Friday, July 29, 2011


It’s a weekend of newness: a world premiere of a new play has opened (“All’s Well that Ends with Monique”) and a new staging of “Hairspray” will arrive at the Dell this weekend. But I’d like to talk a little about renewal and revival.

I just recently became aware of Stacie Reardon Hall’s blog, an exploration of weight loss and body image, provocative subjects that she writes honestly and engagingly about. I think the issues she’s addressing are extremely important to tackle because we are pretty fucked up as a society about them. I grew up with three sisters, all who had various forms of body / food issues and, with a wife and two teenage daughters, weight and diet are subjects that are constantly under discussion in our house. I’ve had my own battles with weight, which I used to blog about 5 – 6 years ago as part of my rewarding experience with Weight Watchers and my inclusion in an irreverent band of fellow weight-loss questers called “the Knights of the Round Bottoms.”

But Mrs. Hall is tougher, more eloquent, and more insightful in many ways than we Knights ever were. I love her latest post where she explores the self-perpetuation of negative thinking. And I’m a little scared in anticipation of her letting the boys have it next (a preliminary self-defensive salvo: my most frequent evaluation of most any actress / model I am asked to comment on is “too skinny.” Really. You can ask the kids…) Her attitude is positive and she encapsulates some fundamental truths very well. One of her assertions is now forever stuck in my brain: Confidence is the sexiest thing you can wear. Amen to that.

But to turn this talk of renewal more distinctly toward theater, EW magazine recently ran some pictures from the Rent revival that just opened. They include a few short interesting comments from the director on his approach to the revival. If you go to the EW site, you can check out (and be either heartened by or enraged by) their listing of the “Funniest Musicals of All Time.” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” is number 9. Richmond home boy Jason Marks is currently in a production of “The Producers” in upstate New York, a show that EW puts at #4.

Finally, you’re probably aware that there’s a restaging of a revival going on at Barksdale Willow Lawn these days as “Nunsense” gets an extension into the summer. This production has received so many kudos that I had to check it out even though, to be frank, this show has annoyed the hell out of me in the past. As I found out in LA recently, it is a universal bitching point for critics worldwide that they have to see some shows over and over again. A show's very popularity becomes a nuisance.

So I settled in to “Nunsense” with a bit of a stoic attitude that was very quickly melted away by the winning assembly of actresses that director John Moon brings together for this production. At the top of the bill is the flustered, forceful and very funny Cathy Shaffner as the Mother Superior who has a stand-up comedian’s instincts underlying her expert thespian chops. She never reminded me of the iconic Pat Carroll exactly but she certainly had the audience whipped into as much of a comic frenzy as Ms. Carroll used to instigate.

The rest of the cast is just as winning, Katrina Lewis playing Cathy’s wing-nun with an almost regal imperiousness, while Jan Guarino is convincingly world-wise in contrast to Brittany Simmons’s innocence. But big swaths of the night are given over to Debra Wagoner as Sister Amnesia and she certainly makes the most of them. Most entertaining to me was Ms. Wagoner’s easy manner in her interactive moments with the crowd. Not only is Amnesia delightfully ditsy, as Ms. Wagoner plays her, she is as innocent and open as a child. You would have to have a pretty hard heart not to have it melt in her presence.

So, what I’m saying basically is that, in case you don’t have enough theater-going on your schedule already, it’s worth it to fit in a trip to “Nunsense.” Luckily the theater is well air-conditioned, not just because of the heat outside, but because of all the exercise you’re likely to get laughing. Hey, you might even consider including repeat viewings into your weight loss plan.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Goodbye to Essie

I only knew Essie Simms by reputation, never having the opportunity to get to know her. But by all accounts, she was Richmond's all-time best theater fan. I mourn her passing along with the rest of the local community. For more info., keep up with the Barksdale blog for details on a memorial service and other remembrances.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

All’s Well

My preview on “All’s Well the Ends with Monique” is in this week’s Style. Also, the T-D had a review of AART’s “Langston is my Man” yesterday.

Speaking of “All’s Well” – the Shakespearean version, that is – Playbill has an interesting interview of the Artistic Director of the Public Theater who made a point of taking on the “problem plays” this summer. It provides a little insight into the decision-making process of at least one prominent AD.

A local AD was prominently featured last night as Barksdale / Theatre IV staged a preview of their 2011-12 seasons. As part of Irene Ziegler’s funny and engaging patter, Bruce Miller was the butt of a Muriel McAuley joke, which he himself then reinforced. It’s hard not to be charmed by such willing self-deprecation.

