Dave's Theater Blog
A view of theater in Richmond, VA, and occasionally other places too.
Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Birthday Dozen: A Tribute to the Guy who Deals the Cards
Punch the Clock:
Thursday, September 08, 2022
Return on Investment: The enriching experience of “The Inheritance”
"Time is free, but it’s priceless." – Harvey Mackay
Quotes like Mackay’s might make you wonder, why in the world would you spend 7 hours watching a play?
I’ll tell you: because it’s the best investment you could possibly make right now.
Look, the stock market is a mess, right? Who knows where it's going. And what is money anyway? If the pandemic showed us anything, it's that time is the most valuable resource we've got.
“The Inheritance” is a play in two parts of 3 ½ hours each only playing at Richmond Triangle Players for a few more performances. My wife and I watched both parts on one day this past weekend, matinee, dinner break, then evening show. We were dazzled, enchanted, and moved.
Here’s a short list of the return we got on that day-long investment of our time:
The ability to say we saw the show that beat out “Slave Play” for the 2020 Tony. Some theater folks are still irate about that one.
A deeply considered and fully realized story arc for the couple, Toby Darling (Deejay Gray) and Eric Glass (Adam Turck), gay gents in their early 30s, living in NYC and contemplating getting married. You know those shows / plays / movies where you feel cheated because some key corner or aspect of the central relationship goes unexplored? This play delivers on every fascinating quirk of these compelling characters, from their rather explicit sex to their formative childhoods (Glass’s laid out right up front, Darling’s devastatingly detailed in the final act).
A gobsmacking, hilarious, heartbreaking, damn-I-didn’t-know-he-was-THAT-good performance from Gray. It would be easy (and wrong) to say Gray just plays himself. Sure, there is a sharp sassiness and boyish sexiness that could be construed as an exaggeration of Gray’s personality. But Toby is broken and desperate and mean and seductive in a thoroughly unique way that Gray embodies with astounding clarity. From the subtlest tossed off responses to one of the most flamboyant flame-outs you’ll see on stage, Gray commands attention and pays it back with a performance that will engross you while it’s unfolding then persist in your memory for days after.
A quieter, more sensitive, but no-less-impressive portrayal of resolute positivity by Adam Turck. If Gray is the tempestuous storm that speeds this sailboat forward, Turck is the rudder that keeps everything on course. His character has almost too many positive traits – caring, smart, supportive, engaged, devoted, AND a good cook – and yet Turck makes him thoroughly relatable... and forgivable when Eric makes a few questionable but plot-spurring choices.
New to Richmond talent! William Vaughn is a recent arrival from NYC and also has two key roles, playing the author E.M. Forster, the pseudo-narrator of much of Part 1, and Walter, an older gay man who acts as a bit of a mentor/teacher for Eric. Vaughn turns both characters – who could easily have come across as gimmicky or slight – into fully formed empathy-inducing humans. The dividend here will pay out the next time Vaughn is cast in town; whatever the show, it’ll be better with his presence in it.
A cavalcade of gay history, cultural conversation, issue wrangling, and vital remembrance of how the clash of politics and healthcare smashes victims in its midst, leaving even survivors with permanent scars. It’s hopeful to think this show takes steps toward crossing ‘doomed to repeat it’ off the debt sheet.
I could say more but at this point I’m just wasting precious time you could be using buying your tickets. ROI? My oh my -- yes! Your life, mind, heart and soul will all be enriched.
Tickets at https://rtriangle.org/.
Monday, February 14, 2022
The show must go…urp
I often feel empathy for what an actor goes through on stage. This was the first time I can remember feeling horrible for what an actor was going through backstage.
About 10 minutes into the main body of the show, Dandridge exited stage left in the middle of a scene. The show contains plenty of quick comings and goings so it didn’t seem odd. Schenfisch continued with some dialogue and, within a moment or two, Dandridge was back, flamboyantly portraying the dead author’s wife, complete with a southern drawl and a limp. Somewhere along the way, Schenfisch was joined by another character…but not another actor: his fellow officer, Lou, was represented by muted-trumpet “whah whah” sound effects similar to the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons.
