“An Ideal Husband” makes good on the work; flaws may be in Wilde himself

July 26, 2011

The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” has a lot going for it. It is stylishly staged, practically overpowering you with its visual gorgeousness both in sets and apparel. It’s also wonderfully acted by a cast of fresh young actors among the principal performers, buoyed by the presence of a trio of locals who perform fuss-budgets, grouchy fathers and man-servants better than just about anybody.

But in the end, ‘An Ideal Husband” is not…well, ideal. It’s missing something. It’s like a big vat of champagne that’s gone flat. Maybe the fault is not in the stars, but in Wilde himself. “An Ideal Husband”—which hit the public eye on the heels of the “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and just around the time when Wilde was about to take a scandalous and disastrous tumble—is full of Wildean social comedy that doesn’t pop nearly enough and too much high-minded tussles with moral issues and continuous retracing of exposition and plot.

But here’s what this production does do, in addition to dazzling the eye. In Washington, where scandal and matters of morality and probity are much talked about but not so much observed in practice, the main plot line and the main character are familiar as the last firing of a chief of staff, the last bit of cash flushed town a toilet, the last thunderous call to end ear-marks.

But it isn’t funny enough. Wilde usually dealt with hypocrisy, Victorian society’s self-infatuation and obsessions with titles, money and lineage. He played on his culture’s gigantic addiction to living life on the surface around Hyde Park with knowing, devastating, slashing metaphors and ready-to-go aphorisms. It still rains epigrams in “An Ideal Husband,” but they’re more like snowflakes than stinging rain.

Sir Robert Children is the play’s ideal husband in question, a rising figure in the British Empire’s foreign office. He is handsome, wealthy, and with a beautiful wife of such moral probity as to make Caesar’s wife look like a strumpet. Together they are the perfect Victorian power couple, childless but with reputations unstained by as much as a whisper of scandal, a late bill, a flirtation or a hair out of place.

In their firmament, beautifully displayed in a grand staircase with a circular mirror, there is a social order where everyone knows their place, including husbands and wives, gossip is rife, and small talk is so small you need a magnifying class to muddle through it.

One fine evening dinner at the Children estate, as butlers announce arrivals, up comes one Mrs. Cheverley, and you know she’s trouble because she arches her eyebrows with cynical disdain and is wearing a fetching, eye catching purple dress while everyone else seems to be attending a black-and-white (and very gray) ball.

Mrs. Cheverley is here to derail Sir Robert’s unblemished reputation because she knows that his fortune is built on a bit of insider trading on information he was privy to as a foreign service official. Such news of course would devastate his wife, who thinks he is, well, an ideal husband, not to mention his career and future. Whatever will he do?

Well, he has help in the character of Lord Goring, the seemingly fitful, lazy, lay-about son of the Earl of Chaversham (David Sabin, wonderfully harrumphing his way through a series of disapproving fits). Goring, played with playful elan by Cameron Folmar, is a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel of the social set. He is frivolous as a feather on the outside, while kind, faithful, brave and loyal on the inside. He’s had some dealings with Mrs. Cheverley and means to prevent her plot from succeeding.

But the fizz isn’t quite there—with some exceptionally fussy acting by Nancy Robinette as Lady Markby, and Floyd King’s amazingly varied ways of saying “Yes, My Lord.” There’s a gloomy atmosphere here in Gregory Woodell’s portrayal of Children, mortified that his secret is out, wrestling with shame, gloom and doom. He gives you a clear picture of a tortured man caught up in something like that, revealing him to be what he thinks is a fake. In Washington, a play like this echoes loudly.

And then there’s Mrs. Cheverley; Emily Raymond plays her haughty, alluringly even, but not with a sense of purpose other than to be without mercy. Or is she? Women like her usually have a secret that they keep for some time, and the consternation they cause arises from confusion about sex and virtue, not so much the less interesting follow-the-money theme.

That sexy stuff is missing here, because it isn’t there to begin with. This is a comedy about morals and probity, stuffed evening gowns and overwrought virtues. Director Keith Baxter tweaks the material wonderfully, to include a murky ending of sorts, but you miss the rolls of knowing laughter ever after.

FIlmfest DC turns 25

Filmfest DC Director Tony Gittens, sipping a coffee at Tryst, the local Adams Morgan coffee house, could look around him and know how much had changed since the first festival.

This is the 25th anniversary for Filmfest DC, which opened April 7 and closes April 17 at locations and venues throughout the city, and it’s also the same for Gittens, the festival’s first and only director over the years.

At Tryst, there are smartphones, laptops and iPads open everywhere, all of them potential venues for international films of all kinds.

“There wasn’t any of that back then. No downloading anything from or to your phone, no computer libraries of films, no Netflix,” he said. “Basically, there were theaters, and Cannes, and repertoire theaters which showed old movies, new and smaller films that weren’t made in Hollywood [they weren’t called independent films back then], and theaters specializing in festival fare, like the Circle Theaters, the Avalon, the Biograph and the Key Theater.”

“Actually, there were no festivals here,” Gittens said. “We were the first.”

He looked around at the laptops and the people glued to their screens, probably wondering if anybody was watching a movie.

“We didn’t have all these new delivery systems and ways of looking at films,” he said. “There was no digital film, no Internet, no Youtube, nothing like that. Sundance didn’t exist as a major marketplace for independent films.”

The DC International Film Festival was a pathfinder and trailblazer for other festivals to come, a booming DC festival atmosphere that’s now taken for granted. We’ve got the Environmental Film Festival, the Independent Film Festival, the Documentary Film Festival, the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, festivals for short films, children’s film, the Jewish Film Festivals and all kinds of niche festivals.

