“Return to Haifa” at Theater J

July 26, 2011

When is a theater company more than a theater company? When does a play become something more than a play?

The answer to the first question is Theater J. Under Artistic Director Ari Roth and working out of the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street, Theater J has become something much more than a theater company, presenting plays that are both universal and specific to the Jewish community.

Roth—in cooperation with many other artists and patrons—has taken this specific mission and enlarged it by using the theater to reach out and become involved in the great Middle Eastern issues of conflict, specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which resonates as a critical and unresolved problem.

Roth has done this in a number of ways, including the creation of the Peace Café with Iraqi-born restaurateur and arts patron Andy Shalala. The Peace Café is a gathering occasion for Jews, Arabs, Palestinians and others to meet and discuss ongoing Middle Eastern issues peacefully.

The answer to the second question is a play called “Return to Haifa,” adapted by Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon from the novella by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani. The show is now being performed by the renowned visiting Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater and Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts at the JCC.

More generally, “Return to Haifa” is the the weightiest matter and main attraction in Theater J’s Fourth Annual Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival, which includes a series of nine one-night events, readings and performances from and about the Middle East (running through February 17). “Return to Haifa,” a remarkable, brave, emotionally stirring play, runs through January 30.

All of these combined efforts on the part of Roth and his theatrical conspirators are to take part in peaceful happenings that try to famliarize the “others” by bringing them together through art, culture and lively discussion.

In “Haifa” and in the festival there is an arena where this sort of thing happens—and not necessarily painlessly. The modern conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has its roots in ancient history, in the debate about the ownership of land, culture and history.

All of those issues come into play in “Return to Haifa.” It is based on a work by a Palestinian writer named Ghassan Kanafani, who once wrote a moving fictional story about a Holocaust survivor in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War. The war ended in a remarkable Israeli military victory bearing strategic but poisoned fruit: the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. The result turned Kanafani into something of a militant and spokesperson for the PLO. He was killed with his young niece in 1972, allegedly by the Mossad.

Those bits of history, which you can find in the program for “Haifa” alone, ought to give audiences an idea of just how startling the presence of this play is at a Jewish Community Center.

Performed by a splendid Israeli theater company, there is dialogue spoken in Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles. It touches nerves like a live wire. It is discomforting, painful and difficult. It has the potential for healing and opening hearts, but the process is pain-inducing, depending on where you sit.

The play is acted at an emotional level that manages to overcome the difficulty of following the languages and translations. The acting is direct, subtle and all-consuming, creating an atmosphere that resembles emotively the power and function of music in an opera.

“Haifa” is about memory, and the ownership of memories and place. It concerns a Palestinian couple named Sa’id and Saffiyeh, who are coming to Haifa from Ramallah to revisit the home they abandoned in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, which displaced thousands of Palestinians. They also left behind an infant they had named Khaldun. Miriam, who was granted the house by the Jewish authorities with her husband Ephraim, is now in residence, along with a son named Dov, who is in the Israeli army.

Dov is the son left behind by the Palestinian couple, raised as a Jew. The father has passed away, but Miriam is here to confront Sa’id and Saffiyeh.

This might sound like classic melodrama, and ways it is: lost birth rights, lost children, lost homes, confrontations with the past. Nevertheless, it comes with the power of an earthquake to raise timeless issues still causing bloodshed today. A similar thing occurred in Germany when “Holocaust,” an American-made mini-series starring Meryl Streep, was broadcast. The series was melodramatic, and therefore had the power not only to resurrect the ghosts of the past, but to make Germans confront the human issues, the cost, and the suffering by way of in an individual story, not just impossible statistics.

“Haifa” is a lot less simple than pure melodrama because it deals with the morality of justice and the inconsistent nature of memory. At the time of the 1948 war, for instance, with space scarce, and only incoming Jews from Europe with a child could own a house. The baby left behind gave Miriam ownership of the house. Miriam had also lost a child in the Holocaust.

And there is the eternal conflict, with so many unresolved grievances on both sides that it beggars description. Yet “Haifa” attempts to do just that; it describes what is lost, what seems irreconcilable, what is hopeful and what is not. When Dov, going to sleep, insists there will be no more wars, he is wrong and naïve, but he embraces the right impulse.

Every conflict—from the original 1948 War, to through the Suez War, the 1967 War, the Yom Kippur War, the PLO Wars, the Lebanese Wars, the Intifadah—provides another cache of grief and grievances for future generations.

“Haifa” looks inside that cache and finds humanity, and that’s thanks to the actors. It’s not always easy to follow the back and forth; concentrate on the subtitles and you lose some of the emotional force of the acting, and vice versa. You can lose strings and strands of what is at stake by missing the meaning.

But the cast, notably Rozina Kambos and Raida Adon (as Miriam and Saffiyeh, respectively) override such consideration. They sweep you away by letting you feel the emotions as well as their details. That is a remarkable achievement of theater.

Readings for the “Voices from a Changing Middle East: Portraits of Home” include:
“The Promise”, by Ben Brown, January 31
“To Pay the Price”, by Peter-Adrian Cohen, February 5
“I’m Speaking to You Chinese” by Savyon Liebrecht, February 7
“Wresting Jerusalem:” by Aaron Davidman, February 12
“Hour of Feeling” and “Urge for Going”, by Mona Mansour, February 14
“The Admission” by Motti Lerner, February 27
The 10th Anniversary of the Peace Café will be celebrated with a one-time production and reprise of “Via Dolorosa” by David Hare, which launched the discussion program ten years ago.

“Candide” at the Harman Center

Washington’s theater season ended in an embarrassment of riches, especially for anyone who loves full-bodied productions of musicals.

