Review: Julius Caesar at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

a_caesarWEB1a

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 45 minutes with two 10-minute intermissions

It seems that today, politics rule the airwaves and television screens. Something is always happening and no matter what, there are people who are unhappy or vehemently disagree with whatever’s going on. Well, it’s good to see some things never change (of course, I’m being sarcastic) and people have been following and fighting over politics since we were first able to form our own thoughts. Of course, people have been writing about politics and current events for as long as we could write, as well, and Chesapeake Shakespeare Company‘s season opener, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Directed by Michael Tolaydo, with Set Design by Audrey Bodek, Lighting Design by Michael Lonegro, Sound Design by David Crandall and Costume Design by Kristina Martin, gives us a glimpse into The Great Bard’s view of ancient Roman politics and how they handled things. Certainly one of Shakespeare’s classics, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has managed to pull this piece into the 21st century and presents it in a way that is easy to follow and enthralling making it one of the best productions of this piece that I’ve seen yet.

22046889_1716558538639084_3341750075406380607_n-460x307

Ron Heneghan, Caitlin Carbone, Briana Manente, Michael P. Sullivan, Lesley Malin, Mehul Gulati, Vince Eisenson and Mary Coy. Photo by Robert Neal Marshall.

Audrey Bodek’s Set Design is minimal but absolutely breath-taking. She uses her space wisely and keeps the to traditional Shakespearean design with the balcony and all that, but her choice of gold coloring to cover this set works well and fits nicely with the piece. Her artistic ability is apparent with the random but beautiful cross-section pattern that make up the railings and coverings that are subtle but make up the perfect background.

Costume Design by Kristina Martin is quite appropriate, and, though fashionable, breezy, and fun, you won’t be seeing any togas on this stage. All attire is modern business attire or modern casual and all of the actors seem rather comfortable in their wardrobe. Though using a traditional design for a Shakespeare work is all well and fine and, of course, works, it’s nice to see that Martin uses an updated design that is just as effective, if not more effective in bringing a modern day audience to a better understanding of the piece.

CAESAR_by RNM_Octavia and Antonia

Octavia (Caitlin Carbone), who is Caesar’s heir, and Mar Antonia (Briana Manente), who is Caesar’s loyal supporter, will avenge the death of Caesar. Photo by Robert Neal Marshall.

Lighting and Sound Design by Michael Lonegro and David Crandall, respectively, work in tandem and create a superb atmosphere throughout the piece. Each scene is lit just about perfectly and each sound is deliberate and spot on. It’s worth noting the storm lighting and sound is some of the best I’ve seen in any production. Both Light and Sound Design blend so well into the production, one doesn’t notice them directly, which is exactly what an audience is supposed to do, but when you notice it… it’s on point and adds an authenticity to the production.

Michael Tolaydo takes the helm of this production of Julius Caesar and he knows exactly what he wants and executes it beautifully. He has a definite comprehension of the text and the way he tells this story is easy to follow even for those who are not familiar with the work of William Shakespeare. The care he took with the modern day theme while staying true to the text is apparent and his casting is top-notch. While a piece like this can be drawn out, the pacing for this piece is spot on as Tolaydo keeps the action moving smoothly, with purpose.

IMG_7389 Brutus face off with Cassius

Following the assassination, as civil war erupts, Brutus (Ron Heneghan) quarrels with Cassius (Vince Eisenson) as soldiers look on (Molly Moores, Seamus Miller, Lesley Malin). Photo by Robert Neal Marshall.

Moving on to the performance of this production, the entire ensemble works well together and each actor seems understands his or her role and how they fit into the piece. With such a large cast (even with folks doubling or tripling roles), it’s a lot to keep track of, but that’s the beauty of it… you don’t have to! Whether a supporting or leading player, each gives 100% effort and dedication making for a quite an entertaining evening of theatre.

Among the many supporting players, Kathryne Daniels, who takes on various roles, including a couple of Senators and a Poet, is a joy to watch because of her versatility and apparent grasp of each contrasting character she plays. This lady knows her stuff and gives us her all.

As Portia, the dutiful but strong willed and intelligent wife of Marcus Brutus, Caitlin Carbone knocks it out of the park with strong, confident performance as does Imani Turner as Lucius, another supporting, but rather important character as personal servant to Marcus Brutus. Turner gives a dedicated performance and gives this character purpose.

CAESAR_by RNM_Caesar arrives to meet Senators on the Ides of March

On the Ides of March, Julius Caesar (Michael P. Sullivan) arrives to meet with senators including Metellus Cimber (Lee Conderacci) and Casca (Mary Coy). Photo by Robert Neal Marshall.

Keith Snipes and Mary Coy tackle the roles of Cinna and Casca, respectively, and both actors are great assets to this production. Snipes, with his booming, clear voice and great stage presence gives a pristine performance while Coy, who has a clear understanding of the text and her character, gives a confident, distinct portrayal of a conflicted, but determined conspirator.

Mar Antonia, one of the leading characters and loyal friend to the unfortunate Julius Caesar, is portrayed by Briana Manete and she gives a stellar performance of this sly, clever character. Manete plays this character as the one you love to hate. The character is full of pure politics and plays all the angles she needs to accomplish her goals and Manete plays the role with a snarky quality that takes her performance to the hilt. She comfortable and confident, making her a definite highlight in this production.

Rounding out this remarkable cast Michael P. Sullivan as Julius Caesar, Vince Eisenson as Caius Cassius, and Ron Heneghan as Marcus Brutus. These three gentlemen carry this piece beautifully and emote all of the emotions of anger, sadness, and even love that the characters require.

https-cdn.evbuc.comimages358686661862755185781original

(clockwise) VInce Eisenson as Cassius, Michael P. Sullivasn as Julius Caesar, and Briana Manente as Mar Anotnio. Photo: Robert Neal Marshall.

