Ed Gero Returns in His Triumphant Role in The Originalist ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
July 13, 2017 

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist, which runs July 7-July 30, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Welcome back Supreme Court Justice Antonin “Nino” Scalia!  A lot has happened since Ed Gero inhabited your body.  Donald Trump became our president (I think you would have been delighted) and the whole Roe v. Wade thing continues to be a hot button issue which might tickle you as a strict constitutionalist.

As you may recall Gero brilliantly portrayed you in a tour de force performance in The Originalist in 2015 shortly before you left this earth in 2016.  Was that the nail in the coffin?  On a lighter note you’ll be pleased to know your legacy has carried on much as you had hoped, with your alma mater Harvard University establishing a professorship in your name.  Unfortunately, George Mason University, who got a cool $30 million to rename its law school after you, chose the initialization ASSol for Antonin Scalia School of Law, which became the “butt” of many jokes.  As of this writing your place in history is secure, and you can stop spinning in your grave in that it has been more appealingly amended to read ASLS.  –  – Yours truly, J. Wright

Having reviewed Arena’s initial production in the Spring of 2015, I can say that this one is snappier, more irreverent, if that’s possible, and just as timely as my first viewing when Playwright John Strand was Arena’s Resident Playwright.  Its unprecedented success inspired Director Molly Smith’s “Power Plays” initiative in which the theatre commissions 25 new plays or musicals focusing on American political history.  These will reflect Presidential Voices, Women’s Voices, African-American Voices, Musical Theatre Voices and Insider Voices.

 (L to R) Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Jade Wheeler as Cat in The Originalist, which runs July 7-July 30, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

(L to R) Edward Gero as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Jade Wheeler as Cat. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

In this refresh the role of Cat (Jade Wheeler), Scalia’s liberal law clerk intern, has been purposely expanded.  She is given a lot more lines – and latitude.  And Wheeler takes it on with brio, charm, feistiness and terrific comic timing.  The broadening of her role goes towards leveling the playing field between Cat the progressive liberal vs. Scalia the combative, law-and-order conservative and adds measurably to the sharp-as-knives verbal sparring.  “Law is carved in stone,” and “Emotion is whatever you had for breakfast,” warns Scalia.  References to Facebook, Politico and recent past Presidents keep it updated.

Accompanied by interstices of grandiose operatic arias (the Sicilian-born Scalia was a known opera buff as well as gun rights advocate), he delivers arguments and pronouncements like bullets on a battlefield, but so does, Cat, an equally cerebral Harvard Law grad determined to change his mind.   “I dissent!” is his most oft repeated line from the man who once had acting aspirations.  He later confesses, “The court is my theatre.  I am not an ideologue.  I am an originalist!”

(L to R) Jade Wheeler as Cat and Brett Mack as Brad in The Originalist, which runs July 7-July 30, 2017 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

(L to R) Jade Wheeler as Cat and Brett Mack as Brad. Photo by Gary W. Sweetman, Asolo Repertory Theatre.

In explaining his reason for hiring her he reveals, “Every now and then I like to have a liberal around.  It reminds of how right I am.”  Cat, who views the court as a “fantasy palace”, is determined to upend his intransigence.  She seeks his heart, while he wants her soul.  “You’re stuck alone in your bunker.  Your constitution is just a shield you hide behind,” she mocks, defining his brand of government a “monsterocracy”.

Strand uses the Supreme Court’s decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as the centerpiece for the characters’ arguments pitting Scalia’s strict interpretation of the law as it was written centuries ago against Cat’s humanistic philosophy.  Yet notwithstanding their legal and psychological parrying, there develops a firm respect, moreover an admiration, for one another’s unflinching will and unwavering opinions.  It’s irresistible to anyone interested in the workings of the law, SCOTUS or the evolution of the Court’s decisions.

Setting the tone and highlighting the majesty and gravity of the Court and its private chambers, Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills gives us two massive crystal chandeliers in order to appropriately frame the pronouncements from Scalia’s Kingly Court of Conservatism.  Set Designer Mischa Kachman adds floor-to-ceiling red velvet drapes trimmed with golden tassels: lest you forget the import of where you are.

Highly recommended.

