Monday, August 22, 2011

An Actor in Search of a Character: Jane Guildford, Duchess of Northumberland

August 22, marks the anniversary of the execution of John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland.   This has led The Thespian to reflect on another of the historical ladies of King Henry VIII’s court that she has portrayed at the Maryland Renaissance Festival, his wife, Jane Guildford.

For the majority of actresses who portray female courtiers in the time of King Henry VIII, it can be difficult to find substantial source material to help you create a vibrant woman of the time period.   Unless you are a Queen or a Princess, your date of birth is rarely recorded.   Baptismal and wedding records are scant until the Reformation.  You are more likely to find information on your character’s husband than you are yourself.   And that was the challenge for The Thespian when she portrayed Jane Guildford, the wife of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland.

The difficulty with a woman, such as Jane Guildford, is that most of the extant material about her dates from the brief reign of Lady Jane Grey, her daughter-in-law, and its aftermath during which her husband and one of her sons was executed and her remaining sons held prisoner in the Tower of London.   The other main source material comes from a true rarity.  Jane Guildford hand wrote her will,  and in this will she leaves some tantalizing clues that help develop her personality.   Unfortunately, The Thespian was not portraying Jane during the time she was well known.   The year was 1543 as King Henry VIII was deciding to marry Kateryn Parr. Thus a true hunt for information on Jane Guildford’s life required a lot of sleuthing.

Jane was born in 1508.   The date of her birth can be determined by the age marked on her tomb which is located in Chelsea Old Church.    She died January 15 or 22, 1555, making her 47 years old at the time of her death.   She was the sole surviving child and heir of Edward Guildford and Eleanor West.   Edward Guildford was a close companion of King Henry VIII during his early years and an accomplished jouster.  His father, Richard Guildford was Master of the Armoury and appointed Warden of the Cinque Ports, both posts Edward would also hold.   Edward’s brother, Henry Guildford was Master of the Horse and in charge of organizing jousts and court entertainments.      More importantly for Jane, her father gained the wardship of John Dudley, following the young Master Dudley’s father’s execution.   For John Dudley’s father was the Edmund Dudley of the infamous Dudley and Empson, the “tax collectors” of Henry VII who were popularly executed in 1510 by King Henry VIII.

John Dudley was the eldest son of Edmund Dudley and was probably born in 1502.   His mother was Elizabeth Gray, who became the heiress of the Viscount Lisle title.   To show just how political the execution of Edmund Dudley was, the Act of Attainder that confiscated his lands and goods was reversed within months of his death.   Elizabeth Gray was married to the King’s illegitimate Uncle, Arthur Plantagenet.   However, the lucrative wardship of young John Dudley was not granted to his stepfather.   It was granted instead to Edward Guildford, who raised the boy with the plans to marry him to his daughter and heiress, Jane.

John Dudley and Jane Guildford grew up together, mainly at the family estate of High Halden and were likely immediately betrothed.   As Jane grew to womanhood we first glimpse her at court as she attended the Field of the Cloth of Gold as a Maid of Honor to Katherine of Aragon.    In 1523 or 1524, John and Jane were married.   Derek Wilson claims that Jane was tutored in Princess Mary’s household by Juan Luis Vives, and while there is evidence that Jane Guildford was highly educated, The Thespian is not sure that she would have been part of Princess Mary’s household given the age difference.    We do know that Jane Guildford was a patron of the famous astronomer and astrologist, Dr. John Dee and he dedicated two treatises to her, "The Philosophical and Poetical Occasions of the Configurations and the Names of the Heavenly Asterisms" and "The True Causes and Account (not Vulgar) of Floods and Tides."

Meanwhile John Dudley began his rise with a military career.   He was knighted in 1523 by Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk during the French campaign that year.   Another up and coming young courtier, whom John would rival in later years was also knighted at the same time…Edward Seymour.

John Dudley’s mother became Viscountess Lisle upon the death of her niece, another Elizabeth Gray in 1519.  The probate court took 4 years to settle the estates and the title and it was agreed that the Lisle title would be held by Arthur Plantagent and his wife for the remainder of her life and then pass to any heirs male they had.   Arthur and Elizabeth had no male children and she died in 1526.   At that time, the Lisle title should have come to her eldest son, John Dudley.    Arthur Plantagent took it to court and was granted the Viscount Lisle title for the remainder of his life.   John and Jane would not become Viscount and Viscountess Lisle until 1541.

In the meantime, Jane Guildford, Lady Dudley became renowned for her remarkable fertility.  John and Jane would have thirteen children and out of that thirteen eight would reach adulthood.    However, it is confusing as to the order of the children and even some of their names.   The Thespian found no fewer than three separate lists of the children.    After some deduction, this is how The Thespian believes they arrived:

Henry – born 1524/25, married Winifred Rich in 1543, died September 30, 1544 at the Siege of Bolougne.
Thomas – born 1526 died aged 2 in 1528
John – born 1530 became the 2nd Earl of Warwick, married Anne Seymour, died 1554
Ambrose – born 1531, 3rd Earl of Warwick, married Anne Whorwood, Elizabeth Tailboys and Anne Russell, died February 21, 1589
Mary – born 1532 – married Sir Henry Sidney, died 1586
Robert – born June 24, 1533 – Earl of Leicester, married Amye Robsart and Lettice Knollys (relationship/illegal marriage with Douglas Sheffield) died September 4, 1588
Guildford – born 1534 married Lady Jane Grey, executed February 12, 1554
Henry (yes another one and his brother is still alive at the time of his birth) born 1535  married Margaret Audley, died in the war with France in 1557
Jane – probably born 1536/1537 married Sir Henry Seymour.  Death year unknown but not alive by Elizabeth’s reign.
Charles – born 1537/1538 died 1542
Katherine – born 1541 married Henry Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon, died in 1620
Margaret – born 1543 died young
Temperance – born 1545 died young possibly in 1552

Some lists give a second Katherine instead of Margaret, name Charles as Carolus and put Katherine’s birth in 1545.  However as Katherine Dudley was the third bride in May 1553 at the wedding with Jane Grey marrying her brother, Guildford, and Katherine Grey marrying Lord Herbert, she was probably born in 1541 which would have made her twelve at the time of her wedding instead of eight.   

The marriage of Jane Grey and Guildford Dudley has been controversial.  The Victorians claimed Jane was beaten into accepting her marriage and did not want to consummate the marriage.   On the contrary, there is evidence that Jane Grey complained that her mother-in-law was preventing Guildford and Jane from having sex too often.  It was believed that young people having too much sex was dangerous to their health.

Jane Guildford served as a maid of honor and lady in waiting to all six of Henry VIII’s wives.   She was considered a close friend of Kateryn Parr and was also close to Anne Stanhope, the wife of Edward Seymour.   They were part of the group of ladies who patronized the reformed, more strictly Protestant religion and were targeted when Anne Askew was arrested and burned for heresy.

Following the death of Henry VIII, John Dudley was raised to the Earldom of Warwick.    When Edward Seymour, now Duke of Somerset, was removed from the position of Lord Protector, John Dudley became President of the Privy Council.    This has led historians to look at John Dudley as the ambitious “bad” Duke and Edward Seymour as the “good” Duke.   The truth is a lot grayer.  Edward Seymour was released from the Tower of London in 1550 and restored to the Privy Council.  Anne Stanhope and Jane Guildford arranged for Jane and John's eldest living son, John to marry Anne and Edward's daughter Anne to show reconciliation.  It wasn’t until the end of 1551 that Edward Seymour was arrested again.  John Dudley was not immediately raised within the peerage upon Edward Seymour's 1549 fall from power and did not become Duke of Northumberland until 1551.   There is a lot of evidence that John was preparing Edward VI for his eventual assumption of full ruling powers making certain that King Edward was regularly attending council sessions.  And then Edward VI became fatally ill in 1553 and the disaster of Edward’s device for the succession. 

Whether or not Edward VI’s Device for the Succession was his idea alone or John Dudley’s is irrelevant.   It is pretty clear that Edward was concerned about his realm being inherited by his Catholic sister, Mary.  He could not remove Mary without also removing Elizabeth and he did so on the grounds that they were illegitimate.  While both of Edward's sisters were restored to the succession they were still declared illegitimate.

If you look at the Edward's device as originally drafted it is clear that Edward wanted his realm to go to a Protestant male child.   The original document states that both of his sisters are illegitimate and that the throne would go to first the heirs male of Frances Brandon Grey, then the heirs male of Jane Grey, Katherine Grey, Mary Grey and Margaret Clifford (the heiress of Frances sister, Eleanor).   This is why the triple marriage occurred in May 1553.   The hope was that Edward would survive until a male heir was born to one of the royal ladies.  Only when it became clear that he was rapidly declining was the change made to the Lady Jane AND her heirs male.   

This was disaster for the Dudley family.   As the famous tale goes, Edward VI died on July 6, 1553. Jane Grey was proclaimed Queen July 10.   During Jane’s brief reign we spot Jane Guildford again.  There was an attempt to have Guildford Dudley named King Consort.   Queen Jane refused.   It is stated that Guildford was upset and tried to get his mother to intervene.