Sullivan, as Caesar, seems to have a good grasp on this character and carries his pseudo-humbleness nicely and this character’s confidence is well portrayed. He has a strong stage presence and his delivery is near flawless making for an overall worthy performance.

Eisenson, a highlight of this production, takes the role of Caius Cassius and makes it his own. The conflict is clear in his gestures and delivery making for a very believable character. His comprehension of the text is apparent and he articulates the lines clearly and with confidence making the dialogue easy to follow. His brooding quality and good chemistry with his fellow actors, especially Heneghan, adds to this character making for an excellent performance.

Lastly, Ron Heneghan tackles the gut-wrenching role of Marcus Brutus, the best friend, but loyal Roman who must decide between his love for a person or his love for a country. Heneghan captures these emotions and tribulations perfectly in this thoughtful and well-played performance. He’s completely comfortable with the character and his confidence in his choices of subtle gestures, clear, intonated delivery of dialogue, and chemistry with his cast make his portrayal seem effortless and makes him a standout in this production.

Final thought…Julius Caesar is a classical piece presented in a very modern style that is easy to follow, well-paced, and fantastically entertaining. With original text, the performances are rich and spot on and the technical aspects of light and sound just adds to this phenomenal production. The actors are well versed in the text and have a good comprehension of both character and story. Whether your familiar with the work of William Shakespeare or experiencing it for the first time, you will easily follow this timeless story and you will not be disappointed. Run, don’t walk, to get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s production of Julius Caesar… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Julius Caesar will play through October 29 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202 For tickets, call the box office at 410-244-8570 or purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

Like Backstage Baltimore on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter (@BackstageBmore) and Instagram (BackstageBaltimore)

Advertisements

Review: An Inspector Calls at Laurel Mill Playhouse

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 45 minutes with two 10-minute intermissions

What kind of person are you? Do you have empathy for others or do you look out for number one? How diverse is your circle of friends, if at all? These are all rhetorical questions and no one has an obligation to answer, but they are certainly questions one might ask him or herself occasionally. Sometimes, we keep the answers to ourselves, even from our own families and when the answers are revealed, they can, sometimes, be earth shattering. In Laurel Mill Playhouse’s latest offering, An Inspector Calls by JP Priestley, Directed by Ilene Chalmers, with Set Design by Ilene Chalmers and Costume Design by Linda Swann, try to answer these questions that are raised by a visiting, mysterious Inspector as they pertain to a particular family who seem to live in their own little bubble in the Gilded Age England. The complex story has one common denominator… a dead girl in the morgue… but did one of these fine folks kill her?

Tom Piccin as Inspector Goole and Kyle Kelley as Eric Birling. Photo: Larry Simmons

If you haven’t attended a performance at Laurel Mill Playhouse, walking in, the intimate space is quite inviting and there’s really not a bad seat in the house. It’s old, but it’s comfortable. The Set Design for this production, by Ilene Chalmers (one of the many hats she wore for this production), is simple but functional. A few pieces of elegant furniture are used to represent a dining room of well-to-do English family and the furnishing choices do this quite well. This piece is a mystery/thriller and I understand that it is a darker piece, but the curious choice for simple black walls started getting to me as the production moved on. Paintings and prints adorned the walls, but there was no color with was a bit distracting, oddly enough. Otherwise, Chalmers’ design is precise and fits the piece very well.

Costume Design by Linda Swann is impeccable. This isn’t s large ensemble (only six characters) but each is costumed brilliantly. Swann’s attention to detail is splendid as the gentlemen are fitted with formal tuxedos that (mostly) fit well and the Inspector appropriately dressed in a plain, but neat suit that fits the part perfectly. The gowns for the ladies are true to the era, formal, and gorgeous, including the maid’s outfit and precious maid cap. Kudos to Swann for a job well done.

Ilene Chalmers, among many other duties, according to the program, takes the helm of this piece and it’s clear she has a complete vision for and comprehension of this twisting story. Her casting is superb and she tells the story without a lot of bells and whistles, which I can immensely appreciate. She sticks to the text in which the piece was written but still presents her vision clearly. Though there is a Dialect Coach listed in the program (Richard Atha-Nicholls), some of the actors are definitely struggling but not so much that it deters from the production as a whole. Overall, Chalmers produces a commendable presentation of this piece.

(l-r) Matt Leyendecker, Kyle Kelley, and JilliAnne McCarty. Photo: Larry Simmons

The entire ensemble works well together and the chemistry is absolutely apparent and all are giving 100% effort in their performances. Tracy Dye, as Enda, the maid to the Birling family has but a handful of lines, and some of them only one word, but her performance is top-notch. Though she is a character of few words, her expressions and gestures tell her story and Dye makes it clear her character is of a different world than those for whom she works. Her non-verbal skills make for a terrific performance.

Taking on the role of Eric Birling, the dependent-but-wants-to-be-independent son of the Birlings, is played by Kyle Kelley. Of the entire ensemble, Kelley is probably the weakest but that’s not to say he doesn’t do an admirable job. The character himself is nervous and anxious but that seems to be the only emotion Kelley emotes throughout the entire production. His darting eyes and shaky voice is appropriate for some of the dialogue but overall, he portrays Eric Birling as nothing more than a bag of nerves when he could bring more out of the character. Again, this isn’t to say Kelley gives an inadequate performance for it does seem to have a great grasp of his character and his tribulations.

Matt Leyendecker takes on the role of Gerald Croft, the fiancé to the Shiela, the Birling daughter, and his character is spot on. He embodies this character wholly, though I see Gerald Croft as a slightly younger man. Leyendecker certainly portrays an air of a man of the upper class during the time setting of the piece and it plays nicely. He gives a strong, confident performance that works well for this character.

