At this point in December you’re almost certainly sick of year-end lists, and that’s OK: We are, too. They’re arbitrary, entirely subjective (like all criticism is), and biased toward art that was produced in the second half of the year and is still easy to remember.
So with the above as a disclaimer, we’re trying something a little different this year. All of the below are shows that Washingtonian’s critics loved in 2013, and because we’d rather not rank them since they were all superb in so many ways, we’ve given them random and nonsensical (and imaginary) awards instead. Congratulations, Washington theaters, on producing so much great work this year. We can’t wait for 2012, I mean 2014.
Best Production of a Shakespeare Play: The Winter’s Tale at Shakespeare Theatre
Rebecca Taichman’s production of one of the trickier Shakespeare plays (love! tragedy! bears!) was memorable for its “starkly elegant” modern design and its immensely powerful performances from Mark Harelik, Hannah Yelland, and many more.
Best Touring Musical: Anything Goes at the Kennedy Center
Doubtless everyone will say this should go to The Book of Mormon, and maybe it should, but like we said, subjective. Roundabout Theatre Company’s Tony-winning production of the Cole Porter classic was de-lightful, de-licious, de-lovely, and just on the right side of de-luded.
Best Dysfunctional Family Drama: Other Desert Cities at Arena Stage
If there’s one thing we learned about families, it’s that “long-buried family secrets, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, barbed endearments, and bourbon” are no combination for a happy holiday. Jon Robin Baitz’s spectacular play made for “gut-punching theater” nonetheless.
Best Riff on Chekhov With Profanities in the Title: Stupid F**cking Bird at Woolly Mammoth
Aaron Posner’s spin on The Seagull might have led to an overuse of asterisks among area publications, but its magical, moody commentary about love and art made up for it.
Best Riff on Chekhov Without Profanities in the Title: Man in a Case at Shakespeare Theatre
Mikhail Baryshnikov is magnetic in this brief but gorgeous adaptation of two short stories about love (currently playing at the Lansburgh Theatre). And yes, he dances, although not in the way you might expect.
Most Entertaining Use of Profanities: Glengarry Glen Ross at Round House Theatre
David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play might be a cynical and downright bleak look at humanity, but his four hungry salesmen were impeccably portrayed in this Round House revival.
Best Performance of a British Royal: Henry V at Folger Theatre
Zach Appelman’s portrayal of the former Prince Hal made the hero “so eloquent, so engaging that it’s hard not to leave the theater thinking of him as one of the greatest male characters Shakespeare ever wrote.”
Best Swordplay: The Three Musketeers at Synetic Theater
We’ve come to expect dazzling choreography from the Arlington physical theater troupe, but in this adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel, the swordplay stole the show.
Most Charming Revue: Maurice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life at Arena Stage
Maurice Hines is a charmer. That’s all. And this 90-minute look at his life and career on the stage is so endearing it could make even Grumpy Cat smile, not to mention his magnificent, all-female backup band, or the tap talents of the Manzari and Heimozitz brothers.
Best Play You’d Never Want to See With Your Parents: Mies Julie at Shakespeare Theatre
This sexual chemistry between the two leads in this tragic, frantic South African adaptation of Strindberg might be sufficient to light up the Verizon Center’s exterior for a week. So, not really something you’d want to watch sitting next to an elderly relative, or a boss, or even a stranger.
Most Adorable Puppets: Baby Universe at Studio Theatre
Who knew infant universes were so cute they could have their own BuzzFeed vertical? Baby Universe, portrayed adorably by Wakka Wakka Productions in this dystopian puppet show, charmed, as did the show’s fusion of fantasy, video, music, and sci-fi.
Best Play the Government Shutdown Stopped People From Seeing: The Laramie Project at Ford’s Theatre
Press night for The Laramie Project was moved from Ford’s Theatre to a Woolly Mammoth rehearsal hall after the government shutdown booted performers and audiences from the space where Lincoln was shot. Even with the new location, this show’s outstanding ensemble gave “heartfelt, fierce, committed performances” exploring the circumstances of Matthew Shepard’s death.
