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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.

What the Constitution Means to Me ~ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
September 15, 2019 

I spoke with playwright and lead actor Heidi Schreck during her performance of What the Constitution Means to Me.  Though I did it silently, I wanted to jump out of my seat with fist raised and yell, “Right on, Sister!”  The audience seemed share the intensity of that emotion.  Schreck has tapped into a universal frustration with the American Constitution, its articles on immigration, slavery, legislating women’s bodies, the scourge of violence against women and, most especially, decisions made by the predominantly male members of the Supreme Court.

Heidi Schreck in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus

The play opens with Schreck as a teenager and prize-winning debater of the Constitution’s intricate clauses and articles.  She puts forth her cogent and well-researched arguments about how this document was written – in a different day and age and by men who refused to give women, blacks and Native Americans the right to vote.  She tells of the women in her family who bore their husbands many children and who, under the laws of the day, were not granted any form of protection against the ongoing domestic violence they suffered.  By acting out these scenarios, sometimes hilariously, sometimes with a dead eye, she gives the history of how these inequities were allowed to flourish to protect men from being held responsible.  It’s a valuable history lesson for both sexes.

Heidi Schreck and Mike Iveson in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus

Switching to her adult self, she chooses the word “penumbra” to put forth the argument that the constitution is stuck in a sort of limbo between darkness and light.  Citing Dred Scott v. Sanford, wherein African Americans could not become American citizens, she teases out the origins of these failed policies, and challenges the early notion of female “melancholia”, the diagnosis given to women with postpartum depression that saw them locked up in mental institutions by husbands who wanted to get rid of them.  This was before women had any legal protection whatsoever from their spouses, and, even so, it rarely takes into account the battered woman syndrome.

Using her own experience as a young woman facing an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Schreck demonstrates how Roe v. Wade changed women’s lives freeing them up to make independent choices without the burden of unwanted pregnancies, and she examines the church-fueled history and current battles against this Supreme Court decision, explaining that at the time of its ratification, its basis was to sterilize black and Indian women so that white women could have more white babies.

Schreck vacillates between forthrightness and sheer, unadulterated charm by explaining, “I was raised to be psychotically polite.”  Women can heartily relate to this and men cannot help but acknowledge its truth.

Rosdely Ciprian, Mike Iveson and Heidi Schreck in WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus

In defending her position, she offers up unassailable historical facts and cites important legal cases to bolster her debate to an audience who responds with resounding cheers.  It’s no wonder this show was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Informative, funny and highly relatable.  Highly recommended.

Schreck appears with the original Broadway cast of Mike Iveson as The Moderator; Ben Beckley understudy; and Rosdely Ciprian as the young debater whose poise as a fierce debater proves to be a worthy competitor to Schreck’s skills as comedian and constitution ally.

Directed by Oliver Butler with Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck; Costume Design by Michael Krass; Lighting Design by Jen Schiever; and Sound Design by Sinan Refik Zafar.

Through September 22nd at the 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.

1 Henry IV ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
September 10, 2019

With season opener 1 Henry IV, director Rosa Joshi makes her Folger Theatre directorial debut.  As expected it is a departure from the classic interpretation to an edgier contemporary dynamic.  As Joshi describes it, “I Henry IV is filled with intrigue, humor, action and suspense – messy people doing messy things under messy circumstances.”  And that suits the context, both in defining our current politics as well as society in general.

Falstaff (Edward Gero) holds court at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 3 – October 13, 2019. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

As an exercise in sub rosa dastardly doings, mad scenes of revelry, and the royals’ intractable determination to use the church as their backup plan, it’s rollicking good fun.  Scenes of drunken nights at the pub interspersed with first-class plotting and the clickety-clack of swordplay serve as backdrop as Prince Hal tries to get back into the good graces of his authoritarian papa, King Henry IV, and at the same time trying to keep the lid on Falstaff, a dyspeptic thief and party animal who turns tail at the thought of a fight, while puffing up his image to anyone who’ll lend an ear.  He’s the epitome of a self-dealing scoundrel with some of the best throw down lines ever written.

Poins (Jazmine Stewart) puts a scare into her partner-in-crime Falstaff (Edward Gero), as Prince Hal (Avery Whitted) looks to ease the tension. C. Stanley Photography

Ed Gero plays Falstaff, a far cry from his award-winning role as the conservative Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, in The Originalist and, perhaps, even farther from his role as King Henry half a decade ago in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Henry IV.  Here Gero takes on the role of the loveable scallywag and crusty rogue interested in women and ale more than any rule of law that might reduce his formidable swagger.

