November 11, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
Nyla Rose DeGroat (Ranger Wilson) & Shaina Higgins (Lucy Gale) – photo credit Michael deBlois.
Have you ever been curious about what goes on behind the scenes at battle reenactments? A type of “living history” that focuses on a singular moment in a particular battle and requires the participants to live outdoors, dress in hand-stitched period clothing, carry authentic arms, foodstuffs and field medicines, and speak in the manner of the day, it has become a popular pastime. In Shiloh Rules playwright Doris Baizly provides us not only with an intriguing behind-the-scenes interpretation of the type of people that participate in these activities, but also an exciting multi-layered script. As her character, veteran re-enactor Clara May Abbott (Jean Hudson Miller), puts it, “We play by Shiloh rules. There aren’t any.”
Factoid: Though there are more Civil War battlefields in Virginia than anywhere else in the country, the bloodiest of all the battles was the Battle of Shiloh in East Tennessee where 23,000 casualties were sustained. The hallowed land is now called the Shiloh Battlefield Park where the action takes place.
Karen Lawrence (Cecilia) & Shaina Higgins (LucyGale) – photo credit Michael deBlois
Director Mary Ayala-Bush has chosen to present the play in the round, a decision that creates a super-charged energy level. Drama and comedy converge when six women meet on the battlefield. Clara May, known as the “Angel of Antietam”, is on the Union side with young Meg (Jennifer McClean), a nursing school student. On the rebel front are Cecelia Delaunay Pettison (Karen V. Lawrence), the embodiment of the iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove Southern woman, and Lucygale Scruggs (Shaina Higgins), a gung-ho first timer with a taste for blood in her youthful heart. Each describes a wartime profile of their character.
The rules of the re-enactors are created and overseen by the feisty Widow Beckwith (Adriana Hardy), the head of the “Authenticity Committee”, whose penchant for breaking the very rules she invents is outweighed only by her skewed sense of what is authentic. But Beckwith is outranked by Park Ranger Wilson (Nyla Rose DeGroat), a martinet whose adherence to the park’s rules threatens to upset the ladies’ adventures. Nonetheless it is Wilson, an African-American, puzzled by the women’s zeal to open up the old racist wounds of war, who raises the question, “Why keep fighting it?”
Adriana Hardy (Widow Beckwith) & Nyla Rose DeGroat (Ranger
Wilson) – photo credit Michael deBlois
When the battle begins before dawn before the bugler’s signal, all hell breaks loose. The rebels won’t “fall down”, real weapons are drawn and the action becomes all too real.
Ayala-Bush, who is also the Set Designer evokes the encampment with simple canvas tents on either side of the set – - one for the ladies of the North the other for the South.
left to right, Jennifer McClean, Adriana Hardy, Shaina Higgins, Jean Hudson Miller, Nyla Rose DeGroat & Karen Lawrence – photo credit Michael deBlois
Kudos to the entire cast who are in perfect synch in this outstanding production. Special recognition to Sound Designer Sean Doyle who does a “bang up” job recreating the fusillade of battle.
At Port City Playhouse at The Lab at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302. Performances are on the following dates – Nov. 8, 19, 22, 23, 24, 27 & 28 at 8:00 p.m. Matinees on Nov. 16 & 23 at 2pm. For tickets and information visit www.portcityplayhouse.org.
September 15, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
When Lillian Hellman wrote The Children’s Hour in 1934, it was a very different time…or was it? Hellman was an original, a maverick whose anti-fascist writings branded her a communist and who was later summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee to inform on her fellow writers. Her response to HUAC revealed an early feminist who would defend her rights and those of others. In her writings Hellman concerned herself with social issues of the day, in this drama she points the spotlight on intolerance and fear mongering.
Katelyn Wattendorf (Mary), Ellie Milewski (Evelyn), Cynthia
>Mullins (Peggy) and Jenni Patton (Rosalie)
- photo credit to Michael deBlois
In Port City Playhouse’s latest production, a willful girl claims to have seen and/or heard, depending on her revisionist fantasies, a liaison between the two headmistresses at her posh boarding school. The cast includes nine schoolgirls, a daft aunt, a wealthy grandmother and her housemaid, and a doctor, fiancé to one of the two headmistresses. The play is based on factual events that occurred at a girl’s boarding school in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1809.
Mary Tilford is the original “Bad Seed”. “I’m always getting punished for everything,” she whines to her gullible grandmother in hopes of leaving school. As she ratchets up her stories to make her case, “They’ll kill me. They’ve got secrets…funny ones.” the old lady softens, believing her scandalous tale. When she spreads the vicious lies to all the children’s parents, it brings about the destruction of the headmistresses’ reputations and that of their newly established school.
Carole Steele (Mrs. Tilford) & Katelyn Wattendorf (Mary) – photo credit to Michael deBlois.
The story is gripping and, despite some uneven performances, is a fine play that you may remember was turned into a movie in 1961 starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, with James Garner in the role of the doctor and cousin to Mrs. Tilford.
Katelyn Wattendorf is commanding as the evil-minded and manipulative Mary Tilford, a sociopathic bully who threatens and cajoles in equal measure. Jenni Patton, who plays Mary’s tortured schoolmate, Rosalie Wells, provides the perfect counterbalance with a convincing performance as Mary’s handmaiden. Michelle McBeth playing Karen Wright, headmistress and fiancée to Dr. Cardin, and Chelsey Megli as her cohort Martha Dobie give nuanced performances as the accused women. Carole Steele in the role of the unduly moralistic Amelia Tilford contributes the right measure of grace and iron will to the supercilious nosy parker, while Robin Ann Carter, who was unsteady as the eccentric Mrs. Mortar, played it for laughs in flamboyant Auntie Mame style. Unfortunately the slow pace in the second act threatened to derail the dramatic buildup. Hopefully the kinks will be ironed out by next weekend’s performances.
Chesley Megli (Martha Dobie) & Michelle McBeth (Karen Wright) – photo credit to Michael deBlois
A clever set design by Raedun de Alba serves as both living room and classroom at the school, and later, gussied up with lace and bric-a-brac, as Mrs. Tilford’s drawing room. Scenes with the girls playing at Bonnie and Clyde and reading aloud scenes from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra lend credence to Hellman’s reimagined setting at a girl’s school in Lancet, Massachusetts in 1934. Costume designs by Kit Sibley and Jean Schlichting echo the prim school uniforms and dowager dresses and lace-up footwear of the day.
At Port City Playhouse at The Lab at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302. Performances are on the following dates – Sept. 13, 14, 20, 21, 24, 27 & 28 at 8:00 p.m. Matinees on Sept. 21 & 28 at 2pm. For tickets and information visit www.portcityplayhouse.org.
April 22, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
Chaz Pando as Paul and Dana Gattuso as Ouisa Kittredge – photo credit J. Andrew Simmons
When John Guare’s now iconic play was first produced at the Lincoln Center in New York in 1993, it was a timely concept. Society had been reconfigured over the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s by integration, intermarriage and the acceptance of celebrities mixing with high society – most especially in New York where music, theatre, fashion and the arts have always defined social constructs. They called it “The Jet Set” for its mix of international luminaries and well-heeled travelers. Recreational drugs had a way of bringing unlikely social enclaves together and gallery openings sent the uptown crowd downtown to Soho, the East Village and Tribecca to dip their naïve toes into the newly fashionable unknown. In Six Degrees of Separation Guare visits the evolving complexities of Society vis-à-vis Modern Art at the turn of the decade.
Ouisa and Flan Kittredge are a well-heeled WASP couple who fancy themselves liberal-minded. Flan, a self-styled art dealer, is on the hunt for two million dollars to buy a French masterpiece he intends to flip for a profit to the Japanese. When his wealthy friend, Geoffrey, comes by for a drink they pitch him their idea. Interested, Paul explains his political position as an owner of gold mines in South Africa. “We have to educate the black workers. We’ll know we’re successful when they kill us,” he haughtily states. To which Ouisa replies, “It doesn’t seem right living on the East Side talking about revolution.” Her husband, attempting to soften her stance, clarifies. “Ouisa is a Dada manifesto.”
Chuck Leonard as Flan Kittredge (R) and Chaz Pando as Paul (L) – photo credit J. Andrew Simmons
Thus the stage is set for an existential exercise in compassion, morals and old money when a well-dressed young African-American male knocks on their door, weak from a stabbing, and throws himself on their mercy. He introduces himself as a schoolmate of their Harvard-attending children and just like that, Paul is in the door and in their thrall as they quiz him on literature, art and the “Black Experience”. Paul readily expounds on his intellectual theories and tells them he is the son of famed actor, Sidney Poitier. They agree to back a film festival in New York City if they can act in Poitier’s next film. And as raconteur extraordinaire Paul boondoggles his victims, their involvement becomes compounded by their sympathies. “We turned him into an anecdote to dine out on,” Ouisa admits.
Guare has managed to perfectly capture the mood of the period – White guilt, radicalism of art, sex and politics and the confusion, curiosity and fear that comes from such a dramatic social shift. So successful is this play, based on a true story, that its title has become part of our shared lexicon, a euphemism for how closely we are socially connected. It has even spawned a parlor game called the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” in which two actors can be connected through their films or their love life.
Kyle McGruther as Trent Conway (L) and Chaz Pando as Paul – photo credit J. Andrew Simmons
As Port City Playhouse celebrates its 100th show since its founding, they have chosen the perfect vehicle to launch them into what will be their 36th season. Director Mary Ayala-Bush triumphs in the subtle staging of this production. On a small stage in the round she has managed to choreograph the actors so as to draw in the audience and deliver a feeling of shared experience and believability. Dana Gattuso (as Ouisa), Chuck Leonard (as Flan), Chaz Pando (as Paul), Marcus Anderson (as Rick) and Kyle McGruther (as Trent Conway, Paul’s Henry Higgins) are especially riveting, as is a cameo by Daniel McKay (as the gay hustler).
Port City Playhouse at The Lab at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302. Performances are on the following dates – Apr. 19th, 20th, 26th, 30th and May 3rd and 4th at 8pm. Matinees on Apr. 27 and May 4th at 2pm. For tickets and information visit www.portcityplayhouse.org.
February 22, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
Morgan played by Elliott Bales, Angus by Paul Tamney and Miles by Daniel Westbrook – Photo Credit Michael deBlois
Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, performed by Port City Playhouse is by turns a darkly funny and deeply poignant piece of theater that examines the bonds of friendship and the deeds that define altruism. It’s the summer of 1972 in rural Ontario, Canada when Miles (Daniel G. Westbrook), an aspiring young playwright looking for material for his drama class at a nearby college, arrives at the door of a rundown farmhouse offering to lend a hand in exchange for a glimpse of farm life. What follows is a tightly crafted piece of theater that reveals two men bound together by tragedy and loss, and another whose observations and willingness to listen afford a kind of healing. The powerful tragicomedy is reminiscent of the Rain Man and George and Lennie’s relationship in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Morgan (Elliott Bales) and Angus (P. Spencer Tamney) were boyhood friends who served together in London during World War II. One night in a bombing raid, Angus was hit by an explosive resulting in his inability to remember anything for more than a short time. “All he knows is right now!” Morgan tells Miles, though Angus’s mathematical calculations are as skillful as a savant. Still Morgan strives to keep day-to-day life unchallenging to avoid provoking Angus’s migraine-inducing memories.
With his notebook at the ready, Miles records the pair’s every word searching for insights along with farming wisdom. Angus is eager to recount what little he remembers of his life before the accident, but Morgan, who discusses the price of eggs with the same intensity as he pulls the wool over Mile’s eyes, tries to keep the dramatist at arm’s length, telling him to rise at three a.m. to rotate the crops from one field to another, “You break it up into pieces no bigger than you,” he teases the visiting rube, while instructing him to pick corn kernels out of cow puddles with a serving fork.
The Drawer Boy – Angus & Morgan - Photo Credit Michael deBlois
It is only when Miles looking for a deeper understanding of their lives begins to extract Angus’s long hidden emotions that the men’s painful story is revealed and the tragedy of their lives unfolds.
Michael Healey’s drama comes out of a true story of a group of actors who in the 1970’s visited the heartland of Canadian farms interviewing farmers and their families and learning their stories. Nearly a quarter of a century later, after meeting with the same people whose stories were used in the project, Healey was inspired to write The Drawer Boy as a tribute. [Reviewer’s note: In the interest of clarification, Angus is the “drawer boy”, a reference to his skill at rendering architectural plans. Though until this fact was revealed in the second act, I had been nervously awaiting a small child to emerge from a drawer.]
Jennifer Lyman directs this unforgettable play produced by Carol Strachan and Alan Wray. It’s the perfect cast and the perfect piece for Port City Playhouse’s continuing season of thought-provoking socially relevant theater.
At The Lab at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302. Performances are on the following dates – February 22nd, 23rd, and March 1st, 2nd, 5th, 8th and 9th at 8pm and matinees on March 2nd and 9th at 2pm. For tickets and information visit www.portcityplayhouse.org.
November 5, 2012
Special to The Alexandria Times
The Soul Collector brings us into the Cleveland, Ohio junk-strewn home of two African-American men, Darnell (Chaz D. Pando) and his uncle Cedric (DeJeanette Horne). It’s 1972 and the men are city sanitation workers. Cedric has raised the boy since his parents died in an auto accident. We are greeted by a set filled with nostalgia of the day – old skis, a Snoopy phone, a sled, mementoes of everyday life plus shelves of figurines – the sort ladies kept on fireplace mantels.
Darnell is an untalented but doggedly aspiring Motown songwriter whose passion for music is turning Christmas carols into love songs while plunking out the melodies on a tiny child’s piano. He is locked in a time warp since the day he lost his parents in a Christmas Eve auto accident when he was a child. Cedric has a different plan. He hopes Darnell will be his partner in a chicken wing restaurant. “This is a calling,” he insists trying to convince his nephew. “Maybe it’s the wrong number!” snaps Darnell urging his uncle to forget about waitresses sporting huge chicken wings.
Chaz Pando (l) as Darnell and DeJeannette Horne (r) as Cedric – photo credit to Michael deBlois
Their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Coleman (played by Donnell S. Boykin and Kecia A. Campbell respectively), are both their landlords as well as their close friends, visiting the apartment and delivering some of the funniest lines of the show.
When a shape-shifting spirit pops out of a box and into their lives, they agree to join forces to help her back to life. Claire (played by Lolita-Marie) is cursed by two spirits with unrequited deaths – a man who’s a washed-up Jewish talent agent and a Japanese girl killed in Nagasaki in World War II. They decide to care for her by confronting their fears, speaking truth to their lives and letting go of past wrongs.
Washington, DC playwright and actor David Emerson Toney has written a haunting yet redemptive story in comic drama form using a mash up of familiar themes from The Jeffersons, In Living Color (where Toney was a staff writer in the ‘90’s) and Sanford and Sons as a stepping off point. He has kept the feistiness and the ethnic humor we remember from these beloved characters from the 70’s hipster genre, but in this play our characters are have more developed personalities and the plot has deeper import. We can no longer treat them as one-dimensional comedic figures, but are compelled to climb into their skins and even more into their souls.
Cris Dinwiddie as Wisher – photo credit to Michael deBlois
When Wisher (Cristopher Dinwiddie) appears in the guise of a morlock threatening to co-opt their lives and wreak vengeance they must rise to each other’s defense. Dinwiddie is brilliant, plumbing the depths of evil personified.
Director Deirdre Starnes has assembled a wondrous cast with no weak links. And kudos to Set Designer/Master Carpenter/Co-Lighting Designer, Frank Pasqualino, who has his masterful handprint on this dramatic production. It’s a perfect piece for Port City Playhouse – deeply affecting coupled with powerful acting. I would see it again for the crack performances if only I could steel my mind against its haunting imagery.
At The Lab at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302. Performances continue on these dates – November 9, 10, 13, 16, 17 at 8pm and November 10 and 17 at 2pm for matinees. For tickets and information call 703 838-2880 or email PortCityInfo.com for reservations or visit www.portcityplayhouse.org.