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The Shoplifters – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 21, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times 

(L to R) Jane Houdyshell as Alma and Delaney Williams as Otto -Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) Jane Houdyshell as Alma and Delaney Williams as Otto -Photo by Teresa Wood.

Alma is a career shoplifter.  In the stock room of a supermarket Dom, an overly zealous security guard trainee, is attempting to interview the crafty old woman.  The evidence: Two enormous steaks wrapped in white butcher paper upon a long wooden table.  And though Dom claims they tumbled out from under her dress,  Alma refuses to admit her part in it, going to great lengths to demean him as an amateur interrogator.  “Theft is not a motive.  It’s a consequence,” she instructs.

Jayne Houdyshell as Alma - Photo by Teresa Wood.

Jayne Houdyshell as Alma – Photo by Teresa Wood.

The eager gumshoe is no match for the veteran thief and she outmaneuvers him at every turn, twisting his words with theoretical gamesmanship and a knack for intellectualizing crime as a product of societal decay.  “Are you familiar with the myth of Prometheus?” she challenges, suggesting that her theft might be interpreted as a universal benefit to society.

L to R) Adi Stein as Dom and Delaney Williams as Otto -  Photo by Teresa Wood.

L to R) Adi Stein as Dom and Delaney Williams as Otto – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Two more characters enter the scene – Otto, Dom’s superior, a socially conscious  rent-a-cop who plans on retiring after training Dom, and Phyllis, Alma’s partner in crime, a spiritually inclined neurotic who prefers her job as a coat check girl to abetting Alma’s sociologically motivated schemes.

Canadian playwright and director, Morris Panych, has scripted a magnificently layered comedy, turbo-charged with hilarious one-liners, that on closer inspection is not a simple dissection of an interrogation and hoped for confession, but instead an absurdist exercise that would make Kafka proud.  Panych’s use of Otto as the questioner with a lenient view of criminal behavior is as intriguing as his portrait of Dom the bible-thumping do-gooder.  “We are not barbarians!” Otto admonishes Dom, in hopes that he’ll agree to release the women.  But Dom has other ideas and as soon as Otto and Alma leave the room he evangelizes Phyllis.  “Bad things happen for a good reason,” he cheerfully offers.

(L to R) Delaney Williams as Otto, Adi Stein as Dom, Jayne Houdyshell as Alma and Jenna Sokolowski as Phyllis - Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) Delaney Williams as Otto, Adi Stein as Dom, Jayne Houdyshell as Alma and Jenna Sokolowski as Phyllis – Photo by Teresa Wood.

The cast is wonderful, especially given the complex duality of the characters.  Jayne Houdyshell in the role of Alma segues seamlessly from haughty sophist to stink-eyed cynic; Delaney Williams as Otto gives a textured performance as both her accuser and savior; Adi Stein as Dom, the foil, gives a keen portrayal of the overeager cop with psychological issues; while Jenna Sokolowski as Phyllis keeps the energy level high as the neurotic with a conscience.

Ken MacDonald’s brilliant set design consisting of 800 cardboard boxes frames the action.  Soaring to the height of the stage the toast-hued cartons sport the recognizable logos of familiar supermarket brands, further juxtaposing the familiar with the ridiculous.  Tucked between the boxes, randomly placed backlit niches highlight a small collection of everyday jewel-toned grocery items, giving them the illusion of precious objects.

Highly recommended.

Through October 19th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.                     For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Three Sistahs – At MetroStage

Jordan Wright
September 23, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Three Sistahs-Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Ashley Ware Jenkins - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Three Sistahs-Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Ashley Ware Jenkins – Photo credit: Chris Banks

I’m not sure why I’m writing a review of Three Sistahs, Thomas W. Jones II’s multi-award winning musical comedy-drama that opens MetroStage’s 30th season. Thrice presented by Producing Artistic Director, Carolyn Griffin, it has become one of their most beloved productions. (I’m telling you this up front so you’ll call the box office for your tickets before it’s standing room only.)

Rarely do we see so magical a collaboration as this one between Writer/Director Thomas Jones, Composer William Hubbard and Music Director William Knowles with original story by Janet Pryce. Based on 19th C Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” it tells a tale of the Bradshaws – Olive, Marsha and Irene, three sisters in the post-Vietnam War era of Washington, DC who gather in the family’s home for the burial of their soldier brother, Anton.

Three Sistahs-Ashley Ware Jenkins, Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White - photo credit :Chris Banks

Three Sistahs-Ashley Ware Jenkins, Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White – photo credit : Chris Banks

Twenty-one musical numbers form a hypnotic web of stories as the women describe their childhoods, their growing up years and their dreams for the future. So closely does the dialogue weave itself into the music that the transitions between the two are nearly imperceptible.

The incomparable actresses Bernadine Mitchell (Olive) and Roz White (Marsha) reprise their roles from the original production. New to MetroStage is Ashley Ware Jenkins in the role of the feisty Black Power radical, Irene. Jenkins could be Angela Davis’ doppelganger, if you added a major adorableness factor.

Set to a score of Rhythm & Blues and Gospel, with a dollop of Motown, the trio begin to describe their alternate perceptions of life with an autocratic West Pointer for a father whose dream it was to see his only son follow in his military footsteps. The plot is simple but the emotions are not. Each woman brings to the table a different view of the man they feared and loved and we begin to see how their lives were formed. “Daddy believed in that uniform. [He was] a hard man born in a hard time, “ Olive explains to Irene whose anti-war stance is anathema to her sister.

Marsha who calls herself “the middle underprivileged” married early and wonders if there couldn’t be more to life than a husband and six children. Olive, who stayed behind to care for their ailing father and become a university professor, longs for a husband, and Irene who dropped out of college to pursue her political leanings, “Our anger is righteous!” she insists, is finding her footing in a city torn apart by riots and looting. To quash her sisters’ protests, she references Martin, Medger and Malcolm to make her point.

Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Ashley Ware Jenkins - Photo credit: Chris Banks

Bernardine Mitchell, Roz White, Ashley Ware Jenkins – Photo credit: Chris Banks

The show evokes both laughter and tears. One audience member sobbed uncontrollably listening to the heart-wrenching song “Hold Me” in which Olive and Marsha comfort Irene. And there were many moments when I had to focus on taking notes to hold back the tears so powerfully evocative were the emotions of the performers (and audience members) and the memories of the Civil Rights struggles.

But just as quickly as the tears come so does the laughter. In a “Basement Kind of Love” Olive reminisces about her first boyfriend, Cadillac Johnson. After much simulated bumping and grinding, she admits to losing her virginity many times and still looking for it. Mitchell closes Act One to the old gospel tune, “There’s A Leak In This Old Building”, which shows off her gorgeously mellifluous voice to its finest advantage, pairing it to the electrifyingly precise harmonies of White and Jenkins.

Be prepared for a whopper of a show filled with heart and soul and some of the most intoxicatingly glorious voices you have ever heard.

Highly recommended.

Through November 2nd at MetroStage 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314. For tickets and information call 703 548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org.

Nibbles and Sips Around Town – September 2014

Jordan Wright
September 2014
all photo credit to Jordan Wright
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts

A Green Wolf Resides on 14th Street, Tapping the Trees, A Visit to Maple Avenue Restaurant , Station 4 Goes to Valencia for Inspiration and Porchetta for a Crowd at Jackson 20 

One of the most frequent questions I get is, “What is your favorite restaurant?”  It’s a fair question to ask of a food writer, but nearly impossible to answer, because in addition to the tried and true, there are umpteen places opening in our area every day, and really it all boils down to personal taste.  Some want a place to channel their inner romantic, others a cozy spot to hang out with friends.  Some want to see and be seen while others are seeking the ultimate in complex culinary techniques and a gastronomic high.  I, your eager guinea pig, am out there sniffing and sorting, testing and reporting, ever ready to explore and share my impressions with you.

