Arts Desk

Fantasy, History, and Mikhail Gorbachev at Ford’s Theatre

Fitzwater and his play

You'd think a play about the relationship between George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev based on the recollections of Marlin Fitzwater, Bush's former press secretary, would be a pretty straightforward affair. There should be some history, some transcripts acted verbatim by actors, and a few historical flashbacks. After all, this is the town that just hosted The Great Game: Afghanistan.

Yet ask Gregg Henry, who's directing the staged reading of Empires Fall at Ford's Theatre this Sunday, about the show, and he struggles to find the right words. "I'm almost tempted to call it a theater event rather than a straight play," he says. "It's a complex animal...this is tough to describe in 25 words or less."

The play, which Fitzwater collaborated on with playwright Robert Lawson, revolves around the fall of the Soviet Union, in what Ford's Theatre describes as a "mixture of docudrama and fantasy."

Lawson, who also teaches at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire, says when Fitzwater first approached him with the play's concept, the idea was still straight docudrama. "He had this idea of doing this rich couple of years of history," Lawson says. "He was expecting it to be a straight event-by-event piece."

Lawson wasn't convinced, however, until Fitzwater gave him the freedom to tackle some larger themes in the play's more fantasy-driven second act.

"When I found out I could bring in dead people, that became the hook for me," Lawson says. "Lenin comes back, John Adams comes back...there is this sort of quantum leap that happens at the end of Act 1."

Lawson says the play's fantasy elements allow Empires Fall to wrestle with issues beyond just the events surrounding the U.S.S.R.'s collapse. "It offers a capacity to look at this in the larger vein of history," he says. "The play really becomes macrocosmic as opposed to microcosmic, if that makes any sense."

Lawson also loaded Empires Fall's script with clips from contemporary news accounts, news footage, and even a song from the Cold War-era musical Chess. "It's a very fast moving piece," Lawson admits. "To be able to bring in newscasters and actual news footage—that offers some real advantages."

It also caused some real headaches for Henry, who had to find a way to stage a reading with a tremendous amount of stage directions, as well as points where Lawson had "people talking on stage and on video at the same time." Lawson estimates he and Henry cut about 80 percent of the stage directions from Empires Fall's script to keep Sunday's staged reading running smoothly.

Henry says it's in Act II that audiences may find the story a bit harder to follow.

"Act 2 is what's happened after the Soviet Union has dissolved," he says. "It deals a lot with legacy and how our leaders are remembered...We get into this sort of wasteland. Lenin shows up in Act 2 and basically reads Gorbachev the riot act."

While Henry admits his primary goal in the staged reading is ensuring "the story is told clearly," he isn't worried about throwing all these allegories and complexities at Ford's audience Sunday night. "This is a really smart, sharp theater community," he says. "The audiences [here in D.C.] have no patience for stupidity."

Empires Fall. By Robert Lawson and Marlin Fitzwater. Staged reading directed by Gregg Henry. May 1, 2011, at 7 p.m. Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St, NW. (202) 347-4833

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