HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE

How to Safely Tell an Uncomfortable Story

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced by: The Conciliation Lab

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

Performances: March 11-26, 2022

Ticket Prices: $35 General Admission; $25 Senior/Industry (RVATA); $15 Student/Teacher (with valid ID)

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

NOTE: The Basement is a fully vaccinated venue. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours of the performance must be shown at the box office and masks must be worn while at the theater.

The title of Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, How I Learned to Drive, is a metaphor for a story so complex that it defies stereotypes. Vogel presents people not as good or bad, victim or victimizer, but as multi-layered and flawed humans. The play is more layered – and even stickier – than a baklava (Greek pastry), and Vogel chose to tell the story in non-chronological order, making it seem even more realistic as the scenes bombard the audience in much the same way as our own memories might arise from the murky depths of an unsuccessfully buried past.

The primary characters in this fractured and dysfunctional family tale are Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck, her maternal aunt’s husband. It says a lot about the nature of this family unit that nicknames are derived from genitalia. The grandfather is Big Papa. Her little cousin is BB for Blue Balls, and her mother is referred to as the Titless Wonder. Li’l Bit, who is never identified by her real name, presented with petite genitalia at birth, and the name stuck, although from her teen years onward she is mercilessly bullied and teased by family and classmates alike for her ample bosom. Uncle Peck is an uncle by marriage, so I don’t think his name is part of this twisted roll call – but he makes up for it in other ways.

Both Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck are given stellar performances by Juliana Caycedo and Jeffrey Cole, respectively. These are the kinds of roles that make people look at you sideways when they encounter you in the produce section of the local supermarket. The rest of the cast – family members, classmates – is played by three actors: Bianca Bryan as the Female Greek Chorus, Mahlon Raoufi as the Male Greek Chorus, and Maggie Bavolack as the Teenage Greek Chorus.

The story, narrated mostly by Li’l Bit with the help of the Greek Choruses, is a surrealistically humorous recounting of sexual abuse and survival cloaked in the guise of driving lessons. It is not surprising that Uncle Peck is an alcoholic; he is not the only one either. Li’l Bit also recounts the all too familiar pattern of women in the family who not only turn a blind eye to the abuse, but also blame the child for being seductive. Aunt Mary, Uncle Peck’s wife, blames Li’l Bit for her husband’s pedophilia (and incest?), waiting for Li’l Bit to go away to college so she can rekindle her marriage. Li’l Bit’s own mother reluctantly allows her daughter to go on a long drive to the beach with Uncle Peck, warning her that she will hold Li’l Bit – a child – responsible if anything happens. There are so many outrageous scenes like this, many of which may trigger memories in audience members as well as cast and staff, that it seems each performance should be followed by a talk-back with a therapist on hand.

How I Learned to Drive is so well performed and so well directed by Chelsea Burke that is should be required viewing. Caycedo is vulnerable and resilient. It is undoubtedly exhausting to play the role of Li’l Bit – especially knowing that there are thousands of Li’l Bits out there still fighting to survive. Cole presents as a really creepy guy, even as the role sometimes calls for him to present as a caring adult. He comforts Li’l Bit when she flees a family dinner, broken by the teasing about her large breasts and the family’s refusal to acknowledge her dreams of going to college. Who needs a college degree to lay on their back? That’s Big Papa’s perspective. Uncle Peck celebrates with her when she passes her driving test on the first try; but he also inappropriately plies her with martinis and oysters. What the hell is the matter with this man? The conflict is brought to the forefront when, at one point, Li’l Bit wisely wonders if someone had groomed or molested him when he was a child.

We applaud Li’l Bit’s survival and her ability to leave Uncle Peck behind, a diminishing image in her rear view mirror. At the same time, we weep for those who are still learning how to drive.

When I attended the Sunday matinee was followed by a talk back with members of the current cast and crew and members of the cast and crew of the 1998 performance, including cast members Gordon Bass and J.B. Steinberg and lighting designer Steve Koehler. The sharing was accompanied by memories and a few tears. Both were needed.

At the time of publication, there are only two more opportunities to see this run of How I Learned to Drive. If you can find a way to get there, run!

HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE
by Paula Vogel

Directed by Chelsea Burke

THE CAST
Lil Bit…………………………………Juliana Caycedo
Peck……………………………………..……Jeffrey Cole
Female Greek Chorus…………….Bianca Bryan
Male Greek Chorus…………..…Mahlon Raoufi
Teenage Greek Chorus……..Maggie Bavolack

THE TEAM
Direction: Chelsea Burke
Scenic Design: Alyssa Sutherland
Projections Design: Dasia Gregg
Lighting Design: Deryn Gabor
Costume Design: Maggie McGrann
Sound Design: Candace Hudert
Properties Design: Kathy Kreutzer
Set Construction: Chris Foote
Scenic Painters: Faith Carlson, Alyssa Sutherland
Assistant Stage Management: Leica Long
Associate Direction: Nadia Harika
Dramaturgy & Intimacy Direction: Stephanie “Tippi” Hart
Production Stage Management: Crimson Piazza

THE SCHEDULE
Friday, March 11 at 8pm – Preview
Saturday, March 12 at 8pm – Opening Night
Thursday, March 17 at 8pm – Student Night
Friday, March 18 at 8pm
Saturday, March 19 at 8pm
Sunday, March 20 at 3pm – Matinee
Tuesday, March 22 at 8pm – Community Partner Night
Friday, March 25 at 8pm
Saturday, March 26 at 8pm – Closing Night

Photos by Tom Topinka

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ROMEO & JULIET

The Richmond Ballet’s ROMEO & JULIET: Shakespeare’s Family Feud on Pointe

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: The Richmond Ballet

At: Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center, 600 East Grace Street, RVA 23219

Performances: February 18-20, 2022

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets $25-$125

Info: (804) 344-0906, etix.com, or richmondballet.com

Romeo & Juliet
Choreography by Malcolm Burn

Music by Sergei Prokofiev

Performed by The Richmond Symphony,

Erin Freeman, Conductor

Scenery & Prop Design by Charles Caldwell

Costume Design by Allan Lees

Lighting Design by MK Stewart

It’s that time of year again. February. Some of us still have Valentine’s Day candy and flowers on our desks. It’s Romeo & Juliet season.

I’ve often mentioned to staff at the Richmond Ballet that my biggest – my only – problem with Romeo & Juliet,a ballet that is always performed around Valentine’s Day, is that it is one of the world’s greatest love stories, but the lovers end up dead at the end. Sigh. I think Romeo & Juliet has a higher body count than many action-adventure plots. But it also has some of the greatest – and largest – hats ever to appear on stage (kudos to costume designer Allan Lees).

On a serious note, Romeo & Juliet, running nearly three hours including two twenty-minute intermissions, is an immersive theatrical experience. There’s young love, friendship, family loyalty, classical ballet, folk dancing, comedy, drama, a fabulous score, and more.

This large-scale ballet, created by Richmond Ballet’s long-time Artistic Associate Malcolm Burn premiered August 1977 and was first performed by the Richmond Ballet in February 1995. The ballet includes a huge cast that highlights the students of the School of Richmond Ballet, the Richmond Ballet Trainees, and the Richmond Ballet II company. I found many of the supporting roles provided some of the most interesting and delightful moments of the evening.

Trainee Gabrielle Goodson was cast as the figure of Fate. A non-dancing role, Fate would appear before a death occurred. I never managed to see Goodson move, but suddenly she would appear or shift to a new position on stage. The black-robed and hooded figure was even more ominous because of the silence, stillness, and unimposing stature.

A trio of Harlots (Celeste Gaiera, Sarah Joan Smith, and Izabella Tokev) provided several amusing interludes, with their dancing (sassy romps through the crowd scenes and seductive moments with the men of the town – all of the men) as well as with their costumes (off the shoulder frocks and outrageous wigs that reminded me of a combination of Marge Simpson and the wigs worn by the step-sisters in the Cinderella ballet).

Among other supporting figures that made a big impact was Susan Israel Massey as Juliet’s Nurse. A character role that did not require much dancing, Massey was delightful: loving and loyal to Juliet, daring and subversive in her support of her young charge, and humorous in the marketplace scene.

Ma Cong, the company’s Associate Artistic Director, who took on his role in June 2020 in the midst of a pandemic, was cast in the role of Lord Capulet, Juliet’s stern and unyielding (abusive might not be too strong a word) father. If I am not mistaken, this was his first onstage appearance with the Richmond Ballet.

Ira White was thrilling in the role of Tybalt, Juliet’s passionate and short-tempered first cousin. White engaged in a lot of swordplay with the gentlemen of the rival House of Montague – Romeo and his sidekicks Benvolio (Colin Jacob) and Balthasar (Zacchaeus Page). The fight scenes lit up the stage with a perfect balance of athleticism and art.

As for the title roles, Sabrina Holland danced the role of Juliet, and Khaiyom Khojaev was her Romeo, roles that require equal parts dancing, acting, and mime. There are no long dance scenes in Romeo & Juliet, and no grand pas de deux, so viewers must soak up every brief encounter, every precious stolen duet between the young lovers. The brevity of each encounter, each step, each lift makes their partnership all the more endearing. Personally, in his group scenes I would have liked to have seen Khojaev adopt some of the feistiness required of White. Tybalt certainly had confidence to spare. But in his solo turns Khojaev’s Romeo soared flawlessly.

Paris (Joe Seaton) the contender favored by Juliet’s parents (Ma Cong and Lauren Fagone), is given short shrift. Juliet flicks away his hand every time he tries to touch her. The poor guy is never even in the running. The tension and family dynamics in the scenes with Juliet, her parents, her nurse, and Paris is palpable and presages the unhappy ending that is sure to come.

Overall, Romeo & Juliet is a family-friendly ballet, and one that can be enjoyed by people who say they do not “understand” ballet. And if you don’t recall the details of Romeo and Juliet from high school, there is a handy scene-by-scene synopsis in the digital program. And the familiar score, played live by the Richmond Symphony, can easily stand alone.

I enjoy the intimate Richmond Ballet Studio Performances that are scheduled four times each season, but there is nothing like a full-scale, evening-length ballet and Romeo & Juliet is a personal and audience favorite, judging by the size, diverse composition, and positive reactions of Friday’s opening night house. At the time of this writing, there are two remaining opportunities to see this run of the Richmond Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet.

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

Romeo & Juliet Performance Schedule

Friday, February 18 @7:00PM

Saturday, February 19 @7:00PM

Sunday, February 20 @2:00PPM

COVID-19 Protocols: Upon entering the theatre, all audience members ages 12 and above are required to show printed or digital proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 or of a professionally-administered negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the performance. Patrons ages 18 and above will also need to show a photo ID. All patrons ages 2 and above will continue to be required to wear masks. Eating and drinking are allowed only in designated areas of the lobby.


Photos of the Richmond Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet. Photos by Sarah Ferguson. All rights reserved.


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STONEWALLIN’

STONEWALLIN’

A Coming Out Story with Stonewall Jackson, Witch’s Spells, and a Bobolink

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 9-March 5, 2022.

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.

The best comedy is relatable comedy. It often takes something from life – and it can be something bad – and pokes fun at it. By this standard, Kari Barclay’s new play – winner of Richmond Triangle Player’s So.Queer Playwriting Festival – is outrageously funny. It’s outrageous, period. The humor is a bonus.

STONEWALLIN’ features a “missing” statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (explaining the rabbit ears around “missing” would be a great big spoiler), a budding bi-sexual romance between a queer woman and a queer man, a friendship between a young Black man and an older white grandmother who spend some of their free time as Civil War re-enactors and some of their time together drinking whiskey and gossiping, and let’s not leave out a spell cast by a self-taught witch that has major unintended consequences. Surprisingly, it all fits together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.

STONEWALLIN’ is set in the author’s hometown of Lexington, VA, home of Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute. Other points of interest include the gravesites of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as well as the residence of Jackson, a Confederate general. More recent notoriety include the Red Hen Incident; in 2014 then White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckaby Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen Restaurant because of her role in the Trump Administration. All of this – and more — finds a home in STONEWALLIN’.

What also makes its way into STONEWALLIN’ is a stellar cast, consisting of Levi Meerovich as Tommy Jackson (a direct descendant of Stonewall Jackson), Nora Ogunleye as Marsha Lyons (a transplant from Berkeley, CA who is staying temporarily with her brother while reconnecting with her family roots), Jacqueline Jones as Mamaw Jackson (grandmother of Tommy and a staunch proponent of “heritage, not hate”), Trevor Lawson as Elijah Lyons (brother of Marsha and apparently the proprietor of an unnamed small business), and Chandler Hubbard as General Stonewall Jackson.

While Meerovich and Ogunleye rightfully take the leading roles as the unlikely young couple and share a relationship that is at once endearingly awkward and reluctantly intimate, it is Jacqueline Jones who steals my heart – and the show – as the sassy and sometimes deliberately daft Mamaw. She’s a rebel with or without a cause, just for the hell of it. She argues with her friend Elijah as they return from one of their Civil War re-enactment engagements, yet promises to rally her (Confederate) Flagger friends to support his housing project. She cannot fathom the emerging gender identity of her grandson – grandchild — Tommy, whose preferred attire is some variation of a black dress and earrings, and finds it more acceptable that he would have a relationship with a Black woman than that he could be gay. What a perfect example of the dilemmas posed by the state of affairs in which we currently exist.

