7 Thumbs Up: A review of Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England

 

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I shall start in the way of the bad critic in this review of Seven Mammoths Wander New England by clearly stating: I love this play. And not just because one of the main characters is a yogini, like me, but because it is clever, charming and wrangles with the subject of life and death in a way that feeds my soul – with pop culture references, hometown newspaper columns, alternative kinship structures and talking dioramas of ancient peoples.

I also love the thought and care that Lucian Restivo used in directing RTP’s production, giving his actors the space to be authentically vulnerable without falling into the sap trap. Annie Zanetti, Shaneeka Harrell and Meg Carnahan give intrigueging performances in their roles of Dean Wreen, Greer and Andromeda (respectively) a complicated triangle of former and current lesbian lovers living together as one goes through cancer treatments. Special shout out to Carnahan who kept me in stitches as the yogini, providing a true-to-life mirror of some of the slightly woo woo oriented women who choose yoga as a medium for self-transformation. The supporting cast of David Clark, Maura Mazurowski and Ray Wrightstone are hilarious in their roles balancing out some of the deeper moments of the play.

This play is best for people who love thought provoking theatre with a lighter side.

For more information go to the RTP website

 

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Hear them Roar!: The Women’s Theatre Festival

The first thing I want to say about the Women’s Theatre Festival which is touted as 4 Weeks, 4 Companies, Four Fantastic Shows is:

GET YOUR TICKETS NOW!!!

Because if you don’t get your tickets now you will miss out on some wonderful performances by some awesomely talented and obviously hard working actresses who are bringing some provocative plays to life.

And if you do get your tickets now and go to see these plays you will be spellbound by the talent and expanded by the stories presented not to mention support women as badass bosses of masterful theatrical productions.

I have now seen 4 of the 5 shows that are part of the festival. In My Chair, Eva DeVirgilis’ play that was presented at the Theatre Gym under the auspices of Cadence Theatre Company and co-produced by Virginia Rep, was reviewed on this blog several weeks ago and closed last night. You can find my review here.

All of these plays are written by, produced by and performed by and everything else by women.

Over this weekend I planned to see the other 4 offerings, all performed in the Basement operated by Theatre LAB but the Saturday night presentation of Bad Dates, featuring Maggie Bavolack, Directed by Melissa Rayford and Stage Managed by Morgan Howard was cancelled due to Maggie being sick.

But I did get to see The Richmond JCC’s offering, Golda’s Balcony on Thursday night; Message From a Slave, produced by the Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company on Friday night; and 5th Wall Theatre’s offering, Pretty Fire, on Sunday afternoon. They were all thought provoking plays delivered via powerhouse performances brought forth by adept direction and production elements.

Golda’s Balcony is about Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir with an emphasis on the crisis she faced during her tenure when Israel was almost lost to the Arabs. Jacqueline Jones brings “Goldie” to life under the direction of Debra Clinton. I barely remember this incident as it unfolded but the names were familiar and Jones does justice to the hard scrabble woman who made history.

 

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Pamela Archer-Shaw was mesmerizing in Message From a Slave, an interesting amalgam of slave life and life advice. I was particularly moved by the first act where African woman, Chaku describes how she came to be a slave and how she survived her bondage henceforth. Archer-Shaw simply owns the audience throughout both acts, holding us spellbound in her hand as she sings, dances and shares characters with us.

 

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Lastly but definitely least, I was pleasantly surprised by Haliya Roberts’ deft performance in Pretty Fire as Charlayne. I say this because I was unimpressed with her performance in Talk Radio but she really shows some real acting chops in this one. Directed by Carol Piersol and choreographed by Melanie Richards, Robert’s maximizes the use of a single prop and crisp clear movements to define spaces and specific actions. The perspective on racism in this play is pure genius.

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These plays are for anyone who wants to see some intellectually stimulating , kickass, well executed theatre.

For more info and tickets click here.

