Antony and Cleopatra ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 19, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

A moment of flirtatious play between Mark Antony (Cody Nickell) and his Cleopatra (Shirine Babb). Photo by Teresa Wood.

A moment of flirtatious play between Mark Antony (Cody Nickell) and his Cleopatra (Shirine Babb). Photo by Teresa Wood.

“Kingdoms are clay,” warns Antony to his beloved Cleopatra in the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra.  Even the Soothsayer foretells their downfall and the untimely demise of the lovers.  But dire prophesies do not dissuade the ego-centric Antony from fulfilling his desires, nor us from enjoying this lightly condensed version of one of Shakespeare’s most lyrical plays.  And though both Romans and Egyptians tended to heed the warnings from mythological Gods and Goddesses, what the heck?  They were human, after all, notwithstanding their respective royal bubbles.

A meeting of Rome’s leaders, the triumvirate. Pictured left to right: Robbie Gay (Lepidus), Dylan Paul (Octavius Caesar), Cody Nickell (Mark Antony), with Chris Genebach (Agrippa) looking on the proceeding. Photo by Teresa Wood.

A meeting of Rome’s leaders, the triumvirate. Pictured left to right: Robbie Gay (Lepidus), Dylan Paul (Octavius Caesar), Cody Nickell (Mark Antony), with Chris Genebach (Agrippa) looking on the proceeding. Photo by Teresa Wood.

From the get go Antony knows his love for his lusty queen is doomed, yet he is so besotted, so incapable of making intelligent decisions, that he ignores the sage advice of Octavius Caesar and his military leader Lepidus to abandon his pursuit of Cleopatra.  With one foot in Egypt and the other in Rome, he is utterly conflicted.  Love, or country?  It’s complicated – especially to those lost in lust.

Performed in the round with a revolving circular platform on center stage, the production is intimate, energetic and action-packed.  Director Robert Richmond calls Tony Cisek’s set design “gladiatorial”, which makes for a perfectly suited space to view hyper-electrifying of combat and romance as emotions swing to and fro like an amped up pendulum.

Mardian (John Floyd) and Charmian (Simoné Elizabeth Bart) tend to their Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) in Antony and Cleopatra. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Mardian (John Floyd) and Charmian (Simoné Elizabeth Bart) tend to their Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) in Antony and Cleopatra. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Shirine Babb’s Cleopatra is ruthless and fierce yet with a sensual nature that challenges Antony to meet her impossible demands.  It’s a formidable counterbalance to Cody Nickell’s fiery, bombastic, delusional Antony and evident in their playful love scenes that skew modern (we don’t feel as though we’re hanging around in 40 BC), as well as adding punch to their wittily flip, and ferociously bruising, quarrels.  As two of the most powerful figures of their time, their impetuous decisions and recurrent contretemps (Are they getting along today, or not?) affected whole nations and the future of the known world.

Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) gives comfort to her dying Mark Antony (Cody Nickell) . Photo by Teresa Wood.

Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) gives comfort to her dying Mark Antony (Cody Nickell) . Photo by Teresa Wood.

In this vivid portrait of two lovers, both rulers and conquerors, we see two megalomaniacs locked in battle for dominance while vulnerable to their unbridled passions.  Whether it’s a battle scene executed in dance form by the soldiers or a love scene framed by a silk-draped bed, Costume Designer Mariah Hale gives us diaphanous, gem-colored gowns for the ladies with a glittering, golden cloche for Queen Cleopatra, and leather-girded and metal-studded togas with silken scarlet capes for the men.  Dramatic scene-enhancing moods set by Adam Stamper on sound design and Andrew F. Griffin on lighting.

Highly recommended.

With Simone Elizabeth Bart as Charmian; John Floyd as Mardian; Robbie Gay as Lepidus and Dolabella; Chris Genebach as Agrippa; Nigel Gore as Enobarbus; Nicole King as Iras and Octavia; Anthony Michael Martinez as Soothsayer and Eros; and Dylan Paul as Octavius Caesar.

Through November 19th at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or visit www.Folger.edu/theatre.

