Sweat – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 25, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L-R) Kimberly Scott as Cynthia, Kevin Kenerly as Brucie, Tara Mallen as Jessie and Johanna Day as Tracey. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Kimberly Scott as Cynthia, Kevin Kenerly as Brucie, Tara Mallen as Jessie and Johanna Day as Tracey. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Playwright Lynn Nottage must be gearing up for a second Pulitzer Prize.  Her latest production, Sweat, a gritty, hard-driving play has all the elements of a masterpiece.  Skillfully directed by Kaye Whoriskey the story plunges us headlong into the underbelly of an American drama in a story centered around factory workers whose jobs are endangered by the implementation of NAFTA – – the controversial trade agreement that forever altered the nation’s manufacturing landscape and destroyed the economic livelihood of thousands of workers and the social fabric of their cities and towns.

In Sweat, Nottage illustrates the fallout of those decisions by focusing on a town whose families have worked at the same factory for generations.  The plot, which toggles between 2000 to 2008, shows what befalls the town’s citizens as their rights and salaries are diminished and their unions are rendered defenseless when corporations take production to Third World countries.  In researching the story Nottage lived among those disenfranchised workers in Reading, PA, one of the areas of the country most affected by NAFTA.

(L-R) Jack Willis as Stan, Kimberly Scott as Cynthia and Johanna Day as Tracey. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Jack Willis as Stan, Kimberly Scott as Cynthia and Johanna Day as Tracey. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Stan (Jack Willis), a former millworker, now on disability, runs the bar where the locals meet to nurse their drinks, mark their birthdays and wallow in their miseries.  It serves as a part-time living room for factory working mothers and their sons like Tracey (Johanna Day) and her son, Jason (Stephen Michael Spencer) and Tracey’s best friends and co-workers on the factory floor, Jessie (Tara Mallen) and Cynthia (Kimberly Scott) and her son Chris (Tramell Tillman).  John Lee Beatty’s set design of the down-and-dirty local bar is spot on with its neon beer signs and rundown furnishings.

As they struggle through these issues, Tracey and Cynthia learn that a management job has opened up at the factory, compromising their friendship as they vie for the same position.  At last after being locked out and walking the picket line for nearly two years, the friends are offered an ultimatum – – take a pay cut and lose your benefits or lose your job – – a scenario played out across the country as corporations sought to bust the unions.  “They squeeze us like a sponge,” Tracey indignantly howls.

(L-R) Johanna Day as Tracey and Reza Salazar as Oscar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L-R) Johanna Day as Tracey and Reza Salazar as Oscar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In a twist of fate, Stan’s barback, Oscar (Reza Salazar), a solicitous young Hispanic working at minimum wage, breaks the line to take a job at the factory and the situation turns uglier.

Nottage focuses on the families, friendships and towns that were changed and challenged overnight by drug addiction, suicide and alcoholism.  As the young men’s parole officer Evan (Tyrone Wilson) explains to them, “Shame is crippling.  Shame eats away at us until we disappear.”

It is a gut-wrenching, darkly humorous and powerfully visceral story that reveals the suspicion, hatred, racism and jealousies that arise when workers looking for explanations for their cruelly altered circumstances seek to spread the blame.  Performed by a seasoned cast who convey these raw emotions exquisitely.

Brilliantly acted and highly recommended.

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

New Production of Oliver Is Edgy at Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 12, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater Photo by Margot Schulman.

A decidedly refreshing Oliver debuted at Arena Stage last night signaling a break with traditional productions of Charles Dickens’ mid-19th century classic of the underbelly of England’s Victorian era.  Director Molly Smith’s interpretation transports the audience to the seedy streets of modern day London to prove when it comes to crime and passion, poverty and the exploitation of the unfortunate, one of Dickens’ familiar themes, not much has changed.  Choreographer Parker Esse and Costume Designer Wade Laboissoniere perfectly echo that insight using breakdancing, pop-locking and electro-dancing coupled with edgy, urban streetwear combined with period Victoriana.  Special praise for Kyle Coffman as the Artful Dodger who executes some ballet/moonwalk dancing in “Consider Yourself”.  Props by Marion Hampton Dube are modernized to reflect the era – a boombox is boosted, credit cards hoarded, cell phones take selfies and Oliver sports a backpack.  Can you picture Fagin grilling sausages on a BBQ grill?  You’d better.  He does. 

