The specificity of “Admissions” is a strength, though some disagree
I find strong opinions attractive. Even so, I was stunned when I pulled up the Vulture review of “Admissions,” the dynamic and challenging play that is going into its last weekend at TheatreLAB.
A show that delves into something juicy like this one invariably spurs me to Google what other, smarter people have said about it. Doing so is always interesting but sometimes disappointing when there is broad similarity to the reviews. That’s why I think the Vulture piece is worth considering in some depth.
Reviews of “Admissions” generally called the show “bitingly funny” filled with “smart” dialogue that reaffirms playwright Joshua Harmon’s skill “at articulating arguments, often at length.” Some folks have noted, as our own Julinda Lewis did, the particular newsworthiness of the play: it opened in Richmond just as Felicity Huffman was given a prison sentence for trying to buy her kid into college and the show was playing in DC in March just as that scandal broke, as the Washington Post pointed out.
Of course, the play’s exploration of the struggle to get into elite institutions is really a vehicle to dig into one of the thorniest of thorny issues: race. And that’s where the commentary gets complicated.
I walked away from “Admissions” almost 100% in line with Jesse Green’s take in The New York Times, feeling Harmon’s purposefully uncomfortable skewering of liberal white hypocrisy is “good satire at work,” it’s dramatization of diversity doubletalk being “[o]ne of the things the theater should be doing today.”
Then I read the Vulture piece which asserts that the play “misfir[es] wildly” and got knocked on my heels. Here’s what it made me realize: As an old liberal white guy, I have the luxury of walking away from a heady piece of challenging theater thinking, “good job, show!” Maybe, I thought, it’s worth listening to someone who instead ends up thinking Harmon is “having [his] ethical cake and eating it too.”
Brits tend to have a more nuanced view of some issues that get lost in the easily bifurcated American culture so it was interesting to find reviews of the London production that complained it “contributed almost nothing to the reasoned furthering of the debate” and contained “rather too much shouting.” Unfortunately, no review that I found dug into the meat of the issues; in fact, the more impactful reveal from these reviews for me was finding out that the production starred Alex Kingston, who I’ve loved since ER, triggering some retroactive regret that I didn’t fly to London to see it.
Here’s what I think Sarah Holdren of Vulture should be applauded for bringing into sharp focus: this isn’t really a play about fighting institutional racism. The cast is all white so actual people of color literally do not have a voice in the show. Their experiences and their struggles are only voiced by white people, sometimes dismissively or sarcastically. And the audiences who see the show are going to be largely white so I understand the inspiration behind Holdren’s exclamation “what are we all really doing here?”
But there’s plenty I think Holdren gets wrong, starting with a number mentioned in dialogue (the percentage of students of color at Hillcrest School is said to have started at 6 percent, not 4 percent; whether it’s rational or not, small, easily checked mistakes like that always irk me).
More importantly, what Harmon creates in the play (and what director Deejay Gray and his cast deliver in this excellent production) is a specific and personal story that reflects situations that are real, messy and hard. Holdren did not have access at the time of her piece to read this fascinating and recent deep dive into the actual dilemmas college admission directors face. Clearly, the reality is 10 times more complex than any playwright could imagine.
It is easy to be dismissive about a play about liberal white people and the (arguably) moderate challenge of staying true to your stated values when faced with personal adversity. But there are thousands and thousands of Americans facing that exact challenge and the answers aren’t easy. To pretend that the answers are literally black and white, as dad character Bill (David Clark) seems to suggest, is flatly dismissive and plainly reductive.
For one thing, there are conservative and libertarian groups very actively pushing verifiable statistics that show reverse racism, most directly against Asian students. One such study came out just two weeks ago showing that hundreds of white students were rejected from UVA and William & Mary despite having higher test scores and grades than black students.
Sure, the show’s central, powerful and expansive rant (masterfully delivered by Tyler Stevens playing the son, Charlie) swerves into esoteric territory when it asks whether Kim Kardasian is a POC. But we have a leading presidential candidate whose most ill-advised move was to suggest that her tiny genetic percentage of indigenous heritage qualified her to be considered Native American. So is it really a ridiculous question?
