APPROPRIATE: Of Race, Sex, Family Dysfunction, History, and Ghosts

APPROPRIATE: Race, Sex, Family Dysfunction, History, and Ghosts

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: April 28-May 20, with Previews on April 25 & 27. Showtimes 7PM Thursday; 8PM Friday & Saturday; 2PM Sunday. Talkbalk after the May 6 matinee.

Ticket Prices: $10-35

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

 

Appropriate, an award-winning -play by young playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is one of the most shocking, inappropriate, and well-done productions of the season. And to be clear, there is very little that takes place in this play that could be called “appropriate” by any stretch of the imagination.

The patriarch of the Lafayette family has died, and his three heirs reunite at his Southeast Arkansas plantation house to settle his decrepit estate. The siblings, Antoinette “Toni” Lafayette (Susan Sanford), Beauregarde “Bo” Lafayette (Joe Pabst), and François “Franz/Frank” Lafayette (Happy Mahaney) have been estranged, and Frank’s ill-timed attempt to reunite leads to the uncovering of long-buried family secrets.

As the only girl, Toni was left with many of the household responsibilities after the death of the trio’s mother, including caring for her troublesome younger brother, Frank, and their dying father. This has left her bitter and, apparently, emotionally unstable. Sanford played this role to the hilt and it was the first time in my life I ever felt like strangling the affable actress. Sanford made Cruella de Vil, or whatever female villain comes to mind, look like mother of the year.

Mahaney, turned up unexpectedly for his own father’s estate sale and auction, climbing in through an open window with his new-age fiancé, River Rayner (Kathryn Humphries). Mahaney’s lovable inability to complete a sentence, or indeed to make sense at any time, along with his boyish good looks and his character’s bad-boy background made it difficult to trust Frank’s assurances of having put aside his old ways. Toni’s repeated questions to anyone in earshot as to whether Frank was high or drunk were initially annoying – but an explosive revelation in Act 3 brought clarity to those accusations and make her seem just a little less crazy. (But I still wanted to strangle her.)

Tyler Stevens plays Toni’s teen-aged son, Rhys Thurston, who seems to be following in his estranged uncle’s footsteps. And for some reason, most of the family seems to be okay with the possibility that Bo’s daughter, Cassidy seems to have a crush on Rhys – who happens to be her first cousin, by my reckoning. I know the play is set in Arkansas, but the characters now live in New York and Portland, Oregon, and other places where that sort of thing is not condoned. On opening night, Cassidy was played by Caroline Johnson, a former elementary student of mine, I am proud to say, but probably not as proud as her mother, director Anna Senechal Johnson. Lola Mühlenfeld and Grace Connell are also listed for this role in the program.

Pabst plays Bo with shaking hands and tense, terse verbal exchanges. Bo is a ticking time bomb, caught between the needs of his wife, Rachel (Jill Bari Steinberg) and the unreasonable demands of his sister, Toni. I do not envy his position. He has problems of his own, and little or no space to deal with them, and his third act breakdown is much needed.

As the outsiders, Rachel and River become friends, but when things come to a boil and an honest to goodness brawl breaks out in the cluttered living room of the old manor house, they find themselves caught up in the fray. John Chenard must have had a ball staging the choreography for this fight: furniture is tossed, Rhys jumps on his uncle’s back – or was it his dad’s back? – pillows are smashed into faces, and words are thrown out that make it impossible to look the others in the face the next morning.

As the family struggles to make sense of their past, their loss, and their future, they uncover some disturbing memorabilia about their deceased father: an album full of pictures showing the lynching of black people, and jars containing souvenirs ears and bones and such. What does this all mean and how do they reconcile this with the father they knew? Sometimes a sheet is just a sheet, and sometimes it’s not. . .

It’s interesting that Appropriate is playing in the Theatre Gym while right next door in the larger November Theatre space River Ditty is also exploring themes of family secrets and dysfunction, societal intolerance and racism. And it seems more than a coincidence that Appropriate is playing this season while Richmond, Charlottesville, and other locales are still reeling from the discussions of whether statues of Confederate generals and Confederate flags are simply history or heritage or hurtful symbols of a deeply rooted institutional racism.

 Appropriate was directed by Cadence Theatre Company’s Artistic and Managing Director, Anna Senechal Johnson. The beautifully detailed set was designed by Rich Mason. Special note should be made for Daniel Burgess’ set dressing and all the stage and properties managers who transformed the stage. The opening act showed the cluttered living room of a bonafide hoarder; the second act showed a cleaned-up room; and in the final scene of Act Three, a crew destroyed the room in a matter of seconds – tearing up the floor, smashing down bookcases, taking down pictures, staining the walls. There were even plants climbing in through the shattered windows!

Michael Jarett designed the lighting – I think I mentioned in another post that he’s designed the lighting for all but possibly two shows that are running this month, including several dance productions! Albert Ruffin, my date for opening night, declared repeatedly on the walk back to the car that Appropriate is “the best show I’ve seen all season.” It is, without a doubt, powerful, memorable, well-written, superbly acted (I still want to strangle Susan Sanford/Toni), and deftly directed. I highly recommend it.

 

 

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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ONE IN FOUR: Nu Puppis’ Out of This World Comedy

ONE IN FOUR: An Out of This World Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

A Nu Puppis Production

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

Performances: April 20-28, 2018. Previewed on April 20; just two shows left at the time of this posting: April 27 & 28 @ 7:30!

Ticket Prices: $15 general/employed humans; $7 students & all others

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

 

I left The Firehouse Theatre with a silly grin on my face and a question on my lips: what just happened here? Levi Meerovich’s madcap comedy, One in Four is ostensibly about four roommates who happen to all be aliens on assignment to Planet Earth. Unknown to each other, quite by chance they all end up living in the same apartment. (The experimental theater producing company, Nu Puppis, takes its name from a blue-hued star, although I have heard some pronounce the name as if it refers to infant canines.)

With its life-sized cutout of Robin Williams (in homage to Mork & Mindy, 1978-1982), a morphing portrait of Danny DeVito (Taxi, 1978-1983) on the rear wall, and numerous references to Seinfeld (1989-1998), the play, which runs just under an hour, with no intermission, is a wacky, unpretentious experiment that relies entirely on interesting writing and good acting skills. Remarkably, it seems that Meerovich was only 19 years old when he (recently) wrote One in Four; if so, he could only have seen these sitcoms and sit-com stars on reruns. The production is deftly directed by Connor Scully and Mahlon Raoufi.

Dixon Caswell is the ostensible lead, Sid. It is, after all, Sid’s Portland, Oregon apartment that is the setting. Cashwell, a founding member of this theater group, has turned himself in a spastic, nerdy alien type who walks with a round shoulder, slack-armed gait and startles easily. Sid is given to spurts of f-bombs and follows his outbursts of temper with profuse apologies. He wears his Hawaiian shirt tucked in.

The first roommate to arrive is Lou, played by Matt Riley with a black wig that looks like a mullet turned backwards. Lou is very sensitive, and pretends to be from Louisiana, because it’s easy to remember. Next up is Carrie, a free spirit played by Jess Rawls. Last to arrive is Lucy, a tightly-wound character who carries a guitar she quite obviously cannot play, along with a shopping bag of raw steak that is not meant to be eaten. Lucy is played by Rachel Hindman. Each roommate must wait to be let in because the unlocked door keeps locking – one of several running jokes in a play that is all about the jokes.

Another is that each time one of the four inadvertently mentions the word “alien” the lights dim – one of the few lighting cues needed or noted. There’s not much in the way of a set either, just an odd collection of objects one might find in a thrift store or at the curb: a single school desk with a lady’s vanity chair, a round table with a globe, an uncomfortable-looking armchair, and a torso suspended from the ceiling that oddly enough has lights emanating from the leg openings.

There may or may not be anything important or deep or subversive about this play, and there doesn’t have to be. It’s funny. It’s hilarious. It makes you laugh. That’s all it needs to be. As Sid says, “If you give somebody a boat, they’re gonna row, even if they don’t know how.”

 

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

 

One in Four-3
Matt Riley and Rachel Hindman

One in Four-2

One in Four-4
Matt Riley and Dixon Cashwell

CONSTELLATIONS: Quantum Mechanics, String Theory, and Honeybees

CONSTELLATIONS: A Play of Infinite Possibilities

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: April 23 – May 2, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10 general; $5 students

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

 

Audra Honaker and Trevor Craft are perfectly paired in this fascinating two-hander. Maggie Roop deftly directs the two, maintaining both interest and tension. It is a testament to the skill of all three that Constellations works so well, since it is plopped into the re-purposed set of the still-running Moth (which I reviewed just three days before).

Chris Raintree’s long, narrow multi-leveled set is basically a runway, with the audience placed on both sides, so there wasn’t much that could be done about that, and Roop had her actors move in patterns sometimes similar to those traced by Kelsey Cordrey and John Mincks under the direction of Josh Chenard – but at a much less frenetic pace. Craft and Honaker are most often side by side or facing one another at opposite ends of the set, and when they do come together, face-to-face, it is often at a critical moment in the narrative.

As far as narrative goes, British author Nick Payne has written a love story that is informed by quantum mechanics, string theory, and multiverse theories – with a bit of honey thrown in. The idea that multiple universes exist, and with them, endless possibilities, is virtually the third character in the play, and provides both structure and tension. It is a device, and an obvious one, but never became rote or annoying for me.

Marianne (Honaker) and Roland (Craft) meet at a barbecue, but, as in most of the subsequent scenes, there are multiple versions of the meeting. In one version, Roland is married, in another he’s recently broken up, and so on.  Each scene in this one act play (running about one hour, with no intermission) is played over three or more times, with slight variations in the script or the actors’ tone, leading to different outcomes.

Marianne and Roland are an unlikely couple; they sort of remind me of Penny and Leonard on the television series The Big Bang Theory – only in this case it is Marianne who is the scientist and Roland is a beekeeper. Marianne, a cosmologist at Cambridge, initially laughs incredulously when Roland reveals he makes his living caring for bees and selling honey, but after several false starts, the two embark on a relationship that would be unremarkable if not for the multiple outcomes.

Confessions of infidelity lead to an eventual breakup. Confessions, plural, because in one scenario Marianne cheated with a coworker, and in another Roland cheated with a fellow beekeeper. A chance encounter at a ballroom dance class – for which there are, of course several possibilities, leads to a reconciliation. Which of the many possibilities was the reality? Ahh, that’s where the tension comes in: any and all of the possibilities could be the reality in a multiverse.

Endearingly, Roland is turned on by Marianne’s explanations of quantum mechanics and string theory, while Marianne’s stiffness and apparent fear of intimacy are gradually revealed to have two very human and devastating causes.  The fits and starts in Marianne’s language foreshadow the bumps in her relationship with Roland. The beauty of Constellations is that, despite, or perhaps because of the infinite possibilities, this director and cast never loose site of, as Roland would describe it, the “unfailing clarity of purpose” that remains central to Payne’s vision.

Constellations could be a beautiful love story – depending on which multiverse you inhabit. It is well-acted in its borrowed space – although Michael Jarett has created its own lighting that is much brighter than that for Moth. Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design is appropriately celestial, and there is some intense fight choreography by Mark Caudle – made all the more shocking as it involves some very physical movement for a man and a woman.

