If you’re like me, you’ve already done your Christmas shopping, filled out your budget for the next fiscal year, and made arrangements for your final repose after The Event Which Awaits Us All occurs. Now it’s time for something much more difficult: planning your theater season.
Angels in America
Urinetown – Constellation
Urinetown – NextStop
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Night Alive
The Second Shepherd’s Play
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Hard Problem
Caroline, or Change
King Charles III
The Gospel at Colonus
Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing
Three Sisters – Studio
Three Sisters – Kennedy Center
The Blood Knot
The Late Wedding
The Arabian Nights
2017 Source Festival
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
How I Learned What I Learned
2017 Capital Fringe Festival
2017 Contemporary American Theater Festival
My selections are a product of my prejudices, which I list herein: there are no children’s plays because I’m not a child, I have no children, and I admire children principally as metaphors or literary devices. My loss, I know, but there it is. I will not be going to plays in a language other than English, meritorious though they may be, because I won’t understand the language and thus won’t appreciate the art. I am not a big fan of musicals, although some are irresistible. Characters must be plausible and relatable; if there are no sympathetic characters, they must at least be outrageous (The Lonesome West, currently at Keegan, qualifies). Merely being disgusting does not suffice (there was nothing wrong with the characters in House of Yes that a machine-gun couldn’t have remedied.)
If you share these biases, or tastes, this list might be helpful to you. Or not. Anyway, it’s free, unlike all the shows I’m about to recommend.
It would be a great tragedy to miss Angels in America, which will appear at Round House Theatre, and I don’t intend to do so. In Angels, Kushner tackles a subject few others are willing to take on. No, not AIDS — there are plenty of plays about AIDS — but the failure to love in the face of death. Even without the fanciful cosmological confrontation which dominates the second part, Prior Walter is one of the great theatrical heroes of the twentieth century. This production will feature some of the area’s best talents, including Kimberly Gilbert, Tom Keenan, Mitchell Hébert, Sarah Marshall and Tom Story as Prior Walter. The first part, Millennium Approaches starts September 7; The second part, Perestroika, starts September 25.
Speaking of cosmological, I’m certainly going to catch Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, which begins its run on September 7, at Studio. I remember being blown away by the production the late, great Catalyst Theatre did at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop 432 years ago, and I expect this to be at least as good, in part because Michael Kahn will be directing the superb DC actor Holly Twyford.
And — I realize we’re trending theological here — I will certainly see Dante’s Inferno at Synetic sometime after it starts its run on September 28. Synetic reimagines every classic it does, and the Inferno remains the greatest act of the human imagination in our literature. If Dante’s Inferno is anything like Dante, which I saw them do seven years ago, it will be a hell of a show.
Constellation will be doing Urinetown starting September 1, and NextStop is doing it on May 25 of next year. I’ll certainly see one of these productions, maybe both; I like both companies, and we haven’t seen Urinetown (which has a big cast and is thus expensive to produce) since Signature did it, back in the early years of the second Bush or the later years of the first Clinton.
On Broadway, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time features the work of Nancy Robinette and longtime DC actor Andrew Long, so if the production, which starts in the Kennedy Center on October 5, features some New York actors, we can afford to be understanding. Understanding, after all, is the essence of the story, which is about a fifteen-year-old with a fine mathematical mind straightjacketed by high-functioning autism. He tries to unravel the mystery of a dog murdered in his garden but unravels much more than he can handle. I haven’t seen this play but I loved the award-winning Mark Haddon novel from which it was taken.
I’m also going to make a point of seeing The Night Alive, Conor McPherson’s NY-Drama-Circle-Award-Winning Play, when it comes to Quotidian on October 20. The Irish have a patent on loneliness and failure of the sexual imagination, and it gets full play in this story of two (straight) men who share a room and a hardscrabble business. When one of them rescues a prostitute from a beating and takes her home with him, it disrupts more than their lives. Quotidian, which produces its work in a small theater within the Bethesda Writer’s Center, specializes in the subtle and the underplayed, which is just perfect for this play.