Best Musical About a Perplexed Bachelor: Company at Signature Theatre
Some say Bobby’s gay, some say he’s just greedy. Whatever your take, Signature’s production of Sondheim’s 1970 musical about a confirmed bachelor facing all his paired-off friends was a triumph.
Best Portrayal of a Dead President: Mary T and Lizzy K at Arena Stage
All of the performances were spectacular in Arena Stage’s world premiere of Tazewell Thompson’s play about Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker. But in a year in which Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for playing Lincoln, Thomas Adrian-Simpson’s portrayal stood up to the competition admirably.
Best Encapsulation of Our Post-Recession Era: Detroit at Woolly Mammoth
Lisa D’Amour’s play, a “morality tale of philosophic ambition and massive symbolism about the destruction of the American middle class,” incorporated comedy, tragedy, despair, and “the closest thing to 3D thrills” our reviewer’s seen in a theater.
Most Engaging Neurotic: Torch Song Trilogy at Studio Theatre
Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn moved across town to Studio Theatre to direct Harvey Fierstein’s masterpiece and Brandon Uranowitz came from New York to play Arnold, a fussy, needy, funny, tough, and entirely lovable drag performer.
Best Heroine to Root For: Good People at Arena Stage
Johanna Day’s portrayal of Bostonian Margie in David Lindsay-Abaire’s play was “nearly flawless, communicating years of strength and struggle, pride and vulnerability cloaked in every snarky remark or blunt admission.”
Thursday, December 12
MUSIC: The National Symphony Orchestra Pops puts on its holiday show at the Kennedy Center, featuring baritone singer Brian Stokes Mitchell (known for his work in Sweeney Todd) and conductor Steven Reineke. For about two hours, the orchestra and Mitchell will run through holiday standards to put you in the Christmas mood. Tickets ($20-$80) are available online. 7 PM.
ART: Local artist Madeline Lynch spent time recently traveling through Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica, and Mexico, where she was inspired to create “Seeing With Spiral Eyes: An Artist’s Journey through South and Central America,” which is being displayed at the Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center. Tonight, at a reception for the exhibit, Lynch will talk about her abstract paintings and photographs, which pull from myths and stories she picked up along her travels. Free. 6 PM.
THEATRE: Alexandria’s The Lyceum will host a staged reading of Maturity Island, a brand new comedy featuring quips about Tupac, reality shows, and the trouble two women playwrights have finding a normal man to date. Afterwards, the cast and playwrights will discuss the play before heading to a local bar to continue the party. Free. 7:30 PM.
Friday, December 13
LIGHTS: The Georgetown Fete des Lumieres, or Festival of Lights, opens this week, with public art displays and Christmas lights on Thomas Jefferson Street. To celebrate, Malmaison is hosting an opening night party with visual artists, a bar, deejays, and art installations decorating the (relatively) new space. Tickets ($10) are available online. 9 PM.
DRINK: Trade toys for booze at Ugly Mug’s Toys for Tots Charity Event. Two toys gets you a pint of beer, additional toys get you free beer and raffle tickets for the chance to win prizes including Capitals tickets, corn hole sets, gift cards, and more. Free. 7 PM.
STORYTELLING: The best of Story League has been invited back for Story League All-Stars, featuring storytellers who have won contests already. Unlike most storytelling events, this one has no theme, so anything goes. That means you’ll get the best, wackiest, most heartbreaking or hilarious story each performer has to offer. The Moth’s Peter Aguero heads down from NYC to host the event. $12. 9 PM.
Homeland, which won Golden Globe Awards for best actress in a television drama, best actor in a television drama, and best drama less than a year ago, failed to pick up a single nomination at this morning’s announcement. Not even Mandy Patinkin (or his resplendent facial hair) made the cut.
It was bad news for one Washington-set TV drama, but House of Cards and Veep both scored big, with House of Cards gaining nominations for best TV drama, best actor in a drama (Kevin Spacey), and best actress (Robin Wright). Julia-Louis Dreyfus, who’s won two Emmys so far for her performance as Selina Meyer in Veep, got her second Golden Globe nomination for the role.
PARTIES AND GALAS
Big Night DC
For the party-hopper who hates to sit still, Big Night DC boasts fifteen themed party areas, five dance floors, and a performance lineup stacked with more than a dozen DJs and bands. A ticket includes dinner and access to the open bar.
Where: Gaylord National Hotel & Resort, 201 Waterfront Street, National Harbor, MD
Doors Open: 9 PM
International Club of DC’s NYE Gala
Eight ballrooms, free-flowing Champagne, dinner and dessert buffets, an open bar, and too many themes to list await ticket holders at the Ritz-Carlton this New Year’s Eve for a party hosted by the DC organization for internationally-minded professionals.
Where: The Ritz-Carlton Washington D.C., 1150 22nd St. NW
Doors Open: 7:30 PM (depending on ticket type)
Tickets: $109 and up
12th Annual 007 James Bond Thunderball
Can you handle a boatload of Bond? Bond ice sculptures, Bond babes, and bonding with other Bond fans? A ticket to this 007-themed ball includes food, an open bar, mock-casino gambling and more.
Where: Washington Plaza Hotel, 10 Thomas Circle, NW
Doors Open: 9 PM
NYE 2014 Masquerade Ball
The Bachelor’s Chris Bukowski hosts the Hyatt Regency’s first-ever masquerade ball. The party will feature live DJs, hors d’oeuvres, a balloon drop, and a live stream of the Times Square ball drop.
Where: Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, 400 New Jersey Ave, NW
Doors Open: 10 PM
Passport to the World Gala: An International Red Carpet Affair
Hosted by Professionals in the City, Passport to the World Gala offers a rather practical solution to finding a midnight kiss by providing optional colored bracelets that denote whether you’re single or taken.
Where: The Capital Hilton, 1001 16th Street, NW
Doors Open: 9 PM
New Years Eve Alchemy Extravaganza
Alchemical Records, a local record label, is hosting a New Year’s Eve party that includes burlesque, comedy, and a number of live music performances. Tickets ($12) don’t get you an open bar (only in a perfect world), but Treehouse Lounge will be running a number of drink specials throughout the evening.
Where: Treehouse Lounge, 1006 Florida Avenue NE
Doors Open: 8 PM
Brightest Young Things’ Rumspringa
Wait, what’s a Rumspringa? It’s not an alcoholic beverage, but you might try one when you’re on it. Rumspringa is the period of time when Amish teens leave their community to decide whether or not they’d like to remain a part of the church. This celebration recommends you dress festive.
Where: The Blind Whino, 734 First Street, SW
Doors Open: 8 PM
Tickets: $79 (price goes up $5 each week)
International Gala: A Cirque du 2014 Celebration of Many Nations
This international-themed gala boasts DC’s first ever “time machine ballroom” as well as six party rooms, five ballrooms, premium open bars, and entertainers.
Where: The Omni Shoreham Hotel, 2501 Calvert St., NW
Doors Open: 9 PM
Yuletide Ball Championships and New Year’s Eve Gala
The 26th annual ballroom dance competition features dancers at all different levels as well as awards. A ticket gets you admission to the gala, dinner, and dance showcases.
Where: Crystal City Gateway Marriott Hotel, 1700 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington
Doors Open: 7:30 PM
Inner Caucus and WHUR 96.3 FM NYE Party
Entertainment company Inner Caucus and radio station WHUR join forces for a New Year’s Eve party with five different DJ’s spinning tunes ranging from Calypso and Soca to ‘70s and ‘80s Soul.