Want further proof of how close to home this show hits? Barclay’s world premiere opened the same month that the bases of confederate statues right here in Richmond were being removed. (For those readers not familiar with what’s going on here in Richmond, the recently removed Confederate statues from Monument Avenue and other areas of the city are slated to be given to the local Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.) As for Elijah, he walks a delicate line between liberal political activist and moderate citizen of a small southern town. Lawson emanates the right demeanor – a balance of impassioned persuasion and moderate reason – to carry this off with authenticity. [Lawson recently appeared in VaRep’s Barefoot in the Park, December 2021https://jdldancesrva.com/2021/12/18/barefoot-in-the-park/and Pipeline,October 2021 https://jdldancesrva.com/2021/10/16/pipeline/]

Chandler Hubbard eases all too comfortably into the role of a southern gentleman who all too easily says things that would have been perfectly acceptable in his day but are seen as searingly offensive and racist in 2022. STONEWALLIN’ is a whole hoot and a holler of a show. Barclay has found the key to talking about difficult subjects, not only making them palatable, but mining] the humanity and liberally seasoning them with humor.

Raja Benz, who also directed Pink Unicorn at RTP [July- August 2021 https://jdldancesrva.com/2021/07/31/the-pink-unicorn/], directed this new work with insight and a big pinch of irreverence. Credit Frank Foster with the scenic design – a Stonewall Jackson pedestal that can be disassembled to create whatever minimal set pieces might be needed for any given scene – and Michael Jarett with the lighting design. Kudos to Candace Hudert for an appropriate and interesting sound design. All the elements – including rearranging the audience seating so that some were actually seated onstage – worked together to create an energized, intimate, and welcoming atmosphere. The ending is left somewhat inconclusive, leaving open the possibility for more to come.

STONEWALLIN’ runs through March 5, so there’s still time to go and find out about that “missing” statue.


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


STONEWALLIN’ – A World Premiere

Written by Kari Barclay, winner of RTP’s Inaugural So.Queer Playwriting Festival

Directed by Raja Benz

CAST:

Tommy Jackson………………………  Levi Meerovich

Marsha Lyons ………………………..   Nora Ogunleye

Mamaw Jackson …………………….  Jacqueline Jones

Elijah Lyons ……………………….….  Trevor Lawson

Stonewall Jackson ………………….. Chandler Hubbard

CREATIVE TEAM:

Scenic Design by Frank Foster

Costume Design by Claire Bronchick

Lighting Design by Michael Jarett

Sound Design by Candace Hudert

Hair and Make Up Design by Carolan Corcoran

Properties Design by Tim Moehring

Dramaturg Katharine Given

Intimacy Choreographer Kirsten Baity

Dialect Coach Louise Casini Hollis

Assistant Director Kendall Walker

Assistant Intimacy Choreographer Kevin Kemler

Technical Director Rebecka Russo

Assistant Stage Manager Dwight Merritt

Production State Manager Kasey Britt

Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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A HOTEL ON MARVIN GARDENS

A HOTEL ON MARVIN GARDENS

“All I want is to run everything and always be right.” – K.C.

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

CAT – Chamberlayne Actor’s Theatre

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

Performances: February 4 – 12 2022

Ticket Prices: $24.00 General Admission. $20.00 Seniors

Info: http://www.cattheatre.com

Watching four other people play a game of monopoly could be about as exciting paint dry, After all, it is a long and sometimes slow-moving game, and not exactly the sort of thing that draws spectators. Yet this is exactly what playwright Nagle Jackson expects us to do.

Under the smart direction of Amber dePass, and with an amiable cast led by Crystal Oakley, A HOTEL ON MARVIN GARDENS is both an amusing evening of live theater and an opportunity to use a board game that celebrates capitalism as a metaphor for the use and mis-use of corporate power.

Set on a private island whose owner and sole resident, K.C. has named her magazine ME, A HOTEL ON MARVIN GARDENS ironically takes place on April Fool’s Day. It is a long-standing tradition for K.C. to host an annual gathering on April 1st, the centerpiece of which is a game of Monopoly that comes with a boatload of unwritten rules. K.C. always gets the top hat. K.C. always gets Marvin Gardens, the most expensive property on the board. And K.C. always wins.

On this occasion, K.C. (Oakley) is joined by her publisher and weekend lover Bo (Aaron Willoughby), her Managing Editor Henry (Joshua Mullins) whom she plans to fire after the party, and his plus one, Erna (Kyle Billeter) who is the magazine’s food editor. At the end of Act One, just as we’re beginning to think this is going to be a long and uneventful day, the author shakes things up by tossing in a surprise visitor. Rose (Liv Meredith) found herself stranded after turning down the advances of her date; angered, he gets in his little boat and leaves her stranded on the island in the middle of a storm. Rose surprises many in the audience when she reveals she is a teacher. Her language and demeanor could have belonged to a high school or college student, but Henry soon takes note of her.

Willoughby’s Bo is a low-key and suitable foil for Oakley’s over-bearing and narcissistic K.C.

I’m not sure what to think of Henry. At times he stands up for himself with confidence, at times he gives in to pretentious free-spirited outbursts, and then there are those other, uncharacterizable moments. I personally was outraged when, during a scheduled bread in K.C.’s precise schedule for game day, Henry went outside and urinated on the rocks – only to come back inside, pick up his drink, and return to the bar without washing his hands!

Billeter’s portrayal of the quirky food critic Erna is undoubtedly the most lovable character. And of course, she raises K.C.’s hackles. No one appears to notice when, on at least two separate occasions, Erna drops her indeterminate European accent when reminiscing about the joys of tuna melts and tuna casseroles, and even lets it slip that her mother was the Queen of Velveeta. Hmm.

A HOTEL ON MARVIN GARDENS seemed to be just what the welcoming audience needed. It was also a minor triumph for CATTheatre, which became a nomadic troupe in the  midst of a pandemic. Their first show after emerging from behind masks was performed at Atlee High School. This one found a home at Dogtown Dance Theatre in Manchester, and the next performance will head west to HatTheatre. Undaunted, the show must go on! A HOTEL ON MARVIN GARDENS has one more weekend of performances, February 11 & 12, at Dogtown Dance Theatre. Just remember, K.C. always gets the top hat and K.C. always wins – even if it means she’s left all alone. Oh, and enter K.C.’s kitchen at your own peril. And you should probably avoid the Pump House…

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

A HOTEL ON MARVIN GARDENS

Written by Nagle Jackson

Directed by Amber dePass

Cast

K.C.                Crystal Oakley

Bo                   Aaron Willoughby

Henry              Joshua Mullins

Erna                 Kyle Billeter

Rose                Liv Meredith

Design Team

Stage Manager            Nancy McMahon

Assistant Stage Manager, Costume Design, Set Dresser        Jenn Fisher

Lighting Design          Kaylin Corbin

Set Design                   Andrew Way

Ticket Information

www.cattheatre.com

Ticket prices range from $24.00 General Admission. $20.00 Seniors.

Run Time

The play runs about 1 hour 50 minutes including 1 intermission

Photo Credits: Daryll Morgan Studios

———-

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A DOLL’S HOUSE, Part 2

Nora Returns 15 Years After Slamming That Door

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 4 – 27, 2022

Ticket Prices: $36-$56. Discounted group rates and rush tickets available.

