Fall Performance Art Preview 2011: Part 2

May 3, 2012

What is a place, a city, a town, a region, but its people and their culture?
In Washington, D.C.—and the surrounding area lumped under the Beltway which gets us to Maryland and Virginia and vice versa—the idea and execution of culture manifests itself in ways that reflect the complicated identity of the city. There is always talk of a political culture, because politics defines the city’s raison d’etre, the only city in America to house so many elected officials as well as ambassadors from the world, a status which all but demands the presence of high and low cultural institutions and venues.
The nature of the city as the seat of national and international power often obscures the local nature of the city: its neighborhoods, its history, its presence as a functioning city and wanna-be-state, not to mention its own peculiar ethnic, racial, political and cultural history. That history runs deep into the roots of trees, cracks in sidewalks, corner delis and homes of the city’s neighborhoods, and reflects the greater national history. On the National Mall, with its monuments new and old, the great national story is memorialized and remembered.
Culture, reflected in the arts both fine and popular, is where all the city’s identities and factions meet to co-celebrate, co-mingle. In our museums, our theaters and our performing arts venues, the nation meets its citizens. Locals, visitors and temporary inhabitants share the expressions of dreams in works of art, plays, dance and music.
These are difficult times for the arts and its institutions and leaders, who must find ways to make so called “high” and “elite” performance arts like opera, symphonic music and ballet accessible to everyone through education and affordability. This is a tricky dilemma facing artistic directors of orchestras, theater companies, dance companies and a variety of venues —it’s the conflict of art and commerce, a lessening of governmental assistance through grants and other issues. Sometimes, this is a fight for survival and not everyone makes it; witness the recent loss of the CityDance troupe in Washington.
How do the performing arts express themselves through music and dance in Washington? Let us count the ways or at least some of them in this preview of events, concerts, performances and festivals in the coming season.

The Kennedy Center
Before you make any sort of plans, check out this date: Sept. 19, 2011.
That Monday is the day the Kennedy Center celebrates its 40th birthday and the day of the 40th Anniversary Ticket Giveaway, which will award two free tickets to every Kennedy Center-presented performance taking place over the 2011-2012 season. The giveaway also launches the MyTIX program, which is designed to increase access to performances for people ages 18-30, the underserved, and members of the armed forces. The program is funded by Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein and his wife Alice as part of the Rubenstein Arts Access Program. For more information, go to the Kennedy Center website or register for the giveaway at. kennedy-center.org/kc40.
That being said, here are some other things at the Kennedy Center to look forward to.
On the jazz front, there’s a very special program, Nov. 11 through 16, called “Swing, Swing, Swing” focusing on the rhythmic beat which is the heart and soul of jazz, and which was the core of American popular music from the 1920s through the 1950s. Like the Duke said: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
A highlight of the swing celebration is “Jazz on the Elevens: A Tribute to Billy Taylor” on Nov. 11, when some of the world’s top jazz musicians will gather to pay tribute to Taylor, the leader of the center’s jazz program for years and a legendary jazz pianist in his own right. Taylor passed away last year. On board at the Eisenhower Theater will be Ramsey Lewis, Danilo Perez, Terence Blanchad, Winard Harper and Christian Sands among others.
The National Pops Orchestra, under new director Steven Reineke, will join NEA Jazz Master George Benson in “George Benson: An Unforgettable Tribute to Nat King Cole” at the Concert Hall, Nov. 25 to 26.
On top of that, you can dance, dance, dance to the music of the Firecracker Jazz Band, Asleep at the Wheel and the Eric Felton Jazz Orchestra on the Millennium Stage. Swing dancing will be encouraged on the Grand Foyer, transformed into the KC Dance Hall for the duration of the festival.
NSO Time—The National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach, in his second year as NSO conductor, will get the 2011-2012 season rolling for its season opening ball concert featuring violin super star Joshua Bell with works that include the National Anthem, Violin Concerto No. 1 (Bell), and Ravel’s “Bolero” among other selections on Sept. 25.
Not to be missed is Thursday’s “9/11: 10 Years Later, An Evening of Remembrance and Reflection,” a tribute concert with performances by Denyce Graves, Emmylou Harris, Wynton Marsalis and the NSO, with remarks by Colin Powell, Madeline Albright and Condoleezza Rice, and hosted by broadcaster Christiane Amanpour in the Concert Hall.
Reineke’s first pops venture will be “Some Enchanted Evening: The Music of Rodgers and Hammerstein,” Oct. 13 through 15, featuring Kelli O’Hara of “South Pacific” fame.

The Washington Performing Arts Society has been in the forefront of bringing in world-class, diverse musical artists and groups for more than 40 years as a non-profit performing arts presenting organization with a strong educational and community presence. As such, its thumb prints in terms of venues and performers are all over the Washington area in places both big and small, including the Kennedy Center, the Music Center at Strathmore, Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University, the Harman Center for the Arts, the Warner Theater and the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.
Its presenting activities range across the whole spectrum of the performing arts, from classical music, individuals and groups, to jazz, pop music and world music and dance performers and groups.
It features a variety of series—the Orchestra Series, the Hayes Piano Series, the Kreeger String Series, the Jazz Legends Series and others, including producing the Velocity D.C. Dance Festival at Sidney Harman Hall Oct. 20 to 23.
Here are some early WPAS highlights:
The Budapest Festival Orchestra under the baton of conductor Ivan Fischer will be at the Kennedy Center Oct. 26 with a program of Hungarian peasant songs by Bela Bartok and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9, otherwise known as “The Great.”
The Hayes Piano Series begins Oct. 1 at the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center with a recital of the works of Haydn, Armstrong, Schumann and Liszt by the rising piano star Till Fellner, who appeared last year at the Embassy of Austria and with the Embassy Series.
The incomparable saxophone player Sonny Rollins will perform in the Jazz Legends Series Oct. 10 followed on Nov. 9 by Dave Brubeck, both at the KC Concert Hall.
Four-time Tony Award winner (for “Carousel,” “Master Class,” “Ragtime” and “A Raisin in the Sun”) Audra McDonald brings her vocal talents to the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, making her way through selections from the great American songbook.

