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.

Moby Dick ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 27, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The cast of Moby Dick. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

The cast of Moby Dick. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Co-production alliances benefit all theatregoers and the latest collaboration between Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and Arena Stage proves the point.  It saves theatres a heavy outlay by not having to mount expensive, new productions – plus shorter rehearsal time saves space and the actors already know their blocking and lines.  In addition, these productions come with critics’ raves.

Which brings me to Moby Dick – one of the most splendid and spectacular, alluringly bizarre plays I’ve reviewed to date.  Imagine, if you will, the physicality of Cirque du Soleil driving Melville’s major opus, coupled with all the theatrics of a Greek tragicomedy.  You can’t?  Neither could I until I saw this eye-popping interpretation of the classic tale of a whale.  Theatregoers will be talking about this production for years to come.

Using the parable of Jonah as fugitive from God, a preacher inspires Ishmael (Jamie Abelson) to find his soul through a whaling voyage.  Lured on by red-haired Puritan furies in funereal Victorian dresses and tight chignons (they later morph into a chorus of sea sirens in spectral gowns) the hapless fellow soon finds himself at the Spouter’s Inn among a rowdy group of drunken Nantucket scrimshanders bellowing sea chanties and preparing for passage on the fated Pequod.

Director David Catlin, who adapted the play from the book, delivers a Dante-inspired version replete with a structure of ivory-hued masts curving inward like the narrowing rib cage of a whale.  Sailors shinny up the masts and dangle from the ship’s rigging in daredevil fashion and lifeboats seesaw above.

L to R) Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Javen Ulambayar as Mungun in Moby Dick. Photo by Greg Mooney.

L to R) Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Javen Ulambayar as Mungun in Moby Dick. Photo by Greg Mooney.

Notwithstanding the spectacular acrobatics, there is the underlying story of the vengeful Captain Ahab (Christopher Donahue) – his Devil’s bargain to capture and kill the evil leviathan who bit off his leg – and Ishmael’s struggle to find his life’s purpose.

Woman is portrayed as not only the object that lures men to their deaths, but as the sea personified, and also as the whale itself.  They become a symbol of what must be captured, conquered and stripped of life.  In a particularly powerful scene, a woman is hung by her heels.  Her voluminous skirts trail down over her head rendering her faceless and exposing the whalebone structure of her petticoat.  Her flesh is summarily stripped away as if cleaning a fish.  It is the height of machismo culture.

(L to R) Jamie Abelson as Ishmael and Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg i. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

(L to R) Jamie Abelson as Ishmael and Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg i. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Some of these dramatic visual elements, twice used to great effect by hundreds of yards of silken fabric billowing out like waves, are balanced by extraordinarily fierce acting, haunting music and, yes! hilarity, most especially in the character of Queequeg (Anthony Fleming III), the savage outlier who becomes the catalyst for Ishmael’s voyage to manhood and redemption.

An outstanding production crew ties it all together with dramatic panache.  Costumes Sully Ratke; Aerial/Acrobatic Second City’s Actors Gymnasium founder Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi; Set Designer Courtney O’Neill; Lighting Design William C. Kirkham; Sound Design/Original Music Rick Sims.

Highly recommended.  If I gave out stars this would be an entire constellation!

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For information and tickets for the Lillian Hellman Festival visit www.arenastage.org/hellman-festival or call 202 488-3300.

Carousel ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 13, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel. Photo by Maria Baranova.

A brief moment of panic set in as my jaw hit the floor.  I’d just read Artistic Director, Molly Smith’s notes in the playbill and saw she was inspired by Thornton Wilder’s use of “mime in the entire show”.  Really?

“Somehow it feels right with the mythic nature of the story – and to remind us this isn’t reality TV,” she wrote, adding that collaborator David Leong is the show’s mime and fight expert.  Would the cast mime this indelibly lush score?  Would there be no orchestration?  I looked up hopefully and saw the orchestra perched on the catwalk and the conductor hidden in a cubby off to one side of the stage.  Okay, there was going to be music, but singing was still up in the air.  And maybe… literally.

Act One opens with the women miming the art of weaving on their looms.  As you’ll recall the story is set in a small town along the Maine coast, where the men are fishermen and the women work at Bascom’s Cotton Mill.  Silence.  And then an astonishing collection of lavishly costumed circus characters appears – a dancing bear, the strong man, a contortionist and other fabulous creatures parade around the revolving stage.  A coup for Designer Ilona Somogyi who presents us with a wide range of costumes from the elaborate fantasy circus characters, to the soft-colored linen dresses worn by the women – fisherman gear and natty togs worn by the men.

(L to R) Nicholas Rodriguez as Billy Bigelow and Betsy Morgan as Julie Jordan. Photo by Tony Powell.

(L to R) Nicholas Rodriguez as Billy Bigelow and Betsy Morgan as Julie Jordan. Photo by Tony Powell.

At this point we are still in mime mode.  I am crestfallen.  Until…the talking begins and Billy Bigelow, lowlife carnival barker (Nicholas Rodriguez), Mrs. Mullin (E. Faye Butler) amusement park impresario, and Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan) adorable ingénue come to life – conversationally.  Thank heavens!  The music swells to Julie and Carrie’s duet “When I Marry Mr. Snow”, and it’s game on!

(L to R) Kurt Boehm, Nicole Wildy, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Rayanne Gonzales and Ethan Kasnett. Photo by Maria

(L to R) Kurt Boehm, Nicole Wildy, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Rayanne Gonzales and Ethan Kasnett. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The story focuses on Julie and her enduring adoration of Billy who treats her worse than a junkyard dog.  Billy, a low-life gambler, is fired from the park and down on his luck, with no prospects other than his upcoming marriage to Miss, I-am-in-serious-denial, Julie.  With the help of his pal, Jigger (played skillfully and creepily by Kyle Schliefer) they concoct a scam to rob old Mr. Bascom (Thomas Adrian Simpson).  While they’re up to no good, the townsfolk merrily carry on with their annual clambake and treasure hunt in “A Real Nice Clambake”.

Expect a phenomenal cast singing their heads off to the tunes we adore.  Morgan lending her dulcet tones to songs like “If I Loved You”.  Rodriguez blowing the roof off with his tremendous baritone in “Soliloquy” and “The Highest Judge of All”.

The production, directed by Molly Smith and choreographed by the multi-award winning Parker Esse, is a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from stale summer stock versions.  This one comes at you freshly minted, with a white-washed stage set, and utterly captivating.  The composer geniuses, Rodgers and Hammerstein II, would melt at the exquisite dance routines designed by Esse and the richly orchestrated music.  We can thrill to duets like, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, sung here in operatic style by Julie and Nettie (Ann Arvia).

The biggest surprise though comes in Act Two with the introduction of Louise, Billy’s daughter, played by masterfully by Skye Mattox.  A mere slip of a girl who moves like spilled mercury, Mattox is as graceful as a prima ballerina and as fluid as a cool stream.

A twelve-member orchestra playing multiple instruments backs up the extraordinary cast.

Highly recommended.

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

The Year of Magical Thinking ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 16, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, October 7-November 20, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage at the Mead Cente . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking forms the basis of this one-woman monologue starring Oscar-winning film and stage star Kathleen Turner.  The dramatic version of which first appeared on Broadway in 2007.  Much has been written about Didion’s style of writing, both before her death and after.  But whether favorable or not, she was considered one of the most important writer/journalist/essayists of her time.  In a way she ushered in the “Me” generation with her self-absorbed, edgy style of writing.  You either like her, or you don’t.  Either way you slice it, she was an influential voice for decades. 

The plot chronicle’s Didion’s personal journey while mourning the tragic loss of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne and tending to her ailing daughter, Quintana, who lies in a comatose state.  From her early life in New York City as part of an elite group of writers (a 70’s version of the famed Algonquin Round Table), to her later life in fashionable Brentwood and Malibu enclaves, “I drove my Corvette down the PHC [Pacific Coast Highway for you non-Californians],” she quips, the conservative Republican author was eager to be regarded as a style-setter with the street cred of a bi-coastal, jet-setting journalist and wife of a successful Hollywood screenwriter. 

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, October 7-November 20, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage at the Mead Center. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In this drama the grieving Didion explores her mental breakdown during the most disastrous year of her life warning us repeatedly that, “This will happen to you,” as a way of explaining what can and will befall an ordinary life.  With the discipline of a scholar, and naming the posh hospital she held vigil in, “Doctors Hospital, which became Beth Israel Medical Center, was right across from Gracie Mansion,” she proudly quips, she takes comfort in memorizing diagnoses and researching medical treatments and medications.  Struggling to maintain her sanity, she micro-manages the doctors and nurses and chronologizes her daughter’s failing health.  Some of it is humorous – though you can imagine feeling pity for the nurses she abuses – and some of it is superficial, as she namedrops her celebrity pals and notes her fondest memory of her daughter is her blond hair bleached by the California sun. 

In her attempt to grapple with the day-to-day realities of planning her husband’s funeral and caring for her daughter, she seizes on primitive man’s anthropological concept of “magical thinking”.  But notwithstanding her attempts at the spiritual, she soon learns that all of her maneuvering can’t protect her from the anguish and the debilitating vortex of despair.  

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch does a fine job of keeping the pace lively and Turner proves a more than capable candidate to channel Didion’s internal conflicts. 

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