A Thousand Splendid Suns ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 25, 2020 

Making its DC premiere at Arena Stage under Carey Perloff’s astute direction, A Thousand Splendid Suns brings to life Khaled Hosseini’s poignant and powerful novel of Afghanistan in 1992.  After years of bombings by Russian and Taliban forces, creating a crisis of unimaginable destitution and deprivation, Laila’s family is forced to make a decision – whether to flee to the refugee camps of Pakistan or survive amid the ruins of Kabul.

(L to R) Nikita Tewani (Aziza/Afoon/Girl), Sarah Corey (Ensemble) and Antoine Yared (Tariq/Driver) in A Thousand Splendid Suns running January 17 through March 1, 2020 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In Kabul no one is safe from harm, especially the women, who under Taliban rule must follow the most oppressive laws dictated by the local government, laws that forbid women to go outside without a male relative, to paint their nails, the enforced wearing of burkas, the closing of schools for women, that a woman is the property of her husband, and many more inhumane restrictions.  I’d forgotten that I had read Hosseini’s book until the point in the play of Laila’s enforced imprisonment by the man who had rescued the teenager from the rubble and now was beholden to him as his second wife.  A cruel master to the two women, Rasheed denies Laila, and his first wife, Mariam, any freedoms and the two are treated as indentured servants in his household.  At first Mariam is jealous of this younger, prettier, educated girl, but eventually the women bond over Laila’s baby, and Laila devises a plan for Mariam, herself, and the children to escape to Peshawar.

(L to R) Haysam Kadri (Rasheed), Mirian Katrib (Laila) and Hend Ayoub (Mariam). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Mariam’s own story is another tragic tale that begins to unfold in flashbacks of her youth, when her mother, raped by a man of means who abandons her and their child, sends them off to live a life of deprivation in a mountaintop shack.  Any child who is illegitimate in Afghan society is an outcast and Wakil and his wife cannot accept Mariam in their household.  “Like a compass that always points North, a man’s accusing finger always points to a woman,” her mother warns Mariam whose desire to pursue an education is thwarted by Taliban rule.

(L to R) Mirian Katrib (Laila) and Hend Ayoub (Mariam). Photo by Margot Schulman.

The drama closely follows the book’s plot, that is to say that the violence portrayed in the book is not glossed over, and there are explosive scenes that caused the audience to audibly wince.  On opening night Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was sitting behind Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The Afghan Ambassador was also in the audience.  I couldn’t help wondering how differently each of them would process the most viscerally violent scenes and the raw depiction of male-dominated Afghan society.  Thankfully, in this story, there is some redemption.  A secret love story that plays out alongside the women’s suffering is resolved at the end.

I can’t say enough about how important this play is in bringing to light the horror of daily life under the Taliban.  In some Third World countries this sadistic subjugation of women is still accepted practice.

(L to R) Mirian Katrib (Laila) and Joseph Kamal (Babi/Zaman/Interrogator). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Spellbinding and wondrously acted, it is highly recommended though not suitable for children.

With Hend Ayoub as Mariam; Mirian Katrib as Laila; Haysam Kadri as Rasheed; Antoine Yared as Tariq/Driver; Lanna Joffrey as Fariba/Nana; Joseph Kamal as Babi/Zaman/Interrogator; Jason Kapoor as Wakil; Antoine Yared as Tariq/Driver; Nikita Tewani as Aziza; Ravi Mampara and Justin Xavier Poydras as Zalmai; Sarah Corey, Ensemble; and Yousof Sultani, Ensemble.

(L to R) Mirian Katrib (Laila), Nikita Tewani (Aziza/Afoon/Girl), Hend Ayoub (Mariam) and Ravi Mampara (Zalmai). Photo by Margot Schulman.

By Ursula Rani Sarma; based on the book by Khaled Hosseini; Choreographed by Stephen Buescher; Original Music written and performed by David Coulter; Set Design by Ken MacDonald; Costume Design by Linda Cho; Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel; and Sound Design by Jake Rodriguez.

Through March 1st at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202.488.3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

The Merry Wives of Windsor ~ Folger Shakespeare Theatre

Jordan Wright
January 23, 2020 

For his staging of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Director Aaron Posner adapts this delectable comedy about sexual jealousy to the 20th C… specifically the burgeoning hippie styles and Mod culture of 1972.  It’s the perfect imaginary moment.  The Women’s Liberation movement was in full swing and the times they were a’changin’.  How prophetic Shakespeare was as we look back to the future to find Falstaff, still the swaggering, conniving rogue, now clad in fringe jacket and tie-dyed, “Make Love Not War” t-shirt with his inept band of cohorts togged in bell bottoms and leisure suits.  Get the picture?

