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Shakespeare’s late comedy comes to life in this energetic production. By Jane Horwitz
Ian LeValley (center) as Alonso, King of Naples, and his men in The Tempest at Olney Theatre. Photograph by Stan Barouh.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s summer Free For All became an indoor event years ago, so if you have a yen for the Bard al fresco, head up Georgia Avenue to Olney Theatre Center, where they’re doing a bang-up job with The Tempest through August 3.

Shakespeare under the stars—or, at Olney’s opening night on July 19, under clouds and scattered raindrops—has a certain something that doth heighten the drama or the comedy. That’s not merely because the actors must speak louder, even when miked (it’s live outdoor theater, so the mikes and speakers can and do sometimes cut out)—it’s just the open-air expansiveness and fun of it all. 

The Olney production, directed by Jason King Jones, sparkles with antic energy, and while it breaks no new ground interpreting Shakespeare’s valedictory (1611) comedy, it affords plenty of space for the gorgeous poetic musings of the exiled magician Prospero (an authoritative Craig Wallace), who declares in Act IV that “Our revels now are ended,” and that “We are such stuff as dreams are made on/and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” He (and Shakespeare) looks back at his life on this enchanted island and uses his magical powers (i.e., creativity) to bring resolution to it all.

Olney Theatre Center’s touring company of young professional actors, the National Players, is entering its 66th season. The cast of this production comprises veterans of long-ago National Players tours, as well as actors from the most recent one. All the generations gathered for The Tempest on Olney’s Root Family Stage do fine work. Director Jones keeps them all pretty much on the same page stylistically, which is crucial.

Scenic designer Charlie Calvert’s backdrop of white umbrellas, opened, with handles pointed toward the audience, looks simple but has visual pop and echoes the play’s opening storm. Low-tech effects include cables strung across the stage to send other umbrellas floating skyward, or on which to hang sea-blue bolts of cloth as ocean waves in the magical tempest Prospero stirs up to shipwreck his enemies on his island. Late in the play, a trio of giant puppets appear as mythical spirits. 

Prospero, as he explains to his daughter Miranda (Leah Filley), was once the duke of Milan. When she was an infant, he was deposed by his jealous brother Antonio (Paul Morella), who conspired with Prospero’s nemesis, Alonso, King of Naples (Ian LeValley). Prospero and Miranda survived the overthrow, unbeknownst to their enemies, with the help of a wise elder, Gonzalo (Alan Wade). Safe on the island, Prospero practiced his magic with the help of his books and a sprite, Ariel (Julie-Ann Elliott, in a silver dress lined with fairy lights) to do his bidding. The only other inhabitant is a human-monster hybrid, Caliban (Ryan Mitchell, all in green, his face mud-caked), the son of a witch. Prospero keeps Caliban in shackles, as he once tried to interfere lustfully with Miranda. 

In many contemporary productions of The Tempest, Caliban becomes a metaphor for British colonial exploitation or slavery. This staging leaves that interpretation alone, and Mitchell plays the role more for laughs than anything deeper—one reason Olney can recommend the show for ages eight and older. 

Wallace, his hair white and his voice resonant, digs into Prospero’s anger at his enemies. Near the end, when Prospero decides to abjure his magic and forgive them (like another late play, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest is all about forgiveness and redemption), Wallace shows clearly what it costs Prospero to do the right thing. 

Low comedy in Shakespeare can be a tedious enterprise if the perpetrators try too hard. The buffoons in this staging have a pretty light touch with the play’s extended and surprisingly funny drunk scene: A butler from the ship, Stephano (Dan Van Why), and the jester Trinculo (Jacob Mundell) get roaring drunk with Caliban. Actor Adam Turck, in a couple of smaller roles, has an assured presence and the ability to round out a character with few or no words.

Part of Prospero’s grand plan is to create a love match between his daughter Miranda and Ferdinand (Alexander Korman), son of the King of Naples. He is positive the two will fall instantly in love (they do), but he lets father and son, stranded separately, each think the other is dead for a good while before he reunites them at the end. 

So loose ends loop themselves into bows, and ill feelings (mostly) melt away as Prospero begs the audience to release him from his trials with their goodwill: “As you from crimes would pardoned be/Let your indulgence set me free.” 

This Tempest isn’t free—for those older than ten, anyway—but it is a bargain and a treat.

The Tempest is at Olney Theatre through August 3. Running time is about two hours, 40 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($20; free for children ten and under) are available online

Posted at 02:45 PM/ET, 07/22/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
This one-man show explores the public and private lives of its titular character. By Tanya Pai
Roger Guenveur Smith in Rodney King at Woolly Mammoth. Photograph by Patti McGuire.

What’s the human cost of social progress? What happens to a person who all of a sudden is thrust to the forefront of the national conversation, whose entire life becomes a metaphor for a cause? 

These are some of the issues considered in Rodney King, Roger Guenveur Smith’s one-man show currently playing at Woolly Mammoth as part of the Capital Fringe Festival. Smith, who created the show, has made something of a habit of these solo treatments: In the past he’s taken on such figures as abolitionist Frederick Douglass, baseball players Juan Marichal and John Roseboro, and Huey P. Newton, the cofounder of the Black Panther party (Newton’s story became an award-winning TV movie). In King, Smith focuses on the African-American construction worker who was viciously beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991; film of the assault and the acquittal of the police officers involved by an all-white jury led to rioting and violence in LA that resulted in the deaths of 53 people and transformed everyman King into a symbol of race relations. 

King led a troubled life both before the incident that made him infamous and after, including issues with domestic violence and substance abuse, and he eventually drowned in his own swimming pool on Father’s Day 2012. His tragic end became the impetus for Smith to develop this work, and he doesn’t shy away from the flaws of the man at the center of the story; he’s fascinated by the contrast between the real Rodney and the media-constructed one, and there’s a sense of the artist struggling to live with and understand someone else’s demons. Smith has described the piece as “a series of questions, not unlike a postmortem interview with Rodney King,” and he improvises almost all of each performance, taking on the cadences and inflections of a slam poet. It adds a fascinating layer—the audience can actually see the artist working through his thoughts and emotions and coming to new understandings—but the loose structure means the show sometimes meanders from one point to the next. 

Smith arrives at no clear answers or sweeping realizations, though the point of the performance seems more to crystallize emotions and impressions than to find anything resembling a solution to the deeply entrenched societal issues the play touches on. Still, there’s plenty of pointed criticism: Smith at various times skewers the media, the police, even the audience, following a chuckle-earning line with the observation, directed at King, that people now see him as a joke. Throughout it all there’s a constant refrain of “Right, Rodney?,” a phrase Smith delivers in tones alternately compassionate, quizzical, and condemnatory. At times, he seems to understand King deeply; at others, he’s still grasping for answers. 

The set is bare-bones, and Smith—barefoot, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans—relies on only occasional sound and lighting effects to enhance his performance (lighting by Jose Lopez, sound by Marc Anthony Thompson). The simple staging is a smart choice, stripping away anything that would take the focus off the subject at hand. It also provides an interesting contrast with Smith’s declaration that King is the “first reality-TV star,” invoking a medium that thrives on artifice and edited-in drama. 

King’s tale is a toxic stew of race relations, the corrosive power of media, and the struggle of an ordinary person who suddenly finds himself living very much in the public eye. While Smith touches on many themes—the constancy of violence, the way vices and fates seem to pass down from one generation to the next—he steers clear of inflating King’s life to mythical proportions. Toward the end of the play, in one of the few non-improvised moments, he recites King’s famous speech, pleading to the audience, “Can’t we all get along?” It’s such a simple statement, almost childlike—but, much like its utterer, in context it becomes symbolic of so much more.

Rodney King is at Woolly Mammoth through July 20. Running time is about one hour and ten minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($35) are available online

Posted at 11:50 AM/ET, 07/15/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The 17-year-old musical is a delight for all ages. By Tanya Pai
Nia Holloway as Nala in The Lion King. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

Here’s a stat that may make you feel old: The Disney animated version of The Lion King was released 20 years ago. Thankfully, the Lion King musical, nearly college-age itself at 17 years running, is still able to instill a sense of childlike wonder in even those audience members who’ve aged out of Disney’s target demographic. The musical, directed by Julie Taymor, returns to the Kennedy Center for the first time since 2008, with a talented cast that does the lively production justice. 

