Arena Stage announced its 2013-14 season in typical clandestine fashion last night (a post-midnight press release with details already published in the Washington Post), and it’s fair to say it’s quite a lineup. There are big-name stars (Kathleen Turner, Bill Pullman), theater gods (Moises Kaufman, Estelle Parsons), and world premieres (New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright’s play about the Camp David Accords, resident playwright Charles Randolph-Wright’s Love in Afghanistan), as well as some meaty classics on the agenda (Turner will star in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children).
The only thing missing? The Manzari brothers, who were scheduled to appear in Tappin’ Thru Life, a co-production with Alliance Theatre and the Cleveland Playhouse starring Maurice Hines. In January, Arena artistic director Molly Smith issued a letter to season ticket holders mentioning Wright’s Camp David, as well as a new musical featuring Hines with John and Leo Manzari, who all appeared together in Arena’s critically acclaimed 2010 show Sophisticated Ladies. There’s no mention of the Manzari brothers in Arena’s season announcement, however, and an Arena spokesperson was unable to confirm at this time whether they’d be appearing in Tappin’ Thru Life when it opens in the Kreeger Theater in November.
Still, with or without the local tap-dancing phenoms, Arena’s new season seems formidable. Here are the details:
Opening in September is The Velocity of Autumn, a pre-Broadway production by Eric Coble starring Tony winners Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella and directed by Smith. (The play was billed as Smith’s Broadway debut when it was announced late last year.)
Coming in October is the world premiere of Arena resident playwright Charles Randolph-Wright’s Love in Afghanistan.
Tappin’ Thru Life, directed by Tony winner Jeff Calhoun, and starring Maurice Hines, opens November 15.
Metamorphoses—director/playwright Mary Zimmerman’s interpretation of Ovid’s myths—comes to Arena Stage February 8 through March 17, ten years after the show’s Broadway run earned her a Tony Award for directing. Zimmerman is a member of Lookingglass Theatre Company and a resident director at Goodman Theatre, both in Chicago, as well as a professor at Northwestern University. In Washington she’s directed productions of Candide, The Arabian Nights, and Argonautika. Zimmerman is currently at work on an adaptation of The Jungle Book, incorporating the Disney cartoon’s songs with elements from the original book by Rudyard Kipling. We talked to her by phone about reviving Metamorphoses, staging it in New York immediately after 9/11, and why she loves Washington.
What was the impetus for reviving Metamorphoses ?
It’s Lookingglass’s 25th anniversary and we’re this small, scrappy company—or now I suppose we’re midsize. But we wanted to celebrate by bringing back a signature piece here in Chicago. There were a few theaters that wanted to take it, but the only one I was interested in was Arena, because it’s something different for me—doing the show in the round is a new challenge.
What first interested you in Ovid’s tales?
At Northwestern, where I teach, I wanted to do a show about myths using water. It wasn’t until later that I realized all these myths were actually Ovid. All my life I’d had a tremendous interest in the stories. My mother had a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology on her bookshelf with these pen-and-ink drawings that are seared into my heart. After I finished with fairy tales in childhood I moved onto those. I think I sensed the psychological and the adult content.
Where did the idea for the water come from?
The myths have everything to do with water, and water has everything to do with change—in virtually every culture it’s a symbol of change. In Shakespeare everything goes through a sea change, and water is symbolic in terms of crossing a rubicon, and of transformation. In a lot of cultures it’s where you go to meet the gods, because they come out of water. It’s a very mutable and mutating element, and it can metamorphose, and be a solid or a liquid, so it works physically and emblematically.
Metamorphoses played in New York right after 9/11 and seemed to resonate with people there. What do you think it can say to contemporary Washington?
These stories have earned their keep because they’re consistently relevant. They’re not a conspiracy by English teachers to keep us interested in the classics; they’re around because they address the ongoing problems of being a person and going through life—that is to say, unwanted, unlooked for change. Metamorphosis is a wrenching thing that happens in our lives but that produces something new in each case. The archetypal nature of the myths seems to lend itself to whatever’s in the air.
That said, our first preview off-Broadway in New York was September 16, 2001. That night was one of only two times in my life where I experienced catharsis. You could feel the audience go through the pity and the terror in the show and then somehow be released from those feelings. About 15 minutes into the show a man says goodbye to his wife because he’s going to make a sea voyage. It’s a very beautiful day, and out of the blue this horrible storm comes and he’s killed. As he’s drowning he prays to the gods, “At least let her find my body.” The immediacy of that in Manhattan on that day was overwhelming, and as we approached those lines I pressed back in my chair, thinking, “I can’t believe we’re going to do this now.” But the ancient tales tell us it was ever thus, and life has survived and presses on in new and unrecognizable forms, but it persists.
