Are you now, or have you ever been…MetroStage

Jordan Wright
October 10, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Marcus Naylor as Langston Hughes

Marcus Naylor as Langston Hughes ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Carlyle Brown’s play about the investigation and inquisition of Langston Hughes by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) is a deeply moving, profoundly disturbing probe into the mind of a successful Black American poet.  Under the guidance of Joseph McCarthy, these televised courtroom investigations were led by the notorious Roy Cohn, advisor to Richard Nixon and later mentor to Donald Trump, the Senate Subcommittee turns their search to uncover Communists into a witch hunt the likes of which America had never seen.  Like Hitler’s civilian spies it turned the country into a nation of informants – with people putting forth names of co-workers and friends to save their own skin.  That many of them had no connection to the actual Communist Party, nor knew anything more than workers had rights and blacks were equal in the USSR, was of no consequence to these self-righteous Senators.

The investigation into, and “blacklisting” of, the lives of hundreds of actors, writers, gays, etc. ruined their lives, careers, and businesses – all in the name of rooting out a misperceived Communist and anti-Christian influence on American society.  It turned the country upside down at the time.

(l-r) Michael Sharp Wood, Van Meter, Josh Taylor, Marcus Naylor, as Langston Hughes, Marni Penning, Russell Sunday

(l-r) Michael Sharp Wood, Van Meter, Josh Taylor, Marcus Naylor as Langston Hughes, Marni Penning, Russell Sunday ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

In this newly developed treatment of Brown’s play, Composer William Knowles adds verve to the drama adding original music to background life in 1953 Harlem and, later, the needle-sharp drama of the hearings.  Knowles incorporates period Blues, Jazz and Cabaret songs to animate the rhythms and patterns of Hughes’ famous poems.   It’s set in the period of the Harlem Renaissance when, as Hughes puts it, “Negroes were in vogue.”  Until they weren’t.

It is a sinuous story set to music that weaves in and out of Hughes’ most profound thoughts, highlighting his poetry and underpinning his trial in dramatic fashion.  For those familiar with Hughes’ poems it will be a pleasure to renew your acquaintance with “The Weary Blues”, The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, “Harlem Dance Hall”, “Good Morning Revolution” and others.

(l-r) Russell Sunday, Josh Thomas, Marcus Naylor as Langston Hughes, Wood Van Meter

(l-r) Russell Sunday, Josh Thomas, Marcus Naylor as Langston Hughes, Wood Van Meter ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

Director Thomas W. Jones II does an outstanding job with a diverse cast that brings the necessary gravitas to the story.  The six-member cast not only sings and dances in a number of styles of the period, but moves effortlessly through a number of roles and wardrobe changes, that is except for lead actor Marcus Naylor as Langston who tackles the role with virtuosity.  The one-acter builds to a crescendo with Hughes’ interrogation by Cohn (played impressively by Marni Penning) who eviscerates the poet piecemeal.  The parallels to today’s news are staggering.

Also notable is Wood Van Meter as David Schine, who has a wonderful voice and whose solos are explosive.  Michael Sharp as Senator Joseph McCarthy, Russell Sunday as Senator Everett Dirksen and Josh Thomas as Frank Reeves round out this excellent cast.

Carl Gudenius and Shuxing Fan employ an effective set design of large trapezoidal panels that allow for Hughes words, plus photos and videos of the period, to accommodate designer Robbie Hayes’ evocative projections.

Highly recommended.  An unforgettable night of theatre.

Through November 5th at MetroStage 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information call 703 548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org.

(l-r) Michael Sharp, Russell Sunday, Josh Thomas, Marcus Naylor as Langston Hughes, Marni Penning, Wood Van Meter

(l-r) Michael Sharp, Russell Sunday, Josh Thomas, Marcus Naylor as Langston Hughes, Marni Penning, Wood Van Meter ~ Photo credit Chris Banks

The Wizard of Hip (Or When in Doubt Slam Dunk) ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
August 21, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