Where: Hilton Alexandria Mark Center Hotel, 5000 Seminary Road, Alexandria
Doors Open: 8:30 PM
Some of America’s most beloved puppets are celebrated on one of the National Museum of American History’s “artifact walls” starting December 13. “Puppetry in America” looks at the history of puppets from the Civil War era to the present, from ventriloquists’ dummies and marionettes to more recent characters created by Jim Henson and for director Tim Burton.
The exhibit draws on research by curator Dwight Blocker Bowers for a book about the puppets as well more than 20 Muppets donated to the museum this year by the Henson family. To help protect the items, the show is divided into two parts, with the first rotation (through January 26) featuring old Punch and Judy figures; marionettes from the TV show Howdy Doody; Edgar Bergen’s dummy sidekick, Charlie McCarthy; characters from Captain Kangaroo; and a handful of Muppets. The second half, on display from early March to mid- to late April, includes puppets from all over the world as well as one notable crank: Oscar the Grouch.
The show aims to take the museum’s collection of puppets and “reexamine them in contemporary terms,” says Bowers, who counts Kermit the Frog among his favorites. “The contribution of Jim Henson and the breeziness and humor he ushered in is unmistakable. Kermit is this wonderful alter ego, not just for Henson but for the American public because he’s so gentle and unassuming. We hope to show the infinite variety encompassed by the word ‘puppet.’”
“Puppetry in America.” Through January 29 at the National Museum of American History. For more information visit the museum’s website.
This article appears in the December 2013 issue of Washingtonian.
Of stereotypes, philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Once you label me, you negate me.” Artist Hank Willis Thomas puts it another way: “I really want to believe that I’m a human being, and that my identity isn’t restricted to being these two things that haven’t served me: being black and being male.”
Understanding what it means to be a black man in America is the mission of “Question Bridge: Black Males,” a video installation by Thomas, Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair currently on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The work curates some three hours of footage taken from interviews with over 150 subjects into an installation displayed on five video screens simultaneously, with subjects appearing and disappearing intermittently.
The interviews flip the format on its head by requiring subjects ask questions as well as answer them. “Rather than doing a traditional documentary of having people sit in a room and have a conversation, we thought we could record people asking questions on camera and then show those questions to people and record their answers,” says Thomas. “You get a more authentic answer because a lot of the social mores that people deal with in person are cut out.”
Facing the inquiry of what questions they would want to ask of other black men, subjects responded with everything from “Why wouldn’t you be happy with your son being gay?” to, “Do you want to get out of the situation you’re in?” One subject, after watching another person record their interview, asked if he could submit his own question: “Why didn’t y’all leave us the blueprint?”
“The question was just there, and it was obviously something he’d been thinking about for some time, and it was so potent,” says Thomas. “That’s what the project does. We all have the capacity for critical thinking and doing very important research, but we can’t all always get on a microphone.”
Thomas, a photographer and visual artist, attended the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts in DC, which he credits for teaching him that there are many different ways to “be black,” whatever those words might mean. His work has been exhibited all over the world, as well as locally at the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of American History, and at the Corcoran, where an exhibition of his work, “Strange Fruit,” was featured alongside the museum’s “30 Americans” showcase of contemporary African American artists in 2011.
“Question Bridge” was initially a project conducted by artist Chris Johnson, a professor of Thomas’ who filmed subjects in San Diego discussing beliefs and issues affecting their community. About seven years ago, Thomas asked if he could reprise the work, focusing this time on black men. Questions led the four collaborators towards other subjects, sometimes in complex ways: After one man asked the question, “What’s so cool about selling crack?”, Johnson started teaching meditation in a San Francisco jail so he’d have access to incarcerated men who could answer that very question. “The journey of these questions is almost as interesting as the questions themselves,” says Thomas.
In addition to the installation at the Corcoran, “Question Bridge” also has an app in development that will allow people to record and submit their own questions and answers to the database. January 23 at THEARC in southeast DC, co-creator Bayeté Ross Smith will host a “Blueprint Roundtable Discussion” with community-nominated leaders to discuss the project. The work also features a curriculum teachers can use to talk about the work with their classes, and will eventually be developed into a documentary.
