STARR FOSTER DANCE: CRAVE…what if?

STARR FOSTER DANCE: Crave – a New Work

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: TheatreLAB The Basement, 300 East Broad Street, RVA 23219

Performances: February 1-3: Friday @8PM; Saturday @3:00, 5:00 & 8:00 PM; Sunday @1:00 PM & 3:00 PM

Ticket Prices: $12

Info: (804) 304-1523, https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4033169

Starrene Foster’s new work, Crave, poses the question, “What if, in one moment, you had changed your mind during your journey. And if so, how would that change affect the final outcome?” The ways in which she responds to this prompt are intriguing, thought-provoking, and sensual.

On entering The Basement performance space, there is a small exhibit by four participating artists. Douglas Hayes (the company’s art director) showed a pair of digital duotone prints showing the same model, in the same pose and lighting, but one was taken in 2003 and the other in 2019. Wolfgang Jasper’s charcoal drawing, “Frictionless Pivot” and digital print “Communal Madness” show the same elements, but one has been digitally reconfigured. Beth B. Jasper’s “Negotiation,” created with pen and ink on rice paper started as two separate drawings but ended as two panels, with the initial shape in one flipped over. And Fiona Ross’ “Staves #25C” and “Staves #28C” follow specific rules of placement that lead to different outcomes. A brief study of the artwork will prove helpful when watching Crave.

Our programs were marked with a letter “N” or “S,” indicating whether we were to start out seated on the North Stage or South Stage of the performance space.  There are about twenty seats on each side, and a wall – I mean a curtain – separates the two sides. During the 10-minute intermission, the audience members change sides.

We started on the North Stage, where Kierstin Kratzer and Mattie Rogers danced with a quiet intensity that sometimes pulled me to the edge of my seat. Billy Curry’s original score was a soundscape of trains, industrial noises, and rhythmic music. Foster, who frequently uses dark lighting, did not disappoint, but there were bright lights overhead that created a not unpleasant, somehow softened glare. We could see the dancer’s faces, but not their features. We knew they were looking at each other, but we couldn’t see their eyes. They were dressed in monochromatic slightly loose, softly flowing tunics and pants that became part of the choreography.

Kratzer and Rogers sometimes flowed together organically, sometimes challenged one another, lifting, pushing, pulling; one would occasionally head butt the other in the belly, and one stood vibrating as if receiving an electric shock from her partner’s fingers. The flow and variety of movement was mesmerizing, and before you knew it, it was intermission.

Changing to the South Stage, we saw Caitlin Cunningham and Kelsey Gagnon dancing, and like Wolfgang Jasper’s drawings, the elements were the same as those used by Kratzer and Rogers, but reconfigured. They were dressed identically to the other duo. They started from a similar position. There was that kick and high leg swing. That’s the same grab of the toe. There’s the vibratory movement – but different. It was all familiar, but all new. There was the sound of the train and yes, that upbeat rhythm. But there was a sense of déjà vu, a time shift or a manipulation of time and space.

One had a sense that the other duo was happening on the other side of the curtain, but try as I might, I never actually heard them. Having the audience move is rare, but it has been done before. It’s not always possible and the flexible and intimate space of The Basement was ideal for this elemental manipulation. It enhanced the sense that time and space had shifted. The cast members change, too. For some performances, Fran Beaumont and Cristina Peters will dance on the North Stage, while Shelby Gratz and Erick Hooten dance on the South Stage. With a running time of just about 45 minutes including intermission, Crave packs a lot of punch in a small space in a short time. There are only 6 performances over a 3-day period, so if you can this piece is worth seeing. Try really hard. I love the way Foster has manipulated all the elements – including her audience.

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: Starr Foster Dance by Douglas Hayes.

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RED VELVET: The Politics of Theater

RED VELVET: The Terrors of the Earth

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Quill Theatre

At: Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse, Dominion Energy Center, 600 E. Grace Street, RVA 23219

Performances: January 18 – February 9, 2019, Thursdays-Saturdays @8:00pm & Sundays @2:00pm.

Ticket Prices: $22-$32

Info: (804) 340-0115 or quilltheatre.org

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of Ira Aldridge. Those words are a program note for the 2012 play, Red Velvet, but also the opening line of the Acts of Faith Preview on Monday, January 14. But seriously, have you ever heard of him? I had. Like many other black American performers, Ira Frederick Aldridge (1807-1867) found that he had to leave the USA in order to pursue his craft. And from what we can see from Lolita Chakrabarti’s two-act play, life wasn’t exactly a piece of cake in Europe, either. (Okay, so “red velvet” does not refer to cake but to stage curtains.)

The play opens and ends with Aldridge, touring as King Lear near the end of his career, being pursued by a pushy Polish woman journalist – whom he derisively refers to as a “skirt.” Jamar Jones stars as a larger than life Aldridge, and at times the drama of Aldridge’s life and the drama he portrays onstage overlap. The journalist, Halina, played by Rachel Dilliplane, digresses into a tirade on the unfairness of being the only woman in her office – a valid complaint, but this story is about Aldridge, and there just isn’t time to focus on her. Halina’s questions about Aldridge’s ground breaking performance as the first black actor to portray Othello at London’s Covent Garden in 1833 lead the aging and apparently ailing Aldridge to review his life – and this is the gist of Chakrabarti’s play.

Aldridge arrives in London to replace the legendary Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean who has collapsed while playing Othello. Kean’s son, Charles, played with supercilious contempt by Cole Metz, who is also a member of the company, expects to step into the role. But the entire company, with the exception of a delightfully smug young cast member, Henry, played by Stevie Rice, are shocked when Aldridge arrives. At one point, Charles throws a full-blown temper tantrum, complete with stomping and screaming. One actress, Betty Lovell, also played by Dilliplane, remarks that when she read the reviews about Aldridge’s “dark” performance, she thought they were referring to his demeanor, not his complexion.

Although it is not entirely clear, what with all the ambient sound, the flurry of accents, and the period language, England is in the midst of riots about the abolition of slavery, and members of the theater company are firmly rooted on both sides of the slavery versus anti-slavery debate. Bernard, played by John Cauthen, just wants sugar for his tea, and doesn’t care how it’s made. Echoing the headlines of recent news, Bernard advocates for “closed borders.” Some players just want to get on with the show. Some are appalled at the idea of Aldridge interacting with leading actress Ellen Tree, played by Frances Saxton. Ellen is also engaged to Charles, and soon rumors of physical abuse and sexual impropriety begin to fly.

Key to this entire experiment is theater manager Pierre Laporte, played by Eddie Webster complete with a French-ish accent. It seems Laporte and Aldridge are long-time friends, and Laporte is brave enough, and European enough, to buck conservative British tradition and shake things up a bit. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough, and there is an intense second act fight between Laporte and Aldridge that actually gets physical. “Theater,” Laporte assures us, “is a political act.”

At one point, the actors read the racially charged reviews that begin to come in after Aldridge’s first performance. Some refer to the absurdity of a black man playing Othello, the Moor, while others completely ignore Aldridge’s talent, but focus on the shape of his lips, which, the assert, prevent him from properly pronouncing the words. Watching it all from the rear is Connie, a Jamaican-born servant who quietly serves tea to the actors. Connie, played by Desirèe Dabney, could be just another stereotype – the “mammie” caricature, or the always stout black woman who takes care of everything. I was pleased when she was, briefly, given a voice in the second act, where she reminded Aldridge that people see what they want to see, but her supporting role never completely broke the stereotype.

Director James Ricks has done an excellent job corralling all this intense material into something that makes sense most of the time, but the first act seemed to get bogged down. The second act ramped up in intensity, often pulling me to the edge of my seat. This is not a story that can be told in one two-act play. David Melton kept the scenic design simple, yet effective: a chaise lounge, a desk, a few chairs, a screen that were moved between scenes. I also liked Cora Delbridge’s dresses for the women, as well as Charles’ foppish ensemble, complete with walking stick.

 

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 from Quill Theatre’s Facebook page

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Jamar Jones

ROGER B. HEARD & THE TIGHT 45: A Man with a Deadline

ROGER B. HEARD & THE TIGHT 45: Voiceover Master with a Deadline

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

At: HATTheatre, 1124 Westbriar Dr., RVA (Tuckahoe) 23238

Performances: January 11-19, 2019

Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 Seniors; $15 Youth, Groups, Students & RVATA; Reservations Required – No tickets at the door

Info: (804) 343-6364 or hattheatre.org

It was interesting that two of the first shows of the new year shared a theme. On Friday night I attended 5th Wall Theatre’s production of Talk Radio at TheatreLAB the basement, then on Saturday I attended Roger B. Heard & the Tight 45, which made its world premiere on Friday. A coproduction of Free Jambalaya and HATTheatre at HATTheatre’s west end black box theater, Roger B. Heard is a three-person production written by Alex Mayberry and directed by James Nygren.

