WILD SKY ~ SOLAS NUA

Jordan Wright
May 2, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Dylan Morrison Myers and Megan Graves. Photo by Daniel Corey.

Dylan Morrison Myers and Megan Graves. Photo by Daniel Corey.

After half a decade, Solas Nua, the celebrated Irish-centric performing arts company, has returned with Deirdre Kinahan’s play, Wild SkyWritten in commemoration of Easter Rising, the five-day war for Irish independence, it revisits the occasion of its centenary with a scorching drama filled with fiery passion and emotional sensitivity.

Dylan Morrison Myers and Megan Graves. Photo by Daniel Corey.

Dylan Morrison Myers and Megan Graves. Photo by Daniel Corey.

To offer a bit of background, the play takes place one hundred years ago when Irish nationalists took up arms against the British who governed Ireland with an iron hand, outlawing the Irish language and forbidding Irish culture.  And though the Dublin-centered battle claimed the lives of many fighters on both sides, it was successful in setting into motion the wheels of change, inspiring Nobel Prize winning poet, W. B. Yeats, and Douglas Hyde, scholar, author and first President of the Republic of Ireland to create the Gaelic League, whose responsibility it was to protect and create cultural expression.

Dylan Morrison Myers and Megan Graves. Photo by Daniel Corey.

Dylan Morrison Myers and Megan Graves. Photo by Daniel Corey.

Using the bloody uprising as background, Kinahan gives us a heart-wrenching tale from the viewpoint of Tom Farrell (Dylan Morrison), one of the fighters, his feisty and funny childhood friend, Josie Dunne (Megan Graves), and a Greek female chorus played by Beth Amann, Daven Ralston and Ashley Zielinski.  To say it is fierce, is an understatement.  To say their performances are spine-chilling, barely does it justice.

Dylan Morrison Myers - Photo by Daniel Corey.

Dylan Morrison Myers – Photo by Daniel Corey.

We see Tom as a young revolutionary.  Left behind while his friends have gone to fight the French alongside the British, at first he is eager to take up arms to impress the beautiful Josie.  But after a few days of fighting he becomes traumatized by the realities of war and questions his involvement.  Josie is frustrated that as a woman she can’t participate in the fighting.  Still she is conflicted believing all this killing will amount to nothing. “What was our grand plan?” she asks.  “They talked about women’s rights and women’s jobs and it made sense.”

The cast of ‘Wild Sky.’ Photo by Daniel Corey.

The cast of ‘Wild Sky.’ Photo by Daniel Corey.

Morrison and Graves give indelible performances heightened by the interweaving of the flat-toned harmonies of mournful Irish ballads played on drum, fiddle and banjo.  A particularly haunting tune, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, recalls the 1798 rebellion which had also failed to throw off 800 years of British rule.  As with performances during the centuries of Irish cultural suppression, these too are presented in the living rooms of private homes.  The one I attended was staged in the large living room of a Dupont Circle townhouse with a charming walled garden where cast members offered Gaelic language and dance instruction before the show.

Rex Daugherty, director, choreographer, musician and cast member, brings a profound immediacy to the characters in this absorbing world premiere production.

Highly recommended.

Performances run now through May 15th on Thursday and Sunday at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm and 8pm – and June 3rd – 5th at 8pm.  For tickets, locations (all in Washington) and information visit www.SolasNua.org or call 202 315-1317.

Dylan Morrison Myers - Photo by Daniel Corey.

Dylan Morrison Myers – Photo by Daniel Corey.

Disgraced ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
May 3, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Nehal Joshi as Amir, with Joe Isenberg, Felicia Curry and Ivy Vahanian, in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Nehal Joshi as Amir, with Joe Isenberg, Felicia Curry and Ivy Vahanian, in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

A cruel wind descended onto the stage in the Kreeger Theatre with Disgraced.  It swept over five intimately connected characters, unmasking their prejudices and ripping their psyches to smithereens.  It left Emily, Amir, Abe, Isaac and Jory and their harmonic one-world aspirations in its wake.  Upsetting friendships and loyalties, the play is about our words as much as our actions and it made me long for a sequel.

