THE LARAMIE PROJECT: A Community of Caring

THE LARAMIE PROJECT: The Magnitude of Hate

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis                                                                     

Richmond Triangle Players                                                                                              

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

Performances: September 26 – October 19, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-35

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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

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THE WOLVES: Game On

THE WOLVES: Girls with Goals

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Cadence Theatre Company in partnership with TheatreVCU

At: Raymond Hodges Theatre at the W.E. Singleton Performing Arts Center, 922 Park Avenue, RVA 23220

Performances: September 27 – October 7, 2018

Ticket Prices: $5.00 – $19.99

Info: (804) 828-6026 or VCUtheatre.showclix.com

An unexpected collaboration of Cadence Theatre Company and TheatreVCU + an unusual play about teen-aged girls by Sarah DeLappe = an intriguing production of sometimes intense situations that portray the multiple dimensions of young women on their way to adulthood.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, each scene in The Wolves shows the nine-member female high-school indoor soccer team preparing for their weekly game. The Wolves, by the way, is the name of the team. Initially they talk over one another, with multiple conversations occurring at once.  School work, boyfriends, the weekend, and menstruation are popular topics. US immigration policies are discussed in depth (the play premiered in 2016), as well as a lengthy dialogue on Cambodia and genocide. In addition to the usual teen-aged squabbles, there are accidents and injuries, hints of eating disorder and a possible same-sex relationship, and genuine, life-altering tragedy. We get to meet the girls as they warm up and prepare to meet their weekly opponents.

The author, interestingly, has chosen to identify the girls by their jersey numbers, rather than by name, although they do address one another by name. #25, Havy Nguyen, is the team captain but she might as well be the coach. #25 leads the warm-ups and they require genuine dedication to the running, jumping jacks, high knees, butt kicks, ball passing, and more. We learn, in bits and pieces, that the unseen coach apparently has a drinking problem, and at any rate, he is not nearly as popular as a previous coach who left to care for his ailing mother. I immediately wondered why Nguyen was wearing an ugly wig but the answer to that is revealed in the closing scenes.

#7, Jocelyn Honoré, is the team’s leading striker, but she has anger problems and a tendency to make poor decisions in life. #13, Anna Katogiritis, is the team clown, but has a bit of a mean streak and her humor always turns sarcastic.  #46, Emma Olson, is the new girl; home-schooled and well-traveled, she lives in a yurt with her mother, and struggles to fit in. The team goalkeeper, #00, Amari Cummings, is something of a prodigy: she plays the saxophone, chairs several academic teams, and has an astronomically high GPA. She also refuses to talk and has to throw up before every game.

Other team members include Katy Feldhahn (#14), Lydia Hynes (#8), Katelyn Shinn (#11), and Celeste Taica (#2). There are friendships and cliques and gossiping, but as the season passes, the girls become closer, and the audience begins to learn their personalities and quirks. Much like a Peanuts comic strip, the adults are largely unseen and unheard, with the exception of the Soccer Mom (Karen Kopryanski) who appears in the final scene, heart-rending scene. The girls are all TheatreVCU students, and Kopryanski is an assistant professor.

The Wolves is directed by Sharon Ott, Chair of the Department of Theatre at VCU with great energy and stimulating pacing that varies from frenzied action to well-placed silence. All the action takes place in an AstroTurf covered indoor arena; the floor curves upward into the ceiling. There are suggestions of actions taking place offstage, and one kick sends a soccer ball flying into the audience where it was bandied about for a bit before being returned to the playing field (as we were directed to do at the start of the show). Credit Dasia Gregg with the scenic design, Theo Dubois with the costumes, Christian DeAngelis with the lighting and Nicholas Seaver with the sound. In topic and tone, The Wolves strives to – and largely succeeds – in standing out from the pack.

NOTE1: I sat on the right side in the front row, and had no problem hearing everything, but a friend who sat in a middle row in the middle section said the sound quality was problematic.

NOTE2: A smile to #4 and #9; the stagehands who came out in uniform to set a scene!

 

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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THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME: Mystery of the Mind

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME: Touching But Don’t Touch

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage

Performances: September 21 – October 14, 2018

Ticket Prices: $30-52

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

Every now and again a play comes along that stands alone, defies description, breaks away from the normal genres. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time seems to be one of those plays. Written by Simon Stephens and based on the novel by Mark Haddon, the play concerns an exceptional teen, his adventure, and his relationships with others. What makes it different is that the young man, Christopher, appears to have some form of autism, and he is a savant, a mathematical genius, as well as the author’s device of staging the story as a play within a play, and the designers’ decisions to include lots and lots of technology, mostly in the form of multiple projections.

The title refers to the death of a neighbor’s dog, for which Christopher, played by Michael Manocchio, is initially blamed. In the course of his detecting, Christopher upsets neighbors, infuriates his dad, and uncovers disturbing news about his mother. He also learns some astonishing and life-affirming things about himself. Manocchio, who is new to the Richmond theater community, is believable in this role. His reactions to being touched and his sharpness of mind, along with his apparent deficit of social skills that make him sound alternately arrogant and childlike remind me of students I have encountered over the years.

Some years ago, I came across a book written by Temple Grandin, PhD, a professor and autistic savant known for her work in the field of animal behavior. What struck me about Dr. Grandin’s book as well as about this play is the authors’ ability to present the point of view of the autistic person in a way that draws others into an entirely new and unfamiliar world. It is sometimes uncomfortable, and many of us do not have the tools to navigate this world. The use of technology, including sound, lights, and screens, helps create this world for us, the audience. It may as close as many of us will ever come to understanding the point of view of someone on the autistic spectrum.

A device and a strength of The Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is that it tells a story, tapping into a history and culture of storytelling, sometimes using a narrator.  Emelie Faith Thompson flawlessly fills this role as Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher or paraprofessional aide – it’s never quite clear exactly what her job description is. In her role as narrator and caretaker, Thompson is omnipresent and caring, carrying the story line, explaining, sometimes digging for clarity, but her own character is never given depth or definition. Both Joe Pabst as Christopher’s dad, Ed and Laine Satterfield as the mom, Judy are presented as loving, caring people who are also deeply, humanly flawed. The rest of the cast, including Sara Collazo, Matthew Radford Davies, Adam Valentine, Andrew C. Boothby, Raven Lorraine Wilkes, Irene Ziegler, Axle Burtness, and Sanam Laila Hashemi play multiple roles as school staff, neighbors, passengers on a train and more; they even portray inanimate objects such as an ATM.

Set in Swindon, a town in South West England, and in London, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time requires the cast to maintain British accents. I think they do most of the time, but I became so consumed in the play that I really didn’t pay much attention to that detail. The dialect coach was Erica Hughes. The design team responsible for this simultaneously bright and dim set, filled with little surprises, like the model train that takes a symbolic journey across the stage, includes scenic design by Tennessee Dixon, costumes by Sue Griffin, lighting by BJ Wilkinson, and sound design by Julian Evans.

Virginia Rep artistic director Nathaniel Shaw’s direction includes lots of organic movement, which the program lists as choreography – something seldom seen in a non-musical production. Shaw’s direction and storytelling techniques here reminded me of last season’s River Ditty, a play I found difficult to embrace, but here his distinct style of directing seemed to work much better or at least I was able to connect with it on a more organic level. He established an environment that drew his excellent cast and his audience into an alternate reality for some two and a half hours, creating a cohesive theatrical experience that simultaneously entertains, makes you think, and touches the heart. There’s also an amazing little scene after the final curtain in which Christopher very entertainingly gets to explain his favorite mathematics problem from his Level A exams. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a curiously satisfying production.

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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DRACULA: Sink Your Teeth into This

COUNT DRACULA: A Comic Vampire Tale

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 14 – October 20, 2018

Ticket Prices: $40 Theater only; $57 Dinner & Theater

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

 

There is no shortage of flying bats, howling wolves, secret passages, or sudden and mysterious appearances and disappearances by Count Dracula himself.  There actually are smoke and mirrors involved in this production, along with a few other tricks of the trade. These are things Tom Width, producing artistic director of Swift Creek Mill Theatre does very well indeed. But in yet another sleight of hand, Width did not direct Count Dracula, the opening show of the 2018-2019 season. Instead, that honor went to guest director Mark Costello, a Mill alum who was a teenaged intern on the Mill’s very first opening night in 1965.

Costello keeps things moving during this two-act play, based on Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. The show runs for two hours and 45 minutes, and the well-chosen cast of nine has some standouts. Kerrigan Sullivan, in the role of Sybil Seward, sister of Dr. Seward, exemplified the comedy horror genre, both in delivery of her lines and with her physical presence, as when she slipped a bottle of sherry into the folds of her robe. For some reason, most of Sullivan’s dresses were sadly ill-fitting, in contrast to the more elegant garments that adorned Caity Brown, who portrayed Mina Murray (the object of the Count’s affections), or the formal suits favored by the male cast members. Credit Maura Lynch Cravey with the costuming.

Levi Meerovich was a solid and lumbering presence as Dr. Seward’s multi-talented servant, nursing assistant, and patient-wrangler, Hennessey, and Joey Gravins was close behind him as his second in command, Wesley. I enjoyed Chandler Hubbard as Mina’s doting fiancé, Jonathan Harker, and Jon Cobb gave a strong performance as vampire expert Heinrich Van Helsing.

Mike White seemed fully committed to his role as Dr. Arthur Seward, in whose Asylum for the Insane the play was set, but one thing I found confusing was what made Seward and Harker suddenly believe in the vampire lore that Van Helsing kept expounding upon.  Caity Brown was perfectly cast as Mina Murray, pale and waif-like, yet capable of projecting a powerful, gravelly alter-ego when voicing the soon-to-be-bride of Dracula. I loved Bartley Mullin as Renfield, the fly-eating mental patient and minion of Count Dracula who brings a chillingly weird energy to each scene in which he appears. I have a great admiration for actors who can convincingly and respectfully play the role of an insane, blind, or autistic character.

Last but not least there was Jeremy Gershman in the title role. Gershman appeared to take great delight in his role, swirling his voluminous cape, lurking, looming, and leering in that seductive yet chilling manner that characterizes the best Draculas. I knew where he appeared and disappeared from, but even from my front row seat, I was never once able to detect him getting into position or exiting the space!

The attractive wood paneled set was designed by Frank Foster, with lighting by Joe Doran, special effects by Tom Width, and technical direction by Jason “Blue” Herbert. There are lots of laughs, sufficient chills and thrills, and no blood or gore – the elements of horror that I find off-putting which is why I am not a fan of the horror genre.  The strong ensemble, beautiful set, and well-timed tricks and effects are all worth a trip to The Mill, but I did find that the 2:45 running time seemed to drag on a bit, and sometimes there was just too much talking! This talented and confident cast is perfectly capable of telling the story without spelling it all out.

 

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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DARK SIDE OF THE MOON: 2018 Dogtown Presenter’s Series

DOGTOWN PRESENTER’S SERIES: Dark Side of the Moon

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Dogtown Dance Theatre, 109 W. 15th Street, RVA 23224

Performances: September 21-29, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:00PM & Saturdays at 3:30PM

Ticket Prices: $20 General; $15 Students/Children

Info: (804) 230-8780, dogtowndancetheatre.com or https://darkside.brownpapertickets.com/

 

Dark Side of the Moon is Jess Burgess’ most ambitious project to date. Some eighteen years in the making, from inspiration to manifestation, this 40-minute long evening-length work is a celebration of movement in collaboration with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, released in 1973 (the year I graduated from high school and started college). Dark Side of the Moon – the album – explores themes of conflict, greed, time, even mental illness. For choreographer Burgess, Dark Side of the Moon is about “philosophical and physical ideas that can lead to an unsatisfied life, and ultimately to a person’s insanity.” For me – a product of the inner city and modern dance classes, who had no experience with Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon, the collaborative dance work, is a satisfying amalgamation of movement wed to music that appeals equally to lovers of music and contemporary dance.

The ten sections flow seamlessly and are named for tracks on the album, which was presented as a continuous piece of music with five tracks on each side. Performed by Burgess’ RVA Dance Collective in collaboration with Dogwood Dance Project, and RADAR, the 23 dancers move through a surrealistic environment with wooden boxes and columns on either side of the stage and two large constructions dominating the upstage corners. On one side is a large drum-shaped moon that is sometimes occupied by a dancer walking or running like a hamster in a wheel, and on the other is an impossibly tall slide that dancers use for entrances. The dancer-friendly décor was created according to Burgess’ mental image and executed by artist Mike Keeling.

The movements are often simple: a line of dancers move in unison or canon, occasionally interrupted by bodies unexpectedly popping up or dropping down like figures in a game of whack-a-mole; boxes are rolled out with dancers posed inside or perched on top. At other times an aimless walk turns into a scattered, wild run, with one or more dancers attempting to scale the giant slide or leaping into the arms of a partner. Even when at its most simple, the movement is layered – much like the music – as some dancers wait or watch while others interact, or a line of dancers moves in unison as a small group of five or so create more complex patterns in space by rolling, tumbling, twirling with arms uplifted like whirling dervishes or spinning with a partner like children pretending to be a pinwheel.

Sometimes one isn’t quite sure where to look as the movement lines draw the eye across the stage. Who’s in the box? Who’s coming down the slide? What are they going to do next? The music, the movement, and the visual set and ethereal lighting – often from the side – are complemented by costumes that start off mostly in soft, earthy tones and flowing fabrics but gradually morph into black and gray athletic wear.  From soulful to jazzed up instrumentals to cash registers ringing and synthesizers, the music suggests concepts that are reflected in the movement. The three dance companies were so well integrated that even though the program specified which company or companies were performing it was never obvious that this was not one unified group. I am sure my experience as someone new to Pink Floyd was very different from that of someone who knew the music, who grew up with the music, but this work was so well integrated that it could be experienced in multiple ways – and I am convinced that seeing it a second time will result in an entirely new and equally valid experience.

Dark Side of the Moon is a beautifully conceived and executed work of art that fulfills a need in the Richmond dance scene.

 

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: Dave Parrish Photography

SIGNIFICANT OTHER: Plus None

SIGNIFICANT OTHER: Love And. . .

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

 

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LIVING IN THE KEY OF “B” UNNATURAL: Where Friendship, Faith & Fantasy Collide

LIVING IN THE KEY OF “B” UNNATURAL: At the Intersection of Friendship, Faith & Fantasy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Hickory Hill Community Center, 3000 E. Belt Boulevard, Richmond, VA 23234

Performances: September 19 @ 12:30PM; September 21, 21, 22 @ 8:00PM & September 22 @ 4:00PM

Ticket Prices: $10 for Groups of 10 or more; $12 for Students and Seniors; $15 General Admission

Info: thetheatreubuntu@gmail.com; http://theheritageensemble.wixsite.com/thetc

 

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how the poetically titled Living in the Key of “B” Unnatural managed to move me as deeply as it did. Written by Jerry Maple, Jr., who was also the author of last’s year’s The Dream Seller and the Forest Dwellers, a children’s play produced by Heritage Ensemble, Living in the Key of “B” Unnatural is described as “a light-hearted serio-comedy.” I would describe it more as an intersection or perhaps a collision of friendship, faith, and fantasy.

 

Running one hour and twenty minutes with no intermission (but with an inexplicably long pause that obviously did not involve a change of costume or scenery), the play takes place in the single room residence of Dr. Enola VanderHorn-Bernard (Crystal Wiley-Perry). The plot revolves around Enola, a Harvard educated M.D. who one day walked away from her medical practice, her husband, and two daughters. The words depression or mental illness are never mentioned, although Enola’s friends are not exempt from calling her “crazy,” but this is clearly a case of at least clinical depression, and possibly something more. And that is why it requires a tremendous suspension of belief to accept that Enola suddenly snaps out of it.

 

Enola is a brilliant woman with a heart for people, a dislike of privilege, and an unfulfilled desire to be a missionary. Describing her past life with her husband, also a prominent physician, she says that he was “lost in prominence.” Enola’s best friends are now Shummay St. Catherine, a Guyanese short-order cook at a downtown diner (played by Haliya Robert with a flawless accent that impressed even a Guyanese audience member), and her landlord Manfred Monroe (played by Isaiah Entzminger). Enola has “rented” a room in Manfred’s Harlem brownstone for twenty years, but Manfred, who describes himself as stingy, has allowed her to go months, if not years, without paying the rent, which becomes something of an ongoing joke. More concerning, Enola has not seen her family for twenty years, and has not looked in a mirror for nineteen of those years.

 

A fourth character, Dr. Latooza Wellington (Whitney Tymas), was Enola’s Harvard classmate, and suddenly reappears in her life after more than twenty years. Latooza plays a key role in Enola’s final scene breakthrough, and there is a distinct difference in the interactions between Enola and Latooza and those between Enola and all the other characters, but to tell more would spoil the surprise. Toney Q. Cobb has directed with a keen eye for detail, humor, and the storyteller’s pace that is a trademark of this company and its artistic director, Margarette Joyner.  That storyteller’s pace sometimes drags a bit, especially as there is no intermission. I’m not sure if it that was an artistic or directorial choice or a requirement of the author. If given an opportunity, I would ask Maple about that as well as about the characters’ names – unusual even for a group of African Americans.

 

The multi-talented Joyner designed the set (a cluttered, tiny room at the top floor of a brownstone), Pamela Archer-Shaw designed the sound (which included appropriate popular mood music, including “Beautiful,” which I believe is a popular Christina Aguilera song at a key moment in Enola’s evolution), and LaWanda Raines did the costumes (a task made somewhat easier by the lead character’s refusal to change clothes until the final scene).

 

There is much about this production that some might dismiss as unbelievable, unpolished, or just generally flawed. Why, for instance, is such a big deal made of Enola changing from shoes to house slippers each time she enters her room? Could Enola’s frequent long monologues with herself have been handled differently? But then, there is something magical that happens in that intersection between friendship, faith, and fantasy that I mentioned above, something that inexplicably tugs at the heart and perhaps even dampens the eyes. And that is enough for me to recommend that you see this touching and unusual play and its earnest ensemble during its short run of just four days (the original opening was postponed due to last week’s impending hurricane warnings), ending with two shows on Saturday, September 22, one at 4PM and another at 8PM.

 

 

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

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Photo Credits:

Photos Courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company

Key of B Unnatural

Key of B
Crystal Wiley-Perry, Isaiah Entzminger, and Haliya Roberts

INVALID: When What Ails You Hits the Fan

INVALID: Modern Adaptation of a Classic Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: August 30 – September 29, 2018, Thu-Sat @ 7:30pm; Sun @ 4:00pm [check the website for specific dates as the days vary each week]

Ticket Prices: $15 – $35;

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

 

If silliness and slapstick are your schtick, Josh Chenard and Jane Mattingly’s modern adaptation of Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid (aka The Hypochondriac) is right up your alley. If not, the Firehouse production of Invalid is still worth seeing, for a number of reasons.

First, there is Chris Raintree’s set. Simple, yet elegant, the tiled floor and single wall remind you of those perspective rooms in the children’s museums – you know, the ones that make you look very tall or very short, depending on which side you stand. The set also includes a quartet of beautiful metal chairs – ornate barstools, really – for which Blair Rath is given a credit in the program as “chair fabricator.” They really don’t have anything to do with either the 19th century in which the play is set, the 17th century, in which the original version premiered, or today, but they are quite lovely, if a bit uncomfortable without the addition some plush cushions.

The pre-show curtain talk includes some discussion about the pronunciation of the title, whether it should be IN-va-led (i.e., unwell) or in-VAL-ed (i.e., null and void). It is, of course, open to interpretation. The main character, Argan (Andrew Firda), is, after all, a hypochondriac, but the modern references to universal healthcare and politics – there’s even a reference to the Artsies nominations – make the second definition just as, well, valid. And, to get the audience warmed up, everyone passes through a team of medical professionals on the way to their seats and gets treated to a taste of “laugh yoga” by Slash Coleman. Don’t forget to fill your prescription at the bar and get your bill on the way out! Yes, there is a lot going on here.

Moliere’s three-act farce has been adapted as a two-act comedy, with many modern references, but it retains most of the original characters and plot.  Argan, a wealthy hypochondriac, plots to marry his daughter Angelica (played with delightful gusto by Allison Paige Gilman) to Thomas Diaforus (Kenneth W. Putnam), the inept son of his physician, Dr. Diaforus (Christopher Dunn). But Angelica is in love with Cleante (Jamar Jones) and enlists the help of her father’s sassy maid, Toinette (Donna Marie Miller) to thwart her father’s plans as well as protect her inheritance from her scheming stepmother, Beline (played by Kirk Morton in elegant drag). And if no one else has mentioned it, I will: the hesitation over the unannounced appearance of Cleante took on a whole new dimension given that Jones is, shall we say, “not white.”

There ensues a comedy of error with much slamming of doors (even though there are only two actual doors) and people hiding in plain sight or behind silly masks that disguise nothing.

It’s all done in good fun, and rhyming couplets. The play retains a deliberately inserted unnecessary musical number, a hilariously bad operetta, countless fart jokes, a messy enema scene that requires the assistance of a stagehand and some plastic ponchos (I thought I could actually smell the. . .never mind), and the voice of Mel Brooks as God. And yes, Brooks gets a credit in the program, too. (This is a program that deserves to be read.)

Miller is delightfully over the top as Toinette. I enjoyed Firda as Argan and Gilman as his daughter, Angelica. Dunn brought a slightly sinister edge to Dr. Diaforus, and Putnam was hilarious as Thomas (with the accent on the second syllable), providing the best physical comedy of the evening. Morton’s portrayal of Beline was divine, and Jones’s constant correction of everyone’s mispronunciation of his name may or may not have been a sly reference to the difficulty many people have with some “black sounding” names. Hmm. Race. Gender. Politics. Class. Misogyny. Did anyone or any issue get overlooked?

There’s a lot going on, and the laughs flowed steadily throughout the evening – which runs just under two hours, including an intermission. Chenard’s well-paced direction reflects not just an eye and an ear, but a heart for comedy. But for all the effort and effects and interaction, at the end, I felt maybe they tried too hard, maybe there was a bit too much hype, maybe they raised our expectations too high. It was a delightful evening, but I somehow expected just a little more.

 

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: Bill Sigafoos

 

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CRIMES OF THE HEART: A Southern Sister Reunion

CRIMES OF THE HEART: Tales of Southern Sisterhood

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

VirginiaRep

At: Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: July 20 – August 26, 2018

Ticket Prices: $42

Info: (804) 282-2620 or va-rep.org

The final show of the 2017-2018 season,  Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning three-act southern tragicomedy, boasts outstanding performances by three highly individual women and a beautifully designed and detailed set created by Terrie Powers. It also has near flawless direction by Steve Perigard (who also directed Da and Brighton Beach for this same stage – “near flawless” because, with three acts, it does seem to get lulled into a light sleepy southern languor about halfway through.

There was a time when I would, if given a chance, watch daytime talk shows because the dysfunctional guests made me feel so much better about my own life. To some extent, the quirky Magrath sisters make me feel the same way about my own family. Irene Kuykendall deftly navigates the surprising complexities of Meg, the black sheep of the family, gradually revealing that she is not a complete narcissist, but has hopes and dashed dreams, and holds a deep and abiding love with her two sisters. She’s also the middle child.

Lexi Langs, who last appeared in a VaRep performance ins 2007, is fascinating as the youngest sister, Babe or Rebecca. Physically enchanting with her wide eyes and sometimes vacant stare, we first meet Babe when she returns to Old Grandad’s home after being released from jail where she spent the night after shooting her husband in the stomach. Langs gives Babe a childlike quality that is unnerving; we are never quite sure if Babe has a true mental illness or just an advanced case of “the vapors.”

But the true star of this ensemble is Maggie Roop who shoulders the burdens of the family upon the sloping shoulders of Lenny, the eldest of the three sisters. There’s usually one in every family – the one who takes care of everyone and everything, but no one ever thinks she needs taking care of.  Roop spends much of the play trying to keep the peace; there are dark circles under her eyes, and she is obsessed with cleaning, which is, perhaps, the only thing over which she has any control. Roop brings unforced depth to the character of Lenny. For most of the three acts, I wanted to give Lenny a hug, so it was doubly rewarding when, in the third act, she took a broom to the butt of her obnoxious, social climbing first cousin, Chick (Maggie Bavolack). Whiny and annoying, Chick opens the first scene with a hilarious and unexpected reverse strip-tease, in which she elaborately squeezes into a pair of “petite” pantyhose.

Crimes of the Heart tackles real-life trauma: suicide; the illness of an aging grandparent; spousal abuse; dishonest politicians; social pressure; regret; vendetta; attempted murder; low self-esteem. Set in the small town of Hazlehurst, Mississippi (a real town about 30 miles south of the state capital of Jackson) five years after Hurricane Camille (which blew through in August of 1969), there are subtle references to the racial politics of the day, but more disturbingly, because of the racial politics of the times, a major issue of statutory rape is swept under the table, so to speak.

The overall outstanding ensemble is focused on the relationships between the women, but there are also credible performances by Arik Cullen as Meg’s former love interest, Doc Porter, and Tyler Stevens as the young lawyer, Barnette Lloyd.

There are thought-provoking lines, like, “She works out in the garden wearing the lime green gloves of a dead woman” physical humor, as when Babe prepares a glass of lemonade for Meg that makes Meg’s face – not just her lips, but her entire face – pucker, but adds so much sugar to her own glass that we can almost hear it crunch when she sips it. But despite – or maybe because of – our better judgment, Crimes of the Heart makes us laugh at such taboo topics as attempted murder and an old man falling into a coma. Babe may have shot her husband, but each sister has to face up to her own “crimes of the heart.”

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 Sutton

Crimes of the Heart
Lexi Langs, Maggie Roop, and Irene Kuykendall
Crimes of the Heart
Lexi Langs, Maggie Roop, Irene Kuykendall. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Crimes of the Heart
Maggie Roop, Lexi Langs, and Irene Kuykendall
Crimes of the Heart
Lexi Langs, Maggie Roop, Maggie Bavolack. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Crimes of the Heart
Maggie Roop, Maggie Bavolack, Irene Kuykendall. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

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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