Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Reflection: The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later

One of the articles on the November 30, 2010 Huffington Post website has as a subject the case that may be the first federal prosecution under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.  

Swastika-Shaving Case To Be First Test Of New Hate Crimes Law Named For Matthew Shepard


I took advantage of an opportunity provided at Arena Stage who presented Tectonic Theater Project for five performances over one weekend in the Kreeger Theater of their original theatrical piece, The Laramie Project and its follow-up, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.      I remember well the media storm that surrounded the horrific beating and death of Matthew Shepard and had been aware of The Laramie Project's numerous stage productions and the HBO film version.     However, this was the very first time that I had actually seen the play.    It is a very powerful piece that is very open and fair to the residents of Laramie, Wyoming who agreed to be interviewed.

For those not familiar with the work, The Laramie Project was created by Moises Kauffman and the members of Tectonic Theater Project.   The head writer is Leigh Fondakowski, associate writers Stephen Belber, Greg Pierotti and Stephen Wangh, dramaturgs Amanda Gronich, Sarah Lambert, John McAdams, Maude Mitchell, Andy Paris, Barbara Pitts and Kelli Simpkins.     They wrote the piece based on interviews, their own journals, news stories and broadcasts and the trial transcripts.   As a result it is a raw theatrical experience as it is entirely based on the words of real people commenting on real events.

What struck me the most about the piece is the impact a horrendous crime can have on a relatively small community.    Laramie, Wyoming is a small city that is the home to the University of Wyoming.    The horrific nature of the crime brought the national media bearing down on the community.   The story in the media became how rural communities are intolerant to gays.    One of the striking themes of these plays is how much The Laramie Project and its sequel condemn the national media.    Through the course of the three acts of the original The Laramie Project,  the audience gets to know several of the members of the Laramie community quite well.  There is humor and pathos in their words.  They are ordinary people with the flaws and frailties that every member of the human race possess.    Yet, time and again the audience is told by many different people, crimes like this don't happen in a place like Laramie.   The problem is yes they do.   The truth of The Laramie Project is while it is wrong to condemn an entire community for the brutal acts that happen within it, crimes such as the beating death of Matthew Shepard do happen....and no one community is immune from them.

The Laramie Project strikingly does not contain any words from Matthew Shepard's mother and his father is only represented through his statements to the media.  The tale is still powerful without their personal perspective.   Still one's heart breaks as the original emergency room doctor describes the severe injuries that his hospital was unable to properly treat and the chilling realization that one of the attackers was treated for injuries received in "a fight"in the same emergency room.     The female sheriff's deputy who helped release Matthew from the fence to which he was so tightly bound that she went through the entire supply of cheap rubber gloves while performing the rescue, ended up having to undergo preventative treatment as there was a fear that Matthew was HIV positive.     The witnesses to the prelude to the event in the Fireside Lounge provide both a eagerness to cooperate with the media and the actors, seeming to enjoy the spotlight, yet provide contempt for the killers as they provide eyewitness testimony to how everyone was behaving that night undercutting the defense that was used in their trial.

The killers themselves were not interviewed.    They are only represented through the trial transcripts, the interviews they gave in jail and through certain community members who interacted with them, such as the sheriff's deputies and the clergy.     It is interesting that of the two, Russell Henderson comes off as almost sympathetic.    The original play mentions that one of the consequences for Henderson was that he was excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.   For those unfamiliar with what this means in the Mormon faith, it means that he will not be united with his family in the afterlife.     Henderson pled guilty and agreed to testify against Aaron McKinney in exchange for not receiving the death penalty.    McKinney was found guilty and it was the testimony of Matthew Shepard's father that spared him the death penalty.   They are now serving consecutive life terms in federal prison.

The Laramie Project is an emotional work.   Several audience members could be heard sobbing at several points during the performance.   What would be the emotional impact of the sequel, Ten Years Later?

The Laramie Project:  Ten Years Later is not as emotionally draining as the original piece.    This piece was written in the same manner this time by Moises Kauffman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris and Stephen Belber.  The dramaturg is Jimmy Maize.     The members of Tectonic Theater Project traveled back to Laramie for the tenth anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death.    They use the same techniques to write and tell the story.  

Ten Years Later the bar, the Fireside Lounge has been sold and renamed.  The fence where Matthew Shepard was tied up and left to die has been removed as the private owner of the land became tired of the site becoming a pilgrimage site.

Laramie has seemingly become numb and tired of being known as the place where Matthew Shepard was killed.   Any community that has been the focus of so much negative media attention would deservedly want the world to move on.    The actors discover more resistance among their interviewees.   And there is a twist to the tale.     Despite having the trial transcripts and interviews with the killers, a new narrative as to how Matthew Shepard came to be murdered surfaced in 2004.    The ABC news program 20/20 produced a story which included a jail interview with Aaron McKinney.   In the story McKinney claimed that Matthew was a drug dealer and that the murder was a drug deal gone bad.   The town was deeply wounded by this new story and in evidence, in the form of a hard copy of an email left behind by 20/20,  it was clear that there was a sensationalist agenda to the story.     For the record, in the original trial, the girlfriends of McKinney and Henderson testified that neither killer was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  

