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A Tale of Two Cities – Synetic Theater

Jordan Wright
May 22, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times 

Alex Mills as Jerry and Vato Tsikurishvili as Dorian. Photo by Koko Lanham.

Alex Mills as Jerry and Vato Tsikurishvili as Dorian. Photo by Koko Lanham.

An eclectic jumble of flea market collectibles informs Luciana Stecconi’s clever set for Jerry’s one-room flat, in what reads as New York’s East Village.  Vintage Ronald Coleman movie posters adorn the walls and point to the inspiration for playwright Everett Quinton’s steroidal version of A Tale of Two Cities.  Jerry (Alex Mills), stage name Betty May, is an aspiring drag queen.  But don’t let that throw you off, we’re just scratching the surface.  He’s also a literate, thoughtful kid whose artistic proclivities fall a tad outside the realm of everyday culture.

As he prepares to premiere his long-awaited drag debut he discovers a baby abandoned on his doorstep, “What in the gay hell?” he shrieks.  Jerry is ill prepared to deal with a child, and especially not the oddly precocious Baby Dorian (Vato Tsikurishvili) who has adult sensibilities and puerile needs.

Somehow the two communicate, Jerry speaks to him as a peer, while Dorian makes hilariously expressive baby responses also readable to the audience.  This crazy buy-in is the magical moment when both Jerry (and the audience) travel down the rabbit hole together in an absurdist fantasy anchored by a tender story of hope and determination.  After all, Dorian, who has the head of a grownup with the body of a toddler, is just the beginning of your compact with the playwright.

Alex Mills as Jerry. Photo by Koko Lanham.

Alex Mills as Jerry. Photo by Koko Lanham.

To keep his date at the theatre, Jerry strikes a deal with Dorian to nap while he goes out.  But Dorian, oddly advanced far beyond his binky-sucking years, demands a bedtime story.  After some negotiation – – The Three Bears and Little Red Riding Hood are nixed by Dorian as being too scary – – Jerry settles on “A Tale of Two Cities”, the telling of which requires him to assume each character’s role from Dickens’s classic story.  Be sure to brush up on the story ahead of time.  The Playbill affords no descriptions of the book’s characters, and it can get somewhat complicated if you’re trying to keep track of who’s who.

Through countless back-and-forth costume changes (wigs, hats and costumes worthy of a diva’s wardrobe), dozens of props are imaginatively employed – – an old school bell serves to sound the Bastille’s call to arms.

Alex Mills as his character Jerry's Drag persona, Betty-May. Photo by Koko Lanham

Alex Mills as his character Jerry’s Drag persona, Betty-May. Photo by Koko Lanham

Mills, who in a herculean effort to keep Dorian (and us!) amused, never leaves the set, keeping the dialogue and quick changes at warp speed.  N. B. Madame LaFarge didn’t knit as fast as this!

In this ultra demanding topsy-turvy role, Mills gives us the performance of a lifetime.  His various characters are sharply executed and his brisk segues, physicality, and change of accents are astounding.  The words ‘bravery’ and ‘fabulous’ come to mind.  Do not leave your seat until the denouément.  I promise it will blow your mind.  Of course, that’s exactly why we love Synetic!

Highly recommended.

Through June 21st at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington in Crystal City.  For tickets and information call 866 811-4111 or visit www.synetictheater.org.

Cabaret – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 20, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times

Wesley Taylor (Emcee), Rachel Schur, Jamie Eacker, Colleen Hayes, Maria Rizzo, Jessica Thorne in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Wesley Taylor (Emcee), Rachel Schur, Jamie Eacker, Colleen Hayes, Maria Rizzo, Jessica Thorne in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Willkommen into The MAX for Signature Theatre’s production of Cabaret and you’ll be transported to post World War I Berlin in Set Designer Misha Kachman’s replica of the Kit Kat Klub where half the audience is seated on bentwood chairs at café tables lit with silk shaded lamps and set with vintage telephones – – all the better to see the slinky chorus girls in their red and black lingerie and gender-bending men in leather and lederhosen.   Close too, is a rotating stage rimmed in bare lightbulbs and backdropped by a Mylar curtain.  Kachman adds reflective industrial metal panels along the theatre walls and a two-story catwalk with a winding staircase for the show-within-a-show.  Off to one side two strapping bare-chested servers staff a wooden bar where patrons can belly up to German beer and Riesling at intermission.