Playwright Ayad Akhtar doesn’t hold out much hope for us humans, not even for educated, sophisticated, liberal New Yorkers where his drama is set.  He forces us to examine the roots of our bigotry by drawing it to the surface and exposing its presumptions.  Who do we become when we are offended by someone of another race?  How superficial or deeply held are our personal relationships, our loyalties to one another, our religious beliefs?  In this play we see how flimsy are the underpinnings, how vulnerable we all are, and how quickly we descend into hatred and fear with an insensitive remark or ill-considered assumption.  Our emotions and frustrations are not so very far beneath the surface, Akhtar seems to say.

(L to R) Nehal Joshi as Amir and Ivy Vahanian as Emily in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Nehal Joshi as Amir and Ivy Vahanian as Emily in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Emily (Ivy Vahanian) is an artist in love with Islam and its beautifully articulated symbols.  She is married to Amir (Nehal Joshi), a successful New York attorney, working in a Jewish law firm.  Amir has been hiding the fact that he is actually Pakistani, a dangerous admission in this post 9/11 world, and intentionally fudges his job application to promote himself as of Indian heritage.  Conflicted by his Muslim heritage and married to a Christian American, he readily repudiates the 7th century precepts of the Koran and the sexism and intolerance adopted by extremist factions.  But when his life and career fall apart can he truly rid himself of those early lessons of prejudice and intolerance? Can anyone?

(L to R) Samip Raval as Abe and Nehal Joshi as Amir in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Samip Raval as Abe and Nehal Joshi as Amir in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Abe (Samip Raval), his nephew, is a careless youth, defiant of convention and desperate to fit into a society that has already made him an outcast.  When his imam gets in trouble with the law, Emily is determined that Amir should defend him, even though her husband fears jeopardizing his position in the firm to take up the case of a man who has been labeled a terrorist.

(L to R) Joe Isenberg as Isaac and Felicia Curry as Jory in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Joe Isenberg as Isaac and Felicia Curry as Jory in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

An ostensibly lapsed Jew, Isaac (Joe Isenberg), Emily’s agent and their mutual friend, is married to Jory (Felicia Curry), an African American attorney working alongside Amir.  Isaac assures Emily her cultural appropriation of Islamic symbols in her paintings is acceptable. “Without the Arabs we wouldn’t have visual perspective,” he declares.  We soon discover that what sounds rational in the abstract, does not necessarily square with one’s emotional reactions in the real world.

Director Timothy Douglas does a superb job of ramping up and cooling down the explosive revelations while still maintaining a steady pace, and Tony Cisek’s sleek mid-century modern set proves to be a deceptive distraction to the tension.

Divided into segments, the one-act play centers around a liquor-fueled dinner party among the friends, devolving into a racially-charged, rage-filled examination of our conflicting beliefs – where they come from, how deeply ingrained they are in our psyches, and if we have the ability, or desire, to overcome the prejudices and precepts of religion in modern society.

Intense both emotionally and politically, it raises our consciousness to the complex issues facing society today.  And that’s a good thing.  Flawless performances all around.

Through May 29th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Black Pearl Sings ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
April 26, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Roz White ~ Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Roz White ~ Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Sandra L. Holloway’s searing production of Black Pearl Sings opens to the haunting music of a Black chain gang singing in cadence as they swing their pickaxes to the dirge-like rhythm.  This indelible, spine-tingling chant leads us to Alberta ‘Pearl’ Johnson who has spent ten miserable years in a swamp-surrounded prison in southeast Texas for the murder of her abusive husband.  The story is inspired by folklorist John Lomax’s real life discovery of the legendary folk singer and guitarist, Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter.

In this telling, Johnson is discovered by Susannah Mullally, an ambitious, and not incidentally, White ethnomusicologist employed by the Library of Congress to uncover America’s earliest indigenous music, and, by deduction, its African roots.  “You are a doorway to our past,” Susannah pleads.  Playwright Frank Higgins, whose previous work has starred such notable actresses as Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow, gives pathos and humor to this sensitive portrait of a woman hardened by a segregationist South and the destructive men in her life.

Roz White and Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Roz White and Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

At first Susannah’s attempts to coax the old plantation songs out of Johnson are met with a steely rebuke.  But eventually, after a considerable period of enmity and suspicion and her description of the suppression of her country’s Gaelic language, the two women form a partnership with Susannah gaining Pearl’s freedom, hard-fought trust and a wealth of songs.

Twenty memorable American folk songs and spirituals weave in and out of this musical, performed entirely in a capella by Roz White’s sinuous contralto and Teresa Castracane’s lilting Irish mezzosoprano and led by legendary Musical Director William Hubbard.  Their shared struggles, Pearl’s to earn enough money to track down her long, lost daughter, and Susannah’s seeking success as a woman in a man’s world, eventually bring the women together culminating in a heart-wrenching duet with “Six Feet of Earth” at the end of the second act.  Other numbers familiar to many of us are “Down on Me”, later made famous by Janis Joplin (also called “Pearl”), “This Little Light of Mine”, the Gospel favorite “Do Lord, Remember Me”, the sultry “Don’t You Feel My Leg”, and the universal peace anthem, “Kum Ba Yah”.

Roz White and Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Roz White and Teresa Castracane ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

There are many funny bits but one that gets knowing laughter is when Pearl makes reference to her birth home on the Gullah island of Hilton Head, which back then was a desolate island off the coast of South Carolina populated by the descendants of African slaves.  After hearing a developer recount his vision of a golf course and condos on the tiny island, she decides to use it to motivate her to follow Susannah’s vision for her success.  It’s knowing how that turned out, that resonates with us.

Highly recommended.

At MetroStage through May 29th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

To Kill a Mockingbird ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
April 25, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Richard Fiske (Atticus) and Larry Boggs (Tom Robinson) - Photos by Matt Liptak

Richard Fiske (Atticus) and Larry Boggs (Tom Robinson) – Photos by Matt Liptak

It’s been fifty-six years since Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird was published and less than one year since its re-conceived version Go Set a Watchman hit the bestseller lists to a flood of controversy.  Much has changed since 1960.  Or has it?  A quick glance at today’s headlines reveal that bigotry, the murder of unarmed Black men, and racial intolerance continue unchecked both on the streets and in certain presidential campaigns.  Given the current political climate and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is particularly timely that we find opportunities to re-examine the role of racism in America.  And how better to revisit these issues than with this cautionary tale?  To that end LTA’s Producers, Rachel Alberts, Bobbie Herbst and Robert Kraus, have chosen well to select Frank Pasqualino to direct this well-crafted and impressively cast production.

As you may recall, the story, narrated on stage by Jean Louise “Scout” Finch as Scout thirty years later (Melissa Dunlap), is set in a small town in the Deep South, where Jim Crow laws were still firmly set in stone.  Black families lived on one side of town and whites, another.

Courtroom scene with cast. Photos by Matt Liptak

Courtroom scene with cast. Photos by Matt Liptak

Atticus Finch (Richard Fiske), a liberal lawyer in a town of bigots, nosy parkers and those best described as adherents to the Klan, is a wise and calming presence in an otherwise lightning hot moment in time.  His young daughter, Scout (Olivia McMahon), is an outspoken child with a wealth of curiosity about everything, especially the peculiar nature of prejudice and intolerance.  Her slightly older brother Jem (Jack Kearney) does his best to keep her innocent queries in check as does their trusted housekeeper, Calpurnia (Brenda Parker), who cares for them with a no-nonsense attitude and a guiding hand.

When their young friend, Dill (Nathaniel Burkhead), comes from Mississippi to live with them their world grows a little larger and their adventures a little bolder.  As they roam the town together the children become targets of racist slurs about their father, who is defending a field hand against the rape of a white woman.  Atticus urges them to turn the other cheek.  “If you want to understand someone, you gotta walk around in their skin,” he cautions them.

Brenda Parker, Olivia McHahon and Richard Fiske.  Photo by Matt Liptak

Brenda Parker, Olivia McHahon and Richard Fiske. Photo by Matt Liptak

The first act explores their small family, the mysterious “Boo” Radley (Derek Bradley), an elusive neighbor who’s been holed up in his house for thirty years, and their relationships to the townspeople of Maycomb, setting the stage for the trial, and attempted railroading, of Tom Robinson (Larry Boggs) that unfolds in Act Two.  The townsfolk present a polyglot of opinions on race – those that are educated and liberal, those of the hardworking Black families, and, in sharp contrast, their antagonists who are White, poor, uneducated and bigoted.  Bob Ewell (Paul Donahoe), Tom’s accuser, and his daughter Mayella, the presumed victim (Skye Lindberg), fall into the category of the latter.

