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Elmer Gantry – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 22, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington) and Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) -  Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington) and Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer has gone back to the well to remount Elmer Gantry, a show he co-produced in DC with writer John Bishop, composer Mel Marvin and lyricist Bob Satuloff sixteen years ago. Reimagined by the original team, this massive musical based on Sinclair Lewis’ quintessential novel now boasts several new numbers and a re-worked script.

Backed by a ten-piece orchestra, there is a great deal of heart and soul in this redemptive tale of a down-on-his-luck preacher and a young, ambitious evangelist, Sister Sharon Falconer. When Gantry (Charlie Pollock), a traveling farm equipment salesman on his last dime, watches the second-rate religious troupe at a revival meeting, he seizes the opportunity to join them, wooing the beautiful Sharon and transforming their hokey act into a big time, holy roller spectacle filled with gospel singing, Sunday go-to-meeting psalms and mournful folk songs. “People want to feel that heat in their lives. They want to laugh. They want to cry!” he tells her. And by the time they get to Topeka, Gantry has created a full-blown, berobed, hallelujah choir, and the pair’s sermonizing has reached a feverish pitch.

Ashley Buster (Epatha Washington), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington), Daphne Epps (Grace Washington) - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Ashley Buster (Epatha Washington), Nova Y. Payton (Mary Washington), Daphne Epps (Grace Washington) – Photo by Margot Schulman.

It’s at this point, midway through Act I with the addition of three gospel-singing sisters led by Nova Y. Payton, where the show truly catches fire. The Washington Sisters played by Payton, Ashley Buster and Daphne Epps bring a huge, near dwarfing presence to the rest of the chorus. In “Carry that Ball”, a football-themed spiritual that substitutes the word “touchdown” for “hallelujah”, Payton takes her singing to the rafters, electrifying the audience and juicing up the show.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer) and company - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mary Kate Morrissey (Sharon Falconer) and company – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mary Kate Morrissey does a fine job as the ambitious and charismatic Sister Sharon whose past is as suspect as Gantry’s. In the tender tune, “You Don’t Know Who I Am”, she lets him know she has had to reinvent herself in order to evolve.

Unfortunately believable and powerfully passionate performances by Morrissey et alia are not matched by Pollock, whose uneven performance especially in Act II (he runs out of steam in their big duet “With You” and his solo turn in “My American Dream”), unreliable voice, and buzz cut hairstyle with trendy facial stubble, all contribute to his seeming out of date and out of sync with the other actors.

Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) and Bobby Smith (Frank Shallard) - Photo by Margot Schulman.

Charlie Pollock (Elmer Gantry) and Bobby Smith (Frank Shallard) – Photo by Margot Schulman.

Watch for Bobby Smith, outstanding as Frank Shallard, Gantry’s slick-as-a-snake associate; and Harry A. Winter as Bob Faucher, the unscrupulous banker, to keep this revival afloat.

Through November 9th 2014 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.

Sex with Strangers – Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 20, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

SEX WITH STRANGERS at Signature Theatre

SEX WITH STRANGERS

On the off chance you might not read this review all the way through and that perhaps you’ll skim through to get to the meat of the matter – – the rating! – – I’ll give it to you in the first paragraph.  Sex with Strangers may be one of the best comedy/dramas I’ve seen this year – an engaging, challenging, hilarious, deliciously sexy, stylishly clever, utterly modern relationship conundrum performed by a pair of actors utterly in tune with each other.  Playwright Laura Eason’s snappy, sexually charged repartee will be familiar to those who have seen Netflix’s House of Cards where she was part of the writing team of season two and three.

If you’ve read this far, here’s the set up.  Ethan, a successful young writer, arrives at a secluded writer’s retreat in the midst of a blizzard where he encounters Olivia, a 40-ish writer working on a new novel after her first book went nowhere fast.  He has already scoped out Olivia’s work through a mutual friend who told him she was staying there.  Is he there to work on his novel, or is it just a ruse to publish hers?  Along with Olivia we are in a constant state of bemusement, and any attempts to decoct the plot will prove fruitless.

Holly Twyford (Olivia) and Luigi Sottile (Ethan) -  Photo by Theresa Wood.

Holly Twyford (Olivia) and Luigi Sottile (Ethan) – Photo by Theresa Wood.

