Home Reviews Update
Contact Potomac Stages About Potomac Stages
Web PotomacStages


Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater - ARCHIVE
Click here to go to this theater's main page


August: Osage County
November 24 - December 20, 2009
Tuesday - Sunday at 7:30 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 1:30 pm
Reviewed November 28 by Brad Hathaway

Family tragedy of Greek proportions spiced with sharp comic barbs
Running time 3:30 - two intermissions
Click here to buy the script


Not since Cherry Jones took Doubt on tour has there been such anticipation for a national tour of a Broadway play coming into the Potomac Region as for this three and a half hour extravaganza of acidic scorn. The enthusiasm was understandable. After all, here was a play that won first the Drama Desk award for best play of 2008, then the Tony for best Broadway play of the 2007-08 season and finally the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While the cast was not to include any of the original Broadway bunch, the role of the foul-mouthed mother was to be played by Estelle Parsons who was the replacement mom on Broadway for nearly a year. But, hype and hope can sometimes be the enemy of fulfillment. If you go expecting the greatest tragicomedy in ages you may come away a bit let down. If, on the other hand, you go expecting a fine performance of an absorbing,  well constructed and incandescently written play, you may walk out exhilarated by the experience. Either way, you will admire the professionalism of the presentation, the work of the cast - especially that of Shannon Cochran as the eldest daughter - and appreciate the opportunity to see this deeply disturbed dysfunctional family in their own home and not in yours. Any visit with such a collection of misfits should be at a proscenium's remove.

Storyline: The three grown daughters of a prescription drug addicted, cancer suffering, chain smoking and constantly disparaging matriarch come home when their father disappears. One brings her estranged husband and their daughter. One brings her fiancé. In addition, their aunt and uncle and a cousin are add to the mix. The more time they spend together the more injuries they inflict on each other's psyches until the family destructs in one acerbic evening.

Tracy Letts has spent over a decade as a member of the ensemble at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre where this play had its premiere. He struck a treasure trove when he delved into his own family's background (for example, he points to his grandfather's suicide as a source) and found the basis for an insult fest. One trusts the real Letts family wasn't really like the fictional one on stage. His previous plays included Bugs and Killer Joe and since winning all those awards for this play, he has written the somewhat more lighthearted Superior Donuts which opened this October on Broadway and has already posted a closing notice for January. The tour was directed by Anna D. Shapiro who won the Tony Award for directing its Broadway incarnation (she also directed the premiere at Steppenwolf where she's been busy directing plays by such a variety of authors as Arthur Miller, Robert Anderson, Warren Light and other pieces by Letts.

While Parsons' performance is sharp and impressive, the real star of the evening is Shannon Cochran who, as the eldest daughter in the family, makes the transition from reluctant supporter of her despotic mother to a final decision that rings true both personally and dramatically. When she unleashes her anger it is marvelous to behold. The other two daughters get vivid performances as well from Angelica Torn and Amy Warren while Emily Kinney has a few searing moments as the representative of the next generation who is understandably loath to accept the legacy of her family tree. The all too brief appearance of John DeVries, as her grandfather is handled with a modicum of charm stopping just short of parody of a drunk act.

A homecoming play needs an impressive home and Todd Rosenthal's towering, three level skeleton of a home fills the bill with all the detail needed to seem homey and playing spaces for many moments of subtle reinforcement as family members occupy rooms away from the main action. Ann G. Wrightson's superb lighting design draws the audience's eye unerringly to the proper place just as each plot point is brought to a boil. It is easy to understand, then, just why the set design won last year's Tony Award. What is not quite so easy to understand is why the lighting was nominated but lost out to Kevin Adams' effective but less eloquently subtle design for 39 Steps. A score of incidental music assists the transitions with the sound system delivering such fidelity on the recordings that it sounds very much as if a combo is in the wings.

Written by Tracy Letts. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Incidental music composed by David Singer. Fight choreography by Chuck Coyl. Design: Todd Rosenthal (set) Ana Kuzmanic (costumes) Ann G. Wrightson (lights) Richard Woodbury (sound) Joan Marcus (photography). Cast: Shannon Cochran, Jon DeVries, Libby George, Stephen Riley Key, Emily Kinney, Laurence Lau, Marcus Nelson, Paul Vincent O'Connor, Estelle Parsons, Jeff Still, DeLanna Studi, Angelica Torn, Amy Warren.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A Streetcar Named Desire
October 29 – November 21, 2009
Thursday – Saturday at 7:30 pm; Saturday - Sunday at 1:30 pm
Reviewed Octob
er 31 by David Siegel

A Potomac Stages Pick for a stunning performance
 by Cate Blanchett
Running time 3:15 – one intermission
Tickets $25-$110
Click here to buy the script

Shake away all you think you know, smash away any previous idols. If you are fortunate enough to already have a ticket to this sold-out, short-run, consider yourself blessed. You will be simply seduced and overwhelmed with the emotional bleeding in this dazzling production, even if you witness not one drop of blood. Take a deep breath before settling into your seat. Under Liv Ulmann’s womanly hand, Cate Blanchett is no timid, frail, hysterical Blanche DuBois pushed into madness from a position of weakness. Ulmann has this Streetcar Named Desire a production with big male energy, for sure, but one with small moments that might be missed without close attention. She has this a focused production as if in close-ups. Blanchett’s Blanche is the mistress of her own fate as she eggs on others to do what she wants; ultimately assisting in her emotional suicide so that no longer will she have to deal with a world for which her survival skills no longer fit. She finds her designated weapon in the testosterone-rich, brutally reactive Stanley Kowalski (Joel Edgerton). Blanchett leads him on like a bull with a ring in his nose. Over time, to switch metaphors, she loads the weapon, cocks the trigger and then hands him the weapon and, at the designated time, gets Edgerton to pull the trigger. Blanchett eggs on the males, old and young, to calibrate their reactions to see if they pass her fitness tests. Edgerton does pass, one only has to gaze at Blanchett’s coy body language to know that. And both know that they will have some “date time ” together in some manner. She is all Scarlet to Edgerton’s Rhett; wanting to be whisked up the stairs to lose for one night her southern overly demure femininity and public reticence to flaunt sexual desire. Younger sister Stella (Robin McLeavy) has done voluntarily what Blanchett can only dream of; discard gentility to live a life with lusty passion. McLeavy revels with her Stanley even to downplay some of the rougher consequences of being “pulled down” by him. But, in this production, McLeavy does seem to get lost, perhaps from the star power of Blanchett and the virility of Edgerton. Overall, Blanchett is a calculator; owning her own desperation. As the final scene plays out, as the worst has happened, she glides across the stage, lit as if by the hand of God saying those words we all know so well, thankful for the kindness of strangers. Stunning.

Storyline: The story of the determined, yet fragile, repressed and delicate Blanche DuBois, set in the post-World War II New Orleans apartment of her sister, Stella Kowalski and animalistic, working class brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.

The biographical entries written about Tennessee Williams and his Streetcar are already encyclopedic. No need for more from your reviewer. Director Ullman's touch is to give a stillness in some ways to this Streetcar; to reduce the hysterics. She also centers the production both inside the apartment and inside the heads of the occupants. The sounds of New Orleans really only seep through and there is little sense of the grimy lower depths. Ullman’s deft guidance comes forth in smaller, but very consequential actions: McLeavy in reverie after bedding Stanley; she in a nightgown, slowly moving her hands down, gliding over her breasts, caressing them with a smile, then placing her hand between her thighs, squeezing with a quiet squeal of pleasure. Then: Blanchett - same bed, she uses her hand in a jerky motion, moves it abruptly over her contours finding her most private places only to quickly pull away as “this is neither right nor proper.”

McLeavy performs as a sensual being seeking heat and dampness in her life. When she wraps her legs around Edgerton to be carried off, she is smiling as if being carried off to heaven. She willingly lives with fits of anger and broken dishes since she doesn’t really fear Edgerton. After all, he falls into her arms as if a baby at his mother’s breast. Edgerton plays as if a machine of potent man; he will never fail with his manhood. His is not simply an animal or brutal. His outbursts at times come across as the temper tantrums of a child rather than thought-out violence. Tim Richards as Stanley's buddy who is briefly in Blanche's sights is an inadequate dud of a man, who does not have the where-with-all to sweep Blanchett off her feet. Still living with his mother, he projects softness even when throwing punches. Looking down at his feet, he shuffles them a bit almost timidly asking if he can kiss Blanche. The ensemble that inhabit this special world of Tennessee Williams are admirable in giving life to the retinue they represent. As for the doctor who provides the iconic final kindness of a stranger, he holds his arm in a most gentlemanly of manner, tips his hat and leads Blanchett on her way. The audience is in deserved stunned silence.

The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater is boxed-in so that there is railroad flat set design focusing attention rather than using the immense stage. Only an upstairs window to view the goings-on there connected by a scary metal fire escape take the eyes away from the two room Kolawlski apartment. Nick Schlieper’s lighting brings forth not just daylight or nightfall, but palatable moods. The soft warm butter yellow morning light is touchable, the garishness of hard incandescent lights that show the skin’s flaws are clearly drawn, as is the manner in which two adjoining rooms are lit to produce completely disparate mind-sets at the same moment. The opening entrance and final exit are lit as if for a rock star; but one needing no introduction. The sound design is always there in the background providing cityscape sounds along with bluesy musical selections to drive home the trajectory of the script. The costumes place Blanchett in flowing silks and cream colored skirts and blouses to start. As her decent takes hold she is attired in worn looking fashions, faded relics of another time. Edgerton is far from roughly attired; rather a working stiff, with at times his hands and clothes dirty from his work.

Written by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Liv Ullmann. Design: Ralph Myers (set) Tess Scholfield,  (costumes) Nick Schlieper (lights) Paul Charlier (composer/sound) Alan John (piano arrangements) Lisa Tomasetti (photography) Georgia Gilbert (stage manager) and Shari Silberglitt (U.S. stage manager). Cast: Cate Blanchett, Michael Denkha, Joel Edgerton, Elaine Hudson, Gertraud Ingebor, Morgan David Jones, Russell Kiefel, Jason Klarwein, Mandy McElhinney, Robin McLeavy, Tim Richards and Sara Zwangobani.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Spring Awakening
July 7 - August 2, 2009
Tuesday - Sunday at 7:30 pm
Saturday -Sunday 1:30 pm
Reviewed Ju
ly 9 by David Siegel

A Potomac Stages Pick for a fiery and profound rock concert treatment of a poignant teen saga
Running time 2:25 - one intermission
Mature content, sexual activity and brief nudity
Click here to read our review of the original cast recording
Tickets $25 - $90

Click here to buy the CD

Jolts and shocks meant to scandalize sink away before the truth-seeking honest ones. The teen angst, hormone and sex driven marketing is a clever tool meant to offend the old and bring out the credit cards of the young. But that makes Spring Awakening seem less than what it is, which is much more than a heavy blow to abstinence education. Built on a 100 year old play by a now-obscure German playwright, Frank Wedekind, the up-to-the moment lyrics are fiery and profound even for those who are decades into adulthood. With guitar licks and percussive snare rolls pushed along with a mind-boggling light-show lighting design, at times this production is like the best of a small indoor venue rock concert. Under the rock show atmosphere is the exposure of inner lives with a true arc and dimensionality; growth and maturity for the resilient survivors of unforgiving childhoods. As for a deeper subtext; admit it, didn’t you just today curse your boss under your breath over some such trifling contretemps for which you were called up short? Looking down at your feet you knew that saying something was the wrong thing and not saying something was also the wrong thing. You froze in abject terror; dampness appearing on your brow. Recall when you rolled your eyes and nodded your own head when you felt a lecture coming on from someone as inside your head you went “blah, blah, blah, un huh, un huh” with a final exasperated but internal "whatever!" That is Spring Awakening. Mix in a vibrant, genuinely likable late-teens to early 20-something cast who generally pull off the difficult feat of acting, dancing and singing (though not all with faultless skills) and add the rush of inescapable teen hormones, pulsating live rock music, other-worldly mature ballads, choreography depicting adolescents who cannot sit still but must always move, arms alive with almost drug induced fervor and you have an intoxicating, animated treat. More than a fizzy bubbly treat, there is depth for those who hear the fresh words about hell and demons sung in a whisper by angels who are just scared.

