Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Apocalypse

Many people (several of whom I work with) view today’s Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act as a sign of the apocalypse.

In the local theater world, many might consider Va Rep’s announcement of “tweet seats” for tonight’s production of “Spring Awakening” a surer sign. The reaction to my posts about allowing texting in theaters last year (first here and then followed up on here and then here) was often very spirited and the word “apocalypse” was specifically used in an article on the subject.

I’ll be very interested to see how the experiment plays out. If I didn’t have the schedules of 5 other family members to juggle, I would be in those seats tonight, tweeting my heart out. To Va Rep I ask humbly: please do this again. Specifically, please do it on Thursday, July 19th, when I’m planning to go see the show for a second time.

But for all of the apocalyptic rhetoric, what would truly be an earth-shattering event IMHO would be the closing of Sycamore Rouge in Petersburg. The end-of-June deadline is quickly approaching for the company to raise the funds they need. They seem to be confident enough to be planning for next season but no one should be complacent. Furthermore, people who love Sycamore Rouge should post a testimonial at the website. I’m hoping to get mine together this weekend…
And speaking of this weekend, it’s the last chance to see Cymbeline at Agecroft. What better way to cool off than some hot theater?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Stopping Just Short of Rapturous Adoration

My review of “Spring Awakening” is available on newsstands as we speak and will probably be online momentarily. Also in this week’s Style is Mr. Griset’s rave about “Blithe Spirit.”

First off, I feel like I have to apologize for “ribald” being used in the photo caption. I don’t write the captions and whoever wrote that one had no real sense of the show. Maybe that’s my failing in my review for not making it perfectly clear that the show is not a “saucy romp” in any sense. In fact, I’ve been surprised how often the words “dark” and “disturbing” have come up in my few discussions with people who saw the show and weren’t familiar with it beforehand. (UPDATE: I just noticed that Mr. Houser's name is also misspelled in the caption. Oy. Sorry. Also, here are links to the "Spring Awakening" review and to the "Blithe Spirit" review.)

But to me, this darkness is one of the most powerful aspects of the show. It is not a joyful show, by any means, but it is still a show full of joy, primarily the joy of discovery. The teen years can be intensely painful if for no other reason than you are being introduced to a whole new category of feelings. The genius of a song like “The Bitch of Living” is that it captures both the specific anxieties of sex-discovering boys but also the universal existential angst, e.g., “It’s the bitch of living / Just getting out of bed.” What working class stiff doesn’t feel that on some Monday mornings?

It’s inevitable that as soon as you find out how rapturous love can be that you find out that, just by entering into the world of adult relationships, you have opened the door to a lot of suffering. Of course, “Spring Awakening” piles on the pain by stacking up a wide litany of calamities -- incest, abuse, abortion – in addition to the plain old first-time-falling-in-love circumstances. This is the nature of theater – particularly musical theater – to take this kind of situation to ‘11’ as it were. As I wrote last summer after watching a production of the non-musical version of the same story, it’s also the strength of musical theater in general and this show in particular that the music taps into and amplifies the universal feelings of rebellion and longing and desperation that characterize the teenage years.

I hope my review gives a sense of what I love about this show. What was harder to communicate was the ways the show itself (not this particular production) falls short. Specifically, I think the end is a cop-out and a bit dissonant, something I felt more strongly after seeing the Broadway version than the VA Rep version. You have Melchior who is almost revered because of his atheism (among other things) who is saved by mystical, other-worldly spiritual communication. As I said to my wife, if this was Shakespeare, Melchior would have just killed himself. But that kind of downer punchline at the end of a bleak-ish show would have been pretty relentless. Still, the promise of a “Purple Summer” seems a little wimpy after the intensity of death, loss and heartbreak. Also, the portrayal of the parents is always a bit problematic. The idea is brilliant – being played by the same actors, all the adults come across as nearly interchangeable obstacles to happiness. But as written, the roles vacillate wildly from fairly realistic to cartoonish, getting in the way of that universal adult idea. (The straight play version I saw had all of the adults in masks, which was a great way to enhance this idea.)

Zeroing in more specifically on the VA Rep production, I think Liz Jewett’s review at and mine make a good pair. I think Ms. Jewett and I both saw Chase Kniffen’s steady hand clearly in control at the helm of this production. Mr. Kniffen brings a great sense of stagecraft to the show in smashingly creative ways. I loved the monster projection screen, I liked the swings, I liked Starrene Foster’s choreography apparent in the movements of the players across the stage. As much as I liked the production, I also felt that the whole enterprise could have benefitted from a little more freewheeling fun and/or in-your-face intensity. I’m not sure if the actors were a little tired on opening night or a little reluctant to go bonkers with the older opening night patrons. But the one thing I remember clearly from the Broadway production was the sense of kids physically and emotionally busting free from the restrictive bounds of their lives. There was a lot of that kind of energy visible in the video projections; I wanted to see and hear more of that energy on stage.

I think Ms. Jewett wanted more of that kind of energy from Ms. Thibodeau and Mr. Houser in the lead roles. Personally, I think the two of them play out the dance of their courtship perfectly. In particular, I think the minute of masochism that punctuates their affair happens fairly organically versus when I saw it on Broadway and the violence truly seemed to come out of nowhere. Overall, the cast was exceptional and the ensemble numbers were great. Daniel Cimo and Owen Wingo had a great “attraction of opposites” chemistry. My companion for the evening remarked on Josh Marin several times, while I was impressed with Richard Chan. Both of us were sad not to see and hear more from Allison Gilman and Lucy Dacus stuck over in the onstage seats.

I didn’t have space to comment on Sarah Grady’s costuming in my review because my feelings were a bit mixed. I was told after the show that the ensemble members mixed into the onstage seating were each wearing outfits from a different decade. I wondered whether some of that sensibility figured into the costumes for the rest of the cast because there was such a disparity between pieces like Ilse’s jumpsuit. Wendla’s airy white outfit and Martha’s buttoned-down look. I liked a lot of what I saw but wondered about some other things I saw. As always, Sandy Dacus’s band did a great job, though I wanted more of a rock concert feel to the proceedings, as I alluded to in my review. I expect that may not be a universal feeling and that musical theater goers in general might think the rocking score already pushes things far enough without having someone demolishing the drum kit or lighting a guitar on fire.

One of my favorite movies is “Thelma and Louise” and there is a similar vibe to it as “Spring Awakening.” The leads discover a new world and are free for the first time but that freedom comes at a cost. I’ve felt exhilarated at the end of “T&L” every time I’ve watched it and I feel similarly at the end of “Spring Awakening,” enough so that I’m trying to arrange my schedule to see it again. I was hoping to spend some time in the “tweet seats” during this Thursday’s performance but I couldn’t make that work, unfortunately.

A friend I talked to last weekend remarked on how Theatre IV got complaints about Peter saying “Ass” in “Peter Pan” a few years ago, and now that same company (essentially) is doing “Spring Awakening.” Wiping away mock tears, she said, “I’m so proud of Richmond.” This production does represent a step forward for the Richmond theater world and it’s remarkable in many ways that VA Rep chose this as its first show. Of course, now the challenge falls to the larger community: if we want companies to take the leap and produce hipper, edgier, more challenging work, we have to do our part and urge friends, neighbors, and strangers we meet at Martin’s to go see the show. If lack of audience causes big companies like VA Rep to reconsider shows like “Spring Awakening,” then in my view, Richmond will be like Melchior: “Totally Fucked.”

Friday, June 22, 2012

Names (CultSha Expo)

Naming something is important. I've played a part in picking 4 children's names and a last name and it's a tricky business with lots of different factors to take in account. Naming inevitably has unforeseen consequences. When the RTCC awards were created, no one involved foresaw what that acronym would prompt and now (and probably forever more) the awards are saddled with a nickname that for some is a silly joke, others is a derisive putdown, and still others just an amusing sidelight.

I expect a lot of thought and study went into choosing Virginia Repertory Theatre as the new moniker for the Barksdale / Theatre IV mashup. I've heard discussion among some people who are confused, others who are disapointed, and still others who like the crisp, conciseness of "Virginia Rep."

