Stage Wisdom: Notes From an Eclectic Year in D.C. Theater
What made 2013 a thrilling year on D.C. stages was precisely the thing that makes it admirably resistant to year-end trendspotting—the variety, rather than the number, of good shows on offer. My favorite two plays were Studio Theatre’s The Motherfucker With the Hat and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s Stupid Fucking Bird. And exactly what the fuck those two shows have in common, I cannot tell you. At least not on broadcast television.
The former was a wrenching but hilarious drama about how addiction makes relationships impossible from playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. The latter was a funny and occasionally harrowing remix of/rebuttal to Chekhov’s The Seagull written by Aaron Posner, better known for his remarkable feats as a director. (His Romeo and Juliet at Folger Theatre this fall was a rare misstep, sluggish and rational where the tale must be impatient and horny to make any sense at all.)
Both plays were helmed by veteran staffers of the companies that presented them: Motherfucker came from Studio’s longtime producing director Serge Seiden, while Bird was directed by Howard Shalwitz, who co-founded Woolly Mammoth more than 30 years ago. And both were strong ensemble pieces propelled by nervy performances from actors unfamiliar to D.C. audiences. Drew Cortese played Motherfucker’s Jackie, a parolee and recovering addict haunted by the suspicion his girlfriend had been unfaithful. Quentin Mare was his sponsor, Ralph D., a purveyor of “nutritional beverages” and self-rationalizing bullshit. He was deeply, viscerally unlikeable—hateable, in fact—and the only character talking sense. He also gave us the year’s unsexiest nude scene, in what felt like (Trend Alert! TREND ALERT!) a busy year for the full-frontal male treading of D.C.’s boards.
The cast of Stupid Fucking Bird was stuffed with D.C. ringers doing typically superb work—Kimberly Gilbert, Rick Foucheux, real-life spouses Kate Norris and Cody Nickell playing another combative couple—but Brad Koed’s srung-like-piano-wire take on the lovestruck, luckless Konstantin (“Con,” here) outshone them all. He turned up again a few months later in Posner’s Romeo and Juliet as Tybalt. He should’ve been Romeo.
As it has in the past, Arena Stage acted as a sort of farm team for Broadway productions, sending One Night With Janis Joplin, from 2012, and A Time to Kill, from 2011, to the Great White Way. (This year’s The Velocity of Autumn will follow in 2014). And as it has been on several notable occasions in the past, the National Theatre was a pre-Broadway test track for Tom Katt and Brian Yorkey’s If/Then.
Broadway transfers may confer a certain kind of prestige, but the real action was at Woolly and Studio: again, some more, still. I could round out my personal top five for the year without venturing beyond those two companies. Woolly midwifed another strong monologue from Mike Daisey, American Utopias. It wasn’t quite as meticulously structured as The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the show that earned Daisey the world’s admiration and then its rebuke, but it had smart things to say about manufactured worlds.
The show turned on Daisey’s experiences at Burning Man (where “Dionysian-Apollonian tension” pervades), at Disney World (where “the ambient aura of child abuse is everywhere” and the white-gloved “pedophile hands” of Mickey Mouse turn out your pockets), and in Zuccotti Park on the first anniversary of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest. It weakened only in the Occupy part, which unlike the others relied more on secondhand reporting than on Daisey’s own observations as a participant. He made no attempt to hide that fact, this time.
In November, Woolly gave us Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate, about a warring Southern family’s response to the incriminating and horrifying keepsakes they find in their just-dead patriarch’s attic. Jacobs-Jenkins’ brutally uncomfortable, closely observed comedy made the appalling racial history of the American South the thing no one was talking about, except that they were all talking about it.
A month later, Studio came up with its own show featuring people who never—well, seldom—talk about what’s really on their minds, the U.S premiere of Sam Holcroft’s psychological thriller Edgar and Annabel. Though it made its debut in 2011—long after the disclosure of the National Security Administration’s domestic spying programs, but before Edward Snowden’s leak of their more damning particulars—the show courses with topical energy even as it derives much of its style from cinematic masterpieces of prior eras, from the 1955 crime noir Rififi to the 1985 dystopian satire Brazil to a 2006 Oscar winner, The Lives of Others. It depicts two insurgents trying to convince their oppressive government’s surveillance software that they’re just another bored and boring married couple. Holly Twyford, a celebrated D.C. actor who has in recent years turned to directing, pulls off a 20-minute midshow setpiece of such staggering tension and ingenuity that I was inclined to pardon the excess of exposition in the scenes with the two operatives’ handler.
What else was memorably good?
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Wallenstein was a svelte and compelling update (“freely adapted” and compressed by playwright Robert Pinsky) of Friedrich Schiller’s 215-year-old chronicle of the Thirty Years War. “First of all, forget the Thirty Years War,” are the first words spoken by Steve Pickering, wry and commanding in the title role. The show’s questioning of to whom warriors owe their allegiance is a timeless one, well-framed by this account of a military leader’s political maneuverings.
The Anacostia Playhouse opened in August, bringing a handful of professional theater companies to Ward 8. For the inaugural production in the space, Theatre Alliance chose Nathan Louis Jackson’s Broke-ology, a story about a close-knit African-American family set in Jackson’s hometown of Kansas City, Kan. A river separates it from its more prosperous neighbor of Kansas City, Mo., kind of like how the Anacostia River still cuts off the District’s poorest residents from the rest of the city. I liked it for the same reason I liked Studio’s Apple Family Plays, a repertory of two of Richard Nelson’s four real-time family dramas attempting to chart the national mood post-George W. Bush (directed by Motherfucker’s Serge Seiden). Both shows seduced me with their plainspoken, three-dimensional depiction of families—one black and poor, one white and middle class, both wrestling with diminished civic and economic hopes.
At Round House Theatre, the local premiere of Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw was bold and surprising throughout, showing us a side of Signature Theatre regular Will Gartshore we hadn’t previously seen, that of a David Mamet/Neil LaBute-inflected bastard. There’s a particular character type Gionfriddo writes better than anyone else: the achingly sensitive male who is, in his endless need to persuade women to confide in him, a kind of emotional predator. Rex Daugherty was unrecognizable in the part. I mean that as a compliment.
There was, of course, the Helen Hayes Awards kerfuffle. Basically, the big theatres in town didn’t like that smaller theaters had begun to soak up so many awards, and they prevailed upon TheatreWashington—the organization that awards the Awards—to change the formula by which eligibility is determined.
The result was a measured solution wherein two awards will be given in most categories; the “Helens” for non-Equity productions with fewer than three actors, or less than 51 percent of the cast, working under an Equity contract, and the “Hayes” for productions 51 percent or more of the cast working under Equity contracts. To the outside world—the subset of it that follows the Helen Hayes Awards, anyway—your Helen or your Hayes will still be a Helen Hayes Award; the distinction is internal-only. So in essence, twice as many theatermakers will be able to declare themselves Helen Hayes winners on their resumes each year, and the big houses have been appeased.
Well. If that helps the artists or the companies that pay them a little, I’m for it. But the presence of two Helen Hayes Awards winners in each category will undoubtedly complicate the process of trying to sum up what happened on D.C. stages each year. Which may make the episode a perfect embodiment of 2013, the year that was…well, uncommonly averse to summing up.
That’s a trend I support wholeheartedly.