Storyline: Set against the backdrop of a repressive and provincial late 19th century Germany, this rock musical celebrates the journey from youth to adulthood through self-discovery and budding sexuality as seen through the eyes of three teenagers.  A fusion of morality, sexuality, and rock and roll.

Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening played Broadway for 888 performances from December 10, 2006 to January 18, 2009. With 18 songs, it received eleven 2007 Tony Award nominations, winning eight, including Best Musical, Direction, Book and Score. The show also won four Drama Desk Awards including Outstanding Musical. The lyrics and score are open and fearless, some naughty words, but no more so than heard by most of us in our daily lives. Under the direction of Michael Mayer the production catches fire with its clear, keyed-up presentation. Sure there are moments of nervous audience laughter from depictions of masturbation or a young male “hitting” upon another young male; the laughter is of a knowing kind. Bill T. Jones’s choreography includes scenes where the floor is literally aflame with luminous youthful energy. As for the adult characters, they are all grey-tone, forlorn frozen figures.

The gorgeous voiced Christy Altomare is the ripening young teen who takes her mother’s guidance literally, finding herself unprepared not only for her own hormones but those of Melchior (Jake Epstein) leading to the ultimate bad ending. When she asks to be whipped by Epstein so she can feel something - anything (even pain since experiencing love is out of bounds) the audience's silence is tangible. We first meet the well-voiced Epstein as a school boy rebel protecting his chums. He confronts all in his path with growing disillusionment over the life he faces. He questions everything and protects his friends; not wanting to live by rote set out by adults. Blake Bashoff is an unprepared, confused teen, with a shock of a hair styled to set him clearly apart from his school chums. He suffers dearly from his needs with no adult to keep him safe. His singing is of vigor rather than perfection befitting his hormone challenged character.  Steffi D is an artistic head strong girl finding herself without love with affection but only bohemian sex. With an emotive directness, Andy Mientus has his sexual awakening take a different path; desire for another schoolboy chum. He is an earthy cooing presence using his verbal charms. Angela Reed, as all of the adult women, and Henry Stram, as all the adult men, are multitudes generally played as zombies with neither answers nor warmth for the youngsters.

The Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater is a jumble of objects on the walls while the set itself includes risers for some audience to sit mixed with performers. The 7 piece band is in full view at the rear.  Little cubbyholes on the walls can become sources of light. Dead center is the unadorned play space, except when school chairs are brought forth. Kevin Adams’ lighting design is fabulous pop; everything from halogen white-hot, to pinpoints of deep crimson and rich cobalt blue, to the most unusual chartreuse, all with a blinding intensity that cools slowly. Darkness is not just black, but back like coated paper that can be felt. The asexual costumes hide the developing young women’s figures; the boys in 4-button suits and boots.

Book and Lyrics by Steven Sater. Music/Orchestration by Duncan Sheik. Based upon the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind.  Directed by Michael Mayer. Resident direction by Beatrice Terry. Choreography by Bill T. Jones. Fight direction by J. David Brimmer. Design: Christine Jones (set) Susan Hilferty (costumes) Kevin Adams (lights) Brian Ronan (sound)  Paul Kolnik (photography) Alison Harma (stage manager). Cast: Krystina Alabado, Christy Altomare, Blake Bashoff, Julie Benko, Steffi D, Chase Davidson, Jake Epstein, Gabrielle Garza, Kimiko Glenn, Sarah Hunt, Anthony Lee Medina, Andy Mientus, Ben Moss, Krista Pioppi, Angela Reed, Perry Sherman, Matt Shingledecker, Henry Stram, and Lucas A. Wells. Musicians: Karen Alatuch (viola) Alon Bisk (cello) Freddy Hall (guitar) Ben Lively (violin) Jared Stein (conductor/keyboards) Mark Verdino (bass) Marques Walls (drums).

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

April 18 - May 17, 2009
Tuesday - Sunday at 7:30 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 1:30 pm
Reviewed April 25 by Brad Hathaway

t A Potomac Stages Pick for a superb revival of the greatest musical of the past decade
Running time 2:55 - one intermission
Price $25 - $90
Click here to buy the CD

The Kennedy Center pulls out all the stops, devotes all the resources and brings in all the talent necessary to make its revival of the last great musical of the 20th century nothing less than a landmark production. It is more than just a must see - it is a must hear as well. Once again, just as they did in 1998 when Ragtime premiered on Broadway, Flaherty and Ahrens’ sweeping score and Terrence McNally's marvelously effective adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel merge into a thrilling experience that blends the stories of immigrants, migrating blacks and upper middle class whites in New York at the birth of the 20th century with historical characters. The cast is a bit smaller than the original which had 49, while here there are 33, but there is no feeling of having scrimped in any aspect of the production. Instead, it delivers that "wow" feeling from the moment the curtain rises to reveal Derek McLane's towering set of Victorian-era elevated walkways backed by a dramatic sky scene until the final blast of the play-out music from the 28-piece orchestra which James Moore conducts using William David Brohn's original orchestrations.

Storyline: Doctorow’s novel threaded fictional characters and historical figures into a portrait of three interlocking worlds that existed within miles of each other in the New York City of 1906. The musical focuses on a black piano player who suffers mindless injustice, a Jewish immigrant who rises to success in the new world and a white upper class family whose fates are intertwined with both of them. Through it all, the figures of Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, the starlet Evelyn Nesbit and the escapist Houdini give a sense of time and historic import to the piece.

This is a musical that touches the heart on many levels. The score of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens is so full of gorgeous, emotional anthems that it would overload a less emotionally charged and narratively rich book. But they are the perfect match for Terrence McNally’s huge adaptation of Doctorow’s novel. A tremendous amount of the story is told through the songs rather than in dialogue between musical numbers. Ahrens’ ability to encapsulate a plot point in a very few words is astonishing. The true story of the shooting of Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, “the crime of the century,” takes exactly 25 words: “Then I went and married Harry Thaw. Eccentric millionaire. Oh! Oh! Harry’s a jealous man. Bang! Bang! That was the end of Stan. Boo hoo!” Ahrens ability to capture the essence of emotions is beautifully matched by Flaherty’s music which rocks gently to true ragtime, soars nearly effortlessly to emotional crescendos and lifts the spirit at key moments. Director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge concentrates on telling the story, not competing with the memory of the earlier production. Her swirl of the full cast in the openings of both acts are beautiful pieces of stagecraft.

The onstage talent is a marvelous mix of Broadway, regional and even international theater veterans, Potomac Region regulars and a number of major performers with both sets of credentials. Among those not previously seen locally are Quentin Earl Darrington, whose duet with the also non-local Jennlee Shallow on "The Wheels of a Dream" is not only the dramatic lynch pin of the piece, it is one of the highest of the night's uncounted number of highlights. Christiane Noll, who has worked at Signature as well as on Broadway, is a magnificent "Mother" and Broadway vets Rohn Bohmer and Manoel Felciano deliver fine work as the two men in her life, "Father" and "Tateh," the immigrant turned movie director. Highly impressive is Bobby Steggert, looking a bit like Bobby Morse in Take Me Along, who makes the transition from love-sick boy to revolutionary. Eric Jordan Young is as impressive as Booker T. Washington as he should be. Potomac Region regulars include Dan Manning, Donna Migliaccio and Tracy Lynn Olivera. New to all stages is eleven year old Christopher Cox who handles the role of the little boy with impressive assurance.

There are a few small deletions and reductions from the original which are both inconsequential to the storytelling and helpful in maintaining a consistent sense of scale. For instance, Harry Houdini's Act II escape from a trunk is eliminated but Jonathan Hammond makes his Act I entrance hanging upside down in a straight jacket from which he extricates himself while singing the iconographic ditty about being a "master of getting free." Santo Loquasto's original costume designs are duplicated (with some additional design work from Jimm Halliday) and Jonathan Deans return to the piece to make sure the sound design is just as gloriously solid as it was on Broadway. (Here he teams with Garth Helm.)

Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Book by Terrence McNally based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Musical direction by James Moore. Design: Derek McLane (set) Santo Loquasto (original costumes) Jimm Halliday (additional costumes) Bernie Ardia (hair and wigs) Donald Holder (lights) Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm (sound) Joan Marcus (photography) Shari Silberglitt (stage manager). Cast Mark Aldrich, Sumayya Ali, Melvin Bell, III, Ron Bohmer, Kevin Boseman, Corey Bradley, Shelby Braxton-Brooks, Christopher Cox, Quentin Earl Darrington, Susan Derry, Elizabeth Loren Earley, Gavin Esham, Manoel Felciano, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, David Garry, Jonathan Hammond, Rashad J. Koker, Leigh Ann Larkin, Gregory Maheu, Dan Manning, Donna Migliaccio, Christiane Noll, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Bryonha Parham, Sarah Rosenthal, Jennlee Shallow, Sasha Sloan, Bobby Steggert, Elisa Van Duyne, Josh Walden, Nellesa Walthour, Jim Weaver, Eric Jordan Young.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

December 4 - 6, 2008
The Trumpet of the Swan: A Novel Symphony
Reviewed December 4 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:25 - no intermission
World premiere of a narrated children's story backed by full orchestra
Recommended for ages seven and up
price range $18 - $35

The world premiere of a treatment of E. B. White's children's story using a narrator, actors delivering the lines of key characters and a full orchestra took place Thursday evening. It is being performed only four more times, once Friday night and then at 11 am, 3 and 7:30 pm on Saturday. With a thirty five piece orchestra on stage, the piece charms both children and adults. It features a script by Marsha Norman, a score by Jason Robert Brown, narration delivered by Richard Thomas, and a cast of actors reading the lines of the characters including Edward Gero, Lauren Kennedy, and Kathy Bates. The story is of a swan with no voice, who instead, plays a trumpet. The key role is, then, played not by an actor but by a trumpeter, Christopher Michael Venditti, a masters degree student at the Juilliard School who contributes a velvety smooth tone to the evening. Brown conducts the orchestra in his supporting score. There are no songs in the piece, but certain instruments and melodies represent different characters and places as the story unfolds.

Storyline: A trumpet swan is born without a voice. He learns to write on a chalk tablet, but finds it worthless since the rest of the swans can't read. His father, concerned that he won't be able to attract a mate without the ability to make the loud trumpeting honk of the species' mating call, steals a trumpet for him from a music store. Once he learns to play the trumpet, he sets off to earn enough money as a musician to pay back the music store.

White's children's books have been the source for movies, television and radio plays and stage works for years. Most notably, Charlotte's Web has had many incarnations. But what do you do with a story of a swan who goes around with a chalk board and a trumpet hung on a rope around his neck? Playwright Marsha Norman (Night, Mother, The Secret Garden) came up with an approach she thought would work: just tell the story but back it up with all the lush support of a full orchestra and make the trumpet swan a, well, a trumpet. As a result, only seven of the eight members of the cast have lines to read - the eighth is Venditti who plays a silky trumpet. When the character of the swan has thoughts that need to be spoken, actor Zayd Dorhn delivers them.

A key to the success of the performance is the open, honest delivery of the narration by Richard Thomas, whose attitude of sincerity mixed with good humor invites children to follow the story as he sets it out. Thomas has a way of getting every word clearly across without seeming to be reading or lapsing into a "narrator" mode. He's simply telling a story. And, since Norman has written it as if it is being told by the swan's human friend, he becomes a part of the story. Ed Gero makes the swan's father a vain but loving parent, but none of the other characters take on much personality.

A suitably minimalist approach to the physical design of the performance avoids distracting the attention of the children while subtly enriching the feel of the presentation. The actors and Venditti sit at music stands at the front of the stage. Venditti, and his vocal counterpart Dorhn, are arrayed in sparkling white formal wear while the other actors are in more subdued street wear. The orchestra takes up the rest of the stage area backed by a frame and a screen on which light patterns suggesting water or reeds, clouds or skyscraper lights to give a sense of place to the action. Nothing distracts from the charm of the story and its delivery. And, when Venditti's trumpet soars, so, too, does the story.

