Thursday, March 31, 2011

Compleat Female Stage Beauty at Fells Point Corner Theatre in Baltimore

Who are you?

You can't be who you are claiming to be, so let me have a closer look.

What happens if the profession you've trained for your entire life is taken away from you by royal decree?  Do you slink into the shadows a mere footnote to the fashionable conversations of the coffee houses?  Or do you find the courage to adapt and change, finding your true self along the way.

That is the journey that takes place for lead character, Edward "Ned" Kynaston, in Jeffrey Hatcher's play Compleat Female Stage Beauty now being ably mounted at the Fells Point Corner Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland.    Mr. Hatcher has fashioned an imagining of a major crossroads in the history of English theater, the first appearance of actresses upon the English stage.  The theaters in England were closed by order of the Puritan government in 1642 and reopened upon the restoration of Charles II in 1660.   Prior to that date no women had appeared on the common theatrical stage.   Women did appear as part of court entertainments and had appeared on the stage in continental Europe since the at least the late 16th century.

Ned Kynaston trained to play the female roles and is a truimph as Desdemona in Othello for theatrical impresario, Thomas Betterton.    The arrival on the scene at rival theater owner, Thomas Killigrew's stage of an actress, Margaret Hughes, in the same role causes a sensation.   Threatened by the loss of his livelihood, Kynaston makes disastrous mistake one after the other including insulting Charles II's aspiring actress mistress, Nell Gwynn.  This mistake leads to a royal decree that henceforth only women will be allowed to play the female roles in the theater.    The loss of his career, his noble lover and a brutal attack leave Ned at a crossroads.    Will he transform himself and in the process find the man that he's been successfully hiding all these years?

Under the capable direction of Sherrione Brown, Fells Point Corner Theatre has taken a very challenging play and mounted a wonderful production.   The leading roles are strongly cast and the supporting players are almost equally as good.    The small Fells Point Corner Theatre, tucked into the middle of a Baltimore neighborhood has its challenges.   The period costuming is mostly borrowed, yet has a cohesion as if it had been created by the same designer.  The scene changes are not as smooth as might happen on a professional stage with more resources.  Lighting is limited and, in some cases, it affects the emotional moments on the stage.    Despite these limitations, Compleat Female Stage Beauty is well worth seeking out to see the wonderful performances in a rarely produced, maturely themed play.

As Thomas Betterton, theatrical manager and leading male actor, Todd Krickler brings pathos to his torn impresario.  He is Ned's boss, yet also a devoted friend.   Mr. Krickler ranges easily from concerned friend to that of business man who must change with the times or be ruined.  

Frank Vince, in the dual roles of Hyde, the disapproving butler, and Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist who is also our narrator has created two very distinctive characters.   The only flaw that The Thespian had with his performance is his maddening ability to not stay in his light.   The lighting designer has given him a beautiful spotlight for a lot of his narration and Mr. Vince manages to stay half in shadow.   Find your light, sir and revel in it.

Ryan Airey slinks as the duplicitous George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.   He easily conveys a man more interested in preserving his image, especially at court, than his personal proclivities.  Amongst the other courtiers we have Lady Meresvale and Miss Frayne, played by Andrea Bush and Ruta Kidolis.   At first they appear to be the 17th century equivalent of groupies, yet there is a dark element which they both handle with aplomb.   As the fop, Sir Charles Sedley, David Morey comes close to overdoing it, but the heightened performance works well for his character.

Phil Gallagher portrays the merry monarch, Charles II, with a delicious bit of whimsy.   Whether indulging his mistress, or laying down the law, Mr. Gallagher navigates easily the duality of this complex monarch.   Never once do you forget that under the sunny exterior lies a king who will be obeyed.

In the film version of the play, simply titled Stage Beauty, two of the female roles were combined.   Here we see the playwright's original ideas for these two ladies, who both aspire to appear upon the stage.   The wardrobe mistress and loyal friend, Maria, is the least developed of the parts, yet Stephanie Ranno brings a poignancy to this young woman.  Maria desires the man she helps transform into a woman each performance, and yet,  she also wishes she could perform on stage in those same roles and perform backstage with him in a romantic fantasy.    Some moments are hindered by the lack of available lighting, where Maria is witness to events and the audience cannot clearly see her emotional reaction.   Yet, Ms. Ranno finds the heart and soul of this character and makes the audience sympathetic to her desires.

In the other role the film combined, that of Margaret Hughes, who historically is one of the women credited with being the first woman to appear upon the English stage, Kerry Brady, has the stage presence to make you believe she is a leading lady.   She does well demonstrating the characters growth as a woman and as an actress.    Ms. Brady has the willful exterior of the haughty actress and colors it with the insecurities of a woman who knows that she is but a shadow of the performer she has replaced. Throughout her performance we in the audience grow with her and revel in her triumphant final transformation.

Nearly stealing every moment she appears on the stage is Ann Turiano as Charles II's most famous mistress, Nell Gwynn.   Whether gamely appearing on stage in very little clothing or twisting a King around her little finger, or, the very implied talented little tongue, Ms. Turiano is an absolute delight.   She is exuberant and plays Nell as a woman who has been dealt an amazing opportunity in life and is determined to live her good fortune to the fullest.