Eleasha Gamble as Nancy and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead CenterPhoto by Margot Schulman.

Eleasha Gamble as Nancy and the company of Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead CenterPhoto by Margot Schulman.

Notwithstanding this edgy version, the story of the tiny orphan Oliver (Jake Heston Miller) hasn’t changed a whit.  It is still the tale of Oliver Twist, a street urchin first captured by Mr. Bumble (Paul Vogt) and his reluctant paramour, the Widow Corney (Rayanne Gonzalez), who then sel him off to Draconian funeral parlor owners Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry (Tom Story and Dorea Schmidt), only to be indoctrinated into a life as a pickpocket by the captivating Svengali, Fagin (Jeff McCarthy), and his workhouse boys with the sympathetic portrait of Nancy (Eleasha Gamble), the mohawk-sporting crook with a heart of gold, and her swaggering lover, Bill Sykes (Ian Lassiter), the evilest villain in London town. 

(L-R) Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and Jake Heston Miller as Oliver in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead CenterPhoto by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Jeff McCarthy as Fagin and Jake Heston Miller as Oliver in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead CenterPhoto by Margot Schulman.

Twenty-one numbers neatly envelop the plot.  I particularly loved Story and Schmidt’s portrayal as two perfectly matched grim reapers with Story playing the foil to Schmidt’s dominatrix in a snappy Noel Coward-style rendition of “That’s Your Funeral”; Gamble’s soaring soul-filled version of “It’s a Fine Life” and “As Long As He Needs Me” (goosebumps guaranteed); Miller’s “Where is Love?” sung in an angelic, pitch perfect, boychoir treble; and McCarthy’s gravelly-voiced, comedic handling of “Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Reviewing the Situation”.  Paul Sportelli leads the 13-piece orchestra so seamlessly you’d think it was recorded from the original. 

(L-R) Jake Heston Miller as Oliver and Tom Story as Mr. Sowerberry in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center - Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L-R) Jake Heston Miller as Oliver and Tom Story as Mr. Sowerberry in Oliver! at Arena Stage at the Mead Center – Photo by Margot Schulman.

To add to the intensity, there are dozens of mood-altering light cues by Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills that instantly transform the atmosphere from dark and gritty to warm and fuzzy to reflect the dramatic transitions in Oliver’s circumstances.  Much of the action is played out above the audience on Set Designer Todd Rosenthal’s crisscrossed steel bridge allowing for extra staging beyond the immediate theater-in-the-round.  And there are plenty of thrills as Oliver and his gang of juvenile delinquents evade the London bobbies. 

Though this is a hugely entertaining, high-adrenaline show, I would not recommend it for young children as there is a good deal of bump-and-grind, coupled with hard drug use by the urchins.

Through January 3, 2016 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org

Dear Evan Hansen Taps Into Teen Angst – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
August 4, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L to R) Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe and Ben Platt as Evan in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L to R) Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe and Ben Platt as Evan in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

A good indicator that this is a production in flux is the playbill’s last minute insert – – the list of the 16 musical numbers in the show and the characters that sing them – – decisions undoubtedly made after the printing.  But if you watched the much-beloved, now-cancelled Smash, you’d know that was a key aspect of the TV show’s story line.  Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are the show’s musical team and lyricists who are both alumni of the romantic drama that focused on the angst of creating a hit Broadway show.