Dale Leopold plays Roger B. Heard, a veteran voiceover actor with a great talent but, unfortunately, a small bank account. The rent is due, and he has several projects to record, but his studio time has been limited. It seems a musician by the name of Dirty Metal Lefty has reserved all but 45 minutes of the available studio time. With the help of the studio operator Betty Robb, delightfully played by Emily Turner, Roger churns out one assignment after another. A perfectionist, he doesn’t have time for mistakes or retakes. Wouldn’t you know, a picky client calls in and wants him to redo a single line in a previously recorded ad – over and over and over. In a flash of brilliance, Betty Robb suggests playing back the original version. Problem solved! Betty Robb keeps things moving with her snappy comebacks and no-nonsense demeanor, adding moments of humor and balance to Roger’s feverish personality.

Roger and Betty Robb (she is always referred to by her full name) embark on an impossibly tight schedule, hoping to complete an ambitious roster of voice overs in 45 minutes: a morning motivation; Tales of Fantastica, in which Roger voices six characters and a narrator; a chair sales pitch; a multi-lingual bait shop phone menu, in which one of the languages was a pseudo hillbilly dialect; a congressional campaign ad that seemed guaranteed not to get the candidate elected; the reading of a chapter of a celebrity memoire; a monster bass fishing tournament; TV dubs for an action movie; the voices and sound effects for a game called Dojo Crusader; and a tribute to a religious leader performed in English and Swahili. Listening to Leopold transition from voice to voice, character to character is both amusing and anxiety inducing. We know he’s on a deadline, and Betty Robb keeps us aware of the time.

The only other character is Dirty Metal Lefty, aka Doc Thomas, a musician and songwriter who fills the pre-show space and a final scene with Roger B.  Dirty Metal Lefty is billed as a Richmond musician, so that leaves unanswered the question of her British accent. And I guess I was the only one who was a little slow and didn’t realize that Dirty Metal Lefty played a left-handed guitar until she asked that Roger be given a right-handed one to join her in a song.

There is even some audience participation. For instance, I found myself assigned as a last-minute “intern” assigned to play the tambourine for Dirty Metal Lefty, and a couple sitting behind me had been assigned to participate in a call and response. Due to the threat of severe weather, there were only about 10-12 people in Saturday’s audience, and the Sunday performance was cancelled, but there are two more opportunities to see this show on January 18 and 19 at 8:00 PM.

This is one of the quirkiest shows ever, it runs under an hour with no intermission and the only pretense at a plot is Roger’s deadline. And, if he’s so good, why is he so broke?

 

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 uncredited at the time of publication

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Dale Leopold
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Dirty Metal Lefty (Doc Thomas), Dale Leopold, and Emmy Turner

THE LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA: 18 Years Strong

THE LATIN BALLET OF VIRGINIA: LEGEND OF THE POINSETTIA 2019

A Dance Review and Related Thoughts by Julinda D. Lewis

At: The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, 2880 Mountain Road, Glen Allen, VA, 23192

Performance Were: January 10-13, 2019

Ticket Prices Were: $10 – $20

Info: (804) 356- 3876 or http://www.latinballet.com

This won’t be the first time I’ve said that The Latin Ballet of Virginia’s annual production of The Legend of the Poinsettia has become, for many, a new or alternative holiday tradition. But this year I had the pleasure of introducing the production to ten people, children and adults, who had never before seen it. Everyone I had a chance to speak to during intermission or after the show was enthralled by the variety and range of the dancing, the colorful costumes, and the energy of the music and dancing. One mother said she had a hard time following the story, which is told in Spanish and English, mostly Spanish, but I suggested she read her program later – it explains pretty much everything, much like the synopsis of an opera.

This year the fickle Richmond winter weather caused some concern, with a wintry mix of snow, sleet, and rain predicted around the time of the two Saturday performances and the Sunday matinee. The company generously offered to allow people who had made reservations for Sunday afternoon to exchange their tickets for one of the two Saturday performances. The Saturday matinee seemed to be a full house, and snow flurries were swirling around the parking lot of the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen as we made our way out after the show and the cast prepared for the evening show.  As of this writing, the weather seemed to be kind enough to allow the Sunday matinee to go on as planned.

The Legend of the Poinsettia tells the story of Little Maria (with Rebeca Dora Barragán and Emery Velasquez alternating in the role), who, after the sudden death of her mother, with whom she was weaving a colorful blanket, finds herself in need of a gift to present to the Baby Jesus on Epiphany Day. January 6 is Three King’s Day or Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos, which celebrates the 12th day of Christmas and the legend of the three Wise Men bringing gifts to the Christ Child. So, for those who did not take down their Christmas trees on January 1, just say you were waiting to celebrate Epiphany! It is also the story of “the true spirit of giving,” as well as a cultural history of how the poinsettia came to be a symbol of Christmas.

The Legend of the Poinsettia is a family-friendly, multi-cultural, multi-generational festival featuring the dances, music, and costumes of Mexico (the origin of the legend and of the poinsettia plant, with Micas de Aguinalda or Christmas Masses and nine days of posadas leading up to Christmas, with reenactments of the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph), Colombia (King’s birthplace, which also celebrates the nine nights before Christmas with las novenas including songs, prayers, and nativity scenes), Venezuela (the home of the gaitas or festive songs that blend the Spanish and African cultures), the Dominican Republic (home of the bachata, a mixture of Cuban bolero and son), Puerto Rico (home of the Christmas parrandas or musical festivities) and Spain (home of flamenco and the Christmas novenas). A blend of solemn candle lighting and prayers with festive singing and dancing is the common thread that ties together the many cultures and traditions, concluding with the miracle of the poinsettia plant, represented by dancers in red and green.

This year’s cast included new and familiar faces. Young Marisol Betancourt Sotolongo has appeared in all eighteen productions. Antonio Hidalgo Paz, of Spain, and artistic director of Flamenco Vivo, has become a staple figure, partnering King in a flamenco duet and taking on the role of Papa. Frances Wessells, Professor Emerita of VCUDance appeared in her recurring role as Abuelita/the grandmother. She was greeted with cheers of “go Frances, go Frances,” in deference to her still performing at the age of 99! One of my students was most impressed by the energy or “hype” of the men: Roberto Whitaker, Jay Williams, Glen Lewis, Nicolás Guillen Betancourt Sotolongo, and DeShon Rollins.

There are daytime school productions and a weekend of family shows, but if you missed them all, keep your eyes open for next year’s production. It’s a must see.

 

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 from Latin Ballet Facebook page.

TALK RADIO: Late Night With Barry Champlain

TALK RADIO: When They Go Low, Barry Goes in For the Kill

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

 

5th Wall Theatre

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

Performances: January 10-26, 2019

Ticket Prices: $32 General Admission; $20 Students; $20 RVATA Cardholders; $10 ARGS Students

Info: (804) 359-2003 or https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3921247

Barry Champlain (Scott Wichmann) is a talk radio host, a provocative shock jock of a nightly show. He is quick to mock his callers and even quicker to cut them off mid-sentence when they begin to bore him. Barry is caustic and cruel; he drinks too much, smokes too much, and washes down his drugs with liquor. He is brilliant but unlikeable, and he is mesmerizing. He brings in ratings.

Talk Radio was written in 1987 by Eric Bogosian who originally played the starring role. Based on an original idea by Tad Savinar and created by Bogosian and Savinar, the play is loosely based on the story of real-life talk radio host Alan Berg who was gunned down in his Denver, Colorado driveway in 1984. There is one brief hint of this bit of history when a mysterious package is delivered to Barry at his Cleveland, Ohio studio at WTLK Radio.

Director Morrie Piersol deftly manages to avoid making Talk Radio feel dated, most of the time. It’s both frightening and illuminating to find that the concerns of late night callers have not changed much in thirty years. It’s also hard to imagine anyone other than Wichmann playing this role with its multiple and often overlapping layers of darkness, humor, edginess, and impending doom.

There is an onstage support team surrounding Barry that is supposed to keep him from running off the track. There’s his Executive Producer, Dan Woodruff (Chandler Hubbard) who brings the news that Barry’s show is about to be nationally syndicated. Stu Noonan (PJ Freebourn) is Barry’s operator who screens and feeds his callers; Spike (Jimmy Mello) is the long-suffering and mostly silent sound engineer; Linda Macarthur (Haliya Roberts) is the Assistant Producer and Barry’s sometimes girlfriend.

