ADMISSIONS: What is Fair?

ADMISSIONS: Power & Privilege

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 12-28, 2019

Ticket Prices: $30 general admission; $20 seniors & industry/RVATA; $10 students and teachers with ID

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

How ironic that Joshua Harmon’s award-winning play, Admissions, opened at TheatreLAB the Basement just two days after actress Felicity Huffman was sentenced to serve 14 days in prison, community service, and $30,000 in fines for her part in a huge college admissions scandal. Huffman and several other well-to-do parents bought inflated test scores and falsified their children’s athletic talents in order to secure admission into the “best” schools. The family in Admissions didn’t go quite that far to secure an Ivy League admission for their son, Charlie, but the extremes they did resort to were entirely out of alignment with their purported liberal-leaning philosophy and cast a shadow on the integrity of their way of life.

Donna Marie Miller plays Sherri Rosen-Mason, the admissions officer of a private prep school in New Hampshire where her husband Bill, played by David Clark, is headmaster and her son Charlie (Tyler Stevens) is a student. Sherri has made it her life’s mission to bring diversity to the campus – even when it stirs up tension with long-term administrators like Roberta (Jacqueline Jones). Her husband brings her flowers and wine to celebrate reaching 20% minority enrollment after years of efforts to diversify.

When Charlie, a senior, finds his plans to attend Yale are dashed, while his best friend, who is biracial and can “check the boxes” is accepted, he goes on a ferocious tirade, pitting white privilege against affirmative action. This is one of those monologues that is at once a remarkable, challenging accomplishment for a talented young actor, such as Stevens, while at the same time it is such an ugly, entitled, intolerant tirade that it keeps the audience glued to the edges of their seats. At the end, Charlie’s dad scornfully spews out, “Well! Looks like we successfully raised a Republican!”

Charlie’s deferred admission status raises the question, What is fair? And it seems the answer depends on who you are. Director Deejay Gray warned the audience at the start of the show to be prepared to be made uncomfortable and encouraged discussion with those seated nearby.

It wasn’t that long ago that Miller was playing the reluctant administrator of an animal shelter in Animal Control [https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/07/07/animal-control-the-second-world-premiere]¸ and this role invites comparison. In Animal Control  Miller portrayed a uniformed bureaucrat who reluctantly assumed a position that was thrust upon her. In Admissions it is almost the opposite; when we first meet Sherri, she is self-assured and righteous. As the play goes on, she exposes the cracks in her chic, pant-suited demeanor. At one point Miller’s character resorts to a reversal of that bastion of inclusion and tolerance when she utters the defensive sentence, “Some of my bet friends are white men.”

As the father, Clark seems to be a voice of reason until it comes to the possibility of his own son attending a community college. (Sorry, but nothing nice is said in support of community college in this play.) Stevens gives a high-spirited performance as Charlie, and I especially enjoyed the counterpoint to his fiery monologue, when he presents his mother with an alternative plan for college. In this proposal, playwright Harmon has brilliantly allowed Charlie to be innovative, sensitive, and rebellious all at the same time.

Supporting characters enhance the story, providing social and historical context as well as several delightfully amusing moments. Sara Collazo plays Sherri’s friend and neighbor Ginnie Peters, mother of the biracial best friend, Perry, who is never seen, while Jacqueline Jones takes on the role of Roberta, the stalwart administrator who appears to have come along with the school as a package deal. Ginnie points out the hypocrisy of caring more about how it looks for the school to have an acceptable number of minority students than actually caring about the students; a “star” student that Sherri had expected to make a generous donation had confessed to Ginnie that he was miserable and neglected while attending Hillcrest.

Roberta is an undercover racist who couches her racism under the smoke screen of “I don’t see color.” Wearing stylish red eyeglass frames, Jones milks a scene in which she leaves Sherri’s office after a less than successful review of her work on the school’s admission book, taking her sweet time as she exaggeratedly puts on her scarf, buttons her coat, deliberately positions her hat and snaps on her gloves before flouncing out of the office.