But the damage was done.   After a sparsely attended ceremony at the University of Wyoming to dedicate a bench in Matthew's memory, the theater company members interviewed several of the college students.    They would have been elementary school age at the time of Matthew's death.  It is clear that many of them believe the story that Matthew was a drug dealer and that in some way, got what he deserved.    It is clear in interviews with some of the people in the town that they have come to believe the new story as well.     Why?    Isn't it easier to believe that the original true narrative isn't true?   The actual story is a young man, who was gay, was simply selected to be robbed and attacked because he was small, thus easier to overpower, wealthy and gay.    If he's a drug dealer then there is some twisted reason for the events.   And it's comforting to think that, no,  our community didn't raise people who could do this to an innocent man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Ten Years Later feels a bit more like a documentary, almost a where are they now piece.    We are reintroduced to faculty at the University who are frustrated that the younger generation doesn't want to remember and commemorate what happened.     We meet Matthew's friend, Romaine Patterson, who has become a well-known activist for her efforts to block Westboro Baptist Church from interrupting Matthew's funeral and the trials of his killers.   (the controversial leader of the Church is depicted in the original Laramie Project, but not in Ten Years Later).

There is some emotional payoff for the audience, as there are two legislative events documented in the second act.    One is the defeat of the constitutional amendment to the Wyoming Constitution that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman.    The defeat of the legislation was actually due to the effort of the Republican members of the legislature who citied the history of Wyoming as the equality state and the home of the first legislation permitting women to vote.    The second is the drive to pass the federal Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act.    It was not passed until 2009 despite efforts to do so going back to President Clinton.     And, you may notice that it is named for both Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., an African American man who was dragged to death by three white men in Jasper, Texas in 1998.      When both of these events came to their conclusions in the play, the audience applauded.

Yet, perhaps, the most emotional moments in Ten Years Later are the interviews with Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney.    Once again, Henderson comes off sympathetically.    He sends drawings to his grandmother of Jesus (she is interviewed).    He has attempted to earn an education in prison which has been thwarted by the necessity for him to be moved to other federal prisons due to overcrowding.   Currently the two men are in federal prison in Virginia.    It is interesting that they have always been moved together.   Henderson makes it clear to the interviewer that he has very little contact with McKinney.

Aaron McKinney is a piece of work.    It is clear that he enjoys the spotlight that 20/20 granted him.    He is vague in his interview, yet comes off as a chilling, unremorseful killer.     He claims that he doesn't remember that he spun the drug deal gone bad tale to 20/20.   He is proud of his tattoos, many of which depict white power symbols.   He brags that he plans to do his entire torso in tattoos.     He only seems to regret the involvement of his friend, Russell Henderson.       It is a disturbing sequence in the play, but it is one of the most visceral for the audience.

Tectonic Theater Project is to be commended for this project.    They have captured a small city's views and feelings and given depth to a story that doesn't fit the national news media's narrative.    The people of Laramie, Wyoming who agreed to having their lives depicted on stage deserve our thanks for letting the world intrude so that the truth about Matthew Shepard's death and its impact on their lives can be known.

The Laramie Project for three performances and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later  for two performances were presented as part of a national tour November 19-21, 2010 at the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater.    The company invites people to "continue the discussion and join The Laramie Project Online Community" at www.laramieproject.org.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Julius Caesar presented by The Capital City Players of Washington D.C.

Community theater can get a bad reputation.   However, in the Washington DC area we are blessed by many amateur companies that give good performances despite not being a paid professional production.  There are some inconsistencies in acting ability in all companies.   It may be more pronounced in community theater, but the joy of performing is usually all the brighter whatever the quality of the production may be.

The Thespian genuinely supports when community theaters are ambitious and tackle difficult material.   While several perform Shakespeare you are more likely to see the familiar Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night's Dream than you are to see the inaugural production of the transformed Capital City Players who have opened their season with Julius Caesar.

The Capital City Players of Washington D.C. began as The Foundry Players more than fifty years ago.   They have received accolades and awards over the years.     Now they present under the thoughtful direction of Christopher Tully a production of Julius Caesar that is naturally intimate given that it is being performed in the Blackbox Theatre at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.

There are technical limitations in the space requiring patience as furniture pieces are moved on and off stage.    While the Thespian saw the need for the set pieces given the modern time setting, the scene changes interrupt the flow of the evening.    With limited lighting, Emlyn Altman, still manages to highlight crucial moments in the play.

For those unfamiliar with the play, this the the tale of the assassination of Julius Caesar, the destruction of those who kill him and the rise of the First Triumvirate, which will lead Rome from being a Republic to an Empire.   (read Antony and Cleopatra for the conclusion)

There are many outstanding performances from actors who clearly are well trained in classical texts.   Strong support is given by Wayne Henson as Casca, Julia Morrisey as Cinna and Jason Atkinson as Decius Brutus.     While the female roles in Julius Caesar are small both Amy Rauch as Calpurnia and Mary Egan as Portia provide strong dramatic impact in their scenes.

Hugh Hill is a commander as Julius Caesar, yet shows his vulnerabilities in the face of his wife, Calpurnia's fears.    Nello DeBlasio, starts competent as Mark Antony, yet brilliantly rises to a fervor in his funeral oration, showing the reasons why the assassins should have also had him killed.

Louis Pangaro brings forth Cassius' fervent desires to see Caesar die, showing that his is the driving force behind convincing Brutus to join in.    As for Brutus, David Dieudonne is able to shine a light on Brutus' conflict particularly in the intimate space.   His journey from Caesar's supporter to assassin to rebel to death ranges in his physicality and his soothing, yet firm voice.

Director Christopher Tully has judiciously cut the script.   Given that the theater has about 50 seats, this is necessarily a chamber piece, with the focus squarely on the characters and not spectacle.   In grander settings the crowds are a crucial character changing the moods of Rome as the play progresses.   In the funeral oration speech of Antony's Mr. Tully has managed to convey the scope by staging the company in such a way that it is clear the message is getting out around the world in a very 21st century manner, yet Antony himself speaks clearly to the small audience as if his words were only important to the people directly in front of him.

Logistically, The Capitol Hill Arts Workshop is located in the Eastern Market section of SE D.C.  Audience members should strongly consider traveling by Metro which is only two blocks away from the theater.   Most of the parking is residential and restricted specifically to residential parking permits.  You risk getting a ticket if you ignore the signs.

Julius Caesar will be performed through December 11 at The Blackbox Theatre at CHAW.  There will be no performances Thanksgiving week.   For tickets and additional performance information please visit  www.capitalcityplayersdc.org.

Henry IV, Part 2 at the American Shakespeare Center

"We have heard the chimes at midnight..."

What a delight it is that there are more and more opportunities to see several of the works of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries that are rarely performed.   It is wonderful to have the opportunity to see Henry IV, Part 2 at the Blackfrier's Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.    The American Shakespeare Center is in the midst of presenting both of Shakespeare's history tetralogies.   The Henry VI Plays and Richard III are being presented during the winter Actor's Renaissance Season and the tetralogy that begins with Richard II and ends with Henry V in the summer and fall season, with one play presented each year.  

The history plays can seem daunting, so many Earls and Lords to keep track of, so much difficulty for a contemporary audience to figure out which characters are on which side of the various warring factions.  But, fear not, gentle reader, the American Shakespeare Center recognizes that not everyone will have seen Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1.    First, the Elizabethan costumes by Jenny McNee clearly delinate  the class and rank of the characters and by certain additions who is on which side in the civil conflict.   The production has also thoughtfully provided a cheat sheet to catch you up on the earlier installments.  

Quite literally there is a sheet hanging from the balcony with the pertinent plot points on it as you settle into your seat.

The Thespian subscribes to the podcasts of the American Shakespeare Center and highly recommends the Backstage Pass and Dr. Ralph Presents lectures and discussions on each play in the season.   They can provide preparation for a production one may not be familiar with or provide thoughtful reflection on a performance one has attended.    These podcasts as well as the director's notes provide good insight into this wonderful production.

For those not familiar with the story, Henry IV, Part 2 is a play that is about the end of an era and the rise of a new one.   It is about facing old age.    Yes, the jollities of Sir John Falstaff and his merry band are still hilarious, but, this is a play in which Sir John Falstaff faces both his age and his gamble upon his friendship with Prince Hal that once Hal is King he will be raised to a position of prominence and then all his worries will be assuaged and his mounting debts paid.

The strengths of the American Shakespeare Center's acting company includes their clarity with the text and the ease in which they interact with the audience who surround them on three sides and on stage with the lights kept on as they would have been in Shakespeare's days.    The performances are universally strong.

Patrick Midgley portrays the growing pains of Prince Hal.   Hal is seasoning through his war experiences, yet still playful and intimate with his true friend and father figure, Sir John Falstaff, played jubiliantly by James Keegan.   Mr. Keegan is a naturally gregarious stage presence, yet over the course of the play slowly, gently breaks the audience's heart.  

This duality of comedy and pathos his shared by Falstaff's compatriots.   Mistress Quickly, played by Alison Glenzer, pulls at the heart as Falstaff's steadfast dear friend yet is rollicking in broad comedy when needed.   Ginna Hoben as Doll Tearsheet, lets the love she bears the aging Falstaff rise to the surface with nary a word needed.    But, cross her as the bailiff does and she can be a little hellcat.

In the court, Rene Thornton, Jr. as the ill and dying King Henry IV commands the stage in the little amount of time this title character actually appears.    Mr. Thornton will convince you his lungs are ravaged, but when Prince Hal mistakes his father for dead and takes the crown - watch out - the old lion still can roar through his pains.

The most famous scene in the play is when Prince Hal, newly crowned King Henry V, cruelly rejects his old friend, Falstaff.    The scene is well staged and, even though the audience knows it is coming, it is stunning in its brutality while still maintaining sympathy for both characters.   It is testament to Shakepeare's writing, Ralph Alan Cohen's directing and Mr. Midgley and Mr. Keegan's acting that one understands the new King's decision and can come away devastated by it, yet understanding of why it must be done.

Mr. Keegan deftly delivers the epilogue as himself bringing a fitting curtain call to his portrayal of Sir John Falstaff in all four of the plays in which the character appears.

To end on a humorous note, it is traditional for one or more members of the acting company to greet the audience and explain why the lights are on, some audience are on the stage and that the audience may be called upon to play along from time to time.    In this production we are blessed by the decision to grant this job to the dualing Bardolphs.    Jeremiah Davis as Lord Bardolph and Bob Jones as the comic Bardolph, servant to Falstaff, should form a comedy team and take this act on the road.

Henry IV, Part 2 is being performed in repertory with The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, John O'Keefe's Wild Oats and Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West through November 28, 2010.   For performance times and ticket information on these shows and the upcoming Holiday and Actor's Renaissance seasons please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical presented by Pasadena Theatre Company and Abundant Life Church

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, has travelled through many, many adaptations.    It almost immediately was adapted for the stage following its publication in 1886.    One of the more popular adaptations has been Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical conceived for the stage by  Steve Cuden and Frank Wildhorn, book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and music by Frank Wildhorn.

