ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD: A Play That Balances the Philosophical and the Mundane

ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD: “Actors Are the Opposite of People”

Performances: January 26 – February 16, 2020

Ticket Prices: $35 Adults; $30 Seniors; $25 RVATA; $20 Students (with ID)

Info: (804) 340-1405 or quilltheatre.org

The night before attending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead a well-meaning acquaintance winkingly advised me to be prepared to spend three hours in the theater. A visiting family member from out of town warily declined to accompany me. Quill artistic director James Ricks has wanted to present Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead since he was in high school. He, like many others, are intrigued by the word play and the Calvinist philosophy and theology with its perspective on human mortality.

From hearing the comments of others, it would seem to be a play one either loves or hates. But my own experience was somewhere in the middle. I enjoyed the wordplay, I appreciated the humor – both the slapstick, physical kind and the deeper, more thoughtful kind, but I also, like my aforementioned acquaintance, felt that perhaps some sort of warning or preparation – not spoilers but at least a nod to the nature of this work – needs to be given to potential attendees who are not familiar with the play.

Two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet interact in a setting redolent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The puns and jokes and wordplay are a non-stop delight, and that along with the delightful interaction between Tyler Stevens (Rosencrantz) and Adam Turck (Guildenstern) makes the three hours (with two short intermissions) pass more quickly than one might expect. But make no mistake; it’s all about the words and the ideas. Jane Raine’s simple set consists of a thrust stage, three beams (two vertical, one horizontal), three steps across the upstage area, a few wooden boxes and barrels in the third act, and some hanging lights. When Rosencrantz wants to give Guildenstern his full attention, he plops down on the floor/ground.

Visually, Anna Bialkowski offers some period and some fanciful costumes, but director James Ricks has kept the attention on playwright Tom Stoppard’s words and uses movement as kinetic accents to deliver the message.

The play begins with a long, and eventually monotonous (or mesmerizing, depending on your personal perspective) coin toss game in which the coins land heads up more than 90 times in a row. Stoppard makes liberal use of Shakespeare, inserting vaguely familiar lines like, “When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” This just makes the listener feel all the more at sea when the characters say things like, “The toenails, on the other hand, never grow at all,” or when Rosencrantz screams “Fire” and then derides the audience because no one reacted, “they’d all burn to death in their shoes!”

“There’s so much to do just in the text itself,” Turck, a self-described existentialist, remarked at the Sunday afternoon talkback, during which he described his character, Guildenstern, as “an agent of chaos.” Stevens  evaluated Rosencrantz as being a little easier, less daunting. Director Ricks summarized the work as a young man’s irreverence leading to a new life form, but Joe Pabst, the lead Player of the Tragedians, interjected a bit of pragmatism into the discussion noting that much of what has led to dissertations being written and dissected on this play was “just Stoppard being a dick.”

Like all Acts of Faith productions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead has at least one or two talkbacks scheduled. I think this is one in which a talkback is very helpful, since the play itself is not self-explanatory, nor was it meant to be.

In addition to Stevens, Turck, and Pabst, the cast includes Liam Storm as Alfred, a much-put upon Tragedian, Joel White as a moody Hamlet, Mia Richards as Ophelia (a victim of domestic abuse, but that’s a whole other story), Travis Williams as Claudius, Donna Marie Miller as Gertrude, and Bill Blair as Polonius. Cedar Curran, Joel Kimling, and Josh Mullins complete the cast as unnamed members of the touring band of Tragedians.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is not a play you just walk in on cold. While not required, it helps to have at least some familiarity with Hamlet and Waiting for Godot. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a play that comes with prerequisites; one needs to prepare for it in advance:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Brief Notes

Calvinism: a branch of Protestantism established by John Calvin, it develops the doctrines of Luther, and emphasizes justification by faith, predestination, and the Grace of God

Existentialism: a philosophical theory that emphasizes the importance of the individual as a free and responsible, thinking, feeling human being capable of making choices

Theatre of the Absurd: dramatic works by European and American writers in the 1950s and 1960s that share elements of existential philosophy, such as human hopelessness; often include lots of word play and little or nothing happens to change the lives of the characters

 

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: Production photos were not available at the time of publication.

 

STUPID KID: It’s Not What You Think

STUPID KID: An Unwelcome Homecoming

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: January 23 – February 16, 2020

Ticket Prices: $35 General Admission; $25 Military & RVATA; $15 Students

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

I often choose not to learn too much about a new play prior to seeing it. I want to enter the space unbiased; I like to be surprised. Well, no amount of preparation would have fully prepared me for Sharr White’s Stupid Kid. The two-act play, making it’s east coast debut at The Firehouse Theatre, is populated with strong characters, filled with twists and turns, and offers a surprise ending that leaves as many questions unanswered as it resolves. Kudos to the cast and director Alison Devereaux for a physically demanding performance that made us laugh, gasp, cheer, and even boo.

