The toxic stew of long-buried family secrets, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, barbed endearments, and bourbon that festers in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities—currently having its local premiere at Arena Stage—is the kind of grim but enthralling mix that makes for gut-punching theater, in which the “indentured servitude of having a family” is put under a microscopic lens. As Arundhati Roy once put it, the trouble with families is that, “like invidious doctors, they [know] just where it hurts.”
Opening This Month
At Constellation Theatre, Alison Arkell Stockman directs Gilgamesh, Chad Gracia’s version of the epic with text by Pulitzer-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa and a score by Helen Hayes Award winner Tom Teasley. May 2 through June 2.
The Washington National Opera stages Show Boat at the Kennedy Center, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern’s 1927 musical known for songs “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” May 4 through 26.
Derek Goldman directs Once Wild: Isadora in Russia, a new work by playwright Norman Allen, composer Dominik Maican, and choreographer Cythia Word, at Georgetown’s Performing Arts Center. Based on Isadora Duncan’s life, it stars actress Kimberly Schraf and dancer Ingrid Zimmer, who jointly play the adopted daughter of the American dancer blacklisted for her communist sympathies. May 3 through 5.
Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea direct The Full Monty, about unemployed steelworkers moonlighting as strippers, at Keegan Theatre. The musical’s book is by Terrence McNally; music and lyrics are by David Yazbek. May 4 through June 1.
Synetic Theater presents The Three Musketeers, giving the Alexandre Dumas tale of D’Artagnan and his three gallant friends the physical theater treatment. May 9 through June 9.
Olney Theatre stages The Submission, Jeff Talbott’s play about a white male playwright who disguises himself as a black female writer to give his subject credence. The Village Voice described it as “sharp-edged, fast, [and] frequently funny.” May 9 through June 9.
At Shakespeare Theatre Rebecca Bayla Taichman directs The Winter’s Tale, the Bard’s romance about a jealous king who condemns his wife to prison and exiles his baby daughter. The coproduction with Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center stars Brent Carver, Mark Harelik, Nancy Robinette, and Ted van Griethuysen. May 9 through June 23.
Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company gets a revival at Signature Theatre for the first time in two decades. Eric Schaeffer directs the production about a 35-year-old bachelor reluctant to settle down. May 21 through June 30.
Studio Theatre artistic director David Muse helms The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard’s drama about a playwright married to an actress who spins his life into his art. Teagle F. Bougere, last seen here in Studio’s Invisible Man, stars. May 22 through June 30.
At Round House Silver Spring, Derek Goldman directs Clementine in the Lower 9, Dan Dietz’s post-Hurricane Katrina retelling of the Agamemnon myth. The Forum Theatre show is named for New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward and incorporates the region’s jazz-and-blues culture. May 23 through June 15.
In its first big-budget original production since 2011’s Follies, the Kennedy Center stages The Guardsman, a new adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s play about an unhappy marriage. Gregory Mosher directs a cast including Sarah Wayne Callies, Shuler Hensley, and Finn Wittrock. May 25 through June 23.
Woolly Mammoth presents the world premiere of Aaron Posner’s Stupid F---ing Bird, a riff on Chekhov’s The Seagull that explores acting and the creative process. May 27 through June 23.
If the Helen Hayes Awards were the Oscars, Aaron Posner would be Ben Affleck. The director didn’t scoop the Best Director award last night for his Wild West-themed production of The Taming of the Shrew at Folger Theatre (although at least, unlike Affleck, he was actually nominated), but the production won Outstanding Resident Play, proving itself to be hog-high, pig-tight, and bull-strong as a fusion of Shakespeare and cowboy culture.
A word of advice for the uninitiated: Helen Hayes night isn’t really about the awards. The, shall we say, eclectic nature of the judging process frequently defies interpretation, so the event functions primarily as a celebration of local theater as a whole, during which smaller companies compete to see who can scream louder when their productions appear in big-screen montages and acceptance speeches range from Anne Hathaway actor-y to inexplicable—on accepting his award for Outstanding Lead Actor, Resident Musical last night, Bobby Smith of MetroStage’s Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris claimed he was hammered on martinis and talked about “leakage.”
The event was muted without the inevitable enthusiasm of Synetic Theater, usually an oversize presence at the ceremony and on the dancefloor (the company didn’t receive so much as a single nomination this year). Still, some winners emerged. In the musical theater category, Signature Theatre’s production of Dreamgirls got rather overshadowed by the much lower-budget Jacques Brel, which took awards for Outstanding Director (Serge Seiden), Lead Actress (Natascia Diaz), and Lead Actor (the aforementioned Smith). But director Matthew Gardiner’s Dreamgirls captured the award for Outstanding Resident Musical, as well as Supporting Actor (Cedric Neal) and Costume Design (Frank Labovitz).