Keb’ Mo’ – a multiple Grammy Award winner, blues man, singer-songwriter and a modern link to classic Mississippi Delta Blues – kicks of the 2011-2012 season for the Music Center at Strathmore on Sept. 15.
That would be Keb’ Mo’, once Kevin Moore, and his band, celebrating the release of “The Reflections,” his first studio album in three years, a work that includes collaborations with country star Vince Gill, soul singer India Arie, saxophonist Dave Koz and session guitarist David T Walker.
Coming up—Madeleine Peroux, also with a new release out called “Standing on the Rooftop,” will bring her unique song styling of blues and jazz Sept. 30. She’s a true world-singer, having lived in Georgia, Southern California, Brooklyn and New York.
Pop, jazz and cabaret singer Nellie McKay’s opens the show.
Also on tap on Oct. 4 is Pat Metheney with Larry Grenadier, a Strathmore presentation in collaboration with Blues Alley. The enduring jazz guitarist has collected seven Grammies.
Strathmore is also celebrating American composers with several events surrounding the career of Charles Ives, considered one of America’s greatest composers of the 20th Century, alongside Aaron Copeland and Duke Ellington (who will get the focus treatment at Strathmore in spring of 2012). Of special interest is “Charles Ives: A Life in Music,” a program at the Music Center featuring Jeremy Denk on piano, baritone William Sharp, D.C. actor Floyd King and the Post-Classical Ensemble on Nov. 3.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet will celebrate its 10th anniversary at the Kennedy Center with two performances featuring nothing but the works of George Balanchine, the great American choreographer who was Farrell’s mentor and inspiration. The company is dedicated to preserving the Balanchine legacy under the leadership of the legendary ballerina.
The company returns to the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, Oct. 12 through 16, accompanied by the KC Opera House Orchestra. Among the highlights is “Diamonds,” a work taken from Balanchine’s full-length work “Jewels,” done in collaboration with the Sarasota Ballet.
Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre is bringing back its hit ballet, a stylish adaptation of one of the most enduring and characteristically American works of literature: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Nov. 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower. The production, called “crazily ambitious” (very like Jay Gatsby and the enchanting Daisy), by one critic, includes music by Billy Novick’s Blue Syncopators, vocals by E. Faye Butler and Will Garthshore and tap dancing by Ryan Johnson.
The Washington Ballet will also hold its inaugural ball and soiree built along the lines of “The Great Gatsby Prohibition Party” at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 30.
The 2011 Velocity Dance Festival will be held at Harman Hall Oct. 20 through 23, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Shakespeare Theatre Company and DanceMetro D.C. Participants include the Jane Franklin Dance Company, Urban Artistry, Flamenco Aparidio Run Quina and the Edgeworth Dance Theatre, among others.
In a double bill, the Dana Tai Soon Burgess troupe will present the world premiere of “Becoming American,” a work exploring the experience of a Korean child uprooted from her birthplace when she is adopted by American parents.
The highly original Burgess, dubbed “the poet laureate of Washington Dance,” will also include the company’s popular “Charlie Chan and the Mystery of Love, color black.” Performances are Oct. 14 through 16 at the Dance Place.

The Embassy Series continues to operate at the crossroads of the international community and the city, providing opportunities for interaction and windows on the rest of the world for its patrons. Jerome Barry is now entering the 18th year of the series he founded, starting with a core of embassies from European and Eastern European countries, presenting rising young classical musicians and groups, and spreading out to other parts of the world, presenting music and performers from the Middle East.
The latter has proven to be even more important today, given the upheavals still going on the region and the American presence there. “I think the concerts on that level offer opportunities for exchanges for seeing those countries in terms of their culture and people,” Barry said. “We had a concert with Egypt only weeks after the uprising there.”
The Series opens its 2011-2012 season with “Songs of the Vilna Ghetto Experience” at the Embassy of Lithuania Sept. 16 with Barry, a baritone, singing songs played and listened to by Jewish residents of the Vilna ghetto during the Holocaust.
That concert is followed by “High Strings, Deep Voice,” with Katharina Radlberger-Bergmann on violin, Susanne Friedrich on cello, Bill Merrill on Piano and bass-baritone Rupert Bergman performing the music of Schubert, Bottenberg, Wagner, Wolf and Haydn at the Embassy of Austria Sept. 16.
The Embassy of the Czech Republic has announced the “Mutual Inspiration Festival 2011 – Antonin Dvorak,” beginning Sept. 8 and running through Oct. 28, celebrating the 170th birthday of the legendary Czech classical music composer.
The festival, spearheaded by the patronage of Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel Schwarzenberg, features over 500 local and international artists and takes place all over Washington, including venues like the Kennedy Center, the National Gallery of Art, the Embassy of the Czech Republic, the Phillips Collection and others. The festival features a variety of concerts, lectures films and exhibitions focusing on Dvorak’s work and his sources and inspirations.
With more than 200 free events featuring European entertainers and artists for children, the Kid Euro Festival is back Oct. 14 through Nov. 10. It is being staged with the cooperation of 27 European Union Embassies and more than 20 local cultural institutions. There will be puppetry, dance, music, theater, storytelling and acts of magic along with children’s films and workshops.
Teatro de La Luna, one of the area’s premier Hispanic theatrical organizations, is presenting its annual Latin American Harp Festival at the Gunston Arts Center Theater Sept. 16 and 17.
Featured are artists Hildo Aguire of Colombia, Pedro Gaona from Paraguay, and Angel Tolosa from Venezuela.

Till Fellner: Past, Present and Future of Classical Music

There are certain images that come to mind when you think of classical music, and pianist Till Fellner, a rising star in the world of classical music performers, embodies quite a few of those if you’ve ever seen him perform.

The last time Washington saw Fellner, who is being presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center Oct. 1, he played at the Austrian Embassy as part of Jerome Barry’s Embassy Series Season, which was also the concluding program in Fellner’s ambitious project to perform the complete 32-part cycle of Beethoven sonatas.

Played on a Sunday afternoon before a sold-out but intimate audience, the Embassy Series program was a coming together of artist, music and audience, and a rather romantic display of the culture of classical music. It came with all the practiced history and rituals one would hope for, from the hollering of “Bravo!” to the flying of tailcoats.

An occasion like this has its roots in the 18th and 19th centuries, when music was played in front of kings and members of the courts. It was played by candlelight and under chandeliers, in churches and the drawing rooms of aristocracy. The audiences are no longer quite so elite or powerful, but certain manners, mannerisms and behavioral traditions still persist. Just like the tradition remains that important cast members take curtain calls in between acts at an opera, so there are certain expectations at a concert or recital. After all, the music of the classical Forefathers—in this case Beethoven—is being played.

Fellner is Viennese and European to the core, but he is also a citizen of the world by dint of the global explosion of interest and competition in classical music. He understands and appreciates the seriousness of what he does. “The music is all that matters,” he said in a brief international telephone conversation, where he was taking in the evening tide in the old city of Vienna. “You are in service to the music, it’s the most important thing there is. And on such occasions, there are certain ways of doing things. There’s a respect that is due to the music, from myself playing it to the best of my abilities and understanding, and from the audience in terms of listening.”

You don’t get grand gestures from Fellner, no thumping on the keys with over emphasized drama, no hair or headshaking that one might get from musicians who play the keys to elicit applause. Fellner, although tall and almost boyishly handsome at age 38, will not try to seduce an audience with body language. Rather, he tries to ford the defenses of the heart with perfect performances and worship the music with his playing.

The airy embassy spaces, sunlit and bright, were an ideal setting. Fellner walked up to the shiny black piano with a quick and friendly nod, resplendent in tuxedo and tails, sat at the piano—arranging the tails just so—and began to play to the kind of communal silence that sometimes catches you off guard.

“I believe,” he said, in precise and fluent English, “that there are certain traditions to be followed, and that it is a part of the music, the occasion. There’s a certain formality and I like that, but it doesn’t interfere with feelings and emotions.”

Fellner carries with him the life of a concert pianist, and with it a mountain of ever-growing challenges. He lives in a world that seems to be at a contradictory phase—there are more and more classical musicians being trained all over the world, especially in Asia, while at the same time interest in classical music, while not in any sort of dramatic decline, still seems pointed to a closed world made up of the affording class.

But bridges are being built in the music industry, often with real artists on the forefront, who fuse their talents with giants from the world of pop music. But Fellner isn’t one of them—at least not yet. “I like some popular music,” he said. “Some of the artists are very good. But on the whole, I’m not that interested in rock music and things like that, nor do I have any desire to play it. There are plenty of challenges in playing the music that already exists—every pianist, violinist and so on takes on projects that are difficult and challenging. And the Sonatas was one of mine.”

