Kleptocracy ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 31, 2019 

Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin) in the world premiere of Kleptocracy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Much of what you’ll see in Kenneth Lin’s Kleptocracy is based on historic events – from Vladimir Putin’s rise from a low-level KGB agent to his position as the second president of the Russian Federation. Putin was plucked from spy agency obscurity by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Jewish billionaire owner of the enormous Russian oil company Yukos.  He expected the young Putin to do his bidding.  Unfortunately, Khodorkovsky underestimated Putin’s avarice, unbridled ego and his penchant for revenge.

The story opens in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union with a young, impoverished Socialist, Khodorkovsky (Max Woertendyke), who woos and wins his future wife, Inna, promising her he will find success through the American-instituted system of vouchers for cash.  Together with business partner Platon Lebedev (Alex Piper) the men gain total domination of the Russian economy.  Lin, an award-winning playwright and TV series writer who wrote several seasons of House of Cards, keeps the intrigue and suspense running at full tilt.

(L to R) Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin) and Max Woertendyke (Mikhail Khodorkovsky) in the world premiere of Kleptocracy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Christopher Geary, as the villainous Putin, told me he read up on Putin to research his role and then “tossed it all aside” when deciding how to play him.  His Putin is quirky, fond of quoting Russian Absurdism, duplicitous, cryptic, ruthless, egotistical and Machiavellian, and yet Geary does a masterful job of creating a schizoid man who is believably human and oddly inhuman.  No mean feat.

The story harkens back to the 1990’s and the rise of Yeltsin, who transformed Russia’s socialist economy into a capitalist one.  Those were heady days when private industry, formerly state-owned, was possible and unimaginable fortunes went to the oligarchs.  Everything was sunny days till the price of oil tanked and the economy went into freefall.  Putin  appropriated the companies, or killed the owners, and jailed Khodorkovsky.  “I can’t free him.  I can’t kill him.  He’s my Mary Queen of Scots,” Putin ponders aloud.

(Front) Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin). (Back L-R) Max Woertendyke (Mikhail Khodorkovsky), Tony Manna (Boris Berezovsky/Yuri Schmidt/Ensemble), John Austin (Valentine/Ensemble), Alex Piper (Platon Lebedev/Roman/Ensemble), Joseph Carlson (Leonid Nevzlin/Interpreter/Kuchma/Ensemble/Fight Captain) and Elliott Bales (Petukhov/Ensemble) in the world premiere of Kleptocracy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

With murders and disappearances ordered by Putin, the story intensifies when the American oil company, Chevron, attempts to buy Yukos through a White House Official (Candy Buckley in an exceptionally outstanding portrayal) who meets with Putin to seal the deal.  Buckley’s character, in what reads as a composite of Conde Rice/Georgette Mosbacher, is as tough as they come yet is no match for the mercurial Putin. “Your president will be my dog,” he threatens.  Hmmm.  Prescient?  (And lest we forget.  The U. S. currently shares a particularly fraught law with Russia – that no politician can be charged with a crime while he’s in office.) Checkmate.

Highly recommended.  A suspenseful thriller from beginning to end.

Directed by Jackson Gay; Set Design by Misha Kachman; Costume Design by Jessica Ford; Lighting Design by Masha Tsimring; Original Music and Sound Design by Broken Chord; Projection Design by Nicholas Hussong.

With John Austin as Valentin and others; Elliott Bales as Petukhov and others; Joseph Carlson as Leonid Nevzlin, Interpreter, Kuchma, and others; Bronté England-Nelson as Inna Khodorkovsky; and Tony Manna as Boris Berezovsky, Yuri Schmidt, and others.

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

Indecent ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
December 1, 2018 

Paula Vogel’s Indecent is not your typical holiday entertainment.  It’s dark and foreboding.  Opening during the season of  Hanukkah, it strikes one as an unusual period to put on a tale about the travails of a group of Polish Jewish actors who meet a terrible end in Nazi Poland.  Vogel’s play arose out of her interest in the misinterpretation of Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance written in 1907.  It attempts to revisit that play and its impact and separate the two from Asch’s original intent – what he truly meant to express and how devastated he was when critics and rabbis disapproved of it.  As a period, Yiddish play, written during the heyday of Yiddish theater, Asch was devasted when his play augured the demise of that beloved form of entertainment.

