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By my count, on most nights between now and mid-December, some 63 professional actors will be persuasively spouting iambic pentameter to sellout crowds at area theaters. Am I alone in finding that remarkable? You don’t need a terribly long memory to hark back to a time when there were barely that number of classical theater patrons in D.C., let alone actors to play to them.
Presumably, with three Shakespearean productions opening in a seven-day span (four if you count Washington Opera’s Romeo et Juliet), it’s safe to declare that era over and done with. Today, Shakespeare Theatre has 16,000 subscribers and a star(trek)-powered Othello at the Lansburgh Theater to which it could doubtless sell 10 times that number of tickets without breaking a sweat. Seats are becoming nearly as scarce at the Folger Theater, as enthusiastic crowds discover Joe Banno’s imaginatively updated R&J. And across the river in Arlington, an ever-more-confident Washington Shakespeare Company has mounted a Richard III so vividly reconsidered that it will feel fresh and innovative even to folks who think they’ve overdosed on the misshapen king after Ian McKellen’s recent stage and screen turns.
McKellen’s take on the play turned Richard and his cronies into fascists; director Michael Russotto’s approach at WSC makes them seem more like Wall Street wheeler-dealers. Dark-suited profiteers, striding briskly from one hushed conversation to another, they’re young, sharp, and aggressively interested in their own advancement.
They’re also cruel. Give In the Company of Men’s leading man a dark haircut, a withered arm, and a hump and he’d be right at home as Richard, and that’s pretty much how John Emmert’s playing him. With practiced smoothness, he oils his way around the stage, as pleased with himself for popping a balloon with his cigarette as he is for wooing the wife of a man he’s just killed. The guy’s monstrous, but he’s having a ball, and Russotto’s staging invites the audience to have one with him.
His henchmen, particularly David Fendig’s hale and hearty Buckingham and Terry Gibson’s squirrelly hitman Tyrell, are equally soulless, if not quite as quick on the uptake. Sometimes it’s hard not to pity them as they try to keep up with their Machiavellian leader; other times their futile machinations simply become funny. On opening night, the killers were getting plenty of laughs as they went about their dirty work, as was poor old Margaret (Prudence Barry), who wanders into the proceedings every so often, spouting curses and snarling.
Michael Murray’s towering stone columns, Edu. Bernardino’s snappy suits and gowns, and Ayun Fedorcha’s seemingly blood-soaked lighting contribute to a stylishly menacing production. Usually, with a cast this large22 actors playing 30-odd partsthings at WSC get a little shaky around the edges, but here the fringes of the action are as solid as the center. Even the kids who get sent to the tower (Lenora Pritchard and Peter Thomas Mangione Jr.) are sharply observed, one a devil-may-care video-game freak, the other a control-freak king-in-training.
The other royals who oppose Richard are a more sober group, and they’re all smartly conceived. Rena Cherry Brown’s Elizabeth is the sort of caustic mother hen you can imagine marshaling loyalist troops to defend the realm. Eric Schoen’s longhaired Richmond is a pragmatic prince charming with steely nerves.
And by playing grief for keeps, Jennifer Gerdts actually makes sense of Lady Anne’s sensual surrender to Richard after he’s murdered her husband. I’d always thought the scene couldn’t be played except as a joke. Gerdts and Emmert make a tantalizing tease of it, seductive and plausible, if still unlikely. And then, as if to let patrons know just how preposterous it is that the scene works, the instant Lady Anne is out of sight, Richard is literally bouncing on the coffin in delight. Turns out even he didn’t think he could carry it off.
A long black table thrusts, aircraft-carrierlike, toward the audience as the lights come up at Gala Hispanic Theatre, and though two women almost immediately try to domesticate it with a lace-fringed tablecloth, they can’t stop the hostilities it so clearly promises.
Betty and Zule move in tandem as they unfurl the smooth white linen, preparing for a dinner that will never be served. They’re in leaguetrying to end a war between the “dear brothers” of playwright Carlos Gorostiza’s title, Los Hermanos Queridosbut they’re not actually in the same room. In Gala’s spare, stylish production, the table marks the stage divide between their households. Betty (Jorgelina Rolle) sets the left side with amber goblets and upscale china; Zule (Ediza Vega Garrido) sets the right with clear glasses and simpler plates.
Without consulting their husbands, who haven’t spoken to each other for years, they’ve set up this social engagement to negotiate a cease-fire. Betty has even been urging her overbearing, self-righteous spouse, Juan (Hugo Medrano), to offer out-of-work Pipo (Manuel Cabrera-Santos) a job in his factory. Alas, there’s been a bit of miscommunication, and each woman has somehow gotten the idea that she’s hosting the peace parley. So two homes are spruced up, two pots of pasta are cooking, and two husbands are pacing nervously, each wondering what to say when the other walks in the door.
Then, with all of them onstage, two doorbells ring, and a tricky situation gets trickier. Each family, it turns out, has internal issues that its patriarch has let slide while fuming over his brother: a misunderstood daughter in Juan’s case, a too-close-for-comfort family friend in Pipo’s. For the daughter and the friend, flight offers a solution of sorts. But for the couples left behind, this will only compound the pain, adding rift to rift, and further complicating the task of laying familial ghosts to rest.
Written in Argentina at the height of that country’s ’70s military dictatorshipa time marked not just by political acrimony but by serious population flightthe play clearly has a host of nondomestic resonances. So Gabriel García’s staging needn’t labor very hard to establish that ideologies and social classes are as much at war as are the two brothers.
Instead, the director concentrates on crafting images that complement the furies he’s letting loose. Parallels abound, with chessboards occupying places of privilege in both households, and husbands and wives circling each other in near-identical patterns. The brothers were left a pair of high-backed chairs by their parents, and each chair has now assumed a thronelike significance in its respective household. Stern, unyielding Juan, with his economic power and chilly authority, looks regally lonely as he slouches in his, while Pipo slumps impotently opposite him, a court jester whose vision has been clouded by alcohol and anger.
The acting is capable throughout, and the physical productionbacked by Luis Caram’s stagewide arc of revolving mirrored panelsis easily the most elegant that Gala has mounted in years. It’s probably simplistic to suggest that all the company has lacked of late is a strong directorial vision, but the presence of one as confident and crisp as García’s certainly is a tonic. Los Hermanos Queridos marks the director’s return to the 20-year-old troupe after an absence of 18 years and makes abundantly clear why the company had such a strong reputation when it started out.
For those who’ve experienced Anna Deavere Smith’s riveting solo shows, Fires in the Mirror and Twilight, the as-yet-unfinished, intriguingly different evening she’s calling House Arrest: First Edition is apt to prove something of a surprise. As of opening night (which was an hour shorter than the weekend performances that preceded it), the show was a mess, but an intellectually engaging mess. As a meditation on privacy and power, the press and the presidency, it’s still scattered, but as an exploration of Smith’s thought processes and theatrical techniques, it’s just discombobulated enough to be fascinating.
The problem at present is that House Arrest is a shotgun wedding between the documentary-style interviews for which Smith is celebrated and a melodramatic plot line about an acting troupe that hires former felons and then has trouble dealing with the consequences. The acting-troupe device lets Smith juxtapose historical materialthe troupe’s arty school-shows feature Thomas Jefferson, his slave Sally Hemmings, and Abraham Lincoln, among otherswith contemporary interviews. The juxtaposition works about as well as would intercutting news footage with scenes from Melrose Place.
Never mind. If the shifts that occurred during previews are any indication, the show will have changed shape substantially by the time you read this, so the specifics don’t matter much. The script reportedly started out with more than six hours of material, so Smith and her director Mark Rucker have plenty to choose from. After Arena, House Arrest: First Edition is headed for the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Chicago’s Goodman Theater, and Seattle’s Intiman Theater, where presumably its Second, Third, and Final Editions will be hammered out.
In the meantime, audiences have an opportunity to watch one of the most startlingly original artists working in the theater today as she wrestles four years of research into onstage coherence. As in her solo shows, the impersonations of her interview subjectsstammers and tics rivetingly intactare uncanny. What’s new in House Arrestwhich features 14 actors she’s tutored in her method until they can replicate even the breathing of the people they’re impersonatingis how each new subject also reflects Smith.
Actually, that’s wrong. It’s the acting that reflects Smith. Her own tics, always present in her impersonations, are italicized when her material is performed by others. The fact, for instance, of a performer arriving onstage business-suited, skirted, robed, tuxedoed, overcoated, or whatever, but nearly always barefoot, assumes a different visual weight when multiplied by 14. So does the earnest, aggressively forthright vocal delivery necessary to make confidences uttered in an intimate restaurant or den carry to the back row of a 500-seat theater. Smith wrote the book on inhabiting real people onstage. Her work is almost archaeological in its precision and grounded enough that if she wants to insist on physical connection with the stage floor, who’s going to say her nay? But if she has taught her interpreters well, that means it’s hard not to see her in what they do.
When, on opening night, Smith showed up briefly to inhabit Bill Clinton herself, the difference was instructive. This time there wasn’t a filter, which is not to say she seemed more like her subject than, say, actress Judy Reyes seemed like Anita Hill, only that mannerisms that fit the other actors like a glove fit Smith like a second skin.
You’d never mistake her for the president either in person or on the phone. The voice is higher, its froggy rasp less insistent, and physically she resembles him not at all. But she gets his posture, his conversational engagement, his practiced sincerity. And as she’s repeating what he told hernothing remarkable really, just a riff about the intrusiveness of the press and his own view of himself as one of those “Baby Huey dolls that you punch and he comes back up”you understand why the man is such an effective communicator. The words may be resistible, but the persona isn’t. And she’s captured the persona.
When the other actors do that, House Arrest comes pretty vividly to life. But on opening night, it only happened when they were sitting under captions indicating whose words they were speaking. Asked to impersonate White House press secretary Mike McCurry, Alec Mapa can communicate whole worlds of frustration just by hunching his shoulders and leaning on a podium. Other actors brought barefoot James Carvilles, Dee Dee Myerses, and Peggy Noonans to sniping, snarling life with similar skill. But when these consummate actors were asked to impersonate actors, their every move seemed suddenly false. Has to be the writing, I mumbled to myself. Has to get better.
And so, those new to Smith’s work may want to wait a while to see what she’s up to. For folks who’ve seen her previous shows, however, and who are even remotely interested in peeking at the process by which she puts them together, what’s currently onstage at Arena’s Kreeger Theater will be both tantalizing and instructive.CP