MOVING MONOLOGUES

KDance Shorts, Eighth Edition

A Dance-Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Presented by: KDance, the Resident Dance Company at The Firehouse Theatre

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

Performances: November 7-9, 2021

Ticket Prices: $25

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

After eight years of presenting the annual Shorts program, Kaye Weinstein Gary still has new tricks up her sleeve. This year’s program, MOVING MONOLOGUES, was a collaboration between Gary (choreographer, director, performer), Adam Turck (actor), and Irene Ziegler (playwright). While previous Shorts programs have been marked by innovative storytelling combined with movement, this is the first time the stories were all connected.

What a treat it was to reconnect with Kitty, the potty-mouthed fourth-grader introduced by Gary in her most recent YES! Dance Festival (April 2021, https://jdldancesrva.com/2021/05/01/k-dance/). Here, Ziegler has written additional monologues that introduce Kitty’s mother, grandmother, and dad, all of whom are embodied by Gary and Turck, after a brief introductory warm-up set to Erik Satie’s Piano Works #7, Nocturne II. The “Prologue” also introduces the program’s main prop: a pair of crystal clear “ghost” chairs that magically reflect and refract the light and create stunning visual effects.

“Thank you, sensei, for showing me the way.”

-Kitty

“Kitty” has been enhanced to point to connections with the new monologues. Against a background of Ana Roxanne’s non-melodic, ambient soundscape (it sounds like what your mind would sound like if you could record the sound), Kitty moves through postures of dejection and defiance – until she discovers the “superpower” of her imagination. “I have a superpower. Holy shit!” Oh, I did mention she’s been sent to her room because of her vocabulary, didn’t I? Dressed in purple leggings and white coverall shorts, Gary delightfully embodies the spirit of the fourth-grader.

But it just keeps getting better. Next up is Adam Turck as Kitty’s dad, Rodney. Dressed in shorts and carrying a gym bag, Turck, drops the bag just as the beat drops, and it’s MC Hammer’s Too Legit to Quit. Turck, a real-life certified personal trainer, moves through the paces of a man-twerk, slaps himself on the butt, and begins to record a hilariously awkward online dating profile.

“The best you can hope for is to find someone

whose baggage doesn’t clash with yours.”

-Rodney

After a bit of shadow play with a fabric veil, we get to meet Martha, Rodney’s mother. It isn’t clear whether she is in the early stages of dementia, or just lonely. When she receives a package from an unseen delivery man (a potential fourth character for a potential sequel) she drags out their interaction as long as possible. “Can you see me?” Martha asks. “I thought I was made of vapor.” Martha smells like loneliness and goes on eBay at night to order hope. Oh, and that package? It contained the cremated remains of her late husband.

The final monologue in this iteration of Moving Monologues has Rodney talking to his dad’s ashes and returning to the lake house where he spent time with his family when his father was alive, and his mother didn’t feel invisible. Is it just coincidence that the current occupant of the house is named Manny – the same as the delivery guy? The door has been left open to continue this series, much like a serial novel in words and movement.

Ziegler’s script make no direct mention of the pandemic, but Martha’s need to know that she exists feels very much like post-traumatic pandemic syndrome (I don’t know if that’s a real thing or not, but there is such a thing as Pandemic-related PTSD). It’s actually quite remarkable to watch Gary transform from the hopefulness of Kitty to the giddy despair of Martha. She does both so well, adapting her posture and movement dynamics to the character. The words and the movements are measured out teasingly, revealing just enough to keep the narrative flowing, but not enough to answer all our questions. A post-show discussion revealed just how much latitude there was for personal interpretation.

There were so many layers in this short piece, and multiple perspectives played out simultaneously – the same story told by different characters who are all connected. There was a through line, but the sections were not necessarily linear or chronological. In fact, I would be curious to see what would happen if these same five scenes were performed in a different order.

