Snow Child ~ Arena Stage Produced with Perseverance Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 27, 2018 

Out of the darkness of a frigid Alaskan winter, comes a sweet story of an enchanted, forest-dwelling wild child and her effect on a childless couple making their way in the forbidding landscape.  Molly Smith directs this premiere – the last of the season’s ‘Power Plays’ series at Arena Stage.  Smith’s connection to Alaska runs as deep as the snow drifts.  She began her theatre career opening Perseverance Theatre in Juneau in 1979 and was Founding Artistic Director there before coming to Arena twenty years ago.  To put it mildly, this is personal.

As Arena’s Artistic Director her influence is felt in all of her theatrical choices.  Smith’s commitment to this particular project is reflected in the length of time it took for it to go from page to stage – four years from the time the decision was made for John Strand to write the book based on Eowyn Ivey’s children’s story based on a Russian fairy tale.

L to R) Alex Alferov (Garrett) and Christiane Noll (Mabel) in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Set in pre-statehood Alaska of the 1920’s, a young suburban couple, Jack (Matt Bogart) and Mabel (Christiane Noll), makes the brave (reckless?) decision to homestead a 167-acre parcel in a wilderness where their nearest neighbors are an hour’s trek away.  The prerequisites to ownership are to farm the land for at least five years.  They seem determined.  But can they survive the brutal winters and the loss of their child so unbearable it will break them apart?

(L to R) Matt Bogart (Jack), Fina Strazza (Faina) and Dorothy James (Ensemble/Fox) in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova.

In a brilliant feat of casting Fina Strazza plays the illusive snow child, Faina.  Strazza is utterly captivating as are the puppets – a giant Dapple Grey horse, a Tundra swan and Faina’s ‘familiar’, a curious white fox – designed by Emily Decola.  They are the perfect foil for the couple’s rough-hewn neighbors, George (Dan Manning) who makes moonshine, his wife Esther (Natalie Toro) and their son, Garrett (Alex Alferov) who vacillate between being good neighbors (who doesn’t like moose meat stew?) and imagining they will take over the homestead when Jack and Mabel quit trying.

(L to R) Dan Manning (George), Alex Alferov (Garrett), Natalie Toro (Esther), Christiane Noll (Mabel) and Matt Bogart (Jack) in Snow Child. Photo by Maria Baranova

Bob Banghart and Georgia Stitt composed 24 numbers for this heartfelt musical ranging from tender, melancholy ballads to upbeat songs (porch clogging, anyone?) – all to the tune of bluegrass accompaniment.  Expect to enjoy a score filled with mandolin, fiddle, banjo, piano, spoons and guitar led by conductor/percussionist/keyboardist William YaneshShawn Duan creates the spectacular stage-wide projections evoking the aurora borealis as well as the alpenglow against Alaskan mountain vistas. Cue the snow! Lots of it.

Pack your bags.  We’re going to Alaska!  Highly recommended.

With lighting by Kimberly Purtell, sound by Roc Lee, set designs by Todd Rosenthal, costumes by Joseph P. Salasovich, and musical supervision and orchestrations by Lynne Shankel.

Through May 20th 2018 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488.3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Two Trains Running ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 6, 2018 

Victor Vazquez and Kaitlin McIntyre have assembled a cast so perfect that the actors wear their roles like a second skin.  Spend two hours in Memphis Lee’s diner with Wolf, a hustler and numbers runner (Reginald André Jackson); Risa, an emotionally bereft waitress (Nicole Lewis); Holloway, a philosophical realist (David Emerson Toney in a scene stealing performance); West, an opportunistic undertaker (William Hall, Jr.); Hambone, a man denied his fair compensation (another exceptional performance from local actor Frank Riley III); and Sterling, an optimistic, lovesick ex-con (the very impressive Carlton Byrd), and you will come to know them well.

(L to R) David Emerson Toney (Holloway), William Hall, Jr. (West) and Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright August Wilson’s Two Trains Running affords a fly-on-the-wall view of a period and place in African American history, when the trains were moving but not everyone could board.

It was a time of frustration and economic disparity when arguments might be settled at the muzzle end of a gun.  But lest you imagine the story is moralistic or depressing, it’s far from it.  It’s actually hilarious with most of the setups provided by Holloway who also has one of the play’s most prophetic lines, “You got love and you got death.  Death will find you.  It’s up to you to find love.”  So is there room for love here?  There is.  Sterling works his charm on Risa and the group shows concern and affection for Hambone.

(L to R) Nicole Lewis (Risa), Carlton Byrd (Sterling) and Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

For this superb production, Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith has partnered with Seattle Repertory Theatre and its Artistic Director Braden Abraham, bringing in Director Juliette Carrillo who marshals the ensemble into giving some of the finest and most synchronistic performances we’ve seen in a long time.

