February 11, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage in Mother Courage and Her Children – Photo by Teresa Wood
I had a terrible sense of dread about Arena Stage’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children… and in Act One it was coming true. But we’ll get to that later.
There was a palpable hush that came over the audience when Kathleen Turner appeared on the stage as Mother Courage in a shiny new version of Bertolt Brecht’s drama, performed in Fichandler’s theater-in-the-oblong space. Turner is an actress of such import that she brings instant gravitas to whatever role she plays and the audience was already pumped up to see her return to Arena Stage since last August’s one-woman show, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.
If the charismatic Turner personified “feisty” in that show, she gives new meaning to the word as a mother who survives the war by her wit and grit. Set in the 1600’s, the play, now a musical, uses the similarities of the Polish-Swedish War and the Thirty Years’ War to crystallize the futility of all wars, while at the same time expressing a tender story of a mother’s uncompromising duty to her children doled out with regular infusions of tough love. But Mother Courage who hauls her vendor’s cart to war zones selling stolen wares to the soldiers on both sides “Wherever there’s corruption, there’s hope,” she avers, cannot protect her children forever. “You thought you could live off the war and keep your family out of it,” the Sergeant admonishes her while recruiting one of her sons.
Director Molly Smith eschews the orchestra pit recruiting actors, for all but the major roles, who are also musicians. To that end the soldiers carry their instruments, accordion, tuba, trumpet or band saw, on stage for all the musical numbers, which gives the play an engagingly surreal dynamic… quirky, surprising and totally Brechtian.
(L to R) Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage and Jack Willis as the Cook in Mother Courage and Her Children – Photo by Teresa Wood
Turner, who makes her singing debut, is clearly the big draw when she is on stage, which is nearly the entire two hours and forty-five minutes of this 1939 satirical tale. Jack Willis is wonderful as The Cook, a pragmatic philosopher who woos Mother Courage even as he is trying to save his own neck – - ditto for Rick Foucheux as The Chaplain, a sanguine dolt who in a twist of fate becomes The Cook’s rival. “A war always has friends,” he quips spouting the gallows humor that weaves in and out of this intricate script.
Like Tolstoy’s War and Peace… a slog to get into until you get past the first hundred pages when it becomes impossible to put down… the play unfolds slowly, thus bringing on my fear that it would be a long night indeed. Yet as soon as Composer James Sugg’s glorious music kicked in, the show revealed songs with the power and haunting quality of Broadway’s Les Miserables. Sigh. If only there were more than eleven numbers.
(L to R) Erin Weaver as Kattrin, Rick Foucheux as the Chaplain, Meg Gillentine as Yvette and Kathleen Turner as Mother Courage – Photo by Stan Barouh
Local actor Erin Weaver does a wonderful job as Kattrin, Mother Courage’s mute daughter, in a performance reminiscent of Patty Duke’s groundbreaking role as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. But the real scene stealing is left to Meg Gillentine as Yvette who electrifies with a slithery tango in the show’s third number, “Each Night in May”.
Through March 9th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.
Kathleen Turner (center) as Mother Courage and the cast of Mother Courage and Her Children – Photo by Teresa Wood
January 21, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Illustration by Ricardo Martinez.
Paul Robeson is a name that many may not recognize in modern day America. If you’re among those wracking your brain to recall his legacy, you can thank J. Edgar Hoover who did everything in his considerable power to erase the memory of this brilliant performer in the American conscious. In Arena Stage’s latest production, The Tallest Tree in the Forest, the reason becomes very clear as to why one of our once most lauded African-American icons is remembered by so few.
For Actor/Playwright Daniel Beaty, the history and legacy of Robeson has become a mission – - for Director Moises Kaufman, who originally commissioned this one-man show as its Artistic Director, its page-to-stage reality is a dream come true.
As the show opens Beaty enters from the top of what appears to be a backstage fire escape leading down to a simply dressed stage. He is singing “Ol’ Man River”, the great Negro ballad penned by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein for Showboat, the iconic production that was Robeson’s Broadway debut. Beaty’s voice is a rich bass-baritone, deeply etched with emotion and suffering, a true reflection of the artist. There will be twelve more songs, plucked from the pantheon of Negro spirituals and Harlem heyday Jazz tunes, to echo the highlights of Robeson’s life and career.
