Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Time after time

Here's another list: Time magazine's top ten Plays and Musicals for the year. "Billy Elliot" is on top of this one just like many others. Kudos to NoVA's Signature Theatre for mention of "The Visitor." And I didn't see it but from what I've heard second-hand, "The Little Mermaid" is a bit of a shocker here. I guess you just never can tell what a critic is going to like...

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Wrapping Up

If you are spending this week suffering from store-aversion in this post-holiday period, you might not see the year-end issue of Style, which is too bad. Still, you can catch my year-end wrap up of the theater scene, now posted on the Style site. The ambition of this piece may not be obvious to some so let me tell you what I was shooting for. I basically wanted to touch on the Cultural Census, give an overview of the year's highs and lows, highlight some specifically notable productions and performances, and deliver at least a vaguely interesting piece for the general reader. I had 600 words to do this. You can be the judge on whether I was successful or not in even scratching the surface of what this last year in theater involved.

I just spent a large part of the morning thinking uncharitable post-holiday thoughts -- don't you love family gatherings? -- so in an attempt to lighten my mood I'd like to rave for just a moment about a production I just barely mentioned. It's a little late for this rave but getting through the season alive has been the only truly attainable goal I've been able to achieve lately.

I took my youngest to "A Christmas Carol for Two Actors," a nimble and innovative piece of stagecraft brought to vivid life by Molly Hood and Grant Mudge. Grant makes this piece tremendously personal and vibrant, not stodgy or rote like you might expect after all of these years. He punches up the moments of silly humor and his interaction with the audience is refreshing. Both he and Ms. Hood inhabit a great many characters effortlessly, Ms. Hood in particular making some quick-silver changes from characters as variant as Jacob Marley's ghost to the young boy who fetches the Christmas goose for the reformed Scrooge.

I know it's too late for anyone to go catch this show but I am hopeful that they do it again next year. Paring Dickens down to the essentials really brings out the timeless messages at the story's core. I can't believe I missed the first dozen or so years Richmond Shakespeare has done this production but you can rest assured that I'll make a point to see it from now on!

Friday, December 26, 2008

A List and a Loss

Welcome to the other side of Christmas! I hope you all made it here with sanity intact and that Santa Claus was good to everyone.

I finally caught up on the back issues of some of my favorite magazines and came across this list of the Best and Worst of Broadway in 2008 from Entertainment Weekly. Hm, maybe the NY Times has a similar list??? Anyway, I’ll go look for that but in the meantime, I’d be curious as to what folks think of this list. I hadn’t even heard of a couple of the shows listed.

Also, the news came out yesterday that Harold Pinter had died. I have never been a huge fan of his work but certainly do appreciate it and the enormous impact his style has had. Here’s a link to a nicely insightful appreciation of one of theater’s giants.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Accidents

So for those who weren’t at the reading of “Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge” on Monday – and a surprising number of people were there – the script by Christopher Durang is hilarious, spinning “A Christmas Carol” into a post-modern froth of cynicism and theatrical self-reference while also managing to spoof a couple of other holiday favorites. To me the most hilarious moment of the night was when the play veered into “It’s a Wonderful Life” territory and who should emerge as George Bailey but Scott Wichmann. The immediacy of having an actor currently playing George Bailey in another production wander into the reading was just too perfect.

To make a more general point – obvious I’m sure to the theater vets out there – it’s these kinds of happy accidents that put live theater in a class by itself. Another example from “Mrs. Bob Cratchit”: there are two Cratchit children who are referred to at first as Child 1 and Child 2 (one of them eventually earns a name). One of these characters was originally supposed to be played by Eric Evans – a talented stage vet though only a teenager who would have been great in the role. As it happened, however, Eric wasn’t able to make the reading and the lovely Ali Thibodeau stepped in.

