The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Monday, November 7, 2011

New from The Virginia Playwrights’ Forum

A Kind of Conscience Is Interesting Theater

            A company of nine actors and two directors have obviously put heart and soul into bringing the work of six new, ten-minute plays to the stage of Norfolk’s Venue at 35th for a two-weekend run which began Nov. 5. The result is an evening of interesting, if not always flawless, theater.
            All the plays but one are the work of local playwrights of the Virginia Playwrights Forum. The lone exception is by a student in the MA program in playwrighting at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, connected here through her teacher, whose own short play is also in the line-up.
            The plays have been gathered under the title A Kind of Conscience, suggesting some link in each to a moral dilemma that may not quite fit the norm of what we understand as “conscience.” But what that “kind of conscience” is may not be easy to spot in all the skits.
            And perhaps the word “skits” is not quite appropriate to describe this ten-minute-play form. Surely there is a particular kind of craft to it, which, judging by the examples currently on display at The Venue, seems to demand a dramatic situation focused upon a single, pointed moral or philosophical idea. It helps if the presentation also entertains an audience.
            A Kind of Conscience opens with a learned—perhaps a better word is “erudite”—contribution, Patti Wray’s “Shylock: The Jew that Shakespeare Drew.” It’s a clever idea. Shylock, played with aplomb by Cliff Hoffman, brings a lawsuit against his creator, William Shakespeare, for racial profiling and defamation of character. Hearing the case are three judges personifying Ancient Theater, Elizabethan Theater, and, in an amusing touch, Modern Theater, who is trying to catch up by reading The Merchant of Venice for her first time as the trial unfolds.
            That’s one of a few good laughs in the piece, which, however, comes to a questionably simple verdict that seems hastily developed. But what strikes me most is Wray’s documented data on the depth of prejudice against Jews found in the literature of Shakespeare’s England, where, as her Shylock points out, the elite systemically vilified and ghettoized his people—unless, of course, they needed to borrow money.
            Cheryl Sharp’s personification of Modern Theater catches attention. E. Mike Ziegler and Dale Watson as theaters Ancient and Elizabethan, having less to work with from the script, come across more stereotypically.
            Next up on the program is “Memorial Day” by Denise Dillard, a witty writer who works in layers of feelings, often contradictory, which subtly or secretly gnaw at her characters, as in last summer’s Jack and Jillian, previously reviewed in this column.
            In the present piece, on a contemporary Memorial Day a bored teen-aged daughter arrives with her mother to lay flowers on the grave of her grandfather, killed in World War II. Unexpectedly, her great-grand mother—her mother’s grandmother—shows up with flowers, too. Only they’re not really for the man the younger women think they’re for. Long-kept secrets spill out,
            Amelia Dobbs as the teenage daughter and Angela Best as her mother make a believable pair of family members—each consistently straining at the tether of the other—while Bobbi Hite keeps everyone guessing until the end, when the meaning of it all is made clear in a single concluding line reminiscent of that old Rolling Stones song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
            Closing the evening’s first act is John FX  Delaney’s chilling—at times over-chilling—”Showers,” a play of Nazi evil in which a German Jew, once decorated for heroism for his country in World War I, is sent to the showers—that is, to the gas chamber—by a cold-hearted World War II commandant who is impervious to appeal.
            Joel King is The Commandant, as despicable a Nazi as anyone has ever seen, yet at times I thought I detected a comical hint of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his bombastic delivery. Perhaps that’s not inappropriate.
            Mike Ziegler is on top of his game as the persecuted innocent, Prisoner 1736, who is led out of The Commandant’s office unaware of the multiple atrocities about to be visited upon him and his family. Jonathan Hite as Schmidt, the Nazi guard, is steadfastly anonymous, a feat worth noting in any actor.
            Following an intermission, Act II begins promisingly with Shari Graber’s “The Big Success,” initially a witty satire at the expense of phonies in the world of art patrons and critics. But it ends in poignancy, a portrait of a starving artist trapped in a Vincent-van-Gogh vise of impoverished anonymity.
            Jonathan Hite is Marty, the starving artist attending the gallery opening of his latest paintings. Amelia Dobbs is Claudine, who runs the gallery. The opening is proclaimed a rousing success. A wealthy, pretentiously artsy couple, played by E. Dale Watson and Angela Best, speak for all the unseen gallery patrons in their extravagant praise for the new work, given the nod as well by art critic Vincent Montague. (Hampton Roads audiences will undoubtedly get the lampoonery).
            However, there are no sales, and, though Claudine encourages Marty to “bask in the glow” of his big success, it slowly emerges that without a sale Marty is...well, best to leave that detail for paying audiences and say only that the piece uses satire effectively before, in a questionable shift of mood, it twists the knife. For their part, Hite and Dobbs glide along well together in their shaky partnership as promoter and client.
            Providing the gallery setting are a number of easels displaying paintings worthy of attention, the work of local artist Woody McBlair. Hopefully his career is going better than Marty’s!
            “The Trunk,” by Wilkes University playwrighting student L. Elizabeth Powers, is a morality tale set in the hinterland between the death and the final destination of a man who is trying to “take it with him.” The “it” in question is a large trunk full of memorabilia from what he perceives as his failed life.
            Cliff Hoffman is the Man in this case, met on “Platform One” by Jonathan Hite as the Ticket Agent, who informs him he can only take carry-on baggage with him on the train. But since it seems he cannot let the trunk go, he must take it to “Platform Two” to catch another train for a different destination.
            The allegory soon becomes apparent, as the Man, well played by Cliff Hoffman, is essentially guided by Hite’s calming therapeutic approach to reconcile with himself and make the better choice, as all would agree who can relate to an either-or nature in an afterlife. Also appearing poignantly in flashbacks is Angela Best as the Man’s Wife.
            Jean H. Klein’s “Curtain Call” closes the evening with a woozy fantasy of the theater in which the line between life and art is all but erased.
Here, an actor, having just been diagnosed with cancer, can no longer distinguish between himself and Terry, his character, who is a terminal cancer patient. The actress playing Olga, Terry’s wife, tries to help her colleague find perspective and sort out his identity crisis. Meanwhile, the actor playing Mike, the man Olga marries in Act II after Terry dies, is growing increasingly impatient with  waiting in the wings for his part to begin.
            For it seems Terry’s meltdown is happening before an audience which has come to see the play, and as his loss of reality infects the others the play falls apart,  an ultimate theatrical bomb.
            Cheryl Sharp as Olga, Joel King as Terry, and E. Dale Watson as Mike carry on like troupers, but somehow the piece’s promising psycho-social punch doesn’t quite land. Are these actors really in a live play or are they bickering with each other downstairs in the Green Room? We’re supposed to believe the former, but too often it seems to be the latter.
            Kathleen L. McBlair and Aliki Marie Pantas divide directorial duties, with Pantas in charge of “Memorial Day” and “The Trunk” while McBlair handles the remaining four. Together they have mounted an evening worthy of their obviously considerable effort. Pantas’ sound design deserves special mention.
            The ten-minute play is something of a novelty, but with so many playwrights at work here in Hampton Roads an evening of shorts is an ideal way to display their varied talents all in one evening. There are two more performances, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 12 and 13, at 8 p.m. at The Venue, 631 35th St., Norfolk. Tickets are $12. Call 757-469-0337 for reservations.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

“Nothing Is More Real Than Nothing”

Beckett Plays Well at The Venue

Samuel Beckett’s classic, Waiting for Godot—a long play about nothing—opened at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk Friday night (Oct. 14), as an earnest cast tackled the difficult script with enough gusto to make it work. If, that is, you don’t mind sitting through two-and-a-half hours about nothing.