King Henry IV (Peter Crook, right) shows great displeasure with his son, Prince Hal (Avery Whitted) in Shakespeare’s coming-of-age-tale 1 Henry IV. On stage at Folger Theatre, September 3 – October 13, 2019. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

No matter.  Young Hal adores his cantankerous Falstaff.  “That huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloakbag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox,” Hal affectionately calls his surrogate father.  To prepare Hal for a visit with the king wherein Hal plans to reclaim his princely duties and pledge support in the king’s looming battle against the rebels, Falstaff pretends to be Hal’s father.  It’s here where Gero has the audience well in hand with his sendup of the king greeting his son.  Garbed in a red velvet pillow for a hat and swathed in a tablecloth for a robe, he is a marvelous and commanding comedic presence.

Mistress Quickly (Kate Eastwood Norris, right) sees to her patrons at the Boar’s Head Tavern (left to right: Todd Scofield as Bardolph, Sam Midwood as Peto, Edward Gero as Falstaff). C. Stanley Photography

Gero plunges expertly into the role of the hapless ne’er-do-well, as you might expect from this seasoned actor, yet it is Avery Whitted as Hal who brings balance, pace and a sharp sense of comedic timing to his character, and, more importantly, to the play itself.  I found myself drifting off into Shakespeare’s cadences, and the predictability of the script, until Whitted was in a scene.  Something about his buoyancy, craftsmanship, athleticism and ability to instantly anchor everyone around him, made him immensely entertaining to watch.

The cast of Folger Theatre’s 1 Henry IV (Peter Crook as King Henry IV at center). C. Stanley Photography

Also, notable and pleasurable to watch are three-time Helen Hayes Award winning actor Naomi Jackson as Worcester, Peter Crook as King Henry IV, and the delightful Kate Eastwood Norris in dual roles as Mistress Quickly and Vernon.

Scenic Design by Sara Ryung Clement; Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard; Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky; with Original Music and Sound Design by Palmer Heffernan.

Through October 13th at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or order online.  And be sure to follow the free new podcast, “Will & Our World” featuring talks on Shakespeare, his world, and talks with contemporary artists, authors and scholars of Shakespeare.

Broadway Dame ~ The Life & Times of Mrs. Henry B. Harris ~ by Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper

Jordan Wright
September 10, 2019

“A woman brings to the stage a woman’s point of view.  After all, it is what in the long run pleases a woman that makes a show a success.” — Renée Harris, 1920.

Broadway Dame by Randy Bigham and Gregg Jasper has been optioned for a film by Lara Slife

Last month in a piece for The New York Times, Michael Paulson wrote an interesting  piece on a group of current female Broadway producers.  In an industry where women are significantly underrepresented, these women are seeking gender parity.  Some of these now-famous female producers climbed the ranks as apprentices to male producers – others had their own personal fortunes.  Each had their challenges in a male-dominated industry.

But in a new book by Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper, all of these women had a powerful predecessor they may never have known of, Renée Harris, of Washington, DC who nearly a century before them came to be the first and most successful female producer Broadway had ever seen.  It is an eye-opener of a book and since its publication this summer, it has been optioned by award-winning producer/writer/director, Lara Slife of Livin’ Large Productions for an upcoming feature film, Broadway play, and television series based on Broadway Dame.

Henry B. “Harry” Harris and Renée Harris at their Hudson Theatre, 1910

With a keen eye for detail and a wealth of photos and personal letters from the late Mrs. Harris’ private collection, period theater posters, and celebrity glamour shots, the authors give us an indelible portrait of a woman who broke Broadway’s glass ceiling over a hundred years ago beginning in 1899 when she met Henry “Harry” Harris, a prominent producer who owned a New York-based theatrical agency with his father.  Through the agency young Harry was becoming a powerhouse, eventually managing such major stage stars as Ethel Barrymore, Mae West, and Lillie Langtry.

A Hudson Theatre program cover for George M. Cohan’s The Tavern (1921), managed by Renée.

After their marriage Harry started producing his own shows at the Hudson Theatre which he owned. Keeping Renée at his side whenever he was producing or directing a new show, she soon became an important influence and creative force in staging, costume design, and even finding and approving talent.  In time Harry came to own a large number of theaters on the Great White Way including Broadway’s Folies Bergère theater featuring an Irving Berlin-written song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and starring Ina Claire.

The Harris’ enjoyed a posh lifestyle with New York’s theatre royalty until a fateful voyage aboard the Titanic on April 15, 1912 when Harry drowned along with many other men who had sacrificed their lives to see their wives and children safely onboard lifeboats.

The lifeboat in which Renée escaped from the sinking of the Titanic.