The Vulture piece chides we white folks for “feel[ing] like we’re grappling with something difficult, even as we’re being allowed to indulge in some pretty basically racist lines of thought.” The author seems to say those lines of thought all fall on one side but I’d say they fall all over the place: isn’t Sherri saying a biracial child “doesn’t read black” kinda racist? At the same time, virtually everything said by her oblivious assistant, Roberta, is clearly racist, so is Harmon really just rooting for one side?
Holdren also finds a trap that’s easy for a critic to fall into (I know I have): letting an audience’s reaction skew your own opinion. She says “[o]ur sympathies are plainly pushed toward Roberta in [the] opening scene.” Huh? As winning an actress as Jackie Jones can be, I don’t think anyone thought she was NOT clueless in my crowd, even in Richmond where “I really don’t see race” kind of sentiment flows freely. Holdren calls Sherri “unlikable and obviously self-deceiving.” Again, huh? Maybe it’s just that Donna Marie Miller can do nothing wrong right now, but she clearly won over folks at the Basement.
Where I knew Holdren had really veered into a different realm was talking about laughter breaking into outright cheers during Charlie’s rant. It was hard not to enjoy Stevens digging into the emotional depths of that scene but, while I certainly cheer his performance, even as he was rollicking through it, I felt the disquieting tug of conscience that Harmon delivers as a hard smack of parental scorn when Bill calls Charlie a “racist spoiled little shit.” Holdren says Bill’s counterpoint “doesn’t help much;” I sure felt it as a slap.
Maybe this is a testament to Gray’s directing skill but, while Holdren sees “a play whose ultimate argument and its very existence seem in conflict with each other,” I saw a fascinating crash of gnarly contradictions.
And, finally, something Holdren totally overlooks, and no one else I read seemed to pick up on at all, are the more subtle reflections of liberal whiteness that Harmon makes plain. The most striking example is when both Bill and Sherri turn to each other more than once and ask, “Who do we know?” as they try to wriggle out of the dilemmas Charlie presents. Is there anything more white and privileged than to think that a call to the right person can fix a problem? Just add the delivery of a tidy sum of cash as per Felicity Huffman and “Admissions” would almost be too true-to-life to be considered fiction.
Tuesday, September 24, 2019
Tuesday, July 23, 2019
As the lights went down at intermission of Quill Theatre’s latest production, an all-female staging of “The Taming of the Shrew,” I leaned over to one of my companions and said, “I don’t think they’ve solved the problem.”
If you’re reading this, you know what I’m talking about. The brutal, jarring, incomprehensible-to-modern-audiences misogyny of “Shrew” has been fretted over for decades, with directors reworking it into a “Secretary”-style S&M liberation tale or gender-reversing the characters to subvert the dynamics, using the play’s framing device to add commentary or simply rewriting the ending to change the most uncomfortable parts. Regardless of its problems, “Shrew” keeps showing up on theater schedules on the regular, with productions on stage right now from California to Massachusetts, not to mention the RSC staging in London.
Some scholars have suggested the problem isn’t the play but our pesky determination to make modern sense of dated sensibilities. Maybe so but personally, I’d had enough “Shrew” after the 2006 Richmond Shakespeare Festival production, adding it to my growing “I never need to see that again” list. The ambitious but flawed 2013 staging did little to move me from my agreement with a London critic’s assertion that “Shrew” is “one of the most deeply unlovable of Shakespeare's plays.”
I doubted director Chelsea Burke’s choice to demasculate the cast would change much. The play’s problems are deeper than “Katarina is pommeled into subservience.” Bianca’s coy complicity in the courtship paradigm presents a somewhat-subtler sexism and her father Baptista holding a bidding war for the right to bed her (a bedding war?) is a face-palm worthy example of no-this-really-isn’t-funny tone-deaf banter.
So how did the wily Ms. Burke win me over by the end of this quote comedy unquote that is predicated on violence, submission and abuse? To borrow a phrase, she leaned into it.
