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The Magic Flute ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
November 4, 2019 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his final opera, The Magic Flute, in his later years after he had joined the Rationalist faction of the Freemasons known as the Illuminati who held differing views on society’s rank.  In this romantic tale, a dragon must be slain – this one’s a fire-breathing, glowing-eyed monster – a princess with a heartless mother must be rescued from the evil clutches of a sexual predator, and harmony shall reign through the brotherhood of man.  This humanist theme reflects the particular Masonic ethos which holds that nobility of the spirit was not defined by noble rank.  Very democratic.

(l-r) Alexandria Shiner (1st Lady), Deborah Nansteel (2nd Lady), Meredith Arwady (3rd Lady),Michael Adams (Papageno), David Portillo (Tamino) in WNO’s The Magic Flute. Photo credit by ScottSuchman

Incorporating vibrant themes of exotic Egyptian iconography with Freemasonry symbolism, the opera depicts a universal lesson in morality, unity and kindness.  And if all that sounds unusually weighty Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto is the stuff of classic fairy tales.

Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night), David Portillo (Tamino)in the WNO’s The Magic Flute. Photo credit by Scott Suchman

The eye candy comes from the genius of children’s book writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak who designed both costumes and scenery.  Using a layered construction of fourteen entirely different sets involving wings, borders, flats and colored cloths that draw the eye into an ever-deeper perspective, the scenery is wonderfully whimsical and darkly haunting – think children’s pop up books which, according to Sendak’s friend and collaborator, Neil Peter Jampolis, is exactly the look Sendak was aiming for.

Michael Adams (Papageno), Alexandra Nowakowski (Papagena) in The WNO’s The Magic Flute. Photo credit by Scot tSuchman

It was discovered that the original sets had deteriorated.  So, how would these old sets be replicated?  Enter veteran set designer Jampolis who digitized the designs from Sendak’s original drawings.  What a treat for new audiences! since it affords us the thrill of imagining we are time-warped to 1980 when the Houston Grand Opera initially commissioned Sendak.  Fusing the neo-classical of the 18th century with pure folly, Sendak gives us a mashup of temples and palm trees coexisting with wild animals, Corinthian columns and sphinxes.

The Washington National Opera presents The Magic Flute. Photo credit by Scott Suchman

Masonic elements are everywhere.  Look for the clues.  From the Golden Mean compass half-hidden behind a massive rock, to the aprons and blindfolds used in Masonic rituals.   Sendak didn’t miss a single beat.  The splendid costumes range from dreamy fairy tale to British Colonials in perukes and britches meeting in secret ceremonies with blindfolded acolytes.  It’s pure science fiction, if you think about it.

Wei Wu (Sarastro), Alexander McKissick (1st Armed Man), Samuel J. Weiser (2nd Armed Man) in WNO’s The Magic Flute. Photo credit by Scott Suchman

A collection of magnificent voices brings this can’t-miss production to a crescendo.  The golden genies – three local youngsters whose harmonies are positively angelic, the breathtaking diva Kathryn Lewek who proves that three-plus octaves in her second act aria is no sweat, and the good looks and athleticism of Michael Adams as Papageno and tenor David Portillo as Tamino, are the icing on this delicious multi-tiered cake.  David Cangelosi as Monostatos shows his comic timing and brazen silliness is spot on, most especially in a scene with a bare-breasted statue and I was taken by surprise by the lovely voiced Alexandra Nowakowski as Papagena.

Don’t miss this full-throttle two-acter singspiel.  It’s epic!

Also featuring Sydney Mancasola as Pamina, Kathryn Lewek as Queen of the Night and the powerful bass, Wei Wu, who reminded me of Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz, as the evil Sarastro.

Conducted by Eun Sun Kim, directed by Christopher Mattaliano, Set Design and Lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis with the Washington National Opera Orchestra and the Washington National Opera Chorus.

Performances are as follows: November 6, 9, 12, 15, 17 (matinee only) & 23.

At the at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Right to be Forgotten ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 27, 2019 

In Sharyn Rothstein’s clever play, Right to be Forgotten, the dilemma of the right to privacy in the digital age versus free speech gets a full-throttle examination.  Is the internet our friend or is it our undoing?  As a starry-eyed teen, Derril, followed his crush, Eve, around town until, feeling fearful of his unwanted attention. she reported him for stalking.  A blog called the ‘High School Girl Blog’ was created and outed him by name.  From that moment on Derril became the personification of a stalker.  As the blog went viral it encouraged any woman who had ever been stalked to post their experience.

(L to R) John Austin (Derril Lark) and Shubhangi Kuchibhotla (Sarita Imari) in Right to be Forgotten. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Now Derril is trying to get his PHD, have a career, and woo Sarita, a quirky girl, who likes him but is afraid to continue the relationship.  When she googled him up, she saw the damning comments that were still online.  The tricky bit is Derril refuses to change his name – a part of the plot that is hard to understand.  He chooses instead a privacy rights attorney hoping he can sue to have the posts removed and clear his name.  “Always there is this other me online,” he tells Marta who finally agrees to take his case.

Marta’s plan is to have him go public and to that end she takes him to a conference, “The Future of a Free Internet”, where he bursts onto a stage, tells his story and gets unceremoniously tossed out. Because everyone wants a free internet.  Right?  Or, well, not until it threatens their entire future.

John Austin (Derril Lark) in Right to be Forgotten running. Photo by Margot Schulman.

There are twists and turns when Marta tries to get her former colleague, Annie, to see it her way.  Now a bigwig corporate attorney representing internet companies, Annie plays hardball undermining Marta and planning a secret strategy involving a certain politician currently running for office.  Will the two women broker a deal to get the web links removed or will Marta resort to blackmail?  And will Eve find feel remorse for subjecting Derril to a lifetime of hateful trolling?  Alas, we are the ones left to ponder if free speech trumps hate speech and if privacy laws are archaic in the face of technology’s multi-faceted reach.  We are reminded that in 2014 the EU required search engines to create a “right to be forgotten” procedure.  We have no such protocols in the U. S.

Guadalupe Campos (Eve Selinsky) in Right to be Forgotten. Photo by Margot Schulman.

If you liked Dear Evan Hansen and remember how young Evan’s relationship with the internet nearly destroyed his life, you will love how this play turns out.  Did I mention that there’s a ton of comic relief?  Thanks to Marta’s character who is hilariously conniving and played brilliantly by Melody Butiu, there is a lot to love in this cautionary tale performed by a flawless cast and set against a techie’s dream of a set design by Paige Hathaway.

Highly recommended.

With John Austin as Derril Lark; Guadalupe Campos as Eve Selinsky; Rachel Felstein as Annie Zahirovic; Shubhangi Kuchibhotla as Sarita Imari; and Edward O’Blenis as Alvaro Santos.

Directed by Seema Sueko; Costume Design by Ivania Stack; Lighting Design by Adam Honoré; Sound Design by Andre Pluess; and Projection Design by Shawn Duan.

Through November 10th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Everybody ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
October 23, 2019 

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ galvanic drama Everybody starts off innocently enough.  A roving narrator walks on and off stage instructing the audience on proper theater etiquette.  It’s a pleasant, meaningfully comedic, warm-up, yet it’s the sort of thing that throws you off your game before this existential exercise in Life and Death gets underway.

Elan Zafir as Beauty, Alina Collins Maldonado as Five Senses, Ayana Workman as Strength, Nancy Robinette as Death, Avi Roque as Mind, and Kelli Simpkins as Everybody. ~ Photo credit DJ Corey.

The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  And that says a lot.  But what’s just as interesting is the historical background from whence it is based.  Discovered as a 15th century medieval play, it was later adapted into a Dutch play that was influenced on a Buddhist fable.  As a morality play referencing sin, death and hell, it presents a universality that is palpable.

Nancy Robinette as Death, Clare Carys O’Connell as Time, and Yonatan Gebeyehu as Understanding ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey.

We meet God – a self-absorbed, arrogant, egotistical God who is snide and sarcastic and reveling in his omnipotence.  He’s actually very funny and so are the mortals, called ‘Somebodies’, because, well, they’re us warts and all.  When Death arrives, having been summoned by God to round up the unsuspecting Somebodies for their last ticket on earth, you’d be right on the money if you thought there’d be hell to pay.  “No one living gets away,” says Death ironically.

The cast of Everybody ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey

But oh, the angst and guilt when they are called to account.  Were they worthy of this life? Were they charitable? Can they be spared?  Everything devolves into utter chaos when God appears with a lottery wheel symbolizing the randomness of death.  “Is it all lies, delusions, nothingness?” the narrator wonders.  The sense one gets is an out-of-body experience, a wholesale questioning of life’s purpose.

