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American Film Institute 2020 Documentary Film Festival

Jordan Wright
June 11, 2020 

It couldn’t come at a better time.  Amidst a global pandemic, months without live theatre and without the documentaries we usually must wait to see at art house movie theatres, the AFI DOCS 2020 Festival will go virtual.  Launching June 17th and continuing through the 21st all screenings of the American Film Institute’s Festival will be available to view at www.DOCS.AFI.com.  This is your chance to see these powerful issue-based films, reflecting the global human experience through thought-provoking, non-fiction documentaries and shorts that reflect our shared humanity.

THE DILEMMA OF DESIRE is a powerful reminder that true equality will come only when we all arrive at a place of understanding and acknowledgement that women are sexual beings, entitled to live their lives fully within the expression of their desire. Cinematographers Hillary Bachelder, Bing Liu, Adam Singer, Keith Walker

This year’s festival showcases COVID-19 challenges, criminal justice reform, the George Floyd killing, gender parity, women’s rights, Roy Cohn (Donald Trump’s former attorney), sexual and domestic violence, wildlife protections, the Stacey Abrams campaign, shared community through music, ecological disasters, legal challenges, and more.

Women in the Vote – Directors: Grace Lee, Marjan Safinia – Director of Photography: Asad Faruqi

With an august Advisory Board of Ken Burns, Davis Guggenheim, Chris Hegedus, Werner Herzog, Barbara Kopple, Spike Lee, Errol Morris, Stanley Nelson and Frederick Wiseman, AFI’s 18th year promises to be a blockbuster experience.  The lineup features 59 films from 11 countries and 11 virtual World Premieres.  Women and minority creatives are well represented with 61% of the films directed by women, 25% by POC directors and 14% by LGBTQ directors.  The films will be divided into sections:  Special Presentations, Feature Films, Cinema’s Legacy, Episodic and Short Film sections.

AT&T UNLADYLIKE – Zitkála-Šá, aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, (1876–1938), American Indian Composer, Author & Civil Rights Activist – Photo credit Jovita Idar_Signature Portrait – Artwork by Amelie Chabannes

Sponsored by AT&T, the Festival features The Washington Post and Meet the Press returning as Primary Media Partners.  Representatives from other major news media outlets – NPR, NOVA, PBS, MSNBC and others – will participate in moderated panel discussions to further the conversation.  The importance of convening these filmmakers and thought leaders cannot be overstated in a time of extreme partisanship.  Shedding light on global issues through these documentaries can raise consciousness and spark much-needed change.

“AFI is committed to the documentary art form in the best of times and in the most challenging times, “said Michael Lumpkin, Director of AFI Festivals.  “Now more than ever, we are dedicated to supporting extraordinary films because the world needs stories that educate, inspire hope and remind us of humanity’s strength.  AFI DOCS is here to help.”

As with all documentaries that reveal our strengths and foibles, there will be heart-warming drama and heart-breaking truths that speak to the issues we face today.  Powerful stories of countries and citizens living in fear and oppression, and of people rising up to confront the challenges of prejudice, speak to our shared humanity and our deepest emotions.

Women in Blue -Sgt. Alice White of the Minneapolis Police Department inside squad car. Credit: Erica Ticknor.

Audience Awards will be given to a feature film and a short film based on votes cast by attendees throughout the festival.  This year AFI DOCS is proud to announce the Shorts Grand Prize is a qualifying award for Academy Award eligibility.

Passes are now available to AFI members and the general public at DOCSAFI.com/passes.  To access the full slate of films visit afi.com/afi-announces-full-lineup-for-2020-afi-docs-virtual-festival-june-17-21 and check out AFI DOCS on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.

Suddenly Last Summer ~ Avant Bard Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 4, 2020 

There’s something rather quaint about Tennessee Williams now.  His sultry Southern romances no longer seem shocking, though the stories are like listening to a fine storyteller spinning a yarn on the veranda of an old house on a steamy summer night.  They’re always captivating and, though we know it will not turn out well for the characters, we wait breathlessly to hear how they navigated turgid waters.