Still, Fellner understands that the classical repertoire—Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Wagner, to name a few—needs to be replenished and added to, and he’s not stuck in the past in that sense.
“There’s actually a lot of new composers and new classical music being written, and I also like playing the works of the 20th century composers. There is a different sort of challenge in the new.”

Fellner’s program at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Oct. 1 is a kind of indicator of direction: the richness of the past and the potential for the future. There are Haydn, Schumann, and Liszt, and there is also 19-year-old classical music sensation Kit Armstrong.

“Kit is a prodigy. As a performer, as a composer, he’s just amazing,” Fellner said. “I’m playing ‘Half of One, Six Dozens of the Other,’ which he wrote for me in 2010.”

Fellner has been praised all over world and received raves like this from the London Observer: “Fellner confirmed his standing among the foremost keyboard virtuosi of the day; exact, limpid and feather-fingered, he exquisitely conveyed the sense of yearning haunting the andante and cruised effortlessly through the teasing syncopations of the closing allegro of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 18.”
He will treat Armstrong’s music like he treats a Beethoven sonata, as if in the interpretive position of high priest.

Till Fellner will be performing at the Kennedy Center on Oct. 1, presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society. For more information visit Kennedy-Center.org

‘Parade’ Shows Our Past and Present Dark Sides

“Parade” (now at Ford’s Theatre through Oct. 30) sounds like a musical, it pretends to be a musical, it has fast numbers, soft numbers, ballads and rousing numbers that make you want to tap your feet.
As musicals go, “Parade,” with a book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, is kind of subversive, so much so that an audience can get tricked into clapping after a rousing song sung by a gifted singer and then almost instantly feel weird for do so.

The number in question is “That’s What He Said,” sung by Kevin McAllister as Jim Conley, an African-American janitor at a pencil factory in Atlanta in 1913. What Conley is singing is his testimony at a trial in which Leo Frank, the northern Jewish factory manager, is being tried on charges that he murdered 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a factory worker and dumped her body in the basement. Conley is singing a song, a bald-faced lie of a story in which he says he was witnessed to the aftermath of the murder and helped Frank dispose of the body. He sings “That’s What He Said” in friendly, furious fashion, it’s almost a vaudeville tune that gets people going, makes you want to dance, in fact.

Of course, that’s not what you should want to do. You should be appalled, shocked, torn and bewildered by your own feelings, the natural inclination to clap for a show-stopping number at war with the horrible lie being told that will help railroad Frank to the end of a rope.

More important, this is a true thing, a horrible event in post-Civil War southern history that was already replete with regular lynching and murders of blacks during Jim Crow days. Frank, a northerner from Brooklyn, had married a southern Jewish woman named Lucille and moved down South to manage the factory. Mary Phagan was killed on Confederate Memorial Day in Atlanta, which included parades and picnics, a holiday memorial celebrating Confederate valor and the loss of the old South.

“Parade,” which had a run on Broadway under the auspices of producer Harold Prince no less, won a couple of Tonys but not much acclaim. It should get some here, where the story and theme resonate mightily. It’s also been deemed the centerpiece of the programming for the Lincoln Legacy Project and is a co-production with Theater J.

It’s also an often powerful, gut-wrenching hybrid theatrical evening. Unsettling and disjointed, a sharp, thoughtful and creatively staged and performed piece that has some of the aspirations of both a serious opera and the kind of conscience-hitting plays that came from Arthur Miller. But it’s also not exactly what it seems to be, which is a musical. You sometimes think that Uhry and Brown are using the genre to get audiences to interact with the material in unaccustomed ways, the better to make an impact.

History tells us—and it’s no secret to tell the results—that in the end, Frank was convicted on almost totally fabricated, suborned lies and testimony by the victim’s friends, by the janitor and the Franks’ maid, among others, to satisfy the still bitter devotion to the Glorious Cause, a lasting hatred of northerners and blacks by the local Ku Klux Klan, supported by the establishment including a rabid newspaper publisher and author whose next book was going to offer up reasons why Jesus was not a Jew.

The approach doesn’t always work. The casual use of non-traditional casting in having African-American actors be members of crowds celebrating the Confederacy seems somehow altogether wrong, for instance. The music is often stirring, or, in quieter pieces with Frank and his wife, lovely and touching. Then again, songs pop up like period pieces from the times, and then again, you get a piece like “A Rumblin and a Rollin’,” which opens the second act, sung by black servants at a party with almost teeth-bared bitterness, a song that nicely is a bookend to a young Civil War-era soldier singing “The Old Red Hills of Home” setting off for war.

In a large cast, some of whom double and triple up, Euan Morton and Jenny Fellner stand out as Leo and Lucille Frank, who, singing and acting, manage to give a full portrait of a married couple. Often at a distance from each other in the early going they reveal their boundless love for each other in crisis. Will Gartshore is downright scary as an extremist politician and newspaper owner, steely and merciless. Stephen Schmidt as governor, John Slaton and Hugh Dorsey as a solicitor general with political ambitions, effectively define men dealing with their consciences: Slaton finds his; Dorsey misplaces it.

In the end, Slaton, after reviewing trial transcripts, commuted Frank’s death sentence to life, costing him his political future. A mob of KKK types broke into jail and hauled Frank out and lynched him. Frank’s murderers were not brought to justice and Mary Phagan’s killer was never found. Frank was granted a posthumous pardon in 1986, showing again, as if we didn’t know, that the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slow.

“Parade” is, I think, a complicated, nuanced work, and the production does it justice and honor. It is not a history lesson, or even a heavy-handed dose of moral lesson. It’s a powerful hybrid that uses the musical theater form as a way of reminding us in disturbing, moving, complicated ways, of how we live today, how far we’ve come, and how issues of tolerance, race, ethnicity, and just plain expressions of out-and-out irrational hatred remain with us. [gallery ids="99240,104014,104018" nav="thumbs"]

Karen Zacarias on the Drama of ‘Book Clubs’

I took the Green Line Metro to meet with Karen Zacarias for an interview at Arena Stage, where her play, “The Book Club Play,” would be premiering the following night. I went to see the play, too, but in a somewhat altered state of mind.

In the in the interest of full disclosure, this is a somewhat different story than I had perhaps intended. The intent was to write a feature about “The Book Club Play,” a play that has gone through a number of re-writes, incarnations and productions, making it the product of an unusual process. It intrigued me also because it was about people who belonged to a book club and was therefore about books, to which I am as devoted as a caveman is to his clubs and sticks (even as the rest of the tribe seems to be moving on to technologically superior gadgets like bows and arrows and iPads).

Zacarias sat down with me in the upper-level dining area of the new Arena building—which still has a pinch-me quality about—and I started to ask some questions conversationally, and we both allowed that we looked familiar to each other. Then I made mention of my dog Bailey and Lanier Place, where I live. And then of course it clicked. “You’re Bailey’s dad,” she said. “I’m your neighbor.”

Well, it turns out that we’ve run into each other infrequently over the years, usually in the company of our dogs. As it appears, her dog, Frieda, and my dog, Bailey, have a relationship of mutual curiosity, interest and affection. But, as often happens with dog owners, we only ever talked about dogs, not our professional lives. So I did not know that Zacarias was a prolific playwright whose plays had been performed at Arena Stage and other theaters and that she was an adjunct Georgetown University professor, for that matter. And she wasn’t aware that I wrote about theater for The Georgetowner. This is not unusual; sometimes it takes years for names to be exchanged between dog owners, let alone professional information.

