Flower Crowns and Revolutionaries

It's Time to Talk about Cassian Andor (Guest Post by Hannah Ackman)

 My sister Hannah Ackman wrote a guest post last year ranking all of the Star Wars films. She's a huge fan of the franchise, and as her favorite movie is Rogue One, she was particularly excited about the new Andor series. Of course, I wanted to give her a platform to share her thoughts. 

NOTE: This review does not contain spoilers since the show just came out. While I do discuss the show, everything mentioned specifically has been said in interviews or trailers published before the release date. Please know there are spoilers for Rogue One

If you didn’t already know, I am a massive Rogue One fan. Cassian Andor is one of my favorite Star Wars men, so much so that my Nissan Rogue car is named after him. I could not have been more excited to see Diego Luna again in the Star Wars universe, and I am already mourning that we only have 9 episodes left (there will be 12 total). 

Andor takes place five years before Rogue One and four years after the Obi-Wan show. At the time that we are watching Cassian become a rebel, Jyn Erso is on the run, having been abandoned by Saw Gerrera a year prior. 

Besides having some of the same characters as Rogue One, the whole show has the same utilitarian and dystopian vibe. The costuming is amazing and consistent, but it is also used to show rank or positions among the different characters. Surprisingly, the actors have very varying ages, and they don’t stick in the 20-30 year-old range like usual. It’s very feminist without pushing for it, while at the same time, it made me grasp that everyone is essentially just a soldier for their cause. 

In Rogue One, Cassian says “We’ve all done bad things for the rebellion,” and I think we are going to see what drove him to that point where he is willing to kill, fight, and even sacrifice his own life for the greater good. Shockingly, we also are getting an insight into the Empire and their feelings as humans rather than just officers and troopers. The line “That’s what a reckoning sounds like,” in my opinion, almost characterizes the show. It’s a struggle, and it's messy, but lines of love and family are at the foreground too. 

Personally, I thought Andor was absolutely magical, and I can’t wait to see more. 

My 2021 Oscar Predictions

It sort of felt like the Oscars would never come around this year, I won't lie. While I've enjoyed so many of the films from 2021, I'm also excited to move on from these predictions and get into a new year of film. Obviously, I very much have my fingers crossed for Kenneth Branagh to win anything and everything he's nominated for. 

Best Picture
Prediction: CODA
Alternate: The Power of the Dog
My Winner: Belfast

Best Director
Prediction: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Alternate: Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
My Winner: Kenneth Branagh, Belfast

Best Actor
Prediction: Will Smith, King Richard
Alternate: Andrew Garfield, tick, tick...BOOM! 
My Winner: Andrew Garfield, tick, tick...BOOM!  

Best Actress
Prediction: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Alternate: Kristen Stewart, Spencer
My Winner: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye 

Best Supporting Actor
Prediction: Troy Kotsur, CODA
Alternate: Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
My Winner: Troy Kotsur, CODA

Best Supporting Actress
Prediction: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Alternate: Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
My Winner: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story

Best Adapted Screenplay
Prediction: CODA
Alternate: The Power of the Dog
My Winner: Dune

Best Original Screenplay
Prediction: Belfast
Alternate: Licorice Pizza
My Winner: Belfast

Best Cinematography
Prediction: Dune
Alternate: The Power of the Dog
My Winner: Dune

Best Costume Design
Prediction: Cruella
Alternate: Dune
My Winner: Cyrano

Best Film Editing
Prediction: tick, tick...BOOM!
Alternate: King Richard
My Winner: tick, tick...BOOM!

Best Makeup and Hairstyling 
Prediction: The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Alternate: Dune
My Winner: Dune

Best Production Design
Prediction: Dune
Alternate: Nightmare Alley
My Winner: Dune

Best Sound
Prediction: Dune
Alternate: No Time to Die
My Winner: Dune

Best Visual Effects
Prediction: Dune
Alternate: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
My Winner: Dune

Best Score
Prediction: Dune
Alternate: The Power of the Dog 
My Winner: Encanto

Best Original Song
Prediction: Encanto
Alternate: No Time to Die
My Winner: Encanto

Best Documentary Feature
Prediction: Summer of Soul
Alternate: Flee
My Winner: Flee

Best Animated Feature
Prediction: Encanto
Alternate: Flee
My Winner: Encanto

Best International Film
Prediction: Drive My Car
Alternate: The Worst Person in the World
My Winner: Flee

Best Animated Short
Prediction: Robin Robin
Alternate: The Windshield Wiper

Best Documentary Short
Prediction: The Queen of Basketball
Alternate: Audible

Best Live-Action Short
Prediction: The Long Goodbye
Alternate: Please Hold
My Winner: The Long Goodbye

Let me know what you think will win the Oscars on Twitter. x

Review: Going the Distance

After seeing theaters shut down for so long during the quarantine, it's easy to get emotional thinking about what they mean to people. "Going the Distance" taps into that emotion with a story of a community theater trying to mount a new adaptation of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz story. This fully digital production is a collaboration between the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, The Dukes, and The Watermill Theatre. 

This production follows other successful digital co-productions by Henry Filloux-Bennett including "What A Carve Up!" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Felicity Montagu directs from a script by Filloux-Bennett and Yasmeen Khan. 

The Matchborough Community Theatre knows that they don't have much money left, but they are determined to save their local venue with a fundraising production of a new play. But problems arise immediately from a demanding diva, a fighting writer and director, and a PR lady with a power complex. From their initial planning meeting over Zoom (a very nice touch) to their rehearsals in the theatre, we're taken along every step of the way. 

Matthew Kelly plays the gruff Frank, who has been roped into directing the production, but he's at odds with writer Vic, played by Shobna Gulati. Sarah Hadland is great as Rae, who is desperate to gain control and one of my favorite choices in the whole show is how she keeps checking her own appearance in the camera during the Zoom meeting. 

Nicole Evans brings the perfect amount of obnoxious leading lady energy to Billie and Penny Ryder is endearing as Maggie, the older woman on the staff who is roped into playing a role in the production. But much of the heart of the production comes from the interactions between Emma McDonald as Gail, the young woman playing Dorothy, and Merch Husey as her friend Kem. 

McDonald was one of the best parts of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and the same is definitely true here. She brings real heart to the production as a young woman who has never been involved in theatre before but has a beautiful voice. 

In between the scenes of the show, Stephen Fry provides context as the narrator with additional images and video. The format is clearly a hybrid of theatre and film, seemingly somewhere in between the two and its own new genre. 

If you book a ticket, you will receive a link that allows you to view the show for 48 hours. It's very convenient, even for people like me who aren't in the same time zone as the United Kingdom because it allows for flexibility. 

The show does an excellent job of combining humor and real emotion, particularly as it touches on loss during coronavirus and the ways in which the quarantine has affected our theaters. It's also an excellent reminder of the need to support our theaters right now as those that have survived the last nineteen months are still likely struggling to stay afloat. One way to support theatre? Buy a ticket to this show. 

You can find more information and buy virtual tickets here. The show runs from October 4 to 17. 

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

Review: (It's Been 76 Years and We're) Still Waiting for Lefty, Hollywood Fringe


RATING: ★★★★

In 1935, Clifford Odets's "Waiting for Lefty" premiered in New York City. Odets's first play to be produced, it was a response to the New York Taxi Driver Strike of 1934 in the form of a series of vignettes highlighting issues and experiences related to the strike. The play was popular with audiences, even garnering a West End production the following year. But, as "(It's Been 76 Years and We're) Still Waiting for Lefty" questions, "Do you think this play inspired any change or are we all still waiting?" 

Gregory Crafts's play is a response to "Waiting for Lefty" and an exploration of the modern issues facing American society today. Now playing at the Hollywood Fringe, it utilizes the same format of vignettes that Odets did to showcase a range of characters and problems. Written by Crafts, the show is based on a concept by Richard Piatt, who also directs. It also contains original music by Michael Teoli and poetry by Wade F. Wilson in between scenes. 

"Still Waiting for Lefty" opens with someone filming a YouTube video with a ring light. As he talks about  "Waiting for Lefty," other performers go through movement on the main part of the stage. It's a great introduction to the play for anyone unfamiliar with it and a clever way to make sure the audience understands what this play is inspired by. (I personally had heard of it, but have never seen it performed.) The video supposedly being made can be watched on YouTube

The scenes address many of the major problems that we face today in America: racism, corruption, exploitation of workers, COVID-19, and political strife. The first two vignettes were my personal favorites. In the first, Jose (Joe Luis Cedillo) is an Amazon driver who is frustrated with his poor treatment at work. He tells his wife, Edna (Leesette Gloria Medina), of the way that he cannot do anything while driving without being penalized, even changing the radio station.

