Justice is Served in Stevens’ ‘Thurgood’

November 3, 2011

If ever there was a moment in the theater that you could without a doubt call a real Washington moment, it occurred at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on June 1, the opening night of “Thurgood.”

Here, at the end, taking bows was American Film Institute Founder, filmmaker and television director George Stevens, Jr., the author of the one-man biographical play about the legendary first African American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Right next to him was actor Laurence Fishburne who, during the course of the play, simply disappeared and all but resurrected the grand civil rights warrior Marshall up close and personal.

There in the audience was Marshall’s widow, his two sons and enough Supreme Court justices to at least make a singing group: Chief Justice John Roberts, Stephen Bryer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, not to mention Washington insider and civil rights leader Vernon Jordan, who is a producer for the show.

Did we forget to mention that the timing couldn’t be more historically atmospheric? By now, everyone knows that Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama’s choice to fill the seat of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, was a clerk for Marshall.

It doesn’t get any more Washington than that.

“For me, it’s so gratifying, so appropriate to bring this play to the Kennedy Center,” Stevens said in an interview with the Georgetowner. “This is where Marshall accomplished so much, it’s where he was a giant in front of the Supreme Court, arguing the Board of Education versus Brown case, and on the court as a major force.”

Stevens, the son of the late Oscar-winning director George Stevens, is himself a noted film director of major, much-talked-about television mini-series and documentaries. He’s a man whose life has been split between Hollywood and Washington, where he began his career being asked to work on the film division of the U.S. Information Agency in the early 1960s. A long-time Georgetown resident, he’s also the founder of the American Film Institute and producer of the Kennedy Center Honors.

A strong streak of fairness for outsiders runs through much of Stevens’ own work, including the mini-series “The Murder of Mary Phagan” and “Separate But Equal,” the 1991 mini-series about the 1957 Brown vs. Board of Education case which starred Sidney Poitier as Marshall and Burt Lancaster as the opposition attorney.

“I think a lot of that came from my father,” Stevens said. “If you look at his major works after the war — which changed him tremendously — there is a strong sense of justice and fairness in his films like ‘Giant’ and ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.'”

“When we did ‘Separate but Equal’ I thought a lot about the possibility of writing a play, but not a narrative drama necessarily,” he said. “The film was about a specific historical event. The play is Thurgood Marshall in full, so to speak. I wanted people to see the human being who was so important to the events and history of his time. I didn’t want people to go to the play so that they could feel good, to have a good moral feeling, with nothing but factual incidents.

“Laurence is perfect in the part,” he said. “When it debuted in New York in 2008, Marshall’s wife was in the audience. She loved Fishburne’s performance and kidded him, saying ‘I wish you weren’t married.’”

What Fishburne, who has a persona, voice and track record that’s instantly recognizable (Three “Matrix” films, the lead role in the current “CSI” series), does in “Thurgood” is to bury himself in the man. The characteristic Fishburne voice is gone, and what’s left of it has an old man’s grunt and growl to it.

“He’s also very funny,” Stevens said. “People are surprised that there are so many humorous moments.”

The conceit of the play is that it’s a rather casual address made by Marshall to a law school class at Howard, where he went to school, talking about his life and work, growing up, taking on cases that broke the all-white spell at the University of Maryland law school, taking on voting rights cases in Texas, meeting his first wife (who passed away) and his second wife, taking on the Board of Education case, the legal strategies and his ascent to the high court, which includes memorable stories about LBJ.

So emphatic and vivid is Fishburne that the arrival of a number of late-comers (because of traffic snarls on opening night) folded right in as Thurgood Marshall welcomed them warmly.

Stevens, meantime, is busy on his next project.

“You’ll like this one,” he said. “It’s called “Herblock of N Street.”

That would be Herblock, the late, great Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist of the Washington Post.

We can’t wait.

“Thurgood” runs at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through June 20.
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Studio’s ‘American Buffalo’


David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” premiered 25 years ago, assuring the playwright’s reputation as an American master, a man who had written an enduring theater classic.

