Saturday, October 29, 2011

Othello at the Folger Theatre

He hates the Moor.

He really hates the Moor.

The character of Iago in William Shakespeare's Othello is one of the most captivating villains ever put on the stage.  He is very clear about his seething rage, angry that he has been overlooked for a military promotion and suspicious that his general has committed adultery with his wife, Emilia.   Washington, DC audiences have the opportunity to view a consummate Iago, in the expert performance by Ian Merill Peakes now on the stage at the Folger Theatre.

Director Robert Richmond has reordered Iago's admission of hatred from Act I, scene 3 to the very beginning of the play.  Therefore the revenge plot is in the forefront from the very beginning.  Yet, the play is titled Othello, not Iago, and Mr. Richmond has found in Owiso Odera an equally forceful performance as the charismatic general, whose jealousy is stoked by his loving not too wisely, but too well.

Mr. Odera is a commanding presence, handsome, strength personified when breaking apart a drunken brawl, yet deeply romantic with his beloved wife, Desdemona.  Mr. Odera navigates with a clarity sometimes lacking in other performances of this character the sometimes baffling transition from trusting husband to that of an anguished man, broken in spirit by the belief that his young wife is unfaithful.  This Othello is heartbreaking, and while he maintains sympathy he is also horrifying in his insistence that his innocent wife must die.

Janie Brookshire is a beautiful and sensual Desdemona.   Her bafflement at her husband's change in affections is poignant.  Her delivery of the famous Willow Song is more wistful than melancholic, a tinge of hope colors her  performance even in the face of impending doom.  Ms. Brookshire's death throes are also terrifying and brutal.

As the manipulated wife of Iago, Karen Peakes compels the audience to fully believe that Emilia loves Iago.  This is crucial for the audience to understand how Emilia can steal Desdemona's handkerchief and in subsequent scenes with her frantic mistress not reveal that she is responsible for its disappearance. Ms. Peake's slow burning revelation that her husband is responsible for the death of her young mistress is that of any woman who discovers the man she loves is not who she believes him to be.  Ms. Peakes gives a masterful portrayal of this complicated woman.

As the valiant Cassio, the gallant young man who supplants Iago in the military hierarchy, Thomas Keegan is much more than just the pretty face that sometimes happens with the character of Cassio.   He is charismatic and sexy, yet embodies well Cassio's weaknesses in wine and women that gives Iago the crack he needs to plot his destruction.  As the comic toady, Roderigo, Louis Butelli provides a welcome amount of comic ineptitude.   He lightens the mood at some of the darkest moments of Iago's plotting.

Iago.   Ian Merrill Peakes embodies with a passionate commitment the full range of Iago's bitter emotions as broadly  as possible without descending into a mustache-twirling cartoon.   We, the audience, no matter how seasoned with this play, delight in wondering just what Iago is going to do next.  His mania grows until it reaches the breaking point when with wild eyes and the barest crack of a smile Mr. Merrill Peakes sends shivers down your spine.

Director Richmond has decided to set his production at the time of the crusades, emphasizes the religious aspect of the characters, which is very much supported by the text.  Mr. Richmond has reassembled the design team that brought his acclaimed production of Henry VIII to this same stage last year.   The score by composer Andrew Cochrane compliments the moods of the play as they change with the winds of the storm that tosses our characters on the shore of Cyprus.  The costumes by William Ivey Long and the lush Arabian setting of billowing fabrics and lush carpeting and pillows designed by Tony Cisek evoke this era without overwhelming the tiny space of the Elizabethan Theater.  It is a beautiful and thoughtful time period for this classic tale.

William Shakespeare's Othello will be performed at the Folger Theatre through December 4, 2011.   Please arrive one hour early and take advantage of viewing the Folger Shakespeare Library's exhibition, Manifold Greatness celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Book Club Play at Arena Stage

A group of friends meet monthly to discuss books.   It could be any small club in any town in America.   Yet, the group now appearing on Arena Stage's Kogod Cradle is quite eclectic.   We have the controlling Ana, the soft-spoken spinster, Jen, the good-natured husband who never reads the books, Rob, the highly strung co-founder of the club, Will (who deeply resents how Ana controls the club), and Lily, Ana's young co-worker with a more modern perspective on life.   Throw this barely cohesive group in front of a documentary filmmaker's lens and the cracks will show.   Throw a new member, Alex into the mix without the approval of Ana and you have farce.    This is the delight that is Karen Zacarias' newly revised The Book Club Play.

This literate comedy is a great deal of fun.   Audiences will delight in the archetypes presented on the stage.  The literary references sprinkled throughout will bring knowing smiles to those who familiar with the books.   The wonderful projections of the viewpoints of other book enthusiasts from a shark bite survivor to an octogenarian librarian who is sky diving steer the proceedings close to absurdity, yet provide warm laughter to cover the passages of time within the story.   All in all, The Book Club Play is a light confection, briskly paced by the sure direction of Molly Smith.

The audience is introduced to the members of the book club at the home of Ana and Rob.  A famous filmmaker has decided to make the group the subject of a documentary.  Therefore instead of meeting monthly the group will meet every two weeks.  Instead of rotating homes, they will always meet at Ana and Rob's house.   Tensions rise as Ana tries to control everything that will be seen on screen.   Characters learn about themselves, confront their secrets and follow their dreams during the course of the experiment.   It all leads to an ending in which transforms into a play within a film within a novel, a conclusion that is a bit contrite, yet still an amusing and satisfying evening of theater.

The small ensemble is well cast.   Kate Eastwood Norris is wound tighter than a spring as the strong type A, Ana.   Eric M. Messner is loveably dim as her put-upon and put-down-upon husband, Rob.  Tom Story peels the layers from his button-down Will, learning to embrace his true nature.  Rachael Holmes sparks as the more worldly than she seems Lily and Ashlie Atkinson is delightful as the mousy Jen who bravely embarks on her life's dreams as the play progresses.    Fred Arsenault is delicious as the wrench who throws the club into chaos, Alex.   Watching him impose the truths beneath the other characters' surface is the best part of the play.

While it is clear that this play, first produced in 2008 and heavily revised under the auspices of Arena Stage's Resident Playwright's program needs a bit more revision to bring out its true potential, The Book Club Play is well worth a trip to the inviting Kogod Cradle for a lighthearted evening of theater.  The ending seems a bit pat and pretentious, but the revision is definitely in the right direction.

The Book Club Play will be performed in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage through November 6, 2011.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1 at the American Shakespeare Center

Techelles:   Tamburlaine, what are we going to do tomorrow night?
Tamburlaine: The same thing we do every night, Techelles.
Techelles:  What is that?
Tamburlaine: Try and take over the world.

That is the basic plot of Christopher Marlowe's sprawling tale of the shepherd outlaw who becomes master of Asia and Africa.  Lands are visited, kings and "soldans" are overthrown.   And a mighty warrior claims dominion over all he sees and wins the love of the fair Egyptian princess he has taken prisoner.

This epic story unfolds upon the Blackfriar's stage.  While one may wish that one had a scorecard to keep track of who is betraying whom, which land is being conquered or just where in the world is Tamburlaine the Great, the accomplished company of actors at the American Shakespeare Center under the capable direction of artistic director, Jim Warren, provide a fairly clear and relatively easy to follow path from the kingdom of Persia to the besieged city of Tamburlaine's father-in-law.

Keeping this wide-ranging story concise is the sure and steady direction of Jim Warren.   He is added by the beautiful Arabian-influenced costumes of Erin M. West which subtly aid the audience in telling the various conquered kings apart.   The fights choreographed by Colleen Kelly are brutal and effective.   And the acting is superb from the lowliest virgin to the poignant and distinctive performances of the many conquered lords, kings and soldans.

John Harrell is delicious as the betraying Cosroe, brother of the King of Persia, played with appropriate bewilderment by Benjamin Curns.  Patrick Midgley is devious as the turncoat Meander.   As the loyal outlaw followers that Tamburlaine makes into kings Miriam Donald and Chris Johnston are fierce charismatic warriors.  Blythe Coons is poignant and, when called upon regally haughty as Tamburlaine's prisoner love, Zenocrate.

Outstanding performances are given by Rene Thornton, Jr. and Allison Glenzer as the conquered Emperor Bajazeth and his empress, Zabina.   Of all his conquests, Bajazeth and Zabina have the most time upon the stage as they are humiliated by Tamburlaine, until, in despair they end their torment.   Ms. Glenzer, in particular is heartbreaking as she embodies Zabina's pathos and grief.   It is a mesmerizing performance.

James Keegan commands the Blackfriar's stage as Tamburlaine.   He is not the stereotyped evil fiend that sometimes can occur in lesser productions, particularly in those versions of the play that truncate both parts of Marlowe's plays into one evening.   Mr. Keegan is convincingly a warrior and a conqueror.  He is merciless to those he conquers yet loving to Zenocrate.   It is a towering acting achievement.

While not as popular a draw as the works of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great is well worth an visit to the Blackfriar's Playhouse.

Tamburlaine the Great is being performed in repertory with Wiliam Shakespeare's The Tempest, Henry V and Hamlet and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest through November 26, 2011.  For tickets and other performance information please visit

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest at the American Shakespeare Center

Hilarious comedy.  Ready Wit.   Brisk pacing.   An actual set that needs to be changed during the intermission.   This last aspect is not what one would expect to find on the stage of the Blackfriars' Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.    How would Oscar Wilde's famed comedy fit the American Shakespeare Center's style without the benefit of a proscenium and, more famously, performed "with the lights on?"  

The answer is triumphantly.   The hallmarks of attending a production by the American Shakespeare Center are intact, whether it be engaging the audience through pointed delivery of Oscar Wilde's jabs at society or the clever use of modern songs before the performance and during the two intermissions to provide modern commentary on the action of the play.   Combined with expert casting and the direction of Artistic Director Jim Warren who has coaxed the fervor and heightened emotions of the characters without taking the comedy too broad and this production of The Importance of Being Earnest is sheer delight.

In brief, this is the story of two bachelor friends, John"Jack" Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff.  Jack has been pretending that his name is Ernest, for the lady he loves Gwendolyn Fairfax has sworn she will only marry someone named Ernest.   Algernon, a bit of a rake, tells Jack about his habit of "Bunburying", which he employs whenever he needs to get out of a boring social engagement.   Jack meets Gwendolyn and her mother, Lady Bracknell, who is exacting about social niceties.   When Lady Bracknell discovers that Jack doesn't know his family background she opposes her daughter's engagement.   Meanwhile, Algernon discovers that Jack has a young ward, Cecily Cardew, living in the country.  He travels to visit her, discovering that she, too, fancies that she is in love with Jack's imagined brother, Ernest.   Algernon masquerades as Ernest.    Everyone travels to Jack's country home where much confusion reigns.   Add in to the mix, Cecily's governess, the romantic Miss Prism and the hapless country rector, Reverend Chasuble and a couple of droll servants and much confusion reigns until everything reaches a mad cap conclusion.

One realizes immediately that this is no musty, reverent production that shies away from the natural comedy that Oscar Wilde wrote so well.    Emotions are worn openly on the beautiful costumes by Jenny McNee. Who knew that the name Ernest could be so erotic?   The three acts of the play speed merrily along under the brisk direction of Jim Warren.   Despite the unified locations, the Blackfriar's tradition of audience interaction is well conceived.   Whether it is  a joke about marriage delivered to a couple in the front row of the theater or using some audience members as part of the scenery this is a wonderfully fun two hours and 20 minutes traffic upon the stage.

As the droll servants, the love-pining Lane and the put-upon Merriman, Gregory Jon Phelps and Patrick Midgley are a hoot.   John Basiulus is fun as the buttoned-up yet bursting with chaste passion Reverend Chasuble.  Allison Glenzer is hilarious as the trying to be stern governess, Miss Prism who struggles to control a romantic streak.  As the two ladies, Gwendolyn and Cecily, Blythe Coons and Miriam Donald complement each other.  Ms. Coon's Gwendolyn is polished with a naughty streak (the name Ernest is erotic thanks to her performance) and Ms. Donald's Cecily is flighty and charming.

As the bachelor friends who create this delightful mess, Rene Thornton, Jr. as Jack is a delectable leading man with a ready wit.  Benjamin Curns as Algernon is devilish, yet totally engaging.  Mr. Curns rapport with the audience is such that they eventually play into Algernon's schemes to fun effect.

As the stern Lady Bracknell, John Harrell is quite the aristocratic lady.   This role has a long history of being played upon the stage, most recently by Brian Bedford on Broadway.   This is no drag performance.  Mr. Harrell is quite convincing as the representative of high society.  His crisp delivery of Lady Bracknell's biting commentary coupled with perfect poise embodies refinement.

The Importance of Being Ernest is well worth a trip to the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in Staunton, Virginia.

The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde is being performed in repertory with William Shakespeare's The Tempest, Hamlet and Henry V and Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great through November 25, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information, please visit

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Les Miserables 25th Anniversary Production at the Kennedy Center

Les Miserables is probably the most critically acclaimed musical of the large multi-million dollar productions that were the hallmark of musical theater in the 1980's.   Known for its large cast, complicated set on a then state-of-the-art computerized turntable, and beautiful symphonic score (with electronic flourishes), Les Miserables enjoyed a long run on Broadway that saw it become the third longest running show in Broadway history. Les Miserables continues its original run in London where it opened in 1985.  It has had numerous national tours, international productions, and was famously filmed in concert form for its 25th anniversary at London's O2 Arena.  

Given the immense scale of the original production, Les Miserables has been ripe for re-interpretation.   An acclaimed scaled-down production was performed to critical acclaim at Arlington, Virginia's Signature Theater in 2008.    Yet, for a 25th anniversary National Tour, it seems wise to provide a larger sense of scale and scope, yet find ways to streamline the behemoth production values of the original design of the show.    For that, Cameron Mackintosh Productions turned to directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, who staged this current production at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey.    Trimming about 40 minutes from the running time and substantially redesigning the sets and lighting, this Les Miserables is a taut production, that does not feel as though anything substantial to the core of the original script has been lost.  Most of what has been cut are superfluous and repetitive portions of the sung-through dialogue.  The result is a brisk pace that does not feel too rushed and a satisfying emotional punch that is worthy of those who have fond memories of the original production.

The new set design by Matt Kinley which is inspired by the paintings of the novel's author, Victor Hugo gives a gritty yet beautiful sense of time and place.   When coupled by the lighting design of Paule Constable this becomes a Les Miserables that emphasizes the living conditions of the poor and working class citizens of France.    Andreane Neofitou's costumes, while complimentary of the original designs due to their need to be period accurate, have some nuances that provide a fresh perspective on the characters.   The score, with new orchestrations by Chris Jahnke and additional orchestrations by Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker has been reduced from the original 22 musicians to 15, yet under the direction of Robert Bilig they still provide the scope that is needed for this epic tale.

The staging by the directors, Mr. Connor and Mr. Powell is overall very effective.   The use of the projections adds in giving some depth to certain scenes such as the escape through the Paris sewers.   Yet you can tell that the production was designed on a stage with less depth than the Kennedy Center Opera House.   Some of the action feels unnaturally forced forward and there is a bit too much of having the ensemble line up at the front of the stage and dramatically confront the audience.   Once is effective, twice is okay, three or more is boring.

The only other criticism is one of sound levels.  As are all musical productions these days, the actors are miked.  The levels of the sound mix are at times set too high, making it too loud for certain moments in the show.   Also, there are times when lyrics are muddied by poor diction.   And sadly, during one song, the confrontation between Valjean and Javert after Fantine's death, their counterpoint singing is a shouting match, instead of the give and take that allows the audience to understand both mens' arguments.

The casting of the production is top notch.  Not a single role is poorly performed.   Chasten Harmon is gritty and sympathetic as Eponine.   Particularly her death, in the beautiful A Little Fall of Rain gains additional poignancy as it is not sung as a pretty duet, but clearly with the pain and agony of someone dying of gunshot wounds.    Jeremy Hays has the right amount of magnetism as Enjolras, the leader of the students.   Betsy Morgan is heartbreaking as the doomed Fantine.   Richard Vida and Shawna M. Hamic are comic in a macabre way as the Thenardiers.   Jenny Latimer has a beautiful soprano voice and is charmingly earnest as the innocent Cosette desperately in love with young Marius.

As Marius, Justin Scott Brown is a revelation.  His Marius has more emotional depth that the usual idealized student and love interest.   Mr. Brown shows a range showing genuine fervor for his friends' beliefs, despair over the events at the doomed barricade and genuine love for  his  beautiful Cosette.

Andrew Varela is menacing as Javert, the policeman who fervently believes that good and evil are black and white and that one can never change.  Mr. Varela uses his strong baritone during his singing of Stars to provide the character's context for the audience and his devastation during his Soliloquy show emotional complexity   It is a testament to the original authors and to Mr. Varela that what could be the  one-note villain of the show is a complex and conflicted man.

J. Mark McVey joins a long line of gentlemen to tackle the difficult role of Jean Valjean.   It requires a herculean effort to sing this part night after night.   Mr. McVey Valjean is strength and pathos.   Particularly in Bring Him Home he gives a soaring performance that takes the audience on Valjean's journey from paroled prisoner to redeemed sinner.  

The 25th Anniversary Production of Les Miserables will be performed at the Kennedy Center Opera House through October 30, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit   For additional information on future performances of this national tour please visit

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Trouble In Mind at Arena Stage

In the 1950's a brilliant young playwright stirred up the theatrical world by creating plays that focused on the prejudices facing the African American community during the smoldering development of the civil rights movement.   Her name?  Not Lorraine Hansberry, who would have the distinction of being the first African American woman to have a play produced on Broadway.   No, this pioneer of the theater is Alice Childress, whose works should be equally well known.    We should be grateful to actress E. Faye Butler and director Irene Lewis for their efforts since 2007 to revive Ms. Childress' 1955 play Trouble in Mind.

Trouble in Mind takes place in the rehearsal hall of a Broadway theater.   Wiletta Mayer (E. Faye Butler) a well known African American actress has bee tapped for a leading role in a drama about the struggle for African Americans to vote.  The cast is integrated and contains two other veteran actors of color, Millie Davis (Starla Benford) and Sheldon Forrester (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). Milly and Wiletta long to break out of the stereotype of playing maids and "mammy" roles.  Sheldon is a bit more accepting of his life's career.   A young white actress, Judy Sears (Gretchen Hall) and a young African American actor, John Nevins (Brandon J. Dirden) are simply thrilled to have a professional acting job.  A white actor with t.v. credits, Bill O'Wray (Daren Kelly) completes the acting ensemble.  The actors are steered in this production by the supposedly enlightened white director, Marty Lodge (Al Manners).   Yet, despite the dreams of starring in a Broadway play with an important subject matter, the company discovers that the play is deeply flawed and contains glaring offensive stereotypes.   They also discover that no matter the director's attempts to be fair and open-minded, the prejudices that he has towards his actors of color will surface.   Will principles be sacrificed for a Broadway credit?  Can the conflicts between the characters ever truly be resolved?

This is a wonderfully complex play that feels as if it were written today, not in 1955.   It contains amazing characters and forces the audience to see the biting truths that lie underneath the many comedic moments in the play.    That the play does not have a patently satisfactory ending reflects the truth that life does not have easily resolved endings.   In fact, the reason that the play never appeared on Broadway in the 1950's stems from Ms. Childress' conflicts with the producers who asked her to re-write the play, at one point including a third act, in the hopes of providing that elusive happy ending.  

What is fresh and modern about this play are the dynamics that play out between the characters.   Wiletta Mayer is established as a well-known actress, yet the director dismisses her objections to certain elements of the play, yet he readily accepts the criticism given by his well-known white leading man.  Millie and Sheldon are more accepting of the stereotyping of the African American characters in the play, acknowledging that they may be tired of playing certain types, but appear accepting of the status quo.   The director, Al Manners, who claims to be enlightened, subtly shows his prejudices, until in the heat of the moment he is forced to admit them.   Wiletta is a cry in the wilderness for calling out the absurdities of what she is being forced to perform and the audience is clearly on her side in wishing that she will triumph.  Yet, as in real life, the denouement is bittersweet and unsatisfactory.

The entire acting company gives outstanding performances.  Brandon J. Dirden gives a fresh performance as the naive young actor being schooled in the ways of the world for African American actors.  Gretchen Hall is equally charming as the equally naive Judy Sears who tries to break down the barriers between herself and the African American actors.   Daren Kelly's Bill O'Wray, while given less time to develop has the right feel for his t.v. star personality.   Garrett Neergaard has great comic timing as Eddie Fenton, the director's put-upon assistant.

As the stage door man Henry, Laurence O'Dwyer brings a warmth to the only character in the play that succeeds in treating everyone equally.   Starla Benford provides support and a foil to Wiletta as Millie Davis.    As the more accepting Sheldon Forrester,  Thomas Jefferson Byrd's lilting qualities provide a charm.  Yet, when Sheldon relates a dark story from his childhood that same soothing lilt draws in the audience.  He is mesmerizing.

As the director Al Manners, Marty Lodge is a forceful presence whether trying to be the enlightened liberal director or delivering the barbs that clearly prove Al is not as unprejudiced as he claims to be.   Al Manners has a theatrical past that colors his behavior and Mr. Lodge navigates this character well while finding the right times to provide sympathy for what is the antagonist of the piece.

E. Faye Butler left the acclaimed revival of Oklahoma! to return to the role of Wiletta Mayer.  She has played the role off and on since 2007.   Ms. Butler is a force on the stage, whether Wiletta is upholding the facade that she is a leading lady of the stage, or fighting to correct the glaring errors in the script by refusing to give in to the stereotypes. Ms. Butler has a full satisfying range of emotions as she desperately articulates Wiletta's anguish and desire to break away from and find a human truth in the script she is not being allowed to help shape.    It is a triumphant performance.

Alice Childress had a long career.  While she is best known for her book from the 1970's A Hero Ain't Nothing But A Sandwich and the film made from it, she deserves a deeper acknowledgement of her long body of work.  May this and subsequent productions of Trouble In Mind give publicity to a pioneer of the theater whose works need a wider audience.

Trouble In Mind will be performed at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater in the Kreeger Theater through October 23, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit