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Titus Andronicus ~ Synetic Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 28, 2018 

Shakespeare’s first play, Titus Andronicus, was written for pure shock value. It’s considered a revenge play and his purpose was to get noticed and to one up his competition.  A sort of revenge of the playwright, if you will.  It worked.  In today’s world, it would probably be categorized in the fantasy genre along with Game of Thrones.  With fourteen murders, six severed limbs and two acts of cannibalism involving meat pies, there’s nothing tame about it.  It’s the most gruesome, grotesque Elizabethan potboiler ever conceived for a two-hour play.  Never a dull moment.

Scott Whalen and Dan Istrate with the ensemble in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Synetic’s approach is to render the bloodiest scenes, bloodless and Shakespeare’s lines, wordless.  It is one of Synetic’s hallmarks.  By using reams of red silk, elbow-length red satin gloves and a stage bathed in vivid red spotlights during each murder (I lost count after the tenth), they have achieved all the thrill and all the horror without shedding a single drop of stage blood.

The play opens with a horde of Roman soldiers gripping their lances and galloping towards the audience at full tilt.  That they’re not actually riding horses is incidental – it’s visceral.   In one of the most thrilling productions this year, Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili has crafted an edge-of-your-seat interpretation of the classic that will blow your mind.

The story of King Titus is drenched in power struggles, betrayal, violence and intrigue.  They are all fighting for the crown.  It’s a deliciously complex battle of forces between the Goths, here intricately costumed by Erik Teague to reflect modern-day goths replete with metal-studded clothing, and the Romans, whose military toga-like costumes are exquisitely detailed.  The women wear diaphanous multi-pleated gowns come hell or high water and the courtiers sport faceless metallic masks.

Alex Mills, Irina Tsikurishvili, Irina Kavsadze, and Dallas Tolentino in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Brittany Diliberto

Titus is played magnificently by Philip Fletcher to Irina Tsikurishvili’s Tamora, Queen of the Goths in one of her finest performances to date.  The 15-member troupe is spectacular, especially Irina Kavsadze as Lavinia, Tori Bertocci as Marcia Andronicus and Audrey Tchoukoua as Aaron who does a torrid tango with the Queen.  Phil Charlwood’s massive rotating sets of monoliths and amorphous castle walls serve well to background the evil of their murderous deeds and the sounds of their clashing swords.

It’s impossible to describe the many crimes of passion and struggles for power.  Suffice it to say, they are fiercely intense and hyper imaginative with action that explodes at the speed of a super collider housed in an erupting volcano – all set to Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s fantastical sound track ranging from electronica to Gregorian and Phillip Glass to the interior of a wind tunnel.  It’s a well-orchestrated madness that can only be described as electrifying from the opening scene to the climax.

And though I won’t give away the banquet scene – remember the meat pies? – it’s a stunner set to the flowery notes of carousel music.  Insider tip: Black Panther fans look for Titus to give the Wakanda salute.

Five stars.  Highly recommended.

With Chris Galindo as Lucius, Alex Mills as Chiron, Dan Istrate as Saturnius, Matt Stover as Quintus, Dallas Tolentino as Demetrius, Scott Whalen as Bassianus and Scott Turner as Alarbus.  Choreography by Irina Tsikurishvili, Sound Design by Thomas Sowers, Fight Choreography by Vato Tsikurishvili and Alex Mills.

Through May 27th at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington in Crystal City.  For tickets and information call 1 800 494-8497 or visit online.

Girlfriend ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 28, 2018 

Girlfriend is writer Todd Almond’s warmhearted story about two teens searching for love while trying to find their footing amid the anxiety-fraught, coming-of-age high school years.  Will is a footloose, no-plans, out-of-the-closet introvert.  His new friend, Mike, is the high school’s prom king and quarterback.  Mike has a structured life that includes leaving their small town in Nebraska for med school.  Their connection seems doomed from the start when Mike calls out Will for being “obvious”, telling him “things could be perfect, if you weren’t you.”  Who would stick around after that?  But Mike keeps phoning Will after he gifts him with a mix tape, and together they bond over music and flicks.  It’s an emotional story filled with the fraught exploration of young love coupled with the universal awkwardness that accompanies anyone’s first relationship.

