At a panel discussion on the future of D.C. theater this past weekend, an older woman in the audience stood up and asked three artistic directors why Washington theaters don’t “balance their programming” with more revivals.
“Not a classic,” she said, “But a revival. Something that was big in New York or London once, but I didn’t get to see it because I’m just an ordinary person, I can’t go to London.”
She made an astute point. In recent years, it’s felt like classics (usually reimagined in some way) and new plays (world premieres! regional premieres! D.C. premieres!) have overwhelmed local stages.
Fortunately for this concerned theatergoer—and for all of us, really—Studio Theatre has taken the bold step of opening its 2019-2020 season with a revival, and done a phenomenal job. Folger Theatre, meanwhile, has opened its season with a classic we should all skip.
John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play Doubt: A Parable won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Actress Cherry Jones took home a Tony for her portrayal of a nun running a Bronx Catholic school in the 1960s and led the national tour, which stopped at the National Theatre, and Meryl Streep led the all-star cast of the 2008 film adaptation. Yet there are still people, me among them, who haven’t seen Doubt.
No offense to Cherry and Meryl, but I’m so glad I held out for this suspenseful revival, and entered Studio Theatre not knowing more than the bones of a plot: A conflict between nuns and a priest who may or may not have had an inappropriate relationship with the school’s lone black student.
Belfast native (and former Catholic schoolboy) Matt Torney directs an impeccable production that doesn’t feel dated, despite all the grim news about priest abuse that has come out since this play made headlines. What’s different now is that Doubt feels more like an explainer, offering one plausible reason for how priests got away with molesting children for so many years: The nuns who knew were unable to stop them. It also smartly examines the racial dynamics between the white nuns and priests and the victim’s black mother, who sees her son’s potential and enrolled him in this school in the hopes it would offer him future educational opportunities.
Doubt presents the habit-wearing teachers of St. Nicholas School as cogs in a patriarchal bureaucracy. To complain via the proper chain of command would mean going to the monsignor, the priest in question’s septuagenarian roommate, and accomplish nothing. That’s obvious. What’s unclear is whether Sister Aloysius (Sarah Marshall)—an sharp-witted widow who took vows after losing her husband in World War II—is too quick to believe the worst of mankind.
Marshall stars as the nun crusading against Father Flynn (Christian Conn), a priest who doubles as the gym teacher and religion instructor and occasionally serves the boys Kool-Aid and cookies in the rectory. Suspicious circumstances and “past experiences” fuel her concern, as does paranoia. Marshall has appeared in more Studio productions than any other actor in the theater’s 40-year history. Perhaps I’m biased by her past performances, but she seems too chipper for a Mother Superior-type in a play set 55 years ago. Her speech is clipped, ready with one-liners. When the younger nun, Sister James (an excellent Amelia Pedlow), bemoans her superior for being “too formal,” we don’t agree. Aloysius is a total Scrooge—a highlight of Marshall’s performance is her rant against “secular” Christmas songs—but Marshall’s representation of her does not seem too formal.
Father Flynn, however, wants to see “one of the boys dance around” and play Frosty at the Christmas pageant. Conn successfully pulls off a young-ish priest with a genuine sense of compassion, self-assuredness, and a decent Boston accent.
D.C. audiences last saw Pedlow as the imperious Princess of France in Love’s Labors Lost. In Doubt she loses the attitude but keeps her impeccable diction. That’s crucial since Shandley’s script for Doubt is perfect, with a precise balance of humor, circular-references, foreshadowing, and surprise.
That gorgeous production of Love’s Labors Lost closed out the Folger Shakespeare Library’s theater season last spring. It was consistent with the quality Washington has come to expect from the Folger: Well done Shakespeare with a clever conceptual twist, always grounded in the text.
1 Henry IV, currently playing at the Folger, is the worst production I have seen there in 12 years of D.C. theater-going, and possibly the worst professional production of a Shakespeare play that I have ever seen. The acting is not that bad. Some of it is good, actually. Edward Gero, another local actor of Sarah Marshall’s vintage, plays Falstaff and he’s wonderful. But the dueling aesthetic concepts, the uneven direction, the set design seemingly inspired by laser tag, and cast-off costumes from a Star Trek set, Buffalo Exchange, and Coldwater Creek are headscratchers. Everything was probably very expensive but it looks like an amateur mess.
West Coast freelance director Rosa Joshi needs an editor, and perhaps some more experience. (Besides two shows at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, she’s worked mostly with small theaters in Seattle.) Her few interesting ideas are haphazardly fleshed out. Each scene feels set in a different incoherent world. There’s a prologue and some interludes with stylized fight choreography that resembles Space-Age boxing, but then literal sword fighting on the final battlefield. Yes, the pub scenes in which a young Prince Hal (Avery Whitted) carouses with Falstaff are supposed to seem like a world away from the royal court, but why use flashing neon lights and arcade music and then dress the actors like multicultural hippies? It’s hard to pay attention to the dialogue and storyline—a complicated tale of warring British factions—while you’re trying to discern why one actor is wearing a Sikh turban, a skirt, and an embroidered vest while on the other side of the stage Mistress Quickly (Kate Eastwood Norris) is pouring drinks in a medieval-looking tunic and a tam-tam. Also, if you are going to cast a woman (Jazmine Stewart) in a traditionally male role, as the prince’s buddy Poins, do not dress her like a hooker.
This won’t mean much if you’ve never been to the D.C. theater that specializes in “wordless” Shakespeare, but this Folger production is like bad Synetic. That theater always picks a consistent aesthetic and movement vocabulary for its Shakespeare adaptations, like a goth Macbeth, or their 1920s Twelfth Night where actors dress like Charlie Chaplin and do the Charleston.
I’m not saying Shakespeare can’t be set in some amorphous time or place: It can, but this is not how to do it. May the Folger have better luck in January, when they balance the season with a revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. It’s a revival of a 1979 play that was big in New York and London.
Doubt runs to Oct. 6 at 2001 14th St. NW. $60–$90. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org
1 Henry IV runs to Oct. 13 at 201 East Capitol St. SE. $42–$85. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu