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.

Dear Jack, Dear Louise ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
December 6, 2019 

Ken Ludwig, the prolific Olivier Award-winning and Tony Award-winning playwright, gifts us with an exquisite pentimento-inspired play drawing on his parents’ long-distance romance during the height of World War II.  This charming, world premiere two-hander is constructed in such a way that the actors act out their correspondence.  It’s a clever device that allows their letters to come to life.  Credit Director Jackie Maxwell for sorting through the mechanics of bringing it to the stage.  Separated on either side of the stage and speaking directly to the audience, is Jack, a soldier writing from his military posts and Louise, an aspiring actress residing in the Curtain Call Boarding House in New York City.

(L to R) Jake Epstein (Jack Ludwig) and Amelia Pedlow (Louise Rabiner) in Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise running November 21 through December 29, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The two young letter-writers couldn’t be more dissimilar.  Small town-bred Jack, a doctor, is shy, studious and committed to the care of his fellow soldiers, while Brooklyn-born Louise is high-strung, sardonic and witty.  They make the perfect case for opposites attracting.

While Jack awaits leave, the ultimate goal is for the two to meet in person, their letters become a lifeline to each others’ emotional well-being.  Louise gaily writes about her nerve-wracking auditions and later, about his parents’ efforts to meet her.  (They’re behind the whole thing.)  One of the funniest scenes is when she regales him with the story of how 45 members of his extended family meet her at the train station and later, how she fell out a window (or was pushed) by one of his undermining aunts.  All this after he has begged her not to meet his crazy family and sent letters to his battalion of aunts threatening to out their family secrets if they’re not on their best behavior.

Jake Epstein (Jack Ludwig) in Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Their correspondence focuses on the period from 1942 through 1945 including Jack’s time on the most dangerous battlefields in Europe and as Louise agonizes that she will never meet her heart’s desire.  It’s a sweet romance full of the poignancy, promise, fears, and gallows’ humor universally expressed in letters during wartime and these two actors synch up so symbiotically you can’t help but believe their transformative tale.  Ludwig said of his play, “I hope it’s a story about how this country rises to the occasion.” And, indeed it is.

Amelia Pedlow (Louise Rabiner) in Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Costumes by Linda Cho and hairstyles by Ellyn Miller are period-perfect, though Beowolf Boritt’s backdrop is more reminiscent of amoebas suspended in a test tube than a setting for a wartime dramedy.

If you like “A Wonderful Life”, and who doesn’t, this one’s for you.

(L to R) Amelia Pedlow (Louise Rabiner), Ken Ludwig (Playwright) and Jake Epstein (Jack Ludwig) in Ken Ludwig’s Dear Jack, Dear Louise. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Starring Jake Epstein (originator of the role of Gerry Goffin in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Peter Parker/Spiderman in Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark) and Amelia Pedlow (lately featured in Doubt, Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Folger, and The Metromaniacs and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare Theatre Company).

Through December 29th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.


Disney’s Newsies the Musical ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 16, 2019 

The high energy Tony Award-winning, Newsies, a lollapalooza of a musical, tapped, spun, swung, belted and leapt its way onto the Fichandler Stage to tremendous applause.  A sweetheart of a story about the scrappy young newsboys who went up against the powerful New York City-based newspaper barons, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, it checks all the boxes for fabulous, family-friendly, action-packed entertainment.

The cast of Disney’s Newsies running November 1 through December 29, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

This David meets Goliath story pits orphan newsboys against greedy publishers setting the stage for a tender love story between the strike’s brash young leader, Jack Kelly, and the publisher’s daughter, budding theatre critic, Katherine Plumber.   This is where I mention Daniel J. Maldonado who plays Jack.  Remember that name.  He’s not only ferociously talented and fiercely captivating, but a total heartthrob.  Okay, we got that out of the way.

(L to R) Edward Gero (Joseph Pulitzer) and Jamie Smithson (Nunzio/Guard/Policeman/Teddy Roosevelt) in Disney’s Newsies running November 1 through December 29, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Here’s the set up.  To raise his profits, Pulitzer jacks up the price the kids must pay to the middlemen, leaving them little to subsist on.  Led by Kelly and fellow newsie, David, the boys decide to form a union and strike for better wages and decent working conditions.  The period musical is set in 1899 when other citywide unions, from the trolley workers to child labor unions, had tried and failed to gain traction for their demands.  When it looked as though workers were winning support, the bosses sent thugs to rough them up portrayed here as the Lower East Side Delancey Brothers.

Nova Payton (Nun/Medda) in Disney’s Newsies running November 1 through December 29, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Jack forms a bond with David, a bright kid whose father lost his job and is forced to work to so the family can eat.  David, along with his little brother, Les, are both the force and inspiration for the orphans’ dreams.  Another shining star is local talent Josiah Smothers as Les.  Not only can he dance and sing with the best of them, but he is utterly endearing.