Which is all lead-up to a quick discussion of the CultSha Expo. First off, everyone should go. I expect anyone reading this probably already is planning on going because your organization has a booth or a performance there. Anyone else not in that category should go because it's going to be a lot of fun and a great chance to see previews and highlights of the work that a bunch of organizations are doing.

The name, however, is confusing, particularly if you don't know the origin of it. CultureWorks is trying to create a committed group of local arts patrons, called Cultural Shareholders, which they've shortened to "CultSha" members. I think it's kind of clever but it's another one of those things that people may be confused about. Confusion shouldn't keep anyone away from the event though. Check out the line-up -- there's going to be a lot of cool things happening. Take a break from the pool and come on down!

Thursday, June 21, 2012


In case you haven’t picked it up yet, this week’s Style is chock-full of theater-related stories. Most prominent is the news story talking about Richmond Shakespeare’s change of direction, switching the staging of their non-summer productions from CenterStage to St. Catherine’s. This is concurrent with the RichShakes announcement of their new partnership with St. Catherine’s but is also a reaction to ongoing issues with getting locally-produced shows up-and-running at CenterStage. I have been blissfully unaware of the specifics of these issues but I know there are folks who have grumbled about CenterStage since the beginning. I’ve never been able to tell how much of the grumbling was because of political issues and how much was actual functional issues. This article – and the clearly illustrated impact working with CenterStage seems to have on a company’s finances – makes me think there are more functional aspects to the problem than I thought.

Speaking of finances, there is also a story about Sycamore Rouge in Style as time starts to run short on their deadline to raise the needed funds to keep the company afloat. There are only so many big money patrons out there that can write the big checks so keeping the company alive seems like it is going to take dozens of us writing the small checks. Think about it.

There is a review of “Cymbeline” in Style and delivers the second review I’ve seen of “Spring Awakening.” I’m anxious for mine to come out next week so I can talk about the show more. In the meantime, I strongly recommend you go out and see it yourself. This is a show you’ll want to see and talk about, whether you fall into the “roll your eyes” category Ms. Jewett describes, or if you think it’s the best show ever.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Power of Enthusiasm

I wasn’t in Chicago this past weekend. Several of my colleagues were there for the annual American Theatre Critics Association conference. Honestly, I hadn’t even thought about it until some Facebook pals started posting. Now I’m feeling a little retroactive melancholy. Not only would I have loved to be there to see all of the shows, but I haven’t been back to Chicago, the city of my birth, for more than a decade. I wonder if I would even recognize the place.

I’m sure there are people who couldn’t think of anything worse than hanging out with a bunch of critics for a long weekend. I expect the image persists that such a gathering would involve a gang of persnickety humorless sad sacks looking down their noses and harrumphing about everything they see, the hecklers from the Muppets multiplied exponentially.

In an effort to dispel any such image, here is a link to the text of the keynote “Perspectives on Criticism” address, delivered by Terry Teachout, the Wall Street journal drama critic. I love this address because Teachout says crisply and clearly things I have always thought and have at times tried to state, if perhaps less expertly. Two of the highlights: “[Criticism is] about enthusiasm, and passion, and love—and if it’s not about those things, then it’s no good.”

Furthermore, “The awful truth is that I don’t really like writing bad reviews. I can’t understand critics who live to write stinkers. Why on earth would anybody want to sit through a bad performance, just so he can pan it? I have better things to do with my evenings.”

I regularly hear from or about people who think critics serve no purpose, particularly in this age when the Internet and social media can give just about anybody the reach and impact of a “professional” critic. And even so, almost every production I’ve ever seen uses pull quotes from critics in their advertising. There must be some reason for this.

Beyond the advertising benefit, there are plenty of other good things that spring from criticism, at least 6 of them outlined in this piece from the Guardian. The people who go to conferences like ATCA's take the job of criticism seriously; it's not like a lavish corporate junket or anything. With fewer full-time critics on publication staffs than ever before, most attendees pay their own way (I did when I went). Sure, it’s a great excuse to see a bevy of shows and commiserate with others in the critical trenches. But it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the job and to gain insight into becoming better at it. It’s been a decade since I went to an ATCA conference. Methinks I need to go again.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


What I liked most about “Yellowman” is that it’s a show that actually delves into an issue, gets to the meat of it, and dramatizes the very real effects of it on people’s lives. The issue for this play is racism, specifically racism within the African-American community where darker skinned blacks are considered brutish and ugly while lighter-skinned “high yellow” blacks are thought to be more attractive but also privileged and lazy.