Honaker has a noticeable English accent, thanks to vocal coaching by Erica Hughes, while Craft (who played the role of an Irishman in Da) has a subtler, less noticeable accent. Both wear boots, jeans, and comfortable tops throughout, and with little in the way of a set and no props at all, the passage of time and change of scenes is communicated almost entirely through words, enhanced by body language and tone, with the assistance of blocking and lights.

Constellations previewed Monday, April 23 and opened Tuesday, April 24, and there are only four more opportunities to see it (all for the newly reduced price of $10) during this limited run: Saturday, April 28, Sunday, April 29, Monday Tuesday, May 1 and Wednesday, May 2.

 

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: Destiny Martinez

 

Constellations
Audra Honaker and Trevor Craft
Constellations2
Trevor Craft and Audra Honaker

MOTH: The Third in TheatreLab’s “Taking Sides” Series

MOTH: The Intersection of Anime, Bullying, Emo, Friendship, and Mental Illness

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: April 13-28, 2018

Ticket Prices: $30 – General Admission; $20 – Senior/RVA Theatre Alliance; $10 – Student/Teacher (with valid ID)

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

 

The third in this season’s Picking Sides series at TheatreLab The Basement, Moth is a two-person play by Australian playwright Declan Greene. The two actors are Kelsey Cordrey and John Mincks, who portray the friendship of Claryssa and Sebastian, two misfit teenagers who are each other’s only friend. The relationship can best be described as, “it’s complicated” as are these two teens.

Claryssa’s school uniform consists of a traditional plaid skirt and shirt enhanced with ragged black fishnets, a strategically cut-out sweater, combat style boots, and black lipstick. If I am not mistaken, the small cross on her sweater has been turned upside down, indicating she is also a wiccan. She is described several times by Sebastian as an emo – a term I had to look up when I got home: “Goth is when you hate the world. Emo is when the world hates you.” – The Urban Dictionary.

Sebastian is an anime-obsessed nerd who is often the target of bullying and occasionally coughs up blood – a situation which is of deep concern to Claryssa. He also seems to have a mental health issue that both Claryssa and his mother are aware of.

Claryssa wears a full-body mask of anger and outrage and non-conformity, but no matter how foul the words that come out of her mouth, or how hard she pushes him, she always has a tissue handy to check the content of Sebastian’s cough. At one point, she even presents her friend with a touchingly childlike note, asking him to the prom; he is requested to check yes or no.

Interestingly, Cordrey and Mincks both attended the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School for the Arts and Technology and were there at the same time for at least one school year. This may account in some small part for their strong and sometimes volatile onstage chemistry.

Moth is a unique and dynamic theatrical experience, and while it does unfold in a chronological and lineal order, the perspective is from the minds of the characters, rather than the author, and both actors switch between acting their roles and narrating them. Each also plays several characters, sometimes in rapid succession. This device, along with Michael Jarett’s creative lighting that includes green laser points and strobe lighting, draws us, the audience, deeper into the characters’ complex emotional world.

Chris Raintree’s set places the audience on two sides of an elongated set, with a space-aged triangular prism that opens and closes remotely instead of the usual wings and flats, a stepped platform, leading to an AstroTurf field, ending in a large dumpster. (At the start of the show, there are signs warning the audience to keep off the grass.) Long and narrow as it is, the space has ample room for Cordrey and Mincks to run about and they do plenty of running and falling. There is even a hilarious slow-motion, strobe-lit fight scene during the first few minutes of the show, which runs about 75 minutes with no intermission. Josh Chenard directed and created the sound design as well. I found his direction compelling and very physical, while I didn’t really focus on the sound design because I was entranced by Jaretts’ lighting, which was as physically engaging as the direction and acting.

This, like several other recent local productions, is not the type of play one “likes.” It takes an intimate look at real-life contemporary issues, such as bullying and the results it can have on its young targets. Sebastian, at one point, seems to go off the deep end, and his mother tries to take him to the hospital for a mental health check. The two friends’ night of drinking on the field is not as private as they had believed, and this takes its toll on Sebastian, who, in the final minutes, is suspected of having a bomb in his backpack, with devastating effects.