In this coming-of-age musical written by Steven Levenson and directed by Michael Greif, Evan Hansen (Ben Platt, best known as the endearing star of the Pitch Perfect films) is an socially tormented teen, raised by a single mother (Rachel Bay Jones) in the age of social media.  An outcast at school, his psychologist prescribes anti-anxiety meds and the self-examining exercise of writing letters to himself.  But that alone won’t curb the bullying and cure his aimless life until the day Connor Murphy (Mike Faist), a fellow outcast, takes his own life and a series of seemingly unconnected events converge to give Evan a purpose and an imaginative explanation for his broken arm.  “You play who you have to play,” Jared tells Evan.

(L to R) Michael Park as Larry, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Cynthia, Ben Platt as Evan and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L to R) Michael Park as Larry, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Cynthia, Ben Platt as Evan and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The show has all the elements necessary to captivate – an absorbing story, tremendous cast, catchy, emotionally affecting tunes (backed by a 16-member choir, each described as “Additional Voice” in the program), the brilliant Music Director Ben Cohn with orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire, and a hot topic.  The problem is it’s overly long causing it to drift into a number of obfuscating side stories.  Even though Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park are terrific as Connor’s bereaved parents and Laura Dreyfuss is engaging as Zoe Murphy, Evan’s love interest, and notwithstanding that Will Roland and Alexis Molnar hit all the right emotional and comedic notes as Evan’s pals.  But the show loses momentum as the characters’ roles are overly fleshed out and side stories stretch into distractions.  Another bump is the annoying repetition of lyrics and all too frequent use of falsetto called for in the songs.  And although an intriguing device, Connor’s ghost, who haunts Evan and becomes his raison d’être, is more reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge than a reality check for Evan, as it eats up a great deal of the plot.

(L to R) Ben Platt as Evan, Michael Park as Larry, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Cynthia and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

(L to R) Ben Platt as Evan, Michael Park as Larry, Jennifer Laura Thompson as Cynthia and Laura Dreyfuss as Zoe in the world-premiere musical Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater July 10-August 23, 2015. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Instead, enjoy Set Designer David Korins’s furnishings drifting onstage via half-moon tracks and Projection Designer Peter Nigrini’s fantastic backdrop of text messages and emails projected onto a series of two-story sliding scrims and spilling out onto the stage floor.  The messages serve to remind us of the influence of Facebook and Twitter on teens and the impact of the typed word to enhance or endanger their lives in a single keystroke.  Can you say “going viral”?  The story has more sociological and psychological messages than Dr. Phil and Days of Our Lives combined.

Still despite the thought of tweaks and cuts, you can rest assured its message will captivate Millennials and Generation Z’ers raised in a world of student warehousing, cyber-bullying, secret email accounts and electronic devices.  There is an important story to be told here.  It just needs work.

Through August 23rd at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

The Blood Quilt – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
May 11, 2015
Special to The Alexandria Times

L to R) Meeya Davis as Amber, Nikiya Mathis as Cassan, Caroline Clay as Gio, Afi Bijou as Zambia and Tonye Patano as Clementine in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt - Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

L to R) Meeya Davis as Amber, Nikiya Mathis as Cassan, Caroline Clay as Gio, Afi Bijou as Zambia and Tonye Patano as Clementine in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Earth, wind and fire blew into town for the world premiere of The Blood Quilt now at Arena Stage. Written by Katori Hall, who based the story on the Gullah Geechee culture of Sapelo Island, and directed by Kamilah Forbes, this soul-wrenching play, filled with the tears, anger and laughter of a family divided by distance and psychological baggage and held together by the power of sisterhood.

Four sisters, Clementine, Gio, Cassan and Amber, and Cassan’s daughter, Zambia, gather together on the windswept island of Kwemera, one of Georgia’s Sea Islands, and the African word for “endure”. The scene is the ancestral cottage of the Jerrnigans and home of their recently departed mother – – a woman they both revered and feared. Each summer the women craft a new quilt, stitched together from clothing and rags handed down from family members. Woven into these quilts are their deepest memories, gut-wrenching hardships and personal failures. It is within these stitches that they tell their truths in a story as old as time and as foreseeable as the circle of life.

