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Executive producer Morgan Freeman and Madeleine Albright were among the guests at Thursday night’s event. By Caroline Cunningham
Executive producer Morgan Freeman at the Madam Secretary premiere. Photograph by Caroline Cunningham.

Despite the name and setting, CBS’s new drama Madam Secretary isn’t very political.

In fact, Keith Carradine, who plays the President, isn’t even sure what term of his presidency he’s in. 

“We don’t talk about party in this show,” he said. “We are leaving it to the audience to make their own decisions about where we might fall ideologically.”

On Thursday night, the stars and producers of the new CBS drama gathered at the Institute of Peace, just down the street from the State Department, for a screening of the pilot. (The show premieres Sunday, September 21, at 8:30.)

Madam Secretary follows Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), an ex-CIA agent who is dragged away from her bucolic family life by the President (an old friend) to become Secretary of State after her predecessor is killed in a plane crash. 

Though the pilot launches McCord straight into a geopolitical crisis, writer Barbara Hall said she was most curious about the life behind the powerful woman—what she still has to deal with at home after saving the world. 

“The most interesting thing to me was contextualizing her job with her home life­—giving people an idea of what it’s like to do a job like that and to maintain a home life that isn’t a shattered, broken home,” Hall said. 

Tim Daly, who plays Elizabeth’s husband, Henry McCord, said he was drawn to the realistic presentation of the couple’s marriage. 

“I think we’ve seen so many dysfunctional marriages on television, and so often we’ve seen women on television and in movies who, if they achieve some level of notoriety, their personal life is a disaster,” the actor said. “This gives people something that they can really relate to. Not only is she dealing with geopolitical stuff, but they are also at home being a passionate couple.”

Though many have speculated on who inspired the character of Elizabeth McCord—Hillary Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand are two of the top guesses—executive producer Morgan Freeman attests that she is “completely fictional.” Even so, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was present for the premiere, due to the educational role she played: She grabbed a cup of coffee with Leoni before filming (“She paid,” Leoni said), and shared some State Department dos and don’ts with the writers and cast members. 

“You can’t be calling Hillary [Clinton] or Condoleezza [Rice] or Madeleine in the middle of the night and saying, ‘If you had this situation handed to you, what would you do?’” Freeman said. 

The show may be more dramatic than political, but with the cast and team of producers behind it, it’s likely to be entertaining. Check back on Sunday night for our recap of the pilot episode.  

For more arts and entertainment coverage, follow After Hours on Twitter at @afterhoursblog

See also: “State of Affairs” Vs. “Madam Secretary”—Which Should You Watch?

Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 09/19/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Catching up with the experimental artist before his Saturday show at U Street Music Hall. By Tanya Pai
Photograph by Zackery Michael.

(Editor’s note: This interview contains some strong language.)

Tom Krell could be called the thinking person’s pop artist. The 29-year-old, better known by his stage name, How to Dress Well, makes fuzzy-edged, neo-R&B tunes that, even when upbeat, are suffused with melancholy. His songs attempt to shine a light into the dark corners of the human experience, tackling such subjects as mental illness and the death of a friend in ways that feel at once widely relatable and deeply personal, all anchored by a falsetto that evokes neo-soul artist the Weeknd. His experimental sound has earned rave reviews—The A.V. Club called his debut album, 2010’s Love Remains, “an immersive experience that transcends its chilliness (and speaker-crackling sonic limitations) through pure emotion”—and he continues to push his boundaries with his third EP, “What Is This Heart?,” released on June 23.

Krell, in interviews, is as analytical and unapologetic as his lyrics would suggest, taking a microscope to his songwriting methods and influences with an academic detachment that befits his PhD student status. He’s currently on tour, including a stop at U Street Music Hall on Saturday, September 20; we caught up with him by phone to talk about his new album, his “dumb” approach to music, and striving for the perfect live show. 

How’s the tour going so far? 

It’s going very well. We’re in the thick of it; it’s been a long one. The sheer mileage of it is . . . hard. If I was in one city and I did 30 shows in 35 nights it would be tiring, but wouldn’t be exhausting the way this is exhausting. 

Have you developed any strategies for dealing with that? 

