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Ajani Jones

Rorschach Theatre’s immersive ‘Chemical Exile’ is a night full of wonder

By Ajani Jones

This article was first published in DC Metro Theater Arts here. 

Culminating a seven-chapter cross-city adventure, Rorschach Theatre’s immersive Chemical Exile: Synthesis is a thrilling and heartfelt sci-fi adventure that explores new bonds and experiences born of great loss and immense change.

Chemical Exile questions the bounds of reality as the audience is introduced to the newest breakthrough of a scientific team at R2 Labs. The play exposes its audience, fellow individuals displaced across realities, to the scientists’ trials and failures at returning the displaced to their own realities, all while delving into each scientist’s background and story.

Throughout, the play skillfully introduces themes of loss and predestination that help ground its more fantastic elements. There is an undercurrent of the staggering grief and pain that come with drastically changing circumstances. The play handles these themes very tactfully (and creatively) by integrating them with the sci-fi elements of the story.

Chemical Exile also interestingly navigates the dynamics between fate, chance, and faith while also exploring how individuals may adapt to great changes.

The cast of Chemical Exile, although relatively small, is extremely powerful. The main scientists, Teddy (Arika Thames), Velouria (Jen Rabbitt Ring), and Kallik (Erik Harrison), are all incredibly charming and present unique personalities that help keep the audience engaged throughout their tour. Each of these scientists perfectly conveys their position and motivations through powerful and emotional performance.

Thames’ portrayal of Teddy is especially notable as her arc is arguably the emotional crux of the play. Passionate about her work, Teddy has a strong desire to return everyone to their respective realities. Thames portrays Teddy’s passion and desperation incredibly well, allowing the audience to become genuinely invested in her work as well as her personal motivations and journey.

The cast’s strength is further magnified by sheer amounts of emotional sincerity. Throughout its duration, Chemical Exiles explores a vast range of themes and complex feelings, all of which are treated with reverence and emotional weight. From moments of success to moments of panic and sorrow, the play transitions between highs and lows, emphasizing the immense amount of heart built into the script, as well as the considerable understanding these actors have for their characters and their motivations.

While steeped in existential questions of reality and navigating grief brought on by drastic change and loss, Chemical Exile never allows itself to become too grim and heavy.

Instead, the play fully embraces the sheer wackiness of science fiction and allows itself to maintain a consistent humorous tone that never undermines the sincerity of heavier scenes. In fact, moments of humor at the play’s climax enhance the sense of urgency and panic pushed by the narrative, resulting in a harmonious relationship between the humor and narrative and emotional strength of this play.

Although its core premise of crossing realities is nothing new to the world of fiction, the cast and team behind Chemical Exile inject immense creativity and spirit into this core idea to synthesize something new and captivating.

The immersive nature of the play works extremely well to capitalize on the play’s inherent creativity and charm. The audience is treated to a genuine tour of the labs and treated as if they were taking part in a genuine scientific demonstration. Excellent costumes and props work well to set the scene. And certain sections of the evening allow the audience to explore at their own leisure and experience the labs in individually unique ways.

The breathtaking set design (led by the team of Nadir Bey, Sarah Beth Hall, and Grace Trudeau) helps to truly transport the audience into the space and the play’s exploration of different realities. The team effectively capitalized upon the immense venue afforded by the Waterfront Centre, which allowed for a plethora of stunning visual choices. The immense care placed into the set design was also evident as each room felt unique and carefully designed but also seamlessly integrated into the atmosphere and story of Chemical Exile. A wide range of lighting and sound effects also helped each room and set piece come to life and convincingly transport the audience into the worlds and theories being explored.

Chemical Exile is an undeniably fun and unique experience. Perfectly executed emotional highs and lows all seamlessly woven together within a curious sci-fi premise make for a night full of wonder and genuine enjoyment for all audiences displaced across realities.

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Chemical Exile: Synthesis plays to July 24, 2022, presented by Rorschach Theatre performing at R2 Labs at Waterfront Centre, 800 9th Street SW, Washington, DC.  Tickets ($45, $30 student and senior, $20 industry) are on sale online. Shows are on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8 pm.

Wonder and humor thrive in ‘Native Gardens’ at Silver Spring Stage

By Ajani Jones

 This article was first published in DC Metro Theater Arts here.

Striking the perfect balance between humor and sincere reflection, Native Gardens serves as the ideal close to Silver Spring Stage’s season. Amid a year that marks a resurgence and revival for theater across the globe, this play does an excellent job of portraying the difficulties of transitioning and adapting in an ever-changing world.

Producer Maura Suilebhan and Director Matt Ripa lead the presentation of this wonderful play. Native Gardens gives a glimpse into the life of new and old residents of the DMV as it explores the unique dynamics between new and old residents. The play follows Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Chris Galindo and Alexandra Bailey) as they settle into their new neighborhood and navigate an interesting relationship with their new neighbors, established residents Virginia and Frank Butley (Sarah Holt and Scott Holden).

Alexandra Bailey (Tania Del Valle), Chris Galindo (Pablo Del Valle), Scott Holden (Frank Butley), and Sarah Holt (Virginia Butley) in ‘Native Gardens.’ Photo by Ira Levine.

As the play progresses, both couples must learn this new dynamic across a shared property line. A self-proclaimed “love letter to the DMV” by Playwright Karen Zacarías, Native Gardens is a story that capitalizes well on its core themes of diversity, home, and change. As the couples work through their many differences and explore their unique similarities, Zacarías highlights the social and cultural melting pot of the community, especially as new generations come into contact with the old.

Although relatively short at a mere 90-minute runtime, the play handles its undeniably important subject matter solidly. Every moment of Native Gardens feels purposeful and highly impactful, revealing keen attention to detail and appreciation for the real stories this play adapts.

Through its intentional and tactful treatment of its core themes of change and diversity in the DMV, Native Gardens remains topical three years after its debut. The play, in its reflective nature, thus conveys an awareness and attention to detail that is only improved upon by the incredible cast.

Through its explorations of these themes and important topics, Native Gardens also does an amazing job of balancing its tone with genuinely engaging and creative humor. At no point do the jokes feel out of place or forced; the play’s humor enhances its overall presentation and allows for moments of cheer that flow seamlessly into the play’s conclusion and complement the more serious moments rather than competing with them.

The play focuses on its four primary characters, the Del Valles and Butleys, the only speaking roles. This limited cast works extremely well in the show’s favor as the audience is allowed to connect deeply with each character. Bailey, Galindo, Holt, and Holden deliver powerful performances that faithfully portray a group of people doing their best to acclimate to their changing world, thus allowing the audience to become fully immersed in how their stories unfold.

Chris Galindo (Pablo Del Valle), Alexandra Bailey (Tania Del Valle), Sarah Holt (Virginia Butley), and Scott Holden (Frank Butley) in ‘Native Gardens.’ Photo by Ira Levine.

Even beyond their individually powerful performances, the cast of Native Gardens has almost palpable chemistry that elevates their characters further. The respective couples convincingly portray their love and appreciation for each other, but as they break out of their molds and begin to interact separately with the other couple, the true strength of the cast goes on full display. All four actors play well off one another and match one another’s energy in a delightful way that leaves the audience craving more of their one-on-one interactions.

The play takes place in a small space: the backyards of the neighboring houses. The set design, led by Leigh K. Rawls, is absolutely stunning, bringing a layer of wonder to the play while adding to the story with minor but significant prop changes. The small set also allows for focus on the characters and their stories rather than overwhelming them with over complicated design.

Scott Holden (Frank Butley) and Sarah Holt (Virginia Butley) in ‘Native Gardens.’ Photo by Ira Levine.

Matthew Datcher’s sound design brings another layer of wonder to the play. The sound effects, often used as curiously charming transitions between scenes, add subtly to the show in a way that does not detract from overall audience enjoyment but instead enhances it. Furthermore, the sound design acts as another element of nonverbal storytelling and works well throughout the play to encapsulate and fortify the wonderful story being told.

Native Gardens is a beautifully executed glimpse into the lives of many who call the DMV home. Despite its small scale, the play leaves a grand impact with its lovely story, gorgeous set, and well-executed humor.

A joyful and thrilling ‘On Your Feet!’ comes to life in Spanish at GALA

By Ajani Jones

This article was first published in DC Metro Theater Arts.

A surge of barely contained excitement washed over the audience as those first few iconic notes of “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” blared to life. When Gaby Albo took the stage, it was as if we were watching Gloria Estefan, the legend herself, perform. Albo’s electrifying presence filled the room as her energetic performance perfectly set the tone for what would be the next two hours of captivating performances and cathartic storytelling.

On Your Feet! La historia de Emilio y Gloria Estefan !En Español! captures the awe-inspiring legacy of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. GALA Hispanic Theatre’s completely Spanish rendition of the 2018 Broadway musical, directed and choreographed by Luis Salgado, managed to perfectly recount the couple’s hard-fought rise to fame as their band, the Miami Sound Machine, became the first Latin-inspired band to cross over to mainstream pop success in the United States.

The musical wastes no time captivating its audience. The opening scene encapsulates the brilliance of the entire show as Albo’s stunning vocals and dazzling stage presence are immediately on full display. Her performance as the magnificent Gloria Estefan was a wonder throughout the entire show. Albo perfectly portrayed the star’s thrilling journey to fame, seamlessly capturing her charisma and determination as well as her otherworldly stage presence and killer voice.

As the scene transitions into a short exchange between Gloria, Emilio (Samuel Garnica), and their son Nayib (Winsley de Jesús), the sheer chemistry among the cast is highly apparent. The three easily bounce off one another, resulting in a convincing and heartwarming portrayal of the love they have for one another, a kind of overwhelming chemistry that would continue to shine through as the show went on.

The supporting cast of On Your Feet! also delivered equally strong and compelling performances. Fran Tapia and Madelin Marchant, who played Gloria’s mother and Grandmother, Gloria Fajardo and Consuelo respectively, worked excellently together in their portrayal of the mother figures in Gloria Estefan’s life. While their characters were strong complements to the story of the primary focus of the show, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, they were also able to undeniably hold their own as fully fleshed-out characters for the audience.

In her showstopping performance of “Mi Tierra,” Tapia delivered her lines with immeasurable fervor and grace. She stunned the audience with her breathtaking vocal performance and stage presence, while also maintaining their complete interest in the backstory of her own character. Like her, many of the other cast members delivered wonderfully charismatic and vocally thrilling performances that kept the audience invested and served to fortify the strength of the show and its emotional impact.

Due to the undeniable strength of its cast, the show does an excellent job of showcasing the highs and lows of Gloria Estefan’s rise to fame. In its entirety, On Your Feet! is a rather joyful experience filled with countless moments of laughter and cheer. The audience cannot help but celebrate alongside Gloria and Emilio as they are finally able to carve their way onto the U.S. music scene. However, alongside these cathartic and joyous moments also come low moments of conflict and despair. Whether it be Gloria’s conflict with her mother or the journey toward recovery following her accident, the cast maintains their strong portrayals of their characters.

While the musical was performed almost entirely in Spanish (with screens on either side of the stage providing English subtitles for non-Spanish speakers in the audience), the sheer power and emotional weight of every scene and musical number were not lost. Each cast member gave it their all, resulting in poignant performances that transcended any potential language barriers. The undeniable power of the cast’s performances left the audience, even non-Spanish speakers like me, hanging onto every word, purely captivated by the world created on the stage.

The performances of the cast and the compelling narrative of On Your Feet! were definitely high points of the night. However, these elements were complemented, and arguably enhanced, by the captivating dance and musical performances throughout the show’s duration.

Walter “Bobby” McCoy’s musical direction was exceptional as the musical elements of the show, paired with the wonderful sound design of Matthew Rowe, were immaculately crafted. The sheer amount of care and time that went into the music behind each scene was clear as each note paired perfectly with the action on stage. Salgado’s choreography was fluid and energetic, adding an additional layer of life to the already electrifying musical performances.

In tandem with the musical and performance elements of the show, the light and staging design of On Your Feet! also added to the show’s interest. The lights (Christopher Annas-Lee) and projections (Patrick Lord) transport you into each scene, enhancing that electric feeling of every musical number and allowing the audience to feel as if they were actually watching Gloria Estefan perform. Jeannette Christensen’s dazzling costumes added flair.

