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The Tempest ~ Synetic Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 1, 2019
Special to The Alexandria Times

Take The Tempest.  Now place it on a stage holding 2,500 gallons of water, six-inches deep.  Got it?  Mix the technological wizardry of a cutting-edge audio/visual immersive experience with an electronic score and keep it utterly wordless.  This is the fantasy world created by Synetic Theatre’s version of Shakespeare’s familiar drama.  Born out of the seemingly limitless imagination of visionary Artistic Director, Paata Tsikurishvili, a Georgian-born, theatrical pioneer and his wife Irina Tsikurishvili, actress and choreographer, who together founded this uniquely transgressive, no-rules theatre company, the two theater idealists combined to reinvent the classics through the art of athleticism, aesthetics, futuristic sound, and physicality as no other theater company.

Irina Tsikurishvili as Prospera. “The Tempest” at Synetic Theater. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

As with early Shakespeare productions, gender reversal was the norm as men played all the roles, both male and female.  In this production Paata toys with gender, casting Prospero as a newly minted, “Prospera”, played by his wife, Irina, a dancer/choreographer and 33-time Helen Hayes Award nominee.  Ariel, the female sprite, is imagined as male and performed by the tremendously talented dancer/performer, Alex Mills, who appears as a pop-locking, anime-inspired superhero, stylistically reminiscent of Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer.

Alex Mills as Ariel. “The Tempest” at Synetic Theater. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Welcome to Synetic’s phantasmagoric world of enchantment and mysticism.  Overflowing with dizzying acrobatics, flips, and watery somersaults, it offers up a seemingly psychedelic experience far outside the realm of the Shakespeare you have come to know.  You will never see anything like it in your lifetime.

Vato Tsikurishvili as Caliban. “The Tempest” at Synetic Theater. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Cutting an elegant swath through an aqueous mist Prospera, the sorceress, cuts a majestic figure as she stands bravely amidst the sounds of crashing waves interwoven with electronica and futuristic synth-pop.  Hidden behind prison gates in a fiery-red grotto, lurks the malevolent monster, Caliban (Vato Tsikurishvili at his most magnificent).  He emerges stealthily, inching beneath the waves and the two lock horns as water spews across the stage, catching the light and spraying wildly onto the first three rows.  Dominated by splashing water, rainstorms, ferocious battles, amorphous sea creatures and playful comic scenes, this wildly atmospheric water world will be your new normal.

“The Tempest” at Synetic Theater. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

The entirety of this cast is outstanding in every respect.  In a production that redefines acting as both intensely physical and dramatically interpretive, the casting requires a unique kind of performer – one who is both classically trained in ballet and acrobatics, and who must be in top physical condition.  I was utterly blown away by the fearless athleticism and extraordinary acting expressed by this amazing cast.

Five stars! Bring the kids.

*** The first three rows are known as the “splash zone” and courtesy ponchos are graciously provided.  Request these seats when booking your tickets if you’re up for a totally immersive experience.

With Anne Flowers as Syncorax, Megan Khaziran as Antonia, Scott Brown as Ferdinand, Pablo Guillen as King Alonso, Katherine DuBois Maguire as Trinculo, Matt R. Stover as Stephano, and Scean Aaron and Katherine Frattini in the ensemble.

Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili with Composer & Sound Designer Konstantine Lortkipanidze, Scenic & Costume Designer Anastasia Simes and Lighting Designer Andrew Griffin.

Through October 20th at Synetic Theater, 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington, VA in Crystal City.  For tickets and information call 1-866-811-4111 or visit www.synetictheater.org.

August Wilson’s Fences ~ Ford’s Theatre

Jordan Wright
October 3, 2019

Hard on the heels of Arena Stage’s ongoing production of Jitney comes Fences, another August Wilson drama and the sixth play in Wilson’s ten-part series the American Century Cycle that chronicles 100 years of the African American experience.  (Jitney, Wilson’s first play in the series, was reviewed here earlier this week.)  It’s clear Wilson has further honed his vision to encapsulate pockets of Black culture with another deeply moving story reflecting both humor and pathos.  Fences depicts the struggles and complex interpersonal relations of the Maxsons, an American family living in a racist society.

Doug Brown, Jefferson A. Russell, Erika Rose and Craig Wallace – Photo by Scott Suchman.

In a family dominated by Troy Maxson, an emotionally detached father who blames his sons for his personal failures and cuckolds his devoted wife, each member is forced to carve out their own truth.  Both sons and wife Rose try to escape his unpredictable moods, but it’s his inability to express love that eventually takes its toll on everyone – including Troy, who lacks both education and basic human understanding.

