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Shakespeare in a saloon, a 1980s musical on roller skates, a grown-up playground fight and a powerful remembrance of the AIDS crisis are at the center of just a few shows on area stages. Our critics discuss the picks–and the pans–in theaters now, and look ahead to some highly anticipated summer and fall shows (Hint: get ready for Kathleen Turner sightings).
- Trey Graham Arts editor at NPR; Theater critic for WETA and the Washington City Paper
- Jane Horwitz "Backstage" and "Family Filmgoer" columnist for the Washington Post, and critic for WETA's "Around Town"
- Nelson Pressley Arts critic, Washington Post
A montage of scenes from the Signature Theater production of “Xanadu.”
A preview of “God of Carnage,” playing at the Signature Theater.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. What's old is new again, and that's certainly the case on stage in our area right now. There's a production of an 18th century slapstick comedy on now, a "Servant of Two Masters" that feels downright modern. A Shakespeare staple, "The Taming of the Shrew" has a Western theme and contemporary music.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd who would have guessed a flop of a movie from the '80s that became a smash Broadway musical, most of which takes place on roller skates, is now in revival here. Yes, it's "Xanadu." It's not all fun and games, though. There's a drama from the AIDS era called "The Lonely Planet," a David Mamet play with some very dark themes, and a host of theater festivals and new plays opening this summer that you won't want to miss.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss what's going on the theater scene is Jane Horwitz, freelance arts critic. You've read her work in The Washington Post, the Washingtonian and other publications. She wrote the "Backstage" column for The Post for 14 years. Jane, great to see you again.
MS. JANE HORWITZHi, Kojo.
NNAMDITrey Graham is with us. He's an arts editor at NPR and a theater critic for WETA and Washington City Paper. Trey, great to see you again.
MR. TREY GRAHAMThanks for having me.
NNAMDINelson Pressley is a long-time contributor to The Washington Post. Nelson, happy to have you in studio.
MR. NELSON PRESSLEYGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments -- what have you've seen in the theater lately? -- feel free to call us, 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Jane, a "Servant of Two Masters" is playing at the Shakespeare Theater Company. It's a play by an 18th century Italian playwright written around 1743.
NNAMDIWhy does it work?
HORWITZBecause it's still funny as all get out, and it's -- and not only that, it's Goldoni. Carlo Goldoni is his name. And he was mining a theatrical tradition that goes back another couple of centuries...
GRAHAMOh, yes, several.
HORWITZ...commedia dell'arte. And it still works. And it still -- it's a mix of slapstick, high and low comedy. There's a little fish juggling in there.
GRAHAMMm hmm. It works for the same reason that The Three Stooges work and The Marx Brothers work, right?
PRESSLEYEven more than that, I think, because these guys are real commedia dell'arte experts. And you're right. They sort of bring it into the current time, but they really know the traditions. They've studied. The bodies just twitch and quiver like cartoons. It's completely delightful.
HORWITZAnd there's an actor on -- there's an actor named Steven Epp who plays the servant in the title Truffaldino, who's got comic timing that someone like Meryl Streep or Maggie Smith would envy.
NNAMDISome say that this style of comedy was the precursor to our modern sitcom. Can you hear that in this production?
HORWITZOh, I think so. There's a lot of social class clashing in here. You know, there's a lot of making fun of the rich and powerful by their servants, and it's always the servants who are the wily ones. And that's sort of a sitcom staple.
PRESSLEYYeah. Even more than that, it's a comedy of stock characters.
GRAHAMYes. You always -- you know from the way the characters are named and the way the characters are dressed in commedia who's going to end up with who and who's going to be the victor in whatever contest is going on. So it's always fun to watch how the variations get played.
NNAMDIIt's called "The Servant of Two Masters." A man tries to hold down full-time jobs. Let's listen to a clip.
NNAMDIIt even works on the radio.
PRESSLEYI know, right? You can hear how tightly rehearsed that ensemble is, right?
NNAMDIYeah, they should...
HORWITZOh, it's like clockwork. And, you know, part of what they're doing in there is describing how the meat, the veal and the beef are going to be killed -- moo, tip, bang.
HORWITZIt's just hilarious.
NNAMDIOh, adapted for radio. Jane, you saw "The Bachelorette," and you like it a lot. Tell us the premise of that.
HORWITZOh, it's terrific, and that's another case where you've got a really strong cast. It's a group of three women who get together the night before the -- a friend of theirs is about to get married, and they are approaching 30. They are disappointed in their love lives, disappointed in their careers, and they are bitter and twisted and...
NNAMDIWait a minute, why does it work?
HORWITZIt's a comedy. They're high on cocaine and a lot of booze and pills, and it is a nasty and just incredibly fun comedy, partly -- I'm not sure I love the way it ended. I don't know about you.
GRAHAMI haven't seen it yet. But I talked to Mondello, and he really liked it and is twisting my arm to go see it this week so...
HORWITZOh, you should. You should.
GRAHAMThere's a twist, right?
HORWITZThere's a twist at the end, which we shouldn't give away.
HORWITZBut -- and the other thing that's -- it's...
NNAMDIAnd it's at Studio Theatre, by the way.
HORWITZRight, at Studio Theatre. And it almost feels like a Neil LaBute play. They are making fun of the bride who we don't meet for ages, who is heavy. She's a heavy person, and they make fun of the size of her dress. And let's just say that the karma comes back around.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're talking with Jane Horwitz, Trey Graham and Nelson Pressley about this D.C. theater season. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. You can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. What shows are you looking forward to this summer? Jane, you also saw "Lonely Planet." It's a play about the AIDS era. Tell us about that.
HORWITZIt's a lovely play. It's not a new play.
NNAMDIWhere is it?
HORWITZIt's from -- it's at Metro Stage in Alexandria.
HORWITZIt's by Steven Dietz, a well-known American playwright, done a lot in regional theaters. And it is sort of the opposite of what Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" and the "Normal Heart." It's the opposite of what those are. It's an intimate two-character drama about a guy who owns a map store and his friend and how they're dealing with the fact -- and this is in the '80s -- that so many of their friends are dying.
HORWITZAnd it's a sweet sort of whimsical play, and the performances by Eric Sutton and Michael Russotto are so good. John Vreeke, who directs a lot in Washington, staged it. It's just a really good, low-key, poignant, funny piece. It leaves you feeling in tears and yet satisfied and also entertained.
NNAMDIIt's something -- it's set in a place that you don't see much anymore given that we now have Google Maps. It's set in a...
HORWITZA map store with lots of baskets full of rolled-up maps and a long beautiful speech about the Greenland problem, why Greenland looks too big in most maps.
NNAMDITrey, "The Music Man" is at Arena Stage through July 22. For those who haven't seen it, remind us of the story.
GRAHAMAnother one that I have not caught up with yet, but the story is Harold Hill comes to town, right, and is going to sell them a bunch of marching band instruments. And he's kind of a conman but...
GRAHAMHe meets a...
GRAHAMHe meets a nice local lady who may or may not reform him before the show is over.
NNAMDINelson, you're not the biggest fan of "The Music Man." Why not?
PRESSLEYI'm not. It's just -- for some reason, it's not one of the musicals that -- the songs don't quite speak to me in the same way that "Guys and Dolls" do or the Rodgers & Hammerstein scores do. It's charming. It's fun. I took my daughter. She did the show herself when she was in middle school. She's now in college, and she came out in this the other night saying, I forgot how much fun that show was.
PRESSLEYSo, you know, she had a better time than I did, but I will say this is -- it's a pretty slick production at Arena Stage. It's, I think, maybe as professional -- not that Molly Smith's previous musicals haven't been professional. But it's tighter. It's very, very big, and it's pretty smooth.
HORWITZAnd it's a good dance...
NNAMDI...what did you find interesting about it?
HORWITZGood dancing in that show, which is not something we see that often in Washington because the Stage is here, not counting the Kennedy Center and the National are not always big enough in the regional theaters to even accommodate it. But there's some really fine dancing in that show. And also, Kate Baldwin, who plays Marian the Librarian, gives an absolutely crystalline performance. Her singing is gorgeous. Her acting is great. It's a very strong cast overall, but she -- really, it's a Broadway performance.
PRESSLEYYeah. The cast here is really pretty much outstanding. Burke Moses who...
HORWITZYeah. Who's Harold Hill.
PRESSLEY...is Harold Hill. He's a pretty persuasive conman. Kate Baldwin is lovely. The Barbershop Quartet is pretty great. The thing about the dancing that's interesting (unintelligible) it's in the round. So everything kind of has a bit of a Busby Berkeley effect 'cause wherever you sit...
PRESSLEY...you're almost more on top of it than...
GRAHAMYou see the patterns.
GRAHAMI think, actually -- I know a lot of actors who are making the argument that we've turned a corner in Washington in terms of the dancing talent that's available here between -- you know, in the last year or so between "Hairspray" and "Oklahoma" and now this, which I'm hearing good things about. There's a strong pool of people who can move.
HORWITZAlso, Kojo, there was a pretty hilarious conversation on Twitter started, I think, by The Post critic Peter Marks about "Shipoopi," which is a song...
HORWITZ...in the second act of "Music Man" is without a doubt one of the most egregious, execrable...
HORWITZ...numbers in a musical that should have been cut decades ago, and they keep doing it 'cause it gives people a chance to dance. But it is really an awful song. It's the only bad one in the score.
NNAMDINelson, there's an early Sam Shepard on now, "Tooth of the Crime" at WSC Avant Bard, how was that?
PRESSLEY"Tooth of Crime" is -- I'm so glad they staged it at -- it didn't come out beautifully, but it's such a bear of a piece to do. It's early Sam Shepard. It's sort of this contest of wills between musicians, an old school rock and roller and some new fangled musicians, and they're going to have a showdown. And so Sam Shepard infuses this with just impossible, old mythic-like cowboy rock and roll poetry.
PRESSLEYIt's even hard to describe, very hard to act, and then it kind of bursts into crazy different sorts of song. So, I mean, nobody does this, and WSC Avant Bard is a good troupe, I think, to tackle it. And they got it a pretty far way down the road, I think, especially with a young challenger. It's a very, very strong performance there.
NNAMDIA lot of street lingo, huh?
PRESSLEYWell, it's like "Desert Blues." I mean, you can't even call it street lingo. It's like stuff that you haven't quite heard before. I mean, this was Shepard --again, early Sam Shepard. He was a wild man.
GRAHAMAnd as Nelson said, this is a company that likes to take on these really naughty difficult plays and do them with a mix of seasoned performers and young talents. It's -- this is running in repertory with "The Bacchae," which, again, not something you see every season.
PRESSLEYAnd they're a perfect pair, actually, because you've got the same sort of showdown again. With "The Bacchae," you've got a god who will be honored, or there will be a price to pay.
PRESSLEYAnd the way Steven Scott Mazzola has staged this reminds me and, I think, a number of other people a little bit of "Hair" because they take the chorus and musicalize it, and it's very, very earthy and very, very alive.
NNAMDI"Xanadu," Trey, a revival of the Broadway musical based on the '80s film starring Olivia Newton-John, which was a total flop.
GRAHAMOh, my God.
NNAMDIRemind us. Why did "Xanadu" make it to the stage? It's currently at Signature.