No. There’s no real strategy; you just gotta do it, and then you sleep when you’re dead, I guess. 

Is there anywhere you’re especially excited to go on this tour? 

I was really excited to go places i haven’t been, like Atlanta. LA, Chicago, and New York are always sick, Portland is always amazing, Seattle, Vancouver; we hit all the same places and then added some slightly more eccentric spots—we’re doing a show in Hamilton, Ontario, in a couple days, and Louisville [Kentucky] and Nashville. 

I was reading about a recent sort-of controversy regarding some things you tweeted defending Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozolek for blowing up at a crowd during a show. 

It was during an interview in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he’d been performing, and he got mad at the crowd, and that interview got picked up by Pitchfork and Stereogum and shit. The tweets were mostly just me saying to these old dickheads who are diehard Sun Kil Moon fans that they need to stop tweeting at me. 

With so much interaction possible with fans now, thanks to social media, do you ever feel like it causes problems for you as an artist? 

The social stuff is not the problem—it’s always the big publications who are bored one day and decide to make a headline out of some shit so they can get the search engine optimization going. That’s what it comes down to: Some douchey 44-year-old diehard Sun Kil Moon fan from wherever, like, Iowa City—he doesn’t change anything, but then Stereogum posting some inflammatory headline bumps their place on Google News. It’s the big publications that have the control still. Social media is kinda fun and cute and doesn’t really do that much. 

So do situations like that make you feel like you have to be on your guard when you’re doing interviews?

No . . . not really. 

Moving on: Your new album has gotten some great reviews. 

I’m really happy the album is doing as well as it is, just because I worked really hard on it and I care a lot about it. In my mind, it’s less personal than my previous ones; Love Remains is an album that I made in a personal way that a select group of people connected with very personally, but “What Is This Heart?” is more open and general and has a much more universal side to it. 

Why the quotation marks in the title?

The way I write music and lyrics is very freestyle; I get a song started, with maybe a loop or something, and then I go in over the loop and freestyle stuff for a long time, and then listen back at what I said and try to let the music bring something out of me. When I was looking back at a lot of recordings, weirdly there was so much dialogue that came out of these free-associative monologues. There were so many things I said to people that I didn’t understand the consequences of or that I wish I hadn’t said or had said differently, and so many things people said to me that I didn’t understand at the time but now I see what they were trying to communicate. The idea of quotation and living communication—not like lyrics that I wrote in my diary, but things that happened in life—really stood out to me almost on every single song. So I started to think about what that was all about: what it means to have one free-associative inner monologue so full of scenes from other people, what it means to talk to other people, and how much that sharing with people constitutes who we are as individuals, so that was the vibe with the quotation. I think every single song has some kind of quotation element to it. 

When you transition from that free flow to polishing and editing songs, do you feel like you lose something? 

No—it’s really strange to say this, but I learn so much about myself through my process. I don’t really believe that introspection comes from, like, asking yourself, “How am I doing today?” You don’t have that much access to yourself—you put up all these blinders, all these mazes and traps for yourself, that you don’t really get a sense of who you are. So this is a really weird process by which I do learn a lot about myself and about where I’m at. Like what I said about the quotations—I’d just be freestyling, and I’d be like, What the fuck? My dad said that to me when I was 15, and I thought he meant this, but he actually meant that, and I spent the last ten years assuming he was trying to do one thing but was maybe trying to do the exact opposite. On another song, I was just singing, and all of a sudden I realized I totally mishandled certain aspects of relationships in the past, and I’d never really been honest with myself about how badly I’d mishandled them. 

It’s like how you can look at yourself in the mirror and find your good angle and make your cute face and shit, so you think you’re seeing a reflection of yourself, but it’s a very controlled reflection. You know how sometimes in a hotel there’s a corner mirror and you see two different sides of your face, or sometimes you flip an image, and you think, “Oh, shit, that’s what I look like? That’s what my hair looks like?” The songwriting process is more like that than like the “get my cute face on.” 

Is it the same way when you’re performing live? Do you discover something different every time? 

Performing is almost like a sport—you just try and, like, do something really beautiful spontaneously in front of people. I’m focused on trying to make every show really perfect. I mean, we’re constantly refining and changing and rearranging stuff on the live show—one day we’ll try something really minimal and find it’s way more effective than another arrangement, so then on the way to the venue you spend three, four hours trying to rewrite. It’s always so hard to tell what’s gonna touch people and what’s not. 

The idea of perfection in a live show is interesting—have you ever seen it? 

Frankly, no. I don’t really know anybody who’s doing what we’re doing. I’ve seen Antony and the Johnsons at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a full orchestra, and that was amazing—so refined, so extremely beautiful, but then it had this academic, kind of austere sort of exclusive feeling, which I hated. And then I’ve seen Grouper play for, like, ten people in Portland, and it was so quiet and so beautiful that people were holding their breath the entire time, and it was amazing, but it lacked this really strong muscular thing. I still love going to concerts and being bowled over by sound and the physicality of the performer; that’s why it’s dope to see, like, ASAP Ferg or something, but then that lacks that beautiful live, fragile aspect. I never liked shows where there’s choreographed dancing or some shit like that. Trying to do something that’s really refined and really raw and really tender and really muscular all in the same 70 minutes is really challenging, and frankly I don’t know anybody who does it. I’m trying to do something I feel like I haven’t had the privilege of seeing. 

People talk a lot about how you’re pursuing a PhD in philosophy—do you think that has any effect on your writing? 

I have an effect on my music, which seems trivial to say, but I’m always super confused why people don’t get this. You know Action Bronson? He’s a chef and a total crazy eater, so all his raps end up being about preparing food and eating food. And I am who I am, so my music has a certain inflection to it, which is me. Ever since I was young I’ve really been interested in literature and poetry and thinking, but I don’t have a philosophical approach to music; I’m pretty dumb and raw, and kind of intuitive, but there’s a common element, which is me thinking that is doing music on one hand and thinking about philosophy on the other hand. So it’s all my life. 

How to Dress Well performs at U Street Music Hall Saturday, September 20, at 7 PM. Tickets ($15) are available online

Posted at 03:45 PM/ET, 09/19/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Decide between two new Washington-set TV shows with a few simple formulas. By Tanya Pai
Photograph of Heigl via NBC; Leoni by David M. Russell/CBS.

Despite Washington-set shows being snubbed at this year’s Emmys, the trend of sexing up government jobs continues apace. Looking to piggyback on the smash successes of Veep, Homeland, and Scandal, networks are offering two new series for the fall centered on high-powered women. NBC’s State of Affairs, beginning in November, brings Katherine Heigl back to the small screen as Charleston “Charlie” Tucker, a CIA analyst who advises the President on crises around the globe. Oh yeah, and she used to be engaged to POTUS’s son. CBS’s Madam Secretary—premiering this Sunday, September 21—stars Téa Leoni as ex-CIA agent Elizabeth McCord who’s suddenly thrust into the national spotlight when the Secretary of State dies in a plane crash and the President, an old friend, taps her to take over. So which should you tune in for? Below, we have a few formulas for understanding what each show has to offer. (Check back soon for our recap of Madam Secretary’s first episode.) 

If you want: Scandal’s eye-candy wardrobe PLUS Homeland’s authority-bucking, slightly unstable protagonist

Try: State of Affairs. Heigl’s character wears spike heels, leather jackets, and hoop earrings—and has a very Carrie Mathison-esque habit of drinking too much and picking up strangers at bars. 

If you want: West Wing-style political machinations MINUS the lightning-speed patter

Try: Madam Secretary. Téa Leoni’s drawling delivery seems as though she was aiming for gravitas but overshot and landed on “just took a muscle relaxer.” 

If you want: Veep’s woman-in-the-White House aspect MINUS the often harsh humor

Try: State of Affairs. Alfre Woodard brings her stern, inscrutable presence to the table as the “First Customer,” as Charlie’s team nicknames her—and as the mother of Charlie’s (supposedly) deceased fiancé. 

If you want: House of Cards-style visual flair MINUS the, you know, lawmaking

Try: State of Affairs. While the pilot sees Charlie receiving mysterious texts that pop up as bubbles onscreen, she’s far too busy defusing crises almost single-handedly to have much time to spend courting votes from congressmen.

