Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts 2011

If The Thespian were a member of the Academy this is how I'd rank the five nominees.

5.  Na Wewe - Belgian - in French, subtitled.    A story set in during the Rwandan massacres.    A white man and his driver are picked up by a van.    Stopped at a checkpoint the Hutu soldiers demand that they separate into Hutus and Tutsis for possible execution.    The white man is ignored.   All of the others try to convince the leader that they are Hutu, of mixed race or foreign born.    A young schoolboy is singled out for interrogation.

There's always at least one with a social commentary theme.   This is it.   While a taut drama, The Thespian felt that it was just a bit too predictable for my tastes..

4.  The Confession - UK - Two boys face their first confession.   One of the boys can't figure out what he's done bad that he can confess.  His troublemaking friend suggests that they steal a scarecrow.  This theft leads to a deeper tragedy.   Ultimately will the boy truthfully confess his role in the ensuing tragic events?

Heavy Catholic symbolism (we get it a scarecrow resembles Christ on the Cross).   The tale was a bit heavy handed for The Thespian's personal taste.

3.  God of Love - USA - the only American entry this year and the only film in black and white.    A comedy involving a nightclub crooner and dart champion and his wish that his prayers would be answered and the drummer in his band would fall in love with him.  He receives a gift of love darts.   What will he learn about love?   

It's a student film from NYU.  The lead actor, writer and director are one and the same.   While The Thespian liked the film, felt it was a bit of a vanity project.

2.  The Crush - Ireland - An 8 year old boy has a crush on his schoolteacher and gives her a toy ring.   After deciding that he will marry her when he's old enough he is crushed to find out she just got engaged to a man that the boy doesn't think deserves her.   What does he do?  Challenges the fiancee to a duel.

This was a clever little film.  A bit of a black comedy, it does make you a bit uneasy during the duel.   But it has a very satisfactory conclusion.

1.  Wish 143 - UK - a terminally ill teenage boy is offered a Wish from the UK version of the Make A Wish Foundation.   However they can't grant him what he really wants - to lose his virginity.    Through a friendship with a sympathetic priest (Downton Abbey's Mr. Carson) - he gets the chance to fulfill his dream.

This could have been maudlin.  Instead its a delightful dramedy with a few unexpected twists to the tale.  It does not turn out the way that you expect.  If The Thespian were a voter this would get my vote.

The Oscar Nominated Animation Shorts 2011

This program always adds a few that just missed being nominated.   The Thespian really felt that one of the two shown should have replaced my ranked number 5 of the nominees.

"Highly Commended" The Cow That Wanted to be a Hamburger - USA - traditional hand-drawn 2D    A calf sees a billboard for Happy Hamburger and desires to become one.   Then he gets his wish and discovers to his horror what his dream really means.   

It's funnier than it sounds.    It was a cute story, but the 2D animation style was very primitive.

"Highly Commended" URS - Germany - computer animation.   A man, URS, desires to take his elderly mother over a perilous mountain range to give her a better life.  

Beautiful animation.   Very stylized characters and the contrast between the golden mountains and the grey/blue impoverished farm is stunning.    Sad story - ending a bit predictable.   Should have been nominated over the number 5.

5.  Let's Pollute - USA - traditional hand-drawn 2D.    In the style of the patriotic campaigns of the 1940's and 1950's this is a satire of man destroying the environment.    

Cute for about 1 minute, shame it lasts 6.

4.  Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage (the travel journal) - France - French with subtitles - a mishmash of styles including hand-drawn, stop motion, computer animation, rotoscoping and some live action.   

It's exactly what the title says - a journey through a man's visit to Madagascar and a focus on his invitation to a funeral ritual and party.   

Great animation showing off great technique.   That's about it.

3.  The Gruffalo - UK - computer animation - was shown on ABC Family during the 25 Days of Christmas this past December.   A squirrel tells her children a cautionary tale of a mouse who tricks three predators into not eating him and then discovers a new problem when the imaginary creature he created in his mind appears.   Based on the book.

A very gentle fable with some well known British voices.    A bit slow in its paces, but a nice film.

2.  The Lost Thing - Australia - computer animation.   A man reflects on the day he found a lost thing and how he helped it find a new home.

A surrealist piece, very Dali in style on the lost things.    Appears to be a commentary on how mankind conforms to a set way of life, missing the hidden beauty in the world.     Liked it a lot...but

1.  Day & Night - USA - hand-drawn and computer animation originally released in 3D.   Disney/Pixar collaboration cleverly using day and night imagery to tell the tale of two rivals, jealous of what the other has and how they become friends.

Disney/Pixar hasn't won this category since For The Birds.   It's a great little film.   Liked it better in 3D, which it is not being shown in with these shorts or on the Toy Story 3 DVD/Blu-Ray.    Just won the Anime award.    Should win.

The Malcontent by John Marston at the American Shakespeare Center


Revenge is a popular topic upon the stage, and it was very popular in Renaissance theater.   Revenge plays fall into two types.   The "bloody" with many deaths, such as Hamlet and Titus Andronicus and the "redemptive" in such plays as The Tempest.    The Malcontent is a rich blend of both.   There is the threat of deaths, deserved and undeserved, yet there is a unexpectedly rewarding ending for the plotters in this tale.

Duke Altofronto (Benjamin Curns) has been overthrown in a plot contrived by Mendoza (John Harrell), a minion of Aurelia (Sarah Fallon).   Pietro Jacomo (Jeremy West) has been appointed Duke of Genoa in Altofronto's place and married Aurelia.   Altofronto's wife, Maria (Miriam Donald) is thrown in prison.  Aurelia is cuckolding Pietro with Mendoza.  Altofronto disguises himself as Malevole, the Malcontent and plots the downfall of them all, but especially Mendoza.    Mendoza, however, is his equal in wit and contrivance and manages to weave a plot in which he gets himself named the heir of Pietro.   There is corruption everywhere throughout Pietro's court and Malevole comments on it to the Duke's face and in deliciously juicy soliloquies to the audience.    Malevole plots against Mendoza.  Mendoza eludes entrapment and manipulates Aurelia and Pietro.   The plot weaves and flows to a grand masque in which all is revealed and those who have wronged Altofronto and Maria are punished.

