Richmond Ballet’s THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

Richmond Ballet’s THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace St., RVA 23219

Performances: February 9th @ 7:00pm; February 10th @2:00pm and 7:00pm; February 11th @2:00pm

Ticket Prices: Start at $25

Info: (804) 344-0906 x224 or etix.com

The Richmond Ballet’s large-scale production of the timeless fairy tale, The Sleeping Beauty, staged by Malcolm Burn is simply beautiful. From the classical choreography by Marius Petipa, with additions by Burn, paired with the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky to the stunning technical execution by the dancers to the elegant three-dimensional set by Michael Eagan, The Sleeping Beauty is a masterful piece of theater. The music is played live by The Richmond Symphony under the direction of Resident Conductor Erin Freeman.

The work, onstage at The Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center for one weekend only, features company members Cody Beaton as Princess Aurora, Marty Davis as Prince Florimund, Lauren Archer as The Fairy of the Lilac (Wisdom), and Mate Szentes as her Cavalier. Petite Elena Bello dances the role of Carabosse, the Wicked Fairy, with Peter Elverson as King Florestan and Ballet Master Jerri Kumery in a rare character role as his Queen. Another character role, that of The Nurse, is filled by faculty member Susan Israel Massey, and Richmond Ballet II member Khaiyom Khojaev is featured as Puss ‘n Boots.

The scale of this production involves just about every company member (Ira White, recovering from an injury, was helping out at the box office on Friday night, and Maggie Small was absent recovering from a recent injury) as well as members of Richmond Ballet II, the Richmond Ballet Trainees, and students from the School of Richmond Ballet along with students from the Ballet’s Minds in Motion outreach program. Imagine the sheer power generated by twenty or thirty dancing bodies or more sharing the same stage.

The Sleeping Beauty is Tchaikovsky’s longest ballet, running nearly 4 hours, with intermissions, when performed full length – including a prologue and three acts. The Richmond Ballet production has been pared down to two acts and runs two hours, including one intermission. If that is still too long for the youngest members of the audience, they might be kept interested by frequent appearances in the second act of characters such as Puss ‘n Boots and his paramour The White Cat (Abi Goldstein), or Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf (Savannah George and Thel Moore, III). Even the four little boys who portrayed the Trees – Carter Bush, Oliver Gardner, Hart Isacoff, and Zachary Owen – received an ovation from one gentleman in my row, and I don’t even think he was related to either of them.

The highlight of the ballet remains the Grand Pas de Deux, performed by Cody Beaton and Marty Davis. Beaton brought beauty, grace, resilience, and a touch of humor to Princess Aurora. Davis was technically crisp, noble in demeanor, and confident as Prince Florimund (originally named Prince Désiré) – as he should be after restoring the lovely Princess to life and earning her hand in marriage after a century’s long nap due to the spell cast by Carabosse on Aurora’s 16th birthday. Beaton dances with precise abandon, flinging her torso first to one side then the other, and obvious enjoyment, now leaning forward to watch the play of her arms. The couple makes the simplest choreography, like synchronized little hops backward, look beautiful, and the audience pleasing dips, lifts, and extensions look elegant and easy.

There are far too many dancers and characters to make mention of them all, but I would be remiss not to mention the lovely Eri Nishihara – a first year member of the company, she stands out as a quick, lithe, and powerful dancer in her role as Princess Florine in Act II.  Khaiyom Khojaev brought confidence and sass to his role as Puss ‘n Boots, making the most of his featured moments with nuanced tilts of his masked head and eerily authentic feline swipes of his paws – I mean hands. The Sleeping Beauty ballet is a treat for the eyes, ears, and soul.

 

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:

Sarah Ferguson

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BRAVE NEW WORLD: an uneven adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s novel

BRAVE NEW WORLD: David Rogers’ adaptation from the novel by Aldous Huxley

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Quill Theatre at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Rd., Glen Allen, VA 23060

Performances: February 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $28 Regular; $15 for Students (with valid ID)

Info: (804) 261-ARTS or quilltheatre.org

It’s no surprise that Quill Theatre would consider Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World as appropriate source material for the current season. After all, as Production Manager James Ricks pointed out at Sunday afternoon’s audience talkback, there is a resurgence of a national discourse, of talking points about truth and fact (what we now call “fake news”), scientific truth (the CDC was recently issued a list of forbidden words), emotional truth (can there be any compromise between white supremacists and all those whose existence they would deny). The question was asked, why is this an Acts of Faith Festival offering? That’s self-explanatory. Our beliefs, what we value, our gods or lack thereof, our idols (in this case, Ford, which forges links with technology and conveniently rhymes with Lord) provide logical points of departure for discussions of faith. Brave New World offers an entry point for comparative discourse on the hard topics that should be discussed.

Another albeit more lightweight reason this is a choice for Quill is that one of the main characters, John (Caleb Wade), communicates largely through Shakespearean quotations. Ironically, John is considered a savage in Huxley’s dystopian world, where babies are genetically manufactured, workers are cloned in factories, hypnopedia or sleep-training is the preferred method of socialization, and the government distributes happy pills to every citizen.

The problem with this production (well, actually, there is more than one) is that David Rogers’ 1970 adaptation o Huxley’s novel and the Quill staging, directed by Maggie Roop, whose work I admire tremendously, works better as a book than it does on stage. As fascinating and as timeless as the story may be, and as strong as the cast may be, both individually and collectively, the first act drags, and I found it difficult to fully engage.

Quill is adept at placing actors in multiple roles. They have, after all, successfully staged the complete works of William Shakespeare with just two actors. Brave New World, the play, was written for 19 men, 13 women, and three children, or 14 men and 9 women with some in multiple roles. Quill staged the production with a cast of 11, composed of six men and five women. The result of this paring down was that at times it was difficult to tell who was playing which character when, and it didn’t help that the entire cast wore uniforms: silver-gray pants and shirts or burgundy dresses, both topped by awkward little epaulet capelets.

On the positive side, I appreciated the gender-neutral casting of Lucretia Anderson as Mustapha, the Resident World Controller. Michael Oppenheimer initially held out a promise of change in this totalitarian society as the rebellious Alpha+ male Bernard, but when given a taste of power, he caved in.  Alex Wiles as the beautiful Lenina remained steadfastly committed to the program and the emotion deadening effects of the government supplied narcotic, soma. Caleb Wade brought a welcome intrusion into this world as the so-called savage, John, with his curiosity and literary worldview, and his shirtless second act was the highlight of the show for some. The cast also included Joseph Bromfield, Axle Burtness, Christopher Dunn, Rachel Hindman, Jacqueline Jones, Jimmy Mello, and Nicole Morris-Anastasi.

Mary Sader’s austere faux stone set was simple and attractive, but during the first act I was distracted by my view of an unpainted support that was clearly visible from my seat on the far left of the auditorium. At the start of the second act, a member of the stage crew pulled the curtains to meet the edges of the set, solving the problem. James Ricks’ sound design included an electronic effect that sounded a lot like an Australian didgeridoo, which was simultaneously evocative and unfortunately hegemonic for the scenes involving John and the residents of the compound where New World residents would occasionally vacation in order to experience the primitive past.

Rogers adapted Huxley’s novel, and Quill made a few more adaptions. Originally set in futuristic 26th century London, the production was free of English accents or any geographical references. When Bernard decided to vacation in New Mexico, there was no indication how far it might be from where he started, or even if it was in another country. The production chose to call the undeveloped areas compounds rather than reservations and also downplayed Huxley’s emphasis on sexuality and required participation in orgies, while adding a snake-handling scene near the end.

I suspect that the theatrical experience might be quite different for those who read and remember the novel, those who read it decades ago in high school (if it was allowed), and those who never read it at all. This is a production that the cast seemed to enjoy immensely. Axle Burtness indicated during the talkback that it was exciting to be immersed in Brave New World because of the lack of realism. Unfortunately, as an audience member, I was not able to attain that level of immersion and felt a bit left out. In a Brave New World, I would probably be a candidate for exile to an island. Thank Ford!

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 Credit:

Quill Theatre promotional photos

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Lucretia Andlerson, Axle Burtness, Rachel Hindman, Nicole Morris-Anastasi, Michael Oppenheimer

BNW-Slider-2Acts of Faith

I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD: When prayer is a curse

I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD: by Halley Feiffer

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: February 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $35 – VIP Seating, $30 – General Admission, $20 – Senior / RVA Theatre Alliance, $10 – Student (with valid ID)

Info: (804) 505-0558 or theatrelabrva.org

Like many of the Acts of Faith Festival offerings, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is not intended for mere entertainment. It left Saturday night’s TheatreLAB at The Basement audience mentally battered and bruised and most in the audience sat in utter silence collecting themselves for more than a full minute at the end.

This provocative two-character play deals with the toxic father-daughter relationship of David (Alan Sader), a renowned playwright and his daughter Ella (Liz Earnest) and aspiring actress who alternately basks and languishes in her famous father’s success. The second installment of Artistic Director Deejay Gray’s “Taking Sides” project, Gray has staged the play in David’s living room that appears to have been snatched from New York and dropped into the middle of The Basement, with audience members sitting on two sides peering through the torn away walls. At some point we became unwilling voyeurs, sort of like having noisy neighbors in an apartment building. This feeling is reinforced by the opportunity to watch the viewers on the other side of the stage watching the action – and you. One woman even gasped aloud at a particularly egregious action by David. The intimacy of the setting amplifies whatever you might be feeling as you watch this story unfold.

There is no doubt that Ella loves her father. The way she kneels submissively before him with his refilled wine glass in her outstretched hands is profoundly disturbing, as is her constant need to apologize. David obviously has deep feelings for his only daughter, but it is a love tainted by a narcissistic and perhaps even psychopathic personality.

Gray decided to stage this 90-minutes without interruption play as a two-act play with an intermission after about an hour in. In the first act, Sader commands the stage and monopolizes the conversation with his daughter. He reminisces about his character’s early life, throws shade on well-known playwrights (“Arthur Miller was a hack”), and rants relentlessly about theater critics. (I thought long and hard before I put the actors’ names in parentheses after the names of their characters – apparently one of Davis’s pet peeves.) David is the kind of self-centered father who calls his fawning daughter ugly and then says it’s a joke. He takes off his shoes and thrusts his feet into Ella’s lap for a foot rub but callously pushes her away when she puts her feet in his lap, so he can return the favor. Sader maintains a deceptively calm exterior through many of these exchanges, speaking with a marked softness that makes his increasingly frequent explosions all the more harrowing.

Davis is not likely to win any awards for father of the year. Not only does he exploit Ella’s insecurities, he fuels them with wine, hits from a bong, and lines of cocaine. But if the first part of the show belongs to Sader, the shorter second act presents Earnest as a greatly transformed Ella.  No longer fawning and seeking the approval of her father – who appears only as a sort of ghost-of-the-past figure – she has, instead, become her father. As the now confident, successful, and beautiful Ella, Earnest is beautifully put together in a chic top, slim high waited pants, and thick heels that command respect – no slutty stilettoes for her. But, it’s all just acting, and it’s a role she cannot maintain.

Given that playwright Halley Feiffer is the daughter of prolific cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer (currently 89, he married his third wife in 2016), one cannot help but wonder how much of I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is autobiographical. Nonetheless, I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard (a line and a lesson taken from David’s mentor) offers an intriguing look into the home life of an award-winning, if fictional, playwright as well as two coveted roles of the type both characters debate in their alcohol fueled family night.

David Melton’s set is beautifully detailed and also utilitarian; it takes a beating before the evening is over. Ella sits and lounges on the coffee table, jumps in the sofa, and soaks the carpet with wine more than once. A mirror does double duty as a tray for cocaine, and a trash basket plays a featured role in a bloody accident. I did wonder, however, about one wall that featured a window and a single-panel door that appeared to be an apartment style door. It was not clear whether this door opened onto a corridor – in which case, why the window? – or onto the street. Michael Jarett’s lighting is subtle and takes a dramatic turn during key moments in the dialogue. Kelsey Cordrey’s sound design was equally subtle, at times almost imperceptible, as when the strains of West Side Story’s “Somewhere” supported Sader’s humming of the tune.

I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard is gritty, meaty, and oh so worth your time, and David and Ella are two characters you’ll not soon forget.

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 Credit:

Tom Topinka

THE DIVINERS: acts of faith vs crises of faith

THE DIVINERS: by Jim Leonard, Jr.

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

At: CAT (Chamberlayne Actors Theatre), 319 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227

Performances: February 2-17, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $13, $18, $23

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

 

For the first time in all the years I’ve gone to CAT, the space was totally reconfigured. Director Zachary Owen reversed the positions of the audience and the stage to build a raked thrust platform with the audience seated intimately on three sides of the stage for the current production of Jim Leonard, Jr.’s depression-era drama, The Diviners.

Set in the tiny fictitious town of Zion, Indiana, the story revolves around Buddy Layman, a fourteen-year-old boy with developmental challenges and a paralyzing fear of water. It appears that he has not taken a bath since his mother died – and we never find out exactly how long ago that was but suffice it to say that it’s been long enough that Buddy is encrusted with dirt and infected with ringworms to the point that he can no longer sleep. Stone Casey, a high school freshman, handles this role with the confidence of a seasoned professional. (He has been performing in school for five years, and apparently, he’s been paying attention.) Casey may be on his way to finding his purpose in life; the role of Buddy is emotional and nuanced, and he navigated it like a true professional.

Buddy is, nonetheless, a charismatic child, prone to speaking of himself in the third person, and gifted with the ability to find well or to divine water. In fact, the first act finds him searching for a new well for local farmer Basil Bennett (Charles A. Wax) who also doubles as the town doctor, albeit without benefit of medical school – which was not uncommon in bygone decades. Basil’s wife, Luella (Sandra Clayton) is skeptical of Buddy’s divining abilities and urges her husband to hire some contractors with well-digging machinery.

The town is so small they have been without a church or a preacher since their one church burned down, but the local dry-goods proprietor, Norma Henshaw (Crystal Oakley) has stepped up to the plate. Toting her bible and singing hymns, she is determined to pray up a preacher. Her skills may be at least partially commended, as the town is soon visited by one C.C. Showers (Arik Cullen), a preacher in the flesh. The only problem is that the tall, handsome, well-spoken C.C. has given up preaching. He is so adamant about this that when the local diner owner, Goldie Short (Ann Davis) asks his to pray a blessing over a donut he rudely refuses.

Baggage or no – and there’s a who ‘nother story about his luggage – a single man and a preacher are hot commodities in a small town like Zion and catches the attention of several women and girls – including pretty teen, Jennie Mae Layman (Rachel Mae Dilliplane). Unfortunately, Jennie Mae is not only the sister of young Buddy, but also the daughter of C.C.’s new landlord and employer, Ferris Layman (Cary Nothnagel), who is the local mechanic.

I found out from the program that The Diviners is Nothnagel’s favorite play – one he teaches every spring to his high school students. He performed the role of C.C. as a high school student himself (a historical fact that was not lost on one audience member who recognized him from that earlier production). When Nothnagel heard that CAT was producing The Diviners, he made sure he would be included in the cast.

It would not be a spoiler to tell you that Buddy has died when the play starts, and the body of the production is his story neatly bookended by his family and friends telling of his recent death. The 11-member cast, which also includes Annie McElroy as Norma’s niece Darlene, and Chris Craig and Patrick Siegmund as local yokels Melvin Wilder and Dewey Maples, works seamlessly together and in close proximity to the audience – sometimes resulting in awkward angles with their backs to a one section or the other, but they were always audible.

Wilder and Maples added some necessary humor throughout, as the clueless Melvin instructed the naïve Dewey in the ways of the world – chiefly in how to get a date with the dangerously lovely and bored Darlene.

An Acts of Faith festival entry, The Diviners deals with C.C.’s crisis of faith as well as Norma’s fanaticism. The combination of the two leads to misunderstanding and propel the ultimate tragedy at the end. But other characters have issues of faith as well. Ferris has been lost since his wife died and has left his children to fend for themselves like feral cats. C.C.’s unexpected friendship is a godsend for the Layman family (no pun intended). Goldie is waiting for a revival of faith to bring a revival of business to her diner; her best business was on Sundays when church-goers traditionally go out for brunch or dinner. Buddy’s problems stem as much from any congenital challenges he may have had as from his mother’s death and his subsequent inability to comprehend where she has gone. We, the audience, are left with a bunch of questions at the end of Act One. Why is Buddy so afraid of water? What happened to his mother? What is C.C. running away from—and what is his full name, anyway? Two of these three questions are answered in Act Two.

Playwright Leonard’s choice of character names is also interesting. Layman, for instance, is another word for nonordained church workers. C.C.’s last name is Showers, and rain is a recurring theme; in fact, it seems that is has not rained in a very long time until he shows up. In the Urban Dictionary¸ Henshaw is defined as a substitute for a common expletive, or a vulgar term for female genitals.

The Diviners is a thought provoking play; not one you would say you enjoyed as much as it is one that draws you in and that will linger with you afterwards. Director Owen has done a masterful job pulling his audience in. Sheila Russ’s costumes are a little corny; Jennie Mae and Dewey wear overalls, and Darlene wears stereotypically shapeless dresses.  Bill Miller’s lighting design is quite effective, especially during the tragic accident scene, and Nicholas Ray Creery does a good job with the sound design, which includes rain and a storm. Zachary Owen and Ellie Wilder designed the simple, somewhat dreary, but functional set, consisting of a couple of boxes and some brown mottled flooring. It is, after all, the 1930s, and we, the audience, are experts as suspending belief.

