Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Mary T. & Lizzy K.

Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Naomi Jacobson in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of Mary T. & Lizzy K. Photo credit:  Scott Suchman.

Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Naomi Jacobson in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of Mary T. & Lizzy K. Photo credit: Scott Suchman.

It’s hard to imagine in these days of cheaply manufactured clothes that there was once a time when getting a new outfit was a laborious and artistic process. Only in the worlds of high fashion or in the theater is the art of dressmaking still practiced to that level (and even there, machines have almost eradicated the particular craft of hand sewing). In the prudish Victorian era, no one knew your body more intimately than your dressmaker, from the crafting of a muslin mock-up perfectly fitted to your body to the execution of a dress that suited you alone.

Giving yourself that intimately to another person requires absolute trust, and that ultimately is the subject of Tazewell Thompson’s new play Mary T. & Lizzy K. The world premiere of a work commissioned between Thompson and Arena Stage, as the first production of Arena Stage’s American President’s Project its primary subject is the relationship of Mary Todd Lincoln (Naomi Jacobson) and her dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris). It can’t entirely escape the long shadow of the president, but it attempts to give two women who both suffered from marginalization (in two very different ways) their due.

It’s both gorgeously written and acted with a cool intellectualism that counterpoints the deep emotions that permeate any work to do with the Lincolns. Though the overall conceit – a prelude to that dreadful assassination night at Ford’s Theatre – may feel contrived, so indeed is a beautiful dress. Continue reading

We Love Arts

We Love Arts: My Fair Lady


Courtesy of David Willis and the excellent webcomic Shortpacked!

Now that scene above, Molly Smith, would represent “a completely fresh interpretation” of the 50 year old musical.

What we really get, press releases to the contrary, is the same old My Fair Lady we’re all familiar with – a story of a poor, uneducated girl who is transformed by the teaching of an older man into someone who can pass in upper-crust society. Once her Stockholm Syndrome has fully settled in she finds herself in love. Arena’s take is attractive and consistent, minus two odd transgressions, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. If that’s what you want, great – here you go. It’s the perfect production to take your parents to while they’re visiting over the holidays and it’s a lovely night out in the theater.

The high points are certainly Nicholas Rodriguez as Freddie, the inexplicably passed-over suitor, and the staging and choreography. The low point would be the lack of attention paid to the last fifty years of feminism and any sense of why Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle would come together in the end in a romantic relationship. Some of that is where we are as a society compared to when the orignal was penned, but some of the blame has to fall on the directoral decisions and how Benedict Campbell portrays Higgins as not just absent-minded and detached but as somewhat spitefully mean.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Book Club Play

Tom Story as Will, Kate Eastwood Norris as Ana, Eric Messner as Rob, Ashlie Atkinson as Jen and Rachael Holmes as Lily in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of The Book Club Play. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Despite being an avid reader, I’ve somehow missed out on the whole book club phenomenon. Maybe it’s that whole Groucho Marx "I refuse to join a club that would have me as a member" thing. So when it came time to see Karen Zacarias’ The Book Club Play at Arena Stage, who better to bring along than a friend with intimate knowledge of not one but two book clubs, someone whose involvement was so consuming she once proclaimed she was "breaking up" with book club?

"Is this anything like your book clubs?" I whispered to my friend at intermission.

"No, not really" she laughed with a wicked insider smile, "but it’s funny."

That may neatly sum up the issues with The Book Club Play. It skims the pages, lightly playing with issues like the devolution of the literary canon (is Twilight really the Wuthering Heights of our day?), and the social dynamics of readers with different commitments and backgrounds. But even in its construct, it owes more to reality shows than literature.

It’s a funny reality show though, to be sure, with broadly sketched characters against a cartoon-colored set. It’s even divided into "chapters" announced across the bottom of the stage as the various books from the sacred (Moby Dick) to the profane (The DaVinci Code) are introduced, just like some sitcoms do. Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Ruined

Jenny Jules as Mama Nadi and Rachael Holmes as Sophie in Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of Ruined April 22-June 5, 2011. Photo by Joan Marcus

There are 683 seats in the Fichandler theater at Arena Stage. The house was packed for Ruined, playwright Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning play about the atrocities inflicted on women during the Second Congo War (1998-2003). They laughed, they cried, they applauded. They applauded a lot. And then they left. I heard many say “phenomenal” as they exited the theater.

683 seats. In the program, production dramaturg Amrita Mangus notes that “in some villages, as many as 90 percent of the women have been raped.” Eight organizations are listed in the program, including CARE and V-Day, to encourage the audience to act upon what they’ve seen.