The event as a whole was pretty amazing, providing tantalizing snippets of what’s to come. I would love it if other companies in town did this sort of thing, though I expect it’s not as easy to throw together as Billy Christopher Maupin and the whole Barksdale machine made it seem. The most thrilling part of the night for me was hearing Ali Thibodeau sing a selection from “Spring Awakening” (backed by Robin Harris and Brittany Simmons). It had the exact effect I think the Barksdale / Theatre IV folks intended: I now simply cannot wait to see this show.

The most intriguing interlude of the evening was David Robbins introducing a scene from “Scorched Earth,” the world premiere adaptation of his novel that the Barksdale is preparing. I am hopeful for this show and would love to see it succeed. But centered as it is on a small southern town’s legal process and a black man’s prosecution, it is dangerously reminiscent of other popular entertainments (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” the entire John Grisham canon and its adaptations). It will be a challenge for this show to transcend its antecedents.

The talent Barksdale / Maupin was able to pull together for the night was impressive, with David Janeski and Aly Wepplo appearing often, the two of them making even “Lend Me a Tenor” seem like a promising prospect. The show wrapped up with a medley from “My Fair Lady” and really, any time spent listening to Stacey Cabaj perform is a good time. Nuff said there.

I was entertained by the night’s performances and expect it was an unparalleled success in most ways. I couldn’t help but catch a little whiff of a weird dichotomy about the evening, though. I’d say the average age of the crowd was (by very generous estimate) 65 years old. Ms. Ziegler got some mileage out of joking about texting and Tweeting, prompting laughs from the appreciative older crowd. However, “Spring Awakening” is a relatively in-your-face musical for a distinctly younger generation. “God of Carnage” is peppered liberally with ‘fucks’ and ‘shits.’ And considering that the staffers of Barksdale / Theatre IV are among the most prolific Tweeters I know in town, there was a definite young / old tension in the air, at least for me.

I realize that subscribers (who are always older) are still the bread and butter of many theater companies. And the older folks ate up “My Fair Lady” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas.” But it is my fervent hope that Barksdale / Theatre IV is planning to go balls to the wall in using shows like “Spring Awakening” and “Carnage” to bring new patrons – younger patrons – into the theater and, to that end, using texting, Tweeting, blogging, and every social media possible. These new vehicles need to be embraced, not denigrated, and if your crowd is older, perhaps they need to be gently educated instead of coddled by comforting reassurances about how live theater is still that “old style” entertainment they love. For those wondering how best to do this, I’m sure you could bring Monique in as a consultant.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Here’s a recent quote from an interview of a long-standing Hollywood star: “I like the details of costume a lot. The costume is a very important thing. It speaks before you do…You get a reference and it gives context about other characters and the relationships.” This quote came from such an unlikely (IMHO) person that I’ll give a prize to the first reader who can name the star who made the remark. Hint: it was an interview about one of the summer’s big movies.

I bring up this quote because I gained some additional appreciation for costumes this weekend. First there was SPARC’s “Ragtime” that, in addition to all of the amazing performances I mentioned last week, had some gorgeous costumes put together by Kym Minks. A large percentage of the magic created by that production was thanks to the convincing costumes that, as the quote says, provided so much context and even helped define certain characters – the flirty flooziness of Evelyn Nesbit versus the earnest dedication of Emma Goldman versus the stately elegance of Mother was all communicated and enhanced by Ms. Minks costumes.

Then I took in “Langston is my Man,” the musical that African American Rep is putting on at Pine Camp and that is in turns boisterous and thoughtful, rollicking and historically rigorous. I enjoyed this show a great deal, and much of that enjoyment came from being credibly transported to two different eras: Harlem of the 1920s in the first act, then Harlem in the post-depression 1930s in the second.

During the earlier period, club patrons party and play; during the latter, they work and decry their economic plight. But even before a single actor says a word at the opening of the second act, the audience knows things are going to be different because of the dramatic change in Mara Lynch Cravey’s costumes from bright and decorative to dark and utilitarian.

And in one of director Derome Scott Smith’s cleverest moves, later in the second act he has his actors pull out costume pieces from the first act to remind them of that earlier time. It’s a neat little bit of stagecraft that utilizes the artistry of one of his designers to create a beautiful theatrical moment.