Take note that the title is “diviners,” plural. Yes, Buddy is a diviner in the sense of one who finds water, but the other characters – and even the audience – are diviners in the sense of foretelling or prophesying what is to come.

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 Credit:

Daryll Morgan

CORPUS CHRISTI: The New Testament told in a radically new way

CORPUS CHRISTI: by Terrence McNally

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: Richmond Triangle Players performing at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, Richmond, VA 23230 [Part of the Acts of Faith theater festival]

Performances: January 31 – February 24, 2018

Ticket Prices: Tickets $10-$30

Info: ​​ (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org

 

Humor me for a minute – this really is going somewhere. In a post in the “tcgcircle” (Theatre Communications Group, 2014) blog, Kevin Brown generated a list of “The Top Ten Reasons Why Theatre is Still Important in the Twenty-First Century.” In short, from #10 to #1 (the most important reason), David Letterman style, they are:

10. Human beings

9. Self-Expression

8. Self-Knowledge

7. History

6. The Body

5. Globalization

4. Self-Empowerment

3. Social Change

2. Education

1. Creativity

Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally’s passion play about a gay Jesus, hits all ten of these reasons in significant ways – but don’t worry, I won’t go into detail on all ten of them. My point is that when this play was first staged in New York in 1998 – and at many subsequent productions and attempted productions – Corpus Christi was condemned as blasphemous and worse.  It was the target of protests and threats of violence. It was condemned by The Catholic League and others, often sight unseen. Even when invited to come into the theater to see the show and engage in dialogue, many protesters refused.  The playwright even received death threats. Perhaps this is why a police officer was stationed outside the theater on opening night – an uncommon sight at a Richmond theater. Check the list – I think the events surrounding the production as well as the content of the play itself covers all ten items, except perhaps Globalization.

As staged by Richmond Triangle Players, a cast of 13 men portray the New Testament commonly known as The Passion of Christ, from birth through crucifixion. Dexter Ramey directed in a brilliantly unobtrusive way that allowed the familiar story to unfold with several unusual twists, well-placed and generous doses of humor, an earnest and overwhelmingly successful attempt to get to the heart of the matter, and simple staging consisting of a few benches, a large crucifix, and a trunk of props (e.g., a crown of thorns, a crucible, a flask of vinegar, large nails, a hammer, a flagrum – the type of whip used to scourge Jesus).

In the tradition of a medieval morality play, there is little or no scenery. There is no suspense; the audience already knows how the story ends.  The purpose is to open dialogue, to use the familiarity of ritual and repetition to make us think in new ways about things we already know. “This is how we pray – arms open, heads up.” Joshua teaches his disciples not to bow their heads in fear. This is something we can all relate to but may hold special significance to the LGBTQ community.

At the start of the play, the actors change into white shirts and khakis and each member of the cast is identified by name and baptized by John (Matt Bloch) who gives each his biblical name. The play freely blends New Testament theology with modern-day anachronisms; there are Roman centurions and crucifixions, and there are also twentieth-century clothes and occupations.  Andrew (Andrew Etheredge, who quite by chance gets to keep his real name) is a masseur, Matthew (Tim Goad) is a lawyer, and Judas Iscariot (Chandler Hubbard) is a restaurateur.  Other disciples include John (Matt Bloch) a writer, James (Eddie Webster) a teacher, Peter (Bartley Mullin) a fisherman, Philip (Stevie Rice) a hustler, Bartholomew (Trevor Worden) a doctor, Thomas (Lucian Restivo) a doctor, James the Less (Cooper Sved) an architect, Simon (TeDarryl) a singer, and Thaddeus (Ethan Williams, a senior at The Steward School who, at age 18 is the youngest cast member) a hairdresser.

Corpus Christi is set in the 1950s in the south Texas city of the same name. There Jesus – named Joshua because Jesus sounds “too Mexican” is born in a cheesy motel.  A couple can be heard having loud, vocal sex in the next room.  Little baby Jesus is a rather large rag doll with long blonde pigtails. The Virgin Mary, as are all the other characters, is played by a male. Adam Turck, who plays Joshua/Jesus, gives voice to the baby Jesus and transitions seamlessly into the role as the Messiah grows into a child, and later a troubled and friendless teen who struggles with his sexual identify and leaves home as soon as he can to begin his role as The Son of God.

A true ensemble, each actor, except Turck, I think, plays multiple roles, both biblical and modern. Turck and Hubbard have the most intense and intimate situations – but Joshua makes it clear that though people can touch his body, they can’t touch Him.  I am sure this would not assuage the protesters — if they took the time to hear it. Some situations that arise are less controversial than others.  For instance, what would it have been like for The Son of Man to attend a Catholic School or a public high school in Texas? What was it like for Mary to take care of Him? In Corpus Christi, she makes an attempt to bring normalcy to His life by enrolling Him in Boy Scouts, ballroom dancing lessons, and drama class – all of which, it seems, fail to help him fit in.

McNally, in the preface to his play, wrote, “it would be naïve of me to think I could write a play about a young gay man who would come to be identified as a Christ figure without stirring up a protest.”  What an understatement. It probably doesn’t help that much of the dialogue in the second half of the play (about 110 minutes long without intermission) is read or quoted directly from the Bible.  In one scene Joshua officiates a same-sex marriage between James and Bartholomew. There are sexual situations and lots of foul language. The line between church and theater is often blurred.

Controversies aside, Corpus Christi opens up a dialogue about the role of gay men in the contemporary Christian church. It is a dialogue many do not want to address.  In a documentary about a production of the play staged at the MCC in the Valley Church in North Hollywood, CA, McNally is quoted as saying, “I’m as made in God’s image as the next person.”  In the final analysis, Corpus Christi does much of what theater is intended to do, and some of what the church thinks it does. McNally’s closing words stand for themselves: “If we have offended you, then so be it. He loved everybody.”

Note: A documentary about a production of the play at the MCC in the Valley Church in North Hollywood, CA can be found on Amazon Prime: https://www.amazon.com/Corpus-Christi-Terrence-McNally/dp/B00NK9J4OQ/ref=tmm_aiv_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=8-2&qid=1412626097

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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CorpusChristi-imagePhoto Credit:

RTP Promo Ad

Acts of Faith

TO DAMASCUS – a new opera by Walter Braxton

TO DAMASCUS: The World Premiere of a New Opera by Walter Braxton

A Theater/Opera Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23220

Performances: Thu, 1/18 – 7:30pm (preview); Fri, 1/19 – 7:30pm (press opening); Sat, 1/20 – 7:30pm; Sun, 1/21 – 4pm (post performance panel/talkback); Thu, 1/25 – 7:30pm; Fri, 1/26 – 7:30pm; Sat, 1/27 – 7:30pm

Ticket Prices: Tickets $15 – $40
Info: ​​ (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org

If you’ve never seen or heard an opera, and the very thought of attending an opera sends shivers up and down your spine, you must understand that To Damascus is not your everyday opera. If you are an opera aficionado, To Damascus may be pushing the envelope over the edge (yes that’s a mixed metaphor, but so appropriate for this occasion). I think I heard someone describe Walter Braxton’s new postmodern musical as an “anti-opera,” but if you chose to use that definition, please think of it in a positive way.

What is To Damascus about? Well, it has no story in the traditional sense. But, as the title suggests, it has a deep spiritual foundation. In the New Testament, in Acts chapter 9, the Damascus Road is where Paul (then Saul) met Jesus and was converted. A Damascus Moment has come to refer to a turning point in one’s life, a sudden interruption in the day-to-day rituals that define one’s existence and often sets one on the way to living life with purpose and meaning.

There are many rituals in To Damascus. Act One begins with the five vocalists cleaning, wrapping, and packing shoes. Stacks of vintage suitcases and trunks fill the stage, and many of them hold shoes – everything from stilettos to brogans. Shoes are important when traveling. Act One ends with the cast members circling the stage in a ritual that has them assembling BLTs – yes, sandwiches.  There is a toaster and a hot plate, a bag of Wonder Bread, and all the fixings. A traveler needs sustenance.

Act Three begins with water rituals: hand washing; rinsing apples; pouring water from a bottle to a glass and back again. Each act is repeated over and over, not unlike the daily rituals repeated by people with OCD tendencies. During the water rituals, there are no words, just instrumental music.

Mr. Braxton’s music is beautiful, mesmerizing. Oddly, it tends to stay on the same level, with gentle swells and rises, like the gentle hills of an urban park, rather than the rolling hills of wide open acres. A sixteen-piece orchestra was crammed onto a raised platform above the stage, filling the space with the pastoral strains of Braxton’s score – a score that, at times, was in stark contrast to the carefully choreographed postmodern confusion taking place on the stage.