In the drama category, Studio Theatre’s presentation of a new adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man also had a good night, scooping Outstanding Director (Christopher McElroen), Lighting Design (Mary Louise Geiger), and Outstanding Ensemble. Francesca Faridany won the Lead Actress category for her role in Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude at Shakespeare Theatre, while Steven Epp won Lead Actor for his role in The Servant of Two Masters at the same theater. And in the non-resident productions, which usually fete celebrities who are extremely unlikely to show up (ahem, Cate Blanchett), all three winners were there in person to pick up their trophies. David M. Lutken, who starred as Woody Guthrie in Theater J’s Woody Sez, won Lead Actor alongside Felicia Boswell for the Kennedy Center’s Memphis. Christopher Saul also picked up his Supporting Performer Award for the Folger’s imported production of Hamlet by Shakespeare’s Globe, telling the audience (in case they were wondering), that yes, he is a Brit. And lest conspiracy theories arise as to winners being tipped off before they made the journey, Hamlet (Michael Benz) was also in the audience, and he went home empty-handed.
Opening This Month
Two performances run in repertory at Shakespeare Theatre this month: Artistic director Michael Kahn directs Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein, about the infamous 17th-century general; and Studio Theatre artistic director David Muse helms Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, about the tragic war hero. Through June 2.
Aaron Posner directs The Last Five Years at Signature, the last-minute fill-in for Crimes of the Heart. The two-person musical stars James Gardiner and Posner’s real-life wife, Erin Weaver, as a couple pondering their relationship. April 2 through 28.
Andy and the Shadows, a world premiere play by Theater J artistic director
Ari Roth, opens at the
DC Jewish Community Center in a production directed by Daniella Topol. Alexander Strain stars as Andy Glickstein,
the son of two Holocaust refugees exploring his heritage. April 3 through May 5.
Olney Theatre revives Neville’s Island: A Comedy in Thick Fog by Tim Firth, writer of the movies Calendar Girls and Kinky Boots. In the play, four Englishmen are shipwrecked on a minute island in the Lake District, ensuring mishaps and adventures during their quest to get home. April 4 through 28.
Taffety Punk stages Oxygen, Ivan Vyrypaev’s music-themed play set in contemporary Russia to a soundtrack by E.D. Sedgwick, the Caribbean, and more. April 5 through 26.
The Hub Theatre presents A Man, His Wife, and His Hat, the local premiere of Lauren Yee’s magical realism story about a man who loses two very important things. Shirley Serotsky directs. April 5 through 28.
Monty Python’s Spamalot returns to the National Theatre, featuring songs riffing on the tale of King Arthur (“His Name is Lancelot”), an evil rabbit, and the Knights Who Say Ni. The musical adaptation of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail won three Tony Awards during its Broadway run. April 10 through 14.
New Round House producing artistic director Ryan Rilette directs the East Coast premiere of Bill Cain’s How to Write a Book for the Bible. The autobiographical play explores the relationship between Cain, who is a Jesuit priest, and his elderly mother during the last year of her life. April 10 through May 5.
Georgetown University presents the world premiere of Christine Evans’s Trojan Barbie, juxtaposing ancient and modern culture in a contemporary spin on the legend of Troy. Maya E. Roth directs. April 11 through 20.
In the odd, zeitgeisty way in which cultural depictions of certain subjects seem to come along like buses (nothing for decades and then three at once), Elizabeth Keckly is very much alive again—seen portrayed by Gloria Reuben in last year's Lincoln, and as the subject of a recent book by Jennifer Chiaverini. But it’s almost impossible to imagine a more intriguing, nuanced portrayal of Keckly than the one Tazewell Thompson has crafted in Mary T. & Lizzy K., his world premiere play currently at Arena Stage. Immaculate in a gown of bronze patterned silk, and ferocious as she crafts a dress around the First Lady, Thompson’s Keckley (played by Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) is one of the most riveting female characters seen all season.
The last time monologuist Mike Daisey was in town, it was with a revised version of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the play whose earlier incarnation sparked controversy when it was revealed he’d played with some facts. Daisey performs his new work, American Utopias, at Woolly Mammoth March 25 through April 21. The work explores three idealized visions: Disney World, the Burning Man festival, and Occupy Wall Street. We caught up with Daisey to discuss why utopias fail, his close relationship with Woolly Mammoth, and his complex feelings about social media.
How did you come up with the idea for American Utopias ?
The idea came to me about three years ago. It was born out of the desire to talk about communities that are bound by a dream to make a world more perfect than the one they live in. I’d become obsessed with utopian communities in the 19th century, and I became interested in finding modern analogs to this desire to find a community to transform your life. I settled on Disney World and Burning Man. Then the Occupy movement happened, and it became clear it was the same expression of an impulse to see yourself as part of a tribe.
Why do you think utopias are fated to fail?
Well, it’s built into their DNA. All utopias fail, and that’s in a way the major point of a utopia—they fail in the same way that all societies fail and all civilizations fail. The question is, how long do they persist for? The American experiment has only gone on for about 200 years or so, and in many ways it’s a utopian expression of ideas that were enshrined in those original documents. Right now it doesn’t feel like a utopia because we live in it and it has problems every day, but when America ends we’ll look back at it in a different way. Our terms for success are a little irrational. Truthfully, the only way you can claim a utopian society succeeded is if everyone’s totally happy all of the time.
So they set themselves up for failure.
It depends on how you define failure. Burning Man, for instance, is an environment in which there’s very little commercialization, and money isn’t used. That can be interpreted cynically, because you can be condescending about it and say all these people come from a culture filled with those things, so if they go to the desert for a week and a half it doesn’t change anything. But the truth is that being in that environment is kind of startling because it makes you aware for the very first time what it’s like to live, even temporarily, in a society that isn’t as commodified as the one we live in. In large parts a utopian attempt is really an act of faith that we can make things better.
How long did it take you to research and devise the show?
About three years. It went up for performance for the first time in July, but a lot of the shows develop for a number of years before they come to fruition because it turns out they need research that requires trips. I normally work on many different projects at the same time. But I’ve really enjoyed the amount of time it’s taken to come to the stage, because it’s a good time to talk about the Occupy movement.
What did you end up taking away from this project?
The reason I do these monologues is to explore my obsessions. I could do something else that would be easier and better paid—and cause less trouble—but I wouldn’t be able to find the things I’m interested in and have an excuse to spend enormous amounts of time exploring them. It was tremendously useful to go to Disney World with my extended family, for whom it’s their personal mecca—they worship the mouse.
How would you describe your relationship with Woolly Mammoth?
We’re married—no, dating. We’re like long-term collaborators. We really seem to understand each other. I love their audiences. They may not be the largest but they’re the most motivated and open to risk, and that’s a real commodity. Audiences are actually fundamentally the same everywhere—they’re all human beings—but at the same time, and I hope this is okay to say, I find DC audiences really hungry for compelling work. It’s not that they’re underserved by the arts community at all, because they’re getting lots of great work, but I think it’s because of the nature of some of DC. It’s this odd place that does have natives, but many people are serving terms, and for a large number of them DC is not actually the place they might have chosen to live if they felt they were free to live anywhere else. I hope this isn’t jerky to say, but it does sometimes feel like one of the reasons the audiences are so good is because people are hungry. They’re like, “Oh, my God, I had to go to the State Department, my life is in a cube, I have to go to the theater.” Hidden in some parts of DC is this wild desire to find a place to break free.
You’re very active on social media. Do you think it helps you as an artist?
I don’t know. I hope it is. I’m working on a sequel to The Agony and the Ecstasy about how everything’s changed because of smartphones. This level of social interconnectivity is very acidic to barriers, and it’s very hard to find the level of engagement that might be the right level. For most people there’s an instinct to share and aggregate as much as possible, but I actually wonder what it does long-term—not just to artists but to human relations. It’s too early to tell, isn’t it?
American Utopias is at Woolly Mammoth March 25 through April 21. Tickets ($35 to $67.50) are available via Woolly’s website.
An edited version of this article appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
Early on in Keegan Theatre’s production of A Behanding in Spokane, now playing at the company’s Church Street Playhouse, eccentric hotel clerk Mervyn (Bradley Foster Smith) opines upon the lack of excitement and intrigue checking in to his dingy roadside establishment. The character’s delightfully rambling description of all the outlandish scenarios he’s imagined uncovering in his years manning the reception desk quickly establishes Mervyn as the show’s most commanding, and entertaining, presence. And if he’s looking for excitement and intrigue, the grisly, beyond-bizarre sequence of events that follows more than fits the bill.
Has there been a debut more eagerly anticipated than that of Angela Meade in the role of the druid priestess Norma, heroine of Vincenzo Bellini’s masterful opera of the same name? The buzz surrounding this young soprano began when Meade triumphed at the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, performing the cavatina “Casta Diva” from the first act of Norma. Meade subsequently sang the role in a concert setting, leading some critics to proclaim her the next great Norma—undue pressure, to be sure, for someone so young. For one thing, the role is astoundingly difficult, requiring elegance and stamina, an impeccable coloratura technique, and raw vocal heft. But it’s also terrain that’s been marked by the greatest voices of the last century, including Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland, who owned the part, though in markedly different ways.
