Act A Lady – Hub Theatre

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“Act a Lady” the charming play currently running at the Hub Theatre in Fairfax is a fanciful adventure into self-discovery by each of the main characters.  The show takes place during the prohibition era in a small Minnesota town where the men of the town have decided to stage a play for charity where they will be playing the women in the show, which is a French Revolution period piece.  Through the staging of the show within the show each of the characters, men and women, discovers something in their identity.   The fanciful part of the production is that the characters from the show within the show begin inhabiting the Minnesota town and interacting with the people in the town.  This includes conversations between the characters in the show with the men that are portraying the characters in the show, which at times were performed by the women in the cast.  Did you keep that straight?  Don’t worry, it isn’t nearly as complicated in person and sets up for some poignant and funny moments throughout the show.  The complicated nature of the show and the somewhat over the top nature of the show within the show means that you need a particularly skilled cast to pull it off and not have it fall apart and into complete absurdity and the cast here did that from top to bottom. 

While each of the characters has moments of self-discovery the most poignant is that of Caspar, who is a closeted gay man in this small Minnesota town who is afraid to outwardly express who he is, all the while having feelings for one of the other men in the town, who goes by the name True.  Over the course of the show, like all the characters, he learns to embrace who he is even if it isn’t something that would be accepted in this small town.  The same goes for True, who earned the nickname for his always being truthful.  Of course, there are layers of him that need to be peeled away for a deep hidden secret he has to come to light and for him to accept.  And so the story goes for each of the characters in the show.

The most impressive and enjoyable part of the show is the skill amongst each of the performers as they are taking on multiple roles and often change characters from scene to scene.  Each of the three male actors portray their character from the Minnesota town, the character they are acting in the show within the show, and the real life character from the show within the show that has come to life.  The woman all portray the woman in the town and at times the men from the Minnesota town.  They each inhabit each character so distinctly that they are truly performing a different character that you don’t even need any cues to figure out which character they are.  This is most distinctly evident towards the end of the show when the men are all dressed as the French Revolution women and at times they are the actual women from that time period that have inhabited this Minnesota town and at other times the Minnesota men dressed as the French women.

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McPhee Exposed Again

The Caps re-signing of Karl Alzner to a 4 years contract and an average of $2.8 million per season is a fabulous deal.  But it also continues to expose George McPhee and his overall decision making process.  Just a week earlier the Capitals bought Jeff Schultz out of his contract that had one year left on it.  A deal that many, myself included were highly critical of at the time the deal was made.  That deal stood at 4 years and averaged $2.75 million per season.  It isn’t a perfect straight line comparison because there is a new CBA and different representatives and players involved.  However, it is a rather stark example how the decision makers of the Washington Capitals, namely George McPhee, felt about Jeff Schultz.  When McPhee handed out his contract to Schultz he clearly viewed the monetary value of Jeff Schultz over the four years of his contract to be similar to that of Karl Alzner over the next four years.  Or in simpler terms, he expected Schultz to be what he expects Alzner will be.  Any follower of the Caps knows that was about as big a miscalculation as any.  On top of that, just this past season he gave John Erskine a two year extension with a value just shy of $2 million per season.  Is there anyone really willing to stand up and say Karl Alzner is actually worth only $800,000 more per season compared to John Erskine?  Just another example of McPhee frittering away salary cap space and the ability for the Caps to be true Stanley Cup contenders instead of early round fodder for the big boys of the NHL.

That really gets to the crux of George McPhee and his management of the Washington Capitals.  He has made a habit of making some very shrewd trades and signing certain players to reasonable contracts.  But on the flip side he has grossly overpaid some roster players and has idly stood by watching the talent of the roster disappear.  The Schultz and Erskine contracts are just examples of third pair defensemen being paid like top 4 defensemen and eating away at the salary cap.  The Pittsburgh Penguins just re-signed Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz each to extensions valued around $3.75 million per year.  The Capitals equivalent of that is Troy Brouwer and that doesn’t account for the $4.5 million per season that is being earned by Brooks Laich and Martin Erat.  Should we even discuss Joel Ward’s $3 million per season contract?  How about Braden Holtby being anointed the team’s starting goaltender and his back-up Michal Neuvirth earning $650,000 more per season.  All just more money being whittled away in small increments and handcuffing the organization from making moves to bring in more high-end talent.

In the past year, McPhee has let walk without any compensation Alexander Semin and Mike Ribeiro.  You can make a case that both moves were the correct moves in an isolated view; however, when you let those players walk you can just stand by and not replace that talent.  The attrition of the talent level of this organization has been incredible over the past several seasons. Alexander Semin was earning $6.7 million per season in his last year with Washington and Mike Ribeiro was earning $5 million per season.  That means over the past two seasons they’ve let almost $12 million in salary walk between just those two players and it has basically been used to obtain Martin Erat.  Where did the rest of the money go?  A back-up goaltender and  unwarranted significant raises to roster players.  And that doesn’t even account for the $2.75 million buyout of Jeff Schultz. 

But as Capitals fans we get to hear the typical and extremely tiresome refrain of being happy with the roster that is regurgitated by George McPhee on a yearly basis.  Only with hopes of current roster players improving and rookies like Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov filling the holes created by McPhee’s mismanagement as the saving grace.  But don’t worry, over the next year we will get to hear the national media crucify Alexander Ovechkin for not carrying the Capitals further in the playoffs while they ignore the fact that there isn’t one other forward on the roster that is a 30 goal scorer, much less a consistent 20 goal scorer.  Then next year around this time we can all sit back and listen to George McPhee say how he is happy with the roster he has put together.  Rinse, repeat.

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Baby Universe – Studio Theatre

 

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If I said the latest must see show in DC was science fiction, a good number of people would turn and run the other way.  If I said that the show was a puppet show another segment wouldn’t even consider seeing the show.  What reaction should you expect for a science fiction puppet show?  Well, hopefully it is to turn and run to Studio Theatre to see Wakka Wakka Productions show “Baby Universe”.  A clever, funny and heart-warming show that encompasses traditional themes of sacrifice and love…and of course a penis joke or two.  “Baby Universe” does what any good science fiction is supposed to do.  It captures those universal themes and presents them with completely engaging characters in a world that isn’t quite ours, but that we can see when we look in the mirror. 

The show takes place in the distant future as Earth is dying and the last remaining earthlings live in an underground bunker and are trying to create a universe that has a hospitable planet that they could inhabit.  Universe 7001 is created and given to a human to care and nuture.  The hope is that this baby universe will grow and create a planet that will support human life.  As the baby universe grows he becomes attached to his human caretaker (Mother) and goes through those moments any child goes through.  Whether it is a temper tantrum, the innocent child’s question about gender, or curiosity about the world around him.  The humanistic qualities and true caring they were able to give to this puppet of a universe and its mother is the real heart of the show and creates several laugh out loud moments as well as the most poignant one. 

No show is complete without some sort of conflict though.  In this case it is a 10 foot tall Sun who is in its dying days and will have none of the humans trying to create another universe to move to.  He created everything and he will take everything with him when he dies.  So who does the Sun enlist?  The answer should be obvious, his henchman the moon and his squad of planets that are reminiscent in personality of Statler and Waldorf (the two old guys) in the Muppets.  Their mission, prevent Universe 7001 from developing and becoming a Universe that could host human beings.  In resolving this conflict the show does what all good science fiction does.  It comes back to universal themes that we all can recognize and in this case it is the love of Mother and child and the concept of sacrificing yourself to save the one you love.  And of course with a penis joke or two along the way.

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Grieving for Genevieve – Venus Theatre Company

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The Venus Theatre production of “Grieving for Genevieve” falls into the classification of a dysfunctional family drama.  If you were to compare it to some other dysfunctional family dramas I have seen recently like “Other Desert Cities” and “August: Osage County” it might not hold up well.  However, it was an unexpectedly enjoyable evening of entertainment in the extremely intimate black box theatre.  The warning before the show that there will be objects thrown comes true as they make good use of the waxed fruit and set pieces being thrown around.  The show tells the story of a family of three daughters and their mother coming together for the middle daughters third wedding and each of the daughters having been damaged throughout their life by their mother.  The eldest daughter, Danni, has escaped the clutches of the family home in Baltimore by escaping and making a life for herself in New York, leaving the middle daughter, Delilah, to feel put upon and responsible for their mother Genevieve all while making a living in a band and as a costume maker for strippers.  The youngest daughter, Angel, escaped Genevieve in her own way by becoming a nun.  And then there is Genevieve, which is partly where the show lost some of its edge. 

