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Kleptocracy ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 31, 2019 

Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin) in the world premiere of Kleptocracy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Much of what you’ll see in Kenneth Lin’s Kleptocracy is based on historic events – from Vladimir Putin’s rise from a low-level KGB agent to his position as the second president of the Russian Federation. Putin was plucked from spy agency obscurity by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Jewish billionaire owner of the enormous Russian oil company Yukos.  He expected the young Putin to do his bidding.  Unfortunately, Khodorkovsky underestimated Putin’s avarice, unbridled ego and his penchant for revenge.

The story opens in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union with a young, impoverished Socialist, Khodorkovsky (Max Woertendyke), who woos and wins his future wife, Inna, promising her he will find success through the American-instituted system of vouchers for cash.  Together with business partner Platon Lebedev (Alex Piper) the men gain total domination of the Russian economy.  Lin, an award-winning playwright and TV series writer who wrote several seasons of House of Cards, keeps the intrigue and suspense running at full tilt.

(L to R) Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin) and Max Woertendyke (Mikhail Khodorkovsky) in the world premiere of Kleptocracy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Christopher Geary, as the villainous Putin, told me he read up on Putin to research his role and then “tossed it all aside” when deciding how to play him.  His Putin is quirky, fond of quoting Russian Absurdism, duplicitous, cryptic, ruthless, egotistical and Machiavellian, and yet Geary does a masterful job of creating a schizoid man who is believably human and oddly inhuman.  No mean feat.

The story harkens back to the 1990’s and the rise of Yeltsin, who transformed Russia’s socialist economy into a capitalist one.  Those were heady days when private industry, formerly state-owned, was possible and unimaginable fortunes went to the oligarchs.  Everything was sunny days till the price of oil tanked and the economy went into freefall.  Putin  appropriated the companies, or killed the owners, and jailed Khodorkovsky.  “I can’t free him.  I can’t kill him.  He’s my Mary Queen of Scots,” Putin ponders aloud.

(Front) Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin). (Back L-R) Max Woertendyke (Mikhail Khodorkovsky), Tony Manna (Boris Berezovsky/Yuri Schmidt/Ensemble), John Austin (Valentine/Ensemble), Alex Piper (Platon Lebedev/Roman/Ensemble), Joseph Carlson (Leonid Nevzlin/Interpreter/Kuchma/Ensemble/Fight Captain) and Elliott Bales (Petukhov/Ensemble) in the world premiere of Kleptocracy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

With murders and disappearances ordered by Putin, the story intensifies when the American oil company, Chevron, attempts to buy Yukos through a White House Official (Candy Buckley in an exceptionally outstanding portrayal) who meets with Putin to seal the deal.  Buckley’s character, in what reads as a composite of Conde Rice/Georgette Mosbacher, is as tough as they come yet is no match for the mercurial Putin. “Your president will be my dog,” he threatens.  Hmmm.  Prescient?  (And lest we forget.  The U. S. currently shares a particularly fraught law with Russia – that no politician can be charged with a crime while he’s in office.) Checkmate.

Highly recommended.  A suspenseful thriller from beginning to end.

Directed by Jackson Gay; Set Design by Misha Kachman; Costume Design by Jessica Ford; Lighting Design by Masha Tsimring; Original Music and Sound Design by Broken Chord; Projection Design by Nicholas Hussong.

With John Austin as Valentin and others; Elliott Bales as Petukhov and others; Joseph Carlson as Leonid Nevzlin, Interpreter, Kuchma, and others; Bronté England-Nelson as Inna Khodorkovsky; and Tony Manna as Boris Berezovsky, Yuri Schmidt, and others.

Through February 24th at Arena Stage in the Kreeger Theater - 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Harlequinade ~ American Ballet Theatre in a Co-Production with the Australian Ballet at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
January 30, 2019 

Stella Abrera in Harlequinade. Photo: Erin Baiano.

If your taste runs to ballet en pointe in the classique style, then you are going to adore Harlequinade.  Set in a medieval town at the crack of the 20th century in Italy, this charming love story has all the elements of Shakespeare.  Boy from the provinces falls for well-to-do ingenue and her father heartily disapproves.  Yet with a little magic in the form of a Good Fairy, love finds a way.  It’s no spoiler to reveal the happy ending, it’s what we’d expect.

