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Watch on the Rhine ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 15, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

A dark and sinister wind blew through Washington last night with the opening of Lillian Hellman’s electrifying drama Watch on the Rhine.  Hauntingly parallel to our nation’s current fears of a fascist influence in our government, this 1941 revival is set in the drawing room of a powerful Washington society matron whose daughter has married a resistance fighter during Hitler’s reign of terror.  Taken alongside the recent mounting of Roe, the play based on Roe v. Wade, reviewed here earlier this month, it proves Artistic Director Molly Smith to be exceptionally prophetic.

(L to R) Thomas Keegan as David Farrelly, Marsha Mason as Fanny Farrelly, Lucy Breedlove as Babette Müller and Lise Bruneau as Sara Müller. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Thomas Keegan as David Farrelly, Marsha Mason as Fanny Farrelly, Lucy Breedlove as Babette Müller and Lise Bruneau as Sara Müller. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Jackie Maxwell does a fine job of letting the actors reveal their formidable skills as we are introduced to the Farelly family and their gilded life.  At first we meet Fanny Farelly (played by four time Academy Award winning actress, Marsha Mason) hostess to a pair of Balkan royals, Count Teck De Brancovis of Romania (J Anthony Crane), and his wife, Marthe (Natalia Payne).  In her zest to enjoy her nightly cribbage games with the impoverished Count, she allows herself to ignore his involvement with the fascist German government, falling victim to his courtly manners and his elegant charm.  It is only when, after a span of forty years, Fanny’s estranged daughter Sara (Lise Bruneau) returns to the fold with her German husband Kurt Müller (Andrew Long) and their three young children that Fanny comes to understand why her daughter has remained absent.  As stalwart members of the German resistance, they have been working within the movement to free political prisoners.  Unfortunately, Teck recognizes Kurt as the resistance fighter he is and Fanny slowly realizes she must make a stand to protect her family.

(L to R) Ethan Miller as Joshua Müller, Helen Hedman as Anise, Lise Bruneau as Sara Müller, Andrew Long as Kurt Müller and Lucy Breedlove as Babette Müller . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Ethan Miller as Joshua Müller, Helen Hedman as Anise, Lise Bruneau as Sara Müller, Andrew Long as Kurt Müller and Lucy Breedlove as Babette Müller. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Hellman’s drama unfolds with much lighthearted humor, Mason is superb and charming as Fanny whose amusing banter with her longtime housekeeper Anise (Helen Hedman) and butler Joseph (Addison Switzer) set a lively tone commensurate with the wealthy enjoying their privileged lives.  Also of note are Sara’s children, especially the precocious Bodo played winningly by Tyler Bowman.  While Fanny’s elder son, David (Thomas Keegan), scion to his late father’s law practice, is her support and guide.  We soon learn that Marthe and David are having an affair, and that she is eager to leave the abusive and unscrupulous Count who makes plans to blackmail Kurt.

(L to R) Ethan Miller as Joshua Müller and Tyler Bowman as Bodo Müller. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

(L to R) Ethan Miller as Joshua Müller and Tyler Bowman as Bodo Müller. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Throughout, this excellent cast held the audience rapt.  You could hear a pin drop for most of it – that is up until the explosive remark David makes to Kurt. “You are a political refugee.  We don’t turn back people like you.”  To which the audience spontaneously erupted into thunderous cheers and applause, especially notable given the current political climate against refugees fleeing oppression and imminent danger.

(L to R) J Anthony Crane as Teck De Brancovis and Natalia Payne as Marthe De Brancovis. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

(L to R) J Anthony Crane as Teck De Brancovis and Natalia Payne as Marthe De Brancovis. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

This is the kind of powerful theatre we have come to expect of Arena – relevant, challenging and thought-provoking.  Stay tuned for more thrilling theatre when the premiere of the upcoming political drama Intelligence is presented next month.

Through March 5th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.

The Gin Game ~ MetroStage

by Jordan Wright on February 6, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

The "Gin Game" with Roz White and Doug Brown - Photo credit Chris Banks

The “Gin Game” with Roz White and Doug Brown – Photo credit Chris Banks

At first blush The Gin Game appears to be a love story about two elderly retirees who meet at the dilapidated Bentley Nursing Home where they have gone to live out their remaining days.  But playwright and Baltimore native D. L. Coburn had something deeper in mind – something that bares the soul and makes us reflect on how without warning, and just as we thought we had established a secure place in the world, Life with a capital ‘L’ can throw us a curveball.  Director Thomas W. Jones has cast two seasoned actors, Roz White and Doug Brown, who together keep us on the edge of our seats with their subtle and riveting development of these complex characters.