On Your Feet! was a brilliant glimpse into the journey of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. The great care that went into the show’s production really shined through as it delivered a heartwarming story, captivating performances, and electrifying beats that would leave the audience dancing along as the cast gave their final bows.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, plus a 20-minute intermission.

On Your Feet! en español plays through June 5, 2022, at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets ($35–$65), call the box office at (202) 234-7174 or go online. In Spanish with English surtitles.

Campy and heartwarming ‘Xanadu’ sparkles at Workhouse Arts Center

By Ajani Jones

This article was first published in DC Theater Arts here.

Campy in the best way possible, Xanadu is a goofy and lighthearted yet strangely heartwarming tale that pushes the boundaries of how much an audience is willing to suspend disbelief amidst bursts of laughter.

Xanadu, a Tony-nominated musical based on the 1980 film of the same name, delivers an inspiring story wrapped in a fantasy romance adventure. Workhouse Arts Center’s take on the show, directed and choreographed by Stefan Sittig, captures its whimsy and gut-busting comedy.

Xanadu follows the Greek muse Clio (Jessica Barraclough) as she travels to Earth disguised as the Australian Kira to help struggling artist Sonny (Pat Mahoney) overcome his creative block and achieve his dreams. Hijinks, both mortal and divine, ensue as the pair grow closer, ultimately learning the value of chasing one’s dreams despite potential obstacles.

The cast delivered magnetic performances. Each of the nine muses was bursting with personality. While Barraclough definitely embraced her role as head-muse–turned–girl–from–“down-under,” moving with grace and charming with her sweet and melodic voice, her sisters were equally up to the task of portraying their divine characters, filling the stage with near godly charisma every time they entered a scene.

Melpomene (Jolene Vettese) and Calliope (Audrey Baker), Kira’s scheming muse sisters, stood out throughout. Calling back to the Greek myths their characters are drawn from, Vettese and Baker portrayed the wicked muses with an air of villainous grandiosity. As they pranced and sashayed across the stage, cackling and delivering every line with charisma and malice, the two worked together to sell the entertaining over-the-top villainy of their characters, enhancing the overall humor of the show.

Every minute of Xanadu was a pleasure to watch, delivering the show’s heartwarming story and inspirational themes with welcome humor and cheer. From visual gags and clever puns to eccentric mannerisms and fourth-wall breaks, almost every scene leaves the audience nearly doubled over in laughter.

Through its hilarity, Xanadu maintained a surprisingly heartwarming tone, a welcome element attributable to its wonderful cast and the sheer chemistry they had with one another. From Melpomene and Calliope’s delightfully villainous antics to the budding relationship between Kira and Sonny, the cast painted each scene with believable charm and cheer.

The songs of Xanadu also worked perfectly as the cast delivered vocally captivating performances. The musical elements of the show, directed by Merissa Martignoni Driscoll, were thematic, enhancing each scene with lively riffs and melodic chords while supplementing the characterization of the show’s star players.

“Evil Woman,” Melpomene and Calliope’s primary villain song, showed off the cast’s vocal prowess as Vettese hit impressive notes amidst Baker’s hilarious (yet just as impressive) adlibs and riffs. “Suddenly” was equally captivating as Barraclough and Mahoney wowed the audience with their sweet harmonies and conveyed their characters’ growing connection to one another.

The choreography in Xanadu was energetic and thrilling, pairing perfectly with the music. Sittig’s choreography was especially mesmerizing when the muses danced in unison, all while managing to maintain their individual quirks in every movement. The cast gracefully glided across the stage, often literally as Barraclough and Mahoney spent much of the show in rollerskates.

Tying the choreography, vocals, and portrayals together were the show’s wonderful costumes. Almost the entire cast acted as background dancers and scene fillers whenever their primary character was not needed, each time sporting sparkly and timely costumes. The dresses the muses wore were especially captivating as each muse wore a Grecian gown in a different color and cut to match her personality.

Overall, Xanadu was incredibly entertaining and a worthwhile watch. Filled to the brim with charisma and humor, the show boasts a well of creativity and charm that is sure to impress its audience, leaving them nostalgic for the ’80s and hoping for their own divine strange magic.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Xanadu runs through June 11, 2022, at Workhouse Arts Center—W-3 Theater 9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, VA, 22079. Tickets ($20–$30) can be purchased online.

The Xanadu program is online here.