DCMTA Spring 2020 Staff Favorites: Outstanding Design Elements in Professional Productions

Normally we who cover theater for DC Metro Theater Arts collect our favorites as the year draws to a close, but this has not been a normal year. In mid-March, the 2020 season was interrupted by a pandemic and theaters went dark for who knows how long. Shows that were running closed. Shows in production got canceled. Suddenly the theater community felt profound uncertainty and anxiety.

We at DCMTA cannot magically turn the lights back on. But we realized there is something we can do to raise spirits: Share our staff favorites now for the shows we saw in 2020 before the shutdown. Just like we do at year-end—all our favorite productions, performances, design elements—except right now when our digital applause might serve as a gift of uplift.

Below are the Outstanding Design Elements (Professional) that made the biggest impact on DCMTA writers so far this year. In this category we recognize artistry behind the scenes:

  • Design elements including set, sound, lighting, and costume
  • Directors and choreographers
  • Playwrights and composers

Recipients are listed in alphabetical order by last name.

SEE ALSO:
DCMTA Spring 2020 Staff Favorites: Outstanding Professional Theater Productions
DCMTA Spring 2020 Staff Favorites: Outstanding Performances in a Professional Production
DCMTA Spring 2020 Staff Favorites: Outstanding Community Theater Productions, Performances, and Design Elements

Alicia B. Adams, Curator
Boundless: Africa
The 2020 Kennedy Center World Stages series
“The World Stages series [curated by The Kennedy Center] provides to our audiences the opportunity to experience the work of visionary artists at the forefront of international discourse,”   Alicia B. Adams said in a conversation.  Adams is likely unknown to many. She is the behind-the-scenes cultivator and curator for the annual Kennedy Center World Stages festival. Her title is Vice President of International Programming and Dance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. With DC aiming to be a world-class theater region, it is no accident that The Kennedy Center has developed the World Stages series. Since its first appearance in 2014, the World Stages series has presented works from more than 25 countries. The series regularly features “incredible directors, authors, and artists,” said Adams. And they are from countries and cultures not often presented on DC-area mainstages. The 2020 World Stages presented a literary mini-series entitled Boundless: Africa. “It is exciting to be part of bringing African writers to public attention. They are fantastic,” noted Adams. “There is no single place, nor image, nor sound, nor thought that represents the multifarious universe known as Africa. To experience and appreciate Africa is to discover the vibrant tapestry of extraordinary diverse cultures spread across the continent.” I attended Boundless: Africa events and was enthralled. —David Siegel
David Siegel’s interview with Kennedy Center World Stages Curator Alicia B. Adams

Colin K. Bills (lighting), Misha Kachman (scenic), Pei Lee (costume), Karin Graybash (sound)
The Amateurs at Olney Theatre Center
The Amateurs is performed on a bare stage, save for the cart used to haul the troupe’s scenery from town to town. Colin K. Bills’s lighting design creates delicious atmosphere: A blue uplit hole becomes a lake for washing clothes; and a red hole, a fire pit. Scenic design by Misha Kachman features a lovely scene of snowfall, and Pei Lee’s costumes add to the humor. Karin Graybash’s sound design is the cherry on top. —Nicole Hertvik
Nicole Hertvik’s review

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘Timon of Athens.’ Photo by Henry Grossman.

Soutra Gilmour, Set and Costume Design
Timon of Athens at Shakespeare Theatre Company
From the moment Kathryn Hunter made her glorious entrance as Timon in this very contemporary production, Gilmour saw to it that you had a feast for the eyes.  The opening banquet, with its sometimes-whimsical elements, is all light and grace—contrasted starkly by Gilmour’s transition to the bleak beachside, and Hunter’s plain smock in the final act.  Gilmour managed to pull off the feat of evoking monumentality and classicism while bringing us visually into our own times. —Andrew Walker White
Andrew Walker White’s review
Sophia Howes’s column

Paige Hernandez, Direction
The Royale at 1st Stage and Olney Theatre Center
Paige Hernandez brought a fresh perspective to this very masculine story of a boxer and his fight for recognition. Rather than focus on the physicality of the battle, Hernandez mines the script for the nuanced emotion behind this typically masculine and aggressive sport. Hernandez’ background in physical theater and hip-hop is well suited to this show that begins with a very rhythm-heavy script. The boxers in the show never make physical contact relying instead on the audience’s imagination to conjure images of blood and bruises. —Nicole Hertvik
John Stoltenberg’s column about the production at 1st Stage
Bob Ashby’s review of the production at Olney Theatre Center
Nicole Hertvik’s interview with Director Paige Hernandez

Jason King Jones, Director
The Amateurs at Olney Theatre Center
The Amateurs is a play that asks you to consider many big ideas simultaneously: the rise of humanism, people’s response to crisis, survivor’s guilt, the concept of free will. Luckily for audiences of this production, Jason King Jones’s direction allows these ideas to unfold organically, the humanity of the characters always at the fore. —Nicole Hertvik
Nicole Hertvik’s review