What’s exciting is ABT’s adoption of Marius Petipa’s original choreography which received its world premiere at the Hermitage Theater in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1900.  Petipa had by then been principal choreographer at the Mariinsky Theatre for 30 years and had created such iconic ballets as The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Don Quixote.

Stella Abrera and Thomas Forster in Harlequinade. Photo: Doug Gifford

In the mid-60’s George Balanchine had his hand in it with the New York City Ballet and the pas de deux choreographed by Ben Stevenson with costumes by Ray Delle Robbins, had wowed audiences at the Met with Rebecca Wright and Kirk Peterson in 1979.  In 1983 Balanchine reprieved the ballet with Cheryl Yeager and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

How did the company discover Petipa’s original steps?  The notations were in the Harvard Theatre Collection!  Costumes and sets are inspired by the original production, so basically, you are seeing the ballet as it would have been experienced in the Russian capital in 1900.

Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside in Harlequinade. Photo: Marty Sohl

Tuesday’s opening night production of Harlequin was danced by James Whiteside, who was aerially spectacular as he leapt to incredible heights and turned like a spinning top, and the enchantingly delicate wisp, Isabella Boylston in the role of Columbine, his beloved, with Alexei Agoudine as Cassandre (Columbine’s papa) and Thomas Forster as Pierrot providing much of the humor.  Stella Abrera was indelibly riveting as Pierette, and I will keep an eye out for in future productions.  It’s an enormous cast with seven principals, dozens of minor roles and 34 of the most adorable children – students from The Washington School of Ballet.

Scene from Harlequinade. Photo: Erin Baiano.

And, oh, the fanciful costumes and millinery confections – from mobcaps to tricorns to feathered frippery.  Harlequin in diamond-patterned satin leotards and Pierrot in a comical white satin jumpsuit with elongated sleeves making him appear a bit like those blow-ups on car lots when they catch too much breeze.

Recommended for lovers of classical ballet and those with fanciful imaginations.

Seen with Alexei Agoudine as Cassandre; Thomas Forster as Pierrot, Cassandre’s Servant; Stella Abrera as Pierette, Pierrot’s Wife; Duncan Lyle as Léandre, Columbine’s Wealthy Suitor; and Tatiana Ratmansky as the Good Fairy.

The Kennedy Center Orchestra conducted by David LaMarche with Staging and Additional Choreography by Alexei Ratmansky; Assisted by Tatiana Ratmansky; Music by Riccardo Drigo; Scenery and Costumes by Robert Perdziola; Lighting by Brad Fields.

Through February 3rd in the Opera House at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

Twelve Angry Men ~ Ford’s Theatre

Jordan Wright
January 24, 2019 

(L-R) Eric Hissom (Juror One), Michael Russotto (Juror Three) and Erik King (Juror Eight). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Playwright Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men had its initial stage debut in 1955.  Better known as a writer for television (The Defenders, The Twilight Zone), Rose was inspired to write this, the best known of his plays, after serving as a juror on a murder trial.  “It was such an impressive, solemn setting in a great big wood-paneled courtroom, with a silver-haired judge, it knocked me out.  I was overwhelmed.  I was on a jury for a manslaughter case, and we got into this terrific, furious, eight-hour argument in the jury room.  I was writing one-hour dramas for Studio One in Hollywood, and I thought, ‘Wow, what a setting for a drama!’”

(R- L): Lawrence Redmond (Juror Seven) and Bueka Uwemedimo (Juror Eleven) with (background) Eric Hissom (Juror One), Bru Ajueyitsi (Juror Five), Sean Maurice Lynch (Juror Two) and Michael Russotto (Juror Three) Photo by Scott Suchman

In mid-century America generalizations about race and juries’ penchant for assumed guilt were being re-examined.  Guilty verdicts for people of color revealed a predisposition to convict, regardless of whether the defendant was innocent or guilty.  Countless TV dramas and several films have been made of Rose’s drama, and it is said that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor chose to pursue her law degree after seeing Sidney Lumet’s 1957 movie of it.  Twelve Angry Men will never go out of date.  Its relevance is undeniable.  We see injustice in courtrooms every day all over the world.

Erik King (Juror Eight, standing) and the cast of the Ford’s Theatre production of Twelve Angry Men. Photo by Scott Suchman

Though the universal search for justice and truth is a primary tenet in civilized societies, we see its failures and foibles on a daily basis.  While some defendants are found guilty, others are found innocent of the same crimes, even if based on a similar series of facts.  We ask ourselves, ‘If the defendant was white would the verdict have been different?’  If he or she had more skilled representation, would they have gotten off.  The Innocence Project tells us that prejudice and the convictions of those who are poorly represented, is far too often the case.