Robeson was a big man in every way. The famous educator and Civil Rights leader, Mary McLeod Bethune, once referred to him as “the tallest tree in the forest”, and it stuck. Well respected as a stage and screen performer, he was also known as a scholar, an athlete and political activist, and to his enemies, a “firebrand”.
Early New York friends with connections to the theatre led him to a life on the stage. And there he might have stayed, if not for his commitment to use his celebrity to fight for human rights and against racism. His experiences put him in solidarity with the oppressed who found a sympathetic voice in Robeson, who had been Valedictorian of his class at Rutgers University where he was their first African-American graduate – - the outspoken student later receiving his law degree from Columbia University. Later, through his worldwide concert tours, he used his influence to rally for social change wherever he went.
In Lenin’s idyllic Bolshevik Russia of the 1920’s, where he witnessed Blacks, Jews and Chinese working together for under Communism, he claimed to have experienced real freedom. “For the first time in my life I was treated as a man. Not just as a Negro,” he would say, though he found things quite different during Stalin’s reign.
The music in this production played by Pianist/Conductor Kenny J. Seymour and backed by two musicians on multiple instruments is rich with meaning and the history of Black America’s struggle. “Go Down Moses”, “Battle of Jericho” and other powerful spirituals echo the pre-Civil Rights era and serve to highlight Robeson’s life and times.
When he brought his experiences and idealism back to America in the early 1950’s he came up hard against Hoover and McCarthyism and the “Red Scare”, a repressive movement that was just beginning to gain steam in tandem with Robeson’s powerful ascent as an activist and performer. Outspoken and fearless, he was branded a traitor. Ultimately it was his unapologetic stance at the House Un-American Activities Committee’s trials that blacklisted him destroying his reputation and costing him his career. “The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for Freedom or for Slavery,” he had declared.
Beaty plays 40 different roles in this riveting production, segueing effortlessly from male to female, black to white, young to old, and American to foreigner, imitating his family, friends and considerable enemies. Told through sketches and vignettes, the course of Robeson’s life and career are highlighted by projections from actual newsreels of the day. You’ll revel in Beaty’s Robeson, as complicated and vibrant and larger-than-life as the man himself.
Through February 16th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org
Daniel Beaty as Paul Robeson in Tectonic Theater Project’s The Tallest Tree in the Forest. Photo by Don Ipock.
December 9, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
(L to R) Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice, Bethany Anne Lind as Joanna Drayton, Tess Malis Kincaid as Christina Drayton and Tom Key as Matt Drayton – Photo by Teresa Wood.
It’s as rare as hen’s teeth for an iconic movie to be adapted for the stage… especially one that made its debut forty-six years ago. A more familiar formula is turning a successful play or book into a blockbuster movie. But in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, William Rose’s Academy Award-winning film script, playwright Todd Kriedler has done the unusual by taking a film known for its big name stars and created a comic drama that is certain to become an American classic. The question on everybody’s lips is, “Is it still relevant today?”
You may remember the original, a classic starring Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier, in which a sophisticated couple’s well-educated daughter brings home a highly educated and much older Black man for dinner, only for her to reveal their love. “My parents love surprises. Surprises make them listen,” she assures him. The liberal-minded Christina (Tess Malis Kincaid) and Matt Drayton (Tom Key), she a gallery owner, he a newspaperman, struggle to accept their children’s romance. “Can I lay down on the ground now?” Christina asks, trying to regain her composure. Basing their disapproval on society’s unwillingness to accept interracial marriage and the struggles they predict will ensue, it all seems clear cut until we discover that Prentice’s parents also share those fears. It’s important to remember that the film came out the same year the archaically titled “Anti-miscegenation” laws were struck down by the U. S. Supreme Court.
(L to R) Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice and Bethany Anne Lind as Joanna Drayton – Photo by Teresa Wood.
In contemporary America where we have a bi-racial President and a recently elected New York City intermarried Mayor, do we still need to examine race relations? The answer from my informal survey is a resounding yes! There are still societal concerns from White as well as African-American parents. Whatever the conflicts, real or imagined, the play offers a challenging and continuing dialogue on the subject from both sides and in this play it is handled with great craftsmanship, sensitivity and engaging humor.
David Esbjornson whose impressive directorial bio is as long as your arm, has assembled a remarkable cast, totally in sync with each other. Malcolm-Jamal Warner, whom you’ll remember as Bill Cosby’s son in The Cosby Show, plays the Poitier role of Doctor John Prentice. Warner shows off his poise and comic timing alongside Bethany Anne Lind who takes a charming turn as the Drayton’s daughter.
Set Designer Kat Conley stages the play in the round, which affords an intimate connection to the audience who vacillate between uproarious laughter and moments of breath-holding anticipation. Setting the mood for the 1967 era play Sound Designer Timothy M. Thompson fills the interstices with Peace Movement songs like “If You’re Going to San Francisco”.
Michael Russotto as Monsignor Ryan – Photo by Teresa Wood.
Much of the snappy repartee comes from Tillie, the Drayton’s tell-it-like-it-is housekeeper, played brilliantly by Lynda Gravatt. “Civil rights don’t mean you trust everyone!” she wisecracks. Another scene-stealer is Michael Russotto as Monsignor Ryan, the Irish priest spewing platitudes and comic retorts to Drayton, who he tries to reason with. Also notable are Prentice’s parents, played pitch perfectly by Eugene Lee and Andrea Frye and Valerie Leonard as Hilary St. George, Christina’s self-righteous gallery assistant.
A strong cast at ease in their well-defined characters soars in this touching and screamingly funny play that has all the elements for success – - humor, sensitivity, a great cast and terrific direction.
Through January 5th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.
November 24th, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
(L-R) Max Heimowitz, John Manzari, Maurice Hines, Leo Manzari and Sam Heimowitz, with members of the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, Photo by Teresa Wood.
On a stage flanked by Mondrian-like color block panels reminiscent of 1960’s television shows, a 9-piece all-female orchestra is cranking out the sounds of “Did You Do That”. It’s an old tune by composer Stanley “Kay” Kaufman, an early creator, manager and conductor for the tap dancing brothers, Maurice and Gregory Hines. Back in the day Kaufman founded the original Diva Jazz Orchestra and now a new crop backs up the Broadway legend in “Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life”. The “Divas” as they are known in jazz circles from Lincoln Center to Birdland to the Apollo Theater, are smokin’ hot and Hines urges them on giving solo turns to noted sax player, Camille Thurman, trumpet player Liesl Whitaker and drummer, Dr. Sherrie Maricle, whom he likens quite accurately to Buddy Rich. Right from the start the joint is jumpin’ and the show has just begun.
The projection panels begin to come alive with intimate family photos, memories of segregation and show biz moments frozen in time. Interspersed between nineteen musical numbers, Hines shares deeply personal stories and his encounters with megastars like Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ol’ Blue Eyes – - the backstory to sixty-five years spent on stage and screen.
Maurice Hines in Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life – Photo by Teresa Wood.
Hines is captivating and stylish. His movements are silken – - his delivery both hipster and sophisticate. He does a modified “moonwalk”. “I love this step. It’s so sexy,” he croons. And it is. But I am waiting for him to tap. Isn’t everyone? He speaks sotto voce about a recent injury. Later he says, “You know I don’t tap much anymore.” But still, he’s suave in a black and white Armani jacket. And we’re totally enraptured by his shtick. Who doesn’t dig a song stylist with crazy, exquisite phrasing? The kind of phrasing that “owns” a song like Frank and Ella and Dino did. Hines learned it and honed it from the greatest of the greats and it shows as he segues seamlessly from Fats Waller honky-tonk to sophisticated ditties by Cole Porter to ballads like “All the Way”. In jazzed-up classic show tunes from Lerner and Lowe, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, and “Get Me to the Church on Time”, in which Hines gives a thumbs up to DOMA, he lures the audience back to the 1950’s and nights at the Moulin Rouge, the first integrated nightclub in Vegas. Some of the songs even use the familiar Nelson Riddle arrangements. In “Luck Be a Lady” we are transported to Vegas sitting tableside with the Rat Pack at the Flamingo Hotel.