I didn’t see the 2016 Shakespeare in the Park all-female cast version that Burke possibly borrowed this idea from (her director’s note is maddeningly oblique). But at least one article about that production talks about Katarina’s eyes being “wide and anxious” during her final speech and Bianca’s face “collapse[ing] into a mask of horror” as she listens. In her luminously intense portrayal in the current production, Michelle Greensmith delivers the monologue not as a lecture but as a plea, her every mannerism reflecting PTSD rather than happy subservience. Thanks to Greensmith, it’s impossible to shrug off the manipulation, gaslighting, and cruelty her character has experienced as some clever romantic plot. Shakespeare’s text hasn’t been changed but, in her direction of this moment, Burke infuses an appropriate level of #MeToo-era awareness into the scenario.
If that description makes this production seem like a heavy slog through a gender studies seminar, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that Burke’s amplification of the tragedy of Katarina works because of the delightful goofiness of the play’s action beforehand. Burke allows an exceptional crew of comic ladies to pepper their parts with asides, rejoinders and other funny business that bolster nearly every scene, punching up what is already some pretty spry repartee. Maggie Bavolack extends her already expansive range with her hilariously old Gremio, Allison Paige Gilman makes her plucky Tranio the comic lynchpin of the plot and Erica Hughes adds a sweet simpleton vibe to her late-in-the-action emergence as a key player (particularly observant folks will enjoy her unsung but very funny turn as an audience member early on).
The MVP (most vociferous provoker) of Laughter, however, has to be Desiree Dabney who has apparently never been in a scene that couldn’t be enhanced by a pulled face, under-her-breath adlib or other wisecrack reaction. She, along with many other cast members, regularly single out audience members to talk to, hand props to, and otherwise make directly personal what could otherwise be an alienating theatrical experience.
Burke seems to instinctively understand (again, some commentary would have helped) that breaking down that fourth wall, insinuating all of us in the fun and frivolity during most of the show, also indicts us all in the trials that befall Katarina. Her “comeuppance” is uncomfortable, more so because we’ve all been roped into a jaunty good time – complete with contemporary girl power songs that get toes tapping at the top of both the first and second acts.
Speaking of music, the 2016 NYC production apparently utilized Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” as its coda, an angry anthemic F-you to the patriarchy. The pensive take on No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” that wraps up the action here is Burke’s final slice of genius, a song that, stripped of its perky ska beat, reinforces the similarities between now and 16th century Italy, rather than pointing to any progress.
Before anyone stamps a big QED on this production, claiming the problem definitively solved, Burke doesn’t escape all of the landmines Shakespeare embedded. If anything, the sweetness of Nora Ogunleye’s portrayal of Lucentio – the plot’s requisite “good guy” – makes the turn her character takes during the final wager between the show’s dude-bros even more problematic. And speaking formalistically, there’s no way around the Bard’s flagrant dismissal of the “show, don’t tell” proscription in scenes (e.g., the wedding) where particularly flamboyant off-stage action is described rather than enacted.
But I’d have to echo Style Weekly’s Claire Boswell in saying this comes as close to the “Shrew” I’ve always wanted, to the extent I’ve ever wanted a story of humiliation and misogyny wrapped up in deceptively pretty language. Though I’ve finally heard a version of this tune that I liked listening to, it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t prefer the song relegated to the (Not-So-) Golden Oldies bin forever.
(Quill’s “The Taming of the Shrew” runs at the lovely Agecroft Hall through August 4th.)
Posted by Dave T at 12:33 PM
Friday, November 10, 2017
On two occasions recently, I’ve found myself in the company of people who don’t like musicals. Rather than treat them like traitors against the realm or shrink in horror at their inhumanity, I’ve engaged in a bit of conversation with them, not unlike what Sarah Silverman has been doing in her new show.
Through those talks, I gained some understanding of that anti-musical perspective and I like to think that Murder Ballad would be the rare musical that would appeal to even sung-through haters in the world. The show’s immersive staging at Club Infuzion in Scott’s Addition means you can practically reach out and touch a performer at multiple points during the show. It moves fast, it’s plot is simple and straightforward, and it features consistently propulsive music (thanks to Kim Fox and her very peppy band). Director Lucian Restivo has cast a rock-solid group of actors who nail every beat of the love-triangle-gone-deadly story.