The tech explosion has affected the film industry in no uncertain terms, dictating a Hollywood aversion to serious films and a drift toward big-budget items for adolescent boys—the so-called youth market. That’s why you have so many movies based on comic book characters like Batman, Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. That’s also why you haves a surge in cartoons and a resurgence of high-tech 3-D movies.

None of those things are part of film festivals, which, because of their diversity for every niche and special interest, become a kind of clearing house, the places and occasions that form a kind of venue all by itself. Festivals are the venues where you can see movies from France, Afghanistan, Iran, Japan and India. A festival is where you can see the results of the restive imaginations of young American and international directors. A festival (and the occasional E-Street Cinema) is where you can see documentaries with a political and social edge. They won’t be at the mall where transformers, pirates and superheroes rule.

Gittens put it this way, writing about his festival: “Filmfest DC has always been willing to bring films not only from Western Europe but from Eastern Europe, Latina America, Africa and Asia with little concern for a film’s long-term commercial prospects. The only criteria in place were that the film be intelligent, thought provoking, well made and entertaining. Without Filmfest DC, the thousands of films the festival has brought to our city would never have been seen.”

Although sometimes criticized in the media, the festival has in fact been innovative in its approach to films, with focuses on international music, documentaries, special regions of the world, celebrations of directors and film movements. These have included “Justice Matters,” a unique section of films focusing on social justice issues, and “Global Rhythms.”

The international focus in this year’s festival is on Scandinavia with “Nordic Lights: The Old and the New” and New South Korean Cinema.

As always, the venues are varied and spread out all over the city. This year, they include AMC Mazza Gallerie, the Avalon Theatre, the Goethe-Institute of Washington, Landmark’s E Street Cinema, Regal Cinemas Gallery Place, Busboys and Poets, the Embassy of France, the Lincoln Theatre and the National Gallery of Art’s East Building.

In the distant past (the 1950s-1960), when people talked about film festivals they meant Cannes and maybe Venice and Berlin. But not the United States. That’s certainly changed with Sundance and, yes, the DC International Film Festival.

We talked a lot about foreign films, when you could still see foreign films in the United States at the small theaters that carried them. Today, festivals are the scene and venues for foreign films. And in a way this festival pays a little homage to the past by opening at the Lincoln Theater with the French film “Potiche,” the work of a relatively young director, François Ozon, and starring bonafide French and international movie stars Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Diperdieu. Ozon is known to specialize in what might be called screwball comedies, French style, with a more sophisticated twist than possible in the age of Carole Lombard.

The festival will close with “Sound of Noise,” a decidedly modern comedy cum police procedural, cum drama and music, a combined Swedish, French and Danish effort from Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nilsson at the Regal Cinemas at Gallery Place April 17.

In between are over 70 premieres from all over the world, with visits by artists, directors and producers: director Vibeke Lokkeber and producer Terje Kristiansen of “Tears of Gaza”; Director Jean-Charles Deniau, director of the documentary “Scientology: The Truth About a Lie”; director Matias Bize of “The Life of Fish”; director Ali Samadai Ahadi of the documentary “The Green Wave,” and others.

Some other highlights include films like “Flamenco, Flamenco” from Spain’s Carlos Saura; “Queen to Play” with Kevin Kline (in French, no less!); “Juan,” a riff on “Don Giovanni”; “Circumstance” from the director of “Run, Lola, Run”; “Young Goethe in Love”; Argentinian Director Eliseo Subiela’s “Hostage of Illusion: Korkoro,” a French film about a gypsy family in Nazi Occupied France; and “The Traveler,” an Egyptian film (pre-revolution, we’d guess) starring Omar Sharif.

What’s always striking about the film festival is the eclectic spirit it carries with it and the memories it arouses, because so many international films—which you won’t see anywhere else—bring with them the electricity of recent and current events and upheavals. We remember once talking with a noted Czech director who arrived in the aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain which saw a playwright raised to the Czech presidency. We remember documentaries about World War II and the Holocaust and romances from Canada and the first movies coming out of North Vietnam.

This year’s festival promises to be the same, and for this, Gittens, and Deputy Director Shirin Gareeb can take a lot of the credit.

Liberty Smith at Ford’s Theater

You’d think that a new musical set during the Revolutionary War featuring a hero that’s somewhere between Forrest Gump and Zelig might be something of a risky undertaking for the Ford’s Theatre company.

Ford’s executive artistic director Paul Tetreault doesn’t think so. Not even a little. “I think it’s a terrific show. I love the whole idea, and I think it’s perfect for us,” said Tetreault, who took over in 2004 after the death of founder Frankie Hewitt.

When Tetreault, who came to Ford’s from the famed Alley Theater in Houston, talks, you tend to listen. So chances are that “Liberty Smith,” maybe Ford’s biggest musical undertaking ever, may just be the audience-pleaser that Tetreault thinks it will be. He’s been right before.

The Revolutionary War as source for theater entertainment is historically a mixed bag. The pinnacle of the genre is surely “1776,” a musical about the haggling founding fathers as they try to come up with the Declaration of Independence, which proved to be a mighty Broadway hit, and continues to be a hit in revivals all over the country (including one at the Ford’s earlier this decade).

“Liberty Smith,” a kind of tongue-in-cheek, young-hero retelling of some major events of the revolution, has a few things going on for it. It has a top-notch, experienced creative team with a book by Marc Madnick and Eric Cohen, music by Michael Weiner, and lyrics by Adam Abraham. Weiner is a veteran of Disney musicals and films and wrote the music for “Second Hand Lions,” which is slated for a New York opening at the end of the year.

“We think this is going to be great entertainment,” Tetreault said. “With the involvement of people like Marc, Eric, Michael and Adam, we have a big, Broadway-style musical here, which will appeal to the whole family.”

