near the top of the first few scenes. Chris Stepp did the lighting and sound design, and while there were interesting and tuneful musical selections between scenes, I think more could have been done with the lighting to make each office unique.

Running themes that tie the separate scenes and characters together include the office setting, the phones, the furniture, and most interestingly, ledge jumper, a leather bound Day-at-a-Glance planner and a thick book by an erotic novelist who uses the pseudonym Margaux Kenyon.

Bill Blair is one of the more imposing members of the cast, and makes a lasting impression as Warren Kimble, a on-air journalist who is demoted as the result of age-ism and Lloyd Penny, the seemingly hen-pecked husband of a domineering wife and father of two sons: one a gay lawyer and the other a straight figure skater.

PJ Freebourn’s characters include an unnamed One-Armed Man and a shallow cheater named Mark who concocts the most amazing excuses for his infidelities and tries to use them to manipulate his young wife, Ellie.

Madeleine Gish played three very different character. In the first scene she was Pam Gerard, the overly confident and self-promoting production manager who demoted Warren Kimble. She next appeared as Ellie Young, the savvy young wife who hired a private eye to document her husband’s infidelities, and finally Sharon Freeman, a love-starved psychiatrist  looking for to a long awaited weekend tryst, who put her own needs above those of her client who inconveniently decided to end their Friday afternoon session on the window ledge of her office. Gish did a great job making each of her characters distinct.

Hogan Holt also played a trio of characters, but my favorite was Artie Barnes, the overweight jockey. Foster, the playwright, seems to like tossing a monkey wrench of realism or tragedy into the midst of his most comic moments, and in the case of Artie he did not disappoint. It seems that during one race, Artie’s horse suffered a heart attack and died on the track. Yet Artie, who fluctuates in and out of denial at the drop of a hat – in his case a slightly bedazzled and bedraggles cowboy hat—insists he’s a svelte 112 pounds.

Paige Reisenfeld plays both Francine Majors, a frustrated production partner, and Rhonda Penny, the mother of the gay lawyer who insists that gay sons are the result of a domineering mother. In one of the funniest scenes of the night, she brings lunch to her son’s office, in an oversize picnic basket. The food choices inside warn us that something is not quite right with her: a large jar of giant gherkins (pickles), a cucumber, orange-aid, a polish sausage, and an uncooked eggplant. Her husband carries a bag with a McLobster sandwich. (I don’t know if that is a real thing and didn’t dare check!)

Joel White’s character included the gay son and a has-been movie director, Bobby Holland with an obvious drinking problem who tries to pitch a new project that sounds like a barely doctored revival of the Tarzan story.

There is a lot going on, and I enjoyed following the twisting threads of the various stories and discovering how they were connected. Yet, with all that – and a pretty good cast, to boot – Office Hours falls short of the comedic gem it wanted to be.

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: Jeremy Bustin Photography

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THE SAVANNAH SIPPING SOCIETY: Life on Randa’s Veranda

THE SAVANNAH SIPPING SOCIETY: Hilarious Southern Women’s Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Colonial Heights, VA 23834

Performances: June 1 – July 13, 2019

Ticket Prices: $40 Theater only; $57 Dinner & Theater

Info: (804) 748-5203 or swiftcreekmill.com

The Savannah Sipping Society is another celebration of southern women from the comedic writing of the trio of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten, who also brought us The Golden Girls, The Hallelujah Girls, and The Dixie Swim Club. Director – and Swift Creek Mill Theatre Artistic Director – Tom Width fondly referred to it in his pre-show curtain talk as a “comedy of recognition” as the characters are so familiar and the situations so relatable.

Set in Savannah, Georgia, in the present day, the story takes place over a period of a little more than six months, and mostly on the second story veranda of Randa Covington’s home. The authentically and lovingly detailed set designed by Width, fashioned from wicker and bright colors, hanging plants, features a little table that serves as a bar – an all important focal point for most of the shenanigans that take place. (Not being familiar with Savannah homes, I did wonder if the kitchen and living room were also on the second floor – and found this mildly distracting each time Randa or one of her friends ventured inside to get grab some glasses or check on something in the oven.)

