Amadeus ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 13, 2019 

The Viennese court awaits to hear what the Emperor thinks of Mozart’s latest opera ~ Photography by C. Stanley Photography

Tony Cisek’s brilliant set design featuring the golden curvature of a stringed instrument’s f-hole with its strings running the height of the stage.  Festooned with crystal chandeliers, it serves as a dramatic frame for the pious Antonio Salieri’s opening lines, “Music is God’s Art.”  We sense we are within this giant instrument itself, bearing witness to the music world’s greatest scandal.  Set in Vienna during the Age of Enlightenment, the play focuses on the fierce rivalry between the tormented court composer Salieri and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the child prodigy.  Now confined to a wheelchair and clinging to life, Salieri confesses to murdering his colleague and rival, the eccentric musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.   But did he, as he claims he did, poison him?  Or did he drive Mozart into the depths of madness through the deprivation and degradation he foisted upon him?

Composer Salieri (Ian Merrill Peakes) plays a welcoming march for Mozart (Samuel Adams, center) upon his arrival at the Viennese court (Deidra LaWan Starnes, left, James Joseph O’Neil, and John Taylor Phillips, right) ~ Photography by C. Stanley Photography

When they first meet, Salieri and the upstart Mozart trade barbs.  The young composer attempts to curry the emperor’s favor while the older Salieri, wildly jealous of Mozart’s extraordinary talents, seeks to undermine him.  Though court composer to three Viennese emperors, Salieri’s talent was marginal compared to Mozart’s.  To keep Mozart at bay he saw to it he and his adoring wife were both financially and emotionally poverty-stricken.

Eventually his jealousy of Mozart’s talents destroys him and, along with that his belief God was the ruler of his fate.  In his soliloquies to God – some prideful, others with fist raised toward the heavens – he provides us with some of the most powerful moments of play.

The eccentric musical genius Mozart (Samuel Adams) shows off his opera for the Viennese court ~ Photography by C. Stanley Photography

Writer Sir Peter Shaffer (Equus, Lettuce and Lovage, The Royal Hunt of the Sun) imagines this modern ‘revenge comedy’ as a dramatic interpretation of the relationship between the two composers adding two venticelli, gossipmongers who tell everyone exactly what they want to hear, an assortment of colorful, back-stabbing court figures, a sexy soprano who curries favor with Mozart, and Mozart’s devoted child bride, Constanze, played pitch perfect by Lilli Hokama.

Sections of several of Mozart’s finest compositions, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and his Requiem in D Minor, are woven into the plot and serve as a heavenly musical backdrop.

Mozart (Samuel Adams) lovingly teases his fiancé Constanze (Lilli Hokama) ~ Photography by C. Stanley Photography

Exquisitely directed by Richard Clifford with sumptuous 18th century costumes by Mariah Anzaldo Hale, the play is filled with passion, revenge, and malevolent conspiracy, with a hefty dose of slapstick and lust.  The performances alone will take your breath away.  Ian Merrill Peakes as Salieri gives one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen on any American stage and Samuel Adams as Mozart proves to be a dazzlingly equal counterbalance.

Powerful, witty and unforgettable.  Five stars!!!  Don’t miss it!

Additional performers: Justin Adams as Baron van Swieten; Amanda Bailey as Venticello; Louis Butelli as Venticello; Junior Gomez as Salieri’s Valet; James Joseph O’Neil as Count Orsini-Rosenberg; Yvonne Paretzky as Teresa Salieri; John Taylor Phillips as Emperor Joseph II; Ned Read as Kapellmeister Bonno; Deidra LaWan Starnes as Madame von Strack; and Kathryn Zoerb as Katherina Cavalieri.

With Lighting Design by Max Doolittle and Sound Design by Sharath Patel.

Through December 22nd at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077.

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.

Love’s Labor’s Lost ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
May 6, 2019 

The King of Navarre (Joshua David Robinson) has a word for the ladies of France (l to r: Yesenia Iglesias, Chani Wereley, Kelsey Rainwater). Photo by Brittany Diliberto

One of Shakespeare’s most delightful rom-coms has arrived with a fresh, new take thanks to Director Vivienne Benesch.  Set in the 1930’s with lots of modern-day dialogue, hilarious puns and wicked asides, and contemporary twists on the characters, this witty play provides plenty of laughs at the expense of egotistical, narcissistic lords who, obeying their King’s decree, forswear women, food and sleep in pursuit of higher learning.  Unfortunately for these knaves, their willpower is weak, and the ladies’ is strong.  “Young blood doth not obey an old decree,” sayeth Berowne.  It’s a sort of #MeToo for the Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting as they lure the men, then conspire to trick them into making fools of themselves.

The King of Navarre (Joshua David Robinson, top) proclaims his court as a place of scholarly pursuit to his companions (Zachary Fine, Jack Schmitt, Matt Dallal). Photo by Brittany Diliberto

It would be just the ticket for coquettish larks, except that the women in this production can’t seem to carry it off.  I’ve never seen a cast so off-balance.  The male actors are brilliant, but the women are stilted and dull, and when they prank the men, it just seems like a gang of angry harpies, as opposed to a bit of a romp with a wink and a nod.  It’s almost as if they rehearsed in different theaters.  Perhaps it would have worked better had Shakespeare himself cast it, due to his predilection for all-male casts.

Zachary Fine as Berowne, Eric Hissom as Don Armado, Louis Butelli as Holofernes. Photo credit Brittany Diliberto

Zachary Fine as Berowne, one of the lords, is flat out, award-winning caliber, fantastic.  Totally engaging and utterly believable, he is riveting to watch in his hapless pursuit of forbidden love.  Eric Hissom as Don Armado gives us one crazy-ass Spaniard whose struggles to command the English language whilst mooning over unrequited love, will have you in stitches.  And, for added comic relief, Louis Butelli as Holofernes, the tweed-sporting pedantic who overemphasizes his diction, quite nearly steals the show, though he has some competition from Edmund Lewis as Costard, a tool belt-sporting slave who fumbles everything.

Jaquenetta (Tonya Beckman) and her admirer Costard (Edmund Lewis) in Love’s Labor’s Lost. Photo by Brittany Diliberto

There is a great deal of physical comedy for the men – in one scene they wrestle in pajamas, in another they visit the women disguised as dancing Cossacks – whereas the women just seem to stand around gossiping and griping in pretty clothes.  Not so for Susan Romeas Nathaniel whose comic flirtations with Holofernes afford us with some of the funniest, pinkies-out moments of the play.  Rome plays Nathaniel as a lady with lightning-quick aplomb.

Lee Savage’s set design is so fox clever, you have to wonder why it’s never been done before.  A reconstruction of the Folger’s own two-tiered Paster Reading Room, replete with green reading lamps, old books and stained glass window provide the perfect backdrop to the King’s demand for serious study.  The aisles provide the rest, leaving the actors to personally connect with the audience.

So, two casts – male and female – that seem to be in entirely different plays.  More’s the pity.

With Joshua David Robinson as King of Navarre; Amelia Pedlowas Princess of France; Megan Graves as Mote; Yesenia Iglesias as Maria; Kelsey Rainwater as Rosaline; Matt Dallal as Longaville; Jack Schmitt as Dumaine; Chani Wereley as Katherine; Josh Adams as Dull and Marcade; and Tonya Beckman as Boyet and Jaquenetta.

Lighting by Colin K. Bills; Costume Design by Tracy Christensen; Original Music and Sound Design by Lindsay Jones.

Through June 9that the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or visit website.  To follow discussions of Shakespeare’s world with some of today’s leading artists, authors and scholars you’ll find Shakespeare Unlimited podcasts entitled “Will & Our World” at www.Folger.edu/unlimited.  These are free wherever you get your podcasts.

Confection ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 11, 2019 

Running concurrently with the exhibition First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas, is Confection.  Commissioned by the Folger Theatre, it is a delightful 17th century romp from the critically-acclaimed Third Rail Projects.  This world premiere production is specifically designed to dovetail neatly with playwright Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn, which story is also set in the 17th century.

Third Rail Projects were taken by Brittany Diliberto

Third Rail Projects performs around the world in site-specific settings and, from what I was told by a woman who came down from New York just for opening night, the ticket prices in NYC are nearly triple and as scarce as hen’s teeth.  Described by the creators as a multi-sensory dance and theater performance and defined as immersive/experiential theater, it is held in the private Paster and Sedgewick-Bond Reading Rooms, areas of the Library that are usually off-limits.

The backdrop is an 17th century banquet in all its opulent and decadent splendor – no you don’t get to dine on swans, peacocks, croquembouche and other referenced delicacies – but you will experience the lusty performances of a troupe garbed in period finery expressing their amours for food (and their dining partners!) through dance and mime.  Overeating is expressed with humor as are the jealousies and erotic fantasies of the royal courtiers.

Third Rail Projects were taken by Brittany Diliberto

You will learn that there really were such preparations as four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie and such things as the weight, or more specifically the measure, of a man in pounds of sugar.  These luxuries came at a great price to those who had to produce these extravagant fêtes, exposing the great disparity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.  You will experience what it must have been like to watch from afar as the lower classes were had to observe these events from the upper galleries.

Third Rail Projects were taken by Brittany Diliberto

Banquets during this period were so lavish and lengthy that they went on for days with guests passing out or vomiting only to start all over again.  The troupe of five also reveal some of the theories and philosophies that were popular in those times – especially the sharing of food and the definition of manliness.

