Once Upon a One More Time

Once Upon a One More Time

Inspired by the Music Performed and Recorded by Britney Spears

Shakespeare Theatre Company

By: Jordan Wright

December 23, 2021

Justin Guarini (center) and Company
(credit: Matthew Murphy)

Going in I wondered if I would know any of the pop diva’s songs. It turns out a few were instantly recognizable, though you need not have them on your playlist to have heard them somewhere. This is the direction bio-musicals have been taking lately. Sourcing songs that are already tried and true. Add backstory and it’s on. For Once Upon a One More Time the writers chose “Pop Princess” Britney Spears who inspired this musical. No surprise she would get her due. With hundreds of millions of records sold worldwide, the show should bring in legions of her fans. So, far be it from me to critique a show that has already broken all box office records at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

There are shows I felt were not ready for their expected B’way debuts, which is where this is headed as soon as we can get past this damn pandemic. And I fear this could be one of them. Most, by the time they open in New York, have been trimmed down, beefed up, graced with better lighting, slick video projections and new sets. I hope this run will give the show the polish it needs before it hits the big time. Again, haters keep your claws drawn. It’s only my opinion. Stick with me. 

What I did find was a wonderful plot that echoes the “Me Too” movement – before little girls grow up and face misogyny, glass ceilings and male domination. It’s Keone and Mari Madrid’s creative direction and Jon Hartmere’s book that shoots down that clichéd fantasy and teaches girls about self-empowerment in a light-hearted and tuneful way. For decades, these fairy tales have been eagerly served up to little girls from the time they can sit still long enough to listen to a bedtime story. “Your prince will come and your dreams of being rescued by a tall, dark and handsome (and rich) man will be realized,” we tell them. This version destroys the myth that Prince Charming will come along and solve your lack of confidence, money and/or singlehood. Of course, these fairy tale girls are ravishing and conveniently, have a prince in their neighborhood. Oh, how we indoctrinate little girls into being subservient to men. This should dispel that myth in a heartbeat.

Here the wicked stepmother, who equates female empowerment with witchcraft, features prominently as do the snippy stepsisters, Belinda and Betany. Drawing on Betty Friedan’s feminist book, “The Feminine Mystique”, the Original Fairy Godmother alerts Cinderella to the power of activism and self-actualization and she encourages them to go on strike against the curmudgeonly Narrator. “If you wanna hang on to your slippers,” OFG advises Cinderella, “you gotta learn to put your foot down.” This is where I totally buy in.

Accordingly, Prince Charming has few redeeming social qualities. He is a womanizer who is charming, handsome and vapid but never has an actual name in any of the fairy tales. Think about that! There are silly jokes, sight gags, physical comedy and tons of dance numbers with some of Spears’ songs created with new lyrics designed to underpin the plot. Other songwriters like Pharrell Williams and Katy Perry have contributed material. What this all has to do with Britney’s real life, I have no idea, although I suppose you could connect it to her court case against her father – appointed her conservator years ago and recently defeated in court. That’s a sort of happy ending in and of itself.

The huge cast features Briga Heelan as Cinderella; Brooke Dillman as Original Fairy Godmother; Aisha Jackson as Snow White; Belinda Allyn as Belle; Justin Guarini as Prince Charming; Wonu Ogunfowora as Rapunzel; Morgan Weed as Princess and the Pea; Jennifer Florentino as Little Red Riding Hood; Selene Haro as Gretel; Amy Hillner Larsen as Goldilocks; Emily Skinner as Stepmother; MiMi Scardulla as Belinda; Tess Soltau as Betany; Raymond J. Lee as Clumsy/Prince Ebullient; Ryan Steele as Prince Erudite; Stephen Brower as Prince Suave; Stephen Scott Wormley as Prince Affable; Joshua Johnson as Prince Brawny; Kevin Trinio Perdido as Prince Mischievous; Michael McGrath as Narrator; Adrianna Weir or Mila Weir as Little Girl.

Creative Design and Choreography by Keone and Mari Madrid; Creative Consultant David Leveaux; Scenic Design by Anna Fleischle; Lighting by Sonono Nishikawa; Costume Design by Loren Elstein; and Sound Design by Andrew Keister.

Through January 2, 2022 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.

Brooke Dillman, Briga Heelan and Company
(credit: Matthew Murphy)

Cast of Once Upon A One More Time
(credit: Matthew Murphy)

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.

 

The Woman in Black ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
December 9, 2019 

Attention all Brits and Anglophiles!  The festive tradition of vying for the evilest stories during the Christmas season is very much intact.  Based on Susan Hull’s 1983 neo-Gothic novel came the play, the second-longest running production in London’s West End.  It puts us in mind of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” featuring the spooky ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future.  This tale of “truth being quite other”, as it’s described, attempts to be a story of haunting and fear.  And the premise that, “It must be told,” becomes the basis for delivering this tale.

