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Adding Machine: A Musical
October 14 - November 15, 2009
Wednesday - Saturday at 7:30 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 2:30 pm
Reviewed October 18 by Brad Hathaway

A Potomac Stages Pick for an uncompromising staging of a harsh view of this life and an afterlife
Running time 1:35 - no intermission
Tickets $57 - $71
Click here to buy the CD


Its hard to imagine a better, stronger or more satisfying production of this unorthodox, unsettling and often unpleasant new musical. From staging to casting to singing to acting, all the elements work in concert to deliver a wonderfully unified vision of what is, at its heart, a troubling view of human existence, the meaning of life and even of afterlife. That having been said, however, it is only fair to point out that the uncompromising nature of the material being staged makes for an experience that isn't always pleasant and isn't meant to be. This is a "shake 'em up" style piece of social commentary which is true to its source, a 1923 play that was an exercise in the use of all the elements of theatrical production to shake up a complacent audience. The co-librettist of the piece, Jason Loewith, comes to the Potomac Region to direct his musical, which premiered in his home city of Chicago where it won a Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Musical - Chicago's equivalent of a Helen Hayes - and in played in New York where it won both Lucille Lortel and Outer Critics Circle Awards.

Storyline: "Mr. Zero" lives down to his name - he's a clerk who has spent twenty-five years adding figures six days a week only to be unceremoniously terminated on his anniversary. In response, he does some terminating of his own which results in a short stay on death row followed by a surprising and, to him, unsatisfying visit to an afterlife he hadn't imagined.

Elmer Rice's play on which this musical is based is often referred to as a prime example of what became known as the American Expressionist movement - think of Eugene O'Neil's The Emperor Jones or Sophie Treadwell's Machinal. American Expressionism put a populist spin on the dark and dismal European Expressionism of authors like Frank Wedekind whose own Spring Awakening has recently been musicalized with a somewhat more audience pleasing touch as it adopted the concepts of rock music for its youth-oriented theme. No such popularizing in the musical department here. Joshua Schmidt's music is uncompromisingly belligerent and only once in the hour and a half does it break into what Stephen Sondheim famously parodied as a "hum-a-mum-a-mum-able melody."

The performance of David Benoit as the luckless adder who can be replaced by a machine is superb when he's roaring mad. He comes across as a huge hulk of a man even if he isn't too tall or too heavy. He just dominates in the scenes where his anger and frustration is at a peak. There are other scenes, however, when a touch of charm sneaks in which seems a bit off kilter. Joanne Schmoll is his shrewish wife, with vocal material to match. She delivers the screeches of her songs with just the scratches-on-a-blackboard tonality that the material demands. Kristen Jepperson has something of a break out role as fellow toiler in obscurity who would kill herself to be with Benoit's "Mr. Zero." Both Stephen Gregory Smith and Dan Via are impressive - Smith as a prisoner who thinks he's even more evil than Mr. Zero and Via as all the smoothly smarmy authority figures in all of Zero's worlds.

A bleak and grey world is given some depth in Debra Booth's set design through touches of brown until the action transfers to "A Pleasant Place" in the afterworld. Then there are greens and even a touch of gold. The early predominance of grey makes the single splotch of red blood on Benoit's collar a badge, not necessarily of courage but of something primal. Behind the audience in Studio's rough-hewn experimental space on the fourth floor is Alex Tang leading a trio of two keyboards and percussion, the sound of which fills the space very well. When the quartet of supporting players (Joe Peck, Katie Nigsch, Thomas Adrian Simpson and Channez McQuay) add their voices to the sound of the trio, the effect is not melodious, because that isn't what the score requires, but it is certainly impressive and commanding of respect.

Music by Joshua Schmidt. Libretto by Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt. Based on the play The Adding Machine by Elmer Rice. Directed by Jason Loewth. Musical direction by Christopher Youstra. Design: Debra Booth (set) Ivania Stack (costumes) Michael Lincoln (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) John Keith Hall (stage manager). Cast: David Benoit, Kristen Jepperson, Channez McQuay, Katie Nigsch, Joe Peck, Joanne Schmoll, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Stephen Gregory Smith, Dan Via. Musicians: Alex Tang, Mary Sugar, Mark Carson.

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September 9 - October 18, 2009
Wednesday – Saturday and selected Tuesdays at 8 pm
Sunday at 7 pm
Saturday – Sunday and Selected Tuesdays at 2
Reviewed September 13 by Brad Hathaway

Proof that fascinating does not equal understandable
Running time 1:10 – no intermission
Tickets $42 - $63
Click here to buy the script

Here's a case of superb performances in an impressive production that suffers from an excess of ambiguity in the text. Oh, sure, the play by one of the most literate of modern playwrights, Harold Pinter, is about mortality. That’s pretty easy to figure out since the central character is on his death bed. It's also about familial bonds – or the lack thereof. That’s plain from the opening line “Where are the boys?” That question is never really answered, however. The boys don't get to the bedside, but they aren’t trying to. Such is the tie that fails to bind this family together. Joy Zinoman's staging is as sharp and distinct as could be wanted, but where, when, who and why all this is on the stage is never really clear in this one-act exercise. Instead, for just over an hour, the work of Ted van Griethuysen, Tom Story, Catherine Flye and four other quality actors is kept in balance by Zinoman's sense of pacing and placement in an energetic if ambiguous sequence of individually interesting events.

Storyline: A retired civil servant is confined to a hospital bed while his wife sits a bedside vigil. Their conversation makes clear that each believes he’s about to die. Meanwhile, his two sons who want to be anywhere but the sick room battle and banter with each other, his daughter hovers above (either viewing from afar or, perhaps, from beyond her own grave) and a man and a woman from outside the family fill in some details from the family’s past.

Van Griethuysen makes a very vital invalid. Confined to a hospital bed, at least when anyone is looking (he’s not above jumping out to get to an out-of-reach bottle of whiskey) his speech is sharp, his delivery an acerbic brew of vitriol and his body never seems to be in repose except when sleep takes over. When he’s most awake, he is constantly aware of his environment and his own body, touching himself in the way a toddler might as the cycle of life completes itself. He’s fascinating to watch and his acting choices are so clear that they give you much to mull over. For instance, just why does he bare his backside en route to the bottle? As is almost always the case with this gifted actor, every word is fully understandable and every emotion is communicated clearly. What it adds up to, on the other hand, remains obscure.

The verbal battle between Tom Story and Anatol Yusef, as the two missing sons, is another tableau to fascinate but not inform. It isn’t even clear just where they are: an adjoining bedroom or half a world away – is the line about being “a few Krugerrands short” a clue to geography or just a slang insult? All we know for sure is that they aren’t with good old dad. Sybil Lines, as his wife, is with him both physically and emotionally, but is awfully bland next to the flamboyant soon-to-be-corpse. Libby Woodbridge is suitably “ghostly” as the daughter who seems anxious to see her dad – but will their reunion be on this side of his grave or the other side?

The production feels serious from even before the show begins. No curtain separates Debra Booth's set from the audience – a blackout allows the actors to take their places to begin the performance. That set captures the lines of the Metheny Theatre without imitating its wooden surfaces. As is so often the case at Studio, the auditorium and the set blend when the lights come up so that there’s the feeling of being in the same space as the actors. Intimate theater is a specialty of the house.

Written by Harold Pinter. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Design: Debra Booth (set) Helen Q. Huang (costumes) Michael Philippi (lights) Michael Gallant (incidental music) Gil Thompson (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) John Keith Hall (stage manager). Cast: Catherine Flye, Ted van Griethuysen, Sybil Lines, James Slaughter, Tom Story, Libby Woodbridge, Anatol Yusef.

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Radio Golf
May 20 - July 19, 2009
Wednesday - Saturday and select Tuesdays at 8 pm
Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm; Sunday at 7 pm
Reviewed Ma
y 10 by David Siegel

Bittersweet, disarming and stinging in parts, but a lean final August Wilson installment
Running time 2:20 - one intermission
Performances in the Mead Theatre
Tickets $41 - $61

Click here to buy the script

This final installment of the majestic, potent ten play odyssey by August Wilson focusing on the African-American experience in 20th Century America is a bittersweet, ultimately lean evening. Radio Golf contains disarming, stinging confrontations about the struggle to keep a community’s roots alive against the onslaught of progress in this tale of resentments and grievances in long ago 1997 when it seemed the economy might lift everyone up. Here the struggles are visually depicted with the dueling images of Tiger Woods and Martin Luther King Jr. casting their potent forces upon the proceedings. Situated between their images is a man who thinks he knows the right path, but finds his way blocked and skidding along. And his own poster image bears a striking resemblance to the iconic one of President Obama. For those familiar with the Wilson saga this is a must see: a chance to grab at his last words. For those accustomed to the mystical matriarch, Aunt Ester, as the repository of traditions, Radio Golf presents a sad, inglorious passing as she is represented not by breathing flesh and blood but as a ghost of a worn-out, unlived-in house considered a blight. Unfortunately, this final chapter in a 100 year saga has too many set pieces, keeping it from cooking into a spicy, thick, pungent, savory stew. The characters seem as if animated arch types from which arguments emanate, rather than fully-formed individuals with emotional centers. Under Ron Himes' direction, the cast has perplexingly few sharp edges given the agonizing about destruction of values. Verbal fireworks do come as the audience is slapped about and asked to choose between life styles represented by the words “Negro” and “Nigger.” At the center of it all is Walter Coppage projecting a soft-spoken, well-dressed, hard-to-anger, well-educated, African-American real-estate developer turned Pittsburgh mayoral candidate. He's learning that his allies are fleeting, his power limited, his trajectory is going backwards and his wife is weighing her own options. He is trying not to go limp and spineless as the unforgiving White dominated world places a target on his back. He drinks from a Starbucks cup when he really needs a meal from Ben’s Chili Bowl.

Storyline: In a run-down storefront in Pittsburgh’s deteriorating Hill District, mayoral candidate Harmond Wilks works out the logistics of a redevelopment project that will raze the decaying buildings of a primarily African-American neighborhood and bring in chain retailers. All that stands in his way is an old house and its eccentric owner, an elderly man who refuses to be cleared out.

August Wilson completed Radio Golf just a few months before he died in 2005. He sets his marker down clearly, asking the audience which side are they on as the bulldozers are at the ready. Your reviewer can only wonder what might have been without death on his mind and with more time to possibly further refine this work. There is a feel of a rush to the characters moving forward quickly into their positions to surround the central character forcing him to react to their views and society whims. Ron Himes is the Founder and Producing Director of The Black Rep, a professional African-American theatre company. For Radio Golf  there is a reticence in his approach, as if there is a line over which the actors cannot and should not cross. They contain themselves in small spaces. A screw driver held in a hand to open a can of paint is the greatest physical menace, while a finger full of white paint becomes war paint on a face as the most visual sign of fury. Even when going “all manly,” the actors seem to be holding back from clenched fists, tight cheeks and spit. The relationship between husband and wife seems coolly professional, giving little hint of sexual energy.

Erik Kilpatrick infuses his street-smart, fast-talking handyman, ex-con of a character with hard earned life experiences and survival skills. He stirs the pot of this plot with the tough questions of what it means to be yourself when faced with a larger community out to do harm to the essence of an urban community about to be destroyed to make way for the likes of Whole Foods and Starbucks. He presents the image of physical power never raising a fist to make his presence felt, but forces others to consider and re-consider their positions. Frederick Strother is marvelous as the eccentric old man, seemingly one to be toyed with, who uses his street smarts to out-flank the men in suits by bobbing-and-weaving. He takes blows, but his resilience has him re-appear much to the chagrin of the moneyed and educated. Deidra LaWan Starnes is Wilks' wife and professional advisor. With her flashing eyes she is the most dramatically emotive of the cast as she learns her value to others is based on the value others place upon her husband. Then again, her interpersonal chemistry with Coppage is unfeverish, they seem an unlikely sexual paring. Kim Sullivan is the most ruthless as a man willing to do anything to make a buck including let his best friend and own community be skewered. It is his golfing radio commentary that gives this play its name. He is an impeccable snake.

The Mead Theatre set is a cluttered storefront looking outward to the street. Used metal desks and chairs are strewn about along with files, and boxes are scattered here and there which gives a sense of lived in reality. Lighting moves the show through bright middays, dark nights and sullen moments. The costumes and shoes of Starnes change in each scene, but are always tailored and looking a marvel. Coppage and Sullivan are nattily attired in suits while Kilpatrick and Strother are in character-rendering outfits. The pre-show and scene changing music moves from toe-tapping bright rhythm and blues and urban pop through the Jimmy Hendricks rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

Written by August Wilson. Directed by Ron Himes. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Reggie Ray (costumes) Colin K. Bills (lights) Neil McFadden (sound)  Scott Suchman (photography) Katherine C. Mielke (stage manager). Cast: Walter Coppage, Erik Kilpatrick, Deidra LaWan Starnes, Frederick Strother, Kim Sullivan.

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The Year of Magical Thinking
June 17 – July 12, 2009
Wednesday - Sunday at 7:30 pm; Saturday – Sunday at 2:30 pm
Reviewed June 21
by David Siegel

A detached, dispassionate solo performance piece
 of survival after the death of loved ones
Running time 1:40 – no intermission
Tickets $41 - $61
Click here to buy the script

Click here to buy the memoir

How does one survive the arduous time after the death of loved ones?  If you are the un-ruffled Joan Didion, who, for four decades, was a dispassionate observer of human intimacy, how far you are from throwing yourself onto the coffin and bewailing God for the losses? For an audience viewing Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, the question might be; is the existential approach to coping what you want to spend your time with? She scripts with almost clinical detachment, reciting detail upon detail to beat back depression without a mention of the Divine. Or perhaps she replaces a God-like presence with a different type of authority, that of mysterious and miraculous spirits. In this one-woman show, God - or something akin to such an entity - has been replaced not just with mysterious sprits to explain the unexplainable, but with a survival technique creating an almost fairy-tale of facts hoping that knowing and following the rules will be a protective factor and that bad things will not happen or can be reversed. Writers are always selling somebody out, Didion suggested long ago. In this theatrical work written originally as a book after the death of her husband and then her daughter, Didion sells herself out as so cool a character that losing control even for a split second seems a weakness of character to be rarely displayed and then quickly overridden. Under the direction of Serge Seiden and Joy Zinoman, Helen Hedman has the demanding task of touching an audience when the script is not so touching. She alone must carry the weight of the evening, describing a certain kind of grief and mourning. That Hedman succeeds is a testament to her infusing her character with some warmth through the slightness of gestures. Is she Didion in appearance? Not so much. But so what? What matters is Hedman slowly taking over the stage as she talks directly to us, explaining what to expect as death takes a loved one away. How you respond may well be determined by your own deep beliefs.

Storyline: After the death of her husband and her daughter, Joan Didion distilled her grief into a memoir. Her adaptation of that work for the stage features a single actress and Didion’s chiseled prose.

Joan Didion was born in 1934. The original book The Year of Magical Thinking won the 2005 National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. Her own adaptation into a theatrical production premiered in New York in March, 2007 running for 144 total performances with Vanessa Redgrave, who was nominated for a 2007 Tony Award as Best Actress in a Play and won a Drama Desk Award for Solo Performance. With Year of Magical Thinking. Didion placed herself under her own intense gaze. As she says in the opening lines of the text, she wrote to inform others which she does in with an unblinking memory as a chronicler. It is a shifting account. The melding of two deaths that can be a bit muddy at times as she moves back and forth to present aspects of her love for her husband and her daughter. She is a keen observer of little bits and pieces. One line gives a sense of others; she asks as she calls in her husband’s obituary to the LA Times, “Is he dead in pacific coast time since it is 3 hours earlier?” Directors Serge Seiden and Joy Zinnoman have created a work with fluid movements. Scenes appear as Hedman finds places to sit or stand with short bites of  violins and piano music by Eric Shimelonis flooding feelings into the production. This is a tough production about thorny matters, but under their direction, the humanity does come through.

Helen Hayes Award nominee Helen Hedman - a veteran of dozens upon dozens of productions in the Potomac Area for the likes of Arena, Olney, Signature and the Shakespeare Theatre Company - is the guide on this journey. She leads the audience by the hand with a warm pleasant voice that shoulders the entire burden, and remains affecting over the course of the evening. She can be so detached, her breathing level, her voice not rising, rarely smiling even with her little slight, off-hand humor. Yet she finds means and methods to show tidbits of emotion. While the performance moves along, there are quieter moments when Hedman’s face can tighten, as she twists her hands and fingers, or far from daintily almost crumples into a chair.  She fits a social worker’s description of the real-life Didion, "one cool character." She take an audience that is willing to listen on this profound interior trip, bearing witness so that an audience might save it to remember when it is their turn to live through such time.

The Metheny Theatre stage set is almost architectural … framed by a maple veneered structure with French blue tinted light surrounding at curtain up. Spots that Hedman unerringly finds are used to depict scene changes. There is a large high back rattan arm chair with a small circular rattan table on audience right and a smaller rattan settee on audience left. Behind the chair is a black and white abstract painting; sort of black squiggles as a motif on a white canvas … giving a sense of no color as when all color leaves the body of a deceased. Brandee Mathies dresses Hedman in an outfit of a cowl neck cashmere white sweater with full sleeves, black pencil-thin pants with loafers, and of course, the Didion trademark big sunglasses.

By Joan Didion.  Directed by Serge Seiden and Joy Zinoman. Design: Luciana Stecconi (set) Brandee Mathies (costumes) Collin K. Bills (lights) Eric Shimelonis (sound and original music) Carol Pratt (photography) Che Wernsman (stage manager). Cast: Helen Hedman.

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Rock 'n' Roll
April 22 - June 28, 2009
Tuesday - Saturday at 8 pm
Saturday at 2 pm
Sunday at 2 pm and 7 pm
Reviewed April 26 by Brad Hathaway

A wordy clash of cultures drama
Running time 2:45 - one intermission
Performances in the Milton Theatre
Tickets $34 - $61
Click here to buy the script


Joy Zinnoman continues her effort to bring major works of Tom Stoppard to Studio. Rep Stage, CENTERSTAGE, Longacre Lea, and MetroStage have all taken a crack at Stoppard works over the years. Indeed, the lovely light side of Stoppard is on display right now at MetroStage with his translation of Gérald Sibleyras' Heroes which we designated a Potomac Stages Pick. Folger will take up Arcadia in May. Of all the Stopparding companies in the Potomac Region, however, it is Studio and its Artistic Director Zinnoman that have given us the widest possible view of the playwright who is a major voice in modern theater. With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Indian Ink and The Invention of Love, the company has surveyed his output with striking productions. With this, his 2006 wordfest, she again gives the material its due with a sharp cast led by Ted van Griethuysen giving pleasurable performances. The play isn't his most memorable, but it rewards concentration with verbal riches of its own.

Storyline: A British academic who is proud to be not only of the left but a communist tries to cope with the ever-shrinking influence of his school of thought, the aging of his world and the new challenges of youth, while one of his students, a refugee from Czechoslovakia, returns home to be with his own country in the hour of its need when the Soviet Union clamps down on its liberalizing satellite state. The young student's devotion to Rock 'n' Roll is the linking mechanism as the play spans the tumultuous times from 1968 to 1990 in England and Czechoslovakia.

Stoppard's personal history shapes this play. He was born in Czechoslovakia and his family fled repression first from the Nazis in Eastern Europe and then from the Japanese in Singapore, driving his family (minus his father who died in a Japanese prison camp) first to India and then to England. It was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead that catapulted him into playwriting prominence in 1966 and earned him the first of his four Tony Awards. Studio's string of successes with his work began with Indian Ink which was the Helen Hayes Award winning outstanding play of 2000 and continued with The Invention of Love which earned both Ted van Griethuysen and Tom Story nominations for outstanding actor of 2002.

Now van Griethuysen returns to Stoppard in a role that gives him every opportunity to draw both laughs and sorrow mixed with a healthy dose of exasperation. He is, as he almost always is, a pleasure to watch, but he doesn't dominate the stage thanks to a strong set of colleagues. Stafford Clark-Price makes an impressive local debut in the role of the Czech whose love of his homeland is (almost) equal to his love of rock 'n' roll. Also making a smashing first impression on the Studio stage is Caroline Bootle as a Czech student who, during a fascinating debate over the kitchen table, takes the position that summarizes the question explored by the entire play. She maintains that "'Make love not war' was more important than "Workers of the world unite." Lawrence Redmond offers a sharp rendition of a frightening interrogator who doesn't seem to require waterboarding to get his captive to concentrate on the topic at hand. There is some doubling among the less-than-central characters which requires you to break your concentration on story and language from time to time to sort out the who's who of this time and continent spanning story.

A location and time shifting play like this one requires a set design that can make the shifts effortlessly, clearly and quickly which is precisely what Russell Metheny provides. Setting up the Milton in a "theater in the round" configuration and using the aisles as tracks for sliding set pieces, the space is always handsome but rarely draws attention to itself. Similarly, Helen Huang's costumes help make the shifts clear by being time and place appropriate but not distractingly theatrical. The design allows the audience to place its concentration right where it needs to be, on Stoppard's flow of verbiage which must be deciphered to follow his story.

Written by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Joy Zinnoman. Design: Russell Metheny (set) Erik Trester (projections) Helen Q. Huang (costumes) Michael Giannitti  (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) John Keith Hall (stage manager). Cast: David Agranov, Caroline Bootle, Veronica del Cerro, Stafford Clark-Price, Ted van Griethuysen, Lisa Harrow, David Chandler Hasty, Katie Henney, Adam Pribila, Richard Price, Lawrence Redmond, Sarah Strasser, Jay Sullivan, Emily Townley, Alex Vernon, Michael Wright, Alex Zavistovich.

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Stoop Stories
March 20 - April 12, 2009
Wednesday - Saturday at 8 pm
Sunday at 7 pm
Saturday - Sunday at 2 pm
Thursday April 2 at 11 am
Reviewed March 22 by Brad Hathaway

t A Potomac Stages Pick for fascinating glimpses into life
 on the streets of Harlem
Running time 1:00 - no intermission
Tickets $34 - $61

The term "self consciously poetic" is precisely the correct one to describe this entertaining, fascinating and inviting short presentation. This isn't a negative phrase. Being self consciously poetic is part of the great strength of this piece - a piece that has a number of great strengths. Dael Orlandersmith's choice of words is surgically precise and artistically effective. She can communicate more in a short burst of syllables than many playwrights can in a succession of pages. Each word simultaneously reflects the personality of a character, the world in which that character exists, his or her reaction to that world and the essence of the event at issue. Orlandersmith delivers her own words in this solo show. She's a warm, welcoming, human presence that puts the audience at ease through her own comfort with the world of the stage, and the stories she chooses to tell of life on the stoops of the row houses of Harlem range from interesting to fascinating.

Storyline: One observant and poetically gifted woman paints word-pictures of the people in her world of Harlem and the West Village in New York, those neighborhoods where people congregate on their stoops.

