Carmen Cusack Brings it Home In ‘South Pacific’

July 26, 2011

One thing about headlining not one, but two tours of major Broadway shows: you can go home again.

That’s certainly been the case for Carmen Cusack, who is starring in the national tour of the Tony-Award winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” now at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through January 16.

Cusack stars as the brimming-with-optimism Army nurse Nellie Forbush, the role originated by the legendary Mary Martin in the 1940s original. Singing some iconic R&H songs like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” and “Wonderful Guy,” this national tour has brought her home in a big way.

“It’s good to be back,” Cusack said. “I’m thinking when this is all over that I want to settle in New York, make the rounds, do the process.”

Cusack has a personal pedigree as American as her character, Nellie. Born in Colorado and raised in Houston, she has a performing arts degree from the University of North Texas State. But she left soon after getting her degree, first signing a contract to basically tour the world performing on the QUE2, settling down in England, touring and performing on the continent. In England, she built a pretty large and eclectic resume, starring as Christine in “Phantom of the Opera,” as Fantine in “Les Miserables,” and for something completely different, a role in “Jack and the Space Vixens.”

“South Pacific,” with which she’s been touring nationally to great reviews, is something of a nationally iconic show, and Cusack knows it. “You know, I think people sometimes think of Nellie as naïve or innocent,” she says. “I don’t think that’s the case. I mean, this was army life in World War II, so you can’t stay innocent for too long. But she is naturally optimistic, and that’s a great, appealing part of her character. What happens when she falls in love with the French planter is that some innate prejudice comes up which she can’t shake.

“It’s hard to play that,” she says. “It’s hard to find that in yourself. Because that’s not what I’m like. I sort of touched base with growing up in the South where things were said you might not hear so easily elsewhere.

“I think the show tries to be realistic about life in wartime,” she said. “You don’t see black and white soldiers hanging out together, mingling. The director, in fact, separated us off stage too so we could get a feel for what it was like.”

If you check out her personal website, you get the feel that Cusack can handle pretty much anything, that she may surprise you every time out. Her looks, of course, change every time out. “I am the woman of many hair colors,” she quips, noting the blondish, curly do for Nelli,e which hides her naturally lustrous dark brown hair. She is also the woman who may end up with the jolly green giant. She landed the road company lead of Elphaba—the green-skinned Wicked Witch in the Land of Oz—in “Wicked.”

“Yup,” she said. “I was green.”

Her voice has range. Technically she’s a soprano, but she pours all kinds of surprises into the sampling of songs on her site, from brassy, breathy and witchy, seductive, to anthem-out-there.

One of her favorite projects, and one of her apparent idols, was the late Eva Cassidy, a local legend in the DC area for her poignant, piercing, aching singing as much as her early, tragic death from cancer. “I performed her music, played her in a show called ‘Over the Rainbow,’” she said. “She was a phenomenal talent, and it will be interesting to be here.”

The green girl brought her back to the United States when she joined the touring company in Chicago as a standby. She jumped in to land the national touring starring role and now she’s in the quintessential American tour, being “as corny as Kansas in August.”

“I think it was time to come back. It’s great to be back,” she said. “Right now, I’m touring, so I’m not settled,” she said, calling from Rhode Island before coming to DC. “But after that, I’m thinking about New York.”

With the presence of “South Pacific,” Washington becomes practically R&H headquarters, what with the hit revival of “Oklahoma!” at the Arena Stage. Welcome home, Nellie, and Carmen too.

Joyce DiDonato at the Kennedy Center

Unless you’re a classical music and opera fanatic, you may not have heard of Joyce DiDonato. But take my word for it—and I’m no expert in this field—Joyce DiDonato is a woman on the verge of a major breakthrough. She is as hot as you can possibly be in the here and now, driving critics to a kind of ecstasy in their descriptions of her.

Try this one: “it is a remarkable package that DiDonato offers: a mezzo cast in milk chocolate, but so smooth and agile that it can reach up to a diamond-bright soprano as well as sink to a rich, chesty alto. And then there is that instinctive charisma: she is always engaging, always sparkling…”

This quote is from the Times of London, probably not prone to comparing a singer’s voice to chocolate very often.

We caught up with DiDonato by phone as she was making her way by car from Houston to Dallas. DiDonato is at the Kennedy Center’s cavernous Concert Hall this Tuesday for a recital of works by Haydn, Chaminade, Hahn, and most notably Rossini, a composer whose music she consistently knocks out of the ballpark.

Even though Texas had been hit by seriously bad weather at the time, DiDonato didn’t seem to mind. “It’s not that long a trip,” she said. “And I love road trips, anyway. You see so much of the country, the real country. It’s not just dropping down in an airplane, get picked up and go to the hotel, go to rehearsals and perform.”

You’re on level-headed ground talking with her; she doesn’t do diva airs, even if she calls her blog Yankee Diva. Yes, she has a blog, which has now been more or less merged with a very attractive, diverse and comprehensive website

“I want to do more than perform, more than sing, more than be on that stage,” she said. “I want to communicate my love of the music, my love for the fans that follow my work, what I learned day to day, and the world I live in.”

She’s pretty savvy about this sort of thing. Check out her website—it’s a regular wonderland of performance, reviews, bios, pictures, thinking out loud and news of what’s next. She is right now the middle of an eight-city recital tour with pianist David Zobel, of which the Kennedy Center appearance is a part.

