LIVIN’ FAT: Living Large

LIVIN’ FAT: The Return of Good Times

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Pine Camp Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Road, RVA 23227

Performances: November 8-17, 2018 with performances at 8:00 pm November 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 & 17; 10:00 am November 14 and 4:00 pm November 17.

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

Info: thetheatreubuntu@gmail.com or https://livinfat.brownpapertickets.com/

If Livin’ Fat, the current production by the Heritage Ensemble Theatre at the Pine Camp Cultural Arts and Community Center has the look and feel of a 1970s era sitcom, there is a good reason. It was written by Judi Ann Mason, whose work includes Good Times, Sanford and Son, and A Different World, as well as the film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. Director dl Hopkins remained true to the sitcom genre, using snappy pacing and staging that made the audience feel as if we were, at times, peering into the Carter family’s living room through an invisible screen. Characters even approached the edge of the stage to look out the window, and often crossed one another precariously close to the edge of the stage.

What’s even more remarkable about Livin’ Fat is that Mason (1955-2009) wrote it when she was a 19-year-old drama student at Grambling State University and it earned her the Norman Lear Award for comedy writing. Given that distinguished history – and the strong cast – I’m upset that I did not, could not love this production.

Livin’ Fat takes place in the “front room” of the Carter family home in the Black Quarter of an unnamed southern town. Yes, that’s what my grandmother called our living room, too. The room is spotless but shabby, and on the wall behind the sofa is the obligatory triptych: Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy. Big Mama (Sharalyn Garrard) is a disillusioned widow, given to snappy comebacks. She also has a surprising affinity for the young people in her life and often sides with her grandchildren much to the chagrin of her daughter. Mama (Andrea Shantell Dunnaville) has a direct line to God and can quote scripture for any situation. She is equally yoked to husband Calvin (Arthur Muhammad), who works two jobs to support his family and is a stalwart deacon at their church. The parents’ faith and the family’s future are tested when their son, David, comes into an unexpected windfall.

David (Akiel Baldwin) is a college graduate who, upon returning home, could find no other work than as a janitor at a bank. A fate would have it, one day while working at the bank, the bank gets robbed and no one noticed that a bundle of money was dropped on the floor where it found its way into David’s dust rag. Later references to the “dust” in his pocket, therefore, have two meanings – the “dust” from his cleaning rag and an old slang term for being so poor there is “nothing but dust” in your pockets.

Garrard is consistently funny, tossing off sarcasm like breathing, waving her wig in the air, referring to her television set as if it were her lover, eating ex-lax chocolate laxatives like candy to soothe her unnamed “condition,” and being contrary just for sport. Dunnaville takes broad comedy to extremes, often to the point of making her character a caricature. On the positive side, her projection and diction are excellent, and we never have any trouble understanding her, even when her daughter Candy (Imani Banks) is blasting music from her bedroom. Muhammad’s portrayal of the father is the most moderate, contained, and realistic of any of the play’s six characters. He is, therefore, a positive role-model and a model black father. Candy is the least developed of the characters in the family, yet Banks takes advantage of every moment on stage. She is the cute but annoying little sister, given to exaggeration, and does not know the meaning of giving up. When sent to her room, she silently reappears in the background, listening to what the grown-ups don’t want her to hear.

As David, Baldwin must walk a delicate line. College educated – and probably the first in his family to attend college – he is expected to do better than his parents’ generation yet must show respect while living in their home. He does not complain about his menial job, but he talks of his dreams with his best friend. For the most part, Baldwin achieves this balance with aplomb, with the assistance of his side-kick Boo (Marsalis McKeever). Boo, who has not gone to college and seems to have no plan at all for his life, is David’s ride-or-die friend who stands out for two characteristics: when he comes into some money, he spends it all on loud clothes; and he speaks out of the side of his mouth, as if he has marbles in his mouth, making it difficult to clearly hear anything he says.

As appealing as these characters are, and as much as they made me laugh, I found the overall production uneven and underwhelming. The juxtaposition of Dunnaville’s broad sitcom comedy with Muhammad’s more conservative portrayal, Dunnaville’s over-enunciation in contrast to McKeever’s muffled utterances, the frequent (and utterly accurate) use of the word “nigger,” (I hate the euphemism, “n-word”), and author Mason and director Hopkins’ adherence to the sitcom genre just didn’t connect for me. After the show, my constant companion and theater date suggested that (a) I wasn’t really black and (b) Livin’ Large would really, really appeal to older black churchgoers (except, perhaps for that word I mentioned above) and potential black theatergoers who don’t go to the theater because they don’t see enough representations of themselves and their lives onstage.