The great thing about this substitution – besides the fact that Ali is consistently a delight on stage – was that Child 2 is repeatedly mistaken for a girl and he often has to remind everyone that he’s a he. So as it turned out, there was an actress playing a boy being mistaken for a girl peevishly insisting that she was a he. I don’t know the specifics about how Ali was chosen as the replacement but, in my opinion, it was a small slice of casting genius that added another layer of absurdity to the already whacky goings-on. And another happy accident not foreseen at inception that helped make the reading a hoot.

I hope all you theater lovin’ folks out there are safely ensconced in a warm home somewhere enjoying the run-up to Christmas – or the ongoing rush of Hanuakkah – or the upcoming festivities of Kwanzaa – with a hot beverage and a good friend or family member around or two (instead of stuck at work like me). Happiest of holidays everyone!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

And there it is

Update: my review of "Scientology Pageant" is now online. FYI.


Over the weekend, Ms. Haubenstock's charitable (in my opinion) review of the Firehouse's "Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant" was published in the T-D. I'm hoping mine shows up on the Style website any minute now.

I'm still in recovery mode after a whirlwind weekend wherein I saw 4 plays, including a double-header yesterday with Swift Creek Mill's "Drifty" play and the staged reading of "Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge." I'm processing all of that while trying to focus on a year-end wrap up -- the lyric "How do you measure a year?" has gone through my head more than once this morning...

So while I'm at it, I'll ask you: How would YOU measure this past year?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Mrs. Cratchit

Two gentlemen -- Scott Wichmann and Richard Koch-- are currently burning up local stages in two different shows where they play something like a gazillion characters a piece ("This Wonderful Life" and "A Tuna Christmas" respectively). Where can you see these two fabulous actors plus a stellar supporting cast that includes Robert Albertia, Jacqueline Jones, Katherine Louis, Tom McGranahan, Jacqueline O'Connor, Maggie Roop, Jeanie Rule, Michael Thibodeau, and (ahem) Cooper Timberline?

Only at the staged reading of "Mrs. Bob Cratchit's Wild Christmas Binge" at the Firehouse on Monday night. Details are at the Firehouse website. I'll be there. To borrow a phrase from public radio, won't you join me?

(Note: the show starts a bit earlier than most -- 7:30. Just warnin' ya!)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Conversation

I’ve started to wonder whether the utility of blogs has been overcome by the ubiquity of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. They’re starting to seem almost quaint in this change-a-minute culture.

But one thing I continue to enjoy in the blogosphere is the second-hand kind of conversation that can go on between people on different sites who are interested in the same topics. I was happy to see Mr. Miller from Barksdale / Theatre IV chime in on the Barksdale blog about the Richmond Cultural Census. As always, Bruce writes eloquently, succinctly, and with incredible insight. And what I most appreciate about Bruce is that he saw the opportunity encapsulated in the survey, regardless of its flaws. As I said a couple of posts ago, “I think [the Census] can be used to help organize thinking about bolstering local theater.” It seems to me that Bruce has done exactly that, establishing a play-reading series, looking at possible educational opportunities and introducing an “Entertainment Stimulus Package.” I can only hope others follow Bruce’s lead in exploring new opportunities pointed to by the survey.

I wanted to also continue the conversation on a couple of the points Bruce brings up. I wasn’t aware that other arts organizations had distributed the survey to their supporters. That fact does indeed throw a different light on the self-selection aspect of the survey. To me, self-selection by itself is not enough of a reason to disqualify results, everything else being equal (that is, self-selection doesn’t necessarily conflate with a preference for one art form over another). However, the situation Bruce describes does seem like it would result in an under-representation of people with an abiding interest in theater.

I understand Bruce’s point about ticket sales. However, while it’s impressive that "theatre outsold all other performing arts disciplines—combined,” there are issues involved with success in the arts that have little or nothing to do with ticket sales – the income from which sometimes only represents 50% or less of an arts organizations funding from what I understand. My point about comparative perceived vitality was that regardless of whether people attend an arts event – any event, including gallery openings which are usually free – it seemed to me that the survey was saying that people perceived theater as less vital to the community than other art forms.