However, she cannot understand his problems as she has her own concerns: having been let go from her job and caring for their young daughter. She's more focused on the fear that he will lose his job and they will no longer have health insurance. When he talks about joining with his coworkers who are trying to unionize, she tells him he needs to just do better at his job.  

Obviously, the treatment of Amazon employees has been a hot topic over the past few months, but this is also an interesting look at the issues that workers face when they are caught between the desire to try to improve their working conditions and the pressure placed on them by their family to ensure that they don't lose their work. In an economy where decent jobs with good pay and benefits is hard to find, this scene shows what a difficult situation that puts workers in. 

The second scene, centered around a pair of siblings who have been estranged due to their political beliefs, was a lot more familiar to me. I'm lucky not to have experienced this, but I have friends who are at odds with their family for similar issues. Ashley (Courtney Sara Bell) doesn't want to see her brother Will (Michael J. Lutheran) who is visiting, despite her fiancé Lana (Leah Verrill) encouraging her. She hasn't spoken to him since he voted for Trump a second time, so he's surprised to find out that she's met someone and gotten engaged during quarantine. 

When Lana invites him to their apartment, a confrontation breaks out between Ashley and Will. Despite reminiscing about their childhood together, they cannot see eye to eye. He wishes that she would understand that he voted for Trump "because of the economy," but she cannot reconcile that with her identity as a gay woman. 

Lana is also very concerned about coronavirus and her discussion of variants and conspiracy theories feels very up-to-date. Both this worry about the virus and the conflict over one family member insisting that politics aren't personal, while the other person's rights are at stake are sadly major parts of our lives today. 

You can go see "Still Waiting for Lefty" in person at the Hollywood Fringe or you can watch it online. The virtual stream isn't perfect, or as well shot as some of the more formal livestream theatre (like the National Theatre Lives), but it's plenty decent to be able to see the show. There were a couple of moments when it was difficult to hear something, but that's understandable given the format.

Craft's writing creates believable, but snappy dialogue while the performances find empathy for the characters. If the conflicts can sometimes feel like one person is very obviously in the right and the other in the wrong, that says more about the state of our country than the writing. Bell's performance as Ashley was the standout for me, as she perfectly brought to life her internal conflict. 

You can find more information and buy in-person or virtual tickets here. The show has performances on August 20 and August 25. 

Photo Credit: Matt Kamimura 

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

Interview: TRACY SALLOWS, Curious & Rare

Tracy Sallows is an actor who has appeared on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in television and film. This fall, she has a recurring role as Susan Duntsch in the NBC miniseries, Dr. Death. She is a member of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre workshop in New York City where she wrote the book, music, and lyrics to Curious & Rare. This exciting new musical tells the life story of English paleontologist Mary Anning. Today is actually Mary Anning's 222nd birthday, so it's the perfect time to learn more about this show and the writer behind it. 

When and how did you first become interested in theatre? 

I was lucky enough to have parents who really enjoyed going to the theatre. The first musical they took me to was Irene with Jane Powell. I don't remember much beyond "Alice Blue Gown," but the second musical they took me to was Annie and I learned it by heart. I loved musicals, but came to find that I have an alto/contralto voice, and outside of "Send in the Clowns" and Ursula the Sea Witch, there isn't a lot for women in that range, certainly not for young women. I trained at the Acting Conservatory program at SUNY Purchase and sang in cabarets there and did a lot of plays and plays with music (like The Hostage, Dark of the Moon, Under Milkwood) after I graduated. 

How did you get involved in writing for musical theatre? 

I was at the Guthrie Theatre doing The Glass Menagerie and Cymbeline and the theatre was planning a comedic cabaret so I wrote some parodies for them and they went over well. Back in New York City, I started writing and performing original comedic songs and sketches for a comedy troupe that performed Monday nights when we were off from the theatre. My friend, Kerry O'Malley, who is a Broadway actor (or you might know her from TV like Snowpiercer and Why Women Kill), heard my songs, loved my writing, and suggested I audition for the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and work on writing a full length show. I got in, made it through the first two years, and got into the Advanced Class where I started writing Curious & Rare

How did you first discover Mary Anning and what drew you to her? 

Some years ago, I was at the gift shop of the Montauk Lighthouse on Long Island looking for a book for my daughter and came across a children's book about little Mary Anning finding an Ichthyosaur in 1811. I thought it must be fiction - surely I would have heard of her if she had been real! I went home and Googled her and just kind of fell down the rabbit hole researching her. 