Today, it still seems fresh in its language and feeling, in its inarticulate expression of the importance of the American business ethos in the nation’s life, even its dankest, smallest, lowest places. At the Studio Theatre, where outgoing Artistic Director Joy Zinoman shows again that she get the essentials of familiar material, in which the three petty thieves and low-lifes get to cry out and trumpet their own “attention must be paid,” their own plea for importance.

You’d think that in a contemporary play where a cellphone doesn’t ring, there would be a whiff of the anachronistic, that rust might have settled on the play. But in the 1970s world of Don, Teach and Bobby, ineffectual small-time crooks, thieves and hustlers, the time is now, and it’s not going to get any better.

By now, Mamet’s way of writing dialogue — repetitious, stinky with street debris, loss, and the fallout of small dreams ill considered, has acquired a cachet all of its own, it’s often imitated — like Hemingway’s sparse style and his tough private eye imitators Chandler, Hammett and Ross MacDonald. In fact, it’s often parodied. It sounds hard-nosed and earthy, virtually real, except that its rhythms aren’t real at all, and they have a kind of jazzy musicality to them.

Repetition is a way at arriving at the point of a conversation for this trio. Don is a small lookout for the next opportunity, not the main chance. He runs “Don’s Resale” shop, a place that’s half storage house for stolen goods, a quarter junkyard, and a quarter pawn shop, with a bit of accidental antique shop thrown in. The three — Don, slow, empathetic, patient; Teach, a jacked-up, nervous man with nothing in his life except for his time in the shop; and Bobby, the hyper junkie who acts as if he’s burning up all the time — are thieves of one sort or another. They operate on the fringes, and mostly outside the law.

But to them, boosting a truck, breaking into a house and working with other crooks is all part of the great American enterprise of going for the dollar, of a business where everyone’s entitled to a share of the proceeds. This one time, they’ve convinced themselves that a man who bought an American buffalo nickel from Don is loaded with rare coins which they plan to steal from his house.

Easier said than planned, let alone done. Theses are guys frozen with inaction, jealousies, insecurities, drenched in bad habits attained in poker games and too much time spent together. Their talk doesn’t get results, and they improvise bad notes like a drunk sax player.

Ed Gero, who plays the frustrated, often flummoxed Don, is the glue of this production. He’s the shaky sun around which the other two roll as they vie for his attention, for his approval, for the go-ahead. Gero has a soft solidity here, an exasperation that comes from owning junk, but also from love. Peter Allas as the gun-toting Teach looks like one of those guys who’s always stirring the pot where trust lies buried. And Jimmy Davis is disturbing as the needy, skinny, pushy junkie Bobby.

Russell Metheny’s shabby, rich set of a shop is a wonder. It looks lived in, like an ornamented prison.

Zinoman lets the actors have their way with the words, where the heart and shabby souls lie. “American Buffalo” is often funny, but it’s always tense, dangerous and touching, sometimes all at once. Try to imagine the “Seinfeld” cast of folks as low-lifes, and you get the idea. “Don’t forget, we gotta do the thing?” “The thing? What thing?” “You know, the thing, we gotta do it.” “Oh yeah, the thing. We gotta do the thing.”

Which isn’t exact. But you get the drift. It’s like smoke and music from the past coming into the here and now.

(“American Buffalo” runs through June 13.)

Michael Danek, Rock of Ages


Michael Danek comes to Washington frequently—he has friends and relatives here in the suburbs and it’s not that far away from New York where he lives when he’s not on the road, which is often.

But he hasn’t been at the National Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue in a long time in a professional capacity.

Not since he was Harry.

Not since he was an actor in the legendary “Hello Dolly,” with the legendary Carol Channing back on 1978.

“You know the song, right,” he says in a phone interview, “the title song where everyone’s singing ‘Hello Dolly’ by way of greeting. Well, back then I was one of the waiters that comes on, guy named Harry, and she sings ‘Well, hello, Harry…’”

“That was pretty cool,” he says. “And Carol Channing, well, she was something, no question.”

Well Harry, that is, Michael, is back at the National Theatre, only this time, as stage manager for the touring company. He’s running the whole show – the show being “Rock of Ages,” the hit Broadway show about a bunch of kids finding love and music, 1980’s style.

Put another way, it’s a long way from “Hello Dolly” to “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” the iconic femme rock song sung by Pat Benatar in the 1980s. It’s a long way from the music of Jerry Hermann to Styx, or for that matter, from bustles to Afros.

“Yeah, it’s different,” Danek said. “But one things the same, they’re both big shows, big hits.”

Danek, who switched from being a performer (including long runs in “A Chorus Line”) in the 1980s, to stage managing, from onstage to backstage, couldn’t be happier. “I had a good run,” he said. “Especially the Chorus Line gig, because that was one of the most original Broadway shows ever. There’s nothing like it, so many talented people in it.”

But as stage manager, he’s basically responsible for running the show on the road, the pacing, the calling, the scheduling, getting people squared away, making sure everything runs as smoothly as it should. “The director’s going to call in, but once a show, a play gets on stage, the director basically is finished,” he said. “It’s my job now that this tour, which is pretty hectic, goes smoothly, how the company and the sets and everything work in relation to the size of the venue. Every place is a little different.”

“I love this show,” he says. “I guess it’s sort of part of my musical memory. Sure, so the music is great, but everybody in it is super. This is a great cast, a great group of people, enthusiastic as all get out. I know sometimes in road shows you get performers that sort of coast or wing it. Not here. These guys and girls, they make it fresh every night, they work like fiends.”

“And then there’s the equipment,” he says. “There’s a lot of amps, you could say it’s loud, but then the music was loud and the hair was big. Bring ear plugs.”

He continued, “We’re unloading five trucks, including the sound stuff, and the amps, so yeah, it’s a lot to get down right. And yeah, there’s a lot of hair.”

“Rock of Ages” is huge in the minds of its fans, everywhere they go. “You’ve got to like living on the road,” he says. “Especially on this show. It’s a short run show, nothing more than a month, most of it less. We had a nice run in San Francisco, with a little more leisure time. But basically you’ve got to be cool about packing up, living in hotels, out you go again kind of thing.”

Constantine Maroulis of American Idol fame is the headliner in this version, which weaves comedy and romance with a young cast of actors, singers and performers through a rich bag of 1980s hits. It runs at the national through July 24. Kristin Hanggi, who snagged a Tony Award nomination for her work on “Rock of Ages” directs. “We’re in touch pretty much constantly,” Danek says. “If there’s a problem that she needs to deal with, we talk.”

The tour includes Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Des Moines, Kansas City, Fort Laudesrdale, Clearwater, Houston and Dallas among its 15 stops. “I’ve been with the show since January,” he said. “It’s been a great ride, no kidding.”

And “Rock of Ages” is soon – in 2012 – coming to a theater near you. You’ve probably seen the clips of Tom Cruise in bare-chest vest for the movie version. “He plays an aging rocker,” Danek said. “He came backstage during the tour. He was really nice, posed for pictures with everyone, very cool guy.”

Folks come for the love story, but mostly, and most likely for the music. Songs include the anthem-like “Anyway You Want It” and “Don’t Stop Believing” from Journey’s salad days, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison “I Wanna Rock” from the wonderfully named Twisted Sister, David Lee Roth’s “Just Like Paradise,” Styx’s “Renegade,” Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” Foreigner’s “Waiting for a Girl Like You.”

“I’m not sorry about not performing, I don’t miss it,” Danek said. “This is theater, too and it’s the life that I picked. It’s the nuts and bolts stuff. Every night and every place is different.”

“Rock of Ages” started out in Los Angeles, performed four times in two days at King, then was performed once at the Warner Brothers Soundstage in LA before formally opening in LA at the Vanguard Hollywood for six weeks. In 2006, it had a limited run at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, then hit off-Broadway in 2008. In April of 2009, it opened at the prestigious Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway. It has since toured nationally, and opened in productions in Korea and Melbourne.

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‘A Bright New Boise’

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.

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The Performing Arts Column

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.

Pssst.

Looking for a good time? Go see “The Heir Apparent,” running through Oct. 23.

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“Oklahoma” Takes a Final Bow this Weekend

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

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

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)