Saturday, September 25, 2010

Cabaret at Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre

It seems quite appropriate to enter the Spotlighters Theatre through a secluded alleyway, descending into the decadent world of 1930 Berlin and the Kit Kat Club.      Audiences are greeted by the Kit Kat Girls and Boys who will show you a good time before being sternly corralled by Max the Bartender so that the show may begin.     This reviewer had a lovely time with two of the Kit Kat Club Boys, one of whom noticed that I arrived alone and declared that I needed a companion.   He then asked me my preference and I cheekily replied, "Surprise me."    Alas, I only had a few brief moments with my new companion before Max spoiled the fun and forced me to pay attention to the actual performance.

The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre is in its 49th season of quality community theatre in Baltimore, Maryland.    The stage itself has major limitations as there are four beams literally holding up the roof over the in-the-round stage.   This unfortunately requires the audience to crane their necks to see all of the action at times, but when the performance is good it is worth the inconveniences of the space.

Cabaret, book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Fred Ebb and music by John Kander, opened in 1966.   The role of the Emcee led Joel Grey to both a Tony Award and an Academy Award.    It is a tale, told through the eyes of the American drifting writer, Cliff Bradshaw, of the decadence of the end of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazi Party.     He becomes involved in the lives of a group of Germans from his first accquaintance the smuggler Ernst Ludwig to his never married landlady, Fraulein Schneider, her Jewish suitor, Herr Schultz,  and Fraulein Schneider's adversarial tenant, Fraulein Kost.    But, most importantly he is deeply affected by his love affair with the beautiful, bohemian featured performer of the Kit Kat Club, the English singer, Sally Bowles.

Overall, the production is very well cast.   Suzanne Young and Jim Hart as the doomed autumnal couple, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz are well matched and bring the pathos to their situation in the poignant "Married" as well as appropriate humor to their budding romance in the delightful "It Couldn't Please Me More (The Pineapple Song)."      Kerry Brady is sleazy, but a genuine threatening presence as Fraulein Kost.   Todd Krickler is excellent as Cliff's first friend in Berlin, Ernst Ludwig, who, as the show progresses becomes more than what he appears to be and thus, when his true motivations are expressed it isa shocking revelation to the audience about a genuinely likable character.

There are two members of the ensemble who must be singled out.   Jeffrey Coleman has a powerful voice and is perfectly cast as the soloist for a song that never falls to bring chills, the Nazi anthem, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."   Bridget Mullins is a beautiful dancer who manages to bring grace to her featured solo in "If You Could See Her" - in a gorilla costume.

Lynne McCormick and Aaron Dalton are pleasant leading role performers.   Unfortunately, until the very end of the show, they don't show any of the true darker natures of the characters of Cliff and Sally.   It is heavily implied that Cliff is bisexual in the script, yet, unlike the choreographer, Melissa McGinley, who choses to have several same sex partnerships in the club numbers, the director, Erin Riley, has decided to play it safe with Cliff only letting the text speak for the layers that lie beneath Cliff's leading man persona.   Is this the reason that he clings to the dream of a normal regular life with Sally, despite Sally's own self destructive behavior?

Ms. McCormick has a lovely voice and stage presence, but doesn't truly let her hair down, so to speak as Sally until the very dramatic scenes which surround the title number and the finale.    It was then that both Ms. McCormick and Mr. Dalton showed promise in the dilemmas facing their characters.

The finale, a stream of consciousness as Cliff begins to finally write his long blocked novel, is very difficult to pull off.   Erin Riley does a credible job with this difficult scene bringing forth the sad pathos at the end of the show.     This reviewer has seen many different takes on this scene from cutting it completely (American University) to marching the entire Kit Kat Club performers to death camps (Arena Stage).    It is nice to see a director willing to simply work within the text and pull off the difficult scene.

The only aspect of the production that brings its energy level down are the scene changes.  They are mostly done in blackout and they interrupt the mood of the piece.  Near the end of the show, a scene change happens in almost a dream state in full view of the audience.   If the rest of the scene changes had happened in front of the audience and in character the action would not be slowed down.

Musical director Michael Tan leads an small trio to accompany the performers and blends the music so that it doesn't compete with the actors in the small space.

Many choreographers of Cabaret fall into the Bob Fosse trap.   His award winning choreography for the 1972 film version has placed a large shadow on anyone staging this show.   Melissa McGinley has created her own vision of 1930's Berlin using some late 20's dances as well as a variety of other styles that suit the music or the mood to create her own stamp on the production.  Well done.

Wait, you say, what about the pivotal role of the Emcee?   This is another role that has had iconic performances from Joel Grey which is preserved on film to Alan Cummings in the Studio 54 revival in the 90's to even Brad Oliver at Arena Stage.   All of these men put their individual stamp on this amazing character.   To that roster must go the truly astounding Tim Elliott.     In the program it mentions that Mr. Elliott is returning to the stage from a four year absence.    It has been worth waiting for him.    He is your host, your entertainer, your puppet master.     It is a blazing performance that is worth rushing to see.

Cabaret will be performed at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre through October 10, 2010.   For more information visit

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Disney touristy review: The World of Color at Disney California Adventure

When I was a little girl I remember sitting glued in front of the idiot box on Sunday nights watching Uncle Walt on the Wonderful World of Disney. (I'm 49, do the math, yes I'm old enough to remember Walt Disney). The anthem for the show was yet another brilliantly appropriate theme produced by the amazingly prolific Sherman Brothers. How thrilling that this is the inspiration for the Disney California Adventure nighttime spectacular World of Color.

I watched the Disney ustrream premiere and was blown away by the technical wonder on my iphone's tiny screen. Let me be blunt. All the you tube HD video in the known universe does not do this show justice. You must see it in person. In the wet zone. Where you will become damp.

Disney is a master at moving large crowds in a short amount of time (take lessons Islands of Adventure's Wizarding World of Harry Potter). There is prime standing room only viewing in Paradise Park. It is distributed by Fastpass which can be obtained three ways. There are dining packages at Ariel's Grotto and Wine Country Trattoria (book by phone), there are reasonably priced picnic dinners (order online up to 30 days in advance) and there are same day Fastpasses distributed at Grizzly River Run beginning 30 minutes before DCA opens if you are a hotel guest or at park opening for everyone else until they are gone.

We chose the picnic option. I ordered online exactly 30 days in advance. for $14 you get a choice of several different meals and a 20 ounce soda or water. You also get a reusable grocery tote bag. The fast passes for the picnics are for the first show of the night and are in the blue section. You return to the area between 7:30 and 8:30 and are directed to the correct color section.

If you are attending the first show you also get a Carnivale style preshow involving giant lit up puppets. 2 hyper-enthusiastic cast members sing and warm up the crowd for about 15 minutes. Then it's prepare for the lights going out and the Disney magic to begin.

World of Color uses water screens to project animation, fountains that dance and pulse, laser lights, LCD screens, fire, etc. to create one of the most amazing nighttime spectaculars I have ever seen. And I've seen a lot of them over the years. The show's only drawback is that, unlike Fantasmic, there is no storyline, it is simply vignettes of classic Disney and Pixar films, although the last 1/3 goes through danger, loss and the redemptive power of love (lots of kiss the girl scenes in the end). It is a joy to see not only the popular films of the past 20 years represented, but some more obscure entries, such as the Silly Symphony The Old Mill, Dumbo, and two sequences from the recent but rarely seen Fantasia 2000. The fountains do more than dance, they pulse, they create dimensionality and the flames, lasers, and animation only enhance the true stars of the show, the fountains.

Overall it is an amazing evening. I would have to say that it is easily number 3 on my all time favorite Disney Parks nighttime spectaculars. 1. the original Fantasmic which I was privileged to see the following night with the Murphy the dragon addition. (Murphy has since spectacularly broken down during a performance and it is unknown how long it will be before she returns)  2. Main Street Electrical Parade. 3. World of Color. It would rank higher if it had more of a story and if the water screens permitted crisper depictions of the animation.

Bottom line, YouTube and the like will whet your appetite, but you will only be fulfilled by seeing the show in person.

The reviewer saw the show on July 30 during the inaugural season.   As it is now Fall there are not as many showings per night.    Also, as of September 16, there are rumors that TRON Legacy is being added to the show in some fashion.   The beauty of the show is that it is very easy to add and remove sections and possibly create holiday themed versions.

The Secret Garden the book vs the films vs. the musical

In June 2010 I  attended a very good community theater production of The Secret Garden musical at 2nd Star Productions in Bowie, Maryland. I have seen the two theatrical movies one from the 1940's with Margaret O'Brien as Mary and Dean Stockwell (yes, Al from Quantum Leap) as Colin and the 1990's film with it's gorgeous cinematography. I've also seen the Hallmark Hall of Fame 1987 production with Derek Jacobi as Archibald and Maggie Smith as Mrs. Medlock and in a cameo, Colin Firth as a grown-up Colin!.

It had been many years since I had read the novel and over a brief vacation I re-read it. In particular I was looking at various treatments of the story. In most of the films Mrs. Medlock is the misguided villian of the piece, in the musical it is Dr. Collins, Archibald's brother, who stands to inherit the estate if Colin dies.

To my surprise, I discovered that the novel...has no villians in the story. And part of that is in the background of the author. Frances Hodgson Burnett was a committed Christian Scientist. And her tale of natural healing, through fresh air, exercise and gardening reflects that. In the novel, no one tries to keep Mary and Colin apart. In the novel, the servants are relieved that Colin allows Mary to come into the room and take him outside in his wheelchair.
Basically Colin is a spoilt brat. And, so is Mary.

Mary is portrayed as mean and cruel. She beats her Ayah and there is a lot of stereotyping of the native Indian servants.

Major differences in the story - It is Mary's father who is Colin's mother's brother, not, as in the musical the mothers who are siblings. The parents are never named only called Captain Lennox and Mrs Lennox. They are real cipher characters only existing as the coldhearted parents, particularly the mother, who cares only for her looks and her parties. The authorities are genuinely surprised to discover that Mary exists. She really has never been seen.

Dr. Collins is a cousin not a brother of Archibald. And he never drugs Colin or puts him through barbaric "treatments" (as some of the films have shown Mrs. Medlock doing). It is mentioned that he will inherit the estate, but he is genuinely thrilled that Colin is getting healthier.

The most positive characters are the servants, Martha, Dickon and their mother. It is Dickon's mother who sends Mary the skipping rope, and fresh milk to drink--even though she is raising 12 children in her little cottage.

Archibald barely appears in the novel. He comes in about 100 pages in to meet Mary and grant her request that she have her own garden. And it is Dickon's mother who writes to him and convinces him to come home where the first thing he sees is Colin running.

A tale of natural healing, where almost every adult cooperates in the healing of two damaged children, it is a very gentle book, indeed.

Book Review: Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions by G.W. Bernard

I actually finished reading this book two weeks before I sat down to write this review. I had to take some time to digest what Professor Bernard is claiming so that I could thoughtfully write a review, without having a knee-jerk reaction to it.

Professor G.W. Bernard is a professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton and the editor of the English Historical Review. His previous book, The King's Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church, is a lengthy, very scholarly work with massive amounts of chapter notes. It's also so thick it truly is a door stop sized book.

I knew from a teaser in BBC History Magazine, that his latest book about the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn was controversial for he argues that Anne Boleyn was guilty of adultery with at least two of the men she was accused with, Henry Norris and Mark Smeaton and very controversially uses as his main source the French poem by Lancelot de Carles in which it is implied that one of Queen Anne's ladies, being confronted over her own adulteries by her brother revealed that Queen Anne was more guilty that she was. This is not the entire argument, but it is very prominent.

If you are a "fan" of Anne Boleyn and see her as one of the driving forces of the English Reformation, the woman who brought about Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey's fall, refused to become the King's mistress holding out for the legitimacy of marriage with the will be very disappointed with Professor Bernard's thesis. The Anne Boleyn he portrays in this book is willing to become the King's mistress, it is Henry who decides to withhold sex for the purpose of a legitimate heir. It is Henry who is the driving force behind the Great Matter, the downfall of Wolsey, the submission of the clergy, etc. Bernard does document that Henry VIII did attend Parliament in order to make it clear that he wanted certain reformation legislation passed.

Where Professor Bernard's arguments are strong is in his examination and discarding of most sources that are 20 or more years after Anne's death. In particular he is very hard on both the Catholic counterreformation propaganda, which is where most of the Anne was deformed in some fashion comes from, and the Protestant martyrologist, John Foxe, who paints Anne Boleyn as a Protestant saint. Bernard is probably correct that Anne Boleyn was not a driving reformist, as contemporary accounts of her as Queen show her performing many traditional religious rituals, and her wanting the revenues from the closing of the smaller monasteries to be used for charitable purposes rather than as sources of royal revenue.

However, it appears that Bernard goes too far in trying to create an Anne Boleyn who is more of a traditional submissive 16th century woman. After all, it is well documented that she had at least a New Testament in English and her brother, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford was said to be a reformist scholar. Bernard is harsh on George Boleyn trying to use privy purse expenses to show that George Boleyn was nothing more than a traditional courtier. This is going too far as who is to say that Rochford couldn't have had the time to also pursue religious interests, after all he was also a diplomat serving at the court of France.

Now, to the controversy. Bernard argues that Anne Boleyn's fall came not from her miscarriage in January 1536 or a deformed fetus from that miscarriage (which pretty much everyone but Retha Warnicke and Philippa Gregory recognizes as false). Nor does it come from a political coup led by Thomas Cromwell who was either trying to remove the Boleyn faction from power, or trying to cement an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and the refusal of the Emperor's representative, Eustace Chapuys, to acknowledge Anne Boleyn as Queen following the death of Katherine of Aragon meant that Anne needed to go. Bernard instead argues that Anne Boleyn fell because she was guilty of adultery.

Bernard is dismissive of the traditional arguments listed above and gives extensive chapter notes to back up his argument. Where his argument becomes weak is in his decision to focus heavily on the Lancelot de Carles poem. This poem is dated June 6, 1536, but was not published until 1545. Bernard spends so much effort in the book dismissing documents that are published years after the events, yet he puts a lot of faith in this one. He argues that de Carles was in the service of the French Ambassador and had no reason to lie. If the poem wasn't published until 1545, there is every reason to lie....England and France were at war in 1545.

The crucial part of the poem involves an unnamed lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn who is pregnant in the spring of 1536. The lady's brother confronts her about her adulterous behavior leading to this pregnancy. The lady responses that she is better than the Queen for the Queen's household is full of licentious behavior including the adultery of the Queen. The brother, being a loyal courtier, immediately tells the King, who orders an inquiry.

Bernard identifies the Lady as Elizabeth Browne, Countess of Worcester. She was one of Anne's ladies of the bedchamber from the time of her coronation and was occasionally the lady who shared the Queen's bed. She was pregnant in 1536 and gave birth to a daughter in the fall of 1536. Her husband never denounced her and recognized the child as his. The child was named Anne probably in honor of the late Queen. It would not have been scandalous to do so as Anne was one of the most common names for girls in the 16th century.

His second argument is the dispatches of William Kingston, constable of the Tower of London. It is true that Anne's somewhat manic/depressive behavior reported extensively by Kingston was used against her. But, it doesn't point to guilt.

There is no evidence that survives as to who was interrogated during the investigation. We do not have Mark Smeaton's confession or the documentation of any of the other men, including those, such as Thomas Wyatt who were arrested and not charged. Yet, Bernard uses stories of Anne's behavior, such as her using an older serving woman to fetch Mark Smeaton by hiding him in a cabinet and being brought to her as a late night snack of marmalade.
He also brings up the discredited letter of Anne's written from the Tower of London, which is widely seen as a forgery.

Bernard does bring up the discrepancy in the indictments of the dates and places which other historians have used to prove Anne's innocence. Bernard argues that the indictments would not have been valid without specific dates and places and that if they were wrong it was because of a legal need for them and the speed in which the indictments were prepared that caused the error.

It would have been useful if Bernard had produced more lengthy quotations in his argument instead of a sentence here or a partial quote there. In particular if he had printed the entirety of Lancelot de Carles poem as an appendix the reader could better judge his argument.

Bernard does not bring up the atmosphere of courtly love that is fairly well known at Henry's court. He is dismissive of anyone driving the fall of Anne Boleyn except Henry VIII himself. Yet he undermines his own extensive research, by his own reliance on de Carles poem, which may be a piece of French propaganda dating from the 1544-1545 war. Read the book as a companion to Alison Weir's The Lady in the Tower where she also argues that there may have been more guilt involved - but she ultimately agrees that the evidence against Anne is weak. Eric W. Ives still remains Anne's most thorough biographer.

As a fascinating footnote Bernard includes a chapter on portraits of Anne Boleyn. While he covers a lot of previously known ground about the difficulty in identifying portraits of Anne and other figures from the court of Henry VIII, he does bring up the extensive research being done on portraits including dating the wood paneling. This has led to the discovery that a lot of portraits of Tudor courtiers date from the late 16th and early 17th century. The portrait of Anne in the National Portrait Gallery is scheduled to be examined in 2010.

Book Review: Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr by Linda Porter

While Susan James continues to be the definitive biographer of Katherine Parr who studied her for 20 plus years, Porter is a good second choice for someone looking for insight into Henry VIII's last queen and the one who gets glossed over the most.

Porter includes extensive chapters on Katherine's writings and delves fairly deeply into her second marriage to John Neville, Lord Latimer. She is less extensive about the Edward Borough marriage but that is because there is less material available beyond the few legal documents of the time. She does follow the recent scholarship that her first husband was the grandson not the grandfather and makes a claim that the grandfather died in 1528 (most sources list 1529 the year of Katherine's marriage).

In her discussions of Katherine's years as queen she makes some interesting discoveries. One, Porter believes that there is no evidence that Katherine Parr held a position in Lady Mary's household. The evidence a bill for payment for clothing for Katherine and her stepdaughter that was not paid until Katherine became queen is convincing posited as being a reference to Katherine's other less famous stepdaughter, Margaret Neville. Porter gives evidence that Katherine was regularly tardy in paying her bills giving several instances of the queen's expenses being paid late.

And she gives a fair discussion of the threat to Katherine and her senior ladies in waiting during the Anne Askew episode. The main evidence is in John Foxe's Acts and Monuments and while there is no contemporary evidence of Katherine comingthisclose to being arrested for heresy there is evidence in the final year of Henry VIII's life of Katherine stopping her religious writings and translation projects and focusing on her duties when meeting diplomats and other ornamental duties.

An interesting discussion is on the influence she had on her two royal stepdaughters convincing Mary to translate the Erasmus paraphrase of the Gospel of St. John, which due to illness she was unable to complete. And Porter quotes from one of Katherine's letters to Mary telling Mary that she should not feel ashamed to take partial credit for the translation as it was her work.

And it is fairly well known the influence she had on Elizabeth. Most are aware of Elizabeth's gifts to Katherine of a translation of The Mirror of the Sinful Soul in 1544 and to her father of a triple translation of Katherine's Prayers and Meditations in 1546. However, few probably are aware that the same New Year of 1546 Elizabeth made another gift to her stepmother of a translation of the first chapter of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Another revelation is that Katherine Parr consulted with lawyers about her not being named regent for King Edward VI.

Then there is the Queen's fourth marriage to Thomas Seymour. Thomas Seymour has been vilified over the centuries. Some recent biographers including Susan James have tried to rehabilitate some of his reputation. A lot of the bad press such as his trying to marry Mary, Elizabeth and Anne of Cleves before settling on Katherine Parr dates to the time of his arrest for treason. How many are aware that there are extant love letters between Katherine and Thomas that date from the spring of 1547? James alludes to the letters but Porter quotes them extensively. From the letters it is clear that Katherine and Thomas became lovers probably by March of 1547 (there are references in one letter telling Thomas that he has to leave by 7 a.m.)

Yes it is true that his behavior with Elizabeth was unwise to say the least. But, many forget that in the testimony Katherine took part in some of the inappropriate behavior. And despite the problems it is interesting that the Duchess of Somerset who hated Katherine Parr was not bothered by the reports of the early morning romping, but by the fact that Katherine Ashley let Elizabeth go unchaperoned on a boat ride on the Thames and that the Marquess and Marchioness of Dorset, Lady Jane Grey's parents never reported hints of scandal while their daughter was Seymour's ward and did not receive their daughter back until the death of Queen Katherine.

There are a couple of frustrating moments in the book. When Porter makes an assertion usually there is a chapter note, but on occasion such as the death date of the senior Edward Borough, which is new information, she doesn't. And, as in her Queen Mary biography she can be a bit of an apologist. But, I do recommend the Katherine book, it is a good second choice for scholarship to Susan James.

Book Review: Death and the Virgin by Chris Skidmore

Perhaps there is no event that threatened the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I than the death of the wife of her most favored courtier, Lord Robert Dudley, K.G. For the past 450 years the death of Amye Robsart found with a broken neck and no other injuries on her body lying at the bottom of a pair of stairs has been combed over and speculated upon by historians and fiction writers alike, most famously in the highly inaccurate novel Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott. The location of her death, Cumnor Place was a romantic pilgrimage site until it was demolished in the mid-19th century. Even Amye’s burial place is presumed to have vanished as no sign of it was found when the foundations of St. Mary the Virgin Church were dug up following a fire in 1947.

Can one truly uncover any new contemporary material that can shed light on this early Elizabethan mystery? In Chris Skidmore’s exhaustively researched new book, yes it can. Skidmore is a professor of history at Bristol University and this is his second book. His previous book was an illuminating biography of King Edward VI. And despite a few glaring errors that should have been caught by an attentive editor, his new book, Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart is a compelling, well researched take on an old tale.

Skidmore spends a lot of time introducing his characters. Many who are familiar with the Tudor dynasty are probably aware of Robert Dudley’s family history. His grandfather Edmund was executed as a traitor at the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign. His father John was executed following his defense of Edward VI’s desire to place Lady Jane Grey Dudley on the throne of England. His younger brother, Guildford, married to Lady Jane also suffered the headsman’s axe. Robert spent the beginning of Queen Mary I’s reign in the Tower of London with his remaining brothers and upon his release served the Queen well, particularly in the war with France. Upon the accession of Queen Elizabeth I Robert Dudley was immediately in high favor, being appointed Master of the Horse and named a Knight of the Garter in 1559. During the marriage politics of the early years, it was speculated by Ambassadors and even Elizabeth’s Chief Secretary William Cecil, who drew up a pro and con list on the matter, that  if the Queen chose to marry within her kingdom, she would prefer to marry Robert Dudley. But, there was one big problem, Robert Dudley was already married.

Robert married Amye Robsart in 1550 the day after his elder brother John married Anne Seymour, the daughter of the Duke of Somerset. As a younger son, his wedding was not as lavish. Why did he marry? It is most probable that Robert and Amye met in 1549 during Kett’s Rebellion when he accompanied his father to the home of Amye’s father. They were “neighbors” and Amye had the advantage of being sole heiress to her father. It was a good match for a younger son who would not inherit his father’s title and lands. And there is speculation that it was a love match,. When William Cecil years later following Amye’s death drew up his pro/con memorandum on the subject of Robert marrying the Queen his famously wrote Nuptii carnales a laetitia incipient et in luctu terminantur – carnal marriages begin in joy and end in weeping.

During their ten year marriage there were no children. Robert and Amye were frequently separated first by his imprisonment and then by the War with France. They also did not have a permanent home of their own. Amye would not come into her inheritance until the death of the father, and as a younger son of an attainted father, Robert had no property of his own. This explains why, during the first two years of Elizabeth’s reign Amye stayed at the homes of friends and retainers of Robert only once coming to London to stay at the time of Robert’s investiture as a Knight of the Garter. The last time that Robert saw his wife alive was in April 1559 when he visited her at Throcking during the parliamentary recess. Despite Amye’s travels to London (he left for Windsor before she arrived) and her location at Cumnor Place at the time of her death, only 30 miles from Windsor, he never saw her again.