My other certain destination is NextStop Theatre in Herndon so that I can see Sarah Ruh’s Eurydice. Eurydice, as I recall from my days as a classical scholar of Greek myth (Hah! Actually, from Wikipedia), was the beloved wife of the gifted musician Orpheus. She died from a viper’s bite, and Orpheus sang so mournfully about her that the powers about him gave him a guide to the underworld, where he went to rescue her. He almost did, too. Ruhl, one of the most genius-y of the MacArthur Genius Grant recipients, redoes the myth as a meditation on memory and silence. NextStop is a small theater which has shown itself to be resolutely competent with difficult material (I really liked their City of Angels), and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with this. Eurydice starts October 7.
I am not a big fan of holiday plays, with all their forced optimism and whatnot, but I will make an exception for The Second Shepherd’s Play, getting its second performance — in nine years — at the Folger Theatre, starting November 27. It blew me away in all its six-hundred-year-old shagginess, as I enthused in this review (in which I may have made a mistaken assumption. The play is moving regardless).
The Award-winning Chicago company, Lookingglass Theatre, is coming to Arena Stage November 18 to do Moby Dick. You know what that story’s about, don’t you? The thing about Lookingglass is they like to do their shows up in the air. I don’t mean metaphorically; these guys are acrobats. Gonna see this one, baby.
The other play I am certain to see is not about the Christmas but The Christians, Lucas Hnath’s compassionate examination of a church in crisis as it tries to reconcile two fundamental elements of its faith — the existence of Hell and the mercy of Jesus. This work is thoughtful, sometimes profound; there are no bad guys, or easy answers. I saw it when it debuted at the Humana Festival in Louisville, where it knocked me out, and I am particularly interested in seeing it this November, when it will be produced by Theater J — the area’s premier Jewish theater, starting November 16.
Sorry, I’m drawing a blank. That doesn’t mean there isn’t great theater in the area; there is, and if you consult the DCTS Season Guide I am sure you will find one that you will like. None of the shows opening in December speak to me, though.
OK. The holidays are over, and we’re back to normal — like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s champion screamathon between an erudite, drunk husband-and-wife and their erudite, drunk friends. Well, I’m oversimplifying…in fact, this is unquestionably one of the five great American plays of the twentieth century. What particularly intrigues me about Ford’s production, which starts January 21, is that it has Holly Twyford as Martha. Twyford is one of the two or three best actors in Washington, and what she is particularly good at is pulling every nuance from deeply conflicted characters. We’re gonna like her Martha, I think.
Up to now, I’ve been singing the praises of plays that I’ve seen before, or read before. So I realize I sound a little like a kid who wants his da to read him the same bedtime story over and over again. But let’s face it: a world premiere is kind of a crap shoot. Well, here’s one time I’m going to roll the dice: to see Mack, Beth by the fine local playwright Chris Stezin, at Keegan starting January 20. Stezin, who has consistently produced first-rate work, reimagines the Scottish play’s power couple in a modern, high-tech environment. Brothers and sisters, I’m there.
I do intend to go to Studio’s The Hard Problem on or after January 11. This is Tom Stoppard’s latest, and it is the science of the brain, which is to say, the science of being human. Lots of science, lots of humans.
Finally, I intend to see Caroline, or Change at Round House — in part out of curiosity. The great playwright Tony Kushner has here written a musical (with the fine composer Jeanine Tesori), and so it’s a little like going to see Steven Strasburg sing an aria. People whose judgment I respect have told me it’s quite good, though.
I’ll be looking forward to the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of King Charles III all season because of the outrageous, provocative story it tells. Prince Charles, known to all of us, has finally become King — and uses a forgotten authority from another era to prevent a very bad, anti-democratic law from coming into being. Forget the Charles of the tabloids and gossip columns; this is a Charles Windsor called upon to be a statesman — or, dare we say it, a King. Oh, and it’s in Shakespearian blank verse. Beginning February 7.
I’m going to go out on a limb and implore you to not miss a play, even though it’s six months in the future and I have no idea what it will look like. That’s because the play is The Gospel at Colonus, Lee Breuer’s heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oedipus’ final days, when he brings peace to a troublesome land. Swaddled in Bob Telson’s stunning gospel music, The Gospel at Colonus is an astonishing tale of the triumph of love over death. Jennifer Nelson directs, which enhances my confidence in the production. It begins its run at Avant Bard on February 23.
