TOMFOOLERY: Swift Creek Shenanigans

TOMFOOLERY: A Politically Incorrect Musical Satire

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway, Colonial Heights, VA 23834

Performances: July 14 – August 18, 2018

Ticket Prices: $38 Theater only; $55 Dinner & Theater

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

 

Swift Creek Mill Theatre’s final show of the 2017-2018 season, Tom Lehrer’s Tomfoolery, features four cast members, 28 musical numbers, a five-piece orchestra, and a sense that anything goes. The satirical musical revue, whose title has nothing to do with Swift Creek Mill Theatre’s artistic director Tom Width, has no plot. Rather, it allows Width to share with the Mill audience his own love of the silly, satirical, politically incorrect songs written and performed by Lehrer between 1953 and 1965 – and even one he wrote for the PBS children’s show, The Electric Company, popular in the 1970s. Surprisingly, other than the era-specific references, such as the names of political candidates and talk of bombs and drills to prepare for nuclear war, much of the humor remains relevant, while the music (book, music, and lyrics are all by Lehrer, adapted by Cameron MacKintosh and Robin Ray) seems more attuned to the ears of those whose college years were marked by folk songs and protest marches.

Width keeps things moving, with a simple, colorful set with the musicians settled upstage right and a small bar set up stage left where the actors congregate while waiting their turn. Maura Lynch Cravey has Richard Koch in a vested suit that is vaguely vaudevillian, while Bryan Harris and PJ Llewellyn are dressed less distinctively, and, but for one outstanding exception, Debra Wagoner’s wardrobe seems to be mostly an afterthought. Robes, suspenders, hats, canes, stools, and other props provide visual interest and cues, and the actors use their own names throughout the revue, which runs under two hours, including one fifteen-minute intermission.

Tomfoolery opens with “Be Prepared,” an homage to the Boy Scout oath, and closes with “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” an irreverent post-apocalyptic sendup. In between, no topic is off-limits. “Bright College Days” (Richard and Bryan) contains my favorite lyric of the evening: “Soon we’ll be sliding down the razor blade of life.” Bryan sings my favorite song, “Elements,” which sets the periodic table of the elements to the music of Sir Arthur Sullivan (to the theme of a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance). “The Hunting Song” tells of bagging “two game wardens, seven hunters, and a cow,” while “Smut” is an ode to pornography.

There’s a song dedicated to Wernher Von Braun, a German engineer and rocket scientist who was a member of the Nazi party and an SS officer before coming to the US to work for NASA while “Who’s Next” speculates on which nation will be next to get a bomb. And just in case you haven’t been offended by the end of the first act, “National Brotherhood Week” reminds you of who hates you and who you should hate in return.

Oh, and the one time Debra Wagoner was dressed in a glitzy glamourous dress with a blinged out feather boa was for “Oedipus Rex,” her second act homage to incest which allowed her to belt out a song full-out as only she can and make you wish you could sing like that, too.

Great theater? By no means. An entertaining evening with good music that is beautifully played under the direction of Paul Deiss (who even gets to sing one number, “The Old Dope Peddler”)? Absolutely. And don’t forget to get your Swift Creek Mill “sippy cup” so you can take your preferred beverage – hot, cold, or alcoholic – into the theater (new this season).

 

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: Robyn O’Neill

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WEST SIDE STORY: Love and Musicals

WEST SIDE STORY: A Summer of Love and Musicals

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: June 22 – July 29, 2018

Ticket Prices: $36-62

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

 

With a large cast featuring many new (to Richmond) faces, the familiar and beloved musical, West Side Story, soared on the November Theatre/Arenstein Stage on opening night. Having just seen Romeo and Juliet at the Richmond Shakespeare Festival last week, it was insanely fitting to see West Side Story just days later. One is set in the 16th century in Verona, Italy, and the other in New York City in the 1950’s, but not much has changed about human nature in the intervening centuries.

