RAMMY’s “Carnevale da Cuisine”

July 26, 2011

The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington’s 29th annual gala took place June 26 at the Marriott Wardman Park. Masks were encouraged to reflect the theme of the D.C. restaurant scene as a veritable carnival feast. The event unites the entire restaurant industry for a fabulous evening that began with a reception featuring Virginia products followed by a 16-category awards ceremony. RAMW President Lynne Breaux and Gala Committee Chair Kristin Rohr of Guest Services, Inc. bid everyone welcome to “the best party of the year because you know how to party.” World renowned innovator José Andrés received the Duke Zeibert Capital Achievement Award. The ceremony culminated with the Chef of the Year Award bestowed upon Todd Gray of Equinox, who accepted alongside his beaming young son to a standing ovation. An overspill crowd proceeded to a resplendent feast that included the cuisines of Australia, Chile and Mexico before dancing the night away. [gallery ids="102568,102569,102570,102571,102572,102573,102574" nav="thumbs"]

Sam Forman Returns to Theater J

In theater, as elsewhere, everybody’s always looking for the next big thing. New plays and new playwrights, especially. They are looking for the next Miller, the next Mamet. Not that the theater world is lacking for fresh new talent: Sarah Rule, Craig Wright, the Pulitzer Prize winning Bruce Norris are all worthy of acclaim.

So is Sam Forman. A quintessential New York type in some ways, Forman is young, hip, very smart and a knowing young playwright and actor who has brought something to the theater that goes back to Chekhov, Neil Simon, even Woody Allen. Mostly, though, he’s brought himself.

This very site and psyche specific writer seems to have found a congenial home for his work at Theater J, where, for the second time, he has garnered a world-premiere production of one his plays.

You might remember Forman for his “The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall,” which received a world-premiere production at Theater J two seasons ago. “Hall,” flavored and textured with Woody Allen references and touches, got critical praise, terrific and mixed audiences, and a Helen Hayes award nomination. It featured a not-so-nice guy character—a young playwright no less—who would do just about anything to get his idea of a musical version of Woody Allen’s most famous film on the Broadway boards.

Now he’s back with “The Moscows of Nantucket,” getting a healthy May 11-June 12 run at Theater J.

“I really love coming here… It’s like a home for me,” Forman said in a phone interview here. “Ari Roth, the artistic director, has had great faith in my work. He’s created a legacy here, of very specific work for a specific community that’s universal.”

You could say that Forman is doing something of the same thing, and it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a kind of dervish dance, making culturally-specific work—Jewish background, Jewish characters—become something that catches the hearts and minds of a universal audience.

“Well, Neil Simon did it, and he did that very well,” Forman says. “Everybody has ambition like the lead in Annie Hall. Everyone has families, like the people in ‘Nantucket,’ and I think people, when they let themselves, recognize that.”

New plays, new playwrights aren’t always everyone’s cup of tea, and the scenario at Theater J is especially tricky because many of the season subscribers tend to be older and have been known to walk out on material that offends them.

But Forman’s plays—if my memories of “Hall” are on the money” and if his resume is any indication—are thought provoking, funny, entertaining and built on authentic characters. They may not always be likeable—how boring would that be—but they are recognizable. “That was the thing about Henry, the lead character in ‘Annie Hall.’ He’s got this show, this musical version of the movie, he’s in proximity to this successful producer, and he’s even willing to set up his girl friend. I played him in some productions… He’s based on my experience, but he’s not me. But I understand him, you know.”

“Nantucket” (which echoes some of Chekhov’s gatherings, albeit a little more frantically and loudly) concerns Benjamin Moscow, a 30-something, would-be novelist who is having trouble making a mark, having just moved back in with his parents partly because his girlfriend left him for another girl. The Moscows are gathering in Nantucket, a Wasp enclave not always hospitable to Jewish residents. Brother Michael has arrived with his new wife, a prominent television star, along with the nanny. Sibling rivalry, already a lifetime past time, heats with the matriarch and patriarchs caught in the middle.

“It’s a family play, a dysfunctional family play,” Forman said. “Sure, there’s some very Jewish family dynamics going on—the blonde Southern wife comes as a culture shock to the parents. There’s modern life struggling with tradition.”

Forman grew up in New York seeing plays like John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” and Albee and others, the new generations that found prominence in the 1960s. Ari Roth sees a lot of Neil Simon in him: “Sam’s got a lot in common with great playwrights like Neil Simon. He understands character, he understands human psychology, he understands story, and he understands audiences. That being said, he’s a writer from a whole new generation, and he’s not shy about his youth.”

Like a lot of new artists, Forman is a multitasker in the sense that he doesn’t stay with one gift, one genre or one thing. He recently co-created “Hickory Hill,” a television pilot for American Movie Classics, a station that has suddenly become a home for cutting edge series television. He’s the lyricist and co-author of the book for “I Sing!” And numerous other plays, and he remains an actor. “But I’m a writer first,” he says. “I think.”

“The Moscows of Nantucket” will be at Theater J from May 11 – June 12. For more information visit WashingtonDCJCC.org.

The Player: Andre Wells

Andre Wells is at the center of glitzy fundraisers, expensive weddings, and corporate parties. And that’s when he’s not scoping out the hottest hotels and restaurants.

But a glamorous life comes loaded with responsibility. As planner, producer, and owner of Events by Andre Wells, he orchestrates some of our city’s most beautiful events with energy and ambition. When I spoke with him at RIS restaurant, Andre shared his favorite type of client, some dream clients, and discussed how he thrives when little separates a messy disaster from a memorable spectacle.

What makes an event a success?

What is the goal of the event—that’s what we always ask. What are you trying to accomplish by having this event? What’s the message you want to give?

Also…when your guests don’t have to think. When you arrive there’s valet; when you walk in the door someone takes your coat; if they’re passing hor d’oeuvres, you’re not stuck with this long skewer; there are beautiful and intelligent people to talk to. All of that makes a great party or a great event.

How did you get involved in events?

I always wanted to be an event planner. During high school I was on this board called the Team Board. I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. We had about 20 high schools. Two or three people from each high school represented the high school for this department store that was part of the May Company. You would do community service projects. You would get to work in the store, print ads for the stores, do fashion shows, go and visit senior citizens’ homes. There was one woman, her name was Jane Slater, and she was the special events coordinator for the store. I thought, I love what she does, it’s a great job.

I had interned at Bloomingdales in New York and JCPenney. I graduated in ‘91 [from Hampton University] when we were in a recession . I got offered a job by the May Company as an assistant buyer. Of course, I was taking the job because I was not going back to Florida. And so I started my career. I worked for May Company, I worked for JCPenney, and I was a merchandiser and a buyer and I hated every moment of it.

I did it for three years. I remember I was dating my [girlfriend, now wife]. I told her, “I might have to move back to Florida because I’m putting in my resignation and I don’t have another job offer.”

Then a position became available at PBS for an assistant meeting planning position the day I resigned. I was able to come right in and I started doing all their meetings and events throughout the US. After that I went to work for a catering company building their corporate and social markets, and then I went to work for an event planning company building their business. And seven years ago I started my own company.

How do you deal with people who have very high expectations, a lot of stress and a habit of controlling outcomes?

I always tell people from the beginning: “Are you going to let us manage the event or do you want to manage it? Because you can’t be a micromanager, you have to let us be able to do our job.

If you come to me to have an event and you want it to be an Events by Andre Wells event, but then you start telling me things like: I want to use this person, I want to do that…well, I can’t take ownership of that. We’re not just coordinators. We’re designers. We’re logistic experts.

Does the client who says, “You’re on your own” scare you?

Oh, I love that kind of client. That’s the kind of client that really trusts you, and they’re aware of your capability and skill set. They let you fly.

Who are all the people who come together for events?

Attorneys, insurance agents, staff, permitting, valet…The [people who work] the actual event. Then the décor, furniture, lighting, sound, AV, linens, flatware, china, wine selection…I always say it’s a big, big choir that does a wonderful performance in the end.

Lots of venues in the city?

One of my jobs is to stay abreast of every new and old venue in city, even some that people wouldn’t think they could do an event in. For instance, all of the Smithsonian museums are very good places to hold events. There are lots of little hidden gems.

Do people want the same quality of event as ones where celebrities might have a budget of 10 or even 100 times more?

