Theater Commentary: Sampling Metro D.C. Stages at ATCA08

By Caldwell Titcomb

The American Theatre Critics Association, which moves around the country for its annual convention, this year spent a recent week in the nation’s capital and environs. The area houses 75 theatres – 43 in the District of Columbia, 17 in nearby Maryland, and 15 in the contiguous portion of Virginia. From the many current offerings, the attendees, thanks to two large buses, were able to sample ten presentations.

A photo of Kimberly Gilbert, a performer in “Measure for Pleasure,” one of the raunchier DC shows on display for the ATCA voyagers.

DAY ONE: Black actor/singer/writer Daniel Beaty gave us a taste of his new play entitled “Resurrection” (Arena Stage, estab. 1950). Beaty, now 32, received a B.A. in English and music from Yale and an M.F.A. from the American Conservatory Theatre, and won a 2007 Obie award in writing and performance for his solo play “Emergence-See!,” in which he portrayed 43 characters. Collaborating with Beaty on “Resurrection” is Haitian-American musician Daniel Bernard Romain, writing for violin, bass, and piano. The work has three sections: ‘Affirmation,’ ‘Crucifixion,’ and ‘Resurrection.’ The cast calls for six black males aged 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 – including a precocious child scientist and the head of a megachurch – whose separate lives all converge on one fateful evening. The world premiere will be a co-production of the Arena Stage (29 August to 5 October) and Connecticut’s Hartford Stage (16 October to 16 November). [Arena Stage was the first racially integrated theatre in Washington, and the first theatre outside New York to win a Tony Award (1976). Work is underway for a huge three-theatre complex to be named the Mead Center for American Theatre, with an opening scheduled for the fall of 2010.]

Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” was mounted (in repertory with “Julius Caesar”) by the Shakespeare Theatre Company (estab. 1985) in its new 775-seat Sidney Harman Hall, which opened last fall. The show was helmed by Michael Kahn, who has been the troupe’s artistic director for 22 years. James Noone designed the set: three vomitoria separated by two long staircases. The text, with its often brief 42 scenes, is almost a movie script, and Kahn has kept the show moving with cinematic speed. At an early performance, Andrew Long (Mark Antony) injured his Achilles tendon and had to withdraw from the production, causing Kurt Rhoads to move up from the small role of Ventidius for the rest of the run. Rhoads is an experienced Shakespearean, and acquits himself well enough, especially in his comments on the death of his wife Fulvia. The real Cleopatra was in her late twenties when the play begins, but there aren’t many actresses of that age who could tackle the role successfully.

I missed Dame Helen Mirren’s lauded portrayal in 1982 when she was 36, but I saw Clare Higgins’ and Richard Johnson’s superb London performances in 1993 when she was 37. The current Cleopatra is Suzanne Bertish, a veteran of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre. At 54 she is clearly old for the part, but she captures the chameleonic facets quite admirably while knitting them into a convincing whole. What impressed me most was the extraordinary energy exhibited by the entire cast.

Suzanne Bertish as Cleopatra and Andrew Long as Mark Antony get jiggy in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of “Anthony and Cleopatra.”

DAY TWO: The Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (estab. 1980) concentrates on “new plays that explore the edges of theatrical style.” Its current production is David Grimm’s “Measure for Pleasure,” which the playwright designates “a Restoration romp.” He wrote the central role of Will Blunt for Michael Stuhlbarg (now playing Hamlet in New York’s Central Park). Its 2006 premiere had the aforementioned Suzanne Bertish as Lady Vanity Lustforth, and the show was directed by Peter DuBois, incoming artistic director of Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company. The bawdy work is set in 1751, and the text is full of rhymed couplets, laced with plenty of George Carlin’s seven notorious words. Already in the second scene, Blunt is being fellated by Molly Tawdry, a 20-year-old male prostitute parading as a woman. He has some amusing lines, such as when he later says, “I only ever read two books in my life, and one of them was a book of matches.” And there is a tip o’ the hat to “The Importance of Being Earnest” and its famous handbag. Act I is adequately shaped; but in Act II Grimm lets the play go utterly out of control, with Sir Peter entering with an enormous false phallus, two gods with full erections, a Venus fountain streaming water from her vagina, and Dame Stickle brandishing a dildo. Under the direction of Howard Shalwitz, the Woolly Mammoth artistic director, the production is generally lively.

René Auberjonois plays Molière’s hypochondriac, Argan,
who just loves his pills.

