How to Be Mark Rothko

May 3, 2012

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

Opera Star, But No Diva, Elizabeth Futral

Outside of the mad scene in “Lucia Di Lammermoor” or climbing Mount Everest every year to sing your favorite aria, there are few bigger challenges in opera for a singer than singing and acting Violetta in the last act of Verdi’s “La Traviata”— okay, the whole opera, but definitely the last act.

The noted American coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral, she of the pitch-black locks and voice rich with rangy emotions does it on a regular basis almost every year, it’s like a yearly to-do list that includes “sing Violetta somewhere in the world.”

If Futral doesn’t own what is a legendary part — Maria Callas was famous for it — lock, stock and legend, she is at least a major, controlling shareholder in the lore and history of the part. She was here at the Washington National Opera four years ago and held her audiences spellbound in the famous last act in which the consumptive consort Violetta sings her way through nearly an hour-long death scene and commands the stage with a powerful voice and a frail but unforgettable beauty and shimmering physicality. It’s like watching a butterfly expiring in a burst of musical longing.

“Obviously, the part doesn’t get old for me,” Futral said during a telephone interview. “I find something new, some additional challenge, a feeling in her as does my voice. And it’s gratifying that people remember it so.”

But now she’s back at the WNO, opening the second half of the season performing as Fiordiligi in director Jonathan Miller’s production of Mozart’s stylish, sophisticated “Cosi Fan Tutte.” Unlike the long-standing relationship with “La Traviata,” this is a first for Futral. “I don’t know, I’ve never quite felt right for the part or I wasn’t ready for it,” she said. “But I think it’s time now. And I love the setting for this, the contemporary outlook. Mozart, to me, his music always looks to the future, it’s so rich with so many layers.”

On the surface, “Cosi” would look to be one of those oh-so-clever and funny opera romcoms, full of game-playing, deception, implausible and romantically dangerous and opportunities for intricate singing and arias. I mean the plot alone is enough to make you dizzy: two soldier buddies, married to two sisters, always a little competitive with each other, get into a discussion about women (the title is a variant on the theme of men’s inability to understand them after they get them). Each feels his own wife is rock-solid faithful and true. So, fools that they are, they make a bet that each can seduce the other’s wife. First one to seduce wins the bet.

“It sounds a little silly and light, and it is very comic on the whole,” Futral said. “But with Mozart, musically, nothing is simple. It’s almost as if some of the arias and the music undermines the plot, it’s layered, beautiful, rich but complicated, sometimes at odds with what’s going on. And the arias are a real challenge to sing because Fiordiligi is a complicated woman. She’s the older sister, and she is formidable.”

You can be pretty sure that the complications of the role will shine through, because Futral, a wonderful singer, is also noted for her acting ability, not always a top priority among divas and stars.

She’s also up to a challenge. She likes contemporary opera and new classical music, and she’s performed in an opera version of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” directed by Andre Previn. “I love new music,” she said. “You have to find a way to live in the present professionally.”

In the opera world, she is something of a rock star, although she hardly behaves like one — no diva doings to report here. She and her husband Steven White, a conductor, live in a secluded house in Roanake, Va., although they don’t spend as much time together as they like.

“Roanake is just far enough away from here that I don’t go home,” she said. “And besides, Steven is conducting for the New York City Opera right now.”

That would be a production of “La Traviata.”

“We have similar careers,” she continued. “We live professionally in the same world. So, that’s rather nice. You don’t have to explain things when you talk about what happened during a performance. Not that we always agree about things. But we’re both successful, both passionate about what we do.”

Traviata. Check. Lucia. Check. Cosi, check.

Mt. Everest.


Not yet. [gallery ids="100499,118112" nav="thumbs"]

Up Close and Behind the Scenes with the Kennedy Center’s Mickey Berra

Now in its 41st year, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts presents itself in a rush of contradictions operating in the same time and space. It’s a national center for the arts that feels at once elevated and eclectic, performance art for the high brow and the populist center, tuxedos and blue jeans. At once expensive and expansively free, it is a cultural shrine for all, and a place where education is as important as edification of the cultural palate.

It’s where you find Mickey Berra, the Kennedy Center’s vice president for production, who is in charge of everything that gets put on the center’s numerous stages and venues.

