Archive for the ‘Theatre Reviews’ Category

Famous Puppet Death Scenes: Death Does Not Become Them—Theatre

December 28, 2014

“We are all dying each moment; we’re dying as I speak,” says puppet Nathan Tweak in his opening monologue for “Famous Puppet Death Scenes.” He is correct…part of me died a little watching this recent offering from the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Famous Puppet Death Scenes

Created and conceived by Canada’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop, “Famous Puppet Death Scenes” is extremely imaginative and humorous in spots, but when it’s not funny, it just sits there and I do mean sit. The “play” consists of 22 little scenes enacted by puppets. Some scenes have humans taking center stage as well. Most of the scenes have a brutal tone to them as suggested by the title. Some of the scenes are shockingly funny in their violent end…the first time. But too often the same act is committed several times in the same scene and, hence, loses its surprise and its fun. Other times, the same violence is enacted in a different scene.

The male actors who do come out on stage to either perform with the puppets or do scenes on their own are immensely talented in their expressions and in their physicality. But no amount of talent can make waiting for a huge eye to blink either amusing or entertaining.

“Famous Puppet Death Scenes” is directed by Tim Sutherland, Peter Balkwill, Pityu Kenderes and Judd Palmer and stars Nicholas Di Gaetano, Pityu Kenderes and Viktor Lukawski.

Once again, “Famous Puppet Death Scenes” is extremely original and the puppets are made to do some very unusual creative acts. But is it entertaining? For this reviewer, the answer is, “sadly, not very.”

“Famous Puppet Death Scenes runs through January 4.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004

1 ½ nuggets out of 4

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Side Show: Perfection Squared—Theatre

June 23, 2014

The reimagined production of the musical, “Side Show,” currently playing at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, is as close to perfection as a play can come. A dramatic story beautifully sung and acted by every single cast member, “Side Show” is a stunning piece of work. This new production (in association with the La Jolla Playhouse), adds depth with fresh material to the 1997 Broadway musical, and is directed by Oscar-winner Bill Condon,with music by Henry Krieger, book and lyrics by Bill Russell and additional book material by Condon.photo (3)

“Side Show” is based on the real-life story of Daisy and Violet Hilton,conjoined twins born in early 20th century England. Abandoned by their mother at birth, they were put up for adoption and raised by a woman who put them on display, charging money to see them. When the twins were young, the woman married a circus side-show manager who made them the featured act in his show. He treated them horribly, considering the two to be his personal property. While on tour in the U.S., the girls finally gained the where-with-all to sue for their freedom and won their suit. They were now able to make their own choices. But would they really ever be free and just what would their future hold? In dramatically entertaining fashion, “Side Show” gives us the before and after story of that freedom.

“Side Show” takes on the freak aspect of the girls’ lives head on with a terrific opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks” (although these days, a tattooed woman is not all that freakish). We are introduced to each member of the show by circus owner, Sir (Robert Joy), with standout performances from each cast member.  We then meet the twins, Daisy and Violet (Emily Padgett and Erin Davie). The two look amazingly alike, but they have very different personalities. Daisy is an extrovert who likes fame and attention, while Violet is more introverted and wants a husband and home. But what they both desire more than anything else is to be treated, as they tell us in song, “Like Everyone Else.”

Daisy’s and Violet’s freak show existence is given a huge jolt in Texas when smooth-talking  talent agent, Terry (Ryan Silverman), and vocal and dance coach, Buddy (Matthew Hydzik), visit the show. Under their tutelage the twins grow more confident and when Terry encourages them to sue for their freedom and leave the show for the Orpheum Circuit, they do just that. It is a hard break because the circus cast has become their family. But with loyal friend, Jake (David St. Louis), leaving with them, the separation is made easier and their hopes are high as they begin their tour. But will they get the lives they imagined? Will they be happier? Who’s to say.

