DCMTA Spring 2020 Staff Favorites: Outstanding Performances in a Professional Production

The performances that made the biggest impact on DCMTA writers before the theaters went dark.

Normally we who cover theater for DC 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.

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

Below are the Outstanding Performances (Professional) that made the biggest impact on DCMTA writers so far this year. Performers are listed in alphabetical order by last name.

Dylan Arredondo (Senator Hirota), Sean Chyun (Sean Harrison), Michael Crowley (Agent Raney), Katie Culligan (Agent Aquinas), Mary Myers (Lori Conway), Reginald Richard (Erik Patterson), Valerie Adams Rigsbee (Elizabeth O’Neil), Shaquille Stewart (Sebastien Dakeyo), Miranda Zola (Dr. Alicia LaPointe-Smith)Museum 2020 at 4615 Theatre
This cast was faced with an exceptional challenge; not only to perform the character with commitment and distinction but to wander among us and be accepted as real human beings. Each one, in their own way, was able to make us believe, in the way all theatergoers want to believe. As we left the museum, this had a new and unusual effect; it was not as if we had seen a play but as if we had undergone an experience in real life. —Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes’s review

Cecelia Auerswald as Mileva Marić
Einstein’s Wife at ExPats Theatre
Einstein’s Wife is set in the early twentieth century in various European locales. It explores the turbulent fictionalized private lives of a young Albert Einstein (played by Sasha Olinick) on the cusp of his fame, and his intense, introspective first wife, Mileva Marić. Matrić is portrayed with inspired politeness and a shimmering ache ‘by Cecelia Auerswald, an actor newer to DC area professional stages.  It is Auerswald who gave the overall production layers upon layers of nuance from the moment she appears in a languid pose, almost rolling her eyes with derision toward Eisnstein.  Over the course of Einstein’s Wife Auderswald generated heat and complicated sorrow, yet with a seen desire to show her love and respect to the young genius Albert Einstein. And even as her partnership with him in making scientific discovers is overlooked, if not mocked.   Auerswald delivered an outstanding performance as the unknown genius Mileva Marić. —David Siegel
David Siegel’s review

Hend Ayoub as Mariam in 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Hend Ayoub as Mariam in ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ at Arena Stage. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Hend Ayoub as Mariam
A Thousand Splendid Suns at Arena Stage
Hend Ayoub delivers a scorching performance as Mariam, the embittered first wife of a brutal shopkeeper, in A Thousand Splendid Suns. Set in Afghanistan, the drama is adapted from Khaled Hosseini’s masterpiece about the degradation of women under Taliban rule.  Ayoub invests the role with a level of passion rarely seen on the stage today. She radiates hope and joy. —Ravelle Brickman
Bob Ashby’s review
Ravelle Brickman’s interview with Hend Ayoub

Justino Brokaw and Andy McCain as Ensemble
The 39 Steps
Annapolis Shakespeare Company
Andy McCain and Justino Brokaw play multiple characters, sometimes switching roles in the middle of a scene. They have an incredible range, beginning the play as theatrical performers in the middle of a show, Mr. Memory and the announcer (“remember that name”). McCain later plays a Cockney milkman who helps Vickers escape his flat, while Brokaw plays a housekeeper who reacts in typical Hitchcockian fashion to an unexpected discovery. They play the spies with appropriate menace and violence, while McCain gives the Professor a psychotic glee in his villainy. As husband and wife hoteliers, they provoke laughter as Brokaw must translate McCain’s thick Scottish accent. At the end, they have a dramatic role, Brokaw keeping a stiff upper lip while McCain kneels on the stage and weeps. — Charles Green
Charles Green’s review

E. Faye Butler as Sister Moore in ‘The Amen Corner’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Scott Suchman.

E. Faye Butler as Sister Moore
The Amen Corner at Shakespeare Theatre Company
E. Faye Butler is over-the-top as the entertaining but back-stabbing Sister Moore, a gossipy rumor-monger. But Sister Moore can belt out a spirit-filled song using the formidable force of her whole body and soul. Butler gives a super-strong performance that leads the entire chorus in revealing the less-than-holy hidden corners of the Black Church. —Ramona Harper
Ramona Harper’s review
John Stoltenberg’s interview with director Whitney White

Cliff Cardinal in various roles
Huff at The Kennedy Center (World Stages series)
In a buzzed, bravura performance, Cliff Cardinal plays multiple characters, shifting from one to another like a charismatic chameleon. Even as Cardinal is enacting mordant, taboo subject matter, there’s an infectious glee in his presence and an irresistible connection with the audience that convey inexplicable optimism and resilience. When he calls us his “imaginary friends” we believe him. And when he has us sworn in by literally shouting out our go-to swear words, we’re absolutely on board for the wild ride. —John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg’s review

Steven Carpenter as Robert and Megan Anderson as Cait
Bloomsday at Washington Stage Guild
Steven Carpenter and Megan Anderson deliver a beautifully matched pair of performances as a middle-aged couple, Robert and Cait, looking back at a moment in time when their younger selves nearly connected. Steven Dietz, the playwright, calls it a play about Dublin. Set on a walking tour of the city, it’s a love story in which past and present collide. Robert has come from the U.S., hoping to rekindle a 35-year-old spark. Cait knows it cannot be. Bloomsday is a poignant tale of love and loss, told by two fine actors. — Ravelle Brickman
David Siegel’s review
Ravelle Brickman’s interview with Playwright Steven Dietz

Evan Casey as Gregory
The Amateurs at Olney Theatre Center
Evan Casey plays Gregory, the simple-minded set designer who dispenses accidental wisdom with childlike delivery. He is, quite simply, enchanting, and holds the audience in rapt attention through a string of well-delivered monologues, stealing our hearts and reminding us why the Fool, that archetypal character who says what everyone else is afraid to say, came to be a staple in theater. I have seen Casey in many shows around town, and to my eye, this performance stands out among a string of laudable performances. — Nicole Hertvik
Nicole Hertvik’s review

Gary DuBreuil as Richard II in ‘Richard the Second’ at Brave Spirits Theatre. Photo by Claire Kimball.

Gary DuBreuil as Richard II
Richard the Second at Brave Spirits Theatre
One of the worst theatrical experiences I ever had was on the West End in London, watching Sir Derek Jacobi preen his way through this Richard—one of Shakespeare’s most memorable royal martyrs.  His penchant for swivel-hipped camp wrecked the show, his glorious vocal instrument notwithstanding.  I say this because DuBreuil’s Richard was so perfectly realized, with all the insecurities and mercurial changes of heart and mind vividly brought to life, that I regret having wasted my time bothering to watch one of the “greats.”  You really must see DeBreuil when he returns in this role next summer, when Brave Spirits resumes its history repertory. —Andrew Walker White
Sophia Howes’s review

Jacqueline Green
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at The Kennedy Center
Jacqueline Green was sensational in both “A Case for You” and “Revelations.” Ailey’s dancers are well-rehearsed and put on a terrific show for all ages. —Carolyn Kelemen
Carolyn Kelemen’s review

Lisa Hill-Corley as Mistress Quickly and Jillian Riti as Doll Tearsheet
Henry IV Part 2 at Brave Spirits
Lisa Hill-Corley (Mistress Quickly) and Jillian Riti (Doll Tearsheet) were a comic duo who tore up the stage.  Mistress Quickly (Hill-Corley) believes Falstaff will marry her; he views her as a convenient source of loans. Riti, as Doll Tearsheet, Falstaff’s favorite prostitute, manages to convey a genuine affection for him. The two women are, surprisingly, best friends. Falstaff treats them both badly and they are in some ways rivals. Yet, strangely, there is no jealousy between them; both continue to adore him. —Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes’s review

Tess Higgins as The Mayor
The Toxic Avenger at Rorschach Theatre Company
Tess Higgins plays the evil mayor of Tromaville, a fictional Jersey town just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Higgins creates a great caricature of the greedy politician who is ready to poison her constituents for cash while still asking for their votes. She does double duty as Melvin’s mother, double casting that allows for a brilliant performance in the Act One closing number, “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore,” in which Higgins channels two characters at once. She jabs, strangles, pokes, pulls—and screlts—as she duels with herself onstage. —Nicole Hertvik
Nicole Hertvik’s review

Mikéah Ernest Jennings as Mark in ‘Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Mikéah Ernest Jennings as Mark
Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre
Mark is a character whose point of view becomes pivotal. He was adopted as an orphan in Kenya by a white couple who owned a farm. Subsequently he was raised in an entirely white community. Mark does not interract with the other characters except to observe them, and in a series of riveting monologues he speaks directly to us the audience. As I watched Mikéah Ernest Jennings’s powerful performance in the role on opening night (when one of his speeches landed with such impact that applause stopped the show), I sensed that his monologues were being played so personally it was as if they were meant for each individual in the audience. They connected unlike anything else in the show. —John Stoltenberg
Beatrice Loayza’s review
John Stoltenberg’s interview with Mikéah Ernest Jennings

John Jones as Adam
Boy at Keegan Theatre
John Jones’s phenomenal performance felt heartrendingly real. They found far more feeling than is in the text. It is as though they had so personally identified with the character’s gender journey that in the intense immediacy of their expression we could not but travel along. In John Jones’s transcendent performance as both the girl Samantha and the boy Adam, this play ostensibly about sex assignment became an indelible journey of the genderless heart. —John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg’s review

Brian Mani in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.' Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.
Brian Mani in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ at Folger Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

Brian Mani as Falstaff
Merry Wives of Windsor at Folger Theatre
As much as any actor worth his salt wants to play this legendary, truly fat cat, it’s rare to find someone whose talent is such a perfect match.  Mani’s gruff, impossibly rotund turn was brilliant, and his attention to detail made it possible to milk more laughs than one has any right to get outta this dude. —Andrew Walker White
Andrew Walker White’s review

Khalifa Natour as Yusuf
Grey Rock at The Kennedy Center (World Stages series)
Yusuf is a man in crisis in a city in crisis.  He startee out as a physicist; now the situation in Palestine has left him as a TV repairman who builds a rocket in his shed.  We learn by degrees that his plans are to sacrifice himself in a grand gesture to teach his nation that anyone anywhere can dream beyond their current state.  Natour brings confidence and an easy grace to his role. He starts out a bit shy, wearing a Mr. Rogers sweater and an easy grin. As a young man, he was a political pamphleteer, a modern-day Alexander Hamilton. He is still a man of passion, of dreams. The actor gently reveals this passion with his eyes, his speech, and his posture. When he quotes in Arabic the spiritual poetry of the Qur’an, he lifts the audience to a place of grace and beauty. —Jim Pearson
Jim Pearson’s review

Kate Eastwood Norris as Mistress Quickly
Merry Wives of Windsor at Folger Theatre
For some reason, even critics seem to think that comic technique is talent wasted; Director Aaron Posner was criticized for “wasting” Ms. Norris’s talents in this role.  But her performance, perfect in every detail, is a reminder that comedy—true comedy—is damned hard work.  She had me begging for mercy every time she entered, and that’s saying something. —Andrew Walker White
Andrew Walker White’s review

Jane Petkofsky as Ileen Van Meter
Rasheeda Speaking at Ally Theatre Company
Jane Petkofsky gives a remarkably natural  performance as the well-meaning but frightened white office manager who supervises an angry black co-worker where interpersonal conflict fueled by racial animus office makes office politics a ticking time bomb. —Ramona Harper
Ramona Harper’s review

Nicole Ruthmarie as Princess Katherine de Valois
Henry the Fifth at Brave Spirits Theatre
Nicole Ruthmarie, having played a variety of supporting roles in Brave Spirits’ repertory of Shakespeare’s history plays, created one of the most unforgettable images of this company’s all-too-short season on the final evening of their run. She brought you face-to-face with Katherine’s status as little more than meat on a hook, a hostage to her father’s will.  Forget any naïve romantic notions you might have had about boy-meets-girl; the look of fear in her eyes, as her husband-to-be goes for the clinch, forced me to forget everything I thought I knew about the “romance” between England and France at the height of the Hundred Years’ War.  —Andrew Walker White

Shayla Simmons as Camae
The Mountaintop at Next Stop
As Camae, Shayla Simmons is a subtle actor to behold, well beyond her ways with words. Simmons says a ton without a word being uttered. Her eyes, her facial expressions, how she plants a hand on her hips, or her very carriage as she stands, or the way she struts a few feet—Simmons is a wonder of being “in the moment” even when just sitting in a chair not saying a word across from Curtis McNeil’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She just connects. Camae is a force that Dr. King describes this way after one particular outburst of invective about the lesser points of nonviolence against white hatred of African-Americans: “Are you Malcolm X?” If McNeil’s Dr. King is a tiring boxer, Simmons as Camae is a bumblebee or a dancer, light on her feet. —David Siegel
David Siegel’s review

Jordan Essex, Tess Higgins, Ricky Drummond, Emily Levey, and Joshua Simon in ‘The Toxic Avenger’ at Rorschach Theatre. Photo by Ryan Maxwell Photography.

Joshua Simon and Jordan Essex as a variety of characters
The Toxic Avenger at Rorschach Theatre
Standout performers Joshua Simon and Jordan Essex play such an assortment of supporting characters that one’s mind boggles at the number of costume changes required. (Costumes by Frank Labovitz). Simon, in particular, captures the audience’s attention as a folk singer and as various townsfolk who suffer a series of nimble dismemberments at the hands of the Toxic Avenger. Essex is hilarious as the Mayor’s booty call, Professor Ken. — Nicole Hertvik
Nicole Hertvik’s review 

Andrea Harris Smith as Nya
Pipeline at Studio Theatre
As Nya, an embattled single mother, Andrea Harris Smith explores every aspect of this complex, occasionally enraged, ultimately lovable woman. We see her in many settings: exasperated with her emotionally detached ex, unwinding with her best friend, brimming over with desperation as she struggles to protect her son. In this compelling role, Smith displays a passion that is never less than regal. —Sophia Howes
Bob Ashby’s review
John Stoltenberg’s column

Dina Thomas as Esther
The Wanderers at Theater J
As the fearless character Esther, a tradition-observing Satmar Hasidic Jewish woman, Dina Thomas is resplendent and generously expressive.  The audience first comes to know Esther as she tries to figure out how she fits in with old ways, while embarking innocently on her wedding night. Warm laughter rippled throughout the theater at the sight and words of the newlywed Esther.  But, then there is this. Esther does not want to be straightjacketed into living the same way as the generations of women who preceded her. She has a vision of a personal awakening to propel her through life. What might that cost her? The answer is something horrific. Thomas’s pain is palpable and oh so human. —David Siegel
David Siegel’s review

Irina Tsikurishvili as The Phantom
Phantom of the Opera at Synetic Theater
From her first unforgettable turn as Ophelia in Synetic’s signature production of Hamlet, Irina Tsikurishvili has been a stunning, dramatic presence on the DC stage.  Her turn here as the title character in Gaston Leroux’s gothic tale had wonderful nuance, and the decision to pair her older self with her younger, ingenue self (played gorgeously by Lotti Guidi, in her first turn with Synetic) created an unforgettable pas-de-deux of the kind that often plays out in our heads, as we contrast our younger selves with what we have now become.  —Andrew Walker White
Andrew Walker White’s review

Heather Velasquez as Consuelo
Celia and Fidel at Arena Stage
Healther Velasquez is Consuelo, the young revolutionary who is trying to replace Celia, her dead rival, in the heart and mind of Fidel Castro. Although Eduardo Machado’s new play is fictitious, its time and place—1980 in Cuba—are real. Velasquez provides a convincing portrayal of someone who adores Castro, but wants the revolution to change. David Siegel, reviewing the performance, salutes her for the “awesome spunk” she disaplays. Interestingly, Velasquez is the playwright’s cousin. Although they did not meet until 15 years ago, when she was 16, she has since appeared in several of his plays. —Ravelle Brickman (whose feature, based on a talk with the actor, will appear when the show reopens)
David Siegel’s review

Mary Jane Wells in ‘Heroine’ at AThe Kennedy Center. Photo by Greg Macvean.

Mary Jane Wells as Danna Davis
Heroine at The Kennedy Center (World Stages series)
Leaving the performance of Heroine at The Kennedy Center, I was in silence. I had just witnessed and taken into my very core a harrowing production about the horror of sexual violence, the absolute terror of being in wartime military service, and the aftermath to both of PTS. I needed time to process all that I had witnessed in the one-actor performance by Mary Jane Wells. There were so many layers to unpack for what is not a relaxed performance for anyone with a beating heart. In Heroine an Army squad leader portrayed by Wells had to make decisions that led to the death of those attacking her Humvee. And there is one enemy death that she was personally responsible for. A death that when it was depicted on stage, many in the audience cringed—or might have missed. It was such a revealing moment. One that she could have omitted, but she did not. She was very brave to have it on stage; it added to the layers of Heroine. She hid nothing of the character or herself. —David Siegel
John Stoltenberg and David Siegel’s conversation about the play

Jaysen Wright in ‘The Royale’ at 1st Stage. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Jaysen Wright as Jay Jackson
The Royal at 1st Stage (2020) and Olney Theatre Center (2019)
This play about a boxer packs so many emotional punches into its compact six rounds, you might not know what hit you. As fists fly, bells clang, terse words burst, and the cast claps out each repercussion, you might feel the pace of your own pulse race. And even if the sport of boxing leaves you cold, you might be moved to shed a tear and cheer. Marco Ramirez’s The Royale was inspired by the life of African American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who is fictionalized as Jay Jackson. In Director Paige Hernandez’s award-magnet, Jay is played by Jaysen Wright, who is giving a full-on physical, vocal, and passion-filled performance of the caliber and charisma that makes stars. —John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg’s column
Bob Ashby’s review of the production at Olney Theatre Center
Nicole Hertvik’s interview with Director Paige Hernandez

Rachel Zampelli as Rona
The Amateurs at Olney Theatre Center
Rachel Zampelli provides another star turn as the droll Rona, slinging one-liners and bringing a note of sitcom-like comedy to the play (The actor playing Shem died of the plague a few towns back, so Rona dons half a beard and plays both Shem and Shem’s wife. Cue the laughter!). Zampelli’s performance veers from hilarious to subtly heartbreaking. —Nicole Hertvik
Nicole Hertvik’s review


  1. Minor correction: in Nicole Ruthmarie’s blurb (Brave Spirits Henry V) you say we didn’t open.

    We did actually and officially open – the production on Saturday evening was our opening night, and the final Histories performance for this year. As you say – we will be back next year!

    -Jacqueline C


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