Sam Forman Returns to Theater J

July 26, 2011

In theater, as elsewhere, everybody’s always looking for the next big thing. New plays and new playwrights, especially. They are looking for the next Miller, the next Mamet. Not that the theater world is lacking for fresh new talent: Sarah Rule, Craig Wright, the Pulitzer Prize winning Bruce Norris are all worthy of acclaim.

So is Sam Forman. A quintessential New York type in some ways, Forman is young, hip, very smart and a knowing young playwright and actor who has brought something to the theater that goes back to Chekhov, Neil Simon, even Woody Allen. Mostly, though, he’s brought himself.

This very site and psyche specific writer seems to have found a congenial home for his work at Theater J, where, for the second time, he has garnered a world-premiere production of one his plays.

You might remember Forman for his “The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall,” which received a world-premiere production at Theater J two seasons ago. “Hall,” flavored and textured with Woody Allen references and touches, got critical praise, terrific and mixed audiences, and a Helen Hayes award nomination. It featured a not-so-nice guy character—a young playwright no less—who would do just about anything to get his idea of a musical version of Woody Allen’s most famous film on the Broadway boards.

Now he’s back with “The Moscows of Nantucket,” getting a healthy May 11-June 12 run at Theater J.

“I really love coming here… It’s like a home for me,” Forman said in a phone interview here. “Ari Roth, the artistic director, has had great faith in my work. He’s created a legacy here, of very specific work for a specific community that’s universal.”

You could say that Forman is doing something of the same thing, and it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a kind of dervish dance, making culturally-specific work—Jewish background, Jewish characters—become something that catches the hearts and minds of a universal audience.

“Well, Neil Simon did it, and he did that very well,” Forman says. “Everybody has ambition like the lead in Annie Hall. Everyone has families, like the people in ‘Nantucket,’ and I think people, when they let themselves, recognize that.”

New plays, new playwrights aren’t always everyone’s cup of tea, and the scenario at Theater J is especially tricky because many of the season subscribers tend to be older and have been known to walk out on material that offends them.

But Forman’s plays—if my memories of “Hall” are on the money” and if his resume is any indication—are thought provoking, funny, entertaining and built on authentic characters. They may not always be likeable—how boring would that be—but they are recognizable. “That was the thing about Henry, the lead character in ‘Annie Hall.’ He’s got this show, this musical version of the movie, he’s in proximity to this successful producer, and he’s even willing to set up his girl friend. I played him in some productions… He’s based on my experience, but he’s not me. But I understand him, you know.”

“Nantucket” (which echoes some of Chekhov’s gatherings, albeit a little more frantically and loudly) concerns Benjamin Moscow, a 30-something, would-be novelist who is having trouble making a mark, having just moved back in with his parents partly because his girlfriend left him for another girl. The Moscows are gathering in Nantucket, a Wasp enclave not always hospitable to Jewish residents. Brother Michael has arrived with his new wife, a prominent television star, along with the nanny. Sibling rivalry, already a lifetime past time, heats with the matriarch and patriarchs caught in the middle.

“It’s a family play, a dysfunctional family play,” Forman said. “Sure, there’s some very Jewish family dynamics going on—the blonde Southern wife comes as a culture shock to the parents. There’s modern life struggling with tradition.”

Forman grew up in New York seeing plays like John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” and Albee and others, the new generations that found prominence in the 1960s. Ari Roth sees a lot of Neil Simon in him: “Sam’s got a lot in common with great playwrights like Neil Simon. He understands character, he understands human psychology, he understands story, and he understands audiences. That being said, he’s a writer from a whole new generation, and he’s not shy about his youth.”

Like a lot of new artists, Forman is a multitasker in the sense that he doesn’t stay with one gift, one genre or one thing. He recently co-created “Hickory Hill,” a television pilot for American Movie Classics, a station that has suddenly become a home for cutting edge series television. He’s the lyricist and co-author of the book for “I Sing!” And numerous other plays, and he remains an actor. “But I’m a writer first,” he says. “I think.”

“The Moscows of Nantucket” will be at Theater J from May 11 – June 12. For more information visit

Joshua Bell at the Strathmore

At the outset, it needs to be said that I am not an expert or aficionado. I can’t even read music. But I think I can listen to it.

We’re talking about classical music here, of course—sonatas and symphonies Brahms, Beethoven and Bell. In particular, we’re talking about classical violinist Joshua Bell. Barring older legends like Itzhak Perlman, he may be the finest violinist of his generation. More than one critic or fan has called him a rock star of classical music, because they can’t think of anything else to say.

When it comes to the violin, this is a little bit of a journey for me. In Germany, where I was a boy, the violin is a revered instrument, and the people who make them and play them are revered. But it was the opening concert of the Music Center at Strathmore, with master Perlman himself, which got me on the path to the music of violinists.

Strathmore, with its marvelous acoustics, is a wonderful place to experience music, and it was the perfect place to hear Perlman. Being there felt like being in a cathedral.

I don’t remember what he played, but I do remember wanting to hear much more. And not just Perlman, but those who followed—the younger violinists you hear about, whose pictures you find in the season programs of our cultural institutions: Sophie-Mutter, Hahn, Joshua Bell.

So here we are again: anticipating Bell’s performance at the Music Center at Strathmore (January 26) with Sam Haywood on piano, playing Brahms, Schubert and Grieg—works Bell describes as: “A challenge, a test.”

On the phone in a conference call interview with Bell, reporter and writers from all over the country, some obviously more knowledgeable than others, are taking turns asking questions.