Nine days later, Mary Tudor succeeded in overthrowing Jane Grey.   This led to John Dudley and his five living sons being arrested for treason.  Jane Guildford was briefly arrested and held in the Tower of London for about a week.  The entire family was placed under an Act of Attainder.  Jane wrote a poignant letter to her friend, Anne, Lady Paget, asking her to have Queen Mary's ladies Susan Clarencieux and Gertrude, Marchioness of Exeter plead for the lives of her husband and sons.   John Dudley, following a very public conversation to the Catholic faith was executed on August 22, 1553.   Their sons, John, Ambrose, Henry, Robert and Guildford were held in the Tower of London where elaborate graffiti carvings remain in the Beauchamp Tower to mark their captivity.   Jane Guildford worked tirelessly to have her sons released.  Unfortunately, due to the Wyatt Rebellion in 1554, Guildford was executed along with his wife, Jane Grey. When Jane Guildford wrote her will, she thanked several Spanish courtiers for their assistance, leaving gifts to them as well as several of Queen Mary's closest English courtiers in thanks.

In Jane Guildford's extant papers, it is very clear that she loved her husband deeply.  Unlike many of the powerful courtiers of the time period, there is nothing that suggests that John Dudley ever took a mistress.   In her will, she gives a clock to her daughter, Mary asking her to remember how much her father loved it.

Jane's Act of Attainder was reversed on May 2, 1554.   After she was released from the Tower of London she lived briefly with her daughter Mary Dudley Sidney at Penshurst. Jane Guildford was godmother to her daughter's famous son, Philip Sidney.  Queen Mary I later granted Jane Guildford the right to live in Jane's dower manor at Chelsea.   

Jane Guildford Dudley, Duchess of Northumberland died at Chelsea on January 15 (date in coroner's inquiry) or  January 22, 1555 (date on her tomb).   At the same time, the warrant for the release of her remaining sons was issued.   Jane Guildford was, above all else, a loyal and loving wife and mother.  It is very clear in her extant correspondence and her will how much she cherished her husband and fought for her children's very lives.   She witnessed many of the events of the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI.    Overall a fascinating Lady of the Tudor court and The Thespian was proud to portray her for two seasons at the Maryland Renaissance Festival.

A brief list of some of the sources used when The Thespian researched this character

Eric Ives.  Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery
Susan James. Kateryn Parr
Linda Porter. Kateryn the Queen
Derek Wilson. The Uncrowned Kings of England

The D23 Expo 2011 Live Auction

The D23 Expo 2011 Live Auction took place the evening of August 20,2011 in Stage 23.   In order to participate as a bidder, you had to purchase an auction package for an additional $45.   You were issued a numbered paddle and a paddle-shaped pin.   This also qualified you to bid on the silent auction which took place durning the morning and early afternoon of August 20.

Prior to the start of the auction, performance artist David Garibaldi, created three paintings live on stage of Dumbo, Cruella da Vil and the Cheshire Cat.   These paintings were added to the auction as the previously announced surprise lots.    Here is a list of the items and the amounts for which they were sold.

Walt Disney Signed and Framed Personal Check (1941) - $3750
David Garibaldi painting of Cruella da Vil - $3000
World of Color Behind-the-scenes Tour and Napa Rose Dinner - $4500
Mickey Mouse Pook-A-Looz Mosaic Sculpture - $2000
Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum Props from World of Disney Store - $3500
Walt Disney's Hollywood Tour - $7000
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides theater display - $2500
101 Dalmatians paper sculpture by Dave Avanzino - $5200
Sleeping Beauty Castle Snow Globe Display - $2000
Disneyland Resort Happiest Homecoming on Earth 50th Anniversary Tickets - $3000
Jungle Cruise Attractions Zebra - $6000
Stained Glass Collection by David Bird - $3500
Tour of the Animation Building and Ink & Paint Department plus custom cel - $19,500
Walt Disney's Clock Cleaners Hallmark Ornament prototype by Ken Crow - $2300
Four Characters by Darren Wilson - $3500
Pirates of the Caribbean Experience with Disney Legend Alice Davis - $5000
Pirates of the Caribbean Attractions Cannon - $5250
Vintage Mickey Mouse Retro Minaudiere, Double Mirror Compact and Card Case - $2900
Vintage Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse Candy Dispensers - $700
David Garibaldi painting of Dumbo - $5200
A Pinch of Power by Greg McCullough - $3000
Disney Vinylmation Coffee Table/Display Case - $3000
Walt Disney Archives Tour - $6000
From Dream to Reality on Canvas custom art by Noah - $20,000
The artist on the spot offered a second painting to the runner up - $18,000
Custom Cruiser bicycle by Chip Foose, plus artwork and tour of shop - $7500
Disney California Adventure Park Cars Land Experience - $14,000
Walt Disney World Pirates of the Caribbean Barker Bird Replica - $5000
Electronic Sorcerer Mickey by Noah - $6500
Alice in Wonderland by Dave Avanzino - $4250
The Walt Disney Animations Studios behind-the-scenes tour Prep & Landing - $3500
Alice in Wonderland Figure from World Port Store - $1500
Destiny's Dance cel signed by Paige O'Hara and Robby Benson - $3100
2011 Candlelight Processional Viewing and Dining both coasts - $1750
Peter Pan Flight Attractions Vehicle - $30,000
Ariel - Longing to Dance by Larry Nikolai - $5000
Private Tour of El Capitan Theatre and screening of Nightmare Before Christmas - $900
David Garibaldi painting of The Cheshire Cat - $3100
Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg illustration by David Christiana - $1000
Walt Disney World Haunted Mansion Attractions Ghosts - $38,000
Star Tours Experience with Walt Disney Imagineer Steve Roach plus Jedi Academy - $6800

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament Semi-Finals and Finals

The true Disney Trivia King won.

The semi-final and final rounds took place on the first day of the 2011 D23 Expo on Stage 23 at 6:00 p.m.  True to form for the entire day, the event started late.    Please note this is a recap based on the experiences of being a contestant, not as an audience member.

The twenty contestants, plus the eight alternates were asked to return to Stage 23 no later than 5:00 p.m.   There was a chaotic atmosphere due to convention attendees starting to line up for the Dick Van Dyke and the Vantastiks concert which was to follow the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament on Stage 23.   The friendly D23 Expo staff tried to navigate people, dealing with unhappy attendees and trying to keep two lines plus the trivia contestants corralled in different areas.  

The contestants were led into Stage 23 and then out into a back hallway to be checked in by their wonderful handler, Graham.   At that point two of the semi-finalists had not shown and since two of the alternates were there they were tentatively slotted in to replace them.  The semi-finalists were given a cutoff of 5:45 p.m to arrive and still qualify to play.    At the last minute one of the late contestants showed up and one of the alternates was replaced.

The contestants were ushered to a "backstage" area.   This was the cavernous hallway behind the room.   Divided into two groups of ten we waited for the show to begin.    The Thespian was informed later that the show didn't begin until 6:20 p.m. so the proceedings ended up feeling rushed.  Our host for the evening was Dan Roebuck, who appeared as Leslie Artz on Lost.  (Dear Dan, The Thespian is sorry that when you asked her who played Leslie Artz during a lull in the show, she said Tim O'Day.   She knew it was you...but forgot your name in the moment.)

 The Thespian competed in the first group of semi-finalists.  The semi-finalist round consisted of three parts.   The first part was the Basil of Baker Street Round.   Each contestant was asked 3 questions worth 1 point each.  There was no penalty for a wrong answer.   The second round was the Monsters Inc. Scare Floor round.   There were twelve doors and each contestant picked a door and answered the question which was worth 2 points with no penalty for a wrong answer.   This round was fun as there were video clues with Disney legends, costumes and props from the Disney Archives and musical clues scattered within.   The third round was the Lightning McQueen round.   This round was three minutes long.  Contestants could buzz in with the answers which were worth 1 point.  However this time there was a penalty of 1 point for a wrong answer.    At the end of the round the top three competitors moved on to the finals.   In the first semi-final there was a tie for third and those two contestants competed in a second one minute Off With Their Heads playoff.    The second semi-final was a repeat with the remaining ten semi-finalists.

The final six competitors immediately started the tough Final round.  It consisted of two parts.   The first part was the Hasbro Trivial Pursuit round.   There were two rounds of Trivial Pursuit questions.   Each contestant chose a wedge category.  This time answers were worth 2 points with no penalty for a wrong answer.   They could not choose the same category during the second go around of questions.   This was followed by a five minute Lightning McQueen round.    Blowing away the field with a final score of 18 was John Kurowski, who qualified for the tournament by winning the mini-tournament at Destination D in Orlando, Florida in May 2011.

It was two days of fun with easy, medium, hard and fiendish questions.   There was a lot of great  friendships formed as the contestant pool dwindled.   If they attempt this tournament again, some improvements are necessary.   Obviously, start on time.   Round 3 and the final rounds started late, even though contestants were told to arrive very early for them and there was a lot of waiting around.   The Lightning McQueen round was slowed down by the host trying to say the correct answers when someone got it wrong.  Eliminate that and move on.    It might be fairer to not allow contestants to buzz in until the entire question is read, a la Jeopardy, but when it comes to that process, someone will always buzz in if they master the rhythm needed.    And there was some confusion afterwords as a couple of the contestants left before receiving their prizes.

