Six continuous months of Shakespeare, musicals galore (we count 28), mimes and puppets everywhere you looked, plenty of prominent African-American work, and an almost absurd amount of absurdism—by most measures, audiences saw a diverse array of theater strutting and fretting its hour upon D.C. stages in 2007. The only ones who seemed to miss the parade were the dead white Europeans long considered essential by theatrical sophisticates.
To wit: Two hundred plays at more than 40 professional companies, and not one was written by Strindberg, Ibsen, Molière, or Brecht. Should that bother anyone? Probably not. All were represented a year earlier, and at least a couple will no doubt be represented again in 2008. But let’s take this opportunity to note that if their absence this year is an aberration, it’s of a piece with the way the city’s stages approach the spiritual heirs of those playwrights. Put simply, if it wasn’t originally written in English, it’s not found on a lot of Washington stages. Is there theatrical ferment in Eastern Europe? An explosion of feminist work in Latin America? Burgeoning political theater in the Arab world? The answer in each case is yes, but in Washington you’d hardly know
it unless you read theatrical journals or foreign newspapers.
There are local exceptions to the prevailing insularity—a visiting troupe popping in for five performances at the KenCen, a Dostoevski adaptation, Gala Theatre’s Hispano-classicism. But the gleaming new auditoriums that companies have been acquiring in the last few years are mostly serving up a menu narrow enough in its representation of the rest of the planet to fit Bush administration tastes: a spritz of Europe (mostly meaning Britain and Ireland), and everything else homegrown. In most world capitals, D.C.’s theatrical diet would be regarded as hopelessly provincial.
That said, it would be hard to argue that the city’s stages are proving timid as they unveil their new palaces. Not with the Harman Hall’s burnished African cherry-wood framing rarely produced Marlowe, the soaring spiral staircase at Signature Theater leading to hip-hop poetry slams and an Israeli Hamlet, and the deco splendor of the rehabbed Bethesda Theater embracing I Love You, You’re Perf—well, OK, that one is timid. For the most part, though, Washington stages aren’t shying away from new work or unfamiliar playwrights as they work to pay off new mortgages.
There have been setbacks—companies suspending seasons, shifting venues, or going into hibernation. It sometimes seems that no sooner does a new theater open than an old one gives up the ghost. Granted, audiences are trading up when, say, an $89 million arts complex opens and a warehouse space closes, but that doesn’t make the impending loss of the Warehouse any easier for the small troupes it’s served. Similarly, new benefactors will doubtless step forward, but they’ll never replace philanthropists Gilbert Mead and Noi Chudnoff, both of whom died this year. Their fondness for theatrical intimacy and their engagement with the work of local artists made them as responsible as anyone for the growth and continued health of the 14th Street theater corridor.
As for art? Well…
Fiona Shaw buried up to her neck and somehow still plucky in Happy Days, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner spewing venom and clawing at each other in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, ingénues coming musically of age in Carnival and My Fair Lady: Sounds like 1966 at the theater museum, no? But it was merely how our culture-palace-on-the-Potomac weathered a year in which Broadway wasn’t sending out big touring shows. The straight plays wove more persuasive spells than the musicals this year at the Kennedy Center—Shaw’s turn in the Beckett, particularly—but for sheer eye-popping spectacle, it would be hard to top the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Coriolanus, with that majestic rusting wall that broke with a metallic groan.
Elsewhere, the attractions were at once more contemporary and more fleeting. There’s still a qualitative difference between the bus-and-truck musicals that play the Warner and the more opulent shows across the street at the National, but with the National’s runs of such Tony winners as Spamalot and Avenue Q shrinking to just two quick weeks, they become nearly as reliant on their pre-sold titles and big TV-ad budgets as the one-week stands at the Warner.
While the arrival of the Bethesda Theater (a one-time cinema converted into a playhouse) ought to cheer us, it’s hard to get too excited by the dumb off-Broadway comedies and insipid off-Broadway musicals its owners have decided to book—the offerings are basically brain-dead after-dinner distractions for the suburban set.
Downtown Rep Houses
Speaking of insipid musicals, the appalling The Women of Brewster Place inexplicably fared well enough at the box office that Arena Stage is apparently talking about sending it on to New York rather than back to the drawing board. Hard to imagine it succeeding in Manhattan without a big boost from Oprah, who presumably has better things to do at present, like promoting the politics of hope. Other Arena offerings ranged from the ambitiously overreaching (33 Variations) to the sublimely puppet-infested (Mabou Mines’ Peter & Wendy).
The biggest news at Shakespeare Theater was architectural—the opening of the impressive Harman Hall. With the focus on getting that new flagship launched on time, it’s perhaps understandable that the work this year was uneven, with a scattered Titus Andronicus and an intriguingly jittery Hamlet among the interesting disappointments. At least there was that outsize, fur-swaddled Richard III to admire.
Studio Theatre hit the mark more consistently, with a dead-on drag diva and a touching-hilarious study of one woman’s desire to be a diva as high points in a season that also featured solid Stoppard, heartbreaking Fugard, and not one but two striking shows (The Pillowman and Shining City) from contemporary Irish bards. That, it’s worth noting, is the second year running that Studio has trumped Arena as the essential D.C. destination for serious devotees of contemporary drama.
Woolly Mammoth, meanwhile, went its characteristically Woollyish way, staging a rollicking quick-change riot that required one of D.C.’s top comediennes to pick a fight with herself, a realpolitikal parable involving both torture and a talkative hostess’s delicate washables, and a world premiere—Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone—in which a bereaved mother immolated herself on her backyard grill.
The African Continuum Theater Company lost both its founding artistic director (Jennifer Nelson) and her replacement (before he’d even started), and Ford’s Theatre lost its home (at least for a bit, while it’s being renovated). The better news for both: A co-produced revival of August Wilson’s Jitney, mounted prior to those developments, that was easily as memorable as the regional premiere of Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. Here’s hoping both outfits will be operating at full strength again in short order.
The folks at the Folger Theatre had a decidedly middling year, starting with the musical that wasn’t: A country-fried Merry Wives of Windsor called Lone Star Love opted to try its luck on Broadway instead but fell off its horse after a Seattle tryout. Among things the Folger could actually control, there was a Tempest that didn’t stir much of a storm and an As You Like It that was only intermittently likable.
Across town, the Washington Stage Guild scored the rights to a tightly bowed show called Opus, about vaguely soap-operaish shenanigans among members of a world-famous string quartet; audiences responded enthusiastically enough in the spring that the Stage Guild put the show up for an encore in the fall. Theater J did the same with Pangs of the Messiah, Motti Lerner’s scorching, sensationally acted ensemble drama about a family of settlers in the West Bank.
South of the Border
Alexander Strain, whose confused-innocent character had a lot to do with how piercing Pangs felt, played a decidedly different kind of damaged as the title tyrant in Caligula at the Washington Shakespeare Company, across the Potomac in Crystal City; the range of his work this year proved (if he hadn’t already) that he’s both a fearless actor and gifted enough to earn the chance to keep proving it. You’ll want to keep an eye on him. As for the company, WSC staged a Shakespearean “premiere” (a stage play based on one of the Bard’s narrative poems) alongside an all-nude Macbeth that earned international attention—and extended its run, despite mixed reviews; the troupe capped its year with a couple of brisk contemporary comedies produced in repertory, Kafka’s Dick and The House of Yes (see Artifacts, page 42). They’re still running, as it happens, and they’re smartly staged, so get thee hence.
If only Metro Stage’s blissfully addled Musical of Musicals: The Musical were still running; we haven’t laughed so hard since the last self-referential, show-tune-saturated theatrical parody (Signature Theatre’s Urinetown, of blessed memory). Come to think of it, it was a hell of a year for hilarity at the expense of actors, directors, designers, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, what with Woolly’s sublime She Stoops to Comedy and Arena’s notably nutty Noises Off. We hereby declare that theaterfolk should mock themselves more often, if only to save us critics the trouble.
The Virginia company that usually owns the local musical-theater market—that would be Signature, which opened its sparkly new Shirlington home in 2007—made its biggest splash this year with Merrily We Roll Along, a legendarily difficult inside-the-biz show written decades ago by its unofficial patron, Stephen Sondheim. You’d think that would be good enough, but the company had hoped to make a bit of contemporary noise as well, with two musical premieres (Kathie Lee Gifford’s brand-new Saving Aimee and the U.S. debut of The Witches of Eastwick), neither of which turned out to be terribly thrilling. Happily, Signature also made words dance, and dance sing, with a poetry slam and a pretty fabulous dancical at year’s end.
At Keegan, we couldn’t help but note that in general, quality varied in inverse proportion to prop and costume budgets. Leaner, character-driven shows like Alone It Stands showed an energy and intensity that, in overproduced shows like 1776, got lost in the dust cloud thrown up by all those powdered wigs. Uneven—hell, downright jagged—casting continued to plague the noble efforts of the American Century Theater, meanwhile, but we’re not quite ready to write them off.
More buzzworthy: the Synetic Theater troops, who managed to make sense of Macbeth without Shakespeare’s words and to make Poe’s House of Usher seem even more disturbingly alluring on stage than on the page. For those two hits, we’ll forgive them their half-baked pudding of A Christmas Carol. Even visionary companies need to raise money.
With our pages shrinking, and more shows than ever within the District’s borders, we’ve reluctantly had to limit our trips out to Olney Theater Center and the Columbia, Md.–based Rep Stage—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Though some of Olney’s limper work put us in mind of its straw-hat days, the troupe can still pull out the stops for a sturdy Fiddler on the Roof, for instance, and Rep Stage’s Bach at Leipzig was enough of a treat that one of us saw it for strictly recreational purposes.
Round House, the other big Maryland outfit, spent much of its year in literary territory, whether with novel adaptations or theater biographies notable for novelty. If the strategy that didn’t often return results as transcendent as its 2006 A Prayer for Owen Meany, there were certainly rewards to be had from its exploration of 20th-century luminaries, from Elia Kazan to Orson Welles.
Dunno what we’d do without the itinerant troupes that flit from warehouse to storefront, keeping the scene lively with fare ranging from absurdly ambitious to ambitiously absurdist. For Shakespeare (especially this year, with that six-month citywide festival devoted to him), D.C. audiences can head for all those classy new auditoria we’ve been building of late, but for Ionesco, Genet, Sartre, Orton, and eccentric new work from folks whose surnames aren’t so familiar, we generally turn to the scrappier companies—Solas Nua, Longacre Lea, Scena, Rorschach, and the like.
Intriguingly, this off-off-Kennedy Center crowd has been migrating from found spaces to actual theaters, playing in fewer church basements as larger companies have moved on up to classier digs and freed up midsize venues. Gala spent a season or three in the Warehouse, for instance; with the company firmly in residence at the Tivoli now, its old home has played host to lots of smaller troupes. (Who’ll need to find another space when the Warehouse’s long, slow fade to black finally ends—but we digress.)
One possible hope: When Arena opted to spend a small fortune remodeling a Crystal City cinema as its interim home, part of the logic was that when the troupe moves back into its freshly renovated Anacostia waterfront campus in a few years, the Crystal City house will have been firmly established on the theatergoing map with thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Arena subscribers. Maybe some of that absurd ambition—and some of those feminist Arab-born Eastern European theatrical bomb-throwers—can find a home over there.