This show only runs one more weekend and I highly recommend it, and not only because tickets are free. Smith has convened a great cast, including a top-notch hoofer with Broadway credits, Eugene Fleming. Fleming, along with fellow choreographers Willie Hinton and LaWanda Raines, have developed several fine dance interludes, most utilizing Flemings prodigious tap dancing skills. And underlying the entire enterprise is a foundation of Langston Hughes’s compelling poetry. It’s a relatively short evening – 90 minutes with intermission – but Smith has packed plenty of entertainment value into that amount of time.

If I was being fussy, I’d say I wished for a little more historical and cultural depth in the show so that I would come away with a deeper understanding of what inspired Hughes’s work. But that is my homework assignment now and Smith does provide more than enough of the broad strokes of history to know where to start. And along the way, the show – bolstered by some great vocal work by the ensemble and powerfully led by musical director David Corey – gets the blood pumping with saucy songs and an extended extravaganza of percussion in the second act. Given the admission price, it may be the best entertainment value of the summer.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Kids and Grown-Ups

While I’ve been distracted, at least a couple of pieces in this week’s Style have generated a modicum of interesting comments. One is Mr. Griset’s review of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” that prompted a somewhat obscure comment on what a review is and then a few comments that echoed the review’s sentiments.

I was also interested in this week’s Back Page about Eric Cantor. I could get a good political rant going here but I won’t. I just point to this particular piece because of how the current “debate” in Washington has been increasingly characterized as “childish.” Behaviors like tantrums, digging in of heels, name-calling, and “playing chicken” with the economy have been exhibited on both sides.

What confounds me is the contrast between those grown-ups and the “kids” that currently make up the cast, crew and orchestra of “Ragtime” that SPARC opened at CenterStage last night. The professionalism, poise, and commitment these teens (with a couple of adults and pre-teens thrown in) demonstrate in this production are truly phenomenal. It makes clear that calling the stuff happening on Capitol Hill these days “childish” is demeaning to children.

I can’t talk about “Ragtime” without first saying that I simply adore this musical. The story captures so much of the essential character and struggle that defines our great country and it’s all wrapped up in such an electrifying and enlightening package of songs and scenes.

Starting with this fantastic raw material, director Deb Clinton and musical director Blanton Bradley have crafted something extraordinary, using some of the best talent in town. Don’t get me started on Makenzie Mercer as Mother because I just might not stop. A voice that soars expressively and effortlessly, an almost ethereal calm that grounds her dramatic scenes, and much much more. I could go on but I’ll just say that I thought it couldn’t get much better than Debra Wagoner playing Mother in the concert version Chase Kniffen did a few years back. I’d say Ms. Mercer gives Debra more than a good run for her money.

Ms. Mercer is just the tip of an iceberg of remarkable breath and depth. Durron Tyre devastating and brilliant as Coalhouse, Tanner Pippert excelling in the somewhat thankless role of Father, the gorgeous Courtney Jamison as Sarah, spunky Allison Gilman as Evelyn Nesbit, spry and engaging Michael Thibodeau as Harry Houdini, Thomas Nowlin distinguished and steadfast as Booker T. Washington, even a little Timberline child milking the laugh lines as the Little Boy… It’s a cast of exceptional musical theater performers where even the ensemble is bursting with talent.

But two call-outs I must make because they involve performances that both delighted me and surprised me. Sam Brackley gives Tateh such a mature level of gravitas and handles the complicated character arc with such grace that it is unbelievable that he is still a teenager. And Brian Lampley, uncredited as the one who sings at the 2nd act funeral (don’t want to give away any plot points for anyone…), has such a rich and powerful voice that his solo – as poignant and heart-rending as it is – could have gone on forever as far as I’m concerned.

SPARC’s Ragtime may be a “school edition” of the musical but it succeeds gloriously as a truly grown-up entertainment. If I sound a little overwrought in my praise it’s because that’s exactly how the production left me: choked up with emotion, bleary-eyed with tears and nearly breathless in appreciation. And eager to go on the whole adventure again.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Still some Waiting to do

Somewhere I said that "Wait Until Dark" was closing last weekend. I was just on the Mill's website and the show runs through this weekend. The bad news is I'm still not perfect. The good news is that you still have several more opportunities to see this show.


My critical colleague, Liz Ramsay, has written a heart-felt and even stirring tribute to the Harry Potter series on her blog. As I often am, I’m envious of both the time and talent it took to write such a fine appreciation, since my time has been crunched as of late (even more than usual) and my talent, well, the very existence of that is debatable.