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

If Nora and Torvald were on social media, there is no doubt their relationship status would be, “It’s Complicated.” When Nora walked out of the home she shared with her husband Torvald at the end of Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House (1879) it was described as “the slam heard ‘round the world.” Nora’s decision to leave her husband and children was so scandalous Ibsen was forced to write an alternate ending. For 138 years people were left to ponder what happened to Nora.

In 2017 American playwright Lucas Hnath provided us with some of the answers. A Doll’s House,  Part 2 begins with a knock on the door – the same door Nora slammed in 1879. Opening the door to self-exploration was also an open invitation for scandalous speculation and unstoppable feminist progress. Hnath has Nora return after a fifteen year absence to settle some unfinished business.

It is both fascinating and satisfying to see Katrinah Carol Lewis, who played Nora in a 2018 production at what was then TheatreLab, The Basement. In December 2018 I described Lewis’ performance as Nora as one of her most highly charged among many challenging roles. “With her naturally large eyes accented by makeup, and in the intimate space of The Basement, it was easy to see every nail biting emotion, to hear every breath, to practically feel her trembling.” [Follow this link to read my entire review of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House: https://jdldancesrva.com/2018/12/08/a-dolls-house-well-shut-the-door/.]

Nora in 1894 is no trembling bride. Her first knock at the door is confident; the second is commanding. She wears the finest clothes, and sits  with her legs spread apart and leaning forward, forearms resting on her thighs, in her straight-backed chair. In many ways, both financial and experiential, this older and wiser Nora has achieved success. But as the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that in more ways than she would like, the new Nora has retained much of the old Nora.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is not a prerequisite for Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2. There are plenty of references to Ibsen’s work to fill in the essential background, but if you are familiar with the original, and even better, if you have seen Lewis in the original, it is a much more fulfilling journey.

Lewis and David Bridgewater, who plays Torvald in this new production, circle around each other like wary cats, avoiding physical contact – or even eye contact – until their climactic scene in the final third of the play. Then their explosive interaction reveals to the audience that what Nora has endured in search of the elusive “true marriage,” a marriage of equals, was right under her nose the entire time. In one fleeting moment, the estranged couple drop their masks, we glimpse the manifestation of what she always wanted, and before we can fully absorb it, before we can get all sentimental about it, it is gone – and so is she. Again. While A Doll’s House, Part 2 answers many questions raised in the original, it leaves us with just as many, if not more, than we had before.

Everything in A Doll’s House, Part 2 has been pared down. The set consists of two elegantly painted or papered walls, a gigantic door, two formal straight-backed chairs, and a small table holding a vase of flowers. The little details that make the space a home have been omitted – or, as Anne Marie says, anything that belonged to Nora was thrown away when she left. The cast has been pared down to just two leading actors (Lewis and Bridgewater) and two supporting actors: Catherine Shaffner as the beleaguered nanny turned housekeeper, Anne Marie and Katy Feldhahn as the Helmer’s youngest child, Emmy. The play itself has been paired down, from Ibsen’s three acts and two intermissions to a 90-minute production performed without intermission.

What has not been pared down is the family dysfunction. Emmy, who has spent the better part of her life without a mother is so much like Nora it’s shocking. As a child, Emmy asked her two older brothers to tell her what they remembered about their missing parent. It may be a genetic or spiritual connection but neither of them seems to be aware of it – or, perhaps, it is just their habit to deny the obvious. Shaffner, in the role of Anne Marie who raised young Nora as well as her children, provides important connecting links between the past and the present, as well as a few welcome comedic outbursts of foul language.

Sharon Ott’s direction retains the main characters’ affectations and packs a lot of emotions and family drama into a much shorter production time. Although there did seem to be a bit of a lull bnear the end of the first half, Emmy’s appearance turned up the heat – and her Option 3 turned the tables on Nora.

Nora and Torvald are not likeable people, but they are familiar. We know people with some of their least likable characteristics. They are members of our own families and sometimes they are us. A Doll’s House, both the original and Part 2, was not intended to give the viewer a satisfying or happy ending. Both make us question gender, marriage, institutions, laws, and systems. They force us to look at the familiar from new perspectives and encourage us to question why we accept things the way they are – and consider what might happen if we walk out the door, or even knock it off its hinges.

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

A Doll’s House, Part 2

By Lucas Hnath

Cast

Nora                                                                Katrinah Carol Lewis

Torvald                                                            David Bridgewater

Anne Marie                                                     Catherine Shaffner

Emmy                                                              Katy Feldhahn

Nora Understudy                                          Donna Marie Miller

Torvald Understudy                                    David Watson

Anne Marie Understudy                            Lisa Kotula

Emmy Understudy                                       Sharaia Hughes

Direction & Design

Direction Sharon Ott

Assistant Director                                        Cam Nickel

Scenic Design                                                 Katherine Field

Costume Design                                            Sue Griffin, Marcia Miller Hailey

Lighting Design                                             BJ Wilkinson

Sound Design                                                  Jacob Mishler 

Stage Management                                      Shawanna Hall

Ticket Information

Box Office: 804-282-2620

www.virginiarep.org

Ticket prices range from $36 – $56/

Discounted Group Rates and Rush tickets are available.

Run Time

The play runs about one hour and 35 minutes with no intermission

Here’s a little video teaser:

Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten [production photos were not yet available at the time of publication] NOTE: Photos updated February 8, 2022.

———-

Virginia Rep COVID Guidelines

To provide the highest level of safety, all patrons 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 must show your vaccination card or a photo of the card on your phone, along with a valid photo ID, when you 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.

Please see the Virginia Rep Covid Safety FAQ for details.

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.

At this time, no food or drink is allowed in the theatre.

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MURDER FOR TWO

Murder for Two Slays as a Two-for-One: Half Murder Mystery, Half Comedy

At: The Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 U.S. Route 1, S. Chesterfield, VA 23834

Performances: January 29 – February 26, 2022

Ticket Prices: $49. $44 for seniors, students, military, and first responders.

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

The two actors who play ALL the characters in MURDER FOR TWO come onstage wearing birthday party hats, and immediately begin a series of zany and wordless shenanigans. Their wacky introduction requires them to dress the stage with pedestals, vases filled with flowers, magician’s trick bouquets, and comic sound effects. The stage itself, designed by Tom Width, features stall Greek columns, crazily angled doors, and portraits over the fireplace that have as many as seven sides and angles. A baby grand dominates the center of the stage and could very well be given credit as a third character. As the play progresses it becomes clear that this musical comedy murder mystery, written by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair is, as Director Tom Width describes it in his program notes, “quirky in the best possible ways.”

Mark Schenfisch plays Marcus Moscowicz, an ambitious police officer with all-consuming dreams of becoming a detective. Marcus initially appears as to be insufferably arrogant and narcissistic, but Schenfisch gradually digs down and mines the underlying integrity that drives his character.

