Twelfth Night ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company At Sidney Harman Hall

Jordan Wright
November 22, 2017

Antoinette Robinson as Viola - Photo credit Scott Suchman

Antoinette Robinson as Viola – Photo credit Scott Suchman

The last words you’d expect to hear while settling into your seat for Twelfth Night, are an airline boarding announcement.  “Thank you for choosing Shakespeare,” the disembodied voice offers up to the audience.  But this is the unorthodox journey you are about to embark on in Director Ethan McSweeney’s fantastic in-flight interpretation of Shakespeare’s text (okay, it’s a tad over-emphasized) and his modern-day application.  In Feste’s own words, “Nothing that is so, is so.”  Count on it.

McSweeny, along with Set Designer Lee Savage, gives us one of the company’s most exciting openings to date.  STC’s soon-to-retire Artistic Director Michael Kahn long ago mentored McSweeny who was told by Kahn to come back in 20 years.  He has.  And it’s paid off handsomely.

Hannah Yelland as Olivia and Antoinette Robinson as Viola in Twelfth Night by Scott Suchman. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Hannah Yelland as Olivia and Antoinette Robinson as Viola. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Set in an international departure lounge our characters line up for airport security checkpoints only to soon be tossed about like ragdolls when a freak snowstorm throws their plane off-course.  Viola (Antoinette Robinson) surrounded by the plane’s lost baggage, regains consciousness amid the blowing snow.  If at this point you aren’t sitting straight up in your seat with your jaw hanging open, go home.  If you are, then you’re in for a wild ride worthy of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” meets Fellini.

McSweeney has chosen a modernist stage setting never before utilized in Sidney Harman Hall.  Side walls are stripped away to reveal the theater’s original configuration when it was once expected to double as a concert venue.  It is surprisingly beautiful with dark wood paneling, high walls, viewable side walkways, and elevated catwalk.

Andrew Weems as Sir Toby Belch, Derek Smith as Malvolio and Hearth Saunders as Feste in Twelfth Night by Scott Suchman ~ Photo credit Scott Suchman

Andrew Weems as Sir Toby Belch, Derek Smith as Malvolio and Hearth Saunders as Feste. ~ Photo credit Scott Suchman

Though you are undoubtedly familiar with the play’s plot of unattainable love – the Countess Olivia of Illyria (Hannah Yelland) loves Malvolio (Derek Smith) who becomes imprisoned in a dog carrier while sporting full Scottish regalia (he misinterpreted the memo), and Viola loves Sebastian (Paul Deo, Jr.) who thinks she’s his male page, Cesario, etcetera, etcetera.  Here, Fabian (Koral Kent alternates with Tyler Bowman) is imagined as a wanton child, expected to do Sir Toby’s bidding.  There is enough mistaken identity to keep us intently intrigued and plenty of cleverly conceived costuming by Jennifer Moeller to bedazzle and amuse.

Jim Lichtschedl as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Jim Lichtschedl as Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Cowardly Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jim Lichtscheidl) is portrayed as a wannabe rock star and sports-minded dilettante – think polo, tennis, fencing – who along with Sir Toby Belch (Andrew Weems), a slovenly, bathrobe-clad, karaoke-singing drunkard in love with Maria (Emily Townley), manage to provide enough comic relief for two plays.  Together they lean heavily on cocktails from the on-board beverage cart and lines of cocaine to fuel their madcap revels while Orsino (Bhavesh Patel) and Curio (Matthew Deitchman) whirl about on scooters, entering and exiting the scene in flashy, slim-cut, brocade suits.  To remind us this was written in 1602 with a holiday theme, a Christmas tree figures into a hide-and-seek skit of insanely hilarious proportions.

But it is Feste played brilliantly by Heath Saunders who grounds the goings-on with original music by composer Lindsay Jones.  Saunders, who in real life plays twelve different musical instruments, plays bass and guitar here.  His dulcet voice both anchors and ameliorates the lunacy.

Highly recommended.

At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall through December 20th at 610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 202 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.

A New Romeo and Juliet Heats up the Stage ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
September 21, 2016

The Lansburgh’s stage was drenched in red for Director Alan Paul’s Romeo and Juliet – the carpet, the soaring pillars, the balcony, the walls, even the balloons floating from the ceiling when Romeo first spies the captivating Juliet at a party. Was it red for the color of blood, as in the knife fights the Montagues wage against the Capulets? Or lipstick red for romance? Either way, Paul’s production was on fire, as in fire engine red, reflected by Dane Laffrey’s set design.

Ayana Workman as Juliet and Andrew Veenstra as Romeo in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by Alan Paul. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Ayana Workman as Juliet and Andrew Veenstra as Romeo in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by Alan Paul. Photo by Scott Suchman.

This freshly minted staging put me in mind of the Jets and the Sharks from West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s famous borrowing of R&J as his inspiration. As here too the characters live in contemporary society and Romeo’s gun-toting, knife-wielding friends are portrayed as dissolute Italian gang members, while Juliet gads about in blue jeans as the typical lovelorn teen. There are no innuendos, no subtleties in Paul’s staging – just raw sex, raw anger and pure sensual passion. Oh, yes, it’s hot, like the business end of a gun when Tybalt (Alex Mickiewicz) and the young Montagues put out a hit on Romeo.

Alex Mickiewicz as Tybalt, Jeffrey Carlson as Mercutio and Andrew Veenstra as Romeo in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by Alan Paul. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Alex Mickiewicz as Tybalt, Jeffrey Carlson as Mercutio and Andrew Veenstra as Romeo in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by Alan Paul. Photo by Scott Suchman.

We have choreographers Eric Sean Fogel to thank for the constantly swirling action, and David Leong to thank for the fight scenes, though it couldn’t have come together quite as believably if there weren’t an outstanding cast to thank for this refreshing reinterpretation of the characters – Andrew Veenstra as the pugnacious, hipster Romeo; Jeffrey Carlson as his stylish club kid buddy Mercutio (scene stealer alert!); Ayana Workman in a version of Juliet that oozes girlish innocence; and Inga Ballard as Juliet’s wise-cracking, no nonsense Black nurse.

Inga Ballard as Nurse and Ayana Workman as Juliet. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Inga Ballard as Nurse and Ayana Workman as Juliet. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Include Keith Hamilton Cobb as Juliet’s father, who presents us with a Capulet patriarch of fearsome presence and bullish swagger – his portrayal so credible it will scare you out of your seat.

Costume Designer Kaye Voyce delivers the atmosphere, most especially when Mercutio shows up in spiked hair and a tight silver lame suit to the masked ball, which would be better described as an electro club mix house party, and Juliet’s mother, played by Judith Lightfoot who swans around her party guests in a gold lamé gown. Totally anarchical, but at this point we are up for it.

So thank you, Alan Paul. You have gifted your audiences with a surprising and delightful, break-all-the-rules, fresh spin on the old classic. This is what theatre is all about!

Highly recommended.

At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre through November 6th at 450 7th Street, NW Washington, DC 20004. For tickets and information call 202 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.

 

The Taming of the Shrew ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
May 25, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Maulik Pancholy as Katherina and Peter Gadiot as Petruchio in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Maulik Pancholy as Katherina and Peter Gadiot as Petruchio. Photo by Scott Suchman.

A curious production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is currently showing at Sidney Harman Hall.  I say curious, because it doesn’t have a real identity – unless you want to call this classic play a gender-bending musical with anti-feminist leanings.  In another words, it’s all over the place in terms of direction and cast.

Oliver Thornton as Bianca and Maulik Pancholy as Katherina in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Oliver Thornton as Bianca and Maulik Pancholy as Katherina.  Photo by Scott Suchman.

Tapping into Shakespeare’s use of an all-male cast, Director Ed Sylvanus Iskander has instead given us an ersatz drag show (I’ve seen far better) performed by an oddly uneven cast.  The only thing worth holding your breath for is Tony Award-winning Jason Sherwood’s heart-stopping, gold gilded, rotating set, Seth Reiser’s intricate lighting design and Duncan Sheik’s rock music with a catchy backbeat.  But, trust me, you will never hear a cast recording of Sheik’s terrific music, since the all-male voices were either gravelly or garbled and, far too often, off-key.

Matthew Russell as Tranio and Telly Leung as Lucentio in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Matthew Russell as Tranio and Telly Leung as Lucentio. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Before I enumerate the plethora of disasters this dismal interpretation holds in store for lovers of the Bard of Avon, I must give credit to the two performers who, despite all discombobulations, kept this three-hour snoozefest from becoming even more intolerable.  Peter Gadiot as Petruchio is a marvel of timing, delivery and believability.  Blessedly he became the glue that held the plot, as it were, together.  And the hilarious stage antics of André De Shields who exudes the classical training and timing of a true actor’s actor, most especially in a hilarious death scene.