Justin Weaks and Craig Wallace. Photo by Scott Suchman

Troy’s fifteen-year incarceration for murder took away his promising baseball career in the Negro Leagues and he is still bitter.  Forfeiting his future, he takes a menial sanitation job with the city of Pittsburgh to provide for his family and becomes resentful when his son Cory is offered a football college scholarship. As a result, his jealousy and arrogance fracture their relationship. “I’m the boss around here,” he warns the boy, insisting he doesn’t have to like him and that his only responsibility is to provide for his son’s basic needs.  When Troy refuses to sign a permission slip allowing Cory to accept the college scholarship, Cory tells his father, “You just scared I’m gonna be better than you.”

Erika Rose, Doug Brown, Justin Weaks and Craig Wallace. Photo by Scott Suchman

This is where I struggled to comprehend the sense of this father-son battle.  I wondered, if the father is so resentful of supporting his son, then why doesn’t he allow him to take the scholarship so he can be absolved of further financial responsibility?  How this could be?  As luck would have it, during intermission I had a discussion with an African American acquaintance who told me that he had grown up in a family with twelve children and Troy reminded him of his own father.  When I asked why that was, he told me his father was functionally illiterate like Troy and had no understanding of college.  Shockingly, his father believed it would be a place where his daughters would become prostitutes, and, as for the sons, he claimed their only choice was to learn a manual skill.  I thanked my friend for this insight and can only imagine that it reflects a time within a certain struggling African American community who believed they shouldn’t overstep their bounds.  The play is set in 1957 and opportunities were slow in coming.

Craig Wallace – Photo credit Scott Suchman

Rose is Troy’s long-suffering wife who cleans and cooks and stands by her man despite his drinking and womanizing.  Erika Rose (the actress shares the character’s name) proves to be the perfect counterpart to Craig Wallace’s Troy Maxson, not only in sheer emotionality, but also in fiery intensity.  And Doug Brown as Jim Bono, Troy’s former prison mate and best friend, grants us a character who tempers Troy’s hardheadedness with humor and country wit.

Erika Rose, Janiyah Lucas and Justin Weaks in the Ford’s Theatre production of August Wilson’s “Fences,. Photo by Scott Suchman

Eventually, Troy comes to need Rose in ways he never imagined, and they develop a marital détente.  It is at this point in their already strained relationship that Troy begins to find the words to describe his loneliness and fears of inadequacy, and finally comes to terms with the error of his ways. Troy’s tragedy is lack of compassion, the inability to see outside of himself, and jealousy of his own son’s success.  The result is that it eats him alive and, as we all know, a wooden fence can’t keep out death or the devil.

Highly recommended for a superb cast and Timothy Douglas’ splendid direction.

Additional cast members: KenYatta Rogers as Lyons Maxson, Jefferson A. Russell as Gabriel Maxson, Justin Weaks as Cory Maxson and Janiyah Lucas/Mecca Rogers as Raynell Maxson.

Scenic Design by Lauren Helpern, Costume Design by Helen Huang, Lighting Design by Andrew R. Cissna, Hair and Makeup by Danna Rosedahl, and Sound Design by Nick Hernandez.

Through October 27th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets call 888.616.0270 or visit www.Fords.org.

 

Jitney ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 22, 2019 

As the play opens, Turnbo pulls out a set of checkers from a purple felt Crown Royal whiskey sack and the mood is set.  It’s a 1977 snapshot of Pittsburgh’s Hill district in the office of a rundown gypsy cab station.  August Wilson’s period play focuses on eight African American jitney drivers of varying ages, and one young woman, Rena, girlfriend to Youngblood.  The scene tracks like the world of painter Thomas Hart Benton’s African American subjects, thanks in large part to the atmospheric set design by David Gallo.

(R to L) Amari Cheatom (Youngblood) and Nija Okoro (Rena) in Jitney. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Wilson hails from Pittsburgh and his life, and the unregulated jitney services his community used, was the basis for this play.  It is the first of ten plays in his American Century Cycle.  This gem of a play gifts us with an unfiltered view of the harsh, often times funny, life in a part of the black community when the Civil Rights movement was strengthening while, at the same time, black neighborhoods were being torn down and gentrified.  Program notes reveal that the Ellis Hotel, mentioned in the play, was a safe haven for African American travelers and that the actual Westbrook Station was the inspiration for Becker’s Station in Jitney.

(R to L) Steven Anthony Jones (Becker) and Amari Cheatom (Youngblood). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Turnbo, a big gossip, has his nose up in everybody’s business, “I just talk what I know,” he claims, but it doesn’t sit right with the other men and he soon becomes a pariah when he stiffs Youngblood over a cup of coffee he’s sent him out for.  Youngblood, trying to overcome his Vietnam War experiences, still has anger issues and the men fight when Turnbo accuses him of running around with Rena’s sister.  Sheely is a colorfully clad, pimp daddy numbers runner who uses the business as his office and Fielding is another driver whose affinity for the bottle is destroying his life.