Lukas James Miller (Mike) and Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) . Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Will acknowledges he’s gay – he gets bullied at school for it – but Mike is confused about his sexuality identity.  Mike has a girlfriend and being gay doesn’t fit into his long-range plans.  Notwithstanding their differences, the teens form an unlikely friendship that begins with a date at the drive-in to see a movie about Evangeline, a nun who’s secretly a superhero.  Mike loves it.  Will’s too shy to say he doesn’t.  Their personalities are polar opposites.

But the appeal of this rock musical isn’t just their adorably awkward relationship, or the hilarious situations these two find themselves in, but the catchy Beatles’-styled tunes composed by Matthew Sweet and played by a four-piece, onstage, powerhouse girl band.  Add in Jimmy Mavrikes’s (Will) and Lukas James Miller’s (Mike) wonderfully appealing in sync voices skillfully blending in ten original numbers from Sweet’s alternative-rock album “Girlfriend”.

Lukas James Miller (Mike) and Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) . Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Thanks to Misha Kachman’s masterful set design that places the musicians behind a wall of glass in a lipstick red, padded recording studio sound booth, stretching the length of the stage, we can see them rock out and tune into their energy.  As backup singing musicians, they are an integral part of the story as they watch the teens along with the audience to see how their budding relationship will turn out.

Directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner, it debuted in Berkeley, CA ten years ago, yet has an enduring resonance that aims to please.

Lukas James Miller (Mike) and Jimmy Mavrikes (Will) . Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Recommended to anyone who has ever felt awkward in love and has the memories to prove it.

With musicians Britt Bonney conducting and playing keyboard, Beth Cannon on guitar, Nicole Saphos on bass and Erika Johnson on drums.  Costume design by Frank Labovitz, lighting design by Colin K. Bills and sound design by Ryan Hickey.

Through June 10th in the ARK Theatre 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.

Snow Child ~ Arena Stage Produced with Perseverance Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 27, 2018 

Out of the darkness of a frigid Alaskan winter, comes a sweet story of an enchanted, forest-dwelling wild child and her effect on a childless couple making their way in the forbidding landscape.  Molly Smith directs this premiere – the last of the season’s ‘Power Plays’ series at Arena Stage.  Smith’s connection to Alaska runs as deep as the snow drifts.  She began her theatre career opening Perseverance Theatre in Juneau in 1979 and was Founding Artistic Director there before coming to Arena twenty years ago.  To put it mildly, this is personal.

As Arena’s Artistic Director her influence is felt in all of her theatrical choices.  Smith’s commitment to this particular project is reflected in the length of time it took for it to go from page to stage – four years from the time the decision was made for John Strand to write the book based on Eowyn Ivey’s children’s story based on a Russian fairy tale.

L to R) Alex Alferov (Garrett) and Christiane Noll (Mabel) in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Set in pre-statehood Alaska of the 1920’s, a young suburban couple, Jack (Matt Bogart) and Mabel (Christiane Noll), makes the brave (reckless?) decision to homestead a 167-acre parcel in a wilderness where their nearest neighbors are an hour’s trek away.  The prerequisites to ownership are to farm the land for at least five years.  They seem determined.  But can they survive the brutal winters and the loss of their child so unbearable it will break them apart?

(L to R) Matt Bogart (Jack), Fina Strazza (Faina) and Dorothy James (Ensemble/Fox) in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova.

In a brilliant feat of casting Fina Strazza plays the illusive snow child, Faina.  Strazza is utterly captivating as are the puppets – a giant Dapple Grey horse, a Tundra swan and Faina’s ‘familiar’, a curious white fox – designed by Emily Decola.  They are the perfect foil for the couple’s rough-hewn neighbors, George (Dan Manning) who makes moonshine, his wife Esther (Natalie Toro) and their son, Garrett (Alex Alferov) who vacillate between being good neighbors (who doesn’t like moose meat stew?) and imagining they will take over the homestead when Jack and Mabel quit trying.

