City Desk

Woolly Mammoth Still Crazy After 30 Years

Maybe the recent theater-building frenzy has hit a wall, maybe economic reality has checked in, but D.C. theaters are cutting back a little for the 2009-10 season. In 2007-08, while the paint was still drying on Harman Hall, Shakespeare Theatre Company expanded from five to eight shows; next year they’re down to seven. And Arena Stage, instead of their usual subscription of eight shows, is offering only six.

But with no shortage of theater in DC, audiences value quality over quantity.


To woo subscribers, theaters assemble line-ups that include must-see classics, beloved musicals, and Tony-award winners. And then there’s Woolly Mammoth, which on Saturday unveiled an entire season of brand-new shows no one has ever heard of...just as they have done for 30 years in a row. It takes a brave and trusting subscriber to buy a series sight-unseen.

To introduce Woolly’s débutantes, artistic director Howard Shalwitz and dramaturg Miriam Weisfeld led company members in readings from each new play. In trademark Woolly style, these push the envelope on what can be considered a play, but based on the titillating readings, each show promises to be provocative and entertaining.

Shalwitz wanted an anniversary season that engages its audience in a discourse on democracy and “our historic moment.” Of course, as he reassured us, “Comedy is our home. We like shows that don’t take themselves too seriously.”

The season opens with the world premiere of Eclipsed by African playwright and actress Danai Guirira, who astounded local audiences in her Helen Hays Award-winning performance of In the Continuum (2007 HH award for best actress, best non-resident play), about an African woman struggling with cultural mores in announcing she has AIDS. Eclipse continues to highlight experiences of African women by exploring the five wives of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor and the fallout from civil war.

If you can’t take East German censorship circa the fall of the Berlin Wall sitting down, you don’t have to. The actors and audience alike will perambulate Woolly’s theaterspace—so wear comfortable shoes. Playwright Charles Mee’s adaptation of Brecht’s Full Circle is more of an event than a play, featuring seven company members including Shalwitz, and asking the question, “Can a disgraced artistic director restore a nation’s moral bearings?”

The next non-play is a one-man dialogue with Mike Daisey, who challenged Fringe Festival audiences last summer with If You See Something, Say Something. When Woolly commissioned the world premier of The Last Cargo Cult. In preparing the piece, Daisy visited Tanna, an island in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, where locals worship symbols of American capitalist power—especially cargo left by ships during World War II.

Clybourne Park takes Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun as a point of departure, but changes the perspective to that of a white neighborhood in 1950s Chicago faced with a black family moving in. In Act II, playwright Bruce Norris trains his lens closer to home by peeking in on that same neighborhood in present day.

Woolly was surprisingly furtive about the 5th play of the season, refusing to announce even the title until two weeks from now so as not to steal the thunder from the theater where it will premiere. However it has Mammoth footprints all over it, as the play absurdly follows an “anti-romantic” boy and girl, jumping forward and backward in time throughout their lives.

Perhaps in an attempt to make sure the Obamas don’t get homesick, Woolly has also booked two prominent Chicago troupes. Legendary political sketch comedy group Second City will present Barack Stars as an offering in this summer’s Fringe Festival. In December, the Neofuturists will bring back Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, whereby they stage 30 plays in 60 minutes, choosing plays each night based on the roll of a dice.

As the Mammoth turns 30, Shalwitz remarks that “Becoming an adult is scary because Woolly wants to be youthful, forward learning and provocative.” C’mon Woolly, you may grow old, but you’ll never grow up.

UPDATE ~ 4:45 p.m., 3/5/09: Arena Stage has shortened its 2009-10 subscription offerings in order to prepare for the return to its renovated home in Southwest D.C. The decision was not financially based, but was intended to avoid overproducing during a transition year. When it opens in Fall, 2010, the Mead Center for American Theater will add a third stage, thereby enabling more programming than Arena’s typical eight-show subscription. Thanks to Kirstin Franko for correcting me on this.

Disclaimer: Sheffy Gordon is a season usher at Woolly Mammoth as well as other theaters in DC. The views expressed here are his alone.

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