When “Cosi Fan Tutte” kicks off the Washington National Opera’s spring season Feb. 25, he will be the one that makes sure the acoustics work and the costumes are in place.

When the performance troupes from Eastern Europe come in for the “Music of Budapest, Prague & Vienna” festival on that very same day, Berra will make sure they all have what they need when it starts.

Berra, on the operations level and in his own way, keeps the place running smoothly. As much as anybody, he is the face of the Kennedy Center, having been present since its foundation in 1971. From stagehand at the Opera House to his current standing, Berra is a walking, talking collective memory of the Kennedy Center.

If cops bleed blue, Berra bleeds the deep red of the Kennedy Center’s carpets. Get him going, and he doesn’t stop. “There’s no performing arts hall like it anywhere in the world, not in terms of everything we do here,” he says. He rattles off the names of all the venues: the Opera House, the Eisenhower, the Concert Hall, the Theater Lab, the relatively new Children’s Theater, the Millennium Stage spaces, the Concert Hall, the Terrace Theater and the Jazz Club.

“It’s like a big city,” he says. “And the venues, they’re the neighborhoods.”

He came to Washington in the 1960s with his brother Tommy — who would eventually run operations at the Ford’s Theatre before retiring — from a family that worked in carnivals.

Berra, 66, has two grown children and has been married for 35 years to the love of his life, Marcy. “I hit the lotto jackpot, there, let me tell you”, he says. He has met many of the people who have passed through the Kennedy Center over the years: the actors, the dancers, the musicians the opera singers, the international figures, the writers and directors.

“Sometimes you look at all this, and it’s still hard to imagine where I am,” he says.

We’re all sitting around backstage talking, pointing at the haunting, memento-filled walls at the Opera House, where Berra rose from regular stagehand to head stagehand, where I played ping-pong with stagehands and spoke with Berra years ago when “Les Miserables” first came to town.

Although Berra is in charge of all of the stages now, you can tell that the years spent at the Opera House remain dear to his heart.

He loves the dancers, the Barishnikovs, the ballerinas, the Russians. “I know we like football and all that stuff, and we love our ballplayers. But for my money, there are no better athletes than ballet dancers. And Barishnikov I think was the best. When the Russians — the Bolshoi, the Kirov, all of them — when they came, sometimes we’d have them over to the house and ply them with pizza. They loved pizza.”

Names roll out: Princess Margaret, Paul McCartney, Carol Channing, Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Cate Blanchett. But when Berra talks about big stars and artists, he never gives the appearance of dropping names to impress you. He’s sharing the richness of his life, still amazed after 40 years here. He often gives backstage tours to groups, he says. It’s all just part of his resume and life. There probably isn’t a person working in Washington who’s more experienced in terms of actual dealings with the performance arts and the artists and designers who occupy its world.

Mickey — he says no one calls him Michael — talks about looking forward to “Memphis,” the musical about Elvis, Johnny Cash and a ground-breaking recording at Sun Studios, and prepping for the upcoming music festival.

Berra is a pro. As a big part of the Kennedy Center’s heart and soul, he is thus the heart and soul of what we experience here as our cultural heritage. But Berra isn’t the type of guy to put on airs. He’d rather put on a show or tell you a story. “I’m older,” he says. “But this . . . this never gets old.” [gallery ids="100508,118488,118482" nav="thumbs"]

Arts and Culture, the Spanish Way

What do people outside of Spain think of when they think of Spanish culture?

For certain, Don Quixote, the gallant knight who tilts at windmills, the singular creation of Cervantes, from Spain’s golden age. Flamenco, for sure. In the passionate sounds of dancing and guitar, it’s as if the soul of a nation were revealed in its music and embrace in its dance.

There are giants of art—the great painters who pioneered and pushed forward the form from El Greco to Goya to Picasso to Miro, comprising a pantheon all their own, always looking into the future, even as they become legends of the past.

If you are any kind of student of film as art than it is hard to forget Buñuel and Almodóvar, both revolutionary and provoking in their own ways, the one building a bridge to the works of the other.

But what about the great flamenco singers, and the Flamenco Project? What about the work of the great Spanish photojournalist Jordi Socias? Or the startling work of Albert Schommer? Have you ever heard of Pacio Lucia, Spain’s great contemporary composer and musician? Or Don Quixote re-appearing as a children’s hero? Have you been to Gala Hispanic Theater or heard of Carmen Cortes, Rafaela Carrasco, Olga Pericet?

