DCMTA 2018 Staff Favorites: Outstanding Design Elements in Professional Productions

From dramas in church basements to high-budget musicals, the DMV produced an impressive array of theater in 2018, propelled by skilled, talented artists. Here are some of the performances that made an indelible impression on our writers this year. Did we overlook a favorite of yours? Let us know in a comment!

As the year draws to a close, we asked DCMTA writers to think back on the shows that left an indelible impression on them in 2018. In this category, outstanding professional design, we recognize:

  • Design elements including set, sound, lighting, and costume
  • Directors and Choreographers
  • Playwrights and Composers

Here are the professional theater designers that left the biggest impression on our writers in 2018. Recipients are listed in alphabetical order by last name.

The cast of ‘The Farnsworth Invention.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Ethan Balis, Sound Design
‘The Farnsworth Invention’ at 1st Stage
Ethan Balis composed music for The Farnsworth Invention and was also in charge of sound design. The play’s soundtrack was a character in and of itself, playing subtly in the background, never overpowering the dialogue but aiding to shape the mood of each scene. – Kendall Mostafavi
Kendall Mostafavi’s Review

Alistair Beaton, Script Translation
‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ at Constellation Theatre Company
Both the music, which combines traditional and contemporary styles, and the translation, by Scottish satirist Alistair Beaton, are reminiscent of Brecht’s Three Penny Opera. Earlier translations tend to be overly preachy. Beaton, who is also a novelist and screenwriter, manages to avoid that trap. “People forget that this is satire,” Constellation’s Allison Arkel Stockman said. “What happens when a play is in another language is that the humor often gets lost in translation. Beaton puts it back.” – Ravelle Brickman
John Stoltenberg’s Review
A Modern Classic Takes on Epic Proportions: Constellations Musical Makeover of ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle’ by Ravelle Brickman

Michael J. Bobbitt (Direction), Walter “Bobby” McCoy (Music Direction), Tony Thomas II (Choreography), and Roc Lee (Sound Design)
‘Aida’ at Constellation Theatre Company
Director Michael J. Bobbitt, Musical Director Walter “Bobby” McCoy, and Choreographer Tony Thomas II have together triangulated a compelling production with a first-rate cast of actor-singer-dancers and a band so well balanced by Sound Designer Roc Lee that we hear every musical nuance, every emotional note. In this production of Aida, Bobbitt and his team reduced the cast from 25 to 14 and cast the show entirely with people of color. – John Stoltenberg and Ravelle Brickman
John Stoltenberg’s Review
Michael Bobbitt’s ‘Aida’ Mixes Grandeur and Intimacy at Constellation Theatre by Ravelle Brickman

John Burkland, Lighting Design
‘4,380 Nights’ at Signature Theatre
John Burkland often enough brings klieg-like lighting to bear. There is no place to hide in the intimacy of Signature’s ARK.
David Siegel’s Review

The Cast of ‘Chocolate Covered Ants.” Photo courtesy of Restoration Stage.

Steven A. Butler, Playwrighting
‘Chocolate Covered Ants’ at Restoration Stage
Steven A. Butler’s play pulses with electrifying candor about race, gender, and black fatherhood. Butler’s thematic scope, empathically drawn characters, and dynamic language have the heft and dimension of a classic. In worldview, voice, and form, Chocolate Covered Ants is a triumph. It belongs in the canon of contemporary plays produced across the country. —John Stoltenberg
Bob Ashby’s Review
John Stoltenberg’s Column

Matt Chilton, Composition
‘An Iliad’ at Atlas Performing Arts Center
Bow in hand, bassist and composer Chilton is no mere accompanist, but a wordless muse to Iason Togias’ performance as the poet. Using the modes of both the diatonic and maqam scales, and sometimes delving outside of such established melodic concepts, he sets the moods and rhythms of the story. – Ian Thal
Ian Thal’s Review

Tony Cisek (Scenic Design), William K. D’Eugenio (Lighting Design), Michael Redman (Projection Design), Danielle Preston (Costume Design), Nick Hernandez (Music Composition and Sound Design)
‘Long Way Down’ at The Kennedy Center
The set evokes an elevator’s interior with shiny, translucent panels that envelop the action and display, under the animated lighting design, arresting projections including Will’s clever anagrams (canoe = ocean). Will’s oversized streetwear accentuates his youth and fragile agility. And extraordinary music compositions and sound design, including samples from Tupac and Biggie, amplify the narrative. Altogether, some of the best storytelling-through-design I saw all year. – John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg’s Review