(R to L) Steven Anthony Jones (Becker) and Francois Battiste (Booster). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Becker, a straight up guy and owner of the jitney service, learns his son Booster is getting out of prison after a twenty-year sentence for murder.  Tension explodes when the son confronts his father, each feeling the other is a disappointment and the cause of the untimely death of Booster’s mother.  And then there’s, Doub, a Korean war veteran who bonds with the other men in swapping war stories and serves as a counterbalance to the hostilities.

(R to L) Harvy Blanks (Shealy) and Amari Cheatom (Youngblood). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Called the “Shakespeare of American playwrights”, Wilson’s wry drama is a particularly optimum choice for the opening of Arena’s season-long Festival celebrating the playwright’s work.  Jitney is directed by the brilliant Ruben Santiago-Hudson who won the 2017 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Play” for his Broadway production of the play.

(R to L) Amari Cheatom (Youngblood), Harvy Blanks (Shealy) and Brian D. Coats (Philmore). Photo by Joan Marcus.

It’s a gem of a opener with a phenomenal cast.  Highly recommended.

Francois Battiste (Broadway’s Bronx Bomber, Prelude to a Kiss) as Booster; Harvey Blanks (Broadway’s Jitney) as Shealy; Amari Cheatom (Django Unchained, Roman J. Israel, Esq.) as Youngblood; Anthony Chisholm (Broadway’s Jitney); Brian D. Coats (Broadway’s Jitney) as Philmore; Steven Anthony Jones (longtime veteran of August Wilson’s plays) as Becker; Nija Okoro as Rena; Keith Randolph Smith (Broadway’s Jitney, King Hedley II) as Doub; and Ray Anthony Thomas (Broadway’s Jitney, The Crucible). 

Scenic Designer David Gallo; Costume Designer Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Designer Jane Cox; Original Music composed by Bill Sims, Jr.

Through October 20th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Cats ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
September 21, 2019 

Cats!  Lots of cats!  Twenty-six, in fact.  Most especially Jellicle cats – the ones T. S. Elliot told of in “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”.  Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic blockbuster is in town for a short run, and this is the musical to see.  Full stop.

As the music’s eerily and compelling orchestration plays the intro, and just as you’re adjusting your eyes to pitch darkness, the cats slink down the aisles, their tails twitching and laser-eyes blinking, leaping and posing and creating the electrifying moments you won’t soon forget.  A silvery moon hangs high over a darkened alley as the cats prepare for the annual Jellicle Ball – a magical occasion whereby one cat is chosen to be reborn.  Keeping up with so many cats takes a bit of doing since they have three names: fanciful names, sensible names and naturally, as befits a cat of stature, an elegant name.  As explained in “The Naming of Cats”, “the cat himself knows his name, but will never confess.”

The North American Tour Company of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The sheer athleticism of the show is jaw-dropping – leaps, backover flips, cartwheels, tap dancing!!!, jazzy bits and ballet bits – all frenetically energetic and fiercely feline.  Some of the most spectacular choreography ever includes thigh-to-ear kicks that would make the Rockettes jealous.  I had to wonder how these actors/dancers/singers do it all, and all at the same time, in costume, with cat faces and long tails.

Brandon Michael Nase as ‘Old Deuteronomy’ and the North American Tour Company of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Old Deuteronomy appears in a massive fur suit, and the roly-poly tuxedo cat, Bustopher Jones, sports a fur suit of black tie when he’s out cattin’ around.  Well, of course, he’s from the posh side of St. James.

McGee Maddox as ‘Rum Tum Tugger’ and the North American Tour Company of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

McCavity, “The Mystery Cat” is a ginger cat and a monster of depravity, only outdone by the fabulous Rum Tum Tugger, played in spectacular fashion by 10-foot tall, legs-for-days (ah, well, it seems like it) McGee Maddox.  You are sure to pick your favorites, based on the particular quirks and quibbles of cats you have known.  But everyone will agree on the appeal of Grizabella, the tattered old tabby who is on her last paws.  Played by the amazing Keri René Fuller, whose sublimely soaring rendering of “Memory” will send goosebumps up your spine, it is transcendent.

Keri René Fuller as Grizabella in the North American Tour of CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Orchestrations by Andrew Lloyd Webber & David Cullen with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the Cats Orchestra.  With original scenic and costume design by John Napier (Les Misérables), all-new lighting design by Natasha Katz (Aladdin), all-new sound design by Mick Potter, new choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (Hamilton) based on the original choreography by Gillian Lynne (The Phantom of the Opera), and direction by Trevor Nunn (Les Misérables), make this production of Cats the perfect show for a new generation.

