“You be him, and I’ll be her,” a young woman coos to her mate in Washington Shakespeare Company’s production of The House of Yes. The woman, clad in a pink Schiaparelli-style suit and matching pillbox hat, hands the man a small American flag, cueing their role-play as Jack and Jackie Kennedy on the day the President was shot. She points a handgun at him; he pretends to die. Then they have sex.
The corker here isn’t that the pair happen to be siblings—twins, no less. It’s that their story, the heart of Wendy MacLeod’s sadistically chipper 1990 play, is set in McLean and has never before been performed in a D.C. area theater. Staged political shows—not to mention ones that explicitly address presidential assassinations—are a rarity in these parts, and the show’s producers know they tend to have a tough time with audiences.
“I worked with Theater Alliance here in D.C., where we did several plays about politics,” says director Colin Hovde. “They were great, but they were at times depressing, and we would have very low turnout.”
“D.C. theater tends to be safe, conservative, and risk-averse,” says artistic director Christopher Henley. “There’s a mentality that this is a very parochial place that doesn’t self-examine, that doesn’t analyze the obliquely historical. [But] a risk taken that resounds powerfully among the few who actually do that can be regarded as a great success to me.”
The House of Yes is about the tribal nature of a twisted (but tender) family, though its message could speak to Washington as a whole. The enfants terribles in MacLeod’s script are people who have never heard the word no, who have extricated themselves from the rest of the world and live by self-invented rules. “The House of Yes is a metaphor for a certain kind of insularity,” says MacLeod, who teaches drama at Kenyon College in Ohio. “It is also about a dashing of hopes, a disillusionment that set in with Kennedy’s assassination. I’m not really interested in stuffing theme down the audience’s throat but rather in telling a compelling story that resonates beyond this particular family.”
To that end, Hovde put more stress on the personal than the political in his production. “I feel that the way that I emphasized this permeated all aspects of the production,” he says. “When you focus on the characters’ human side, it shapes the way you cast, and it influences the choices that are made during the rehearsal process. I also opened up conversations with the actors and designers to get everyone connected to these characters as people.”
To sell that notion to potential audiences, Henley postered the play heavily in McLean (where the Kennedys once lived), while also stressing that the story in The House of Yes could be about their friends and neighbors. “There is a movement in our theater community to make more politically charged productions, but from a multiplicity of perspectives,” says Hovde.
Hovde adds that he intends to stage more such shows in the future, though the early returns suggest that political plays remain a tough sell here. “Turnout is starting to pick up a bit, though the weather is against us,” says Henley. “I’m hoping we do really well once the holiday is over and friends and travelers and families are looking for cool non-Nutcracker stuff to go to.”
The House of Yes runs to Jan. 13 at Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington, Va.; call (703) 418-4808.