As someone who tries to sit in the front row for most shows, I was in heaven. The production layout has four principal focal points: an elevated mainstage where the band plays, a house-left bar, a house-right pool table that becomes a bed, and another elevated area near the back of the house. I was happily spinning in my seat to adjust my sightlines from one to the other throughout the compact, intermissionless 90-minute performance, my favorite moments being when one of the cast members was singing just inches away from my table.
And what a cast! Rachel Rose Gilmour has been the highlight of two other of my recent favorite theater experiences (Toxic Avenger and Lysistrata) and she brings a delightful, delicious, darkly sarcastic slinkiness to “Ballad’s” narrator. She inserts regular commentary on the growing rivalry between Tom (Durron Tyre) and Michael (Chris Hester) for the affection of Sara (Katrinah Carol Lewis). Tom, a bar owner, has affection with a fiery lustful underbelly that eventually clashes with Michael’s, a poet/MBA who is raising a child with Sara and so operates from a more possessive, papa-bear place. There’s no doubt things are going to end badly but exactly how isn’t clear until the very end.
With the brevity of a musical like this, some nuance can be lost and it’s up to Hester and Lewis to provide enough layers of personality to make Michael and Sara an interesting couple. Both do a fine job, Lewis creating a believably disaffected wife and mother, loving her family but craving her former wild life. The energy of her “I don’t want to know your name” hook-up with Hester persists throughout her domestic scenes. Hester has to do more with less but, particularly given some of the extravagant characters he’s played in the past, captures some pretty delicate gradations: projecting a sweet protectiveness in his early scenes, transitioning to a wound-tight buttoned-down peevishness, and ending with full-bore boiling over.
It may be the hunky Tyre, though, that rivets many a viewer. He has one of the first musical highlights of the show in his sweet rendition of “Sara” and, besides rocking an awesome leather jacket in the latter scenes (costumes by Sheila Russ), he has a single-minded intensity throughout that’s pretty entrancing.
Kudos must be given to Restivo for navigating a tricky staging challenge and delivering such a stylish thriller. I may be wrong: being immersed in a musical could be some people’s worst nightmare. But there are so many entrees to Murder Ballad, it has appeal for anyone with an affection for film noir or for messy love stories or thrillers or in-your-face drama or for good-looking actors with great voices or for any theatrical experience that’s different than most others. Doesn’t that cover just about everyone?
Posted by Dave T at 2:04 PM
Saturday, October 14, 2017
I’ve attended multiple performances of a production many times in the past. When the now-defunct Stage 1 did Children’s Letters to God, I saw every single one of the show’s 8 or 9 performances. I was at the theater mostly for logistical reasons but nothing was compelling me to watch the show every time. I chose to watch it every time because it was an awesome production.
In other cases, a show like VA Rep’s The Color Purple has compelled me to take different groups of friends to it as proof of the quality of Richmond theater.
For Quill’s Lysistrata, starring Grey Garrett, I saw the show three times mostly for business reasons. My new venture, Behind-the-Scenes RVA, dovetails perfectly with Quill’s mission: they seek to produce theatre worth talking about and one of my goals with BTS-RVA is to provide context that can inform those conversations.
After seeing the show for the third time, I realized how my perspective on the show had changed and, also, what I was focusing on in the third viewing versus the first. To whit:
- There are some comedic powerhouses in this cast. Jeff Clevenger and Maggie Bavolack, in particular, are so talented that they can generate laughs with a look or a line delivery. After the first viewing, theirs were the performances I remembered. But after repeated viewings, I gained appreciation for CJ Bergin as the Spartan herald who had several very choice bits and absolutely nailed them every single time. I also grew to love the playful dynamics between Michael Hawke and Melissa Johnston Price and the small comic moments they capitalized on, Michael getting a hearty laugh by dangling his feet like a toddler and Melissa’s sarcasm after removing “the mother of all gnats” from Michael’s eye. Certainly, a good chunk of credit must be given to director James Ricks for locating these moments and elevating them, but the execution was also exceptional.