Emily Padgett and Erin Davie are equally fantastic. Their singing—either in unison or apart—is absolutely beautiful. Through their voices we really understand the highs and lows of the twins’ lives. How these two actresses manage to sing, dance and act so closely together every day is unimaginable. Theirs is a spectacular performance.

With the twins’ closing song of the first act, “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” you might think nothing could top that performance. Then the second act begins. Shortly thereafter Ryan Silverman’s Terry takes center stage, ruminating over his conflicting feelings for Daisy with a “A Private Conversation.” His voice fills the theatre in show-stopping theatre magic. Just when you’ve begun to recover emotionally and wonder if “Side Show” can possibly soar any higher, David St. Louis’ Jake comes forward to profess his love for one of the sisters in “You Should Be Loved.” It’s another heart-stopping moment of song.

In addition to the acting, singing and dancing, the costumes are also spectacular. The sisters wear gorgeous dresses throughout, and the costumes and makeup for the other characters are equally impressive.

“Side Show” is not a happy, go-lucky musical, but musical theatre in the very best sense of the words. It’s theatre you won’t soon forget.

“Side Show” runs through July 13.

4 nuggets out of 4

Arguendo: Chair Movement Does Not a Performance Make—Theatre

April 22, 2014

Arguendo,” the latest offering by DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, is an interesting attempt to make an entertaining mountain out of a mountain, but this attempt falls short…very short.

Directed by John Collins and performed by the Elevator Repair Service, “Arguendo” revolves around the 1991 Supreme Court Case, Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. This case, in a nutshell, was about whether or not one had the right to dance nude as a freedom of expression under the First Amendment. The case made its way through the various state courts before ending up on the Supreme Court docket.Arguendo

Prior to “Arguendo’s” beginning, the stage is set with three leather chairs in the background. Then the play opens on the Supreme Courthouse steps with TV reporters (Mike Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol, Benn Williams) grilling a woman (Maggie Hoffman) who dances in the nude for a living. She’s come to observe the proceedings. The repartee is very well done as she gives as good as she gets.

The heart of the performance finally starts…the hearing itself. It’s not nearly as entertaining as was the action on the steps. We have the lawyers arguing before the judges…three actors are on stage taking the parts of the nine judges. There is a lot of changing of wigs and much movement of chairs. The chair interplay is funny at first as are the expressions of the actors, but then you are left thinking, “is that all there is?” Sadly, the answer is “yes.” Oh, they try to jazz things up with the actual case transcripts scrolling up/down/across a screen, but that just serves to give one a headache. There is shuffling and throwing of paper…hilarious…not. Then the performance jumps ahead in time for a speech from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Susie Sokol), portrayed as a doddering old woman, explaining the rationale behind the collars the female justices wear. In her defense, Justice Ginsburg may be many things, but doddering is not one of them.

Over the years I’ve had a variety of experiences at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre…most of them very positive or at least thought provoking. This is the first time I’ve ever been bored.

1 ½ nugget out of 4

We Are Proud to Present: An Explosive Insight—Theatre

March 9, 2014

The Woolly Mammoth Theatre production, “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915,” is very much an in-your-face play about race relations and the creative process.

WAP-web-imageWritten by Jackie Sibblies and directed by Michael John Garcés, “We Are Proud to Present” takes place in a warehouse-like setting where six actors are developing a play about the German colonization of South West Africa and the atrocities that occurred during that colonization. The actors are only known as Black Man, Black Woman, White Man and White Woman. As they attempt to find the voice of the characters and the play through the use of real letters written by a soldier to his wife, Sarah, their own feelings about race bubble to the surface, resulting in an explosive finale.

What happened in South West Africa and its people was horrific. But while the acting in the play is phenomenal, somehow the plight of the country gets lost amidst the device used to tell its story—the thought process. We’re actually watching the thinking that goes into putting on a play…we get to see what normally goes on behind closed doors, before we get the final product on stage. For me, as an audience member, that became more interesting. How does an actor get into character? Do they take the work home with them? Do feelings linger? How do actors make the characters real to themselves? “We Are Proud to Present” showcases all these questions and this is the part of the play I found utterly fascinating, even though that wasn’t supposed to be my takeaway, I am sure. Adding to my conundrum was the ending. To be honest, I didn’t understand the change in the actors and in talking to other audience members…they didn’t either.

Each actor gets his or her chance to shine and all are terrific. Dawn Ursula seems to be the director/actor for the play within the play and is wonderful. She has the most expressive face and voice and “We Are Proud to Present” showcases her talent. Holly Twyford is wonderful when playing Sarah. Joe Isenberg and Andreu Honeycutt are ferociously and scarily brilliant as the younger male actors and Michael Anthony Williams and Peter Howard are both great as the voices of reason throughout the play.

As one has come to expect from a Woolly Mammoth production, the set design from Misha Kachman, while sparse, is outstanding and works beautifully.  Meghan E. Healey’s costumes are also spot-on.

Perhaps “We Are Proud to Present” tries to accomplish too much. Although it will give you something to think about, it ultimately misses the mark.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

 

 

Seminar: Sign Up Now—Theatre

February 25, 2014

Just as “Inside Llewyn Davis” was a cautionary tale for those contemplating a career as a singer, the Bethesda Round House Theatre’s production, “Seminar,” puts the fear of God into those thinking they might be the next great novelist. Written by Theresa Rebeck and sharply directed by Jerry Whiddon, “Seminar” is a dark, but often funny look at the creative process and those who think they have the “gift.”

Seminar “Seminar” opens with a group of four 20-something writers gathering in a NYC apartment for a writing seminar with renowned novelist, Leonard (Marty Lodge). As we first meet them, save for Izzy (Laura C. Harris), none of them seem terribly likeable–all having that stereotypical NYC pseudo-intellectual aura about them. But as we get to know them, we begin to see that each really has a ton of insecurities–as writers and as human beings.  This becomes even more apparent when Leonard enters the fray and begins to critique each one’s work.  But Leonard is not without his own problems, coming with his own baggage as well as a mega-chip on his shoulders. What made Leonard the way he is? Do any of these writers have any kind of potential to make it? And just what constitutes success? “Seminar” attempts to address these questions and does so, for the most part, very satisfactorily and entertainingly.

Rebeck knows whereof she speaks. She’s enjoyed success as a playwright and writer for many television series. As the creator of 2013’s “Smash,” she also knows what it’s like to have one’s world upended when things don’t go according to plan. She brings all of this experience to her play, giving “Seminar” a huge dose of reality.

“Seminar” comes with a terrific cast. While all are very good, the standouts in this ensemble are Lodge, Katie deBuys as Kate and Alexander Strain as Martin. deBuys, so wonderful in Woolly Mammoth’s “Stupid F***king Bird” of last season, continues to shine.  It’s in her character’s apartment that the seminars meet and, therefore, she’s in nearly every scene. Her face is able to convey a variety of emotions that can be seen from the most distant seats. When her work is criticized, anyone who’s ever tried to write can identify with her reaction. Strain is terrific as the writer who’s really afraid to put his work out there. He actually fears criticism. His Martin is the member of the group with the most potential and the most psychological problems. The chip on his shoulder rivals that of Leonard’s, which might not be too unusual, since he is the most like Leonard.  Finally there is Marty Lodge. His character stirs the plot and as such he is fantastic. He very realistically portrays someone who has known what it is to have great success, lose it and try to rebuild. His Leonard is cunning, mean-spirited, belligerent and ultimately genuine.

A shout out must be given to James Kronzer’s sets and Ivania Stack’s costumes. The clothes are absolutely spot-on for this group and rarely does one hear applause for a set change as I did the night I was in the theatre.

