The City of Conversation – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 9, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L-R) Caroline Hewitt as Anna Fitzgerald, Margaret Colin as Hester Ferris and Michael Simpson as Colin Ferris. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Caroline Hewitt as Anna Fitzgerald, Margaret Colin as Hester Ferris and Michael Simpson as Colin Ferris. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Anthony Giardina’s The City of Conversation opens with a prophetic quote from then President Jimmy Carter – “the erosion of our conscience in the future is threatening to destroy the Social and Political fabric of America”.  And in this tale, its families too.

It’s 1979, eight years before journalist and Washington power hostess Sally Quinn declared the death of the political insider dinner party.  It was a time when the city’s power elite regularly negotiated over congenial cocktails and swank dinner parties in historic Georgetown homes – a time when the socially talented wives of certain influential men held considerable political sway.  The title comes courtesy of author and social reformer, Henry James, a Victorian liberal who would have known that a social gathering of Supreme Court justices, politicians of both stripes, DC socialites and media power brokers would create a highly charged atmosphere.

(L-R) Tyler Smallwood as Young Ethan and Caroline Hewitt as Anna Fitzgerald. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Tyler Smallwood as Young Ethan and Caroline Hewitt as Anna Fitzgerald. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In admirable fashion Margaret Colin portrays Hester Ferris, a modern-day Helen of Troy, who is based on a composite of several well known Washington hostesses of their day – Pamela Harriman, Kitty Kelley, Evangeline Bruce, Perle Mesta and Sally Quinn, wife of the late Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee.  (We know this from the revolving slide show of their photos in the theatre’s lobby and from Giardina’s acknowledgement that Quinn gave script advice.)

Tom Wiggin as Chandler Harris. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Tom Wiggin as Chandler Harris. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Hester is a staunch liberal whose inner circle includes her lover, Virginia Senator Chandler Harris (Tom Wiggin) and her spinster sister and secretary Jean, played outstandingly by Ann McDonough.  On this night she is preparing to entertain the racist Republican Senator from Kentucky, George Mallonee (Todd Scofield), in order to sway his vote.  But her dinner is upended when her son Colin (Michael Simpson), returns home early from Britain with his future fiancée and conservative firebrand, Anna (Caroline Hewitt).  Colin wryly explains his upbringing to Anna, “Dinner is always about something.  Other kids got “Pat the Bunny”, I got Tocqueville.”  When the politically ambitious Anna challenges Hester’s liberalism, and proves to be a worthy opponent, the drama kicks into high gear and Colin is forced to take sides in a house divided by power, politics and ultimately a mother’s betrayal of her only child.

(L-R) Todd Scofield as George Mallonee and Caroline Hewitt as Anna Fitzgerald. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Todd Scofield as George Mallonee and Caroline Hewitt as Anna Fitzgerald. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Less than a decade later we find Hester fighting Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, Anna triumphing the cause of Oliver North and Chandler asking for sexual reassurance.  When Anna threatens Hester that her actions will result in her never seeing her adored grandson Ethan (Tyler Smallwood) again, there is a collective gasp from the audience that could rattle the 12-paned windows of Georgetown’s historic homes.

Directors Doug Hughes and Margaret Colin place the action in the round, which sometimes results in 90˚ of the theatre laughing uproariously while the other 270° are straining to catch the punch lines.  Though some were missed, enough landed to sustain the humor, especially this zinger from Hester, “A president used to be able to get out of the White House, come to Georgetown and get advice!”  That went out with bell-bottom trousers.

If you’ve ever wanted a sneak peek into the glamor, gossip and Machiavellian intrigues of the Georgetown salon, this play lays it all at your feet – the polite arm-twisting, the post-prandial cigars and the deal-making all taking place over bourbon and branch.  It’s parlor politics at its best, served up effortlessly by a cast who does witty and wisecracking to perfection.

Highly recommended.

Through March 6th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 2, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

 l to r: Desmond Bing, Kim Wong, Betsy Mugavero, Adam Wesley Brown, Eric Hissom, Caroline Stefanie Clay -Photo by Teresa Wood

l to r: Desmond Bing, Kim Wong, Betsy Mugavero, Adam Wesley Brown, Eric Hissom, Caroline Stefanie Clay -Photo by Teresa Wood

Aaron Posner’s brilliantly funny take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream now at the Folger is a delightfully frothy romp into Shakespeare’s dreamscape of sprites and lovers.  His imaginative interpretation is filled with hilarious surprises.  Beginning with the indelibly adorable Erin Weaver as Puck, who sets the tone for the high jinks to follow, this telling of the dream excursion Puck and her devious cohorts take us down a garden path speckled with modern technology, the occasional rap lyric, music looping by Puck’s forest calls and a vintage microphone for announcing the action.