“Liberty Smith” features a cast of 20, including a number of musical comedy veterans like Donna Migliaccio as Betsy Ross. Using local stars has been a Tetreault trademark—witness this year’s production of Horton Foote’s “The Carpetbagger’s Children,” which starred Holly Twyford, Nancy Robinette and Kimberly Shraf. But the main attraction and the key to the production will be Geoff Packard, the critically acclaimed and appealing star of the recent production of “Candide” (under director Mary Zimmerman) at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Smith appears to be the kind of characteristically American tall-tale character that somehow did not get mentioned alongside Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill and Johnny Appleseed. Yet there he is, boyhood friend of “George” (Washington), apprentice to Benjamin Franklin, trying to get Thomas Jefferson to quit fiddling and write. He helps out Paul Revere on a horse and steers Betsy Ross with her knitting while courting her niece, the pretty lass who’s mad that she can’t do what the founding fathers do because she’s a woman.

“We’ve been working on this for a couple of years now,” Tetreault says. “We’ve taken great care to get it right because I think it’s a very special project.”

Tetreault stepped into the shoes of several legends when he arrived at Ford’s. There was Hewitt, who founded the renewed theater as a functioning performing entity and faced the same challenges that Tetreault did: the theater is a historic structure, and a gloomy one at that. It is where another legend, Abraham Lincoln, was murdered while attending a comedy. And there’s no getting around that. This is theater as museum, a tricky kind of thing to provide programming for.

Lest you forget, there’s always the flag-draped presidential box to remind you.

Hewitt trod a careful line—musicals were always a strong fare, many of them exceptional (think of the originally produced “Elmer Gantry”), most of them entertaining for the tourist trade. And that’s the economic trick, of course—the Ford’s is as close to a historic national theater as we have, which both guarantees tourist audiences, and makes original programming and theatrical respectability difficult to get.

Tetreault realizes, as did Hewitt, that you probably can’t do “Streamers” here, or Mamet or “Sylvia,” and so critics tend to often arrive in the early years with a built-in, genetic sneer, which was often patently unfair.

Hewitt presented classic, historical fare, but also many African American plays and musicals by and about African Americans, something that local audience were starved for.

Tetreault has often surprised people with his choices, but more often than by the critical and popular success of those choices. Sometimes, when you look at a Ford’s season schedule, the nose can turns up by itself, which just goes to show you that you can’t trust your nose any more—at least not in the theater.

One of his first successes was the staging, with the National Theater for the Deaf, of “Big River,” a redo of the musical version of Huckleberry Finn driven by Roger Miller’s easy-going music. This production, while delivering the entertainment goods, discovered surprising depths to the show in the performance.

“I think I have a lot of leeway in what we do,” Tetreault says. “You can find originality, emotional depth, and theatrical excitement in American theater stories. I believe in partnering, because that’s the future of theater. It’s the here and now.”

By partnering with the African Continuum Theatre, Tetreault steered a highly praised (and unlikely) production of “Jitney” to Ford’s stage, which resonated mightily. A partnership with Signature, under director Eric Schaeffer, resulted in one of the best musicals ever produced ground-up in Washington, the exciting “Meet John Doe,” based on Frank Capra’s stirring populist movies.

After exciting remodeling—which took out two full seasons—Ford’s re-opened looking much better, but still very much a part of the greater Lincoln atmosphere getting built in the surrounding area. The theater opened without missing a beat, coming up with four straight hits: “The Heavens Are Hung in Black,” a new commissioned play about Lincoln’s time in Washington, “The Rivalry,” about the Lincoln-Douglas battles, “The Civil War,” and (just for fun, I suppose) “The Little Shop of Horrors.”

But who would have thought that the 2010-2011 season debut “Sabrina Fair,” a 1950s romantic comedy about a chauffeur’s daughter who has to choose between two wealthy brothers, would look so fresh with new faces and a different, youthful outlook?

Paul Tetreault did.

So “Liberty Smith” may be a gamble, but it’s probably a good bet.
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Shakespeare Turns 447 at The Folger Library

“April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.”

William Shakespeare said that. Well, he wrote it. Maybe.

I think he did, no maybe about it. Otherwise why were we celebrating William Shakespeare’s 447th birthday instead of, say, Oxford’s?

He put “To be or not to be. That is the question” into Hamlet’s mouth, and he spoke them and took three hours answering the question before expiring from a poisoned sword tip. Every young girl from his time forward imagines herself as Juliet, helping Romeo up the balcony, because Romeo described her thusly: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

He wrote:

“April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.”

And he was right.

The evidence was on display at the Folger Library’s annual Free Family Party in celebration of William Shakespeare’s Birthday on Capitol Hill. Spring was there. The spirit of youth was in everything. And there were children, lots of them, who I am sure knew his poems.

To many Washingtonians—those who loved the Bard and bards, peonies and poems, madrigals and sword fights, and faint and fair maidens—this great celebration is the first official sign and stamp of spring.

No question, it was spring on Capitol Hill after all that harrumphing about closing down the government and the tea party that has neither tea nor does it party. At this gathering, a rhyme trumps a riot. and children and dogs are princes, princesses and canine royalty.

Hundreds turned out and did things they rarely do every other Sunday. Little boys picked up wooden swords and watched a demonstration of sword-and-broad-sword and other weapons fighting, with two or three members of the gentler sex bashing each other with fury that hell hath not, under the supervision of Brad Weller, who trains and designs medieval combat scenes from Shakespeare’s more warlike plays.

Children –and gleeful adults—stood in a small room and yelled Shakespearean insults at each other.

There was maypole dancing and actors on the Elizabethan stage doing excerpts from “Richard III,” doing their best to explain that he wasn’t such a bad guy. Rosalind appeared on stage from “As You Like It,” the most formidable female character ever put on stage. There was courtly dancing to be sure and much lording it over and bowing and beautiful feathered hats from folks who appear at Renaissance Fairs and look splendidly fair and handsome.

In the Elizabethan garden, open for the first time, you saw a sight to prove Shakespeare right: nearly a baker’s dozen of five or six year old girls, ensconced as if bewitched, watching and listening to the Larksong Renaissance Singers singer Renaissance music, medieval music, madrigals, in Italian, German, French and English, blessed by the presence of mothers and children as much as the music itself.

Everywhere, everyone wore bright garlands and danced. This is the occasion when the Folger airs out its venerable reading room with its century-old books and the scent and dandruff of scholars and the lights and youths come sparkling in to pose with Shakespeare.

I met a dog—a Maltese, miniature poodle mix—named Rosa Luxembourg, the 1920s revolutionary in Germany. Someone played, with dancing delight, an accordion.

Queen Elizabeth (the first) showed up to wave, her hair blazing. They handed out cakes, but not cupcakes, those not having been invented in Georgetown yet.

Spring reigned on Capitol Hill, where in a courtyard at a used bookstore down the street, a woman sang boogie-woogie music, a guy played rickety piano, someone strummed a guitar, and purple blossoms embraced a branch like benign boas.

“Now, every field is clothed with grass, and every tree with leaves; now the woods put forth their blossoms, and the year assumes its gay attire.”

Say happy 447 thbirthday, Master Shakespeare. It was a day in April when “the spirit of youth was in everything.”

Follies Comes to the Kennedy Center

Believe it. “Follies” is no folly. It’s a big deal.

It’s a big deal for the Kennedy Center, where a ground-up, full-blown revival of the groundbreaking Stephen Sondheim musical is now on stage at the Opera House through June 19. It is the culmination of four years of planning, effort and work.

It’s a big deal for director Eric Schaeffer, the artistic director of the Signature Theater, who is practically a Stephen Sondheim godson when it comes to all things music and staging of the reigning monarch and legend of the American musical.

It’s a big deal because “Follies” was a big deal for Sondheim; he took a giant step forward in his creative control for this show, not only writing the lyrics, but composing the music. The net result was a string of musicals that have made Sondheim a giant and innovator of the American musical theater.

It’s a big deal because the content-and-concept laden “Follies,” first staged by Harold Prince in 1971, was a uniquely Sondheim kind of musical, with its story of members of a former Zigfield-type follies reuniting on the eve of a theater demolition, past theater glory, and what happens to divas and stars when the spotlights shut down. It is a musical driven as much by the characters as the music. The original featured song and dance man Gene Nelson, movie star Alexis Smith and Dorothy Collins. The musical received seven Tony Awards, including Sondheim’s first for best original score.

Ron Raines stars as Benjamin Stone, and longtime Washington favorites Terrence Currier and Frederick Strother grace the stage in this production.

It’s also a big deal for Lora Lee Gayer who plays Young Sally and Christian Delcroix who plays Young Buddy.

Everybody’s heard and read about the ladies of “Follies,” mainly Bernadette Peters, Janis Paige and Jan Maxwell.

You may not have heard of Gayer and Delcroix, but they’re also critical elements of the show, a connection to the past for the main characters, alter egos that drift in and out of the show, sometimes sharing the stage with them.

For Delcroix, the process was probably filled with less angst than facing Gayer. “Danny and I had already worked together in ‘South Pacific’ at the Lincoln Center, so we knew each other, had been on the stage together before,” said Delcroix, who grew up in Pittsburgh and lives in New York. “So we could talk about the parts, who they were, what a young Buddy might be like. We had a pretty good rapport right off the bat. That’s an advantage.”

Delcroix acknowledged that playing the small part of the professor at Lincoln Center in the original cast of the smash hit revival (a touring company played the Kennedy Center’s Opera House this winter), was a big break. “That was a wonderful experience and chance for me. Now I’m in this terrific musical by Stephen Sondheim. You can’t get much luckier than that.”

For Gayer, who plays young Sally, the challenge was a little different. “Bernadette Peters is a legend. She’s one of the biggest stars in Broadway history. So yes, I didn’t know what to expect initially,” she said. “I was a little intimidated, sure. But she is really wonderful to work with. She’d make suggestions about the character, about what she might have been like. She is the expert when it comes to Sondheim”

Gayer graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with a BFA in Musical Theater. “I did Rapunzel in ‘Into the Woods,’ so that helped in dealing with Sondheim’s music, which is very difficult and challenging to sing,” she said. Gayer has played Roxie in “Chicago” and Mrs. Gottlieb in Sara Ruhl’s “Dead Man’s Cellphone.”

For the Kennedy Center, Michael Kaiser and Schaeffer, “Follies” marks a return to the works of Sondheim, by whom they’ve done very well. “Follies” was one of the few missing entries in the hugely successful Sondheim festival several summers ago, which included “Sweeney Todd,” “Company” and “A Little Night Music.”

Schaeffer put himself and the Virginia-based Signature Theater on the map with a smash production of “Sweeney Todd” years ago, and he and the theater never looked back, gaining a national and international reputation as interpreters of the Sondheim songbook and playbook, while forging a permanent presence with productions of edgy, sharp, contemporary musicals, including the works of Kander and Ebb as well as new shows like “Glory Days.”

“Follies” not only features legends in the flesh as characters, but in some ways it’s a bittersweet tribute to the musical stage. The irony is—as is sometimes the case with Sondheim—the original production had a relatively modest run of 522 productions. But this show, with songs like “Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” and “Too Many Mornings,” acquired—as is often the case with Sondheim—a sure footed afterlife with concerts and successful revivals, including a 1985 Lincoln Center Concert version, a 1987 West End production, a 2001 Broadway revival, another West End revival and a New York City Center Concert in 2007. The Lincoln Center concert starred Barbara Cook as Sally, George Hearn, Mandy Patinkin, and Lee Remick, and also included Carol Burnett, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Liliane Montevecchi, Elaine Stritch and Phyllis Newman—one of those wish-you-could-have-been-there casts.

“Follies” runs at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through June 19.

Elizabeth Taylor’s Washingtonian Legacy

Ah Hollywood…Ah Washington. How the denizens of these two cities yearn for each other.

The recent death of Elizabeth Taylor, pre-pixel Hollywood’s last great star, and its coverage around Washington highlighted the nurture-torture nature of this relationship, like an electric wire was connecting the cities. People remember her here; just ask the senator, the gossip writers, theatergoers and the folks at the Whitman Walker Clinic.

She was, heart and soul, a child of Hollywood, since her violet eyes and pitch black hair made their first impact on screen as one of MGM’s child stars in “National Velvet,” when she was just twelve years old. She was a movie star long before she ever aspired to become an excellent actress.

People, of course, still have trouble taking a really beautiful woman seriously, and Elizabeth Taylor was astonishingly beautiful in her youth. As such, it’s much easier to give the wrong kind of credit than to credit the right things. People focus on her numerous marriages, the drama and the diamonds. They focus on her adulteries that broke up first the marriage of Debbie Reynolds, America’s sweetheart, and then her own and those of husband Richard Burton’s.

The local obituary seemed to me curiously snarky and petulant, going out of its way to offer quotes disparaging her acting abilities. The front-page photo showed her in her famous white swimsuit from a scene in Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer,” in which she shared top billing with Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, two of the finest screen actors of the time. “Despite Oscar nods,” the caption read, “she was not always taken seriously an actress.”

They could have said it the other way around: “Despite not always being taken seriously as an actress, she won two Oscars—for “Butterfield 8” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (Mike Nichols’ film adaptation of the Edward Albee play, now enjoying a satisfying production at Arena Stage), opposite then husband Richard Burton.”

It’s fair to say that she was often used for her looks—one of those cases of “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” But those looks could be used to heartbreaking effect: Check out that scene when Montgomery Clift (again) first sees her in “A Place in the Sun.” You could see ambition rise in him like a sour soaring, and you could see him hold his breath. The film is one of George Stevens’ finest works, part of what he saw as an American trilogy that included “Shane” and “Giant,” the latter also starring Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean, who completed filming and promptly was killed in a high-speed sports car crash.

For someone not highly regarded, she apparently had the regard of directors like Stevens and Nichols, two very serious-minded men who made classic and serious films. I would expect that even Meryl Streep, our most serious and darling film actress, might have liked to have films like “A Place in the Sun,” “Giant,” “Suddenly, Last Summer,” “Reflections in a Golden Eye” and “Cat On a Hot Roof.” Even “Cleopatra,” in spite of its excess and on-set drama, which almost ruined 20th Century Fox and boss Daryl Zanukc, ended up making money.

She was legendary, larger than life, and lived in the public eye. No need to go into details too much. Like the Kennedys, a political institution, she experienced more than anybody’s share of triumph and tragedy, heaven on earth and hell on wheels all at the same time.

One thing everybody knew: she made friends, and kept them beyond death. She nurtured the troubled and gifted Clift through car wrecks, addictions and emotional troubles. She stood up for Hudson and still loves Burton. If she was at times over the top and with a certain carnal vulgarity, especially in the two bouts of marriage with Burton, well…she was entitled. That doesn’t make her the godmother of Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan.

Her stays in Washington were memorable: she married Senator John Warner of Virginia, the kind of marriage that should probably never happen. Imagine the fights in front of the mirror. But Warner remembers her with affection.

She appeared twice on stage in Washington, both times at the Kennedy Center, to mixed success and reviews. The first was as Regina in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” which underwhelmed local critics, as I recall.

Then there was the time when then Kennedy Center President Roger Stevens thought that movie stars might pack ‘em in for theater. This brought us Liz and Dick in “Private Lives,” something this writer won’t ever forget. This is Noel Coward’s sophisticated play about a divorced married couple on honeymoons with new partners who run into each other at the hotel where they’re staying. Sparks fly in familiar ways. But in the middle of the play, Taylor’s Amanda says off-handedly: “You know, I’ve always been afraid of marriage.” This line brought the house down with laughter in a way that had everything to do with Taylor, not the show. Old pro Burton rode out the laughter wisely, and then ignited it again with a drawn out “Yes.”

That’s show biz. That’s legend.

She became, in a very real and practical way, the patron saint in the fight against AIDS, in the public’s recognition of what a dangerous disease it was, and the people it affected. She spoke up for Rock Hudson and everyone else who suffered from it, and she lent her name to the Whitman Walker Clinic. By contrast, the silence in Washington AND Hollywood in the early, devastating years of the disease was deafening. The Reagan, whose roots were in the Hollywood community which was being hit hard by AIDS, offered grief and condolences over the death of Hudson, while not mentioning AIDS at all, as if he had died of some peculiar strain of the common cold?

She opened minds and changed them, and her presence rose above that of the fundamentalists who called the disease the punishment of God at Gay Pride parades. She never wavered in this, and she did it out of life, not boredom or publicity seeking.

God bless her for that, and have no doubt that he and she will.

Arena’s New Look

For the performing arts in Washington — as elsewhere — fall is a big deal; it’s the start of a new season, its festival time, its gala time, its opening night for theaters and performing venues, for dancers, actors, directors, musicians, and orchestras all over the city.

It’s also fair to say no event quite resonates with so much history and meaning for the future as Arena Stage’s return to its old home on the Southwest waterfront.

As Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith put it, “We are finally home again.”

Well, the old homestead isn’t exactly what it used to be. Smith made those remarks recently on the occasion of a 60th anniversary celebration for Arena Stage, which also served to unveil the new stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, its old Southwest location. The ceremony — presided over by Mayor Adrian Fenty, other elected officials, Smith and her Arena compatriots — seemed appropriate to the place and time, looking forward and backward all at once.

The new site, as you get off the Waterfront Metro station, appears almost immediately to the eye like a glass-curved visitor’s vehicle from some nifty galaxy far, far away.

Modern, expensive and two-and-a-half years in the making, the Mead Center manages to be warm and inviting, a multi-task kind of venue which serves as performing space (three theaters), keeper of the historic flame (not to mention education and research) and community center in its role as cultural jump-starter for revitalization and development in Southwest Washington.

The new Mead Center marks yet another turning point for Arena, which in 60 years has seen many such key moments. Most of them, in one way or another, are part not only of the history of Arena Stage, but are literally embedded in the $135 million center, whose core remains the Fichandler Stage’s theater-in-the-round auditorium, a 683-seat space perfect for big-scale theater such as, for instance, “Oklahoma,” which starts off Arena’s fall season on Oct. 23.

The new theater also sports the Kreeger Theater, a 514-seat space with a thrust stage, the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, an oval-shaped 200-seat theater with flexible seating, a space where new plays are workshopped and talent, new ideas and ways of creating are nurtured.

“The Arena Stage as we have it now will be a major center not only for the production and performance of theater, but for the study of theater. It will be a research center, a truly all-purpose theater center,” Smith said.

It was designed by famous Chinese-Canadian architect Bing Thom, who sees the space as “accessible, warm, modern and historic at the same time, intimate, vast, a part of the community.” The center reflects Arena’s past, but its transparency and structural impressiveness speaks to the future. “We hope for everlasting life for our hometown theater,” a local said.

Hometown is exactly what Arena is and has always been, even as it’s grown to a theater of national stature. “In 1950, the only way you could see theater here was at colleges, or through touring companies of Broadway plays,” Smith said. “Zelda Fichandler and her partners were pioneers; they created the first regional theater in America and the only professional theater here.”

From its first theater, which was called the Hippodrome on New York Avenue, Arena has moved and gone through various stages and incarnations. Five years after Hippodrome’s founding in 1950, it moved to a 500-seat theater called “The Old Vat” in Foggy Bottom.

In 1961, the 800-plus-seat theater-in-the-round Arena Stage opened at the current location with a production of Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” an ambitious, difficult play that spoke to founder and artistic director Zelda Fichandler’s ’s theatrical vision.

It was evident that Arena was bound to enlarge or move. “There was serious consideration about moving to Seventh Street, where there was already a bustling theater scene,” Smith said. “But we decided to build here.”

Spurred by a $35 million donation from trustees-for-life Dr. Jaylee M. Mead and her late husband Gilbert Mead (the largest gift of this sort by individuals for a not-for-profit regional theater), the project to revamp Arena took hold two and a half years ago. This necessitated that the company and the institution scatter its offices and performing spaces all over the city. “We were a nomadic enterprise,” Smith said. “It was difficult, but it also increased the profile of Arena, acquiring new audiences, both in Crystal City and at the Lincoln Theatre in the historic U Street District.”

For Smith the new center is also a personal homecoming (again). An American University grad, she was picked to succeed Douglas Wager (who took over as artistic director after Fichandler retired) 12 years ago after leading the Perseverance Theater in Alaska for 19 years.

She dedicated herself to building on a standing — and pioneering — tradition at Arena. While she focused on American plays and the American theatrical canon, she continued to reach out to the community at large and build an African American audience, a hope that became a larger reality after the stint at the Lincoln.

“I think we have always encouraged new plays, new playwrights, new ideas that reflect the great creative energy in this community, as well as its diversity,” Smith said. She continued a process where two Arena productions, the spectacularly successful “Next to Normal” and “33 Variations” went to Broadway, a tradition that began with “The Great White Hope” in the 1960s.

She also started directing musicals. “I kind of surprised myself,” she said. “I never did them before. You know, I’m part of that generation that thought musicals, especially Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, were kind of square.” She began with “South Pacific,” a big hit, which looked and felt not old-fashioned, but fresh and big of heart.

The inaugural season at the Mead Center can be expected to embody what Arena, Smith and the building itself stand for. So it begins with “Oklahoma,” a rarely revived musical that revolutionized musicals when it was first staged in the 1940s, building book and music into a seamless whole.

“We recognize the diversity that existed and the show, with all of its great music, will also embody that spirit. It’s not just an exercise in nostalgia,” said Smith In short, it will be a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic cast that will sing and perform the show. “It is THE great American musical. All of Arena’s optimism, hopes and dreams will be embodied in this moment of fierce individualism.”

A Trio of One-of-a-kinds

In Washington, you can find lots of choirs and lots of orchestras, big and small. You can find choral societies, string quartets, dance and dance companies. But we also have institutions, organizations and individuals that are beyond category. Here’s three that are Washington treasures:

The Embassy Series

Sixteen years ago, Jerome Barry, a noted baritone, concert singer, teacher, scholar and man of many languages, had the idea to organize a series of concerts at various embassies throughout the city. It was a pretty good idea, small to begin with, but it grew like mad.

“We had six concerts, two or three embassies, and it’s fair to say it was pretty Euro-centric,” Barry said as he prepares to begin the 17th season of what was then called and still is “The Embassy Series in October.” “I thought it was a way for the embassies and people who loved music to meet one another. In the back of my head was always the idea that if it worked, this could turn out to be a vehicle for cultural diplomacy, for bridge building. This is a unique city, after all, we have a whole international community here, close to 200 embassies.”

