Jesus Christ Superstar ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 21, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times 

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Margot Schulman

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Margot Schulman

Signature Theatre’s Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer, has been upping the ante with big, bold Broadway shows.  His latest mega production is Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hyper hit Jesus Christ Superstar.  Casting some madly impressive voices in this blockbuster rock musical signals Schaeffer’s emphasis on the compelling music and lyrics, and drawing the theatre-goer’s attention to the story’s similarities to current culture.

Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with Sam Ludwig (Annas), Thomas Adrian Simpson (Caiaphas) and Kara-Tameika Watkins (Priest) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with Sam Ludwig (Annas), Thomas Adrian Simpson (Caiaphas) and Kara-Tameika Watkins (Priest) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

And that’s a good thing, because Director Joe Calarco strips away all semblance of a period piece.  Early versions, you may recall, stage it in biblical times.  But you’ll see none of that sentimentality here with Luciana Stecconi’s stripped-bare set of nine movable white platforms reconfigured throughout to represent the table at The Last Supper, or put to use as a soapbox for Jesus or Pontius Pilate to utter proclamations to their indecisive followers.  Again attention is focused on the music directed by Conductor William Yanesh, and not predominantly on costumes by Frank Labovitz who gives us monochromatic teen streetwear for Jesus’ apostles, sharkskin suits for Pontius Pilate, and sequined satin gospel dresses for the Soul Sisters.  No flowing robes here.  And an odd choice of using bibles as props, neglects the tiny detail that they hadn’t been written yet.  I’ll take it as a reference to “bible-toting” fanatics and give it a pass.

Look instead to Nicholas Edwards (as Jesus of Nazareth) who reprises the role made famous by actor Ted Neely.  Edwards is spellbinding, delivering a viscerally transformative performance that is a game changer for this role.  With his remarkable voice and ripped body, he exudes both passion and raw sexuality.  Another powerhouse performance comes from the very versatile Bobby Smith who plays Jesus’ evil nemesis Pontius Pilate as effortlessly as I’ve seen him play comedy.  Lean into his delivery of “Trial Before Pilate” to witness his nuanced performance.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Natascia Diaz (Mary) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Natascia Diaz (Mary) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Natascia Diaz as Mary Magdalene also offers a different interpretation of her role – one very different from the fiery female roles we’re accustomed to seeing her play.  Her strong voice seems tamer and often aimless with a surfeit of trills and superfluous flourishes in the ballads.  Though her believability in her affection for and defense of Jesus is where she shines.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Karma Camp’s choreography, seamlessly weaving 18 performers through complicated dance and fight scenes, is impressive and Zachary G. Borovay’s video projections of Hitler and the Nazis, 9-11, Syria and an assortment of social extremists to background the number “The Crucifixion”, reveal an eerie resemblance to racial violence and religious terrorism in modern society.

As a side note, I couldn’t help but wonder if my seat which was close to the stage was the reason the singers seemed to frequently be drowned out by the seven-piece orchestra.  I hope it was merely the sound levels which may be straightened out by now.  In any case I’d choose the upper level for this show since watching the actors at waist level is not the best perspective.

Through July 2nd at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

Timon of Athens ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 10, 2017 

Dinner at the home of Timon. Pictured left to right: Michael Dix Thomas, Sean Fri, Kathryn Tkel, Ian Merrill Peakes (center, as Timon), Andhy Mendez, Louis Butelli, and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (with Eric Hissom top left). - Photo by Teresa Wood

Dinner at the home of Timon. Pictured left to right: Michael Dix Thomas, Sean Fri, Kathryn Tkel, Ian Merrill Peakes (center, as Timon), Andhy Mendez, Louis Butelli, and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (with Eric Hissom top left). – Photo by Teresa Wood

In the high-tech world of fingerprint readers and cell phones, venture capitalists and politicians, Timon collects friends of all stripes.  From artists and philosophers to shop owners and Senators, he entertains them lavishly with Lucullan banquets and gifts of gold and jewels.  “More welcome are you to my fortunes, than they to me,” he says, oozing beneficence from every pore.  Is he seeking favor, or merely attempting to keep his friends close and his enemies closer?