Four-time Helen Hayes Award winner Holly Twyford plays the tech-challenged Olivia, and Luigi Sottile plays Ethan, a New York Times bestselling author of sensationalist books that owe their success more to internet marketing techniques than whatever talent he might have.  “Critics say they’re lower than fortune cookies,” he confesses, explaining how the books evolved from his blogs about weekly hook ups with strangers.  Still she’s intrigued by him, his knowledge of the wonders of self-publishing and his familiarity with the instantaneous allure of technology.  Instead of rejecting this Lothario she’s eager to learn about his development of an app to publish books online.  Though his history of debauchery comes up, it is a mere bump along the road to their romance and only seems to fuel her excitement about his plan to re-issue her novel as an e-book  – – under an assumed name.

Tantalized by the prospects of finally giving her book its proper due, he meets her at her Chicago apartment with an IPad pre-loaded with some of her favorite books. “It smells like the future!” she exclaims.  Later, snubbing his e-book suggestion when an opportunity to sign with prestigious New York publishers comes up, she grouses,  “I want a real book!”

Three-time Helen Hayes Award-winning Director Aaron Posner keeps the action, and comedic timing, swirling as fast and furiously as the snow outside the set’s window panes which, thanks to Andrew Cissna’s clever lighting design, reflect the increasing wildness of the storm outside – – and inside too.  Enhancing the ambiance, Set Designer JD Madsen captures the writer’s world with the room’s sidewalls created from the textblocks of hundreds of books, and designing a parquet floor suggestive of different book shapes.

Highly recommended.

Through December 7th 2014 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.

A fall favorite at the Skyland Resort in the Shenandoah Mountains

Jordan Wright
October 10, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
Photo credit Jordan Wright 

The view from Skyland Resort

The view from Skyland Resort

When G. Freeman Pollock founded Skyland in 1894, he had been in and out of bankruptcy so many times he couldn’t possibly have envisioned the immense popularity it would have subsequently gained. Luckily for us his son George, an ardent naturalist, saw the raw beauty of the land as a draw for tourists. But in 19th century Virginia the remote destination had no trails and no roads, and it was such an arduous journey that guests would stay for several weeks or more. Today, however, to enjoy and explore the resort within the Shenandoah National Forest, we can just hop in our car and arrive in little more than two hours, ready to bask in (and document with our personal devices) the glorious foliage of autumn at a whopping 3,560 feet above sea level.

Driving along Route 211 past Warrenton and Sperryville we stop at roadside stands decorated with pumpkins, cornstalks and pots of colorful mums, and stock up on apple butter, cider, sorghum and honey. As the road turns up the mountain and onto Skyline Drive, ever more lavish displays of fall color come into view – red from maples, dogwoods, black gums and sumac, yellow from yellow birch, tulip poplar and hickory, orange from beech and sassafras. Stop at one of the many overlooks for gloriously scenic photo ops.

800 million year old rock formations on the Stony Man Trail

800 million year old rock formations on the Stony Man Trail

Arriving at Skyland Resort we picked up a few refreshments from the Grab n’ Go located beside the restaurant. Be sure to try the homemade brownies and blackberry lemonade. Since we were earlier than our check in time, we decided to make the most of our visit. Four short marked trails are easily accessible from the resort’s parking area – Miller’s Head, a 1.6 mile round trip, Limberlost Trail, a 1.3 mile circuit (ADA accessible), Stony Man, 1.6 mile loop trail and Little Stony Man, a 0.9 mile hike. We chose Stony Man Trail, a gentle that hike winds through dappled glades carpeted with ferns, drifts past 800 million-year old rock outcroppings draped in mossy lichen, and climbs to a height of 4,010’ where a spectacular view of the Piedmont and Old Rag Mountain are revealed. (More dramatic photo ops here.)

Ferns along Stony Man Trail

Ferns along Stony Man Trail

At this altitude you’ll see and smell red spruce and balsam fir, rare for southern climes. Breathe deeply and tune into the sounds of the forest, a practice the Japanese call “forest bathing” or “Shinrinyoku”, a sort of natural aromatherapy said to increase relaxation and boost the immune system.

Back at the lodge we had relaxing dinner in the Pollock Dining Room, which boasts a breathtaking view of the Shenandoah valley. The resort is proud of their new chef and has been hosting wine dinners with nearby vineyards. In November three unique pairing dinners are planned – one to feature dishes paired wines from Ducard Winery, another with Old Hill Cider and the final dinner of the season is slated to be a whiskey pairing.