Modern day renditions of this comedy are more likely to have the tongue firmly planted in the cheek when it comes to interpreting Petruchio’s male dominance and Kate’s subservience.  Nowadays the misogynistic elements are firmly tamped down and contemporary stagings present it as a light-hearted romp with Kate’s willfulness interpreted as her independent feminist spirit.  But here Iskander offers up Kate as a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome, subjugating herself and willing the other “ladies” of her acquaintance to follow her lead, which results in them genuflecting side by side in the finale with palms upraised to God, giving themselves over to the demands of the men to be good, obedient wives.  I felt as though I’d been hurtled backwards into a time warp before women had the vote.

Under Eskander’s direction Loren Shaw’s costumes veer wildly from classical robes to modern street wear – dressing Bianca in a pink 50’s chiffon frock, the “obvious” males in exaggerated codpieces and Hortensio sporting silver sequined high heels after a make out session with one of the women’s suitors.  What’s the point?  Ask the paparazzi that appear on stage to snap photos of Bianca acting like Madonna.  Maybe they can explain.  And I won’t dignify the bondage scene either.  So let’s just move on, shall we?  Unless you need an explanation for Lucentio in 1970’s pimp’s fur coat and fedora, or a reason for Petruchio’s antlers.  Hardly worth the ink.

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall through June 26th 2016 at 610 F St., NW Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 202 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s –  “Private Lives” Is a Rollicking Romp

Jordan Wright
June 9, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

 James Waterston as Elyot, Jeremy Webb as Victor, Bianca Amato as Amanda and  Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Noël Coward’s Private  Lives, directed by Maria Aitken. Photo by Scott Suchman

James Waterston as Elyot, Jeremy Webb as Victor, Bianca Amato as Amanda and
Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl Photo by Scott Suchman

Noël Coward’s deliciously wicked Private Lives has got us in a tizzy.  Is it scrumptiously witty or delightfully snarky?  No matter.  This heady romp of delicious vitriol is considered Coward’s best.  It’s a doorknob-high glimpse into the lives of the very rich and not-so-well divorced…and we do enjoy a bit of schadenfreude through the keyhole now and again.  Don’t we?

Sibyl and Elyot are honeymooners.  Ditto for Amanda and Victor.  Elyot and Amanda are exes whose marriage went up in funereal flames.  By coincidence the couples share an adjoining terrace in a chic hotel somewhere in the south of France.  When exes, Amanda and Elyot, espy one another across a boxwood planter, they go all monkey’s uncle.  The question is, can their romance reignite?  After some sparring and reminiscing, Amanda trills an old tune to Elyot.  As they both begin to soften their stances, she merrily quips, “It’s strange how potent cheap music is,” one of Coward’s most recognizable lines.

Bianca Amato as Amanda and James Waterston as Elyot . Photo by Scott Suchman

Bianca Amato as Amanda and James Waterston as Elyot in the Shakespeare Theatre
Photo by Scott Suchman

Bianca Amato as Amanda leaves no small emotion un-exploited in this hilarious verbal sword fight.  Her jaw-dropped double take upon discovering Elyot and her solo Rumba in red silk Chinese pajamas, are captivating.  James Waterston as her ex, Elyot, matches her parry for parry and thrust for thrust in this comedy of clever insults.  He even does a respectable turn on the piano.  Kudos to Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen for the 1930’s musical selections and period arrangements, as well as the terrific lighting.

Coward saw the patterns of “emotional baggage” before the term was coined, and exploits the concept here as each couple transfers their fears and prejudices on their new relationships.  He cannily intuited the futility of the snake that eats its own tail, ouroboros, while reveling in the high society that exalted it.  As Amanda succinctly philosophizes, “Very few people are completely normal in their private lives.”  Coward would know.  He lived both sides of it.

: James Waterston as Elyot and Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl. Photo by Scott Suchman.

: James Waterston as Elyot and Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The very petite Autumn Hurlbert plays Sibyl, rendering the character as crafty and manipulating a ditzy blonde as can be conjured up.  But Elyot is suspicious of his new wife’s machinations and threatens to cut off her head if they don’t leave the hotel and the impending spousal confrontations.  Ditto for Amanda v. Victor who duke it out before the marriage is consummated.

When the honeymooners square off in Act One, with Sybil and Victor refusing to leave, insults fly like raptors in sight of prey.  That it is all fueled by cocktails and passion, gaiety and madness, is what makes being a fly on the wall so doggone alluring.  And don’t we adore seeing the privileged get their comeuppance?  Even the French housekeeper, played smartly by Jane Ridley, gets her digs in.  “Idiotes!” she sneers at their absurdities.

Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl and Jane Ridley as Louise in the Shakespeare Theatre  Company production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, directed by Maria Aitken. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Autumn Hurlbert as Sibyl and Jane Ridley as Louise. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Victor is played by the screamingly funny Jeremy Webb.  Webb perfectly captures the scrappy, moon-eyed, cuckolded husband, whom Elyot describes as “all fuss and fume”, to a tee.  He’s the perfect foil to the fabulously flippant Elyot, who tells him, “I think I’m cleverer than you are, but that’s not saying a lot!”

The high jinks and sophisticated repartee are backgrounded by the breathtaking sets of Allen Moyer, whose depiction of a grand hotel, and later Amanda’s bespoke Paris apartment, quite literally left the audience gasping (and applauding) in appreciation.

A rollickingly spiffy jaunt not to be missed.

Through July 13th at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20003. For tickets and information contact the Box Office at 202 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

Brief Encounter – Shakespeare Theatre Company Kneehigh Productions

Jordan Wright
March 31, 2014
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Hannah Yelland as Laura, Joe Alessi as Albert, Annette McLaughlin as Mrytle, Dorothy Atkinson as Beryl and Damon Daunno as Stanley in Kneehigh’s U.S. tour of Brief Encounter by Jim Cox

Hannah Yelland as Laura, Joe Alessi as Albert, Annette McLaughlin as Mrytle, Dorothy Atkinson as Beryl and Damon Daunno as Stanley in Kneehigh’s U.S. tour of Brief Encounter by Jim Cox

Perhaps writer Noel Coward wouldn’t have conjured up this captivating version of his one-act play, but surely he would have swooned over it.  Based on the 1945 film of the same name, Adaptor/Director Emma White has created an innovative and charming version that blends both film and theater mediums.  Kneehigh productions, a Cornish theatre company, who have already garnered two Tony Award nominations for this touring musical takes the audience into the realm of the silver screen and the age of witty repartee Coward and his sophisticated coterie were known for.

The love story of Brief Encounter, determined in a recent poll by Britain’s The Guardian to be the most romantic of all time (beating out Gone with the Wind and Casablanca), involves three couples.  Laura (Hannah Yelland), a wife with two young children takes the Thursday train into town to do her shopping while Alec (Jim Sturgeon), a country doctor takes the same train to do his once-a-week rounds at a city hospital.  They meet and quickly fall in love when he offers to take a speck of coal dust from her eye on the station’s platform and their relationship blossoms with each week’s encounter.

Another romance is between the stationmaster, Albert (Joe Alessi), a cocky chap with eyes on Myrtle Bagot (Annette McLaughlin) the sassy tearoom’s manager, where much of the action takes place.  The third liaison is between Myrtle’s assistant, Beryl (Dorothy Atkinson), a childlike sprite and Stanley (Damon Daunno), her ardent admirer, who is a candy vendor.

The action is underpinned with music, some from Coward’s own repertoire and other pieces, like a sweeping Rachmaninoff concerto to show how Laura and Alec are swept off their feet, from other sources.  Each piece is intrinsic to the mood and serves to heighten the tension in the developing romances.  Composer Stu Barker contributes several pieces of original music that subtly modernize the whole.

Projection & Film Designers Gemma Carrington and Jon Driscoll create a lovely vintage quality with black and white footage of train stations and dream sequences of crashing waves and underwater scenes, which the actors themselves often transition into by walking through a seam in the screen.  In fact there are so many innovative choreographics, atmospherics by Malcolm Rippeth, and complex sound effects by Simon Baker that blur the line between reality and fantasy.

Hannah Yelland as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as Alec in Kneehigh’s U.S. tour of Brief Encounter by Jim Cox

Hannah Yelland as Laura and Jim Sturgeon as Alec in Kneehigh’s U.S. tour of Brief Encounter by Jim Cox

A particularly memorable moment in Laura and Alec’s romance is when they show their passion by swinging on chandeliers while film footage projected onto the backdrop shows falling stars, whirling planets and rising champagne bubbles.  In another lively scene marked by Albert’s increasing bravado, he engages Myrtle with a bit of “slap-and-tickle” to the audience’s great delight.

Costume Designer Neil Murray cleverly adds touches of painterly red – – a velvet coat, Beryl’s pumps, Myrtle’s dress, Stanley’s vest, a red rose – – to accentuate the drably colored world of British tweeds.

In a scene where Laura and Alec are hoping to consummate their love, a musician strums a ukulele singing “Go Slow, Johnny”, a haunting ballad from Coward’s songbook and one of the highlights of this tender, hilarious and extraordinarily original show.

Highly recommended.

Through April 13th at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20003. For tickets and information contact the Box Office at 202 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

The cast in Kneehigh’s U.S. tour of Brief Encounter by Jim Cox

The cast in Kneehigh’s U.S. tour of Brief Encounter by Jim Cox