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I Did It My Way In Yiddish (In English) ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
April 17, 2018
Special to The Alexandria Times

“Some Say Yiddish is a dying language.  But I’m here to resurrect it!” quips Deb Filler, Kiwi comedian and Helen Hayes Award-winning nominee for her twenty-seven character show, Filler Up.  In I Did It May Way In Yiddish (In English), Filler schools her audiences in the culture and familiar phrases that formed the backbone of Jewish shtick and that gave rise to American vaudeville.  But you don’t have to be Jewish to get in on the fun.  In this one-woman show, she provides the word in English in her charming New Zealand accent.  If you didn’t already know meshuggeneh (crazy), mensch (a stand-up guy), or chutzpah (brazenness), you will.  As the common language among European Jews for over 1,000 years, it tied communities together as they navigated the unknown outside the Old Country.  Filler explains in her hilarious intro, “Yiddish is a combination of high German and mucous.”

Deb Filler’s “I Did it My Way in Yiddish (in English)” ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Framed by her autobiographical story growing up in New Zealand with a stereotypical stage mother and Holocaust survivor and baker father, she regales her audiences with comic tales of her days in New Zealand, later coming to America and winding up in Canada.  Stories interwoven from her awkward but seminal teenage years and her kismet-style meetings with celebrities, are captivating.

Filler came of age in the 1960’s during the folk era bracketed by the rise of the Beatles.  Encouraged by her mother to perform in child talent contests where she sang and strummed Judy Garland songs, she finds herself at a Peter, Paul and Mary concert in Aukland where she has a chance meeting with the trio who ask her to join them onstage.  She does.  Though it doesn’t work out as well as she had hoped.  The group’s hottest gold record hits that she had practiced religiously in the hopes of usurping Mary’s role in the trio (She was just a kid!), were not offered and she was pressed into singing solo a Judy Garland song.

Deb Filler’s “I Did it My Way in Yiddish (in English)” ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Along with a fondness for composer Leonard Bernstein, as a teenager she embraced folk music and poet songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Lenny Kravitz – all famous musicians she was fated to meet.  She shares those and other humorous stories emphasizing her father’s influence on her life with both love and humor.  Some tunes she translates into Yiddish.  Imagine “A Hard Day’s Night” in Yiddish.  It happens.  And so does a chance meeting and bonding over her father’s challah bread with famed composer Leonard Bernstein.  Her third Lenny!  During the show, Filler screens a heartwarming short she has written, and Francine Zuckerman has directed, on her girlhood meeting with Bernstein.

Her Jewish jokes and musical interstices are coupled with guitar-accompanied sing-alongs.  Who doesn’t remember these classic pop songs?  Pretty soon she has won the audience’s affection and this folk-singing comedian and water activist proves that if you can just flow with the vagaries of life, you too will find your niche.  (Look for her this summer in the upcoming FX TV series, Shark Lords.)

A heartwarming show filled with laughter and joy.  You’ll be kvelling (rejoicing) all the way home!

With direction by John Shooter and lighting design by Yehuda Fisher and Alex Keen.

Through April 29th at MetroStage 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Luzia ~ A Waking Dream of Mexico ~ Cirque du Soleil

Jordan Wright
April 13, 2018 

In an edge-of-your-seat extravaganza that excels in spine-tingling, jaw-dropping acrobatics, Cirque du Soleil brings Luzia to Tysons Corner.  It’s not just my opinion, but comments from attendees who say they thought it was the best Cirque show they had ever seen.  Credit their policy for listening to audience feedback and regularly tweaking their shows to elicit the maximum reaction.  Artistic Director Grace Valdez, a Virginia native and graduate of George Mason University, has created a spectacular fantasy world to both thrill and inspire.

Spoken and sung entirely in Spanish, Luzia (a mashup of luz meaning light and lluvia meaning water) affords the artists a mellifluous, often romantic, dynamic in the slower numbers and an intense, Mach 10 immediacy in the daredevil performances.  Elements of Mexican culture are everywhere, from the opening number featuring a circular garden of bright orange marigolds, mariachis and tiny robots who water the flowers, to the larger than life Mexican creatures – armadillo, jaguar, crocodile, horse, iguana, fish and giant mariposa (butterfly) – that dance to the sounds of classical and pop as well as salsa, bolero and traditional Mexican ballads.  It is a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.

One of the most eye-popping features is a waterfall, cascading 50 feet from the very top of the tent.  Artists performing within the splash zone offer an added dimension of excitement as drops of water reflect the light and patterns are projected along the length of the column of water.

Eric, the ‘emcee’ is a comic figure, constantly thirsty and thwarted by the waterfall which shuts down whenever he tries to fill his cup.  All over the arena, amid the sounds of the organ grinder and the mariachis, you could hear the squeals of laughter and delight from the littlest ones – as contagious as the gasps at the physically precarious leaps, feats of tumbling, pole dancing and stupefying gymnastics from the acrobats (Benjamin on the aerial straps is a marvel! Did I mention he’s hot as a jalapeño?) as well as a lightning-quick juggler, the most accomplished I’ve ever beheld.

Photo credit: Jordan Wright

As birds and butterflies flutter abound, the feats of derring-do are too many to mention each one, but this reviewer was most captivated by contortionist, Aleksei Goloborodko, who twists his hyper-flexible body into knots so intricate even a sailor wouldn’t know how to undo him.  I was literally gape-mouthed, fanning myself with amazement at his elasticity.  Another act by five pretty, soaking wet girls in Mexican dresses is performed within the confines of ‘cyr wheels’, a sort of life-size hula hoop, and involves 360-degree spinning, often upside down.

Highly recommended. This fiesta is a true joy for young and old alike.  Don’t miss it!

Through June 17th under the white-and-gold Big Top at Tysons II, 8025 Galleria Drive. Tysons, VA 22102.  Tickets online at www.CirqueduSoleil.com.

John ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 12, 2018 

We are waiting.  For an answer.  Three and a half hours including two intermissions later with a slowly dwindling audience after the first two acts.  Ah well, it is a weekday night.  And though given the title of the play we have a fairly good guess John will be involved, we are still waiting for an explanation as to why we have slogged through the sucking sound of a surfeit of red herrings. All clues lead to nowhere.  The only explanation I can deduce is that this is some sort of exercise in existentialism.  There is no note in the program from the award-winning playwright Annie Baker and nothing from director Joe Calarco either, so we can only speculate.

Nancy Robinette, Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer in John at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

One reason you may want to sit through this mystery, is the superb acting by Nancy Robinette and Ilona Dulaski.  They are stellar!  Two veteran actresses of note who, given the puzzling plot, still manage to keep us curious enough to await the denouement.  Hint: It’s a single word at the close of the play.

Robinette as Mertis, aka Kitty, is the off-kilter proprietress of a Bed & Breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Her blind, mentally deranged friend, Genevieve (Dulaski), imagines noises in the house.  The duo have latched onto mysticism for reasons not made clear.  Perhaps to explain why the lights flicker and the electricity frequently fails or why Kitty’s husband never appears.  “He’s not well.”  But we discover he was working on the historic home’s electrical system.  Is this a clue? To what? Credit lighting designer Andrew Cissna for the blackouts and the plethora of antique lamps.  Are we spooked?  It’s a stretch to be frightened when there’s no murder.

Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer in John. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Certainly the creepiest part is Paige Hathaway’s set design chockfull of dozens of dolls, tchotchkes (a huge collection of china cats!!!), and an abundance of Christmas décor.  One of the dolls, perched atop a player piano, is the target of attention from Jenny (Anna Moon) – one half of the couple that is staying at the B&B.  Jenny had the same American Girl doll and is overwhelmed with guilt that as an adult she has relegated the doll to a box in her mother’s attic.  She shares with Kitty an obsessive attachment to objects and the imparting of human emotions to them.  Her passive-aggressive, jealous boyfriend Elias (Jonathan Feuer) is coming off anti-depressants and is in meltdown mode.  There are ferocious fights that result in them sleeping in separate rooms.

But back to the red herrings.  Kitty frequently changes the time on a grandfather clock and writes down her daily reflections in an unknown language.  At one point the lights go out in the theater and we hear a chuckle.  Who or what?  Kitty tells Elias not to ask about a portrait of a woman.  This is never resolved.  Kitty tells the couple she doesn’t drink.  She chugs a glass of wine.  Elias visits the Gettysburg battlefields and claims he has taken a photo that has a ghostly image.  Also, he hates B&Bs, “The tragedy of B&Bs is to be homey and cute and filled with tchotchkes.”  Why are they staying at one?  They insult the others’ cultural backgrounds – he’s Jewish, she’s Asian. There’s a reference to the house being a former Civil War hospital – arms and legs were tossed out the windows.  No ghosts arrive.  Genevieve is fixated on the husband she abandoned.  This never comes up again, though a lot of dialogue is spent on how he invaded her thoughts for years.  His name was John.  Elias was kissed by a man when he was a child.  We never learn if any of this is relevant.

Nancy Robinette, Jonathan Feuer and Ilona Dulaski in John. Photo by Margot Schulman.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away.  There are plenty more contrivances that never add up.  If this is meant to be like Get Out, this year’s Oscar-nominated horror film, they lost this reviewer amid the smokescreens in a B&B in Gettysburg.

With Costume Design by Debra Kim Sivigny and Sound Design by Kenny Neal.

Through April 29th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

Charlottesville: Our Streets ~ A Documentary by Jackson Landers and Brian Wimer

Jordan Wright for the Alexandria Times
April 9, 2018 

Photo credit: by Jackson Landers and Brian Wimer

Last Sunday at the Beatley Library in Alexandria the Board of the Alexandria Film Festival invited filmmaker Jackson Landers to appear at a screening of his powerful new documentary Charlottesville: Our Streets.

Jackson Landers takes questions at the Alexandria screening of his film. Photo credit Jordan Wright

Using never-before-seen footage from citizen journalists, Landers and co-producer and film editor Brian Wimer constructed the movie in timeline fashion beginning with the tiki torch-wielding Neo-Nazi march on August 11, 2017 at the University of Virginia through the following days’ activities in Charlottesville where thousands of white nationalists converged from around the country to protest the expected removal of a statue to Confederate General Robert E. Lee.  Dubbed Charlottesville “Summer of Hatred”, the violent “Unite the Right” rally brought alt-right, neo-Nazi, neo-Fascist and Ku Klux Klan groups together in a show of force unprecedented in a rural university town.  They were armed to the teeth with knives, guns, pepper spray, chains, bats, shields and tear gas, shouting “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil”.  The police stood down.

Charlottesville native, Landers, who writes for Slate, Smithsonian Magazine, The Daily Beast, Rewire.News and the Washington Post, and who conducts a Monday evening round table radio show on WPVC-FM, describes himself as an author and hunter who travels around the country hunting and eating invasive species.  He’s even written a book about his adventures entitled “Eating Aliens” and appeared on the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern.  This is his first film – finished in two months to beat the entry deadline for this year’s Virginia Film Festival.  He made it as a way of setting down a record of the events.  “This isn’t an activist film,” he explained.  “I just wanted to show what happened.”

Photo credit: by Jackson Landers and Brian Wimer

The homegrown 90-minute film gives a chronological account of the events leading up to and during the rally and marches in Charlottesville.  With no filmmaking experience of his own, Landers admitted his most difficult challenge was finding someone to put all the pieces together (he found Wimer) and conduct video interviews with counter protestors and local residents who had experienced a terrifying outpouring of anti-Semitic and racial hatred in their rural university town.  Having been pepper sprayed five times while in the thick of it, he witnessed the two-day events, including the fatal crash on Fourth Street and that of the fatal downing of a police helicopter.  While he and Wimer are still tweaking the film based on audience reaction, the filmmakers claim to have verified every statement given by witnesses.  Remarks that could not be proven, were edited out, though many video clips of interviews as well as remarks by Cornell West in the lead up to the rally are included.  Thirty cameras spread out across the area, give the documentary both extensive coverage and an intense immediacy.

Landers also spoke about the aftermath of the bloody events in Charlottesville.  He has continued to seek FOIA documents through the courts in regards to the police activity, as well as their strategy, but finds himself up against an army of lawyers.

Photo credit: by Jackson Landers and Brian Wimer

Attendees were afforded a Q & A with Landers after Sunday’s screening.  Several who had been at the rally wanted to know why it wasn’t shown that counter protesters were assaulted on side streets on their way to the rally.  Landers said, “The genesis of the film was to show the perspective of the people of Charlottesville,” and suggested there would be other films that would approach it from different perspectives.  One attendee, who cited a CIA report calling 9/11 “ a failure of imagination” by security forces, saw the hands off approach by the University and the Virginia State Police as the same problem.  It’s been reported that a police captain told his force to prepare for an event similar to the annual UVA “block party”.

Although this seminal event that resulted in the deaths of counter protester Heather Heyer and two police helicopter pilots, as well as dozens of injuries, did result in the subsequent removal of countless Civil War statues and confederate flags around the South, the bottom line is, could this happen in our town?  And the answer is yes.

One of the more familiar faces of the white supremacists movement, Richard Spencer, lives in the heart of Old Town.  As they did on that fateful day, he and cohort David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, organize these rallies and give fiery speeches to their followers.  Last Sunday, sitting quietly in the audience was Spencer associate and National Policy Institute’s Director of Operations, Greg Conte, aka Greg Ritter.  He has been quoted as saying he plans to start his own white nationalist movement.  Stay woke, Alexandria.

Two Trains Running ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 6, 2018 

Victor Vazquez and Kaitlin McIntyre have assembled a cast so perfect that the actors wear their roles like a second skin.  Spend two hours in Memphis Lee’s diner with Wolf, a hustler and numbers runner (Reginald André Jackson); Risa, an emotionally bereft waitress (Nicole Lewis); Holloway, a philosophical realist (David Emerson Toney in a scene stealing performance); West, an opportunistic undertaker (William Hall, Jr.); Hambone, a man denied his fair compensation (another exceptional performance from local actor Frank Riley III); and Sterling, an optimistic, lovesick ex-con (the very impressive Carlton Byrd), and you will come to know them well.

(L to R) David Emerson Toney (Holloway), William Hall, Jr. (West) and Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright August Wilson’s Two Trains Running affords a fly-on-the-wall view of a period and place in African American history, when the trains were moving but not everyone could board.

It was a time of frustration and economic disparity when arguments might be settled at the muzzle end of a gun.  But lest you imagine the story is moralistic or depressing, it’s far from it.  It’s actually hilarious with most of the setups provided by Holloway who also has one of the play’s most prophetic lines, “You got love and you got death.  Death will find you.  It’s up to you to find love.”  So is there room for love here?  There is.  Sterling works his charm on Risa and the group shows concern and affection for Hambone.

(L to R) Nicole Lewis (Risa), Carlton Byrd (Sterling) and Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

For this superb production, Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith has partnered with Seattle Repertory Theatre and its Artistic Director Braden Abraham, bringing in Director Juliette Carrillo who marshals the ensemble into giving some of the finest and most synchronistic performances we’ve seen in a long time.

(L to R) Frank Riley III (Hambone) and Carlton Byrd (Sterling) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Eugene Lee, a veteran actor most recently at Arena in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, breathes fire and ice into the role of Memphis, a man toggling between hope and despair.  Lee gives an outstanding multi-dimensional and nuanced portrait of the brash dreamer seeking redemption.  In fact, the theme that most resonates throughout, is redemption – even if the path steers believers to the home of a 322-year-old psychic Aunt Esther (unseen) or a local charlatan who goes by the name of the Prophet Samuel (also unseen).

Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Here religion and the occult are given their due in equal measure.  It takes a limitless leap of faith to see through the fog of disappointment and despair, but they are clearly up to the challenge.

Set Designer, Misha Kachman, has scored August Wilson’s personal 1955 Rock-Ola jukebox to complete the chrome-and-naugahyde luncheonette look to go with Costume Designer Ivania Stack’s outfitting of the cast in 50’s clothing, most notably Holloway’s array of street-slick polyester shirts.

With Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani and Music/Sound by David R. Molina.

Superb and highly recommended.

Through April 29th 2018 in the Fichandler at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.