I’m quite a few years older than Ms. Ramsay so my attachment to the HP series comes from a different place: from being reluctantly drawn into a world my children were exploring and having it become just as all-encompassing for me as it was for them. After slowly being introduced to the story reading the first three books to my daughters, I read each successive book in a weekend, even bringing the 4th book with me as I walked the dog around the neighborhood. When the first movie came out, I was the one who bought the tickets online well before the premiere date and left work early to join my children at the theater. When HP7.2 premiered last weekend, I was at a midnight showing, semi-dragged along by my 10-year old.

I love the books, even though my critical instincts were tweaked by some of the clunky prose and the occasional clumsy plot-saving device (e.g., Ron and Harry saved from the spiders by the enchanted car, the whole time-turner thing, etc.) But the series as a whole is plotted with tremendous skill and there are aspects of the 7th book that I think are pure genius, including one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever read, all the more impressive given the immense pressure on Rowling to deliver something big (compare it to similar high-pressure series endings like “Seinfeld” or “Lost”).

In general, I’ve appreciated but not loved the movies (3 and 4 have been my faves). Most of them have had significant moments of gawking at the special effects or, in the last one, wasted time spent looking over artsy landscapes. The diminishing number of allowances made to those who aren’t intimately familiar with the story has made these last ones confusing for me, even though I’ve read the source material. And the complete bungling of the Harry and Ginny Weasley relationship is a crime (based on the movies, I’d have wanted Harry to end up with just about any other girl in the cast besides Ginny). Still, each movie has had at least one set-piece that was done spectacularly well. In this last movie, I thought the scene with Dumbledore and Harry in the celestial King’s Cross Station was about as good as I could have imagined it.

This is a lot of rambling about books on a blog that’s supposed to be about theater. I could say that Daniel Radcliffe is a Broadway star now so there’s some relevance. But actually the reason I go on is because, as I mentioned below, I saw the last HP movie only an hour or so after the curtain went down on the performance of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” I attended. And I consider them both blockbusters, each with the attendant pros and cons that come with such an enterprise.

There’s no denying the comic tsunami that is Scott Wichmann and the most guffaw-inducing scenes of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” involve his character’s ruses. Add Freddy Benson to the impressive list of characters that Scotty has taken to previously unimaginable comic heights. It would be easy to minimize the contribution of Broadway vet Jeff McCarthy in the face of Wichmann’s prodigious skills but that would be a mistake. McCarthy has a difficult and narrow path to travel. He has to be suave, worldly, confident but also a bit worn and you have to believe that after all of his years, that he actually falls for one of his marks. That I never questioned any of those aspects of his character is a tribute to the skill of the actor.

But unexpectedly, I came away from DRS newly impressed with Rachel Abrams, whose straight-forward but nuanced portrayal of Christine was a marked contrast to her last delightful appearance opposite Wichmann as Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls.” I expected to love the scoundrels, but in the end, the sneaky subtlety of Abrams’ performance was what really wooed me. Speaking of which, I also ended up enjoying the stumbling romance of Andre (Joe Pabst) and Muriel (Robin Arthur) more than I would have thought. Between not-too-heavy-handed writing and fresh performances from the actors, this potentially schmaltzy sidelight actually bolstered the trajectory of the main plotline rather than detract from it.

In one last note on an actor, Nicole Oberleitner certainly makes the most out of supporting role that I imagine is the kind actors love where you get to hit the stage for a brief time, chew up all the scenery in sight, and then move on.

It would take another several hundred words to fawn over the technical elements of the show, specifically Brian Barker’s spectacular set and Sue Griffin’s dapper costumes. Let’s just say that comparing this set and costumes to others in town isn’t quite on the level of comparing apples to oranges but it’s close.

Of course, I do have a quibble list and first on it is the sound. I heard most of what I wanted to from those on stage but I heard from several other audience members who didn’t (and that also seems to have been one of Mr. Miller’s at GayRVA’s chief complaints). Every modern musical struggles with the infamous “catchy” conundrum – creating songs that fit in context but also somehow stand-alone enough to be memorable. There were some good songs here – “Great Big Stuff” and “Dirty Rotten Number” specifically – but they suffered a bit from being more percussive and punchy versus melodic and catchy. This does present the opportunity to praise Sandy Dacus’s musical direction though: the big, brassy numbers in particular were sparkling and stirring and a delight to listen to.

