Monday, October 29, 2012

Dying City at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia

A soldier volunteers to serve in the War on Terror shortly after the 9/11 attacks.  He dies under mysterious circumstances leaving behind a widow and a twin brother both of whom struggle to come to terms with their loss.   One year later, the brother unexpectedly shows up at the widow's apartment.   Memories surface and emotions that lie buried are forced to surface with neither party finding a satisfactory catharsis.

Signature Theatre presents an intimate drama that shows the trauma of unexpected loss.    Yet, while Dying City shows us the effects of death in wartime upon the two closest relations to the deceased, these two characters show us in vastly different ways how this death has effected them.  This is a briskly paced three character play that last just over an hour.   Yet, within that hour this taut character study reveals a great deal.  

While this is a three character play it is acted by two individuals.  Thomas Keegan portrays both of the identical twin brothers, Peter and Craig.  These natural leads to a device in which excuses must be made for one brother to exit the stage and reappear as the other.   This could become tiresome, yet because the playwright wisely chose not to have every exit lead to a character change, it simply becomes a narrative device that is quickly accepted by the audience.   Mr. Keegan creates two very different brothers,Craig is revealed in flashbacks on the final night before his deployment as a man with a cruel streak, yet in his emails to his brother far more eloquent than he was in life to his wife.  Peter, the surviving twin is absorbed in his own grieving, so focused on his craving to reach out to the one other person he assumes is suffering the loss as much as he is that he cannot see the trauma his unexpected and unwelcome visit is causing.

Rachel Zampelli portrays the widowed Kelly as a woman who guards her true emotions. A therapist by trade, she is cautious and wary with Peter.  Yet, as the evening wears on and she is forced to relive the devastation that her late husband's deployment had on her and her marriage, she peels away her emotional layers.  

All three characters behave in a passive agressive manner when it comes to revealing their true emotional core and by the end of this emotive evening of theater the revelation of those feelings will leave you with more questions than the play can answer in its brief one-hour running time.

Dying City by Christopher Shinn is being performed in The Ark Theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia through November 25, 2012.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

The Lion In Winter at the American Shakespeare Center

The contemporary classic tale of an aging King fighting to control the inheritance of his kingdom receives a rousing production at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia.   James Goldman's The Lion In Winter is a natural fit for this classical repertory company and the decision to pair this play with its natural sequel, William Shakespeare's King John is inspired.   If you wonder how a company dedicated to the staging practices of Shakespeare's time period translates those staging practices  when the play is a twentieth century classic that seems wedded to a traditional proscenium theater, worry not.   Just as this company proved with last season's production of Oscar Wilde's The importance of Being Earnest, this production seems to naturally lends itself to the Blackfriars' stage.    With the lights on, the audience becomes the courtiers of King Henry II's court, witnessing more intimately the troubled family dynamics of the King's melodramatic relationships.   The myriad scene changes appear seamless, thanks to the use of those company members who are providing the music for this production making the scene changes as deftly as chess players setting up a high stakes game.   With the vocal stylings of Chris Johnston providing Christmas carols in a manner reminiscent of the renaissance, the audience is completely enveloped in this tense family gathering.

It is Christmas 1183.   King Henry II has summoned his imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine and his three sons to attend the festivities.  His eldest son, Henry, the young King, has died.  Richard, the eldest remaining son, is favored by his mother to succeed the throne  and is best known for his military prowess.  The teenage John, is favored by his father.   The middle son, Geoffrey, knows that while he will not inherit the throne he can use his intellect and craft to be the power behind the throne.   Into this mix enters the young Phillip, King of France who has come to settle territory disputes with King Henry and solve the betrothal of his sister, Alais.   Alais, raised at the English court since she was a child, is Richard's intended bride, but has become the mistress of King Henry.   A battle of wits and grave emotions ensues.

The Lion In Winter is a most satisfying historical drama.   The family dynamics of the first Plantagenet king has provided dramatic fodder for generations.  It is a credit to the writing of James Goldman that the amount of historical material revealed within the play does not bog down the proceedings.  Instead it provides for high stakes drama.   Here, the perfectly cast ensemble brings this family to exciting life.

Tracie Thomason portrays the gentle Alais.  In love with her King, Alais is a political pawn who knows that at the drop of a hat her destiny will be decided most likely without her consent.  Ms. Thomason shows a genuine affection for the much older Henry, yet when he betrays her love and trust the beginnings of an awareness of political reality grows.  Not for nothing does Alais warn that she could cause a great deal of trouble if she so chose.

As her brother, Philip, Rene Thornton, Jr. clearly demonstrates that this young king is a force to be reckoned with.   In the climatic scene of act one, it is Philip who orchestrates the shattering of the king's delusions involving the loyalties of his scheming sons.  Mr. Thornton relishes proving to the old lion, Henry that he is no mere boy to be schooled in kingship.