From the start we know something isn’t quite right – there are secrets and things are not what they appear to be. When Chick Ford (Adam Valentine) arrives home a day early after being in prison for 14 years, his parents are not pleased. His father Eddie, played by Andrew Firda, pretends not to know him and his mother Jeanette or Gigi (Boomie Pedersen) greets him with an expletive. Well, most of her comments are bookended by expletives, so it may not be entirely personal.

The plot thickens when we learn that Chick was sentenced to life for murder, that his parents lives were shattered by the fallout, and his father has become disabled with back pain and has become dependent on painkillers. The details come slowly with the aid and sometimes despite the active interference of nosy neighbor Franny Hawker (Jeannie Goodyear) and Gigi’s brother Mike (Arik Cullen).

This may be the world’s most dysfunctional family, but White’s characters are mostly familiar, believable, and multi-dimensional. Eddie and Gigi seem to be constantly bickering but scattered among the expletives are pet names and hints of true concern and genuine love. Whenever Chick tries to talk about the crime he confessed to, he gets shut down, and no one believes there is any possibility he could be innocent – despite the fact he was released based on new DNA evidence. Uncle Mike is the story’s obvious villain. Vain, narcissistic, and sadistic, he was once the sheriff of the small unnamed Colorado town where the story takes place – and rather than trying to hide evidence of his prior and current corruption, he rubs everyone’s nose in it. I can’t say much more without giving away important and juicy plot elements.

So many of the cast members stand out. Both Boomie Pederson and Andrew Firda seem to land strong, often quirky, and interesting roles. Pedersen gives a satisfying and delightful performance in Stupid Kid, projecting sarcasm when needed but switching to a well-hidden tenderness that makes Gigi seem more authentic. Andrew Firda spends much of the play in a bathrobe and socks, bent over with back pain, yet still manages to display the strength and humanity of Eddie; Eddie has real problems, but there is something solid and dependable underneath it all. Firda never allows Eddie to become a figure of pity.

Adam Valentine portrays Chick as a young man whose life has been controlled by others – his parents, the prison system, his Uncle Mike – but has somehow managed to hold onto a sense of self. And then there’s Arik Cullen, who played Uncle Mike as a straight up bad guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Some in the audience booed when he came out for his bow. Let’s not forget about Uncle Mike’s young ward, Hazel, played by Lorin Hope Turner.

A casebook study of child abuse, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, and more, Hazel’s mistreatment at the hands of Uncle Mike culminates in a shocking display featuring the show’s most violent and physically challenging scene. Jeannie Goodyear, as the nosy neighbor Franny watched all this, often with a bag of chips or some other snack at hand, as if it was a soap opera. Goodyear added a sense of the absurd and was a perfect counterpoint to the melodrama unfolding around her, even reporting the latest news concerning the town’s outrage over Chick’s early release.

There’s so much going on in Stupid Kid, but one thing is for sure; these people may lack what we think of as formal education, but they are certainly not stupid. There is much worthy of discussion, making this an appropriate choice as an Acts of Faith offering.

Alan Williamson designed an appropriately drab set that reflects the financial and emotional status of the Ford family. There is a large patch of duct tape on the living room chair and an impressive complete set change during intermission, from interior to exterior.  If anything, the outside of the house looks a little less shabby than the inside. Emily Laurelle Tappan designed the costumes to look like discount sticker day specials from the local thrift store.

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

 

 

 

HARRIET TUBMAN AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: Captivating Children’s Theatre

HARRIET TUBMAN AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: “It’s Like History Class, With Music”

This production is part of the 2020 Acts of Faith theater season.

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis, in collaboration with Kingston Marley Holmes (age 11) and Emmitt Christian Holmes (age 5)

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

Performances: January 24 – March 1, 2020

Ticket Prices: $21; contact the theater for discounted group rates or to apply for a free Community Tickets Grant for nonprofit organizations.

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

Virginia Rep opened its 2019-2020 Children’s Theatre season with a magical musical, Tuck Everlasting, based on Natalie Babbitt’s children’s novel about a family that finds immortality in the waters of a remote spring in the New Hampshire countryside and the grieving young girl who befriends them. The second production of the season is Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, a spirit-filled production with book and lyrics by Douglas Jones (who was in the audience opening night), music by Ron Barnett, direction by Katrinah Carol Lewis, and an energetic, tightly-knit ensemble of six who made the hour-long production speed by. “It felt like just ten minutes!” was Kingston’s estimate.

The content of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad seems to be targeted primarily towards the older kids, say ages 9 and up, but even Emmitt was alert and committed – especially when he realized the audience was encouraged to snap, clap, and sing along. For parents, teachers, scout leaders, and other adult types, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad is enjoyable, entertaining, and informative. The author, Jones, and director, Lewis, do not talk down to the younger audience members, and at the same time they avoid the trap of some children’s shows of including double entendre’d jokes and language designed to appeal to the adults. Well done.

I described the production as “spirit-filled,” and I intentionally meant that in two ways. The production includes several well-known African-American spirituals, including “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “ Go Down Moses,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” Most include or encourage audience participation, and the text weaves in detailed but uncomplicated explanations of the hidden meanings of the words of these songs. The program, which doubles as a poster, includes a QR code that links to a 2-page PDF resource on Spirituals.

There is also a lovely 6-page PDF study guide with a brief bio of Harriet Tubman, a glossary of terms, critical thinking questions and conversation starters, interesting facts, activities, and a page about theater cues. You can find and print the guide here: https://va-rep.org/tour/guides.html

In a second sense, the program was spirit-filled with the ensemble’s acting and energy. Marjie Southerland (whose most recent local credit seems to be as Angela in the workshop productions of Warm, at The Firehouse Theatre last August) has the title role of Harriet Tubman while Elisabeth Ashby, Dan Cimo, Dorothy Dee-D. Miller, Gregory Morton, and Durron Marquis Tyre take on all the other roles: Tubman’s father, brothers, abolitionists, book publisher, passengers on the underground railroad. Southerland holds down the lead with confidence and sometimes a little well-placed humor, but this is truly an ensemble effort with everyone carrying their weight as well as a tune.

And finally, the program was spirit-filled through the words and memories of Harriet Tubman. And that is why, in spite of the lively music, and Emily Hake Massie’s simple, rustic, and serviceable set design, and Anthony Smith’s foot-tapping musical direction, and Sara Grady’s attractive period costumes (Kingston was particularly taken with Durron Tyre’s top hat) I found my eyes leaking from time to time. Tubman’s own words, spoken by Southerland, read from the text of Sarah H. Bradford’s biography about her, and resurrected in song, maintain the power to change the world, one life at a time. That is something the youngest audience members might not yet understand, but it was, for me, the singular purpose of this work, and in that it succeeded.

As far as the target audience was concerned, Emmitt declared Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, “Good! It was awesome because of the actors.” And Kingston said, “It was like history class but fun, with music!” Walking to my car afterwards, Kingston and Emmitt debated the pros and cons of live theater versus television and movies. Live theater, Kingston concluded, “is more captivating.”

Mic Drop

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Check the Virginia Rep website for additional information on:

Sensory Friendly Performances suitable for patrons with Autism and other sensory or social disabilities. For these performances, changes will be made in lighting, sound, seating arrangements, and length of performance to create a more welcoming environment. A Sensory Friendly performance will be offered at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, February 22. See the website for more details: http://va-rep.org/sensory_friendly.html

Audio Described Performances in collaboration with Virginia Voice, in which actions, expressions and gestures are described during gaps between dialogue throughout the performance for patrons with low vision or blindness. Patrons are also invited to participate in a tactile tour before the performance. An Audio Described performance will be offered at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 26, 2020. Refer to the website for more details: https://va-rep.org/access_for_the_blind.html

Virginia Rep also offers a free Community Tickets Grant for nonprofit organizations who have a demonstrated need for complimentary tickets;  groups must fill out a short application that can be found at: bit.ly/CommunityTix

Performance Schedule

Evening performances at 7:00 p.m. on select Fridays, check the website for dates

Matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday

Matinee performances at 10:30 a.m. on select Saturdays, check the website for dates

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

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Photo Credits: Photos were not yet available at the time of this publication.

THE GLASS MENAGERIE: A Memory Play

THE GLASS MENAGERIE: A Fragile Classic

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

5th Wall Theatre

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

Performances: January 17 – February 8, 2020

Ticket Prices: $32 General Admission; $20 RVATA Cardholders; $20 Students

Info: (804) 359-2003 or 5thwalltheatre.org

5th Wall Theatre’s production of The Glass Menagerie, is a tender rendering of the Tennessee Williams classic, described as a “memory play” about a dysfunctional family. Told by a narrator who is also one of the four actors in this five-character play, the story of an aging southern belle and her attempts to marry off her shy and mentally fragile daughter and to direct her restless son into adulthood holds both universal truths and uniquely American appeal. Keep reading for a few more comments on this perspective.

I don’t recall reading The Glass Menagerie in high school (many decades ago) but I do remember seeing the 2013 production by the Sycamore Rouge Theatre (a great loss to Petersburg and the Richmond theater community). Where kb saine took the unusual route of having two men play the role of the narrator and the younger Tom Wingfield, Carol Piersol chose the more traditional route of using a single actor. Matt Bloch, who played both the older Tom, who is the author narrator and the younger Tom, was the gentleman caller in that earlier production. And I do believe I saw Dean Knight, who shared the role of Tom Wingfield in that earlier production with Deejay Gray (who is now the artistic director of TheatreLAB The Basement) sitting unobtrusively in the audience at The Basement watching the show. But enough small world reminiscing – the memory play was not meant to remind me of previous productions.

Morrie Piersol’s direction made Williams’ characters seem very believable, and even slightly humorous – and that’s no small feat when you’ve got a mother (Lian-Marie Holmes) who vacillates between longing for the past (i.e., the “Old South” of debutantes and gentleman callers being served lemonade by vast numbers of servants) and screeching at her adult children to make something of themselves and save them all from destitution. But this was the 1940s and today I’m sure someone would recommend therapy and perhaps a prescription for her. Lian-Marie Holmes, who I first remember seeing in 5th Wall’s recent production of Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods is once again playing someone’s mother, but this role is meatier and juicier and has more dimension. And Holmes, who appears to be quite petite in stature, has an enormous presence that commands the stage, even when she is speaking quietly.

Louise Keeton, in the role of the daughter, Laura, seems to try to physically transform herself in the opposite direction. You see, Laura, if she could, would not just make herself appear smaller, but would try to disappear entirely. Lost in her own world of glass animal figurines and scratchy Victrola recordings left by the father who abandoned them (the fifth character who appears as a gigantic portrait on one wall of the family’s shabby apartment), Laura nearly succeeds in disappearing. Her mother refuses to acknowledge her physical or mental challenges – a limp resulting from a childhood illness and low self-esteem resulting in part from overestimating the impact of the limp. Laura walks with her head down, avoids eye contact, speaks softly, and seems to shrink before our very eyes. The sadness on her face is heart-breaking.

Matt Bloch navigates a delicate balancing act: Tom is a poet, stuck in a monotonous warehouse job; he’s a single guy saddled with the responsibility of caring for a family; he’s been raised as a southern gentleman, but longs for adventure; he bears both the burden and the legacy of his father who is euphemistically described as a telephone man who “fell in love with long distance.” I think Piersol has guided Bloch well; his character could so easily go over the edge and seem selfish and uncaring or wimpy and brow-beaten, but there is clearly humanity in all the members of this family.

In the second act, we get to meet Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller, played by Cooper Sved. Sved is lively and energetic and the only one who seems to really see Laura. But I just didn’t find him trustworthy. Perhaps it was because Tom made such a point of telling us about Jim’s public speaking classes, maybe that made him seem, perhaps, just a bit fake. Or maybe it was the way he brought Laura out of her shell, only to drop the bomb that he was already engaged to someone else. Was he, really? Or was this part of his smooth-talking persona? Good acting, Sved – you made me not like you (no small feat after Girlfriend, Huck and Tom, and Atlantis).

I said I would address those universal truths. So, The Glass Menagerie speaks longingly of the “Old South,” and Amanda is a card-carrying member of the DAR. who speaks warmly, if somewhat vaguely, of a youth filled with servants and “planters” and sons of planters, and acres of land and – well, you get the picture. So why doesn’t that bother me? Because those questions have already been addressed by the Howard University Players who performed the play as early as 1947 and even further by the legendary actress Ruby Dee, who played Amanda in 1989.  Dee replaced membership in the DAR with membership in DST sorority and updated the play’s historical perspective on several fronts.

Back to the present. . .

Tennessee Dixon designed the set and projections. The set, quite shabby throughout the first act – I was particularly repulsed by the bare mattress or cushion of the sofa – got spruced up for the Gentleman Caller in the second act with cushions and curtains, a tablecloth, a new lamp, and a cover for that awful sofa! The projections, which are part of the script, include pictures such as blue roses when Laura’s high school nickname is explained, as well as words and phrases, some from songs or poems, some taken from the character’s own words. I found the pictorial projections pretty, interesting, and helpful, but some of the verbal ones were distracting. I wanted to translate the French and when the words appeared before the characters spoke them, I temporarily lost the flow of the dialogue. Ryan Dygert’s sound design was mostly subtle and soothing, a panacea for Laura’s internal stress and Michael Jarett’s lighting was dark and moody. I’m not sure if the candlelight counts as lighting or direction or both, but when Laura blew out that final candle, we were sure this story had no happy ending. But, as promised in 5th Wall’s mission, it does provide us insight into the human condition.

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

 

GREAT CAESAR’S GHOST: Bifocals Senior Theatre

GREAT CAESAR’S GHOST: Bifocals Turns a Lens on A Christmas Carol

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: December 16, 2019

Ticket Prices: $10

Info: (703) 501-6811 or cat@cattheatre.com

I’ve been aware of the Bifocals Senior Theatre for quite some time, but this was the first time I actually got to see them in action. The company of seniors (55+) for seniors regularly tours to area senior centers, but they present two performances (one matinee and one evening on the same day) of each show at the CAT Theatre on No. Wilkinson Road.

The current show, Great Caesar’s Ghost, the first of four touring events for the season, is a humorous take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Here, a woman business owner who has a reputation of being hard to get along with gets a visit from the ghost of Julius Caesar who shows her the error of her ways. The pared-down plot doesn’t bother to take her on a journey to the past, present, and future, but the result is the same.