The Wizard of Hip

The Wizard of Hip – Photo credit Chris Banks

Getting schooled by Thomas W. Jones II, aka “Afro Joe”, is a lesson in growing up Black, Catholic, and urban hip – “sticky leg” and all.  Jones is a poet with a fusillade style of comedic delivery that gets under your skin with its beat-bopping rhythms and déjà vu tales of adolescence.  It’s a story about being Black in modern culture that transcends Blackness and goes to the heart of teen angst and family dynamics.  Jones is already cool.  At 60+ he’s still got all the moves including a dip in the hip (he assures us it’s not about hip replacement), when he’s demonstrating the art of getting the girl.  Or, at least, trying to get the girl, which doesn’t go well for Jones as a teenager until he realizes that making a well-rehearsed, slow-rolling, wordless entrance into a dance club isn’t at all the kind of approach that his target has in mind.  “You enter on an angle,’ he advises, twisting his agile frame into a slow-walking, undulating gait.  After a few rookie moves in which the women rebuff his advances, he switches gears and tries a little tenderness.  Cue the adoring girl.

Jones and his two, talented singer/actor sidekicks, Jasmine Eileen Coles as Lady Doo Wop 1 and Kanysha Williams as Lady Doo Wop 2, blast out street-funky, free-style, free-verse poetry filled with the pain and glory of growing up and growing cool in Queens, New York.  They dance, slide and do the funky chicken to James Brown, Sidney Poitier and other Black towers of power from the 1950’s rock n’ roll era as archival photos of the period, including Dr. J and Willie Mays, are projected behind them.

The Wizard of Hip

The Wizard of Hip – Photo credit Chris Banks

Filling the black box stage, the indefatigable Jones peels off in warp speed with riffs on his youth.  One episodic piece delves into the sanctity of mamas and papas, as in “don’t talk about my mama”, a multi-character piece in which he is pitted against street toughs while defending his mother’s honor.  In it he goes from getting beat up (he’s a genius at morphing into two or more characters at once) to slip sliding off in dishonor with a panoply of excuses to go home – homework, dinner, mow the lawn.

In fact, “mow the lawn” becomes a particularly notable euphemism in the troubles he has with his father (whom Jones also plays).  The father figure is seen as a model of ineptitude and intransigence – forever diverting punitive decisions back onto mama while urging his son to step up his game and be a man.  This impossible balance of constantly maintaining peer-pressure hipsterness while trying to score with the ladies, is what keeps our hero rocked back on his heels as he deciphers what everyone wants and where he fits in.  Because in the gospel of Cool with a capital ‘C’, “You gotta be John Wayne in a Shirley Temple world.”

The Wizard of Hip

The Wizard of Hip – Photo credit Chris Banks

Jones is familiar to MetroStage as writer, director and choreographer on Three Sistahs, Ladies Swing the Blues and many other original productions that had their premieres here.  He’s also known for his performances at Studio Theatre and more recently at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

Two veteran musicians keep pace with Jones high energy.  On keyboards is William Knowles, known to MetroStage aficionados as Music Director for his work on the Helen Hayes’ award-winning Cool Papa’s Party as well as Three Sistahs, Blues in the Night, Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song, Blackberry Daze and more.  Knowles also provides original music to syncopate Jones’ kinetic style.  Keeping the backbeat is Greg Holloway on drums – a staple of many of MetroStage’s original productions.

See it, if you want to keep your cool.

Through September 17th at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.

For tickets and information call 703 548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org.

Master Class ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
May 9, 2017

(l-R) Ayana Reed as Sharon and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

(l-R) Ayana Reed as Sharon and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

Ilona Dulaski dons Maria Callas like a full-length mink coat in Terrence McNally’s Master Class now at MetroStage.  Dulaski morphs utterly into the famed and feisty opera diva in all her forms, from the tough broad she was to the tragic figure she became.  Aiming dead eye at the audience, as though we are fellow students of the opera, the prima donna doles out life lessons like lollipops.  So convincing is Dulaski’s delivery that when she demands a pencil be produced for a forgetful student, we begin searching our pockets.  “I always had a pencil.  I never had an orange,” she chides, explaining a youth of deprivation.  And again, insulting each female student for their unprofessional clothing choices, demanding they “have a look”.  “It’s important to have style and élan,” she insists.  And we, the audience, begin to do a mental check on what we wore to the theater.  It’s that visceral.  I kept flashing on Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard for reference and I’m still not sure why.

(l-R) Ayana Reed as Sharon and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

(l-R) Ayana Reed as Sharon and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

Nick Olcott, who also directs opera productions for Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and the Washington National Opera, has cleverly cast talented, young local opera singers as Callas’s students – Emily Hanzel as Sophie, Ayana Reed (who we loved in MetroStage’s recent production of Blackberry Days) as Sharon, and Daniel Noone as Tony the tenor (Joshua Baumgardner fills in for Noone on May 18th and 19th).  Singing arias from Tosca and Verdi, the budding performers are a joy to hear, and as neophytes it makes for a credible rapport with Madama Callas as she puts them through their paces like a sergeant barking insults to a group of raw recruits.  “Non-actor” and piano accompanist, Joseph Walsh, better known for conducting opera, does a fine job as wary foil to Callas’s slights.

(l-R) Daniel Noone as Tony and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

(l-R) Daniel Noone as Tony and Ilona Dulaski as Maria Callas. Photo credit: Chris Banks

Rhe’a Roland dresses the set to resemble a large classroom at Julliard and Jingwei Dal’s costumes reflect the year 1971 when Callas conducted master classes at the renowned conservatory.  And to set the period further Projection Designer Gordon Nimmo-Smith uses a triptych of screens with photographs of Callas’s lover and abuser Aristotle Onassis who dumped her unceremoniously after a ten-year relationship to marry widow, Jacqueline Kennedy.  Additional footage of Callas’s first marriage to an elderly industrialist shares space with photos and classic recordings of her triumphant performances at La Scala and New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.  It is during these pentimentos that Dulaski, toggling between the voice of Onassis and her own, reenacts conversations from their thorny affair.

Dulaski’s ability to be both poignant and terrifying is riveting.  In a scene depicting Callas’s response to those who bring up her rivals she sizzles with sarcasm, “How can you have rivals when nobody else can do what you do?”McNally portrays the artist as the complex woman she was – driven to succeed through discipline, fear of failure and pluck while subservient to a man who claimed he owned her.  It seems a sort of willful paradox that she allowed men to control her and yet fought tooth and nail against their insults.  To Sharon she warns, “You will in time know how much suffering there is for a woman.”

Highly recommended.

Through June 11th at MetroStage 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.

The Gin Game ~ MetroStage

by Jordan Wright on February 6, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

The "Gin Game" with Roz White and Doug Brown - Photo credit Chris Banks

The “Gin Game” with Roz White and Doug Brown – Photo credit Chris Banks

At first blush The Gin Game appears to be a love story about two elderly retirees who meet at the dilapidated Bentley Nursing Home where they have gone to live out their remaining days.  But playwright and Baltimore native D. L. Coburn had something deeper in mind – something that bares the soul and makes us reflect on how without warning, and just as we thought we had established a secure place in the world, Life with a capital ‘L’ can throw us a curveball.  Director Thomas W. Jones has cast two seasoned actors, Roz White and Doug Brown, who together keep us on the edge of our seats with their subtle and riveting development of these complex characters.

The "Gin Game" with Roz White and Doug Brown - Photo credit Chris Banks

The “Gin Game” with Roz White and Doug Brown – Photo credit Chris Banks

Fonsia Dorsey and Weller Martin, relative newcomers to the home, begin a friendship of mutual admiration with a dollop of flirtation tossed in for good measure.  Weller presents himself as a courtly gentleman and successful businessman eager to gain the approval of the prim and proper Fonsia.  They soon bond over their mutual loathing of the staff, their exes and the other residents, whom they superciliously agree, are feeble-minded codgers.  

The "Gin Game" with Roz White and Doug Brown - Photo credit Chris Banks

The “Gin Game” with Roz White and Doug Brown – Photo credit Chris Banks

After some polite conversation Weller suggests they play his favorite card game, “Hollywood” Gin.  Over a series of games, he patiently teaches Fonsia how to hold her cards (close to the vest) and schools her in the rules and the scoring system.  But he is no Henry Higgins, and she will not be his Eliza.  As they begin to shed their social masks with each hand they reveal more of themselves.  He hates the home’s organized entertainment and the way the staff infantilizes the residents, and she is lonely, imprisoned by her fears and brokenhearted.  When Fonsia continues to defeat him with every hand she’s dealt, all social niceties fly out the window and Weller becomes enraged.  He calls it luck that she consistently has winning hands.  He even claims there are spirits at work.  Until finally, he accuses her of throwing the game.  Determined to win a hand and preserve his ego, he begs her to keep playing, manipulating her through flattery and apologies for his blasphemous outbursts.  “Now if I win, don’t shout at me,” she implores.  By the time a mere week has passed, she has begun to echo his demeaning behavior and they charge full throttle at each other’s defenses, until the gloves are off and they go straight for the jugular. 

The "Gin Game" with Doug Brown and Roz White - Photo credit Chris Banks

The “Gin Game” with Doug Brown and Roz White – Photo credit Chris Banks

The Gin Game is a psychological exercise meant to hold a mirror up to our faults and frailties while shedding light on the challenges of aging, loneliness and the uncertainty of a future without friends or family.  It asks us to take responsibility for the emotional damage we inflict on those closest to us and to recognize that our resulting pain is the reflection of our actions. 

This rare gem of a tragi-comedy has been performed by some of our nation’s finest actors.  Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy starred in the original Broadway production at the John Golden Theatre in 1977 and Tandy won a Best Actress Tony Award for her portrayal of Fonsia.  In 2015 James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson took over the roles in the same theatre.  

Recommended for its superb performances by two of the finest actors in our area. 

At MetroStage through March 12th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit MetroStage Info.

Fully Committed ~ MetroStage

Jordan Wright
December 13, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

Tom Story in Fully Committed Photo credit Chris Banks

Tom Story in Fully Committed Photo credit Chris Banks

Fully Committed comes with so much stage cred, it’s hard to know where to start – so I’ll start with the underpinnings.  Drum roll, please.  It is directed by Alan Paul, whom we know and love as the Associate Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company and for his countless productions ranging from Shakespeare to musical theatre to concerts, including opera at the Kennedy Center.

Written by Becky Mode, an alumna of HBO, Disney, Nickelodeon, Columbia Pictures and ABC, this nifty one-man comedy is coming off a successful Broadway run, and MetroStage’s Artistic Director, Carolyn Griffin has scored a major coup in getting it here.  The original has been newly revised for this production and features the immensely talented and highly endearing, Tom Story, who juggles 40 different characters at warp speed.

Tom Story in Fully Committed Photo credit Chris Banks

Tom Story in Fully Committed Photo credit Chris Banks

Story plays Sam, a struggling actor who has taken an in-between-auditions-and-gigs job as a reservations clerk at a Michelin-starred, Manhattan-based temple of cutting edge molecular gastronomy.  Arriving at his basement office, he discovers that the other two reservations clerks, Sonya and Bob, have ditched him at the height of the holiday season and he is left to fend for himself against all the self-entitled crazies and their outrageous requests.  Add to that a staff consisting of a haughty, bi-polar, French chef with a drug habit, a prissy hostess, a Latino sous chef and a kindly manager of Indian descent.

Presto chango! Story cycles through an astonishing array of accents from Brooklynese and Manhattan Old Guard, to Cockney, French, Indian, Italian (a mobster needs a table STAT), a helicopter pilot with a lateral lisp, a Southern drawl from an octogenarian who overshares her medical issues, the flat nasal voice of a Midwestern accent and a Transylvanian-sounding caller willing to pay a bribe – a table for a heaping wad of cash.  Of particular hilarity is Story’s interpretation of Gwyneth Paltrow’s swishy assistant, Bryce, who phone-friends him with increasingly insistent updates of Ms. Paltrow’s demands for a special vegan tasting menu and the most flattering lighting.  (Bryce will bring golden-hued Edison bulbs to replace the harsh sconce lights.)  Famed British chef Heston Blumenthal is channeled when he shows up unannounced to find his reservation is missing and the restaurant is “fully committed”.

Tom Story in Fully Committed Photo credit Chris Banks

Tom Story in Fully Committed Photo credit Chris Banks

Throughout the mayhem Sam takes calls on his private cell from his supportive father and rival Jerry, another out-of-work actor who updates him on his shiny prospects just as Sam is at the end of his rope.  To add insult to injury, just as Sam is hoping to join his family for Christmas, he gets a call from the chef telling him he must work through the holidays.

As we see, it’s not just the constant phone calls for rezzies, it’s the intercom micromanaging between the front of the house and the kitchen that challenge Sam’s sweet demeanor.  As amenable as he seems he’s no dummy and when he discovers co-worker Bob has been faking a car accident to get out of his shift, he begins to see the light.

Story’s ability to convey these absent callers through accent, emotion, and gesture is a triumph to behold.

Highly recommended for anyone who has ever dined or eaten in a restaurant.  And that means, you!

At MetroStage through January 8th – 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets and information visit www.metrostage.org.