Elvis & Nixon
Photo: Courtesy of Obscured Pictures

Elvis & Nixon: Shannon Shines as the King, but Movie Fades

Right before the closing credits roll on Elvis & Nixon, the new film from director Liza Johnson, text appears above a photograph of one of music’s most famous figures and the most infamous president in America’s history that says it is the most requested photo at the National Archives. However, the film that tells the story of that picture proves to not live up to the hype.

The titular climatic meeting between the two legendary figures turns out to be wholly anticlimactic. Instead, the real show is the nuanced and controlled performance from Michael Shannon as Elvis Presley. The rest of the film fails to emerge from his shadow.

Shannon is supremely interesting as the King. Refusing to give into easy trappings, like an overzealous twang of Presley’s trademark drawl, he plays him in a subtler way, but certainly no less complex. It is a desire to go above and beyond his expected duties as a musician that brings Presley to his mission to have a sit down with President Nixon (and request a badge to become a “Federal Agent At-Large”), but as Shannon helps illustrate in fantastic monologues in front of mirrors at two different moments in the film, it is more about trying to prove to himself that he is more than the caricature that he has become.

The idea that there is something, or someone, bigger than you and the drive to reach it yourself is the underlying theme of the entire film – whether it be in the subplot of Presley’s reluctant, called upon head of public relations (played by Alex Pettyfer), who wants to strike out on his own from Elvis, or even Nixon, who becomes enraptured in the different kind of fame Presley brings (if for nothing else than to gain approval from his daughter, a dotting Elvis fan).

Unfortunately, no one can quite live up to it the way Shannon does. The subplot of Pettyfer’s character is flat and wholly uninteresting. Kevin Spacey’s performance as Nixon, while commendable in its likeness, is nothing new, and his role is confined to being merely a reactor rather than an integral player.

The film itself even fits into this idea of trying to be something else bigger than it is – in this case, namely a comedy. While the interactions and antics between Shannon’s Presley and Spacey’s Nixon draw some chuckles, as do some of the procedures of Presley entering the White House, the laughs are fewer than you’d expect from the film’s premise. A few more jokes could have made a big difference as the film – as an indirect result of Shannon’s strong, but subdued performance – was lacking some energy.

History is full of interesting stories, and this meeting between Presley and Nixon is surely one of them. Its adaptation to the screen, though – outside of Shannon – fails to live up to the myth behind it.

Elvis & Nixon is now playing at theaters throughout the DC area.

Photo: Courtesy of Obscured Pictures

Ford’s Theatre
Photo: Carol Rosegg

110 in the Shade Brings Girl Power to Ford’s Theatre

When DC theater darling Tracy Lynn Olivera mentioned that 110 in the Shade’s lead, Lizzie Curry, was a dream role for her, Ford’s Theatre Director, Paul Tetreault, immediately took notice. The pair teamed up with director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge to bring the classic musical to life on Ford’s stage through May 14.

110 in the Shade follows the outspoken Lizzie in 1950s Texas, caught in a love triangle between divorced local sheriff File (played by Kevin McAllister) and charming conman Bill Starbuck (played by Ben Crawford). Lizzie’s not afraid to speak her mind, according to Olivera, and has the same hang-ups as all women when it comes to physical beauty and her place in the world.

“She sticks to her guns, even when her opinion isn’t the popular one,” Olivera says.

The local actress says each of her suitors represents something different. File encapsulates steadfastness, safety and stability, while Starbuck conjures up adventure, travel and romance.

“Both [character dynamics] are good – but only one [man] is for Lizzie, in the end.”

McAllister and Olivera have been friends for a long time, so there’s already an established comfort level between the two actors onstage. Plus, “singing with him is pure magic – that man’s voice is buttah.”

As for Crawford, Olivera says they hit it off immediately during his audition. The two share similar energies, making their scenes together hilarious and delightful.