As for the cast, Gary is a dancer who is extremely comfortable with speaking and acting, and it was great to see Turck, an actor, moving with such abandon. MOVING MONOLOGUES is not fully dance and not fully theater but a hybrid niche that Gary claims as her own. While the piece could be performed by a cast of four (Kitty, Martha, Rodney, and Manny – or the Ghost Chair), I think it’s highly effective and serves the multi-layered effect to have it performed by just two. It was such a delight to see and hear these stories on stage, in person. Sometimes less really is more.

MOVING MONOLOGUES

Written by: Irene Ziegler

Cast:

Kaye Weinstein Gary

Adam Turk

Production Team:

K Dance Artistic Director: Kaye Weinstein Gary

Lighting Designer/Scenic Consultation: Matthew Landwehr

Assistant Lighting Designer: Casey Walsted

Production Stage Manager: Ginnie Willard

Assistant Stage Manager: Jason Wineberger

Sound Designer/Production Manager: Todd Labelle

Sound Operator: Emily Vial

Webmaster/Social Media: Emily Gerber

Graphic Artist: Douglas Fuchs

Run Time:

About 45 minutes with no intermission

Performance schedule:

Sunday, November 7 @3:00PM

Monday & Tuesday, November 8 & 9 @7:30PM

​”Everyone who enters Firehouse must be fully vaccinated and wear a face mask.”

Tickets:

$25

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STARR FOSTER DANCE: {Your Name Here}

finding yourself in the movement

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Conciliation LAB @ The Basement, 300 East Broad Street, RVA 23219

Performances: November 5-7 and 11-13, 2021.

Ticket Prices: $13

Info: www.starrfosterdance.org, www.facebook.com/starrfosterdance, Instagram/starrfosterdance,   https://m.bpt.me/event/5281579

For their first home-based performance since February 2020, Starr Foster dance returned to The Basement (it was TheatreLab then, and Conciliation Lab now) with an innovative and timely choreographic work by Artistic Director Starrene Foster mysteriously titled {Your Name Here} finding yourself in the movement.

The trio is performed in an environment framed by four metal trees. Their branches are bare, and the floor is strewn with fall-colored leaves. When the audience walks in, the dancers are already onstage. They stand in a line, arms extended, holding hands. And they whisper. What they’re saying is never revealed. It could be a prayer. It could be confessions of past sins. It could be hope and dreams for the future. It could be the secret things you have not yet voiced to anyone else made manifest in this intimate public space.

I had been invited to a rehearsal of {Your Name Here} finding yourself in the movement a few days earlier, but here in this setting, with lights and an audience, it was an entirely new experience. And just two days earlier, I had seen a performance of Our Town, so perhaps the simplicity of that set and the everyday-ness of Thornton Wilder’s storytelling lingered and influenced how I saw {Your Name Here} finding yourself in the movement.

Or maybe it’s more obvious than that, because, after all, Foster did put you right in the title: {Your Name Here}. Julinda. Starr. Thomas. Albert. You. Yes, this work is about you. The everyday, ordinary you. The secret you. The post-pandemic. You. That’s why there are FOUR trees. One for each of the dancers. And the fourth one is for…you.

Trees. Trees represent life and growth. The tree of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Trees are symbols of wisdom, power, growth, and prosperity. In mythology, trees are home to spirits. They represent physical and spiritual nourishment and transformation. In winter, their branches are bare. In spring they burst forth with new life. In summer they bear fruit. In fall, they drop their leaves, and appear dead to the outside world, but inside, under the earth, where their roots dig deep, they are actively creating, preparing to repeat the cycle all over again. These trees are bare, and their leaves are scattered on the ground, the floor. This is where the dancers find themselves, where we find ourselves.

