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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.

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.

“Ponzi!” – a stage reading & musical at the Nannie J. Lee Center in Alexandria, Va

April 21, 2019

Why do people believe in a con man? Sounds like a debate for a philosophy or psych class, but such complex questions go straight to the heart of this fledgling musical.

The world premiere of Ponzi! chronicles the corrupt financial schemes of Carlo Ponzi, an Italian-American whose fraudulent investment practices scandalized Americans in the early part of the 20th century.  Just after World War I, the notorious “bushel basket millionaire” was indicted and found guilty of running a bogus operation in which funds were never actually invested to produce the huge financial returns he advertised.

Carlo Ponzi, an Italian-American

To pull off this devious contrivance, Ponzi paid off his first-tier clientele with funds provided by new unsuspecting investors.  All this despite his public claim that he was exploiting exchange rates through the conversion of international postal coupons.  And, lo, the term “Ponzi scheme” was born.

Nearly a century after Ponzi’s Massachusetts’ trial, composer and lyricist Lois Cecsarini has written a new musical with the charismatic crook at its center.  As a former Foreign Service officer with the State Department, the Alexandria resident listened to an audiobook about the life of Ponzi and later discovered his autobiography.  Inspired she wrote a show about the notorious swindler and those who adored him.  Why, the former diplomat wondered, did people fall for this early version of Bernie Madoff by turning him into a folk hero?  And how, given Ponzi’s compelling story paralleling the present political climate of corruption, voter suppression, unrest on the southern border, conflicts with the media, and, yes, Russian influence, could any composer resist?

Playwright Lois Cecsarini (center in green sweater) with the cast of Ponzi – photo courtesy of Lois Cecsarini

Fast forward to a year later, Cecsarini has written over a dozen clever songs set to a full script with fifteen talented local singer-actors and an experienced director poised to present a free staged reading of Ponzi!  Theatre-goers will enjoy music ranging from show tunes to tango with flourishes reminiscent of a church choir.

“Realizing the dream of bringing this show to life for a live audience has been both challenging and rewarding,” said Cecsarini, who found inspiration for her previous musicals from a range of experiences, including her service in Middle Eastern and African conflict zones.

“There is no question that it takes a village to make a musical, and I’m grateful to all who have helped make the Ponzi! project happen.  Of course, my hope is that the future of Ponzi! will include a stop on Broadway.  But for now, I can’t wait for our first audience here in the DMV to enjoy the show.  It is our hope they’ll carry both its tunes and its message home,” she explained.

The show tells the story of Ponzi’s relationships among the Boston populace who for different reasons supported and defended the man later arrested for his illegal activities.  In an era when public discourse so often centers on what is true and what is false, whom to trust, and what to believe, the musical couldn’t be more timely.

A one-night-only staged reading of Ponzi! directed by Bridget Grace will take place on Saturday, May 4 at 2pm.  The location is the Kauffman Auditorium at the Nannie J. Lee Center at 1108 Jefferson Street in Alexandria, Virginia 22314.  There is no charge for admission.  A free-will donation will be collected for local charities. Lois Cecsarini contact 571-239-0428

Oslo ~ Round House Theatre ~ At the Lansburgh Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 30, 2019 

It’s a treat to have Bethesda-based Round House Theater present in DC’s Lansburgh Theatre.  Ongoing renovations of Round House are scheduled to be completed in mid-September in time to kick off their fall season.  An even better treat was the chance to see this exciting production of J. T. Rogers’s electrifying political drama and 2017 Tony Award-winning play, Oslo.  This historic set piece focusses on the intense back channel negotiations that culminated in the Oslo Peace Accords signed by Arafat and Peres in 1993 during the Clinton administration.  Originally crafted by two somewhat dorky economics professors and fleshed out under cloak and dagger, this sub rosa Declaration of Principles became the road map to the final agreement.

Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Ahmed Quire) and Ahmad Kamal (Hassan Asfour) Photo by Kaley Etzkorn

Banned from sitting down with the PLO, the Israeli government and the Palestinians needed proxies to begin negotiations.  Part truth and part imagined, it follows the twists and turns that prove to be a result of the countless “sticking points’ – the enmity between Muslim and Jew, ingrained paranoia, male egos, and the intricate posturing from such widely diverse, ferociously bargaining, personalities.

Cody Nickell (Terje Rød-Larsen), Erin Weaver (Mona Juul), and Kimberly Gibert (Marianne Heiberg). Photo by Kaley Etzkorn

Norwegian diplomats Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen take the lead on a project that demands behind-the-scenes maneuvering and uncompromised secrecy, especially in regard to the Americans, whom neither side trusted.  As a couple working under the guise of Terje’s obscure foundation, they coordinate every meeting, promising to stay neutral.  But it’s their quiet diplomacy that pushes the parties forward when they most want to quit.

Todd Scofield (Johan Jorgen Holst) and Kimberly Gilbert (Marianne Heiberg). Photo by Lilly King

Erin Weaver as Mona and Cody Nickell as Terje are superb in their roles as the ambitious married couple who uses every trick in their well-seasoned playbook to keep the men negotiating.  Throughout the play, Mona, Terje, Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Egeland, and others speak directly to the audience – mostly to keep us in the loop on their ever-evolving strategies – but also to assess how things are preceding and who is undermining the plan.  The dialogue is not all serious.  Gallows humor, a shared love for the cook’s Norwegian waffles, and clever asides provide a balance between the gravity of the situation and the hilarious foibles of the human condition.

Cody Nickell (Terje Rød-Larsen), Erin Weaver (Mona Juul), and Gregory Wooddell (Jan Egeland). Photo by Lilly King

Given all the moving parts and number of actors Ryan Rilette’s direction is extraordinary. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t loudly applaud the dramatic lighting by Jesse Belsky, atmospheric projections by Jared Mezzocchi, and the cleverly interlocking set by Misha Kachman that takes us repeatedly from Mona and Torje’s dining room and Ministry offices to the snowy mountain hideaway in Norway that provides cover for a series of clandestine meetings.

Ahmad Kamal (Hassan Asfour), Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Ahmed Quire), Gregory Wooddell (Ron Pundak), Juri Henley-Cohn (Uri Savir), and Sasha Olinick (Yair Hirschfeld) Juri Henley-Cohn (Uri Savir), John Taylor Phillips (Joel Singer), Sasha Olinick (Yair Hirschfeld), Ahmad Kamal (Hassan Asfour), and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Ahmed Quire). Photo by Lilly King

An electrifying and intricate political thriller.  Highly recommended.

With Erin Weaver as Mona Juul; Cody Nickell as Terje Rød-Larsen; Todd Scofield as Johan Jorgen Holst and Finn Grandal; Gregory Wooddell as Jan Egeland and Ron Pundak; Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Ahmed Qurie; Juri Henley-Cohn as Uri Savir; Sasha Olinick as Yair Hirschfeld; Ahmad Kamal as Hassan Asfour; Kimberly Gilbert as Marianne Heiberg and Toril Grandal; Alexander Strain as Yossi Beilin; Michael Sweeney Hammond as American Diplomat and Thor Bjornevog; John Taylor Phillips as Joel Singer; John Austin as Trond and German Husband; Susannah Morgan Eig as German Wife and Swedish Hostess; and Conrad Feininger as Shimon Peres.

Assistant Director Susannah Morgan Eig; Costume Design by Ivania Stack; Sound Design and Composer Matthew M. Nielson.

Through May 19th at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street, NW Washington, DC 20004.  For tickets and information call 240.644.1100 or visit www.RoundHouseTheatre.org

STOMP ~ National Theatre

Jordan Wright
April 24, 2019
Photo credit The National Theater DC

STOMP has a long history as a crowd-pleaser with its roots going back over a quarter of a century.  Since that time the percussion-heavy, wordless sensation has been performed in over 50 countries and in front of 24 million people.  STOMP has won countless theater awards as well as an Academy Award nomination, four Emmy noms and one Emmy Award for the HBO special Stomp Out LoudAdditionally, its talents were featured at the closing ceremonies for the London Olympics as well as The Academy Awards.  It’s a show that speaks to everyone’s sense of rhythm, creativity and a sustaining beat.  It paralells the rhythm, not always discernible, that weaves in and out of our daily lives – sometimes chaotic, other times in harmony.

Eight performers – four women and four men – produce rhythmic sounds on an extensive variety of everyday items – from metal trash cans, matchboxes and push brooms, to dust pans, newspapers, and more.  Ever notice the sound of a straw squeaking in and out of a plastic cup lid?  Add that to the bass sound of a blown-up plastic bag when it’s stroked or thumped and a plastic shopping bag when it’s shaken rhythmically.

To accompany these unique sound combinations, performers keep the beat with their feet or hands, slapping thighs or simply clapping, an activity the audience is invited to participate in.  One routine, played out with long poles and mallets, takes on the primal appearance of a Maasai jumping dance.  Each routine leads to another interaction among the group of performers who provide silent, interactive comic relief.

There are times in this show when it is comparable to the cadence of a military drill, others when it is a coordinated, controlled frenzy and objects go flying across the stage.  It takes some serious hand-eye coordination to pull off metal lids or basketballs tossed and caught in ever-evolving circles of activity.

High-octane, toe-tapping, finger-snapping, kinetic energy.  Find your rhythm and go.  Especially exciting for kids.

Created and directed by Luke Creswell and Steve McNicholas with Lighting by Steve McNicholas. Starring Kayla Cowart, Jonathon Elkins, Alexis JulianoCary Lamb, Jr., Guido Mandozzi, Artis Olds, Jeremy Price, Krystal Renée, Ivan Salazar, Cade Slattery, Steve Weiss and Joe White.

Through Sunday, April 28th at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information web or call 1-800-514-3849 or at the box office weekdays from noon till 6pm.