To the strains of “Ride of the Valkyries,” the new President of the Kennedy Center, Deborah F. Rutter, took the stage of its Family Theatre on Tuesday morning to announce the Center’s 2015-16 season. It includes a few really exciting things to which theatre audiences can look forward. However, one phrase kept running through my head as regards the theatre component: conspicuous in its absence.
A highlight next year for theatre at the Center will certainly be the D.C. debut of the controversial Belgian director Ivo van Hove. His work is a frequent presence on New York stages. At New York Theatre Workshop, his interpretations of classic scripts like A Streetcar Named Desire, The Little Foxes, and The Misanthrope have polarized critics and audiences alike. His re-imaginings of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and Kushner’s Angels in America won lavish praise from New York Times critic Ben Brantley when they visited the Big Apple.
He’ll come to our town with his take on the Greek classic Antigone. Providing some star power will be his leading lady, the Oscar winner Juliette Binoche. Sadly, the visit will be an annoyingly short four days (Oct. 22-25, 2015), so the most exciting theatrical presentation next season will have a very brief run.
Rutter noted that this year’s Iberian festival has not yet begun, but plans are already afoot for an Irish festival next season (May 16-June 5, 2016), and you would expect theatre to be an important piece of that. At this point, they have only announced a couple of sure things, and one of those will undoubtedly be another highlight.
The Pan Pan Theatre production of All That Fall (exact dates pending) is a piece that delighted New York audiences on an earlier trip to the States. That tour featured Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins as the central couple in the work written by Samuel Beckett originally for radio. Beckett insisted that it never be performed on stage, but his estate relented to allow a production that is presented almost as if it is a live radio broadcast. No actors are announced for the D.C. run, but it should be a hot ticket even without the impressive previous cast. A second production in that festival is aimed at young audiences (The Girl Who Forgot to Sing Badly), while the press release promises further announcements which, one hopes, will include more theatre from the Emerald Isle.
Otherwise, there is the expected slate of touring Broadway musicals. It must be said, though, that this year’s is an impressive list, comprised of shows that pique my interest.
Two years ago, the Tony for Best Musical was a contest between the early favorite Maltida the Musical, which had swept London’s Olivier awards and had arrived in New York to strong reviews, and Kinky Boots, which ended up overtaking Matilda and winning, on the strength of its feel-good plot and its Cyndi Lauper score. Both are coming next season and both are much more interesting prospects than the revivals and juke-box musicals that seem to dominate national tours these days.
That said, there is a juke-box musical (or, more kindly, musical biography) on the slate, and that is Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. The stop at the Kennedy Center will allow audiences for whom Carole King provided “the soundtrack to a generation” to enjoy her music without a trip to New York. Or without having to wait for the Arena Stage production.
Last year’s Tony for Best Musical went to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, a critical hit that held on, despite soft sales, until it won the Best Musical Tony and leveraged that into a successful longer (and continuing) run. The Best Original Score last year, though, went to Jason Robert Brown for The Bridges of Madison County, from the Robert James Waller best-seller. The fact is that both of these shows are intriguing and ambitious undertakings, rather than blockbuster hits, and yet they have generated national tours that will stop at the Center. This is welcome news to audiences tired of seeing the same few shows come back to town time after time. Like Phantom of the Opera.
But wait! Phantom will be coming back, too. However, before you shake your head, know that this is not the Harold Prince production that is still running on 44th Street and has crashed its chandelier into town tour after tour. No, this is a new staging, overseen by Matthew Bourne (who famously re-imagined Swan Lake) and the producer Cameron Mackintosh, promising a fresh look at this modern blockbuster. As Peter Allen said, everything old is new again.
The World Stages series will include pieces from Vietnam (The Odyssey: from Vietnam to America, Vân-Ánh Võ Company’s production focusing on the experience of the post-war “boat people”); from Ireland (Sancho, Gate Theater’s presentation of a play about Charles Ignatius Sancho and his real-life journey from slave to actor, written and performed by British actor Paterson Joseph); and a French-Canadian co-production (Seuls, a “semi-autobiographical” piece written, directed, and performed by Wajdi Mouawad, born in Lebanon and now a highly-regarded playwright in both Canada and France).
The runs for plays in the World Stages series are also brief, two days each. Some of the most exciting things to come to D.C. in recent years have been part of this series. I guess the trade-off is that, to justify work that won’t have broad appeal, you have to have shorter runs. But that means that, once you hear about a show, the run could be over. So book now.
The press release touts three “world premieres” as the Center’s contribution to the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. Two of those are one-performance-only free events, and the third is a Theatre for Young Audiences piece. That one, Darius and Twig, is written by Caleen Sinnette Jennings, who is one of The Welders, the local playwrights collective that produces new work. It is included among the five world-premiere commissions that the Theater for Young Audiences program is offering, along with a re-boot of its touring arm, and festivals and tours that the program will host. There’s quite a lot going on for young audiences, which is great.
The Barbara Cook Spotlight series continues, with singers young (John Lloyd Young of Jersey Boys), old (Michele Lee!), and in-between (the wonderful Randy Graff, who was in the replacement cast of Falsettos on Broadway, and, boy, was she terrific). But that’s as much a music program as a theatre program.
Composer-in-residence Mason Bates, in his remarks, spoke about growing up in Richmond and coming to the Center when he was a kid; he then said something to the effect that things have changed. They certainly have changed since I was a kid growing up in Bethesda and coming to see an impressive array of theatre at the Center that went beyond national tours of New York hits. Of course, it’s not the Center’s fault that the model for new play development has replaced the out-of-town tryout with transfers from non-profit theaters, and therefore that there isn’t the same opportunity to book pre-Broadway musicals and plays as before. I wonder, though: is it a testament to the depth of theatre otherwise available in our city that it doesn’t seem as integral a part of the current programming at the Center?
The only times a writer for theatre was mentioned by name were when Francesca Zambello, artistic director of Washington National Opera, mentioned Christopher Hampton in regard to his libretto for Philip Glass’ opera Appomattox, and then Kurt Weill in regard to his musical Lost in the Stars. Both shows will be produced next season by WNO. [Coming shortly: Susan Galbraith’s appraisal of the WNO season.]
It was striking that the artistic leaders who joined Rutter on stage to speak about the coming season were representing opera, ballet, classical music, jazz, chamber music — even the Pops conductor was listed on the press release — but no one who was there, or listed, represents theatre.
It’s been thirty years since the ill-fated attempt by the avant garde director Peter Sellars to start a resident theatre company at the Center. Of course, maintaining a viable company is not easy, and maybe our city doesn’t need another company. Still, if there were a theatre artist among the artistic leaders at the Center, perhaps it would avoid seasons like this when the theatre component seems thin and catch-as-catch-can.
The theatre press release touts recent achievements of the Center — festivals focusing on the work of Stephen Sondheim, August Wilson, Tennessee Williams; the launching of productions that have moved (or will be, in the case of Gigi, moving) to New York. Highlighting those in the release makes their absence in plans for next season all the more conspicuous.
Still, theatre programs that mean a lot to D.C. audiences continue, happily. The Page-to-Stage festival will be here again next Labor Day weekend. The American College Theatre Festival will be back and is nearing its 50th anniversary. Speaking of anniversaries — “We’ll always have Paris,” Rick says to Ilsa in Casablanca. And lest we get too depressed at the paucity of theatre next year at Kennedy Center, let’s remember that old reliable who is pushing thirty.
Theatre at Kennedy Center? That’s not for young audiences? That doesn’t have music? And that runs longer than a week?
We’ll always have Shear Madness.
And that looks to be it.
The Kennedy Center’s 2015-2016 Theatre Season
Sept 5 – 7: Page-to-Stage new play festival
Sept 28: A reading of Lisa Loomer’s Roe, presented in association with Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions Project.
Oct 6-25: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, touring production
Oct 22 – 25: Antigone by Sophocles, starring Juliette Binoche in the title role, in a production directed by the internationally renowned Belgian theater director Ivo van Hove.
Oct 12: Kennedy Center Theater for Young A reading of Naomi Iizuka’s new play Good Kids
Oct 31 – Nov 8: Kennedy Center Theater for Young Audiences. Darius & Twig, written by Caleen Sinnette Jennings.
Dec 15 – Jan 10: Matilda the Musical, touring production
Jan 13 – 30: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, touring production
April 11 – 16: Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival
May 16 – June 5: Celebrating a Century of Irish Arts and Culture!
June 14 – July 10: Kinky Boots, touring production
June 28 – July 17: The Bridges of Madison County, touring production