“Rent” at the Signature Theatre

The cast of RENT at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

David Merino (Angel Dumott Schunard) in RENT at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Ines Nassara (Joanne Jefferson) in RENT at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

November 10, 2021

By: Jordan Wright

A quick synopsis: Rent is a rock opera set in the East Village of New York City during the Christmas holidays. It premiered Off-Broadway in 1996 and is an homage to Puccini’s opera, La Bohème. it was Johnathan Larson’s game-changing contribution to musicals and opened the door for later rock-based musicals.

Signature’s first-of-the-season production Rent exploded on stage like a white-hot cannonball.  Having seen it more times than I should, I was not only stunned by its reinvention but thrilled beyond measure to witness a fresh approach imagined by Sig’s now permanent Artistic Director, Matthew Gardiner.  As the recipient of three Helen Hayes Awards for “Outstanding Director of a Musical”, Gardiner has shepherded many of Sig’s biggest hits including over a half dozen from their ongoing Sondheim series.  Another important announcement on opening night from Managing Director, Maggie Boland, we Sig fans should cheer, is Mark G. Meadows as permanent Musical Director. Both men collaborated on this production of Rent alongside Choreographer Rickey Tripp, better known for his Tony Award successes on Broadway like Hamilton, Motown: The Musical and the Tony Award Winning In the Heights (Original Cast). Tripp brings all that dazzling choreographic talent to this musical.

What makes this production so over the top is a gasp-worthy assemblage of Broadway-caliber singers and dancers. Tripp packs up to 16 performers on a stage that utilizes three separate aisles which take the actors up the aisles, plus two elevated balconies. This clever staging raises the excitement level full bore.

With voices to knock your socks off: Vincent Kempski as Roger; Katie Mariko Murray as performance artist and activist, Maureen; Josh A. Dawson as Tom Collins fresh off Beautiful: The Carol King Musical; Jake Loewenthal as Mark; Ines Nassara as the tough-talking Joanne; David Merino as the sassy transvestite Angel; Da’Von T. Moody as Ben, friend and sponsor of the bohemian coterie; and Arianna Rosario as the dying Mimi. I never thought of Rent as having a great deal of comic relief, but Murray seizes the audience in a laugh-lock in “Over the Moon”.  Let’s just say there’s a cowbell and cow-print skirt. Enough said.

Two out of six musicians sit beside the stage, and we can see one of the keyboardists, who also conducts, on one side of the stage and a guitarist/keyboardist opposite.  It’s an inventive construct that affords us the intimacy of a small concert venue, yet one with a powerful sound plus organized chaos.

This Rent holds you in its crazy embrace and does not let go. Get your tickets, stat!!!

Book, Music & Lyrics by Jonathan Larson; Choreographed by Rickey Tripp; Scenic Design by Paige Hathaway; Costumes by Erik Teague; Lighting Design by Adam Honoré.

Running time approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes including one intermission.

Through January 2nd at Signature Theatre (in Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets and information visit www.SigTheatre.org or call the box office at 703-820-9771. 

LTA’s quirky comedy ‘Ripcord’ provides a necessary respite

Janice Zucker, Matt Baughman, Kathy Ohlhaber and Marsha Rehns perform “Ripcord” at LTA June 11.

Janice Zucker, Matt Baughman, Kathy Ohlhaber and Marsha Rehns perform “Ripcord” at LTA June 11.

By: Jordan Wright

Special to the Alexandria Times

Originally published June 25, 2021

It’s nearly impossible to calculate the thrill of a live audience when you’ve been deprived of the joy of a shared experience by this interminable pandemic. Hearing live applause, chuckles and guffaws from your fellow theater-goers is a balm for the spirit. So, it’s not surprising that actors received hearty cheers after every scene change during the June 11 Little Theatre of Alexandria performance of “Ripcord.”

For Alexandria’s beloved LTA, the COVID-19 pandemic has been both a challenge and an opportunity, especially when many of us are Zoom-weary. I am pleased to report that the powers that be have come up with a clever solution, as I arrived to find my closest seat mates, a good 10 feet away on all sides, were cats. Cut-out color cardboard heads of cute cats graced the nearest seats.

Attendance has been kept to a minimum as theaters have tried mightily to mount productions in a safe environment. An announcement before the first act gently reminded the audience to keep their masks on – then we were off and running.

Director Jessie Roberts kept the mood light and breezy with a quirky comedy written by one of her favorite, though less well-known playwrights, David Lindsay-Abaire, who gifts us with well fleshed-out characters enveloped in wry humor. Abby (Janice Zucker) and Marilyn (Marsha Rehns), two social opposites, have been thrown together as roommates in a retirement home.

Abby is the snarky one: “I never get scared,” she insists – think Maude from the “Golden Girls.” Whereas Marilyn – think Betty White’s character Rose – is full of goodwill and joie de vivre.

Together they contrive a bet to take ownership of the bed nearest the window. Abby wins if she can get Marilyn angry and Marilyn wins if she can scare Abby. Highjinks ensue when the home’s attendant Scotty (Cameron McBride) tries to intervene and Marilyn’s son-in-law, Derek (Matt Baughman), and daughter, Colleen (Kathy Ohlhaber), get in on the action.

It was hard to choose my favorite scenes among ones that featured a zombie, a rabbit-headed thief, an evil clown and an assortment of other kooky characters who provide comic relief to all the underhanded plots the two women concoct in order to win the prized bed. But I’d have to say, though you can expect a happy ending to the delightful mayhem, it was the oft-fraught interaction between Abby and Marilyn that formed the crux of the play.

Rehns and Zucker are well-cast and do a splendid job of convincing us they are arch-enemies. Expect pathos and humor in their clever contrivances to secure the desired bed. And yes! There is a sky-diving episode (thus the play’s title) cleverly achieved through video projections. McBride, as the referee between the warring factions, is the thespian glue that allows the two to shine.

Adam Ressa performs as Abby’s son. “Ripcord” is produced by Lynn O’Connell and Alan Wray; sets by Jim Hutzler; costumes by Kit Sibley and Jean Schlicting; and sound design and very clever projection design by Jon Roberts.

Jordan Wright writes about food, spirits, travel, theatre and culture. Visit her website at www.WhiskandQuill.com or email her at Jordan@WhiskandQuill.com.

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