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D. R. Lewis

Reimagined ‘Company’ Offers a Modern Take on a Classic at the Kennedy Center

By Dillon Lewis

This article was originally published in DCTRENDING here.

If Bravo had been spinning off franchises in the 12th century BC, one can only imagine that “Phone rings, door chimes, in comes… Company?” That refrain is one of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest earworms (second only perhaps to “Bobby, Bobby baby, Bobby bubi, Robby,” etc. in the same song). And, in the touring production of Marianne Elliott’s inventive reimagining of the beloved musical, playing at the Kennedy Center through March 31, it presents more like a cautious question than a confident declaration.

Written by George Furth, with music and lyrics by Sondheim, Company is a musical meditation on matrimonial commitment. Premiering in 1970, Company originally centered on bachelor Bobby as he navigated romances with three wildly different women and friendships with five very quirky married couples. Directed by legendary impresario Harold Prince on its initial outing, Company was among the first “concept musicals,” dissecting a topic without much concern for a plot driven by linear narrative. Responsible for such standards as “Being Alive” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” it is now widely regarded as a masterpiece in the American musical canon. 

This production, helmed by British director Elliott, boldly reimagines Bobbie (Britney Coleman) as a chic 35-year-old career woman navigating the modern world. Having premiered in London’s West End in 2018, Elliott’s adaptation initiated a transfer to New York, preparing for a scheduled opening just days after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world and, with it, Broadway. When it finally opened in December 2021, audiences were thrilled to be returning to theaters after the long pause and still reeling from Sondheim’s death the month prior. To take in such a daring reinvention of the show that had marked the start of Sondheim’s most productive working period was to sit in celebration of a man who continually reinvented the form. The experience was nothing short of catharsis. This critic gleefully returned a second time.

But the touring production, while maintaining the bones of Elliott’s London and New York mountings, has lost some muscle. One can’t shake the pervasive “hand-me-down” feeling as the tightness of Elliott’s vision. Resisting previous requests to reconceptualize Bobby as a gay man or woman, Sondheim finally relented when Elliott approached him with her concept (which includes other swaps beyond Bobbie, including the introduction of a gay couple). Unfortunately, the touring production makes a weak case that Company can withstand such reimagining and poorly stewards both the original material and Elliott’s concept.

The exception is in the song “Tick Tock,” which has been brilliantly reimagined by Elliott and choreographer Liam Steel and makes the sturdiest assertion that a gender-swapped Company can pack a comparable punch. The staging is so tight, especially compared with the rest of the production, that it gives the impression of being the precipitating reason for doing the show in the first place. From the first moments of the production, we hear a ticking clock (replacing the show’s more traditional busy signal), working double duty as both a reminder of Bobbie’s birthday and, by the time “Tick Tock” rolls around, a pervasive symbol of her “biological clock”. As she imagines the rest of her life with each of the three men she is dating, she generally winds up in the same spot at the end of the respective romances: by the completion of the number, all of the pseudo-Bobbies who mime the life ahead stare at Coleman’s Bobbie, as if to ask, “Are we doing this or not?”

Sondheim’s work is known for its specificity, reflecting one of his own oft-espoused creative mantras: God is in the details. In retrofitting George Furth’s airtight book to accommodate both the gender shift and resetting into a modern era, Elliott has inadvertently accentuated its aging wrinkles. While they may have gone less noticed in the Broadway production, they land with a thud on the Kennedy Center stage. For the most part, the cast attempts to conceal such textual blemishes by turning the characters into caricatures. Erring on the side of farce, they play it for laughs, mostly to the opposite effect. And even with large gestures and uncomfortable pauses for anticipated audience reaction, the performances get lost in the Kennedy Center’s cavernous Opera House (which, incidentally, perfectly matches Bobby’s scarlet garments by Bunny Christie, who designed both the sets and costumes).

Even so, a handful of excellent performances can break through to delightful results. As Andy, a hunky, but air-headed flight attendant with whom Bobbie enjoys a roll in the hay, Jacob Dickey is sublime. They rely almost entirely on their instinctive comic timing, avoiding any bouts of in-flight turbulence. As Jamie, Matt Rodin easily maneuvers through one of musical theater’s most notoriously difficult patter songs, “Getting Married Today,” balancing skillful pacing with convincing acting. Portraying the erratic gay groom suddenly stricken with cold feet, he is heartbreaking in exclaiming, “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.” And doubling as Susan (delightful) and Jamie’s wedding officiant (hilarious), Marina Kondo brightens the stage whenever she appears.

Unfortunately, Bobbie so often fades into the background of this production that when Britney Coleman steps forward to sing several solo turns, they feel less like indicators of emotional transformation-in-progress and more like reminders that, hey, it’s actually Bobbie’s show. Coleman acts valiantly through the songs in particular, and when she sings “Someone is Waiting” and “Marry Me a Little,” it is evident that she has dissected every note and lyric of the song to achieve full understanding. She has clearly done the hard work of a consummate professional, but against so many unwieldy, larger-than-life ensemble performances, she hardly stands a chance. But in “Barcelona,” a quiet post-coital cat-and-mouse duet, Coleman and Dickey together deliver one of the evening’s most memorable moments.