In his pre-show curtain talk – which took place in the theater’s lobby, instead of inside the theater proper – Firehouse Artistic Director and the show’s Director, Joel Bassin, shared that To Damascus” is not your ordinary opera, that there is no traditional story line, and that it is best to focus on the sounds rather than the words.

Mr. Braxton takes many of his words directly from the bible. There is no libretto in the traditional sense, nothing to clue the audience as to what is happening, no synopsis as would be provided for an opera written in German.  Excerpts included in the program include the words of Psalm 121 and a variety of poems and prose.

Michele Baez (soprano), Michael David Gray, and Chase Peak were the de facto lead singers, with Imani Thaniel (a VCU theater major) and Elisabeth Carlton Dowdy (a VCU Music Education graduate) in supporting roles.  Ms. Thaniel’s staging sometimes kept her partially hidden from the audience; this was true whether she was positioned stage left or stage right. She was often hidden by stacks of luggage.

Ms. Baez and Mr. Gray had the most commanding voices, but the performers had little direct interaction. While they rarely looked at or communicated directly with one another, they had plenty to do, interacting with a wide and wild assortment of props that seemed to appear out of thin air. It was almost as if the director had incorporated subtle magic tricks. Mr. Braxton’s music and Mr. Bassin’s direction were a perfect fit for The Firehouse, and if some left the theater wondering what happened – at least they left relaxed rather than agitated. To Damascus does not assault the senses, but somehow amplifies them.

Leilani Fenick is the Musical Director and Vocal Coash, and Michael Knowles deftly conducted from a raised platform in a downstage corner. Rather than a set designer, To Damascus has Environmental Design by Isabel Layton, and the production team also included Lighting Design by Bill Miller and Costumes by Kathleen O’Connor.

As for Walter Braxton, he is an African-American composer born and raised in RVA. He was a child prodigy – while attending Mary Scott Elementary School, he wrote the class song. To Damascus is an opportunity to learn about and appreciate the work of a local artist who may be unknown to too many of us.

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 by Bill Sigafoos

Facebook CBS 6 News Post:

Walter Braxton was Richmond’s child prodigy – composing symphonies before he was even out of high school. A mental breakdown at age 18 ended his promising career. January 19 at 7:30pm, the Firehouse Theater presented Braxton’s opera, TO DAMASCUS, for the very first time, followed by Mark Holmberg’s story at 11.

 

SPITTING IMAGE: A Collaboration of Dance and Photography Featuring Choreography by Starr Foster

“Saltwater Bones,” a voluminous skirt solo, turned out to be one of my personal favorites of the evening.

SPITTING IMAGE: A Collaboration of Dance and Photography Featuring 8 Works by Starr Foster Dance Project with Music by Joey Luck

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLAB’s The Basement, 300 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219

Performances: Friday, January 12th @8pm. Saturday, January 13 @3pm, 5pm, 7pm. Sunday, January 14th @ 3pm, 5pm.

Ticket Prices: $15 General Admission. $25 Opening Night Performance and Reception with Artists. Order tickets @ http://www.browpapertickets.org

Info: (804) 304-1523 or http://www.starrfosterdance.org



As part of an ongoing mission to collaborate with other artists, Starr Foster Dance Project (SFDP) has started the new year with a unique collaboration with eight photographers whose work inspired the eight short dances that share their titles. Eight intriguing and very different photographs by photographers both local and long distance hung in the lobby of TheatreLAB’s The Basement, and on opening night six of the eight lens artists were on sight to share their work and experience with the dancers and audience.

Undulating Reflections, a work for six dancers, was inspired by a photograph by Dennis Lieberman.  Set to the somewhat anxiety-provoking music Surveillance by Canadian industrial band Noise Unit and with gorgeous deep blue costumes (tank tops with briefs for the men and ruffled skirts for the women) designed by Johann Stegmeir, Undulating Reflections lingers sumptuously in weight sharing, leaning, moments of touching and almost touching.

