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into the Woods ~ Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
December 13, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Laurie Veldheer as Cinderella and Bonne Kramer as Cinderella's Stepmother -Phone credit Joan Marcus

Laurie Veldheer as Cinderella and Bonne Kramer as Cinderella’s Stepmother -Phone credit Joan Marcus

Smack dab in the heart of the holiday season comes Into the Woods.  For fans of the legendary collaboration of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, this is sheer heaven.  This semi-autobiographical musical has brilliant lyrics, a stunning score and all around silliness wrapped up neatly in a big red bow.  It’s part farce and part tragedy – played to the hilt by a formidable cast.

Lesa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Ridinghood and Anthony Chatmon II as the Wolf - Photo credit Joan Marcus

Lesa Helmi Johanson as Little Red Ridinghood and Anthony Chatmon II as the Wolf – Photo credit Joan Marcus

This gift of classic fairy tales reimagined is brought to us by New York’s Fiasco Theater ensemble.  It’s a minimalist rustic version – like a tiny log cabin in the deep woods – and it’s a hoot.  Remember the Disney film version with Meryl Streep that came out a few years back?  Well, it’s nothing like that.  This feels more like Monty Python and his Flying Circus did a mash up of Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood and Rapunzel.  Oh, and there’s a brief reference to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  But unlike those zany knights, it has deeply intimate moments of love and loss – and of hope, sorrow and romance – as when one of the princes (Anthony Chatmon II) has a syvlan tryst with the baker’s wife and explains it away by asserting, “Foolishness can happen in the woods.”

There are heroes and villains and those we think are, but even they protest their typecasting.  Why? Because, “people make mistakes” and others are complicit in carrying them out.

As for keeping a light-hearted dynamic in the face of gloom and doom, a feather duster subs for the goose that laid the golden egg, the wolf is a mounted head, campy wicked stepsisters move around in an oxen’s yoke and an enchantress, the Witch, becomes a slinky, sexy glamour girl well after she makes demands on the Baker (Evan Harrington) and his barren wife (Eleasha Gamble).  In order to have a child, they must deliver to her Jack’s beloved milky white cow, Red Riding Hood’s blood red cape, Rapunzel’s yellow-as-corn hair and the golden slipper from Cinderella – quite the tall order.  You would think it couldn’t get any sillier until a dressmaker’s form is imagined as a tree.

Lisa Helmi Johanson as Rapunzei  and Venessa Reseland as The Witch - Photo credit Joan Marcus

Lisa Helmi Johanson as Rapunzei and Venessa Reseland as The Witch – Photo credit Joan Marcus

Vanessa Reseland’s marvelously haunting voice produces more goosebumps than the wolf on “No More” and “Last Midnight”.  And look for DC native, Eleasha Gamble, as the Baker’s Wife to steal your heart in “Moments in the Woods”.

Directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld keep the ten actors (who double and often triple their role responsibilities) on stage throughout, playing accompanying instruments when they’re not otherwise engaged in mayhem, which prevails most notably in Act Two.  Solo pianist, Evan Rees, on stage at an upright piano, jumps in as Milky White just as things get dicey.

Lighting Designer, Christopher Akerlind, gives us dramatic atmosphere – cue the thunder and lightning – while Derek McLane’s unusual backdrop of thick-spun, rafters-to-stage floor ropes, imagined as piano strings and framed by silvery silhouettes of pianos, reminds us that ultimately it’s all about the music.  And that’s why we pilgrimage to Sondheim – no matter where, no matter when.

Through January 8th 2017 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 Company in Into These Woods - Photo credit Joan Marcus

The Company in Into These Woods – Photo credit Joan Marcus

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.

A Christmas Carol ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria

Jordan Wright
December 5, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Tony Gilbert (Scrooge) - Photo credit Doug Olmstead

Tony Gilbert (Scrooge) – Photo credit Doug Olmstead

It’s that jolly, spooky, heartwarming, Charles Dickens time of year again and, like The Nutcracker, many families hold dear the tradition of seeing A Christmas Carol together.  The Little Theatre of Alexandria has been mounting this play for eons, but each year it’s a different version depending on who’s directing and what elements of the story they choose to emphasize.  For Director Michael J. Baker, Jr. it was important to delve into the original book, plumb the depths of Dickens, and cherish some of the best lines.  “Bad lobster in a dark cellar”, in which Scrooge describes the face of Marley during his first ghostly encounter, was taken from the original, but I’d never heard it before.  There’s a certain ominous and indelibly charming alliterative ring to it that sets the tone for shades of things to come.

