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.

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.