The piece took a long journey to get to the stage and made its first appearance like many "rock operas" of the 1970's and 1980's as a concept album in 1990 with Colm Wilkerson of Les Miserables fame in the title dual role.    Over the years more than sixty songs have been written for the musical and the version licensed for performance today, while maintaining the basic storyline of the Broadway version does not contain the same order or even some of the same songs.  

The score of Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical does contain some beautiful music and some ballads that became well known in popular music.     Yet, the book of the musical, which has invented several characters and scenarios, suffers from creating archetypes and, beyond the title roles, little in the way of three-dimensional characters.

The basic story remains as Stevenson created it.   Dr. Henry Jekyll, a mild-mannered physician wishes to find away to eliminate the baser "evil" side of mankind's personality.     In the musical he is doing so in an attempt to cure his mentally ill father.    When he cannot get backing from the Board of Governors at St. Jude's Hospital he decides to perform his experiments on himself.   Meanwhile he is engaged to the saintly Emma Carew, yet when taken to the Red Rat Pub by his close friend John Utterson, he becomes intrigued by the featured performer and "lady of the night, " Lucy.      Partaking of his chemical formula Jekyll is transformed into his baser alter ego, Edward Hyde.      Tormented by his inability to control his transformations, Jekyll descends into the depths of depravity eventually being drawn into a revengeful murder campaign against those who denied approval for his experiments.     Eventually this leads to a tragic end.

The majority of the plot is invented by the authors.   There are no love interests in the original material and no murderous rampage.   Many are surprised to find out that in the original novella, Mr. Hyde only kills one person, who dies of fright after seeing the transformation occur.   Yet, the plot of the musical does provide a melodramatic pulse to the material.   It is a shame that the text does not allow the majority of the characters to grow beyond their one-dimensional stereotypes - Emma the saintly fiancee, Lucy the hooker with the heart of gold, the Bishop of Basingstoke the hypocritical sexual deviant man of the cloth.    Yet, despite these limitations the musical has proven a popular vehicle having played on Broadway for four years and in numerous professional and amateur productions since.

The Pasadena Theatre Company in collaboration with Abundant Life Church has made a game effort in their current production.    The cast and crew face a number of challenges not the least of which is performing in a cavernous church auditorium that does not provide a curtain to mask scene changes.   One wishes that the director, Christy Stouffer, had embraced the challenge and used better transitions between scenes than having the characters come on and off stage in the dark.   It was a missed opportunity to create better flow on the stage.    Similarly the choreographic team of Becki Placella, Anwar Thomas and Andrew Hinds have created some interesting choreography, but fall into the trap of over choreographing the ensemble numbers.    The Thespian is still puzzled as to why singing about murder drew the idea to have the chorus dancing with umbrellas as if in a macabre version of a Busby Berkley spectacle.  

More successful is the scenic design of Walt Morris and Tom Rendulic who have created a marvelous two tiered set into which various set pieces are seamlessly brought on and off stage as needed.   In particular their transition from Dr. Jekyll's study to his laboratory is quite ingenious.   Working with limited materials, lighting designer Tim Grieb, assisted by Bart Raeke, has managed to create a sense of foreboding or fleeting hope with the few lights at their disposal.

The costumes by Tori Walker and Kristina Green are beautiful.  In some cases, they are too beautiful, as Lucy and the Ladies of the Night seem a bit too clean and bright for characters representing the dark underbelly of London society.

Geoff Thompson's fight choreography is well designed and very effective creating several gasps from the audience at the brutality of some of the murders.

The ensemble performers are very enthusiastic, but musical director, Doug Dawson should have worked on crisper diction as the acoustics for those performers not being miked make it difficult to understand the lyrics at times.   Most of the music is recorded, and the Thespian was again puzzled by the decision to add three live musicians as it seemed intrusive.

The main roles are well performed.   Tom Rendulic as Emma's father, Sir Danvers Carew, E. Lee Nicol as John Utterson and Timoth David Copney as Simon Stride have excellent voices and provide good support in their small, but pivotal roles.    Barbara Hartsell, as Dr. Jekyll's fiancee, Emma Carew, has a clear and commanding soprano voice.   She has good stage presence in a role that does not call for her to be more than the supportive love interest.   Michele Guyton as Lucy had some technical difficulties with her microphone at the performance the Thespian attended, but she has a strong soprano belt and the character's strengths and vulnerabilities grew throughout her performance.   One wishes that she would project more of her dual attraction and repulsion/fear of Edward Hyde particularly in act one as that would create more of a dramatic impact helping  the audience invest in her fate.

The dual role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a dramatic tour-de-force when in the correct actor's hands.   It was an award winning revelation for the original Broadway portrayer, Robert Cuccioli, and a maddening embarrassment for his final replacement, David Hasselhoff, who is unfortunately immortalized on video.    One cannot, however, sing the praises enough of John Scheeler's performance. Not only does he have a vibrant voice, he uses both his acting and his singing to clearly delinate the two distinct personalities required for the role.   The extremely difficult Confrontation duet between Jekyll and Hyde is a complete engrossing revelation.     The Thespian looks forward to seeing what Mr. Scheeler choses as his next project as it will be worth seeking out.

Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical will be performed at Abundant Life Church in Glen Burnie, MD through November 21, 2010.   For tickets and additional performance information please visit www.PTCShows.com.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago at The Kennedy Center

The Thespian readily admits that while I have an extensive background classical dance, my exposure to contemporary dance is more limited.    For my introduction to "modern" dance I am eternally grateful to my years attending Interlochen Arts Academy which provided many opportunities to view touring companies, student recitals and guest artists creating modern dance works on the talented students of the Academy.  With that disclaimer up front, I readily admit that I am not a qualified expert in contemporary dance and do not feel that this review should be taken as a definitive analysis of this company's work.   However, as an audience member, I feel I can give my impressions of the company and whether I actually liked the work presented.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago(HSDC) was formed in 1977 by dance teacher and choreographer Lou Conte.   It has had a wide ranging focus over the past three decades going from teaching tap classes to attracting well known choreographers to work with the company to creating new works in 2010.   Two of the three pieces presented on the Eisenhower Stage were created in 2010 and one of those made its U.S. premiere.

The current artistic director, Glenn Edgerton is focusing on creating new works and "strengthening the company's repertoire while cultivating and deepening relationships with collaborative partners."

The first piece, Untouched was choreographed by Aszure Barton in collaboration with the dancers of HSDC.    It is a lush piece framed by red velvet curtains and the dancers are richly caparisoned in gorgeous costumes designed by Fritz Masters.     Each dancer has an individual style, yet they complement each other showing the inherent musically of the HSBC dancers.

The U.S. Premiere of Malditos followed the first intermission.   Choreographed by dancer Alejandro Cerrudo it has had a unique journey to the stage, for Mr. Cerrudo created the piece simultaneously on two different companies, HSDC and Nederlands Dans Theatre 2.    This required him to travel between the two companies and he stated during a talkback that the piece evolved depending on which dancers he was currently working with.    It features some stunningly beautiful partnering and again shows the natural lyricism of the HSDC dancers.

Following the second intermission was 27' 52".   The title refers to the length of the piece.   For a novice to contemporary dance this was the most challenging work to attempt to comprehend.   And it did not help the flow of the piece that a section of the set fell during the beginning of the performance requiring a pause and a restart.    It is presented in the program as "a game of seeking and being sought, of holding and being held, pulling and pushing, a game in which the dancer must ultimately exit the stage solo."  The dance contains many jarring elements from a foreign language being spoken forwards and backwards, to the dance floor being ripped out from under the feet of the dancers to the set pieces crashing to the ground (this time intentionally).   It also featured an emotional pas de deux for a man and woman in which both are topless, yet the "gimmick" did not feel gratuitous.    The Thespian is not sure if I cared for the piece, but it was an interesting challenge to watch.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago only performed at The Kennedy Center on November 12 and 13, 2010.    For information on the company and future performances please visit www.hubbardstreetdance.com.

Disney Review: Flavors of Morocco

During the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival there are many opportunities to partake in various culinary experiences.   My husband and I  wanted to try a wine pairing event and were intrigued by the Tuesday offering, Flavors of Morocco held at Restaurant Marrakesh in the Morocco Pavilion in World Showcase.

It was a dreary afternoon as the clouds had literally burst about two hours before the 3:30 p.m. event.   Restaurant Marrakesh was practically deserted.    If you have ever dined in this restaurant it has a large ground level that surrounds a performance space.   On either side of this space is additional seating which is raised about 3 feet and is only accessible by small staircases.  

It was a small group of 15 adults.  One of the guests was in a wheelchair and she was incapable of standing on her own and navigating the stairs.   This meant the humiliation of having to be carried up the stairs in order to attend the event.   The Thespian believes that the lack of handicap access for this event was not thought out when planning where in Restaurant Marrakesh to set up the event.    The Thespian believes that the thought was to separate the wine pairing participants from the general dining population, however, since this restaurant predates the ADA law, it meant that it was difficult and humiliating for this guest to participate in the event.

On a positive note, the chef for Restaurant Marrakesh introduced himself to the group and described the three courses he had planned for us and asked about allergies and dietary needs.    Challenge of the day: two of the guests were vegetarians.   The chef outdid himself and created a three course vegetarian meal for these guests that provided variety and excellent flavors that complimented the flavors for the regular meat-based meal he had planned.    We regularly quizzed the vegetarians and they felt that they received an excellent meal.

The courses were diverse and flavorful, the wines well matched.   The wines were Moroccan, French and Californian and perfectly matched the courses.

Partaking in a wine pairing event is an excellent way to enhance one's EPCOT Food and Wine Festival. It is imperative when booking to mention any potential issues, such as dietary or mobility.    The Thespian witnessed Disney at its best when the chef created a three course vegetarian meal for two of the participants without any advance notice of their needs.   The Thespian also witnessed a rare worst for Disney as a wheelchair-bound guest had to endure the humiliation of being carried up stairs in order to participate, something Disney should consider when planning events for next year's Food and Wine Festival.

The Flavors of Morocco wine pairing event was a separate ticketed event above the cost of required theme park admission.    For information on special events visit www.Disney.go.com and select Parks and Resorts and then search for special events or special dining events.

Disney Review: 2010 Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party

The Thespian has been cursed with a son, who, since the age of two and a half, has absolutely, positively refused to meet any costumed characters.    What is a Disney fan to do?     Wait until he goes to college and then go to special events at the theme parks.

Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party is a special ticketed event that takes place on several evenings in September, October and, this year, November 1.     It does not require regular theme park admission.    It is a fun way to enjoy the wonderful decorations in the Magic Kingdom.
It also is the only time that adults are permitted to dress in costume in the theme parks (unless you partake in the Pirate League which allows adults to become pirates.   Alas, they do not allow adults to become princesses through the Bibbity Bobbity Boutique).

While the party takes place officially from 7 p.m. to midnight, guests are permitted to enter on their party tickets at 4 p.m.    You must get a wristband from the cast members to participate in the events.   They are located as soon as you enter the gate and along several spots on Main Street, USA.

For your ticket you get a free trick-or-treat bag (adults get them, too).  On the event map are marked many locations for trick or treating, several of the areas also have character meet-and-greets.   Some of them are characters you do not normally get to meet, such as all seven of the Dwarves from Snow White and Lady Tremaine and her daughters from Cinderella.      The cast members all seem to have a similar assortment of small or fun sized candy.    A few of the stations have raisins which can be handy for children who can't eat candy or have allergy issues.    The Thespian suggests that Walt Disney World look into having a couple of candy stations for children with allergies, such as carob or rice "chocolate" or sunflower or almond butter products which the Thespian has seen given out at other large Halloween events.

Most of the rides and attractions are open and have a very short wait.    See the amazing photo below:
Seriously.    I knew I needed photographic proof of this.

In addition, the Haunted Mansion is specially lit for the event and has fog effects and a special greeter for the guests.
An especially nice touch is that the Pet Cemetery located at the exit for the Haunted Mansion was lit making it possible to pay one's respects to Mr. Toad.
Special events during the evening included the wonderful Boo To You Parade, which begins with the ride of the Headless Horseman (sorry no photos I was actually trying to enjoy the parade) and ends with the mass handout of more candy.    The parade features many characters not often seen in the theme parks, such as Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar and the Big Bad Wolf.    There is also the Hallowishes fireworks display which includes special lighting effects on Cinderella's Castle and the Villians Meet and Mingle show held in front of the castle.

This event is a good value for the price.   It is cheaper than normal theme park admission and you can take part in up to 8 hours of rides, parades, character meet and greets, fireworks, shows and trick or treating.

For information on purchasing tickets for special events such as Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party visit www.disney.go.com and select Parks and Resorts and look for special events.

Disney Review: Party For the Senses Wine View Lounge

Party For the Senses is the signature event of the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival.   It takes place in the World Showcase Pavilion which was built for the millennium celebrations and the cavernous space is now used for special events.

If one purchases tickets for Party for the Senses with our without the additional cost for Wine View Lounge you are asked to check in for the event at the American Gardens Theater located in front of The American Adventure Pavilion between 4 and 5 p.m.   You are given a wrist band (different colors for regular party and Wine View Lounge).    Wine View Lounge guests are also issued a magnetic pin to wear that provides easy visual identification to the cast members for their additional perks.    You are then given priority access to seating for the 5:15 p.m. Eat to the Beat concert.  

Note: if you do not wish to arrive early and attend the concert, after 5 p.m. the check in for Party for the Senses switches to the front of World Showcase.

Following the concert, cast members with light sabers direct traffic to the World Showplace Pavilion.   A large crowd of party goers will quickly assemble in front of the entrance.    Here's where the first perk of Wine View Lounge occurs:  Wine View Lounge are permitted to enter the party 45 minutes early through a side door.   You are given a champagne welcome and escorted to your reserved table.

In addition to having a reserved table which is segregated from the "masses", you also have a waiter dedicated to a few tables who helps keep your used plates clear and brings a few additional culinary surprises only available to Wine View Lounge participants.  During the extra time you get a head start on the extraordinary amount of food and beverage choices.     Then, sit back and enjoy what the cast members call the Disney running of the bulls - as the regular Party for the Senses guests enter at 6:30 p.m. and make a mad dash to secure the unreserved tables.  

As one is serenaded during the evening by musicians from Cirque du Soleil's La Nouba (interspersed with acrobatic performances), one wanders and samples an amazing variety of food.   Highlights of the 2010 offerings include:

From David Njoroge of Jiko-the Cooking Place, Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge
   Vanilla Rooibos Rubbed Wild Boar Tenderloin, Caramelized Apple Compote, Whipped Sweet Potato-squash puree, Game Reduction.

From Brian Bell, Pacific Time, Miami, Florida
   Coriander Sea Scallop with Curried Bananas

From Terry Letson, Fume Bistro and Bar, Napa, California
   Quail Saltimbocca

From Alphonso Walker, Akerhaus Royal Banquet Hall, Norway, EPCOT
  Braised Berkshire Pork Cheeks with Truffle Risotto, Poached Quail Egg and Foam of Mushroom.

In addition to several wines there are also beers and mixed drinks including the Rosita Margarita from La Hacienda de San Angel and a Black Magic cocktail made with Stoli Vodka.  They were very, very tasty.

The only downside to the event would be for vegetarians.   There are some vegetarian foods available, but they are few and almost none of them are suitable for someone on a stricter vegan diet.    This event is also apparently not restricted to persons of legal age to drink as there were a few children in attendance.

So, is paying extra for Wine View Lounge worth the additional expense?   Yes, it is.   You get to enter the party before the main crowd, the reserved table with a better view of the Cirque performances, the waiter, a private bar, a private artisan cheese station, a few special indulgences, special commemorative Wine View Lounge glasses (everyone else gets a Party for the Senses souvenir wine glass), a gift bag which contained Twinings Tea and a Stella Artois bottle opener and a nice program of the food and wine available.  Your table card makes another nice souvenir.