I’ve felt some frustration with recent shows that have a racial element but don’t really go anywhere with it. In “Scorched Earth,” a mixed-race baby initiates the play’s action but race is just a hook to get your attention and ends up tangential to the rest of the “who-done-it” plot. I felt manipulated by “Earth.” In one of the first scenes the local plant foreman talks about a diversity committee but real issues involving race are never explored. Worst of all, in a show that uses race as its hook, none of the African-American characters end up being essential to the denouement. Even Elijah, the character at the heart of the plot, ultimately ends up being mute and peripheral.

“Dessa Rose” is a musical with some hot-button issues at its core but, to its credit and detriment, race is not really one of them. Or at least, not any cohesive perspective about race. Instead, the story uses race – or more exactly, slavery – as a pivot that individuals and relationships move around. One slave owner is bad and brutal, another is clever and opportunistic. One interracial relationship is bad, another is redemptive. Ruth is kind to slaves so she is good because all of the slaves are honorable and brave. More intricate and interesting are the relationship dynamics between Dessa and Ruth, but in those dynamics, race is a simple fact, not an issue with complicated facets.

In “Yellowman,” issues of race are about as complicated as they can be. And instead of presenting anything sanctimonious or pat, the play clarifies those issues via the lens of a long-term relationship between Alma (Patricia Alli) and Eugene (KeiLyn Jones). The two of them live in a world – a southern, intrinsically racist world – where no one truly escapes the ravages of hate based on skin color. Animosity creeps into every nook and cranny of their lives so that, while race is at the foundation, the real pain comes via familial relationships, friendships that are built and destroyed, and ultimately, self-hatred that taints even passionate interludes that are supposed to be expressions of joy.

This all sounds like heavy stuff, and it is, but Dael Orlandersmith’s script keeps things moving quickly enough and creates such engaging characters that the play rarely feels bogged down. Under J. Paul Nicholas’ steady hand, the production steers clear of the morose and, particularly when hope for escape starts building late in the play, the joy of discovery is palpable. Alli and Jones are exceptional actors. In additional to creating rich and complex central characters with Alma and Eugene, both do a great job portraying Alma’s and Eugene’s parents and friends.

As I said during the talkback session after I saw the show last Friday, what makes “Yellowman” compelling is that it’s a good story. It’s a love story, it’s a story of the urban/rural dichotomy of a particular city, it’s a story about two families, it’s both a tragedy and a redemption story. Sure, it’s an African-American story but more than that, it’s an American story. Tapping into the abundant variations of experience provided by this glorious melting pot of a country, Orlandersmith creates story about how many shades of gray – or yellow – are mixed in between the black and the white, making watching this play profoundly satisfying on emotional, historical, personal, and all sorts of other levels. Perhaps most of all, it's refreshing and invigorating to see a show that is actually about something, and that is not just an entertainment that plays bait-and-switch with more serious issues.

Monday, June 11, 2012

I tried

Yoda famously said, “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” As silly as most of Yoda’s twisted syntax is, this is actually an aphorism I’ve taken to heart. But sometimes resolve cannot overcome inertia when it comes to emotional affairs.

Which is all to say that I tried to care about the Tonys. Really I did. I read predictions and previews and, even though I knew I was going to miss it live, I dutifully taped it and sat down to watch from the top perhaps 80 minutes after the broadcast began. Neil Patrick Harris – loved him. Cute bit from “Book of Mormon” to start the show. Energetic dancing from “Newsies” that seemed to confirm that every exceptional male dancer in the tri-state area got cast in this show.