I couldn’t help wondering how many audience members would get involved afterwards. There was so much laughter, some of it perhaps nervous, through the first act of the play. So much applause at the end. Would they leave and go back to their comfortable lives, telling others “go see this play!” but not “go get involved!” Would I? There’s a danger with political theater. It allows us to feel involved by the mere act of watching.

Lynn Nottage conducted extensive interviews throughout the Congo with survivors of the brutality of mass rape. Their voices come through authentically in Ruined, and it’s in these moments – especially the monologue by Salima (a riveting Donnetta Lavinia Grays) that opens the second act – that the play is at its most powerful. Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Chosen

Joshua Morgan and Derek Kahn Thompson in Theater J's production of "The Chosen." Photo credit: Stan Barouh.

There’s something old-fashioned about Theater J’s production of The Chosen, presented with a quiet sensitivity in the staging and the acting, echoed in the warm wood of James Kronzer’s set. To call it old-fashioned is to by no means denigrate its power. It has a sepia-toned subtlety.

Theater J first produced an adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel ten years ago, and is returning to it now under the aegis of Arena Stage. Setting a play of such intimacy in the airy round of the Fichandler is a bit of a risk – a play about the complicated relationships between fathers and sons requires a closer access than that large theater can provide, and sometimes I longed for the smaller confines of Theater J’s usual home. But it’s thrilling to see a company I’ve long admired in the gorgeous space by the waterfront, and it expands the audience capacity to see two Washington powerhouses – Edward Gero and Rick Foucheux – command the stage regardless of its size.

“Acquire a teacher, chose a friend.” This is the advice David Malter (Edward Gero) gives his son Reuven (Derek Kahn Thompson) as essential to start becoming a man. He’s just met his unlikely friend Danny (Joshua Morgan), after a baseball game that turned into a battle between Hasidic Jews and those Jews they consider “apikorsim” – heretics. Unbeknownst to Reuven, Danny has just met his unlikely teacher, Malter himself, whose reading suggestions include Freud and Darwin. Not exactly what his father Reb Saunders (Rick Foucheux) would want his son to be reading in preparation to become a “tzaddik” – the spiritual leader of his community.

The adaptation written and directed by Aaron Posner takes its time exploring the nuances between the four men, building to a shattering moment between a father and the son he raised in silence. Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: At Home at the Zoo

James McMenamin as Jerry and Jeff Allin as Peter in the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater production of At Home at the Zoo March 4 – April 24, 2011. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Forty-five years separate the two acts of At Home at the Zoo, though in terms of the play’s action it’s probably only an hour. The second act is The Zoo Story. Written in 1958, it’s the play that assured Edward Albee’s genius. The first act is Homelife, written in 2004 as an exploration of what happened earlier in the older play.

I wish he’d left it alone.

The chief joy of seeing At Home at the Zoo, presented at Arena Stage as part of the Edward Albee Festival, is that second act. Featuring a lightning rod performance by James McMenamin as the mysterious Jerry, it’s a speedy and dangerous duel between action and reaction as he plays off the controlled listening of Jeff Allin’s erudite Peter. The entire stage comes alive with this act, a true evocation of why Albee is still revered today as one of our greatest playwrights.

But you have to get through the first act. I recommend caffeine. If you can make it through without your eyelids drooping too much, your energy will be revived by the tension of a riveting second act. Don’t give up. It’s worth it. Continue reading

News, Sports Fix, The Daily Feed

Kastles relocate to Waterfront for 2011-12 Seasons

Photo courtesy of
‘Kastles Tennis’
courtesy of ‘tbridge’

For each of the last three years, the Washington Kastles (The District’s World Team Tennis franchise) has played on a bespoke temporary court at the corner of 11th and H Street NW across from the Grand Hyatt.  This season, with construction slated to begin at the city center site in April, the team has had to put together other plans.

The Kastles will play in a temporary stadium on the new site at 800 Water St SW on the Waterfront, between Zanzibar and Phillips, for the next two years.  The temporary stadium will closely resemble the temporary stadium built at 11th & H, but will remain up year-round and be programmed by the Kastles and their partner PN Hoffman.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Arabian Nights

Maureen Sebastian and David DeSantos in the Arena Stage production of The Arabian Nights. Photo by Stan Barouh.

There are two types of perfume. One kind hits with a ravishing force. You recognize the top notes instantly, as they drag you down an olfactory lane whether you want to or not. The other kind is subtly layered, ingratiating itself into your memory with a more delicate air. I expected Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of The Arabian Nights to be a powerful whiff of rose attar or sandalwood, instead, it’s more elusive, like night jasmine on the breeze.