If you want: Veep’s cast of quirky, recognizable supporting characters PLUS a slightly more family-friendly vibe

Try: Madam Secretary. Wings star Tim Daly plays Leoni’s character’s husband, Henry McCord (who, it’s heavily hinted, will probably cheat on her at some point), and Bebe Neuwirth is her largely unimpressed chief of staff, Nadine Tolliver. House of Cards alum Sebastian Arcelus and Body of Proof’s Geoffrey Arend also appear as staffers. As a bonus, Leoni’s character appears to have a (mostly) functional relationship with her two children. 

If you want: Homeland’s conspiracy theories linked to mysterious deaths PLUS Veep’s antagonistic male coworkers PLUS Scandal’s hyper-competent heroine known for thinking outside the box

Try: Either. Early impressions suggest Madam Secretary will be more focused on smaller-scale, human stories, while State of Affairs goes for big, splashy drama. Either way, it’s a safe bet that both series’ main characters have to deal with far less paperwork than their real-life counterparts.

Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai.

Posted at 10:00 AM/ET, 09/19/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Silver Spring institution was recognized by the American Theatre Wing. By Tanya Pai

Big news for one local theater: Silver Spring’s Forum Theatre has received one of the American Theatre Wing’s 2014 national grants. Forum announced Thursday that it is among 12 US theaters to be recognized this year by the American Theatre Wing, best known as the creator of the Tony Awards, a.k.a. the Oscars of the stage. 

The New York nonprofit—which began as the Stage Women’s War Relief in 1917—every year awards at least ten companies from around the United States who “ have articulated a distinctive mission, cultivated an audience, and nurtured a community of artists in ways that strengthen and demonstrate the quality, diversity, and dynamism of American theatre.” 

Forum was founded in 2003 with the goal, as explained on its website, of helping“eliminate barriers to an inclusive audience. We want to make sure that Forum is a theatre for low income individuals, students, regular and hard-core theatre go-ers, and audience members from a variety of background and all walks of life.” To make that happen, the theater last year began offering pay-what-you-can tickets for all its performances. 

“The recognition from the American Theatre Wing is a tremendous honor,” Forum artistic director Michael Dove says in a press release. “We are very proud of . . . the work we do in facilitating community discussions around our plays.”

Each theater recognized receives $10,000 for “general operating support.” 

See the rest of 2014 grant recipients below. 

Amphibian Stage Productions (Fort Worth, TX)
Ars Nova (New York, NY)
Keen Company (New York, NY)
PlayGround (San Francisco, CA)
Red Bull Theater (New York, NY)
Rogue Machine Theatre (Los Angeles, CA)
The House Theatre of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
The TEAM (New York, NY)
Theater Wit (Chicago, IL)
Theatre B (Fargo, ND)
Williamston Theatre (Williamston, MI)

Posted at 03:30 PM/ET, 09/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
What we gleaned from clips of the new Discovery Channel show. By Hallie Golden
Martin Heinrich and Jeff Flake star in Rival Survival, premiering October 29. Photographs via Wikimedia Commons.

After spending six days on the remote island of Eru, in the Marshall Islands, there’s one thing senators Jeff Flake and Martin Heinrich have no desire to see again anytime soon: coconut water. 

“Everybody’s sort of into this coconut water fad, and I think both Jeff and I are completely over that,” said Heinrich Thursday morning during a sneak peek of Discovery Channel’s new show, Rival Survival. “The first coconut’s quite good, but not number 17.”

The political rivals—Flake is an Arizona Republican, Heinrich a Democrat from New Mexico—roughed it for nearly a week for the show, which airs as a one-hour special October 29 at 10 PM. The show follows the senators as they attempt to surmount their differences and work together to survive on an island whose main food source is tucked away in the ocean and where natural fresh water is nonexistent. 

The three short clips that were shown to a crowd of journalists on Thursday made it clear that Rival Survival will be a comedic mixture of the senators struggling to live on an island infested with coconut crabs—which can grow up to three feet long and weigh nine pounds—and lighthearted gibes at each other. “One of the advantages of going with a senator from Arizona is they start with a nice base tan,” says Heinrich in one clip. 