The role of Sheila Birling is tackled by JilliAnne McCarty and she plays this role with gusto and is a highlight of this production. She has a good comprehension of her character and the change in views she portrays is superb. She gives us just enough emotion to express her anguish while still upholding her elegance as an upper-class lady. This character is desperately trying to make the others see the err of their ways (while all along admitting her own) and one can see the desperation in her face and gestures. Overall, McCarty gives an outstanding performance.

The matriarch, Sybil Birling, is portrayed by Sam David and she is the epitome of the sophisticated, rich mother of the Gilded Age (or a little after, rather). David takes this role, chews it up, and spits out a phenomenal performance. Her non-verbal work as well as her delivery is exquisite making for one of the standout performances in this piece.

Jeff Dunne takes on the character of Arthur Birling, the patriarch of the Birling family and he does so with 100% commitment. Dunne has a very strong stage presence and makes one take notice. He gets his character and understands the burdens of this man as he tries to work out a way to keep his family safe, even if it’s just from gossip. The air he portrays is absolutely appropriate for the character and he is consistent throughout.

Rounding out the cast is the title character (kind of), Inspector Goole, played efficiently by Tom Piccin. Aside from the lack of the British accent the rest of the cast is using, Piccin gives a strong, authentic performance. The authenticity in his performance is the lack of emotion and level headed-ness he presents as he interrogates each person in his quest for the truth, just as any real-life inspector or officer would have, putting his emotions aside to get to the facts of the matter. Piccin keeps his piercing glare consistent throughout the production and when his emotions are finally at a point where he cannot contain them any longer, it’s jarring, as it should be, and effective for the character. Major kudos to Piccin for a job well done.

Final thought… An Inspector Calls is a mysterious, intense look into ourselves as human beings as one part of a bigger organism. It forces us to ask questions about our own morals and ways of thinking. The production is well presented and the ensemble works quite well together to tell this cautionary tale carefully. With (mostly) authentic performances and a simple but very appropriate set, it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re in the Laurel area!

This is what I thought of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s production of An Inspector Calls… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

An Inspector Calls will play through October 1 at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main Street, Laurel, MD . For tickets, call 301-617-9906 or purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

Like Backstage Baltimore on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter (@BackstageBmore) and Instagram (BackstageBaltimore)

Review: I Hate Hamlet at Fells Point Corner Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission

As a reviewer, I have the opportunity and honor of seeing the same show at different venues and sometimes I hate the show (not to be confused with the performances) and sometimes I love the show (again, not to be confused with the performances) but it’s rare that I hate the show at one venue but love it at another. However, this is exactly what happened with Fells Point Corner Theatre’s latest offering, I Hate Hamlet by Paul Rudnick, Directed by Mark Franceschini, with Set Design by Christopher Flint. Not my favorite piece of theatre, Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production has changed my opinions and it’s a production I suggest you experience if you get the chance.

(l-r) Gabe Fremuth, Abigail Wright, Kimberley Lynne, and Zarah Rautell. Credit: Shealyn Jae

I Hate Hamlet is about a young television actor, Andrew Rally, who rents the great John Barrymore’s old apartment in New York City as he prepares for the title role in Hamlet for Shakespeare in the Park. The only problem is, Andrew hates Hamlet. With the support of his aging agent, his upbeat, excited girlfriend, a shifty director-friend from L.A., and, oddly enough, his real estate agent, he tries to decide if this is the role for him. It’s then that the ghost of the aforementioned great John Barrymore comes for a visit to help Andrew discover he is good enough and even better than what people (and he, himself) gives him credit for. It’s a good story with a good message of self-worth that plays nicely.

Set Design by Christopher Flint is excellent with levels and an attention to detail. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, it’s quite functional working quite well with the blocking of this piece. Since the set is a major aspect of this show, being the former home of the legendary John Barrymore, it’s important to get it right and Flint has done just that with his choice of furniture pieces to his ornamentations and classic style. For a small (not micro, but small) space, Flint has used his space wisely and has created an appropriate setting for this production.

Mark Franceschini is at the helm of this production and he has hit the nail on the head. His casting is outstanding and his comprehension of the text is apparent. Franceschini understands the witty humor involved in the text and guides his already apt cast in delivering it appropriately. The action keeps moving and the characters are authentic making for a delightful piece of theatre.

Though a Costume Designer is not named in the program, it’s worth mentioning the Costume Design as it was realistic and well thought-out adding value to the production.

Moving on to the performance aspect of I Hate Hamlet, this small ensemble of six really knocks it out of the ballpark. They work well together with good chemistry and seem to have a good grasp of their characters.

Steven Shriner as John Barrymore and J Prunell Hargrove as Gary Peter Lefkowitz. Credit: Shealyn Jae

J. Purnell Hargrove takes on the role of Gary Peter Lefkowitz, the sleazy L.A. directory trying to get Andrew back on to television, and does an admirable job with the role. Though, at times, he’s a bit too much and in your face for the intimate space, Purnell seems to understand the kind of man this character is and plays it with gusto. I will say, the touchy-feely-ness he portrays with Gabe Fremuth gets a little too creepy. Whether it’s an actor or director choice, I totally get the whole “sleazy” aspect, and it totally works for the character but… sometimes, less is more.

Zarah Rautell takes on the role of real estate agent-turned-friend, Felicia Dantine. Rautell fits this role like a glove. Her comedic timing is spot on and she seems to embody this rough around the edges type character. The balance of edginess and tenderness she finds and portrays in this character is impressive.

