Opera in the Outfield

July 26, 2011

Hundreds of bare feet grazed the Nationals’ field as families and couples picnicked for “Opera in the Outfield” last Sunday.

“We love doing this event because we believe opera is for everyone,” said Jane Lipton Cafritz, chairwoman for Washington National Opera.

Nationals Stadium opened the field and bleachers for the opera “A Masked Ball,” directed by James Robinson, which was broadcast live in high definition from the Kennedy Center Opera House on the Nationals Stadium scoreboard, one of the largest in the country.

Doors opened at noon to give people time to visit tables to sign up for raffles, enjoy chocolate from the Mars company – an event sponsor – and take children to the Family Fun Zone where they could experience opera firsthand by making masks to be used in the “Masked Ball.” The Family Fun Zone also allowed children to try on actual opera costumes and pose for pictures. It was a great introduction to opera for young children, a place to instill a passion and interest in opera with hands-on learning while having fun.

The opera itself was a little heavy for children, but this did not seem to keep families away. “A Masked Ball,” a three act opera, is a tragic tale about a Swedish king, Gustavus III, who is in love with his best friend’s wife, Amelia. He goes to have his fortune told and is told that the next person’s hand he shakes will murder him. Gustavus chooses to shake the hand of his best friend, Anckarstrom, thinking that the prophecy will be wrong because of it, but when Anckarstrom finds out about Gustavus’s love for his wife, he becomes enraged, and things get interesting.

The broadcast began at 2 p.m. starting with the National Anthem sung by Jose Ortega, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist. The Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program is run by Washington National Opera to train up and coming opera professionals.

This year is the third time the Nationals hosted Opera in the Outfield with Washington National Opera. It has become an important community event to foster a passion for opera in the DC area.

“Our free simulcasts are Washington National Opera’s gift to the city and to the public, in great thanks for all their support,” stated Plácido Domingo, now resigning General Director of Washington National Opera.

The event was a joint effort by both Washington National Opera and Nationals Stadium in a unique fuse between opera and baseball, two things that might seem as unrelated hamburgers and hairballs. However, Crafitz offered a parallel between the two, sgtating that, “Opera is kind of like baseball because it is a team effort.”

The sound of opera resounded throughout the surrounding blocks of the stadium drawing people in. Guests to the stadium drug pillows, blankets, and even bean bag chairs onto the field, laying out picnics and food from the concession stands. Children of all ages, and even at times their parents, danced around the field to the music and swung imaginary bats as two very different pastimes came together. Even the Nationals mascot Screech walked around the field in a mask for “The Masked Ball” before the broadcast, shaking hands with children.

This fusion became more apparent when during the curtain call, conductor Daniele Callegari and the opera singers sported Washington Nationals ball caps. The crowd at both the Kennedy Center, from where the opera was being broadcast, and the crowd at Nationals Stadium cheered loudly. It was not just a great day for opera, but a great day for a community to come together.

“Thank you for allowing us not only to be a business partner, but a community partner,” said Frank Casaine, manager for skyline Target in Falls Church, one of the event sponsors. “We hope to foster a greater appreciation for the arts and a stronger community.”

The second intermission was dedicated to the mix of opera and baseball and was titled, “Seventh Aria Stretch.” During that time the award was given to Gale Martin for the “Take Me Out the Opera” songwriting contest, a contest wherein participants wrote new lyrics for the tune “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

The Washington National Opera hopes that this event will inspire the next generation to appreciate opera beyond a spectacular afternoon in Nationals Stadium. In order to foster a generational appreciation, they have begun offering a service, Generation O, which provides discounted tickets to student and young professionals ages 18 to 35.

“Oklahoma!” a Historical Perspective


 

-The 60 year old Arena Stage and its Artistic Director Molly Smith have recently opened the doors to its architecturally majestic new Mead Center for American Theater to rave reviews with a revival of the great American classic, Rodger‘s and Hammersteins‘s “Oklahoma!” This has prompted my look back to the inception of an important milestone in the history and development of the American theater.

Opening night was March 31, 1943 at the St. James Theater on 44th St. It had been only 16 months since the attack on Pearl Harbor. The curtain opened to a simple scene of the American western frontier. The theater was not sold out. Success was not assured.

“Oklahoma!” was Richard Rodgers’ first collaboration without his long time partner, lyricist Lorenz (Larry) Hart. The prolific team of Rodgers and Hart had lasted a quarter of a century, giving birth to some of America’s greatest songs. But Hart was a chronic alcoholic and lately had become more difficult to work with. He would mysteriously disappear for long stretches. Hart’s lyrics for their last collaboration, “By Jupiter,” were written while he was drying out in a hospital room. His health was deteriorating. In less than a year, Larry Hart would be dead from pneumonia at the age of 48.