John Harrell portrays Prince John as a spoiled teenager, but Prince John should not be underestimated.   Willing to do anything to remain his father's favorite and inherit the throne, Mr. Harrell shows that the young John is the serpent in King Henry's bosom.    

Geoffrey, the middle son, is usually portrayed as a cynic who is well aware that he is overlooked by his parents in the quest to inherit the throne.   What makes Gregory Jon Phelps portrayal much more nuanced is how Mr. Phelps makes it clear that Geoffrey craves his parent's approval.   His Geoffrey is genuinely hurt that he does not have his parents' love and affection.  It is a very interesting perspective on a character known for his wit and sarcasm in the text.

Benjamin Curns Richard is the plainest spoken son.   His Richard is the strong warrior, the natural leader and shows great piety when needed.   Mr. Curns bravely embraces Richard's darker nature as he is forced by King Philip to acknowledge Richard's inner demons.

Tracy Hostmyer and James Keegan are well matched as Queen Eleanor and King Henry.   These fiercely dynamic monarchs wage war with their words, yet the love and lust that is hinted at in the script always lies just beneath the surface.   It is certainly true with these actors that love and hate are but two sides of the same emotional coin.   The battle for control is a tight game of chess, yet even though, in the end, King Henry proves that the old lion still has his mettle, Eleanor is just as strong, the caged lioness who will be leashed upon the world again once Henry breathes his last.

James Goldman's The Lion In Winter is being performed in repertory with William Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline and King John through November 24, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information, please visit,

Please note:  The production of King John being performed as part of this repertory has Tracy Hostmyer, John Harrell and Rene Thornton, Jr. portraying the same characters from The Lion In Winter.  Benjamin Curns portrays the bastard son of his character Richard the Lionheart.  It is a rare opportunity to see both of these plays performed in the same season with the same actors.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

One Night With Janis Joplin at Arena Stage

One Night With Janis Joplin is a crowd-pleasing biographical concert that brings its audience to its feet.  It is a rousing evening filled with high-energy performances of the greatest works of the late Ms. Joplin interspersed with the music of the great ladies of American blues and jazz that influenced her style.  It is a production that would be at home in the great tourist drawing towns of Las Vegas or Branson.  However, if you are looking for insight into Janis Joplin's life and the inner demons that led to her death by overdose at the age of 27, One Night With Janis Joplin is probably not the show for you.

Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre has been transformed into an intimate club reminiscent of the 1960's with lots of carpeting and mix-matched lamps strewn about.   A band, heavy with brass is loud enough to give the audience a real sense of the electric atmosphere of a Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company session.   The script conceived and written by director Randy Johnson with musical direction and arrangement by Len Rhodes tries to give insight into the influences in Janis Joplin's life.   In that aim they have received the "full support of the estate of Janis Joplin & Jeffrey Jampol for JAM, Inc."   Possibly that is the reason that this production ultimately feels slight.   Ms. Joplin was notorious for her drinking, yet in this production the character only takes a few token swigs from a bottle of Southern Comfort. The dialogue provides transitions between the 24 songs performed during the evening, but one leaves this show roused by the musical performance, yet somehow feeling as if Ms. Joplin life remains unexamined with any depth, just a mournful sense that it ended too soon.

There are two incredible performances in this concert play.  Sabrina Elayne Carten portrays the Blues Singer, the embodiment of every African American blues singer that Janis Joplin says influenced her singing style.   Ms. Carten has incredible range which is well showcased whether singing the operatic tones of Gershwin's Summertime or the raise the rafters of Aretha Franklin in Spirit in the Dark.  Mary Bridget Davies channels the vocal and physical qualities of Janis Joplin.  She should having played her through several incarnations not only in this production, but also the tour of Love, Janis and with Janis' band Big Brother and the Holding Company.  She is a performer with a lot of charisma and one wonders what she could accomplish if the dramatic material were on par with the musical material.

Despite anything that any critique might say about the merits of this work, the audience attending One Night With Janis Joplin will have a good time.   Bear in mind the warning that the lighting effects may cause problems with those with sensitivities to strobe or pulse effects.

One Night With Janis Joplin is being performed in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theatre through November 4, 2012.   For tickets and other performance information please visit www.

Friday, October 5, 2012

King John at the American Shakespeare Center

For the dozens of productions of Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream there are maybe a handful of productions of the lesser produced Shakespeare plays.   That is particularly true for the history plays.   The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia set out five seasons ago to produce all ten of the history play.  We are in the homestretch now with the ninth production.   If you have never seen a production of King John, get yourself to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia pronto.

King John the play highlights two major events in the life of this scorned monarch of England.  King John the character has been dramatized numerous times, usually as the usurping prince during the reign of his crusading brother King Richard the Lionheart.   Here Shakespeare places him firmly on the throne working hard to secure his place by capturing a rival claimant to the throne and then fending off a French invasion after King John defies Papal authority.  

As in history, King John succeeds his brother Richard to the throne over the true heir by primogeniture Arthur, Duke of Brittany.  Arthur's mother, Constance conspires with King Philip II of France to invade and place Arthur on the throne. John gains an unexpected ally when he is called to settle an inheritance dispute between two brothers Philip and Richard Faulconbridge.  Recognizing that the elder brother is the bastard son of Richard the lionheart, John knights him and the bastard Faulconbridge soon becomes his greatest military asset.  John with the aid of his formidable mother Eleanor strives to get King Philip on their side and eventually an agreement is made between the French and the English in which Philip's son and heir Lewis will marry John's niece Blanche.  Arthur is captured to his mother Constance's deep anguish.   Just as John seems to have secured his throne, Cardinal Pandulph arrives upon the scene demanding that John show fealty to the Pope.  When John refuses the Cardinal excommunicates John and threatens to excommunicate Philip if the French king will not break the alliance.  This leads young Lewis to invade England.  John flounders as his kingdom is threatened. His lords abandon him after young Arthur's suspicious death, and his greatest confidant, his mother dies.  Forced to reconcile himself to the church, the English then miraculously defeat the invading French army.  Yet despite this triumph John cannot escape his fate.

This play is filled with fully realized emotionally engaging characters.   The acting company of the American Shakespeare Center seem to embrace the opportunity given them to give deeply satisfying performances.  Even the smallest role is given full life.  A prime example is Chris Johnston as the Duke of Austria.  Not many actors can carry off having to wear the pelt of a lion as part of his costume, but Mr. Johnston makes this awkward accessory a natural part of his character's bravado.   Grant Davis as the hot-headed dauphin Lewis seems as eager to engage in battle as he is fervent in the few lines he is granted to woo the beautiful Blanche.  Rene Thornton, Jr. is imposing as the French King Philip, playing the game of diplomacy to the French advantage.

As the mama grizzly Constance, Allison Glenzer shows why it is such a treat when this natural comedienne is given a dramatic role.   Constance is written with her emotions bare upon the surface, and there were signs of tears in the audience as this proud woman is brought to despair over the fate of her beloved son.   Ronald Peet makes young Arthur a bright angel of humanity.   It is easy to embrace the melodrama inherent in the role, but Mr. Peet makes Arthur wonderfully human.

King John surrounds himself with strong characters who carry out his wishes.   Tracy Hostmyer is formidable as the elderly Eleanor yet, while she advises her youngest son, she still gives moments when  the dynamic vibrant flirtatious woman of her younger years shines brightly.  James Keegan as the loyal Hubert is heartbreaking as he makes the choice whether to obey the king or save the life of the trusting Arthur.  Gregory Jon Phelps is completely self-serving as Cardinal Pandulph only caring that the wishes of the Pope reign supreme.

Benjamin Curns is mesmerizing as Philip the Bastard.  Channeling his royal father, Mr. Curns embodies the gallant warrior, always remaining loyal to the king, despite the shady circumstances.   And John Harrell makes this weak and paranoid king completely fascinating to watch as his travels from threat to threat, seeming to triumph only to make fatal errors that lead to the downfall of this troubled monarch.

There is another wonderful opportunity this season as the American Shakespeare Center is also performing James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, the prequel of sorts to the events in King John.  Queen Eleanor, King John and Philip are played by the same actors, Mr. Curns plays Richard the Lionheart in the earlier play.   While it is not necessary to see The Lion in Winter before seeing King John, by doing so you may gain additional insight into the characterizations of these older incarnations.

William Shakespeare's King John is being performed in repertory with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline and James Goldman's The Lion in Winter through November 24, 2012.  You can see The Lion in Winter and King John performed on the same day on November 3 and 24.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

Cymbeline at the American Shakespeare Center

Once Upon A Time.....

there lived a King named Cymbeline.   King Cymbeline had three children by his first wife.  Two boys, Guiderius and Belarius were kidnapped as toddlers by the banished general Belarius and were raised by Belarius as his sons.   Cymbeline's  beautiful daughter, Imogen, known for her loyalty and chastity incurs her father's wrath when he she marries the poor nobleman, Posthumus Leonatus, who was brought up by King Cymbeline as a part of the family, yet is considered too poor to marry Imogen.  Posthumus is banished to Rome.   He leaves behind his faithful servant Pisanio to act as a go-between for him and his beloved Imogen.

Following his first wife's death King Cymbeline married a beautiful woman as his second Queen and she wishes her son, Cloten to succeed to the throne.   To that end, she plots to marry Cloten to Imogen, and when that doesn't work orders her physician to prepare a poison to kill the princess.   She also plans to murder the King to hasten the path to the throne for Cloten..  The physician mistrusts the Queen and prepares instead a potion that will make the user merely appear to be dead for a short while.

In Rome, Posthumus quickly finds himself with a posse of drinking buddies.   He bets them that Imogen will always be faithful to him.  The Italian rascal Iachimo takes Posthumus up on the bet.  He travels to the court of Cymbeline where his attempts to seduce Imogen fail.  Unwilling to lose the bet, he conspires to gain access to Imogen's bedchamber without her knowledge.  Gazing upon her as she sleeps he notes a mole upon her breast that will prove his tale of successful seduction and he steals a bracelet from her wrist that was a gift from Posthumus.   Devastated at what he believes is his wife's betrayal, Posthumus writes to Pisanio and demands that Pisanio lure Imogen to Wales and kill her.    Unwilling to kill Imogen, Pisanio persuades her to dress as a boy and travel to Milford Haven where Pisanio is supposed to kill his innocent mistress.

Before the play is through we will have a Roman invasion of Britain, a princess unknowingly reunited with her lost siblings, a decapitated corpse, ghostly apparitions, and a visit from the King of the Gods.   Confused?   As long as you remember that you are watching a sprawling fairy tale designed to please the tastes of the King of England you should do fine. The talented company of actors at the American Shakespeare Center do their best to keep the audience spellbound.   The problem lies with the myriad twists and turns in the plot, the disappearance of the most interesting characters for lengthy periods of time, and an ending that even the best production would have difficulty pulling off without the audience having a few "what the blazes was that about" moments.

If you are familiar with Renaissance History, in 1603 King James VI of Scotland succeeded Queen Elizabeth as King James I of England.   James loved spectacle and in addition to sponsoring the Lord Chamberlain's Men acting company that William Shakespeare belonged to making them the King's men, he loved masques at court with fanciful elements be they the witches that conjure apparitions in MacBeth or the Goddesses that entertain Miranda and Ferdinand in The Tempest.   Cymbeline, dated by historians to near the end of Shakespeare's writing days clearly shows how a playwright is writing to his patrons taste.   The best example is the stage direction in Act 5 "Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt."   Jupiter may not throw a thunderbolt on the Blackfriars' stage, but the spectacle of ghosts and gods is preserved.

Helping to set the fairy tale scene are the beautiful costumes designed by Victoria Depew who has chosen to dress the actors in costumes that evoke the 19th century romantic period.   Director Jim Warren tackles the sprawling story with, what seems like a cast of hundreds, expertly helping his company of 13 work their way through the convoluted story.   Yet, Cymbeline still feels, especially in the incredibly long resolution, to need a bit more cutting or a more urgent pace.

Despite its minor flaws, Cymbeline boasts many memorable performances.   The juiciest roles are those of the villains and Tracy Hostmyer, Benjamin Curns and John Harrell clearly relish their wickedness.   Ms Hostmyer portrays a Queen who is written as if she came straight out of the Brothers Grimm.   She has the drive and passion of a woman on a mission to see her son gain the throne.   As Cloten, that son, John Harrell is simply an arrogant ass.  That is a supreme compliment.   Cloten is the blowhard who believes in his own pomposity.   Mr. Harrell is clearly enjoying playing this delightful to watch over-the-top idiot.  

Benjamin Curns finds the right amount of slime as the lascivious Iachimo.  The bedroom scene is one of the most uncomfortable scenes that Shakespeare ever wrote.   Mr. Curns arrogance over the ease of seducing women coupled with the unscrupulous way Iachimo wins the bet sends shudders throughout the audience.  

Alison Glenzer is the loyal Pisanio.  Genuinely caring about both Posthumus and Imogen it is wonderful to watch Ms. Glenzer as she wrestles with her loyalties to her master and her love to her mistress.   As the wronged and wronging Posthumus Grant Davis has a difficult task as he goes from banished lover to a frat boy betting on his wife's chastity to a repentant warrior on a suicide mission.  Mr. Grant manages to regain the audience's favor despite Posthumus' flaws.

Abbi Hawk makes a bold and delightful Imogen.  The amount of peril that Imogen must travel in the play is immense yet Ms. Hawk takes each and every beat of Imogen's journey with her heart upon her sleeve.   Not once do we think of our plucky heroine as a victim of her circumstances, but as a brave lady who finds in adversity the road to happiness.   For while the story winds its way through many paths and obstacles, eventually Imogen and Posthumus do reach a well-earned happily ever after.

William Shakespeare's Cymbeline is being performed in repertory with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, King John and James Goldman's The Lion in Winter through November 25, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information please visit