I'm not quite sure what a "Consulting Director" might be, but veteran director Jo Bonney has that credit on this production. I assume that means that she did more than just direct Orlandersmith's script, and that she probably had a consultant-style hand in developing the script in the first place. How this might differ from the traditional role of a hands-on director working on the premiere of a play with the playwright still striving to make her play all that it can be is not quite clear. However, there is a seamlessness to the final product that indicates that playwright/performer/director were of a single mind as to the purpose of the production. Whatever job title these creators chose, the results are thoroughly satisfying for the audience and that's all that really matters.

Words! Orlandersmith chooses words the way a painter chooses colors or a composer chooses notes. She uses them to communicate in a very few minutes the essence of an experience. She doesn't just tell a story. Take her tale of an elderly man and his brief encounter with a famous person. In a very few minutes we get to know this man, his history as a Jew who survived the Nazi camps and his life in his adopted country of America. But we learn much more. The celebrity he encounters is none other than Billie Holiday and the occasion is a momentous moment in her short, tragic life. Orlandersmith's delivery of a few lines from the lyric to "Strange Fruit" is as valid a piece of acting as Holiday's delivery of the same words was a fabulous piece of blues singing. At another point in this solo performance piece she turns her own talent at "Word Jazz" toward the communication genre of the late fifties of that name -- and she does it as well as any of its practitioners.

Studio Theatre has a tradition of including information in the program which helps the audience understand some of the references within the play being presented. Often there is a collection of trivia from the time and place of the story which makes witnessing the play just a bit richer. This time out they provide a note from Sarah Wallace, who acted as dramaturg on the project, and her text is not as helpful as it might be. Instead of details on Harlem, its history and the lay of its land, or information on the geography and time covered by the play, she delivers a description of the play itself, something the audience is about to witness for themselves and for which they don't need a guide. Orlandersmith is the guide.

Written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith. Consulting direction by Jo Bonney. Design: Luciana Stecconi (set) Brandee Mathies (costume) Colin K. Bills (lights) Eric Shimelonis (sound) Matt Goldenberg (photography) Renee E. Yancey (stage manager).

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January 14 - February 22, 2009
The Seafarer
Reviewed January 18 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:30 - one intermission
An Irish tale of a visit from the devil with fun performances by Floyd King and Edward Gero
Click here to buy the script

When Studio Theatre sent us a photo to illustrate this review, they picked one of Floyd King and Edward Gero. How did they know that the review would concentrate on the pleasure of watching Floyd King and Edward Gero? I mean, there are three other members of the cast, including Philip Goodwin in a sometimes-nifty performance of as none other than the devil himself. The review also has to deal with the script by Conor McPherson and there's even the strengths and weaknesses of the set by Russell Metheny to discuss. Yet, Studio was quite right in sending us the photo you see here. As George Gobel said to Lou Costello when he one-upped him in Christmas decorations, "There's the show!" King, as we all know, can hold a stage all by himself, and he certainly fills in the slow moments of this spotty piece of storytelling with a performance that is both sharp and distinctive as a blind old curmudgeon. Gero comes through as well as a friend who is blind in another way - in his inebriation he has misplaced his glasses. The semi-sightless duo is consistently fun to watch while the rest of the action swirling about them fails to make much of an impression.

Storyline: On Christmas eve four down-on-their-luck Irishmen in a small town north of Dublin are visited by a stranger with special powers willing to gamble at an all-night game of poker with souls as the ultimate wager.

McPherson won the Olivier Award for Best New Play in London in the 1998 season for his piece of naturalistic storytelling, The Weir, which was a masterpiece of understatement. It worked whether staged by high-priced, big-name talent or by dedicated and skilled but hardly well known actors. His Shining City was well received here at Studio a little over a year ago under the direction of Joy Zinoman, principally because of performances by Gero and a trio of strong performers. In both plays, McPherson let the story emerge in slow, easy pieces, inviting the audience to put the puzzle together and rewarding their effort with a satisfying payoff. This latest play by the young Irish author, on the other hand, telegraphs its tale, leaving the audience little to do but sit and enjoy the performances. Rather than build to a conclusion that seemed to emerge naturally from the events in the tale, the payoff here feels contrived. What is worse, the devil accepts the contrivance with no more than a shrug - not a very Satanic reaction. 

Still, there's nearly two hours of Floyd King. He may overdo a few mannerisms and once or twice his eyes may signal a glance, but give the guy a break. Blind is awfully hard to portray on a stage where the audience is as close to the actor as is the case here in Studio's Mead Theatre. King is simply fun to watch. And Gero's drunk act is so convincing you can feel the headache of his hangover. It falls to him to reveal the payoff that ties the loose ends up at the end, but until then, he's thoroughly convincing and entertaining. Philip Goodwin's performance as the dapper devil never really gets the menace beneath the veneer of gentlemanly bonhomie, but he is truly chilling when he bursts out with one of the most disturbing descriptions of heaven and hell since Dante. Rounding out the cast are Billy Meleady, as an overwrought down-on-his-luck relative of King's blind man, and Jeff Allin as the neighbor who invites the visitor from Hades to the game.

Russell Metheny provides a picture-perfect recreation of the interior of the house in Baldoyle on the coast of the Irish Sea, but it is never clear just why the upper wall is transparent, allowing the audience to see characters in the upstairs hallway. The highly detailed interior contrasts sharply with the lack of setting for the exterior scenes played out on a blank space beyond the exterior door stage right. Helen Huang's costumes enhance the characterizations and Neil McFadden's sound design plays with the the seasonal aspect of the story including a double- or even triple-entendre of the opening strains of Johnny Mathis warbling "do you see what I see?"

Written by Conor McPherson. Directed by Paul Mullins. Design: Russell Metheny (set) Helen Q. Huang (costumes) Michael Giannitti (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) John Keith Hall (stage manager). Cast: Jeff Allin, Edward Gero, Philip Goodwin, Floyd King, Billy Meleady.

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November 12, 2008 - January 11, 2009
Grey Gardens
Reviewed November 16 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:25 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a superb production of a fascinating, unorthodox musical
Click here to buy the CD

A little over a year ago, the producers of the Broadway premiere of this unorthodox musical which had been nominated for Tony Awards for best musical, best book and best score closed the show rather than try to find replacements for the two women who walked away with the year's Tony Awards for actress and supporting actress. The show had run less than nine months and was still selling a lot of high priced tickets but no one was sure that the show could work without the magic of Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson. Well, they should have done what Studio Theatre here has done - get Barbara Walsh and Barbara Broughton to take on the roles and they could have run for another year. Both Barbaras turn in performances that enchant, entrance and entertain in a show that takes the most bizarre of stories and makes it both human and thoroughly musical. Walsh, in the dual role of both of the ladies whose descent from high society to abject poverty, and Broughton in the single but captivating role of just one of those ladies, win the audience's affection as well as admiration as the evening progresses.

Storyline: An unorthodox musical attempts to explain how two wealthy socialites, toasts of Long Island society who were the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, become reclusive, near-penniless shut ins in their crumbling "beach cottage" in The Hamptons.

The contrast between the first and second acts couldn't be stronger. Essentially, the second act is a musicalization of the bizarre documentary that exposed to public view the reclusive life these women were leading in the midst of the social set at the end of Long Island in the 1970s. But just making a musical of the strange spectacle would be the equivalent of turning a "cinéma vérité" documentary into something akin to Mommie Dearest set to music. Watching what happened is only fully satisfying if there is an answer to why it happened. The first act is the attempt by book writer Doug Wright, lyricist Michael Korie and composer Scott Frankel to present at least an intellectually satisfying theory that explains the inexplicable. Taking three different apparent disasters that affected this mother-daughter pair at different times in their lives, and compressing them into a single day in the mansion known as Grey Gardens, they posit the view that these women couldn't effectively cope with the abandonment of the mother by both her philandering husband and her domineering father as well as the jilting of the daughter by none other than Joe Kennedy, Jr. The first act is reminiscent of Cole Porter's High Society, while the second isn't reminiscent of any other musical.

In the first act Walsh is Edith Bouvier Beale, the mother of socialite "Little Edie Beale." In the second, she's "Little Edie" herself some thirty years later. With the help of a marvelously written script, Walsh makes both characters understandable as well as fascinating. In her hands, they are more than just freak show attractions, they are real people with real problems that overwhelm. Broughton is the mother in the second act, an entertainingly self-absorbed mother at that. Their interaction explains their abnormalities. But these aren't the only interesting characters on stage in this musical. Act One's "Little Edie" is Jenna Sokolowski who turns in one of her best performances to date - and that's saying a great deal for her stepsister in Olney's Cinderella , her Eve Addaman (as in Adam 'n Eve) in Woolly's She Stoops To Comedy and, especially, her innocent Little Sally in Signature's Urinetown were marvelous. Bobby Smith gives another audience-winning performance as the mother's accompanist, and Matthew Stucky is fine as young Joseph Kennedy Jr in the first act and so much more than fine as the neighbor boy Jerry in the second.

Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations of Frankel's score were a significant factor in the success of the show in New York as they created a sonic world of depth and beauty that insinuated itself into the consciousness. The charts required only nine musicians to work their magic. Studio has nine effective musicians playing the score here and they cast the same spell. George Fulginiti-Shakar leads them and Jeff Thurston handles the seductive string parts on his violin.

Music by Scott Frankel. Lyrics by Michael Korie. Book by Doug Wright. Based on the film by Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer and Susan Froemke. Directed by Serge Seiden. Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner. Musical direction by George Fulginiti-Shakar. Design: Russell Metheny (set) Alex Jaeger (costumes) Erik Trester (projections) Michael Lincoln (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) John Keith Hall (stage manager). Cast: Barbara Broughton, Alison Cenname, James Foster, Jr., Simone Grossman, Ryan Hilliard, Bobby Smith, Jenna Sokolowski, Matthew Stucky, Barbara Walsh.

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December 3 - 21, 2008
Reviewed December 7 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:20 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for an explosively emotional experience
Click here to buy the script

Is it harder to avert your eyes from a train crash or from Jerry Whiddon and Lisa Joyce‘s exchange of vitriol in David Harrower’s superbly written (but poorly titled) explosion of a play? I don’t know. I’ve never actually seen a train crash. But I have seen Whiddon and Joyce go at it for 80 minutes, after which I almost forgot to applaud as I sat, stunned. It is a mesmerizing, emotionally draining experience, one that would be hard to forget, if one actually wanted to forget it. Director David Muse is again responsible for a production that pulls out all the stops just like his earlier work here (most notably, the Studio Secondstage production of Frozen) and on other Potomac Region stages such as The Bluest Eye at Theatre Alliance. Nothing is hidden from view either visually or emotionally. Muse directs his two players to make the most of the confrontational aspects and only hint at any reticence either character might feel even if just momentarily. As a result, this is a full-out, knock down, drag out battle.

Storyline: A confrontation between a man who thought he’d put scandal behind him and the woman he wronged many years ago. It takes place in a filthy employee’s break room, the only space where he can get her away from his colleagues and find out what, after all these years, she wants of him.

The storyline above is intentionally vague – there are twists and turns in this verbal battle that I wouldn’t dream of giving away. But if you are too young to watch in awe as two human beings reveal raw psychological and sexual wounds, just take my word for it and don’t go. If, on the other hand, you can take revelations of human frailty and ponder questions of good versus evil and revenge versus redemption, go. Harrower, a Scottish playwright who, as a result of this play, is the holder of the Olivier Award for last year's best new play in London, gives the audience no opportunities to escape or even catch their collective breath as they take in the sequential revelations. He provides no easy answers. The script offers neither condemnation nor absolution. The facts are laid bare - as are the psyches of both parties. But judgment? That's left to another time and place.

Jerry Whiddon unleashes his considerable actors’ chops, proving to those who haven’t seen him perform recently because he’s been so busy directing since he left his post of Producing Artistic Director at Round House, an opportunity to appreciate just what they’ve been missing. As the former evil-doer who thought he’d left all that behind him, he not only shows all the emotions you would expect, he makes you feel them. His pain is palpable. His fear is fearsome. His anger is awesome, the emotion of a trapped animal. Lisa Joyce, who was the young teacher in the National Tour of Doubt when it played the National, hides some of her characters’ emotions and intentions (just as she’s supposed to) until they are unleashed one jolting revelation at a time.

Debra Booth has provided a set that draws the audience into the world of the play just as it thrusts the cast into the presence of the audience. No proscenium divides the two worlds. The dirty, trashed employee's lounge with its vending machines, overflowing trash can, detritus strewn floor and splash-stained frosted window extends about as close to the front row of seats as possible and the wrap-around seating means that the audience is constantly aware of the other audience members watching the confrontation taking place just beyond an arms length. The harsh stark white light of florescent bulbs add to the sense of reality.

Written by David Harrower. Directed by David Muse. Design: Debra Booth (set) Kate Turner-Walker (costumes) Michael Philippi (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Melissa Malinowski (stage manager). Cast: Lisa Joyce, Jerry Whiddon.

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September 3 - October 26, 2008
The Road to Mecca
Reviewed September 7 by David Siegel

Running Time 2: 15 one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a richly burnished, luxurious production as artistry confronts aging and traditional community standards
Recipient of the
Usher's Favorite Show Award for September
Click here to buy the script

Joy Zinnoman's staging of Athol Fugard's 1984 play is an impeccably polished construction. From the set design, to the casting to the unexpectedly non-apartheid-themed script by a playwright most readily known for his politically themed South African plays, The Road to Mecca is a vision of unspoiled beauty. It is as if the production was in High Definition, so that the pixels just pop out as if previously unnoticed; it is that vibrant. The Road to Mecca is the unfolding story of an aging artist fighting against loneliness, fear of losing her artistic vitality and facing strict community standards that cast her as an outsider that must be punished. While the events are situated in a dusty South African small town, the location does not matter. Just change the accents. Zinnoman has developed a very feminine-centered world of shades of color and tints of voice. It is a world that erupts and quiets and then erupts again ... not to hurt or maim, but to push and prod: generally with a hug of affection after the altercation. The audience is in rapt attention from the moment they see the set, tightly squeezed into the Mead Theater; all chock-a-block full of artistic inventions, furniture and candles -- lots and lots of candles. Zinnomen has an uncanny ability to guide and then challenge her actors to reach for delicate and subtle performances even when they are shouting and physically imposing themselves on each other, or quietly cowering. There is no room for a casting error in this three actor production; there is no place on stage to disappear. With a pair of  Helen Hayes awardees Tana Hicken and Holly Tywford in the two featured roles and Martin Rayner as the minister representing an entire community, the audience gets all it could long for and more. This is a luxurious production as secrets are unveiled, and the timid finally do inherit the earth with a small gesture … the placing of a shawl on the shoulder of another to provide comfort.

Story Line: An artist reaching her very late 60’s struggles with feelings of isolation and fear that her muse has deserted her. She engages in a battle of wills with a rebellious young woman friend as well as a local minister who represents the traditional community standards. Inspired by the true story of Helen Martins who created the Owl House in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, now a national monument.

The internationally renowned Athol Fugard has written dozens of plays in his 50 years as a playwright, director and actor. He fought against South African apartheid with his critically acclaimed theater works that led to his temporary banishment, but not his silencing. Works such Blood Knot (1961), Sizwe Banzi is Dead (1972), and Master Harold and the Boys (1982) are well known in the theater cannon. With The Road to Mecca, Fugard takes on different demons as he confronts an artist’s fears of death and worse, the loss of the creative spirit and reduced energy to fight against a more traditional standard. In Mecca the playwright has located a womanly muse to represent himself, inspired by an artist who created sculptures of owls and shrines to Mecca that caused havoc in her small Christian-faith community … after all, what could be worse then facing east toward Mecca and its wonders for deep holders of a traditional Christian point of view? Joy Zinnomen’s touch illuminates like candles in a hall of mirrors, and is iridescent with sparkles and glitter. With her cast she has each remain in the moment; silent, watching, brooding and in character even when not in the spotlight. With her design team, she has brightened the darkest corner of the script and the set with unexpected touches of reality.

There is little sense of acting in Mecca. Twyford and Hicken work together almost as if they lived together for the past several months -- not just in rehearsal, but in real life, so that they came to know one another as true caring friends who learned how to fight hard out of love and respect and then will put a finger to a nose to show affection. Twyford is all youthful bravado; full of big gestures from the moment she enters. She takes up space with her body and her voice pushing out everything else … or at least trying to. But somehow the audience wonders if she is covering up something deep and hurting with her boisterous, know it all manner.  And yet, with just a little prodding and an apology, she starts again, still strong but more willing to hear her dear friend speak. Tana Hicken is a quiet presence; soft and sometimes hidden in plain sight. Almost meek, an audience will wonder from whence came all her artistic boldness to take on an entire community given Hicken’s initial entrance. She is one of tiny, intimate movements of an eye brow, a mouth, purse of the lips, a tilt of the head. Martin Rayner, first appearing at the very end of Act I, is all knowing arrogant intellect and fiery faith, but with his own secret of love missed that he touchingly and finally brings himself to admit.

Debra Booth’s set is a delicately built wonder of little warrens of a bedroom, a kitchen and a sitting room; but the warrens almost have movement to them, so full of furniture, brick-a-brack and artistic contrivances. It is complex mess of beauty, set off by candles and oil lamps that, when lit, bring some grace to the entire theater. The shifting lighting design from day to night only accentuates the effect. The set, its props and everything about it is actually used during the performance; nothing is wasted. Water is poured, hair washed, food prepared, clothes changed and sound of life heard.

Written by Athol Fugard. Directed by Joy Zimmomen.  Debra Booth (set) Helen Q. Huang (costumes) Michael Giannitti (lights) Gil Thompson (sound)  Carol Pratt (photography) Serge Seiden (production manager). Cast: Tana Hicken, Martin Rayner and Holly Twyford.  

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June 11 - July 6, 2008
This Beautiful City
Reviewed June 19 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:30 - one intermission
A musical look at the new evangelical movement

The off-Broadway troupe called The Civilians offers a play with music created from interviews with people involved in the evangelical movement. Written by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, the impact of the piece is akin to a light-weight musical version of The Laramie Project. In that more famous interviews-turned-to-script piece, it was a horrific crime rooted in community bigotry that commanded attention. Here it is a somewhat more benign community phenomenon. The show deals with the emergence of the evangelical movement as a defining aspect of a single community's identity fueled by the nation-wide exposure of televangelism and the development of mega-churches. It isn't a completely new issue, however. Ever since at least the time of Aimee Semple McPherson, there has been a bridging of the gap between religion and pop culture. With an up-tempo, slightly country sounding score and bright, energetic performances, the piece is engaging if not particularly insightful. That, however, is a problem when the purported purpose of the evening is to provide insight into a current phenomenon.

Storyline: A cast of six perform transcripts from interviews conducted by the theater group in its search for understanding of the phenomenon of evangelicalism in a mass communication age. The concentration is on Colorado Springs, home of mega-church New Life where founder Ted Haggard made news of a distinctly non-religious type with the breaking of a prostitution/homosexuality/drug use scandal. 

There's a twist in the approach this group takes to the genre of "documentary theater." (Think of not just The Laramie Project but of The Vagina Monologues and The Exonerated.) The Civilians present the results of their interviews with a light, entertaining touch. The range of topics they have taken up is wide - everything from the role of Presidential wives (Ladies) to the life of geese (Canard, Canard, Goose?). The tone varies depending on the topic - a cabaret-style look at veracity in pop culture called (I Am) Nobody's Lunch ("how do we know what we know when nobody knows if everyone else is lying?") or a frivolous feel for an examination of things that go missing called, not surprisingly, Gone Missing.

For this particular outing, The Civilians find a style somewhere between cabaret and play-with-music. The music consists of about a dozen songs ranging in style from a near boot-scooting country-ish "Cowboys" to a more anthem-like paean to "Freedom." Taken together, the score seems to mimic the "up with people" kind of musical offerings often found on mass-market televangelist programming. A trio playing keyboard, bass guitar and drums sits at the side of the stage pumping up the energy when required.

The cast of six forms an ensemble that works together smoothly. No one performer has a "starring role," but all have plenty of opportunity to engage the audience and make a mark either as members of one of Colorado Springs major churches, representatives of the secular side of the town or even Christian cadets at the nearby Air Force Academy. Each takes multiple roles as the evening progresses. Most of what has to be said is said during the first act and it is quite entertaining. By the middle of the second act, however, it begins to feel like filler and there is more sermonizing going on in the second than in the first act.

Written by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis. Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Directed by Steven Cosson. Musical staging by Chase Brock. Musical direction by Gabriel Mangiante. Design: Debra Booth (set and projections) Lorraine Venberg (costumes) Michael Giannitti (lights) Erik Trester (sound) John Keith Hall (stage manager). Cast: Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Aysan Celik, Matthew Dellapina, Brad Heberlee, Stephen Plunkett. Musicians: Anders Eliasson, Gabriel Mangiante, Robin Rhodes.

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May 14 - June 22, 2008
The Internationalist
Reviewed May 18 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:00 - one intermission
An amusing contemporary comedy of the global community
Click here to buy the script

"Dim tia. Hag alla pom timin tee fay. Yil seeva saan amhalio pro bimin fee karal nee -- sits yee amb hen dockt. Gim see fe heyal adana mimca cray duelits manda eyab saat, gaha neen tomil farlio pit surhanio warra gee sal. Kilt foit darca bear hantfidia qin garrio sora niy koral hibinimatia dor kand lor. Kamul eets beddic. Lihurin rol circumstat binda pint. Fits toi, toya harric, fits harric guradat empt ill inst deen." So says Sara, a secretary/copy clerk/gopher in the eastern-European office where a young American has been detailed on a short-term project. This intensely personal near-confessional is delivered with great earnestness by Tonya Beckman Ross to the clueless but very attracted American played with a fresh openness by Tyler Pierce in Kirk Jackson's clean and clear production of a new play by Anne Washburn. The point is that nothing is at all clear to Pierce's character because he can't understand the local language. Neither can anyone in the audience. To make sure of this, playwright Anne Washburn has devised her own language. She lets the audience understand the conversation of the Eastern-European characters when the American isn't in the room, but when he can hear them neither he nor we can understand a word.

Storyline: An American has been detailed to a Middle-European office to participate in a business project for a short time. Suffering at first from exhaustion after a sixteen hour flight, he has difficulty figuring out the positions of each of the members of the team. Jet lag gets worse and worse as he suffers from insomnia, adverse reactions to food and drink and an ever escalating feeling of disorientation. It isn't helped when a crisis hits the team and the local members, in their concentration on the emergency, have less and less time to try to help him become a contributor.