Music by Jason Robert Brown. Adapted by Marsha Norman from the book by E. B. White. Directed by Gary Griffin. Orchestrations by Sam Davis. Conducted by Jason Robert Brown. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Holly Hynes (costumes) Beverly Emmons (lights). Cast: Kathy Bates, Zayd Dohrn, Edward Gero, Lauren Kennedy, Peggity Price, Richard Thomas, Christopher Michael Venditti, Fred Willard.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

November 11 - 30, 2008
Reviewed November 14 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:55 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for two memorable performances
 in a contemporary history play
Click here to buy the script 

Docu-drama has been an accepted mode of theater for at least four hundred years. When the history being "documented" is as recent as the collapse of the 37th Presidency of the United States, the play must comport with memory and the portrayal of the participants must ring true to those who witnessed some or all of the events in person or through the lens of television cameras. Here's a case in point: Who doesn't carry in his or her head the image of Richard Nixon waving his "V-for-Victory" salute in the doorway of the Presidential helicopter on that historic August 9th nearly thirty-five years ago? While not all of us actually watched Nixon's subsequent interviews with television host David Frost, any recreation of key moments from the six hours of interviews must present a Nixon that feels right. Stacy Keach, whose creations reach back as far as 1966's MacBird! on stage and the recurring character Mike Hammer on television, inhabits the role of Nixon so thoroughly that you soon fail to notice that he doesn't look a lot like the former President. As a result, when the video screen suspended over the stage shows an ever-tightening close up of his face as he recreates Nixon's apology, the impact is visceral.

Storyline: Three years after resigning the Presidency, Richard Nixon granted talk-show host David Frost his first extensive post-resignation interviews, four ninety minute sessions that ended with an extraordinary expression of regret over "letting the country down." How Frost got the interviews almost all other television journalists coveted, how he and his research team prepared for the interviews and how they progressed from near puff pieces to gripping final drama is the story of this one-act presentation.

This is the first play by Peter Morgan whose screenplays have been notable for their creation of strong characters from the historical record which talented actors can turn into knock-your-socks-off performances. Last year, Helen Mirren won the Oscar for best performance by an actress in The Queen, while Forest Whitaker won that golden statuette for best performance by an actor for The Last King of Scotland. Both screenplays were by, you guessed it, Peter Morgan! Morgan has created another piece that presents the same opportunity with the role of Richard Nixon. After its premiere in London with Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost, it transferred to Broadway where Langella won the Tony Award. (Both Morgan and director Michael Grandage were nominated for Tonys as well.) Ron Howard has turned it into a film that will be released next month, again with Langella and Sheen in the title roles.

Keach creates a Nixon that is different from the Nixon that Ed Gero did for the recent enormously entertaining Nixon's Nixon at the Round House. His is more of a psychological analysis brought to life. It is a tragic character writ large without excessively obvious impersonation elements. He suggests rather than recreates the mannerisms of the disgraced President and lets the audience fill in the blanks in the early going. By the climactic moment of apology, however, he has become mesmerizing. Alan Cox also does a fine job of avoiding impersonation with his David Frost, although the part isn't written with anything like the psychological depth as is the subject he is interviewing. The rest of the cast seems to play their parts just a bit too energetically however. (A bit of personal disclosure: I knew Stacy Keach when we were both teenagers with theatrical ambitions ... add this layer of "baggage" to my own perception of the show now occupying the stage at the Eisenhower. It is to his credit that, after a few minutes, I forgot I was watching an old friend and was caught up in the show.)

This production is a duplication of the version mounted by Grandage at London's Donmar Warehouse Theatre where he is the artistic director. The Donmar seats some 250 and it appears that the design of this production was specifically tailored to that size. Here in the newly renovated 1,100-seat Eisenhower with its wide stage, the production looks a bit bare and sounds somewhat shrill. There is an imbalance between volume of the dialogue and the music and sound effects and the large video screen that hovers above the interview chairs for the confrontations between Frost and Nixon seems too high and small for this stage. Such design limitations aside, however, when Cox's Frost finally engages Keach's Nixon, the impact is impressive.

Written by Peter Morgan. Directed by Michael Grandage. Design: Christopher Oram (set and costumes) Richard Mawbey (hair and wigs) Jon Driscoll (video) Neil Austin (lights)  Adam Cork (composer and sound) Carol Rosegg (photography). Cast: Meghan Andrews, Bob Ari, Alan Cox, Antony Hagopian, Peter Hilton, Roxanna Hope, Stacy Keach, Ted Koch, Tamara Lovatt-Smith, Stephen Rowe, Brian Sgambati, David Sitler, Noel Velez.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

February 17 - March 11, 2007
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:15 - no intermission
A revival of a charming fable set to lovely music

Click here to buy the CD

The real star of this revival of a rarely produced 1961 musical isn't on the Eisenhower stage. It is in the pit. The sound of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under conductor Robert Billig is so lovely and so solid that on opening night you'd have thought these twenty-four players had been playing these arrangements for six months. What arrangements? Well, the Kennedy Center didn't bother to credit an orchestrator, but it is a good guess that these are the charts used in the original production at the height of the "Golden Age of the Broadway Musical" when Philip J. Lang figured out how to make Bob Merrill's marvelously melodic score sound its very best. The presence of star power in the pit, however, doesn't quite make up for its absence on the stage. For the show to capture your imagination as it should it requires a pair of performers in the central roles who can capture your heart. Here, instead, we have leads who have strong voices but who don't bring to life the roles of the orphaned waif who joins the circus or the puppeteer who has such difficulty expressing his love for her. Without that at its heart, even the wonderful score splendidly sung and magnificently played can't work its magic.

Storyline: A young orphan girl arrives at a traveling carnival expecting to be welcomed by her late father's good friend, only to find that he, too, has died. She is still taken in by the company and falls under the spell of a smarmy magician, while at the same time, a crippled puppeteer finds himself attracted to her. He's only able to express his interest, however, through his puppets.

Robert Longbottom, who directed the original of Side Show, the revival of Flower Drum Song and the reduced The Scarlet Pimpernel on Broadway directs this new  Kennedy Center's production which Peter Marks in the Washington Post said had a budget of $4 million. Longbottom is a talented choreographer, which he proves here with some fine dance sequences. As a director, however, he seems to have a taste for reduction and he may well have gone too far in reducing this fragile concoction which worked so well in its original version. (The 1961 production ran nearly two years and won Anna Maria Alberghetti a Tony Award for her work as the orphan girl.) The two-act original has been reduced to one lengthy act and in the streamlining, the depth of both starring parts seems to have suffered. The basic information about their histories may be told but not to the extent that you fully understand and empathize. This is particularly damaging for the role of the puppeteer whose inability to communicate (except through his puppets) is at the core of the story. Jim Stanek never makes us understand the depth of the psychic scars he carries from the loss of his dreams in the accident that left him with a limp - the limp itself isn't enough to make us care. Similarly, Ereni Sevasti doesn't really get to the heart of the orphan's need for affection or the naivety that has her talking to the puppets and not the puppeteer.

Coming after New Girl in Town and Take Me Along, this was clearly Bob Merrill's greatest score as both composer and lyricist. Later he wrote lyrics only for Funny Girl and then suffered a major flop when producer David Merrick closed Breakfast at Tiffany's before opening night rather than, as he said, "subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening." It features songs like "Love Makes The World Go 'Round" (originally just known as "The Theme from Carnival,") the emphatic "Her Face," the touching "Mira," the stirring "Grand Imperial Cirque De Paris" and the light and lively "A Very Nice Man" - oh, never mind that last one. They cut it for this abbreviated  version.

Longbottom's reductionism even extends to design. He has set designer Andrew Jackness using rolling set pieces assembled in multiple configurations. Jackness uses great colors and fanciful shapes as well as a fabulous rear-wall drop of an ominous sky, but the stage somehow never seems full. Paul Tazewell's brightly colored costumes and Ed Christie's delightful puppets shine under Ken Billington's luminous illumination. And then there's the orchestra. Did I mention the orchestra? Go, and listen.

Music and lyrics by Bob Merrill. Book by Michael Stewart revised by Francine Pascal. Based on material by Helen Deutsch. Directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom. Music direction by David Chase. Magic and illusions by Joe Eddie Fairchild. Design: Andrew Jackness (set) Paul Tazewell (costumes) Angelina Avallone (makeup) Charles LaPointe (hair) Ed Christie (puppets) Ken Billington (lights) Kurt Fischer (sound) Joan Marcus (photography) Shari Silberglitt (stage manager). Cast: Michael Arnold, Matt Baker, Alan Bennett, Elisabeth Page Carpenter, Laura Anne Carpenter, Natascia Diaz, Jazmin Gorsline, Johnathan Lee Iverson, Sarah Lin Johnson, Amanda Kloots, Sebastian La Cause, Adam Laird, Denis Lambert, Sean McKnight, Nanette Michele, Koh Mochizuki, Mike Mosallam, Lance Olds, Jillian Owens, Lauren Pastorek, Krista Saab, Chad L. Schiro, Christopher Sergeeff, Ereni Sevasti, Tara Siesener, Jim Stanek, Steven Wenslawski, Rebecca Young. 

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

January 4 - 28, 2007
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:30 - two intermissions
t A Potomac Stages Pick for smashing performances in a superbly constructed play
Click here to buy the script

Now those of us who couldn't get up to New York to see Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin in the revival of Edward Albee's masterpiece in 2005 can see for ourselves just what all the excitement was about - and resolve for ourselves questions about the judgment of the Tony Award voters who voted Irwin an award but left Turner with just her nomination (not that a Tony nomination is anything to denigrate). The excitement was over a fully realized version of the play with lead performances that are the stuff of theater memories. Now we can simply forget Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's film version and treasure the memory of Turner and Irwin's oh-so-much-more vibrant, enjoyable and intelligently constructed duet. In their hands - and under the tutelage of director Anthony Page - the legendary George and Martha make so very much more sense as a couple than they did in the film, and their early morning contest of wills is more than just a train wreck that you can't take your eyes off, it is a contest of wills that pulls and tugs at your emotions all the night long.

Storyline: An English professor at a small New England college and his wife, the daughter of the college’s president, return from a faculty party. He is displeased to learn that she has invited a new young professor and his wife back for after-party drinks. After all, it is 2 a.m.  They bicker and fight, inflicting pain and suffering as if that were the only way they can make any kind of personal connection with each other. All through the night they get angrier, and meaner and the guests are dragged into the struggle.

The word "masterpiece" is often misused in discussion of works of art but it is most definitely appropriate here, for this is not only a play in which Edward Albee displays the skills of a master playwright, it is the play that established his reputation. It was his first play to be produced on Broadway and it earned him his first Tony award (he went on to earn two more as well as three Pulitzer Prizes). This revival proves not only that the recognition was not a fluke, the success wasn't just a matter of a play fitting its time, but was a reflection of a certain timelessness. The key characters, George and Martha, are somehow universal and their flaws universally fascinating. Neither is a person you would chose to add to your real life circle of acquaintances, but, then, neither is Hamlet and we go to see him on stage when done well.

Irwin and Turner create two fascinating individuals and one incandescent couple. Of the two individuals, Irwin's is the most impressive performance because he manages to make the milquetoast George both understandable and somehow sympathetic without crossing over the line to completely pathetic. In the sharp sense of humor of his character he finds the outlet for both intellect and emotion of the human being within the henpecked and emotionally abused husband. Deep down within there still beats a human heart. Turner's Martha, on the other hand, has only hurt deep within. As impressive as each individual character creation is, however, it is the way the two spark each other, creating a shared persona as a couple that really sets this production apart.

Years in the future, when you remember this production, it will be Irwin and Turner you remember. But while watching it, you will be impressed as well by the all the support that they get. Kathleen Early is refreshingly sharp as the new young faculty wife. David Furr gives a thoughtful reading to the role of her husband.

Written by Edward Albee. Directed by Anthony Page. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Design: John Lee Beatty (set) Jane Greenwood (costumes) Peter Kaczorowski (lights) Mark Bennett and Michael Creason (sound) Carol Rosegg (photography) Susie Cordon (stage manager). Cast: Kathleen Early, David Furr, Bill Irwin, Kathleen Turner.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

October 3 - 22, 2006
Twelve Angry Men
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

t A Potomac Stages Pick for intelligent, emotional drama
Running time 1:35 - no intermission

Click here to buy the script

Richard Thomas leads the cast in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of a drama set in a jury room which plays here at the Kennedy Center until it moves to the Hippodrome in Baltimore for an additional two weeks (October 24 - November 5). Just as it has been since it first appeared as a television drama in the days when live plays were a weekly staple on the few channels available in the 1950s, it is a taught verbal battle of wills that is both captivating and thought provoking. It can capture an audience's attention over its hour and a half duration even without the fine performances it gets here. With them, it is a powerful experience. Director Scott Ellis, who was born in Georgetown and grew up in Fairfax, somehow imbues the entire project with a New York feel that matches the script's stated locale. He guides the twelve actors who play the jurors in search of the line over which an actor cannot go without unbalancing the feeling or interrupting the flow of the piece. Each gets right up to that line, but no one goes over it. As a result, each performance delivers its punch in concert with the others and that makes for grand theater.

Storyline: In a hot and humid, non air conditioned jury room in New York in the 1950s, an all male jury deliberates over the fate of a teenager accused of killing his father. At the start, they are split eleven for guilty and one lone juror raising reasonable doubts.

There are lots of whodunits and quite a few courtroom dramas, but a jury play is a rarity. That's a mystery since this, the most successful and most famous of the extremely unusual genre (go ahead, try to think of another one) is so successful it seems that it would have stimulated a flood of imitations. Maybe a lot of playwrights tried it since it looks like it should be so easy, only to find that its awfully hard to give life to a single-location and single topic argument. It began life on September 20, 1954 on CBS Television when Studio One telecast the play by Reginald Rose who had, himself, served on a manslaughter jury and based the teleplay on his own experience. It was later made into a movie with Henry Fonda as the juror with doubts.

A strong ensemble piece, the juror with doubts is the key, and in the hands of Richard Thomas, the chemistry works well. He's such an intelligent actor. His body and his face seem to reflect his thought process and he seems to think of his lines as he speaks them. With colleagues like the eleven others in the jury room, that process can be fascinating. The key is that Thomas doesn't hog the spotlight. Indeed, for much of the early going, he plays most of the time with his back to the audience addressing his fellow jurors. George Wendt is the best known of the other jurors - he's a fine jury foreman and his frustration over the unruly debate contrasts with his sense of the importance of the jury's duty to explore all factors. Most notable among the debating men are those most stridently anxious to convict, Randle Mell as the father whose problem with his own son flavors his interpretation of the crime, Julian Gamble as a big, loud bigot and Mark Morettini as the baseball fan who will go either way just as long as the verdict comes down in time for him to get to the game. There's lovely work from Jeffrey Hayenga as the least emotional weigher of the evidence, David Lively as the immigrant juror, Alan Mandell as the elderly one.

The single, highly naturalistic set creates the feel of confinement even as it stretches across the Eisenhower's broad stage with windows on the right shining late afternoon light into the drab room, a fan that isn't working and florescent light fixtures hanging over the long jury table. (Actually its two tables shoved together in a nice touch - obviously, this courthouse wasn't supplied with custom made tables for its jury rooms.) The audience enters to see the set on the stage, violating what should be a cardinal rule of theater: never dispense with a curtain. Not only does it rob the audience of that valuable moment when the world outside yields to the world on stage, it lets critics examine the space at close range and notice things like the Kleenex box with a design not yet adopted in the 1950s.

Written by Reginald Rose. Directed by Scott Ellis. Design: Allen Moyer (set) Michael Krass (costumes) Paul Palazzo (lights) Brian Ronan (sound) John Gromada (original music) Rick Sordelet (fight direction) Joan Marcus (photography) Paul J. Smith (stage manager). Cast: Charles Borland, Todd Cerveris, T. Scott Cunningham, Julian Gamble, Jeffrey Hayenga, David Lively, Randle Mell, Alan Mandell, Mark Morettini, Patrick New, Jim Saltouros, Richard Thomas, George Wendt, and the voice of Robert Prosky.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

May 27 - July 2, 2006

Running time 2:30 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a sparkling revival of Jerry Herman's classic from Broadway's Golden Age
Click here to buy the CD

Christine Baranski returns to the house where she earned her Helen Hayes Award as Mrs. Lovett in the Sondheim Celebration opener, Sweeney Todd. This time she's the title character in the musical with a score by Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly!, La Cage Aux Folles) that has awaited the services of a star of sufficient magnitude to give it the lift Angela Lansbury gave the original. The Kennedy Center has found that star and surrounded her with all the flash, pizzazz and dazzle that she and Mame deserves. Under Eric Schaeffer's direction, the evening jumps from highlight to highlight in an eye-filling, toe-tapping series of moments with a superb supporting cast. There's Baranski liberating Emily Skinner as the hapless Agnes Gooch, Baranski flirting with Jeff McCarthy as her suitor, Baranski chumming it up with Harriet Harris as Mame's friend Vera Charles and Baranski charming both Harrison Chad as Young Patrick and Max von Esen as Grown Patrick. There's even Baranski alone in a tight spotlight belting "If He Walked Into My Life Today." But most of all, there's Baranski being celebrated by the huge cast in the classic Act I closer, the title song that has become one of the most famous show tunes of all time.

Storyline: A musical version of Patrick Dennis’ story which tells of a free thinking, fun loving and innocently eccentric woman who suddenly must raise her nephew who was orphaned at age twelve. In raising the boy she wants to teach him all about the world and the wonder of living life to the fullest, but she learns some important lessons about love and responsibility from him.

This has been quite a week for Eric Schaeffer. The kids show he directed for a national tour (Barbie in Fairytopia) opened its first stay in the Potomac Region - a four day stay at the Hippodrome in Baltimore. His home theatre, the Signature in Arlington, extended their production of Assassins even before opening night because it was almost completely sold out. And this smashing production of Mame, which has already sold out sixteen of the remaining 35 scheduled performances, brought Jerry Herman and everyone else in the packed Eisenhower Theater to their feet on opening night. While the Kennedy Center deserves kudos for providing all the resources he could possibly require for a successful revival of this massive musical, it is to his credit that it never seems weighed down. It remains light and lively throughout -- except for that one moment when light and lively would be all wrong: the big "If He Walked Into My Life" torch song solo for Mame in the second act. Then he brings the scale down to exquisite solitude for his star to shine. There's talk of a possible transfer to Broadway where the Palace Theatre has just became available due to the rapid failure of another vampire musical, Lestat. This production would feel right at home in that historic house which hosted Herman's hit La Cage Aux Folles (as well as his flop The Grand Tour).

Walt Spangler's mile-high set for Mame's living room features a rotating staircase that various members of the cast ascend and descend in a variety of ways -- everything from Baranski's regal entrance to Skinner's sliding down the banister. The southern mansion set for the finale of the first act is a Tara-wannabe of just the right pretension, while the farm  where choreographer Warren Carlyle lets Baranski really let loose on a swing number, "That's How Young I Feel," is a simple backdrop of the wide-open spaces of Connecticut. The real visual spectacle here, however, is in the costumes by Gregg Barnes, especially the seemingly endless supply of striking outfits for the star of the show whose dancer-thin body is just right to display creation after creation of haute couture of the 20s and 30s.

The program lists 22 members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra but there were 26 chairs in the pit on opening night. Whatever the count, the sound of this orchestra in full swing on "Mame," "It's Today," "We Need A Little Christmas" and both the overture and the entr'Acte is musical theater heaven. Under the direction of James Moore, their smooth support for "Bosom Buddies" is a demonstration of how to fill in under a comic duet, the swing of "That's How Young I Feel" is brass and reed intensive and the blaring trumpet of the overture is to die for. The sound is a tribute to the quality of the original orchestrations by Philip J. Lang which apparently are used almost in their entirety. The pit isn't the only place the Kennedy Center has given the production the size of forces reminiscent of the golden age of Broadway rather than the current trend where revivals are frequently slim pickings - this year's revival of Sweeney Todd has a cast of 11, each of whom must also play an instrument because there isn't an orchestra at all! Here, not only is the orchestra full and fabulous, the twenty-four cast members who play characters with names is supported by an additional nine unnamed members of the ensemble. When they all get on stage while the orchestra breaks into full force on the title number you feel the true pulse of musical theater.

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Music direction by James Moore. Design: Walt Spangler (set) Gregg Barnes (costumes) Jeffrey Frank (wigs and hair) Ken Billington (lights) Peter Hylenski (sound) Joan Marcus (photography) Shari Silberglitt (stage manager).  Principal cast: Christine Baranski, Shane Braddock, Michael Buchanan, Harrison Chad, Alison Cimmet, Ed Dixon, Parker Esse, Sarah Jane Everman, Michael L. Forrest, Ruth Gottschall, Harriet Harris, Clark Johnsen, Ethan Langsdorf-Willoughby, Melissa Rae Mahon, Jeff McCarthy, Alan Muraoka, Joe Paparella, James Patterson, Tory Ross, Chad L. Schiro, Emily Skinner, Mary Stout, Max von Essen, Harry A. Winter. Additional ensemble: Jeremy Benton, Susan Derry, Suzanne Hylenski, Megan Hart Jimenez, Dennis Kenney, Kelly Kohnert, Sean McKnight, Kiira Schmidt, Laura E. Taylor.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

April 11 - May 7, 2006
The Canterbury Tales

Reviewed April 20
Part I running time: 3:00 - one intermission
Part II running time: 3:10 - one intermission
A highly entertaining and often bawdy presentation that goes on just a bit too long

Click here to buy the book in original spelling
Click here to buy the book in modern translation

The Royal Shakespeare Company makes its fourth annual stop at the Kennedy Center with a two-part adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer's fourteenth century collection of tales told by a group of travelers on a pilgrimage. The adaptation by Mike Poulton is in two parts which are presented in repertory. The company makes the point that the two parts need not be seen in order, but the explanatory introduction in Part I makes what is to follow much easier to follow, and Part II has no such prologue. Thus, seeing Part I before Part II is preferable. Part I also happens to be the more entertaining and the more ingeniously staged of the two collections. Unless you are a completist when it comes to your Chaucer, or you always see absolutely everything the Royal Shakespeare Company brings to the Kennedy Center, you would be best served by attending just Part I, or at least, attending Part I before deciding on purchasing tickets for Part II.

Storyline: As people of all classes make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury in the late fourteenth century, they amuse each other by telling tales, each trying to outdo the others with an elaborate story with a moral. Chaucer completed twenty-six tales most of which are acted out by the troupe with a minimum of sets or properties but with a maximum of theatrical ingenuity.

There are three directors listed in the program but just who directed which tale is not revealed. It seems to make a difference, however. Part I is brimming with directorial touches of note with a swirling movement of the cast over the stage in the crowd scenes, fluid transitions, some very impressive visual effects and a bright sense of whimsy. The travelers are at times astride stick-horses, one traveler carries a dog that is an ingeniously operated puppet, a joust is staged with massive horse costumes and stilts and there is a thrillingly choreographed sword fight. Part II, on the other hand, seems to be filled with, well, more of the same. More puppetry is well done and the addition of shadow effects is a nice touch. But the basic structure of the piece has settled in early in Part I and Part II's most distinguishing feature is that it contains "The Wife of Bath's Tale." It and "The Miller's Tale" are probably the two most familiar. The company puts "The Miller's Tale" in Part I.

The same cast performs both Parts. As can be expected of the Royal Shakespeare Company, it is a cast of distinction with strong classical acting skills. Mark Hadfield is the narrator, Chaucer himself. In the introduction in Part I he blends the meter of Chaucer's Old English with more modern vocabulary, establishing the sound of the piece which is easy on modern ears. He also breaks that mood at times to very good effect. His Part II opening bit is to turn the prelude to "Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas," the only tale that Chaucer wrote as if he himself was the storyteller, into a very funny rap song. The director carries the gag on a bit too long, however.

With a cast of twenty it is difficult to single out the most notable but Nick Barber and Daon Broni are the active, virile youths (they are the ones engaged in the well-staged sword fight), Michael Jibson is a more humorous youth and Claire Benedict makes a delightful Wife of Bath. Music and song are an important part of the show and four musicians are off stage (until the curtain call) providing atmospheric backup not just to the rap song, but to the roisterous revelry and the more tender ballads.

Written by Geoffrey Chaucer. Adapted by Mike Poulton. Directed by Gregory Doran, Rebecca Gatward and Jonathan Munby. Music composed by Adrian Lee. Music direction by Sylvia Hallett. Movement by Michael Ashcroft. Fight direction by Terry King.  Design: Michael Vale (set and costumes) Wayne Dowdeswell (lights) Jeremy Dunn (sound)  Stewart Hemley (photography (c) RSC) Ben Delfont (production stage manager) Elaine M. Randolph (U.S. stage manager). Cast: Nick Barber, Claire Benedict, Daon Broni, Dylan Charles, Paola Dionisotti, Lisa Ellis, Christopher Godwin, Mark Hadfield, Michael Hadley, Anna Hewson, Edward Hughes, Michael Jibson, Michael Matus, Barry McCarthy, Chu Omambala, Ian Pirie, Joshua Richards, Christopher Saul, Katherine Tozer, Darren Tunstall. Musicians: Sarah Balls, Max Gittings, Sylvia Hallett, Jan Hendrickse.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

January 7 - 29, 2006
The Subject was Roses

Reviewed January 13
Running time 2:05 - one intermission
An interesting look at the 1940's viewed from the 1960's

Click here to buy the script

The effort to capture magic from the past is always difficult, whether you are reaching back 20 years as playwright Frank D. Gilroy was in 1965 when he wrote this Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning three-character piece in the then-popular theatrical form called realism, or if you are reaching back just over one year as the Kennedy Center and director Leonard Foglia are now with the second revival of a major Broadway hit play. A year ago, Foglia's revival of On Golden Pond had the star power with James Earl Jones to transfer to Broadway where it was nominated for the Tony Award for best revival of a play even if it didn't run very long. Here the stars are Bill Pullman and Judith Ivey. While Foglia manages to provide an interesting evening of theater, he never manages to hit the pay dirt of emotional power the play obviously intends to deliver. You can tell the Kennedy Center hoped for another transfer, for the program lists a National Press Representative, the Broadway operation of Michael Borowski's Publicity Office. No Broadway house has announced it will present the production, however.

Storyline: A soldier returns from the battlefields of World War II to the West Bronx apartment where he grew up with his parents who spent most of the war keeping their marriage together by ignoring each other. Father and son go to a ball game together, when they come home the son has brought a bunch of roses for his mother, just as his father used to do when the marriage was strong and healthy. She believes they are from the father but soon learns the truth as the only passion the pair seem able to share is anger.

Often, when people complain that a piece is "dated" it seems as if a work of art being of its time is a crime. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But it is difficult to stage a thoroughly satisfying revival of a play that is so much of its time that it works best only when the audience brings into the theater certain shared emotional baggage that the playwright attempts to touch. A truly timeless great work like Arthur Miller's All My Sons provides in the text all the basic experiences needed for even an audience that didn't experience World War II to connect with the emotional turmoil in the family being portrayed. Not so this 1960's look back at the 1945 post-war environment about which Gilroy was writing. He presumed, rightly we are to believe from the success of the play, that an audience filled with people who were either old enough to have been parents of the soldiers of World War II or were the returning soldiers themselves didn't need clues to the attitudes that would have filled these character's lives. Audiences in the twentieth-first century don't bring that emotional resource into the theater, and neither Gilroy's script nor Foglia's direction manage to make up for the lack.

This is not to say that there isn't an interesting story going on on stage, nor that the performances lack power. They do the best with what they've got and that is quite good, indeed. Bill Pullman is angst-ridden as the husband and father who can't connect with his own family. Judith Ivey is brittle and sharp as the wife scarred by years of deceit and disappointment, and Steve Kazee is virile and strong as the returning son. They go through their paces with skill, good taste and refreshingly unaffected naturalistic technique that is a match for the tone and approach of the author. The result is, as it is supposed to be, very much one of eavesdropping on strangers at the dramatic climax of their lives together.

The set matches that naturalistic feel even as it stretches across the wide expanse of the Eisenhower stage. Two rooms of an apparently four room apartment are behind an external wall of windows that serves as the show curtain. Before and between acts the cast can be seen going about their lives through those windows. Then the entire wall flies up to reveal the kitchen and living room. Donald Holder's beautiful lighting transcends naturalism to create a super-realism which is marvelous. Indeed, the visual impact of some scenes may linger in memory longer than the performances. The entire package is a tasteful, memorable look at a rarely seen but important work from the 1960s.

Written by Frank D. Gilroy. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Design: Neil Patel (set) Jess Goldstein (costumes) Donald Holder (lights) David Van Tieghem (sound), Katherine Lee Boyer (stage manager). Cast:  Judith Ivey, Steve Kazee, Bill Pullman.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

June 24 - July 10, 2005
Red, White and Tuna

Reviewed June 29
Running time 2:00 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for Affectionate Humor
 and Rock Solid Performances

Very few live performances ever seem exactly the same two nights in a row. So how can these two gentle souls seem exactly the same two decades in a row? Joe Sears and Jaston Williams brought their affectionate portrait of life in the third smallest town in the Lone Star State to the Kennedy Center over twenty years ago. They have brought the cast of twenty-some-odd characters (and odd is the operative word) back to renew our acquaintance many times in the original Greater Tuna, in the holiday themed A Tuna Christmas and this Fourth of July edition Red, White and Tuna. They are back and the package is as genuinely entertaining and downright funny as ever.

Storyline: A day in the life of small town Tuna, Texas. In this case, the day is the Fourth of July and the big question is "who will be elected Queen of the High School Reunion?" It begins as every day does with the farm report on 275 watt WKKK radio. There's Bertha Bumiller fixing breakfast for her children, the oh-so-pregnant daughter and the newly prominent artist son who made his mark painting road kill. Petey Fisk is delivering public service announcements for the humane society and the smut snatchers are working to get dirty words excised from the hymns sung at church. But the big cliff hanger is whether Bertha and Arles will finally get married. Did we mention that RR Snavely returns from his 1,999 day adventure as a prisoner on a UFO?

Sears and Williams have been doing this for more than two decades. They wrote all three plays with Ed Howard who directs them all as well. How they manage to keep their performances rock-solid and sharp is a wonder. It isn’t so much a case of keeping it "fresh," for the material is highly crafted and stylized, admitting no off-the-cuff improvising. No, the two of them go through their paces one night just as they do on any other night, with precision. When you have material this good, don’t mess with it. Audience anticipation is a major factor in the humor. Even those who are making their first visit to Tuna, Texas, quickly size up the routine and can feel some of the punch lines a mile away. There is a satisfying feeling when the lines actually land. There is a feeling of topical humor although most of the barbs are the same as they were twenty years ago.

Sears, the hefty one, gives individual life to ten characters, but his most memorable creation is Bertha Bumiller, matron of the mismatched family, keen observer of all her neighbors and voice of petulant reason. As in all Tuna shows, she anchors the events in her polyester suit. In this case it is green polyester over a red and white blouse. Sears can get an audience to see the world through a character’s eyes with such apparent ease it that it seems effortless, even if it really is the culmination of years developing the craft of acting. Williams, the wiry one, orbits Sears’ characters with one outlandish creation after another. His sense of timing is a marvel. He can draw out the space between a two word exclamation to gigantic proportions, taking the audience along with him.

These two, along with their director Ed Howard, have maintained this innocent slice of small town Americana in marvelous shape, making a visit to Tuna as fresh and fun as ever. The humor is often just shy of groan inducing but is always devoid of any sense of superiority or animosity. These guys love the characters they create and the people they are lampooning. They poke affectionate fun at themselves rather than standing aside criticizing and belittling their subjects. This is a put on, not a put down.

Written by Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard. Directed by Ed Howard. Design: Kevin Rupnik (set) Linda Fisher (costumes) Root Choyce (lights) Ken Huncovsky (sound) David M. Allen (photography) Robert Tolaro (stage manager). Cast: Joe Sears, Jaston Williams.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

March 12 - April 3, 2005
Mister Roberts

Reviewed March 17
Running time 1:50 - one intermission
A satisfying, substantial revival

Click here to buy the script

This return to the sentimental post World War II comedy is substantial and satisfying if not quite inspiring. The view of authors Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan was the mind set of an entire nation in 1948, rejoicing in total victory, reveling in the release of the incredible psychic pressure of not knowing what the outcome of the war would be. It was a country where gung-ho was both the norm and the standard by which manhood was judged. This gentle comedy about sailors trapped in the backwater of the war, itching for action and victimized by an egotistical authority figure, played to every one of the then-current emotions and memories. For this revival, the theatrical centerpiece of the Kennedy Center's season-long celebration of the 1940s, Director Robert Longbottom reaches for, and frequently finds, more universal themes that connect to contemporary audiences who bring a bit more skepticism and less certainty into the theatre with them.

Storyline: In the last days of World War II, the crew of an insignificant cargo craft that sailed “from tedium to apathy and back again” in the “safe areas” of the Pacific are shielded from the worst of their incompetent Captain’s abuse of power by the one officer aboard who they can admire, Mr. Roberts. Unbeknownst to them, he gives in to the Captain’s demand that he cease his efforts to be transferred in exchange for granting the men their first liberty in over a year.

Heggen and Logan titled their piece after its central character, the cargo officer who is the first (and for a time, the last) line of defense between the crew and the captain. Rather than search for a big name star with a strong persona to try to compete with the memory of the role's originator, Henry Fonda, Longbottom has entrusted that role, and the entire production for that matter, on relative unknown Michael Dempsey. It was a gutsy call and it pays off, sort of. He has the clean cut manliness and the aw-shucks self depreciating charm the part requires, but, while he flies fairly high, he doesn't quite soar in those critical moments where Mr. Roberts hits his emotional peaks - the final confrontation with the captain staged behind closed doors but heard through the ship's public address system, and the moment when his friend Doc gets him to recognize how much he means to the crew and how much they mean to him.

Frank Deal creates a fine portrait of the strutting martinet of a Captain, a merchant mariner mobilized for the war effort who knows that command of a cargo scow is as high as he'll ever rise, but insists that it is a magnificent cap to a notable career and who hates anyone or anything that might expose the myth of his pretension. Hunter Foster, stepping off the musical stage for a while (yes, he's the Hunter Foster who sang his way from Urinetown to the Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway) is a kick as Ensign Pulver, the ship's laundry and morale officer whose presence on the ship comes as a surprise to the Captain even though he's been aboard for fourteen months. When he finally discovers his backbone after a career of avoiding confrontation, it is a defining moment for the play and a great deal of fun to watch.

The elements of the production which make the most impression, however, are the sailors in the ship's crew and the ship itself. The sailors, a frustrated bunch who haven't had a shore liberty in ages, have bonded into a unit relying on each other for at least some understanding of their troubles. The thirteen actors with named parts as enlisted men in the crew (including the impressive presence of Jim Zidar as their Chief) as well as the five doubling as simply "Seaman" create just such a unit and the believability of their camaraderie is really what makes the show work. That, and a towering realistic set of the deck of the USS Reluctant.

Written by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan based on Heggen’s novel. Directed by Robert Longbottom. Design: Andrew Jackness (set) Suzy Benzinger (costumes) Brad Waller (fight choreography) Ken Billington (lights) John Gromada (sound)  Joan Marcus (photography) Lloyd Davis, Jr. (stage manager). Cast: Field Blauvelt, Clinton Brandhagen, Jeff Cusimano, Frank Deal, Michael Dempsey, Ted Feldman, Hunter Foster, Andrew Honeycutt, Beth Hylton, David Johnson, Nehal Joshi, Stephen Kunken, Robert Michael McClure, Thomas Nunan, Kip Pierson, Michael Vitaly Sazonov, Todd Scofield, Stephen Thomas, Jacob Michael Thornhill, Timothy Warmen, Peter Wylie, Jim Zidar.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

September 28 - October 17, 2004
On Golden Pond

Reviewed October 2
Running time 2:20 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for
James Earl Jones' performance

Click here to buy the Script

James Earl Jones makes the first entrance of the show and, on the arm of Leslie Uggams, he makes the final exit. In between, it is the James Earl Jones show as he puts his stamp on a role filled with humor, affection and sentimentality cloaked in anti-sentimentality. Somewhere around the middle of Act I a surprising thing happens. As strong a personality as Jones is and as indelibly as that personality has been established in the audience's mind, at some indefinable moment Jones becomes the character he is playing. You are no longer watching the actor you've known all these years, you are watching a magical blend of James Earl Jones and Norman Thayer, Jr. which, if you remember the film of this play, means he has managed to dispel the memories of Henry Fonda - no mean trick in itself. With a professional respect for the material which was written for others, he makes it his own and all of a sudden that material seems uniquely Jones-ish. This is the difference between a gigantic ego trip where a star of this magnitude ignores the contributions of others and a fabulous piece of acting.

Storyline: An irascible retired professor and his wife spend their 48th summer in their house in the woods on Golden Pond in Maine, well aware that his health is fading and that this may be their final summer in the house which has seen so much of their personal history. Their divorced daughter comes to visit, bringing the new man in her life and his 13 year old son. The daughter and her new man go off on a trip together which turns out to be their wedding trip, leaving the boy behind who establishes a bond with the professor that rejuvenates him, giving the couple reason to look forward to whatever time health allows them to still have.

When it was first announced that James Earl Jones would appear with a well known and highly regarded co-star in this warmly human comic drama, it was widely assumed it would be a night to remember. When it was announced that the well known, highly regarded Diahann Carroll had to drop out due to an injury, and that she would be replaced by the equally well known, highly regarded Leslie Uggams, it would be mind boggling to think that a single patron might ask for a refund. Ms. Uggams does a fine job, but nothing she could do would keep this from being Jones' show. With only one week of rehearsal, she turns in a clean, clear and crisp performance that is the mark of a true "pro." It would be interesting to see just how her performance will have deepened by the end of the short run.

The supporting cast is just as strong as it needs to be to hold its own with Jones on the stage. Peter Francis James is a nice foil for Jones in the prototypical "suitor meets future father-in-law" scene which has more zingers for Jones' character per minute of stage time than any other scene in the play. James even manages to summon the backbone needed to assert his intention to sleep with his intended, delivering a number of straight lines for Jones to punch with a blend of pizzazz and aplomb. The best of the bunch is young Alexander Mitchell, fresh from his Broadway work on A Raisin In The Sun. He seems to have the talent and determination to make a go of this business which means that fifty years from now he can regale his colleagues and fans with stories of how he once shared the stage with James Earl Jones. He won't be prevaricating when he says he managed to hold his own.

That stage, by the way, is a lovely set designed by Ray Klausen with a backdrop of Golden Pond itself. (Just what we were to read into the fact that the backdrop was contained in a frame is not for this reviewer to say. Let each member of the audience ponder it on his or her own!) That backdrop, as lit by Brian Nason, shimmers and ripples with the currents on the pond while clouds waft over the surrounding wooded hills and the moon comes out at key moments. Dan Moses Schreier provides original music as lush and lovely as the score of a movie while adding the sound of a loon at just the moments specified in the script. All of the loveliness of the physical production, however, is simply an effort to avoid being totally eclipsed by James Earl Jones. The effort is successful enough to get through the evening but few, if any, members of the audience will recall anything but Jones' fabulous performance in a week or two. 

Written by Ernest Thompson. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Design: Ray Klausen (set) Jane Greenwood (costumes) Brian Nason (lights) Dan Moses Schreier (original music and sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Kelley Kirkpatrick (stage manager). Cast: Craig Bockhorn, Peter Francis James, James Earl Jones, Alexander Mitchell, Linda Powell, Leslie Uggams.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 17 – August 8, 2004
The Glass Menagerie

Reviewed July 22
Running time 2:35 - one intermission

Winner of the Usher's Favorite Show Award for July, 2004
Click here to buy the script

Sally Field stars in
the last full scale production in the “Tennessee Williams Explored” series, Williams’ 1945 “memory play” set in pre-World War II St. Louis. She and a fine supporting cast take a subtle approach to Williams' portrait of a woman already stretched beyond her capacity to absorb the blows of life getting one last shock. The result is a rather restrained version of the play, although it offers many delicate pleasures, and the balance between the key characters is more even than is often the case. This is particularly true of the balance between Field as Amanda and Jason Butler Harner as her grown son chafing under the twin burdens of her overbearing control and the realization that he is, in fact, her only available means of support. The subtlety, however, robs Field of the opportunity to score a knockout punch of an effect at the end of the play when Amanda's final dream collapses. Instead of an implosion to match the collapse, Field dissolves. It is a moment that takes as long to settle in to the audience's consciousness as it took for its cause to penetrate Amanda's remaining resolve.

Storyline: Genteel Amanda has been abandoned by her husband and disappointed by her grown offspring. Her daughter is slightly crippled physically but severely crippled emotionally while her son, the breadwinner of the household, longs to get out of the house and out from under her stifling control. She places enormous importance on an otherwise meaningless event when her son brings a co-worker home to dinner. With her expectations unreasonably high, the failure of the evening is too much for her to bear.

From the moment of Field's entrance it is quite clear that she could dominate the stage, taking the evening out of the hands of her colleagues, but that she has no intention of pulling such star-billing rank. Instead, she rapidly establishes a rapport, first with Harner whose character has already been very well established in his introductory narration, and then with Jennifer Dundas, who plays her daughter, a character of seemingly paper-thin significance to match her sense of self worth but one that, in Dundas' hands emerges slowly.

Director Gregory Mosher approaches the play as two interlocking parts. One part is the story of Amanda's relationship with her children which is at the hear of the piece. The other, however, is the story of the daughter and her lack of a relationship with the co-worker her brother brings home for dinner. It is telling that he is identified in the cast of characters as simply the "Gentleman Caller" when the dialogue gives his full name as Jim O'Connor, for it is as the "Gentleman Caller" that he is important in the story of Amanda, while it is as Jim O'Connor that he is important in the story of her daughter, Laura. Identify him as you will, the performance of Corey Brill in the role is bright, sharp and has just the right touch of humor.

The visual impact of the production is marvelous. John Lee Beatty's fully detailed two-rooms of the family's home is flanked by stairs and fire escapes making its status as a tenement quite clear, while surrounding the entire structure with the skyline of St. Louis and the dance-hall across the street from which wafts John Gromada's sounds of a dance band (was that a hint of the theme from Picnic at one point?). Jane Greenwood's costumes are just right for time, place, economic fortunes and social pretensions. Only in the rather over-done gimmick of having the portrait of Amanda's absent husband change, as if it were a slide show, did the design distract.

Written by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Design: John Lee Beatty (set) Jane Greenwood (costumes) Tom Watson (wigs and hair) Aaron Copp (lights) John Gromada (original music and sound) Joan Marcus (photographer) Jeanette Buck (stage manager). Cast: Corey Brill, Jennifer Dundas, Sally Field, Jason Butler Harner.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

June 12 – July 4, 2004
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Reviewed June 17
Running time 3:05 - two intermissions
t A Potomac Stages Pick for superb acting
in a classic of the American stage
Click here to buy the Script

The Kennedy Center's Tennessee Williams Explored series continues with an outstanding production of one of Williams' better known works. Williams created four unforgettable characters in one play (and two other very interesting smaller parts). He provides at least three scenes that have become part of the collective consciousness of theater lovers. The play is revived frequently (the most recent Broadway revival just closed three months ago). This is a revival to remember and treasure with three terrific performances in a substantial production that has all the heft and passion the work deserves. The cumulative effect of the work under Mark Lamos' direction is precisely what we all hoped for when the series was announced -- a new and top quality production of a play that rewards revisits.

Storyline: The cat of the title is Maggie, the childless wife of Brick, the youngest son of Big Daddy whose family has gathered to get the results of Big Daddy’s cancer exam. Brick, a former athletic star in school has turned to drink and their marriage has degenerated into a sham for reasons partially revealed during the play. The marriage of Big Daddy and his wife Big Mamma has been a cruel sham for a long time.

The first of three acts belongs to Mary Stuart Masterson who, as Maggie, burns with a passion and sense of desperation in the face of her husband's passionless degeneration and neglect. Masterson masters the trick required by Williams stage directions in which he says "her voice is both rapid and drawling . . . always continuing a little beyond her breath so she has to gasp for another." She uses this seeming idiosyncrasy as a spring board for demonstrating the unique mixture of  regret, passion, pride and love that makes Maggie such a compelling character. The depth of feeling established in her first act gives her the basis for the strength she demonstrates in the climax. She plays most of her scenes with Jeremy Davidson as the disconsolate inebriate Brick, who drinks to get to the point where he hears the "click" in his head that signals release from the pain of memory. The role of Brick is always a difficult one for so much of it is played in support for either Cat or Big Daddy but Davidson makes it a solid presence throughout the entire play.

After Masterson's first act, the rest of the play belongs to George Grizzard as Big Daddy. From the moment he first strides on stage early in Act II his growl is a force to be feared, and he is the power in this typically Williams-ish dysfunctional family. He commands the space around him, dictating everyone else's place in the cosmos simply by force of will. Only Davidson's Brick seems partially immune from his total domination. Since Brick doesn't want anything from Big Daddy he's free to say what he thinks and feels, even if he is trying to avoid thinking or feeling at all. Big Daddy's dismissive contempt for Big Mamma comes across loud and clear from Grizzard, but Dana Ivey's take on Big Mamma waivers after an impressive first scene. She gets more out of the line about "a marriage on the rocks" than any I've seen, but it sets up a too strong willed matriarch to make her relationship with her husband consistent over the course of the play. Finally, Grizard's scream of emotional agony when he realizes the truth of the diagnosis of cancer is the kind of moment that sends chills down your spine, and his exit is a superb mixture of resignation and resolve.

Lamos' direction is a lesson in clarity, imposing a solid sense of storytelling on all the forces involved but avoiding any distracting excesses. Emily Skinner and T. Scott Cunningham benefit most from this clarity as their smaller roles as Big Daddy's other son and his ever-pregnant wife are given telling moments of their own which blend into the story rather than standing out as exceptions to the central narrative. John Lee Beatty's gorgeous bedroom set and Jane Greenwood's elegantly right costumes complete the sense of place, while John Gromada's soundscape draws the audience into the world of Big Daddy, especially during the storm sequence when the forces of nature outside are matched only by the force of Big Daddy's will inside the house.

Written by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Mark Lamos. Design: John Lee Beatty (set) Jane Greenwood (costumes) Tom Watson (hair and wigs) Brad Waller (fight choreography) Howell Binkley (lights) John Gromada (sound) Joan Marcus (photography) Elaine M. Randolph (stage manager). Cast: T. Scott Cunningham, Jeremy Davidson, Aakhu TuahNera Freeman, George Grizzard, Lexi Haddad, M. Justin Hancock, Dana Ivey, Mary Stuart Masterson, Nathan Pratt, Caitlin Redding, Brian Reddy, Emily Skinner, Erin Elizabeth Wall, Jeorge Watson, Harry A. Winter.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

May 8 - 30, 2004
A Streetcar Named Desire

Reviewed May 13
Running time 3 hours 5 minutes

Winner of the Usher's Favorite Show Award for May, 2004

In this, the first major production of the Kennedy Center's Tennessee Williams Explored festival, no expense is spared to create the most sumptuously realized replica of life in New Orleans' French Quarter as it existed in Williams' memory and imagination. The result is a production that must be seen to be believed. At the same time, the emphasis on production values highlights the limitations of the dramatic interpretation being offered in Garry Hynes' approach which is more literal than literate. The emphasis is on the marvelous language of Williams, especially in the crystal clarity of Patricia Clarkson's fragile older sister, and the honesty of Amy Ryan's line readings as the younger one, rather than on the smoldering unspoken aspects of Williams' script.

Storyline: After having lost the family estate and her welcome in the small Mississippi town of her birth, fragile Blanche DuBois has no place to turn for sanctuary other than her younger sister's home in New Orleans. When she arrives she's shocked to find her sister's home is a rundown one-room flat where she lives with her decidedly blue collar, rough-around-the-edges husband. As she spends a summer on the couch she's stripped of her remaining pretensions of gentility and even sanity.  

Every production of Streetcar rises or falls on the performance of its Blanche. Here Patricia Clarkson creates a super-fragile Blanche DuBoise with a marvelously effective first act. When her Blanche first arrives she is all but exhausted by the journey to New Orleans and all but destroyed by the realization of her sister's living conditions. Clarkson pulls a neat trick by having her character gain strength after a bit of a rest and a chance to absorb the shock. This momentary blip in the steady decline throughout the evening gives Clarkson a higher peak from which to launch her character's ultimate fall. It works beautifully until the middle of the second act when there is no matching blip from the early stages of her flirtation with her brother-in-law's poker buddy, played with restraint by Noah Emmerich. She continues her decline without much variation but with a sense of inevitability that is nearly hypnotic.

