The 2009-2010 ends awash in melancholy, with the death of a great Washington theater leader following (by mere days!) the death of a promising young actor and singer. These tragic events serve as punctuation for a season we will remember with some sorrow. Catalyst, Firebelly, and Journeyman – three companies which provided excellent theater at low cost – have closed down for good; Didactic has not produced since 2007 and Spooky Action has not produced outside the Fringe since 2008; African Continuum TheatRE and Theater Alliance produced only sporadically.
It’s easy to think that theater will become marginalized as the sobering nature of our financial condition becomes more and more apparent. Even as we slowly crawl back from the 2008 recession, job creation lags. Nor is this problem limited to our country. Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece are near financial collapse; in an effort not to join them, England has significantly diminished its traditionally generous support for the arts. All over the world, such support – including, in particular, for theater – has diminished, both from the public and the private sector.
That leaves the audience. There is some evidence that we are beginning to understand how good theater is in this town. The most recent figures from the Helen Hayes organization reveals that, reversing a five-year trend, attendance at Washington theater was better in 2009 than it was in 2008.
Theater is small, to its advantage, and ours. Even the most soaring production at Arena or the Kennedy Center is dwarfed, in money terms, by the average small independent film. And a million viewers – which would send any playwright into ecstasy – would be a career-ending disappointment on network TV.
Having relatively modest financial ambitions, non-commercial theater can concentrate on being good, rather than on the lowest common denominator. And when it succeeds, history shows that the audiences will come
I saw ninety-two shows last year, exclusive of the Fringe and the Source and Contemporary American Theater Festivals. Of that number, four dozen were so excellent that I would have unhesitantly plunked down my money, assuming I had any, to see them. Of that number, here were the ten best:
10. The Quality of Life, Arena Stage. It take cajones to recommend laughter as a way to face life after the person we love best dies, but Jane Anderson has both the nerve and the writing chops to do it. Armed with a first-rate cast, Arena shows us how love and grace can, for a while, put off the endless no.
9. Henry V, Shakespeare Theatre. With the remarkable Michael Hayden in the title role, the Shakespeare Theatre made this play (which was done in rep with Richard II, also with Hayden in the title role) a seminar on leadership. At once uproarious and subtle, Henry V showed us a man who was at his greatest at precisely the moments when duty compelled him to do the things he did not want to do, when he humbled himself to listen to the advice of others, and when he chose moral excellence over glory. Hayden’s delivery of the Crispian Day speech (endorsed by DC Theatre Scene readers as the greatest in all Shakespeare) was superb.
8. Sweeney Todd, Signature Theatre. People, eating other people, are the happiest people in the world…This magnificent production had its mystifying elements – arc welders in mid-19th century London; body bags falling out of the sky – but its bones were terrific. Director Eric Schaeffer swept away every sniff of sentimentality to give us a Sweeney about a devouring serial killer, and the fine cast, and especially Ed Gero as Sweeney, Sherri L. Edelen as Mrs. Lovett and Erin Driscoll as Johanna, delivered the goods.
7. The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia, Rep Stage. I have seen this Albee classic many times, and never has it seemed more clear than it did at Rep Stage’s production this June. Bruce Nelson played a man in deep and inexplicable love, drowning in a river of lust and reaching out to touch all things that breathe. Director Kasi Campbell’s savvy choice was to play nothing for laughs, and as a result Albee’s wit was as crisp as freshly-starched linens.
6. Hysteria, Rep Stage. An apocryphal meeting between Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali is loaded with the potential for uproarious farce, and playwright Terry Johnson and director Steven Carpenter let us have it, full throttle – but at the bottom, there was a deadly serious accusation: that Freud correctly diagnosed hysteria in women to be caused by childhood sexual abuse, but then recanted when his patrons and supporters recoiled at the theory. The play and the production gave this large concept the space to present itself, too. Bravura work by Carpenter and Nelson as Dali, Jeff Baker as Freud and especially Marni Penning as a mysterious woman with a secret.
5. Much Ado About Nothing, Folger Theatre. It may not have added much to the narrative to set it in the DC Caribbean community rather than Messina, but everything else director Timothy Douglas did to this large, complex Shakespearean comedy enhanced our understanding, appreciation and joy. There were nearly a dozen superb performances in this production, topped by a fabulous Benedick performed by Howard Overshown.
4. Orestes – A Tragic Romp, Folger Theatre. Anna Washburn did not update Euripides, electing instead to make the dialogue sharper, more lucid, and funnier. Of course, some people may have difficulty laughing at the story of a brother and a sister who killed their mother, who, in turn, killed their father, but they didn’t see Orestes – A Tragic Romp. Aaron Posner, directing a fine cast headed by the magnificent Holly Twyford, rings every zing from Washburn’s prose, and Euripides’ story.
3. Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth. Did you ever wonder about the white family who sold their homes to the Youngers in Raisin in the Sun, making them integration pioneers in a formerly all-white neighborhood? I did too, and in this brilliant play, beautifully produced by Woolly Mammoth, Bruce Norris used this inquiry as a jumping-off point to ask difficult questions about race, bigotry and self-righteousness. Director Howard Shalwitz and a uniformly excellent cast served his purposes perfectly. Norris invited us to laugh at our fathers or grandfathers in the first Act, and at ourselves in the second – but when the lights came up, everybody was talking and nobody was laughing. More than a play, Clybourne Park was a social act.
2. Adding Machine: A Musical, Studio Theatre. From the very first moments, when Mr. Zero and his wife went through the quotidian events of their day in addled disharmony, to the very end, where Mr. Zero thrashed around trying to find work in the afterlife, you knew that you were in the presence of a completely original piece of work (even though it was a musical adaptation of a play written almost ninety years ago). I anticipated not a single development in this loopy, completely coherent musical as it careened from counting to romance to murder to execution to the afterlife. The theme of obsolescence hit home as we tried to shake off the effects of the 2008 recession. As we move into a jobless recovery, we will have more opportunities to reflect on that theme, I suspect. Studio’s production was flawless; co-adapter Jason Loewith directed, and he clearly know what he was about. Joshua Schmidt’s score was to live for – the best I heard all year.
1. Angels in America, Part I – Millennium Approaches, Forum Theatre. Long after the HIV scourge has been eradicated, long after we wonder what all the fuss over homosexuality was about, Tony Kushner’s genius play will be teaching us lessons about being human. Forum’s production roared into its new Silver Spring digs like a freight train, overwhelming audiences with power and artistry that made its 3 ½ hours pass like a dream. The term “all star cast” is overused so I’ll just say their names: Jim Jorgensen, Alexander Strain, Jennifer Mendenhall, Nanna Ingvarsson, Casie Platt, Ro Boddie in a brilliant debut, and, of course, the remarkable Karl Miller. Under Jeremy Skidmore’s superb direction, these astonishing actors moved together like the valves and muscles of a beating heart.
Those who give out prizes for theater in the Washington Area – including this Web site – tend to separate touring, or non-regionally produced shows, from the homegrown. The practice probably grew out of a conviction that Washington theater could not possibly compete with a shiny touring production, and that Washington actors would invariably come in second in competition with the brilliant touring performers.
At one time it might have been true. But it is no longer. Like the tariff of 1816, this form of protectionism has passed its expiration date. Washington actors can stand toe to toe with touring performers, or anyone. Take Cate Blanchette, for example. Blanchette is a marvelous actor, and her performance in A Streetcar Named Desire was surpassingly wonderful – but it wasn’t the best thing I saw in Washington. I would a hundred times rather see Karl Miller in Angels in America than see Blanchette in Streetcar – better play, better production and, frankly, better performance.
Let a thousand flowers bloom! Let us celebrate all the wonderful performances in Washington. I saw 123 – noted below – but your results may vary.
Here they are (festival productions excepted):
10. Louis Butelli as Grumio in Shakespeare Theatre’s Production of Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare Free-for-All). Ha ha. Hee hee hee. Ho, haw, whew! Ha, ha, ha, ha. Oh, God. Sorry, I was trying to remember Butelli’s performance as Petruchio’s comic stooge, and what Butelli does is – oh, ha, ha, ha, ho….jeez.
9. Holly Twyford as Electra in Folger Theatre’s production of Orestes – A Tragic Romp. Twyford was – I’m sorry, I know I sound like Markowitz here, but no other word will do – electrifying as a woman who must hold her family, and herself, together in the face of matricide. Euripides’ play takes place mostly offstage, and Anna Washburn’s clever adaptation does not move the action back on stage. Thus there are special requirements on the actors to make the events vivid in their telling. No one succeeds like Twyford, who is so brilliant and charismatic in this that listening to her speak is more exciting than watching a swordfight with ten actors.
8. Laurence Fishburne as Thurgood Marshall in Thurgood, touring production at the Kennedy Center. It is a great challenge to play a historical character and an even greater one to play someone within living memory. Fishburne did his one-actor show in front of Marshall’s widow, who pronounced herself pleased – as did virtually everyone who saw him. This superb actor gave us a genuine American hero without showiness or artifice, fully allowing us to understand Marshall’s savvy, stubbornness, and almost incomprehensible courage while at the same time showing us a sly fellow who knew how to have a good time. Thurgood fulfilled a play’s highest purpose: it helped us to understand ourselves and our history. Fishburne was vital to that fulfillment.