It isn't just the language the audience can't understand. They also never have a chance to understand the nature of the project the team is working on, or, for that matter, the nature of the problem or fraud that is affecting its prospects. That's not what the show is about. It is about communication and co-existence in its absence. In an increasingly global community, where corporations span political borders with different portions of joint efforts being conducted through electronic connections, communication across cultural and language borders is more and more a common problem. It isn't just when one participant doesn't understand a word used by another. Culture is more than mere language. Attitudes, presumptions and the store of background information can be stumbling blocks as well. Washburn makes these points entertainingly, but stumbles a bit with some of the more outlandish elements of the plot including an ill-structured scene of an encounter with a prostitute, and a strangely unexplained decision on the part of the fatigued American to go sightseeing alone instead of falling into his bed for some much needed sleep.

Washburn's invented language -  she says that it is "one-third Romance language, one-third Turkish or Middle Eastern and one-third Asian" - presents the cast with an unusual challenge. They must converse in this structured nonsense as if it is completely meaningful and appears to be their native tongue. Any stumbling about as might be the case with a "foreign" language would break the spell. They do a fabulous job of it. They also, by opening night, seem to have committed their lines to memory with greater success than is often the case in other theaters where opening night fluffs are often overlooked. When Holly Twyford,  Cameron McNary and Jason Lott chatter away, telling apparently hysterical stories on their lunch break, or panic over whatever the crisis it is that hits their project, they seem totally comfortable in the patois. What is more, they listen to each other and appear to understand each element of the conversation, taking in the information offered at the speed it is flowing.

The production has more than just the presence of Tyler Pierce to remind long time Studio Theatregoers of Fat Pig or of Holly Twyford to recall The Shape of Things. In both of these cases, the ultra-modern streamlined set work of Debra Booth, the sharply focused lighting of Michael Giannitti and the mod-pop musical choices and strongly reinforced sounds of Neil McFadden have created an environment that reflects the contemporary scene. Each is certainly capable of producing different looks and sounds (as they have either together or separately) in other productions. But this feel is particularly good for this type of show and they do a fine job keeping the play flowing from airport to office to restaurant to bar and back.

Written by Anne Washburn. Directed by Kirk Jackson. Design: Debra Booth (set) Jenny Mannis (costumes) Michael Giannitti (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Serge Seiden (stage manager). Cast: James Konicek, Jason Lott, Cameron McNary, Tyler Pierce, Tonya Beckman Ross, Holly Twyford.

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March 26 - June 1, 2008
The History Boys
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 3:00 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick as better than Broadway 
Click here to buy the script

When you're right, you're right. And we were right. When we reviewed the original production of this play on Broadway we said "Those who are familiar with the kind of serious contemporary drama that Studio does so well should hope that" this play makes its way into its schedule. Well, it has. And this well constructed comedy/drama that raises pertinent issues in this age of controversy over "teaching to the test" is in the proper hands. Director Joy Zinoman, her design team and her duo of featured teachers manage to surpass the marvelous original production of Alan Bennett's sterling play which garnered the Olivier Award for Best Play when it premiered in London, and the Tony Award for Best Play when it opened on Broadway. Floyd King gives a lovely performance as the devotee of education for education's sake, with just a touch of Goodbye Mr. Chips added to the combination of intellectual role model and free spirit embedded in the script. As his polar opposite, the young teacher who sees his role as one of preparing young minds for the rigors of collegiate and career competition, Simon Kendall is sharp and energetic. He makes the apologias for practicality in educational institutions that Alan Bennett penned for his character ring true. For the boys of the title, the eight young actors Zinoman selected are superb - especially Jay Sullivan and Owen Scott.

Storyline: In the mid-1980s the headmaster at the British equivalent of a high school brings in a teacher he feels will put the proper emphasis on preparation for the "A-Level Exams" which, like our SATs, determine the collegiate opportunities of the seniors. His style contrasts sharply with that of a long-time member of the faculty whose emphasis is on learning for the love of learning. A class of eight young men are caught between them until the older teacher is spied taking inappropriate liberties with one of his boys.

Alan Bennett first came to fame in the revue Beyond the Fringe nearly fifty years ago (with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook), and has earned awards for both performing and writing ever since. As you would expect, he fills this script with witty one-liners, but also with serious issues. It is that combination that makes the piece so satisfying. As soon as you think you are rolling along with a comic riff, it reaches a punch line that is more thoughtful than mirthful, and then, just as things start to get a bit heavy, there is a burst of laughter to release the pressure. When all is said and done, there's plenty to talk about on the way home. You discuss the issues raised, from the purpose of education to the proper procedure to deal with improper behavior by teachers with their students. Or, you can consider the quality of the production itself.

Among the things Zinoman gets right in her re-envisioning of the play (no slavish imitation of someone else's success here) is the casting of Floyd King in the role that earned Richard Griffiths both Olivier and Tony Awards, that of the truly avuncular teacher who cares more for his students' education than their preparation for the exams that determine their college and career futures. The choice of King was a bit surprising to those who expected a Griffiths knock off. He's such a different physical "type." It might well have been interesting to see what the play would have been in other hands - Ted van Griethuysen would have made a more traditional choice and his performance would have definitely been outstanding. But King brings a different persona to the piece, simultaneously softening this key personality and shifting the focus of the play just a bit more toward the boys of the title. Kendall turns out to have also been an excellent choice. Neither of the other two adult roles get performances of significant quality. Tana Hicken doesn't quite "nail" the fabulous speech she's given in the second act and James Slaughter's "headmaster" seems a bit distracted rather than focused on the demand for results from his staff. Ah, but the younger performers who have more funny lines and less multifaceted personalities. Each comes across as a distinct individual and the ensemble works well together.

A major improvement over the London/Broadway production that was such a success is in the set design. Bob Crowley's Tony winning design for the original involved distracting and noisy moving walls and had harsh florescent light fixtures partially intruding into the black and white movie projected on the back wall. Russell Metheny, on the other hand, has a nifty portal that glides silently across the stage, rotating smoothly into position to form doors and define walls creating locales for different scenes. The dispensing of the use of film entirely solves the sightline problem.

Written by Alan Bennett. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Design: Russell Metheny (set) Alex Jaeger (costumes) Michael Lincoln (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) John Keith Hall (stage manager). Cast: Ben Diskant, Chris Dinolfo, Tana Hicken, Andrew Honeycutt, Floyd King, Simon Kendall, Jeremy Lister, James Thomas Martin, Dominique Morizet, Adam Poss, Robert Rector, Owen Scott, James Slaughter, Nick Stevens, Matthew Stucky, Jay Sullivan.

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April 1 - 20, 2008
The New Absurd

t A Potomac Stages Pick for a pair of unique theatrical experiences

New York based performance group, rainpan 43, presents three shows in repertory: all wear bowlers, Amnesia Curiosa and machines machines machines machines machines machines. We have reviewed only two of them because machines, machines, machines, machines, machines, machines, machines is a short run of just the weekend of April 19-20, but each of the two is such a delight while so distinct from the other, that we've made the repertory a Potomac Stages Pick. It clearly meets the criteria of material "so good we are confident that a majority of our readers would thank us for recommending they take the time and trouble (not to mention the expense)" to see it.
Amnesia Curiosa
Reviewed April 9 by David Siegel

Running time 1:15 - no intermission
A cerebral, lovely evening of connected vignettes

A Potomac Stages Pick for a pair of unique theatrical experiences

A quiet little jewel waltzed into Studio Theatre the other evening; an old fashioned kind of show that will suck you in until, 75 short minutes later, you leave with a warm feeling of having been entertained. Not educated. Not blown-away. Not wishing it had been longer. But quietly entertained in an often touching manner by Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle. From the moment you enter the theater space you know you will be in for something different. You don’t head to a waiting seat, but go through a curious little old-fashioned 19th century type museum of miniature objects and photographs dedicated to “fleeting” memory and the “preservation of memory.” Lyford and Sobelle's quietly animated words are caught and savored throughout the production as they move through a number of short vignettes depicting distant events that run the gamut of very affecting physical comedy, fleeting magical sightings, and pantomime (not done in white grease-paint). This is a lovely evening of how a hand becomes a dying bird, later resurrected to a living and fluttering bird; how a ball of string can become a violin or disappear magically into a small pile of sand; or how stick-on mustaches can be hysterically placed perfectly on an upper lip to change a character’s affection in a nano-second; or how voice modulation can give rise to cackling from an audience that is normally cool and sophisticated. An evening with rainpan 43’s Amnesia Curiosa is like being a 10 year old again and that is a good thing … a very good thing.

Storyline: Connected small vignettes about long lost ephemeral memories and moments of family life in an old-style, museum-type atmosphere.

Lyford and Sobelle worked with playwright Andrew Dawson to develop this memory play that places the audience in the midst of an old-style carnival type atmosphere. The production was first staged at the Philadelphia Live Arts festival in 2006. It begins with a barker using a megaphone to entice the audience to open their minds to what they may see over the course of the evening. Vignettes are connected by the sense that memory is continually lost and that adults are unaware of the coming losses. A number of the vignettes include silent body and transformative facial movements that leave the audience in awe. Others are the more dumb-and-dumber comic type. Several are poignant, such as a boy finding a dying bird, or a grandmother in the final phase of her of life, or a husband and wife distanced by the Vietnam War. The script has a sweet feel for the human condition rather than a shrieking, cracking-up, making fun of human fragilities. Director Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel has a mime background as well as experience and education in physical-centered theater that it is noticeable throughout the production. His direction allows the actors to take center stage together and separately. His work seems invisible and that is a complement.

Lyford and Sobelle are performers with strong voices, rubber faces and elastic bodies and limbs and a clear and easy presence on stage. Both deliver their lines in a straight-up manner. Lyford is the one with a rubber face and Sobelle the one with the elastic body. Together they work seamlessly to lull the audience into a calm place from which to take them to a never-land of family narratives. There is no hyper kinetic energy with them, but rather a slow-motion type of movement and language so that nothing can be missed. Each of the actors has the opportunity to showcase his comic skills both silently and otherwise. And each gets to play very poignant scenes. Lyford’s work as a father separated from his wife by the Vietnam war and listening to voices on a reel-to-reel tape recorder is of the highest quality. Sobelle’s work as a grandmother (as depicted by just one arm) slowly losing her mind is also of high quality. In Amnesia Curiosa Lyford and Sobelle take the audience along with them until they have circled around and returned to the opening scene once again, but with each having changed places from the top of the show. With this first-rate work the audience leaves the performance perfectly satiated.

The Studio’s Mead Theatre set is a wonder from first walking through a museum-like set-up to the uses of placed objects and curios which are showcased, for the most part in dark heavy wooden cabinets with glass doors or under plastic boxes. The set will bring either a smile or a quizzical look. Over the course of the performance, the objects all find a place and connection to what is seen and experienced, whether a plain old ball of string or a small bird’s nest or a miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder. As the stage is set at floor level and in a thrust attitude, the audience is almost on top of the performers and inside the museum. For this reviewer, one who was stationed in the Far East from 1970-1972 during the dust-up called the Vietnam War, there is one especially heart-tugging and recurring short sequence of connected vignettes of a family trying to stay in touch through the distances caused by Vietnam wartime service that brought back way too many personal memories.

Written by Andrew Dawson, Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle. Directed by Andrew Dawson. Design: Lucian Stecconi (set) Geoff Sobelle (projections) Christal Weatherly (costumes) Randy “Igleu” Glickman (lights) James Sugg (sound) Lance Hayden Kump (photography) Michelle Blair (stage manager). Cast: Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle.

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all wear bowlers
Reviewed April 2 by
Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:25 - no intermission
A stylish serving of slapstick and shtick

A Potomac Stages Pick for a pair of unique theatrical experiences

True to the title, everyone here wears a bowler hat. Even the ushers are wearing bowlers. After all, Laurel and Hardy wore bowlers. Charlie Chaplin's "little tramp" wore a bowler. David Shiner wore a bowler when he clambered over the seats of the audience at Fool Moon. So the aesthetic of René Magritte's paintings of men in bowler hats seems a reasonable basis for an hour or so of physical comedy that blends mime with pratfall and absurdism with a modernistic feeling of angst. Two mostly silent comics literally fall out of their cinematic world and into the theatrical world of the audience in the Mead Theater. They don't quite know what to make of the idea that there are actual people watching them, nor do they know why they have appeared on this stage. But they try to make the best of the situation.

Storyline:   +    +   +     =  a unique comedy

This exercise in physical comedy captures your attention from the git-go. Many designers have struggled to create a blend of live action and film for live performances. The attraction of the concept has seduced creators ever since vaudeville. Rarely has it been done quite as well as it is at the start of this show. However, this team of comics continue the routine just a bit too long. Later, with the iconic gag of the piece - the repeated regurgitation of eggs - they again violate the old magician’s adage that you never repeat a trick when the audience can watch to see how it is done. It isn’t that a great magician doesn't want the audience to figure out how a trick is done. It is that he does not want the audience’s attention distracted from the flow of the show.

Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle make a superb comic duo, with each reacting cleanly and clearly to the bits of the other. They build on each others' conceits as each creates a distinct character. Think of Laurel and Hardy. Each was unique. Oliver Hardy remained Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel was always Stan Laurel, even though they were Laurel&Hardy. They may have blended into a comedy team but neither lost his identity. So Lyford and Sobelle are different from each other even as they become Lyford&Sobelle.

Sobelle is the heavy - not just in terms of girth, but in the way he takes command and demands obedience - even from audience members who have the pleasure, or misfortune (depending on their predilections) to be drafted into the events of the evening. (One female audience member will become a feature in a memorable effect taking the junction of cinema and theater to a higher plane). Lyford is the innocent, naive one who is - a la Stan Laurel - just a bit mischievous as well. Together, they make the audience laugh constantly for 85 ever so full minutes.

Created by Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle. Directed by Aleksandra Wolska. Film by Michael Glass. Film composer Michael Friedman. Design: Ed Haynes (set) Tara Webb (costumes) Randy "Igleu" Glickman (lights) James Sugg (sound) JJ Tizou (photography) Michelle Blair (stage manager). Cast: Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle.

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January 2 - February 10, 2008
The Brothers Size
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:35 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a polished performance of a highly polished, very theatrical three-character play
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for January

2008 starts out strong at Studio as they bring to town the production of a new play by a new playwright that drew praise in New York in 2007. It is a highly theatrical three-character show which is a rarity in that it deals in dramatic fashion with a topic not often treated with such concentration. The topic is brotherly love - not the "Philadelphia is the city of Brotherly love" type of sweeping generalities, but the love that bonds two sons of the same parents. These brothers care for each other in the iron clad way that siblings do even if they don't happen to share similar interests or ambitions. They may have taken different paths into adulthood but each is unalterably connected to the other. As close and intimate as such a topic can be, and as tightly structured as the play is, author Tarell Alvin McCraney reaches for universal themes as well without loosing sight of the familial connection between the brothers with the last name of Size.

Storyline: In a small town near the Bayou in Louisiana, hard working Ogun Size tries to get his younger brother, Oshoosi Size to work with him at his auto repair garage and resist the temptations that had him in the prison from which he has just been released on probation. Oshoosi not only resents the effort to run his life but is rife for the temptations that Elegba, whom he knew in prison, continues to put in his path.

McCraney's play is theatrical in the way that Thornton Wilder's Our Town is theatrical: it never lets you forget that you are watching a play, while, at the same time, drawing you inexorably into the world it creates. With Wilder it was a pair of ladders for a balcony scene and a stage manager as narrator. With McCraney it is a circle of sand on the floor defining the space, and characters voicing their own stage directions. ("Oshoosi enters, breathing heavily" says Brian Tyree Henry at the edge of the stage before entering and breathing heavily.) Such self-conscious theatrical devices can be disastrous in the hands of less skilled authors, but Wilder created a classic when he did it in his mature years. (He was 41 when the play debuted.) McCraney hasn't matured to that level yet, but this effort shows evidence of polishing that is surprising for a twenty-six year old at the start of his career.

Director Tea Alagic stages McCraney's script with clarity and a sense of direct honesty that takes full advantage of its theatrical features, filling the hour and a half with strong visual images but without seeming to stage anything that isn't directly related to the concept as dictated by the author. Her sure touch makes the "work song" bucket dance sequence a virile ballet while the image of the three member cast - each buff torso exposed above simple blue, black or red work pants - kneeling in prayer before they begin the play lasts just long enough to capture the imagination of the audience.

The cast who worked for her when she first staged the play at the Public Theatre of the New York Shakespeare Festival is still together here. Gilbert Owuor is strong and sure as the older brother Ogun, while Brian Tyree Henry is a bit softer and a bit looser but no less intense as the younger brother Oshoosi. Elliot Villar is sinuous and slightly slinky as the tempter Elegba. The names are one more way that McCraney reaches for universal messages, for they are the names of deities from the culture of the Yoruba peoples of western Africa. Dramaturg Danielle Mages Amato's notes in the program attributes these traits to the names: Ogun is "the spirit of iron," Oshoosi is "the wanderer" and Elegba "the trickster."

Written by Terell Alvin McCraney. Directed by Tea Alagic. Design: Peter Ksander (set) Zane Philstrom (costumes) Burke Brown (lights) Jonathan Melville Pratt (composer) Michal Daniel (photography) Barbara Reo (stage manager). Cast: Brian Tyree Henry, Gilbert Owuor, Elliot Villar. Musician: Shaun Kelly.

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November 7 - December 30, 2007
Shining City
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:45 - no intermission
A therapist has more problems than his patient, a widower who is seeing his wife's ghost
Click here to buy the script

Long time Potomac Region veteran Ed Gero and relative newcomer from Canada Donald Carrier provide an immersion into fine acting in an intriguing series of scenes that are tied together more by the quality of the performances than the thread of the story. Three of the five scenes involve Carrier and Gero while two additional scenes involve first Carrier with Lauisa Sexton and then Carrier with Chris Genebach. Each is impressive as well. As a result, the entire just under two hour experience is an opportunity to sit back and watch actors sink their talented teeth into really meaty material. The play is Irish contemporary playwright Conor McPherson's hit from Dublin, London and Broadway which is getting its first local production here. Director Joy Zinoman makes a heck of a show out of it, giving every aspect of the production a sense of heft and quality.

Storyline: A former priest, who left the priesthood to marry, is struggling to establish a practice as a therapist. He has a new patient, a man who has begun to see the ghost of his late wife. With each layer of the patient's story comes an accompanying complication in the therapist's life. He feels he has to break up with the girlfriend whose pregnancy may have been the cause of his leaving the church. Once free of that encumbrance with the opposite sex, he has a further complication with a prostitute of his own gender. Through it all, however, patient and therapist develop a closeness that helps each deal with his problems.

Conor McPherson is a great story teller. He doesn't just dump the whole thing out and let you sort through it to your heart's content. He takes you by the hand (or the scruff of the neck, as the case may be) and directs your attention precisely where he wants it, forcing you to follow his train of thought. When that train is on track, as it was in The Weir, the result is absorbing, compelling and thoroughly satisfying. In this, his latest work to be presented in the Potomac Region, the train is never derailed, but there are times when he leads you off on a siding - a detour that may be fascinating or it may be intriguing, but it isn't precisely directed toward the final resolution.

Carrier's portrayal of the conflicted former priest is well modulated, adding complexities and mannerisms as the script adds details. His performance heats up as the play progresses. Gero, on the other hand, comes on strong from his first moment. His character, after all, is the one already driven to distraction and to seeking therapy. He lets it all out in the first moments, stringing together McPherson's series of false starts, incomplete sentences and more "you knows" per page than any play we've reviewed in a long - you know - time. The strength of Gero's performance and, for that matter, the strength of Gero's character, draws a attention away from Carrier's therapist, leaving the feeling - at least in the early going - that this is Gero's show. But then comes an explosion of emotion from Sexton and an interlude of introspection with Genebach and you realize you have been watching a play about a therapist, not a play about a patient who has a problem with his late wife's ghost.

The high ceiling of the Metheny Theater in Studio's four-theater complex is put to good use with the soaring window-wall of the set providing a view of a painted backdrop of the Dublin skyline at dusk which establishes an atmosphere that is most effective for the ghost-story elements of the story. The contemporary feel is established by the furnishings of the therapist's office and re-enforced by Gil Thompson's sound design featuring guitar-led soft pop music.

Written by Conor McPherson. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Design: Russell Metheny (set) Helen Q. Huang (costumes) Michael Giannitti (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Carol Pratt (photography). Cast: Donald Carrier, Chris Genebach, Edward Gero, Laoisa Sexton.

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September 5 - November 4, 2007
My Children! My Africa!
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:20 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a searing performance by a tremendous cast of three in a uniquely powerful play
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for September and October

Click here to buy the script

OK. Dig out your thesaurus and look up all the clichés for searing: strong, powerful, forceful, intense, passionate, fervent, affecting. All this and more is the experience of coming to know the three people Athol Fugard has created in order to explore the conflict between two responses to the stifling injustice of racial subjugation practiced in his homeland under the Afrikaans word for apartness, "apartheid." It isn't a propaganda piece so much as it is a balanced presentation of the hopes, dreams, fears and frustrations of two people subject to the same injustice but clinging to two very different opinions as to what to do about it. Add the yeast of a young friendship across racial lines to provide wider perspective and a sounding board for the interchange of passionately held ideas. Then trust that material to three fabulous actors under a thoughtful and skilled director. The result is searing in the finest meaning of the word.

Storyline: As resistance to apartheid in South Africa begins to escalate in the 1980s, a teacher in a school for Bantu children sees in one of his students the promise of a better future through talent, education and the power of words. However, that student, a well spoken young man with the skill of a debater, sees only one way toward an acceptable future for his people: resistance to the forced separation of the races that has been the law in his country for thirty years. When a debate contest pits that Bantu student against a white student from a neighboring high school, an equally intelligent young woman, a friendship begins.

History plays have a way of seeming to offer a glimpse of an important moment in the past through a safe lens of time - we can look back and marvel at the challenges of the moment and the responses of individuals while feeling a bit safe and secure on our perch in the future. What, then of a play written not about an historical event long past but written at the time of the event with all the immediacy and uncertainty that great moments in history share? Athol Fugard, a white Afrikaaner, stared history in the face in real time. He wrote this explication of the conflict between two courses of action at the moment that his society was facing that choice. It could have been a diatribe in favor of one or the other. Instead, it is a painfully emotional capturing of the human costs of each and it is delivered with a profound respect for both views.

James Brown-Orleans combines the passion of a teacher for his student's future with his deep commitment to the power of words, of precise and careful communication, and his appreciation of his continent's heritage. Viewing the two students through his eyes feels like a privilege. Veronica del Cerro is charming, chipper and ultimately devastating as the white student whose difficulty comprehending the scope and impact of the forces of society and history which buffet her country helps the audience feel the intensity of those forces. The centerpiece of the play, however, and also the focal point of the cast is Yaegel T. Welch as the young man in whom his teacher sees the promise of the future. As individuals, each is superb. As an ensemble, they are spectacular.

Special note should be made of the impact of the dialect on the experience of this play. It will come as a surprise to many after hearing this play that none of the three members of the cast come from South Africa. Look at their educational listings: University of Maryland, Virginia Tech and Morehouse College/Brandeis University. Dialect coach BettyAnn Leeseberg-Lange may be responsible for the fact that all three speak in a distinctive and distinguishable manner, each just foreign enough to local ears to demand of the audience careful listening but not impenetrable enough to constitute a bar to understanding. It is a fine line which is straddled completely and consistently here which serves the play beautifully. 

