Weekend Round Up, Sept. 29 – Oct. 2
‘A Bright New Boise’
Gary Tischler • October 31, 2011
For sophisticates, the very hip, cool and urban trendy, there are so many targets in Samuel Hunter’s “A Bright New Boise” (now at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Nov 13) to feel smug, snarky and snide about that it could have been a buffet of satire, enough material for a lifetime of Bill Maher monologues.
We gave religious zealotry of the way-out-there-waiting-for-the-Rapture-and-Apocalypse kind. We have corporate dullness and the intellectually empty space of places like Idaho, interrupted only by malls and truck stop traffic. We have a central character so bland that he could disappear easily in a crowd, if only there were crowds to disappear into.
So what does Hunter, a gifted writer and observer, do with this material? He showers it with a deep and imaginative empathy, even love, for the characters he’s created, characters that live in a world very much reflective of our hard-scrabble, economically harrowing times. Hunter makes his play—set in a Hobby Lobby store in Boise, Idaho—a kind of microcosm of the way quite a number of Americans live today—on the edge, hanging by broken nails, embracing the outer limits of apocalyptic faith, trying to find the inner creative flame to ward of the dullness of the days while thinking about the end of days.
At its center is a guy named Will, the new guy in town, who just applied for and got a low-paying job as a clerk in the local Hobby Lobby store, specializing in selling the equipment for arts and crafts things to do—buttons, cloth, paper, paint and none-such. It’s not a big place, and the people we see are Will, vaguely religious, hugely ordinary in his checkered shirt and blue jeans, smart and a little mysterious; Pauline, the branch manager with a tainted heart of gold and a potty mouth; Anna, sensitive, abused, halting, hungry and eager for attention and a little knowledge; Leroy, an in-your-face artistic type who makes obscene T-shirts which he wears to work; and Alexis, a quiet high school kid with secrets and talent.
The characters bump against each other in the employee lounge, sometimes used by Anna to hide out in and read and by Will to work on a blog that’s becoming a novel and has fans on the worldwide web. The story he’s writing is very much like the “Left Behind” novels that were about the end of days and the humans left behind, a very popular Christian series, especially so among Evangelists.
Will—if it weren’t for his secrets and the fact that he’s looking for the son he gave up to be adopted, and for his embrace of the rapture – would pass for the most ordinary, nicest of guys, the kind of guy that for no reason at all goes postal. But Woolly regular Michael Russotto has a gift for making the ordinary seem special—Will is at turns kind, talkative, a good listener, speculative, and haunting as he confronts his past and the pain of never escaping it, erasing it and starting over.
Russotto underplays him to the point that Will is like someone in a video, an old family movie, easy to be around, difficult to know, and when his frustrated, bleeding soul comes up for air, it’s a shattering moment.
Everybody in the cast is affecting—there’s no dissing the characters, the way they live, what they say, especially Kimberly Gilbert, who’s own special gift as an actress has always been to make the sometimes more than mildly weird seem oddly affecting and attractive, and she puts it good use her in a full-bodied portrait of Anna.
Will’s life is a mess, and it’s accentuated by his surroundings, his ruinously fumbling attempt at reunion with his son, the stifling routines and weirdness of the Hobby Lobby. The employee’s lounge is never ever distant from a television monitor which routinely runs a maddeningly dull monotone-voiced in-house video featuring the Hobby Lobby founders handing out tips and news, oddly interrupted occasionally by bursts of videos showing graphic medical procedures, which nobody seems to able to eliminate.
Much of “A Bright New Boise” is sharply observant and funny, without being in any sense an exercise in cheap laughs. Much of it, more importantly, is dark and incredibly sad. You can see how Will’s (and the others’) endless days of monotony might lead to the end of days, might lead him to embrace that annihilation with a raging scream that breaks hearts.[gallery ids="100347,109402,109410,109407" nav="thumbs"]
The Performing Arts Column
Georgetowner • October 7, 2011
THESE OUR ACTORS
We’re always talking about the richness of theater talent in Washington, but sometimes even we veteran theater-goers can still be amazed at what we witness.
At the Washington Shakespeare Theatre Company, and at the Studio Theatre, we’re seeing something remarkable, two performances by veteran, much-acclaimed and multi-awarded actors who might be excused if by now they had excused themselves from the game.
Ted van Griethuysen and Floyd King who have graced Washington stages and elsewhere at least since the 1980s with wonderful performances in works ranging from Shakespeare to the rawest contemporary cutting edge works seem as if by magic to have hit their stride, and doing their best work in two astonishing performances. It’s as if they’ve hit some hitherto unheard of second wind, dominating their respective stages and giving honor to the whole area theater community.
Here is van Griethuysen, many times nominated and often a winner in the Helen Hayes derby, well in the autumn of his theater life at the vortex of Alan Bennett’s delicious, smart and earthy play, “The Habit of Art,” which is actually a play within a play about the latter-life and times of geniuses W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. Van Griethuysen plays an actor playing Auden, the foul, brilliant, razor-witty resident-great-poet of our times, sickly, brazen, sexually hungry in older age. It is one of those performances that bare the heart and fragile body, a brave, gutsy piece of work and the wonder is that he manages to be playing two parts almost at the same time. His performance is the gut-wrenching soul of what is also an ensemble piece about theater itself where Paxton Whitehead, no slouch himself, can hold his own as the more demure Britten.
What Van Griethuysen has done here shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does. He’s funny and heartbreaking and astonishing at the same time — and that capacity to still surprise an audience is what’s remarkable.
In his own way, Floyd King does something similar in “The Heir Apparent,” a smart, foul, almost hip but true-to-the-form update of an obscure French comedy in the post-time of Moliere. It has a rich, presumed-to-be-dying aristocrat, avaricious relatives and servants and all the usual suspects in such matters, and it has King, who is king of this sort of thing and has been since around the 1980s. Classic clowning is an work that King practically owns — along with such modern acts of weirdness as “The Mystery of Irma Vep” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” He has played the fool for quite some time now, and knows their inner workings, including the one in “Lear.” But as Geronte, the doddering old man who not only seems to die several times but talks endlessly of his bowel movements, makes retching sound like a climb to Everest, he’s outdone himself, which is saying something. He’s bewigged, bothered and bewildered — and befuddled and bedeviled. He’s the star in a play that has some star turns: Nancy Robinette who can steal entire scenes like a pickpocket in the Louvre, not to mention the appearance of a piglet named Cordelia.
A gift they are — van Griethuysen and King — to Washington theatergoers, a present quality they’ve shown time and time again, including when they appeared together in the Folger Theater production of “The Dresser,” in which van Griethuysen was a fading, aging Shakespearean actor and King his dresser.
So much for aging and fading.
