for the Alexandria Times
April 8, 2013
The Mountaintop runs March 29-May 12, 2013 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Illustration by Tim O’Brien.
When playwright and actor Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop was staged on Broadway in 2011 it starred Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson, two of the finest American actors we know. But with Arena Stage’s latest production, irresistibly directed by Robert O’Hara, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the roles except the current stars of this production – Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Joaquina Kalukango as Camae.
From the moment the lights go up on Clint Ramos’s set design of the iconic Lorraine Motel, all the images of that tragic day come flooding back. The dark-suited men on the second floor balcony pointing to the direction where the bullets had been fired, the foreboding sky, and the subsequent revelations of how we lost one of the country’s most powerful civil rights leaders on the night after he gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee.
Joaquina Kalukango as Camae and Bowman Wright as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Hall’s play imagines that rainy night and King’s conversations with Camae, a hotel maid, who brings a cup of coffee to his room and stays with him until that fateful hour. Camae is a sassy, sexy, amusingly profane foil for the serious preacher. “I need a needle and thread to sew up my mouth,” she confesses after one too many f-bombs. With her Pall Malls tucked in her bra, “My daddy said Kools’ll kill ya”, and her flask cached in her stocking top, she appeals to King’s well-known weaknesses and they spend the evening flirting and talking of race relations and the War on Poverty. He is working on a speech in Room 306, more familiarly known as the King-Abernathy Suite, and it is clear he is easily distracted by her not inconsiderable charms.
As the night progresses and the rain turns to light snow, King’s visions and suspicions of her uncanny knowledge of his childhood name bring out his paranoia. “Fear has become my companion,” he admits. “I know the touch of fear even more than I know the touch of my own wife.” To recount the subsequent plot twists would be to act the spoiler, so I’ll put it a pin in it from that point on.
Crafting an engrossing script for an audience who knows the outcome of these historical events can be challenging, but Hall delivers with electrifying dialogue and inspiring originality and both Wright and Kalukango are seamlessly convincing.
Well worth noting are Lighting Designer Japhy Weideman and Projection Designer Jeff Sugg whose evocative special effects conjure the mood of the night and in a surprising ending use flashback projections to depict one of the most radically tumultuous eras in American history.
Through May 12th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 484-0247 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.
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March 31, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
(L-R) Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as Elizabeth Keckly and Naomi Jacobson as Mary Todd Lincoln – Photo by Scott Suchman.
Four indisputably exceptional actors command the stage at Arena Stage’s world premiere of Mary T. and Lizzy K. Of that there should be no argument. They are a master class in acting – - powerful and fierce in their portrayals of their roles. But what’s troubling here is not the fine acting by Naomi Jacobson as Mary Todd Lincoln, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as Mary’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly, Thomas Adrian Simpson as Abraham Lincoln, and Joy Jones as Lizzy’s assistant, Ivy, it is the disjointed script and tedious dialogue by Tazewell Thompson, who also serves as the play’s director. Adapted from the book Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly by Jennifer Fleischner, Thompson’s attempt to portray the women as friends is a flimsy frame on which to hang the plot.
Tazewell’s own notes describe the two women’s relationship as a “partnership and sisterhood…a formidable alliance”. But is it really? Mary holds Lizzy in her thrall by not paying her for the last twenty-seven ensembles. A condition that would be more aptly referenced as indentured servitude. The play slogs on as Mary degrades and belittles Lizzy, begging then ordering her to make another frock to wear to her countless parties, to which Lizzy capitulates, “Tell me who I am and what I must do for you.” Though Lizzy has already bought her freedom, Mary clearly has taken ownership of Lizzy’s life. Far from an equal relationship, it seems more akin to the Stockholm syndrome.
Naomi Jacobson as Mary Todd Lincoln and Thomas Adrian Simpson as Abraham Lincoln – Photo by Scott Suchman.
Mary’s lavish spending and melancholia have been well documented in many historical writings, yet Tazewell’s interpretation puts the focus exclusively on these two points. These are Mary’s opening lines, “An Indian spirit is removing the bones from my cheeks. I am inundated by strangers that invade my thoughts.” Is this a woman who might be considered a reliable friend? The director defines their “friendship”, as “marked by its warmth, trust, intimacy and loyalty.” You may recall that slave owners also referred to their house servants as loyal and trustworthy.
Thompson imagines Mary as bipolar – by turns ferociously jealous, vengeful, bullying and delusional, then flipping like a light switch into girlish charm and political shrewdness. She would give Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf a run for her money. Certainly there were moments I thought I had stepped into the wrong theatre.
Tazewell’s odd device to hold this disjointed piece together is Mary’s preoccupation with her clothes. Mind numbing nattering about the fashions of the day fill the script and stunt the play’s momentum.
Mary spends a great deal of time center stage on a trunk, while Lizzy and her indentured assistant Ivy, conduct fittings. Mary carps about the perils of her unwieldy dresses – - bones and stays, crinolines and hoops, and a device worn under the dress called a “pagoda” that she loathes yet cannot do without – - and yet she wants more clothes, more shoes, more hats and more shopping sprees. See what comes of being a clotheshorse, the play seems to say.
(L-R) Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as Elizabeth Keckly, Naomi Jacobson as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joy Jones as Ivy and Thomas Adrian Simpson as Abraham Lincoln – Photo by Scott Suchman.
As for the costumes by designer Merrily Murray-Walsh, they accurately reflect the popular 19th C fashions of the day from Godey’s Lady’s Book, but designer Donald Eastman’s set, described in the playbill as “a room”, is little more than a smattering of piled up trunks, an unhung chandelier and an armoire, looking more like the contents of an attic than a proper Victorian parlor.
Through April 28th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 484-0247 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.
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February 27, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
The cast of Metamorphoses Ashleigh Lathrop, Lisa Tejero, Raymond Fox, Doug Hara, Chris Kipiniak, Tempe Thomas, Lauren Orkus, Geoff Packard and Louise Lamson – Photo by Teresa Wood.
At Arena Stage’s Mead Center, Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses is presented on a stage transformed by a giant central pool. Ornamented by a single crystal chandelier, the shallow pool is surrounded by wooden decking, which the actors walk, run, skip, and crawl on when not actually in the water, faux swimming, having sex or merely drowning. By my count there are eleven separate stories from David Slavitt’s translation of Ovid’s masterpiece written in 8 A.D., by the Latin poet describing the history of the world. A weighty proposition with the only constant being change.
Most of the vignettes here are the familiar cautionary tales of greed, lust, incest…oh let’s just say the seven deadly sins and call it a day. The actors play multiple parts in a whirlwind of clever costume changes that serve to clarify segues to the next story. This proves helpful since the program makes no attempt to list the multiple roles each actor portrays, nor the individual vignettes.
There’s a lot to be said for brevity when it comes to complex themes of love and loss and in these stories, the objective is clear. In each piece we meet the hapless cast of characters and learn of the hot mess they’ve gotten themselves into, usually expressed by the muse or the god positioned slightly off stage. The frailties and passions of mere mortals are highlighted, while the gods, busy spewing their edicts and curses, are fodder for ridicule. Drum roll, please. Et voila! The moral of the story is revealed for all time, sometimes after a vision quest.
The play begins with Zeus explaining the creation of the world – birds, fish, game, paradise – brief pause – and man was born. The choice of Midas as the opening myth, is a good one, since pretty much everyone knows the tale of the greedy king who wished everything he touched turn to gold.
Chris Kipiniak and Ashleigh Lathrop – Photo credit Teresa Wood
Ashleigh Lathrop plays his devoted daughter. The sylphlike Lathrop, all angles one moment all undulating curves as Myrrha in another tale, is captivating. When Midas explains his desire for gold, “It’s all for the family,” he insists, Bacchus sends his emissary in a leopard loincloth, a bottle of wine secured in a paper bag. “What is the secret to eternal life?” Midas inquires. When the drunken Selinus, pointing to his head, replies, “It’s here!” – it’s a no brainer.
But Midas, not one for subtleties, demands his wish be granted and Bacchus complies. In a magnificent scene his daughter, clad in a white lace dress runs through the water to her father, wrapping her legs around his waist. As she becomes the solid gold he wished for, she is bathed in a golden beam of light.
Lighting Designer T. J. Gerckens and Set Designer Daniel Ostling have crucial tasks since there are no set changes and no curtains to draw in this theater-in-the-round, or in this case, rectangular. Along with Sound Designer Andre Pluess, there is a great deal of ambiance and suggestion necessary to support the dialogue and it is exquisitely manifested here.
Doug Hara in Metamorphoses – Photo by Teresa Wood
In another of Zimmerman’s interpretations, Phaeton, son of the Sun God Apollo, floats on a raft in bright yellow swim trunks and wraparound Oakleys – a portrait of the ne’er-do-well scion asking for the keys to dad’s car. To which Apollo responds tongue-in-cheek, “Don’t fly too high!”
In this piece an analyst sits off to the side of the pool and opines, “Myths are the earliest form of science and dreams are private myths.” It is the most revealing moment in the play as to the dramaturg’s motivation and unfortunately we don’t hear it until the ninth story. One wonders if the next line is not autobiographical as the analyst declares, “It is impossible to speak of enigmatic things – both privately and publicly.” Metamorphoses shows that it is possible to speak of enigmatic things when they are brilliantly interpreted and directed by Zimmerman, passionately performed by the entire ensemble, and magnificently staged.
At Arena Stage through March 17th. For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.
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Special to MD Theatre Guide
May 23, 2011
Judge Omar Noose (Evan Thompson), Carl Lee Hailey (Dion Graham), center, and Jake Brigance (Sebastian Arcelus) in John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill”. Photo Credit Arena Stage
In the dog days of summer in a muggy Mississippi courtroom in rural Ford County, the chilling details of Pete Willard’s confession to the recent rape and torture of Tonya Hailey, a 10-year old black girl, are read by the judge. At the pre-trial hearing the father of the child, Carl Lee, stands stoically in attendance, as the twisted brutality of the heinous crime is revealed. Willard and his drug-dealing redneck crony, Billy Ray Cobb, are the accused. Their yellow Ford pickup with the Confederate flag mounted on the back, was spotted at nearby Lake Tutula. With a signed confession in hand and the victim clinging to life, it’s all but a slam dunk for the prosecutor, until Carl Lee guns down the defendants in cold blood and the air is sucked out of the theatre by the sound of gunshots.
It is the first of Grisham’s crime novels to be brought to the stage and Tony Award-winning scriptwriter Rupert Holmes’ adaptation is certain to be considered a classic along with successful courtroom dramas like 12 Angry Men and Inherit the Wind.
Though the powerful story is set in the post-Civil Rights era of the South, nothing much has changed in rural Mississippi. Director Ethan McSweeney does much to evoke the period with haunting visual and musical references. The sound of Bluegrass, suggestive of the film Deliverance, intertwines with echoes of “We Shall Overcome” heard beneath the courtroom windows. Walls dotted with ‘50’s era television sets showing scenes of fiery Klansmen spewing racist hatred are layered with the chilling sounds of a child screaming “Daddy! Daddy!” Interspersed with flickering static-filled TV images, DC news anchor, J. C. Hayward, plays the role of Felicia Albright trial reporter.
As further mood-enhancement, Set Designer James Noone’s clever layout rotates the stage morphing it from a courtroom into the home-under-Klan-siege of the Brigance family, and back again. Lighting Designer York Kennedy boosts the somber mood with the blades of a ceiling fan casting spinning shadows across the courtroom floor. The only thing missing is the aroma of buttermilk fried chicken and a Mississippi mud cake wafting across the stage.
In one particularly effective staging device, Director McSweeney has Judge Noose (an ironical name not lost on Carl Lee), D.A. Buckley and Defense Attorney Brigance face the audience to make their respective cases, giving the audience the eerie sense that they are involved in the deliberations.
But as with real life there’s also levity amidst the tension, enough to allow the audience, who’ve been gripping their seats, a chance to breathe. Southerners can find humor in a funeral and, true to Grisham’s original novel, it’s reflected here.