As both Director and Choreographer, Matthew Gardiner doesn’t miss his cue when it comes to razzle-dazzle and flat-out sensationalism in this John Kander/Fred Ebb collaboration based on stories from Christopher Isherwood, that darling of Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group.  There are high kicks and undulating spines, reminiscent of Bob Fosse, and plenty of titillating duets and risqué ménages.  This may be the Kit Kat Klub, but there’s nothing kittenish about it.

Wesley Taylor (Emcee) in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Wesley Taylor (Emcee) in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman

Wesley Taylor plays the Emcee, a role that calls for major attitude.  His character is meant to be both alluring and dominating, and Taylor pulls it off with aplomb managing to affect a character of sadistic amorality and razor-sharp charm in an atmosphere so sexually charged a single match could set the whole theatre ablaze.

 Barrett Wilbert Weed (Sally) in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Barrett Wilbert Weed (Sally) in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Sally Bowles is played by the darling, doe-eyed Barrett Wilbert Weed – – a dizzyingly, captivating charmer with exquisite pipes that seems to have been recently sprung from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagination.  Her Sally is softer than most, more vulnerable and madly in love with Cliff, a Midwestern English teacher who has chosen a rather inopportune place and time, during the rise of the Nazi regime, to write a novel.  “I like this city,” he quips.  “It’s both tacky and terrible.”  Gregory Wooddell is masterful (and swoon-worthy) as Cliff – – managing to be both subtle and forceful in his interpretation of the lovesick innocent abroad.

Rick Foucheux (Herr Schultz) and Naomi Jacobson (Fraulein Schneider) in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Rick Foucheux (Herr Schultz) and Naomi Jacobson (Fraulein Schneider) in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

But it’s grim times for the couple and their new friends, landlady Fraulein Schneider (Naomi Jacobson), Ernst the smuggler and Nazi sympathizer (Bobby Smith), Fraulein Kost, the prostitute (Maria Rizzo), and Herr Schultz (Rick Foucheux), the fruit seller.  Jackboots and turncoats keep encroaching on their merry life.  For Sally, it’s her last chance for a life outside the cruel reality of a seedy nightclub in a rapidly changing world.  But she is afraid to take it.  “One must keep mobile,” she gaily tells Cliff before launching into a goosebump-worthy version of the ballad “Maybe This Time”.

Wesley Taylor (Emcee) and the Kit Kat Boys and Girls in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Wesley Taylor (Emcee) and the Kit Kat Boys and Girls in Cabaret at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Look for all your favorite numbers – – “The Money Song”, “Perfectly Marvelous”, “Cabaret” and “Willkommen” to thrill as expected, especially as backed by a fabulous 9-piece orchestra led by Conductor and Pianist, Jon Kalbfleisch.  Costumes by award-winning designer, Frank Labovitz run the gamut from sexy lingerie, beaded flapper dresses and 1930’s hausfrau frocks, to the sinister uniforms of the Third Reich.

Through June 28th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

The Letters – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
May 17, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Michael Russotto, Susan Lynskey Photo credit Chris Banks

Michael Russotto, Susan Lynskey
Photo credit Chris Banks

In 1930’s Russia, privacy was a luxury afforded to no one.  Suspicion and accusation were the business of the ‘The State’ and its bureaucracy was vast and unyielding.  In The Letters, playwright John W. Lowell thrusts us headlong into the underbelly of the Soviet political machine in a two-person drama that focuses on the machinations of that pursuit.