It’s hard to imagine her by herself on a big stage like the Kennedy Center accompanied only by Zobel. But if anything can fill the stage and the space, it’s probably DiDonato. She has a way of expressing charm, enthusiasm and passion about her work just by talking about it, let alone performing and singing.

“I like doing both,” she says of opera and recitals, “but they’re very different challenges. In an opera, there’s a certain amount of safety net. It’s an enterprise of tons of people. You’re never really alone, and it’s a family kind of thing—a team effort, if you will. In a recital, you’re pretty much alone, no safety net. It’s you, the accompanist, the music and most important of all the audience. And you can’t for a second lose the audience. That’s what makes it challenging, and I love that. It’s risky out there, and I don’t mind it one bit. I’m not the kind of person who believes you have to be perfect if that sort of attitude keeps you from taking risks.”

She already has honors—too many to name, but notably Gramophone’s Artist of the Year. And she recently came out with a new album, “Diva, Divo,” in which she alternates traditional operatic heroine roles with “pants” roles arias. “I love doing them,” she says. “It gives you a lot of insight into everything, and you really have to use all aspects of your voice.”

She is accessible and, at 42, one of those energetically attractive blue-eyed blondes whose rich array of hair begs to be constantly shaken and stirred. Over the phone she sounds a little like what she looks like on performance videos: strong-voice, high-energy, warm—a born storyteller without any fussiness.

“Some people have done this girl-next-door thing with me, as was done with Beverly Sills,” she said. “You know what some people said: she had a wonderful smile, she was sweet, but she had steel when it was required. Well, I can be tough when I need to be, I know what I want musically, how I want to do it. I don’t mean I’m temperamental, there’s just not a lot of time for that sort of thing.”

She performed here with the Washington National Opera right after 9/11 in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”, an opera not done here again until last fall. “I can’t say I remember much about that,” she said. “It was such a strange time to be here, to be doing what I’m doing.”

She is by all accounts one of the finest interpreters of Rossini you can find, having done “The Barber of Seville” in many venues, including a performance that is becoming legendary for its above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty aspect. The production in London was rolling along nicely in the first act at the Royal Opera House, when DiDonato tripped and fractured her fibula. She waved off a doctor, and appeared in Act 2 on a crutch. If that doesn’t get you a standing ovation, nothing will. And it did.

“The show must go on, right?” she said, and laughed almost sheepishly. Recently she was in a production in Houston of the much more modern opera “Dead Man Walking,” about a man on death row and the nun who tries to help him. “To me, an opera like that is an emotionally shattering experience. I am so glad I had the opportunity to do that.”

All this from a girl named Joyce Flaherty, born in a small town with the classic small-town name of Prairie Village, Kansas. “Yup, really small town,” she said as we compared notes on growing up in small town Midwest America. “You weren’t really exposed that much to classical music and opera, although I liked it. At most I had dreams of becoming a pop singer maybe, or teaching music in high school.”

You can almost see her as a schoolmarm, getting kids enthusiastic about Rossini and the like. She is not one of those girls who had voice lessons from age three and worked in the local opera company, or a child prodigy whose gifts were recognized early. “I didn’t know I had a voice, in the senses of having a gift for this,” she said. “It’s still a work in progress, as far as I’m concerned.”

It wasn’t until college at Wichita State University that she became interested, especially after performing in a production of “Die Fledermaus.” She was hooked, like a girl falling in love for the first time. She did graduate work at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, and from that point she became serious, and rose fairly quickly to the top.

Not bad for a kid from a family of seven children, Irish through and through (DiDonato was a name acquired from her first husband. She is now married to Italian conductor Leonardo Verdoni). “No kids yet. No pets,” she said. “We lead a pretty hectic life, although we live in Kansas City.”

She’s often quoted as having an aversion to being called a “star.” “That can be such a trap,” she said. “It’s the music, getting better, giving your audience an experience that will enrich them, that they won’t forget. I mean sure it’s nice. And no question, we have a very, very good life, traveling all over the world, performing in a very rarefied atmosphere. But I think my upbringing keeps me grounded.”

Or as grounded as a self-described “Yankee Diva” can get.
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Anna Deavere Smith Does Not “Let Down”

At the end of “Let Me Down Easy,” Anna Deavere Smith’s provocative, shattering play about health care in America now and the hour of our death, Smith stands alone on a stage littered with castoff costumes, clothing, food, props, bottles, pencils, lying on the floor. It looks like the aftermath of a party or a food fight—or an abandoned emergency room where a life-and-death struggle has just taken place.

It’s all that remains of the 20 people portrayed by Smith during the course of an uninterrupted and rangy evening in which she explores, in her inimitable fashion, the arena of our health and bodies, and the pains we sometimes endure because of the way we deal with falling ill, and the moment when we come face to face with the finality of death. By a shift in vocal timbre, a way of walking or sitting, an accent, a laugh, a sprawl on a couch, a way of talking, outstretched arms, a tie, a coat, a cowboy hat, she explores and portrays the geography of our culture.

Smith, an impressively talented, cogent and curious, woman functions as playwright, actress, writer and interviewer for “Let Me Down Easy,” a project somewhat similar to others she is well know for. There was “Fires in the Mirror,” which examined the aftermath of a race riot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and “Twilight: Los Angeles,” which focused on the devastating and violent 1992 riots in Los Angeles. But while these previous works also saw Smith portraying dozens of real people alone on stage with remarkable dexterity and even-handedness, they were focused on specific, dramatic and explosive events. “Let Me Down Easy” is much broader in its scope and approach.