The "Gin Game" with Roz White and Doug Brown - Photo credit Chris Banks

The “Gin Game” with Roz White and Doug Brown – Photo credit Chris Banks

Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin, relative newcomers to the home, begin a friendship of mutual admiration with a dollop of flirtation tossed in for good measure.  Weller presents himself as a courtly gentleman and successful businessman eager to gain the approval of the prim and proper Fonsia.  They soon bond over their mutual loathing of the staff, their exes and the other residents, whom they superciliously agree, are feeble-minded codgers.  

The "Gin Game" with Roz White and Doug Brown - Photo credit Chris Banks

The “Gin Game” with Roz White and Doug Brown – Photo credit Chris Banks

After some polite conversation Weller suggests they play his favorite card game, “Hollywood” Gin.  Over a series of games, he patiently teaches Fonsia how to hold her cards (close to the vest) and schools her in the rules and the scoring system.  But he is no Henry Higgins, and she will not be his Eliza.  As they begin to shed their social masks with each hand they reveal more of themselves.  He hates the home’s organized entertainment and the way the staff infantilizes the residents, and she is lonely, imprisoned by her fears and brokenhearted.  When Fonsia continues to defeat him with every hand she’s dealt, all social niceties fly out the window and Weller becomes enraged.  He calls it luck that she consistently has winning hands.  He even claims there are spirits at work.  Until finally, he accuses her of throwing the game.  Determined to win a hand and preserve his ego, he begs her to keep playing, manipulating her through flattery and apologies for his blasphemous outbursts.  “Now if I win, don’t shout at me,” she implores.  By the time a mere week has passed, she has begun to echo his demeaning behavior and they charge full throttle at each other’s defenses, until the gloves are off and they go straight for the jugular. 

The "Gin Game" with Doug Brown and Roz White - Photo credit Chris Banks

The “Gin Game” with Doug Brown and Roz White – Photo credit Chris Banks

The Gin Game is a psychological exercise meant to hold a mirror up to our faults and frailties while shedding light on the challenges of aging, loneliness and the uncertainty of a future without friends or family.  It asks us to take responsibility for the emotional damage we inflict on those closest to us and to recognize that our resulting pain is the reflection of our actions. 

This rare gem of a tragi-comedy has been performed by some of our nation’s finest actors.  Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy starred in the original Broadway production at the John Golden Theatre in 1977 and Tandy won a Best Actress Tony Award for her portrayal of Fonsia.  In 2015 James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson took over the roles in the same theatre.  

Recommended for its superb performances by two of the finest actors in our area. 

At MetroStage through March 12th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit MetroStage Info.

Review: ‘The Last Waltz 40 Tour’ at The Theater at MGM National Harbor

by on February 5, 2017
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts

Last night all twelve members of the tribute group for The Band gave a master class in blues, rockabilly, New Orleans jazz, country, honky-tonk and American roots music. The elite touring group celebrated The Band’s historic last concert which had been held in San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom in 1976. The Theater at MGM National Harbor was the last stop on the 11-city tour.

The Band. Photo courtesy of MGM Grand National Harbor.

Kicking off the set with the lighthearted drinking anthem, “Cripple Creek,” replete with the requisite yodeling and funky wah-wah twangs, fans got ready to get loose, get fired up and sing along. A mostly older crowd was to be expected – what wasn’t expected were the 30-somethings that also knew the words, and were just as amped.

The original group consisted of four Canadians and one American musician who came up in the late 50’s under different incarnations and continued on until 1977, re-forming in 1983 and lasting through 1999. It consisted of legendary musicians Rick Danko (now deceased), Garth Hudson (a recent Rock and Rock Hall of Fame inductee), Richard Manuel (now deceased), Levon Helm, and Robbie Robertson, who hooked up with Bob Dylan in 1965.

That’s the history for those who may have pulled a Rip Van Winkle on the rock scene, but this was another chance to make history with musicians who had already made their bones in the industry.

Jamey Johnson, singer/guitarist and songwriter for the likes of Willie Nelson, Trace Adkins, George Strait, Merle Haggard, and others, kicked off the first number. He was accompanied by Michael McDonald, vocalist, and keyboardist for Steely Dan, the Doobie Brothers, Van Halen, Aretha Franklin, and Patti LaBelle; Musical Director and bassist Don Was, who counts 25 years under his belt producing the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, and Hootie and the Blowfish; tour director and vocalist, Warren Haynes, formerly of the Allman Brothers and master of the slide guitar; John Medeski jazz/funk keyboardist; New Orleans drummer Terence Higgins, member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band; “Steady Rollin’ ” Bob Margolin, vocalist and funky blues rock guitarist for the late Muddy Waters; the singing Neville Brothers, Ivan on keyboards and Cyril on conga drums; and trombonist Mark Mullins of Bonerama using the original horn arrangements of the late, great Allen Toussaint.

