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.

Choreographer Christopher Evans Discusses His Work for the Fiddler on the Roof

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Professional productions of Fiddler on the Roof traditionally feature the iconic Jerome Robbins choreography from the original production. The 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof was the first major production to get permission to use new choreography, created by Hofesh Schechter and his company. That revival is now on tour across North America, with the choreography restructured by Christopher Evans, Schechter’s associate choreographer.

Evans has a long working relationship with Shechter, having worked with him since 2005, and was instrumental in the process of developing the choreography for Broadway. I caught up with Evans in the week leading up to the national tour’s stop in D.C. at the National Theatre.

What intrigues you about Israeli styles of dance – particularly Hofesh’s style?

CHRISTOPHER EVANS: I met Hofesh at such a young age [Evans was a student at the London School of Contemporary Dance] that I wasn’t really that hardened by training yet. I could still kind of go anywhere with my training, I hadn’t been fully disciplined, there wasn’t a lot of “unlearning” to do with me. And I think, naturally, that kind of grounded, slightly animalistic way of moving really suited me because I was into martial arts. I always found dance to be just another kind of movement that I had been doing previously. Martial arts is just movement and dance is just movement. I wasn’t interested in particular styles or vocab, I just liked moving.

[Hofesh] came from a folky background but then got involved with Batsheva and Gaga. His way of moving was more about turning imagery into flesh, rather than having very recognizable technique. For me, when I first met him, it was like watching him through the Wild West, I couldn’t categorize it, so I was really enjoying that. Learning how to move like that whilst making a piece was really useful because it meant you could really understand what was going on, not just do the movement thing, but how it’s used to communicate.

How does the choreography differ from the original Jerome Robbins choreography for Fiddler? 

EVANS: It feels, as far as I’m concerned, very far away from what I would consider musical theatre vocabulary, or how [that vocabulary] can sometimes present itself: that kind of cleanliness or the frontal nature of how that dance could be. For me, Hofesh’s movement could be very grounded in detail and grounded in community. When people watch Hofesh’s work, whether they’re dancers or not, they always get the slight feeling like, “I can do that, that looks like something I could do,” it doesn’t look like that kind of virtuosity that’s flashy where you enjoy it because you could never do it. Like, this is connected to something quite human, which I think is perfect for Fiddler because I think it’s ultimately about a community of people who celebrate being alive at every opportunity and any opportunity to dance, and move, and be physical.

What [Hofesh] enjoys communicating with Fiddler, is that in every movement [there] is this feeling of “we are together, and there is something above us, there’s something bigger than us.” In some moments, it sits slightly more into the ancient or timeless, almost tribalist, message of “we are humbled by something bigger than us, in service to something great.” And in other moments, it has that kind of bravado [and] virtuosity, that comes, in my opinion, in a very small, undulating, articulate way.

What I always loved about Jerome Robbins’ choreography is its strength, and drive, and its lines, and its very sure, defined gestures. The power that can come from his choreography is a lot about definition and throwing energy in very specific directions, whereas Hofesh’s work’s power comes mainly from its use of unison: how you can get a whole group of people to do very very tiny things that are actually quite smoky and you’re seeing a lot of unity onstage but you’re not seeing clones of people, you’re seeing people who are sharing some very specific idea, but they don’t have to be exact movement in the same way. So it looks very complex and quite organic. I guess that’s the best way I could articulate dance over the phone. (laughs)

Which moment do you think defines that the most in the show?

EVANS: I would say probably “L’Chaim” is one of those great examples. There are two conflicting energies in the room and it is obviously loaded with tension because of the politics and the context of the story, but all of those tensions subside mainly through this idea of “we’re gonna loosen up and we’re gonna dance, we’re going to enjoy life and we’re going to show off.” What I like about that scene is that it gives the opportunity for virtuosity to be the thing that two opposing groups can share. So it’s a nice opportunity for swingy, smoky, slightly messy, tumbly style of the Jews who are just going to get up and dance slightly drunk, but we’re going to show off. Then there’s the very clean, powerful, sure movements of the Russians. And of course it’s all going to be amalgamated into a big number and it’s just purely about enjoying life.