As performed, Genevieve came across as the meddling mother; however, the performance lacked that undertone of nastiness and manipulation that would garner the resentment that the three daughters had to her.  For example, when Delilah is going off to make a bridesmaid dress for her older sister, Genevieve wants to make the dress because she can do a better job even though Delilah’s job is as a seamstress.  The comment was performed as almost an aside as opposed to a flat out putdown to her daughter’s capabilities.  The most subtle and interesting performance in the show was by Kelsey Painter as the youngest daughter and nun, Angel.  I don’t know where Ms. Painter is from, but she was the only actress to even attempt to use the Baltimore accent, which really added to the character and the lower class struggle that the family came from.  There were nice moments of humor that she added as well, such as every time she lit up a cigarette she would cross herself as if she had just finished a prayer.  The characters of Delilah and Danni were not flushed out as well.  They were one note characters with Delilah clomping around in revealing outfits while always speaking at a shouting like level and Danni in ill-fitting outfits that just resented everything about her life.  Although these two characters did share the funniest moment of the show when they got into a fight where they were just slapping each others breasts.  That being said, these characters all played their role in helping further the ultimate moral of the story that not everyone is exactly who you think they are when you first meet them.  So, if you want an enjoyable evening of theatre in an extremely intimate setting this show is worth checking out.

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Biography – The American Century Theater

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The American Century Theater’s production of S.N. Behrman’s “Biography” tells the tale of Marion Froude, a successful artist from the 1920s and 30s who is known as much for her paintings of famous people as she is for those she has bedded.  She is the woman that every guy falls for the moment they meet her.  The comedy is based around her childhood boyfriend Leander “Bunny” Nolan who unexpectedly visits her on the eve of his wedding as he is also preparing to run for the United States Senate.  Enter a magazine publisher, Richard “Dickie” Kurt who wants Marion to write a series for his magazine re-telling her life and her loves.  Of course, such a story could really hurt Bunny’s chances at the Senate spot if he is associated with the Kardashian of the day and he tries to get the magazine article squashed.  And at the same time Bunny and Dickie are vying for Marion’s affections.  That of course is what the story is intended to be, but to pull it off Marion has to exude that je ne sais quoi that shows why the men are so drawn to her and the attraction of the men to Marion must be apparent.  Unfortunately, this production falls short every step of the way.  

The show opens with Dickie waiting in Marion’s home for an appointment and she is a half hour late.  He is understandably agitated and becomes even more agitated when she arrives and asks for him to come back in 30 minutes so she can visit with an old friend from Europe that is visiting.  Dickie storms off in a tiff before returning to pitch his idea for the series of magazine articles.  However, there was no subtlety to the performance of the character.  He seemed angry with and had an air of contempt for Marion and Bunny the whole time.  There is no chemistry between him and Marion to make you sense that the two characters have any sort of attraction to each other until you are smacked across the face with it at the end of the second act of this three act play.  And for the performance I saw, at that pivotal moment the two actors were speaking so softly you could not even hear them from the audience and I was no more than 20 feet away.  Additionally, there is no sense that Dickie’s contempt towards Bunny was anything more than him trying to stop the publishing of the article, as opposed to also being because they are both in competition for Marion’s affections.  I should probably back track and really focus on the character of Marion.  A character that is supposed to have that certain something about her.  A certain something that even the audience feels that makes everyone get why the men in the show are attracted to her.  It didn’t exist in this performance.  The 1930s dialogue of calling everyone “darling” and giving people nicknames felt forced and dated.  The performance came across as self-centered and just wanting everyone to like her.  And while that may be what the character actually was, it has to be portrayed in a manner that despite that kind of behavior you like her.  You get why these men have fallen for her and can’t get over her.  And I never got that sense.  It just came across as a shallow individual who was unaware of how her actions really effected those around her.  As for Bunny, the performance missed what I feel is probably the true subtlety of the character, a man that is to be married and is still in love with this woman from his past.  A man that is torn by his feelings for Marion and his fiancée and also by this autobiography being written by Marion that may undercut his ambition for the Senate.  The performance was so hot and cold, as if a switch was turned from his wanting this book to be squashed to his fondness for Marion.   It was never really clear whether Bunny was still in love with Marion until much later in the play and by that point the subtlety of that character was completely lost. 