We had not one but two productions of classic Rodgers and Hammerstein fare—Molly Smith’s wondrous staging of “Oklahoma”, which managed to honor the original in spirit with a freshness that made it a perfect launch for Arena’s impressive new, $100 million plus digs at the Mead Center for Theater Arts, and the touring company of “South Pacific” still present at the Kennedy Center, a rousing production both entertaining and emotionally strong.

If that wasn’t enough there was Andrew Lloyd Weber’s dark musical of “Sunset Boulevard” at Signature Theater and a warmly received and popular staging of “Annie” at Olney Theater.

In the middle of this bag of musical goodies, the Goodman Theater-Shakespeare Theater Company co-production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” stood out because it seemed almost to be a brand new show, and a kind of climax to the burst of musical theater, an extra goodie that went well beyond the standard of what we might expect out of musical theater.

“Candide” has its own pedigree, it’s mythology and history in Broadway lore, although not necessarily of the splendid kind. It had all kinds of big names attached to it, the most important of which was the music, composed by Leonard Bernstein. There was Voltaire, the author of the slim, cautionary 18th-century Enlightenment novel about a naïf whose life becomes one long illustration of Murphy’s Law after another. It had all kinds of additional literary heavyweights attached to it—Lillian Hellman, the playwright noted for “The Little Foxes” and acid wit chief among them, but also poet Richard Wilbur and a not-so-well-known lyricist named Stephen Sondheim, who would join up with Bernstein on “West Side Story”. “Candide” opened on Broadway in 1956 to little in-the-seats action, and lasted only for two months.

But “Candide” had legs—first as a best-selling cast album, then repeated revivals that kept the show in the public eye and mind of another generation of directors and talents. Now we have a new “Candide”, and this one clearly is the work of one chef—that is besides the glorious music and vision of Bernstein—and that would be director Mary Zimmerman, who knows a little something about epic theater.

Because “Candide” in spite being based on a slight—page-wise—volume, is an epic, it’s a great, rueful, adventure, a tale of journey’s embarked upon in the search of such verities as true love, and “the best of all possible worlds” in a world that , to any reasonable eyes and hearts, is no fit place for such notions.

Candide is a young man of dubious lineage who lives in a privileged world, is in love Cunegonde, the daughter of the lord of the manor somewhere in France. To these two, it seems they were born to be each other’s true love. This naiveté is aided and abetted by their tutor, who teaches them that they live in the best of all possible worlds, as they all sing happily.

Instead, because of his love for the spritely, slightly dizzy Cunegonde, Candide is kicked penniless out of the castle, drafted by an invading army, helped by a kindly Protestant type, and is re-united with Cunegonde whom he believed to be dead, and worse, raped. She’s gone up or sideways in the world, being the mistress of two men including a high-ranking cleric in the local inquisition. He ends up killing both men almost by accident, and off they go into the even crueler world, accompanied by the re-found tutor, and an older woman wise to the world, a kind of funny, lusty Mother Courage type. Their journeys take them to South America, where Candide manages to find El Dorado, gain and lose a fortune; lose Cunegonde again, before ending up once again in Europe, where he finds his true love older, defeated, and a slave to the Turks, along with his tutor and her brother. Freeing them takes the last of the gold he found in El Dorado, and so they end up becoming urban farmers, much, much sadder, and wiser.

Zimmerman tells this story—which tracks across a number of years and two continents—with a vast, shining set, puppets, and miniatures, tools which she used to great, magical effect in her production o f “The Argonauts” here. The style always steals up to the border of being awkwardly silly, but it never falls into the obvious trap. Instead, the story, based more firmly in Voltaire’s novel than in Hellman’s contemporary politics, moves along like a grand tale, a memory of a story told around a campfire, it’s told with great, almost cinematic zest.

The music is Bernstein’s elevated Broadway fare, with a tinge of his operatic work, sweeping, difficult to sing at times and always to the point and engaging. The music has a big wing-span that embraces the naivety of “The Best of All Possible Worlds”, to the slap-in-the-face irony of “A Fine Day for an Auto-Da-Fe”, to the Brechtian “I am Easily Assimilated” to the heartbreaking “Make Our Gardens Grow”, which is a kind of majestic solace of a song.

It’s a wonderful show to look at (love those red lambs) and it’s driven by two beguiling young performers, Geoff Packard as the breathless hero Candide and Lauren Molina as Cunegonde. Both of them are high-energy, youthful players and gifted singers, especially Molina, who tackles the rousing and rangy “Glitter and Be Gay”, a song which has a life of its own as a kind of testing game for sopranos. Molina passes with flying colors.

For musicals at least, it’s been the best of all possible worlds in Washington.
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Septime Webre’s “Nutcracker”


-In a November 14 New York Times Arts and Leisure article by Alastair Macaulay, entitled “The Sugarplum Diet,” it was discovered that “The Nutcracker” had become an American holiday institution. Tchaikovsky’s snowflaked Russian masterpiece from the 19th century has become a staple and an icon of Christmas, USA, right alongside that most British of creations, “A Christmas Carol.” Here in Washington, you won’t find a more American “Nutcracker” than the one created by Septime Webre, the Artistic Director of the Washington Ballet, which has become a DC institution when it was first introduced in 2004.

“No question about it,” Webre said in a phone interview. “‘The Nutcracker’ has become an American Christmas tradition. It’s not being done in Europe as a Christmas thing. It’s a very American occasion—very much a part of the holidays. And yes, it’s a very traditionally popular program on our schedule, and I think every ballet and dance company in the country. It’s a big part of the business of ballet.”

Webre has taken Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet to his bosom and made it an American ballet. “I believe in community,” he said. “Washington is our community, and we try to reflect that in the production.”