Regina Aquino (Tong) and Marc Delacruz (Quang) in Vietgone. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Regina Aquino (Tong) and Marc Delacruz (Quang) in Vietgone. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Tony Cisek (Scenic Design), Frank Labovitz (Costume Design), Heather T. Gilbert (Lighting Design)
‘Vietgone’ at Studio Theatre
In Vietgone, Vietnamese-American Playwright Qui Nguyen sets out to tell how his parents fell in love after being resettled in America as refugees after the fall of Saigon. Nguyen, a practitioner of geek theater and a screenwriter for Marvel Studios, embellishes their romance with the wildest pastiche of pop culture I can recall seeing on a DC stage. He drops in this and that from comic books, Hollywood movies, hip-hop, cartoons, sitcoms, farce, kung fu fighting, sex comedies, you name it. Incredibly, it all coheres. The set transforms Studio Theatre’s fourth floor into something like a funky garage or unfinished shelter with a bandstand upstage, huge billboard-type placards on the wall representing Arkansas, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, California; a jumble of luggage, guitars, and other set dressing including a map of Saigon. The costumes get the comic-book look yet keep the characters believable. The lighting lends a fantasy fun-house feel. And amazingly, all the inspired bits and pieces become a far-out whole that ultimately lands with stunning impact. – John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg’s Review

Kellie Crandall d’Amboise, Direction
‘Around the World in 80 Days’ by The American Pops Orchestra
Kelly Crandall d’Amboise does a masterful job of bringing Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days to the stage for The American Pops Orchestra. In this new musical adaptation, the creative team successfully portrays the circumnavigation of the globe with minimal set and a lot of imagination. The performers dive into their characters and build the energy and excitement throughout the musical, not letting up until the journey is over. – Kendall Mostafavi
Kendall Mostafavi’s Review

Annalisa Dias, Playwrighting
‘4,380 Nights’ at Signature Theatre
4,380 Nights Dias has created and visceral and unnerving production that asks audiences to face some difficult truths. Can any of us become situationally xenophobic? How does race play into political decision-making? Are individuals complicit in the actions of their government? These are some questions that playwright Annalisa Dias grapples with.
David Siegel’s Review
Natalie Tucker’s Interview with Annalisa Dias

Luigi Sottile and Brandon Espinoza in ‘The Way of the World’ at Folger Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Alexander Dodge, Scenic Design
‘The Way of the World’ at Folger Theatre
Alexander Dodge’s set for The Way of the World is largely white and VERY New York. Through a backdrop of white boxes, we see a number of items; a purse, a necklace, drinks, even hats, all underlining the obsession with things which is at the heart of the production. – Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes’ Review

Timothy Douglas, Direction
‘Long Way Down’ at The Kennedy Center
Directed with passion and precision by Timothy Douglas, Long Way Down is the world premiere of a project commissioned by The Kennedy Center. It is a hugely successful and satisfying production. —John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg’s Review

David Dubov, Direction
‘Hobson’s Choice’ at Quotidian Theatre Company
The success of Hobson’s Choice is the result of some brilliant casting, with several newcomers in leading roles, and superb direction by actor David Dubov. – Ravelle Brickman
Ravelle Brickman’s Review

The cast of ‘The Wolves’ at Studio Theatre. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Mikhail Fiksel (Sound Design) and Paul Toben (Lighting Design)
‘The Wolves’ at Studio Theatre
Lighting (Paul Toben) and sound design (Mikhail Fiksel) bring intensity to the transitions and scene changes in The Wolves, helping us get into the psyche of the team. These girls are competitive warriors. The pressure is mounting. They are on the road to nationals. And college scholarships. And becoming adults. Just as the girls in The Wolves work as a precisely synchronized team, the sound lighting in this production is sleek, exact, and coordinated.
Hilary Sutton’s Review

Patrick Flynn, Playwrighting
‘Sheila and Moby’ at Flying V
Playwright Patrick Flynn’s Sheila and Moby features clever dialogue, snappy action, tension, and laughter. Flynn has created characters that cleverly point out the foibles of childhood, the risks of growing up too much, and the changes that come with the passing of time. It is fresh and fun and funky.
Cybele Pomeroy’s Review

A.J. Guban, Scenic and Lighting Design
‘Aida’ at Constellation Theatre Company
Perhaps referencing the Egyptian pyramids, or maybe the loves of the three leads—the story is set amid a profusion of triangles: on the floor in a pattern of blue, black, gold, and silver; overhead in frames; and onstage in forced-perspective shapes and angles that light up in bright colors. Even more spectacular are the jewel-bedecked and gilded high fashions for Egyptian royalty, uniforms and gowns for their minions, and earth-toned rags for their slaves. Notably, the fashionista Egyptian princess Amneris gets her vanity on in a succession of outfits each more eye-popping than the last. —John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg’s Review
Michael Bobbitt’s ‘Aida’ Mixes Grandeur and Intimacy at Constellation Theatre by Ravelle Brickman

e’Marcus Harper-Short, Musical Direction
‘The Gospel at Colonus’ at Avant Bard
e’Marcus Harper-Short deserves special recognition. As musical director, keyboard player, and Creon all rolled into one, he both knitted the show together (while on piano) and gave a star turn as the proud, cruel Creon.
Elizabeth Ballou’s Review

Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer in John at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Anna Moon and Jonathan Feuer in ‘John’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Paige Hathaway, Set Design
‘John’ at Signature Theatre
Paige Hathaway’s scenic design was peerless. Rarely have I seen such an entrancing and superbly designed set. Hathaway had a fully furnished visitor’s entrance on stage left leading to a background of numerous antique dolls and figurines, a huge Christmas tree and a Parisian-style café for the boarding house guests to dine in. Comfy looking chairs and a couch were set across the stage replete with small café style lamps and a large central staircase which leads to the unseen guest rooms upstairs. – David Friscic
David Friscic’s Review
David Siegel’s Column

Patti Kalil, Set Design
‘Imogen’ at Pointless Theatre
The technical elements of Imogen are a small miracle. The seemingly simple set is full of trick panels, which, when backlit, allow actors backstage to hold up puppets and act out dreams or flashbacks. The lighting shifts every time an actor has an aside, which lets the audience get inside each character’s head. Two multi-instrumentalists provide phenomenal live music that provides a backdrop to scenes that are danced out rather than acted (the battle scene in the second half has killer choreography). None of these elements ever feel out of sync or unbalanced. That this is a small performance space makes Imogen’s technical aspects all the more impressive.
Elizabeth Ballou’s Review

John Loughney and Brianna Letourneau in Other Life Forms, now playing at the Keegan Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
John Loughney and Brianna Letourneau in ‘Other Life Forms’ at the Keegan Theatre. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Matthew Keenan, Set Design
‘Other Life Forms’ at Keegan Theatre
Other Life Forms features low key, pitch-perfect and clever set design by Matthew J. Keenan. His revolving stage allows us to glimpse two simultaneous blind dates, each taking place in similarly drab restaurants. His evocation of Ben and Jeff’s bland, banal apartment is right out of Seinfeld. – Amy Kotkin
Amy Kotkin’s Review

Matt Kinley, Scenic Design
‘Les Miserables’ at the Hippodrome Theatre
After its celebrated two-and-a-half year Broadway return, the national tour – again directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell – carried their vision forward. Astonishing electronic spectacles of smoke and light, only possible now in our CGI age, effectively eliminated the need for revolving stages and massive barricade sets. Scenic Designer Matt Kinley’s three-dimensional backdrops and set pieces gave us Victor Hugo’s own illustrations for his original text editions. In several key scenes, the painterly effects and projections achieved a cinematic quality that enhanced the storytelling in suitably revolutionary ways. – John Harding
John Harding’s Review

Alex Levy, Direction
‘The Farnsworth Invention’ at 1st Stage
Director Alex Levy, who also serves as 1st Stage’s Artistic Director, helms a cast of fourteen actors who play about seventy-five roles in this fascinating story of the invention that forever changed the way media and information are consumed. Also worth noting is the necessity of the play’s rapid pace. The fast-paced Aaron Sorkin dialogue is complicated, to say the least, and the potential to lose the audience in a sea of jargon is high. Add to that the fact that the show is more than half exposition due to the nature of dueling narrators, and the show runs the risk of dragging and being too information heavy, but there was never a lull in this production. – Kendall Mostafavi
Kendall Mostafavi’s Review

Andrew Lieberman, Set Design
‘Noura’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company
Andrew Lieberman’s set features the smooth, slatted curves of Noura’s living room wall. It cuts across the entire stage, enveloping Noura and her family as if they’re inside a conch shell. This is a lovely way to render both Noura’s architect dreams, and her wish to go back to an Iraqi-style house.
Elizabeth Ballou’s Review

The cast of Cabaret Rising, performed at Dupont Underground.