Anne Kight Lloyd plays the lead role of Patricia Watson with an appropriately hard-nosed edginess – perhaps slightly influenced by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Peter Holleran is Caesar’s Ghost – in sandals, a toga, golden arm bands and a laurel wreath headband. In contrast to Lloyd, his character is more along the lines of, let’s say, Steve Martin – over-the-top and played for laughs.

Donna Toliver-Walker and Rob Stuebner fill all the supporting roles; each play three characters, often communicating with the formidable Ms. Watson via phone – the kind with curly cords!

Running under an hour with no intermission and including a holiday sing-along at the end, Great Caesar’s Ghost is an amusing divertissement. The production’s sparse set, consisting of a desk with a laptop and telephone, a door frame, and a pedestal that does double duty as a telephone stand as well as a concierge desk, along with the minimal lighting make this production easy to transport and I imagine it would probably be a welcome addition to a senior center’s programming.

 

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: CAT Theatre Facebook page

Whistlin Women
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Alvin Ailey
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THE WILD WOMEN OF WINEDALE: A New Jones, Hope, Wooten Women’s Comedy

THE WILD WOMEN OF WINEDALE: A New Jones Hope Wooten Comedy

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: December 6-21, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 RVATA Members; $15 Students

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

Another comedy by the team who brought us The Dixie Swim Club, The Savannah Sipping Society, Always a Bridesmaid, Doublewide, Texas, and more, The Wild Women of Winedale premiered in Jonesborough, Tennessee in October 2018. Like other plays by the trio, Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten, The Wild Women of Winedale is set in the present and takes as its subject the life defining events of a group of mature women. It takes place over two months in the late spring (so no, it isn’t a holiday play) in the apparently fictitious town of Winedale, VA, not far from Richmond. One sister, Fanny Wild Cantrelle, played by Rebekah Spence, works for The Museum of Virginia (and that is not a typo).

Fanny’s sister, Willa Wild (Pamela Bradley) is a nurse, and the two are caring for their elderly beloved aunt who is on her deathbed when the already burdened household is descended upon by their sister-in-law Johnnie Faye Wild (Annie Zannetti) who is affectionately known as “Jef.”  In the all-female cast, Audrey Sparrow and Kathy Northrop Parker play all the supporting roles – primarily a series of women who are being interviewed by Fanny for a video project on life-defining moments in the lives of women. One interview, which I call the mother monologue, was particularly heartfelt. Widowhood, divorce, the loss of jobs, job stress, and the death of their beloved aunt anchor these women. Secrets and old rivalries are revealed and provide fuel for hijinks and hilarity as these mid-50 to 60 year old women struggle to find new meaning in life.

Directed by Amy Berlin, the laughs come non-stop and the timing is excellent – in the first act. I was beginning to think this was one of my favorite Jones, Hope, Wooten shows, but then, suddenly, the second act seemed to lose the momentum and flair that won me over in Act 1. Still, Joe Bly’s homey cluttered living room set was nicely done – and kudos to the production team members who had to clean up after Fanny’s feverish de-cluttering epiphany. Greg Sparrow’s sound design was also a key element, with rainstorms and dripping water from a roof with multiple leaks, and there was also a very appropriate soundtrack that fit perfectly with characters’ utterances.

The Wild Women of Winedale is entertaining, sweet, and funny; the laughs come easily and frequently. It seemed to lag a bit in Act 2, but fans of the Jones, Hope, Wooten catalog of comedy should find it satisfying.

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

 

 

Whistlin Women
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Alvin Ailey
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Apple Watch
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ALWAYS. . .PATSY CLINE: A “Honky Tonk Merry Go Round” of “Sweet Dreams” and “Faded Love”

ALWAYS. . .PATSY CLINE: Come on In (And Sit Right Down)

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Virginia Repertory Theatre at Hanover Tavern, 13181 Hanover Courthouse Road, Hanover, VA 23069

Performances: November 15, 2019 – January 5, 2020

Ticket Prices: $44

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

Always. . .Patsy Cline is a two-person show that pays homage to a legendary country music icon. Born in Winchester, VA, Cline died in a plane crash in 1963 while on the way home from performing a show in Missouri. She was only 30 years old at the time of her death, but she had been performing since the age of 14 and left a lasting impression as one of the first country music artists to cross over into the pop music world. Cline made other inroads in music history as a woman in country music, but that’s not the main point of Ted Swindley’s fact-based play, Always. . .Patsy Cline.

You don’t need to know anything about Cline or even be a fan of country music to enjoy this play filled with the music of Cline as sung by the more-than-capable Debra Wagoner. Wagoner’s excellent singing is perfectly balanced by the comedic narration of Terri More as Cline’s friend and number one fan, Louise Seger. This isn’t the first time either woman has played these roles, having performed the show at Hanover Tavern and Willow Lawn in 2012. Then as now, the seemingly effortless flow of the show – which is like a Cline concert interrupted by  Louise’s flashbacks – was directed by Joe Pabst.

A five-piece band, consisting of piano, bass, fiddle, drums, and guitar, remains onstage. Near the end of the first act Wagoner, as Cline, takes a break to introduce the band – giving them the stereotypical countrified names Jim Bob, Joe Bob, Jay Bob, Billy Bob, and of course, Bob who collectively make up – what else? – the Bodacious Bobcats. Jeff Lindquist, who plays guitar in the band, is also the show’s musical director.

Wagoner has several comedic moments and spends a lot of time looking incredulously at Moore, who’s comic shenanigans are epic. The phrase, “bless her heart,” was uttered at least once. Moore has some memorable moves, including her enthusiastically receive bump-and-grind walk and her miming of driving her character’s pink and black Pontiac, lovingly named Sexy Dude. Moore has great timing and flawlessly delivers her over-the-top lines. Cline’s friend raised fan-dom to new heights, spontaneously introducing herself to Cline and then portraying herself as Cline’s manager to get her a better rate at a club. She feeds her, chauffeurs her, listens to her, and incredulously connects woman-to-woman creating a friendship that lasted until Cline’s untimely death.

This is the story that Swindley has captured in a two-hour, two-act play – Louise’s loving memory of her friend, not just the star, but the woman, the mother, the wife. Along the way, Moore gets to sing a measure or two as well, as her character joins Cline on stage, hypes up the audience, leads the audience in a sing-along, and cajoles an audience member into dancing with her. Moore’s storytelling is so natural that we hang on her every word. She even chides the audience for not finishing her sentence after using a particular phrase repeatedly.

Derek Dumais’ sound design is impeccable. We can understand every word Wagoner croons. Special effects are used sparingly. Terrie Powers’ scenic design is understated. One side of the space is a honky tonk stage, the other holds a revolving platform that houses Louise’s kitchen, the audience’s area of the honky tonk, and an outer room of a radio station. But what I really loved were Wagoner’s dresses; she wore at least three beautiful, elegant dresses, and my daughter and I both gushed when, at one point, she fumbled around a bit and then thrust her hands into the pockets of her full-skirted dress.

You don’t have to love country music or know the music of Patsy Cline to enjoy this show. Wagoner demonstrated a range, in vocal ability and in genre, worthy of the woman she portrayed. With nearly 30 songs, there’s more than enough to please everyone at least some of the time. I especially enjoyed familiar tunes like “Back in Baby’s Arms,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and “Bill Bailey.” She also sang traditional songs of faith like “Just a Closer Walk” and “How Great Thou Art,” and a lullaby for Louise’s young son. There were love songs, torch songs, ballads, and upbeat songs, including “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Stupid Cupid,” and “Crazy.”

Despite its somewhat sad ending – it’s not a spoiler to write that Cline dies at the end, because all who are familiar with her know this going in – Always. . .Patsy Cline (a phrase taken from the tag line of Cline’s letters to her friend) is a feel-good play, filled with good humor and even better music.

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

———-

Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten

 

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Alvin Ailey
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URINETOWN: Nobody Pees for Free!

URINETOWN: Power to the People

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: September 12-28, 2019

Ticket Prices: $35 General Admission; $25 Seniors & Industry/RVATA; $10 Students and Teachers with ID

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

Last season TheatreLAB blew us away with their stellar production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Now, with their latest production, Urinetown, the Musical it seems fair to say that TheatreLAB is establishing itself as a small theater that successfully produces big musicals.

Of course, I’ve heard of  Urinetown. The musical, with music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and book and lyrics by Greg Kotis, debuted in 2001 at the New York International Fringe Festival before moving to off-Broadway and then onto Broadway. But this is the first time I’ve seen it.

Gutsy and irreverent, Urinetown, the Musical parodies musicals while commenting on corrupt corporations, big government, social oppression, problems with our legal system, ecology, economics, and more. As the narrators – Officer Lockstock (Bianca Bryan) and Little Sally (Kelsey Cordrey) – are quick to point out, Urinetown, the Musical tackles these tough subjects against a background of upbeat music and songs. At one point Bryan’s character, the tough-as-nails Officer Lockstock who is never successful at reigning in Cordrey’s character – a precocious little girl who appears to be an emancipated minor – informs the unnervingly perceptive Little Sally that the truth about Urinetown will be revealed in Act 2, with nice music and “everybody singing and things like that.” There’s also fun choreography by Nicole Morris-Anastasi – the latest in a number of local shows she’s choreographed that are worthy of note; it’s exciting watching an artist hone their craft.

Urinetown, the Musical is set in an unspecific location in an unspecified time. What we do know is that there has been a drought for twenty years, water is scarce, and people are forced to use public bathrooms run by a private company that gouges its customers and exacts horrible penalties for those who cannot or will not pay. Our hero, Bobby Strong, played by Matt Shofner, finally snaps and decides enough is enough after his father is sent to Urinetown after refusing to pay to use the seedy Public Amenity #9 where Bobby is an assistant custodian. Bobby becomes the leader of a rebellion. Along the way he meets, falls in love with, and kidnaps the beautiful Hope Cladwell (Madison Hatfield), initially unaware that she is the daughter of the Caldwell B. Cladwell (Luke Schares), the CEO of the Urine Good Company that employs him and his frugal supervisor Penelope Pennywise (Michaela Nicole). Bobby, his father, and Little Sally find out what Urinetown really is, Penelope Pennywise reveals a startling secret, and much to Little Sally’s consternation, there is no happy ending.