Guests, or should I say participants because you will be led in small groups by costumed guides, will wend their way through velvet curtains to candlelit rooms.  There you will see indescribable displays of pastries, watch Baroque period dancing, or hear challenging debates.  You may even be encouraged to make decisions as a group.  Some of the dances are passionate and fantasy-filled, others are celebratory and playful.  In all, it is the ultimate grande bouffe with you as witness.

Third Rail Projects were taken by Brittany Diliberto

Be sure to leave plenty of time beforehand to tour the First Chefs exhibit and put you in the mood for this splendid evening.  And remember to eat before you go.  The feast is imaginary.

Immensely entertaining.

Performed by Elizabeth Carena, Alberto Denis, Joshua Dutton-Reaver, Justin Lynch and Marissa Nielsen-Pincus.  Written, conceived, directed and choreographed by Zach Morris; Co-directed by Tom Pearson; Artistic Director, Jennine Willett; Sound Design by Sean Hagerty; Costume Design by Karen Young; and Scenic Design by Dan Daly.

Through March 24th at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544.7077 or visit www.Folger.edu/theatre. www.ThirdRailProjects.com

Nell Gwynn ~ Folger Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 13, 2019 

For Playwright Jessica Swale, who cleverly mixes factual events with a lively imagination, Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff), the orange seller who rose from her mother’s Coal Pan Alley brothel to become King Charles II’s most adored paramour, is the perfect vehicle to celebrate the rise of women’s roles in the theater.  Swale, who was named “10 Brits to Watch for 2019” by Variety, earned an Olivier Award for “Best New Comedy” for the play when it debuted in London’s West End in 2016.  “The rags-to-riches story of Nell Gwynn is an important and timely one,” says Director Robert Richmond.  “Her tenacity, wit and honesty changed the theatrical landscape forever and won her a place in history.”

Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff) with musicians left to right: Zoe Speas and Kevin Collins. Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

Set during the Restoration period when men played women’s roles – early drag, you might say – it was a time when theaters were filled with a mix of royals, rowdy-dows and drunkards.  Shakespeare cast men in women’s roles and that was the way of theater in the 17th century.  That is until King Charles II declared women could be on the stage.

King Charles II (R.J. Foster, left) consults with Lord Arlington (Jeff Keogh) on matters of the court. Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

Fact: Discovered on Drury Lane by leading British actor, Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen), Gwynn proved to be a natural on the stage where her feisty, street-wise manner won over audiences.

Hart becomes Gwynn’s Pygmalion and lover, teaching her what he calls “the attitudes” – fear, terror, despair and desire.  She does so well that she usurps one of the principal actors in the King’s troupe, Edward Kynaston (Christopher Dinolfo), who must now sacrifice all the female parts to her. “A woman on the stage!  It will be the death of theater!” he cries out.  There is a delightfully bawdy bit when she shows off her acting chops by demonstrating the use of a fan to lure a lover.

Rose Gwynn (Caitlin Cisco, left) shares a somber moment with her sister Nell (Alison Luff). Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

Gwynn soon comes to the attention of King Charles (R. J. Foster), who had a revolving door of glamorous mistresses who make their appearances along with the cuckolded Queen Catherine (Zoe Speas). Some of these women were well-known at court – Lady Castlemaine and Louise de Keroualle both played ladies by Regina Aquino.  Foster is mesmerizing as the vainglorious king who prefers women to edicts or wars.  He is the perfect foil for Ruff.

The sly Lord Arlington (Jeff Keogh), who has the most influence on the King and his courtesans, is determined to keep them at bay in order to maintain his power in the court.  Remember the famed poet and dramatist, John Dryden (Michael Glenn), from your English Lit classes?  Here he is portrayed as a bumbling, foppish playwright who takes direction from the actors.

The King’s Company in performance (left to right: Caitlin Cisco, Quinn Franzen, Christopher Dinolfo). Photo by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet Photography

There are so many funny bits.  Dinolfo as Camille re-enacting his memory of an oak door in order to create a back story to a scene; Catherine Flye as Nancy, the terrified wardrobe mistress flung onto the stage when Nell quits in a huff; and, of course, Luff, who will rob you of any sense of decorum with her charm and comic timing.  Wait for the over-the-top hat scene mocking Louise de Kéroualle in Act Two.

A delicious royal romp!

With Nigel Gore as Thomas Killigrew; Caitlin Cisco as Rose Gwynn; Kevin Collins as Musician; and Alex Mitchell as Ned Spigett.

Original Music by Kim Sherman, Scenic Design by Tony Cisek, Costume Design by Mariah Anzaldo Hale, and Lighting Design by Andrew F. Griffin.

Through March 10th at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC 20003.   For tickets and information call 202 544-7077 or visit www.Folger.edu/theatre.