MISS GULCH RETURNS!: When Fiction Becomes Reality

MISS GULCH RETURNS!: The Bitch is Back!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: May 15-25, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Ding, dong, the bitch is back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: as noted

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

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Photo by Joshua N. Wortham

 

 

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SEVEN HOMELESS MAMMOTHS WANDER NEW ENGLAND: Who Needs a Sub-heading After That?

Seven Homeless mammoths Wander New England: & Alternative Kinship Structures!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: April 10 – May 4, 2019. (Opening Night – April 12)

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Some works of art just defy categorization. Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England  by Madeleine George is described as a comedy, but even though there is no lack of humorous moments, the play’s focus on complicated relationships and the academic community make it so much more. There are actually three entwined stories that are related but barely connect onstage, and each has its own cast of characters.

The main story revolves around the volatile relationship between a hyperactive, middle-aged college administrator, Dean Wreen (Annie Zanetti); her former lover Greer (Shaneeka Harrell), a professor of philosophy who has stage four cancer; and the Dean’s new, young lover, Andromeda (Meg Carnahan), a recent graduate of the university and new age apprentice. Wreen invites Greer to move in with her and Andromeda while Greer undergoes experimental treatment for her cancer, leading to awkward moments of stifled and raucous love-making between Wreen and Andromeda and tests of jealousy and monogamy involving Greer and Wreen, Greer and Andromeda, and Wreen and Andromeda.

The three women are each so fascinatingly different, but I was particularly drawn to the character Greer. Harrell has a deep, rich voice and a malleable face that speaks volumes even when her mouth isn’t moving. But it should come as no surprise that Harrell is so physically engaging, as she has extensive experience working with two of my all-time favorite dance companies: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and Urban Bush Women.

Meg Carnahan was appropriately spacy as Andromeda – whom Greer initially called by a variety of celestial names, other than her chosen one – but there’s more to Andromeda than aimless passion. She is at odds with the Dean about closing the dusty and underutilized natural history museum and becomes active in the protests to save the museum. Her obsession with watching reruns of “Friends” leads to a memorable moment of tenderness with the bristly Greer, and even brings the three women together in unexpected kinship.

Annie Zanetti, whose performance I most recently admired in a Whistle Stop Theater production of The Little Match Girl, gave the same commitment to Dean Wreen as I remember her giving to previous roles. And while it was fascinating watching her navigate the nuances of her past and present love relationships, one of the most notable scenes was with David Clark, The Caretaker of the university’s little museum that was the object of academic and personal controversy. Stopping by The Caretaker’s office to offer him an alternative position, he silently offered her a flask from his desk drawer, and Dean Wreen unexpectedly accepted. She poured out her soul to the man who had, up until then, acted as the play’s raconteur, and left his office more than a little tipsy. I think she walked home.

Clark has a solo role as a sort of narrator, keeping the audience informed of updates in the progress of the plans to shut down the university’s museum – home to seven rare mammoth skeletons, and a few dioramas of indigenous life – by reading aloud from the local newspaper. The details of planned student protests and the activities of the local town council are both informative and amusing, as read with gusto by Clark.

The final section of this trilogy is the strangest and, in some ways, the funniest – or at least the oddest. Maura Mazurowski and Ray Wrightstone play Early Man 1 and Early Man 2, respectively. They are figures in the museum’s dioramas who give voice to the random students who come into the rarely used museum. In fact, the museum is so rarely used that it has become a favorite rendezvous spot, where students can engage in romantic activities in relative privacy – except for the supposedly unseeing eyes of the mammoths and the diorama figures.

Listening to the two caveman-like figures speaking in the vernacular of modern-day students is both amusing and disturbing. In fact, it takes, like, a few scenes to figure out what’s really going on here. To make these supporting characters more challenging, they are allowed to move only their mouths, while maintaining their frozen poses.

Relationships, commitment, change, love, and passion fuel Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England and its tightly knit and eclectic cast. Lucian Restivo’s direction provides a variety of pacing choices. The women’s characters ring true, right down to their rituals and bickering The Caretaker’s character provides direction and humor, and the diorama characters are. . .well, different.

Chris Raintree’s multileveled set provides separate work and living spaces although I’m not sure if the ancient refrigerator was just something Dean Wreen was holding onto out of eccentricity or of it was a true marker of the time period. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the complications of her life.

Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like satire and droll humor, and have an interest in alternative kinship structures, you ought to go see this production.

 

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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WHO’S HOLIDAY: A Christmas Parody for Adults Only

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

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: November 14 – December 15, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Photos from RTP Facebook page

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LIZZIE: An Axe Musical

LIZZIE:  The Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

5th Wall Theatre

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

Performances: October 11-November 3, 2018

Ticket Prices: $32 General Admission; $20 Students; $20 RVATA Cardholders

Info: (804) 359-2003 or https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3613679

 

Lizzie Bordon took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one. Who would ever think of turning the story of Lizzie Borden into a musical? Well, apparently the team of Steven Cheslik-deMeyer and Steven Hewitt (music), Cheslik-deMeyer and Tim Maner (lyrics), and Maner (book and additional music). The punk rock opera got its start as an experimental theater piece in 1990, and by 2013 had evolved into a two-act rock opera with an all-female cast and hard-driving (but thankfully not deafening) music.

Thanks to the opening number and finale, that old jump-rope rhyme will be stuck in my head for days, as will bits and pieces of this fascinatingly odd and weirdly satisfying piece of theater. Rachel Rose Gilmour is Lizzie Borden, while Rachel Marrs plays her sister Emma Borden, Anne Michelle Forbes takes the role of Lizzie’s friend Alice Russell, and Michaela Nicole fills the high-top sneakers of Bridget “Maggie” Sullivan, the Borden’s maid.  Pualani “Lani” Felling and Morgan Lynn Meekins both pull triple duty “Roadies” who sing with the onstage band and also act as stagehands, moving the microphone stands and trunks that serve as the only props; they are also the understudies for the four main characters.

The five-piece band, under the very capable direction of Starlet Knight, is not merely accompaniment, as the music is the driving force behind this entire concept, and what a concept it is! The story of the bloody murders of Lizzie Borden’s stepmother and her father have been the subject of so many tales – in literature, movies, an opera, a television series, a ballet – that it seems more legend than fact. This production seems to freely mix fact and fiction as well as to attempt to time travel, placing the events of 1892 into the modern era of punk rock. Alex Valentin’s costumes are a blend of Victorian couture, 19th century bordello, and punk rock. Vinnie Gonzalez’ set design looks like the backstage area of a rock concert, consisting of stacks of trunks, speakers, and microphone stands. The band and their instruments and the roadies occupy the upstage area, and the actors and roadies often strut and stride, sometimes confronting the audience up close.

Lizzie, the Musical creates a big feel in an intimate space and I could not imagine it in a larger space. It needs to be seen and heard and felt from up close. Rachel Rose Gilmour gives a dynamic performance, running through a range of emotions from rage to fear, from crying out in desperation to vulnerability. There are intimations of abuse, incest, and lesbian relationships. There is murder and mystery, and while in real life Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the murders and lived out the rest of her life in the same town where the murders took place, Fall River, Massachusetts, there also seems to be a confession and a cover-up.

The entire cast is powerful, but in addition to Gilmour, I must mention Michaela Nicole. Not only does she give Bridget/Maggie a mysteriously strong attitude, but the woman can rock and roll with the best of them, and clearly makes this maid more than a supporting role. Marrs brings an edge to the sister, Emma and Forbes shows the friend Alice caught in the conflict between loyalty and truth.

If blood, gore, murder, mystery, strong women, and loud music with a head-banging beat appeal to you, you won’t go wrong with Lizzie, the Musical.

 

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: 5th Wall Theatre

THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY: Who Dared to Be Different

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey: The Price of Being Different

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: October 6-15, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-20

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Sweet. It’s not a word one would normally attach to the story of a 14-year-old murder victim, but in the case of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey it fits.

This one-man show written and originally performed by James Lecesne is the simply and intimately told tale of a young boy who, when life served him lemons, made a huge bowl of punch and shared it with the entire town. Leonard, who was sent to live with his non-biological aunt (you know, the extended family kind of aunt) was unapologetically different with his green plaid capri pants and his rainbow colored platform sneakers, made by gluing layers of flip-flop soles to the bottoms of a pair of Converse sneakers.

Jeffrey Cole, under the careful and understated direction of Melissa Rayford, allows the story to unfold with sensitivity and even a bit of humor as he portrays nine different characters in a small Jersey shore town where being different will get you chased home from school with sticks – and, ultimately, tied up in fisherman’s knots, wrapped in a net, and dumped in a lake. Some of the most touching and revealing speeches are given by Leonard’s cousin Phoebe Hertle (16, going on 45); his drama teacher, the locally famous Buddy Howard; his aunt’s client, the “high-hair redhead” Marian Tochterman; and the old clockmaker, Otto, in whose shop Leonard seeks refuge from the neighborhood bullies. The story is largely narrated by Chuck DeSantis, the detective assigned to Leonard’s case. In a surprise ending, the detective’s life is touched maybe more than any other.

Perhaps because it was originally a young adult novel, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey lacks the rawness, the intensity of The Laramie Project. Leonard is running in tandem with The Laramie Project and uses the same set – stripped bare of the locational identifiers. In fact, Leonard requires only a single folding chair, a small work table, and an evidence box. The rest of the atmosphere is created by Michael Jarett’s subdued lighting and a rather agreeably layered sound design by Lucian Restivo, who also did the set.

Some of the characters seem more caricature than genuine. Marian, for example, bears more than a little resemblance to Alice from the 1970s sitcom of the same name – yes, the Alice, who with her own “high-hair” coined the phrase, “kiss my grits.”  Cole subtly varies the nuances of each character, changing his posture, adding a gesture or a tilt of the head, but it sometimes took a moment or a few words before I was certain which character he was portraying. He did not seem to have the lightning fast reflexes of Stevie Rice or Scott Wichmann – both of whom are currently appearing in The Laramie Project, but in the end, he delivered the story with a sensitivity, gentleness, and sense of wonder that left the audience with a feeling of comfort that did not excuse the horror of what happened, but somehow tinged it with a veneer of sweetness. This sweetness was, I think, more a reflection of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey¸ of the character of that young man, and the lasting ways in which he touched those around him, than any attempt to downplay the very real dangers of homophobia and hate crimes.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey runs about 75 minutes, with no intermission. I am glad I went, but before recommending it to others, I would caution that seeing both The Laramie Project and The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey might prove overwhelming to some. To paraphrase Leonard Pelkey’s friends – you might be doing too much.

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: Louise Ricks

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THE LARAMIE PROJECT: A Community of Caring

THE LARAMIE PROJECT: The Magnitude of Hate

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis                                                                     

Richmond Triangle Players                                                                                              

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

Performances: September 26 – October 19, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

Created by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, The Laramie Project is based on the true events surrounding the 1998 beating and death of Matthew Shepard, a gay man, while he was a student at the University of Wyoming. The words of the play are the words of the people of Laramie, gathered by the authors over a series of interviews. Real people. Real issues. Real tears.

The beauty of the script lies in its unadorned simplicity. Eight actors portray about sixty different characters as they examine the story from the perspectives of the people of Laramie, students and faculty at the university, the media, and the personal experiences of the members of the Tectonic Theater Project.

Running nearly three hours with two intermissions, director Lucian Restivo has maintained a moderate pace that allows the characters to come across as authentic and feels almost like real time.  Multiple perspectives are presented, friend, foe, and undecided. From incident to trial, some points of view shift as people examine themselves and some are surprised at what they find inside.

The Laramie Project is set in a rustic space of wooden walls and shelves with a few chairs on multiple levels designed by Restivo, who also designed the sound, and with lighting by Michael Jarett that sometimes resembles sepia-toned photographs. The physical tone almost makes this play feel as if it is dragging the viewer back in time into the wild, wild west, although the events took place only twenty years ago. The more striking and unfortunate thing is that this sort of hate crime could have been stripped directly from the latest breaking news.

The excellent cast consists of Rachel Dilliplane, Annella Kaine, Amber Marie Martinez, Cole Metz, Jacqueline O’Connor, Stevie Rice, Adam Turck, and Scott Wichmann.  It would be difficult and unfair to speak of specific characters, as at any given time each of these versatile actors switches from one role to another, changing voice, accent, stance, and perhaps a shirt or hat. Scott Wichmann is often placed in the role of narrator, as project leader Kaufman, and some much needed humor is provided by O’Connor as a spunky citizen and Rice as an outrageous limousine driver.

The Laramie Project is difficult to watch because it is so real and because people involved in the incident are still alive. No details of the attack on Matthew Shepard are spared as the doctor and judge provide blow by blow details of the attack and its effects, leading to coma and eventually death. There is a section of documentary footage, and there are the incomprehensible protests by the Rev. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, whose members are known to show up to protest at the funerals of gay people. We get to hear the words of the two assailants, Aaron McKinney and Russel Henderson, as they are sentenced after their separate trials. Their images surround the audience in 43” x 43” oil pastel portraits by artist Michael Pierce.

The Laramie Project is an all-encompassing theatrical experience that requires a huge team effort. There are actors, a team of writers, a large creative team, community partnerships, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which is dedicated to human rights advocacy. It’s hard to tell where the play stops and real life begins. But the tears. . .the tears are all real.

 

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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Richmond Triangle Players’ production of “The Laramie Project” runs through October 19 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave, Richmond, VA
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Scott Wichmann in just one of the many characters he inhabits in Richmond Triangle Players’ production of “The Laramie Project”
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Richmond Triangle Players’ production of “The Laramie Project” runs through October 19 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Ave, Richmond, VA
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Annella Kaine (center in just one of the many characters she inhabits (along with Cole Metz, Stevie Rice and Amber Marie Martinez) in Richmond Triangle Players’ production of “The Laramie Project”

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SIGNIFICANT OTHER: Plus None

SIGNIFICANT OTHER: Love And. . .