Most remarkable, however, is Emily Berg-Poff Dandridge who plays ALL the other characters – with one notable exception I will not reveal here because I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who have not yet seen MURDER FOR TWO. The mystery revolves around who killed the prolific author Arthur Whitney who was unceremoniously murdered as he arrived for his own surprise birthday party as the remote mansion where he lives – or lived – with his wife. It is worth noting that Whitney was not well liked. All who gathered to celebrate his birthday had appeared as a character in one of his books, making them all plausible suspects.

Dandridge play the roles of the newly widowed Dahlia Whitney, the Whitney’s feisty and constantly bickering neighbors, Murray and Barb Flandon, Whitney’s talkative and over-achieving niece Stef, a well-known ballerina names Barrett Lewis who has a vaguely Russian accent that does not match her name, Dr. Griff – a local psychiatrist who conveniently ignores the ethics of doctor-patient confidentiality – and, last but not least, Timmy, Yonkers, and Skid, the only remaining members of a twelve-member boys’ choir who were invited to provide entertainment for the birthday party.

As required by the script, Dandridge swiftly transitions between these nine characters using a pair of large round eyeglasses and a red baseball cap as the only notable props. The majority of the characterizations are accomplished through shifting the actor’s center of gravity, changing the posture, and adjusting the voice, accent, and phrasing – often in mid-sentence. The result is that Dandridge often interrupts herself and does it so well we almost forget that there is a single actor creating multiple characters. Thank you, Emily Dandridge, for an outstanding performance.

As far as mysteries go, the authors have written in enough details, anecdotes, and red herrings to keep things interesting. The biggest of these is Dahlia Whitney’s increasingly colorful, complex, and loud musical confessions.

And then there’s the piano. MURDER FOR TWO is a musical, but not the breaking-into-song or catchy-show-tunes type of musical. Instead of the usual offstage band, both actors play the piano, using it like anther character’s voice or as a substitute for their own. Sometimes they do sing, but most often the piano seems to be another voice rather than an instrument to accompany the human voices.  Speaking of voices there is one character who is NOT voiced by Dandridge who is represented by a sound effect reminiscent of the muted trombone voice of the invisible adults on Peanuts animated shows.

MURDER FOR TWO is filled with a steady stream of surprises. The director makes sure the pace rarely lags. This show might even trigger sensory overload for some viewers. The story is complex enough to hold the audience’s attention for ninety minutes with no intermission and the lighting is as wacky as the plot. I especially liked the effect of the arriving automobiles, and there are plenty of other special effects that surprise, stun, and amaze. The physical set screams comedy, and the writers and actors have successfully met the challenge of this hybrid genre of theatre without detriment to either the comedy or the mystery elements. The rapid transitions and complexity sometimes make it a challenge for the audience as well, and there are occasional asides or moments when the audience is directly addressed – giving us a moment to catch up. MURDER FOR TWO is “extra” and that’s one of the best things about it.

MURDER FOR TWO

Book and Music by Joe Kinosian

Book and lyrics by Kellen Blair

Cast:

Mark Schenfisch as Marcus Moscowicz

Emily Berg-Poff Dandridge as The Suspects

Direction and Design Team:

Directed by Tom Width

Musical Direction by Mark Schenfisch

Costume Design by Maura Lynch Cravey

Lighting Design by Joe Doran

Scenic Design by Tom Width

Technical Direction by Liz Allmon

Run Time:

90 minutes, no intermission

Tickets:

$49

$44 for seniors, students, military, and first responders.

Photos: Robyn O’Neill

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RICHMOND HOLIDAY TRADITION TURNS 20

THE LATIN BALLET OF VIRGINIA: The Legend of the Poinsettia Celebrates 20 Years

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Road, Glen Allen, VA, 23192

Performance Were: January 6-9, 2022

Ticket Prices: $20 Adults; $15 Students/Senior Citizens/Military; $10 Group Rates for 10 or more

Info: (804) 356-3876 or http://www.latinballet.com

The Latin Ballet of Virginia has been presenting The Legend of the Poinsettia for 20 years now, and I think we can officially declare this vibrant and colorful production a holiday tradition.

How long does it take for something to achieve the status of tradition? Merriam-Webster offers several definitions, including:

1a : an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior

1b : a belief or story. . . relating to the past. . .commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable

2 : the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction

3 : cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions

With a cast of past and current artists, Latin Ballet founder and Artistic Director Ana Ines King said the anniversary production of The Legend of the Poinsettia “is like going back to when we started.” Before King introduced this home-grown holiday classic to the Richmond community,  “few knew how Christmas was celebrated in Latin America,” said Marisol Cristina Betancourt  Sotolongo, a dancer and Education Program Assistant for the company. Sotolongo performed in the show’s debut at the Carpenter Center in January 2002. “I was four years old,” she recalls. “The Legend of the Poinsettia has become one of my favorite shows. It is kept fresh with new dancers, dances, and scenery.” The Poinsettia pays homage to King’s mother’s dance legacy in Columbia and honors the true spirit of giving through dance, music, and storytelling.

King is from Columbia as is guest artist Ginna Milena Pedraza, founder of Duncan Danza. Sotolongo’s family is Cuban. Guest artist Pedro Szalay, a co-founder of The Latin Ballet of Virginia and current Artistic Director of Southwest Virginia Ballet is from Venezuela. The dancers perform in authentic costumes from Manzanillo, Mérida, and Zacatecas, all in Mexico. The Legend of the Poinsettia encompasses the history of the poinsettia plant, the story of a little girl who discovers the true meaning of giving, and celebratory customs from Mexico, Columbia, Spain, the Dominican Republic (incorporating Cuban dance styles), and Venezuela.

In a beautiful duet, the dancers portraying Joseph and Mary perform a romantic dance that sheds new light on the famous couple’s relationship. Later, in a trio, the family featured in the story echo some of the movements from the duet.

Large ensembles of children, youth, and adults fill the stage with color and rhythm. They exude a high level of energy that often has the audience clapping along, and the one young man, with a mop of curly hair falling appealing over his forehead and glasses, promises to become a strong dancer and partner.

From pageantry to revelry, from the Three Kings clad in glittery finery to an abstract representation of the poinsettia, from Christmas songs – some performed live – to dynamic examples of folk dances (aguinaldos, gaitas, rumbas, and plenas), spiced with contemporary hip hop, capoeira, The Legend of the Poinsettia is engaging and joyous. Most of all, with its diverse cast and traditions, it is educational and inclusive. There is no need to worry about little ones not wanting to sit still – although one fleet-footed little audience member made a mad dash for the stage on Friday night; clapping, singing along, and call and response are the norm here. With children, youth, and adults sharing the stage, the movement is not always perfectly in sync, but it is always heart-warming.