There is, after all a moral dilemma – a foundational element of good storytelling: should David be allowed to keep the “found” money or should he return it? Has he, in fact, committed a crime? Calvin, the head of the household, takes the question to God, and after a period of prayer, the family abides by his decision. To find out what he decided, and how the play ends, I suggest you go see Livin’ Fat for yourself. (Dates and times are listed above.)

Livin’ Fat: written by Judi Ann Mason; directed by dl Hopkins; with lighting by Geno Brantley; sound by dl Hopkins (a nice 70s playlist); costumes (character and period appropriate) by LaWanda Raines; set by Margarette Joyner; carpentry by Vinnie Gonzalez; photography by Pamela Archer-Shaw; and videography by Dewey Collins.

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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Link to WRIC interview with director dl Hopkins and Sharalyn Garrard (Big Mama): https://www.wric.com/community/-livin-fat-hits-the-stage-in-rva/1576260858

Photo Credits: Photos courtesy of Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company

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RICHMOND BALLET: A Requiem Into the Night

RICHMOND BALLET:  Studio One

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Richmond Ballet Studio Theatre, 407 E. Canal St. RVA 23219

Performances: November 6-11, 2018

Ticket Prices: $26-46

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

The Richmond Ballet Studio Series is unique and alluring for the intimacy of the space and the presentation of two or three works in an atmosphere that encourages reflection. The current Studio One production continues this tradition. On Tuesday, the Richmond Ballet presented Jerome Robbins’ In the Night, a company premiere of Robbins’ 1970 work for the New York City Ballet, and the world premiere of Nicole Haskins’ Requiem, inspired by the music of Gabriel Fauré.

In the Night is composed of three pas de deux featuring three couples of different temperaments, possibly different ages, at different stages of their relationships.  On Wednesday night, the couples were Melissa Robinson and Marty Davis, Eri Nishihara and Khalyom Khojaev, and Maggie Small and Fernando Sabino. Robinson and Davis embodied youthful elegance, she in a softly flowing purple dress, he is a blue-gray waistcoat and ascot. Their movements were sustained, romantic, controlled, yet effortless. Nishihara and Khojaev had a more mature posture, and the earth tones of their costumes added weight. At the same time, their movements were more fanciful, with bigger, bolder jumps and lifts. Finally, Small and Sabino presented a more passionate duo. Her black dress with red underskirt suggested a smoldering temperament, and his darker gray jacket was smoky, matching the teasing sensuality verging on conflict – sort of like classical ballet with a tango temperament. The final section of the beautiful Chopin nocturnes, played live onstage by pianist Joanne Kong, brought all three couple together. In one beautiful moment they briefly acknowledged one another before dancing off.

In her video reflections, Haskins described Fauré’s Requiem as “a lullaby for death, not dark or sad.” The women’s flowing skirts, designed by Emily Morgan, were designed to make the movement linger, like the memories of loved ones. The work opens with lights like memorial candles and the women, seated with their skirts pooled around them, also look like candles. The stage is kept dim, and groups of dancers are bathed in the amber glow of the lights. The dancers’ formations are fascinating and delightfully unpredictable: clusters, solos, duos, small groups, diagonal facings, patterns that flow and change organically. While Haskins assured us the work was not dark or sad, it did seem to go on just a little too long.

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:

Rehearsal Photos from Richmond Ballet Facebook posts & Photos by Sarah Ferguson

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Sabrina Holland and Fernando Sabino in In The Night by Jerome Robbins. Richmond Ballet 2018. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.
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Abi Goldstein and Thel Moore III in In The Night by Jerome Robbins. Richmond Ballet 2018. All Rights Reserved. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.
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Dancers of Richmond Ballet in Requiem by Nicole Haskins. Richmond Ballet 2018. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.
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Dancers of Richmond Ballet in Requiem by Nicole Haskins. Richmond Ballet 2018. Photo by Sarah Ferguson.
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Richmond Ballet dancers rehearsing “Requiem”
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Choreographer Nicole Haskins with Richmond Ballet dancers Abi Goldstein and Mate Szentes
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Cody Beaton and Mate Szentes rehearsing “Requiem”
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Richmond Ballet dancers rehearsing “Requiem”

MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS: A Holiday Heartwarmer

MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS: When Dreams Come True

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn; 1601 Willow Lawn Drive, Richmond, Virginia 23230

Performances: October 27 – December 30, 2018

Ticket Prices: Start at $21

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

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a musical adaptation of a children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater, and the book for the musical is by Robert Kauzlaric with music and lyrics by George Howe. It is a book unfamiliar to me, my daughter, and my two grandsons, but after spending Sunday afternoon at the Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn it will likely find it way onto our bookshelves this coming holiday season. It has comedy, adventure, and penguins.

Richard Popper is a house painter and decorator of modest means; he and his wife Florence live on a strict budget that does not allow for the travel and adventures Mr. Popper dreams of. He is especially fond of Antarctic exploration and penguins. Of course, there’s more to the story. Imagine their surprise when the Poppers hear on the radio that Mr. Popper’s favorite explorer, Admiral Drake, has received Mr. Popper’s fan letter and is responding with a surprise. Soon a large crate is delivered to the Popper’s Stillwater, Minnesota home and inside is a genuine Gentoo penguin from Antartica that quickly becomes a part of the Popper’s little family. (In the book, it seems the Poppers were British and have two children, but in the musical the live in the USA and their only children are the feathered kind.)

The Popper’s household soon expands, as their male penguin, Captain Cook, eventually grows lonely, and an aquarium that Mr. Popper contacts for help has a lonely female penguin, Greta, that they generously ship to the Popper’s residence. The next thing you know, there are ten penguin chicks and the poor Poppers have to figure out how to keep all these penguin bellies full of fresh fish and frozen shrimp. Their solution – Popper’s Performing Penguins – leads to more hilarity and the gradual realization that touring on the vaudeville circuit is no way for a family of birds to live.

Yes, I said vaudeville. Mr. Popper’s Penguins was written in 1938 and vaudeville as well as references to the WPA (the federal government’s New Deal Administration program called the Works Progress Administration from 1935-1939, when it was renamed the Work Projects Administration), along with Mrs. Popper’s job search and the family’s focus on finances will likely go over the heads of the young audience members as well as most of their parents. Let’s face it, I’m a grandmother, and this was before my time, too. I only know about these things because I teach dance history! My daughter did ask what WPA was, but neither grandson seemed to notice or care.

All the shenanigans are skillfully handled by director Josh Chenard, with musical direction by Jason Marks and choreography by Wes Seals. A cast of five talented actors play all the roles – some thirteen different characters, with Derrick Jacques as Mr. Popper and Renee McGowan as Mrs. Popper. Keaton Hillman Emma-Claire Polich, (both ensemble) and Eve Marie Tuck (swing) play all the other characters. Both Kingston (age 10) and his mom Soleil were impressed by Keaton Hillman who changed characters, costumes and accents with the dexterity of a magician, and manipulated the Captain Cook penguin puppet as well.

Yes, the two adult penguins were large puppets (credit Kylie Clark with the puppet design – something Virginia Rep Children’s Theatre does so well) while the 10 penguin chicks were smaller, stuffed versions. Emmitt (age 4) was enthralled by the penguins. He spent most of the hour (no intermission) perched on the edge of his seat, his eyes wide open so as not to miss anything. He did tear his eyes away from the stage to lean in and ask his mom, “Can I have a pet penguin?” He made a second earnest plea out in the parking lot, adding that the penguin could live in the refrigerator.

With about six musical numbers, Mr. Popper’s Penguins moved at a fairly rapid pace – but never felt rushed. Jaques and McGowan carried most of the story, and their voices are strong and clear, making it easy for attendees of all ages to understand the lyrics. Jeanne Nugent’s costumes are lovely – especially the women’s wide-legged pants that remind me of Ms. Celie’s pants from The Color Purple. Mrs. Popper’s apron, Mr. Popper’s bow tie, and painter’s coveralls, and the props used by the various characters (a wooden dog, a hat with the gray hair attached, Mr. Popper’s painter’s ladder and pipe) are all overly exaggerated, almost cartoonish.