- In part because they are obscured behind masks, it’s easy to overlook the work of the chorus of old women who seize control of the Acropolis. Some choice lines are delivered by Katherine Wright, Addie Barnhart and especially Amanda Durst with her rambling fig rant.
- I’m sure epic poems could be written about the beauty, both unclothed and clothed, of Terrie Elam as Ismenia/Peace. But it is also her sweet clear voice that lends another layer of pathos to the show’s final scene, rising up a cappella as the gravity of what has happened sinks in.
- And while on the subject of the beauty of the cast, it’s worth mentioning that, in Lysistrata, Rachel Rose Gilmour bolsters the significant cred she earned through a stellar performance in The Toxic Avenger as much more than just a pretty face. She shows exceptional comic chops in her teasing of a delightfully confounded Adrian Grantz; she’s one of many reasons I’m looking forward to 5th Wall’s Murder Ballad.
- Having seen Grey Garrett in a range of excellent roles, at first I came away from Lysistrata disappointed about her part. As I described in the Curtain Call podcast, she’s kind of the scold of the piece, forced to repeatedly browbeat her team into staying in line. It was only through repeated viewing that I saw more of the subtlety of her performance, her very fun teasing of Kinesias as her approaches the Acropolis, her look of anticipatory victory right before she brings Peace out to the inflamed negotiators. I still have liked her better in her restrained mania in The Wild Party or as the unexpectedly empathetic White Queen in Alice. But she still manages to shine in this less meaty role.
- Ah, the ending. While at first I was conflicted by the ending, I’ve grown to really appreciate it. Out of the numerous choices James Ricks had in wrapping up what is usually kind of a “meh” ending to the story, he took a bold choice, a somewhat unsettling choice, but one that puts a succinct button on the underlying issues addressed in the show. I’m sure it is somehow inconsistent with different conventions – either of traditional Greek comedy or arguably of modern “sitcom” comedy – but for me, it makes me leave the show with more to chew on rather than just walk away blithely satisfied at being well entertained.
There are issues of feminism and sexism that have been talked about rather openly thanks to the Style review and the response James wrote to it so I’m not going to circle back on them now. These issues were debated quite rigorously among people who came to the Behind-the-Scenes tours. And that kind of conversation is pretty awesome, I think, and just goes to show that this was indeed theatre worth talking about.
By the way, if you’re reading this, please tell your friends and family (and strangers on the street) about future Behind-the-Scenes opportunities; there’s one coming up for RTP’s Cloud 9 this Friday and Firehouse’s Desire Under the Elms the first week in November. More talking about theater will hopefully get more people to get out of their houses and attending live theater. That’s a win for us all!
Posted by Dave T at 2:16 PM
Sunday, October 01, 2017
It’s silly to say that what makes musicals different is the music. But it's certainly the music that makes the difference in the currently running co-production by Yes, And! Entertainment and TheatreLab, “The Last Five Years.”
The accompaniment for many musicals in Richmond – and I expect most other mid-market cities – is often electronic. Musicians need to be paid and arranged and rehearsed and such, which can be expensive, so many shows are tracked. It’s easy to think that this doesn’t diminish the impact of the production, particularly if the vocalists are strong.
But then you hear the robust, glorious sound of musical director John-Stuart Fauquet’s consummate 6-person crew – 2 cellos and a violin bolstering the piano / guitar / bass trio – and you realize an essential element that is too often missing in other shows. It’s delightful to hear the soar and swell of this chamber group in service of Jason Robert Brown’s complex score. As my wife said afterwards, the music is essentially a character in this emotional two-hander and Fauquet and company bring that character to vibrant, almost symphonic, life.
The music perfectly complements performers as powerful as Christie Jackson and Alexander Sapp. Anyone who knows Richmond theater knows these two actors and how incredibly good they are. That director Chelsea Burke wrangled them both for this production was a stroke of genius; as soon as they were announced, this production became one of the most anticipated in town.
I don’t believe Style is going to do a review of this production because it already published a fine preview by Rich Griset. I’m not offering a review here and would defer to Mr. Williams at Sifter who gave a review that I (for once) am almost entirely in agreement with, down to his drawing attention to the occasionally glitchy lights. Jerry uses words like “flawless” and “charming” and “superb,” all adjectives I heartily endorse.