None of the story beats will surprise anyone who’s seen the movie—in many places, the gestures and characterization hew exactly to the film, though Elton John and Tim Rice’s movie soundtrack gets beefed up with some additional musical numbers. But what’s so delightful about the stage production is how inventively the creators manage to translate the scope of the film to the constraints of a stage. The opening sequence, set to “The Circle of Life,” is a feast for the eyes, as various members of the animal kingdom are revealed, each brought to life through an ingenious combination of makeup, costume, and puppetry (the puppets and masks are by Michael Curry, hair and makeup by Michael Ward; Taymor is behind the costumes). 

It’s nearly impossible to top that initial dazzling surprise, but the rest of the production offers plenty to enjoy. In the massive cast, Drew Hirshfield as the stuffy royal adviser Zazu is a standout; his handling of the bird puppet is seamless, and he nails the balance of snark, obsequiousness, and raw panic that makes the character so humorous. Also impressive were the youngest members of the cast, Jordan A. Hall and Nya Cymone Carter, who on press night played young Simba and young Nala, respectively; they displayed solid song-and-dance skills and acting chops that held up well alongside their adult costars. Tshidi Manye as the sage baboon Rafiki commits admirably to the role, infusing her many gestures and few lines with sly humor; Patrick R. Brown as Scar, on the other hand, offered a performance that read bored rather than menacing, which saps some of the big moments of their drama. One of the undisputed stars is the scenic design (by Richard Hudson, with lighting by Richard Holder), with various elaborate set pieces that take the audience from expansive savannah to lush jungle to gray, forbidding elephant graveyard. Especially memorable was the staging of the wildebeest stampede that kills King Mufasa, a scene that left a few audience members’ eyes less than dry on press night. 

The North American touring production of The Lion King marks its 5,000th performance on July 13 at the Kennedy Center—a significant milestone—but even more remarkable is its enduring ability to surprise and amaze viewers of all ages. 

The Lion King is at the Kennedy Center through August 17. Running time is around two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($40 to $195) are available online

Posted at 02:25 PM/ET, 06/30/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Michael Urie stars in this comedic one-man showcase that examines the modern fixation on celebrity. By Jane Horwitz
Michael Urie in Buyer & Cellar. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

When a smart, funny script and an ideally matched actor unite in perfect harmony, they give us Buyer & Cellar, a comic solo piece audiences can savor as they watch it—between belly laughs—and remember fondly for years to come. It’s only here until June 29, so make your plans. 

Actor Michael Urie, an ebullient, coltish, 90-mile-an-hour talker, capers around the stage as if he were a cast of 20, and that’s no small feat in Sidney Harman Hall. Best known as Marc St. James on TV’s Ugly Betty, Urie trained for theater at Juilliard and has many stage credits, among them a turn as Mercutio in Folger Theatre’s 2005 Romeo and Juliet. In Jonathan Tolins’s Buyer & Cellar, he plays at least five people, the two key ones being an out-of-work actor named Alex and Alex’s new employer, Barbra Streisand. 

Alex has taken a gig working in a basement shopping mall on Streisand’s Malibu estate (yes, you read that right). He’s in charge of a faux street of little shops stocked with vintage collectibles in the lower level of the “barn”—a building set apart from the main house. Streisand chronicled her creation of the place in a 2010 book, My Passion for Design, for which she provided the text and photographs. The book inspired playwright Tolins (The Twilight of the Golds) to wonder what it would be like to work, all alone, in a basement of shops with no customers save the diva herself. 

“This is a work of fiction,” Urie warns the audience when he bounds onto Andrew Boyce’s handsome minimalist set, a putty-colored trapezoidal box, set off with tasteful wainscoting and furnished with a table, a chair, and a bench in the French Provincial style found in many a girl’s bedroom in the 1960s. The events he’s about to relate, he continues, “could not possibly have happened to a person as famous, talented, and litigious as Barbra Streisand.” 

And with that, Urie, under Stephen Brackett’s deft direction, becomes Alex More, a struggling LA actor, newly fired from a job at Disneyland, where he reacted to a bratty kid with a tad too much hostility. (Some elements of this show are too raw for ears younger than high-school age.) Alex learns of a job at an unnamed Malibu estate and goes for an interview. A sarcastic factotum tells him, “The lady of the house needs someone to work in the mall in her basement . . . take care of the inventory, work the floor, greet the customer.” That’s customer, singular. 

Alex gets the gig and learns his boss will be Streisand. His boyfriend, Barry, a wannabe screenwriter with a far more cynical view of celebrity, thinks Alex should use the job to deconstruct and debunk her mythic persona. But Alex, all alone in that strange basement, slowly falls under the spell. An ornate boutique full of costumes from fabled Streisand roles looks to him “like a dress shop in Gigi, stocked with clothes from Funny Girl.” The display for the gown Streisand wore when she sang “People” in Funny Girl seemed the ultimate in iconography. “If the Ark of the Covenant was behind the chaise, I wouldn’t have been the least surprised,” he snarks. As Alex tells the story in flashback, he keeps a sarcastic distance he couldn’t maintain at the time.

After many days alone manning the shops, he finally meets La Streisand, hankering for a stroll through her mini mall. In that backhanded, manicured gesture we all know, she pushes the smooth, straight locks from her face and tawks to Alex. The real actor Urie becomes the fictional actor Alex becoming Streisand. It’s delicious. 

It dawns on Alex that Streisand just wants some company, with hubby James Brolin off on a film shoot. In her antique dolls shop, she decides to “buy” a charming French automaton. Alex invents an imaginary history for the doll—how it survived the “Battle of the Third Arrondissement” in Paris during World War II. Streisand offers $500. After a dramatic pause, Alex tells her he can’t take less than $850. She opts into his fantasy and over several weeks, she visits, and they negotiate and spar and confide. Streisand seems to take a motherly interest in Alex. “Call me Barbra,” she tells him. OMG! Alex is officially besotted. This sours his romance with the skeptical Barry, who sees Alex as incredibly gullible. 

All good things must come to an end, as Alex sadly learns. But playwright Tolins has him come away not bitter, but with a new understanding of the loneliness of celebrity, particularly cult-status celebrity, and of the essential aloneness of life in general. That more serious revelation sneaks in amid the show’s consistent hilarity, thanks to Urie’s engaging persona and flawless timing, and Tolins’s knowing script. 

This is a close encounter of the terrific kind.

Buyer & Cellar is at Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall through June 29. Running time is one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($25 to $75) are available online.

Posted at 10:25 AM/ET, 06/24/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The musical about conjoined-twin vaudeville entertainers gets a gorgeously staged revival. By Missy Frederick
Ryan Silverman, Emily Padgett, Erin Davie, and Matthew Hydzik in Side Show at the Kennedy Center. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

In Side Show, the lump-in-the-throat act one closer, “Who Will Love Me As I Am?,” becomes more than a sad ballad emoting the heartbreaking circumstances of a pair of conjoined twins at the heart of the musical. The show-stopper becomes an anthem for anyone who has experienced a barrier—race, sexual orientation, even a simple lack of passion—that keeps them from getting the kind of love they deserve.

Side Show’s ability to take very specific, even strange characters and situations and make them universal and wholly relatable is one of the show’s many strengths. The musical begins in a carnival sideshow, where the twins Violet and Daisy Hilton are the star attraction among a stunning cornucopia of geeks, bearded ladies, and little people—a mix of stage hoaxes and individuals attempting to capitalize on their actual deformities. Slick producer Terry (Ryan Silverman) and performance coach Buddy (Matthew Hydzik) come on the scene with the promise of a better life—fame, freedom, maybe even love. But the world beyond the Side Show might not be as different and accepting as the twins are hoping.