 Penelope Gallagher (Belle’s Daughter), Eva Jaber (Belle’s Child #1), Clare Baker (Ghost of Christmas Past) - Photo credit Doug Olmstead

Penelope Gallagher (Belle’s Daughter), Eva Jaber (Belle’s Child #1), Clare Baker (Ghost of Christmas Past) – Photo credit Doug Olmstead

Clearly Baker has done his homework.  As a veteran of the role of Scrooge (five times!), he brings an actor’s perspective and a director’s experience to the classic tale of the penurious, humbugger, Ebenezer Scrooge.  In one particular instance young Scrooge is abandoned by his family at his boarding school, Baker draws on Dickens’ love of Ali Baba and plunks a parrot outside the window.  It’s subtle but it’s there, as is a reference to “Robin” Crusoe, from Defoe, another of Dickens’ favorite authors.

Eva Jaber (Want), Janette Moman (Ghost of Christmas Present), Morgan Jay (Ignorance) - Photo credit Doug Onlstead

Eva Jaber (Want), Janette Moman (Ghost of Christmas Present), Morgan Jay (Ignorance) – Photo credit Doug Onlstead

Baker and Music Director Linda Wells weave in lots of traditional Christmas carols and Sound Designer Lynn Lacey throws in plenty of spooky effects as the trio of spirits (they’re a new addition too) and the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Clare Baker), Future (Pat Jannell) and Present (Janette Moman, who does notable double duty as the hilariously crooked Mrs. Dilber) haunt the ‘dickens’ out of Scrooge.

Tony Gilbert (Scrooge) and Josh Gordon (Tiny Tim) - Photo credit Doug Olmstead

Tony Gilbert (Scrooge) and Josh Gordon (Tiny Tim) – Photo credit Doug Olmstead

The sets, too, have changed.  Set Designer Mary Hutzler treats us to a charming Victorian village with chapel and schoolhouse and scenes of the streets that include both the poor and the posh sides of London town.

But any production of A Christmas Carol must have its adorable children (and these are as sweet as candy canes and hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day), its grisly ghosts (note well Larry O. Grey, Jr. as he smoothly segues between the dual roles of Marley’s ghost-in-chains and the jolly Fezziwig, two of the most disparate characters in the play) and its courtly gentlemen.  Ryan Phillips shines as both Young Scrooge and Topper and Matthew Fager is notable as the kindly Bob Cratchit.  But the thread that holds the piece together is indeed Tony Gilbert as Scrooge whose ability to go from curmudgeonly to compassionate is absolute perfection.

Find the true meaning of the season here and in your hearts.

Through December 17th 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

Full cast of A Christmas Carol ` Photos by Doug Olmsted

Full cast of A Christmas Carol ` Photos by Doug Olmsted

Moby Dick ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
November 27, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The cast of Moby Dick. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

The cast of Moby Dick. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Co-production alliances benefit all theatregoers and the latest collaboration between Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company and Arena Stage proves the point.  It saves theatres a heavy outlay by not having to mount expensive, new productions – plus shorter rehearsal time saves space and the actors already know their blocking and lines.  In addition, these productions come with critics’ raves.

Which brings me to Moby Dick – one of the most splendid and spectacular, alluringly bizarre plays I’ve reviewed to date.  Imagine, if you will, the physicality of Cirque du Soleil driving Melville’s major opus, coupled with all the theatrics of a Greek tragicomedy.  You can’t?  Neither could I until I saw this eye-popping interpretation of the classic tale of a whale.  Theatregoers will be talking about this production for years to come.

Using the parable of Jonah as fugitive from God, a preacher inspires Ishmael (Jamie Abelson) to find his soul through a whaling voyage.  Lured on by red-haired Puritan furies in funereal Victorian dresses and tight chignons (they later morph into a chorus of sea sirens in spectral gowns) the hapless fellow soon finds himself at the Spouter’s Inn among a rowdy group of drunken Nantucket scrimshanders bellowing sea chanties and preparing for passage on the fated Pequod.

Director David Catlin, who adapted the play from the book, delivers a Dante-inspired version replete with a structure of ivory-hued masts curving inward like the narrowing rib cage of a whale.  Sailors shinny up the masts and dangle from the ship’s rigging in daredevil fashion and lifeboats seesaw above.

L to R) Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Javen Ulambayar as Mungun in Moby Dick. Photo by Greg Mooney.

L to R) Christopher Donahue as Captain Ahab and Javen Ulambayar as Mungun in Moby Dick. Photo by Greg Mooney.

Notwithstanding the spectacular acrobatics, there is the underlying story of the vengeful Captain Ahab (Christopher Donahue) – his Devil’s bargain to capture and kill the evil leviathan who bit off his leg – and Ishmael’s struggle to find his life’s purpose.

Woman is portrayed as not only the object that lures men to their deaths, but as the sea personified, and also as the whale itself.  They become a symbol of what must be captured, conquered and stripped of life.  In a particularly powerful scene, a woman is hung by her heels.  Her voluminous skirts trail down over her head rendering her faceless and exposing the whalebone structure of her petticoat.  Her flesh is summarily stripped away as if cleaning a fish.  It is the height of machismo culture.

