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 talent! Lukas D’Errico, a junior at VCU, starts out a bit demure in his first of two roles, Adam, a wannabe actor and son of wealthy parents. But by the time he is alternating between that character and Leo, a homeless sex worker, it’s clear that an exciting new talent has emerged here in Richmond. Pay off: we can now say we saw him when.

  • 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.



Just like this show goes on all day, I could go on all day about it. Lucian Restivo directs the hell out of it; the tech components are fabulous, particularly the bookshelf-centric set; and the rest of the extensive supporting cast shines.

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.

The Saturday, Feb. 5th performance of “Murder for Two” at Swift Creek Mill started off pretty much as expected. As director Tom Width mentions in his curtain speech, the first few minutes are a bit odd: an extended bit of wordless stage business between the production’s two actors, Mark Schenfisch and Emily Berg-Poff Dandridge. Still, the actors moved through it briskly and settled quickly into the farcical murder plot that propels the show. Dandridge plays no fewer than 9 characters, all suspects in the killing of a famous author at his surprise birthday party, while Schenfisch plays Officer Marcus Moscowicz who takes it upon himself to solve the crime.

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.

Then, about 5 minutes later, Dandridge popped off stage again, only this time a bit more abruptly. Schenfisch stuttered a bit and started ad-libbing some tenuous lines. An amazingly quick-thinking tech person in the sound booth started responding to the ad-libs with impromptu “whah whahs” but the awkwardness was palpable.

Within a minute or two, Width was back on stage saying the show was going to have to pause. Someone behind me asked, “Is this part of the show?” Width explained: Dandridge wasn’t feeling well. As more murmurs started to rise, an audience-member asked “Is it COVID?” a question that Width was quick to rebut by outlining the testing protocols in place for the actors. It was probably something she ate or a stomach bug, he said, an answer that, given that the Mill is a dinner theater, had a couple patrons murmuring a bit more pointedly.

I know Emily a little: she was an amazing teacher for a dance program my son performed in for several years. I know her enough to be certain that she was doing everything she possibly could do to make it through the show and that her body was rebelling. Consummate professional that she is, I’m sure her sense of responsibility and “show must go on” attitude was compelling her to the stage even as her sick stomach was driving her back into the bathroom.

On stage, Schenfisch was demonstrating a charm completely consistent with his character in the show, settling behind the piano to pull a solid rendition of “Fur Elise” out of his memory banks. After he was done, Width was back out with a rope and a pair of scissors, asking for volunteers for a magic trick that thoroughly delighted the crowd.

Then Schenfisch was back, this time with a full-throated rendition of Sara Bareilles’s “Love Song,” which I appreciated as much for the reminder of this great song’s existence as I was for his committed delivery and solid piano accompaniment (again, pulled impromptu from memory).

And here’s where I swooned because theater people are amazing. The standard joke/complaint I’ve heard from thespians over the years involves a patron approaching them and asking “How do you remember all of those lines?” Not to downplay that very important skill but prodigious memorization only scratches the surface of most theater performers’ skills. 

Schenfisch was reinforcing a reality many casual fans may not be aware of: Most successful people in the theater are double-threats, if not triple, quadruple, or more. “Murder for Two,” with both actors singing and playing piano, was already an obvious showcase for this but, with his improvisation and quick-thinking, not to mention his musical direction of the show, Schenfisch bolded and underlined his multiple capabilities. 

As most people reading this know, Width is a director, actor, writer, set designer, and magician, just to name a few of his obvious talents, and he does all of these things at a very accomplished, professional level. 

My impression is that people look at someone like a professional athlete, for instance, recognizing that they put in hours honing their skills, running, lifting weights, working with trainers, getting guidance from coaches, etc. That kind of dedication can be obvious in an athlete: it shows up in their physique and in their ability to perform physically in a way others can’t. Even though the interruption of the performance was unfortunate, both Schenfisch and Width were given opportunities to flex for the crowd. The crowd was clearly impressed.

Eventually, the Mill’s managing director showed up to make it official: the performance would not continue. Even though I didn’t see the show I expected, I ended up just as happy to witness one of those wonderfully weird events that only happen with live theater (and that the Artsies spent a whole awards program highlighting back in 2020).

Luckily, I was able to drag my lovely wife out the following week to see “Murder for Two: Stomach bug-free edition.” And you want to talk quadruple threats? Dandridge is a revelation in her role. In the abbreviated edition of the show, I only saw her portray maybe 4-5 characters – impressive enough, even when brief. In the full show, by the time she gets around to scampering around on her knees to depict three distinct members of a boy’s choir, I was wondering how she could possibly have any more accents or body-language characterizations up her sleeve. Sure enough, there was still more to come.

And while Dandridge deserves heaps of praise for this performance, there is wizardry in how Width has helped her define her characters and then reinforced some of the transitions with clever staging. Something as simple as having Dandridge pass behind Schenfisch on stage while switching characters proves incredibly effective.

By the way, I exchanged messages with Emily and she was fine a day or two after the interrupted performance. I didn’t get details on what ailed her but, in the aftermath, I expect she was mostly feeling embarrassed. She needn’t be: patrons at that performance got a singular treat that may end up being more memorable than the full show. I’ll never forget Barksdale’s “Souvenir” back in 2009; it was a great production but the specific performance I saw was bizarro-world unique. 

This is not a review so I’ll not say much else about “Murder for Two” (I’d suggest checking out Julinda’s or Claire’s instead). I will say: I’m not typically a fan of farce but this production ends up being a snappy good time, thanks to the talents of Schenfisch, Dandridge and Width (his set design being yet another stand-out). It’s a show I typically wouldn’t enjoy seeing once. I’m distinctly happy to have seen it – and loved it – approximately 1.25 times.



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. As I left “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 subjective 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.)