There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
I’m always reluctant to go back at the end of each year and attempt to contrive some Unified Theory of Everything We Saw on Stage. 2014 was an outlier in recent D.C. theater: Although choosing a favorite show isn’t difficult—Signature Theatre’s Aaron Posner–directed production of Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers, a clear-eyed romance between two writers, was the only one to lure me back a second time—there was no single new play that seemed to deservingly dominate the conversation the way Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play did in 2012 or Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, both at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, did last year.
Woolly, our standout company of the last half-decade, started the year on shaky footing with Jackie Sibblies Drury’s wrongheaded, fake-improvised play-about-playmaking We Are Proud to Present…, which 10 months later still stands as the most self-absorbed and offensive thing I’ve ever seen from a professional company. That’s a sort of accomplishment, anyway.
Instead of one knockout new play, we got some surprisingly robust adaptations and revivals and regional premieres, clustered in the spring and early summer: In April, Studio Theatre did Water by the Spoonful, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer-winning 2012 drama set in part in a digital chatroom for addicts in recovery who try to help one another stay clean. Though it sounds gimmicky, seeing their messages and texts projected behind the seven actors acknowledged the creation of a new (and highly vulnerable) intimate space—now that our devices have come to feel fused with our minds and bodies—and made the show a richer, more immersive experience.
In May, Forum Theatre’s remount of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which the company had previously staged in 2008, made news when its Pontius Pilate, Frank Britton, was mugged and assaulted in Silver Spring after the show’s opening-night party. Though hospitalized (and the beneficiary of a public giving campaign that raised more than $55,000 to cover the uninsured Britton’s medical expenses), Britton was able to return to his role before the show’s run ended. All that tended to overshadow how well-performed Guirgis’ metaphysical courtroom-drama-in-purgatory was, featuring a career-best performance from Julie Garner as Judas’ public defender.
Spooky Action Theater surprised me with Kwaidan, Izumi Ashizawa’s adaptation of a collection of Japanese ghost stories. Performed processional-style throughout the Universalist National Memorial Church— where Spooky Action Theater usually confines itself to the basement—the show felt appropriately haunting and otherworldly.
The shows I’m most anticipating for the first half of next year all appear to be more grounded in corporeal reality than that. My five for 2015 includes two world premieres, one local premiere, and one I want to see just for the cast:
Life Sucks (Or the Present Ridiculous)
Theatre J, Jan. 14-Feb. 15
This world premiere is another Chekhov mashup written and directed by Aaron Posner, whose Stupid Fucking Bird (as directed by Howard Shalwitz) at Woolly Mammoth was an eloquent remix of/rebuttal to The Seagull. This time, it’s Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya that’s getting revised and perhaps refuted. Why has Posner, whose oeuvre as a dramatist has thus far consisted entirely of adapted works—he’s translated for the stage stories by Mark Twain, Ken Kesey, and David Foster Wallace—chosen to return to Chekhov? Well, aside from being the best play on a D.C. stage in 2013, Stupid Fucking Bird was also a massive hit that earned an original-cast remount last summer. Posner directs this time, and SFB’s Kimberly Gilbert and Naomi Gibson are both taking a hall pass from Woolly Mammoth to join the cast, which also includes the great Eric Hissom, a frequent Posner collaborator.
Rapture, Blister, Burn
Round House Theatre, Jan. 28-Feb. 22
Round House’s production of Becky Shaw last year was my late introduction to the work of Gina Gionfriddo, a playwright whose intimate understanding of sensitive-guy hypocrisy and the many flavors of rage quickly made her one of my favorites. (Lately she’s been putting these gifts to use for the Netflix series House of Cards.) This 2012 play contrasts two women, a sought-after academic and a homemaker, examining how each one yearns for a piece of what the other has.
Folger Theatre, Jan. 27-March 8
As adapted by Peter Oswald, Friedrich Schiller’s 19th-century tale of the 16th-century power struggle between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Sc\\ots is a showcase for two powerhouse performers. It’s hard to see how director Richard Clifford could do better than to cast Holly Twyford and Kate Eastwood Norris as the dueling monarchs. Cody Nickell and Nancy Robinette are in it, too. If you’re choosing based on the strength of the cast, this one has to make your list.
Arena Stage, March 6-April 26
This world premiere by John Strand and directed by Molly Smith has had playgoing politicos curious since it was announced early in 2014. Ed Gero, the venerable star of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s two-part Henry IV this year among many, many other august roles, will don the robes of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in this piece derived from the firebrand jurist’s published opinions. Scalia’s dissent in the high court’s 5-4 decision to strike down part of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 will be one the play’s key subjects.
Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike
Arena Stage, April 3-May 3
Posner continues his exploration of Chekhovian themes with this D.C. premiere of cranky absurdist Christopher Durang’s 2012 comedy, which has had a number of regional productions since it won the Tony Award for Best Play last year. The piece interpolates characters and situations from The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard. Two-fisted Washington City Paper theater critic Rebecca J. Ritzel was unmoved by the production Baltimore’s Center Stage offered last spring—which starred Theatre J regular Susan Rome—calling it “a play that tries very hard to pander the theater people. Too hard.” Posner has proven again and again his gift for making heady material feel accessible and raw, so maybe he’ll have better results.
Photo by Teddy Wolff