PERFORMANCES

Performances January 6 – 9, 2022
The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen
2880 Mountain Road Glen Allen, VA 23060
Thursday, January 6 at 10:30am (Field Trips for schools)
Friday, January 7 at 10:30am (Field Trips for schools)
Friday, January 7 at 7:30pm
Saturday, January 8 at 3:00pm & 7:30pm
Sunday, January 9 at 3:00pm

Get a glimpse of The Legend of the Poinsettia here:

Note: Portions of this review were originally written for Richmond Magazine.

Photo Credits: Photos of past performances of The Legend of the Poinsettia from the LBV website

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BAREFOOT IN THE PARK

A Romantic Comedy

Corie: You wouldn’t even walk barefoot with me in

Washington Square Park!

Paul: It was 17 degrees!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Presented By: Virginia Rep

At: Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse  Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: December 11, 2021 – January 9, 2022

Ticket Prices: $48. Prices are subject to change during the run. Discounted Group Rates and Rush Tickets are available.

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

First, let’s be clear: yes, it’s December, and SURPRISE! – Neil Simon’s BAREFOOT IN THE PARK is not a Christmas show. What it is, is a delightful romantic comedy that appears to be as much fun for the actors as it is for the audience.

The plot is a simple one: two newlyweds move into their first apartment after spending their honeymoon is an upscale New York City hotel. Their new home is a fifth floor walk up in a Manhattan brownstone. Let’s just say it’s a fixer-upper. There’s a kitchenette, a bathroom with no bathtub (but at least the bathroom is inside the apartment – those familiar with old New York apartments know what I’m talking about), and a bedroom so small that when you open the door it hits the double bed, which you have to climb over to reach the closet, which is leaking. Speaking of leaks, there is a hole in the skylight – you know, the window in the roof – and it’s February. The apartment quickly drives home this young couple’s differences: she’s impulsive and free-spirited and he is a conservative lawyer who is more compatible with his mother-in-law than her own daughter has ever been.

Rachel Rose Gilmour was perfectly cast as newlywed housewife Corie Bratter. (And yes, I’m using the terms that would have been used in 1968.) Her brightly colored wardrobe captures both the period and her character’s personality. Trevor Lawson demonstrates enviable restraint as the husband who is hit with one surprise after another: the rent is twice as much as Corie is willing to tell her mother they actually pay; Paul saw the third floor apartment prior to moving in, not realizing their apartment was on the fifth floor – not counting the outside stoop, and of course there is the matter of the tiny kitchen, the lack of a bathtub, and the miniscule size of the bedroom. To make matters worse, their furniture is delayed.

As compelling as Gilmour and Lawson are, it was Jill Williams, reprising her 2005 role as Corie’s mother, Ethel Banks, who stole the show. Williams reminds me – and I truly mean this as a compliment – of Carol Burnett. Her carriage, her facial expressions ( especially when commenting on her daughter’s apartment), her gestures, her delivery all work together to deliver pure, belly laughing comedy. I simply loved Jill Williams in this role. Opposite Williams was Joe Pabst, also reprising his role as the eccentric neighbor Victor (pronounced “Wicktor”) Velasco. How eccentric is he? I am glad you asked. Not only does he cavort about in a beret, a dressing gown, and slippers, he is a shameless flirt and moocher, and we first meet him when he knocks on the Bratters’ door so he can climb through their window to gain access to his attic apartment, But I won’t give it all away. Go see it to find out why, it’s well worth the trip.

Supporting roles include Quan Chau as the telephone repair man and Williams’ husband Eric Williams as a delivery man. Who’s old enough to remember when the telephone was connected to the wall and the phone number was alpha-numeric? The Bratter’s new phone number was El Dorado 5-8191.One further cast note – and I had to think about whether to mention this at all, but I think it is relevant. This cast of Barefoot in the Park is an example of color-blind casting. Yes, an Asian actor plays the telephone repair man, but even more significantly, the leading man is played by a person of color. It would have been quite unusual to see an interracial couple in New York in 1968, or a black male lawyer living in midtown Manhattan who was completely accepted by his white mother in law who lives in New Jersey. Yeah. All of that would have made this an entirely different type of play – and the word “comedy” would not have been part of it.

While much less elaborate than many period apartments that have been constructed on the Hanover Tavern stage, Terrie Powers’ set design quickly transformed from a hideous empty shell into a warm and inviting home with just a few pieces of furniture and some well-chosen decorations. Logistically, there were a couple of things that seemed a little off. The fourth wall apparently held a mirror, but sometimes the actors seemed to be looking through the wall. And the other was the existence of a wood-burning stove in the apartment which may not have been a housing code violation in 1968 but it would certainly have been unlikely for a landlord to allow a tenant to use it.

There is plenty of physical comedy in Barefoot in the Park, much of it stemming from the never-ending flights of stairs. Director Jan Guarino set a brisk pace, and the cast maintains the standard she set. There are falls (or near misses), an accident, a drunken scene, and missing clothes. There is the running joke of using the Bratter bedroom to access Victor’s apartment. Corie, Paul, and their visitors must navigate each time they enter or exit the building. After a wild night on the town – after Corie tricks her mother into going on a blind date with Victor – Paul ends up climbing the stairs with his MIL on his back. And since it’s February, we cannot really be surprised when a few snowflakes drift through the open skylight.

Barefoot in the Park addresses big themes like opposites attract, the importance of being yourself, and the power of love. But the comedy is what makes this spirit-lifting winner.

**********

FUN FACT: The average rent for a NYC apartment in 1970 was $102. The average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment in NYC in 2021 is $3,250 and is closer to $4,000 per month in the midtown neighborhood where Neil Simon’s play is set. Corrie and Paul are paying about $145 per month, but she insists on telling her mother they are paying only about $75.63.

FUN FACT: Corie and Paul spent their Honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel. In 1968 the Plaza cost $30 per night; current rates are about $850 per night.

FUN FACT: A Brownstone is a rowhouse, made of brick fronted with brownstone that was originally popular because of its natural look and low price, compared to other stone finishes. Found mostly in Brooklyn and Manhattan, brownstone homes were originally single-family homes. Many were subdivided into apartments. Most existing brownstone homes are about 100 years old, and as they are no longer constructed the prices have gone up. When I graduated from high school in 1973 my grandmother sold the small Brooklyn brownstone where I grew up for $30,000. Now, 48 years later, it is currently assessed at $1,149,500.