My final quibble is more esoteric and, on some levels, perhaps not even appropriate given the subject. It also brings me back to Harry Potter. One of the things Rowling did with the HP books was reinforce some pretty steadfast and even stodgy values – the importance of loyalty and friendship, the fact that our choices define us, etc. – in a way that was actually uplifting instead of pedantic. The movies, even with their whiz-bang effects and some fabulous acting by some of the best Brits around, never really communicated those fundamentals in a convincing way. And perhaps it’s impossible for a big budget summer entertainment to do so.

Similarly, as fabulous as all of the aspects of DRS were (and shoot, I didn’t even mention all of the amazing dance numbers…), I didn’t leave with a sense that it all added up to much. I was entertained – thoroughly so – and I congratulate director Chase Kniffen for engineering such a bedazzling evening. I would even consider going back to get that thoroughly entertained again. But when the show ended, I wasn’t enlightened or emboldened in any way. Perhaps it’s too much to expect to be. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting it.

Friday, July 15, 2011


I’m a bit wrecked this morning. Did a doubleheader last night of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and then “Harry Potter” at midnight. Up and out to work at 8am this morning. Running on caffeine and doughnuts. Gearing up for another gamut tonight. Never a dull moment…

I’ll be ruminating over DRS this weekend and expounding next week. However, I thought it was ironic that I took in Richmond’s blockbuster musical and Hollywood’s blockbuster event on the same evening. My initial reaction to both of them was “Wow!” There is a lot of pizzazz and amazingness in both and scenes that I could not imagine being done any better. And I had a few quibbles with both – minor things that, if I was a grading man, would only knock back an A to an A minus.

But I also have that slight self-critical uneasiness of thinking that the quibbles I have are like being given a delicious feast with variety and enchantment and not being satisfied with the silverware. Both DRS and HP deliver spectacle, wonder, laughs (a hell of a lot more in the former then the latter), and charm. Both are incredibly satisfying entertainment extravaganzas. And I’m really glad I saw both of them – though I’m paying the price this morning.

Which is all preliminary to my real message for today: last chances to see “Wait Until Dark” and "The Odyssey" this weekend and ONLY chances to see “Reasons to be Pretty” by the newcomers at Stage B and the New Voices readings at SPARC. Harry Potter’s going to be running for weeks so, if your time is limited, skip it for now and go see a play.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Next to Normal

Pick up this week's Style for Mr. Griset's reviews of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Wait Until Dark." Time is running out on seeing "Wait" so don't....wait, that is, to get tickets.

I'm trying to think ahead -- looking forward to finally seeing DRS this week plus taking in some of SPARC's New Voices readings this weekend. But part of me is still stuck in this past weekend. See, my wife and son had talked up “Next to Normal” for months since they saw it in New York last summer. So I was giddy with anticipation when I took my seat in a Kennedy Center box (it was the back row of the box but still, I’d never seen a show at the Kennedy Center so it worked just fine for me). Just the N2N set is enough to peak your curiosity – it’s many levels and staircases giving it a modern, almost techno look.

The opening number (“Just Another Day”) didn’t disappoint – one of those openers in the classic musical mode that introduces most of the characters and their essential conflicts in an efficient but original manner. I was instantly impressed by Emma Hunton who plays the daughter Natalie and whose voice resonated clear and crystalline. All of the young performers were exceptional, propelled by a driving light-ish rock score.

But starting with the third song, “Who’s Crazy,” and really coming to the fore with “I Miss the Mountains,” there was something odd about lead actress Alice Ripley’s voice. At first, I just thought she had a weird pronunciation thing – an odd way of articulating specific words that I’ve since found out that others have commented on. But as the show continued, it became clearer that Ms. Ripley’s voice just wasn’t on par with the other singers in the cast. Again, there have been others on the Internets who have remarked on this situation with more depth and clarity than I really want to get into.

When the performance ended, I definitely had an appreciation for the power and originality of the show. There were many thrilling moments, most of them having to do with Ms. Hunton. As a parent, I felt a little weird to be identifying so completely with the teenage daughter and having little or no sympathy for the parents and a lot of that had to do with being annoying at Ms. Ripley for not singing better.

In the Washington Post review of the show, Peter Marks calls Ripley “tired.” In my opinion, that is an understatement. My somewhat stronger feelings on the matter are reflected in this review by Alice Kaderlan of the Seattle PI.