There are a couple of anecdotal situations that I think back this up, both positively and negatively. (The following are based almost entirely on my impressions so feel free to dispute them if you wish.) When TheatreVirginia died, the overwhelming majority of Richmonders did not know what that meant to the local community. Frankly, I’m involved in the community and I didn’t fully grasp the significance. However, if the Virginia Museum was on the verge of collapse or Richmond Ballet, it is my impression that there would be an outcry across the general population as well as from highly-committed entrenched communities of supporters.

On the positive side, my impression (based on living on northside for many years) is that one of the reasons that Chamberlayne Actors Theatre continues to plug along despite a lack of regular or widespread media coverage (mea culpa) is that it has a small legion of supporters who have come to perceive CAT as singular in importance for the health and prestige of the northside community. It is this kind of commitment and perception of “vital need” that I’d love to see across the Richmond community as whole related to theater as a whole.

Here’s just one example of what I think would be emblematic of this kind of commitment. Media wonks talk about “appointment television” – that is, shows that have such a committed following that people carve out a place in their schedule every week for this show. For a huge number of Richmonders, “The Nutcracker” is “appointment dance,” that is, they go to it every year almost without fail.

The only thing that I think comes close in the local theater world is Theatre IV’s Christmas show. I regularly speak to people who have gone and continue to go to Theatre IV’s Christmas show – regardless of what it is – every year. Swift Creek Mill’s annual “Drifty” show is similar. It may be an impossible dream, but wouldn’t it be great if more Richmonders considered more local productions as “must see” entertainment?

Finally, no disrespect to Jon Jory (or Bruce or Rick St. Peter) but the quote that “no theater that’s ever existed has attracted more than 2% of its potential audience” doesn't impress me. It may be true (it does, however, make me wonder about the theater of the ancient Greeks) but it seems like a defeatist statement of the highest order. One of my favorite quotes from Richard Bach’s “Illusions” (a book I reread every 3-4 years) is “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” If 2% is the paradigm, how do we break out of it?

The urge to “put on a show” is one of the most basic and elemental creative urges of humanity. It seems to me that there should be ways to capitalize on that to make theater much more popular than it is. In my mind, the potential has barely begun to be tapped.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Throw

Seeing a uniquely talented actor like Scott Wichmann perform the near-entirety of “It’s a Wonderful Life” would be a theatrical value in itself. But as my critical colleagues have pointed out in their reviews, the real “value-add” with “This Wonderful Life” at the Barksdale is that the structure of the show includes commentary on the movie, thereby allowing not only re-enactment but celebration and just a little bit of sarcasm at the expense of the holiday classic. Some of the biggest laughs in the show come from these meta-moments, such as Scott’s non-explanation of “run on the bank” and I particularly enjoyed the wry asides about bottles marked “Poison” and bank inspectors visiting on Christmas Eve.

Not only does Scottie totally inhabit a great array of characters – what an awesome Jimmy Stewart! – but his significant technical skill enhances other aspects of the show, like his switching into “fast forward” – a particular favorite of my daughter. Mr. Wichmann never fails to impress, no matter what character he is portraying, but the specific physicality he brings to his one-man shows always strikes me.

One small moment in the show is when George and Mary throw rocks at the old house that would eventually become their house. The movement of “throwing like a girl” is fairly cliché and as such is easy to overdo, but Scott captures the femininity of Mary’s throw without exaggerating it. It’s similar to a clumsy versus a careful portrayal of a gay male character: almost any hack can do an extravagantly fey queen, but creating a real person who may just have a hint of swish is hard. Mary’s throw comes and goes in an instant but it’s emblematic of what an incredible job Scott does with this show.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Sorry to be so quiet here on the blog but I'm recovering from the semester at grad school by writing as little as possible and reading for pleasure -- instead of fact extraction -- for a change. It's been nice.