Meade’s traversal of the role with the Washington National Opera (in a production directed by Anne Bogart) is her first fully staged version. And for many reasons, her performance on Tuesday evening was memorable. She has an instrument that can do just about anything, and though much can be said about her effortless coloratura, her thrilling high notes, and the way she floats the quietest notes to irresistible effect, I was most impressed by the colors in her voice, as well as her musicality. Yes, this is virtuoso music. But Meade’s virtuosity always seems to be in service of the text. Her tone is both voluptuous and piercing (in her “Casta Diva,” a plea for peace in the face of Roman conquest), round and supple (in the marvelous second-act recitative “Dormono entrambi non vedran la mano” and in the arioso that follows), and almost always pure. In the ensembles that close both acts, Meade sculpts long, arcing lines—a master class in breath control.
Opening This Month
Washington Improv Theater’s FIST (Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament) is the March Madness of improv—a bracketed tournament pitting performers against each other in three-person teams and relying on the audience to choose who wins over a five-week time period. March 14 through April 13.
Arena Stage presents the world premiere of Tazewell Thompson’s Mary T. and Lizzy K., a drama based on the friendship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her black dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley. Thompson, who was nominated for an Emmy for his production of Porgy and Bess at Lincoln Center, directed the Virginia Opera’s production of The Pearl Fishers in October. March 15 through April 28.
Keegan Theatre presents Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane, the 2010 black comedy about a man looking for his missing hand and the two con artists who try to sell him one. March 16 through April 6.
Studio Theatre founder and longtime artistic director Joy Zinoman returns to direct 4,000 Miles, Amy Herzog’s wry drama about a young man who bonds with his aging grandmother. “Ms. Herzog’s altogether wonderful drama . . . illuminates how companionship can make life meaningful,” wrote the New York Times. March 20 through April 28.
Signature Theatre and Ford’s Theatre join forces to present Hello, Dolly!, Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. Broadway veteran Nancy Opel stars with Edward Gero; Eric Schaeffer directs. March 15 through May 18.
Orson Welles was 20 when he directed Voodoo Macbeth, a version of the Shakespeare tragedy set on a Caribbean island, presented as part of the post-Depression Federal Theatre Project. Kathleen Akerley directs a new staging at American Century Theatre. March 22 through April 13.
Mike Daisey returns to Woolly Mammoth with his new show, American Utopias. The monologue describes Daisey’s experiences at three distinctly American attempts to find paradise on earth: Disney World, Burning Man, and Occupy Wall Street. March 25 through April 21.
Also at Arena Stage, Robert O’Hara directs Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. A co-production with Houston’s Alley Theatre, the drama that imagines Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night alive stars Bowman Wright as King and Joaquina Kalukango as a maid at Memphis’s Lorraine Hotel who brings him room service. The 2009 London production won an Olivier Award for best new play. March 29 through May 12.
Manon Lescaut (1893) was Giacomo Puccini’s third opera, but it was his first unequivocal success. The decision to adapt Abbé Prévost’s novella—about a young woman torn between love and her desire for the good life—was nothing short of audacious, as less than a decade before, Jules Massenet had turned that same heartbreaking text into an opera of enduring popularity. Puccini, however, was confident: “Manon is a heroine I believe in, and therefore she cannot fail to win the hearts of the public. Why shouldn’t there be two operas about her?”
Why not, indeed. Manon Lescaut bears all the hallmarks of the composer’s greatest works: ravishing melodies, searing dramatic tension, wonderful orchestral writing. In this early work Puccini exploited the forces in the pit as skillfully as he ever would, composing music of an almost symphonic quality, crucial to the advancement of the story. In terms of harmony and how closely integrated the orchestra and singers are, and the way certain motives recur in telling ways, the piece shares a few traits with Wagner’s music dramas. The work is also tricky to pull off, not just because of the vocal challenges, but also because of the wild swings in mood, moving from a first act full of ebullience to a finale steeped in pathos and dread.
This transformation is embodied by the character of Manon, a young woman of modest means who must choose between true love with the impoverished Chevalier des Grieux and a life of luxury with the older, wealthy Geronte. The American soprano Patricia Racette, singing the role at the Washington National Opera’s revival of Manon Lescaut, exquisitely spans the emotional range: coquettish and carefree in the first act, vain and indulgent in the second, anguished by opera’s end, when she realizes too late how disastrous her life’s choices have been. Racette’s characterization possesses real depth, but it’s her singing that’s so exciting, by turns warm and bright, expansive and intimate, tender in the quiet moments and rising to ecstatic heights when the music opens up in its most intense moments.