The Performing Arts Column
THESE OUR ACTORS
We’re always talking about the richness of theater talent in Washington, but sometimes even we veteran theater-goers can still be amazed at what we witness.
At the Washington Shakespeare Theatre Company, and at the Studio Theatre, we’re seeing something remarkable, two performances by veteran, much-acclaimed and multi-awarded actors who might be excused if by now they had excused themselves from the game.
Ted van Griethuysen and Floyd King who have graced Washington stages and elsewhere at least since the 1980s with wonderful performances in works ranging from Shakespeare to the rawest contemporary cutting edge works seem as if by magic to have hit their stride, and doing their best work in two astonishing performances. It’s as if they’ve hit some hitherto unheard of second wind, dominating their respective stages and giving honor to the whole area theater community.
Here is van Griethuysen, many times nominated and often a winner in the Helen Hayes derby, well in the autumn of his theater life at the vortex of Alan Bennett’s delicious, smart and earthy play, “The Habit of Art,” which is actually a play within a play about the latter-life and times of geniuses W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. Van Griethuysen plays an actor playing Auden, the foul, brilliant, razor-witty resident-great-poet of our times, sickly, brazen, sexually hungry in older age. It is one of those performances that bare the heart and fragile body, a brave, gutsy piece of work and the wonder is that he manages to be playing two parts almost at the same time. His performance is the gut-wrenching soul of what is also an ensemble piece about theater itself where Paxton Whitehead, no slouch himself, can hold his own as the more demure Britten.
What Van Griethuysen has done here shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does. He’s funny and heartbreaking and astonishing at the same time — and that capacity to still surprise an audience is what’s remarkable.
In his own way, Floyd King does something similar in “The Heir Apparent,” a smart, foul, almost hip but true-to-the-form update of an obscure French comedy in the post-time of Moliere. It has a rich, presumed-to-be-dying aristocrat, avaricious relatives and servants and all the usual suspects in such matters, and it has King, who is king of this sort of thing and has been since around the 1980s. Classic clowning is an work that King practically owns — along with such modern acts of weirdness as “The Mystery of Irma Vep” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” He has played the fool for quite some time now, and knows their inner workings, including the one in “Lear.” But as Geronte, the doddering old man who not only seems to die several times but talks endlessly of his bowel movements, makes retching sound like a climb to Everest, he’s outdone himself, which is saying something. He’s bewigged, bothered and bewildered — and befuddled and bedeviled. He’s the star in a play that has some star turns: Nancy Robinette who can steal entire scenes like a pickpocket in the Louvre, not to mention the appearance of a piglet named Cordelia.
A gift they are — van Griethuysen and King — to Washington theatergoers, a present quality they’ve shown time and time again, including when they appeared together in the Folger Theater production of “The Dresser,” in which van Griethuysen was a fading, aging Shakespearean actor and King his dresser.
So much for aging and fading.
BEST BET YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
"Lungs" is a two-character, world premiere and inaugural production of the Studio Theater’s Lab Series. It is the work of new English playwright Duncan Macmillan, a short piece in which a youngish couple navigates through their relationship against the backdrop of the very recognizable world we live in. It’s often funny, often and finally heartbreaking, very much a part of how we live, full of the instantly recognizably wise ways men and women completely fail to hear each other. It’s a play that sneaks up on you like a heavy-breathing puppy. You don’t know whether to kick it to the curb or to let it into your heart.
It’s a very modern, very smart play with all the frantic, repetitious pausing that is often so characteristic of people who live young in the age of instant communications. The questions they deal with — getting married or not, having a baby or not, staying at home, making money — sound banal on the surface and become earthshaking in the acting. That’s thanks primarily to Brooke Bloom as the young woman, meaning no disrespect to Ryan King as the man. The woman doesn’t just talk, she reiterates, she gesticulates, she injects noises into sentences, and feelings, always with the feelings. She’s so compelling that the man’s little betrayals, his denseness in the face of his stormy partners, are sympathetic. I suspect MacMillan tried to say something about love in the age of now and soon — and succeeded. (Through Oct. 16)
CAN YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING? YOU BET.
You might have heard. The kids are back on the barricades. No, it’s not the Arab spring or demonstrations on Wall Street. It’s the return of “Les Miserables,” a new 25th Anniversary Production now at the Kennedy Center, complete with newer bells and whistles and projections, big voices and more death scenes than “David Copperfield” (the Dickens novel, not the magician). Let’s be clear: It’s as rousing as ever and seems to move faster than usual, although it still runs well over two and a half hours. Many of these revolutionaries weren’t even born when “Les Mis” and its deathless logo first made their appearance here, a production I happened to see, not to mention several since then.
It’s still a fight between Valjean, the ex-convict who helps and saves everybody after serving two decades on a prison gang for stealing a loaf of bread, and Inspector Javert, the relentless police inspector who hunts him down to the end of the earth, or to a barricade in Paris where students in the 1830s have staged an ill-fated uprising against the powers that be. There’s love, romance, there’s the “Masters of the House,” and beautiful songs and J. Mark McVey as Valjean and Andrew Varela as Javert, both superb singers.
The youngsters — from Fantine to Cosette, to Eponine, Marius and Enjolras — are sometimes uneven in voice, but always appealing in character. Jeremy Hays makes an exceptionally heroic revolutionary as Enjolras. If you’ve never seen “Les Mis,” go see it and you’ll figure out what all the fuss was about, and if you have seen it and missed it, say welcome back.
SCENA’S BACK WITH GREEKS BEARING THEATRICAL GIFTS
Scena Theater and Artistic Director Robert McNamara have been around for 24 years. They’re kicking off their season with “Greek” by the caustic, cutting, smart playwright (and sometime actor) Steven Berkoff.
“Greek” is Oedipus Rex written differently and set in modern day London. According to Berkoff, this modern take came to him by “way of Sophocles trickling its way down the millennia until it reached the unimaginable wastelands of Tufnell Park.” For NcNamara, the play echoes: Greek meltdown and London riots resonate in it.
(Begins Oct. 20 and runs through Nov. 27 at the H Streets Playhouse, 1365 H Street, NE.)
MICHAEL KAHN TO BE HONORED
The Shakespeare Theatre Company is celebrating its 25th anniversary season by honoring Artistic Director Michael Kahn at the Harman Center for the Arts Annual Gala Oct. 17 at Sidney Harman Hall and the National Building Museum. It promises to be something of a class reunion what with stars Patrick Stewart (a Starfleet captain, but also once “Othello” here), Harry Hamlin, Stacy Keach, Pat Carroll, Bradley Whitford and Richard Thomas all on hand — along with Chelsea Clinton, Donald Graham, George Hearn, Terrence McNally, Lonette McKee and many others.