But, there are laughs, and plenty of them, some good singing, and some excellent ensemble work from actors, some of whom do double duty as musicians. I truly enjoyed Matt Shofner as Bobby Strong; he was quirky and funny, knowing when to go over the top and when to focus on balancing compassion with rebellion. Bianca Bryan, in the role of Officer Lockstock (whose partner’s name is Officer Barrel) continues to build upon her repertoire of strong and often sinister characters. As a character who doubles as the play’s narrator, she gets to direct her penetrating gaze and frequent smirks directly at the audience. Kelsey Cordrey, Levi Meerovich, and other characters also get up close and familiar with the audience. One character even sits on the lap of an audience member during the opening scene.

Cordrey’s portrayal of Little Sally is one of my favorite parts of the show. She’s the smart little kid who knows more than most of the adults around her and won’t take no for an answer. Michaela Nicole was another favorite, and Maggie Bavolack, Anne Michelle Forbes, and Levi Meerovich gave strong supporting performances. Meerovich and Travis West (Officer Barrel) both played piano and Bavolack alternated playing the clarinet with playing the role of Bobby’s mother. Joe Lubman, the drummer, had no other character and remained in his orange prison jumpsuit, with a half mask reminiscent of Hannibal Lector.

Matt Polson directed. It’s his first time directing at TheatreLAB, but he directed Urinetown at Maggie Walker Governor’s School. Travis West, who played piano, was musical director, with musical supervision by Jason Marks. I’ve already credited the choreography to Nicole Morris-Anastasi; Kelsey Cordrey served as dance captain. Connor Potter’s scenic design is functional and basic – some steps up to an upper platform, some panels, a place to hang and store props on either side. Ruth Hedberg’s costumes (with the assistance of Autumn Foster) are appropriately tattered and scruffy while sound and lights by Joey Luck and Michael Jarrett respectively lived up to the level of excellence expected of these two – helping bring Polson’s vision to life while remaining unobtrusively in the background.

The device of having the narrators weave in and out of character and speak directly to the audience makes the audience co-conspirators in the shenanigans and prepares us to keep laughing even when we know there’s not going to be a happy ending. Urinetown, the Musical is a perfect choice for TheatreLAB’s seventh season, “Power and Privilege.” It’s funny and quirky and unapologetically honest.

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

Urinetown Production Photo by Tom Topinka-8
Matt Shofner and Bianca Bryan
Urinetown Production Photo by Tom Topinka-4
Allison Paige Gilman and cast of Urinetown
Urinetown Production Photo by Tom Topinka-3
Matt Shofner and cast of Urinetown
Urinetown Production Photo by Tom Topinka-2
Michaela Nicole and Matt Shofner and cast of Urinetown
Urinetown Production Photo by Tom Topinka-1
Matt Shofner and cast of Urinetown

 

 

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THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD: Not Just Another WhoDunIt, But Was-It-Even-Done?

THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD: A Different Ending Every Night!

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: November 16 – December 28, 2019

Ticket Prices: $40 Theater only; $35 Seniors, Military & Students; $18 Dinner

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

Swift Creek Mill Theatre opened the 2019-2020 season with Jeffrey Hatcher’s unconventional Sherlock Holmes mystery, Holmes and Watson (https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/09/21/holmes-and-watson-its-not-what-you-think/) and now they’re presenting another non-traditional mystery, Rupert Holmes’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is based on the unfinished last novel of Charles Dickens, who died of a stroke while working on the book. Hatcher, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics (now there’s an accomplishment you don’t see every day), infused Dickens’ story with humor by setting it as a play within a play, performed by the members of the Music Hall Royale, a Victorian music hall.

The cast – actual and fictitious – is rowdy and bawdy. They start out mingling in the audience, telling cheesy jokes, sitting next to audience members, and testing the waters with double entendre. The huge cast – nearly twenty – often spills over the edges of the relatively small stage, and director Tom Width, who clearly enjoys this unbridled parody, uses this to heighten the comic effect and interactive nature of the show.

There are some strong voices, particularly Michael Gray as the protagonist John Jasper, and Paige Reisenfeld as the romantic interest, Rosa Bud. Ian Page, an antagonist, uses a high-stepping walk and simmering facial expressions to great comic effect. The “Chairman”  or Master of Ceremonies, Richard Travis, is appropriately blundering and bombastic by turn and keeps things rolling along with the help of his gavel-wielding stagehand, Alvan Bolling, II.

The title role of Edwin Drood is played by Alice Nutting – a character who is a male impersonator (yes, that was a thing in Victorian theater) – who is in turn portrayed by actor Rachel Marrs.