Director Bill Condon’s (Chicago, Dreamgirls) visually stunning production is less abstract than the 1997 Broadway flop and cult favorite that preceded it. That show made its performers’ abnormalities more of an illusion; here, Paul Tazewell’s costumes show the sideshow “freaks” in all their glory: the crackling skin of the reptilian lizard man, the creepy, elongated features of the geek. This Side Show excels at making its audience confront their discomfort: It’s nearly impossible to avoid marveling at the performers even as it feels inherently wrong to do so. 

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Posted at 12:36 PM/ET, 06/23/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The bawdy puppet musical provides plenty of adults-only laughs. By Tanya Pai
The cast of Avenue Q at Olney Theatre Center. Photograph by Stan Barouh.

The same year Avenue Q opened on Broadway, 2003, it won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and is now the 23rd longest-running musical on Broadway. These days, its particular blend of offensive humor, millennial navel-gazing, and puppetry feels perhaps less surprising than it once did—but even after more than a decade in existence, it’s still very, very funny, as ably proven in Olney Theatre’s current production, directed by Jason Loewith

The story begins with Princeton (Sam Ludwig), a recent college graduate who is looking for a purpose in life—and an apartment. It’s the latter search that leads him to Avenue Q, where he finds a cluster of homes occupied by a motley crew of humans and puppets—engaged couple Brian and Christmas Eve (Evan Casey and Janine Sunday), roommates Nicky (Stephen Gregory Smith) and Rod (Ludwig again), Kate Monster (Rachel Zampelli) and Trekkie Monster (also Smith), and the superintendent, former child star Gary Coleman (Kellee Knighten Hough). The new friends help each other through a spate of life problems, working through their feelings of aimlessness and their sexual frustration and confusion through song-and-dance numbers such as “If You Were Gay,” “The Internet Is For Porn,” and “Schadenfreude.” Set designer Court Watson recreates a believably shabby New York City block, and costume designer Rosemary Pardee puts the characters in a mishmash of low fashion (all the puppeteers are in varying shades of black and gray).

The setup pays clear homage to Sesame Street: The puppets are reminiscent of Jim Henson, and certain themes of the play are underlined by animated bits set to a chorus of children’s voices (JJ Kaczynski is behind the animation). But Avenue Q’s sensibility has more in common with South Park and Book of Mormon—suitably, as creator Robert Lopez partnered with the former’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the latter. Swear words and politically incorrect humor abound, as does meta commentary on the fact that most of the characters are puppets, as in a memorable and slightly disconcerting sex scene toward the end of the first act. 

With choreography by Bobby Smith and conductor Christopher Youstra behind the orchestra, the upbeat numbers are so high-energy and amusing that it can make the more sentimental songs seem to drag slightly by contrast. And the character of Christmas Eve, a deliberate amalgamation of Japanese stereotypes, begins to grate occasionally, despite Janine Sunday’s powerful performance. Almost all the cast members nimbly embody multiple roles throughout the play, but especially impressive is Zampelli, who switches effortlessly between Kate Monster’s girl-next-door innocence and cabaret singer Lucy the Slut’s overblown sexuality, at one point even having an entire conversation with herself. 

As one might expect from a raunchy musical involving puppets, the production requires a certain suspension of logic—Why are there monsters? What’s Gary Coleman doing there?—but Avenue Q will certainly make you laugh, and provides an evening well worth leaving the kids at home for.

Avenue Q is at Olney Theatre through July 6. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($32 to $65) are available online

Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 06/20/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The world premiere dance event tells the stories of doctors in wartime. By Tanya Pai
Paul Hurley and Keith A. Thompson in Healing Wars at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photograph by Teresa Wood.

The experience of Healing Wars begins before the show does. To enter the auditorium, audience members must progress through a series of living dioramas that illustrate various facets of Civil War life: a woman soldier disguised as a man and awaiting medical attention, a gravedigger completing his duties, a young man preparing to go off to battle. Then the performance begins, featuring those same actors embodying multiple characters in wars that span centuries and continents. 