The rivalry between the Sharks, a group of Puerto Rican immigrants, and the Jets, a gang of white Americans who want to hold on to their turf, erupts in a rumble. When Maria, sister of the Shark’s leader Bernardo, and Tony, one of the founders of the Jets, meet at a dance and fall in love, the inevitable tragedy is set in motion. The intolerance of the Jets, most of whom are only first or second-generation Americans – Tony, for instance, is the son of Polish immigrants – towards the recently arrived Puerto Ricans eerily echo recent headlines and newsfeeds. At one point, Anita bemoans the fact that most Americans don’t even realize that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. It doesn’t help that both groups repeatedly refer to Puerto Rico as my/your country.

Brittany Santos, in the lead role of Maria, was a surprise. Her voice is outstanding, powerful, and has an angelic clarity that is perfect for the role – a role she has, in fact, performed previously, at Arizona Broadway Theatre and Cortland Repertory Theatre. Physically, she fits the role as well, bringing a petite, youthful innocence with a burgeoning sense of self-determination. In her first scene, she is a timid and obedient young girl; in her final strut across the stage, she is a young woman who has looked tragedy in the eye and overcome some of the trials of adulthood.

Justin Luciano, as Tony, is a young man in search of himself, and as such, is harder to pin down. His singing is strong and clear, but his speaking voice was, at times, muffled, and it was hard to tell if it was a technical difficulty or a speech impediment. His singing of the signature song, “Maria” was appropriately haunting. Maria does not have any real solos, but duets with Tony, “One Hand, One Heart,” and “Somewhere” are the songs people who have never seen the show on stage or film are familiar with. Both are songs that introduced many people to the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, and in the hands – and mouths – of Santos and Luciano, they came alive again.

I must confess that anything I have to say about the role of Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, will be colored by my fond memories of playing that role in community theater as a teenager.  Maria Cristina Slye brought a balance of sassiness and humanity to the role and did not disappoint in her big musical number with the rest of the Shark girls in Act 1, “America.”

Other lead roles included Eddie Maldonado as Bernardo and Corey Mosello as Riff, the leader of the Jets. Among my favorite characters is Anybodys, the tomboy who so badly wants to be accepted as a member of the Jets. Carly Natania Grossman played this role with spunk.

For the most part, the adults in West Side Story are peripheral characters, almost like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. But Jay O. Millman was a strong, conciliatory figure as Doc, the owner of the local drugstore and soda shop – similar to the Friar in Romeo and Juliet. Andrew C. Boothby as Lt. Schrank and Gregg Lloyd as Officer Krupke are portrayed as somewhat comic characters, often the butt of jokes, as in the Jets, “Gee, Officer Krupke” number, but also complicit in the discrimination. While they go through the motions of keeping the peace, their words and actions indicate that they, too, have issues with the new immigrants.

The original production was directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, and the Richmond production was directed by VirginiaRep artistic director Nathaniel Shaw with original choreography reproduced by Matthew Couvillon.  The choreography is bigger than life, bold, hard hitting, sometimes awkward, rather than pretty – like the surrounding tenements and chain-link fences. West Side Story has some of the best original choreography of any musical, and this production meets all expectations on that front. The women’s kicks and leaps seem to pull their legs right out of the socket and the men are ferocious – leaping over one another and attacking the fight choreography with relish.

Shaw’s direction is organic and seamless. Scott Bradley’s soaring two-story set design is suitably gritty, and imaginatively lit by BJ Wilkinson, who has roving lights that mimic the activity of the urban setting. Sarah Grady designed the costumes, which make it easy to distinguish between Jets and Sharks when they are onstage together, and Derek Dumais designed the sound.  A live band keeps things moving, under the able and energetic direction of Anthony Smith (Mary Poppins, Fun Home, The Color Purple).

There’s also new balcony seating, a Puerto Rican Rum Punch at the bar, and a Leonard Bernstein display will be exhibited at Virginia Rep outlining Bernstein’s contributions to the theatre, If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet, ¿que estas esperando?