Lillian Troy, the very German and elderly agent to Andrew, is played by Kimberley Lynne and this performance is on point. She has the German accent down pat and her gestures and delivery of her lines are totally authentic. She, too, has terrific comedic timing and knows her character well.

Next up is Abigail Wright as Deidre McDavey, the somewhat naïve, but kind and optimistic actress-girlfriend to Andrew. Wright is an absolute joy to watch in this production. Her upbeat, energized performance adds so much to this production and her delivery is spot on. I’d seen this character performed a very different way in a very different production but Wright has this on in the bag. Her energy alone, as she hops across the stage (and the furniture) gives a certain needed “oomph” to the entire production. I’m looking forward to seeing more from this actress.

Andrew Rally, the television actor on whom this entire story is revolved, is played diligently and aptly by Gabe Fremuth, who embodies this character with a lack of self-confidence. He finds a good balance of fake confidence and vulnerability that makes this character endearing and has you rooting for him. He has a good look for the role and gives a strong, confident performance, comfortable with the text and the character. He has a great chemistry with his cast and does well with this character.

(l-r) Gabe Fremuth, Abigail Wright, and Steven Shriner. Credit: Shealyn Jae

Rounding out the ensemble is the incomparable standout of this production, Steven Shriner, who tackles the complex but common sense role of John Barrymore, who some consider was the best Hamlet to hit the stage. Shriner pulls this role off beautifully and is totally believable as the ghost of Barrymore. His comedic timing is second to none and he seems to have a complete comprehension of this character and the story of I Hate Hamlet. He is confident and comfortable on stage and delivers his lines clearly with purpose. He mixes this character with humor and poignancy and his balance of both is superb. He is certainly one to watch in this particular production.

Final thought… I Hate Hamlet is a humorous, but serious look at and partly analyzes one of Shakespeare’s most famous and popular plays in an easy, understandable way but, through this Shakespearean tragedy, also teaches us a little about ourselves and what we’re capable of doing in today’s modern world when we think the odds are against us. The story moves along nicely and the performances are strong and confident with a sturdy, impressive set and a fantastic costume design that makes for an exquisitely delightful evening of theatre.

This is what I thought of Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production of I Hate Hamlet… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

I Hate Hamlet will play through October 1 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S Ann Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call 410-669-0220 or purchase them online

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

Like Backstage Baltimore on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter (@BackstageBmore) and Instagram (BackstageBaltimore)

Review: The Christians at Baltimore Center Stage

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes with no intermission

Religion can be a tricky thing to write an entire show about. Religion is a very personal concept and people have very strong feelings about it which makes it even more risky. However, to find a good balance and write a show about religion that isn’t over-saturated with said religion is a rare and beautiful thing and Baltimore Center Stage’s latest production, The Christians by Lucas Hnath, Directed by Hana S. Sharif, with Music Direction by Jaret Landon, is just that, a fine balance of beliefs told in an entertaining but honest and poignant way that makes for an enjoyable, yet thought-provoking evening of theatre.

Mike Carnahan’s Set Design is minimal, but beautiful. This set puts the audience in the seats of a mega-church with a sleek and modern design that is quite functional, including a choir loft and bandstand for the outstanding choir and small band that is included in this piece. Most of the action takes place center stage and the minimal design prevents mucking up or crowding the actors and the band and choir, though set back, is prominent and easy to see, as they should be. This clever set design works in tandem with the stunning and mood-setting Projection Design by Hana S. Kim, that adds value to the production and, as stated, sets the mood for each scene and action happening onstage.

As with any mega-church, or any service in general, music is an important aspect and Music Director Jaret Landon knocks it out of the ballpark with this production. Wisely, this piece starts off with the choir (credited as the Community Choir of Baltimore Center Stage) with an upbeat, gospel piece that has the audience tapping their feet and clapping their hands. Some even sing along, which is actually encouraged. I’d like to note I am a HUGE fan of gospel music and I found myself tapping, clapping, and singing! Landon has the choir singing in beautiful harmony and the soloists were on point. The band, consisting of Jaret Landon on Keyboards, Todd Harrison on Drums, Max Murray on Bass, and Michael Raitzyk on Guitar are tight and well-rehearsed making for a phenomenal performance along with the Community Choir of Baltimore Center Stage. The music aspect of this production really put the audience in the mindset of the piece. The only stumble that comes along in the musical styling of this production is the last choir performance which is kind of like an audience-interactive piece, like in a church, and though the choir is just as strong as they are in the beginning, the male soloist is a curious choice as he doesn’t seem to have the gospel style down as well as he should for a finale, a little stiff and a little more subdued and technical than called for, the soloists performance just seems to fall flat. Otherwise, major kudos to a job well done in the music department.

Lighting Design by Jen Schriever is precise and fits well with this production. With isolation lighting and splashes of color, where needed, it blends nicely and moves the piece along without jarring the aesthetics or being a hindrance to the piece itself. A true sign of a good lighting design is when one doesn’t notice the lighting, but does when needed and that’s exactly what happens with Schriever’s design.

Hana S. Sharif takes the reigns of The Christians and she does, indeed, have a great comprehension of the text and the meaning of this complex story. Her casting is spot on and they all work well together. Her vision is clear and the piece does not lean to one side or the other but balances just as the text requires. Sharif does well with the multifaceted issue of afterlife and one’s belief in that afterlife, which is the center of this piece, and presents it in a way that is a back and forth dialogue instead of an argument. The pacing is near perfect and she keeps the action moving forward with moments of intensity between certain characters that give it a peaks and valleys movement which is exactly what makes this show work.

Moving on to the performance aspect of The Christians, every single actor in this ensemble made his or her character his or her own and worked with and off of their cast mates beautifully.