If you love great acting in a witty, entertaining play, “Seminar” should be on your radar. It runs through March 2, so there is still time to get your ticket.

Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814, Box Office: 240.644.1100

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin: That’s All You Need to Know—Theatre

February 24, 2014

Mandy, Mandy, Mandy…What are you doing on “Homeland?”As my heart raced and then melted after he finished singing Some Enchanted Evening, I couldn’t help but think this. And this was just after the fourth number.An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin

An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin” is everything you’d want from the two…but still you leave the theatre wanting to spend more time with them. The two have known each other since 1978 and it shows. It’s like they can read each other’s musical minds. With just a piano and bass for accompaniment, LuPone and Patinkin entertain for nearly two hours. And what entertainment it is.

As the program begins, the theatre is dark. Then the lights come up with the spotlight on the two, and they begin singing Stephen Sondheim’s Another Hundred People. Patti’s wearing some sort of black/navy jumpsuit with a scarf and Mandy’s dressed in similarly colored shirt and pants. It’s all quite casual and playful and simply wonderful.

It’s hard to get an intimate feel in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, but somehow these two performers manage to pull it off. Conceived by Patinkin and Paul Ford, the program is sprinkled with remembrances of LuPone and Patinkin, with dialogue from musicals and just chit-chat between old friends and the audience. And often the chitchat turns into a beautiful number. While many of the songs are performed together, each gets a chance to shine in solos. LuPone brings the house down with “Gypsy’s” Everything’s Coming up Roses and Patinkin rips your heart with his rendition of “Passion’s” Loving You. When the two conclude “Carousel’s” If I Loved You, the silence from the audience is palpable. But the program is not all heartache and tears. They have a blast with Kander and Ebb’s Old Folks, and Patinkin goes off the rails in a great way with Sondheim’s The God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.

Tony-award winning choreographer Ann Reinking provides some interesting dance movements for the two using chairs or just their hands. It sounds simple, but it works and brings a bit more pizzazz to the whole production.An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin 1

LuPone and Patinkin sing more than 30 songs and somehow it seems greedy to want more. But I do. And so I ask again…Mandy, Mandy, Mandy…paying the mortgage aside…what are you doing with “Homeland?” Could a musical episode please be in the works? Until that happens, be on the lookout for “An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin” in your neck of the woods.

4 nuggets out of 4

Appropriate: Family Battle is a Must—Theatre

November 19, 2013

Appropriate1Appropriate,” the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company‘s latest offering, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Liesl Tommy, is a gripping drama sprinkled with very dark, pointed humor throughout. One thing is certain—after watching the play’s Lafayette family rip one another apart, “Appropriate” certainly made me feel better about my parents, siblings and our relationships.

Often family secrets, slights and hurts come out into the open at funerals or readings of a loved one’s will. Such is the case of the Lafayette family. They’ve come from New York, DC and Oregon to Arkansas to clean up their late father’s home so it can be auctioned off. A chance retrieval of a never-before-seen photo album full of horrific photos is the spark that lights the fuse, as the Lafayette family explodes before our very eyes.

“Appropriate” will make you feel uncomfortable at times because the battles between siblings and significant others are so intense. Sometimes you’ll feel like a child caught between two unhappily married parents. Other times viewing the play is like being a fly on the wall, but unlike the insect, you can’t just fly from the uncomfortable situation.

But in truth, you won’t want to flee, because, as usual, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has brought together a terrific cast of actors. Deborah Hazlett, as Toni, the oldest sibling, is a force of nature. Toni spent many years taking care of their father along with her own family, and has a huge chip on her shoulder for so doing. Hazlett is the embodiment of years of simmering frustration, resentment and anger which finally boil over.  David Bishins is very good as the middle sibling, Bo, who has kept his distance and as a result, at first blush, seems to have raised a normal family. Beth Hylton as Bo’s wife, Rachael, gives a powerful performance as woman with her own deep-seated family resentments. Finally, Tim Getman is terrific as the youngest Lafayette sibling, Frank, who went off to Oregon to get away from his troubled youth. The supporting cast is also exceptional—Caitlin McColl as River Rayner, Frank’s much younger girlfriend; Josh Adams as Rhys, Toni’s son who’ll soon be going off to live with his father; and most especially, Maya Brettell as Cassie, Bo and Rachael’s 13-year-old daughter.  She is fabulous as the teenager with the heart of an old soul.

Once again, Woolly’s sets are amazing and for “Appropriate” are designed by Clint Ramos, a newcomer to the Company. What he’s done to create chaos in the home is phenomenal.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has written a powerful play with many memorable lines of dialogue that will stay with you, long after you’ve left  the Woolly. If you love theatre, you owe it to yourself to pay the Lafayettes a visit. Just stay out of the line of fire.

Runs through December 1.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004

3 ½ nuggets out of 4

If/Then: Maybe Not—Theatre

November 13, 2013

If/Then,” the new musical starring Idina Menzel, comes to DC’s National Theatre with high expectations for Broadway. Based on previews, those expectations might need to be tempered.ifthen2

Directed by Michael Greif, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, “If/Then” is the story of 40-year-old Elizabeth, who has moved back to New York City following the breakup of her marriage. Her new life kicks into gear in a New York City park. But which life? And therein lays the tale.

“If/Then” is a form of the movie, “Sliding Doors.” If this path is taken, then this will happen. If the other path is taken, then that will happen. As the story first unfolds, it’s not readily apparent that two different stories are being told almost simultaneously. Once that is understood, you begin to relax and appreciate…or not…what is happening on stage.

There’s a reason Idina Menzel won a Tony for “Wicked.” She has a wonderfully powerful voice and that voice holds her in good stead as Elizabeth. She’s also a first-rate actress and the fact that you can feel and sense her emotions clear up in the balcony is testament to that. Unfortunately the score doesn’t provide enough great songs worthy of her voice. She has one clever number in the middle and a truly terrific number near the end of the play, but the rest of her songs are rather ho-hum.

I’m not certain why LaChanze was cast as Elizabeth’s friend, Kate. A  Tony award winner for “The Color Purple,” she really isn’t given much to do and her songs are not memorable. Anthony Rapp as Lucas is very good as Kate’s best friend from college. He, too, has a few songs, and while his voice is fine, is not anything you will remember once you leave the theatre. James Snyder is very convincing as Elizabeth’s love interest, Josh. At first his voice seems nice enough, but then he takes it to another level when he hits some high notes. His “My Kid” is a show-stopper.

The idea of showing us life’s “what if’s” is intriguing. The problem with “If/Then’s” execution is that we see not only Elizabeth’s two paths, but also fully developed stories for the two supporting characters in her life…in both paths. It adds a lot of time to the play and, frankly, her friends’ romantic stories aren’t very compelling and neither are their songs.

For a musical, there’s not a lot of musicality to “If/When.” The play is meant to be “real” which can explain the lack of dancing and the rather ordinariness of the songs.

Other than Menzel, the real stars of the show are the sets.  Mark Wendland’s designs are spectacular. The parks, the subway, the buildings…all are wonderfully imaginative.

Considering that “If/Then’s” creative crew– Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt–are Tony winners for prior work, this play is disappointing. Overall, “If/When” underwhelms and in its present form, I don’t see how it settles in to a long Broadway run.

“If/Then” runs through December at the National Theatre.

2 nuggets out of 4

 

Detroit: Visit to the Motor City Falls Short—Theatre

October 1, 2013

“Detroit,” the first play of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company season, is terrifically acted and has a great set, but ultimately its story falls short.Detroit1

Written by Lisa D’Amour and directed by John Vreeke, “Detroit” is about two couples who live next door to one another in a close-in suburb of Detroit. Ben and Mary have lived in the neighborhood for a while and Sharon and Kenny have just moved in. Ben is recently unemployed and is starting an online business from home, while Mary works full-time. It’s not clear what Sharon and Kenny do, but Kenny has worked in construction.

As the play begins, the couples are getting together for a barbecue. It’s very much like a first date with someone you don’t know very well. Conversation comes in fits and starts…too much laughter at a joke…that kind of thing. But awkwardly a friendship develops between the couples. More frequent get-togethers occur and gradually secrets about one another are revealed as the gatherings become more boisterous. But how much do the new friends really know about one another?

As noted earlier, “Detroit” boasts phenomenal acting. Emily K. Townley and Tim Getman as Ben and Mary are fabulous. Townley, a Woolly regular, is never bad, and she shines as the unsure, volatile older neighbor. Getman’s role is more understated, but he excels at letting us know there’s more emotion beneath his calm exterior. Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey and Danny Gavigan are terrific as the slightly mysterious, unpredictable younger couple. Their scenes with their respective same-sex neighbors are especially good.

Woolly has configured the stage so that you are looking at the back of the two homes including backyards. Additionally, multi-media gives you the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. The audience is on both sides of the stage (front and back). It does make you feel like you are sitting in on the conversations taking place—the only trouble is that often one of the speaking actors has his/her back to you.

So what is the problem with the play? Despite all it has going for it, “Detroit” feels very static and at some point I just stopped caring. The play’s notes say that “America’s middle class is disappearing, and these two couples begin the play suspended over the abyss.” I didn’t make that connection and the story…the words…they just didn’t engage me.

That said, time spent with the Woolly Company is never a total miss. In “Detroit’s” case, the acting makes up for a lot.

Runs through October 6.

2 nuggets out of 4

The Velocity of Autumn: Terrific in Any Season—Theatre

September 12, 2013

“You know you’re getting old when you start making sound effects for your body.”

Chris (Stephen Spinella)

Accepting the fact that you are getting older and dealing with that fact is the theme for the amazing dark comedy, “The Velocity of Autumn.” Written by Eric Coble and directed by Molly Smith, “The Velocity of Autumn” is Arena Stage’s new play and it is a winner.IMG00256-20130912-2024

The play stars Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella as mother and son, Alexandra and Chris. When the curtain opens, we find Alexandra barricaded in her Brooklyn apartment.  She’s threatening to blow up her Park Slope home, and, in truth, her home is an explosion waiting to happen. She knows her other son and daughter (only referred to but never seen) want her to move into some kind of elder care facility, fearing she’s too old to care for herself…and as she later confesses, she has experienced periods of confusion. Making an unexpected, hilarious entrance into her apartment is Chris. He’s come at the behest of his siblings to talk their mother safely out of her apartment.

And what a talk it is. Chris left Brooklyn 20 years ago, never to return. As he tells Alexandra, he didn’t feel free in New York. The more the two talk, the more Chris…and the audience…realize that son and mother have so much in common. Chris is an artist like his mom and has her sensibilities. Like her, he is afraid of growing old.

The two actors are astounding; they actually seem like mother and son. You can see Parson’s face visibly light up when she talks about her character’s love for art and her son. And as Spinella talks about suicide, his life out west, art and how he felt growing up, it feels very real…the audience is so quiet, you can literally hear a pin drop.

Eric Coble’s writing is phenomenal. The characters are completely drawn and the dialogue is chock full of witticisms that mean something.  When Alexandra says, “I don’t know how to be old,” you find yourself nodding in agreement. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard a line about aging resonate more than when she exclaims, “I’m not me anymore, whoever me was…soon there will be less and less me.”

There are expectations that “The Velocity of Autumn” will make it to Broadway. If that happens, it is Broadway’s gain. But right now “The Velocity of Autumn” is in DC and you should take every opportunity to see it.

Runs through October 20, 2013

Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC  20024

4 nuggets out of 4


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