 Ms. Turiano is reason enough to see this production, but there is an equally vibrant performance from Tim Elliott as the conflicted Ned Kynaston.   Mr. Elliott is more than believable as the man with a talent for playing a woman to the point that the real man inside has gotten lost.   The character does some very unlikeable things, yet it is to Mr. Elliott's credit that the audience rarely loses sympathy for this character. His descent from the heights of fame and desirability into a world of brutality and depravity is harrowing to observe.  It is through his skillful performance that we embrace Ned's faults and root for him to succeed.  The character grows and changes through the circumstances that have been forced on Ned in his professional and personal life.  We must travel this journey through Mr. Elliott's handsome performance in order for the real stage beauty within the character to emerge.  

A word of caution:  Compleat Female Stage Beauty concerns very mature subject matter and contains instances of partial nudity, profanity and sexual situations.  It is intended for mature audiences.

Compleat Female Stage Beauty will be presented by Fells Point Corner Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland through April 10, 2011.   For tickets and other information please visit

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Proteges III: The International Ballet Academy Festival at The Kennedy Center

Proteges III marks the third time that the Kennedy Center has presented programs featuring the students of some of the world's most renowned dance schools.    It is a "see the stars of the future" approach that offers the audience a glimpse into the various training styles of the different schools.   This year's program featured three ballet schools, The Royal Danish Ballet School, Tokyo's New National Theatre Ballet School, Bolshoi Ballet Academy and the Julio Bocca Foundation School for the Arts.

The evening began with The Royal Danish Ballet School's Kompagni B.   According to the Playbill, "Kompagni B is the latest initiative from the Royal Danish Ballet School in educating young professionals. It is a company based on the dancer's input."   The young dancers performed B for Bourneville, excerpts from several of August Bourneville's ballet.   Highly appropriate as the Bourneville style is the signature of the Royal Danish Ballet company itself.  Here, the young dancers in collaboration with choreographer Ann Crosset presented a youthful delight in dancing.    These were playful dancers chasing each other, whispering, flirting and then intermixing with the very distinctive Bourneville choreography.    While some lines were not as crisp as they could have been, which The Thespian puts down to nerves dancing on the vast Opera House stage, one found the dancers quite infectious.   A smile grew upon The Thespian's face as whoops of delight were heard from the dancers as the curtain fell.   The March 28th performance was the School premiere of this work.  

Following the first intermission was Tokyo's New National Ballet School.   These dancers received the warmest responses from the Opera House audience that evening.   After all, given what is happening in Japan it is a miracle that they were able to travel to participate in this program.   The "New National Ballet School offers a training program to develop talent in various fields of the performing arts."   The Tokyo school provides training for more than ballet, yet these talented young dancers showcased that the ballet program is very strong under the tutelage of Asami Maki.  Presenting Triptyque a three movement ballet representing hope and joy, sorrow, and freedom and passion, the dancers were bright and crisp in their footwork.   There was a bit of raggedness in the unison of the second movement, sorrow, but talent abounded.

A brief pause and Julio Bocca Foundation School for the Arts took the stage.  There was a bit of griping from the audience at the inclusion of this school on a supposedly ballet school evening.   Julio Bocca Foundation School of the Arts, based in Buenos Aires, focuses on exposing young dancers, actors and singers to many forms of the performing arts.   They apply for "'Uno ano en Buenos Aires' - a year in Buenos Aires-scholarship, two scholarships to the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and a scholarship to 'Steps on Broadway' in the U.S."    The Thespian felt a great deal of affection for this school.  As a graduate of what is probably the most prestigious performing arts high school in the United States, The Thespian felt that the four pieces danced were a showcase for a strong performing arts program.   Tren Estrella del Norte was a folk/modern piece featuring two young male singers.  Mano Hadjidakis a modern pas de deux filled with mature passion for such young dancers.  Juan Carlos Copes a theatrical jazz solo for the talented dancer Williams Malpezzi.   Finally Destellos de Balanchine, a distillation of the Balanchine-style featuring beautiful work by 8 lovely dancers en pointe.  

The evening concluded with the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.   The most polished of the pieces presented that evening, the young dancers performed Leonid Lavrovsky's Classical Symphony set to the music by Prokofiev.   The lead dancer, according to Sarah Kaufman's review in The Washington Post, is a 16-year-old American, Joy Annabelle Womack.    Miss Womack's dancing was pure and delightful to watch as was the dancing by the rest of the talented students of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.    The tutus and tiaras ballet, danced with precision and youthful enthusiasm was a terrific end to a wonderful glimpse of the future of dance.

"The Kennedy Center dedicates the performances of Proteges III to the people of Japan, as well as our many Japanese friends and colleagues.   To support disaster relief efforts and help those affected by the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami throughout the Pacific, Kennedy Center patrons are encouraged to donate to the American Red Cross at 800-RED-CROSS or"

Proteges III was presented in the Opera House of The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC from March 25-27, 2011.    For information on the various dance academies please visit the following for more information:

Disney Review: Remy on the Disney Dream

The Disney Cruise Line, launched in 1998, has long had top quality dining opportunities on the ships in its small fleet.   The DCL's newest ship, the Disney Dream, launched in January 2011, raises the bar for the cruise industry with its latest offering, the exclusive adults-only dining experience, Remy.

As with any cruise ship, everywhere you turn there are opportunities to eat.    Disney Cruise Line has the unique rotational dining system.   There are three dining establishments that guests rotate through during the coarse of their cruise.   On the Disney Dream those restaurants are Royal Palace, Enchanted Garden and, the only named holdover from their previous ships, Animator's Palate.   All provide distinctive atmospheres and experiences.   There is also the buffet restaurant Cabanas and quick service food provided at Flo's V 8 which serves everything from burgers and pizza to salads and self-serve ice cream.