I saw Scottie do his amazing thing at the Barksdale on Sunday, which I'll talk about more after maybe one more day off of any serious writing. In the meantime, here's a couple of links: one to Mary B's review of "Best Christmas Pageant Ever" where she echoes the T-D's Ms. H somewhat in talking about the play's moral disconnect (I'll have to write a little something about that here someday soon) and another to Ms. H's very laudatory review of "A Christmas Carol for Two Actors" that Richmond Shakespeare is doing. I may just need to get me a dose of Scrooge this coming weekend...

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Saturday morning was rife with all sorts of news, none of it particularly cheery. First off was hearing of the passing of “Hutch” Hutchinson, one of those legends of local theater. His obituary was in Saturday’s paper with a nice memorial slideshow available online. I only met Hutch a few times and can only remember seeing him on stage once – his Experiential Company folded not long after I started writing reviews – but he was very cordial to me and seemed extremely committed to doing good theater. He was responsible for a production that has taken on somewhat legendary status in my memory, Experiential’s production of “The Seagull” with a luminous Erin Thomas and the sizzling Justin Dray. While he hadn’t made an appearance on stage in a while, he had a significant impact on local theater and he will be missed.

I also called about tickets for the Holiday Cabaret on Sunday at the Barksdale and found out that it had been canceled, a deep personal disappointment since tonight was going to be the only night I could see it. It seemed sickness as well as a sag in ticket sales scuttled the show for tonight, an unfortunate thing for all involved.

I noted also the announcement that Barksdale and Theatre IV were going to cut ticket prices. While this is troubling as another indication of the economic turmoil the country is in, there is an aspect of hope in this move. It would be my hope that more people will go to theater due to the lower ticket prices and that perhaps this will grow the audience base. A boy can hope.

So Saturday started the weekend out a little rocky. But I’m feeling better (if a little melancholy) about today. I had a nice time hanging out with old friends last night. It was great to see a big piece on Firehouse’s “Scientology” show in the paper today. And I’m heading off to “This Wonderful Life” in a couple of hours, looking for an infusion of holiday cheer.

I hope you are having a fine weekend wherever you are and whatever you’re doing – and that you find time to sneak out to a show!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sweet on Sanders

John P's audio review of "Sanders Family Christmas" is out on the WCVE website now and, for those with an aversion to streaming audio, Bruce has transcribed the review on the Barksdale blog. Still waiting for the "Best Christmas Pageant" review to show up on the T-D site...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Some reactions

My first reaction in my perusal of the Cultural Census was to think about the many things Richmond theater is doing right. One of the main ones is increasing participatory opportunities via programs like the Barksdale’s Coffee and Conversations series or the Acts of Faith talk-backs. I also think the theater community does a decent job of marketing itself within the community itself via Robyn O’Neill’s email list, Facebook, etc.

I also understand people’s reactions to the self-selection aspect of the survey and that any set of survey results can be used or skewed in different ways. But in the world of surveying, this number of respondents is pretty significant, regardless of where they come from. And while this kind of sampling may be less useful in gauging overall sentiment, there still is highly useful analysis that can be done in comparative analysis (theater vs. dance vs. museums, etc.). And from what I hear, there is so little comprehensive information-gathering done on the arts here that this information is going to be latched on to by many folks like a dog grabs a bone.

Finally, the surveying was done by a California firm that does this kind of thing for other cities and, from what I can tell, it has no vested interest in the results showing one thing or another. So when they make a point of saying “results point to a deficit of theatrical activity in Richmond” or that they have seen figures in other areas related to “vitality” that are more than 3 times higher than Richmond’s, I am more likely to take that information at face value than if it was a survey done by the Richmond Chamber, for instance.

Here are some of my concerns:

It is easy to pooh-pooh the less than 10% “vital activity” number for live theater. But what concerns me is that when you look at the detail breakdown (pg. 37), the number isn’t just “less than 10%” – the highest percentage for any theater related activity is just 7% and it goes down from there.

What really surprised me was then comparing that number to the “visiting art museums or galleries” number, which is 14%. Don’t get me wrong – I love me some galleries and museums – but in my mind there is no comparison in terms of the importance to the community. That the “vitality” percentage would be TWICE as high as the highest theater number is just shocking to me.