Foster has a new, pared down company of four women. The opening night cast consisted of Fran Beaumont, Ana Pavón, and Lydia Ross. Each has a moment or two to shine in this 37-minute long work, performed without intermission. Each of the three performs Foster’s choreography in Foster’s unique style – a contemporary genre that reflects stylistic and technical aspects of ballet, modern, post-modern pedestrianism, contact improvisation, and whatever else as needed – but each dancer also brings their own personality. Beaumont has a strong, powerful core wrapped up in a wide-eyed vulnerability, sort of like those iron gym weights that have a rubber outershell to keep you from hurting yourself too badly when you inevitably drop them. Ross’ perfect lines and cat-like softness so beautifully mask the technical expertise that power her hypnotic movement. Pavón is languid, unhurried. She is the one who takes an extended nap in the garden while Beaumont and Ross, continue on the journey, sometimes holding hands or leaning on one another.

The dancers move the trees from a straight line into a cozy, protective grove, then into a wandering tree line. Sometimes they lean into the branches, touching, stroking, gently fingering and shedding a handful of scattered leaves. Sometimes Beaumont and Pavón curl themselves around their trees, and at one point one of the three even dragged her tree along. They even tip over the trees and lie awkwardly but content beneath its branches. Sometimes life’s trials lead us back home, back to the place where we feel loved, nourished, renewed. Sometimes we have to plod along, carrying all our baggage with us for a while. Where do you see yourself in this scenario?

Foster first conceived of the idea – and the trees – then found the music of Sebastian Selke and Daniel Selke. The Berlin-born duo known as CEEYS plays piano and cello and the pieces Foster selected (“Eichenthal 302,” “Waende,” “Circa,” “Winter Sleep,” and “Strelka”) have repetitive motifs that support and expand the movement phrases Foster created. The lighting design bu Austin Harber is subtle, and much less dark than Foster has been known to favor. And if this seems like a lot of words for one 37-minute long work, well, that’s because so much is packed into

{Your Name Here} finding yourself in the movement and the open invitation to insert yourself and your story into this choreographic journey is so immersive. {Your Name Here} finding yourself in the movement is just what we need at this time.

{Your Name Here} finding yourself in the movement

Choreography by Starrene Foster

Cast

Fran Beaumont (Nov. 5, 7, 12, 13@5PM)

Anna Branch (Nov 6, 11, 13@8PM)

Ana Pavón

Lydia Ross

Music Composed and Performed by CEEYS

Sebastian Selke and Daniel Selke

“Eichtenthal 302,” “Waende,” “Circa,” “Winter Sleep,” and “Strelka”

Lighting Design by Austin Harber

———-

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

Photo Credits: Starr Foster Dance by Douglas Hayes. NOTE: Photos were not yet available at the time of posting.

RICHMOND BALLET: STUDIO TWO

Pairing a Balanchine Classic with a World Premiere by Tom Mattingly

RICHMOND BALLET 2021/22

STUDIO TWO, OCTOBER

A Dance Review with Historic Notes by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Richmond Ballet, Canal Street Studios, 407 East Canal Street, RVA 23219

Performances: October 26-31, live. November 8-14, virtual.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets start at $25; Virtual Tickets are $25.

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

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.

THE STUDIO TWO PROGRAM:

Allegro Brillante
Choreography by George Balanchine
Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Staging by Jerri Kumery

Costumes by Karinska

Lighting Design by Catherine Girardi

Jahreszeiten, a World Premiere

Choreographyby Tom Mattingly
Music by Dr. Goetz Oestlind

Costume design by Emily Morgan

Lighting Design by Catherine Girardi

Original Artwork by Court Watson
Pianist: Dr. Douglas-Jayd Burn

STUDIO TWO: OPENING NIGHT

As is customary with the Richmond Ballet Studio Series performances, a classic is often paired with a new work. The pairing of George Balanchine’s joyous Allegro Brillante with Tom Mattingly’s new Jahreszeiten (German for seasons) proved to be a particularly auspicious coupling.

Allegro Brilliante, created was by Mr. Balanchine in 1956 for Maria Tallchief (to whom he was married from 1946-1951) and Nicholas Magallanes. He once described this joyful, kick-up-your-heels celebration in ballet as, “everything I know about classical ballet in thirteen minutes.” Considering who said that, that’s a lot of ballet knowledge packed into a short ballet.

Simple yet elegant, Allegro Brilliante, set to Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 3,” is notable for its courtliness without the distraction of excessive embellishment and the floor patterns of the four supporting couples as they interact with and support the lead dancers, Eri Nishihara and Colin Jacob. Jacob was introduced after the program as one of the nine members new to the company this year. It’s far too soon to ascertain who will become regularly paired, but this couple delivered a performance that was satisfyingly balanced between technique and energy.

The curtain opened on four couples spiraling counterclockwise around a brightly lit stage: Kaeley Anderson, Courtney Collier, Celeste Gaiera, Sara Joan Smith, Roland Jones, Khayom Khojaev, Paul Piner, and Roland Wagstaff. The constantly shifting patterns and interweaving interactions are a perfect match for the music and give the impression that there are more dancers onstage than there actually are. Company artistic director indicated it’s been fifteen years since Richmond Ballet last performed Allegro Brillante. I feel honored to have been able to catch it this time around.

If the name Tom Mattingly sounds familiar to some, it’s because he first came to Richmond Ballet as a 17-year-old trainee where, he says, he learned to be an adult, and a professional. Mattingly returned to Richmond to present a work in the 2018 New Works Festival, Mattingly subsequently turned that into a full length work. Jahreszeiten is his second world premiere set on Richmond Ballet.

A visual treat, Court Watson’s original paintings representing four seasons highlights the flora, fauna, and landmarks of Virginia. Instead of designing backdrops, Watson had the paintings projected in super high definition resolution on the back wall, in contrast to the unadorned elegance of Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante. Mattingly’s interweaving patterns of movement and constantly reformatted groupings of dancers are a perfect contemporary complement to Balanchine’s work.

Watson created a watercolor of flowering dogwood branches (Spring), a painting of cardinals (Summer), one of fall leaves, and a final one of first snow of winter falling softly over a bridge. Emily Morgan designed hand-painted costumes in neutral colors that would pick up the light to reflect the changing seasons, and Catherine Girardi designed lighting that united all the visual elements. But that’s not all.

Jahreszeiten, which even Stoner Winslett had to struggle to pronounce, is a true collaboration. In searching the internet for music, Mattingly came across Dr. Goetz Oestlind’s work and was surprised to learn that Oestlind is a living contemporary composer who was more than happy to grant Mattingly the right to use six piano sonatas for this work. Not only was Tuesday night the premiere of Mattingly’s ballet, it was also the American premiere of Oestlind’s music and the first time it had been performed by another other than the composer himself. The pianist, Dr. Douglas-Jayd Burn (son of Richmond Ballet’s ballet master, Malcolm Burn and Jasmine Grace, a faculty member at the School of the Richmond Ballet), felt that he should be as committed as the dancers. “I should dance with the music as well,” he said, so he performed the challenging sonatas live onstage without benefit of sheet music. That’s right, he spent weeks memorizing the score.

Mattingly’s choreography ranged from full group movements that reflected the growth and activity of spring to a lingering, unhurried solo for the sultry days of summer. Playful, competitive posturing complemented the release of fall, and romantic duets and dramatic lighting signaled the vagaries of winter. The World Premiere cast included Sabrina Holland, Naomi Robinson, Marjorie Sherman, Izabella Tokev, and Naomi Wilson, as well as Enrico Hipolito, Patrick Lennon, Jack Miller, Zacchaeus Page, and Ira White.

Speaking of his work – on video and live onstage after the premiere – Mattingly spoke of his process as collaboration versus control. He also recalled, “When I was a small child I wanted to be Robert Joffrey.” Now, as the newly appointed Artistic Director of Ballet Des Moines, he wants to be a moving force in ballet, both creatively and administratively.

NOTE: Virtual tickets are $25. For patrons who would prefer to watch from the comfort of home, we are pleased to offer virtual access to Studio Two. On Monday, November 8th, virtual ticket buyers will receive an email with information on how to access the performance recording, which will be available to stream through Sunday, November 14th. Tickets can be purchased online at etix.com or by phone at 804.344.0906 x224. The deadline to purchase virtual tickets is 12:00pm Friday, November 12th.

Photo Credits: Sarah Ferguson. All rights reserved.

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WAR IN PIECES

Four New One-Act Plays Written by Four Veterans

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

Performances: September 23 – October 30, 2021

Ticket Prices: $35 general & $30 military

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

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

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

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

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

Birds flying high, you know how I feel

Sun in the Sky, you know how I feel

Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn

It’s a new day

It’s a new life for me…

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

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

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

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

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

“There is no movie

that can show the terror

of one little firefight.”

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

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

WAR IN PIECES

Cast:

Linda Beringer

Alvan Bolling II

Dani Brown

Erik DeMario

Keydron Dunn

Jonathan Hardison

Dean Knight

Irene Kuykendall

Jimmy Mello

Makai Walker

Production Team:

GUARDIAN ANGELS Written by Robert Waldruff & Directed by Foster Solomon

SOAR Written by Rachel Landsee & Directed by Kerrigan Sullivan

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

SKYLINE – Written by Chuck Williamson & Directed by Todd Labelle

Costume Designer – Anna Bialkowski

Lighting Designer – Andrew Bonniwell

Sound Designer – Mark Messing

Set & Projection Consultant – Dasia Gregg

Choreographer for SOAR – Kayla Xavier

Dramaturg – Lindy Bumgarner

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

Festival Co-Producer – David Robbins

Festival Coordinator – Emily Vail

Run Time:

About 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission

Performance schedule:

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

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

Sunday performances include a Post-Performance Talkback

Tickets:

$35 general

$30 military, and first responders

Photos: Bill Sigafoos

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THE ZOMBIE LIFE

Zombies never second guess. Zombies have no regrets. Are you ready to be converted?

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: August 18-29, 2021. August 18-20, previews. August 21 Premiere. Limited seating due to COVID. All audience members must be fully vaccinated and wear masks inside The Firehouse. Remaining tickets sold out online as of Friday, October 26, but call the Box Office to check if seats have opened up.

Ticket Prices: $33

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

The premise of Chris Gavaler’s new play, The Zombie Life, is that life is better as a Zombie. Zombies do not feel guilt, shame, or emotional pain. They have no responsibilities, don’t have to plan for the future, and have no regrets about the past. So, we find ourselves in the audience as Gavaler’s unnamed* Therapist (Ken Moretti) begins a self-help seminar, the purpose of which is to hear Zombies share their experiences and, hopefully, be convinced to join their ranks. *[The Therapist is unnamed on the program, but elsewhere identified as Dr. Steve Brandeis.]

One Woman (Shalandis Wheeler Smith) comes to the seminar weighed down by the demands of life and her over-stuffed tote bag. She interrupts the Therapist and decides to commit to becoming a Zombie even before the demonstration begins. For the rest of the play, which runs an hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission, the Woman learns the ropes of The Zombie Life as her four mentors demonstrate for the audience.

“Being dead is so much easier, so much safer.”

The Therapist uses objects recycled from their past lives and other found objects to trigger memories of the futility of searching for the meaning of life: a pair of doctors involved in Zombie research, a creepy mortician, a mindless soldier, a couple of cannibals, a group of confederate sympathizers, a sex worker, and the mother of a stillborn baby are among the object examples of human pain, suffering, and foibles. But try as he might, the Therapist has a hard time controlling his little band of Zombies, played with varying degrees of creepiness, conviction, and overacting by Marjie Southerland, Jacqueline Jones, PJ Freebourn, and Keaton Hillman.

“Uncertainty. That’s your soul trying to get your attention.”

I was never sure if the creepy asides and overacting was intentional. I have seen and thoroughly enjoyed all six of these actors in many productions over the years, and I know that they are all capable of giving stellar performances. But Chris Gavaler’s script just didn’t reach stellar levels. The script is scattered and awkward and not even a highly professional cast, or earnest direction by Gavaler’s sister, Joan Gavaler, or interesting movement sequences by Dan Plehal could bring a sense of cohesiveness and focus to this production.

The Zombie Life is different, for sure, and there are more than a few moments of humor. It is thought-provoking, and incorporates relevant social, philosophical, and spiritual issues. It just doesn’t work in its present form. Tickets for the remaining performances are sold out, but if you dare or care to see it for yourself, do call The Firehouse Box Office (804) 355-2001 as a few of the limited and socially distanced seats may open up at the last minute.

Production Team:

Written by Chris Gavaler

Directed by Joan Gavaler

Movement Director – Dan Plehal

Production Designer – Todd Labelle

Costume Designer – Annette Hairfield

Prop Designer – AC Wilson

Crew – Emma Avelis & Scott Shepardson

Stage Manager – Grace Brown

Cast:

Therapist – Ken Moretti

Woman – Shalandis Wheeler Smith

Zombie #1 – Marjie Southerland

Zombie #2 – Jacqueline Jones

Zombie #3 – PJ Freebourn

Zombie #4 – Keaton Hillman

​​

Performance schedule:

Wed Aug 18 7:30pm (preview)

Thu Aug 19 7:30pm (preview)

Fri Aug 20 7:30pm (preview)

Sat Aug 21 7:30pm

Thu Aug 26 7:30pm

Fri Aug 27 7:30pm

Sat Aug 28 7:30pm

Sun Aug 29 3pm

Tickets:

$33

Photos: Bill Sigafoos

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS

Who Knew History Could Be This Much Fun?

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Heritage Gardens, 900 E. Broadway, Hopewell, VA 23860, August 7 & 8; Battersea Park, 1289 Upper Appomattox St., Petersburg, VA 23803, August 14 & 15; Children’s Home (Chesterfield), 6900 Hickory Rd., Petersburg, VA 23803, August 21 & 22.

Performances: August 7-22, Saturdays & Sundays, at 4:00 PM. All performances outdoors; bring your own chair. Tickets: $10 in advance only.

Info: theheritageensemble.org

As a young adult in Brooklyn, I used to listen to a black DJ who frequently used the term “edutainment.”[i] Whatever the source, that seems to be just the right word to describe Margarette Joyner’s production of BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS. A perfect vehicle for children, most of those in attendance at Battersea Park[ii] in Petersburg on Sunday afternoon were adults. Tellingly, we enjoyed ourselves as much as the little one who sat front and center.

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS follows much the same formula as Joyner’s What They Did For Us: Black Women Who Paved the Way, presented at Richmond Triangle Players Robert B. Moss Theatre in February and March of this year. But after I fought and won a battle with the mosquitos and came to a livable compromise with the heat and humidity, I found this wild west historical romp to be one of Joyner’s most enjoyable productions to date. The formula is roughly a series of monologues, performed by a lively cast, many of whom have experience as historical interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. In this casual outdoor setting, the wild west theme, with the actors walking around in cowboy boots with six-shooters strapped to their thighs while greeting the audience by tipping their hats and drawling “howdy, ma’am,” was just what was needed to draw the audience into this rowdy tale.