You come to Washington a lot. What do you like about working here?
I love Washington. I love walking down the street and seeing Supreme Court justices at the deli. I love that Supreme Court justices come to my shows, even if they’re not always the ones I would like to come, necessarily. I love that it’s small and monumental at the same time. And a very good friend, Natsu Onoda, who’s making a name for herself on the Washington drama scene, lives there.
The Chicago Tribune called this show your masterwork. Would you agree with that?
It’s the one I most identify with, but of course I’m always most in love with the thing I just did and the thing I’m currently doing, and I hope to always be challenging myself with the thing I’m doing next. I actually think Metamorphoses is quite quirky. It flips between a fancy translation and a more colloquial form of speaking. Often successes are full of odd flaws—a lot of operas are dramaturgically terrible. People respond to the spirit of a thing, I’ve learned.
Metamorphoses is at Arena Stage February 8 through March 17. Tickets ($40 and up) are available via Arena’s website.
This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
If the extensive Tinseltown real estate holdings and roster of proud celebrity members didn’t tip you off, the Church of Scientology seems to have a bit of a thing for aligning itself with Hollywood glamour, and its fully loaded Washington outpost is no exception. The 16th Street Scientology Center, which made waves when it opened in 2009 thanks to its curious name (“Ideal Org”) and the traffic snarls it caused, hosted a performance by the L. Ron Hubbard Golden Age Theater Friday night. While there was no Tom Cruise cameo, the free performance offered the chance to see entertainment industry fandom onstage—as well as a peek inside the controversial (and litigious) religion.
Upon entering the center’s pristine halls, guests were greeted by a table of grinning volunteers who had each visitor fill out a personal information sheet (I opted to just list my name and phone number and was still allowed through, though there were lines for e-mail and home addresses and other information) and put on a nametag. After navigating tables of brightly displayed books and materials for sale and plenty more volunteers eager to chat, we were directed to an upstairs cafe room where an impressive spread of free sandwiches and snacks was flanked by more tables carpeted in the works of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s revered founder. Most prominently placed were the colorful stacks of volumes and audiobooks from Hubbard’s Stories From the Golden Age, the subject of the night’s performance.
Before he released Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health—the contents of which would evolve into Scientology’s core tenets—in 1950, Hubbard wrote pulp fiction stories in the ’30s and ’40s. The collection of 153 of those sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, and Western tales was the shameless star of the evening. Stories has its own theater company and, along with Hubbard’s other literary works, its own publishing house. The Golden Age Theater’s website lists scores of actors and actresses (mostly unknowns, though some recognizable character actors and Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss stood out—really, Peggy? Never would have guessed) who perform the stories in the company’s signature nostalgic radio style in Hollywood and in appearances across the country. Friday’s one-night-only show was based on Hubbard’s “Tough Old Man,” originally published in the November 1950 issue of Startling Stories magazine.
January 30 through March 10 at Studio Theatre, Serge Seiden directs The Motherf***cker With the Hat, Stephen Adley Guirgis’s black comedy about a recovering alcoholic torn between the girlfriend he suspects is cheating on him and his parole counselor.
At Shakespeare Theatre, Bethesda native Richard Schiff (The West Wing) starts in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, a two-man drama about an aging hustler in New York City. January 31 through March 17.
Spooky Action Theatre stages Kafka on the Shore, an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s novel by Frank Galati. January 31 through February 24.
February 1 through 23, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night gets the Taffety Punk treatment.
February 1 through March 10, Arena Stage presents Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole). Set in South Boston, the show concerns a single mother who forges a plan to escape her debt.
Toby’s Dinner Theatre, which recently swept the Helen Hayes nominations with its production of The Color Purple, presents Fiddler on the Roof. February 2 through April 28.
Writer/director Joe Calarco returns to Washington with Shakespeare’s R&J, his riff on Romeo and Juliet set at an all-male Catholic boarding school. At Signature Theatre February 5 through March 3.
No Rules Theatre Company, currently in residence at Signature, presents Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, a farce with the lights turned out. February 6 through March 2.
February 6 through 10 at Arena Stage, Massachusetts-based Double Edge Theatre has a five-night run of The Grand Parade, a world premiere physical theater work exploring Marc Chagall’s paintings.