Written by Athol Fugard. Directed by Serge Seiden. Design: Debra Booth (set) Reggie Ray (costumes) Harold F. Burgess II (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Jenna Henderson (stage manager). Cast: James Brown-Orleans, Veronica del Cerro, Yaegel T. Welch.

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June 13 - July 29, 2007
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:55 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for an unforgettable evening with a vocalist of no talent but a healthy sense of self worth
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for July 

Click here to buy the script
Click here to buy the CD

We have been fortunate to witness a number of priceless, unforgettable individual performances in our town thus far in the new century. Some have been delivered by Nancy Robinette (Frozen here at Studio, The Rivals at the Shakespeare Theatre Company). Another was J. Fred Shiffman's stint in Cabaret at Arena Stage. Now, add to the list one evening in the hands of both that will remain vivid in your memory for a long, long time. The memory will be a pleasant one because the evening is just so much fun. Don't let anyone tell you this is a musical, however. There are songs and there is the very pleasant piano playing of Shiffman, but there isn't much music in the singing - there isn't supposed to be. For this is the story of a recitalist with zero musical ability - nada, zip, zilch! Oh, but the singer's unshakable faith in her own performances is so strong that she is oblivious to any sign of criticism or rejection. When, at the end, she actually shows a moment of doubt, it is a fleeting one and her recovery, with the aid of her long time accompanist, is total. Total is the proper word here for the evening itself is a total delight.

Storyline: From 1912 to 1944, Florence Foster Jenkins, who had no singing ability whatever (no control of pitch, no sense of rhythm) gave vocal recitals which, in the late thirties became social events in New York, culminating at age 76 in a famous recital at Carnegie Hall which was sold out weeks in advance.

Playwright Stephen Temperley found just the right approach to tell this amazing story. He tells it through the memories of Jenkins' long-time accompanist, a man with the unlikely name of Cosme McMoon. By beginning at their first meeting and following through rehearsals and recitals, he allows us to see McMoon's reactions to the incredible lack of talent he is witnessing first hand. By having McMoon act as storyteller, he lets us experience the development of affection and respect that forms the basis for their long-time association. It isn't, of course, that McMoon begins to think "Madame Flo" really can sing. It is that he comes to admire her indomitable spirit and positive approach to life. We, like McMoon, come to genuinely like this batty lady even as we are convulsed with laughter at her expense. (Just to prove to you that we are not making this up, we've included a link to order the CD of Florence Foster Jenkins' recordings in a package aptly titled "The Glory (????) of the Human Voice.")

What might have turned into a guilty pleasure, a voyeuristic exercise in watching someone make a total fool of herself, is converted into an affectionate and ultimately touching experience through the talents of Robinette. She makes no pretense to musical ability. (Indeed, for the final moment of the play when we are offered a glimpse into Jenkins' own view of her performance, it is a recording of a real vocalist with a beautiful voice.)  Robinette uses her considerable ability to draw the affection of an audience and she makes Jenkins not so much an object of ridicule as a person of admirable character. Shiffman's skill is quite a match for hers and the chemistry between the two performers is a pleasure to behold.

All the design elements are notable in this production. There is a lovely setting that doubles as rehearsal room and recital hall, a succession of delightfully ditsy costumes for Robinette/Jenkins and a lighting design that smoothly signals the differences between the incredible public events, the back-stage rehearsal time and the digressions into McMoon's own memory. What is more, sound designer Gil Thompson adds the sounds of the audience reactions to Jenkins' excesses so subtly that it feels as if you are, in fact, in Carnegie Hall trying with all your might to contain yourself while others are bursting out in laughter. Thompson approaches the line between recreation of the event the play is about - the concert at Carnegie Hall - and the sweetening of audience reactions to the performance of this play itself. I can't say whether he crosses that line because I was laughing too hard to tell.

Written by Stephen Temperley. Directed by Serge Seiden. Vocal consultant: Micaele Sparacino. Design: Luciana Stecconi (set) Reggie Ray (costumes) John Burkland (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Jess W. Speaker III (stage manager). Cast: Nancy Robinette, J. Fred Shiffman.

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May 16 - July 22, 2007
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:20 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for an enormously entertaining, intellectually challenging comedy
Click here to buy the script

Don't ever let anyone say that intellectual material need be dry or dull! Theatergoers know that this is not only not true, it is the opposite of truth. But sometimes you need an example as you argue with those who think "culture" is something to be suffered through. Here's ammunition for your fight. True, every line of Tom Stoppard's rumination on existence is intellectually charged, carefully crafted and freighted with import both surface and subliminal. But it is equally true that every one of those lines is interesting and thought provoking and most of them are also superbly funny. What this play isn't is dull. What it is, is entertaining. The title pair are Raymond Bokhour, who brings just a hint of the "Mr. Celophane" persona from his stint in the Broadway revival of Chicago to the role of the equally semi-substantial Rosencrantz (or is that Guildenstern?) and Liam Craig, with his slightly brittle, constantly questioning facile mind as Guildenstern (or is that Rosencrantz?). They are each and both fun to watch and intriguing to ponder. That is precisely what you want from the pair playing those roles in Stoppard's extended examination of existentialism.

Storyline: Two minor players in the drama of Hamlet spend most of their time offstage wondering just what all the fuss is about. They while away the time with word games and coin tossing but the dark prince and the other characters in Shakespeare's play keep shaking up their world in ways that, while completely consistent with what Shakespeare wrote, make little sense to them with their restricted view of that reality.

Stoppard was a brash twenty-something when his first effort to capture the thoughts of these two minor characters in a major Shakespeare psycho-drama saw the light of day in a workshop for promising new playwrights. He was not yet thirty when the full length version was put up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which gave it the exposure that resulted in a production at Sir Laurence Olivier's Old Vic, and his career was under way. That career has, to date, included such marvels as Indian Ink and The Invention of Love which have been produced here at Studio, the trilogy Coast of Utopia (which premiered as a package on Broadway this year as is now one of the nominees for the Tony Award for Best Play, and films such as Shakespeare in Love. (We won't get involved in the controversy over rumors that he also wrote the screenplay for Star Wars: Episode III.)

"It was merely competent" says "The Player" played at a level so far above merely competent as to make the comment laughable, even if it weren't so in context in Stoppard's script. This player is none other than Floyd King, who hasn't stooped to the level of mere competence in many a year. With his tattered smoking jacket, his pencil thin moustache and a sense of unmatchable insouciance, he lifts the production with each entrance. His "troupe" is a marvelously choreographed moving entity with only one of the members actually establishing a personality of his own: Miles Butler as the ever changeable prize "Alfredo." Major players from the world of Shakespeare's play who pass through this off-stage are more distinctly drawn by Dan Mannning (the usurping King Claudius) Maura McGinn (his wife Gertrude) and most specifically Marshall Elliot as a dashing Prince Hamlet himself.

Daniel Conway's slate-grey forced perspective set makes Elsinore's ramparts resemble a condo - which fits with Alex Jaeger's slightly British twentieth century costuming that highlights the Laurel and Hardiness of the title pair with bowler hats and trench coats. The performance is in the Mead where the front of the playing surface is the floor of the audience, allowing the boundary between audience and performance to be blurred at times and broken at others. When Bokhour's Guildenstern walks up the aisle and pronounces the view from the audience to be particularly unimpressive, he's wrong. He just didn't stay long enough to discover the joys of a truly entertaining, intellectually satisfying production. 

Written by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Kirk Jackson. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Alex Jaeger (costumes) Michael Philippi (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) John Keith Hall (stage manager). Cast: McKenzie Bowling, Raymond Bokhour, Miles Butler, Marshall Elliot, Liam Craig, Theo Hadjimichael, Dan Istrate, Floyd King, Tim Lueke, Dan Manning, Maura McGinn, Kevin Sockwell, Nick Stevens.

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March 14 - April 29, 2007
The Pillowman
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:35 - one intermission
A harrowing descent into simultaneous horror and humor
Click here to buy the script

There are so many plot twists and surprises in Martin McDonagh's dark and troubling horror story, spiced with even darker humor, that it is difficult to discuss the play at any depth without giving away too much. There are special thrills of discovery to be had that would be diminished by premature revelation. Still, since readers presumably came to this page in part to find out just what it is that Studio Theatre is offering for  $39 to $55 a seat, we need to assure those who would seek this combination of the chills of horror stories, the shudder of cautionary tales of police brutality in a dictatorship, and the nervous release of tension through laughter, that this production delivers every shiver and not a few nervous titters in just about the most polished presentation imaginable. Joy Zinoman  directs a superb cast - at least the four leads are superb. The script doesn't really give much for the other four cast members to do but be on display in the stories within the play. Ah, but the four leads - they are marvelous.

Storyline: In a totalitarian police state, a young man who writes horror stories is taken into custody and interrogated by policemen who seem to be investigating cases of crimes that resemble his stories. Has he been acting his own stories out? Has someone else been doing it? Complicating things for the young man is his fear that they may have also arrested his brother, a slightly retarded young man who may or may not have something to do with the case(s).

The dramaturg's program notes tell us that Martin McDonagh wrote these stories as just that - stories. They were not conceived as part of a play. The play came later. Its structure is essentially that of a revue with stories instead of sketches and songs. Like many great revues of the past, there is an over-arching theme tying them together in a story of its own. In most revue's however, it is the songs, sketches and scenes that are the strength. Here, it is that central story that is the strength. The ten stories which are either played out, read or alluded to during the evening are of less consequence than the fate of the writer and his brother at the hands of a good cop/bad cop team. Indeed, the few stories that are played out behind the main set are unnecessary distractions. They have a Stephen King-ish fascination all their own, but they don't add a great deal more to the central story than those stories which are read or described within the confines of the police station. It's the story in the station that really matters.

Tom Story plays the writer with a fine feel for both the dread his character experiences under interrogation and the humor he tries to use to manage his dire situation. Aaron Muñoz is touching and often refreshing as the brother who relies on him for, well, everything. The two of them bond deliciously. They are but one of two really impressive teams. Denis Arndt and Hugh Nees are every bit as effective as the cops. Arndt's "good" cop uses a peculiarly hard-boiled brand of humor as an interrogation technique. Nees' "bad" cop is much deeper a character than it seems at first, and his big speech in the second act is a joy to watch for those who have enjoyed his growth as an actor in recent years. As if this were some kind of demented challenge dance, Arndt then has an equally impressive big speech in act two. Just who tops whom is debatable.

Debra Booth's main set is the interior of the police station and it is an imposing, troubling presence with its resonance reinforced by Gil Thompson's sound effect of resounding echoes that accompanies each slamming of the single steel door that may be the opening to freedom or perhaps the pathway to execution. The music by Michael Gallant (not to be confused with the fictional character on ER) is as distinctive as was the music he composed for Studio's Far Away. Indeed, it seems to transition from an almost Disney movie score mode into something more like a Maurice Jarre suspense soundtrack.

Written by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Design: Debra Booth (set) Helen Huang (costumes) Michael Giannitti (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Michael Gallant (music) Danielle Mages Amato (dramaturg) Carol Pratt (photography) Serge Seiden (stage manager). Cast: Denis Arndt, Zachary Fadler, Meghan Fay, Julie Garner, Aaron Muñoz, Hugh Nees, Tom Story, Aaron Tone.

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February 7 - March 11, 2007
The Passion of the Crawford
Reviewed by William Bryan

Running time 1:50 - no intermission
A glib examination of honesty with three bright performances

Very good and very bizarre both equally describe this one hour of lip syncing madness from the mind of John Epperson and the life of Joan Crawford. If you loved Joan Crawford then this is the show for you, for Lypsinka (aka John Epperson) fully embodies the role and persona of the bigger than life star. Performed in traditional Lypsinka style, the show is a series of recordings of Joan - giving interviews, reading a poem, or other moments - clipped and spliced together.  Lypsinka impersonates the famous actress far beyond what is normally thought of as lip syncing, fully becoming her (his?) character. Joan was a proud woman, and a strange one, as shown by Faye Dunaway so powerfully in the movie classic Mommie Dearest, and this comes through with a climatic ending to a surreal trip through the life of this famous star. Staged in the Milton Theater with its arc of seats, the staging, lighting, effects and applause take the audience back in time to relive moments of a bygone era.

Storyline:  Lypsinka (also known as John Epperson) returns in this one hour look at the powerful life of Joan Crawford.

True to form, Lypsinka, now in her 25th year of performances, has fully developed the presence of the fabled Crawford. To appreciate this achievement, it must be remembered that Joan started as a dancer, became famous in silent pictures, survived into talkies and went on to surpass Betty Davis as the most famous starlet of her time. Taking on this role, as with the role of any powerful figure, can set up expectations that run higher than ability can support. Fortunately this is not the case with The Passion of the Crawford. Add in the complexity that Lypsinka herself is a creation, played by a man, and the achievement of presence that Epperson exudes is truly phenomenal.

Still, this is a trying show. Joan Crawford died in 1977. Many of the younger crowd in the audience seemed to be out of touch with the performance they were seeing. One remark after it was over summed up the situation well, “If I knew anything about Joan Crawford I probably would have liked that much more.” Epperson as Lypsinka as Joan does well, but the premise of the show - little snippets of her life that could be culled from various recordings - is not meant for the uninformed or non-Joan Crawford fan. Choices of cuts from interview to flashback throughout the show also throw off any learning that might occur/ They drag the viewer along for the ride, often leaving the departure and the destination as unknown places. It would be interesting to see a full biographical play set around Joan’s life with Lypsinka in the role, if only to fully appreciate the depth of understanding John Epperson has for his mark.

Steve Cuiffo plays the interviewer and announcer throughout the show. Just like Epperson, he "merely" lip syncs to the prerecorded voice. But he is just as engaging and convincing as is she/he. The interviewer’s obvious infatuation with Crawford and the effect of her presence on him come across throughout the show. Thank goodness for the laughs this provides to what could otherwise have felt like an hour in the twilight zone for those who no longer have the interest or patience to sit through an interview that is three decades old. Finally, the costume work of Ramona Pence is impeccable, perfectly capturing the glamour that was the Queen of Hollywood.

Created by John Epperson. Directed by Kevin Maloney. Design: Luciana Steccona (set), Catherine Eliot (lights), Gil Thompson (sound) Ramona Pence (costumes), Cassandra Domser (stage manager). Cast: John Epperson, Steve Cuiffo.

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January 3 - February 11, 2007
This Is How It Goes

Running time 1:50 - no intermission
A glib examination of honesty with three bright performances
Click here to buy the script

After the success of The Shape of Things in 2002 and Fat Pig in 2006, Studio returns to the work of Neil LaBute for a play about an interracial love triangle. LaBute is well known for facile dialogue and intriguing plotting, and for boldly breaking taboos. Here he proves that two out of three ain't too bad. The piece abounds with facility with three characters each given a unique voice, and exchanges that exude wit, humor and/or emotion as the situation demands. It also is plotted in such an interesting way that it holds your attention throughout its nearly two hour run as you constantly try to figure out just where this thing might be going. Its in that "boldly go where no man has gone before" tradition of LaBute's taboo tackling that the piece falters. At first he seems to be aiming his sights on the rules against telling untruths - but that rule doesn't have any strength to it at all, at least not since George Washington's "I cannot tell a lie." So how can breaking the rule be shocking or even out of the ordinary? Later on in the play, he throws in hate speech. Is this the taboo he's trying to break? If so, it comes across feeling as if the issue is an afterthought thrown in because the morning papers are reporting that Mel Gibson has gone off the deep end about Jews or YouTube has video of Michael Richards' diatribe about African-Americans. If that is it, it is too little, too late.

Storyline: An "unreliable narrator" relates the tale of his return to the town where he attended high school, and his developing re-involvement in the lives of two of his classmates who advanced from bi-racial high school sweethearts to married parents. In telling the tale, he takes various excursions and digressions, introducing complications, retracting inconvenient details and even revising events after they have been played out before our eyes.

LaBute's trademark glib sense of humor serves him and his audience well, especially in the early portions of the play. As Eric Feldman takes the stage to narrate/participate in his version of events, he addresses the audience directly, telling us right up front that he may stretch or alter the truth from time to time and that he only has access to one side of a multi-sided situation. Feldman is an extremely attractive presence, which is a good thing since he soon has to share the stage with a very attractive couple.

Anne Bowles, who was so gorgeous as the girl friend with the slender sexy body who couldn't believe she was being dumped in favor of a super-sized rival in LaBute's Fat Pig, again brightens the stage while struggling with some of LaBute's lines that impose worn out "Valley Girl" mannerisms on this mid-western young wife and mother. (He has fun with over-use of "you know" just one or two times too often). Benton Greene makes a notable Potomac Region debut as her husband, the former high school jock now a successful businessman, who is described as "rich and black and different." All three hold the stage in the intimate Mead Theater with assurance. There is a fourth member of the cast who goes uncredited (the same thing happened last year at this same theater when Shawn Helm went uncredited as the guard in Frozen just because it was a part with no lines. If Synetic Theater didn't credit parts with no words, sometimes there'd be no credits at all!) This time it is a woman who makes multiple passes across the stage as a waitress ignoring the party who want to order their meal. She may not contribute a word but she could well kill the scene if she didn't do her part with assurance. She deserves credit.

Director Paul Mullins, who handled Fat Pig with such a sure hand, returns to Studio and to the work of LaBute, and again makes the most of the material. It isn't his fault that the text itself hasn't got the impact of the earlier effort. He gives it every chance to succeed and his casting choices and selection of a design team certainly gave him all the tools he needed. The elegantly bare set is brought to life with some marvelous projections. The lighting manages to create different feelings for different environments (warmth for a backyard barbecue, utilitarian brightness for an indoor mall) while not bleeding over to wash out the projections. The costumes are spot on for middle-America, upper-middle-class chic, and there is a subtle but somewhat overused effect in the sound design when Feldman switches from being the narrator to being a character in scenes with the rest of the cast - the sound of the noises in the mall or the birds chirping in the trees either begins or ends with a swoosh as if it were on a tape starting or stopping, as the case may be.

Written by Neil LaBute. Directed by Paul Mullins. Design: Debra Booth (set) Kate Turner-Walker (costumes) Michael Chybowski (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Rebecca Berlin (stage manager). Cast: Anne Bowles, Eric Feldman, Benton Greene.

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November 15 - December 31, 2006
The Long Christmas Ride Home
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 1:35 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a unique
 theatrical experience
v Sexual themes treated frankly
Click here to buy the script

Paula Vogel uses live actors, puppetry, projections and Japanese shamisen music in her story of a family whose ride to grandmother's house for Christmas isn't a particular joy, but whose ride home is an unmitigated disaster. Director Serge Seiden assembles all those elements with a deft touch that creates a spell from the first moment that musician Sumie Kaneko enters in unhurried formality, makes eye contact with the audience, bows and takes her place on a mat at the side of the stage. As each player enters, he or she too acknowledges that this is a play, a theatrical event. They take a deep breath, let it out and begin. Ah, but that breath is more than just a gesture. It is a part of the story, a plot point and the key to the final image of the play. That symmetry, connecting first to last and tying elements together, is the essence of the show which uses classical Japanese theatrical traditions of bunruku and noh to tell a distinctly modern American story, a story drawn from both the family history of the author and the plays of Thornton Wilder. (Even the title is a bit of homage to Wilder whose 1931 short play The Long Christmas Party viewed the impact of holiday events on family ties.)

Storyline: A flare-up among the adults in the front seat of the family car marks the lives of the children in the backseat on one cold ride to visit to their grandparents' house at Christmas. The event and its ramifications are viewed by the adults those children grew up to be, as one - the son who died of AIDS - returns to earth to re-visit his earthly past and his family - and to take one more breath of life.

Author Paula Vogel may well draw from many sources for this short but intense piece, but it bears a striking similarity to more than just Thornton Wilder and Noh and Bunruku. It bears a similarity to her own best known piece, her Pulitzer Prize winning How I Learned to Drive. That play too begins with such a wholesome, positive feel, uses humor and the accumulation of tiny details to bring its characters to life, and only then reveals its troubling aspects after the audience has come to care about each of the people in the story. Here the theatricality of the presentation style adds to the richness. That theatricality could well overwhelm the slender thread of the story, however, were it not for Seiden's success at keeping the elements in balance.

Kevin Bergen is captivating as the son whose story this really is. Both Kate Debelack and Tonya Beckman Ross imbue the sisters with individuality. The puppets of Aaron Cromie are manipulated by a team of black clad puppeteers along with Bergen, Debelack and Ross, each doing the principal handling of the puppet of their character in childhood. The grownups, mother Laura Giannarelli and father Paul L. Nolan, are exceptionally strong even though neither has a puppet-self which would amplify their traits. Bobby Smith, however, has the problem that he must double up on roles (he plays a preacher in the "Rockville Universalist Unitarian Church" who shares his slides of Japanese woodblock art with his congregation, as well as a dancer in the gay world of San Francisco). He tries a bit too hard to draw distinctions between the characters.

Daniel Conway has provided a great set for the space in the new Methany Theatre. Or is it that the new Methany Theater is a great space for this set? There's a fine blend between the two with the spare, geometric ambiance of the theater and the even sparer assembly of geometric shapes that Conway places on the stage - an oval platform before a grid with paper panels under a roofline reminiscent of a Japanese woodcut of a winter shelter. Behind it all, a ramp slopes down from either side, completing the geometric balance of simple, interlocking spaces.

Written by Paula Vogel. Directed by Serge Seiden. Original music composed and performed by Sumie Kaneko. Choreographed by Dana Tai Soon Burgess. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Devon Painter (costumes) Aaron Cromie (puppets) Michael Giannitti (lights) Erik Trester (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) David Elias (stage manager). Cast: Kevin Bergen, Kate Debelack, Laura Giannarelli, Paul L. Nolan, Tonya Beckman Ross, Bobby Smith; and puppeteers Emmy Bean, Courtney Bell, Lucas Maloney, Betsy Rosen, Ben Russo and Michael C. Wilson.

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September 6 - October 29, 2006
Red Light Winter

Running time 2:40 - one intermission
A strong performance in the lead role of a disturbing play
v Includes nudity and violent and sexual activity 
Click here to buy the script

Adam Rapp's tragic drama was nominated for both the Obie award for Off-Broadway play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, so it should not be surprising that there are both effective scenes and individual lines of dialogue so highly polished you almost want a pause button so you can stop and contemplate a thought here or a well turned phrase there. Without such a button, however, the performance moves right along and one has to try to keep up. Its a struggle, for the plot is convoluted and often contrived and the progress of the relationship between the characters is often inconsistent or unbelievable. Joy Zinoman gives the play every opportunity to succeed with a spirited, in-your-face production that is alternately fascinating and repulsive - just as it is supposed to be. She gives an impressive new actor, Jason Fleitz, his first exposure here after having been the understudy for the lead in the play's world premiere and a standby in the play's New York production. 