Here’s another show in which religion makes an unexpected appearance — H2O at Rep Stage, by the mysterious Jane Martin. An action-show star is cast — wildly inappropriately — as Hamlet, and allowed to select his own Ophelia. He chooses an evangelical Christian woman, who responds tenderly — and maybe a little amorously — to his self-destructive ways. I saw this at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival three years ago, and it was terrific. Kasi Campbell directs, which is another good sign. Beginning February 5.
You’re probably familiar with the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the self-imagined opera diva whose clueless performances were widely attended by astonished audiences. (If not, be sure to catch the movie with Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg). There is a more contemporary equivalent named Erva Miller, whose excruciating versions of “Downtown”, “A Hard Day’s Night” and other pop classics would make you reconsider ever listening to music again, for fear of what you might hear next. She was a sensation, of course. So sometimes-Sondheim collaborator James Lapine (Into the Woods) has written, and will direct, Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing at Signature starting February 28. I will be there, you bet.
Aaron Posner’s going after Chekhov again, with No Sisters, his revisionist version of Three Sisters which Studio is staging, starting March 16. You might want to see it in combination with — Three Sisters, which Studio is also staging, starting March 4. (The Kennedy Center is also doing Three Sisters, starting April 26) I’ve seen three Posner revisions, and I must say that each one contains a profound respect for and understanding of the original, while striking off in entirely different directions.
March is a good time for something edgy, and I have no doubt that Mnemonic, over in Anacostia’s Theater Alliance, will be just that. I’m not going to say too much about this show, other than that it involves migration and has an extraordinarily broad scope, but if you go to this show, I believe you will be involved with it. Starting March 16.
I’m certainly going to strike out for Tyson’s Corners to see 1st Stage’s production of Lisa Kron’s Well, which will begin on March 23. With this play, Kron invented a new way of storytelling, in which the story gets away from the teller, and takes over the whole universe. I loved the production I saw at Arena several years ago, and I am confident that 1st Stage, a mighty company for its size and one which has won the praises of The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout, among others, has the kung fu to handle it.
Finally, if you are an Athol Fugard enthusiast, as my colleague Trey Graham is, then you will not want to miss The Blood Knot at Mosaic Theater, starting March 28. Joy Zinoman, the Studio founder who Trey says is a premier Fugard interpreter, will be directing this story of two half-brothers, one much lighter-skinned than the other, who share the same African mother. This is a deep, perceptive examination of the role race plays in self-image, and it launched Fugard’s career in America.
Didn’t T.S. Eliot say that April is the coolest month? Well, it is for theater in DC, when the theater world gets — what’s the precise, clinical term I want to use? That’s right, wacky. When the theater world gets wacky.
Top of mind, of course, is the touring production of the Tony-Winning chronicle Fun Home, graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s wild account of her childhood, which was anything but. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori — two artists I have praised elsewhere — collaborate (conspire might be a better word) to produce an amazing musical. They use an unusual approach — successive iteration — to reexamine incidents, each time with new information. The impact is concussive. (The graphic novel was banned in several places because it contained — don’t tell anybody — a story line about same-sex urges and relationships). At the National Theatre, starting April 18.
I am definitely going to Round House to see Or,. Why? Well, you probably know the story of Christopher Marlowe, playwright … and spy. Isn’t that wild? Could you imagine Tennessee Williams as a spy? Well, Or, is the story of Aphra Behn, who was a playwright and a spy and a woman who lived three hundred fifty years ago, at the time of Charles II. In Or, she has two dilemmas — saving the life of the King, and getting her commissioned play in to the producer before the deadline expires. And this was before the Writer’s Guild! Opening April 12.
There’s plenty of wackiness afoot at Hub Theatre in April, where I will be seeing The Late Wedding. Hub is a champion of gentle ambiguity, and that seems to be characteristic of this Christopher Chen play, based in a story by Italo Calvino. Here’s how Robert Hurwitt of SFGate describes it: “What begins as a look at anthropological research into the marital arrangements and lore of a few odd tribes segues without warning into a political drama cum action thriller. Actors begin speaking not only their characters’ lines but the playwright’s notes to himself. Or perhaps that’s notes to herself, if this script is by one of the characters who turns out to be a playwright.” That’s good enough for me. Opening April 14.
