Posted by Carten Cordell / Wednesday, July 13th, 2011
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Ever heard of the Contemporary American Theater Festival? Well now you have, and this is a yearly tradition you can’t miss.
The festival takes place at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Their five selections for this summer’s season include Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights David Mamet and Sam Shepard, as well as the brilliant new Kyle Bradstreet. CATF Founder and Producing Director Ed Herendeen says, “These plays are funny, intelligent, and compelling; and they explore the power and beauty of language and storytelling.”
I saw Mamet’s “Race,” an edgy show that speaks the truth through a group of lawyers and their questionably guilty client. I also saw Shepard’s “Ages of the Moon,” a dark comedy about two old friends looking back on their lives, and Bradstreet’s “From Prague” a story of three individuals whose choices, almost synonymously mistakes, plague their thoughts while they grieve for those they lost. The festival also hosts Tracy Thorne’s “We Are Here” and Lucy Thurber’s “The Insurgents.”
Visit their website, www.catf.org, to find out more information about the festival and the shows. In addition to their main program, they offer movie nights, lectures, and author talk backs, as well as breakfasts with Herendeen, lunches with the company, and staged readings. They have complete listings for local restaurants, places to shop, as well as lodging recommendations. It is also a doable day trip (which is how I saw the three shows) although their discounts for 4-show and 5-show packages are worth it for the quality of the productions as well as for the preferred seating you get in the black box spaces.
The festival is happening now through the end of the month (July 31). This article is part one in a four part series, which will include reviews of the Mamet, Shepard, and Bradstreet shows.
Posted by Carten Cordell / Wednesday, July 13th, 2011
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
It’s the day before opening night and already “Oklahoma!” at Arena Stage has sold out its opening weekend with limited tickets remaining for its first month. Only this is actually the second run of the show. Last summer it broke box office records. The woman with the magic touch, Artistic Director of Arena Stage and Director of “Oklahoma!” Molly Smith, never predicted it would be so successful. Her secret is in her mission.
“I think of ‘Oklahoma!’ as reinventing it for our generation,” she says. “It was fitting because Arena was opening our new space at the Mead Center. I wanted a musical that was also going through new changes, like Arena and like America.”
Though “Oklahoma!” takes place in the early 1900s, Smith’s artistic vision allowed audiences to see how the stories of the people on the territory are no different than their lives today. “Theatres are immediate,” Smith says. “They’re about the moment. In the best of all possible worlds, the shows are about the audiences’ lives one way or another. We put ourselves in the actors’ shoes and open up empathy within.”
Something about the world of “Oklahoma!” draws audiences to the show. “There’s so much life and joy in that world,” she says. “We’re in a moment with so much strife, so many fears, and in ‘Oklahoma!’ we get to watch America at its best.”
Smith’s commitment to America also pops up in her push for new work. “We have a very strong stance about the development and study of American work. America can see itself through new play production. It’s an area that has been important to me for my entire career. Theatre needs to be modern. If we’re not supporting our writers today, then we won’t have theatre tomorrow.”
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” couldn’t be more American. Or could it? “I was interested in the production being cross-cultural,” Smith says. “I really wanted to highlight the world that was the territory.” Smith described the differences of territories and states, emphasizing the cultural battles that often occurred over the land. “The focus of the show was to go back into 1907 and see what the territory of Oklahoma was like. There is a profound difference between the people of a naturalized state and those that live in a territory.”
To create this world, Smith called upon Parker Esse, choreographer, and George Fulginiti-Shakar, music director. For those used to the traditional, by the book “Oklahoma!,” get ready to see some re-arranged music… and tango. “I’ve worked with Parker before and I knew that he had the athletic choreography and level of creativity that we needed to restage ‘Oklahoma!’” says Smith. “He is superb looking at different dance forms, like hoe downs, and he really does his research.”
What makes Fulginiti-Shakar a gem is his natural ear for the music. “We wanted him to highlight those differences that Parker drew out of the choreography,” says Smith. “What’s really strong about George is his ability to collaborate.”
