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Mother Road ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 15, 2020 

Mother Road transports us into the world of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath and the terrible tragedy of the Joad family.  Playwright Octavio Solis picks up where the novel left off, leap-frogging the generations to provide us a glimpse into what life would be like for the modern-day Joads.

Cast of Mother Road. Photo by Margot Schulman.

In this telling, the eldest Joad, Will, who witnessed his sharecropper family perish during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, is determined to pass the farm onto his next of kin to keep the farm in the Joad name.  When he discovers his last remaining relative is his cousin Martin, a Chicano migrant worker, Will is forced to face his intolerance towards minorities.  It’s a beautifully told story of personal challenges, dreams, redemption and respect.

(L to R) Mark Murphey (William Joad) and Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Will and Martin meet in Arvin, California, Martin having been tracked down by Will’s attorney, Roger.  Will tells Martin he will give him the Joad farm.  No strings attached.  On their road trip to the farm in Sallislaw, Oklahoma we learn of Amelia, Martin’s love, whom he leaves behind when he is arrested for defending a fellow migrant worker.  As the men drive past rest stops, roadhouses and mile markers, Martin stops to pick up Mo, a salty-mouthed lesbian and fellow day laborer he envisions as forewoman on his soon-to-be inherited farm.  Later they meet Ivy, a pretty waitress who knew the Joads before they left for California, and James, Martin’s African American friend, who has found God in the beauty of nature.  In Martin’s old jalopy the disparate gang swap memories and jokes along the road.  For Will it’s a life-changing epiphany as he comes to understand what it’s like to be black, Chicano or gay in today’s America.

Cast of Mother Road. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The day laborers face all manner of indignities and hardships – disease from chemicals, an uncertain future, the threat of not getting paid for their work, and the fear of arrest and ultimately deportation.  To this day America’s meat, produce and farming industries would not survive without these migrant workers.  More than half of all farm workers in the U. S. are undocumented.  Mother Road shines an unblinking light into their struggles to survive in a harsh and intolerant world.

(L to R) Cedric Lamar (James/Cook), Amy Lizardo (Mo/Chorus), Mark Murphey (William Joad) and Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Terrific performances by the entire cast and special kudos to Amy Lizardo as the outlandish Mo in a razor-sharp performance that brings light and levity to an otherwise serious subject.

(L to R) Kate Mulligan (Ivy/William’s Mother/Police Officer), Amy Lizardo (Mo/Chorus), Mark Murphey (William Joad) and Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes). Photo by Margot Schulman.

Directed by Bill Rauch; Set Design by Christopher Acebo; Costume Design by Carolyn Mazuca; Original Sound and Music by Paul James Prendergast; Dramaturgs Jocelyn Clarke and Tiffany Ana Lopez.

(L to R) Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes) and Natalie Camunas (Amelia/Chorus Leader). Photo by Margot Schulman.

With Tony Sancho as Martin Jodes; Mark Murphey as William Joad; David Anzuelo as Abelardo/Ranch Hand; Natalie Camunas as Amelia; Amy Lizardo as Mo; Ted Deasy as Roger/State Trooper/Ranch Hand/Will’s Father; Derek Garza as Curtis/Abelardo’s Father; Cedric Lamar as James/Cook/Fight Captain; Kate Mulligan as Ivy/Police Officer/William’s Mother.

Through March 8th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Gun & Powder ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 10, 2020 

An intriguing musical made its world premiere at Signature.  In it, twin mulatto sisters use their beauty, wits and a pistol to deceive and rob whites.  It promises a happy ending but is that enough to take us along on their criminal enterprise?

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha) and Solea Pfeiffer (Mary) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman

In contemporary playwright Angela Chéri’s Gun & Powder with music by Ross Baum, we are taken on a journey through a period of American culture, both racist and lawless.  It was originally presented as a reading from Signature Theatre’s SigWorks: Musical Theater Lab program and was based on a somewhat true story of Chéri’s great-great aunts.  It’s as much a story of female empowerment as it is of the wild West.  In the same vein as Annie Get Your Gun and, say, Paint Your Wagon, it explores themes of racism and female bravery in times of slavery.

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha) and Donald Webber Jr. (Elijah) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman

That’s the part we like.  However, do we condone their tactics any more than we would condone and encourage those of any other criminal?  As a social construct for a musical based on revenge for racism, I fear it is not.  Leaving that aside to address its staging, acting, directing and music, we come upon another dilemma – how to make it palatable, or believable.  As a musical, it is faultless in its production values as well as its casting.  The voices are beautiful, and the acting, as well as dancing, are sans criticism.  However, the lyrics are often awkward, and 28 numbers are overkill.