Lupo Verde – A Green Wolf Resides on Fourteenth Street

Since the 1980’s restoration of the Willard Hotel and Santa Fe Chef Mark Miller’s groundbreaking Red Sage restaurant, 14th Street has changed from an XXX-Rated peep show boulevard to a destination for serious food and a cool style.  Beaux Arts buildings have been returned to their former glory and chefs and bartenders are vying for your attention from Pennsylvania Avenue to Shaw and beyond.

Lupo Verde's Pulpo with orzo appetizer

Lupo Verde’s Pulpo with orzo appetizer

One of the newer destinations is Lupo Verde – fast becoming the hottest spot in town with its fantastic house made salumi and exquisite hand-rolled pastas.  Thirty-four year old Calabrian Chef de Cuisine Domenico Apollaro helms the kitchen, bringing his knowledge of Italy’s boot region.  I love this place and its brilliantly authentic Italian cucina.  It’s just like dining with an Italian famiglia.

The corner facing brownstone has been lovingly transformed into a stylishly intimate retreat featuring a downstairs bar, two-level dining enhanced by floor-to-ceiling windows facing the street, and a glass-enclosed meat and cheese larder along the north wall of the dining room.  It’s like gazing through the shop window of a salumeria.

Rosy red Carpaccio at Lupo Verde

Rosy red Carpaccio at Lupo Verde

If you have dined in Southern Italy, you will recognize many of these homespun dishes.  If not, your server will patiently describe them to you.  They are divided by Antipasti, Pizza al Tegamino (a Turin-style pizza served in an iron skillet), Primi, Secondi, Contorni (side dishes).  I cannot to begin to recall all the salumi and fifty cheeses offered (most of which can be purchased to go), but they are either made in-house or sourced directly from Italy.  Ditto for the fruity olive oil from a farm in Italy and accompanies the breadbasket.

On a recent visit we tried one of the many handcrafted cocktails like the Principessa combine blood peach puree, grapefruit bitters and prosecco; or the Sofia made with Don Ciccio & Figli hibiscus liqueur (a locally made liqueur), prosecco and hibiscus flower. 

Squid ink pasta with head-on Shrimp at Lupo Verde

Squid ink pasta with head-on Shrimp at Lupo Verde

A perfect appetizer is Polpo al Cannonau – braised baby octopus with its crimson tentacles encircling a mound of orzo – dotted with seared peaches and flavored with squid ink vinaigrette – as close to coastal Italian as you can get barring a plane ride on Alitalia.  Carpacccio di Carne Marinata is another delicious option – rosy-hued shavings of paper-thin beef atop arugula and local tomatoes with a garnish of padano.

Garganelli, one of the kitchen’s homemade pastas, is featured in a version with asparagus, thyme, bottarga (salted tuna roe) and prawns. Or try the Scialatelli al Nero that boasts head-on shrimp on squid ink pasta with a mix of seafood, egg yolk and saffron broth.  Bravissimo, Chef, for not caving on using head-on shrimp.  All the fat and flavor of these sea creatures is concentrated in the head, and too many chefs are removing the heads, deferring to the quirks of petulant neophobes.  Take courage, dear diners, you don’t know what you’re missing!

The salumi and formaggio at Lupo Verde

The salumi and formaggio at Lupo Verde

In the Calabrian region you can find swordfish on many restaurant menus.  Here it is served as Pesce Spada – a lightly grilled swordfish with mint-lime mascarpone, green bean salad and spaghetti timballo.

And though desserts are predictably simple, as Italians will typically have fruit or cheese and stroll the strada after dinner in search of gelato, they are far preferable after such a large meal.

Brunch at Lupo Verde

Brunch at Lupo Verde

Recently the restaurant launched a Saturday and Sunday brunch that adds breakfast pizzas, Nutella crepes and egg dishes to the menu’s regular fare.  Be sure to order the Cestino di Pane, a basket of assorted sweet breads that includes zeppole.  *You could live on these!  (*This statement has not been approved by the Mayo Clinic.) 

