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Review: When We Were Young and Unafraid

When We Were Young and Unafraid

A play about women, domestic violence and abuse, set in one kitchen location in 70s America…but this isn’t the Deep South and these are different crimes of the heart. Playwright, Sarah Treem, transports us to Whidbey Island off the coast off Washington State; the year is 1972 with America in the midst of second wave feminism and the Supreme Court ruling on Roe vs. Wade still a year away.

The kitchen in question belongs to a bed and breakfast that also serves as a safe house. Matthew Keenan’s set is rich in detail and looks lived in and welcoming. The angle of the stage right wall allows light to pour in through the window and along with the staircase leading to an unseen second floor it allows our imagination to picture the world beyond our stage. There are four locations to draw the action downstage with an armchair, a table and chairs, an island with stools and the door with a telephone on the wall next to it. Most of the plot unfolds in these spots with the rear of the stage used more functionally (to make coffee mostly) and the design works very well. The irony of the location as a backdrop for this story of women’s lib is not lost as the protagonists are at their most comfortable while baking muffins and cookies.

In the opening scene, the mother/daughter dynamic between Agnes (Sheri S. Herren) and Penny (Kaylynn Creighton) is quickly established.  Agnes is the owner of the B&B and Herren plays her in an unselfish down to earth manner that allows others the opportunity to explore the full range of their characters emotions around her. Her delivery allows the dry sense of humor of Agnes to shine through and in a rare moment when her emotions are needed to get the better of her it’s one of the most truthful moments in the play. Creighton gives an excellent performance throughout, navigating smoothly between surly and sarcastic and innocent and vulnerable, as Penny deals with the confusion of a teenage girl who has grown up around so many abused women.

Mary Anne (Jenna Berk) is the latest woman to arrive seeking accommodation and the help of Penny. Berk plays the disconnected moments of the character convincingly and the scene where she passes on her ‘wisdom’ to Penny on how to get a boy to ask her out is truly unsettling. We’re never supposed to feel comfortable enough to like Mary Anne and Berk walks that line well, but it is her reactions to the triggers that force her to relive the horror of what she has endured that don’t feel genuine. Her vocal delivery and physical performance in these moments unfortunately just don’t work.

Hannah (Nora Achrati) arrives looking for work and declaring that the future of feminism can only be achieved by stopping having sex with their oppressors and becoming lesbians. Looking and sounding like Huckleberry Finn’s big sister, Achrati steals the show with her southern drawl and wonderful comic timing. There is heart and honesty in her work that make it a truly winning performance. Tom Hadjimichael plays Paul, the only man in the play, and he portrays just a hint of a potential darkness under the charm the playwright warns us about to leave us guessing throughout as to his true nature.

Director, Marie Sproul, needed to drive the dialogue more, especially in the opening scenes. The pacing feels like people taking turns to speak and because of that the conversations lack a certain authenticity. There is unnecessary movement in some key moments and the best example of this is where Mary Anne realizes just where her advice has taken Penny. This intense moment and connection between characters is broken by a cross and counter where simple eye contact and standing their ground would have been so much more powerful. The scene transitions are handled well and Jordana Abrencia’s sound design moves us throughout the days as popular 70s tunes give way to sounds of crickets or bird song.

Ultimately the twists in the plot are not strong enough to justify the amount of setup in the first act – but that is a flaw in the writing not the production. Taking on and shining a light on these issues makes this work worthwhile and important and the performance of Nora Achrati is worth the entrance fee…if you pay the right price for your ticket.

#tothepoint Rating 67/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $45

Value Rating: -$11

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this production at $34. Tickets are available on Groupon and Gold Star for $28 making the show good value for money if you can grab this deal. When We Were Young and Unafraid continues at the Keegan Theatre until July 8th.

Anonymous

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As local actors, directors and production staff, getting honest feedback for our work has been elusive. Family and friends are always positive and our theatre families offer unconditional support for our work.  We have found the vast majority of the reviews in our region to simply be an extension of our theatre family. As performers we wanted something else from reviews of our work. We wanted help to get better.

When we are not working in or on a production we want to see other people’s work. As a theatre goer how are we to discern, from the vast number of shows available, where we should spend our money when the scale used to rate a show starts at 4 out of 5? As a customer we wanted something else from a review. We wanted something better.

Through many post show conversations, listening to our fellow actors and directors and production team members, we found we were not alone in our desire for something different. The frustrations that we shared were shared by others too. We didn’t want to be the people to attempt something different; we wanted someone else to fill that void. We believe the majority of our peers want honest and constructive opinions but we knew it would be a jolt to some to see a change in the review culture of the region. We were concerned it could potentially adversely affect our ability to continue to work on and off the stage if we were the ones to address this.

By the end of 2016 we decided we couldn’t wait any longer.  We concluded, in the short term at least, the only way we could write the honest and constructive reviews we wanted to write, and continue to work with those who we were writing about, was to do so anonymously. We knew this could call into question the credibility and integrity of the reviews but trusted that the writing, over time, would dispel those concerns. The vast majority of the feedback we have received has been positive. We have received correspondence from multiple directors asking if we would come and review their future shows. These people want honest opinions and those who don’t or who are offended by the anonymity don’t have to read them.

They are, after all, just opinions.

Thank you for taking this journey with us, we genuinely want to improve our art and ensure the public sees the best our professional and community theatres have to offer.

Anonymous.

Review: Still Time to go to Ford’s

Ragtime

A slow meander through the Ford’s Museum is a chance for reflection about the journey of this country and the history of this theatre before we take our seats for tonight’s production of Ragtime. We immediately start to wonder if the cast are aware the house is open as they wander the stage in costume, place props and casually chat to others in contemporary clothing. After some initial confusion it’s clear this is a choice, and a statement, and one that will become apparent at the end of the evening.

Scenic Designer, Milagros Ponce de Leon, dominates the stage with a 3 story metal platform that accommodates a 9 piece orchestra on the second level. It features two detachable stairways that reach to that second level and which become integral to so much of the movement and flow of the show. The only issue with the impressive structure is the top tier is partially lost to some in the orchestra seating with people craning their heads to see underneath the overhang of the dress circle. A large piano sits center stage and Coalhouse Walker (Kevin McAllister) takes his seat and leads the cast through the Prologue: Ragtime.

As Mother (Tracy Lynn Olivera) says Goodbye My Love to her husband on one ship, Tateh (Jonathan Atkinson) and his daughter, Jewish immigrants from Latvia, arrive in America on another. We are distracted from the beautiful Journey On by the failure to hear any of lines delivered by Tateh’s daughter (Dulcie Pham), it’ s unclear if this is a projection issue or a mic failure (possibly the latter as she is fine for the rest of the show). At other times during the production, the orchestra, who sound spectacular, are too loud for some of the more delicate moments – it’s a difficult balance with the musicians onstage and one that is not quite achieved tonight.

Songs like Crime of the Century and Henry Ford introduce us to some of the real historical characters sprinkled into the play with the latter featuring some excellent production line choreography from Michael Bobbitt. Although these numbers help transport us to the period there is a sense by the middle of the first act that the audience is suffering from full choral fatigue. Perhaps this helps make the beautiful simplicity of Sarah’s Your Daddy’s Son the stand out moment of act one. Nova Payton delivers an incredible vocal that hauntingly resonates throughout this old theatre and her performance is one of wonderful restraint.

The show is almost musically flawless from this point on under the Music Direction of Christopher Youstra, and when Payton and McAllister duet on The Wheels of a Dream they dovetail so perfectly you don’t want them to stop. Of course the play takes a darker turn and Sarah is beaten to death leaving Coalhouse distraught. The transition from Sarah’s lifeless body to her moving off stage is one of many moments where Director, Peter Flynn and his Lighting Designer, Rui Rita, work in perfect harmony. McAllister is moved to tears and the cast sound at their absolute best on Till We Reach that Day to close the first act, with Ines Nassara standing out vocally among a very talented ensemble.

Any sense that the tension would be diminished by the intermission is quickly dismissed as McAllister pours his heart out on Coalhouse’s Soliloquy. It’s an incredibly emotional moment that encompasses heartbreak and rage and he lives every single syllable. The combination of McAllister’s rich baritone vocals and his connection to this role make it a truly standout performance.

Director, Peter Flynn, displays plenty of imagination and vision with the transitions between scenes although that is not always matched by the movement within the scenes themselves. One of many smart scene changes takes Father (James Konicek) and his son to a baseball game as both stairways are moved center stage to form bleachers.  We are then transported to Atlantic City and Costume Designer, Wade Laboissonniere, has some fun with the period beach attire. There are many pleasing technical successes throughout the production; the use of sheets to illustrate the silhouettes created by Tateh and then the projection of those silhouettes as moving images onto a blanket are very well done.

Mother and Tateh’s paths cross again at the beach but the chemistry never quite takes off between Atkinson and Olivera and we don’t really buy into their future together. Atkinson gives a strong vocal performance and portrays a genuine relationship with his daughter but his delivery too often feels like someone impersonating an Eastern European accent rather than having one and it is a little cliché. Olivera still has her finest moment to come as she absolutely stops the show with her incredibly powerful rendition of Back to Before.

James Konicek does a fine job with the slow character arc of Father as he eventually comes to see past the color of Coalhouse’s skin as he attempts to resolve the standoff at the Library. There is still time for one more hair on the back of the neck moments for McAllister as he convinces his friends that their job is not to die but to go out and Make Them Hear You. Father’s naivety at the fate that awaits Coalhouse if he steps outside is a chilling moment as the orchestra are joined by the cast banging on the set in unison to signify the end of his life by gunfire.

After the epilogue the ensemble reprise Wheels of a Dream and are joined again by others in current day clothing, showing that this story of America is not confined to the history books, but one that is still unfolding today. Get a ticket to see this one while you still have the chance.

#tothepoint Rating 80/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $50

Value Rating: +$10

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $60. Ragtime continues at Ford’s Theatre until May 20th.

Review: Bright Stars on the Silver Spring Stage

Boise

It’s opening weekend at the Silver Spring Stage and it’s clear many in attendance have little idea what to expect from playwright Sam Hunter’s 2011 award winning play, A Bright New Boise. The audience are positioned on two sides of the square stage separated by a wide walkway that will provide a second location away from the break room of the arts and crafts store, Hobby Lobby, where most of the play takes place. With the set in darkness, Will (Brendan Murray), takes his place on the outside of the pillar at the corner of the stage between the audience and declares “Now” and the sense that we don’t know what we are ready for is heightened.

The lights come up on the break room and Scenic Designer, Dean Leong, has produced a convincing location. The two walls feature a sink, microwave, lockers and inboxes that form a sterile setting broken up only by a lonely motivational poster informing the staff to ‘Hang in there’. Tables and chairs adorn the rest of the stage and a TV and VCR are positioned on the inside of the corner pillar in such a way that no-one in the audience can see the screen. Faith is a central theme of Hunter’s play and as the story unfolds the TV’s placement is wonderfully unsettling for the audience as it almost takes on a God like role as we start to question if the staff are watching it or if it is watching them.

Murray is excellent as Will as he draws us in to the genuine warmth of his character while his checkered backstory and extreme religious views about the rapture are slowly unveiled. In the opening scenes, as he starts his first day in his new job, Murray finds the balance of awkwardness, evasiveness and likability in all of his delivery and mannerisms. It’s a really subtle and believable performance that allows us not to define this man simply by what he believes. The manager of the store, Pauline, played by Andrea Spitz, is a brash and relatively uncomplicated woman. Spitz is much of the comedy as the darkness descends as the show progresses and she understands her ‘why me?’ role in proceedings but some of her expressions and reactions play a little too big for this close-knit audience.

Will is introduced to teenage co-worker, Alex (Ben Miller), and it is quickly revealed that Alex is Will’s biological son who was adopted as a baby. Miller portrays the apathy and then angst of his character persuasively and the dynamic between the two is engaging to watch. Leroy (Shaquille Stewart), Alex’s older brother from his adopted family, provides an excellent contrast for Will with Stewart’s comfortable demeanor in the break room making it easy to believe he has worked there for years. Leroy wears self designed obscene shirts and delivers language to match that cause a few mutterings from the crowd. “I’m deliberately making you uncomfortable” he tells Will, but it’s far more a message from the playwright to his audience.

The play is truly at its’ best when Murray is sharing the stage with Maura Suilebhan who is a joy to watch as the introverted and sheepish Anna. All of her quirks and facial expressions would be so easy to be overplayed but she never falls into that trap and all of her exclamations and self admonishments are incredibly natural. There is great chemistry between Murray and Suilebhan and their awkward flirting is just really good theatre.

Director, Matt Ripa, moves us through the timeline of the play, largely with lighting changes in the break room effectively signifying the passing of time. He isn’t afraid of silence and that adds to the sense of unease at all the right moments. The movement of the actors is consistent and logical in the vast majority of the exchanges. One slight disappointment is a pivotal scene where Will reads his blog aloud to Anna. We see all that Will is experiencing as he reads his work but we feel a little cheated of Anna’s reaction as she sits with her back to the audience. Later, a moment where Alex buries his head into the wall by the lockers also lacks a certain authenticity. When the scenes transition to the walkway off stage we really feel like we are intruding on these personal moments and Ripa moves the action between the two locations very capably. Murray excels in these off stage scenes and his proximity to the audience only adds to the truth he brings to his character. Unfortunately the ease in which Miller portrayed the emotions of Alex earlier are not matched now that he needs to show much more vulnerability and pain in a more restrained way. In the same location a scene between Will and Leroy almost slips into soap opera territory with Stewart’s delivery.

The show is a technical success with sound and lighting both at a high standard throughout. Set and costumes are not demanding but are done well with minimum fuss. Ripa gets good performances from all of his cast and Murray and Suilebhan absolutely make this a show worth making the effort to see.

 #tothepoint Rating 65.5/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $25

Value Rating: +$6

With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $31. A Bright New Boise continues at the Silver Spring Stage until April 30th.

Time to get #tothepoint

Many theatre reviews in our region have lost their way. The close ties between the reviewers and performers, their websites and theatre advertising, have led to compromised write-ups of local productions that not only deceive theatre goers but breed a culture of mediocrity in our region. If our art is to improve then we must talk honestly and constructively. There is a vast amount of theatre being produced in DC, Maryland and Virginia, and the choice for the paying public is greater than ever – if every show is receiving four or five stars we are not only denying them an informed choice but actively pushing them towards poor value for money.

These reviews have become thinly veiled advertising, comprising of little more than an unnecessary synopsis of the plot broken up by a ‘participation trophy’ approach of praising everyone. This is often dressed up as not wanting to say anything negative, especially about a community theatre show, where the vast majority of those involved will be unpaid. Even this misguided morality is a lie. It comes down to money and egos. The websites want the relationships with the theatre groups and their advertising dollars and the reviewers want to be liked by their thespian friends and welcomed as minor celebrities when they arrive for a show. All of which seems innocent enough until you realize the point of a review is to guide people in the direction of quality theatre. The paying public are a complete afterthought.

Community theatre is a wonderful outlet for many people and those who volunteer their time on and off stage are to be commended. We believe with honest and constructive reviews we can help improve the quality of theatre in our region while giving meaningful recognition to those who deserve it. Whatever the status of the theatre, and those involved in the productions, it’s time to get #tothepoint.

Our reviews will feature a points score out of 100, check out our scoring section, and our unique value for money chart allows theatre goers to make an informed choice.

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