God redefined: Review of “An Act of God”

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Who knew that we needed a revamp of the ten commandments? Apparently, David Javerbaum who penned An Act of God thought so. In this intermission-less comedy starring Maggie Bavolack as God, with supporting roles of Michael and Gabriel played by Kylie M.J. Clark and Anne Michelle Forbes (in that order), is basically a rant about the concept of a Judeo-Christian God. It is entertaining but the direction and acting are a bit one dimensional.

Intellectual musings and jokes come and go so quickly here that it is difficult to wrap one’s brain around an idea before attention must be redirected to another. Of the three talented actresses onstage, Forbes is cheated out of a fully faceted performance as she is relegated to stage right without much to do but smile prettily as she reads aloud.

I liked the play and would like to have the time to relish the whit with a slower pacing and wider range of performance.

Why you should see it: It is one of the few religious themed plays in the Acts of Faith Festival this year and the other audience members enjoyed it.

Who would like this play: Adults who appreciate humor as a means of making a point.

Click here for more information.

I Saw a Beautiful Show: Once (a review)

 

Once

Every now and again I am really impressed with the whole of a production. Virginia Rep’s production of Once is one of them.

The play is about a moment in time when a broken Irish musician has a chance meeting with a dynamic Czech woman who becomes the catalyst for resuscitating his life. The story is primarily told through a clever script and some rollicking folk rock music. What blew me away the most in this show is the level of proficiency required by the actors. They must be able to act, dance, sing and play a musical instrument very well and all at the same time – which they did beautifully.

Aside from moments when accents seemed to get a bit muddled, I spent an evening of pure bliss in the theatre.

Highlights: Ken Allen Neely as Guy, Katherine Fried as Girl and seeing a kid (Trevor Lindley Craft) whose performance cracked me up in a Live Arts version of Xanadu all grown up and being fabulous onstage with some heavy weight actors.

This show is a gem that shines brightly in the Virginia Rep crown. I put it in my Must See category of shows for this season. Good for ages 10 and up – especially hopeless romantics.

Warning: The title song will get stuck in your head.

For more information click here.

 

Uneven Talk: Talk Radio Review (a love poem to John Minks)

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If you have ever listened to the rants of Rush Limbaugh and the like, you will recognize the switchblade narcissism of Barry Champlain, the host of a night time talk radio show deftly played by Scott Whichmann.

The plot is about Barry and the way he manipulates his audience, sponsors and co-workers with a twisted punishment and rewards system that makes him a radio star.

The shining stars in this production are Roger Price, the sound designer and technician who nails the critical sound cues making the show believable; our beloved, Scotty, who brings Barry to irritating life; and John Minks, who plays a drugged out teenager who gets to meet Barry in person and do a little air time.

Morrie Piersol directed, and I love you, Morrie but this was a little messy. The cast is drastically uneven in ability which would be more distracting if it weren’t for the powerhouses of Wichmann and Minks. In fact, Minks was such a breath of fresh air when he arrived onstage in the second act (both as his character who proves a gentle, balancing foil to Barry’s harshness and a beaming talent among a less nuanced group of supporting actors) that my perspective may have been skewed. At any rate I wanted to get on stage and hug him but waited until after the show like a good little theatre goer.

As an aside: My escort and I agreed that Minks is such a good actor at this point that he could have easily delivered a stellar performance as Barry. Hopefully, he will soon be pulled out of the “teenager” roles he is so often given and promoted to leading man.

This play is for people who can tolerate in your face cigarette smoke and foul language while enjoying some thought provoking theatre. AND for those who want to witness two brilliant performances of the season.

For more information, click here.

Who’s Holiday is this anyway?

 

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Kimberly Jones Clark puts in a tour de force one woman performance as a middle- aged Cindy Lou Who of Grinch fame. The play is funny, definitely adult material filled with holiday cheer in the form of drugs and alcohol and social commentary disguised as humor. It’s silly, yet poignant.

If you can get a ticket this weekend go see it for the pleasure of witnessing KJC do what she does best- the weird roles.

Where: Richmond Triangle Players

Runs: Last weekend happening now

Introducing: 100 word reviews

Hey Y’all! The Culture Maven is back and ready to provide you with short reviews of plays, restaurants, art exhibitions, other types of performance and/or anything else that strikes my fancy for as long as I generally feel like it.

That’s right, I said “short” reviews. Why? Because who really needs to read a long one? You are busy. You want the highlights and lowlights not the prattle-ings on of someone who has to fill a space with a certain number of words.

You know you LOVED my full length reviews in STYLE WEEKLY for years and my WNRN Culture Connections so let’s get re-acquainted. Sign up to receive regular blog posts or just friend me.

Caio for now!

TCM

7 Days in Tibet

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Aurua Tibetan Medicine Billboard in Caojiabao Airport in Xining

A hundred people or so mill drowsily about the baggage claim area at the Caojiabao Airport in Xining, China at 9:45 on a Sunday night waiting for the whirl of the conveyer belt to start again signaling the arrival of more baggage.  Mounted on the wall over the snake-like luggage delivery system hangs a dark red billboard touting  Arura Tibetan Medicines in large yellow characters and Latin letters. Arura with its medical college, traditional Tibetan medical hospitals, pharmaceutical manufacturing company, chain of drug stores and Tibetan Cultural Museum is a big dollar industry in these parts and sponsor of my trip to the Tibetan Plateau. As I feebly stand with the group of seven other Americans that are with me on this junket, the effects of the 22 hour trip from Charlottesville and several bottles of water to keep hydrated on the plane take hold and I am called to visit the loo. Twenty feet from the Women’s Restroom door the sour smell of a Chinese bathroom assaults my nostrils and I recall the defining factor of travel in Asia – the toilets, or better put, the lack there of.

China and the United States are located on opposite sides of the planet and in many ways are as opposing in cultures.  What often is considered polite behavior in China is considered vulgar in the U.S. and vice verse. Value of space, time, material objects and food is dispersed differently making travel in each other’s country a mind-blowing experience. It is rather like turning one’s brain inside-out.

For all the differences between the United States and what is called mainland China, echoes of the traditional Tibetan nomadic way of life still heavily influence the social mores of the mixed Chinese/Tibetan populations on the Plateau. Xining is a bustling city that looks like Seattle with an Asian flair.  It is the capital and largest city of the the Qinghai province with a population just shy of 2,300,000 the vast majority of whom live inside the urban area. In fact one distinction of Xining is its lack of suburbs. Four minutes drive outside of the high-rises and one is amongst vast scrub covered fields with brownish mountains looming near by. Impressive in size by day, the city is best viewed at night when its heart is lit as brightly as Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World – a beacon in the vastness of the dark Plateau.

The view from my room at the top rated, Qinghai Hotel (thankfully, outfitted with Western style toilets in the posh marble bathroom) confirmed the density of the city. As a thread of cigarette smoke from a neighboring room sneaks in through my open window, I am reminded that the Chinese smoke like its 1965. Wafts of cigarette smoke are everywhere – restaurants, work spaces, even in elevators. But that doesn’t stop the residents of Xining from healthy activities like exercising which they do each morning and evening in public parks. The Qunghai Hotel is located next door to a major city park which stretches along the banks of the Huangshui River.  At seven in the morning music and news are broadcast all over the city via loudspeakers mounted on buildings marking the start of the day in a Communist Country.  People then flood the parks to power walk, jog, dance, practice tai chi and chi gong before heading to work. But the Chinese, unlike Americans, are much less serious about exercise and much more physically conservative. The gestures of the 100 or so participants  in the outdoor Zumba class I joined one evening, were so conservative the group more closely resembled small children learning ballet than grown women performing steamy Latin dance moves.

Due to its altitude (Xining is 7,464) the Tibetan Plateau is arid, low humidity and fairly cool temperatures so that even in July high temperatures hover between the mid-fifties and low-seventies dropping into the low-forties at night. So jackets and the consumption of several cups of Yak butter tea, a murky concoction that tastes like liquified buttered popcorn and is served everywhere in this part of China, are necessary for comfort.  Since very little vegetation grows in the climate the main native food sources are Yak (which tastes like a cross between beef and venison) and sheep. Even the Buddhist Monks eat loads of Yak and drink rivers of Yak butter tea dispelling a preconceived notion that Buddhists are automatically vegetarians. “What else would we eat, if we didn’t eat Yak?,” laughed our tour facilitator, Dr. Kunchok Gyaltsen, a Tibetan  Monk.