Adam Rothenberg's take on brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski is a bit long on charm and short on carnal animalism, making the fascination he holds for both Amy Ryan as his wife and Clarkson as Blanche seem driven more by the playwright's decisions than by the characters' emotions. With Ryan to play against, he makes clear his primal need for his wife, symbolized by the famous wail of "Stella!" which draws her back into his arms even after abuse. Still, the fateful combination of attraction, suspicion and loathing between him and Blanche never approaches the sexual intensity it needs. Of the four principals it is Ryan who gives the most satisfying performance capturing both Stella's reliance on her husband and her devotion to her sister. 

Jane Greenwood's costumes are so spot-on, so illustrative of time, place and character and so natural - right down to the attention to the scuffs on the shoes - that the illusion is complete. Scott Lehrer's soundscape is at times breathtakingly appropriate ,not only with its echoey jazz wafting up from beyond the windows of the apartment but in the sounds of tenement life such as the ring of the phone in the Hubbell's apartment upstairs. John Lee Beatty's meticulously detailed set is revealed in all the conditions of day and night ranging from bright morning to rainy evening through Howell Binkley's evocative lighting. Some of the mechanics of stagecraft are too visible, the set is ringed by a veritable proscenium of theatrical lights and there is a relentless infusion of mist as if to remind us that this is a steamy locale. It says something when a director has to use a machine to infuse a level of steaminess into one of Williams' steamiest plays.

Written by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Garry Hynes. Movement by Karma Camp. Design: John Lee Beatty (set) Jane Greenwood (costumes) Tom Watson (hair and wigs)  Howell Binkley (lights) Scott Lehrer (sound) Joan Marcus (photography) Paul-Douglas Michnewicz (stage manager). Cast: Cynthia Benjamin, Michael John Casey, Patricia Clarkson, Noah Emmerich, Robert Michael McClure, Amy McWilliams, Adam Rothenberg, Amy Ryan, Tony Simione, Joshua Skidmore, Catherine Weidner.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

December 13, 2003 – January 4, 2004
The Taming of the Shrew

Reviewed December 13
Running time 2 hours 50 minutes
t A Potomac Stages Pick for
sumptuous classical theater

England’s Royal Shakespeare Company returns to the Kennedy Center for the second of five once-a-year visits, this time offering a repertory of one of Shakespeare’s most produced plays and one of the least produced of his contemporaries’ plays. The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher plays six performances while this production of The Taming of the Shrew will have seventeen by January 4. It is a solid, satisfying and even sumptuous presentation of a staple of the output of the Bard of Stratford on Avon.  

Storyline: A gentleman from Verona marries the daughter of a wealthy gentleman of Padua whose reputation is far from that of gentlewoman - she’s known as Kate the Cursed, a shrew of the highest magnitude. He’s determined to mold her into his idea of an ideal wife, obedient and submissive. Meanwhile, the multiple suitors for her younger sister’s hand compete for the lovely girl they always felt was the prize of the family now that the girls’ father’s determination to have his eldest daughter wed first no longer keeps her out of circulation. 

No curtain hides the set as the audience files into the Eisenhower. Pre-show examinations reveal an assembly of doors and two ranks of balconies, one of which houses an orchestra of seven musicians. But this isn’t going to be Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, the musical about a troupe presenting a musical version of The Shrew. The players are there to provide suitable Elizabethan tunes to set the mood and period for this production set in its natural time and place. As the show unfolds, the set proves its versatility as a playing space for a story that takes place in a variety of locations and as a frame for some intriguing visual effects including scudding clouds and a fluttering snowfall.

This production provides what one has come to expect from one of the premiere classical theaters in the world: clarity of direction, energy in the presentation, and distinctive performances from a cast of superb craftsmen down to the most minor of roles. We have come to expect that because we live in a city with another of the premiere classical theaters in the world, the Shakespeare Theatre. They haven’t done this play since the 1994-95 season, however, so it was high time for a classical production to renew our acquaintance with and appreciation for one of Shakespeare’s earliest hits.

Jasper Britton gives the role of the tamer of this shrew a different interpretation than most, presenting a disheveled and slightly desperate gentleman whose macho pride is nearly matched by his need for a companion to share his life. Alexandra Gibreath matches this with a Kate that comes to want a partnership even if it is on a basis that modern feminists find objectionable. The strength of their mutual need and their mutual attraction gives their battle a heft not seen in many other productions.

Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Gregory Doran. Music direction by Michael Tubbs. Design: Stephen Brimson Lewis (set and costumes) Michael Ashcroft (movement) Tim Mitchell (lights) Paul Englishby (music) Martin Slavin (sound) Steve Pyke (photography) Elaine M. Randolph (stage manager). Cast: Tom Anderson, Jasper Britton, Paul Chahidi, Esther Ruth Elliot, Ian Gelder, Alexandra Gilbreath, Christopher Godwin, Christopher Harvey, Daniel Hawksford, Rory Kinnear, John Lightbody, Oliver Maltman, Eve Myles, Bill Nash, Keith Osborn, David Peart, Nathan Rimell, Nicolas Tennant, Simon Trinder, Beth Vyse.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

October 21 – November 16, 2003

Reviewed November 4
Running time 2 hours 35 minutes

The best news for musical theater fans to hit the wires on the day this brand new Stephen Sondheim musical opened its short run in what was presumed to be its two-city pre-Broadway tryout was the announcement that the score will be recorded next Sunday for release on Nonesuch Records, preserving for posterity the best thing about this otherwise disappointing show. The fact that no theater on Broadway has been booked for this show to transfer to that official Mecca of Musicals 225 miles to the north of the Potomac Region makes it appear the investors don’t think it has a chance for a financially successful Broadway run. When the recording is released it will probably make people who never saw the show wonder just why it didn’t.

Storyline: Two brothers die of heart attacks at the same time and meet in the anteroom of heaven where they renew sibling bonds despite a lifetime of rivalry which is reviewed in flashback. They have in common a life long ability to bounce back from adversity and reach for the next great opportunity in the pursuit of “The American Dream,” but their approaches are decidedly different as one is a sometimes visionary architect and developer while the other is a con man and schemer.

The score is identifiably Sondheim. Particularly, it is Sondheim in his lighter moods. Each number offers melodies, harmonies, tempos and rhythmic structures crafted to the needs of the message and mood of the scene into which they fit; and the lyrics, as all Sondheim lyrics are, are literate, precise, full of imagery and reflective of the thought process of both their writer and the character. Sondheim never uses almost the right word or makes a word carry almost its natural meaning -- unless, of course, it is a pun or a joke. As they always are, these Sondheim lyrics have been polished to a seamless shine. But they, and the melodies that they sit upon so well, are in service to scenes that are at times unfocused and confusing and, by the end, don’t seem to add up to a consistent story that simply demands to be told. Without that, Bounce feels more like a stylishly staged musical revue built on a collection of Sondheim songs.

The book for this musical is by John Weidman with whom Sondheim wrote both Pacific Overtures and Assassins, and who also wrote books for musicals such as Big, and Contact. Musicals, particularly Stephen Sondheim musicals, are highly collaborative efforts and Bounce is a product of teamwork between the composer/lyricist, book writer and director. Here the director is the legendary Harold Prince, with whom Sondheim collaborated on such landmark musicals as Pacific Overtures, Company, Follies, and Sweeney Todd. Put them all together and this is a legendary team working on a project that had intrigued Sondheim since the early 1950s, before he’d written his first Broadway lyrics (West Side Story) -- turn the real-life story of the Meisner Brothers who were instrumental in the real estate boom in Florida in the early part of the Twentieth Century into a musical comedy.

The cast includes a hard working Richard Kind who never seems to become the character of the architect and Howard McGillin who bounces through the part of the con man without making much impression, as well as two women who make a positive impression when they are on stage but never seem to have much to do with the story being told. Michele Pawk is a girl the brothers meet in Alaska during the gold rush and Jane Powell is the boys' mother. Powell’s character comes across as one that must have a fascinating story behind her but it isn’t told in this show. The cast cavorts before a brightly efficient setting designed by Eugene Lee which uses cloth drops for the buildings the brothers inhabit or build. Jonathan Tunick has provided his usual impressive orchestrations for this new Sondheim score but the vocals and dialogue are delivered through Duncan Robert Edwards’ audio design which sounds thin and treble heavy. It renders the fairly delicate voice of Gavin Creel as a young man that catches the architect’s eye nearly unintelligible at times.

Book by John Weidman. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Harold Prince. Music Direction by David Caddick. Choreographed by Michael Arnold. Design: Eugene Lee (set) Miguel Angel Huidor (costumes) David H. Lawrence (hair and wigs) Howell Binkley (lights) Duncan Robert Edwards (sound) Jonathan Tunick (orchestrations) Liz Lauren (photography) Matthew Leiner (stage manager.) Cast: Gavin Creel, Richard Kind, Herndon Lackey, Howard McGillin, Michele Pawk, Jane Powell.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

June 5 – 22, 2003
Barbara Cook 2003

Reviewed June 5, 2003
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes
Ticket price $35 - $45

One year after her Helen Hayes Award nominated performance in the concert “Mostly Sondheim,” twenty five years after her legendary Carnegie Hall Concert that started a second career for the lady with astonishing vocal gifts, and over half a century after her debut on Broadway where she originated the roles of Cunegonde in Candide, Marian the Librarian in The Music Man and Amalia Balash in She Loves Me, Barbara Cook continues to mesmerize audiences with purity of tone, fidelity to the meaning of lyrics and a delightful stage presence.

Storyline: Barbara Cook sings "It’s Not Where You Start," "It Might As Well Be Spring," "Wonderful Guy," "This Nearly Was Mine," "The Gentleman Is A Dope," "Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man," "Bill," "Nobody Else But Me," "It’s Wonderful," "I Got The Sun In The Morning," "Love Makes The World Go Round," "Her Face," "Very Next Man," "You’re A Builder-Upper," "Too Good To Be True," "Time Heals Everything," "Look What Happened To Mabel," "Everybody Says Don’t," "Another Hundred People," "So Many People," "In Buddy’s Eyes," "You Could Drive A Person Crazy," "Send In The Clowns," "The Trolley Song" and then goes of mike to fill the hall with an unamplified encore.

This program isn’t as focused as was her last visit to the Kennedy Center. Then, it was part of the extraordinary Sondheim Celebration and she was presenting a survey of his work and the work of others whom he included in his list of songs he wished he had written. Here, she is taking a broader view of the classics of the American musical theater (almost all the songs come from Broadway shows rather than from musical films or tin pan alley pop songs). Some of the songs that were part of last year’s concert are in this one and they all sound just as good - "The Trolley Song," "You Could Drive A Person Crazy" and “In Buddy’s Eyes" in particular.

Her delivery remains unmatched and she inhabits the stage with a comfortable confidence that keeps the focus on the material. She doesn’t shy away from telling a story or two or offering a knowing comment but she doesn’t use much time up with such non-musical elements. There are probably 90 minutes of singing in the 100 minutes between the moment she starts singing unseen behind the curtain until she takes her final bow. Her demeanor is marked by an open honesty including acknowledging errors such as when she forgets a lyric - she even had a stage hand bring her the sheet music for one song.

Once again she is backed by her long-time music director, Wally Harper on piano and the precise rhythms and sensuous bowing of Jon Burr on bass. Harper seemed at his best with the numbers that feature a gentle swing such as “I Got The Sun In The Morning” and he has been accompanying her for so many years that they work as a unit. Burr, whose bow work was a compelling aspect of the Mostly Sondheim concert last year, gets less opportunity in that mode in this new set but what he does for “Send In The Clowns” is subtly spectacular. It is not a negative to point out that he also contributes silence for those moments when Cook is delivering a particularly touching quiet line or verse, he lets Harper support her alone, producing a focused attention in the contrast to when he is either plucking or bowing. Then, when he resumes, it defines the moments. Such are the elements of artistry.

Performers: Barbara Cook, Wally Harper, Jon Burr.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

February 4 – March 2, 2003
Stones in His Pockets

Reviewed February 6
Running time
2 hours 30 minutes
Price range $25 - $70

These two actors work awfully hard all night long to get the slender story and colorful characters over the footlights to the audience. The audience is called upon to work hard as well, concentrating on each word and phrase to catch meaning amidst thick brogue, and trying to figure out which of the fifteen different characters they are portraying at any given time. There are rewards for attentive “audiencing,” but perhaps not enough to make it worth as much work as it is. There were more empty seats in the hall after intermission than before – never a good sign.

Storyline: A big Hollywood movie company comes to a small village in County Kerry on the west coast of Ireland where such classic films as John Wayne’s The Quiet Man and David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter captured the glorious scenery. Two local lads get jobs as extras in the new movie being filmed. Their experiences with the cast, crew and the other extras come to a climax when another villager commits suicide on the next to last day of filming by drowning himself in a lake. It is clear that he intended to drown because he had filled his pockets with stones.

All the parts are played by two actors, in this case Bronson Pinchot and Tim Ruddy. When Marie Jones’ play had its first success it was in a tiny theater in Belfast, Northern Ireland. That success led to a run at the fringe festival in Edinburgh, Scotland which led to a London engagement which led to a Broadway run. With each advance, the play found itself in a larger theatre. But even on Broadway, it was only the 800-seat Golden Theatre. Now, the national touring version may have stretched things about as far as they can go with this engagement in the 1,100 seat Eisenhower. This is a play that requires immediate connection between cast and audience and it is stretched in this space.

Pinchot and Ruddy have differences and similarities. Both are strong physical actors and both are blessed with flexible faces and bodies that they can manipulate at will. But Pinchot’s approach leans more to mime and physical humor while Ruddy concentrates more on postures and mannerisms. He can switch from mincing in a gay stereotype for the second-assistant-director to a pronounced limp for the oldest surviving extra from The Quiet Man in a wink. Pinchot also switches characters with ease, using a vest as a prop which becomes a towel or a scarf to help him create the movie’s staring actress or the director.

Together they prance through the story at a brisk clip. The set is simply a backdrop of a film strip showing clouds (the movie’s director is concerned that the clouds aren’t Irish enough) and a lineup of empty shoes, a few pair of which are donned during character switches. But the Irish brogue, when filtered through their efforts to give different characters different voices, makes following the dialogue a chore. That is complicated by the absence of any costume changes other than slipping on an occasional jacket or taking off the vest. It takes real effort to keep it all straight – an effort not everyone in the hall found worth making.

Written by Marie Jones. Directed by Hugh Borthwick. Design by Jack Kirwan. Cast: Bronson Pinchot, Tim Ruddy.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

December 17, 2002 – January 12, 2003
Tell Me On A Sunday

Reviewed December 17
Running Time 1 hour 5 minutes
Price range $25 - $90

As if to compensate for something – duration? plot? characters? – everything that is done in this one act, one performer, one story musical is over done. Well, everything except one thing -- casting Alice Ripley as the English girl come to New York to make her fame and fortune and sample American men was a wise choice. She’s got all the talent and stage presence, not to mention the vocal chops, to pull this off.

Storyline: Emma, an English girl with ambitions as a high-fashion hat designer, comes to New York seeking fame, fortune and romance. While waiting for her "green card" she goes through a series of affairs, getting a taste of life among the movers and shakers of Greenwich Village, Broadway, New York’s Garment District and Hollywood. Some of the big moments of her adventure are performed in song. But more of them are sung in letters home to her "Mum" or revealed in conversations with her best friend "Viv."

Originally written as a song-cycle for a television special for British singer/actress Marti Webb and then adapted for the stage for Bernadette Peters, this musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber presents a real challenge for a singing actress. Alice Ripley, who has been so impressive, both on Broadway (Side Show) and here at the Kennedy Center (Company), has all the talents she needs to pull it off: a big belting voice when called for, a warm way with a ballad and a delicate, almost conversational touch for the narrative set to music. She acts every one of the fifteen numbers with flair, considerable humor and a touch of wistful romanticism. The trouble comes when these numbers have to compete with so many distractions.

Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge has Ripley jump from down stage to up, from stage right to stage left, up steps and through openings in the moving panels while set pieces slide on and off at a relentless pace. The show calls for multiple quick costume changes but costume designer Robert Guy seems not to have paid attention to how each is accomplished in front of the audience. One particularly distracting change early in the show finds Ripley struggling with skirt and bra under a nightgown while gamely trying to sell a lyric. Edward Pierce designed a handsome set featuring a striking silhouette background but his follow-spots bounce off the shiny floor onto screen behind the cutouts, conflicting with the lighting effect. Steve Marzullo’s small orchestra is placed off stage with its music delivered through the sound system, giving the entire presentation the artificial sound of a recording instead of the excitement of a live performance. That system isn’t able to cope with Ripley’s dynamic range, distorting her louder notes, at least as heard from seats just under the lip of the balcony where the reinforcement speakers are placed.

Dodge brings the hyperactivity to a halt twice and both times it is to highlight a strong song. Indeed, "Unexpected Song" and the title number are the two strongest pieces in the score and each gets a minute or two in its own limelight, helped by a pause in all the hyperkinetic trappings, almost as if a switch had been thrown. When Ripley begins "I have never felt like this" there is a hush emanating from the stage that can be felt, not just heard, all the way to the back wall. Her plea to have the bad news of the end of a relationship broken in a park on a Sunday and not on the phone in the middle of the night, the entire audience feels her pain. In those moments, the show soars.

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Don Black. Adapted with additional lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. Directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Music direction by Steve Marzullo. Orchestrations by Daryl Waters. Design: Edward Pierce (set and lights) Robert Guy (costumes) Kurt Eric Fischer (sound). Cast: Alice Ripley.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

February 26 – March 24, 2002

Reviewed February 28
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes

"Austere" is such a strange word to describe an evening with so much weight to it, so much heft, such depth and such emotion. But one dictionary definition of "austere" is "severely plain in design or lines, without distractions or decoration" and that perfectly describes the evening. It sets out to explore a mystery of history, not a whodunit of fiction. It does so with a vengeance. No diversions, no distractions, no subplots. The fabulous thing about it, however, is that it satisfyingly never solves the mystery. Instead, it explores it from every side, suggest many solutions and weighs them all. In the end, it is the question rather than the answer that is important

Storyline: In 1942 two great physicists, long-time friends and colleagues, met privately in Copenhagen. One was active in the German effort to develop a nuclear bomb. The other was soon to become active in the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear bomb. What did they talk about? Why did they meet? In Copenhagen playwright Michael Frayn explores many answers to these questions by having the two, joined by one’s wife, share their own memories not only of the meeting but of their careers and relationships before, during and after the war.

Frayan, previously best known as the author of the nonsense farce Noises Off, brings his skill at theatrical structure to the unusual theme. Actually, there are multiple themes, all interconnected and all relevant to the question of what happened that fall day in 1942. What is the role of the scientist in moral issues? Can the pursuit of scientific truth ignore the consequences of discovery? Does the bond of friendship between colleagues transcend external loyalties? He views it all through the triple prism of memory – three different memories, each imperfect but each willing to try to recall and to re-assess in the light of each new revelation.

With three distinctly drawn characters, the play demands three bravura performances and it gets them from these marvelous actors. Len Cariou is Niels Bohr, the physicist who first explained the process of nuclear fission, who shortly after the meeting in Copenhagen, escaped the Nazis and joined the Los Alamos team working on the atomic bomb. Mariette Hartley is his wife, a keen observer of events and of human nature who keeps their exploration of memory true to known facts. Hank Stratton is Werner Heisenberg, the physicist who won the Nobel Prize for stating the uncertainty principal and whose role in the Nazi effort to develop the bomb is at issue in the play. The three are like a three element atom, circling each other verbally and physically in the grip of an intellectual attraction but separated by a force which is alternately the difference of memory and the difference of history. Among the conundrums explored is the emotionally charged issue of the use of the bomb – did Bohr have any guilt over the deaths of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Was Heisenberg less guilty because the German bomb effort did not succeed in time to destroy London?

The drama takes place on Peter J. Davison’s structure that is as intellectually interesting as the play itself. A circular discussion pit surrounded by raised ranks of observers (part of the audience seated on the stage.) It suggests everything from a surgery arena to a combat pit for gladiators to an atom while allowing the three actors to circle, stride, stroll and, ultimately, orbit each other. Director Michael Blakemore never lets them stay in any one spot for long as the one thing the evening doesn’t have is a static moment.

Written by Michael Frayn. Directed by Michael Blakemore. Design: Peter J. Davison (set and costumes) Mark Henderson and Michael Lincoln (lights) Tony Meola (sound). Cast: Len Carious, Mariette Hartley, Hank Stratton.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

December 11, 2001 – January 6, 2002
Dirty Blonde

Reviewed December 13
Running time 1 hour 55 minutes

The secret of the success of this very successful endeavor is that it is much more than just a bio-play about a fascinating person from our cultural past. Claudia Shear, who could well have succeeded in a one-woman recreation of "An Evening With Mae West" along the lines of Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight or James Whitmore in Will Rogers’ USA, instead has written and performs in a satisfyingly complex play that also happens to cover the story of the blond sex goddess best known for her snappy one-liners.

Storyline: Two people with a fascination for Mae West meet and develop a relationship by sharing their knowledge of the star and exploring her history. One, a West look-alike, takes on the part of West in reenactments of key events in the star’s life. The other, a man who knew West briefly, takes on the roles of the "others" in those events. They grow together by sharing their obsession.

Shear was nominated for two Tony Awards for Dirty Blonde, one for writing the play and one for her performance in it. (There was also a Tony nomination for the show’s director, James Lapine.) Shear performs it again as the show continues its success in a national tour. Her performance is bold, broad and at times funny, as you would expect with West as part of the subject. But it is also sensitive and quite sympathetic. Ultimately, Shear creates a Mae West who is a very human victim of her own invention, and the fan that Shear plays becomes almost as much a victim of her fascination. Shear leaves it with an open possibility that the fan goes on with her life after coming to grips with her obsession.

While Shear repeats her Broadway performance, Tom Riis Farrell joins the company in the role of the other obsessed fan and "others." He brings a tenderness to the show that takes a bit of the edge off what could have been a very harsh view of West. Also on board is Bob Stillman who was the third member of the cast on Broadway and who was also nominated for a Tony Award. He provides a solid support for Shear and Farrell, keeping the show from seeming too small and opening it up when needed.

Staged on the same memorable set that Douglas Stein designed for the original – a forced-perspective cube open at the back to a wide range of changing locales from a theater curtain to various window views – and featuring the same inventive lighting by David Lander who created exteriors, rooms, and cab interiors through his effects, this is very much the show that was so successful on Broadway.

Written by Claudia Shear. Conceived by Claudia Sear and James Lapine. Directed by James Lapine. Design: Douglas Stein (set) David Lander (lights) Susan Hilferty (costumes) Dan Moses Schreier (sound.) Cast: Claudia Shear, Tom Riis Farrell, Bob Stillman.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

November 6 - December 2, 2001
The Island

Reviewed November 8
Running time 1 hour 35 minutes

Sure, this is a chance to actually see an important slice of history in the flesh. But the best reason to attend The Island is its theatrical values, not its historical ones. John Kani and Winston Ntshona perform the two-person, one-act play they created with Athol Fugard in South Africa in the 1970s.

Storyline: Two prisoners share a cell in the prison on South Africa’s Robben Island. They also share a work area in this hard labor camp. They prepare a scene from Antigone, in part to have something on which to focus. Their relationship is strained when one gets word that his sentence has been shortened and he only has three months left to serve while the other contemplates serving his life sentence without even the companionship he has come to rely on.

For a play famous for its relationship to the infamous regime of apartheid, The Island is surprisingly free from South Africa specific polemics and marvelously rich in universal insights. This really could be any prison in any country and the prisoner’s could be confined for any reasons, not simply for reprehensible ones.

Kani and Ntshona were able to protect this work from the South African authorities who wanted to confiscate it by committing it to memory. Performing it now, thirty years later, it is an organic part of their being and the reality of their creation emerges not only from their minds but from their entire beings. The opening sequence, in which the two prisoners perform meaningless hard labor, is a wordless exercise that is as crystal clear in its meaning as any spoken dialogue.

The simple staging is just right given that the prisoner’s world is so confined a space. The roughly eight foot square platform that is their cell contains only two blankets and a water pail. It sits in a blank pool of light in the center of the Eisenhower’s large stage with no backdrop. For these men, there is no outside world and they only leave their cell for the hard labor that is their lot.

Kani and Ntshona were jointly awarded the Tony for best actor when this play opened on Broadway in 1974.