7. Rick Foucheux as R. Buckminster Fuller in R. Buckminster Fuller, The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, Arena Stage. After I saw Foucheux in this glittering solo performance, I looked at a YouTube video of Fuller lecturing. Had I not known better, I would have suspected that Arena had somehow digitally replaced the real Fuller with an image of Foucheux as Fuller, so complete was the actor’s inhabitation of Fuller’s persona. Foucheux, who has always given Washington audiences their money’s worth, gave us a whole treasury in this play.
6. Robert Parsons as Abraham Lincoln in The Rivalry, Ford’s Theatre. Great actors love to play our historical icons – to melt away the cast-iron imagery and show the soul within – but seldom has it been done with this subtlety and complexity. Except for Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln was probably the most cerebral of our Presidents; Parsons made his dialogue – which was principally taken from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 – seem like brilliant improvisation, which it was. Whether he was portraying Lincoln’s awkwardness and loneliness, or the conflict he felt over his need to keep the Union together while being repulsed by the practice of slavery, Parsons hit his mark with the precision of a Union-Army sharpshooter.
5. Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Sydney Theatre Company at the Kennedy Center. Blanchett rose far above a less-than-spectacular production, giving us – correctly – a Blanche who was all jitters and shivers, quakes and shakes. Blanchett carried doom about her like a perfume, lying so compulsively that it seems like she had some exotic variant of Tourette’s Syndrome. Her scenes with Stanley – a fine Joel Edgerton – smacked of authenticity, and theatergoers will talk about her performance in this role for years.
4. Bruce Nelson as Martin in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, Rep Stage. “How magnificent is Bruce R. Nelson’s performance as Martin in Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? at Rep Stage?” asked Jayne Blanchard in her DCTS review. “He makes you believe in the transcendental power of falling in love with a goat.” Since I couldn’t have put it better, I’ll put it in exactly the same words. Nelson played an immensely successful man, happily married, who falls passionately in love with a goat. This sounds like comedy – Midsummer Night’s Dream, comes to mind, with Titania and the donkey – but it’s deadly serious, as it would be, say, if it happened to your husband. Nelson (and director Kasi Campbell) understood this, exactly as playwright Edward Albee did. The result – largely due to Nelson’s genius in this role – was something powerful, moving, provocative…and, yes, uproariously funny.
3. Michael Hayden as Henry V in Henry V, Shakespeare Theatre. Put aside the fact that Hayden was also playing Richard II in Richard II, in rep with Henry V. Put aside the fact that Hayden threw himself around the set like Ovechkin going after a loose puck. Hayden played the full range of human emotion like a pipe organ. His performance was brilliantly layered, but we got – immediately – that at bottom, Henry was a good and honorable man, who would force himself to do the things he had to in order to lead his country. He made Henry a man of radiant goodness, at every moment familiar with his own limitations, humble, and aware of the fact that his subjects, while not nobles, are full of nobility. It was a bravura performance, and in Henry, Hayden created a character completely the opposite of the character he created in Richard II, thus showing the highest calling of the actor, which is to put mind, heart and body in service to the text. And, oh my – that Crispian Day’s speech!
2. Karl Miller as Prior Walter in Angels in America, Part I – Millennium Approaches, Forum Theatre. Evil is fearless – think of Jim Jorgensen’s Roy Cohn, snarling at death; think of Heath Ledger’s Joker, giggling madly as he swings on ropes hundreds of feet in the air; think of Hitler, eating his gun as the Soviet army approaches.
But courage – by which I mean to act in the face of crippling fear – is a virtue, not a form of lunacy, and it is a hundred times more difficult to represent on stage, as well as to do. Karl Miller’s performance in Angels, and particularly in Part I, won us over in ten minutes. He made Prior Walter the sort of hero we all hope to be – a normal man, staring death full in its shadowed face, betrayed by his beloved, abandoned by his family, nonetheless acting with honor and dignity. For three and a half hours, he held our hearts in his hands, without a single false gesture, without an ounce of showy theatricality, without a moment of inauthenticity.
1. Howard W. Overshown as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Folger Theatre. There were two ways you could have learned about Shakespearian acting this season. One would have been to take a master class at the Shakespeare Theatre or some similar place. The other was to watch Overshown in this remarkable performance. There would be no theory lessons, but the practice would be there in full. Overshown constructed his character arc with brilliant precision and specificity, and executed it superbly. In this fine comedy, which highlights the witty repartee between Benedick and Beatrice, it is usually the lady who gets the biggest laughs, as well as the last laugh. Here, Overshown simply lit up the stage every time he walked on it.