BEST BET YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
“Lungs” is a two-character, world premiere and inaugural production of the Studio Theater’s Lab Series. It is the work of new English playwright Duncan Macmillan, a short piece in which a youngish couple navigates through their relationship against the backdrop of the very recognizable world we live in. It’s often funny, often and finally heartbreaking, very much a part of how we live, full of the instantly recognizably wise ways men and women completely fail to hear each other. It’s a play that sneaks up on you like a heavy-breathing puppy. You don’t know whether to kick it to the curb or to let it into your heart.
It’s a very modern, very smart play with all the frantic, repetitious pausing that is often so characteristic of people who live young in the age of instant communications. The questions they deal with — getting married or not, having a baby or not, staying at home, making money — sound banal on the surface and become earthshaking in the acting. That’s thanks primarily to Brooke Bloom as the young woman, meaning no disrespect to Ryan King as the man. The woman doesn’t just talk, she reiterates, she gesticulates, she injects noises into sentences, and feelings, always with the feelings. She’s so compelling that the man’s little betrayals, his denseness in the face of his stormy partners, are sympathetic. I suspect MacMillan tried to say something about love in the age of now and soon — and succeeded. (Through Oct. 16)
CAN YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING? YOU BET.
You might have heard. The kids are back on the barricades. No, it’s not the Arab spring or demonstrations on Wall Street. It’s the return of “Les Miserables,” a new 25th Anniversary Production now at the Kennedy Center, complete with newer bells and whistles and projections, big voices and more death scenes than “David Copperfield” (the Dickens novel, not the magician).
Let’s be clear: It’s as rousing as ever and seems to move faster than usual, although it still runs well over two and a half hours. Many of these revolutionaries weren’t even born when “Les Mis” and its deathless logo first made their appearance here, a production I happened to see, not to mention several since then.
It’s still a fight between Valjean, the ex-convict who helps and saves everybody after serving two decades on a prison gang for stealing a loaf of bread, and Inspector Javert, the relentless police inspector who hunts him down to the end of the earth, or to a barricade in Paris where students in the 1830s have staged an ill-fated uprising against the powers that be. There’s love, romance, there’s the “Masters of the House,” and beautiful songs and J. Mark McVey as Valjean and Andrew Varela as Javert, both superb singers.
The youngsters — from Fantine to Cosette, to Eponine, Marius and Enjolras — are sometimes uneven in voice, but always appealing in character. Jeremy Hays makes an exceptionally heroic revolutionary as Enjolras. If you’ve never seen “Les Mis,” go see it and you’ll figure out what all the fuss was about, and if you have seen it and missed it, say welcome back.
SCENA’S BACK WITH GREEKS BEARING THEATRICAL GIFTS
Scena Theater and Artistic Director Robert McNamara have been around for 24 years. They’re kicking off their season with “Greek” by the caustic, cutting, smart playwright (and sometime actor) Steven Berkoff.
“Greek” is Oedipus Rex written differently and set in modern day London. According to Berkoff, this modern take came to him by “way of Sophocles trickling its way down the millennia until it reached the unimaginable wastelands of Tufnell Park.” For NcNamara, the play echoes: Greek meltdown and London riots resonate in it.
(Begins Oct. 20 and runs through Nov. 27 at the H Streets Playhouse, 1365 H Street, NE.)
MICHAEL KAHN TO BE HONORED
The Shakespeare Theatre Company is celebrating its 25th anniversary season by honoring Artistic Director Michael Kahn at the Harman Center for the Arts Annual Gala Oct. 17 at Sidney Harman Hall and the National Building Museum. It promises to be something of a class reunion what with stars Patrick Stewart (a Starfleet captain, but also once “Othello” here), Harry Hamlin, Stacy Keach, Pat Carroll, Bradley Whitford and Richard Thomas all on hand — along with Chelsea Clinton, Donald Graham, George Hearn, Terrence McNally, Lonette McKee and many others.
Looking for a Good Time? ‘The Heir Apparent’ Puts on a Show
They should plant those old barkers they used to have near San Francisco topless bars and bordellos whispering the pointed come-on “Looking for a good time?” in front of the Lansburgh Theatre these days.
So: “Looking for a good time?”
“The Heir Apparent,” now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, is the reason everyone should go to the theatre as opposed to 50 critics and selected friends of the house and board.
The play, which is the opener for the company’s 25th anniversary, is the work of 16th-century French playwright Jean-Francois Regnard, who wrote it in 1708. It’s also a world premiere, the reason for which you can entirely blame and praise adapter/translator and rhymer extraordinaire David Ives, who has been having quite a time in Washington and elsewhere this year.
Ives has taken this somewhat musty, obscure comedy which has its roots in the genius-level works of Moliere as well as English restoration comedy, shaken off the dust, and re-written the text in iambic pentameter (I think) and certainly pedantic rhyme with a touch of burlesque, comedy and Catskills drollery thrown in. It’s no small measure of Ives’s considerable gifts that it’s not too difficult to imagine John Gielgud and Buddy Hackett working side by side in this production. The superb cast jumps on the rhymes like Chinese acrobats shot out of a cannon.
Ives did something similar last year at the Shakespeare Theatre play with an adaptation-re-arrangement and re-do of “The Liar,” for which he won a Helen Hayes Award for outstanding new play. With his work in “The Heir Apparent,” you know for sure that everything old is new again, especially Floyd King’s Geronte, a monstrously funny creation and capstone to King’s career as a classical theatre comic royalty.
Ives has transfixed critics to the point where they want to turn into rhymers themselves. I refuse to stoop so low as to rhyme before my time.
That being said, “The Heir Apparent” is a hoot, hewing to the traditions of both Moliere in his most sarcastic and preposterous laugh-machine period, and the wonderful excesses of Sheridanian (is that the word, my lord?) and Goldsmithian restoration comedy.
In short, there is mincing and messing around, vulgarity aplenty and lechery of the sort, where old men drool while young women breathe heavily in their not-quite-right-sized bodices, and much brainless skullduggery helped by the servant class.
Michael Kahn directs here, and he moves things along with such reckless timing and all-in gusto that you have to remind yourself that Kahn is not known for his splapdash comedy shows and has never been on Saturday Night Live.
But the highlight of the evening—all right, one of the highlights—is when the would-be heirs try to eliminate far-flung cousins with the appearance of not one, but three female pig farmers, big and pink as a pig’s snout, bearing gifts of bacon and pork, and that’s something you haven’t seen on a Washington stage, at least not for real.
Ives and Kahn have a wonderful cast to pull off a rousing comedic miracle, especially King, who outdoes himself as Geronte, whom we first see in raggedy old clothes, a stringy wig and a nightcap which no one but the dead should wear. Geronte scuffles on as a phlegmatic apparition, a living cough who talks mostly about money and bowel movements before he lets on that he wants to marry Isabelle (Meg Chambers Steedle), the young woman his nephew is in love with.