Elizabeth Whitson’s single flower, Beauty in the End, was the inspiration for a duet, performed Friday night by Erick Hooten and Heather Rhea O’Connor, to an original score by Joey Luck. Hooten, large and muscular, and O’Connor, deceptively delicate-looking, sustained an ethereal, floating quality throughout, supported by what I think was a cello that anchored Luck’s somewhat somber score. They remained connected and intimate, even with people watching from two sides as the black box space was set up as a traverse or corridor stage. The final image was of the two dancers stretched out on the floor, Hooten’s face hoovering slightly over O’Connor as the two seemed to share the same breath. The blue theme was continued with O’Connor’s long, soft dress and Hooten’s matching tank with solid long pants, both designed by Foster.

The mood changed considerably with Find the Light, a work inspired by Clare Midock’s photo, which featured a chair and her young daughter. Anna Branch, O’Connor, Angela Palminsano, and Brittany Powers initially took turns dancing on and around a sturdy wooden chair, each revisiting and modifying the phrases of her predecessor.  They draped themselves over the chair, hung over the back, slithered under it, sat near it, focused on a mysterious mission as a blinding bright light focused on them. Find the Light is set to a hauntingly beautiful cello solo by Peter Gregson, and Johann Stegmeir designed the orange ombre jumpsuits.

The first half of the program closed with the delightful, somewhat humorous Searching, inspired by Henrietta Near’s optical illusion photograph of people taking pictures in Maymont Park under the watchful eyes of a superimposed cat. Returning to the blue and black color scheme (with costumes by Foster and original music by Luck), the six dancers explored variations of searching. One moved a chair close to and stared directly at a member of the audience. Others sought out new spaces, sitting in chairs along the wall with the audience in the all-too-brief snippet of choreography.

A brief intermission provided a welcome opportunity to revisit the photographs for the upcoming choreography. (It would have been helpful to have a moment of lighting between each dance to give the audience a chance to check the titles and connect them with the photographs as well.)

The second half of the program began with what turned out to be one of my personal favorites of the evening, a voluminous skirt solo, Saltwater Bones, inspired by the underwater photography of Cristina Peters. O’Connor’s white skirt, designed and constructed by Foster, performed doubly duty as costume and prop. Sometimes it billowed out gracefully, other times it appeared to entrap her. At the end, I found myself releasing the breath I did not realize I had been holding. Luck also created original music for this solo.

Angela Douglas’ photograph Flock (yes, it is a photograph of birds) manifested as a bouncy quartet (Davis, Hooten, Palminsano, and Powers) filled with quick, sharp movements in stark contrast to the sustained phrases of preceding dances. The accompanying music is, somewhat ironically, titled Nature Fights Back, performed by prepared pianist Hauschka (nee Volker Bertelmann). Foster designed the black tank tops and blue/teal pants for this delightful dance thin which the rhythm and flow was briefly interrupted by somewhat awkward preparation for a group lift.

Pas de Doe proved to be a delightful play on words, a duo inspired by Mike Harrell’s photo of two deer. Branch and O’Connor (who appeared I six of the eight dances on the opening night program) started off like two bulls sizing up one another in the glaring side lights, but by the end they were dancing in unison and looked as if they were about to take flight. Stegmeir designed their soft salmon-colored tunics and white pants, and the pounding music, Hephaestus, was by Chris Cutler and Thomas DiMuzio.

The program closed with Hanakapai Falls, inspired by a stunning painting of a Hawaiian waterfall. Rachel DeFrank’s deep colors, marked by shades of blue, green, and purple, were printed on a metal plate.  Branch, Davis, and Hooten resurrected Foster’s tilting movements, seen earlier in Undulating Reflections, with hints of classical lines and use of space in the partnering. Stegmeir’s blue gray pallet and the music, Sequence (four) by Warren Zielinski Magdalena Filipczak, Laurie Anderson, Richard Harwood and Peter Gregson, both supported and enhanced the concept of waterfall, making for a beautiful and satisfying conclusion to an evening of contemporary dance in Richmond.


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


Photo Credits (clockwise, starting at top left):

  1. Dancers Erick Hooten, Anna Branch and Ryan Davis leap in a new work Inspired by Rachel DeFrank’s photograph of “Hanakapai Falls” Photo Credit: Doug Hayes
  2. Dancers Heather Rhea O’Connor and Erick Hooten in a duet inspired by Elizabeth Whitson’s photograph, “Beauty in the End” Photo Credit: Doug Hayes
  3. Dancer Kate Neal descends in a new work inspired by Cristina Peter’s photograph “Saltwater Bones” Photo Credit: S. Foster
  4. Dancers Heather Rhea O’Connor and Erick Hooten share an embrace in “Beauty in the End” inspired by a photograph by Elizabeth Whitson Photo Credit: Doug Hayes