Cast of the Ford’s Theatre production of Twelve Angry Men. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The play’s characters are listed by number – First Juror/Foreman through twelve – and set in the deliberating room where the personalities and backgrounds of each man becomes relevant.  In a particularly cruel generalization, one juror declares, “Human life doesn’t mean as much to them.”  Director Sheldon Epps’ deliberate choice to cast six black and six white actors as jurors gives us license to look for signs of prejudice in both camps.  We do, and there it is.  We never meet the orphaned teen or his father, whom he is accused of killing, instead we hear fear-mongering and an ever-shifting set of supposedly incontrovertible facts which become suggestions, or worse, suppositions, based on the prejudices of each juror.  During their deliberations, certainties become doubts as clues prove to be mere red herrings and the testimony of sure-fire witnesses proves faulty.

Highly recommended.  A cast of exceptional veteran actors keeps the tension palpable.

With Eric Hissom as First Juror/Foreman; Sean-Maurice Lynch as Second Juror; Michael Russotto as Third Juror; Christopher Bloch as Fourth Juror; Bru Ajueyitsi as Fifth Juror; Jason B. McIntosh as Sixth Juror; Lawrence Redmond as Seventh Juror; Erik King as Eighth Juror; Craig Wallace as Ninth Juror; Elan Zafir as Tenth Juror; Bueka Uwemedimo as Eleventh Juror; and Brandon McCoy as Twelfth Juror.

Scenic Design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, Costume Design by Wade Laboissonniere, Lighting Design by Dan Covey and Sound Design by John Gromada.

Through February 17th at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets call 888 616.0270 or visit www.Fords.org.

School of Rock ~ The Musical ~ At The National Theatre

Jordan Wright
January 19, 2019 

Cameron Trueblood in School of Rock Tour. Photo Matt Murphy

For anyone who has harbored fantasies of joining a rock and roll band, School of Rock is a flat-out fantastic, fun-loving musical with an Andrew Lloyd Webber score that hits all the right wah-wahs.  With screaming guitar and drum solos – from kids no less – this show will rock you out of your comfy zone.  Based on the movie that starred Jack Black, its story is simple.  Aging rocker, about to be evicted from his former band mates’ apartment for non-payment of his share of the rent, finagles (or shall we say, “cons”) his way into a substitute teaching job at a posh prep school and starts a band with kids who are still mastering their times tables.  Booted from his band for lack of sex appeal, Dewey (Merritt David Janes) is on his last dime and last pair of socks when he arrives at Horace Green prep and meets Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorset Sharp), the take-no-prisoners, hard-nosed principal whose secret passion is Stevie Nicks.  Thanks to Dewey the fourth-graders shed both their shyness and classical music studies to study Rock and Roll, while secretly preparing to compete in the Battle of the Bands.

School of Rock Tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman-Matt Murphy

At home, the kids hide their intentions from parents who are too distant or too consumed by what they want their kids to become.  In “If Only You Would Listen” the children hope for better communications with parents who are too busy to care about their individual hopes and dreams.

Due to the many questions about the reality of the kids playing their instruments, Webber makes a pre-curtain, taped announcement to assure us that they do – backed by a nine-piece pit orchestra.  Though the set up and introduction of the characters is a tad slow going, by Scene 6 in Act 1 under the expert direction of Laurence Connor, the story comes alive when the students, with Dewey’s encouragement and guidance, lose their inhibitions and rock out.  As actor musicians you can sense their youthful enthusiasm which is as palpable as it is contagious.

School of Rock Tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman-Matt Murphy

Of the kids in leading roles watch for outstanding performances from Sami Bray as the feisty, smarty-pants Summer; Leanne Parks as the stone-faced, pigtail-sporting, bass player Katie; Mystic Inscho as the hard-driving, moves-like-Jagger, lead guitarist Zack; Theo Mitchell-Penner as the nerdy, shy keyboard player; Grier Burke as Tomika the soulful singer who sheds her insecurities; and Cameron Trueblood as James the kick-ass drummer.

A cast of nearly three dozen, some in multiple roles – with Layne Roate as Ned, Madison Micucci as Patty, Arianna Pereira as Shonelle, Gary Trainor who also plays Dewey, Sinclair Mitchell as Snake/Mr. Mooneyham.

School of Rock Tour. Photo by Matt Murphy

Book by Julian Fellowes, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, Choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter; Scenic and Costume Design by Anna Louizos, Lighting Design by Natasha Katz, Sound Design by Mick Potter, Music Direction led by Martyn Axe with Julie Homi.

Through January 27th at the National Theater, Washington DC – 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information visit www.TheNationalDC.org or call 202 628-6161.

Cinderella ~ A New Adventures Production ~ The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Jordan Wright
January 17, 2019 

MATTHEW BOURNE'S CINDERELLA. Liam Mower 'The Angel - Cinderella's Fairy Godfather' and Ashley Shaw 'Cinderella' . Photo by Johan Persson.

If you’re looking for a Disney princess in a blue satin gown, go elsewhere.  In Sir Matthew Bourne’s ballet, Cinderella, there is nary a tiara-wearing royal – not a tutu nor a toe shoe. A pair of silver glitter pumps is involved, and there is a love story, but that’s where the similarity ends.  This Cinderella has step-brothers and step-sisters, and a step-mother reminiscent of Joan Crawford of “Mommy, Dearest” notoriety.  Bourne places the action in World War II London during the time of the Blitz.

Set to Prokofiev’s sweeping score, this glorious production opens with vintage black-and-white Pathé newsreels of the bombings as told by a cheerful, British reporter.  Buck up, Brits, his delivery suggests, and they did.  Bourne’s three acts take us from Cinderella’s stylish Victorian living room during the blackouts and air raids into apocalyptic scenes with girders crashing and buildings ablaze.  As Brits were urged to “carry on” with life as usual we find ourselves in the Café de Paris, a sophisticated nightclub where the elite forget their troubles in stylized 1940’s dances.  The sets and costumes by Lez Brotherston, in shades of grey with painterly touches of red, are nothing short of stunning.

Most thrilling is the fairy godmother role, here called The Angel.  Danced by Liam Mower (Billy in the original Broadway cast of Billy Elliot the Musical), it is a prominent role unlike your fairy godmother of yore.  Clad in a silver satin suit with slicked-back white hair, and looking more than a bit like David Bowie, he alternately guides and rescues Cinderella as she dreams of her love, Harry, the Pilot, an RAF pilot who is not an actual prince, but is her prince.  Bourne’s choreography for The Angel is mesmerizing and Mower becomes nearly serpentine in Nijinsky-esque movements that are an exquisite blend of both classical and modern dance.

MATTHEW BOURNE'S CINDERELLA. Ashley Shaw 'Cinderella' and Andrew Monaghan 'Harry'. Photo by Johan Persson

Ashley Shaw (Cinderella) is a marvel.  Known to those who saw her play Vicky Page in The Red Shoes during her US tour in 2016-2017 or in Bourne’s film and TV productions of Christmas, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.   Her beauty and lithe physicality coupled with her expressive gestural movements, make her performance a joy to behold.

With Ashley Shaw as Cinderella; Andrew Monaghan as Harry, The Pilot; Liam Mower as The Angel; Madelaine Brennan as Sybil, The Step-Mother; Alan Vincent as Robert, The Step-Father.  Step-Sister & Step-Brothers played by Sophia Hurdley, Anjali Mehra, Jackson Fisch, Dan Wright and Stephen Murray.  Boyfriends & Girlfriends played by Reece Causton, Ben Brown, Cordelia Braithwaite and Katie Webb.  Harry’s Friends played by Danny Reubens and Edwin Ray.  Café de Paris Bandleader played by Alan Vincent with Guests played by Seren Williams, Stephanie Billers, Joao Carino and Mark Samaras.

MATTHEW BOURNE'S CINDERELLA. Andrew Monaghan 'Harry', Ashley Shaw 'Cinderella' and The Company. Photo by Johan Persson

ARP Wardens, Spies, Gas Mask Dogs, Airmen & Bombers, Prostitutes & Rent Boys, The Salvation Army, Savoy Guests, Thugs, Doctors, Nurses, Servicemen & Women and their Families, “Brief Encounter” couple and the people of London – played by members of the company.

A perfectly spectacular production!  Highly recommended.

Through January 20th in the Opera House at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org