Arabian Nights at Arena Stage

July 26, 2011

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.

Kris Kristofferson: The Rye and Rueful Man’s Man


-You’d have to be damn near blind not to see what Kris Kristofferson looked like, even from a distance in the concert hall at the Music Center at Strathmore.

He’s got bluejeans, boots, somewhat unruly white hair, a shirt, a guitar, a harmonica strapped to him. Each gray and white strand of his beard is full of all the days of good and hard living, the cheers and the times when they might have stopped. It’s a past-70 beard, honestly earned, carefully combed by this singer-songwriter-movie star. It’s a beard, along with the voice that goes with it—raspy as a barking junkyard dog—perfect for the songs he sings.

Look him up on Wikepedia sometimes, and you have to wonder how a guy who’s done everything short of skiing down the Himalayas after seeing the wise man can write such rye and rueful songs. In his songs, which are mostly about him and the folks he’s met, loved and lost along the way, there is a certain amount of regret going on. But there’s also a lot of honest feeling, manly gut checks, and a certain sense of having let go of way too many worthy women.

Here is a guy who started out as an army brat, went to Oxford, was a captain in the U.S. Army, traveled around, was offered a job as a professor of English literature at West Point, did dishes and swept hallways as a janitor in Nashville, and wrote songs that everybody else sang and made hits out of. You know: “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” “Me and Bobby McKee,” ”Loving Her Was Easier,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Why Me.”

And in the process he became a movie star, a handsome lad, catnip of the rugged sort that don’t go down easy. He played Billy the Kid with Sam Peckinpah directing, starred opposite Barbra Streisand and dated her, and survived all three experiences. He was Joplin’s swain for a while. He married a number of times, the result of which has been eight children and grandparent status. “This song,” he says of Daddy’s Song, “is for my children and their mommas.” He reminds me of E.E. Cummings’ Buffalo Bill poem now.

His voice doesn’t reach all the notes he’s composed, and it probably never did. But the emotions catch them just right, even now. “You know, he’s not much of a singer,” I hear a man tell the woman he’s with.

“Who the hell gives a damn?” she says, with just a little bite.

You suspect he’s got a lot of memories kicking around in there. He’s got a following still, a house full of Grammys and Country Music Awards, and legend status. He’s right up there now with Willie, Johnny, Merle, Waylon and the rest in the country music folk tales, even though his music spreads out over the land like a genre-less blanket.

He’s got a certain kind of audience. Guys around his age, perhaps a little younger, who look even less than he looks like his old self: his shirt off, waiting for James Coburn’s Pat Garrett to kill him, palling around with a knife-throwing kid named “The Kid.” The Kid, oddly, was Bob Dylan, who wrote the haunting “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” for that flick.

He loves the acoustics here at Strathmore—so much so that instead of playing a one-set concert, he opted for two, though ruefully, as always. “Man, this place is great,” he said. “I can hear every mistake I’m making.”

In his songs, he’s waking up with a hangover, he can’t find a restaurant that’s open, or scrounge up the quarter for a cup of coffee and “It’s Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Or he’s waking up in a strange bed and the woman he’s been with just shut the door on her way out, and Bobby McGee has slipped away in Memphis “looking for a home, and I hope she finds it.”

The guys in the audience cheer him on, not too loudly. He’s singing their stories too, I’m willing to bet. And maybe he’s singing parts of mine. A couple of guys are sitting next to me. They get the walk he walks and the songs he sings. The songs make up a kind of Superbowl of manly broken hearts and missed chances. In front of me is a young guy with a pretty young, long-and-dark haired girl, kind of generic. He’s in uniform from some other small-town time, the tight blue jeans hung a little low, a clean white shirt, a near-duck tailed haircut and a look-around-challenging kind of look. He hasn’t accumulated a single regret, except maybe dropping a pass in the open field once or twice. Might have been Kristofferson, growing up in Texas.

“The Carpetbagger’s Children” at Ford’s Theatre

When Kimberly Schraf, Holly Twyford and Nancy Robinette come back onto the set to take their final bows for their work in Horton Foote’s “The Carpetbagger’s Children” at Ford’s Theatre, you expect a whole bunch of people to follow them on out—Texas townspeople, family members, momma and poppa, brother and brother-in-law, swindlers and Confederates, best friends, children, sharecroppers, and lost loves and friends.

Nobody shows up of course, but they’ve been there through the whole hour and a half of this intimate, epic play, rich in stories, rich in language, rich in real people and ghosts.

That’s what happens when you marry a trio of gifted actresses—and these women are among Washington’s finest—to gorgeous writing, and a playwright’s ability to evoke a sense of place through memory and spoken stories.

Foote, who died last year, was among the top tier of American playwrights, not just by his output, which was large, but by his particular gift, which was to revisit the Texas places in which he grew up, delve into his own life and memories and, with writing tinged with hard-scrabbled poetry, bring to life characters that were universally American.

He didn’t always play by the rules, and he didn’t always play to the expectations of audiences. What fame he had seemed to come mostly from his screenplay writing and movies made of his plays. He wrote the screenplay for “To Kill a Mockingbird.” His play “The Trip to Bountiful” got a best actress Oscar for the late Geraldine Page.

Some critics have had trouble with the way Foote tells the story of the three sisters (and a fourth who’s never seen, but often brought up). The suggestion is that “The Carpetbagger’s Daughters” isn’t really a play, but a series of monologues. While that’s technically true, the work moves like a play, walks like a play and talks like a play. And it has the emotional impact of a play and story, so by my definition it is a play, and a fine, beautiful one at that.

So yes, the three sisters: Cornelia, the practical one, played with exasperation and a certain and affecting lonely reserve by Kimberly Schraf; Grace Anne, the one that got married, played with challenging rue by Nancy Robinette; and Sissie, the baby, played with utterly engaging charm by Holly Twyford. They all take turns pushing the story forward (and sometimes backward) by way of monologues. They are on stage against a dusty, open canvas background, together all of the time, but also apart. They rarely connect through dialogue exchange, but they do react subtly to what is being said and remembered.

The three are the daughters of a Union soldier who returned to the Texas town of Harrison as a carpetbagger after the Civil War’s end, taking on the critical position of tax collector, which allowed him to accumulate property cheaply, and to become an important figure in the cotton-land town over the years.

The monologues are a series of memories about getting from here to there. We never see momma and poppa, but we hear their voices, especially Momma who has by now passed through the gates of dementia.

The timeline takes us—through story and memory—from Reconstruction all the way through World War II, and along the way the usual tribulations occur. Right off the bat, Cornelia recalls the death of another sister, taken home from New Orleans after coming down with a mysterious and eventually fatal illness. Cornelia recalls how the townspeople gathered up straw and laid it down in the streets to prevent the wagon, which carried the sick sister, from jarring.

The story, told matter of factly and with a sad precision, sets the tone. Things never stop happening: Grace Ann, against her father’s wishes, marries a man without sharpness or ambitio. Cornelia takes over the running of the estate. Poppa dies. Sissie marries and becomes a mother. Love is not requited. Children grow up and move away. And Momma cannot figure out whose dead and who’s alive.

The town changes, fortunes are made and lost, and secrets eventually come out. The sisters—through a nod here, a raised eyebrow or head—do indeed communicate. When Twyford takes the stage for the first time as Sissie, the mood becomes light, sunny and sweet. She spreads warmth around through her personality on a family that sometimes badly needs it.

People get older—there are more funerals than weddings—and the land itself is eventually changed. Cornelia recalls telling the sharecroppers that she was giving in to technology and forcing them off the land they had worked for decades.

It seems like a small play because of the structure, perhaps, because of the way the women speak, intimately plowing memory like a farmer plows the land. They are personal stories, broken up by momma’s need to hear Sissie sing “The Clanging Bells of Time” so frequently.

This is the first time that these three actresses have shared a change, which is at once unbelievable and momentous. They live up to the expectations, using the monologues as a connection to each other. There is always “Lear” or “The Three Sisters” to offer a chance to reprise the occasion in a different way.

The Women of Washington Theater

We interviewed Holly Twyford, Nancy Robinette and Kimberly Schraf, the stars of Horton Foote’s “The Carpetbagger’s Daughters,” now completing its run at Ford’s Theater a few days before it opened.

The three women were going to go back to rehearsal again and they were a little frustrated.

“We are so eager for an audience,” Holly Twyford said, sitting with fellow actresses Nancy Robinette and Kimberly Schraf. “We don’t really know how we are doing in relation to an audience. There’s just us.”

“We invited some people to a dress rehearsal,” said Shraf, “just so we can get an idea.”

“In this play you can’t really work off of each other,” Robinette said. “The structure of the play, time is critical. It’s about what people remember and how those memories can be different.”