Erik Harrison as George Holly and Megan Morgan as Mrs. Holly in Avant Bard’s ‘Suddenly Last Summer.’ Photo by DJ Corey.

Set in New Orleans in 1935, Suddenly Last Summer reflects a time when electroshock therapy and lobotomies were still in style, when women got the vapors and took laudanum or cocaine and could be committed to an asylum by their husbands for postpartum depression.  Were they crazy or just “handled” in order to be disposed of?

In this story the beautiful and captivating Catherine Holly is holding up the dispersal of a large family inheritance with the telling of a shocking tale about how Mrs. Violet Venable’s son died in a rural Mexican beach town.  The problem is no one wants to hear it.  They hold a high position in society and, if the family doesn’t squelch her story, their reputations will be forever tarnished.  Nowadays there’s not so much attention paid to a few black sheep in a family.  But in that time, and in that place, one’s entire social standing in a community rested on their good name.

Sara Barker as Catherine Holly. Photo by DJ Corey.

Violet fancies her son, Sebastian, an aesthete – a poet and gardening enthusiast with little time for carnal pleasures.  They travel the world together and she becomes accustomed to the attention he garners for his looks and charm.  When Catherine replaces the sickly woman on his stylish adventures, Violet becomes enraged.  Catherine reveals to the others, the Sebastian’s dark side that Violet knew about, and even indulged, but was not willing to acknowledge.  Tragically, Catherine’s future as a free woman is at stake if she reveals the truth of the horrific way he died.  Jealousy and greed drive William’s extraordinary characters and remind us of how brilliant a playwright he was.

Under the fine direction of Christopher Henley, the play crackles with a terrific cast, most especially Cam Magee and Sara Barker who we loved in Avant Bard’s production of Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight.

The play is preceded by a little-known, twenty-minute, two-person production also written by Tennessee Williams and called Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen. 

With Cam Magee as Mrs. Violet Venable; Matt Sparacino as Doctor Cukrowicz; Miss Kitty as Miss Foxhill; Erik Harrison as George Holly; Megan Morgan as Mrs. Holly; Sara Barker as Catherine Holly; and Christine Hirrel as Sister Felicity.

Scenic Design by David Ghatan; Lighting Design by Ian Claar; Costume Design by Anna Marquardt; and Sound Design by Clay Tuenis.

Through April 5th at Avant Bard Theatre, Gunston Hall Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information visit www.AvantBard.org/tickets or call the box office at 703.418.4808.

Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 1, 2020 

SOLD OUT!, read the sign outside the theatre on press night.  That I’m writing this with no chance of you securing tickets might seem fruitless, but just in case someone, anyone, cares to read this review, which is entirely needless, I will forge on.  After all, it is Signature’s 30th anniversary season and that’s something that bears notice.

John Leslie Wolfe (Richard), Shanara Gabrielle (Lee), Susan Rome (Marian), John Austin (Bobby), and Jordan Slattery (Kitty). Photo by Christopher Mueller

As a widely recognized actor on the DC theatre scene, Dani Stoller has been around the theatre long enough to know how it’s done.  However, checking the playbill’s bios, it appears this is her first produced play.  Thankfully, she’s chosen a top-notch local director in Stevie Zimmerman who brings to life a quirky comedy that comes off like a racy TV sit-com.  It’s a little bit new agey, a little bit throwback, with Lee, a young married woman who’s a sex addict; her father Richard and mother Marian (who practices sacred female wisdom) both determined to support her no matter how reckless her behavior; niece Kitty finding her way while unmarried and pregnant; and Bobby a family friend who becomes involved with two of the women.

Susan Rome (Marian) and John Leslie Wolfe (Richard). Photo by Christopher Mueller.

