Smart People ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 23, 2017 

Clockwise (from top left): Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Gregory Perri as Brian White. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clockwise (from top left): Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Gregory Perri as Brian White. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

When the lives of four Harvard brainiacs intersect while working out their personal challenges, what do you get? Smart People – a cerebral journey into self-analysis jam-packed with laughs and droll repartee.  Ensconced in the intellectual bubble of Cambridge, Massachusetts are four recent grads – Valerie (Lorene Chesley), an aspiring black actress and part time housekeeper; Brian White (Gregory Perri), a cognitive neuroscientist and researcher on race relations; Ginny Yang (Sue Jin Song), a clinical psychologist and shopaholic; and Jackson Moore (Jaysen Wright), a bright, black doctor who wonders if he’s being held to a different standard.

(L to R) Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Seema Sueko, Arena’s Deputy Artistic Director, creates tension in Lydia R. Diamond’s nifty play by pitting the characters’ self-absorbed egos, one against the other, in a feverish merry-go-round of insecurity and anxiety with each one desperate not to be misunderstood in a world where motives are misjudged and innocent intentions are fraught with suspicion.

The interaction is broken down into small solo vignettes until the couples begin to pair off, Valerie with Jackson and Ginny with Brian.  Set Designer Misha Kachman along with Lighting Designer Xavier Pierce and Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi lend focus to the characters by setting them into boxes on a two-level set until they begin to connect emotionally from the catwalk and onto the lower level.

(L to R) Gregory Perri as Brian White and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Gregory Perri as Brian White and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

White professor Brian, whose impending tenure is shaky, is convinced the world is dominated by whites with a predisposition to racism, discrimination and prejudice, though he has a blind spot in his treatment of Ginny who believes he is treating her as the stereotypical Asian woman. And Valerie believes Jackson demeans her because she cleans houses while waiting for her big break.  The miscommunications and assumptions keep us in stitches and Chesley’s depiction of an actress called to audition the stereotypical angry, ghetto girl is uproarious (she’s been told the casting is “brave” because it’s diverse) as is Song’s representation of an Asian hooker and Wright’s mischaracterization of Ginny’s attempts to study Asians in his health clinic, as racist.

Clockwise (from top left): Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Gregory Perri as Brian White and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clockwise (from top left): Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Gregory Perri as Brian White and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

It all comes to a head when they converge at Ginny and Brian’s for a dinner party and Valerie sees that Brian, whom she has been trying to avoid since he told her she was not “black enough”, is one of the guests.

“It’s complicated,” Valerie tells Brian.  And indeed, it is – in the most hilarious way.

Highly recommended.

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

A Raisin in the Sun ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 10, 2017 

Lizan Mitchell as Lena Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Lizan Mitchell as Lena Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Smack dab in the middle of the civil rights era, African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play “A Raisin in the Sun” premiered on Broadway and it’s just as relevant today as it was in 1959.  This sensitive, often humorous, and searing drama based on African-American life in Chicago’s Southside ghetto still resonates, though today’s real world challenges may read differently.  As Lena (Lizan Mitchell), the matriarch of the family, tells her son Walter, “It used to be about freedom.”

(L to R) Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger and Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger and Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Walter (Will Cobb) is a 35-year old man trying to find his place in a white man’s world that offers little hope of his success.  His sister Beneatha (Joy Jones) is a radical feminist and pre-med student whose idea of defining her culture is to deny her American heritage and embrace her African roots guided by her adoring suitor, Joseph Asagai (Bueka Uwemedimo) a Nigerian transplant.  His wife Ruth (Dawn Ursula) is a loving wife and supportive mother to their boy, Travis (Jeremiah Hasty), and together with Lena they live in a modest apartment carving out a respectable existence on their meager salaries while toiling in service to wealthy whites.

(L to R) Bueka Uwemedimo as Joseph Asagai and Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Bueka Uwemedimo as Joseph Asagai and Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Hansberry was ahead of her time, looping in issues of feminism with Ruth’s dilemma of whether to have an abortion to avoid the expense of another child, Walter’s disapproval of Beneatha’s desire to be in a man’s job, Beneatha’s desire to be a free spirit in a strict religious household, and Lena’s position as moral leader of the family.

