GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES: Not for the Faint of Heart

GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES: An Unconventional Love Story

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

TheatreLAB’s The Cellar Series 2018: This Beautiful Mess

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

Performances: June 11-23, 2018

Ticket Prices: $15

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Louise Ricks

 

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

A CHORUS LINE: For the Dancer in Us All

A CHORUS LINE: What We Do for Love

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: June 6 – July 14, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-40

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

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

PRELUDES: Folk, Fate & Fantasy

PRELUDES: An Inspired Musical

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 23 – June 30, 2018 [Recently extended through June 30!] Wed-Sat @ 7:30pm; Sun @ 4:00pm

Ticket Prices: $15 – $45; Special Date Night Romance packages available for $60 per couple

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

 

Historically, the Firehouse Theatre’s current production of Dave Malloy’s inspired musical, Preludes, is significant. The work, a hybrid of classical music and an amalgam of various styles from folk to contemporary, has been mounted only twice before: it premiered at Lincoln Center in 2015 and made a German-language debut in Austria in 2017. When you see the musically complex and visually layered production, it’s easy to understand why this unorthodox musical has not been widely produced.

Preludes has all the elements of musical theater, but with an operatic demeanor, and then there are substantial sections that are purely instrumental.  The cast is uniformly and outstandingly talented and versatile, acting, singing, and occasionally playing instruments.

Actor Travis West, one of the play’s two Rachmaninoff’s, spends the entire 2 hours and 10 minutes onstage at the grand piano – which he actually plays! Not only does he play music by Sergei Rachmaninoff (a noted composer and pianist of the late Romantic period), but he appears to have mastered the folk songs, samplings of other classical composers, and contemporary sounds while musical director Susan Randolph Braden on synthesizer fills in the rest of the beautifully eclectic score.

PJ Freebourn plays the role of Rach, the social, emotional, and less musical side of the main character. Freebourn’s portrayal of the composer very successfully and sympathetically draws us into the world of the composer during the three years of his deep depression that resulted in a writer’s block. His therapy with Dr. Dahl (a surprisingly subdued and self-contained Georgia Rogers Farmer), his relationship with his fiancé, Natalya, who is also his first cousin (Isabella Stansbury) are explored in realistic detail, quite in contrast to the time-changing setting and costuming choices that place this production squarely in a space that is neither the 19th century nor the 21st century, but both at the same time.

Jody Ashworth brings moments of insight and humor as Rachmaninoff’s friend, Chaliapin, and Levi Meerovich (yes, he really is of Russian descent) takes on multiple roles as several well-known Russian figures: Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov, Tsar Nicholas II, and The Master – all of whom were key figures in Rachmaninoff’s life and musical development. His wheezing, asthmatic Tsar was particularly memorable. As Meerovich explained in Thursday night’s talkback, it was not so much that he had to play each of these figures, but that he had to portray how Rachmaninoff saw them in his mind.

Free-flowing and with an often tenuous relationship to expected concepts of time and place, of what is real and what is embellished, Preludes is a surprisingly warm and intimate production that makes the audience feel as if we truly have a better understanding of both the man and his music. Why, for instance, die he consider C sharp minor to be the coolest key? What’s it like to produce a seminal work at age 19 and then spend years trying to figure out what is success and failure?

Director Billy Christopher Maupin insists he started with and still has more questions than answers about this production, and that appears to be a good thing, because he has directed with a hand guided by questions seeking answers and a respect for the ambiguous. Leslie Cook-Day’s costumes, likewise, have an ambiguity. Black, white, and gray blend in clothes that are at once contemporary and from a century or two ago. Ryan Dygert’s sound design is filled with ghostly sighs and breaths, heartbeats, and rattling chains.  Visual chains are draped around the actors and the sets, some of them symbolically broken.

Emily Dandridge contributed some intense and well-integrated choreography, and Tennessee Dixon’s set and projections were almost a character on their own: four separate seating areas – a café table, the piano, a porch swing, and a psychiatrist’s office – were spread across the stage while animations and looped video and slow-motion video of the pianists’ hands subtly connected all the disparate elements.

Preludes is not a show I would recommend to someone who has never seen a musical or an opera, or anyone who likes things to turn out with all the ends neatly tied up – but it is a production I would highly recommend to anyone and everyone who likes excellent theater, good music, and stunningly creative theater.