Storyline: An introverted would-be playwright and an extroverted publisher who were best buddies in college share a hostel room in Amsterdam during a European vacation. The publisher buys the services of a prostitute for his introverted friend, perhaps in part to make amends for having taken his girlfriend from him years ago. The introvert falls for the prostitute but she falls for his friend. A year later the prostitute shows up in the playwright's apartment in New York looking for his friend. The strange triangle gets even stranger when a strain of HIV is added to the mix.

Fleitz gives an impressive performance as the introvert. It is a subtle mixture of mannerisms and movements, but the thing that makes the performance as compelling as it is is his ability to establish eye contact with his fellow actors and to focus his attention on their words in between his own lines. Regina Aquino has some fine moments as the trans-Atlantic prostitute. Her part is so broad in scope but so shallow in development that it sort of defeats her efforts to bring it to life. William Peden is suitably detestable as the extrovert, who, by his own admission, is "not a nice person." Just why the introvert would be traveling with such a self-centered supposed "friend" who not only has done in wrong in the past but continues to belittle him in the present is never quite clear. You won't like him, but your not supposed to.

Kater Turner-Walker's costumes, her red dress for Aquino, stretched-out undershirt and battered jeans for Fleitz and more costly but still "with it" youth attire for Peden are spot-on for each of the three characters. Debra Booth's attractive set violates a key rule of a thrust stage such as Studio has in the Mead. With the audience on three sides, the sightlines are obscured for those on the extreme house left. They can't see the window through which Aquino takes her final, plot-important action. Readers may want to spend the extra five to nine dollars that seats in the center section and orchestra cost for this show.

A note about notes: Studio Theater has a tradition of providing helpful information in the programs which are passed out to the audience members as they arrive. These programs have not been limited to credits and bio blurbs on cast and creative team members. Often, when the play calls for it, the programs provide information on the period in which the play is set, the references which might otherwise be obscure and even some appreciative background on the playwright. It would be good if they did more of this. In this program, for the first play of the new season, the appreciative backgrounder on the playwright, while a bit like a press release, is fairly informative as to Mr. Rapp's career to date and the dramaturg's notes seem more an evaluation of the play than an aide to getting the most out of the experience. There's no information on Amsterdam and its drug policies and red light district nor of Manhattan's East Village for those less familiar with the milieu of the play. Perhaps the rest of the programs for the season will revert to the more informative, helpful format of years past.

Written by Adam Rapp. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Design: Debra Booth (set) Kate Turner-Walker (costumes) Jeavon Greenwood (properties) Michael Giannitti (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Keri Schultz (stage manager). Cast: Regina Aquino, Jason Fleitz, William Peden.

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May 17 - July 23, 2006
Caroline, or Change

Reviewed May 21
Running time 2:30 - one intermission
Potomac Region premiere of the 2004 musical
Click here to buy the CD

Symbolism can add depth and texture to a rich story, or it can overwhelm a simple tale. Here, the story and the morals it offers are dealt a body blow by symbols which, depending on how one interprets the tale, highlight its shallowness or trivialize its depth. So simple on its surface, but so obviously intended to be the bearer of important comments on human relations, the plot is too flimsy to support singing washing machines or crooning busses. Singing inanimate objects are no stranger to the musical stage - vocalizing teapots work for Beauty and the Beast where charm and razzmatazz are required to keep the attention of the little ones. Here, however, the intended audience is mature and intellectually discriminating, so the writing of songs for the washing machine, the dryer and the bus belittle a gentle piece of nostalgia. Studio's new production is nearly as solid and impressive as was the one that ran for a four month run on Broadway, but its cast isn't quite as strong as was the original.

Storyline: The black housekeeper in a white Louisiana home in 1963 has troubles of her own with one son away in Vietnam, a rebellious teenage daughter and two younger boys who are not above a bit of mischief. She spends most of her day not at home with her family, but in the basement of her employer washing their clothes, listening to the popular rhythm and blues on the radio and enjoying the one cigarette she allows herself each day. Things aren't without problems for the family of the house either. The father has recently been widowed and has remarried but he's still hurt and withdrawn. The in-laws are squabbling, his son isn't taking to his new stepmother and she, fresh from northern climes, wants the maid to call her by her first name. Her approach to discipline for the son is to tell Caroline she can keep whatever change she finds in the boy's pockets in the wash.

In its debut production in New York the reaction was split. There were raves from some reviewers and many Tony nominations driven by initial buzz (it opened just prior to the Tony Award eligibility cut off). There were also some dissenters (including Potomac Stages - click here to read our review of the Broadway production, but be aware that the opinion found there is practically identical to the one found here). Ultimately, it was a financial loss after a short run of just 136 performances. Expectations had been sky high for the first musical by Tony Kushner with music by Jeanine Tesori, fresh from her success with Thoroughly Modern Millie. And, devotees of Angels in America knew just how skillfully Kushner can weave multiple storylines together. There certainly are enough storylines here to keep him hopping, with two families full of humanly imperfect people. So who needed the washing machine to break into song?  But ultimately it wasn't just the potential silliness of some of the flights of fancy wrapped as symbols, it was the shallowness of some of  the characterizations. Despite the fact that they represent people caught up in a complex time of social upheaval, as written the people in this house are as one dimensional as the singing machines.

On Broadway some of that shallowness was disguised by a searing performance in the role of Caroline that is not really matched here at Studio. Julia Nixon starts off strong with a great sense of soul-drained weariness as the maid with a world of problems of her own. Her sense of fatigue and lost hope is palpable and carries the performance all the way to the final aria when, inexplicably, she seems to sing the music marvelously but miss the drama that the show has been building to for over two hours. Rockville sixth grader Max Talisman makes his professional debut as the young man who can never seem to remember to remove the change from his pockets. He sings clearly and is un-self-conscious on stage. There are fine performances from Trisha Jeffrey as Caroline's teenage daughter, Bobby Smith as the clarinet playing father of the house and most particularly from Elmore James whose deep blues bass fills the Methany Theatre with glorious sound without the aid of artificial amplification.

That decision to go without amplification is to be applauded and it is a joy to hear much of the nearly-sung-through score delivered acoustically. (As "The Moon" Allison Blackwell is mic'd but it is clearly for the purpose of adding reverberation to give the moon an ethereal sound, not to amplify her hall-filling voice.) An off stage orchestra handles the effective orchestrations, reduced significantly from the original to simply six including two keyboards. The cello of Aaron Rider is called upon to provide the richness that four string players brought to Broadway. The placement of the players off stage, and whatever baffles have been installed in their space, works very well to strike the balance needed between instruments and vocalists. What is more, without the sound coming from speakers you can actually follow a voice from one side of the stage to the other - something that seems to always be missing in musicals on the "Great White Way" these days.

Book and lyrics by Tony Kushner. Music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by Greg Ganakas. Music direction by Howard Breitbart. Design: Debra Booth (set) Alex Jaeger (costumes) Kirk Bookman (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Karen Storms (stage manager). Cast: Allison Blackwell, Zachary Carson Blumenstein, Kearstin Piper Brown, Ilona Dulaski, Elmore James, Trisha Jeffrey, Kameron Lamar, Otts Laupus, Julie Nixon, Omoro Omoighe, Monique Paulwell, Kelly J. Rucker, Jim Scopeletis, Bobby Smith, Tia Speros, Max Talisman.

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March 8 - April 15, 2006
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Reviewed March 12
Running time 2:25 - one intermission
A strong enactment of the famous novel
v Includes brief nudity
Click here to buy the novel
Click here to buy the script

Sarah Marshall nails the most important single scene in this strong drama, earning her the right to stand beside Joe Caldwell who won a Tony in the role in 1968 and Maggie Smith who won an Oscar for the 1970 movie. The trite rejoinder "You can't fire me - I quit" has tempted many who have been called on the carpet by their employer. Not Miss Brodie in the searing portrait Marshall creates. No, her response to the criticism of the headmistress of the school where she teaches impressionable young women is: "You can't fire me - and if you try, I'll sue the pants off of you!" There are moments in the rest of the show when Marshall's portrayal of the Scottish schoolmarm isn't rock solid. She may even be a bit too impish for the part. But when she gets to this, a crucial moment, she hits it with a strength that is to be savored. Unfortunately, from where this reviewer was seated, her other big scene was not visible because director Joy Zinoman inexplicably blocked the moment with a student standing in front of Marshall's Brodie, obscuring the view for a major segment of the audience.

Storyline: In the early 1930s a Scottish school teacher dedicated to her students tries to mold them in her own concept of enlightened womanhood. Her version of art, truth and beauty is not universally accepted, however, and her dalliance with the school's art and music teachers get her into trouble. Her refusal to compromise her values deepen the trouble.

Everyone who ever attended school has a memory of one particular teacher who had more impact on him or her than all the others. This is the essence of the relationship of Marshall's Miss Jean Brodie to the students in her charge. She's that special, one-of-a-kind teacher. She's a free thinker who values curiosity, individuality and intellectual discipline. In the early 1930s, long before the revelations of the excesses of fascism, she is enamored with the rule of Italy's Benito Mussolini. She takes sides in the Spanish civil war, and can't hold her tongue when it comes to opinions of the Roman Catholic Church. Her era was one of transition from a stilted past to what today would be called more liberated. In her day, women who pursued a career in teaching had to sacrifice the right to marriage - if they did marry, they were required by law to resign. The stress between professional and personal satisfaction as a teacher and the temptation to form close adult relationships with men their own age is at the crux of the play.

Zinoman's production is elegant in its set, costumes, lighting and sound. Erik Trester provides projections which turn the set into a number of different locales through a design that is admirable for its restraint. Rarely does he succumb to the temptation to use an unnecessary projection just because the equipment is available. Actor Richard Stirling, who plays the music teacher, is uncredited as musical director for the production, but he is said to have worked closely with Zinoman to select just the right pieces in what turns out to be a highly musical show with the student's music lessons and singing in church setting a lovely tone. Both Stirling and David Adkins, as the school's art teacher, provide a touch of male presence in an otherwise powerfully feminine cast. Catherine Flye is sharp as the easy-to-despise headmistress and Sarah Grace Wilson, Elizabeth Chomko and the other students create distinct individuals.

As strong as the script is, and as impressive as is the staging, there are moments in the play that make you wonder just what Zinoman is doing. With a play requiring the cast to speak in a brogue foreign to the ears of the local audience, she chooses to complicate the task of those listening intently by introducing a strange reverberation in the sound system for a key scene. She blocks a number of scenes in such a way that significant portions of the audience can't see key events. Two portraits play an important part in the drama. From the right side of the house, both portraits are visible to the audience. From the left side, however, neither portrait can be seen. One director might chose to let the audience see the portraits and another might chose to keep them hidden. It is hard to understand, however, just why half of the audience should see them and half not.

Written by Jay Presson Allen based on the novel by Muriel Spark. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Alex Jaeger (costumes) Erik Trester (projections) Gil Thompson (sound) Elizabeth van den Berg (dialect coach) Scott Suchman (photography) Susie Pamudji (stage manager). Cast: David Adkins, Fiona Blackshaw, Elizabeth Chomko, Mary C. Davis, Meghan Fay, Sarah Fischer, Catherine Flye, Talisa Friedman, Caroline Gotschall, Simone Grossman, Rose McConnell, Sarah Marshall, Mackenzie Jo Pardi, Darcy Pommerening, Elizabeth H. Richards, Richard Stirling, Ellen Warner, Sarah Grace Wilson.

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January 4 - April 9, 2006
Fat Pig

Reviewed January 8
Running time1:40 - no intermission
A touching exploration of attitudes about body image
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award for January

Click here to buy the script

After the success of Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things in 2002, Studio mounts a festival of his works beginning with this emotionally involving play which begins as a comedy and ends as a gripping emotional drama. Director Paul Mullins allows the play to progress from comedy to drama in easy steps, never forcing it to its dramatic side before the text is ready for the transition. As a result, the impact of the final scene is as touching as its author intended it to be. LaBute pulls no punches in this climax, and neither do Mullins and his cast.

Storyline: Young upwardly mobile professional meets, and enjoys the company of a young woman of extremely large proportions. They fall in love. Can their attraction survive the disapproval of his friends and colleagues? More to the point, can it survive his concern over their reaction?

The play poses a major challenge to a casting director. Where to find an actress with the talent to pull off such a complex role who has the physical proportions to make it work. A fat suit isn't an option as LaBute, perhaps for that very reason, writes the climax in a beach scene requiring maximum exposure. Studio solves the problem with a local actress of impressive skills, Kate Debelack, who has previously been seen here both in full Studio productions and in the developmental/experimental Secondstage as well as Cherry Red, MetroStage and Project Y. The piece is obviously an opportunity for her to dominate, and while she does a fine job of bringing the hefty Helen to life, hers is not the strongest performance. That distinction goes to Tyler Pierce as the slender, trendy yuppie who falls in love with her. His final confrontation with his own limitations is the crux of the play and he soars in its delivery.

LaBute writes fabulously deliverable dialogue with the pace and pattern of the patter of intelligent, educated people who are comfortable with the spoken word, yet each character has a distinct voice of his or her own. Many of the sharpest lines in this play belong to the two friends whose reactions to the affair are at the crux of the matter. Jason Odell Williams knocks off one liners with aplomb, but is really at his best when he reveals just a touch of inner angst as his character discusses his relationship with his overweight mother. Anne Bowels throws a few blows of her own, including one memorable upper cut.

Once again, the team of set, lights and sound designers who created the slick, believable and striking world in which LaBute's The Shape of Things transpired here three years ago manage to give a play with multiple locales a unified look. From office to apartment to restaurant, this is the world of young professionals in today's business scene. Only in the final locale, a beach scene, does the visual aspect falter for a bit. With characters reclining on beach towels laid out on the carpet, the audience squirms to adjust their sight lines between the heads in front of them in this shallowly raked house. The final, crucial moments of the play bring that squirming to an end, however, as the tears in the eyes of both performers capture and hold the audience's attention in the collective experience that only the best of live theatre can provide.

Written by Neil LaBute. Directed by Paul Mullins. Design: Debra Booth (set) Kate Turner-Walker (costumes) Michael Giannitti (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Rebecca Berlin (stage manager). Cast: Anne Bowles, Kate Debelack, Tyler Pierce, Jason Odell Williams.

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November 2 - December 11, 2005
Guantanamo: "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom"

Reviewed November 6
Running time 2:05 - one intermission
A troubling look at the fate of four detainees

Click here to buy the script

It was a quiet crowd that filed out of Studio's Milton Theatre following the harrowing experience of this unblinking presentation by two British authors of the result of their research into the story of four of the prisoners/detainees who have been held at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay following the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the launching of the concerted war on terror. The crowd had just come to know these four people as human beings, and been exposed to the pain they and their families have felt over years of incarceration. Fine performances, a striking visual design and the unblinking direction of Serge Seiden made the experience extremely uncomfortable. The lack of a curtain call drove home the message of the play .  .  . time continues to tick away for the one out of the four who has not yet been released from confinement.

Storyline: Constructed from letters, interviews and the public record, the stories of four British residents, apprehended in various countries in the wake of 9/11 and incarcerated at Guantanamo, are told without any real defense of the position of the government that has held them for over two years and continues to hold one without charge.

What is the dividing line between exposé and propaganda? Is it in the eye of the beholder who asks "is this in service of a cause I agree with?" Or is it in the work itself which satisfies the test "does this reveal a reality previously unexamined?" The program notes for this production liken this play to The Laramie Project, which explored a heinous hate crime. Unlike that balanced presentation, however, which sought to understand not only what happened but how it could happen, this one-sided look at an on-going situation stakes out its position and sticks with it. If you are looking for a balanced examination of all sides of this contemporary issue, look elsewhere.

Harsh Nayyar's portrayal of the pain of the father of a prisoner held without charge, Andrew Stewart-Jones personification of the pride of Jamal al-Harith, and Omar Koury's depiction of the plight of a prisoner released without his brother who is still at Guantanamo, bring the despair of the prisoner/detainees and their families into vibrant clarity. What is missing is any intellectually defensible portrayal of those who perpetrate these acts in the name of national security. For a moment it appears that the authors will deal with the complexity of the issues when the brother of a victim of the attack on the World Trade Center takes the stage, but he ends up rejecting the policy which allows these incarcerations. Then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - as performed by Leo Erickson - takes the microphone. But, unlike The Laramie Project, which sought and presented the views of both sides, this slice of administration policy is selected from particularly incoherent responses at a press conference, and not from any clear statement justifying the policy.

Gil Thompson pulls a nifty effect on the sound quality for the opening announcement by Lord Johan van Zyl Styn (Leo Erickson, again) of the policy of Her Majesty's government supporting the incarceration. It is delivered in a flat, obviously amplified PA system feel. Later, the position of family members is given soft, full-spectrum sonic richness. Giorgos Tsappas provides a chain link and bare bunk environment which may be more sterile than reality, but no less troubling. This isn't a place where you would want to spend years, which is, after all, the authors' entire point.

Written by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo. Directed by Serge Seiden. Design: Giorgos Tsappas (set) Reggie Ray (costumes) Michael Giannitti (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Susie Pamudji (stage manager). Cast: Leo Erickson, Yvonne Erickson, Kaveh Haerian,  Nafees Hamid, David Bryan Jackson, Omar Koury, John-Michael MacDonald, Ramiz Monsef, Harsh Nayyar, Andrew Stewart-Jones, Dikran Tulaine.

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October 5 - 23, 2005

Reviewed October 9
Running time 1:30 - no intermission
A stylish mounting of a disappointing play
 on an intriguing issue

Click here to buy the script
(in a different translation)

There's an intriguing play hiding in the issue being raised in French-Senegalese author Marie Ndiaye's play. After all, theater excels as a medium to examine the connections or distinctions between human conditions. Ndiaye seems interested in exploring the similarities and differences between economic servitude and that outlawed horror, chattel slavery. But her approach to the topic here is so blunt that there is little opportunity to view it in human terms. Bad starts out bad and stays that way. Weak starts out helpless and gets weaker. And the real victim never even shows up. Studio is presenting the play in a production directed by Carey Perloff, of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, which is slated to transfer from Studio directly to an Off-Broadway house called 59E59 at 59 East 59th Street in New York. The three member cast will transfer with the show for a one month run where the ticket price will be $45 (as opposed to $32 - $52 here.)

Storyline: A wealthy woman wants to own a servant - not simply employ one. Her need for control and submission is complete and she manages to destroy her new maid's life in order to remove any competition for complete loyalty: home, husband, children.

As written, the inappropriate, unacceptable and excessive position of the homeowner who wants to become a servant owner is plain from the opening scene rather than becoming clear little by little over the course of the evening. What is more, that should be as clear to the maid's husband as it is to the audience and yet he seems inexplicably powerless to just say no. We never actually see the woman she has decided to obtain. All the negotiations over the terms of "employment," which are laden with layers of manipulation, are with the poor maid's husband. How he could have agreed to some of the demands and how his wife could have consented to abide by his capitulation is never made either clear or believable.

Still, there is an enjoyable performance here in the work of Ellen Karas as the employer/owner/manipulator/controller. She's cool and calculating, but, as with many forms of evil, it is hard to take your eyes off her. Michael Earle has the unenviable task of trying to make the husband of the maid  human, and, while he can't quite make his decisions understandable, he makes his pain over their consequences palpable. He has one moment staring over the audience's heads to see his no-longer-available wife that is memorably intense.

Stylish is the term for the visual impact of the production. Donald Eastman designed a stark all-white set dominated by a staircase coming down from the flies without banister or carpet runner - a pure geometric construct. The white rear wall is a cloth drop rather than a solid surface, however, and distractingly ripples whenever an actor walks near it. Nancy Schertler's lights and shadows signal that different scenes take place in different locations and David F. Draper's costumes give Karas a chromatic dominance to match her characters' emotional dominance. David Lang takes the few lines in the dialogue about mechanical music box dolls as the cue for a tinkling musical score.

Written by Marie Ndiaye. Translated by Erika Rundle. Directed by Carey Perloff. Design: Donald Eastman (set) David F. Draper (costumes) Nancy Schertler (lights) David Lang (original music) Carol Pratt (photography) Karen Storms (stage manager). Cast: Brandy Burre, Michael Earle, Ellen Karas. 

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September 7 - October 16, 2005
A Number

Reviewed September 11
Running time 1 Hour - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for twin fabulous performances in a fascinating short play
Click here to buy the script

What is it with Caryl Churchill, author of Cloud Nine, Far Away and Top Girls, which is now playing in a Fountainhead Theatre production at Arlington's Theatre on the Run? Her plays all seem to start out with fabulous concepts digging into intriguing questions. The longer they last, however, the less captivating they seem to become. This play has no such problem for it doesn't last long enough to become unfocused or predictable. Indeed, it only lasts 56 minutes and that includes an extended curtain call - extended not by the company's effort to stretch, but by the audience's refusal to stop applauding. The accolades are for Ted van Griethuysen and Tom Story, two actors we all know can chew up the stage with emotion and intelligence because we have seen them do it here before. The accolades are also, however, for Churchill's sharp script that posits about one intellectual puzzle per minute, and for Joy Zinnoman who selected the piece in the first place and then directs.

Storyline: A young man discovers that he is, in fact, but one of a number of clones created out of the genetic material of his father's first son, who died at an early age. The father, however, claims to have been unaware that more than one copy was created, and neither father nor son are quite sure which "son" is even the original clone.

Joy Zinoman directed Ted van Griethuysen and Tom Story, in The Invention of Love, and all three of them came away with Helen Hayes Award nominations in 2002. Here they sink their considerable dramatic teeth into a piece that seems even shorter than its less than one hour duration, for the time flies by at a tremendous clip. It engages the audience in questions, then moves on without answering them, for most of the questions are just beginning to emerge out of the world of genetic science. Churchill identifies rather than resolves the quandaries and van Griethuysen and Story put human faces on them.

It is hard to assess which is the more challenging role. Story has to convincingly create a half-dozen different characters. All look the same and have the same genetic make up. Each, however, is the product of a different set of childhood experiences and circumstances. Van Griethuysen, however, remains the same person but is revealed in more and more depth and in different lights as more and more of the truth of the situation is unveiled. Neither actor makes a single noticeable misstep in the fast paced performance.

Zinoman avoids the trap of letting the design elements become distracting even as each makes a striking contribution to the whole. Debra Booth's spare set seems at first just a square of carpet and a chair. Only as the events unfold do you become aware of screens for the projections of Erik Trester. Brandee Mathies provides costumes that can make the entire journey of the play without anyone taking a moment for a change, even during the periodic dousing of Michael Lincoln's surgically precise lighting. Gil Thompson uses some judicious editing and sampling to create a score out of the Lennon, McCarntey White Album staple "Birthday."

Written by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Design: Debra Booth (set) Brandee Mathies (costumes) Michael Lincoln (lights) Erik Trester (projections) Gil Thompson (sound) Karen Storms (stage manager). Cast: Tom Story, Ted van Griethuysen.

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May 18 - August 14, 2005
Take Me Out

Reviewed May 22
Running time 2:10 - one intermission
 * Mature themes/nudity
Winner of the Ushers' Favorite Show Award
for both May and June
t A Potomac Stages Pick for the exhilaration that comes from a superb production of a fine play
Click here to buy the script

The Studio Theatre production of Richard Greenberg's Tony Award winning play gives you the thrill that only a superb production of a marvelous play can provide. It sends you out exhilarated by the experience. To begin with, the play is eloquent in its social commentary, humorous in its portrayal of what the allegiance to a sport, a team or a friend means to modern day adults, and compassionate in its view of human strengths and weaknesses. It slides from plot point to character revelation to intellectual observation with an easy seamlessness, at least when directed with style and a sense of pace which it gets here in the smooth direction of Kirk Jackson. The production is blessed with fine performances including two standout performances that are not to be missed. Then, too, it has a scene of choreographic beauty remarkable in a show without a  choreographer being listed in the program.

Storyline: A baseball star causes a public furor when he publicly acknowledges his homosexuality. He causes less discomfort in the locker room and showers than might be expected until the team hits a slump and brings up a new player from the minor leagues. The new arrival is just what the team needed on the field, but has a streak of bigotry that emerges in a press conference, tearing asunder the worlds of the newly outed star, the entire team and baseball itself. 

That Greenberg can write fascinating scripts comes as no surprise to those who attended Rep Stage's production of The Dazzle in 2003. The strengths of Greenberg's scripts are are considerable: nimble plotting, marvelous dialogue, very well constructed characters and a lot of seemingly quotable lines that flit past you so quickly you feel you would rather read the script than watch the show so you can linger over the pithy observations. But if you did read, instead of watch, you would miss the fun of watching just what director Jackson and the standouts in his cast do with the material. Solution? Go see the show, then buy the script to savor the wordplay.

The sports icon who takes himself out, revealing his homosexuality almost casually, expecting no adverse consequences because bad things don't happen to him - others yes, but not him - is smoothly played by M.D. Walton who played that role under the original director, Joe Mantello, in post-Broadway productions. Tug Coker does a fine job as well as his narrating best friend. Both are making their Studio debuts. The Potomac Region debut that is breathtaking, however, comes from Jake Suffian as the apparently homophobic, nearly inarticulate player whose arrival from the minor leagues shakes up the team. He is riveting in his ability to communicate to the audience through the emotion of voice and gesture just what his character can't communicate to his teammates. At the other end of the communication scale is the character of the gay financial adviser who discovers the wonders of baseball late in a life that has been, till then, quite empty. It is a role that earned the Tony Award for Denis O'Hare on Broadway. Here it is a role that is owned by Rick Foucheux. Having seen both perform it, our preference is for Foucheaux.

The design here is sort of a miniature of the way it was on Broadway, with the ball park's lights facing the audience, the baseball diamond represented in a playing space in front of the movable locker-room lockers and the exposed (in more ways than one) shower. The matter of fact nudity is, if anything, a bit more intense because the audience is much closer to it. The nudity is in no way gratuitous or superfluous. As the script points out, a consequence of the announcement of homosexuality is the loss of innocence in the club house ... "we now know we are naked." It would be awfully hard to deliver that line wearing a towel.  The afternoon we saw this production there was an audible groan from one member of the audience when the first naked ball player walked into the locker room, but the audience soon became too absorbed in the text, plot, characters, humor and language to spend too much of its energy concentrating on nudity.

Written by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Kirk Jackson. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Reggie Ray (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Michael Lincoln (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Susie Pamudji (stage manager). Cast: Tug Coker, Matthew Deiss, Rick Foucheux, Anthony Gallagher, Joel Reuben Ganz, Cesar A. Guadamuz, Ikuma Isaac, Tom Quinn, Jake Suffian, M.D. Walton, Jeorge Bennett Watson.

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March 9 - April 24, 2005

Reviewed March 13
Running time 1:10 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for delightful performances in an intriguing small play
Click here to buy the script

Heat up the samovar! Warm your hands by the tiny space heater! Pull up a chair and enjoy an hour (plus a few minutes) with two major treasures of theater in the Potomac Region, as two minor treasures of the output of Anton Checkhov, in a story imagined by a contemporary Irish playwright with a deep affinity for the source. Joy Zinoman has brought Nancy Robinette and Edward Gero together with this new script by Brian Friel as sort of a sweet desert after the full meal of her "Russian Winter Season" which began with the delightful appetizer, Floyd King in The Russian National Postal Service, and settled into the heavy courses of Ivanov and Black Milk.

Storyline: Twenty years after the events that ended Checkov's plays Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, Vanya's niece Sonya and the three sisters' brother Andrey have met and struck up a brief friendship in a tiny tea shop in Moscow. The next night, they meet again, no longer just by chance but now because each hoped the other would appear. They share tea, stories, vodka, lies and truths about themselves and about the people in their lives, people we first came to know in Checkhov's plays.

This is one of three short plays that Irish playwright Brian Friel (Translations, Dancing at Lughnasa, Faith Healer) has written carrying Checkov's material beyond the originals. He knows a thing or two of his source, having translated Three Sisters for production in the 1980s. His own plays are often compared to Checkov for their simple sweetness, plain poignant language and a concentration on the revealing minutiae of everyday life. Here he adds the intriguing aspect of carrying forward stories from two of Chekhov's better known plays in a game of intellectual speculation. The audience doesn't need to bring an encyclopedic knowledge of the source plays to enjoy this one, however, as the two characters and the stories they share with each other are interesting enough on their own.

The real pleasure of the piece as produced here, however, is the chance to watch Robinette and Gero work together in such sympathetic compatibility. Her ability to just hint at rather than succumb to the flightiness that seems natural to Sonya after the death of Vanya is a marvel, and his ability to signal the inner thoughts of Andrey with a twitch, a glance or a pause is extraordinary. To see the two of them play off each other at the leisurely pace that Friel's script provides is a pleasure. They take the time to establish tiny character details well before the details of the story begin to accumulate. As a result, when each character has to admit to having bragged a bit too much and inflated their stories a bit to far, things that had been puzzling become clear.

Oh, what a set these two have to inhabit! Debra Booth plunks what appears to be a real cafe down in front of the exposed rear wall of the new Methany Theatre in the expanded Studio Theatre complex. Details from the grime on the windows to the worn tile mosaic floor testifies to better days while the dinginess, perhaps due to Michael Giannitti's careful lighting, carries both the chill of a Moscow evening outside and the intimate warmth of the interior where a glass of tea or a bowl of cabbage soup (with fresh brown bread) can get an evening off to a grand start. Of course, the vodka Robinette produces from her bag helps a great deal as well.

Written by Brian Friel. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Design: Debra Booth (set) Devon Painter (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Michael Giannitti (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Rebecca Berlin (stage manager). Cast: Edward Gero, Nancy Robinette. 

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January 5 - March 6, 2005
Black Milk

Reviewed January 9
Running time 1:45 - one intermission

Click here to buy the script

Serge Seiden directs Holly Twyford and Matthew Montelongo in a Post-Soviet Russian play about a pair of young travelers hawking cheap goods to rural bumpkins. They were good together in Far Away last season and they are even better together this time out. The production is visually satisfying and the collection of quirky characters in the supporting cast, including those played by the inestimable June Hansen, the humorous Anne Stone and the touching Elizabeth Stripe are solid as well. All of this talent is in service to a script that, while replete with intriguing concepts, peppered with sharp dialogue and attempting to grapple with a major topic - the chaos that has enveloped Russia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union - leaves something to be desired.

Storyline: Two young hustlers from Moscow descend on a rural Russian village in the post-Soviet economic turmoil determined to make a killing selling toasters to the peasants they think are too dumb to know they can't be used to bake bread or heat rolls. The pair are also lovers and the woman is eight months pregnant, not that either of them have given a moment's thought to their future as parents or the welfare of the child. When the birth finally takes place, the first glimmers of maternal instincts threaten to disrupt their relationship, much to the consternation of the new father who would not let a little thing like parenthood stand in his way, disrupting an otherwise good con. 

Some plays are plot driven and some are people driven. A plot driven show (murder mystery, whodunit, clever scam, etc) can work with characters that are less than compelling, but a people driven show such as as this one requires at least that the central characters be so well drawn that you know not only how they are but how they got that way. That is what is missing from this otherwise interesting piece. The two central characters, the con man from Moscow and his oh-so-pregnant compatriot, are certainly intense and interesting, but they are flawed human beings and the playwright never lets us understand why. Yes, the Soviet Union has collapsed and social chaos has ensued. However, the glimmer of what they might have been is missing, and without that, they are interesting only in their depravity, not in their humanity.

Twyford's role of the immature, self-absorbed woman/child whose concept of self discipline is to put newspapers on a bench before sitting down is the more complex of the two leads as she gets to show the humanizing impact of at least the flicker of maternal instinct. As is often the case, she is very good at showing the thought process of a character who doesn't let an errant thought take root.  She is also quite good at really letting go in a knock-down, drag-out argument. Montelongo matches her in those argument scenes and he imbues his control-freak of a character with a strength that Twyford plays off marvelously. When they finally come to the second act confrontation that is the real reason for all that went before it, the release is impressive indeed.

Designer Michael Philippi's seedy, almost collapsing set provides the right atmosphere for this backwater train depot, including the ticket sellers cage with its pass-through drawer and a rickety wood stove. The faded linoleum floor provides plenty of space for the struggles as well as for the final visual effect. Alex Jaeger's costumes capture the difference between the generations as well as the geographical differences between the two Moscovites and the natives of the rural village. Who knows where properties designer Michelle Elwyn come up with so many toaster boxes with the appropriate foreign-language looking labels, but one wishes she could have also come up with Russian language newspapers so the English advertisements couldn't be read on the papers covering benches, spills and derelicts.

Written by Vassily Sigarev. Translated by Sasha Dugdale. Directed by Serge Seiden. Design: Michael Philippi (set and lights) Alex Jaeger (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Gil Thompson (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Susie Pamudji (stage manager). Cast: Carol Arthur, Tobin Atkinson, Bob Barr, Morgan Peter Brown, Tina Renay Fulp, June Hansen, Marynell Hinton, Matthew Montelongo, Anne Stone, Elizabeth Stripe, Holly Twyford, Jeff Wisniewski.

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November 3 - December 12, 2004

Reviewed November 10
Running time 2:45 - one intermission

Click here to buy the script

Sometimes, when a play is announced as a rarely performed piece from an important playwright of the past, there is a good reason the play hasn't been seen very often. Certainly that seems to be the case here in this first full length play by the Russian genius who did so much to bring serious theater out of the depths of old traditions, opening up possibilities exploited by so many others over the past century to explore "modern" themes in new ways.  Anton Chekhov went on from this 1889 effort to give the world The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard. Much of what made those classics so important can be seen in embryo in this early effort, but clearly Chekhov learned from his experiences, turning out better products later on. Thus, this piece can fascinate theater historians and this production certainly has a few performances to enjoy in some of the more energetic scenes, but it is more intriguing for its promise than for what it delivers.

Storyline: Ivanov is a man in the midst of what might today be called a mid-life crisis, thrown into fits of depression by the realization that much of what he has done with his past doesn't fulfill his view of his potential and that his once limitless prospects are being hemmed in by his mortality. He's been a rebel, a Christian marrying a Jew in heavily anti-Semitic culture, a free thinker in a conformist society, an intellectual in a world where that is a rarity. Now things are going very badly in his life. Not only has he hit on bad financial times, his self-image is shattered when he becomes infatuated with a young woman just as his wife is dying of tuberculosis.

The initial image of Philip Goodwin as Ivanov could be a painting depicting the essence of depression, sitting with a book nearly dropping from his hand, ignored in a reverie of deep anguish. Indeed, the image is so strong, there's hardly anywhere for Goodwin as an actor to go with the part - it is all simply elaboration of everything he summed up in his posture and expression. As directed by Joy Zinoman, he proceeds through most of the evening to mumble many of his key lines either facing away from parts of the audience or speaking into a wall or his hand. Unlike those of the rest of the large cast, Goodwin's lines are at times hard to hear.

That cast includes some of the area's most recognizable faces delivering their expected strong performances. There is Nancy Robinette as the wife of a local official twittering away. There is Michael Tolaydo as the manager of Ivanov's estate using his impressive energy to try to get him to cough up with the money needed to run the place. There is the sublime David Sabin as a sharp spoken Count, wise to the ways of the world. The two women in Ivanov's life are well played by Susan Wilder as his dying wife and Jenna Sokolowsi as the young girl who catches his eye at the very moment he is both most vulnerable and most duty-bound to resist. Less familiar, but no less satisfying, is Brilane Bowman as the wealthy widow who has her sights on Sabin's title. Overdoing it a bit, however, are J. Fred Shiffman as Robinett's husband who is turned tipsy rather than morose by excesses of vodka and Tom Story as an insufferably superior doctor who, seeing what is happening in Ivanov's household, can't contain his disapproval.

Zinoman's production features a design concept that frankly escapes me. Just what are we to make of the fact that the men in 1888 Russia are all wearing jeans manufactured by the Levi Strauss Company? Why are the women wearing their corsets outside their outer clothing? Why are some of the younger ones wearing diaphanous crinolines over tights? And why is the distressed concrete back wall of the theater exposed? Why is the sound design replete with music more modern than the time? Yes, they are performing a version of the play adapted by modern playwright David Hare who uses a slightly modern idiom for some of the dialogue, but this production doesn't seem grounded in either the "then" or the "now" nor is it timeless. Instead, it is confusing. The audience - or at least this reviewer - spends more time and energy trying to figure out what the production is about than following what the play is about. That is rarely a good thing.

Written by Anton Chekhov. Translated or adapted by David Hare. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Design: Russell Metheny (set) Helen Q. Huang (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Michael Lincoln (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Karen Storms (stage manager). Cast: Kevin Boggs, Brilane Bowman, Jenny Crooks, Catherine Deadman, Kate Debelack, Sarah Fischer, Philip Goodwin, Tom Kearney, James Konicek, Joe Lorenz, Nancy Paris, Nancy Robinette, David Sabin, J. Fred Shiffman, Jenna Sokolowski, Tom Story, Michael Tolaydo, Susan Wilder.

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September 8 - October 17, 2004
The Russian National Postal Service

Reviewed September 12
Running time 1:25 - no intermission
t A Potomac Stages pick for superb treatment of a unique and intriguing concept

What magic live theater can work! Here, in what must be the most enrapturing 90 minutes so far in the season just getting started, the mind of an everyman copes with dislocation in an impersonal world in a way that may make everyone want to disappear into their own fantasy world in a new way - through correspondence between oneself and anyone one wants, even unreachable celebrities. The play, by a young playwright from Yekaterinburg (yes, the city in central Russia where the last Tsar and his family were assassinated), is a well constructed little gem of a piece. The Studio Theatre gives it its U.S. premiere in a production that matches its spirit of gentle humanity, humor and pathos.

Storyline: Ivan Sidorovich Zhukov may have been a nobody in the Soviet Union in which he grew up, but he wasn't prepared for surviving its demise. A widower whose pension is being eroded by inflation, he begins building a fantasy world by writing letters to himself and then replying to them. At first it is just letters from long lost friends but soon his correspondents include Lenin, Stalin and even Queen Elizabeth II. What is more, his fantasy correspondents begin to take an interest in him beyond simply responding to his letters. Is his tiny one-room apartment big enough for all of them?

Floyd King begins the magic from the opening moment with a completely unexpected and unorthodox gesture with a pen, and proceeding through the mental evolution of his character, with the clarity that only a gifted clown can craft. He can be simultaneously heart rending and endearing as when his Ivan Sidorovich recoils from the recognition of his own handwriting in an answer from a celebrity, and withdraws into a deeper level of fantasy in compensation -- all without a word. His mind conjures up such marvelous specters, however. There's Catherine Flye in a stunning turn as Queen Elizabeth II (complete with crown jewels, silk gloves and a royal gesture carried on through the curtain call). There's Tobin Atkinson as the animated image of Lenin (under a wig that's a bit obvious in the close quarters of Studio's Mead Theatre).

Paul Mullins makes his Studio directorial debut, displaying a sure touch at every turn. Just as the script builds slowly from quiet intimacy into explosive cacophony, so the staging moves ever so surely from quiet images of King alone at a writing desk to a unique stage picture of imagination gone wild. Through it all, Debra Booth's nicely catawampus apartment walls contain and define events that catch the eye and Alex Jaeger's costumes lend an air of realism gone wild in the mind.  

Of special note is the marvelously subtle but constantly effective soundscape provided by Neil McFadden. So often in theater these days, a scene taking place indoors in a busy city will begin with a snippet of traffic noise from the street which strangely disappears as soon as there is dialogue it might mask. Not so with McFadden's assemblage of horns, jack hammers, sirens, engine sounds and cries. It continues throughout the show but never interferes with a line or a moment. It subtly dims to allow for needed moments of quiet but these dimmings seem perfectly consistent with the descent of King's character into fantasy. As nicely done as it is, however, it is but one example of the fine attention to detail that permeates the production. 

Written by Oleg Bogaev. Translated by John Freedman. Directed by Paul Mullins. Design: Debra Booth (set) Alex Jaeger (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Michael Giannitti (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Susie Pamudji (stage manager). Cast: Tobin Atkinson, Cecil E. Baldwin, John Collins, Amy Couchoud, Catherine Flye, Anthony Gallagher, Floyd King, Scott McCormick, Roseanne Medina, Steven Notes, Sasha Olinick, Michael C. Wilson.

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May 19 – June 27, 2004
The Cripple of Inishmaan

Reviewed May 23
Running time 2 hours 35 minutes

Click here to buy the script

How to categorize the plays of Martin McDonagh? Comedy? Well, they are clearly intended to draw a lot of laughs. Tragedy? They do tend to be filled with human pain and suffering. Character sketches? They are filled with quirky folk. Satire? Well - you get the idea. The work of McDonagh is practically suis generis, and Serge Seiden's production of his 1996 play, the first in his trilogy of plays set on the tiny island of Inishmaan in mouth of Galway Bay in 1934, hits all the elements found in the script. As a result, its almost as difficult to categorize as is the play. Satisfying and entertaining and frequently absorbing, it can also be confusing and confounding. In the final analysis, it draws you along for an entire evening but leaves you with a few questions such as "What was that?"

Storyline: A crippled boy lives on a tiny Irish island with his two "aunts" who took him in as an infant after the death of his parents. He learns that the famous filmmaker Robert Flaherty (director of the classic "Nanook of the North") has come to a neighboring island to film a documentary of life on the Irish Sea. He talks a local boatman into taking him over to the other island in the hope of landing a role in the movie and actually gets a chance to to go to Hollywood to make a screen test.  That is as close as he gets to stardom or even success, however, returning home to face an existence even less palatable now that he has a greater understanding of what he is missing due to his physical handicap, his poverty and the harshness of the relationships between the few people who populate this tiny backwater community.

McDonagh seems to have a thing for trilogies. His best known plays are the three "Connemara Trilogy plays, The Beauty Queen of Leenan, A Scull in Connemara and The Lonesome West. He also has a thing for debunking myths and here he's doing his best to de-romanticize the harsh life of the Irish people. The people of this play are strong characterizations although they are not terribly complex. They are defined by their quirks - the newsmonger who peddles second hand stories, the old woman who is drinking herself to death, the youngster with a sweet tooth, the old biddies trying to eke out a meager living from an ill-stocked store. Here they are given spirit through some marvelous performances.

David Marks as the aforementioned newsmonger is a pleasure to watch from start to finish. He is instantly peculiar but his oddity doesn't wear thin over the course of the play. Susan Lynsky, on the other hand, starts out just bit too strong in her portrayal of the bullying local girl, and there is not much subtlety there until her character mellows just a bit at the end. The delightful team of Brigid Cleary and Rosemary Regan as the biddies who took in the cripple avoids overdoing their eccentricities which keeps their characters interesting all the way through. The strongest single part is the title role played here with strong physicality by Aubrey Deeker who drags his leg and twists his arm, creating a convincing crippled state and hacking with believable force with the tuberculosis which plays a significant function in the plot.

Tony Cisek's spare set and Alex Jaeger's worn out looking costumes reflect the un-romantic view of life on the Emerald Isle - no green fields nor blue seas against sparkling skies with rainbows breaking through. It is a hard life that McDonagh writes about and the bleakness of it all is exposed through even the small details of empty shelves and Michael Giannitti's gray-toned lighting design. In act II the residents of the island get their first look at the movie made on the neighboring island. It is shown on a make-shift screen and seems to be silent despite the fact that Man of Aran was Flaherty's first sound film.

Written by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Serge Seiden. Design: Tony Cisek (set) Alex Jaeger (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Michael Giannitti (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Rachel A. Homan (stage manager). Cast Brigid Cleary, Terrence Currier, Aubrey Deeker, June Hansen, Tom Kearney, Susan Lynskey, David Marks, Rosemary Reagan, Mark Jude Sullivan.

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March 31 – May 23, 2004
Far Away

Reviewed April 11
Running time 45 minutes

The discussion in rows D and E in the center section of the intimate house on the second floor of the Studio Theatre when the lights came up just a little over a half hour after they went down: "What was that?" "You mean its over?" "I hoped they would explain it in the second act." "The more I think about it the better I like it." Be aware that this brief but intense insertion into a very theatrical world is designed to unsettle, upset and challenge an audience. But, truth to tell, there aren't a lot of new insights into the human condition offered, even though some long accepted views are called up in compelling images.

Storyline: A young girl witnesses some unspoken and unspeakable horror and grows up suppressing the memory. She goes to work in a hat factory but her output simply decorates the heads of the condemned. She and her co-worker fall in love and marry but they don't achieve "happily ever after." Instead, they are beaten down by the impact of ongoing conflict in the adult world.

This production is intensely theatrical, but just what is "theatricality?" The first definition is "relating to or typical of the theater or dramatic performance" and that is probably the intention behind this treatment of a script loaded with allusions, and sharp verbal imagery. But the full effect is more appropriately described with the second definition: "full of exaggerated or false emotion." The direction by Joy Zinoman and the work of an excellent cast highlights every last point about the human condition in Caryl Churchill's obtuse script, but there aren't a lot of ideas that are either original or particularly insightful, and those there are aren't given time to develop.

There are three scenes in the play, each centering on a character named "Joan." In the first, she is a young girl who has come downstairs at two in the morning because she has seen some unsettling things while staying the night in the home of her aunt and uncle. A ten year old newcomer to Studio's stages, Simone Grossman, exhibits a great deal of stage presence in the delivery of Churchill's dialogue which dribbles out details with an effective economy. The aunt is a smooth as silk Mikel Sarah Lambert whose manipulation of her niece is simultaneously sympathetic and suspicious.

