Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Laying bare the necessities

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.

I do feel compelled to add a couple of additional tidbits:
  •  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.
The immersive atmosphere director Joel Bassin creates at the Firehouse for this production draws every patron into what ends up being a communal experience. Maybe it’s because I was there on a Wednesday night with a pretty small house but there was a homey feel to the evening, a looseness where the 4th wall was much more permeable than usual.

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?

Friday, August 25, 2017

A Dazzling Drop Down the Rabbit Hole

I took in an unusual doubleheader last night: an utterly charming performance of the Firehouse/TheatreLab co-pro “Alice: A New Musical” and a thoroughly dispiriting final episode in the Netflix series, “Marvel’s The Defenders.” The two were near mirror images: the former was surprising, delightful, and satisfying; the latter was predictable, dull, and disappointing. Lucky for me, the positive power of “Alice” was stronger than the suckitude of “The Defenders” so the night was a net boost to my spirits.

First, to dispatch with this Marvel monstronsity: my ire is fueled largely by my fondness for the antecedents. I loved Jessica Jones and Luke Cage -- both bold skews on the standard superhero dreck – and really liked most of Daredevil’s two seasons. (I’m not a completist so I left Iron Fist alone based on its critical reception.) Defenders diminished both Jones and Cage and, while it was fun to see Sigourney Weaver as the big bad, nothing was bold or imaginative about this mash-up. Secret, spooky organization with world-threatening evil plan – check; heroes thrown together uneasily into a ragtag team with much internal conflict – check; lots of nearly random fighting that made little sense and, worse, mostly has no real impact – check. And OMFG that ending. I won’t spoil anything but I will draw the comparison that it’s actually worse than the ending to “Batman v Superman,” and that’s pretty bad.

So: turning to the bright side, how about that “Alice?” The show’s been selling out and extended and for damn good reason. Director Adam Ferguson has assembled a cast of stunning talent and put them to work in service of a joyful-but-not-without-angst take on the classic Wonderland adventure. There are many aspects of Ferguson’s work to laud: from a set (also by Ferguson) that makes great use of the nooks and crannies in TheatreLab’s Basement venue to the clever, thoughtful scenic transitions that never impede the action. How happy many theatergoers would be if directors paid more attention to cutting the momentum-killing time expended on scene transitions.

I could go on about the production but, while still enjoying freedom from the writing-for-publication straightjacket, I’d rather recognize each performer of this uniformly winning cast. Starting from the bottom as listed in the program:

Emily Berg-Poff Dandridge as White Rabbit: Hers is the first character from “Wonderland” that wanders into Alice’s life and Dandridge provides a perfect introduction to this alternative reality. Anxious without being manic, arch without being angry, and moving with a jaunty springiness reflecting her skill as a dancer, Dandridge leads Alice down the rabbit hole in a way that certainly anyone would follow. Her renown as a choreographer has been growing, but did everyone else know she could sing and act so well, too? Clearly, Ferguson did and he made a great choice casting her.

Anne Michelle Forbes as Duchess/Dormouse: With appearances in 6 significant productions in the last year or so, Ms. Forbes has become a welcome new staple on the local stage scene. Her Duchess is a deep dive into the wackadoodle mentality of Wonderland, childishly delighted one moment, dangerously enraged the next. Forbes makes these transitions as quickly and easily as donning and doffing a baseball cap, a testament to her still-burgeoning acting chops.

Maggie Bavolack as Tweedle Dum/Caterpillar: There are few comedians who generate laughs as easily and deftly as Bavolack. When she appears with her entourage as the Caterpillar, the audience is giggling before she says her first line. Her crying baby elicits howls without requiring any dialogue. From what I hear, the Tweedle brothers were going to be played by men and that would have robbed Richmond of the comic stylings of Bavolack and Hindman, a team that could do a “Dumb and Dumber”-style road show that would surely surpass the Carrey/Daniels duo in hilarity.