Most Westerners don’t visit Xining when traveling in this part of China usually heading directly to Lhasa but there are a few places that make it a worthwhile destination. One is the Qinghai Tibetan Medicine and Culture Museum which gives the visitor an idea of how the current culture was shaped. The museum houses artifacts like a complete set of Tibetan medical instruments and diorama’s of traditional nomadic life. The most spectacular display however is The Great Thangka, an impossibly long  (618 meter or 2018 feet)  painted history of Tibetan stories, religion, culture, medicine and art. Brilliantly displayed in a winding glass case, this masterpiece took 400 artists 4 years to complete and if one really examined each frame’s intricate details it might take 4 years to view.

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Entrance Hall at the Qinghai Tibetan Medicine and Culture Museum

Another important cultural site is Kumbum Monastery, one of the six most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries located twenty-six kilometers south of Xining. Once housing thousands of Buddhist Monks, Kumbum which means Image of a hundred-thousand Buddhas, is the birthplace of Lhama Tsong-kha-pa (1357 – 1419), the founder of the Yellow Hat Buddhist sect.  Legend has it that a sandalwood tree grew on the spot he was born with an image of the Buddha on each leaf. There is a small temple and incense burning stupa marking the. spot  Squeezing between multiple gaggles of visitors, through the Great Hall of Meditation where silk fabric hangs like Spanish Moss from the cross beams, I think about the 600 monks in current residence and what is must be like to live in such a huge tourist destination. With hundreds of people visiting daily, Kumbum is hardly the isolated, quiet retreat one might envision. In fact most Monks in the crowds surrounding us were quite well connected to the outside world via the magic of iPhones and iPads, the technology of choice due to its Tibetan language option.

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Tibetan Monk, Dr. Kunchok with i Phone at Kumbum

Since most of my time in Xining was spent indoors in meetings with our excellent Arura hosts, it was a wonderful treat to get outside for a lunch in the grasslands and a visit to the Qinghai Lake. On 100 km trip from Xining to “The Blue Lake” we stopped for a traditional Tibetan meal in a yurt-like tent. Tibetans, like many nomadic peoples, are warm, welcoming people who tote little furniture but who love to entertain. We sat on the grass floor of the tent at low tables, the wind flapping the thick canvas walls and were served course after course of Tibetan fare – in this culture more is more when it comes to food. Among the many dishes served up with Yak butter tea were sweet rice, a  rice dish with sugar,  droma (something like bean sized sweet potato) and Yak butter; fruits, vegetables, corn, dumplings with yak meat, lamb dishes and ingredients to make our own tsampa.  Tsampa is a staple of traditional Tibetan diet made from barley flour, yak butter, water or yak butter tea and sugar expertly mixed with the hands into a malleable dough ball and eaten. It is easy to make, portable and durable making it the ideal food for people on the go. Entertainment is an important part of the culture so after lunch we sang (I think there is a version of me trying to teach everyone to sing a round on YouTube somewhere- not worth watching) and learned Tibetan dance moves then took some time just laying in the long soft grass absorbing sunlight as the constant wind blew over our bodies.

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                                On the Tibetan Plateau

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      Making Tsampa at lunch

A short drive to the Blue Lake revealed a huge azure body of water covering over 1700 square miles fed by 23 rivers and streams. Though it was mid July, the water and the air are still too cool for swimming but given the distance of the ocean it is a hot vacation spot.  Though it is not overwhelmingly touristy, there are some hotels and campsites along the water’s edge in places with vendors waiting to take tourists money like any other resort. My favorite were the photo ops with a Yak which sadly I had to forgo in order to get to our farewell dinner back in the city.