Do you know about “We Made This: Spanish Post Digital Creation Culture”?

Somewhere along the way, Washingtonians have probably encountered various aspects of Spanish culture like some of the aforementioned events, projects and artists over the past few years, especially since the spring of 2011, when an ubiquitous logo and emblem started to make its mark in the city.

“Spain Arts & Culture,” a brand in a logo of what seems to be swirling stone, takes you into the rest of the story. And the color red, as in Spain Red, the Spanish Cultural Network, takes you deeper still and the rest of the way.

“Spain Arts & Culture” is an expression of Spanish culture, a way to promote all aspects of Spanish culture on a broad, widespread scale throughout the United States in key cities on a biannual basis, singling out, marketing and promoting Spanish cultural events, exhibitions, performances and projects to the public. As a full-scale effort, “Spain Arts & Culture,” and its social network companion Spain Red, is singularly modern in form, keenly conscious of the opportunities for networking, marketing and promotion provided by the digital age.

“The key elements of this effort are the importance of branding and design, the pre-eminence of online communication and marketing and the important value we place on our partnerships with local institutions,” said Guillermo Corral, the Cultural Counselor and Head of the Cultural Office of the Embassy of Spain in Washington. Corral is the de facto man in charge of this effort, a veteran cultural diplomat who was appointed the first Director of the Directorate General for Cultural Policy and Cultural Industries within the Spanish Ministry of Culture in 2008, a position which he held until coming to Washington, and one that gives him the cache, experience and gravitas to speak with authority and act with authority on the subject of Spanish culture.

The effort across the United States, involving dozens of cities, is to promote Spanish culture in such a way that it combines the old and new, the traditional and the cutting-edge products of the culture. Through the form of every available marketing tool — including, so far, three edgy, splashy and comprehensive catalogues — the program embraces culture in the largest senses of the word. It includes Spanish urban culture, design, architecture, fine arts, film, Spanish heritage, performing arts and literature as well as food and fashion components. This spring and summer season involves cities allacross the United States, spearheaded through Spanish consulates, or cultural organizations, among them Washington, D.C., where the initial effort had its origins. New York, Dallas and Houston, Los Angeles, Puerto Rico, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago are also participating.

“I believe firmly in forming partnership through all available means,” Coral said. In this sense, he serves as coordinator, facilitator and creative force for promoting Spanish culture in the United States and especially here in Washington. “This is a very urban, international city, among many of its aspects. The dining opportunities, for instance, offer so many world flavors. The cultural opportunities are enormous here, very modern, but also respectful of tradition. Spanish culture, to me, is that best of combinations. It is a country that was, in its days of empire and exploration, very much in the position of the United States today. We live in a different world, of course, with great economic difficulties, but that makes it both a reward and a challenge to promote our culture for me.”

Corral, 40, married with two young children, comes from Valladolid, a city of 500,000 near Madrid. “It’s small, by some standards,” he said. “I had a very good upbringing, but I left as soon as I could. Spain is a country of big cities, big ideas. It’s building very much a new culture for a new world, and I think that has been a tradition, this pushing the new forward.”

If you look at some of the spring-summer offerings in Washington alone, you can get a feel of that ebb and flow, of old and new, tradition and progression. There’s the ongoing comprehensive and revealing exhibition of Picasso’s drawings now at the National Gallery of Art, which will soon be joined by “Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape,” another major exhibition of 120 paintings.

There is Paco De Lucia, a renowned composer and performer, who will be showing up at the Music Center at Strathmore to perform “En Vivo” on April 18.

“For myself, I think I’m partial to new things, new ways of doing things. It’s exciting to be working on some of the things we are doing,” Corral said. “This time, I am attracted to ‘We Made This: Spanish Post-Digital Creation Culture.’ This is a huge design festival of the work of younger Spanish artists working in the digital field, exploring endless opportunities and vistas.”

The show will be at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden this June.

“We work with many of the local institutions,” he said. “It’s a must and a hallmark of what we do. For instance, there is an exhibition of the works of Spanish-American artists working in New York, showing at the Art Museum of the Americas.”