Rachel Hindman as Tweedle Dee/Mouse: A good slice of Hindman’s power onstage has to do with her extraordinary eyes – wide, far-searching eyes that infuse her seafaring mouse character with a look of nomadic fervor and just a bit of out-in-the-sun-too-long madness. Hindman was impressive as St Jimmy in Ferguson’s American Idiot last summer and she’s no less impressive here.

Mallory Keene as March Hare/Cook: Ms. Keene gets fewer chances to stand out as others in this exceptional cast but she makes good use of the times she gets. Her pepper-wielding Cook makes a fine foil for Forbes’s Duchess and she and Sneed partner for a fabulously nutty tea party. I look forward to the next chance to see her shine.

Caitlin Sneed as Mad Hatter/Girl with the Cat/Chesire Cat/Dinah: I simply couldn’t take my eyes off Sneed almost every scene she was in. There are actors that seem effortlessly confident and self-possessed on stage – actors who never seem to be consciously “acting” – and that is certainly Sneed. Not to mention a soaring, powerhouse voice that starts the show with a clear signal that there are some capital V voices at work in this production.

Rachel Dilliplane as Sister/Frog-Footman: A bit of an unsung hero in this piece, Dilliplane plays some of the more reserved characters in “Alice” but does so in a fully realized way. Her recurring appearance as Alice’s sister, in particular, establishes a reassuring energy that acts as a reminder that the real world that Alice may return to will welcome her back with love.

Kelsey Cordrey as Mother/Queen of Hearts: In another actor’s hands, the Queen of Hearts could have been a cartoon-y villainess. But in creating a compelling Mother/Queen duelism, Cordrey makes us feel empathy, even affection, for the big bad in this story and her song to Alice at the ending is a true heart-tugger.

Grey Garrett as the White Queen: At this point, I’ve run out of adequate adjectives to do justice to Garrett in this role. So much of what she does here is unspoken, her quiet curious spying on Alice’s progress, and the sweet melancholy she brings to their ultimate interactions. From the beginning, you can sense a longing for a true companion in Alice and a sadness in her knowing that their time together will be so brief. Garrett adds this to a growing list of powerful performances where she commands attention in the most unassuming way, a talent I don’t know if they teach in acting school.

Rachel Marrs as Alice: It’s not easy playing an adolescent. Many actors portray them as sullen angst buckets or as bratty grown-up 2-year olds or sometimes as overly prescient empaths. Marrs captures the wonder and innocence without making Alice too childlike, and the budding intelligence and self-assertion without making her a punk. She serves as a delightful tour guide of the alternate reality Ferguson has created and a winning protagonist that this father-of-daughters was rooting for the whole time.

That’s a lot of words about “Alice,” but here is a more simple, concise summation: I would rather see 10 more fights between the Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee from this production than I would even 1 more fight between Daredevil and Elecktra from “The Defenders.”

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Candy Store

Joel Bassin said a funny thing to me just as the lights were going down to signal the beginning of “Heathers: The Musical” on Tuesday night: “The only problem with having a hit is that you have to keep the bathrooms clean.”

And a hit “Heathers” has been, for good reason. Where “The Toxic Avenger” leavened its darkness with a healthy dose of silly, “Heathers” starts with teenage angst, stirs in irony, pathos and deeply twisted humor, and then whips it all into a dark delicious mélange. Even with an inevitable dip in energy in the second act as the various threads unravel, this production is a delight throughout and director Debra Clinton shows herself to be at the pinnacle of her skills.

Some bullet (pun intended) points:

  • Crack open a character and you find a person. One of this production’s many strengths is that even characters that can seem a bit one-note are played by actors who give them a fully-realized rendering when they take center stage. The most obvious of these is Leanna Hicks as Martha “Dumptruck.” Sure, she’s the superperky nerd sidekick, but then give her a song to herself (“Kindergarten Boyfriend”) and she’s a 3D person with a complex inner life. Hicks knocks it out of the park, a triumph echoed by Michaela Nicole (“Heather McNamara”) and Billy Christopher Maupin (“Ram’s Dad”) who both grab ahold of their solos and wring surprising depth of emotions out of them.

  • If only. Carmen Wiley as Veronica has been praised plenty already and she is truly fantastic. I’ll just add that this show makes me regret I didn’t make a point of seeing the Theatre VCU productions she was in.
  • Smug-free zone. Adam Valentine as J.D. is not the strongest singer. But he harmonizes fabulously in his songs with Wiley and, though it’s been a while since I saw the movie, I liked his performance better than I remember liking the annoyingly smug Christian Slater.

  • Music! The music may be recorded by Jason Marks’ tracks are playfully dynamic and richly produced. He and Clinton just need to keep doing more and more things together.

  • Lights! Speaking of dynamics, Michael Jarett’s lights add tremendous character to the production, intensifying moods from scary to snarky to shiny/happy. Ruth Hedberg’s costumes are also a hoot, particularly the Heather’s getups. Apparently, her budget ran out, though, so Caleb Wade and Steven Martella had to run around half-naked most of the second act. Not that anyone’s complaining…
  • Miscellany. A tidbit I found fun: the first trial concert production of “Heathers” starred Jeremy Jordan as JD. The name may not be familiar to many but, to this “Supergirl” fanboy, the thought of quirky, awkward “Winn” playing the brooding, murderous “JD” made me smile. Also: there’s apparently a “Heathers” TV show in production, which could be cool but I’m already worried about because the actor playing Veronica seems like she might be one of those actors who is actually beautiful who is going to be called on to be the nerdy, awkward outcast. But I’ll try not to pre-judge…

I'm lucky to have snuck in for one of the last performances; the end of the run through the 12th is sold out. What's your damage? If you missed this show, it could be significant.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

What a Week

At some point during every episode of Lovett or Leave It, one of my favorite political podcasts, the host Jon Lovett exclaims, “What a week!” He’s usually reacting to the turmoil in presidential politics. But you could certainly say the same for theater this past week, both local and national.

First, you have Morrie Piersol getting plucked out of the North Atlantic, a rescue so awesome it received Icelandic news coverage and even more comprehensive local coverage that got picked up on the national wire. Thank goodness Morrie is safe and thank god for the Icelandic Coast Guard and all rescuers involved for their heroic efforts. Morrie has been a great theater teacher at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School and has directed numerous acclaimed productions on local stages. We’re hopeful he’ll stay safe on solid ground for at least the next little while.

Then you have all of these shows opening or closing or both. SPARC’s “Oliver!” opened and closed and by all accounts was awesome. “Thoroughly Modern Millie” opened at the Dell and people have one more weekend to rush out and see it. And “In the Heights” (Virginia Rep) and “Macbeth” (Quill) both closed after sterling runs at their respective venues.

You’d think we’d have a minute to breath before there were new shows to rush out and see but, NO, before you know it “The View Upstairs” is going to be opening at RTP and “Alice: A New Musical” will debut at Firehouse (in a co-production with TheatreLAB as part of their season of collaboration).  It’s the summer, people – don’t you understand that things are supposed to be low-key and calm?!?!

We were all saddened by the passing of Sam Shepard – what the heck with all these iconic creative people dying lately? Shepard was a Virginia resident for about a decade and wrote some amazing, devastating plays. Productions of Shepard’s work in Richmond have been stunning and mesmerizing, starring some of our town’s best talent. Does anyone else remember Stephanie Kelley in “Buried Child?” She was exquisite. More recent productions of “True West” (Toney Foley! David Clark!) and “A Lie of the Mind” (McLean Jesse, Alex Sapp, too many to mention…) have also been exceptional. It’s sad to think of such a distinctive voice in American theater no longer making art.