While the massive national health care reform legislation, passed amid much bitterness last year, provides a framework for a large extent of what concerns the people in this play, there is a lot more going on than might be contained in even such a sweeping legislative effort.

“Let Me Down Easy” is about specific people, many of them quite well known to most of us for one reason or another. Athletes, like the controversial American Tour de France bicyclist Lance Armstrong, who overcame cancer and rode to greater achievements. Sportswriter Sally Jenkins. A boxer. A rodeo bull rider. Model Lauren Hutton. Television movie critic Joel Siegel, dying on a couch of colon cancer. Playwright and performer Eve Ensler, of “The Vagina Monologues.” Former Texas Governor Ann Richards. There are doctors, medical academics, a musicologist, a choreographer and a physician at Charity Hospital in New Orleans who experiences the terrifying ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

Such a diverse group of voices, of men and women from various walks of life expressing similar and differing concerns, at first produces an unformed, disconcerting narrative, like trying to grab Jell-O with your hands. But the effect, in time, is accumulative, and it arrives with shocking and powerful clarity, and with gentle but undeniable finality. It may not be a definitive destination, an over-arching theory or philosophy, or even ready-made solace, but it is a destination, an arrival, and an ending.

There have been complaints that there are too many celebrities here and that the play is unfocused or mish-mish. Maybe so. Maybe it’s too big a subject to have a definitive story line or conclusion that you can take to the bank or to the church. And it’s fair to say that the better-known people portrayed here add less to the total than those not so well known. While much of “Let Me Down Easy”—a theatrical blues riff with multiple meanings—concerns itself with terminal illnesses and how it is dealt with by hospitals, the medical community and patients, there are sections on the ailments and issues peculiar to athletes, as well as how society deals with women’s bodies and their functions (hence Ensler and Hutton).

But many of the characters share a common plight against cancer, a battle, sometimes successful, sometimes not. And suddenly there is very little distance between women like Richards, the sharp-tongued former governor of Texas dying of cancer, and Smith’s own aunt, Lorraine Coleman, a retired teacher.

There is a surprising bit of laughter in the play—some as a result of Smith’s fabulous work as a mimic, mime and master of comic timing—but the constructed and performed production picks up power as it goes along. A kind of dread aching to be relieved ensues somewhere in there. Smith gives us Kiersta Kurz-Burke, a physician at the New Orleans charity hospital who has been ignored and abandoned for days during Katrina; Eduardo Bruera, of the Anderson Cancer Center, talking about “Existential Sadness”; Joel Siegel, only in his fifties, flat on his back, the face projected dramatically on a wall, dying of colon cancer; and Trudy Howell, the director of a South African orphanage where children deal with the loss of parents and their own impending deaths, entitled appropriately, “Don’t Leave Them In The Dark.”

“Let Me Down Easy” has a restless feel to it, but it also has the sure touch and magic of Smith’s abilities as an actress, that gift of playing many parts convincingly with minimal props. Over and above the identifying tricks of such props, or the brilliant use of her voice and inflections of accents, tone and vocal speed, there is something else that convinces us like a punch to the heart. True, Smith is a terrific actress—you’ve all seen her in films and as a national security adviser on the defunct “West Wing” series—but that’s technique. What makes her work soar is her own empathy toward the people she’s put on stage; it’s as if she’s caught souls in a glass jar. She’s not a chameleon. Some recognizable part of her is always there. It’s not as if she somehow disappears into a person. It’s more like she joins with them.

“Let Me Down Easy” doesn’t function so much as drama; rather the people that we come to know as they swagger, suffer, snack, snort, laugh and dream are a kind of self-portrait of us. What we often hear are sentences we’ve heard, or what we will ultimately say ourselves sooner or later.

We’re left with a salve, like fresh water, And Smith stands alone in a bow, the stage littered with the debris, the left behind stuff of human beings.

“Let Me Down Easy,” written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith and directed by Leonard Foglia, will be performed at Arena Stage through February 13. For more information visit
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Spring Performance Arts Preview 2011

The Kennedy Center

Maximum India Festival
March 1-20

New York City Ballet Three mixed Repertoire Programs: April 5, 8 and 10; April 6 and 9 and April 7 and 9.
April 5 – 10

Paul Taylor Dance Company
March 22-24

Peter Brook’s “Fragments”
April 14 – 17
The acclaimed genius focuses on five short works by edgy, bare-bones genius playwright Samuel Beckett (“Rough for Theater 1,” “Rockabye,” “Act Without Words II,” “Neither” and “Come and Go”) at the Eisenhower.

Barbara Cook’s Spotlight Vocal Series
March 25
Actress and singer Ashley Brown (the original “Mary Poppins”) at the Terrace Theater.

The National Symphony Orchestra presents “The Trumpet of the Swan: A Novel Symphony”
March 27
Based on a book by E.B. White, with music by conductor Jason Robert Brown. Starring John Lithgow, trumpeter Christopher Vendetti and DC actors like Craig Wallace, Michael Willis and Naomi Jacobsen. Two concerts.

Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies”
May 7 – June 19

The Washington National Opera

“Madame Butterfly”
February 26 – March 19

“Iphigenie en Tauride”
May 6 – May 26
Placido Domingo himself, departing as head of the WNO at the conclusion of this season, will perform in this Greek tragedy, composed by Christoph William Gluck. Running for eight performances, Domingo sings alongside soprano Patricia Racette.

Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”
May 13-27
For something lighter, try this classic comic opera starring renowned American bass-baritone James Morris.

Placido Domingo Celebrity Series
February 27 & March 12
Domingo’s lasting legacy, his vocal celebrity series, will this time feature tenor Juan Diego Florez, February 27, and Welsh Bass Baritone Bryn Terfel, March 12.

The Washington Ballet performed “Le Corsaire”
April 6 – 10

The Music Center at Strathmore

Among many offerings, there are:

Hilary Hahn performs this Sunday at 4 p.m.
February 27

Itzhak Perlman comes to town with Rohan de Silva on piano.
May 1

Bryan Adams and his “Bare Bones Tour”
March 11

Comic writer David Sedaris
March 31

Jazz songstress Nancy Wilson
April 22


Ford’s Theater

“Liberty Smith”
March 23 – May 21
Geoff Packard, who wowed audiences in the title role of “Candide,” takes on another title role with “Liberty Smith,” a new musical by Michael Weiner, Adam Abraham, Marc Madnick, and Eric R Cohen. It’s a tall-tale musical approach to the early founding days of American history with 23 musical numbers.


The Shakespeare Theater

Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband”
March 8 – April 10
Oscar Wilde will get the full treatment by the Shakespeare Theater Company under the veteran and able direction of Keith Baxter. The threat of scandal, an obsession during Victorian times, buzzes over an upstanding and rising aristocratic type in this Wilde gambol through British social mores.

“Old Times”
May 17 – July 3


The Studio Theater

“New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival”
March 15 – April 25
Featuring the works of acclaimed Irish playwright Enda Walsh, the festival brings back the Druid Theater Company with its production of Walsh’s “Penelope.” The festival is new artistic director David Muse’s effort to broaden Studio’s international reach and includes productions by the Studio Theater of Walsh’s “The Walworth Farce” and “The New Electric Ballroom.” Walsh herself will be on hand, along with Tony-winning director Garry Hynes. There are readings, plays, films and a daylong symposium on New Irish arts.

“Venus in Fur”
Opening May 25


Arena Stage

“The Edward Albee Festival”
March 5 – April 24
With lots of events, plays, talks and side activities, and it’s all about Albee.

Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
February 25 – April 10
Perhaps the main event of the Albee Festival, the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s production of the acerbic drama stars Tracy Letts and May Morton as George and Martha.

Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo”
February 25 – April 24

“The Chosen”
March 8 – 27


Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”
March 21 – April 10
Most intriguing prospect and title goes to this one-man show by solo performer Mike Daisy, wherein he discusses the stigma and the harrowing truths of the world’s most mysterious techie icon.

“BootyCandy,” written and directed by Robert O’Hara
May 30 – June 26
O’Hara, who just took home a Helen Hayes Award for “Antebellum,” will be turning out this kaleidoscope of sassy sex education, which discusses growing up gay and African American.


Some other things to look for:

“WAM2!” features Mozart’s operas “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi fan tutte,” produced by the In Series at the Lang Theater of the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
March 4 – 6, 11 and 12

“Voices Underwater”
Opening March 7
The electric and eclectic Rorschach Theater returns with this new play by Abi Basch at the Georgetown Lutheran Church in Georgetown.

Arabian Nights at Arena Stage

Mary Zimmerman is back. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Zimmerman’s “Arabian Nights” comes to Arena Stage fresh on the heels of the closing days of Zimmerman’s vision of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” at the Shakespeare Theater. The two plays being so close together are an embarrassment of theatrical riches, for which you need heart, mind, empathy and imagination to be working at full capacity to get the full effect.

“Arabian Nights” is no Disney production, nor Richard Burton’s, nor the Frenchman’s who wrote something like it in the 1700s. It belongs to none of the storytellers who might have told the original stories over the centuries. There is no Ali Baba here, no Sabu or Sinbad. The authorship and content of the “Arabian Nights” tales are thick with thumbprints and a host of Middle East and further east cultures.

The program will tell you that this production was written and directed by Mary Zimmerman and adapted from “The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night,” as translated by Powys Mathers. This is probably a truth, but to put it squarely, the final author is Mary Zimmerman, as is the case with most of her work, no matter if it goes back centuries. The rambunctiously inventive director-playwright explodes the stage every time out.

“Arabian Nights” at the Arena belongs to Zimmerman; hers is the power and the glory, the credit and the blame—some of which will surely come. Oddly enough, this “Arabian Nights” also belongs to us, if we choose to own it. By us, I mean the members of the audience, but also historical Americans who have left heavy, wrenching footprints in the glorious city of Baghdad, where this night of nights is set.

Picture this: a stage, full of wrinkled, large canvasses, unfurled, deeply pleated. Picture this now in the court of a medieval Baghdad, where a troubled, dangerous king is marrying virginal brides every day for three years and killing them nightly, after finding his first bride in the arms of another man whom he dispatched. He is a man with an awesome fear of women and love. He says “Say not, ‘If I might love and yet escape the follies of loving’, but rather ‘Only a miracle brings a man safe from love.’”

