Fall Performance Art Preview 2011

Members of the cast of the Arena Stage at teh Mead Center for American Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!"
Photo by Suzanne Blue Star Boy
Members of the cast of the Arena Stage at teh Mead Center for American Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!"

When Arena Stage brought back its hugely successful season and theater opening production of the very-much-a-staple Rodger Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma” for a late summer run, the theater community stood up and took notice.

Theater folks noticed too that Woolly Mammoth had also done a similar thing bringing back its production of Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer-Prize winning “Clybourne Park” to record-breaking (for Woolly) box office success. Both productions brought back original casts and energized productions. People saw a trend.

In truth, while innovative and smart marketing and scheduling strategies may have been at work, what happened wasn’t really new. Arena Stage, in fact, had been doing a similar thing with productions of “Crowns,” the popular musical about the importance of hats in the lives of African American women.

In theater, in fact, the adage that “everything old is new again” is the life blood, the bread and butter, the staple of theater world. What Arena and Woolly did was to bring back almost identical versions of the plays they had already done, thinking correctly that a larger audience as well as a repeat audience remained for the two plays. They were right. But theater exists on reviving, re-doing, and returning to a repertoire of plays and musicals that make up the core of what theater does on Broadway, in regional companies, in dinner theaters, amateur companies, high school and college. Road companies of big hit Broadway musicals are hugely profitable, same-version, different casts of eagerly awaited shows.

The staple of classic and therefore “old” theater literature are revisited time and time again over the centuries and decades—that’s why we have theater companies whose repertoire is rooted in Shakespeare, Shaw, the Greeks and American classics by O’Neill, Miller and others.

The reliance on the old and familiar—along with revisits that cast fresh light on the old plays—make new plays all the more thrilling because we don’t know how the story ends, what the characters will say or do, and we haven’t heard the songs by new composers and lyricists sung and played. This mix and mash of old and new is the heart of theater—we find surprises in the way an actor might play Hamlet—in fact hope for it—and are surprised how familiar and close to our lives the work of a new playwright is.

Every theater season begins with those anticipations of the familiar, the hope for surprise and connection and, of course, all of it accompanied by the possibility of awe and wonder, of moments in the dark that will lie in our memories like special dreams, the come-and-go moments for which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, there is no app.

The season kicks off with a hefty mix of old and new. Here, with some things to look forward and backward to.

SILENT SHAKESPEARE AT SYNETIC

Synetic Theatre, headed by the dynamic husband-wife team of Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili from the Republic of Georgia, has become and always was just about the most innovative, beyond-category theater company in the Washington area.

Whether performing at its original Church Street locale, at the Kennedy Center, in Shirlington or its new digs in Crystal City, the company has propelled a mix of mime, choreographed movement and spectacle to create its own kind of (classical, but silent) theater, borrowing its subjects from sources that include classic Russian literature, Dante, Cervantes and Shakespeare.

Its productions have reaped dozens of Helen Hayes Awards and almost instantaneous and consistent critical acclaim. Synetic’s form of theater is new, but its base subject is classical theater, minus the words. This brings new meaning to Hamlet’s “The Rest is Silence,” a play Synetic did ALL in silence. The company is kicking of its 2011-2012 season with three best-of productions under the banner of “Speak No More,” three of its most popular versions of Silent Shakespeare, its 2008 production of “Macbeth” (Sept. 14 through Oct. 2); its 2010 production of “Othello” (Oct. 19 through Nov. 6) and its 2008 production of “Romeo and Juliet” (Nov. 25 through Dec. 23).

Synetic covers the criteria—everything really old is really new again and again—and again.

FRIENDS, WASHINGTONIANS AND COUNTRYMEN : IT’S FREE!