(L to R) Jamie Abelson as Ishmael and Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg i. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

(L to R) Jamie Abelson as Ishmael and Anthony Fleming III as Queequeg i. Photo by Liz Lauren/Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Some of these dramatic visual elements, twice used to great effect by hundreds of yards of silken fabric billowing out like waves, are balanced by extraordinarily fierce acting, haunting music and, yes! hilarity, most especially in the character of Queequeg (Anthony Fleming III), the savage outlier who becomes the catalyst for Ishmael’s voyage to manhood and redemption.

An outstanding production crew ties it all together with dramatic panache.  Costumes Sully Ratke; Aerial/Acrobatic Second City’s Actors Gymnasium founder Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi; Set Designer Courtney O’Neill; Lighting Design William C. Kirkham; Sound Design/Original Music Rick Sims.

Highly recommended.  If I gave out stars this would be an entire constellation!

Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For information and tickets for the Lillian Hellman Festival visit www.arenastage.org/hellman-festival or call 202 488-3300.

Cookbook Corner ~ Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken

Jordan Wright
November 22, 2016

 It’s a tricky proposition to categorize Monica Bhide’s new novel, Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken under ‘Cookbook’.  Strictly speaking, it is not.  There are no indulgent recipes to swoon over as in her 2015 cookbook, A Life of Spice or the two before that, Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen in 2009, and The Everything Indian Cookbook in 2004.  A prolific writer, Bhide has penned short stories, fiction and inspirational books, tailoring the latter to an audience eager to follow in her footsteps.

Her pieces have appeared in such prestigious journals as Food & Wine, Saveur, Bon Appetit, The Washington Post and the New York Times.  As a local author, she is a frequent lecturer on the topic of food blogging for the Smithsonian Associates programs and has been a guest speaker at Georgetown University.  Equally as impressive, she has been featured in four of the annual Best Food Writing anthologies along with some of the finest food writers in the nation.

Author Monica Bhide

Author Monica Bhide

In her latest novel Bhide offers up a sensitive, utterly hilarious portrait of a sweet, idealistic, and somewhat hapless, Indian teenager, Eshaan, whose secret love for a beautiful young woman, Kitt, leads him down a convoluted path to achieve his life’s mission.  Eshaan’s altruistic dream is to feed the poor, but until he wins a local TV chef’s competition, he has to navigate major life hurdles with the aid of a page-turning collection of both friends and foes.

Bhide brings us into her world to experience the scents and flavors of India, the heady aromas of frangipani and curry, by offering up these memorably quirky, endearingly fascinating characters in the literary tradition of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.  One can only hope this is just the start of an ongoing series about the adventures and misadventures of Eshaan, Lama Dorje, a wise Buddhist monk, Radio Rani, an orphaned servant living in the monastery, and many others who dwell in the blessed aura of Buddha’s Karma Kitchen.

Monica will appear at an upcoming Indian dinner featuring her recipes at The Fourth Estate restaurant in Washington, DC on December 12th.  Some of the recipes are central to the plot of Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken.  A signed copy of the book and a compendium of recipes are included in the price.  To view the menu and purchase tickets for the dinner, click on this link.  www.press.org/events/karma-and-art-butter-chicken-dinner

To learn more about Bhide, order one of her books or view her line of art jewelry visit monicabhide.com.

butter-chicken

Monica Bhide’s Butter Chicken

Makes 4-5 servings

1 cup whole-milk Greek yogurt

1 tablespoon peeled, grated ginger

1 tablespoon peeled, minced garlic

2 tablespoons Indian tandoori masala (I recommend Shan Tandoori/ Tikka mix)

1⁄4 cup canned tomato puree

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons melted butter or ghee*

8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs cut into small pieces

Salt, to taste

  1. In a large bowl, mix together yogurt, ginger, garlic, Indian tandoori masala, tomato puree, salt, lemon juice and butter. Add the chicken and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the chicken in a single layer in a roasting pan.  Pour all remaining marinade over the chicken.  Roast 20 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked and the juices run clear.
  3. Remove the chicken from the oven and place all the pieces on a platter. Reserve the cooked marinade in a bowl.

For the Sauce

4 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon peeled, grated ginger

1 tablespoon peeled, minced garlic

2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped

Salt, to taste

1 serrano chile, finely minced

1⁄2 cup heavy cream

  1. To make the sauce, in a large skillet, heat the butter over medium heat. Add the ginger and garlic.  Sauté for about 30 seconds.
  2. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring constantly. Use the back of a spatula to mash the tomatoes as you go. Continue until the tomatoes are completely mashed and soft, about 10 minutes.
  3. Add the reserved marinade.
  4. Add the salt, chili pepper, and chicken and mix well. Simmer covered for about 10 minutes.

Add the cream and simmer for another minute.  Serve hot.