Finally, I don’t know how good this will be — I suspect plenty — but I’m all in for the story, which is this: a world-class transvestite performer keeps a dead body in his stage trunk…and it’s a musical. Dorian’s Closet starts April 26 at Rep Stage, and I’m there.
Opinions may differ on this, but I think that the most difficult character to play in all of Shakespeare is King Lear. That’s because he is so many things at once: a fatuous, self-regarding ass, who disowned his daughter for insufficient flattery; a deeply sympathetic character, who is betrayed by his own blindness; and a marvelously charismatic leader, who held his nation together against all challenges. I’ve seen the play a half-dozen times, and I’ve never seen an actor who’s gotten the whole thing. That’s why I’m looking forward to Avant Bard’s King Lear, which starts on May 25. Rick Foucheux takes on the title role, and I think he might be the one to do it. Foucheux, another one of DC’s top actors, exudes a distinctly avuncular presence; for example, as the King in Folger’s production of Henry IV, Part 1 some year’s back, you could see his anger at Hal, but it presented itself as a sort of exasperation, which held within itself the possibility of the redemption the future Henry V actually achieved. If done right (as Robert Falls did it a few years ago at Shakespeare Theatre) Lear is, in my view, the best play in the canon.
I also mean to see two other plays I’ve seen before. Constellation is doing Mary Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights, a retelling of the 1001 Nights tale. Zimmerman has a surprising, humanizing take on the story, which I first saw at Arena about eight years ago. Beginning May 4.
On the same date, MetroStage is beginning its run of Master Class, Terrence McNally’s love letter to opera. The story has Maria Callas, closing in on her sell-by date, teaching young singers how to sing as she does, believing that no one ever could. MetroStage has a good history with plays involving music, and Nick Olcott will direct, assuring a steady hand.
I’m going to the Source Festival. I don’t care what’s in it, or when it is, I’m going. Going to the Source Festival is like winning one of those mysterious boxes at the County Fair. Sometimes what’s inside is a dud, and sometimes it’s Perfect Arrangement or Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea. So for me, it’s a no-brainer.
What else is going on in June? Perhaps you want to learn more about the remarkable playwright August Wilson, who dropped out of school at fifteen and went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes, an Oliver Award and a Tony for his work. If so, you’ll want to catch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — the first play in his Hill District cycle and the one which brought him to broad attention in America — when it starts at 1st Stage on June 1.
And you’ll also want to see How I Learned What I Learned, his one-actor autobiographical play about growing up as an African-American in the twentieth century (and containing one of my favorite lines: ““My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century, and for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job.”) which begins at Round House on June 7.
Of course, Capital Fringe. But what else?
I’m going to make a point of going up to Olney to see Thurgood, an excellent one-actor biography of the civil rights pioneer Thurgood Marshall. Marshall won the most important Supreme Court battle of the last century, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) and was the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, and his life was full of gritty adventure. It was superb when Laurence Fishburne did it at the Kennedy Center several years ago, and I’m betting that Olney will acquit itself well.
At some point in July I will make my way up to Shepherdstown to see the Contemporary American Theater Festival. I do not know what they will have there, but it is of no moment: they have established their credibility with me. This year I saw two superb productions and two very good productions (out of five) and I expect the same ratio will hold in 2017. Plus, motels run from the cheap but comfortable to the gorgeous but affordable, and there are some fabulous places to eat.
With August, 2017, we are approaching the undiscovered country. I’m pretty sure I’ll be at Longacre Lea, but I don’t know what they’re going to be putting on.
I do know I will be at Keegan to see the musical Big Fish — a fantastic story about a raconteur, now dying of cancer, who has told preposterous stories about his life and his embarrassed son, who in investigating them, finds surprising ways in which they are true. The Tim Burton-directed film was marvelous, and I expect this play will be too.
So, there, I’ve just spent four large for you, or eight, if you take your sweet patootie with you. This is all subject to change without notice if, for example, there is a catastrophe or — what’s the opposite of a catastrophe? Not a dogastrophe…no, let’s say a happyastrophe, such as the Nationals and the Orioles meeting each other in the World Series (it could happen), or me being swept into office as a result of an unexpectedly large write-in vote in the national plebiscite (no comment).
Or, more likely, I obtain further information which identifies another show as a must-see production. It seems like the more things change for theater in DC, the more things get better.