Michael Kahn’s Washington Shakespeare Company is presenting its 21st Annual Free for All. This time “Julius Caesar” is doing the honors and also kicking off the company’s 25th anniversary season. This Julius is a revival of the critically acclaimed 2007-2008 production and will be performed at Sidney Harman Hall through Sept. 4. The Bard’s best play about politics and ambition echoes mightily, featuring as it does among its main characters honorable Republican senators whose fears of centralized government leads them astray. But that’s just one man’s opinion David Paul directs with a cast led by Aubrey Deeker, Tom Hammond and Tyrone Henderson.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN WITH LES MISERABLES AND THE JERSEY BOYS OR UP THE BARRICADES AND WALK LIKE A MAN

It’s a 25th anniversary for the Cameron McIntosh juggernaut “Les Miserables” and for the occasion there’s a brand new fully-staged production of the legendary Boubil & Schonberg operatic musical which set records in London, on Broadway and in dozens of road companies. The tale of the escaped convict (serving time for stealing a loaf of bread) Jean Valjean and his nemesis the relentless Inspector Javert is epic in scale with soaring songs a plot to fill several books by Victor Hugo and spectacle that stirs the heart and mind, and songs and music that make you want to run to the barricades (or from them, depending). Set in 19th Century France during yet another revolutionary time, the songs include “On My Own,” the stirring “Bring Him Home” and last but not least, “Can You Hear the People Sing.” If you can’t, you need a hearing aid.

It all happens at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House (Sept. 28 through Oct. 30).

If Victor Hugo isn’t your cup of tea, how about them boys from Jersey, as in “The Jersey Boys,” the earthy, hit-rich musical that traces the success, pitfalls, rags-and-juvie-to-riches story of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons, arguably one of America’s biggest rock-pop bands ever, not excluding their peers The Beach Boys.

The hugely popular show returns to the National Theater for quite a long stint and why not. (Nov. 10 through Jan. 7). Walk like a man, my friend.

HOLLY TWYFORD DIRECTS

Holly Twyford is one of the most gifted, eclectic actresses on the Washington theater scene who’s done just about everything except have her own reality show; from Shakespeare to an outrageous Woolly play to a gig as a dancing pig at Adventure Theater, she has plenty to round out her resume. What she hasn’t done is direct, and she’s taking care of that with her directorial debut at No Rules Theater Company, named Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company.

That would appear to be a nice fit for Twyford, who’s always been a little edgy and is now directing Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss,” a play about two women, a scattered New York City traffic reporter and a St. Louis school teacher, who meet and fall in love. “The play chose me,” Twyford said. She had appeared in the play ten years ago. “The play had been special to me when I was in it and to be able to help shape the entire telling of this beautiful story as much as a director can was a chance I couldn’t pass up,” (Sept. 7 through Oct. 2).

HISTORY IN THE MAKING AT SIGNATURE (AGAIN)

Signature, no slouch in the ambition department, will be by all accounts the first theater to present two original world premiere musicals in repertory by presenting “The Hollow,” and “The Boy Detective Fails,” now in prevues.

“The Hollow,” with a book by Hunter Foster and music and lyrics by Matt Conner, is based on the Washington Irving Sleepy Hollow story and features a headless horseman but not Johnny Depp (through Oct. 16, directed by Eric Schaeffer).

“The Boy Detective Fails,” with a book by Joe Meno and Music and Lyrics by Adam Gwon, is about self-styled boy detective Billy Argo, who must face the shocking death of his partner-in-crime-solving and sister. Ten years later, he’s on the case (through Oct. 16, directed by Joe Calarco).

BERNIE MADOFF AT THEATER J

One of the more anticipated plays of the season is coming to Theater J where Bernie Madoff in his new home, a jail cell, will make an appearance in Deb Margolin’s “Imagining Madoff,” a play which posits Madoff setting the record straight and telling the story of an interview with Holocaust survivor, poet and investment client Solomon Galkin.

Bernie Madoff defrauded clients for hundreds of millions of dollars in a vast Ponzi scheme and he didn’t’ quibble, destroying friends, family, charities and celebrities with quiet gusto. Rick Foucheux stars as Madoff, artist-in-residence and Washington favorite Jennifer Mendenhall plays Madoff’s secretary, and Alexandra Aron directs. (Aug. 31 through Sept. 25)

BOOKS BURN AT ROUND HOUSE

Ray Bradbury, now in his 90s and still writing, has often been pigeonholed as a writer of science fiction novels and short stories through his long career (“The Martian Chronicles” “Something Wicked This Way Comes”). But in truth, he’s been much more than that; celebrator of literary favorites, teller of Irish tall tales, and prophet might be good, for starters.

Long ago, he wrote a slim novel imagining a world in which firemen occupied themselves with burning books by state directive because, well, you know, books are dangerous things. (Bradbury did not, however, envision Kindle as far as we know). The book became a haunting, if imperfect, film directed by Francois Trufautt and starring Oscar Werner and Julie Christie. The writing in the book and the images from the film are haunting.

Now Round House Theater in Bethesda is staging Bradbury’s own theatrical adaptation of the novel, a multi-media production incorporating cutting edge video, projection and a sound design created by the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Sharon Ott directs with a cast that includes Katie Atkinson and John Lescault, among others (Sept. 7 through Oct. 9)

A “PARADE” OF A DIFFERENT SORT AT FORD’S THEATRE

The trial and lynching of Leo Frank in early 20th-century Atlanta seems an unlikely subject for a Broadway musical, but the show, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and with Harold Prince as co-conceiver, won a Tony award for musical drama and is now getting a Washington premiere as a co-production with Theater J.

Frank was a Jewish factory manager who was accused of murdering a teenage girl on the day of the Confederate Memorial Day Parade.

The musical kicks off Ford’s 2011-2012 season and is also the first selection for Ford’s five-year “The Lincoln Legacy Project,” which aims to create a dialogue around the issues of tolerance, equality and acceptance (Sept. 23 through Oct. 30).

MICHAEL KAHN DIRECTS WORLD PREMIERE OF “THE HEIR APPARENT”

It’s not Shakespeare, it’s not even British, but it is old and funny. That would be “The Heir Apparent,” a variation of Jean-Francois Regnard’s 1708 comedy adapted by David Ives. It’s a play with a familiar plot—young swain wants to marry young girl, but needs an inheritance from his uncle who wants to, guess what, marry the young lady herself. Moliere made do with less and more, as did Shakespeare. Michael Kahn, Washington Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director for the past 25 years, will direct a cast that will include long-time D.C. favorites Floyd King and Nancy Robinette (Sept. 6 through Oct. 23 at the Lansburgh).

TED, DAVID AND ALLAN AT THE STUDIO THEATER

That would be actor Ted van Griethuysen, just hitting his stride, Studio Theater Artist Director David Muse, hitting his stride in his second year at Studio, and Playwright Alan Bennett, always in stride, whose “The History Boys” received a standout production here several years ago.

Muse is coming off a hugely successful production of “Venus in Fur” for Studio, and seems perfectly suited for Bennett’s brainiac, culture-buff comedy “The Habit of Art,” which includes as characters the British composer Benjamin Britten and poet-as-legend W.H. Auden (opens Sept. 7).

HOWARD SHALWITZ INVITES YOU TO THE WOOLLY APOCOLYPSE

That’s Howard Shalwitz talking about the 2011-2012 season, Woolly’s 32rd on planet Washington. “Join us as we mine our collective visions of apocalypse—and all the drama, jokes, and dreams they inspire.” First episode is “A Bright New Boise” by Samuel D. Hunter, directed by John Vreeke, where someone is summoning the rapture, right in the middle of a parking lot of a mega craft store in Boise, Idaho.

Gotta be there for that (Oct. 10 through Nov. 6).

HERE, THERE AND EVERYWHERE

Caryl Churchill of “Top Girls” fame kicks off the new season for Forum Theatre, now company in residence at the Round House Theatre’s Silver Spring location. Michael Dove directs Churchill’s “Mad Forest” while Rose McConnell, Alexander Strain, Heather Haney and Dana Levanovsky star (Sept. 22 through Oct. 15).

More at the Shakespeare Theatre Company: the musical “Fela!” returns to the United States, telling its tale of the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. It’s directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, kicking off a national tour at Sidney Harman Hall (Sept. 13 through Oct. 9).

“Ay Carmela!,” a U.S. premiere of a play by Spanish playwright Jose Sanchis Sinisterra, will kick off the Gala Hispanic Theatre’s season. It’s a play about the adventures—comic and romantic and dark all at once—about a pair of vaudevillians who find themselves in the midst of the bloody Spanish Civil War (Sept. 15 through Oct. 9).

The National Theater of China will present a production of “Two Dogs’ Opinions on Life,” an improvisational comedy that will be part of the Kennedy Center’s celebration of “China, the Art of a Nation” in September and October. “Two Dogs” will be performed at the Terrace Theater (Sept. 20 and 21 at 7:30 p.m. ). A second theater company, the Beijing People’s Art Theatre will perform “Top Restaurant” about the history of a Peking Roast Duck restaurant over half a century (Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m., October 2 at 1:30 p.m.).

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