Donna Marie Miller, in her first Swift Creek show, is also quite funny; her character even makes fun of her unidentifiable accent, and Jacqueline O’Connor was fascinating as her character, a drug-dealing prostitute, ranged from bawdy to tender when she reminisced about being leading lady Rosa Bud’s former nanny, then ended up being paired with the very amusing drunken sexton Michael McMullen in an engineered happy ending. They were paired by audience applause!

As Act 2 winds down – it actually sort of stumbles to a false end due to the death of its author – the audience is called on to vote for the murderer of Edwin Drood, who disappeared one night never to be seen or heard from, for some six months! The audience vote determines who sings the final two songs (not including the finale) and how the final scene ends.

In addition to directing, Tom Width also did the scenic design, a replica of a Victorian music hall stage embellished with lighting by Joe Doran, lively choreography by Alissa Pagnotti, and some lovely period costumes by Maura Lynch Cravey. Musical director Gabrielle Maes kept things moving along, but all too frequently the music was too loud, overpowering the vocals, to the point where an occasional word and even entire phrases got swallowed up. At least two people who were sitting behind me on the right hand side moved to empty center seats during intermission, hoping to balance the uneven sound. I didn’t get a chance to ask later if it had made a difference.

Ultimately, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is lite entertainment (yes, I meant to spell it that way); it amuses without pushing a message or focusing on a moral or worries about being politically correct or any of that. There’s a low-key holiday factor, with a Christmas tree downstage right, a few wreaths and an un-stressed mention of Christmas by one or more of the characters.

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 Photography

 

 

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INDIAN INK THEATRE COMPANY: Mrs. Krishnan is Throwing a Party!

INDIAN INK THEATRE COMPANY: You’re Invited to Mrs. Krishnan’s Party!

A Brief Preview of an Immersive Theatrical Experience by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Alice Jepson Theatre, Modlin Center for the Arts at University of Richmond, 453 Westhampton Way, Richmond, VA 23173

Performance: January 25, 2020 at 7:30pm & January 26, 2020 at 3:00pm

Ticket Prices: $40 General Admission; $32 Subscribers; $20 Students / SOLD OUT!

Info: (804) 289-8980 or modlin.richmond.edu

One of the problems, well, actually, the only problem, actually, with the Modlin Center for the Arts – which is a lovely space for dance, which is what I usually see when I go there – is that their productions are usually scheduled for just one or two performances or one or two evenings. So, as much as I want to tell you about Mrs. Krishnan’s Party, which is coming in January, I am sorry to have to start off by informing you that both shows are already sold out! (I asked if there is any possibility of additional shows being added, and I am awaiting a response.)

The Indian Ink Theatre Company, based in New Zealand, was touring in Seattle, WA when I spoke with Kalyani Nagarajan who plays the role of Mrs. Krishnan in this two-handed comedy. Mrs. Krishnan’s Party was “in the works” for seven years and now tours the world attempting to bring happiness –  and Indian culture – to audiences of all ages, genders, and ethnicities.

Mrs. Krishnan’s Party is a story about a “Mom and Pop” type store whose owner is looking to sell it. The story takes place in real time, “everything happens live” is the way Nagarajan explained it. There are two actors, Nagarajan and Justin Rogers. Nagarajan was very enthusiastic in describing the colorful nature of the play, not just in the costumes and set, but also in the culture, and even in the intergenerational characters: one is in her mid-50s, the other in his early 20’s. The “third character” is the audience.

As the story unfolds, secrets are revealed, and the audience becomes immersed in the action. Nagarajan was very specific in rejecting the word “interactive,” believing it might push some people away, but seemed comfortable with the idea of a cultural and theatrical immersion.  It’s about people going through familiar things. Set in the back room of Mrs. Krishnan’s store, the audience is invited to the party where they will “interact and talk with people you might never have talked with.” At the end of the show, Nagarajan wants the people dancing, singing, and laughing together. And eating! There is live cooking done onstage, and at the end the audience – excuse me, the invited guests – get to sample the meal. 

Mrs. Krishnan’s Party builds community, and the audience is urged to come ready to be surprised. “Come with an open heart,” Nagarajan urges, “and don’t eat too much dinner before-hand.”

Mrs. Krishnan’s Party, written by Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis, combines acting, dancing, singing, music, cooking, and laughter. No two performances are the same. Even the ticketing for the show is varied. The Indian Ink Theatre Company’s website described five levels of tickets: (1) the Top Table or VIP seat at the table in the center of the room with first class treatment; (2) the Inner Circle, which is still close; (3) the Wall Flower, up high with a perfect view; (4) the Cheeky Seat, close but not too close; and (5) the Party Animal, which is no seat at all, but spot that allows you to move and dance. I hope to be able to report back detail if it’s as awesome as it sounds!

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: Nimmy Santhosh & the Indian Ink Theatre Company website

 

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