Jessiee Datino takes on the role of Jenny, a single mom who found redemption and salvation in the church and wants desperately to keep what she found but is having questions which she hesitantly, but bravely presents. Datino has this this character down pat. From the nervous giggling to the gestures, she really embodies this character of Jenny and has a good grasp on her. Datino gives a strong, natural, and delightful performance.

Lawrence Clayton (who if you look really quickly, could be a Lawrence Fishburn double) takes on the role of Elder Jay, a jovial but-business minded gentlemen who really wants what best for the church. Clayton plays this role splendidly with an authenticity that makes this character quite likeable and wise.

Adam Gerber tackles the role of Associate Pastor Joshua, the staunch, zealous, yet faithful Associate Pastor who wants what’s best for the church, just like the rest of the characters, but also wants to be certain everyone believes in a certain doctrine or dogma. Gerber plays the role intensely and confidently, making his character not so likable, but not despicable. His emotion and gestures give an authenticity to this character that Gerber completely embodies. The thing about his character is, we all, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, know a person like this character and he’s hard to figure out. He has an objective, that Gerber works for brilliantly, but it’s still hard to reconcile our respect for this character and our own beliefs, making for a stimulating and exasperating character that Gerber pulls off effortlessly.

Taking on the role of Elizabeth, the preachers wife, is Nikkole Salter who has an air of elegance and dignity that is required for this role. She fits perfectly with this character and gives a poignant, truthful performance. Salter works especially well with and has great chemistry with her counter-part, Howard W. Overshow, who takes on the complex role of Pastor Paul, who’s belief is changing and trying to deal with it and the opinions of his congregation. Overshow is an absolute standout in this production giving a superb performance. From the moment he steps onstage, one feels they are in a service watching a strong, confident preacher do his thing. His booming, yet comforting voice and gestures make for an extremely realistic performance and the emotion he emotes throughout his more intense scenes is outstanding. His anguish and confusion is clear in his performance and he handles the balance beautifully.

Final thought… The Christians is a poignant, though-provoking look at beliefs and how they can shape or even re-shape a person’s outlook on life. The performances were top-notch and the book by Lucas Hnath is cleverly written as he doesn’t dwell so much on religion but on individual views on the afterlife and gives a good balance of those views. From set design, lighting, and the amazing choir supporting this piece; you don’t want to miss it! It may have you asking questions or confirming what you already believe but either way, it will make you think and that’s always what good theatre does. Get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Baltimore Center Stage’s production of The Christians… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The Christians will play through October 8 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

Like Backstage Baltimore on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter (@BackstageBmore) and Instagram (BackstageBaltimore)

Review: Two Trains Running at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

1718artworktrains_6_orig

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

August Wilson is a master in telling the everyday, slice-of-life stories of the average African-American community and his Pittsburg Cycle, a 10-play cycle of stories (mostly) out of Pittsburg, gives insight to the African-American experience during whole of the 20th century with one play touching on one decade in the century. With the recent popularity and critical acclaim for the film version of Fences, Wilson’s work has been brought to the forefront or, at least, has made a resurgence, which is warranted. Spotlighters Theatre’s latest offering, Two Trains Running, Directed by Fuzz Roark, with Set Design by Alan S. Zemla and Costumes by House of Bankard, touches on the late 1960s experience with authenticity and truthfulness that can only be found in a small neighborhood café with their regular crowd. This production is a great start to an exciting new season.

 

xset-photos02_orig

Set Design by Alan S. Zemla for Two Trains Running at Spotlighters Theatre. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

With the intimate space at Spotlighters Theatre, some productions can be more difficult than others and sometimes a big show can feel stuffed into the space however, with the Set Design for this production of Two Trains Running, Alan S. Zemla has outdone himself. He used his space wisely, even with the four troublesome pillars holding the place up! Impressively, he used as much space as needed, but it did not feel cramped in any way. One corner for a counter, one corner for a window table and a jukebox, and one corner for the main entrance and front window while using the main stage for the main dining room worked out perfectly for this piece. It was an open design but not so open that the intimacy was lost. His choice of colors is spot with pinks and blues, which I imagine are remnants of an earlier era of bobbysocks and Elvis Presley that stuck around until the late 60s. Overall, the design is impressive, smart, and simple, working with the space and not against it. Kudos for a job well done.

twotrains21_orig

Linae Bullock and Troy Jennings. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Costumes by House of Bankard never disappoint and it’s the same for this production. Each era definitely has its own style and anytime a piece is hitting the cusp of a decade or era, it can be tricky. The late 1960s were flashy (paving the road for the outlandish 70s), but when you walked through a regular, blue-collar neighborhood, you didn’t see the avant garde fashions that were in the streets of New York City or Paris or Milan, but… just regular every day folks and House of Bankard does an admirable job with the wardrobes for these actors. You could see the differences in these characters by appearance alone and each costume fit each character beautifully from a café waitress, to the stylish proprietor of the café, to an elderly working-man, to the rich under-taker across the street. All costuming is appropriate and feels natural adding great value to the production.

Direction by Fuzz Roark is impeccable in this production. Roark really seems to have a great comprehension of this story and the characters and, though there is no major conflict or purpose, most days don’t and Roark guides these apt actors through a day as if we were actually sitting in the café with them, give the entire production an overall authenticity. Roark is experienced working in the round and the action was fluid. It’s a lengthy play, but it doesn’t feel lengthy because of the spot on pacing and, with the intimate space helping, the immersive feeling as if you are sitting at the table right next to these characters.

twotrains32_orig

Timothy Eric Andrews as West. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Moving into the performance aspect of this piece, it’s worth noting that every single actor in this small ensemble gives 100% effort and entirely embodies his or her character. Major kudos to the entire ensemble of this production of Two Trains Running.