**********

Barefoot in the Park

by Neil Simon

Directed by Jan Guarino

Cast

Corie Bratter ……..………… Rachel Rose Gilmour

Paul Bratter ………;;;;;……. Trevor Lawson

Ethel Banks …………….….… Joy Williams

Victor Velasco ………………. Joe Pabst

Telephone Repairman …. Quan Chau

Delivery Man ………….…….. Eric Williams

Ethel Banks understudy .. Terrie Powers

Creative Team

Scenic Design: Terrie Powers

Costume Design: Sue Griffin & Marcia Miller Hailey

Lighting Design: Matt Landwehr

Sound Design: Jacob Mishler

Stage Management: Sam Shahinian

Run Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes including 2 intermissions

Note: At this time, no food or drink is allowed inside the theater

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

———-

Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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THE NUTCRACKER: LIVE

TRIUMPHANT RETURN OF HOLIDAY CLASSIC

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: The Richmond Ballet

At: Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center, 600 East Grace Street, RVA 23219

Performances: December 11-23, 2021

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets $25-$125

Info: (804) 344-0906, etix.com, or richmondballet.com

The Nutcracker
Choreography by Stoner Winslett

Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

with The Richmond Symphony,

Erin Freeman, Conductor

Production Conceived by Stoner Winslett and Charles Caldwell

Artistic Direction & Choreography by Stoner Winslett

Scenery & Prop Design by Charles Caldwell

Christmas Tree Design by Alain Vaës

Costume Design by David Heuvel

Lighting Design by Richard Moore

Associate Lighting Design by Jim French

It’s December 2021 and in three months we will mark a most unlikely anniversary – two full years of living with a global pandemic. After months of learning the differences between social distancing, quarantine, and isolation, live theater has settled into a new routine of live performances. First, there were limited-seating performances with virtual streaming options. The new standard is to allow fully-vaccinated people to attend live performances with few seating restrictions. Patrons must show proof of vaccination and remain masked. Oh, and in the larger venues, you can forget about visiting the bar; it’s closed until further notice. All of this takes some adjusting, but it’s worth it to be able to experience the singular joy of attending a live show.

The Richmond Ballet’s holiday standard, The Nutcracker, was not performed live last year due to the pandemic, but it’s back this year and opened on Saturday, with a few modifications that did nothing to diminish the excitement of joining young Clara on her journey to Confitenberg, the Land of Sweets. Small children and adults sat mesmerized from the moment the Richmond Symphony began the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky’s score until the elaborate curtain dropped after Clara woke up from her adventure.

This year’s production of The Nutcracker is special for two reasons: it is the first live production since the world shut down in March 2020, and this is the last year to see the familiar Nutcracker costumes and sets before they get a make-over for 2022. You can expect three acts and two intermissions (although you cannot take drinks or food to your seats), but I noticed that when the clock struck twelve times only six little mice appeared instead of twelve, and the most obvious change was the absence of Mother Ginger and the dozen little dancers that hide under her voluminous hoop skirt. And of course, with nine new members in this company this season, there are lots of new casting choices to experience.

Adhya Yaratha dances the coveted role of Clara, the recipient of the magical nutcracker doll. Yaratha, a student at The Steward School, was recently featured as a “Standout Spartan” in her school’s newsletter. She revealed that she has been dancing for 13 years and “for much of that time” dreamed of being cast as Clara. She danced with grace and confidence and made a delightful Clara.

Bladen Kidd held his own as Clara’s recalcitrant little brother, a band of boys on a series of humorously disruptive raids against the girls at the Silberhaus’ annual Christmas party. Carter Bush (RB Trainee) proved to be an attentive apprentice to his uncle, the mysterious Dr. Drosselmeyer (the recently retired Fernando Sabino returning as a guest) and a courteous Nutcracker Prince accompanying Clara on her adventures in the Kingdom of Sweets.

The predictability and tradition of The Nutcracker are part of its charm, and seemed especially important this year: they were signs of stability and normalcy. Whoever thought a magical growing Christmas tree and a swan sled could represent stability?

Sabrina Holland and Khaiyom Khojaev danced the “other” leading roles – you know, the adult ones – the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. They welcome Clara and her Prince to the Kingdom of Sweets and close Act Three with a grand pas de deux that epitomizes the lightness of the Romantic ballerina and the supportive role of the male dancer, with both attacking their technique with relish and flair.

All the favorite characters are there and there are plenty of roles for Richmond Ballet II, the Trainees, and the students of the School of the Richmond Ballet. The battle between the Mouse Army and the Regiment Soldiers features Jackson Calhoun (RB II) in the comedic role of the Mouse King. Principals Izabella Tokev and Joe Seaton deliver a picture perfect ice blue pas de deux as the Snow Queen and Snow King, attended by a corps of a dozen Snowflakes. Celeste Gaiera and Patrick Lennon, Marjorie Sherman and Jack Miller dance a Spanish jota with flair. Naomi Robinson and Ira White revive the sensual Snake and her Charmer, and Naomi Wilson dances the acrobatic role of Tea, accompanied by a group of Chinese dragon dancers.

Sarah Joan Smith and Colin Jacob (both first year company members) are the Shepherdess and Shepherd who shelter a half dozen little lambs who steal the show. They have masks added to their costumes this year which fit perfectly with their costumes. Paul Piner, Roland Jones, and Zacchaeus Page, all members of RB II, are the ever-popular Russian dancers with their very hip dancing bear (Piner), and Eri Nishihara dances the role of the bedazzled butterfly, surrounded by a dozen Candied Flowers.

The diverse and multi-generational cast is an apt reflection of the audience and represents the best of what this season represents. It’ so good to have The Nutcracker back onstage at The Carpenter Theatre this year; there is nothing like live theater to offer a magical escape from the everyday and mundane.

The Nutcracker Performance Schedule

Saturday, December 11th, 2021 @2:00pm and 7:00pm

Sunday, December 12th, 2021 @1:00pm and 4:30pm

Saturday, December 18th, 2021 @2:00pm and 7:00pm

Sunday, December 19th, 2021 @1:00pm and 4:30pm

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2021 @7:00pm

Thursday, December 23rd, 2021 @2:00pm

COVID-19 Protocols: Upon entering the theatre, all audience members ages 12 and above are required to show printed or digital proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 or of a professionally-administered negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the performance. Patrons ages 18 and above will also need to show a photo ID. All patrons ages 2 and above will continue to be required to wear masks.Please note: Proof of a negative COVID test is not required for children under the age of 12.

Photos Credits: Sarah Ferguson

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STRAIGHT WHITE MEN:

What the fuck are we gonna do about Straight White Men? – Kelsey Cordrey, Director

A Theater Review (kinda, I think) by Julinda D. Lewis

Produced by: The Conciliation Lab

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

Performances: December 3-18, 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.

Walking down the steep staircase to The Basement for opening night of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN we were greeted by blasting music (yes, that was CardiB’s “WAP”), flashing colored lights (the disco kind, not the Christmas tree kind), and a sign that told us to wait until the house opened in the least welcoming terms imaginable. A pre-show curtain talk by the People in Charge, Lucretia Marie and Malakai Lee, confirmed that STRAIGHT WHITE MEN makes no allowances for comfort zones. Just as Marie and Lee reached the end of their curtain speech, four straight white men (Adam Turck, Axle Burtness, Patrick Rooney, and Christopher Dunn) stumbled noisily into the theatre, setting themselves up for a humorous reversal of the CPT (colored people time) stereotype.