I'm a pretty easy-going guy and so, afterwards, I rationalized to myself that all things considered, it was a fine experience. I liked the music, I thought the story was challenging in many good ways, and there were some excellent performances. Perhaps more important, it was a good family outing spent traveling together, sharing conversation over some good food, and enjoying each other's company. But on another level I'm still sort of seething. I spent a whole day and a not-insignificant chunk of money to see a show that had a major defect in it. And it wasn't just that an artistic choice was made that somehow rubbed me the wrong way. There was/is a element in the show that is not working right. A colder, more pragmatic person would make the analogy that if a lighting instrument had burnt out during the course of a show, you'd replace it. Why hasn't someone made a similar replacement of the faulty piece of "Next to Normal?"

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Monday on the Links

The reviews for “Two Gentlemen of Verona” have started to appear, Ms. Haubenstock weighing in this weekend and Mr. Miller’s analysis hitting the GayRVA site today.

For those who do not have enough theater to take in this summer already, you might be interested in the first offering from Richmond’s latest company, Stage B. They’ll be opening “Reasons to be Pretty” at the Richmond Triangle Players theater this weekend.

I spent some time last week updating the RTCC website. Besides the basic details on this October’s gala event, I’ve uploaded pictures from the 2008 and 2009 ceremonies. I’ve got to organize my 2010 pictures and will have them up soon. Before long, news on presenters and nominees will start to appear on the site. Stay tuned.

This past Saturday, I saw “Next to Normal” at the Kennedy Center. I’ve already posted some of my opinions about this production on Facebook but I’ll summarize by asking, ‘what’s up with Alice Ripley’s voice?’ More on this tomorrow…

Friday, July 08, 2011

Last night

Last night was the opening of Richmond Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” When I saw this company do this show about a dozen years ago, the “two gentlemen” first came on stage wearing bathing suits to the sounds of the “Baywatch” theme. It was an irreverent and innovative way to make the Bard vital and new and it immediately engendered an affection for Mr. Mudge and his company that has never worn off, regardless of the ups and downs since. Their “Lear” was such a powerful production; I’m curious to see if they can pull off a true one-two punch this summer.

And speaking of “Lear,” did you read the blog-review Monique wrote about the production? It’s good for a laugh and, as such, I’ve added a link to Ms. Monique’s site to keep it in sight for future droll hilarity.

I didn’t spend last night at the Shakespeare opening. Instead, I answered the very kind request of a camp teacher at St. Catherine’s to watch the final production offered by their summer theater program. She thought they’d get a kick out of a “professional” review and I was happy to give them one. Since writing it took up any time I would have had to blog (I know, you’re heartbroken….ha!), I’ve included it below. Happy weekend!

Alice in Not-So-Wonderful Land

It stands to reason that a modern day Alice wouldn’t be traipsing around an English garden but rather dosing off in the midst of middle school detention. That’s only one of many amusing updates that playwright Don Zolidis has packed into “Alice’s Adventures with Poorly Cooked Cafeteria Seafood,” his highly entertaining script which received an energetic staging as part of St. Catherine’s Brilliant Summer camp program.

Unlike Lewis Carroll’s absurdist lampoon of all things British, Zolidis takes aim at a more specific contemporary target – the cult of excellence that drives American education – and his subversive lunacy sounds just right coming out of the mouths of these young performers.

Molly Berger headlines the show as the hapless Alice, constantly denigrated for not excelling in her scholarly pursuits the way her pushy, nerdy little brother Waldo (Tim Webb) does. Landing in detention after daring to stand up to the comically abusive biology teacher, Mrs. Snodgrass (Abigail DeLuca), Alice wanders through a low-rent looking glass (callouts to the lack of a production budget provide several laughs) to meet an array of wild and fairly mean creatures.

Some of these oddballs are simply entertaining: a Griffin (Maddie Ownby) and a Ninja Turtle (Anna Woodworth) provide nice Abbott-and-Costello-like banter. Others have a sly message hidden in their rhetoric, like Jeri Newman’s Catepillar, satisfied in her slackerhood and not at all eager to blossom into a butterfly. At least a couple of the creatures she meets seem determined to get in her way, the in-your-face March Hare (Sarah Wells) and the not-so-secretly violent Cheshire Cat (Rebecca Houck).

In her search for the elusive White Rabbit (Megan Deibel), Alice is offered a modicum of assistance by a cheeky Mouse (Isoke Wright). She eventually finds the Mad Hater (also Tim Webb) who points her to the Red Queen (also DeLuca) who, in turn, threatens her with execution. Only when Alice asserts her self-worth despite her mediocrity does she defeat the Queen and return to her other reality with a renewed sense of empowerment.