“The Nutcracker” is a children’s fantasy that adults, parents, couples, and grandparents can and usually do enjoy. It revives their memories of childhood. “We’ve turned it into something of an American story,” Webre said. “The nutcracker hero has become George Washington, and the rat king has become George III so that the battle against the mice is kind of a Revolutionary War battle, with the mice being English soldiers.

“We’ve set the production at a Georgetown mansion very much like Dumbarton Oaks, and the second half of the ballet is set around the time of the cherry blossom blooming. And yes, there will be little cherry blossoms as well as sugar plum fairies. Some of the iconography of the original has been changed to become more American. There are Indians, for instance, and the kids receive toys like wooden horses and Indian headgear. It’s something we can all recognize.”

Plus, there will be some 300 children, all of them from the Washington Ballet’s education program, who will at one point or another be a part of the show. “That’s where the community comes in,” Webre said. “Certainly we have our interests, but this company, this institution that Mary Day created, we now reach out into all our schools through a special education program, and during the course of ‘The Nutcracker’ we can see the results of that.”

Webre, a gifted choreographer whose parents came to the United States from Cuba, remembers doing several roles in a performance at a beach in the Bahamas when he was a child. “We all remember ‘The Nutcracker,’” he said. “To me, it’s always about the children, about our own childhoods. Many children learn about etiquette of the theater going to see ‘The Nutcracker’. For many of us, it will be the first theater performance we’ve ever attended.”

Webre pointed out that the production will once again have “guest” performers present, which have included Ward 2 City Councilman Jack Evans, soprano Denyce Graves, and others.

“Having been artistic director now since 1999, one of the things I love to see, and you can do this with ‘The Nutcracker,’ is watching kids mature from being mice, or sugarplum fairies to taking on lead roles such as Clara. You get a parental pride out of that, and the other thing is, of course, that this is a coming of age story; it’s about Clara and her experiences and how she grows up.

“I believe the audience to some degree has to recognize themselves in theater,” Webre said. “You can see yourself in ‘The Nutcracker.’ Children do. We remember ourselves. There’s the great and familiar music, of course. There’s the beautiful costumes and sets. But it’s a story. You see a family celebrating the holiday—that warm atmosphere of giving and playing.”

That’s as American as apple pie.

This year’s production of “The Nutcracker,” at the Warner Theatre, runs December 2-26. Call 202-397-7382 for tickets.

“Black Watch” Brings War to the Stage with Grit, Style, and Wonder

War plays are tough, and not just because war is hell.

With perhaps the exception of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” there aren’t many plays that take place IN a war, in its atmosphere of tension and danger, portraying soldiers as they live and die. Certainly, there are few if any that deal with the immediacy of ongoing conflicts like Iraq or Afghanistan.

But the absolutely amazing new play, “Black Watch,” from the National Theatre of Scotland, breaks new ground in ways that will open your eyes like a splash of cold water. At turns tough and tender, gritty and realistic in its language, and powerfully theatrical in its style, “Black Watch” focuses on a unit of the legendary Scottish regiment while it served in the darker days of Iraq combat. The soldiers are distinctly Scottish in sound, uniform and history, but they open up a bright light that could easily fit the experience of American soldiers in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

War and combat aren’t easily accommodated on stage—they’re too big, too loud, too bloody, too incomprehensible, and too dangerous to deal with realistically. But the talented director John Tiffany has gotten around that problem by fusing movement, music and sounds. Mortars and explosions go off against the profane language of soldiers and the vague precision of military talk, coming up with a kind of theater that you’re not likely to have seen before.

Because the actors playing the soldiers are so good, natural and physical, the experience of the play—and the experience of the soldiers—gets a grip on your heart. It sweeps you away at times, bringing out both tender and angry feelings, and sharpening whatever ideas we might have about what has happened to American troops who fought in Iraq, as well as those still battling in the weathered, bleak outposts in Afghanistan.

Writer Gregory Burke interviewed Scottish veterans who served in the Iraq war and got some pungent, moving stories. Depending on where you’re sitting, you get a visceral feel for barracks life—the dirty talk, the razzing, the tension, the bitching about daily boredom broken up by patrols in armored cars, the occasional explosions, the frustrating combat and forays that result in casualties and no discernible triumphs.

This is not an anti-war play, nor is it a beat-your-chest patriotic piece about the war on terror. It’s a play about the life of a particular military unit, a proud, glory-rich unit in Scotland, and what that war was like for them.

The troops, uniformly speaking in rich, spit-full Scottish accents, comprise a cohesive group, almost a classic, clichéd combat squad. You have every type of soldier: experienced, naïve, short, tall, big and thin, blondes and brunettes, quiet and blustering. They come from the same places in Scotland, their points of references are the same, and to varying degrees, they’re proud of being in this regiment with its storied history.

You get the bull and tension of barracks, tents, day rooms, the fuzzy television, the lockers posted with porn, the sergeant who tries to be a leader to his men, the grizzled commander who stomps about like a square bowling ball. The lads are never anything less than real, but the environment is stylized: a pool table morphs into an armored vehicle, from which soldiers in full combat gear emerge, like the Marx Brothers tumbling out of a state room.

When the soldiers talk about home or recall their experiences to a reporter or rag each other mercilessly, the scenes are sharp, funny, crisp and dirty. Hearing them, listening to them, seeing them move around each other, you get a sense of them as individuals, like the two young looking, almost bratty duo of Kenzie and Fraz, thin, dark-haired bundles of energy, played by Scott Fletcher and Jamie Quinn, respectively. There’s Jack Lowden as the thoughtful, sometimes brooding Cammy, and Paul Higgins who plays both the sarge and a news reporter.