Molière’s “Le Malade Imaginaire” (“The Imaginary Invalid”) was the dramatist’s last play (1673), in which he himself, mortally ill, played the title role at the fourth performance and died a couple hours later. André Gide thought it “the most novel, the boldest, the most beautiful” of the playwright’s oeuvre. It’s not really that, but I have a special fondness for it since, under my uncle’s tutelage, it was the first play I read in French at the age of 14. And here it is again, presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in its Lansburgh Theatre under the direction of Keith Baxter, who is using the adaptation that Alan Drury made for Britain’s National Theatre in 1981. Drury tightened the text and introduced a few unfortunate terms (“stupid bitch,” “piss-poor pisser”). But he has underlined that the work is not just a comedy but a “comedy-ballet” by including quite a bit of music and dancing (some of the former by the actual original composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier).

In a delectable comic turn, the titular hypochondriac, Argan, is played by René Auberjonois. Argan wants his daughter Angélique (Gia Mora) to marry a physician so there will always be someone to look after his unending parade of supposed ailments. But Angélique is in love with Cléante (Tony Roach, an M.F.A. graduate of the ART Institute at Harvard). The eventual solution is to induct Argan himself into the ranks of physicians. Alas, this is done in a hilarious ceremony conducted in phony Latin, which is omitted here. I do miss the fourfold refrain that Argan spouts as the prescription for every ill: “Clysterium donare,/Postea seignare,/Ensuita purgare” (“First an enema, next a bloodletting, then a purgation”). But this is a minor quibble about a highly amusing show.

DAY THREE: We visited the 15-acre Olney Theatre Center (estab. 1938), located in Maryland between Washington and Baltimore. In 1999 the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab was built. In 2005 the Center opened a new 429-seat mainstage along with a new amphitheater named the Root Family Stage at Will’s Place. In the mainstage we attended the regional premiere of “Stuff Happens” by Sir David Hare, written in 2004 for London’s National Theatre (the Boston production in 2007 won an Elliot Norton Award for outstanding fringe offering). The work combines actual verbatim material with imagined dialogue to depict the political and diplomatic run-up to the current war in Iraq. Since what we saw was only the second preview, we are enjoined from printing an appraisal of the show. I will just say that on the previous day there was a panel discussion entitled “A Theatre Career in D.C.: Why We Came, Why We Stay.” Participating in the panel were three persons associated with “Stuff Happens”: Jeremy Skidmore, the director; James Kronzer, the designer; and Rick Foucheux, the award-winning actor who plays President George W. Bush. [The Olney Center also oversees the National Players, America’s longest-running touring company (since 1949). And in 2007 it inaugurated a formal educational Institute.]

Rick Foucheux plays President George W. Bush in the Olney Theatre Center production of “Stuff Happens.”

Joy Zinoman is the founding artistic director of The Studio Theatre (estab. 1975), which has grown to occupy a three-building, four-theatre performance complex. It emphasizes modern works (Caryl Churchill, Neil Labute, Sir Tom Stoppard, August Wilson, William Finn, David Mamet, Martin McDonagh, Tony Kushner, Suzan-Lori Parks, Chay Yew), with a total of some 170 productions by more than 130 playwrights. Professional training is offered by The Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory. In the company’s Metheny Theatre we saw a production entitled “This Beautiful City,” performed by a New York group called The Civilians. In this case the city was Colorado Springs, of which we were shown an aerial view with Pikes Peak in the background (the inspiration, as the text correctly told us, for the “mountain majesties” in Wellesley professor Katharine Lee Bates’ celebrated poem “America the Beautiful”).

Based on The Civilians’ interviews with local residents, the core of the work is a sort of docudrama about evangelical Christianity, supported by Michael Friedman’s music (for keyboards, bass and drums, joined occasionally by one actor’s guitar). Stirred into the mix was periodic matter about the New Life megachurch headed by the Rev. Ted Haggard until he got entangled in a major sex-and-drug scandal. It was hard to figure out what was serious and what (if anything) was satirical. The show had eleven segments, which had no shape and just proceeded one after another in seemingly random order. Under Steven Cosson’s direction, the disappointing material was well delivered by the Equity cast of six: Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Matthew Dellapina, Brad Heberlee, Stephen Plunkett, and Aysan Celik (an alumna of Harvard’s ART Institute). Better luck next time.

DAY FOUR: We went to the Rosslyn Spectrum Theater in Arlington, Virginia, for the production of “Carmen” by the Synetic Theater (estab. 2001), headed by artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili, a native of the Republic of Georgia, where he earned degrees in film and acting in Tbilisi before moving to the United States. The company’s name comes from combining the words synthesis and kinetic to produce a “dynamic synthesis of the arts.” Drawing on various traditions around the world, the troupe fuses movement, text, poetry, music, dance and drama to yield what it calls a “revolutionary” result. This production has nothing to do with Bizet’s famous opera, and was directly inspired by Prosper Mérimée’s novella as adapted by director Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger. The work takes place in and around an industrial cage shaped as a polyhedron. The cage has a top to permit a violinist (Rafael Javadov) to spend most of the time playing above the actors. This set, along with the striking costumes and crucial props, was designed by Anastasia Ryurikov Simes.