Daniel Easton, left, and Robert Goodale star in “The Woman in Black” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo credit Tristram Kenton

In this atmospherically set two-hander, promoted as “spine-tingling”, the actors trade parts using different accents, subtle costume changes, and a few props, counting on the audience’s imagination to envision the characters’ motives and identities, rather than seeing it all played out.  Eerie sound effects – howling winds, thudding steps, screams, and things that go bump in the night – are the raison d’être for attempting to terrorize the audience.

In it, scenes toggle back and forth between an old man’s spooky story and a young solicitor (who also acts as acting coach to the old man) with the two men trading roles and adopting new ones at the drop of a bowler hat.  I must confess I found it rather sillier, and utterly predictable, than scary, though several audience members did squeal a few times.

Robert Goodale, left, and Daniel Easton in “The Woman in Black.” Photo credit Tristram Kenton

It’s easy to intuit the plot as well as the outcome when the described setting is the dark salt marshes surrounding an isolated house in England’s barren countryside.  Factor in the Nine Lives Bridge that sinks with the tides, further enisling the property and add in a fog-filled graveyard that features prominently as a location for a visiting ghost.  I’m not entirely certain there weren’t baying hounds, but there could have been, so seamlessly would they have figured into this well-acted but clichéd story.

Ah well, you can’t win them all – ghosts notwithstanding.

Adapted by Stephen Mallatratt and directed by Robin Herford.  Set and Costume Design by Michael Holt, Lighting Design by Kevin Sleep.  Starring Robert Goodale as Arthur Kipps and Daniel Easton as The Actor.

Through December 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 Oresteia ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
May 8, 2019 

It’s been many moons since I was immersed in Greek mythology and the travails of  Agamemnon and Clytemnestra who lived together in marital discord in what the prophetess Cassandra called, “the house of spite”.  The tragedy of their lives is a frightfully gruesome allegory from Aeschylus’s original trilogy written in 458 BCE.  It is the only surviving trilogy from ancient Greek theater.

Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra and Simone Warren as Iphigenia in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

Later tackled by Eugene O’Neill in Mourning Becomes Electra, the tragedy encompasses Agamemnon’s conquering of Troy, his marriage to Clytemnestra, and the destruction of his family – especially his daughter Electra and son Orestes.  If it had American ratings it would be TV-MA for Mature Audiences Only and V for Graphic Violence.  There are no sex scenes or romance, but there is enough violence to quench the horror-centric thirsts of filmmakers Brian de Palma or Quentin Tarantino.

Simone Warren as Iphigenia, Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra and Kelcey Watson as Agamemnon in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

Simone Warren as Iphigenia, Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra and Kelcey Watson as Agamemnon in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman. Photo credit The Oresteia Company

It’s right up Director Michael Kahn’s artistic alley and where he left us after his recent production of Richard III, which gave us a blood-soaked stage that had to be mopped up throughout the play after thirteen murders by Richard’s thugs.  If you had any doubt of his predilection for murderous plots rife with bloodlust, Kahn’s now given us The Oresteia as his swan song.  Yes, after 33 extraordinary years as Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, he is retiring.

Alvin Keith as Chorus, Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Chorus and Jonathan Louis Dent as Chorus in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

I’ll say straight off, that this one is not my cup of tea, though you’ll want to know if it’s well-acted with a creative set, evocative lighting and period-perfect costumes.  I’ll give it all that.  There is modern dialogue too, as with the feisty Clytemnestra who doesn’t believe in “mumbo-jumbo”, though that’s quickly disproved when she rails against the gods for their disfavor. “What god presided over such a situation,” she demands. Characters use grisly nightmares, imagined curses from the gods, and elusive spirits to explain both their wrath and subsequent retribution.

Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

In any case, should you take this on, you will find Kelley Curran(Clytemnestra) sensational and Zoë Sophia Garcia(Cassandra) absolutely magnetic in her portrayal of the seer with the power of retribution.

Zoë Sophia Garcia as Cassandra in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

There is an important message here about how violence begets violence and we can reflect on the ways we’ve seen that play out around the world – the never-ending cycle of revenge, what is justice, what sort of punishment for acts of retribution, and how does a society that seeks fairness in all matters achieve democracy.  The Greek chorus raises all those issues, “Blood on blood.  Crime on crime,” they intone.  And, considering the lessons of the past, they come away with a peaceful solution.

