Moby Dick ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 27, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The cast of Moby Dick. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

The cast of Moby Dick. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Co-production alliances benefit all theatregoers and the latest collaboration between Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and Arena Stage proves the point.  It saves theatres a heavy outlay by not having to mount expensive, new productions – plus shorter rehearsal time saves space and the actors already know their blocking and lines.  In addition, these productions come with critics’ raves.

Which brings me to Moby Dick – one of the most splendid and spectacular, alluringly bizarre plays I’ve reviewed to date.  Imagine, if you will, the physicality of Cirque du Soleil driving Melville’s major opus, coupled with all the theatrics of a Greek tragicomedy.  You can’t?  Neither could I until I saw this eye-popping interpretation of the classic tale of a whale.  Theatregoers will be talking about this production for years to come.

Using the parable of Jonah as fugitive from God, a preacher inspires Ishmael (Jamie Abelson) to find his soul through a whaling voyage.  Lured on by red-haired Puritan furies in funereal Victorian dresses and tight chignons (they later morph into a chorus of sea sirens in spectral gowns) the hapless fellow soon finds himself at the Spouter’s Inn among a rowdy group of drunken Nantucket scrimshanders bellowing sea chanties and preparing for passage on the fated Pequod.

Director David Catlin, who adapted the play from the book, delivers a Dante-inspired version replete with a structure of ivory-hued masts curving inward like the narrowing rib cage of a whale.  Sailors shinny up the masts and dangle from the ship’s rigging in daredevil fashion and lifeboats seesaw above.

L to R) Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Javen Ulambayar as Mungun in Moby Dick. Photo by Greg Mooney.

L to R) Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Javen Ulambayar as Mungun in Moby Dick. Photo by Greg Mooney.

Notwithstanding the spectacular acrobatics, there is the underlying story of the vengeful Captain Ahab (Christopher Donahue) – his Devil’s bargain to capture and kill the evil leviathan who bit off his leg – and Ishmael’s struggle to find his life’s purpose.

Woman is portrayed as not only the object that lures men to their deaths, but as the sea personified, and also as the whale itself.  They become a symbol of what must be captured, conquered and stripped of life.  In a particularly powerful scene, a woman is hung by her heels.  Her voluminous skirts trail down over her head rendering her faceless and exposing the whalebone structure of her petticoat.  Her flesh is summarily stripped away as if cleaning a fish.  It is the height of machismo culture.

(L to R) Jamie Abelson as Ishmael and Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg i. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

(L to R) Jamie Abelson as Ishmael and Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg i. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Some of these dramatic visual elements, twice used to great effect by hundreds of yards of silken fabric billowing out like waves, are balanced by extraordinarily fierce acting, haunting music and, yes! hilarity, most especially in the character of Queequeg (Anthony Fleming III), the savage outlier who becomes the catalyst for Ishmael’s voyage to manhood and redemption.

An outstanding production crew ties it all together with dramatic panache.  Costumes Sully Ratke; Aerial/Acrobatic Second City’s Actors Gymnasium founder Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi; Set Designer Courtney O’Neill; Lighting Design William C. Kirkham; Sound Design/Original Music Rick Sims.

Highly recommended.  If I gave out stars this would be an entire constellation!

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For information and tickets for the Lillian Hellman Festival visit www.arenastage.org/hellman-festival or call 202 488-3300.

Silver Belles ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 29, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Naomi Jacobson (Bo Jack) and Dan Manning (Earl). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Naomi Jacobson (Bo Jack) and Dan Manning (Earl). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Composer and lyricist, Matt Conner (past Sig shows include Crossing, The Hollow, Nevermore, and Partial Eclipse) in collaboration with lyricist, Stephen Gregory Smith gets us in the Christmas spirit with the world premiere of Silver Belles.  Set in Silver Ridge, Tennessee this rollicking musical (book by Allyson Currin) begins with a funeral.  But don’t let that get you down. The death of Southern diva and Cherry Apple moonshiner, Oralene (Donna Migliaccio, but think Dolly Parton’s tongue-in-cheek Southern charm), sets in motion a crazy, countrified mission to continue their bestie’s legacy – writing and staging the fundraising Christmas pageant for the local orphans at the River of Life Church.

