The Hunchback of Notre Dame ~ Synetic Theater

Jordan Wright
May 14, 2017

Philip Fletcher as Frollo (center), with Gargoyle Ensemble Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Philip Fletcher as Frollo (center), with Gargoyle Ensemble Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

The first five minutes of Synetic’s latest production is so haunting you may think you’re having an out-of-body experience.  It comes at you slowly, unwinding like a cobra from a basket.  It’s a visceral sensation from an avant-garde theatre troupe that knows how to jolt the senses and play with the mind.  It starts with the monophonic sounds of Gregorian chants and the tolling of church bells scented with the heavily-perfumed aroma of a smoking incense-burning censer that plunges you into the cosmic world of religious rituals.  It is at this moment that we first see Frollo backlit by a giant blue cross.  He removes his cassock and mask.  We have just come face to face with the dark forces of the church.  Did I flash on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code?  In a New York minute.

Irina Kavsadze as Esmeralda - Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Irina Kavsadze as Esmeralda – Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Symbols of faith, religion and power are stunningly shattered in Director Paata Tsikurishvili’s highly inventive interpretation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo’s brilliant classic tale.  It tells a story of the gypsy girl Esmeralda (the lithe and emotive Irina Kavsadze) worshipped by hunchbacked bell ringer Quasimodo (Vato Tsikurishvili in one of his finest performances), his patron Frollo (the chameleonic Philip Fletcher), the naïve musician Gringoire (Robert Bowen Smith) and Esmeralda’s paramour Phoebus (Zana Gankhuyag).  In one of Synetic’s most exciting productions to date Tsikurishvili places the emphasis on the dichotomy between the sanctity of the church and the reality of the human condition, and like the troupe’s highly regarded “Silent Shakespeare” series of plays, this production is done without words.

Vato Tsikurishvili as Quasimodo - Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Vato Tsikurishvili as Quasimodo – Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Set in 15th century Paris the hypocritically pious Frollo is depicted as a high priest rather than the government minister in the original tale.  As in the original, he is conflicted by his religious beliefs and the desires of the flesh.  Scenic Designer Anastasia Rurikov Simes’ set consists of an enormous spiked silver wall constructed with multiple levels.  Within the wall writhing, tormenting gargoyles perch atop the stage serving as judge and witness to those who offend the church.  Simes’ design progressively rotates to reveal a massive glowing cross, Esmeralda’s fiery funeral pyre, a hangman’s platform and ultimately the fixture for Frollo’s self-flagellation and self-crucifixion.

Tori Bertocci (Gypsy/Ensemble) being thrown by Vato Tsikurishvili (Quasimodo) - Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Tori Bertocci (Gypsy/Ensemble) being thrown by Vato Tsikurishvili (Quasimodo) – Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Dramaturg Nathan Weinberger focuses predominantly on the story’s emotional elements of jealousy, lust, betrayal, domination and retribution.  And as Hugo warned his readers, it challenges the church’s abuse of power through its insistence on blind faith and strict adherence to canonical law.

As is Synetic’s signature, a unique fusion of music, sound effects and lighting play a large part in heightening the drama.  Music Director Irakli Kavsadze’s mix of classical music interwoven with electronica and tango, Composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s original music and Brian Allard’s suggestively lurid lighting combine with Erik Teague’s highly inventive costumes and wide array of intricately designed masks.

Highly recommended.

Through June 11th at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington in Crystal City.  For tickets and information call 1 800 494-8497 or visit www.synetictheater.org.

Macbeth ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company Sidney Harmon Hall

Jordan Wright
May 9, 2017 

The cast of Macbeth. Photo credit Scott Suchman

The cast of Macbeth. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Refugees fleeing from Aleppo, Syria is not the first thing that comes to mind when pondering Macbeth, but under the direction of Liesl Tommy it serves as the backdrop for this exciting, new interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy about a paranoid, guilt-ridden, superstitious monarch who seeks power for its own sake.  Ramping up the realism, Tommy gives the roles of the three Witches to two men and a woman who use modern day cell phones and computer technology to communicate their battle plans.  Add to that Broken Chord’s use of original electronica music and you have a relevance to current events that goes far beyond coincidental comparison.