Will Lowry, Environment Design
‘Cabaret Rising’ at TBD Immersive performing at the Dupont Underground
Environment designer Will Lowry takes advantage of the gritty, spooky Dupont Underground by littering the space with spray-painted signs, bare-bones stalls where the Underground’s residents peddle scraps, and plywood platforms that rumble down the exposed section of old metro track. It’s a post-apocalyptic Wonderland that calls to mind video games like Fallout and Bioshock. And, like the best video games, the set pulls you into another world you can see, hear, and touch. For three hours, I forgot that the DC of 2018 was just meters above my head. Instead, I had the great luck of meeting the Resistance leaders of 2028.
Elizabeth Ballou’s Review

Marti Lyons, Direction
‘The Wolves’ at Studio Theatre
The Wolves, directed by Marti Lyons, springs to vivid life as the team (er—cast) circles up for pre-game stretches. The Wolves are a female indoor soccer team comprised of 16- and 17-year-olds. Their stretching routine is as perfectly polished as synchronized swimmers. The pacing and timing of DeLappe’s dialogue keeps the audience in close step with the story. If we zone out for a minute, we will miss something. So the audience stays close. And, for that matter — we are close. The set is an indoor soccer turf flanked by the audience on either side, and the audience member furthest from the stage is maybe 20 feet away from a cast member.
Hilary Sutton’s Review

Neil McFadden, Sound Design
‘4,380 Nights’ at Signature Theatre
Sound designer Neil McFadden fills the set with constant sound, so the audience begins to feel how difficult sleep could be. There is no place to hide in the intimacy of Signature’s ARK.
David Siegel’s Review

Coby Kay Callahan, Heather Marie Beck and Tess Rohan in Mamma Mia! at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.
Coby Kay Callahan, Heather Marie Beck and Tess Rohan in ‘Mamma Mia!’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

Mark Minnick, Direction and Choreography
‘Mamma Mia!’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre
At Toby’s, Director and Choreographer Mark Minnick treated playgoers to a Mediterranean vacation without airport hassles or passports. Minnick provided enough focus in a sunken central ring to make us care again about the musical-comedy tangles acted out by his all-pro cast. Heather Marie Beck, Coby Kay Callahan and Tess Rohan more than sold their big pop numbers like “Dancing Queen” and “Money, Money, Money.” They found plenty of emotional support in seasoned performers Russell Sunday, Darren McDonnell and Jeffrey Shankle. For a show about women’s relationships, this Mamma Mia! made an equally strong case for the importance of fathers. – John Harding
John Harding’s Review

K.J. Moran (Script and Lyrics), Isaac Warren (Music)
‘Unfinished Album of Lazarus Lovesong’ by Georgetown University Department of Performing Arts at The Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival
Georgetown University student K.J. Moran has written a hilariously original and powerfully brave play with music about a college-age woman named Lou who was raped a year ago by her then-boyfriend, Eli. It has been a year since, and the trauma is still with her—theatricalized as an actor representing Eli, invisible to all the other characters, who won’t leave Lou alone. How Lou deals with that past pain and ultimately feels ready to make love again makes for an of-the-moment narrative pulsing with humor and heartache—and honest and brilliant playwriting. The thoroughly engaging supporting cast is rounded out by Lou’s roommates (Genevieve, June, and Lou’s gay bestie Benni) and a punk rock band led by Lazarus Lovesong, whose terrific musical numbers punctuate the story as though they’re Lou’s inner soundtrack. One of the best new plays I saw all year. —John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg’s Review

Kenny Neal, Sound Design
‘John’ at Signature Theatre
Sound design by Kenny Neal was vigorously interspersed throughout with special effects including the sound of bells, chimes, clock ticking, cell phone noise, phone and a jukebox radio that was brightly lit and played symphonic music. Strange rustling sounds and odd vocal sounds were intermittent and the overall effect was immersive. – David Friscic
David Friscic’s Review
David Siegel’s Column