Initially, European embassies, specifically Austria, Germany, and Poland, were the primary participants — these were the countries of Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss and Chopin, after all. The events would feature a concert, usually veteran or up-and-coming musicians from Europe, but also locals (and sometimes featuring Barry himself) to be followed by a reception with food, which provided opportunities for embassy officials and audience members to mingle and meet. It worked.

“We’ve had 58 embassies participate at one time or another so far,” Barry said. “And it has been a great opportunity for homegrown diplomacy, especially in these tense times were cultural gaps are so wide in the world.”

Barry’s Series have not only broadened, increased and widened the audience, they’ve broadened the horizons of the participants. While European embassies remain strong presences and supporters, the scope of the series has reached out Latin America, Africa, Israel, Asia and, perhaps most importantly, the Middle East. “Music is the great door opener,” Barry has said in the past. Last year’s season included a major concert at the very large and new Chinese Embassy, which proved to be a major cultural and social event. There were also concerts at the Embassy of Bahrain and the residence of the Ambassador of Syria, an inveterate blogger and culture consumer, which featured Kinan Azmeh, performing both traditional and contemporary Middle Eastern music with strong and appealing pop strains.

This year’s series begins with two concerts that all but characterize what the Embassy Series and Barry are all about.

The series opens Oct. 1 at the Iraqi Cultural Center with an evening of Iraqi music performed by ensemble of three Iraqi musicians called Safaafir, performing the country’s urban classical music, called Iraqi Maqam, as well as more traditional music.

This will be followed Oct. 17 by a concert at the Embassy of Austria, in which Till Fellner, who performed there last year, completes his major tour of the United States, during which he performed all of Beethoven’s sonatas. The internationally acclaimed pianist was born in Vienna, Austria and has played all over the world.

Taken together, the two concerts represent what the Embassy Series have been all about, a marriage of classical European music with an expansion to the music of the great world out there and here as performed in embassies and ambassadorial residences. It’s probably fair to say that Barry’s lone invention has influenced other recent efforts at cultural diplomacy such as Passport DC and the upcoming EuroKid festival.

The In Series

The In Series — a hard-to-describe series of performing arts events that combine just about everything performance has to offer — is celebrating its 10th anniversary at its 14th Street home at the newly renovated Source Theatre.

It will kick off its season with a double bill of American mini-operas, Leonard Bernstein’s strikingly contemporary and haunting “Trouble in Tahiti” and William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s “Casino Paradise,” beginning Sept. 18 and running through Oct. 2.

It will be a season of so-called “pocket” operas for the In Series, with a pairing of Zarzuela, a Spanish musical in the form of the Cuban “Maria La O,” and the iconic “Pagliacci” by Ruggiero Leoncavallo.

Carla Hubner, the series’ producing artistic director, is also its founder and heart and soul. Nick Olcott, a veteran Washington theater director, is the series director and Francis Conlon is the music director. Look for a 10th Anniversary Big Birthday Bash Oct. 23 and 24 at the Gala/Tivoli theater, and a music performance by Soprano Fleta Hylton, pianist Tom Reilly and actor Jenifer Deal exploring the music and life of Robert Schuman on the bicentennial of his birth, Sept. 26 and Oct. 2.

The Folger Consort

The Folger Consort, a unique group of chamber musicians performing classical music from distant centuries are a unique group, offering yearly consorts focusing that evoke not only gorgeous music but history and historical culture itself.

This year’s season opens with “Pastime with Good Company,” music from the court of Henry VIII, featuring the vocal ensemble “Lionheart,” Oct. 1-3. It’s presented in conjunction with an exhibition on Henry VIII, which commemorates the 500th anniversary of the larger-than-life king’s accession to the English throne. Not coincidentally, there’s also an upcoming production of Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan Theater.

At Christmas Time, the Folger Consort will present “A Renaissance Christmas” at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall with the Augsburg Cathedral Boys Choir of Germany, Dec. 10-12.

At Kennedy Center, ‘Poppins’ Cleans Up House

Call me sentimental, call me plebian, call me irresponsible, call me a sucker for flying nannies, if not nuns.

I am not in the least embarrassed to admit that I really, really enjoyed myself at a recent performance of “Mary Poppins,” the Cameron Mackintosh Disney musical now ensconced at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through August 22. And at my age — why, any self-respecting 40-year-old theater critic would drum me out of the ranks. Luckily, I’m older than that, like 10 going on … well, you know.

For many critics, it’s easy to flaunt the smug gene when merely confronted with the name Disney, let alone by a musical that insists that “just a spoonful of sugar will make the medicine go down,” when considerably less than a spoonful makes them gag.

For myself, I admit to a weakness for big and small musicals if they’re affecting, if you’re not walking out humming the scenery, and if they include some variations of a big tap dance number. These are usually enough to overcome soft-pedaled life-affirming messages, the presence of cute children and unnecessary special stage effects designed to wow the eyes, if not the heart.

In short, I loved Gavin Lee as the good-hearted high-energy chimney sweep and man of many parts Bert, as nimble and more appealing than Dick Van Dyke. Bert leads the sweeps, Mary and assorted others in a rousing “A Step in Time,” which is a tap dance by any other name, and made me very happy indeed. Always does.

In short, Mary Poppins, while ably and sternly performed with prim, brisk energy and lovely voice by Carolyn Sheen, is not really the star of the show. Instead, they are Bert, the Banks children, the Bird lady, the whole big show. Mary, in red suit, tiny hat and open umbrella, is a familiar figure standing still, singing, dancing or flying, but it’s the show itself, with all of its components, that engages the audience, especially children. This is a family-friendly show if there ever was one, and it delivers in more ways than one.

With all spectacle of rooftop dancing, flying acts, gypsies, statues that come to life and a truly terrifying anti-Mary nanny, the intimacy of the show is bound to appeal to the whole family, because it’s about a family and families, about what happens when fathers spend little or no time with their children, all wrapped up in work, when wives have their dreams thwarted, when children are spoiled rotten.

You need a little and a lot of magic.

“Mary Poppins” has plenty of magic, but its Victorian shoes are also firmly planted on the ground so that the characters are recognizable to even small children. For adults, one of the terrific rewards of this show is to watch children reacting to it. I saw a grandfather and his three grandchildren sort of submerge into the proceedings, all four at one point trying to grab projected stars.

Corny? Sure enough. But a good kind of corny. This being a Mackintosh-Disney enterprise, “Mary Poppins” delivers the entertainment goods in a big and lavish way, and it delivers its not-so-subtle messages about parents and children without leaving you with a hit-with-a-frying-pan headache. Take the kids, the wife, the husband, the grandparents, the nanny (legal and registered, of course), and the dog, if they let you. It’s super-califra— sorry, not in spell check. Finish it yourself.

“Mary Poppins” runs through Aug. 22.

Read Gary’s interview with Tour Director Anthony Lyn.

The British Invade (Sort Of) at Strathmore

Cool and hip may not be the first things you think about when you think of the Music Center at Strathmore.

After all, the gorgeous, nearly 2,000-seat acoustic paradise is a haven for classical music fans and performers, from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to the likes of Joshua Bell and Yitzhak Perlman. Rockers come — there’s been nights where you can catch the still-there Beach Boys or Jerry Lee Lewis — but full-scale rock-a-mania isn’t usually on the menu.

Except in the summer, except in August. That’s when Strathmore hosts its annual tribute concert, produced by Bandhouse Gigs, the major local musician group that often showcases (and assists) local artists, of which there is an abundance.

The tribute concert, held every year now for seven years, is an occasion for gifted local musicians, young and new, veteran and seasoned, famous or not, to pay tribute to the rock and roll and pop giants of old. This year — specifically, tonight and tomorrow — the causes for tribute and celebration is the British Invasion, that sudden outburst of British musicians whose work and personas hit our shores in the middle and late 1960s, from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, to posters and hit-tine stars like Tom Jones, Petula Clark and the incomparable Dusty Springfield.

This year marks the first time — due to popular demand — that the tribute concert has expanded to two days, and there are plenty of reasons to celebrate that turn of events.

“We sold out last year’s concert so that a lot of people actually couldn’t come,” Ronnie Newmyer, a veteran local musician and spokesperson for Bandhouse Gigs, said. “Although, just so you know, we have a CD that from last year’s concert that will be sold at [this year’s] concert. I think things have just gotten bigger and bigger every year, so this represents an opportunity to honor some really terrific performers, bands and singers. This is what the tribute concert is always all about — you can see the influence these performers have had on present-day musicians.”

Past tributes have included — as performed specifically in the concert hall where proceedings moved from free outdoor concerts — Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and the spectacularly triumphant Woodstock concert of last year.

Actually, the concerts, which in and of themselves are always a parade of great music and songs — just run the Dylan canon through your head sometime— do something else, which may transcend the individual tributes. All of the songs — with some exceptions —are performed by local musicians. Some of them are nationally well known — Jon Carroll and Bill Danoff who came up with half a reunion of their Starland Vocal Band (“Afternoon Delight”) last year, for instance — but others are legends in specific arenas of, say, acoustic folk music circles. All of them perform regularly in the region, and many have recorded with major labels. After witnessing the last three tributes I can say all of them are gifted, professional musicians, many of them revealing themselves to be up-and-comers, including The Craving Dogs, newcomer Margot MacDonald or the gravelly voiced Patty Reese, who practically channeled Janis Joplin in last year’s Woodstock Concert.

“It’s a great showcase, it sure is,” Newmyer said. “I think it really shows off the local music scene, the people in it, how talented they are.”

Some of the performers, like MacDonald, have been Artists in Residence at Strathmore, a yearly program there for new and talented musicians and artists. Others have performed both locally and around the country, sometimes top billed, sometimes opening for other acts. They’ve been at the Birchmere and often at Jammin’ Java in Virginia.

The British Invasion Concert is a good way to have your eyes and ears opened to just what’s been going on around here musically. The music features, besides The Beatles and Stones and Jones and Clark and Springfield, the work of Peter and Gordon, The Who, The Hollies, The Kings, The Animals, the Zombies and many others. “These were people who wrote and recorded great individual songs, they practically perfected the genre,” Newmyer said. “The big bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin, with the long guitar work and numbers came right after when we got into Woodstock and everything that happened.”

Reese will be handling (perhaps uncharacteristically) the stylings of Petula “Downtown” Clark. Other artists include Carroll, Julia Nixon, The Hall Monitors, Tone Rangers, MacDonald, Last Train Home, 5 Doctors, The Lofgren Brothers, Billy Coulter, Marti Brom, David Kitchens, Tom Lepson, Jeff Watson and Brian Simms, to name a few among a total of over 60 performers.

They’ll be doing such hits as “You Really Got Me,” “She Loves You,” “Needles and Pins,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Satisfaction,” “Doo Wah Diddy,” “She’s Not There,” “To Sir With Love,” “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” “Go Now” and a personal favorite, “Ferry Across the Mercy,” as well as a Herman’s Hermits Medley.

Showtimes are 7:30 p.m., with tickets ranging from $19 to $22. For information go to [www.strathmore.org](http://www.strathmore.org).