John ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 12, 2018 

We are waiting.  For an answer.  Three and a half hours including two intermissions later with a slowly dwindling audience after the first two acts.  Ah well, it is a weekday night.  And though given the title of the play we have a fairly good guess John will be involved, we are still waiting for an explanation as to why we have slogged through the sucking sound of a surfeit of red herrings. All clues lead to nowhere.  The only explanation I can deduce is that this is some sort of exercise in existentialism.  There is no note in the program from the award-winning playwright Annie Baker and nothing from director Joe Calarco either, so we can only speculate.

Nancy Robinette, Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer in John at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

One reason you may want to sit through this mystery, is the superb acting by Nancy Robinette and Ilona Dulaski.  They are stellar!  Two veteran actresses of note who, given the puzzling plot, still manage to keep us curious enough to await the denouement.  Hint: It’s a single word at the close of the play.

Robinette as Mertis, aka Kitty, is the off-kilter proprietress of a Bed & Breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Her blind, mentally deranged friend, Genevieve (Dulaski), imagines noises in the house.  The duo have latched onto mysticism for reasons not made clear.  Perhaps to explain why the lights flicker and the electricity frequently fails or why Kitty’s husband never appears.  “He’s not well.”  But we discover he was working on the historic home’s electrical system.  Is this a clue? To what? Credit lighting designer Andrew Cissna for the blackouts and the plethora of antique lamps.  Are we spooked?  It’s a stretch to be frightened when there’s no murder.

Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer in John. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Certainly the creepiest part is Paige Hathaway’s set design chockfull of dozens of dolls, tchotchkes (a huge collection of china cats!!!), and an abundance of Christmas décor.  One of the dolls, perched atop a player piano, is the target of attention from Jenny (Anna Moon) – one half of the couple that is staying at the B&B.  Jenny had the same American Girl doll and is overwhelmed with guilt that as an adult she has relegated the doll to a box in her mother’s attic.  She shares with Kitty an obsessive attachment to objects and the imparting of human emotions to them.  Her passive-aggressive, jealous boyfriend Elias (Jonathan Feuer) is coming off anti-depressants and is in meltdown mode.  There are ferocious fights that result in them sleeping in separate rooms.

But back to the red herrings.  Kitty frequently changes the time on a grandfather clock and writes down her daily reflections in an unknown language.  At one point the lights go out in the theater and we hear a chuckle.  Who or what?  Kitty tells Elias not to ask about a portrait of a woman.  This is never resolved.  Kitty tells the couple she doesn’t drink.  She chugs a glass of wine.  Elias visits the Gettysburg battlefields and claims he has taken a photo that has a ghostly image.  Also, he hates B&Bs, “The tragedy of B&Bs is to be homey and cute and filled with tchotchkes.”  Why are they staying at one?  They insult the others’ cultural backgrounds – he’s Jewish, she’s Asian. There’s a reference to the house being a former Civil War hospital – arms and legs were tossed out the windows.  No ghosts arrive.  Genevieve is fixated on the husband she abandoned.  This never comes up again, though a lot of dialogue is spent on how he invaded her thoughts for years.  His name was John.  Elias was kissed by a man when he was a child.  We never learn if any of this is relevant.

Nancy Robinette, Jonathan Feuer and Ilona Dulaski in John. Photo by Margot Schulman.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away.  There are plenty more contrivances that never add up.  If this is meant to be like Get Out, this year’s Oscar-nominated horror film, they lost this reviewer amid the smokescreens in a B&B in Gettysburg.

With Costume Design by Debra Kim Sivigny and Sound Design by Kenny Neal.

Through April 29th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

Light Years ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
February 17, 2018 

John Sygar, Natascia Diaz, Luke Smith and Robbie Schaeffer in LIGHT YEARS. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer, presents us with yet another world premiere musical.  This time it’s a tender tale of a father and son who go in and out of each other’s lives over a period of decades.  Light Years features the music, lyrics, and book by Robbie Schaefer (no relation to Eric).  Robbie is a member of Eddie from Ohio (EFO), a Northern Virginia indie/folk/rock band known for their beautifully blended four-part harmonies.