Oh yeah. And I always say, manage those expectations. People think, “I want to do my wedding just like that.” But they don’t really think of the cost that is associated. That’s why, to me, it’s very important to budget. We meet with the client first, we talk about the event, we talk about all the logistics and the details and what they want. Then we go back and do a proposal and a budget based on that conversation and present it to you.

There must be people who just tend to have brainstorms throughout the entire process even after they sign off something.

Oh they do. And it’s their right. I always say that everyone has the right to change their mind and to come back to you with different ideas. Six months leading up to a wedding is the perfect time to plan it. A year out…so many changes.

What made you decide to go out on your own?

Because I was working really hard. I used to be the last one in the office. I would look up and it would be 12 and 1 o’clock. You get used to making a certain amount of money and you get accustomed to a certain lifestyle. But I really believed in myself, and my wife really believed in me, and she was very supportive. So I said, “What’s the worst thing that could happen? I would have to go back and work for someone else.”
It’s very hard, sometimes all-nighters. You have to constantly be on point. But I love working for myself.

Do you have any dream clients?

Of course. Come on over Oprah! HBO and Showtime…I like people who are interesting, people who are doing good things. I wouldn’t mind Facebook as a client. So I’d say I have some great clients that I have yet to work with.

Sounds like an exciting life.

It’s fun. I like that I get to meet so many different people, from celebrities to politicians to everyday good people.

I always ask the people that work with me, “What’s the creative lesson for today?”

I never want to be bored with this and I never want to be boring. I always want to create, have fun, make people laugh and share joy.

[Click here to listen to the audio](http://www.zshare.net/audio/8603693651c31808/) [gallery ids="99592,104999" nav="thumbs"]

Mexico Salutes “Pati’s Mexican Table”

On Mar. 30, Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan proudly introduced Mexico’s newest culinary star Patricia Jinich as the “culinary ambassador to the United States” at a cocktail reception at the Mexican Cultural Center prior to the launch of “Pati’s Mexican Table” which aired on WETA TV 26 on Apr. 2. It happened to be the chef’s birthday which was duly applauded. The ambassador quoted the Washington Post’s comment that Pati is “a walking antidepressant.” Her charm is indeed infectious as the celebrity chef spoke of the Mexican Cultural Center as “”my home away from home.” [gallery ids="102554,120005,119988,119993,119999" nav="thumbs"]

Newsbabes Fight Cancer With Verve, Class and Beauty

D.C.’s Newsbabes lit up the Collonade Room May 17 at the Fairmont Hotel, all to benefit the fight against cancer, to meet friends and colleagues and to make some guys smile. The third annual Newsbabes Bash for Breast Cancer is a prelude for the June 4 Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. The stunning and fun group of female journalists honored cancer survivors Jennifer Griffin of Fox News, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and others. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius spoke about how cancer has touched her and America’s families. Washington, D.C., first lady — or first daughter — Jonice Gray Tucker recalled losing her mother Loretta to cancer and “all those left behind” by her death and stressed the greater need by underprivileged or minority groups to fight cancer and raise awareness for early detection. When the Newsbabes lined up, WTOP’s Man About Town Bob Madigan joined them as the honorary host and one lucky fellow. [gallery ids="99761,99762,99763,99764" nav="thumbs"]

The Player: Cheryl Masri & Jill Sorensen

D.C. fundraisers are often de rigueur, but “Knock Out Abuse” kicked it up several notches.

The invitation to the November 11 event showcased a design by Shepard Fairey, the creator of President Obama’s iconic “HOPE” portrait. Over 700 women celebrated the ultimate girls’ night out—beaming as men cooed through a megaphone, piling in photo booths, and conga dancing their way into a stunning Ritz Carlton ballroom.

They soon gasped, as New York Times bestselling author Leslie Morgan Steiner recounted the turning point in her first marriage: the night when her husband smashed a photo frame over her head, kicked her in the ribs and choked her.

Yet, they recovered for the live auction, fawning over a labradoodle and bidding up dinner with Redskins Running Back Clinton Portis. The lovely ladies finished the evening by dancing with tux-clad men who arrived after the all-male Fight Night fundraiser.

“The best movies are those where you laugh and cry and laugh again,” mused “Knock Out Abuse” co-founder Jill Sorensen at a lunch with co-founder Cheryl Masri, WTOP’s Bob Madigan and myself. “That’s what we try to do, we try to entertain.”