But Tiffany has added something, making the experience poignant and as new as a hungry baby. He has created movement, stylized and militaristic in the same breath; they are marches and forms of dance that hype the war with emotion, driven by powerful music. It can be a small thing—the boys passing a single letter from home around, for instance, and each man makes something of his own in how he touches, holds or reads the letter, before passing it on. There is a parade-style march that reaches a rhythmic tempo, which energizes the audience, and might make you want to enlist—at least on stage. Tiffany creates combat and battle this way too, and the effect is heart-breaking as they continue to march, some of them staggering, falling, picked up and caught like trapeze artists, always moving on and together.

The end effect is that when they suffer loss and losses, we, the audience, do too. That’s something new.

“Black Watch” is on a national tour here. It’s at the Shakespeare Theater Company’s Harman Hall through Sunday. Drop what you’re doing. Go see it while you can. Visit ShakespeareTheatre.org for more information.

A Not-So-Holiday Theater Roundup

Just because it’s the Christmas season, not everyone wants to be entertained by all things Christmas.

That’s true for theatergoers, who have more than enough Scrooges, Nutcrackers, Santa Clauses and elves than they probably need.

But take heart and beware of what you wish for. There’s plenty of theater fare that isn’t in the spirit of the holiday season, and which sheds a light on how we live today or how we used to live. Here’s a sampling.

The Studio Theater has a play by Traci Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning super-charged new writer who gave us the generational and family drama “August: Osage County.” The scale is smaller this time but no less human and acerbically funny. In the wonderfully titled “Superior Donuts,” Letts focuses on the fortunes and friendship between a grouchy, cantankerous white shop owner and a very ambitious black teenager in a changing Chicago neighborhood. The new friends bond over literature, of all things, and American economic values. And there are secrets. Aren’t there always.

This show has already been extended through January 2.

Also at the Studio, in its Stage 4 space, is “Mojo,” by Jez Butterworth. It’s all about London criminals, underground rock and roll and, of course, music and revenge in 1958. It runs through December 26.

“A Wrinkle in Time” is at once a fantasy of wish fulfillment and a quest that goes as far as it can possibly go (another planet). This whimsical theatrical adaptation by John Glare comes to life at the Round House Theater.

And if you’re really not in the mood for Joyous Noel at all, you can welcome back Cherry Red Productions, once Washington’s most outrageous theater group which returns after a number of years with “Wife Swappers,” by Justin Tanner of “Coyote Woman” fame. Despite its subject and some (all right, plenty of) nudity, this comic play about the doings of conservative types trying to get some sexual variety, is surprisingly operatic (think soap) and even sympathetic to its self-justifying characters who talk dirty, but see themselves as otherwise clean.

It’s nice (or dangerous) to have Cherry Red, Ian Allen, Chris Griffin and the gang back. After all, they gave us such plays as “Dingleberries” and “Zombie Attack,” to name a few. In the very intimate space of the DC Arts Center on 18th Street in Adams Morgan, through December 18.

There’s more than “Oklahoma” at Arena Stage and the Mead Center for American Theater. Now through January 8, in the smaller Kogod Cradle Space—meant to nurture new American playwrights—there’s “Every Tongue Confesses,” in which writer Marcus Gardley mixes jukebox blues with church gospel blues and television news to tell a blazing story.

And speaking of news, opening in January at the Kreeger is “Let Me Down Easy,” which marks the return of one-woman dynamo Anna Deavere Smith. Smith wrote and will perform the play in which she lets varied voices speak out and “explores the power of the body, the price of health and the resilience of the spirit.” Beginning December 31 and running through February 13. At the Kreeger in the Mead Center.

Only a few more days left to see Synetic Theater’s dynamic, loud silent style at work in Washington, where a theater piece on the Russian classic “The Master and Margarita” is being performed through December 12 at the Lansburgh Theater.

If you like musicals, but still aren’t interested in the holidays, there’s “Candide,” the Leonard Bernstein cerebral, but very entertaining musical, directed by the magical Mary Zimmerman, based on a novel by Voltaire, with some of the words by Lillian Hellman, and some of the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and poet Richard Wilbur. With Lauren Molina and Geoff Packard in the leads. At the Shakespeare Theatre Companyn through January 9.

If “Oklahoma” at Arena doesn’t satisfy your Rodgers and Hammerstein jones, there’s the road company of “South Pacific” at the Kennedy Center, which will run December 14 through January 16.

A well-received production of “Annie”, the most optimistic little redheaded girl in the world, with her friend Daddy Warbucks and her dog Sandy, has already been extended to January 7. At the Olney Theater in Maryland. Be prepared to have faith in “Tomorrow.”

A Theater Note

Actor James MacArthur, son of legendary American actress Helen Hayes and playwright Charles MacArthur, passed away recently at the age of 72.

Best known for his series role on the original “Hawaii Five O”, MacArthur is fondly remembered in Washington for carrying on the role played by his late mother, annually presiding over the Helen Hayes Theater Awards, named after her. [gallery ids="99577,104880,104876,104872,104868,104864" nav="thumbs"]

Carmen Cusack Brings it Home In ‘South Pacific’

One thing about headlining not one, but two tours of major Broadway shows: you can go home again.

That’s certainly been the case for Carmen Cusack, who is starring in the national tour of the Tony-Award winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” now at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through January 16.

Cusack stars as the brimming-with-optimism Army nurse Nellie Forbush, the role originated by the legendary Mary Martin in the 1940s original. Singing some iconic R&H songs like “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” and “Wonderful Guy,” this national tour has brought her home in a big way.

“It’s good to be back,” Cusack said. “I’m thinking when this is all over that I want to settle in New York, make the rounds, do the process.”