All semi-finalists and finalists received a copy of the new Hasbro Disney Trivial Pursuit and a very nice certificate signed by Steven Clark, the head of D23 and Dave Smith. director emeritus of the Disney Archives.   The winner, John Kurowski,  received a free cruise for four people on the Disney Fantasy.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament Round 3

The third round of the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament took place the afternoon of August 18, 2011.  Contestants found out whether they had qualified for the third round at 2 p.m.  The results were posted on the D23 website and on the doors of the Anaheim Convention Center.   The top 106 contestants qualified, which included The Thespian.  While that sounds impressive, there were only a little over 100 contestants and only four people didn't qualify to make it to Round 2 let alone Round 3.

Contestants were instructed to reassemble outside the Anaheim Convention Center no later than 2:30 p.m. for a start time of 3:00 p.m.   Contestants were led to the third floor to Stage 23, the same room that where the contestants took the Round 2 written scantron test.  D23 staff checked the contestants names and issued a numbered sticker which you were asked to wear on the upper left side of your shirt.  The Thespian was contestant 31. Contestants were then separated into groups of eight.

The first part of Round 3 consisted of each group of eight contestants filing up on stage.  Each group was asked a series of three multiple choice questions.  On a table in front of each contestant was a flip board with three groups of letters A through E to flip over to indicate your answer to a multiple choice question.    From the audience left to right, green letters were for the first question, red for the second and black for the third.   If a contestant got two or three questions correct they were allowed to move on to the next round.   One or none and the contestant was finished and had to surrender their number.

It took two and a half hours and five rounds of questions to whittle the contestant pool from 100 to 26.   At that point the remaining contestants learned the significance of their number.  It corresponded roughly to where you had ranked after the Round 2 scantron test.   Following a short break, the contestants were given the instructions for the final part of Round 3.

The last part of Round 3 would be similar to the previous rounds involving multiple choice questions.  This time the contestants were divided into two groups of nine and one group of eight.  Each group was brought on stage to answer more multiple choice questions.   This time 23 questions were asked to each group and there was no elimination.  Instead the diligent judges would keep track of the contestants scores.    At the end of the three rounds the top eighteen contestants would compete in the semi-final rounds along with the champions of the trivia tournaments held at Destination D Disneyland 55 held in September 2010 and Destination D Walt Disney World 40 held in May 2011.  The remaining eight contestants would be alternates in the event a semi-finalist was unable to compete.

Following the grueling round, the judges settled down to some very important math.   In the event of a tie, the scores from Round 2 would be added in as a tie break.    And then, the unthinkable happened, the judges announced that they had 17 semi-finalists.   Despite the tie break, two contestants, numbers 29 and 38 had tied.    These two gentlemen had to partake in another round of 23 questions to determine the final semi-finalist.

Following their rematch, while the judges were adding up their scores, the other 17 semi-finalists were announced.    The Thespian was among them.   And then, the last semi-finalist was revealed to be...contestant 38.

These eighteen people plus the two earlier champions competed in the semi-final rounds of the Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament on August 19, 2011 at 6 p.m. on Stage 23.   Those twenty semi-finalists were reduced to six finalists who vied for the title and the grand prize, a cruise on the Disney Fantasy.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament Rounds 1 and 2

The Ultimate Disney Trivia Tournament's opening rounds took place on August 18, 2011 the day before the start of the 2011 D23 Expo.   The first round consisted of answering a single question.   Contestants could begin lining up at 6 a.m. outside the main entrance to the Anaheim Convention Center.   The first round would begin around 7:30 a.m.  The line would be cut off when 2000 contestants qualified for Round 2 or 9:45 a.m. whichever occured first.

The Thespian arrived a few minutes before 6 a.m. not knowing what to expect.   The line was a lot shorter than she expected.   The Thespian was 17th in line.   It was wonderful to chat with contestants who were local or who had traveled, like the Thespian from across the country for the D23 Expo.

However, the line was never that long.  There were maybe a total of just over a hundred contestants in the line by 7:30 a.m.  Round 1 began a few minutes past 7:30 a.m.   They took contestants in groups of 5 to the door of the convention center and then individually for their question. Everyone was asked a single question, get it right and move inside the convention center to Stage 23 for Round 2.  Get it wrong and you could go to the back of the line and try again.    The Thespian got her question correct  (In the Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence in the film Fantasia, what inanimate objects come to life and cause a flood?) and moved on.