GRAHAMIt made it to the stage because Douglas Carter Beane, who is a very stylish playwright -- writes with a lot of snap -- he decided that it was time to give those songs another hearing. And the movie is terrible, but the songs are fantastic. So it's a combination of music from the guy behind Electric Light Orchestra, and then one of Olivia Newton-John's regular songwriters did some of the other songs.
GRAHAMAnd the -- if you listen to the soundtrack from that movie just standing alone, it's great fun. So Douglas Carter Beane came up with this retelling of it. It's half straight, and it's half send up. And it's full of affection for this terrible movie. And so it ends up being great fun, and it's directed with a great deal of precision by Matthew Gardner.
NNAMDIYou apparently liked it, too, Jane.
HORWITZOh, it's so much fun. Also, the actress who plays the lead, you know, it's about a street artist who's visited by one of the muses who's going to help him, you know, break through. And Erin Weaver plays the Olivia Newton-John role, and she sings, she dances, she roller skates, and she's really funny. And Washington audiences who have seen Erin Weaver have seen her in Tom Stoppard and...
HORWITZ…Shakespeare. And who knew that she could, you know, put on tights and skates?
HORWITZAnd she's great in it.
NNAMDIIs that why we should go see this, Nelson?
PRESSLEYThat's a pretty good reason, yeah. I saw the first performance when, you know, they were up there in front of an audience for the first time. And I think they were a little nervous if people would sort of get the joke, and I'm not sure when it kicked in. But it may have been at some moment when Erin Weaver kind of lapses into this goofy Australian accent.
PRESSLEYIt may have been when Nova Payton, who won a Hayes award this year for "Hairspray," and Sherri Edelen, who is, you know, she's such an asset in everything she appears in at Signature. And they do "Evil Woman" together, and they couldn't be funnier. So, I mean, top to bottom, it's just -- it's a lark.
NNAMDIWe're looking at the Washington theater season and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Which shows are you looking forward to this summer? Do you have any theater recommendations? Are you a fan of musicals? How about revivals? 800-433-8850, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Since we were talking about "Xanadu," we might as well hear a clip from "Xanadu" as we go to break.
NNAMDIWelcome back. What you can find in Washington theaters now and what to expect in the coming months is what we're talking about with Nelson Pressley. He's a long-time contributor to The Washington Post. Trey Graham, he is an arts editor at NPR and a theater critic for WETA and Washington City Paper, and Jane Horwitz is a freelance arts critic. You have been reading her work in The Washington Post, the Washingtonian and other publications. We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIJane, the lead actress in "Xanadu" happens to be married to another theater name, none other than Aaron Posner, who directed "The Taming of the Shrew," now at the Folger Shakespeare Library. You'll like the Wild West version of "The Taming of the Shrew" at Folger. I must admit I did, too. The lead actor and the director joined us last week. What did you enjoy about it?
HORWITZI just thought it was fun. I just had fun. I had fun watching it. It's a little over the top. It does nothing to sort of re-explain or re-imagine "The Taming of the Shrew" or give you -- I mean, for me, it didn't somehow justify the misogyny that everybody sees in the play. I've given up on that. I don't worry about it anymore with "Taming of the Shrew." It's a problem play. It's not my problem. But it's just fun. Everybody tears, you know, chomps on the scenery like it was a ham sandwich. And they just have fun with it. And I just enjoyed it from beginning to end. I have to admit.
GRAHAMI will say it's a fun production, but it's a smart production, too. They cross cast a couple of the roles with women, and it does take -- it doesn't solve the problems. I think Jane is right about that, but it takes some of the sting out of it. And it adds a layer or two here and there, and I really enjoyed that part of it.
NNAMDINelson, you weren't such a big fan of this, were you?
PRESSLEYTo me, it was missing a beat somehow. There was some sort of disconnect between this really interesting atmospheric music that was being played live on guitar by Cliff Eberhardt, and that set a really strong mood. But, to me, it felt difficult to come back then into some of the, you know, the real big comedy.
GRAHAMThe antic comedy?
PRESSLEYYeah, yeah. And how that fed into our understanding of Kate was the really big deal, too. And I'm such a fan Kate Eastwood Norris. I mean, this is town that is absolutely full of people who can speak Shakespeare well, and I think she's one of the absolute best. And I'm not sure that this production really cut her loose in the way that I was hoping for when I heard, wow, Kate Eastwood Norris playing Kate in "Taming of the Shrew."
NNAMDIThere's a show at the Theater Alliance closing this weekend, "Hum," that had some powerful moments. What's -- what is it about?
PRESSLEYIt is about technology sort of, how it's got us in its grip. There's -- the plot is that there's a hum. There's this audible hum in this kind of futuristic dystopian society. And so people walk around, and they don't talk. They sort of flash little sort of text-linked messages to one another, and so we watch the routine of this husband and wife in their house. And the husband goes to work, and there's this hum. The hum itself in this Theater Alliance production is brilliant.
PRESSLEYI mean, the sound itself, you listen to nothing but that for about 35 or 40 minutes, and you watch this sort of dumb show of life under the hum. And it's, you know, in our text and email world, it absolutely resonates. It's really, really smart. And then it kind of hits a speed bump when they disrupt -- the characters disrupt the hum, and then the, you know, the playwright Nicholas Wardigo has to sort of begin to articulate and have the characters speak. And it's a different thing at that point. I don't think it was nearly as effective, but the first 40 minutes was just terrific.
NNAMDIIn other words, you loved the hum.
PRESSLEYI loved the hum.
HORWITZI am -- I'm glad to see Theater Alliance getting back to some experimental work. They -- you know, they have a new artistic director, and, you know, it's difficult for them. They've always had a struggle financially. And I'm glad to see them sort of taking a chance.
PRESSLEYIt's smart material. It's two shows in a row, smart material for them. And they're very good. You know, the production is visually striking as well, you know, with the words sort of floating around on these panels on either side of that little room. It's very atmospheric.