Timon of Athens ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 10, 2017 

Dinner at the home of Timon. Pictured left to right: Michael Dix Thomas, Sean Fri, Kathryn Tkel, Ian Merrill Peakes (center, as Timon), Andhy Mendez, Louis Butelli, and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (with Eric Hissom top left). - Photo by Teresa Wood

Dinner at the home of Timon. Pictured left to right: Michael Dix Thomas, Sean Fri, Kathryn Tkel, Ian Merrill Peakes (center, as Timon), Andhy Mendez, Louis Butelli, and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (with Eric Hissom top left). – Photo by Teresa Wood

In the high-tech world of fingerprint readers and cell phones, venture capitalists and politicians, Timon collects friends of all stripes.  From artists and philosophers to shop owners and Senators, he entertains them lavishly with Lucullan banquets and gifts of gold and jewels.  “More welcome are you to my fortunes, than they to me,” he says, oozing beneficence from every pore.  Is he seeking favor, or merely attempting to keep his friends close and his enemies closer?

Timon of Athens is a tragedy so seldom performed that audiences may be unfamiliar with it.  It is often snubbed by scholars, which is a pity, for I found some of Shakespeare’s richest prose in this play.  Director Robert Richmond imagines Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes) as a sharkskin suit-sporting businessman enjoying unfettered loyalty from his peers and associates and reveling in their idolatry.  But when friendship comes through financial generosity, is it true?

Cupid (John Floyd) and dancers Phrynia (Aliyah Caldwell, left) and Timandra (Amanda Forstrom) entertain Timon and his party guests - Photo by Teresa Wood

Cupid (John Floyd) and dancers Phrynia (Aliyah Caldwell, left) and Timandra (Amanda Forstrom) entertain Timon and his party guests – Photo by Teresa Wood

We soon discern that only two members of Timon’s coterie are his true friends – Apemantus (Eric Hissom), who delights in bursting Timon’s utopian bubble regarding his fair weather friends, and Flavius (Antoinette Robinson) his faithful servant, whose warnings of his imminent financial ruin fall on deaf ears.

Timon’s downfall doesn’t come without a challenge to the friends who deserted him. He invites them to a banquet where they arrive believing that he has regained his fortunes.  They believe they will again be the recipients of his fortune and are off the hook for abandoning him.  But Timon, who has seen the light and wants payback, serves up a tureen of excrement to his unsuspecting guests.  “I’m sick of this false world,” he confesses.

Banished Alcibiades (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, left) confronts his old companion Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes) - Photo by Teresa Wood

Banished Alcibiades (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, left) confronts his old companion Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes) – Photo by Teresa Wood

Throughout his emotional turmoil, Athens’ war is raging and Matt Otto’s soundtrack of the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gunfire reminds us of Timon’s precarious state and Greece’s uncertain future.

Francesca Talenti’s clever use of a slim band of video projections to introduce the characters is a novel and much appreciated approach to remembering who’s who.  Seeing their names along with their professions projected above their heads as they enter the scene is useful when seeing an unfamiliar play.  It’s later used by Timon as a video selfie when he is reflecting on his life during his darkest hour.

“Undone by goodness.” Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon of Athens - Photo by Teresa Wood

“Undone by goodness.” Ian Merrill Peakes as Timon of Athens – Photo by Teresa Wood

Scenic Designer Tony Cisek turns the theater’s English Tudor style into a sleek modernistic set with multiple entries and a two-level balconied catwalk, perfect for spouting edicts or watching your own destruction.

I can’t say enough about Peakes’ boundless energy, his superb ability veer from joy to pathos, as Timon goes from wealth and generosity to the madness of poverty, loneliness and utter despair.  The entire cast is wonderful.  I could see this play again and again.

I don’t give out stars, so I’ll just lend them.  All five to this stellar production.  See it!

Through June 11th at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or visit www.Folger.edu/theatre.