He has almost depleted the kingdom of marriage-age young women by this time, and so picks Scheherazade, the daughter of his closest adviser, the Wazir. Accompanied by her faithful sister, she comes dutifully to the palace and spins a series of stories for the king, cliffhangers of love, death and comedy, so that he’s forced to stave off her execution one day at a time. Just so, her father comes each morning with a shroud for her funeral.

We may know this story already. But we don’t know the story as Zimmerman tells it. You weren’t expecting the tale of the madman and how he got that way. You surely weren’t expecting the burlesque-like routine of “What’s in the Bag,” the contents of which are improvised by the actors each night.

And you probably weren’t expecting to see, with an ache in your heart, an ancient civilization resurrected like a fleshy, musical mirage before your eyes. This is the Baghdad of Harun al Rashid, the city’s most fabled ruler. It is a city where poets ruled as much as sheiks and kings, and women were beautiful, dangerous and impossible to know. Zimmerman’s Baghdad is a city of fable, merchants and musclemen—not the modern city wrecked by shock and awe, where Sunnis and Shiites battle and hand-made bombs are just another roadside attraction.

I could talk about the costumes, and the technical and showy detail that Zimmerman is so good at; lamps descend onto the stage, a man meets himself on the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, ancient musical instruments play loudly and sweetly, and a civilization dies before your eyes.

It has been suggested that there are stereotypes in the show, and it’s true. But Zimmerman addresses this issue with a very important statement, which speaks volumes about the material:

“It is a precondition of war that we view other people as fundamentally different form ourselves; it is a precondition of literature that we view other people as fundamentally the same.”

Watching and responding to a story that depends on its rolling laughter is to remember that something as simple as a fart makes the whole world helpless with laughter. It’s surely a shared experience. But so is the torture of love, and so is the heartbreak of a love song. In these stories, we ought to recognize ourselves, our common humanity, as well as the pungent power of stories.

What’s in this bag? More than it has any business holding. Go hear the stories of “The Arabian Nights.” You will dream about it and talk about it. I guarantee it.
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Be Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Sitting in the balcony seats at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theatre overlooking the stage, I had a disquieting thought as I watched George and Martha go at each other in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

I thought: there are no fictional characters. Everything I experienced at this compelling, raw production, even in its few calmer moments, felt realer than anything called “reality show.” It felt realer than anything on the nightly local news. George and Martha and their unfortunate guests Nick and Honey are famous in theatre history, and they churned up the stage, kick-started your memories, made you grin and laugh. They made you see yourself in their revelations, their brawling, their need to compete, hurt, connect, disengage, wound and understand.

In the more intimate confines of the Kreeger, the only escape is the Exit signs. Unlike the Kennedy Center production at the Eisenhower Theater, which gave you breathing room and distance, or the Liz-and-Dick movie version, witnessing this show at the Kreeger (and I think that’s what the audience is doing, bearing witness) is like being dropped into a combat zone.

The authenticity, the “real,” is not only created by a quartet of terrific actors and actresses, but by director Pam McKinnon’s sharp pacing, creating little puddles of reflections in a roiling sea, before combat begins anew. That pace keeps the play—two acts and well over three hours—from lagging. You may feel punchy, a little beat up afterwards, but you are never disinterested, sleepy or bored.

Part of the reason too is that the set by Todd Rosenthal looks so large and detailed. It’s a living room/disorganized library where steps, stairs a hallway and a door lead off to other spaces unseen, but imaginable. It looks rumpled, lived in, dominated by sprawling, scattered books and a stand-up bar to which the characters retreat to renew. Combat is not too strong a word for what happens during the long, nightmarish all-nighter we see—in fact the play has a fight choreographer and a fight captain listed in its credits (for the record, Nick Sandys and Carrie Coon, respectively).

Meet George and Martha, if you haven’t already. They are the creatures and creations of Playwright Edward Albee, who’s having quite a time for himself in Washington, being honored here with an Albee festival, a reading of all of his plays, and his presence at Georgetown University for part of a Tennessee Williams festival.

George and Martha live raggedly, furiously on the campus of a Northeastern university where George is a history professor married to the irascibly sharp-tongued, combative Martha, daughter of the university president, which makes contact with her a prize for a young biology professor like Nick and his hot-house flower of a wife, Honey.

George and Martha, who appeared to have finessed themselves into a rough marriage full of disappointments, carnage and games, hold court in the wee hours with Nick and Honey for an evening of horrible trash talk and insults hurled in equal parts like stilettos or rocks.

Amy Morton, half-blonde and all fury, with edges even in her hair, is like some sultry, long-striding lioness of displeasure, discontent, and just plain dissing. She’s hungry for the fight, but also hungry for all the lost love between the two. Periodically, she’s looking for physical comfort from George, who turns his back and picks up a book, or wards her off with a biting insult, one of which he repeats often: “I am seven years older than you, my love, and no matter what I will always be seven years older than you.”

The quartet drinks—a lot. And then some more. Honey, who appears to have tricked her hubby into a marriage by way of a false pregnancy, gets sick. The two men spar like intellectual gladiators, Nick using his youth, George his infinite, bottomless gift for expressing disgust with the best of words, wit and viciousness.

These four don’t just sit around. They pace, they hurl themselves at each other, they come close to blows, and they lounge askew on the couch. It’s clear what the games are: the famous “Hump the Hostess” and “Get the Guests” among them.