(L-R) Susan Lynskey (The Middle: Halina/Ensemble) and Emily Shackelford (The Ingenue: Chana/Ensemble), with Ben Cherry (Lemml) in background. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

We meet the young Sholem and his wife in their bedroom.  She is reading his first play and encourages him to produce it.  “It’s wonderful!  It’s so sad,” she tells him.  He presents it in a private salon for playwrights at the home of a producer who agrees to stage it.  Others in attendance see it as degrading to Jews because it has racy scenes.  It was later to become a play so reviled by American Jews because it dared to present them as human with all its messy faults and foibles.

Nonetheless, one man, Lemml, a modest tailor, endorses Asch’s craft and becomes the play’s stage manager.  Over the years God of Vengeance is performed throughout Europe and Russia to great acclaim, though the unusual story of a Jewish brothel owner, the trashing of the Torah and a romance between two women, portrays Jews as less than holy.  When the actors go to America in 1921, the play is censored.  The original Asch play opened on Broadway in 1923 and featured the first kiss by two women on the Broadway stage.  This innocent and playful scene has the women dancing in the rain as they celebrate their love.  The upshot was that the entire troupe was arrested for obscenity, later resulting in an investigation of the playwright by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Ben Cherry (Lemml) and the cast of Indecent. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Violin, clarinet, accordion, and what appeared to be a balalaika, serve as a mournful background to the destruction of the socialists’ high ideals.  Well-acted, it reflects a turbulent time during the days of politically-motivated censorship of those in the arts.

With Ben Cherry as The Stage Manager: Lemml; Susan Lynskey as The Middle: Halina/Ensemble; John Milosich as Moriz Godowsky/Musician/Ensemble; Victor Raider-Wexler as The Elder: Otto/Ensemble; Susan Rome as The Elder: Vera/Ensemble; Emily Shackelford as The Ingénue: Chana/Ensemble/Dance Captain; Maryn Shaw as Nelly Friedman/Musician/Ensemble; Alexander Sovronsky as Mayer Balsam/Musician/Ensemble; Ethan Watermaier as The Middle: Mendel/Ensemble; and Max Wolkowitz as The Ingénue: Avram/Ensemble.

(L-R) Emily Shackelford (The Ingenue: Chana/Ensemble) and Max Wolkowitz (The Ingenue: Avram/Ensemble) in Indecent. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Diercted by Eric Rosen; Choreography by Erika Chong Shuch; Music Direction and Original Music by Alexander Sovronsky; Set Design by Jack Magaw; Costume Design by Linda Roethke; and Lighting Design by Josh Epstein.

Through December 30th at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Anything Goes ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 10, 2018 

A feel-good, razzamatazz, hotsy-totsy lollapalooza musical just blew into town like a tornado.  And if you’ll pardon my saying so, it’s the Tower of Pisa, the Louvre Museum, it’s the Top (with apologies to Cole Porter).  You won’t have to head to Broadway to take in fabulous hoofing, gorgeous singing and shtick.  Director Molly Smith’s Anything Goes is the show to see right here and right now!  In the pantheon of American musicals, it’s one of the finest ever written, and fair warning: I expect it will be sold out, so grab your tickets STAT!

(L to R) Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) and Corbin Bleu (Billy Crocker) in Anything Goes. Photo by Maria Baranova.

When Cole Porter wrote the music and lyrics in 1934 with humorist P. G. Wodehouse, who penned the sophisticated bon mots of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves the Butler, & Guy Bolton, the musical comedy writer, plus Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, it was a different era.  Some ideas were not as politically or socially correct as we would like.  Securing permission from the composer’s estate, Artistic Director Molly Smith received permission to update the musical.  The story remains intact – a boy and girl experience unrequited love on an ocean liner joined by an evangelist and her “angels”, a covey of crooks, a slew of sailors and a soupçon of society’s upper crust.  What’s fresh is the new book by Timothy Crouse & John Weidman and the diversity of the cast, a thoughtful interpretation of the action, sensational choreography and comic throwaway lines directed at the audience.  “C’mon it’s opening night,” Reno Sweeney calls out to the audience getting us pumped and prepped for what’s to come.  And just like that we’re off, crossing the Atlantic on the U. S. America ocean liner, pulling for them and yukking it up with every cliché, mishap and malapropism.