Also telling is that the attendance figures (pg. 14) between museums, galleries and performing arts venues were all nearly the same and yet there is still this discrepancy in the perceived “vitality.” So it seems to me this is saying that even if people attend theater as often as other arts activities, they don’t perceive it as vital to the community.

Finally, I think it is easy to get defensive on behalf of Richmond theater based on the findings of this report. I remember the many defensive reactions I heard earlier this year when Mary B and I did our “Arts Report Cards” on theater for Style. As understandable as that reaction may be, in this case, it serves no purpose. The survey, after all, isn’t going to try to defend itself; it is what it is.

While I don’t expect anyone to run around like Chicken Little saying that the sky is falling, what I would love to see is people in the theater community take these results to heart and try to tackle the problems they point to. How can we make Richmonders care more about theater? How can we raise the level of investment – emotional as well as financial – in theater? How can Richmond theater reach out to new audiences? What innovative methods can be employed to raise the profile of theater in town?

Even if the Cultural Census is misrepresentative in some ways – and I don’t think it is to any significant extent – I think it can be used to help organize thinking about bolstering local theater, which would be a good thing for all of us.

Other people's links

I read this review last night about two stage-to-screen adaptations that were just released. Tricky thing, going from live to the big screen. Makes me all the more grateful for the kick-ass production of "Doubt" we Richmonders were treated to last season.

Ms. Tupponce's review of "Wonderful Life" is out and she liked it too. I think we're reaching consensus on this one.

The wonderful Ms. Jones sent me a link to a Sean Pratt posting that talks up the value of critics. So I guess I'm not the only voice crying in the wilderness!

Finally, Mr. Jones has a new website out there. Read and enjoy and build up your anticipation for his Charles Darwin play that will premiere at the Science Museum in the spring!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Must Read

A review of “Inspecting Carol” showed up on the T-D website yesterday and the review of “Best Christmas Pageant Ever” is in today’s paper. Which is all great.

But right now I’m more transfixed by something else I’m reading. A comprehensive survey of Richmond arts patrons was done earlier this year and the results have been published by the firm Wolf Brown as the Richmond Cultural Census and are available online.

Not to be too overbearing about this but every arts professional in town should read this report. Of particular interest are the sections on live theater – and the news is NOT good. Here are two significant quotes from the report:

“Attending live stage plays or musical theatre productions was cited as “a vital activity” by less than 10% of all respondents and another 44% said that they ‘enjoy it occasionally’, a significantly lower proportion than expected based on previous cultural census studies in other cities.”

“The real story here, however, is the low percentage of respondents who cite going to stage plays and musicals as vital activities. In other areas, we have seen these figures as high as 20% to 25% 'vital activity.'"

I have to let this sink in a little bit since it contradicts many of my suppositions about theater in Richmond. I’ll probably have more cogent responses in a couple of days as these facts and figures rattle around my brain (and as I finally put to bed my graduate school paper). In the meantime, I’d be interested in what you all think out there in the blog-o-sphere.

Monday, December 08, 2008

You read it here first

Capitalizing on that whole Internet thing, Style has posted my review of "Inspecting Carol" and Mary B's take on "This Wonderful Life" online. I am particularly happy about this because, as far as I know, Ms. Haubenstock's review of "Carol" has not appeared yet so this should help dispel those vicious rumors that I simply copy and paste her reviews and change the adjectives for mine.

How DO these people do it?

My daughter’s rescheduled basketball game thwarted some of my theater viewing plans for the weekend so I don’t have a whole bevy of theater raves to report today. Perhaps the same thing happened to the Times-Dispatch, which I don’t believe published a single theater review this past weekend. At least, not one that I could find.

I did of course make it to opening night for “Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” which was great fun as usual. I was very proud of the T-lines in the cast, of course, and thought the whole production went off quite well. My favorite scene in the play is the short interlude that is just the Herdman kids talking about the Pageant. The young actors that make up the family have a great chemistry; it made me wish there were more scenes with just the 6 of them.