“We both just jumped into the pool, so to speak. Plus, he cracks me up and won’t let me take myself too seriously.”

Olivera is truly thrilled about all of her collaborations in this production, especially with Dodge, who she says is her favorite kind of director. They worked together seven years ago on the Broadway revival of Ragtime, and the actress says she’s always wanted to get back to her again.

“I’m totally obsessed with her,” she says. “She likes to get everything on its feet early, and ‘get everything messy,’ as she likes to say. She makes [this play] feel fresh and true and honest and human, and something audiences can relate to even 50 years after it was written.”
Aside from kissing a sexy half-naked man, and kissing a sexy sheriff in a rainstorm, the actress says her favorite part of being in 110 in the Shade is singing the score.

“It’s got so many colors, musically and vocally, and it’s a true honor to sing. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun at work with my friends. I’m a lucky girl.”

Whether you’re into shirtless cowboys or a modern take on 1950s girl power, Olivera thinks local audiences will find the production relevant.

“I want people to leave feeling inspired to be confident in themselves and follow whatever dream is true to them, regardless of people’s expectations of them. Not every woman is a size four with perfect hair. I think there is nothing more relatable than that, to any age.”

Theatergoers under 35 can enjoy discounted tickets and a free glass of beer or vino post-show on April 20 at 7:30 p.m. Regular tickets run from $28-$69.

Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; 202-347-4833; www.fords.org

Photo: Carol Rosegg

George Orwell’s 1984

Big Brother Is Watching: 1984 Comes to the Nation’s Capital

Enter the dystopian world of George Orwell’s 1984 this spring, on Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre stage from March 11 to April 10. This progressive stage adaptation of the author’s famous science fiction novel is making its debut in the U.S. with the District as its third stop, after several runs in the United Kingdom since 2013.

Created and directed by U.K. natives Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, 1984 was produced by theater ensemble Headlong, with help from the Almeida Theatre and Nottingham Playhouse, before its international run. The 100-minute production – with no intermission – is an intense, multisensory experience set in post-war superstate Oceania, where three classes (the elite Inner Party, middle class Outer Party and working class proles) live under the ever-present, tyrannical Big Brother.

Outer Party member Winston Smith, who makes his living rewriting news articles to run parallel with the party’s current position, undergoes a radical transformation as he falls in love with the rebellious Julia. The themes of government surveillance, information manipulation and global warfare all ring true today, and the play’s leads are enthralled by the opportunity to bring 1984 to the nation’s capital.

“[The play] feels particularly resonant with the current political climate in America and the upcoming election,” says actress Hara Yannas, who is back in the U.S. for the first time since childhood. “I think it stirs something up in people.”

Yannas, who plays Julia and has been with the production off and on since 2013, describes 1984 as a feast for the ears and the eyes. Without giving too much away, she says the multimedia elements of the play – including live camerawork – are used to aid in the storytelling rather than just as something cool to do onstage.

She credits 29-year-old Icke with creating a vision for how to tell a story onstage that’s as enticing as watching a film with special effects, or playing a video game. Matthew Spencer, who plays Winston, says the multimedia aspects can evoke very real, truthful emotions for the actors.

“Hara and I have moments in scenes where we’re being filmed, and it’s really interesting being in a theater but having a camera right there in your face,” he says.

Spencer says he and Yannas have built a fantastic rapport, and the actor appreciates having a secret giggle or two with his leading lady mid-scene as a brief reprieve from the intensity of being onstage for the entire play.

“Obviously there’s a script, which is set, but within that there’s a lot of room for us to discover and play around,” he says. “It’s not set and rigid.”

Both actors feed off of the immediate, somewhat visceral feedback from audiences, allowing them to gauge how people are impacted by the play and its subject matter. Yannas loves the energy of younger audiences, who she says don’t censor themselves the way a more mature audience might by being “quite polite and quiet, and just listening and behaving themselves.”