I will augment Jerry’s review by offering a few additional comments:
- Alexander Sapp continues to be phenomenal without being annoying. I never lose sight of his humanity; that’s part of what made his portrayals in “Toxic Avenger” and “Croaker” so good, projecting something relatable even when the characters were literally inhuman. That relatability serves him exceptionally well here, as his character responds to his changing fortunes with choices that may not exactly be admirable but are certainly understandable.
- Christie Jackson’s delivery of the “Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence” song may be one of the best single performances of a song I’ve witnessed in a long time. As lovely and talented as she is, she made clear the crippling insecurity and uncertainty that an audition provokes, at the same time singing her heart out through the tricky melodies and the “belting as high as [she] can.”
- In his review, Jerry mentions that Jackon’s character has “less versatility and character depth,” which was the basis of a conversation I had during the car ride home after the show. The show is ingenious in many ways but that shortfall is the one nit I would have to pick. I would have appreciated it just that much more if Cathy had been on the cusp of some kind of positive transition at the show’s end or if some additional layers of experience could have been mixed into her story. It’s disappointing principally because Jackson has proved many times she can deliver whatever nuance and depth is required in a role. I loved her in this part but felt like it only exercised 75% of her range and can image how spectacular it would have been if we had gotten closer to 100%.
That said, this minor deficit in the musical’s book takes nothing away from the success of this production. This is the kind of production that makes me appreciate the surprising wealth of talent we have in Richmond. From the brilliant musicians offstage to the captivating actors onstage, it’s hard for me to imagine a better staging of this show.
Posted by Dave T at 6:58 PM
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
I can’t really add that much to Susie Haubenstock’s review of “Food, Clothing, Shelter," playing only a couple more times at the Firehouse. I agree with essentially every word, including the not-quite-successful aerialist interlude and the call-outs to Keisha Wallace, Kylie Clark and Donna Marie Miller for their great performances.
- While I agree with Susie’s call-outs, I would save my greatest praise for Rebecca Turner. Her Gloria, the hotel proprietress, seems clearly meant to be what you would call “spectrumy:” she speaks way too honestly and acts awkwardly obtuse in the manner of human interaction. Turner disappears completely into this character, never making her a caricature, projecting a heartbreaking sincerity. The way both Turner’s character and Miller’s – who is indeed fabulous in her role – reveal themselves to each other is a subtle wonder to watch.
- Bo Wilson’s writing, particularly in that last scene, has to be recognized for its nicely attenuated sense of interpersonal interaction. Each scene in the play involves people who want something running up against others who have to decide whether they want to give anything up. That Bo has formulated three dramatically different variations on that basic power dynamic is a testament to his creativity.
- A nice dovetail of smart writing with a fine performance is in the first scene between Frank Creasy’s butcher and Kirk Morton’s circus manager. Creasy is meant to be a simple townsperson but Wilson doesn’t write him as a rube and Creasy doesn’t overplay him as being either too dull or too sharp. There is not a hint of condescension in the character which makes for a stronger scene. (That condescension is left for the more closeminded townspeople – handy hyperbolic bigots that provide the needed “oh yeah, small town xenophobia!” backdrop to the action.)
- My favorite part of the second scene – besides the strong performances – was that the two characters seemed completely genuine to me. Foster’s Izzy was bigger than life but in a way that made complete sense, particularly given the short soliloquy he delivers about the unchanged being fascinated by watching the changed (the most, maybe only, successful one of those interludes). And Wallace’s Bess understands the racial dynamics of the town in a way Izzy never will. The resolution of the scene is a bit broad and doesn’t totally ring true but everything else seemed to me to be just right.
In the end, “Food, Clothing, Shelter” is an ambitious production about relatively small stories. In some plays, it can seem a waste of time to linger on minor interplay that doesn’t have broader consequences in the world. But Wilson and Bassin have created an engrossing tale where small doesn’t equal inconsequential. In fact, as made plain in the title, such simple interactions often involve the core necessities of life. What could be more important than that?
Posted by Dave T at 11:16 PM