But the “Follies” number had me fast-forwarding; same with the “Ghost” scene. Somewhere along the line I’ve grown allergic to Matthew Broderick and I sped through a lot of the “Nice Work” number too. “Jesus Christ Superstar” is one of my favorite scores of all time but I wasn’t fond of the electric blue Judas. Even with the great low-key jokes (Mustafa headdress!), I lost interest quickly and finally chose slumber versus more acceptance speeches.

I’ve still got the whole show on the DVR. And I’ll probably get back to it to watch the details of the “Once” sweep and watch NPH’s closing number – always a highlight. But the problem is that I didn’t see any of the shows in contention. “Once” opened 3 months ago, “Clybourne Park” less than 2. Even when I advocated a trip to “JCS,” my family was not interested. Besides the somewhat prurient cross-media interests – both Amanda Seyfried and Hugh Jackman from the “Les Mis” movie were there! wouldn’t it be interesting if Andrew Garfield won right before “Spiderman” opens? – I didn’t have an investment in anything going on.

Sorry to be a Tonys party-pooper. I think I need to arrange my life better so next year I can go to the Triangle Players’ Tonys party so that, even if I don’t care about the show, I can enjoy the company and the ambiance.

Can anyone tell me if I missed anything truly spectacular so I can fast-forward directly to it?

Also, Ms. Lewis at the T-D didn't seem totally enthralled with "Cymbeline," which opened this past weekend. Did you see it and what did you think? Beyond this one review, a more important development for RichShakes will probably be this new partnership with St. Catherine's, a good strategy to ensure long-term strength for the company IMHO.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Live Art Moments

Be sure to check out this week’s Style that is chock full o’ stories by my critical compatriot Rich Griset. He talks about the Virginia Rep announcement, quotes Scott Wichmann in a piece about Seal Team workouts, and reviews Henley Street’s “Yellowman.” You’ll see in the “Yellowman” review that I’ll be one of the panel members for the “Yellowman” talk-back this Friday. So come on out and talk back to me!

As mentioned yesterday, here is a quick listing of some of my thoughts about the Live Art concert event on Sunday. Please feel free to add your own highlights in the comments.

I was surprised and delighted by Jason Mraz’s humility and accessibility as a performer. He let himself be fussed at by one mime and then upstaged by another when raising the curtain. Even when the spotlight was on him, he didn’t just bask, he interacted with his piano player and the performers around him. He even lent his bare feet to the instant art of Dancing Feet. If there is a word that means the opposite of prima donna, it is Jason Mraz.

I don’t know whose idea it was to tie everything together with the mimes but it was pretty brilliant. And from the stalwart Xavier Dobbins to the bossy Annie Hulcher to the antic T’Arah Craig and Brendan Kennedy they were a great troupe and an entertaining sidelight all their own.

I loved Samson Trinh’s energy and the voices of Allyson Mills Steele and Terri Simpson. The Upper East Side Big Band provided a sonic foundation for almost everything that occurred and it was as rock-solid as you could ask for.

How can you not be impressed by Susan Greenbaum’s voice? I had the pleasure of chatting briefly with Anne Holton after the show and she remarked how she couldn’t believe Susan doesn’t have a bigger national reputation and following. I couldn’t agree more.

Catherine Dudley was leading the students doing sign language on stage throughout the concert. Even if you aren’t deaf, Ms. Dudley’s signage is just a joy to watch. She’s not just an interpreter; she’s a full-fledged performer herself.

Throughout the concert, I was repeatedly struck by the way so many of the professionals involved in the project seemed to glow with an inner light, people like Willie Hinton, Danae Carter, Josh Small, Jenna McClintock, and many others. I don’t think there is any way you could fake the looks of pride, joy, and jubilation that were plain on their faces.

I enjoyed the way Steve Bassett interacted with the Dreamer Theater performers and the way the crowd enthusiastically responded to the duets with each of the “guest performers.”

Though it ultimately went on a little long for my tastes, the Human Story improv dance contained amazing moments of discovery and interaction, making it among the most powerful pieces of the night. What a clear example of how movement and music – without any spoken words whatsoever – can communicate a whole universe of meaning.