Milagros Ponce de León (Set Designer) and Rui Rita (Lighting Design)
Silent Sky at Ford’s Theatre
The drama plays out on a gorgeous set by Milagros Ponce de León comprised of two sweeping staircases that lead to a balcony, with a rotating platform below that becomes, by turns, the cramped Cambridge observatory office, Margaret’s Wisconsin farmhouse, and Henrietta’s home. The balcony is reserved for dreams—that is where the telescope dwells, beyond the reach of Henrietta and her colleagues.  It doubles as a steamship deck—a place of romance that is ultimately off-limits, too.  Rui Rita’s lighting design is especially crucial to a drama focused on the firmament.  His sky dazzles and winks, fades and illuminates as if it was a breathtaking array of cosmic dancers. —Amy Kotkin
Amy Kotkin’s review

Patrick W. Lord (Projection Design) and Brian S. Allard (Lighting Design)
Phantom of the Opera at Synetic Theater
Given the expectations associated with Phantom of the Opera, musical or not, it’s natural to approach any new production with the kind of arms-crossed, “prove it” skepticism.  Lord and Allard worked together seamlessly to pull off a truly thrilling crash of an (apparently) virtual chandelier to mark the demise of Carlotta.  Lord also wonderfully evokes the Paris Opera House and other locations through cleverly scaled projections on the upstage screen. —Andrew Walker White
Andrew Walker White’s review

Irina Tsikurishvili as Phantom and Maryam Najafzada as Christine in 'Phantom of the Opera' at Synetic Theater. Photo by Johnny Shryock.
Irina Tsikurishvili as Phantom and Maryam Najafzada as Christine in ‘Phantom of the Opera’ at Synetic Theater. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Konstantine Lortkipanidze, Composer
Phantom of the Opera at Synetic Theater
Lortkipanidze’s music has graced every production at Synetic Theater, and the joy of his work lies in its astonishing variety.  The past century has seen classical composers experiment with a wide variety of sounds, and Lortkipanidze continues to astonish as he works with a vast repertoire; he can share in a classical music fan’s passion for Chopin or Stravinsky, and then throw in grunge and industrial noise seamlessly.  —Andrew Walker White
Andrew Walker White’s review

Katie McCreary (Lighting Design) and Gordon Nimmo-Smith (Sound Design)
The Toxic Avenger at Rorschach Theatre
The Toxic Avenger is a glorious schticky, tongue-in-cheek musical in no danger of taking itself too seriously and reveling in the bawdy camp of its source material. McCreary’s lighting design and Nimmo-Smith’s sound design give the production a gritty rawness that made a night at the theater feel like a trip back in time to 1980s CBGBs. —Nicole Hertvik
Nicole Hertvik’s review

Jake Null, Music Direction
The Toxic Avenger at Rorschach Theatre
The onstage band is led by Music Director Jake Null. Perched on top of Set Designer Patti Kalil’s two-story construction, the band keeps the energy high as actors whiz past them and the large vat of toxic goo below. —Nicole Hertvik
Nicole Hertvik’s review

Emmy Raver-Lampman (Martha) and Solea Pfeiffer (Mary) in ‘Gun & Powder’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman.

Robert O’Hara, D­irector
Gun & Powder at Signature Theatre
With both a delicate and muscular touch, award-winning director Robert O’Hara of Broadway’s Slave Play made an impressive Signature Theatre debut with the world premiere of Gun & Powder.  With O’Hara’s artistic vision, the imaginative script that is Gun & Powder takes on pointed issues including race, privilege, and poverty as well as survival and resilience when skin color is used as an identity marker. He made sure the audience did not look away. Raw one moment, richly comic the next. Subtle in one scene, directly challenging the audience the next. With O’Hara at the helm, Gun & Powder at Signature was strikingly effective storytelling about how identity can be constructed so people are seen or made invisible by onlookers. It is also soaring musical entertainment with a cast of heavenly singers, expressive dancers, and damn strong actors. The Gun & Powder book and lyrics by Angelica Cheri are based upon Cheri’s own family’s stories, folklore, and research. Music was composed by Ross Baum. —David Siegel
David Siegel’s review
John Stoltenberg’s column

Tracey Lynn Olivera, Direction
The Toxic Avenger at Rorschach Theatre
It’s not a stretch to attribute the success of Rorschach’s The Toxic Avenger to the directorial choices made by Tracy Lynn Olivera. Olivera is making her directorial debut with The Toxic Avenger, and with it, she proves that her golden touch extends to directing as well as performing. She has turned this silly show into an eminently watchable, fast-moving celebration of hilarity. She coaxes layers of comedy out of the hardworking cast and has turned the Silver Spring Black Box into a raucous venue reminiscent of a seedy 80s dive bar. —Nicole Hertvik
Nicole Hertvik’s review