Christie’s set hinges on the use of large cubes that evoke the claustrophobia of tiny, whitewash-and-chrome New York apartments. They move in near-constant rotation, reconfiguring into different, distinct abodes. She has hidden 35’s throughout the set like Easter eggs, appearing in artworks and transoms, underscoring the sense that Bobbie’s birthday (and all that it means for her opportunities to start a family) is always hanging overhead. Christie’s cubes are accented by Neil Austin’s neon-tinged lighting design which, even while colorful, amplifies the sense of sterility in Christie’s set. Keith Caggiano’s sound design proved challenging in the Opera House, where balance issues left some performers completely unamplified and impossible to hear over the orchestra.

In “Another Hundred People,” Sondheim’s biting send-up of the endless inflows and outflows of people (and romantic partners) to and from New York City, the cast dutifully wheels out large cutouts of the letters in the show’s title. They rearrange them several times, only twice forming coherent words (or acronyms, in any case): “COMPANY” and “NYC”. The remainder of the rearrangements are mismatched jumbles, leaving audiences to make sense of the staging while the exquisite score plays behind, out of focus. For this Company, it’s hard to imagine a better metaphor.

In ‘Penelope,’ A Heroine Spins A New Yarn Out Of A Classic Epic At Signature Theatre.

By Dillon Lewis

This article was originally published in DCTRENDING here.

If Bravo had been spinning off franchises in the 12th century BC, one can only imagine that Penelope would be the wine-soaked breakout star of the Real Housewives of Ithaca. Known to classicists as Odysseus’ faithful, languishing queen in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, Penelope takes on a darker edge in a new musical bearing her name by composer and lyricist Alex Bechtel and co-book writers Bechtel, Grace McLean, and Eva Steinmetz. A pseudo-cabaret that asks audiences to consider the story from her point of view, Penelope runs at Arlington’s Signature Theatre through April 21. 

As the lights rise on Penelope, the audience finds the titular heroine (Jessica Phillips) sitting at a piano, waiting for her husband Odysseus to return from the Trojan War after 20 years away. Having angered Poseidon, Odysseus’ journey home has been marred by tempests and monsters, leaving Penelope wondering when, if ever, he will sail back to her. Despite the advances of dozens of eager suitors who have camped out in her foyer, she remains steadfast in her faithfulness to him. But frustrated in his absence, Penelope turns to alcohol, precipitating a cabaret-style performance that reveals the depths of her dedicated despair.

Musically, Penelope bursts with romantic elegance and engrossing tedium. Composed and orchestrated by Bechtel, the score utilizes lovely, string-heavy interludes to color the soundscape and transition between key songs and sequences. In “Prayer,” Penelope chronicles her daily religious ritual, hoping to curry enough favor with Athena to bring Odysseus home. The song soon transitions to a stirring recitation of another of Penelope’s rituals: weaving beautiful images on her loom each day, only to unravel them each night to keep her suitors at bay. As Penelope, Phillips is spellbinding in “The Pilgrim Song,” pondering what her life may have become with just a few different decisions. And channeling Joni Mitchell in “I Do,” a song recounting their wedding and early love, Phillips is simply transcendent. 

But as Penelope’s score soars, its book and direction often stumble in deference. In a slow start, Penelope rises from the piano only to wander the stage as the five instrumental musicians slowly take their places. In fact, under Steinmetz’s direction, Penelope spends much of the show wandering around the small stage, snugly bordered by the audience on three sides in Signature’s cozy ARK space. At times, Phillips appears stranded center stage while the music plays, leaving one wondering: is this a character at an anguishing standstill or an actor with nowhere to go?

And therein lies Penelope’s biggest challenge. At a brief 70 minutes, the writers struggle to stretch the compelling parts of its story enough to fill even that amount of time. The book is front-loaded with lengthy, meandering exposition, ranging from the whereabouts of Penelope’s husband to the floorplan of her cliffside manse, before transitioning into a veritable meditation. And while other sequences of spoken text come and go more organically, often with the benefit of Bechtel’s underscoring, one can’t shake the hunch that the musical’s best songs were composed first, with the remainder of the material devised around them.

Mixed messages and fleeting directorial choices certainly don’t help. Early in the show, Penelope pours a hefty cocktail and proclaims, “If we’re going to talk about the Trojan War, I need a drink.” But despite large gulps, Penelope’s journey into drunkenness is short-lived, at least in Phillips’ performance. Rather than grow progressively more drunk, she appears increasingly sober so that by the time she finally excises a big bottle of booze from the stage in what is meant to be an empowering rejection, it appears more like spring cleaning. 

Penelope does so only half-heartedly at other opportunities to assert herself as a person independent of her husband. When the band, under the direction of Ben Moss, channels their inner Athena (complete with confetti in a delightful turn), they refer to her as, “Penelope, wife of Odysseus,” employing increasingly suggestive adjectives to accentuate his unseen manliness. Penelope hilariously and refreshingly rejects their naming of her in relation to her husband, but is soon back to singing longingly for his return. And again, in “Resolution,” she appears to flirt with the idea of abandoning her waiting and beginning anew, but, in line with the source material, does not. Anguishing standstill or nowhere to go?