The four women who fuel this feverish frolic initially meet at a yoga class – or more precisely in the lobby juice bar of a yoga studio where they all found the class more than they had bargained for. “Honestly, I’m at an age where all I usually exercise is caution,” Dot pants after collapsing into a chair, putting her feet up, and fanning herself vigorously. The juice bar and a few other locations where the women stand to give monologues are unadorned corners of the stage defined only by bright spots of Joe Doran’s otherwise subtle summery lighting.

Width has assembled a fabulous cast who exuded such warm and natural chemistry on opening night one can only imagine how tightly knit they will be halfway through the run, Joy Williams is the smart and quirky Randa Covington, owner of the veranda. She is a single and independent career woman, an architect who recently lost her job. Jacqueline Jones is Dot Haigler, recently widowed just as she and her late husband were about to start their life-long dream of a retirement near the water. Widowhood is nearly eclipsed by more pressing problems, but her friends pulls together to provide life-giving support.

Robin Arthur is Marlafaye Moseley, a gum-chewing divorcee who recently relocated from Texas. Marlafaye is the most physical comedian. At one point she proclaims, “My mama didn’t raise no fool,” as she places a jester’s hat on her head. Jennifer Frank plays Jinx Jenkins, a make-up artist and self-proclaimed life coach who came to Savannah to care for her sister, who is suffering from dementia. The four, ranging in age from 49 to 69 are united by their circumstances. All are stuck in a rut of some sort, and in need of adventure, romance, and most of all friendship and it is this bond of friendship mixed with unique southern twists that is the heart and soul of this play.

Marlafaye gave up a career in nursing to become a representative for a liquor company, so the four unlikely friends are never short of adult beverages – hence the title. The laugh-a-minute first act imperceptibly morphs into more serious situations as life encroaches on these lovely ladies, and just as it seems the second act is about to end on a sad and introspective note, the writers toss in a happy surprise ending. Rather than feeling cheated – as one would if this had been a drama – this is a vindication of both the genre and the geography.

The Savannah Sipping Society has the pacing and staging of a situation comedy. The audience even sounded like a sitcom laugh track, offering frequent and loud outbursts of sometimes raucous laughter. Having previously enjoyed several plays by this trio of writers, I came prepared to enjoy The Savannah Sipping Society. The Dixie Swim Club (in which Jennifer Frank, Jacqueline Jones, and Joy Williams have all appeared) has remained my favorite, but The Savannah Sipping Society may be a close second as far as characters and may be a tie for laughs.

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: Robyn O’Neill

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WRONG CHOPPED: Experimental Comedy

WRONG CHOPPED: Dumb Fun

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 17 – June 8, 2019

Ticket Prices: $22 General Admission; $12 Students

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

 

Dumb & fun.

The world premiere of Wrong Chopped at the Firehouse Theatre is a new iteration of Levi Meerovich and Dixon Cashwell’s absurdist theater piece that was first workshopped at the Firehouse last fall. Lest you think I’m being critical, “fun and dumb” are words that co-writer Meerovich used to describe the work. Other words used by the production team include the phrase “stupid comedy,” a sort of disclaimer that the participant viewer should not expect “high intellectual property.”

Although it may appear to be improvised, the organized chaos on the stage is quite intentional. The entire play – and I use that word loosely – is scripted, down to the grunts and stutters. But what is it about? As the title suggests, Wrong Chopped is a parody of Food Network cooking shows. Four chefs compete for a $10,000 prize. They must create an appetizer, an entrée, and a dessert using the mystery items in a basket. The food items range from bones to eggs, but there are other items as well, things like a part of a sentence and a framed photo of actor Stanley Tucci who apparently has something of a cult following among this crowd.

The chefs are Jenny Brackish (Tyler Stevens), Bolton Kane (Chandler Matkins), Darude “Blaze” O’Ronald (Cheslea Matkins), and Goo Henry (Dante Piro). Brackish seems to be a stay at home mom, Kane is a New Age philosopher, Blaze is a street chef who operates a food truck, and Henry is, well, I’m not quite sure, but Henry apparently has a long-standing feud with the show’s host, Ted Allen, played with manic intensity by John Mincks.

