The Best of Last Year: A Review of Theatre in Hampton Roads in 2016
By Nicholas Thornburg
February 1, 2017
2016 was a weird year. I’m not gonna say it was a bad year, although that did seem to have become fashionable as the celebrity body count mounted and the political season got increasingly bizarre. And I may perhaps have felt that way about 2016 myself on one or two (or several dozen) occasions, BUT. We still had oodles of great theatre being made right here in Hampton Roads, so on balance things could have been a lot worse.
So what say we take a moment to stop crapping on 2016 and instead hear what AltDaily’s theatre writers thought was outstanding between North Korea’s latest missile test and Hillary Clinton’s well-deserved vodka binge.
While I have a great deal of love for the Generic Theater and Little Theatre of Virginia Beach, I can’t say that any of their shows in 2016 were my favorite, because I was involved with almost all of them and that would be super uncool. This past fall, however, I was far enough removed from the Push Comedy Theater, my creative birthplace, to formulate an unbiased opinion about how awesome they are. Entering its third year of life, the PCT remains as goofy and vibrant as ever. The theater continues to expand its fanbase – every Improv 101 class ushers an eager new batch of students into the comedic haven’s extended family – and the theater’s fearless leaders, the Pushers, continue to pump their programming schedule with inspired new shows.
As for shows in 2016, my top pick is actually a returning favorite: The 666 Project. Opening just before Halloween, this neat combination of 6 short plays – created and presented by 6 writers, 6 directors, and 6 actors – served as a perfect example of the Push’s creative team’s wide range of sensibilities. Matt Cole and Scot Rose stood out among the performers – Cole with his patented brand of irresistible, unbridled creativity, and Rose with his knack for finding darkly humorous beats even when inhabiting broadly-written caricatures. Brant Powell’s piece, an intricate farce involving an electric chair and some expertly-deployed quotes from classic literature, stool out as the most memorable entry of the 6 stories. Here’s to another great year of bold choices, new talent, and infectious laughter.
666 Project | image by Posh Portraits
By far, the most interesting show I had the privilege to see in 2016 was Virginia Stage Company’s production of The Tempest, adapted and directed by Patrick Mullins. As my first Shakespeare I read, the play will always hold a special place in my heart, but this staging was something extra. I was most impressed by the collaboration that went into it, bringing together so many disparate parts— the players from VSC, the puppetry, the opera singers, and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra—to make one grand whole. There are so many talented artists in this area, and it just shows that when we’re willing to branch out and take chances and work together, it makes for a special kind of magic: the magic that makes an old show something entirely new, and that’s the kind of magic that could give Prospero a run for his money. I hope with all my heart that we see more of that collective effort in our community.
I also have to commend Shon Stacy for his directing work at Generic Theater this past year, on both Heathers: The Musical and Silence! The Musical. I had the distinct pleasure of working as his costume designer on both shows. Shon makes a point of creating a professional environment for his team even when we aren’t doing professional theatre and, to put it as perfectly bluntly as I can, always has his shit together, which everyone who works with him deeply appreciates. He’s also a big ideas guy, and I enjoy working with his ambitious concepts. I’m looking forward to seeing what he has in store next.
Unfortunately, like last year, work behind the scenes kept me from experiencing most shows from the audience. One show I managed to see, and am thrilled to be able to mention now, was Core Theatre Ensemble’s production of Antigone at the Roper Performing Arts Center.
Antigone was set in Roper’s Studio/Stage configuration, placing the entirety of the small audience on the mainstage and very close to the action. The set, designed by Emel Ertugrul, consisted of a rectangular area of actual dirt brought in for the purpose, and a large gilt frame hanging in the background. The audience entered to the sounds of battle, an eerie haze, and the bodies of those killed in battle lying on the floor. The actors portraying casualties, still dressed their American colonial garb, will serve as the chorus once the show begins. These chorus members serve as Creon’s advisors and his conscious, which waivers back on forth on the righteousness of refusing Oedipus the funeral rites demanded by the Gods. The reason for colonial garb is largely left up to the audience’s interpretation, and at the talk back I attended, there were several such interpretations. As the director Edwin Castillo so aptly put it, Core’s object was to hold up a mirror to life and its workings. What is seen in that mirror is to be interpreted by the beholder.
What struck me most was the emotion of the performances. The exchanges between Dana Braxton and Steffani Dambruch, as Antigone and Ismene, respectively, were so heartfelt they at times drew tears. The audience didn’t just understand the hopeless position the sisters find themselves in, they felt it. They likewise felt the absolute despair of Creon (played by Brian Cebrian) upon the death of his son, Haemon (Matt Cole). Both Cole and Cebrian brought the same passion to their roles that the women did. Cole’s passion was that of the young man craving his father’s approval while trying to remain true to himself and his fiancé. Cebrian’s was that of a new leader stubbornly holding his ground to establish his authority, and paying dearly for his mistake. While Greek tragedies are often groan-inducing, Core captured the poignancy of Antigone while highlighting its current relevance. It was truly a gem!
2016 was a year of ups and downs in every way possible, but the theatre was a place of refuge. A place where you could escape the weary world that 2016 brought, and last year’s work from the local theatre scene in Hampton Roads did just that.
I spent a lot of time performing on the Southside at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. That’s where I also spent most my time as an audience member as well, seeing my favorite shows of the year at the theatre with the best season of the year.
Generic Theater had a helluva season last year. Beginning with Five Guys Named Moe (in which I appeared), The Pillowman, The Library, A National Haunting, Heathers: The Musical, Stick Fly and ending with Silence: The Musical! They are always pushing the envelope. Generic is progressive, forward thinking, new, and fresh… just look at their season. I believe we need more of that in this area. I know there are a lot of patrons who prefer more conservative productions at some of these theatres, but we have to keep pushing forward and pushing the boundaries. We have to get out of the mindset that people won’t come see a show because it’s too this or too that. Do the show, market it and the people WILL come.
The Pillowman has to be my favorite show of the year. The script, the directing, the staging, the performances… one word: Amazing. It was C. Anthony Robinson’s directorial debut and what a debut it was. It was an imaginative production. The animation that was shown on the screen above the set and the scrim panel that was used by the storytellers to help tell the stories in the show was extremely creative.
I’ll also mention Heathers: The Musical. Shon Stacy did a magnificent job with this musical production. He made sure we would be transported to the 80s (I love the 80’s by the way). Heathers was totally rad, clever, funny, heart-warming, and musically outstanding. Roy George is to be thanked for that bodacious musical direction. The fashion, the costumes Katelyn Jackson created were so wicked.
As for my favorite performances of the year, Ryan McIntire as Katurian and Ed Palmer as Michal in The Pillowman were heartbreaking and brilliant. As far as musicals go Grace Minks as Heather Chandler in Heathers: The Musical and Charity Robinson as Eve/Mama Noah in Smithfield Little Theatre’s Children of Eden. Both gave powerful and scene-stealing vocal performances in their respective shows.
The theatre was definitely a place of refuge for me last year and I’m glad I could escape in these shows and performances.
2016 was a red-letter year for Virginia Stage Company, our region’s only equity house, as they finally effectuated the first phase of their capital campaign to refurbish their already glorious home venue at the Wells Theatre in downtown NFK. The renovations encompassed both lobbies and the patrons’ restrooms. While the work was being done, VSC produced the first three shows of their 2016/17 season “on the road,” at ODU’s Goode Theater and the Roper Center for the Performing Arts. As painful and inconvenient as I’m sure these situations were at times, I can’t imagine VSC wasn’t presented with some valuable opportunities by stepping outside their “comfort zone” and into the broader community. Here’s hoping they maintain that high visibility and the opportunities for further community engagement that come with it.
And speaking of community, I gots to give a shout out to the Generic Theater for their production of Silence! The Musical in October/November of last year. I’ll admit, I was skeptical. “Oh the Generic,” I said. “Every year they pick a tongue-in-cheek musical adaptation of a cult film and hope it’ll do as well as Evil Dead did all those years ago.” Well, it seems I was wrong to be cynical about that, because not only did Silence! set new box office records for the Generic, but under the direction of Shon Stacy, it also turned out to be one hell of an entertaining show! No small measure of credit for this is also due the show’s leads, Darden Dickerson, who lisped her way into our heartsh as Clarice Starling and AltDaily’s own Garney Johnson in his hilariously studied rendition of Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector.
Congratulations are also due the Williamsburg Players for their production of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. As directed by Neil Hollands, it was a tightly paced and expertly rendered piece of cerebral straight theatre dealing with a very timely subject in an inspiring way just when we needed it.
You know who else was great last year? Children’s Theatre of Hampton Roads. This tight troupe of improv-trained actors and writers who create and produce their own original engaging shows for kids celebrated their tenth anniversary in 2016, and I hope they’ve got at least twenty more to give us. Take your kids. Expose them to the art form early and in a way that will engage and delight them.
And speaking of great theatre with (but not exclusively for) kids, I hope you guys all read my article about the D Family Theatre. This company, founded just last year, takes an innovative and wholly constructive approach to involving children in the process of creating live art. Got a kid who isn’t all that jazzed about karate or soccer? (12 year-old me hated them both.) He or she might be interested in this!
And that ultimately is what was best about theatre in Hampton Roads in 2016, imo: Outreach, engagement, and development. Reaching out and involving our community in this wonderful art form. Eight of the ten organizations mentioned in this article are community-based groups, in which anyone can participate, no matter their level of skill or experience. Two of them are actively engaged in laying the groundwork for the next generation of theatrical talent in HR. It is due to the existence of these organizations and many more like them that we’re looking forward to another great year of theatre in the 757!