ROMEO AND JULIET: Romance Rebooted

ROMEO AND JULIET: Young Love and Old Problems Revisited

A Theater Review and Reflections by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre/20th Annual Richmond Shakespeare Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

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GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES: Not for the Faint of Heart

GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES: An Unconventional Love Story

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

TheatreLAB’s The Cellar Series 2018: This Beautiful Mess

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

Performances: June 11-23, 2018

Ticket Prices: $15

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo Credits: Louise Ricks

 

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

A CHORUS LINE: For the Dancer in Us All

A CHORUS LINE: What We Do for Love

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

Richmond Triangle Players

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

Performances: June 6 – July 14, 2018

Ticket Prices: $10-40

Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Photo Credits: John MacLellan

A Chorus Line_1
A Chorus Line – Photos and Resumes, Please
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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