Party For the Senses, with or without Wine View Lounge was held on Saturday evenings during the 15th Annual EPCOT Food and Wine Festival.   It was a separate ticketed event above the cost of required theme park admission.  

For information on special events at Walt Disney World visit www. disney.go.com and select Parks and Resorts and then search for either special events or special dining events.

Disney Review: Taste, Shake and Indulge Like the French

The Thespian recently journeyed to Walt Disney World to partake in several of the events held in conjunction with the 15th Annual EPCOT Food and Wine Festival.     These are separately ticketed events above the cost of required theme park admission.

The first event was Taste, Shake and Indulge Like the French.   This was sponsored by Grand Marnier and was held on five Saturday afternoons in the Bistro de Paris Restaurant located in the France Pavilion.  The event the Thespian attended was held on Saturday, October 30th and was a sold out event.   It was nice to finally see the smaller Bistro location which is normally only open for dinner.

The event was hosted by a representative of Grand Marnier.   She took us through a brief history of Grand Marnier which began in 1827.    In case you are wondering, John Quincy Adams was President of the United States at the time (a question which the Thespian proved the only person to know the answer to in the entire five weeks the event was held.)   While we learned our history we were served mimosas made with Grand Marnier, which added a sweeter orange taste to the traditional champagne and orange juice cocktail.

Next we tasted three vintages of Grand Marnier itself.   The Cordon Rouge was the youngest  having been aged in the barrel for ten years.    This was followed by the 100th anniversary which was the Thespian's preferred version.   The last was the 150th anniversary which was a bit too strong for the Thespian, but whose husband was happy to take off her hands.

Our next adventure was the "shake" part of the event as we were taught how to make a Grand Smash cocktail.    We were informed that the Grand Smash was the ancestor of both the margarita and the mojito.  

In a shaker, smash mint leaves (we used 6 to 8) and lemon wedges (we used 4). Add a large amount of ice, and a generous portion of Grand Marnier (we were given a miniature bottle and used the entire bottle).    Shake the mixture and strain into a cocktail glass.   Garnish with mint.      It was very tasty.

Now, one should have something to eat with all this delicious alcohol.    We were given madeline cookies and dark chocolate to nibble on with the shots of Grand Marnier.    To accompany the Grand Smash we were given crepes.

It was a wonderful presentation that lasted 90 minutes.     I will comment that Bistro de Paris is located on the second floor of the building that houses the Chefs de France Restaurant.   It appears that it was handicapped accessible.  (a future entry will explain why that is important).

As we exited we were given gift bags containing a shaker, souvenir plastic glass, miniature bottle of Grand Marnier and a coaster.    We were made to feel welcome and special during the entire event.

If Disney decides to bring them back next year the Thespian highly recommends this experience.

Taste, Shake and Indulge Like the French was held as part of the 15th Annual EPCOT Food and Wine Festival.   It was a separate ticketed event that was in addition to required theme park admission.  No one under the age of 21 was permitted to attend this event.  

For information on special events at Walt Disney World, visit www. disney.go.com.   and select Parks and Resorts and special events or special dining events.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Oklahoma! at Arena Stage

To quote the show, Arena Stage "couldn't pick a better time to start in life."  Arena Stage under the capable direction of Artistic Director, Molly Smith, christens the Fichandler Stage with the 1943 groundbreaking musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!    Is it risky to inaugurate a new performance space with a musical that has become popularly produced over and over again in professional, community and academic venues?   Not when the gamble is as vibrant and exhilarating as this production.  

Oklahoma!  a simple boy loves girl, girl loves boy, but danged if they'll admit it to each other story is rousingly brought to life in the theatre-in-the round Fichandler.    The space feels brand-spanking new with the smell of freshly built sets mingling with the fresh scent from the multi-year makeover of the Arena Stage complex.  

The acting ensemble is strong from the dancers of the chorus to the small roles of the community to the leading men and women.   It is a testament to Ms. Smith's vision that her decision to cast actors of different ethnicities works in this production.   It seems natural that Aunt Eller and Laurey are African American, Curley is of hispanic origins and, of course, Ali Hakim the peddler appears to be middle eastern.   It is the melting pot of America all seeking the American dream of prosperity and the promise that comes from the eminent decision that the Oklahoma Territory is about to become the newest state in the union of the United States of America.    But, more importantly it is talent of this acting ensemble that makes the multicultural casting seem natural and not forced.

E. Faye Butler is the commanding moral compass of the show as Aunt Eller.   Yet she is both fun with a terrific sense of humor and easily takes charge when circumstances warrant it.   As Curley, Nicholas Rodriguez could croon the phone book and the women in the audience would swoon.  Mr. Rodriguez was wonderful as the male lead in Arena's The Light in the Piazza, and he proves with Oklahoma! that he has the stage presence and the voice to do justice to any musical leading male role.

Aaron Ramey is menacing, yet tragic as Jud Fry.   The set designer, Eugene Lee, has created a claustrophobic smokehouse home for Jud that rises and falls from the depths of the stage, demonstrating Jud's position as social outcast.    Mr. Ramey brings poignancy and menace to his solo, The Lonely Room.

As the male half of the "comic" couple, Cody Williams has the heart-on-his-sleeve naivety of Will Parker down flat.   As a classically trained dancer he brings bravado to the first rousing "show stopper" Kansas City.    As his lady love, Arena Stage has discovered a future star of the stage in June Schreiner.   Ms. Schreiner is a Junior at The Madeira School who has trained for two summers in the Arena Academy program.    She is a revelation being the right age for Ado Annie, and brings an innocence to her awakening desires that not every production's Ado Annie always has.    Watch the area's stages for more from this young lady.   The comic love triangle is completed by Nehal Joshi's Ali Hakim, who brings comedy and pathos to the traveling peddler.

The entire chorus of singers, dancers and small roles are perfectly cast.   Standouts include Hugh Nees as Ado Annie's father and the beautiful dancing of Hollie E. Wright and Kyle Vaughn in the Dream Ballet.
The choreography of Parker Esse is rousing where it needs to be, romantic and fluid in others, simply perfectly wed to Ms. Smith's direction.

The costuming by Martin Pakledinaz, lighting by Michael Gilliam, and set design by Eugene Lee combine to place the audience squarely in the world of early 20th century pioneer life.

Be assured, the Thespian is not ignoring the contributions of one member of the cast.  Eleasha Gamble was a very last minute replacement to play the leading role of Laurey.    She literally was cast the weekend that preview performances began.   The Thespian saw the very first performance that she gave and she was still "on book" carrying her lines in her costume when she needed to refer to them.   It was a very brave performance, yet Ms. Gamble's talent and acting instincts were not handicapped by the circumstances.   Her Laurey is both down-to-earth and longing for the romance that Curley promises.   Yet she has the defiant stubborn streak of a young woman who will not go to the box social with Curley just because he (and the entire community) expects her to do so.    Ms. Gamble has a beautiful soprano voice and good stage instincts.     She was a perfect choice as a last minute replacement for this production.

Oklahoma! will be performed at Arena Stage through December 26, 2010.   For tickets and performance information please visit www.arenastage.org.

Hair -National Touring Company at The Kennedy Center

Emotional, funny, poignant, electrifying and even a bit shocking more than 40 years after its debut at The Public Theatre in New York City, Hair triumphantly marches into the Kennedy Center Opera House to bring its 21st century audience "on a rocket to the fourth dimension" back to 1967.

Hair was a groundbreaking theatre piece when it opened at the Public Theatre and then transferred to Broadway.    It did not win the Tony Award for Best Musical, losing to the more conventional musical, 1776, yet after 40 years the amazing production that was first brought to New York's Central Park  and then steered skillfully to a Best Revival of a Musical Tony Award under the incredibly astute direction of Diane Paulus and choreography of Karole Armitage has found relevance in our modern era.   Not for the "kids" today the uncertainty of facing a draft to fight a controversial war.   Yet, the themes of race, sexuality, peer pressure, and the generation gap are still as vibrant today as they were on stage in 1967.

Is Hair a relic of the era in which it was created?  Yes.    Can it be difficult to understand with its relatively non-linear storytelling?   Yes.    Are some of its vignettes as shocking on stage as they were forty years ago?  Yes and no.    Why does it garner enthusiastic reactions from the crowds that come to see the show today?   It can all be laid at the feet of director Diane Paulus who has skillfully transformed her cast into the hippies of 1967.    These actors do not seem to be playing roles, they seem to imbody the archetypal characters of Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot's tribe.  And the audience eagerly responds with many joining the cast on stage during the post curtain call "Hair-y party."

The Thespian had the privilege of seeing the New York Broadway revival cast.   The national touring company is just as talented as the actors who appeared on Broadway.  Phyre Hawkins brings a powerful voice while singing Aquarius .   Matt DeAngelis brings humor and pathos to the sexually unsure Woof.   Darius Nichols brings strength and defiance to the hard-edged Hud.   As Sheila, Caren Lyn Tackett shows the character's strengths as a protest leader yet has the underlying vulnerability of being in love with someone that doesn't completely love her back brought forth in the song Easy to be Hard.

Josh Lamon who portrays the "adult" roles of Dad and Margaret Mead, along with Allison Guinn as Mother bring an edge to the conflict within the "generation gap."   Kacie Sheik as the pregnant earth mother, Jeannie seems to have truly stepped out of the past as one of the most committed tribe members.

Steel Burkhardt is brash, sassy and in your face, literally and figuratively as Berger.   His energy is unbound and if you are in the front row of the Opera House you will get to know Berger very, very well.

Paris Remillard brings alive the truly conflicted Claude Hooper Bukowski.    The only true storyline in Hair is Claude's conflict.   Does he fully embrace the counter culture by defying authority and burning his draft card?   Or does he make his parents proud of him by enlisting in the army and going to Vietnam where he is convinced he will die, again literally dying and figuratively becoming dead to his tribe.   It is a testament to Mr. Remillard's acting and some poignant moments between Claude and his parents directed by Ms. Paulus that bring this conflict to emotional life on stage.

Take this opportunity to see a Broadway revival at its best and see Hair at The Kennedy Center or at other stops on the National Tour.

Hair contains nudity, sexual situations, strong profanity, implied violence and drug use.   It is not recommended for young children and parents of teenagers should consider the maturity of the themes of the musical in deciding whether they should attend.

Hair will be performed at The Kennedy Center Opera House through November 21, 2010.  For tickets and performance information please visit www. kennedy-center.org.