J. Wynn Rousuck | WYPR

J. Wynn Rousuck

Midday Theater Critic

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning)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.

photo by Tina Revazi Studio Theater

Every Monday on Maryland Morning, our theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck joins Tom in the studio to share her thoughts on some of the best (and sometimes not the best) stage productions in Baltimore and throughout the Maryland region. This morning, she arrives with her knit hand puppet Chaussette ​(photo below) to tell us about a remarkable new production of the 2015 Broadway hit and multiple Tony-nominee, Hand to God, now playing an extended run at Washington, D.C.'s Studio Theatre until October 2.

 Set in a church basement in a Texas backwater town, it takes us into the world of a Christian puppet ministry, where one puppet becomes the very black sheep of this hapless flock.  The puppet's demonic energies trigger a torrent of angry and lustful epiphanies among the town's denizens, in what Studio Theater calls "a ruthless comedy about sex, sinners and sock puppets."

Photo by Will Kirk/BSF

There are two striking non-traditional elements in the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production of “Julius Caesar.” First, it’s set at the time of the American Revolution. And second, although almost all of the characters are men, women play more than half the roles.

The reason for the changed time period, to paraphrase director Chris Cotterman’s program notes, is that the story of Julius Caesar was distant – but relatable – history to Shakespeare’s original audiences. So why not create a similar link – okay, not quite as distant – that would resonate with American audiences?

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory is dedicated to “recreating the experience that Shakespeare’s audiences would have had.” I can’t say how relevant his audiences might have found the hubris of the title character – the presumptive king. But I suspect it might touch a chord with audiences here.

Photo by harry Bechkes

Now in its 35th year, the Baltimore Playwrights Festival has been going through structural and organizational changes. This summer’s season consists almost entirely of script-in-hand, staged readings, which continue into September.

The only full production is “Crash & Burn, P.A.,” written by festival veteran Robert R. Bowie, Jr., and produced by the Theatrical Mining Company. Bowie is a lawyer and like several of his previous plays, “Crash & Burn” is set in the legal world.

But unlike some of those earlier plays – which tackled subjects ranging from slavery to repressed memory – “Crash & Burn” is a farce, a farce that takes place in the office of a pair of bottom-feeding lawyers. Mark Crash is a low-level criminal attorney; his partner, Mike Burn, apparently prefers dead clients – he specializes in wills.

Photo by Mackenzie Smith

When William Golding's novel "Lord of the Flies" was first published in 1954, it was a sensational but disturbing best-seller. The dark allegory tells the story of a group of British schoolboys stranded on a remote island, who find that in their struggle to survive, the veneer of civilization can prove very thin indeed.

Annex Theater's new production of "The Lord of Flies," purposely departs from the plotlines (and the precise title) of the Golding novel, moves the venue to a high-security animal disease research center, and dives into another dark and troubling issue: how technology can become both a protector and a menace. Adapted by M. Coan, and collectively directed and acted by S. Jacklin, J. Budenz, S. Lamar, and R. Kidwell.,

The Lord of Flies continues at Baltimore's Annex Theater until August 7.

Photo by Laurie Sentman Starkey

Once a week, theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck joins Tom in the studio to review some of the best local and regional theater productions. This morning, she's talking Spamalot, the Tony Award-winning musical based on the 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The satirical and unrepentantly silly tale, based loosely on the King Arthur legend, is directed by Laurie Starkey, with book and lyrics by legendary Python co-founder Eric Idle, and music by John Du Prez. 

Spamalot is on stage now through July 31st at the College Community Center Mainstage Theater, at Cockpit in Court Summer Theater, 7201 Rossville Boulevard, Baltimore, MD 21237.  For ticket information, click here.

The Republican convention gets underway today in Cleveland. Elizabeth Copeland, a Baltimore Republican who is the founder of the Urban Conservative Project, gives a preview.

Photo by Seth Freeman, CATF 2016

For this week's review, our theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck traveled, as she has every year for more than two decades, to Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, host for the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival.  For the Festival's 2016 season, five new plays are being staged in a rotating repertory:   pen/man/ship, by Christina Anderson; Not Medea, by Allison Gregory; The Wedding Gift, by Chisa Hutchinson; 20th Century Blues, by Susan Miller; and The Second Girl, by Ronan Noone.  Notable this year is that four of the five plays are by women playwrights; three of the plays are having their world premieres.  

J. Wynn Rousuck talks with host Tom Hall about some of the standout features of this repertory feast.

[Full disclosure from J. Wynn Rousuck: She and playwright Christina Anderson were fellow students in the graduate playwriting program at Brown University in 2007-2008.]

Teresa Castracane

The Alexandre Dumas classic, The Three Musketeers, has found new  life in the forests of Ellicott City. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company puts a fresh spin on the classic tale of runaway D'Artagnan as he ventures through 17th century France with the legendary three musketeers of the King's court: Athos, Porthos and Aramis.

Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck joins Tom in-studio with her review of the live-action outdoor performance.  

And she waxes poetic about how the experience was, truly, tempest-tossed by the vagaries of weather.

MATTHEW MURPHY

The Tony Award-winning musical production of The Bridges of Madison County is now playing at The Kennedy Center. 

The 1992 book of the same name spent three years on the New York Times best-seller list and was made into a movie in 1995 starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Bridges tells the story of Iowa housewife Francesca Johnson and her whirlwind, forbidden romance with traveling photographer Robert Kincaid. Composer Jason Robert Brown won a Tony Award in 2014 for the musical’s original score.  Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck joins Tom in-studio to give her take on The Bridges of Madison County.

Olney Theatre Center

If you didn’t know that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote “Evita” four decades ago, you might think this musical about the role of celebrity in politics was brand new.

The idea of a celebrity running for office is the overriding theme of Olney Theatre Center’s re-imagined, eye-opening production of this musical look at the life of former Argentine first lady Eva Peron.

Unlike director Harold Prince’s original interpretation of the show as an examination of media manipulation, at Olney we see Evita manufacturing her own fame and using it to catapult her husband, Juan Peron, to the presidency.

A microphone on a stand becomes a major prop in director Will Davis’ inspired interpretation. Commandeer the mike, get into power, win over the people – as Evita does – and you can tell them just about anything.

Photo by Tom Lauer

Godspell is a high-spirited, musical re-telling of the life and passion of Jesus Christ, created in 1971 by a 23-year-old wunderkind named Stephen Schwartz (who would later go on to score many more musical hits), with a book by John-Michael Tebelak. Since its Off-Broadway debut, Godspell has become an iconic and seemingly timeless work, played in numerous community theaters, touring companies and revivals, including a successful 2011 run on Broadway. Now, a new production of Godspell by Cockpit in Court is playing through Sunday (June 26) at the Essex Campus of the Community College of Baltimore.  Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck caught the show and joins Tom in the studio with her review.

Shealyn Jae Photography

In the world of Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere,” there are talking rats, duplicitous angels and immortal assassins.

Most of the action takes place below ground in the London sewers and subway, or “tube.” The supernatural goings-on include a girl who can walk through doors -- where there are no doors.

With so much imaginative material, you might expect the theatrical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel to take its own leaps of fantasy. But ambitious as Cohesion Theatre Company’s efforts may be, in many respects, director Brad Norris’ production and playwright Robert Kauzlaric’s script are too literal an interpretation of the book  (a book that was, itself, adapted from Gaiman’s BBC-TV series).

Jason Gillman

It is the season of love here in Baltimore as the classic play Love Letters by A.R. Gurney takes the stage at the Hippodrome Theatre. Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, stars of the 1970 film, Love Story, rekindle old flames in this charming story of an artist and a lawyer who fall in love through pen and paper.  Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck joins Tom in-studio to give her take on this tale of distant lovers.

Mónica López-González, PhD

A windowless room, a few hardback chairs and a table with a bare bulb overhead. A female police Detective interrogates a murder suspect. The Suspect is also a woman. She was arrested at a party held to celebrate a book about – and supposedly written by -- a prominent, but notorious man.

He’s identified only as “the president,” though whether that refers to the political or corporate world is left unsaid. Now he’s been murdered. The Suspect was his ghostwriter. Was she also his killer? Does she have something to hide? Does the Detective?

Human communication has its limitations. And, when people deliberately conceal information – at a police interrogation, for example – understanding may boil down to a matter of perception.

Perception -- and its flaws -- is the central theme of Framed Illusion. This latest work by La Petite Noiseuse Productions is premiering at the Theatre Project. The one-act play is written, directed and stars the company’s artistic and scientific director, Mónica López-González.

Terry Richardson

    

John Waters celebrated his 70th birthday in April. From his early days as an enfant terrible film maker and the King of Sleaze, he has sustained a remarkable career as an author, a stand-up comedian, a visual artist, and one of America’s most thoughtful observers on the cultural landscape. He is the master of re-invention, and no work is more emblematic of that than Hairspray, which was a movie, a musical, and then a movie of a musical. This weekend, he’ll narrate Hairspray in yet another iteration: a Symphonic Production with the BSO. John Waters joins me this morning to talk about art, politics, and how to keep looking ahead.

Then, WYPR’s Lisa Morgan talks to Andrew Och, who goes on the road with America's First Ladies,and J. Wynn Rousuck previews the Baltimore Playwright’s Festival.

Photo by Rob Sivak WYPR

The Baltimore Playwrights Festival is one of the older new-play festivals in America.  It has produced more than 300 plays since it began in 1982.  Joining Maryland Morning theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck in our studio to talk about the festival’s history, goals, and new directions as it begins its 35th season, are two of its leading lights: Michael Stricker, the festival’s new chair, and Kimberley Lynne, one of its co-chairs. 

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.

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