Bell gives a friendly and comfortable vibe as he patiently addresses each question, many of which he’s no doubt heard numerous times before. He is 43 now, and in pictures and videos looks unforgivably boyish and handsome, unlike the masters of old. His looks are an attraction, but they would be of no help if he were all thumbs. He’s thoughtful, with a quiet sense of humor. He’s been a super nova of a violinist and performer for a few decades now, and he obviously appreciates the rewards of the hard work, the touring, the recordings, the appearances and the fame. He’s not an Access Hollywood kind of guy, but like some of his contemporaries in the field—Lang Lang, Yo-Yo Ma, Hillary Hahn— he occupies the territory of musical prodigy and ambassador, crossing the line where classical music creates full concert halls and major commercial success.

And yet, he’s a small-town guy from Indiana, a self-described “cultural Jew,” a Midwestern kid fulfilling a musical destiny once dominated by Europeans, and now being pushed by young and talented Asian prodigies. He seems to have given considerable thought to what and who he is, where the music is going and his future in it.

“I’m at an age where you have to think about things like that,” he said. “You know the arena of teaching, of writing and composing, of spreading out and doing other things, of pushing the envelope. Classical music is a world where you leave a mark, not just in recording and performing. And I like to explore other kinds of music—bluegrass and jazz—and mix things and explore the boundaries, and where you can break that down.”

In his last few recordings—The Romantic Violin, Voice of the Violin, and his last CD, the deceptively titled At Home With Friends—you can see that process working.

The first of the trio is music that sweeps you away, that requires strength and delicacy. When you listen to it, it’s like listening to strands of beautiful hair transformed into strings and bow, notably in works by the violin legend Fritz Kreisler.

Voice of the Violin, which I listen to on mornings when I’ve slept fitfully, is a work that’s already taking a step ahead; they are musical arrangements of works meant to be sung. In his notes, Bell says, “it was a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in the rich treasury of music written for the voice.” The most recognizable work is Ave Maria, a work so soothing that it feels like cool water on a feverish brow.

At Home With Friends is an entirely different matter.

Some home. Some friends. In the questioning interviews, Bell talks a lot about what he calls his home, a nice little pad in Manhattan, a penthouse which occupies the top two floors of what was once a manufacturing plant in the Flatiron District. Home includes a performance hall where, on a video for the album, young men and women can be seen applauding as their host plays.

“I’ve always wanted something like that, a place where you can get together with your friends, play with them and for them—and a kind of salon for music.” This turned into getting together with people like rock-pop star Sting singing Come Again; trumpeter Chris Botti, who has known Bell since high school days, doing “I Loves You Porgy” with Bell; Kristen Chenoweth singing My Funny Valentine, which may rank as one of the best versions ever; Josh Groban singing Cinema Paradiso.

“It’s also a way of stretching the boundaries, working with people that are somewhat removed from traditional classical music,” he added.

With classical musicians, long, long hours of practice makes perfect. “But it’s not just about playing perfectly,” Bell said. “You need—I need—to understand a piece of music before I’ll play it. I need to be sure I know it to do it justice.”

Obviously, Bell is hugely popular. And he’s not easily daunted. Several years ago, he played for about an hour at the L’Enfant Plaza metro station during rush hour, to see if anybody would actually listen to the music of a world class musician. It was all grist for a prize-winning Washington Post article, but it was also something of an education.

“Mostly, people just walked by,” he said. “They were going to work, in a hurry, and didn’t pay attention. Some people did. They stopped and listened. I think I made around thirty dollars. It could humble you, but it was in the nature of an experiment. Yes, it was a very expensive violin I was playing [he uses a 1731 Stradivarius—meaning that it was made in 1731]. I didn’t pretend to be anybody but myself. I wasn’t a homeless man. I think it shows how busy our lives are.”

Even Bell playing Brahms proved not to be a distraction for most of the people.

Watching Bell on video in close-up is telling. No question, there is an other worldly talent on display when you listen to him. But he’s also an engaging, fully engaged, charismatic, physical player; the body contorts, he becomes a force in black—his usual dress code on stage—often working up a sweat, the hair flying, the eyes intense.

Listen to him talk to us reporter folks though, and you think you hear a little bit of that boy prodigy who’s been to all the places that are like concert castles, traveled the world, reads and sees himself named one of the most beautiful people by People Magazines, lives high up in Manhattan, etc. I don’t mean to suggest he’s somehow still starry-eyed. Rather, he respects where he is, wonders about where he’s going and always plays with beauty and passion.

Joshua Bell will be performing at the Strathmore on Wednesday, February 2nd, at 8pm. For information, [Click here](

There’s Something About Mary Zimmerman

Mary Zimmerman will tell you rather emphatically that she does not write children’s plays.

I wouldn’t argue with her about it. Technically, she’s right. Her plays are plays for adults, who think like adults. The emotions they engender are adult emotions: feelings akin to intellectual sadness, near heartbreak, confronting the new by way of the old.

Zimmerman has managed, over a couple of decades of directing and writing, to create a whole new kind of play, as yet difficult to fit into a descriptive category. And yet you come back to it: children, fairytales, storytelling, tales told around a campfire, the first writings of man. It’s that kind of thing, but made complicated, and made deep. She nonetheless uses the tools and imagination associated with children’s theater, both in terms of theater created FOR children, and sometimes the kind that children create themselves in their backyard under a tent: toys, clotheslines, dolls and sticks and pebbles, maybe with some singing and barking dogs thrown in.

I think she said it elsewhere herself, quoting Willa Cather: “I will never be the artist I was as a child.”
Zimmerman may just be that kind of artist—not childish or childlike, but basic, using the stuff that surrounds her, the every day things. And coating everything with magic.

Lately, we’ve gotten a burst of Zimmerman’s gifts on display, in two very different sorts of plays that nevertheless bear her directorial and authorial mark; we have seen an electric re-staging of Leonard Bernstein’s and Voltaire’s “Candide” at the Shakespeare Theater Company, which just completed a successful run. And now we can go see a re-do of Zimmerman’s “Arabian Nights,” enjoying a buzz-filled run at Arena Stage.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen Zimmerman around here. She directed a memorable, haunting version of “Pericles” at the Shakespeare Theater Company along with her own creation, a take on the story of Jason and the Argonauts, called simply “The Argonautica.”

There is obviously some common thread running through these and other productions that Zimmerman has done with her company, the Looking Glass Theater, and the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

“I’ve always liked fairytales,” she said in a telephone interview. “I try hard not to lose that sense of wonder, that kind of imagination, as a way of looking at material. I like big, basic, iconic stories and themes. All of that. That’s one reason I like directing opera, working in that world. It’s so over the top, so emotional.”
Zimmerman has done several stints at the Metropolitan Opera, with mixed results from the critical world. “I loved doing it and still do,” she says nonetheless. “I don’t worry too much about what’s written about me or my work.”

“Candide” and “Arabian Nights” are two very different kettles of tea when it comes to theater, and she’s made both her own. “Candide” was first produced in the 1950s on Broadway, unsuccessfully, with a mixed bag of authors stirring the book, including renowned poet Lillian Hellman and Stephen Sondheim. But the wonderful music kept things alive for later revivals, and it remains the soulful heart of the show.

With Zimmerman directing, the project also returned to its original source: the great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire’s original thin fable of a novel, in which an innocent and sheltered naïf of a young lad (Candide) is thrown out into the cruel world of competing kingdoms, religions and general tumult of the 18th-century world, with his soul-mate Cunegonde.

So much happens to them—all the representative evils of the day, like pillage, war, rape, prison, the loss and gain and loss of fortune—it would turn most normal people into cynics. But Candide perseveres in the search for his love, whom he finds and loses again all over the world, from wars in France to El Dorado and back again.

“It’s a big story,” she said. “We went back to the roots, so to speak. And I have to say, I was so fortunate in casting the leads, Geoff Packard and Lauren Molina. Geoff was…heck, he is a little like a Candide. So I think they made the production very affecting for audiences.”

So did Zimmerman’s storytelling, as she used little wooden boats, stuffed red sheep, and toys and dolls and puppets as a way of rolling around the world. It’s the kind of thing that sometimes threatens to look silly, especially to jaded eyes used to movie reality. But with Zimmerman at the helm, it never does.

“Arabian Nights” is something else again, a series of stories writ large. “We, did this the first time on the eve of the Gulf War,” she said. “Even then, it echoed what was going on in the world, and nothing that’s happened since has changed that. It’s almost like coming full circle.”

The Arabian Nights are the tales told by a young woman named Scheherazade, who’s trying to save herself from the attentions of a king, so embittered by a previously unfaithful wife that he’s wed, bedded and killed a virgin every night for a year already. Scheherazade tells the king stories, hundreds of them, to keep his knife at bay.

“That’s the first thing you do with this, is choose the stories,” she said. “They are stories of love, betrayal, disguises, revenge, and they’re tall tales, funny stories, and stories of redemption.”

While the enterprise is astonishingly beautiful, and creates a buzz of argument as well as appreciation, it manages to achieve something else, the very thing that fairy tales do. It creates a quality of universal recognition.

In that sense, it connects to the present in how we move through the world. “It’s a precondition of war that we view other people as fundamentally different from ourselves,” Zimmerman says. “It’s a pre-condition of literature that we view other people as fundamentally the same as ourselves.”

The thousand tales are part of the lore of the golden age of Baghdad, which is of course the city nearly destroyed in the aftermath of the US invasion of 2003. The wind carries the news in this play; we are not apart from the present. Or the past. All the stories here, about lovers who lose each other, about people who save and forgive each other, about the roar of jokes and situations, all recreate the glorious past of the legendary ruler Harun al Rashid. But they are also stories about ourselves.

“I hope that’s what happens,” Zimmerman says. “I hope those acts of recognition occur.”

Not to dwell on it, but there is a tale about a prominent citizen who at last decides to marry and is standing with his bride at the altar, when he is struck by a paroxysm of gas convulsions. What ensues is an extended, agonizing fart joke, every bit as rude as “Blazing Saddles”, but also touching, finished off by a classic vaudevillian punch line. It’s pretty simple, old men and young men, women and children all laugh at fart jokes. It’s our universal kismet, so to speak.

There are sweeter and equally universal moments in this play. With Zimmerman, we’re always on a wooden toy boat, going back and forth in time, on perilous journeys, on an adventure that makes us richer for the trip.

“Arabian Nights” runs at Arena Stage’s Fichandler in the Mead Center for American Theater through February 20. [gallery ids="99597,105022" nav="thumbs"]

Martin McDonagh and the Druids come to Studio Theatre

Forget what you thought you knew about Irish lit, Irish mores and Irish culture; the stuff you learned by way of John Ford and Victor McLaglen and the likes of all that.

The Druids are here. Temporarily, this time, but they’ll be back.

That would be Druid Theatre Company and the Atlantic Theatre Company out of Galway, embarked on a national tour of these United States. They are in town for a second visit here at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through this weekend, with a staging of Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”

McDonagh, the brash, storytelling whiz and star Irish playwright, is at the core of this company, which is producing some of the finest theater in the world.

For Druid general manager Tim Smith, the trip is a treat.

“I would never want to be anything else,” says Smith, a Londoner who seems to have acquired a bit of a Galway lilt in his voice. “I don’t aspire to writing plays, acting, that side of things. This is a dream job. You get to be around and work with so many gifted people, travel a lot—like this trip to the States. See what that’s all about.”

The Druid Theater Company has been under the direction of Garry Hynes for years. The company is also under the spell Ireland’s two pre-eminent contemporary playwrights, McDonough and Enda Walsh, and it has become a force in Ireland and in the theater world, presenting a high profile alternative to the Abbey and Dublin tradition in Ireland.

“The theater company’s been around a relatively long time, but they’re cutting edge and new, in a different setting operating with a distinct style, with a new generation of Irish playwrights,” Smith says. “They’re very smart here, and we’ve been very well received in the States.”

McDonagh, whose work has been seen at the Studio Theater, most recently with the woozy tall tale “The Seafarer,” about four besotted and befuddled Irishmen playing poker with the devil in a war for one of the men’s souls. By McDonagh’s standards, it was somewhat lighter fare, although “The Cripple of Inishmaan” also has his characteristic blend of sometimes profane, cruel humor, heartbreak and hooliganism, sadness and mirth, hope and vainglory. It is about a small town on the coast of Ireland subsisting on half-baked dreams until a Hollywood movie company led by the great documentarian Robert Flaherty arrives to film the natives.

It is Irish to the core, what with characters named Billy Claven (the cripple), and BabbyBobby, Mammy O’Dougal, Kate, JohnnyPateenMike, Slippy Helen, and Doctor McSharry.

McDonagh, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, is a big star on the theater horizon, with four productions staged by Druid, including “A Beheading in Spokane,” “The Pillowman,” “The Lieutenant Of Inishmore” and “The Cripple of Inishmaan”. Other plays by McDonagh include “A Skull in Connemar ” and “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” performed at the Studio with Nancy Robinette in the title role.

“He’s definitely a part of the core of what we do here,” Smith says. “Druid is representative of a kind of Irish new wave, that’s for sure, along with Enda Walsh, whose work kicks off a festival in the spring called “New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival.” The Studio Theater will have Walsh’s “Penelope” beginning March 25 and running through April 3.

The festival also includes two other Walsh plays, an appearance by Walsh herself, as well as Garry Hynes, the only woman to ever win a Tony for direction and other events.

“The Carpetbagger’s Children” at Ford’s Theatre

When Kimberly Schraf, Holly Twyford and Nancy Robinette come back onto the set to take their final bows for their work in Horton Foote’s “The Carpetbagger’s Children” at Ford’s Theatre, you expect a whole bunch of people to follow them on out—Texas townspeople, family members, momma and poppa, brother and brother-in-law, swindlers and Confederates, best friends, children, sharecroppers, and lost loves and friends.

Nobody shows up of course, but they’ve been there through the whole hour and a half of this intimate, epic play, rich in stories, rich in language, rich in real people and ghosts.

That’s what happens when you marry a trio of gifted actresses—and these women are among Washington’s finest—to gorgeous writing, and a playwright’s ability to evoke a sense of place through memory and spoken stories.

Foote, who died last year, was among the top tier of American playwrights, not just by his output, which was large, but by his particular gift, which was to revisit the Texas places in which he grew up, delve into his own life and memories and, with writing tinged with hard-scrabbled poetry, bring to life characters that were universally American.

He didn’t always play by the rules, and he didn’t always play to the expectations of audiences. What fame he had seemed to come mostly from his screenplay writing and movies made of his plays. He wrote the screenplay for “To Kill a Mockingbird.” His play “The Trip to Bountiful” got a best actress Oscar for the late Geraldine Page.

Some critics have had trouble with the way Foote tells the story of the three sisters (and a fourth who’s never seen, but often brought up). The suggestion is that “The Carpetbagger’s Daughters” isn’t really a play, but a series of monologues. While that’s technically true, the work moves like a play, walks like a play and talks like a play. And it has the emotional impact of a play and story, so by my definition it is a play, and a fine, beautiful one at that.

So yes, the three sisters: Cornelia, the practical one, played with exasperation and a certain and affecting lonely reserve by Kimberly Schraf; Grace Anne, the one that got married, played with challenging rue by Nancy Robinette; and Sissie, the baby, played with utterly engaging charm by Holly Twyford. They all take turns pushing the story forward (and sometimes backward) by way of monologues. They are on stage against a dusty, open canvas background, together all of the time, but also apart. They rarely connect through dialogue exchange, but they do react subtly to what is being said and remembered.

The three are the daughters of a Union soldier who returned to the Texas town of Harrison as a carpetbagger after the Civil War’s end, taking on the critical position of tax collector, which allowed him to accumulate property cheaply, and to become an important figure in the cotton-land town over the years.

The monologues are a series of memories about getting from here to there. We never see momma and poppa, but we hear their voices, especially Momma who has by now passed through the gates of dementia.

The timeline takes us—through story and memory—from Reconstruction all the way through World War II, and along the way the usual tribulations occur. Right off the bat, Cornelia recalls the death of another sister, taken home from New Orleans after coming down with a mysterious and eventually fatal illness. Cornelia recalls how the townspeople gathered up straw and laid it down in the streets to prevent the wagon, which carried the sick sister, from jarring.

The story, told matter of factly and with a sad precision, sets the tone. Things never stop happening: Grace Ann, against her father’s wishes, marries a man without sharpness or ambitio. Cornelia takes over the running of the estate. Poppa dies. Sissie marries and becomes a mother. Love is not requited. Children grow up and move away. And Momma cannot figure out whose dead and who’s alive.

The town changes, fortunes are made and lost, and secrets eventually come out. The sisters—through a nod here, a raised eyebrow or head—do indeed communicate. When Twyford takes the stage for the first time as Sissie, the mood becomes light, sunny and sweet. She spreads warmth around through her personality on a family that sometimes badly needs it.

People get older—there are more funerals than weddings—and the land itself is eventually changed. Cornelia recalls telling the sharecroppers that she was giving in to technology and forcing them off the land they had worked for decades.

It seems like a small play because of the structure, perhaps, because of the way the women speak, intimately plowing memory like a farmer plows the land. They are personal stories, broken up by momma’s need to hear Sissie sing “The Clanging Bells of Time” so frequently.

This is the first time that these three actresses have shared a change, which is at once unbelievable and momentous. They live up to the expectations, using the monologues as a connection to each other. There is always “Lear” or “The Three Sisters” to offer a chance to reprise the occasion in a different way.

Kris Kristofferson: The Rye and Rueful Man’s Man


-You’d have to be damn near blind not to see what Kris Kristofferson looked like, even from a distance in the concert hall at the Music Center at Strathmore.

He’s got bluejeans, boots, somewhat unruly white hair, a shirt, a guitar, a harmonica strapped to him. Each gray and white strand of his beard is full of all the days of good and hard living, the cheers and the times when they might have stopped. It’s a past-70 beard, honestly earned, carefully combed by this singer-songwriter-movie star. It’s a beard, along with the voice that goes with it—raspy as a barking junkyard dog—perfect for the songs he sings.

Look him up on Wikepedia sometimes, and you have to wonder how a guy who’s done everything short of skiing down the Himalayas after seeing the wise man can write such rye and rueful songs. In his songs, which are mostly about him and the folks he’s met, loved and lost along the way, there is a certain amount of regret going on. But there’s also a lot of honest feeling, manly gut checks, and a certain sense of having let go of way too many worthy women.

Here is a guy who started out as an army brat, went to Oxford, was a captain in the U.S. Army, traveled around, was offered a job as a professor of English literature at West Point, did dishes and swept hallways as a janitor in Nashville, and wrote songs that everybody else sang and made hits out of. You know: “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” “Me and Bobby McKee,” ”Loving Her Was Easier,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Why Me.”

And in the process he became a movie star, a handsome lad, catnip of the rugged sort that don’t go down easy. He played Billy the Kid with Sam Peckinpah directing, starred opposite Barbra Streisand and dated her, and survived all three experiences. He was Joplin’s swain for a while. He married a number of times, the result of which has been eight children and grandparent status. “This song,” he says of Daddy’s Song, “is for my children and their mommas.” He reminds me of E.E. Cummings’ Buffalo Bill poem now.

His voice doesn’t reach all the notes he’s composed, and it probably never did. But the emotions catch them just right, even now. “You know, he’s not much of a singer,” I hear a man tell the woman he’s with.

“Who the hell gives a damn?” she says, with just a little bite.

You suspect he’s got a lot of memories kicking around in there. He’s got a following still, a house full of Grammys and Country Music Awards, and legend status. He’s right up there now with Willie, Johnny, Merle, Waylon and the rest in the country music folk tales, even though his music spreads out over the land like a genre-less blanket.

He’s got a certain kind of audience. Guys around his age, perhaps a little younger, who look even less than he looks like his old self: his shirt off, waiting for James Coburn’s Pat Garrett to kill him, palling around with a knife-throwing kid named “The Kid.” The Kid, oddly, was Bob Dylan, who wrote the haunting “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” for that flick.

He loves the acoustics here at Strathmore—so much so that instead of playing a one-set concert, he opted for two, though ruefully, as always. “Man, this place is great,” he said. “I can hear every mistake I’m making.”

In his songs, he’s waking up with a hangover, he can’t find a restaurant that’s open, or scrounge up the quarter for a cup of coffee and “It’s Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Or he’s waking up in a strange bed and the woman he’s been with just shut the door on her way out, and Bobby McGee has slipped away in Memphis “looking for a home, and I hope she finds it.”

The guys in the audience cheer him on, not too loudly. He’s singing their stories too, I’m willing to bet. And maybe he’s singing parts of mine. A couple of guys are sitting next to me. They get the walk he walks and the songs he sings. The songs make up a kind of Superbowl of manly broken hearts and missed chances. In front of me is a young guy with a pretty young, long-and-dark haired girl, kind of generic. He’s in uniform from some other small-town time, the tight blue jeans hung a little low, a clean white shirt, a near-duck tailed haircut and a look-around-challenging kind of look. He hasn’t accumulated a single regret, except maybe dropping a pass in the open field once or twice. Might have been Kristofferson, growing up in Texas.

The Women of Washington Theater

We interviewed Holly Twyford, Nancy Robinette and Kimberly Schraf, the stars of Horton Foote’s “The Carpetbagger’s Daughters,” now completing its run at Ford’s Theater a few days before it opened.

The three women were going to go back to rehearsal again and they were a little frustrated.

“We are so eager for an audience,” Holly Twyford said, sitting with fellow actresses Nancy Robinette and Kimberly Schraf. “We don’t really know how we are doing in relation to an audience. There’s just us.”

“We invited some people to a dress rehearsal,” said Shraf, “just so we can get an idea.”

“In this play you can’t really work off of each other,” Robinette said. “The structure of the play, time is critical. It’s about what people remember and how those memories can be different.”

Sitting at a table at the Ford’s Theater with these three, you’re a little awe-struck. Together and apart, these three women are part of the life and lore of Washington’s theater history, key figures in the rise of theaters like the Studio Theater, the Shakespeare Company, Woolly Mammoth, Round House, Arena, and Signature. Name a theater, functioning or not, and chances are one of them at least has performed there.

When we talked to them, they were only a few days away from the opening of Horton Foote’s “The Carpetbaggers’ Children,” a three-character play in which they play sisters who remember their youth and their father, who had moved west to take over a plantation in Texas after the Civil War. That the characters are sisters talking about their father leaves dry-dust flavorings of “King Lear” and “The Three Sisters,” Texas style.

The three know each other very well and they know of each other. You can sense a tremendous respect and affection that they have for each other, something that seems to spring naturally out of the experience of preparing a play for which they are the key ingredients.

They’re a little shy about giving away what makes this play such a challenge and why a real audience is to be so desired. “It’s the memory thing,” Robinette said. “They don’t really talk to each other in the play. Rather, we all have longish monologues, talking about our father, about how he died, the funeral.”

“But Foote is such a wonderful writer, he had such a sense of place, those places in Texas that he wrote about all of his life,” Schraf said. “So the words are wonderful. They’re so evocative.”

“With Foote, and with the monologues, one of the most important things you can do, you HAVE to do, is listen,” Twyford said. “We barely interact. We listen to what the others say, and that’s a different kind of acting.”

When it comes to different kinds of acting, all three have had considerable experience. Among Washington theatergoers, Twyford and Robinette are vivid and fairly constant presences, working furiously from one play to the next. This is proof enough of the growing strength of Washington’s professional theater scene, in which a growing number of actors are booked a year, sometimes two years in advance.

Twyford and Robinette and Schraf are, regardless of whatever else they might have done, Washington theater people. Sitting across from Twyford and Robinette, I get an odd sense of familiarity, as if we’re long-time friends. If you write about the theater, of course, this is a natural feeling. With them, you feel as if you’ve spent a lot of time together.

Twyford’s voice and looks are distinctive. Her voice is a little raspy and husky, at turns funny, empathic and beguiling. Robinette emanates cautious warmth, but that impression may be because you tend to remember the characters she’s played—women who make an impression, who are like nobody else, especially when embodied by her.

Schraf is perhaps less familiar, but at Ford’s she has worked quite a bit, with major parts in “Member of the Wedding” and the recent, sharply successful “Sabrina Fair.” “Actually, when I was approached for this, I suggested them,” she said. “It’s just so great to work together.”

Surprisingly, what with all the history and exposure, Twyford and Robinette have never worked together before, and Twyford has never been seen on the Ford stage. Everybody, of course, goes to the Helen Hayes Awards, where Robinette and Twyford make frequent trips to the stage to receive acting awards on a regular basis. Schraf has had two recent nominations.

What they represent, though, is the cream of the crop among Washington actors, all very distinct and unique, but nonetheless, characterized by a strong pride in what they do and the community they work in. Schraf has the distinction of having worked in two productions of the play “The Women,” one at Arena and one at Studio. Twyford played Beatrice, Juliet and one of four Hamlets at the Folger…and yes, a tap-dancing pig at Adventure Theater. Robinette is known for eccentric, off-kilter women who leave a mark on the memory, particularly her performance as Florence Foster Jenkins, the society matron who wanted to sing in “Souvenirs”.

“You saw that?” she asked. “Well, you missed something. I fell off coming off the stage on one of my exits.” That would have been memorable, but her performance was more than sufficient to stay in my mind.

“I’m the baby,” Twyford says of her part in “The Carpetbaggers Children”

“That means she gets away with saying things,” Robinette says.

“Kimberly is the most empathic, the most articulate among us,” Twyford says. “She says things straight and on the mark.”

All of them, at one time or another, have done other things, tried out here and there, been in films or television or done audio book reading. Most folks in the Washington theater scene have. They are not movie stars, but they’re the stars of every play they’re in.

You think, remembering the play(s) you’ve seen them in, they can do pretty much anything. And that is probably true. They’re grounded now in family, in relationships, in parenthood.

On stage they can become Birdie of “The Little Foxes,” tough, strong women of “The Women,” Russian molls, femme fatales, dotty ladies or fierce mothers. Whatever they do, it will be in that singular manner that defines them and makes them memorable to us.

Robinette and Twyford will both move on after this to other plays, Twyford doing her first role at the Shakespeare Company. “Nothing so far,” says Schraf, shrugging. “I’m available, as they say.”

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Edward Albee & Tennessee Williams

In the annals of 20th-Century American theater history, there are few playwrights more influential, more continually fascinating to theatergoers and theater makers, than Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.

If there is a hierarchy of American playwrights, then Williams and Albee belong in the highest tier, along with Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller, for their strong, echoing and expansive bodies of work, an output that rarely dates in reading or performing, and continues to draw the attention of generations of theater artists.

Both playwrights are getting their full due in two ambitious, wide-reaching, far-flung local festivals. Arena stage will be hosting a two-month long Edward Albee festival. And “The Glass Menagerie Project” at Georgetown University, which runs through March 27 and picks up again in the summer, is part of a nationwide Tennessee Williams Centennial Festival.

There’s a vital, live-wire connection between the two festivals—“The Glass Menagerie Project” is part of an Arena Stage/Georgetown partnership and will be picked up again in June at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. And both festivals will be graced with the in-person presence of Albee.

The Arena Stage Edward Albee Festival kicks off with a visit from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago and its electrifying production of Albee’s most produced and famous play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Starring Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts as George and Amy Morton as Martha, it will be running in the Kreeger Theater February 25 – April 10.

Meanwhile and simultaneously, Arena Stage itself is mounting “At Home at the Zoo,” which will be performed in the Arlene and Robert Komodo Cradle February 25 — April 24.