At a time when a poor girl's future would most likely entail being a servant if she was lucky, a scullery maid or worse if she wasn't, Mary Anning was fortunate enough to have been born on what would later be called the Jurassic Coast of England, to a cabinet maker father who was interested in collecting fossil "curiosities" and who was a Dissenter, one of the few religions that taught girls as well as boys to read and write. Luckily for all of us, Richard Anning's inclusion of his daughter gave her another path. 

Mary's story gripped me in many ways. While our careers are markedly different, some of the occupational hazards that she was presented with because of being passionately driven in her work, resonated with me. I am very fortunate; I have a husband and a daughter and have managed to keep working, but actors very often don't get to have families. The financial instability, the moving from job to job (if you're lucky), the impermanence of your locations don't make relationships easy. 

Many female actors look younger than they are and the majority of roles for women are still in the younger demographic, so there is pressure to work while you can, as long as you can, and many put off having a family even if they want one. It is easy to see how Mary would have had to give up her work and who she was if she had wanted to get married, given the societal constraints in the early 1800s. Also, it may be that after seeing her mother lose eight out of ten children in infancy, she simply didn't want to put herself through it. Being dedicated to a career comes at a cost, but giving it up comes at a cost too. 

The Annings also remind me of a branch of my family that came over from Liverpool, England in 1906. They were very, very poor and very resilient. I see a bit of Mary and her mother Molly in the relationship between by my great aunt and my great-grandmother. They sustained each other. There is a song in Curious & Rare, "Oranges from Spain," that pertains to either pair. 

Lastly, working very hard and being overlooked irregardless is something that I think a lot of people can identify with! Outside of Marie Curie and more recently Katherine Johnson, we don't hear much about women scientists and particularly female paleontologists. 

Before the pandemic, I was at a baby shower for a boy and it was striking how many dinosaur themed books, pajamas, tee shirts, stuffed animals, and wrapping paper were on display. Dinosaurs were as prevalent as the color blue and it's so easy to see how that reinforces paleontology as the domain of boys right from infancy. I was drawn to the story of a woman who persevered in a field that was considered the boys' club of all boys' clubs and despite being excluded, managed to make an undeniable mark in the field of paleontology. 

Can you tell me a bit about the story that Curious & Rare tells?

Curious & Rare tells the story of 19th century English paleontologist Mary Anning from her first major discovery at age twelve in 1811 to her death in 1847. There are a lot of children's books that write only about her discovery of the Ichthyosaur and there are novels that focus on her twenties and end with her last major discoveries. But I wanted to follow her whole life, not just the high points, but the valleys as well, to show what it cost her to be who she was. I also wanted to explore her relationship with her mother and the various gentlemen geologists she dealt with, as well as my hunch about who her romantic interest was. 

It is the story of a self-taught girl who grew into a woman who could hold her own in the male dominated field of paleontology, all despite the hardships of extreme poverty, the disapproval of the Church of England, the condescension of the scientific community, the confines of nineteenth-century society, the vicious gossip of her town, romantic heartbreak, her untimely death, and all the efforts to obscure and take credit for her contributions. I think she would be utterly amazed with the level of recognition she is receiving 222 years after her birth. 

What was the process of writing Curious & Rare like? 

Maury Yeston, who wrote the Broadway shows Nine, Titanic, and Grand Hotel, sometimes moderates at the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop in NYC. He has often said, "There are two kinds of musical theatre writers: there are composer/lyricists and there are song writers." A composer/lyricist might write a piece of music and then write lyrics for it, or write lyrics and set them to music. I am definitely a songwriter; when I hear the lyrics in my head, they come attached to the melody, sometimes with a counter melody as well. 

Sometimes it happens very quickly; one day in 2011, in the very early days of writing this piece, I was in an elevator going to a voice-over audition and thinking, what is Henry trying to say at this point at the end of the show? And "Change Is Slow" came into my head, melody attached, and I got off the elevator, signed in, read the voice-over copy, turned it over and started writing the lyrics. I had the audition and continued writing the lyrics on the subway home. I came home and worked on the piano and checked some reference books about the day Mary Anning died. 

Even in the driest reference book, there can be a word or phrase that inspires a lyric. Suddenly, I find myself reading, "Mary Anning died Tuesday, March 9th, 1847" and my hair stands on end because I realize I have just written the part of the show where she dies...and I am writing it on Tuesday, March 9th. 