I never got any sense of condescension toward any of the performers, regardless of their abilities. The event was an object lesson in how, given the right support and preparation, differently-abled people can do amazing things. One of my favorite performers was Claire Foster who took part in the impromptu painting in response to Susan Greenbaum’s first song, was a prominent dancer in a couple of pieces, and was the signing interpreter for a piece near the end. She shone with such confidence and even a bit of swagger whenever she was on stage. Another performer I noticed was Shishir Ingale. Though his affect was relatively flat, when he danced, he expressed as much buoyancy and happiness as anyone else on stage.

One of the most admirable aspects of the event: Erin Thomas-Foley – who could have asked for a moment in the spotlight and by all rights deserved one – stayed in the background during the entire performance. She may insist that she was just one cog in a gigantic machine but it’s clear she was actually the motor that made it run. The lack of any kind of official backslapping about the importance of the project and the inclusion of just the slightest ask for support showed great restraint and class, and kept the focus on what was transpiring on stage.

I’m sure there are dozens of people that deserve recognition for making “Live Art” happen but one last kudo to offer: while Ms. Thomas-Foley was obviously the principle force in getting the project going, the SPARC staffer who was officially tasked with managing it was Courtney Edwards. As she was someone who also didn’t get any stage time or official call-outs, I’d like to offer congratulations to her as one of the event's unsung heroes. Well done!

The show ended with a medley of songs celebrating Virginia, which was appropriate, but I’d say that even more specifically, this event was a celebration of Richmond and the great arts community here. Congratulations to SPARC for making this happen but also congratulations to everyone here who helps foster Richmond’s artistic livelihood. “Live Art” was a victory for every single person involved but also for all of us.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Art, Auditions, Annie, etc.

The “Live Art” concert was Sunday and, if you were there, I don’t have to tell you how incredible it was. And if you weren’t, well, I’m not sure anything I can write will capture the spirit and beauty of the event. It was the kind of show where you are smiling pretty much the whole way through, at least when you aren’t laughing out loud or on the verge of tears. The event brought more than 1,200 people down to the Carpenter Theater and shone a great big spotlight on all of the best aspects of the Richmond arts scene: the willingness of artists to experiment; the generosity that compels people to support each other and collaborate across different organizations; and the abundant delight local artists take in creating art and inspiring young people to push their limits.

I will be compiling a list of some of my favorite moments from the show because I know I’ve really appreciated when Jackie Jones put together such a list for the RTCC awards. But I need my Live Arts program for that and it’s currently lost somewhere in a stack of mail. In the meantime, there are plenty of other happenings to talk about.

For instance, have you heard that local writer and producer Jerry Williams will be stepping into the director’s chair for the first Richmond Triangle Players show next season? TVJerry has directed scores of videos but this will be his first stage play since his days at VCU when he directed a slew of shows for the Barn Dinner Theatre. I had the pleasure of being schooled by Mr. Williams nearly 20 years ago or so when I tried my hand at writing some videos for my then employer, the Dept. of Environmental Quality. He ever so gently – ok, not so gently – slapped that hand because the first draft script I wrote was so ridiculously bloated and impractical. Working as a critic for WTVR-6 for 15 years, he established himself as an uncompromising voice providing straight-forward views on movies and plays (something he continues at His connections in town run deep so it’ll be fun to see who he brings to the stage for “Regrets Only…” and what he does with them. (Auditions this weekend!)

As I’m sure you’ve seen on Facebook or elsewhere, another local actor has hit the big time. One of the highlights of the Theatre IV production of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” last season was the performance of young Taylor Richardson. The talented Richmond native has been cast in the Broadway revival of “Annie,” and it’s a kick to see her bio being listed in this run-down of the orphans. Richmond may truly be developing into a launching point to bigger things.

And while the pro theaters in town are readying their summer productions, you might take consider using your spare time next Monday or Tuesday to check out an evening of entertainment offered by a fledgling local effort. A group of former SPARC students have created the Full Circle Theatre Project and they are putting on a show at the SPARC theater. There’s a great slate of talent lined-up. I’m planning on going just to see if the title “Unplugged” is a riff on being “unplugged” from SPARC or if the performances are going to be all acoustic. Color me intrigued!