First up was Clara Brown. Born into slavery right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Clara Brown became Colorado’s first black settler and a pioneering entrepreneur and philanthropist. Then there was Willie Kennard, a sharp-shooting cowboy and arms instructor for the military who became a town marshal in Yankee Hills, Colorado, where he defeated the town bully. Moving on to more familiar names, we also heard from Nat Love aka Deadwood Dick, who recorded many of his exploits in an autobiography, and Mary Fields, perhaps better known as Stagecoach Mary, the first African-American woman driver for the US Postal Service, as well as Bill Pickett, the cowboy and rodeo superstar credited with inventing the rodeo event known as “bull dogging.” This dangerous feat involves the cowboy dropping from his horse onto a steer then wrestling said steer to the ground by its horns. According to legend, Pickett added the sensational flourish of biting the bull’s lip after twisting his head. (Yes, it sounds cruel and gruesome, but this is a theater review, and I am simply reporting historical facts, so no comments, please.)

All these stories were told with great flourishes, lots of “oohs” and “aahhs” and exaggerated body language. The actors performed on and around the front porch of the historic Battersea estate, with the audience seated on folding chairs (“new-fangled contraptions”) or blankets on the grassy lawn. Much as I dislike mosquitos, this setting greatly enhanced the experience for me. The only thing that might possibly have made it better would have been seeing and smelling a plume of smoke rising from the kitchen and someone handing me a plate of BBQ, baked beans, and cornbread with a mason jar of sarsaparilla (root beer would suffice).

Kudos to the versatile and enthusiastic cast. (I haven’t matched names with roles, as there was no printed program, and I don’t want to make any mistakes. But it is an ensemble, so equal kudos to all. Well, okay, a little extra to Dorothy Dee-D Miller for her swagger – and her beard, but don’t tell the others) As of this writing, there are two more opportunities remaining to see BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS or this run. I hope it becomes a regular part of the Heritage Ensemble’s rotating repertoire. Yeehaw, ya’ll. Now git (out there and see the show).

BLACK COWBOYS & COWGIRLS

Written & Directed by Margarette Joyner

Produced by the Black Seed Grant

CAST (in alphabetical order):

Ray Bullock

Zakiyyah Jackson

Dorothy Dee-D Miller

Jeremy Morris

Chris Showalter

Shalandis Wheeler Smith

Michelle M. Washington

Willie Wright


[i] The term has been credited to The Walt Disney Company, but some sources trace it back to Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanac).

[ii] Built in 1768 as the country estate of John Banister, Petersburg’s first mayor, Battersea is a Virginia Historic Landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is “one of the finest surviving examples of Palladian architecture in America.” batterseafound.org

WALLED IN WITH WALDEN

a new play by Andrew Gall with material adapted from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, RVA 23220

Performances: May 27-June 26, 2021, live and streamed. May 27-29, previews. June 3 Premiere. June 18-20 live & live stream.

Ticket Prices: In-Person Tickets: $33 in person & live stream

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

What is more appropriate as we emerge from more than a year of pandemic restrictions than a play based on the experiences of a man in prison (Andrew Gall’s fictional Lester Franklin) reading a book about a man who spent two years living in isolation in the woods (the American transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau)? Andrew Gall’s new play, Walled In, is, indeed, a play on Thoreau’s Walden, and while Gall liberally utilizes Thoreau’s words, his character, a MAGA-hat wearing Republican corporate lawyer who is in jail “taking one for the team” and wondering what happened to his promised pardon is very much a man of the twenty-first century. White, privileged, on the far side of middle age, Franklin is an angry, foul-mouthed, entitled creature whose own wife and daughter seem eager to sanitize their hands of his particular brand of filth. Whew. If that seems wordy, it’s just a hint of what to expect when you see Walled In.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things…” – Henry David Thoreau

The exact details of how Franklin landed in prison are not necessary. We first meet him having a hissy fit after being assigned to clean the prison toilets. It doesn’t take long for him to be assigned to a prison education program where his class is assigned to read and journal about Thoreau’s two-year social-spiritual experiment, Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days living in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, a far shorter sentence than what our friend Franklin might expect.

Doug Blackburn plays the role of Franklin in this one-person play (although two other actors lend their voices as the unseen Instructor (Todd Labelle, who is also the Production Designer) and Hicks, a prisoner in an adjacent cell (Rudy Mitchell). I could say Blackburn is a strong presence, but the playwright doesn’t really give him any other option. Franklin is an angry man. He strings together lines of expletives as if he were training for an Olympic competition in obscenities. (The program includes the “WARNING: This play contains very strong language that some may find offensive.”) It comes as no surprise when Act One ends with Franklin collapsing on the floor after yet another round of screaming into the wall phone – a phone to which he apparently has unlimited access. But there are also beautiful if rare poetic interludes, as in the description of an old unwashed coat that smells of Old Spice and bonfires.

Act Two begins with Franklin lounging on his cot reading. Hicks, the closest thing he has to a friend, refers to him endearingly as Heart Attack, and the bean plant he had tossed into the toilet is inexplicably flourishing on his nightstand. Yes, Hicks says he replanted it, but how did he retrieve it from the toilet and get it onto Franklin’s nightstand? Hmm? I do not consider it a SPOILER to tell you that Franklin’s journey of self-discovery while reading Thoreau does not result in a magical transformation. It does not make him any more likable. In the end, he is not redeemed but instead released on house arrest after Hicks dies of COVID-19, which Franklin refers to as the “China virus.” The point is not the destination but the journey. There is a lot of kicking and screaming; the two hours (with an intermission at the 80-minute mark) must be exhausting for Blackburn. It certainly is not an easy ride for the audience. Still, it is timely and raw and for some, seeing the character Franklin, who represents so much of what we hate about politics and privilege, in prison and no longer able to call the shots, is smugly satisfying. In a recent interview with Jerry Williams on the “Curtain Call” podcast, Gall described Lester Franklin as “a sort of Ebenezer Scrooge,” yet I doubt Franklin achieved any real redemption. Lester Franklin is an awful person; Doug Blackburn is a wonderful actor (assuming he is nothing like Franklin).

Gall relocated to RVA from North Carolina during the pandemic, and this is his first offering as part of the local theater community. Gall wrote and directed Walled In. Blackburn has been seen previously in the Firehouse production of Wrong Chopped. The lights, projections, and sound score for Walled In are fabulous. Production Designer Todd Labelle and Composer/Sound Designer Mark Messing have created a simple set (a wall phone, a cell featuring a toilet, night table, and cot, and a single wooden school desk) that is beautifully enhanced with a soundscape featuring train whistles and bullfrogs, owls and whippoorwills and other sounds. Lights and projections effectively transform the bare walls into the woods surrounding Walden Pond, adding depth and dimension to an otherwise flat space.

Walled In is not the kind of play you leave smiling and telling everyone how much you liked it. It is a play that makes you angry. It makes you think. And you leave feeling that things have got to change. Redemption isn’t just for individuals; it’s for systems.

Production Team:

Written and directed by Andrew Gall

Performed by Doug Blackburn

Featuring the voices of Todd Labelle and Rudy Mitchell

Sound Designer – Mark Messing

Costume Designer – Colin Lowrey II

Production Designer – Todd Labelle

Assistant Director – Grace Brown

Production Associate – Claire Bronchick

Stage Manager – Kasey Britt

Performance Schedule:

Thu, May 27 @ 7:30pm / invited preview

Fri, May 28 @ 7:30pm / invited preview

Sat, May 29@ 7:30pm / invited preview

Thu, June 3 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 4 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 5 @ 7:30pm

Sun, June 6 @ 3:00pm

Thu, June 10 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 11 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 12 @ 7:30pm

Sun, June 13 @ 3:00pm

Thu, June 17 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 18 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)

Sat, June 19 @ 7:30pm (live + live stream)

Sun, June 20 @ 3:00pm (live + live stream)

Thu, June 24 @ 7:30pm

Fri, June 25 @ 7:30pm

Sat, June 26, 7:30pm

Tickets:

$33 live and live stream