The Band. Photo courtesy of MGM Grand National Harbor.

Joining the group on this final stop was 79-year old original band member Garth Hudson who brought his legendary mad skills to the keyboard. A master of the Lowery organ and eight other instruments, Hudson, who appeared with flowing white beard and locks covered by a large black felt hat, walked gingerly to the piano and showed he’s still got the stuff. Amazingly he riffed and switched from classical music to funk to blues on “The Weight” and “I Shall Be Released,” divining from the music gods a five-minute, free-form, solo lead-in to “Genetic Method.”

A four-man horn section traded off instruments to include sax, clarinet, with a solo turn on McDonald’s “Stage Fright” and “Ophelia”; French horn on a somewhat tamer version of “Wheels on Fire”; tuba, especially effective on “Mystery Train” and Johnson’s low and slow version of “Georgia on My Mind”; and trumpet on “Such a Night”, a song that wasn’t in their original set list. McDonald pulled out his banjo for “Rag, Mama, Rag” and Margolin, who played with Muddy Waters at the Woodstock festival, ripped up the stage on slide guitar in “Mannish Boy.” Cyril Nevill sang on “Who Do You Love” – a number reminiscent of Dr. John and the Night Tripper and the gris-gris sound that came up from the swamps of New Orleans.

A massive backup horn sound was felt throughout, reminiscent of the early days of Joe Cocker and later in 70’s Rolling Stones when saxophonist Bobby Keys came on board. And though this was billed as a tribute concert celebrating the past glories of an iconic band, it was not stuck in the past and offered up free flowing jams, and a fresh interpretation of The Band’s original hits.

Running Time: Three hours and 30 minutes,with one 20-minute intermission.

The Band performed for one-night-only on February 4, 2017, at The Theater at The MGM National Harbor – 101 MGM National Avenue, in Oxon Hill, MD. For tickets to call the box office at (800) 745-3000, or purchase them online.

As You Like It ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
January 28, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Rosalind (Lindsay Alexandra Carter) is suddenly taken aback at the Duke’s masked ball in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (also pictured, l to r: Kimberly Chatterjee, Cody Wilson, Aaron Krohn, Brian Reisman.) On stage at Folger Theatre, January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Rosalind (Lindsay Alexandra Carter) is suddenly taken aback at the Duke’s masked ball in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (also pictured, l to r: Kimberly Chatterjee, Cody Wilson, Aaron Krohn, Brian Reisman.) On stage at Folger Theatre, January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

This most irreverent version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It comes at a time when we could all use a little levity.  But it’s not just the humor that’s on point here.  It’s the performances by this outstanding cast that gives us the hopefulness that’s required in these uncertain times.

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch has homed in on the irresistible Lindsay Alexandra Carter who plays our heroine Rosalind in this lively production.  Carter is a hundred times adorable, delightfully feisty and endearing as the woman who gets her man by pretending to be a sort of male Ann Landers to her love target, Orlando (Lorenzo Roberts).  As she schools him in how to capture the heart of, well, yes! herself, she delivers one of the best interpretations of the role of Rosalind.  And for that, we can be deliriously grateful.

Tom Story as the philosophic misanthrope Jaques in Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. On stage January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Tom Story as the philosophic misanthrope Jaques in Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. On stage January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

All this plays out in the Forest of Arden where Rosalind repairs with Celia after being been banished from the kingdom by her uncle, the villainous Duke Frederick, father to Celia (Antoinette Robinson).  Frederick has stolen the royal lands from her father, Duke Senior, and banished him into exile in the Forest of Arden.  Oliver (Michael Glenn), Orlando’s elder brother, is the scoundrel who has stolen his fortune.  That they all wind up in the scary forests of Arden, is the coolest contrivance ever.

The witty Touchstone (Aaron Krohn) shows off his wooing prowess to Audrey (Kimberly Chatterjee) in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy As You Like It. On stage at Folger Theatre, January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The witty Touchstone (Aaron Krohn) shows off his wooing prowess to Audrey (Kimberly Chatterjee) in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy As You Like It. On stage at Folger Theatre, January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Others of note are Allen McCollough as both Dukes.  A bit restrained as Frederick, but far more convincing as Duke Senior.  The wonderful Tom Story as Jaques who philosophizes on man’s “seven ages” and has the “All the world’s a stage” lines we had to memorize in school.  His delivery of this iconic speech, carries the weight of justice served.  And Touchstone the courtier, played to perfection by Aaron Krohn, who presents us with a mashup of Steve Martin and Jim Carrey clad in the sort of outlandish suits you’d expect from Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Costume Designer, Charlotte Palmer-Lane puts the characters in contemporary styles (Will Hayes as Charles in spandex), while Composer Heather Christian ties it together with a mashup of music that ranges from Blues to Beat Box and madrigals to Israeli folk tunes.  We are going to need a lot more of this lighthearted silliness to counteract the daily news feed.

Highly recommended to soothe the spirit and tickle the funny bone.

Through March 5th 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.

The cast of Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in exuberant song. On stage, January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The cast of Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in exuberant song. On stage, January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Roe ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 22, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L to R) Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington), Mark Bedard and Jim Abele in Roe at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running January 12-February 19, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington), Mark Bedard and Jim Abele in Roe. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Coming hard on the heels of the historic Women’s March in DC, is Arena Stage’s presentation of Roe.  In the scheme of things, playwright Lisa Loomer’s unflinching piece couldn’t be a more relevant, timely piece of political theatre.  It speaks to a time when women and their families had no other choice than to undergo dangerous procedures to terminate their unwanted pregnancies.  And despite the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling to give women the right to an abortion, threats to overturn its groundbreaking decision have never been more ominous nor the country more polarized in its views.

Sara Bruner (as Norma McCorvey) and Gina Daniels, with Jim Abele (background), in Roe at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running January 12-February 19, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Sara Bruner (as Norma McCorvey) and Gina Daniels, with Jim Abele (background), in Roe . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

With its East Coast premiere, Director Bill Rauch draws on a stellar cast to present this co-partnership with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  It is a powerful, no-holds-barred story of the woman who was chosen to represent “Roe” and the unusual story of her recruitment as defendant Roe and her subsequent U-turn to the other side of the argument.

  (L to R) Sara Bruner (as Norma McCorvey), Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington) and Susan Lynskey (as Linda Coffee) in Roe at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running January 12-February 19, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Sara Bruner (as Norma McCorvey), Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington) and Susan Lynskey (as Linda Coffee) in Roe. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

It tells the real life story of 22-year-old Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner), as unlikely a candidate for women’s issues as could ever be imagined.  A former carnival worker, McCorvey was raised in a reform school and works as a bartender at The Red Devil a sleazy, lesbian bar in Dallas Texas.  She’s been raped by a white man, a black man and a Mexican, or that’s her story, finding herself pregnant and with no money for an abortion.  Back then the only options were to fly off to Mexico or find a “doctor” who would perform one illegally, usually under the most squalid of conditions.  Her other option being to self-abort.  “You are going to hell on a scholarship,” her friend warns her at a time when hospitals had entire wards for botched abortions.  Soon straight-out-of-law-school lawyer Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) and her legal adviser, Linda Coffee (Susan Lynsky who also plays Judy/First Pregnant Woman and Peggy), find Norma, agreeing to use her as a test case.

(L to R) Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington), Susan Lynskey, Amy Newman and Pamela Dunlap in Roe at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running January 12-February 19, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington), Susan Lynskey, Amy Newman and Pamela Dunlap in Roe . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The play presents both sides of the argument – pro-life and pro-choice – exploring the issues while recalling the dangers inherent in illegal abortions.  It guides us through the early days of the women’s rights movement and later when Sarah becomes the President of NARAL.  The use of audio portions of the U. S. Supreme Court judges’ actual words and projections of televised broadcasts of the protests that preceded it, are particularly haunting.  And though it’s educational in its laying out of the history of the trial, there is hardly a moment when it’s not also hilarious and uplifting.

Bruner is riveting in her transformation from a trash-talking, drug-dealing, alcoholic hippie to her role as receptionist in a women’s clinic to self-righteous author and born-again Christian after a fateful meeting with Flip Benham (Jim Abele who triples as Jay Floyd, opposing attorney on the initial case, and later Ron Weddington, Sarah’s husband).  Flip appears in Act Two as the pro-life, bible-toting crusader and founder of Operation Rescue who uses every trick in the book to convert Norma to his cause.

(L to R) Zoe Bishop, Pamela Dunlap, Sara Bruner and Catherine Castellanos in Roe at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running January 12-February 19, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Zoe Bishop, Pamela Dunlap, Sara Bruner and Catherine Castellanos in Roe . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Lesser known in the drama was Henry Wade (Richard Elmore), the Dallas County District Attorney, who first heard the case and Norma’s longtime lover, Connie, played notably by Catherine Castellanos.

Particularly effective is Set Designer Rachel Hauck’s use of large sections of moving stage requiring the actors to leap across platforms to highlight individual scenes while Lighting Designer Jane Cox capitalizes on the drama by focusing on its intensity.

Special nod to Kenya Alexander in her compelling performance as Roxanne who embodies the spirit of the modern day college student confronted with the choice of having a child or continuing her education.

Super timely and highly recommended.

Through February 9th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.