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”

Laramie.3

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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THE NORMAL HEART: The Provocative Chronicle of America’s Deadliest Plague

THE NORMAL HEART: The Provocative Chronicle of America’s Deadliest Plague

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: April 18-May 12, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-30

Info: (804) 346-8113or rtriangle.org

 

I usually go to the theater without reading too much – if at all – about the show I am about to see. I don’t want to be influenced by others’ opinions. In the case of The Normal Heart, which opened Thursday night at Richmond Triangle Players’ Robert B. Moss Theatre after a Wednesday night preview, I was totally unprepared for the impact – direct and personal – Larry Kramer’s play would have on me.

Playwright Larry Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York in 1981 in response to the growing and alarming AIDS epidemic. That crisis, the “plague” of the title, is the foundation of this autobiographical recounting of one of the most terrifying episodes in American health history.

This is not a play that you go to for entertainment; it made me cry and it made me recall the names of people – friends and coworkers and teachers – I had not thought of in twenty or thirty years.

Jim Morgan plays the role of Ned Weeks, the confrontational founder of a gay men’s health organization, with passion and sincerity. Weeks is, unquestionably, an annoying character – even by his own reckoning – but he is fighting for people’s lives, including the life of his own lover. Chris Hester plays the role of Bruce Niles, Ned’s polar opposite who is elected president of the fledgling organization because of his more conservative stance. There is a great deal of dramatic tension between Morgan and Hester’s characters, but as Tommy Boatwright (played by Dan Cimo) points out – both are leaders, and both are needed. Cimo’s sassy character, who has a not-so-secret crush on Ned, provides some much-needed humor, but also comes through in a pinch when a level head and a shoulder to cry on are what’s needed.

The intricacies of these interactions are a model of how all these characters interact, and the ensemble, which includes Lucian Restivo (who also did the sound and props), Dan Stackhouse, Joseph Bromfield, Stevie Rice, and Andrew Boothby – some alternating in several roles – is a tight and well-oiled machine under the direction of George Boyd. Dawn A. Westbrook, shares the stage with this thoroughly satisfying cast as Dr. Emma Brookner, the first medical professional dedicated to HIV/AIDS research. Westbrook performs most of her scenes in an electric wheelchair as the doctor, a polio survivor, was figuratively and literally hell on wheels in her hunger to get to the bottom of this new virus.

Set in New York City between 1981-1984, The Normal Heart, chronicles the early history of the HIV/AIDS crisis with near clinical meticulousness, but it also deals clearly and authentically with the toll it takes on family relationships and friendships, the economics and politics of sex and health, fear and the screeching halt it brought to the freedom of the sexual revolution. We were only a few minutes into the first act when I realized that this was the real deal.

I remembered sitting with members of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in a board room at the Joyce theater planning a fund raiser. I suddenly thought of Nick, the music teacher in the public school where I taught. When he began to grow weak and tired, the students would rub his back and shoulders to make him feel better. I thought of the countless dancers I knew, some friends, some teachers. There was Al, whose friends knitted him scarves because he was always cold. There was my good friend Larry, an ardent arts supporter with whom I shared many trips to the theater, who refused to name the sickness that took him away from us so soon.

When I wrote a young adult book on the legendary choreography Alvin Ailey, my publisher required that I say he died of a “blood disorder.”  My mother, a nurse’s aide at Bellevue Hospital for more than three decades, took special training to work with HIV/AIDS patients. When she went into the break room, other aides and nurses would get up and leave because they were afraid to be near her.

Everyone was afraid then. That comes across in The Normal Heart in palpable ways. Friends turn against one another.  Dan Stackhouse, as Mickey, has an epic melt-down I the second act. Ned is pushed out of the organization he started.

The Normal Heart is not theater as usual; it should be seen, but not alone. The opening night audience cried real tears. This is moving theater. This is real life. As the audience left, ushers handed us copies of a letter from Larry Kramer, dated July 2011, that reminded us that these things really happened to real people, and much as it hurts, and as ugly as it gets, we need to remember so we will remember to act.