Linguini with shrimp and scallops - Blackberry Ice Cream Pie at the Pollock Dining Room

Linguini with shrimp and scallops – Blackberry Ice Cream Pie at the Pollock Dining Room

 

Night programs here are just as popular as daytime tours offered by the Park Rangers. We chose the stargazing evening given by astronomers from the Charlottesville Astrological Society. “Night Skies in the Big Meadows” begins with a talk on the constellations we would see before convening at an open field that afforded expansive views of the galaxy. Astronomer Richard Drumm, known as “The Astronomy Bumm”, awaited our arrival with telescopes at the ready. Unfortunately it was too overcast to see, no less identify, even the Big Dipper, so we asked a lot of what we thought were “smart” questions and learned about controlling light pollution.

Skyland horse-stable

The following morning bright blue skies accompanied hearty breakfasts, and after finding some locally made crafts in the gift shop we headed to the stables for a guided horseback trail ride (ponies are available for kids). I was very impressed by the overall care with which the stables, tack and horses are kept and that our young guide, Jeremy, was knowledgeable about horses, local plants and the history of the area and kept up a lively conversation throughout the two ½ hour ride.

Stirring the apple butter

Stirring the apple butter

Before heading for home we spent a few hours at the Annual Apple Butter Celebration (the resort provided a shuttle to take us to and from) where we watched the old fashioned method of making apple butter in a large copper vessel, tasted four varieties of the local hard cider from Old Hill Cider at Showalters Orchard, and gobbled up apple-smoked pork sandwiches and candied apples – all to the lively sounds of bluegrass bands.

Carmel and candied apples a the apple butter celebration

Caramel and candied apples at the Apple Butter Celebration

For more info visit www.goshenandoah.com.

The Forager King at The Restaurant at Patowmack Farm

Jordan Wright
October 8, 2014
Special to DC Metro Theater Art
Photo credit – Jordan Wright 

The potager

The potager

For many years Ferran Adria’s now shuttered elBulli held the title of “The Best Restaurant in the World”.  Since then the fiercely sought after accolade has gone to his former student Rene Redzepi, Chef/Owner of Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Four years ago Redzepi’s publisher Phaidon sent me a copy of his coffee table size cookbook. “Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine”, which at the time I included in my “Best Cookbooks of 2010”.  The book continued my interest in the science and artistry of elegantly prepared wild foods.  In 2002 I’d read French chef and forager extraordinaire Michel Bras’s book “Essential Cuisine” and saw how a Michelin-starred chef could elevate wild local plants, locally caught seafood and humanely raised animals to their highest culinary purpose while at the same time employing a flower-strewn, naturalistic style.

A grazer since childhood, I munch on violets, honeysuckle and the early blossoms of the redbud tree.  And if I’m lucky enough to find them I still chomp on wild ramps, dandelion leaves and the tender watercress that pops up along small streams and culverts in the spring.  I consider it homeopathic and secretly believe it’s what keeps me from seasonal allergies.

Tarver King is a chef who answers the call of the wild too.  When we first met he was cooking at the Ashby Inn in Paris, Virginia where he wedded molecular gastronomic techniques to simple, local ingredients and spent many hours putting up jars of glistening cantaloupe jelly, pickled vegetables and berry jams from ingredients he picked from the bounty of a small garden behind the inn.

Chef Tarver King

Chef Tarver King

After gaining experience in such legendary kitchens as The French Laundry, Le Bec Fin, The Inn at Little Washington and the Woodlands Inn & Resort in South Carolina.  King now has found is roost in the kitchen at the Restaurant at Patowmack Farm where he is the architect of the menu.  Using the bounty from owner Beverly Morton Billands vegetable and herb gardens, wildcrafting “weeds” and morels from the nearby woods and sourcing from the 40-acre farm where Billand raises chickens, ducks and beef cattle, he has a myriad of options at his command, including fish from the sustainable catches of local East Coast fishermen.

King’s commitment to local, seasonal and organic, as well as his compelling artistry has not gone unnoticed by the industry.  He was named “Grand Chef” of the year by Relais and Chateau, received the RAMMY award as “Chef of the Year” 2013 and this year earned the coveted title of “Best Chef – Mid-Atlantic” from the James Beard Foundation.

Reflecting his keen attention to land, sea and farm, the menu is divided into “Found”, heavier on seafood, “Grown”, some meat but largely paleo, and “Raised”, which leans more towards meat protein.  Each affords the diner with amuses bouche, noted as “snacks”, and a five-course progression menu of the chef’s design.

Snacks before dinner - Gougeres - Beet Cream

Snacks before dinner – Gougeres – Beet Cream

Some of the menu’s descriptors – smoked kraut, cicely gastrique, lambs quarters, sorrel soda, chicory root custard and hyssop ice cream – reveal the adventure.