Taking this theme about as far as it could go, Chris Raintree’s set includes larger than life library books that open up to reveal entire rooms. “Atkinson’s Kitchen Companion” houses the Popper’s kitchen while their living room is housed within a tome entitled “432 Proudfoot Avenue” and the admiral’s ship is docked inside a book on Antarctic exploration. The production is visually stimulating but not over stimulating.

There’s also lots of word play. Captain Cook and Greta’s brood are given the names of famous explorers, such as Ferdinand, Columbus, and Magellan. There’s also Isabella and Victoria, who wears a tiara. Finally, but not least, there is all the alliteration! Mr. Popper’s Penguins alliterates just about every “p” word you can think of, and when they run out of “p” words they alliterate other letters of the alphabet.

Recommended for ages 4 and up, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a family-friendly production that is perfect for the younger members of the audience and is being offered as an alternative or addition to holiday staples, such as The Nutcracker. Unlike many productions of past seasons, there is none of the double entendre and innuendo that seemed to be intended for the adults. Here, the focus is all on the pleasure of the kids, and Kingston and Emmitt would give this production a combined two thumbs up.

 

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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Renée McGowan and Derrick Jaques. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
Mr Popper's Penguins
Renée McGowan and Derrick Jaques. Photo by Aaron Sutten.
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Eve Marie Tuck, Derrick Jaques, Renée McGowan, Keaton Hillman, Emma-Claire Polich. Photo by Aaron Sutten.

ANANYA DANCE THEATRE: People Powered Dances of Transformation

ANANYA DANCE THEATRE: How Do We Show Up For Each Other?

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Commonwealth University School Grace Street Theater, 934 West Grace Street, RVA 23220

Performances: October 26 & 27, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20 Adults; $15 Students

Info: (804) 828-2020 or http://arts.vcu.edu/dance/

 

Ananya Dance Theatre, under the artistic direction of Ananya Chatterjea, presents dance within a social, feminist/womanist, human context. Entertaining is only a part of what they do. There were no spectators in the Grace Street Theater on Saturday night when I attended Shaatranga: Women Weaving Worlds. Oh, there were plenty of people in the audience, but Chatterjea and her troupe of seven powerful women did not allow us to sit and be entertained.

Several times the house lights came up and those who may have been under the impression they had come to see a show were asked to take a stand, to raise a fist, to clap and stomp our feet. We participated in an invocation of breath and watching a dance performance may never be the same. Stand up (one woman did). Raise your first (most did). Clap your hands. Stomp your feet. Chant: Public fury; public joy; public love; public dance!

Shaatranga, which means “seven colors” in Bānglā, is the culmination of a quintet of works exploring work women do. The dance was created in four movements and runs 95 minutes with no intermission and is based on research, history, and cultural connections. The two main themes are ancient Indian Ocean trade routes that connected Asia, Africa, and South America, and the shared practices of indigo-dyeing. Visually, an abstract navigation star represents the compass that “enables us to remain on the path of a complexly woven notion of justice.” At the beginning of the work, the navigation star is broken but by the end it has been healed. The sections of the dance bear names like “Voyage,” “Shipwreck,” and “Desolation.” There are “Rituals of Mourning” and “Dancing to Heal.”

Chatterjea’s movement vocabulary uses classical Indian dance as a foundation and there are layers contemporary dance woven throughout. There is yoga, martial arts, rage and joy. The movement that stood out most to me is a spiral that starts from deep inside the core then winds its way up and out. There is also spoken word, ritual, and sound: grunts, screams, the sound of helicopter rotors as the women’s hands reach up, the sound of feet slapping and stomping, the sound of drums, and even, I think, the faint sound of birds and monkeys chattering.

At the beginning, there was a curtain hung asymmetrically so that it reminded me simultaneously of a simple curtain or covering, a woman’s veil, and a ship’s sail. Later, the black curtains opened just a bit to reveal a portion of white wall bathed in red light with Chatterjea splattered on the wall, feet up, arms splayed out on the floor. There is beauty, hunger, pain, distortion, and there is power.