Dan Tracy (Jesse) and Solea Pfeiffer (Mary) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller

The story unfolds with freed slaves, Mary and Martha, beautiful, light-skinned, twin sisters, freed slaves living with their mother, Tallulah, on a plantation in Texas.  The owner is a cruel master who threatens to throw them off his land for not picking enough cotton.  When their mother gives them a gun, the girls soon devise a plan to rob unsuspecting white passengers on a train to get enough money to pay off the plantation owner.  “Ya better come back in the two pieces you left in!” she warns them.

Awa Sal Secka (Flo) and Yvette Monique Clark (Sissy) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

After becoming wildly successful robbing brothels, a barbershop, a church, and any whites in their path – they soon meet Jesse, a white saloon owner who believes the sisters are white.  They make a plan to hustle him, but soon love follows for Mary, while Martha is smitten with his black butler, Elijah.

Crystal Mosser (Fannie) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller

The real beauty and comic relief of the show are Jesse’s black maids, Sissy and Flo, who have figured out the girls’ scheme.  They know the sisters are “high yellow” and are passing undetected by Jesse.  Their snarky comments behind her back are hilarious and their wisdom is echoed by a chorus of Kinfolk, who are blacks tied to the sisters by spirit and blood.  Whenever the chorus appears, the entire show is elevated by both song and dance, unifying the construct and lending deeper meaning to the women’s original motive to save their mother from despair.

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Mary’s song, “The Way I Am” is a stunning solo, as is the beautifully sung number, “The Shot That Shook the Soul” performed by the company in the style of the 19th century Fisk Jubilee Choir.

This show has real promise and powerful relevance. I hope it gets the attention and reworking it deserves.

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha), Marva Hicks (Tallulah) and Solea Pfeiffer (Mary) in Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman

With Solea Pfeiffer as Mary Clarke; Emmy Raver-Lampman as Martha Clarke; Dan Tracy as Jesse; Marva Hicks as Tallulah Clarke; Donald Webber, Jr. as Elijah; Yvette Monique Clark as Sissy; Awa Sal Secka as Flo; Crystal Mosser as Fannie Porter.  The Kinfolk are played by Yvette Monique Clark, Amber Lenell Jones, Rayshun LaMarr, Da’Von T. Moody, Christopher Michael Richardson, Awa Sal Secka, and Kanysha Williams.  Ensemble players are Wyn Delano, Christian Douglas, Crystal Mosser and Eleanor Todd.

Directed by Robert O’Hara; Choreography by Byron Easley; Music Direction by Darryl G. Ivey; Costumes by Dede Ayite; Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood; Lighting Design by Alex Jainchill; Sound Design by Ryan Hickey.

Through at February 23rd at Signature Theatre, (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

The King’s Speech ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 12, 2020 

The unfolding drama in The King’s Speech is young Bertie’s ability to overcome a debilitating stammer.  Coupled with the issue of his brother David’s affair with the twice-divorced, utterly unsuitable Wallis Simpson, it forms the basis for this fascinating historical dramedy.  When their father George V dies, David becomes next in line to the throne.  However, it was no secret to the royal family that David (later known as the Duke of Windsor) and Wallis were Nazi sympathizers when England was fighting Hitler.  David’s affair and the couple’s affection for Hitler, made him an impossible candidate to ascend to the throne.   

Tiffany Scott as Wallis Simpson and Jeff Parker as David, Duke of Windsor ~ Photos by Liz Lauren.

You may recall the movie of the same name.  It won four Academy Awards and starred Colin Firth as King George (Best Actor) and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, the King’s Aussie speech therapist.  But what you may not know, is that playwright David Seidler had always intended it to be staged and had gone so far as to obtain permission from the Queen Mother who insisted it not be staged until after her death.  Its North American premiere last fall at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater, finally made Seidler’s dream a reality.

With a constitutional crisis at hand, David ultimately is forced to abdicate, and Bertie must face his fears to speak authoritatively and publicly at a time of war in his role as King George VI.  Tapped to be next in line to the throne, he must learn to overcome his speech impediment and speak with authority.  In desperation, his wife finds a questionable speech therapist, Lionel Logue, in truth a failed actor with whom he develops an unusual relationship, as King to commoner.  Recalling the words of his overbearing father, “Sitting on thrones is our business,” he reluctantly subordinates his royal status to Lionel’s unorthodox methods.