The initial concept for the show “Oklahoma!” came from Theresa Helburn, a co-director and founder of the Theater Guild, which was suffering financially at the time. She had known and admired Richard Rodgers since 1925, when the Guild produced the first Rodgers and Hart hit show, “The Garrick Gaieties.” The premise for “Oklahoma!” spawned from a 1931 play by Lynn Riggs, “Green Grow the Lilacs,” which had not done very well, running only 62 performances.

The play was set in the area where Riggs was born and raised, the Indian Territory of Oklahoma at the turn of the century. In July of 1940, there was a revival of the play at Westport, Connecticut. After that revival, Helburn began to promote the idea of the play as a musical. Both Rodgers and Hammerstein became interested in the idea separately.

During tryouts, there had been an air of pessimism surrounding the show. Oscar Hammerstein II at the time was at a low point in his career. He had not scored a hit in years. The new team of Rodgers and Hammerstein as a pair was untested and had trouble raising funds to get the production to Broadway. Money was scarce during the war, and few had faith in a musical based on “cowboys and farmhands.” Conventional wisdom held that a show could not be a hit if it had a murder in it. The new team had to economize, and the young cast, though talented, was made up of then relative unknowns that included Alfred Drake and Celeste Holm. Prior to that time, roles in musicals were filled with actors who could sing. Rodgers and Hammerstein operated in reverse, choosing to cast the show with singers who could act. Helburn wanted Groucho Marx for the peddler and Shirley Temple for Laurey, but RH insisted on legitimate Broadway performers.

Agnes De Mille’s choreography was one of the show’s major innovations. But she had a quarrelsome temperament and insisted on hiring dancers for their abilities, not their looks. Powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell had written that noted producer Michael Todd was overheard in the lobby during the New Haven tryout saying, “No legs. No jokes. No Chance.” (What Todd actually said used a different word for “legs” but both Winchell and I have cleaned it up for print.

When the show was trying out in New Haven it was titled “Away We Go.” Hammerstein had originally
wanted to call it “Oklahoma,” but the name was rejected because it was felt that the audience might confuse it with “Oakies” in the Grapes of Wrath. When the show arrived on Broadway, the title was changed back to “Oklahoma!” this time with an exclamation point for emphasis.

Oklahoma’s record run of five years and nine months on Broadway was unbroken until My Fair Lady, opening in 1956, finally broke it in 1961. The original production of Oklahoma ran 2,248 performances,
including over 40 special matinees for people in the armed forces. It played to nearly 5 million people during the original run, and to over 10 million in its first national road tour, which lasted from 1943 to 1954. The London show set another record. ‘Oklahoma!’ brought great financial reward and fame to the new team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. In its first 10 years, it made a profit of $5 million on an initial investment of $83,000. A special Pulitzer Prize was awarded to the new team in 1944. The new partnership would last until Hammerstein’s death in 1960.

What made “Oklahoma!” a success?

The “Broadway musical” was the first major theatrical form developed in the US, but in 1943 it was caught in a stylistic rut. Prior to Oklahoma, most hit shows were essentially vehicles to showcase the talents of its stars. They had little serious to say and there was no need to integrate the songs, dances, comedy routines and the spectacular chorus girl numbers.

Shows were expensive to mount and money was scarce during the Depression, so producers became increasingly conservative and stuck largely to formulas that had driven past successes.

In “Oklahoma!” the musical found a new form. This “integrated musical” marked a revolution in American theater. “Oklahoma!” was the complete synthesis of music, libretto, lyrics, dancing and staging. The show had structure and a sense of dramatic build that until then had been present only in a straight non-musical play. Even the dance numbers became integral to moving the story and developing the characters.
Certainly the great words and music had a lot to do with the success. The score was so popular that it became the first musical to have a complete original cast album by a major label, beginning the trend of recording original cast albums. Decca’s heavy 6 record set sold over 1 million copies in its first year. Later it was one of the first recordings of a musical to be released on CD.

Oscar Hammerstein II has been called the premier poet of the American musical theater. From the beginning, Hammerstein proposed writing the lyrics before the music, allowing him to shape the overall concept of the musical. For Rodgers, this was in the reverse order from the way he had worked with Larry Hart. But Rodgers’ mastery of the genre is illustrated by this short anecdote: It had taken Oscar Hammerstein three weeks to write the lyric to “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” As the story goes, he took it to Rodgers, who was then at his home in Connecticut. To his amazement, it took Rodgers only ten minutes to write the music. Rodgers said it was almost a reflex. His musical thoughts were so conditioned by the words that it took about “as long to compose it as to play it.” It became one of the most famous of Rodgers’ songs. Julie Styne, one of the great American Songwriters, wrote, “No one ever wrote a piece of music to already written words better than Rodgers. He always made it sound as though the music was composed first.”

The time and the mood of the country were also contributing factors to the success of “Oklahoma!” The show hit a nostalgic chord with audiences just out of the Depression and into World War II. The show was a favorite date for servicemen on leave. In 1943, when the show opened, Oklahoma the state was only 36 years old. It reminded many of their pioneer past, of immigrants struggling to put down roots in a new world. America suddenly found itself at war with three fascist powers and its people longed to believe in a brighter future. “Oklahoma!” was about home, family, love, and the triumph of good over evil—precisely what Americans were fighting for.

You can enjoy “Oklahoma!” directed by Molly Smith, now thru December 26, 2010 at the Arena Stage www.arenastage.com

Aquarius Reawakened: “Hair” at the Kennedy Center


Remember those old, tinted granny glasses worn by hippies in the sixties, along with their bellbottoms, fringed jackets, tie-dyed blouses and long hair or afros? You don’t?

That will help. Or not.

Context isn’t everything when you go see the touring company of the hit revival of “Hair,” as it makes its first stop at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, but it plays a part as to how the show will affect you.

“Hair,” the revolutionary Broadway musical which exploded like a powerful, bracing dose of a very new kind of cultural aftershave in 1968—a year when the world spun on its axis—will seem different to audience members who were in their twenties in the sixties, or who just turned 21 last week and celebrated with a Facebook announcement.

It’s strange watching “Hair,” which is so much of its own time in the here and now. It’s the Age of Aquarius, touching down in Washington days before what liberal spirits see as the beginning of the Age of Armageddon.

The sheer energy of the cast, a kind of boisterous insistence that what they feel, do and think matters like nothing else in the universe, makes this production of “Hair,” which was revived on Broadway with major success last year, an overwhelming experience no matter who you are.

Its been over forty years, but this bunch looks at times as if they just jumped off a particularly gaudy spaceship, spreading joy, free love, reefers, two-fingered peace and love and other goodies. This way the show seems almost new, as if shot out of a cannon.

If you’re a baby boomer, you’re likely to get a contact high, a strong rush of memory. If you’re not…well, it will bowl you over anyway, with its sheer physicality, its loud pop music that really
pops, strung with aching guitar riffs and the faint odor of pot and pop, so familiar are some of the tunes.

You’ll also admire the winning ways of the big cast—each and every single one of them. As in the past, the cast often swarms over the audience like bees, rushing out, chit-chatting, whispering,
jumping, singing, standing on seats, waving flags, whispering in your ears, rushing down the aisles. They’re like gonzo pied pipers.

“Hair” was shocking and political for its time, a non-stop entertainment train that pulled you along or got in your face. For every power ballad like “Easy to Be Hard,” or sweet optimistic song like “Good Morning Star Shine,” or surging anthem like “Aquarius,” there are the recitation songs about the sufferings of the environment (“Welcome, Carbon Monoxide”) or the recitation of every sexual act known to man, woman or anyone else. There are still the queasy hundred or so words that get substituted for African American, most of which were not in use until then.

There’s a thin plot, involving the sweet Claude who’s become draft eligible to be cannon fodder for Viet Nam. Mostly there’s characters: the exuberantly charismatic Berger; Claude, who has left his Staten Island home and pretends to be from Manchester, England; the torn Sheila who loves the commitment-shy Berger; the very gay Woof who insists he’s not; the very pregnant Jeanie, who doesn’t know who the father is.

They’re all part of the tribe: free and freedom loving hippies of the kind that enthralled and appalled America for part of the late 1960s—especially in 1968, the year of assassinations, war, political and cultural upheaval in extremis.

The “Hair” tribe hangs out in various open spaces in New York. They demonstrate at the draft office, burn their draft cards, exult in hair, and levitate on love and peace.

Dominating the cast is Steel Burkhart as the overpowering Berger who reeks of charisma—a guy whose preferred drug has to be speed, because he’s barely ever still. He’s a sack of hugs and hands on others and himself. He’s the anarchistic spirit of the tribe. Paris Remillard’s Claude, with a little help from the eternally optimistic Jeanie (Kacie Sheik), is the tribe’s most cherished innocent soul. And Sheila, played by the soulful Caren Lynn Tackett, is the tribe’s conscience.

But really, it’s the collective whole that counts. They come running. A blue-jeaned, butterfly-tattooed blonde girl shaking her long hair. Hud and his black compatriots prouding their Afros. The music overwhelming with the exuberant “Hair,” or “Let the Sun Shine In.” Berger crowing “I’ve Got Life” (and then some). The Tribe stripping demurely to the barely nude. They seem at turns like last Friday or a group from a galaxy far far away, revisiting. What a trip. And worth the trip.

“Hair” runs at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through November 21.

Jewish Literary Festival Approaching


The 12th Annual Hyman S. & Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival will run from October 17 to the 27 throughout DC, and as always it promises to highlight the year’s finest Jewish literature and authors. Many of these emerging and established writers earned accolades from The Washington Post and The New York Times. Their selected works span an assortment of genres, including history, humor, politics, and children’s fiction.