Determined the show must go on, three of her gal pals, Berneice (Ilona Dulaski) owner of Berneice’s Taxidermy Emporium, Gloria (Nova Y. Payton) a four-time divorcee, and Ruth Ann (Peggy Yates) a former beauty queen with mad baton-twirling skills, take up the reins.  Unfortunately, Oralene’s husband, Earl (Dan Manning), still in mourning, was her guitar strumming musical composer and he’s got writer’s block.  That is until Oralene gives him the inspiration and the show’s theme, “Take what you can.  Give what you should, while the gettin’ is good.”

Meanwhile Earl’s best friend, Bo Jack (Naomi Jacobson), the show’s stage manager and local radio personality for the call-in show, “Swap Meet”, is under pressure from the community to deliver the news that the pageant Oralene calls “serious Christmas for serious Christians”, is still on.

Donna Migliaccio (Oralene). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Donna Migliaccio (Oralene). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The ladies are all aflutter until Oralene’s ghost returns as their as muse and they begin to see the light.  Think Golden Girls meets The Andy Griffith Show for hilarious plot twists.  I couldn’t help thinking this could be a terrific TV series.

Ilona Dulaski (Berneice). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Ilona Dulaski (Berneice). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

It’s hard to say who gets the most laughs, Migliaccio is absolutely magical, but Dulaski is an endearing scene stealer.  Berneice’s suggestion that they save production costs by using her Nativity-outfitted stuffed animals in the crèche scene, “The Friendly Beasts” is classic.

Naomi Jacobson (Bo Jack), Nova Y. Payton (Gloria), Donna Migliaccio (Oralene), Dan Manning (Earl), Peggy Yates (Ruth Ann) and Ilona Dulaski (Berneice). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Naomi Jacobson (Bo Jack), Nova Y. Payton (Gloria), Donna Migliaccio (Oralene), Dan Manning (Earl), Peggy Yates (Ruth Ann) and Ilona Dulaski (Berneice). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Credit goes to Karma Camp for the lively choreography, Kelly Rudolph for some clever lighting surprises, and solo pianist Jacob Kidder who keeps the spirit with a few Christmas standards interwoven with thirteen original numbers.  And keep in mind these are some of Sig’s finest voices.  For Sig insiders, Payton riffs off of “And I am Telling You”, from her big show Dreamgirls.  Watch for it.

Highly recommended for a boatload of Christmas cheer!

Through December 31st at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

The Secret Garden ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
November 25, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The Cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of The Secret Garden, directed by David Armstrong. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The Cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Secret Garden, directed by David Armstrong. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Artistic Director Michael Kahn, collaborating with the Seattle-based 5th Avenue Theatre for a new production of The Secret Garden at the Sidney Harman Hall, introduces area audiences to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s enchanting tale of a garden that comes to life out of the ashes of tragedy and despair.  It is one of the most beloved children’s tales ever written by the British-born Burnett, who wrote fifty-three novels, including Little Lord Fauntleroy, and thirteen plays, becoming a successful writer as a teenager while living in, of all places, Knoxville, Tennessee.

But despite a difficult childhood in England, Burnett never forgot the rose-filled English gardens, that had brought her peace and pleasure.  The classic story is also her personal story of overcoming personal pain and adversity through the healing power of nature and the perseverance of love.

Since its first publication in 1910, this Gothic tale has been produced in over a dozen film and television productions, at last brought to the stage in 1991 by composers/lyricists, Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, who won three Tony Awards for this sweeping musical.

Lizzie Klemperer as Lily Craven. Photo by Teresa Wood

Lizzie Klemperer as Lily Craven. Photo by Teresa Wood

Directed by David Armstrong, it tells the story of Mary Lennox, raised in India during the days of the Raj and orphaned by the ravages of cholera.  The child is sent to live in a creepy manor home in Yorkshire with her two uncles – the melancholy uncle Archibald Craven (Michael Xavier), still grieving the death of his adored wife Lily (Lizzie Klemperer), and his ill-intentioned brother, Neville (Josh Young).  It’s Tim Burton on a chill pill meets Martha Stewart and a panoply of faeries and ghosts.

Henry Baratz as Colin Craven and Anya Rothman as Mary Lennox. Photo by Scott Suchman

Henry Baratz as Colin Craven and Anya Rothman as Mary Lennox. Photo by Scott Suchman

Little Mary (Anya Rothman), who is a proper hellion, is told to stay in her room, but instead she wanders the dark halls of Misselthwaite Manor discovering her bed-ridden hypochondriac cousin Colin and a neglected secret garden.  Her friendship with the equally recalcitrant Colin (Henry Baratz), Dickon (Charlie Franklin) Martha’s brother and gardener’s helper, her governess Martha (Daisy Eagan, who won a Tony for her role as Mary in the original production 25 years ago) and the wise older gardener Ben Weatherstaff (Sean G. Griffin) assuage her despair and send her into a fantasy world of sprites and fauns and the spirits of Indian fakirs and dead relatives, some of whom reappear as a Greek chorus.

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company. Directed by David Armstrong. Photo by Teresa Wood

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company. Directed by David Armstrong. Photo by Teresa Wood

Rothman, a near weightless sprite herself, tackles the difficult role like a pro – singing, dancing and acting as if born to perform.  She is backed up by seasoned performers with gorgeous voices, most especially Klemperer in “India” and Xavier and Young whose exquisite tenor voices duet in the “Lily’s Eyes”.

Look for the adorable, spot on comic timing and clear-as-a-bell soprano voice of Henry Baratz who appears towards the end of Act One.  He is especially appealing in his second act duet with his late mother, Lily, in “Come to My Garden – Lift Me Up”.

Lighting Designer Mike Baldassari effectively uses poison green and purple lighting to illuminate Scenic Designer Anna Louizos’s two-story Gothic house and a thirteen-piece orchestra led by Rick Fox play twenty-four numbers.

Recommended for the whole family.

At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre through December 31st at 450 7th Street, NW Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 202 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.

A View from the Bridge ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
November 16, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Company of A View From the Bridge - Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

Company of A View From the Bridge – Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

A fresh interpretation of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge streaked across the stage like a fireball at the Eisenhower Theatre last night.  Credit Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter who has endeavored mightily to give us contemporary productions, edgy, young musicians, playwrights, hip hop artists, and an exciting group of artistic directors.  Produced by the prestigious Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles and directed by Ivo Van Hove, this avant-garde production won the Tony Award this year for “Best Revival of a Play”.  And it’s no surprise.  This one has muscle and bone.

Set in Red Hook a rough neighborhood with a view to the Brooklyn Bridge, the story is told by Alfieri (Thomas Jay Ryan), a local lawyer.  (Miller claimed it was true, as told to him by a lawyer who represented longshoremen).  Alfieri acts as witness, arbitrator and conscience to Italian-American longshoreman, Eddie Carbone (Frederick Weller).  Eddie still operates under the code of omertà, or silence, and the unimpeachable honor code of rispetto, spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Ignore that and you’re six feet under.

- Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Alex Esola, Catherine Combs, Dave Register and Frederick Weller – Photo by Jan Versweyveld

In the dramatic opening scene two men, drenched in blood red lighting and a rising mist, are putting on their clothes as Alfieri begins his narration.  It is immediately reminiscent of the intense boxing series’ paintings by American Realist George Bellows, and lends a foreboding of dark and murderous things to come.  Designer Jan Versweyveld, who won two Tony Awards this year for “Best Scenic Design of a Play” and “Best Lighting Design of a Play” for this production, gives us a stripped down set framed out by glass panels topped by benches, all the better to home in on the characters’ body language and the raw power of Miller’s words.

Eddie is old school Sicilian married to Beatrice (Andrus Nichols) the family mediator.  Together they raise his orphaned niece, Catherine (Catherine Combs), a teenager looking to spread her wings, but still a “baby” to her Uncle Eddie.  When Beatrice’s cousins, Marco (Alex Esola) and Rodolpho (Dave Register), arrive in the country to work illegally, they live on the QT with the couple, getting longshoreman jobs through the local Mafia.  Trouble comes when Rodolpho and Catherine fall in love and Eddie’s unsubstantiated fears surface, threatening the couple’s marriage plans.  He accuses Rodolpho of wanting to marry her to get his citizenship, or, perhaps worse to Eddie, that he prefers men.

A View From the Bridge_Photo by Jan Versweyveld

A View From the Bridge_Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Two devices are used here to great effect.  The haunting overlay of sacred Medieval music lends context and heft to the drama and a series of slow drumbeats between lines emphasizes the searing conflict between the family members.

What is surprising, however, is Van Hove’s decision not to use regional accents of any kind.  So don’t expect Italian accents from the immigrant cousins, or Brooklynese from Catherine, Eddie or his friend, Louis (Howard W. Overshown), even though they speak in the language of dese-dems-and-dose with the occasional ain’t.  The focus here is on the dialogue and the story.  The cast is just the vehicle, but a fine, well-honed vehicle they are.

Highly recommended.

Through Saturday, December 3rd at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Carousel ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 13, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Photo by Maria Baranova.

A brief moment of panic set in as my jaw hit the floor.  I’d just read Artistic Director, Molly Smith’s notes in the playbill and saw she was inspired by Thornton Wilder’s use of “mime in the entire show”.  Really?

“Somehow it feels right with the mythic nature of the story – and to remind us this isn’t reality TV,” she wrote, adding that collaborator David Leong is the show’s mime and fight expert.  Would the cast mime this indelibly lush score?  Would there be no orchestration?  I looked up hopefully and saw the orchestra perched on the catwalk and the conductor hidden in a cubby off to one side of the stage.  Okay, there was going to be music, but singing was still up in the air.  And maybe… literally.

Act One opens with the women miming the art of weaving on their looms.  As you’ll recall the story is set in a small town along the Maine coast, where the men are fishermen and the women work at Bascom’s Cotton Mill.  Silence.  And then an astonishing collection of lavishly costumed circus characters appears – a dancing bear, the strong man, a contortionist and other fabulous creatures parade around the revolving stage.  A coup for Designer Ilona Somogyi who presents us with a wide range of costumes from the elaborate fantasy circus characters, to the soft-colored linen dresses worn by the women – fisherman gear and natty togs worn by the men.

(L to R) Nicholas Rodriguez as Billy Bigelow and Betsy Morgan as Julie Jordan. Photo by Tony Powell.

(L to R) Nicholas Rodriguez as Billy Bigelow and Betsy Morgan as Julie Jordan. Photo by Tony Powell.

At this point we are still in mime mode.  I am crestfallen.  Until…the talking begins and Billy Bigelow, lowlife carnival barker (Nicholas Rodriguez), Mrs. Mullin (E. Faye Butler) amusement park impresario, and Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan) adorable ingénue come to life – conversationally.  Thank heavens!  The music swells to Julie and Carrie’s duet “When I Marry Mr. Snow”, and it’s game on!

(L to R) Kurt Boehm, Nicole Wildy, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Rayanne Gonzales and Ethan Kasnett. Photo by Maria

(L to R) Kurt Boehm, Nicole Wildy, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Rayanne Gonzales and Ethan Kasnett. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The story focuses on Julie and her enduring adoration of Billy who treats her worse than a junkyard dog.  Billy, a low-life gambler, is fired from the park and down on his luck, with no prospects other than his upcoming marriage to Miss, I-am-in-serious-denial, Julie.  With the help of his pal, Jigger (played skillfully and creepily by Kyle Schliefer) they concoct a scam to rob old Mr. Bascom (Thomas Adrian Simpson).  While they’re up to no good, the townsfolk merrily carry on with their annual clambake and treasure hunt in “A Real Nice Clambake”.

Expect a phenomenal cast singing their heads off to the tunes we adore.  Morgan lending her dulcet tones to songs like “If I Loved You”.  Rodriguez blowing the roof off with his tremendous baritone in “Soliloquy” and “The Highest Judge of All”.

The production, directed by Molly Smith and choreographed by the multi-award winning Parker Esse, is a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from stale summer stock versions.  This one comes at you freshly minted, with a white-washed stage set, and utterly captivating.  The composer geniuses, Rodgers and Hammerstein II, would melt at the exquisite dance routines designed by Esse and the richly orchestrated music.  We can thrill to duets like, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, sung here in operatic style by Julie and Nettie (Ann Arvia).

The biggest surprise though comes in Act Two with the introduction of Louise, Billy’s daughter, played by masterfully by Skye Mattox.  A mere slip of a girl who moves like spilled mercury, Mattox is as graceful as a prima ballerina and as fluid as a cool stream.

A twelve-member orchestra playing multiple instruments backs up the extraordinary cast.

Highly recommended.

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.