For an additional fee, the Disney Cruise Line has adults-only restaurants which must be booked in advance.   Each restaurant has a dress code which requires jackets for the men and dresses or pantsuits for the women. On all three ships there is Palo, which features northern Italian cuisine.   Palo charges an additional $20 per person, plus there are fees for any alcoholic beverages you may choose to have with your brunch or dinner.    New to the Disney Dream, is the experience that is dinner at Remy.

The charge to dine at Remy is an industry-high $75 per person.  For your $75 you choose either the tasting menu or select courses from an a la carte menu.   You must pay for any wine you choose to have with your meal  In addition to that, Remy offers two chef's tasting menus with wine pairings for an additional $99 per person.    While that may seem expensive, bear in mind, that a similar meal with wine pairings on "land" could easily cost upwards of $500 per person.    The Thespian and her husband chose to have the chef's tasting menus with wine pairings.  It was a 3-hour meal of magical memories that was well worth the additional expense.

Remy and Palo can be booked in advance of your cruise.   Disney Cruise Line gives priority booking to members of their Castaway Club for repeat cruisers.   We were unable to book Remy prior to our sailing date.  On embarkation day, The Thespian's husband enquired at Remy whether we could be placed on a waiting list.   To our joy we were told that we could book a table for any night of our 4-day cruise.    We chose to end our cruise with an incredible dining experience.

Your evening at Remy begins with an invitation delivered to your stateroom.   You are invited to meet the sommelier to discuss his recommendations for wine pairings.  The Thespian's husband accepted the invitation.

Remy is located on Deck 12 Aft.  It shares the space with Palo and the Meridian bar.    It feels miles away from the hubbub of the rest of the ship.  We enjoyed watching the sunset while sipping the signature cocktail, Champagne "Colette."
As noted in the photos above, the decor of Remy is both elegant and intimate.   The room in which our table was located had 4 or 5 tables, most of which were used for couples.   One of our fellow diners that evening dined solo.   The fine china includes a whimsical nod to the Disney character whose name the restaurant bears.
After perusing the leather embossed menus, The Thespian and her husband  each chose one of the two chef's tasting menus.   Remy has two executive chefs.  One is French and the other comes from Walt Disney World's famed Victoria and Albert's at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa.

Before the courses commenced we were served an Amuse Bouche, a small morsel of fried tomato delight.   Then we each received Olive Tapenade served with Olive Ice Cream

Monsieur Wilshere, Madame Wilshere 
Remy proudly presents your Dining Experience
On the 2nd Day of March 2011

To make it easier to follow, The Thespian presents each menu in its entirety.

The Thespian's menu was the Gout.
Smoked Bison with Fennel Salad and Blood Oranges
Chateauneuf-du-Pape Mont Redon '08

Lobster with Vanilla, Bisque and Lobster Roe Cream
Michel Redde Sancerre '08

Wild Lope du Mer with Cannellini Bean Sauce, Artichokes and Jamon Iberico
Marc Kreydenweiss Kritt Gewurztraminer Les Charmes '07
Australian Wagyu with Garlic Potato Puree and Petits Carrots
Chateau Gloria '03

The Thespian's Husband chose Saveur
His dining experience was very deconstructed

Langoustine Royale
Royal Norway Lobster with Caesar Sauce
Tattinger Prestige Cuvee Rose NV

Declinaison Tomate
Variations of Tomato: Tart, Iced, Parmesan Espuma and Tomato
Domaine Laroche Chablis Vaillons '07

Turbot Cotier
Coastal Turbot with Vin Jaune and Gnocchi
Domaine Louis Latour Puligny Montrachet '08

Young Pigeon Pie with Foie Gras, Spinach and Tomato
Chateau Batailley '06

Following our meat courses we were offered selections from the cheese cart

Plateau de Fromages
Diners can select as few or as many samples of the great variety of cheeses and their accoutrements

This was followed by the dessert courses

For the The Thespian

Vanilla Poached Pear
Chateau Suduiraut '07

For The Thespian's Husband

Chocolat Croustillant
Chateau Doisy Vedrines '06

This was followed by Mignardises
A delicious confection of sweets
The lollipops were especially delicious

And, of course

The attentive wait staff was impeccable.  The meal, the experience of the entire cruise.   Upon our return to our cabin we were greeted with a note from Remy, and the following scene.

Dear Guest,
A memory is a way of holding on to something we love, like great food.
It is our hope that we were able to create many new memories this evening,
to last you for many years to come.  Please enjoy these handmade chocolate
truffles from Remy.


Your Remy Team

Remy is truly a magical experience.  Do not be put off by the additional expense, it is well worth it.

For information on Remy and the Disney Cruise Line, please visit

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Henry VI, Part 3 at the American Shakespeare Center

One of Shakespeare's most intriguing female characters appears in four of his plays.   Yet, hardly anyone sees her portrayed on stage in three of those plays.    The Thespian is speaking of the brave, bold and bitchy Queen Margaret who appears briefly as a young princess in Henry VI, Part 1, rises as the driving force for the Lancastrian faction supporting her husband, the gentle King Henry VI  in Parts 2 and 3 and finally appears as the cursing harridan in King Richard III.    In the past three Actors' Renaissance Seasons at the Blackfriar's Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, the Henry VI plays have been produced one per season and lucky audiences have been able to view this neglected Queen played with a vibrant force by the incomparable Sarah Fallon.    The Thespian would recommend this production just to see her performance.

Yet, this production brings so much more for an audience willing to travel to the Shenandoah Valley to see a rarely produced Shakespeare play.    Henry VI, Part 3, brings to the stage a power struggle between the Houses of Lancaster, represented by King Henry VI, Queen Margaret and their son, Prince Edward and the House of York represented by Richard, Duke of York and his sons, Edward, George and Richard.   To get the audience up to speed, the ASC provides a humorous recap of the previous two plays.    We begin at the height of Richard, Duke of York's (Jeremy West) power as he finagles being named heir to the throne, thus disinheriting King Henry VI's young son, Prince Edward. (Miriam Donald).   This enrages Queen Margaret who with the help of Lord Clifford (Chris Johnston) quickly finds the pretext to break the truce, revive the war and execute York.

One could go into the minutiae of Shakespeare's version of the Wars of the Roses.    Are there historical inaccuracies?   Of course there are, but there are also vignettes which his contemporary audience would have recognized as the mythology of their heritage.   It is similar to how we, in America would expect a pageant of the American Civil War to include the declaration  of Thomas Jackson standing like a stone wall or Lincoln delivering his Gettysburg Address.   And thus, in the 1590's the audience would remember the tales of the duplicitous Earl of Warwick, the kingmaker, the wicked Queen Margaret, the saintly King Henry VI and his prophesy upon meeting the future King Henry VII that he would become the King to unite them all.   Most of all, his audience would have delighted in the rise of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future monstrous King Richard III, crippled and ambitiously plotting by the end of the play to sit upon the throne hard won by his brother, King Edward IV.

Confused yet?   A few audience members were at the performance The Thespian attended.   I know the history and was able to help my fellow seat mates understand who's who among the Richards, Edwards and Henrys on the stage.    Perhaps Shakespeare's weakness is that the focal point of the play changes.    Despite being the title character, King Henry VI, played with a quiet and poignant gentleness by Gregory Jon Phelps, this is a play in which the action swirls about him and the King is powerless to stop the forces that depose him, imprison him, restore him to the throne, depose him again and then with relief end his sad life.    Jeremy West, has a cocky assuredness as Richard, Duke of York and manages to maintain his dignity through the humiliating molehill scene where he is mocked before execution.  John Harrell builds on that cockiness as the once and future King Edward IV, triumphantly strutting in his victories and never far from regaining his triumphs in the few times his character falters.  

Patrick Midgley embodies the weaknesses of George, Duke of Clarence, a man who seeks power and eagerly trades sides based on who is likely to grant power to him.   Tyler Moss, as Warwick the Kingmaker, is proud and defiant, leading the initial overthrow of King Henry in favor of Edward IV and then changing his tune when King Edward betrays him.  

In the comic seductive wooing scene of King Edward and Elizabeth, Lady Grey, Alison Glenzer has the dignity of a woman who will not betray her morals to secure her sons' inheritance.   She makes a easy transition to Edward's queen, and in a brief scene when she fears for the life of her unborn child after Edward is deposed she shows Elizabeth's strength in adversity.

In a poignant minor scene, Jeremiah Davis as a Lancastrian who kills his father and Jeremy West as a Yorkist who has killed his son show the cost of war in few words and great emotion.

The Thespian began this review with a reason to see this show in the performance of Sarah Fallon as Queen Margaret.   Let me leave you with another reason, the performance of Benjamin Curns as Richard, Duke of Gloucester.     It is this play that lays the seeds for the villain of the conclusion of this tetralogy, in King Richard III.    Shakespeare takes this character from loyal son fighting for his father and elder brother's rights to the throne to once the throne is gained an immediate desire to gain the throne for himself.    Mr. Curns built his character into a commanding force upon the Blackfriar's stage.   The audience sees glimpses of the monster to come in his relishing his role in the death of Prince Edward and the murder of King Henry VI.    One can only hope that Mr. Curns returns next season to continue in King Richard III.

Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3 will be played in repertory with The Comedy of Errors, John Marston's The Malcontent, Thomas Middleton's A Trick To Catch The Old One and Look About You, author unknown through April 1, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

A Trick To Catch The Old One at the American Shakespeare Center

What's a poor, spendthrift playboy to do?

 Theodorus Witgood is broke thanks to profligate living with his mistress, a smart courtesan named Jane.   And to make matters worse his tightwad rich uncle Pecunius Lucre has reposssesed everything Witgood owns, or in the words of the play, holds his  mortgage.     How do you dig yourself out of this hole?   Concoct a scheme to convince your uncle that you are planning to marry a rich widow.   Make sure that your uncle knows that if the widow finds out that you are poor then the wedding is off.    Naturally your uncle, with his sights on keeping that widow's fortune in the family, is eager to assist you.     Of course, your mistress is pretending to be the rich widow.    Even better your uncle's bitter rival, Walkadine Hoard, has heard of your marriage plans and plots to marry the widow himself.    If you can pull this craziness off, you trick your uncle out of cash, get your mortgage returned,  get your creditors off your back, maybe even get named your rich uncle's heir and get to marry the girl of your dreams, who happens to be Hoard's niece.     As a bonus, your put upon mistress will succeed in marrying Hoard and therefore, almost everyone will live happily ever after.

Thus is the craziness that is Thomas Middleton's A Trick To Catch The Old One.    Written around 1605-1606, this is, as the notes in the program from Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen state, very much a precursor of the restoration comedy of manners.    Many characters' names are reflective of their personalities.   The comic situations are silly and the talented company of performers assembled for the Actor's Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center have fully embraced all of Middleton's zany situations.    The evening that The Thespian attended was the pay what you will opening night.    The Blackfriar's Playhouse was full of enthusiastic audience members who provided a vibrant energy for the actors to feed off.    The Thespian also took the bold step of reserving a Gallant's Stool and sat on the stage for this performance.   Sitting upon the stage provides a very interesting perspective as an audience member. You are inches away from the actors and you may invite being enveloped in the action.   It was within this welcoming atmosphere that the actors put on a rollicking fun evening of theater.

Middleton seems to have inspired each member of the company to embrace the archetypes that they play and heighten the comedic potential of their characters.    For this production most of the actors have chosen modern dress and bold color choices.   The exception to this are the two arch rivals, Lucre and Hoard who are dressed as if they were Dickensian dandies and every time they meet on stage seem poised to start a duel.   These costuming choices make it easy for the audience to quickly identify what each character represents.

As our hero, Witgood, Gregory Jon Phelps is a delightful leading man.    As the wise courtesan, Jane, Miriam Donald is bright, witty and enthusiastic.   Together they are an easy pair to root for in their scheming.    As the uncle Lucre and his rival Hoard,  John Harrell and Benjamin Curns drip with indignation for each other and exude lust for the potential money to be made from the supposed rich widow.    As Witgood's creditors Jeremiah Davis, Paul Jannise and Jeremy West seem like they stepped straight out of a Damon Runyon tale.  

In a secondary plot, the morality tale of the usurer Harry Dampit is unwound.   Tyler Moss plays the successful money lender with enthusiasm, eagerly giving his business cards to the audience around the stage.    A man who lives high on the hog, Dampit is shown wallowing in excess.   Mr. Moss is very funny, first as the richly dressed and bejeweled usurer at the top of his game, then mired in drunkenness and then in a poignant scene, bedridden, yet defiant surrounded by his acquaintances and business partners as he dies.   His sweet, put upon servant, Audrey, well played by Alison Glenzer faithfully takes his blows and cares for her master until his death.    It is as if Middleton wanted to punish someone for the loose living of his main character.    And while the scenes are well acted, the subplot is a bit jarring compared to the rest of the play.

Yet, for the rest of the characters, they do live happily ever after and our hero and heroine vow upon their knees to live a chaste and moral life in the future.   The audience will leave the Blackfriar's Playhouse with a smile in their hearts and a chuckle upon their lips.

The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia presents Thomas Middleton's A Trick To Catch The Old One in repertory with William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Henry VI, Part 3, John Marston's The Malcontent and Look About You, author unknown through April 1, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of VIrginia Woolf? at Arena Stage

Perhaps Mr. Albee's most famous play, it seems appropriate to be writing this review the day after the most famous actress to play the lead role of Martha has died.    Whether that is fair to the astounding production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that Steppenwolf Theatre Company has brought to Arena Stage is debatable.   However, even The Thespian took note during the performance she attended last week that the specter of Elizabeth Taylor hovered in the audience's mind.   One way to gage your audience's reaction is to observe and listen during intermission.   Virginia Woolf? has two intermissions.   During the first intermission the topics discussed by audience members around me were about the film version of the play.   "I remember Elizabeth Taylor's Martha." "Who played Nick? (George Segal)"  And most telling to me, "I don't remember the language being that nasty."

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was written just about 50 years ago.    It is a portrait of two married couples, George and Martha, a history professor married to the college president's daughter, who have been married for more than 20 years and Nick and Honey the new biology professor and his wife.   It is a late night, booze-filled evening in which the verbal battle of the professional fighters George and Martha ensnare the younger couple.    Nick and Honey are not innocent observers to this nightmare of an evening. Their nascent marriage has parallels to that of seasoned George and Martha. The vicious war of words, alcohol and sex is harsh to observe.   And with a three hour plus running time it can be exhausting for actors and audience alike.  Yet, there is such a true payoff in the end of this marathon.   By the time the play ends souls are bared, wounds are dug deep, yet a calm grace permeates the stage. We, the audience, witness a potential level of maturity emerge from the bitter childish proceedings and yes, in the committed hands of Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, an ending filled with love.

For those unfamiliar with the play, George, a history professor, and his wife, Martha, the daughter of the college president, return home at 2:00 a.m. from a staff party.   To George's surprise and disgust, Martha, on the advice of her father has invited the new biology professor, Nick and his wife, Honey to their home for a night cap.   Despite the ridiculous hour, Nick and Honey show up.   What begins as a quick drink and awkward get together, soon descends into a verbal war between George and Martha, coupled by Martha's slip to Honey of a topic that George and Martha keep private to themselves.   The conversations between these allegedly mature adults are very child like.   Why Nick and Honey don't take a quick exit as soon as possible is the same mystery as why Peter doesn't flee his Central Park bench when Jerry intrudes.   Yet, there is a fascination with both couples seemingly doomed to sink in the mire of the nasty insults as the night goes interminably onward.  As the drink tally rises, the barbs become more vicious and stories about both couples deep dark secrets emerge.   It all reaches to a raw, emotional climate

My fellow audience members commented that they did not remember the language of the play being quite so vulgar.    Well, most persons  have encountered  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through the 1966 film, which, while nearing the end of the Hollywood censorship era, still had the language modified for film.    George and Martha do not hold back, not with each other, and with each alchoholic beverage not in front of their guests.   There is a discussion in acting whether or not actors and directors should feel obliged to follow the dictates of the playwright's stage directions.   The Thespian is of the thought that one should do so.   Mr. Albee has a rhythm that is lost without the directions that he leaves to be followed, a rhythm that sets the characters' nuances.   If we would not dream of not following the rhythms of classical drama we should have the respect to follow our modern playwrights dictates as well.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is mesmerizing.  All four actors are extremely well cast.   Nick can sometimes come off as the pretty boy jock.  Here, while the character is no match for George and Martha, Madison Dirks has a strength that he struggles to bring out whether defending Martha or his own manhood.    The mousy Honey is given vivid life by Carrie Coon.   A delightful drunk, Ms. Coon shows a roller coaster of emotions as she tries to be the dutiful spouse, yet shows a poignant vulnerability when her deepest shame is brought to the surface.

Amy Morton brings a depth to Martha that I have not seen in other productions.   It is very easy to play Martha as a loud, shrill, shrew.   Ms. Morton brings levels to Martha as she waxes and wanes through each level of her battle with George.   And, when the battle is over, she is a heap of mourning searching for a long lost connection that she and her husband have denied each other over the years of their own deceit.   Tracy Letts is a calm force as George.   George can get lost in Martha's tirades.   Mr. Lett's strength is in his body language as he lets George take Martha's verbal hits to the breaking point and hints to the audience when that point has been reached.   George's explosions are telegraphed in ways that they still surprise the audience when they happen, but they are not wholly unexpected.    What makes this couple work so well on stage is that, in the end, Mr. Letts and Ms. Morton show the desperation of two people who desire a deep loving connection.   By killing the lies they have invented to keep their marriage going, they leave us with the hope that George and Martha can mature and grow.

The set design by Todd Rosenthal is perfect for a couple that has some prosperity and yet has the messy lived in look of people who only tidy when company is coming.   A very nice touch on the mantel of George's study is a clock that is set to the actual time the play is taking place.   Since the play happens in real time we the audience can note the time as it goes from 2:00 a.m. to past 5:00 a.m.

This is a marvelous production of an American masterpiece.   Please see this production while you can and thank Arena Stage for bringing it to Washington.  

Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be performed in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater through April 10, 2011.   For tickets, dramaturg notes and other performance information please visit

Edward Albee's At Home At The Zoo at Arena Stage

An encounter on a Sunday afternoon.    One man is simply enjoying the peace of a park bench and a good read.    The other, soon to be revealed as aggressive and potentially threatening begins a conversation.    The encounter continues becoming more and more intense.    Yet, the man on the bench does not leave.   Instead he makes the decision to fight for his "territory."  This decision leads to a shocking result.

That, in the proverbial nutshell is the general plot of The Zoo Story, written by Edward Albee in 1958.   The Zoo Story is an interesting two character piece.   Mr. Albee actually has called it a one and a half character piece.    And, that observation is true.    Jerry, who intrudes upon Peter's Sunday afternoon respite is a domineering personality.    Peter begins merely as a sounding board for Jerry's agitation against the world.     The audience is left in bewilderment as to why Peter simply doesn't walk away from the dangerous encounter.     Yet, perhaps it is because Mr. Albee has written for Jerry a spellbinding tale of a man and his battle with his landlady's dog that the character of Peter becomes unable to leave just as the audience becomes both repulsed and fascinated with Jerry and unwilling to leave the theater to find out how this will end.      And it is the still shocking ending of The Zoo Story that leaves the audience talking about the play 53 years after it was first written.

The Thespian had not seen The Zoo Story since it was performed in excerpts in various acting classes she took decades ago.    I certainly had not seen the play coupled with the first act Homelife that Mr. Albee wrote in 2003/2004.     Homelife is another two character one-act play.    We meet Peter in the hour before he encounters Jerry on that park bench.   This time his sparring partner is his wife, Ann.   Homelife becomes the character study of Peter that we are lacking in The Zoo Story.    Here we see that he is a passive, gentle person who is perhaps too comfortable in his marriage.    We see that his wife, Ann is desperately trying to engage Peter to get any emotional response from him even with a bit of foreshadowing violence.     Yet, Peter resists Ann's goading as much as he is unable to resist Jerry's.  And in a tale of his past, the audience learns why Peter has become the gentle man that is eventually broken by his encounter with Jerry.

Homelife is not as strong a piece as The Zoo Story.    The acting is uniformly good.   Colleen Delaney as Ann and Jeff Allin as Peter are at ease with the rhythms of Mr. Albee's language.  They provide an easy portrait of a long married couple that seems more comfortable talking at each other rather than with each other.  Mr. Allin proves an excellent listener in The Zoo Story when he is required to give James McMenamin's Jerry his undivided attention.   Mr. McMenamin is spellbinding as Jerry.    We've all met people like Jerry who make us very uneasy.  Most of us would extricate ourselves from a long encounter.   Yet, Mr. McMenamin  manages to make us want to hear the end of Jerry's stories just as Mr. Allin makes us believe that Peter would stay and listen to them.  

Yet, after the evening was ended, The Thespian felt that she wanted to see more.   Mr. Albee has returned to this story to show us a prequel.   Now I want to know the sequel.   What happens to Peter?   Does he tell all to Ann?  What would be her reaction?   Having been given the privilege of knowing Peter's home life before The Zoo Story, now I want to know his home life afterwards.

At Home At The Zoo will be performed in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage Mead Center for American Theater through April 24, 2011 as part of the Edward Albee Festival.   For tickets, dramaturg notes and additional information please visit

Friday, March 11, 2011

Book Review: Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty by Elizabeth Norton

The Thespian is yet again reviewing another new book by Elizabeth Norton.   I am amazed at the output of  Tudor biography in the past three years by Ms. Norton.   Yet, I can say that as she continues with her writing the quality of her books continues to improve.

Her latest subject is Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII.   Margaret Beaufort is one of the most fascinating women of the late 15th and early 16th centuries.    She survived three or four marriages (depends on the historian) and lived under constant suspicion of traitorous behavior during the reigns of King Edward IV and King Richard III.    She was pious and interested in university education.   And once her son was on the throne she set the standards for Royal etiquette involving births and christening ceremonies for royal children through overseeing the creation of the Royal Book.    Most remarkably for a woman of her era she lived well into her 70's and survived long enough to see her grandson, King Henry VIII be crowned.

Ms. Norton supplies a great deal of research into the life of Margaret Beaufort.    She frames the early years of Margaret's life with excerpts from the funeral eulogy given by John Fisher.  This is suitable as it helps to understand the trials and tribulations that Margaret faced during her long life and when she became mother of the King of England the kinds of patronage she favored.   And a remarkable life Margaret Beaufort did lead.

Margaret Beaufort was the only surviving child of John Beaufort, the 1st Duke of Somerset.  As such she is the senior heiress of the "Beaufort" heirs of King Edward III's son, John of Gaunt.   The Beaufort children were the illegitimate children of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, whom John of Gaunt later married as his third wife.   The children were then legitimized, but were barred from succeeding to the throne of England by King Henry IV.    As such Margaret was a cousin to Henry IV,  Henry V and Henry VI who descended from John of Gaunt's marriage to his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster.    Confused yet?   Welcome to the intricacies of the Wars of the Roses.

Margaret's father,  John, Duke of Somerset died when Margaret was a baby.  Her wardship was granted to William de la Pole, then Earl of Suffolk. later Duke of same, who betrothed Margaret to his eldest son, John. What can be frustrating when reading this biography is that when Ms. Norton makes an assertion that not all historians agree with she doesn't provide the chapter notes to back up her claims.    The Thespian is referring to her statement that Margaret was fully married to her first "husband", John de la Pole.   Most historians treat this early marriage contract as a betrothal.   It was entered into when Margaret was six years old  and John was eight, and repudiated when Margaret came of age.   While there is no question that Margaret Beaufort and John de la Pole were betrothed and a dispensation was issued by the Pope due to their close blood relation, Ms. Norton claims that they were married between January 28 and February 7 1450.   In any case, the marriage, if it happened, was never consummated.  The legal age of consent at the time was twelve for girls and fourteen for boys.    So, when the Duke of Suffolk fell out of favor and died and Margaret was presented with another marriage possibility to the much older Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, it is not surprising that Margaret chose to marry the later.

Edmund Tudor had the advantage of being the half brother of King Henry VI.   He was descended from King Henry V's widow, Queen Katherine of Valois who married a member of her household Owen Tudor.    Following the downfall of the Suffolk, he and his younger brother Jasper were granted the wardship of Margaret Beaufort.   It is from John Fisher that the story of Margaret praying to St. Nicholas to help her decide whom to marry and her choice being Edmund Tudor comes from.    Margaret married Edmund in 1455 after reaching the age of consent.    She was twelve, Edmund was twenty-two.   The marriage was immediately consummated and within a year, Margaret became pregnant.   Unfortunately it was during the years around his marriage that King Henry VI first fell ill and the battle for control over him, led by the Richard, Duke of York started.    In other words the beginnings of what became the Wars of the Roses.    Edmund Tudor was captured in Wales at Camarthen Castle by Sir William Herbert an ally of the Duke of York.   He subsequently died of the plague leaving Margaret seven months pregnant at the age of thirteen.    That child would be born on January 28, 1457 at Pembroke Castle in Wales.   That child, the only child of Margaret Beaufort, would improbably become King Henry VII.

Where this biography is strongest is in the discussion of Margaret Beaufort's life before her son became King.     In particular how this teenager manages to survive the political upheavals of the next several years.   As a very young widow with a child to support she only had her brother-in-law, Jasper Tudor to rely on.    Margaret married again in 1458 to Henry Stafford the second son of Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.    Margaret was fifteen, Henry in his thirties.  It was another marriage that required a Papal dispensation.    Norton uses family documents including wills to show that this marriage, although arranged for Margaret's protection and as a source of income for the Duke's younger son, was probably a happy one.   There are references to Margaret by name in the Duke and Duchess' wills.   Margaret's interest in education comes through as the Duchess of Buckingham lent her daughter-in-law books.    There is documentation of Margaret and Henry traveling between their manors and sources show that during the years they were wed they were frequently in each other's company.

Margaret Beaufort did not partake in the upbringing of her son, Henry Tudor.    Following the usurpation of King Edward IV, his wardship was granted to Sir William Herbert.    As the heir to Margaret Beaufort's estates he was a valuable commodity and in Herbert's will of 1468 Norton shows that he planned to marry Henry Tudor to his daughter, Maud.    Unfortunately Herbert ended up dying at the Battle of Edgecote and the very young Henry Tudor was present at the battle.     Following Herbert's death there were negotiations over who would get the wardship of Henry Tudor involving Edward IV's brother, George, Duke of Clarence who had been granted Henry Tudor's lands.    Negotiating with the rebellious Duke of Clarence did not help Margaret's political situation.   However the famous Earl of Warwick, the "King maker"chose around this time to plot to place Henry VI back on the throne.    And part of these negotiations included the use of King Edward IV's eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, Henry Tudor's future queen, as a political pawn.

Norton includes a contemporary account of the negotiations between Queen Margaret of Anjou and the Earl of Warwick for the restoration of King Henry VI.     Warwick offers his daughter Anne Neville to be married to Queen Margaret's son, Prince Edward of Lancaster.   The contemporary document shows that King Edward IV had offered his daughter Elizabeth of York to be married to Prince Edward as well.   Over the next ten years King Edward IV would offer Elizabeth of York as a bride to Henry Tudor as a pretext for getting him to return from exile in Brittany.     How did Henry Tudor end up spending fourteen years on the continent?   He basically backed the wrong horse in the crown race.

In September 1470 Warwick led an invasion fleet of sixty ships and one of the members of the invasion force was Henry Tudor's uncle, Jasper Tudor, who had been living in exile since his half-brother was deposed in 1461.    Edward IV fled to Flanders.    Queen Elizabeth Wydeville took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey with her daughters and gave birth to the future King Edward V.   With Jasper Tudor back in Wales, Henry Tudor was brought by Sir Richard Corbet to his uncle.   Jasper brought his nephew to London where he was reunited with his mother.     According to Polydore Vergil it is here that Henry Tudor met King Henry VI who allegedly prophesied that Henry Tudor would become King.

In the spring of 1471  King Edward IV invaded from Flanders.  In two decisive battles at Barnet and Tewkesbury he retook his throne.    The Earl of Warwick was killed.  Prince Edward of Lancaster was killed in battle or executed in the aftermath.   Queen Margaret of Anjou was taken prisoner.   King Henry VI was placed in the Tower of London and murdered.    Jasper Tudor who was in the south of Wales fled to Brittany with his nephew Henry Tudor.   In October, Margaret Beaufort's husband, Henry Stafford died, possibly of complications from wounds he received in battle during the spring campaign.
Eight months later Margaret Beaufort married again.

Margaret's last husband was Thomas, Lord Stanley.    He was a Yorkist who had supported Henry VI during the restoration but did not favor either side in the battles of 1471.  His position at Edward IV's court helped Margaret politically.    As he had children, Margaret brought Stanley the prestige of her title and royal blood.     It is very likely that being married to a person who served whomever was on the throne loyally helped keep Margaret Beaufort as the mother of the only potential Lancastrian threat safe. For the next decade the throne was stable.   King Edward IV had two sons and five daughters, and despite having his brother George, Duke of Clarence executed for treason there were few threats to the Yorkist throne.    There were attempts to get the Duke of Brittany to expel Jasper and Henry Tudor, but they stayed on the continent.   Then Edward IV unexpectedly died in 1483 at the relatively young age of forty-two.

Most are familiar with the usurpation of King Richard III and the subsequent disappearance of King Edward V and his brother, Richard, Duke of York.    During the two year reign of Richard III there were two attempts by Henry Tudor to invade England.   The first failed.   The second, leading to the Battle of Bosworth field succeeded because his stepfather Thomas, Lord Stanley held out supporting either side in the battle, despite his eldest son being held hostage by King Richard, and Lord Stanley's brother Sir William Stanley decided at a crucial point in the battle to support Henry Tudor.

Once Henry Tudor becomes King Henry VII documentation on Margaret Beaufort appears to become more scarce.     She is definitely a force at court and Norton finds evidence of her matching her clothing to that of her daughter-in-law at some court functions.     While never a Queen herself she begins to style herself in her letters as Margaret R.    It is interesting that despite all of her marriages she always styled herself the Countess of Richmond.   Although it should be noted that a woman was entitled to be known by her highest title regardless of subsequent marriages (see Mary Tudor Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk forever referred to as the Queen of France).  

Margaret Beaufort and Thomas, Lord Stanley took the unusual decision to take vows of chastity.  While this was common among widows it was unusual for a married couple to do so.   Margaret's paintings and statues usually depict her wearing religious-styled garb.    Margaret devoted herself to royal protocol setting up the procedures for a Queen taking her chamber before birth, the christening of royal children and the churching ceremony that followed birth.    She became a patron of university learning.

Margaret Beaufort took an interest in both Oxford and Cambridge Universities.   In Oxford she founded a lectureship in theology.   Yet, probably through the influence of John Fisher, whom she met in the mid-1490's she gave the lion's share of her patronage to Cambridge.    Norton reproduces excerpts of correspondence from the universities in particularly showing that Oxford was concerned that they were losing her influence.  It was probably due to Margaret Beaufort's patronage that John Fisher became vice-chancellor and then chancellor of Cambridge.    Margaret began to support Queen's College, Cambridge following the death of Elizabeth of York.   She was heavily involved with God's House college, which expanded from four scholars to sixty and changed its name to Christ College.   She laid the foundations for the college of St. John's which were completed following her death in 1509.

In addition to this books printed by William Caxton were dedicated to her and she had the publisher Wynkyn de Worde publish the sermons of John Fisher.

Margaret Beaufort did not long survive her only son.   She lived long enough to see her grandson's coronation and took ill following the coronation banquet.    She has a beautiful tomb in Westminster Abbey.

Elizabeth Norton has written a thorough biography of this important figure in Tudor History.    The only faults that The Thespian has with this work are minor.   It would be nice to see more extensive chapter notes.   Ms. Norton provides texts of Margaret's extant letters, but only includes excerpts of John Fisher's eulogy to illustrate moments of Margaret's life.     And, once again, she reprints contemporary documents without modernizing the spelling.   The Thespian has been lenient about this practice until now.   What is absurd is that if the document has already been modernized, Ms. Norton prints it with the modernized spelling.   If it has not she uses the archaic spelling which can be difficult to read with ease.    It is time for the editors at Amberley books to insist on modernizing the spelling of contemporary documents for the ease of the readers in future books that they choose to publish.