This leaves the charmingly inept but very cool nephew Eraste (played with breathless aplomb by Andrew Veenstra) speechless and sets the servants Lisette (Kelly Hutchinson) and Crispin (Carson Elrod), a frend of Eraste, to scheming nonstop because they know Geronte is worth a million, a million, as they remind themselves with grand goofiness.
Nancy Robinette is also on hand as Madame Argante, one of those greedy aristocrats who walks in billowy dresses as if fighting a headwind, and Clark Middleton has a nice turn as the lawyer Scruple who is height deprived, or, in short, short.
“The Heir Apparent” is such grand entertainment – the set is deliciously detailed and lacks only a dozen doors that should be slamming – that you forget the price immediately because you get your money’s worth.
Looking for a good time? Go see “The Heir Apparent,” running through Oct. 23.[gallery ids="100290,107447,107450" nav="thumbs"]
“Oklahoma” Takes a Final Bow this Weekend
Gary Tischler • October 3, 2011
As the final days for the production of “Oklahoma” at Arena Stage run down, people are still talking about the show, in some ways as if it were a brand new phenomenon that wound its way through town like a tornado.
The production, directed and selected by Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith, played to packed houses in the Fichandler after it opened Arena’s 2010-2011 season in its new $100 million plus Mead Center for American Theater. Some critics were skeptical of the choice which seemed a little safe, but the show was in keeping with Smith’s exploration of American theater and musicals, proving to be a monster hit with audiences and critics alike. The resurrection hauled in all sorts of honors, at one point being considered for a Broadway production.
The show was so popular that Smith and Arena decided to bring it back for an end-of-summer, start-of-fall run that ends Oct. 2, starting something of a theater recycling trend in Washington.
The other night while attending “The Habit of Art” at Studio Theater, I chatted with a couple sitting next to me, and, after talking about dogs and theater in general, the couple said they had just seen “Oklahoma” for the first time.
“We’d seen the movie,” she said. “You know, Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones and all that stuff. But we were so surprised and it was so fresh. Having the salesman be a Middle Easterner was a surprise, it sure wasn’t Eddie Albert. And that Ado Annie, she was something. She was delightful.”
That would be June Schreiner, the 16-year-old (when the show opened) Madeira School senior who was bowled over with critical praise for her portrayal as the girl with two suitors who sings “I Can’t Say No,” an enduring highlight tune among many classics in “Oklahoma.” Not to mention she executes some nifty roping moves with Cody Williams, who plays one of her beaus, a cowpoke named Will Parker.
One of the unique things about the production was that even in the process of performance, the company seemed tightly knit, a community of sorts. I got a real sense of that several weeks ago when I sat down with Schreiner and Teresa Burrell, who had just taken over the part of Aunt Eller, the almost totemic matriarchal figure in the Oklahoma community. The part had formerly been played by F. Faye Butler, who moved on to star in Arena’s “Trouble in Mind.”
Schreiner, a thin, pretty blonde teenager, showed up pumped after taking additional roping lessons. Burrell, a veteran actress familiar with the Arena Stage scene, had just made her first appearance as Aunt Eller the previous night.
“You know, you’re replacing a key member of the company, and not just any company, but this one, which is like a family, you could tell that right away,” Burrell said. Burrell looks rangy and vivacious and hardly resembles a matriarch. She is still remembered for her dazzling starring role in Duke Ellington’s “Queenie Pie” at the Kennedy Center a number of years ago, and is also currently working on a show about Ethel Waters, the legendary African American singer and performer.
Schreiner said Burrell “fits right in.” She should. She’s something of an Arena veteran, having starred in their ground-floor musical version of “The Women of Brewster Place” among other productions, and has been seen at Signature in the iconic role of Julie in another American classic, “Showboat.”
It’s interesting to watch and listen to Schreiner and Burrell talking. One moment, Schreiner is exactly the senior in high school that she is, daughter of show biz parents, a young American girl, still excitable, the next she sounds like a theater veteran (which she is) who got a tidal wave of media attention after “Oklahoma” opened. When the talk is about the show, she and Burrell dive in, dissecting, describing, figuring things out. “It never gets old,” said Schreiber, who’s now played the part too often to count. “Every night, there’s something different. It’s like you’re in the group of people the characters, you’re part of something that’s happening to them in the country a new world.”
“I’m so happy to be in this, to take this part,” Burrell said. “It’s such a fresh production. It’s a little darker, and then again not. It’s complicated, more grown-up in a way. Aunt Eller is the rock of the community, she has to have size, but she’s also very human, warm and funny.”
Burrell, next to Schreiber, is so energized she might as well be a teenager too. They talk about Ado Annie as a character. “With Schreiner playing her, and playing her with that kind of absolutely fresh way she has, she’s something different than say an older woman who’s been around a little,” Burrell says. “It’s a little more innocent—she wants things and likes both the young men who like her, but there’s something endearing about that and she gets them going that’s for sure.”
“Ado Annie is a young person in that time, she’s like me, age wise,” Schreiber said. “That makes it a lot more fun, for one thing.”
Schreiber wasn’t nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for her role. It was a major omission to many observers, but not to her. “The whole thing was just so amazing to me, the process, the time spent in a show like this, the people, all those talented people and Molly,” she said. “That didn’t bother me. I’ve gotten so much out of this.”
Tribute to a Rock N’ Roll Icon
Gary Tischler • August 10, 2011
August may be the dog days of summer, but it also has every year now for the past seven years been the occasion to look forward to one of the top musical events of the year.
That would be when the Music Center at Strathmore, with Bandhouse Gigs, hosts its annual tribute concert honoring iconic figures, events and themes from rock and pop music history featuring the very best of an array of local musicians, singers and performers.
Originated in 2004 by Bandhouse Gigs—a not-for-profit volunteer group founded by Ronnie Newmyer, Chuck Sulllivan, David Sless and Danny Schwartz—the concert began as an outdoor venue at Strathmore but soon moved indoors into the concert hall. The first tribute concert honored legendary solo and group (E Street Band) rocker Neal Lofgren. Others followed: Neil Young, an almost archetype California rocker and the “Heart of Gold,” member of Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, the band considered by some the best rock band ever; Bob Dylan; folk-and-jazz queen and pure singer Joni Mitchell; Woodstock as the music and watershed 1960s event; and The British invasion.
This year’s Bandhouse Gig is the Tribute to Simon and Garnfunkel and Paul Simon on August 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore’s Concert Hall.
“How could you not?” Ronnie Newmyer said in an interview. “Simon, with Garfunkel, and as a solo performer and composer, has probably had more hits than anybody alive and has influenced more musicians than you can count. Think about it, they had their first hit in high school.”
As a duo, beginning in 1965, Simon (Paul) and Garfunkle (Art), the short one and the afro-blonde one, came up with songs that defined a generation of young people from the early 1960s on, kids that weren’t necessarily born rock and rollers, kids as sensitive, slightly alienated outsiders who could appreciate a song that begins with “Hello, darkness my old friend” (“The Sound of Silence”). The guys weren’t jocks but were fans, they weren’t popular but they were cool and smart and they carried certain angst around with them with a sweet flair. Some of them wore leather jackets instead of letter jackets.
“That was the first stage, all those wonderful songs and harmonies, “The Boxer,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Mrs. Robinson.” “They were poems, quiet anthems,” Newmyer said. “And they were hugely popular.”
“What we were trying to do here is not just make it Simon and Garfunkel, but also Paul Simon, who’s still going strong,” Newmyer said. “I’d say the program is split half and half between S&G and Simon solo. And let me tell you it was tough picking the songs, hard to make the cuts and then to match them with performers.”
So for S&G purists and Simon fans, be prepared to have your feelings hurt. There are some notable absences, including “My Little Town,” the touchstone song Simon and Garfunkel recorded after they broke up, “I am a Rock….I am an Island,” and “Slip Sliding Away.”
“That was hard,” Newmyer, who has his own band called “Soul Cracker,” said. “But hell, you could make a tribute concert out of the “Bridge over Troubled Water” album alone, that’s how good they were and are.”
It would be a mistake to think of these concerts as if they were one of those public television or Time Life golden oldies occasions, although no questions, old songs return like transformed angels.
The most revolutionary and exciting aspect of these concert is the mash of a very familiar song-list—for the most part—with performances drawn from a rich array of Washington performers, some nationally known, others young and new and gifted, some of them graduates of Strathmore’s artist in residence programs, like the youthful rock/pop dynamo Margot MacDonald, who will be on hand again this year.
“That’s the really rich part of this, because the performances transform the songs, make them seem fresh and contemporary,” Newmyer said. “Plus, I think it’s a true showcase of Washington area performers who play everywhere in local venues like the Birchmere or the 9:30 Club. This isn’t a sing along, it’s about as an exciting a concert as you can imagine.”
“We’ve got Julia Nixon, who is such a gifted singer and who’ll be doing ‘Bridge over Troubled Water,’” he said. “There’s this new, young singer, Victoria Vox, who’ll sing ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’”
“We’ll have a lot of younger performers this year, which should be interesting,” he added.
Other performers on tap include Deanna Bogart, Eric Brace, Chopteeth, Lea, Deep River, Ellen Cherry, The Sweater Set, Cal Everett, Deeme Katson, Ed O’Connell, David Kitchen, Ted Garber, Esther Haynes, Ronnie Newmyer and Owen Danoff, among others.
Just goes to show you, all pop/rock music history is a circle. Danoff is the son of Bill Danoff, one of the founders of Starland Vocal Band, which produced the 1980s hit “Afternoon Delight.” Danoff and co-Starland member Jon Carroll, a regular tribute participant, performed at the Joni Mitchell tribute two years ago.
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“Oklahoma!” Rings in a New Era for Arena Stage
Gary Tischler • July 26, 2011
Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith has accomplished quite a bold and remarkable thing here, picking and staging the great, groundbreaking and revolutionary American musical “Oklahoma!” to inaugurate its first season at the Mead Center for American Theater in the Fichandler Stage.
The choice of “Oklahoma!” in the Fichandler is loaded with historical implications, and she’s managed to make something out of everyone of them. Here is “Oklahoma,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which, when it made its wartime America 1940s debut, not only signaled a spectacular career for its creators, but changed American musicals forever.
Here is Smith’s production, which preserves every word, lyric, song and piece of music, probably two-step from the original, and with intelligent use of non-traditional casting and an intimacy of space and place, makes it seem brand new, fresh, authentic and of our time. This is a production that honors this musical’s historic place in theater history while at the same time offering memories of the future.
Here is the rarely revived “Oklahoma!” staged in the Fichandler, the theater-in-the-round. Resurrected almost exactly in its original form, but surrounded by a space that makes it part of a spectacular, glass/wood/pillar encased three-theater, education and community center enterprise, as opposed to being its centerpiece. It is the historic Arena Stage intact, but also transformed in the here-and-now and the future, a more intimate theater space which seems both smaller and more vivid. But, as the fella said, the play’s the thing.
So what about this “Oklahoma!?”
Well, as the fella sings, you’re doing fine, Oklahoma, and more than okay. Likely, there are few people around today who actually saw the original production, although it’s a fair bet that there any number of people who may think they know a thing or two because of the Gordon MacRae/Shirley Jones movie, because of the sheer ingratiating quality of the music and songs which are out there in the muzak ozone.
It’s nice to come to something with no junk in your head about it. I’d never seen it and now I have, and I still feel buzzed about it. This production is such a smart operation, such an emotional bottom-well, such a high-energy all-get-out kind of thing that you’d think the whole building would levitate and turn into an active version of the spaceship it resembles.
What you’ve got, peering at close range, is Oklahoma, the territory about to become a state circa the turn of the previous century. There are cowboys, cattlemen, squatters, and a bunch of people that could resemble Adams Morgan if it were relocated into the flat, hard-won dirt and land of windy Oklahoma. There’s Curly, the cowboy smitten with the high-spirited, hard-to-get Laurey, who scrapes a living on the land she and Aunt Eller (the earthy F. Faye Butler) work along with the sinister hired hand Judd. There’s the kissable Addo Annie, torn between a cowboy and a peddler, and going back and forth between them like a ping-pong ball. And there’s Oklahoma itself, perched to become a state, awash in dry land and oil. Change is coming like a runaway train or the next election.
Here’s what else happens: the moment Curly, in the person of Nicholas Rodriguez, announces himself and the show with a burst of musical optimism in the song “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” you’re pretty much a goner. This is theater in its most transporting, transforming guise. “Oklahoma!” swept away decades of song-strong, chorus-girl rich whimsy and pratfalls caused by gin musicals which had nothing to do with life as it was lived—not to diss Cole Porter, Gershwin and a host of other great composers and lyricists.
“Oklahoma!” is dark, especially when the sweaty, dangerous Judd is on stage, casting a murky spell of unrequited, strong desires that resembles those of modern-day stalkers and violent predators. Smith further deepens the musical and dishes on outsider themes by casting: Rodriguez as Curly is Hispanic, Butler and Eleasha Gamble (Laurey) are African American and Ali Hakim is clearly a peddler of Middle Easter origin as played here with long-suffering humor by Nehal Joshi. You might add in that the women in this story are strong enough and stronger and of a mind to do what they want, emotionally or sexually.
The dancing—those cowboys in high-booted and high-stepping array, the dream ballet—is of a part with the story and the tale they’re telling, which is nothing less than an epic of change and growth, writ both large and intimately. Those songs don’t just lay there waiting to be a YouTube offering or a the next big billboard hit. They weave into our imaginations and stories, and tell the story on stage, from the spritely “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” to the woeful “Poor Judd is Dead,” to “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No,” the anthem-like tale of Addo Annie, played with remarkable vivaciousness by the hugely gifted and appealing June Schreiner (a junior at Madeira School, no less).
This production, so reflecting of our lives and its surroundings, is dead solid perfect entertainment, where you leave the theater like a gourmet leaving a meal that proved to be just so. I guarantee you that days later you will hum a melody, sing a fragment, remember Judd’s fierce face, Curley’s rangy voice, the bullet-sound of boots on the ground in the service of music and be glad, really glad for having been there.
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Fragments of Genius: Peter Brooks on the Duality of Samuel Beckett
If you love the theater and its deeply felt surprises, then Samuel Beckett and Peter Brook are names that resonate. It’s not every day that two geniuses come so close together, the one resurrecting the work of the other, making emotionally visible.
Impressions and memories surface: Samuel Beckett, the first, best and last great avant garde playwright, the penman of Godot, created lingering fragments in the memory of our theater consciousness, dead since 1989.
Then there’s Brook, the iconic stage and film director. He shook the old tree that was the Royal Shakespeare Theater with “Marat/Sade,” a crazed, energetic “Midsummer,” and then went to Paris to stage a huge theatrical version of the great Indian epic poem the “Mahabharata.” He is past 80 and as keenly coherent, stimulating, daring, brave and hopeful as he ever was. His life and career amount to a roaring sea of achievement in books, films, plays. He has produced epics that no one else would have dared to event think about, let alone execute.
And now, we have Beckett and Brook together at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater with a production called “Fragments,” based on the text of five short works by Beckett, co-directed by Brook with Marie-Helen Estienne, with whom he worked on “Tierno Bokar,” a play about the life of the great Malian Sufi leader. “Fragments” originated with the Bouffes du Nort Theatre in Paris, which Brook had made the base for the International Centre for Theatre Research, which he founded in the 1970s. And of course, Brook knew Beckett.
“I knew Beckett, certainly,” Brook said in a telephone interview this week. “He was a friend, and he is very much with us now. He’s very important now in this time, but perhaps not in the way many people are used to thinking of him.” There’s something jaunty about his voice. It’s inviting, conversational, friendly, accessible.It’s as if you were chatting him up at a bar in Paris or Dublin, and you just naturally jumped in on Sartre, Genet, the avant garde, Sufism and Laurel and Hardy, among other things.
“I think to this day people think of him as this bleak, terrifying writer, this tragic Rasputin, full of pessimism and hopelessness and despair, a realist who showed us what was really going on in an age of optimism,” Brook said. “I think of it as Beckett 1 and Beckett 2. It’s the same Beckett, the plays and words, but they sound different. I knew him as a warm man, funny, witty. He was wonderful company, a good friend, he loved music, and he had a big sense of humor. He loved all these old Hollywood clowns, the mimes, the pratfall comics…Oliver and Hardy, he loved them.”
Listening to Brook, you think naturally enough of Vladimir and Estragon, lost protagonist tramps of “Waiting for Godot,” forever waiting for a Godlike character to appear to somehow change their live, save them from their misery and terror and keep them from killing themselves. Among many character traits, their plight may be bleak, but their talk is often funny. They move like hapless, helpless clowns, a ragged married couple caught in a horrible, repetitive vaudeville act. More often than not, they are like Laurel and Hardy faced with another fine mess.
“When ‘Godot’ and his plays and writings first had an impact, it was [around] the Post-World War II optimism spurred mainly by the United States,” Brook said. “There was all this prosperity and wealth, there was a noticeable and naïve optimism. There was also Jean Genet and Sartre and existentialism, which showed the stark mirror to the naïve optimism. And there was Beckett. His plays, his writings showed the other side, the despair, the sheer terror of modern life; it was a drastic, bleak contrast. But it was not the whole of Beckett.”
“Look around today,” Brook said. “Everything you see, everywhere you look, there is nothing but horrible news, terrifying news, and that optimism is plainly absent. So now we have Beckett II, if you will. Look at his characters: the woman in “Rockaby” (One of the plays in “Fragments,” and an unforgettable work that invades your subconscious like a squatter that never leaves), Winnie in “Happy Days,” up to her neck and immobile.
“Listen to her,” Brook says. “She can’t move, but she says ‘I want to be like a bird.’”
“They have persistence, in spite of everything. But more than that, there’s this enormous affirmation, and that affirmation is what’s important about Beckett now.”
Brook is 86 now, still going strong, having worked on a new version of “The Magic Flute” and the journeying “Fragments” production. He is known as a big thinker, a master of the grand idea put on stage, and absolutely fearless.
He is loaded down with honors, with the work, with this huge reputation—so much so that I hesitated before picking up the phone and dialing the number. In theater, Brook has some aspects that are sage-prophet-deity, which the Brook voice belies. The things he says to you he has said many times to many people, but because they remain radical, new, modern, it is not a familiar kiss.
He has written books on the theater—most famously “The Empty Space” and his autobiography. He has heated opinions, which are always sure to ruffle establishment feathers, and he has a history of battling with actors, critics, institutions and organizations. He is known for his work ethic, his pursuit of perfectionism. But in the midst of world revolution he seems to seek the route where toleration can thrive. The Sufis, for instance, are a branch of Islam that preaches toleration of other faiths.
“Fragments” seems such a wispy word for Beckett’s plays. Even the full-length plays—“Krapp’s Last Tape,” “Waiting for Godot,” “Happy Days”—seem to lack the complicated physical requirements of theater. You could stage them in utter darkness and still be devastated.
Every repetition, every word in Beckett’s plays seem to have the potential to explode, to expose feelings we’ve always kept covered. The “Fragments,” including one that’s a poem, are big things, dense with echoes. His shadow is big in odd ways, even in daily life and pop culture: I know a lawyer who named his pug-like dog after Beckett, and I remember graffiti in a DC Space bathroom that read: “I’ll be back.” It was signed “Godot.”
“Rockaby” is perhaps the best known works among the “Fragments,” which also include “Act Without Words II,” featuring two men in sacks and their adventures with a long pole. In “Rough For Theater I,” a blind man and a disabled man team up to form a functioning person. “Come and Go” features three women seated side by side on a narrow bench, and “Neither” is an 87-word poem that deals with the word “neither.”
