Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Filling the Frame

Some big stories may be better on a smaller stage

So many superlatives have been spilled in the name of Gatsby. It’s a story that “ranges from pure lyrical beauty to sheer brutal realism.” As a novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is “simple and beautiful and intricately planned.” The story’s appeal springs from an enticing intersection of “witty hopelessness” and “vivacious self-destructiveness.”

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.”

Indeed. Leaving “The Great Gatsby” as presented by Quill Theatre on the expansive Leslie Cheek stage at the VMFA, I had a reaction similar to the “slight feeling of emptiness” Julinda describes in her review. Interrogating my feelings a bit, I’d say I wanted a clearer picture of who some of the characters were, Daisy most of all.

The release of the movie version starring Leonardo DiCaprio prompted a small explosion of critical reconsideration of Gatsby in 2013; the book was a failure when released but has since been lauded as the true Great American Novel. That impossibly objective label aside, the book addresses sophisticated ideas while including plenty of glitz, glamour and mayhem to satisfy the masses, all in a compact plot that rolls out in robust passages of crackerjack prose.

Still, there are plenty of detractors and this Vox piece in particular points to some specific challenges and opportunities in staging Gatsby. “It is pleasant to look at, but you will not find any people inside,” the author complains. “[The characters] function here only as types, walking through the pages of the book like kids in a school play.”

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.
Cole Metz is another stand-out. As Daisy’s bullying husband, Tom, he could be a simple racist asshole, but Metz effectively embodies a version of patrician entitlement that transcends that reductive description. Chandler Hubbard’s Nick provides the peephole into the inner lives of the other characters and he manages to be an fairly effective audience stand-in with his reactions to the plot’s machinations.

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.

In portraying the animating object of the piece, Rachel Rose Gilmour has an impossible task playing Daisy. It was instructive for me to watch clips of film versions of the character, with Carey Mulligan’s sad and ethereal depiction more entrancing than Mia Farrow’s oddly antic take. Gilmour is fetching and flirty and, in one of the later scenes, I found her protestation to Gatsby “you ask too much” to be the most revealing and compelling line of the show. The quandary of making Daisy something substantial may lie in what the Vox author calls “the travesty of [Fitzgerald’s] female characters -- single parenthesis every one, thoughtless and thin.”

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.
Powell knows how to pull an audience into a production: her Richmond premiere was a masterful "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)

I’m sorry that you won’t get to see “The Cake” at Richmond Triangle Players. Technically, the show runs through this weekend, there was even an extra performance added for Wednesday night. But unfortunately for you, all remaining shows are sold out, leaving you without the opportunity to see one of the least politically political plays on Richmond stages in a long time and also one of the most delightful.

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.

Also creating a nuanced character is Nicole Morris-Anastasi as Jen, the daugher of Della’s best friend who is still in some ways struggling to accept her homosexuality. Unable to have a “coming out” conversation with her dead mother, she can’t help but hear the condemnation she would expect if she could have it, an expectation that Della reinforces. I remember hearing the “I’m not gay, I just fell in love with a person who happened to be my gender” equivocations from people I know with a background like Jen's and Morris-Anastasi effectively externalizes the internal battle she is fighting.

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?

The Roanoke Times published a fascinating and wise editorial after last month’s election, presented as a letter to the new leadership of Virginia’s General Assembly. Speaking on behalf of the rural voters who may not feel represented by the new Democratic majority, the paper said, “we don’t really know our new legislative leaders -- and you likely don’t know us.”

Over the past several weeks, some city folks like me have had a chance to get to know more about rural Virginians and honestly, my reaction has been, “what the actual hell?”

The challenges facing rural Virginia are myriad and seemingly intransigent. A September article by VCU’s Capital News Service talked about the lack of sufficient healthcare and educational opportunities. Young people are leaving due to the lack of jobs. The opioid epidemic continues to ravage western counties like Buchanan where the 2018 death rate was 42 per hundred thousand, more than 8 times the national average.