As for the technical elements: On opening night there were a few mysterious bumps and bangs from backstage and I was occasionally blinded by the glare of the light bulb behind the screen on which the timeline of the epidemic was projected.  Frank Foster’s scenic design, with its black and white tiles and red chairs, was something of a mashup of a New York City subway, a hospital, a gym, and what I imagine the infamous gay bathhouses must have looked like. Michael Jarett designed the lights and projections. Sheila Russ and Joel Furtick did well with the costumes and hair and make-up, respectively.

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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I AM MY OWN WIFE: One man, 30+ characters

I AM MY OWN WIFE: One man, 30+ characters

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players in Collaboration with 5th Wall Theatre

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

Performances: March 8-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-30

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

I Am My Own Wife is undoubtedly one of the more unusual plays of the season. Written by Doug Wright, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning production is a one-man show about a man living as a woman in East Berlin up to and beyond the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. And it is so much more than that. Scott Wichmann plays all of the more than 30 characters, but the focal point is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, perhaps one of the most well-known transvestites in history.

Charlotte earned a living as curator of the Gründerzeit Museum – a mansion filled with an eclectic collection of everyday objects, mostly salvaged from war-torn Germany during the time of the Nazi regime. Needless to say, antique bureaus, gramophones, original Edison phonographs, and cuckoo clocks were not nearly as rare as a man wearing a dress in Nazi Germany. The fact that Wichmann does not make an attractive woman is all the more realistic, as by all accounts, Charlotte was not your usual glamorous drag queen, but rather preferred to wear a plain black dress, her own hair – quite white in later years – and a simple string of pearls. As if this isn’t intriguing enough, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, nee Lothar Berfelde, was a real person (1928-2002).

Wright based his play on a series of interviews he conducted with Charlotte between August 1992 and January 1993. Much of what he discovered was unverifiable or contradicted by written accounts – many of which, themselves, were suspect. The plot thickens with accusations and evidence of Charlottes spying for the Stasi, or German secret police, which stood in stark contrast to her being honored in 1992 with the Bundesverdienstkreuz or  Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for her work in preserving German artifacts. Wright, who wrote himself into the play as one of the dozens of characters, raises questions and leaves his audience to draw our own conclusions.

Wichmann, who has mastered the one-man show with several productions, including the 40+ characters in the wild and witty Totally Committed and a spot-on portrayal of comedian George Burns, has experience with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, having played this role before, in 2006, with the same director, Morrie Piersol. I did not see that production, but can only assume that both brought new insight, depth, and maturity to the current production.

I Am My Own Wife, a statement Charlotte made dismissively when her mother suggested it was time to marry, is a riveting production, anchored by Wichmann’s razor sharp and eerily effective character transformations. Each character has his or her own distinct voice, accent, facial expressions, posture, and mannerisms. To my wholly inexpert ears, Wichmann’s Texan accent and German phrases sounded quite authentic and I was actually quite pleased with myself at being able to pick out many of the German words and phrases. How so many different people can inhabit one fairly compact body without any physical or visible damage is amazing.

One may choose to agree or disagree with von Mahlsdorf’s lifestyle, one may choose to sympathize with or loathe her decision to become a spy, one may even question Wright’s choices about what to include in the play and what to exclude. Wright states in a program note that he used “somewhat selective remembrances” of his encounters with von Mahlsdorf and took the “customary liberties of the dramatist” in editing the work, but there is no denying that this is a fascinating piece of theater, well cast, and brilliantly executed. The subject is no laughing matter, but there are a few well-placed moments of humor – something the opening night audience seemed not too sure of at first. It could have been due to Charlotte’s enigmatic nature; in describing the reconstructed gay bar in the basement of the manor house, for example, Charlotte/Wichmann says the original owner catered to homosexuals because they didn’t get drunk, didn’t fight, and always had money to pay the bill.

Kudos to Piersol for his unobtrusive direction, to Frank Foster for a simple yet elegant, sharp edged set, Andrew Bonniwell’s subtle lighting, and Lisa Lippman’s plain yet effective costume design. I Am My Own Wife has a very short run – just eight performances – so don’t hesitate it if you think you might want to see it. You won’t be sorry.