Finally in the eighteenth number Hines does a long spin, some rapid-fire tap moves, and a bit of soft shoe. Not a lot, but perfectly executed. And then the Manzari Brothers come on stage and dazzle, really stun with their electricity. They are formidable as expected. Sam and Max Heimowitz, young twins Hines recently discovered in DC, do a short turn with the virtuosos. Now everyone is tapping and all of a sudden the evening feels like a moment in musical stage history. Oh yes, Maurice. You are too “mahvelous” for mere words.
(L-R) John and Leo Manzari in Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life – Photo by Teresa Wood.
Through December 29th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024.
For tickets and information call 202 484-0247 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.
October 25, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
What sort of vacuum will be created when U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan and leave behind the Afghan men and women who aided the soldiers’ mission? Arena Stage playwright-in-residence, Charles Randolph-Wright, poses that question in “Love in Afghanistan”, a romantic drama with sanguinity. Randolph-Wright, who had never visited the country, got some help from former Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, who vetted the script for authenticity.
(L to R) Khris Davis as Duke and Melis Aker as Roya in Love in Afghanistan – Photo by Teresa Wood.
Set in the war torn city of Kabul, African-American hip-hop superstar Duke and his Afghan translator Roya discover their similarities and interpret their struggles in very different ways. Duke is at the height of his music career and Roya, a women’s rights advocate, has risen through the ranks becoming one of the most sought after translators in the city. When she is assigned to Duke during his concert tour at Bagram Air Force Base, they become enmeshed in each others lives.
The four-character play includes Roya’s father, Sayeed, a translator; and Duke’s mother, Desiree, a senior vice-president with the World Bank assigned to the Arab kingdom. All four become caught in a dangerous and complex trap that has both political and emotional consequences. Lies of convenience and lies of survival weave the multi-layered plot together.
Melis Aker provides us with an intensely riveting performance as Roya, an assertive, modern-day Arab woman, raised as a boy. (Under a little known but widespread practice known as “bacha pash” meaning “dressed as a boy”, it’s how a girl child is raised as a boy when a family has no sons.) Joseph Kamal plays Sayeed in a subtle and moving performance of a protective father who nevertheless admonishes his daughter by reminding her, “A woman must not shame a man.”
As the American mission winds down complications arise for Roya and her father. They need visas or they will be persecuted for aiding the Americans. This is where the play’s present-day setting syncs up with real-world politics. Dramaturg Linda Lombardi provides this salient factoid in the program: The U.S. promised to give visas to those Afghans who, risking their own safety and security, assisted their efforts during the war. A special immigrant visa program was created to provide visas to Afghan locals working with the U.S. military. As a direct result of their work, their lives and their families are now in danger. To date the State Department has granted only 22% of the visas allocated.
Will Roya and Duke escape the suicide bombers and conquer the Taliban’s suppression of women’s rights and education? “We live our lives with fear. Not in fear,” Roya tells him. “In fear means that you have given up.” But while translating for a suspected jihadist, Roya herself becomes a scapegoat for a terrorist incident.
Khris Davis convincingly clones Duke, a middle-class rap artist who talks in jive and has moves to match. Davis lights up the stage in whatever scene he is in. Dawn Ursula, as his mother Desiree, is marvelous as the high-powered career woman who discovers the meaning of romance.
Dawn Ursula as Desiree in Love in Afghanistan – Photo by Teresa Wood.
Adding further authenticity and irony to the production, the stage floor features an enormous scarlet-hued Persian rug once belonging to King Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, who created a new constitution with a parliament, free elections, women’s rights and freedom of speech. It’s hard to believe that was less than 40 years ago.
Through November 17th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 484-0247 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.
(L to R) Joseph Kamal as Sayeed, Melis Aker as Roya, Dawn Ursula as Desiree and Khris Davis as Duke in Love in Afghanistan – Photo by Teresa Wood.