The trial and its aftermath are the most gripping aspects of this story.  It is here in a small, segregated courtroom that the viciousness and brutality of racism is revealed in the cold, harsh light of day.

An excellent cast delivers humor and pathos with brilliance and dignity.  Especially outstanding are Olivia McMahon, Brenda Parker, Richard Fiske, Paul Donahoe, Tony Gilbert as Judge Taylor, and Skye Lindberg.

Highly recommended.

Through May 14th 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

THE MYSTERY OF LOVE AND SEX ~ SIGNATURE THEATRE

Jordan Wright
April 19, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

As a former BBC comedy writer, award-winning playwright and graduate of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, Bathsheba Doran can turn a phrase as merrily as she can turn the screw – so it’s no surprise that her tightly crafted dramedy gifts an audience with two plus hours of solid laughs.  Director Stella Powell-Jones, a veteran of numerous, stellar Off-Broadway productions, knows precisely where and how to take us on this bumpy ride, affectionately described in the playbill as a “love story”.

Shayna Blass (Charlotte) and Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) in The Mystery of Love and Sexat Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Shayna Blass (Charlotte) and Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In The Mystery of Love and Sex Doran offers up four angst-riddled characters for comedic dissection.  Charlotte and Jonny are recent college grads on the cusp of nowhere.  That they are besties since childhood is revealed, but what they struggle with is if a lifelong friendship translates to marriage.  Lucinda (Emily Townley) and Howard (Jeff Still), Charlotte’s parents, hope so, and though their own marriage is on the rocks they have buckets of encouragement for the young couple who share everything but a bed.

Jeff Still (Howard), Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny), Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jeff Still (Howard), Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny), Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jones takes us on a journey led by stereotypes, a liberal New York Jewish intellectual writer father, Howard, and his genteel southern Christian wife, Lucinda, fondly called ‘Lulabelle’.  As mundane as that seems on the surface, it provides the anchor to a story that takes us far beneath what may be superficially assumed.

Jonny (Xavier Scott Evans), an English Lit major, and Charlotte (Shayna Blass) are not your average young couple beaming with the promise of the future and following a predictable path to parenthood.  They have issues.  Tons, as we soon see.  Those involve, but are not limited to, race, sexuality, religion and jealousy.  Hot topics and even hotter wellsprings for situational comedy.  And in this age of torturous self-examination and serial introspection, they are in no way assured a shared future.

Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sexat Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In their exploration of an honest relationship, the pair alternately mock and comfort each other, seeking a scapegoat for their insecurities.  There’s a moment when Charlotte strips naked and offers herself up to the virginal Jonny.  “We are in love, Jonny.  We should get married,” she implores.  But Jonny has secrets, and Charlotte is still trying to puzzle out her own.  Confessing his newly discovered sexuality to Charlotte, Jonny reveals his dilemma. “It’s like ear wax. It’s in so deep you don’t know it’s there, but it makes everything fuzzy.”

Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

It could prove maudlin, but assuredly it is not, especially as other people’s neuroses are a sure passage to the funny bone, and dysfunctional families have become comedic fodder for tweaking millennials.

Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) and Shayna Blass (Charlotte) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

When Howard tries to keep them together despite their differences he explains to Jonny, “Life is weird.  Look at a fish.”  Lucinda has her own issues.  In trying to combat the stress of her family and quit smoking at the same time, she she snaps her fingers and blows into the air – an oft-repeated response delivered in delicious deadpan by Townley.  There are scads of scathing one-liners and enough personality quirks to sentence the lot of them to a lifetime on a psychiatrist’s couch.  But those are the funny bits, skillfully delivered by a fantastically confident, gleefully quirky, utterly lovable cast.

Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Emily Townley (Lucinda) and Xavier Scott Evans (Jonny) in The Mystery of Love and Sex. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Highly recommended with a caveat.  Wear loose clothing, lest you burst your buttons.

Through May 8th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.