All of the St. Catherine’s actors give wholehearted performances and maintain their composure (for the most part) in the midst of the madness. Berger is a winning narrator and sympathetic protagonist, wearing her wide-eyed frustration well. As the villain of the piece (in both of her guises), DeLuca snips and snaps at those around her convincingly. The March Hare doesn’t get much stage time, but Wells makes the most of it, infusing the bunny with a quick wit and contrary attitude.

Wright plays a spry and cheerful Mouse and Newman is delightfully laid-back as the Catepillar. I would have enjoyed seeing more of Deibel who showed good range in portraying both the determined White Rabbit and the clearly-playing-favorites Mother. Woodworth’s forgetful Ninja Turtle prompted many laughs, and her concerned refrain of “The Children!” was a great counterpoint during the Mad Hater’s rampage. And Houck gets a nicely sinister gleam in her eye as the Cheshire Cat explains her proclivity toward mayhem.

Two performances stuck out to me for completely different reasons. Webb’s over-the-top rants as Waldo were funny and surprising but also a bit much. At least that’s what I thought until he really let loose as the Mad Hater and then it was downright disturbing in a way that lifted the production above youngsters playing at theater into a realm of social commentary of the most eye-opening kind. On the complete other end of the spectrum was Maddie Ownby’s pitch-perfect off-hand energy as the Griffin. Her performance showed how, in a production full of extreme weirdness, the simple and straightforward can work exceptionally well.

I attended this production of “Alice” expecting a bunch of kids struggling with their lines and stumbling across the stage. Instead, I was treated to a wry and wonderful evening of laughs and insubordination. Many thanks to director Tony Scarsella (and fellow theater teacher Christina Bellew) for lifting both my spirits and my hopes for the next generation of young thespians.

Thursday, July 07, 2011


I realized late yesterday that I gave short shrift to “The Odyssey,” just talking about its setting and not the show itself. Chalk it up to getting back into the swing of things coming off of a holiday weekend.

According to the Wikipedia, Odysseus means ‘trouble’ in Greek. I had been planning to use this factoid as part of my review because, while the Greek hero certainly had trouble thrown at him, he was also responsible for a fair amount of the trouble he faced. Similarly, the Sycamore Rouge production has some challenges thrust upon it, but also some of its problems are self-generated. Even so, as I mentioned in my review, there were many scenes where I got caught up in the action and the drama unfolding on stage. And I applaud the actors and production people who make the production work as well as it does, despite the challenges.

Certainly the trains are an issue. The performance I attended was interrupted 3 times by a train passing. The first time was kind of charming, the second time was still endurable, but by the third time, I was getting annoyed. The Rouge can’t control the trains, I know, so I don’t blame them. But I can’t deny that I found a fourth interruption in the action (including intermission) detrimental to my enjoyment of the experience.

I spent the first act of the show as close as possible to the stage. For the second act, I moved back to a back row on the lawn and that’s when I started hearing music from elsewhere. Again, not Sycamore Rouge’s fault but distracting for me.

I mention the episodic nature of the story. Much of “The Odyssey” unfolds as a series of misadventures and a dramatic arc such as one might expect in a modern-day drama doesn’t quite cohere. This also hampers character development to some extent. Some of Odysseus’s motivations didn’t quite work for me. Where does his pride in taunting the Cyclops come from that causes him such trouble with Poseidon? And after being away from home for decades, could he really keep his identity hidden from his son and wife for so long? The last quarter or so of the show where Odysseus has returned to Ithica takes entirely too long in my opinion.

There were some minor things that misfired at the performance I saw. The red ribbons signifying deaths were a great idea that were a mixed bag in practice – I didn’t even notice them until later in the show when the ribbon was curiously hanging out of Cyclops’ eye before it had been gouged. The occasionally awkward dialogue prompted some presentational performances, a bit stilted and forced at times. And there was a little pet peeve of mine that got tweaked when the gang of “suitors” at Odysseus’s home were often laughing and carrying on with no clear motivation. When characters just look at each other and start guffawing, it always takes me out of the action.

But putting all of that aside, there was plenty to cheer in the production. I enjoyed director kb saine’s modernizing touches – the “eyes on you” gesture Ms. Lewis mentioned, the come-ons from the Sirens, etc. Having the actor who played Zeus (Risegun Bennett-Olomidum) also provide sound effects enhanced the atmosphere at many key points. In my review, I called out Ms. Linas for her performance, which I enjoyed a great deal, but I did not have space to heap adequate praise on Ashley Maurisa Davis who infused her roles as Eurycleia and Calypso with delightful liveliness (including a musical “island” accent for the latter). Shanea Taylor brought her usual forcefulness to bear as the petulant Poseiden and Claire Biggers was entrancing throughout as narrator and Athena.