There were rumors spread by the Imperial and Spanish Ambassadors that she was ill with a malady of the breast and that she was taking precautions to not be poisoned. As the scandal at court over Elizabeth’s flirtations with Dudley grew, rumors continued that they were only waiting for Amye to die and then they would marry.

On September 8, 1560 Amye Dudley was found at the bottom of a pair of stairs with a broken neck. She was allegedly alone in the house at the time having insisted that all of her household attend a local fair. Back at court it was reported that the wife of Lord Robert was all ready dead or nearly so. And thus began the mystery that forever ruined Robert Dudley’s chance of marrying the Queen and has led to much speculation over the years. Skidmore methodically addresses each of the theories which are accidental death, suicide, spontaneous fracture caused by advanced breast cancer, and murder.

Did Amye commit suicide? This is one theory that Skidmore fairly easily dismisses. She was reported as having asked to be delivered from desperation. This was reported by Amye’s maid, Picto, and has been used to suggest that Amye deliberated flung herself down the stairs. There is the mystery of why Amye insisted on the entire household going to the fair, thus leaving her alone in the house. But, Amye was not alone.  Two women remained behind. Mrs Odingsells informed Amye that she would not go because Sunday was the day that the common folk attended making it unseemly for a gentlewoman to go and that she would attend the fair on Monday. Amye was angry at this and told her that she could do as she pleased and when it was questioned who would keep Amye company at dinner Amye replied that Mrs. Owen would. So there were two women in the house when Amye died. Then there is the religious aspect, as a devoted Christian lady Amye would have known that were she to commit suicide she would be condemning her soul. She would also have been denied a church burial. Lastly when Dudley’s servant Thomas Blunt questioned the maid Picto as to whether Amye might have an “evil toy in her mind” she replied “No, good Mr Blount, Do not judge so of my words. If you should so gather, I am sorry I said so much.” Then there is the matter of suicide by falling down a pair of stairs only eight steps high (it had a landing in the middle). Not the most efficient way to kill oneself. Then there is the letter that Amye wrote to her tailor less than two weeks before her death instructing him to make a new collar for a gown and that she needed it done very quickly. Perhaps with Robert at Oxford less than half a day’s ride from Cumnor Place she was anticipating seeing her husband for the time in more than a year.

Did Amye die from a spontaneous spinal fracture caused by advanced breast cancer? The breast cancer theory was posited fifty years ago by Dr. Ian Aird. He wrote “Spontaneous fracture of the spine, or of any bone, occurs when the bone, weakened and softened by disease or age, collapses or breaks under the strain of normal muscular effort…Diseased or aged bones in the spine may collapse from the slight strain imposed upon them by the normal act of stepping, for example. If that part of the spine which lies in the neck (cervical spine) suffers in this way, the affected person gets spontaneously a broken neck, and may collapse then, totally paralyzed from the neck down or suddenly dead. Such a fracture is more likely to occur in stepping downstairs than in walking on the level.

Did Amye have breast cancer? That theory comes from a dispatch by the Spanish Ambassador that Amye had a malady in one of her breasts. However there are several problems with this theory. Skidmore discovered a later dispatch that had not been translated into English before which contradicts the earlier one. On 6 June 1559 he wrote “The wife of the Lord Robert is already better, and it is said that she has been warned not to eat anything that is not very safe.” Also Amye traveled extensively in the last year of her life, hardly likely if she was so seriously ill that her bones were softened enough to cause a fracture stepping down a staircase. There is also the possibility that she had Hypercalcaemia or high levels of calcium which can cause tiredness, confusion, agitation and a loss of balance and fainting. This could explain her anger towards the household the morning of her death and falling if she fainted coming down the stairs. And lastly, if she had been terminally ill, why did none of her servants comment on her illness, why was there no discussion of a tumor found when the body was examined by the coroner. And why was her husband genuinely shocked by her death?

So we move to the two most likely theories. First that the death was truly accidental. Skidmore found a sketch of what is most likely the pair of stairs that Amye fell down. “Lysons’ sketch reveals that the stairs in the north-west corner of Cumnor Place had twelve to thirteen steps in total, broken up by a landing arund which the stairs turned on a 180-degree angle. It is not clear from the drawing, however, where the stairs begin and end. It has been argued that ‘it would be natural to assume that its foot was at the north end’ of the western side of the building…If this was indeed the case, the staircase was accessed from the ground floor of the western range of the building, in a room adjoining the Great Hall…The stairs, accessed from this room, would then have led up four stairs to a landing; turning right at an angle of 90 degrees, another flight of stairs, according to Lysons’ drawing what seems like eight steps in total, at first angled around the turn and then leading straight up in to the Long Gallery o the north side of the building.” Skidmore then lists numerous statistics on the injuries from falls down staircases and the fatalities. And in examining Amye’s case we have to turn to the first bombshell discovery of the book…the coroner’s report. This report has been ignored over the years in the National Archives because it wasn’t filed until a year after Amye’s death. In the document we learn the names of the jurors on the inquest into her death and we see the results of the examination of the body. And it is here that we get the first clues. Amye did suffer a broken neck and no other marks upon her body, but she suffered two dents (dyntes) to her head one about a quarter of inch deep and the second two inches deep. These are serious head wounds which could have occurred if Amye hit her head on the sharp edges of the stone stairs as she fell. But, it also raises the second question….

Was Amye murdered? I became frustrated with Skidmore at this point. He does not address the murder theory in any detail until late in the book, nearly 100 pages after discussing the first three theories in great detail. But, have patience there is a method to this. It became clear that you must understand the fallout of Amye’s death on Robert and Elizabeth. The continuing rumors that he would marry the Queen continued for years afterword, his elevation to the peerage in 1564 as Earl of Leiceister, Elizabeth’s proposal of him as a husband for Mary Queen of Scots, which he did not want and Robert actively encouraging Mary’s future husband, Lord Darnley. And then when it became clear that he was not going to marry Queen Elizabeth he turns his desires to having a legitimate heir of his own. His only surviving brother, Ambrose, did not have any children from his marriages, his sisters Mary and Katherine did, but the name of Dudley was in danger of dying out. First he turned to a long term affair with Douglas Sheffield which produced a son named Robert Dudley. And then he married the widow of the Earl of Essex, the Queen’s cousin, Letitia “Lettice” Knollys Devereaux whose husband died of dystentery while serving in Ireland. They had a son, also named Robert, known to history as the noble imp, who died young.

It has been set forth by many historians that Robert married Douglas Sheffield secretly. Her son, Robert Dudley tried to claim that he was legitimate during the early years of the reign of James I, this was the only time in all the years after her son’s birth that Douglas publically came forward to claim that she was legally wed. But she had no concrete proof and it was denied by the Star Chamber. This is important to our story as we turn to the examination of the theory that Amye Robsart was murdered.

In 1584 a pamphlet was published entitled The Copy of a Letter Written by a Master of Arts of Cambridge to his friend in London, concerning some talk passed of late between two worshipful and grave men about the present state, and some proceedings of the Earl of Leicester and his friends in England. We know it by its 1641 reprint title Leiceister’s Commonwealth. Now, when I got to this chapter I was rolling my eyes. Leiceister’s Commonwealth is a anti-Protestant piece of propaganda and could not possibly contain anything that could be corroborated as truth. It was designed to slander Robert Dudley and keep the story that he had his wife murdered in the public eye. But, there is more to this story. There is another document that has come to light that shows parallels to the tales in the Commonwealth published 20 plus years after Amye’s death.

First a bit of background on the Commonwealth. It actually chastises both Protestants and Catholics for their willingness to serve a higher authority than the Queen. It focuses on the greed of Elizabeth’s favorites and it is here that it turns into an attack on what the author(s) see as the worst offender Robert Dudley. It does bring up his relationships with Douglas and Lettice stating that in the case of Douglas that he promised to marry her, but he paid her off with about 1000 pounds. And the tract accuses Dudley of being a conspirator in his wife’s murder. And here is where the propaganda gets interesting. It claims that Dudley’s retainer Sir Richard Varney was instructed to kill Amye first using poison and when that didn’t work to have her killed by other means. As proof the tract names Dr. Walter Bayly of New College Oxford as having been asked to cure Amye of an abundance of melancholy but that Bayly refused saying she didn’t need any medicine. Bayly became a respected member in court circles handsomely rewarded for curing the Queen of a toothache. And he never publicly denied what was written about him in the pamphlet.

Where did the author get his information? It is purely coincidental, but Douglas Sheffield did remarry to Sir Edward Stafford and moved with him to Paris when he became English Ambassador to France. Skidmore makes a case that the likely author of the Commonwealth was Douglas’ cousin Charles Arundell who was forced to flee England in 1583 when he was implicated in the Throckmorton Plot. Douglas and Stafford regularly entertained her cousin and it is possible that he learned the details of Douglas’ relationship with Dudley from her. Sir Francis Walsingham suspected that Arundell, Stafford, and Douglas were involved in the publication of the Commonwealth pamphlet.

So, we have a piece of propaganda written 24 years after Amye’s death. This should alone dismiss it as proof. But then there is the second bombshell. In the British Library there is a document which was catalogued by the Victorians as a brief chronology of occurrences in England 1559-1562. In 1978 historian George Bernard examined the document in question. It is Additional Manuscript number 48023 measuring 31 ½ inches by 20 ½ inches and still bound its original calf leather binding. It is entitled “ A Journall of Matters of State happened from time to time as well within and without the realm from and before the death of King Edw. The 6th until the yere 1562.” It is a hand written document with first hand information on the early years of Elizabeth’s reign. It contains notes on points to follow upon and the document is virulently anti-Dudley as well as being very anti-the Duke of Northumberland. Bizarrely the author never met Robert Dudley until after Amye’s death saying “for myself I knew him not, for I never saw him before, nor knew not that it was he till he was past.”

It is a contemporary document written at the time of events. And the author is unknown although Skidmore examines the possible candidates. Here is what the journal reports on the death of Amye.

“How the Lord Robert’s wife brake her neck at Foster’s house in Oxfordshire…her gentlewomen being gone forth to a fair. Howbeit it was thought she was slain, for Sir…Verney was there that day and whilst the deed was doing was going over the fair and tarried there for his man, who at length came, and he said, thou knave, why tarriest thou? He answered should I come before I had done? Has thou done? Quoth Verney. Yea, quoth the man, I have made it sure. So Verney came to the court.?"

The story is very similar to the one written 24 years later in Leiceister’s Commonwealth, but is contemporary. The journal also gives an accurate account of Amye’s movements in the year before her death.

“The people say she was killed by reason he forsook her company without cause and left her first at Hyde’s house in Hertfordshire, where she said she was poisoned, and for that cause he desired, she might no longer tarry in his house. From thence she was removed to Verney’s house in Warwickshire, and so at length to Foster’s house (Cumnor Place).”

I addition to being accurate as to where Amye was living it also corroborates all of the contemporary stories from various Ambassadors reports and Wiliam Cecil that Amye believed that she was being poisoned.

The journal also helps uncover that members of the coroner’s jury were known to Dudley’s retainers.

And as to the coroner’s report about the two dints in her head in addition to the possibility that they were caused by striking her head on the stairs the phrase “dyntes” was a common phrase used to describe wounds inflicted by a blow. In the 17th and 18th centuries accounts of local villagers refer to Amye having suffered wounds to her head.

Skidmore discusses that if it was murder it was likely done by Dudley’s retainers, led by Sir Richard Verney whose name keeps popping up. There are many documents between the two men that make it clear that he was in Dudley’s service. Skidmore also discusses the dark side of retainers, who could threaten or do violence on the implication of their master relating a tale of Dudley’s retainers threatening the Swedish Ambassador’s retinue when he was in England negotiating for Eric of Sweden to marry Elizabeth.

Ultimately, Skidmore readily admits we cannot know for certain how Amye Dudley died. He strongly favors the murder theory,, believing that Dudley’s men killed Amye to pave the way for their master to marry the Queen, but he gives equal good evidence for the accidental death theory concluded by the coroner’s report.

Read the book. Decide for yourself.

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel

This is the historical fiction that won the Man Booker Prize last year. For those who are not familiar with the prize it is awarded for the best original novel in English written by a citizen of the British commonwealth, Ireland or Zimbabwe.

I like historical fiction.  I am very picky about those set in "my" Tudor era. I am willing to grant changes for dramatic purpose, I better be, given that I am an actor and I've lived with that in the dramas I've performed at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. But, some of the attempts to be as historically accurate as possible can sometimes be less than desired.

On the other hand, Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel is very good with its history. This is the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell from his youth as the son of blacksmith and brewer Walter Cromwell through his service under Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey and his own increasing rise to power following Wolsey's fall. The book ends with the conflict with Sir Thomas More's refusal to swear the oath required under the Act of Succession 1534 and More's execution in July 1535.

What makes this a strong story is the decision to make it a narration by Cromwell himself. Mantel uses the gaps in the historical knowledge to create very interesting and plausible explanations for such things as - not knowing the birth dates of Cromwell, Mary and Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, why Cromwell became a soldier on the Continent, and creating a compelling backstory involving his family the majority whom died in the influenza and sweating sickness outbreaks of the late 1520's.

This is not your standard historical fiction or biography. Major events such as the Blackfrier's Trial of 1529 are not presented in a traditional fashion. You do not get the dramatic presentation of Katherine of Aragon's plea at King Henry's feet for her marriage. Instead historical events frequently happen offstage and are only mentioned in the book as reports to and from Cromwell to his bevy of servants and family members, However, what history she does relate is fairly accurate.

Mantel creates very interesting fictional stories of the relationship between Cromwell and Wolsey, the rise and fall of Sister Elizabeth Barton, and the contentious relationship between Cromwell and More.  Mantel writes very compelling dialogue between the two men, in particular the final scenes when More, refusing to swear the oath gets castigated by Cromwell for his own lack of mercy towards the heretics he had caused to be tortured, imprisoned and burned when More was Lord Chancellor.  This is a controversial view of Sir Thomas More giving Cromwell's frustrated viewpoint on a man known to history for losing his life for his religious convictions and becoming a Catholic saint after his death.

Thomas Cromwell comes off as a well rounded character as opposed to the cold calculating lawyer that is his usual portrayal. I challenge any reader of this book not to be moved by his relationships with his wife and two daughters, the difficult relationship with his son, Gregory and his more easy going relationship with his nephew Richard (the ancestor of Oliver Cromwell).

Fun side notes include coming up with a plausible reason for Anne Boleyn to be accused of having six fingers - this Anne Boleyn has a nervous habit of pulling her hand in and out of her sleeves. The character of Thomas Wriothesley is amusingly drawn. For those who do not know Wriothesley is pronounced Risley - so when he joins Cromwell's service he quickly gains the nickname "Call Me Risley" then shortened later to simply "Call Me."

And then there is the possibly baffling reason for titling this book Wolf Hall after the home of the Seymour famliy. The Seymours are minor characters in the book and the home is not visited. However, Mantel invents a romantic admiration for Cromwell with a member of the Seymour Family. I personally surmise that Wolf Hall is Cromwell's fantasy of domestic bliss and the end of the book leaves the strong possibility of a sequel as Cromwell plans the summer/fall progress of 1535 pencilling in 5 days at Wolf Hall----which will lead to Jane Seymour's becoming Queen.

According to at least one reviewer another possibility for the name comes from the microcosm of the corrupted court. We hear from Jane Seymour about the scandals between her father, John and his affair with his son Edward's first wive, Katherine Filloil

Enjoy the book, I did. And she is planning a sequel to cover the remaining five years of Cromwell's life. Ms. Mantel later decided to make that sequel cover the fall of Anne Boleyn.   Entitled Bring Up The Bodies it was published in May 2012.  A second sequel is planned to finish the story of Thomas Cromwell's life.

Book Review: Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery by Eric W. Ives

This one took me a while to get through, but it was a very satisfying read. There has been a renewed interest in the "middle" Tudors with several new books in the past 10 years covering the period of 1547-1558. So, there has been a reexamination surrounding the events of the coup de tat in July 1553 that began with the placing of Lady Jane Grey Dudley on the throne per Edward VI's device for the succession and ending with the uprising centered in East Anglia that placed Mary I on the throne. These recent books have reexamined primary source materials and have debunked the popular version of the tale. John Dudley, evil Duke of Northumberland controls the boy king Edward VI, forcing him to remove his sisters from the succession in favor of his daughter-in-law, the innocent teenager, Jane Grey, who is beaten into a marriage she didn't want and ends up after a disastrous uprising by her father, the Duke of Suffolk, on the chopping block so that Mary I can marry the Spanish prince, Philip.

Let's take a different tactic: The Act of Succession of 1543/44 and Henry VIII's will established the following: Mary and Elizabeth Tudor are restored to the succession following their brother, Edward and his heirs, but they are still declared illegitimate. The "senior" cousins the Stuarts and Douglas' are excluded. The "junior" Tudors are included with one exception- the eldest daughter of Mary Tudor Brandon - Frances Brandon Grey - is excluded from the succession - leaving the heir from this branch - Jane Grey, her sisters Katherine and Mary and their cousin, Margaret Clifford. Edward VI becomes ill in the winter and spring of 1553, when he realizes that the illness may prove fatal he writes two versions of his Deuise for the Sucession. The Deuise(device) is further examined by lawyers and signed on the 22nd of June by 102 counselors and judges. Edward dies. Jane Grey Dudley is proclaimed Queen and Mary Tudor rebels and against all odds succeeds in overthrowing her brother's succession plans and becomes Queen.

So, many historians have all ready reexamined the period. John Dudley, while ambitious has been shown to be a competent government minister who was diligently working towards Edward's assumption of full Kingly powers upon his reaching the age of majority (which he was very close to achieving when he died). Jane Grey, while complaining of her strict upbringing by her parents was not forced into marriage with Guildford Dudley. And, most surprisingly, the Wyatt Rebellion had very little to do with Jane Grey being restored to the throne, but it was that uprising and her father's part in it that led to the pressure to carry out the months old death sentences on Jane and Guildford.

What Eric Ives brings to the discussion is a very detailed analysis of primary source materials. The first section of the book is devoted to analyzing the key players, Edward, Jane, Northumberland, Suffolk, and Mary. The second section discusses the device for the succesion, Edward's reasoning (for it is Edward's composition) and the government's agreement to placing Jane on the throne of England. The third section deals with Mary's uprising, her surprising victory, and how it actually came to happen and the mad scramble by the 102 courtiers who signed in favor of Jane and how only three persons ended up executed in the immediate aftermath. There is a discussion of the treason trial and Jane's evangelical writings which were smuggled out of England - thus leading her to become the eventual Protestant Saint of the next 450 years, instead of the mere footnote of history of other short reigned monarchs. Finally Ives examines the treatment of Jane by history from her prominence in Foxe's Acts and Monuments to the favorite artistic subject of the Victorian age to her continued prominence in fiction, romance and films.

The chapters that I particularly praise are those dealing with the Device for the Succession and Mary's rebellion. Ives places the initial writing of the Device to April 1553 and shows through documented evidence that no one expected Edward to die until he took a rapid decline in May. I will write a full note on the changes and implications of the versions of the Device in another note as it is too long for a quick review. Please note, however, that some other recent historians date the first version to the January/February 1553.

The chapter on Mary's rebellion is very interesting reading. If you have read any books on Mary's reign it is well known that no one expected her to succeed. There were many factors that worked in her favor. One, she was the sixth largest landowner in England and had many loyal retainers. Two, her base of operations was East Anglia, which had suffered during the Kett's Rebellion of 1549 when the Duke of Northumberland, then Earl of Warwick clamped down hard in the area. Northumberland's law and order policies had made him unpopular among the common people. They was no attempt to secure Mary before Edward died and no attempt to raise an army to control her until three or four days after Edward had died. Finally, she acquired heavy ordinance when six ships from the Royal Navy decided to support her. Up until the 18th of July, it was a given that there would be a battle and that Mary would lose. Once it was clear that beyond certain areas (such as Cambridge) were declaring for Mary and she had more than just foot soldiers to back her claim, it was over without a shot being fired.

One detail of Jane's life I did not know before reading this book. Her treason trial took place outside the Tower at the Guild Hall. So she did leave the Tower once during the months between her proclamation as Queen and her execution. I also learned that Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury was also convicted of treason at that same trial (as were Jane's husband Guildford, and Guildford's brothers - John, Henry , Ambrose and Robert).

It is a very detailed book. Like the recent Alison Weir book you will learn a lot about minor courtiers and their relationships to the major players, thus learning why certain people behaved as they did. You will also meet the early William Cecil, who transferred from the staff of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, to the government of John Dudley, supported the succession of Jane Grey ---and survived to eventually become Elizabeth I's Secretary of State.

Enjoy the read.

Book Review: Elizabeth's Women by Tracy Borman

This book tells the story of Queen Elizabeth I from the prospective of the women in her life. It includes such familiar characters that have been well documented such as her mother , Anne Boleyn, all of her stepmothers from Jane Seymour through Kateryn Parr, her sister, Queen Mary I, and the rivals for the throne, particularly Katherine Grey (recent subject of Leandra de Lisle’s The Sisters Who Would be Queen) and, of course, Mary, Queen of Scots.

However, it is the lesser known women, mostly members of her household that become well fleshed out women in this story.

We may be familiar with Kat Champerknowne Astley (or Ashley), how fiercely she guarded her close relationship to Elizabeth when Princess (or Lady depending on the times) but how many know about Kat’s second trip to the Tower of London during the aftermath of both the Wyatt Rebellion and the Dudley rebellion and then her return to court as Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber.

Or Blanche Parry, Elizabeth’s longest servant who lived to be 83 and still held her positions despite her age and infirmities.

Then there is Lady Margaret Douglas, Elizabeth’s cousin, mother of Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, who, quite frankly hated Elizabeth, and hoped to place herself on the throne after Queen Mary’s death and then pushed her elder son into his disastrous marriage with Mary, Queen of Scots, then encouraged her younger son, Charles, to marry Bess of Hardwick’s daughter and produce the poignant, spoiled rotten Arbella Stuart who was also a strong claimant to Elizabeth’s throne.

I highly recommend reading the book for the stories, well documented by Dr. Borman, of such women as:

The sisters of Robert Dudley, Lady Mary Sidney – disfigured by smallpox for nursing Elizabeth – yet still serving until her death in the 1570’s and Katherine Hastings, Countess of Huntington, whom Elizabeth insisted on breaking the news of her husband’s death to her personally.

Other women covered include the Swedish Helena Snakenborg, who marries Kateryn Parr’s brother, William, only to have him die five months later and again serves Elizabeth faithfully for decades, Katherine Howard, Countess of Nottingham, Bess Throckmorton, one of many of Elizabeth’s ladies who decided to marry in secret only to face Elizabeth’s wrath when they couldn’t hide their pregnancies.

Dr. Borman is a frequent contributor to BBC History Magazine and a recent issue sensationalized a part of the book that deals with Elizabeth’s temper. It was documented by Sir John Harrington, Elizabeth’s godson, that the Queen broke one ladies finger, would hit those who displeased her –however that is only a very tiny part of the book and seems to mostly occur during the last decade of Elizabeth’s life.

Instead enjoy such nuggets as finding out that Kat Astley arranged meetings between Elizabeth and Thomas Seymour AFTER Kateryn Parr’s death, including an evening boat ride, unchaperoned on the Thames (documented from Kat’s interrogation after Seymour’s arrest for treason. ) or the fact that Elizbeth did spend time visiting Anne of Cleves during the reign of Queen Mary I and that Anne also refused to attend mass at court.

I do recommend the book, parts of it when focusing on the familiar women can seem like many other books written about Elizabeth, but the lesser known women’s stories make this book a true revelation.

Book Reviews

I also will write some book reviews, usually Tudor history books.    So, the next few posts are some reviews from the past year that I had posted to Facebook.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Arena Stage comes home, was the renovation worth the wait?

Oh, yeah, baby.     Wow, just wow.  

Welcome home to the Mead Center for American Theater

For the past two seasons, Arena Stage left its southwest waterfront home for an old movie theater in Crystal City and the venerable Lincoln Theater on U Street, NW.    A capital campaign raised more than $100,000,000 of the $125,000,000 cost to completely reimagine the space.    Now, Arena Stage has come home and will open the new complex in October with a gala day of free performances and then, a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!

What has two years and all that cash produced?   The Fichandler and Kreeger Theater buildings are intact and as you walk into the immense new lobby space that links the two theaters with the new Kogod Cradle theater you will notice the former outer walls of the Fichandler space.    There is an immense staircase, large glass enclosed elevators (no more one wheelchair at a time lift!), spacious box office area, and most dramatically the 35 foot glass windows/walls which while decorative also serve as a sound barrier.   No more listening to the firetruck speeding by on Maine Avenue during that quiet moment on stage.

The three theaters have different color schemes, are fully accessible to the handicapped and the Fichandler, in particular as had some upgrades to its facility.

The Theaters

The Fichandler

The classic theater -in-the-round space (really theater in a square) has had its seats re-upholstered in deep burgundy.    The box seats, which were rarely in use for the past several seasons have been removed and new acoustic panels have been installed.   New handrails have been installed in the aisles.  The air system has been modified.   There are air vents under every third seat, so air will circulate from under the audience rather than from above.   The ceiling appears new, but is the original, the wood having been stripped of years of paint and varnish to its original light brown color.  Technical improvements include a new catwalk and the pit has been lowered giving the theater more hydraulic versatility.   For the production of Oklahoma, a band stand has been constructed in the seats and the audience will be surrounded by the new construction hinted at in the book of the musical.

There are now two entrances to the theater.   The traditional entrance from the north and a new entrance from the west of the building.

The first production in the Fichandler will be Oklahoma!

The Kreeger

The colors for the Kreeger are deep blue.   Interestingly, the mezzanine entrance is at the level of the main lobby.   For orchestra seating you must use the stairs or the elevator.   For those needing that central elevator it goes up to the new Cafe/Terrace level, down to the main lobby, the Kreeger orchestra and also descends to the new underground parking garage.   It appears that the sound/light booth has been renovated, but the pleasing space of this traditional stage has been retained.

The first production in the Kreeger will be Teutonic Theatre Company's performances of both parts of The Laramie Project.

The Kogod Cradle

The Kogod Cradle was built on the old parking lot.   To enter the Kogod you walk around the entire theater.   As you walk you are enveloped in warm brown wooden walls and you subtly realize that the sounds of the outside world have faded away.   You enter the 200 seat arena.   The seating is stadium-like, but the first three rows are in a pit and can be removed or moved to make a thrust stage.    The stage itself has a full trap in the floor and three large columns -almost Greek-style- entrances at the back of the stage as well as two stage level entrances/exits which also serve as the handicapped entrances for audience.    The warm brown wood panels become woven creating unique acoustic panels.     The plan is for Arena Stage to continue to use natural voices as much as possible, only resorting to microphoning the actors for some musicals and in cases where it is necessary to blend the voices with the sound.

The first production will be Every Tongue Confess which is rapidly selling out.



The new cafe space and terrace is located on the third level.   Cleverly it sits on the roof of the Kreeger Theatre and to insure proper weight bearing part of the space is reserved as a display area that is not designed to bear too much weight.   The curving walls behind the cafe service area are actually the fly house for the Kreeger.    Chef Jose Andres is providing the menu which will change nightly.   Seating is about 280 indoors and 500 when you count the outdoor space.    It is a lovely space for a meal before the show providing a beautiful view of the sunset.


The second floor between the Fichandler and the Kreeger has a much expanded concession area.   There is plenty of space for milling about.


One of the poorest experiences of the old Arena Stage was its restroom facilities.   You had to go up a narrow stairway to cramped stalls and sinks.   During storms the toilets would occasionally stop working.

There are amazing new restroom facilities.   And the women's restrooms have a foundation sponsor.
For handicapped patrons there are stalls in all the main bathrooms, in addition there are handicapped only restrooms near the box office and at the orchestra seating level of the Kreeger Theater.

Opposite the Kreeger Mezzanine are the smaller women's restroom and the men's restroom.   Both feature expanded stalls (six for the women) and a separate spacious sink area.   There are no mirrors over the sink in the women's restrooms requiring you to step away from the sinks to "fix" yourself.

The main women's restroom is a marvel.  It is located to the left of the concession across from the west entrance of the Fichander.   It features approximately 20 stalls, a wall of sinks and booth like mirrors with small shelves away from the sinks.    And, you can see the Washington Monument from the window.


For subscribers only who purchase in advance, parking is available for $18 a performance underneath the complex.   Parking is valet as the spaces are tight and the entrance for the valet is on Maine Avenue.

Central Parking operates two garages.   1101 4th Street, SW - entrance on 4th Street between I & M SW and 1100 4th Street, SW entrance across the street from the first garage.   Parking is $10 and must be validated at the theatre's Visitor's Services area.

Metro is available  on the Green Line at the Waterfront Station.

Upcoming Events

There will be an open house with free performances on October 23.   Tickets are required for the performances and will be available on October 8 at the website,

There is also an gala on October 25.  Honorary chairs include President and Mrs. Obama and Mayor and Mrs. Fenty.   Information on the gala is also on the website.

Due to a back-up I was privileged to have as my group's tour guide the Associate Artistic Director, David Dower.   He provided a really fun tour.

For information on Arena Stage and the Mead Center for American Theater visit

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Wolf Trap Presents The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

On a chilly evening under the stars, Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts presented the conclusion of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy of films with live orchestra.   The past two summers have seen performances of the first two films, which this reviewer unfortunately did not get a chance to attend.   However, this performance of the Academy Award winning concluding film made me yearn to turn back the clock to see what I had clearly missed.

Howard Shore composed an epic score for these films filled with beautifully appropriate themes to illustrate various characters, locations and events.    What a live performance of the score permits the audience to enjoy is the sheer amount of performers needed to provide a full symphonic accompaniment to the film.

It takes approximately 300 performers from the symphonic sounds of the Filene Center Orchestra, The City Choir of Washington, the Fairfax Choral Society's Children's Choir, to two amazing soloists all under the capable direction of Ludwig Wicki.

The boy soloist, Nolan Peters, is a member of the Boy's Choir of St. Paul's in Washington, DC.   He performed the treble solos in last year's performance of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and brings confidence and pure tones in his youthful voice to the demands of his part.

Kaitlyn Lusk, vocal soloist, has been the featured soloist for performances of The Lord of the Rings Symphony since 2004.    She made her debut singing with the Baltimore Orchestra in 2003 at the age of 14.    She has a wide range easily handling the Tolkien languages, the soaring tones of the operatic soprano sections and brings beautiful poignancy to the Academy Award winning original song, Into the West, which ends the film.

Unfornately there are only two performances of this film and the second one is this evening, September 11, 2010.    So, if you did not get a chance to see this event, you can join me in the loss I feel from missing the first two installments of this ambitious project.

Monday, September 6, 2010

In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

Sarah Ruhl has become one of the most well received playwrights of the young 21st century.   Aaron Posner has been a very popular regional theater director best known in the DC area for his work at The Folger Theatre.    These two forces combine to bring Ms. Ruhl's recent Tony nominated play, In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play to Washington DC audiences.

Ms. Ruhl mentions that she "always wanted to write a costume drama."    Here her reading of 19th century medical history has led to a very quirky little dramedy.    For this is a tale of when women, and a few men, were treated for the disease hysteria, believed to be caused by problems in the uterus and treated by (this is a show for adult audiences only) "manual" treatment until the invention of electricity which led to the development of the clinical vibrator.
The humor in the play derives chiefly from the practitioner, Dr. Givings, played wonderfully matter-of-factly by Eric Hissom, as he detachedly discusses the science behind his treatments or the debate of the day between direct and alternating current whilst giving his patients paroxysms, what we would call today orgasms.
But this is really the tale of the women in this piece.    All four women are damaged to certain degrees. The play is truly about their healing processes.   First we have the doctor's wife, Catherine Givings, played with an exuberance that brings to mind a lot of caffeinated beverages by Katie deBuys.   Mrs. Givings is a new mother and she is not producing enough breast milk for her baby.   She is also desperate to find out what her husband is doing to his patients and even more so, desperate for her husband's passion.
Sabrina Daldry, played by Kimberly Gilbert, is the first of the doctor's patients we meet.   Brought for treatment by her husband, played by James Konicek, she is suffering from nerves and an inability to tolerate light and color.     Throughout the course of the play we watch Mrs. Daldry blossom into a bright vibrant woman, who is clearly not receiving satisfaction from her husband, but does not expect to find desire from him and she receives desire and passion in an entirely different direction.
Elizabeth, portrayed by Jessica Frances Dukes, is the African American housekeeper of the Daldry family.    She has recently lost a baby to cholera and his hired by the Givings as a wet nurse for their baby.     She is a woman who is struggling with her faith, yet willing to earn money doing things she dislikes for the sake of her family.  Yet when it becomes clear that her involvement with the other characters leads to strife she gives up the easy money for the love of her husband and family.
The fourth woman is the doctor's nurse, Annie.    She is played by the always amazing Sarah Marshall.  Ms. Marshall takes this relatively small, but pivotal role and embodies her.    With little dialogue she conveys Annie's emotional depth and repression as a spinster working woman who has her desires unexpectedly awakened by her acquaintance with Mrs. Daldry.
The ensemble is completed by Cody Nickell who plays a male patient, Leo Irving.   The character is the stereotypical suffering artist  who is working through a creative block.    But, his character ends up impacting most of the rest of the ensemble which leads to the climax of the tale.
The story is interesting and well acted.    Some of the staging tends to ignore that there are audience members seated above and behind the stage requiring them to occasionally stand up and lean over to see some of the action.     It does tend to drag a bit in act two, but is a wonderful opportunity to see a work that appeared on Broadway only last season.

For those that care: this play has extremely adult content and simulates sexual pleasure.  There is also several minutes of nudity.

The production runs through October 3rd.   For tickets and additional performance information go to

Chess at The Signature Theatre in Arlington Virginia

Chess.    Sigh, Chess, Chess, Chess.     This musical by the 2 "B"'s in ABBA, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and lyricist Tim Rice has had a very problematic history.      It began life as a concept album, which this reviewer proudly owns to this day...on vinyl.    The problem with the album was that the story was pretty much laid out in the liner notes with very little dialogue on the album itself.   The two chess masters were even simply called The American and The Russian.   It evolved into a popular production in London where it ran for three years.   The Broadway production with a completely rethought book by Richard Nelson.      It is stated on Wikipedia that all subsequent productions in North America must use the Broadway book.    Whether or not that is a true statement it is the version of the musical that has been staged by Signature Artistic Director, Eric Schaeffer.    So, if you saw the recently broadcast concert version of Chess, performed at the Royal Albert Hall, this is a vastly different story.
Schaeffer has worked numerous changes, edited the musical down to about 2 hours and 15 minutes plus intermission.   The original Broadway production ran over 3 hours.

The acting and the score are the real stars of this production.   Across the board the production is well cast. Jeremy Kushnier is appropriately smarmy and brash as the American challenger, Freddie Trumper.    He takes what is essentially a one-note character and manages to fight well to bring some dimension to Freddie.   The problem is until the song, Pity the Child at the end of Act Two, we, as an audience, have very little reason to like the character and absolutely no investment in wanting him to win the match.   Euan Morton has an easier time with the more fleshed out character of Anatoly Sergievsky.    Euan has a beautiful voice and makes Anatoly sympathetic even as it is clear that he, too, has an unlikeable element, once the audience meets his wife, Svetlana.     Svetlana is wonderfully acted and sung by Eleasha Gamble, although it may be jarring for the audience that Signature has colorblind casted the role.  Normally I cheer colorblind casting, but when the role is specifically Soviet Russian, it did take me more than a few moments to look past it and just enjoy her performance.
The real star of the production is the true central character, Florence, portrayed amazingly by Jill Paice.   She burns through the show, with an amazing voice and very strong acting, she simply lives and breathes this character.    Paice is reason enough to see this production.

There are a few issues with the staging.    There are four video screens which spend the majority of the production above the second level of the set.    The problem with that is that there is a handrail on that level that bisects the screens for those audience members sitting in the first couple of rows.    If they had been hoisted maybe one foot higher this would not have been a problem.     Also, for the group numbers, choreographer, Karma Camp, has created very 80's music video patterns, but they are mostly staged dead center.    If you are off to the side it is difficult to get the full intent of the choreography.    And I must agree with the Washington Post's critic that the staging of One Night in Bangkok was very disappointing.     Bangkok was the big "hit" of the concept album and has suffered from being moved for North American productions to the middle of Act One.    It is definitely stronger as an opening number for Act Two as it is in the album and London production.   But, can we not be more creative in portraying the decadent nightlife of the city than crotch grabbing, butt swatting and pole dancing?  

A note about where this reviewer was sitting.    As a subscriber I was supposed to be in C118.   However, a computer glitch invalidated my ticket.     As a result I was seated in A2 - front row all the way to the left.   Because of this I was able to note the flaws of the staging.

However, despite the flaws, I do recommend the show.   The performances and the score are wonderful, there are still flaws to the book.   (Florence shouldn't be in her late 30's which the story implies heavily).   But, you will rarely get a chance to see Chess and this is a more than adequate production to attend.

For those that care:  Chess contains gunfire and strobe effects and is performed with a 15 minute intermission.       It is playing at The Signature Theatre in Arlington Virginia through October 3.
For tickets and performance information visit

All that rambling and I never said why "The Accidental Thespian"

During the last century, my husband took a telemarketing call from a young man selling subscriptions to The Studio Theatre in DC.  The young man said "I hear you are a thespian."  My husband replied,"you probably want my wife.   She loves theater, but I'm pretty sure she's straight."
When the poor guy called back I felt obligated to take a subscription.   I remained a faithful subscriber to Studio for about five years, until the Whole Foods Market was built on the only parking lot in the area.   When you live in the outer suburbs of DC either having guaranteed parking (Kennedy Center, Arena Stage) or making the time to travel by Metro is absolutely essential.    Studio requires taking a bus up 14th street or walking over from a couple of metro stations neither of which I was willing to do for the return trip at night.  
So, that's why I'm a thespian.   And proud of it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A brief introduction to my life as a thespian

I have been involved in the performing arts, museums, zoos, travel, history, etc., etc., etc. since I was a very young girl.   One of my earliest theatrical memories is standing on the seat in a small theatre on the grounds of the Hillsdale County Fairgrounds watching my dad direct a show for the recently founded Hillsdale Community Theater.    And he whispered to me, "close your ears, he's going to fire a gun."
So, you should know that I have a lot of irrational phobias - guns, fireworks, other loud noises, balloons popping, a bit of vertigo when up on high, the list goes on.
So, why start a blog now?   And why The Accidental Thespian?    I am by choice now, an unemployed actor - shockingly rare occurrence.    I have also decided that since my lengthy association with the performing arts, a journey that has taken me through - a teenage existence in the aforementioned Hillsdale Community Theater - involvement as an actor, director, choreographer and stage manager with the offshoot Hillsdale Community Children's Theater - my two amazing years as an acting, technical theater and creative writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy - my B.A. in Dramatic Arts from The George Washington University - and my involvement in local endeavors such as The St. Mark's Players, Vpstart Crow Productions and, for 16 years, The Maryland Renaissance Festival - well, I'm never going to become known for my performing abilities.
So, I begin a new journey on a quest to form a theatrical foundation so that other worthy companies and artists will.    I'm also turning my energies to writing - I have had several adaptations of well known tales performed at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, but I'd like to expand my horizons to writing books, original plays, etc.     That leads me to why I start blogging now.
I've been writing and posting book reviews and theater reviews on Facebook and I see this as an extension of that.    So, this will mostly be performing arts reviews based on the Washington DC metropolitan area, but I will also write on topics that interest me.
Customer service for one, "touristy" things for another.
So, I am a subscriber to Signature Theater, Arena Stage, Kennedy Center Ballet Series, Kennedy Center Theater Series and the Folger Theater.    The bulk of my reviews will come from those, but who knows?   Let the journey begin.