Mitchell Hébert directs Round House Bethesda’s production of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, a Pulitzer-winning comedy about four less-than-ethical Chicago real estate agents. February 6 through March 3.
Another Mamet play, Race, comes to Theater J. The drama features three attorneys asked to defend a wealthy white man against charges of assaulting a young black woman. February 6 through March 17.
The only surprise at the annual nominations for the Helen Hayes Awards, presented by TheatreWashington, would be if there were no surprise. The process of honoring the best in local theater has something of a reputation for eccentricity, and this year’s nominations, announced last night at the National Theatre, were no different.
For starters, the judges’ love affair with Toby’s Dinner Theater in Columbia, which had seemed to wane last year with only one nomination (for Chicago, for Outstanding Director, Resident Musical) is back on—the theater picked up nine nominations, including eight for The Color Purple (more than any other nominated musical). Meanwhile Synetic Theater, a usual favorite of the judges (it received 15 nominations last year and 14 in 2011), was completely shut out in 2013.
It was also a disappointing night for the Kennedy Center, which received only eight nominations—one more than the much, much smaller MetroStage and Keegan Theatre. Theater J got five, Ford's Theatre snagged four, and Round House and Forum Theatre each only managed one.
As usual, the largest haul went to Shakespeare Theatre and Arena Stage (18 each) with the Folger in third place with 14 nominations (a good haul considering it only staged four shows in 2012, one of which was a touring production of Hamlet by Shakespeare's Globe). Signature and Studio Theatre scored 12 each, with Woolly Mammoth tied with children’s theater Imagination Stage for 10.
And the shows the judges loved (well, apart from The Color Purple, anyway)? Woolly Mammoth’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, a drama set in the glitzy, fake-aggressive world of professional wrestling, and the Folger’s Wild West-set Taming of the Shrew, each of which scored nine nominations. Studio’s production of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Signature’s production of Dreamgirls both got seven, while Arena’s Pullman Porter Blues and Metrostage’s Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris were tied with six.
Despite his credentials directing shows all over the world, Stephen Rayne might be seen as an odd choice to helm Ford’s Theatre’s 75th-anniversary production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. For one thing, Rayne is British and Our Town is a quintessentially American drama. For another, he’s never seen the play.
“I guess people will ask why on earth they’re getting an English director,” says Rayne. “But I’m very attracted to what Wilder wanted the play to be originally, which was one that spoke to people from all cultures across the world. He didn’t think he’d written a play about a small community in New England—he thought he’d written a play modeled on Greek drama.”
Rayne lives in London but travels so often for work that he moved to the suburb of Chiswick to be closer to Heathrow Airport. He’s directed shows in Washington regularly over the last four years, including The Merry Wives of Windsor at Shakespeare Theatre Company and the musical Parade at Ford’s. Most recently, he oversaw The Two Worlds of Charlie F., an original production using wounded soldiers as performers, in London’s West End.
Ford’s Our Town—January 25 through February 24—aims to give the 1938 play about the fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, greater relevance for contemporary Washington. The majority of the cast is people of color, and the pivotal role of the Stage Manager, who acts as a narrator, is played by a younger African-American woman as opposed to the more common older white man.
“If you look at a theater today, a stage manager won’t be a 60-year-old smoking a pipe,” says Rayne. “I’m trying to shift the play into the 21st century and have it speak to a modern audience.”
As for never having seen Our Town, he says: “I think if you see a production, it colors your perception. It’s like a new play to me, and I’m trying to treat it as such.”
Our Town. January 25 to February 24 at Ford’s Theatre. Tickets ($20 to $62) available online.
This article appears in the January 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
Opening This Month
At Studio Theatre January 2 through 27, Brit playwright Duncan Macmillan (Lungs) directs the US premiere of Contractions by Mike Bartlett. The dark satire about a controlling employer in a Big Brother-esque society was called “brutally entertaining” by the Daily Telegraph when it ran at London’s Royal Court Theatre.
We, Tiresias, Stephen Spotswood’s hit at last year’s Capital Fringe festival, gets a two-week engagement at Forum Theatre. The play explores the blind prophet who recurs in stories throughout Greek tragedy. January 3 through 13.
Washington Stage Guild presents the local premiere of Karoline Leach’s Tryst, about a con man and set in Edwardian England. The play debuted in 2006 off-Broadway, where the New York Times called it “a suspense drama of a distinctly old-fashioned stamp.” January 3 through 27.
American Century Theatre stages The Show-Off, the 1924 by George Kelly about a Philadelphia family infiltrated by a pompous social climber. January 24 through February 2.
In partnership with Georgetown University, Theater J presents Boged (Traitor): An Enemy of the People, an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play by Boaz Gaon and Nor Erez at Georgetown’s Davis Performing Arts Center. The production tells the story of a mayor and his environmentalist brother who become divided over a chemical leak in an industrial park. January 12 through February 3.
Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker staff writer whose 25,000-word story “Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology” caused a stir when it was published in 2011, will debut a new play at Arena Stage next season. The author, screenwriter, and playwright has written the show about the 1978 Camp David accords, in which Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin, and Anwar Sadat negotiated for 13 days before announcing a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Wright’s Camp David play was revealed in a story in yesterday’s New York Times about the writer’s newest project, a book based on his Scientology research titled, Going Clear: Scientology, Celebrity, and the Prison of Belief. Wright interviewed former and current members of the Church of Scientology to explore the church’s relationship with its members. “Scientology is probably the most stigmatized religion in America already,” Wright told the Times. “But I’m fascinated by it and by what drives people to Scientology, especially given its image.”
It’s 12/12/12—what better time to throw off the shackles of a constraining year-end top-ten list and instead embrace a format that’s (slightly) more forgiving? After a year in which Kathleen Turner adopted a Texan accent, George Hamilton played it not-so-straight, Edward Gero painted hundreds of blood-red canvases in two minutes, and Basil Twist finally got his Washington close-up, all we can say is that this was a mighty hard compilation to pull together. Excuses aside, behold our list of the top 12 plays of 2012.
Black Watch / The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at Shakespeare
There’s little more we can say about Shakespeare Theatre’s efforts to bring the National Theatre of Scotland to Washington other than that we love it. From the “heartbreakingly compelling” Black Watch to the “beer-soaked, camaraderie-laden” Prudencia Hart, the company gave us two risky, creative, thought-provoking plays this year. Please come back again.
Red at Arena Stage
Great things can happen when two esteemed companies collaborate. Red, a production of John Logan’s Tony-winning play about Mark Rothko presented in conjunction with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, was one of them.
Gidion’s Knot at the Contemporary American Theater
The best play we saw at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, Johnna Adams’s gripping tale of a mother facing up to her child’s isolation is one that will hopefully get staged in Washington sooner rather than later.
The Normal Heart at Arena Stage
Larry Kramer’s play, presented almost three decades after it was first staged in the midst of the AIDS crisis, is no less shocking and relevant today. George C. Wolfe’s production, starring Patrick Breen, Patricia Wettig, and Luke McFarlane, made for “unbelievably powerful theater.”
Really Really at Signature
Signature proved it has the chops for more than just musicals with this bleakly funny, caustic play about Generation Me, a world premiere by Paul Downs Colaizzo directed by Matthew Gardiner.
Astro Boy and the God of Comics at Studio
Described as a “high/low-tech multimedia extravaganza,” Natsu Onoda Power’s ingenious riff on the world of Japanese manga comics brought “gobs of energy and wit to an unusual enterprise.”
Twenty-four years after John Malkovich starred in the movie Dangerous Liaisons, the actor is directing a French-language production of the play Les Liaisons Dangereuses, based on the drama by Christopher Hampton, which in turn was taken from a novel by Choderlos de Laclos. The show comes to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre December 6 through 9, following a run earlier this year at Paris’s Théâtre de l’Atelier.
The new version of the story—about the romantic manipulations of immoral aristocrats Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil—fuses 18th-century culture with modern trappings, so the actors wear corsets and wigs over jeans (Malkovich also helped design the costumes) and text one another love notes and photos. “The book was written when the French had nothing to do but seduce people,” says Théâtre de l’Atelier artistic director Laura Pels, “so it’s historical in terms of presenting the way people lived, but in a modern way.”
Malkovich auditioned more than 300 student actors before selecting a troupe whose members were all under 25, in keeping with the ages of the novel’s characters. While Hampton’s play was nominated for a Tony Award when it ran on Broadway in 1987, Pels says the adaptation is truer to the novel’s spirit: “The French is very saucy, so it would be a pity to have it in English. It’s not that it has to be done in French, but it has to be done in a way that gives a sense of what motivated these people. I don’t think Malkovich would have done it in any other language.”
Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Dec. 6 to 9 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre. Tickets ($60 to $75) at shakespearetheatre.org.
This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.