Tuesday, March 10, 2020
Filling the Frame
Some big stories may be better on a smaller stage
But even amidst the laudatory commentary, there are cautionary asides: “Gatsby is about the superiority of imagination over reality,” says the Guardian, “which makes it very difficult to dramatize well.”
The challenge then is for a director and her actors to flesh out what they are given to create fully articulated characters on stage and director Jan Powell does a great job with several of her players. In his Richmond stage debut, Kurt Smith carries off the title character’s single-minded focus on Daisy with panache. He’s strikingly handsome but with a hint of awkward vulnerability. It helps that, as a character, Gatsby has an emotional trajectory that’s articulated clearly enough for professional psychoanalysis.
Any excuse to put the delightful Michelle Greensmith onstage is a worthy one after her amazing turn in last summer’s “Taming of the Shrew,” but the side romance between her character, Daisy’s friend Jordan, and Nick adds little to the proceedings. In striking contrast to the fancier folks, Tom’s side piece Myrtle as played by Amber Marie Martinez explodes with earthy energy, highlighted by costume designer Cora Delbridge. The prominent reds in Myrtle’s dresses stand out against the whites and washed out pastels of many of the other outfits.
But a bigger problem becomes clear after watching the movie depictions (clips from both the 2013 and 1974 movies can be found here). Though it centers on the love lives of a small set of New Yorkers, “The Great Gatsby” endeavors to capture a huge sweeping story, encapsulating everything from moral commentary on the decadent 1920s to broader ruminations on the endemic problem of the so-called American Dream. To address all of that, movie director Baz Luhrmann could fill the screen with ridiculous amounts of lavish revelry and then, when needed, draw the camera in tight for subtle intimacies.
Those contrasting frames can be depicted on screen and conjured in a reader’s mind but are harder to convey on stage. For this production, the VMFA stage is nearly bare except for a central rotating set piece and, while the party scenes crackle with energy, it would be hard (and expensive) to create the sense of overstuffed glamour that would be appropriate.
When the hard-hitting truth-telling begins, the scenes are too far from the audience to have a visceral effect. I couldn’t help but imagine whether this show would benefit from a setting like Virginia Rep’s Willow Lawn stage, where the audience could be easily swept away in a party’s extravagance in one minute but with close enough proximity to be immersed in the dramatic interplay that punctuates the final scenes.
Macbeth" that squeezed the action into the alley between two banks of seats and her "King John" had a character emerging from beneath seats in the audience. This Gatsby sometimes feels remote, particularly when there's nothing happening in the downstage section of Reed West's two-level set.
The large stage does provide ample space for the second act opener, a doozy of a dance playfully choreographed by Jeremy Gershman and Kayla Xavier. There are moments of similar spry energy interspersed throughout this production and watching actors like Smith, Metz and Martinez do their work is worth the price of admission. However, as Fitzgerald says, “There must have been moments…when Daisy tumbled short of [Gatsby’s] dreams,” so too are there moments when this production falls short of expectations.
Wednesday, March 04, 2020
Sweet Immersion (or The Cake, The Critics and Cats)
As both Jerry and Julinda noted in their reviews, the show’s playwright Bekah Brunstetter is best known for working on the TV show, This is Us. Those unfamiliar may then expect her play to be treacly or maudlin given a limited understanding of the TV show.
But fans know that This is Us has consistently excelled at creating genuine three-dimensional characters then letting them play out often impossibly complex interpersonal dramas in a flawed, gripping and always entertaining way. Brunstetter brings that kind of skill to the stage with “The Cake” and its depiction of a devoutly Christian North Carolina baker uncomfortable providing one of her stand-out confections as the centerpiece for a wedding between two lesbians.
There was recently a small-scale hullabaloo on social media about critics (again) in Richmond and I have to say that the LA or NYC critics did not do a great job of capturing what makes this show so good, in my opinion. The New York Times specifically implicated This is Us when it said the playwright “can’t help embroidering her argument with contrasting complications and comic behavior.” I’m sorry but aren’t complications and comedy part of what makes theater more interesting than everyday life?
The Hollywood Reporter sniffs that “The play ultimately isn't very thought-provoking.” Huh. I found that the show challenges those most likely to see a show like this (particularly when produced by a theater company devoted to LGBTQ+ friendly programming) to have a less reductive understanding of anyone who might be confronted with a dilemma similar to Della's.