Honorable Mention: These actors were great, too.
In alphabetical order:
Stefan Aleksander as Renfield, Dracula, a Family Musical, Georgetown Theatre Company; Peter Allas as Teach, American Buffalo, Studio; Franklin J. Anthony as Seaweed Stubbs, Hairspray, Toby’s Dinner Theater;
Jeff Baker as Sigmund Freud, Hysteria, Rep Stage; Jessica Ball as Johanna, Sweeney Todd, Toby’s Dinner Theatre; Sara Barker, 4.48 Psychosis, Factory 449; Andrew Baughman as Barry, High Fidelity; Lucas Beck as Walker and Ned, Three Days of Rain, 1st Stage; John Behlmann as Orlando, As You Like It, Shakespeare Theatre; David Benoit as Mr. Zero, Adding Machine, A Musical, Studio; Ro Boddie as Belize, Angels in America, Part II – Perestroika, Forum; Charles Borland as Henry IV, Richard II, Shakespeare Theatre; Joe Brack as Hanuman, The Ramayana, Constellation; Joe Brack as narrator, The Santaland Diaries, City Artistic Partnerships and Warehouse Theater; Frank Britton as Prudence Duvernoy, Camille, a Tearjerker, Washington Shakespeare Company; Nevie Brooks as Rosie Pye, Humble Boy, 1st Stage; Rena Cherry Brown as Mrs. Black, Public Enemy, Scena; Jane Squier Bruns as Carrie Watts, The Trip to Bountiful, Quotidian; Joseph Leo Bwarie as Frankie Valli, Jersey Boys, national tour at the National Theatre.
Caitlin Cassidy as Felice, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Synetic; Jeffrey Carlson as Bellini, Golden Age, Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Kennedy Center; Vincent Clark in various roles, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, Washington Stage Guild; John Collin as Ludie Watts, The Trip to Bountiful, Quotidian;
Johanna Day as Jeanette, The Quality of Life, Arena Stage; Nate Dendy as the Mute, The Fantasticks, Arena; Erin Driscoll as Johanna, Sweeney Todd, Signature; Jessica Frances Dukes as Kanika Weaver, Permanent Collection, Round House Theatre; Cyle Durkee as Habib, Perez Hilton Saves the Universe, Landless Theatre;
Joel Edgerton as Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire, Sydney Theatre Company at the Kennedy Center; Sherri L. Edelen as Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd, Signature;
James Gardiner as Hunter, [title of show], Signature; Danny Gavigan as Dennis, Mauritius, Bay Theatre; Chris Genebach in multiple roles, Orestes – A Tragic Romp, Folger; Ed Gero as Sweeney Todd, Sweeney Todd, Signature; Kimberly Gilbert as Mrs. Lindner/Lindsey, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth; Michael Glenn as Rev. Jim/lawyer, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth; Jesaira Glover as Motormouth Maybelle, Hairspray, Toby’s Dinner Theater; Morgaine Goodling as The Snow Queen, The Snow Queen, Synetic Family;
Graham Michael Hamilton as Hamlet, Hamlet, Folger; Jay Hardee as Margaret Gauthier, Camille, a Tearjerker, Washington Shakespeare; Michael Hayden as Richard II, Richard II, Shakespeare Theatre; Mitchell Hébert as Russ/Construction Man, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth; Mitchell Hébert as Phineas Fogg, Around the World in 80 Days, Round House; Eric Hissom in multiple roles, The 39 Steps; Broadway Across America at the Warner Theatre;
Leigh Jameson as Carol, Suburban Motel, 1st Stage; Jim Jorgensen as Roy Cohn, Angels in America Part I – Millennium Approaches, Forum; Jim Jorgensen as Lloyd Dallas, Noises Off, Keegan;
Martha Karl as Mercy Lott, Humble Boy, 1st Stage; Rana Kay as Jackie, Mauritius, Bay Theatre; Des Keogh as da, Da, Olney; James Konicek as Lord Arthur, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, Washington Stage Guild; James Konicek in multiple roles, Around the World in 80 Days, Round House; James Konicek in multiple roles, As You Like It, Shakespeare Theatre; Josh Kornbluth as narrator, Andy Warhol – Good for the Jews?, Theater J; Marc Kudisch as Antonio Tamburini, Golden Age, Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Kennedy Center;
Julia Lancione as Judy Haynes, White Christmas, Toby’s Dinner Theater; Gavin Lee as Bert, Mary Poppins, Disney Theatrical Productions at the Kennedy Center; Ian LeValley as Mr. Drumm, Da, Olney; Norm Lewis, First You Dream, Signature; Kerry Waters Lucas as Paquita, Beauty of the Father, GALA;
Sydney Maloney as Hester’s daughter, By the Bog of Cats, 1st Stage; Sarah Marshall as Shoshana, Mikveh, Theater J; Sarah Marshall in multiple roles, Full Circle, Woolly Mammoth; Buzz Mauro as Alfie, A Man of No Importance, Keegan; Max McLean as Screwtape, The Screwtape Letters, (Return Engagement) Fellowship for the Performing Arts at Shakespeare Theatre; Addie McDaniel as Luisa, The Fantasticks, Arena; Barry McEvoy as Tommy Black, Public Enemy, Scena; Jennifer Mendenhall as Bev/Kathy, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth; Karl Miller as Prior Walter, Angels in America Part II – Perestroika, Forum; Thom Miller as Kent, Reasons to be Pretty, Studio; Helen Mirren as Phedre, Phedre, National Theatre of Great Britain at the Shakespeare Theatre; Crystal Mosser as Jolene, Laughing Daughter, Rothell Enterprises, Inc. at the Black Box Theatre;
Tony Nam as Don Pedro, Much Ado About Nothing, Folger; Bruce Nelson as Salvador Dali, Hysteria, Rep Stage; Cody Nickell as Lindner/Steve, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth;
Laurence O’Dwyer as Henry, The Fantasticks, Arena; Kevin O’Rourke as Bill, The Quality of Life, Arena;
Scott Parkinson in multiple roles, The 39 Steps; Broadway Across America at the Warner Theatre; Marianne Penning as Mysterious Woman, Hysteria, Rep Stage; Casie Platt as Sara Jane, Dear Sara Jane, Hub Theatre; Casie Platt as Harper Pitt, Angels in America Part I – Millennium Approaches, Forum;
Carol Randolph as Mrs. Kilbride, By the Bog of Cats, 1st Stage; Nigel Reed as Sterling, Mauritius, Bay Theatre; Erika Rose as Hawa, In Darfur; Theater J; Jefferson Russell as Al/Kevin, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth; Laurie Russell as Jessie Mae Watts, The Trip to Bountiful, Quotidian;
David Sabin as T. John Blessington, The Solid Gold Cadillac, Studio; Howard Shalwitz as Heiner Muller, Full Circle, Woolly Mammoth; Heather Scheeler as Kathy Griffin, Perez Hilton Saves the Universe, Landless; Steven Schnetzer as Neil, The Quality of Life, Arena; John Shrapnel as Thèraméne, Phedre, National Theatre of Great Britain at the Shakespeare Theatre; Chris Sizemore as the Beadle, Sweeney Todd, Signature; Stephen Gregory Smith as Shrdlu, Adding Machine, A Musical, Studio; Stephen Gregory Smith as Rob Gordon, High Fidelity, Landless; Josh Speerstra as Dick, High Fidelity, Landless; Alexander Strain as Baruch Spinoza, New Jerusalem, Theater J; Alexander Strain as Louis Ironson, Angels in America Part I – Millennium Approaches, Forum; Jay Sullivan as Orestes, Orestes – A Tragic Romp, Folger; Russell Sunday as Sweeney Todd, Sweeney Todd, Toby’s Dinner Theater; Brian Sutow as Guy, Some Girl(s), No Rules; Karissa Swanigan as Laura, High Fidelity, Landless;
Jesse Terrill as Mortimer,The Fantasticks, Arena; Clementine Thomas as Sam, Some Girl(s), No Rules; Michael Tolaydo, the Chief Rabbi, New Jerusalem, Theater J; Emily Townley as Stevie, The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, Rep Stage, Stanley Townsend as Theseus, Phédre, National Theatre of Great Britain at the Shakespeare Theatre; Margaret Tyzack as Oenone, Phédre, National Theatre of Great Britain at the Shakespeare Theatre;
Dawn Ursula as Francine/Lena, Clybourne Park, Woolly Mammoth;
Amanda Mason Warren as the Malibran, Golden Age, Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Kennedy Center; David Whalen as Claudius, Hamlet, Folger; Karen Eleanor Wight as Toadpipe, The Screwtape Letters, (Return Engagement) Fellowship for the Performing Arts at Shakespeare Theatre; Michael Willis as Warren Buffett, Full Circle, Woolly Mammoth; David Lamont Wilson, 4.48 Psychosis, Factory 449.
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