Round 2 took place in Stage 23 on the third floor of the convention center.   Everyone was handed a pencil and a scantron sheet and was invited to take a seat.  There was cardboard on the chairs to provide a backing for bubbling in your answers.   The Thespian was part of Round 2 group A.  Contestants were asked to fill in their names, a phone number and email address.  There were 50 questions and they were projected on large screens at the front of the room.  The questions were multiple choice with five potential answers.   Following the conclusion of Round 2 contestants turned in their scantron sheets and pencils and were dismissed for the morning.   The contestants found out  who qualified for Round 3 at 2 p.m.   The results were posted on the doors of the convention center and on the D23 website.  If you qualified, and just about every one to tried out did, Round 3 began the same day at 3 p.m.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Sydney Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya at the Kennedy Center

During a stifling hot summer, on a decaying estate in the Russian countryside, the arrival of a renowned Professor and his glamorous second wife brings physical and emotional turmoil to the relatives and servants who work the estate's monotonous lives. This is the core setting for Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, brought to vibrant life by the Sydney Theatre Company under the brilliant direction of the Hungarian director Tamas Ascher. It is an incredible opportunity for Washington DC theater connoisseurs that the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is hosting the exclusive engagement of this thrilling production.

Chekhov can be notorious in the wrong hands.  Mr. Ascher has shepherded this tight ensemble into nine brilliant performances.  Uncle Vanya is at times, poignant, passionate, melodramatic and, above all, funny. This play cries out to embrace the inherent humor in the script, and Co-Artistic Director Andrew Upton's translation brings all the emotional nuances vibrantly to the surface guided with a steady hand by Mr. Tomas' very physical direction.

What is glorious is watching the gradual wearing down of each of the main characters' emotional barriers for only then can the passion and humor, frequently physically expressed, burst forth in torrents like the storm which dominates the second half of act one.  The play begins with lighting (Nick Schlieper) and sound (Paul Charlier) that suggests the oppressive heat of this long summer.  For 25 years, Uncle Vanya has managed the estate for his former brother-in-law, Serebryakov, financing his intellectual lifestyle, while also raising the professor's plain daughter, Sonia.  The arrival of the Professor and his young wife, Yelena, has completely disrupted the peaceful, if dull work of the estate as everyone must change their habits to accommodate the Professor's whims, whether caused by his gout or his changing of the dining hours. Every male is enchanted by Yelena from Vanya to the doctor, Astrov, who finds himself drawn to visiting the estate daily, on the excuse that he is treating Serebryakov, but really because he is under the spell of Yelena.   As the inhabitants suffer from the heat and exhaustion, desires surface, from Sonia's love for Astrov to Vanya's contempt for Serebryakov.  When Serebryakov announces he wishes to sell the estate, callously disregarding the years of work that Vanya, Sonia and the servants have dilligently performed all these years to finance his lifestyle, all hell breaks loose. 

The nine company members are simply marvelous. Each role is carefully brought fully to life.  From the small role of the Laborer, played with silently burning contempt by Andrew Tighe, to Vanya's mother, the sycophant Maria (Sandy Gore) who worships Serebryakov even as he threatens to destroy her home, there are no small actors here.  Jackie Weaver makes the nurse, Marina, the calm at the center of the storm.  Anthony Phelan's Telegin is dim to the drama enveloping him, yet ever trying to please everyone.

John Bell makes you completely understand the proletariat's contempt for the intelligentsia. Mr. Bell is oblivious to everyone's needs, but his own making an excellent antagonist.  Cate Blanchett is a glowing flame that lights several damaging fires as she  navigates the courting of herself by both Vanya and, Astrov, the latter of  whom she tries desperately to resist her own attraction to him.  Ms. Blanchett navigates delicately Yelena's unlikable side as she befriends and betrays her stepdaughter, Sonia.
Hayley McElhinney is complex and heartbreaking as the plain Sonia. Only noticed by the others when she is needed for their purposes, Sonia aches with the yearning to be beautiful and the center of attention like her stepmother.  Ms. Elhinney wears her emotions openly, yet never crosses into caricature. 

Hugo Weaving is a dynamo as Dr. Astrov.   Called upon to take his physicality to the extreme, he never rings false upon the stage. Whether drunkenly dancing or leaping with a bounce after a fall, Mr. Weaving is magnetic.  It is very easy to see why Sonia and Yelena are drawn to him.

Richard Roxburgh's Vanya is exhausted, yet passionate. His Vanya has lived patiently with the burdens placed on him by his callow brother-in-law, yet the disruption of this intrusive visit breaks down his emotional barricade.  When Vanya erupts whether in anger or while declaring his passion for Yelena, Mr. Roxburgh is riveting.  It is a tour-de-force performance.

This is a strictly limited engagement that closes on August 27, 2011.  Do not miss one of the theatrical highlights of 2011.

The Sydney Theatre Company's production of Uncle Vanya will be performed in the Eisenhower Theater at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC through August 27, 2011. For tickets and other performance information please visit   

Sister Act at the Broadway Theatre

At intermission, The Thespian had one reaction to the musical Sister Act.  This show will be a community theater royalty cash cow.   Of the new musicals to appear on Broadway during the 2010-2011 season, Sister Act is the most family-friendly.  It also contains the most female roles of any new musical this past season which saw a pitiful six women deemed eligible for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.  For those reasons, Sister Act is a welcome breath of fresh air.  That said, the show, while an entertaining couple of hours is not without its flaws. 

Based on the 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg, who is one of the producers, Sister Act is the story of Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring singer who witnesses her boyfriend/sugar daddy Curtis Jackson murder a police informant. Seeking help from the police, specifically a high school friend, Eddie Souther, she is placed in witness protection.  The location chosen is a convent and the Mother Superior reluctantly agrees to shelter Deloris as the police will pay badly needed funds to help keep the convent and adjacent church open.  Deloris is a classic fish out of water as a nun and only when she uses her musical talent to transform the nuns into a singing sensation does she begin to find her place within the community of the convent and discover her heart.  Yet, it is the ensuing publicity when the nuns become a singing sensation that alerts Curtis to Deloris' location.     Will Deloris live to testify against Curtis?  Will the nuns singing save their convent? Will Deloris notice that Eddie loves her? Will the Mother Superior survive this test of faith?  

Overall, Sister Act is a delightful romp. The music by Academy-award winner Alan  Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater are a mix of late 1970's style disco, jazz, gospel and soul with a few traditional musical theater numbers to round out the score.   The period of the film has been changed to Christmas 1977 through early 1978 and this lends itself to rousing musical numbers reminiscent of the time.  In particular "Take Me To Heaven", "Fabulous, Baby" and "Raise Your Voice" stand out as does the more traditional musical theater numbers sung by the Mother Superior such as "Haven't Got A Prayer".

The book written by Cheri Steinkiller and Bill Steinkiller with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane only slightly revises the story. The film took place in Las Vegas and San Francisco and Deloris had a successful singing career.  The location has changed to Philadelphia and the stage Deloris is looking for her big break.  This heightens the stakes for Deloris and it makes more sense that she would tie herself to a wealthy married man, even with his criminal background, in the hopes of becoming a star.   Yet, the book contains flaws.  Almost all of the secondary characters are archetypes and in a few cases become pretty blatant stereotypes   We have the older nun who seems to be a grouchy stick-in-the-mud who breaks out into very contemporary singing.  There are the two young nuns, one eternally cheerful, the other the shy postulant who ends up having the amazing voice.  Curtis' henchmen include the dumb relative, the poor English speaker, and the brawny tough guy who thinks he is God's gift to women.   While the characters are funny and the actors quite good in the roles some of the characterizations border on tasteless.

Some of the stereotyping can be laid at the feet of veteran director, Jerry Zaks.  There are moments when the actors exaggerate gestures, clearly playing up to the audience for a cheap laugh.  One instance stuck out for The Thespian during Eddie Souther's big number "I Could Be That Guy.".  The character of Eddie, played well by Chester Gregory, is nicknamed Sweaty Eddie, yet  the character yearns to be the suave man of Deloris' dreams.  During the number Eddie becomes that dream version of himself yet before that transition occurs he makes awkward attempts to be suave that are strictly played for laughs. They seem forced and done solely for laughs, which the character does receive, yet The Thespian thought that they were unnecessary. And the problem is repeated, usually involving the criminal characters.  Such over-the-top moments distract from what is a genuinely good story with a lot of heart.  Some judicial reining in of those acting impulses are needed.

Despite those flaws, Sister Act has much to recommend it including several wonderful performances.  The aforementioned Mr. Gregory is a charming performer who navigates Curtis' growth from awkward cop to Deloris' champion.  The trio of thugs, played by John Tracey Egan, Caesar Samayoa and Desmond Green clearly are enjoying playing their dimwitted hit men and stand out in the number "When I Find My Baby" backing up the villainous Curtis Jackson. As Curtis, Kingsley Leggs is both charming and threatening.

The nuns are all named Sister Mary (insert saint name). There is a clever theatrical nod in the naming of the otherworldly Sister Mary Martin of Tours.  Audrie Neenan is appropriately gruff as Sister Mary Lazarus, Sarah Bolt bubbly as Sister Mary Patrick and Marla Mindelle sweetly naive with a big heart and bigger voice as Sister Mary Robert.  Her heartfelt anthem "The Life I Never Led" is a standout moment in act two.

The most endearing performance is given by Tony nominee Victoria Clark as the Mother Superior. There is absolutely nothing artificial or stereotypical about her performance. Her Mother Superior is a woman worried about her charges and terrified of the dangers and potential changes to her convent that Deloris represents.  It is delightful to see such an emotionally genuine performance from a role that could have been played as stereotypically antagonistic.  Yet, the Mother Superior's resistance to embracing what Deloris has to offer comes from clear character choices instead of cardboard villainy.