(L to R) Nicholas Yenson (Ensemble/Quartet), Maria Rizzo (Erma/Ensemble) and Mickey Orange (Ensemble/Quartet) in Anything Goes. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Here is a cast that surprises at every turn.  Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) showcases her tremendous diva voice with heaps of attention-getting vibrato, captivating from the get-go with the immensely talented Corbin Bleu (Billy Crocker) and scene stealers Maria Rizzo as Erma, Thomas Adrian Simpson as Elisha Whitney, Jimmy Ray Bennett as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh, and Stephen DeRosa as Moonface Martin.

Thanks to award-winning choreographer Parker Esse, there’s soft shoe, modern dance, waltz and eye-popping tap which gratefully is making a strong resurgence.  Think Gower Champion, Jerome Robbins and Tommy Tune all rolled into one.  It’s that good with heaps of singing and dancing up close and personal in the Fichandler’s theater-in-the-round.  Factor in the talents of Conductor/Musical Director Paul Sportelli whose orchestra outdoes itself with orchestration that soars on some of the musical’s most memorable numbers – “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “You’re the Top”, “Easy to Love”, Anything Goes”, “It’s De-lovely” – and many more.

(L to R) Mickey Orange (Ensemble/Quartet), Ben Gunderson (Purser/Ensemble/Quartet), Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney), Brent McBeth (Ensemble/Quartet/Fred/Photographer) and Nicholas Yenson (Ensemble/Quartet) in Anything Goes . Photo by Maria Baranova.

With Lisa Helmi Johanson as Hope Harcourt, Lisa Tejero as Evangeline Harcourt, Jonathan Holmes as Captain, Ben Gunderson as Purser, Christopher Shin as Luke, Julio Catano-Yee as John, DeMoya Watson Brown as Purity, Kristyn Pope as Chastity, Andrea Weinzierl as Charity, and Maximillian Moonshine/Olly as “Cheeky” the dog.

Soara-Joye Ross (Reno Sweeney) and the cast of Anything Goe. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Set Design by Ken Macdonald, Costumes by Alejo Vietti, Lighting Design by Kimberly Purtell, Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. Lapointe.

Spunk, pizazz and sumptuous buffoonery in spades.  You’ll want to see this one over and over again.

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

Turn Me Loose ~ A Play About Comic Genius Dick Gregory ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 17, 2018

Playwright Gretchen Law’s political, darkly comic drama is a starkly drawn love letter to comedian activist, Dick Gregory.  It reminds us of Gregory’s take-no-prisoners battle against racism and America’s dark past and its current treatment of indigent African-Americans.  I use the term ‘African-American’ though you won’t hear Gregory use it.  It was not yet in fashion in Gregory’s day, folks were still saying ‘Negro’ or the newly coined term, ‘Black’.  In this monologue, Gregory liberally slings what we now refer to as the ‘N’ word.  It’s sickening to hear it used today – though rappers frequently do.  The audience squirms.  It’s exactly what Law wants us to feel.  We know it’s a word for Blacks’ usage only.  Gregory used the word to shock and to defuse its dehumanizing effect.  If you’re White, don’t even think about using it. You are not that cool and probably never will be.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Director John Gould Rubin puts Gregory (played compellingly by Edwin Lee Gibson) center stage in Christopher Barreca’s simple set design, to focus on Gregory’s impact on and dedication to the Civil Rights movement.  Using humor to promote change, Gregory endeavored to heighten awareness of such issues as income disparity, corporate greed, capitalism, consumerism, drug companies and Wall Street.

Growing up in poverty in St. Louis, he was acutely aware of its demonic grip.  “Poverty is what threatens Democracy,” he foretold. And comedy was his salvation.  As a young man he started out performing standup in small local nightclubs catching the eye of Playboy magazine publisher, Hugh Hefner, who invited him to perform a one-night only gig at the Mansion where Gregory quickly offended a congress of rednecks.  As the first black comedian on the nightclub scene, his popularity led to gigs in Vegas and national TV appearances.  Soon after he became close friends with Civil Rights activist Medgar Evans and began performing for the NAACP.  To say he was a hero to the movement, is an understatement.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The play toggles between the 60’s when Gregory became radicalized – even running for President during the Nixon-era – and the 2017 post-Obama era when he was able to witness a modicum of change.  John Carlin reprises his roles as Stand-up Comic/Emcee/Interviewer/Heckler and Cabbie in this riveting presentation.

Gregory died last summer after more than half a century of activism and before witnessing the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the nation’s conflicted response to pro football player Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee to draw attention to young men killed in record numbers by police. In later years, Gregory made DC his home.  You have to wonder what he would say if he were still here.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Highly recommended.

In association with John Legend, Get Lifted Film Company and the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation.  Costume Design by Susan Hilferty, Lighting Design by Stephen Strawbridge and Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg.

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

Dave ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
July 29, 2018 

Frustrated with the current administration’s wackadoodle politics and its daily grind of mean-spirited tweets?  Then let Dave be your panacea.  This uplifting story is drawn from the 1993 eponymous movie written by Gary Ross and starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver.  Remember that?  Well, it’s now a musical written by Tony Award-winning composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then, Bring it On: The Musical, Freaky Friday and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical) and book writer/lyricist Nell Benjamin (co-writer with her husband Laurence O’Keefe of Legally Blonde, Mean Girls, Life of the Party, Huzzah!).  We need this.  We really, really need this!

Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Director Tina Landau (SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical and many more) has achieved an astonishing assemblage of A-Plus experienced cast, crew and creators to produce a musical that soars in every category – choreography, sets, actors, musical numbers and lighting.  Set Designer Dane Laffrey and Projection Designer Peter Nigrini have conceived a sensational, floor-to-the-rafters cyclorama embedded with LED projections that changes scenes at the proverbial drop of a hat.  It’s not just cleverly conceived, it’s mind-blowing.

Set in Washington, DC, our hero, Dave Kovic (Drew Gehling) is a recently fired liberal-leaning, Abraham Lincoln-loving high school teacher who decides to take up posting YouTube videos of himself doing impressions of the current President, Bill Mitchell (also Gehling).  When POTUS suffers a stroke whilst in flagrante delicto with his girlfriend, Randi (Rachel Flynn), Dave is summoned to act as his secret stand-in.  He’s so convincing that FLOTUS, Ellen (Mamie Parris) and VP Nance (sounds like… oh, never mind… played by Jonathan Rayson), can’t tell it’s not Mitchell.  The only ones in on the ruse are the Secret Service, his Director of Communications, Susan Lee (Bryonha Marie Parham), and his devious Chief of Staff, Bob Alexander (Douglas Sills).

(L-R) Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell), Bryonha Marie Parham (Susan Lee) and Douglas Sills (Bob Alexander) in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Up till the switcheroo, Lee and Alexander had been serving a President who was a self-consumed, self-aggrandizing idiot, demeaning to his wife while unceremoniously wrecking the country.  Sound familiar?  Meanwhile, Dave becomes more and more irreplaceable as his poll numbers continue to soar and the country (along with the audience!) cheers on his progressive agenda.  While POTUS is still in a coma, Dave feels guilty continuing the subterfuge until the ghosts of former Presidents – Buchanan, Taft, Harding, Harrison, Johnson, Hayes and John Quincy Adams – appear to him in the Lincoln Bedroom to convince him otherwise in one of the show’s most hilarious scenes.  Imagine the Secret Service as an armed-and-dangerous chorus line fronted by the President’s Chief of Staff.  Now, you’ve got the picture.

It’s a feel good, validating, change-the-world, political comedy musical with a flawless cast that will have you cheering all the way home.

Highly recommended.  A total hoot from beginning to end.

Drew Gehling (Dave Kovic/President Bill Mitchell) and the cast, in Dave, running July 18-August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

With Jenny Ashman (Reporter, Ensemble), Jared Bradshaw (Reporter, Harding, Ensemble), Josh Breckenridge (Duane Bolden), Dana Costello (Reporter, Montana Jefferson, Ensemble), Trista Dollison (Reporter, Harrison, Ensemble), Sherri L. Edelen (Tour Guide, Mrs. Smit, Taft, Ensemble), Kevin R. Free (Murray Stein, Adams, Ensemble), Adam J. Levy (Mr. Wheeler, Ensemble), Erin Quill (Reporter, Hayes, Ensemble), Jonathan Rayson (Gary Nance, Johnson, Ensemble) and Vishal Vaidya (Paul, Ensemble)

Book by Thomas Meehan and Nell Benjamin, Set Design by Dane Laffrey, Choreography by Sam Pinkleton, Orchestrator Michael Starobin, Music Director Rob Berman, Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James, Lighting by Japhy Weideman, Sound Design by Walter Trarbach, Projection Design by Peter Nigrini.

In the Kreeger Theater through August 19, 2018 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.