Much of the drama and hilariously snappy repartee are reflected in Bertie and Lionel’s fraught relationship, though some of it centers around, the charismatic Lionel and his wife, Myrtle, whose pressing desire is to return to Australia.  Scenes between Churchill and the diabolical Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, give historical weight to the palace intrigue surrounding the kingdom’s sudden shift of power.

Kevin Gudahl as Winston Churchill and John Judd as King George V ~ Photos by Liz Lauren.

Scenes that shift from Lionel’s shabby studio to the palace and ultimately Westminster Abbey are bolstered by Kevin Depinet’s wonderful set design and David Wollard’s period costumes.  Nick Westrate as Bertie, Michael Bakkensen as Lionel, and Jeff Parker as Bertie’s  brother, David, are electrifying in this tip-top production.

With Kevin Gudahl as Winston Churchill; John Judd as King George V; Elizabeth Ledo as Myrtle Logue; Noble Shropshire as Cosmo Lang; David Lively as Stanley Baldwin; Maggie Lacey as Elizabeth; and Tiffany Scott as Wallis Simpson.

Directed by Michael Wilson; Lighting Design by Howell Binkley; Sound Design and Original Music Composition by John Gromada.

Through February 16th at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 1.800.514.3849 or visit www.TheNationalDC.com

Phantom of the Opera ~ Synetic Theater

Jordan Wright
February 10, 2020
Special to the Alexandria Times 

In an extraordinary adaptation of Phantom of the Opera, Director Paata Tsikurishvili re-envisions the Phantom’s world – not as an opera, but as a ballet.  It is a tremendous stroke of genius.  The most ballet-centric production Synetic Theater has ever mounted, it stars two of the company’s most brilliant dancers.  Irina Tsikurishvili, Synetic founding member and the company’s choreographer, plays the Phantom in a pulse-quickening, gender-reversed, absolutely magnificent tour de force performance.  One of the company’s newest members, Maryam Najafzada, a sylph-like ballet dancer from Azerbaijan – all arms, legs, wide eyes and pouty lips – plays Christine.  The incandescent Najafzada made her debut in October 2018 as a horse spirit in Synetic’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow and, unsurprisingly, she has since been a featured dancer.

Maryam Najafzada as Christine and Irina Tsikurishvili as Phantom. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

In this fantastic reimagining, we first meet the Phantom’s younger self as the dancer she once was.  Disfigured by the fire that destroyed the Opera House, she makes her home in an aqueous grotto far below stage.  Characters portrayed in the original story as rival opera singers, here are claws-out ballerinas keen to have the role of prima ballerina given to Christine’s rival, Carlotta.

Maryam Najafzada as Christine and Irina Tsikurishvili as Phantom. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

When the Phantom dashes Carlotta’s future by dropping a chandelier on her mid-performance, the vicious act ensures Christine will become the company’s prima ballerina.  Slowly, Christine falls deeper in love with the Phantom.  Rejecting her suitor Raoul, she deepens her bond with the Phantom who becomes her dance instructor and their burgeoning infatuation presents us with the most sensually romantic pas de deux in the production.

Maryam Najafzada as Christine with ensemble. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

On a lighter note, interactions among the corps de ballet provide a bird’s-eye view into backstage antics – both the bitter jealousies and the playful camaraderie.  In a particular scene, the secondary dancers review their movements backstage in a kind of hand pantomime, coding the steps they will take onstage.  It’s an insiders’ glimpse into an off-stage routine dancers do, that I have never before seen revealed.  Look for it in Act One.

Irina Tsikurishvili as Phantom, L to R: Eliza Smith (ensemble) Maryam Najafzada as Christine, Janine Baumgardner (ensemble) Rachael Small as Carlotta. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

But lest you think it’s all toe dancing and liquid-limbed dancers in tutus, a fair part of this silent production are the fierce fight scenes between the Phantom, her cave-dwelling creatures of the night, Raoul, a host of devils, and Moncharmin, the temperamental ballet master.

Stunning full-stage video projections deposit you smack dab into the center of Paris’s Opera Garnier and its underworld.  A scene in a ballet studio where we watch young students being trained on the barre, grants us a view of Paris from ocular windows high above the city.  Another brings us into the grand opera house fire crackling with flames and crumbling Grecian columns.  Most visceral of all are Raoul’s descending race into the Phantom’s haunted lair.  To save Christine from certain death, he travels through caverns that are a virtual charnel house of the Phantom’s victims.  Coupled with the extraordinary classical music, electronica, and eerie sound effects from Composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze and lavish costumes by Erik Teague, this Phantom of the Opera is spellbinding.