It’s when you look at the Washington venues for “Spain Arts & Culture” that you get a sense of the ambition, the fertile variety and scope of the project. During spring and summer, there’s Teatro de La Luna’s annual Theatre Festival, which will feature a Madrid Theater company, as well as a children’s version of “Don Quixote” at Gala Hispanic Theatre. A major Flamenco Festival is just now concluding, focusing on the critical singing aspect of the flamenco’s form. An entry in the upcoming Environmental Film Festival is also part of the project, along with a Spanish entry in the D.C. Street Festival and a performance in May at the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center.

In May there will be a Spanish entry in the Kids World Cinema Festival, and in June we can expect to see the Sounds of Catalonia at the National Gallery of Art and the Kreeger Museum. Entries in the 2012 Silverdocs Film Festival at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring and the 2012 Euro Asia Shorts festival, will also be on view through the month of June at embassies throughout Washington.

The works of Schommer, a dramatic portrait photographer of considerable note, are now on display in the Embassy of Spain.

“We launched the ‘Spain, Arts & Culture’ program about a year ago,” Corral said. “It was the logical outcome of the ‘Preview Spain, Arts & Culture’ programs that were started by my predecessors. It incorporates their efforts and some of my own ideas about how best to undertake cultural promotion in these times.

“I have been impressed with so many of the people I have been working with in the city,” he said. “There’s the entire Smithsonian Institution, there’s the National Gallery of Art, there’s Jack Rasmussen at the Katzen Center at American University, Paul Emerson, Theo Adamstein from Photoweek DC, and many, many more. Of course, the really amazing man is Jose Andres, who has done so much to promote Spanish food in this country.”

The international community as a whole is an undeniably, but often forgotten, cultural presence in the Washington community. Spain and Guillermo Corral with the “Spain Arts & Culture” program may be showing the way toward embracing the onrushing future as a way of promoting culture. [gallery ids="100526,119390,119364,119383,119371,119379" nav="thumbs"]

Performance: Twist Pulls Off His Own Twist on Puppetry

Everywhere you read or hear about Basil Twist—the New Yorker, the Post, YouTube (highly recommended) — he’s described as a puppeteer, or third-generation puppeteer, or world-renowned puppeteer.
The third-generation thing is stretching things, the world-renowned is dead on, but puppeteer … Well, it’s just not enough. It’s like calling Schubert a songwriter and leaving it at that.
Geppetto was a puppeteer. Basil Twist is something else.
Just what Twist is and does should become fairly clear to Washingtonians — or maybe not — during the course of the next nearly two months, a time frame which amounts to a Basil Twist festival of four of his works at four different venues.  All of them are different from each other — naturally, as Twist might say, because he is forever exploring the form, trying new ways of creating puppetry, standing the form on its head, leaving shiny welts.
Twist, who is only 42, is becoming a one-man buzz, noteworthy, praiseworthy and just plain worthy at a time when puppetry itself is becoming prominent, especially on the nation’s stages, but also in the special-effects laden world of film. 
Think of puppets, and you do think of Geppetto and Pinocchio, the puppet who became a boy and similar children’s stories that work well with characters manipulated by sticks and strings.
What Twist does is honor the primal past, the classic form, listens to the music in his head and outside of it and marries it to things never done before. He collaborates with someone like Joey Arias, described as “drag chanteuse extraordinaire” to come up with a production the likes of which you’ve never seen before.          
The Twist festival amounts to four theatrical events literally beyond category.  At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, there’s a stunningly beautiful production of “Petrushka,” which is puppetry about puppets, a classic tale from the world of ballet about three puppets at a Russian carnival, a kind of love triangle about puppets aided and abetted by Stravinsky’s original ballet score in a two-piano version played by pianists Julia and Irina Elkina.   The style of puppetry is gorgeous in the Japanese and Czech manner and runs through March 26.

At the Studio Theatre, Twist resurrects what amounts to a nearly lost art and form of puppetry of “Dogugaeshi,” a production involving sliding doors and original Shamisan compositions performed by master musician Yumiko Tanaka. (April 11 through 22)

Going farther afield and under water brings you to a Swift classic, a production of “Symphonie Fantastique” at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland.  An abstract work set to the music of Hector Berlioz is performed in a 1,000-gallon water tank, “using mirrors, slides, dyes, blacklight, overhead projections, air bubbles, latex fishing lures and other sundry material. (March 29 through 31)

Finally, there’s “Arias with a Twist” at the Woolly Mammoth Theater, April 4 through May 6, in which the aforementioned Joey Arias and Twist collaborate on a magical-mystery tour of music, dancing, singing, with the Garden of Eden, a space lab and just about anything else you can imagine thrown in.
Twist in a phone interview said that “I’m fascinated by the use of music, by all the other forms of puppetry that go back practically to the cave man. Puppets have always been with us. They’re primal.

In his program notes for “Petrushka”, Twist states the case and his reason for being simply. “Puppets are magic,” he writes. “The mystery of a bundle of cloth coming to life and inspiring emotion in an audience is what has kept me captivated by this art.

By animating puppets—including puppet forms, inanimate objects and characters—he makes magic.  When he talks about how puppet is animated not only by him but by the audience, he’s talking about the essence of performance art, of theater and dance. “Puppets are often thought of as belonging to children,” Twist said.  “That’s great and partly true, that’s where everything starts, but I’m trying to move things to move constantly forward.” He is to puppetry what Joyce and Beckett where to literature, making abstractions come to life.

But he shares one thing with Geppetto, and maybe with Doctor Frankenstein as well and that’s the urge to bring something that’s inanimate, lifeless to life.
“Think about that, it’s so awesome to me to be able to do this,” Twist said. “And we’re talking about shapes, things themselves, not just characters in a story.”
“It’s true I grew up with puppets,”  he said. “My mother did puppet shows. As far as that third-generation thing, I had a grandfather who was a big band leader. He had puppets that looked like band leaders of the time. “
Arias had his own puppets, but he did not become serious about the form until he attended and graduated from the Ecole Superieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mezieres in France.
It’s fair to say that Twist is a transformative figure in an art form that is beginning to loom large, beyond the boundaries of carnivals and children’s shows.  He created puppets for the Broadway musical “The Addams Family,” and he’s listed in the credits as underwater puppet consultant for the last Harry Potter show.

If, like Duke Ellington, his work seems to be beyond category, you do know exactly where it’s headed. It’s in the direction of making the heart, the head and the soul of puppetry larger.

In Petrushka”, probably the most accessible of the four works in the festival, he uses non-traditional and traditional tools to bring alive a classic tale. It’s startling, gorgeous it swims around in your head afterwards. After the show, beaming like a young kid, he explained some of the tricks of the process, without every once negating the magic and mystery of it all.

Making the puppets, the shapes, the detailed work is probably a herculean, detailed effort.  But behind it is a vision, not so precise, but clear. “More than anything,” he says. “I have to think and feel that it’s good. “

Now there’s a Twist. [gallery ids="100595,100596" nav="thumbs"]

Norman Scribner, a D.C. Musical Giant in His Right

April 19, 2012

  When Norman Scribner picks up the baton to conduct the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the National Symphony Orchestra to perform Johannes Brahms’s monumental “Ein Deutches Requiem” on April 22, at 4 p.m. in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, it will be a milestone for the maestro, the Washington Choral Arts Society and the city.

Conducting the “Requiem” marks the last time that Scribner, the founder of the Washington Choral Arts Society, will conduct the WCAS as its artistic director, his last concert in a distinguished 47-year career that has left its mark on Washington culture and what you can achieve with the art of music.

Scribner is going out with one of the greatest compositions in Western classical music. 

It’s best to let Scribner explain it: “’Ein Deutches Requiem is one of the most glorious and beloved examples of the combination of text and music in the history of Western civilization,” Scribner said. “Through his lifelong immersion in the Lutheran Bible, Brahms was able to extract texts that express every emotion connected with our passage from this life to the next.”

It seems a fitting ending kind of project for Scribner, who created the Choral Arts Society of Washington and turned it into an enduring cultural institution in Washington, where it became a part of the life of the city every bit as much as the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington National Opera or the Washington Ballet.

Scribner’s work and career stretches into the city’s universities and into the city’s cultural history. He attended the prestigious Peabody Conservatory and has taught at George Washington University, American University and the College of Church Musicians at Washington National Cathedral.

Over the years, he has taken inspiration from and collaborated with giant figures in contemporary musical history as Leonard Bernstein, Leonard Slatkin, Valery Gorgiev, Mstislav Rostropovich and Christopher Eschenbach, the current maestro of the NSO.

He has led the chorus in 18 recordings, and presented 25 world premiere commissions and has received an honorary doctorate from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 2002 and from the Peabody Distinguished Alumni Award in 2006.

Scribner has scores of musical inspirations—the giants of Western music like Mozart, Brahms, Bach and Beethoven—are in his blood.  But there’s a figure—not a composer of great works, but a mover of hearts and minds through the power of his words and oratory—who has also inspired Scribner’s life and career.

That would be the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “If you lived or witnessed anything that was going on in this city in the 1960s—the great speech at the Lincoln Memorial, the tragedy of the riots in the wake of his assassinations—then you cannot be help but to have been moved by his presence, by his life and death.”

Scribner was more than merely moved emotionally. He was moved to action through the world of his musical efforts.  Scribner created the annual “Living the Dream, Singing the Dream,” an annual choral tribute to King on his January birthday at the Kennedy Center choral celebration, and collaborated with the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Men, Women and Children of the Gospel Choir under artistic director Stanley J. Thurston.

The annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Tribute Concert has become a Washington institution.

“I wanted to pay tribute to Dr. King’s legacy through music, in other words, music used as an instrument for peace,”  Scribner said.

Scribner doesn’t believe that music, however beautiful and grand, exists in a vacuum. Rather, it is a part of the whole community. He has lived that belief with not only the creation of the tribute concerts but their expansion into a series of community musical and civil rights efforts.

“Music can be a balm, a celebration and a unifier,” he said. “That’s the hope.”

Scribner witnessed the chaos, the fiery violence that erupted here in Washington in the wake of King’s assassination.  Scribner’s response was to honor King with the balm of music and celebration. He orchestrated and integrated a community-based celebration called “Once-In Memoriam: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” the year after King died.

The Choral Arts Society has expanded the scope of the concert to include a concert for students, a student writing competition and the establishment of an annual humanitarian award. This past year, Scribner himself was named the recipient of the Humanitarian Award, joining a select group that includes Dorothy Height, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Marian Wright Edelman, Harris Wofford, Julian Bond, John Doar, Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Bernice Johnson Reagan.

Scribner’s last concert will be co-presented with the Washington Performing Arts Society. “WPAS is pleased to be co-presenting the last concert to be conducted by Washington’s legendary choral leader Norman Scribner,” said Neal Perl, WPAS president and CEO. “A pillar of Washington’s musical community for the past 47 years, Norman has devoted his life to the performance of glorious choral music. He will be greatly missed.”

Missed, but not forgotten.

Kahn Tackles O’Neill’s Daunting ‘Strange Interlude’

April 5, 2012

In theater, as in other endeavors, there are plays and roles that sit like slumbering challenges, just daring for artist to tackle them.

For actors, it’s Lear—but not yet—and the layer-upon-layer Hamlet, or Willie Lohman, or Maggie the cat or Blanche. And what opera director doesn’t some nights of the Ring Cycle, tossing and turning in a sweat.

For directors, especially American directors worth their salt, all they have to do is go to the collected works of Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill wrote all sorts of plays, one-acts, surrealist fare, auto-biographical epics and four-hour sojourns waiting for the iceman to cometh. The O’Neill canon is an ocean full of white whales.

And none may be more elusive than “Strange Interlude,” a major hit in its day when it finally opened in 1928 after years of labor by O’Neill, controversial for its content and its style. It was hugely ambitious in trying to tell a story spanning decades of American life — forward and backward, past, present and future.

For Michael Kahn, in the midst of a 25th anniversary season as the artistic director of the Washington Shakespeare Theatre, “Strange Interlude” is a play, he said, “I’ve always wanted to do, and for a time I thought I would never get the opportunity.”

He had come close once, but the project collapsed for various reasons. “But when this anniversary came up, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to tackle the play,” he said.

When you start thinking about this, you have to admire Kahn for thinking about it at all. His legacy in Washington and his whole career is secure; he would be forgiven for resting on his laurels.

“Strange Interlude” is something of a risk today, maybe even more than when it opened. It’s a legend of size and scope—various stories have the original production running as long as between six and four hours with an intermission break for dinner. Plus, O’Neill told wrote some of the dialogue in stream of consciousness style, in which the characters express their inner thoughts.

“Well, this production is more like three and a half or so.” Kahn said. “I don’t think today’s audiences will have trouble relating to it or the characters. It’s about something everybody has a stake in: the pursuit of happiness and the great difficulty and tragedy that surrounds that pursuit.”

While Kahn is also considered one of the consummate interpreters of the plays of Tennessee Williams, he’s no stranger to O’Neill. “He is the major figure in American theater,” Kahn said, “the father of American theater, with a huge and diverse body of work, a pioneer, a great writer whose work contained some of the finest work not only in theater but in American literature. I learned about him by reading. We had a lot of books in our house when I was young, and I ran across his first play, “Dynamo.”

“Ah, Wilderness!” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” both at Arena, and “Strange Interlude are part of a unique and ongoing O’Neill festival in Washington right now.

Kahn remembers seeing Frederic March playing the father in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a production he calls remarkable. “Jason Robards (considered the O’Neill actor by many) was playing one of the sons, and he would later play the father.”

Kahn—in a stellar career that included a vivid production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway—directed O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra” twice. He got permission to edit “Electra” (as well as “Interlude”).

Still, the idea of “Interlude” is daunting. In the 1920s, the play was shocking for its Freudian content, for a plot that included abortion, sex and an intelligent, strong woman dealing with the lasting wounds suffered after her fiancée is killed in World War I without the opportunity for consummation of their love.

“The pursuit of happiness,” Kahn said, “that’s the American dream, that’s what we’re about as a country. There’s no society that places such a stress on the theme of happiness.”

Francesca Faridany will perform the role of Nina in this production. “Strange Interlude” is rarely performed, but that may be part of its appeal to audiences and certainly for Kahn, who presented the rarely performed “Camino Royal,” by Tennessee Williams and the equally rarely staged “Timor of Athens.”

Kahn is excited about “Strange Interlude” and thinks audiences will be, too. “It is one of the great works by our greatest playwright. It has a compelling story that resonates for today’s audiences. It’s about America and us, and we can see ourselves in those creations. It’s a great achievement on the part of O’Neill—the play spans 30 years and was written in the 1920s. So, he had to imagine what this country would be like in the ’30s and ’40s, and I think he did a good job of it.”

Listening to Kahn talk about the play, you feel he relished the work, like opening up a lost, true book and bringing it to life.

(“Strange Interlude” will be at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall through April 29). [gallery ids="100718,120641" nav="thumbs"]

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus presents “Fully Charged” (photos)

March 22, 2012

The circus was in town. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus presents “Fully Charged” at the Verizon Center in Washington DC with shows on March 15-18. After the DC run, the show moves on to Baltimore, Md., and then Fairfax, Va., in April. View our photos of “The Greatest Show on Earth” by clicking on the icons below. (Photography by Jeff Malet)

View additional photos of this performance plus additional dances by the company by clicking here. [gallery ids="100538,100551,100552,100553,100554,100555,100556,100557,100558,100559,100560,100550,100549,100539,100540,100541,100542,100543,100544,100545,100546,100547,100548,100561" nav="thumbs"]

Flemenco Festival 2012 at Lisner Auditorium featuring Rafaela Carrasco (photos)

Flamenco is a unique art form that combines dancing, guitar playing, singing, and a stocatto handclapping. It is native to the Andalusian region of southern Spain and may have been influenced by the Gypsies, and in part from Spain’s early Morrish culture. Seville’s Rafaela Carrasco is a breathtaking dancer and one of the most important flamenco choreographers of the younger generation. She and her troupe performed at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium in Washinton DC on March 7 during Flemenco Festival 2012. View our photos of her classic performance by clicking on the photo icons below. (Photography by Jeff Malet) [gallery ids="100534,120037,120029,120021,120013,120006,119997,119989,120053,119980,120060,120067,119970,120073,120045" nav="thumbs"]

‘1776,’ the Musical, Still Tugs at America’s Heart

1776. How 236 years ago.

“1776,” the musical. How 42 years ago.

The latest production of “1776,” now at Ford’s Theatre, is playing right during the longest-running reality show in the nation, the Republican Party race for the presidential nomination. How 36 seconds ago.