Then we were all confused – ok, maybe just me – by the dust up related to “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” and the casting of Mandy Patinkin. The clash of Broadway financial concerns and racial optics seemed to guarantee that someone would be pissed off by something. There are a dozen or so OpEds embedded in this situation, but I don't have the time to write one just now.

Finally, my little geek heart was overjoyed that another podcast I listen to, puzzle-centric “Ask Me Another,” featured Janeane Garofalo and Lili Taylor this past week. They were promoting their roles in the revival of “Marvin’s Room,” which, even though it has pretty tepid reviews, I would go see just to watch Lili Taylor who has been a favorite of mine since "Mystic Pizza" a million years ago. And just to add excitement to an already fun show, one of the games was a very challenging "worst possible musical adaptations" quiz. Are you a theater know-it-all? You should listen to the show and see if you can answer the questions (I struggled…)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Elaine Page comes to Richmond

I apologize up front for my naked attempt at clickbait. Ms. Page IS coming to THE Richmond, not to Richmond, Virginia.  
But it’s hard when you scroll past a headline that includes “Elaine Paige” and “Richmond Theatre” not to do a double-take. So I just shared that experience with all (both) of you. 
If your interest is piqued, the lovely Richmond Theatre outside of London has a glorious glossy brochure with some amazing acts planned for the upcoming season. Anyone interested in a road trip?

In addition to diva-related double-takes, I’ve subjected myself to a lot of talk about casting out on the internets. Stephen Sondheim came out in hearty support of mixing things up gender-wise. Good on you, Mr. Sondheim, for pushing the narrative about theater being a living, breathing art form. 

More intriguing: a Richmond outlet I’d never heard of called The Legacy Newspaper did a lengthy piece about “color conscious” casting (page 10-11 in the online version). It’s a good piece but I’m a little perplexed that no local voices were included. Particularly given the big picture featured from “In The Heights” – not the current Richmond production – this just seems odd.

Hey, and the Artsies were officially announced! More on that in the days/weeks to come!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Woody and Will

I didn’t see either “Da” or “Musical of Musicals, the Musical” this past weekend. After 3 shows in quick succession, I needed a little break. But, so far, both the comic drama and the comic musical have been generally well-received so far.  

I did see that “Da” is dedicated to the late Woody Eney, which it still surprises me to realize that he’s gone. If you haven’t heard of him, Woody had a long list of relatively minor parts in many TV shows and movies. There isn’t much evidence of his career on YouTube; unfortunately, all I could find was a pretty ridiculous set of scenes from “Greatest American Hero” and an awful recorded-from-TV episode of “Diff’rent Strokes.” In the former, Eney plays the bad guy; in the latter, he’s an even worse guy.

But I’ll always remember him from his lighthearted turn in “Golf with Alan Shepard” at the Barksdale some 18 years ago. Woody settled into a nice career as a playwright here in Richmond and several of his plays were produced around town, most recently (I think), “40 Acres and a POW.”

It’s weird what you find when you start Googling someone. Apparently, there is a resume of Woody’s from 1974 that you can buy online, if you are so inclined. The most recent news I could find on him was this touching tidbit about a video greeting Woody received from Henry Winkler just last year.

In my memory, Woody was a member of the Barksdale old-timers, like Pete Kilgore and Muriel McAuley. Even the most crotchety of them was lovingly regarded in Richmond. (Pete was so acclaimed he got a house resolution passed in his honor.) These folks were true groundbreakers.

So, if you go see “Da” or “Musical of Musicals,” as you settle into a comfy seat in a lovely historic old building, you might give a thought to the great ones who worked so hard to create the local theater scene. We have them to thank for building the foundation.

On another note, people can’t seem to stop mining the Shakespeare legend for modern TV and movies. Tonight, “Will” debuts on TNT and the movie “Lady Macbeth” just opened in selected markets. What do you all think: will productions like these increase interest in live theater productions, or have no effect? Hmmm. It’d be nice if TV or movie producers would do some local promotional tie-ins. Somehow, I don’t expect Quill got a call from TNT or Roadside Attractions. Boo.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Practice, People, or Perspective?

