All Posts By

Mercedes Hesselroth

The Dead, A musical based on James Joyce’s story, from Scena Theatre

By Mercedes Hesselroth

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Irish author James Joyce unfairly gets a bad rap for being “too difficult” to read. His first draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was rejected with a note from the editor saying “I can’t print what I can’t understand.” Joyce’s last and most ambitious work, Finnegans Wake, is often said to require a second book, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, to be read in tandem if one has any hope of understanding the heavily experimental writing style.

Most appraisals of his incomprehensibility are exaggerations, but for those who want a lighter introduction to the world of Joyce, director Robert McNamara has selected James Joyce’s The Dead as Scena Theatre’s holiday show. The musical is a Tony Award-winning adaptation of the final installment in Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners, in many ways a prequel to his best-known tome Ulysses. Joyce’s literary admirer T.S. Eliot called The Dead “the finest” of all the stories in the collection, and perhaps of any short story ever written. Like Joyce’s other writing, The Dead focuses on the everyday people of early 20th-century Ireland and their search for meaning in the face of mortality.

Gabriel Conroy (Louis Lavoie) and his wife Gretta (Danielle Davy) attend a Christmas party at the home of Aunts Kate and Julia Morkan (Rosemary Regan and Andrea Hatfield, respectively). But over the course of the evening, lost love, failed careers, and family secrets threaten the joyfulness of the proceedings. Most problems with the show come from the process of adaptation and are unavoidable for any production. For one, there are twice as many characters than necessary (13 in total), which prevents several of the party guests from having any discernible arcs and leaves cast members cramped into various corners of the stage. Just as Joyce’s writing alternates between the planes of realism and symbolism, this production also mills between a natural and a constructed world.

As such, many of the songs come stacked in rapid succession at the beginning of the show. Less than a breath after finishing their own number, the characters immediately cajole another partygoer into performing. Though this series of songs interrupts all the conversations we just got a peek into, the majority of these threads are dropped entirely and don’t impact the ending of the show. Almost as soon as he arrives, Gabriel is told off by the Jo March-like Molly Ivers (Mo O’Rourke) for writing at a pro-English newspaper, but their debate about the future of Irish sovereignty never reaches a full conclusion. Aunt Kate insults the maid Lilly (Emily K. Collins) at dinner – implying she’s on the verge of hiring someone new in her place – but this tension never resurfaces.

The songs themselves are adeptly accompanied by music director Greg Watkins on keyboard. James Joyce’s The Dead has never received an official wide release cast album, but one wonders if the emotional resonance of the songs would have been clearer with more musicians supporting the cast.

Irish author James Joyce unfairly gets a bad rap for being “too difficult” to read. His first draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was rejected with a note from the editor saying “I can’t print what I can’t understand.” Joyce’s last and most ambitious work, Finnegans Wake, is often said to require a second book, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, to be read in tandem if one has any hope of understanding the heavily experimental writing style.

Most appraisals of his incomprehensibility are exaggerations, but for those who want a lighter introduction to the world of Joyce, director Robert McNamara has selected James Joyce’s The Dead as Scena Theatre’s holiday show. The musical is a Tony Award-winning adaptation of the final installment in Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners, in many ways a prequel to his best-known tome Ulysses. Joyce’s literary admirer T.S. Eliot called The Dead “the finest” of all the stories in the collection, and perhaps of any short story ever written. Like Joyce’s other writing, The Dead focuses on the everyday people of early 20th-century Ireland and their search for meaning in the face of mortality.

But over the course of the evening, lost love, failed careers, and family secrets threaten the joyfulness of the proceedings. Most problems with the show come from the process of adaptation and are unavoidable for any production. For one, there are twice as many characters than necessary (13 in total), which prevents several of the party guests from having any discernible arcs and leaves cast members cramped into various corners of the stage. Just as Joyce’s writing alternates between the planes of realism and symbolism, this production also mills between a natural and a constructed world.

As such, many of the songs come stacked in rapid succession at the beginning of the show. Less than a breath after finishing their own number, the characters immediately cajole another partygoer into performing. Though this series of songs interrupts all the conversations we just got a peek into, the majority of these threads are dropped entirely and don’t impact the ending of the show. Almost as soon as he arrives, Gabriel is told off by the Jo March-like Molly Ivers (Mo O’Rourke) for writing at a pro-English newspaper, but their debate about the future of Irish sovereignty never reaches a full conclusion. Aunt Kate insults the maid Lilly (Emily K. Collins) at dinner – implying she’s on the verge of hiring someone new in her place – but this tension never resurfaces.

The songs themselves are adeptly accompanied by music director Greg Watkins on keyboard. James Joyce’s The Dead has never received an official wide release cast album, but one wonders if the emotional resonance of the songs would have been clearer with more musicians supporting the cast.

Davy delivers the strongest vocal performance of the night, singing of a distant memory in “Goldenhair” and relaying the story of her first love to Gabriel in “Michael Furey.” Lavoie also serves as an able narrator, guiding the audience through the offstage action of the play.

All together the cast builds a believable camaraderie, the kind of laughter between old friends potent enough to make you forget what was so funny in the first place. Like the characters, this feeling of community is all one can hope for during the holidays while we celebrate loved ones past and present, as well as those we have yet to meet.

The Live Streamed SpongeBob Musical: Live on Stage!

by Mercedes Hessleroth

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Over the course of its 20-year run, Nickelodeon cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants has been blamed for everything from causing ADD to promoting violence. Despite these criticisms, the show has survived to earn over $13 billion dollars across its many iterations of books, movies, video games, and even roller coasters. Given the franchise’s reach, a Broadway musical was inevitable – it’s success, however, was not. Luckily, Nickelodeon was smart enough to get experimental director Tina Landau to usher the stage show to life. Landau translated the unfocused mania of the cartoon into the perfect amount of theatrical quirkiness and joy, landing the musical a whopping 12 Tony nominations.

Now, the innovative production has been put to film in The SpongeBob Musical: Live on Stage!, a slightly edited version of the Broadway show. The action opens on a regular day in Bikini Bottom, with SpongeBob (Ethan Slater) heading to work as a fry cook at the Krusty Krab. When a nearby volcano threatens to destroy the town and all its residents, it’s up to SpongeBob to save everyone from the impending apocalypse. But failed restaurateur Plankton (Wesley Taylor), whose ponytail is as slimy as his personality, plans to take over Bikini Bottom in the pre-disaster chaos. This recording, directed for television by Glenn Weiss, forever preserves Slater’s dynamic Tony-nominated performance as SpongeBob.

Though the characters in the show are more humanoid than their animated counterparts, Slater seems to be made of rubber as he fully commits himself to the immense physicality of the role, somersaulting, slipping between ladder rungs, and doing the splits. The relentless optimism he brings to the character convincingly turns SpongeBob from a loser with a dead-end job who can’t drive into an endearing sponge with unrealized potential.

Adding to the uniqueness of the show is the unconventional way its score was assembled. Each number was written by different musicians established outside of musical theatre, from The Flaming Lips to John Legend to Panic! at the Disco, often switching genres from song to song. The result should be a mismatched set of disparate tunes, but music director and orchestrator Tom Kitt strings together both the zany and heartfelt extremes of the score. One of the standout contributions is “No Control,” a reworked David Bowie track from his 1995 dystopian concept album Outside. As Bikini Bottom reckons with its mortality, the bass voice of reporter Perch Perkins (Kelvin Moon Loh) sings out “No fish knows the future/Not a single shark or soul/It’s all deranged/No control.” Not exactly what you’d expect from a children’s show, but The SpongeBob Musical packs a goodie bag of delights that get more unpredictable as the story goes on. Another track worth noting is “When the Going Gets Tough,” a T.I.-penned rap battle between Plankton and SpongeBob that rivals the bars spat on any Hamilton track.