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger, Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger, Joy Jones as Beneatha Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Taken from the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, the title is a metaphor for the family’s dashed dreams – the slow withering of hope.  As Walter says, after he has squandered the insurance money Lena’s late husband left them to pursue a better life, “I didn’t make this world.  It was given to me.”

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Will Cobbs as Walter Lee Younger and Dawn Ursula as Ruth Younger. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Tazewell Thompson guides a brilliantly interlocked cast to powerful performances – most especially from Mitchell who is the centerpiece of the play.  Her gestures and facial expressions are both economical and meaningful and her delivery is pure magic reflecting a time when Southern gentility could dominate with an iron hand in a velvet glove.

Donald Eastman’s 1940’s one room kitchen/dining/living room set in the round frame the humor, tough love and inspiration that take the family on a journey from poverty to the promised land.

Highly recommended.

Through May 7th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.

Intelligence ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
March 10, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L to R) Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame and Lawrence Redmond as Joseph Wilson. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame and Lawrence Redmond as Joseph Wilson. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

“Hung out to dry” is the phrase that popped into my head regarding the case of Valerie Plame, the CIA covert operative who was outed by a conservative newspaper columnist in 2003.  Third in the series of Arena Stage’s “Power Plays”, this cautionary tale focusses on politics and power, and by nature, those that abuse or are abused by the dark forces that control the political climate.  Written by Jacqueline E. Lawton, “I write to bear witness”, and ably directed by Daniella Topol, it is set primarily at CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia; Plame and Wilson’s Georgetown home; Amman, Jordan; and various locations in Baghdad, Iraq.  The haunting set design of massive grey rotating columns is by Misha Kachman.

L to R) Ethan Hova as Dr. Malik Nazari, Nora Achrati as Leyla Nazari and Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

L to R) Ethan Hova as Dr. Malik Nazari, Nora Achrati as Leyla Nazari and Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The backstory of Plame, who was later outed by conservative news columnist Bob Novak, was well-known.   Plame was involved in securing “assets” in the Middle East.  One in particular, Dr. Malik Nazari (Ethan Hova), was the nuclear scientist who provided her with raw intelligence on the development of the Iraqis’ nuclear weapons capabilities.  She got to him through his niece Leyla (Nora Achrati), a couturière in Georgetown.  Plame directed Nazari to gather intel on the Iraqi scientists he worked with, expecting him to lend credibility to the Bush administration’s reasons for mounting the Iraq war.  But that’s not how it went down.

(L to R) Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Elaine Matthews and Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

(L to R) Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Elaine Matthews and Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

The beautiful spy, played compellingly by the equally stunning Hannah Yelland, led a glamorous life among the Washington cognoscenti where she lived with husband Joseph Wilson (Lawrence Redmond), former U. S. Ambassador to Iraq and later an oversharing TV talking head and Senior Director for African Affairs.  If you’ll recall, Wilson’s connection to Africa was crucial to an administration pressed for time and making its case for war with Iraq.  Sent by the CIA to confirm Saddam Hussein’s efforts to purchase uranium for WMDs, Wilson reported back that no such transaction had ever taken place.  He shared this knowledge with his wife.  This inconvenient truth – inconvenient for Bush, Powell, Cheney and Rumsfeld who needed to justify the war – was ultimately Wilson’s, and by default, Plame’s, undoing.

(L to R) Ethan Hova as Dr. Malik Nazari, Lawrence Redmond as Joseph Wilson, Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame, Nora Achrati as Leyla Nazari and Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Elaine Matthews. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Ethan Hova as Dr. Malik Nazari, Lawrence Redmond as Joseph Wilson, Hannah Yelland as Valerie Plame, Nora Achrati as Leyla Nazari and Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Elaine Matthews. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Yelland provides us with a credible picture of an agent whose mission was to protect her assets and get at the truth.  Taut, compelling and powerful, the play confronts the realities of gathering the sort of intelligence that rubberstamps what those in a position of deciding the direction of our country’s military, want to hear.  Aakhu Tuahnera Freeman portrays Plame’s bloodless boss, a woman who turns on Plame colluding with then CIA Director George Tenet force Plame out and scuttle her intel.

Highly recommended.

Through April 9th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.

Watch on the Rhine ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 15, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

A dark and sinister wind blew through Washington last night with the opening of Lillian Hellman’s electrifying drama Watch on the Rhine.  Hauntingly parallel to our nation’s current fears of a fascist influence in our government, this 1941 revival is set in the drawing room of a powerful Washington society matron whose daughter has married a resistance fighter during Hitler’s reign of terror.  Taken alongside the recent mounting of Roe, the play based on Roe v. Wade, reviewed here earlier this month, it proves Artistic Director Molly Smith to be exceptionally prophetic.

(L to R) Thomas Keegan as David Farrelly, Marsha Mason as Fanny Farrelly, Lucy Breedlove as Babette Müller and Lise Bruneau as Sara Müller. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Thomas Keegan as David Farrelly, Marsha Mason as Fanny Farrelly, Lucy Breedlove as Babette Müller and Lise Bruneau as Sara Müller. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Jackie Maxwell does a fine job of letting the actors reveal their formidable skills as we are introduced to the Farelly family and their gilded life.  At first we meet Fanny Farelly (played by four time Academy Award winning actress, Marsha Mason) hostess to a pair of Balkan royals, Count Teck De Brancovis of Romania (J Anthony Crane), and his wife, Marthe (Natalia Payne).  In her zest to enjoy her nightly cribbage games with the impoverished Count, she allows herself to ignore his involvement with the fascist German government, falling victim to his courtly manners and his elegant charm.  It is only when, after a span of forty years, Fanny’s estranged daughter Sara (Lise Bruneau) returns to the fold with her German husband Kurt Müller (Andrew Long) and their three young children that Fanny comes to understand why her daughter has remained absent.  As stalwart members of the German resistance, they have been working within the movement to free political prisoners.  Unfortunately, Teck recognizes Kurt as the resistance fighter he is and Fanny slowly realizes she must make a stand to protect her family.

(L to R) Ethan Miller as Joshua Müller, Helen Hedman as Anise, Lise Bruneau as Sara Müller, Andrew Long as Kurt Müller and Lucy Breedlove as Babette Müller . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Ethan Miller as Joshua Müller, Helen Hedman as Anise, Lise Bruneau as Sara Müller, Andrew Long as Kurt Müller and Lucy Breedlove as Babette Müller. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Hellman’s drama unfolds with much lighthearted humor, Mason is superb and charming as Fanny whose amusing banter with her longtime housekeeper Anise (Helen Hedman) and butler Joseph (Addison Switzer) set a lively tone commensurate with the wealthy enjoying their privileged lives.  Also of note are Sara’s children, especially the precocious Bodo played winningly by Tyler Bowman.  While Fanny’s elder son, David (Thomas Keegan), scion to his late father’s law practice, is her support and guide.  We soon learn that Marthe and David are having an affair, and that she is eager to leave the abusive and unscrupulous Count who makes plans to blackmail Kurt.

(L to R) Ethan Miller as Joshua Müller and Tyler Bowman as Bodo Müller. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

(L to R) Ethan Miller as Joshua Müller and Tyler Bowman as Bodo Müller. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Throughout, this excellent cast held the audience rapt.  You could hear a pin drop for most of it – that is up until the explosive remark David makes to Kurt. “You are a political refugee.  We don’t turn back people like you.”  To which the audience spontaneously erupted into thunderous cheers and applause, especially notable given the current political climate against refugees fleeing oppression and imminent danger.

(L to R) J Anthony Crane as Teck De Brancovis and Natalia Payne as Marthe De Brancovis. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

(L to R) J Anthony Crane as Teck De Brancovis and Natalia Payne as Marthe De Brancovis. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

This is the kind of powerful theatre we have come to expect of Arena – relevant, challenging and thought-provoking.  Stay tuned for more thrilling theatre when the premiere of the upcoming political drama Intelligence is presented next month.

Through March 5th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.

Roe ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 22, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L to R) Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington), Mark Bedard and Jim Abele in Roe at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running January 12-February 19, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington), Mark Bedard and Jim Abele in Roe. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Coming hard on the heels of the historic Women’s March in DC, is Arena Stage’s presentation of Roe.  In the scheme of things, playwright Lisa Loomer’s unflinching piece couldn’t be a more relevant, timely piece of political theatre.  It speaks to a time when women and their families had no other choice than to undergo dangerous procedures to terminate their unwanted pregnancies.  And despite the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling to give women the right to an abortion, threats to overturn its groundbreaking decision have never been more ominous nor the country more polarized in its views.

Sara Bruner (as Norma McCorvey) and Gina Daniels, with Jim Abele (background), in Roe at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running January 12-February 19, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Sara Bruner (as Norma McCorvey) and Gina Daniels, with Jim Abele (background), in Roe . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

With its East Coast premiere, Director Bill Rauch draws on a stellar cast to present this co-partnership with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  It is a powerful, no-holds-barred story of the woman who was chosen to represent “Roe” and the unusual story of her recruitment as defendant Roe and her subsequent U-turn to the other side of the argument.

  (L to R) Sara Bruner (as Norma McCorvey), Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington) and Susan Lynskey (as Linda Coffee) in Roe at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running January 12-February 19, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Sara Bruner (as Norma McCorvey), Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington) and Susan Lynskey (as Linda Coffee) in Roe. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

It tells the real life story of 22-year-old Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner), as unlikely a candidate for women’s issues as could ever be imagined.  A former carnival worker, McCorvey was raised in a reform school and works as a bartender at The Red Devil a sleazy, lesbian bar in Dallas Texas.  She’s been raped by a white man, a black man and a Mexican, or that’s her story, finding herself pregnant and with no money for an abortion.  Back then the only options were to fly off to Mexico or find a “doctor” who would perform one illegally, usually under the most squalid of conditions.  Her other option being to self-abort.  “You are going to hell on a scholarship,” her friend warns her at a time when hospitals had entire wards for botched abortions.  Soon straight-out-of-law-school lawyer Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) and her legal adviser, Linda Coffee (Susan Lynsky who also plays Judy/First Pregnant Woman and Peggy), find Norma, agreeing to use her as a test case.

(L to R) Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington), Susan Lynskey, Amy Newman and Pamela Dunlap in Roe at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running January 12-February 19, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Sarah Jane Agnew (as Sarah Weddington), Susan Lynskey, Amy Newman and Pamela Dunlap in Roe . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The play presents both sides of the argument – pro-life and pro-choice – exploring the issues while recalling the dangers inherent in illegal abortions.  It guides us through the early days of the women’s rights movement and later when Sarah becomes the President of NARAL.  The use of audio portions of the U. S. Supreme Court judges’ actual words and projections of televised broadcasts of the protests that preceded it, are particularly haunting.  And though it’s educational in its laying out of the history of the trial, there is hardly a moment when it’s not also hilarious and uplifting.

Bruner is riveting in her transformation from a trash-talking, drug-dealing, alcoholic hippie to her role as receptionist in a women’s clinic to self-righteous author and born-again Christian after a fateful meeting with Flip Benham (Jim Abele who triples as Jay Floyd, opposing attorney on the initial case, and later Ron Weddington, Sarah’s husband).  Flip appears in Act Two as the pro-life, bible-toting crusader and founder of Operation Rescue who uses every trick in the book to convert Norma to his cause.

(L to R) Zoe Bishop, Pamela Dunlap, Sara Bruner and Catherine Castellanos in Roe at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running January 12-February 19, 2017. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Zoe Bishop, Pamela Dunlap, Sara Bruner and Catherine Castellanos in Roe . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Lesser known in the drama was Henry Wade (Richard Elmore), the Dallas County District Attorney, who first heard the case and Norma’s longtime lover, Connie, played notably by Catherine Castellanos.

Particularly effective is Set Designer Rachel Hauck’s use of large sections of moving stage requiring the actors to leap across platforms to highlight individual scenes while Lighting Designer Jane Cox capitalizes on the drama by focusing on its intensity.

Special nod to Kenya Alexander in her compelling performance as Roxanne who embodies the spirit of the modern day college student confronted with the choice of having a child or continuing her education.

Super timely and highly recommended.

Through February 9th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information visit www.ArenaStage.org or call 202 488-3300.