The judges include a woman (Tara Malaka as Daniel Craig) who insists she is an actor who plays James Bond and “a rhyming holy woman,” who goes by the name Cardinal Bigsauce (Abbey Kincheloe). I never caught the occupation of the third judge, Marlas Jones (played by Doug Blackburn).

There’s also a camera person, Payton Slaughter, who captures odd angles of the actors and at one point gets usurped by Chef Kane who brings the camera into the audience and takes video selfies with audience members. And then there was Levi Meerovich, a co-writer who was also The Watcher. One of my favorite parts of the show was the opening scene or prologue when Meerovich, looking very handsome with a fresh haircut and a formal tuxedo jacket, approached the keyboard placed in a corner in front of the stage from where he accompanied the actors, occasionally made comments, and directed the projection of videos of old television shows and other, assorted images. When he first came out, Meerovich took off his jacket. And his shoes. And his vest. Then he put on his shoes and pulled his jacket on over his white dress shirt and red boxer briefs, and that’s how he very comfortably completed the show.

You may notice that in the first paragraph I used the phrase participant viewer – well, that’s because the audience isn’t merely observing. The cast sometimes invades the audience space, making the audience participants in the action. And then there are those, like the row of young people directly behind me, who laughed so loudly and so often that they virtually became part of the show.

There is really no point in giving a plot summary – there isn’t any. This is a messy play – physically and metaphorically. There is lots of rice and popcorn and catsup. There are references to James Bond, Hamlet, and numerous movies and television shows, as well as many more references I probably didn’t get because I’m of a different generation. But in answer to a friend’s question, did this show make me feel old? – not at all. It did not make me feel old, but it probably does have greater appear to people who are in their 20s and 30s. People in this age group laughed the longest and loudest. One woman closer to my generation said she laughed but sometimes didn’t know what she was laughing at. And do you know what? I think that Meerovich and Cashwell would find that perfectly acceptable.

Wrong Chopped may be classified as theater of the absurd. It’s also been referred to as avant garde and dada. By whatever label, it is non-traditional theater, and offers a viable alternative for those who want something different, funny, and irreverent. I would not place myself among that group. If you like a linear plot, a play with a clear beginning, middle, and ending, and a conclusion that neatly ties up everything – this isn’t it. If you’re looking for something totally different than what you usually find on Richmond theater stages, and you don’t even know what the term “comfort zone” means, then you might be the target audience for Wrong Chopped.

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

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Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

5_Tara Makala, Payton Slaughter, Tyler Stevens, Doug Blackburn, Chandler Matkins, Dante Piro, Chelsea Matkins, John Mincks, Abbey Kincheloe (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Tara Malaka, Peyron Slaughter, Tyler Stevens, Doug Blackburr, Chandler Matkins, Dante Piro, Chelsea Matkins, John Mincks, and Abbey Kinchelow,
4_Abbey Kincheloe (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Abbey Kinchelow
3_Tara Malaka, Abbey Kincheloe, Doug Blackburn, John Mincks (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Tara Malaka, Abbey Kincheloe, Doug Blackburn, and John Mincks
2_Tyler Stevens (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
Tyler Stevens
1_John Mincks, Dante Piro (photo by Bill Sigafoos)
John Mincks and Dante Piro

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AN OCTOROON: We Need to Talk

AN OCTOROON: The Point is to Make You Feel Something

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 16 – June 1, 2019

Ticket Prices: $35 general admission; $25 seniors & industry/RVATA; $15 students and teachers with ID

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

When is it okay to laugh at racist stereotypes?

When a smart award-winning playwright named Branden Jacobs-Jenkins writes a play called An Octoroon and incorporates racist stereotypes and historical images that are guaranteed to make every member of the audience feel uncomfortable at some point, even while laughing – especially while laughing. Every. Single. Member. Not you, you say? We’ll see about that.