Josiah Bania as Orestes in The Oresteia by Scott Suchman

Distinguished playwright Ellen McLaughlinhas condensed the three plays into one – a practical matter for single-night theatre-goers.  She imagines the Furies as Clytemnestra’s house servants who stand in watch debating the proper punishment for Orestes’s murder of his mother, who murdered their father, whose brother murdered and ate their daughter.  The eight-person ‘chorus’ of servants address the atrocities and resolve how to move forward.  In the abstract, it’s an interesting topic.  On stage it does not allow us that physical or psychological remove.

With Kelley Curran as Clytemnestra, Simone Warren as Iphigenia, Kelcey Watson as Agamemnon, Zoë Sophia Garcia as Cassandra, Rad Pereira as Electra, and Josiah Bania as Orestes.  Chorus – Corey Allen, Kati Brazda, Helen Carey, Jonathan Louis Dent, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Alvin Keith, Patrena Murray, and Sophia Stiles.

The cast of The Oresteia by Scott Suchman.

Directed by Michael Kahn.  Scenic and Costume Designer Susan Hilferty, Sound Designer Cricket S. Myers, Composer Kamala Sankaram, Movement Director Jennifer Archibald.

Through June 2ndat the Sidney Harman Hall 610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 202 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.

Vanity Fair ~ Shakespeare Theatre Company

Jordan Wright
March 7, 2019 

“There are no morals here.”  So, buckle up.  Kate Hamill’s uproarious comedy delivers a bloomers-up package from the get-go, cribbing from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel of social climbers.

The Cast ~ Photo credit Scott Suchman

Dan Hiatt plays the ‘Manager’, emcee of the Strand Music Hall where vaudeville has found a new and popular audience with Victorian burlesque.  The characters are introduced to the audience as actors, though they become other characters willy-nilly.  Little Becky Sharp, an orphan of sharp tongue and keen wit, is preparing to leave the Pinkerton Academy and assume her position as a nanny in the home of a lecherous baron, but not before she sticks it to the headmistress in a snarky farewell that shows her rebelliousness.  Before shoving off, Becky and her well-heeled bestie, Amelia Sedley, promise they will be BFF’s forever.

Anthony Michael Lopez as Miss Pinkerton and Vincent Randazzo as Miss Jemima in Vanity Fair by Scott Suchman. Photo credit by Scott Suchman.

But to what end?  As the Manager asks of the audience, “Do we really mean it when we say we will always be best friends forever?”  Here friendships are challenged, ladies are as cavalier as the men, and marrying up the ladder is the goal.  A dinner party cleverly lit in freeze frames shows how reckless in relationships they all are.  “Licentiousness is the wicked world of the theater,” we are warned.  Are we active players in the plot or are we just spectators of a play?

Rebekah Brockman as Becky Sharp and Maribel Martinez as Amelia Sedley in Vanity Fair by Scott Suchman. Photo credit by Scott Suchman.

Lines are blurred, both in character portrayals and devious intent (men in drag, cutouts, and puppets figure into this small but mighty cast), and you can’t be assured of anyone’s motives when fortunes are won and lost, and everyone is chasing the money.  For this social set cuckolding is the norm, and one person’s misfortunes are fodder for another’s devious gain.  “Fortunes change and loyalties follow,” quoth the Manager.  Lucky us, we have all the fun watching these topsy-turvy machinations.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Lesser Pit, Vincent Randazzo as Sir Pitt and Anthony Michael Lopez as Rose Crawley in Vanity Fair. Photo credit by Scott Suchman.

I’ll admit, for the first five minutes in, I had no earthly idea where this comedy was going.  And by the end, I had no idea where it had taken me.  One minute they play it straight by addressing the audience, and the next it seems like a hilarious farce.  No matter.  It’s a madcap romp that will keep you in stitches.

Rebekah Brockman as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. Photo credit by Scott Suchman.

Rebekah Brockman plays Becky with a delightfully devilish air.  Her intrinsic appeal is that she has the ability to morph into a sympathetic character as speedily as one who holds all the cards.  Cheers to Maribel Martinez as Amelia Sedley who has to make a total turnaround in character when she discovers true love has been staring her right in the eye, and to Dan Hiatt, as the Manager, plus Miss Matilda and Lord Steyne, who alters his gender like a chameleon changes color.

The cast of Vanity Fair. Photo credit by Scott Suchman.

Additional cast members – Alyssa Wilmoth as Actor Four (George, etc.); Anthony Michael Lopez as Actor Three (Dobbin, etc.); Adam Magill as Actor Two (Rawdon, etc.) and Vincent Randazzo as Actor Five (Jos, etc.).

Directed by Jessica Stone, Sets by Alexander Dodge, Costumes by Jennifer Moeller, Lighting by David Weiner, Choreographed by Connor GallagherJane Shaw Sound Designer and Composer.

Through March 31st at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street, NW Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 202 547-1122 or visit www.ShakespeareTheatre.org.