The Plays Were The Thing: Theater about theater dominated 2011.
The Plays Were The Thing: Theater about theater dominated 2011.

Some of the most celebrated and rewarding movies of all time have been about…the movies. Frederico Fellini’s 8 ½, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night, and David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive all in some way consider the craft, business, or, most frighteningly, art of cinema. They are all as fine as anything the still-young medium has given us.

The theater, predating the advent of talkies, 3D glasses, and computer animation by a couple-few millennia, has always demanded a more robust suspension of disbelief. “Think when we talk of horses, that you see them,” the chorus in Henry V enjoins us, “printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth.” Stage plays are less mediated and illusory than films are, in the fundamental sense that you’re watching live actors perform in real time rather than a series of recorded performances stitched together—with a tiny number of notable exceptions, like Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 single-take movie Russian Ark—from hundreds of individual shots and Kubrick only knows how many takes. For this reason, plays are, on an elemental, physical level, more about themselves than movies tend to be.

It’s probably just coincidence that so many plays—and so many good plays—on D.C. stages this year were directly about playmaking. I’m not prepared to argue that we’ev entered a new age of dramaturgical narcissism. Audiences generally love How To, and in our age of cooking networks, director’s commentaries, and audience talkbacks for everything, it seems only natural that our appetite for sausage might translate at least temporarily into an appetite for sausage-making.

Though most of this local surfeit of meta-plays was of recent vintage, and one was the first U.S. production of a piece by a major British playwright, there were illuminating revivals, too.

Signature Theater Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer’s new take on Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, earned a favorable New York Times review from Ben Brantley (though he preferred the second act over the first) and another from the Washington City Paper’s Trey Graham. The show, which premiered in 1971, concerns an aged group of former burlesque performers who reunite as their old theater is about to be demolished. The production went to Broadway, where it’ll play through Jan. 22. A run at Los Angeles’s Ahmanson Theater, minus star Bernadette Peters, is set to begin in May.

The Studio Theatre was a particularly fertile venue for self-referential theater this year. The highlight of its three-play festival celebrating the work of Irish dramatist Enda Walsh was a new, Matt Torney-helmed production of The Walworth Farce, a psychodrama wherein a malevolent father (played with palpable menace by Ted van Griethuysen) forces his two sons to compete for an “acting trophy” as they live out a grim tape loop, performing again and again a kind of passion play recounting a family tragedy.

A couple of months later, David Muse’s production of David Ives’ Venus in Fur gave us a emotional and mental tug-of-war between a vain playwright and the mysterious, disheveled actress who shows up late to audition for him. Ives gets to work out his agita over the essentially demeaning nature of the audition process (maybe), masterfully orchestrating a gradual transfer of power from the playwright, who isn’t as in control of his life as he imagines, to the actress. She seems at first to be flighty, illiterate, and perhaps angling to sleep her way into the gig, but once they begin reading, it’s the part she nails, with precision and ease that borders on suspicious. Brilliant performances from Erica Sullivan and Christian Conn sealed Venus for me as 2011’s most compelling 95 minutes of theater.

In September, Studio’s U.S. premiere of Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art made a pleasure of watching two old actors rehearse a play for London’s National Theater about an imagined 1972 meeting of poet W.H. Auden and composer Benjamin Britten (two artists who each regarded their homosexuality very differently). Like Walworth, it starred van Griethuysen; like Venus, it was directed by Muse. This was a busy, generously populated play, in an era when one, two, or three-handers seems to be very much in vogue, perhaps for economic reasons. It elegantly embodied the idea espoused by Orson Welles that—I’m paraphrasing here—bad art is often as laborious and exhausting to make as good art. Habit was, to be clear, very good art.

Arena Stage contributed two shows directly about theater and a couple others that are obliquely about it. One of its current offerings, Amy Freed’s You, Nero, concerns a fictional playwright’s attempt to awaken the conscience that he believes—or tries to—might be sleeping inside the notoriously negligent and capricious Roman emperor. What he awakens instead is an even deeper well of cruelty. Pedantry will get you nowhere! Once Nero commits matricide—history has no spoilers, people—Freed doesn’t know where to go, but it’s an intoxicating ride nevertheless. Arena’s other current offering, Bill Cain’s Equivocation, is a knotty hist-fic fantasia wherein William Shakespeare himself is commissioned by King James to write a propaganda piece about the Gunpowder Plot—the unsuccessful conspiracy by British Catholics to assassinate him in 1605.

Back in September, Irene Lewis’s “busily unsubtle” (per Bob Mondello in City Paper) remount of Alice Childress’s 1957 Trouble in Mind depicted, Mondello wrote, a mixed-race company of actors “prepping a well-meaning but risibly stereotyped anti-lynching drama for its Broadway debut.” He was disappointed that the show didn’t go deeper, especially given Arena’s roots as alternative to the 1950s theatrical mainstream and to the segregated companies of the period.

Across the Potomac River at WSC Avant Bard, adapter/director Tom Mallan condensed Shakespeare’s Henry trilogy and its prequel, Richard II, into The Mystorical Hystery of Henry (I)V. The show, concerned mainly with “mead and wenching,” sayeth Mondello, delegated its historical bits to the Harlotry Players of Eastcheap, resident company of Prince Hal and Falstaff’s preferred drinking establishment, the Boar’s Head Tavern, resulting in much playing-within-the-play.

But perhaps the year’s most inventive bit of theatrical navel-gazing came in the outdoorsy, not-usually-contemplative month of June, when Robert O’ Hara’s Bootycandy opened at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. It comprised 10 playlets. The one Mondello found most rewarding took the playwrights of all the mini-plays preceding it in the lineup and plunked them in front of a breathtakingly thickheaded moderator whose hilarious misreadings of their work perhaps colored audience members’ own responses, even as they were (presumably) still forming them.

It was a funny adaptation to the era when audiences’ and even critics’ knee-jerk responses traveled at the speed of Twitter. If The Singularity—or at least a play about it—arrives in 2012, it’ll seem right on time.