Sitting at a table at the Ford’s Theater with these three, you’re a little awe-struck. Together and apart, these three women are part of the life and lore of Washington’s theater history, key figures in the rise of theaters like the Studio Theater, the Shakespeare Company, Woolly Mammoth, Round House, Arena, and Signature. Name a theater, functioning or not, and chances are one of them at least has performed there.

When we talked to them, they were only a few days away from the opening of Horton Foote’s “The Carpetbaggers’ Children,” a three-character play in which they play sisters who remember their youth and their father, who had moved west to take over a plantation in Texas after the Civil War. That the characters are sisters talking about their father leaves dry-dust flavorings of “King Lear” and “The Three Sisters,” Texas style.

The three know each other very well and they know of each other. You can sense a tremendous respect and affection that they have for each other, something that seems to spring naturally out of the experience of preparing a play for which they are the key ingredients.

They’re a little shy about giving away what makes this play such a challenge and why a real audience is to be so desired. “It’s the memory thing,” Robinette said. “They don’t really talk to each other in the play. Rather, we all have longish monologues, talking about our father, about how he died, the funeral.”

“But Foote is such a wonderful writer, he had such a sense of place, those places in Texas that he wrote about all of his life,” Schraf said. “So the words are wonderful. They’re so evocative.”

“With Foote, and with the monologues, one of the most important things you can do, you HAVE to do, is listen,” Twyford said. “We barely interact. We listen to what the others say, and that’s a different kind of acting.”

When it comes to different kinds of acting, all three have had considerable experience. Among Washington theatergoers, Twyford and Robinette are vivid and fairly constant presences, working furiously from one play to the next. This is proof enough of the growing strength of Washington’s professional theater scene, in which a growing number of actors are booked a year, sometimes two years in advance.

Twyford and Robinette and Schraf are, regardless of whatever else they might have done, Washington theater people. Sitting across from Twyford and Robinette, I get an odd sense of familiarity, as if we’re long-time friends. If you write about the theater, of course, this is a natural feeling. With them, you feel as if you’ve spent a lot of time together.

Twyford’s voice and looks are distinctive. Her voice is a little raspy and husky, at turns funny, empathic and beguiling. Robinette emanates cautious warmth, but that impression may be because you tend to remember the characters she’s played—women who make an impression, who are like nobody else, especially when embodied by her.

Schraf is perhaps less familiar, but at Ford’s she has worked quite a bit, with major parts in “Member of the Wedding” and the recent, sharply successful “Sabrina Fair.” “Actually, when I was approached for this, I suggested them,” she said. “It’s just so great to work together.”

Surprisingly, what with all the history and exposure, Twyford and Robinette have never worked together before, and Twyford has never been seen on the Ford stage. Everybody, of course, goes to the Helen Hayes Awards, where Robinette and Twyford make frequent trips to the stage to receive acting awards on a regular basis. Schraf has had two recent nominations.

What they represent, though, is the cream of the crop among Washington actors, all very distinct and unique, but nonetheless, characterized by a strong pride in what they do and the community they work in. Schraf has the distinction of having worked in two productions of the play “The Women,” one at Arena and one at Studio. Twyford played Beatrice, Juliet and one of four Hamlets at the Folger…and yes, a tap-dancing pig at Adventure Theater. Robinette is known for eccentric, off-kilter women who leave a mark on the memory, particularly her performance as Florence Foster Jenkins, the society matron who wanted to sing in “Souvenirs”.

“You saw that?” she asked. “Well, you missed something. I fell off coming off the stage on one of my exits.” That would have been memorable, but her performance was more than sufficient to stay in my mind.

“I’m the baby,” Twyford says of her part in “The Carpetbaggers Children”

“That means she gets away with saying things,” Robinette says.

“Kimberly is the most empathic, the most articulate among us,” Twyford says. “She says things straight and on the mark.”

All of them, at one time or another, have done other things, tried out here and there, been in films or television or done audio book reading. Most folks in the Washington theater scene have. They are not movie stars, but they’re the stars of every play they’re in.

You think, remembering the play(s) you’ve seen them in, they can do pretty much anything. And that is probably true. They’re grounded now in family, in relationships, in parenthood.

On stage they can become Birdie of “The Little Foxes,” tough, strong women of “The Women,” Russian molls, femme fatales, dotty ladies or fierce mothers. Whatever they do, it will be in that singular manner that defines them and makes them memorable to us.

Robinette and Twyford will both move on after this to other plays, Twyford doing her first role at the Shakespeare Company. “Nothing so far,” says Schraf, shrugging. “I’m available, as they say.”