The ARK’s compact playing area could prove a challenge for any performer, but Phillips makes the most of the space, maneuvering around the small stage and working hard to engage the audience. She is an excellent interpreter of Bechtel’s music and does what she can with the uneven book. Statuesque in a silky green blouse, blue trousers, and sandals (by costume designer Danielle Preston), she appears to be the ancient Greek embodiment of “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

Scenic designer Paige Hathaway makes dual use of the theater’s back wall, installing curvy, textured boards to evoke both the hills of Ithaca and the rolling waves that Penelope prays will bring Odysseus home. Working in conjunction with lighting designer Jesse Belsky, the plaster panels are illuminated with contrasting colors, adding dimension and mimicking the moody hues of sunrise and sunset. Eric Norris’ sound design keeps Phillips front and center but at times begs for more percussion from both the drums and piano to accentuate the sharp edges of her yearning.

A new theatrical work, Penelope does not yet feel like it’s reached its ideal form. While an easy comparison could be made to Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, Bechtel’s approach to this story with Steinmetz and McLean fundamentally differs in their rejection of plot-driven structure. Accordingly, Penelope makes her most compelling case through sung ruminations on love and longing. Conceived first as a concept album, perhaps the heart of Penelope is best served in that medium. The Housewives are unscripted, but they still have story editors.

Playwright Mike Bartlett asks if ‘Love, Love, Love’ is really all you need in new production at Studio Theatre

By Dillon Lewis 

This article was originally published in the The DC Line here.

In an oft-quoted 1780 letter to Abigail Adams, then-Envoy to France John Adams declared, “I must study Politicks and War, that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy … in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” Adams’ attitude was emblematic of a new American ethos bent on building a better life for their progeny.

But in Love, Love, Love, playing through March 3 at Studio Theatre, British playwright Mike Bartlett dares to ask what happens when a prosperous generation fails to secure that life for their children, perhaps for the first time in modern history. Nevermind the play’s roots in the U.K. – the hard truths of blissful Boomer ignorance feel right at home on American soil, where those born between 1946 and 1964 possess half of the nation’s wealth. Despite this immense concentration of resources, Bartlett persuasively makes the case that the sorry state of =affairs for younger generations can be chalked up to the hedonistic entitlement of their parents, a corrupted carryover of free love and rebellion of the 1960s.

In a dingy London flat in 1967, long-haired Oxford student Kenneth (Max Gordon Moore) lounges on his brother’s couch, awestruck by a broadcast of Our World, the pioneering live multinational multi-satellite television program that saw the debut of The Beatles’ classic “All You Need Is Love.” Frustrated at his brother’s laziness, billboard installer Henry (Hunter Hoffman) admonishes Kenneth as a “layabout” who garners more cash through a government-funded scholarship than their working-class father earns at his job. Upon her arrival, Henry’s date Sandra (Liza J. Bennett), a 19-year-old Oxford student and second-wave feminist, is instantly taken with Kenneth’s progressive views and lack of concern about the future. After sending Henry out to pick up dinner, she and Kenneth begin an indulgent yearslong love affair that is marked by decadence, destruction and, eventually, divorce.

But Bartlett argues that old habits are hard to break, even among young iconoclasts. Kenneth and Sandra’s radical independence undergoes a two-decade transformation into boredom-driven infidelity and self-centered flippancy during the first of two intermissions. Having moved out of London to suburban Reading, their tastes — and attitudes — have changed with both the times and their economic prosperity. An old record player is replaced by a large stereo; plain walls painted mushy-pea green give way to chic wood paneling with abstract art; and cheap Irish whiskey cut with ginger ale is tossed in favor of French red wine. Most strikingly, bold patterns and casual clothing are swapped for chic business attire and private school uniforms worn by their two teenage children, Jamie (Max Jackson) and Rose (Madeline Seidman). And despite every indication that their kids are deteriorating faster than the likelihood of a Beatles reunion, Sandra assures herself that her broken family is superior to the loud, less affluent family who lives next door — she and Kenneth, after all, yell at each other only inside the house.

After two acts fueled by Kenneth and Sandra’s ruthless narcissism, Bartlett focuses the final act on taking a hammer to the elaborate facade they have erected of a successful family — despite the intervening decades they have spent as exes. Returning home for her Uncle Henry’s funeral, Rose — now approaching her middle years — seizes the opportunity to usher in a comeuppance of her parents, who are enjoying cozy retirements in their spacious homes. She makes a shocking ask: that her affluent parents buy her a home in London, relieving her of the financial struggle that accompanies the music career her parents encouraged her to pursue. Balking at her request, Sandra and Kenneth assert their strong work ethic as the driver of their prosperity, highlighting the advantages they provided to their daughter while ignoring the privileges they themselves enjoyed. Rose admonishes them for their selfishness, blaming them for her face-in-phone brother’s failure to launch and decrying their generation’s tendency toward accumulation. They consider her request and its accompanying criticism only briefly and not very seriously. And in a striking final moment, they ponder what they may instead do with the rest of their lives and their money, blissfully dancing to “All You Need Is Love” in the shadows of accumulated wealth and the frowns of their damaged children.

Directed by Artistic Director David Muse, Love, Love, Love is a bold choice for Studio Theatre. Aside from the obvious indicators of gentrification and a widening wealth gap that can be seen just outside of the theater’s 14th Street doors, regional theaters throughout the United States have long relied on the very age group Bartlett appears to be chiding. As theaters across the U.S. have grappled with identifying a sustainable audience model, ticket prices have continued to rise, putting an evening at the theater further out of economic reach for many would-be theatergoers of Rose’s and Jamie’s generation. But, if the theater is meant to inspire conversations and hold a mirror to its audience, then the selection of Love, Love, Love pays off immensely. Audiences may very well feel the tension in the room shifting, even as the bad behavior of Bartlett’s Boomer proxies becomes more and more outlandish.