The songs and book are accompanied by live sound effects from Foley artist Mike Dobson. Bookwriter Kyle Jarrow carries over memorable gags from the TV show, like using title cards to signify the passage of time, while injecting the show with plenty of original humor. A favorite moment is a reenactment of SpongeBob and his scientist squirrel friend Sandy (Christina Sajous) climbing the volcano as a Cabbage Patch Kid and American Girl Doll, respectively. Further Easter eggs can be found hidden in the costumes of the hardworking ensemble, designed in tandem with the set by David Zinn, who serves up one visual feast after another. As for the projection design by Peter Nigrini, it’s refreshing to see media embedded into the DNA of a show, rather than as a shortcut or afterthought.

A filmed performance should incite jealousy for the live experience, and The SpongeBob Musical: Live on Stage! does just that. Seeing how this recording captures its whole cast and creative team at the top of their game, it’s a wonder why more producers wouldn’t want their work immortalized in this way. Hopefully the producers of tomorrow won’t be as camera-shy, but for now, SpongeBob is part of a handful of productions leading the way in making theatre accessible to current and future generations. It’s not often a truly all-ages show comes along, but there’s something here for everyone to enjoy, whether you despise the source material or want the “nautical nonsense” to continue another 20 years.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit from Live Garra Theatre

Written by Mercedes Hesselroth

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Though written over 75 years ago, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit endures as a staple in Existentialist thought. Set in hell, the play focuses on three damned souls set to share the same room for all eternity: military deserter Joseph (Todd Leatherbury), upper-class trophy wife Estelle (Karen Lawrence), and lesbian postwoman Ines (Rosita Choy). Director Wanda Whiteside tries her hand at this French drama in Live Garra Theatre’s latest show.

The production purports to have moved the setting to the present day, though I noted no indications it took place anywhere but the timelessness of the afterlife. Even so, Sartre’s ideas of individualism and authenticity still loom large over the twenty-first century when issues of chosen and inherited identity have led to a rise in introspection.

In fact, No Exit is a direct inspiration for Mike Schur’s hit comedy series The Good Place. Viewers were so interested in the philosophical elements of the of the show, NBC decided to create a web series hosted by philosopher Dr. Todd May to teach the audience how to develop good morals. Even the rise of the astrology and tarot movements speaks to how willing people are to search externally for self-knowledge. If you’ve ever filled out a Meyers-Briggs personality assessment, dream journal, or BuzzFeed quiz, you too have taken part in the quest for meaning the characters in No Exit embark on. What if we don’t like the way others see us? What if we finally find out who we are and think that person is ugly? The ways technology continually pushes these questions to the forefront of our minds suggests that this eagerness to define selfhood is more than just a passing trend.

However, those of us on Earth have a better chance of benefiting from this process of self-discovery than the characters in the play. Once they begin policing each other’s behavior and revealing what they’ve done to warrant an eternal sentence, it becomes clear that the roommates are each other’s torture. Ines leaves chaos wherever possible; Estelle doesn’t like the way Joseph holds his mouth, but still wants to seduce him; Joseph tries to leave the room but can’t bring himself to do so until he convinces Ines to think better of him. And so on.

Just as the characters in the text are mismatched, the staging and intentions of this production are also at odds with one another. The title of No Exit refers to the legal term in camera, a judicial proceeding that takes place behind closed doors. But everything about this configuration of the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre feels wide open; the largely unmodified space doesn’t suit the fundamental tension of the play. With sweeping curtains and a ceiling two stories high, what is supposed to be a Second Empire drawing room instead seems like a full-size penthouse. Since Whiteside places much of the action against the back wall of the room, the actors’ voices are often swallowed by the vastness of the theater.

Most baffling is the situating of a fireplace front and center which blocks the characters who are almost always sitting behind it. The semi-arena seating arrangement also pushes the audience even further away from the infighting. There’s no feeling of constriction, no sense of the characters psychologically needling into each other and letting a spare word get under the skin. Consequently, it’s difficult to track the changes in the trio’s relationships. If there is any genuine string-pulling going on, the audience isn’t able see or hear all of it. It’s unfortunate that such a solvable issue was what kept this production from rising to its full potential.

The escape room option was not in service the night I attended, but if scavenger hunts and logic puzzles tickle your fancy, you can participate in the game for an additional fee this Sunday. Ultimately, No Exit is a reminder we’re all just trying to make sense of the world around us and how we fit into it. Whether it takes the prospect of eternal damnation or seeing a play to jumpstart these feelings, it’s best to improve our relationship with the self before time runs out.

Matilda The Musical at NextStop Theatre

by Mercedes Hesselroth

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Despite being one of the last books Roald Dahl ever wrote, Matilda has remained one of the British author’s highest-selling works. Even so, The Guardian notes a significant jump in Matilda’s global sales since 2016, the year of Brexit and the last U.S. presidential election. At its core, Matilda is a lesson in learning about the world around you and using that knowledge to make it a better place. Director Evan Hoffmann brings this lasting tale to the stage in NextStop Theatre Company’s production of Matilda The Musical.

Like the 1996 film adaptation starring Mara Wilson, this production moves the action from Buckinghamshire to America. Kindergartner Matilda Wormwood (Katie Marsh) uses books to escape her unloving homelife and tries to avoid the cruel headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Brett Cassidy) at school. Only her teacher, Miss Honey (Meredith Eib), recognizes Matilda’s abilities – including the supernatural abilities that surface later on in the show.

Marsh, who alternates the role with Jane Keifer, brings a natural maturity to this classic heroine and cheekily carries out her small acts of resistance against overbearing authority figures. When she seems to rat out a fellow student to the whims of  Trunchbull’s wrath, it’s genuinely shocking until we find out that, as usual, Matilda is three steps ahead of us.

Emily Lotz’ scenic design incorporates a clever split-level formation in the tight space to accommodate the numerous locations of the show. A bright pink and blue palette for the set with popping neon accents highlights the Wormwood’s distaste for a daughter. Costume designer Paris Francesca displays a range of memorable outfits from Trunchbull’s gym uniform to the acrobats’ beautiful circus leotards.

By far the most compelling aspect of the show is how smoothly the child and adult ensembles work in tandem. The synergy between these two groups forms the glue of the production, and it’s a testament to Hoffmann’s direction that even with a rotating child roster, the cast blends together seamlessly. The adult ensemble works overtime to handle multiple characters apiece, most impressively when they form a gang of older students to haze the kindergartners in “School Song.” Their quick delight at terrorizing anyone lower on the ladder and the children’s palpable fear make it the standout number of the show. Choreographer Nicole Marie Maneffa uses the size difference between the ensembles to craft inventive dances, such as “Bruce” and “Revolting Children.”

Ask any theatre professional how they got their start and they’ll mention catching “the bug” after an impressionable childhood trip to the theater. It warms the heart to think of all the DMV children for whom NextStop’s Matilda will be that show. If there’s a little rebel in your life, make sure they see this story of kindness rising in the face of adversity.

Only Queen Latifah’s fabulosity kept ABC’s The Little Mermaid Live! afloat

by Mercedes Hesselroth

In 2013, NBC made a splash in event television by airing The Sound of Music Live!, attracting over 18 million viewers to a live telecast of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical. Ever since, other productions and networks have tried to whip up a magic combination of nostalgia, stunt casting, holiday viewership, and integrated marketing to return these televised musicals to the juggernauts they were in the 1950s.

Last night’s The Little Mermaid Live! was the first such attempt from ABC, who only dipped their toes in the water by mixing live performances with footage of the classic 1989 film instead of committing to a fully live format. Ostensibly aired as a celebration of The Little Mermaid’s 30th anniversary, this production fell remarkably short as it understood neither animation nor musical theatre.

The hand-drawn animation of classic Disney films holds a certain charm unreplicable in other mediums. In the vast worlds of animation, anything seems possible, so audiences have a higher capacity to suspend their disbelief. In theatre, this surreality is traded for the spectacle of live performance. It is up to the audience to take the stage elements before them and collectively imagine them into being, like the masks and puppetry representing animals in Julie Taymor’s The Lion King or the lighting contraption that serves as the titular comet in Rachel Chavkin’s Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

By segmenting these two worlds instead of blending them together or letting each stand on its own, The Little Mermaid Live! simultaneously lost the magic of the original animation and shortchanged the human connection of its live performances.