It is a familiar musical — about how a group of divided, discordant and discomfited bunch of men representing the 13 colonies would eventually come up with the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia and thus declare themselves a nation of free peoples. It always resonates mightily when performed in the Washington area, even as a high school or dinner theatre production. (We were mindful that it is being staged in the theater where President Abraham Lincoln was shot and performed on the night we attended that the Prime Minister of Britain was being cheered at the White House.)

What’s amazing about “1776,” with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone, is that it works at all. The music and songs are to be sure witty, but they’re not in the exalted Broadway musical stratosphere that includes Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. It does not strive for anything resembling contemporary pop music styles. The score, songs and lyrics are what they are: they fit perfectly to the needs of the book, a soaring ballad here, a sarcastic, rousing number there, a funny one around the corner, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And maybe that’s what makes things work, because this has always been a show about the characters in it — by the people, for the people and about the people.

The main purpose of “1776” has always been to give audiences a human look at the men who ended up producing and signing the Declaration of Independence, the visionary heart and soul of American democracy as created then and living through the years and today. Here are the defiant, grimly determined John Adams (“They find me annoying, nobody likes me”), the stolid John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson missing his wife to the point of total distraction (“It’s been six months”), the icily charismatic John Dickinson, defender of property and loyal to the British Crown, the scathing and charming Edward Rutledge, cynical defender of slavery, elderly rock star of the American Revolution Benjamin Franklin and the rum-addled Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, to name a few.

In 1776, the Continental Army was short on almost everything — morale, men, organization, weapons and salt peter, awaiting a British assault in New York. The Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia where it was a choice between flies and oppressive heat and separation from or reconciliation with Great Britain. That something as historically astounding and resounding as the Declaration emerged from the band of hardly brothers seems in the very least remarkable and in the end inspiring.

Edwards and Stone won Tonys for “1776” but never again matched anything remotely in the way of success of this oddly old-fashioned but also revolutionary show. It’s not a debunking of the legendary names on the declaration, but it surely humanizes the process. We always knew that Adams was an indispensable man here, that Jefferson was young then, in love with his wife, and an all-around genius and that Benjamin Franklin was a genial lech, disliked his royalist son and embraced fame with fervor.

Songs range from show opener “For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down!” to the rousing and funny “The Lees of Old Virginia,” sung with flood-like gusto by Stephen S. Schmidt as Richard Henry Lee, and “He Plays the Violin,” a hymn of praise and prowess in which Erin Kruse, as Martha Jefferson, suggests something more than musical gifts for her husband. “Cool, Cool Considerate Men,” John Dickinson’s praise of pragmatism (“always to the right, never to the left”) presages our battling political parties of 2012, and “Molasses to Rum,” in which Gregory Maheu as Edward Rutledge blasts out an angry, chilling defense of slavery by way of hypocrisy, bring us to the present in one way or another. Everyone gets a say, or a song as it were.

Top acting kudos: Brooks Ashmankis as John Adams, singing with confidence, a man who acts with no limitations but knows his own very well; D.C.’s Shakespearean comic great Floyd King as the semi-sober Stephen Hopkins; Kruse and Kates Fisher as Abigail Adams on the ladies’ side. In particular, one should single out Robert Cuccioli as Dickerson — dressed in dandified black, grey and white, an actor who commands the stages and the audience in every scene. With charisma to spare as well is Maheu, the even more dandified but also shark-like representative from South Carolina, whose embrace of slavery sound like the whispers of the snake in the garden. “They are property,” he sneers, as if that were that.

This great debate in Philadelphia echoes loudly among us, all across the land, by ways of communication these founding signers had never anticipated. When the group agonizes over its deadlock and inability to do anything (“Piddle, Twiddle and Resolve”), they sound like nothing less than today’s Republican and Democratic members of Congress. And with so many presidential candidates, Supreme Court justices and politicians of today claiming intimate personal knowledge of our Founding Fathers, they might be well off checking out this show.

“1776” runs a solid three hours with intermission, but the time and the show passes swiftly. It’s an engrossing production, hugely entertaining and engaging. It plays like a big echo from 236 years ago and from 36 seconds ago.

(“1776” plays through May 19 at Ford’s Theatre.)
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