Anna is an editor in a department investigating famed Soviet composer Tchaikovsky for his homosexual lifestyle, a crime against the State.  His personal cache of letters to an unnamed man, have been confiscated, and her department of three has been tasked with investigating and censoring them for homophonous references.  In this Orwellian world of interrogator-and-accused all perceived ‘illegal’ activities threaten the business of the State and those who breached these anti-intellectual statutes were tortured into confession or sentenced to a life in a remote gulag or death.  It is a cautionary tale, one which calls to mind the evil regimes of the Spanish Inquisition and Nazi era.

The Director is the apparatchik on whose stringent edicts all investigations turn.  When Anna is summoned into his office, a single room in which the play is set, it is to frighten her into implicating her fellow editors by accusing them of concealing copies of the letters.  The explanation as to why she would defend their honor, is left to the audience’s imagination.

Anna Borisovna, a widow whose late husband, a cellist, was also in the Arts.  Because of that she is seen to be sympathetic to Tchaikovsky’s fate, and in turn the fate of her two colleagues, the young Josef and the elder Pavel.  Offering her an advancement, the Director alternately flatters, “No person likes their efforts to be ignored,” and threatens, “You are already a dupe,” he insinuates, suggesting she is covering for her fellow editors.  “Are you also a traitor?”

As his seemingly innocent conversation of feigned familiarity unfolds we soon realize he is bent on entrapping her into revealing the location of the letters and admitting a conspiracy among her associates.  But Anna catches on to the cat-and-mouse game and turns the tables on the Director.  “In this office Truth is an annoyance, an embarrassment,” she asserts, hoping to dissuade his diabolical methods.

Susan Lynskey -  Photo credit: Chris Banks

Susan Lynskey –
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Susan Lynsky, whom we adored most recently in MetroStage’s production of “Ghost-Writer” in a role that earned her a Helen Hayes Awards nomination, is the consummate actor.  Her ability to inhabit the spirit and gravitas of Anna is a master class in character divination and the reason she is so highly regarded in her craft.  To watch her is to appreciate her finely tuned technique of actualizing her character by slow turns.  Here we see her ability to turn on a dime from shrinking violet to pouncing cat, and make it believable – – in spades.

Michael Russotto Photo credit: Chris Banks

Michael Russotto
Photo credit: Chris Banks

Michael Russotto plays the pugnacious and arrogant Ministry Director.  He is the perfect counterpoint to Lynsky’s controlled unfolding of Anna.  He struts and poses, gesticulates wildly, and terrifies convincingly, taking full use of the whole stage to inform and establish his character.  A skill few actors ever do well.

Giorgos Tsappas present us with a spare set – – a desk and a smattering of chairs – – all the better to focus on the performers.  Stage lighting, reminiscent of a 1930’s movie, is masterfully designed by Alexander Keen.

Taut, crisp and politically charged, it is highly recommended.

At MetroStage through June 14th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Nibbles and Sips Around Town – May 18, 2015

Jordan Wright
May 18, 2015 

Robert Wiedmaier Opens Villain & Saint (You wish you had this bar in your neighborhood!); Lupo Verde Springs to Life with New Seasonal Menu; AC Hotel Brings Euro Vibe to National Harbor; Mastro’s Steakhouse Stakes Its Claim on 13th Street; Blue Duck Tavern Reveals Its Roots 

Villain & Saint 

Have you ever dreamt of a bar with lava lamps and tintype portraits of deceased rock stars gracing the walls? How about nightly live bands fired by a killer AV system? You’re almost there. Add to that a crop of fiercely talented (and greatly tattooed) bartenders plus food designed by one of the city’s finest chefs. Ready?

At Villain & Saint well-known restaurateur Robert Wiedmaier along with Frank Shull, Chef Brian McBride and Joe Lively have created a hipster Valhalla by channeling the glory days of Haight-Ashbury. Adjacent to the Bethesda Farm Women’s Market and smack dab in the heart of Bethesda, it’s the perfect place for Wiedmaier to hang with biker pals David Guas, chef/owner of Bayou Bakery and author of the new book Grill Nation; and R.J. Cooper of Rogue 24 and Gypsy Soul. Expect bands to kick it in the best Blues, Rock, Indie Jazz and Heavy Metal tradition. At last month’s opening Wiedmaier had booked his favorite local band The Lloyd Dobler Effect and a soul singer named Katrina.