Falstaff (Brian Mani) uses his brazen skills of seduction on a surprised Mrs. Ford (Ami Brabson). – Photos by Cameron Whitman Photography

Falstaff’s targets are Mistress Ford and Mistress Page who are quickly on to the antics of this corpulent seducer and set a course to entrap him in his thieving schemes, much to the initial confusion of their husbands.  “Wives may be merry, and yet honest too,” says Mistress Page with a wink and a nod.  The parallel plot to marry off the sweet Anne Page to a serious of unsuitable suitors – Dr. Caius and the curiously impotent Abraham Slender – adds to the overall pandemonium.  Because both sides can play at this game, amirite?

Fenton (Dante Robert Rossi) consoles his true love, Anne Page (Linda Bard) – Cameron Whitman Photography

Notable cast members include Brain Mani as the devilish Falstaff; Eric Hissom exquisitely channeling John Cleese as the hapless, exploited husband; Kate Eastwood Norris adopting a Coen Brothers Mid-Western accent as the pill-popping Mistress Quickly; and Cody Nickell, as the French-accented, macho man, Dr. Caius, whose slimy ways will keep you in stitches with each and every line.

Mine Host (Louis E. Davis, left) cozies up to Dr. Caius (Cody Nickell). – Cameron Whitman Photography

Tony Cisek’s set of Mondrian-inspired color blocks paired with Devon Painter’s wild and crazy costumes and Dramaturg Michele Osherow’s smattering of hipster phraseology, keeps us firmly fixed in the free-wheeling era, all the while adhering to the original tale of wives in cahoots to humiliate the dishonorably lecherous, hilariously dissolute, conniver.  Backgrounded by Matthew Nielson’s scene-transitioning groovy soundtrack, to keep us in the mood.

Slender (Brian Reisman, left) and Justice Shallow (Tommy A. Gomez) try to understand Windsor’s local glergyman, the Welsh-accented Sir John Hughes (Todd Scofield). – Cameron Whitman Photography

Highly recommended.  A marvelous cast who bring the characters to life with sharp-as-a-needle comic acuity.

With Regina Aquino as Mrs. Page; Linda Bard as Anne Page/Pistol; Ami Brabson as Mrs. Ford; Louis E. Davis as Mine Host; Danielle Gallo as Bardolph/J. Rugby/John; Tommy A. Gomez as Justice Shallow; Brian Reisman as Abraham Slender; Dante Robert Rossi as Nym/Fenton; Todd Scofield as Sir Hugh Evens; Tyee Tilghman as Page; and Derrick Truby as Simple/Robert.

The cast of Folger Theatre’s The Merry Wives of Windsor! – Cameron Whitman Photography

Through March 1st 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.

Pipeline ~ Studio Theatre

Jordan Wright
January 9, 2020 

In Dominique Morisseau’s play Pipeline, a direct line is drawn from the consequences resulting from a broken school system to criminal punishment or expulsion for teenagers acting out.  That the system is broken, and kids are warehoused in these ever-larger institutions with no remedies for psychological attention, is well known.  But what are we doing about?  Schools aren’t getting smaller, nor are classrooms, teachers are overwhelmed, and counselors are in short supply – one counselor per 482 students is the national average.  That’s nearly half what is recommended by the National School Counselor Association to address the needs of kids in crisis.  The play is an indictment of the current American school system.

Andrea Harris Smith as Nya and Justin Weaks as Omari in Pipeline. Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

Morisseau’s powerful play presents us with African-American teens in a private school vs. those in a public school.  Given current laws and strict punishment guidelines to address punishment for students as well as teachers, the differences between the two types of schools in handling issues between teachers, students and parents, actually appear to be minimal.  Though Omari’s mother, Nya, teaches in a public school, she and his distant father, Xavier, afford him the advantages of a private school, hoping he will have access to a better education.  But Omari’s personal problems stem from outside the school – divorced parents and a complicated romance with Jasmine, a fellow student.  They are smart kids.  Nevertheless, as teens they are ruled by their emotions and insecurities, and their reactions are often wrong-headed and impulsive.