The title alone is suggestive enough to lure theatregoers titillated by the idea of loose women cavorting around onstage, but they won’t find that.  The play is alluring in other ways as it deals with a family teetering on the edge of a total breakdown.  But it’s the determination to heal each other and the terrific comic lines that are the glue holding this piece together.  As Lee’s mother tells her, “Having a child is like your heart walking around outside your body.”

John Austin (Bobby) and Jordan Slattery (Kitty). Photo by Christopher Mueller

A fine ensemble, led impressively by Susan Rome, brings it all home.

With Susan Rome as Marian; John Austin as Bobby; Shanara Gabrielle as Lee; John Leslie Wolfe as Richard; and Jordan Slattery as Kitty.

Directed by Stevie Zimmerman; Scenic Design by Meghan Raham; Lighting Design by Andrew Cissna; Costume Design by Debra Kim Sivigny; Intimacy Coordinator Casey Kaleba.

Through March 29th 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.

Shanara Gabrielle (Lee) and Susan Rome (Marian). Photo by Christopher Mueller

Bandstand ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 2, 2020 

The Tony Award-winning Bandstand opens with the sounds of war and of soldiers in the heat of battle.  It isn’t the first of many flashbacks for Donny Novitski, a down-on-his-luck vet whose best friend, Michael, was killed by a grenade when they came under attack.  Donny promises to find Michael’s widow Julia and share stories of the men’s friendship.

Bandstand First National Tour – Photo by Jeremy Daniel

As a teen, Donny had been a singer and pianist.  Upon returning from battle, he goes looking for a gig but is turned down for being too old or too out of touch with the current music scene.  The story really begins to blossom when Donny learns of a nationwide Big Band contest, decides to start his own band, and convinces Julia to front the group.  Their struggles and Donny and Julia’s romance form the basis of this poignant story of the aftermath of World War II.

Shaunice Alexander in the Bandstand First National Tour – Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Donny’s band members experience PTSD, problems with drugs and alcohol, grief, and anger management issues.  How they conquer their disabilities and the ghosts of war to triumph against all odds, provides us with a story that is heartwarming, honest and hopeful.

This musical has all the song and dance elements of a big Broadway show.  Andy Blankenbuehler who choreographed Hamilton, keeps eleven dancers jitterbugging and swing dancing throughout.  And Donny’s band of sax, horn, drums, piano, bass, plus a five-piece orchestra create the Big Band sound of the 1940’s and bobby-soxer tunes of the early 50’s.  Tender ballads accompany some of the best-known songs from the show – “You Know Who Tells Me”, “Donny Novitski”, Julia’s mother June’s song, “Everything Happens”, “Welcome Home” and Julia and Donny’s snappy love song, “This Is Life”.  Twenty numbers keep the joint jumpin’ and the band cookin’.

Bandstand First National Tour – Photo by Jeremy Daniel

As the first stop in the show’s first National Tour, the cast of Bandstand has been focusing on presenting its story to all members of the armed forces and their families, which is quite nearly all of us.  To that end, the audience contained many invited vets including TAPS and Gold Star families.

Bandstand First National Tour – Photo by Jeremy Daniel

A song and dance bonanza!

Starring Zack Zaromatidis as Donny Novitski; Jennifer Elizabeth Smith as Julia Trojan; Roxy York as Mrs. June Adams; Rob Clove as Jimmy Campbell; Benjamin Powell as Davy Zlatic; Scott Bell as Nick Radel; Louis Jannuzzi III as Wayne Wright; Jonmichael Tarleton as Johnny Simpson; Shaunice Alexander as Jean Ann Ryan; Matthew Mucha as Andre; Taylor Okey as Oliver.

Music by Richard Oberacker; Book and Lyrics by Rob Taylor and Richard Oberacker; Original Direction by Andy Blankenbuehler; Tour Director Gina Rattan; Conducted by Miles Plant; Scenic Design by David Korins; Costume Design by Paloma Young; Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter; Original Broadway Sound Design by Nevin Steinberg.

