J. Wynn Rousuck | WYPR

J. Wynn Rousuck

Maryland Morning Theater Critic

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.

A member of the Artistic Advisory Committee of Young Audiences of Maryland, Judy is also a freelance teacher for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and the Hippodrome Foundation, Inc. (the Hippodrome’s non-profit partner, which focuses on education and outreach). She was a faculty member at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Critics Institute in Waterford, CT, for two decades; she is a former National Endowment for Humanities Journalism Fellow; and she was a visiting student at Brown University (2007-2008), under the mentorship of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Paula Vogel. Judy and her husband, Alan Fink, share their home with two dogs, who enjoy hearing their “Master’s Voice” on WYPR.

Joe Williams

You wouldn’t expect it from the title, but there’s a lot of violence in the play, Superior Donuts. The opening scene takes place the morning after this Chicago donut shop has been vandalized. And there’s a fight in the second act that almost has you ducking for cover. 

Playwright Tracy Letts started writing Superior Donuts right before his 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner, August: Osage County, had its first production.

He set out to write something very different from that sprawling Oklahoma family saga. And he did. In many respects, Superior Donuts is the superior play.

Photo: Nick Griner

Maybe you heard about the Rembrandt that was discovered in a New Jersey basement. Or, maybe you remember the little painting that was purchased at a West Virginia flea market and turned out to be a Renoir – a Renoir that was stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art.

So there’s precedent for the unwanted, the overlooked, the discarded – let’s face it, someone’s trash – turning out to be a masterpiece. In the case of Stephen Sachs’ play, “Bakersfield Mist,” there’s a very direct precedent. 

Josh Loock

I hope that when the world ends, we’re surrounded by friends and take some joy in companionship. Maybe there will even be some songs, a bit of dancing and a toast or two at a place called the Apocalypse Café.

That’s what goes on in BrouHaHa, the ensemble-created work by Washington’s Happenstance Theater, now at the Theatre Project.

Happenstance subtitles BrouHaHa: “A clownesque escapade.” A clown piece about the apocalypse may sound like a contradiction in terms. But there’s something surprisingly comforting – and charming -- about BrouHaHa

C. Stanley Photography

Arena Stage in Washington is now featuring the Pulitzer-prize winning play, Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. The play is set during a dinner party held by Amir, a successful son of South Asian immigrants. Dinner conversations spark Amir to question his career, culture, and identity.  Here's theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck's  review:

At first glance, it looks like the hippest, most sophisticated, intimate dinner party. Two young New York couples: The hosts are a Pakistani-American corporate lawyer and his white, artist wife; the guests are a Jewish curator at a prominent museum and his wife, an African-American corporate lawyer.

This small social gathering could be a picture of America at its best... 

Photo by ClintonBPhotography

Everyman Theatre is promoting this season’s final two plays as “The Great American Rep.” According to the theater, this is the first time Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” have been performed in rotating repertory.

But why these two? Besides being two of America’s greatest dramatic masterpieces, what do they have in common?

For starters, as the cover of Everyman’s program reminds us, the protagonists in both plays show up carrying suitcases. In “Death of Salesman,” Willy Loman cuts a sales trip short and returns home, lugging his suitcase and a heavy sample case. In “Streetcar,” Blanche DuBois no longer has a home and arrives at her sister’s New Orleans’ apartment, suitcase in hand.

What’s in these suitcases? Clichéd as it may sound, the suitcases are stuffed with dashed hopes and dreams. 

Photo: Richard Anderson

Dominique Morisseau’s play, “Detroit ’67,” takes place in a basement. Even though there’s some illegal activity going on in this basement, it feels like a safe haven in that particular city at that particularly incendiary time.

It’s a time and place that bear decided similarities to the unrest that arose in Baltimore a year ago in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death from injuries suffered police custody. That’s among the reasons Center Stage selected “Detroit ’67.”

Katie Simmons-Barth

On the surface, the title of Brooke Berman’s comedy, “Hunting and Gathering,” refers to finding a place to live in New York – no easy task. The characters on stage share apartments with roommates, sleep on friends’ couches, house sit and occasionally – rarely – rent apartments of their own.

But the title also refers to personal relationships – friendships, romances, affairs. Hunting for them, gathering them up, trying to hold onto them.

The clever set at Rep Stage’s area premiere of “Hunting and Gathering” consists of walls of corrugated packing boxes. Even the stairs in designer Mollie Singer’s set are made of boxes. Some of these boxes hold surprises, which I’m not going to spoil. 

Christopher Mueller

"Film is a series of photographs separated by split-seconds of darkness.” That’s how an employee at a movie theater explains good old-fashioned celluloid film in the play, The Flick. It’s a description that also fits the structure of this 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner, receiving a poignant area premiere at Arlington’s Signature Theatre. 

Playwright Annie Baker has constructed The Flick as a series of mostly brief scenes, separated by blackouts. More intriguingly, when we take our seats, we’re facing several rows of movie seats. The projection booth is above and behind those seats. This means we are theoretically sitting behind the screen. If there were a movie playing, presumably we’d be in it. 

Kate Erin Gibson

There’s a new play being produced by the Strand Theater in Baltimore. It’s called "Harry and the Thief," and it involves... a time machine. Theater Critic J Wynn Rousuck spent some time last week checking it out. Here’s her review:

There’s some fairly complex, imaginative stuff going on in Sigrid Gilmer’s play, “Harry and the Thief” -- the play receiving an area premiere produced by the Strand Theater -- is set in two different centuries, and it mixes real and fictitious characters, as well as history and science fiction.

The premise concerns a scientist – he’s played by Mike Smith – who has found a way to time travel and has a specific task in mind -- to “deliver a cache of arms to Harriet Tubman.”

Yes, the “Harry” in the title refers to Harriet Tubman, the famed, Maryland-born abolitionist who guided more than 700 slaves to freedom. The “thief” in the title is Mimi, the scientist’s cousin – played with great spunk by Aladrian Wetzel. Mimi is on the lam from her criminal gang, and where better to hide than the 19th century?

The Hippodrome

Our theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck is back working her magic as she   a new magic revue, The Illusionists, that's anything but ordinary.

The show features seven magicians showcasing their unique talents, such as levitation, illusion, mind-reading and disappearance. The traveling show will be at the Hippodrome in Baltimore until April 3rd.  Rousuck joins Tom in the studio to explain some of the many ways this unique revue isn't like most other Hippodrome productions.

Is the line blurring between human and artificial intelligence? Jordan Harrison’s play “Marjorie Prime” – receiving its area premiere at Olney Theatre Center – straddles that line.

Marjorie is an 85-year-old with increasing memory loss. Her husband, Walter, died 10 years ago. Modern science hasn’t found a way to bring him back. But it’s come pretty close.

Marjorie shares her home with a carbon copy of Walter -- at age 30. Walter’s artificial doppelganger, which is called a “prime,” looks surprisingly lifelike, although, as played by Michael Glenn, he moves and speaks stiffly. When he’s not talking to Marjorie, he sits motionless in a chair off to the side -- his head lowered, his eyes fixed on the floor.

Marjorie’s grown daughter, Tess, is skeptical about this whole prime thing. Tess’ husband, Jon – played by Michael Willis -- tries to persuade her that the prime helps her mother with her memory and provides company. It’s almost human.

But skeptical as Tess is, in the second part of the play she’s the one who needs the comfort of talking to a prime. Only this time it’s a prime of her mother – “Marjorie Prime.”

Phoebe Stein, Dr. Sheri Parks

So if it’s true that every person has a story, is it also true that every city has one too? What is Baltimore’s story? What narratives have emerged following the cataclysmic events following the death of Freddie Gray, and what do those narratives tell us about Baltimore’s identity? These are the questions that a new series of public events will tackle. It’s called Baltimore Stories: Narratives and the Life of an American City. Dr. Sheri Parks from the University of Maryland and Phoebe Stein from the Maryland Humanities Council give us a preview. 

Then, Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., of Princeton University says that for African Americans, gaps in values and opportunity have been pernicious and longstanding, and the reason black politics need to be transformed. He talks with Tom about his new book, Democracy in Black

Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews "Something Like Jazz Music," on stage at the Single Carrot Theater until March 27th. 

Plus, novelist John Irving on writing, aging, and America's dark politics. 

Britt Olsen-Ecker

In 1995, a worker at a recently closed New York state mental institution discovered what became known as the Willard Suitcases – more than 400 suitcases, still packed with the belongings of former patients, dating back to 1910. These suitcases became the inspiration for Single Carrot Theatre’s latest ensemble-created work, “Something Like Jazz Music.”

Instead of a mental hospital, however, the action takes place in a Baltimore shipping warehouse after a mysterious, undocumented container shows up. When it’s opened, raucous jazz pours out.

The workers remove the contents – luggage, steamer trunks, a dresser. As they try on a hat or a piece of clothing, they’re transported back – at times with a physical jolt – to 1920s Baltimore. There, they find themselves transformed into everyone from an African-American jazz musician to a Russian Jewish doctor to a Ku Klux Klansman.

Shealyn Jae Photography

Last month Center Stage brought us an all-female As You Like It, and now Cohesion Theatre Company has produced a gender-blind production of Shakespeare’s most challenging play, Hamlet.

Hamlet is played by a woman, Caitlin Carbone – and the character is portrayed as a woman; female pronouns are used. Women also play Laertes and Horatio, though those characters remain male. I’ll get to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a minute.

Women have been portraying Hamlet at least since Sarah Siddons in 1775.  Sarah Bernhardt is probably the best known, but there have been many others -- including some who portrayed the troubled Dane as female.

Of course, good actors should be able to play, well, just about anything. And, Caitlin Carbone delivers a solid, thoughtful performance as the heir to the Danish throne.

Joan Marcus

After 19 months on Broadway, the touring production of Motown the Musical is in Baltimore at The Hippodrome Theatre through March 13th.

Adapted from Motown Records founder Berry Gordy’s 1994 memoir To Be Loved, the production is a walk down memory lane that features notable Motown hits and original music.

Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck joins Tom in the studio to discuss the musical’s highs and lows.

Forty years ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company rediscovered a late 18th century comedy and gave it a new production that transferred to the West End. It helped turn a young actor named Jeremy Irons into a star.

The play was John O’Keeffe’s “Wild Oats.” Despite its hit revival, it’s still not widely produced. But the 1791 rom-com is receiving a jaunty production at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, under Ian Gallanar’s direction.

“Wild Oats” is a good fit for a Shakespeare company: two of its main characters are actors, and one – an itinerant actor who calls himself Jack Rover – quotes the Bard every chance he gets.

One of the production’s most amusing elements is that it never lets us forget we’re watching a play. Jack’s best friend and fellow actor occasionally turns to the audience and identifies the play Jack’s quoting. In one case, he tells us, “It’s a dated reference.” 

Olney Theatre Center

Carmen: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Musical, the world-premier production on stage now through March 6th at the Olney Theatre Center, takes Bizet's famous opera, which was set in 1820s Spain, and moves it to 1950s Cuba.  The result is a contemporary and politically resonant re-imagining of the classic love story.  Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck joins Tom in the studio to explain why this latest of many adaptations of the original opera is an artistic standout.

C. Stanley Photography

Lynn Nottage’s newest play, Sweat -- like her Pulitzer Prize winner, Ruined -- takes place primarily in a bar. The bar in “Ruined” is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The bar in Sweat is closer to home -- Reading, Pennsylvania, ranked this country’s poorest city by the 2011 census.

In Ruined, the conflict is war. In Sweat -- receiving a powerful East Coast premiere at Washington’s Arena Stage -- the conflict is between cost-cutting industry and struggling workers.

ClintonBPhotography

Several times in Under the Skin, a bell goes off on one of the character’s cell phones. Whenever it does, the character closes her eyes and breathes deeply. What is this? It’s a “mindfulness” app, she explains to a fellow she’s just met. It rings at random times to remind her to be mindful.

Being mindful, aware, in the moment, is something that trips up these characters (beautifully played at Everyman Theatre by Megan Anderson and Keith L. Royal Smith). There are too many stumbling blocks in their past -- and one very big decision looming in their future.

You've got five more chances to catch Phantom of the Opera at the Hippodrome Theater this weekend.  It closes Sunday night.  J. Wynn Rousuck joins Tom Hall to share highlights of the ambitious new staging of Phantom, the longest-running production in Broadway history.  She and Tom also take a look ahead at upcoming shows in the Hippodrome's new season. 

Richard Anderson

As You Like It is one of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies in which a woman outsmarts a man, in part by disguising herself as a man.

Shakespeare wrote some great women’s roles, including this one – Rosalind. But women make up less than 20 percent of Shakespeare’s almost 1000 characters, probably because female performers were banned from the stage and their roles were played by boys.

In Center Stage’s current production, director Wendy C. Goldberg – a new-play specialist -- does her bit to even the score by using an all-female cast. This is nothing new. There are women-only Shakespeare companies and locally, the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory did an all-female Henry IV during last summer’s ParityFest.

Tessa Sollway

 

Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is the most produced American play. It’s on stage somewhere every single day. So it’s not surprising that people think they know it -- “Our Town,” that folksy play that gets done in high schools.

But “Our Town” is much more than that. It’s a play that cuts to the core of what it means to be human, to experience life, and it’s a play that was so daringly experimental when it debuted in 1938 that it changed the face of American drama.

A production that gets all of that – or even most of it – right will shake you up in the opening scene and move you to tears by the end. Director Eric C. Stein and his cast have a firm grip on “Our Town” at the Vagabond Players.

 

Jackson Phippin

Baltimore’s newest theater company, The Oven, has made its debut at the Theatre Project with a short, intense original show called Gone.

A tightly knit ensemble of five young Towson University theater alums has spent almost a year and a half creating and honing this harrowing examination of the coercion or abduction of young people into prostitution.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Every once in a while, we whisk you out of the Baltimore and Maryland theater scene to our neighboring city, Washington, DC. The new musical Bright Star -- featuring music and book by Steve Martin and music and lyrics by Edie Brickell -- is playing at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through Januaury 10, ahead of a spring opening on Broadway.  Maryland Morning Theater Critic J. Wynn Rousuck is here to share her thoughts on the performance.

Stan Barouh

John Patrick Shanley. A playwright with that name might be expected to write plays with Irish settings, Irish characters, Irish themes, Irish music. Not Shanley. He didn’t want to be pegged an Irish-American playwright.

Then this author of the screenplay of the Italian-American-themed movie, Moonstruck, gave into his roots and wrote Outside Mullingar – his 2014 play set in the rural outskirts of a town 50 miles northwest of Dublin.

It’s been a happy homecoming. Outside Mullingar is among the most produced plays at American regional theaters this season. One of those is Everyman Theatre, where Donald Hicken has directed an endearing Baltimore-Washington premiere.

The title of the bold, new play at Fells Point Corner Theatre is a provocative, monosyllabic word not suitable for public radio. In polite company, Mike Bartlett’s award-winning drama has come to be known as “The Cockfight Play.”

And though cockfighting isn’t mentioned in the script, at Fells Point Corner, director Steve Goldklang has clearly been inspired by it. Two roosters, ready for combat, are painted on the back wall of designer Roy Steinman’s bare set; a large dark red ring is painted on the floor.

Center Stage

Somewhere between Berkeley, California, last January, and Baltimore, now, the play, X’s and O’s, lost its subtitle: “A Football Love Story.”

When you see Berkeley Rep’s co-production with Center Stage, love isn’t the first emotion that comes to mind. Fandom, fervor, loyalty; definitely. But love? Well, as the saying goes: Love is blind.

Blind to such football health hazards as concussion and CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy – the condition that used to be called “punch drunk.” The play also raises other issues, but brain damage is the focus.

Harry Bechkes

Loneliness, luck (or the lack of it), birth and death weave their way through Will Eno’s play, “Middletown” -- now at the Theatrical Mining Company in Baltimore.  In the opening scene, the character of a policeman describes the town: “Population: stable. Elevation: same. The main street is called Main Street…People come, people go. Crying, by the way, in both directions.”

Stylistically, this description is reminiscent of the Stage Manager’s description of Grover’s Corners at the start of “Our Town.” Much of what follows is an homage to that classic American play.

This past June, I moderated a playwrights’ panel at the second International Thornton Wilder Conference. Will Eno was one of the panelists. He praised Wilder’s immense skill at writing about the quotidian – the commonplace, the everyday.

Center Stage

Theater Critic J. Wynn Rousuck has been to see the production of The Secret Garden, running now through November 29th at Center Stage. This morning she sits down with Tom to share her thoughts on an enchanting performance.

Happenstance Theater

Cabaret Noir summons up a world where Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer or, for that matter, Guy Noir would feel right at home.

Stage versions of film noir aren’t new – Sunset Boulevard and City of Angels were big, glitzy Broadway musicals that won Tony Awards.

Washington-based Happenstance Theatre takes a much more low-key approach. Cabaret Noir is an ensemble-created work based in stylized movement, humor, mime, dance and a dash of puppetry. The show is making its world premiere at the Theatre Project.

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