I know now that the playwright Zacarias has lived on the firehouse side of Lanier Place for a number of years and is raising three children—Nico, 9, Kate 7, and Maia, 5—with her husband, Rett Snotherly, a patent attorney. I also now know that she also belongs to a book club.

What I didn’t know before is that Zacarias, who was born to a Danish mother and a Mexican father, has already had a number of plays staged, including two at Arena, “Legacy of Light” and an adaptation of the Julia Alvarez novel “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.”

And it was “The Book Club Play” that has brought her back to Arena and back to director Molly Smith. The play has already been performed at Round House Theater in Bethesda and at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, MA.

But Zacarias felt that she was not done with the play, and she continued to work on it—right up to its premiere at Arena. “I think now it’s deeper,” she said. “And it’s also funnier.”

“The Book Club Play” is about a group of people who meet regularly at a one of the member’s homes to discuss a book chosen by one of the members that all have read. At the center of this club is a woman named Ana, a successful columnists and feature writer for a Post-like newspaper. A strong woman, compulsively controlling, Ana treats the club as if it’s the center of her world, like a family or child she has created. She loves the club members: her husband, who rarely reads the assigned books and always hopes for a movie version; an academic and school friend; a jazzy, high-energy younger colleague at the paper; and a paralegal with a confidence problem. But when a newcomer arrives—a pushy, intrusive professor of comparative literature—along with the fact that the club is the ongoing subject for a film documentary (a camera is recording their every meeting), sparks fly, secrets erupt and drama, comedy and theater ensues.

Zacarias got a chance to revisit and rework “The Book Club Play” after being accepted to an Arena playwright-in-residence program, which specifically focuses on allowing playwrights to either write new plays or look again at older works.

“Some of the characters have changed a little, and the structure, the frame of the documentary is different,” Zacarias said. “But I think the dynamics are similar. But they’re more detailed, more dramatic.”

Books, of course, are very much on her mind. “There’s always this debate, about what art is, what literature is and what’s popular— and the value of books,” she said. “That’s part of the drama, the fuel for the drama and conflicts—the husband wants to do a “Tarzan” book, but ends up with Edith Wharton’s ‘The Age of Innocence.’ Other members want to take on the ‘Twilight’ books. It’s kind of a challenge to Ana, who takes books seriously, but it’s the kind of discussion we all have, I think. We all like to read so-called pop or junkie books.”

I eyed the book I had brought for the Metro: “The Affair,” a Jack Reacher thriller. Not exactly high-minded art. “There you are,” she said. “Everybody has something like that.”

“I also like to think that the play is kind of a celebration of theater,” she said. “It engages people, I know that. People have talked back during the previews—literally, out loud—which usually doesn’t happen.”

People may or may not see themselves on stage, and if they do, it’s probably at least in part because of a strong cast—especially Kate Eastwood Norris as Ana, a character who could easily be annoying with her attempts at defining and controlling her friends and husband. Norris makes her almost innocent in her cluelessness hitched to determination. There’s no malice there.

But “The Book Club Play” is not a documentary, nor is it the theater of realism. It is engaging to audiences because it looks so familiar. It’s not so much about the people on stage as it is about what happens in theater, what happens on the screens we watch constantly in all their guises. And it’s about what happens between the covers of a book. This is the stuff of our daily lives—the secrets in novels and plays, the high-energy emotions of stories, the shocking humor of embarrassment and ignorance—revved up to drama. We engage the men and women in “The Book Club Play” like we engage the characters in “The Sopranos,” or a Bette Davis movie, or a rambunctious door-slamming farce. We laugh, we cry, we recognize, and I think that’s why audiences react the way they do, which is to say in kinetically, energetically responsive ways.

Ana herself manages to write a novel about her book club, yet another way of avoiding motherhood—or rather, having another substitute child. But her friends think otherwise. They think it should be a play.

One of them says, “Imagine Up In Lights: The Book Club Play.”

Imagine that.

It would be like having a playwright living down the street and not knowing it. Very cool.

“The Book Club Play,” written by Karen Zacarias and directed by Molly Smith, will be at Arena Stage through Nov. 6, 2011. For more information visit ArenaStage.org

Septime Webre on the grace of ‘Gatsby’

Septime Webre is fresh.

Celebrated, influential and exceptionally charismatic, Webre has been the Artistic Director of the Washington Ballet since 1999. Whether talking about Balanchine or the weather, everything he says seems fresh, in the moment, right now. He may have a spiel, but if he does, it is surely of his own immediate invention.

Walking through the halls and mirrored classrooms of the ballet school on Wisconsin Avenue, you get the sense that Webre’s mind is a restless one. He is thinking ahead and remembering all at the same time, while somehow maintaining total focused.

No questions about it, he’s got the charisma, a star quality that is also down-to-earth and earthy. You’re likely to end up talking about anything at all, not just the subject at hand.

The subject at hand is the return of “The Great Gatsby,” Webre’s spectacular dance version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, an unforgettable take on the grand theme of the American dream.
“That’s exactly it,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. The idea, the imagining of the American dream. I loved that movie version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, which seems to be an ideal visualization of the book. It was just, I don’t know, enthralling.”

This is the second go around for Webre’s “Gatsby,” but if you listen to Webre, it’s as if he just thought about doing it a minute ago—and for a lifetime too.

“Two years ago, it was a huge success, no question about it,” he says. “But we had no idea that’s what was going to happen. I thought it was a risky thing, adapting a great American novel and making a ballet out of it. There was another version of it in Pittsburgh, but that’s the extent of it to my knowledge. And what I saw was something that transcended classical ballet and modern pieces. It was a dance based on a novel, a modern story ballet.

“I knew this would require new ideas, new ways of doing things, different sorts of music. It would be very American in spirit, look, tempo, movement and sound. We tried to get the sound of the times—the roaring twenties—into it. That up-beat, Charleston music, the blues, beginning jazz and ragtime. It had a certain tempo and I knew it would be very different than what audiences were used to. It goes against the grain of classical story ballet but it is a story ballet.”

Sitting behind his desk, Webre still looks lanky and casual, his hair dark and loose as if spent the morning dancing and was still shaking it off. He is the type that wants to share what’s on his mind, the kind of stuff he dreams or hears in music. The late and strange jazz singer Chet Baker is a strong favorite of his and you could see how his music might work its way into the background of a dance piece. “Baker was an original,” he says. “We didn’t use his music, but we incorporated narration, blues singing, tap dancing .

“We didn’t know what to expect,” he says of his first production of Gatsby. “We had no idea how it would be received, or if anyone would come.”

They did. While critical reaction was sometimes mixed, Webre was applauded for creating something different, new and original, and audiences came in droves. “In attendance terms, it was our best production outside of ‘Nutcracker’,” he says.

“But that’s not the only reason to do it and see it,” he goes on, trailing evermore into the winding pathways of his thoughts. “Two years ago we were in a recession, and we’re still in hard times—look what’s happening out there. There’s this vast divide economically. People on the outside looking in. And that’s what Gatsby is, an outsider. That’s what drew me to the project. I understand that feeling. I’m an immigrant. And it’s the central tragedy of Gatsby.”

But his motives reach beyond the immediate present. “I also wanted to make it big, sprawling, entertaining,” he says. “I wanted to capture a time when the American Dream seemed possible for anybody, not just the moneyed class that Daisy Buchanan comes from. There is a tremendous amount of energy in this production. We’ve done more than try to get at the essence of a novel. It’s about the spirit of an age in American history where anything was possible.”

That’s why you have E. Faye Butler, one of Washington’s finest singers and actresses, fresh off two big successes at Arena stage, singing in the production. And there’s tap dancer Quynn Johnson and actor Will Gartshore. The music—a distillation of jazz age works by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and original music by Billy Novick—is performed by Novick’s Blue Syncopators.
Webre’s description of specific sequences—a dance set on a golf course, one of Jay Gatsby’s gin-driven parties, a solo focusing on the plight of the anguished and betrayed George Wilson—puts you almost right into the production before you even see it.

Jared Nelson will again perform the role of Jay Gatsby, and Jonathan Jordan is returning as Nick Caraway. Emily Ellis and Maki Onuki will share the role of Daisy Buchanan.

Webre says this production is not the same as the one performed two years ago. “We have different cast members, for one thing. But we’ve also refined it, tightened things up. I see it a little more clearly now, “ Webre said.

In the future, Webre hopes to venture more often into modern literature as a source for choreography and dance. “I think about Tennessee Williams’ work,” he says. “’Streetcar,’ for one. It’s an opportunity to stretch boundary, to meet new challenges.” Frankly, that’s exactly what Webre has achieved with “The Great Gatsby.”

“The Great Gatsby” will be performed at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater Nov. 2 through 6. For more information visit Kennedy-Center.org.

D.C. Theater Gears up for the Holidays

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

No kidding, folks. Looking ahead just a little bit, you might want to brace yourself for Scrooges and Nutcrackers, coming up sooner than you think. We give thanks, and god bless us everyone.

Just to start you off, “A Christmas Carol” returns like clockwork to the Ford’s Theatre, beginning Nov. 18 and running through Dec. 31. This is the production adapted by Michael Wilson and starring acclaimed Washington actor Edward Gero, who can go from Shakespeare to Mamet to Scrooge in a heartbeat. Michael Baron directs. Click here for more information

At the Olney Theater, Dickens and Scrooge will also be on hand with “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas,” performed by Paul Morella and adapted from Dickens’ original novella and reading tour. Dec. 13 through Jan. 1. Click here for more information and to buy tickets

Meanwhile, among many Nutcrackers for the season, you can count on the Washington Ballet and Septime Webre’s version to return to the Warner Theater for a nearly month-long run, Dec. 1 through 24, while the Kennedy Center will have the American Ballet Theatre’s version Dec. 8 through 11.

A Couple of Guys Named Othello and Othello and Iago and Iago

These days, we’re seeing two versions of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy about Othello, the great Moor general in Renaissance Venice, the passion of his life Desdemona, and Iago, perhaps the most despised villain in Shakespeare outside of Richard III. You can see what you can do with style and silence at the Synetic Theatre’s production now in the midst of a three-way run at its Crystal City space, or take in a more classic, wordier, sound-and-fury version at the Folger Theatre, directed by Robert Richmond, which has already been extended through Dec. 4.

Seriously, Folks

There’s serious drama afoot all over the region, beginning with a production of Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall,”his most revealing, autobiographical play about a playwright named Quentin and his tragic, glamorous wife Maggie (hello Miss Monroe). Jose Carrasquillo directs this rarely performed play, Mitchell Hebert stars as Quentin, and Gabriella Fernandez-Coffey is Maggie through Nov. 27.

At Arena Stage, history plays a big part in both Amy Freed’s “You, Nero” and Bill Cain’s “Equvicocation.” The latter concerns Shakespeare, the infamous Gunpowder Plot and the relationship between artists and kings. It comes from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Cain’s play will run Nov. 18 through Jan. 1 with the cast of the original Oregon Shakespeare Festival production.

“You, Nero” is part of Arena’s American Voices New Play Institute, with Freed continuing to work on a play which first opened at South Coast Rep and Berkeley Rep in 2009. It makes its D.C. debut Nov. 25 and runs through Jan. 1. Danny Scheie stars as Nero, an emperor who may have been the first emperor-as-public-celebrity.

For one night only, you’ll have a chance to see one of the landmark plays of the 1980s and the tragedy of AIDs when Forum Theatre will stage a benefit performance of “The Normal Heart” by Larry Kramer, with an all-star cast of area actors including Holly Twyford, Mitchell Hebert, Will Gartshore, J. Fred Schiffman, Rick Hammerly, Michael Tolaydo and others at the Round House Theatre’s Silver Spring stage, where Forum is in residence on Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m.

Kevin Converses with Michael and Broadway Does Shakespeare

Star of the stage and screen Kevin Kline (“Sophie’s Choice”) will join Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn for the second installment in the Classic Conversations series at Sidney Harman Hall Nov. 28.

Speaking of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, the run will be short but the occasion sounds terrific, with a concert-style staging of “The Boys from Syracuse” with a book by David Ives (“The Heir Apparent”) hooked up to Rodgers and Hart’s classic score. “The Boys” is of course a Broadway musical version of “The Comedy of Errors” which features two sets of twins unaware of each other, the kids from Ephesus. Nov. 4 through 6.

George Stevens Jr.: the Man behind the Kennedy Center Honors

Talking with George Stevens, Jr. in his wonderland office at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on a mid-November afternoon, you’d hardly know it was only two weeks until the annual national cultural fete and red-carpet extravaganza that is called the 34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors.

It was quiet at the Center, sun drenching the Hall of Nations foyer and Stevens ushering me in to his office, a remarkable place full of old movie posters, lots of Emmys and other awards, volumes of scripts and scrapbooks. Casually dressed in a blue sweater and slacks, he immediately takes you on a quick little tour of the walls and turns you into a gawker as you stare at a poster for “Shane,” a drawing of his father, the Oscar-winning film director George Stevens in a poker game with his friends, a poster for “The More the Merrier,” a 1940s more-or-less screwball comedy featuring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, a future star of gritty cowboy movies.

The office is best described as a vibrant display of the professional lives of Stevens Senior and Stevens Junior, which, taken together, are examples of lives lived that purposefully made a difference.
And we haven’t even talked about the Kennedy Center Honors, which this year, with all the usual glitz, glitter and presidential presence, will be bestowed upon Actress Meryl Streep, the phenomenal cellist Yo-Yo Ma, legendary Broadway chanteuse Barbara Cook, jazz original Sonny Rollins and singer Neil Diamond on Dec. 4 at the Opera House.

It all began in 1978 with honors to Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers and Arthur Rubinstein, and Stevens tells you a story about the audience jumping to its feet after seeing 1939 footage of Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial, having been denied use of Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

It isn’t just that Stevens is and has been the producer of the Honors, both the live event at the Opera House and the CBS television show that is derived from it (to be aired Dec. 27 at 9 p.m.) It’s that basically, the Honors were his idea, inspired very much by the words of President John F. Kennedy, which can be found carved on the wall of the center.

“Well, it came out of a conversation with Roger Stevens [founding chairman of the Kennedy Center; no relation] back in 1974, and I suggested that the center really needed its own event,” Stevens said. “Roger asked if I had any ideas. And I did. I said that the center should have an event that honored the great figures in the performing arts. A lot had to be done, but that was the basic idea.”