The festival opens at the Washington DCJCC, on October 17 at 7:30pm, with a staging of “Strangers in a Strange Land,” directed by Derek Goldman. The performance highlights this year’s overarching theme: the Jewish Diaspora.

Another event sure to attract a diverse audience will be the film screening of “Sayed Kashua: Forever Scared,” on October 18 at 7:30pm. In it Kashua, an award-winning author and screenwriter, reflects upon the everyday challenge of being both Arab and Jewish.

Closing night, October 27 at 7:30pm, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein will discuss the problems of living rationally when religious impulses fill the world around us with Ron Charles, Senior Editor of The Washington Post’s “Book World”. Critics agree, Goldstein’s recent novel “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction” is quite a read.

Plenty of other authors will be featured daily, over the course of the festival. For information on obtaining a festival pass, ticket prices, locations, and times visit www.washingtondcjcc.org/litfest or call (202)777-3251. Join the Washington DCJCC in perpetuating Jewish identity while bolstering DC’s bond with its Jewish community.

Talkin’ “Hair” in the 21st Century


 

-Up close, the guys who play the lead roles of Berger and Claude in the dynamic revival of “Hair,” now at the Kennedy Center through November 21, look very much like a couple of contemporary young men: relaxed, casually attractive, youthful males of the 21st Century. Mind you, their phone doesn’t go off and they’re not carrying a laptop, but they could pass.

But they’re a couple of something else’s too. Their names, look, and reason for being here identify them beyond doubt as members of the theater and performance tribe. Still, they’re also in another tribe: the large group of young actors, singers, dancers, performers who bring the emblematic musical of the hippie generation alive with such authenticity that you can’t miss getting a contact high.

Both have names that sound perfect for the theater, B movies, opera or a biker gang. And we’re talking about their real names: Steel Burkhardt, he of the thick, longish, deep black hair who plays the rowdy, can’t-tie-me-down leader of the “Hair” tribe, and Paris Remillard, who plays the sweet, doomed Claude.

21st century guys they are—guys who weren’t even born when “Hair” splashed onto Broadway and stages around the country, revolutionizing yet again the musical theater form and signaling the mainstream arrival of hippies, Aquarians, and the antiestablishment, disaffected, rock-and-rolling, dope-smoking, free-loving, biracial and multi-ethnic generation of young people.

Burkhardt and Remillard are members in good standing of the generation to whom the Internet, Facebook and texting are second nature.

“Sure, it’s very different, but I think most of us have gotten into the show and the characters,” Burkhardt, who was a serious music student at Baldwin Wallace in Ohio, said. “I think sometimes you get more affinity for how they lived than how we live. They had to connect to each other. They didn’t send e-mails, they didn’t hide, and they were out there.”

“You have to have a lot of sympathy for Claude,” Remillard said. “I don’t have any problem understanding him or the rest of the tribe. They lived in a different time, but they’re pretty real to me. And the music is pretty cool.”

Both of them auditioned to be a part of the show, started in the background, and moved on up, eventually garnering the main roles for the tour. “This is about family,” Burkhardt said. “We all share in it. On the road, that’s what we are: family. A big family.”

Both of them understand the dilemma and the urges of their characters. “This was Viet Nam,” Remillard said. “Guys were having to deal with getting drafted, going to Viet Nam, getting killed. They didn’t have a choice. We don’t have a draft today, so I don’t think a lot of guys our age or younger understand what’s involved in something like that.”

“My dad was a marine,” Remillard said. “He understands. And my parents really support me in this. My dad doesn’t necessarily have knee-jerk reactions to things. He said that if there were a draft and I had gotten drafted, he would have helped me get to Canada.”

The two are obvious friends and have an easy banter between each other. Listen to them talk about music, about the special feeling that exists with each and every performance. “I don’t think my folks were part of all that,” Burkhardt said. “But I think they’re sort of hippie wannabees.”

“Do I ever get bored?” Burkhardt says. “Are you kidding me? There’s no way. Every night is like a fresh start, new audience, and new atmosphere. And we get out there a lot, you know, we interact, and it’s pretty spontaneous. You never know what kind of reaction you’re going to get. And then there’s the stuff at the end of the show when people can go on the stage and join in. I’m always surprised how many people do, and how exciting that is. I don’t know, it’s a celebration. And when I get face-to-face with people in the audience, it’s always different.”

Burkhardt is easily the charisma guy of the bunch with his energy, his looks, that bad boy rep of the character. You’d think he gets a lot of attention from fans. “Naw,” he says. “Not at the moment.”

Remillard laughs. “He gets a lot of attention,” he says

There is also the tradition of the show that cast members—some, most, sometimes all—get naked near the conclusion of the first act. “Nobody has to do it,” Remillard said.

