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Top Dog/Underdog ~ WSC Avant Bard ~ Theatre on the Run

Jordan Wright
March 23, 2019 

Playwright Suzan-Lori ParksTop Dog/Underdog is a tale as old as Cain and Abel.  Two brothers, abandoned as children by their parents, find cold comfort in fraternal discord.  The mean streets of New York City provide the setting.  Their names provide a clue to the irony that defines their lives.  Booth and Lincoln.  Lincoln, the elder, works in a rinky-dink arcade where, in top hat and frock coat as the former president, his days are filled with a crush of tourists who fake-assassinate him for a small fee.  He is black, so there’s that ironic twist, though he’s grateful for the steady employment after living the fraught life of a hustler grifting tourists with the shady confidence game of Three-card Monte.

Louis E. Davis (Booth) ~ Photo credit DJ Corey Photography

The problem is Lincoln was good at it.  Very good.  And his dissolute brother wants him as a partner in the easy money game while also teaching him the tricks of the trade.  “Schemin’ and dreamin’,” Booth calls it.  For a time, they reminisce about the old days when they were flush from hustling or stealing and the streets were filled with “marks” out on the town with a pocketful of cash.  But Lincoln’s refusal to return to a life of crime causes constant friction between the two men, and Booth threatens to throw him out if he won’t buddy up.  The men are constantly scamming each other like the hustlers, lookouts, shills and ‘sticks’ from Lincoln’s old gang.

Jeremy Keith Hunter (Lincoln) and Louis E. Davis (Booth) ~ Photo credit DJ Corey Photography

Their lives are base, their language baser, yet their bickering and challenging one another make for some of the most viscerally powerful theater.  Set Designer Nephelle Andonyadis gives us the perfect witness box to view the intensity.  Rows of seats are situated on two sides of a long stage mimicking the railroad flats so popular in early city buildings.  Walls are papered with cardboard and egg cartons creating an environment that the audience experiences immediately upon entering.

Jeremy Keith Hunter (Lincoln) and Louis E. Davis (Booth) ~ Photo credit DJ Corey Photography

The acting is astonishing.  Both Louis E. Davis (Booth) and Jeremy Keith Hunter (Lincoln), who reminds this reviewer of a young Sidney Poitier, turn out some of the most tremendous performances I have ever seen in a two-hander.  As a side note, Hunter got the role one week before opening night, when the cast member dropped out. We just saw him in MetroStage’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek.  

In the more than capable hands of Director DeMone Seraphin this provocative drama stuns at every turn.

Gripping, exhilarating and brilliantly acted, it will leave you breathless.  Highly recommended.

Krysta Hibbard, Associate Director; Costumes by Danielle Harrow; Lighting and Projections by John D. Alexander; Composer and Sound Design by e’Marcus Harper-Short; and Fight Director Casey Kaleba. 

Performance schedule – Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm and Saturday and Sunday at 2pm matinee – through April 14th at Gunston Arts Center, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information visit www.AvantBard.org/tickets or call 703 418.4808.

JQA ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
March 19, 2019 

In the vein of Hamilton along comes JQA.   It is not a musical, though there is occasional contemporary music with a back beat that lightens the pace, but it is an historical piece based on the life of John Quincy Adams.  Its playwright and director, Aaron Posner, writes that it is “not to be taken as accurate in any way”, though Adam’s achievements and rise to power, as well as his astonishing career in American politics are well known.  Think of it as a fictionalized version of the room(s) where it happened.

(l-R) Eric Hissom and Joshua David Robinson ~ Photo credit C. Stanley Photography.

Naturally, we don’t know what was actually said in conversations between Adams and his mother, Abigail, his wife, Louisa, or George Washington, but Posner imagines his verbal fencing with two racist Southerners, Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, plus his meeting with Abraham Lincoln and the forthright abolitionist Frederick Douglass – all of whom are characters in this play and with whom we know Adams had interactions.  And although we cannot be privy to his thinking on both national and international affairs, we do know his influence on the American political landscape.  Posner advises, “This play is not to be trusted as accurate in any way.”

(L-r) Joshua David Robinson, Jacqueline Correa, Phyllis Kay and Eric Hissom ~ Photo credit C. Stanley Photography.

The play opens with a scene between John Adams, his illustrious father and second American President asking the child, “What is government?”  When young John cannot answer such a broad question, Adams, Sr. tells him that it’s about self-management.  “Individuals require government.  Civilizations need laws and codes to keep us safe.”  Thus, begins the boy’s political education.