Then again, is it really about nothing? It says it is—several times, cleverly and often eloquently. But if Beckett really means that, you must conclude that, to him, nothing is something worth talking about. And talking, and talking. Beckett was Irish, guaranteeing a certain amount of blarney well fermented in a no-nonsense Roman Catholic education.

He was also a disciple-friend of his countryman, novelist James Joyce. They met in 1928 in Paris, the cultural capital of the west between the world wars, and hung out together off and on with other writers and artists until Joyce’s death in 1941. Their experience, shaped by a Catholic education followed by the First World War, the excesses of the jazz age, and the Great Depression, gave rise to a kind of nihilism based in the perception that life is essentially meaningless—so much so as to be absurd.

And if nothing else Waiting for Godot, first produced in Paris in 1953, is absurd.

Two homeless tramps, Estragon and Vladimir, occupy an undefined space with a bench and a spindly tree, waiting for Godot to come. Instead, after a time, a pompous capitalist, Pozzo, shows up, dragging his slave, Lucky, behind him on a rope. Foolishness reigns, conversations go nowhere, clich├ęs fly like spit balls, all manner of human pretensions are mocked, slapstick pratfalls abound. There’s even a fart joke in Act II.

But, of course, it’s all quite serious. This is modern life, a Chaplinesque comi-tragedy of a humanity whose meaningless lives are but a blip in the eternity of an indifferent universe. We are born in a graveyard and the best we can do is find a way to entertain ourselves until we disappear. If, like Estragon and Vladimir, we have each other, it’s an addiction more than a free choice. As the two hobos say more than once, they’re happiest when they’re not together.

It’s good to live in a city where we can see this theatrical museum piece performed in a miniature theater that must be reminiscent of its first production. Director Denise Dillard has done a sophisticated job of mounting it. Viewing it is so much like looking into a time gone by that we can almost imagine the French Gestapo patrolling 35th Street outside. And there is much that applies to our situation today in the U.S.—the poverty and abuse rampant in a decaying, unequal society, the sense of chaos and madness lurking in every silence.

But it’s hard to avoid saying that it’s all a bit tedious. Some people seem to enjoy that. I never particularly have.

Dillard offsets the tedium a bit with periodic pauses in the onstage action while readers sitting to the right and left of the stage provide biographical and historical information. An actor portraying Beckett himself occasionally appears to add the author’s take on life and art. Some of what he says essentially explains the play, as in “Nothing is more real than nothing.” These interludes are helpful in filling out the play’s context.

The program notes inform us that this is a “workshop/documentary style production,” with one of the readers, Anna Sosa, also serving as prompter. Her services were frequently required by all the actors, which, it must be said, slowed things down when they’d already become tedious.

However, despite tedium, despite nothingness, despite inconsequential dialogue and virtually no plot, the actors make it entertaining enough to win our affection for their hopeless plight. Henry D’Alonzo and Mike Zeigler as Vladimir and Estragon have a winning chemistry together. Bill Armstrong’s exalted pomposity as Pozzo fulfills the character’s absurd ego-mania, and Andrei Fedyszyn’s portrayal of Lucky, with its schizoid personality shift from abject, faceless slave to babbling intellectual and back again, almost steals the show.

In a minor role, Matt Cole is affecting as the boy-messenger sent in at the end of each of the two acts to report to the tramps that Godot won’t be coming today but will come tomorrow. Cole also doubles as Beckett in the narrative breaks, while Tiffany Armstrong is the second off-stage reader.

Credit must certainly go to Anna Sosa for the authenticity of her costumes and to Aliki Pantas for her careful and precise lighting design.

And who is Godot?

Obviously, Godot is God, or at least the god the author was promised by the Church, and those poor souls who wait for him wait in vain.

If Beckett is to your taste—or even if he isn’t—you can see him well replicated in this faithful Venue production which runs through Oct 23—Friday and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $12—students and seniors $10. For reservations or more information, call 757-469-0337.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ambition Opens 2011-12 Season at the Generic

Enron Exposes the Criminal Roots of Irrational Exuberance

Norfolk’s Generic Theater opened its 31st season Friday night (Sept. 9) with the Virginia debut of British playwright Lucy Prebble's Enron, a seriously ambitious project for a company of avocational actors and technicians who are not likely to make even gas money for their obvious hard work and dedication. Let’s hope, at least, they get an excess of love and appreciation from packed houses for bringing this important show to the stage way-down-under in Chrysler Hall.

Do you remember Enron? I barely did, after the mind-numbing procession of corporate malfeasance that followed, continuing, of course, to this day. Yet remembering the Enron scandal is instructional, for with hindsight it becomes apparent that the energy company’s collapse was a canary in a coal mine. It signaled the presence of the subtle poison of self-undoing which unregulated free market capitalism had injected into our social contract, especially when practiced by certain highly torqued alpha males whose natural habitat is Texas.

Not that Texas has a monopoly on toxic alpha males in this land of the free. Wherever brains and massive ego outweigh common sense and old-fashioned decency, you will find the Jeff Skillings and Andy Fastows of this world busy dreaming, scheming, and making deals—smart guys who vastly underestimate their capacity for human error or, in obsolete parlance, Biblical sin.

“Sin,” in fact, may be the appropriate word for it, since Enron, though disguised as a contemporary docu-drama (if ten to fifteen years ago can be called contemporary), is really a traditional tale of three men in positions every bit as powerful as any classic monarch (Ken Lay) and his most trusted lords (Skilling and Fastow), whose vaulting ambition brings them down and, with them, many thousands of ordinary folks tied to their fortunes. You remember the news stories. What those guys pulled off was too clever for common understanding. It took place in an orgy of self-indulgence and narcissism, the epitome of Baby-Boomer excess, where somehow veneration for a pantheon of psychedelic saints morphed into a giddy chase after ever-more clever ways of appearing uber-rich when, in fact, there was no money in the bank, let alone illumination in the mind.

Matt Friedman, whose sharp direction was behind last season’s satisfying Darwin in Malibu at the Generic, takes up the formidable chore of bringing Enron to fulfillment as a large-cast musical with high-tech edge. Video projections surround the audience on three sides at regular intervals, with a main screen high on an upstage wall. Voice-overs and a library of music cues and sound bytes provide a cinematic overlay to the live action. Sophisticated lighting, enhanced with all manner of colored novelty blinkers and pulsers, add energy and excitement to much of the action. A cast of 24, many playing multiple roles, including singing and dancing, must have required countless hours of rehearsal. Don’t even ask how Matt Friedman spent his summer.