For the final two scenes, one of which is really five blackouts separated by a tableau, Holly Twyford is the more mature Joan. In the middle piece she's chipper and perky, having suppressed the horror of her night with her Aunt and Uncle. She's seductively attractive to a colleague played with verve by Matthew Montelongo. The tableau is a marvelously staged parade of the tragically condemned who sport the chapeaux created in the factory where Joan and her beau work. But that scene yields to a vision of an apocalypse in which Joan is totally anguished. Twyford makes it memorable, even if it seems prematurely climactic.

Written by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Design: Debra Booth (set) Helen Q. Huang (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Michael Lincoln (Lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Michael Gallant (music) Scott Suchman (photography) Susie Pamudji (stage manager). Cast: Simone Grossman, Mikel Sarah Lambert, Matthew Montelongo, Holly Twyford.

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February 13 – April 4, 2004
The Syringa Tree

Reviewed February 15
Running time 1 hour 50 minutes
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a captivating performance
of a powerful play

Winner of the 2004 annual Usher's Favorite Show Award

What young actress Gin Hammond does with Pamela Gien's powerful script is nothing short of captivating. She takes what is already a powerful and memorable play and turns it into a nearly unforgettable evening in the theater. In many a solo-performance piece the audience is transported into a single individual's world. In this one, the audience is transported into the world of an entire community, two interlocking families and their neighbors in a society stretched to the breaking point as the battle between prejudice and justice comes to a head. It is a subject that has been treated many times before by great playwrights and great performers, but rarely has it been given such a warmly human, understandable and heart-tugging sense of reality.

Storyline: One actress creates all the members of two families, one white and one black, in the critical time for their native country, South Africa. The play covers a society steeped in apartheid through its transition to a pluralistic society after the fall of the separatist regime.

The struggle for human rights and dignity in South Africa has been a fruitful subject for playwrights for decades, and some fine writers have tried to tackle the subject. The finest have found ways to humanize the history of that beautiful but torn land. Think of Lost in the Stars, the Kurt Weill/Maxwell Anderson musical version of Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country. Think of Athol Fugard's The Island which brought John Kani and Winston Ntshona to the Kennedy Center a few years ago, or his Master Harold ...and the Boys that was given such a searingly lovely production in this same theater four years ago. Now add Pamela Gien's Obie, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Drama League award winning play to the list. Just as some of Fugard's most powerful writing came directly from his own experience, so Gien's images and episodes come directly from her memory growing up in South Africa. But as autobiographical as the piece may be, it is not the story of a young white girl in a sheltered home but the story of all the people, black and white, of British, African or Africaaner in her circle from the time she was six years old till young adulthood.

Gin Hammond, who earned the adjective "radiant" in our review of her performance in Arena Stage's production of Polk County two years ago, has spent a sizeable portion of the time since then performing this play in New Haven, Seattle, Pasadena and Beverly Hills. She is an amazingly flexible actress who can create the physical impression of a six year old girl or an 82-year old man and just about everything in between. What is more, she can make the transitions from one to the other with such subtlety that she can carry on a conversation between her multiple selves without the slightest sense of a switch being thrown or a scene being cut. As her six year old asks an innocent question of her heavily pregnant nanny, she can become the nanny, ponder the question and reply without a hint of artifice.

But this performance is not a gimmicky parade of characters intentionally drawn as broadly as possible in order to give the performer a chance to impress. Instead, it is a finely wrought survey of human attitudes in a society under pressure. Each character has a view, each has a history and each has a set of hopes and fears for the future that are revealed subtly in their actions and their statements. This one-act play packs so many lives into its less than two hours that you emerge with a feeling of completeness. That is a feeling that theatergoers savor - and find all too infrequently.

Written by Pamela Gien. Directed by J.R. Sullivan. Design: Michael Philippi (set and lights) Brandee Mathies (costume) Tony Angelini (sound) T. Charles Erickson (Photography) Rachael Homan (stage manager). Cast: Gin Hammond.

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December 3, 2003 – January 11, 2004
The York Realist

Reviewed December 7
Running time 1 hour 50 minutes

Sometimes theater offers you an opportunity for immersion into a world you wouldn’t otherwise get to know. When it is good, it is more than a fantasy travel program because you get to know and understand real people who inhabit that world. Such is the case here with Studio Theatre giving this very British short play a superb American premiere. It is a trip to the middle of the island that is England and Scotland. More to the point, it is a trip to the middle class of English society in the 1960s. The time may not be as important as the place but the sense of class distinction is central to the play's worth. And, as specific as it is to the rural society of Yorkshire and Humberside, the region of England where the entire piece plays out, it raises a few universal issues of the human condition as well.

Storyline: A young farmer living with his ailing mother in a tenant’s cottage outside of York is recruited to perform in a local play by its assistant director, up from London for the project. They are both gay and are soon in love. Neither can bring himself to abandon his own life in either the big city or the remote countryside to make their relationship permanent.

The play by Peter Gill has some of the feeling of a 1960s version of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which may not be surprising given that Gill was instrumental in the popularity of stage versions of DH Lawrence. This play opened in a touring version in England but struck such a chord it settled into a successful run in London. It is no wonder, for given a substantial production the play provides ample enjoyment and Studio certainly provides that substantial production. On a set that looks as if it might just be a cottage from the fields of Yorkshire, a cast of solid performers give life to seven characters as they interact in scenes both absorbing and believable. There is nothing over done, no excess to distract from the central dilemma of the relationship between the two men whose worlds are too different and whose attraction to each other, while real, is insufficient to overcome other barriers.

Markus Potter is the strapping young farmer whose supple muscles are the product of labor in the fields. He’s at ease with his body and his sexuality even as he knows it wouldn’t be accepted in his community. Tom Story is the visitor from the big city where his sexuality is only somewhat less unacceptable. Neither the script nor the production offers any titillating exposures. Indeed, the young lovers rarely even touch and they take their coupling upstairs out of sight of audience or of the mother who shares the cottage. The play isn’t about irresistible compulsion or overwhelming passion, it is about accommodation and acceptance.

Faith Potts is gentle and touching as the mother who gives her son the respect he deserves and refuses to pry into secrets she knows are there but which aren’t as important as how he lives his life as an adult member of the family and the community. There are gentle, honest performances by Colleen Delany, as the girl from the neighboring farm who harbors hopes for marriage, and by Joe Baker as the farmer’s nephew. The farmer’s sister and her husband shed even more light on the farmer’s life choices.

Written by Peter Gill. Directed by Serge Seiden. Design: Russell Metheny (set) Devon Painter (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Dan Covey (lights) Dave McKeever (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Wendy Flora (stage manager). Cast: Joe Baker, Lawrence C. Daly, Colleen Delany, Markus Potter, Faith Potts, Nanette Savard, Tom Story.

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October 22 – December 14, 2003
The Life of Galileo

Reviewed November 7
Running time 2 hours 45 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

First and foremost, this is an evening of Ted van Griethuysen making the most of a part that is rich, deep, human and consistently fascinating. A performance this strong would swamp a weaker script or a lesser cast. It is a pleasure to report that the script is lively, literate and consistently intriguing and that the cast assembled by director David Salter in this return to the piece he and van Griethuysen mounted in London last year provides the quality and depth necessary to make this more than just a star turn. It is an intellectual delight.

Storyline: In the mid-seventeenth century Galileo Galilei -- the “inventor” of the telescope, founder of the modern scientific approach and advocate of the Copernican view that the Earth is not the center of the Universe -- struggles to balance intellectual curiosity, scientific honesty, religious doctrine, family responsibility and personal comfort as his fame spreads throughout Europe and the powers of church and state are brought to bear on him.

Van Griethuysen is a gentle giant in both his physical domination of the stage and his character’s intellectual domination of his time. He makes this Galileo very human with traits that engender admiration, affection, frustration and condemnation from his contemporaries and the audience alike. Those contemporaries are portrayed by a cast fewer in number than would be ideal but harboring no shortage of talent and ability. There is a great deal of doubling which can be confusing in this sprawling story which takes place over nearly thirty years in Padua, Venice, Florence and Rome.

Among those turning in a fine performance (or multiple fine performances) are Lawrence Redmond, Valerie Leonard, Leo Erickson, and Conrad Feininger. Bette Cassatt tries mightily to breathe life into the least well developed major part in the play, that of Galileo’s daughter (yes, the same character as in Dava Sobel’s marvelous 1999 best seller “Galileo’s Daughter”).  Sixth grader Peter Vance is notably effective in his professional debut, holding his own on stage with van Griethuysen as a young student receiving some of the master’s wisdom. 

Helen Q. Huang‘s parchment and brass set is striking upon ry to make this more than just a star turn. It is an intellectual delight.

Storyline: In the mid-seventeenth century Galileo Galilei -- the “inventor” of the telescope, founder of the modern scientific approach and advocate of the Copernican view that the Earth is not the center of the Universe -- struggles to balance intellectual curiosity, scientific honesty, religious doctrine, family responsibility and personal comfort as his fame spreads throughout Europe and the powers of church and state are brought to bear on him.

Van Griethuysen is a gentle giant in both his physical domination of the stage and his character’s intellectual domination of his time. He makes this Galileo very human with traits that engender admiration, affection, frustration and condemnation from his contemporaries and the audience alike. Those contemporaries are portrayed by a cast fewer in number than would be ideal but harboring no shortage of talent and ability. There is a great deal of doubling which can be confusing in this sprawling story which takes place over nearly thirty years in Padua, Venice, Florence and Rome.

Among those turning in a fine performance (or multiple fine performances) are Lawrence Redmond, Valerie Leonard, Leo Erickson, and Conrad Feininger. Bette Cassatt tries mightily to breathe life into the least well developed major part in the play, that of Galileo’s daughter (yes, the same character as in Dava Sobel’s marvelous 1999 best seller “Galileo’s Daughter”).  Sixth grader Peter Vance is notably effective in his professional debut, holding his own on stage with van Griethuysen as a young student receiving some of the master’s wisdom. 

Helen Q. Huang‘s parchment and brass set is striking upon first view, as you enter the theater, but it soon becomes the unintrusive backdrop to the events of the play even as it slides open and aside to signal changes in scene. It and Michael Giannitti’s often glowing lighting emphasize that this is a play of ideas and personalities even as they create the feeling of the period. No special effects magic attempt to distract from the issues of the play and no overdone images detract from the concentration on the ideas flowing from van Griethuysen and colleagues in such abundance.

Written by Bertolt Brecht. Translated by David Hare. Directed by David Salter. Design: Helen Q. Huang (set and costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Michael Giannitti (lights) Peter Weitz (music) Gil Thompson (sound) Scott Berg (photography) Rachael A. Homan (stage manager).  Cast: Bette Cassatt, George Tynan Crowley, Leo Erickson, Conrad Feininger, Ted van Griethuysen, Don Kenefick, Valerie Leonard, Christopher Luggiero, Rob McClure, Karl Miller, Karen Novack, Lawrence Redmond, Tony Simione, Gary Sloan, Peter Vance, Scott Wichmann.

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September 3 – November 23, 2003

Reviewed September 7
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

A remarkable piece of theater making, the area premiere of last year’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama feels like a slice of life. But, as any really good work of fiction, it is so much more than just a realistic representation of reality. The dramatic arc, the poetry of the language and the vividness of the characterization concentrates mere reality into truth. In this case, the truth is the waste of human potential in an imperfect society. The clarity of the author’s view is amplified by the precision of Joy Zinoman’s direction and the energy of two captivating performances as black men who share more than just parents.

Storyline: Two down-on-their-luck brothers share a single room in a run-down apartment house (toilet down the hall). One used to work the three card monte con in which a mark is challenged to follow one card as the dealer constantly shifts them around. But now he works in an arcade, made up in whiteface as Abraham Lincoln so customers can assassinate him. The other doesn’t even have that much of a job, living on what he can steel and what he can dream.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ play is so deceptively simple in structure that it seems to flow from point to point by a natural process. Nothing feels artificial and no plot points seem mechanically set up. Instead, the audience learns who these two brothers are bit by bit and piece by piece, picking up clues from their conversations. Neither brother stops to explain anything, for each knows the other’s story. Still, the essential information is laid out in such clarity that there is absolutely no difficulty figuring out what is going on at any point. Yes, there are surprises. Yes, there are unexpected plot twists. But they don’t seem contrived and never feel like the playwright is playing a game of one-upmanship.

Jahi Kearse and Thomas W. Jones II create these two brothers in performances that are intense and honest, combining the lyrical with the physical to get the frustrations of the lives of these two brothers across in the most dramatically direct way. The key is not so much that they make the characters likeable but that they show the potential each has for being so much more than they have been able to become. There is unfulfilled talent, undeveloped intelligence and unrealized ambition in each. Although each has touches of honesty and humor that take the edge off the ugliness of some aspects of their lives, it is the unfulfilled potential that makes them truly tragic.

Zinoman paces the action fluidly and draws work from her design team that matches the performances of the two actors in being just slightly more real than the real world. Russell Metheny’s set has walls and windows and doors that look exactly like you would find in a run down rooming house but they are slightly off kilter, leaning to the side, ready to collapse of the accumulated weight of despair. Reggie Ray’s costumes also build on details to be more than simply the kind of clothes these brothers would wear. The duds one brother steals are brighter than bright while the costume of the other for his Abraham Lincoln stint is threadbare and stained. Each is, as are so many things about this production, just right to signal a host of messages about the world of these characters. It is a remarkable piece of theater making.

Written by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Design: Russell Metheny (set) Reggie Ray (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Michael Lincoln (lights) Neil McFadden (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Christine Nelson (stage manager). Cast: Jahi Kearse, Thomas W. Jones II through October 26, Jeorge Bennett Watson thereafter..

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June 6 – 29, 2003
Lackawanna Blues

Reviewed June 8
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes
Price range $30 - $44
Potomac Stages Pick

Some shows cast their spells slowly, taking their own sweet time to pull you into their world.  Others capture your attention and earn your affection from the very start. (Some, of course, never do cast a spell or earn your affection but that is another story entirely.) This extraordinary performance does both, it casts its spell almost instantaneously and then just gets farther and farther into your mind and heart for each of its ninety minutes. It is the kind of show that makes a reviewer want to simply say “Go see it, you’ll love it and you’ll be sorry if you miss it.” But, for those who want more description and rationale before buying a ticket, here are the facts:

Storyline: The storyteller creates a warm, humorous and human portrait of the woman who raised him in the Great Lakes city of Lackawana, New York by creating vivid portrayals of over twenty of the people whose lives she affected and letting the audience see her through their eyes. At the start, the storyteller lets you know he feels blessed to have known this woman. By the end you feel blessed to have known her.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson is an actor with a remarkable ability to connect with his audience on a direct, personal level, especially in a work structured as stories told by a storyteller. In other works, he can be tremendously effective on the other side of the proscenium, removed from the audience by that legendary “fourth wall” of theater. Indeed, he has the awards to prove it - Tony, Obie, Outer Critic’s Circle, etc. In this work, he is in the same room, in the same space as the audience. His storyteller is talking directly to the audience and he even trades a few comments with the audience, reacting to the audience reactions. But those digressions are always brief for the story he is creating out of the stories he is telling is too important and immediately draws him back into the magic.

Santiago-Hudson wrote the piece based on his own experiences growing up in Rachel “Nanny” Crosby’s boarding house in Lackawana. The people he knew there are the characters he uses to tell her story. The script is filled with so many colorful details, so many telling observations, so many defining moments that it comes as a surprise after the house lights come up to realize that he never did give a physical description of “Nanny.” No, there are physical descriptions of almost every other character -- descriptions that bring them indelibly to life. It is part of the genius of his writing that he leaves it to your own imagination to fill in the details of “Nanny.”

Sitting on the stage with Santigo-Hudson is blues guitarist Bill Sims, Jr. who provides a soundtrack for the picture being created. Sims pays as much attention to Santiago-Hudson as does everyone else in the room. It is as if he was hearing these stories for the very first time himself and the sounds that come from his guitar are the reaction of his heart to them. He helps create this magical piece as does the design team and show crew. But all eyes, all ears and all hearts are on the “Nanny” that is created in the audience’s mind. She’s quite a woman!

Written and performed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson accompanied by Bill Sims, Jr. Directed by Loretta Greco. Design: Myung Hee Cho (set and costumes) Jim Vermeulen (lighting) Michal Daniel (photography) Curtis V. Hodge (stage manager).

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May 14 – June 22, 2003
A Class Act

Reviewed May 18
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

Better than Broadway! This portrait/tribute to a man who felt passionately about the art of musical theatre was a “must see” for aficionados for its three month run on Broadway. But it couldn’t reach a wider audience that would support a longer run. Here, in a brand new production, in a smaller venue, with - lets face it - a stronger star, it is again a “must see.” But this time for general theatergoers, not just those already enraptured by the lore of the Broadway musical. In the bigger (1,125 seat) Ambassador Theatre up north, the show was nice but hardly compelling. In the smaller (200 seat) Studio Theatre here in northwest, the show reaches the audience at a more human level. At the finale, after laughs and tunes aplenty, there were people dabbing tears from their eyes, choking back a sob and really identifying with the saga of the hero.

Storyline: Ed Kleban is best known for the lyrics he wrote for the then-longest running show in Broadway history, A Chorus Line, but he wanted more than anything to have a hit show with both his lyrics and his music. He left many songs for which he had written both words and music when he died of cancer in 1988.  They have been cobbled together into a show that tells his story - a show about the passion for creating art, the craft of musical theater and his own peculiarities.

Part of the reason this marvelous show is better than it was on Broadway is the performance of Bobby Smith in the lead role of Ed Kleban. The part had been played on Broadway by Lonny Price, a tremendously talented man who also co-wrote the book and directed the show. Price made audiences understand the passion Kleban had for his art, but Smith adds another dimension, making the audience really care about the man before dealing with his foibles or his fate - and the secret of any play’s ability to carry an audience through a story is to get them to care about the protagonist before putting him or her through whatever fortune has in store.

Another reason for the success of A Class Act here at Studio is that it is a small intimate show that fits perfectly into a space that brings the audience and the artists together. On Broadway, with a proscenium separating the playing space from the audience, everything was one step removed. Besides, Broadway shows today require spectacle and smashing moments. This show was written to keep rolling pleasantly along while it builds its impact through momentum and the cumulative impact of individually intriguing and/or pleasing scenes. (The fact that the top ticket price was $75 while Studio charges between $30 and $44 for a seat might have something to do with it as well.)

Studio’s production offers a seven member cast in support of Bobby Smith that is replete with individualistic flash - Leo Ericskson is smooth and utterly convincing as Kleban’s teacher, Lehman Engel; Eric Sutton is marvelous as both Kleban’s classmate and his A Chorus Line collaborator, Marvin Hamlisch; and both Lauri Kraft and Roseanne Medina are impressive as the two women in Kleban’s life. They are backed by a fine five piece band led by George Fulginiti-Shakar from his keyboard. Bassist Matt Murray is particularly good on Medina’s “Scintilating Sophie” as is Rita Eggert’s flute work on “One More Beautiful Song.”

Book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price. Music and lyrics by Edward Kleban. Directed by Serge Seiden. Musical direction by George Fulginiti-Shakar. Choreography by Michael J. Bobbitt. Design: Russell Metheny (set) Alex Jaeger (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Michael Lincoln (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Scott Suchman (photography) Karen A. Storms (stage manager). Cast Tony Capone, Cathy Carey, Leo Erickson, Lauri Kraft, Roseanne Medina, Bobby Smith, Eric Sutton, Mia Whang.

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March 26 – May 25, 2003
The Play About the Baby

Reviewed March 30
Running time 1 hour 50 minutes

Edward Albee writes things that capture the imagination in language that challenges the brain as well as stimulating the ear. At his best he can be extremely theatrical and highly realistic simultaneously. But any play that sets up a strange conundrum requires a smashing resolution to be truly satisfying. He found that smashing resolution for his latest, The Goat. But he failed to find it for this, the play he wrote before The Goat. Instead, he ends on ambiguity. Ambiguity isn’t a bad thing in the right play. But when you ask the audience to spend nearly two hours contemplating “just what is going on here?” you need to answer the question or at least let the audience answer it for themselves.

Storyline: Boy and Girl are seen to be ecstatically happy at the birth of their first child when their seemingly idyllic world is invaded by Man and Woman who try to make them question weather they actually have a baby at all. As the second act begins, Man delivers the telling line “let’s see if they will let us take the baby.”

Man here is a fabulously flexible performance by Philip Goodwin who takes a benign and even elegant appearance and adds demonic, sadistic and downright evil touches to keep everyone off balance, on stage and off. Everyone in the four member cast does a great deal with what is in the script but Mr. Goodwin adds so much more with movements, glances, shrugs and little tripping steps.   

Nancy Robinette is somehow less disturbing but no less entertainingly funny as Woman. It can’t be easy to play your scene when your colleagues are running around naked. Indeed, Robinette as Woman turns directly to the audience to ask if, in fact, Boy and Girl are racing around in the all-together. Well, they are some of the time. At other times, they play scenes wrapped in a sheet – a single sheet that they share. Most of the time, however, Kosha Engler and Matt Stinton are clothed. Whether clothed or not they are attractive, interesting and believable characters – at least until the ambiguity gets out of hand.

Russell Metheny‘s set is simplicity itself. The stage seems bare. But look closer. There’s a sort of shadow proscenium made of clear corrugated plastic set out from a back wall made of the same material. The thrust stage is rimmed by tiny footlights. It isn’t clear if all the world is a stage, but all this world certainly is. The only furnishings are four chairs: two adult size and two child size as Man and Woman take on Boy and Girl in a fight of wits and wills over “The Baby.”

Written by Edward Albee. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Design: Russell Metheny (set) Helen Q. Huang (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Michael Giannitti (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Carol Pratt (photography) Christine Fisichella (stage manager). Cast Philip Goodwin, Nancy Robinette, Kosha Engler, Matt Stinton.

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January 1 – February 16, 2003
Runaway Home

Reviewed January 5
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes
Potomac Stages Pick

What a marvelous way to begin the year - a new play by a very talented playwright given an excellent staging with a quality cast. This is the world premiere of the latest work by Javon Johnson who wrote last season’s well received Hambone. Our review of that show said it stimulated “a sense of theatrically induced exhilaration.” So does this one, although the resolution of the conflicts set up over two and a half hours of fascinating exposition is so troubling that attendees who exit loving the show may modify their judgment a bit in a post-show discussions.

Storyline: In South Carolina in 1981, a thirty-six year old single mother of five is tempted by the return of the love of her life who deserted her during her pregnancy with their son, her oldest child. That child is now on the edge of adulthood and dabbling in drug dealing, while each or her other children have problems of their own.

Just as with Hambone, Johnson’s facility with dialogue and his ability to create believable (but infuriatingly flawed) flesh-and-blood characters are the basis for drawing the audience into emotional attachments and then forcing wrenching encounters with reality. The key to this, his ninth professionally staged play, is the fact that the single mother grew up but didn’t mature. She’s a woman-child watching her children become men and women without becoming real adults. What she fears for them is a repeat of her own failures. She copes with economic survival but hasn’t yet mastered emotional survival.