It is in that behavior that Bartlett and Muse may sacrifice a portion of their audience. Though Sandra and Kenneth’s entitlement is often deeply funny, the play never fully transcends into the kind of encompassing satire that would allow Kenneth and Sandra to become sufficient stand-ins for their generation. By the end of the first act, Sandra and Kenneth are so singularly unlikable that audiences may not recognize themselves in the characters, let alone be primed for the kind of introspection that Bartlett practically begs for in the third act. Thankfully, the two subsequent acts are likely strong enough to solicit sufficient investment from a majority of the audience.

Without a doubt, Muse has assembled a first-rate cast to deliver the play. Though the accents may be spotty, the driving energy is not. Bennett is especially effective as Sandra, taking to heart the character’s pseudo-self-deprecating comment about her own chattiness. In all of Sandra’s conversational facets, whether they be flirtatious, brash or defensive, Bennett is an unstoppable force — even at Sandra’s most insufferable moments, Bennett is nothing short of engaging. Seidman’s performance is similarly engrossing. Always on the verge of tears, Seidman’s emotional Rose offers an earnestness and understanding of the larger world that neither of her parents is able to achieve. Her plea for assistance is not one of entitlement, as her parents would have you believe. It is of existential dispair. 

Muse has also engaged a talented corps of designers. Set designer Alexander Woodward leverages Studio’s Victor Shargai stage to underscore Bartlett’s critique of wealth hoarding. Beginning with an untidy, claustrophobic apartment, the size and chicness of Sandra and Kennth’s home grows in correlation with their affluence, culminating in a massive living room with two doors that open to a terrace. Notably, the ceiling continues to rise, lifting farther out of reach, accordingly. Costume designer Montana Levi Blanco nails the shifting fashion and economic landscapes the characters traverse. Lighting designer Cha See’s subtle but strong work is most effective in the play’s final moments. And sound designer Matthew M. Nielson’s use of period music as touchstones for each of the play’s three acts does well in setting both the time and mood of the onstage action.

That Bartlett chose to make “All You Need Is Love” the play’s functional theme song is a cheeky delight. While it certainly helps American audiences acclimate to the British ambiance, its self-reliant lyrics and assertion about the paramount importance of love more importantly offer an ironic throughline among such abundance. Bartlett asserts that a generation who proclaimed to need one thing has taken everything. In borrowing from the revolutionary spirit that was once a hallmark of those he takes to task, Bartlett is neither polite nor delicate in his critiques. But like finding himself at the bottom of a pyramid scheme, Bartlett asks an existential question on behalf of his generation: What’s left for us? Maybe love isn’t all you need.

One thing is clear: the kids are not OK, Boomer.

The Avett Brothers bring big questions to the high seas in ‘Swept Away’ at Arena Stage

By D.R. Lewis

This article was originally published in The DC Line, here.

The distance between The Avett Brothers’ upbringing in Concord, North Carolina, and the 19th-century whaling industry of New Bedford, Massachusetts, spans hundreds of miles and several lifetimes. But in Swept Away, a new musical that asks just how far humans will go to survive, sea shanties of a bygone era are replaced with selections from the folk rock band’s sweeping repertoire. Following its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last year, Swept Away takes audiences out to sea in Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater through Jan. 14.

Inspired by the true story of the shipwrecked Mignonette (and The Avett Brothers album of the same name), Swept Away opens on a white metal cot where a former whaler, Mate (John Gallagher Jr.), lies dying from tuberculosis. As his body deteriorates from illness and his mind wanders to the past, he is haunted by the ghosts of three seamen who suffered alongside him in younger days: a youthful sailor, Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe), Big Brother (Stark Sands) and their Captain (Wayne Duvall). They implore him to recount the story of their shared struggles as the lone survivors of a shipwreck. As the tale unfolds, we watch the men endure disaster, followed by weeks of starvation and thirst while adrift on a small lifeboat. When their situation becomes more and more fraught, they are forced to confront impossible questions of salvation, mercy and depravity in order to survive.

Comprised of hand-picked songs from The Avett Brothers’ extensive catalog of rock, roots and Americana, the musical’s folk score ranges from cheeky commentary on life at sea (“Hard Worker”) to the regrets of a career captain (“May It Last”) to a young man’s yearning for his distant lover when the fragile nature of life finally sets in (“A Gift for Melody Anne”). The arrangements by orchestrators Brian Usifer and Chris Miller vary accordingly, taking on both electric and acoustic treatments. Gallagher, Duvall, Sands and Enscoe are careful stewards of the Avett Brothers’ beloved songs, and their four voices blend remarkably well in group numbers and soar in solo turns. When combined with the (frequently offstage) ensemble, the tight harmonies work to haunt and comfort in equal measure. 

John Logan’s book provides a sturdy framework for the score while resisting the oft-indulged urge of other jukebox musicals to shoehorn existing songs into a complex, contrived plot. He chooses to go deep, rather than wide, providing enough details to bring the characters to life. He offers suitable dialogue to advance the simple story when needed and adequately tees up the songs for optimal impact. Despite by and large deferring to the score, Logan does put forth some meaty moral commentary that, while it occasionally feels trite, ultimately leaves audiences with plenty to ponder. 