Perhaps most dire, while population has increased at a brisk pace in the Commonwealth’s urban areas, rural counties have seen precipitous declines. Projections are that the population in some communities will drop by as much as 30% over the next 20 years. “They just don’t have what it takes to retain people or attract new people,” laments one expert.

In the face of these challenges, have the people of Virginia’s hinterlands banded together to lobby for educational support, an expansion of healthcare outreach or the adoption of innovative programs to create new jobs?

Nope. Even national news outlets are now reporting on the “second amendment sanctuary” declarations sweeping across the Commonwealth like a harsh vitriolic wind. Nearly half of Virginia’s counties have joined this movement, boldly stating their defiance against a shapeless spectre: potential legislation that is only in draft form weeks before being considered by the General Assembly, several steps away from the Governor’s desk.

In my perhaps slanted view, these declarations suggest rural Virginians would prefer to hunker down for a fight against the unknown versus engaging in a debate about shaping policy that benefits everyone. It continues a dispiriting pattern. Earlier this year, Republicans in the General Assembly famously adjourned the special session on gun violence without considering any proposals. Their “thoughtful and deliberative study” of gun legislation included no actual recommendations. Now, counties across the Commonwealth want to stop the conversation before it even starts.

Can this pugnacious attitude lead to any positive change? I am hopeful that all Virginians -- heck, all Americans -- are united in a desire for fewer deaths by gun violence. But how can potential solutions be crafted when one side won’t even engage in the conversation?

I’m at a loss to figure out how exactly this focus on gun rights helps rural Virginians. I may be missing something but I don’t know how resistance to any and all new gun control measures creates more jobs, improves anyone’s education or stops a single opioid overdose.

David Skorton, the president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, wrote an op-ed for USA Today in September arguing, as many others have, that gun violence should be considered a public health crisis. With 100 people dying due to gun violence each day in America, most by suicide, Skorton states, “It’s an epidemic. It’s relentless, and it's spreading.” Will Virginia’s “sanctuaries” be safer or are they providing a ripe breeding ground for the disease?

There are numerous programs based in big cities like Richmond that are committed to improving the lives of rural Virginians. If you look on the website of one of these, VCU’s Rural Cancer Outreach Program, it proudly declares it has been supported since its inception by funds granted by the Virginia General Assembly. Should the General Assembly continue to support such programs when rural residents seem more concerned about their guns then their health?

The Times editorial stated, “some of the stereotypes about this part of the state are probably true, but others aren’t.” Rural Virginia, you may be thinking you’re putting your best foot forward with your 2nd Amendment sanctuaries. But in this city boy’s view, the stubborn resistance to what, at its worst, may ultimately be an inconvenience and, at its best, might possibly save lives is a stereotypical case of shooting yourself in the foot.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Liberal White Folks Being Liberal and White

The specificity of “Admissions” is a strength, though some disagree

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.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Did Chelsea Burke solve the “Shrew” problem?

As the lights went down at intermission of Quill Theatre’s latest production, an all-female staging of “The Taming of the Shrew,” I leaned over to one of my companions and said, “I don’t think they’ve solved the problem.”

If you’re reading this, you know what I’m talking about. The brutal, jarring, incomprehensible-to-modern-audiences misogyny of “Shrew” has been fretted over for decades, with directors reworking it into a “Secretary”-style S&M liberation tale or gender-reversing the characters to subvert the dynamics, using the play’s framing device to add commentary or simply rewriting the ending to change the most uncomfortable parts. Regardless of its problems, “Shrew” keeps showing up on theater schedules on the regular, with productions on stage right now from California to Massachusetts, not to mention the RSC staging in London.