Seared Wahoo with ramp chimichurri

Seared Wahoo with ramp chimichurri

King, who spends three days a week cooking and the rest experimenting, started us off with delicate gougeres and a beet cream toast, followed by Scallop Mi-cuit, a semi-cooked scallop enhanced by creamed corn, chanterelle puree, and lambs quarters, a wild edible.  Crispy Shrimp is sauced with cicely gastrique, ratatouille puree, fennel fronds and mustard cream – each element contributing to the nuanced whole of the dish.  My dinner partner who opted for “Raised” was busy devouring the Pork Fried Chicken with whey and mustard butter, smoked kraut and pole beans, which preceded Beef Cheek with whipped grits, grilled beets, horseradish and nasturtium leaves.  A happy carnivore, indeed.

Beef Cheeks with whipped grits and nasturtium leaves

Beef Cheeks with whipped grits and nasturtium leaves

The dining room is an enormous brick-paved, all-glass greenhouse (sans plants).  A separate white-tented space for outdoor dining features a view of the river and Harpers Ferry Bridge beyond and is decorated with nosegays and candles.  Very romantic.

 Chicory root custard with cocoa nib crumble, puffed rice and whipped fromage blanc

Chicory root custard with cocoa nib crumble, puffed rice and whipped fromage blanc

Courses came swiftly delivered by attentive and gentile wait staff, who re-described each dish as it was set forth.  We finished a spectacular evening of gastronomic delights and surprises with a lovely Silver Needle Jasmine white tea from local purveyor Shab Row Tea Emporium in nearby Frederick, Maryland.

Reservations, of course.  www.PatowmackFarm.com

The Island of Dr. Moreau at Synetic Theater

Jordan Wright
October 7, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Synetic Theater has taken H. G. Well’s science fiction classic The Island of Dr. Moreau and morphed it into a frighteningly realistic maelstrom of horrors, just in time for Halloween.  For those who like being terrified by a mad scientist whose muse is a vengeful half human half feline fiend, sit back and settle in for a wild ride and a landscape filled with vivisected beasts – the good doctor’s engineered experiments.

Alex Mills as Parker and Paata Tsikurishvili as Dr. Moreau - Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Alex Mills as Parker and Paata Tsikurishvili as Dr. Moreau – Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Alex Mills plays Parker the hapless shipwreck victim, washed upon the shores of a Pacific atoll thousands of miles from civilization and light years from reality.  When he recalls that the doctor was blackballed from the scientific community for his gruesome experiments on humans, he begins to fear for his life amid the zombies – – as well he should.  To understand what machinations are transpiring within the laboratory he forms a friendship of convenience with Moreau’s dedicated assistant Montgomery (Dallas Tolentino) who between nips from a silver flask, assures him that the doctor will save the world by designing a better, more efficient human being.  “All he creates is suffering and the deification of himself,” Parker declares.

Paata Tsikurishvili plays Dr. Moreau with evil swagger and a studied nonchalance. “The law is not to eat flesh and not to go on all fours,” he warns the six beasts, insisting they parrot his edicts on command.  When he delivers the lines, “The crafting of living flesh has been around for a long time,” and “Real progress can only be achieved by someone as remorseless as myself,” we begin to see what a hideous monster he really is.

The beasts. The Island of Dr. Moreau -  Photo by Johnny Shryock

The beasts. The Island of Dr. Moreau – Photo by Johnny Shryock

Irina Tsikurishvili creates the spectacular choreography that interweaves the plot with the characters’ action and Set Designer Phil Charlwood’s massive metal sculpture in the shape of a butterfly wing (Parker is a lepidopterist) that the beasts use to clamber on, keeps them in sight but removed from the scene.  Kendra Rai’s breathtakingly phantasmagoric costumes reflecting the tormented creatures’ many excisions, alterations and freakish attachments, serve to magnify the ongoing suffering and torture of the bizarre beasts.

This is heightened by Brittany Diliberto and Riki K.’s multi-media, electronic light show accentuated by lasers, glowing chemicals and theatre-filling galaxies to accompany the original, unearthly synthesizer score by Irakli Kavsadze.

Paata Tsikurishvili as Dr. Moreau and Pasquale Guiducci as Sayer in The Island of Dr. Moreau -  Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Paata Tsikurishvili as Dr. Moreau and Pasquale Guiducci as Sayer in The Island of Dr. Moreau – Photo by Johnny Shryock.

It’s all a harmonic exercise in sci-fi weirdness, calibrated to raise goosebumps on even the most hardened futurists.

Through November 1st at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington in Crystal City.  For tickets and information call 1 800 494-8497 or visit www.synetictheater.org.