Pilar Witherspoon as Laurie and Andrea Harris Smith as Nya in Pipeline. Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

Omari’s rage quickly gets the better of him when he is confronted by a teacher who expects his participation at a time when the teen is feeling vulnerable.  His reckless response is to shove the teacher against the wall.  Classmates record the incident with their cell phones and the incident goes viral.  Does the teacher have a responsibility to deal with a troubled teen in an overcrowded classroom or intuit his personal crisis?  Probably, not.  But in consoling her child, Omari’s mother reminds him he is in school to learn and obey his teacher.

Justin Weaks as Omari and Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez as Jasmine in Pipeline. Photo: C. Stanley Photography

Nya’s colleague and veteran teacher, Laurie, has struggles of her own.  Unable to reach Dun, the school’s security guard, who’s off dealing with another crisis, she tries breaking up a vicious fight in her classroom with a broomstick.  She too, becomes at risk of expulsion.

Justin Weaks as Omari and Bjorn DuPaty as Xavier in Pipeline. Photo: C. Stanley Photography

The framework for the play draws on Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and the character Bigger Thomas who became a murderer due to his inability to control his rage.  Additionally, video projections of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “We Real Cool”, in which young African American students skip school to go down a deadly path, are displayed onto the stage walls in a haunting forewarning of a fate that all fear could become Omari’s.

Andrea Harris Smith as Nya in Pipeline; background: live projection of Justin Weaks as Omari. Photo: C. Stanley Photography

As a former high school teacher in DC, Artistic Director David Muse notes, “Maybe most striking and recognizable to me about Pipeline is Dominique’s [Morisseau’s] treatment of the fatalism that takes hold of urban educators and parents as they struggle daily to deal with systems that seemed stacked against the young people in their charge.”

A powerful and haunting drama performed by an excellent cast.

Starring Andrea Harris Smith as Nya; Justin Weaks as Omari; Monica Rae Summers Gonzalez as Jasmine; Bjorn DuPaty as Xavier; Pilar Witherspoon as Laurie; and Ro Boddie as Dun.

Directed by Awoye Timpo; Set Design by Arnulfo Maldonado; Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky; Sound Design by Fan Zhang; Projection Design by Alexandra Kelly Colburn; Dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen.

Through February 16th at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information visit www.StudioTheatre.org or call 202.332.3300.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
January 21, 2020
Special to The Alexandria Times

Sometimes the hardest reviews to write are the ones in which a show exceeds all expectations.  Shows that excel in all facets of production from onstage to backstage.  I had a clue it would be a must-see show when I heard that Frank D. Shutts II was directing.  But it wasn’t till I cracked open the playbill on opening night to reveal that Matt Liptak designed the sets, Stefan Sittig was the choreographer, Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley designed the costumes and the crack team of Ken and Patti Crowley did the lighting.  This is a formidable crew of multi-award-winning pros whose productions consistently dominate the WATCH Awards.  Producer Mary Beth Smith-Toomey sure knows how to pick a winner.

Drew Goins as Monty and Katie Weigl as Sibella Hallward in ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’ at The Little Theatre of Alexandria. Photo by Matt Liptak.

What I wasn’t sure of was if the acting, singing (and some hoofing) would be up to snuff.  The musical has a lot of moving parts – 193 lighting cues, 40 scene changes, and scads of props.  A few of the actors were familiar to me from the LTA stage, but not many.  Most notably Chuck Dluhy whom we saw in last year’s award-winning production of The Nance and God of Carnage, Derek Marsh who was outstanding here recently in The Producers, and longtime LTA supporter and actor, Margie Remmers.  Leads were played by actors either new to the stage (apart from university stage work) or new to our area and several of them emerged as serious challengers to area actors with top notch vocal chops.

If you crossed author Edward Gorey, filmmaker Wes Anderson and composers Gilbert & Sullivan you might be able to describe this eccentrically charming musical set in the Victorian Era.  Based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal”, it’s a story of a down-on-his-heels clerk living with his mother who has been disinherited and forced to work as a charwoman.  At her funeral, an old family friend arrives with proof that Monty is related to the D’Ysquith family giving him claim to a title and a royal estate.  The only glitch is our lovable hero is eight times removed from becoming the Earl of D’Ysquith.  Hmmm…

Alexandra Chace as Phoebe D’Ysquith in ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’ at The Little Theatre of Alexandria. Photo by Matt Liptak.

This quirky tale of retribution opens with Monty already imprisoned for murder and writing his memoir.  It then toggles back and forth from the young man’s cell to explain how he got there – eight murders, a rising career in a tony brokerage house led by his D’Ysquith uncle, who has taken pity on him, plus two mad love affairs.  However, do not despair for this once painfully shy, now increasingly bold, chronically endearing, murderer.  He’s got more than few defenders who will happily take the fall to see him take his royal seat at High Hurst Castle.

Eleven actors, some in multiple roles, succeed mightily in bringing this fast-paced Tony Award-winning musical to a crescendo of laughter and sophisticated wit.  Credit everyone, but this reviewer was gobsmacked by lead actor Drew Goins as Monty Navarro, Alexandra Chace as Phoebe D’Ysquith, the hilarious Chuck Dluhy in NINE roles! and Katie Weigl as Sibella Hallward.

An eleven-piece orchestra, led by Conductor Christopher A. Tomasino with Concert Master Steve Natrella, perform 22 numbers ranging from comic operetta to love songs.

Book and Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, Music and Lyrics by Steven Lutvak.  With Kristin Jepperson as Miss Shingle; Audrey Baker as Miss Barley; Jordan Peyer as Tom Copley; and ensemble members Devin Dietrich and Allison Meyer.

Dazzling and dastardly.  Race to the box office STAT!

Through February 8th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.TheLittleTheatre.com or call the box office at 703.683.0496.

NSO Pops: Diana Ross – Music Book 2020 ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
January 9, 2020

Backed by the 25-member The Joyce Garrett Singers, a DC-based gospel choir, the iconic National Symphony Orchestra, and four back-up vocalists, Diana Ross strode onstage to the tune “I’m Coming Out”, her signature walk-on entrance.  Swathed in a tangerine-hued, ruffled silk cape and molten orange floor-length gown, the magnificent pop diva claimed the night with her beauty, musicality and charm.

Diana Ross

Tossing her ebony ringlets, she enraptured a full house of fans in the Concert Hall.  Shimmying and shaking to the beat and shouting out “We love you. Diana!” from their seats, fans were thrilled to hear a selection from many of her biggest hits.  Twenty-two numbers formed her wide-ranging repertoire Friday night.  “Your Love”, from a rare box set recorded over two decades ago, “He Lives in You”, and “Voice of the Heart”, all rarely heard in concert, were well received.  More familiar songs were “You Can’t Hurry Love”, “Touch Me in the Morning”, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Love Hangover”, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” (the Frankie Lyman hit), and “I Will Survive” that had the orchestra temporarily flat-footed, until she asked them to crank up the beat.

Easily segueing from pop and R&B to jazz, ballads and disco, the legendary diva offered up a few of her greatest film score hits – “Home” and “Ease on Down the Road from The Wiz; “If We Hold On Together” from A Land Before Time;  “Do You Know Where You’re Going To” from Mahogany; and a personal favorite in which she shows off her silken jazz voice, “The Man I Love” from Lady Sings the Blues.  A 1996 memorable performance from Super Bowl XXX brought knowing applause with “Take Me Higher”, a song that culminated in her being whisked away by helicopter.

It’s pointless to review a Diana Ross concert without mentioning her fabulous ensembles.  Four glamorous gown changes showed off her svelte figure, most surprising was the final gown – a steel blue, full-skirted satin gown with exposed strapless bodice that she had once worn to a pre-inaugural concert for President Clinton.

Miss Ross spoke excitedly of her upcoming tour that takes her throughout the American South before heading to Las Vegas.  This June she will appear at the UK’s famed Glastonbury Festival 2020 playing the fabled “legends” slot, before heading to Ireland and returning to England for several more dates.  Miss Ross has not toured the continent in many years and said she was eager to return.

As one of the most successful singers of her generation, she enjoys a performing arts career spanning over 50 years.  An award-winning singer and actress, Miss Ross is known for leading The Supremes, as well as her chart-topping solo career.  She has received the Guinness World Record for her international success of having more hits than any other female artist on the charts, inductions into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a Kennedy Center Honor in 2007, a Grammy® Lifetime Achievement Award, and countless other accolades and awards.

Conducted by Emil De Cou.

Final Washington, DC concert date is Saturday, January 11th at 8pm at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.