We Love Arts

Theater Spotlight: Ken Ludwig

Ken Ludwig / photo by Leslie Cashen

Ken Ludwig / photo by Leslie Cashen

Ken Ludwig is a DC local and internationally acclaimed playwright who has had numerous hits on Broadway, in London’s West End, and throughout the world. He has won two Laurence Olivier Awards (England’s highest theater honor), two Tony Award nominations, two Helen Hayes Awards, and an Edgar Award. His work has been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Bristol Old Vic, and his plays have been performed in over thirty countries in more than twenty languages. His new book is called How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.

I spoke with Ken about his love of Shakespeare, the Bard’s history in DC, and choosing to make this city his creative home.

Joanna Castle Miller: How did you first fall in love with Shakespeare?

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Hughie

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Photo: Carol Rosegg

We could all use a friend like the Night Clerk in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie. Played by Randall Newsome, the Clerk is a great listener- the kind that doesn’t interrupt your train of thought or dominate a conversation. He is the perfect person for venting, complaining or revealing your inner most secrets.

He’s also the equivalent of talking to a brick wall. The hotel clerk is pretty much checked out for most of the play’s duration.  O’Neill could have replaced the character with a dead white guy propped up in a chair ala Weekend at Bernie’s and you wouldn’t notice a difference. The Night Clerk is simply trying to get through his graveyard shift with as little effort as possible. An omniscient narrator who continuously commentates on the state of the Clerk’s wandering attention span is received by the audience with many laughs.

That doesn’t matter for “Erie” Smith though. He’s looking for anybody that will listen to him, even if he’s not really listening to him.

And thus you have the makings of a beautiful relationship in the latest production at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre:  a two-man, one-act play that is essentially a one-man monologue and character study.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Government Inspector

The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Government Inspector, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Such likable scamps, these petty small-town bureaucrats scheming about the stage. Such roguish buffoonery in their bright outlandish clothes and rotund stomachs, as they plot to keep the sick and the helpless underfoot. They’re almost too likable. Where’s the grime those colors are meant to conceal? If there’s a flaw in Shakespeare Theatre Company‘s production of The Government Inspector, it’s simply that it leans heavily on the side of the buffoons, while neglecting the grotesques. In a town “where people eat soup with their hands,” everyone sure looks clean.

But they are very funny…

“You’re going to tell her about the birds and the bees now?” a mother despairs, “That’s like handing ammunition to a sniper.”

The Government Inspector is a 19th-century farce by Nikolai Gogol, but Washington audiences won’t find it dated. Sadly, we can still be in thrall to demagogues and doublespeak, and those who make obscene wealth off the sweat of the poor (at least we don’t have serfs, right? Right?) When the corrupt officials of a remote town learn they are being secretly inspected by a government agent, their ridiculous attempts at cover-up would make a Watergate operative blush, let alone more recent shammers. Throw in a case of mistaken identity and watch them all squirm. Continue reading

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: WLDC 2012 Theater Preview (Part 1)

The We Love DC Theater team: Don Whiteside, Patrick Pho, Jenn Larsen, and Joanna Castle Miller.

Fall is in the air and that means one thing…

RGIII!

Oh ya and Theatre.

As new seasons across the District kick-off, the We Love DC Theater team got together at The Brixton to talk about the upcoming year in theater – and I got some of it on video! Find out which shows we are excited about in the first of two videos below!

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Entertainment, People, The Features, We Love Arts

Theater Spotlight: STC’s Costume Shop Sale

Some of the happiest moments of my undergraduate life were spent learning how to sew in the costume shop of CUA’s Hartke Theatre, under the warm tutelage of Gail Stewart Beach. It was an atmosphere of quirky calm, with bolts of fabric stacked by color and texture, drawers of buttons and hooks, and paper patterns hand drawn. The agony of getting that sleeve hung just right, the chiffon that simply won’t obey the needle – it’s sometimes hard to grasp the intense level of perfectionism that goes into garments audiences may see for just a fleeting minute on stage.

That perfectionism is apparent in every production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. 80-90% of their shows are built from scratch by the costume shop, in a journey from designer’s rendering to draper’s pattern to stitcher’s needle. It’s an intensive, meticulous process that results in an enormous stock of costumes. Some of these are so show-specific they can never be recycled, and while many can be passed on to rental shops for credit, culling the stock and selling to the public is a necessity every few years.

This Saturday, September 29, your dreams of owning a once-in-a-lifetime costume can be realized at the STC costume shop sale. Held from 10am-3pm in STC’s rehearsal studios at 507 8th Street SE, prices will range from $1 to over $200, depending on the garment, and a number of props will also be sold. Halloween, Carnivale, everyday wearable art, or even an outfit for that mannequin in your living room – there are many possibilities from an artisanal trove of gorgeous treasures.