“Yeah,” Burkhardt said, “but when we first joined the cast, it was at Lincoln Center and it was supposed to be a limited run, and finally I thought, what the hell, I may never get the chance to do it, so I did it and you know, it was kinda fun. It’s liberating.”

They’ve toured England, and new and local cast members joined the cast, and everybody’s betting when they get naked. And they proceeded to talk about Irish and Scottish male and female performers in a sweetly crass way.

Remillard doesn’t have long hair—he looks a distance from being a hippie—but he has an affinity for Claude and the tribe. “You know, it’s not that far removed. We live differently. We don’t have that kind of personal contact that the people in the show do.”

There’s a bit on YouTube if you Google their names—it’s an informal rendition with audience by the two of them in street clothes, singing “Hair.” They jump, they dance, they run, they shake their HAIR! Like crazy people full of glee, goofin’ but stirring nonetheless.

Glee. There’s a thought. The music of Hair, starring two 21st century guys named Paris and Stone doing Claude and Berger.

Ravi Coltrane On Jazz, Legend and Progression


 

-One thing you can say about jazz, even if you don’t know a heck of a lot about jazz: it’s not static.

“You have to move on and keep on becoming who you are as a person, as a musician, and in terms of the kind of music you’re playing,” says Ravi Coltrane, the highly regarded saxophonist who comes with his quartet to the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in downtown Washington, November 20 at 8 p.m.

Coltrane knows a little something about that, which is why he’s been steadily carving out his own sound, his own music. Most recently, he’s signed on with Blue Note Records, with an album coming out next year, a legendary label that celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. To further the connection, in 2008 he became a part of The Blue Not 7, a septet formed specifically for the anniversary celebration.

Lots of lines—personal, musical, and legend, crisscross the life of tenor and soprano sax player Ravi Coltrane.

He has a pretty clear idea of who he is, and isn’t. “I’m not my dad,” he said. “I appreciate and revere my father’s work, but you have to carve your own image, your own style. And sure, there are influences. But I don’t think I came to this because I’m my father’s son.”

He’ll tell you that he didn’t start out being interested in jazz. “I played the flute in school, I was in the band,” he said. “And initially, I was interested in composing film scores, that kind of thing. So I did not come to jazz out of the chute, so to speak.”

And yet, lineage, legend, and the naming of names, working out a kind of apprenticeship in an age where jazz has changed tremendously, play out in a man’s life.

Coltrane, now in his 40s, is, after all, the son of the jazz giant John Coltrane, who also played tenor and soprano saxophone. And the saxophone itself is the instrument of choice of the some of the most dramatic tortured genius-types in jazz history, most prominently Charlie Parker, the late and lamented king of improvisational jazz—the often lyrical free-flying “Bird”.

“I was two when my father died,” Coltrane said. “It’s not like he figures so strongly in personal memory. The difficulty becomes in being your own man while loving my dad’s music. No doubt it’s had some effect.”

The saxophone first appeared in his life as a Christmas gift. It wasn’t exactly a hint, but there it was, and eventually he took it up. “I don’t think it was something that was meant to push me into a certain direction,” he said. For him, it was like finding money in the road. You can pick it up, but you choose how you use it and spend it.

If you look at his bio, the story begins in 1991. His active jazz career begins at age 26, a late start by some standards. But when you’re the son of a legend whose memory is still strong, and whose music is still around, and when you have a mother equally gifted and legendary—the great jazz pianist Alice Coltrane—and when you’re named after Ravi Shankar, the influential Indian Sitar player, there are no doubt some pressures to find your own way.

He did it by paying his dues, playing as a sideman with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Barron, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, Branford Marsalis, Geri Allen and others. By 1997, he was ready to go on his own, recording his first album, “Moving Pictures.” He built several groups, but since 2005 he has worked with is quartet, with bassist Drew Gress, pianist Luis Perdomo and drummer E.J. Strickland.

A 2005 concert trip to India to raise HIV awareness seemed almost a homecoming. He eventually met his namesake.

“Jazz has changed,” he says. “The audience is bigger, but also more diverse. There are all kinds of new influences, from Latin to Asian, and jazz has really spread. But the result has been that there are not quite the dominating, influential figures like Monk, Miles, Satchmo, Parker and so on. It’s a whole new world in some ways.”

He’s part of the vanguard of that new world, not the old guard, in spite of all the history that trails behind him, always evolving, moving on ahead, playing his music, expanding its horizons, improvising and energizing.