Meandering metaphor? Well, yes, and that seems to be the play’s point. After almost three hours of stories intertwined with stories, you might feel like you are on the hunt for that beautiful scent. This isn’t a play intending to make a political statement about our continuing entanglement with the Middle East, or even a social statement about women’s rights. I may have wished for those things, and felt sorely disappointed when I didn’t get them, but perhaps that desire for “relevance” was misguided. I didn’t fully appreciate the production’s intention until a few days after seeing it, when an image of rolling bodies in white like ghostly sheaves of paper in the wind re-entered my mind.

The best way to approach The Arabian Nights, performed in the round at the Fichandler in Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater, is to just drop any expectations and let the perfume take you where it will. It’s a drifting play, born of improvisation, about the healing power of myth as a mad king is shown the slow road to salvation.

But it’s not all perfumed nights and sensuality. There’s some castration. Oh, and a lot of farting. Continue reading

We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Oklahoma!

The company of the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Arena Stage’s Oklahoma! - their first production since their return to their proper home – isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t need to be. The dramatic misses are made-up for in toe-tapping, infectious energy combined with enjoyable choreography and an impressive stage design. If the stars lack a little chemistry and the threat in the final act fails to really fit, well, if you can’t grade Rogers and Hammerstein on a curve, who can you?

Oklahoma! starts strong with Nicholas Rodriguez as a Curly so likable and beaming that you’re left a little uncertain why Elesha Gamble’s Laurey would ever play hard-to-get. The two of them never managed to convince me they were deeply in love, but any lack of chemistry they exhibit in their duet is quickly forgotten when Cody Williams as Will bursts onto the stage and sings and dances his way through what ended up being my favorite number of the night: Kansas City. The cliche police might come to get me but it’s true: I really did discover myself tapping my toe without realizing it.

Arena’s Oklahoma! succeeds best in the moments when it’s being loudly and gleefully earnest and cheesy. It’s not too surprising that this would be the case – Director Molly Smith’s program notes comment that the play was chosen because of its sense of transition and beginnings, to match Arena’s return to its transformed home down by the waterfront. Perhaps some of the other interesting and intermittently successful choices mirror Arena’s transition and journey in other ways as well.

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The Features, Thrifty District

Thrifty District: Paint Your Own Nails

Photo courtesy of
‘Tube nails’
courtesy of ‘Phil Hawksworth’

Getting your nails done doesn’t seem like that big of an expense– what’s $20 here or there? But pampering like that is easy to cut out of your budget while still keeping your fingernails pretty and maintained at home.

Thrifty: First, you need some good supplies. At the minimum, you need nail clippers (I prefer Revlon, but you can get whatever you want), a good file, nail polish remover, cotton balls, and polish. Continue reading

Food and Drink, Night Life, The Features, We Love Drinks

We Love Drinks: Cantina Marina

"cantina marina" by Somewhat Frank, on Flickr

"cantina marina" by Somewhat Frank, on Flickr

Sometimes you don’t care about lovingly crafted cocktails or the beautiful people or even 12% ABV beer. Sometimes you just want a drink in a plastic cup. With a view.

Cantina Marina is the kind of place you could easily find in Florida, a simple almost shack-like atmosphere on the Gangplank Marina, with three sides open to the elements and the waterfront view. This is an extremely casual scene where flip-flops, beach dresses and short shorts reign. It’s getting to be quite packed now that the weather is warm – whether we’ll ever see sun again is anybody’s guess – but you can easily hang out here on an overcast drizzling day like I did.

It’s really a perfect spot for an afternoon delight, with spots to perch on ranging from the center square bar surrounded by tables or the outside seating right on the water. Decent but not too exciting bar food means noshing of the mostly-fried Gulf Coast variety. Happily they feature my favorite summer drink of the moment, the Dark ‘n Stormy, made with rum and ginger beer. Oh, sexy steel drums… no wait, that’s just my head. Continue reading

Life in the Capital, Special Events, The District, The Features, Where We Live, WMATA

Where We Live: Southwest Waterfront

Photo courtesy of
‘The Forgotten City’
courtesy of ‘M.V. Jantzen’
Hello and welcome to another edition of Where We Live.  This week we’ll be checking out the smallest quadrant in the District, Southwest.  Can you imagine city planners essentially wiping out an entire neighborhood and starting from scratch?  Well, that’s what planners did to this area back in the 1950s.  Read on to hear how it happened, and what’s going on today in one of the most overlooked neighborhoods in the city.

History: The southwest quadrant was present in Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for the city in 1791.  In 1793, the city’s first rowhouses were built at Wheat Row, and in 1796 the Thomas Law House was built for one of DC’s first investors (both structures remain to this day).  In 1815, the Washington City Canal was built and essentially cut off this part of the city from the rest of the District.  The area became home to many poorer residents and tenements, but the neighborhood was thriving with churches, synagogues, and shops.  Anthony Bowen made this area a stop on the Underground Railroad.