While “Question Bridge” can’t offer a definitive answer in terms of explaining the perimeters of black maleness, one subject puts it this way: “Our commonality is in our history, but our beauty as black men is in our diversity.”
“Question Bridge: Black Males” is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through February 16. See a trailer for the work below. For more information about the exhibition and its accompanying programs, visit the Corcoran’s website.
If the character of John Prentice—a young, handsome, polite, impossibly successful doctor—seems at first glance to be implausibly perfect, it’s necessarily so. Prentice, played ably by Malcolm-Jamal Warner (read our interview with him) in Arena Stage’s current production of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is like the lab experiments he conducts: constructed to be flawless, with the exception of a single variable.
Arena’s new adaptation of Stanley Kramer’s 1967 film about a young, wealthy girl who brings her black fiancé home to meet her West Coast liberal parents could easily feel dated, given the story’s relatively gentle approach to portraying racism. And in many ways it would be gratifying to see a 2013 spin-off, Clybourne Park style, so we can see how far we’ve failed to come. But David Esbjornson’s production, based on a new script by Todd Kreidler, is surprisingly jarring nonetheless, utilizing a powerful cast and some riotously funny humor to convey what we really talk about when we talk about race.
“There’s something you should know,” Joanna Drayton (Bethany Anne Lind) tells her mother, Christina (Tess Malis Kincaid). “I should tell you straight up front. He’s . . . older than me.” (In journalism, this is called burying the lede.) When Warner finally arrives, to applause acknowledging how he’ll always be The Cosby Show’s Theo in a lot of hearts, Kincaid’s shock is so palpable that Prentice advises her in his role as a "medically qualified doctor" to sit down before she faints. It’s horribly funny but is one-upped just a few minutes later when Matt Drayton (Tom Key) comes home, is introduced to the good doctor, and immediately asks John with horror what’s wrong with his daughter.
The comedy of manners that ensues depends heavily on three supporting characters: the Draytons’ maid, Matilda “Tilly” Binks (Lynda Gravatt), who throws more shade John’s way than a retractable patio awning; Monsignor Ryan (Michael Russotto), an exceptionally amiable and tipsy priest; and Hilary St George (Valerie Leonard), an employee of Christina’s whose casual racism is enough to shock Christina out of her temporary fugue state.
Esbjornson has tweaked the timing to perfection, and much of the show’s humor comes from facial expressions and reactions rather than the script (I haven’t seen the film in over a decade, but I don’t recall it being this funny). One complaint, though, is that if ever a show lost something from being performed in-the-round in Arena’s Fichandler Theatre, it’s this one. (There’s nothing more galling than seeing half the audience in stitches from a joke from which you’re left out because all you can see is a character’s back.) In a production that draws so much from Tilly’s raised eyebrow or Monsignor’s mock horror, it’s impossible not to long to be able to see everyone all at the same time.
Amid a company of very able actors, Warner doesn’t disappoint. His presence is forceful on stage, and he’s perfected the half-composed, half-amused face John uses to get himself through tricky situations. He also taps into a kind of anger that feels visceral and a little unsettling given his character’s genial kindliness. In a confrontation with his parents, who arrive at the beginning of the second act and are even more displeased than the Draytons at their son’s love match, John’s rage at both his father and the prejudice his father represents is fearsome. “You still think of yourself as a colored man,” he says icily. “I think of myself as a man.”
Warner also shares excellent chemistry with Lind, who has a slightly less interesting character than the scheming millennial she played so well in Signature Theatre’s Really Really but who manages to make Joanna’s sweetness and naiveté seem realistic. Kincaid is poised and complex as Christina Drayton, with an added storyline about her son giving her some extra depth, while Key is exemplary in the way he delivers the show’s final monologue, a recap of sorts that almost explains his intractability in the first half of the show.
As John’s father, John Prentice Sr., Eugene Lee serves as the show’s steely dose of unwanted realism, telling his son in no uncertain terms that there are cities in America where he and Joanna won’t be able to drink out of the same water fountain, and entire states in which their marriage will be illegal. His wife, Mary (Andrea Frye) initially comes in as a stony-faced battle-ax before a shared loss reminds her that, in the immortal words of REM, everybody hurts. Costume director Joseph P. Salasovich nails the period attire, contrasting the Draytons’ spring-like colors and luxurious fabrics with the Prentices’ dour tones and heavily formal outfits.
Sound director Timothy M. Thompson intersperses the action with snippets of vintage songs, leading in to the show’s first act with Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair).” As an ode to free love and the irrepressible tides of change, it initially feels unsuited to the formality of the Draytons’ home, but by the time the show wraps up, it feels like the lyrics praising “a whole generation with a new explanation” might just be the perfect accompaniment.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is at Arena Stage through January 5. Running time: about two and a half hours, with one intermission. Tickets ($55 and up) are available via Arena Stage’s website.
Monday, December 9
KARAOKE: Anyone can hop on stage with a group of friends and make their way through a passable version of “Livin’ on a Prayer” with the help of the whole bar singing along, but it takes someone special for a truly transcendent karaoke performance. District Karaoke contestants have been competing for months to make it to tonight’s finals at Penn Social, where one person will be named best karaoke-er in the city, which is kind of like being named the MVP in the Canadian Football League or something. Anyway, there’ll be $4 Peroni drafts, $16 pitchers, and you’ll have the chance to pretend like you’re an American Idol judge. Free. 7 PM.
Tuesday, December 10
STORYTELLING: Ever had a romcom-worthy chance encounter? Not all of us believe in fate, but sometimes the universe works in ways that make it hard to be a nonbeliever. Speakeasy DC takes over Town Danceboutique for a night of stories about coincidences and fate. Bring your own food and sit with a stranger as storytellers discuss some of their serendipitous stories—you might just have an unexpected happening of your own. $15. 6.30 PM.
Wednesday, December 11
THEATER: Tonight, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (read our review) is discounted for people 35 years old and younger and features a special pre-show happy hour to celebrate. Show up early for door prizes and discounted Blue Moon and Mouton Cadet wine. The musical has been staged on Broadway and all around the world and took home Best Musical at the 1962 Tony Awards. Use the promo code PROSE to get discounted tickets online. $20. 6 PM.
Thursday, December 12
CHRISTMAS: It may feel like the North Pole here, especially with yesterday’s snowstorm, but you can heat things up at the Louisiana State Society’s Cajun Christmas Party at Pennsylvania Avenue’s Bayou. Deck the halls with bourbon, crawfish, jambalaya, and po’ boys. Santa and his sleigh pulled by swamp alligators would be proud. Free. 6.30 PM.
Know of something cool going on around town? E-mail Jason Koebler at email@example.com, or find him on Twitter.
Ah, Homeland. There you are! Where have you been for the last 18 months? Or did I fall asleep and have some kind of crazy-assed dream where Brody was a congressman who killed the vice president by remotely accessing his pacemaker before a creepy pedophile doctor in a Caracas high-rise got him addicted to heroin? I’ve had dreams like that, but usually only after eating a whole wheel of Brie and accidentally swallowing too much mouthwash.
Tonight’s Homeland went right back to the season one playbook, and it was awesome. In fact, it was basically a microcosm of season one encapsulated in a single episode and inverted, with everyone assuming Brody had been turned against America and only Carrie having faith in him (even after he so rudely hung up on her and threw the phone she surrepitiously handed him in a bush). And yet it was pretty believable that Brody might have finally found happiness in Tehran, with his old friend Nassrin Nazir (now there’s a catchy name for you), an endless supply of clean collarless shirts, a surprisingly lax security guard, and people trying to grab his hand through car windows like they’re hormonal tweens and he’s a ginger Harry Styles.