One of the points the senators emphasized was that this six-day adventure was completely their idea. They say the concept stemmed from their shared opinion that Congress is not working together because its members don’t trust one another. While it’s difficult to say whether Heinrich and Flake wholeheartedly trust each other now, they certainly got to know one another, announcing to the audience that Heinrich is good at building shelters, while Flake is handy with a machete (one of the items they were allowed to bring). 

A few other notable moments from the clips:

  • In the midst of a heavy downpour, the senators seek refuge in their rickety handmade shelter. “This is my first night sleeping with a Democrat,” Flake quips.
  • The two men are hunched over on the sun-soaked sand, desperately struggling to start a fire. “Our primary goal is to get this fire started,” says Heinrich. “Everything’s been going great, except the fire hasn’t started.”
  • Seeking sustenance, Flake and Heinrich successfully shake down an array of coconuts from a tall tree. “There’s a lot at stake here. It’s really a pride thing. You don’t want to be the one . . . who has to be taken care of,” says Heinrich. 

For more arts and entertainment coverage, follow After Hours on Twitter at @afterhoursblog

Posted at 01:45 PM/ET, 09/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The video exhibit delves into the not-so-magical life of Wizard of Oz star Judy Garland. By Tanya Pai
A video-collage image from "After the Rainbow," which uses scenes from The Wizard of Oz and other films to reexamine Judy Garland's life. Still by Soda_Jerk.

Call it the anti-Disney effect.

While a rash of films such as Maleficent have tried to remake villains into sympathetic antiheroes, “Soda_Jerk: After the Rainbow,” opening September 19 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, has the opposite goal: to reveal the heart of darkness in the star of the family film The Wizard of Oz.

The 1939 classic helped Judy Garland—17 when she starred as Dorothy Gale—earn a permanent place in people’s hearts. Yet, as is well documented, her life wasn’t nearly as rosy as her character’s, a contrast the exhibit explores.

Soda_Jerk is the pseudonym of two Australian sisters who create “rogue historiographies” through digital video. Their take on Garland is the second in a series of three that stage encounters between stars’ younger and older selves. (The others focus on River Phoenix and on Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.)

“After the Rainbow” combines scenes from The Wizard of Oz, a TV special in which Garland appears with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, and her later films with clips from more recent movies like Donnie Darko and Planet Terror in an attempt to round out the traditional narrative of Garland as tragic heroine.

Chief curator Kathryn Wat hopes this approach will help audiences see Garland as not just another troubled star “but also someone with a great deal of strength.” Wat admits she discovered a lot from the exhibit about the actress’s portrayal in the media: “I’m an American, I know Judy Garland, I know The Wizard of Oz, but this was not at all what I expected.”

Conversely, the movie at the center of so many fond childhood memories may also take on a new hue. “The film is tinged with longing,” says Wat. “Dorothy is trying to get somewhere and can’t, and she’s missing her family. Even that movie, as much as we all love it, is shaped by a sense of loss.”

“After the Rainbow,” along with the museum’s “Total Art: Contemporary Video” (on view through October 12), is part of an effort to focus on women’s contributions to video. While female artists have had to struggle to catch up in traditional fields such as painting, Wat says video is one of the few areas in which both sexes have been equally involved since it became popular in the 1960s.

She sees Soda_Jerk’s installations as representative of that medium’s progress: “We live in a digital age, when images are spread almost instantaneously. The work [the women of Soda_Jerk] do and the process they follow spins around these questions of piracy and appropriation. Their point is ‘We’re not stealing it—we’re borrowing it and making something totally new.’ ”

Through November 2; $10; nmwa.org.

This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Washingtonian. Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai

Posted at 11:58 AM/ET, 09/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Pups and Pilsners in Crystal City, the H Street Festival, and a celebration of all things bacon. By Jason Koebler
Bring your dog to Crystal City's Festival Grounds on Sunday for Pups and Pilsners. Image via Shutterstock.

Thursday, September 18

COMEDY: After Class, a semi-educational comedy night at Science Club, continues tonight. By semi-educational, I mean that if you’re looking to learn lots of facts about fake things or lots of fake facts about real things, you’ve come to the right place. Free. 8:30 PM.