(Clockwise from left) Tonye Patano as Clementine, Meeya Davis as Amber, Caroline Clay as Gio, Nikiya Mathis as Cassan and Afi Bijou as Zambia in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt - Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(Clockwise from left) Tonye Patano as Clementine, Meeya Davis as Amber, Caroline Clay as Gio, Nikiya Mathis as Cassan and Afi Bijou as Zambia in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

To provide the foundation for this story, it is important to know that hundreds of years ago Geechee culture, as it is called, arrived by boat from West Africa onto these remote Georgian islands. Slave ships bore men and women who were sold off to work on the islands’ rice plantations. After the Civil War some of the freed slaves stayed behind, becoming landowners and raising many more generations. The dialect they spoke is still heard today and is echoed throughout the play.

Within this mysterious world spiritualism, mythology and shibboleths run deep, influenced by the stars and the sea. These traditions provide a singularly rich backdrop for this comic-drama, recalling the evocative film Daughters of the Dust that drew on the African-centric Gullah culture of North Carolina.

Much of the Geechee’s mysterious customs and rituals are threaded throughout this deeply affecting tale reflecting a legacy of memories embodied by the fabric scraps incorporated into the quilts. The play turns around the question of who will inherit the one hundred precious quilts. And therein lies the rub.

Set Designer, Michael Carnahan, has created a breathtaking stage set that features a simple cabin set beside a shoreline. An arc of waist-deep water frames the proscenium and patches of crazy quilts hang from the rafters. Delicate Spanish moss sways over the rooftop and the whole is bathed in a roseate hue, courtesy of Lighting Designer, Michael Gilliam. Snippets of old time gospel music are sung in harmony, and the classic “I’ll Fly Away” evokes the contrasting confluence of church combined with tribal culture.

(L to R) Tonye Patano as Clementine and Meeya Davis as Amber in Katori Hall’s -. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Tonye Patano as Clementine and Meeya Davis as Amber in Katori Hall’s -. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clementine (Tonye Patano), who takes direction from the natural world, is the eldest. Assuming her new role as matriarch, she shushes and bosses her younger siblings, insisting they carry out what she believes their mother would have wanted. “Mama was my god,” she reminds them. But her interpretation is not borne out by their mother’s will. Meeya Davis plays Amber, “Perfection is my shield and my protection,” she reveals. A successful Hollywood attorney and Harvard grad, she has been given the responsibility of reading the will. Davis gives a razor-sharp performance with elegance and wit to match Patano’s commanding presence.

(L to R) Caroline Clay as Gio and Afi Bijou as Amber, with Nikiya Mathis as Cassan, in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt - Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Caroline Clay as Gio and Afi Bijou as Amber, with Nikiya Mathis as Cassan, in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt – Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Caroline Clay soars in the role of Gio, a tough talking, beer-guzzling cop cursed with a chip on her shoulder as wide as the sea. Why, we wonder, is she so angry? Cassan (Nikiya Mathis) has brought her daughter Zambia (Afi Bijou) who is a hijab-wearing, political activist just beginning to spread her wings. Bijou proves she is well up to the challenge of playing against such seasoned actors in a role that calls for her to be the polar opposite of the others.

The cast is as tightly woven together as the quilts they covet in this haunting and hugely comical play filled with the ghosts of the past, the challenges of modern life, and the guidance of an ancient culture imported from an Africa they never knew.

Highly recommended.

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

Dr. Joan Gaither in front of one of her quilts

Dr. Joan Gaither in front of one of her quilts

* * Be sure to wander through the theatre to view the seventeen spectacular contemporary quilts created by Dr. Joan Gaither of Baltimore. These exquisite quilts use appliqué and trapunto stitching on lush velvet and brocade to tell a modern story. They will be on display throughout the run of the show. I had an opportunity to meet Dr. Gaither during press night and query her about the meaning of her quilts and the importance of this show. “Quilting comes from the soul. I’m not a traditional quilter, although I believe each quilt can hold and tell an entire story. The images I use celebrate those stories. I try to do that in such a way that they become American stories, because I believe we all share a common history.”