Hot in Vienna – A Visit to Maple Avenue Restaurant 

Last week in New York City, the James Beard House hosted a dinner prepared by the “Rising Star Chefs of Virginia” and Tim Ma, Chef/Owner of Water & Wall and Maple Avenue Restaurant, was one of the five chefs selected to prepare one of the courses.  His dish, “Partridge in a Pear Tree” reflected his playful approach to ingredients and techniques.  Ma used the glorious bird, balancing out its gaminess with braised celery, fresh pears, and foie gras jus.  That would be his way.

Hudson Valley Duck Breast with Quinoa and Spicy Corn Salad at Maple Avenue

Hudson Valley Duck Breast with Quinoa and Spicy Corn Salad at Maple Avenue

Last month I dined at the postage stamp-sized Vienna outpost that Ma developed as his first laboratory.  Many of the dishes used trendy ingredients but were uniquely tweaked – Steamed Prince Edward Island Mussels with saffron coconut broth and spicy Chinese sausage, and another, a bowl of Thai-inspired caramelized okra seasoned with garlic and lime.  Ma doesn’t hold back on chilies or peppers – even Shrimp and Grits gets a toss of piquillos.  For tamer palates there is a Baked Mac and Cheese – a rich blend of blue cheese, cheddar and Gruyere topped with an herbed panko crust.

Seared Scallops with Coconut Risotto at Maple Avenue Restaurant

Seared Scallops with Coconut Risotto at Maple Avenue Restaurant

Entrées are equally creative.  Pressing into service vegetables and meats from neighboring farms, Ma’s style borrows from Southern regional and enhances it with an Asian twist.  I particularly loved the seared scallops with coconut risotto, scallions and basil ice cream.

Please add - Fried Okra at Maple Avenue

Fried Okra at Maple Avenue

As you can imagine, the menu changes with the seasons, so it’s impossible to count on any of the aforementioned, though the website doesn’t appear to have updated its options since the August menu.  Reservations are required.

Hickory Dickory Dock – Tapping the Trees 

Shagbark Hickory Oak -Syrup

Shagbark Hickory Oak

I once dined al fresco on the top of a hill on actor Robert Duvall’s gentleman farm located just outside The Plains, Virginia.  My husband had won the highest bid at a charity auction for a horse-and-carriage ride to his estate that included a champagne-fueled picnic with the organizer.  When we arrived at the house to await instructions as to where to spread out our provisions, I saw one of the most magnificent examples of a Shagbark Hickory tree I had ever seen in all my born days.  It was smack dab in the center of the circular driveway.  Leaping out of the carriage, I loudly identified the tree at the very moment Mr. Duvall was approaching from behind with his wife, the Argentine beauty Luciana Pedraza.  He was impressed I knew what it was and proudly explained it had been designated the Virginia State Champion.  He then directed us to a road that led down into his valley and up again to a hilltop where we were to set up our luncheon, and bade us goodbye.

Minutes later, the couple ascended the ridge and strode towards our little group of now just three, the coachman having passed out in a shed from early tippling.  He asked if they could join us, explaining that anyone who could identify a Shagbark Hickory was someone he was eager to know.  And that is how we whiled away a crisp fall afternoon with Mr. Duvall and his stunning wife.  He is a brilliant generalist and can converse on any topic under the sun and we did.

The reminiscence of that glorious autumn afternoon goes to explain my dot-connecting excitement when I discovered Hickory Bark syrup.  Now you may feel that the connection is a bit of a stretch, but I assure you it is not as the syrup is made not twenty minutes away in Berryville, Virginia.

Falling Bark Farm Wildcrafted Hickory Syrup

Falling Bark Farm Wildcrafted Hickory Syrup

Joyce and Travis Miller of Falling Bark Farm began their business in 2011 making a small batch product foraged from Shagbark Hickory trees that uses a process of extraction that does not harm the trees.  By concocting an extraction made from Hickory tree bark, and later sweetened with turbinado sugar or honey, they can make a sustainable product.

Joyce and Travis Miller of Falling Bark Farm at the Bluemont Festival

Joyce and Travis Miller of Falling Bark Farm at the Bluemont Festival

There are as many culinary uses for this amber-colored syrup as there are for any sweet syrup or honey.  I just used it in place of honey when making a batch of granola, but it’s lovely in yogurt, on pancakes and waffles or on salmon, ham glazes or roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon.  It has a distinct, yet mild, and somewhat nutty flavor.

For the Millers this business came as a bit of surprise.  Though Travis had worked for major supermarket chains, Giant and Safeway, throughout his career he was eager to do something involved directly with customer service.  After retirement he took on cabinet making before launching their syrup at a small farm market in Purcellville, which further led to the Bethesda Farm Market where he began to garner attention from chefs and locals excited about using his hickory syrup.

The couple says that 95% of their business is wholesale.  Some of their loyal clients are the Twisted Vine Wine Bar in Arlington who uses it in brunch dishes and Salamander Resort & Spa, whose Chef de Cuisine Chris Edwards serves it with pancakes and waffles.  In Winchester Chef/Owner Ed Matthews of One Block West uses it in a myriad of ways.  As his menu changes nightly, he recalled a few dishes he has used it in.  For savory dishes he likes to drizzle it over Prosciutto-Wrapped Scallops with Grits; Hickory-Smoked Minnesota Walleye with Asparagus, Radishes, Morels; and Pork and Grits, a dish made of house-cured pork belly, coarse yellow grits, poached egg, and pimentón sauce.  Another application Matthews has employed is as a dipping sauce for an open-faced pork belly sandwich with tangy slaw and a poached egg.

Dessert brings other pleasures to the One Block West table like Hickory Syrup and Black Walnut Gelato; Pumpkin Pie-Spiced Crème Caramel with oatmeal lace cookie, crème Anglaise, chocolate-orange cremoso and hickory syrup.  For this last one Edwards adds a graham cracker crust.

To find it in our area try Glen’s Garden Market and Gone Native Foods at Union Market, both in DC as well as some Whole Foods and Fresh Market stores in Northern Virginia.  They also make a private label syrup for Ash Lawn-Highland and the Mount Vernon Estate.  “We get calls every day from companies wanting to use our product.  Next we plan to work with the Appalachian Brewing Company in Harrisburg, PA who will use our syrup to brew a specialty beer,” Travis says.

Falling Bark Farm’s most deluxe product to date is the 180 Reserve Cask Hickory Syrup.  It is aged for one hundred days in organic rye whiskey barrels from local distiller Catoctin Creek.  To use any of their syrups at home Miller recommends making a 6-1 ratio of seltzer water to syrup for a delicious soda.  He also mentioned making a delicious ham glaze of equal parts of bourbon and syrup.  To order by mail visit www.wildwoodshickorysyrup.com.

Jackson 20’s Splendid Table 

The Porchetta Feast at Jackson 20

The Porchetta Feast at Jackson 20

On a warm end-of-summer evening in Old Town Alexandria we dined al fresco in the courtyard at Jackson 20, a restaurant in the upscale Hotel Monaco.  Teak tables placed in a long row held blue glass candleholders and vases filled with wildflowers.  White linen napkins encircled by silver pig napkin rings stood by each setting and after a few glasses of Gruet an epic feast commenced with house made charcuterie and “pig butter”, a pure lard concoction made for spreading on toast.

An exquisite Farmers Beet Salad of pickled watermelon rind, arugula, BBQ pecans and Pipe Dreams Fromage, a runny, delicate flavored cheese, sat beside another salad of tomatoes and basil.

Porchetta

Porchetta

The special order “Porchetta Roast” dinner is served family style and involves a pork shoulder that is spit roasted with crackling bronzed skin and stuffed with pork sausage.  It was brought to the table on a large wooden platter surrounded by a symphony of Southern side dishes – collards, mac and cheese, biscuits and corn bread and Brussels sprouts with chanterelles.

Beet salad from Chef Brian McPherson

Beet salad from Chef Brian McPherson

Prepared by Executive Chef Brian McPherson, the best part is that with just one week’s notice you can order this fantastic dinner throughout the fall season for a minimum of eight guests at $38.00 per person.

Station 4 Visits Valencia 

Our friends at Station 4 have taken to serving paella on Wednesday nights.  Executive Chef Orlando Amaro will be creating a different Valencian rice dish each week incorporating many of the ingredients he sources from local farmers, fishers and meat purveyors.  Some of the dishes to expect later this month are Del Mar y de la Tierra Paella – a delicious olio of saffron rice, shrimp, mussels, squid, chicken, chorizo and sweet peas on September 17th and Clams and Chorizo Paella made with lobster broth, chorizo, Manila clams, and mixed peppers offered on September 24th.  Paella is priced at $25 for one person or $35 for two guests.  For the perfect pairing try a carafe of sangria for an additional $15.

Tomato Basil Salad at Station 4

Tomato Basil Salad at Station 4

A Streetcar Named Desire – The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
September 15, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Camden Michael Gonzalez (Stanley), Jennifer Berry (Blanche) and Anna Fagan (Stella) - Photo credit Matthew Randall

Camden Michael Gonzalez (Stanley), Jennifer Berry (Blanche) and Anna Fagan (Stella) – Photo credit Matthew Randall

Tennessee Williams’ South was a passionate, languorous, hotbed of emotion.  His characters were real, too real for some when it premiered on Broadway in 1947, but nonetheless part of the daily fabric of life – in high places and low.  In A Streetcar Named Desire Williams cracked open the Pandora’s box of life’s numberless miseries, shining a light on the destructive relationships women accept and the fantasies they concoct to get through the evil that men do.

Considered radical in its day for its themes of homosexuality, immigration, race, class and domestic violence, the subject matter is still searingly relevant today.  And though we have had major advances in women’s rights, we are still grappling with these issues.  How these overlying themes and intense emotions are explored in the play is riveting in a perverse sort of way.  It is poignant and tragic and relevant and grotesquely intimate.

When Southern belle Blanche arrives in New Orleans at her sister’s two-room apartment with a suitcase full of feather boas and heartbreaks, she encounters Stella’s low life of a husband, Stanley Kowalski, a Polish factory worker who is light years removed from the sisters’ highborn upbringing.  Blanche is shocked to see her sister married to a man as abusive and uncultivated as Stanley.  “He’s a different species,” Stella explains.

Blanche tries to charm Stanley with feminine wiles and upper class charm, but he doesn’t buy it, or her excuses of how she was forced to forfeit her family’s plantation home.  He threatens the sisters, demanding his inheritance according to Louisiana’s archaic Napoleonic Code.  Both Blanche, who uses fantasy and seduction to cope with life’s disappointments, and Stella, who confuses brutality with love, allow Stanley to dominate them.

Anna Fagan (Stella) and Jennifer Berry (Blanche) - Photo credit Matthew Randall

Anna Fagan (Stella) and Jennifer Berry (Blanche) – Photo credit Matthew Randall

Anna Fagan plays the submissive Stella, approaching the duality of her character’s Stockholm Syndrome-like condition with a blend of subtle poise and ferocity.  Yet it is Jennifer Berry’s Blanche who has the most quotable lines.  Berry does a fine job of portraying Blanche as both flighty and vulnerable, giving a creditable portrait of a woman clawing her way out of desperate circumstances.  “I haven’t been so good, these last few years,” she admits when accused of debauchery.

Camden Michael Gonzalez (Stanley) - Photo Credit Matthew Randall

Camden Michael Gonzalez (Stanley) – Photo Credit Matthew Randall

Unfortunately this triangle is not equilateral in emotion. Camden Michael Gonzalez seems miscast as Stanley.  In a role that demands more complexity than a one-dimensional portrait of a brute, his Stanley lacks pathos and gravitas.  Surprisingly, the lesser role of Mitch Mitchell, Blanche’s suitor, as played by Marshall Shirley, shows greater depth.

Marshall Shirley (Mitch) and Jennifer Berry (Blanche) - Photo credit Matthew Randall

Marshall Shirley (Mitch) and Jennifer Berry (Blanche) – Photo credit Matthew Randall

Baron Pugh’s clever set design of the apartment’s soulless interior is framed by a two-story muslin scrim that soft-focuses the outside world, yet lets in music and the sights and sounds of the mean streets – often easier to hear than the actors’ lines.  Another wrinkle in this production is the hurried pacing, which feels more industrialized North than unhurried South.  Yet for those who have never experienced a Tennessee Williams’ play, the searing action, plot twists and memorable lines are eternally delicious.

Limited engagement runs through September 28th 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

Belleville – Studio Theatre

Jordan Wright
September 8, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

In Amy Herzog’s Belleville the viewer is afforded a plate glass window onto the seemingly idyllic Parisian life chosen by an attractive young American couple.  Eager to absorb the culture, Abby and Zack, bring their hipster lifestyle to the City of Lights, “Or is it City of Life?” Abby posits.  In their case it becomes a mirror reflecting back their secrets, lies and insecurities.

Jacob H Knoll (Zack) and Gillian Williams (Abby) in Belleville. Photo: Igor Dmitry.

Jacob H Knoll (Zack) and Gillian Williams (Abby) in Belleville. Photo: Igor Dmitry.

Zack has taken a job in Paris working on children’s AIDS research – a cause Abby finds “noble”.  It appears to be somewhat of a charmed life.  But the innocents abroad have brought along more than their dreams and suitcases to the multi-cultural neighborhood of Belleville.  They have packed their emotional baggage too.  And a horrid Freudian-filled brew it is.

The first two scenes (there’s no intermission) unwind slowly with an overlong set up that lays out the dynamics of the couple.  It lingers on their interpersonal issues, and a budding friendship with their landlord, Alioune (Maduka Steady), a successful 25-year old Senegalese who lives in the building with his wife and two children.  Abby’s self-effacing responses to the landlord and her forgiving manner towards Zack, lull us into a false sense of ease about the couple’s relationship.

Gillian Williams (Abby) in Belleville. Photo: Igor Dmitry.

Gillian Williams (Abby) in Belleville. Photo: Igor Dmitry.

Gillian Williams shows us a lithe, vulnerable Abby, caught up in a Parisian fantasy of her own imagining.  With pressure to compete with her sister’s successful marriage and win her father’s affection, she alternately needles Zach and coddles him.  “I can be emotionally abusive,” she confesses.  Williams’ ability to shift gears from kittenish to claws-out tigress to emotional wreck and back again is riveting.  To counterbalance her neuroses Jacob H Knoll gives an equally taut performance as Zack, an emotionally stunted husband who seeks her approval.

In an accompanying media kit, reviewers were asked to “not reveal any major plot details” – rightfully calling out a new wave of unprofessional “critics” who feel it’s necessary to tell the entire plot as if it’s CliffsNotes.  So don’t expect any further revelations in this review as to where the play is headed.  We honor the playwright’s sense of suspense and surprise.  But be forewarned, it’s explosive and chilling, and sharp objects are involved.

Joy Jones (Amina) and Maduka Steady (Alioune) in Belleville. Photo: Igor Dmitry.

Joy Jones (Amina) and Maduka Steady (Alioune) in Belleville. Photo: Igor Dmitry.

Both Maduka Steady and Joy Jones, as his wife, Amina, give solid performances as the landlord and his disapproving wife.

Through October 12th at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St., Washington, DC 20005.  For tickets and information call 202 332.3300 or visit www.StudioTheatre.org.