Timon of Athens is a tragedy so seldom performed that audiences may be unfamiliar with it.  It is often snubbed by scholars, which is a pity, for I found some of Shakespeare’s richest prose in this play.  Director Robert Richmond imagines Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes) as a sharkskin suit-sporting businessman enjoying unfettered loyalty from his peers and associates and reveling in their idolatry.  But when friendship comes through financial generosity, is it true?

Cupid (John Floyd) and dancers Phrynia (Aliyah Caldwell, left) and Timandra (Amanda Forstrom) entertain Timon and his party guests - Photo by Teresa Wood

Cupid (John Floyd) and dancers Phrynia (Aliyah Caldwell, left) and Timandra (Amanda Forstrom) entertain Timon and his party guests – Photo by Teresa Wood

We soon discern that only two members of Timon’s coterie are his true friends – Apemantus (Eric Hissom), who delights in bursting Timon’s utopian bubble regarding his fair weather friends, and Flavius (Antoinette Robinson) his faithful servant, whose warnings of his imminent financial ruin fall on deaf ears.

Timon’s downfall doesn’t come without a challenge to the friends who deserted him. He invites them to a banquet where they arrive believing that he has regained his fortunes.  They believe they will again be the recipients of his fortune and are off the hook for abandoning him.  But Timon, who has seen the light and wants payback, serves up a tureen of excrement to his unsuspecting guests.  “I’m sick of this false world,” he confesses.

Banished Alcibiades (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, left) confronts his old companion Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes) - Photo by Teresa Wood

Banished Alcibiades (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, left) confronts his old companion Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes) – Photo by Teresa Wood

Throughout his emotional turmoil, Athens’ war is raging and Matt Otto’s soundtrack of the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gunfire reminds us of Timon’s precarious state and Greece’s uncertain future.

Francesca Talenti’s clever use of a slim band of video projections to introduce the characters is a novel and much appreciated approach to remembering who’s who.  Seeing their names along with their professions projected above their heads as they enter the scene is useful when seeing an unfamiliar play.  It’s later used by Timon as a video selfie when he is reflecting on his life during his darkest hour.

“Undone by goodness.” Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon of Athens - Photo by Teresa Wood

“Undone by goodness.” Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon of Athens – Photo by Teresa Wood

Scenic Designer Tony Cisek turns the theater’s English Tudor style into a sleek modernistic set with multiple entries and a two-level balconied catwalk, perfect for spouting edicts or watching your own destruction.

I can’t say enough about Peakes’ boundless energy, his superb ability veer from joy to pathos, as Timon goes from wealth and generosity to the madness of poverty, loneliness and utter despair.  The entire cast is wonderful.  I could see this play again and again.

I don’t give out stars, so I’ll just lend them.  All five to this stellar production.  See it!

Through June 11th 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.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame ~ Synetic Theater

Jordan Wright
May 14, 2017

Philip Fletcher as Frollo (center), with Gargoyle Ensemble Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Philip Fletcher as Frollo (center), with Gargoyle Ensemble Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

The first five minutes of Synetic’s latest production is so haunting you may think you’re having an out-of-body experience.  It comes at you slowly, unwinding like a cobra from a basket.  It’s a visceral sensation from an avant-garde theatre troupe that knows how to jolt the senses and play with the mind.  It starts with the monophonic sounds of Gregorian chants and the tolling of church bells scented with the heavily-perfumed aroma of a smoking incense-burning censer that plunges you into the cosmic world of religious rituals.  It is at this moment that we first see Frollo backlit by a giant blue cross.  He removes his cassock and mask.  We have just come face to face with the dark forces of the church.  Did I flash on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code?  In a New York minute.

Irina Kavsadze as Esmeralda - Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Irina Kavsadze as Esmeralda – Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Symbols of faith, religion and power are stunningly shattered in Director Paata Tsikurishvili’s highly inventive interpretation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo’s brilliant classic tale.  It tells a story of the gypsy girl Esmeralda (the lithe and emotive Irina Kavsadze) worshipped by hunchbacked bell ringer Quasimodo (Vato Tsikurishvili in one of his finest performances), his patron Frollo (the chameleonic Philip Fletcher), the naïve musician Gringoire (Robert Bowen Smith) and Esmeralda’s paramour Phoebus (Zana Gankhuyag).  In one of Synetic’s most exciting productions to date Tsikurishvili places the emphasis on the dichotomy between the sanctity of the church and the reality of the human condition, and like the troupe’s highly regarded “Silent Shakespeare” series of plays, this production is done without words.

Vato Tsikurishvili as Quasimodo - Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Vato Tsikurishvili as Quasimodo – Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Set in 15th century Paris the hypocritically pious Frollo is depicted as a high priest rather than the government minister in the original tale.  As in the original, he is conflicted by his religious beliefs and the desires of the flesh.  Scenic Designer Anastasia Rurikov Simes’ set consists of an enormous spiked silver wall constructed with multiple levels.  Within the wall writhing, tormenting gargoyles perch atop the stage serving as judge and witness to those who offend the church.  Simes’ design progressively rotates to reveal a massive glowing cross, Esmeralda’s fiery funeral pyre, a hangman’s platform and ultimately the fixture for Frollo’s self-flagellation and self-crucifixion.

Tori Bertocci (Gypsy/Ensemble) being thrown by Vato Tsikurishvili (Quasimodo) - Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Tori Bertocci (Gypsy/Ensemble) being thrown by Vato Tsikurishvili (Quasimodo) – Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Dramaturg Nathan Weinberger focuses predominantly on the story’s emotional elements of jealousy, lust, betrayal, domination and retribution.  And as Hugo warned his readers, it challenges the church’s abuse of power through its insistence on blind faith and strict adherence to canonical law.

As is Synetic’s signature, a unique fusion of music, sound effects and lighting play a large part in heightening the drama.  Music Director Irakli Kavsadze’s mix of classical music interwoven with electronica and tango, Composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s original music and Brian Allard’s suggestively lurid lighting combine with Erik Teague’s highly inventive costumes and wide array of intricately designed masks.

Highly recommended.

Through June 11th at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington in Crystal City.  For tickets and information call 1 800 494-8497 or visit www.synetictheater.org.

Macbeth ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company Sidney Harmon Hall

Jordan Wright
May 9, 2017 

The cast of Macbeth. Photo credit Scott Suchman

The cast of Macbeth. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Refugees fleeing from Aleppo, Syria is not the first thing that comes to mind when pondering Macbeth, but under the direction of Liesl Tommy it serves as the backdrop for this exciting, new interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy about a paranoid, guilt-ridden, superstitious monarch who seeks power for its own sake.  Ramping up the realism, Tommy gives the roles of the three Witches to two men and a woman who use modern day cell phones and computer technology to communicate their battle plans.  Add to that Broken Chord’s use of original electronica music and you have a relevance to current events that goes far beyond coincidental comparison.

The contemporary dynamic is further emphasized with John Coyne’s neo-industrial set of massive grey concrete blocks, neon tubes and a ceiling of undulating golden silk panels like the shifting sands of a desert.  Photo of oil rigs play against echoes of Al Pacino’s cocaine-fueled meltdown in Scarface, Duncan is a pothead and when Macbeth offers up his “armor”, it’s his bullet-proof vest.

(l-r) Jesse J. Perez as Macbeth, Nikkole Salter as Lady Macbeth and McKinley Belcher III as Banquo. Photo credit Scott Suchman

(l-r) Jesse J. Perez as Macbeth, Nikkole Salter as Lady Macbeth and McKinley Belcher III as Banquo. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Jesse J. Perez as Macbeth seethes with power-mad evil as does Nikkole Salter in the role of Lady Macbeth.  But their amorous connections are palpable and though he complains of her profligate habits, “My wife’s been ordering things from Amazon.”, he is unhesitating in performing her bloody bidding.

The cast of Macbeth. Photo credit Scott Suchman

The cast of Macbeth. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Fighting is carried out by soldiers in modern camouflage uniforms with Uzis and daggers.  Artistic Director Michael Kahn describes his choice of Tommy to direct this searing drama, as such, “Macbeth has always lent itself to political interpretations. It was originally written amidst the anxiety of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a thwarted terrorist attack on Parliament, amid a climate not unlike America after 9/11. As a result, the play not only meditates on the equivocating nature of ambition and power, it also shows how the crimes of ambition and power unravel those that commit them and ripple outward in society, creating a dark atmosphere of paranoia, conspiracy and uncertainty. For centuries, theatre artists have used its grim poetry to probe specific political moments or leaders, from Imperial China to Soviet Russia.”

