Kennedy Center Enters Its “Golden Age”

Marc Kudisch sounded psyched. “We’re all eager to bring this play to Washington,” Kudisch, who’s appeared at Signature Theater here and who’s a veteran of big Broadway musicals, said in a phone interview from Philadelphia. “Washington is such a great theater town and they audiences here are so responsive, they’re so sharp so I for one can’t wait to see what happens.” Kudisch is part of the cast of “The Golden Age” by Terrence McNally, which kicks off “Nights at the Opera,” a three-part, five-week presentation by the Kennedy Center in which three of McNally’s plays, all of them with opera themes or focuses, will be performed concurrently on three Kennedy Center Stages. In addition to “Golden Age,” the festival also includes “The Lisbon Traviata” and “Master Class,” which will star Tyne Daly as the legendary diva Maria Callas. But “Golden Age,” which just completed a world premiere run at the Philadelphia Theater Company, is by far the most newsworthy of the three offerings, given that it’s a new play by the prolific McNally, and that it continues and perhaps completes his theatrical passion for opera. Kudisch, who’s had some experience with opera and shares the fascination, actually has made his mark in today’s Broadway musical theater, although that’s not what he set out to do. Originally from Hassenback, NJ, “I came to New York as a dramatic actor, I’d never seen myself as a singer, had no intention of doing musicals, I did off-Broadway a lot,” he said. Then came Birdie. “I got cast as Conrad Birdie, in the Tommy Tune revival of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ and toured with it,” he said. “That sort of set me on my way.” And then some: “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” “Bells Are Ringing,” “The Wild Party,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “9 to 5,” Sondheim’s dark “Assassins,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “A Little Night Music,” the Signature’s cutting edge musical “The Witches of Eastwick” and as Vincent Van Gogh in “The Highest Yellow.” “You can really tell how the people that are creating, writing, and composing musicals today are going in new directions,” Kudisch said. “In some ways, that’s what “Golden Age” is all about, except that the characters are Rossini and Bellini and the creative artists who inhabit the world of opera in Paris in 1835. They’re thinking about the same things, new music, how it will be greeted by critics, other artists.” “Golden Age” is about back-stage doings at the premiere of Bellini’s opera “I Puritani.” Rossini will be heard from and we also hear the Puritani quartet, the four singers who are the stars of the opera, one of them played by Kudisch. “It’s a very personal thing for McNally, and we and he learned a lot from the run in Philly.” Kudisch thinks the festival is a great idea. “You get a chance to see what I think is some of McNally’s best work,” he said, “and it’s a focus that tells you a lot about his career.” “Golden Age” will be at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater March 12-April 4. “The Lisbon Traviata” will be at the Terrace Theater March 20-April 11 and “Master Class” will be at the Eisenhower Theater March 25-April 18. Upcoming performances: - There's new material from playwright Neil LaBute, who tackles contemporary American contentions with gusto, clear-headedness and the impact of a punch in the mouth. LaBute’s latest, “Reasons to be Pretty,” comes to the Studio Theater, which has become a go-to theater with LaBute’s work, and completes his trilogy exploring our obsession with looks and physical beauty, which began with “The Shape of Things” and “Fat Pig,” both hits at the Studio. “Reasons to be Pretty,” directed by David Muse, opens March 24 at the Mead Theater. - Could there be a more provocative and tempting title than “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews”? Especially if you’re Jewish, or follow all things Warhol. The D.C. Jewish Community Center has you covered on both issues, with the very same one-man show written and performed by Josh Kornbluth, the popular San Francisco-based monologist who had a hit with “Citizen Josh,” through March 21. The show is based in part on a ground-breaking exhibition of silk screen portraits of prominent Jewish figures by Warhol in 1980, an exhibition which can be seen in the DCJC’s Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery. “Good for the Jews” runs through May 2. - “Porgy and Bess,” George Gershwin’s landmark, truly American opera, opens the Washington National Opera’s spring portion of its 2009-2010 season March 20-April 3, with such stirring American classic songs as “Summertime” and “Porgy.” Read Vera Tilson's interview with "Porgy and Bess" conductor John Mauceri here.

An Amusing, Then Moving, ‘Into the Woods’

Fiasco Theater Company's at first seemingly casual production of the Sondheim musical is at the Kennedy Center through Jan. 8.

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

Pandemic Forces Performing Arts Leaders to Rethink

The Georgetowner asked leading figures in D.C. theater to suggest silver linings of the pandemic, even as it has stolen the livelihood of countless arts workers and threatened the very future of many performing arts organizations.

Women’s Theater Festival: Observing ‘The Guard’ and ‘Elizabeth R’ and Much More

I have noted this before—the sheer amount of diversity of ambition, content and talent in the 50-plus play Women’s Voices Theater Festival now going on which can be gleened just by reading the titles. It’s better  to see for yourself, of course, otherwise you might miss just how some of these plays seem sometimes obviously, sometimes deceptively to match the missions of their venues, as well as the overall concept of the festival, which is to fully display the gifts of a wonderfully large group of women playwrights in the course of two months and a little more. The recent “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” by Sheila Callaghan is a play so chock full of contemporary memes about women and women and men and gender in general that it seemed right at home on the Woolly Mammoth stage—where everything you think could pop up, usually does.   Two new plays—“The Guard” by Jessica Dickey at the Ford’s Theatre and the recently closed  “texts & beheadings/Elizabeth R” created and directed by Karin Coonrod at the Folger Theatre—exemplified what this festival is all about with every play that’s  on our stages during its course, which are meetings with the unexpected, new forms of theatre and theatricality and imaginations and performances that go beyond genre and gender. At first blush, “The Guard” might seem an odd choice for the Ford’s Theatre, which nevertheless commissioned it and whose artistic directed Paul Tetreault was one of the founding movers behind the festival.   “The Guard” includes some explicit language rarely and likely not ever heard in the theater­­—which is as much a national museum as it is a theatre—language which also seemed entirely appropriate to its characters.   That aside, the play, written with intelligence, wit and an obvious love for its characters,  was a play dancing with big themes—the nature of grief, the nature of art, and the humanity of artists from aspiring copiers, to gifted poets, to Homer and Rembrandt themselves, seems entirely at home here, with its innate love of and respect for history. Dickey, who is herself an actress as well as playwright, has tackled big themes before—as in “Charles Ives Take Me Home,” “The Amish Project,” a one-woman show about the shocking killing of Amish children, and “Row After Row,” a play about Civil War re-enactors.  “The Guard” has its focus a veteran guard at a well known museum, which houses Van Goghs and Rembrandts, including “Aristotle With a Bust of Homer.” It’s another day on the job—a young, obviously shy girl comes to copy the painting, a younger guard bursts with enthusiasm, and a new kid on the block arrives, irreverent, a street artist and a bit of a volcano.  The guard—played with a tart warmth by Mitchell Hebert is distracted—his partner and husband, a well known poet, lies at home, dying. From this situation, Dickey takes us to the world of Rembrandt—where the artist is dealing his frustrated son, his fading glory, and working on the Homer painting while plying his young mistress with gifts—and to the world of Homer himself, a bigger-than-life and quirky, quarrelsome figure played with terrific aplomb by the magnetic Craig Wallace, a Ford’s and Washington regular.  In the end, we return to the guard and the love of his life Simon and you might say, so it goes, but it is much more than that.  The play has taken us places we rarely get to go in the theater before coming to an end that can be predicted but whose effects are still surprising in how they touch us.  We’ve got to think about big things—art and death, and all that, and how it happens and is linked—through the lives of people we recognize as living in our world, and that’s no small achievement. And in trying also to make us see the artists—the poet Homer, the painter Rembrandt—as human beings, it makes us think of them that way, if not entirely with provable accuracy.  The staging—that movement between worlds—is accomplished with unassuming dexterity by director Sharon Otto and terrific sets by James Kronzer.  The writing is smart and compassionate, and the acting is anchored by the veterans—Hebert doubles as Rembrandt and Wallace is affecting as the dying Simon. The younger actors are up to the task—especially Kathryn Tkel who seems to radiate warmth almost naturally as both a grieving art student and Rembrandt’s lady—and Josh Sticklin as Dodger who approaches art full of brio and daring—“touch it, let’s all touch it” he says of the master’s painting.  Briefly, watching Karin Coonrod’s artful approach to Queen Elizabeth I in “texts & beheadings,” reminded me, oddly enough, of Shakespeare, here in this small temple to Shakespeare. In this production, by Compangnia de’ Colombar, Coonrod has offered up four actresses as four different Elizabeths, none of whom look like the previous stage and movie versions we’re used to seeing.  Deep in our hearts, we know Elizabeth was actually Bette Davis, or Helen Mirren. In fact, the actresses—Monique Barbee, Ayeje Feamster, Juliana Francis-Kelly and Cristina Spina (speaking at times in Italian)—amount to a woman both familiar and strange to us, ending up full-bodied and full-voiced, speaking often from poems, letters, edicts and recorded conversations by the queen. They also ended up as an answer to a question asked many times—how did Shakespeare, the exemplary playwright of her reign, also manage to write so many modern-sounding, educated, smart, funny and strong female characters, especially in the comedies.  The answer surely must be that he had a fine example of an extraordinary woman to draw from, his own queen and monarch, who was known to have a fine sense of humor (often bawdy), was strong, keenly self-aware as woman and queen, understood power.  Here in this play you heard that some woman, and who, in this place, had echoes in Rosalind, in Portia, in Lady Macbeth, and Lear’s daughters, in Juliet and Desdemona, in the queens, and in Katharine that shrew who was never truly tamed. [gallery ids="102320,126329" nav="thumbs"]

Master Class With a Ballet Legend

Dancers are different from the rest of us. They’re not quite like gods, of course, or birds or anything magical exactly. Still, they are...

Ravi Coltrane On Jazz, Legend and Progression

  -One thing you can say about jazz, even if you don’t know a heck of a lot about jazz: it’s not static. “You have to move on and keep on becoming who you are as a person, as a musician, and in terms of the kind of music you’re playing,” says Ravi Coltrane, the highly regarded saxophonist who comes with his quartet to the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in downtown Washington, November 20 at 8 p.m. Coltrane knows a little something about that, which is why he’s been steadily carving out his own sound, his own music. Most recently, he’s signed on with Blue Note Records, with an album coming out next year, a legendary label that celebrated its 70th anniversary last year. To further the connection, in 2008 he became a part of The Blue Not 7, a septet formed specifically for the anniversary celebration. Lots of lines—personal, musical, and legend, crisscross the life of tenor and soprano sax player Ravi Coltrane. He has a pretty clear idea of who he is, and isn’t. “I’m not my dad,” he said. “I appreciate and revere my father’s work, but you have to carve your own image, your own style. And sure, there are influences. But I don’t think I came to this because I’m my father’s son.” He’ll tell you that he didn’t start out being interested in jazz. “I played the flute in school, I was in the band,” he said. “And initially, I was interested in composing film scores, that kind of thing. So I did not come to jazz out of the chute, so to speak.” And yet, lineage, legend, and the naming of names, working out a kind of apprenticeship in an age where jazz has changed tremendously, play out in a man’s life. Coltrane, now in his 40s, is, after all, the son of the jazz giant John Coltrane, who also played tenor and soprano saxophone. And the saxophone itself is the instrument of choice of the some of the most dramatic tortured genius-types in jazz history, most prominently Charlie Parker, the late and lamented king of improvisational jazz—the often lyrical free-flying “Bird”. “I was two when my father died,” Coltrane said. “It’s not like he figures so strongly in personal memory. The difficulty becomes in being your own man while loving my dad’s music. No doubt it’s had some effect.” The saxophone first appeared in his life as a Christmas gift. It wasn’t exactly a hint, but there it was, and eventually he took it up. “I don’t think it was something that was meant to push me into a certain direction,” he said. For him, it was like finding money in the road. You can pick it up, but you choose how you use it and spend it. If you look at his bio, the story begins in 1991. His active jazz career begins at age 26, a late start by some standards. But when you’re the son of a legend whose memory is still strong, and whose music is still around, and when you have a mother equally gifted and legendary—the great jazz pianist Alice Coltrane—and when you’re named after Ravi Shankar, the influential Indian Sitar player, there are no doubt some pressures to find your own way. He did it by paying his dues, playing as a sideman with the likes of McCoy Tyner, Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Barron, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, Branford Marsalis, Geri Allen and others. By 1997, he was ready to go on his own, recording his first album, “Moving Pictures.” He built several groups, but since 2005 he has worked with is quartet, with bassist Drew Gress, pianist Luis Perdomo and drummer E.J. Strickland. A 2005 concert trip to India to raise HIV awareness seemed almost a homecoming. He eventually met his namesake. “Jazz has changed,” he says. “The audience is bigger, but also more diverse. There are all kinds of new influences, from Latin to Asian, and jazz has really spread. But the result has been that there are not quite the dominating, influential figures like Monk, Miles, Satchmo, Parker and so on. It’s a whole new world in some ways.” He’s part of the vanguard of that new world, not the old guard, in spite of all the history that trails behind him, always evolving, moving on ahead, playing his music, expanding its horizons, improvising and energizing.

“An Octaroon” at Woolly: Bring the Context

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has achieved some miracles with this play.

Here Comes the Fringe…

The Capital Fringe Festival runs from July 7 to 31 at multiple venues.

Early Curtain Risers of D.C.’s Theater Season

Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" is one of the most ambitious of the fall productions about to begin.