(l-r) Phyllis Kay and Eric Hissom ~ Photo credit C. Stanley Photography.

Through vignettes, we follow Adams’ fraught marriage in 1797 to Louisa, a foreigner, and his early diplomatic career as Minister to the Netherlands and Prussia, followed by his election as Massachusetts State Senator, Minister to Russia and the UK, Secretary of State under Monroe, nine terms as Congressman, up till his single term as the 6th POTUS.  Chunks of his life are highlighted in different settings in Massachusetts and Washington, DC, where his philosophies are explored and challenged according to his history in government legislation and his relations with his family and political peers.

The script is written in modern-day vernacular and the parallels to our country’s current polarization are stunning, such as when Clay advises him, “Give the people something to fear.  Then you can take away their liberties.”  Adams’ answer, “I will provide hope.”  We are still fighting this battle of fearmongering as a tactic to control the citizenry as opposed to governing by hope and inspiration.  JQA is part of Arena Stage’s “Power Plays” initiative.

(l – R) Joshua David Robinson and Phyllis Kay ~ Photo credit C. Stanley Photography.

The staging is brilliant.  Characters weave in and out of Adams’ fascinating life portrayed by two male and two female actors who assume all the roles with each actor taking a turn as JQA.  I particularly enjoyed Posner’s clever choice of casting African American actor Joshua David Robinson to portray both Frederick Douglas and Andrew Jackson.  Touché!

With Jacqueline Correa as JQA/Louisa Adams/Abraham Lincoln; Eric Hissom as JQA/John Adams/Henry Clay; Phyllis Kay as JQA/George Washington/Abigail Adams/Louisa Adams and Joshua David Robinson as JQA/Andrew Jackson/Frederick Douglass.

Set Design by Meghan Raham; Costume Design by Helen Huang; Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky and Sound Design by Karin Graybash Jocelyn Clarke, Dramaturg.

Through April 14th at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Faust ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
March 19, 2019 

Under the direction of Garnett Bruce, Faust becomes idyllically condensed.  You didn’t really expect the 21-hour, five-act version, did you?  This one is three and a half hours with two 20-minute intermissions between acts.  Premiering in 1859, Charles Gounod’s opera debuted in the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris.  It derives from Goethe’s story of the man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the supernatural powers that would give him love and youth.  As for Méphistophèlés, he was all too thrilled to grant him the ultimate wish on the condition he serve him in Hell.  Unbeknownst to our soul-seller, Satan is determined to make it a two-fer.

Cursed by her brother, Marguerite (soprano Erin Wall) prays for forgiveness after his death. Photo credit Scott Suchman

First, he lures in Faust, then he takes his beloved Marguerite in the bargain.  It was an easy plan as Marguerite’s brother, Valentin, goes off to war, and can no longer protect her virtue.

Faust (tenor Marcelo Puente) makes a deal with the devil for wealth and beauty. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Audiences loved it.  It dovetailed neatly into their fondness for Byron and Shakespeare and was the just right fit for the ‘boulevard’ theaters of the 19th century Romantic period.  Though these moralistic productions were considered ‘low-brow’ recreation, the excitement of witnessing stage magic, then called, ‘phantasmagoria’, was as addictive as the schadenfreude of seeing a fallen woman get her comeuppance.

Mephistopheles (bass Raymond Aceto) predicts Marthe’s (mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel) future. Photo credit Scott Suchman.

Gounod’s opera blends inspired elements of comedy, tragedy, and passion with a hefty dose of evil incarnate.  Comedy first arrives when, as the despondent Faust is about to end his loveless life with a chalice of poison, Satan appears in a fitted doublet and feathered hat looking like Sir Walter Raleigh and says to Faust, “Is my attire not to your taste?”.  Doctor Faust, dressed in a manner befitting Copernicus, doubts his powers given his natty attire.  Not the sort of challenge one should present to the Devil himself.  Ah, well, Faust accepts the terms and the deal is on.

The devil (Raymond Aceto) looks on as Faust (Marcelo Puente) woos Marguerite (Erin Wall). Photo credit Scott Suchman.

There are many exceptional arias – the one between Faust and Marguerite is legendary.  It’s the moment when she decides he really, really loves her by plucking the petals off a flower – as in ‘He loves me. He loves me not.’   That’s conveniently after she discovers the casket of lavish jewels he has gifted to her.  After Satan’s urging to be more manly in his love-making, ‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’ marks the moment when she accepts his love.  Here is where she loses her moral compass.  Diamonds can do that to a girl.  You could be blindfolded and skip the projected English surtitles, and still hear how Goudnod’s music reflects the disparate emotions throughout the libretto.  Gounod was a pioneer in these reminiscence motifs and later composers borrowed his techniques.