Do you have a favorite song from the show? 

Ah, you know, they are all my favorites for different reasons. I have tried to work in actual quotes from each character into the songs when it felt natural. When Mary Anning was describing one of her most bizarre and unusual finds, the Squaloraja, she said it was "analogous to nothing" in a letter to Adam Sedgwick (who taught Darwin at Cambridge). "Analogous to Nothing" seems to me an apt title not only for a song about the Squaloraja, which was a prehistoric hybrid creature with traits of both sharks and rays that didn't fit neatly into any category, but a perfect way to describe Mary's life as well. There are so many hybrids in the show; reverend-doctors who preach the Bible and teach geology and Ichthyosaurs thought to be "Fish-Lizards" and, for the early 1800s, a female paleontologist was just as striking a combination. 

Jeremiah James as Henry de la Beche and Stephanie Rothenberg as Mary Anning
in the Manhattan Musical Theatre Lab staged reading of Curious & Rare

Mary Anning has been largely forgotten by history, but she's in the conversation more right now because of the recent film Ammonite in which she's portrayed by Kate Winslet. Have you had a chance to see the film yet and if so, what did you think of it? 

Yes! Mary is really in the conversation more now. The folks at Mary Anning Rocks, after two and a half years of diligently trying, have finally raised the money for a bronze statue of Mary and her dog Tray to be made and installed in Lyme Regis. This is a really wonderful and important tribute to Mary - and all women in science - and will be an inspiration to many who come to visit Mary's hometown. 

Also, the Royal Mint just came out with a trio of 50p coins celebrating her discoveries of the Temnodontosaurus (Ichthyosaur), Plesiosaurus, and Dimorphodon (Pterodactyl). There are also new books and new films in the works. It is wonderful to see her being so honored. 

I did see Ammonite. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are incredible actors, but I had trouble with the extreme license the story took not only with Mary Anning's life, but with Charlotte Murchison's as well. In reality, Charlotte was eleven years older than Mary, so if Mary was 40, Charlotte was 51, not 24. I would have liked to have seen a film that represented more of Mary Anning's work. As a paleontologist who spent her daily life trying to uncover the real truth about the past, I think facts would have mattered to her. 

What's something that you wish people knew about Mary Anning? 

That she herself is a missing link. Everyone knows about Darwin. Everyone knows about his theory of evolution. Mary's discoveries posited a theory of extinction and a question of "deep time," both of which were considered blasphemous at the time. Darwin's work was influenced by Mary's discoveries. 

Mary was religious and wondered and worried about the questions that her unearthing of fossils were raising, but she had faith enough to not presume to know, or put any limits on, what God was capable of creating and she continued her work and the pursuit of knowledge. Similarly, Darwin knew his theory would be greatly upsetting to some and actually held off publishing for a while. They were not people devoid of spirituality or religion; they just didn't see Science as being in conflict with Spirituality. 

I also wish people knew how hard it was to spot fossils. Mary didn't just go out daily and collect things; she searched for them (often putting herself in danger on unstable cliffs), excavated them, carried them home, chiseled them out, cleaned them, and illustrated them. Her illustrations were wonderful. Then she sold all that work for a fraction of what it was worth to men who would often take credit for finding the fossil. The work she did was physically taxing and she did it daily in all kinds of weather. 

Tracy Sallows presenting six songs from Curious & Rare at a
BMI Master Class guest-moderated by Stephen Schwartz 

What are your hopes for Curious & Rare in the future?

Well, now that we are emerging from the pandemic and theatre is beginning to come back, I would love to find a theatre that is interested in a staged reading, a workshop, or (better yet) a production. I have been working on this show for quite some time now and it is wonderful to see Mary Anning at long last get some attention. I am hoping a rising tide will lift all boats. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring musical writers? 

Get yourself in a workshop where people can give you feedback. Not everybody's feedback is useful, but there will always be some people who give a note that raises your game or gives you an "aha!" moment. Good, challenging notes are exciting; it means somebody "gets" you and is intrigued by your project. If you are in the New York area, apply for the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. It is free - you get in on merit! 

You can find out more about Curious & Rare on Tracy's website or the musical's website. You can also follow the musical on Instagram

Review: Now or Never, Barn Theatre

RATING: ★★★★

Some of the work written in response to the Covid-19 crisis feels exploitative. Like it's playing on its audience emotions and like it's come too soon, before we've had a chance to process what we've been through worldwide, what we're still going through. But Barn Theatre Associate Artist Matthew Harvey has found a way to create art in response to the pandemic that avoids all of that.

Harvey's new song cycle, "Now or Never," has been brought back for a longer run thanks to popular demand. Directed by Creative Director Ryan Carter, it was filmed live in a single take on April 1, earlier this month. The show is short, at only forty minutes long, making it perfect to watch on your lunch break. 

The connective thread of the song cycle is that all seven characters are responding to impending global catastrophe, as a large solar flare is expected to hit Earth within a week. With Zoom meetings and border lockdowns, the parallels to our current situation are clear without being overdone. Watching these engaging characters face the situation with overwhelming positivity, without downplaying the gravity of the situation, as they each consider how to spend what could be their last week alive is fascinating. 

The innovative filming of "Now or Never" is fantastic and adds a sense of intimacy to watching it onscreen. The show is shot in one non-stop, long shot with one camera (similar to that scene in last year's Oscar-nominated "Pieces of a Woman" film). It makes great use of space throughout the building. The amount of props, including a motorcycle and a television, are also impressive. 

It's hard to see a song cycle without thinking of Jason Robert Brown's "Songs for a New World," but this one does actually bear some similarities musically. Harvey is clearly a talented songwriter, but he also has a fantastic voice that he lends to the opening number, "On the Road." The other songs are performed by Eloise Davies, Ahmed Hamad, Irvine Iqbal, Lucy St Louis, Katie Shearman, and Courtney Stapleton and each brings something unique to their number. Davies and Stapleton's "Let's Skip Town" was definitely my favorite number of the show. 

Harvey's "Now or Never" would be an impressive song cycle for its music or the way it was filmed alone. But the way that it addresses global adversity while avoiding directly talking about the pandemic marks it as a truly resonant piece of art. Furthermore, it's able to find a tone that is upbeat and cheerful, without seeming naive. Particularly considering its short length, I recommend that everyone watch and support this beautiful show. 

You can find more information and buy tickets on the Barn Theatre website. The show runs until May 9. 

Photo Credit: Jenya Steanson

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

Review: An Elephant in the Garden, Poonamallee Productions and the Barn Theatre

RATING: ★★★★

Produced by Poonamallee Productions in collaboration with the Barn Theatre and in association with Exeter Northcott Theatre, An Elephant in the Garden is a unique wartime coming-of-age story now available to stream online. Based on the book by Michael Morpurgo, the play is adapted and directed by Simon Reade. It explores World War II from the perspective of a teenage girl from Dresden, Germany. This one-woman show, with all characters performed by Alison Reid, is the Barn Theatre's latest in a line of fantastic digital offerings. 

An Elephant in the Garden has been performed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at the Bristol Old Vic and Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe, and on tour in the UK. This is the show's first time being brought to the digital stage. Reid, dressed in dungarees and a floral button-down, tells the story directly to the audience. 

The show opens on November 9, 1989 with Lizzie hearing on the radio that the Berlin Wall is being torn down. She reflects back on her childhood in Dresden leading up to the war. Her father worked at the Dresden Art Gallery and the family had Jewish friends. She chronicles how things started to change in the city and her father was called up to war and her mother began working at the zoo. 

Most of the show focuses on the 1945 Dresden bombings and 16-year-old Lizzie, her mother, and an elephant named Marlene walking across the country to try to find safety. Reid brings to life all the people that Lizzie meets along the way from a Canadian Air Force soldier to a countess. 

The show's design is excellent from the fantastic sound design by Jason Barnes to the lighting work by Matthew Graham. In particular, the red lighting as Lizzie talks about the bombing of Dresden is very effective. Max Johns's set design is minimalistic, with its main piece being a bombed out section of a wall, and there are few props used. 

It's Reid who fully emerges us in the story as she brings all of the characters to life. She does a fantastic job of conjuring up visuals with her high-energy body language and voice work. She makes the piece completely engaging for its one-hour runtime. 

It's interesting to explore World War II from a German perspective and to see issues of wartime intertwined with the usual coming-of-age topics like first love and disagreements with parents. This story of a teenage girl and her mother traipsing across Germany with an elephant will touch your heart and make you laugh. 

This is the first of two Michael Morpurgo productions to be revived for streaming by the Barn Theatre. Private Peaceful will air later in April. Buying a ticket for An Elephant in the Garden provides 24-hour access and is available internationally. 

You can find more information and buy tickets on the Barn Theatre website. The show runs until April 18. 

Photo Credit: Farrows Creative

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Fionn Whitehead as Dorian Gray

RATING: ★★★★★

What would you give for the perfect social media presence? The creative team of What a Carve Up! have returned with a fantastic new version of The Picture of Dorian Gray that reimagines Oscar Wilde's only novel for the modern world. Co-produced by the Barn Theatre, the Lawrence Batley Theatre, the New Wolsey Theatre, the Oxford Playhouse, and the Theatr Clwyd, the show situates Dorian Gray as an influencer whose friend has given him a filter to ensure his perfect online appearance will never falter. 

The show, perhaps more film than theatre, is staged as a documentary of sorts looking back on the events preceding Dorian's death. We see interviews being filmed with Dorian's friends who made it out of the story alive, interspersed with clips of the events as they happened. But we also are witness to the Snapchats, texts, and FaceTime calls shared between the characters. Tamara Harvey's expert direction brings it all together while Holly Pigott's costume and set design elevate the piece to feel like a proper production. 

The Picture of Dorian Gray is admittedly one of the few Oscar Wilde works that I haven't read, but from what I know of it, Henry Filloux-Bennett's adaptation is excellent. The story opens with interviews with the Lady Narborough (Joanna Lumley) and social media influencer Harry Wotton (Alfred Enoch) looking back on Dorian's downfall. We first meet Dorian (Fionn Whitehead) as an English student and wannabe YouTuber. He's cute and mild-mannered, but there's the hint of something sinister underneath. 

Alfred Enoch as Harry 

His friend Basil (Russell Tovey), a software developer, is essentially obsessed with the much younger Dorian. Both Basil and Harry seem to fight for Dorian's affections; this production is able to make its gay relationships much more explicit than the novel it's based on. On his 21st birthday, Basil presents Dorian with a filter that will preserve his youth and beauty online. And for a while, things seem perfect. 

Dorian falls hard and fast for Sibyl Vane (Emma McDonald), an aspiring actress who is building a following on TikTok doing scenes from plays and poems. But as he becomes more obsessed with social media, we begin to see a difference in his online and offline appearance. In a twist on the original story in which Dorian's portrait becomes grotesque while his actual appearance remains immaculate, Dorian's online presence remains practically glowing while his body grows uglier with impressive makeup work. And as his obsession with his online image grows, so does his cruelty. 

Whitehead is excellent as Dorian, capturing both his endearing boyishness in the beginning and his absolute callousness later. McDonald shines as Sibyl, with a simple charm that contrasts well with Dorian's more calculated nature. It's fun to see Stephen Fry as the interviewer, asking Harry and Lady Narborough about their deceased friend. 

Emma McDonald as Sibyl

But the true standout of the cast is Enoch from the moment he first appears with a mustache and floral blazer, lounging on a maroon sofa. It's unlike any character I've ever seen him play before; he's suave and debonair, though underneath it there's a true affection for Dorian that makes the events that unfold even more devastating. 

The show feels remarkably up to date for 2021 from its references to Twitch and Patreon to "The Queen's Gambit" to Dorian's reminders to wear a mask. Setting the piece during quarantine cleverly explains away why the interviews are happening via a computer, allowing it to be made with less people together at a time. It's also a bit cheeky and self-aware. It mentions Oscar Wilde and "that one good" National Theatre Live show with Tom Hiddleston, an obvious reference to Coriolanus, which Enoch was in. 

But it also takes its exploration of the dangers of social media further than the surface level ideas about vanity. Because while social media does lead some to be obsessed with their image, the very existence of this adaptation proves that that issue is nothing new. It delves into right-wing conspiracy theories about Covid and the government and a movement of Aesthetics over Ethics that Dorian leads. As an American who is more and more concerned with the right-wing theorizing online and how it can led into things like the Capitol riot, these themes strongly resonated with me. 

This show contains mature language and themes, including drugs, sex, mental illness, and suicide. It's not an easy watch, but it's captivating in the same way that a sinking ship is. The Picture of Dorian Gray is an excellent reimagining of Oscar Wilde's enduring novel about obsession and image, updated for 2021, and just as chilling as its original version. 

You can find more information and buy tickets on the Picture of Dorian Gray website.  The show runs until March 31. 