Entertain they have, time and again, earning them a spot in the top 10 DC events, according to ‘Washingtonian’ magazine. At an interview at Ris Restaurant eight days earlier, they recounted highlights: celibate rock god Lenny Kravitz belting out “American Woman”, a 60’s extravaganza of love-beaded, Levi-clad escorts and peace trees, and the fun of catering to pumped up and glammed up women.
A bit of reverse sexism? Absolutely. “Some women will pay $1500 for a man to take his T-shirt off,” exclaims Sorensen.

Former Ford model Sorensen, luminous in a cowl neck sweater and skinny jeans, is more raw emotion. Her image and enthusiasm are consistent with her acting and interior design career. Masri, clad from head to toe in sophisticated black under a checked jacket, more calmly cites statistics and inspiration. Her composure seems to reflect her work with Tomorrow’s Youth, a high-profile nonprofit she runs with her husband that helps at-risk Middle Eastern communities. Their gala last month recognized President Clinton and Cherie Blair.

Partners of almost two decades, Masri and Sorensen tell stories together, eagerly sharing their enduring motivation and their journey to the present.

Knock Out Abuse’s fundraising total—over $ 7 million—belies its humble start. Sorensen, new to DC and the domestic abuse trials of two friends, met then-graphic designer Masri in 1994. The two organized a $45 dinner for friends on Fight Night, the all-male benefit for children’s charities.

“At Café Milano we had 20 people— was it 20 people?” asks Sorenson.

“It was a little bit more,” answers Masri, describing the event. “At the end there were some fellows next door who came in from Morton’s. So one of the gals at the table picked up a hat and went around the bar and collected about $5000—much more than what we raised on our own for the dinner.”

“It was very sophisticated fundraising,” jokes Sorensen.

The next year’s nonstop OJ Simpson trial coverage boosted awareness, and the two slowly realized the event’s potential. 2,000 women distinctly uninvited to the macho Fight Night + a great cause could = a huge turnout. Then they stepped it up, moving to the Ritz-Carlton in 2000.

This is a watershed year. The press is buzzing with the high-profile cases of Rihanna, Charlie Sheen, and Mel Gibson. The ‘National Enquirer’ ran a cover story on the many Hollywood celebrities with a history of domestic abuse. Local papers covered murder-suicides rooted in domestic violence almost weekly.

The statistics are shocking. One in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and 15 million children witness violence each year. But it is the stories of drawn out, lived-in abuse—of the women who suffered silently for years—that bring a sobering reality. The effects deeply traumatize individuals,
often causing post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The scary thing about domestic violence is you become a prisoner in your own mind,” says Sorensen, describing the victimization of women of strong educational and economic backgrounds. A statement by meditation teacher Sally Kempton, on how individuals control others, resonates with her. “It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head,” she quotes.

Victims slow to take the advice of family and friends often find nowhere to turn. So outside help, like shelters and educational programs, are imperative. But government resources are being slashed even as the need for them is growing. During economic downturns, people who should split up stay together, and alcohol and drug abuse rises, which are all major contributing factors to domestic violence.

And the problem could grow as teenagers lose parental oversight with Internet and texting technologies and bullying increases. “Twenty-five percent of [sixth grade] students think it’s okay for boys to hit girls,” cites Sorensen.

Sorensen and Masri aspire to expand the scope of Knock Out Abuse. They want to teach teens the boundaries of acceptable behavior, expand to other cities, and enlist sane and sexy stars like Pierce Brosnan. They also envision growing “Sharing Spaces,” a framework of women who donate furniture and time to transform shelters into more welcoming, attractive environments.

Looking back, the two agree on the best part of the two decades: “Extraordinary women that I never
would have had the opportunity to meet,” says Masri.

“A giant sisterhood of support,” says Sorensen, “to have all these women come out in solidarity.”

Keep knocking it out of the park, ladies. [gallery ids="99553,104554" nav="thumbs"]

Joshua Bell at the Strathmore

At the outset, it needs to be said that I am not an expert or aficionado. I can’t even read music. But I think I can listen to it.

We’re talking about classical music here, of course—sonatas and symphonies Brahms, Beethoven and Bell. In particular, we’re talking about classical violinist Joshua Bell. Barring older legends like Itzhak Perlman, he may be the finest violinist of his generation. More than one critic or fan has called him a rock star of classical music, because they can’t think of anything else to say.

When it comes to the violin, this is a little bit of a journey for me. In Germany, where I was a boy, the violin is a revered instrument, and the people who make them and play them are revered. But it was the opening concert of the Music Center at Strathmore, with master Perlman himself, which got me on the path to the music of violinists.

Strathmore, with its marvelous acoustics, is a wonderful place to experience music, and it was the perfect place to hear Perlman. Being there felt like being in a cathedral.

I don’t remember what he played, but I do remember wanting to hear much more. And not just Perlman, but those who followed—the younger violinists you hear about, whose pictures you find in the season programs of our cultural institutions: Sophie-Mutter, Hahn, Joshua Bell.

So here we are again: anticipating Bell’s performance at the Music Center at Strathmore (January 26) with Sam Haywood on piano, playing Brahms, Schubert and Grieg—works Bell describes as: “A challenge, a test.”

On the phone in a conference call interview with Bell, reporter and writers from all over the country, some obviously more knowledgeable than others, are taking turns asking questions.

Bell gives a friendly and comfortable vibe as he patiently addresses each question, many of which he’s no doubt heard numerous times before. He is 43 now, and in pictures and videos looks unforgivably boyish and handsome, unlike the masters of old. His looks are an attraction, but they would be of no help if he were all thumbs. He’s thoughtful, with a quiet sense of humor. He’s been a super nova of a violinist and performer for a few decades now, and he obviously appreciates the rewards of the hard work, the touring, the recordings, the appearances and the fame. He’s not an Access Hollywood kind of guy, but like some of his contemporaries in the field—Lang Lang, Yo-Yo Ma, Hillary Hahn— he occupies the territory of musical prodigy and ambassador, crossing the line where classical music creates full concert halls and major commercial success.

And yet, he’s a small-town guy from Indiana, a self-described “cultural Jew,” a Midwestern kid fulfilling a musical destiny once dominated by Europeans, and now being pushed by young and talented Asian prodigies. He seems to have given considerable thought to what and who he is, where the music is going and his future in it.

“I’m at an age where you have to think about things like that,” he said. “You know the arena of teaching, of writing and composing, of spreading out and doing other things, of pushing the envelope. Classical music is a world where you leave a mark, not just in recording and performing. And I like to explore other kinds of music—bluegrass and jazz—and mix things and explore the boundaries, and where you can break that down.”

In his last few recordings—The Romantic Violin, Voice of the Violin, and his last CD, the deceptively titled At Home With Friends—you can see that process working.

The first of the trio is music that sweeps you away, that requires strength and delicacy. When you listen to it, it’s like listening to strands of beautiful hair transformed into strings and bow, notably in works by the violin legend Fritz Kreisler.

Voice of the Violin, which I listen to on mornings when I’ve slept fitfully, is a work that’s already taking a step ahead; they are musical arrangements of works meant to be sung. In his notes, Bell says, “it was a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in the rich treasury of music written for the voice.” The most recognizable work is Ave Maria, a work so soothing that it feels like cool water on a feverish brow.

At Home With Friends is an entirely different matter.

Some home. Some friends. In the questioning interviews, Bell talks a lot about what he calls his home, a nice little pad in Manhattan, a penthouse which occupies the top two floors of what was once a manufacturing plant in the Flatiron District. Home includes a performance hall where, on a video for the album, young men and women can be seen applauding as their host plays.

“I’ve always wanted something like that, a place where you can get together with your friends, play with them and for them—and a kind of salon for music.” This turned into getting together with people like rock-pop star Sting singing Come Again; trumpeter Chris Botti, who has known Bell since high school days, doing “I Loves You Porgy” with Bell; Kristen Chenoweth singing My Funny Valentine, which may rank as one of the best versions ever; Josh Groban singing Cinema Paradiso.

“It’s also a way of stretching the boundaries, working with people that are somewhat removed from traditional classical music,” he added.

With classical musicians, long, long hours of practice makes perfect. “But it’s not just about playing perfectly,” Bell said. “You need—I need—to understand a piece of music before I’ll play it. I need to be sure I know it to do it justice.”

Obviously, Bell is hugely popular. And he’s not easily daunted. Several years ago, he played for about an hour at the L’Enfant Plaza metro station during rush hour, to see if anybody would actually listen to the music of a world class musician. It was all grist for a prize-winning Washington Post article, but it was also something of an education.