What are some of your favorite elements of the choreography?

EVANS: In terms of a pure feel-good wave of energy coming towards you, I love “Tradition” because it’s one of those rare opportunities when the entire cast is dancing together and people of different ages are dancing with the feeling of “we are dancing now because these are the moves we have always had, these are the movements that represent this community and God” and it’s nice that everyone has that at the beginning of the show.

How did you restructure this new choreography for the tour?

EVANS: I think of all the things that were streamlined, the dancing element, because it always had a feeling of being a flexible style to work with, I feel that the dancing got changed. There are very, very small spacing changes that we have because the show now has to accommodate different kinds of venues. I have preferred watching shows on tour in a slightly more compromised space sometimes because I think Hofesh’s style lends itself to that feeling that you’re in the room with the dancers, and there’s not huge leaps or crosses. I’ve enjoyed seeing the dancers being more particular and more skillful with their bodies and space.

But restructuring things for the tour, it’s been pretty glorious and I guess the biggest, biggest, biggest change was an enormous staircase that came up the back and underneath the stage. On Broadway, they came from the bottom of the stage as a shadowy, ghost of the past up and it’s a lovely image but trying to negotiate and find the same punch to start the show up was a cool challenge. I think what we settled on, now having watched it many times on tour, I really can’t remember how the beginning of the Broadway show would have gotten anywhere near the same kind of punch. We have such a percussive start to “Tradition” now. It’s one of those creative challenges where you have to make it work, I think it really does.

How do you feel about this cast?

EVANS: For me, my visits now get less and less frequent. And I think what strikes me is the cast that we have for the tour, I’m always completely staggered by the quality and integrity of the people who absorb every drop of information. I’m so impressed by the cast that we have now. I was blown away by what they achieved in the time I was there. I think it has something to do with the touring mentality; it’s not just the show these people see, these people really travel and they see a lot together and accumulate this wealth of experience together, which for a show like Fiddler on the Roof about such a tight-knit community, it just matures and strengthens. I think the touring life comes out on the stage. Every time I see it, it incrementally gets better.

As associate choreographer, how much of a say did you get in determining the choreography when it was on Broadway?

EVANS: The first time, my job was to audition all the dancers, understand and work out which people are going to understand that world of dance very quickly. Once we had that group of people, there was a beautiful two and a half weeks where it was just me and them and my job was to lead them through the style, unlearn a few habits and help them unlock parts of the body that are really crucial to execute the movements like the pelvis as an anchor to get your agility really from the floor. I think it’s amazing how we can train our bodies to be very specialized. And during that journey of training up for a few weeks, we also played with choreography while waiting for Hofesh to arrive. We’d already started playing with compositions musically and in the movement, so by the time Hofesh arrived, we’d not only had the training in place but we had little pockets of things for him to look at. I personally felt very integrated into the process and we were very closely working together to work out this code of moving which has lasted all this time.

Why should people see this production of Fiddler?

EVANS: I really think the choreography is incredible. It’s just very, very high quality movement that slightly sits just outside of what you expect in a musical theatre setting. Hofesh is a contemporary dancer and he created basically a small dance company within a musical, which I think is quite rare. But also I just think Bart [Sher] is a very clever man and he made a show that is about what it is to be a human being, he managed to achieve the action, the beat and the rhythm, the important stuff that gets it right into that naturalism.

Ken Ludwig’s new play shares how his parents met during World War II

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

Once you know who wrote the play, there’s little doubt about whether Dear Jack, Dear Louise has a happy ending. The playwright — Ken Ludwig, one of DC’s most prolific and most produced comedic theater writers — is the younger son of the main characters, and the Arena Stage premiere wrapping up this weekend focuses on how his parents met.

The writer has over two dozen performed productions in his repertoire, with a quarter of them having premiered in DC-area theaters. Ludwig is widely recognized for the classics Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo and othersWith Dear Jack, Dear Louise, Ludwig — who’s best known for his parodies and farces — has taken a slightly different approach in writing the story of how his mother and father first met and fell in love in the early 1940s. 

Before they ever saw each other face-to-face, Army doctor Jack Ludwig and Broadway chorus actor Louise Rabinoe wrote letters to each other — at the suggestion of their parents — while Ludwig was stationed in Oregon and Rabinoe auditioned for roles in New York City.  

“When you’re a playwright, you think about, ‘What means most to me?’” Ludwig said in a recent interview. “I adored my parents. I knew they have lived through this very interesting past of meeting by letter and spending the first part of their relationship only knowing each other by letter. Because it was World War II and they were 3,000 miles apart, it’s always been on the back of my mind of writing a play [about my parents].”

What results is not just a story about Ludwig’s parents, but a snapshot of how members of the “Greatest Generation” found connections in a fractured world. 

When asked about casting choices, Ludwig says he wasn’t going for physical resemblance. 

“I didn’t base the choice on look-alikes at all,” he said. “A couple of people who knew my parents said that [the actors] both kind of look like my parents, with the wire-rim glasses for my dad and my mom as a brunette. I was looking for people who could capture the spirit of these characters.”

He explains that he wasn’t aiming just to tell the story of his own family — though their distinctive personalities help enliven the play while offering a look at the World War II era.

“I was trying to represent the spirit of the age,” Ludwig said. “Dad was a serious, shy, soft-spoken doctor who took doctoring very seriously, and mom was a much more flamboyant young woman who wanted to be in the theater.”

Expertly portrayed by actors Jake Epstein and Amelia Pedlow, the two have an inherent charm and chemistry on stage. They don’t read directly from the letters they’re sending out, but instead have a conversation with each other while facing out to the audience. 

Ludwig cited a reviewer who likened the postal courtship to online matchmaking today — a gratifying element in the play, he says, though it was entirely unintentional.

“[As the writer pointed out,] seen on stage, writing letters looking outwards is not dissimilar to people currently getting to know each other on social media. I didn’t think about that for one instant while I was writing the play,” Lugwig said. “The fact that it feels like that is great. It just shows that meeting and getting to know someone is a universal feeling that probably hasn’t changed in 2,000 years.” 

When writing the play, Ludwig knew that in order to tell the story in this format, he would have to build it from the memories of the letters, rather than from the letters themselves.

“Before my mother passed away, she destroyed the letters,” Ludwig said, explaining that his mother saw the letters as an intimate portrayal of their relationship. “I had to make the letters up from scratch. I knew the outlines of what happened. I knew that my mother met my father’s very large family all at one time. … I knew all the important points.”

In retrospect, Ludwig says not having access to the actual letters proved both pivotal and fortuitous.

“I was thinking recently, maybe having the letters would have been stifling and not produced the same kind of play,” he said. “Accuracy was not my goal: This is a play. I needed to dramatize it, make it enjoyable to watch — tragic and comic, and all the things we do with plays. I think it ended up being a very good reflection [of] them as how they must have been at that age.”

As a DC resident since the mid-’90s, Ludwig has seen the city and its theater scene evolve. He moved to the city to be close to his family; he and his brother have generally lived within three or four blocks of one another throughout their adult lives.

“I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else,” he said, highlighting his affinity for the National Mall and its museums and galleries. “It’s a great place to raise my family — a wonderful place to live.”

Ludwig ties those feelings to an “innate optimism” that also explains his affinity for comedy. He just wishes it were more widely shared.

“That’s why I write plays — to give us a sense of hope,” he said. “When people do Shakespeare classes, they teach HamletKing Lear, the Scottish play, all the tragedies. They don’t teach the comedies. There’s no reason for that. It’s crazy. The comedies tell us as much or more about life than the tragedies do. … I think what gives us hope for the future and makes us better people and makes us think about each other in a kindly way is comedies that give us a sense of hope. That’s what I try to write.”

Edgar Dobie, executive producer for Arena Stage and a longtime friend of Ludwig’s, finds that hope present throughout his body of work. Arena has produced a number of Ludwig’s plays, including Shakespeare in Hollywood and Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery. “His biting wit and ability to find grace within farce have brought him international acclaim,” Doble notes in the program for Ludwig’s latest play.

As far as Ludwig is concerned, DC merits recognition as one of the great theater cities of the world.

“It’s a vibrant, vital, wonderful theater community — dozens of professional theater companies doing tremendously great work, and I love the theatre community. I wish we did more comedies — but maybe I don’t, maybe that’s the reason I can do my comedy,” said Ludwig, pivoting to an examination of the art form. “When I say comedies, I don’t mean frivolous comedies; I mean works that give us a sense of hope.”

In the production’s program, Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith describes Dear Jack, Dear Louise as a standout from much of Ludwig’s work, a romance that swept Smith in each time she read the script: “Dear Jack, Dear Louise is a departure from Ken’s usual writing, and I think it’s his finest play yet. True, there are fewer hijinks, less door slamming, and only two actors; yet the play manages to capture all that we love about Ken’s voice — his ability to close the void between people with compassion and laughter.”

Having written prolifically for years, Ludwig is no stranger to changes and evolution in his craft. After focusing early on farces, he shifted toward more complex comedies and adaptations, drawing multiple awards, including two Olivier Awards, two Tony Awards and — locally — two Helen Hayes Awards. 

For DC’s Everyman Theatre, he created a new adaptation of Thorton Wilder’s version of the classic restoration comedy The Beaux’ Stratagem. For the Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo, Maryland, he has adapted multiple works, including Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol and ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. 

His most produced work, Lend Me a Tenor, is widely renowned and performed across the nation, with two Broadway runs and more than 25 productions set for 2020. Described by publisher Samuel French as “a madcap, screwball comedy,” the play is not without the potential for controversy — set in 1934, the zippy show as recently as 2015 included a moment when a character, preparing to play Othello, donned blackface. 

Amid the political controversies surrounding politicians such as Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ludwig said he has reconsidered the original staging and removed this element from upcoming productions.

“The issue was never ever raised in the history of doing this play, but I just felt that, in terms of where our world is, and what is the right thing to do, I just changed the play,” he said. 

At least one company that had planned to mount Lend Me a Tenor raised objections to the revisions and canceled instead.

As far as the reaction to his most recent premiere, Ludwig looks forward with optimism — though he’s made no decision as to whether any future plays will resemble the scale of Dear Jack, Dear Louise.

“I’ve been thrilled that people are going and that people are loving [Dear Jack, Dear Louise],” Ludwig said. “I’m just happy people like it. Now, for the first time I’ve written a play that had just two people on stage and digging deeper into their lives. I don’t know if this will continue as a trend or not.

Might we see more productions that touch on an emotional and historical core?

“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe, when I sit and think what my next play is gonna be. If the next idea is a comedy, I’ll do that. It truly goes play to play.”

Dancing into Yuletide: a Nutcracker with video projections, another with American historical figures

By Ilena Peng

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

Thanksgiving isn’t the only sign this week that the Christmas season is upon us, with the curtain rising on two incarnations of The Nutcracker ballet at DC theaters. An evergreen holiday tradition that originated in Russia in 1892, the traditional two-act ballet follows a young girl’s adventures through a fantastical land after her magical toy nutcracker comes to life. 

For those who haven’t seen The Nutcracker, imagine if someone were to cross the story of The Wizard of Oz with Dancing With the Stars. Even those who have never attended a dance performance are probably familiar with the music: Portions of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite are seemingly a ubiquitous soundtrack of the holiday season.

Locally, the Washington Ballet — which premiered its current version, with an American history twist, in 2004 — opened Nutcracker season with performances last weekend at Ward 8’s Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) in preparation for a monthlong run that starts Saturday at the Warner Theatre. For those looking for something less familiar, the Atlanta Ballet brings its new production of The Nutcracker to the Kennedy Center on Wednesday for a five-day visit.

The Washington Ballet at the Warner Theatre: Nov. 30 to Dec. 29

Now in its 16th year of performance, Septime Webre’s The Nutcracker takes place during an 1882 Christmas Eve celebration at a Georgetown mansion. George Washington is the Nutcracker here, and when he battles “the Rat King,” it’s King George III. Other historical figures including Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross also appear, as does iconic DC scenery — the famous “Waltz of the Flowers,” for example, is renamed here the “Waltz of the Cherry Blossoms.”

“It’s become a family favorite, certainly a holiday tradition,” said Barbara Berti, public relations manager for the ballet company. “People come with their grandchildren and their parents, and it’s still very appealing to all ages. Everybody loves it.”

DC Theatre Scene wrote in 2017 that Webre’s DC-inspired Nutcracker is “like no other, but familiar enough not to be too jarring to traditionalists.” In a 2015 review, The Washington Post’s Sarah L. Kaufman noted that the production “at times feels too hectic for [the company’s members] to shine.” Instead, it rests upon “the cleverness and adorability of its least-experienced and littlest dancers.” 

Once again this year, the performance schedule began with several shows at THEARC, where the Washington School of Ballet opened its Southeast DC campus in 2005 — complete with a 400-seat theater that’s large enough to accommodate the annual Nutcracker performances.

The schedule at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW, continues almost through New Year’s Day, and that’s intentional. Berti said the post-Christmas shows allow family members visiting from out of town to see the production after the Christmas festivities are over. 

“Our version is just so beloved and enjoyed by so many — and it does kind of take up the whole month of December,” Berti said.

As for the November dates, the company added six extra performances last year — an effort to boost revenue in light of a $3 million debt, The Washington Post reported. The timing continues this year, although Berti declined to comment on revenue projections or needs.

Three performances will be accompanied by special events: Family Day (Dec. 1), Military Appreciation Night (Dec. 4) and the Nutcracker Tea Party (Dec. 8). 

Family Day features pre-performance activities for children, like coloring and ornament making, as well as opportunities to watch a rehearsal and take photos with dancers. On Military Appreciation Night, cast members and military dignitaries greet audience members prior to a rehearsal of The Nutcracker’s “Soldiers Marching” dance.

The Nutcracker Tea Party, which audiences can attend at the Willard InterContinental Hotel either before or after the day’s 1 p.m. performance, treats guests to refreshments like tea sandwiches and scones (plus mimosas for adults). Party guests can also take photos with the Sugar Plum Fairy and other dancers.

The Atlanta Ballet at The Kennedy Center: Nov. 27 to Dec. 1

The Atlanta Ballet’s first appearance in recent memory at the Kennedy Center features the company’s new production of The Nutcracker, which premiered last year. The production closely follows the traditional storyline from E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King — the predecessor to the 1892 ballet — but adds a modern spin with video projection technology.

The production’s choreographer is Yuri Possokhov, who after 12 years dancing with the San Francisco Ballet is now that company’s choreographer-in-residence. Possokhov first delved into integrating video projection and ballet when he choreographed Swimmerfor the Bay Area company in 2015. 

Possokhov’s works have been performed at companies nationwide such as Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, as well as internationally at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet and the Georgia State Ballet.

The production’s video projections are designed by Finn Ross, who won a Tony Award for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and the rest of the team is no less stellar — dance-world luminaries Tom Pye, Sandra Woodall and David Finn designed the production’s sets, costumes and lighting, respectively.

This Nutcracker is the Atlanta Ballet’s first major commissioned production by Gennadi Nedvigin, who became artistic director in 2016. Like choreographer Possokhov, Nedvigin is also a former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer. 

In an interview with The DC Line, Nedvigin said the holiday production simultaneously appeals to older generations with its traditional storyline and the younger “video gamer” generation with its digital projections.The latter, he said, “kind of serve as a glue between the real world and imaginary world, and it really fits this story perfectly.”

Possokhov’s Nutcracker’spremiere last year brought more ticket sales than any of the Atlanta Ballet’s prior productions of the holiday classic, and this Kennedy Center run marks the company’s first performances outside of Atlanta in some time. 

Nedvigin said he hopes the performance will spark audience members’ interest in the Atlanta Ballet’s work. He added that he is “super thrilled” to be in DC, having previously danced at the Kennedy Center on several occasions.

“Every time I’m coming back, it’s almost like I’m coming back home,” he said. “It brings a lot of memories from my performing days, and to be able to bring my own company to the same stage is meaning … a lot to me, and I just want to share it with everyone.”

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.

DC Queer Theatre Festival Celebrates Local LGBTQ Playwrights

Written by Hannah Berk

This article was first published in Tagg Magazine here.

On November 23, the seventh annual D.C. Queer Theatre Festival will kick off with the first of three interactive table readings of brand new, unpublished plays by local LGBTQ artists. The festival guarantees that audiences will encounter work never before produced, and also offers a new way to engage with that work by providing pivotal feedback to the featured playwrights while their work is still in progress. “We like to change up the festival each year,” says Artistic Director and co-founder of the festival Matt Ripa, “to keep [it] fresh and to honor the different styles and work that queer artists are creating in the D.C. area. For this year’s festival, audiences can expect exciting new plays that are thought provoking and be the first to hear brand new scripts that might be on stages soon.”

This year’s plays were selected from among over 20 entries and represent a breadth of genre, from a comedy (R. Eric Thomas) to local history (Bob Bartlett) to a family drama (Esther Rodriguez). The winning playwrights have the opportunity to work with a professional director and dramaturg while they develop their scripts over the course of rehearsals. Finally, plays will be performed as staged table readings for the public.

Eric Thomas, “Crying on Television,” November 23, 2019 at 7 p.m.

Crying on Televisiondescribed as “a comedy about trying to make a connection through a screen,” centers themes of community, race, and our personal relationships with television. “I’m interested in having conversations about where people belong, where they don’t belong,” says playwright R. Eric Thomas. The theater is a well-suited venue for this kind of dialogue, and Thomas looks forward to the audience feedback element of the festival. “You learn so much when an audience watches a comedy,” he says. “It can be a communal experience. I’m hoping people walk away having conversations about community and the people they don’t normally think about much.”

Thomas wears many writer hats, including columnist at Elle.com, memoirist/essayist, and host of The Moth in Philadelphia and D.C. While his plays have been featured in several U.S. cities, including his hometown of Baltimore, Crying on Television marks his D.C. metro debut. “I’m excited to get more involved in the vibrant D.C. theater scene,” Thomas says. “Baltimore has a theater scene that doesn’t get enough credit, and D.C. is a place where a lot of really exciting, interesting things are happening.”

Bob Bartlett, “UNION,” December 7, 2019 at 7 p.m.

UNION will be Bob Bartlett’s second production with the DC Queer Theatre Festival, following his 2014 winning play about the export of violent homophobia from the U.S. to Uganda. Through UNION, Bartlett hopes to give audiences a fuller sense of Walt Whitman’s character and queerness. “My play considers his years living and loving in D.C. (and cruising Pennsylvania Avenue in a horse-drawn streetcar),” says Bartlett, “as well as his affinity for Lincoln and belief in the future of American democracy…I was most interested in exploring Whitman’s sexuality while he lived in our city and his attitudes about race, which were not unlike those of white men of the period.”

This play strikes a personal chord with Bartlett, who has long wanted to write about the poet’s D.C. years. “Like so many, I discovered Leaves of Grass in high school, and I’ve had a copy, multiple copies, with me since,” says Bartlett. “Expansive and audacious, to say the least, the book continues to inspire and even guide us…It was the first gay book I’d ever read.” For Bartlett, it’s meaningful to have this play debut at a festival that centers around the LGBTQ community. “While I believe UNION will resonate with all audiences, I hope that queer audiences experience the play on another level.”

Esther Rodriguez, “We All Fall Down,” February 22, 2020 at 7:00 pm

We All Fall Down centers a young woman navigating her family dynamics in the aftermath of a suicide attempt and the leadup to coming out. “Mental illness is something we don’t really talk about unless there’s a really visible suicide or attempt by a famous person,” Esther Rodriguez says. These stories are followed by a flurry of activity and information, but after the news cycle turns over, grief and trauma remain.

We All Fall Down is Rodriguez’s effort to keep the conversation going, and to bring it home for an intergenerational audience. A recent college graduate, she sees a shared understanding of mental health and a culture of support in her generation, while older generations seem to lack that level of comfort. “I wanted to give more of a voice to these kids who are reaching out and encountering resistance,” Rodriguez says, “not from a lack of desire to help” but from a culture of silence.