Of course, it’s the story that carries the play, and it’s the characters who weave the story. In Enron, Playwright Prebble manages to create a fairly riveting narrative of a complex, even arcane, web of financial maneuvers and manipulations that I, for one, strain in vain to comprehend. But I can understand what it’s adding up to because the characters, in their arcs from a rising “irrational exuberance” to descent into ruin and disgrace, are clear.

Ken Lay, the founder of Enron, likes to see himself as the benevolent patriarch of the corporation. As played by Chris Kypros, he comes across as an old-fashioned Chamber-of-Commerce type who believes business is America’s religion. He easily becomes enabler to the get-rich-quick schemes proposed by Skilling, played by Kent Collins, who himself is brought to a higher level of corruption by a numbers man, Andy Fastow, played by Ethan Marten.

Marten’s Fastow—bordering on psychopathic—is a work of art, a stand-out performance. His accounting bargain with the devil, symbolized by three dancing reptilian figures he plays with like a lion trainer, is the show’s most pointed, poison-tipped dagger. Collin’s Skilling, on the other hand, is much less blind to the danger he’s in and so more vulnerable. His undoing is his ego-mania, his arrogant conviction that he’s smarter than anyone else. Collins is convincing as the confident Skilling but less emotionally certain of the ruined Skilling, who was ultimately convicted of nineteen counts of conspiracy and fraud and sentenced to 24 years in prison, a mighty fall for a proud elitist. Fastow, by cooperating with prosecutors, got off with two counts and six years, though he was the brains behind the creative accounting that led to a debt of $30 billion and, in 2002, bankruptcy of a company once considered the leading light of American business genius.

As for Lay, he was charged with six criminal offenses but died before trial of a reported heart failure tainted by the suspicion he may have deliberately fallen on his own sword.

Completing the principal characters is Claudia Roe, played alluringly by Generic President Jeannette Rainey. Lay passes her over in favor of Skilling as company CEO, which turns a casual sexual relationship between her and Skilling into a smoldering distrust. Skilling eventually forces her out of the company, which saves her from prosecution later when the big guys fall. In the final analysis, it would not be too far wrong to say Roe is the play’s only winner, for her special project—a real-world power plant in India—is the only success that still stands when the giant house of cards built by the others finally falls. She’s also the only one of the bunch who’s honest, though her ambition is considerable as well. Rainey conveys these complexities with assurance.

Surrounding the principles are countless bits of competent performances by actors too numerous to name, the largely anonymous employees, investment analysts, traders, journalists, and family members of the principals—a vast chorus of citizens who appear and disappear in one fast-paced scene after another. Without them, the play would lose its sweeping scope, recreating a national rather than an individual tragedy.

Yet that sweeping scope brings with it enormous technical considerations, not the least of which is a scene change every few minutes. It’s nearly a three-hour play, so that’s a lot of scene changes. As the play wraps up, running crew members pushing flats and furniture about in the dark compete for focus with short scenes of denouement unfolding in various locations in the light. Meanwhile, opening night nerves and glitches were at times obvious throughout but will no doubt smooth over as the play’s run continues.

No mere theater review can do justice to the enormous investment of local time and talent that has gone into this production. But with video newscast performances by WTKR Channel 3 news anchor Barbara Ciara and WHRV/WHRO talk-show host Cathy Lewis splashed on the theater walls, you can begin to understand the scope of community involvement and support. Meanwhile, network video archives of some of our favorite political celebrities of the era—Enron cronies Bill Clinton, Alan Greenspan, and both George Bushes, to name the most prominent—remind us that Enron was a national scandal, not merely another case of corporate bad apples caught red-handed. We may not have known much about Enron at the time, but most of us voted for at least one of those enabling politicians, making us complicit.

Why retell this story now? The answer should be obvious to anyone who’s paying attention. The problem was never fixed. And at the 10th anniversary of 9-11, it’s impossible not to notice the synchronicity of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers with the collapse of Enron. Remembering that it was Osama bin Laden’s stated objective to bleed America until it is bankrupt, we can speculate that he needn’t have bothered. We’re obviously capable of bankrupting ourselves. Much of what we see in the flawed characters of Lay, Skilling, and Fastow is reflected in our own national hubris. There is a price to be paid for projecting ourselves as the best and smartest in the world, which is how we like to see ourselves. (Few outside our borders agree.) The Generic’s respectably professional, entertaining production is a must-see for any American seeking perspective on our current state of multiple national emergencies.

Enron continues at the Generic Thursday through Sunday until Oct. 2. All performances are at 8 except for Sunday matinees at 2:30. Tickets are $15 general admission, $12 for seniors, military, and students, and $10 for groups of ten or more. For information and reservations, call 757-441-2160 or, on the web, go to

Friday, August 19, 2011

Play Fest Opens Summer's 9th New Work

Stronger and Leaner, Nat's Last Struggle Returns

“Nat’s Last Struggle,” the ninth and final new play of the Norfolk Summer Play Fest, opened last night at The Venue, and though I’d seen an earlier version (and reviewed it here), I found myself caught in its spell once again. The story alone is captivating.

But my earlier review (posted in the Thinking Dog Reviews archives for 2009) really says it all about the spell of this production. There isn’t much I’d write differently now.

George T. Davis III, the solo actor who plays Nat Turner, has modulated his powerful voice and is more centered in his role than in 2009. His performance is very convincing yet still developing, and if he has the opportunity to keep playing this role it can only keep growing in subtlety and complexity.

For if nothing else Nat Turner was a complex character—a point playwright Patti Wray has digested well. She has captured and Davis has brought to the stage a man we can understand.

In her Nat, the Christian gospels have become so entwined in his consciousness with the horror of being a slave that all he can imagine is an apocalyptic resolution between good and evil which, he increasingly believes, God has chosen him to instigate.

I suppose today we might call Nat Turner a terrorist. But we can also see why Nat might think the way he did. Given his circumstances, any of us might conclude that God has chosen us to free our people from the horrors of bondage. It’s a common theme among the religious insane.

The trouble with the insanity theory is that Nat’s visions were literally prophetic. They foresaw the Civil War, much as the Apostle John foresaw the fall of Rome in his Revelation (which Nat especially related to).

Wray has pruned this version from the last, cleaning out some dead wood and adding further details. Though barely an hour long, it’s a surprise to realize it’s over. Nat is washed clean in the blood of the lamb, justified and forgiven, if only in his own mind.

“Nat’s Last Struggle” remains as much education as strong drama. Many people, black and white, don’t know the story of Nat Turner, and, while Wray makes no claim to a factual biography, she may have one-bettered history by giving us a Nat who is not shadowy but definite and also credible.

Finally, there’s a lot in this piece concerning what the cost of slavery has been for both races. The conclusions are quite verifiable in slavery’s long aftermath, which continues to this day. Michelle Bachman recently assured us of that.

Dani Spratley deftly handles the relatively complex light and sound cues of the current production. It’s worth seeing and hearing and continues at The Venue tonight at 8, tomorrow (Sunday) at 2:30, and next Friday and Saturday Aug. 26-27, at 8. For more information and reservations, call 757-469-0337. The Venue is located at 631 W. 35th St., Norfolk, VA.

I hope in a later post to offer my reflections as I look back on the first season of the Norfolk Summer Play Fest.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

You vs. Opens at The Venue

CORE Theatre Ensemble Starts a Conversation

With a relatively gentle irony CORE Theatre Ensemble skimmed through the average, American middle-class family experience in less than an hour last night (Aug. 5), evoking laughter, recognition, empathy, and a bit of puzzlement in its opening night audience at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk.

CORE Ensemble from left: Emel Ertugrul, Edwin Castillo, Laura Agudelo.
Not shown: Nancy Dickerson

You vs. is an ensemble-created piece with polished performances by Laura Agudelo, Nancy Dickerson, and company co-founders Emel Ertugrul and Edwin Castillo. In their briskly moving formations and rapid-fire verbal pick-up, they have created a tight, well-choreographed, visual and aural poem of associative one-liners, with one beat quickly following another for the length of the play.

Or is it a play? Better to call it a theatre piece, though there is a kind of plot as the actors, who are playing “you”—i.e., we—are born, grow up, hate their parents, graduate, get jobs, seek relationships, become desperate, finally get married, have children, and the whole cycle starts in again, with “you” always developing some sort of conflict with someone else. Thus, the show’s title: You vs.

It’s the human condition. At least, CORE Theatre Ensemble suggests it is, and who could disagree?

But that, if anything, is the main weakness of the piece. Sharper on technique than on content, it takes no philosophical risks, echoing the wide consensus among humanistic believers of an acceptance, tinged in melancholy, of the normal cycles of human generation and regeneration as somehow ennobling, a lot worthy of our embrace.

However, the piece can cause you to think about questions it does not specifically ask but definitely begs. Do you remember what an ordeal it was to live with your parents? Are you any different as a parent yourself? Why do we start out loving our new jobs and co-workers and after awhile hate them? Why do parents seem to forget what it was like when they were children? Why does every generation make so many of the same mistakes?

Other questions, asked but not answered, can also provoke thought. Why is the sky blue (not green or yellow)? Where do babies really come from? What happens to us when we die? Why do we have to go to funerals? And—a recurring one—what’s next?

If, as the playbill reads, CORE seeks to start a conversation, the company has delivered a fertile field for plowing.

My favorite beat is the four ensemble members witnessing a human birth, with varied reactions from shielding the eyes to rapt amazement, reminding us that “the miracle of birth” is a very messy, undignified, unsavory process.

But not all scenes are as easy to read. The beat least clear to me has to do with popping balloons of hope lonely people have floated in the personal ads. The stage business of filling the balloons from a portable helium tank tends to steal focus. Aside from that—or maybe because of it—the intent of the beat itself seems muddy.

Still, like all CORE’s work, You vs. is edgy, intelligent, and, in this case at least, quite amusing.

It is also the eighth of nine new plays produced this summer in the first annual Norfolk Summer Play Fest, a project shared jointly by The Venue, the Generic Theater, and Little Theater of Norfolk. The Thinking Dog has seen them all and has left reviews of them on this page.

You vs. continues tonight at 8 and next weekend, Fri. and Sat., Aug. 12 and 13, also at 8. There are no Sunday performances. Admission is $12. For reservations or info, call 469-0337.

The final play in this year’s Summer Play Fest is Nat’s Last Struggle, by P.A. Wray, playing two weekends, Aug. 19-28, at The Venue. For a review of an earlier version of that show, see the archives on this site for Aug., 2009.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Norfolk Summer Play Fest Continues

Too Many Eulogies Slow Down The Eulogist

Chip Fortier’s The Eulogist, third and final offering in the Generic Theater’s New Plays for Dog Days series, begins well, with much dark and deeply funny wit at the expense of the funeral industry, among other victims.

But mid-way through the first act it begins to waver, and we’re not certain if the play is meant to be taken seriously or as a farce.

By the time it ends, it’s looking a bit like a tidy sit-com. The hero gets the break he’s given up hope for, things are promising with the girl, and the best friend continues to be the jerk he’s always been.

All in good fun. Or is it?

Death and funerals, of course, are an unavoidable part of life, forcing even the most cheerful to pause for a moment of reflection. But death jokes are a booming business, as well, as Mr. Graves the mortician well knows.

He’s the unscrupulous undertaker who’s burying Walter Page’s father, who has just died as the play begins. Walter is a screen writer who hasn’t yet sold a script. He lives with his best friend Artie and struggles with self-esteem.

But we soon learn that Walter is a secret connoisseur of famous eulogies and can quote from them at length, as he demonstrates for Artie through several examples—eulogies for Winston Churchill, FDR, John and Bobby Kennedy, and a few others. Too many.

In any case, it is Walter’s family duty to prepare and deliver a eulogy for his father, which he accomplishes with eloquence and emotional sincerity. This gains him attention. Women come on to him, and soon he’s asked to write eulogies for paying clients.

Room mate Artie, sniffing money (and women) to be made on eulogies, jumps in as Walter’s partner, and the play takes off. Or it should.

Instead, problems begin to accumulate. There are many scenes, some quite short, alternating for the most part between a Catholic funeral sanctuary and Walter and Artie’s living room. Because the changes are complicated, they also take time, slowing the pace of the action.

But the action has already slowed in uncertainty about where the play is going. Is it still a farce? Or is it about Walter’s misery over his father’s death and where it has taken him?

A supporting ensemble of six portrays a variety of mourners, each delivering a portion of a eulogy as Walter and Artie turn them out like packages of cream cheese on an assembly line. But do we have to taste so many to get the idea?

The concept of an unsuccessful screen writer making a hit as a eulogist is very evocative. It could go in any number of interesting directions, from farce to sentimental romance to drama for mature audiences. But as it stands now, albeit with plenty of healthy laughs along the way, The Eulogist is a play with promise in search of clarity. And brevity.

The cast of ten, led by Jeff Anderson as Walter and Marcus Richardson as Artie—and studiously costumed for every change of scene by Celia Burnett—displays a singular commitment to the production. No one who has never done a play can conceive of how many hours of preparation it takes, on and off the set, before the audience is invited in. This cast, with crew, seems to have put in those hours (long scene changes and botched lighting cues notwithstanding).

The Eulogist continues at the Generic this weekend, Sat., July 22, at 8, Sun., July 23, at 2:30, and next weekend, Thurs.-Sat., July 28-30, at 8, closing Sun., July 31, at 2:30. For more information, click here.

The Norfolk Summer Play Fest, in which the Generic’s Dog Days series is participating, moves next to The Venue on 35th on Aug. 5, when Core Theatre Ensemble will open its latest new work, You vs.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

At Little Theater of Norfolk

Two New Plays Tested in Staged Readings

Little Theater of Norfolk hosted two staged readings of new plays, the fifth and sixth in the Norfolk Summer Play Fest 2011, with P.A. Wray’s Love Songs for the Road read on Friday, July 15, and Jean Klein’s Refractions of Light on Saturday, July 16. Both playwrights are members of the Virginia Playwrights Forum, centered here in Hampton Roads.