Healing Wars, choreographer and director Liz Lerman’s world premiere theatrical dance performance currently playing at Arena Stage, explores the experiences of the physicians tasked with caring for soldiers during wartime and after—with all the frustration, helplessness, and fleeting triumphs that involves. Narrated by the actor Bill Pullman (Independence Day) and with an eight-person cast that includes Pullman’s wife, Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, Healing Wars uses a combination of dance and spoken word to tell the stories of surgeons and counselors from the Civil War through present day—both the patients they managed to help and, more often, the ones they couldn’t. 

The scope of the production is ambitious and can at times overwhelm. The vignettes travel back and forth in time without explicitly stating when each occurs, leading to brief jarring moments as viewers re-orient themselves. Other times there is so much movement on the stage, coupled with the narration and music, that it can be hard to know what to focus on, and Pullman’s integration into the choreography is somewhat uneven. But the cast members, of both genders and a range of ages and ethnicities, are well coordinated in ensemble pieces and equally strong in solo sequences.

The set, designed by Obie Award winner David Israel Reynoso (who’s also behind the costumes), features a tangle of hospital beds suspended above the stage, gauze curtains the dancers pull forward to use as partitions, and two benches. One of these benches is employed in one of the most affecting segments, which centers on Paul Hurley, a graduate of DC’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts who served as a US Navy gunner’s mate in Bahrain and returned home after an injury cost him part of his leg. In the segment, Hurley removes his prosthesis, which is visible throughout Healing Wars, and must rely on the support of another performer as he moves about the stage. It’s a powerful visual reminder of the consequences of war and serves to ground the performance in that uncomfortable, inescapable reality. 

In another more lighthearted sequence, somewhat improbably set to Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” the performers dance along to footage projected onto video screens on the back of the stage of real-life soldiers mugging to the song while overseas (the lighting is by Heidi Eckwall, sound by Darron L. West; Kate Freer is the media designer). The comedy of the moment is underscored by tension—one can’t help but wonder whether those soldiers made it home, and what shape they were in if they did. It’s the idea at the root of the show: that even those who return from war with their bodies intact have wounds, and the recovery process is a war itself.

Healing Wars is at Arena Stage through June 29. Running time is about one hour and 20 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($40 to $100) are available online

Posted at 04:33 PM/ET, 06/16/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
This captivating one-woman show explores the psychological toll of modern warfare. By Tanya Pai
Lucy Ellinson in Grounded at Studio Theatre. Photograph by Igor Dmitry.

As the audience files into the theater before Grounded begins, the play’s lone character, the Pilot (Lucy Ellinson), stands inside a glowing, gauze-sided cube, clad in a flight suit, feet planted firmly on the floor, gazing out at the crowd. It is one of the only moments in the hourlong play that the Pilot stands still. 

In George Brant’s fast-paced, gripping show, which takes place entirely inside that glowing cube (designed by Oliver Townsend), the Pilot is deployed in Afghanistan, blissfully spending her days flying fighter jets and her evenings palling around with the men from her unit. Until one night she meets a man at a bar and, impressed by his lack of intimidation at her forceful personality, she takes him home, and eventually winds up pregnant. This isn’t some tragic tale of a one-night stand, though—when she’s grounded from flying and shows up at her lover’s door, he promptly proposes, and they settle into a happy family life with their daughter. Happy, that is, until the Pilot is permanently reassigned to the “Chair Force,” relegated to piloting drones from a trailer in a Las Vegas desert. 

Ellinson, who starred in the buzzed-about production of the play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is mesmerizing in her portrayal of the Pilot, whiplashing from one emotion to the next—anger, resignation, panic, false cheer—all with a gloss of bravado that’s both humorous and heartbreaking. The show avoids getting mired in the conflicts one might expect—Will she keep the baby? Will her lover reject her?—choosing instead to focus on her struggle to balance a satisfying career, a solid marriage, and a great relationship with her child and ending up with pale imitations of all three. Is it possible for her to have it all—or will she make herself insane trying? 

