Credit: Illustration by Kyle T. Webster

A baby wailing its first cry as a candle sputters out. A climactic, slow-motion leap that annihilates an innocent and inaugurates a saint. A pregnancy test that reveals an HIV infection. Images linking birth and death were everywhere on local stages this year, from The Canterbury Tales to A Prayer for Owen Meany to In the Continuum.

Or maybe we’re just seeing it that way. On the day we’d planned to start this article, one of us lost a father and the other gained a nephew—a circle-of-life concurrence in which death and birth came at nearly the same moment, and it’s hard as we look back not to see such pairings, among them:

•the passing of actor Paula Gruskiewicz as the New Year dawned

•the death of Source Theatre founder Bart Whiteman just as artists and activists launched a hard-fought (and ultimately successful) campaign to preserve Source’s warehouse stage and bring it back to theatrical life

•the continued waning of government arts funding, and the largesse of Gil and Jaylee Mead—passionate arts boosters who, through challenge grants and simply by example, have led a wave of theater philanthropy unequalled in the city’s history

•the shuttering of the Potomac Theatre Project, for 20 years local theater’s most urgent political voice—its final production overlapping with the debut of a citywide fringe festival alive with energetic and often scabrously political work

•the departure of local television’s last surviving arts critic, Arch Campbell, and the maturation of DCTheatreReviews.com as a valuable clearinghouse for critical opinion, podcasts, photos, and bloggage

•the retirement of Jennifer L. Nelson as artistic director of the African Continuum Theatre Company just as the troupe finally realized her dream of a home base, at the snappy new Atlas Performing Arts Center

There’s more, but you get the drift. Upheaval has rarely been so insistently in the air, and if a few treasures are getting lost in the shuffle, the shuffling itself seems mostly a democratizing impulse. Where Source Theatre, for instance, generally staged just a few productions annually, the arts-development nonprofit taking over its building hopes to keep the place booked to the rafters with shows from multiple companies. And the annual Capital Fringe Festival provides a forum for dozens of troupes and hundreds of actors from D.C. and beyond.

And existing theaters—well, some are bidding farewell to their converted warehouses while others are digging in, in wildly divergent ways. Between them, our two biggest repertory houses have convinced donors to pony up almost $200 million for building projects that seem aimed in precisely opposite directions. Arena Stage’s new Mead Center for American Theater—named for the couple who donated $35 million to the theater—will eventually consolidate the company’s operations under one roof, establishing a new small auditorium for risk-taking and shrinking the capacity of its largest house. The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s soon-to-open Harman Center for the Arts, meanwhile, will expand the troupe’s operation, augmenting its mid-sized Lansburgh Theatre with a larger auditorium so the company can diversify its offerings and capitalize on hits.

And so, change keeps rolling over us. Beckett wrote of giving birth “astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” It felt that way this year. Lots of night…occasional gleams.

The Commercial Houses

With no big festivals tying up its stages, the Kennedy Center had an unusually active commercial year, with three musicals and a half-dozen plays. Management’s decision to invite critics in too soon sabotaged a homegrown Mame that might have gone on to Broadway: The $5 million production played to capacity crowds and had grown so assured by its closing performance that it could well have transferred, if scribes hadn’t reviewed Christine Baranski when she was still tentative. (She’d shattered her knee during rehearsals.) The Washington Post went back and liked it enough to re-review, but the damage had been done. Other KenCen hits included that embarrassingly rich six-hour Chaucer from the Royal Shakespeare Company, a classic take on Godot courtesy of Dublin’s Gate Theatre, and a Twelve Angry Men revival snappy enough that it almost made up for the miscast, overproduced, powder-blue The Subject Was Roses that had earlier cluttered up the Eisenhower stage. Likewise, the current, exquisite The Light in the Piazza, which redeems the Opera House after a ghastly excursion into musical Louisa May Alcott.

The National Theatre managed to stay lit only 15 weeks with fare that—aside from a first-rate Spamalot—would have been just as comfortable across the street at the bus ’n’ trucknfriendly Warner Theatre. Why the folks who book the National can’t arrange a six-month sit-down run for the city’s most commodious commercial house is Washington’s eternal mystery: D.C. is the only major North American city not to have hosted an engagement of The Lion King in the eight years it’s been touring, so it’s not like there’s nothing out there to play.