The Lloyd Dobler Effect  / Soul singer, Katrina, at Villain & Saint

The Lloyd Dobler Effect / Soul singer, Katrina, at Villain & Saint

Chef Tom Meyer helms the kitchen, which offers healthful choices on the ‘Saint’ side of the menu and heartier fare on the ‘Villain’ side. We tried the Farmhouse Deviled Eggs and a bowl of Clams with Sherry Vinegar listed under ‘Hand and Bar Food’; Zucchini Pancakes with smoked salmon, grilled Granny Smith apples and chive crème fraiche; and the Burrata with Heirloom Tomatoes, which were deemed saint-worthy. But just to prove we weren’t being too all-fired reverential, we washed it down with a ‘Fillmore East’ cocktail of Altos Tequila, Honey-Ginger, Grapefruit and Club Soda and ‘Bye-Bye Miss American Pie’ made with Fireball, Calvados and lemon.

Deviled Eggs /  Clams with Sherry Vinegar

Deviled Eggs / Clams with Sherry Vinegar

There’s no way to cover the extensive cocktail, wine and beer menu to do it justice, but I took note of some of the more unusual selections like Ole Smoky Peach Moonshine from Tennessee, Tito’s Vodka from Texas, and Big Swell IPA from Maui Brewing. This place has hip, hot and happening written all over it.

For nightly music schedules visit www.VillainandSaint.com

Lupo Verde Redux 

The upstairs bar at Lupo Verde

The upstairs bar at Lupo Verde

You’ve already heard me rave about Lupo Verde. I’ll go any chance I get. In fact I wish I lived around the corner. It’s cozy (brick walls, high ceilings and high brownstone windows). The food is great and the service attentive. There’s always an insider crowd and lots of friendly chatter. On a recent visit I tried out their new spring menu. Do I need an excuse?

Squid Ink Scialatielli / Roasted Pork Short Ribs with polenta cream and apricots

Squid Ink Scialatielli / Roasted Pork Short Ribs with polenta cream and apricots

The menu is crammed with classics executed with a modern twist. There are so many delicioso dishes listed, I struggled to decide. Gratefully our waiter guided us, because everything on the menu was calling out to me.

Usually we go back to a favorite restaurant with a certain dish in mind. We crave it. Our food memory says, “I want that thing, and only that thing, again!” We race out the door pursuing it like Jason after the Golden Fleece. For me, Lupo Verde is one of those places. Though here my quest is for the next craveable thing.

Beef Carpaccio / Seared Scallops in artichoke cream with fried baby artichokes

Beef Carpaccio / Seared Scallops in artichoke cream with fried baby artichokes

One of those must-haves is Chef Domenico Apollaro’s sheer-as-a-windowpane Beef Carpaccio with Arugula Pesto. Like a Siren, it sings to me.

But a new dish this spring captured my heart and palate. Capesante Scottate – – a little antipasto with plancha-seared scallops, a lemony artichoke cream and delicately fried artichokes. Here baby artichokes, rarely seen in our markets, are so tender they are fried whole.

An assortment of salumi at Lupo Verde

An assortment of salumi at Lupo Verde

A dish I love on the ‘Primi’ section of the menu is the Scialatielli al Nero – – squid ink infused pasta with ‘nduja salame and garlicky prawns. For my carnivorous-leaning plus one, there was the delectable Costine di Maiale – – fork-tender roasted pork short ribs with polenta cream and apricots. Sumptuous!

Forewarning: If you start out with a small selection of salumi and formaggio with berries, handmade breadsticks and addictive walnut bread, which we most assuredly did, you can barely squeeze in a dessert. But if you come with the thought of indulging in salumi and cheeses you cannot go wrong. There are over 100 different varieties of cheeses and charcuterie items to choose from.  Ricotta and mozzarella are made in-house while the rest are from local farmers or imported from Italy.  There are also several house-cured meats including pancetta, lardo, testa, paté and porchetta.

www.LupoVerdeDC.com

New AC Hotel in National Harbor 

AC Lounge

AC Lounge

Last week National Harbor’s new AC Hotel held a preview party to introduce local press to their new property. The AC is a Marriott life-style hotel brand geared towards millenials who will appreciate the contemporary styling, scads of modern technology and complimentary Wi-Fi.

Capital Wheel at National Harbor

Capital Wheel at National Harbor

Entering from Waterfront Street we took the ground floor elevator up one flight to find an expansive lobby with a bar, lounge and concierge station. Although it was a warm evening, a double-sided fireplace in the center of the large room begged to be cozied up to. Beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor terrace lay a fantastic view of the Potomac River and the giant Capital Wheel.

Blue Loogan captures the scene

Blue Logan captures the scene

Leather ottomans, cocktail tables and lounges dot the room, and a courtyard off the lobby has more lounges and fire pits for chilly evenings. New York artist, Blue Logan, captured the scene and the hordes of guests with a mural to be hung in the lobby.

Reflecting the European style, the event was catered by Fabio and Maria Trabocchi’s DC restaurant, Casa Luca. ‘Tea-Tinis’ were by Capital Teas and wine cocktails were by Vino Teano. A ‘Moonshine Bar’, presented by Belle Isle Craft Spirits, was out in the courtyard along with beers by DC Brau. The bar features some nice local craft beers, on-tap wines, handcrafted cocktails and tapas.

Cream of Artichoke Soup by Casa Luca / Seafood Paella from Casa Luca at the AC Hotel

Cream of Artichoke Soup by Casa Luca / Seafood Paella from Casa Luca at the AC Hotel

Though there is not a restaurant on-site in this 192-room hotel, the kitchen serves a European-influenced daily breakfast including sweet and savory tarts, freshly baked croissants and a selection of artisan-cured meats and cheeses to nibble on. Be sure to check out the Library, fitness center, 3,700-square-feet of meeting space. In a nod to the river’s proximity and its many boats at dock, modern nautical accents are found throughout the hotel.

Here’s a recipe for one of the handcrafted cocktails from AC Lounge.

Cherry Blossom Sour

Cherry Blossom Sour

Cherry Blossom Sour

Ingredients

  • 1.5 ounces                                           Sloop Betty Vodka (handcrafted in Maryland)
  • ¼ ounce                                              St. Germain
  • ¼ ounce                                              Simple Syrup
  • ¼ ounce                                              Cherry Brandy
  • ¼ ounce                                              Oloroso Sherry
  • 1 ounce                                                 Lemon Juice
  • 1                                                             Mint sprig to garnish
  • Glass                                                     Rim with vanilla sugar

Method

Add all ingredients into a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake 10-20 times. Double strain into a vanilla sugar rimmed cocktail glass and garnish with mint sprig.

To Make Vanilla Sugar

Split one vanilla bean in half, remove seeds and whisk in a bowl with ½ cup of sugar.

www.Marriott.com

Mastro’s Dazzles in Penn Quarter 

If you thought Mastro Steakhouse only serves steak, you can put that idea to rest. At their opening party blowout, meat was almost an afterthought. A massive iced seafood display, spilling over with giant tiger shrimp, Alaskan King crab legs and Blue Point oysters was the size of a 73’ Cadillac Fleetwood.

Everything is done up to the nines in this 14,000 foot space. The entry features a custom-designed glass chandelier 8-foot in diameter. A bar is covered in Italian marble and black granite with walls sheathed in cork overlaid with a golden finish. Dark stained floors inlaid with marble spell glamor and an elaborate metal staircase leads to a lower level with leather banquettes and wood-topped tables. The sophisticated space plans live entertainment at the upstairs bar seven nights a week.

The seafood display at Mastro's preview party

The seafood display at Mastro’s preview party

The glamorous restaurant is renowned for indulgent, signature dishes such as a two-foot-tall seafood tower, lobster mashed potatoes, and Warm Butter Cake. On this night we sampled a little of everything, especially at the champagne bar dedicated to Veuve Cliquot and Moet Chandon.

To celebrate the 13th outpost of the Mastro’s chain a step and repeat wall let partygoers capture the memory.

Menu and Chef Changes at Blue Duck Tavern 

The arrival of Executive Chef Ryan LaRoche to head up The Blue Duck Tavern kitchen has brought about some eagerly anticipated changes. All for the better. LaRoche, who has been trumpeted by Esquire as one of their “Top Five Chefs to Watch”, has his sights set on proving exactly that.

Chef Brad Deboy serving up slow roasted porcetta

Chef Brad Deboy serving up slow roasted porcetta

He is joined by Chef de Cuisine Brad Deboy, formerly of the beloved Vidalia; and Pastry Chef, Naomi Gallego, formerly of the three-star Le Diplomate, who has soared to prominence as “Pastry Chef of the Year” and 2008 James Beard Foundation nominee for “Outstanding Pastry Chef”.

Chocolate Cheesecake Bars by Naomi Gallego

Chocolate Cheesecake Bars by Naomi Gallego

The evening’s reception was held on the terrace, where herbs and lettuces share space with river birch trees, and a gentle fountain screens out street noise.

Rabbit Mousse with gooseberry compote and peanut brittle  - Blue Duck Tavern's canning efforts

Rabbit Mousse with gooseberry compote and peanut brittle – Blue Duck Tavern’s canning efforts

Separate stations were arranged for the individual chefs to show off their impressive creations and tasty hors d’oeuvres were passed along with ‘District Snap’, a cocktail made with Mt. Gay rum, snap pea juice, mint, lime brown sugar and soda; and a lush libation called ‘Mellomaro’, made with George Dickel White Whiskey, Aperol, orange, mint and sparkling wine.

Ryan LaRoche's Spring Pea Salad with farm cheese, lavender honey, preserved lemon and spiced peanuts

Ryan LaRoche’s Spring Pea Salad with farm cheese, lavender honey, preserved lemon and spiced peanuts

Here’s how Chef LaRoche likes to prepare spring peas.

Garden to Table Peas with Mint 

Ingredients

  • 1 oz unsalted butter
  • 4 oz picked fresh peas
  • 1 tsp lemon
  • pinch of chopped mint
  • salt and pepper to taste

Method

In a sauté pan, melt the butter until it starts to bubble. Add in the peas and sauté until they become soft (one minute). Drizzle lemon juice and add mint to the pan. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!

Photo credit – Jordan Wright

The Blood Quilt – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
May 11, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times

L to R) Meeya Davis as Amber, Nikiya Mathis as Cassan, Caroline Clay as Gio, Afi Bijou as Zambia and Tonye Patano as Clementine in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt - Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

L to R) Meeya Davis as Amber, Nikiya Mathis as Cassan, Caroline Clay as Gio, Afi Bijou as Zambia and Tonye Patano as Clementine in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Earth, wind and fire blew into town for the world premiere of The Blood Quilt now at Arena Stage. Written by Katori Hall, who based the story on the Gullah Geechee culture of Sapelo Island, and directed by Kamilah Forbes, this soul-wrenching play, filled with the tears, anger and laughter of a family divided by distance and psychological baggage and held together by the power of sisterhood.

Four sisters, Clementine, Gio, Cassan and Amber, and Cassan’s daughter, Zambia, gather together on the windswept island of Kwemera, one of Georgia’s Sea Islands, and the African word for “endure”. The scene is the ancestral cottage of the Jerrnigans and home of their recently departed mother – – a woman they both revered and feared. Each summer the women craft a new quilt, stitched together from clothing and rags handed down from family members. Woven into these quilts are their deepest memories, gut-wrenching hardships and personal failures. It is within these stitches that they tell their truths in a story as old as time and as foreseeable as the circle of life.

(Clockwise from left) Tonye Patano as Clementine, Meeya Davis as Amber, Caroline Clay as Gio, Nikiya Mathis as Cassan and Afi Bijou as Zambia in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt - Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(Clockwise from left) Tonye Patano as Clementine, Meeya Davis as Amber, Caroline Clay as Gio, Nikiya Mathis as Cassan and Afi Bijou as Zambia in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

To provide the foundation for this story, it is important to know that hundreds of years ago Geechee culture, as it is called, arrived by boat from West Africa onto these remote Georgian islands. Slave ships bore men and women who were sold off to work on the islands’ rice plantations. After the Civil War some of the freed slaves stayed behind, becoming landowners and raising many more generations. The dialect they spoke is still heard today and is echoed throughout the play.

Within this mysterious world spiritualism, mythology and shibboleths run deep, influenced by the stars and the sea. These traditions provide a singularly rich backdrop for this comic-drama, recalling the evocative film Daughters of the Dust that drew on the African-centric Gullah culture of North Carolina.

Much of the Geechee’s mysterious customs and rituals are threaded throughout this deeply affecting tale reflecting a legacy of memories embodied by the fabric scraps incorporated into the quilts. The play turns around the question of who will inherit the one hundred precious quilts. And therein lies the rub.

Set Designer, Michael Carnahan, has created a breathtaking stage set that features a simple cabin set beside a shoreline. An arc of waist-deep water frames the proscenium and patches of crazy quilts hang from the rafters. Delicate Spanish moss sways over the rooftop and the whole is bathed in a roseate hue, courtesy of Lighting Designer, Michael Gilliam. Snippets of old time gospel music are sung in harmony, and the classic “I’ll Fly Away” evokes the contrasting confluence of church combined with tribal culture.

(L to R) Tonye Patano as Clementine and Meeya Davis as Amber in Katori Hall’s -. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Tonye Patano as Clementine and Meeya Davis as Amber in Katori Hall’s -. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clementine (Tonye Patano), who takes direction from the natural world, is the eldest. Assuming her new role as matriarch, she shushes and bosses her younger siblings, insisting they carry out what she believes their mother would have wanted. “Mama was my god,” she reminds them. But her interpretation is not borne out by their mother’s will. Meeya Davis plays Amber, “Perfection is my shield and my protection,” she reveals. A successful Hollywood attorney and Harvard grad, she has been given the responsibility of reading the will. Davis gives a razor-sharp performance with elegance and wit to match Patano’s commanding presence.

(L to R) Caroline Clay as Gio and Afi Bijou as Amber, with Nikiya Mathis as Cassan, in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt - Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Caroline Clay as Gio and Afi Bijou as Amber, with Nikiya Mathis as Cassan, in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Caroline Clay soars in the role of Gio, a tough talking, beer-guzzling cop cursed with a chip on her shoulder as wide as the sea. Why, we wonder, is she so angry? Cassan (Nikiya Mathis) has brought her daughter Zambia (Afi Bijou) who is a hijab-wearing, political activist just beginning to spread her wings. Bijou proves she is well up to the challenge of playing against such seasoned actors in a role that calls for her to be the polar opposite of the others.

The cast is as tightly woven together as the quilts they covet in this haunting and hugely comical play filled with the ghosts of the past, the challenges of modern life, and the guidance of an ancient culture imported from an Africa they never knew.

Highly recommended.

Through June 7th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Dr. Joan Gaither in front of one of her quilts

Dr. Joan Gaither in front of one of her quilts

* * Be sure to wander through the theatre to view the seventeen spectacular contemporary quilts created by Dr. Joan Gaither of Baltimore. These exquisite quilts use appliqué and trapunto stitching on lush velvet and brocade to tell a modern story. They will be on display throughout the run of the show. I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Gaither during press night and query her about the meaning of her quilts and the importance of this show. “Quilting comes from the soul. I’m not a traditional quilter, although I believe each quilt can hold and tell an entire story. The images I use celebrate those stories. I try to do that in such a way that they become American stories, because I believe we all share a common history.”