As You Like It ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
January 28, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Rosalind (Lindsay Alexandra Carter) is suddenly taken aback at the Duke’s masked ball in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (also pictured, l to r: Kimberly Chatterjee, Cody Wilson, Aaron Krohn, Brian Reisman.) On stage at Folger Theatre, January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Rosalind (Lindsay Alexandra Carter) is suddenly taken aback at the Duke’s masked ball in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (also pictured, l to r: Kimberly Chatterjee, Cody Wilson, Aaron Krohn, Brian Reisman.) On stage at Folger Theatre, January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

This most irreverent version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It comes at a time when we could all use a little levity.  But it’s not just the humor that’s on point here.  It’s the performances by this outstanding cast that gives us the hopefulness that’s required in these uncertain times.

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch has homed in on the irresistible Lindsay Alexandra Carter who plays our heroine Rosalind in this lively production.  Carter is a hundred times adorable, delightfully feisty and endearing as the woman who gets her man by pretending to be a sort of male Ann Landers to her love target, Orlando (Lorenzo Roberts).  As she schools him in how to capture the heart of, well, yes! herself, she delivers one of the best interpretations of the role of Rosalind.  And for that, we can be deliriously grateful.

Tom Story as the philosophic misanthrope Jaques in Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. On stage January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Tom Story as the philosophic misanthrope Jaques in Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. On stage January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

All this plays out in the Forest of Arden where Rosalind repairs with Celia after being been banished from the kingdom by her uncle, the villainous Duke Frederick, father to Celia (Antoinette Robinson).  Frederick has stolen the royal lands from her father, Duke Senior, and banished him into exile in the Forest of Arden.  Oliver (Michael Glenn), Orlando’s elder brother, is the scoundrel who has stolen his fortune.  That they all wind up in the scary forests of Arden, is the coolest contrivance ever.

The witty Touchstone (Aaron Krohn) shows off his wooing prowess to Audrey (Kimberly Chatterjee) in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy As You Like It. On stage at Folger Theatre, January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The witty Touchstone (Aaron Krohn) shows off his wooing prowess to Audrey (Kimberly Chatterjee) in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy As You Like It. On stage at Folger Theatre, January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Others of note are Allen McCollough as both Dukes.  A bit restrained as Frederick, but far more convincing as Duke Senior.  The wonderful Tom Story as Jaques who philosophizes on man’s “seven ages” and has the “All the world’s a stage” lines we had to memorize in school.  His delivery of this iconic speech, carries the weight of justice served.  And Touchstone the courtier, played to perfection by Aaron Krohn, who presents us with a mashup of Steve Martin and Jim Carrey clad in the sort of outlandish suits you’d expect from Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Costume Designer, Charlotte Palmer-Lane puts the characters in contemporary styles (Will Hayes as Charles in spandex), while Composer Heather Christian ties it together with a mashup of music that ranges from Blues to Beat Box and madrigals to Israeli folk tunes.  We are going to need a lot more of this lighthearted silliness to counteract the daily news feed.

Highly recommended to soothe the spirit and tickle the funny bone.

Through March 5th at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or visit www.Folger.edu/theatre.

The cast of Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in exuberant song. On stage, January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The cast of Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It in exuberant song. On stage, January 24 – March 5, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Sense and Sensibility ~ Folger Shakespeare Theatre

Jordan Wright
September 20, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Colonel Brandon (James Patrick Nelson) receives some troublesome news in Folger Theatre’s Sense & Sensibility. On stage September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Jesse Belsky.

Colonel Brandon (James Patrick Nelson) receives some troublesome news in Folger Theatre’s Sense & Sensibility. On stage September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Jesse Belsky.

Of course, Sense and Sensibility adaptor Kate Hamill was going to mix it up.  Taking a cue from Jane Austen’s gossipy letters to friends and family, Hamill recognized the author’s sharp-tongued sense of humor and plumbed beneath the characters’ ostensible formalities to infuse this modern interpretation with an exuberance and hilarity ignored on earlier stage and film productions.  Director Eric Tucker, Wall Street Journal’s “Director of the Year”, who worked with Hamill on the New York production in 2014, sees this version as, “wickedly funny and extremely romantic”, which quite neatly sums it up.

Austen was the consummate social arbiter, an irreverent chronicler who snubbed the upper crust’s pretenses by poking fun at them.  Austen’s love of romance and the irony of domestic virtue aren’t lost in this version – they are merely brightened up with tongue firmly planted in cheek.  The end result is an exhilarating romp that rediscovers Austen’s side-eyed portrayal of Victorian gentility.

Maggie McDowell stars as the subdued Elinor Dashwood in Folger Theatre’s production of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. On stage September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Maggie McDowell stars as the subdued Elinor Dashwood in Folger Theatre’s production of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. On stage September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The play opens with a disco scene of colored lights and electropop music.  The women sport lace petticoats and the men get down with it in loose white poet shirts and matching leggings, that is until they break into a formal quadrille and we see where Hamill is going with this reinterpretation.  Topsy-turvy, indeed!

Windowed panels and furniture on wheels define the settings from parlor to field, and it is an absolute marvel of John McDermott’s scenic design and Alexandra Beller’s choreography that keeps it in near constant motion.  It’s all in great fun as the cast leaps on and off stage into the audience providing a cacophony of snippy, back-stabbing asides about their friends and family.

Marianne (Erin Weaver) shares a private moment with her love, John Willoughby (Jacob Fishel) in Sense & Sensibility. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Marianne (Erin Weaver) shares a private moment with her love, John Willoughby (Jacob Fishel) in Sense & Sensibility. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

There are silly bits too.  In one, an audience member is asked to hold the reins of Edward Ferrars’ imaginary horse.  In another, Willoughby enters the Dashwood’s cottage through a mist provided by two of the actors visibly spraying him with water spritzers.  It’s all a hoot.

Thanks to Jamie Smithson, who we loved in Signature Theatre’s Cake Off last fall, we are treated to a side-splitting, show-stealing performance as Ferrars.  Especially notable too are Caroline Stephanie Clay as the gossipy Mrs. Jennings (she also plays Lucy Steele), whose appalling manners and ear-piercing howls at the dinner table are deliciously naughty, and Erin Weaver whose interpretation of the idealistic and impulsive Marianne Dashwood, is riveting.  Lisa Birnbaum who plays Mrs. Dashwood as well as Lucy’s sister Anne Steele, is another one to watch.  But it’s Jacob Fishel (audible gasps from the audience for his tearingly handsome good looks) as both John Dashwood and Marianne’s love interest, John Willoughby, that is indelible.  Switching from cad to callow fellow and back all in a madcap frenzy, is what sticks.

Kudos to a superb cast whose athleticism, humor and feistiness gives us the most delightful version of Austen’s classic ever to hit the stage.

Elinor Dashwood (Maggie McDowell) learns of some distressing news from Colonel Brandon (James Patrick Nelson) in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood

Elinor Dashwood (Maggie McDowell) learns of some distressing news from Colonel Brandon (James Patrick Nelson) in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 13 – October 30, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood

See it now!

If you’re curious about Austen’s connection to Shakespeare, be sure to give yourself extra time to visit the Library’s spectacular exhibition, “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen and the Cult of Celebrity”, now on display in the Folger’s Great Hall.  This fascinating collection of rare memorabilia reveals the authors’ surprising parallels, and is part of Folger’s year-long “The Wonders of Will” celebration, commemorating 400 years of Shakespeare in 2016.

Through October 30th at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or visit www.Folger.edu/theatre.

District Merchants ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
June 12, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Shylock (Matthew Boston) looks on disapprovingly as Lorenzo (William Vaughan) tries to steal a kind word with Jessica (Dani Stoller) - Photo by Teresa Wood

Shylock (Matthew Boston) looks on disapprovingly as Lorenzo (William Vaughan) tries to steal a kind word with Jessica (Dani Stoller) – Photo by Teresa Wood

Resident Dramaturg, Michele Osherow, lays out the historical landscape behind playwright Aaron Posner’s architecture of his world premiere, District Merchantsa re-imagining of The Merchant of Venice.  Commissioned by Folger Theatre as part of its 2016 celebration of 400 years of Shakespeare, this rendition becomes an exploration of class and difference among Blacks and Jews in the post-Civil War era.

To circumscribe the tumultuous times that defined the 1870’s when Blacks had won their freedom and the country was struggling to get its footing, Osherow reminds us that “the England into which Shakespeare was born had barred Jews for centuries.”  And further, “that members of the Jewish race were believed to have murderous impulses”.  In fact, she explains, in many instances violence against Jewish creditors were committed to avoid paying back debts. She faults “the hypocrisy of a world obsessed with cash and credit.”  And it is within this context that we can better comprehend Posner’s intent to humanize Shylock.

Shylock (Matthew Boston, right) works out the terms of his loan with Antoine (Craig Wallace) in Aaron Posner’s ~ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Shylock (Matthew Boston, right) works out the terms of his loan with Antoine (Craig Wallace) in Aaron Posner’s ~ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Set amid the reconstruction era in Washington, DC, we find Shylock (Matthew Boston) and Antoine (Craig Wallace as the character better known as Antonio), two rapacious opportunists looking to make their fortunes in a dramatically altered nation.  For Shylock it is money lending, aka loan sharking.  For Antoine, a free Black man, it is any scheme that he can put his mind to.  “You can think of me as an opportunistic philanthropist or a philanthropic opportunist, or you can just think of me as an American,” he boasts, neatly absolving himself of both guilt and responsibility.

Nessa (Celeste Jones, left) is stunned to hear of Portia’s (Maren Bush) inspired plan to disguise herself as a male lawyer ~ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Nessa (Celeste Jones, left) is stunned to hear of Portia’s (Maren Bush) inspired plan to disguise herself as a male lawyer ~ Photo by Teresa Wood.

In Posner’s version the beautiful heiress Portia (Maren Bush) struggles to assuage her White guilt with her Black maid Nessa (Celeste Jones), while at the same time, she is clueless that her adored suitor, Benjamin Bassanio (Seth Rue), is a penniless mulatto.  Concurrently the pious Jewess Jessica (Dani Stoller), daughter to Shylock, is falling for Lorenzo (William Vaughan) a Wasp with little education but mad skills in wooing.  For her, he’s a way out of her father’s oppressive household.  For him, she is a ticket to a new and prosperous life.  Vaughan plays up the ‘aw shucks’ outlier to an endearing hilt – cagey meets naïve is a tricky balance – and he nails it.  Meanwhile Lancelot (Akeem Davis), Shylock’s servant, bobs and weaves his way into Nessa’s heart.  Davis makes the most of this secondary role through charm alone.

Lancelot (Akeem Davis) receives a most important letter from Nessa (Celeste Jones) ~ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Lancelot (Akeem Davis) receives a most important letter from Nessa (Celeste Jones) ~ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Director Michael John Garces skillfully directs Posner’s timely re-interpretation with an engagingly intense cast whose characters are carefully crafted to allow us to be drawn in by their passions and nonetheless disgusted by their hostilities and intolerance.  Boston’s Shylock remains chillingly coldhearted.  But Posner reveals a shaft of explanation in the moneylender’s second act soliloquy when he demands that we, the audience, feel his pain, his outcast status, the loss of his daughter.  Stoller, as his daughter, is wonderful – exceptionally expressive and nuanced.  Maren Bush proves to be utterly engaging as the gender-switching Harvard law grad, holding the audience captive in a wait-for-it, wait-for-it moment of cringe-worthy indecision as to whether or not to marry Bassanio.  “I’m stuck,” she finally blurts out, “I wish I could say ‘yes’, that the world was different.  But I’m not big enough inside.”  Craig Wallace as the swaggering Antoine, the antithesis of of a compliant Black man, gives a commanding and indelible performance.

Themes of financial scandal, racial injustice and religious conflict keep the story relevant.  Modern colloquialisms keep it alive.

Highly recommended.

Through July 3rd at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or visit www.Folger.edu/theatre.