This isn’t just, though, an exploration of the now-common “working-woman conundrum”—the play is primarily a more chilling look at the world of modern warfare and its effects on the psychology of soldiers. Ellison is bored to depression by her sedentary job but confesses to a powerful adrenaline rush when the action picks up. While she’s struck by the absurdity of her husband serving her French toast before she goes off to war, she soon begins to warm to the power she wields via remote control. There are mentions of our overreliance on technology, as when the Pilot complains of going from staring at a box all day at her job to staring at the glowing box of her television at home; and of 21st-century surveillance state paranoia, when she becomes convinced the “eye in the sky” is watching her, even in a department store dressing room. As the combination of cabin fever and paranoia begins to creep in, Ellison offers an unnerving depiction of a woman teetering on the edge of a breakdown.

Lighting by Mark Howland and often jarring musical cues (sound design by Tom Gibbons) mark the transitions from one setting to the next, but the constraints of the set lend a perpetually claustrophobic air. Interestingly, the cube, though transparent from the outside, is apparently opaque from within, turning the audience into the unseen force observing the Pilot as she observes her targets. In a time when technology allows people the freedom to soar thousands of feet above the earth and the ability to see across the world, the Pilot ends up more trapped than ever.

Grounded is at Studio Theatre through June 29. Running time is about one hour, with no intermission. Tickets ($39 to $59) are available through Studio’s website

Posted at 03:57 PM/ET, 06/12/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Noël Coward’s comedy of manners gets a sparkling staging by Maria Aitken. By Jane Horwitz
James Waterston as Elyot and Bianca Amato as Amanda in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Break out the Champagne and foie gras, everyone—it’s time to celebrate the effervescent revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives at Shakespeare Theatre. 

Private Lives  is a difficult play to do well and an easy one to ruin. An ill-matched cast or heavy-handed director can drain the piece of its fizz and leave it flopping on the stage like a just-caught trout. Actress-turned-director (and Royal Shakespeare Company veteran) Maria Aitken has done a creditable job of staging this classic, and that is not to damn with faint praise. It means that she and her uniformly crackerjack cast get the anti-romantic, love-is-ridiculous, isn’t-it-nice-to-be-rich, isn’t-respectability-boring vibe of Coward’s 1930 hit, and they run with it. It takes a while for the effervescence to get bubbling, though, and some physical aspects of the production look a little drab by lavish Shakespeare Theatre standards. (This is a remount of a 2012 production from the Huntington Theatre in Boston). But once Private Lives  finally breaks out of the gate, about ten minutes in, it’s a festival of glibness, glamour, and bad behavior.

The once-married couple at the center of the play—Elyot (James Waterston) and Amanda (Bianca Amato)—are unwittingly honeymooning with their new spouses at the same hotel on the French Riviera. Before the final curtain, they will have abandoned their new partners, ensconced themselves in Amanda’s Paris flat, bickered to the point of coming to blows (despite their use of a “safe” phrase to stop arguments before they escalate), made up romantically, and then fought again—victims of “this ludicrous, overbearing love of ours.” When finally their abandoned spouses arrive, the bickering resumes, but in wider patterns. Coward demonstrates that love is, indeed, a form of insanity. 

The lights come up on adjoining balconies, framed by pinkish arches and a slice of mansard roof (set design by Allen Moyer). The distant sounds of ships on the Mediterranean barely intrude; the orchestra in the nearby casino comes in clearer. The two honeymoon couples, still unaware of one another, emerge sequentially for pre-dinner flirtation and cocktails. First, the witty, tuxedoed Elyot and his much younger, wholly conventional bride, Sybil (Autumn Hurlbert), blonde and perky in a floral print with ruffles. (The character-perfect costumes are by Candice Donnelly). We learn that Elyot’s tempestuous marriage to Amanda was painful and that it was all Amanda’s fault. When Elyot and Sybil exit, Amanda and Victor (Jeremy Webb) wander onto their balcony—she a brunette sophisticate in a slinky dressing gown, he a staid chap in a tweed suit. From their chatter we learn Elyot was a philandering beast and the divorce was all his fault. Amanda concedes to her new spouse that even as a young woman, she had a heart “jagged with sophistication,” but that now she wants steadiness with a dependable man. 

Not for long, though. When Elyot and Amanda reemerge minus their mates for a quiet cigarette and a drink, the strains of their old love song waft up—“Someday I’ll Find You,” by Coward himself. Elyot hums it, Amanda hears him, and they turn in horror to find each other. Each claims to be happily remarried, but the old spark soon ignites. “I have the most extraordinary sensation of impending disaster,” says Elyot to Sybil after trying to convince her to check out and go somewhere else. Soon, he and Amanda have skipped out on their respective mates. 

Webb and Hurlbert make wonderful work of the ill-used Victor and Sybil—he a fellow with kind instincts but no imagination; she a spoiled child, but not without feelings. These are roles that can be thankless ones in lesser hands.

As the incendiary Elyot and Amanda, Waterston and Amato started off on opening night a little muted and tentative, but were soon aloft on Coward’s words. Waterston plays Elyot as equal parts puppy dog and rich, idle playboy. Amato’s Amanda is brainy, impulsive, and passionate. Both actors make their characters’ hair-trigger tempers comical yet truly problematic. Director Aitken, who has starred in many a Coward play herself, sees to it that all four actors speak Coward’s hyper-stylish dialogue and well-turned witticisms with ease and without stilted vowels, and she never lets them lose track of their characters’ hearts.

It is, in fact, the cast fully enabled with heart, humor and style that makes this Private Lives a public treat. 

Private Lives is at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre through July 13. Running time is two hours and 15 minutes, including two intermissions. Tickets ($40 to $100) are available online.

Posted at 03:00 PM/ET, 06/11/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Emily Townley stars in this sharply funny show about the absurdities of modern political campaigns. By Missy Frederick
Emily Townley as Penny Easter in The Totalitarians. Photograph by Stan Barouh.

The Totalitarians is the kind of hilarious but unsettling show in which a character gurgling on his own blood while he’s trying to make a speech gets huge laughs from the audience.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s bizarre, satirical and raucous play, making its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, focuses on a frustrated speechwriter charged with trying to make a hapless political candidate electable. Penny Easter (Emily Townley) is brash, guffaw-prone, slightly dim, and wholly inexperienced, complete with bedazzled jeans and a husband she can’t seem to stop mentioning is homosexual. But put some silky, charged, and unconventional words from Francine (Dawn Ursula) in her mouth, and she’s electrifying. Maybe too electrifying. Are larger, more sinister forces at work, trying to get her elected? For much of the play, the audience isn’t totally sure, but that doesn’t stop Francine’s husband, Jeffrey (Sean Meehan), from going down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, with a little help from an idealistic and charismatic patient of his named Ben (Nicholas Loumos).

The Totalitarians is sharp, briskly paced, and very funny. Director Robert O’Hara has created a world that feels slightly futuristic yet entirely familiar. Misha Kachman’s set, accented with video screens often displaying larger-than-life photos of a slick-looking Penny, helps lend to the show’s creepy vibe of fascism.

Well-drawn characters, such as the driven Francine and the pitiable Ben, make the show feel unpredictable and fresh. The least convincing of these figures, admittedly, is Meehan’s susceptible-to-influence Jeffrey, whose actions are the toughest to buy as credible—which is saying something in a show where other characters can pull off filming political protest videos in pink ski masks or shooting people with arrows with gusto. He’s well-balanced, though, by the complex Francine, who attempts to weigh her career ambitions and complicated personal life against the moral complexities facing any speechwriter whose muse might be up to no good, politically. 

And then there’s Penny. The success of The Totalitarians rests largely in the hands of Emily Townley, who positively glows as the nightmare political candidate/former roller girl champion who wants to unite Nebraska. Though on paper she seems to share some DNA with a Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann figure, she’s a fully realized creation that others underestimate at their peril. Townley is a force to reckon with in the role; it’s a performance that’s captivating—and slightly terrifying—to behold.

The Totalitarians is at Woolly Mammoth through June 29. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($60 to $87.50) are available through Woolly’s website.

Posted at 02:15 PM/ET, 06/10/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()