(l-r) Horace V. Rogers as Lennox, Myra Lucretia Taylor as the Porter and Marcus Naylor as Macduff. Photo credit Scott Suchman

(l-r) Horace V. Rogers as Lennox, Myra Lucretia Taylor as the Porter and Marcus Naylor as Macduff. Photo credit Scott Suchman

And Tommy explains her approach as, “It’s politics – and, it’s also structural politics.  I don’t know if I would have had the same idea if I wasn’t in DC.  This is a production for a DC audience.”

A meaty cast takes the traditional to new heights – Petronia Paley (Duncan), Corey Allen (Malcolm), Nicole King (Donalbain), McKinley Belcher III (Banquo), Marcus Naylor (Macduff), Nilanjana Bose (Lady Macduff), Trinity Sky Deabreu (Young Girl), David Bishins (Porter/Doctor), and Tim Getman and Naomi Jacobson as the three Witches.

At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall through May 28th at 610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 202 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.

Master Class ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
May 9, 2017

(l-R) Ayana Reed as Sharon and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

(l-R) Ayana Reed as Sharon and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

Ilona Dulaski dons Maria Callas like a full-length mink coat in Terrence McNally’s Master Class now at MetroStage.  Dulaski morphs utterly into the famed and feisty opera diva in all her forms, from the tough broad she was to the tragic figure she became.  Aiming dead eye at the audience, as though we are fellow students of the opera, the prima donna doles out life lessons like lollipops.  So convincing is Dulaski’s delivery that when she demands a pencil be produced for a forgetful student, we begin searching our pockets.  “I always had a pencil.  I never had an orange,” she chides, explaining a youth of deprivation.  And again, insulting each female student for their unprofessional clothing choices, demanding they “have a look”.  “It’s important to have style and élan,” she insists.  And we, the audience, begin to do a mental check on what we wore to the theater.  It’s that visceral.  I kept flashing on Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard for reference and I’m still not sure why.

(l-R) Ayana Reed as Sharon and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

(l-R) Ayana Reed as Sharon and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

Nick Olcott, who also directs opera productions for Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the Washington National Opera, has cleverly cast talented, young local opera singers as Callas’s students – Emily Hanzel as Sophie, Ayana Reed (who we loved in MetroStage’s recent production of Blackberry Days) as Sharon, and Daniel Noone as Tony the tenor (Joshua Baumgardner fills in for Noone on May 18th and 19th).  Singing arias from Tosca and Verdi, the budding performers are a joy to hear, and as neophytes it makes for a credible rapport with Madama Callas as she puts them through their paces like a sergeant barking insults to a group of raw recruits.  “Non-actor” and piano accompanist, Joseph Walsh, better known for conducting opera, does a fine job as wary foil to Callas’s slights.

(l-R) Daniel Noone as Tony and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

(l-R) Daniel Noone as Tony and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

Rhe’a Roland dresses the set to resemble a large classroom at Julliard and Jingwei Dal’s costumes reflect the year 1971 when Callas conducted master classes at the renowned conservatory.  And to set the period further Projection Designer Gordon Nimmo-Smith uses a triptych of screens with photographs of Callas’s lover and abuser Aristotle Onassis who dumped her unceremoniously after a ten-year relationship to marry widow, Jacqueline Kennedy.  Additional footage of Callas’s first marriage to an elderly industrialist shares space with photos and classic recordings of her triumphant performances at La Scala and New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.  It is during these pentimentos that Dulaski, toggling between the voice of Onassis and her own, reenacts conversations from their thorny affair.

Dulaski’s ability to be both poignant and terrifying is riveting.  In a scene depicting Callas’s response to those who bring up her rivals she sizzles with sarcasm, “How can you have rivals when nobody else can do what you do?”McNally portrays the artist as the complex woman she was – driven to succeed through discipline, fear of failure and pluck while subservient to a man who claimed he owned her.  It seems a sort of willful paradox that she allowed men to control her and yet fought tooth and nail against their insults.  To Sharon she warns, “You will in time know how much suffering there is for a woman.”

Highly recommended.

Through June 11th at MetroStage 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.