Charlene V. Smith, Artistic Director
Brave Spirits Theatre
Shakespeare Rep

Tumultuous times call out for audacity in the performing arts. Charlene V. Smith boldly marked territory for the next two years. Over the 2020 and 2021 seasons, Brave Spirits Theatre (BST) will make history by becoming the first professional American theater company to mount full productions of eight of Shakespeare’s epic histories in repertory. The Bard’s plays capture chaos and violence, as well as the very nature of disorder and unsteady royal leadership. The plays depict a chaotic period of English history starting in the late 1300s and continuing for almost a century, including the unrest of the Wars of the Roses. In an interview, Smith noted that Brave Spirits will be viewing its cycle of Shakespeare plays “through a specifically feminist lens.” The productions are expected to have a “distinctly American stamp” and be staged in BST’s “signature actor-driven, intimate, and dark style.” The cycle of plays also aims at considering how race and gender influence struggles for power. —David Siegel
David Siegel’s interview with Charlene V. Smith

Shanara Gabrielle (Lee) and John Austin (Bobby) in ‘Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes’ at Signature Theatre. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Dani Stoller, Playwright
Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes at Signature Theatre
Easy Women tells of a 34-year-old woman named Lee (Shanara Gabrielle) whose husband has kicked her out for infidelity and who comes home to her mother Marian (Susan Rome) for solace. Empty-nesters Marian and her second husband Richard (John Leslie Wolfe) already have a full house. They’ve taken in two teens: Richard’s pregnant niece Kitty (Jordan Slattery) and a troubled 18-year-old boy from next door named Bobby (John Austin). Tensions flare, laughs abound, passions rise, revelations shock, meltdowns amuse, love reconciles. And there comes a scene at the end of the first act that just blew me away. It’s between Lee and Bobby, she is initiating sex, it’s his first time, and there’s a point in the performance when it crosses your mind, Oh my gosh, this is thisclose to sexual assault. Yet Playwright Dani Stoller has so carefully calibrated the scene that the continual consent between is consistently clear—something that’s rare and remarkable in the history of sexual politics on and off stage. —John Stoltenberg
Amy Kotkin’s review
John Stoltenberg’s interview with Playwright Dani Stoller

Jodie Linver, Keisha Kemper, Maggie Lou Rader, and Kelly Mengelkoch in ‘Alabaster’ at Know Theatre. Photo by Dan R. Winters.

Know Theatre (Technical Staff)
Alabaster
by Audrey Cefaly
As streamed (through April 4) by Know Theatre, Cincinnati
In the midst of an eleven-city National New Play Network tour of Audrey Cefaly’s newest work, Alabaster, for a moment the world came crashing down. COVID-19 forced the closing of a production at the Know Theatre in Cincinnati. But, with the technical know-how of Know Theatre, Alabaster had a magnificent production streamed for a short time. Under the leadership of Producing Artistic Director Andrew Hungerford,  the staff of eight at Know had to accomplish a great deal to stream Alabaster. There were AEA rules and permissions to obtain.  The live production was to close in a few days.  In a recent phone conversation and email exchange with Hungerford, it was clear the mantra for the streaming of Alabaster was this:

Capture the production as live audience would see it at a 99 seats venue, about  5-10 feet away, not as in movie about 6 inches away or as an often flat, emotion-less archival video. Know used three (3) cameras and expertly edited the final product to be as close to being there as I have seen online these days.  The four person ensemble did not act for the camera but for a live audience.

From Hungerford, I learned that his small full-time staff had skills and talents invaluable for the contemporary digital and video world: “They were a Jack-of-All Trades able to pivot quickly.” Together they had the tools and experiences to expertly take on video streaming such as video camera skills, video editing skills, post-productions skills. It was a “Herculian task, and a great team effort,” he told me. Alabaster is expected to be produced by the Keegan Theatre in its 2020–2021 season.  I have read the script.  Alabaster is another in Playwright Cefaly’s intimate works about the human ache. —David Siegel

Stevie Zimmerman, Director
Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes at Signature Theatre
Stevie Zimmerman on being a female director in the DMV theater world:

When I moved to this area, 9 years ago, I didn’t feel being a woman was an impediment in itself, but I did feel that a combination of gender and age and being pretty unknown was perhaps making things difficult. There was then a bit of a young man’s club feel to the theatre scene here, which is changing. Most theatres in the area are actively trying to consider hiring more diversely and I see that sometimes that includes concerns of age and gender as well as race, sexuality, and creed. I more often have a great experience directing when someone asks me to do something than when I choose it myself! I’m not sure what that says about me. Perhaps that I think I’m a certain type of director, but when challenged to do something I think is outside my comfort zone, it makes me work harder, think more, be braver.

—From David Siegel’s interview with Director Stevie Zimmerman

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