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

Review: A Number, Raleigh Little Theatre

RATING: ★★★★

If a child is cloned, is their father also the father of all the clones? That's one of the questions asked by Raleigh Little Theatre's newest production. "A Number" is a psychological thriller about human cloning. Directed by Patrick Torres and written by Caryl Churchill, the play examines personhood and the ethics of cloning people. At only an hour long, it's just the right length for a show that asks such demanding questions of its audience. 

David Henderson plays Salter, while Jesse Gephart plays Bernard and other characters. Because some people might be a bit confused by Gephart portraying different characters and the complexity of the play in general, RLT has provided a plot summary on their website. (I would recommend reading after you finish watching the play, or even pausing after every scene to read the breakdown.) 

Much of the play centers around Bernard finding out that not only was he potentially the product of cloning, but that the scientists also made other clones with his DNA without his father's permission. He questions if he's the original and if that matters. 

He also begins to find out that the things he's been told about his past might not be true at all. The audience must try to figure out what the truth is along with Bernard as the play unfolds. It moves from more a philosophical conversation to a thriller as other characters get involved. Meanwhile, Salter is a man reckoning with his past mistakes catching up with him. 

The show is filled with fast-paced dialogue and both actors play off of each other well. Gephart does a great job of differentiating between his characters with accent work and physicality. While one character is bolder and more aggressive, another is mild-mannered and more refined and this shows well through his movements and tone of voice. 

The show was filmed on a simply dressed stage to be streamed online. It's well-filmed to show us different angles and allow us to feel a bit more intimate with the actors without ever losing the sense of it being a play on a stage. 

"A Number" is something a bit different than your normal play that you might see. As the characters themselves question issues to do with cloning and individuality, the audience has to reckon with them as well. However, with its short length, it never becomes overpowering or fatiguing. Raleigh Little Theatre's latest show has great performances and an intriguing premise -- and can be enjoyed from the comfort and safety of your own home. 

For more information or to buy tickets, visit the Raleigh Little Theatre website. "A Number" runs until March 13. 

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

Photo Credit: Jeremy Diamond 

Review: The Secret Society of Leading Ladies, Barn Theatre

RATING: ★★★★★

The Barn Theatre has been one of the best sources of theatre content during the pandemic as they continue to come up with inventive ways to offer shows online. In perhaps their most creative project yet, their latest show is a sort of choose-your-own-adventure concert: "The Secret Society of Leading Ladies." Conceived of and directed by Ryan Carter, it lets the audience put together their own concert line-up as they go and choose from lots of different types of leading lady characters. 

So how does it work? The audience will see five different "Choose Your Player" screens as they navigate through the concert that allows you to choose a character and song. There are fourteen different performances in the concert lineup, allowing for 150 different combinations, before a finale with all fourteen performers. There are also cute interactions between the characters in between songs. The concert lasts for about a half hour and while I would happily have watched more, it makes sure you never get tired of the format. 

The songs come from shows ranging from "Mean Girls" to "The Wizard of Oz" to "Fame." You can choose to hear some of your favorite songs or discover something new that you've not heard before. (I consider myself a pretty intense musical theatre fan and there were still a couple that I wasn't familiar with.) 

Aisha Jawando's "Last Midnight" from "Into the Woods" absolutely floored me not just with her great vocals, but also her fantastic acting choices. I love Aoife Clesham's rendition of one of my favorite songs, "The History of Wrong Guys" from "Kinky Boots." 

Jarnéia Richard-Noel's "I Didn't Plan It" from "Waitress" was another highlight for me, especially as someone who has seen the show but doesn't listen to the cast album and had sort of forgotten about the song. I also love Jocasta Almgill's absolutely electric "Everybody's Girl" from "Steel Pier," a show that I had never heard of before. 

All in all, there isn't a single bad performance as all the women nail their songs and their characters. The show is also very impressively put together, with each singer performing on a stage with a brick background that really does lend a concert feel. The videography by Jamie Scott-Smith is stellar, as is the editing by Ben Evans and sound engineering by Harry Smith.  I also especially love that each woman wears an outfit inspired by the character she's portraying. 

You can buy a one-show ticket and watch the concert through once or you can buy a multi-show ticket that allows you to watch the concert again and choose different performances. I absolutely love how creative this idea is and I'd love to see the Barn Theatre do a "Secret Society of Leading Men" concert next.  

For more information or to buy tickets, visit the Barn Theatre website. "The Secret Society of Leading Ladies" runs until March 7. 

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

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