MUSIC: Jazz in the Garden is sadly over, but you can still catch Smithsonian-sponsored jazz at the Take Five! show at the American Art Museum’s monthly concert series. This month, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Blue Note Records, Pete Muldoon’s group will perform the works of Grant Green. ArtJamz will provide canvases in case you feel inspired to paint during the performance. Free. 5 PM.


Friday, September 19

ART: The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library hosts a preview of “Uncensored,” an art show that celebrates the kickoff of Banned Books Week in the city. There’ll be live music, cocktails inspired by the banned books in question, and lots and lots of art. Tickets ($50) are available online. 7 PM.

DANCE: Simian Mobile Disco is the Bon Iver of the electronic music world: For its last album, the band disappeared into the middle of the desert and recorded an eminently danceable album using only modular synthesizers. You can hear it at U Street Music Hall this weekend. Tickets ($20) are available online. 9 PM.

BURLESQUE: There’s an Orange Is the New Black-themed burlesque show at Black Cat, brought to you by the same dancers who usually do these themed burlesque nights. There’s a costume contest, as well, which I assume will be won by someone wearing an orange jumpsuit—check your discount prison surplus stores now! Tickets ($12) are available online. 9 PM.

PRE-FESTIVAL: The big event this weekend is the H Street Festival, which has apparently gotten so big that some participating bars are hosting pre-parties for it. Check out Sticky Rice, Impala, Red Rocks, and most of the other neighborhood spots—they’re all doing something special. Free. 5 PM to close. 


Saturday, September 20

FESTIVAL: Ah, here it is. The H Street Festival, which has been one of the best neighborhood festival in DC for a few years running, happens this weekend. Ten blocks of H Street will shut down, new bars and restaurants will have previews, old bars and restaurants will take to the streets, and you can finally get a glimpse of the streetcars. Fair warning: There will also be approximately a million of your closest friends, family, and strangers there. Free. Noon to 7 PM.

DOGS: The Wiener Dachshund Dash & DC Oktoberfest party is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a race between a whole bunch of Dachshunds, plus a lot of beer. You can bring your dog to Woodrow Wilson Plaza to race on a 50-foot piece of Astroturf—if he or she is fast, you can win $150. Spend it on dog treats because your pup deserves it. Tickets ($20) are available online. 1 to 4 PM.

BACON: There’s not much that can compete with H Street Festival, but if there’s something, it’s probably the Capitol Bacon Festival at the Fairgrounds outside of Nats Park. Entry gets you three bacon samples and the chance to try many, many more. You can also listen to live music, hit the full-service bars, and pick up some bacon-themed souvenirs to take home. Tickets ($20) are available online. 1 to 7 PM.

BEER: Many of the District’s best breweries will be at the Heurich House Museum for Oktoberfest. The DC Brewers’ Guild will serve homemade German soft pretzels, sausages, and lots of sauerkraut. Oh, you want to know about the beer? Have unlimited Oktoberfest-inspired brews from DC Brau, Bluejacket, Right Proper, Atlas Brew Works, Chocolate City, and more. Tickets ($60) are available online. 1 to 4 PM.


Sunday, September 21

FOOD: I have no idea whose idea this was, but the Festicle is a cookoff to see who, exactly, can cook the most delicious testicles. Yes, really: Spike Mendelson, Erik Bruner-Yang, and Tim Ma will all be cooking some form of Rocky Mountain Oysters, and there’ll be circus performances and live music from four local bands. Tickets ($15 to $25) are available online. 1 PM.

BEER: Crystal City’s Festival Grounds (near Long Bridge Park) hosts Pups and Pilsners, a beer festival at which dogs are obviously welcome—as are lots of Crystal City restaurants, local brewers, and you, of course. Tickets ($20) are available online. 2 to 6 PM.

DANCE: Dirty Bar’s Sunday Rooftop has been keeping you hungover on Mondays all summer—but it’s unfortunately about to end. For the last edition before next spring, the place has brought in Rampue, a deejay from Berlin, Nadav from New York, and two DC deejays to keep you dancing all afternoon and part of the night. $5. 2 to 11 PM.