Cusack has a personal pedigree as American as her character, Nellie. Born in Colorado and raised in Houston, she has a performing arts degree from the University of North Texas State. But she left soon after getting her degree, first signing a contract to basically tour the world performing on the QUE2, settling down in England, touring and performing on the continent. In England, she built a pretty large and eclectic resume, starring as Christine in “Phantom of the Opera,” as Fantine in “Les Miserables,” and for something completely different, a role in “Jack and the Space Vixens.”

“South Pacific,” with which she’s been touring nationally to great reviews, is something of a nationally iconic show, and Cusack knows it. “You know, I think people sometimes think of Nellie as naïve or innocent,” she says. “I don’t think that’s the case. I mean, this was army life in World War II, so you can’t stay innocent for too long. But she is naturally optimistic, and that’s a great, appealing part of her character. What happens when she falls in love with the French planter is that some innate prejudice comes up which she can’t shake.

“It’s hard to play that,” she says. “It’s hard to find that in yourself. Because that’s not what I’m like. I sort of touched base with growing up in the South where things were said you might not hear so easily elsewhere.

“I think the show tries to be realistic about life in wartime,” she said. “You don’t see black and white soldiers hanging out together, mingling. The director, in fact, separated us off stage too so we could get a feel for what it was like.”

If you check out her personal website, you get the feel that Cusack can handle pretty much anything, that she may surprise you every time out. Her looks, of course, change every time out. “I am the woman of many hair colors,” she quips, noting the blondish, curly do for Nelli,e which hides her naturally lustrous dark brown hair. She is also the woman who may end up with the jolly green giant. She landed the road company lead of Elphaba—the green-skinned Wicked Witch in the Land of Oz—in “Wicked.”

“Yup,” she said. “I was green.”

Her voice has range. Technically she’s a soprano, but she pours all kinds of surprises into the sampling of songs on her site, from brassy, breathy and witchy, seductive, to anthem-out-there.

One of her favorite projects, and one of her apparent idols, was the late Eva Cassidy, a local legend in the DC area for her poignant, piercing, aching singing as much as her early, tragic death from cancer. “I performed her music, played her in a show called ‘Over the Rainbow,’” she said. “She was a phenomenal talent, and it will be interesting to be here.”

The green girl brought her back to the United States when she joined the touring company in Chicago as a standby. She jumped in to land the national touring starring role and now she’s in the quintessential American tour, being “as corny as Kansas in August.”

“I think it was time to come back. It’s great to be back,” she said. “Right now, I’m touring, so I’m not settled,” she said, calling from Rhode Island before coming to DC. “But after that, I’m thinking about New York.”

With the presence of “South Pacific,” Washington becomes practically R&H headquarters, what with the hit revival of “Oklahoma!” at the Arena Stage. Welcome home, Nellie, and Carmen too.

Joyce DiDonato at the Kennedy Center

Unless you’re a classical music and opera fanatic, you may not have heard of Joyce DiDonato. But take my word for it—and I’m no expert in this field—Joyce DiDonato is a woman on the verge of a major breakthrough. She is as hot as you can possibly be in the here and now, driving critics to a kind of ecstasy in their descriptions of her.

Try this one: “it is a remarkable package that DiDonato offers: a mezzo cast in milk chocolate, but so smooth and agile that it can reach up to a diamond-bright soprano as well as sink to a rich, chesty alto. And then there is that instinctive charisma: she is always engaging, always sparkling…”

This quote is from the Times of London, probably not prone to comparing a singer’s voice to chocolate very often.

We caught up with DiDonato by phone as she was making her way by car from Houston to Dallas. DiDonato is at the Kennedy Center’s cavernous Concert Hall this Tuesday for a recital of works by Haydn, Chaminade, Hahn, and most notably Rossini, a composer whose music she consistently knocks out of the ballpark.

Even though Texas had been hit by seriously bad weather at the time, DiDonato didn’t seem to mind. “It’s not that long a trip,” she said. “And I love road trips, anyway. You see so much of the country, the real country. It’s not just dropping down in an airplane, get picked up and go to the hotel, go to rehearsals and perform.”

You’re on level-headed ground talking with her; she doesn’t do diva airs, even if she calls her blog Yankee Diva. Yes, she has a blog, which has now been more or less merged with a very attractive, diverse and comprehensive website

“I want to do more than perform, more than sing, more than be on that stage,” she said. “I want to communicate my love of the music, my love for the fans that follow my work, what I learned day to day, and the world I live in.”

She’s pretty savvy about this sort of thing. Check out her website—it’s a regular wonderland of performance, reviews, bios, pictures, thinking out loud and news of what’s next. She is right now the middle of an eight-city recital tour with pianist David Zobel, of which the Kennedy Center appearance is a part.

It’s hard to imagine her by herself on a big stage like the Kennedy Center accompanied only by Zobel. But if anything can fill the stage and the space, it’s probably DiDonato. She has a way of expressing charm, enthusiasm and passion about her work just by talking about it, let alone performing and singing.

“I like doing both,” she says of opera and recitals, “but they’re very different challenges. In an opera, there’s a certain amount of safety net. It’s an enterprise of tons of people. You’re never really alone, and it’s a family kind of thing—a team effort, if you will. In a recital, you’re pretty much alone, no safety net. It’s you, the accompanist, the music and most important of all the audience. And you can’t for a second lose the audience. That’s what makes it challenging, and I love that. It’s risky out there, and I don’t mind it one bit. I’m not the kind of person who believes you have to be perfect if that sort of attitude keeps you from taking risks.”

She already has honors—too many to name, but notably Gramophone’s Artist of the Year. And she recently came out with a new album, “Diva, Divo,” in which she alternates traditional operatic heroine roles with “pants” roles arias. “I love doing them,” she says. “It gives you a lot of insight into everything, and you really have to use all aspects of your voice.”

She is accessible and, at 42, one of those energetically attractive blue-eyed blondes whose rich array of hair begs to be constantly shaken and stirred. Over the phone she sounds a little like what she looks like on performance videos: strong-voice, high-energy, warm—a born storyteller without any fussiness.

“Some people have done this girl-next-door thing with me, as was done with Beverly Sills,” she said. “You know what some people said: she had a wonderful smile, she was sweet, but she had steel when it was required. Well, I can be tough when I need to be, I know what I want musically, how I want to do it. I don’t mean I’m temperamental, there’s just not a lot of time for that sort of thing.”

She performed here with the Washington National Opera right after 9/11 in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”, an opera not done here again until last fall. “I can’t say I remember much about that,” she said. “It was such a strange time to be here, to be doing what I’m doing.”

She is by all accounts one of the finest interpreters of Rossini you can find, having done “The Barber of Seville” in many venues, including a performance that is becoming legendary for its above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty aspect. The production in London was rolling along nicely in the first act at the Royal Opera House, when DiDonato tripped and fractured her fibula. She waved off a doctor, and appeared in Act 2 on a crutch. If that doesn’t get you a standing ovation, nothing will. And it did.

“The show must go on, right?” she said, and laughed almost sheepishly. Recently she was in a production in Houston of the much more modern opera “Dead Man Walking,” about a man on death row and the nun who tries to help him. “To me, an opera like that is an emotionally shattering experience. I am so glad I had the opportunity to do that.”

All this from a girl named Joyce Flaherty, born in a small town with the classic small-town name of Prairie Village, Kansas. “Yup, really small town,” she said as we compared notes on growing up in small town Midwest America. “You weren’t really exposed that much to classical music and opera, although I liked it. At most I had dreams of becoming a pop singer maybe, or teaching music in high school.”

You can almost see her as a schoolmarm, getting kids enthusiastic about Rossini and the like. She is not one of those girls who had voice lessons from age three and worked in the local opera company, or a child prodigy whose gifts were recognized early. “I didn’t know I had a voice, in the senses of having a gift for this,” she said. “It’s still a work in progress, as far as I’m concerned.”

It wasn’t until college at Wichita State University that she became interested, especially after performing in a production of “Die Fledermaus.” She was hooked, like a girl falling in love for the first time. She did graduate work at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, and from that point she became serious, and rose fairly quickly to the top.

Not bad for a kid from a family of seven children, Irish through and through (DiDonato was a name acquired from her first husband. She is now married to Italian conductor Leonardo Verdoni). “No kids yet. No pets,” she said. “We lead a pretty hectic life, although we live in Kansas City.”

She’s often quoted as having an aversion to being called a “star.” “That can be such a trap,” she said. “It’s the music, getting better, giving your audience an experience that will enrich them, that they won’t forget. I mean sure it’s nice. And no question, we have a very, very good life, traveling all over the world, performing in a very rarefied atmosphere. But I think my upbringing keeps me grounded.”

Or as grounded as a self-described “Yankee Diva” can get.
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Anna Deavere Smith Does Not “Let Down”

At the end of “Let Me Down Easy,” Anna Deavere Smith’s provocative, shattering play about health care in America now and the hour of our death, Smith stands alone on a stage littered with castoff costumes, clothing, food, props, bottles, pencils, lying on the floor. It looks like the aftermath of a party or a food fight—or an abandoned emergency room where a life-and-death struggle has just taken place.

It’s all that remains of the 20 people portrayed by Smith during the course of an uninterrupted and rangy evening in which she explores, in her inimitable fashion, the arena of our health and bodies, and the pains we sometimes endure because of the way we deal with falling ill, and the moment when we come face to face with the finality of death. By a shift in vocal timbre, a way of walking or sitting, an accent, a laugh, a sprawl on a couch, a way of talking, outstretched arms, a tie, a coat, a cowboy hat, she explores and portrays the geography of our culture.

Smith, an impressively talented, cogent and curious, woman functions as playwright, actress, writer and interviewer for “Let Me Down Easy,” a project somewhat similar to others she is well know for. There was “Fires in the Mirror,” which examined the aftermath of a race riot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and “Twilight: Los Angeles,” which focused on the devastating and violent 1992 riots in Los Angeles. But while these previous works also saw Smith portraying dozens of real people alone on stage with remarkable dexterity and even-handedness, they were focused on specific, dramatic and explosive events. “Let Me Down Easy” is much broader in its scope and approach.

While the massive national health care reform legislation, passed amid much bitterness last year, provides a framework for a large extent of what concerns the people in this play, there is a lot more going on than might be contained in even such a sweeping legislative effort.

“Let Me Down Easy” is about specific people, many of them quite well known to most of us for one reason or another. Athletes, like the controversial American Tour de France bicyclist Lance Armstrong, who overcame cancer and rode to greater achievements. Sportswriter Sally Jenkins. A boxer. A rodeo bull rider. Model Lauren Hutton. Television movie critic Joel Siegel, dying on a couch of colon cancer. Playwright and performer Eve Ensler, of “The Vagina Monologues.” Former Texas Governor Ann Richards. There are doctors, medical academics, a musicologist, a choreographer and a physician at Charity Hospital in New Orleans who experiences the terrifying ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

Such a diverse group of voices, of men and women from various walks of life expressing similar and differing concerns, at first produces an unformed, disconcerting narrative, like trying to grab Jell-O with your hands. But the effect, in time, is accumulative, and it arrives with shocking and powerful clarity, and with gentle but undeniable finality. It may not be a definitive destination, an over-arching theory or philosophy, or even ready-made solace, but it is a destination, an arrival, and an ending.

There have been complaints that there are too many celebrities here and that the play is unfocused or mish-mish. Maybe so. Maybe it’s too big a subject to have a definitive story line or conclusion that you can take to the bank or to the church. And it’s fair to say that the better-known people portrayed here add less to the total than those not so well known. While much of “Let Me Down Easy”—a theatrical blues riff with multiple meanings—concerns itself with terminal illnesses and how it is dealt with by hospitals, the medical community and patients, there are sections on the ailments and issues peculiar to athletes, as well as how society deals with women’s bodies and their functions (hence Ensler and Hutton).

But many of the characters share a common plight against cancer, a battle, sometimes successful, sometimes not. And suddenly there is very little distance between women like Richards, the sharp-tongued former governor of Texas dying of cancer, and Smith’s own aunt, Lorraine Coleman, a retired teacher.

There is a surprising bit of laughter in the play—some as a result of Smith’s fabulous work as a mimic, mime and master of comic timing—but the constructed and performed production picks up power as it goes along. A kind of dread aching to be relieved ensues somewhere in there. Smith gives us Kiersta Kurz-Burke, a physician at the New Orleans charity hospital who has been ignored and abandoned for days during Katrina; Eduardo Bruera, of the Anderson Cancer Center, talking about “Existential Sadness”; Joel Siegel, only in his fifties, flat on his back, the face projected dramatically on a wall, dying of colon cancer; and Trudy Howell, the director of a South African orphanage where children deal with the loss of parents and their own impending deaths, entitled appropriately, “Don’t Leave Them In The Dark.”

“Let Me Down Easy” has a restless feel to it, but it also has the sure touch and magic of Smith’s abilities as an actress, that gift of playing many parts convincingly with minimal props. Over and above the identifying tricks of such props, or the brilliant use of her voice and inflections of accents, tone and vocal speed, there is something else that convinces us like a punch to the heart. True, Smith is a terrific actress—you’ve all seen her in films and as a national security adviser on the defunct “West Wing” series—but that’s technique. What makes her work soar is her own empathy toward the people she’s put on stage; it’s as if she’s caught souls in a glass jar. She’s not a chameleon. Some recognizable part of her is always there. It’s not as if she somehow disappears into a person. It’s more like she joins with them.

“Let Me Down Easy” doesn’t function so much as drama; rather the people that we come to know as they swagger, suffer, snack, snort, laugh and dream are a kind of self-portrait of us. What we often hear are sentences we’ve heard, or what we will ultimately say ourselves sooner or later.

We’re left with a salve, like fresh water, And Smith stands alone in a bow, the stage littered with the debris, the left behind stuff of human beings.

“Let Me Down Easy,” written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith and directed by Leonard Foglia, will be performed at Arena Stage through February 13. For more information visit ArenaStage.org.
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Spring Performance Arts Preview 2011

The Kennedy Center

Maximum India Festival
March 1-20

New York City Ballet Three mixed Repertoire Programs: April 5, 8 and 10; April 6 and 9 and April 7 and 9.
April 5 – 10

Paul Taylor Dance Company
March 22-24

Peter Brook’s “Fragments”
April 14 – 17
The acclaimed genius focuses on five short works by edgy, bare-bones genius playwright Samuel Beckett (“Rough for Theater 1,” “Rockabye,” “Act Without Words II,” “Neither” and “Come and Go”) at the Eisenhower.

Barbara Cook’s Spotlight Vocal Series
March 25
Actress and singer Ashley Brown (the original “Mary Poppins”) at the Terrace Theater.

The National Symphony Orchestra presents “The Trumpet of the Swan: A Novel Symphony”
March 27
Based on a book by E.B. White, with music by conductor Jason Robert Brown. Starring John Lithgow, trumpeter Christopher Vendetti and DC actors like Craig Wallace, Michael Willis and Naomi Jacobsen. Two concerts.

Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies”
May 7 – June 19

The Washington National Opera

“Madame Butterfly”
February 26 – March 19

“Iphigenie en Tauride”
May 6 – May 26
Placido Domingo himself, departing as head of the WNO at the conclusion of this season, will perform in this Greek tragedy, composed by Christoph William Gluck. Running for eight performances, Domingo sings alongside soprano Patricia Racette.

Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”
May 13-27
For something lighter, try this classic comic opera starring renowned American bass-baritone James Morris.

Placido Domingo Celebrity Series
February 27 & March 12
Domingo’s lasting legacy, his vocal celebrity series, will this time feature tenor Juan Diego Florez, February 27, and Welsh Bass Baritone Bryn Terfel, March 12.

The Washington Ballet performed “Le Corsaire”
April 6 – 10

The Music Center at Strathmore

Among many offerings, there are:

Hilary Hahn performs this Sunday at 4 p.m.
February 27

Itzhak Perlman comes to town with Rohan de Silva on piano.
May 1

Bryan Adams and his “Bare Bones Tour”
March 11

Comic writer David Sedaris
March 31

Jazz songstress Nancy Wilson
April 22


Ford’s Theater

“Liberty Smith”
March 23 – May 21
Geoff Packard, who wowed audiences in the title role of “Candide,” takes on another title role with “Liberty Smith,” a new musical by Michael Weiner, Adam Abraham, Marc Madnick, and Eric R Cohen. It’s a tall-tale musical approach to the early founding days of American history with 23 musical numbers.


The Shakespeare Theater

Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband”
March 8 – April 10
Oscar Wilde will get the full treatment by the Shakespeare Theater Company under the veteran and able direction of Keith Baxter. The threat of scandal, an obsession during Victorian times, buzzes over an upstanding and rising aristocratic type in this Wilde gambol through British social mores.

“Old Times”
May 17 – July 3


The Studio Theater

“New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival”
March 15 – April 25
Featuring the works of acclaimed Irish playwright Enda Walsh, the festival brings back the Druid Theater Company with its production of Walsh’s “Penelope.” The festival is new artistic director David Muse’s effort to broaden Studio’s international reach and includes productions by the Studio Theater of Walsh’s “The Walworth Farce” and “The New Electric Ballroom.” Walsh herself will be on hand, along with Tony-winning director Garry Hynes. There are readings, plays, films and a daylong symposium on New Irish arts.

“Venus in Fur”
Opening May 25


Arena Stage

“The Edward Albee Festival”
March 5 – April 24
With lots of events, plays, talks and side activities, and it’s all about Albee.

Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
February 25 – April 10
Perhaps the main event of the Albee Festival, the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s production of the acerbic drama stars Tracy Letts and May Morton as George and Martha.

Edward Albee’s “At Home at the Zoo”
February 25 – April 24

“The Chosen”
March 8 – 27


Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”
March 21 – April 10
Most intriguing prospect and title goes to this one-man show by solo performer Mike Daisy, wherein he discusses the stigma and the harrowing truths of the world’s most mysterious techie icon.

“BootyCandy,” written and directed by Robert O’Hara
May 30 – June 26
O’Hara, who just took home a Helen Hayes Award for “Antebellum,” will be turning out this kaleidoscope of sassy sex education, which discusses growing up gay and African American.


Some other things to look for:

“WAM2!” features Mozart’s operas “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi fan tutte,” produced by the In Series at the Lang Theater of the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
March 4 – 6, 11 and 12

“Voices Underwater”
Opening March 7
The electric and eclectic Rorschach Theater returns with this new play by Abi Basch at the Georgetown Lutheran Church in Georgetown.

Arabian Nights at Arena Stage

Mary Zimmerman is back. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Zimmerman’s “Arabian Nights” comes to Arena Stage fresh on the heels of the closing days of Zimmerman’s vision of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” at the Shakespeare Theater. The two plays being so close together are an embarrassment of theatrical riches, for which you need heart, mind, empathy and imagination to be working at full capacity to get the full effect.

“Arabian Nights” is no Disney production, nor Richard Burton’s, nor the Frenchman’s who wrote something like it in the 1700s. It belongs to none of the storytellers who might have told the original stories over the centuries. There is no Ali Baba here, no Sabu or Sinbad. The authorship and content of the “Arabian Nights” tales are thick with thumbprints and a host of Middle East and further east cultures.

The program will tell you that this production was written and directed by Mary Zimmerman and adapted from “The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night,” as translated by Powys Mathers. This is probably a truth, but to put it squarely, the final author is Mary Zimmerman, as is the case with most of her work, no matter if it goes back centuries. The rambunctiously inventive director-playwright explodes the stage every time out.

“Arabian Nights” at the Arena belongs to Zimmerman; hers is the power and the glory, the credit and the blame—some of which will surely come. Oddly enough, this “Arabian Nights” also belongs to us, if we choose to own it. By us, I mean the members of the audience, but also historical Americans who have left heavy, wrenching footprints in the glorious city of Baghdad, where this night of nights is set.

Picture this: a stage, full of wrinkled, large canvasses, unfurled, deeply pleated. Picture this now in the court of a medieval Baghdad, where a troubled, dangerous king is marrying virginal brides every day for three years and killing them nightly, after finding his first bride in the arms of another man whom he dispatched. He is a man with an awesome fear of women and love. He says “Say not, ‘If I might love and yet escape the follies of loving’, but rather ‘Only a miracle brings a man safe from love.’”

He has almost depleted the kingdom of marriage-age young women by this time, and so picks Scheherazade, the daughter of his closest adviser, the Wazir. Accompanied by her faithful sister, she comes dutifully to the palace and spins a series of stories for the king, cliffhangers of love, death and comedy, so that he’s forced to stave off her execution one day at a time. Just so, her father comes each morning with a shroud for her funeral.

We may know this story already. But we don’t know the story as Zimmerman tells it. You weren’t expecting the tale of the madman and how he got that way. You surely weren’t expecting the burlesque-like routine of “What’s in the Bag,” the contents of which are improvised by the actors each night.

And you probably weren’t expecting to see, with an ache in your heart, an ancient civilization resurrected like a fleshy, musical mirage before your eyes. This is the Baghdad of Harun al Rashid, the city’s most fabled ruler. It is a city where poets ruled as much as sheiks and kings, and women were beautiful, dangerous and impossible to know. Zimmerman’s Baghdad is a city of fable, merchants and musclemen—not the modern city wrecked by shock and awe, where Sunnis and Shiites battle and hand-made bombs are just another roadside attraction.

I could talk about the costumes, and the technical and showy detail that Zimmerman is so good at; lamps descend onto the stage, a man meets himself on the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, ancient musical instruments play loudly and sweetly, and a civilization dies before your eyes.

It has been suggested that there are stereotypes in the show, and it’s true. But Zimmerman addresses this issue with a very important statement, which speaks volumes about the material:

“It is a precondition of war that we view other people as fundamentally different form ourselves; it is a precondition of literature that we view other people as fundamentally the same.”

Watching and responding to a story that depends on its rolling laughter is to remember that something as simple as a fart makes the whole world helpless with laughter. It’s surely a shared experience. But so is the torture of love, and so is the heartbreak of a love song. In these stories, we ought to recognize ourselves, our common humanity, as well as the pungent power of stories.

What’s in this bag? More than it has any business holding. Go hear the stories of “The Arabian Nights.” You will dream about it and talk about it. I guarantee it.
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