With Phillip Deceus as Alonso, Emma Hearn as Bombalurina, Mariah Reives as Cassandra, Maurice Dawkins as Coricopat, Alexa Racioppi as Demeter, Kaitlyn Davidson as Jellylorum, Emily Jeanne Phillips as Jennyanydots, PJ DiGaetano as Mistoffelees, Tony d’Alelio as Mungojerrie, Dan Hoy as Munkustrap, Timothy Gulan as Peter/Bustopher Jones/Asparagus, Tyler John Logan as Plato/Macavity, Brett Michael Lockley as Pouncival, Rose Iannaccone as Rumpelteazer, Ahren Victory as Sillabub, Ethan Saviet as Skimbleshanks, Laura Katherine Kaufman as Tantomile, Devin Neilson as Tumblebrutus, Brandon Michael Nase as Victor/Deuteronomy, Caitlin Bond as Victoria, and Maria Failla, Adam Richardson, Zachary Tallman and Tricia Tanguy as The Cats Chorus.

Highly recommended.  It’s the cat’s meow and more!

Through October 6th at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Doubt: A Parable ~ Studio Theatre

Jordan Wright
September 12, 2019 

Doubt may be a parable, but it’s also a conundrum.  Playwright, John Patrick Shanley, does his best to keep us guessing if an unspeakable act was committed against a 14-year old student of St. Nicholas parochial school by a priest, or if it simply never happened.  Set in 1964 in the Bronx, New York, this moral drama leaves us in the dark as to who is the truth-teller, and who is stirring up trouble as a result of a vivid imagination.  Sister Aloysius Beauvier is the hard-hearted administrator and iron-fisted overlord at the middle school.  Plotting to accuse the priest, the aged nun tries to convince Sister James, a naïve novitiate that he is guilty.  This takes some doing since Sister James caring approach towards her students is antithetical to Sister Aloysius’s suspicious mind.

Sarah Marshall and Amelia Pedlow in Doubt: A Parable. Photo: Teresa Wood

Suspecting Father Flynn has committed a sexual crime involving the school’s first and only  African American student whom he has been mentoring, she cajoles Sister James into becoming her ally, convincing her that he is guilty of using his time with the boy to take advantage of him.

Shanley knows of what he writes as the setting and his experiences in a Catholic School inform his play.  He refers to it as “… a pathway to his real subject: America’s collective resistance to uncertainty.”  That manifestation of society’s doubt about certainty is evidenced in the play’s complex theme.  Shades of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals color the plot, and even the viewer struggles to detect truth from fiction – subterfuge from innocence.

Christian Conn and Sarah Marshall in Doubt: A Parable. Photo: Teresa Wood

The 1960’s was a difficult time for the Catholic Church.  While nuns and priests were leaving in droves, the Church aimed to right itself by declaring a kinder, more liberal approach to both its teachings and its services.  Yet, in this seesaw of emotions and intense pressure to change, Shanley aims to throw us back on our heels with the accusations hurled against Father Flynn, keeping us in the dark as to who is being truthful and who might be bent on the destruction of three lives – the boy, Flynn and Sister James.  “The most innocent acts can seem sinister to a poisoned mind,” Father Flynn warns Sister Aloysius.

Scenes toggle between Father Flynn’s sermons to the congregants, mirroring in metaphors his ongoing crisis with Sister Aloysius, and provocative confrontations in her office where she eventually interviews the boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller, played memorably by Tiffany M. Thompson.  Of particular note is Flynn’s sermon on the parable of feathers whose wind-borne dispersal is likened to the dangerous spreading of vicious gossip.

Sarah Marshall and Tiffany M. Thompson in Doubt: A Parable. Photo: Teresa Wood.

As an audience we hope that Flynn’s kindness and Sister James’ support win out.  Yet, Shanley forces us to wonder if the old curmudgeon could be onto something.  Don’t expect to come away with an easy or satisfying resolution.  The surprise ending will have you reevaluating everything you thought you knew about the truth.

Sarah Marshall and Christian Conn in Doubt: A Parable. Photo: Teresa Wood.

Starring Sarah Marshall as Sister Aloysius Beauvier, Christian Conn as Father Brendan Flynn and Amelia Pedlow as Sister James.

Directed by Matt Torney with Set Design by Daniel Conway, Costume Design by Wade Laboissonniere, Lighting Design by Dawn Chiang, and Sound Design by Victoria Deiorio.

Through October 6th at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, Washington, DC 20005.  For tickets and information visit www.StudioTheatre.org or call 202.232.3300.