It’s part concert, part sentimental journey.  Three guitar playing performers play Robbie – John Sygar as Young Robbie, Luke Smith as Middle Robbie and Robbie Schaefer as the adult Robbie.  Veteran actor Bobby Smith plays Robbie’s Jewish father, Konnie, a man reticent to share his past as a former White House economist.  Natascia Diaz becomes Robbie’s wife, Annie, and Kara-Tameika Watkins, his friend, Amelia, but not before the two play backup singers Chantelle and Soma who lay down harmonies for the band during their tours in the 90’s.

John Sygar, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Robbie Schaefer, Natascia Diaz, and Luke Smith in LIGHT YEARS. Photo by Christopher Mueller

Framed by video projection screens and a simple concert-style stage, this no-intermission, 90-minute musical hints at Konnie’s peripatetic past – one that has him fleeing Nazi-occupied Romania for Israel, then later emigrating to the U. S.   “Everything is temporary,” Konnie repeatedly warns Robbie.  But it’s only towards the very end of the story that we, and Robbie, learn of his father’s tragic beginnings.  Up till then there is only a child’s confusion, and ours as the audience, as to why his father seems unable to connect.  Ultimately when Robbie has his own wife and family, can they express understanding and compassion towards one another.  But is it too late?

Shaefer’s music is of the story-telling kind, a there are fifteen songs filled with joy and heartbreak, disappointment and redemption.  Its sweet melodies and pitch-perfect harmonies will please those who enjoy a laid back concert-style experience.

Through February 18th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.

4,380 Nights ~ Signature Theatre ~ Women’s Voices Theater Festival

Jordan Wright
January 27, 2018 

Ahmad Kamal (Malik) in the world premiere production of 4,380 NIGHTS. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

When the Women’s Voices Theater Festival opened in early January, I found myself explaining its purpose.  Some thought the productions focused solely on women’s issues.  They don’t.  It’s merely an opportunity to focus on plays written by women.  And of the ones I’ve seen and reviewed, they approach a diversity of subjects.  So, jump right in.  The festival continues through March 14th in DC Metro area theaters.

Annalisa Dias ~ Photo Credit: Christopher Mueller

In Annalisa Dias’ powerful play 4,380 Nights, Malik Djamal Ahmad Essaid (Ahmad Kamal in a riveting performance as both Malik and El Hadj El Kaim) is being held in the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center accused of being an Al Qaeda recruiter and radical Islamist.

His rights stripped from him without charge, he lives in chains and solitary confinement with visits from Bud Abramson (Michael John Casey who later appears as The Man), a defense attorney appointed by the U. S. government.  Malik languishes in prison for twelve years without trial while his family awaits him in France.

Ahmad Kamal (Malik) and MJ Casey (Bud Abramson). Photo by C Stanley Photography.

Directed by Kathleen Ackerley, the story is told to The Man by a sylph-like narrator, The Woman, played by Lynette Rathnam in a sinuously exotic performance.  She speaks in lyrical prose echoing the history of the Carthaginians, the French, and much later the Americans who wage war against the Arabs and Berbers.

Lynette Rathnam (Woman) in the world premiere production of 4,380 NIGHTS. Photo by C Stanley Photography

The Man beseeches The Woman to tell him how the story ends, but she puts him off to relate the story that began with Cato’s words from ancient times.  No matter which side of the argument you are on, you'll be left wondering the same thing.  Does it ever end, this centuries-old conflict of “the water, the earth, the sand”?  Whether for reasons of trade or expansionism, the battles have long been dominated by racism, ignorance and fear.  “It’s not the first time you’ve kidnapped Africans and enslaved them,” Malik reminds his American captors.

As the story toggles from ancient times to the present, we meet Malik’s grandfather, El Kaim, a former guide and translator for the French Colonel Aimable Pelisssier.  El Kaim fought on the French side, betraying his own people in the Algerian Wars, and Malik feels certain, if he is ever released to his homeland, he will be imprisoned by his own government.  Ah, the sins of the fathers.

Ahmad Kamal (Malik) and Rex Daugherty (Luke). Photo by C Stanley Photography.

Luke Harrison (Rex Daugherty who doubles as the Colonel), is a young American soldier who guards Malik.  Luke is emotionally imprisoned which causes him to descend into a kind of sadistic madness.  Think Abu Ghraib and you have some idea of the barbaric abuse he metes out to his prisoner. Abramson is sympathetic but tells Malik his detainment is awash in “papers, petitions, orders, reviews and broken international laws.”

Dias’ play is filled with expertly crafted dialogue that speaks to the deeply rooted, tangled web of Anglo Arab relations and their effect on long-term global stability.  Her indelible characters, molded in the shifting sands of time, afford clarity and perspective to the issues facing our nations today.

Highly recommended.

Through February 18th at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit online.

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

Holiday Happenings

Jordan Wright
December 1, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Synetic Theater ~ MetroStage ~ The Little Theatre of Alexandria ~ ICE! at National Harbor ~ Christmas at Mount Vernon ~ Signature Theatre ~ Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia 

Raven Wilkes (Babysitter), Justin Bell (Hansel), and Sharisse Taylor (Gretel) Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Raven Wilkes (Babysitter), Justin Bell (Hansel), and Sharisse Taylor (Gretel) Photo Credit: Johnny Shryock

Hansel and Gretel at Synetic Theater - During the bustle of holiday crowds, Gretel tries to keep her brother, Hansel, out of trouble while their babysitter leaves Gretel to fend for them both. As Hansel embarks on his own wonder-filled exploration of his everyday surroundings, he and his sister fall into a magical realm that takes them far away from home. In this wordless production, the well-beloved Grimm fairy tale embraces the fantastical through the eyes of those who see the world through a different lens.  Directed and choreographed by Elena Velasco and Tori Bertocci.  Through December 23rd at 1800 South Bell Street, Arlington in Crystal City.  For tickets visit www.synetictheater.org.

Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush

Christmas at the Old Bull and Bush

The Old Bull & Bush at MetroStage - Originally staged in the Old Vat Room at Arena Stage writer, director, and actor Catherine Flye will be transferring her 9-person troupe to a circa 1912 replica of the famed Hampstead, England pub to jolly up your holidays with food, 35 songs, jokes, dance, a sing-along and an abbreviated reenactment of Dickens’ Christmas Carol.  With Christmas crackers, British beers and sausage rolls for purchase, the classic British music hall entertainment runs through December 24th at 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, 22314.  For tickets visit www.metrostage.org.

Larry Grey as Fezziwig and Hannah Pecoraro as Mrs. Fezziwig and cast ~ Photo credit Michael DeBlois

Larry Grey as Fezziwig and Hannah Pecoraro as Mrs. Fezziwig and cast ~ Photo credit Michael DeBlois

A Christmas Carol at The Little Theatre of Alexandria – In a fresh interpretation by director Eleanor Tapscott, enjoy a return of the Christmas classic by Charles Dickens. Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable Victorian humbug, travels with diaphanous ghostly guides (beautifully choreographed by Ukranian Victoria Blum) through Christmas past, present, and future to find the true meaning of the holidays.  Complete with special effects, Victorian carols and Tiny Tim. Through December 16th at 600 Wolfe Street.  For tickets call 703.683.0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer atICE!” at the Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center – A 9-degree winter wonderland carved from over two million pounds of ice, a Christmas Village, merry-go-round, Glacier Glide ice skating rink, “JOY” – an eye-popping, Broadway-style holiday musical show, nightly snowfalls and dancing fountains at this first-class holiday destination.  Additional events are a Mistletoe Mixology class, Build-A Bear Workshop, photos with Santa, Cookies with Mrs. Claus and so much more. Through January 1st at 201 Waterfront Street, National Harbor, MD 20745.  For tickets and event times visit www.GaylordNationaltickets.com.

Photo credit Melissa Wood

Photo credit Melissa Wood

Christmas at Mount Vernon Tour George and Martha Washington’s mansion by candlelight and make merry with 18th century dancing, fireside refreshments and caroling.  Meet Aladdin the Camel, watch holiday fireworks on December 15th and 16th, hear period music, experience a military encampment and more.  For tickets and event times visit www.MountVernon.org.

Holiday Follies at Signature Theatre - Starring jazz singer Ines Nassara, David Rowen (Signature’s Diner) and Katie Mariko Murray (Signature’s West Side Story) singing classic holiday songs.  Through December 16th at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets visit www.SigTheatre.org.