Projections and simple design elements created an all-encompassing world that kept me on the edge of my seat for most of the evening. There were rolling waves and animated billows of indigo that morphed into hands, and there were ceiling-to-floor ribbons of indigo, interwoven like the lives of the women represented, remembered, and honored. Throughout, the women wore loose-fitting dark blue pants (a knee-length Indian salwar, similar to Victorian knickers or bloomers) but changed their tops for each movement (peplum tunics, athletic leotards, high necked tops) in shades of blue, sometimes with splashed of color, but always indigo. Musical composition, vocals, sound design, poetry, costume, lighting, scenic design, animations and projections all united in a seamless manifestation of Chatterjea’s concept.

Often, a program is unnecessary, except to identify the names of the dances. In this case, the program was an essential guide to the work, filled with background, history, poetry, definitions, and questions: How do we show up for each other? This company, this work must be seen. Writing about it does not do it justice.

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:

Company photos and photos from the company website.

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SONGS FROM BEDLAM: The Lunatics Take Over the Asylum

SONGS FROM BEDLAM: Tu Es Fou

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: October 18 – November 4, 2018; Daily Planet Health Services benefit w/ post show talkback on October 28 and Friends 4 Recovery benefit w/ post show talkback on November 4

Ticket Prices: $15 – $30

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

 

Songs From Bedlam is a new production of Richmond playwright Douglas Jones’ play that gives voice to the insane, the homeless, the alcoholic, and the overlooked. First produced by Barksdale Theatre (now VirginiaRep) in 2003, the script has been revised, the direction has been placed in the hands of Todd LaBelle, Jr. who allows the characters to unfold naturally and unadorned, and the actors are placed on display in a three-dimensional, interactive box designed by Chris Raintree.

And I use the phrase “placed on display” quite deliberately. The characters are placed on display like fish in an aquarium, like animals in a zoo, like freaks in a sideshow, like the conjoined twins and women from Africa who were considered curiosities during the World’s Fair. In a way, it appeals to our baser instincts, yet it is hard to look away. At times, I felt that by sitting in the audience, we had stolen the final shreds of dignity and privacy that these poor people had. Songs From Bedlam is compelling and brutal, and meant more for discussion and introspection than entertainment.

LaBelle has a strong ensemble to work with: Axle Burtness, Claire M. Gates, Irene J. Kuykendall, Jonathan Hardison, Granville Scott, and Linda Snyder fill the generic roles of nameless characters identified only as Young Man, Young Woman, Woman, Man, Old Man, and Old Woman.

Burtness, for instance, portrays an affable but obsessed man who is driven to visit the aquarium every day and stare at the same exhibit, while Kuykendall tells the compelling story of a prostitute who killed a client who violated her one rule, “don’t kiss me.” Later she tells the heartrending story of a woman who could not let go of her dead baby and Gates uses sign language for her monologue because her character has cut out her own tongue. Snyder’s character speaks of childhood abuse and Scott’s alcoholic character is, perhaps, the most familiar – sort of like the philosophical alcoholic uncle at the family reunion.

The set has a top, and the back wall has panels that slide out to provide walls and benches, but the front and sides are open, and a handful of audience members were invited to sit onstage, in observer seats provided for that purpose – a reminder that Elizabethans in the 16th century would pay a fee to visit Bethlehem Hospital, from which Bedlam got its name, and watch the “lunatickes.”  There are also some interesting lighting effects by Andrew Bonniwell, especially at the beginning when Burtness is inside the aquarium. This is, indeed, an innovative format, and an all-encompassing environment, but the historical precedent and subject matter are somewhat distasteful, and this is theater that deliberately and bravely sets out to discomfort rather than entertain its audience.

The characters are costumed in plain, off-white scrubs, like prison uniforms, which Nic Charlie Perez has decorated with words and pictures that are significant to each character. Burtness, for instance, wears eyes and Snyder has the image of the Virgin Mary and the words “you are my angel” and “smack.”  Hardison’s top bears the words “silly fellow” while Kuykendall sports the warning “do not kiss me.”

For all its harshness, Songs From Bedlam is filled with beautiful, poetic language. Jones has a way with words, and in addition to the sign language (which I thought went on too long without interpretation or at least captioning), there are liberal sprinklings of French, Spanish, and Latin, all enhanced by Ryan Dygert’s subtle sound design that includes echoes and whispers as well as music, including some original music composed by Kelly Kennedy.

For this production, the Firehouse Theatre is partnering with community organizations, the Daily Planet Health Services and Friends 4 Recovery Whole Health Center, with talkbacks and receptions for the October 28 and November 4 productions. There is also a related PhotoVoice exhibit in the lobby. The post show talkbacks should prove to be interesting, as the serious, real life, depressing nature of this subject matter is not the usual subject matter of an evening of theater. Do not go to Songs of Bedlam expecting a musical.

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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GUTENBERG! The Musical! (with two exclamation points!!)

GUTENBERG! The Musical! (Really)

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

At: Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse, Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace Street, RVA 23219

Performances: October 12 – November 3, 2018, Thursdays-Saturdays @8:00pm & Sundays @2:00pm.

Ticket Prices: $32 Adults; $27 Seniors; $22 Students & RVATA Members (with ID)

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

 

Gutenberg! The Musical! is a play-within-a-play written by Anthony King and Scott Brown who present their comedic farce as a backer’s audition of an historical fiction about the German printer Johannes Gutenberg. Got that? Stay with me, because it doesn’t get any simpler.

Chris Hester and Paul S. Major play the authors Doug Simon and Bud Davenport, who are pitching their musical in hopes of finding someone to back them in a Broadway run. The show is hyped as big, splashy, and better than all others of its genre. But they have no actors, just a few props and a collection of baseball hats with the names of all the characters (e.g., Drunk #1, Drunk #2, Mother, Daughter, Gutenberg, Monk, Helvetica, Old Black Narrator). Doug and Bud switch hats as they rotate through the characters, sometimes stacking them for efficiency, or wearing one on their head and one on each hand to simulate crowd scenes. They string hats on a line, held up with the assistance of two audience members, and are even able to create a chorus line. Musical numbers from honkytonk to rock ‘n roll and romantic ballads are interspersed with puns, explanations of musical theater terminology, such as the definition of a metaphor, an example of a charm song, and a running gag recurring line involving dirty thatched roofing.

Early in the play the authors admit that their “research” consisted of a brief Google search, the result of which was that there is very little known about the life and times of Johann Gutenberg. So. . .they decided to just make up stuff, hence the historical fiction. Among the things they made up is the name of Gutenberg’s fictitious love interest, Helvetica and, apparently, the name of the town, Schlimer – a word that is suspiciously similar to schleimer, which loosely means “ass-kisser.” There is also a totally unrelated connection to the Holocaust, and several unkind and politically incorrect references to stupidity. Monk, the evil monk, calls Helvetica a “dumb German anti-Semite,” and Helvetica later sings that “history is paved with the hearts of the stupid.” Oh, and Gutenberg starts out as a winemaker, who handily turns his wine press into a printing press, quite forgetting to tell his lovely, love-truck assistant that she can stop tromping on her bucket of grapes.

Hester and Major, of necessity, remain on stage the entire time, and they are accompanied by Charlene (musical director Leilani Fenick). Both are enthusiastic, energetic, and affable, as Jan Guarino’s direction and choreography keep everything moving along at a fast clip. The eighteen or so people in the Sunday matinee audience seemed to have a great time. There was lots of laughter and applause, and a woman I chatted with during intermission made a point of telling me, completely unsolicited, that she was very happy that she could clearly hear and understand all the lyrics – something that is often a problem in musicals.

There’s just one major problem. Rather than humorous, or zany, I just found the whole thing silly. It tries too hard and, at least for me, there was no “aha” moment that made it all worthwhile. I don’t care that it isn’t big and splashy, that there are just two actors, no sets, and no laser lights, but, I’m sorry, Doug and Bud, Gutenberg! The Musical! isn’t better than Cats!!

 

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 from Quill Theatre’s Facebook page

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Paul S. Major and Chris Hester
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Chris Hester and Paul S. Davenport

BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY: Location, Location, Location

BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY: The Family We Choose Sometimes Chooses Us

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Virginia Rep/Cadence Theatre Company

At: Theatre Gym, Virginia Repertory Center, 114 W. Broad St., RVA 23220

Performances: October 13 – November 4, with previews on October 11 & 12 and talkbacks October 21 & 28

Ticket Prices: $10-35

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

 

Written in 2014, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s multiple-award winning play, Between Riverside and Crazy, could have been ripped directly from current headlines about police shootings of black men in America, but it was actually inspired by the shooting of a black undercover officer by an off-duty white officer on a New York City subway train in 1994.

Add to a controversial shooting the additional components of illegal activities, drug and alcohol addiction, strained relationships, faltering faith, and unresolved grief, and you have the makings of a compelling drama. Walter “Pops” Washington, the cantankerous patriarch, is played by David Emerson Toney, an experienced actor who is an Assistant professor of Acting and Directing at VCU, but new to the Richmond stage.

Toney’s portrayal of Pops is a delicate balancing act of rage, hurt feelings, loss, love, and longing. At any given time, the audience is not sure which emotion is going to come bubbling up and erupt over Rich Mason’s set – the kitchen and living room (later bedroom) of what is described as a “pre-war apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City.” It’s important to know that this is an unusually spacious apartment, in a highly desirable neighborhood, that it is protected by long-standing rent control laws that prevent the landlord from pricing the coveted units out of the reach of (mostly elderly) residents. Pops starts drinking early in the morning and is so fond of the word m—–f—– that it appears that it’s even the preferred name for his dog.

After the death of his wife, Pops opened his home to his son Junior (Jerold E. Solomon) who shares more than a name with his father. It was interesting to see Solomon, who is often cast in the role of the father figure, placed in the position of prodigal son. The chemistry and conversations between father and son provided some of the most fascinating and revelatory moments in the entire play.

In addition to father and son, the household includes Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Juliana Caycedo) and Junior’s friend Oswaldo (Thony Mena). Lulu is a somewhat mysterious figure, simultaneously portrayed as a good girl and a “working girl.” She is genuinely caring, but there is something off about her, which is never really explained. Oswaldo is presented as a strong, sympathetic figure – a set-up for one of two completely shocking events in this two-act play. Individually both Lulu and Oswaldo share a special relationship with their host, and both call Pops “Dad.” I loved everything about both Mena and Caycedo, right down to her skin tight clothing and his Nuyorican accent.

Supporting characters included Bianca Bryan as Pop’s former partner, Detective Audrey O’Connor and Larry Cook as her fiancé, Lieutenant Caro.  They take turns playing good cop/bad cop and frequently confuse the difference between caring and coercion. I found the dynamic between Bryan and Cook interesting, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe Bryan’s tears when her character tried to play the victim; she just seemed too strong for that. Last but not least there was Maria Hendricks as the Church Lady, an almost mythic creature who appearance, long after we had been told to expect her, was a startling contrast to what I had been led – or lulled – to expect. Hendricks provided the second big shock of the evening, in a most delightful and humorous way, blending sex and spirituality with an unexpected cultural twist.

Between Riverside and Crazy reminds me of those commercials that point out that families are what we make them. There is nothing standard about this family, but there is something unsettlingly familiar about each member and the family unit they have created. The final scene raises more questions than it answers. “Does it have a happy ending?” asked the woman I met and chatted with pleasantly throughout the evening. “That depends,” I responded. It depends on what constitutes happiness for you. It depends on which questions are important to you, what you need answers for, and how much ambiguity you can live with. What is important to you, and what can you live without?

Rich Mason’s set manages to achieve an elaborate sense of spaciousness, but the aged and drab furnishings contrasted oddly, to my eye, with the tall elegant windows, and the kitchen appeared outdated, even though the exact time-frame was never clear. And maybe it was just me, but the family’s entrances and exits from both an upstage door and a downstage corner and their sudden appearances on the rooftop sometimes seemed to defy the laws of physics. Jesse Senechal included some subtle and appropriate effects in the sound design while Sarah Grady’s costuming was appropriate and consistent for each character – although I did wonder, if is it common for police officers to come to dinner in uniform.

Tawnya Pettiford-Wates has directed Between Riverside and Crazy with sensitivity and perception. The cast has responded with authenticity that defies perfection. The resulting experience makes for unforgettable, must-see theatre.

NOTE: Between Riverside and Crazy contains adult language and is recommended for viewers ages 16+.

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: Jason Collins Photography

 

 

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Jerold E. Solomon, Juliana Caycedo, Bianca Bryan, and David Emerson Toney
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Bianca Bryan, Larry Cook, and David Emerson Bryan
Between Riverside and Crazy
David Emerson Toney. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.
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Jerold E. Solomon and Juliana Caycedo

 

Between Riverside and Crazy
David Emerson Toney and Maria Hendricks. Photo by Jason Collins Photography.
Between Riverside and Crazy
Thony Mena and David Emerson Toney