But, no: It was all a long con. Lockhart, Saul, Dar Adal, and probably Quinn (where the hell was Quinn?) decided Brody had defected again, with Dar Adal stating succinctly that the one thing they really know about Brody is that “he changes his mind.” And the evidence did appear to be fairly damning, given that he smashed his cyanide needle (bonjour, 1960s) on the side of the car, went on all the TV shows to say rude things about America in Farsi, and then ran to Nassrin saying he needed to urgently talk to General Akbari about Javadi. But then he was alone in Akbari’s office with him, and if there’s a second thing we know about Brody, it’s that when he’s alone in a room with a powerful person whose security detail are nowhere to be found, they usually end up dead.
For such a slight show, Man in a Case packs an extraordinary amount into its 75-minute running time, beginning with a heated discussion on the best way to kill a turkey (timely, given the time of year) and ending with a heartbreaking, mostly wordless exploration of the transience of love and life. And yes, Mikhail Baryshnikov dances, although perhaps not in a way that does justice to his status as the greatest ballet performer of our time.
The show, adapted and directed by Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar and choreographed by Parson, is based on two short stories by Chekhov: the titular tale of a repressed and fearsome schoolmaster, and “About Love,” in which a man recalls how he fell in love with a married woman, only to lose her forever. Parson and Lazar have taken both and crafted a sensational fusion of music, movement, video, and sound that demonstrates how captivating experimental theater can be, both incorporating the elements of traditional storytelling and surpassing them altogether.
Baryshnikov plays Belikov, a teacher of Greek at odds with modernity who terrifies his colleagues while also attempting to be cordial to them. The production is broken into chapters with the titles projected onstage; in “The Faculty Meeting” a video shows schoolgirls congregating around a staircase on an endless loop, and in “The Visit,” Baryshnikov’s face is filmed and simultaneously projected so that it appears like the video link from a doorbell’s security camera. The show says more about surveillance and paranoia in a few scenes than most pundits can communicate in thousands of words—Belikov retires to his house, where the door has a comical number of bolts on it, and then enshrines himself away from the world in a rectangular bed surrounded by white drapes. “By forever praising the past, he was simply trying to justify his horror of reality,” says a narrator.
Baryshnikov’s voice might be faint, even with the microphone he wears, but his physicality is, unsurprisingly, magnetic. He tumbles backward down a staircase with the grace of a cat, and his extraordinarily expressive face communicates all the radically novel feelings Belikov has when he encounters the free-spirited Barbara (the versatile Tymberly Canale). Projections accompanied by the unmistakable rasp of a Polaroid camera reveal him smiling throughout their courtship, a man transformed by possibility. The poignancy is heightened by music director and performer Chris Giarmo’s accompaniments (he sings a number at the end that’s Bon Iver-beautiful), as well as by the incongruous but lovely inclusion of offbeat songs like Carly Simon’s “Coming Around Again,” enhanced by a giant mirrorball that descends from above.
The cast also includes Aaron Mattocks as Kovalenko, Barbara’s Ukrainian brother, and Jess Barbagallo as Burkin, who seems to share narrator duties with Giarmo’s Ivan. Costume designer Oana Botez puts those three characters in red-toned plaid shirts and traditional Slavic costumes, all the better to contrast with Belikov’s buttoned-up black suit and military-style overcoat and Barbara’s pink lace dress. Set designer Peter Ksander hints at Belikov’s barren life by crafting his apartment out of identical leather books and dark wood hues. The only picture hanging is an eye-test poster, in a nod to the character’s literal and symbolic shortsightedness.
“About Love” is much shorter, but no less moving. Canale plays the married woman whom Baryshnikov’s character falls in love with, and their romance plays out from a variety of different (physical) angles, with cameras filming them from the side as they sit at a table and from above in the show’s final scene, their bodies contorting into different shapes like the hands of a clock. Endlessly original, deeply moving, and very clever, Man in a Case pushes the boundaries of what art can communicate and create.
Man in a Case is at Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre through December 22. Running time is about one hour and 15 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($45 to $105) are available via Shakespeare’s website.