The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

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It seems right, somehow, that the most dazzling play of the year was about a titanic battle with despair—and that The Last Days of Judas Iscariot has just wrapped up a revival over at the H Street Playhouse.

Because really: Despair? Now? We feel ya, yo.

Wall Street is like the Wild West, Detroit is about to become a wasteland, and media outfits from the behemoth Tribune Company to City Paper’s comparatively pissant corporate parent are, as Judas’ potty-mouthed Saint Monica might put it, going bank-the-fuck-rupt. It is not, to put it mildly, a good time to be looking for employment as anything other than a turnaround specialist.

Artists? No exception. Galleries in crisis from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, an opera company shuttering just a few miles up the B-W Parkway, D.C.’s chorales singing to half-empty halls this holiday season. And local theater companies? They’ve been retrenching, reprogramming, reaching for answers that’ll help fill the empty seats they’ve just finished adding. (They’ve also spent the last year working through their anxiety-induced melancholia by trotting out more meditations on child sexual abuse than you can shake a dancing Elmo doll at.)

In the wake of the economic downturn, a new skittishness has infiltrated the Facebook status updates of local theater folk; electronic whispers of cuts in budgets, staff, and season schedules—and perhaps even more drastic measures—are getting louder. Meanwhile, the unexpected deaths of a beloved artistic director (Washington Stage Guild’s John MacDonald) and mainstay performers (Bill Hamlin, Robert Prosky) knocked D.C.’s theater community further back on its already rounded heels.

And yet, and yet, and yet: Signs of hope abound.

Well, not abound, exactly. You do kind of have to look for them.

And squint.

The Good News

Where things stand: For seven years, we’ve watched as Washington’s major theaters dreamed big and built bigger, erecting opulent venues (or expanding existing ones) to house increasingly elaborate productions. Budgets, ambitions and coffers swelled, and suddenly, happily, D.C. was a place where a working actor could live up to the title, finding enough steady employment to support herself without spending her days slinging hash, suds, or memos. There are more full-time actors in the city now than ever.

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This period of sustained plenty allowed some companies to achieve new heights. New heights of what, exactly, is harder to pin down. Say what you will about Signature’s Glory Days—no, seriously, go ahead, and let us get a chair—it did make it to New York, however briefly. And the company’s current production of Les Misérables is the most expensive show it’s ever mounted, which is saying something considering that the troupe has lately been basking in the marquee wattage of the likes of Chita Rivera and George Hearn. Given the economy, and the starting-at-$65 ticket price, there’s some seriously confident, high-decibel whistling past the graveyard going on out in Shirlington these days.

And they’re not alone. The Catalyst Theater crew moved on up to the Northeast side, trading its tiny Capitol Hill Arts Workshop space for the more capacious Atlas Performing Arts Center—and a posh-looking production of 1984. The Studio Theater now qualifies as a one-troupe theater boom on 14th Street; the Zinoplex, as we’ve fondly come to think of it, played host this year to everything from bowler-hatted avant-gardists to an operatically tap-dancing Jerry Springer—in a Kennedy Center–worthy run of 13 productions in 12 months. Hell, even scrappy little Keegan Theater found the wherewithal to mount eight shows and to traipse off with one of them to Ireland.

As to art: It was, in the end, a solid year. Take a good look at the sidebar—we liked a hell of a lot more shows than we didn’t, and we loved a happy few (Forum’s electrifying Judas, Metro Stage’s charming musical two-hander Rooms, Synetic’s sexy, spider-webby Carmen). And some of the most disappointing productions—Theater J’s out-there David in Shadow and Light and the Folger’s draggy School for Scandal come most readily to mind—tended to leave us more deeply puzzled than anything else.

The, Um, News That Is Not, You Know, as Good

Now let’s put all that in context. The average price of a theater ticket in D.C.—that’s across all venues, large and small—is now well north of 50 bucks. At the same time, the furious construction of the last decade means that on any given night there are at least 15,000 theater seats in D.C. that desperately need asses in them. When Arena completes its renovations next fall, there’ll be even more.

Understand that theaterfolk are a lithe, adaptable lot, and they do get it. They’re taking steps: discounting tickets more aggressively, pruning casts, corralling volunteers, cadging in-kind contributions from firms that can’t swing donations, building castles out of light when Styrofoam proves too expensive. They’ve also started taking a hard look at their schedules, with—how to say this delicately?—a renewed focus on the bottom line.

Which means, at least in some quarters, a renewed focus on audience appetites. “They want something more fun,” says one local director not known for safe choices. “Hell, I want something more fun. Something theatrical, maybe escapist, maybe musical, but not dreary, bleak, trying.”

In other words: Three plays about child sexual abuse? Not next season, we’ll bet.

That new caution may have already started to show across the city. The Shakespeare Theatre Company followed up a hugely ambitious first season in its new digs by adopting a back-to-basics approach this year—and we’re betting it would’ve been more basic if we’d all known what was coming. (Because really: Ion? We had to look that one up.)

The STC, along with Arena, Signature, Woolly, and Studio, defrayed some production costs by booking previously produced shows from other cities—the dramaturgical equivalent of outsourcing the IT help desk to Bangalore. There’s more to come: Theater J’s plan to bring in 20 actors and crewmembers from Tel Aviv for an ambitious spring production next year has just been scuttled—sorry: “postponed until a later, more financially secure time”—in part because a sponsor backed out. And Arena just dropped Sweet Bird of Youth—Tennessee Williams’ not exactly crowd-pleasing tale of dipsomania, venereal disease and castration—from its schedule, replacing it with a commercial, star-vehicle bio of Tallulah Bankhead. (Yeah, we know: potayto, potahto.)

Didn’t You Say Something Earlier About Signs of Hope?

Consider this: Foundation giving may be drying up, now that Wall Street has downsized everybody’s endowments, and if the number of year-end donation appeals in our in-boxes is any indication, individual giving may be down as well. But D.C.’s industry-of-government employment base and its rapid population turnover help render the region’s economy resistant, in some limited sense, to downturns. We don’t sink as far, usually; we bounce back faster. There’s something to cling to there.

And it’s worth remembering that all of the rapid expansion of the past few years took place despite a presidential administration that has shunned the arts—and the local arts scene—so thoroughly that you can’t help wondering if W. blames the D.C. theater community for John Wilkes Booth.

Change on that front, we hear, is coming. Talk to local producers, directors, actors—they’re practically drooling with anticipation over the Obamas, and their acolytes, and the potential revolution they represent for the local theater scene. Second City redux? Camelot reborn? Whatever: It’s gotta be better than the last eight years.

Then let it be hope we indulge in this week, rather than despair. Michael Dove, whose Forum Theatre produced The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, announced recently that his company’s plans for next fall include a staging of Angels in America—both parts, all seven hours, in repertory for an eight-week run. A safe-ish choice? Maybe, with play and playwright firmly ensconced in the canon. But a bold and expensive one, too, especially for a smallish company in a playhouse on a still-struggling side of Capitol Hill. Dove took his cues, he says, from Kennedy Center boss Michael Kaiser, whose book on arts management, The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations, passionately argues that tough times call for riskier, not safer choices.

Which jibes nicely, we thought, with something else our director friend said about programming for an anxious audience without compromising your art: “Attempting to figure out what those [shows] are—without totally selling out an artistic mission—is a potentially cool challenge.”

There was more, we confess, and it was maybe a touch less optimistic. But we’re going to make the riskier choice, and go out hoping.