Valetin (baritone Joshua Hopkins), a young soldier, prepares for war and hopes God will protect his sister during his absence. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Earl Staley’s gorgeous scenic design and costumes are storybook perfect.  From Faust’s study bathed in red to the villagers celebrating harvest time at a fair with a vignette of Adam and Eve, a juggling Pulchinello, giant masks on stakes, and acrobats tumbling across the stage cheer on the soldiers as they go off to war.  Later an evocative garden scene beside Marguerite’s Tudor cottage windows becomes golden-lit by the glowing hearth as the season changes and snow falls.  In the end when Marguerite faces her Maker to beg for forgiveness for her wanton and murderous ways, the stage becomes a massive church, Chartres-blue and featuring a massive cross.  If that wouldn’t put the fear of God in audiences back in the day, what else would?

The townspeople rejoice with wine and dance celebrations. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Utterly magical and highly recommended.

Featuring Marcelo Puente as Faust; Erin Wall as Marguerite; Raymond Aceto as Méphistophèlés; Samson McCrady as Wagner; Joshua Hopkins as Valentin; Allegra De Vita as Siébel and Deborah Nansteel as Dame Marthe.  With The Washington National Opera Chorus and Supernumeraries.

Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel CarréThe Washington National Opera Orchestra conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson; and Lighting Design by Michael Clark.

Performances are on March 22nd, 24th matinee, 27th and 30th 2019.

Faust Related Programs and Events

Opera Insights before every performance, Kennedy Center Opera House

WNO presents a free pre-performance education event prior to every performance of Faust. These events begin one hour prior to curtain in the Opera House and last approximately 20–25 minutes. Musicologist Saul Lilienstein’s Opera Insights on Monday, March 18, begins at 5:45 p.m. and lasts approximately 35-40 minutes.

Musical Preview of Faust and Eugene Onegin

Wednesday, March 6, 2019 at 6 p.m., Kennedy Center Millennium Stage 

Enjoy a free preview of musical highlights from two of opera’s grandest works: Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Gounod’s Faust, running concurrently this March. This special program features the vocal talents of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program performing each opera’s most famous works.

Guided Rehearsal: Faust

Friday, March 8, 2019 at 7 p.m., Kennedy Center Opera House

Explore the Arts. Audience members get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a world-class opera production through this unique open rehearsal experience. Using audio headsets, attendees can learn more about the production via expert commentary while watching a rehearsal with piano and the professional cast. Visit the WNO website for ticket information.

Artist Q&As: Faust

Monday, March 18, and Sunday, March 24, post-performance, Kennedy Center Opera House

Following the performances on Monday, March 18 and Sunday, March 24 in the Kennedy Center Opera House, please join WNO artistic staff for a wide-ranging discussion with the artists for an inside scoop on the production. These events are free to patrons presenting a Faust ticket and begin immediately after the performance.

“Touch Cart” and Audience Experience

Friday, March 22, and Wednesday, March 27, pre-performance, Kennedy Center Grand Foyer

WNO’s Touch Cart will be open one hour prior to the performances on Friday, March 22 and Wednesday, March 27 to experience first-hand real props and costume items featured in the opera. WNO’s Education Department invites patrons to come early to touch and explore items from the production.

Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 12, 2019 

Plunged into anarchy in an apocalyptic scenario in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, Layla struggles to make sense of what appears to be the end of her life.  As a world-famous art conservationist, she had been spending her days in an art museum cataloguing the most important things in the world – statues, relics, books, paintings, music, photos and more – in case of just such a catastrophe.

Holly Twyford in Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ~ Photo credit C Stanley Photography

Now rubble and ruin lie all around her and she is trapped in this museum-turned-prison in a city under constant barrage.  Layla is despondent over the destruction of the precious and intangible heritage of our humanity by an enemy who seeks to build a new world order.

Felicia Curry, Yesenia Iglesias, and Holly Twyford in Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ~  Photo credit C Stanley Photographer

Crippled with injuries inflicted by her ruthless guard, Mitra, she shares her chamber with a young Muslim woman, Nadia, who silently tends to her wounds.  Mitra demands Layla restore a damaged Rembrandt painting.  She refuses, pondering what is left of her life without her father and daughter and what in the world is worth saving.  Each woman has seen their loved ones slaughtered and each is tethered to one another by the commonality of deep loss.  Incongruously, they are united by the brutality of war and its aftermath.  Will the women escape the fate imposed on them by the soldiers’ bloodthirsty struggle for power? Will art? And if so, how?

