Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Who Knew?

Who knew that one of the most popular Shakespearean actors of the mid-late 1800s was an African-American man who performed throughout the world? I hadn't heard of New York born Ira Frederick Aldridge until I attended Red Velvet. And that's a shame. Evidence of how education can be white-washed leaving gaping holes in even a solid liberal arts education.

Fortunately, Quill Theatre's official entry into the 2019 "Acts of Faith Festival" helps fill that knowledge deficit; just one of the reasons theatre is so important to a well-rounded education.

Red Velvet by playwright Lolita Chakrabarti is the story of Ira Aldridge and the price of being a black actor in the mid-1800s. Facing discrimination in the United States, Aldridge emigrated to England and built his impressive career throughout Europe. In Europe too, however, Aldridge faced suspicion and prejudice. He paid a heavy emotional price for his celebrity.

While Red Velvet is not specifically a play about religious faith, Artistic Director James Ricks writes "You don't have to be a history professor to recognize that for an African-American man to pursue this course at this particular point in history is in itself an act of faith . . . "

Red Velvet is an essay on theatre and history and the courage of one man to pursue his dream against all odds.

Against the backdrop of public riots in the streets of London over the abolition of slavery, Ira Aldridge (Jamar Jones) steps in to the lead role in Othello after the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean has collapsed on stage. The replacement is met with fury by Kean's son, Charles (Cole Metz), who believes the role should be his by birthright. The rest of the cast is bewildered at best. They question director Pierre LaPorte's (Eddie Webster) judgment in making such a controversial choice.

Even the servant Connie (Desiree Dabney), also black, keeps her distance and is skeptical of Mr. Aldridge.

The entire ensemble's performance was strong. I particularly enjoyed Jamar Jones' transition to King Lear toward the end of his career. Webster's performance as LaPorte was also strong - subtle and nuanced. And as a native German speaker, I give a special shout out to Stevie Rice (Casimir/Henry) and Rachel Dilliplane (Halina/Betty/Margaret). I'm not always able to understand when actors attempt to speak German, but I understood every word.

The heart of the play is the interaction of the cast and Mr. Aldridge as they wrestle with their prejudices. The genuine on-stage connection between Aldridge and actress Ellen Tree (Frances Saxton) proves particularly vexing to the sensibilities of the more proper cast members.

Ricks' choice for the "Acts of Faith Festival" is unexpected. And it works. Theatre ought to educate, and I admire his choice to broaden the definition of faith.

Quill's production of Red Velvet is a thoughtful and relevant reflection of the importance of theatre in continuing to break new ground - then and now.

Performances continue through February 9, 2019 at Dominion Energy Center's Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse.  For tickets call 804.340.0115.804.340.0115

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Talk is Cheap

Talk Radio, the brain child of playwright Eric Bogosian and Tad Savinar was originally staged off-Broadway in 1987 at The Public Theatre and starred Bogosian himself as Barry Champlain, the caustic, sarcastic and downright cruel late night shock jock. The play has since appeared on Broadway and been made into a film by Oliver Stone. 

With the advent of social media and forums like Facebook and Twitter where anonymous cruelty has been elevated to an art form, it is hard to imagine that 32 years later Talk Radio would still be as relevant.

But talk is cheaper than therapy. And people are still drawn to train wrecks.

5th Wall Theatre's production of Talk Radio, directed by Morrie Piersol, stars Scott Wichmann as Barry Champlain. And Wichmann steals the show. He IS the show. Which is not to diminish the performances of the supporting cast. But Wichmann commands the stage and the airways. His interaction with the unseen callers (Darrelle Brown, George Dippold, Chandler Hubbard, Gina McKenzie, John Mincks, and Paige Reisenfeld) provides the heart of the show. Just like actual late night talk radio, there is no show without the faceless callers addicted to abuse at the hands of the shock jocks.

TJ Spencieri's strong set design highlight's Champlain's dominance while diminishing the roles of the team around him. Some of the most effective scenes show the team frantically reacting to something that Champlain has said - you can see but not hear them behind the glass partition.

The sound design by Roger Price is also strong. It's easy to sit back in the audience and imagine you are on a long road trip in the middle of the night listening to desperate callers pouring out their hearts just to be verbally assaulted by the shock jocks they seem to idolize.

I've been on those road trips, and tuned in to the late night shows. It's mesmerizing in the same way that motorists slow down to gawk at a terrible wreck.

The action takes place just as Champlain's show is about to go into national syndication. Producer Dan Woodruff (Chandler Hubbard) has asked Champlain to tone it down a bit prompting Champlain to be even more outrageous. The action is phrenetic; Champlain smokes, drinks, swears, and carries on multiple conversations both with his unseen callers and the production team supporting him.

And it isn't just the callers who suffer Champlain's wrath. Stu Noonan (PJ Freebourn), the loyal tech who screens Champlain's calls is equally abused by the man he idolizes. And so is Champlain's assistant and sometimes lover, Linda Macarthur (Haliya Roberts). We get insight into the off-air, private Champlain through moving monologues delivered by Stu and Linda. 

The action is at its most intense when Kent (John Mincks) calls in reporting his girlfriend has possibly overdosed and may be dying. Champlain treats Kent with the same in-your-face, insulting disregard as he does the other "pathetic souls" who call in their fears, anxieties, prejudices, and loneliness.

And while the listeners generally relish the verbal battles, they call in to the station to express their concern for the safety of the girlfriend. Champlain takes the shock level up a notch by inviting Kent to come to the station and get on the air with him. The on-air interaction with Champlain and Kent is fascinating. Mincks charges the stage and offers one of the shows most memorable moments.

The show (and the station's programming) is bookended with Sidney Greenberg (Darrelle Brown) a loquacious tax advisor promoting a mortgage scheme and Dr. Susan Fleming (Gina Maria McKenzie) a soft-spoken psychologist who gives the play a serene conclusion.

Talk Radio is a lively and thought-provoking and Wichmann is mesmerizing. I could listen to him for another 32 years. But Talk Radio will be off-air after January 26, 2019. Tickets are available through 5th Wall Theatre at: The show is being performed at The Basement (300 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23219).