Know of something cool going on around town? E-mail Jason Koebler at jasontpkoebler@gmail.com, or find him on Twitter at @jason_koebler

Posted at 10:45 AM/ET, 09/18/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Richard Greenberg’s award-winning play about baseball will engage even non-sports fans. By Missy Frederick
Steven Soto, Ray Navorio, Adam Downs, Sun King Davis, and Tim Torre in Take Me Out at 1st Stage. Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike can’t help but walk away with a greater appreciation of the sport after seeing Take Me Out at 1st Stage. And that’s largely courtesy of Mason Marzac.

He may be a minor character—an accountant and business manager assigned to take charge of the finances of Darren Lemming, the superstar ballplayer at the heart of the play. But Marzac (Adam Downs) also embodies playwright Richard Greenberg’s thoughtful, complex appreciation of the sport. The audience watches as the flamboyant and socially stilted Marzac falls madly in love with the game; a passionate monologue from the character compares baseball to American democracy, and baseball wins out. Marzac’s conversion—and Downs’s infectious enthusiasm—is one of the sheer pleasures of this funny, poignant, and at times troubling play.

Take Me Out is, of course, about more than baseball metaphors. The award-winning work (Greenberg took home the 2003 Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize finalist designation, among several other awards) takes a look at what happens when the arrogant ballplayer Lemming, the highest-paid and most talented player in the league, makes the decision—almost casually—to come out as gay to the general public. His teammates, for the most part, do not take the news well, but their reaction has as much to do with Lemming’s standoffish bravado as their own discomfort with his sexuality. 

Lemming’s act sets off a chain of events that reaches a tragic conclusion by the work’s sobering second act. Along the way, it introduces characters that are complicated and unpredictable, whether it’s Lemming’s reprehensible yet pitiable redneck rival Shane Mungitt (Ryan Kincaid, giving a powerful turn), or the aloof Japanese pitcher Takeshi Kawabata (Jacob Yeh). As Lemming, Jaysen Wright does a fine job of making the protagonist remote and unknowable—yet compelling—until his resolve finally begins to crack when circumstances push him to the edge. Sun King Davis is an easy, comfortable presence as Kippy Sunderstrom, the play’s narrator and a natural leader whose affection and sympathy both for Lemming and the troubled Mungitt get him into trouble.

When Take Me Out premiered, the sheer amount of male nudity it contained created its share of controversy. In director Doug Wilder’s production more than a decade later, it merely feels like a natural consequence of the show’s locker-room setting. Some of Wilder’s decisions are a little problematic—early use of slow motion feels stilted, a pivotal scene between Mungitt and Lemming is blocked in a confusing way—but these are quibbles. The 1st Stage production succeeds in creating moments that are alternately dramatically tense, uneasily sympathetic, and hysterically funny. Through it all it, Take Me Out remains an unconventional, sincere, heartfelt ode to America’s pastime.

Take Me Out is at 1st Stage through October 12. Running time is about two and a half hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($28) are available through the theater’s website. Find Missy Frederick on Twitter at @bylinemjf

Posted at 10:20 AM/ET, 09/17/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Star Shayna Blass shines in this tale of gender confusion set to music. By Tanya Pai
It’s a man’s world: Shayna Blass (left) and cast members in Yentl at Theater J. Photograph by Stan Barouh.

If Yentl had a formula, it would go something like this: two parts Twelfth Night plus one part Boys Don’t Cry, with a generous pinch of Fiddler on the Roof.

Still with me? Good—because while the play, currently at Theater J, has elements of all three of those works, it adds up to something wholly, and entertainingly, different. 