 

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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Georgia Rogers Farmer, PJ Freebourn, and Jody Ashworth
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PJ Freebourn and Travis West

DOUBLEWIDE, TEXAS: A Hoot ‘n a Hollar

DOUBLEWIDE, TEXAS: Trailer Park Victory

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: June 1-16, 2018

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Daryll Morgan Studios

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

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG: America Here & Now

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG: This, Too, Is America

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

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

Ticket Prices: $30 general

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

 

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ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID: Southern Hospitality in a Comedy of Recognition

ALWAYS A BRIDESMAID: Southern Women Ensemble Humor Strikes Again

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: May 19 – June 30, 2018 [Note: Opening weekend was postponed due to flooding from regional spring storms]

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

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

 

Director Tom Width fondly refers to Always a Bridesmaid as a “comedy of recognition” because viewers are likely to recognize themselves or a family member or friend in the broadly drawn, zany characters. Written by the trio of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jaime Wooten, who also gave us The Dixie Swim Club and The Hallelujah Girls, Always a Bridesmaid is an amalgam of  television sitcom and every southern woman ensemble play you’ve ever seen – from Dixie Swim Club to  Hallelujah Girls and let’s not forget Steel Magnolias.

There’s nothing deep here, no life-changing moral theme, no political controversy, just good-natured female bonding and free-flowing laughs, built around the premise of four friends who made a vow during their high school prom to be bridesmaids at each other’s weddings. Who knew, at the time, that some of them might get married multiple times and this promise might evolve into a life-long, even multi-generational covenant?

The best thing about this production of Always a Bridesmaid is the cast. Amy Berlin is the statuesque and sharp-tongued Monette. In the first scene she is about to jump into the murky waters of her third marriage – to a man she has known for just about two weeks. Already the tallest of the quartet, Monette favors stiletto heels, which sets up the foundation for a running joke as well as some not so subtle physical humor. Jacqueline Jones is Libby Ruth, who in good southern form is always referred to by both names. For most of the play, Libby Ruth is the level-headed, perpetually cheerful member of the group, the one who always sees the bright side of things and finds a solution to every problem. But in the final scene, when it’s her own daughter who is getting married, she folds up like a lace fan.

Debra Wagoner is Deedra, a high-powered judge who uses a smile and southern charm to mask her steel trap legal mind. Wagoner, whose own real-life wedding to husband Joe Pabst took place at Swift Creek Mill 23 years ago, is walking with a slight limp in her first role after her debilitating fall resulting in a broken ankle during last fall’s production of Mary Poppins, but it never showed on her face. Jennie Hundley completes the quartet as Charlie, perhaps the quirkiest of them all. A landscaper, Charlie prefers pants and Birkenstocks and when we first meet her, her friends are trying to tame her wild nest of  hair, which is home to leaves and other bits of flora. Watching Charlie stumble about in a pair of heels during one of the weddings is one of the most hilarious moments of the evening.

It is worthy of note that with the exception of Libby Ruth, who appears to be a happily married housewife and mother, these southern women are independent business women and professionals.  Deedra is a judge, Monette owns a club, and Charlie owns her own landscaping business. But they are not the only characters bringing something to this table.

Jody Smith Strickler plays Sedalia, the owner of the elegant venue where all the scenes take place. Historic Laurelton Oaks, in Laurelton, Virginia, twenty miles northwest of Richmond is the setting for the entire play, which takes place over a period of seven years. Sedalia is known for providing top notch wedding services, but she rules her domain with an iron fist – and occasionally wields an axe to keep recalcitrant brides in line and on schedule. You’d better be at that top step when the first note of the wedding march begins – or else! Last but not least, there is Rachel Hindman as Kari, Libby Ruth’s daughter, who appears as a bride giving her reception speech at the start of each scene.  Sipping from a champagne glass, Kari becomes increasingly tipsy at each appearance, and shares such tidbits as the restraining order on her uncle was temporarily reduced to 30 feet from his estranged wife so that both could attend her wedding. In a “small world” turn of events, Kari is marrying Sedalia’s son.

It’s all very cozy and nothing really bad ever happens. There is an off-stage fight, but no one dies and it’s all love and kisses at the final curtain. Physical and visual laughs are provided by a fashion parade of ugly bridesmaid dresses, including a French maid, and a Marie Antoinette costume worn by Monette that is so big Charlie can hide behind her without even bending down. Kudos to Maura Lynch Cravey for her creativity and diversity in costume design for this show. Tom Width designed the elegant sitting room.

Personally, after some three-weeks of being housebound after two surgeries, this was the perfect outing for me. While I did not recognize any of these women from my immediate circle – I am after all, from Brooklyn – I did recognize them from other plays and sitcoms, and I thank them for bringing laughter and joy, with a nod to loyalty and love.

 

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

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