And in this production we give you Traci Letts as George, the feral historian. We’ve seen diffident, cruelly distanced and impossibly nuanced Georges, but never quite this furious and ferocious a George. Letts, who is also a playwright—with plays full of familial combat in them—gets that just so; he convinces you that this very public, teeth-bared cruelty is somehow just. He’s like Peter Finch in “Network” who can’t take it anymore.

And strangely, you know George and Martha carry around with them every opportunity, every bit of whatever love they had, with them. They are in ruins, full of dried up tears, spent passion, words like war, opportunities lost to the endless abyss of the past.

The title refers to a song she sang at the party they attended that night—giddy, silly and then, like a lost voice in the night, heart-breaking after all. Now that’s a reality show.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” directed by Pam MacKinnon, is at Arena Stage’s Kreeger theater until April 10. For more information visit

Butterfly Soars at the WNO

Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” is probably the most performed opera in America. The Washington National Opera, with two different casts among the principals, is in the midst of a run of 13 performances for this most romantic and tragic of operas.

There are reasons for that. “Butterfly” is the opera that depends greatly on its music, which sounds like a given for any opera, but it’s especially true here. But it also has in its core the most basic and classical themes of theatrical literature—enduring, undying love and the tragedy that arises from it. And let’s not forget the classic East-Meets-West at the expense of East theme.

Clocking in at roughly three hours with one intermission, “Butterfly” would seem to be a bit of an endurance test for the operatically disinclined, but in the end, it is exactly what it’s often describe as: the opera for people who don’t usually go to the opera. Which accounts for the frequent presence of the opera on the season schedule of any company that can provide the singers, conductors and orchestra to do it justice.

The WNO certainly has that in soprano Catherine Naglestad (Ana Maria Martinez is the second Butterfly), who sings with heartbreaking clarity and acts the part of Cio-Cio-San, aka Madama Butterfly, in an appealing style that avoids overstatement and operatic histrionics that are sometimes off-putting to the uninitiated. Clearly, she’s the unadorned heroine of this opus. She has a beauty that combines with humility to create a young woman already used to the woes of the world but who clings nonetheless to an unfounded hope. Her movements around the stage are graceful without ever descending into Western clichés about Asian ways.

We all probably know the story—Lt. Pinkerton (ably sung by the Russian tenor Alexei Dolgov), a young and caddish American navy officer at the beginning of America’s robust foray into the Pacific, is stationed in Nagasaki, in a Japan where the Shoguns and codes of honor reign. He’s paid for a wife (both marriage and contract can be waived by him at any time), the lovely teenaged Cio-Cio-San, and duly marries her in order to taste as many pleasures as he can before settling down. Cio-Cio-San, forced to become a geisha because of her disgraced father, is smitten beyond reason, commons sense and caution. The feelings are expressed in a lengthy duet in Act One, but it’s Act Two that fills the heart with apprehension, and the soul with a kind of devastating glory.

Pinkerton of course leaves off on the ocean blue, and does not return for three years: Butterfly has been forced to sell off almost everything she has merely to survive, and has also mothered a son, a beautiful small blonde boy. She believes Pinkerton will return to hearth and home. He’s back all right, with an American wife in tow. Pinkerton never sees her, and it’s up to the American consul to relay that news and that the Pinkertons will take care of Cio-Cio-San’s son. Like some bereft waif, left with nothing, Butterfly’s left with an impossible decision.

Butterfly is at her most appealing as she waits, the ship in the harbor, with her son at her side. She has already let us know in thunderous soaring terms in the famous aria “Un Bel Di” (One Beautiful day), which everyone has already heard, if only as muzak in an elevator. She soars with love and hope and as the aria begins, so does the audience soar. You can practically hear a collective sigh move through the audience as the familiar music rises, and the audience soars with her, totally, tearfully satisfied.

This is the kind of thing you don’t often get in theater—satisfaction expressed in the audience, especially when in the presence of a significant artist like Nagelstad

But what you also don’t usually get is what happens next when Butterfly waits, her eyes on the ship, her heart waiting for a sight of Pinkerton, a sound of a footsteps. This sequence has Butterfly with her back to the audience, her heart to the front, and it’s accompanied by quietly powerful orchestral music, a kind of fugue leading to finalized disappointment. Nothing happens: lights change, become muted and bright, go dim on the ship, turn dark in her lanterns. It’s an astonishing sequence that you could never do in the theater, which relies so much on movement and words. You shouldn’t be able to do it in an opera either, but it works. It creates a kind of strain and pain that can only be relieved by the familiar but always shocking tragic ending.

Bene, bene. Bravo Bravo. Ciao, Cio-Cio San.

“Tynan” at Studio Theatre

Theater Critics love “Tynan,” the one-man show about the acerbic, outrageous, revolutionary British drama critic-as-hedonistic celebrity now at the Studio Theater.

I don’t mean they’ll be uncritical, although you can’t do much of anything but praise Philip Goodwin, who plays Tynan so well that you think you’re keeping company with the man who’s been dead for thirty years.

Rather, “Tynan” is a piece of theater about a piece of theatrical work, a man often lauded as an important figure in the history of theater in the latter part of the mid-late 20th century, for his energetic, stylish, dead-on and highly-intelligent criticism; for his steadfast zeal in championing new and cutting edge playwrights such as John Osborne and Samuel Beckett; and for his role as literary manager of the National Theater of England, headed by Sir Laurence Olivier.