(L to R) Dan Manning (George), Alex Alferov (Garrett), Natalie Toro (Esther), Christiane Noll (Mabel) and Matt Bogart (Jack) in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova

Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt composed 24 numbers for this heartfelt musical ranging from tender, melancholy ballads to upbeat songs (porch clogging, anyone?) – all to the tune of bluegrass accompaniment.  Expect to enjoy a score filled with mandolin, fiddle, banjo, piano, spoons and guitar led by conductor/percussionist/keyboardist William YaneshShawn Duan creates the spectacular stage-wide projections evoking the aurora borealis as well as the alpenglow against Alaskan mountain vistas. Cue the snow! Lots of it.

Pack your bags.  We’re going to Alaska!  Highly recommended.

With lighting by Kimberly Purtell, sound by Roc Lee, set designs by Todd Rosenthal, costumes by Joseph P. Salasovich, and musical supervision and orchestrations by Lynne Shankel.

Through May 20th 2018 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488.3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Waiting for Godot ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
April 25, 2018 

When Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s existentialist masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, was first produced in Paris in 1953, it was a time of high intellectualism and experimentation in the Arts.  Modern art was blossoming and writers like James Joyce, Jean Genet and Eugene Ionesco were exploring new ways to communicate with audiences.  They and many others began to reinvent the dynamic and break the mold of what the theatre arts had known.  The ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ they created challenged the status quo to examine the human condition as a comic tragedy on the futility of life and the frailties of mankind.  Beckett saw it as a fool’s game and chose two penniless drifters to advance his notions.

Marty Rea as Vladimir and Aaron Monaghan as Estragon. Photo Matthew Thompson.

As a highly stylized foray into the surreal – delivered in compact, visceral dialogue – Beckett’s fools, the supercilious Vladimir (the incomparable Marty Rea) and the dismissive Estragon (Aaron Monaghan in a master class performance), slowly go mad waiting for Godot to arrive.  They wait in the misguided hope that Godot will save them from their misfortunes.  As the two men struggle to define their reasons for living, the dialogue toggles back and forth between anger at their circumstances and hilarious attempts to make light of their gloom.  Frequent references to nature – the tree, the stone and the bog – serve to anchor them to earthbound realism as they themselves continue to go madly off the rails.  “There’s nothing to be done,” asserts Estragon while considering hanging himself.  “I resumed the struggle,” responds Vladimir in a clear but Tigger-like non sequitur.  (You may succumb, as I did, to seeking out the symbolism in every line.)

Garrett Lombard as Lucky, Marty Rea as Vladimir and Aaron Monaghan as Estragon. Photo Matthew Thompson.

To comprehend, and this is the intellectual exercise of Beckett, much of their vacillating emotional state is topsy-turvy – a clear definition of the avant garde movement.  One minute they embrace the secular – a moment later the spiritual.  Other times the two jolly each other up with a sort of Abbot and Costello routine of “Who’s on first?” – a running banter that defines the absurdity and futility of their predicament. There are times when you can imagine you are overhearing a couple of old sots at four o’clock in the morning in an Irish pub.

As counterbalance to their predicament, Pozzo (Rory Nolan in a larger than life portrayal of the inbred landed gentry), appears with his forlorn servant, Lucky, a sort of idiot savant played masterfully by Garrett Lombard.   Altogether the men cling to the hope that they can save one another from the vicissitudes of life.

C. Conneely as Boy, Marty Rea as Vladimir and Aaron Monaghan as Estragon. Photo Matthew Thompson.

This outstanding production is directed by Tony Award-winning Garry Hynes and presented by Druid, the illustrious Irish theater company.

Francis O’Connor gives us a modernistic set design that brings to mind the surrealism of Rene Magritte and Salvatore Dali.

With lighting by James F. Ingalls, scenic and costume design by Francis O’Connor and sound design by Greg Clarke.

Highly recommended.  Bring your thinking cap and your sense of humor.

Through May 20th at The Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC 2004. For tickets and information visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org or call the box office at 202 547-1122.

Harvey ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
April 23, 2018
Special to The Alexandria Times


I find it surprising when a local tells me they’ve never attended a performance at our city’s 84-year old, multi-award-winning The Little Theatre of Alexandria.  Built in the 1960’s on the schoolyard grounds of the historic Alexandria Academy, the two-story brick building boasts a walled garden abloom with plants and flowers from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.  Surrounding the garden is a stunning wrought iron fence and gate circa 1873 from the White House.  Until they had their own theater, the actors performed in Gadsby’s Tavern and other locations around Old Town, where they have produced over 360 plays and shows.  If you’re looking to impress friends or out-of-town guests who have never experienced its delights, see this clever production under Frank Pasqualino’s astute direction with a wonderfully quirky cast who breathe fresh life into a comedy better known as a cinematic vehicle for veteran Hollywood actor, Jimmy Stewart.

Andy Izquierdo (Elwood P. Dowd) ~ Photos are by Matt Liptak.

Harvey is a story of an eccentric man, Elwood P. Dowd (Andy Izquierdo), who imagines a 6-foot white rabbit, Harvey, as his best friend.  Harvey is what is known in Celtic mythology as a “pooka”, a mystical and mischievous spirit in animal form.  American playwright Mary Chase, who won a Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Harvey, was touched by a stranger’s post-war sadness and wove the image from her Irish heritage into this tale of an American family.

Meet Ovid-spouting Elwood – a tippler who lives with his socially correct sister, Veta Louise Simmons (Rachael Hubbard) and her daughter, the pretty, yet unmarried niece, Myrtle Mae Simmons (Catherine Gilbert).  Due to Elwood’s frequent forays to local bars with his fantastical imaginary friend, the family becomes the targets of gossip in their small Western town.  This grinds on the ladies’ last nerve and they conspire to commit him to the local sanitorium, Chumley’s Rest.  Only then can they take ownership of Elwood’s house and, with the scandal tamped down, Myrtle Mae can at last find a suitable spouse.  At least that’s their plan.

Catherine Gilbert (Myrtle Mae Simmons) and Rachael Hubbard (Veta Louise Simmons) ~ Photos are by Matt Liptak

But as well-laid plans often do, this one goes south when, due to the ineptitude of the sanitorium’s chief psychiatrist, Dr. Chumley (Chuck Leonard) and his awkward and equally inept associate, Dr. Sanderson (Richard Isaacs), Veta becomes the one committed in a case of the mistaken psychopath.

The audience can ponder the question.  Who is “sane” and who is “insane” and who is to say?  In this instance the doctors prove to be nuttier than the patient.  What’s key here is Elwood’s happiness and harmlessness vis a vis a society that regards him as a screwball.

Richard Isaacs (Lyman Sanderson, M.D.), Andy Izquierdo (Elwood P. Dowd), and Lindsey Doane (Ruth Kelly, R.N.) ~ Photos are by Matt Liptak

Izquierdo’s Elwood is a wonderful blend of the gestures of straight man Jack Benny and the unruffled dulcet-tones of Mr. Rogers.  Other stellar cast members in this three-act comedy include Lindsay Doane as the lovesick Ruth Kelly, RN, Dr. Sanderson’s nurse and love interest; Patricia Spencer Smith as Mrs. Betty Chumley, the sweetly ditzy doctor’s wife; Tony Gilbert as Judge Omar Gaffney, the family’s attorney; Brendan Quinn as Duane Wilson, the doctors’ thuggish attendant; Mary Jo Morgan as Mrs. Ethel Chauvenet, the disapproving society lady; and David Featherston as E. J. Lofgren, a local cabbie.

With set design by Matt Liptak, lighting design by Ken and Patti Crowley, costumes by Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley, and sound design by Alan Wray.

Tons of laughs throughout all three acts from this terrific cast.

Through May 12th 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