That double bill would normally count as a mini-festival and ambitious project in itself. But wait, there’s more. Beginning in March and running through the end of April, 16 theater companies will present staged readings of Albee’s works. The readings, by such companies as the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Theater J, Taffety Punk, Round House Theatre, American Century Theater and Forum Theatre, with directors like Irene Lewis, Howard Shalwitz, Wendy C Goldberg and Amy Freed, are free, but reservations are required.

The readings will include “Lolita,” “Fragments,” “The Lady from Dubuque,” “Marriage Play,” “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” “The American Dream,” “Tiny Alice,” “The Play About the Baby,” “Three Tall Women,” “A Delicate Balance,” “Seascape,” and Albee’s version of Carson McCuller’s “The Ballad of the Sad Café.”

In addition, Albee will be honored with the presentation of the American Artist Award on March 14, in “An Evening with Edward Albee.”

Albee will also be present at Georgetown, appearing at Gaston Hall in a conversation with Susan Stamberg, a special correspondent for National Public Radio, talking about his perspectives on the work and influence of Tennessee Williams. The conversation will include performances from leading actors, curated by Albee himself. (March 24)

“The Glass Menagerie Project,” presented by the Georgetown Theater and Performance Studies Program, is a re-envisioning of what is generally considered Williams’ most autobiographical work, a work often called a “memory play.” The project—really a Williams festival—will include performances, discussions and events intended to illuminate Williams’ most familiar and perhaps least controversial play.

The project, of course, will feature a production of “The Glass Menagerie,” starring Georgetown theater professor and one of Washington’s most luminous, gifted actresses, Sarah Marshall as Amanda Wingfield. The show will be directed by Professor Derek Goldman and runs February 24 – March 27 at GU’s Davis Performing Arts Center’s Gonda Theater.

Other special productions and events include appearances by playwright Christopher Durang (who wrote “For Whom the Southern Bell Tolls,” a takeoff on “Menagerie”), and a performance of “Camino Real,” Williams’ most gaudy and mysterious play March 26. There will be readings, discussion, and plays throughout the festivals.

Among a trio of readings on March 26 is “Mister Paradise” directed by Joy Zinoman and featuring Ted Van Griethuysen.

Albee’s presence at both festivals should be electric, illuminating and haunting. Williams died in 1983, seemingly played out, but his plays continued to be performed everywhere, including as part of a notable Tennessee Williams festival at the Kennedy Center.

Albee and Williams both concerned themselves with aspects of that big theater theme, love—sexual, romantic and any otherwise. As such, many of their plays were considered controversial at the time of their debuts. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with its plum, rich and profane language and sexual themes, had to be cleaned up a little for the movie version. Years later, “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” still had walkouts at its performance at Arena Stage because it was about…well, a man who loved a goat.

Williams’ later plays, like the classic “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Sweet Bird of Youth” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” with its overt references to gay themes and violent incidents, were also controversial, while featuring grand roles for women, a Williams trademark.

Both of them continue to be influential writers and playwrights with their body of work, much of which will be celebrated in the two festivals. Go to for details on the Albee festivals and for more on Williams.
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Madama Butterfly Comes to the Washington National Opera

Spring is on its way to Washington. And if we need a sign of spring—and a beautiful, highly anticipated one—we’ve got the Washington National Opera’s “Madame Butterfly.” Puccini’s enduring, tragic opera, although critically blasted in its first version over a century ago, has proven to be perhaps the one opera in the canon that is loved even by those who say they hate opera.

“Madame Butterfly” kicks off the second half of the WNO season Saturday, February 26 and runs for a phenomenal 14 performances through March 19, with two world-renowned sopranos sharing the role.

“I would guess that maybe along with ‘Carmen,’ ‘Tosca’ and ‘La Boheme,’ ‘Madame Butterfly’ is probably one of the most recognizable and beloved operas, and probably lands on more schedules than any other,” said Christina Scheppelman, Director of Artistic Operations at the WNO. “Certainly it’s popular. That’s why there are more performance dates. But it’s a great work of art. Let’s face it, it has brilliant, gorgeous music, and like the others mentioned, they’re tragic, romantic stories. If you don’t cry in ‘Madame Butterfly,’ you’re perhaps not quite human.”

“Madame Butterfly” kicks off the latter part of a season as part of a trio of high-profile operas and other events, and it’s bound to seem just a little bittersweet.

On July 1, the WNO will enter into a contract with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts which will affiliate the two organizations, a move that will strengthen the missions of both organizations, according to officials from both groups, and will certainly be a boon for the WNO in terms of financial stability. But it remains a major change in a time of major changes at the WNO, after the announced departure of Artistic Director and renowned singer Placido Domingo back in September. Domingo has been the face of the WNO since becoming Artistic Director in 1996, as well as serving as General Director for the last eight years.

In addition to “Madame Butterfly,” two other operas are on the spring menu, and of particular interest will be “Iphigenie en Tauride,” by Christoph Willibald Gluck, a company premiere for the WNO. This show also offers a chance to see and hear Domingo as the great performer that he is, in the starring role as Oreste.

“This is certainly a highlight of the season,” Scheppelman said. “It’s always a major occasion when Domingo performs here, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last time.”

“Iphigenie en Tauride” is rooted in Greek tragedy. It is the story of Iphigenie, the high priestess of Taurus, as she is faced with impossible choices—often the case in Greek tragedy and opera (see “Madame Butterfly”). But the opera, with its soaring, emotional music has enjoyed a renaissance of late, and the WNO is catching the crest of its wave.

“Iphigenie en Tauride” will have eight performances, May 6 – 28, and “Don Pasquale,” the great comic opera by Donizetti, will be performed for eight performances, from May 13 – 17, with James Morris in the title role.

Thereis also the Placido Domingo Celebrity Series, in which contemporary and rising opera stars get a chance to perform solo. It kicks off this weekend on Sunday with tenor Juan Diego Florez and continues with the great Welsh Bass Baritone Bryn Terfel, conducted by Domingo on March 12.

But it’s “Madame Butterfly” that will be the chief attraction in town, which is expected to get big audiences with its tragic, super-romantic theme, its heart-breaking arias, its exotic and historic setting.

Here’s the scoop, in case you don’t know: a handsome 19th century American naval officer named Pinkerton, hungry for a variety of romantic experience, lands in Nagasaki and meets Cio-Cio-San—the butterfly—a young, naïve teenage Geisha. He makes her his temporary wife. She is rapturously in love—always a perfect state of mind for singing arias—but Pinkerton, a cad of the highest order, departs with promises to return, leaving Butterfly behind, with a child. Eventually, he does return, but with an American wife. The climax is about as sad as things can get, and therefore musically and emotionally perfect for audiences.

Two of today’s most acclaimed sopranos, Ana Maria Martinez and Catherine Nagelstadt, will be performing the title role during the course of the WNO run, each with special qualities and gifts. This is Naglestad’s debut as Butterfly, but she is a veteran of Puccini’s operas, and it’s the second time around for Martinez.

Tenors Alexey Dolgov and Thiago Arancam share the role of Pinkerton. Domingo and Philippe Auguin will conduct, and Ron Daniels directs.

Scheppelman has seen numerous performances of “Butterfly” over the years, not counting rehearsals.

“It never gets old. It never fails to move the heart,” she said. “Certainly, companies inevitably will put it on their schedules. It’s a great audience draw, and it’s a demanding opera for the performers.”

Twisting Corridors of a Deranged Suburbia, in Woolly Mammoth’s “House of Gold”


-“House of Gold” has closed its doors, shutters, and weird basement entrance down at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, but I will say this: it lingers.

The new play by Gregory S. Moss—which got a world premiere production at Woolly—is not a terrific play. It surely is not a classic, well-made play, and it doesn’t even make any kind of narrative sense. But it pushes your buttons, and they’re the buttons you don’t usually wear out in public.

Director Sarah Benson and a production design that seemed to have been made by a nervous student on some unidentifiable drugs—and that’s a compliment—plus a cast with some gifted actors, put the show together as if they were all throwing a big bag of goo on the wall to see what sticks. A lot of it did, or I wouldn’t be thinking about it still.

“House of Gold” is ostensibly about the infamous, shameful and still unsolved—and therefore still haunting—Jonbenet Ramsey murder case, in which a six-year Colorado beauty queen contestant was found strangled in the basement of her home. The case—incomprehensibly sad, icky, sensational—touched all kinds of nerves in the country, and created a tsunami of celebrity publicity that washed over the whole country and left everybody feeling a little dirty.

Suspicions fell on the parents under a cloud because they had entered their little blonde girl in the wheezy world of children’s beauty contests, in which little girls are dressed up like grown up Barbie dolls, with a full arsenal of lipstick, teased hair and makeup. The mother first called it a kidnapping complete with a ransom note, a grand jury investigation was launched, and the parents Patsy and John Bennett Ramsey, were eventually cleared. Nearly ten years later, Patsy died of cancer. Months after that, a school teacher named John Mark Karr confessed to the murder, but DNA evidence nixed his claim.

Through it all, the paparazzi, the media, the scandal bees, show biz shows and Billy Bush wannabes had a carnivorous carnival feast. The case had all the hot buttons, the underbelly-of-America nightmares and daymares you could want: the queasy child beauty contests, the constant rumors, gossip and television appearance by cops, the parents, investigators and, for all I remember, seers and Sesame Street fans, psychics, psychologists, celebrity mag “reporters,” and thousands of people pretending to be insiders inside of the looking glass.

“House of Gold” touches on all of that, sometimes like a mosquito, sometimes like a fully engaged bloodsucker, sometimes in ways not imagined. Not only is the case front and center, but so is the picture of a middle class enthralled by cop and CSI shows with all the bones, guts and blood.

It’s hinky, it’s kinky, and it’s downright disturbing. The best thing in “House of Gold” was the performance by Kaaron Briscoe, a smallish, youthful-looking African American actress as “the girl,” aka Jonbenet, decked out in a distressing blonde Goldilocks wig, but also with a keen awareness of the disastrous vibes emanating from her own impending tragedy. I wouldn’t have said it upon first look, but the casting and performances sticks with you like a sad song at a piano bar.

There are scenes that ought to all but make you throw up, no more so then when a detective pulls out the child’s innards at an autopsy. There’s a lot of shock-schlock here. There’s the bullying, hopeless, overweight, wannabe friend Jasper, tormented at the hands of the Apollonian Boys, the worst the suburbs offer up. There’s the parents going at each other, not like the Cleavers, but with verbal cleavers. There is one Joseph M. Lonely, who entices Jonbenet into the basement by way of his van.

We never quite see the room—we see her peering out sometimes—as it is designed with glimpsing angles, like the set from “The Cabinet of Caligari,” the German expressionist silent movie. The rest is video, which is as it should be.

I think “House of Gold” is probably one of those plays that won’t endure as literature; you have to have seen it to disbelieve it. But the play itself threw some light, some hint of the event’s enduring power to fascinate, and hints at the stuff we’ve been fed ever since.

This is cutting-edge theater all right. The kind of cuts made with a knife dripping drool and blood and the remains of compassion.