I wish the problems with the production just stopped there.  Bunny’s future father-in-law Orin was a newspaper magnet from his home State of Tennessee that was going to use his power and influence to stop the magazine articles from being published in order to help Bunny’s Senate campaign.  He was a powerful man who could not be won over and always got his way.  The performance of this seemingly powerful and menacing man is almost buffoonish.  While awaiting the arrival of Marion, this menacing, powerful character voice reaches almost comical octaves when expressing his exacerbation at the situation of the article being published and his daughter’s unexpectedly arriving at Marion’s apartment.  Or after he has finally met Marion he actually bites the knuckles on his fist, like Jack Tripper would do in an episode of “Three’s Company” when a beautiful woman walked in the room.  The brightest spot of the whole show was Caitlyn Conley who played Slade, Bunny’s fiancée.  It was an extremely small role, but in that little stage time during act three, she exuded that je ne sais quoi that Marion was supposed to possess.  Seeing this bundle of energy and chutzpah I could better understand if she had been the character that Dickie and Bunny were so attracted.    

The use of sound effects to represent a door shutting, a doorbell and a telephone were comical.  You couldn’t decipher the difference between the door bell and telephone and the sound of a door shutting was almost funny if it hadn’t been so bad.  I was timing when this creaking audio clip of a door shutting would play.  The stage basically consisted of the audience sitting on two sides, but the use of the space was perplexing.  They placed a small red table and stools on one side of the stage and the actors often sat at the table with their backs to half the audience despite being a foot or two away from them.  At the same time, the entirety of the middle section of the stage was just an open floor with no props or set pieces.  Lastly, I’m not sure if the script dictates when the show takes place, but the incessant taking on and off of coats and hats by characters became distracting.  Especially when characters were about to leave the loft apartment and put on their hat and coats, but never quite got out the door and had to take them back off. 

In the playbill, the theater’s Artistic Director inexplicably goes about almost attacking other shows from the same era of the 1930s as being less worthy of the fame they received and how this was the true underappreciated gem of that era.  It was a bit off-putting to see an Artistic Director take such a tact as those sections are generally used to espouse the virtues of the show the theater is putting on and not to attack other works.  It comes off particularly nasty considering the production they put on certainly didn’t change my mind about why this has become a rarely performed piece.

 

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The Hampton Years – Theater J

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“The Hampton Years” recounts the story of Viktor Lowenfeld, an Austrian Jewish immigrant to the United States and his relocation to Virginia in the 1940s to start an art department at Hampton University and his teaching of artists John Biggers and Samella Lewis.  Throughout the show, Viktor implores his students to do more with their art, to dig deep within themselves and their emotions to really draw out their art.  If only the show had taken that advice.  If you want a quick sketch of this potentially intriguing story then you will certainly receive that from this production, but if, like me, you enjoy theater that delves deep into the emotions of the characters and explores the more difficult and aspects of their lives than this misses the boat completely.  The show felt like there were several different stories within the production, but it never completely committed to any one of those and left me as a passive passenger on the journey.  A journey that seemed more interested in arriving at the conclusion, providing a few moral lessons and giving everyone a happy-ending than putting forth a truly entertaining dramatic production. 

Was this a show about Viktor’s development of the art department, his relationship with his students, John Biggers becoming an artist, Samella Lewis becoming an artist, the racism the characters experienced in trying to become artists?  It was all those things, but by trying to be all those things it was none of them.  It almost played out as a series of snapshots about these characters, but as soon as the scene was over so was the dramatic arc that was being developed.  For instance, at one point in the show the US Navy is upset with a mural John was commissioned to paint in the mess hall that portrays some of the black soldiers performing their jobs that elicits imagery of slavery.  Viktor refuses to stand up for him the way we want and the scene ends.  John is then in a mental hospital for treatment of depression and receives a note of support from Viktor, which causes John to start painting and the scene ends.  Other than a passing discussion later about how the letter helped him pick-up his paint brush again it was never addressed.  There was no dramatic performance of John’s downward spiral and the scene where he losses the mural commission does not play as a spark for that depressive cycle.  In another instance we learn that Viktor’s wife was writing letters to her family in Austria since she arrived in the United States, but it is said almost in passing early in the show.  During the second act, Viktor receives a letter stating that his family had all been killed during the Holocaust.  He returns home to show his wife the letter, she collapses in his arms and they slowly make their way off stage.  This 2 minutes of stage time was the totality that this issue was addressed and felt rather superfluous other than a cheap morality moment late in the show.  That morality play came out of left field.  Viktor has moved to Virginia to start this art department and throughout the show he is supportive of his students driving them to become more and wanting their work to obtain more exposure.  There is no hint of any bigotry or racism in the character.  Then we are presented with a scene out of an after school special where Viktor is talking with his wife about his students and explaining how these black students all had common features, because of their race.  Only for Viktor’s wife to compare that belief to the German’s feelings towards the Jews in Europe.  Viktor quickly realizes the error of his thinking, a thinking that was never explored until that very moment of the show…and end scene.  Rinse and repeat this cycle with Samella’s struggles and Viktor’s struggles to get the art department up and running and so on and so forth.  We are continually told about their struggles, but as an audience we are never truly a witness to any of them.  That brings me to the characters of Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, accomplished black artists that are brought to Hampton University to teach, except we never see them teach.  They appear as parental figures to John and Samella, with the true purpose of being stand-ins for the black art community that is wiser to the art world and the world of racism  that Viktor does not quite grasp.