Smith’s got the vision, but she also knows who to call upon. Esse and Fulginiti-Shakar certainly make a dynamic duo. Both won Helen Hayes awards for their contribution to the production. Here’s a link to our exclusive video interview with them, which takes a behind-the-scenes look at how they created the sound and step of Arena’s hit “Oklahoma!” production.
Molly Smith has been the artistic director of Arena Stage for over 13 seasons. Previously, she founded the Perseverance Theatre in Alaska. Her career is characterized by her support of the development of new, American work, and through her revitalization of Arena Stage she created New Play Institute. Next season, Arena Stage showcases one of its resident playwright’s works, “You, Nero,” as well as two world premieres. “Oklahoma!” runs through October 2, with a possible extension. For more information, visit www.arenastage.org.
Posted by Carten Cordell / Friday, July 8th, 2011
Friday, July 8, 2011
To be fair, I must tell you that I once performed in “The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)” and I stayed after the performance to get Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor and Matt Rippy’s autographs.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company, made up of standout comedians Martin, Tichenor and Rippy, is performing “The Complete World of Sports (abridged)” at the Kennedy Center through July 24. Performing isn’t quite the right term for what I saw, though. It’s more like inventing. They’re a fast-talking group that delivers on the spot punch lines, some tailored specifically to our area. For instance, they joked about former Congressman Weiner, the Washington Redskins, even the state of Virginia itself.
Some of the best moments happened at their so-called mess-ups. They improvise their way through a situation, always challenging each other to take it a step further, and watching them struggle, contend, and defeat themselves on stage is hilarious. It’s also the result of a group that knows each other so well they practically know what’s coming next.
Their show is family-friendly, but the Shrek kind, the one where it is appropriate for kids because the jokes that aren’t go right over their heads. To give you an example, but not to spoil the fun, Tichenor spotlights Tiger Woods in a Nike, Gatorade and McDonald’s sponsored ad. The Tiger Woods’s favorite punch lines, it’s called: “Just Do It,” “Is It in You?” and “I’m Lovin’ It.”
The RSC has more than just good jokes up their sleeve. The performance is also audience-participation, and involves some singing, both from them (which is excellent) and from us (which we all hope our spouses didn’t hear). But at least we weren’t lip syncing like the Chinese girl at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
As the Kennedy Center’s Jeremy Birch writes, “Sports fans will like this show. Sports haters will love this show.” As the trio says, “What’s the most exciting thing that can happen in baseball?” “A no-hitter.” “The most exciting thing that can happen is when nothing happens.” And that’s the sort of insight that allows them to humorously make fun of American, and world, sports culture.
For more information, visit www.kennedy-center.org.
Posted by Carten Cordell / Thursday, July 7th, 2011
Thursday, July 7, 2011
The stage is set with LIFE magazines, a TV antenna, and retro-looking furniture. It is as though you’ve visited your own small planet, traveling through time into the late 1950’s. And though we’re in 2011, the American Century Theater took Gore Vidal’s “Visit to a Small Planet” and made a comedy that reminds Northern Virginia and D.C. residents that even today we can get too wrapped up in media and government hype.
Kreton, the visitor, arrives in Manassas, VA at the Spelding house. He finds two young lovers, Conrad Mayberry and Ellen Spelding, as they deliberate their future together. Ellen’s parents, the hair-brained Reba and news host Roger, are eager to make Kreton their rise to fame. But Kreton’s galactical powers keep them and the government at a distance, and they fear that his plans to take over the world will be successful.
Vidal’s script is fairly funny, but director Rip Claassen made campy, slapstick choices that felt forced. I enjoyed his intermission music, but the length of the intermissions seemed to slow down the show, which needs a humorous, snowball effect to keep the stakes high. But I loved the animated cat, and watching Kreton talk to it (he can read minds) was hilarious.
Kreton, Bruce Alan Rauscher, carried the show. His social faux pas, created by mirroring the characters in his effort to learn their customs, added a delightful “what’s next” element to his character. Megan Graves and Noah Bird paired well as the young lovers, and their physical presence matched their in-tune performances. Graves’s talent is evident by her well-rounded embodiment of her character, and I would love to see her in more shows. Reba, the mother played by Kelly Cronenberg, also mastered the art of making an entrance, and though some of her moments on stage were brief, she commanded the space with her airy, housewife melodrama.