Yonatan Gebeyehu as Usher and Nancy Robinette as God ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey.

Everyman wants to know if his death sentence is a dream or reality and we follow along as he desperately recounts his fears and insecurities, his faults and his beliefs.  Death has told him he can take someone with him, so he won’t feel so alone when his time is up.  Unsurprisingly, neither friend nor family will oblige him yet in those heartless rejections are some of the funniest bits of the dramedy.  There, and with ‘Stuff’.  The character represents the concept of all our precious stuff, how it controls our lives and how you can’t take it with you, not even a single treasured possession.  “I’m just a collector of inanimate objects,” one of the Somebodies grimly admits.

Alina Collins Maldonado as Stuff and Kellli Simpkins as Everybody ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey.

The part of Everyman is played by a rotating cast of actors with each performance… the randomness factor.  They are pulled from the group of five Somebodies and never know when they will be playing that particular role.  That, in and of itself, creates 120 possible cast combinations.  But Everyman is the most powerful role.  On Monday night Everyman was played by the Trans/Non-Binary actor, Avi Roque, who lent a powerfully cool street vibe to the character.

Avi Roque as Cousinship ~ Photo credit by DJ Corey.

I’d be utterly remiss if I didn’t offer up huge kudos to Director Will Davis who sums it up this way, “What does all of this, Life, possibly mean? What do we do if it means nothing?  And if it means nothing, how can I prepare myself for my own death – not to mention the death of others? How do I conceive of where my loved ones go – is ‘go’ even the right verb in this context?”  I’m sure that by the end of this deeply probative, wildly dramatic, visually stunning production you’ll be asking yourselves the same question.

A brilliant cast!  Highly recommended.

With Yonatan Gebeyehu as Usher/God/Understanding and Nancy Robinette as Death; the Somebodies are played by Alina Collins Maldonado, Avi Roque, Kelli Simpkins, Ayana Workman and Elan Zafir; Clare Carys O’Connell as Girl/Time; and Ahmad Kamal as Love.

Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado, Costume Design by Melissa Ng, Lighting Design by Barbara Samuels, Sound Designer and Composer, Brendan Aanes, and Fight and Intimacy Choreographer, Cliff Williams III.

Through November 17th at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information contact the box office at 202 547.1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.

The Haunting of Hill House ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
October 21, 2019
Special to The Alexandria Times

A highly regarded American mystery writer firmly ensconced in lofty literary circles, author Shirley Jackson had a way with things that go bump in the night.  Through her horror novels, The Haunting of Hill House and later, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, both of which predated both Stephen King and Anne Rice, she became an icon in the field of horror writing.  Joyce Carol Oates who edited an anthology of Jackson’s work wrote, “Characterized by the caprice and fatalism of fairy tales, the fiction of Shirley Jackson exerts a mordant, hypnotic spell.”

Danielle Taylor (Mrs. Dudley) ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

As a result of her influence on the genre the Shirley Jackson Award, created posthumously, is given for Outstanding Achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror and the dark fantastic.  Somewhat recently there has been a real revival of Jackson’s novels.  Netflix’s first season series of The Haunting of Hill House debuted in 2018 and will follow up with a second season in 2020.

James Murphy (Luke) Bruce Alan Rauscher (Dr. Montague)  ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

To get us into the Halloween frame of mind and encourage a visit from the spirits of the dead, Director Maggie Mumford takes us into the confines of Hill House – a dreary castle where a young poltergeist; a professor, his wife and her lover; a society gamin; the handsome heir to the mansion; and a ghoulish housekeeper have gathered to research paranormal activity.  Well, not the housekeeper, she’s just a cringe-worthy overseer.

Bruce Alan Rauscher (Dr. Montague) James Murphy (Luke) Kirk Lambert (Arthur) Patricia Nicklin (Mrs. Montague) Shannon Labadie seated (Eleanor) Kathy Ohlhaber (Theodora) ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

Set in a Victorian era parlor beneath a portrait of the late owner, the characters slowly reveal themselves, and their motives.  Luke Sanderson’s aunt is the current owner of Hill House. He’s a dashing young man and frequent tippler whose intentions are to support Dr. Montague, the lead investigator.  Eleanor is the pretty, and peculiar, young woman whose mother recently passed away, and Theodora, an outspoken young woman full of frolic, who befriends the brooding girl forming a sisterly bond to protect her against the spirits who haunt the house after sundown.  Under a pall of family scandal, madness, suicide, murder and lawsuits, the motley crew attempts to document supernatural phenomena within its evil walls.  As Dr. Montague tells the assembled invitees, “Some houses are just born bad.”