I think we can agree that STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is a strange title for a play produced by the Conciliation Lab – a company dedicated to social justice. Marie (a seasoned performer, activist, and anti-racism coach) and Lee (a student activist inside and outside of school at Henrico High School, Center for the Arts) making his professional debut in this show) both joke about this too, noting that neither of them is a straight white man, and one even remarked that a friend asked, “Did they see you?” before they hired you for the show. And anyway, why should we, much less the Conciliation Lab, be concerned about straight white men, with all the privilege they represent?

Having seen the VaRep production of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE the previous evening, I couldn’t help but make a comparison. Both are Christmas shows. Both center around a depressed straight white man whose crisis comes to a head on Christmas Eve. Both are about love and family relationships. Both are also directed by talented women. Given all these similarities, the two plays could not be more different. Where IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFEis a holiday classic, STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is a different style of theatre intended to be confrontational, to make the complacent feel uncomfortable and upset the expected and accepted order. (And as if literary confrontation was not enough, I was seated in the front row on the sold out opening night, barely three feet from the edge of the stage, a position I highly recommend for this production.)

Written in 2014, the opening of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN at the Helen Hayes Theatre in 2018, made history as the first play by an Asian American woman to be produced on Broadway. The author’s notes specify that the pre-show is to include loud rap music with sexually explicit lyrics performed by female rappers and that the Persons in Charge “should be played by gender-nonconforming performers (preferably of color).” The intent is to create the sense that the show is under the control of people who are NOT straight white men – a role reversal, if you will; a case of turn about is fair play, a sort of theatrical reparations, if you will. And while Marie and Lee seemed to be joking when they said audience members would be removed at the actors’ request, this, too, was in the author’s notes.

Kelsey Cordrey, in her solo directorial debut, kept everything moving at a rapid pace, marked by hilarity. The cast of four white men did her proud, keeping up the pace with an abundance of high impact physical activity while still allowing time to explore the psychological twists, turns, and nuances of this family.

The plot, you see, involves a family of three sons, two of whom (Drew, a writer and Jake, a successful but recently divorced banker) have returned home for Christmas where their widowed father, Ed, has recently been enjoying the company – and domestic skills – of his eldest son, Matt, an unemployed Harvard graduate. The problem is that in spite of the brothers’ good-natured rough-housing and reminiscing about childhood indiscretions, Matt is harboring and unsuccessfully hiding, some serious issues. It all comes out when he suddenly breaks down crying over Christmas Eve dinner.

Adam Turck is the caring insightful sibling, Drew. Axle Burtness plays Jake, the impatient sibling who wants to fix his older brother, regardless of what Matt actually wants. And Matt, played by Patrick Rooney, a newcomer to the Richmond stage, appears to be a caring, lovable man who, despite his Harvard education, seems barely able to articulate his own feelings. An Ed? Well, Ed is from another generation. He helps his neighbors, even when it isn’t convenient, like on Christmas Eve. Christopher Dunn’s character lovingly hangs Christmas stockings on the mantle, and gently pauses when he comes to the fifth – the one that belongs to his late wife – retuning it to the Person in Charge. Who can’t relate to the loneliness of an old widower celebrating his first Christmas without his beloved wife? And therein – herein? – lies the problem. Why should we, the audience, care about the feelings or problems of privileged straight white men?

It seems that every time there is a chance we might begin to sympathize with Matt or his family, a Person in Charge appears and adjusts the emotional thermostat. In addition to the scene with the Christmas stockings, one memorable intervention involves Marie and sharing shots with a frustrated brother at the kitchen counter after a family quarrel.

In her Director’s Note, Cordrey writes:

When all we seem to see on the news are Straight White Men murdering Black and Brown and queer and trans people, and sexually assaulting women – and always getting away with it – it is extremely difficult to find any compassion and care for the entire group as a construct. But what about the straight white men in our day to day lives? Our fathers, brothers, neighbors, friends?

Are you ready to consider the perspective of straight white men with empathy and compassion? To put yourself in their shoes – even if you are not one of them? Is it time for the privileged to re-examine and re-define their own personal identity? Can any of us make any progress, any real change, if they don’t? What will it take for everyone to treat others the way they want to be treated – and to do it without expecting to earn a badge of recognition for doing it? Does STRAIGHT WHITE MEN answer any of these questions? I’ll leave that up to you do decide.

Cordrey directed with her foot on the pedal and created the sound design as well. Michael Jarrett returned to the Basement to light his first show for the Conciliation Lab, with the excellence we have come to expect of him. Nia Safarr Banks brought her skills to the table as costume designer, complete with holiday pajamas and slippers. Chris Foote constructed the warmly lived-in midwestern den and kitchen designed by artistic director Deejay Gray. (My friend and I admired the large stainless steel refrigerator that I later found out is the actual refrigerator used by the Conciliation Lab staff.)

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN is not your traditional Christmas show, and it isn’t what you might expect from the Conciliation Lab – and those are just two good reasons to go see it. The cast of four white men  – that’s two more reasons. And Marie and Lee, who execute the author’s and director’s instructions and make you think it’s their own ideas, all while wearing matching light-up shades and coordinating neckties – well that’s at least another two good reasons that make this production of STRAIGHT WHITE MEN worth your time and money.

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN by Young Jean Lee
Directed by Kelsey Cordrey
December 3-18 at The Basement

THE CAST
Drew …………….……………….. Adam Turck
Jake …….…………..…….……. Axle Burtness
Matt ………….……..…….…. Patrick Rooney
Ed …………………………. Christopher Dunn
Person in Charge #1 …… Lucretia Marie
Person in Charge #2 ………. Malakai Lee

THE TEAM
Direction: Kelsey Cordrey
Scenic Design: Deejay Gray
Lighting Design: Michael Jarett
Sound Design: Kelsey Cordrey
Costume Design: Nia Safarr Banks
Props Design: Margaret Dodson
Set Construction: Chris Foote
Production Stage Management: Crimson Piazza
Assistant Stage Management: Demarco Lumpkin
Associate Direction: Juliana Caycedo
Dramaturgy: Shinji Oh

THE SCHEDULE
* Friday, December 3 at 8pm – Preview
Saturday, December 4 at 8pm – Opening Night Tuesday, December 7 at 8pm
Thursday, December 9 at 8pm
Friday, December 10 at 8pm
Saturday, December 11 at 8pm
Sunday, December 12 at 3pm – Matinee
Tuesday, December 14 at 8pm
Thursday, December 16 at 8pm
Friday, December 17 at 8pm
Saturday, December 18 at 8pm – Closing Night
THE TICKETS
$30 – General Admission
$20 – Senior (65+) / Industry
$10 – Teachers & Students

NOTE: The Basement is a fully vaccinated venue. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test (within 48 hours of the performance) are required upon entry. For the safety of our artists and audiences, masks must be worn while at the theatre. Thank you for helping to keep our community safe!
  The Basement is located at 300 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219

Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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