Things, at first, got off swimmingly when Jodi Benson (the original voice of Ariel) introduced the telecast and an impressive ensemble delivered a spirited rendition of “Fathoms Below.” The curtains gave way to an enormous ship deck, flying aerial artists, a dreamy Prince Eric (Graham Phillips), and even a real dog to play Max (Bagel). It wasn’t until the disjointed movie clips overtook the telecast that things began to go underwater. Though Moana voice actress Auli’i Cravalho was supposedly the lead of the production, she didn’t even appear as Ariel until we had already gotten acclimated to Benson’s voice and the animated character design.

Since none of the animated characters looked or sounded quite like their live counterparts, the sudden cuts between them could be jarring. It’s difficult to stomach the sight of a fabric, unblinking Flounder after having just seen the emotive, bright-colored fish swirl around in the water. On top of that, audiences may have had trouble placing the characters and their motivations when they showed up in so many disparate forms. While Cravalho and Phillips pleasantly portrayed innocent teens falling in love, their reduced screen time hindered the ability of the performers to build effective emotional arcs. After the opening number, Phillips didn’t return to the stage for a full hour, and the couple’s most significant relationship developments were isolated to the film.

The highlight of the unsteady presentation was undoubtedly Queen Latifah, who had delicious fun as the villain Ursula and brought an original fabulosity to the role, making the case that she should have played the sea witch full-time. In comparison, other cast members seemed less than committed to their parts. Shaggy wore only a red jacket and pants to distinguish he was Sebastian, and gave the most concert-like performance, free from characterization. Even worse, at the end of his only number as Chef Louis, John Stamos openly announced he should have been cast as “Prince Albert” instead – confusing Prince Eric’s name and mistakenly thinking the show had already cut to commercial break.

What was most discouraging about watching The Little Mermaid Live! was it’s utter purposelessness – it’s not an homage to the 1989 film if you insert numbers from the Broadway version, and it’s not cultivating interest in theatre if you continuously cut away from the live sequences. Perhaps it’s no mistake Disney aired this special on Election Tuesday as people needed something light and mindless to switch to while waiting for voting results. But if you missed the telecast and have two hours of nautical apathy sitting in your DVR, you’re better off watching the original or taking the family for a night out supporting local theatre.

Poly-Theist at Charm City Fringe

By Mercedes Hesselroth

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Theatre and religion have been intertwined since the beginning – the very, very beginning. One of the earliest forms of theatre developed in Ancient Athens with public festivals of music, poetry, and dance held to honor the Greek god Dionysus. Religion has also long served as inspiration for artists’ expression, from Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper to Kanye West’s recent Sunday Service concert series. Faith makes for a rich topic of artistic inquiry as it is both highly individual and dependent on communities in order to survive. The tension between personal systems of belief and the public presentation of these beliefs can cycle from pushing faith forward to holding it back.

Boston-based comedian Brett Johnson adds his own contribution to this swirling dichotomy with Poly-Theist, a reverse testimony of sorts sharing the cascading series of events that led him to walk away from his faith, his monogamy, and his marriage. Johnson joins a roster of other writer-performers exploring their religious backgrounds through humor, such as Kevin James Doyle with his live show 30-Year-Old Virgin, Pete Holmes’ with his TV series Crashing, or Kumail Nanjiani with his film The Big Sick, which struck enough of a chord with Oscar voters to land a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Not quite a stand-up special or one-man-show, Poly-Theist hovers closer to the kind of oral storytelling you might hear at a Moth open mic.

Johnson’s story starts like any standard rom-com. He meets his college sweetheart, Audrey, on campus and their relationship progresses quickly. At 21 years old, Johnson and Audrey marry within a month of his college graduation, not at all an uncommon experience at “ring by spring” schools – religious colleges where couples often get engaged before the end of their senior year. After a few years of marriage, they decide to open their relationship after agreeing they both want to see other people but not break up.