Maryam Najafzada as Christine and Irina Tsikurishvili as Phantom. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Highly recommended.  Five stars!

Starring Irina Tsikurishvili as Phantom; Maryam Najafzada as Christine; Jacob Thompson as Raoul; Rachael Small as Carlotta; Lottie Guidi as the Young Phantom; Delbis Cardona as Moncharmin.  Ensemble members are Janine Baumgardner, Eliza Smith, Thomas Beheler, Julia Ruth Holland, Joshua Cole Lucas, and Scean Aaron.

Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili with Associate Director Katherine DuBois Maguire; Choreography by Irina Tsikurishvili; Fight Choreographer Vato Tsikurishvili; Costume Design by Erik Teague; Composer, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; Scenic Design by Daniel Pinha; Lighting Design by Brian S. Allard; Projections Designer, Patrick Lord; Adapter, Nate Weinberger.

Through February 29th at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA in Crystal City.  For tickets and information call 866.811.4111 or visit www.SyneticTheater.org

Silent Sky ~ Ford’s Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 2, 2020

Mention the name Lauren Gunderson, and you’ll probably get an enthusiastic nod of recognition.  As the most produced playwright in America, she has been writing plays about real women whose achievements have been subordinated to those of men.  Think of the movie Hidden Figures as a recent example of women whose monumental accomplishments were overlooked, and overshadowed, by the men at NASA.

Laura C. Harris (center) with Emily Kester, Jonathan David Martin, Holly Twyford and Nora Achrati Photo by Scott Suchman.

Gunderson’s play Emilie – La Marquise du Chatelet, reviewed here two years ago http://whiskandquill.com/emilie-la-marquise-du-chatelet-defends-her-life-tonight-wsc-avant-bard and a recent world premiere of her play, Peter Pan and Wendy, here in DC http://whiskandquill.com/peter-pan-and-wendy-shakespeare-theatre-company-at-sidney-harmon-hall, have more than endeared her to local audiences.

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In Silent Sky, Gunderson enlightens us with the ground-breaking theories of a young, female astronomer who, against all odds, made radical discoveries that shook every astronomer’s concept of the vastness of space.  Henrietta Swan Leavitt had a degree from Harvard in astronomy.  Yet when she was hired to work in this renowned observatory in the early 1900’s, she was not permitted to observe the galaxy through the Great Refractor telescope.  No woman could.  Instead, she, along with two other female computers called “Pickering’s harem” by the male department head, were tasked with looking at photographic plates to ascertain the position and classification of stars.  (Until the mid-20th century the word “computer” referred to a person who carried out calculations – long before computing machines were invented.)

Holly Twyford, Laura C. Harris and Nora Achrati – Photo by Scott Suchman.

Squirreled away in a tiny office and separated from the male astronomers, Leavitt alone achieved a system of mapping the Milky Way by relating the blinking of the stars to music and recognizing that pulsing stars have a pattern.  This at a time when Einstein’s theory of relativity had just been published.

Gunderson focuses on Henrietta and her feisty co-workers, Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming, toiling away in obscurity.  It was a time when young women rarely pursued a career and still did not yet have the right to vote.  Her only sibling, Margaret, chooses marriage, children, and a life in the church, despairing as Henrietta delves deeper into her work far from home and to the exclusion of her family.

Laura C. Harris – Photo by Scott Suchman.

Wonderful nighttime skies filled with starlight and a bespoke period stage set, complete the picture and add to the powerful story of the women’s mutual support and the parallel thread of Henrietta’s burgeoning romance with Peter Shaw, who falls in love with her passion and intellect, and provides a lively background to this brilliant astronomer’s extraordinary life and eventual worldwide recognition.

Starring Laura C. Harris as Henrietta Leavitt; Nora Achrati as Annie Cannon; Holly Twyford as Williamina Fleming; Emily Kester as Margaret Leavitt; and Jonathan David Martin as Peter Shaw.

Jonathan David Martin and Laura C. Harris – Photo by Scott Suchman.

Directed by Seema Sueko with Scenic Design by Milagros Ponce de León; Costume Design by Ivania Stack; Lighting Design by Rui Rita; Sound Design and Original Music by André J. Pluess; Choreographed by Karma Camp; Hair and Makeup by Anne Nesmith.

Wonderful performances by a tight-knit cast.  Don’t miss it!

Through February 23rd at Ford’s Theatre, 511 Tenth Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.Fords.org or call the box office at 202.347.4833.