“Mostly, people just walked by,” he said. “They were going to work, in a hurry, and didn’t pay attention. Some people did. They stopped and listened. I think I made around thirty dollars. It could humble you, but it was in the nature of an experiment. Yes, it was a very expensive violin I was playing [he uses a 1731 Stradivarius—meaning that it was made in 1731]. I didn’t pretend to be anybody but myself. I wasn’t a homeless man. I think it shows how busy our lives are.”

Even Bell playing Brahms proved not to be a distraction for most of the people.

Watching Bell on video in close-up is telling. No question, there is an other worldly talent on display when you listen to him. But he’s also an engaging, fully engaged, charismatic, physical player; the body contorts, he becomes a force in black—his usual dress code on stage—often working up a sweat, the hair flying, the eyes intense.

Listen to him talk to us reporter folks though, and you think you hear a little bit of that boy prodigy who’s been to all the places that are like concert castles, traveled the world, reads and sees himself named one of the most beautiful people by People Magazines, lives high up in Manhattan, etc. I don’t mean to suggest he’s somehow still starry-eyed. Rather, he respects where he is, wonders about where he’s going and always plays with beauty and passion.

Joshua Bell will be performing at the Strathmore on Wednesday, February 2nd, at 8pm. For information, [Click here](http://www.strathmore.org/offline.asp)

Sitar Arts Center Celebrates Its Students’ Work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art

On Apr. 6, the Sitar Arts Center in Adams Morgan, a multidisciplinary arts education haven for children and youth predominantly from low-income households in Washington, DC, hosted is annual celebration and benefit at The Corcoran Gallery of Art. Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan and Veronica Valencia-Sarukhan were honorary diplomatic hosts. The event began with cocktails and Mexican inspired fare from Occasions Caterers followed by a student showcase and program honoring artist Ruben Toledo and his wife, fashion designer Isabel, who created First Lady Michelle Obama’s inaugural outfit. One young participant called Sitar “a place where I trust everyone.” Sitar uses arts for “healthy human connections.” The evening concluded with a dessert reception and silent auction. [gallery ids="102512,120149,120137,120154,120143" nav="thumbs"]

There’s Something About Mary Zimmerman

Mary Zimmerman will tell you rather emphatically that she does not write children’s plays.

I wouldn’t argue with her about it. Technically, she’s right. Her plays are plays for adults, who think like adults. The emotions they engender are adult emotions: feelings akin to intellectual sadness, near heartbreak, confronting the new by way of the old.

Zimmerman has managed, over a couple of decades of directing and writing, to create a whole new kind of play, as yet difficult to fit into a descriptive category. And yet you come back to it: children, fairytales, storytelling, tales told around a campfire, the first writings of man. It’s that kind of thing, but made complicated, and made deep. She nonetheless uses the tools and imagination associated with children’s theater, both in terms of theater created FOR children, and sometimes the kind that children create themselves in their backyard under a tent: toys, clotheslines, dolls and sticks and pebbles, maybe with some singing and barking dogs thrown in.

I think she said it elsewhere herself, quoting Willa Cather: “I will never be the artist I was as a child.”
Zimmerman may just be that kind of artist—not childish or childlike, but basic, using the stuff that surrounds her, the every day things. And coating everything with magic.

Lately, we’ve gotten a burst of Zimmerman’s gifts on display, in two very different sorts of plays that nevertheless bear her directorial and authorial mark; we have seen an electric re-staging of Leonard Bernstein’s and Voltaire’s “Candide” at the Shakespeare Theater Company, which just completed a successful run. And now we can go see a re-do of Zimmerman’s “Arabian Nights,” enjoying a buzz-filled run at Arena Stage.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen Zimmerman around here. She directed a memorable, haunting version of “Pericles” at the Shakespeare Theater Company along with her own creation, a take on the story of Jason and the Argonauts, called simply “The Argonautica.”

There is obviously some common thread running through these and other productions that Zimmerman has done with her company, the Looking Glass Theater, and the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

“I’ve always liked fairytales,” she said in a telephone interview. “I try hard not to lose that sense of wonder, that kind of imagination, as a way of looking at material. I like big, basic, iconic stories and themes. All of that. That’s one reason I like directing opera, working in that world. It’s so over the top, so emotional.”
Zimmerman has done several stints at the Metropolitan Opera, with mixed results from the critical world. “I loved doing it and still do,” she says nonetheless. “I don’t worry too much about what’s written about me or my work.”