 

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, WomeninEuropeanHistory.org, and RTP website

 

I Am My Own Wife_John MacLellan
Scott Wichmann as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf
My Own Wife Charlotte
the real Charlotte von Mahlsdorf

I Am My Own Wife

BRIGHT HALF LIFE: A Beautiful Mess

BRIGHT HALF LIFE: a part of The Cellar Series: This Beautiful Mess

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 17-24, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $20

Info: (804) 505-0558 or theatrelabrva.org

I would try to explain what this Cellar Series is about, but TheatreLAB Associate Artistic Director Katrinah Carol Lewis has already stated it so well: “This series takes the traditional love story – we meet, we fall, we fight, we figure it out, or we flee – and turns it inside out and upside down. These explorations of romantic relationship ask us to abandon our notions of time, space and reality to expose the true essence of our connections to each other. It’s beautiful and it’s messy and it’s ours: this beautiful mess.”

Bright Half Life, written by Tanya Barfield and directed by Melissa Rayford, is the first of three works in this series. A two-woman play performed without benefit of set or props (it uses the stripped bare apartment set of the space’s previous show, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard) adorned simply with 9 black boxes that I’m sure I’ve seen on other stages in other productions.

Kylie M.J. Clark plays Erica and Amber Marie Martinez plays Vicky, two women involved in a decades-long relationship. It’s helpful to know this before the play starts, because once it begins, the actors and audience abandon all sense of linear time. This relationship unfolds emotionally, not chronologically. Lines and scenes are repeated, from different places and perspectives, and in the repetition, layers are peeled back, and lives revealed based on what has occurred since the last time we heard those words and phrases. In a way it is radical and messy, but on the other hand, it is a strangely accurate reflection of how many of us think.

The audience is seated on both sides of the set and limited seating brings the audience up close and right in the faces of the two characters. This allows us to see the fear on the face of Erica as she sits, white-knuckled, in the gondola of a ferris wheel or attempts sky-diving, all to please the more adventurous Vicky. Clark’s face is open and while sometimes we can read her like a book, it is a book with secret and untranslatable passages. Martinez brings authenticity to her role: while Vicky is obviously more adventurous than her partner, she is also more uptight. Years go by before she actually comes out to her Latino family; they refer to Erica as her “special friend” and helpfully pretend that she is a roommate helping Vicky care for their daughters.

There are several running themes, the most memorable being the sky diving scenes and the alphabet game the two women have developed. Sometimes it’s funny and other times it turns inward and cruel, as games sometimes do. A bell or other sound signals the rapid changes of time and scene and it is indeed fascinating to witness the clarity and speed with which both Clark and Martinez switch back and forth in time.

Dressed simply in contemporary casual clothing – although Erica’s shirt is a little more “butch” – there is nothing other than the dialogue to indicate time, place, or age, so we must rely on the skill of the actors. Both are successful because by the time we have followed their journey from first date to first and second marriage proposal to childbirth and divorce, the marriage of their daughter, and reconnection as an older, more traditional Vicky comes to terms with failing health, they have completely captured their audience, and their final leap was met with joy, relief, and perhaps not entirely dry eyes.

Rayford’s direction is seamless and natural with the able assistance of Michael Jarett’s lighting and Lucian Restivo’s sound design. What is less than satisfying is the probably intentional vagueness about exactly what kind of company the women work for, what Erica’s vocation is prior to starting her teaching career, and – to a much lesser extent – the nature of Vicky’s illness. Vicky’s Latino heritage is significant for her character, but I noticed that off-Broadway in New York the two women were black and white, rather than Latino and white, and I wonder if the script adjusts for these differences. Could one character be Asian and the other white – or some other ethnic combination – and how would that change the dynamics?

Bright Half Life – named for the scientific concept of the time it takes for a property, in this case love, to decrease by half – is part of the 2018 Acts of Faith Fringe Festival. The Fringe Festival is a category for productions that do not meet all the criteria for the Acts of Faith Festival, perhaps because of a short run or a community rather than professional production company. At the time of this writing, only two performances remain (Friday and Saturday) and this is one heart-warming production you will not regret seeing.

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 Credit:

Louise Ricks

Bright Half Life
Amber Marie Martinez, facing front & Kylie M.J. Clark facing away
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Amber Marie Martinez

Acts of Faith