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'The Oresteia' at the Shakespeare: An Epic Production

May 9, 2019

Michael Kahn’s final outing as a director before officially retiring as Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre is epic. This production of The Oresteia displays all his enormous creative skill and ability and he draws every last drop of talent from his amazing actors. I think in some way he wanted to remind Simon Godwin, who will take over as Artistic Director in July, how big the shoes are he has to fill. 

       Michael Kahn explaining The Oresteia (Photo by: Peter Rosenstein) Michael Kahn explaining The Oresteia

Michael said “I’ve always wanted to do all of The Oresteia. When I was in college, we read the whole Oresteia, and I was completely fascinated by the story, by the form, by the relationships, by the incredible depths of what it was about—violence, revenge, and the search for human justice.”  The original is a trilogy and Michael Kahn has directed condensed trilogies before, including The Oedipus Plays and Henry VI. He has a unique understanding that the grand scale of these plays is heightened by a sleek, rousing adaptation.  

So he contacted the talented Ellen McLaughlin, a prodigious interpreter of the Ancient Greek plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. With this interpretation she both honors the original plot and language but with a fresh take imbuing them with a modern resonance.  McLaughlin’s play compresses Aeschylus’ trilogy into one thrilling three-act play, presented with one fifteen minute intermission,  centered on Agamemnon’s slaughter of his daughter, committed in the name of martial duty and pious sacrifice, but deemed unforgivable by his wife Clytemnestra. Kahn has said “her revenge is a work of patience and passion, emotions linked by the endurance of suffering.”

Kelley Curran (Photo by: Scott Suchman) Kelley Curran

The acting is incredible across the board but special kudos must go to Rad Pereira (Electra), Kelley Curran (Clytemnestra) and Josiah Bania (Orestes). When they are on stage either alone or playing off each other they are riveting.   

This interpretation of the plays questions the very notion of justice and whether justice is the search for truth or the pursuit of retribution. When the chorus questions what to do about Orestes after he has killed Clytemnestra you are forced to think deeply about what you would do. McLaughlin in her interpretation asks “What is our view of justice in today’s society?” Not an easy question to answer for many of us. “Can we accept our complicity in crimes, whether we partake in the violence or merely turn away? And where is our shared humanity in a world of suffering, violence and the galling indifference of the gods? “

 Kahn clearly chose his cast carefully both for their amazing talent and range. For the chorus he chose Corey Allen, Kati Brazda, Helen Carey, Johnathan Louis Dent, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Alvin Keith, Patrena Murray and Sophia Skiles. Simone Warren is wonderful as Iphigenia, Kelcey Watson a strong Agamemnon, and Zoe Sophia Garcia a wondrous Cassandra. 

(Photo by: Courtesy The Shakespeare Theatre)

No production reaches its full potential without great scenic and costume design and Susan Hillary has done a masterful job. Lighting by Jennifer Tipton and Sound Design by Cricket S. Myers with Music composed by Kamala Sankaram add to the quality of the production and all highlight what Kahn wanted to say with this production.  

We all know what an amazing talent Michael Kahn is. He has received numerous awards from around the world and in addition is credited with helping to build downtown DC when he took the leap of faith to move the Shakespeare Theatre Company there. Leaving us with this epic production of The Oresteia as his final directing outing at the Shakespeare will surely make us miss him even more. We can only hope that like Cher he will be doing many ‘final’ tours and we will get to enjoy his talent as a director again in the future. 

The Oresteia will be at Shakespeare’s Sidney Harman Hall until June 2, 2019. 


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'The Children:' A Play at Studio Theatre That Makes You Think

May 7, 2019

The Studio Theatre has a hit with The Children. Every component; the writing, the acting, scenic design and inspired directing by David Muse all make for a riveting ninety minutes of theater.

Lucy Kirkwood’s play forces you to think and that is a good thing. She writes about everything from the economy, climate change, the relationship of parents to their children, husbands to wives, and girlfriends; and our deepest values. She says she is “very grateful to the Baby Boomer generation” for all they have accomplished but then writes they are to blame for much of what is wrong with the world and questions what they may owe the next generations finally asking if they should be willing to act heroically and shorten their lives for them.

Richard Howard, Jeanne Paulsen and Naomi Jacobson (Photo by: Carol Rosegg) Richard Howard, Jeanne Paulsen and Naomi Jacobson

The Children is set in a remote cottage on the British coast, a long-married pair of retired nuclear physicists, Hazel (Jeanne Paulsen) and Robin (Richard Howard) are living a very modest life in the aftermath of a natural disaster, which turns out to be an earthquake and then tidal wave which caused an explosion in the nuclear plant in which they worked on the coast of their town. Since the disaster they are giving scrupulous care to energy rationing, their garden, and Hazel takes to practicing yoga to cope. When a former colleague, Rose (Naomi Jacobson), reappears after 38 years, her presence totally upends the couple’s equilibrium and trust in both their relationship and their values. As the fallout from long-ago decisions they all made hurtles into view, Rose unveils a proposal that threatens more than their marriage, it threatens to shorten their lives and change their relationship to their children. 

Richard Howard, Jeanne Paulsen (Photo by: Studio Theatre) Richard Howard, Jeanne Paulsen

There are times during the 90 minutes of the play when one thinks the playwright must spend her life thinking about all these issues and being depressed. But then all three incredibly talented actors led by the directing of David Muse, take her words and as their lives unravel in front of you, flaws and all, I found myself constantly changing what I thought about each of them as the play moved along. I disliked Rose at the beginning of the play but more fully understood her and how she thought by the end. Hazel became a real person in front of my eyes. Robin was the stoic who ping-ponged between them and he did it superbly. They became so real and their existential crisis hit home I left the theater wondering what I would do in their situation. At one point, since they are physicists they talk about what has happened and what is happening in the plant now. While scenic designer Tom Kamm set a perfectly good stage for 88 minutes of the play, all taking place in the kitchen of the small cabin they are now living in, his true brilliance comes out in the final two minutes of the play as the set is opened up with the drawing back of curtains and you are left to wonder if even Hazel has decided to join Rose and Robin who had already agreed to work in the exploded dangerous plant. Nephelie Andonyadis does a good job as costume designer as does Miriam Nilofa Crowe as Lighting Designer. 

This is a play everyone should see from Baby Boomers to their Millennial Children. Each may come to a different view of each other. The Children will be at the Studio Theatre through June 2, 2019.

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'Queen of Basel' Interesting But Tries Too Hard

March 12, 2019

I was excited to see the world premiere of Queen of Basel at Studio Theatre. I have always been impressed with their choice of plays and am an unabashed admirer of their Artistic Director David Muse. This production while interesting left one wanting more depth. 

That is not to say it has no redeeming value, rather the author is trying to say too much contained in an hour and twenty minutes without intermission. The play according to its author Hilary Bettis is an adaption of the Strindberg play Miss Julie. Bettis says she was asked to do this by Michael Hausmann who wanted a bi-lingual adaption for his theater in Miami. While she says she hated the play she agreed to do her version by “subverting Strindberg at every turn.”

Christy Escobar and Dalia Davi (Photo by: C. Stanley Photography) Christy Escobar and Dalia Davi

The entire play is set in a storeroom of a hotel owned by the father of the main character, Julie, (Christy Escobar) at a reception during Miami’s Art Basel. Julie is introduced as a spoiled child who is a recovering alcoholic who accidentally collides with a waitress, Christine, a Venezuelan immigrant (Dalia Davi) and had drinks poured over her Oscar de la Renta gown and now is hiding out so the paparazzi and her father don’t find her. The third character in the play is John, a Haitian/Cuban (Andy Lucien) Christine’s boyfriend and an Uber driver. 

The play focuses on the interplay between the three characters and explores their history and biases, and the world’s biases and how they all relate to each other. The problem with the play is while it moves fast it covers much too much territory and none of it in depth. It seems Bettis thinks she needs to deal with every society ill one can think of in eighty minutes. There is sexism, misogyny, racial tensions, black and white relationships, the current issues in Venezuela, family dynamics, rich and poor, cultural differences and economic inequality among others too many to mention. One loses track of all she is trying to say. 

I think the actors do the best they can with what Bettis has given them and at times they are compelling. Christy Escobar is clearly a good actress but at times seems to over-act but those are the scenes she has been given. Andy Lucien is great and totally believable showing a wide range of emotions which he handles well. Dalia Davi is good and represents the bi-lingual part of this production. She is clearly a talented actress. 

Yet they all seem to be striving when moving from one issue to another and trying to give equal weight to all of them. At some point in the middle of the play you want them to just focus on something. 

The set by Debra Booth is simple and works for the play. The costumes by Ivania Stack work as well. Director José Zayas seems to do the best he can with the words he is given and he clearly brings out the best in his actors. 

This play will be at the Studio Theatre until April 7th and it is an interesting eighty minutes of theater. You can enjoy and yet still leave wondering what the main point is. 

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