(L to R) Daniel J. Maldonado (Jack Kelly) and Erin Weaver (Katherine) in Disney’s Newsies running November 1 through December 29, 2019 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Performed in the round, the actors utilize all the aisles and all four entry points to create an all-encompassing experience.  Ken MacDonald’s set design from Pulitzer’s swank office and Medda’s swanky nightclub to the fire escapes of the Lower East Side, provides the perfect climate for the ultimate showdown.

Rounding out the core cast, is Edward Gero, spot on as the crochety Pulitzer, the gorgeous Erin Weaver as Katherine with a voice like an angel, and the irrepressible Nova Y. Payton, who plays Medda Larkin, a hotsy-totsy cabaret singer whose soulful powerhouse voice shakes the rafters.  The rest of the ensemble showcases some of the best hoofers and singers anywhere.  Remember.  If you see Disney in front of a show’s title, it will be spectacular! 

Highly recommended.

Through December 29th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org. 

Directed by Molly Smith with book by Harvey Fierstein and 18 wonderful numbers written by Jack Feldman, composed by Alan Menken, based on the Disney film written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White.  Dazzling choreography by Parker Esse with Dance Arrangements by Danny Troob; Costume Design by Alejo Vietti and Sound Design by Daniel Erdberg.

Additional cast members  in alphabetical order – Rory Boyd as Oscar Delancey/Bill/Ensemble; Matthew Davies as Specs/Ensemble; Javier del Pilar as Bunsen/Stage Manager/Ensemble; Wyn Delano as Snyder/Ensemble; Christian Douglas as Seitz/Ensemble; Hazel Hay or Josiah Smothers as Les; Michael Hewitt as Morris Delancey/Darcy/Ensemble; Michael John Hughes as Romeo/Spot Conlon; Carole Denise Jones as Nun/Hannah/Ensemble; Tomás Matos as Finch/Ensemble; Joe Montoya as Crutchie; Emre Ocak as Mush/Ensemble; Shiloh Orr as Albert/Scab/Ensemble; Tanner Pflueger as Henry/Buttons/ Ensemble; Bridget Riley as Splasher/Nun/Ensemble; Tro Shaw as Tommy Boy/Scab/Fight Captain; Thomas Adrian Simpson as Tommy Boy/Scab/Ensemble/Fight Captain; Jamie Smithson as Nunzio/Teddy Roosevelt/Ensemble/ Luke Spring as Elmer/Scab/Ensemble; Ethan Van Slyke as Davey Jacobs; Chaz Wolcott as Race/Ensemble; and Kelli Youngman as Jo Jo/Ensemble.

Right to be Forgotten ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 27, 2019 

In Sharyn Rothstein’s clever play, Right to be Forgotten, the dilemma of the right to privacy in the digital age versus free speech gets a full-throttle examination.  Is the internet our friend or is it our undoing?  As a starry-eyed teen, Derril, followed his crush, Eve, around town until, feeling fearful of his unwanted attention. she reported him for stalking.  A blog called the ‘High School Girl Blog’ was created and outed him by name.  From that moment on Derril became the personification of a stalker.  As the blog went viral it encouraged any woman who had ever been stalked to post their experience.

(L to R) John Austin (Derril Lark) and Shubhangi Kuchibhotla (Sarita Imari) in Right to be Forgotten. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Now Derril is trying to get his PHD, have a career, and woo Sarita, a quirky girl, who likes him but is afraid to continue the relationship.  When she googled him up, she saw the damning comments that were still online.  The tricky bit is Derril refuses to change his name – a part of the plot that is hard to understand.  He chooses instead a privacy rights attorney hoping he can sue to have the posts removed and clear his name.  “Always there is this other me online,” he tells Marta who finally agrees to take his case.

Marta’s plan is to have him go public and to that end she takes him to a conference, “The Future of a Free Internet”, where he bursts onto a stage, tells his story and gets unceremoniously tossed out. Because everyone wants a free internet.  Right?  Or, well, not until it threatens their entire future.

John Austin (Derril Lark) in Right to be Forgotten running. Photo by Margot Schulman.

There are twists and turns when Marta tries to get her former colleague, Annie, to see it her way.  Now a bigwig corporate attorney representing internet companies, Annie plays hardball undermining Marta and planning a secret strategy involving a certain politician currently running for office.  Will the two women broker a deal to get the web links removed or will Marta resort to blackmail?  And will Eve find feel remorse for subjecting Derril to a lifetime of hateful trolling?  Alas, we are the ones left to ponder if free speech trumps hate speech and if privacy laws are archaic in the face of technology’s multi-faceted reach.  We are reminded that in 2014 the EU required search engines to create a “right to be forgotten” procedure.  We have no such protocols in the U. S.

Guadalupe Campos (Eve Selinsky) in Right to be Forgotten. Photo by Margot Schulman.

If you liked Dear Evan Hansen and remember how young Evan’s relationship with the internet nearly destroyed his life, you will love how this play turns out.  Did I mention that there’s a ton of comic relief?  Thanks to Marta’s character who is hilariously conniving and played brilliantly by Melody Butiu, there is a lot to love in this cautionary tale performed by a flawless cast and set against a techie’s dream of a set design by Paige Hathaway.

Highly recommended.

With John Austin as Derril Lark; Guadalupe Campos as Eve Selinsky; Rachel Felstein as Annie Zahirovic; Shubhangi Kuchibhotla as Sarita Imari; and Edward O’Blenis as Alvaro Santos.

Directed by Seema Sueko; Costume Design by Ivania Stack; Lighting Design by Adam Honoré; Sound Design by Andre Pluess; and Projection Design by Shawn Duan.

Through November 10th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Jitney ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 22, 2019 

As the play opens, Turnbo pulls out a set of checkers from a purple felt Crown Royal whiskey sack and the mood is set.  It’s a 1977 snapshot of Pittsburgh’s Hill district in the office of a rundown gypsy cab station.  August Wilson’s period play focuses on eight African American jitney drivers of varying ages, and one young woman, Rena, girlfriend to Youngblood.  The scene tracks like the world of painter Thomas Hart Benton’s African American subjects, thanks in large part to the atmospheric set design by David Gallo.

(R to L) Amari Cheatom (Youngblood) and Nija Okoro (Rena) in Jitney. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Wilson hails from Pittsburgh and his life, and the unregulated jitney services his community used, was the basis for this play.  It is the first of ten plays in his American Century Cycle.  This gem of a play gifts us with an unfiltered view of the harsh, often times funny, life in a part of the black community when the Civil Rights movement was strengthening while, at the same time, black neighborhoods were being torn down and gentrified.  Program notes reveal that the Ellis Hotel, mentioned in the play, was a safe haven for African American travelers and that the actual Westbrook Station was the inspiration for Becker’s Station in Jitney.

(R to L) Steven Anthony Jones (Becker) and Amari Cheatom (Youngblood). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Turnbo, a big gossip, has his nose up in everybody’s business, “I just talk what I know,” he claims, but it doesn’t sit right with the other men and he soon becomes a pariah when he stiffs Youngblood over a cup of coffee he’s sent him out for.  Youngblood, trying to overcome his Vietnam War experiences, still has anger issues and the men fight when Turnbo accuses him of running around with Rena’s sister.  Sheely is a colorfully clad, pimp daddy numbers runner who uses the business as his office and Fielding is another driver whose affinity for the bottle is destroying his life.

(R to L) Steven Anthony Jones (Becker) and Francois Battiste (Booster). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Becker, a straight up guy and owner of the jitney service, learns his son Booster is getting out of prison after a twenty-year sentence for murder.  Tension explodes when the son confronts his father, each feeling the other is a disappointment and the cause of the untimely death of Booster’s mother.  And then there’s, Doub, a Korean war veteran who bonds with the other men in swapping war stories and serves as a counterbalance to the hostilities.

(R to L) Harvy Blanks (Shealy) and Amari Cheatom (Youngblood). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Called the “Shakespeare of American playwrights”, Wilson’s wry drama is a particularly optimum choice for the opening of Arena’s season-long Festival celebrating the playwright’s work.  Jitney is directed by the brilliant Ruben Santiago-Hudson who won the 2017 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Play” for his Broadway production of the play.

(R to L) Amari Cheatom (Youngblood), Harvy Blanks (Shealy) and Brian D. Coats (Philmore). Photo by Joan Marcus.

It’s a gem of a opener with a phenomenal cast.  Highly recommended.

Francois Battiste (Broadway’s Bronx Bomber, Prelude to a Kiss) as Booster; Harvey Blanks (Broadway’s Jitney) as Shealy; Amari Cheatom (Django Unchained, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) as Youngblood; Anthony Chisholm (Broadway’s Jitney); Brian D. Coats (Broadway’s Jitney) as Philmore; Steven Anthony Jones (longtime veteran of August Wilson’s plays) as Becker; Nija Okoro as Rena; Keith Randolph Smith (Broadway’s Jitney, King Hedley II) as Doub; and Ray Anthony Thomas (Broadway’s Jitney, The Crucible). 

Scenic Designer David Gallo; Costume Designer Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Designer Jane Cox; Original Music composed by Bill Sims, Jr.

Through October 20th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.