Arena Opens Up


 

-That mother-ship construction project people have been noting at the site of the old Arena Stage near the Southwest waterfront is finally set to open its pearly gates to the public. After two and a half years of construction, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater will have a ribbon cutting ceremony and Homecoming Grand Opening Celebration on Saturday, October 23, lasting almost all day long from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Arena will showcase the celebration at the Mead Center with performances and activities staged in multiple venues. Live theatrical performances, children’s activities and other events will occur in the Fichandler Stage, the Kreeger Theater and the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle as well as an outdoor stage, a rehearsal hall, the lobby and a classroom.

The celebration will also showcase the Mead’s café, operated by Jose Andres Catering along with Ridgewell’s.

Be on the look for these offerings: slam poetry, the “Glee” Battle of the choirs, jazz bands and a performance by the cast of “Oklahoma,” the musical slated to kick off the new season. Tickets are free but are require for the events. Tickets will be available exclusively online beginning October 8. They may be reserved at www.arenastage.org.

There will also be a Gala Celebration held on October 25th to commemorate the inaugural season. As indicated, the season kicks off with Molly Smith’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” on October 22nd.

‘VelocityDC Dance’ Returns


After a sold out run of performances last fall, the VelocityDC Dance Festival is coming back for a second season. This vibrant performance experience presented by the Washington dance community will hopefully continue to be a seasonal offering in the DC Area.

Representing an exciting direction in dance presentation and audience development for the DC area, VelocityDC began as the first large-scale collaboration between DC dance leaders. The event was designed to showcase and promote the exceptional artistic quality of the area’s dance community, modeled very similarly to New York City’s supremely successful Fall for Dance Festival. The festival features site-specific performances throughout the Washington community as well as instructional public dance classes at THEARC.

VelocityDC is organized by a consortium of local movement and dance-centric arts entities, among them the Washington Performing Arts Society and the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Featured among the performances this season will be Jane Franklin Dance Company, Liz Lerman
Dance Exchange, CityDance Ensemble, Furia Flamenco, and the Washington Ballet. Performances run October 7-9. [gallery ids="99205,103441,103439" nav="thumbs"]

Ken Ludwig Returns the Love


 

-The eminently successful playwright Ken Ludwig insists that no one has ever called him a dinosaur.

“My kids maybe sometimes,” he said. “But as far as I remember, no one has said that to my face or in print.”

Well, there’s always a first time. Ken Ludwig is something of a dinosaur. And I mean that entirely
as a compliment.

In the theater world, Ludwig is like one of these environmentalists that runs all over the world trying to save species of animals from extinction.

In Ludwig’s case, he’s almost single-handedly kept alive such genres as the pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, stage adaptations of young people’s literature, plays that can be called farce, star-studded (or not) comedies about theater, movie and show business folk, and the oft-remembered but rarely sighted “well-made play.”

I don’t mean to suggest now that he’s re-staged, produced or mounted new productions of old plays—otherwise known as revivals—no sir. He has written well over a dozen plays that are basically examples of all of these genres, as authored not by George Kaufman, Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse,
or anybody else you can name now tap dancing in show biz heaven, but by himself.

“I’m not a dinosaur,” he said. “I don’t see myself that way, let’s put it that way. I write and create plays that are in the form or genre of plays that I’ve loved, or forms of entertainment that I love. Most of them are comedies, which are, as you know, are serious business.”

Example one, and the latest: the world premiere of “A Fox on the Fairway,” now at the Signature Theater in Shirlington through November 14. It’s a comedy—farcical, no doubt—about golf.

“Specifically, it’s about two American country clubs and some of its members competing for an annual trophy,” Ludwig said. “From there, you can just imagine.”

Now think for a moment, who made a literary sideline of writing wry comedic books and stories
about golf, besides American sportswriter Dan Jenkins?

It’s none other than the great comedic British stylist P.G. Wodehouse, the man who gave the world “Jeeves,” the impeccable, perfect literary butler.

“Exactly,” Ludwig said. “I love comedy, and Wodehouse is an example of a certain kind of style of writing comedy. Writing comedy in book form is terrifically hard. So is writing comedy for the stage. To my mind, it’s the most difficult art form in literature because, first and foremost you have to make people laugh—out loud, preferably—chuckle, smile. In the theater, you don’t want silence during a comedy. It’s a kind of homage to Wodehouse, yes, but it’s very American also.

“I loved Wodehouse. I loved his golf stories. I loved Jeeves. I love J.B. Priestley, whose writing
has a little more edge. They’re both great stylists.”

So ‘A Fox on the Fairway,’ you can be sure, is going to be funny. “We heard good things during performances for preview audiences,” Ludwig said.

There are other things Ludwig loves—besides his family. He loves old movies, you guess. He loves show tunes and the great composers of the American songbook like George Gershwin and Cole Porter. He loves comedy. He loves classic and popular literature and stories, like those by Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson. He loves show biz people, of which clan he is now a certifiable and certified member.

He says what he tries to do with his plays is to look at them in a fresh way, to make them come alive for contemporary audiences. That’s probably true, but there is a greater force at work here. Put simply: it is love.