As the Mate, an extremely charismatic Gallagher quickly captures the audience’s attention, never relinquishing his grasp even as ne’er-do-well charm devolves amid ravenous desperation. Duvall’s forlorn Captain lies somewhere between the Titanic’s steadfast Capt. Edward Smith and a defeated Willy Loman, struggling to accept the personal price he has paid for a career at sea. His self-professed failure to nurture his family is made all the more poignant by the devoted relationship Big Brother and Little Brother share. Despite a limited backstory, the chemistry between Sands and Enscoe is so strong that when an inevitable confrontation finally arrives and a dramatically logical but disturbing choice is made, the audience is left breathless.

Where Enscoe’s Little Brother is all heart, Sands’ Big Brother is entirely soul. His tenderness is at odds with the pompous masculinity of the ship’s crew, eliciting initial laughs from the audience. But as circumstances become increasingly dire, his enduring affection for his sibling and commitment to his faith are balm for both Little Brother and the audience. In the duet “Murder in the City,” the brothers affirm the importance of their familial love and the preciousness of their connection, despite their discordant dreams. “Always remember there was nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name,” they softly sing, moments before their lives, along with the ship, are upended forever.

Swept Away offers a departure from the flashy production numbers that are a hallmark of recent jukebox musicals like Jagged Little Pill (Alanis Morissette), Head Over Heels (The Go-Go’s, also directed by Michael Mayer) and Once Upon a One More Time (Britney Spears, which premiered at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2021). With some exceptions — a mashup of “Ain’t No Man” with “Lord Lay Your Hand on My Shoulder” (a new song written for the show), and “Hard Worker” (an upbeat song that puts the ensemble front and center) — most of the musical numbers feel like a continuing series of gentle reflections. While the songs do little in the way of moving the scant plot along, Logan’s careful curation of the tight 90-minute setlist does an admirable job of deepening the audience’s understanding of, and sympathy for, the characters. Given the circumstances, it’s a good fit.

So is the show’s director. Mayer may be best known for his work on Spring Awakening, the coming-of-age rock musical that earned both him and Gallagher their first Tony Awards. But nearly 20 years after Spring Awakening first opened in New York, Swept Away feels like a matured extension of that groundbreaking musical. The social loneliness of adolescence has given way to physical isolation on the open sea; the strict expectations of parents, educators and church leaders are left onshore, while the pressures of one’s humanity, faith and sense of self push against the instinct to survive; and the immobilizing fear of a long life ahead is replaced with the regrets of one already lived. 

Beyond his handle on the show’s most compelling dramatic questions, Mayer’s handiwork as a technician comes through clearly. He succeeds in keeping the pace of the show at a steady clip, even as the sailors languish in expectant waiting. The starkness of the four stranded sailors in a tiny boat, slowly spinning in the absence of their lost crewmates, is a major shift from the lively deck that bustles with activity earlier in the show. In conjunction with his creative team, Mayer steadily ratchets up the desperation through the latter half of the show, beginning with the initial tempest that precipitates the ship’s sinking. The battering of the ship and its crew is one of the most impressive sequences in the production. At first mildly tossed by the sea, the crew soon is thrown about the stage in perfect coordination. Where David Neumann’s slick choreography of the musical’s early group numbers shows the crew united in their controlled movements about the ship, once at the mercy of the ocean they are unified only in their powerlessness. 

The strong direction is matched by excellent technical work by Mayer’s creative team. Rachel Hauck’s massive ship set fills the Kreeger stage and, in a deeply satisfying coup, transforms in an instant to underscore both the isolation of the surviving sailors and the endlessness of the open sea. Kevin Adams’ lighting ebbs and flows between the harsh, reflective brightness of a blazing sun, and the shadowy bluish green darkness that intimates memories and the ocean floor. John Shivers’ sound design fills the background quietly, regularly resurfacing with reminders of waves lapping at the boat. And Susan Hilferty’s worn costumes subtly reflect the salty residue of a life lived at sea.

Despite the similarities between musical theater and country (or country-adjacent) music, which both rely heavily on narrative-driven storytelling over abstract hooks, prior attempts to merge the genres (Shucked,Bright Star, 9 to 5, Urban Cowboy, etc.) have met with varying levels of success. But unlike those past iterations, Swept Away boldly leverages its source material to present compelling existential dilemmas to its audience. The direness of the characters’ circumstances and their resulting moral abandonment forces viewers to confront deeply difficult questions. What would I sacrifice to save the ones I love most? How far would I go to see another sunrise? And, as so poignantly asked in the song “No Hard Feelings”: “When my body won’t hold me anymore and it finally lets me free, will I be ready?” 

Not everyone will be willing to confront those difficult quandaries on a night out at the theater. Still, those theatergoers who take their seats ready to be challenged are likely to relish in this bold new musical. And, in its ultimate faithfulness to its source material, Swept Away will surely satisfy The Avett Brothers’ most devoted followers. 

In this maiden musical theater voyage, Swept Away makes a strong case that the band’s musical style lends itself naturally to dramatization and holds great potential to make a splash.. The show’s producers have been clear that their sights are on the Great White Way, and Arena Stage has already added two weeks to the show’s run — an extension announced just before Wednesday’s official opening after a week and a half of previews. While it remains unclear whether this ship can successfully pull into New York Harbor and drydock somewhere along Broadway, Swept Away appears to be calling for another sailing.

Folger Theatre solves one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ — at least in part

By D. R. Lewis

This article was originally published in The DC Line, here.