It was more than that of course; it was about the very idea of the Kennedy Center itself and its basic tenets as expressed by Kennedy himself in a 1963 speech at Amherst. “That statement where he said ‘I look forward to an America that is not afraid of grace and beauty . . . I look forward to an America that will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business and statecraft.’”
Stevens allows that he has some influences on the choice—made by the Kennedy Center’s board of trustees but also national cultural figures, previous winners and others. The proceedings are, of course, secret, but Stevens adds, “I like to think I have considerable input.”

Also secret are the surprises that come with the night’s entertainment and special guests, like the outburst of talent that included Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé honoring Tina Turner in 2006, or Jessica Simpson leading a star-studded array of female country superstars honoring Dolly Parton in 2008.
So is Margaret Thatcher coming for the Meryl Streep honors? “I don’t know about that,” Stevens said. “But there will be surprises.”

It’s fair to say that Stevens is a historically serious man. Being the founder of the Kennedy Center Honors is no small thing, but it’s not the only thing. There’s a note of serendipity that runs through his life and career, a kind of story with a theme about the value of culture as a way of moving hearts and minds. The Honors—an occasion for pomp and circumstances and rolling of red carpets—are nevertheless a celebration of the lifetime achievements and careers of legendary, giant-sized figures.
He has always said that the Honors are really two shows—the one that is staged in front of a stellar audience of 2,000 or so at the Opera House and the one that’s created to become a television show for the whole world.

“It’s quiet today,” he said. “But the week of the Honors—when the performers and the honorees fly in, the week of the dinners, the rehearsals, the logistics, and all the people you have to deal with, that’s still pretty intense, for me, and everyone else. It’s always thrilling; it’s always exciting, an honor and really hard work.”

For the past several years, Stevens, has worked with his son Michael as co-producer, on the Honors show and the “Christmas in Washington” yearly production. “Michael brings his own perspectives to this, his tastes, his knowledge, what he knows about music and the whole world of arts, the people he knows.

“And yes, it is very, very gratifying to work with Michael, for me, as a producer, in terms of the history of this enterprise, but also the family history. It means a lot to me as a father, and I have to tell you how important his contribution is to accomplishing what we do.”

Stevens has become with the years a kind of cultural icon in this city. He, his wife Elizabeth and his family have been Georgetown residents for decades on Avon Place. In interviews, in a recent roundtable talk on “Creativity in America” at the Aspen Institute, and in person Stevens always comes across as a serious man, without getting within a continent’s distance of becoming pompous or overbearing. He is one of the most accessible of public figures, one of the least “me-me” men you’ll encounter.

He’s led a big life in the big, wide world — son of legendary Hollywood director George Stevens, working on major movie sets, a JFK “New Frontiersman” working to produce documentaries for Edward R. Murrow when he headed the U.S. Information Agency, founder of the American Film Institute, leading film conservation and preservation, founder and co-producer of the Kennedy Center Honors, film director and producer (“A Filmmaker’s Journey,” “The Murder of Mary Phagan”) playwright (“Thurgood”) and author of “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute”). In October, President Barack Obama named Stevens co-chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

That’s by way of roll-the-credits bona fides. In some circles, he’s even been described as “Hollywood royalty.”

“What do I think of that?” he says. “I think it’s mostly B-S.”

The truth of the matter is that he came to do what he’s done honestly: lots of hard work, the obvious ability to lead and a passionate, creative urge to be an advocate for culture, not only for its own sake but also for social change and justice.

“We didn’t have anything like the Kennedy Center Honors, and so we have celebrated all sorts of performance excellence,” he said. “And it changed with time, sure. More and more, we all realized the importance of popular culture, and it became a part of the mix: I think Bob Dylan was the first figure of that sort to become an honoree, but not the last.”

Stevens admits working on the Honors enriched him. “I’m a film guy,” he said, “that’s my experience, my comfort zone. So, being around these huge, legendary figures in dance, opera, music, that was an enormously rewarding experience for me.”

That seriousness of purpose, that liberality of spirit and focus, comes in part from his father. Making the documentary “A Film Directors Journey” set Stevens on his own creative path, much like his father’s two-year experience of World War II turned him into a man with a mission that resulted in the great American trilogy, “Shane,” “A Place in the Sun” and “Giant.” With Stevens Jr., the documentary on his father was followed by films about “The Murder of Mary Phagan,” “Separate but Equal” and the play “Thurgood” among other projects.

There are rows of scripts for each Kennedy Center Honors in his office, and each five-minute plus film about each honoree, not to mention scrapbooks and photographs for the AFI Lifetime Achievement Awards, which he has also produced. It’s dangerous being in that office; you get lost in it, so many scenes from movies start running through your head, so many stories.

You can imagine the Stevens spending hours here without ever being alone.

“It’s been 34 years since then,” he said. “I feel more creative, fuller of ideas than ever.” Proof: he’s about to finish a documentary about the Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herb Block, and a second set of “Conversations with Great American Directors” are coming out.

Of necessity, life and death and all that make for omissions on the Honors list. One obvious one is, of course, George Stevens, Sr., who died in 1975. You don’t ask, but chances are he would have been a cinch.

Speaking in public like the recent Aspen Institute or in interviews, Stevens often tells the story about being with his father after he had won the Oscar for Best Director for “A Place in the Sun.”

“He said to me ‘We’ll know how good it really is 20 or 30 years from now.’”

Stevens thinks it holds up, 50 plus years later. It’s an American classic. But Stevens’ life, adding up the accomplishments and their meaning, also hold up with time. The son, in this case, also rises to the occasion.

Kennedy Center Honorees

It’s star power week in Washington. This is the week of the 34th Annual Kennedy Center Honors, which means that among us will be five of the nation’s finest, most enduring and sparkling legends and stars of the performing arts.

Meryl Streep, touted as the most awarded and award-nominated actress ever, will be honored again this year. Her record: 45 film roles, 16 Oscar nominations and two wins, 25 Golden Globes and so on.

Yo-Yo Ma’s selection casts him in the shadows of the major classical music performers who formed a large number of the honorees in the early years of the Kennedy Center Honors. But to say he is a classical musician is to miss the pioneer, the genre-bender and the passionate cellist which he truly is. He has recorded 75 Sony Albums and has collaborated with the likes of Paquito Rivera, Renee Fleming, Dave Brubeck, Bobby McFerrin and James Taylor.

Sonny Rollins, the oldest among the honorees at 81, is one of the last of the old giants of bee-bop and improvisatory jazz on the saxophone, or anything else, as well as being a gifted composer. As he put it when he received the National Medal of Arts in March of this year, “I accept on behalf of the gods of our music.”

Barbara Cook may be, as Alistair Macaulay of the Financial Times says, “The greatest singer in the world,” but she’s actually a little more than that. She cut her singing teeth in the 1950s on national tours of “Oklahoma,” and “Carousel” and hit all the notes in the Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.” Her career almost six decades: it’s so rich that it seems too short.

Neil Diamond has been around a long time too, and sometimes we forget that. Sixty-types remember all the big hits, forgetting that he also wrote the score to “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull,” wrote “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” for Barbra Streisand and starred in a version of “The Jazz Singer.” He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and, according to Paul Simon, was once known as the Jewish Elvis Presley. Go figure.