Wray’s Love Songs has been through several revisions over a number of years, its most recent, previous incarnation as a staged reading at The Venue on 35th in September, 2009. (My critique of that version remains posted in the Thinking Dog Reviews archives.)

With this latest version, Wray hoped to eliminate some of the problems audience members identified in 2009 during a talk-back session after the performance. In that effort she was somewhat but not entirely successful.

I’ll skip the plot summary, which appears in the earlier review, saying only that, with her story of romantic love between a widowed grandmother and a truck driver twenty years her junior, Wray taps into a rich vein of social and psychological material, red meat for any writer. Added to that is the stimulation of intrigue, as the widow’s meddling children, insisting they are doing the best thing for Mother, plot to break up her romance and, essentially, take her into protective custody, powerless to exert her own will as they wait (and perhaps hope) for her to die.

Thus the play is, foremost, a cry for senior liberation from the social stereotypes and resulting restraints put upon elders by the generation they gave birth to. Particularly destructive is the denial of the freedom to love again. These themes come across quite clearly. There is nothing muddled about them.

It seems to me, then, that Love Songs is at core a political play about civil rights for seniors.

Problems arise, though, in repeating loops of dialogue and in the development of the characters, whom Wray attempts to present as rounded human beings when they also represent different sides of a debate.

For that reason the play drifts about rudderless at times, with a character like eldest son Martin coming across as a villain of melodrama, shamelessly bullying his weaker siblings into betraying their mother, while the lovers gain our sympathy as sincere and believable human beings. Foundering between political parody and psychological realism, which way should the play go?

Personally, I think the best bet is to go with a Brechtian-style parody with clear-cut villains and heroes and good and evil plainly marked. That is where the strength of this play has always been. But as currently written, the stage time spent on explaining real-world motivations, legal maneuvers, and double-crosses among family members bogs down the action. Suspending realism for parody might eliminate the need for much of that.

But parody may not be what the author has in mind. In that case, my advice is to identify more clearly each character’s emotional center. The place to begin is with Martin, whose despicable actions drive the plot. Where is his vitriol coming from? What is his vulnerability, his soft spot?

Wray has provided one possibility without particularly focusing on it. It’s that Martin can’t stand to think of his widowed mother with a lover, especially one close to his own age. (Is the conflict oedipal?) Conceivably, then, all Martin’s actions can be explained—and satirized—from that point of reference, where he is not evil but, for a variety of reasons, scared stiff by his mother’s unconventional behavior, which threatens the fragile balance of his own unstable world.

With Martin’s character settled, the clarity of the others’ should emerge with more ease.

The assembled actors for Love Songs were genuine troupers, giving dedicated performances under director Aliki Pantas.

Candy Dennis and Andrei Fedyszyn were convincing as the more youthful Ellie and her love, Jim. Bobbie Hite and Mike Hoover were committed as Ellie and Jim after they’d aged, but those roles need refining, particularly in the second act. What makes Jim come back? Is Ellie faking her dementia or is it real?

Bill Armstrong is a hoot as the evil brother Martin. But his characterization also raises the issue of whether this play is a drama or a melodrama.

With that fly in the ointment, Jason Martens and Elizabeth Dickerson, who play brother Stu and sister Carol, are left with mushy identities to work with, initially following Martin like sheep, then shifting into principled rescuers to facilitate a happy ending. Meanwhile, Jon Hite’s role as a policeman has potential as farce, but his role as Brock, attorney-to-the-rescue to defend the lovers, is probably not necessary to a firmed-up plot.

Also unnecessary are Ellie’s four offstage children. The three onstage brats are quite enough to make the case.

We as a society don’t understand the elder years, largely because so relatively few people up to now have experienced them. Making matters worse is our glorification of youth and marginalization of age. We are still an ageist culture. Love Songs for the Road lays the groundwork for a fresh look at those prejudiced attitudes.

Jean Klein’s Refractions of Light deals with a double-dose of prejudice—anti-Semitism and American racism—which are woven into a common bond established between a Jewish-American holocaust survivor and an African-American survivor of a state mental hospital. The two realities, Klein suggests, are equally shattering.

But that’s giving away the ending. Before then, the play tells the story of social change from 1924 to 1980 as it manifests in the refracted light of a stained glass window in the parlor of an elegant house in the Berkley section of Norfolk.

It can’t pretend to critique the script in any meaningful way. The play was a staged reading only in the sense that it was a reading of a play on a stage, bare except for a rectangular stained-glass window suspended from above. It was up to the actors, with little rehearsal, to walk through the play miming everything—telephones, tea cups, the darkness of night, knocks on the door, even a live baby—and with scripts in their hands much was lost in translation.

Still, the story is clear enough, if also a little odd. A young white woman, Rose, agrees to raise the child of her friend, a young black woman, Lily, should Lily die. She does die, and the child, Nettie, grows up in Rose’s house with the stained-glass window.

Twenty years later Joe, Nettie’s black sweetheart, comes back from World War II with the idea that racial equality’s day has come. He wants to marry Nettie and, funded by the GI Bill, buy Rose’s house and go to college to become a lawyer. He realizes that last dream, but Nettie, already pregnant with Joe’s child, disappears, and Rose, now an old woman fading into the other world, hedges on selling Joe the house because of the tensions it could cause in a respectable white neighborhood.

Four years later Rose has died, and Harry, a German Jew prospering in America as a neighborhood grocer, has bought her house. He hires Joe, back from law school, as his lawyer. End Act I.

Act II takes place in 1980, with Harry, now in his 60s, holding out against city developers who are tearing down the old houses on his block to make way for gentrification. Joe, still his lawyer, can’t block Harry’s certain eviction. To say more would be to say too much, but the house, which black, white Protestant, and Jew all at one time called home, binds them together in a warm embrace of common humanity, even though the bulldozers will soon arrive to tear the house down. What we do with that ambiguity is left to us.

Does it work? Under the extreme minimalist conditions of this reading, it’s impossible to judge. Too much was left to the imagination. It was like watching a first rehearsal, with the secrets hidden in the words barely activated.

But even if a number of points in the script may need clarification, the play’s through-line is secure from beginning to end. There are just moments of confusion when something seems to be missing.

One of those moments recurred for me several times, whenever the light shining through the stained-glass window was mentioned. Clearly the window is meant as a unifying motif, referenced even in the play’s title. But I thought the house was the leading symbol.

An energetic cast did a credible job of bringing the story alive with no technical enhancement. Francis Mitchell, Jennifer Kelly-Cooper, Philip Wrencher, Brittney Harris, and Cliff Hoffman, all acting largely on instinct, carved out some interesting rough-draft characters. James Bryan directed and read top-of-scene stage directions. LTN Artistic Director Brendan Hoyle led the post-show talk-backs for both staged readings.

The Norfolk Summer Play Fest continues at the Generic Theater next weekend, July 22-24, with the premier of Chip Fortier’s The Eulogist.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Norfolk Summer New Play Fest Continues

Barking Dog Days and CEOsDon’t Be Surprised If It Bites!

Which is better? To succeed in the competitive struggle to reach the top floors of the corporate tower or to be unceremoniously dumped down the stairs and shown out the door?

According to the play I just saw at Norfolk’s Generic Theater, neither will bring Jack or Jillian fulfillment. In fact, there’s no telling what will bring them fulfillment.

But a commitment to rising in the corporate tower is definitely a life purpose they share. (Well, there’s also alcohol.)

Jack and Jillian, a substantive, two-scene comi-drama by Norfolk playwright Denise Dillard—the second production in the Generic’s New-Plays-for-Dog-Days summer season—pokes satirical fun at corporate existence, but it’s not all funny. A lot of it is pointed and poignant.

Jack, a successful executive in the corporate command structure, is surviving very well. But he’s not living. In fact, he’s miserable. He longs to escape. If only he could persuade Jillian to marry him and run away together. Barring that, he’ll fantasize riding his motorcycle into the sunset with Joy, a bohemian hitch-hiker of his imagination.

Jillian, for her part, thinks Jack has lost it. She has no intention of leaving her job. She’s committed to the corporation. She has responsibilities—and ambitions. She doesn’t even want to get married. It’s not necessary to their relationship, she says.

Complicating Jack’s relationship stresses is Barry, his buddy, a drunkard with little faith in Jack’s judgment. He wants Jack to go out with him for a few beers and forget his troubles. But Jack is past the point where that’s going to help. He’s stuck, fantasies and all—at the top.

That’s Scene One. Scene Two rises on Jillian in a state of disintegration because, we gradually learn, she’s been fired from the corporation where Jack is now stuck at the top. Supporting her through an abyss of insanity is Michelle, a big sister figure who’s been there, done that, including the twelve steps of AA.

When Jack arrives, as he must, to comfort Jillian, something of tenderness passes between them, though now it’s Jack who’d rather stay single. As the story ends, we have an eerie feeling similar to Sartre’s No Exit, though with velvet gloves.

The cast’s devotion to the material in this premiere production is much to be admired. It’s not an easy script, and there’s a volume of clever verbiage to string together with just the right subtlety to deliver the barb with the tickle of a feather rather than the jab of a needle. This cast has met that critical marker, a credit to them and to the author who created the rich text.

Nick Ventura as Jack, the successful alpha male, makes clear the mix of confusion and longing underlying his character’s bullying surface, as his unfulfilled fantasies drive him to the brink of a major freak-out.

Barry, his drinking buddy, played (with some understatement, I thought) by Brian Cebrian, is quite credible as Jack’s link to a fading adolescence but could have been given more from the script to justify his loyalty to Jack.

Jillian is the most interesting of all the characters, as played by a fiery Anna Sosa. Her ambitious self, on display in Scene One, is as haughty and school-principaled as any pure bitch can be.

But in Scene Two Sosa is let loose to chew up the set, reaching a crescendo when her girl friend Michelle, played by Melanie Hudnall with just the right touch of sympathetic irony, guides her on a nightmarish trip through her personal underworld.

Director Jason Martens deserves considerable credit for calling these performances out of the actors. What the play needs and deserves now is some time and space to grow in order to perfect the rhythms and the nuances the actors have discovered in the script and to investigate possible revisions. (Two weekends is hardly enough, but in our culture of the neglected arts it’s a generous token.)

Structurally, I found Scene One the least satisfying. I wanted more clarity in the relationship between Barry and Jack, and the heated back-and-forth between Jack and Jillian about practical reality vs. self-indulgent fantasy begins to echo itself in a repeating loop.

Scene Two, on the other hand, has more vitality. The relationship between Michelle and Jillian is clearer and deeper, the dilemma more keenly felt. Having lost a job myself as a paid reviewer now turned to a blogger writing reviews for free, I recognized the reality of Jillian’s position and the manic-depressive cycling through her dark night of the soul. This for me is the strongest part of the play, conveying significant dramatic truth within its absurdist framework.

So which is better—to succeed like Jack or fail like Jill in the bloodless corporate world?

In the end, playwright Dillard doesn’t answer that question. It’s probably best she didn’t try. In the hollow lives of Jack and Jillian there is no better or worse. It’s all insane.

That seems to be the final word in this romp through the corporate culture where the pain is real, even if all the rest is absurd and delusional.

Jack and Jillian continues at the Generic tonight, July 9, at 8; Sunday, July 10, at 2:30; and next weekend, Thursday-Saturday, July 14-16, at 8 and Sunday, July 17, at 2:30. Thursday tickets are $7, all other performances are $10. For reservations call 757-441-2160. The Generic Theater is located in the underground of Chrysler Hall at Brambleton Ave. and St. Paul’s Blvd.

Meanwhile, Norfolk’s Summer New Play Fest continues next weekend with two staged readings of new plays at Little Theater of Norfolk. Love Songs for the Road by P.A. Wray will be read July 15 and Refraction of Light by Jean Klein on July 16. Show times for both is 8 p.m. with audience talk-backs to follow.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Wanderlust at The Generic Theater....

About Hampton Roads, for Hampton Roads
A Nice Place To Be Sexually Frustrated

There’s fun to be had at the expense of...well, us, the sexually frustrated under-achievers of Hampton Roads, in a new play which opened to a full house last night, June 17, at the Generic Theater, down in the bowels of Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall.

Wanderlust, by local writers Jeremiah Albers and Brad McMurran, is the opening show in the Generic’s annual New Plays for Dog Days Festival. It’s also the third production in Norfolk’s Summer Play Fest of new works, in cooperation with The Venue and the Little Theater of Norfolk.

The 90-minute play (without intermission) comes with warnings about mature adult content. But there’s really nothing in the show that would shock anyone over fourteen, unless it’s the underlying theme of futility when it comes to negotiating a mutually satisfying sexual relationship.

We have the wife of a well-liked local TV reporter who won’t have sex with him but is paying to have it with her old high school boy friend.

The boy friend, for his part—a heavy-drinking musician—doesn’t even recognize the waitress/singer-songwriter he met at his music gig the night before when she comes to his apartment for the date he’d made with her.

The singer-songwriter, determined to salvage something of the night, then takes a sailor home with her, which quickly leads to some rough sex which gets her pregnant after which the sailor is charged with a DUI while driving her car.

Now the committed heterosexual sailor, if he wants to get his DUI charges dropped, must submit to the homosexual advances of his prominent, well-connected attorney.

But the gay lawyer is in the closet, married and coldly indifferent to his wife’s torrid mating calls to make her pregnant before her biological clock runs down.

At the same time the wife, a realtor, hoping to close the deal on a house the well-liked local TV reporter and his unfaithful wife are interested in, loses her moral compass in the mutual sexual attraction growing between them. As does he. When he impulsively asks if he can see her sometime—outside of real estate—she says yes.

And that “yes” is the last word, putting the finishing twist on this tangled web of relationships among the twenty-to-thirty-something set, and it’s the only one that has promise, ending the evening on a slightly hopeful note. Never mind that the newscaster and the realtor are both married to someone else. Divorce is worth the hassle when two people meet who both like living in Hampton Roads.