Curiously, Australia and Australian culture does not seem to figure into the play at all. Claryssa and Sebastian refer to their school’s administrator as a headmaster, rather than a principal, but they also toss around terms like “bro” and mention Walmart, which does not have a presence in Australia. I’m not sure whether regional productions have the freedom to make idiomatic changes or if the original script is generic. The actors do not attempt to use Australian accents, either.

Moth is not pretty; it is rough and raw and loud and glaring. It makes you think and gives you something to talk about. It sometimes pulls you to the edge of your seat, and I suspect it may have a more visceral impact on people in their twenties or thirties for whom memories of high school are not quite so distant as they are for me. I recently received an invitation to the 45th reunion of my graduating class at the Bronx High School of Science in NY.

I was out of town opening weekend, so I caught Moth in the middle of its run; at the time of this writing, there are just four opportunities left to see this explosive production. It may not be for everyone, but if you do plan to see it, there’s not much time left.

 

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

 

Moth
John Mincks and Kelsey Cordrey
Moth.5
John Mincks
Moth.4
Kelsey Cordrey and John Mincks
Moth.3
Kelsey Cordrey and John Mincks
Moth.2
John Mincks and Kelsey Cordrey

RIVER DITTY: A Contemporary Folktale of Generational Violence and Bigotry

RIVER DITTY: An American Folktale of Generational Violence and Bigotry – A World Premiere by VirginiaRep

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage, 114 W Broad St, Richmond, VA 23220

Performances: April 20-May 6, 2018

Ticket Prices: $30-50*

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

It starts on a train and it soon becomes apparent that none of the riders have paid their fare. It’s 1892, in an America that has been romanticized by Mark Twain as the Gilded Age, and two of the main characters are en route from New Orleans to Baltimore, with a life-changing detour in a cabin in Arkansas where they have a scenic view of a river that borders Tennessee.

Subtitled, An American Folktale, Matthew Mooney Keuter’s River Ditty has the allegorical look and rustic feel of a traditional folktale, but like the historical Gilded Age – that period of American history between the 1870s to about 1900 – all that glitters is not gold, and the ugliness and corruption run deep. There are visual hints in Craig Napoliello’s jagged set of diagonally patterned flats that break apart almost as if they are bleeding their characters out onto the stage – and there is blood aplenty. A little wooden cabin provides a haven of warmth and comfort and the unseen river – which would be where the audience is seated – provides the only certain peace.

River Ditty opened with a lot of fanfare and promise. Several years in the making, it made its world premiere here in RVA with Virginia Rep’s Artistic Director Nathaniel Shaw as director, produced in collaboration with the London-based Glass Half Full Productions, support from the Muriel McAuley Fund for New Plays and Contemporary Theater, and a powerhouse cast, including Katrinah Carol Lewis, Matt Polson, Alexander Sapp, and Scott Wichmann. Director Nathaniel Shaw and author Matthew Mooney Keuter are siblings who worked closely on the concept and execution of River Ditty. But somewhere between concept and execution, someone forgot to clear up the confusion, and maybe it was just me, but there seemed to be plenty of it.

If I had not seen or heard a pre-show promo video and podcast, it would have taken me an inordinate amount of time to figure out that the loving interracial couple, Sunshine (Katrinah Carol Lewis) and Arlo (Matt Polson) are brother and sister and not lovers. And that Lily (Wendy Carter) is Atticus Dye’s (Bostin Christopher) baby mama, and apparently the sometime madam of his “gentlemen’s establishment,” but is she also his wife? And if so, why is he planning to go after Sunshine, and whose runaway bride exactly is she? Oh, and why, because I seemed to have missed it, did Atticus Dye (who seems to be the only character who has a last name) kill his own brother, whose wife was Sunshine’s mother? But wait, wouldn’t that make Sunshine and Arlo cousins rather than siblings? None of these questions was ever really answered for me.