There are outstanding performances by Sebastian Arcelus (a Matthew McConaughey look-alike) as ambitious Defense Attorney Jake Brigance and his Junior Leaguer wife, Carla Jane, played by Erin Davie; Brennan Brown as the smarmy District Attorney with political aspirations Rufus Buckley; and Rosie Benton as sharp-witted legal assistant and erstwhile flirt, Ellen Roark (“I make the best damn margarita!”), whose slinky sex appeal charms the judge and seeks to undermine Jake’s marriage.
John C. Vennema crafts the charming Hawaiian-shirted, bourbon-swilling down-and-out attorney, Lucien Wilbanks, whose metaphors, “whiter than an albino mouse in a snowstorm”, are pure down home. But it’s Dion Graham in the role of the 46-year old Vietnam vet, Carl Lee Hailey, who will rip your heart out with his graceful, understated portrayal of the grieving father. “God had a son,” he ironically observes, “He didn’t have a daughter!”
Here’s my verdict. A Time to Kill is a raw and riveting drama that sears with redemptive emotion. It is a mega hit for Arena that should send this production straight to Broadway.
At Arena Stage through June 19th. 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC. For tickets call 202 488-3300 or visit www.areanastage.org.
Running time: 2 hours
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Special to the Alexandria Times
November 6, 2010
Oklahoma! Illustration by Douglas Fraser
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s choice of Oklahoma! as its inaugural show for its glamorous new theatre complex has been questioned around town for weeks. I’ve heard comments ranging from, “I can’t imagine why they would do that old show for their first big spectacle!” to “It’s been staged in every high school in America!” Well, all that is true and irrelevant too.
Oklahoma! set on the Great Plains of the Midwest, is certainly one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s quintessential American musicals and it is only fitting that Arena Stage would choose such a theme to reflect their American Theater nomenclature. With its sweeping score and themes of land rushes and pioneer settlements (who doesn’t know its theme song “where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plains”), this production seeks to reflect those times with a multi-racial cast that is, as the playbill instructs us, more in keeping with early frontier demographics.
At the Fichandler Stage, a theatre-in-the-round built to accommodate 683 seats, there is no waiting for the curtain to rise. The view to the stage is both immediate and intimate. This is both good and bad for the performers, sets, and props, as every glitch is magnified. As well actors must execute four turns during their lines and numbers in order to play to the 360 degree audience, and there is much east, west, south and north-ing in order to achieve this style of presentation. But as no seat is more than eight feet from the stage the audience’s response is visceral.
The incomparable and multi-award-winning performer E. Faye Butler brings her soaring voice and powerful stage presence to the character of the country-wise, no-nonsense Aunt Eller who’s both gentle as a mother lamb and mean as a snake when crossed. Though we meet her on the steps of her porch churning butter, believe me, you would not want to be in her sights when she’s toting a gun.
The company of the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! October 22-December 26, 2010. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
And while there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Eleasha Gamble has one of the most tender and beautiful voices around, a perfectly modulated honey-toned sound that could challenge a nightingale, I found her portrayal of Laurey to be one-dimensional and without subtlety. She lacks the coy factor necessary for us to believe she gives a hoot about Curly. (In all fairness she jumped into this role with two day’s notice.) Yet her voice shines in the duets “Surrey with the Fringe On Top” and “People Will Say We’re in Love”.
But much of the strength of this production’s success comes from the supporting cast. Nicholas Rodriguez as Curly was vocally outshone by secondary cast members, Aaron Ramey as Jud Fry and Cody Williams as Will Parker, whose voice was resonant and expressive. Williams, slim as a minute, ripped up the stage with back flips, leaps, high kicks and soft shoe along with the cast’s other crack dancers. This reviewer thought he and local high school junior June Schreiner, who plays Ado Annie like a fierce and adorable little minx, were captivating together.
Aaron Ramey’s Jud, the dark and brooding farmhand, showed both depth of emotion and breadth of vocal range. Another standout was Nehal Joshi’s comic relief as Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler and ladies’ man.
There are no sets in this version of Oklahoma! leaving it to the audience’s imagination, a tall order for the seasoned theatergoer who has seen spectacular sets designed “as high as an elephant’s eye”. Yet gratefully, this production embodies vitality and high energy, including breathtaking choreography, thanks to Parker Esse and David Leong’s brilliantly executed fight scene.
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