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New stages got built, Sondheim got celebrated, and the Marksist era got under way at the Washington Post’s Style section—affirmative news in a year otherwise dominated by shrinking corporate largess and skittish audiences.

To hear theater administrators talk, their seasons were affected more by events offstage than on-. As if a stock-market dive, fears of terrorist attacks, conservative antipathy for the arts, and the threat of war weren’t enough to prompt dips in underwriting and attendance, D.C. suddenly had snipers prowling its environs this fall to make potential theatergoers nervous about looking any further for drama than their TV sets.

Somehow, though, stages muddled through, even prospered. The Kennedy Center attracted international reviews and sellout crowds as triumph followed triumph in its Sondheim Celebration. A new, squarish Round House Theatre opened in Bethesda to similarly SRO business, and for the first time in decades, D.C. theater aficionados had a professional stage to attend northeast of the Capitol dome.

Moreover, the Post finally made a hire after putzing around for the better part of two years without a theater critic to whom it was willing to grant either tenure or stature. Nelson Pressley had been filling in ably while Lloyd Rose took a year’s sabbatical, and when she returned just long enough to pack her things, he got to pinch-hit for an extra few months, the whole way through the Summer of Sondheim. Still, his bosses—who are hands-on enough to spike reviews when they don’t like show titles—never let him make the position his own.

Their new hire—Peter Marks, late of the New York Times—brings a sense of enthusiasm and discovery to a reviewing staff that has always invested most of its critical capital in appearing jaded. Of course, Marks really is discovering things—when he sees such familiar local lights as Floyd King, Nancy Robinette, and Halo Wines, it’s for the first time, so the qualities for which they’ve long been popular hereabouts hit him with the impact they once had for the rest of us. Arena Stage’s comfort with in-the-round staging and the Shakespeare Theatre’s relaxed way with Elizabethan speech seem similarly remarkable to him and—in the sort of clear, authoritative prose that sells tickets—he’s remarking on them. Thus has Marksism, at least in its initial stages, revolutionized Style. A heavy schedule of Broadway openings (Marks’ new editors could hardly hire him away and not rub the Times’ face in it) has him leaving D.C.’s off-off-KenCen stages to stringers more often than one might wish, but that’ll likely change as he discovers the intriguing work that’s so often done in Washington storefronts and Arlington warehouses.

As for art? Well…

Commercial Houses

If Michael Kaiser spends a decade at the Kennedy Center and never produces another thing, fans of musical theater will still be grateful to him for the 11-week Sondheim Celebration that began his tenure. As one Broadway-ready production after another attracted reviews, producers, and fans from as far away as Singapore to a marble box that no longer seemed quite such a poor relation of New York’s Lincoln Center, it was hard to believe that so much had been accomplished with so little. The KenCen’s investment (roughly $10 million, a bit less than a single Broadway musical generally costs these days) bought festival artistic director Eric Schaeffer six star-studded revivals in repertory and an astonishing bonus import from Japan, not to mention high-profile cabarets by Barbara Cook and Mandy Patinkin, a kiddie show featuring area youngsters (Into the Woods), a concert-hall interview with the composer himself, and employment for a slew of D.C. performers who didn’t look remotely out of their league playing with the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Baranski, and Lynn Redgrave. It was possible to cavil about less-than-felicitous individual contributions (Sean Mathias’ direction of Company, Blair Brown’s Desiree in Night Music) and still come away thinking that the overall experience was both exhilarating and unlikely to be equaled anytime soon.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that about as many people saw Elton John’s pedestrian Aida in its six weeks at the Opera House as saw all the Sondheim shows combined, and that the KenCen earned rental fees on the Disney show’s run, as opposed to having to find $3 million above ticket revenues to make the Celebration possible. Kaiser’s risk-taking and fundraising acumen—among his coups, Catherine Reynolds’ $100 million gift this month for building a KenCen plaza atop an adjacent spaghetti bowl of roads, and Alberto Vilar’s $50 million for programming and arts-management training—allow the center to be adventurous in ways it hasn’t been since Roger Stevens stopped running things decades ago. In fact, the city’s other theaters almost have to find programming niches in areas that the KenCen’s positioning as “the nation’s” arts center gives shorter shrift. Its proportion of mainstage theatrical attractions specifically aimed at African-American audiences, for instance, reflects national demographics more than those of majority-black D.C.—which is one reason audiences so often find plenty of August Wilson, Zora Neale Hurston, and Thomas W. Jones II at such venues as the Studio Theatre, Arena, and MetroStage.

The National Theatre managed to stay lit for almost six months, which is something of a recent record, though God knows it’s still pathetic. That the most appealing touring house in the nation’s fourth-biggest theater town should sit empty for so much of every year ought to mortify the Shuberts, who book it. At least the shows (from this year’s pop-kitsch sensation Mamma Mia to 1965’s pop-kitsch sensation Man of La Mancha) were crowd-pleasers, and next year the schedule should pick up by default when the Opera House goes dark for renovations.

The Warner Theatre booked its usual mix of concerts, inspirational blaxploitation, and bus-and-truck Broadway, while Ford’s Theatre settled for reruns of its Hot Mikado and Christmas Carol franchises, and a disappointing I’m Not Rappaport that was advertised as a pre-Broadway tryout but played longer here than it did in New York.

Downtown Repertory Houses

Arena had an up-and-down year, as has been its wont lately, with the admirable (a roof-raising Polk County) pretty much canceled out by the dreck (smarmy, sitcommy On the Jump). A specially commissioned piece, Anthems: Culture Clash in the District, struck many observers as little more than cliche-ridden cultural tourism, but the company seemed surer-footed when approaching classics by O’Neill and Moliere, and it was blessed with fortuitous timing on occasion. Just hours, for instance, after a press conference in which Trent Lott detailed the conservative apologist’s position on 1948 racism, Arena laid out what might be termed the apologetic liberal’s 1949 position, in South Pacific. The juxtaposition would have meant more, let’s note, if the production hadn’t rushed through its anti-prejudice anthem, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” as if it were something to be gotten past on the way to the love songs.

The Shakespeare Theatre designed the hell out of the Bard, but it couldn’t seem to get much resonance from his scripts this year. The troupe actually fared better with star vehicles—for Kelly McGillis (The Duchess of Malfi) and Elizabeth Ashley (The Little Foxes)—that were not penned by its eponymous playwright. Foxes also provided a scene-stealing Nancy Robinette with an opportunity to do some of the best work of her distinguished career.

Studio had a strong, stable year, filling its two regular houses with everything from Greek tragedy to British comedy to African-American dramedy, then opening a newly acquired adjacent space with a sweetly batty musical. The company also imported the showiest of the drag shows that clustered in D.C. this year: The feverishly divine glamour goddess Lypsinka’s bubble-gum-pink lounge act, The Boxed Set, was a certifiable hoot.

Up the street a bit, the Source Theatre played host to a different sort of gay attraction when it rented its space to Making Porn, one of a whole parade of shows this year to feature full-frontal nudity. The troupe’s own shows included a terrific Oleanna, featuring Holly Twyford as a student who has a few surprises for the main man in her life. (Twyford went on to play a variation on that theme a few months later in The Shape of Things at Studio.) Source’s two-year cohabitation with the Washington Stage Guild finally proved too tight a fit for both troupes, so WSG split for more expansive/expensive pastures (the space Living Stage had just vacated a half-block away) while awaiting construction of a home it can call its own, near the Convention Center.

At the somewhat more upscale AFI Theater, which is about as prime as theatrical real estate gets in D.C., the Woolly Mammoth and African Continuum Theatre Companies shared both space and upticks in attendance. For ACTCo, which has been growing in assurance during several nomadic years, the KenCen location brings credibility; for the Woollies, who’ve been there a couple of years now, it’s just one of many stops. (Audiences also journeyed to Source to see the cabaret insanity of Kiki & Herb in Pardon Our Appearance and to the D.C. Jewish Community Center to catch the city’s first 9/11-themed drama, Recent Tragic Events.) The wildest Woolly discovery was spoken-word artist Sarah Jones, whose Surface Transit was the most riveting solo show to play the KenCen since Lily Tomlin spent a month in 1988 there searching for signs of intelligent life.

Theater J had the sort of respectable, sober, intelligent year its subscribers have come to expect of it, with shows concerning horrors and reckonings of various stripes. The Stanislavsky Theater Studio spawned a subgroup—Synetic Theater—to focus more on its trademark physical theater; the larger entity maintains its emphasis on “synthesis of the arts.” Gala spruced up the Warehouse Theater on 7th Street while waiting for construction to begin on its new Tivoli Theatre home on 14th; the Folger Theatre mounted a jewel-like She Stoops to Conquer that delivered more laughs than any other comedy in 2002; and the Theater Alliance was abruptly struck with pioneer spirit and blazed a theatrical path where no troupe has gone for better than half a century: Northeast. Count the $100,000 makeover of a onetime auto showroom into the 100-seat H Street Playhouse among the year’s more heartening downtown surprises.

‘Burbs and Beyond

Less heartening, at least at first glance, was the long-anticipated opening of Round House’s new Bethesda home. The 400-seat house feels too wide, too gently raked, and has no real divide between audience and stage, all of which made it seem cavernous and warehouselike in its first two productions. That didn’t keep audiences from flocking, however, and by the third show—a smartly observed Cherry Orchard pitched so far forward it seemed to be falling into the audience’s lap—at least one designer had figured out how to make the place feel like a theater. The troupe said goodbye to its old home in grand style with intimate ghost stories in The Weir and local author Ernie Joselovitz’s briskly fictionalized theatrical history lesson, Shakespeare, Moses, and Joe Papp.

A bit farther outside the Beltway, the Olney Theatre did a professional job with mostly middlebrow material, while Rep Stage in Columbia seemed to be trying to turn itself into Round House North, producing shows (The Swan and The Belle of Amherst) with which the Rockville house had had great success.

Across the river, the Washington Shakespeare Company spent an aggressively adventurous year, deconstructing a pair of comedies by its namesake playwright but scoring more strongly with rarely produced absurdist puzzlers by Albee and Genet. Busier-than-thou Eric Schaeffer took time off from celebrating Sondheim at the Kennedy Center to shepherd a more raucous breed of musical comedy to success at his own Signature Theatre. Hedwig and the Angry Inch brought Rick Hammerly back to town in high style, shortly after his withdrawal from a show at nearby MetroStage forced its cancellation. Happily, MetroStage recovered later in the year with a crowd-pleasing African-American take on Chekhov called Three Sistahs, which extended and extended for months.

The Keegan Theatre took a well-received Glass Menagerie overseas—but overreached elsewhere with an inept mounting of Violet, a countrified musical about racism, and an ill-advised co-production with the Fountainhead Theatre of the ’50s William Inge potboiler Come Back, Little Sheba. The American Century Theater didn’t do much better with the same author’s Picnic, though the troupe’s 2001 celebration of Danny Kaye was popular enough to return for a couple of reruns and had a brief stint in Manhattan. The Horizons Theatre extended its audience-interactive In Good Company franchise with actors impersonating sexual icons, and Teatro de la Luna scored again with its annual festival.

As always, the action was spiciest on the fringes, where such variously sophisticated itinerant troupes as Cherry Red Productions, Purchased Experiences Theatre Company, the Scena Theatre, Actors’ Theatre of Washington, and Project Y Theatre Company generally had little trouble living up to the aggressively attention-getting titles (Shopping and Fucking, Seven Blowjobs, Dingleberries, Naked Men Singing, Savage/Love) of the works they tended to produce. As always, their aim to startle, challenge, and surprise stood in stark contrast to the reassurance proffered by many of their more affluent, subscription-based theatrical brethren.

Oddly, though, the most shocking moment of the theatergoing year occurred at the Kennedy Center—a sequence in the breathtaking Medea brought to town by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre: Fiona Shaw—sweatered and skirted, and, except for the murder in her eyes, looking every inch the housewife next door—headed out, knife in hand, to slaughter her children, and as she did, the sound designer filled the theater with an ear-splitting roar of the sort that sometimes accompanies similar moments in horror movies. On opening night, two teenagers sitting behind me let out screams also appropriate to horror movies, and the audience braced for the tension-releasing laughter that would surely follow. But 30 seconds later, when the stage’s glass wall had been splattered with blood and the ear-splitting sound had ceased, the girls weren’t giggling; they were sobbing convulsively, as was most of the rest of the crowd, affected by a millennia-old story in much the way audiences must have been affected when it was new.

It was as if, in an unguarded moment, possibly because they were in a place where they usually find amusement and distraction, a few hundred patrons had been blindsided—and had allowed all the grief of the past year, all the tension and societal anxiety they had been sublimating in public, to emerge at once. Any year with a moment like that counts as a good one. CP