The Gala Kennedy Center Honors performance will take place Dec. 4, co-produced by George Stevens Jr. and Michael Stevens, at the Opera House where the honorees will be saluted by performers, their peers, the powerful and the president. The Honors Gala will be broadcast on CBS Dec. 27 at 9 p.m.

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The Voice and Roles of Holly Twyford

If you’ve seen Holly Twyford on stage, talked with her on the phone or during an interview at a coffee shop on 14th Street, or listened to her accept yet another Helen Hayes award for acting, there’s one constant.

It’s her voice. 

Twyford’s voice has a compelling resonance. It stands out in a crowd and would be recognized in a crowded post-blackout room.  It has the quality of a song you know by heart sung differently every time out.  This is not to suggest that there’s anything monotonous about her voice, rather, it’s just another one of her gifts and tools that she brings to every character she’s played, stamping the character as her own.

So, if you see her name on a cast list, you tend to want to go and see the play, even if you weren’t going to go anyway or knew nothing about the play.  Her presence probably guarantees that there might be something smart, surprising and moving in the works.

That’s certainly the case with her portrayal of physically and psychologically wounded combat photographer Sarah in Donald Margulies’s “Time Stands Still,” a four-character play about the effects of war in contemporary times at the Studio Theatre through Feb. 12.

Twyford, who is a mainstay of Washington stages, now, like many actors, is booked ahead, so that being in this particular play was something she knew she was going to do last year. She has the luxury, being in demand, to plan ahead and can make her choices with care.

“I’ve worked a lot over the years at Studio Theatre so it’s always been a good experience here,” she said. “The play seemed like a good, intelligent play with many layers to it, and I knew it would be a challenge.  I think the work — what the character does — has always fascinated me.  The question becomes, why would anybody do this kind of thing, put themselves in harm’s way, be constantly in danger, and those questions resonate in the play.”

“Time Stands Still” is one of the more intelligent, well-written plays you’re likely to encounter this year.  Margulies is a smart playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner, interested in relationships in various settings, plus the subject matter — our two overseas wars in the Middle East, how the media covers conflicts and the kind of people that are drawn to that setting professionally — resonate in our lives.

“Sarah isn’t by any means a typical character,” Twyford says. “I mean how can she be, given what she does and the work haunts her and now she has to face choices about what kind of life she wants to live.”

As the play opens, Sarah and her live-in boyfriend,  James, a journalist who has written about the wars alongside her, have come home to New York from the wars, after Sarah suffers near-death injuries in the wake of a roadside bomb. She is emotionally as well as physically scarred, but James, too, suffered an emotional breakdown after witnessing women being killed in front of him during a bomb attack.

They return to their friends, Richard, an editor at the magazines which runs their work, and his new, much younger and pregnant Mandy, who works as an events planner.

The play touches you because it’s not a star-oriented play but an ensemble play, where the relationships among the four affect everyone.  “You know, Mandy is easy to dismiss, she’s facile, a little shallow, she’s inexperienced and has this cringe-inducing sincerity but Laura [Harris] does wonders with her, she’s really good at getting you to listen to her.”

Sarah’s dilemma becomes a major issue when James wants to marry her and suggests they stay away from the dangers of the wars, settle down and live like real people. He’s ready, but it’s plain to see that, in spite of her injuries or maybe even because of them, she’s pulled by the action and the plight of the people she’s encountered.

“We had a chance to talk to a writer and a photographer in advance of rehearsals,” she said. “They’re amazing people. I don’t know how they do it, to be honest.  And it’s all so immediate to us.”

The wars in the Middle East produced some major reporting stars comfortable in combat zones, but also resulted in casualties to photographers, writers, and reporters.

“She has to make a choice,” she said. “I mean not everybody can do this sort of thing. You have to give up other possible lives.”

Twyford thought about her own life and choices. “I mean, you have to be a little different to do what we do in the theater, role to role, “ she said. “I don’t mean to suggest that acting is anything like what the characters in the play do.  There’s nothing so dangerous, nothing quite so immediate and important and serious. But still.”

Twyford is among a cadre of Washington actors who have chosen to navigate the difficulties and joys of acting, specifically living and working in the Washington area, a rich theatrical environment that remains a little under-recognized.  “It’s not for everyone,” she said. “If you’re going to concentrate on local theater, then you’re not going to be a movie star, you’re not going to be famous or rich. But it is rewarding.”

That’s true for Twyford, who grew up in Great Falls, in a house where her parents still live. “They’ve been to everything I’ve been in,” she said. “It’s so amazing and supportive, and there’s that continuity and love there.”

In a group of such regularly excellent actors as Ted Van Griethuysen, Floyd King, Nancy Robinette, Sarah Marshall, Ed Gero and Tana Hicken, to name a few, Twyford is a standout.  She’s been referred to as the Meryl Streep of Washington, which, given the quality of Twyford’s work, is a compliment to both.

She has also managed to live a so-called real, family life with her long-time partner Saskia Mooney and their daughter, Helena (named after the lead in Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well”). “I’ve been fortunate because I have constants in my life,” she said. “And I’ve been so fortunate in the opportunities I’ve had here to work with so many gifted directors and actors.”

This past year, she directed “Stop/Kiss” a play she performed in a decade earlier, for the No Rules Theater Company, a first for her. She’s collected numerous Helen Hayes Awards for acting (including for playing a dog at Adventure Theater) and won four times, the first time as Juliet.

“With Shakespeare, there’s always the words, the leeway, the poetry, the adventure of exploring roles,” she said. “You don’t ever forget the words or the feelings they inspire.” She has done her share of Shakespeare, working with director Joe Banno at the Folger as Juliet, Hamlet (along with several actors in a multiple-personality Dane), Beatrice and others.  She and Tana Hicken worked together twice — at Theater J in “Lost In Yonkers” and  Athol Fugard’s “The Road To Meccah” at the Studio.  It’s hard to think of a theater in Washington during the course of two decades and numerous playswhere she hasn’t worked.

Here is what you can count on with Twyford at one of her performances:  at some point during the proceedings, you will be surprised, be it comedy, tragedy, contemporary or Verona. At some point, the emerging character becomes hers and, therefore, yours. She will get something out of you, some recognition, a punch in the heart, a laugh (but not a cheap one).        

A lot of this happens during the course of “Time Stands Still” with her Sarah.  And there, as always, is the voice.  You recognize it right away.  It’s only later in play that you think of it as Sarah’s voice.

“Time Stands Still” by Donald Margulies, directed by Susan Fenichell, runs through Feb. 12 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005. 202 332 3300. [StudioTheatre.org](http://www.studiotheatre.org/)

Paparelli Brings Out the Youth in ‘Gentlemen’

Director P.J. Paparelli often refers to the title of his new gig at the Shakespeare Theatre Company as “the two gents.”

That would be “The Two Gentleman of Verona,” one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, and to Paparelli’s way of thinking, his most youthful. One way or another, you can expect that youth will be served in his production of the play.

“The Two Gentleman of Verona” is lumped in with Shakespeare’s comedies, a kind of precursor to “The Comedy of Errors,” when the Bard was more assured in matters of twins, doubling up, the big laughs and setups. In “Verona” Shakespeare was not yet the poet that he would soon become, most notably in “Richard II” and “Romeo and Juliet,” two later but still early plays that sang with true poetic music and genius.