“Candide” and “Arabian Nights” are two very different kettles of tea when it comes to theater, and she’s made both her own. “Candide” was first produced in the 1950s on Broadway, unsuccessfully, with a mixed bag of authors stirring the book, including renowned poet Lillian Hellman and Stephen Sondheim. But the wonderful music kept things alive for later revivals, and it remains the soulful heart of the show.

With Zimmerman directing, the project also returned to its original source: the great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire’s original thin fable of a novel, in which an innocent and sheltered naïf of a young lad (Candide) is thrown out into the cruel world of competing kingdoms, religions and general tumult of the 18th-century world, with his soul-mate Cunegonde.

So much happens to them—all the representative evils of the day, like pillage, war, rape, prison, the loss and gain and loss of fortune—it would turn most normal people into cynics. But Candide perseveres in the search for his love, whom he finds and loses again all over the world, from wars in France to El Dorado and back again.

“It’s a big story,” she said. “We went back to the roots, so to speak. And I have to say, I was so fortunate in casting the leads, Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina. Geoff was…heck, he is a little like a Candide. So I think they made the production very affecting for audiences.”

So did Zimmerman’s storytelling, as she used little wooden boats, stuffed red sheep, and toys and dolls and puppets as a way of rolling around the world. It’s the kind of thing that sometimes threatens to look silly, especially to jaded eyes used to movie reality. But with Zimmerman at the helm, it never does.

“Arabian Nights” is something else again, a series of stories writ large. “We, did this the first time on the eve of the Gulf War,” she said. “Even then, it echoed what was going on in the world, and nothing that’s happened since has changed that. It’s almost like coming full circle.”

The Arabian Nights are the tales told by a young woman named Scheherazade, who’s trying to save herself from the attentions of a king, so embittered by a previously unfaithful wife that he’s wed, bedded and killed a virgin every night for a year already. Scheherazade tells the king stories, hundreds of them, to keep his knife at bay.

“That’s the first thing you do with this, is choose the stories,” she said. “They are stories of love, betrayal, disguises, revenge, and they’re tall tales, funny stories, and stories of redemption.”

While the enterprise is astonishingly beautiful, and creates a buzz of argument as well as appreciation, it manages to achieve something else, the very thing that fairy tales do. It creates a quality of universal recognition.

In that sense, it connects to the present in how we move through the world. “It’s a precondition of war that we view other people as fundamentally different from ourselves,” Zimmerman says. “It’s a pre-condition of literature that we view other people as fundamentally the same as ourselves.”

The thousand tales are part of the lore of the golden age of Baghdad, which is of course the city nearly destroyed in the aftermath of the US invasion of 2003. The wind carries the news in this play; we are not apart from the present. Or the past. All the stories here, about lovers who lose each other, about people who save and forgive each other, about the roar of jokes and situations, all recreate the glorious past of the legendary ruler Harun al Rashid. But they are also stories about ourselves.

“I hope that’s what happens,” Zimmerman says. “I hope those acts of recognition occur.”

Not to dwell on it, but there is a tale about a prominent citizen who at last decides to marry and is standing with his bride at the altar, when he is struck by a paroxysm of gas convulsions. What ensues is an extended, agonizing fart joke, every bit as rude as “Blazing Saddles”, but also touching, finished off by a classic vaudevillian punch line. It’s pretty simple, old men and young men, women and children all laugh at fart jokes. It’s our universal kismet, so to speak.

There are sweeter and equally universal moments in this play. With Zimmerman, we’re always on a wooden toy boat, going back and forth in time, on perilous journeys, on an adventure that makes us richer for the trip.

“Arabian Nights” runs at Arena Stage’s Fichandler in the Mead Center for American Theater through February 20. [gallery ids="99597,105022" nav="thumbs"]

“Oklahoma!” Rings in a New Era for Arena Stage

Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith has accomplished quite a bold and remarkable thing here, picking and staging the great, groundbreaking and revolutionary American musical “Oklahoma!” to inaugurate its first season at the Mead Center for American Theater in the Fichandler Stage.

The choice of “Oklahoma!” in the Fichandler is loaded with historical implications, and she’s managed to make something out of everyone of them. Here is “Oklahoma,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which, when it made its wartime America 1940s debut, not only signaled a spectacular career for its creators, but changed American musicals forever.

Here is Smith’s production, which preserves every word, lyric, song and piece of music, probably two-step from the original, and with intelligent use of non-traditional casting and an intimacy of space and place, makes it seem brand new, fresh, authentic and of our time. This is a production that honors this musical’s historic place in theater history while at the same time offering memories of the future.

Here is the rarely revived “Oklahoma!” staged in the Fichandler, the theater-in-the-round. Resurrected almost exactly in its original form, but surrounded by a space that makes it part of a spectacular, glass/wood/pillar encased three-theater, education and community center enterprise, as opposed to being its centerpiece. It is the historic Arena Stage intact, but also transformed in the here-and-now and the future, a more intimate theater space which seems both smaller and more vivid. But, as the fella said, the play’s the thing.

So what about this “Oklahoma!?”

Well, as the fella sings, you’re doing fine, Oklahoma, and more than okay. Likely, there are few people around today who actually saw the original production, although it’s a fair bet that there any number of people who may think they know a thing or two because of the Gordon MacRae/Shirley Jones movie, because of the sheer ingratiating quality of the music and songs which are out there in the muzak ozone.

It’s nice to come to something with no junk in your head about it. I’d never seen it and now I have, and I still feel buzzed about it. This production is such a smart operation, such an emotional bottom-well, such a high-energy all-get-out kind of thing that you’d think the whole building would levitate and turn into an active version of the spaceship it resembles.

What you’ve got, peering at close range, is Oklahoma, the territory about to become a state circa the turn of the previous century. There are cowboys, cattlemen, squatters, and a bunch of people that could resemble Adams Morgan if it were relocated into the flat, hard-won dirt and land of windy Oklahoma. There’s Curly, the cowboy smitten with the high-spirited, hard-to-get Laurey, who scrapes a living on the land she and Aunt Eller (the earthy F. Faye Butler) work along with the sinister hired hand Judd. There’s the kissable Addo Annie, torn between a cowboy and a peddler, and going back and forth between them like a ping-pong ball. And there’s Oklahoma itself, perched to become a state, awash in dry land and oil. Change is coming like a runaway train or the next election.

Here’s what else happens: the moment Curly, in the person of Nicholas Rodriguez, announces himself and the show with a burst of musical optimism in the song “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” you’re pretty much a goner. This is theater in its most transporting, transforming guise. “Oklahoma!” swept away decades of song-strong, chorus-girl rich whimsy and pratfalls caused by gin musicals which had nothing to do with life as it was lived—not to diss Cole Porter, Gershwin and a host of other great composers and lyricists.

“Oklahoma!” is dark, especially when the sweaty, dangerous Judd is on stage, casting a murky spell of unrequited, strong desires that resembles those of modern-day stalkers and violent predators. Smith further deepens the musical and dishes on outsider themes by casting: Rodriguez as Curly is Hispanic, Butler and Eleasha Gamble (Laurey) are African American and Ali Hakim is clearly a peddler of Middle Easter origin as played here with long-suffering humor by Nehal Joshi. You might add in that the women in this story are strong enough and stronger and of a mind to do what they want, emotionally or sexually.

The dancing—those cowboys in high-booted and high-stepping array, the dream ballet—is of a part with the story and the tale they’re telling, which is nothing less than an epic of change and growth, writ both large and intimately. Those songs don’t just lay there waiting to be a YouTube offering or a the next big billboard hit. They weave into our imaginations and stories, and tell the story on stage, from the spritely “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” to the woeful “Poor Judd is Dead,” to “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No,” the anthem-like tale of Addo Annie, played with remarkable vivaciousness by the hugely gifted and appealing June Schreiner (a junior at Madeira School, no less).

This production, so reflecting of our lives and its surroundings, is dead solid perfect entertainment, where you leave the theater like a gourmet leaving a meal that proved to be just so. I guarantee you that days later you will hum a melody, sing a fragment, remember Judd’s fierce face, Curley’s rangy voice, the bullet-sound of boots on the ground in the service of music and be glad, really glad for having been there.
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