NNAMDIHere's Douglas in Arlington, Va. Douglas, your turn.
DOUGLASYes. Right. We did see "Xanadu" at Signature. We saw it during previews. And the show itself has absolutely no redeeming value.
PRESSLEYThat's a virtue.
GRAHAMYeah. That's -- I think that's exactly how they meant it to be.
NNAMDIHow about the songs?
DOUGLASIt is a hoot, tremendous pace to the show. I think the direction was just great. And then on Arena and Molly Smith bringing back some of the older shows, I think there's a big market for that. We saw "Music Man," which we found delightful, tremendous show. And I think for things like "King and I" or "Carousel," I think those can be brought back because I think there's an audience, a potential audience there that hasn't seen them.
NNAMDIWhat do you saw to that, Jane Horwitz?
HORWITZOh, I think he's -- I think that's absolutely true, and I think that's why Arena does these shows. And doing it in the spring and allowing it to run well into the summer can bring them a good size audience and repeat visitors, and hopefully -- they're hoping new visitors. And I think that Molly Smith, for all the experimental and new theater she likes to do, is in love with American musical theatre. She is...
GRAHAMWell, she has said as much repeatedly and...
HORWITZYeah, repeatedly, and she's done "South Pacific" and "Damn Yankees"...
GRAHAMShe clearly enjoys staging these things. There is, you know, there's a certain tension between the mission of the...
GRAHAM...of the resident theatre, at least the original mission of the nonprofit resident theatre, and these works that were, after all, originally commercial works. And, you know, these theatre companies were founded as a place to do work instead of that. And...
PRESSLEYAnd that's a bit of -- where my discomfort comes in. I'm having trouble as Arena kind of moves into this new phase. It has staked so much of its identity on this big, you know, chestnut musicals. And I'm not sure that it's made its own imprint in other sorts of ways. And I have a lot of difficulty reconciling that.
GRAHAMThey've built the facility for it, you know, the cradle is, as...
PRESSLEYFor the musicals?
GRAHAMNo, no. They've built the cradle as this new place to do riskier, edgier work.
PRESSLEYYes. But that's not happening full bore quite yet.
GRAHAMIt's true. It's true.
NNAMDIDo you have any theatre recommendations of your own? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Thank you for your call, Douglas. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow. We got one from BrookM1109, who says, "'Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play' at Woolly Mammoth Theatre opens on Friday." Tell us, Jane, about "Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play."
HORWITZBy Anne Washburn who -- they did a play of hers -- or, no, Studio did a play of hers a couple of years ago, and I'm going to forget the title but...
HORWITZA very innovative playwright, and this is -- I don't know the full story. But I remember that it is set in a post-apocalyptic future when the -- and post-electric, apparently, when people try to remember and reinvent popular culture to keep themselves entertained. And what they're trying to remember are all the episodes of "The Simpsons." And they -- and that's a big part of it. And they're trying to sort of recreate popular culture that they remember or heard about from their ancestors.
NNAMDINelson, Woolly Mammoth often takes on interesting work. What have you heard -- been hearing about this show?
PRESSLEYOh, it looks very interesting. It's directed by Steve Cosson, and it's got music by Michael Friedman. I don't know how much music. I don't know if this going to be a full-blown -- I don't think it's full-blown musical. But these are guys who are involved with The Civilians. I think Anne Washburn is part of The Civilians as well, a really interesting group based up in New York. Typically, they to go out and base material on interviews and sometimes create, you know, sometimes it's straight plays.
PRESSLEYStraight plays is the wrong word. But, you know, sometimes Michael Friedman comes in and puts music in. It's a very, very interesting group. And this kind of goes with Woolly's season this year about civilization maybe having an expiration date, so, you know, hashing out an old "Simpsons" episode, you know, in a post-electric age sounds interesting to me.
GRAHAMAnd it's a fun cast. It's Kimberly Gilbert and James Sugg, who we've seen at the Folger and other places. Amy McWilliams, Jenna Sokolowski, who's one of my favorite comic actresses.
NNAMDIHere is Shannon in Arlington, Va. Hi, Shannon.
SHANNONHi, guys. How are you doing?
SHANNONI've gone to quite a few shows at both Arena and Signature. And the one musical I would love to see Signature put on is "Taboo," the musical about Boy George's life because some of the music in "Taboo" is just absolutely fabulous. And it's a pretty daring play. I'm surprised that they haven't put it on yet.
GRAHAMWell, it is a daring play, and it was not a terrible success on Broadway. It didn't run terribly long, but we have the advantage of one of the original cast members from Broadway now lives here in D.C., so...
PRESSLEYAnd he acts there quite a bit.
PRESSLEYIt's Euan Morton.
SHANNONYeah, Euan is fantastic. I've seen his "Cabaret" show. I mean, it just is such -- and, you know, they seem to take on challenges and do challenges. It seems to be a real challenging one to put on.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for making that suggestion. We'll see if Signature takes it up. Jane, there's a David Manor play at the American Ensemble Theater, "Bobby Gould in Hell." What did you think?
HORWITZI had mixed feelings about it. It's -- American Ensemble Theatre is a small company founded by a guy named Martin Blank, who was the original founding artistic director of Theatre J back in the '90s. And he wants to produce one American play every year on a relatively low budget and be able to charge very low ticket prices. They perform at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, CHAW.
HORWITZAnd "Bobby Gould in Hell" is really just a one act about a guy, oddly named Bobby Gould, who we discover is in Hell and has to try to argue for not having to stay there. And he is accused of having made violent threats to his girlfriend, and he says, no, they were just having sort of rough sex and so on, so forth. And there's a lot of laughter in the production. And they do get the laughs, but the darker aspect of Mamet and the sort of bing, bang, boom of the dialogue, they don't quite master. But it's not un-entertaining. And then there's a little 10-minute play...
NNAMDIYou get a twofer.
HORWITZYou get a twofer. There's a 10-minute play called, what, "Navigating Turbulence," and it's about Charles Lindbergh. And he's in Hell, too, 'cause they have one set.
HORWITZHe's in Hell, and he's faced with the various peccadilloes about him that came out sort of after his early life and after the tragedy of losing his child to the kidnap murderer. I had issues that had been a Nazi sympathizer, that he had been unfaithful, that he had illegitimate children, all that. But it's very short. It's full of facts, but it doesn't sort of enlighten you too much about Lindbergh. But it's -- how can you in 10 minutes?
NNAMDIWell, you get to see it for 10 minutes before you see "Bobby Gould in Hell." We got an email from Aaron in D.C. "Can you ask your guests to talk about the significance of the Shakespeare Theatre company winning a regional Tony and what these kinds of awards mean for D.C.? I'm also happy to hear that "Servant of Two Masters" is so good. Their next show is "Merry Wives of Windsor," another comedy opening June 18." Thank you for telling us about that. The significance of winning a regional Tony, Trey.
GRAHAMYou know, I don't know. It's certainly good marketing for the theatre. But I don't know that it draws big audiences, and I don't know that it confers the kind of prestige that the Tony's confer on individuals. It's a different process that awards that Tony, and it's a different set of voters. And so I just don't know.
HORWITZAnd I think there's a lot of lobbying involved.
GRAHAMThere is a great deal of lobbying involved.
PRESSLEYIt's a funny process, but I -- and I used to have some of the same reservations because I was a part of the organization that, you know, I was trying to get votes for the Shakespeare Theatre for a regional Tony back in the '90s. But I've come to think it means a lot. It means a great deal. The Shakespeare Theatre has worked at an incredibly high level in this city for a very long time. And if anything, this sort of recognition is far overdue.
PRESSLEYAnd I couldn't be happier for Michael Kahn.
GRAHAMAnd I can't -- I don't know if I can think of another city that has three companies that have won a regional Tony.
GRAHAMNew York, probably.
NNAMDI...to Annie in Washington, D.C. Annie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNIEHi. I just wanted to shout out to Arena. I'm a high school teacher, and they have a program called The Student's Playwright Project. And I worked with one of their teaching artist for a full year in my classroom. My kids wrote 10 minute plays. They performed an ensemble play, The Spring. And these are kids who are underserved, who've never been to live theatre, who heard that someone wants to hear their voice, so I just think they're doing amazing things to hit D.C. and get new audience members on the stage.
NNAMDIThank you for calling, Annie. That's why we encourage people to call, to tell us about things that our listeners may not already know about. 800-433-8850. Have you taken your kids to any theatre? 800-433-8850. Nelson, there's a play at the Mead Theatre Lab downtown called "Ice Child." You say the lead actress is someone we should keep an eye on.
PRESSLEYCelia Wren may have said that. I haven't seen this one actually.
GRAHAMI have not seen it, but her name is Sara Barker.
PRESSLEYOh, Sara Barker.
GRAHAMIs that right?
GRAHAMSara Barker, she has done work with this company before. It's a small company and a newish company, about two or three years, Factory 449. And they introduced themselves a couple of years ago at the Fringe Festival with production of Sarah Kane's "4:48 Psychosis," and she tore up the stage. So I'm really curious to go see this. I haven't caught it yet, but I'm really interested.
GRAHAMIt's a story about a woman who wakes up to find herself locked in an ice box...
GRAHAM...and has to negotiate with her captors escape in it. From what I read, it's about her figuring out who to trust and how to convince them to let her out.
HORWITZAnd Sara Barker -- oh, sorry, Sara Barker, you mentioned, she's acted a lot with WSC Avant Bard in Arlington. And I think also -- oh gosh, there's another company again. I'm blanking out -- but she's been acting here for a few years.
GRAHAMI got nothing for you.
NNAMDIFactory 449, last year, won the Helen Hayes Award for outstanding emerging theatre company. We move on now to Lisa in Loudoun County, Va. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
LISAHi. Yeah. I poo-poo watching anything to do with big-time musicals on television and wouldn't watch "Smash." And then a friend of mine DVRed the whole thing and made me watch it start to finish, the whole series. And it really was pretty good, Marc Shaiman music. Anybody who's kind of missing out on musical theatre right now, doesn't really like what's available right now, should just -- it's kind of fun to watch.
LISAAnd that kind of almost retro musical, but done in today's style of singing, is a real interesting style of musical that I'd like to see more of rather than just, you know, going all the way back to do a traditional, you know, redo of "Carousel" or whatever. I thought it was a really interesting hodge-podge of styles, and maybe "Hairspray" was a little bit like that too. I think Shaiman did that.
GRAHAMYes, he did.
LISABut I just wanted to point that out to some people who are not seeing a lot on stage-stage that it'll probably be available pretty quickly on iTunes and to watch it 'cause it was fun.
GRAHAMOh yeah. I got to say, you said hodge-podge, and that's exactly how I feel about that show. I think there are some numbers that are terrific. There's a lot of the pop stuff that they're interpolating into that show that just makes my hair -- just makes my skin crawl, and I cannot stand Katharine McPhee.
NNAMDIWell, glad you have no opinion. Lisa, thank you very much for your call. Trey, "Metamorphoses" is at the Constellation Theatre through this weekend, and it'll return next spring at Arena Stage. But you were, shall we say, underwhelmed by the current production?
GRAHAMI was, and I'm going to underwhelm about it for a minute. Then I'm going to turn over to Jane 'cause I think she liked it a little better than I did maybe. I adored the Broadway original of this production, made me -- it made me cry. It just moved me tremendously. And this production, I guess, just didn't. And I think it's because of the broadness with which they're playing it and the way they're playing some of the sequences for laughs.
GRAHAMI'm very curious to see whether I feel the same way when Zimmerman comes back to -- Mary Zimmerman who conceived and directed the original -- will bring it back to Arena Stage in the spring. It's -- if you don't know the play, it's a collection of the tales of Ovid about gods and mortals and tragedies and interactions between the human and the divine. And it's set in and around a big pool of water. So light and water and fabric, these are the elements of this production. Jane?
NNAMDI(word?) is framed by the story of King Midas, a selfish entrepreneur who literally gets the golden touch, which thrills him at first, but then things happen later. Were you whelmed, neither under nor over, but just whelmed by it?
HORWITZI was whelmed. I was -- I definitely liked it better than Trey, but I did not see it on Broadway. And I'm looking forward to seeing Mary Zimmerman come to Arena 'cause when she was here -- she's done several things in Washington, but her "Arabian Nights" was at Arena last season. It was a total -- or two seasons ago. It was wonderful.
GRAHAMAnd she -- "Pericles" at the Shakespeare Theater and that "Candide."
HORWITZ"Pericles" and "Candide."
GRAHAMIt was just luminous.
HORWITZThat best one I've ever seen, I think.
HORWITZAnd that's a difficult show, but she -- the Constellation Production of "Metamorphoses" -- I just enjoyed it, Trey, but I didn't enjoy it on a very deep level. I was not moved. There is some overacting going on. I enjoyed it as an entertainment, but it was done in a much lighter vein.
GRAHAMLighter vein, yeah.
HORWITZI mean, the tragedy, the fate -- it's fate and the tragic idea of fate. It was not plumbed that much, I guess.
PRESSLEYWell, but I think, you know, I saw that Broadway production also, and I think one of the reasons that was a surprise success on Broadway was because it was so accessible. It was funny. It was pretty broadly played in my memory there as well, although I had the same emotional response that you did, you know, 10 years ago or however long ago it was.
GRAHAMI don't want to suggest that there aren't -- there's not humor in the show. There certainly is, and they're finding it. But Zimmerman's approach to theater has a kind of whimsy but also a kind of lyricism and grace that, when it all comes together in a way that I think is very, very hard to do -- but she's mastered it -- is profoundly affecting.
HORWITZWell, she has a troop of actors she works with a lot and designers and musicians. And Constellation has done her before. They did "Arabian Nights" when they first started out. And I think, you know, for that magic to happen and for lightning to strike with a show like that, but I think that they do -- for me, it was a better than workmanlike job.
HORWITZIt's an enjoyable -- the pool that they've created is beautiful. The setting in source, which is a small place, is quite lovely. I liked the costumes. They have live music. This wonderful local musician, percussionist and composer Tom Teasley is live, and you can watch him. And his stuff is always fun.
PRESSLEYTom Teasley, by the way, has a new CD out. I will shill for that because yours truly wrote liner notes for him.
GRAHAMYeah. It's worth noting it. You know, we've sort of talked about the shortcomings. But Constellation is a small company, smallish budget, and it's a really ambitious production. And they generally do big ambitious plays, which is, you know...
HORWITZRight. And they're visually ambitious on a small budget.
HORWITZAnd my gripe with small companies that are just starting out is that they sometimes frequently don't pay enough attention to the visual aspect of theatre. And I'm not saying it should look like it cost a million bucks, but they should be inventive and try to make whatever's happening visually on the stage and orally on the stage in terms of music or sound. Make it a piece of a piece with what the play is about and with the acting. And Constellation does that better than a lot of small company.
NNAMDIIf you -- if we sound like we're sitting around the table talking about what's going on in theatre in Washington, that's exactly what we're doing and inviting you to join the conversation. A lot of people would like to do that on the phone. So if you like to get through right now, it might be better to go to email at email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Washington theatre conversation with Jane Horwitz, freelance arts critic whose work you've read in The Washington Post, Washingtonian and other publications. Trey Graham is an arts editor at NPR and a theatre critic for WETA and Washington City Paper. Nelson Pressley is a long-time contributor to the Washington Post. Before we go back to the telephones, Jane, there's some good stuff out there for our kids, too. Our area has more than one theatre company devoted to plays exclusively for kids. What's on now?
HORWITZImagination Stage is doing "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" or they're about to, I believe. And Adventure Theatre -- now, you're putting me on the spot here.
HORWITZBut Adventure Theatre in Glen Echo.
GRAHAMConsult the spreadsheet, Jane.
HORWITZI know. I'm looking at my spreadsheet.
NNAMDIThese are places I share with my granddaughter, yes.
HORWITZYeah. No. They're -- they are getting ready to open something too. And if I can find it here, I'll tell you. But they -- and also Synetic has a theater for young people in Shirlington Village.
GRAHAMA children's wing, yeah.
NNAMDIImagination. They're doing a play based on the classic children's book "The Lion..."
HORWITZ"The Witch and the Wardrobe."
NNAMDI"…The Witch and the Wardrobe." What else is going on? Adventures in Glen Echo is working with the musical theater Center, the artistic director. They're doing "If You Give a Moose a Muffin"...
HORWITZRight. Right, which is...
NNAMDI...a contemporary -- tell us about that.
HORWITZIt's based on a series of children's books. And they've done "If You Give a Pig a Pancake" -- I'm going to forget all of them, but "If You Give a Pig a Pancake," "If You Give a Moose a Muffin," if you give somebody else a something else.
PRESSLEY"A Mouse a Cookie."
HORWITZAnd they all -- if you -- is it a...
PRESSLEY"If You Give a Mouse a Cookie."
HORWITZ"If You Give a Mouse a Cookie." And they've been -- the ones that I've seen have been a riot. And they get people like Holly Twyford, you know, one of the greatest actresses in Washington, to come and play these roles. And they're, of course, not dressed as the animal. They might have a couple of little identifiers like pig ears or a nose or something like that.
HORWITZIt's an hour-long adventure, sort of focuses on the tiniest kids.
NNAMDIOn to the -- on to Kitty in Vienna, Va. Kitty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KITTYYes. I just wanted the group to talk a little bit about "The Normal Heart" that Arena is bringing in June from New York. I saw it in New York, and I think it's a fabulous show, really important to see and one of the most moving shows I've ever seen.
NNAMDIHmm. Broadway revival of Larry Kramer's hit. Anybody looking forward to that?
GRAHAMWell, of course.
GRAHAMI mean, it's a landmark play and a towering figure of, you know, of his era -- of this era. I mean, he's still with us, still making a lot of noise.
HORWITZAnd I think that I saw "The Normal Heart," but so long ago that I don't remember it.
PRESSLEYIt's interesting that we have two AIDS plays here at the moment. I mean, and this will be -- it sounds like...
HORWITZWith "Lonely Planet."
PRESSLEY...the very opposite of "Lonely Planet" because this is such a ferocious play.
NNAMDITheater J has a play opening next week about the man who created Superman. Tell us about that, Jane.
HORWITZWell, it's about the man who created Superman. Is it Jerry...
HORWITZAnd it's -- Theater J is a theater that sort of focuses on plays with Jewish themes. They're an equity theater that performs in the Jewish Community Center in D.C. And their plays sometimes have very tangential Jewish themes. They don't always -- they're not that closely wedded to the idea. But I think that this play focuses on the idea, especially during World War II, of Jews as sort of outsiders, outliers, and the idea of creating a superhero, which sort of almost dates back to the golem idea, of creating some superhero who can face down the enemies and also be accepted by society.
NNAMDIAnything that you're looking forward to coming up, Nelson?
PRESSLEYCertainly that, "The History of Invulnerability." It's interesting that we've got cartoons sort of being taken seriously this month as well. "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" is coming to Studio Theatre/2nd Stage. I did see that in New York. It's a pretty interesting musical. I can still hear, you know, the great song in my head now, "Populism, Yea, Yea!" Kind of takes Andrew Jackson and marries it to, I guess they're saying, emo music. I've never been at one with emo music, but it's a pretty good vehicle for telling the story. And Studio Theatre/2nd Stage, this is right up their alley.
NNAMDIWhat are you looking forward to, Trey?
GRAHAMWell, the Kennedy Center dropped the production of "Pal Joey" from its schedule. But they replaced it with a review of Kander and Ebb songs that I'm sort of looking forward to. I've seen it -- and it was good -- at Signature Theatre a few years ago. But they're doing it at the Kennedy Center with, I think, a 23-piece orchestra. So just in terms of good fun musical theater and strong performances, that ought to be a treat. And that's coming up in June at the Kennedy Center. And a little further out, if we can talk a little bit about the fall...
GRAHAM...the Lincoln Center Theater's production of "War Horse" is coming to the Kennedy Center, and that's a show that's very, very interesting. If people haven't heard about it, it's not at all like the movie. It's inventive puppetry. The horses are these gigantic leather-and-steel puppets, and all the people who manipulate them are highly trained dancers. And it's, you know, it's a kids' story. It's a children's book about a horse and the boy who loses him when the army takes him off to war and his quest to find him again. So it's not a terribly complicated show, but, man, is the stagecraft amazing.
NNAMDIOn to Steve in Rockville, Md. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEYes, please. I'd like to ask if anyone knows of any upcoming Sondheim, local Sondheim productions, and if those are considered to be moneymakers along the lines of what, you know, the classics that Arena Stage is putting on.
GRAHAMThat's a good question. I don't know that anybody makes a ton of money on Sondheim. The Signature might, but probably in terms of sponsorships because their houses are small. So I don't know that they turn a giant profit unless a show is a huge hit and runs forever.
PRESSLEYThey do tend to be events, though. People will come from a long way away to see a significant staging of Sondheim, and I'm pretty sure that was the case last year when Eric Schaeffer did "Follies" at the Kennedy Center.
PRESSLEYBut, yeah, I'm not sure if anything new and major is on the books. I'm not even sure that Signature has a Sondheim in its -- on its slate next year.
GRAHAMI think they might be doing a review, but I'd have to look at the season.
PRESSLEYAnd if I could back up for a second, Kojo, to "First You Dream," which Trey mentioned a moment ago with Kander and Ebb, I'm really looking forward to that as well. John Kander is 85 years old. You know, this is the man who gave us the music for "Cabaret," gave us the music for "Chicago," and he continues to create new work. He's got a new show, believe it or not, in New York right now. It's just in workshop form.
PRESSLEYHe has moved on from working with his long-time lyricist, Fred Ebb, who died in 2004. But "First You Dream" should be a great chance to sort of walk back down that incredible song book.
HORWITZAnd with regard to "Follies," the production that began here at the Kennedy Center that Eric directed -- and he did a production a few years ago, too. But this is the one that went to Broadway, garnered a bunch of Tony nominations and is now -- is it still running in Los Angeles?
GRAHAMIt's in Los Angeles now with...
HORWITZAnd got fabulous reviews. And there's been a bit of an online kerfuffle over why the show didn't get more Helen Hayes nominations versus Tony nominations, and there are many opinions about that. I'm not sure I have one, but there are many things.
GRAHAMWell, from what I've heard, it was, you know, they tightened it up significantly in New York, so...
PRESSLEYOh, but I remember sitting on the back part of the Kennedy Center with you at intermission when it first -- when that "Follies" came out of the gate, and I think I was a pretty happy person. And it seemed like you were, too.
PRESSLEYThe virtues of that show were tremendous right away.
GRAHAMYes, they were.
PRESSLEYIt was immediately apparent that this was unlike anything else that was happening in Washington this season. It was a real event right off the bat.
GRAHAMYeah. I would buy a ticket to Los Angeles in a minute because not -- most of the cast has gone from Broadway to Los Angeles with it, including the amazing Jan Maxwell. But they've also added Vicky Clark in the part that was played by Bernadette Peters. And if you remember Vicky Clark from the Broadway production of "Light in the Piazza," she's a phenomenally talented actress.
PRESSLEYShe'd suit the role beautifully.
HORWITZAnd Bernadette Peters, who I love, was kind of miscast.
PRESSLEYOh, I don't know. We could argue.
HORWITZOK, we could argue.
GRAHAMWe might. I'm with Jane. I'm with Jane.
NNAMDIWe don't have enough time. Jane, there's a new play coming in August about Molly Ivins. Tell us about that.
HORWITZOh, gosh. Now, remind me of the title, but I love -- we all love Molly Ivins. And...
PRESSLEY"Red Hot Patriot."
HORWITZ"Red Hot Patriot."
NNAMDI"Red Hot Patriot."
HORWITZAnd she's going to be played by, I believe, Kathleen Turner...
HORWITZ...and I am very curious. Now, I'm not usually a big fan of these one-person shows where the person is supposedly talking to someone...
NNAMDIYeah, but you get the same Molly Ivins lines.
HORWITZYeah, right. That's the thing.
HORWITZThat's exactly my point, that this may be worth the trouble. It sounds like a lot of fun. She was a real barnburner.
PRESSLEYAnd it sounds like it'll be like the Ann Richards show that was at the Kennedy Center last winter.
GRAHAMI believe -- I think I have an answer about the Sondheim. I think Signature is doing "Company" next season.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Here is Marilyn in Washington, D.C. Marilyn, your turn.
MARILYNHi there. I wanted to go back to the two topics you were talking about earlier, and that is Shakespeare and children. And I wanted to give a shout out to the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company that performs -- a little far afield for many Washingtonians. We're up in Ellicott City -- over the summer.
MARILYNAnd last year, we did "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with our 8-year-old, and this year we're doing "Romeo and Juliet" and I think, perhaps, "All's Well That Ends Well." And they do a really nice outdoor setting. You can picnic, the kids can walk around. And the language is quite accessible for a younger audience.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us Marilyn. We got a tweet from Koenig, (sp?) who says, "What about the Contemporary American Theater Festival starting in July? That's in Shepherdstown, W.Va., not that far from D.C." Jane, it's my understanding you're looking forward to that.
HORWITZYeah. I covered it for years. It's about an hour-and-a-half drive from downtown D.C., hour and a quarter or so if you're coming from Baltimore or the Montgomery County. And Shepherdstown is a lovely sort of Civil War-era town. You're right near Antietam. You're right near other historical areas. And you can see, literally, five plays in two days if you do nothing else except eat in between.
HORWITZThey -- they're more than 20 years old. They use all Equity cast coming out of New York and Washington, Baltimore and sometimes L.A. And they do one or two world premieres, and then the other three plays are usually second or third productions. And in the world of new theater, Kojo, sometimes getting a second production of a new play is harder than getting the first, the premiere.
GRAHAMThat's a real thing. It's important for playwrights.
HORWITZYeah. And so I've been there some years where I hated three out of the four plays and some years where I liked three out of the four plays. You never know what you're getting, but it's a fun couple of days if you're interested in new work.
NNAMDINelson, most people know the Fringe Festival but the Source Fest which opens next week is even older. Tell us about that.
PRESSLEYWell, that's got a long tradition. I don't know if it goes back into the '70s but certainly the '80s on 14th Street. It was pretty derelict, but the Source Theater was making it stand. You know, actors and playwrights were getting themselves together and putting together whatever they could. And at some point, the summertime festival evolved and became a real mainstay for as long as Source was operating.
PRESSLEYAnd then Source was nearly lost several years ago, and part of the whole saving -- save-the-Source-Theater effort included we've got to keep the Source Festival going. And so it is still going. And the way...
NNAMDIThey do something called artistic blind dates. What's that?
PRESSLEYYeah. Originally -- I think that was a Jeremy Skidmore idea originally. He was the first artistic director post saving the Source, and he called them mash ups. But you get artists from different genres, so you have a visual artist with maybe a composer, with maybe a choreographer or something like that. And you put them together for a period of time and then see what comes out.
NNAMDIWell, we're running out of time very fast. But it's my understanding you're looking forward to a weekend of theater in New York. Do you know what you plan to see yet, Trey?
GRAHAMOh, that's right. That's me. I'm actually working out that calendar, but I'm dying to catch "Venus in Fur" before it closes up there to see Nina Arianda. I want to see "The Columnist," which is John Lithgow doing an old Washington story. Jane, do you remember the story?
GRAHAMI'm putting you on the spot. Sorry about that.
HORWITZYeah, no. Drew Pearson? No.
HORWITZNot Drew Pearson. Who's he playing?
GRAHAMNow, it's gone out of my head, so I'm silly.
HORWITZA famously political, controversial columnist.
GRAHAMAlsop, yes. Joseph Alsop...
HORWITZRight, Joseph Alsop.
GRAHAM...who gets blackmailed because of a secret in his life and how he -- the story is about how he deals with that, and so...
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Trey Graham, have fun in New York. He's an arts editor at NPR and a theater critic for WETA and Washington City Paper. Nelson Pressley is a long-time contributor to The Washington Post. Jane Horwitz is a freelance art critic. You've been reading her work in The Washington Post, Washingtonian and other publications for many years. Thank you all for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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