As the focal point of all this chaos we have Tony nominee Patina Miller. Ms. Miller originated the role of Deloris in the West End production and brings a mix of brass, sass and vulnerability to Deloris.  With a voice that could probably handle not being miked Ms. Miller soars through the score.  Yet, beneath her glitz lies a woman who just wants to be a headliner singer and find true love. She is simply delightful.

Sister Act is being performed at The Broadway Theatre in New York City.  For tickets and other performance information please visit  

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Quantum Eye at Theatre 80 St. Mark's Place, New York

Sam Eaton is a very personable gentleman and his magic and mentalism show, The Quantum Eye is a very pleasant way to spend 75 minutes on a Saturday afternoon in the East Village.   Sam Eaton uses his well-developed skills in the art of  mentalism, as he points out in the program, using the powers of suggestion,  memorization, calculation and his ability to  "read" people's minds to entertain an audience of all ages.

The Quantum Eye relies heavily on audience participation.  As you settle into the theatre, do not be surprised if Mr. Eaton introduces himself.   As The Thespian mentioned, he is very charming and easy to talk to and even the most reluctant or shy member of the audience will be set at ease.   There is a very good chance that you will be called upon to take part in the performance.   And, Mr. Eaton proves time and again that no matter how much you think you will be able to trick him or figure out how he does his acts of mental skill,  he astounds you each and every time.

The Thespian was chosen to participate in two of Mr. Eaton's routines.  Let it be stated for the record that The Thespian did not meet Mr. Eaton prior to settling down in the audience and he had no idea that The Thespian would review the performance.   The Thespian was delightfully impressed by the close up look  at how Mr. Eaton performs and would highly recommend that anyone eagerly volunteer to participate in the fun.   There is absolutely nothing objectionable in the performance and it is appropriate for a family audience.

The Quantum Eye: Magic & Mentalism is performed on Saturdays at 5 p.m. at the historic Theatre 80 located in St. Mark's Place in the East Village of New York City.   Sam Eaton is also available for other engagements.   For tickets and other performance information please visit.

Cirque Du Soleil Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall

The artistry and athleticism of Cirque Du Soleil is well known.   Long a showcase for the human circus arts, one attends each production to see what confectionary concept will showcase the acrobats, clowns and other artists' talent.   Zarkana transforms the grand Radio City Music Hall into a decaying, crumbling shell. The clowns, dressed primarily in white, greet the audience in the foyer as if they were the ghosts of performers past.    Into this is woven the story of the magician, Zark (Garou) who pines for his lady love, the lyrical singer, Lia (Cassiopee).  Unable to perform his magic, he undertakes a journey transforming the decayed theater into a fantastical world of beauty, marvel and the macabre.   At many times during the journey Zark glimpses his love, yet only at journey's end is there the hope that the lovers will be united.

The Director of Creation, Line Tremblay has lined up a strong team to bring her vision to life. Stephane Roy, who designed the set, Alain Lortie, the lights, Eleni Uranis, the make-up, and Alan Hranitelj, the costumes have combined to build an immense spectacle.   Each of the set pieces grows upon its predecessor whether a snake pit, a glittering spider web, outer space or a riotous bloom of roses.   The costumes enhance the performers without hindering their athletic ability.  Choreographers Debra Brown and Jean-Jacques Pillet provide a flow and complement the musical styles of composer and musical director Nick Littlemore and the overall direction of Francois Girard knits together well most of the story. The only fault with the story that The Thespian had was that Zark never completed the initial failed magic trick.  The story would have been more complete if after his union with Lia he had proven that his magical abilities had returned along with Lia's love.

At its soul, Cirque du Soleil is always a showcase for the most talented acrobats, clowns and other circus artists.   And Zarkana does not disappoint on this account.   While the entire performance features strength, agility and an overflow of talent, there are several outstanding moments.   The Thespian was thrilled by the Wheel of Death performed by Ray Navas Velez and Rudy Navas Velez.  The strength of handbalancer Anatoliy Zalevskiy was breathtaking as was the lyrical performance of the aerial duet by Jun Guo and Di Wu.   The lead clowns, Daniel Passer and Wayne Wilson, were personable and their amusing set pieces well received.   The most astounding performance was by the sand painting artist Erika Chen, whose detailed work, projected on a large screen was simply breathtaking and her final artwork previewing the design for the next part of the performance was beautiful.

Cirque du Soleil is an excellent choice to fill Radio City Music Hall for the summer months.  However, The Thespian cautions taking very small children to see Zarkana.   While there is nothing objectionable that would make the performance specifically geared towards an adult audience, a few of the set pieces contain disturbing imagery that might frighten a small child.  Parents should judge for themselves.

Cirque du Soleil's Zarkana will be performed at Radio City Music Hall in New York City through October 8, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit