Even as presidential politics takes over the town, some folks in Washington are focused on theater. Michael J. Bandler reports.
Adding a special glow to the 2000-2001 season is the centenary of the birth of one of Washington's--and the nation's--legendary show business figures, Helen Hayes, on October 10. Known through much of her career as "the First Lady of the American theater," her name has been etched into the cultural life of her native town through the Helen Hayes Awards, which each spring salute the best work at 56 Washington resident theaters (plus touring productions).
The days of Washington as a fixture on the pre-Broadway circuit alongside New Haven, Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia are largely consigned to history. But there are some exceptions: e.g., the recent Kennedy Center engagement of The Dinner Party, Neil Simon's newest offering, preparatory to its opening on the Great White Way. Still, more and more, the region's institutional theaters have picked up the slack--developing plays in workshop or full stagings that eventually move to New York, or presenting new works by Off-Broadway playwrights direct from their premiere runs.
Attention must be paid, at the outset, to Arena Stage, about to begin its golden anniversary season. Arguably, few regional theaters in the country have been more responsible for the development of new plays and playwrights in the postwar years. Certainly none has equaled Arena as a paradigm of respect for actors, dramatists, other creative forces, and (not least!) audiences.
Arena opens its season in late August with a revival of the seminal piece that really put the theater on the map some 33 years ago: Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope. Based on a chapter of early 20th-century history, this late 1960s drama about black boxer Jack Jefferson's battle to establish himself as a world-class champion in the ring--and as a human outside it--riveted audiences in Washington in the midst of the Civil Rights Era, going on to Broadway, a Pulitzer Prize, Tonys, and a sheaf of other awards and recognitions. Directed by Edwin Sherin, it also gave the American stage a pair of actors of boundless talent: James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. Mahershala Karem Ali, an actor who just completed his Master of Fine Arts degree at NYU, has been cast as Jefferson in the new staging--his first professional role. Whether or not, three decades from now, he will be a venerated in the manner of Jones remains to be seen; for now, Arena audiences will have first dibs on this bright new actor.
The theater's founding director, the estimable Zelda Fichandler, left Washington some years ago for a successful second career as chair of the graduate acting department of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. The current artistic director, Molly Smith, who will stage The Great White Hope, is attuned to North American contemporary multicultural drama from her years at Perseverance Theater in Alaska, and the new season reflects these sensibilities. For its U.S. premiere, Smith is bringing to Washington For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, a two-character memory play by Montreal's Michel Tremblay centering on the mother of all irrepressible mothers. Next spring will see the production of Coyote Builds North America, a mélange of dance, music, and Native American storytelling first seen at Perseverance and centered on legends and lore retold by naturalist writer/essayist Barry Lopez. The season wraps up with Constant Star, a portrait in words and gospel music of the late 19th-century educator and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells. Along the way, Arena audiences will harken back to the Harlem Renaissance and the music of Duke Ellington with the staging of Play On!, Sheldon Epps' adaptation of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with a book by Cheryl L. West. They'll also venture to colonial America for Tom Walker, a world premiere by John Strand that melds history with Faustian legend; to New Orleans for a visit with Blanche, Stella, and Stanley as A Streetcar Named Desire is revived; and to the icy face of K2, the world's most perilous mountain, where two climbers test their lifelong friendship as they take the ultimate risk. (Like The Great White Hope, K2, a 1982 drama by Patrick Meyers, originated at Arena Stage. No one who encountered set designer Ming Cho Lee's awesome wall of snow and ice--and Allen Hughes' incredibly subtle lighting--has forgotten them. The return of this two-character probe into the human heart will be most welcome.)
Just across the Potomac, a 10-minute ride from Arena and the Lincoln Memorial, Signature Theatre opens its 11th season with The Rhythm Club, a world premiere that already is booked for Chicago and Broadway and stars a host of Broadway veterans led by Jeremy Kushnier (Footloose) and Lauren Kennedy. This show, set in late 1930s Germany, is about rebellious teenagers who seek escape from political repression through swing music, and it exemplifies Signature's commitment to theatrical experimentation and imagination. The galvanic force is the troupe's still-young artistic director and co-founder, 36- year-old Eric Schaeffer, who is becoming popular with Broadway and West End producers (he recently staged the world premiere of The Witches of Eastwick in London). Besides directing The Rhythm Club, an outdoor revival of Sondheim's Company next June, and another (unannounced) musical in the spring, Schaeffer will welcome Broadway dancer-choreographer Baayork Lee to helm a Signature revival of Gypsy starring one of Washington's homegrown favorites, Donna Migliaccio, as Mama Rose.
This emphasis on musical theater, on Sondheim, and on new work is balanced by a passion for drama as evidenced by Signature's championing of such playwrights as Tony Kushner, Heather McDonald, and Norman Allen. This season, Allen--the company's resident dramatist--unveils In the Garden, a contemporary fable about the impact of a mysterious young homeless youth on an urban enclave. And director Joe Calarco returns as an author with In the Absence of Spring, also a world premiere, glimpsing some catastrophic events in the lives of survivors of a plane crash.
Across town, on the Potomac's banks, the Kennedy Center has a sparkling lineup that begins with the touring production of James Joyce's The Dead, last season's Broadway critical favorite about love, loss, and longing within the framework of a buoyant turn-of-the-century Irish family. More music follows (albeit much more percussive and brassy) with the arrival of the London hit Blast!, as some six dozen trumpeters, drummers, buglers, and assorted merrymakers march, cartwheel, leap, juggle, and twirl their way into audiences' hearts. This perpetual-motion entertainment, en route to New York, will be succeeded by another pre-Broadway production: King Hedley II, August Wilson's drama set in 1980s Pittsburgh. Thereafter, as part of its British Festival next spring, the Center will welcome four English troupes: The Young Vic and Royal Shakespeare Company will offer a co-production of Goldoni's A Servant of Two Masters; Britain's Shared Experience Theatre Company will present its adaptation of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, one in its series of treatments of great novels; and the Almeida Theatre will present Lulu, Frank Wedekind's drama of a spellbinding woman in Victorian times.
Ground zero in Washington, theatrically speaking, is the 14th Street corridor in the northwest sector. Thirty-two years after the conflagrations that devastated the corridor, the area has been rebuilt and theater is at its heart. Three of the premier troupes have enviable reputations based on inventiveness and plain hard work. The Studio Theatre, which recently completed an ambitious two-year "millennium cycle" of 20th-century drama, marks its 22nd season in fine fettle, blending traditional stage pieces with the zany experimentation that has made it a favorite with local audiences. Following last year's acclaimed treatment of Tom Stoppard's Indian Ink (which the playwright himself came to see), the company will introduce Stoppard's newest work, The Invention of Love, a vignette drawn from the life of British poet A.E. Housman, staged by Studio's artistic director, Joy Zinoman. August Wilson's Jitney (his 1970s-era play) and Marsha Norman's Trudy Blue (her take on writers and the characters they create) will also light up the Studio marquee. In a less familiar vein are Vigil, a black comedy about a bachelor and his ailing aunt by Canadian playwright Morris Panych; Nilo Cruz's Two Sisters and A Piano, a political drama about a romance writer and her pianist sister caught up in opposition to the Castro regime; and Velvetville, the latest performance piece by Paul Zaloom, in which everyday objects are put to unorthodox use to make fun of people, politics, and society.
The lineup for the 22nd year of the Source Theatre Company is no less compelling for its quartet of playwrights. Opening with Closer, Patrick Marber's penetrating portrait of four people caught in the throes of love, sex, and betrayal (seen on Broadway last year), it moves from Lee Blessing's one-person drama Chesapeake (a commentary on the confrontation between art and politics against the backdrop of government grants) to Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, which looks at the Old Testament from a gay perspective. Finally, there's American Buffalo, David Mamet's now-classic piece about dishonor among small-time thieves.
The news at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company--currently a 132-seat gem just off 14th Street, N.W.--is that the troupe will be moving to the 7th Street N.W. corridor, the city's next cultural hub, where The Shakespeare Theatre is already in place alongside art galleries, bookstores, and other workspaces. It'll take two years for Woolly Mammoth's new home to be ready. In the meantime, the company will bid farewell to its old home with two productions: George Walker's Heaven, a comedy about a human rights lawyer in conflict with society; and Preaching to the Perverted, an evening of legal and sexual politics, written and performed by Holly Hughes. Then it's off to temporary quarters at the Kennedy Center's American Film Institute Theater for the final three productions of the season: In the Blood, praised recently by New York critics, will introduce Washington audiences to the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, in this case an urban drama about a homeless mother of five. David Bucci's Andromeda Shack, a world premiere, pits two young contemporary women against the mysteries of modern technology. Finally, Woolly Mammoth offers David Lindsay-Abaire's Fuddy Meers, a Groundhog Day-like fantasy about a kidnap victim and her dysfunctional family that was a recent Off-Broadway smash.
Woolly Mammoth moves. Signature unveils a world premiere musical. The Kennedy Center will have a Blast! before Broadway. With all of this and more happening across the downtown Washington scene and into northern Virginia, one of the most exciting developments of the day is the expansion of cultural venues in the inner Maryland suburbs adjoining the District of Columbia. Thanks to the economic boom, the state of Maryland and Montgomery County governments are pouring more than $100 million into various arts-related projects. In addition to expansion involving music and film, two popular theaters will benefit significantly. The Olney Theater Center (located about a dozen miles north of the District) soon will add a new 400-seat complex to its existing 14-acre complex, buttressing its shift in the early 1990s from a summer theater to year-round programming. This fall, Olney--where the likes of Cronyn and Tandy, Bankhead, Swanson, and, yes, Helen Hayes once emoted--features an adaptation of Zola's Therese Raquin, Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot (starring the ever-popular D.C. actress Halo Wines), and, for the holidays, Man of La Mancha.
As for the tiny, eclectic Round House Theatre, nestled in a park-like tract in a residential suburban area, within two years it will transport its vision and its artistry to a new home about 10 miles away that will enable it to more than double its audience to 400. In the meantime, it will continue wending its merry, peripatetic way through contemporary drama. David Marshall Grant's Snakebit, a study of friendship in crisis, will be followed this season by You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Alan Ayckbourn's Woman in Mind glimpses a stifled English housewife who finds a means of escape in her imagination, and Lynn Nottage's Crumbs From the Table of Joy is a relentless encounter with reality as viewed through the racial and social prisms of 1950s America.