Kirk Lambert (Arthur) Patricia Nicklin (Mrs. Montague) Shannon Labadie (Eleanor) ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

But it isn’t until Mrs. Montague arrives with her crusty lover, and a planchette as spirit guide, that the house revs up its hauntings with ominous creaks, ferocious knocking, howling winds and troubled spirits crying out from the grave.  Credit Sound Designer, Janice Rivera, Lighting Design by JK Lighting Design, and period costumes by Jean Schlicting and Kit Sibley for a spooky experience that goes far beyond the horribly stilted, and entirely re-imagined drama, that has recklessly been co-opted from Jackson’s original novel.  I don’t have the heart to fault the actors, they are trying to breathe life, or death as it is, into the whole exasperating script.

James Murphy (Luke) Kathy Ohlhaber (Theodora) Shannon Labadie (Eleanor) ~ Photographer: Matt Liptak

With Shannon Labadie as Eleanor, Kathy Ohlhaber as Theodora, Bruce Alan Rauscher as Dr. Montague, James Murphy as Luke Sanderson, Patricia Nicklin as Mrs. Montague, Kirk Lambert as Arthur Parker, and Danielle Taylor as Mrs. Dudley.

Through November 9th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com

Broadway Center Stage presents – Footloose ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
October 12, 2019 

Yet another show with a huge fan base culled from those who have seen, or performed in, countless high school productions around the country.  Having been both a movie and a Broadway show it tells the story of a student who organizes his classmates to fight an ordinance that outlaws dancing.  See, students? You can change the status quo.

J Quinton Johnson, Peter McPoland, and Company ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel

High school senior Ren and his single mom Ethel leave the bright lights of Chicago for Beaumont, Texas where Ethel’s sister and brother-in-law live.  As they try to adjust to small town minds and small town politics, Ren soon discovers he’s seen as an outsider and the girl he likes, Ariel, has a vengeful boyfriend.  “Everything you do is suspicious,” he’s told.  To make matters worse, Ariel doesn’t make it easy for Ren to court her since her father, the town preacher, wants to keep a tight rein on his rebellious daughter.  Naturally, Ren comes out the hero when he stands up to the town elders and convinces Ariel’s conservative dad that it’s time to let the kids put on a dance.  It’s a thin, predictable plot on which loosely hangs the dancing and singing.

J Quinton Johnson and Isabelle McCalla ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Although Spencer Liff’s choreography is an absolute wonder and the dancers are wildly talented, if it weren’t for the tight cast led by the mesmerizing J. Quinton Johnson as Ren, the huge vocal talents of Isabella McCalla as Ariel, and the adorable scene-stealing Peter McPoland as Willard, this show would be in the dust bin.

Lena Owens, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz, Isabelle McCalla, and Grace Slear ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Nevertheless, the audience went wild for the major chart toppers – “Footloose”, of course, and “Holding Out for a Hero”, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”, and “Almost Paradise” by rock composers Kenny Loggins, Dean Pitchford, Tom Snow, Jim Steinman, Eric Carmen, and Sammy Hagar – plus another fourteen numbers added to the mix.

Maximilian Sangerman and Company ~ Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Directed by Walter Bobbie with Judy Kuhn as Ethel McCormack, Michael Park as Reverend Shaw Moore, Rebecca Luker as Vi Moore, Michael X. Martin as Wes Warnicker, Michael Mulheren as Coach Roger Dunbar, Nicole Vanessa Ortiz as Rusty, Grace Slear as Urleen, Lena Owens as Wendy Jo, Joshua Logan Alexander as Chuck Cranston, Jess LeProtto as Lyle, J. Savage as Travis, Rema Webb as Lulu Warnaker, Eleanor Dunbar and Betty Blast, Jamar Williams as Jeter, Nick Martinez as Bickle, Gregory Liles as Garvin and Maximilian Sangerman as Cowboy Bob.

Through October 14th at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.