One review gave me a clue as to why the LA and NYC productions may not have worked so well. Jonas Schwartz’s TheatreMania review describes Debra Jo Rupp’s take on traditional southern baker Della as a “a frenzied, fast talker.” Luckily, the Richmond Triangle Players production has instead a masterful portrayal by Terrie Moore that is anything but frenzied. Besides being a great actress perfectly suited to inhabiting a character who is a sweet, emotionally complex southern belle, Moore has the benefit of actually being a sweet, emotionally complex southern belle. Nothing seems put on in her performance; charm and empathy practically pour out of her.
Gordon Bass as Della’s husband and Zakiyyah Jackson as Jen’s fiance make the most of their positions on the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. While their characters are forced to voice the more simplistic arguments, Brunstetter provides ample opportunities for each to project a winning humanity.
The folks at Triangle have decked out the theater with some pasty shop trappings and patrons have the opportunity to enjoy sweet treats when the show ends. These little touches speak to the subtle ways a production can be immersive. The recent movie version of “Cats” was horrible in ways that are practically innumerable but I think the biggest thing missing was that sense of immersion that made the stage show (particularly the original Broadway production) delightful. Theater is fundamentally three-dimensional and no movie can really create that kind of experience, even with the funny glasses.
There’s also another kind of immersion at play here, too: a cultural variation. Maybe “The Cake” works better when staged in the south where the sense of friction around these issues can be palpable. Director Dawn Westbrook brings a lifetime of familiarity with southern contradictions to bear in her guidance of her actors through this show, as does Moore in her depiction of Della. Though I didn’t see the LA or NYC productions to be able to fairly compare, perhaps it takes a certain kind of cultural immersion to transform “The Cake” from empty calories to a sweet, fulfilling treat.
Tuesday, December 17, 2019
A Letter to Rural Virginia: Why are you shooting yourself in the foot?
Tuesday, September 24, 2019
Liberal White Folks Being Liberal and White
I find strong opinions attractive. Even so, I was stunned when I pulled up the Vulture review of “Admissions,” the dynamic and challenging play that is going into its last weekend at TheatreLAB.
A show that delves into something juicy like this one invariably spurs me to Google what other, smarter people have said about it. Doing so is always interesting but sometimes disappointing when there is broad similarity to the reviews. That’s why I think the Vulture piece is worth considering in some depth.
Reviews of “Admissions” generally called the show “bitingly funny” filled with “smart” dialogue that reaffirms playwright Joshua Harmon’s skill “at articulating arguments, often at length.” Some folks have noted, as our own Julinda Lewis did, the particular newsworthiness of the play: it opened in Richmond just as Felicity Huffman was given a prison sentence for trying to buy her kid into college and the show was playing in DC in March just as that scandal broke, as the Washington Post pointed out.
Of course, the play’s exploration of the struggle to get into elite institutions is really a vehicle to dig into one of the thorniest of thorny issues: race. And that’s where the commentary gets complicated.
I walked away from “Admissions” almost 100% in line with Jesse Green’s take in The New York Times, feeling Harmon’s purposefully uncomfortable skewering of liberal white hypocrisy is “good satire at work,” it’s dramatization of diversity doubletalk being “[o]ne of the things the theater should be doing today.”
Then I read the Vulture piece which asserts that the play “misfir[es] wildly” and got knocked on my heels. Here’s what it made me realize: As an old liberal white guy, I have the luxury of walking away from a heady piece of challenging theater thinking, “good job, show!” Maybe, I thought, it’s worth listening to someone who instead ends up thinking Harmon is “having [his] ethical cake and eating it too.”
Brits tend to have a more nuanced view of some issues that get lost in the easily bifurcated American culture so it was interesting to find reviews of the London production that complained it “contributed almost nothing to the reasoned furthering of the debate” and contained “rather too much shouting.” Unfortunately, no review that I found dug into the meat of the issues; in fact, the more impactful reveal from these reviews for me was finding out that the production starred Alex Kingston, who I’ve loved since ER, triggering some retroactive regret that I didn’t fly to London to see it.