His writings, made famous in English publications, as well as at the New Yorker, were always stylish, even moving, and sometimes came in the form of verbal missiles when attacking bad performances, bad choices, bad trends, bad direction, or worse, anything mediocre in theater. He was brilliant, trenchant, poetic at times, and he could get away with some of his most devastating judgments because simply put, he was just about smarter than anyone else around and not shy about saying so.

There’s a videotape of Tynan on an episode of Edward R Murrow’s talk show “Small World” of the late 50s and early 60s. He is in the company of Samuel Goldwyn and the Oscar-winning actress Vivien Leigh, Olivier’s wife. He looks like a sharp, intelligent, very thin, chain-smoking porcupine.

He had enemies, but as this production makes clear, the worst one, as is often the case, was Kenneth Tynan himself. He had a penchant for the outrageous for its own sake; he wanted to liberate the country from sexual repression by being perfectly frank about his own obsessions, which turned out to be a penchant for mild sado-masochism. He was the author and producer of a 1960s-1970s theater cause célèbre called “Oh Calcutta”, which can be best be described as intellectual smut, which of course was a huge hit. It contained brief episodes of frontal nudity, part and parcel of the sexual revolution of the times. In today’s age of worldwide internet porn, it is mild stuff indeed, although done with a certain intellectual panache.

Tynan, these days, is a dimly distant force— he’s like a star whose light you can see years in the distance, just not very well. Tynan died of the effects of emphysema, the symptoms of which, along with a tantalizing stammer, are evident in Goodman’s performance.

If you have no taste for or memory of theater history, you won’t learn much from this play, a one-man outing based entirely on the latter-day journals kept by Tynan during a period when most of his best life’s works—except for a series of astonishingly good profiles and writings in the New Yorker—was done.

What you will hear and see is the genuine voice of Tynan—he is here in more ways than as the author of his own life story—and it’s a voice that is pungent, gifted in story-telling and narrative, witty and sharply funny, and even self-deprecating in the predicaments he so often finds himself. His talent presides and resides within a wreck, emotional and physical.

Goodwin, who’s consistently produced outstanding Shakespearean and contemporary performances at the Studio and the Shakespeare Theater, keeps it simple. It is an accumulative performance, where the stories he tells, the announcements he makes, are like layers of clothing, being put on and being shed.

The tone appears right—acidity battling with a showy intellectualism, a kind of superiority over his peers mixed with affection, most notably when he’s talking about Olivier. There are theater tidbits here: Christopher Plummer getting canned from a part because he insisted on doing it his way and the like.

Actually, the more you listen to Goodwin/Tynan, the more a sad, somewhat wasted, frustrated man emerges. He was a raconteur and a bad boy, but not a bad man. Listening to Goodwin speak, talking about the pleasures of his particular obsession, about a lost vacation in Spain which turned out to be a harrowing illustration of Murphy’s law, or being caught in a police raid in a special brothel in Los Angeles, you see a man vaulted into a pitiable Laurel and Hardy movie.

Tynan in vivid rises above it, with dignity if not reputation intact. Goodwin is the one that elevates him to that position, by the precision of his words, the intelligence of his choices, the refusal to overplay the material, by the clarity he achieves in the spoken word. There’s a point where you forget to look at the backdrop projections. You don’t even know that they’re there. Goodwin by this time has convinced you that you’re in the company of Kenneth Tynan, good company, sometimes melancholy—he notes steadily the passing of old friends—but always smart and compelling.

“Tynan” has been at the Studio Theatre until February 13. For more information, visit

All About Helen Hayes Awards Nominations

If you want to know a little bit about what’s going on in the vibrant Washington area theatre scene, as well as a little bit about its history, check out the Helen Hayes Awards nominations. They’ve always provided clues about what’s hot and what’s not, trends and directions.

The awards—both a celebration of the area’s ever-growing theatre community and a composite of its members—always provide an ebb and flow about the fortunes of different theaters and different types of theatre.

From the beginning, in the resident theatre arena, the long established Arena Stage has been a strong presence, almost routinely receiving loads of nominations and winning many of them, because Arena for decades was the mother ship of regional theatre companies under founder Zelda Fichandler. But judges, perversely, tended to reward grudgingly newer companies, except for the Shakespeare Theatre Company under Michael Kahn.

It took time for Woolly Mammoth to establish itself as a force, for the Studio Theatre under Joy Zinoman to be recognized consistently (its production of Tom Stoppard’s “Indian Ink” was a major breakthrough). Signature Theatre under Eric Schaeffer, on the other hand splashed, onto the scene with its production of “Sweeney Todd” and established itself as the leading interpreter of Sondheim musicals in the area. Likewise, critics and Helen Hayes judges alike immediately took to the Russian pantomime tones of Synetic Theatre and its movement-choreography oriented interpretation of classic works of literature and theater, forcing writers to spell Tsikurishvili (the last name of the star Synetic couple) over and over again.

Early on, nobody paid much attention to family or children’s theater, not to mention the more assumed-to-be sedate workings of suburban theater and dinner theater. This year Adventure Theater, under the energetic Michael Bobbitt, produced several nominations, as did Toby’s Dinner Theater under Toby Orenstein, a second time around for her.

And Folger, once the Kahn-led troupe that embedded itself at Lansburgh and later Harman Hall, never fared as well as it did this year. This year, all three of its produced plays have been nominated for Outstanding Resident Play: “Henry VIII,” “Hamlet” and “Orestes: A Tragic Romp.”

The Shakespeare Theatre did well for itself with 22 nominations, but none were in the outstanding resident play category, where it’s rotating majestic double bill of “Richard II” and “Henry V” were sadly missing. Nor was Michael Hayden, who wore both crowns, nominated for his acting tour de force here in playing both kingly roles, including the best Henry this writer has ever seen outside of perhaps Kenneth Branagh’s movie version.

Omissions and inclusions always cause a little controversy, even in this self-celebratory community, and the one that seemed to be almost uniformly decried was the absence of teenaged whiz June Schreiner for her dazzling, high-energy turn as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma,” a show that’s up for Outstanding Resident Musical and helped Arena snare 23 nominations. Schreiner got deservedly ecstatic notices for her work but failed to convince the Hayes judges.

“Oklahoma” gave a rousing opening to Molly Smith and Arena’s new multi-million dollar, elegant space out in Southwest, and the show, which looked as fresh as could be, will be clashing with the Shakespeare Theatre’s co-production (with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago), of Leonard Bernstein’s and Mary Zimmerman’s “Candide.”

“Candide” is an example of what you might call out of town resident shows—that is, there’s enough of a local presence in the cast or production to put the dazzling show into the resident category. If there was any justice, this would produce a tie, because I can’t pick between the two. One of my peers in the theatre world, however, loves the Toby Dinner Theater production of “Hairspray” to death.

Arena actually had three musicals in the outstanding resident musical category—two others, produced before the big move, were the smash hit production of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Ladies” in Duke’s old neighborhood at the Lincoln Theatre, and “The Light in the Piazza,” with Molly Smith getting two outstanding director noms for “Piazza” and “Oklahoma.”

Some other highlights: Adventure Theater getting an ensemble acting nod in the resident musical category for its production of “”If You Give a Pig a Pancake,” which featured Hollywood as a tap-dancing pig.

The outstanding lead actor in a resident play produced a record ten actors vying for the award.

Theater J scored heavily with its production of “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza.”

Per usual, the Kennedy Center dominated non-resident categories with 23 nominations of all sorts for such shows as “Thurgood,” “South Pacific” and “Golden Age,” part of a wonderful Terence O’Neill mini-festival.

Ted Van Griethuysen was nominated yet again, in kingly fashion, for “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

The Helen Hayes Awards will be announced April 25 at the annual ceremonies at the Warner Theater.

For a complete list of nominations and all things Helen Hayes Awards, click here!

Martin McDonagh and the Druids come to Studio Theatre

Forget what you thought you knew about Irish lit, Irish mores and Irish culture; the stuff you learned by way of John Ford and Victor McLaglen and the likes of all that.

The Druids are here. Temporarily, this time, but they’ll be back.

That would be Druid Theatre Company and the Atlantic Theatre Company out of Galway, embarked on a national tour of these United States. They are in town for a second visit here at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through this weekend, with a staging of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”

McDonagh, the brash, storytelling whiz and star Irish playwright, is at the core of this company, which is producing some of the finest theater in the world.

For Druid general manager Tim Smith, the trip is a treat.

“I would never want to be anything else,” says Smith, a Londoner who seems to have acquired a bit of a Galway lilt in his voice. “I don’t aspire to writing plays, acting, that side of things. This is a dream job. You get to be around and work with so many gifted people, travel a lot—like this trip to the States. See what that’s all about.”

The Druid Theater Company has been under the direction of Garry Hynes for years. The company is also under the spell Ireland’s two pre-eminent contemporary playwrights, McDonough and Enda Walsh, and it has become a force in Ireland and in the theater world, presenting a high profile alternative to the Abbey and Dublin tradition in Ireland.

“The theater company’s been around a relatively long time, but they’re cutting edge and new, in a different setting operating with a distinct style, with a new generation of Irish playwrights,” Smith says. “They’re very smart here, and we’ve been very well received in the States.”

McDonagh, whose work has been seen at the Studio Theater, most recently with the woozy tall tale “The Seafarer,” about four besotted and befuddled Irishmen playing poker with the devil in a war for one of the men’s souls. By McDonagh’s standards, it was somewhat lighter fare, although “The Cripple of Inishmaan” also has his characteristic blend of sometimes profane, cruel humor, heartbreak and hooliganism, sadness and mirth, hope and vainglory. It is about a small town on the coast of Ireland subsisting on half-baked dreams until a Hollywood movie company led by the great documentarian Robert Flaherty arrives to film the natives.

It is Irish to the core, what with characters named Billy Claven (the cripple), and BabbyBobby, Mammy O’Dougal, Kate, JohnnyPateenMike, Slippy Helen, and Doctor McSharry.

McDonagh, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, is a big star on the theater horizon, with four productions staged by Druid, including “A Beheading in Spokane,” “The Pillowman,” “The Lieutenant Of Inishmore” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan”. Other plays by McDonagh include “A Skull in Connemar ” and “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” performed at the Studio with Nancy Robinette in the title role.

“He’s definitely a part of the core of what we do here,” Smith says. “Druid is representative of a kind of Irish new wave, that’s for sure, along with Enda Walsh, whose work kicks off a festival in the spring called “New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival.” The Studio Theater will have Walsh’s “Penelope” beginning March 25 and running through April 3.

The festival also includes two other Walsh plays, an appearance by Walsh herself, as well as Garry Hynes, the only woman to ever win a Tony for direction and other events.