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Blue Lake

The next day we began our travel to Lhasa. Many people think that taking the train to Lhasa is a romantic prospect or that a perceived gradual incline of the train route from Xining will help with adjustment to the altitude. Both of these concepts are a myths. For many Westerners who are accustomed to space and privacy, overnight travel on Chinese trains is grueling. Sleeper compartments accommodate six travelers in stacked bunk beds and are open to the hallway (no doors) so that any passer by has access. Toilets, which are thankfully private, are basically steel basins set in the floor that flush onto the train tracks on more modern trains and simply openings in the floor on older ones.  Sinks are in the hallway so that in the morning there is a symphony of loud hocking and spitting, a Chinese ritual for clearing the throat. In terms of altitude adjustment the train moves along at an almost level altitude until about halfway through the journey then makes a rapid ascent to 17,158 feet above sea level at the highest point then lowers to Lhasa (11, 450 feet above sea level) debunking the gradual climb altitude adjustment theory. 

In my case, the 23 hour train ride was booked for our group in order to see the grandeur of the great Tibetan Plateau and the budding of the Himalayas on the planes but at the last minute I was culled and sent on a train solo. Since the journey began at 10:00 o’clock at night, I saw only a few hours of stunning terrain in the morning hours before succumbing to altitude sickness which had me flattened on my middle level bunk without a view for the remaining 9 hours of the trip.

Arriving in Lhasa, I met Dolma, my charming Tibetan guide and chauffeured via van to the stunning St. Regis Lhasa Resort where I was greeted by name by every staff member I saw and escorted by Anthony, my St. Regis Butler, to a beautiful suite with a garden view.  The contrast between this sumptuous hotel and the stark utilitarian feel of the train put me in a state of mild awestruck shock. The St. Regis is a stellar example of how modern luxury can intermingle with native architecture and decor to create a tasteful, respectful environment to house sophisticated travelers. The design of the hotel itself is reminiscent of the Potala Palace with white stucco walls and dark tiled pagoda roof lines and there are gorgeous views of the actual Potala from the large picture windows in the lobby. Tibetan artifacts, Buddha sculptures, a mural of Lhasa and contemporary Tibetan themed paintings grace the lobby area lending a museum-like feel to the experience. A bath in the deep freestanding ceramic bathtub followed by a deep sleep snuggled between high count cotton sheets were much needed perks following the train ride and critical elements in perking me up for the following day’s sight seeing.

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Devotee turning prayer wheels at the Potala

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               Suite in the St. Regis in Lhasa

In the morning I walked with Tibetan Buddhist devotees around the parameters of the Potala, which for centuries was the home of the Dalai Lhama but vacated by the 14th Dalai Lhama who was exhiled duing the Tibetan uprising of 1959. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Potala is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists and several hundred circumambulate clockwise around the base of the palace each day often spinning the large brass prayer wheels that line almost half of the parameter as they go. I was too late to get tickets for an interior tour as they sell out fast so I headed to Jokhang Temple, a Buddhist monastery and sacred site that was once a palace built for the two wives of king Songsten Gampo in the 7th century. Jokhang stands out in the old part of Lhasa with its gleaming white walls and golden rooftop statues of deer flanking a Dharma wheel. Once the visitor enters through the courtyard, the temple becomes a dusky incense cured maze of chapels lined with tongkas and glass cased statues of deities illuminated with yak butter candles and lamps. People bring white or gold silk katas, flowers and money as offerings to the various gods to fulfill prayers. My last stop before a sumptuous traditional Tibetan feast in the Si Zi Kang restaurant at the St. Regis for the day is the Tsamkhung nunnery located on a skinny back street in historic Lhasa. Not a major tourist stop, it is a charming place with cheerful nuns working away at making jewelry and other small items to sell in the gift shop their major source of income yet holds the distinction of housing a precious statue of Gampo who died in 650AD. This is where I did the majority of souvenir shopping for folks back home, picking up some beautiful handmade pieces for considerably less than shops that line the streets or the open market place.

Needing a day of rest before the long journey back to the states, I spent the last day of my time in Tibet luxuriating at the St. Regis. And when it comes to luxury, the St. Regis knows how to do it right.  A tour of the property revealed that the property boasts 22 luxury guest rooms, 28 private villas and 2 very impressive apartment-like suites complete with stunning views, outdoor decks, full kitchens and dining areas and lavish master suites. A rare shallow pond graces the interior courtyard, the ions and humidity emitted from it supposedly offer healing properties in the dry climate. The gold-tiled indoor pool located in the full-service Iridium Spa also purportedly offers healing qualities. I enjoyed a private yoga session in the Spa’s yoga studio then an excellent hot-stone massage at the to get the travel kinks out of my system before embarking on the 32 hour journey back to Charlottesville, Virginia the next day. I ended my day in Decanter, the Haut-Brisson designed wine bar. Good wine is rare in China, thus the Decanter is place to begin my transition back to Western life. Sitting outside on the garden deck, I sip an excellent Bordeaux and contemplate the joys and challenges of the last seven days. A giggle emerges as I realize a newfound appreciation for Western plumbing that will carry me cheerfully through the experience of an airplane restroom on a long flight in the coming hours.

Would I be willing to return to the so-called rooftop of the world despite the sketchy restroom situation? Undoubtedly, yes.

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Tibetan artifacts in the lobby at the St. Regis in Lhasa

Earnestly fun!

The Free Dictionary defines Earnest thusly:

ear·nest 1

(ûr′nĭst)

adj.

Showing or expressing sincerity or seriousness:
The paradox of Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest  is that there is nothing serious about it- except that it is earnestly mocking the shallow social morays of  late 19th century England. The play includes all of the entangling issues of two young gentlemen using false names wish to marry different young ladies while questions of origin and unyielding loyalty to a first name keep them from matrimony.
As expected from the white Wilde, hilarity ensues.  As expected from the company at American Shakespeare Center, that hilarity is deftly executed.
The entire cast was great but my favorite performance was Susie Parr’s Cecily Cardew (odd- since I am partial to Gwendolyn Fairfax whom I depicted in a High School production.) Parr’s delightful innocence and naivete served the play perfectly, making her mercurial moods believable as they are silly.
This is a wonderfully simplified version of a great classic that everyone should see.
More info here.

Cultural Assessment for 2015

Hello Culture Nuts!

Yes, it has been a long time since my last post and I am late with my cultural review for 2015 … please forgive me, I offer the lamest of excuses- I have been really busy.  I finished a ghost writing project (only 2.5 years of work), and started writing some content for a local University’s many publications while holding down a few other jobs and being a single mom.

OK. Enough. We are all busy, I know.

Even though I barely blogged a word last year, I did get a handle on a considerable amount of culture and this year is proving to be just as fabulous so far.  So here is the Culture Maven’s summary of cultural experiences based on the ticket stubs I saved last year.  Of course I attended first Fridays ( local gallery walk in Charlottesville) a few times, hung out at some cool events at the IX Art Park and spent many hours at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson which is right by my house and were I work part time as a guide- but none of those things had ticket stubs.

So here it is:

Last year I attended:

1 film premier (Cheatin’)

1 television show premier (Mercy Street)

visited one historic home that was not Monticello (Montpelier)

1 classical concert (Behzod Abduraimov)

4 regular films -in a real movie theater (fav: Me and Earl and The Dying Girl)

1 MET opera -on screen at a local movie theater (Madoma Butterfly)

3 National Theater Performances -on screen at a movie theater (fav: Coriolanus – AMAZING!!!)

6 museum exhibitions (fav: Rodin at VMFA)

17 plays – live (fav: Patrick Earl as Hamlet at American Shakespeare Center)

I have already seen some great exhibits and plays this year including, Bad Jews at Studio Theatre in DC and The Other Place at Live Arts here in Charlottesville so 2016 is looking like an extra culture-full year.

So I am offering up this challenge- arts and culture journalists excluded- see if you can top me this year.

All best and belated Happy New Year!

The Culture Maven

 

 

 

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