Daven Ralson and Billy Finn in ‘Everything Is Illuminated’ at Theater J. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Aaron Posner, Direction
‘Everything is Illuminated’ at Theater J
Director Aaron Posner conducts each pulsebeat with an emotional reverence that resonates throughout the house. The play’s theatrical mix of realism and invention comes alive in language so amazing, it washes over one like waves. The stage arts also combine to make this a spectacularly engaging production. – Ravelle Brickman
John Stoltenberg’s Review
Everything Is (Finally) Illuminated: Aaron Posner’s Setting of Foer’s Masterpiece Makes Its DC Debut by Ravelle Brickman

Natsu Onoda Power, Direction
‘Vietgone’ at Studio Theatre
In Vietgone, Vietnamese-American Playwright Qui Nguyen sets out to tell how his parents fell in love after being resettled in America as refugees after the fall of Saigon. The show is rife with humor, a lot of it uproariously broad and bawdy, and some of the edgiest makes fun of white America. “Yo what’s up white people,” exclaims Tong to the audience at the top of the show. The era is captured winkingly. There’s a haze-filled scene with mary jane. There’s bed-hopping galore. By the end, Vietgone does something so beyond entertaining, so unexpected and unforgettable, that I not only left the theater with my mind blown. I left with my mind changed.- John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg’s Review

Kenann M. Quander, Costume Design
‘Aida’ at Constellation Theatre Company
Perhaps referencing the Egyptian pyramids, or maybe the loves of the three leads—the story is set amid a profusion of triangles: on the floor in a pattern of blue, black, gold, and silver; overhead in frames; and onstage in forced-perspective shapes and angles that light up in bright colors. Even more spectacular are the jewel-bedecked and gilded high fashions for Egyptian royalty, uniforms and gowns for their minions, and earth-toned rags for their slaves. Notably, the fashionista Egyptian princess Amneris gets her vanity on in a succession of outfits each more eye-popping than the last. —John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg’s Review
Michael Bobbitt’s ‘Aida’ Mixes Grandeur and Intimacy at Constellation Theatre by Ravelle Brickman

‘Imogen’ at Pointless Theatre. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Matt Reckeweg, Puppet Design
‘Imogen’ at Pointless Theatre
The technical elements of Imogen are a small miracle. The seemingly simple set is full of trick panels, which, when backlit, allow actors backstage to hold up puppets and act out dreams or flashbacks. The lighting shifts every time an actor has an aside, which lets the audience get inside each character’s head. Two multi-instrumentalists provide phenomenal live music that provides a backdrop to scenes that are danced out rather than acted (the battle scene in the second half has killer choreography). None of these elements ever feel out of sync or unbalanced. The small performance space makes Imogen’s technical aspects all the more impressive.
Elizabeth Ballou’s Review

Aaron Rhyne, Projection Design
‘Anastasia’ at The Kennedy Center
In the Kennedy Center’s Anastasia, Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne is nothing short of brilliant. The background projections are animated perfectly to support the characters’ actions, while melding seamlessly with the stage lighting by Donald Holder. Scene changes use modern wizardry that suggests the glorious extravagance of Imperialist Russian Operas and Parisian nightclubs. – Chuck Leonard
Chuck Leonard’s Review

Klyph Stanford (Scenic Design) and Alicia Tessari (Properties Design)
‘Fancy Nancy: Splendiferous Christmas’ at Adventure Theatre MTC
The tech for this show is absolutely spot on. Alicia Tessari’s props were whimsical perfection, and despite there being many, many props, they were assembled and presented in a way that never interfered with the pace. Speaking of pace, Scenic Design by Klyph Stanford was also impeccable – there were countless set changes, yet the show never stopped moving, and every setting had its own special bit of whimsy.
Review

Heather Raffo as Noura in Noura. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Heather Raffo as Noura in ‘Noura’. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Masha Tsimring, Lighting Design
‘Noura’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company
Masha Tsimring’s excellent lighting, like Raffo’s script, makes a New York City living room into something extraordinary. Tsimring’s lighting design works in perfect harmony with Andrew Lieberman’s set, so that the lamps scattered around Noura’s house seem to glow, illuminating the actors’ faces – seemingly from right beside them, rather than above them.
Elizabeth Ballou’s Review

1 COMMENT

  1. So sad to see nothing but white theater in a city known for outstanding Bkack theater in the past. As a former member of The DC Black Reperatory Theatre Company, and The Washington Theatre Club from a young age, this article reflects a very different theatrical landscape in Washington now that breaks my heart.

Comments are closed.