The contemporary dynamic is further emphasized with John Coyne’s neo-industrial set of massive grey concrete blocks, neon tubes and a ceiling of undulating golden silk panels like the shifting sands of a desert.  Photo of oil rigs play against echoes of Al Pacino’s cocaine-fueled meltdown in Scarface, Duncan is a pothead and when Macbeth offers up his “armor”, it’s his bullet-proof vest.

(l-r) Jesse J. Perez as Macbeth, Nikkole Salter as Lady Macbeth and McKinley Belcher III as Banquo. Photo credit Scott Suchman

(l-r) Jesse J. Perez as Macbeth, Nikkole Salter as Lady Macbeth and McKinley Belcher III as Banquo. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Jesse J. Perez as Macbeth seethes with power-mad evil as does Nikkole Salter in the role of Lady Macbeth.  But their amorous connections are palpable and though he complains of her profligate habits, “My wife’s been ordering things from Amazon.”, he is unhesitating in performing her bloody bidding.

The cast of Macbeth. Photo credit Scott Suchman

The cast of Macbeth. Photo credit Scott Suchman

Fighting is carried out by soldiers in modern camouflage uniforms with Uzis and daggers.  Artistic Director Michael Kahn describes his choice of Tommy to direct this searing drama, as such, “Macbeth has always lent itself to political interpretations. It was originally written amidst the anxiety of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a thwarted terrorist attack on Parliament, amid a climate not unlike America after 9/11. As a result, the play not only meditates on the equivocating nature of ambition and power, it also shows how the crimes of ambition and power unravel those that commit them and ripple outward in society, creating a dark atmosphere of paranoia, conspiracy and uncertainty. For centuries, theatre artists have used its grim poetry to probe specific political moments or leaders, from Imperial China to Soviet Russia.”

(l-r) Horace V. Rogers as Lennox, Myra Lucretia Taylor as the Porter and Marcus Naylor as Macduff. Photo credit Scott Suchman

(l-r) Horace V. Rogers as Lennox, Myra Lucretia Taylor as the Porter and Marcus Naylor as Macduff. Photo credit Scott Suchman

And Tommy explains her approach as, “It’s politics – and, it’s also structural politics.  I don’t know if I would have had the same idea if I wasn’t in DC.  This is a production for a DC audience.”

A meaty cast takes the traditional to new heights – Petronia Paley (Duncan), Corey Allen (Malcolm), Nicole King (Donalbain), McKinley Belcher III (Banquo), Marcus Naylor (Macduff), Nilanjana Bose (Lady Macduff), Trinity Sky Deabreu (Young Girl), David Bishins (Porter/Doctor), and Tim Getman and Naomi Jacobson as the three Witches.

At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall through May 28th at 610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 202 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.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.

Interview with Culinary Icon Jeremiah Tower Upon the Release of the Brilliant Biopic “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent”

Jordan Wright
April 28, 2017 

With the release of Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, a film produced by his old friend Anthony Bourdain for Zero Point Zero Productions and distributed in the US by The Orchard, Tower can finally claim his due as the creator of California cuisine as the first celebrity chef in America.  It’s an appellation he richly deserves.  As a result of his early efforts sourcing local ingredients and California wines, he engendered the movement which became known as American regional cuisine.  After Tower’s meteoric rise in the 70’s at Chez Panisse, where he partnered with Alice Waters’ in the famed Berkeley hot spot, he held Executive Chef positions at a number of successful restaurants, ultimately opening his widely acclaimed Stars restaurant, a glittering French-inspired brasserie frequented by celebrities, socialites and city politicians.

His first book New American Classics won the James Beard Foundation Award in 1986 for Best American Regional Cookbook and, after opening a string of Stars outposts worldwide, in 1996 he won the Beard Award for Best Chef in America.  In 1989 San Francisco’s massive earthquake destroyed his beloved Stars.  Soon after the elegant spot was shuttered, Tower went into hiding.

In 2002 he published Jeremiah Tower Cooks: 250 Recipes from an American Master and one year later America’s Best Chefs Cook with Jeremiah Tower and a wonderful memoir entitled California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution.  His latest effort, published last year, is the flippantly titled and indelibly humorous, Table Manners: How to Behave in the Modern World and Why Bother.