But all is not shape-shifted into the modern age.  There is still the play-within-a-play of Pyramus and Thisbe put on by Peter Quince (Richard Ruiz), a bumbling impresario and his eclectic band of school girls in uniforms and headphones to entertain the royal couple.  And still Hippolyta as African queen, played by Caroline Stephanie Clay who doubles as Titania.  Her husband Theseus joins her in a slick tan suit as the Duke of Athens played by Eric Hissom doing double duty in the role of the fairy king, Oberon.  Reality as fantasy in a switcheroo that delivers all the hilarity The Bard intended.

Puck (Erin Weaver, left) looks upon the newly transformed Bottom (Holly Twyford) with impish delight - Photo by Teresa Wood

Puck (Erin Weaver, left) looks upon the newly transformed Bottom (Holly Twyford) with impish delight – Photo by Teresa Wood

As you’ll recall Hermia (Betsy Mugavero) and Lysander (Adam Wesley Brown) are madly in love while Helena (Kim Wong) pines for Demetrius (Desmond Bing) who spurns her amorous attentions.  When Oberon and Puck get up to magic and mischief by drugging the lovers with a love potion concocted of flower juice, here delivered by an eyedropper, all hell ensues as the four confuse their intendeds with the others’ lovers and the lusty Titania snuggles up with Bottom.

Holly Twyford plays Bottom who Puck turns into an ass adored by the love drug-smitten Titania.  Costume Designer Devon Painter interprets the beast with furry platform hooves and a feathery confection of donkey ears and Twyford plays it to the hilt with comedic timing and buck-toothed braying.

Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway puts the performers on a simple stage of treehouse and platforms lit by fairy lights and a cut-out crescent moon, while Choreographer Erika Chong Shuch softens the falls and fight scenes with a cluster of large blue pillows throwing in a pas de deux by tango between Hermia and Lysander and a conga line for the lovers.  Original Music by Andre Pluess has Lysander serenading Hermia on ukulele.

 l to r: Megan Graves, Desmond Bing, Erin Weaver (front), Eric Hissom, Dani Stoller, and Justina Adorno - Photo by Teresa Wood

l to r: Megan Graves, Desmond Bing, Erin Weaver (front), Eric Hissom, Dani Stoller, and Justina Adorno – Photo by Teresa Wood

There is some nifty scene stealing by the Jamaican-accented and ‘voguing’ skills of Monique Robinson as Snout and the hilarious whispery delivery of the ingénue schoolgirl Megan Graves as both Snug and Philostrate, but look for Weaver and Twyford to dominate this brilliant all-star cast.

Highly recommended.

Through March 6th at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or visit www.Folger.edu/theatre.

Shake Loose – A Musical Night of Blues Moods & Icons – MetroStage

Jordan Wright
February 1, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L-R) Anthony Manough, Lori Williams,Rayshun LaMarr, Roz White - Photo credit: Chris Banks

(L-R) Anthony Manough, Lori Williams,Rayshun LaMarr, Roz White – Photo credit: Chris Banks

If you’ve been seeing clouds of steam heat billowing over the rooftop of MetroStage lately, blame it on the four-member cast and six-piece band of Shake LooseFire and ice and everything nice best describes the cool daddies and hot ladies in this sizzling revue of music by William Knowles and William Hubbard and the lyrics of Thomas W. Jones II who doubles as the show’s choreographer.  If you’ve followed the musical careers of the composers there are songs and snippets from their other hit shows – Ladies Swing the Blues, Cool Papa’s Party, Three Sistahs, Bessie’s Blues, and Pearl Bailey…by request – shows that have been at the core of MetroStage’s musical productions over the years.

Geared to each decade the show taps into the zeitgeist of 20th century African-American music to include vaudeville, big band, jazz, R&B, swing, rural gospel and soul, with a smattering of Broadway-style show tunes.  Supporting the pitch-perfect soulful voices of Lori Williams, Roz White, Rayshun LaMarr and Anthony Manough, are the sweet sounds of a trio of horns and the slow thump of a bass with Knowles himself on a grand piano.

(L-R) Roz White, Rayshun LaMarr, Anthony Manough, Lori Williams - Photo credit: Chris Banks

(L-R) Roz White, Rayshun LaMarr, Anthony Manough, Lori Williams – Photo credit: Chris Banks

But this is not a concert, it’s a series of seven movements that divide and define the 39 memorable numbers.  It opens with the section “Migration Blues” when the rhythms of 1920’s Harlem beckoned blacks to leave the South in droves for the bright lights and vaudeville stages of uptown New York.  There are jumpin’ and jivin’ numbers dotted with the staccato sounds of the quartet’s mad tapping skills in “Sho’ Feet Can Dance” and mournful ballads like, “Rivers Swollen With My Tears” delivered heartachingly by Williams who warns of “rivers that bury the bones”.  Here Robbie Hayes’ projections follow the early days of Black musical history with clips of New York’s famed Cotton Club and its glamorous chorus girls, and as one lyric claims, “Every boy’s an Almond Joy.”

The demise of the big stages and the rise of vinyl is chronicled in the second movement, “Riot & Rebellion”.  In “SSOS” (alternately expressed as sweet sound of soul and sweet sound of surrender) the foursome shift dance styles to The Watusi and Hully Gully while projections of Malcolm X, sit-ins and the march to Selma take us down to the nitty-gritty and Williams again solos in “Lay Your Body Down” as the images recall the assassinations of the great leaders of our time.  And in no time flat we’re swaying to the gyrations of Manough and White in “A Basement Kind of Love” and recalling the days of impromptu parties and hookups in the basement of 1960’s homes everywhere.

(L-R) Lori Williams, Rayshun LaMarr - Photo credit: Chris Banks

(L-R) Lori Williams, Rayshun LaMarr – Photo credit: Chris Banks

Rolling through the decades of jazz and swing White takes the spotlight in “Barely Breathing”, a song from Three Sistahs that evokes the hot soul sounds of the era and describes a hook up as, “I was his cocoa Cinderella throwin’ myself a ball.”

The cast utilizes every piece of available real estate from the tiered stage and between the aisles to bring the joyful and occasional heartbreaking songs to the audience.  It’s like being in a nightclub where the band jams out on stage behind the singers.

Each singer takes a sexy, sultry star turn in this hold-your-breath production.  The music is as mesmerizingly haunting as anything from Tin Pan Alley or 60’s Detroit, and where Michael Jackson, Nat King Cole, Boyz to Men and other musical icons are remembered and re-interpreted.  Utterly riveting for the beautifully blended harmonies, hilarious antics, and the music and lyrics from these iconic composers.  I can hardly wait to see this show again.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through March 6th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

Sweat – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 25, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L-R) Kimberly Scott as Cynthia, Kevin Kenerly as Brucie, Tara Mallen as Jessie and Johanna Day as Tracey. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Kimberly Scott as Cynthia, Kevin Kenerly as Brucie, Tara Mallen as Jessie and Johanna Day as Tracey. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Playwright Lynn Nottage must be gearing up for a second Pulitzer Prize.  Her latest production, Sweat, a gritty, hard-driving play has all the elements of a masterpiece.  Skillfully directed by Kaye Whoriskey the story plunges us headlong into the underbelly of an American drama in a story centered around factory workers whose jobs are endangered by the implementation of NAFTA – – the controversial trade agreement that forever altered the nation’s manufacturing landscape and destroyed the economic livelihood of thousands of workers and the social fabric of their cities and towns.

In Sweat, Nottage illustrates the fallout of those decisions by focusing on a town whose families have worked at the same factory for generations.  The plot, which toggles between 2000 to 2008, shows what befalls the town’s citizens as their rights and salaries are diminished and their unions are rendered defenseless when corporations take production to Third World countries.  In researching the story Nottage lived among those disenfranchised workers in Reading, PA, one of the areas of the country most affected by NAFTA.

(L-R) Jack Willis as Stan, Kimberly Scott as Cynthia and Johanna Day as Tracey. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Jack Willis as Stan, Kimberly Scott as Cynthia and Johanna Day as Tracey. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Stan (Jack Willis), a former millworker, now on disability, runs the bar where the locals meet to nurse their drinks, mark their birthdays and wallow in their miseries.  It serves as a part-time living room for factory working mothers and their sons like Tracey (Johanna Day) and her son, Jason (Stephen Michael Spencer) and Tracey’s best friends and co-workers on the factory floor, Jessie (Tara Mallen) and Cynthia (Kimberly Scott) and her son Chris (Tramell Tillman).  John Lee Beatty’s set design of the down-and-dirty local bar is spot on with its neon beer signs and rundown furnishings.

As they struggle through these issues, Tracey and Cynthia learn that a management job has opened up at the factory, compromising their friendship as they vie for the same position.  At last after being locked out and walking the picket line for nearly two years, the friends are offered an ultimatum – – take a pay cut and lose your benefits or lose your job – – a scenario played out across the country as corporations sought to bust the unions.  “They squeeze us like a sponge,” Tracey indignantly howls.

(L-R) Johanna Day as Tracey and Reza Salazar as Oscar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Johanna Day as Tracey and Reza Salazar as Oscar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In a twist of fate, Stan’s barback, Oscar (Reza Salazar), a solicitous young Hispanic working at minimum wage, breaks the line to take a job at the factory and the situation turns uglier.

Nottage focuses on the families, friendships and towns that were changed and challenged overnight by drug addiction, suicide and alcoholism.  As the young men’s parole officer Evan (Tyrone Wilson) explains to them, “Shame is crippling.  Shame eats away at us until we disappear.”

It is a gut-wrenching, darkly humorous and powerfully visceral story that reveals the suspicion, hatred, racism and jealousies that arise when workers looking for explanations for their cruelly altered circumstances seek to spread the blame.  Performed by a seasoned cast who convey these raw emotions exquisitely.

Brilliantly acted and highly recommended.

Through February 21st at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder – Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
January 15, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Having enjoyed this four-time Tony Award-winning musical on Broadway last month, I can firmly attest it has found a national touring company cast to do it justice.  Author and lyricist, Robert L. Freedman, and composer and lyricist, Steven Lutvak, can rest assured that not a beat, a line, a dance step, a joke or note will fail to delight.

Here’s what to expect when you go, and you must, to be all the more prepared to sop it up.  On your list of expectations should be dreamy love songs, a sinister Edward Gorey-like ambiance, delicious gallows humor, Fred Astaire-inspired dancing and droll Edwardian characters.  Be assured there will be murder most foul and romance most delectably forbidden.  All the elements of a ripping good show.

 (L-R) Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro and Adrienne Eller as Phoebe D'Ysquith - Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

(L-R) Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro and Adrienne Eller as Phoebe D’Ysquith – Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

In A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder we find handsome bachelor, Montague Navarro (Kevin Massey), penniless and orphaned, bereft of employment prospects and in love with Sibella (Kristen Beth Williams), a strikingly gorgeous fortune hunter, who, though smitten with Monty, has her sights set on a wealthy scion.

 (L-R) Lesley McKinnell as Miss Barley, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro and John Rapson as Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr. - Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

(L-R) Lesley McKinnell as Miss Barley, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro and John Rapson as Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr. – Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Still mourning the loss of his mother Monty is visited in his shabby garret by Miss Shingle (Mary VanArsdel) a spinster who knew her well.  The old lady tells Monty that his mother was disinherited by her family, the D’Ysquiths, for marrying beneath her station and that he is eighth in line for the title of Earl of D’Ysquith replete with the vast estates of Highhurst Castle.  Devising a plan to jump the line of succession by whatever means necessary, our charming hero uses his wits, and some intricate plotting, to knock off the eccentric lords and ladies that precede him.  “What can I take from the D’Ysquiths except their lives,” he merrily posits.

Commencing his fact-finding journey by touring Highhurst on Visitor’s Day, he runs into Lord Adelbert who, in full hunting regalia trills a snooty tune entitled, “I Don’t Understand the Poor”.  Twenty-two numbers accompany Monty’s murderous plots while you find yourself cheering on his diabolical schemes.
John Rapson as Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith - Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

John Rapson as Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith – Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

John Rapson, plays all eight D’Ysquith cousins, both male and female roles, ranging from the sputtering, apoplectic Lord Reverend and Lady Hyacinth, who has a monopoly on the downtrodden, to the gay athlete, Henry, who he humors in “Better with a Man”.  As Monty continues to ingratiate himself with the others, he meets and falls in love with his cousin Phoebe (Adrienne Eller), the embodiment of the perfect Victorian lady.

 (L-R) Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro, Matt Leisy, and Adrienne Eller as Phoebe - Photo credit: Joan Marcus

(L-R) Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella Hallward, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro, Matt Leisy, and Adrienne Eller as Phoebe – Photo credit: Joan Marcus

That lepers in the punjab and cannibals in deepest, darkest Africa figure into the plot is all part of the fun, though the Gothic chorus reminds us that, “suddenly they’re congregating under the sod”.

Amid all the lethal high jinks and criss-cross romance are the fabulous voices of the cast, Music Director Lawrence Goldberg’s 12-piece orchestra and Linda Cho’s turn-of-the-century costumes.

Highly recommended.

Through January 30th at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit The Kennedy Center.