The actual actors number thirteen, and they have to be incredible gymnasts to execute all the swinging and leaping required of them. The titular Carmen is played by the director’s wife Irina (who also did the choreography). And their son Vato portrayed the animal in the climactic bullfight. Ben Cunis is the love-smitten José (and also fashioned the stage combat). Original music and keyboard support is provided by Konstantine Lortkipanidze (the only complaint is a noticeable hum in the loudspeaker, which a technician should have been able to eradicate). I have never seen anything remotely similar to this dazzling piece of theatre.

Irina Tsikurishvili having an intense moment with what looks like a mummy.

The Signature Theatre (estab. 1989) moved last year from downtown Washington to a new two-theatre, $16-million complex in Arlington, Virginia. Under Eric Schaeffer, its artistic director for 18 years, the company has largely concentrated on Broadway-level musicals (including 15 Sondheim productions) and new plays. In 2001 Schaeffer saw a Chicago tryout of the Kander & Ebb musical “The Visit,” with book by Terrence McNally, which never made it to New York. Schaeffer secured the rights for the east coast premiere, which stars Chita Rivera and George Hearn.

The source is Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play, in which the Lunts bade farewell to the stage (1958-60). In it, Claire Zachanassian, the world’s richest woman, returns to her native Swiss town and offers it a billion dollars if it kills Anton Schell, who had impregnated and betrayed her when they were young. Directed by Frank Galati and choreographed by Ann Reinking, Rivera, Hearn, and the rest of the 23-person Equity cast, plus a 13-piece orchestra, give it their best. But the show just doesn’t elicit the growing horror achieved by the Lunts and the other straight-play productions I’ve seen. It is indeed a great play, but the musicalization by Kander & Ebb is some rungs below what they provided for “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” Sometimes there are good reasons out-of-town shows fail to reach Broadway.

Chita Rivera as the red woman of mystery in the musical version of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s ‘s play “The Visit.”

DAY FIVE: The Round House Theatre (estab. 1977) is located in Maryland, with a 400-seat mainstage in Bethesda and a 150-seat black-box theatre in Silver Spring. It specializes in new plays and adaptations of novels (“Crime and Punishment,” “Treasure Island,” “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” “Lord of the Flies”). Having been exposed to the leftish slant of “Stuff Happens” on Day Three, we were now taken to the right-wing arena for Russell Lees’ “Nixon’s Nixon” in the company’s Bethesda venue. The play is a two-hander, portraying President Nixon (Edward Gero) and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger (Conrad Feininger). Both actors performed the work for the Round House in 1999, and it was thought appropriate to bring them together again for a revival during a Presidential campaign – this time under Jerry Whiddon’s direction. It is known that Nixon and Kissinger met the evening before Nixon’s resignation in August of 1974, but there is no public record about what they talked about. So the entire play is a satirical surmise.

James Kronzer has designed a handsome White House sitting room with patriotic colors: a red carpet, blue walls, and white window curtains. At rise, Nixon is wildly conducting an imaginary orchestra while the phonograph plays Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. When Kissinger arrives, the pair gradually empty a decanter of brandy. Nixon keeps looking to the past and worrying about his legacy, while Kissinger is concerned about his future when Gerald Ford takes over the top job. They occasionally impersonate major public figures and even each other. Gero has Nixon down pat – the shaking jowls, the hunched shoulders, the vocal inflections. Feininger rightly adopts a foreign accent for the German-born Kissinger, but his portrayal is less convincing than Gero’s. Still, this is a highly entertaining show.

For our final production we returned to the Arena Stage’s temporary theatre in Arlington, Virginia, while its Mead Center continues under construction in southwest Washington. The offering was “The Mystery of Irma Vep” by Charles Ludlam (1943-87), founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967, author of 29 plays, flamboyant actor of both male and female roles, and an early victim of AIDS. In “Irma Vep” Ludlam combined the tradition of the nineteenth-century penny-dreadful with a desire to exploit the actors’ ability to change costumes and characters within seconds. Although the play employs only two actors, they have to portray seven people of both genders. There is above the mantel a portrait of the deceased Irma Vep with eyes that mysteriously move, and in Act II even an Egyptian mummy. In the original mounting, Ludlam and his longtime partner Everett Quinton played all the roles. Here, under Rebecca Bayla Taichman’s direction, Brad Oscar and J. Fred Shiffman have a grand time with all the characters in this silly but sublime farce. A nice dessert after a packed week.

A late-night talk between Henry Kissinger (Conrad Feininger, left) and Nixon (Edward Gero) in The Round House Theatre’s staging of “Nixon’s Nixon.”
Photo Credit: By Danisha Crosby/Round House Theatre Photo

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