“I can tell you that we’ve done interesting things with it,” he said of this staging of “Rockaby.” “But you’re going to see it, so I can’t tell you the specifics. You’ll have to wait and see.”
It struck me that this emphasis on what he sees as the complete Beckett, the affirmative prophet, may also be part of his own journey from head-on, even revolutionary and often shocking theater, to this notion of affirmation. He is known—like Beckett—to be a perfectionist and, as he wrote: “one can live by a passionate and absolute identification with a point of view.”
However, he writes, “There is an inner voice that murmurs, Don’t take it too seriously. Hold on tightly, let go lightly.”
“Fragments” is being performed at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre through April 17. Performances are April 14, 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. and April 16 and 17 at 1:30 p.m. For more information, visit [The Kennedy Center online.](http://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/?fuseaction=showEvent&event=TLTSG)
Holiday Performance Preview
You know the drill. It’s time to celebrate the holidays. Not Thanksgiving. That’s practically yesterday. We’re talking about THE HOLIDAYS, when families reunite, and the grandparents will inevitably come bearing sweaters for everybody.
THE HOLIDAYS are a period of non-stop entertainments, and nothing is a better example of the schizophrenic nature of THE HOLIDAYS than the world of performance entertainment. It is a time of ongoing recitals in concert halls, cathedrals, small and large churches, and theaters — the music being pop and popular, secular and spiritual.
We promise nothing as expansive as a complete listing. For those left out, we apologize, and instead offer the most Christmas of blessings: “God bless you, everyone!” courtesy of Tiny Tim. And a happy HOLIDAYS to you.
The Kennedy Center and Strathmore
The Kennedy Center is practically a Christmas Mecca. Not only is the Nutcracker Ballet coming to town Nov. 24 and 26-28, but a version of Handel’s “Messiah.” The National Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Rinaldo Alessandrini, will perform Handel’s classic with soloists Klara Ek, Alisa Kolosva, Michele Angelin, Joan Martin Royo, and the University of Maryland Concert Choir on December 16. In addition, on December 23 the Concert Hall will host the free “Messiah” Sing-Along, a Kennedy Center tradition featuring guest conductor Barry Hemphill leading the KC Opera House Orchestra, a 200-voice choir, and audience members all performing Handel’s masterpiece.
Check out National Public Radio’s “A Jazz Piano Christmas”, on December 11 at the Terrace Theater, the NSO Pops “Happy Holidays” with Marvin Hamlisch and special guests, on December 9 at the Concert Hall, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band performing a Creole Christmas, at the Terrace Theater on December 17.
What’s more, you can always come to the Millennium Stage where everything is free daily. Samples include “An Irish Christmas” December 14, a Merry Tuba Christmas December 8, the DC Youth Orchestra December 12, Holiday Vaudeville December 26, and the All-Star Christmas Day Jazz Jam.
At Strathmore in Bethesda, there’s “O Come Let Us Adore Him” with the Mormon Orchestra and Choir of Washington, DC November 27, a major concert event. On December 1, the King’s Singers present their holiday event “Joy to the World.” The group will perform traditional and popular Christmas carols and songs and readings in a genuine seasonal performance.
On December 2 comes the 2010 Kenny G Holiday show, a popular pop-flavored performance. On December 7, the National Philharmonic and DC Concert Ministries will present “It’s a Wonderful Christmas”, with Michael W. Smith, a bestselling singer/songwriter of contemporary Christian music.
Not to be missed is the December 10 concert “Bowfire: Holiday Heart Strings.” “Bowfire” is an increasingly popular group specializing in string instrumentals and led by Lenny Solomon. Prepare to be happily strung out by a virtuoso group.
On December 11 and 12, there’s the National Philharmonic performing “Handel’s Messiah”, under the direction of founder and creator Piotr Gajewski.
Musicals this Season
In the 1940s, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein changed the American musical landscape altogether by injecting a dose of theatrical seriousness into a string of drama-infused musicals, beginning with “Oklahoma!”
You won’t find such a hit streak as enjoyed by this partnership: “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel”, “South Pacific”, and “The King and I.” Washingtonians can see what all the fuss was about with two dead-perfect revivals.
“Oklahoma!” re-imagined and recreated for our times by Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith, was the perfect launching pad for the new and stunning Mead Center for American Theater. Smartly cast, hugely entertaining, and fresh as a land-rush morning, this production is even rumored to be a possible candidate for a Broadway bid. The production repeats the rush of excitement and satisfaction generated by the original. See it if you can. It runs at the Fichandler through December 26.
Meanwhile, the Kennedy Center’s Opera House has the road company of the Lincoln Center’s award-winning revival of “South Pacific,” which held the longest-running title for a long time. Great songs like “Some Enchanted Evening” ripple through the World War II Pacific settings, where mismatched lovers try to find their way to each other’s hearts.
Speaking of a different kind of musical, “Candide” is landing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in a new co-production with the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Music by Leonard Bernstein and additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, based on the novel by 18th century French philosopher Voltaire.
“Candide” is about an aristocratic, cockeyed optimist, who is disabused of some of his naiveté by bouts of life experience. Based on past productions, the musical is a creation that manages to be challenging, sumptuous, engaging, cerebral, and witty. “Candide” starts November 26.
The Christmas offering at the Olney Theater Center in Olney, Maryland is something for the whole family. You can’t get more optimistic than “Annie”, a huge hit musical when it first surfaced on Broadway in the 1970s and perfect feel-good stuff for the season. Directed by Mark Waldrop, “Annie” runs now through January 7.
Nuts & Scrooges
When it comes to holiday performance offerings, there are two things you can count on: Nutcrackers and Scrooges.
There is no escaping “The Nutcracker,” Tchaikovsky’s omnipresent vision of a kind of Victorian Christmas with a sinister figure bearing gifts and a dream landscape where toy soldiers are deployed to battle the king of the rats. On top of which, “The Nutcracker” contains some of the most beautiful music in the world.
Here in Washington, there are no doubt dozens of “Nutcrackers” in the area. Closer to home, there’s the yearly presentation by the splendid Washington Ballet and Artistic Director Septime Webre’s version, which features George Washington as the heroic nutcracker and George III as the rat king. It’s also a thickly-populated production, using more than 300 dancers over the course of its four-week run at the Warner Theater.
There will be special guests taking part in the production on December 10: the Washington Nationals’ Racing Presidents. This “Nutcracker” will run at the Warner Theater from December 2 to the 26, as well as THEARC Theater on November 27 and 28.
Meanwhile, the world-renowned Joffrey Ballet returns to the Kennedy Center’s Opera House for its version of “The Nutcracker,” designed by company founder Robert Joffrey, November 24 through the 28.
On a smaller scale, but trailing just as much magic, is the annual “Nutcracker” put on by the Puppet Company at Glenn Echo Park, November 26-December 31. The show has been an enduringly popular production from the Puppet Company founded in 1983, using hand puppets, rod puppets, marionettes, and shadow puppets to stage full productions of popular and landmark tales for children. The company is the work of Allan Stevens, Christopher and Mayfield Piper, and Eric Brooks.
Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” which Dickens performed in music halls and theaters throughout England and America, is said to have been the spark that became Christmas as we know it today. The story works like a well-oiled machine and is on the holiday calendar of hundreds of American theater companies.
The long-standing yearly production at the Ford’s Theater is always one of the best offerings, especially now that Ed Gero, one of Washington’s very best actors, has taken up the part of Scrooge again for this year’s run, November 20-January 2.
At Olney on December 16, actor Paul Morella takes up Scrooge in a one-man show, using only the words of Dickens’ novel to tell and make the audience feel the story.
In a less reverent version, but one that promises to be great fun, there’s “A Broadway Christmas Carol,” November 18-December 19, at Metro Stage in Alexandria. This comedic version, mixed with parodies of Broadway show tunes, is a creation of Cathy Feiniger, directed by Larry Kaye, and featuring Peter Boyer as Scrooge.
Let’s give a shout-out to the Adventure Theater staging of “The Happy Elf” by Harry Connick Jr., a fully-produced workshop production at Montgomery College’s Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center in Rockville, through November 28.
Foldger Consort Teams Up With the Tallis Scholars for a Renaissance Christmas at Georgetown University
Robert Eisenstein is a musical scholar and teacher of considerable renown, so you listen when he tells you that music composed in the 18th and 19th centuries is modern. “I don’t like the term ‘classical music’,” Eisenstein says. “It’s not entirely accurate, and it’s limiting, too.”
Eisenstein is a founding member of the Folger Consort, considered to be a model national chamber music ensemble with a worldwide reputation. When he talks about classical music as a fairly recent development, you have to take it in the context of what kind of music the Consort performs. “We play what’s called early music,” he said. “That means it ranges from music composed from around the 12th century through the 18th Century.”
It’s music like that which will be played by the Folger Consort and guest singers, The Tallis Scholars, in “A Renaissance Christmas” at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall, December 10-12. “When we’re talking Renaissance here, we don’t mean Italian Renaissance,” Eisenstein said. “We’re talking essentially English Renaissance and English compositions.”
The Consort, which does about four concerts a year from various periods and on various themes, is usually in the company of guest artists, and in The Tallis Scholars they have what critics call “rock stars of early music.” They have performed in China, the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, and celebrated their 25th anniversary at London’s National Gallery.
Said Eisenstein, “The music…is on the surface exquisitely beautiful but also conveys the meaning of the season with great depth.”
Expect a moving performance.
Other Holiday Musical Highlights
THE EMBASSY SERIES will host a concert called “Songs from Call Me Madam”, referencing the legendary Irving Berlin musical based on the life of another legend, the late and great Washington hostess Pearl Mesta (dubbed the “Hostess with the Mostest“). The concert will be held at the Embassy of Luxembourg on December 4. Performers include Klea Blackhurst, a singer and actress best known for her award-winning tribute show to Ethel Merman, singer Angela Marchese, singer David Blalock, performer and actor Lawrence Redmond, who dazzled audiences in “Jerry Springer: The Opera” at the Studio Theater, and pianist George Peachey
THE NATIONAL CATHEDRAL will be the site of a presentation of “Handel’s Messiah” December 3 and 4, with Michael McCarthy conducting the National Cathedral’s men and youth choirs, backed by a Baroque orchestra.
On December 11-12, it’s “The Joy of Christmas” at the Cathedral, a generous concert of Christmas music that has become a Washington favorite. Performers include the Heritage Signature Chorale. There will be a special family matinee at noon on the 12.
The Children’s Christmas Pageant will be held at the cathedral December 19 at 2 p.m.
THE UNITED STATES ARMY BAND, PERSHING’S OWN, will celebrate the holidays with its annual “A Holiday Festival” at the Daughters of the American Revolution Hall, December 10-12.
THE WASHINGTON REVELS’ annual celebration of the Christmas solstice will be held, once again, at Liner Auditorium at George Washington University, December 4-5 and December 10-12.
THE CHORAL ARTS SOCIETY OF WASHINGTON will perform its “Christmas Music – A Treasured Holiday Tradition” concert at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall December 13, 21, and 24 and its family Christmas Concert at the Terrace Theater December 18.
A CELTIC CHRISTMAS, an annual Georgetown and Washington Christmas treasure will be performed at the historic Dumbarton Methodist Church, as part of the Dumbarton Concerts series, with the Barnes & Hampton Celtic Consort. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Celtic Christmas concert, which will run December 4, 5, 11, and 12.
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“Oklahoma,” “Candide” Clean up at 27th Annual Helen Hayes Awards
Almost every year, someone complains about the Helen Hayes Award’s complicated and layered judging system, and someone expresses shock that such-and-such actor won, or that such-and-such show should not have won. This year, at the 27th annual Helen Hayes Awards, the most prestigious award ceremony for DC theater, there was additional grousing about the many ties, most of them occurring in the musical categories in which “Oklahoma” (Arena Stage) and “Candide” (Shakespeare Theater Company) were competing.
If you ask me, this sort of thing is beside the point. For this writer, the awards ceremonies have always been about celebrating the unique spirit of the Washington area theater community. It’s about the recording and building of a theater history and legacy. Things change and grow over a period of a little over a quarter of a century, but they also remain the same.
Being called outstanding in any category is a validation of the work as a whole—the time and effort, the imagination spent. It solidifies your proper presence and worth among your peers, without once negating the fact that the production and creation of a play is a truly collaborative effort.
What makes the Helen Hayes Awards unique is its celebration of this city’s theater community. It has blossomed into a kind of tribe and built a national reputation that is no longer a secret. For my money, we are right up there with Chicago, New York and San Francisco.
There’s always something boisterous about these proceedings. Each theater seems to have brought its entire employee roster to the show, resulting in gleeful and Glee-like atmospherics that you probably won’t hear at the Oscars or the Tonys. Each year, they show up—the new, young actors, dressing up theatrically, wanting to razzle and dazzle. It’s an infectious spirit the newcomers bring, jazzed about being part of a really cool thing. Its part rock and roll, part “we happy few, we band of brothers.”
“Oklahoma” and “Candide” cleaned up, coming twice to a tie, for the awards for lead actor and resident musical. Indeed, it is almost too tough to choose between the two shows in a season of outstanding musicals that included “Sunset Boulevard,” “Sophisticated Ladies” and “The Light in the Piazza,” to name just a few.