Benjamin Curns is a forceful Altofronto/Malevole.  Mr. Curns commands the audience's attention and makes us wonder where his revenge will take us next.   He is equally matched by the slithering John Harrell's Mendoza.  As with Mr. Curns, Mr. Harrell's Mendoza is so good at turning the tables that the audience wonders what his outrageous audacity will lead to as well.   Jeremy West balances his Pietro's uneasiness upon the throne and his jealous streak when it comes to his wife.   Sarah Fallon plays a sensuous, oh let's be real here, slut, but revels in Aurelia's insecurities.   As the pandress, Maquerelle, Alison Glenzer is outrageously bold and brassy.   As the ladies of the court she encourages in their infidelities, Miriam Donald is a ditzy confection and Jeremiah Davis is a flirtatious plum. Paul Jannise is a perfect fop as  Bilioso,  as he flits between the courtly factions as they wax and wane in influence.  Tyler Moss, as the plainspoken fool Passarello comments on the court with biting wit.

The version of The Malcontent's script being performed at the Blackfriars contains an Induction.   It is a commentary by and on the leading actors and wonderfully transitions the play from the American Shakespeare Center's traditional curtain speech into the play itself.

This is a deliciously rich script and the actors of the American Shakespeare Center's Actors Renaissance Season have embraced its complexities producing a spellbinding production on the Blackfriars stage.   During the Actors Renaissance Season the productions are rehearsed in a matter of days.   There are no directors or designers and costumes and props are taken from existing stock.    Yet, this is a cohesive marvel.   The costuming looks like it was planned by a designer with most of it a recreation of an late 17th or 18th century court.   (there is one anachronism in Patrick Midgley's costuming for Ferneze - but it works for the character and creates some nice "eye candy" for the ladies in the audience).   Dancing and stage combat appear choreographed with weeks of rehearsal rather than a matter of days. Without a director, the actors have come together with a unity that rivals productions directed by the acclaimed masters of stagecraft today.     The Thespian would put The Malcontent against any million dollar designed production on an classical theater company stage today and it would surpass them in quality.

The Malcontent by John Marston, will be presented as part of the Actors Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia in repertoire with William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Henry VI, Part 3, Look About You, author unknown and Thomas Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One through April 2, 2011.   For tickets and performance information please visit

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Look About You at the American Shakespeare Center

"Don't you worry, never fear.   Robin Hood will soon be here."  - Little John, Rabbit Hood, Warners Bros.

There are many, many interpretations of the folk character, Robin Hood in literature, film and upon the stage.    He has been portrayed as the dashing hero, a sexy man in tights, a world weary crusader and a klutzy duck trying to impress a pig friar. (Robin Hood Daffy).  The American Shakespeare Center has revived a play, author unknown, that was written around 1595, in which the character of Robin Hood is prominently a part of the story.    Yet it is a very different Robin Hood that greets the audience at the Blackfriars Playhouse.    He's handsome, brave and loyal...and looks just lovely in a dress.

Look About You shares a lot of elements with William Shakespeare's history plays.    It is set during the reign of King Henry II (Paul Jannise).   Henry has crowned his eldest son, Henry the Young King (Jeremy West) , as joint ruler of England.   Out of jealousy, Henry II's queen, Elinor of Aquitaine (Allison Glenzer) has ordered Henry II's mistress, the fair Rosamund murdered.   This has been carried out with the blessing of the Young King, by Robin Hood's servant, Skink (John Harrell).   Robin Hood (Patrick Midgley) is good friends with Prince Richard, the future Lionheart (Gregory Jon Phelps).   Prince Richard desires to fight in the Holy Land.   His younger brother, Prince John (Jeremiah Davis) craves titles.    The courtier, Robert, Duke of Gloucester(Benjamin Curns) plainly speaks his mind to the two Kings and for his truthfulness in warning Henry II not to trust his sons is imprisoned as a traitor.    Meanwhile, Skink, who will prove a master of disguise, eludes capture.

That is the extent of the history part of the plot.    In truth, Look About You is a roaringly funny comedy in which almost every character at one point dons a disguise.    Some of the disguises are absurd, yet the talented company at the Blackfriars gamely embraces each one making the impossibility of how anyone could not figure out who the person really is work for a very entertained audience.   The master of this is John Harrell's wily Skink.   If you keep a scorecard, Skink dons no less than eight separate disguises, and Mr. Harrell takes on some mannerism of the actor portraying the character he is pretending to be which adds to his deliciously rich performance.

Benjamin Curns, as the wronged Gloucester carries a strong presence in his more serious role as the punished for being honest courtier.     As Redcap, a stuttering messenger, Chris Johnston plays a very high energy fool and his mastery of the speech impediment is a marvel to behold.  

The romantic subplot involves Prince Richard's attempts to woo and win as his mistress, Lady Marian (Miriam Donald), the sister of Gloucester and the wife of the elderly Sir Richard Fauconbridge(Tyler Moss).   Mr. Moss is physically very flexible and he creates a comedic gem in his rubbery yet enthusiastic Fauconbridge.    Prince Richard sends his faithful Robin Hood, here the noble Earl of Huntingdon, to prepare Lady Marian for his suit of love.   Lady Marian turns the tables, by having Robin impersonate her as she dons a disguise in the hopes of winning her brother's freedom.  

Of the wooing of Robin as Marian by Prince Richard, the less revealed.   It is simply hilarious.   And Mr. Midgley is absolutely adorable.

Being a comedy, every thing ends happily.    And so to, will your visit to the Blackfriars Playhouse after two hours of merry mirth upon the stage.    This is a rare opportunity to see a play that has not been revived in 400 years.   Please don't miss it.

Look About You, author unknown, will be presented as part of the Actors Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia in repertoire with William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Henry VI, Part 3, John Marston's The Malcontent and Thomas Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One through April 3, 2011.   For tickets and performance information please visit

The Thespian's Extra Note: During the winter Actors Renaissance Season, there are no directors or designers.   The American Shakespeare Center recreates what extensive research believes were the conditions that Shakespeare's acting company would have used to stage a play.The actors receive only cue scripts containing their lines and a short "cue", the last few words of the preceding actor's line.   They are responsible for acquiring their own costumes and props from the stock available at the theater.   There is a prompter on the side of the stage in case someone forgets a line.  The rehearsal period is a matter of days.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

An Actor in Search of a Character: Jane Parker, Viscountess Rochford

One of the more fascinating aspects of performing as part of the cast of a Renaissance festival, particularly one in which royal court story lines get performed on a regular basis, such as at my home festival, the Maryland Renaissance Festival, is the challenge to develop information when portraying an actual historical person. Actors who do historical interpretation at such venues as Colonial Williamsburg and Mount Vernon are equally aware of this challenge.  It is easier to find information if you portraying a prominent person, such as King Henry VIII or his wives. However, if you are given the role of a courtier or a courtier's wife it is much more difficult to find contemporary information.    Birth dates are largely unknown in the first half of the sixteenth century. Unless you are of royal birth your early life and rudimentary education will not be recorded.   There may be brief glimpses of you in the historical record, but for women of the sixteenth century, unless you came to prominence on your own accord, there is little to go on for an actor to develop insight into the personality of the historical figure.  

I have had has had the priveledge of portraying three historical women from the court of King Henry VIII,  Jane Guildford, the wife of John Dudley, Gertrude Blount, the Marchioness of Exeter, and Jane Parker, known to history as the infamous Lady Rochford.  Today, being February 13th, is the anniversary of the executions for treason of Queen Katherine Howard and Jane Parker Boleyn, Viscountess Rochford.  So, today, I honor this vilified woman with sharing what I have researched into her life.

Lady Rochford is forever entwined with the deaths of two queens,  her sister-in-law, Anne Boleyn, and Katherine Howard. She has gone down in history as "that bawd, Lady Rochford" who accused her husband of incest with his sister and with having procured for and encouraged the teenaged Katherine in her adulterous behavior.  First, when playing a woman with that reputation you must be prepared for  a lot of "you're gonna lose your head" and "you're a bad person" type comments from the patrons of the festival.  I have my own viewpoint on Jane Parker Boleyn's guilt in these matters, but as an actor you have to investigate the person's entire life, find her motivation as you will, to figure out how the person became the woman on that scaffold on a cold February in 1542.

No one knows when Jane Parker was born. It is speculated that it was probably around 1505.   Victorians who dug up the altar space in the Chapel of St. Peter-ad-Vincula in 1877 believed her to be around 40 years old. She was the daughter of a Baron. Henry Parker, Lord Morley was a member of the household of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII and acted as her cupbearer at the coronation feast of King Henry VIII.  He was educated at Oxford and was known for his intellectual abilities being used as a literary translator in Henry VIII's reign. He also served as an ambassador being one of a party who delivered the Order of the Garter to the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. Jane's mother, Alice St. John was the daughter of Sir John St. John a prosperous landowner in Bedfordshire.  Jane had at least four siblings, Henry, Francis, Margaret and Elizabeth. She probably grew up mostly in Great Hallingbury, located in Essex, although there were other manors in the family estate.  The Morley family was buried in the local church, but their gravestones were removed in the 1870's during a renovation.

Jane Parker first appears in the court records as Mistress Parker in attendance upon Queen Katherine of Aragon at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Next she appeared as one of the eight ladies in the famous Chateau Vert Masque on March 4, 1522. Playing the courtly virtues the ladies were a who's who of some of the prominent women of King Henry VIII's reign.  Mary Tudor Brandon, Dowager Queen of France and King Henry VIII's younger sister played Beauty.  Gertrude Blount Courtenay, then Countess of Devonshire played Honor.  Mistress Browne was Bounty, Mistress Dannet was Mercy and we do not know who played Pity. The final trio were Mary Boleyn Carey as Kindness, Anne Boleyn as Perseverance and Jane Parker as Constancy.

In 1524 marriage negotiations began for Jane Parker to wed George Boleyn, the only son and heir of Sir Thomas Boleyn. The Parkers and Boleyns knew each other well. The legal contract was drawn up on October 4, 1524 which settled a widow's jointure on Jane of 100 marks (about 66 pounds) a year in the case that George died before her. Jane brought a marriage jointure of 2000 marks (1300 pounds).    King Henry VIII doubled Jane's widow's jointure, possibly as a wedding gift, to 200 marks. George and Jane were given the manors of Aylesbury, Bierton and West Laxham.

Jane's fortunes at court rose with her sister-in-law Anne's rise in King Henry VIII's favor. Her husband became a privy councilor and an Ambassador. George and Jane did not have any children and there is nothing in the record of any births or miscarriages.  There was a George Boleyn who became Dean of Lichfield in the reign of Elizabeth I. A few posit that he was George and Jane's son or that he was the illegitimate son of George, but there is no evidence of either assertion.

We don't know what George and Jane's marriage was like. George inherited his father's title of Viscount Rochford in 1529, when Thomas Boleyn was raised to Earl of Wiltshire.  Unlike how he was portrayed in the recent television series The Tudors, there is no evidence that George Boleyn was homosexual.  However there is contemporary evidence that he was a womanizer. Jane became a lady-in-waiting to her sister-in-law Anne Boleyn and participated in Anne's coronation and banquet and was probably in attendance at Princess Elizabeth's birth. She also was the patroness of a scholar, William Foster.

In 1534, King Henry VIII banished Jane from court. Why? According to Ambassadors' reports, Henry showed interest in an unknown lady at court.  Anne Boleyn used Jane to get rid of her, so Henry had Jane dismissed in the fall of 1534. We don't know how long she was kept from court, but it was probably only a few months.   In 1535 there was a demonstration by a large group of women in favor of the Princess Mary at Greenwich Palace in which Jane was listed as one of the participants in a marginal note of the contemporary account of the demonstration.   Her biographer, Julia Fox, does not believe that Jane took part, but it is original source material.

When Anne Boleyn was arrested, one of the five men who would be condemned to death on her behalf was George Boleyn.   The interviews and interrogations do not survive, yet history has assumed that the incest charge between Anne and George Boleyn came from Jane. It is also very possible that the accusation that George claimed that Henry VIII suffered from impotency and which he boldly read out in court came from Jane.  Adding to the puzzle of Lady Rochford is that her husband, during his confinement in the Tower of London thanked Jane for her promises to plead on his behalf.  This information comes from a report by William Kingston, Lieutenant of the Tower in one of his many reports of the time period.  Unfortunately, it was part of the Cotton Manuscripts that were badly damaged in a fire, but the few lines are clear.

"After your departing yesterday, Greneway gentleman usher came to me and ........M. Caro and Master Bryan commanded him in the King's name to my .........Ratchfort from my lady his wife, and the message was now more how he did, and also she would humbly suit unto the King's Hy........for her husband; and so he gave thanks,"  

From the missing parts it can be conjecture that the blank before Ratchfort (Rochford) is my Lord or my Lord of and that the Hy is short for highness.

There is little known about Jane's life in between the execution of her husband and her end as Katherine Howard's panderer.   For that we should be grateful to Jane's biographer, Julia Fox, as she uncovered the story of what happens to the wife after the husband is executed.

Jane lost everything. As the wife of a convicted traitor her goods down to her silk stockings were inventoried and forfeited to the crown. She was still entitled to her widow's jointure and she had to legally fight her father-in-law Thomas Boleyn to receive its entirety. For that she turned to Thomas Cromwell for help and wrote him at least one letter.

"Master Secretary,

as a poor desolate widow without comfort, as to my special trust under God and my Prince, I have me most humbly recommended unto you; praying you, after your accustomed gentle manner to all them that be in such lamentable case as I am in, to be mean to the King's gracious Highness for me for such poor stuff and plate as my husband had, whom God pardon; that of his gracious and mere liberality I may have it to help my poor living, which to his Highness is nothing to be regarded, and to me should be a most high help and succor.  And further more, where that the King's Highness and my Lord my father paid great sums of money for my Jointure to the Earl of Wiltshire to the sum of two thousand marks, and I not assured of no more during the said Earl's natural life than one hundred marks; which is very hard for me to shift the world with all.  That you will so specially tender me in this behalf as to inform the King's highness of these promises, whereby I may the more tenderly be regarded of his gracious person, your World in this shall be to me a sure help: and God shall be to you therefore a sure reward, which doth promise good to them that doth help poor forsaken Widows.  And both my prayer and service shall help to this during my natural life, as most bounden so to do, God my witness; whoever more preserve you.

Jane Rocheford"

She did receive her income eventually yet was involved in legal disputes with her father-in-law over property until his death in 1539

Jane becomes an interesting figure as the only wife of a convicted traitor to be received back at court in the lifetime of Henry VIII. The Marchioness of Exeter also returned to court, but not until the reign of Queen Mary I.  Lady Rochford served Queen Jane Seymour receiving a New Year's gift from the queen in 1537.  Along with her father and brother she participated in Queen Jane's funeral.  And she was appointed one of the ladies of the bedchamber for Queen Anna of Cleves, giving testimony of Anna's alleged naivety in the matters of sex and signing the annulment papers as one of the witnesses.

Why did Jane return to court?  She could have settled into the country and lived very comfortably on her widow's income. I liken it to how a celebrity past their prime tries to stay in the public eye by doing humiliating reality programs. The court was the Hollywood of its day. Who wouldn't want to be at the center of the cultural and political universe?

From here we get to her familiar role, that of bawd to Queen Katherine Howard. According to Jane's testimony she assisted Katherine in her assignations with Thomas Culpepper on the northern progress of 1541. Once the arrests happened no one in that situation behaved well.  Francis Dereham, guilty of being the Queen's lover before her marriage to King Henry VIII accused Culpepper of taking his place after the marriage. Thomas Culpepper stupidly kept a letter from the Queen, the only letter that exists in Katherine Howard's handwriting. That letter was how Lady Rochford was implicated. And they all blamed each other for the affair.

"Master Culpeper,

I heartily recommend me unto you, praying you to send me word how that you do.  It was showed me that you was sick, the which thing troubled me very much till such time that I hear from you praying you to send me word how that you do, for I never longed so much for thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now.  The which doth comfortly me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart to die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company.  It my trust is always in you that you will be as you have promised me, and in that hope I trust upon still, praying you that you will come when my Lady  Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment, thanking you for that you have promised me to be so good unto that poor fellow my man which is one of the griefs that I do feel to depart from him for then I do know no one that I dare trust to send to you, and therefore I pray you take him to be with you that I may sometime hear from you one thing.  I pray you to give me a horse for my man for I had much ado to get one and therefore I pray send one by him and in so doing I am as I said afore, and thus I take my leave of you, trusting to see you shortly again and I would you was with me now that you might see what pain I take in writing to you.

Yours as long as live endures,  Katheryn

One thing I had forgotten and that is to instruct my man to tarry here with me still for he says whatsomever you bid him he will do it."

We don't know why Jane helped Katherine Howard. It could have been as simple as obeying her Queen or pitying a young girl married to a man at least 30 years her senior who was unhealthy. But, Lady Rochford lost her protector when Thomas Cromwell was executed in 1540. No one would save her. And then she lost her mind.

Jane was taken to the Tower of London in late November 1541.  Three days later she "went mad," probably a mental collapse. What is interesting is that she was removed from the Tower to the care of Sir John Russell and his wife, Anne. The King provided his own physicians to cure her of her affliction. Katherine and Jane were condemned using an Act of Attainder passed in early February 1542 and signed with Henry VIII's dry stamp. Jane was returned to the Tower on February 9. Otwell Johnson, who provides the only eyewitness account of the executions states that she died well. There is no record of either her or Katherine's scaffold speeches. It is a myth that she confessed to falsely accusing Anne and George.

John Fox in a 1570's edition of his Acts and Monuments added a marginal note about Jane, the French Ambassador in 1542 referred to her as that bawd, Lady Rochford. Most fictional portrayals are unsympathetic. Yet, on this day, the anniversary of her execution upon Tower Green (not where the memorial is located),  I am reminded of a woman who served five queens of England, who participated in the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Chateau Vert, Anne Boleyn's coronation and Jane Seymour's funeral.  A woman who fought for her widow's rights, and did her part loyally when asked to get a King out of a marriage he hated to Anna of Cleves. She is a complex woman with a lot of faults and was a fascinating character to portray at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.

The following is list of some of the material that I used to research Jane Parker Boleyn, the Viscountess Rochford.

Burke's Peerage
The Rutland Papers
Letters of the Queens of England 1100-1547 edited by Anne Crawford
Original Letters Illustrative of English History; volume II edited by Henry Ellis
Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox
The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser
The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric W. Ives
Lady Margaret Beaufort, Mother of the Tudor Dynasty by Elizabeth Norton
A Tudor Tragedy by Lacey Baldwin Smith
Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey
The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir
The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Comedy of Errors at The Folger Theatre

A tale of mistaken identity, rife with opportunity for broad comedy and slapstick, William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors is a delightfully silly two hours traffic upon the stage.  The popular director Aaron Posner brings his talents to this early work of Shakespeare and for the most part it is a fun evening of theater.

This is the tale of  two sets of brothers separated as children by a shipwreck and when one set arrives in the other sets' town allows much hilarity to ensue over very silly circumstances.  The Thespian is pleased to say that the actual Shakespeare upon the Folger Theatre's stage is quite an entertaining evening of merriment.

Not so much the "framing" device chosen to set the stage.   When you arrive at the Folger you are greeted in the lobby by a card announcing the Worcestershire Mask and Wig Society's commemorative tour of the USA celebrating their 250th anniversary with a production of The Comedy of Errors.   The head of the company introduces himself, gives a bit of background on the company and introduces their noble patron who is part of the company.   Then we are forced to sit through a ten minute video on the WMWS, its history, and the relationships between the various company members.    It was fun in the beginning, but The Thespian thought that the film was tedious and was watching it wondering when we were going to get to the Shakespeare.

Now, it is true that the audience was laughing at the pre-show, and for The Thespian if the film were cut, she wouldn't have had a problem with the concept.   But, to be honest, none of it was needed.   The play itself completely stands on its own.    Once the play begins there is no attempt to make the twins look alike in height or weight and there is extensive use of masks for the male characters.   Personally, The Thespian thought the use of masks was brilliant.   You got the essence of the characters without having to notice the glaring "hey, he doesn't look like the other one's twin."    The Thespian wonders why the masks were not extended to the female characters as well.   The production works fine without them, but it might have added another interesting dimension to their performances.

The scenic design by Tony Cisek is quite clever involving a series of doors, an excellent device for the mania that ensues.   A nice touch is providing doors in front of the permanent pillars which allows for some very funny moments.  Kate Turner-Walker has created a mishmash of costume pieces that provide an easy way to tell the status of each of the characters.

All of the cast perform their roles well.   Outstanding performances are given by Darius Pierce, Dromio of Ephesus and Nathan Keepers, Dromio of Syracuse.   Both are capable and physical performers.   Mr. Keepers in particular does a marvelous job describing his encounter with a spherical kitchen maid, which in The Thespian's opinion is one of the funniest speeches Shakespeare ever wrote.   The four ladies, Catherine Flye as the Abbess, Suzanne O'Donnell, the shrewish Adriana, Erin Weaver, Luciana and Rachel Zampelli as a completely ditz Courtesan are equal matches to the men upon the stage.  Bruce Nelson does well with the lesser seen Antipholus of Ephesus, but occasionally swallows his consonants.    Darragh Kennan as Antipholus of Syracuse navigates well his character's bafflement and delight in his screwball day.

All in all it is a wonderful evening of theater.    Do enjoy.   The Comedy of Errors will be performed at the Folger Theatre through March 6, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

Mariinsky Ballet Giselle at The Kennedy Center

Giselle is a well known story ballet having first been performed in 1841.   Why it remains popular to this day has a lot to do with the poignant tragic story and the stunningly beautiful dancing in the famous white second act.    While The Thespian has seen many productions of Giselle, from the traditional to the Creole version performed by the late, lamented Dance Theatre of Harlem, The Thespian can truly say that upon Tuesday last, she saw the definitive performance of the title role.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Giselle, it is a tale of Count Albrecht, engaged to a Princess who decides to dally a while in a local village.   He falls in love with Giselle, a young peasant girl who happens to have a potentially fatal heart condition and is warned by her mother not to dance or over excite herself. Convinced he is going to marry her she joyfully ignores the warnings of her jilted suitor, Hans, who does not believe Albrecht is who he claims to be.   The Princess arrives with a hunting party and Giselle charms her with her dancing.   Hans discovers Albrecht's sword and cape and calls back the hunting party.  When Giselle learns the truth she goes mad and dies of a broken heart.    Both young men visit Giselle's grave by moonlight and encounter the Willis, the spirits of young women who died on the eve of their wedding.   Their Queen, Myrtha initiates Giselle into their group.   The Willis force Hans to dance to his death and they throw his body in the nearby lake.   Catching Albrecht he is condemned to the same fate.   Giselle pleads with Myrtha having forgiven the man she loves, but mercy is refused.   Giselle dances with Albrecht giving him the strength to last until dawn when the Willis spell is broken.   As they vanish, Albrecht collapses in gratitude on Giselle's grave.

The dancing of the Mariinsky Ballet is simply amongst the world's best.   The Corps de Ballet, particular the unison work of the Willis is beyond compare.  Maria Shirinkina and Alexey Timofeyev were charming in the Peasant Pas de Deux.  Yuri Smekalov danced a bitter and passionate Hans.  Ekaterina Kondaurova's height added a level of pure majesty to her Myrtha and she danced the role in complete command of the stage.  Andrian Fadeyev was almost overshadowed in Act One, yet grew in his leaps of desperation as he struggled to survive in Act Two.

The most astonishing performance of the evening was given by the great Diana Vishneva as Giselle.   No one can embody a role so completely as Vishneva.   Here was a Giselle who wore her emotions so openly and displayed a complete physical vulnerability.   Many Giselles show very little why we should be afraid that she will drop dead upon the stage, but Vishneva made it very clear that every movement was a struggle for this very ill girl.   Her mad scene was riveting.   There was not a sound in the Opera House as Vishneva became unhinged, replayed her love for Albrecht, tried to kill herself with his sword and then simply collapsed as her weak heart gave out under the stress.   In Act Two Vishneva was ethereal, at first as cool and detached as the rest of the Willis, but then permitting a remembrance of human love to break through and allow Giselle to save Albrecht's life.   It was Vishneva who embodied the strength in Giselle and Albrecht's dancing in Act Two.   Fadeyev ably danced Albrecht's exhaustion and waning hold on life, allowing Vishneva to support him through his ordeal.    A masterful performance.

The Mariinsky Ballet will perform Giselle at The Kennedy Center Opera House through February 13, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

The Top Ten Jerks (characters) in Classical Ballet

The Thespian's next review will be of Giselle.    Count Albrecht is one of the least likeable leading men in the classical ballet repertoire.    So, The Thespian got thinking, who are the top ten complete jerks in the classical ballet canon?    The following list is completely biased and it was difficult to narrow it down to only ten.  (Okay 10.5)

10.   Franz in Copellia.   Here is a happily engaged young man, who jilts his fiancee, Swanhilde for a mechanical doll.    Yep, he's so stupid he can't tell that his infatuation isn't real.   Being a comic ballet, Swanhilde disguises herself as the doll and teaches her love a lesson.

9.  Fritz in The Nutcracker.   The ultimate bratty little brother.   During the Christmas Eve party he is always getting into trouble leading his cohorts in battles against the girls.   He breaks his sister, Clara/Marie's Christmas present from her Godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer out of jealousy.   Thankfully, said Godfather is usually portrayed as having magic powers and not only does he fix the doll, but it leads to the dream that he's Clara's dreamboat Prince in disguise.

8.  Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.   He's the same idiot from Shakespeare.   Doesn't think before he acts and let's see how many people does he get killed?  In the ballet it's four, Mercutio, Tybalt, Juliet and himself.  (the ballet omits him killing Paris in the tomb scene most of the time).

7.  James in La Sylphide.   The Scottish lad falls in love with a Sylph on his wedding day.  This leads to broken hearts and two deaths.   Lesson here: never fall in love with a supernatural being, it always leads to tragedy.

6.  Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake.   So, he can't tell the difference between the woman he swore eternal love to the day before and her doppelganger.   You'd think he would have gone up to her at the ball and said "Princess Odette, so nice of you to make it."   Instead of, "well she's been introduced at the ball as Odile, but she looks so much like Odette it must be her."   Never swear eternal love to anyone when death is on the line.   Death usually wins.

5.  Hilarion/Hans in Giselle.  Pity poor Hilarion.  Happy peasant boy in love with a happy peasant girl with a heart condition.   Then the girl mets the mysterious new guy and jilts you.  So, what do you do? You expose your rival as the playboy Count that he is and tell it to her in front of the whole village, knowing she has a heart condition.  Of course, she's going to die.   Then, you have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when you decide to visit her grave in the middle of the night and you get danced to death by the Willis.   Never go visiting a graveyard at night.   Classic horror movie mistake.

4.  Von Rothbart in Swan Lake.   Evil magician has a thing for capturing young girls and turning them into swans.   Then you set up that must declare eternal love thing to break your curse.   This leads to a lot of death, including, in most versions, your own as when they thwart you by committing suicide it breaks the spell on the other girls and they gang up and kill you, because they are really pissed about spending their best years living a half life as swans.    Why not raise chickens it's more profitable?

3.  Count Albrecht in Giselle.   Hey, you are engaged to the beautiful Princess Bathilda so what are you going to do now?   Go sow your wild oats in a village by getting a peasant girl with a heart condition to fall head over heels in love with you.  Oh, and did we mention that she has a heart condition?   Naturally the whole court is going to go hunting in the neighborhood.   Did you really think that was going to end well?   You, I understand visiting Giselle's grave in the middle of the night.   The villagers would have probably burned you at the stake in the daylight.   But, do you deserve Giselle's help in dancing until dawn to save your life from the Willis?   In a word, no.

2.  Gamzatti in La Bayadere.   Yep, my top two are women.   Gamzatti is engaged to the warrior Solor who is having a bit on the side with the temple dancer, Nikiya.    You are going to get the guy, why let your jealousy get in the way of your own triumph?    How brilliant of you to plant a poisonous snake in a bouquet of flowers and kill your rival at your own engagement party.    Yeah, he's really going to learn to love you know.   No wonder in most versions of the ballet the whole temple comes crashing down on you and kills you and Solor both.  

1. 5.  Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty.    So, the Lord Chamberlain forgot to send you an invitation to the Princess' christening.   Have you exactly made nice in the kingdom for the past several years?  No?   So don't get all huffy and curse the innocent baby to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die.  And hanging around the thorn covered castle for 100 years waiting to kill Prince Desire probably doesn't do you much good in keeping up your magic muscles.    No wonder he kills you which is the fate you really deserve as opposed to in the original production where the Lilac Fairy redeems you and lets you rejoin the Fairy Kingdom.

1.  Old Madge in La Sylphide.    Why do you want a woodland Sylph to die?   You really seem to exist to make everybody miserable.   Let's see,  you push James' fiancee to see he's pining for someone else and encourage her to marry his best friend.   Then you get together with your coven and make a magic scarf that kills Sylphs and convince the heartsick James to use it to catch the Sylph.   Sylph dies, James dies and you get to triumph at the end of the ballet.    What's your motivation beyond "I'm evil incarnate?"    You win the dubious honor of the number one jerk in classical ballet.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

South Pacific National Tour at the Kennedy Center

The following theatrical review is for an event which occurred in December 2010.    The Thespian apologizes for the delay.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pulitzer Prize winning musical, South Pacific, returned to Broadway in its first official revival in 2008, winning 7 Tony awards including Best Musical Revival, Musical Director and Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Paolo Szot as Emile de Becque.    It is wonderful that the Lincoln Center staging was preserved on film for the Great Performances series on PBS and was broadcast live just prior to the closing of the show and that most of the original cast was able to have their performances recorded for posterity  (Glee's Matthew Morrison, who originated Lt. Cable was unable to return).  

The wonderfully staged production by director Bartlett Sher is now on tour.   If South Pacific comes near you, please go see it.    As one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's best works this production has relevance in the 21st century for its frank discussion of prejudice and the reality of the necessary hastiness of wartime romance.    Who would have thought that in 1949 a musical would dare to risk making the heroine unlikeable in her rejection of the man she loves because of his interracial relationship?  And, that the leading man, a French refugee with a shady past, would be unrepentant of that relationship and his mixed race children?  Or that it would so openly depict the not so pleasant reality of an island woman who while appearing to be the caricature comic relief is actually a single mother willing to essentially prostitute her teenage daughter in the hopes that said daughter can gain an American husband and thus a better life.     The Thespian just described the essence of the relationships of the two romantic couples in South Pacific.    It is the deep themes in the wartime islands on the edge of combat in World War II that make South Pacific such a compelling evening of theatre.

Mr. Sher stages South Pacific in ways that show what wartime life is like for the nurses, seabees, planters and natives on this small island.   The seabees are both white and black, but in their production numbers the colors do not "mix" reflecting the fact that the armed forces were segregated.   Segregation also exists between the nurses, who are officers, and the enlisted seabees, leading to the poignancy of the entrepreneurial Luther Billis and his unrequited crush on our heroine, Nellie Forbush.    Then there is the hidden temptations of the island natives.   Whilst the Navy personnel have encounters with the course Bloody Mary, who sells souvenir grass skirts and shrunken heads to make ends meet, the nearby island of Bali Hai is off limits to all, but officers on leave.   Bali Hai, a metaphor for dreams and desire, is also the refuge for the planters wives and daughters and the younger native women, such as Bloody Mary's daughter, Liat, protecting them from undesirable encounters with the less lucrative enlisted men.

There is also a delight in recognizing that when the nurses and sailors perform it should be an unpolished amateur night with a lot of heart.    The Thanksgiving Follies are not the Rockettes and they do not dance as if it is a professionally choreographed production, but rather like nurses and sailors who only rehearse in the fleeting moments between work shifts.

Enough metaphors, what's the actual production like?   In a word, outstanding.    South Pacific began the recent welcome trend of using the original orchestrations in revivals.   On Broadway it was a 30 piece orchestra, on tour at the Kennedy Center it was 26.    To begin with, simply close your eyes and absorb the wonderful, lush sounds of every instrument from violin to trombone to harp.    And then prepare to have the actors match those sounds vocally.   David Pittsinger, who appeared in the Lincoln Center production, is a marvelous opera singer who enchants the audience as much as he does Nellie Forbush.   And his unrepentant embrace of Emile de Becque's colorful life and past makes for a compelling character.    Carmen Cusack matches him vocally, although the evening The Thespian was in attendance it took her a song or two to warm up her voice.    Ms. Cusack captures her enthusiasm, naivety, and impulsiveness.    Nellie is a woman who agrees to marry a man after only dating him for two weeks and then is shocked when she realizes that in being so impulsive she really doesn't know the man she wants to marry.    Ms Cusack also carries off the horror that Nellie feels when she meets Emile's children and can't get past the fact that their mother was "colored."   Yet it is to the credit of the writers' and Ms. Cusack's performance her transformation to acceptance while facing the loss of Emile and seeing the loss of Lt. Cable and it's impact on the girl he loves that leads to an emotional happy ending for Nellie and Emile.

Anderson Davis plays Lt. Joe Cable with the cockiness of the Marine flyboy.   Yet, he is just a vulnerable young man who desperately needs the comfort and love of the island girl, Liat.   Seeing him breakdown when he admits how much he needs respite from the war is heartbreaking.   His rendition of the love song "Younger Than Springtime" is gorgeous, but it is the biting racial anthem, "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught"that fleshes the performance into to more than doomed second leading man.

Sumie Maeda is beautiful as Liat and will break your heart as hers is repeated broken during the story.  Jodi Kimura as Bloody Mary navigates the contradictions of her character.    She is at once, the comic relief for the seabees, playing the role of naive, brash saleswoman out for a quick buck.   But at her heart she is a desperate mother wanting to better the life of her daughter.    The decision to stage the controversial song,  "Happy Talk", backstage at The Thanksgiving Follies is brilliant.   It is a seduction to the malaria-stricken Lt. Cable, to get him to agree to marry Liat.    Some recent productions have cut "Happy Talk", believing it to be a simplistic song demeaning to the island natives in its choppy English.    But, here it works as a catalyst between the dream of living simply on Bali Hai and the cold reality that Lt. Cable is about to embark on a very dangerous mission, one that may end not only his dreams with Liat, but his own life.

TImothy Gulan is terrific as the always looking for an opportunity Luther Billis.   John Bolger is commanding yet sympathetic as Capt. Brackett.    The rest of the ensemble from child to adult is top notch.    The set design by Michael Yeargan uses a raked stage to great effect.   The beach scenes showing an actual plane and a crane for unloading from ships really shows what the circumstances for the Navy personnel must have been like.   Lattice work helps create the hillside estate of Emile and the hidden treasures of Bali Hai.   And a very helpful full scale map of the South Pacific islands for the intelligence scenes provides an visual insight into just what the U.S. Navy was facing in tracking the Japanese fleet in the decades before satellite technology.

South Pacific was performed at The Kennedy Center's Opera House from December 14, 2010 - January 16, 2011.   It is currently on tour.    For dates, performance venues and ticket information please visit

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Let Me Down Easy at Arena Stage

Anna Devere Smith is a gifted performer.   She has an uncanny ability to mold herself into the characters she presents in her investigative one-woman pieces.    Ms. Smith has examined through hundreds of interviews contemporary American topics shaping many of her experiences into acclaimed theatrical events, such as On the Road: A Search for American Character, Twilight: Los Angeles and Fires in the Mirror.

In her latest piece, Let Me Down Easy,she allegedly is examining the state of health care in America.   I say allegedly for while the monologues she presents are for the most part very compelling individually, there appears to be a lack of focus to the evening as a whole.    Is Ms. Smith examining the health care crisis as the program notes suggest?   Not really.   Let Me Down Easy appears to ramble from a discussion of terminal illness, to the acceptance of death, to the inequities in the treatment of ill patients based on whether or not they have the ability to pay.   It is a journey that does not easily travel from point A to point B.

Chameleon-like, Ms. Smith morphs herself into her subjects with the addition of an article of clothing, a prop, the change in the way she holds her body, a dialect or inflection in her voice.   Presenting the viewpoints of twenty individuals, she transfixes the audience over the slightly more than an hour and a half running time.    On a simple set of a couch, coffee table, dining table set and vast mirrors unobtrusively designed by Riccardo Hernadez, Ms. Smith leaves mementoes of each person as she travels through the piece.

Individually most of the monologues are compelling.   However, without a clear thematic focus it is difficult for the audience to see what goal the audience is supposed to leave the theatre thinking about the most.    The subjects of the piece range from doctors to theologians to patients to celebrities.  Many of the pieces are about the humanity of treating the seriously and, more often than not, terminally ill.   "A Sheet Around My Daughter," describing the indignity suffered by a dialysis patient when her treatment leaks and the patient is sent home with blood on her clothes and in her hair is a devastating portrayal of insensitivity.   "Heavy Sense of Resignation" about the indigent patients left unrescued for days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina whilst the richer patients in the private hospitals were evacuated shows the inequity suffered by the poor in this country.    It is stories such as this that should drive the evening.     Instead, they are interrupted by the unnecessary inclusion of most of the celebrities.   The evening would be better without the contributions of Lance Armstrong, Eve Ensler, Lauren Hutton and Ann Richards.   The only celebrity that seems to "fit" the evening is Joel Siegal shown during his dying moments in the compelling "3,000 Years of Being Kicked Around Europe."

Anna Devere Smith is worth seeing upon the stage for attempting to bring focus to health care, death and dying.   However,  Let Me Down Easy still needs tweaking.   A decision on just what the evening is supposed to be about and focusing the monologues on that goal would take this worthy start into a startlingly compelling evening of theatre.

Second Stage Theatre's production of Let Me Down Easy will be performed in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage through February 13, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Blvd. at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA

Eric Schaeffer, the Artistic Director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia has been in the forefront of taking the giant spectacle musicals of the late 1970's through the 1990's and stripping them down to their basic dramatic potential using the larger of the two versatile spaces, the Max at the Signature Theatre complex.    Previous seasons have seen productions of Sweeney Todd (although Mr. Schaeffer did a small Sweeney at the Gunston Center for the Arts years ago), Les Miserables and Showboat repurposed mostly to great success. Now he turns his sight on another show in which the elaborate set design in the original West End and Broadway productions was just as much a part of the show as the script, music and the actors.    

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Blvd is based on the noir film of 1950.   This tale of a cynical, washed up screenwriter and his deadly encounter with a delusional silent screen legend was a very powerful film starring William Holden, Erich von Stroheim and the amazing Gloria Swanson.     It very famously opened with the corpse of the star of the film floating in a swimming pool, narrating the story from the grave.   Challenges involved in staging Sunset Blvd., include car chases, a 1920's luxury automobile arriving at the gates of Paramount Studios and one of the most amazing stage effects The Thespian has ever witnessed on stage.   In the original production, which The Thespian saw on the West End in 1994, Norma Desmond's elaborate house set rose up to permit a second scene, a rousing 1950's New Year's Eve party to be played simultaneously underneath it.   During this sequence, the climatic moments of act one, the dialogue takes place at the New Year's Eve party, while Norma, under the watchful eyes of her manservant, Max, gets drunk, ascending and descending her famous staircase and finally attempting suicide.    The Thespian's reaction to this spectacle was to desire to watch the show again, from a perch backstage to be able to watch the mechanics of this marvelous set.   How on earth would Mr. Schaeffer stage these scenes in the boxy Max space?  Very well indeed.

Sunset Blvd is the story of Joe Gillis, a Hollywood screenwriter who has been around the block long enough to have a small amount of success.   However, he is experiencing a creative and financial stall.    He can't sell his latest screenplay and he is deeply in debt.    During a meeting at Paramount Pictures he meets Betty Schaefer, a young script reader with ambitions of her own.   Miss Schaefer tells Joe exactly what's wrong with his script and offers to help him rewrite it.    Before he can take her up on this he ends up having to leave the studio when two thugs arrive to repossess his car.     A chase ensues, after a blown tire, Joe ends up stashing his car in the garage of an estate on Sunset Blvd.    There he is bizarrely welcomed as if he was expected to arrive.    It turns out that he is mistaken for an undertaker, by the servant Max and the mistress of the mansion, screen legend Norma Desmond.   Joe becomes witness to the funeral of a beloved pet.   When Norma discovers that Joe is a screenwriter she eagerly latches on to him to help her shape her own script, her hoped for comeback film, an adaptation of the biblical tale of Salome, with herself as the teenaged lead.     Joe agrees lured by the prospect of money to pay his debts and the generosity of Miss Desmond who as the relationship develops heaps lavish gifts on Joe.     It is a tale of moral corruption and enabling disillusionment that will lead to the tragedy shown in the opening moments of the musical.

While the score is not one of Lord Lloyd Webber's best, it has some very gorgeous thematic movements and songs.    The best known pieces are Norma's opening number With One Look and the title tune.    As with most of his later scores, there is an inordinate amount of repetition of musical themes.  However, it does lessen over the course of the evening.    

Overall, Mr. Schaffer's direction is outstanding.    He manages to effectively stage the emotional beats of the four main characters.   Daniel Conway's scenic design is quite clever and effective.   We enter the theater to what appears to be a warehouse-like soundstage, yet as the evening progresses it transforms itself into Norma's elaborate mansion, complete with the famous staircase or the set of Cecil B. DeMille's latest extravaganza.  Those difficult moments of staging are eased by the use of film projection.   The only difficulty is the staging of the dual New Year's Eve scenes.  They do take place simultaneously as they did in the original production.   However, if you are seated house right, downstage left you will have difficulty seeing Norma and Max's scenes which are staged upstage and are blocked from view for those seats.  Kathleen Geldard has created simply stunning costumes, particularly her designs for Norma.   The fabric choices are brilliant and move with a depth of sumptuous luxury without overwhelming the actress they clothe.   Jon Kalbfleisch has assembled a talented 20-piece orchestra that shows off the lushness of the score and inspires grand vocals from the cast.

Susan Derry is a spunky Betty Schaefer.   As the least fleshed out of the four main characters, she manages to create a complete personality in her scenes and rises dramatically when her character is confronted with the horror of the double life of the man she has allowed herself to fall in love with.

Ed Dixon is a powerful presence as Max Von Mayerling, faithful to a fault in protecting his Madame.  He sings a emotional The Greatest Star of All captivating the audience with his love of Norma.

Unfortunately D.B. Bonds appears miscast as Joe Gillis.    During most of the performance he seems passive, just a handsome leading man instead of the weary man Hollywood has kicked around who is willing to exploit Norma's dependence on him for his own personal gain.   Only during two scenes the biting title tune and the confrontational What's Going On Joe does he rise to the emotional occasion and show flashes of who Joe Gillis should be.

Yet, do not let that weak link stop you from seeing one of the brilliant performances on the DC area stages this early 2011.    That would be the amazing Florence Lacey.    Ms. Lacey's Norma is commanding, manipulative, vulnerable and delusional all sometimes in the same scene.    Norma has been played by many of the stage's great musical actresses and Ms. Lacey has earned a place amongst them.    The moment she enters the stage, heartbreakingly grieving her beloved pet then turning on her star quality to command the stage in her bravura With One Look, Ms. Lacey captures the essence of Norma Desmond's power to seduce her audiences.    To put it like Max, she becomes The Greatest One of All.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Blvd. will be performed in The Max at Signature Theatre in Arlington Virginia through February 13, 2011.   For tickets and additional performance information please visit