For the unacclimated, an advertisement for William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale might conjure images of holiday stories that are often seen on stage this time of year. But DC audiences will find a twisting, tangled yarn spun of jealous royals, blood-thirsty bears and folksy shepherds rather than holly sprigs and spirits of Christmases past, present and future. Playing through Dec. 17 in an admirable production, Folger Theatre reasserts The Winter’s Tale as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” and begs audience members to open their imaginations to the playwright’s most extraordinary dramatic whims.

The Winter’s Tale begins in the court of Sicilian king Leontes (Hadi Tabbal), who misinterprets a moment of friendship between his pregnant wife Hermione (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) and visiting Bohemian king Polixenes (Drew Kopas). Growing jealous, Leontes instructs an aide to kill Polixenes, imprisons Hermione, and orders the abandonment of newborn child Perdita. While Polixenes manages to escape, Hermione ambiguously withers away and the baby is left to die in Bohemia. Only after the Oracle of Delphos exonerates Hermione does Leontes see the foolishness in his jealousy, prompting him to commit to atoning for his reckless behavior. Years later, Perdita (Kayleandra White) — having been rescued and raised by a shepherd — falls in love with Bohemian prince Florizel (Jonathan Del Palmer). Their love, along with the epiphany that Perdita is the Sicilian princess, not only brings the kingdoms together in friendship once again, but also facilitates Hermione’s resurrection (or, perhaps, the revelation that she’s been alive all along).

What begins as a deeply dramatic descent of a jealous king, complete with death and banishment, eventually gives way to a joyous romp of mistaken identity and inevitable romance. Such tonal transition has marked The Winter’s Tale with the scholarly “problem play” label, and presents a significant challenge for producing companies to hold the audience’s attention through the shifting vibe. Sure, for some, Shakespeare’s “genius” status leaves him immune to criticism. But The Winter’s Play is too full of dissatisfying dramatic wrinkles to make for anything other than an inconsistent night in the theater. When compared to the rest of the canon, The Winter’s Tale reveals itself as simply a lesser play. Please don’t shake your fist (spear?) at me.

Regardless, director Tamilla Woodard does her best to rise to the challenge — and by and large delivers. Rather than trying to force a smooth gradient between the play’s initial drama and the subsequent comedy, she leans on her ensemble of actors and creative team to draw stark stylistic differences between the two halves of her production. Raul Abrego Jr.’s bilevel set, which fits snugly onto the Folger’s small stage, alternates effectively between the chic, angular modernism in the play’s Sicilian scenes and the country cowboy flair of more rural Bohemia. Sarah Cubbage’s costumes correspond accordingly, with charcoal suits and businesswear for the royal Sicilians and cowboy hats and chaps for their rural Bohemian counterparts. Max Doolittle’s lighting design appropriately sets the mood, especially in the darkness of the forest where Perdita was to be abandoned and the sunny sheep-shearing festival that is the centerpiece of the production’s second half. These strong style choices effectively signal to the audience that the dramatic landscape has changed, helping to ease the emotional whiplash.

But not all of the choices are as successful. The Winter’s Tale has the distinction of owning the prototypical bloodthirsty bear, who pursues and mauls Antigonus (Stephen Patrick Martin) as he deposits the helpless Perdita in the woods. Woodard’s production opts to evoke the bear solely through lighting effects and projection, rather than with an actor in a bear costume. It came as something of a surprise that, with the bold stylization of both the serious first act and whimsical second act, the most droll element of the play was given but three flashes of light in this production. Given the ensemble’s liberal use of the middle aisle and other areas of the house to immerse the audience, the omission of the bear’s physical representation left this reviewer wondering why it went understated.

But this downplayed sequence is soon forgotten in the wake of strong performances across the cast. As Hermione, Crowe-Legacy is a stately and sincere queen, making Leontes’ rejection of her all the more baffling and heartbreaking. Kate Eastwood Norris is both entertaining as a dancing Bohemian and deeply moving as a devoted Paulina (her delivery of one of the play’s most memorable lines, “it is a heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in it,” inspires chills). And as the mischievous Autolycus, Reza Salazar enchants the audience with call-and-response and expert delivery of the character’s extended missives.

Despite its quirks, The Winter’s Tale offers a warm welcome for audiences returning to the Folger Shakespeare Library, which has undergone significant renovations since March 2020. The building’s ground floor entrance and lobby area are done over in concrete that evokes cool modernism and the iconic Brutalism visible in parts of downtown Washington. But upon ascending to the upper level and entering into the wood and stone Tudor theater, patrons may feel instantly transported across centuries and locales from Washington to Elizabethan London — or perhaps, for the time being at least, from Sicily to Bohemia. In this new building that embraces the contrasting styles of the historical and the modern, The Winter’s Tale, with its own stark contrasts, may be just the right choice for the Folger’s fresh start.

Mosaic Theater Company’s ‘Confederates’ spans 150 years of time and experience

By D.R. Lewis  

This article was originally published in The DC Line, here.

From the moment one walks into the Atlas Performing Arts Center for Dominique Morisseau’s Confederates, it is clear that the audience is about to be transported. In this new production by Mosaic Theater Company, sparse patches of artificial grass lead from the theater’s entrance, to the bleacher-style seating that surrounds the stage, and into scenic designer Nadir Bey’s massive set. A wooden platform consisting of a modern-day college professor’s office and the rustic accouterments of a 19th-century plantation cabin dominates the stage, surrounded by a field of puffy cotton shrubs. The set evokes not only a strong sense of two places but also a contrast between a distinct past and present — a clear signal that the narrative will traverse time during the play’s 90 minutes.