If you are fine with a little confusion and ambiguity, there is plenty else to like, admire, or be challenged by. River Ditty is emotionally heart-wrenching and filled with human and historical insights. The rangy Jonathan Brent Burgard delivers an awesome performance as Harlan. His monosyllabic grunts become a running joke; his awkward posture and obvious lack of social experience become endearing; and his human insight and unwavering loyalty are the stuff of which legends – and folktales – are made. Harlan’s friend Owen (Alexander Sapp) is simultaneously a comic rube and a sensitive, insightful artist. Scott Wichmann is almost unrecognizable as Harlan’s train robbing father, Toe. (The reason for the moniker is one of the best running jokes of many.) Wichmann also revealed another little-known talent – the train version of sea-legs; he has mastered the swaying motion of a moving train while standing on a flat stage. And then there is Arlo – innocent and oblivious, and in need of protection from his sister, even as he shelters her. Arlo is a dreamer and writer of children’ stories, because, as Frederick Douglass, whom he is fond of quoting, would say, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” There are a lot of broken people in this play. There’s also racism, misogyny, and homophobia – the latter unspoken but unmistakable. There’s even a discussion about guns and why we need them and make them which seems particularly contemporary and relevant.

But even as we begin to understand the characters’ motivations, the nature of their relationships remains unclear and since this was central to the play, this was a problem for me. Sue Griffin’s turn of the century costumes were accurately detailed, as usual. B.J. Wilkinson’s lighting and Derek Dumais’ sound designs were subtly complementary, and recorded music by Red Tail Ring (vocals, banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle) had some audience members bouncing and swaying down the aisle on the way to their seats.

A lot of time, attention, and detail went into A River Ditty, and I was disappointed that I was underwhelmed by the total effect.  In all fairness, the show one sees on opening night often bears little resemblance to the show one sees later in the run, but to paraphrase Arlo, you can’t just unmake it.

 

* Expanded Ticket Information:

Box Office 804-282-2620

http://www.virginiarep.org

Full Price Tickets: $30 – $50

Discounted Group Rates and Rush tickets available.

U-Tix for college and high school students $15. Available by phone or in person, day of show only. Valid Student ID required.

** Performance Schedule:

Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Wednesdays and every Thursday

Evening performances at 8:00 p.m. every Friday and Saturday

Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. on select Wednesdays and Saturdays and every Sunday

 

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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THE NORMAL HEART: The Provocative Chronicle of America’s Deadliest Plague

THE NORMAL HEART: The Provocative Chronicle of America’s Deadliest Plague

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: April 18-May 12, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-30

Info: (804) 346-8113or rtriangle.org

 

I usually go to the theater without reading too much – if at all – about the show I am about to see. I don’t want to be influenced by others’ opinions. In the case of The Normal Heart, which opened Thursday night at Richmond Triangle Players’ Robert B. Moss Theatre after a Wednesday night preview, I was totally unprepared for the impact – direct and personal – Larry Kramer’s play would have on me.

Playwright Larry Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York in 1981 in response to the growing and alarming AIDS epidemic. That crisis, the “plague” of the title, is the foundation of this autobiographical recounting of one of the most terrifying episodes in American health history.

This is not a play that you go to for entertainment; it made me cry and it made me recall the names of people – friends and coworkers and teachers – I had not thought of in twenty or thirty years.

Jim Morgan plays the role of Ned Weeks, the confrontational founder of a gay men’s health organization, with passion and sincerity. Weeks is, unquestionably, an annoying character – even by his own reckoning – but he is fighting for people’s lives, including the life of his own lover. Chris Hester plays the role of Bruce Niles, Ned’s polar opposite who is elected president of the fledgling organization because of his more conservative stance. There is a great deal of dramatic tension between Morgan and Hester’s characters, but as Tommy Boatwright (played by Dan Cimo) points out – both are leaders, and both are needed. Cimo’s sassy character, who has a not-so-secret crush on Ned, provides some much-needed humor, but also comes through in a pinch when a level head and a shoulder to cry on are what’s needed.

The intricacies of these interactions are a model of how all these characters interact, and the ensemble, which includes Lucian Restivo (who also did the sound and props), Dan Stackhouse, Joseph Bromfield, Stevie Rice, and Andrew Boothby – some alternating in several roles – is a tight and well-oiled machine under the direction of George Boyd. Dawn A. Westbrook, shares the stage with this thoroughly satisfying cast as Dr. Emma Brookner, the first medical professional dedicated to HIV/AIDS research. Westbrook performs most of her scenes in an electric wheelchair as the doctor, a polio survivor, was figuratively and literally hell on wheels in her hunger to get to the bottom of this new virus.

Set in New York City between 1981-1984, The Normal Heart, chronicles the early history of the HIV/AIDS crisis with near clinical meticulousness, but it also deals clearly and authentically with the toll it takes on family relationships and friendships, the economics and politics of sex and health, fear and the screeching halt it brought to the freedom of the sexual revolution. We were only a few minutes into the first act when I realized that this was the real deal.

I remembered sitting with members of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in a board room at the Joyce theater planning a fund raiser. I suddenly thought of Nick, the music teacher in the public school where I taught. When he began to grow weak and tired, the students would rub his back and shoulders to make him feel better. I thought of the countless dancers I knew, some friends, some teachers. There was Al, whose friends knitted him scarves because he was always cold. There was my good friend Larry, an ardent arts supporter with whom I shared many trips to the theater, who refused to name the sickness that took him away from us so soon.

When I wrote a young adult book on the legendary choreography Alvin Ailey, my publisher required that I say he died of a “blood disorder.”  My mother, a nurse’s aide at Bellevue Hospital for more than three decades, took special training to work with HIV/AIDS patients. When she went into the break room, other aides and nurses would get up and leave because they were afraid to be near her.

Everyone was afraid then. That comes across in The Normal Heart in palpable ways. Friends turn against one another.  Dan Stackhouse, as Mickey, has an epic melt-down I the second act. Ned is pushed out of the organization he started.

The Normal Heart is not theater as usual; it should be seen, but not alone. The opening night audience cried real tears. This is moving theater. This is real life. As the audience left, ushers handed us copies of a letter from Larry Kramer, dated July 2011, that reminded us that these things really happened to real people, and much as it hurts, and as ugly as it gets, we need to remember so we will remember to act.

As for the technical elements: On opening night there were a few mysterious bumps and bangs from backstage and I was occasionally blinded by the glare of the light bulb behind the screen on which the timeline of the epidemic was projected.  Frank Foster’s scenic design, with its black and white tiles and red chairs, was something of a mashup of a New York City subway, a hospital, a gym, and what I imagine the infamous gay bathhouses must have looked like. Michael Jarett designed the lights and projections. Sheila Russ and Joel Furtick did well with the costumes and hair and make-up, respectively.

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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PINKALICIOUS, THE MUSICAL: Tickling the Audience Pink at Willow Lawn

PINKALICIOUS, THE MUSICAL: You Get Just What You Get and You Don’t Get Upset

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: April 6-May 13, 2018

Ticket Prices: $20

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

 

Pinkalicious, the newest offering at the Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn, starts of with a bang and maintains a high level of energy – and pinkatasticity – for a solid hour.

 

Tyandria Jackson, an 18-year-old senior at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School, adeptly captures the imaginative spirit of the little girl known as Pinkalicious who first came to light in the book of the same name written by sisters Elizabeth Kann and Victoria Kann. It helps that Jackson is petite, but when she dons the Pinkalicious wigs and pink pajamas or pink fairy princess dress, we are completely won over.

 

Anthony Cosby, a Children’s Theatre veteran, who recently appeared in Songs from the Soul, may have been acting since the age of 10, but he is an adult now, and quite a bit taller than Jackson – so it was quite amusing to see him play the role of Peter, Pinkalicious’ little brother. Cosby’s child-like wonderment and enthusiasm also won me over.

 

Rebecca Turner and Brent Deekens played the parents – Mr. and Mrs. Pinkerton. Turner plays the mother as a tiny dynamo who keeps the household running smoothly, while Deekens’ father starts off distant and clueless until midway through when he makes a startling confession.

 

Like most Children’s Theatre productions, Pinkalicious has a moral foundation. This time it is about accepting yourself for who you are. The story drives home the point that this applies to adults as well as to children. At one point young Pinkalicious has somewhat of a meltdown over her parents’ cupcake restriction, leading to the song, “You Get What You Get and You Don’t Get Upset.”

 

Young viewers are probably quite familiar with the characters from the book series, or the television series, neither of which I have ever perused. This is where I must make a confession: I do not like the color pink – never have! So, while I have seen the books and I have heard the name Pinkalicious, I never read the books, the first of which appeared in 2006, to any of my grandchildren. Speaking of grandchildren – you will not find the usual assessment by Master Kingston: at the last show, when he found out the next production would be Pinkalicious, he informed me in no uncertain terms that he would not be my date for the next show.  So, with this backstory in mind, I attended and enjoyed every minute of Pinkalicious – despite all the pinkness and in spite of being abandoned by my favorite date.

 

Leslie Owens-Harrington, most often credited with choreography, directed this rose-colored musical with a dancer’s eye and Billy Dye directed the music (music and lyrics by John Gregor), keeping everything moving along at a tickle-me-pink pace. The fifteen musical numbers that were all great fun, but two stood out for me. When little Peter, tired of being ignored and having to shrink under the bright pink light of his attention-seeking older sister, just can’t take it anymore, he whips out dark glasses and sings a soul-stirring rendition of “I Got the Pink Blues.” Immediately after that, Pinkalicious, having eaten one too many pink cupcakes, has turned completely pink and gets mistaken for a flower by a bee and a bird in the park, leading to the amusing “Buzz Off” number.

 

One of the lessons about acceptance is that it’s okay for boys and men to like pink. Looking around the nearly full house at the Sunday matinee, I counted only about four young boys and perhaps half a dozen dads and grandfathers. As pink as it is, and for all the focus on the title character, Pinkalicious is not just for girls. It is a bright and peppy production that is family-friendly. There is a complete absence of any of the adult-level innuendos that are so often sprinkled into children’s shows, so families should feel confident in bringing everyone from the suggested age of four and up. I would feel comfortable bringing a three-year old who could sit for a one-hour show, no intermission.

 

Desiree Dabney and Audrey Kate Taylor round out the cast as Dr. Wink and Allison, Pinkalicious’ best friend, respectively. They fill ensemble roles: bee, bird, cupcake monsters, etc. In addition to Owens-Harrington and Dye, the creative team includes Terrie Powers (colorful set with oversized cartoon-like props), BJ Wilkinson (simple and effective lighting with a few special effects), and Ruth Hedberg (costumes with flair, especially Pinkalicious’ garb and Mr. Pinkerton’s Liberace-like finale jacket). There are cupcake monsters, atmospheric smoke, and an almost magical costume-change. Even I was almost tickled pink.

 

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

pinkalicious_tyandria_jackson_pr_sbpinkalicious_illus_topPinkalicious

Pinkalicious
Tyandria Jackson and Anthony Cosby
Pinkalicious
Brent Deekins, Tyandria Jackson, and Anthony Cosby
Pinkalicious
Anthony Cosby, Rebecca Turner, Brent Deekens, Tyandria Jackson, and Audrey Kate Taylor