Through August 6th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

 

 

The Sound of Music Hits All the Right Notes ~ The Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
June 19, 2017 

Charlotte Maltby as Maria Rainer, and the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Charlotte Maltby as Maria Rainer, and the von Trapp children in The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Watching Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s classic, The Sound of Music, is like reuniting with a dear friend from your childhood. Though many of the songs are familiar and beloved, “The Sound of Music”, “Do-Re-Mi”, “Climb Every Mountain”, “My Favorite Things” and “Edelweiss” (the latter two reprised during Christmas season), there are others just as meaningful that we don’t hear as often – like “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and “No Way to Stop It” – that seem to have fallen into obscurity yet deserve to be reheard.

Nicholas Rodriguez and Charlotte Maltby in The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Nicholas Rodriguez and Charlotte Maltby in The Sound of Music. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

In this national touring company Maria, played puckishly by the very youthful Charlotte Maltby is more Scarlet Johanssen than Julie Andrews. And that’s a good thing because the current generation of children that fall in love with this musical will need a modern-day heroine who is energetic and adorable with a side of feisty and flippant.  A woman who can stand toe to toe with Captain von Trapp, played by the Helen Hayes awarded actor, Nicholas Rodriguez whom you may remember in the role of Billy Bigelow in Arena Stage’s last year’s production of Carousel at Arena Stage.

Melody Betts as 'The Mother Abbess' and Charlotte Maltby as 'Maria Rainer' - Photo: Matthew Murphy

Melody Betts as ‘The Mother Abbess’ and Charlotte Maltby as ‘Maria Rainer’ – Photo: Matthew Murphy

Smooth as silk and pitch-perfect is Teri Hansen as Elsa Shraeder, the would-be fiancée to the widowed Captain, who brings a shot of Old World elegance to the part and Merwin Foard as Max Detweiler, Elsa’s political ally, whose luscious baritone and comic timing bring a dose of levity to the role of turncoat. All seven children are adorable including little Birgitta played by Dakota Riley Quakenbush and Gretl played by cute-as-a-button Anika Lore Hatch. But the ne plus ultra is Melody Betts as The Mother Abbess with a mellifluous voice and a dignified gravitas.

Paige Silvester as 'Lies!' and Austin Colby as 'Rolf Gruber' - Photo: Matthew Murphy

Paige Silvester as ‘Lies!’ and Austin Colby as ‘Rolf Gruber’ – Photo: Matthew Murphy

Director Jack O’Brien breathes fresh air, passion and energy into the characters making the entire production more modern and clearly wowing the audience who literally leapt to their feet at curtain call in full appreciation.

Sound designer Ken Travis delivers a terrifying thunder storm to counter Lighting Designer Natasha Katz’s stunning depiction of the abbey with its glowing rosette window and late day shafts of sunlight onto the tender wedding scene. And Douglas W. Schmidt’s sets that include a massive statue of an angel and massive Romanesque arches bordered by panels of Austrian lace, offer an evocative sense of place and time.

Despite the period in which it’s set, 1932, and perhaps because it speaks to the bravery of Maria and the entire von Trapp family in their struggles against the Nazis and Hitler’s takeover of their homeland of Austria, it is entirely relevant in today’s worldwide political climate.  It serves as a cautionary tale to those afraid to speak truth to power and an inspiration to families who find strength in their combined ability to overcome obstacles.

Highly recommended for all ages.

Through July 16th at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

The School for Lies ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
June 8, 2017 

Cody Nickell as Philinte in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

Cody Nickell as Philinte in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of David Ives’ genius adaption of The School for Lies opens with an announcement by Philinte (Cody Nickell), a secret transvestite with a fondness for blue satin gowns. It advises us to prepare for a comedy that parallels events currently swirling around our nation’s capital. The invitation to revel in schadenfreude reminds us that the world of gossip, slander and innuendo is as vigorous, and as double-dealing, as it was in the 17th century when Moliére first penned quite different lines to his classic The Misanthrope. Knowing titters and outright guffaws were appreciably audible from an audience chockful of Beltway insiders.

Victoria Frings as Celimene and Gregory Wooddell as Frank in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

Victoria Frings as Celimene and Gregory Wooddell as Frank in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

Ives, who won a Drama Desk Award this week, creates his misanthrope in Frank (Gregory Woodell), a sharp-witted realist who mocks social proprieties with great aplomb. “Society is nothing but a school for lies,” he rails – until he falls head over heels for the feisty and scurrilous widow, Celimene (Victoria Frings) who herself is up for charges of slander.

Gregory Wooddell as Frank, Dorea Schmidt as Eliante and Veanne Cox as Arsinoé in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

Gregory Wooddell as Frank, Dorea Schmidt as Eliante and Veanne Cox as Arsinoé in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

But the lovely-in-lavender Celimene has a bevy of suitors, Acaste (Liam Craig), a vain, moneyed marquis with the brains of a hamster, Clitander (Cameron Folmar) an influential courtier and Oronte (Tom Story) a boulevardier and master rhymster of prosodic gaffes (i.e. “fetus” with “coitus”). Look for scene-stealer Michael Glenn in dual roles, both Dubois and Basque, to add a dash of slapstick to the snidely sophisticated repartee. Canapés will fly!

Gregory Wooddell as Frank, Cameron Folmar as Clitander, Liam Craig as Acaste and Tom Story as Oronte in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman.

Gregory Wooddell as Frank, Cameron Folmar as Clitander, Liam Craig as Acaste and Tom Story as Oronte in The School for Lies by Scott Suchman.

Frings lean-forward, hilarious performance, delivering rhymes with accents ranging from Valley Girl to black gym-rat hipster, is delicious.

Written entirely in rhyme and laced throughout with bawdy colloquialisms and ruthless insults, Ives gives us a contemporary comedy – reworked from his 2011 original to reflect present day events. Be prepared for a hornet’s nest of confusion around who said what and who’s lusting for whom, notable by the misdirected amours of the pretty-in-pink Eliante (Dorea Schmidt), who is what we’d refer to in modern jargon as a dizzy broad, and the misunderstood emotions of Frank and Celemine.

cast of The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

cast of The School for Lies by Scott Suchman

Leave it to the jealous-in-green silks, delightfully snarky Arsinoé (Veanna Cox), the pillar of morality (we might call her an uptight prude) to hatch a destructive plot of her own to snag Frank away from Celimene.

Coupled with Murell Horton’s lavishly elegant period costumes, Alexander Dodge’s quirky chic set, Director Michael Kahn (who collaborated with Ives on the brilliantly devised The Metromaniacs) has yet another megahit on his hands to round out his thirty years with Shakespeare Theatre Company.

This is great theatre!  Highly recommended.

Though July 9th at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20003. For tickets and information contact the Box Office at 202 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

Red, White & Tuna Channels Hee Haw ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
June 7, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

(l to r) Stephen McDonnell as Amber Windchime and David Wright as Star Birdfeather - Photos by : Matt Liptak

(l to r) Stephen McDonnell as Amber Windchime and David Wright as Star Birdfeather – Photos by : Matt Liptak

In a series of pastiches that harken to Hee Haw days, actors David Wright and Stephen McDonnell take on ten roles apiece beginning as two aging female flower children returning for their high school reunion.  From there it’s a dizzying escapade filled with twenty crazy characters who enter and exit with lightning speed.  Along the way you’ll meet Didi Snavely of Didi’s Used Weapons Shop, “If you can’t get yourself killed in a small town in Texas, yer not really tryin’,” a pair of radio announcers, Thurston and Arles, who invite townsfolk to upcoming events like the Pest Fest and the Rattlesnake Roundup, Stanley a former juvenile delinquent now artiste, and Helen and Inita owners of Hot to Trot Catering whose country cooking nearly poisons the whole town.

Stephen McDonnell as Arles Struvie ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

Stephen McDonnell as Arles Struvie ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

And that’s just a smattering. There are enough characters in this Ed Howard, Joe Sears, Jaston Williams comedy to fill a jailhouse, or perhaps a Baptist meetinghouse.  Racism comes easy in this tiny hick town where people’s opinions are driven by “Christian values” and the shadow of the KKK is ever-present.

 David Wright as Star Birdfeather ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

David Wright as Star Birdfeather ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

Director Michael J. Baker, Jr. revives this 1998 classic like a fine tuned ’55 Chevy truck with tons of belly-laugh lines aimed squarely, and satirically, at the provincial denizens of the Texas town of Tuna – from whence the title.

Among others, McDonnell plays the cat-eye glasses wearing Vera Carp, the high priestess of Tuna society who is a dead ringer for Dana Carvey’s morally superior character the “Church Lady”.  McDonnell’s version of Vera, the fearless leader of the ever-vigilant Smut Snatchers Society who are always on the lookout for racy songs and lewd activity, is hilarious.