The Originalist – Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 13, 2015
Special to DC Metro Theater Arts 

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist.  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The controversial Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, comes to life in the hilariously acerbic The Originalist at Arena Stage.  The much-acclaimed world premiere has just been extended for the second time and will continue until May 3rd resuming again on May 19th and running through May 31st.   I give you this latest news upfront so that you can grab your tickets now.  This is a can’t miss tour de force starring consummate actor Ed Gero as Scalia supported by Kerry Warren as Cat, Scalia’s liberal law clerk, and Harlan Work as Brad, Cat’s opposite, a young member of The Federalist Society and Scalia’s Sycophant-in-Chief.

(L to R) Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Harlan Work as Brad and Kerry Warren as Cat in The Originalist. Photo by C. Stanley Photograph

(L to R) Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Harlan Work as Brad and Kerry Warren as Cat in The Originalist. Photo by C. Stanley Photograph

As the Court’s notably right-wing curmudgeon, Scalia has won friends in many circles with his humor and charm (you can’t be all bad and still have über liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a ‘bestie’), and John Strand (Arena Stage’s Resident Playwright) takes full advantage of that dichotomy, bringing it to life through historical quotes overlaid with the playwright’s imaginings of how Scalia crafts his opinions.  It is one of the most thrilling pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

Strand uses the impending and long-awaited Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as the centerpiece for the characters’ legal arguments, using the device to pit Scalia’s philosophies against Cat’s vehement opposition.  It’s tremendously irresistible to anyone interested in law, the Justices, or the Court’s nation-altering decisions.  (I sat next to a female attorney who had taken Scalia’s Contract Law class at the University of Chicago and proclaimed him feisty, yet humorous, even back then.)

(L to R) Kerry Warren as Cat and Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist.  Photo by C. Stanley

(L to R) Kerry Warren as Cat and Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Accompanied by interstices of grandiose operatic arias (Scalia is a known opera buff), he delivers arguments and pronouncements like bullets on a battlefield, but so does his verbal sparring partner, Cat, an equally combative Harvard Law grad determined to change his mind.  “I dissent!” is the most oft repeated line from the man who once had acting aspirations.  He later confesses, “The court is my theatre.  I am not an ideologue.  I am an originalist!”  In explaining his reason for hiring her he reveals, “Every now and then I like to have a liberal around.  It reminds of how right I am.”  Cat, who views the court as a “fantasy palace”, is determined to change his dogmatic ways.  She seeks his heart, while he wants her soul. “You’re stuck alone in your bunker.  Your constitution is just a shield you hide behind,” she parries, defining his brand of government a “monsterocracy”.

Gero is magnificent.  His comedic timing and arrogant swagger are nothing less than breathtaking and perfectly counterbalanced by the supremely talented Kerry Warren.  So riveting is their sparring on gun rights, gay marriage and the constitution, that if there was one soul in the audience who didn’t hear the proverbial pin drop, it didn’t.  (Speaking of sparring, boxing terms are used so frequently I wondered if it they’re something the Justice is known for.)

 at the Mead Center for American Theater. The Originalist runs March 6-April 26, 2015. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The set of The Originalist designed by Misha Kachman in the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. The Originalist runs March 6-April 26, 2015. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Setting the tone and highlighting the majesty and gravity of the Court and its private chambers, Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills gives us two massive crystal chandeliers in order to appropriately frame the pronouncements from Scalia’s Kingly Court of Conservatism.  Set Designer Mischa Kachman adds floor-to-ceiling red velvet drapes trimmed with golden tassels: lest you forget the import of where you are.

Highly recommended.

See above for new dates.  Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.