Washington is full of hidden treasures, especially when it comes to culture and entertainment. You know – the concerts at many of the city’s museums and cultural institutions, from the National Gallery of Arts concerts, to the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center to the Tuesday performances at the Church of the Epiphany. Things like out of the way galleries, or museums, like the Kreeger on Foxhall Road, or the National Arboretum, or the sloths at the zoo.
We have hidden people treasures, too – musicians and rock bands that have been not only reliable but often inspired. We have actors that so far have not been mentioned once on Access Hollywood, but nevertheless routinely do brilliant work at venues large and small throughout the DC area. We have writers and critics whose names are rarely on anyone’s lips. (Sigh) And we have Joe Banno.
Not that Banno wants for work, or ideas, or is shy and withdrawn, nor has he gone unrecognized or unnoticed.
In fact, it may be that Banno, who allows that you could call him “ a triple threat”, has done so much, in so many places that he’s not only ubiquitous in some odd sort of way, but also taken for granted. “Oh, yeah, Joe Banno,” is a fairly typical and generic response, “he really does interesting stuff.” I think I may have said it once or twice when subjects like theater, Shakespeare, and opera come up.
Banno IS a treasure, hidden in an oblique way as he goes here, then there, jumps between genres, jobs, venues. (Over 25 years, he’s directed over 100 opera, musical and theater productions) He is the performance arts equivalent of a guy who lives in a car.
I say this with awe, and great affection, because, although I hadn’t seen Banno in a few years face to face, talking with him recently when he was in the midst of working on directing a one-act opera double bill, Maria la O and I Pagliacci for the In Series at his old Source theater haunts. I was reminded that he’s also good company, the kind of guy you’d invite as the extra at a dinner party just for his table conversation.
“Triple threat” may be off by a few numbers. If you look at the accumulative projects he’s been involved in, and the kind of things they are, there must be more than three. Banno, who started out wanting badly to be a movie director and ended up as one eventually (the 2010 “Sleeping and Waking”), drifted squarely into his other interests: music, opera and theater. He came to be a director of contemporary plays, lots of Shakespeare plays that shook up notions of some of the Bard’s most beloved works, a director of operas, short and long, and a director of at least one children’s play (Spot’s Birthday Party) at Adventure Theatre.
Lest we forget, for a number of years he accumulated a history of theatrical daring-do on a shoestring as artistic director of the Source Theater Company, an institution that survives today as the Source arts venue. And, most perfect and damning of all, Banno is also a critic, reviewing classical music concerts for the Washington Post and, until recently, opera for the Washington City Paper. If you look at his resume on his Web page it will make your head spin.
What makes Banno a treasure—and bye the bye, what makes groups, institutions and places like Source and In Series somewhat hidden (but not without notoriety) treasures—is not just what he does, but how he does it. He is, it’s safe to say, my favorite kind of artist – difficult to imitate, entirely original and beyond category.
This is no accident. I posited the thought to him that many people think there is a great difference, even a divide between, say opera and theater. “That’s nonsense,” he said. “In opera, drama is just as important as the music. That’s a fact. You have to be able to act. You have to care about what’s going on with the characters. Admittedly, a lot of it is over the top, melodramatic, but it’s drama, nonetheless. There’s an elitist element here, sure, and those are usually the kind of people who like to think that opera and music are high art, and theater and drama are not.”
Banno connects the dots, a little like Wagner in his quest for total theater. “The music, the vocal ability is important, of course. But there’s not that much of a distance between opera and theater.”
This may account for the fact that some of Banno’s theater work tends toward the operatic, and some of his opera and music contain a high element of theatrics.
The In Series double-bill also marks his return to Source. “It’s a homecoming of sorts, that’s for sure,” Banno said. “It feels strange in that sense, although it’s a few blocks up from the original.”
One of the more memorable productions he directed there was an all-male, all-nude version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. “Yup, some people, critics included, got upset,” he said. “But you know, I think Oscar Wilde would have been amused.”
Consider perhaps one hallmark of his musical theater work, a production of Evita a co-production of the Open Circle Theater’s company of artists-with-disabilities and the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, the latter a Washington iconic group that crashes through the age barrier as a point of their identity. Or that he’s built a solid reputation as a Shakespearean director with eight productions at the Folger, seven at the Washington Shakespeare Company and a year-long-run of King Lear at the Shenandoah Shakespeare’s remarkable Blackfriars’ stage.
It was his direction of Tartuffe for Source that allowed that small theater company to join the Helen Hayes Awards party. In 1998, Holly Twyford won her first, and certainly not her last, Helen Hayes Award for Banno’s direction of her in Romeo and Juliet at Folger Theatre. Twyford, in fact, appeared as Beatrice in Banno’s version of Much Ado About Nothing, set in Little Italy New York atmospherics, and as one of four actors performing on stage at various times in his Hamlet.
Twyford calls him “a great guy. You can’t question his heart, his ability, his intelligence.” He’s “colorful, sure, he has that bohemian thing going, but he’s got an amazing mind.”
Actress Kimberly Schraf, who’s starring in the Ford’s Theater production of The Carpetbagger’s Daughters with Twyford and Nancy Robinette, says Banno “seems so Gonzo.” “You know, the look, the long hair, all that, he looks Gonzo.” “But,” she says, “he’s as sharp as a tack, he knows the text through and through, he’s got this great understanding of stage dynamics.”
“Yes,” Twyford says, “and you can see this Gonzo thing, and then you see him in rehearsal, and there’s this master-mind of story-telling.”
You can see that master-mind at work at In Series in the choices made for pairing Maria la O and Pagliacci, both of them one-acts, one of them condensed but famous, the other not so much. Both are set in the 1950s, one in Little Italy the other, an example of the Zarzuela style, fittingly in pre-Castro Cuba, the one you might have seen in “The Godfather, Part II”.
The operatic double bill is part of a continuing effort by the In Series to make the audience for opera larger by bringing them smaller—and more accessible – operas.
For Banno, who once thoroughly theatricalized an evening of the music of Schubert, who can spin on a dime from contemporary plays like American Buffalo to high-art classical music, to opera to four Hamlets, it’s all theater.
For audiences, that’s what makes him a treasure, local and otherwise. No Access Hollywood yet, but he’s getting closer. According to his resume, he was a recent co-host for a Golden Globe telecast to the Middle East.