Relationships can be complicated enough between two people, so it stands to reason that the potential difficulty compounds with every new person added to the web of romantic attachments. The tale requires a massive amount of vulnerability to impart, which Johnson pairs with a heavy dose of self-deprecation. Bringing a nervous energy to the stage, he jokes he could pass as a “bisexual Luigi,” referring to the Nintendo character often overshadowed by his more famous brother, Mario. Johnson doesn’t lecture or judge the audience for its beliefs or choices, opting to judge himself instead. He recalls how he was unable to turn Audrey down when she wanted her boyfriend to spend the night at their house, making a joke rather than voicing how he really felt.

The show itself mirrors that impulse by tagging each tough moment or observation with another one-liner. While the balance of levity and gravity is a tricky line to walk, the piece succeeds most when it leans away from the mask of comedy and honors the inherent magnitude of the situation. Poly-Theist benefits from the moments when Johnson allows the story to breathe by giving the audience a broader context to latch onto. As shown by the inspirational figures in many a religious parable, sometimes you have to go through trials to come out stronger on the other side.

My Barking Dog: What happens when a coyote shows up with a message

By Mercedes Hesselroth

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

In 2017, the American Psychological Association acknowledged the existence of a new psychological disorder: eco-anxiety. The disease can cause a spectrum of despair in response to the effects of climate change, including substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and chronic stress and fear. However, some psychologists do not classify eco-anxiety as a mental illness, despite many overlapping symptoms, because they believe the underlying cause is “rational.” As Swedish teenager and environmental activist Greta Thunberg said at the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference: “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve the crisis without treating it as a crisis.”

The variance of individual responses to communal concerns is one of many ideas confronted in The Edge of the Universe Players 2’s current production of My Barking Dog by Eric Coble. Staged in the round by director Michael Chamberlin, the play centers on two neighbors who don’t even acknowledge each other for a large chunk of the play until the mysterious appearance of a city-dwelling coyote outside their home. Most of the tale is imparted to us through interlocking monologues from the earnest Melinda (Tia Shearer), who works the graveyard shift at a printing plant, and the recently unemployed Toby (Christopher Crutchfield Walker), who lives near the largest cell tower in the world but can’t manage to get a connection on his hand-me-down phone.

Like his visitees, the coyote is a nocturnal creature who travels alone. Melinda and Toby both find a renewed purpose in their interactions with the unnamed and untamed animal. Melinda starts out by leaving meat for him to take while Toby begins a nonstop research quest to learn as much as he can about the canis latrans. Both Shearer and Walker excel in maintaining intimacy with the audience and choosing when to make critical eye contact. Leaning on her experience in children’s theatre, Shearer brings a wistful sincerity to Melinda’s direct address and guides us through what might otherwise be an abrupt heel-face-turn for her character later in the play. Walker serves up a balance of gallows humor and exasperation as the downtrodden Toby, whose resilience has been knocked down a few pegs since losing his job. Multiple audience members nodded in agreement to his miserable adages about unemployment, insomnia, and technology.

If it’s possible to have a scene-stealer in a show with only two characters, that designation goes to the impeccable scenic design by Giorgos Tappas. Though the floor is painted bright yellow, the set gives the feeling of a bunker or post-apocalyptic landscape. Columns of recycled newspapers stretch to the ceiling, framing the static-filled box televisions in opposite corners of the room and an unsuspecting pile of mulch arranged in a perfect circle. The seating arrangement of stools strategically placed around the edge of the gallery space also contributes to the initial sense of desolation.

If, as Toby observes, “the two hardest things about being unemployed are looking for work and not looking for work,” then perhaps the two hardest things about knowing of global catastrophes are trying to solve them and knowing you cannot. Luckily, we don’t have to do it alone. As the pre-show track “Road to Nowhere” by the Talking Heads invites us to do for the next 95 minutes, “come on inside/taking that ride to nowhere/we’ll take that ride.”