Yentl is based on the short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, first published in English in 1983 and adapted the same year into an Oscar-winning film starring Barbra Streisand and Mandy Patinkin—though with a notable departure from the ending of the original work. Theater J’s production, directed by Shirley Serotsky, more closely follows Singer’s conclusion, and adds a musical element with original songs by Jill Sobule and Robin Eaton

Yentl (Shayna Blass) is a smart, motherless girl who wants to study the Torah like her father (Jesse Terrill), who despairs at her refusal to be married off. When her father dies, Yentl disguises herself as a boy, calls herself Anshel, and sets off to find a quiet yeshiva where she can study in peace. Along the way, Anshel meets Avigdor (Michael Kevin Darnall), who takes the young scholar under his wing, and the two soon become best friends. Though teased by the other men for his prudishness (he refuses to visit the swimming hole or spy on women bathing) and the object of much curiosity from the village girls, Anshel hides his true nature fairly well—until Avigdor tells him the story of his ex-fiancée, Hadass (Sara Dabney Tisdale), whose family suddenly broke off their engagement, and Anshel decides to avenge his friend by marrying Hadass himself, throwing his new life of academic bliss into doubt. 

Blass captivates in the title role, playing the character’s fiery conviction and frustrated confusion with equal panache; she manages to be utterly convincing even when Yentl herself doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing. She also has a powerful voice, though she doesn’t get to use it as much as one would hope. Which brings us to one of the more confusing elements of the production: This is not exactly a musical, though the characters do perform musical numbers. Rather, the cast members double as musicians and break into song during scene transitions, which in several places serves to distract from the emotional impact of the action. Same for the choreography, which is sporadic; the production might be better served as either a straight drama or a full-on musical, but as is, things feel a bit muddled. 

Perhaps that’s fitting, though, for a play about gender confusion. Yentl’s purpose at first seems straightforward—she wants to study, not be “someone’s footstool,” as she tells her father early on—but as her relationship with both Avigdor and Hadass deepens, she struggles to reconcile her simple human desires with her pursuit of a higher calling. 

Humor, including in the form of tongue-in-cheek sexual innuendoes and irreverent musical numbers—such as “Oh, Sh*t,” which Yentl sings as she realizes just how deep a hole she’s dug herself—add necessary levity to what could be a too-heavy exploration of restrictive religious tradition and the historical marginalization of women. Robbie Hayes’s two-story set is gorgeously detailed, and the cast does a lot with a couple of wooden benches and tables. Serotsky also does a lot with her cast—with the exception of Blass, each actor embodies several different role, and there are some very fine performances. Darnall nails the charm and intelligence that make Avigdor so magnetic to the young Anshel. Tisdale’s Hadass has the right mix of naiveté and stubbornness, though her motives are harder to parse: She must suspect something about Anshel doesn’t quite add up, though she seems nothing if not a devoted wife throughout. (In that regard, she serves as an illustration of what Yentl’s fate could have been, had she not taken extreme measures to remain in control of it herself.) 

The play’s conclusion is a bit too easy in some ways, though refreshingly it refuses to hand over a pat rom-com ending for the convention-defying heroine. Yentl/Anshel may be able to find her way eventually, but as the bittersweet final moments suggest, it won’t be an easy path to follow. 

Yentl is at Theater J through October 5. Running time is about two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. The production contains some nudity. Tickets ($30 to $45) are available through the theater’s website. Find Tanya Pai on Twitter at @tanyapai.

Posted at 03:30 PM/ET, 09/16/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
The show closes at National Harbor this Sunday. By Tanya Pai
Photograph courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.

The last day of summer is quickly approaching, and with it comes the end of Cirque du Soleil’s Washington run. The new touring production Amaluna closes Sunday, September 21, and for Cirque fans it’s well worth the trip to National Harbor—both because the show is highly entertaining, and because it’s the company’s first to feature a majority female cast and an all-female band. 

Created by Diane Paulus, the Tony Award-winning director of Pippin and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the work is set on a mystical island ruled by goddesses, whose tranquil environment is shaken up by the arrival of a crew of shipwrecked male sailors. The story borrows some elements from Shakespeare’s The Tempest—the main character is Prospera, who supervises her daughter Miranda’s coming of age and romance with one of the sailors, Romeo; and the mischievous Caliban becomes Calli, a human-lizard hybrid whose love for Miranda drives him to wicked acts. But the story takes a back seat to Cirque’s usual highlights: elaborate costumes (by Mérédith Caron), original music, and awe-inspiring feats of physicality. 

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Posted at 02:35 PM/ET, 09/15/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()