Ford’s Theatre, without abandoning the history-minded tourists who represent its bread and butter, has been transformed by producing director Paul Tetreault into a place Washingtonians can visit unashamed. The warmly cranky Washington memoir Trying and the ’50s political comedy State of the Union felt right at home in the bunting’d house. And if the Civil War musical Shenandoah didn’t, that was largely because it’s a rickety vehicle to begin with.

D.C. Repertory

Transcendence was largely absent at Arena Stage, but most of the troupe’s attractions were at least crowd-pleasers. Founder Zelda Fichandler returned to the house she built to mount a show (Awake and Sing!) that champions the progressive notions she built it for. A few months later, Heather Raffo’s vibrant, fearless solo show 9 Parts of Desire helped drive home the human toll of the war in Iraq. And if the company’s musicals, even the sweet She Loves Me that put such a pleasant button on the Christmas season, were more competent than thrilling, Arena nonetheless saw the year out nicely with a raucous Noises Off.

Only one of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s five productions in 2006 was actually written by the Bard, but that didn’t keep the city’s premier classical outfit from doing substantial work—rediscovering Don Juan through the eyes of an acerbic servant, raining blood on a (Persian) ruler who led his nation into an unnecessary war, and showcasing the delightful Veanne Cox in a rollicking update of a Restoration comedy. (She’s there through the end of the month, so get thee hence.)

The Studio Theatre scored with every last one of the tough sells on its schedule—a three-hander about a serial killer, a musical about a woman who never smiles, a swift, gripping death-spiral of a show about plane crashes, and a surprisingly sentimental romance from Neil LaBute were all haunting in ways nobody could have expected—while a bit of casting that whetted subscribers’ appetites well in advance (Sarah Marshall as Miss Jean Brodie in her dubious prime) didn’t work at all.

Marshall bounced back nicely at Woolly Mammoth, playing an obsessive-compulsive housekeeper in a Christmas attraction that was otherwise a little too cute for its own good. The Post’s dyspepsia about the troupe’s oeuvre notwithstanding, the Woollies have found their footing since moving into their new home on D Street NW, especially in the soaring design work—that gorgeous moon in The Velvet Sky, for instance—that the space seems to inspire.

Gala Hispanic Theatre, firmly ensconced now in its glamorous new home at the Tivoli in Columbia Heights, took a decidedly uneven pass at the classical drama of Lope de Vega and a passionate look at Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (courtesy of D.C. playwright Karen Zacarías). Across town, an inhumanly expressive bunch of puppets helped Aaron Posner deliver an arrestingly original Measure for Measure; other high points in the Folger Theatre’s sterling season included the superb clowning of Ian Merrill Peakes in a pretty little parcel from Marivaux, not to mention the quicksilver performance that made Stephanie Burden the unexpected star of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

African Continuum christened its new H Street home and kicked off Nelson’s farewell season with a handsome, emotionally rich reading of A Raisin in the Sun; the Washington Stage Guild played structural games with arch plays about plays, while the Theater Alliance crowned a sturdy season with a real gem of a show from a 17-year-old playwright. And if Theater J didn’t fare nearly as well with the three much-ballyhooed premieres it coaxed out of three rather more famous names—Richard Greenberg, Ariel Dorfman, Robert Brustein—well, at least it’s programming ambitiously.

Maryland

Out in Bethesda, Round House served notice of its own ambitions: The company, launched in the ’70s as a rec-department program, joined the League of Resident Theaters, an umbrella organization for the nation’s most prestigious regional stages. And the aspiration wasn’t merely administrative: Blake Robison’s first full year as producing artistic director boasted a gripping midwife drama anchored by a radiant Alma Cuervo, an intriguing missing-memory play featuring three fine performances from Jerry Whiddon, Nancy Robinette, and Kate Eastwood Norris, and that ravishingly strange John Irving adaptation centered on the charismatic, messianic Owen Meany of Matthew Detmer.

The other big Maryland house programmed a calendar that was, if anything, more ambitious—three musicals and two Ibsens—but it turned out little of it was worth shouting about. Come to think of it, most of the genuinely stirring theater on Olney’s campus over the last few years has happened during the summer residences of the now-departed Potomac Theatre Project; the most recent example was this summer’s bracing No End of Blame, and now that Richard Romagnoli and Cheryl Faraone have moved operations to New York, Olney’s programmers will have a substantial void to fill.

Virginia

Signature Theatre served notice this past January, with an Edgar Allan Poe musical that turned out to be more hypnotically eerie style than substance, that its final year in the Shirlington garage would be as dark as it was uneven. The company’s second shot at Sondheim’s Assassins was a grim and voyeuristic triumph, from its disorienting first image to its unnerving conclusion, but a stripped-down, shades-of-gray take on My Fair Lady looked like a jumble of interesting ideas in search of a theme.

The Synetic Theater forces worked with dark materials, too, most successfully with a fast-moving punk-rock Faust that left the rest of their season looking somewhat tame. The Washington Shakespeare Company had a sort of inverse experience, plunging headlong into risky territories (cross-cultural spectacle in an excitingly uneven Death and the King’s Horseman, cross-gender casting in a The Children’s Hour that troubled the Lillian Hellman estate enough that a shutdown was threatened), but scoring highest with its simplest, quietest offering, a deceptively plain drama called Two-Headed about collective guilt and individual passion, transparently staged and commandingly acted.

As for the Commonwealth’s other smallish stalwarts: The Keegan Theatre keeps staging plays you think you don’t need to see again—Death of a Salesman, Agnes of God—confidently enough to remind you what makes them work. Alexandria’s MetroStage went heavy on the musicals (a wonky but well-sung George Sand bio, a half-baked lounge-act confessional about husbands on the down low) and the not-enough-plot-to-be-musicals (tributes to Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole). American Century more or less marked time in its uneven way, serving up an amateurish Spoon River Anthology, an intriguing if imperfect Lillian Hellman rarity, and a respectable if not always galvanizing almost-musical based on a brooding, jazzy John Dos Passos epic.

Small Fry

It’s been our habit with this wrap-up to mention at least a little something about every company whose doors we’ve darkened, no matter how small, but there are now so many that that’s getting tougher to do—and maybe that’s the real trend worth noting in D.C. theater. We’ll miss Potomac Theatre Project’s regular drive-bys with the odd bit of Howard Barker or Sarah Kane, but with Catalyst Theater around to stage a scorchingly funny, swaggeringly confident bit of Brecht on occasion—not to mention the claustrophobically sexy work Didactic Theatre has done with the plays of Rebecca Gilman and Craig Wright, or the gaudy nights the Forum Theatre troops have been making out of shows as challengingly smart as Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker and Václav Havel’s The Memorandum—maybe we needn’t fret about whether personal and political button-pushing will have a place on stages in the nation’s capital. Likewise, maybe we should just be glad we’ve got the increasingly rangy and invariably stylish Rorschach Theatre staging shoestring productions of everything from hallucinatory modern-day fairytales to Tony Kushner satires to 17th-century Japanese classics—in a converted sanctuary, no less.

There’s a company that keeps finding inventive ways to integrate actors with various disabilities (Open Circle Theatre’s Evita wasn’t thrilling, but it sure did know how to move). There’s a company devoted to queer drama (David Mamet’s rollicking Boston Marriage was a splashy breakthrough for the Actors’ Theatre of Washington, which seems to have found its organizational feet after years of instability) and a company called Journeymen, which earned a Helen Hayes nomination in its first underfunded year, devoted to staging substantial theater informed by a Christian ethic. There’s a company, the reliably surprising Solas Nua, that’s done moody site-specific work and introduced Washington to a handful of the most vital writers working in Ireland rightthisminute, and another company, Longacre Lea, whose absurdist offerings consistently send us scurrying to do our homework for fear of looking like idiots.

Longacre Lea puts on exactly one production every year, and ironically enough, Kathleen Akerley, who runs it, has been known to wonder whether there aren’t too many little companies pretending to professional-theater status hereabouts and whether a little supply-and-demand consolidation might not be in order. As it happens, her 2006 show was a streamlined, six-performer stroll through Tom Stoppard’s brainy, funny Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, that three-act philosophical vaudeville about possibility and its negation—a play written for everyone who’s ever wondered about whether one little life has any scope or whether we’re doomed merely to drift, in Stoppard’s piercingly melancholy words, “idly toward eternity.” We were divided on the production’s merits, and we do confess to a little crankiness now and again about how busy our weekends have gotten. But in a year that’s left us acutely aware of how much every moment and every experience can matter, we’re pretty much overjoyed that too much theater is something we’re in a position to grouse about.

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