That was the common theme of this show, moment to moment to tell the story, but never really looking to dive into the darker aspects of that story.  The potential for a quality show was there, but the unwillingness to truly explore the darker issues such as John’s depression, Viktor’s struggle to get the art department running, the racism of the era just left the show as a forgettable experience.

 

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The Guardsman – Kennedy Center

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“The Guardsman” currently playing at the Eisenhower Theatre at the Kennedy Center is a surprisingly delightful comedy.  I came in with some hesitancy as it is a new translation of a play that was first put on in 1924.  There hadn’t been great buzz surrounding the arrival of this production and I feared that it was going to be dated with some corny humor.  I guess that is why you go to a show with an open mind and put your pre-conceived notions as to what you are expecting away, because sometimes you’ll find a gem where you weren’t expecting it.  And that is exactly what you got with “The Guardsman”, a gem of a comedy.   The show takes place in Budapest in the early 1900s and tells the story of a nameless actor/husband who believes his nameless actress/wife is no longer in love with him after six months of marriage.  He sets forth a plot to determine whether his wife is actually no longer in love with him by putting on a costume and playing the role of a guardsman (a military leader) and wooing his wife to see whether she would cheat on him, or reject the guardsman and be faithful to him.  On the surface this may seem like the plot of a re-treaded sitcom, but thankfully this show is much more than that.  The plot spills out during the first act when the actor/husband, portrayed by Finn Wittrock, reveals his concern about his wife’s fidelity to a character called The Critic who is also a confidant of both the husband and wife, portrayed by Shuler Hensley.   The show is largely told from the perspective of the husband and the real crux of the show and the comedy is the dual “mystery” of whether the wife/actress, portrayed by Sarah Wayne Callies, actually knows that it was her husband in the costume and whether she still loves her husband.  The obvious silliness of seeing the actor/husband in the facial hair, wig and uniform of the guardsman with a thick accent elicits a laugh from the audience.  However, the most memorable comedy moments are between the actor/husband and the critic and the discussion of the his plot and the guardsman as if he were actually a third person.

The director and actors walked a very fine line of a show that could have easily turned into the silliness of a farce.  With the main character in a costume trying to fool his wife, characters listening to conversations at doors, and characters exiting rooms just as another character is about to enter.   However, the show thankfully never sunk to those levels.  The pacing of the show and the entering and exiting of the rooms was never played for a laugh with the comedy being drawn more from the situation and the conversations between the characters.  It was an extremely well casted production.  Finn Wittrock was superb as a husband who was convinced his wife was cheating on him and was so desperate to catch her that he went to somewhat unbelievable lengths.  Shuler Hensley hit just the right note with The Critic with his loyalty to his friend, but also noting the absolute absurdity of what his friend was attempting to pull off.  And in retrospect, Sarah Wayne Callies really did a fantastic job as the wife in her ability to play the role of this seemingly unhappy woman who receives a spark in her life with the presence of this new suitor in the guardsman.  As the ruse is unraveled her ability to turn everything we know on its head leaves the show with an ending that will provide you and those you see the show with ample opportunity to dissect what the various characters have said and done, who was being truthful, and what the characters actually felt at the close of the show.

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