There is a plantation. In Louisiana. The kind with slaves. There is a cast system with field slaves and house slaves. The title character is a slave who is the daughter of the recently deceased master. The old master’s wife – who is never seen, because she spends the entire play on her deathbed – has an affection for her late husband’s love child. A neighboring overseer plots to buy the failing plantation and have his way with his former rival’s illegitimate daughter, the octoroon. There is a black man wearing blackface with huge red lips, a black man wearing white face with a blond wig, and a white man wearing red face and a feather headdress. There is a lot of shucking and jiving — or dancing elaborately for the entertainment of the white man. There is lying, cheating, stealing, and classism, sexism, and age-ism. There is a noose. And there is a creepy rabbit. An Octoroon is an equal opportunity oppressor.

I think people who attended opening night could be divided into three types. The majority loved it. A few hated it. And a large portion were not sure what to think. And this is one play where race does matter! Everyone’s reaction was tempered not only by aesthetic preferences, but by the viewer’s race as well. Black viewers may have felt freer to laugh but may also have identified more closely with the characters and the historical and social time period. White viewers, on the other hand, may have hesitated to laugh for fear of seeming insensitive, or being accused of appropriating black culture. These dilemmas may have been heightened by recent news stories of politicians, teachers, and prom-posers wearing blackface, and of possible lynchings – even though the last officially documented lynching in America occurred in 1981 (Michael Donald in Mobile, Alabama).

So, what could there possibly be to laugh about?

An Octoroon is a classic melodrama that is anything but standard. It deconstructs not only the genre but the whole idea of what theater should be, how the performers should interact, and how the audience should perceive it.

Jacobs-Jenkins won the Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2014 for An Octoroon as well as for his play Appropriate (produced here in Richmond by Cadence Theatre last fall). An Octoroon is an adaptation of Dion Boucicault’s similarly-titled play The Octoroon, written in 1859. An Irishman wrote a play about slavery in America, and now a black American playwright has revamped it. Using the original characters and plot,  (BTW, an octoroon is a person who is one-eighth black, invoking the “one drop” rule that was used to legally classify people of mixed race as black) Jacobs-Jenkins has included contemporary language (e.g., women referring to one another as “girl,” and the use of the word “ghetto” as an adjective) and modern-day references (e.g., contemporary dances, a boom box, some R-rated rap music, and a cell phone).

Director Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates recognizes, in her director’s note, that this melodrama is challenging for both the audience and the actors. Participating in the experience of An Octoroon, one might even begin to question the role of the director! But Pettiford-Wates raises some questions of her own. “How did we arrive at the place where race, class, and identity are what determines who succeeds and who does not?” she asks. And further, “And more importantly, where do we go from here?”

An Octoroon opens with a lengthy prologue that introduces us to BJJ, a black playwright working through an identity crisis with his therapist. BJJ is played by Jamar Jones, a young black male actor whose recent roles in Red Velvet, Free Man of Color, and Choir Boy have shown him to be a highly talented and versatile actor who is rapidly rising to the top of his game. Here Jones plays the characters of BJJ as well as the two white slave masters, George and M’Closky. At one point he appears in a vest with different patterns on each half and wears half a mustache, as he has to portray both characters onstage in the same scene.

The prologue also introduces us to Playwright, a character based on Dion Boucicault, the author of the original The Octoroon. Cole Metz also plays the roles of Wahnotee, a Native American and Lafouche, an auctioneer who has come to help dispose of the Terrebone Plantation, including its slaves. Each of Metz’ characters has an affectation that makes him either endearing or unbearable. Playwright is pompous, entitled, and bitter. Wahnotee speaks in broken, Pidgeon English and some version of patois. He walks with a lumbering gait and makes that stereotypical open-palmed “how” hand sign. Lafouche walks with a little catch step and keeps scratching the reddened side of his face. Metz can make his normally innocent, rosy-cheeked baby face turn pouty and whiny or menacing in the blink of an eye. He uses physical humor with restraint and allows his face to express his every thought.

The Playwright’s Assistant is played by Jeremy V. Morris, who is silent and seemingly resentful in his service to the Playwright, but overly enthusiastic in his later portrayal of two of the plantation’s slaves, the elderly Pete who manages the household, and the young Paul who is allowed to run freely with Wahnotee, and has been given few if any chores. Like the octoroon, he is also a favored child, but his circumstances are much lower down the social scale – even in the slave hierarchy.

Minnie and Dido (Asjah Janece and Khadijah Franks) are two house slaves who are friends. Dido has recently arrived from another plantation, and Minnie was born and raised on the Terrebonne Plantation. She believes there is nothing beyond the swamps, but by the end of the play both are looking forward with hope and fear to life beyond the plantation. Realizing they are not ready for freedom, they determine that working on a steam ship is the next best step.

Trinitee Pearson has the role of Grace, a pregnant field slave who shows attitude whenever she is in the presence of Minnie and Dido. Pearson also has the role of Br’er Rabbit, who serves as a sort of cautionary mascot for An Octoroon. Br’er Rabbit is a reminder of the trickster who lives by his wits, a sort of Anansi figure with both African and Cherokee roots. I personally found the Br’er Rabbit character somewhat creepy. Perhaps it was because rabbits are usually not the size of a petite woman, or maybe it was the mime-like half-mask Pearson wore and the limp-wristed, hovering stance she adopts.

Maggie Roop plays Dora, a wealthy white heiress who has her eye on George, even though she knows his only interest in her would be because of her ability to save the family plantation from a short sale. Roop is deliciously over the top in her stylized interpretation of the delicate southern belle, dressed in a bell-shaped white dress with crinolines and hoops, and enough pink bows and frills to stock a small emporium. In her first scene, she demands that Minnie fan her. Even though she is a socialite, it seems Dora’s only friend is Zoe, the Octoroon.

The octoroon is played by Juliana Caycedo, who I have only ever seen before in Cadence Theatre’s production of Between Riverside and Crazy. Caycedo looks the part of the beautiful octoroon with her olive skin, long curly hair, and huge, innocent eyes.  She happily joins in with Roop in prancing and flouncing around the stage, twirling in her green dress, also supported by crinolines as she and her friend and so to be rival, Dora, feign fainting spells and swoon at the drop of a hat. It is obvious these are ladies who never sweat but merely “dew.” Caught between two worlds, Zoe belongs to neither.

Also in the cast, is Liam Joseph Finn, holding down the small but significant roll of Ratts, a tall, handsome ship’s captain who comes to the auction to buy slaves. Dasia Gregg’s scenic design is deliberately rustic and dusty looking. She has lined the walls with jagged boards and littered the floor with crates and overturned chairs. This setting suggests a sense of impermanence, decay, and danger. Erin Barclay’s lighting maintains the dark and dreary theme, making it all the more startling and effective with the space lights up with the flash of George’s old-fashioned camera – the kind with a black curtain on a tripod. Projections by Gregg and Kelsey Cordrey keep the audience informed of the progress of the five acts, written in an elaborate old-fashioned font, and occasionally draw interest with animated flames, or the photograph of an actual modern day lynching. The latter is so disturbing that even BJJ asks to have it removed.

Breaking with all sorts of tradition, instead of performing the fourth act or the “sensation” act of the melodrama, BJJ, Playwright, and Assistant tell us about it, using a few props, and even rewinding to back up when BJJ loses his train of thought.

An Octoroon raises so many questions. This is the sort of play that cries out for a talk-back. (Dr. Pettiford-Wates indicated three are scheduled for later in the run.) There is more here than meets the eye. As one actor says at the end of Act Four, “the point of this whole thing was to make you feel something.” Having tapped into those feelings, they need to be discussed, examined, analyzed, and shared with others. This is not theater designed to merely entertain. Few would leave saying, “I liked it,” or “I enjoyed it.” More likely, others, as I did, left saying, “we need to talk about this!”

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

An Octoroon 3
Jamar Jones
An Octoroon 2
Maggie Roop as Dora in An Octoroon
An Octoroon 1
Jamar Jones as playwright BJJ in An Octoroon