(L to R) Frank Riley III (Hambone) and Carlton Byrd (Sterling) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Eugene Lee, a veteran actor most recently at Arena in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, breathes fire and ice into the role of Memphis, a man toggling between hope and despair.  Lee gives an outstanding multi-dimensional and nuanced portrait of the brash dreamer seeking redemption.  In fact, the theme that most resonates throughout, is redemption – even if the path steers believers to the home of a 322-year-old psychic Aunt Esther (unseen) or a local charlatan who goes by the name of the Prophet Samuel (also unseen).

Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Here religion and the occult are given their due in equal measure.  It takes a limitless leap of faith to see through the fog of disappointment and despair, but they are clearly up to the challenge.

Set Designer, Misha Kachman, has scored August Wilson’s personal 1955 Rock-Ola jukebox to complete the chrome-and-naugahyde luncheonette look to go with Costume Designer Ivania Stack’s outfitting of the cast in 50’s clothing, most notably Holloway’s array of street-slick polyester shirts.

With Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani and Music/Sound by David R. Molina.

Superb and highly recommended.

Through April 29th 2018 in the Fichandler at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Hold These Truths ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
March 5, 2018 

If you thought the Declaration of Independence was etched in stone, think again.  Remember the part about “Hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”?  In Jeanne Sakata’s drama, We Hold These Truths offers up a civics lesson in how that document didn’t apply to the more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans forced into internment camps during World War II.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in Hold These Truths. ~ Photo by Patrick Weishampel for Portland Center Stage.

After long interviews with Presidential Medal of Freedom awardee and religious pacifist Gordon Hirabayashi, Sakata used her imagination to bring to life the dramatic story of his struggles against the U. S. Government.   From his Seattle childhood to his college days at the University of Washington in the 1940’s and into his later years, the play take us through his refusal to sign the document that would have sent him to one of the camps.  He fought for his rights in a case that went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court.  There is so much more to the story of the camps and the negligence and the secrecy of the government that most of us never knew.  Did you know Japanese-American citizens had to sign a letter agreeing to relocation?  Did you know their Issei parents and grandparents did too?  Why would they?  Did you know their homes and businesses were destroyed?  Did you think this couldn’t happen to American citizens?  Think again.  It did.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in Hold These Truths. ~ Photo by Chris Bennion for ACT-A Contemporary Theatre.

Gordon “Gordy” Hirabayashi, was an All-American college kid and Nisei (a person of Japanese descent born in the U. S.).  An A student who worked after school at the YMCA and attended a Quaker Meeting House on Sundays.  Gordy and his pals were as American as apple pie.  Until...they weren’t.

Directed by Jessica Kubzansky, Ryun Yu plays Gordy with power and humor, his lithe frame using all the real estate on and off the stage as he morphs into the many characters from the social activist’s fascinatingly fraught life.  Yu assumes the personalities and dialects of all the other characters, from Boston to Brooklyn and drawl to twang to the sing-song cadences of his Japanese parents.

A difficult subject, there is a great deal of humor and sweetness too as Gordy finds both freedom and true love through persistence and self-sacrifice while standing up for his rights and yours too.

Recommended for everyone you know.

Through April 8th 2018 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit online.

The Great Society ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
February 12, 2018 

(L to R) Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Susan Rome (Lady Bird Johnson) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In The Great Society, Robert Schenkkan’s 2016 sequel to his Tony Award-winning All the Way based on Lyndon Johnson’s early presidency and the Civil Rights movement, the playwright continues with the final years of LBJ’s administration between January 1965 till December 1968.  Those of us who lived through these turbulent times will remember how desperately divided the country was during the Vietnam War and the bloody struggle to achieve the Voting Rights Act for African Americans.  I couldn’t help but reflect on our current state – voting machines compromised, Russians interfering with our elections, gerrymandering and trumped-up demands for personal identity keeping legitimate voters from the polls.  The fight continues…

(L to R) Tom Wiggin (Robert McNamara and others) and Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

This second term portrays a president who fell under the deceitful influence of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and F. B. I. Director J. Edgar Hoover.  At the same time, Johnson was sacrificing American lives in the war, he was also pushing a raft of social programs including Medicaid, Medicare and the expansion of immigration.  He was a complicated man during difficult times.

(L to R) Deonna Bouye (Coretta Scott King and others) and Bowman Wright (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Icons in the Civil Rights movement feature prominently – Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses and others whose relationships with Johnson were often stymied by Johnson’s need to pacify his Southern base.  “There’s no issue of state’s rights.  It’s only human rights,” Johnson insists.

There are plenty of dramatic moments depicted here, including a brutal attack on African American marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in George Wallace’s Alabama and another that reflects the savage tactics against the nation’s anti-war protesters.

(L to R) Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) and Cameron Folmar (Governor George Wallace and others) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Directed by Kyle Donnelly, the play moves back and forth between the escalation of the Vietnam war and the accompanying anti-war protests to Johnson’s tireless efforts to achieve real social change while arm-twisting members of his own party.  A powerful and compelling drama, it reveals much of the rough-and-tumble backroom dealings that later came to light.  LBJ made it his business to exploit his adversaries and capitalize on their weaknesses, even if it took threats to achieve his ends.  Jack Willis offers up a formidable LBJ, strident, bullying, foul-mouthed and oftimes terrifying, yet an indelibly effective, larger-than-life politician armed with buckets of Southern colloquialisms.

(L to R) Lawrence Redmond (Vice President Hubert Humphrey) and Jack Willis (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Many of the original actors from All the Way return in this tour de force including Jack Willis as LBJ, Richmond Hoxie as J. Edgar Hoover, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy, Tom Wiggin as McNamara, Bowman Wright as Dr. King, Jaben Early as Stokely Carmichael, John Scherer as Bobby Kennedy, Stephen F. Schmidt as Senator Dirksen, Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson, and Cameron Folmar as Governor George Wallace.  Lawrence Redmond returns in a different role, this time as Hubert Humphrey. Set Designer Kate Edmunds adds rising flames to a rotating presidential seal to remind us of the riots in Watts.

Highly recommended.  Be sure to bring your teens.

Through March 11th, 2018 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit online.

Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson in The Great Society. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Sovereignty ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 30, 2018 

Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Artistic Director Molly Smith has always taken risks.  With the staging of Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play on the fraught history of the Cherokee Nation, she has gone where no other major theater has gone before.  Smith’s direction of Sovereignty adds to her series of innovative “Power Plays” and is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. 

Nagle, an activist lawyer and direct descendant of John Ridge and Major Ridge, plunges headlong into the genesis of Indian country’s deepest divide exploring both her ancestors, the Ridge family, as well as Chief John Ross who were instrumental in forming the early agreements that determined the future of the Cherokee nation.  But which bore the responsibility for allowing President Andrew Jackson to set in motion the Trail of Tears?  Who had the blood on their hands of the thousands who perished on that forced march to Oklahoma in the dead of winter?  Who capitulated to Jackson’s demands and why?  Nagle addresses these and other questions with eyes wide open and starts in a casino in modern-day Indian country.

(L to R) Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) and Jake Waid (John Ross/Jim Ross) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Sarah Polson (Kyla García) is a young Yale graduated attorney determined to reverse a 1978 Supreme Court decision that strips native communities of their right to prosecute non-Indians on their reservations, a decision that violates tribal sovereignty.  She is feisty and whip smart and along with another lawyer, Jim Ross, takes on the case.  Sarah is a Ridge descendant, but keeps her ancestral past well hidden from Jim.  Though their ancestors were well-intentioned tribal leaders, both the Ridges and the Rosses have been accused of poor decisions, greed in the case of the Rosses, and worse, capitulation.  To this day each family still blames the other for mistakes made.  It is up to Sarah and Jim to right the wrongs of the past.

(L to R) Jake Hart (Elias Boudinot/Watie), Michael Glenn (Samuel Worcester/Mitch) and Joseph Carlson (Andrew Jackson/Ben) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

At the casino in Oklahoma Sarah meets Ben, a non-Indian SVU cop and friend of Mitch (Michael Glenn who also plays Samuel Wooster), Sarah’s brother.  Ben intervenes in a bar fight when Watie, Sarah’s current boyfriend gets rough with Sarah and the two hit it off.

The action swings back and forth between the 1830s to modern day as it grapples with the past through the years of U. S. Government policies of expansionism, Cherokee removal, broken treaties, intermarriage, and the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA Section 904) to allow for the prosecution of whites committing crimes against women on Indian lands.  After being abused by her lover Ben, Sarah’s goal is to change that.

(L to R) Joseph Carlson (Andrew Jackson/Ben), Kalani Queypo (John Ridge) and Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

How Nagle manages to include as many instrumental players in this historical drama is more than clever.  Because the play toggles between 19th and 21st centuries, this fine cast plays multiple roles with ease and authenticity.  There is Flora, a Ridge cousin (Dorea Smith), Andrew Jackson and Ben (Joseph Carson in dual roles), John Ross and his son Jim both played by Jake Waid, Major Ridge and Roger Ridge Poison (both played by Andrew Roa), and Elias Boudinot (Jake Hart who also plays Watie).

(L to R) Andrew Roa (Major Ridge/Roger Ridge) and Kyla García (Sarah Polson) in Sovereignty. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

To enhance the authenticity and period details, both Ken Macdonald’s set and Linda Cho’s costumes incorporate design elements of Cherokee culture. 

If you aren’t up on the history of the Cherokee people, I’d suggest Steve Inskeep’s brilliant book, Jacksonland: President Andrew Jackson Cherokee Chief John Ross and a Great American Land Grab.

Powerful, informative and important.

Through February 18th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit online.

For more info on the Women’s Voices Theater Festival visit online.