The Smithsonian invited DC Theatre Scene to present the next season to their audience, and as part of that presentation, DCTS Senior Writer Tim Treanor talked about shows he particularly anticipated. Today, we reproduce (more or less) what Tim had to say about experimental plays, operas, and theatre for young audiences.
What is an experimental play? To me, a play is experimental if no one, including the playwright or the actors, knows exactly how things will end up. The most extreme form of this is something called “dark play”, in which everybody knows it’s a play except the audience, and in particular the audience member at whom it’s aimed. Typically an actor will suddenly seem to have fallen madly in love with a member of the audience. Most frequently, a very attractive woman in the cast will turn her attention on some guy. And she pulls him up on stage and starts to smooch with him and so on. Dark play was very popular in the sixties, which is another way you can tell whether it’s an experimental play or not. If it was very popular in the sixties, it was probably an experimental play.
Our experimental theater is a little less dark these days, and maybe a little less playful. I went to the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia earlier this summer — incidentally, you should all go, it’s a blast — and saw a play called We Are Pussy Riot. It’s a play about the arrest in Russia of the punk-rock trio Pussy Riot for causing a disruption in church and their subsequent trial. It starts in the lobby where the gathering audience sees the disruption. And once we get to the trial, the prosecutor decides to call as witnesses people who saw the disruption to tell how disturbed they were by it. And so he calls witnesses out of the audience. The interesting thing is that the witnesses aren’t quite sure what to do. Should they be anti-Putin and pro-Pussy Riot, like the right-thinking Americans they are? Or should they express dismay and disgust about the disruption, as the actual prosecutor’s actual witnesses did, so they can move the play along? Some day I think someone should write an article about how to behave if you are an audience member who is suddenly catapulted into a play. I would, except I don’t know the answer.
We have a troupe in Washington which specializes in experimental plays. They’re called dog & pony dc, and they’re staging a play at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum called Museum Play, there currently until October 1. Audience members will become one with the art here in entirely unexpected ways. They’ll get to know each other in ways quite a bit more specific than they usually do in the theater. I can’t tell you exactly what will happen because I don’t know. Neither does dog & pony dc. It’ll be different each time. I do remember going to one of their experiences — “show” seems like too tame a word — and it ended up, as I recall, with us all building a nuclear-powered toaster.
I’m also looking forward to an experimental play done by a friend of mine, Susan Galbraith, who also writes for DC Theatre Scene. Galbraith is recognized worldwide as an expert interpreter of the work of Vaclav Havel. You remember Havel; he was the playwright who made ends meet by working a second job as President of Czechoslovakia. Anyway, the Alliance for New Music-Theatre is presenting R.U.R. — Rossums’ Universal Robots. R.U.R. is a play by the Czech writer Karel Capek about the manufacture of artificial humans, who start out as our servants but who end up as our masters. It was the first time the term “robots” was ever used; all subsequent use of the term is derived from this play. What’s unique about this production? Well, first, it’s a musical, with two choruses and a robot ballet. Second, it will be in a fantastic new space this spring — underground, beneath Dupont Circle. And finally, the robots? They’re us.
We decided to cover opera about four years ago when Susan Galbraith joined us; she is a connoisseur of opera and has helped to draw the productions I’m about to mention to our attention. Opera in this town is tremendously theatrical. Opera is everywhere about big voices, but in this town story is just as important, and it puts those big voices to work to move our hearts.
And though the superb Washington National Opera continues to feature classical European opera, it’s these unique English-language selections which pique my interest. First and foremost, Lost in the Stars, Kurt Weill’s and Maxwell Anderson’s adaptation of the Alan Paton novel, Cry the Beloved Country. Susan and my dear bride both saw it at Glimmerglass, up in New York, and they were both ecstatic. Francesca Zambello, who runs Glimmerglass, also heads the Washington National Opera, and she will be bringing it here next February.
Lost in the Stars is set in South Africa, and it features Eric Owens and artists from the Cape Town Opera Company. A young African kills a white man accidentally in a robbery gone horribly wrong. Although the setting is as racially charged as it could possibly be, it is not an opera about race. It’s about confession, forgiveness, truth — weirdly enough, it’s about the things that became important in South Africa after Nelson Mandela came to lead it. Strictly speaking, it’s not even an opera, in that the white characters have spoken dialogue. But it has the deep beauty and power that we’ve come to expect of our best operas, and I’m going to make damn sure I see it.
Another opera Susan saw at Glimmerglass, and was wowed by, is Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica, which the small DC company Opera Lafayette is taking to the Kennedy Center on November 28 and 29 before going on to New York. It is the story of Cato’s last stand on behalf of the Roman Republic before surrendering to Caesar’s army.
You want to mix your opera with your experiments? Urban Arias, a small opera company which operates out of the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, is a good place to go. This October they’re presenting a chamber opera called As One. It’s an opera with two performers — Luis Alejandro Orazco and Ashley Cutright — but only one character. And, if you’re guessing it’s an opera about a man who becomes a woman, you wouldn’t be wrong.
And, to get back to the traditional stuff, Washington National Opera is going to open with Carmen next month, set in Latin America, and plans to do Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle in April and May, proving that it believes that its audiences are as ambitious as its artists are.
THEATRE FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES
Ladies and Gentlemen, what you see above is the marquee of the National Theatre for Children. If you’re saying to yourself that it looks a lot like the marquee of the National Theatre, you are right. The National Theatre and the Bethesda-based theater company Imagination Stage are engaged in a joint venture to bring theater for young people from all over the country into Washington.
The play shown above is The BFG — meaning big friendly giant — which Imagination produced itself. People say to me, Tim, how can you tell us about good children’s theater, when your own childhood was so far in the past that they didn’t have automobiles and such? And the answer is that I look at the faces of the kids. There was one moment, when one of the giants had popped the protagonist into his mouth, that all of the kids scrunched down in their chairs and hid their heads, just like we used to do when we were preparing for a nuclear attack at school. And that’s the sign of successful children’s theater.
This year, Imagination is featuring a collaboration with the Washington Ballet in restaging its highly successful Little Mermaid. If you have a kid, or are a kid, you probably know this story: a mermaid falls in love with a human prince and wants to live with him above the water. So she trades her beautiful singing voice for a pair of legs. I know: been there, done that, right? But you know two things about this show. There will be a beautiful singing voice, probably several. And legs. Lots of legs. Opens June 22 in Bethesda.
In addition to Imagination, there’s another excellent theater for young people in our area — Adventure Theatre MTC, in Glen Echo Park. They’re doing two shows they’ve done before that I think are particularly cool and that I’d recommend. One is James and the Giant Peach, which they’ll run February to April. I mean, enormous fruit, great big bugs, musical score by the same people who wrote Dear Evan Hansen and Dogfight — how can you go wrong? The other is Three Little Birds, which will run for two days in January up at Olney Theater. What’s the big deal about Three Little Birds? Well, it had a huge run here, and then went to New York. Second, the music of Bob Marley. And the story, by Marley’s kid, about a little boy who would rather be by himself. Your own child might resonate.
Coming tomorrow: Ticket discounts and Theatre Week
It’s your turn. What shows are on your don’t-miss list?
Find them at
DCTS’s guide to the 2015-2016 season