“It’s a comedy,” Paparelli says of ‘Two Gentlemen.’ “But I like to think of it leading to “Romeo and Juliet.” Both plays are about young people—in R&J’s adolescence, here, maybe late high school or college. To me, it’s about young people learning about the real meanings of friendships, love, jealousy, real adventure and challenges. Like a lot of his plays that are, like you say, dense, it’s full of possibilities. Things went completely wrong for the protaganists, which is why it’s a tragedy. Here, it could have gone wrong—two life-long, steadfast friends fall out over a woman—a situation that can always go wrong.”

“I like the challenge of doing ‘Verona’ because it’s not done very much,” Paparellli said. “The Shakespeare Company did it a few years ago, but it’s still rarely done. But I think you can find all sorts of later Shakespeare tropes here—strong female characters, issues of friendship, outlaws in a forest and so on.

“One of the things about Shakespeare is how we confront him early on,” Paparelli said. “In high school, he’s sort of shoveled at kids. I spent a lot of time trying to get it, to understand it all and it’s not that easy.”

This production of “Verona” is very special to Paparelli, 37. He got to plunge deeply early and with lots of responsibilities right here with the Shakespeare Company, where he worked under Artistic Director Michael Kahn as assistant and associate director from 1998 to 2004. “So this is really a wonderful thing for me,” he said It’s like coming home.”

Listening to him talk, there’s a youthful precociousness in his voice even though he’s amassed quite a reputation and impressive credits already, including currently running the American Theatre Company in theater-crazy Chicago for the past seven years. Shakespeare isn’t much on the seasonal bill at the ATC, which concerns itself with contemporary, often new American plays and issues. “We try to be like the Public Theatre in New York,” he said. “Our plays are on the edge, new, fresh, often dealing with contemporary issues.”

Prior to that, Paparelli was artistic director of the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, a company that had originally been brought to prominence by Molly Smith, now the high-profile artistic director at Arena Stage.

“Two Gentleman of Verona,” which features Adam Green and Miriam Silverman in a large and stellar cast, is the tale of Valentine and Proteus, boyhood friends raised in Verona who are thick as blood brothers until both fall in love with the comely Sylvia, the daughter of the Duke of Milan. Things happen—jealousy, fights and love and the whole damn thing. Still, it’s awfully funny. “But you know,” Paparelli said, “It could have gone the Romeo way.”

That observation mines the fact that many of Shakespeare’s comedy are only a split hair away from tragedy, that his tragedies are replete with comic characters at times (with the exception, perhaps of “Macbeth”).

Paparelli thinks “Verona” is about youthful angst, so don’t be shocked if you think you’re hearing things—like Bono, Maroon Five and other contemporary rock. “Music is one way of contemporizing. It will be Verona, but you might see a McDonald’s there.”

One thing that won’t change is the dog. You might recall a sequence in the Oscar-winning film “Shakespeare in Love” where the young Bard is working on “Verona”. “Don’t forget to put in a dog,” a friend tells him. “The queen loves dogs.”

Oliver, a veteran Broadway performer in ‘Annie’ among other shows, a super-pro mutt, takes on “Crab” the dog, although he doesn’t answer to the name.

“But,” Paparelli says, “he’s a real pro.”

As is often the case with Shakespeare, the play will be familiar. And with Paparelli there, it will be as fresh as an adolescent with attitude.

“Two Gentleman of Verona” will be performed at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, January 17-March 4. For more information visit ShakespeareTheatre.org.

How to Be Mark Rothko

On a windy, cold Friday night in Southwest Washington, a mostly bald middle-aged man and a young, wiry, slight younger man came out of the Arena Stage doors, dwarfed by the glass and wood edifice. Watching them from a distance they were like longtime friends, coming off from a long day’s work, walking within the halo of a weary and mutual satisfaction.

The two men were the actors Edward Gero and Patrick Andrews, who had spent the latter part of the night battling back and forth as the American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and a fictionalized young assistant. They yelled at each other, splattering red paint, arguing passionately about art and life in the play “Red,” in what often seems like a life-or-death struggle before an appreciative audience. I couldn’t hear what they were saying and soon their voices receded and they moved from view.

But their voices stayed with me nonetheless, and sometimes I hear them still—the debates about art, the volatility of passionate gobs of words amid flying gobs of paint.

“Yeah, it’s a little like that,” said Gero over coffee at Politics and Prose a few days later. “We’re close, we’re friends. We’ve been doing this a while now, here and in the Goodman Theatre run in Chicago.”

“But it’s still surprising. It’s still remarkably challenging to do this for both of us, and we’re still learning about each other.” Gero said. “Every night is a new experience with theater, but that’s rarely as true as it is in this play. It’s even more true now that we’re here at Arena. Here the audience is in the studio practically, because of the intimacy of the space, which really raises the level of intensity. And with a show like this, it can be exhausting.”

“One night I kicked a bucket of paint over accidentally,” Gero recalled.

When I asked him how he handled the situation onstage he said: “What Rothko would have done. I told him to clean it up.” You think—and more importantly, feel—that this happened, these feelings were expressed, the words unleashed.

And when Rothko and Ken grab paint brushes and buckets and commence to apply a load of red base paint on a mighty blank canvas, tossing paint around like giant swaths of wet spitballs, moving over and under one another, it’s thrilling. You get a real sense of the physicality of the creative process.

“The whole thing is choreographed,” Gero said. “But it’s never the same, it’s tricky, it’s tough, it’s musical and exhausting, it’s sexual. It was my idea to smoke the cigarette afterwards. People get it right away, it’s like a punctuation.”

What the intimacy of Arena’s Kreeger theater creates is a kind of stillness and respect in the audience, because you believe in the reality of the people—and how can you not, with the red and black battling on the canvases, with the elevated, painful verbal arguments.

Not to mention, Washington is something of a Rothko town: the National Gallery installed the Seagram murals in 2010 that figure so strongly in the art-commerce battles of the play, and the Phillips Collection has their famous Rothko room, designed by the actual artist himself to facilitate his meditative, tragic and aggressive paintings.

One of the reasons that Washington is such a great theater town is actors like Gero, who has worked almost nonstop for decades in most of the area’s venues, from the Shakespeare Theatre Company—where he’s been a company mainstay—to Arena, Ford’s, Studio and a host of others. Gero joins a thespian host that includes the likes of Ted van Gruythiesen, Nancy Robinette, Holly Twyford, Rick Foucheoux and others, who have all scaled the heights in DC theater with uncommon versatility and talent over the years.

“It is not easy, but it’s what I love,” he says. “My wife has been an elementary and special education teacher in the DC School District and it’s her love, too. You have to have something you love to do in addition to the family you love, the people you love.”

Family is central in his life. Upon winning a Helen Hayes Award for playing Bolingbroke in “Richard II”—he’s won four Helen Hayes Awards and been nominated 14 times—he dedicated the award to “my father, Sal of Jersey,” in reference to the show’s aging father figure, John of Gaunt. “My dad had passed away that year,” Gero recalled.

“I’ve got nothing on the plate after this right now, which is unusual,” he said. “But I’d love to do ‘Waiting for Godot’ with Stacey Keach somewhere down the line.”

Somewhere, down the line, you suspect he’ll also be visiting the Rothko Room at the Phillips, and spot a daub of red in some shirt he’s wearing.

“Red” has been extended through March 11 at Arena Stage. For more information visit ArenaStage.org