Grab Your Seat 

From bike races to new faces, Style Weekly theater critics discuss the drama of the season ahead.

click to enlarge Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley” will be presented by 5th Wall Theatre — starring award-winning actors Alexander Sapp and Jacqueline Jones — through Oct. 3 at HatTheatre. The play about two humans and a robot is directed by Morrie Piersol.

Todd Schall-Vess

Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley” will be presented by 5th Wall Theatre — starring award-winning actors Alexander Sapp and Jacqueline Jones — through Oct. 3 at HatTheatre. The play about two humans and a robot is directed by Morrie Piersol.

Such critically acclaimed shows as “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Hamlet” were the highlights of Richmond’s recent stage season. But what happened behind the scenes was just as dramatic.

A cornerstone of the local theater scene, longtime Virginia Repertory Theatre artistic director Bruce Miller, announced plans to retire, Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare finalized their merger under the name Quill Theatre, and new Firehouse Theatre artistic director Joel Bassin firmed up his position by announcing a new season, sort of. To consider what’s next, Style’s theater critics bounce off each other about the new season.

Rich Griset: Everyone is talking about the upcoming UCI Road World Championships. How is the bike race affecting local theater?

David Timberline: Just like they are doing to the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, the bikers seem to be shutting down stages in the city of Richmond. The only shows opening here in mid-September are far afield: 5th Wall’s “Uncanny Valley” at HatTheatre in the far West End (opening Sept. 10) and Virginia Rep’s “The Fabulous Lipitones” out at Hanover Tavern (Sept. 18). It seems like a missed opportunity to me: There will be tens of thousands of out-of-towners looking for something to do after the race action is over. Joel Bassin at the Firehouse has said he would like to capitalize on his downtown location to pull in tourists, but as I write this, no specific plans have been announced.
Speaking of Bassin, what do you think of his Radical Change strategy to rehabilitate the Firehouse?

Griset: It’s an intriguing strategy; we’ll have to see if it works. Instead of staging the normal four or five plays this season, the Firehouse has announced three main-stage shows, but also will host two initiatives called Fringe and Studio. The performance dates for these new initiatives have not been fully announced, which has irked some in the theater community.

With the Fringe initiative, the Firehouse is bringing in a wide variety of nontraditional theater acts such as burlesque, stand-up and magic shows. It seems that it’s hoping to attract audiences that don’t usually attend traditional theater. Audiences have been thinner at the Firehouse since the Carol Piersol fiasco, but they appear to be trickling back. With this new and very different vision, we may be approaching as close as we’ll get to reconciliation between the Firehouse and the greater theater community.

Regarding Carol Piersol, how would you say her company 5th Wall Theatre is doing a year into its formation?

Timberline: Not to get too bombastic about it, but 5th Wall has been a phenomenal, unmitigated success. Piersol’s staging of “The Human Terrain” — a contemporary story about the Afghan war — back in March ranks near the top of my Richmond theater experiences. I’m hopeful that the company can weather the departure of its associate artistic director, Billy Christopher Maupin, and continue throwing out thrilling curveballs. Between 5th Wall, TheatreLab and Cadence, the smaller companies in town are really doing spectacular work.

As I look at the fall schedule, November could be a blockbuster month. Broadway in Richmond can be a snooze — “The Lion King” again, sigh — but November is bookended with dance-manic “Newsies” (Nov. 3) and the resonant “Ragtime” (Nov. 27). Virginia Rep has a great double-header planned with “Gypsy” (Nov. 19) and “This Wonderful Life” (Nov. 27). What shows are you looking forward to, Rich?

Griset: I’m really excited to see the Peter Pan prequel “Peter and the Starcatcher” (Oct. 1) at Virginia Rep. I heard someone once say it was like “Wicked” for boys. I’m a big fan of early David Mamet, so Quill’s “American Buffalo” (Oct. 1) is also high on my list. Cadence’s horse-obsessed “Equus” (Nov. 5) looks promising too. How about you?

Timberline: Casting often determines my level of interest. Scott Wichmann being back in town will drive audiences to “Starcatcher” and “This Wonderful Life.” Longtime local fave Robyn O’Neill will be key to “Gypsy’s” success and McLean Jesse has become a must-see player — her listing among the cast raised my already-piqued interest in “Equus.”

A sleeper hit may be the Richmond Triangle Players’ “Buyer and Cellar” (opening Oct. 7), the fictional tale of a struggling actor who gets hired by Barbra Streisand for a very odd job. Productions of the show have received raves from New Jersey to California, but, as a one-man show, responsibility for its success at the theater will fall largely on the able shoulders of star Daniel Cimo. The dynamic actor made quite an impression on the local scene even before graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2012. His most recent role as a Joan Crawford-like mom in “Psycho Beach Party” was a show highlight.

One of Cimo’s co-stars in the 2011 award winning “[title of show]” Richmond Triangle was cabaret chanteuse Georgia Rogers Farmer. I hear she has a different kind of big gig coming up in October.

Griset: Oh, yes! (Insert shameless self-promotion here) Georgia will be hosting this year’s Richmond Theatre Critics Circle Awards (Oct. 25), which celebrates excellence in the local theater scene. The black-tie event will award theater artists for their contributions to the stage, and all proceeds will benefit the Richmond Theatre Artists Fund, helping local professionals who have fallen on hard times. Given Georgia’s track record of selling out cabarets, this year’s show is sure to be a hoot.

Timberline: Indeed, and the 2015-’16 stage season is guaranteed to generate drama both onstage and off. The faculty at VCU theater faculty has many ties to the local pro scene and the repercussions of the recent shake-ups there — Ron Keller taking over as chairman for David Leong and the departure of Patti D’Beck — have yet to be fully realized. One of the ongoing pleasures of live theater is that, on any night, anything can happen.


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