Jokes about our region, in fact, are liberally sprinkled throughout the script.

“Local news is evolution in reverse,” says Melissa, wife of TV reporter Tony.

“What other place in the whole world would build a mountain out of trash?” Tony asks Theresa, his realtor and probable second wife.

Meredith, the aspiring singer-songwriter, is proud that she escaped her origins in “a trailer park in Broadwater, Virginia, and made it all the way to Norfolk.”

Melissa calls Hampton Roads a stepping stone to a bigger place. Jonah believes he’s a failure as a musician because he’s playing in Norfolk, not New York, which, in any case, he hated. Meredith believes she needs to go to New York to find opportunity.

Dan, the gay lawyer and, if I heard right, a Regent graduate, has political aspirations that should easily lift him to higher ground. (Hard not to think of Bob McDonnell.) Luke, the sailor, doesn’t care where he is so long as there’s available pussy.

Only Tony, unhappily married to a wife whose ambition for him exceeds his own, and Theresa, equally unhappily married to a closeted gay Christian lawyer, share the same dream—to live in Hampton Roads and raise a family.

These interlocking stories are interestingly told in a series of seven vignettes set in a bedroom with its inviting double bed as the dominating focus. Whose bedroom it is changes from scene to scene, and smoothly at that, with a running crew efficiently dressing and redressing the set between episodes.

The scenes, meanwhile, fold neatly into one another, with one character from each scene appearing in the next in a relationship with a new character who proceeds in the next scene to a relationship with yet another new character. The technique gives a sense of the interconnecting social circles in Hampton Roads, where you never meet anyone who doesn’t know someone you know.

The three women characters are especially strong—Rachel Lang as Melissa, the unsatisfied wife; Nancy Dickerson as Meredith, the aspiring singer-songwriter, and Eileen Quintin as Theresa, the wannabe Mom.

The four men, while all competent in their roles, seem uniformly a little timid about inhabiting their characters fully—Joshua Gray as Tony, the newscaster; Matt Labarge as Joshua, the musician; Martin Hurst as Luke, the sailor, and Henry D’Alonzo as Dan, the gay lawyer. At times all of them are hard to hear, especially in their vulnerable moments of sensitivity.

Albers directs the production with his usual impeccable attention to detail—clean set, precise lighting, and incidental music between scenes (by local composer J.R. Flynn) that interestingly blends a sound both classical and experimental, comfortable and edgy.

So it is in Hampton Roads, “a procrastinator’s town,” as Tony and Theresa agree—not too fast, not too slow, “a great place to raise a family”—yet so few are content here, victims of a restless melancholy.

Despite Albers’ and McMurran’s key roles in creating material for the Pushers, an improv group known for spicy irreverence, in Wanderlust they get a little sentimental, offering, in the end, a rather gentle portrait of their hometown. (McMurran comes from Portsmouth, Albers’ family moved to Virginia Beach when he was seven.)

If only we could satisfy our insatiable lust, maybe we’d all be happy to stay.

Wanderlust continues at the Generic tonight, June 18, at 8, tomorrow at 2:30, and Thursday through Sunday next weekend, June 23-26. For more details, click here.

Friday, June 17, 2011

At the Venue on 35th....

“I Just Wanna Be Your Barbie Doll”
Denise Stewart Tells All

Before last night, here’s all I knew about Barbie dolls: A lot of girls had them when they were growing up, and there’s some sort of fetish surrounding them that always seemed a little weird to me, the way little girls in short skirts and net stockings performing adult show tunes is a little weird.

In fact, I don’t think I ever knew a girl well—not my sisters, not my girl friends, not the girl I married—who played with Barbie dolls.

Until now. In a little more than an hour, in fact, I got to know someone pretty well who knows a whole lot more about Barbie dolls than I ever considered before.

I know her because she told me and about twenty others many of the intimate details of her life from stormy childhood to post-graduate orphan, and she not only played with Barbie dolls. She lived a vicarious life through them.

These revelations transpired at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk last night, June 16, when Denise Stewart, a Charlottesville playwright and actor, opened her one-woman theatrical blog, Dirty Barbie and other girlhood tales, for a four-performance weekend run. The production is the second in the Norfolk Summer Play Fest of new works.

Stewart is a focused, energetic performer with a lot of stamina and little inhibition. She is also generously endowed. (She’ll tell you that, even if I hadn’t. It’s important to her story.)

These qualities attract attention and hold it through her performance of selected, comi-tragic episodes from a tumultuous but, I suspect, not uncommon, dysfunctional, and thoroughly contemporary family life.

Stewart makes no secret that it’s her own dysfunctional family life. This show is straight autobiography whose episodes, like blog entries, have titles which are projected on a stage-right screen. Beginning with the show’s opener, “Dirty Barbie,” we learn right from the top that Barbie is all about little girls’ fantasies of getting laid, preferably by a guy like Ken, Barbie’s male clone.

But Stewart’s story, on the other hand, is about what happens to real girls after they get laid, and, unlike Barbie’s perfect life, it’s not very pretty.

Stewart’s father, we learn in an episode entitled “What Church Do You Belong To?,” is an alcoholic ex-Marine who beats her, her three siblings, and her mother. After he dies of cancer, he’s not much missed. But her mother is also an alcoholic who lets the neighbors in Moorsville, NC, look after her, as told in the episode “How Southern Women Saved My Life.” Their home is a battleground of constant bickering and fighting. The kids essentially raise themselves in a pop-culture environment of television, junk food, top-40 hits, high school football, and smart-ass acting-out.

It’s got to be some sort of tribute to her grit that Stewart not only survived that scene but emerged as the disciplined creative force that she is. But I’d hazard a guess that acting out her story serves her emotional and psychological health to no small degree.

The question is, do we care?

At first, I didn’t. The whole Barbie thing was alien to me. But that didn’t seem to be the case with the women in the audience, young as well as older, who chuckled and giggled with familiarity all the way through. The fantasy of Barbie—”a two-point-five billion-dollar industry,” Stewart exclaims—seems to embody a feminine mystery, some sort of rite of passage peculiar to women which men may not even want to understand.

What man wants to face the fact that he’s not Ken?

In any case, I warmed to Stewart’s story as it went on and she stopped reminding me so much of my own younger sister who also lived in a fantasy world I couldn’t understand but thoroughly scorned. (She was nuts over late-’50s pop stars like Ricky Nelson and Fabian.) It soon became apparent that Stewart is inviting us, her audience, not just to witness but to relive with her select scenes from her chaotic early life. From raging pre-pubescent brat to cool college workaholic to her final defiant dance, swiping two Barbie dolls through her crotch like a disco queen twirling a pair of tawses, Stewart entices us to share in what it was like to grow up as her—on the bet, largely successful, that we’ll recognize ourselves.

Or at least the women will.

There’s some great wit in the piece. For instance, when her college roommates take off for Key West over spring break, looking for sex while she stays home alone and masturbates, she says, “They can have all the sex and I can have all the orgasms.”