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 19 (Preview)/September 20 (Opening) – September 29, 2018

Ticket Prices: $30 general; $20 seniors/industry (RVATA); $10 students/teachers (with ID)

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

Significant Other (written by Joshua Harmon, who also wrote Bad Jews, which TheatreLAB produced in 2016) is a heartwarming comedy about a group of friends looking for love in 21st century New York – until somewhere in the second act when it takes a sudden heart-wrenching turn.

On opening night, the cast still seemed to be feeling its way, and when, during one scene, Deejay Gray held onto his shirt in hopeful anticipation that his upcoming date would turn out to be “the one,” the energy generated was electrical. This may have been a combination of opening night jitters and his characters’ palpable expectancy. It was good to see Gray, the artistic director of TheatreLAB, onstage after an absence of three years [this is a correction] while he has been managing the affairs of running a company.

It may have taken me a while to warm up to these characters, but they started delivering laughs as soon as the lights came up. Matt Shofner has directed this dynamic ensemble with a fast pace that still manages to provide depth and perspective to this group of long-time friends whose lives are being changed as they move into “adulting.”  The wide center aisle – seldom used in this flexible space – is used to physically and emotionally extend the space. At times there is unseen action off in the distance, cued by disco lights and music. Other times the space is used as an actual aisle for actors to move on and off the stage, and then there are the times when characters stare off into the space, pulling us deep into the mind of the author right along with them.

Jordan Berman (Deejay Gray) is in search of Mr. Right, even as his closest friends find true love, become engaged, and marry. The opening scene, in fact, is one of numerous bachelorette parties and weddings that populate this two-hour, two-act play. Gray is onstage for just about every scene, and his energy slowly, inexorably draws us into Jordan’s world and concerns. Jordan is the only character given a last name – perhaps to emphasize his Jewishness? The wonderful Jacqueline Jones has a supporting role as Jordan’s grandmother, Helene. She makes her entrances and exits along that wide aisle, using a pink walker whose seat holds a photo album that she and Jordan review reverently and lovingly each time they meet. There is something about the ritual of their interactions that brings groundedness to Jordan and to the play. But it is Jordan’s interactions with his tight-knit group of girlfriends that is the foundation of Significant Other.

Kiki, the party girl, is the first to find love and happiness. Mallory Keene navigates the play in formfitting dresses and stilettos – even when, in the final scene, Kiki is eight months pregnant! Vanessa is the more down to earth friend – and the black friend. The second to get “boo’d up,” she meets her mate at Kiki’s wedding. Jessi Johnson’s character is beautiful and cosmopolitan; she wears wedge heels and dresses professionally. Laura is a teacher, and because she and Jordan were once roommates, her relationship with Jordan is both the closest and the most volatile. When Laura finds love at work, it catapults their relationship into new and unforeseen directions. Laura wears flats and an eclectic Bohemian wardrobe. This role seems to have been written for Kelsey Cordrey. Some of the most poignant moments between these two are silent, as when Cordrey and Gray stand side by side, dancing or swaying, or when he tiptoes to rest his head on her shoulder. Their big scene, a second act argument, is – in contrast – explosive. As Jordan’s friends pair up and move on, he finds himself without a dance partner or a “plus one” for Laura’s wedding.

Matt Polson and Dan Cimo round out this wonderful ensemble, playing all the male characters in the lives of these four friends, from coworkers to lovers. Polson adapts different facial expressions and postures for each of his characters, from Kiki’s country-boy husband to Laura’s mild-mannered Tony. It was fascinating to watch Cimo transform seamlessly from the gloriously gay coworker to Vanessa’s passionate date. Seven actors play eleven characters, and somewhere in this group there is someone you know. It might even be you.

Adam Dorland’s simple set is monochromatic black: three benches, a coffee table, a shelf, some doorways and windows work with Michael Jarett’s sometimes subtle, sometimes flashy lighting to create the office where Jordan works, his apartment, and the various bars, clubs, and wedding venues where the scenes take place. Ruth Hedberg designed the costumes – which vary from office casual to matching bridesmaid dresses and wedding gowns and seems to have used shoe styles to symbolize the women’s characters. Joey Luck did the sound design, which includes some original music. The program lists three songs by Luck and Hannah M. Barnes and an original song by Ali Thibodeau.

Significant Other is very different type of play, and very appropriate to open TheatreLAB’s Season 6, themed “In Pursuit of Happiness.” Significant Other runs through September 29.

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

 

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