David Wright as R.R. Snavely ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

David Wright as R.R. Snavely ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

One of Wright’s characters is Aunt Pearl Burras, an aging chicken farmer who brings to mind a cross between Jonathan Winters’ Maude Frickert, Vicki Lawrence’s Thelma Harper (Mama) on The Carol Burnett Show and Tyler Perry’s Madea.  “I was not born in a Blue State,” she declares unapologetically.  It’s a brilliant mash-up – classic vaudevillian schtick with one-liners and country colloquialisms that flow like moonshine whisky on a hot, Southern night.

There are critters in spaceships, of course, a side-splitting scene in the Starlight Motel with a sex manual and a lot of misunderstandings, and Vera’s line to the fresh-from-prison Baptist preacher, Reverend Sturgis Spikes, calling him “a born again has-been”.

 David Wright as Leonard Childers ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

David Wright as Leonard Childers ~ Photos by : Matt Liptak

Costume Designers Ceci Albert and Lisa Brownsword deserve praise along with their six wardrobe assistants for getting the actors in and out of their umpteen costume changes.  And kudos to Wig and Makeup Designer Howard Kurtz for the instant transformations.

Get ready to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!

Through June 24th at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street. For tickets and information call the box office at 703 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com

Jesus Christ Superstar ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 21, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times 

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Margot Schulman

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Margot Schulman

Signature Theatre’s Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer, has been upping the ante with big, bold Broadway shows.  His latest mega production is Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hyper hit Jesus Christ Superstar.  Casting some madly impressive voices in this blockbuster rock musical signals Schaeffer’s emphasis on the compelling music and lyrics, and drawing the theatre-goer’s attention to the story’s similarities to current culture.

Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with Sam Ludwig (Annas), Thomas Adrian Simpson (Caiaphas) and Kara-Tameika Watkins (Priest) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with Sam Ludwig (Annas), Thomas Adrian Simpson (Caiaphas) and Kara-Tameika Watkins (Priest) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

And that’s a good thing, because Director Joe Calarco strips away all semblance of a period piece.  Early versions, you may recall, stage it in biblical times.  But you’ll see none of that sentimentality here with Luciana Stecconi’s stripped-bare set of nine movable white platforms reconfigured throughout to represent the table at The Last Supper, or put to use as a soapbox for Jesus or Pontius Pilate to utter proclamations to their indecisive followers.  Again attention is focused on the music directed by Conductor William Yanesh, and not predominantly on costumes by Frank Labovitz who gives us monochromatic teen streetwear for Jesus’ apostles, sharkskin suits for Pontius Pilate, and sequined satin gospel dresses for the Soul Sisters.  No flowing robes here.  And an odd choice of using bibles as props, neglects the tiny detail that they hadn’t been written yet.  I’ll take it as a reference to “bible-toting” fanatics and give it a pass.

Look instead to Nicholas Edwards (as Jesus of Nazareth) who reprises the role made famous by actor Ted Neely.  Edwards is spellbinding, delivering a viscerally transformative performance that is a game changer for this role.  With his remarkable voice and ripped body, he exudes both passion and raw sexuality.  Another powerhouse performance comes from the very versatile Bobby Smith who plays Jesus’ evil nemesis Pontius Pilate as effortlessly as I’ve seen him play comedy.  Lean into his delivery of “Trial Before Pilate” to witness his nuanced performance.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Natascia Diaz (Mary) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Natascia Diaz (Mary) in Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Natascia Diaz as Mary Magdalene also offers a different interpretation of her role – one very different from the fiery female roles we’re accustomed to seeing her play.  Her strong voice seems tamer and often aimless with a surfeit of trills and superfluous flourishes in the ballads.  Though her believability in her affection for and defense of Jesus is where she shines.

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Nicholas Edwards (Jesus) and Ari McKay Wilford (Judas) with the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Karma Camp’s choreography, seamlessly weaving 18 performers through complicated dance and fight scenes, is impressive and Zachary G. Borovay’s video projections of Hitler and the Nazis, 9-11, Syria and an assortment of social extremists to background the number “The Crucifixion”, reveal an eerie resemblance to racial violence and religious terrorism in modern society.

As a side note, I couldn’t help but wonder if my seat which was close to the stage was the reason the singers seemed to frequently be drowned out by the seven-piece orchestra.  I hope it was merely the sound levels which may be straightened out by now.  In any case I’d choose the upper level for this show since watching the actors at waist level is not the best perspective.

Through July 2nd at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.