I had a great conversation with Andrew Boothby after the show about the various and sundry actors who have played Mr. and Mrs. Bradley over the years; made me think there should be a dueling Bradleys contest at some point.

Also, the young singers who solo for the Christmas carols in the production are quite amazing. Even when they’re exceptional singers, you don’t expect young teens and tweens to come off so flawlessly. Also, Jaime Kotula made for quite a cute manger animal (ß mention included by request. Yes, I can be bought…)

In other news, my attention was recently drawn to the upcoming staged reading of Midsummer Night’s Dream that Richmond Shakespeare is doing next Monday. It’s got a blockbuster cast and will also feature music by Andrew Hamm and (sigh) Liz Blake. I didn’t realize that Scott Wichmann is included in the cast, which is a bit amazing to me given his current one-man run with Barksdale’s “Wonderful Life” and the fact that he’s doing a reading of “Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge” sometime in the next couple of weeks as well. How does that fella keep so many words straight in his head?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Carol, Pageant, Blind Date, Sanders, etc. etc.

So I am now officially overwhelmed by all of the holiday-related shows out there. I'm realizing that this is the last weekend I can catch "Widow's Blind Date" at the Firehouse and there's no matinee of "Sanders Family Christmas" this weekend so I'm feeling the squeeze of too many shows to see and not enough nights. It's an embarrassment of riches!

Though suffering from near-debilitating lack of sleep last night, I enjoyed opening night of "Inspecting Carol" at Sycamore Rouge last night. More on that next week. I had the good fortune to sit with Ms. Haubenstock from the T-D which was fun for me -- it's not often that we critics get a chance to just hang out socially. Unlike what some might think, we don't spend our weekends together in bars trying to top each other with the most creative or cutting critique of other bar patrons. Sorry to disappoint.

Hope to see some of you at the opening of “Best Christmas Pageant Ever” tonight. Those wacky Herdmans!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Robin's back!

As usual, the line-up for the Barksdale Cabaret starting Sunday the 14th is full of knock-out performers. But I just noticed today that Robin Harris-Jones is scheduled to appear. How cool! Welcome back, Robin!

Read this little item in an interview of Meryl Streep that I thought y'all'd be interested in: "Acting is very satisfying if you can manage to not have your feelings hurt when they don't like you. I haven't really had any breakthroughs in that area. It still hurts my feelings." Wow.

I'm looking forward to "Inspecting Carol" at Sycamore Rouge tonight. And mad amounts of theater this weekend -- woo hoo!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Holiday Round-up

I had forgotten about this piece: here's a round-up of holiday-oriented shows that I wrote up a while back. I did not, however, include the "Miracle on 34th Street" Radio Play -- but you can read about that in the comment for the post below.

Want to weigh in on your favorite show of the 2008 holidays? Feel free -- 'tis the season, after all!

Tech Week

It’s tech week for “Best Christmas Pageant Ever” meaning that there is a patina of outright insanity spread thinly over the usual craziness of the T-line household. That, plus recovering from Thanksgiving, getting ready for the holidays, and battling an incipient case of insomnia has kept me off the blogger these days. If nothing else, when I completely crack up, I’ll be sure and post here to that effect.

The good thing about others running about being in shows is that I might get to sneak out to see a couple. It seems that Scott Wichmann has hit another one out of the park, at least that is certainly Ms. Lewis’s opinion as per her review of “This Wonderful Life” at the Barksdale, so I’ll probably slip over there this weekend to check it out. And “Inspecting Carol” opens this weekend at Sycamore Rouge. It’s an intriguing sounding show and I’m really hoping to get down there to see how it works on stage. And the family-friendly “Sanders Family” out at the Tavern will have to be seen as well.

Congrats are in order for the recently engaged Ms. Steinberg and much thanks to the Marks / Honaker team for producing a singularly hilarious cooking video. I apologize in advance for any deliriousness that appears in this space in the next several days. I’m not in full control of my faculties.