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

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

(left to right) Ensemble members Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

We’ve all had those nights we don’t want to end, when the party moves down the street into the afterhours, only to sputter out around dawn when guests blearily enter back into reality. Sometimes those parties are wildly beautiful, other times they are the stuff of nightmares. Friendships implode, relationships fracture – the whole evening becomes a nuclear bomb which leaves you shaking at the end, repeating to the empty space, “What the hell just happened?”

You could say I’m familiar with those kinds of nights. Which is why I spent most of the three hours at George and Martha’s afterhours alternately laughing and crying in recognition of the ultimate power struggle party. Since its Broadway premiere in 1962, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has continued to shatter audiences with the ugly truth – we’re all capable of total war in relationships. Some of us may even relish it.

Presented by Chicago’s brilliant Steppenwolf Theatre Company as part of Arena Stage’s Edward Albee Festival, this production is simply not to be missed. There’s a complete dedication to the realism of Albee’s script that makes everything passionately alive, from Todd Rosenthal’s tired living room set, crowded with books and booze, to the acting master class delivered by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton. That dedication sucks the audience in and makes us all culpable. You’ll feel dirty afterwards, like a host surveying the piles of empty bottles and broken glass.

Don’t let that stop you from joining this party. From “Hump the Hostess” to “Get the Guests,” it may be a night in a Machiavellian mine field, but it’s also hilarious.  Continue reading

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

Entertainment, People, Special Events, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Let Me Down Easy

Anna Deavere Smith in Second Stage's production of Let Me Down Easy, directed by Leonard Foglia. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Twenty voices culled from three hundred interviews over three continents, all brought to life by one woman.

Baltimore native, MacArthur Award recipient, and something of a brilliant medium – Anna Deavere Smith has launched the national tour of Second Stage’s production Let Me Down Easy. Playing now through February 13 at Arena Stage, it’s a powerful exploration of the difficulties American culture has with death and disease, how we define strength, and the current inequality of our healthcare system. Its power doesn’t come from a slap, however. As a friend who came with me to press night aptly commented, “sometimes a gentle nudge to wake you up is more appreciated than a harsh shake.”

That doesn’t mean the piece doesn’t pack a punch. Embodying twenty individuals whose words are directly taken from their interviews, Smith weaves both the sadness and the hilarity of the human condition into a tone poem on what it means to face the end of life. From Eve Ensler’s uproarious theory of “who’s in their vagina?” to Joel Siegel’s dropping his clown mask as he faces cancer, it’s an experience of fascinating observations and appalling truths. Smith doesn’t hit the audience over the head with strident political activism or calls to action – it’s simply the stories that weave the message, and it’s for you to hear and be affected as you will. I find that to be very brave, and left with a feeling of being both uplifted and released at the same time.

Let me down easy? Yes. That’s how I’d like to go. Continue reading

Entertainment, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Every Tongue Confess

Phylicia Rashad as Mother Sister and Jonathan Peck as Blacksmith. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It was like I was on a pilgrimage.

As I walked up the long, winding ramp that leads into the new Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage I couldn’t help but wonder if the journey to our seats was part of the overall experience of seeing a show there.

The 200 seat / 3,400 sq. ft. space was designed for “building the canon of American work and cultivating the next generation of writers.” The woven walls, oval shape, and intimate dimensions of the space make it worthy of being called a “cradle.” When you are inside it, you don’t feel like you are inside a stage but inside an egg or womb, watching a piece of art grow before your eyes.

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Entertainment, Special Events, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Laramie Project Ten Years Later

Photo courtesy of

courtesy of ‘rejohnson71’

This past weekend Tectonic Theater Project performed its play cycle on the murder of Matthew Shepard and its effect on the town of Laramie, Wyoming – The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. I was only able to attend the latter on its final night, which deals with the murder’s aftermath through interviews with town residents. It was a moving evening of documentary theater. Though Tectonic does not as yet list future tour performances, the plays are widely produced and I’m sure you will have a chance to see them if you missed this round at Arena Stage.

If not, watch clips online. Maybe while you’re waiting at the airport this week, fire it up. Start a dialogue with the person next to you. Who knows what may happen? You may learn something about the human capacity to alleviate discomfort by forgetting or distorting the past – “the nature of rumor,” as it’s described by a folklorist interviewed in the course of the play.

Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998. I remember it not only as a murder whose horror was shocking in itself, but as an incident that catapulted hate crime and homophobia to the national news. It’s hard for me to stomach that there are college students in Laramie now who have absolutely no idea it happened, but that’s the truth as documented by Tectonic’s actors as they interviewed on campus while creating The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Continue reading

Entertainment, Music, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Sophisticated Ladies

Wynnona Smith, Janine DiVita, Maurice Hines, Marva Hicks and Karla Mosley in the Arena Stage production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies (Photo by Scott Suchman)

As of last Thursday night, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies has become the best selling show in Arena Stage’s history (that’s a record-breaker over six decades of distinguished theater). It’s been extended through June 6 at the Lincoln Theatre, and rightly so. Go see it.

(I could just leave it at that, but of course I won’t!)

On my way walking the few blocks from my house to the Lincoln Theatre, I made a point of passing the house where Duke Ellington lived on 13th Street. There’s now a placard on the fence outside proudly proclaiming that fact. It gave me a bit of a thrill, walking up that street, past the Whitelaw, and then over to the storied Lincoln Theatre, thinking of the young Duke maybe doing the same. I’ve always had a crush on Ellington since I was a little girl listening to my dad’s jazz records, so I had a special feeling going to this performance – and it did not disappoint.

Glitz, glamour, class and sass. An excess of talented singers and dancers. The Duke’s scintillating music performed by a slamming onstage orchestra. And a legend of tap graciously highlighting two extraordinary newcomers. That’s what you’ll get with Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies. Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: “Legacy of Light”


Stephen Schnetzer as Voltaire and Lise Bruneau as Émilie du Châtelet in "Legacy of Light" (courtesy Arena Stage)

It makes perfect sense that a theater company whose current renovations will include a new space to be christened “the Cradle” would commission a play about motherhood in all its forms. Karen Zacarias’s “Legacy of Light,” at Arena Stage in Crystal City now through June 14, is a wide embrace of these themes – the purely physical act, the creative endeavor, even the scientific genesis. Maybe too wide an embrace. Its first act had me a bit impatient. But if you can get through the beginning exposition and make it to the second act, you’re rewarded with some truly funny and poignant moments that bring these themes to life.

The production weaves together two sets of couples – in the past, scientist Emilie de Chatelet works furiously on her thesis while balancing a young lover, a longtime companion (who just happens to be Voltaire), a military husband, and a fiesty daughter who shows more interest in fashion than learning. In the present, scientist Olivia struggles to come to terms with balancing the impending birth of her child by a surrogate mother while investigating the more exciting birth of a star in a distant galaxy.

You could say these two have a lot on their plates.

The first act plays with mutable gender roles – both the young male lover in the past and the modern husband register as rather feminine (not to mention, a tad annoying), while the women read masculine at least in terms of their assertiveness and consuming drive. It’s a conceit that gets turned on its head in the second act, when timelines intersect and traditional roles become harder to ignore.

Continue reading