Some scholars have suggested the problem isn’t the play but our pesky determination to make modern sense of dated sensibilities. Maybe so but personally, I’d had enough “Shrew” after the 2006 Richmond Shakespeare Festival production, adding it to my growing “I never need to see that again” list. The ambitious but flawed 2013 staging did little to move me from my agreement with a London critic’s assertion that “Shrew” is “one of the most deeply unlovable of Shakespeare's plays.”

I doubted director Chelsea Burke’s choice to demasculate the cast would change much. The play’s problems are deeper than “Katarina is pommeled into subservience.” Bianca’s coy complicity in the courtship paradigm presents a somewhat-subtler sexism and her father Baptista holding a bidding war for the right to bed her (a bedding war?) is a face-palm worthy example of no-this-really-isn’t-funny tone-deaf banter.

So how did the wily Ms. Burke win me over by the end of this quote comedy unquote that is predicated on violence, submission and abuse? To borrow a phrase, she leaned into it.

I didn’t see the 2016 Shakespeare in the Park all-female cast version that Burke possibly borrowed this idea from (her director’s note is maddeningly oblique). But at least one article about that production talks about Katarina’s eyes being “wide and anxious” during her final speech and Bianca’s face “collapse[ing] into a mask of horror” as she listens. In her luminously intense portrayal in the current production, Michelle Greensmith delivers the monologue not as a lecture but as a plea, her every mannerism reflecting PTSD rather than happy subservience. Thanks to Greensmith, it’s impossible to shrug off the manipulation, gaslighting, and cruelty her character has experienced as some clever romantic plot. Shakespeare’s text hasn’t been changed but, in her direction of this moment, Burke infuses an appropriate level of #MeToo-era awareness into the scenario.

If that description makes this production seem like a heavy slog through a gender studies seminar, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that Burke’s amplification of the tragedy of Katarina works because of the delightful goofiness of the play’s action beforehand. Burke allows an exceptional crew of comic ladies to pepper their parts with asides, rejoinders and other funny business that bolster nearly every scene, punching up what is already some pretty spry repartee. Maggie Bavolack extends her already expansive range with her hilariously old Gremio, Allison Paige Gilman makes her plucky Tranio the comic lynchpin of the plot and Erica Hughes adds a sweet simpleton vibe to her late-in-the-action emergence as a key player (particularly observant folks will enjoy her unsung but very funny turn as an audience member early on).

The MVP (most vociferous provoker) of Laughter, however, has to be Desiree Dabney who has apparently never been in a scene that couldn’t be enhanced by a pulled face, under-her-breath adlib or other wisecrack reaction. She, along with many other cast members, regularly single out audience members to talk to, hand props to, and otherwise make directly personal what could otherwise be an alienating theatrical experience.

Burke seems to instinctively understand (again, some commentary would have helped) that breaking down that fourth wall, insinuating all of us in the fun and frivolity during most of the show, also indicts us all in the trials that befall Katarina. Her “comeuppance” is uncomfortable, more so because we’ve all been roped into a jaunty good time – complete with contemporary girl power songs that get toes tapping at the top of both the first and second acts.

Speaking of music, the 2016 NYC production apparently utilized Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” as its coda, an angry anthemic F-you to the patriarchy. The pensive take on No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” that wraps up the action here is Burke’s final slice of genius, a song that, stripped of its perky ska beat, reinforces the similarities between now and 16th century Italy, rather than pointing to any progress.

Before anyone stamps a big QED on this production, claiming the problem definitively solved, Burke doesn’t escape all of the landmines Shakespeare embedded. If anything, the sweetness of Nora Ogunleye’s portrayal of Lucentio – the plot’s requisite “good guy” – makes the turn her character takes during the final wager between the show’s dude-bros even more problematic. And speaking formalistically, there’s no way around the Bard’s flagrant dismissal of the “show, don’t tell” proscription in scenes (e.g., the wedding) where particularly flamboyant off-stage action is described rather than enacted.

