On August 20th, DC Theatre Scene spoke at the Smithsonian Museum’s Ripley Center. Senior writer Tim Treanor talked about some of the shows he was looking forward to next season. Below is what he said (more or less) about dramas.
People come up to me and say, “Tim, why should I go see a drama? My life is a drama. My job. My wife. My kids. When I take in a show, I want to get away from it. I want to get away from what I experience every day.”
The first thing I have to tell you is — your life is not a drama. Your life is a deposition or something. So is mine. I mean, unless your uncle killed your daddy and is sleeping with your mamma, your life, my friend, ain’t no drama. The great writing teacher Gary Prevost said it best: drama isn’t life. It’s life’s greatest hits. And the thing about great dramas is that they’re so extreme, they’re so outrageous, that they end up illuminating the tiny dramas you inhabit, and bringing you to understanding.
Here’s the way I see it. Good drama makes us understand life. Great drama makes us understand ourselves.
Let me give you an example. Some of you may have seen the Robert Falls production of King Lear at the Shakespeare Theatre in 2009. It was set in Kosovo in the nineties. Instead of swords everybody had Kalashnikovs. It was the same Shakespearean dialogue, but the stakes were the highest imaginable, and the tension was through the roof.
There was a scene toward the end. Regan, Lear’s oldest daughter, has set in motion all the terrible things that have happened in the land in an effort to acquire all power to herself. And it’s all fallen apart. Everything is lost. So she collapses on the ground, and takes out her pistol, and puts it in her mouth. And…well, you know what happens next.
But it’s what happens after that which matters. As she lies slumped against the wall, her brains spattered out behind her, some miserable old foot solder stomps onto the scene. He’s bald, and fat, and has a two-day growth of beard. There’s a bottle of Slivovitz on the table. And he looks at her, and picks up the bottle, and just drains it. He closes his eyes and tilts his head and glug, glug, glug until it’s empty. And then he puts it down and staggers off and I think, that’s us. Not with the Slivovitz necessarily, but looking for every possible distraction so that we don’t have to face the murderous circus around us.
Or here’s another one. One of the theaters you may not have heard much about is Forum Theater in Silver Spring. I don’t like everything they’ve done but when they’re on their A game they are as good as anyone. And their signature show — one they’ve done three times so far — is called The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. It’s a riot. After two thousand years, Judas is about to get his day in court. He gets his own attorney, and there’s a prosecutor, and — the trial lawyers in here will understand when I say this — a witness list to die for. Mother Theresa. Sigmund Freud. Saint Monica. Jesus. And, of course, Satan.
And as I sat there, alternately laughing myself weak and dazzled at the profound arguments over free will and responsibility, I realized that this wasn’t a play about these great historical figures at all. It was a play about…me. And you. And all of us sinners. And how we’re so close to reconciling ourselves with our own lives. And how far away. And I went out of there a different person. And maybe a better one.
Incidentally, do you know how much a ticket to a Forum show costs? Whatever you want to pay. If you show up at the theater without a ticket, you can see the show, seating available, and pay whatever you think it was worth.
Last Days was written by Stephen Aldy Guirgis. I want to say this carefully, now. I believe that Guirgis, right now, is writing the best theater in America. A lot of other people say that too.
Studio Theatre is doing another Guirgis drama this January — Between Riverside and Crazy, which won the Pulitzer last year. Here’s Walter Washington, an ex-cop. His wife is dead; his son is a career criminal, his son’s friend is a career criminal who’s on a health kick, and he’s in a wheelchair. About the only thing he has going for him is his fabulous rent-controlled apartment, and he’s about to lose that. But the real dilemma is how he’s going to keep being Walter Washington in the face of all that adversity — keep being the same cantankerous, incisive, highly intelligent man people know him to be.
There’s another Pulitzer winner this season at Arena Stage — Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s story of an assimilated Muslim who has become a hot young mergers and acquisitions lawyer, on the partner track. And then one day his nephew asks him to defend a local imam who is being prosecuted for financing terrorism. It looks like a trumped-up charge, borne of religious persecution. And so it asks the question all ambitious people must ask themselves, whether they are missing their child’s birthday to take on extra work or laughing at their boss’ racist joke: who are we?
Disgraced, which starts in April, is directed by one of my favorites…Timothy Douglas, a man known for taking risks. I loved it when he did Insurrection…Holding History in 2007. I loved it when he did Dontrell: Who Kissed the Sea last year. Those two productions have one thing in common: I will never forget them. I have a feeling I won’t forget Disgraced either.
But the show I’m really looking forward to at Arena is All the Way, also in April. I read Robert Schenkkan‘s script when I was on the Steinberg New Play Committee — it won the Steinberg –and I instantly knew that this was a play for this town. The subject, as you probably know, is Lyndon Johnson, and the passage of Civil Rights Act of 1964. The thing about LBJ was — he got things done. God, he got things done, and, man, if you got in his way, you’d be wondering what happened to that arm and leg you used to have. And All the Way gets all of him.
Here is one scene that is still emblazoned in my memory.
LBJ figures he can get the Civil Rights bill passed if he takes out the voting rights provision. He can get a voting rights bill passed later, he calculates. But his problem is that Martin Luther King Jr. won’t support the bill without the voting rights provision. So he calls Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers, which is providing much of the financing for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And he tells Reuther that if he can get King to getg on board the Civil Rights Act, as modified, then he will select Reuther’s buddy Hubert Humphrey to run with him…which, by the way, he was going to do anyway. And that’s the way it plays out. And all I could think is — this is way beyond Frank Underwood (House of Cards). This is like the pool wizard Willie Mosconi, playing the 5 off the 3 off the 8.
And these days, we get a little squeamish about the strong-arming and manipulating that was LBJ’s stock in trade. Still, sometimes, when you look at the Sargasso Sea that is our government, don’t you wish that there was somebody like LBJ around to knock a little sense into it? LBJ, incidentally, will be played by Jack Willis, an enormously gifted actor who played opposite Kathleen Turner in Mother Courage and her Children at Arena in 2013.
One more. You cannot miss Antigone, at the Kennedy Center, with Juliette Binoche, from The English Patient. This is a new translation by the poet and classicist Anne Carson, who is so immersed in the Antigone story that she created her own illustrated, poetic take on the story, which she called Antigonick. Antigone is a story of civil disobedience, a subject as fascinating to the Greeks as it is to us. And in Antigone’s time, the impulse to obey the law of man — that is to say, the law of the state — comes out of an impulse to protect ourselves during a time of terror. Sound familiar? Carson, and Sophocles, don’t take sides. They tell the story and you make the decision — as I recommend you do, between October 22 and 25.
Tomorrow, Tim covers don’t miss Operas, Experimental Theatre and Theatre for Young Audiences
It’s your turn. What dramas are on your don’t-miss list?
Find them at
DCTS’s guide to the 2015-2016 season