Washington City Paper

Dec. 26, 2003 –
Jan. 8, 2004



Arts in Review 2003

Home is Where the Art is

By Bob Mondello and Trey Graham

OK, let’s run the numbers. Arena Stage has decided it needs $75 million to $100 million to build an oval theater space enclosed in a vitrine with a soaring roof that’ll also shelter its current complex. The Shakespeare Theatre wants $77 million to nearly triple its seating capacity with a new auditorium a block from its current Lansburgh Building base. And the Atlas Theatre Project consortium is looking for $12 million to build two new stages on H Street NE.


Now, factor in the projects that are already under way. What was once a stage in a barn at the Olney Theatre Center is rapidly being transformed into a four-theater, 14-acre campus with a $10.5 million price tag. The Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth, and the Gala Hispanic Theatre are in the process of scraping up $12 million, $7.5 million, and $3 million, respectively, to finish paying for their already-under-construction new spaces.

High Points
Twelfth Night
Folger Theatre
Potomac Theatre Festival
A Night With Dame Edna
National Theatre
Richard III
Shakespeare Theatre
Signature Theatre
Lady Chatterley's Lover
Washington Shakespeare Company
Ford's Theatre
Arena Stage
Lackawanna Blues
Studio Theatre
Speaking in Tongues
Round House Theatre
Talley's Folly
Theater J
The Tamking of the Shrew
Royal Shakespeare Company
Low Points
The Tale of the Allergist's Wife
National Theatre
An American Daughter
Arena Stage
Shakespeare Theatre
I Worry
Wooly Mammoth
Stones in His Pockets
Kennedy Center
Sidney Bechet Killed a Man
A Delicate Balance
Keegan Theatre

Stop there—though there are other projects afoot—and note that local companies have already run up a $222 million tab for local theater construction. That’s more than five times the amount granted to organizations by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001. Repeat: more than five times.

And we’ve left out the $650 million or so that the Kennedy Center says it’ll be raising from public and private sources to build a ceremonial driveway and two multipurpose arts buildings on top of the tangle of highways that currently cut it off from downtown. And the millions the KenCen has already spent expanding its parking garage and renovating its concert hall and opera house. And the proposed $200 million, three-auditorium music museum that may eventually occupy the site of the old Washington Convention Center.

Factor those in and you have a one-city, billion-dollar theatrical building boom. Not too shabby. Also not too likely, of course. Some of the construction plans will inevitably fall by the wayside as fundraising efforts hit the wall with area philanthropists.

Still, the Shakespeare Theatre has half its cash in hand, and most of the smaller projects are nearing their fundraising goals, so a lot of new theaters will actually get built in the next few years. That much is certain.

And for what? Well, this year, that seemed less certain. Though it was healthy enough at the box office, 2003 was a theatrically anemic year, with a good deal more drama offstage than on. Basking in the footlights were shopworn Broadway revivals at the National and timeworn, dinner-theaterish revivals at Arena, while behind the scenes, there was all sorts of ferment. There were changes in approach (the Helen Hayes Awards overhauled its judging system); changes of the guard (the Actors’ Theater of Washington got handed off to a new team); and deaths both individual (Ford’s Theatre icon Frankie Hewitt) and institutional (Le Neon Theatre Company closed shop, and Cherry Red Productions said it would, too).

But the year’s main backstage event was the theater community’s ferocious—and pretty much universal—carping about the Washington Post’s coverage of the local scene. Early in the year, disgruntled theater insiders circulated an e-mail dubbed “The Marks Matrix” that purported to illustrate how small theaters were falling through the cracks while the Post’s editors repeatedly sent the paper’s lead critic, Peter Marks, out of town. By midsummer, there were earnest discussions at League of Washington Theater meetings about what to do about the fact that local shows sometimes had to wait until their final weekends to be reviewed, while the openings of such Broadway nonstarters as Enchanted April and Taboo got splashed all over Style’s front page.

Then again, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that the peripatetic Marks wasn’t missing much on the home front while he filed his dispatches from Manhattan and London’s West End. There’s a list of “high points” accompanying this wrap-up, but only two or three of this year’s shows would have made the best-of cut last year, and nothing on this list remotely rivals such 2002 highlights as the blistering Medea brought to the KenCen by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre—or even the Zora Neale Hurston discovery, Polk County, that Arena dug out of the archives last year.

Happily, the same can be said of the other end of the spectrum; there weren’t a lot of outright disasters in Washington theater in the past 12 months. Still, it’s hard to get excited about a year when the big onstage news was...competence.

The long and shortcomings of it, artistically speaking:

Commercial Houses

The Kennedy Center served up a low-key, largely British season, importing both the year’s undisputed low-water mark (the execrable Stones in His Pockets) and what’s probably the high point as well: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rousing rotating rep of The Taming of the Shrew (brilliant) and that play’s sort-of sequel, The Tamer Tamed (historically intriguing). And thank God—another offering as iffy as the RSC’s springtime As You Like It would have made us worry about the center’s five-year contract with the company.

Another theatrical institution—Stephen Sondheim—met with a mixed reception at the KenCen this year, too. The Eisenhower Theater’s only musical this season, Bounce, came in on a wave of lukewarm notices from Chicago and didn’t find many more fans locally, though it was able to ride the coattails of last year’s Sondheim celebration to run at 90 percent of capacity.

With the Kennedy Center Opera House closed all year for renovations, the National Theatre got its best shot in years at producing a respectable season—and blew it. The Producers, The Lion King, and Hairspray all played smaller cities, while the Shuberts booked the National with the theatrical equivalent of a dose of NyQuil—a broad, wheezing Tale of the Allergist’s Wife—and D.C.’s zillionth go-round of Cats. The house’s only bright point was a too-brief Dame Edna stand, which sold out to the rafters. Ford’s, meanwhile, scored with a smart, solid 1776 that felt made for its historic stage, and made an uneven attempt at epic with The Grapes of Wrath. Otherwise, the house marked time with fillers.

Downtown Repertory Houses

Would that things had been different at the city’s leading resident stage, but Arena’s management is seemingly hellbent on carving out a new niche for itself as a revival house. The theater Zelda Fichandler founded five decades ago as an alternative to the commercial drivel across town at the National now prides itself on reproducing that same drivel in a not-for-profit setting. Not surprisingly, the company sometimes does it well: Ain’t Misbehavin’ was capably mounted, and Camelot’s costumes are certainly pretty. But if there’s a point to lavishing the company’s resources and expertise on mainstream musicals, Wendy Wasserstein sitcoms, and entertainments about church ladies and their hats—other than as box-office insurance—it’s not immediately obvious. There will always be an audience for shows that have been crowd-pleasers in steam-table venues, but a season built around them is a sad sight at a house that once set the nation’s theatrical agenda.

By comparison, the Shakespeare Theatre seems almost bold these days, even when it’s producing hidebound classics. This year it updated Ibsen’s Ghosts to the age of AIDS, dressed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in finery that all but drowned out the play’s poetry, and served up a scene-stealing 16th-century drag heroine in The Silent Woman. It also gave us the Mrs. Malaprop Nancy Robinette has long deserved and introduced a fearless young up-and-comer named Daniel Breaker. If not everything worked, there was at least a sense of discovery to the troupe’s offerings.

The Studio Theatre, for its part, discovered a shattering sense of humanity in Suzan-Lori Parks’ chilly, schematic Topdog/Underdog and uncovered unsettling layers of humor and horror in Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby. The company found little to add to Brecht’s The Life of Galileo, but it did import a pair of solid solo performers, so on balance, its year was pretty substantial.

The Woolly Mammoth crew came fast out of the gate with the ambitious, intriguing Jump/Cut, then more or less coasted. It’s been a good year for the troupe’s actors, though, with Sarah Marshall doing double duty as diametrically opposed sisters in The Mineola Twins and Rick Foucheux donning sequinned spandex in the troupe’s current attraction to add a paunchy, disabled Elvis impersonator to the already diverse raft of characters he played in 2003.

Foucheux’s Malvolio was one of the best things about the magical Twelfth Night with which the Folger Theatre kicked off the year. (Elizabeth the Queen, with Michael Learned, was its other notable offering.) And Foucheux brought a positively amazing grace to the lyrical Talley’s Folly staged by Theater J, a company that proved especially strong in 2003. The house that Ari Roth built also co-produced and played host to Jump/Cut, and it mounted two interesting new works—The Mad Dancers and From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey—that proved both formally intriguing and emotionally expressive. Theater J has unmistakably become a theatrical force of late, though skeptics will justifiably wonder whether it’ll make anything of the new Wasserstein offering that’s next on its agenda.

The Washington Stage Guild found an interesting wrinkle for Shaw’s The Philanderer, producing both of the endings he wrote. And half a block away, an amusingly bloody-minded punk-rock adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was one of the few offerings from the Source Theatre. The venerable alt-theater outlet otherwise played real-estate broker this year, taking a restructuring break and renting out its 14th Street space to other companies (including the Actors’ Theater, for a well-conceived but unevenly executed Lilies). Source did manage to keep its 23-year-old summer theater festival alive, and this month it launched its new season with a double bill of new plays from a local and a formerly local writer.

The ‘Burbs and Beyond

With 110 in the Shade and Follies, the Signature Theatre continued to do what it does best—resuscitate worthy but underproduced musicals by stripping them of the Broadway grandiosity that can make them seem mere entertainment machines. The company stumbled somewhat with its straight plays, and it settled for a pleasant, diverting take on Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was more interesting for its accident of timing (opposite the composer’s Bounce at the Kennedy Center) than for anything fresh it revealed about the show.

The Washington Shakespeare Company and the Keegan Theater both staged intriguing rotating repertories at the Clark Street Playhouse, though Keegan pressed its luck by following a sharply observed Sam Shepard rep with a lamely inadequate Edward Albee pairing. WSC’s adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, meanwhile, was among the year’s best-directed ensemble offerings, though the Night of the Iguana it offered alongside was interesting mostly for its intensity—and for Cam Magee’s immensely warm Hannah Jelkes.

Teatro de la Luna didn’t produce much besides a mounting of the allegorical Cuban comedy Manteca (Lard), but at least it made a small splash with that one outing. Of the six offerings from Alexandria’s MetroStage, only a winsome staging of Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing made any kind of impression. (No, wait—the half-baked Sidney Bechet Killed a Man made a perfectly miserable impression, which probably wasn’t what the company had in mind.) The American Century Theater likewise misstepped, with, among other 2003 awkwardnesses, a well-meaning excursion into the perilous territory of Dear World, Jerry Herman’s bizarro musicalization of The Madwoman of Chaillot. At least Jack Marshall & Co. will be able to clip the warm reviews for Benchley Despite Himself, Nat Benchley’s wistful and well-built homage to his witty writer grandfather, when they’re putting together their year-end scrapbooks.

The year’s nerviest piece of theater, bar none, turned up in a black-box space at that mushrooming Olney complex: Sarah Kane’s Crave, part of the annual Potomac Theatre Festival, played like a frantic conversation among our collective demons, and Cheryl Faraone’s bare-bones production insisted that audiences sit up and listen. (Olney’s mainstage season wasn’t nearly as exciting, though its largely charmless Charley’s Aunt did let the estimable Colleen Delany prove she can play funny as well as she plays melancholy.) Meanwhile, over at the Round House Theater in Bethesda, where audacious theatricality is forever at war with a cavernous space, the war was won on occasion—most notably in a richly produced Heartbreak House.

Small Fry

If there’s a local company known for both the greatness of its temerity and the smallness of its budgets, it’s Cherry Red, whose demise (as a producer of full seasons, anyhow) will be mourned among its loyal legions of local smut connoisseurs. For all its irreverence, the company turned in two substantial pieces of work this year: the disturbing Penetrator and the ambitious, amusing in-joke that was Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?, by company co-founders Ian Allen and Monique LaForce. Nearly as bold and every bit as poor, the movement-oriented Synetic Theater barely survived its breakup with the Stanislavsky Theater Studio, but it nonetheless managed to mount a hypnotic Salomé—and, when it resurfaced at the Rosslyn Spectrum, to reprise its silent take on Hamlet, a multiple–Helen Hayes Award winner last year.

Which, come to think of it, brings us back to the shelter question. Most of D.C. theater’s small, scrappy troupes have obsessed for years about finding permanent venues—but you’ve gotta wonder if the comforts of home encourage challenging work. It’s true the Theater Alliance presented a solid season in its second year at the H Street Playhouse. But the technically homeless African Continuum Theatre Company does substantial work, too, in the awkward Kennedy Center space it’s been sharing with Woolly Mammoth and the American Film Institute. And consider Stanislavsky—perpetrator of mostly indifferent work since it established itself as the resident company at the Church Street Theater—as well as Catalyst, which presented two ungainly messes this year at its Capitol Hill Arts Workshop base.

Fact is that black boxes and church basements, storefronts and warehouses have always been home to some of the most interesting theater in Washington. And billion-dollar real-estate boom or no, some such out-of-the-way spot is just as likely to host the next production or the next performance that stands our hair on end. So build away, everybody. Just don’t forget to keep looking over your shoulders. CP

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