Against all odds, a condemning Variety and a vitriolic Walter Winchell who didn’t cotton to a woman producer, Renée thrived, never forgetting the needs of the actors.  She debuted Barbara Stanwyck and Clare Boothe Luce and launched the career of playwright Moss Hart.  The iconic song-and-dance vaudevillian, George M. Cohan became a familiar draw at the Hudson Theatre.  Some of the biggest names in show business performed in her shows including Fanny Brice, Billie Burke, Alfred Lunt, Douglas Fairbanks, “Fats” Waller, and many more.  Yet amid all the socializing and producing, her humanitarian side cared deeply for the needs of the actors, standing on the frontlines as the only woman in the Producing Managers Association during the Actors’ Equity strike.

Renée Harris at a party in Palm Beach, 1925.

Thanks to the close friendship between Jasper and Renée later in her life, and the theater and historical knowledge and writing style of both he and Bigham, this dazzling photo-filled biography of Renée Harris is chockful of showbiz tales, Titanic memorabilia, and fascinating insider stories of Harris’ extraordinary rise from legal secretary to a 20-year career as the most successful female producer on Broadway.

Renée directing a play in 1936.

Inspiring and indelible – every theater lovers’ must-have biography.

Broadway Dame ~ The Life & Times of Mrs. Henry B. Harris (Hayes-Stokes Press Group 2019) by Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper.

Available on Lulu.com .

Fabulation Or, The Re-Education of Undine ~ Mosaic Theater Company

Jordan Wright
August 27, 2019 

Mosaic’s fifth season opens with two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s play Fabulation Or, The Re-Education of Undine.  Nottage draws from the notion of “Sankofa”, a West African concept that touches on a number of relatable themes – poverty, success, loss, love and hope.  Its central premise is revisiting the past to find what has been lost, in order to connect with the future.  Heady stuff that refutes the notion that you can never go home.

William Newman Jr and Felicia Curry – Photo credit Christopher Banks

Undine Barnes is arrogant and self-assured – a veritable bitch on wheels.  A queen boss who graduated Dartmouth and became a successful public relations entrepreneur.  In the process she ditched her hard-working, middle-class family living in the projects in Brooklyn (she tells everyone they died in a fire) and found her niche by marrying, Hervé, a suave Argentinian with oodles of unctuous cachet.  Unfortunately, the slick mountebank quickly obliterates her celebrity-centric business by running off with all her dough.

Felicia Curry and Carlos Saldaña – Photo credit Christopher Banks

At 37-years old and pregnant, Undine (née Shorona) must now find a way to start over.  Leaving her luxe Manhattan lifestyle, but not her bougie Vuitton handbag, she is forced to move back home.  Along the way ancient spirits parade the stage with drums and ancient calls and she meets a Harvard-educated, Yoruba priest, who works for cash and booze in exchange for advice.

Roz White, Felicia Curry, and Lauryn Simone – Photo credit Christopher Banks

They all weave in and out of Undine’s misadventures as she becomes reborn.  It is these ancient ceremonial interstices that ground the story and make it more profound than light comedy.  Because, though it would be classified as a comedy, it is more like Alice in Wonderland crossed with Cookie Lyon of Empire and anchored by ancient African mythology.

Aakhu TuahNera Freeman and Felicia Curry – Photo credit Christopher Banks

Nottage crafts unforgettable characters – a heroin-addicted granny, street-smart welfare mommas, a group therapy circle of ex-junkies, and a brother whose rap poetry centers on the “double-voiced” trickster figure of B’rer Rabbit from The Tales of Uncle Remus.  Thus, the “fabulation”.

Felicia Curry – Photo credit Christopher Banks

Famed actor Felicia Curry stars as Undine and she is positively incandescent.  It’s a tough role to go from angry black woman on top of the world to humbled and hopeful, educated woman navigating the mean streets.  But, once you see how seamlessly she handles that difficult transition, you can’t imagine any other woman in the lead.  Under the expert direction of Eric Ruffin, the cast not only thrives but carves out an ensemble that meshes beautifully.

Highly recommended.

With Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as Grandma/Doctor/Inmate, William Newman Jr. as Father/Yoruba Priest, Carlos Saldaña as Hervé/Guy, Lauryn Simone as Stephie/Counselor/Devora, Kevin E. Thorne II as Flow/Agent Duva, James Whelan as Accountant Richard and Roz White as Mother/Allison/Rosa.

Assistant Director Jared Smith, Set Design by Andrew Cohen, Lighting Design by John D. Alexander, Costume Design by Moyenda Kulemeka, and Sound Design by Cresent R. Haynes.

Through September 22nd at The Atlas Center for the Performing Arts – 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.  For tickets and information call 202 399-7993 ext. 2 or visit www.MosaicTheater.org.