DC playwright Heather McDonald’s world premiere Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity asks of us where the world would be without beauty, without art or music, and without nations who hold culture and civilization in high esteem.  How did we get here, and why, are the questions posed by this dystopian drama.

Set to the haunting strains of opera and against the constant volley of bullets and explosives, Zachary G. Borovay’s projections offer a realistic sense of being front and center on the battlefield.  Synched to James Bigbee Garver’s sounds of war, and James Kronzer’s scenic design of broken statues and crumbling buildings, it gives us a bird’s eye view of the confusion and misery experienced by those who suffer the consequences.

Holly Twyford and Yesenia Iglesias in Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity ~ Photo credit C Stanley Photographer

Fierce performances by two beloved Helen Hayes Award-winning actors, Holly Twyford as Layla and Felicia Curry as Mitra, and Yesenia Iglesias as Nadia.  This is a thinking person’s play – edgy, dark and important – a play I’d expect to see produced by the more politically-minded Mosaic Theater, though I am more than excited to see Artistic Director Eric Schaefer tackle such profound subject matter with the brilliant and internationally-respected director, Nadia Tass.

Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard, Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani, Sound Design & Original Music by James Bigbee Garver, and Fight Choreography by Robb Hunter.

Highly recommended.

Through April 7th in the ARK Theatre 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.

Confection ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 11, 2019 

Running concurrently with the exhibition First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas, is Confection.  Commissioned by the Folger Theatre, it is a delightful 17th century romp from the critically-acclaimed Third Rail Projects.  This world premiere production is specifically designed to dovetail neatly with playwright Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn, which story is also set in the 17th century.

Third Rail Projects were taken by Brittany Diliberto

Third Rail Projects performs around the world in site-specific settings and, from what I was told by a woman who came down from New York just for opening night, the ticket prices in NYC are nearly triple and as scarce as hen’s teeth.  Described by the creators as a multi-sensory dance and theater performance and defined as immersive/experiential theater, it is held in the private Paster and Sedgewick-Bond Reading Rooms, areas of the Library that are usually off-limits.

The backdrop is an 17th century banquet in all its opulent and decadent splendor – no you don’t get to dine on swans, peacocks, croquembouche and other referenced delicacies – but you will experience the lusty performances of a troupe garbed in period finery expressing their amours for food (and their dining partners!) through dance and mime.  Overeating is expressed with humor as are the jealousies and erotic fantasies of the royal courtiers.

Third Rail Projects were taken by Brittany Diliberto

You will learn that there really were such preparations as four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie and such things as the weight, or more specifically the measure, of a man in pounds of sugar.  These luxuries came at a great price to those who had to produce these extravagant fêtes, exposing the great disparity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.  You will experience what it must have been like to watch from afar as the lower classes were had to observe these events from the upper galleries.

Third Rail Projects were taken by Brittany Diliberto

Banquets during this period were so lavish and lengthy that they went on for days with guests passing out or vomiting only to start all over again.   The troupe of five also reveal some of the theories and philosophies that were popular in those times – especially the sharing of food and the definition of manliness.

Guests, or should I say participants because you will be led in small groups by costumed guides, will wend their way through velvet curtains to candlelit rooms.  There you will see indescribable displays of pastries, watch Baroque period dancing, or hear challenging debates.  You may even be encouraged to make decisions as a group.  Some of the dances are passionate and fantasy-filled, others are celebratory and playful.  In all, it is the ultimate grande bouffe with you as witness.

Third Rail Projects were taken by Brittany Diliberto

Be sure to leave plenty of time beforehand to tour the First Chefs exhibit and put you in the mood for this splendid evening.  And remember to eat before you go.  The feast is imaginary.

Immensely entertaining.

Performed by Elizabeth Carena, Alberto Denis, Joshua Dutton-Reaver, Justin Lynch and Marissa Nielsen-Pincus.  Written, conceived, directed and choreographed by Zach Morris; Co-directed by Tom Pearson; Artistic Director, Jennine Willett; Sound Design by Sean Hagerty; Costume Design by Karen Young; and Scenic Design by Dan Daly.

Through March 24th at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544.7077 or visit www.Folger.edu/theatre. www.ThirdRailProjects.com