Often, all the critics in town will love a show. Sometimes, opinions will be mixed. Seldom is condemnation unanimous.

I’ve been somewhat bewildered that critical opinion of the latest Quill production, Macbeth, has seemed universally negative. Quill hits more often than it misses so I couldn’t believe that they’d put on a total mess. I had to see for myself.
I went to last night’s show and I had a fine time. I can see some of the deficits in the production and it would be hard to match the dynamism of Jan Powell’s Macbeth five years ago. But still, I’ve seen Macbeth more times than any other Shakespearean drama and I’ve seen much worse than the current offering directed by Jemma Alix Levy. Maybe that’s damning with faint praise but it’s still praise.

So why was my experience so different than the critics’ in town? I have some thoughts.

n  Practice. The reviews generally described the fight scenes as tentative. That was not the case during the performance I saw. It seems perhaps the fighters in question spent at least some of the time during their off days practicing their fight choreography, or maybe the actual steps got pumped up a bit. Last night, Alex Burtness as Macbeth and Jeff Coles as Macduff went at it with a determined vigor, generating a great number of clanging sword sounds and convincing “oofs” and “ughs.” Their big fight scene actually got an ovation. Which brings up…

n  The People. The crowd last night was a bit odd – 20 priests were in attendance; honest! I was there as their programs were counted out. There was also a strong contingent in the front section that was very engaged – booing softly at Lady Macbeth or Macbeth himself later in the play, laughing at even the smallest jests, and even emitting emphatic “mm”s in response to some of the more dramatic lines. It’s hard to know if the cast responded specifically to that energy but it certainly contributed to that magic sense of communal enjoyment of an experience.

n  Perspective. Macbeth is an amazing and odd play: The supernatural elements, the brutality, the constant gendering of the action (here’s an interesting, possibly controversial article that talks about gender and Lady Macbeth and ultimately connects the dots to Hillary Clinton of all people!) The critics gave some pretty specific reasons why they didn’t like this production and I’ll agree with some of them in a minute. But it’s a pretty straightforward, uncluttered rendering and I appreciate that. The benefit of keeping things simple is that the two most powerful scenes – Macbeth sees a vision of Banquo at a dinner party and Macduff finds out the truth about his family – stand out in stark relief. In the former, Macbeth’s horror and confusion is palpable and ably mirrored in the dinner guests’ reactions. In the latter, Macduff’s naked grief is overwhelming and cuts through the decorum and formal language of the play with laser-sharp emotion. If other scenes were more intense, I don’t know that those two would land with such power.

Having said that, I had my issues with the production as well. I’ll echo others and say that I’ve seen some amazing things done with the weird sisters scenes and the approach here was just OK. I’ll also have to agree with my friend Mr. Porter and suggest that Rebecca Turner is a bit underwhelming as Lady Macbeth. It’s hard to compete with the echoes of Zoe Speas from Powell’s production and, while I did like some of Turner’s choices, the role is an epic one and it requires a pretty epic rendering.

In general, the supporting cast was fine but could have used the bolstering that actors like Bob Jones or Alexander Sapp have brought to supporting roles in previous Quill productions. Jeff Clevenger is always good but his comic chops might have been well used as the night watchman. One small issue is that Mr. Clevenger is brought on as a not-overly-costumed old man not too long after Duncan is killed and I wonder if some audience members get confused about the character change.

Mr. Burtness is a powerful Macbeth, though, and his transition from humble hero to reluctant murderer to full-blown treacherous paranoid is strongly realized. Cole is a noble Macduff and Thomas Hockey is a winning Banquo. The realization of the weird sisters’ predictions in the second act is underscored in a crystal clear way that I think makes the production work well for Bard novices.

So if you have read the reviews and are on the fence about Macbeth, I’d suggest you hop off the fence and give it a shot. The 20 priests sure seemed to enjoy it; you probably will too.