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Edward Albee & Tennessee Williams

In the annals of 20th-Century American theater history, there are few playwrights more influential, more continually fascinating to theatergoers and theater makers, than Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.

If there is a hierarchy of American playwrights, then Williams and Albee belong in the highest tier, along with Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, for their strong, echoing and expansive bodies of work, an output that rarely dates in reading or performing, and continues to draw the attention of generations of theater artists.

Both playwrights are getting their full due in two ambitious, wide-reaching, far-flung local festivals. Arena stage will be hosting a two-month long Edward Albee festival. And “The Glass Menagerie Project” at Georgetown University, which runs through March 27 and picks up again in the summer, is part of a nationwide Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival.

There’s a vital, live-wire connection between the two festivals—“The Glass Menagerie Project” is part of an Arena Stage/Georgetown partnership and will be picked up again in June at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. And both festivals will be graced with the in-person presence of Albee.

The Arena Stage Edward Albee Festival kicks off with a visit from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago and its electrifying production of Albee’s most produced and famous play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Starring Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts as George and Amy Morton as Martha, it will be running in the Kreeger Theater February 25 – April 10.

Meanwhile and simultaneously, Arena Stage itself is mounting “At Home at the Zoo,” which will be performed in the Arlene and Robert Komodo Cradle February 25 — April 24.

That double bill would normally count as a mini-festival and ambitious project in itself. But wait, there’s more. Beginning in March and running through the end of April, 16 theater companies will present staged readings of Albee’s works. The readings, by such companies as the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Theater J, Taffety Punk, Round House Theatre, American Century Theater and Forum Theatre, with directors like Irene Lewis, Howard Shalwitz, Wendy C Goldberg and Amy Freed, are free, but reservations are required.

The readings will include “Lolita,” “Fragments,” “The Lady from Dubuque,” “Marriage Play,” “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” “The American Dream,” “Tiny Alice,” “The Play About the Baby,” “Three Tall Women,” “A Delicate Balance,” “Seascape,” and Albee’s version of Carson McCuller’s “The Ballad of the Sad Café.”

In addition, Albee will be honored with the presentation of the American Artist Award on March 14, in “An Evening with Edward Albee.”

Albee will also be present at Georgetown, appearing at Gaston Hall in a conversation with Susan Stamberg, a special correspondent for National Public Radio, talking about his perspectives on the work and influence of Tennessee Williams. The conversation will include performances from leading actors, curated by Albee himself. (March 24)

“The Glass Menagerie Project,” presented by the Georgetown Theater and Performance Studies Program, is a re-envisioning of what is generally considered Williams’ most autobiographical work, a work often called a “memory play.” The project—really a Williams festival—will include performances, discussions and events intended to illuminate Williams’ most familiar and perhaps least controversial play.

The project, of course, will feature a production of “The Glass Menagerie,” starring Georgetown theater professor and one of Washington’s most luminous, gifted actresses, Sarah Marshall as Amanda Wingfield. The show will be directed by Professor Derek Goldman and runs February 24 – March 27 at GU’s Davis Performing Arts Center’s Gonda Theater.

Other special productions and events include appearances by playwright Christopher Durang (who wrote “For Whom the Southern Bell Tolls,” a takeoff on “Menagerie”), and a performance of “Camino Real,” Williams’ most gaudy and mysterious play March 26. There will be readings, discussion, and plays throughout the festivals.

Among a trio of readings on March 26 is “Mister Paradise” directed by Joy Zinoman and featuring Ted Van Griethuysen.

Albee’s presence at both festivals should be electric, illuminating and haunting. Williams died in 1983, seemingly played out, but his plays continued to be performed everywhere, including as part of a notable Tennessee Williams festival at the Kennedy Center.

Albee and Williams both concerned themselves with aspects of that big theater theme, love—sexual, romantic and any otherwise. As such, many of their plays were considered controversial at the time of their debuts. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with its plum, rich and profane language and sexual themes, had to be cleaned up a little for the movie version. Years later, “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” still had walkouts at its performance at Arena Stage because it was about…well, a man who loved a goat.

Williams’ later plays, like the classic “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Sweet Bird of Youth” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” with its overt references to gay themes and violent incidents, were also controversial, while featuring grand roles for women, a Williams trademark.

Both of them continue to be influential writers and playwrights with their body of work, much of which will be celebrated in the two festivals. Go to for details on the Albee festivals and for more on Williams.
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