Here’s what I think Sarah Holdren of Vulture should be applauded for bringing into sharp focus: this isn’t really a play about fighting institutional racism. The cast is all white so actual people of color literally do not have a voice in the show. Their experiences and their struggles are only voiced by white people, sometimes dismissively or sarcastically. And the audiences who see the show are going to be largely white so I understand the inspiration behind Holdren’s exclamation “what are we all really doing here?”
But there’s plenty I think Holdren gets wrong, starting with a number mentioned in dialogue (the percentage of students of color at Hillcrest School is said to have started at 6 percent, not 4 percent; whether it’s rational or not, small, easily checked mistakes like that always irk me).
More importantly, what Harmon creates in the play (and what director Deejay Gray and his cast deliver in this excellent production) is a specific and personal story that reflects situations that are real, messy and hard. Holdren did not have access at the time of her piece to read this fascinating and recent deep dive into the actual dilemmas college admission directors face. Clearly, the reality is 10 times more complex than any playwright could imagine.
It is easy to be dismissive about a play about liberal white people and the (arguably) moderate challenge of staying true to your stated values when faced with personal adversity. But there are thousands and thousands of Americans facing that exact challenge and the answers aren’t easy. To pretend that the answers are literally black and white, as dad character Bill (David Clark) seems to suggest, is flatly dismissive and plainly reductive.
For one thing, there are conservative and libertarian groups very actively pushing verifiable statistics that show reverse racism, most directly against Asian students. One such study came out just two weeks ago showing that hundreds of white students were rejected from UVA and William & Mary despite having higher test scores and grades than black students.
Sure, the show’s central, powerful and expansive rant (masterfully delivered by Tyler Stevens playing the son, Charlie) swerves into esoteric territory when it asks whether Kim Kardasian is a POC. But we have a leading presidential candidate whose most ill-advised move was to suggest that her tiny genetic percentage of indigenous heritage qualified her to be considered Native American. So is it really a ridiculous question?
The Vulture piece chides us white folks for “feel[ing] like we’re grappling with something difficult, even as we’re being allowed to indulge in some pretty basically racist lines of thought.” The author seems to say those lines of thought all fall on one side but I’d say they fall all over the place: isn’t Sherri saying a biracial child “doesn’t read black” kinda racist? At the same time, virtually everything said by her oblivious assistant, Roberta, is clearly racist, so is Harmon really just rooting for one side?
Holdren also finds a trap that’s easy for a critic to fall into (I know I have): letting an audience’s reaction skew your own opinion. She says “[o]ur sympathies are plainly pushed toward Roberta in [the] opening scene.” Huh? As winning an actress as Jackie Jones can be, I don’t think anyone thought she was NOT clueless in my crowd, even in Richmond where “I really don’t see race” kind of sentiment flows freely. Holdren calls Sherri “unlikable and obviously self-deceiving.” Again, huh? Maybe it’s just that Donna Marie Miller can do nothing wrong right now, but she clearly won over folks at the Basement.
Where I knew Holdren had really veered into a different realm was talking about laughter breaking into outright cheers during Charlie’s rant. It was hard not to enjoy Stevens digging into the emotional depths of that scene but, while I certainly cheer his performance, even as he was rollicking through it, I felt the disquieting tug of conscience that Harmon delivers as a hard smack of parental scorn when Bill calls Charlie a “racist spoiled little shit.” Holdren says Bill’s counterpoint “doesn’t help much;” I sure felt it as a slap.
Maybe this is a testament to Gray’s directing skill but, while Holdren sees “a play whose ultimate argument and its very existence seem in conflict with each other,” I saw a fascinating crash of gnarly contradictions.
And, finally, something Holdren totally overlooks, and no one else I read seemed to pick up on at all, are the more subtle reflections of liberal whiteness that Harmon makes plain. The most striking example is when both Bill and Sherri turn to each other more than once and ask, “Who do we know?” as they try to wriggle out of the dilemmas Charlie presents. Is there anything more white and privileged than to think that a call to the right person can fix a problem? Just add the delivery of a tidy sum of cash as per Felicity Huffman and “Admissions” would almost be too true-to-life to be considered fiction.