Or, explaining why she never got caught drinking as a teenager, despite her consistent abuse of alcohol, she says, “I was a good liar with good grades.”

This self-deprecating view of herself and her life, making dark comedy out of suicidal loneliness, saves the script from sinking into a confessional morass. The scenes, in fact, are well-paced and move smoothly from one mood to another with enough variety to keep us watching. There are conclusions drawn, as well, offered as truths gained from hard experience.

Perhaps the core truth Stewart wants us to know—and I paraphrase— is this: If you do the hard work and share it, people will know you better, and maybe that’s all you can hope for.

Stewart has done the hard work. We applaud her skill in turning intensely personal experience into a disciplined public performance. And we do know her better. Denise Stewart is Dirty Barbie, another way of saying Every Girl.

The Venue’s production is the third for Dirty Barbie. It premiered at the Lee Street Theater in Salisbury, NC, in March. In April it played at the Earl Hamner Theater in Afton, near Charlottesville. And, according to Stewart, it follows the form in which it originated, as stories from her childhood which she first wrote for her online blog, Dee Dee’s Living Will.

Dirty Barbie and other girlhood tales continues at The Venue, 631 W. 35th St., tonight and Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. Make your reservations at 757-469-0337.

Meanwhile, the Norfolk Summer Play Fest’s third production, Wanderlust, by Brad McMurran and Jeremiah Albers, opens at 8 tonight, June 17, for two weekends at the Generic Theater down under Chrysler Hall in Norfolk. For details, click here. Then check back on this page tomorrow for a review.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

At The Venue at 35th...

A Dark Portrait of Marilyn Monroe
Opens Norfolk Summer Play Fest

The first Norfolk Summer Season Play Fest, an ambitious schedule of new plays, opened Memorial Day weekend with Best Always, Marilyn Monroe, a somewhat disturbing drama by Virginia Beach resident Kathleen McBlair.

This nearly one-woman play—a single actor occasionally appears as both of Marilyn’s two ex-husbands—takes us behind the glamorous facade of America’s foremost sex symbol to reveal a woman tormented by a serious bi-polar disorder.

Addicted to pills, alcohol, and terminal insecurity, McBlair’s Marilyn is almost a total victim of her own stardom. The play, therefore, is as much a meditation on the dark side of glamour and fame as it is an imagining of the inner demons tormenting a particular, insecure Hollywood star.

Though there are many funny lines, there were few laughs in the nearly full house on opening night, May 27. The drama is, in some ways, almost too real. It’s my guess that many in the audience were struck with both pity and terror, seeing parts of themselves in Marilyn’s need for continuous applause to give herself worth. After all, we all need applause. Marilyn Monroe just needed it in a very big way.

Still, there are moments when Marilyn is not overwhelmed by her stardom or her insecurities and whips off some pretty sharp observations on the world she inhabits as an archetype, a living icon. More of these in the play would be welcome, reminding us more often that this is a very smart woman who is not fooled by the fools around her.

Two of those fools are her husbands, baseball star Joe Dimaggio and playwright Arthur Miller. Dimaggio is insanely jealous of Marilyn’s sex appeal to just about every other man in the developed world. Miller is overwhelmed by her need for constant attention and reassurance while he’s trying to write weighty scripts about the human condition.

It would have been interesting to know more about the inner workings of both these men’s minds and motivations. For example, both Dimaggio and Miller find self-justification in characterizing Marilyn as the dysfunctional one while we in the audience notice that they have their own serious delusions and blind spots.

But exploring them isn’t playwright McBlair’s concern here. Her concern is Marilyn.

Eventually we realize Marilyn is more at home in her own imagination than she is in the outer world. Her ego is entirely too fragile to navigate through the hazards of other egos bristling with complexes of their own.

Her own imagination is most accessible with the help of pills and alcohol, which are, of course, her downfall. McBlair doesn’t let us see her die, as we know she did in “real life.” She simply exits, drunk and sedated as she throws us the play’s last line, “Today’s the day my daddy’s coming to get me.”

Read that as you will.

Without doubt this is a strong play that could speak to a wide audience because it connects so strongly with our shared collective fantasies of who we Americans are—or wish we were. Those fantasies are shaped by Hollywood. For better or worse, we, like Marilyn, cannot easily distinguish between life as it really is and life as we live it through our movies.

Marilyn Monroe, even today—fifty years after her death—is the reigning goddess of that hugely influential medium, and McBlair’s play captures the high price a girl must pay who is rare enough to arrive where she arrived. The tragedy is that it doesn’t seem to have been her fault. Her fate, yes. But not her fault.

Jennifer Lynn Nott-Martin plays the disintegrating Marilyn with a real spark of authenticity, but the role is daunting—practically a two-hour monologue with layers of psychological complexity—and she could have used more than four weeks’ rehearsal to make it fully her own.

It would be unfair, therefore, to criticize the actress for some of the more awkward mannerisms and transitions in her rambling, drunken monologues. Better to point out that in many places her impersonation is quite credible—she talks like Marilyn (for the most part), she looks sufficiently hot, and, most important, she makes clear her character’s tragic dilemma as an international sex symbol whose longing for normalcy—love, family, peace of mind—eludes her with the force of a damning judgment, turning her mythic American success story into a paranoid nightmare.

Paul Costen is not as successful in his dual portrayal of Dimaggio and Miller, who often merge into the same character in manner and voice. Some of that may have been the writing, and there is some symbolic value in the effect. But the overall impression is that Costen also needed more time to refine his interpretations. He is, however, an imposing male figure on stage, which carries a built-in punch to the point that Marilyn is a victim of male dominance, in her career and in her personal life—all because she is so damn beautiful and sexy.

Males in the audience are justified in squirming.

Aliki Pantas, a recent graduate of Old Dominion University’s drama department and director of many Hurrah Players’ youth productions, makes her debut directing adult material with this ambitious piece. She replaced an ailing Phil Odango after beginning rehearsals as his assistant. It hardly needs stating that she rose to the occasion, though, like the actors, could have used more time to smooth out rough edges, including some halting sound cues.

A running crew, which included Venue producer Patti Wray, efficiently swept through scene changes. And the theater’s expanded lighting system has practically erased the dark spots the stage was previously known for.

The only problem I saw with the play itself was an overwriting of Marilyn’s outbursts of self-loathing, repeating her attacks on self and others in the same words too often for my taste. More attention to her wit and self-humor throughout might relieve that weight while also developing a more fully fascinating character.

Best Always, Marilyn Monroe plays tonight, May 28, and next weekend, June 3 and 4. All shows are at 8 p.m. For reservations, call 469-0337.

The Summer Play Fest will continue at The Venue June 16-19 with Dirty Barbie and other girlhood tales by Denise Stewart, while the Generic Theater will offer Wanderlust, by Brad McMurran and Jeremiah Albers, June 17-26.

Further Play Fest productions at The Venue and the Generic are scheduled throughout the summer, joined by Little Theater of Norfolk in mid-July with two staged readings of plays in pre-production development.

Check the theaters’ websites for more details, which this column will report as they happen.