 Rosalyn Colemen is superb as the single mom, still pretty, pert and sexy but weighed down to the point of fatigue by her efforts to live up to her own expectations of an adult parent. She’s surrounded by terrific performers as each of her children as well as the men in her life. Three of the children have grown into multifaceted characters in late adolescence and each is given life by actors who capture those facets. The two younger ones have yet to grow to the stage of complexity that seems to come with puberty. Eleven year old Christopher Gallant II and six year old Javier D. Brown perform these roles with skill.

The men in the play are as complex as Coleman’s character. Each adds to her crisis in a different way. Wayne W. Pretlow is fascinating to watch as her brother who responds to the needs of her family while Cleo Reginald Pizano and Frederick Strother compete for her favor. The final resolution to her quandary will linger in the mind of many.

Written by Javon Johnson. Directed by Reggie Life. Design: Daniel L. Conway (set) Reggie Ray (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Michael Giannitti (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) David Maddox (composer). Cast: Rosalyn Colemen, Wayne W. Pretlow, Cleo Reginald Pizano, Frederick Strother, Sekou Laidlow, Christopher Gallant II, Javier D. Brown, Edwina Findley, Brandon J. Price, Ashley Blaine Featherson,

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November 6, 2002 – January 5, 2003
The Shape of Things

Reviewed November 10, 2002
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes
Price Range $30 - $44

Playwright Neal LaBute, known for plays that examine disturbing issues, takes on a set of questions often debated in the world of the arts but rarely resolved. As a recurring theme of this well acted and well staged four-person play puts it "all art is subjective" – so it seems the playwright is not concerned by the fact that the issues remain unresolved at the end of yet another airing. Instead, he seems satisfied that they have been raised for endless after-theater discussions of issues like "What is art?" "What is the role of an artist?" and, "How much license does an artist have for actions taken in pursuit of art?"

Storyline: In the hands of a girl who pays him more attention than any girl ever did, a nerd is transformed into a hunk to the wonder of his former roommate and the former roommate’s fiancé, the girl he never had the courage to ask for a date.

Holly Twyford has the most difficult task of the four in this cast for her character is engaged in a deception so her performance must work on two levels. She is as perky and cute as any college boy’s dream as she draws the nerd of a college boy, Scott Barrow, deeper and deeper into what he believes is a life-transforming makeover. But she has to hold back just enough to pull off the twist ending where playwright LaBute reveals the issues he is really raising. She nearly pulls it off. Her transformation for the final two scenes works well enough to carry you through to the end – but may not survive the post-theater discussions over coffee or drinks.

Barrow may have had a less daunting challenge, for his transformation in LaBute’s script is both better motivated and better modulated. But once he seems to have captured the role, he must enact the most awkwardly staged denouement in recent memory. This is not a criticism of director Will Pomerantz, for the awkwardness is a feature of LaBute’s concept for the scene. But it is difficult to watch Barrow try to pull it off. It is supposed to be painful for the character but it turns out to be painful for any in the audience who can empathize with, and relate to, the character. Not everyone gets a clear view of this for Barrow sits in the audience, out of sight of some including those in the front center section.

Still, Barrow’s work is notable as is the work of the Justin C. Krauss and Margot White as the roommate and fiancé. Also notable is the work of the scenic designer Debra Booth who handles the demands of ten different locales with smooth transitions and a remarkably unified look.

Written by Neal LaBute. Directed by Will Pomerantz. Design: Debra Booth (set) Devon Painter (costumes) Michael Giannitti (lights) Neil McFadden (sound). Cast: Holly Twyford, Scott Barrow, Margot White, Justin G. Krauss.

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September 11 – November 17, 2002
Privates on Parade

Reviewed September 19
Running time 2 hours 55 minutes
Price range $25 - $44.25

Sometimes a compilation of many different types of material all in one package can intrigue a wider audience than would be attracted to a show in any one of the types. At other times it works the other way around with the dissimilar elements working against each other. This is an example of the later, at least in the hands of director Joy Zinoman, who tries her darndest to reconcile the differences but ends up with something that seems a terribly earnest attempt at material that needed a much lighter hand.

Storyline: A young, innocent and virginal British soldier is assigned to a unit in Southeast Asia in 1948, during the British "Maylay Emergency" operation against communist insurgents in the jungles around Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The unit is an entertain-the-troops caravan, most of whom go for the English Music Hall kind of mixture of sketch humor and songs usually referred to as "ditties." At opposite extremes, however, are the straight-arrow commanding officer who is proud of he fact that he hasn’t seen a show "since, what, 1935?" and turns a blind eye on the rampant homosexuality in the ranks and the aging drag queen who is the star of the show.

The elements here include the kind of sketch comedy that Benny Hill made famous with broad gags usually involving bodily functions usually confined to the bedroom or the bathroom, British music hall songs for a chorus of four or five, aging drag queen impersonations, pompous political polemics, two or three love stories involving heterosexual, homosexual and paternal affection and brief anti-war scenes. Excesses abound. Scenes can jump in quick-cut fashion from the Benny Hill material featuring the expected gratuitous male nudity (both frontal and "rear-al") to a battle scene of surprising realism with the screams and groans of the writhing wounded all but drowning out the sound of gunfire.

A superb cast tries to make sense of this Malaysian mélange. Floyd King is nothing short of marvelous as the star of the troupe. Half of his time on stage is in scenes from the show the troupe is putting on and here he sports costumes (designed with wicked wit by Helen Q. Whang) that could have come from the closets of everyone from Carmen Miranda to Noel Coward. King makes the most of each of these. His appearance in a Marlene Dietrich sketch is priceless. J. Fred Schiffman is almost as strong in his stiff-upper-everything performance as the unit commander who wants more than anything to take his "troops" into battle against the yellow communist hordes.

This is not billed as a musical, it is "a play with songs," but the musical performances are disappointing nonetheless. Perhaps Musical Director John Kalbfleisch wanted to have the songs, most of which are elements of the show the soldiers are putting on, seem as amateurish as the real thing would have been. But some of his characteristic precision could have highlighted the characters failings wittily by contrasting them with more solid backing both vocal and instrumental. With the likes of Will Gartshore in the cast and Rita Eggert in the band, he certainly had the tools to do this. But it doesn’t seem to have been in Zinoman’s concept for the show.

Written by Peter Nichols. Music by Denis King. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Music direction by John Kalbfleisch. Choreography by Robert Biedermann. Design: Debra Booth (set) Helen Q. Huang (costumes) Michael Lincoln (lights) Gil Thompson (sound) Michelle Elwyn (properties). Cast: Floyd King, J. Fred Shiffman, Jon Cohn, Michael Tolaydo, David Bryan Jackson, Will Gartshore, Jim Ferris, Tom Gualtieri, Sunita Param, Leonard Wu, Franklin Dam.

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June 14 – July 13, 2002
Lypsinka: The Boxed Set

Reviewed June 16
Running time 1 hour 10 minutes

An impressive display of the skill of lip synching to pre-recorded material is matched by an impressively convincing female impersonation act in what feels like a slightly extended club act. It generates its own excitement through quick pacing, marvelous sound editing and a lighting design as energetic as the performance. But going on for about a third longer than the material can support, it begins to pale too soon and some of the bits late in the act seem mere repetition. As the last of Studio’s "Special Event" programming for the season, it is priced fairly steeply for a short show, with tickets between $23.50 and $43.50 depending on location and night.

Storyline: John Epperson appears as the female character "Lypsinka" in a live performance of the pre-recorded collection of songs, skits and eminently quotable clips that many would easily recognize either by celebrity or source. From Betty Davis to Marlene Dietrich to Doris Day and from Joan Crawford to Elizabeth Taylor to Gloria Swanson, all the icons are here. From "Sunset Boulevard" to "Vertigo" all the now-camp movies are dredged up again, and from Bells are Ringing to Little Me all the musical references are brought out.

The level of skill exhibited by Mr. Epperson in his 1950’s perfect party dress, polished nails, sculpted hair do and high heels is undeniably impressive. (When was the last time you noticed credits not only for costume but for jewelry?) As a drag performer, he is rock solid and he raises lip synching to a new level. It isn’t just the lips that synchronize with the singing, sighing, speaking and all manner of vocal expression. His entire body appears to be the source of the sounds that are actually emanating from a recording played through the theater’s speaker system at notably high levels of volume. Every inhalation is matched by an expanding chest. Even his adam’s apple quivers when the sound track is "belting."

That sound track may actually be the most impressive accomplishment of the evening. In the 70 or 75 minutes (if you count the completely choreographed curtain call) there must be two hundred different clips and segments. Some bear the unmistakable imprint of older movie sound tracks. Others come across as takes from live appearances complete with audience reaction. Still others sound like studio recording sessions. There are segments without background music, segments with blaring accompanying big bands and segments with lush, full studio orchestras. Yet they balance perfectly.

The set by Jim Boutin looks exactly right as a small night club stage. Most of the surfaces are white so they pick up Mark T. Simpson’s lighting effects. Epperson uses practically every square inch of the area but his funniest bits come as he moves between three spotlights assuming a different persona in each circle of light for just a moment.

Written and performed by John Epperson. Directed by Kevin Malony. Design: Jim Boutin (set) Bryant Hoven (costumes) Robert Sorrell (Jewelry) Mark T. Simpson (lights) John Epperson (soundtrack).

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May 15 – July 14, 2002
Lobby Hero

Reviewed May 26
Running time 2 hours 45 minutes
t Potomac Stages Pick

What a difference six years seems to make! Kenneth Lonergan wrote this play just six years after his 1996 effort This Is Our Youth which displayed such rich dialogue writing and well constructed individual characters but seemed structurally strained. Lobby Hero, on the other hand, is marked by deft plotting and solid structure while also treating the audience to dialogue delights delivered by intriguing characters. Thanks to Studio and Studio SecondStage, it is possible to see both these plays at the same time and to witness the growth of a significant playwright. But whether you see the earlier effort or not, Potomac Stages urges you not to miss Lobby Hero, an entertaining and engrossing portrait of life in the midlevel quagmire of modern American urban environs.

Storyline: The guard in the lobby of a Manhattan apartment building engages his supervisor in a conversation which leads to the revelation of the supervisor’s role in providing a false alibi to save his brother from prosecution for a horrible crime. Should he reveal the truth to the authorities? His quandary is complicated by his admiration for his supervisor, his attraction to a young female rookie cop and his confrontation with her partner.

Just four characters: but what well-constructed, marvelously-developed ones. Each is revealed in small increments. Bits and pieces of character-revealing detail emerge from natural-sounding conversations – the kind of conversations people have in the long hours of midnight shifts where prolonging the discussion means filling up empty time and anything seems a reasonable subject for exploration. None of the characters turns out to be what they first appear, but the evolution of the audience’s understanding of their individual traits is managed with transparent skill.

Studio has brought Jason Schuchman down from Boston to repeat his award-winning performance as the guard. He inhabits the part the way an actor who has played a particular role many, many times does but his performance feels fresh as if he’s discovering new depths in the character this very evening. The play is not a star piece, however. It is an ensemble piece and the other three actors join him in creating a satisfying whole. Tina Frantz’s portrayal of the rookie cop gets deeper and richer as the evening progresses and Daniel Cantor’s bluster as her partner works very well. Clark Jackson gets some of the depth of the supervisor’s role across but leaves the impression that there is more there to mine.

As is so often the case at Studio, the physical production is an evocation of an environment so solid as to appear sliced from the outside world and dragged inside. This lobby is like every security-guarded, pricy high rise apartment building’s lobby, complete down to the candy wrappers on the floor, the fed-ex packages awaiting pick-up and the "all visitors must sign in" sign next to the reception desk. Even the cardboard coffee cup appears to be one of those you get in all-night neighborhood markets in New York. The same blue cups show up over in SecondStage’s mounting of This Is Our Youth. I wonder which properties mistress, Youth’s Diane Graves or Hero’s Michelle Elwyn brought them down from New York City or tracked them down locally. Props, lights, costumes, sounds all contribute to a feeling of reality. It is a feeling that matches the work of playwright Lonergan.

Written by Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by J.R. Sullivan. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Reggie Ray (costumes) Michelle Elwyn (properties) Michael Philippi (lights) Neil McFadden (sound). Cast: Jason Schuchman, Tina Frantz, Daniel Cantor, Clark Jackson.

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March 20 – April 28, 2002

Reviewed March 24
Running time 2 hours 5 minutes
t Potomac Stages Pick

It is a rare pleasure to see Aeschylus’ twenty-five-hundred-year-old tragedy performed with clarity and style. It is an unprecedented pleasure to have it joined with an equally clear and stylish projection of where that story was leading. After all, Prometheus Bound was but one of three plays in the trilogy Aeschylus wrote on the already ancient legend of the god who gave fire to humankind. But the other two plays have not survived. Filling in the blanks is a fascinating game that Studio Theatre pursues with flair. Add to that a typically enjoyable turn by Ted van Griethuysen who gets to play Zeus, and you have a fine evening of theater.

Storyline: In the first act the god Prometheus is condemned to an eternity chained to the rock at the end of the world in punishment for having violated Zeus’ commandment that none of the gods should aid the newly created human race. This is the classic Greek tragedy of Aeschylus in a new and streamlined adaptation by contemporary author Sophy Burnham. In the second act, which is her creation, Prometheus and Zeus square off in a debate over the meaning of the punishment, the role of the gods and the nature of human existence.

This is a bifurcated production. The first half is not an exact replication of ancient theater. Rather, it is a set up for the more modern second half. But there are pleasures aplenty in that first half. There is a classic Greek chorus deployed by director Joy Zinnoman (assisted by "movement consultant" Meade Andrews) in a visual pattern that matches the vocal patterns of Deborah Wicks LaPuma’s musical score. There is Russell Metheny’s spare setting of stone steps surrounding the enchainment spot where William M. Hulings’s Prometheus strains against his bonds (the set construction crew must have worked miracles to create a structure that could withstand his pullings and tuggings). There is Jim Zadar’s troubled god of the forge, Timmy Ray James’ stylish god of power, Leo Erickson’s stilt-walking/cliché spouting god of – well, we could go on and on about which god is which.

After a brief intermission, Burnham’s view of what happened later unfolds on a modernized version of the set by actors in more modern garb delivering lines with a distinctly more modern informality. It is now millennia later and Prometheus’ punishment has come to an end. Ted van Griethuysen in sandals and a robe is Zeuss in civilian garb (he explains to Hulings’ Prometheus that his normal appearance is so grand he wouldn’t be able to stand it). The two of them take each other on in an intellectual battle of wills over which one’s approach to humankind is the better – Prometheus’ gifts of knowledge including the famous fire or Zeus’ gifts of the opportunity to discover truths on their own. Written as it has been in the modern time, this act contains some patently politically correct observations on such issues as pollution and abortion but it also sets out a fascinating comparison between two views of the role of the gods which act as surrogates for competing concepts of responsibility of many kinds, from parental to governmental. Hulings, who was all strength and struggle when chained, turns argumentative in this act. Van Griethuysen is down-to-earth as a god can be, showing a deeper sense of the duty of a deity and the pairing of parental pride and pain over the progress as well as the failings of humans.

Adapted from Aeschylus by Sophy Burnham. Directed by Joy Zinoman. Original musical score by Deborah Wicks LaPuma. Design: Russell Metheny (set) Helen Q. Huang (costumes) Michael Lincoln (lights) Neil McFadden (sound.) Cast: William M. Hulings, Ted van Griethuysen, Timmy Ray James, James Zidar, Maurice Allain, Leo Erickson, Sarah Marshall, Tom Story, Peter Cassidy and a chorus of the 16 daughters of Ocean.

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January 2 – March 3, 2002

Reviewed January 6
Running time 2 hours 35 minutes

Hambone is so much a Studio Theatre experience that it almost feels like déjà vu, yet it features newcomers who fit right in. Yes, the cast includes Doug Brown, back where he has appeared many times, and Timothy Rice is making his eleventh Studio appearance, but three of the five member cast are new to Studio. Yes, it is directed by Regge Life who directed Jitney here last year, but that was only his first Studio play. It even has a set by the first new set designer to work at Studio in seventeen years. Still, the audience exits with the same sense of theatrically induced exhilaration as they did following such Studio experiences as Jitney last season and Master Harold and the Boys the season before that.

Storyline: In 1988, the owner of a sandwich shop in Anderson, South Carolina comes to grips with his own history and that of the youth he raised when the unusual event of a white man entering the shop for a cup of coffee sets off a chain of reactions none of them could predict.

Playwright Javon Johnson is frequently referred to as a protégé of August Wilson whose Jitney was so powerfully staged by Life last year. There are similarities in plotting and in theme and in the dramatic command of street language, but Hambone should be seen because of its strengths, not because of its linkage to Wilson. Johnson is a playwright who clearly likes people. His characters all have human weaknesses but they all are treated with a respectful affection. This two-act play has seven scenes, each a well constructed theatrical piece that could stand alone as a short one-act play. Each has its own "hook" and each is fascinating on its own terms. But they link together as part of a linear narrative, building a momentum that drives satisfyingly to a powerful climax.

A Potomac Region debut of note is Jamahl Marsh’s portrayal of the young man raised by the proprietor of Bishop’s Sandwich Shop. His transition from innocent youth through disillusionment to a promising young adult is a fascinating journey to witness. While each of the characters in the play undergo life-changing moments, Marsh actually changes in stages throughout the performance, becoming a very different person by the end than the one he was at the start. Doug Brown, as the shop’s proprietor, is fascinating to watch as well. But he builds toward a climax of his own which, at least on opening night, was weakened by a vocal hoarseness.

Debra Booth’s ultra-realistic set is a marvel. At first it appears to be a clever duplication of a sandwich shop of the period with real napkin holders, sugar jars, coffee makers and hot sauce bottles. Booth and properties designer Michelle Elwyn extend their attention to details such as laminated menus actually reading "Bishop’s Sandwich Shop," a Jesse Jackson for President bumper sticker and an Anderson South Carolina newspaper in the rack (although there was an Koons Arlington Toyota add on the second shelf). But, as the play proceeds it becomes clear that the set is much more than a mere replication. With a wrap-around audience, it manages to act as a lens to focus attention to one area of the shop even as individual events break out from the center. Two exteriors built out to the wings make the confined space of the shop part of a larger world. It is beautifully lit by Michael Giannitti.

Written by Javon Johnson. Directed by Regge Life. Design: Debra Booth (set) Michael Giannitti (lights) Reggie Ray (costumes) Gil Thompson (sound) Michelle Elwyn (properties.) Cast: Doug Brown, David Toney, Jamahl Marsh, Luis A. Laporte, Jr, Timothy Rice.

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November 14 – December 30, 2001
A New Brain

Reviewed November 18
Running time 1 hour 40 minutes

Simply put, this is one of the highlights of the 2001 theater year. The opportunity to witness a cast this good performing a work this strong in a production this fine doesn’t come along very often – so get your tickets before it is too late!

Storyline: When show-music writer William Finn survived treatment for a potentially fatal brain abnormality, he wrote a musical about a show-music writer who survived treatment for a potentially fatal brain abnormality. With abundant good humor the story which could have been about death becomes a positively joyful life-affirming testament with half a dozen intriguing characters.

Tony Award winner Michael Rupert’s relocation from New York to Washington pays off handsomely not only for him (he says he can walk to work now from his 16th street apartment) but for audiences in the Potomac Region. He is known for his work in other musicals by William Finn and was nominated for a second Tony Award for the role of Marvin in Finn’s Falsettos. His performance here is not to be missed.

And what a supporting cast! Will Gartshore, who was wonderful in Floyd Collins and fabulous in Grand Hotel is better in A New Brain. Judy Simmons, who has made something of a career of Sondheim’s "Ladies Who Lunch" can now substitute "The Music Still Plays On" as her big number. This production has Andrea Frierson-Toney tearing up the hall with "Change" and Scott Leonard Fortune doing the same with "Eating Myself Up Alive." Buzz Mauro even manages to give the part of a heartless TV kids-show host a hint of decency (as well as executing some clever choreographic touches with his feet suggestive of the frog his character plays on TV.)

Finn’s play, written with James Lapine who co-wrote Falsettos with him and Into the Woods and Passion with Stephen Sondheim, is almost non-stop singing with only a few lines of dialogue here and there. Thirty-three songs in ninety-three minutes, every one of them involving inventive lyrics and strong melodies with rich harmonies, tell the story in a clear, fluid set of scenes. A four-piece band using two keyboards gives solid support. Just as the score is sparkling, so is the visual impact of the show: A clean modern set, sharp colorful costumes and bright lighting create a world the songwriter values as he faces his own mortality.

Music and lyrics: William Finn. Book: James Lapine and William Finn. Direction: Serge Seiden. Choreography: Michael J. Bobbitt. Orchestrations are uncredited but sound very much like those of Michael Starobin who did the originals. Vocal arrangements: Jason Robert Brown. Music Direction: Jay Crowder with Alex Tang, George Hummel and Mac Dinitz in the band. Design: Daniel Conway (set) Michael Giannitti (lights) Devon Painter (Costumes) Maureen M. Tobin (sound.) Cast: Michael Rupert, Will Gartshore, Andrea Frierson-Toney, Judy Simmons, Scott Leonard Fortune, Buzz Mauro, Mary Jayne Raleigh, Kristy Glass, Eric Lee Johnson, Duncan Hood.

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September 19 - November 11, 2001
Far East

Reviewed September 28

A.R. Gurney’s intimate semi-auto-biographical play benefits immensely from the substantial feel of Joy Zinoman’s production and the appropriateness of the decor of the Milton theater upstairs at Studio. The room is absolutely perfect for a play set in the American enclave post Korean War Japan. The theater’s face-mask lamps look like they were designed for this piece

Storyline: In 1954 a young Navy officer reports for duty to the American Naval Base at Yokosuka, Japan. The officer revels at the opportunity to expand his world while his commanding officer, and his commanding officer’s wife, want to protect him from foreign intrigues and corruptions. This isn’t so much a clash of western and eastern cultures as a clash between the adventurousness and openness of youth and the caution and security consciousness of maturity.

Among the principals, the most satisfying performance comes from Rick Foucheux as the commanding officer. This is his Studio Theatre debut after his Helen Hayes Award performance in “Edmond” at Source where he is a resident artist.

The most memorable performance, however, comes from Mia Whang who is a graduate of Studio’s Acting Conservatory making her mainstage debut. She is the “Reader” who sits through the entire production on a raised platform, contributing the lines of all the secondary characters using only variations in vocal mannerisms to distinguish between them.

Gurney’s use of the concept of the “Reader” is the very theatrical ploy he uses to keep this western-man-meets-east plot from seeming like a spin off of either “Tea House of the August Moon” “Sayonara” “Miss Saigon” or “Madam Butterfly.” It works and that makes for a most engaging evening of theater.