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

 

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ROMEO AND JULIET: Romance Rebooted

ROMEO AND JULIET: Young Love and Old Problems Revisited

A Theater Review and Reflections by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre/20th Annual Richmond Shakespeare Festival

At: Agecroft Hall & Gardens, 4305 Sulgrave Road, RVA 23221

Performances: June 1-24, 2018, Thursdays – Sundays at 7:30pm

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

Info: (804) 353-4241 or quilltheatre.org

Quill Theatre staged Romeo and Juliet at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts just two months ago, in April. I thoroughly enjoyed it and did not plan to see the re-staging at Agecroft Hall. (Beautiful as it is, it’s outside, and there’s the question of weather and bugs, and all that goes with it, and besides, I’m recovering from back surgery and the seats might not be comfortable, etc., etc., etc.) But I heard several friends and colleagues speak so positively about the restaging, which is directed entirely by James Ricks, whereas the April version was conceived and started by Dr. Jan Powell, whose vision was completed by Ricks after Powell was called away due to a family emergency. So, on June 14, near the end of the run, I found myself seated comfortably on a cushion I brought with me, on a very pleasant, bug-free night – thoroughly enjoying Romeo and Juliet and appreciating the nuances Ricks brought to this remounting.

First of all, Agecroft Hall is thoroughly conducive to Shakespeare. The court and building backdrop, the garden, even the birds and bugs, provide a natural setting that requires little else to transport the audience to Verona and the world of Shakespeare. Then, given that the story and the script are the same, and most of the cast is the same, it was fascinating to watch a very different experience unfold before my eyes.

One of the most striking things was when, during the balcony scene that is probably familiar even to those who have never seen a performance of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet jumps down from the balcony to meet Romeo. I saw Liz Earnest in the role both times – Claire Wittman played Juliet opening weekend at Agecroft Hall – but I found her character to be both funnier and more empowered this time around.

Tyler Stevens, who first caught my attention and admiration as the younger son in the VirginiaRep Hanover Tavern production of Brighton Beach Memoirs in 2016, played the role of Romeo. Stevens brought a balance of passion and youthful impulsiveness that made his character endearing; we were able to see him through the eyes of Juliet.

Another major cast change was Todd Patterson in the role of Romeo’s friend Mercutio.  I absolutely loved Matt Shofner’s over-the-top performance at VMFA and was equally enamored of Patterson’s very different interpretation.  Patterson’s Mercutio seemed to be played less for comedy and more as a young man clinging to childish ways in a last-ditch effort to avoid adulthood – something we teachers and parents see all too often in real life!

Melissa Johnston Price’s Nurse and Bo Wilson’s Friar Lawrence remained stalwart figures with solid roles that anchored the action and their young mentees’ characters. Johnston Price’s scene with Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet, seemed less drawn out while Wilson’s interactions with Romeo seemed more fatherly and his character’s actions overall seemed more like that of an elder or wiseman focused on establishing peace and reason between the families.

I was able to get a close-up look at the inspired construction of Cora Delbridge’s costumes. She seemed to be going for a blend of contemporary and traditional, often achieved by ripping open seams and patching them back together, leaving them partially open – sort of like the contemporary ripped-jeans look. After this show, I am angling to get my hands on Lady Capulet’s fitted black and silver mermaid dress. Aaron Orensky’s fight choreography is exciting and BJ Wilkinson’s lighting works with the natural lighting of dusk to create haunting scenes, especially those in the tomb and at the end.

This popular and well-known tragedy – interspersed with moments of humor – is well worth seeing, whether for the first time or again, if you saw the VMFA production. Interestingly, just as Romeo and Juliet comes to a close, on June 24, Virginia Rep will be opening the modern-day version of the young love story, West Side Story, beginning June 22 at the November Theatre.

The  20th Annual Richmond Shakespeare Festival will continue on the courtyard stage at Agecroft Hall’s sixteenth century English manor house with two more productions: The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr, Abridged June 30, 2018 at 7:30pm and As You Like It, July 5-July 29, Thursdays-Sundays at 7:30pm.

 

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

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GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES: Not for the Faint of Heart

GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES: An Unconventional Love Story

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

TheatreLAB’s The Cellar Series 2018: This Beautiful Mess

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

Performances: June 11-23, 2018

Ticket Prices: $15

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

 

Whenever anyone describes a particularly gruesome injury, I get an unpleasant, bone-chilling, tingly feeling that starts in my core and runs down my limbs. Rajiv Joseph’s 2009 play, Gruesome Playground Injuries, provided many such opportunities over the span of two hours (real time) and thirty years (scripted time),

Rachel Rose Gilmour and Jeffrey Cole both give compelling performances as the couple in this intense and intimate story that follows the lives of Kayleen and Doug, as they mark the significant moments in their lives by their injuries – both physical and emotional. Kayleen and Doug first meet in the nurse’s office of their elementary school, St. Margaret Mary’s.  Kayleen is nursing one of her chronic stomachaches, while Doug has ridden his bike off the roof of the school in an attempt to mimic daredevil Evel Knievel. How did he get his bike to the roof of the school, you might ask? He climbed a tree, with his bike. Yeah, he’s that kind of kid. The result, of course, is that he has extensive damage to his face.

Other young lovers exchange kisses or friendship bracelets, but not these two. Oh no…they decide to mix the most unlikely of bodily fluids in a bucket. Doug’s life is marked by a series of accidents, usually the result of, to use his word, being “brave.” Without giving away too much, I’ll just share the titles of some of the scenes: “Face Split Open,” “Eye Blown Out,” “Pink Eye.” Kayleen, who has a special gift when it comes to saving Doug, is, ironically, unable to save herself, and descends into a spiral of depression and mental illness, some of which results in physical harm. How timely, that this production should open just as we are reeling from the recent suicides of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef and travel foodie Anthony Bourdain.

Author Rajiv Joseph has set this story in a series of eight scenes, occurring in five-year intervals, starting when the character are 8 years old and ending when they are 38 – but the scenes are not performed in strict chronological order. This requires the characters, who change clothes onstage at the start of each scene – to transform into different ages before our very eyes. They each have a folding chair, the type you’d find in a typical, basic dressing room, and a small mirror, and they often keep an eye on one another as they change their attire and scars. Oh yes, there are bandages and blood aplenty.

Each scene is also accompanied by a transition statement and song. For example, Scene 1 includes the transition “Can you save me?” accompanied by the song “Save Me” by Aimee Mann, and Scene 7, “Just because it hurts doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it,” is accompanied by Maria Mena’s “Growing Pains.”

In spite of its gruesome nature, there are many moments of lightness and laughter – Doug becomes an insurance claims adjustor and, of course, gets injured inspecting the roof of their former school. And, more than once, I was reminded of the mother in A Christmas Story¸ constantly warning Ralphie that he would shoot his eye out. But make no mistake, this is an intense and moving play about people with real problems: accidents, injuries, hospitalizations, family stress, death, cutting, and more. And it is a story about love: young love, healing love, forgiving love, unrequited love, blind love, enduring love. Melissa Rayford has directed this production with a sure hand; it is intimate and funny and handles difficult subjects with delicacy but without sugar-coating anything. The pacing is just right, without lags or awkward pauses, and the moments of silence or stillness are heavy with meaning.

This is not a play for the faint of heart, or for anyone who is looking for a fairy tale ending with all the loose ends neatly tied up. Kayleen says at one point, Doug has gotten “caught up in the spokes of my train wreck.” In response, Doug reminds her that trains do not have spokes.

Gruesome Playground Injuries uses the same set as Topdog/Underdog, which is still running in the same space on alternate nights. The basic scenic elements have been rearranged so that it is actually an entirely new setting. Kudos to the production team: scenic design by David Melton, lighting by Michael Jarett, sound and costume design by Melissa Rayford and the cast. This is a Cellar Series production, the theme of which is “This Beautiful Mess,” and in addition to a minimal budget and borrowed design elements, it has a very short run: June 12 & 13, June 21-23, so don’t mess around and miss it.

NOTE: During Monday night’s preview, outside construction created a bit of a sound distraction for half the show, but not enough to spoil the play and Rachel Rose Gilmour and Jeffrey Cole never let it show that they were competing with jackhammers and steam rollers and all the other big machines. Carry on!

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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Jeffrey Cole and Rachel Rose Gilmour
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Jeffrey Cole and Rachel Rose Gilmour
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Jeffrey Cole and Rachel Rose Gilmour

A CHORUS LINE: For the Dancer in Us All

A CHORUS LINE: What We Do for Love

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: June 6 – July 14, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-40

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

 

When you think A Chorus Line you think of Broadway, or a touring show to some large venue such as, perhaps, the Altria Theatre. Think again. A Chorus Line, the ground-breaking, iconic musical, the musical “that celebrates the dancer in us all,” originally conceived and choreographed by Michael Bennett, with book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante , lyrics by Edward Kleban, and music by Marvin Hamlisch – yes, THAT A Chorus Line – opened at the Richmond Triangle Players. . .AND IT IS AWESOME!!!

Who would have thought you could fit a chorus line of 17 people across that stage? Well, now we know. This production, directed and choreographed by Justin Amellio, features Alexander Sapp as Zach, the intimidating Broadway director who is conducting an audition for an unnamed Broadway show, and Andrew Etheredge as his assistant, Larry. The entire show takes place on the bare stage of an unnamed Broadway theater, where the dancers who have come to audition for a show are unnerved when Zach not only puts them through the paces of jazz, ballet, and tap combinations, but asks each potential chorine to tell him something about his or her life.

There are about 21 dancers at the start of the show, but four are quickly eliminated. Of the remaining 17, Zach is looking for just four men and four women. To complicate matters, one of the women, Cassie, is Zach’s former girlfriend, who has recently returned from Los Angeles after an unsuccessful run at becoming an actress, something, it seems Zach wanted for her more than she wanted for herself.

This is a true ensemble piece, and when the dancers perform their routines – some deliberately missing a step or turning the wrong way – they transport the audience to another world. This is oh so much better than watching any dance program on television. While it’s all about the dance, A Chorus Line has some notable dramatic moments – and humor, too.

Sheila (Zuri Petteway) is sassy, obnoxious, older, and a plus-sized woman. The gargantuan chip on her shoulder might have gotten her eliminated from any other audition, but Zach apparently saw something in her. During her interview, she opens up and reveals that she had a difficult childhood mitigated only by a love for ballet. Bebe (Ijsah Byrd) and Maggie (Rachel Marrs) join her in her reverie, “At the Ballet.” Beautiful, svelte Kristine (Katherine S. Wright) reveals that while she can dance rings around others, and act as well, her one shortcoming is that she cannot sing. Wright (who I am assured really can sing well), hilariously brings down the house with her tone-deaf screeching. It’s even funnier when Al (Derrick Jaques), Kristine’s over-protective husband who is also auditioning, steps in and finishes her sentences for her, singing on key.

Another humorous highlight was Val’s (Mallory Keene) performance of “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three,” a song I remember as the “T & A” song. Perhaps the name was changed for the sake of political correctness. At any rate, it is a humorous take on an all too real situation: a dancer or performer whose superior talent is overlooked because she does not fit the idealized standards of beauty. Val’s career finally took off after a visit to a plastic surgeon, to acquire the more marketable curves.

Cassie’s (Daria DeGaetano) solo, “The Music and the Mirror” was satisfyingly dynamic, and “What I Did for Love,” led by Diana (Alexa Cepeda) was bigger than life – or at least bigger than the RTP stage. Other memorable moments included a touching scene in which Zach comforted Paul (Steven Rada) after Paul haltingly revealed how difficult it was to reveal his sexuality and occupation to his parents, and later when Paul falls and re-injures his leg – effectively ending his dancing career – and has to be taken to the emergency room.

My only two observations are that I wish the tap combination could have been performed in tap shoes, and the beautiful glittery, golden finale costumes, which fit the men perfectly, seemed to have a weird pucker at the back zipper on the women’s rear ends.

Kudos to the entire cast – too numerous to mention all by name – and the phenomenal creative team, which included musical direction by Kim Fox, lighting by Michael Jarett, and sound design by Joey Luck. Originally scheduled to run through July 7, as of opening night A Chorus Line, has already been extended through July 14, and many performances are already sold out. Get your tickets now; this is not to missed.

 

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

A Chorus Line_1
A Chorus Line – Photos and Resumes, Please
A Chorus Line_3
Steven Rada as Paul
A Chorus Line_2
Alexa Cepeda as Diana
A Chorus Line_4
A Chorus Line – The Grand Finale

DOUBLEWIDE, TEXAS: A Hoot ‘n a Hollar

DOUBLEWIDE, TEXAS: Trailer Park Victory

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: CAT Theatre, 419 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227

Performances: June 1-16, 2018

Ticket Prices: $23 Adults; $18 RVATA Members; $13 Students

Info: (804) 804-262-9760 or cat@cattheatre.com

 

Doublewide, Texas, now onstage at CAT, is written by the same trio – Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten – that created Always a Bridesmaid, which is currently running at Swift Creek Mill Theatre. True to form, Doublewide, Texas is a comedic farce, deliberately designed to be played over the top and it reaches for the broadest laughs possible.

Set in a tiny trailer park in Texas, the flimsy premise is that the trailer park is about to be annexed by the nearby town of Tugaloo, and the residents – mostly related – are banding together to fight the annexation and the accompanying high taxes. There are laughs aplenty, with plenty of puns and running gags, physical humor, and generous hints about deep dark secrets. The cast of nine is generally delightful and maintains a natural camaraderie that makes it easy and natural to laugh at even the most obvious groaners.

First up is Big Ethel Satterwhite (Catherine Cooper) who delivers a lecture on nutrition to the county inmates and parolees. The only problem is Big Ethel doesn’t believe in the program and succumbs to the temptation of a gigantic cookie, tossing a large, fresh cabbage over her shoulder, and, along with it, her job! By placing her podium on the floor in front of the stage, Big Ethel and director Michael Fletcher immediately engage the audience and draw us into the play.

Next, there’s Georgia Dean Rudd (Donna Marie Miller) who runs the local diner, Bronco Betty’s Buffeteria, where fried foods are the specialty every day.  Georgia Dean helps spearhead the  efforts to save the trailer park.  Her best friend, Joveeta Crumpler (Crystal Oakley) has vowed to fight the annexation tooth and nail – but has only a few days before escaping to a new job with a discount cruise line.

Joveeta is part of a zany and loving family that includes little brother Norwayne “Baby” Crumpler (Travis Williams), a lovable galoot who spends much of the show practicing for the womanless beauty pageant;  and their beer-guzzling mother Caprice Crumpler (Jeannie Goodyear) who is determined to break into show business as the star of a mattress commercial. She appears in a series of costumes, each more outrageous than the other, ranging from Dorothy, from The Wizard of Oz to Marilyn Monroe to Cleopatra. I guess it’s a case of like mother, like son, because “Baby” wears one crazy get-up after another, starting with high heels, then adding panty hose, and finally an oversized, white satin, fringed cowgirl getup.

Lark Barken (Christiana “CC” Kaniefski) is a breath of fresh Oregonian air as the new age child – who happens to be heavy with child. A young widow with a secret, she is new in town, as are her strange habits of chanting and burning sage. She sets up and maintains a running gag with a series of nontraditional baby names, such as Saffron and Willow. No comedy would be complete without a villain, and in this one there are two. Neighbor Haywood Sloggett (Wally Jones) can’t wait to get rid of the “trailer trash,” until the tables are turned on him. Super tall, handsome, and swaggeringly obnoxious Lomax Tanner  (Kent Slonaker) is the newcomer who proves that things are not always what they appear to be. Olivia Laskin has a small but key role as the mayor’s wife, Starla Pudney.

Michael Fletcher keeps things moving in his mainstage directorial debut, but there were a few scene changes that lagged a bit, and the pace could be a bit faster overall.  Scott Bergman’s set is authentically finished with fake wood paneling and pink curtains. There are pink flamingoes in the small flower bed out front, and there is even pink insulation peeking out of the cutaway roof, but I’m pretty sure the CAT stage is deeper than a standard doublewide. Becki Jones probably had fun designing the costumes, especially the more outrageous ones for Caprice and “Baby.” CAT often features a show-themed raffle; this time the prize is Georgia Dean’s pinkety-pink quilt, which will be awarded at the final performance. Doublewide, Texas is a hoot and a holler, but does not quite rise to the standards set by The Dixie Swim Club or The Hallelujah Girls.

 

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: Daryll Morgan Studios

CAT Jeannie Goodyear -Travis Williams
Jeannie Goodyear and Travis Williams
CAT Jeannie Goodyear as Caprice
Jeannie Goodyear
CAT Donna Marie Miller
Donna Marie Miller
CAT Crystal Oakley-Kent Lonaker
Crystal Oakley and Kent Slonaker

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG: America Here & Now

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG: This, Too, Is America

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 25 – June 9, 2018 / NOTE: Production has been EXTENDED with additional shows June 15 & 16 @8:00pm.

Ticket Prices: $30 general

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

 

Suzan-Lori Parks’ award-winning Topdog/Underdog is one of those challenging plays that is easy to dismiss as a race play or a social play or some other specialty nook. But even though the two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, are black, and even though they are hustlers, and even though they come from an unbelievably dysfunctional background, there is something universal and far-reaching about their story. Topdog/Underdog is a story about family and striving, and, as the lyrics of Childish Gambino’s “This is America” remind us at the closing scene, it is about America.

Gambino’s lyrics and music video did not yet exist when Parks wrote Topdog/Underdog in 2001, but it’s existence today makes for some interesting comparisons. Cultural sociologists have taken the time to dissect the symbolism in the song; there are also symbols in the play. For starters, the two brothers are named Lincoln and Booth. We all know the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. And let us not forget that Booth was, in real life, an actor. In Gestalt Therapy, there is a kind of self-torture game, Topdog vs Underdog, in which people learn to face their anxieties by weighing the “topdog” or should do’s and ought to’s against the “underdog” or internal excuses. It also refers to the dominant and the submissive.  On one level, this is exactly what these two brothers do; they weigh their options and take turns trying to dominate one another. Then there is the symbolism of Lincoln, a black man, named for the white man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Parks’ Lincoln, however, portrays the historic Lincoln by wearing a long coat, a stovepipe hat, a fake beard, and white face, and his job is to sit in a chair in an arcade where tourists come and shoot him with fake bullets. His job is to die, over and over, every day.  At what point does the fake become a reality?

Similar discussions could be developed around the symbolism of the card game, Three-Card Monte, that the older brother has given up and the younger brother is trying to take up. Booth, in the play, even adopts the name 3-Card, and the game ultimately plays an important role in the devastating final scene. The gun is another incendiary symbol, appearing in both the opening and closing scenes.

This production is directed by Katrinah Carol Lewis, who is certainly no stranger to the stage, and marks her Richmond theater community directorial debut. Running about two and a half hours, with one brief ten-minute intermission, Topdog/Underdog is unrelenting in its intensity and presents a challenge for the audience as well as for its two actors, Jamar Jones (Booth) and Jeremy V. Morris (Lincoln). Set in the here and now, in a tiny rundown apartment, furnished with a mattress set on cinderblocks, a couple of mismatched chairs placed around two stacked milk crates with a cardboard square on top, and a recliner that has seen better days, David Melton’s set, holds the audience intimately close and aware.

As Booth, the younger brother, Jones maintains a rebellious anger from start to finish. In a few rare instances, usually when reminiscing about the parents who abandoned the brothers when they were ages 16 and 11, or when speaking of his on-again, off-again relationship with the unseen Grace, he allows his vulnerability to show through. Morris, as the older brother Lincoln, shows more control, partly due to character but mostly because of experience. After trying to put his street hustling days behind him, he finds his marriage to the also unseen Cookie has crumbled, and he is relying on his younger brother for a temporary place to rest his head. Lincoln’s speech is more measured, and his actions slower but he is no less passionate. Spit flies generously during the brothers’ usually heated exchanges – which are often nose to nose. I can’t help but wonder if the play would be just as effective if it were shortened by, say thirty minutes.

A few minutes into the play, I realized that it was not, in fact, my first time seeing it. I actually reviewed the Sycamore Rouge production in February 2012.  At that time, I commended the Petersburg-based (and, sadly, now defunct) theater company for mounting such a challenging work but found that the two actors did not connect – at least for me. I think director Katrinah Carol Lewis and actors Jamar Jones and Jeremy V. Morris were much more successful in creating seamless transitions and an authentic theater experience. (But. . .it’s still too long.)

(Here’s a link to that 2012 review: http://www.richmond.com/entertainment/theater-review-topdog-underdog/article_0f45bd5f-5c6b-5ed8-bb80-8cc79651fff2.html)

 

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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