Timothy Eric Andrews takes on the role of West, the very rich owner of the funeral home who seems to want what’s best for the neighborhood, but doesn’t hide the fact that whatever he does can benefit him, as well. Andrews has a very good look for this part and is confident in his role, if not more soft-spoken that I like, at times, but his character mannerisms are a good fit for this character.

twotrains17_orig

Linae Bullock and Aaron Hancock. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Taking on the role of mentally challenged Hambone, who is obsessed with getting his ham (which was payment for painting a fence a decade before) from the grocer across the street from the café, is played by Aaron Hancock who does a bang up job with this character. Totally believable and brave, Hancock treats this character delicately and gives a strong, authentic performance that makes you want to take him in his arms and protect him.

twotrains39_orig

Troy Jennings as Sterling Johnson. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Taking on the role of the young, kind of mixed up and searching ex-con, Sterling Johnson, is Troy Jennings, who gives an admirable performance. Though his performance is a bit too technical and stiff instead of fluid and natural, he still gives a confident, precise performance, and gives his all for this character. Sterling Johnson isn’t someone you know you can trust… at first, then he grows on you and this is exactly how Jennings played this character and it worked nicely. His chemistry with the rest of the cast is very good and jovial but when it comes to his scenes with Linae Bullock, who plays Risa is, things seem a bit scripted, but still believable and the two work well together.

twotrains24_orig

Linae Bullock as Rissa. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Linae Bullock is a standout in this production as Risa, the lone female character and only employee at the café. Her natural motion and delivery of her dialogue had me believing she was this character from the first time she walked on stage. The character is jaded, but underneath the hard exterior, she has big heart and wants to be loved and Bullock presented this near perfectly.

twotrains40_orig

Mack Leamon as Wolf. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Wolf, the neighborhood “numbers guy,” who is actually a likeable person, regardless of his not-so-legal choice of profession, is played by Mack Leamon who does a brilliant job with the role. He plays the character low-key, as required by one running on the outskirts of the law, and with a heart for the neighborhood and its inhabitants. Leamon doesn’t overplay the light conflict between Wolf and Sterling (whether it be because of Rissa or a change in the rules of the numbers game) making it believable.

twotrains08_orig

Tyrell Martin as Holloway. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Next, probably my favorite character and a highlight in this piece is Holloway, the down-home, common sense elderly regular who always has an anecdote or story for every situation, is played Tyrell Martin.  The only slight flaw is that Martin may be too young for this role. Appearance-wise, this may have been more successful in a bigger space, but in the intimate surroundings of Spotlighters, it just didn’t read as well as it should have. HOWEVER, that’s not to say Martin’s performance wasn’t spectacular, because it most certainly was! He has a good grasp of this character and his purpose and pulls it off beautifully. Aside from looking too young for the part, he even has the mannerisms and gestures of an elderly gentleman down pat. He fully embodies this role and makes me feel like he’s the good-natured uncle who you visit for a spell, just sitting on the stoop, talking about everything under the sun and watching the world go by.

twotrains45_orig

Louis B. Murray as Memphis Lee. Photo: Spotlighters Theatre / Shaelyn Jae Photography

Rounding out the small ensemble and a standout in this piece is Louis B. Murray who tackles the role of Memphis Lee, the proprietor of the small Pittsburg café, in which this piece takes place, known simply as Memphis Lee’s. Murray, who has experience with August Wilson works, is superb as the non-nonsense, old-timer who doesn’t seem to understand the generation of outspoken activists. Murray understands where this character is coming from and gives a confident, natural performance. He delivers August Wilson’s words with passion and intensity, when needed, as well as with a tenderness that is seeping just under the surface in this character. He, too, is someone to whom everyone can relate… like an older uncle or family friend who you don’t mind spending an hour or two with each week, just talking and learning. His chemistry with the rest of the ensemble is on point, as well, making for a strong, thoughtful performance.

Final thought… Two Trains Running is a poignant, relatable look at the African-American experience in America, told masterfully with a thoughtful script, good directing, and exquisite performances. The chemistry in the cast is strong and every actor has a good comprehension of what their characters are all about and how they fit in the story. As part of a 10-play cycle, this work stands alone and really puts you in the moment. Though there’s no major conflict, this piece works nicely as a “slice of life” piece where the audience is witness to every day goings on in a small café in Pittsburg and, because of the dialogue and situations, it’s still enthralling. This production is a great addition to the theatre season and you should get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Spotlighters Theatre production of Two Trains Running… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Two Trains Running will play through October 8 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

Like Backstage Baltimore on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter (@BackstageBmore) and Instagram (BackstageBaltimore)

Review: M. Butterfly at Everyman Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 30 minutes with two intermissions

(l-r) Brett Messiora, Vichet CHum, and Mika J. Nakano. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

When East meets West, mysterious things can happen and though, some stories are too incredible to be true, Everyman Theatre‘s latest offering and first show of the season, M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang, is indeed incredible and very true (at least most of it), and the gut-wrenching love story it tells is as mysterious as many parts of Asia itself. Directed by Vincent M. Lancisi, this production is not one you want to miss.

Vichet Chum as Song Liling. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

M. Butterfly gets it’s name from the popular Puccini opera Madame Butterfly about a U.S. Naval officer who marries a young Japanese girl, Cio-cio (Madame Butterfly), out of convenience, but plans on leaving her once he finds a suitable American wife. Cio-cio falls deeply and hopelessly in love with this Naval officer who leaves her flat, with a child. When she discovers he has remarried in the USA, she becomes so distraught that she commits suicide all because of her love for this man. Whoo, nelly!

Vitchet Chum as Son LIling. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

In a nutshell, M. Butterfly is somewhat the same story, but in reverse. In this story, a French Diplomat, Rene Gallimard (played by Bruce Randolph Nelson) falls in love with a Japanese actress, Song Liling (played by Vichet Chum) and plays out over a span of 20 years. It’s a breathtaking piece of theatre with a near perfect script. David Henry Hwang does a magnificent job in telling this 20 year story in two and a half hours but there is no confusion as all the gaps are filled in nicely. Hwang masterfully takes the highlights of the story and presents them while explaining, not glazing over the not so important stuff through dialogue and action. His script is very easy to follow, perfectly blends humor and comedy, and the transitions are seamless.

(l-r) Bruce Randolph Nelson, Bernard Boursicot, and Vincent M. Lancisi. Credit: Kirstin Pagan/Everyman Theatre

Set Design by Yu-Hsuan Chen is cleverly minimal with a beautiful cut out screen across the back of the stage with simple set pieces coming in and out to represent different locations. It’s clean, precise, and fits with the story quite appropriately. Chen is careful not to muddle the stage with too much and it keeps the attention on the story being told which is a wise choice and his design is superb and working in tandem with Chen is Lighting Designer Jay Herzog. The Lighting Design is truly and undoubtedly one of the stars of this piece. With the set being minimal, it’s all in the lighting and Herzog steps up to the plate and hits a home run. His design easily sets the moods and puts the audience in each location being represented, taking the audience on the journey with deep-feeling characters and complex story.

Deborah Hazlett as Helga and Bruce Randolph Nelson as Rene Gallimard. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Director Vincent M. Lancisi takes the reigns of this production and his vision and execution for putting this story on the stage are praiseworth. Pacing is on point and the action keeps the piece moving nicely and his casting is impeccable.. It’s worth noting, Mr. Lancisi, as well as some others included in the production, took a trip to France and was able to speak with the man on whom the character of Rene Gallimard is based, Bernard Boursicot, and that meeting seems to have made an impact. Lancisi definitely has a deep comprehension of this piece and does a marvelous job presenting Hwang’s script in an all-around astonishing production.

Mika J. Nakano and Brett Messiora. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Moving into the performance aspect of this production, Every actor in this ensemble is an important part of telling this story, including Everyman Theatre Company member Deborah Hazlett, who takes on the role of Helga, the traditional and conservative wife of Rene Gallimard, and she gives a strong, confident performance with a natural, elegant air for which the character calls.

Bruce Randolph Nelson as Rene Gallimard. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Another supporting actor needing to be mentioned is Tuyet Thi Pham who tackles various roles, including the communist, Comrade Chin. Pham gives an authentic, strong performance and seems to grasp this character wholly, embodying her with every word.

Bruce Randolph Nelson, an Everyman Theatre Company member, as Rene Gallimard, the lovelorn French diplomat, is spectacular, emoting all the confusion and emotion this character requires. His natural performance brings the audience into the story and his knack of storytelling just takes this performance over the top, in a fantastic way.

Vichet Chum as Song Liling. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Vichet Chum taking on the difficult role of Song Liling is the gem in this piece. His versatility is clearly seen as he tackles this role and his understanding of this character is obvious. The chemistry between him and Nelson is on fire, helping Chum give a brilliant, confident performance that brings this mysterious, incredible character to life. You don’t know if you want to love or hate him but that’s what makes the performance so thrilling. He’s definitely one to watch in this production.

Final thought… M. Butterfly is an absolute must-see and a great way to start off the Everyman Theatre season. Not only is it beautiful aesthetically, the performances are superb, and the story is profound with a near perfect script to tell that story. Do yourself a favor and get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Everyman Theatre’s production of M. Butterfly… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

M. Butterfly will play through October 8 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

Like Backstage Baltimore on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter (@BackstageBmore) and Instagram (BackstageBaltimore)

Review: Clue the Musical at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

 

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission

You may be familiar with the board game of who killed someone with what and where, or you may be familiar with the 1985 slapstick, farcical, star-studded comedy film with a script I can recite in my sleep. Either way, if you know either of these things, you’re familiar with something known as Clue! And if you’re not, you should be! You can start with Artistic Synergy of Baltimore’s latest offering, Clue the Musical (Book by Peter De Pietro and Music by Galen Blum, Wayne Barker, and Vinnie Martucci, with Lyrics by Tom Chiodo), Directed by Nickolas Epps, with Music Direction by Jeff Baker, and Choreography by Temple Forston. It’s worth mentioning, if you are an uber-fan of the film, like I am, you will not see any of that here, but you will see the same zany characters and will be in for an amusing evening of an original story and music that may or may not help you solve this musical murder-mystery!

Hasheem Brin as Mr. Green. Credit: Artistic Synergy

Set Design by Nickolas Epps, Emma Hawthron, and Temple Forston is minimal but suits this production. A few chairs, a makeshift bar, a small desk, a rickety table that I think is supposed to represent a pool table, and a printed backdrop of the layout of the mansion is all that dons the stage and, though a little more effort could have been put into the design, it works well for this piece and the space.

Temple Forston takes on the duties of Choreographer and, this too is minimal. Some box steps and hand gestures make up the majority of the choreography and I’m wondering if the musical numbers would have been better suited to blocking rather than choreography. None of the choreography really stood out but, to her credit, Forston does give the actors simple, but appropriate moves and it blends well with the performance though it could be tightened up a bit.

Rick Long as Colonel Mustard. Credit: Artistic Synergy

Though a Costume Designer is not listed in the program, Epps states in his Director’s Note that along with having the opportunity to direct for the first time, this is also his hand in Costume Design. The costumes, I must say, are top notch and near perfect for each character. Each has his or her own, individual style and the costumes bring these characters to life. From Miss Scarlet’s slinky red dress to Mrs. White’s authentic, traditional maid outfit the costumes are impressive and kudos to Epps for his handy-work.

Wayne Ivusich as Professor Plumb. Credit: Artistic Synergy

Music Director Jeff Baker, a veteran of the Baltimore theatre scene who does great work did seem to have his challenges in this production. First, this production uses canned (recorded) music and it only features the piano. Running through the sound system, it sounds “tinny” at times but the cast does a fantastic job following along. Vocally, the cast does an admirable job with the songs given to them, even if the songs are a bit blasé and elementary (the songs themselves, not the performances of the songs). Harmonies come and go and energy is a bit low but, again, it’s mainly the material and not the performances. Aside from a few missed lyrics, the cast get through the score and Baker did the best he could with the material given to him.

Stacey Cosden as The Detective. Credit: Artistic Synergy

Director Nickolas Epps takes the reigns of this production of Clue the Musical and as a first time director, Epps does a commendable showing and the missteps taken will be ironed out with experience. This particular show doesn’t call for a ton of blocking but there seems to be nil to none in this production. Actors enter, they stand center stage (or elsewhere), recite their lines, and exit. Though one has to pay attention to the dialogue, the scenes fell a bit flat because of lack of movement to make it interesting. The individual character work is good and each actor found his or her own twist on these well-known characters. Transitions were a little messy and the comedic timing is a bit off but those are things that can be fixed as the run moves along. Casting is near perfect and each actor fit nicely and believably into his or her character. I respect Epps for taking on a full-fledged musical as his first foray into directing and I understand it can be overwhelming. However, Epps, with the minor first-time Director stumbles, seems to have handled it well.

Olivia Winter as Miss Scarlet. Credit: Artistic Synergy

It’s always difficult to portray such well-known characters and the characters of Clue the Musical are quite well-known. This is mostly because of the 1987 film and not necessarily the board game, and this makes it even more difficult for an actor. However, the ensemble for this piece is a small one and each and every one of them give 100% to their performances. They are a dedicated bunch and make the most of their characters giving some strong portrayals.

Hasheem Brin takes on the role of the conniving Mr. Green and though he is scripted and seems a little uncomfortable and scripted at times, he gives a respectable performance and Olivia Winter, as Miss Scarlet, definitely has the look and mannerisms down pat. Meanwhile, Stacy Cosden takes on the role of the no-nonsense Detective (a rather new character to the Clue universe), who shows up toward the end of Act I. Cosden is confident and seems to understand her character, giving a commendable performance.

Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum are portrayed by Rick Long and Wayne Ivusich, respectably. These two gentlemen are well cast and completely embody these characters. Long, as Col. Mustard, is committed and rigid, as the character should be and has a great look for the role. Ivusich, as Professor Plumb, wholly becomes this scheming, pretentious gentlemen and his British accent is spot on. Both give delightful performances.

Ashley Gerhardt as Mrs. Peacock. Credit: Artistic Synergy

As the promiscuous Miss Scarlet, Olivia Winter is a perfect match for this character and she gives a strength and confidence to this role. With her slinky red dress, she doesn’t over-do the promiscuity and actually portrays Miss Scarlet with a certain amount of vulnerability making for a lovely portrayal. Ashly Gerhardt tackles the portrayal of my favorite character, Mrs. Peacock. Gerhardt takes this role and runs with it. She’s not trying to be a carbon-copy of the film version of Mrs. Peacock and she adds her own flair which makes for a superb performance. Vocally, Gerhardt is stunning and gives a kick to the rather uninteresting songs as in her featured number, “Once a Widow.”

Ciahna Heck as Mrs. White. Credit: Artistic Synergy

Rounding out the cast is James Gilbert as Mr. Boddy and Ciahna Heck as Mrs. White, two highlights of this production. Gilbert has a great command of the stage and gives a confident and authentic performance as the character who helps the audience along throughout. He could cut some of the adlibbing and asides that break his character and become somewhat annoying, but he has a great grasp of his character and is believable. Vocally, Gilbert has a smooth bass/baritone that resonates throughout the theatre and makes one take notice as in numbers like “The Game” and “The Murder.”

James Gilbert as Mr. Boddy. Credit: Artistic Synergy

Ciahna Heck knocks it out of the ballpark as Mrs. White. Her British/cockney accent is on point and one can tell she’s giving her all for this role. She has a stupendous command of the stage and is very natural making for a superior performance. Along with her character, Heck is a standout, vocally, with a strong soprano (and singing in accent) that is well fitting in her featured song “Life is a Bowl of Pits.”

Overall, the entire ensemble has a good chemistry, allowing them to work well off of each other and with each other making for a pleasing evening of comedy-murder-mystery theatre.

Final thought… Clue the Musical is NOT my favorite show of the season but not because of the performers or performances… just the show itself! It is a humorous and nostalgic presentation of a familiar board game I spent hours playing as a child. However, if you are a fan of the 1985 film (of which I DEFINITELY am), you’ll see the characters have the same names, but you won’t see any of those rib-tickling one liners or crazy characters that made the film a cult classic. Clue the Musical takes these sinister characters and gives them a comical turn with upbeat songs and convoluted situations that leaves the audience scratching their heads until the ultimate reveal at the end of the evening. The script is a bit trite, the canned music is traditional and a bit uninspiring, but the performances are dedicated and quite admirable. I wonder… will you be able to figure out whodunit?

This is what I thought of Artistic Synergy of Baltimore’s production of Clue the Musical… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Clue the Musical will play through September 17 at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, 8212 Philadelphia Road, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door or purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

Like Backstage Baltimore on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter (@BackstageBmore) and Instagram (BackstageBaltimore)