The sharp imagery doesn’t end with the abundant bulbs of pillowy cotton. College professor Sandra (Nikkole Salter) soon steps onstage to welcome the audience and detail her credentials as a Black academic. She says she has long been unafraid to confront depictions of slavery and summons an early photograph of an enslaved woman nursing a white child. The striking image is amplified when Sandra reveals that an unidentified individual has taped a printed copy of it to her office door, with Sandra’s face photoshopped over that of the woman. As she sets out to determine who did this, she simultaneously faces the scorn of her students as well as colleagues on various counts: Malik (Joel Ashur), a Black male student who insists she favors women; Candice (Caro Dubberly), a white student who works for Sandra and struggles to hide her passive racism behind her well-meaning progressivism; and Jade (Tamieka Chavis), an untenured professor who feels Sandra hasn’t done enough to help her Black colleagues obtain the same level of professional success.

Juxtaposed with Sandra’s scenes are those set on a Southern plantation during the Civil War. They center on Sara (Deidre Staples), an enslaved woman far more clever than many who live on the same plantation, including her enslaver’s daughter, Missy Sue (Dubberly); Sara’s brother Abner (Ashur); and potential comrade Luanne (Chavis). Unable to conceive a child, Sara makes a home for herself in a cabin on the plantation, watching after her brother and others. When Missy Sue returns from the North, where her philandering husband has abandoned her, she adopts newfound abolitionist values and a lust for her old “friend.” Sara decides to capitalize on the moment and seize her freedom by whatever means necessary.

In chronicling the experiences of these two women, Morisseau digs into the compounding pressures and contradictory expectations that some segments of society place upon Black women, who must also navigate ever-shifting racial and gender dynamics. For instance, Sandra is accused of coddling her white students yet also giving more of her time to Malik than others. And when Sandra faces quiet social backlash for wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to class, Jade accuses her of not being supportive enough of Black students and colleagues. Despite being exceptionally talented, educated, intelligent and successful, Sandra is met at all turns by others’ broken expectations of her — though none recognize her humanity enough to ask about her personal struggles, which include a failed marriage and difficulty conceiving a child. 

Likewise, Sara spends most of her life performing manual labor despite her intellect and wit. As a child she was beaten for learning more quickly than Missy Sue how to read, and for asking to sleep in the plantation house. And although she is braver and more resourceful than her brother Abner, she is left behind when he joins the military. 

Both Sara and Sandra are objectified for their race by the white women who purport to admire them, challenged professionally by women who have a similar social standing, and disrespected by the men who rely on them. In parallel scenes, Morisseau seems to assert that the social working dynamics on college campuses, or the professional expectations put on Black women today, aren’t so different from those of the plantations. Bey’s set underscores this notion, building Sara’s cabin and Sandra’s office on top of a single cotton field. Morisseau adds wide strokes of satire amid dialogue that shifts from cutting to sincere — not to lighten the moment, but instead to illustrate the absurdities these women face. That Morisseau is able to effectively critique racial and gender politics in such a short amount of time is testament to her skill as a playwright.

Even so, the production suffers from some dramatic imbalances. Morisseau successfully injects a certain amount of shock value into the play through her writing, particularly in Sara’s scenes, such as when she sews shut her brother’s accidental self-inflicted knife wound on his backside or capitalizes on Missy Sue’s advances to flip the dynamic and assert her own power. Nonetheless, over-the-top performance choices at times tilt the production a bit too far, causing emotional whiplash and confusion when reverting back to the realism of Sandra’s scenes. Though many of those choices inspire audience laughter, they ultimately pull focus from Sara and Sandra.

Director Stori Ayers makes deft use of Bey’s set, at first firmly rooting her leading women in their respective sides of the platform before allowing each of them to step into the other’s space. Ultimately, the interwovenness of their experiences, notwithstanding the distance between their respective eras and circumstances, is fully realized when Ayers satisfyingly brings Sara and Sandra together into one space — and as close as they can come to the audience — during the most moving moments of Morisseau’s play. Ayers’ production is also supported by Deja Collins’ stirring projections; John D. Alexander’s lighting design, which uses blues and purples to create an appropriately moody scene; and Moyenda Kulemeka’s distinctive period costumes. Meanwhile, sound designer David Lamont Wilson’s smooth insertion of musical clips, ranging from the Confederate anthem “Dixie” to Beyoncé’s “Freedom,” adds emotional weight to the play’s transitions.

Whereas Salter’s slow-burning Sandra builds to her breaking point, Staples’ Sara is spirited from the outset. Staples, in particular, has a remarkable command of the stage. Her mature, moving portrayal of Sara echoes her excellent work as the younger, socially conscious Carmen in James Ijames’ Good Bones at Studio Theatre earlier this year. And Chavis, despite being a last-minute addition to the cast and using a script for the performance this reviewer saw, is excellent in both of her roles, especially Luanne. 

Confederates is strong evidence of why Morisseau is regarded as one of the leading dramatists of our time. One could rattle off the well-deserved honors that have been bestowed upon her — they include a 2018 MacArthur Fellowship — but the proof is in the writing. In addition to exercising a keen sense of storytelling economy, Morisseau is able to effectively balance hefty arguments with precise character specificity. Bolstered by a creative team that steps up to meet the challenge, Mosaic’s production of Confederates is a worthwhile journey for Washington theatergoers. 

Maynard Jackson returns to the political stage in ‘Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard’ at Ford’s Theatre

By D. R. Lewis

This article was originally published in The DC Line, here.

Standing at nearly 6 feet 4 inches, Atlanta Mayor Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. was a formidable presence in national Democratic politics, both in spirit and stature, for three decades. Now, in Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard, a new play from the Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commission program, playwright Pearl Cleage draws on her experience as Jackson’s speechwriter and friend to contextualize his political legacy through the voices of the people who first sent him to City Hall in 1973.

Something Moving invites audiences into an Atlanta high-school-turned-community-arts-center, where nine local actors have gathered to rehearse a play that tells the story of Maynard Jackson 50 years after his election as the city’s first Black mayor. Under the direction of a pseudo-narrator called The Witness, the actors assume their roles as citizens remembering Jackson’s political rise — first as a candidate for United States Senate against a segregationist incumbent and eventually as a three-term mayor — and in doing so examine the social progress since Jackson first entered politics. They recount his success in harnessing the voting power of the city’s Black residents following the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and the symbol of hope he quickly became.

“Is this a history play?” asks one of the actors, who are referred to as numbered “Citizens.” “Every play is a history play,” replies The Witness. But Something Moving does not emulate many other histories by fixating on the specific dates and details of Jackson’s political career. Cleage instead focuses on the personal aspects of politics — the way that Jackson made his constituents feel, the social shift he represented, and the widespread feelings of optimism that his election inspired across the South. She adds context by detailing the pre- and post-Civil War legacy of Atlanta as the capital of a former confederate state, as seen through the experiences of its inhabitants. Among the Atlanta residents the various Citizens portray are a Black housekeeper who has worked for the same white family for 20 years, a lesbian couple who live on the site of a former Civil War battlefield, a gay man who encountered Jackson when the mayor visited the historic Sweet Gum Head drag bar, and a young man Jackson met while spending a weekend living among constituents in the Bankhead Courts public housing complex.

It is in these moments of heightened, focused storytelling that the play is at its strongest. By fully developing individual characters and the world they inhabit, Cleage draws the audience in and successfully underscores Jackson’s impact on individual lives. She is then able to effectively convey the oppressive social pressures that many of Jackson’s constituents were living under, why he represented the promise of relief and change, and the ways in which many of those pressures persist today. But, generally, those compelling moments come too late in the play, which spends a great deal of time at the outset explaining the mechanics of its storytelling, perhaps at the expense of a greater breadth of storytelling. The play falls victim to its own structure, with form overwhelming the content.

From her entrance, The Witness (a very charismatic Billie Krishawn) asserts herself as a dramatic device. Breaking the fourth wall, she immediately points out that the audience is in a theater watching a performance and that the people onstage are portraying performers themselves (clearly a nod to the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which is a phrase that is repeatedly uttered in reference to Atlanta). But in a play that insists on connection between people and wishes to underscore the power of the individual (as implied by its subtitle, A Meditation on Maynard), The Witness’ commitment to referring to her characters only as numbered citizens and to present herself as a dramatic convention are not conducive to the play’s desired impact.

While the full title promises both the momentum of a political ascent and the careful consideration of a meditation, the play struggles to commit to either. Just as it deliberately avoids digging into the particulars of Jackson’s policy accomplishments, it quickly brushes over his constituents’ criticisms, focusing instead on the symbolism of his election and the magnetism of the man. Regardless, Cleage delivers a heartfelt love letter to her friend and former boss, and the affection and respect she holds for Jackson is both obvious and touching. Audiences will walk away from this production having learned more about an overlooked political icon and feeling encouraged to consider the impact that local heroes can have on their home communities as well as the national stage.

Cleage’s play is bolstered by a strong cast and production team. Under the direction of Seema Sueko, the apt ensemble buoys the material with standout performances by Kim Bey, Alina Collins Maldonado and Constance Swain. Ivania Stack’s costumes embrace modern fashion, but also nod to 1970s trends. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting appropriately evokes the industrial brightness of an aging community center, but in conjunction with Shawn Duan’s projection design can turn on a dime to transport the audience to a range of settings. But Milagros Ponce de León’s set may be the most effectual element of all. Utilizing the stage’s deep apron, the angled sides of her hyper-realistic set extend toward the audience like arms reaching for a welcoming hug.

Notwithstanding its limitations, Something Moving is a fitting selection for Ford’s Theatre. It’s not just that the flags festooning Abraham Lincoln’s box serve as a seamless yet noticeable buffer between this landmark of American history and Ponce de León’s municipal set, nor that the theater sits mere blocks from the centers of our federal government in a city that, at the time of Jackson’s election, had a population that was more than 70% Black. Equally important, Ford’s Theatre serves as an educational center, welcoming countless students from across the United States each year to engage them in both American history and the performing arts. Cleage’s play unabashedly joins in those efforts. For some students, it will be the first play they see. For far more, it will likely be their first introduction to a man who dedicated himself to building a better community. Through Cleage’s curation of historical stories and voices that are not so different from those of her modern audience, Maynard Jackson’s legacy endures.

Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard by Pearl Cleage runs through Oct. 15 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Directed by Seema Sueko. Approximately 90 minutes and performed without an intermission. Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 888-616-0270.