Through Sunday, March 8th at The National Theatre 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNational.com or call 1-800-514-3849.

Bandstand First National Tour – Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Timon of Athens ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
February 26, 2020 

You’d think by now Shakespeare’s plays would have taught society a few basic life lessons.  Be nice, don’t let your ego get the better of you, love madly, and don’t trust a drunk.  Take Timon of Athens – a wealthy aristocrat whose “friends” (and I use that word loosely) trade shallow compliments for lavish gifts and sumptuous dinners.  He who has the gold, rules and all that rot.  Amirite?  In this rarely produced play written with Thomas Middleton we can see that present-day sycophants have a lot in common with Jacobean sycophants.  What sets them apart is Timon’s plan to exact revenge on her coterie of parasitic predators.

Kathryn Hunter as Timon of Athens. Photo by Henry Grossman.

In Artistic Director Simon Godwin’s directorial debut at STC, we can see just how exciting and radical his approach will be.  His unusual choice of a female actor for the role of Timon and his mind-bending choices for the 2020-2021 season, bode well for STC audiences.  Kathryn Hunter (Timon) has made her reputation predominantly in England and so has Godwin as Associate Director of the National Theatre of London, the Royal Court Theatre and Bristol Old Vic.  It was at the Royal Court Theatre that he directed Hunter in Timon, and it seems they have come full circle for this American production.

Shirine Babb as Lucia and John Rothman as Flavius. Photo by Henry Grossman.

Hunter’s physically demanding performance is nothing less than extraordinary.  A tiny, wiry slip of a woman, she nonetheless displays all the power and ferocity of Dwayne ‘The Rock” Johnson when she takes to the woods to live hermit-like eschewing all social contacts and earthly comforts.  Discovering a treasure chest filled with gold, she devises a plan to outwit her greedy group of false friends.  You can’t help but be utterly gobsmacked by Hunter’s dramatic transformation from glamorous benefactor swathed in gold and jewels to monastic recluse clad in rags.

Dave Quay as Lucullus. Daniel Pearce as Sempronius, and Helen Cespedes as Flaminia. Photo by Henry Grossman.

Treating the play as a modern-day social construct, Godwin reinvents Timon’s steward, Alcibiades, imbuing him with empathy for Timon’s plight and using his sway to unmask and shame Timon’s friends for the phonies they are.  Another clever devise is using Apemantus as Timon’s reality check and positioning him around the theatre as a disembodied voice of wisdom and truth.  It’s a delicious stew of glamour and glitz, grit and gore, with indelible characters you will love to both hate and adore.  Congratulations to Godwin on his American directorial debut!

Zachary Fine, Yonatan Gebeyehu, and Julie Olgivies. Photo by Henry Grossman.

And high praise for Soutra Gilmour who designed both the costumes and the sets and Kristen Misthopoulos whose haunting voice on ancient Greek ballads lends a sense of place to the drama.

The Cast of Timon of Athens. Photo by Henry Grossman.

Highly recommended.

Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Christopher Shutt; Composer Michael Bruce; Choreographer Jonathan Goddard; Fight Director Lisa Kopitsky; Dramaturgy Jonathan Kalb and Drew Lichtenberg; Associate Director Allison Benko.

With Arnie Burton as Apemantus; Shirine Babb as Lucia; Helen Cespedes as Flaminia; Liam Craig as Demetrius; Zachary Fine as The Painter; Yonatan Gebeyehu as Poet; Adam Langdon as Lucilius; Elia Monte-Brown as Alcibiades; Julia Ogilvie as Jeweller; Daniel Pearce as Sempronius; Dave Quay as Lucullus; and John Rothman as Flavius.

Through March 22nd at the Michael R. Klein Theatre (formerly known as the Lansburgh Theatre) at 450 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20007.  For tickets and information visit  www.ShakespeareTheatre.org/events or call the box office at 202.547.1122.

The Cast of Timon of Athens. Photo by Henry Grossman.