In brief monologues, Woodruff, Freebourn, and Roberts share background and insight into Barry. This makes him more human, but no less caustic. When told that the show is going to be nationally syndicated, he deliberately says outrageous things about the sponsors. The most interesting interactions are between Barry and his unseen callers, voiced by Darrelle Brown, George Dippold, Chandler Hubbard, Gina McKenzie, John Mincks, and Paige Reisenfeld.

There are the sad people like the panda lady and the guy who eats dinner with his cat. There’s a sixteen year old girl left pregnant by her apparently much older boyfriend, and the lady who wants to know why there aren’t any new episodes of I Love Lucy. And then there are the right wingers, the anti-Semites, the racists, and the crazies, like Chet who calls back after sending that threatening package to Barry at the studio. For most of them, Barry calls their bluff, mocks them, leads them on, gains their trust, then cuts them off. But then there’s Kent (John Mincks), the kid who parties while his parents are away. He calls in with a scary story about his girlfriend overdosing, and against all advice and common sense, Barry calls him a liar. Of course, he was right, and the next thing you know Kent shows up at the station and joins Barry at his desk for some live on-air repartee that gets quite wild and out of control. Dan says he’s in control of this train, but one wonders. Barry seems headed for an on-air breakdown, but the more outrageous he becomes, the more the listeners like it!

Darrell Brown also plays the brief opening role of financial talk show host Sidney Greenberg with George Dippold as his operator Bernie. Gina Maria McKenzie is Dr. Susan Fleming, a psychologist, who share the closing scene with her assistant, Rachel (Paige Reisenfeld). They all do multiple duty as the invisible callers, using a variety of dialects and accents.

TJ Spencer designed and constructed the authentic-looking set. Roger Price did a great job as sound designer and sound technician. I don’t know, but since this was done in the style of an on-air radio show, it seems that a bit more was involved than in most productions, and it all worked seamlessly. Erin Barclay designed the lighting, which did not require any special effects, and Sheila Russ designed the costumes.

Talk Radio is an intense and disturbing show that often pulled me to the edge of my seat. It covers a lot of ground, from people to politics. It’s harsh and raw and surprisingly still relevant – perhaps even more so in today’s political climate. Oh, and there is a full page advertisement near the back of the program that reads, “Radio’s dead. Start a Podcast!” Hmm.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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Scott Wichmann and John Mincks
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Scott Wichmann
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Rear: PJ Freebourn, Chandler Hubbard, Haliya Roberts, and Jimmy Mello. Front: Scott Wichmann.
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Darrelle Brown

THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL: A Creatively Inclusive Take on a Classic

THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL: Classic Meet Inclusion

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: Whistle Stop Theatre Company at The Hanover Arts & Activity Center, 500 South Center Street, Ashland, VA 23005

Performances: December 1, 7, 14 & 15, 2018

Ticket Price: $10

Info: https://whistlestoptheatre.weebly.com/ or email whistletoptheatre@gmail.com with any questions or concerns. The Whistle Stop Theatre Company does not have a phone number.

The holiday season, spanning Halloween through New Year’s Day (or even through Three Kings Day in January) is often seen as a time for traditions. Families get together and reminisce, pull out old photos, resurrect games and decorations and recipes from previous generations. For some, it means an annual trip to see The Nutcracker or a marathon showing of A Christmas Story (which is now considered politically incorrect).

Richmond’s theater community has many holiday offerings, ranging from the adults-only Who’s Holiday with a grown-up Cindy Lou Who at RTP to the wacky whodunit The Game’s Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays at Hanover Tavern and the trailer park trashiness of A Doublewide, Texas Christmas at CAT. There’s also A 1940s Radio Christmas Carol at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, and the very intense A Doll’s House (which is not a Christmas story but does have a Christmas tree in it) at The Basement. (My apologies if I omitted any shows from this informal and unofficial list!)

For family oriented entertainment, there’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins at VaRep at Willow Lawn, which my 4- and 10-year-old grandsons enjoyed. On Friday, December 14, 2018, I made my way out to Ashland, VA (aka “the Center of the Universe”) for my first experience with the Whistle Stop Theatre Company, whose director, Louise Ricks, has fashioned an inclusive version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Little Match Girl. Like many classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes, Andersen’s story is rather gruesome and graphic in the details of a young girl selling matches to help support her family. It’s cold, and she has only a thin wrap and a pair of slippers that belonged to her late grandmother are a poor substitute for boots or proper shoes. Even these are taken from her and she has no luck selling matches to the hurried and preoccupied townspeople who brush past her as she called out New Year’s greetings. In the end, she dies. Before the end, however, she strikes her matches to provide a bit of comfort for herself and her only friend – a cat named Gerda. “You’re not mangy,” The Little Match Girl assures her companion, “You’re. . .unkempt!” The glow of the fire illuminates her dying visions.

