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.

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.

Everyman Theatre

    

“Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in.” That’s a line from August Wilson’s “Fences.”

Troy Maxson, the protagonist of this 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is building a fence for both reasons. But the “people” he wants to keep out aren’t people at all -- they’re Death and the Devil.

“Fences” is August Wilson’s most popular play – the 1950s installment of his decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th century African-American life. It’s already had a star-studded Broadway revival, and now Everyman Theatre is producing it for the second time.

Clinton Turner Davis – an August Wilson veteran – directs Everyman’s new production. Its lead actor, Alan Bomar Jones, also has a history with Wilson’s plays -- and particularly with Troy Maxson; he’s played the role twice before.

Troy is a fictitious former baseball star in the Negro Leagues. He’s still bitter about not making it to the majors when Jackie Robinson broke the color line. Just the mention of Robinson propels him down his porch steps, tearing off his cap and breaking into a rant.

Jones is a large man; it’s easy to believe his Troy was an athlete. His stern demeanor captures Troy’s personality -- a man whose entire life has been a battle. No sooner does he finish railing against Jackie Robinson than he challenges Death itself, acting out how he wrestled Death and won.

Troy learned to play baseball in prison. Now he works for the Pittsburgh sanitation department and is married to a good woman, Rose, with whom he has a teenaged son named Cory.

Cory’s a nice kid and Brayden Simpson, an alum of the Baltimore School for the Arts, delivers a splendid portrayal as a gentle teen who’s eager to please.

Cory’s been recruited by a college football scout, and everyone but Troy realizes that Cory is desperate to follow in his father’s footsteps. All Troy can see is a repeat of the disappointment and dead end that marked his own athletic career.

The father-son conflict is central to “Fences,” but a marital conflict surfaces as well. Wilson wrote aria-like speeches for his characters, and some of his richest are for Troy’s wife, Rose.

Joy Jones plays Rose with the fortitude the character requires and also lets us see the love Rose feels for Troy. But her delivery of a crucial line that changes the course of their relationship elicited unexpected laughter on opening night.

August Wilson crafted “Fences” as a traditionally structured drama, with a single protagonist – in contrast to his ensemble-driven plays. The result is a play that’s not only powerful, but highly accessible.

Wilson did, however, include one of his archetypal mystical characters. Troy’s brother, Gabriel, is a brain-damaged war veteran. Now he chases so-called “hell hounds” and wears a battered trumpet on a string around his neck, waiting to blow it for St. Peter.

Bryant Bentley imbues this sad soul with a childlike range of emotions – from unbridled glee to fury. Director Davis’ production isn’t the strongest I’ve seen of this play; it wavers, at times. But Bentley’s depiction of Gabriel is among the most moving. Every time Troy looks at Gabriel, you sense the loss he feels for his diminished brother.

In many respects, “Fences” is a domestic drama in the mold of “Death of a Salesman” – which Everyman will produce later this season – or “The Glass Menagerie.” “Fences” is as focused on personal responsibility and familial relationships as it is on racial and economic issues. Everyman’s production illuminates those themes and reminds us why this play, which debuted only 30 years ago, is already deemed an American classic.

Arena Players


 

Ntozake Shange created a sensation with her 1975 play, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.” Her groundbreaking, heartbreaking celebration of African-American women was televised in 1982 and made into a feature film with an all-star cast just five years ago.

Arena Players produced its own impressive take on “for colored girls” in 1995. Now it has boldly mounted one of the playwright’s lesser-known works, “Spell #7.”

Nicholas Griner

You can’t miss it – the giant gash, the cavernous hole, in the living room wall of the set of Bad Dog at Olney Theatre Center. The hole is big enough to drive a car through. That’s exactly what happened a few days before the play begins.

Molly Drexler, a 40-year-old Hollywood screenwriter, fell – no, catapulted – off the wagon after a decade of sobriety. She plowed her Prius into her living room and ended up in the hospital.

Bad Dog, by Jennifer Hoppe-House, is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. It’s also part of the American tradition of domestic dramas about addiction. Think Long Day’s Journey into Night or Days of Wine and Roses

Carly J. Bales

  

How accurate is history? Ever. Even primary sources are no substitute for having lived in the same time, breathed the same air as the people who made history.

A Ph.D. candidate experiences living, breathing history, nearly two-century-old history, firsthand in Robert O’Hara’s audacious, time-shifting play, Insurrection: Holding History at Annex Theater.

The Rousuck Review: "Kinky Boots"

Oct 2, 2015
Matthew Murphy

 

Kinky Boots” won six Tony Awards, including best musical in 2013. Now this Broadway musical -- script by Harvey Fierstein, score by Cyndi Lauper -- has opened the season at the Hippodrome. Based on a movie that was in turn based on a true story, "Kinky Boots" is about a dying British shoe factory that saves itself by making stiletto-heeled boots for drag queens. Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck and Tom Hall discuss whether you’ll get a kick out of “Kinky Boots.”

 

Richard Anderson

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has spawned a zombie novel, a murder mystery,and even a Bollywood movie. Now Center Stage has mounted a brand new stage version. Will our own Jane Austen fan, Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck, take pride in this latest adaptation?

Stan Barouh

  

Designer Timothy R. Mackabee’s set for “An Inspector Calls,” is so inviting, you’ll wish you were a guest in this elegant dining room.

But then you notice that some things about this dining room are a bit off. In Everyman Theatre’s smart, stylish production, the room sits on a platform, disconnected from its surroundings. And the fleur de lis designs on the wallpaper are oddly oversized and covered in thick Plexiglas.

The action, set in 1912, begins normally enough in this British play by J. B. Priestley. The Birlings, an upper middle class Yorkshire family, are celebrating daughter Sheila’s engagement to aristocratic Gerald Croft. They couldn’t be happier. Then the doorbell rings. 

Matthew Murphy

Anniversaries and plays by female playwrights will be celebrated during the upcoming 2015-2016 Baltimore theater season and J. Wynn Rousuck is in the studio with Tom to talk all about it. The Vagabond Players and Everyman Theatre both have milestone anniversaries. Washington’s large-scale celebration of women playwrights will reach stages in this area as well, among them: Single Carrot Theatre, the Interrobang Theatre Company, the Strand Theater Company, Rep Stage and Olney Theatre Center.

Women will also be well represented at Center Stage, which is producing an all-female “As You Like It,” two thought-provoking new plays by women, “X’s and O’s” and “Detroit ’67,” and the musical, “The Secret Garden.” Musicals in the Hippodrome’s new line-up will include the recent Broadway hits, “Kinky Boots” and “Motown The Musical.” And, Cohesion Theatre Company, in partnership with Iron Crow Theatre, will present the Trans* Voices Workshop Series.

Tessa Sollway Blische

Lisa D’Amour calls her 2010 play, Detroit. But she herself has acknowledged that the play is set “in a suburb of what could be any middle American city.”

That is, any middle American city beset with severe financial woes, unemployment, abandoned housing and increasingly desperate members of what was once middle America’s middle class.

That’s the backdrop for this Pulitzer Prize finalist, a play that’s been staged from Chicago to New York to London. Now Fells Point Corner Theatre has produced the play’s well-acted, well-directed Baltimore premiere.

Joshua McKerrow

Double-dealing, misunderstandings, disappearing funds, important papers lost or shredded – and a little romance. Could be a typical day at any state capital (give or take the romance).

You can see it all right before your eyes in historic Annapolis thanks to Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s delightful production of the commedia dell’arte classic, “The Servant of Two Masters.”

An 18th century Italian comedy might seem an unusual choice for a Shakespeare company, but this comedy is a good fit for its setting – Annapolis’ Reynolds Tavern, which opened in 1747, a year after Carlo Goldoni wrote “The Servant of Two Masters.”

Margot Schulman

The musical, “Dear Evan Hansen,” is making its world premiere at Washington’s Arena Stage. Ben Platt (“Pitch Perfect”) stars as a lonely, ill-at-ease high school senior whose psychiatrist assigns him to write pep-talk letters to himself -- letters that start: “Dear Evan Hansen.” But when Evan’s first letter winds up in the wrong hands, there are enormous consequences, exacerbated by cyberspace and a web of lies. Theater critic J.

Will Kirk

It certainly sounds strange: An all-female production of “Henry IV, Part One” – a Shakespeare history play in which almost all of the characters are men.

But there’s precedent – a lot of it. There are all-female Shakespeare companies from New York to Los Angeles to London. Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in 1899. So did Eva Le Gallienne in the 1930s. More recently, Helen Mirren starred as Prospero in the 2010 film of “The Tempest.” And Center Stage will produce an all-female “As You Like It” in January.

Casting all women is just the flip side of what went on in Shakespeare’s day, when all roles, by law, were played by men. In a program note for the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s current production of “Henry IV, Part One,” director Tom Delise offers another justification: Historically, female political leaders are nothing new. I’d add that this particularly resonates now, when a woman is the Democratic front-runner for the United States presidency.

Alexander Fox

“Single Women Actively Seeking Sex.” Those words appear on a sign on stage at the Strand Theater’s production of “Saving Myself for Steve Martin.”

“SWASS,” the awkward acronym on the sign, is a support group. Over the next 80 minutes or so, we hear from the group’s newest member. Eve is a 45-year-old, just-divorced mother of an adolescent daughter.

Ann V. Wixon, author of "Saving Myself for Steve Martin," structures this Baltimore Playwrights Festival selection as a series of monthly group meetings – from September through May. It’s a structure that’s rather formulaic and, at times, repetitive.

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