Zac Moon was a prime example of an actor who overcame the boundaries of the dialogue and made his Telemachus the most believable and natural character in the show. He was the reason I enjoyed many of the Ithica scenes the most. And of course, Jeff Cole managed to be the wild range of things the story required him to be convincingly and gracefully. He was prideful, sad, tormented, triumphant, tricky, and determined. And in perhaps the most effective scene of the show, he was wrenched emotionally as he chose between taking his boat into a whirlpool that would kill them all or into the clutches of a 6-headed beast that would devour one crew member for each head.

I hope the Rouge continues to do shows at Battersea Park because it is a beautiful location and there is a dearth of nice outdoor venues in the area (the Dell, Agecroft, and…am I missing something?) Next summer’s planned Battersea show is “Darker Face of the Earth,” which sounds like a perfect convergence of ancient source material, more modern situations, and an appropriate setting (i.e., an antebellum plantation). So I’ll definitely be back.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Sheer Volume

My review of Sycamore Rouge's “The Odyssey” is in Style this week. Battersea Park is a charming place to hang out for a few hours and the weather was lovely when I went there; it was downright chilly by the time the show wrapped up. I’d definitely recommend bringing a picnic but leave some room for the sweet kettle corn that the concessionaires are selling. Yummy.

I continue to be staggered by the sheer volume of theater happening in the summer time these days. Theatre IV’s “Little Red Hen” opened last weekend (a link to Ms. Lewis’s review is over there on the right) and the next Richmond Shakespeare offering, “Two Gentlemen of Verona” premieres this weekend. And, while I knew Dogwood Dell would have “Hairspray” at the end of the month, I just became aware of perhaps the most exciting development of the summer, a world premiere of “All’s Well that Ends with Monique,” which will hit the RTP stage at the end of the month. More on this soon…

In conjunction with my other piece in Style this week about the dovetailing of Firehouse’s Festival of New Plays and SPARC’s New Voices, I’m also surprised and delighted at the level of talent that is involved in staging these new works. I’m more aware of what’s happening with New Voices than the Firehouse festival and the casts of the shows being produced by SPARC reads like a who’s-who of local theater. The performers will include Andrew Boothby, Jeff Cole, Larry Cook, Lauren Leinhaas-Cook, Thomas Cunningham, Matt Hackman, Chris Hester, Audra Honaker, Dean Knight, Emma Mason, Jen Meharg, Daniel Moore, Jay Welch and that’s just pulling the names of actors I recognize as recently (or currently) starring in local professional productions. And they’ll be led by 8 impressive directors, most of whom also have professional credits under their belts.

Personally, I’m still trying to catch up on the shows that are already open. Where can we petition to make every summer weekend last three days so a poor ragged theater lover can see all of the shows in town?

Friday, July 01, 2011

Holiday Media Bonanza

I feel I’ve been playing catch up since I’ve been back from L.A., missing out on some of the big celebrity news (some of it summarized in this CBS news piece). Alicia Keys joining the ranks of producer should be a boon for those wanting more female perspectives and younger energy in the big-time professional stage world.

One of my NEA fellows was a bright and talented writer / editor named Grace Suh who has done a lot of thinking and writing about gender issues in theater. You can see some of that thought in this piece about the theater gender gap and this one where she asks some prominent theater people about this question.

Grace was also our go-to person for all things Julie Taymor. If you are interested, you can check out her coverage of Taymor’s time out in LA in this piece, arguably more comprehensive than this NYTimes piece on the recently embattled director.

There was plenty of local news to ponder, as well, and shows like “Pirates of the Chemotherapy” that I almost forgot were going to happen. Luckily, the T-D did some good work in reporting on that production.

And for other interesting reporting, you can check out Matt Miller’s interview with “King Lear” director, James Alexander Bond in today’s GayRVA. I particularly appreciate that Mr. Miller asked about the sexuality in his production (which I commented on in this space yesterday)and Mr. Bond's thoughtful response.

And to whet your appetite, Mr. Porter promises more coverage than his normal 3 minutes at his blog today. Check back to see some real analysis from someone who thinks about theater with more depth and experience than I’ll ever have.

Personally, I’ll be spending the long holiday weekend with family, getting too much sun and drinking too much beer. I hope you have a fine celebration of your own and manage to fit in attendance at a local show while you’re at it!