But by the 1950′s, planners working with Congress decided that the Southwest Waterfront area was the place to try out all these novel urban renewal concepts, so they declare eminent domain over virtually all of SW, wipe out nearly all of the houses and shops and churches in the area, and cause the displacement of nearly 30,000 people.  Planners then build a series of modernist residential and office buildings, cut through the area with freeways, and destroy nearly all urban character that was there to begin with.  The neighborhood businesses were replaced by various new buildings and the Waterside Mall (which was recently demolished), which included a Safeway and satellite EPA offices.  These businesses didn’t exactly create a vibrant urban neighborhood, so they’ve been torn down to create a clean slate for massive new redevelopment.

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Monumental, The Features

Monumental: Titanic Memorial

Photo courtesy of
‘Titanic~esque’
courtesy of ‘spiggycat’

In 1931, Helen Herron Taft, the widow of President Taft, unveiled the grey granite statue overlooking the Potomac just about where the Kennedy Center stands today. The statue now stands down on the Washington Channel near Fort Lesley McNair in Southwest. Just to the south of the Waterfront became the home for the Titanic Memorial.

The Memorial is dedicated to the men aboard the Titanic who gave their spots in lifeboats to women and children and perished in the shipwreck in the North Atlantic. Scribed at the bottom is the dedication, the kind of thing you wouldn’t see on a modern monument, from the “Women of America.”

The monument itself is pretty well hidden down in Southwest, and I ended up driving past it a couple times, and getting lost more than once. Park at the roundabout near the Harbor Police Office on Water Street, and there’s a footpath to the south of the roundabout. Take it down two blocks past O Street down to the memorial. Looks like a great place to ride your bike down to. With the weather today being off-the-charts-for-Awesome, and better expected for the Weekend, take a bike on out to the Monument’s location in Southwest. It’s worth a trip.

The Daily Feed

Bitter sweet&soggy

Photo courtesy of
‘Hold onto your hats!’
courtesy of ‘lorigoldberg’

We’re getting much-needed rain today. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows our region as being in moderate drought conditions, so this rainfall is good news. It’s not a one-shot fix, though – Capitol Weather pointed out at the end of last month that we were a full five inches below normal, something you can’t correct in one hit. While it would be nice to get more dry days to enjoy the warming weather, we really need to be hoping for some more consistent rainfall over the next few months.

The downside to today’s catch-up is that you might be done with blossom-peeping whether or not you’ve gone out to do it. National Weather Service says we’re looking at a wind around 15mpg and gusts that could go up to 28mph. Tonight’s just going to get windier, to the point where there might be a wind advisory. As I recall, last year it was some windy spring weather that took us from beautiful to bare trees in no time at all.

So batten down your hatches, such as they are, and if you didn’t get to the basin, well, you can enjoy Ben’s shots,the great shots in the We Love DC pool or some of the over 300,000 pictures in Flickr marked with “Cherry Blossoms.”

Monumental, The Features

Monumental: John Ericsson Navigation Memorial

Ericsson Memorial West Side

John Ericsson, a Swedish inventor, has a beautiful monument just south of the Lincoln Memorial on the median near the intersection of Ohio Drive SW and Independence Avenue SW. The beautiful pink granite statue was placed on its current location in 1927, at a cost of $60,000. $35,000 of that was federal funds, as voted in by the 1916 Congress, and the other $25,000 was raised through Swedish-American funds.

So, why was Ericsson so important? He invented the screw propellor for ships, allowing vessels to propel themselves through the water efficiently using a steam-driven engine. His dual-propeller design is the father of the propulsion system for just about every naval ship in the water today.

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Monumental, The Features, The Hill

Monumental: James Abram Garfield

James A Garfield and the Capitol

You know how you have a favorite president growing up? Like, you get assigned the guy, knowing he’s not one of the big five, but he turns out to be interesting in his own right? Meet mine, James Abram Garfield. I think it was in Mrs. Franti’s third-grade class that we all had to do mini-reports, and I drew James A. Garfield from the hat.

I was totally bummed, but it worked out pretty well in the end. He wasn’t Thomas Jefferson, or Ulysses S. Grant, or even Richard Nixon. Who was this guy?!

James A. Garfield was a general in the Union Army in the Civil War, hailing from just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He would, during and after the conclusion of the Civil War, serve as the Congressman from Ohio’s 19th District. On the 36th ballot, in 1880, he became the Republican Nominee for President of the United States. The internecine rivalry between the “Half-Breeds” and the “Stalwarts” lead to a controversial convention. The Half-Breeds, hoping to rid the Government of the patronage system that had developed, were pulling for Senator James Blaine, while the Stalwarts were pushing former President Ulysses S. Grant. Garfield would be the compromise candidate, and his Vice President was Chester A. Arthur, a Stalwart. Continue reading