Spencer notes that the play strikes a chord with younger audiences because “we’re a bit naughty with the rules,” but believes that anyone, regardless of age, will find the play relevant.

“In a lot of ways, [1984] takes the rules of what theatre should be, what a play should be, and kind of throws them out the window,” he says. “It gets audiences to think and ask questions about what they’re watching, why they’re watching it, and how they use media.”

Don’t miss 1984 at Lansburgh Theatre from March 11 to April 10, with tickets starting at $44. Theatergoers 35 and under can catch Young Prose Nights (YPN) on Friday, March 25 and Wednesday, April 6. YPN tickets are $25 and include a complimentary libation and an invite to a pre- or post-performance party.

LANSBURGH THEATRE: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

film fests dc

March Film Festival Roundup

DC Independent Film Festival: March 4-13
The DC Independent Film Festival (DCIFF) showcases work from more than 70 indie filmmakers, including everything from full-length films to animated shorts, at venues throughout DC. There’s even a competition for local aspiring high school filmmakers.

“We build a community for them and include the audience so that watching films at DCIFF is not just about what is onscreen, but also about the people who make movies,” says Deirdre

Evans-Pritchard, executive director of DCIFF.  “The festival is fiercely independent in order to have the freedom to be cutting-edge and to present a wide range of ideas, issues and styles to Washington, DC”

This year, opening night includes a world premiere of the new web serial, Districtland, which was shot in and is about DC, and is based on the play written by Christina Bejan. Closing night includes a conversation with actor and Dogme 95 filmmaker Jean Marc Barr.

For more information and a complete schedule, go to www.dciff-indie.org.

Environmental Film Festival: March 15-26
The 24th annual Environmental Film Festival, the country’s largest and longest-running of it’s kind, will present 140 films at venues around the nation’s capital selected to provide fresh perspectives on a wide variety of environmental issues facing the earth.

The theme of this year’s festival is “Parks: Protecting Wild,” exploring the vital role of parks and protected areas on our planet. Screenings will include discussions with filmmakers, scientists and policymakers, and many events are free.

“The festival will open with Jennifer Peedom’s new film, Sherpa, showing how Mount Everest’s Sherpa community united in grief and anger to reclaim the mountain following a deadly avalanche in 2014,” says Helen Strong, public affairs director for the Environmental Film Festival.

A highlight of the festival will be director Ian Cheney’s screening of his newest film, Bluespace, which makes a strong case for taking better care of our water-rich planet so that future generations won’t have to resort to interplanetary colonization.

For a complete festival schedule, visit www.dceff.org.

CineMatsuri Film Festival: March 20-24
With five films being screened this year, the CineMatsuri Film Festival is slated to showcase some of the most compelling Japanese films made over the last year.

“CineMatsuri’s mission is comprised of two parts,” says Melissa Tolentino, assistant director for educational and public outreach for the Japan-America Society of Washington, DC. “The first is to provide an entertaining, weeklong event for people of the Washington, DC area to enjoy some of the latest and best Japanese films. The second is to use film as a way for the

Japan-America Society to accomplish our mission of helping Americans learn more about Japan.”

The opening film, Persona Non Grata, tells the story of a courageous Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who defied his government and issued visas to over 6,000 Jewish people in 1940, saving them from certain death in Nazi concentration camps. Encore presentations of Persona Non Grata will be held after the 24th.

The closing film, Emperor in August, was nominated for 11 Japanese Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.

“We don’t show avant-garde or cutting-edge films,”  Tolentino says. “Instead, we try to show recent Japanese movies that were well-received by both audiences and critics alike, and that we think will appeal to an American audience.”

For more information, check out  www.cinematsuri.org

Shakespeare YPN Night (15)

Young Prose Night At Shakespeare Theatre

Young professionals gathered and enjoyed good conversation, a full lineup of Sam Adams beverages, and the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new production “The Critic And The Real Inspector Hound” Photos by Brittany Thomas

Chinese New Year
Photos courtesy Kennedy Center

Kennedy Center Celebrates Chinese New Year

Celebrate Chinese New Year this month with four days of festivities at the Kennedy Center, from February 5-8. This year’s lineup includes free performances on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, Family Day activities, and a final performance featuring the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra.

The Kennedy Center has hosted and produced festivities celebrating Chinese culture for 11 years. In 2005, Vice President for Dance and International Programs, Alicia Adams, began traveling to China to establish artistic ties with performers.

“The Kennedy Center has been exploring China’s arts and culture for more than 10 years,” Adams says. “I have traveled to China more than two dozen times to attend festivals and to find artists who would be appropriate to include in our ongoing series at the Kennedy Center.”

Shenzhen, the city from which most of this year’s performers hail, is represented so often because it is one of the most artistically rich and cultivated cities in China, according to Adams. Two notable groups of performers, the Shenzhen Lily Girls’ Choir – one of the culture landmarks of Shenzhen’s cultural community – and the city’s Symphony Orchestra, represent China’s high achievements in both Western and Chinese classical music.

Adams is thrilled by the inclusion of the Symphony Orchestra, who will perform on Monday, February 8 at 8 p.m., especially because of how the musicians demonstrate the type of artistic exchange that the Kennedy Center strives to promote.

“China is a country that embraces Western classical music and by bringing this orchestra [to the Kennedy Center], audiences are able to see new and fresh interpretations of this music. Also, they always include Chinese classical music in their performances, which introduces [our audiences] to a variety of works over the course of the evening.

The Millennium Stage will host a performance by the Henan Arts Troupe of Beijing, including Chinese opera performers, traditional musicians, acrobats, and martial artists, who will achieve amazing physical displays in full costume with exact musical accompaniment. The Troupe will play an important outreach role during Family Day, on Saturday, February 6, providing stage makeup demos and the opportunity to dress up in costume, along with other arts & crafts activities.

Whether it’s acrobats from Beijing, pop singers from Inner Mongolia and the Yunan Province, or rappers from the Guizhou Province, this year’s performers represent the cultural and artistic diversity of China’s vast territory and traditions.

“Each group has their own unique sound, creating new contemporary music styles by combining elements of traditional Chinese music with modern music,” Adams says. “The common ground is the beat, the sound, and the style of music which is reflective of contemporary culture around the world.”

Check out www.kennedy-center.org to learn more about individual performances and Family Day activities.

Kennedy Center: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photos courtesy Kennedy Center

ford's theatre
Photo courtesy Ford’s Theatre

A Contemporary Take on The Glass Menagerie

Two of the DC area’s most versatile actors are joining forces as siblings with a deeply loving yet complex relationship in The Glass Menagerie at Ford’s Theatre from January 22 to February 21.

Tom Story and Jenna Sokolowski star as Tom and Laura Wingfield in Ford’s production of this classic that launched the successful career of Tennessee Williams as one of the great American playwrights of the 20th century. The Glass Menagerie is the first Williams’ play to be produced at Ford’s, with director Mark Ramont focusing the lens on the unshakable bond between Tom and Laura.

The memory play opens with Tom, who reminisces with the audience about his complicated dynamic with Laura and their mother Amanda, played by Madeleine Potter. For Story (who had this reviewer in stitches during Arena Stage’s recent production of Oliver! as the hilarious, slinking Mr. Sowerberry), the concept of portraying the memory of a character is particularly intriguing because he first played Tom nearly a decade ago.

“It’s interesting because it’s a play about memory and I have a memory of the play,” Story says. “I wanted to see what it would be like to do the play again as a man really looking back on his life.”

Sokolowski is embracing her role with a fresh perspective, navigating the nuanced intricacies of her character’s ability to express her feelings and relate to her brother. The local actress (memorable to this reviewer as the immensely entertaining and slightly ditzy Phyllis in last fall’s comedic The Shoplifters at Arena), notes that part of what makes the play so relatable is the universal theme of the human struggle to remain positive during hard times.

She also credits Ramont with the production’s relevancy, and describes his directing approach as unique and in his own voice.

“It feels very modern,” Story agrees. “It doesn’t feel like a museum piece in any way. You’re going to have a chance to see a classic of the American theater done in a very immediate, contemporary way in a historic American theater. There’s something about those two things happening at once that feels like an event to me.”

Tickets to The Glass Menagerie start at $20, and Ford’s offers discounted tickets and complimentary libations during Under 35 Night on February 10 at 7:30 p.m.

Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; 202-347-4833; www.fords.org

Photo courtesy Ford’s Theatre

Photo courtesy Shakespeare Theatre

Shakespeare’s Bad Boy Comes to DC in STC’s Othello

Jonno Roberts has made a career of playing the bad guy. This winter, he’s returning to Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) for the second time to play Iago in Othello, perhaps the most notorious villain in Shakespeare’s canon.

The New Zealand native views his role as Iago as a sort of right of passage for playing the bad boys of Shakespeare in the nation’s capital. He played Edmund in STC’s King Lear several years ago opposite Stacy Keach, and is looking forward to coming back as yet another of the Bard’s famous antagonists.

I will have played two of Shakespeare’s great villains now at the Shakespeare Theatre,” he says. “I think I just have to do Richard III there and I’ll be done.”

Roberts relishes the challenge of showing that the villain isn’t purely one-dimensional; rather, he’s completely human. Plus, he loves to wrestle with the bad guys.

“I have a deep love of finding just how dark I can go on the inside. I have no need to actually be a murderer myself, but it’s nice to go and find and exercise that little bit of myself that is.”

The actor contends that Iago isn’t pure evil, but instead someone who feels he has been deeply wronged and is therefore motivated to retaliate in the most sinister of ways. Iago spends the tragedy manipulating Othello, a successful and recently married Moorish general, turning him against his new wife and devoted lieutenant.

And to Roberts, it makes sense. He cites a quote from

18th-century poet (and opium addict) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who referred to Iago as a “motiveless malignity.”   The actor’s rebuttal?

“I think that’s complete bullshit. Iago is one of the great revenge characters.”

He makes a strong case, too. Roberts says Iago has been passed over for a very important promotion, so his pride has been battered.

“And then he also thinks that this guy has slept with his wife so he decides that, ‘You know what? You f–ed my wife. You f–ed my career. I am going to destroy you.’”

Roberts thinks his focus on humanizing the bad guy is part of what sealed the deal with acclaimed Shakespeare director Ron Daniels, who brought him on board for the production.

Daniels has been credited with revolutionizing and modernizing Shakespeare, and with launching Kenneth Branagh’s career.  Roberts has worked with the director before, and the two truly seem to share a vision for how to present the Bard’s work to audiences.

“He really changed the way we look at Shakespeare,” Roberts says of the director. “Not by dismantling it, but by doing microsurgery on it – by getting to know it better rather than trying to throw away all of our assumptions. He just digs deeper.”

One very unique approach Daniels is taking to STC’s production is in his casting choices, with Pakistani-American actor Faran Tahir playing Othello. Roberts says they’re both trying to hold up a mirror to America with the play, delving into the anti-Muslim sentiment in our country in a very real way.

Social commentary and humanizing the villain are part of the draw for Roberts, but his main reason for performing Shakespeare is quite simple.

“I just think this shit is good. That’s why I do it.”

Catch a performance of Othello at STC’s Sidney Harman Hall from February 23 to March 27. Young Prose Nights for theatergoers under 35 run on March 11 and 23, with $25 tickets and pre- or post-performance libations.

Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-3230;  www.shakespearetheatre.org

Photo courtesy Shakespeare Theatre

Shakespeare Theatre Company

The Critic & The Real Inspector Hound

Shakespeare Theatre Company invites audiences to poke a little fun at critics this winter with two famous “behind-the-scenes” plays condensed into one night of comedy. Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 18th-century satire, The Critic, and Tom Stoppard’s 1968 play-within-a-play, The Real Inspector Hound, will be performed in tandem at STC’s Lansburgh Theatre from January 5 to Valentine’s Day.

It was the juxtaposition between the two plays – set in and performed during disparate centuries, with distinct comedic styles and commentaries on the theaters of their time – that piqued STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn’s interest.

“That’s the fun of it,” Kahn says of the plays. “They are different, but they’re also about similar things.”

The common thread between them, he says, is a humorous, imaginative look at what critics think, and how and why they do their jobs. The Critic – originally a three-act play, adapted as a one-act by Jeffrey Hatcher – follows two theater critics at a rehearsal for a parody of a tragic drama. Meanwhile, the whodunit antics of The Real Inspector Hound center on two critics who become suspects while watching a murder mystery.

Kahn, a huge fan of murder mysteries who once directed crime writer Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest, handpicked his eight-person cast – nine if you include the dead body – four from the DC area, and four from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Each actor transitions seamlessly from one play to the next with just an intermission between, picking up a second role completely unlike the first.

When asked how he anticipates critics will receive the two-in-one production, he says playfully that he hopes they’ll be forgiving to the playwrights and “have as much fun as Mormons do going to The Book of Mormon.”

“I hope [audiences are] coming in for a good time, and that they might have some fun along with us…while we’re having fun with the critics.”

But Kahn is quick to point out that the production isn’t just geared toward critics, but to all audiences who will surely enjoy the works of two renowned playwrights.

Tickets to The Critic & The Real Inspector Hound start at $20. If you’re under 35, catch a performance for $25 during Young Prose Nights on January 20 or 29, and enjoy a libation and pre- or post-performance soiree.

Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-3230;  www.shakespearetheatre.org

Motown The Musical
Julius Thomas III as Berry Gordy & Cast Motown The Musical First National Tour, making its Washington area premiere at National Theatre Dec 1, 2015 – Jan 3, 2016 Photo: Joan Marcus, 2015

Motown The Musical Comes to DC

Broadway’s Motown The Musical is in DC for the holidays, bringing the story of Motown founder Berry Gordy and the music legends whose careers he launched to National Theatre’s stage. From “My Girl” to “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” Motown features 40 classic Motown hits performed by a stellar cast playing Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye and more. On Tap caught up with the musical’s youngest cast members, 12-year-old Leon Outlaw, Jr. and 14-year-old Nathaniel Cullors, about their roles.

Outlaw and Cullors both play a young Berry Gordy, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. “It is truly an honor playing the roles of these icons,” Outlaw says. “I’m only 12 years old and I get to play my idol Michael Jackson, and two living legends. Whenever my act is over, I wish there was more for me to do.”

Cullors, who performs the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “Who’s Loving You,” echoes his co-star’s sentiment, though he credits James Brown as his inspiration. The two actors are Motown fans in their own right – Cullors’ favorites are Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Me” and “Inner City Blues.”

“Motown changed the world,” he says. “Motown I feel is [a] format for a lot of music we hear today, which makes it timeless. This type of music brought people together, got people through things and is still doing it today.”

Cullors and Outlaw are both learning some fun facts about Motown stars, which they were eager to share with On Tap. “What’s unique about Motown is you will be dancing in your seats and you will learn something before you leave – like Marvin Gaye was Berry Gordy’s brother-in-law,” Outlaw says.

Catch Cullors, Outlaw and the rest of Motown The Musical’s talented cast at the National Theatre from December 15 to January 3. And don’t forget to check the website for details on how to purchase best available tickets for all Broadway at the National performances through the $25 ticket lottery.

National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161;www.thenationaldc.org