The Symphony Orchestra of Northern Virginia in collaboration with the Office of the Arts presents a “Friday Evening Chamber Concert Series”.  The next concert “A Brass Christmas” is scheduled for Friday, December 15th at the Durant Arts Center, 1605 Cameron St.  For online tickets visit http://bit.ly/2vSKXRd.  Tickets are also available at the door.

Crazy for You ~ Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
November 17, 2017
Special to The Alexandria Times

Is there such a thing as a ‘tapa-palooza’?  If no one’s yet invented this neologism, I offer it up as a descriptor for Signature’s shiny, splashy production of Ken Ludwig and Mike Ockrent’s musical comedy, Crazy for You.  It’s the only way to explain the sensational tap extravaganza you’ll see from Director Matthew Gardiner and Choreographer Denis Jones.

Ashley Spencer as Polly Baker, Danny Gardner as Bobby Child ~ Photo Credit – C. Stanley Photography

Ashley Spencer as Polly Baker, Danny Gardner as Bobby Child ~ Photo Credit – C. Stanley Photography

Danny Gardner and Ashley Spencer play lead characters and love interests, Bobby and Polly, and they make the dance routines in LaLa Land look amateur.  Think Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell.  Spencer is light as a feather and Gardner, who is equally as nimble, mirrors her moves with dazzling athleticism.

The storyline is basic.  Banking scion Bobby Child wants to be on the stage, but his well-heeled mother, played to perfection by Sherri Edelen (who later appears as travel book author Patricia Fodor) wants none of it.  The ever-versatile Natascia Diaz as Bobby’s demanding girlfriend, Irene, wants marriage – and pronto.  But Bobby, ignoring their pleas, spends his time at the theater and its bevy of flashy, feathered, Follies girls presided over by Russian impresario Bela Zangler (Bobby Smith).  There are too many funny bits to mention, but key in on Smith’s hilarious bottle opening bit played in tandem with Polly, and hayseed Pete’s erudite interpretation of famous playwrights.  The silly one-liners and sight gags are sure to catch you off guard.  They did me.

Danny Gardner as Bobby Child, Sherri Edelen as Fodor Ashley Spencer as Polly Baker (these are the three people in the center), and the ensemble ~ Photo Credit – C. Stanley Photography

Danny Gardner as Bobby Child, Sherri Edelen as Fodor Ashley Spencer as Polly Baker (these are the three people in the center), and the ensemble ~ Photo Credit – C. Stanley Photography

Scenic Designer, Paul Tate dePoo III, gives us the look of New York’s Broadway by night – glamourous and glitzy, that is until Bobby’s mother sends him to Deadrock, Nevada to foreclose on an old family investment – a bankrupt theater where dePoo’s backdrop switches to Lank Hawkins’ (Cole Burden) saloon in a one-jalopy ghost town.  There, way before Vegas was a thing, Bobby falls for the feisty postmistress Polly who keeps company with a motley crew of miners and cowboys.  His plans to revive the theater and resurrect the town involve getting these drunken malingerers to dance and sing.  No mean feat, but with Polly’s help, and the arrival of eight sexy chorines from New York, they do whip the Deadrock deadbeats into shape.

I found myself utterly rapt while mentally singing along to all eighteen Gershwin tunes – like “Bidin’ My Time”, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, “Slap That Bass”, “Embraceable You”, and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” conducted flawlessly by Jon Kalbfleisch’s 14-piece orchestra.  But just watching these über-amazing performers dance their brains out whilst singing their lungs out was epic, especially in numbers that required complex props – farm tools and kitchen utensils to keep the beat – as in the mind-blowing number “I Got Rhythm” and the chain-rattling, floor-quaking, “Chin Up”, performed partly tabletop.

Cole Burden as Lank Hawkins and Natascia Diaz as Irene Roth ~ Photo Credit – C. Stanley Photography

Cole Burden as Lank Hawkins and Natascia Diaz as Irene Roth ~ Photo Credit – C. Stanley Photography

Costumes by Tristan Raines run the gamut from 1930’s sparkly glam gowns, elegant black tie and frothy chorus girl costumes to dusty Western wear.

Highly recommended.

Through January 14, 2018 at Signature Theatre (Shirlington Village), 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206.  For tickets and information call 703 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org.