But I’d have to echo Style Weekly’s Claire Boswell in saying this comes as close to the “Shrew” I’ve always wanted, to the extent I’ve ever wanted a story of humiliation and misogyny wrapped up in deceptively pretty language. Though I’ve finally heard a version of this tune that I liked listening to, it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t prefer the song relegated to the (Not-So-) Golden Oldies bin forever.

(Quill’s “The Taming of the Shrew” runs at the lovely Agecroft Hall through August 4th.)

Friday, November 10, 2017

Dream or Nightmare?

On two occasions recently, I’ve found myself in the company of people who don’t like musicals. Rather than treat them like traitors against the realm or shrink in horror at their inhumanity, I’ve engaged in a bit of conversation with them, not unlike what Sarah Silverman has been doing in her new show.

Through those talks, I gained some understanding of that anti-musical perspective and I like to think that Murder Ballad would be the rare musical that would appeal to even sung-through haters in the world. The show’s immersive staging at Club Infuzion in Scott’s Addition means you can practically reach out and touch a performer at multiple points during the show. It moves fast, it’s plot is simple and straightforward, and it features consistently propulsive music (thanks to Kim Fox and her very peppy band). Director Lucian Restivo has cast a rock-solid group of actors who nail every beat of the love-triangle-gone-deadly story.

As someone who tries to sit in the front row for most shows, I was in heaven. The production layout has four principal focal points: an elevated mainstage where the band plays, a house-left bar, a house-right pool table that becomes a bed, and another elevated area near the back of the house. I was happily spinning in my seat to adjust my sightlines from one to the other throughout the compact, intermissionless 90-minute performance, my favorite moments being when one of the cast members was singing just inches away from my table.

And what a cast! Rachel Rose Gilmour has been the highlight of two other of my recent favorite theater experiences (Toxic Avenger and Lysistrata) and she brings a delightful, delicious, darkly sarcastic slinkiness to “Ballad’s” narrator. She inserts regular commentary on the growing rivalry between Tom (Durron Tyre) and Michael (Chris Hester) for the affection of Sara (Katrinah Carol Lewis). Tom, a bar owner, has affection with a fiery lustful underbelly that eventually clashes with Michael’s, a poet/MBA who is raising a child with Sara and so operates from a more possessive, papa-bear place. There’s no doubt things are going to end badly but exactly how isn’t clear until the very end.

With the brevity of a musical like this, some nuance can be lost and it’s up to Hester and Lewis to provide enough layers of personality to make Michael and Sara an interesting couple. Both do a fine job, Lewis creating a believably disaffected wife and mother, loving her family but craving her former wild life. The energy of her “I don’t want to know your name” hook-up with Hester persists throughout her domestic scenes. Hester has to do more with less but, particularly given some of the extravagant characters he’s played in the past, captures some pretty delicate gradations: projecting a sweet protectiveness in his early scenes, transitioning to a wound-tight buttoned-down peevishness, and ending with full-bore boiling over.

It may be the hunky Tyre, though, that rivets many a viewer. He has one of the first musical highlights of the show in his sweet rendition of “Sara” and, besides rocking an awesome leather jacket in the latter scenes (costumes by Sheila Russ), he has a single-minded intensity throughout that’s pretty entrancing.

Kudos must be given to Restivo for navigating a tricky staging challenge and delivering such a stylish thriller. I may be wrong: being immersed in a musical could be some people’s worst nightmare. But there are so many entrees to Murder Ballad, it has appeal for anyone with an affection for film noir or for messy love stories or thrillers or in-your-face drama or for good-looking actors with great voices or for any theatrical experience that’s different than most others. Doesn’t that cover just about everyone?

Saturday, October 14, 2017


I’ve attended multiple performances of a production many times in the past. When the now-defunct Stage 1 did Children’s Letters to God, I saw every single one of the show’s 8 or 9 performances. I was at the theater mostly for logistical reasons but nothing was compelling me to watch the show every time. I chose to watch it every time because it was an awesome production.

In other cases, a show like VA Rep’s The Color Purple has compelled me to take different groups of friends to it as proof of the quality of Richmond theater. 
For Quill’s Lysistrata, starring Grey Garrett, I saw the show three times mostly for business reasons. My new venture, Behind-the-Scenes RVA, dovetails perfectly with Quill’s mission: they seek to produce theatre worth talking about and one of my goals with BTS-RVA is to provide context that can inform those conversations.

After seeing the show for the third time, I realized how my perspective on the show had changed and, also, what I was focusing on in the third viewing versus the first. To whit:
  • There are some comedic powerhouses in this cast. Jeff Clevenger and Maggie Bavolack, in particular, are so talented that they can generate laughs with a look or a line delivery. After the first viewing, theirs were the performances I remembered. But after repeated viewings, I gained appreciation for CJ Bergin as the Spartan herald who had several very choice bits and absolutely nailed them every single time. I also grew to love the playful dynamics between Michael Hawke and Melissa Johnston Price and the small comic moments they capitalized on, Michael getting a hearty laugh by dangling his feet like a toddler and Melissa’s sarcasm after removing “the mother of all gnats” from Michael’s eye. Certainly, a good chunk of credit must be given to director James Ricks for locating these moments and elevating them, but the execution was also exceptional.

  • In part because they are obscured behind masks, it’s easy to overlook the work of the chorus of old women who seize control of the Acropolis. Some choice lines are delivered by Katherine Wright, Addie Barnhart and especially Amanda Durst with her rambling fig rant.
  • I’m sure epic poems could be written about the beauty, both unclothed and clothed, of Terrie Elam as Ismenia/Peace. But it is also her sweet clear voice that lends another layer of pathos to the show’s final scene, rising up a cappella as the gravity of what has happened sinks in.

  • And while on the subject of the beauty of the cast, it’s worth mentioning that, in Lysistrata, Rachel Rose Gilmour bolsters the significant cred she earned through a stellar performance in The Toxic Avenger as much more than just a pretty face. She shows exceptional comic chops in her teasing of a delightfully confounded Adrian Grantz; she’s one of many reasons I’m looking forward to 5th Wall’s Murder Ballad.
  • Having seen Grey Garrett in a range of excellent roles, at first I came away from Lysistrata disappointed about her part. As I described in the Curtain Call podcast, she’s kind of the scold of the piece, forced to repeatedly browbeat her team into staying in line. It was only through repeated viewing that I saw more of the subtlety of her performance, her very fun teasing of Kinesias as her approaches the Acropolis, her look of anticipatory victory right before she brings Peace out to the inflamed negotiators. I still have liked her better in her restrained mania in The Wild Party or as the unexpectedly empathetic White Queen in Alice. But she still manages to shine in this less meaty role.

  • Ah, the ending. While at first I was conflicted by the ending, I’ve grown to really appreciate it. Out of the numerous choices James Ricks had in wrapping up what is usually kind of a “meh” ending to the story, he took a bold choice, a somewhat unsettling choice, but one that puts a succinct button on the underlying issues addressed in the show. I’m sure it is somehow inconsistent with different conventions – either of traditional Greek comedy or arguably of modern “sitcom” comedy – but for me, it makes me leave the show with more to chew on rather than just walk away blithely satisfied at being well entertained.
There are issues of feminism and sexism that have been talked about rather openly thanks to the Style review and the response James wrote to it so I’m not going to circle back on them now. These issues were debated quite rigorously among people who came to the Behind-the-Scenes tours. And that kind of conversation is pretty awesome, I think, and just goes to show that this was indeed theatre worth talking about.

By the way, if you’re reading this, please tell your friends and family (and strangers on the street) about future Behind-the-Scenes opportunities; there’s one coming up for RTP’s Cloud 9 this Friday and Firehouse’s Desire Under the Elms the first week in November. More talking about theater will hopefully get more people to get out of their houses and attending live theater. That’s a win for us all!