Ludwig brings a first-love quality to his work, the boyhood crush you never get over, the grateful
love for whomever gave you that first kiss that was really stupefying, the first movie you ever saw that made an indelible impression, the love you still feel for all the lyrics you can’t get out of your head like “Summertime,” “Porgy” or any Gershwin and Porter tune, the love you feel for the great clowns and their pratfalls and that moment during a comedy when there are three people hiding in closets and three people coming through the door.

All of this stuff sounds old fashioned—dinosaur-like if you will—except for one thing: it works for him and for us. He doesn’t do revivals, but his own plays are continually being revived and performed on Broadway (“Lend Me a Tenor” most recently) and in just about every regional and local theater in the country and around the world.

Consider that his very first produced play, the aforementioned “Lend Me a Tenor,” is a side-splitting comedy about the world of opera and was produced by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber, a gentleman with a fairly decent show biz track record who once wrote a musical called “Jeeves.” Or consider “Crazy for You”, the 1990s musical that he wrote in the mode of Gershwin’s original musical which won a Tony for him (He also pulled off a similar epic with a production of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”). Consider the stage versions of “Treasure Island” and “Tom Sawyer” and “The Three Musketeers,” geared toward young audiences and the family trade. Consider one of my personal favorites, that of “Shakespeare in Hollywood,” a grand, affectionate comedy about the making of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Warner Brothers Studio in 1930s Hollywood. Consider “Moon over Buffalo,” already revived and an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “The Beaux’ Stratagem” or “Leading Ladies.”

Now take a look at Ludwig’s website and check out where Ludwig plays are, or have been playing. Why, they are just about everywhere: Aurora, Ohio, Broadway, the Crested Butte Mountain Theater, The Minstrel Players, the Villainous University Theater, the Scarborough Theater in Ontario, Canada, “Moon Over Buffalo” in Moldova, The Three Musketeers, in London, “Crazy for You” in Melbourne.

High-minded critics haven’t always been crazy for Ludwig. But theatergoers have. Those plays live on, in much the same way that the forms, writers and shows that Ludwig loves so much live on in his mind. In a way, he’s returning a favor of happiness found, happiness returned.

“As somebody said: tragedy is easy, comedy is hard,” Ludwig said. Actors like Barry Nelson, Hal Holbrook, Carol Burnett, Joan Collins and the late Dixie Carter have shown that.

Not bad for a guy who’s also a certified lawyer and graduate of Harvard Law School, family man, husband to wife Adrienne (also a lawyer), and father of Olivia and Jack, resident not of Hollywood or New York, but of Northwest Washington. And he just keeps on rolling because, well, the game’s afoot. Oh wait, that’s the title of his next play (subtitled “Holmes for the Holiday”) about William Gillette, the great actor who made a career of playing Sherlock Holmes on stage.

Prodding the Masses: Mike Daisey at Woolly Mammoth


It’s hard to pin Mike Daisey down. You’d kind of like to know what he is – is he an actor, a monologist, a comedian, a one-man show, a writer, husband, radical, political and social critic? Is he a guy who sweats a lot on stage, a provocateur, a really interesting guy to interview or shoot the breeze with?

All true, but you’d still be missing a few things. He’s not lacking for fans—the New York Times has called him nothing less than “one of the finest solo performers of his generation.” But on the other hand, a Christian group walked out on one of his performances earlier in his career (though that may be taken as a compliment).

On his website, which he calls “His Secret Fortress on the Web,” he calls himself, “actor, author, commentator, playwright and general layabout.” I suspect most of that is true too, although you may have to talk to this wife to verify the latter.

And he’s back in town, back at the nearest thing to an ideal home he might have in Washington, the Woolly Mammoth Theater. And he brings with him his latest one-man production, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” a title that resonates on so many levels that it’s almost not funny. As always, the piece is about a Mike Daisey obsession. This is not so unusual; Daisey admits that he tends to obsess about things.

“I am, and always have been obsessed with Apple, everything about Apple, about Jobs, about the things we use every day, about iPad, and the iPhone. I grew up with everything we use today, like a natural progression,” he said.

Beware of what he says. I don’t mean to suggest that Daisey is not truthful, because he is painfully so. It’s just that most things he does, says, writes about and performs about on stage are so layered and crosswired as to defy any sort of coherent and sane description. The ability to connect and pull together, not always in a perfect fit, is a special gift of Daisey’s.

On stage—and I’ve only had the discomfiting pleasure once—he roils you up and carries you along with him like a runaway horse. He gets in your face and reconstructs your thinking a little. He makes you think, and it feels sometimes like he’s writing a novel right in front of you. At least that was my experience upon seeing “The Last Cargo Cult,” his last presentation at the Woolly.

On the phone, Daisey is pretty casual once you get going; he comes across as a very serious guy who can talk about big things in an off-handed way, as if just considering the implications of what he’s saying.

He is not, per se, an actor, although he was trained and educated in the academics of theater and performance. Nor is he a stand-up comic—he’s sitting down, sweating on stage—although almost casually he can be very funny

“The Agony and the Ecstasy” involves a portrait of Jobs, who with Bill Gates comprise the dynamic duo—opposites of sorts—who changed our whole way of living through technology. The two are to blame, can take the praise for and generally be damned and worshipped for all the little buzz-buzz things in our lives—the phone we carry, the computer we marry, the operating systems that run us, the apps we gotta have, all those things we plug into and flip open that are like breathing to us now.

And Daisey loved it—the Apple version—but then he embarked, as he often does with his projects, on a journey (this time to China) where he discovered that most of what Apple creates and manufactures comes at the cost of deplorable labor conditions. And it didn’t take long for him to see a terrible light, which became a monologue, which was workshopped, changed, troubled over and agonized over for over a year. And here we are now. I won’t say more because I haven’t seen it yet.

But here’s this up front. I Loved “Cargo Cult” as did a lot of people and critics in Washington. It was practically unanimous. It was a riff on a journey to the Pacific where he found islanders still worshipping and celebrating American “stuff,” crates of stuff left behind that symbolized the great American God of commerce. And from that he extrapolated a scathing explanation and description of America’s financial collapse from which we still reel. Not bad for a general layabout.

“I like to connect things,” he said. “It’s work, really hard work, exciting work. See, I don’t think we see how we live, what affects us, how things are connected. I want to challenge the public, the audience out there. I’m not out to really entertain, I’m not out to sweet-talk people. I don’t’ want to make people feel good. ”

On stage, Daisey is a hard charger and a water-drinker. He looks a little like the local actor Michael Willis, and others have compared him to Sam Kinniston, the blaringly loud stand-up comedian and social critic who died young. “I’m a big fan of his,” he said. “But no, that’s not me. I understand the anger though.”

A list of titles might give you a glimpse of where he’s coming from: “21 Dog Years,” his jump into notoriety and fame; “Tongues Will Wag”; “The Envoy’s Dilemna,” about a visit to Tajikistan; “Barring the Unforeseen”; “If You See Something Say Something,” the secret history of the Department of Homeland Security; “All Stories are Fiction”; and the very controversial “How Theater Failed America,” in which he contends that the regional theater powers that be have failed its workers, its actors and its audiences by focusing on subscriptions and building bigger and bigger stages, themes that resonated not always with agreement here and elsewhere.

“Well, it’s true,” he said. “I think as a result we’re shrinking audiences. We don’t take care of actors, for instance. We bring in people from the outside, there’s very little left of repertoire theater. People, truly gifted people, can’t afford to stay in the business.”

Daisey works with his wife Jean-Michele Gregory, who has been his director for the last decade, as well as editor and dramaturg. But it’s Daisey who’s the out-front guy, not she. I asked him if that ever creates tensions.

“Yeah, I suppose. Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I suppose it does. But you know, this relationship, I can’t think of anybody that has anything like this. The work slips over into the marriage, and the marriage slips into the work. It’s really, really intense. And I think and believe that this helps make our marriage strong and makes the work better. It’s an intimate process, you know. I mean we do everything together, we eat and sleep together, and we work together.”

Daisey, who is a lone provocateur on stage and in print, seems at times like a jilted lover. Two of the things he loves the most in his world—tech and theater—he has now taken on in tree shaking, thought provoking pieces that make you look differently at them.

If critics see him as a rebel, audiences are often stunned by his work. He is in an odd sort of limbo: his work is cutting edge, designed to provoke, make the powers that be tremble a little, and yet he’s a bit of a celebrity too, often written about, talked about and talked with. It’s a dangerous artistic world in some ways, like being the brazen filmmaker Michael Moore, to whom he’s sometimes compared.

If the New York Times rhapsodizes about him, lesser known folks like the Bugwalk blogger, upon seeing “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” said, “I left the theater in tears vowing to buy no electronic device that I don’t’ truly need, though there is no such thing as living a life that does not include increasing the misery of a thirteen-year-old Chinese girl. It cannot be done.”

Daisey probably cares about what others thing. He likely appreciates praise and worries about criticism. Or maybe not. None of the hoopla—which he seems to enjoy—will deter him. Take, for instance, his next little project.

It’s a monologue called “All the Hours in the Day.” And you guessed it: it’s a 24-hour performance that “charts the epic story of America’s essential character as a weaving together of Puritanism and anarchism.”

Shy he is not.

“All the Hours in the Day” will be performed at the Time Based Art Festival in Portland and the Under the Radar Festival in New York. “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” runs through April 10, and has already been extended through April 17.

For more information visit WoollyMammoth.net