After years of living around the world and off the grid, “I have to stay away from human beings, because apparently I am not one”, he surprisingly resurfaced to helm the spectacular rise and fall of Tavern on the Green, the swank Central Park watering hole owned by two neophyte restauranteurs. “Running a restaurant is difficult enough without people getting in your way,” he contends.

Lovingly directed by Lydia Tenaglia, beautifully edited by Eric Lasby, and tenderly scored by Giulio Carmassi with Morgan Fallon’s evocative photography, the film commences with scenes of Tower as a young boy, neglected by his alcoholic mother and abusive father and feasting alone in five-star hotels and ocean liners while they cavorted with café society.  It was in these splendid temples to gastronomy where he poured over hand-written menus and supped solo on lobster and caviar – his passion for haute cuisine engendered by the kitchen staff who “adopted” the impressionable child allowing him to roam freely in their vast kitchens.

One of the most fascinating and creative American chefs, Tower lends his personal diaries and family films to this emotionally alluring biopic.  Cameo appearances by Bourdain, Mario Batali, Ruth Reichl, “He defined what a modern American restaurant could be.”, Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman and Martha Stewart, give us an insider’s view to his influence and legacy.

I spoke with Tower by phone and he surprised me with his puckish charm and self-deprecating humor.  A man at peace with himself, I thought – a man who had accomplished much.

Are you excited for the release of “The Last Magnificent”?

Jeremiah Tower – Oh yes!  It was very strange for me to watch it.  Lydia Tenali, the Director, did a great job.

Are you pleased with the result? 

It was very odd.  Actors see themselves in a role when they watch their films, but it was different watching yourself on film.  I was surprised I did it.  I’ve never really done anything like that before.  Looking at yourself on the big screen and having people talk about you is odd.

Does the movie augur your return to the culinary scene?

No.  I did that for 35 years.  I’m now getting my physical and mental health together.  I went to the beach.  Though I might, you know, if I had a beach bar in Thailand where I would cook whatever the fishermen brought up from their boats.

I read your book California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution in 2003 and noted what a raw deal you got in terms of recognition for your culinary direction at Chez Panisse.  Does it feel like some divine retribution to finally have the respect you’re due for creating and promoting California cuisine? 

I give thanks to Anthony Bourdain who produced the film.  He had the same reaction as you.  It pushed his justice button.  He wanted to tell the story.  He’s a wonderful guy.  He’s an outrageous guy.  Did you know my book has been revised and reissued?  It’s now called Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America” and it’s just been released along with the movie.

Your influence was also enormous in terms of promoting local farms across the country.  Was that your familiarity with the French way of buying locally that inspired you?

It’s hard for people to understand that everything you can buy in Whole Foods today you couldn’t buy then.  So I reached out to local farmers and fishermen to find the ingredients – eels, cheese, mushrooms foraged from the Berkeley hills.  They would just show up at the kitchen door with whatever they had and I’d work with that.  The whole foraging thing started for me at Chez Panisse.  Also with the California regional dinner we held where I mentioned the Monterey Bay prawns and trout from Big Sur on the menu.

What was it like to cook for Julia Child so many years ago?

Julia was wonderful to be around because she had such great energy and knowledge.  But, you know, she couldn’t cook.  Neither could Craig Claiborne.  Pierre Franey did all the cooking.  I did cook for her at her apartment in Santa Barbara.  The first time was at her home in the South of France and I went with Richard Olney who was an amazing author on French food.   As soon as we arrived Julia said, “Start cooking.”  So we prepared the meal.

The movie is unsparingly honest about your misfortunes – the devastating earthquake at Stars in San Francisco, the vagaries of taking over a kitchen with partners that knew less than nothing about food and service, and even the AIDS crisis affecting your relationships with the gay community.  Do you feel as though you’ve had a run of bad luck or were these misfortunes just products of the times?

As for the controversial AIDS lawsuit [Tower was sued for discrimination by one of his waiters who had AIDS at the same time he was privately financially supporting other members of his staff who had AIDS], I had a letter from the attorney saying if you countersue, “I will hang you.”  The case was thrown out of court twice for insufficient evidence but the third time they brought it, I was found guilty.

I read somewhere that “the measure of your life are the chances you take”.  I’ve always pushed everything off to the edge.  A friend of mine, a restaurant owner in New York, told me, “It’s easy to run a successful restaurant, it takes a genius to run an empty one.”  When we closed Stars, it cost me millions and millions of dollars.

I thought the editing was superb, the interspersing of family films and the young actor who portrayed you as a boy depicting the events that influenced your future life as a chef.  Is there anything you would have liked to have said that wasn’t represented in the film?

I mean, they had to cut 20 minutes out of the final cut, and they didn’t explain that after I sold Stars for a lot of money I took off for the George V in Paris.  If that was a fall, I’d like to do it all over again.

You’ve always been the pioneer – out in front on the food scene.

When you’re out in front your neck is on the chopping block and then the guillotine comes down.

The movie portrays you as a person who enjoys his solitude.  After so many years of hobnobbing with celebrities, socialites and great chefs, are you happier being on your own or have you just had enough of the chichi scene after you reached the pinnacle of success only to have it snatched out from under you?

When you work very hard and achieve a lot of public noise, one needs to find a balance.  I’ve chosen the solitude of a beach in a great Mayan city.

How would you prepare iguana?

I haven’t but I’ve seen that done in the jungle and, you know, you clean it, put it on a spit and eat it.  It tastes like a reptilian chicken.

This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Jordan Wright.

Smart People ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 23, 2017 

Clockwise (from top left): Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Gregory Perri as Brian White. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clockwise (from top left): Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Gregory Perri as Brian White. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

When the lives of four Harvard brainiacs intersect while working out their personal challenges, what do you get? Smart People – a cerebral journey into self-analysis jam-packed with laughs and droll repartee.  Ensconced in the intellectual bubble of Cambridge, Massachusetts are four recent grads – Valerie (Lorene Chesley), an aspiring black actress and part time housekeeper; Brian White (Gregory Perri), a cognitive neuroscientist and researcher on race relations; Ginny Yang (Sue Jin Song), a clinical psychologist and shopaholic; and Jackson Moore (Jaysen Wright), a bright, black doctor who wonders if he’s being held to a different standard.

(L to R) Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Director Seema Sueko, Arena’s Deputy Artistic Director, creates tension in Lydia R. Diamond’s nifty play by pitting the characters’ self-absorbed egos, one against the other, in a feverish merry-go-round of insecurity and anxiety with each one desperate not to be misunderstood in a world where motives are misjudged and innocent intentions are fraught with suspicion.

The interaction is broken down into small solo vignettes until the couples begin to pair off, Valerie with Jackson and Ginny with Brian.  Set Designer Misha Kachman along with Lighting Designer Xavier Pierce and Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi lend focus to the characters by setting them into boxes on a two-level set until they begin to connect emotionally from the catwalk and onto the lower level.

(L to R) Gregory Perri as Brian White and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Gregory Perri as Brian White and Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

White professor Brian, whose impending tenure is shaky, is convinced the world is dominated by whites with a predisposition to racism, discrimination and prejudice, though he has a blind spot in his treatment of Ginny who believes he is treating her as the stereotypical Asian woman. And Valerie believes Jackson demeans her because she cleans houses while waiting for her big break.  The miscommunications and assumptions keep us in stitches and Chesley’s depiction of an actress called to audition the stereotypical angry, ghetto girl is uproarious (she’s been told the casting is “brave” because it’s diverse) as is Song’s representation of an Asian hooker and Wright’s mischaracterization of Ginny’s attempts to study Asians in his health clinic, as racist.

Clockwise (from top left): Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Gregory Perri as Brian White and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Clockwise (from top left): Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Gregory Perri as Brian White and Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

It all comes to a head when they converge at Ginny and Brian’s for a dinner party and Valerie sees that Brian, whom she has been trying to avoid since he told her she was not “black enough”, is one of the guests.

“It’s complicated,” Valerie tells Brian.  And indeed, it is – in the most hilarious way.

Highly recommended.

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