Ruth Hedberg is the costumer and has selected appropriate contemporary outfits for the play, set in rural New Hampshire during the 2015-2016 academic year. Connor Scudders set is attractive and built to withstand quite a bit of door slamming. One thing I found innovative was the way he built two rooms parallel to one another, with Sherri’s office occupying the downstage third of the stage and her kitchen taking up the rear two thirds or so. The variation in colors and textures and Michael Jarett’s subtle lighting cleverly drew our eyes to the appropriate space without distraction. Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design included several dance-able and very urban sounding song selections, some of which I would have been quite surprised to hear in rural New Hampshire.

Deejay Gray’s direction so thoroughly engaged his cast and audience that when intermission came, roughly half-way through this two-hour journey, I was shocked that forty-five minutes had passed so quickly. The intermission, by the way, was Gray’s idea, as it was not written into the script. Roberta’s insolent attitude, however, was delightfully scripted by the author in great detail.

Admissions couldn’t be timelier. Deejay Gray could not have engineered the national news to be any more relevant than the latest headlines. The theater provides a safe space to talk about uncomfortable topics. Unfortunately, as at least one audience member commented after Saturday night’s show, the people who most need to talk about this, and with whom we’d most like to share this, probably don’t come to the theater.

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

———-

Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

 

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FALSETTOS: Who Do You Call Family?

FALSETTOS: Four Jews in a Room Bitching

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: September 4 – October 5, 2019.

Ticket Prices: $10 (student) – $40 (general admission)

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

I knew a little – very little – about Falsettos prior to seeing the show. The Richmond Triangle Players website tells us this musical “revolves around the life of a charming, intelligent, neurotic gay man named Marvin, his wife, lover, about-to-be-Bar-Mitzvahed son, their psychiatrist, and the lesbians next door.” That description doesn’t even come close to preparing the viewer for the emotionally immersive theatrical experience that is Falsettos.

Written by William Finn (book and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), Falsettos a two-act musical that runs about 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission, was originally two separate one-act plays. The first, March of the Falsettos, was written in 1981. The second act, originally Falsettoland was written nearly a decade later, in 1990. The two have been knit together so seamlessly, with the first act providing introductions to the characters and fleshing out their backstories, that I cannot imagine watching the production as two separate plays.

Debra Clinton directs with a great sense of timing and an innate sense of when to turn from humor to drama. She also choreographed the show with energetic and sometimes comedic movement that is both organic and perfectly suited to actors who are not necessarily dancers. Natan Berenshteyn is the musical director, and three musicians are disappointingly but understandably offstage – unlike most musical productions at Triangle where the musicians are either onstage or at least partially visible. Jonathan Sparks’ sound design included several familiar popular songs from the 1980s and this connected with much of the audience on Friday night.

Kevin Johnson’s set was simple, versatile, and somewhat bland, with a linoleum-patterned painted floor, a trio of crates that served as furniture and props, a truncated bed that cleverly slid out from a wall, and a half-dozen empty picture frames on the walls. They were deliberately hung crooked and at significant moments they were reversed from their plain white sides to colorful sides then back again and in the final scene a seventh frame was added – and it was plumb-line straight.

Sheila Russ’s costumes looked like they came from a 1970s consignment shop, from the Richard Simms style jogging suits worn by characters Trina and Mendel to the pattern of Trina’s Act One shirt. Attention was paid to the most minute detail, such as the way Mendel’s slacks picked up one of the color’s in Trina’s shirt, and Trina’s culottes matched Mendel’s shirt. Michael Jarrett’s lighting captured it all in a golden halo of light – especially in scenes enacted on the extended runway of the stage that ran half the length of the center aisle. If I’ve omitted any elements, please understand that all the technical components worked in complete harmony and I didn’t notice any glitches.

The cast turned in all-around stellar performances – some of which were surprising for actors I’ve seen and become familiar with over the past few years. Matt Shofner, in the principal role of Marvin, developed his character with a certain amount of restraint and internal reserve that runs counter to his usually larger-than-life performances. If there was such a thing as the opposite of melodramatic, then that would be it – natural, realistic, yet intense. The gradual transformation of Marvin from an entitled, obnoxious man with a bad temper in Act One to a man aware of his own shortcomings and making strides to work on them in Act Two was remarkable.

Similarly, Dan Cimo, as Mendel, Marvin’s psychiatrist who ends up marrying Marvin’s ex-wife, showed an entirely new side of his acting chops. When I think of Dan Cimo, the first thing that comes to mind are his unnaturally wide eyes, yet here he seemed to have commanded them to assume, at least temporarily, a new, slightly subdued shape. Cimo was the strong yet sensitive man, the voice of reason and conciliation as he navigated the tenuous territory that comes with a doctor falling in love with his patient’s ex-wife and becoming step-father to his son.

Durron Marquis Tyre also turned in a touching performance as Marvin’s gay lover. His unlikely friendship with Marvin’s son, Jason, developed with remarkable subtlety and gentleness. Tyre also had a show-stopping number with “The Games I Play” near the end of Act One. Near the end of Act Two, he sings “You Gotta Die Sometimes,” and there was audible sniffing and sniveling throughout the audience. Boxes of tissues should be placed under the seats.

Two newcomers not only held their own, but nearly stole the show. Twelve-year-old Rowan Sharma turned in a stunningly strong and touching performance as Marvin and Trina’s traumatized son – nearly buried under the rubble of his parent’s crumbling marriage after Marvin left Trina to seek his new identity as a gay man, while refusing to let go of his family. Casey Payne, as Trina was responsible for possibly the best and most hilarious musical number of the show with “I’m Breaking Down” in the middle of Act One. There are no spoken lines in Falsettos, every word is sung, and “I’m Breaking Down” perfectly captures the heightened emotion of a woman who finds out that her husband is gay and doesn’t know how to navigate life from there.

Shofner, Cimo, Payne, Tyre, and Sharma are joined, in Act Two, by Kelsey Cordrey and Rachel Marrs, as a lesbian couple. Cordrey, as Dr. Charlotte, enhances the dramatic content with her work on the cutting edge of New York’s AIDS epidemic, while Marrs, as her partner Cordelia, as some of the shows best comic moments as a new-age Kosher caterer whose food tastes terrible! There are few scenes that include all seven cast members, but one of those that does, “The Baseball Game” is a hilarious and touching commentary on family and the social observation that Jewish kids don’t play baseball.

In both plays, in both acts, family is the pivotal element. There is the nuclear family, and then there are the families that we choose – and the families that choose us. Sometimes they intersect and the interactions can ignite sparks or explosions. Family and love and the complexities of love are woven throughout. “Love is Blind.” There is the “Thrill of First Love.” Sometimes, “I Never Wanted to Love You.”

Falsettos is an interesting production that has been brilliantly mounted by a director and cast that seem to be perfectly matched to each other and to the show. I laughed. I cried. I was touched. I experienced theater at it was meant to be.

 

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

———-

Photo Credits: Photos courtesy of Phil Crosby, RTP.

FALSETTOS_0081
(clockwise from upper left) Matt Shofner, Rowan Sharma, Casey Payne, Durron Marquis Tyre and Dan Cimo in Richmond Triangle Player’s production of “Falsettos,” running now through Oct 5 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre. http://www.rtriangle.org
FALSETTOS_0836
Matt Shofner and Durron Marquis Tyre (partially under the covers) in Richmond Triangle Player’s production of “Falsettos,” running now through Oct 5 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre. http://www.rtriangle.org
FALSETTOS_0310
Casey Payne is “Breaking Down” in Richmond Triangle Player’s production of “Falsettos,” running now through Oct 5 at RTP’s Robert B. Moss Theatre. http://www.rtriangle.org

 

 

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PASSING STRANGE: If It Were Any More REAL, It’d Be Fiction!

PASSING STRANGE: A Rock Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 4 –6 previews; opening September 7 – October 18, 2019

Ticket Prices: $20/student; $25-30/military & RVATA; $30-45/general admission

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

All musicals are not created equal. Passing Strange, billed as “a new rock musical” is a semi-autobiographical tale of a young man’s search for his identity – “the real.” Nothing out of the ordinary in that but Passing Strange is written by Stew and his partner Heidi Rodewald, musicians with the band The Negro Problem.

The upbeat and energetic score is made up of rock and roll infused with gospel, blues, jazz, and punk rock. A four-piece band led by musical director Leilani Fenick is placed prominently on a platform upstage center, and occasionally gets drawn into the onstage action. Jeremy V. Morris, the narrator, hypes up the audience, introduces the band, narrates the story, and occasionally merges into the story. It soon becomes clear that the Narrator is an older version of the lead character, an unnamed Youth played by Keaton Hillman in what I believe is his first leading role.

The Youth’s search for identify takes us from a middle class home in South Central Los Angeles in the 1970s to a communal family of young artists in free-spirited Amsterdam to a collective of revolutionary performance artists in Berlin. Ironically, it is the German anarchists who teach him the value of family – but not before it is too late.

The tightly knit ensemble – Patricia Alli, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Dylan Jones, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, and Jeremy V. Morris – has no weak links, with each of these performers giving their all throughout the two-act musical that runs about 110 minutes, with one intermission. They act, dance, sing, and set the stage, moving large black packing crates, sometimes discretely wiping their streaming faces with conveniently stashed towels as they pass one another.

Ahh, passing – now there’s a word packed with symbolism. The actors pass one another on stage. The Youth passes through the spaces and stages of his life. Time passes from Youth to Narrator. Blacks passed for white in order to get better jobs. The Youth passes as a poor young man from the ghetto to achieve artistic recognition. Black actors pass themselves off as white Europeans. And Stew, who played the role of Narrator in the original production, was inspired, in passing, by none other than Shakespeare whose Othello, the Moore of Venice uttered the phrase “passing strange” in Act 1, Scene 3.

Passing Strange is directed by Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T.), and it seems that her projects (e.g., last season’s An Octoroon at TheatreLAB The Basement) often deserve at least a second viewing and a talk-back, if not an entire seminar. Dr. T.’s staging, along with dynamically interwoven choreography by Christine Wyatt, a recent graduate of the VCU Dance program, keeps everyone moving at a swift pace that frequently contains hints of the minstrel show. The show is largely comedic until the final two scenes, but even the humor is rich in historic, racial, ethnic, sexual, regional, and cultural references. Some may be familiar, some may pass over the heads of many, and others fly by so fast that even the knowledgeable might miss them while savoring a previous nugget.

While this is clearly an ensemble masterpiece, there were standout moments and roles. I’ve seen Keaton Hillman perform in supporting roles in VaRep’s 1776, and  The Wiz, and Richmond Triangle Players’ A Chorus Line, handle puppets in the Children’s Theatre’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins, and portray a snake in The Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company’s

The Dreamseller and the Forest Dweller and deliver a tear-jerking monologue in Oedipus: A Gospel Myth at The Firehouse, but this is his first leading role. He nailed it. He was silly and frustrating, frustrated and innocent. Sometimes you wanted to shake him, and other times you wanted to hug him.

Jeremy V. Morris was part hype man, part mentor as the Narrator, sometimes watching, sometimes guiding, sometimes participating. We, the audience, didn’t know what to expect, but what he gave was just what was needed. Jamar Jones, who often shares a stage with Morris, used his malleable expressions to create a host of characters, from an LA youth to bible thumping preacher, from a gender fluid artist to a macho ex-boyfriend. The versatile and highly skillful Katrinah Carol Lewis also played several characters, but the one that made the strongest impact on me was Desi, the revolutionary artist who believed that the only thing that really matters is love. Keydron Dunn’s repertoire of characters included Mr. Franklin, the closeted gay son of the Baptist preacher. He initiated his newest choir member with a weed-smoking session in his car and introduced his youthful proteges to more than just harmonies and hymns. That made The Youth’s rejection of him all the more painful and poignant. Patricia Alli portrayed the mother with empathy and realism, all while maintaining a high level of first humor and later drama. Last but not least was Dylan Jones, making her Richmond debut, delightfully portraying three characters that ranged from teen-aged seductress to pornographic performance artist.

Chris Raintree’s simple set of a raised platform for the band and moveable boxes and chairs to create the environments through which the Youth passes was enhanced by lighting by Bill Miller, including some colorful LED lights on the walls. Alex Valentin’s costumes were appropriate but largely unremarkable – until the Mother’s final scene in which she appeared in the beautiful rose-colored gown she had dreamed of in Act One. September and October are busy months for theater and dance in Richmond, but I hope to squeeze in one more performance of Passing Strange before it closes October 18, and I highly suggest you get there as soon as you can. I wouldn’t be surprised if tickets become scarce after words get out about this one.

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

———-

Photo Credits: Bill Sigafoos

Passing Strange - Patricia Alli, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Patricia Alli
Passing Strange - Keydron Dunn, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Keydron Dunn
Passing Strange - Keaton Hillman, Jeremy V Morris, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Keaton Hillman and Jeremy V Morris
Passing Strange - Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, Keydron Dunn, Dylan Jones, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, Keydron Dunn, and Dylan Jones
Passing Strange - Jeremy V Morris, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Jeremy V Morris
Passing Strange - Jamar Jones, Keaton Hillman, Jeremy V Morris, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Jamar Jones, Keaton Hillman, and Jeremy V Morris
Passing Strange - Dylan Jones, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, Katrinah Carol Lewis, photo by Bill Sigafoos
Dylan Jones, Keydron Dunn, Keaton Hillman, Jamar Jones, and Katrinah Carol Lewis

 

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LEVEL 4: Beating the Game

LEVEL 4: Game Over

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: August 15-31, 2019

Ticket Prices: $30 general admission; $20 seniors & industry/RVATA; $10 students and teachers with ID

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

Level 4, a smart and funny new play by Dante Piro that made its debut at TheatreLAB the basement is the second collaboration between Piro and director Chelsea Burke in as many months. (The Verge, was produced by The Firehouse and presented at The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design in July and August, https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/08/03/the-verge-good-things-come-in-small-packages). They make a great creative team.

That being said, I am entirely out of my element with Level 4, a clever and colorful play that takes us inside the world of a video game, Karma Quest, where we get to explore life, loss, loneliness, and very human characteristics and relationships as experienced by the Light Lord whose domain is a battle chamber. I am not a gamer. Since the ancient days of TRS-80, when we had to type in code line by line in order to play game, my gaming has been pretty much limited to Words with Friends, Simon’s Cats, Family Feud, and Wii Fit.. So yeah, the world of the Light Lord, Strobe, Mertens, Gauntlet, the Hero, the Heroine and Tammy is out of my league.

Nonetheless, thanks to Piro’s story – which struck a nice balance between drama and comedy – and Burke’s direction, that kept things moving along at a nice clip (the first act seemed to fly by, while the second act seemed a bit long to me), I was able to enjoy the action and laugh a lot.

The very strong and well-chosen cast consists of Chris Klinger as the likeable villain Light Lord, Adam Valentine as his loyal right hand man Strobe, Adam Turck as The Hero (a real-life human who apparently spends so much time playing the game that he eventually finds himself inside the game), Levi Meerovitch (who also seems to have been very busy working on numerous stages around RVA in the past few months) as the melancholy and introverted guardian of the armor and the giant Gauntlet hand, with Breezy Potter representing the under-represented female demographic as The Heroine and the unpopular gamer Tammy.

Interactions between Klinger and Valentine, Klinger and Turck, and Klinger and Meerovitch are especially interesting as the video game experiences glitches, the characters play the same scene over and over with various results, the game restarts, and, in the end, gets resurrected. Meerovitch and Potter sometimes appear as disembodied heads in windows on either side of Dasia Gregg’s video game set and the emotionally flat affect sometimes adopted by Valentine and Meerovitch was intriguing.

The simplicity of Gregg’s set and projections and the stylized movements of Klinger and Turck during the fight scenes suggests to this video game novice that this is a game from an earlier time period and is not one of the more modern programs. This is supported as the second act concludes with the revelation that time has passed. The Hero has married, his son is now an adult, but to tell any more would spoil the dramatic surprise of the ending.

Visually, Level 4 pulled the audience close into Gregg’s set. Lighting by Michael Jarrett included strobe effects and strands of LED lights, familiar Mario Brothers/Nintendo 64-era tunes infused the sound design by Joey Luck, and elaborate fight choreography by Emily Turner all enhanced the audience’s overall immersive experience. The one thing I thought didn’t quite fit – no pun intended – was Ruth Hedberg’s costumes. They looked somewhat like a child’s attempt to create a video game character’s garment. The Light Lord’s cape-like uniform was the most troublesome for me, closely followed by the shoe covers or spats that were simply socks with the heels and toes cut out. But the Light Lord mentioned that he had been planning to update the uniforms, so perhaps this look was intentional.

I enjoyed the intrinsic humor of the script and the pixelated quirkiness of the characters, but I am sure I missed major references and important nuances that would have been obvious to an experienced video game player. That anyone can enjoy Level 4, regardless of video experience of level, attests to the inclusiveness and universality of the subject as well as the strength of the  individual and ensemble performances.

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

———-

Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

Level 4.4
Chris Klinger and Adam Turck
Level 4.3
Adam Valentine, Levi Meerovitch (silhouetted), and Chris Kinger
Level 4.2
Adam Valentine
Level 4.1
Adam Turck and Chris Klinger

 

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Fellowship Cruise 2020

 2020 CRUISE INFORMATIONAL MEETING: Sunday, August 25, 2019, 4pm at Ruffin Insurance, 3813 Nine Mile Road, RVA 23223

THE VERGE: Good Things Come in Small Packages

THE VERGE: Small Theater

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: A Firehouse Theatre production at The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, 2501 Monument Avenue, RVA 23220

Performances: July 25 – August 14, 2019

Ticket Prices: $20 in advance/$30 the day of/$10 for Firehouse members

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

Sometimes when writing about a particular production we describe it as different or innovative. Well, all those times were just reviewers crying wolf. Dante Piro’s interactive play, The Verge, is truly different.

First of all, only 8 “guests” are allowed for each performance, and there is a dress code. Black tie is suggested. And the “guests” not only have assignments – along the lines of a mystery dinner theater, but without the food – but they also get to decide the ending, or at least to choose from one of two possible options.

Set in the elegant surroundings of the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, the “guests” gather around a small conference table for the reading of the will of the recently deceased John Randolph Bessenger, CEO of Bessenger’s Bits, an ice cream toppings and condiments company.

There is a legal assistant Alanis (not sure of the spelling, because there is no program) who helps organize the gathering, and an unnamed woman who sits quietly off to one side observing after greeting us at the front door. We “guests” are gathered to hear the reading of the will – a series of letters and puzzles, jokes, and sometimes disjointed ramblings by a dying man.

Dante Piro who wrote The Verge also plays Virgil, Mr. Bessenger’s faithful personal assistant. Virgil, who was given the nickname “Verge” by his employer, is a lovable character but he has a lot of quirks in speech and mannerisms. It’s fascinating to watch Piro work from such a close vantage point. Also fascinating was watching the eight “guests” pull together and work as a team; the play probably has a very different look and feel every time, based on the rotating cast of strangers. The Verge has the dynamics of a pick-up company or improvisation group. At one point, Virgil leaves the room, leaving the eight “guests” alone (under the watchful but unobtrusive eye of the legal assistant and the almost invisible helper) to decide his fate.

Chelsea Burke directed, but it’s hard to determine just how much she had a hand in it. Everything runs smoothly and the eight witnesses are surreptitiously directed as well. Credit Connor Scudder for the scenic design (part of which is the location itself), as well as the props, of which there are plenty – locked drawers, secret compartments, maps and puzzles and more. In fact, it’s the props that get the “guests” involved and working together to solve the mystery. There are twists and turns, not just in the plot, but in Virgil’s reactions and the deceased’s motives, and most noticeably in Piro’s use of language.

Leaving The Verge feels a lot like leaving on the last day of summer camp – the “guests” were just starting to bond, and suddenly it’s time to go back to the real world. The Verge, which has already been extended for five additional performances (August 6, 7, 8, 13 & 14), runs just under 90 minutes with no intermission. If you want to try something other than traditional theater, like a bit of role play, and enjoy a mystery, this production fits the bill.

The Verge runs through August 14 and on August 15,TheatreLAB The Basement opens the world premiere of Piro’s LEVEL 4¸ an existential drama in which the characters are in a video game. LEVEL 4 is also directed by Chelsea Burke.

 

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: n/a

Firehouse - VERGE2

 

41SR4yCI7aL._SL160_

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Whistlin Women

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Alvin Ailey

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FOREVER PLAID: Songs & Shenanigans

FOREVER PLAID: Heavenly Harmony

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Repertory Theatre at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: July 19 – August 25, 2019

Ticket Prices: $44

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

Forever Plaid, the final production of the Va-Rep Hanover 2018/2019 season is a humorous heavenly harmonic hash guaranteed to make you pat your feet and smile. In the barely-there plot, a quartet of young singers on the way to a big gig at the Airport Hilton gets killed by a school bus full of Catholic high school girls (why this is important I’m not sure), on their way to watch the Beetles debut on the Ed Sullivan Show (which does become important later.) The four find themselves returning from some sort of limbo where they have spent the last 55 years for one last chance to perform in front of a big audience. The accident happened in the 1964, and one member of the quartet asks the audience what year it is. On Thursday, the audience member, perhaps flustered, initially gave a false date, in the 1950s, before admitting it was 2019.

This is not the only instance of audience participation. In another scene a compliant woman named Nora was charmed onstage to play piano with Sparky (while Travis is on his union break), and the entire audience is corralled into a sing-along on the song “Matilda.” The quartet brings instruments into the audience for those who care to participate in a hands-on experience, and Nora, by the way, left the stage with a commemorative plaid dental floss and a certificate with her name on it.

The shenanigans are carried on with amusing awkwardness – one member of the four is often out of step and depends on antacids to tame his nervous stomach, one hyperventilates, one has a mild speech impediment, and the fourth is prone to nosebleeds – by Mitchell Ashe (Sparky), PJ Llewellyn (Smudge), Ian Page (Jinx), and Caleb Wade (Frankie). Two, Jinx and Smudge, I think (it’s hard to keep up) are even step-brothers, and in one touching scene reminisce about a childhood tradition of family TV night. They watch, what else, “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The “band” consists of Travis West on piano and David Yohe on bass. They all sing well, even when making mistakes on purpose, while rotating through a veritable warehouse of wacky props, from six foot plumbers’ helpers (plungers) to straw hats and a traditional nun’s wimple.

Ashe, Llewellyn, Page, and Wade seem to have as much fun playing these characters as the audience does watching and listening to them. Wade, as the group’s leader, shows equal parts confidence and compassion, which seems even more amazing considering that the group leads off with, “We’re Forever Plaid, and we’re dead.”  My favorite part of the show, however, is when The Plaids perform the entire “Ed Sullivan Show” (that ran on CBS from 1948 – 1971) in three minutes and eleven seconds – including the animal acts, puppets, musical acts, comedians, and even Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse.

Forever Plaid, written by Stuart Ross and first performed off-Broadway in 1989, was directed by Wes Seals with musical direction by Travis West. Both keep the pace moving at just the right speed (45rpm). Terrie Powers’ set is simple – arches, silver curtains, stars, a rounded stage – and BJ Wilkinson’s lighting sets just the right tone. Marcia Miller Hailey’s white dinner jackets are simple and classy, and the long-awaited arrival of the group’s plaid tuxedo jackets doesn’t occur until near the end of the one-act show that runs just under 90 minutes. The sound design by Derek Dumais makes everything clear and easy to understand, and the choreography (no credit is given, so I assume they retained Ross’ original choreography) is charmingly corny.

There are more than a dozen songs, beginning with “Three Coins in a Fountain” and ending with “Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” the song they were rehearsing in their red Mercury convertible when they were killed. In between there is a wide variety of musical numbers, from the Caribbean medley to Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” “Perfidia,” which was inspired by the quartet’s collective crush on their high school Spanish teacher, to one of my favorites, the energetic “Crazy ‘Bout Ya Baby.” There are plenty of period and time-related references that might fall flat on anyone under the age of 50, and “The Ed Sullivan Show” seems to be a unifying thread, but Forever Plaid is a joyous, feel-good musical revue that favors naivete over controversy.

 

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: Aaron Sutten

Forever Plaid
Ian Page, Mitchell Ashe, Caleb Wade, PJ Llewellyn. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Forever Plaid
PJ Llewellyn, Mitchell Ashe, Caleb Wade, . Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Forever Plaid
Ian Page, Caleb Wade, Mitchell Ashe, PJ Llewellyn. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Forever Plaid
Mitchell Ashe, Ian Page, Caleb Wade, PJ Llewellyn. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

 

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Whistlin Women

 

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Alvin Ailey

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THE TAMING OF THE SHREW: Girl Power!

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW: Girls Night Out

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

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

Performances: July 11 – August 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shrew
The Women of The Taming of the Shrew

 

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Whistlin Women

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Alvin Ailey

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Fellowship Cruise 2020