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Much Ado About Nothing Vegas Style – Synetic Theater

Jordan Wright
February 17, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Cast of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Koko Lanham.

Cast of Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Koko Lanham.

Hot Diggity Dog Ziggity Boom!  In Synetic Theater’s jived up version of Much Ado About Nothing Las Vegas’s flamboyant landscape of feathered and sequined showgirls becomes the backdrop for Director Paata Tsikurishvili’s reinvention of the beloved comedy and the next installment in the troupe’s “Silent Shakespeare” series.  In his interpretation Beatrice (Irina Tsikurishvili) is a lovelorn lounge singer and Benedick (Ben Cunis) her castoff lover who are reunited in her Uncle Leonato’s (Peter Pereyra) casino.  Much to each other’s dismay.

Benedick has joined Don Pedro’s (Philip Fletcher) gang the ‘Syneticons’ and blown into town on their boss motorcycles – – gleaming single-wheel choppers designed by Props Master Kasey Hendricks and Technical Director Phil Charwood.  Soon gang member Claudio (Scott Brown) falls hard for Don Pedro’s daughter Hero (Emily Whitworth) and that’s when the jealousies, betrayals and backstabbing ruses begin.

Scott Brown as Claudio and Emily Whitworth as Hero. Photo by Koko Lanham.

Scott Brown as Claudio and Emily Whitworth as Hero. Photo by Koko Lanham.

In this Grease meets West Side Story meets Car 54 Where Are You? fantasy the comic relief is often provided by a hilarious trio of cops led by the Chief of Police, Dogberry, purposely overplayed by Vato Tsikurishvili. The cut-ups give chase to the lawless gang in slapstick routines worthy of Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.  Of particular note is Zana Gankhuyag who plays Asian cop, Verges.

Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili pulls out all the stops, letting the dancing dictate the period.  In a departure from the dark side dynamic that infuses many of Synetic’s productions, the cast’s mood and infectious enthusiasm is flat-out joyful.  Girls jitterbug in poodle skirts with James Dean bikers clad in leather and tight jeans while the super-fly theme from Peter Gunn takes it into overdrive.

Ben Cunis as Benedick. Irina Tsikurishvili as Beatrice. Photo by Koko Lanham.

Ben Cunis as Benedick. Irina Tsikurishvili as Beatrice. Photo by Koko Lanham.

It’s a doo-wop mash-up of oldies from back in the day as Sound Editor and Composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze and Music Director Irakli Kavsadze conspire to bring back Chubby Checker with ‘The Twist’, Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” and the era of “Beach Blanket Bingo”.  Actually a few decades overlap here, but who cares, it’s an idealized backdrop for teenage angst and puppy love.  So even if the Chippendales didn’t launch their striptease act till 1979, we don’t mind these hot male dancers doing a bit of bump-and-grind along with a game of strip poker.  And though Leonato reminds us a bit of Al Pacino in the 1980’s Scarface and the preacher is a Black Elvis (Wait! Was that James Brown?), it’s fun to play along.

Photo by Koko Lanham.

Photo by Koko Lanham.

As expected there is breathtaking dancing and gravity-defying acrobatics from the classically trained Georgian troupe.  And although it gets off to a bit of a slow start, after a few minutes in it explodes in full-throttle Synetic-styled mania fueled by dancers that look as if they’ve been just waiting to cut loose and show their cool daddy-o side.

Dig it!  It’s like crazy, man, crazy!

Through March 22nd at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington in Crystal City.  For tickets and information call 866 811-4111 or visit www.synetictheater.org.

King Hedley II – At Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 14, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L to R) Jessica Frances Dukes as Tonya and Bowman Wright as King in King Hedley II - Photo by C. Stanley Photography

(L to R) Jessica Frances Dukes as Tonya and Bowman Wright as King in King Hedley II – Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Hangin’ in the hood in the 1980’s wasn’t so very different than it is today.  In playwright August Wilson’s King Hedley II we find that guns, gambling, alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy and prison time informed the toughest inner city neighborhoods and still does.  It bears mentioning in light of the recent incidents in Ferguson and New York City, that this play reflects a societal atmosphere that is not much changed.  The final play of Wilson’s ten-part cycle dives headlong into the seamy side of the African-American experience, setting the play in Pittsburgh’s rough Hill District (it’s still a dangerous place) and creating characters that appear to have stepped out of a Thomas Hart Benton mural or a Shakespearean tragedy.

Bowman Wright plays King Hedley, a man out of luck, out of money and out of opportunities.  (Coincidentally Wright played another King  – – as in Martin Luther King, Jr. – – in Arena’s earth-shattering production of The Mountaintop favorably reviewed here in April 2013.)

In this concentrated circle of life King is married to Tonya (Jessica Frances Duke), a young woman who aims to escape the ghetto and avoid another unwanted pregnancy through her steady job.  Ruby (E. Faye Butler), a feisty yet endearing matriarch who rules the neighborhood and brooks no jive talk, has raised King with high hopes for his post-prison redemption.  But Mister (Kenyatta Rogers) King’s crony and partner in crime has other ideas to raise fast cash for their hoped-for video store and hooks King up selling hot refrigerators while making plans for an armed robbery.  In a world of dead ends there are few options and many temptations.

(L to R) Michael Anthony Williams as Elmore and E. Faye Butler as Ruby in King Hedley II -  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Michael Anthony Williams as Elmore and E. Faye Butler as Ruby in King Hedley II – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

When the notorious gambler Elmore (Michael Anthony Williams) returns after serving time for murder, Ruby, who has a past with Elmore, warns, “He talks sugar and gives salt.”  Elmore teases her, “You still pretty.  You just old.”  In this hood there’s plenty of colorful trash talking to go around and enough gallows humor to lighten the load.

Bearing witness is the graybeard Stool Pigeon (André De Shields) – – a bible-spouting newspaper hoarder whose wisdom and experience is lost on the men’s nefarious activities.  “God’s got a plan,” he warns them, “and God is a bad mother****er!”

André De Shields as Stool Pigeon in King Hedley II - Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

André De Shields as Stool Pigeon in King Hedley II – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Timothy Douglas, who has directed most of Wilson’s plays, brings a concentrated pathos to the stage, setting the play in the round to reflect the cyclical nature of the characters’ lives and the destructive outcome of their interdependence.  Douglas keeps the actors onstage, or perched nearby, at all times, intertwining their lives amid the concrete wreckage of designer Tony Cisek’s sparse set.

Composer and Sound Designer Ryan Rumery evokes the period with soulful strains reminiscent of the era.  In fact some of the play’s lines seem grabbed straight from the lyrics of that tumultuous period.

Bowman Wright as King and the cast of King Hedley II at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater -  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Bowman Wright as King and the cast of King Hedley II at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The cast is tight, tight, tight.  Wright, undoubtedly one of the country’s pre-eminent actors, delivers another brilliantly intense performance.  But so too, do Butler, whose comic timing is dead on, Williams, who creates an Elmore who is as unctuous and riveting as a snake oil salesman, and De Shields whose portrayal of Stool Pigeon is award-worthy.

Tough and gritty, but highly recommended.

Through March 8th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

How to Go to the Dogs Tastefully

February 5, 2015
Cary Pollak for Whisk and Quill

This year’s Washington Humane Society’s annual Sugar & Champagne Affair was a fabulous event for dogs and dog lovers. Once again guests and their beloved canines filled the atrium of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center with all manner of things sweet, sparkly and even savory. After all, we must have a balanced diet. For the 14th straight year many of our area’s preeminent chefs showed off their talents to benefit the Society and pay tribute to their Field Services team who last year responded to over 18,000 calls to help animals in need.

Guests gather in the atrium

Guests gather in the atrium

This delicious event that puts the “fun” back in fundraiser, was conceived by Ellen Kassoff Gray. Ellen, who serves as chairwoman of the host committee, co-hosted the posh event along with husband and uber chef Todd Gray. Together the DC power couple own Equinox Restaurant, while Todd doubles his chef duties as Culinary Director of the Salamander Resort & Spa in the tony horse country of Middleburg, VA.

As always many of the attendees were of the adorable canine sort. Pooches of all stripes, some dressed to the nines and others au naturel, strutted their stuff to the delight of the guests.

Liz Sara, Founder of Best Marketing, LLC with Crystal) // Kristine Saja’s, Quinn, adopted from the Washington Humane Society and pretty in pink

Liz Sara, Founder of Best Marketing, LLC with Crystal) // Kristine Saja’s, Quinn, adopted from the Washington Humane Society and pretty in pink

The main event was a reception in the atrium featuring scrumptious desserts. Event sponsors TCMA, Volkswagen, Equinox, Salamander Hotels & Resorts, The Sugar Association, Olde Towne Pet Resort, Social Light and Chef’s Roll were supported by media sponsors Zohar Rom’s Portfolio, The Virginia Maryland Dog, NOVADog Magazine, Travelzoo, Bisnow, Yelp and The Hill.

Tidbits and libations from dozens of restaurants, bars and bakeries came from The Source by Wolfgang PuckPoste Modern Brasserie, Plume, Baklava Couture, Shake Shack, Sticky Fingers Bakery, Society Fair, The Hamilton, Bastille, Hank’s Oyster Bar, Lilly Magilly’s Cupcakery, Occidental, Bearnaise, Co Co. Sala, The Dairy Godmother, Dolci Gelati, Brasserie Beck and a host of other well-known spots. A VIP room offered savory tastings and craft cocktails. New this year was the “Exclusive Experience” a chance for a limited number of guests to learn how to make desserts, create specialty cocktails and watch unusual demonstrations such as how to make “dip-n-dots” using liquid nitrogen.

Salamander Resort Public Relations Manager Vanessa Casas serves seared tuna and accompaniments

Salamander Resort Public Relations Manager Vanessa Casas serves seared tuna and accompaniments

 

Sweet Potato and Anise pastries from Slate Wine Bar and Bistro // Marinated shrimp from Richard Sandoval’s new Mango Tree restaurant

Sweet Potato and Anise pastries from Slate Wine Bar and Bistro // Marinated shrimp from Richard Sandoval’s new Mango Tree restaurant

One of the most memorable pastry displays was designed by the kitchen staff of the International Trade Center whose talented crew is known for creating miniature dessert masterpieces. They deserved to take a “bowwow” for their pâte à choux Animal Park that perfectly fit the evening’s theme. Using the versatile, classic French pastry dough, best known to most dessert lovers as the crusty part of the éclair, they fashioned a “Puff Poodle,” “Choux aux Kitty,” “Vanilla Pooch Puff” and lots more pup-themed treats.

Pate a Choux display // Choux aux Kitty pastries

Pate a Choux display // Choux aux Kitty pastries

Be sure to keep a slot open on your calendar for the 2016 Sugar & Champagne Affair. It’s a worthy cause and a rollicking good time for you and your four-legged friends.

Photo credit – Cary Pollak

Chef to Chef with Chris Lusk

Jordan Wright
February 2, 2015
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts 

Chef Chris Lusk

Chef Chris Lusk

At forty-one, East Texas native and Johnson & Wales grad, Chris Lusk has seen the ins and outs of a few restaurant kitchens and learned a wide variety of international cuisines.  After an externship in an Irish hotel he cooked Tex-Mex at Stephen PylesStar Canyon in Dallas, Asian cuisine at an unnamed restaurant in Florida, and Italian at Otto Enoteca under Mario Batali.  Later he worked with the iconic Brennan family’s Foodie’s Kitchen in Metairie and more recently at Commander’s Palace and Café Adelaide where he honed his Creole and Southern-style cooking.  He is now Chef de Cuisine at Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans.

At DC’s Acadiana in a room filled with shuckers, chefs, industry lobbyists and oyster lovers at the Gulf Oyster Industry Council’s Washington, DC event last month, I met Lusk over a platter of his incredible Crispy Oysters Rockefeller.

Jordan Wright – Can you describe the twist you put on the classic dish?

Chris Lusk – Traditionally it would be served on the half shell with a puree of purslane, chives, capers and other greens, then spiked with absinthe.  Though it’s often spiked with Herbsaint, it really hadn’t been invented yet.  So absinthe is used.  Then it would be finished with breadcrumbs.  My version has a crust made from dehydrated spinach, chives, green onions, breadcrumbs and Parmesan.  Then it’s garnished with more Parmesan and a pesto made of green onions, chives and olive oil then spiked with absinthe.  To prepare the oysters we drained the liquor off and marinated them the pesto then rolled in the breadcrumb mix.  The crust really adheres to it.  Then we flash fry them till oyster begins to plump and it’s still moist inside and crispy on the outside.

What we’re getting at this time of year is a smaller oyster.  They go through phases during the year.  I prefer to use a medium-sized oyster.  At this time of year they are thriving in the cool water and they’re the perfect size and salinity.

You’ve been named one of Esquire magazine’s “Four Breakout Chefs to Watch”, cooked at the James Beard House and won the Louisiana Seafood Cookoff.  What’s next?  

I don’t know.  I have a larger operation and bigger kitchen here with Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans, and have a lot going on right now. They just opened their second restaurant, Seafood R’evolution outside of Jackson, MS in Ridgeland. It’s similar in concept but with more seafood.

Can you tell us about the dessert you prepared which prompted Esquire’s John Mariani’s to award you the “Best Dessert of 2011”?

It was a white chocolate biscuit pudding, a play on a dish my grandmother made when I was growing up.  New Orleans is famous for bread pudding so my spin on it was what I was exposed to as a child where my grandmother used the leftover biscuits from breakfast.  I took that inspiration and added white chocolate and a bit of Barq’s Root Beer Syrup on top, it’s an iconic soft drink that once was made here.  Then I fried some pecans, which are from around here, as a garnish and I serve it with white chocolate ice cream.

I was very fortunate growing up to be exposed to farming.  Growing up I spent summers with my grandparents who were farmers and I learned about canning and pickling using ingredients from the farm.  My other grandparents were ranchers and raised cattle and hogs so we made sausage and used different cuts of meat.  I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to learn about farming and ranching growing up.

I understand you are continuing your study of both Cajun and Creole cuisines.  Can you talk about the differences between these two venerable cuisines?

Creole is more of the refined version of the French, Italian, German, and even African influences and Cajun reflects the more rustic, spicier and bolder flavors.  Most Cajun is one-pot meals like jambalaya, gumbos, chicken fricasee and etoufées.  What you see in New Orleans are the French dishes indicative of Creole.  The use of Pernod, Herbsaint and absinthe lean more towards the Creole side.  Although a lot of the lines have become blurred now – – and you can see the Creole and Cajun coming together.

Would you say you’re a fan of Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse or Justin Wilson?

That’s a hard question because I’m a fan of all of them for different reasons.  Justin Wilson gave the first glimpse of what Cajun regional cuisine is.  Prudhomme went to the next level with blackened fish, K-Paul’s and Commander’s Palace.  He really put it out there on a larger scale.  Then Emeril took it one step further.  Those three guys have enabled me and my generation and the generation after mine to do what we do in New Orleans.  Those guys are the ones that gave the younger chefs the opportunity to push the boundaries.

What are your favorite cookbooks? 

I have Lafcadio Hearn and many others.  My cookbook collection is all over the place – – Paul Prudhomme, Wilson’s books, Harold McGee and many others have influenced me in my style of cooking, including a lot of ethnic cookbooks that I use in different techniques of frying or pickling – like Japanese for instance.  I learn from everyone including my dishwashers and sous chefs.  You can never become too educated to learn from someone.  Some of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had have been staff meals.  The thing about New Orleans is everybody can cook here!

Opened in 1880 Commander’s Palace is one of the great American restaurants of all time.  What did you learn while you were there?

That’s when I really started my education apart from culinary school.  It really opened my eyes to Southern food.  I learned a lot.

What signature dishes are you preparing at Restaurant R’evolution, the French Quarter spot where you are cooking now?

One of the dishes I recently put on was inspired by Vietnamese cuisine.  It’s a Hoisin Glazed Grouper tied in with a blue crab pho broth and served with lightly pickled vegetables and rice noodles.

What new ingredients or techniques are on your radar these days? 

I’m using lot of Asian ingredients like four different types of soy sauce such as Japanese and Filipino for curing eggs and making marinades, also different types of fish sauce and Indian spices.  Sometimes just for myself I make sushi rice with marinated cobia and fresh wasabi.  I’m inspired by the Vietnamese fishermen we have here.

Who was your first inspiration in the kitchen? 

My grandparents were farmers and raised cattle and grandpa made sausage, things that are very popular now, so I was really fortunate as a child.  I lived in a small city but spent summers with my grandparents who had a lot of land.  We’d sit around and shuck corn, pick peas and can together.  We do a lot of that at the restaurant pickles, jams etc.  My grandpa used to clean out Coke bottles and make his own tomato juice and put the caps back on them.  Man, that was the best tomato juice I’ve ever had!

What was the first dish you learned to cook and who did you serve it to?

I learned to make scrambled eggs as a child that I served to my mom and dad.  I’m sure they were pretty rubbery and overcooked, but they were pretty nice about it.

What famous person would you like to prepare dinner for?

Thomas Keller.

Wow! No stress there.

Ha! No stress in that! I’m a big fan!

Gigi – Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
February 1, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Gigi stars Vanessa Hudgens

Gigi stars Vanessa Hudgens

When MGM’s movie Gigi debuted in 1958 legions of little girls were captivated by the City of Lights and its magical allure.  I know.  I was one of them, listening hours on end to the vinyl soundtrack by Maurice Chevalier, Hermione Gingold, Louis Jourdan and Leslie Caron who transported us to a place we could only dream of.

Raised by her grandmère Mamita a calligraphy teacher and her spotlessly mannered grande dame, Aunt Alicia, the spunky Gigi was a paragon of insouciance.  We embraced her joie de vivre, studied our français more diligently and longed for a soigné and très riche gentleman like, Gaston Lachaille, to sweep us off our feet.  Indeed postwar Paris was everyone’s dream of the most exciting place in the world to be.

Fifteen years later Gigi was brought to the stage and another generation embraced Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Lowe’s spectacular score and heartwarming tale.  And now, 37 years hence, Director Eric Schaeffer has revived the musical in all its glorious splendor.  I asked myself if it could have the same impact on a new audience as it did in the late 50’s.  Does Gigi’s indelible charm translate to a more technologically absorbed generation of little girls?

Howard McGillin as Honore Lachaille and Victoria Clark as Mamita

Howard McGillin as Honore Lachaille and Victoria Clark as Mamita

To insure it does, Schaeffer has wisely cast Vanesa Hudgens as Gigi.  An adorable and multi-talented actress, best known for her role in the wildly popular High School Musical series, Hudgens proves her acting, dancing and singing have the snap, crackle and pop to earn her the lead role against such seasoned Broadway actors and opera-caliber voices as Victoria Clark (Mamita), Dee Hoty (Aunt Alicia), Howard McGillin (Honoré Lachaille) and Steffanie Leigh as Liane d’Exelmans, Gaston’s mistress.

As you may recall Gigi is raised by her grandmother in a modest flat in Paris where the pair play frequent hosts to Gaston (Corey Cott), a dashing and well-to-do man about town who is an old family friend.  Her sister Alicia, determined to marry Gigi off to a wealthy gentleman, is consumed with tutoring the girl in the art of feminine allure, including how to tell a real sapphire from a faux.  “A girl must think constantly – – unless a man can tell,” she instructs her.

It is La Belle Epoque, Maxim’s is in its heyday, and all of Paris is très gai.  Set Designer Derek McLane captures the mood of the era with drop-dead sets evocative of the period.  Maxim’s becomes a wonderland of Can Can girls high-kicking amid red velvet banquettes and flower-shaped chandeliers, while Paris is evoked with the massive curved iron girders of the Eiffel Tower and the beach at Trouville, where Gaston sees Gigi in a new light and his Uncle Honoré revives a romance with Mamita, is a splendid seascape.

Steffanie Leigh as Liane of Exelmans, Howard McGillin, Victoria Clark, Vanessa Hudgens, Corey Cott as Gaston Lachaille

Steffanie Leigh as Liane of Exelmans, Howard McGillin, Victoria Clark, Vanessa Hudgens, Corey Cott as Gaston Lachaille

From five-time Tony Award-winning Costume Designer Catherine Zuber, we are treated to dreamy chiffon gowns, elegant frock coats, feathered picture hats, glittering jewels, bellmen in carmine britches and so much more extravagance.  James Moore conducts the soaring strains of the 13-piece orchestra through the memorable songbook including “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”, “The Night They Invented Champagne” and sixteen other wonderful numbers.  Emmy Award-winning Choreographer for the late, yet beloved, TV show Smash, Joshua Bergasse, enlivens the dancing with electrifying Broadway-bound energy.

Highly recommended.

Through February 12th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.