But Ricks has taken these moments and expanded them to include tales from other cultures, providing levity, insight, empathy, morality, hope, and cultural inclusion. There’s “The Uninvited Guest” (Jewish folktale for Hanukkah), “Babushka” (a Russian tale about the Three Wise Men), and “Uwungalama” (a South African folktale about a magical tree that provides unending fruit). So, there’s acknowledgement of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s and even Three Kings Day, all in one play that runs about 45 minutes.

Set in the round, using only a square platform and three black boxes, The Little Match Girl intimate and as much a night of storytelling as it is theater. The cast consists of a multi-generational, multi-ethnic ensemble of nine, most of whom play multiple roles. Sweet and natural, Ziona Tucker plays The Little Match Girl, with Caroline Beals as Gerda, her cat. Caroline’s gestures and mewls are perfectly on point.

Shalandis Wheeler Smith played the Wind, a Thief, a Venomous Snake, an Elderly Townsperson, and one of the Three Kings. Marcos Martinez is a Passerby, an Elderly Person, the African King, and one of the Three Kings. Annie Zanetti, one of my personal favorites for her generous caricatures, accents, and unrelenting commitment to her characters, played the Mother, the Wide, a Townsperson, and Babushka. She was also spirit of The Little Match Girl’s Grandmother who welcomed her into heaven. Walter Riddle was the Wind, a Thief, a Beggar, and a Townsperson, while Justin Sisk was a Sales Person, Father, Husband, Townsperson, and one of the Three Kings. Finally, Prudence Reynolds was The Child and Sarah Rose Wilkinson played guitar – the only accompaniment.

Great theater? No. Prudence, at one point kept looking towards the door. I assume a family member or friend had just entered. Given the minimal set and props, the ensemble had to mime such details as a dinner table and the gifts of the Wise Men. It was difficult to tell exactly what sort of work Babushka was performing, we just knew it was all-consuming and had Zanetti winding her bottom like a Jamaican dancehall girl.

One young audience member, presumably one not acclimated to live theater, at one point broke out into uncontrollable laughter. Zanetti handled this beautifully, including the young lady and her friends in an interactive search for “the Newborn King,” An inviting family-friendly experience? Yes, and well worth the trip to the unfamiliar territory of Ashland! Not only is this a welcoming environment for families with children of all ages, the program began with a gentle introduction to theater etiquette, and can be enjoyed by audience members from ages 3 and up on age-appropriate levels of understanding. In keeping with the outreach and communication, on Friday audience members who arrived early on Friday were able to take photos with The Snow Queen (Ricks), and on Saturday there are holiday crafts before the 3:00pm show.

 

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

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Photo Credits: Louise Ricks & Whistle Stop Theatre Company

Little Match Girl 6
Marcos Martinez, Shalandis Wheeler Smith, Ziona Tucker, and Walter Riddle
Little Match Girl 4
Annie Zanetti and Prudence Reynolds
Little Match Girl 5
Ziona Tucker and Caroline Beales
Little Match Girl 2
Ziona Tucker

 

A DOLL’S HOUSE: Well, Shut the Door!

A DOLL’S HOUSE: Love and Marriage

A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis

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

Performances: December 6 (Preview)/December 7 (Opening) – December 22, 2018

Ticket Prices: $30 General; $20 Seniors/Industry (RVATA); $10 Students/Teachers (with ID)

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

The theme of TheatreLAB The Basement’s current season is “In Pursuit of Happiness.” Following on the heels of the season’s memorable opening show, Significant Other, is a most unlikely production – the thee-act Henrik Ibsen classic, A Doll’s House. First produced in 1879, A Doll’s House created a sensation then because of its unconventional take on marriage and the roles of husbands and wives. One hundred thirty-nine years later, the show remains on the cutting edge, due in no small part to the forcefulness of the cast and the nail-biting intensity of Josh Chenard’s direction.

In what some refer to as color-blind casting, Katrinah Carol Lewis inhabits the role of Nora Helmer, with Landon Nagel as her husband, Torvald. Lewis has tackled some emotionally challenging roles in recent years, from Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, both at TheatreLAB, to A Raisin in the Sun and River Ditty with Virginia Rep, but this may be the most highly charged of them all. With her naturally large eyes accented by makeup, and in the intimate space of The Basement, it was easy to see every nail biting emotion, to hear every breath, to practically feel her trembling. Nagel, whose character at one point remarked how warm it was in their staged apartment, was sweating real beads of perspiration. A Doll’s House is not a play for the faint of heart; it’s hard work for the audience, too, not just for its emotional intensity, but the three acts run nearly three hours, including two intermissions. It also took awhile to adjust to the mannerisms and affectations of the main characters.

On the program, the women’s names are flush left, and the men’s names are slightly indented. This is, no doubt, part of Chenard’s homage to women: the women in his life; the women on stage; the women on the production team; even the women on the awesome playlist he assembled for this production: Bessie Smith, Marianna Faithful, Marian Anderson, Loretta Lynn, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Carole King, and Adele.

Amber Marie Martinez is calm and insightful, in contrast to Lewis, in her role as Nora’s childhood friend, Kristine Linde. Jocelyn Honoré has a supporting role as the family’s maid and nanny, Anna, but all three women are linked by the social mores of their time that require they surrender their own thoughts, feelings, and needs to those of the men in their lives or the needs of their families. Kristine entered into a loveless marriage in order to support her mother and younger siblings. Anna gave up her own daughter and went into service to others. Nora has gone from her father’s house to her husband’s house, and doesn’t even know who she is, other than a doll to be played with at the whim of first her father, and now her husband. These three women are bound together, whether they want to be or not. Their interactions are sometimes sharp, sometimes brittle, but always there is the knowing glance, the slightest turn of the head, the knowing eye toward whichever man is currently acting clueless.

Nagel is positively frightening in his ability to switch effortlessly from domineering husband to sweet-talking lover. Torvald has an unending list of pet names for Nora; literally – he keeps calling her different kinds of birds! For his role as the ill-fated employee Nils Krogstad, Axle Burtness holds his left arm close to his body and limps slightly on his left leg, nursing an unnamed handicapping affliction. Torvald’s close friend and daily visitor, Doctor Rank, played by Todd Patterson (more color-blind casting) also has an unnamed debilitating disease, but it seems his spinal affliction is due to a venereal disease inherited from his philandering father.  Young Faris Alexander Martinez was adorable as Nora and Torvald’s enthusiastic if neglected young son, Jon. (Faris did not appear for the opening night curtain call, presumably because it was past his bedtime.)

The family dynamics and levels of dysfunction in A Doll’s House may have been endemic to the 19th century, but they are all to frequent even today, which makes the play as much a horror story as a drama. Women giving up their own hopes and dreams to take care of aging parents or young siblings, women burying their own desires in order to please their husbands, women living in fear or thinking they do not deserve better, men who view women as possessions or objects, men who think women’s thoughts, feelings, intellect, contributions are worth less than those of men: all of these themes remain as prevalent in 2018 as they were in 1879. So, when Nora takes her final steps out the front door, slamming it behind her with the finality of nails in a coffin, not only is it the most dramatic exit ever in the history of theater, it is, as Chenard wrote in his director’s notes, “a celebration of. . .resilience and strength.”

Chris Raintree’s scenic design is a black and white outline or blueprint, with the names of the rooms – sitting room, playroom, main hall, study – printed on the floor, along with the room’s measurements, and a door opening that the actors mostly respect as they navigate the space. There are a few period pieces, a sofa, a desk, a child’s toy horse, and at the end of the main hall, where we, the audience sit, there appears to be a mirror, as Nora always stops, stares, and adjusts her hair and before going into her husband’s study. Ruth Hedberg’s period costumes make it clear where each character stands in the social hierarchy, and the overall look is one of a slightly shabby middle class striving.

Chenard’s direction is both gentle and shattering. Lewis’ performance is electric and the interaction between Lewis and Nagel is painful and shocking. Lewis’ side-eye when Nora makes her mental shift is epic. The end of each act is met with a blackout and gasps from the audience – both for emotional release and in recognition that one has been holding one’s breath for the last five minutes.

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

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Photo Credits: Tom Topinka

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Katrinah Carol Lewis and Landon Nagel
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Amber Marie Martinez and Katrinah Carol Lewis

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