All the characters were well-dressed in period costume, designed by Rosalie Ferris, and the expansive set design by Noel Greer creatively used the space while making every seat in the house the best seat.
This review is of their final dress rehearsal. “Visit to a Small Planet” opens July 8 and runs through August 6. For more information, visit www.americancentury.org.
Posted by Carten Cordell / Tuesday, July 5th, 2011
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
We went, knowing that Alice Ripley was stunning. And of course, she was everything we expected. But what may be overlooked in the tour of “Next to Normal” are the actors that surround her and the band that never stops.
“Next to Normal” is a story about a family that has dealt with grief and insanity for over 17 years. Diana, Alice Ripley, lives with Gabe, Curt Hansen, in her mind. Though she and her husband Dan, Asa Somers, lost him when he was a baby, he’s all grown up. But Dan and Diana have Natalie, Emma Hunton, their daughter who has suffered from a lack of motherly attention. Seeking friendship and release in Henry, Preston Sadleir, Natalie starts to lose her own grip on life. We enter at a time when Diana’s mental problems have become more than she and the family can bear, and after she stops taking her cocktail of pills, they look into ECT, electroconvulsive therapy, with their rock star doctor, Jeremy Kushnier.
I typically favor straight plays over musicals because I appreciate the commentary more, but this isn’t your typical musical. There’s no dance numbers, and the choreography is minor. There also aren’t many spoken lines – nearly all of their dialogue is captured in the songs. But there is a fantastic lighting design by Kevin Adams, and it fits well with the rock and roll soundtrack from the band. The script and the songs, by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Brian Yorkey, are what make the show more than just the story of one woman as she battles mental illness. It is the story, set to music, of everyone affected by her “next to normal” lifestyle, and especially those she’s inadvertently hurt along the way. And, like a good play, you have to do a little of the work too; the ending is ambiguous, and, depending on what you want to take away from the show, it can be hopeful or downright tragic.
The touring cast is filled with strong voices and emotional performances. My favorite number was Somers’ “Who’s Crazy” and his devotion to Diana hit hard by the end. Hansen will have you melting with delight, wishing you lived with visions of him dancing around in your head. Hunton does a spectacular job as the daughter, and her performance of “Maybe (Next to Normal)” with Ripley felt heartbreakingly honest. And though it was clear in Ripley’s voice that she’s been put through a lot on this long run of the show, any failings I heard made her character more real. Plus, the band and especially Craig Magnano on the guitars adds a catchy support to the actors’ performances. It’s a show you’ll want to see and listen to in the car on the way home. Catch “Next to Normal” at the Kennedy Center, www.kennedy-center.org, through July 10.
Posted by Carten Cordell / Saturday, July 2nd, 2011
Sunday, July 3, 2011
It’s the closing weekend for the Washington Shakespeare Company’s 2010-2011 season, and if you’ve got a choice between seeing “Night and Day” or “The Tennessee Continuum” today, definitely see “Night and Day.”
It all comes down to scripts. The first piece of “The Tennessee Continuum,” called “Portrait of a Madonna,” poses an interesting thought: what is wrong with being crazy if you are harmless? I liked the director’s addition at the beginning where we got to see into Lucretia Collins’s mind, but there is only so much a director can do with a script that goes nowhere. The plot is a lot of talk and no action; you know that, in the end, Collins will still be crazy and they’ll still take her away. Unfortunately, the contrived delivery which Annetta Dexter Sawyer gives the part means that we don’t really care that her ending is tragic.
The second piece is better, especially if you’re a fan of slapstick humor. It’s called “The Gnadiges Fraulein” and Mundy Spears (Polly) and Emily Webbe (Molly) are a great duo. They play off one another well on stage, and their rocking chair bit is to die for. The whole script is a bunch of silliness on stage, and it’s darkly funny to watch the Gnadiges Fraulein, Karin Rosnizeck, get beaten up on stage and still ask for more. But Tennessee Williams beat the script to death and I no longer cared about the characters’ end.
I thought they used their space rather creatively though, and I appreciated the costume, sound and lighting work of Colin Dieck, Susie Graham, and David Crandall. I especially salute Jennifer Tardiff’s work with the extensive bird costume (among the other, elaborate costumes) for “The Gnadiges Fraulein.” I also enjoyed the parallel to the new pop culture obsession with hoarding, as created by prop designer Lauren Cucarola for “Portrait of a Madonna.”
Both “Night and Day” and “The Tennessee Continuum” run through July 3. For more information, visit www.washingtonshakespeare.org.
Posted by Carten Cordell / Saturday, July 2nd, 2011
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Tom Stoppard may be the wordsmith, but his genius for writing a play concept shouldn’t go unnoticed. One way to get good reviews is to write a play in honor of journalists and then invite them all to watch.
“Night and Day” takes place in Kambawe, a fictional African country. Journalists, photographers, and government officials meet at the Carson’s house in anticipation of war and the leads they’re following. It is a story of the heroes who sacrificed everything in the name of free press, a story of love and our ability to care deeply about others, and a story about corrupt politics, which in the modern world often leads to war.
Though the enemies may change the war never does. As Washington Shakespeare Company director Kasi Campbell astutely noted, it is highly pertinent that we see this play now, given the recent events in the Middle East which have cost us our writers and photojournalists. Stoppard has written a timeless piece that gives insight into some of the many reasons why our press takes risks to give us information, which in Stoppard’s world, is light. But he’s got the character of Ruth, the seemingly reasonable perspective on the issue, who cries out, “Which page is it on? That thing you’re willing to die for?”
This production does an excellent job with Stoppard’s show, and was very well cast. Jim Jorgensen, Dick, takes on the perfect persona for a journalist, and his delivery was the opposite of contrived; it felt like he was truly present in the moment, and I was always interested in what he was going to do next. Tyler Herman, Jake, became the perfect portrait of innocence and hopefulness, yet it was his invigorating approach to the field that was a visible reminder to Dick of why he started writing in the first place. Daniel Flynt, George, was a nice contrast and had the right look of a photojournalist. At times, his straightforward approach to their situation made him the only one who wasn’t trying to fool anyone in the process. Other acknowledgements go to Sam O’Brien, Alastair, who was the first child actor I’ve seen with true talent and not just a cute face, and Chuck Young, Mageeba, whose presidential air, like any dirty politician, made you trust his actions with caution.
Again, my congratulations to director Kasi Campbell. Make sure you read his director’s note, as well as the dramaturgical note from Alan Balch, and the glossary. All three really enhanced my understanding of the show. Though I mention it in passing, I also applaud scenic designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden, lighting designer Colin Dieck, costume designer Denise Umland, and sound designer Veronica J. Lancaster. The costumes were fantastic, the lights and sound effects for the cars pulling up and driving away from the scene were a nice touch, and the set helped open up the characters’ conversation to the audience, as Stoppard’s plays can so often get wrapped up in their own language and forget about who is listening.
The Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of “Night and Day” is in its closing weekend, so make sure you go if you’re not busy with Fourth of July plans! It is worth the trip. For more information, visit www.washingtonshakespeare.org. Special Note: “Night and Day” is running in rep with “The Tennessee Continuum.” A review will be posted Sunday. Tuesday, July 5 Update: Link to the Tennessee Continuum Review. Look for a notice about their upcoming season next week.
Posted by Carten Cordell / Thursday, June 30th, 2011
Thursday, June 30, 2011
All bets are off in war. Nothing said that better than World War II. But how do we justify our actions during peace? Sofi Oksanen’s “Purge” relates Estonia’s 1950s and 1990s, and though one era is consumed with the country’s ethnic purging, the other is not without its own abhorrent practices.
Because we live in America, our daily routines are free of the same worries of the Estonians. Oksanen’s character Aliide says, “Power changes hands and it’s out with the old and in with the new. That’s just how it goes.” For Estonia, when power changes it means that everyone goes with it; the opposition either dies or remains silent. As director Robert McNamara writes, “There is a sense of the true hellishness of human existence.” But “Purge” refers not only to the country’s obstinate regimes, but to the sense of cleansing we hope Oksanen’s characters can feel.
It is a story of redemption, but as with any journey, the characters have to fall down before they can be lifted up. McNamara’s direction guided the show into a story where the audience could see the side of the betrayer, and rather than hate them for their actions, feel pity for their empty hearts. I loved the way he staged the young and old Aliide with their determined faces reflecting different motives. And the powerful opening – which I will not spoil for you – was almost more than I could bear in the small intimate space of the Scena Theatre. But it hooked me.
The fact that only two actors are equity is no indication of the level of talent from the cast. Stas Wronka and Armand Sindoni have a commanding presence on stage and work very well together. Colleen Delany’s make-up gave her a wild-eyed look that did her well. And when she flew off the handle at Kerry Waters I had to grab the edge of my seat in fear. Waters and Irina Koval, the Aliides, were both superb. Waters had the hardened look of a woman that had rarely seen joy, yet the frailty of an old woman who had to stay strong to keep from being walked over. Koval was the absolute star of the show. She is young but she delivers with the emotional understanding of someone who has seen the world in all its rawness. Though the protagonist, she led the life of the antagonist, but she always seemed true and somehow we forgave her human, inhumane, choices.
The traps and tricks of Michael C. Stepowany’s morphing set design established concrete and imaginary locations, a tough dichotomy to entertain on stage. The loud, jarring music between the scenes destroyed the mood established by the actors, whose immense talent should be commended for the extra work they did to get it back.
Two warnings about the show: there’s full-body nudity. They mention it in small print in the program and as a result I missed it and was taken by surprise. So don’t be shocked, and don’t bring your kids. I also must forewarn you not to read the director’s note until intermission. While it greatly aided to my understanding of the show, it does give a little too much of the first act away.
Overall, a fantastic show. This production will make you uncomfortable, but that’s what makes it stick. Since this is an international show, you might not have the chance to see it again. Change your weekend plans and get over there – Oksanen’s award winning play is at the Scena Theatre through July 3. For more information, visit www.scenatheater.org.
Posted by Carten Cordell / Thursday, June 30th, 2011
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Emily Love Morrison is an actor and singer living in Washington, DC. She most recently appeared in the American Century Theater’s production of Stage Door, and also performed with Scena Theatre’s War of the Worlds and Heritage O’Neill’s Anna Christie. Her show will premiere at the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival, and this is her first time with Fringe and writing for stage. Prior to moving to Washington in 2009, she lived for 10 years in Los Angeles and 15 years in New York City. She spoke with Northern Virginia Magazine’s Clara Ritger about her new autobiographical show “But Love Is My Middle Name!” and what she learned about herself along the way.
NoVA: So your middle name really is “Love?”
Morrison: It was a last name on my father’s side. We’ve carried it through the years.
NoVA: Your career took you to New York for awhile, but eventually you returned here.
Morrison: I’ve been very fortunate. I grew up in Stanton, VA, went to New York after college, then ended up in L.A., and now I’m back in the D.C. area. I love this theatre community. It’s grown exponentially over the last 20 years and there have been a lot of key companies that have contributed to the growth.
NoVA: You haven’t always been doing theatre though. Where did your passion for music start?
Morrison: In my early 20s I started working in the music industry and by my mid-20s I started learning music. I was performing on stage by the time I hit 30. In L.A. I got sidetracked by an acting class so I’ve been pursuing that. This show is my way to bring both passions together. I think in song lyrics and a lot of my memories are tied to music, so I sing songs in the show. I wouldn’t call myself a musical theatre person, but I did write some of my own pop-style songs for the show.
NoVA: I see you’re a fan of Donny Osmond.
Morrison: I worked for Donny Osmond’s manager in L.A. He was one of the nicest celebrities I’ve ever met.
NoVA: Do you have any celebrity crushes?
Morrison: Well… Timothy Hutton. He’s the only person I ever went up to in public and said, “I like you.” I was 21.
NoVA: How bold! You obviously had to revisit those years to write this show. Have you learned anything about yourself along the way?
Morrison: It is an ever evolving process. I’m a pretty honest person, but this has been a very revealing experience for me. As humans we go through these experiences in life… what I found is that when I really went back to those periods in time I found more emotion than I had expected would be there.
NoVA: How has this process helped you through those emotions?
Morrison: Well, there are two parts. First, I came to understand how deeply our memories remain with us. People always say that time heals. Our memories change over time and become less impactful on a day to day basis. And that’s a good thing too! We need those strong feelings to go away to move on. Second, I know now that I have a very blessed life and I’ve done a lot of interesting things. We tend to let that one thing we’re missing hold us back, but you have to remind yourself how lucky you are.
NoVA: What do you hope to give to your audiences?
Morrison: I think most people have stories in their lives that are similar to mine. We like love stories because we identify with them. I think people will be able to share a part in my show through personal experience.
NoVA: What is it like to write and perform a show about yourself?
Morrison: I always tell people, if you want to find out more about yourself, write a one person show about yourself. It’s free self-therapy!
“But Love Is My Middle Name!” premieres at the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival
Friday July 8 at 8:30pm, Sunday July 10 at 7pm, Thursday July 14 at 6pm, Saturday July 16 at 6:45pm and Wednesday July 20 at 9:30pm
at Spooky Universe at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20009; for tickets call 866.811.4111
Posted by Carten Cordell / Wednesday, June 29th, 2011
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” is an awkward play. Because we view it through a post-World War II lens, it is discomforting to see the characters bully Shylock, a Jewish investor, because of his religion. As the characters in the play seek love – Portia and Bassanio, Nerissa and Gratiano, Jessica and Lorenzo – they completely disregard Shylock. When he seeks justice from the state, the only thread of hope he has left, it turns on him in an unbearable, anti-Semitic ruling. Yet, this is considered one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and the unredeemable ending makes it a tough task for a director.
The benefit of being a part of a well-known theatre company is that you can present even the worst of shows in a pretty package.
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “The Merchant of Venice” started with a well-choreographed number by Karma Camp, which immediately set the mood for the show’s fast-paced, early-20th century New York setting. The following scene, however, opened to a gaggle of actors trying for laughs. It seemed as though the big set and large performance space was eating up their sound and though they played big to compensate, their delivery read as attempts instead of successes.
Speaking of the set, Andrew Lieberman’s design was gorgeous. The grand staircase, dual-level space, and numerous entry ways gave the show a good sense of flow, all while maintaining a facelessness necessary for the various settings in which the characters encounter one another. The show ran a noticeably Shakespearean two hours and forty-five minutes long, but the overlapping exits and entrances of scenes, aided by the set design, helped heighten the momentum at lagging moments.
The show picked up as Portia, played by Julia Coffey, entered. Her introductory scene with an elaborately choreographed on-stage costume change not only stayed true to her carefree, spoiled character but was well-acted and entertaining to watch. Liz Wisan complemented Coffey’s performance with a matronly Nerissa, who was a nostalgic reminder of Chessy from the Parent Trap.
Carl Cofield and Vaneik Echeverria made for entertaining Princes and the quirky nuances which they developed for their characters made them the center of attention during their short but well-played scenes. It was evident that both actors were in tune with their characters and what was going on around them and the audience applauded for their delightful humor at their exits. Daniel Pearce also stole the stage as Launcelot Gobbo, whose total physical performance was captivating.
Excellent costume choices from designer Jennifer Moeller added to the comedy of the show, especially during Jessica’s escape scene. I can’t complain about the music score, the blocking and staging of the actors in large scenes, or the quotable text. But though the show had a workable New York setting, director Ethan McSweeney failed to give it a higher meaning. Why do the women seem to own the world? Could Antonio’s love for Bassanio ever be acknowledged by the characters? Was there a higher hope for Shylock? What would become of the characters that drove him away after World War II shocked the world?
Perhaps I yearned for Shylock’s recompense because Mark Nelson acted the part so well – and my passing mention does not do him justice. But I do feel that an answer or at least recognition of any one of those questions through a director’s note or on stage choice would have helped me to understand why I needed to see the show now, in this time and place. Instead, it had no message to offer me. It was just a pretty production of a popular play.
For more information visit www.shakespearetheatre.org. “The Merchant of Venice” will run through July 24 in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall.