Martin McDonagh and the Druids come to Studio Theatre

July 26, 2011

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.

“Return to Haifa” at Theater J

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.