Mary Zimmerman took the gold for outstanding director of a resident musical for “Candide,” so when “Candide” and “Oklahoma” tied for resident musical, it gave director Molly Smith her share of the credit. And its credit she deserves. Imagine if “Oklahoma,” opening a new $100 million theater center, had been a flop.
Geoff Packard, who starred in the title role of “Candide,” and Nicholas Rodriguez for “Oklahoma,” tied for the top actor awards. Packard, the highlight of the new musical “Liberty Smith” at Ford’s Theater, remained true to his character. Referencing his love interest in the musical, he accepted his award saying, “I want to thank my very own Cunegonde, my fiancée Chelsea Crombach.” Packard told us they will be marrying in August.
Some other winning highlights: Adventure Theater’s artistic director Michael Bobbitt accepted the award for outstanding production in the Theater for Young Audiences category for “If You Give a Pig a Pancake.”
There is almost a tradition at the Helen Hayes awards that companies and individual artists have to wait their turn—unless of course you’re Signature Theater and Synetic Theater, which made big splashes right from the start and never looked back. Take the case of Howard Shalwitz, the founder and longtime artistic director of the still-cutting-edge Woolly Mammoth Theater.
Shalwitz just won the outstanding director award for a resident play for “Clybourne Park,” the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Bruce Norris (returning this summer). This was Shalwitz’s first win, long since overdue. He founded the Woolly in 1980, and along with directing a slew of outstanding productions throughout the decades, helped change the face of Washington theater. In another example, Joy Zinoman, who retired in 2009 as Studio Theater’s artistic director after 35 years (and who also co-founded the theater, which helped revitalized the 14th St. corridor), did exceptional work for years before eventually winning for “Indian Ink” in 2000.
History, patrons, inspirations are honored at these affairs. It is, after all, named after Helen Hayes, America’s granddame of theater, who performed here often. Every year, they tell stories about Hayes. They celebrated this year’s introduction of a commemorative Helen Hayes postage stamp by singing “That’s Why the Lady Is a Stamp.”
But this year was also a melancholy occasion. Hayes’ son, actor James MacArthur, who for years was a guiding force and a presence at these awards, passed away this year.
Helen Hayes Awards night is a crowded affair. Not only are the nominees and others who make up the Washington theater community in attendance, but all of them bring the memories of past performances, plays and moments. They bring the promise of future such times as yet unimagined. We remember those not here and their achievements. They are the much beloved and vividly remembered ghosts in attendance. [gallery ids="99661,105651,105644,105648" nav="thumbs"]
Sam Forman Returns to Theater J
In theater, as elsewhere, everybody’s always looking for the next big thing. New plays and new playwrights, especially. They are looking for the next Miller, the next Mamet. Not that the theater world is lacking for fresh new talent: Sarah Rule, Craig Wright, the Pulitzer Prize winning Bruce Norris are all worthy of acclaim.
So is Sam Forman. A quintessential New York type in some ways, Forman is young, hip, very smart and a knowing young playwright and actor who has brought something to the theater that goes back to Chekhov, Neil Simon, even Woody Allen. Mostly, though, he’s brought himself.
This very site and psyche specific writer seems to have found a congenial home for his work at Theater J, where, for the second time, he has garnered a world-premiere production of one his plays.
You might remember Forman for his “The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall,” which received a world-premiere production at Theater J two seasons ago. “Hall,” flavored and textured with Woody Allen references and touches, got critical praise, terrific and mixed audiences, and a Helen Hayes award nomination. It featured a not-so-nice guy character—a young playwright no less—who would do just about anything to get his idea of a musical version of Woody Allen’s most famous film on the Broadway boards.
Now he’s back with “The Moscows of Nantucket,” getting a healthy May 11-June 12 run at Theater J.
“I really love coming here… It’s like a home for me,” Forman said in a phone interview here. “Ari Roth, the artistic director, has had great faith in my work. He’s created a legacy here, of very specific work for a specific community that’s universal.”
You could say that Forman is doing something of the same thing, and it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a kind of dervish dance, making culturally-specific work—Jewish background, Jewish characters—become something that catches the hearts and minds of a universal audience.
“Well, Neil Simon did it, and he did that very well,” Forman says. “Everybody has ambition like the lead in Annie Hall. Everyone has families, like the people in ‘Nantucket,’ and I think people, when they let themselves, recognize that.”
New plays, new playwrights aren’t always everyone’s cup of tea, and the scenario at Theater J is especially tricky because many of the season subscribers tend to be older and have been known to walk out on material that offends them.
But Forman’s plays—if my memories of “Hall” are on the money” and if his resume is any indication—are thought provoking, funny, entertaining and built on authentic characters. They may not always be likeable—how boring would that be—but they are recognizable. “That was the thing about Henry, the lead character in ‘Annie Hall.’ He’s got this show, this musical version of the movie, he’s in proximity to this successful producer, and he’s even willing to set up his girl friend. I played him in some productions… He’s based on my experience, but he’s not me. But I understand him, you know.”
“Nantucket” (which echoes some of Chekhov’s gatherings, albeit a little more frantically and loudly) concerns Benjamin Moscow, a 30-something, would-be novelist who is having trouble making a mark, having just moved back in with his parents partly because his girlfriend left him for another girl. The Moscows are gathering in Nantucket, a Wasp enclave not always hospitable to Jewish residents. Brother Michael has arrived with his new wife, a prominent television star, along with the nanny. Sibling rivalry, already a lifetime past time, heats with the matriarch and patriarchs caught in the middle.
“It’s a family play, a dysfunctional family play,” Forman said. “Sure, there’s some very Jewish family dynamics going on—the blonde Southern wife comes as a culture shock to the parents. There’s modern life struggling with tradition.”
Forman grew up in New York seeing plays like John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” and Albee and others, the new generations that found prominence in the 1960s. Ari Roth sees a lot of Neil Simon in him: “Sam’s got a lot in common with great playwrights like Neil Simon. He understands character, he understands human psychology, he understands story, and he understands audiences. That being said, he’s a writer from a whole new generation, and he’s not shy about his youth.”
Like a lot of new artists, Forman is a multitasker in the sense that he doesn’t stay with one gift, one genre or one thing. He recently co-created “Hickory Hill,” a television pilot for American Movie Classics, a station that has suddenly become a home for cutting edge series television. He’s the lyricist and co-author of the book for “I Sing!” And numerous other plays, and he remains an actor. “But I’m a writer first,” he says. “I think.”
“The Moscows of Nantucket” will be at Theater J from May 11 – June 12. For more information visit WashingtonDCJCC.org.