I was lucky to spend some time with Wendy Stark Prey, STC’s costume shop director, and Randi Fowler, floor manager, touring their sunny space and admiring the craft up close. The level of detail and dedication is simply amazing. Continue reading

Entertainment, Special Events, We Love Arts

Theater Preview: Black Watch

Miss last year’s sold-out run of The National Theatre of Scotland‘s award-winning production of Black Watch ? You’re in luck. NTS has returned to DC and the Shakespeare Theatre Company for an extended stay through October 7. Created by playwright Gregory Burke from interviews of Scottish soldiers, it details the experiences of those who served in the Iraq War as members of the legendary regiment, the Black Watch. This production uses fast-paced, inventive movement to tell a story that often gets lost in the fog of war.

“We’re not out here to tell anybody it was wrong to invade Iraq,” director John Tiffany said at the media preview yesterday, “We’re out to tell the story of the people who were out there. It’s our duty to know what they experienced if we’re going to ask them to fight for us.”

It’s easy in Washington to feel burned out by policy talk, and I’m ashamed to admit that when I first saw Black Watch was returning, I didn’t feel compelled to see it. Yesterday’s preview changed my mind, and I urge you to see this production. This is a powerful human story of men thrust into the alternating horror and boredom of war. The play succeeds in bringing them back to the forefront of our thoughts, where they rightfully belong. As Tiffany told me, “It’s about people, not politics.” Continue reading

We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Servant of Two Masters

Jesse J. Perez as Florindo and Steven Epp as Truffaldino in Yale Repertory Theatre’s 2010 production of The Servant of Two Masters, directed by Christopher Bayes. Photo by Richard Termine.

When the lights at the Lansburgh Theatre go down and The Servant of Two Masters begins, you know within seconds you’re at a play. Gone is the predictable 9-5 workday, the awkwardness of happy hour networking, the pressures of politics and power struggles. It’s play time, and as such you are invited to loosen your tie, let your hair down, and prepare for an ab workout only laughter can provide.

As a classic example of commedia dell’arte by Italy’s beloved Carlo Goldoni, The Servant of Two Masters relies on only the basic outline of a plot: a young couple wants to get married, but complications arise that prevent them from tying the knot. When a servant arrives to help sort out the problem, he inevitably makes everything worse by attempting to work two jobs at once.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Petrushka

Basil Twist's production of Petrushka at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo credit: Richard Termine.

I’ve lost my heart to a clown.

It took less than an hour to be seduced by his madcap ways, his shining eyes like fiery coals, pleading for my adoration as he leapt over the stage – hovering magically, springing about with elastic grace.

Too bad he’s in love with someone else. She doesn’t deserve him. Oh, did I mention he’s a puppet? That’s probably a deal breaker too.

It’s a testament to the puppeteers’ skill that even during a post-performance demonstration of what goes on backstage, I still didn’t notice them. I tried, but they infuse the puppets themselves with so much life that it’s nearly impossible. That’s the power of Basil Twist‘s production of Petrushka. Words like joyful, exuberant, and humorous all spring about the mind like the puppets themselves, in perfect symbiosis with their masterful manipulators.

It’s inspired by the famous Ballet Russes production of Stravinsky’s score. That original clown was brought to life by the brilliant and damaged Vaslav Nijinsky, and this puppet Petrushka has enough nods to iconic images of Nijinksy’s performance and others in the Ballet Russes canon to please ardent balletomanes. Hauntingly beautiful from the beginning, it’s also a quick night of theater that enthralled the few children in the audience and took the rest of us back to those happy, pure days ruled by imagination.

Since this is a limited engagement at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (part of the Basil Twist Festival D.C.) closing on March 25, I’ll be blunt: go see it.  Continue reading

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We Love Arts: The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Euan Morton as Launce, Oliver the dog as Crab and Adam Green as Speed in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, directed by PJ Paparelli. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Ah, love. The kind that makes you stalk your lover, lie to your best friend, steal someone else’s girl. We’re talking young, hormone-addled, angst-ridden love. Add in some fervent karaoke singing, late night fast food binges and way beyond last call drinking, and it’s love in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Rarely performed (STC’s artistic fellow Laura Henry notes in Asides that it’s only been staged twenty-four times in London and five times in New York City), Two Gentlemen is commonly thought of as difficult to produce. It’s an early play in the canon, containing many characters and plot devices that seem half-baked next to their later manifestations. There’s also the question of that pesky final scene – which moves from the threat of violence and rape to forgiveness all too quickly – often tinkered with to make it more palatable. It’s always been a prime candidate for conceptual settings and modernization.

Director PJ Paparelli goes for a pastiche of teen movie metaphor in the current production. It’s a risky choice to add in neon corporate logos and U2 cover songs. That kind of concept can, and often does, fall flat. But here, a kind of pure earnest beauty marries text and concept. Kick your cynicism to the curb, and remember that time when love meant losing everything, including even your self-respect, and yet you just didn’t care that it wasn’t cool.
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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Krapp’s Last Tape

John Hurt in the Gate Theatre’s production of Krapp’s Last Tape. Photo by Tom Lawlor.

There are moments when economy, especially in words, must suffice.

(Shakes head. Backspace, backspace. Types.)

John Hurt. Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett. Produced by Dublin’s Gate Theatre, at Shakespeare Theatre Company this weekend only. 55 minutes.

55 minutes of your life spent watching a master actor perform a master playwright’s reflection on the absurdity of life, memory and regret.

(Shakes head. Backspace, backspace, backspace. Types. Rubs chin. Sighs.)

Words leave me. Just the memory of Hurt’s haggard face under hard white light, the deep black of time surrounding him like a Francis Bacon painting.

Words leave me. To be haunted by a performance you cannot describe… feels liberating, to be defeated by time, by memory.

(Shakes head. Backspace. Stops. Stares at the floor. Mutters, “Idiot.” Types.)

Krapp’s Last Tape in limited engagement through December 4 at Shakespeare Theatre Company, located at 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Gallery Place/Chinatown (Red/Yellow/Green lines), Archives/Navy Memorial (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-547-1122.

Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Fela!

The music from Fela! can only be described as infectious.

The Broadway musical that won the 2010 Tony for best Choreography certainly deserves its praises in regards to dance- but the show’s music is worthy of recognition as well. Presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, the Broadway World Tour of Fela! opened at STC’s Harmon Hall this past weekend to the fusion of Jazz, Cuban, and Big Band beats that make-up Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s iconic Afrobeat genre. When the lights went down and the sound rose up, audience members were already dancing in their seats as the stage was transformed into Kuti’s nightclub, The Shrine. Fela! takes us into the life of Kuti’s life as a Nigerian musician/activist/social leader.

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Entertainment, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: The Merchant of Venice

Derek Smith as Antonio, Mark Nelson as Shylock and Julia Coffey as Portia in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice, directed by Ethan McSweeny. Photo by Scott Suchman.

We come to a performance of The Merchant of Venice with a lot of preconceptions. One of them has to do with the title itself. It doesn’t refer to its most famous character, I remember a brilliant English professor beating into my brain. “Shylock isn’t the merchant,” he said repeatedly, “Antonio is.”

Antonio? Wait, who? That confusion wasn’t resolved by many productions I’ve seen, where either played as a straight villain or as a decent man tortured by institutional prejudice, Shylock reigned as the central focus. But as seductive as he is, especially to the modern sensibility that wants so badly to reconcile the beauty and insight of Shakespeare with the cruel racism inherent in many lines, protagonist he isn’t.

One of the chief joys of director Ethan McSweeny’s sprawling production now playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is the restoration of Antonio as the merchant of Venice. Derek Smith’s economical portrayal, containing the character’s melancholy and self-loathing within the cool veneer of commerce and charisma, is revelatory. And it’s made possible in large part by the risk of placing the action in a Venice that resembles 1920′s New York City, so that the merchants sip espresso after espresso like Little Italy denizens and the Rialto Bridge becomes a magnificent staircase suggesting a subway overpass.

By setting the action here, somehow it becomes more Venetian – the bustle of business, the hint of corruption, the glamorous sheen that barely hides a seedy decay. Sweeney nails the big picture, but gives equal weight to the quiet moments. There’s so much rich interplay in this production it’s hard to know where to look. Not all of it is perfectly realized, but there’s much to admire.

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Theater Spotlight: White Hot Set

The set of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Old Times, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman.

If you’ve seen Shakespeare Theatre Company’s excellent production of Old Times, chances are your first impression was of a monochromatic letterbox, as the minimalist all-white set seemed to float against the black proscenium (and if you haven’t seen Old Times, you need to get hopping over to the Lansburgh this week, as closing is July 3. It’s a thought-provoking performance of Pinter’s play, as Don noted in his review). Almost every surface is white, with glass and chrome punctuations.

Not surprisingly, it was the cleanest backstage I’ve ever seen.

An all-white set presents many challenges, from design to execution to maintenance. I spoke with designer Walt Spangler and the STC run crew about their experiences with Old Times, and even learned the secret ingredients to keeping whites bright and cigarette ash in its proper place. And when a set’s this minimal, it’s not a simple process – sometimes a designer has to go through fifty different ashtrays to find the perfect one. Continue reading

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Preview: VelocityDC Dance Festival

Alright, so when Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings roll around, maybe going to a dance performance isn’t the first activity that pops into our heads. However, this weekend with the 2nd annual VelocityDC Dance Festival at the Shakespeare Theater, it should be.

The premise of the festival is simple: showcase the amazing, often unknown, talents within the local DC dance community and make the performance accessible to everyone in DC by pricing tickets at an affordable price ($18). Peter DiMuro of Dance/MetroDC and festival organizer credits Fall for Dance as the inspiration for the festival and hopes that “by showing several companies at once, we show the local area community how great the Dance scene in DC is and hopefully get them out to other performances.”

VelocityDC isn’t your typical, Kennedy Center dance performance with two acts, an intermission and a gray haired, crushed velvet clad, dozing off audience. Continue reading

Entertainment, Penn Quarter, The Features, We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Henry V

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Michael Hayden as King Henry V in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of William Shakespeare’s Henry V, directed by David Muse. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Now this is more like it.

From the first moments of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Henry V, there’s a feeling of power and potency that I found lacking in Richard II, playing in repertory at Sidney Harman Hall. This is a company in command, helmed by David Muse’s tight, almost economical direction which sets the play firmly on course.

Productions of Henry V can veer from pro-war to anti-war (most famously, see the contrast of two films – Laurence Olivier vs. Kenneth Branagh). Here, war is certainly horrible, but it’s simply what kings must do to reign. This exploration of duty is the key to Muse’s production, in my opinion, and to the performance that leads it – Michael Hayden’s superb Henry. He embodies not just Henry’s description of himself as “plain soldier” but also of a man whose study of humanity in his wild days serves him well as king.

He’s also a scrappy fighter and a man whose bad side you want to avoid. No matter how close or safe you think you are, cross him at your peril.

From the beginning, when Muse chooses to split the Chorus into three characters (wonderfully played by Larry Paulsen, Robynn Rodriguez and Ted van Griethuysen), we’re on alert that there’s something different in store. With enthusiasm, sadness and humor they guide us through the history play by connecting directly with the audience, controlling lights and sound as if performing a lecture. It’s a conceit already inherent in the play itself, and here it lends a sense of the magic of theater that is echoed in key brilliant choices – stirring singing, unfurling maps, ghostly helmets hanging in air, a bright red laser pointer.

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We Love Arts: Richard II

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Michael Hayden as King Richard II in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Richard II, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman.

I don’t normally write the kind of review that I’m writing today. But to be blunt, I’ve had enough. What is going on at Shakespeare Theatre Company? Inconsistent vocality, acting styles ranging all over from natural to downright hammy, condescending directorial choices, flubbed lines. With so much talent at its disposal, I can only attribute it to growing pains with the Harman Center. But even that excuse is not going to last much longer with me. I love theater and I love Shakespeare. I want everyone to succeed. But if you don’t start bringing it, STC, I’m going to lose faith.

My first hint something was not right with Richard II, now playing in repertory with Henry V as part of an exploration on leadership themes, was in reading Michael Kahn’s directorial notes. He had decided to add a prologue from an anonymously penned Elizabethean play called Thomas of Woodstock because “I’ve always been aware of how mystified the audience is for the first four scenes.” Um, what? The audience has to piece together what happens at the first scene of Hamlet too, but I don’t see anyone advocating giving the ghost’s secret away right off the bat. So this is a choice to enlighten the audience? Why, we’re too dumb to catch up on our own? The patched together prologue is interminable and unnecessary, giving us our first glimpse of Richard’s neurosis and paranoia far too soon, not to mention solidifying in my mind -

Ok, deep breaths. Let’s jump back for a minute. Continue reading

We Love Arts

We Love Arts: Design for Living

Design for Living

Robert Sella as Leo, Gretchen Egolf as Gilda and Tom Story as Otto in Noel Coward’s Design for Living, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman.

I postponed this review (sometimes being “new media” is convenient) because I wanted to make a 100% confident statement about the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Design for Living: you should go.

The only problem I experienced with the production was a few noticeable hiccups with forgotten or flubbed lines. They were minor but sufficiently distracting to reduce some of my enjoyment of the production. With another week and a few days under their belt I have no doubt they’ve put that problem behind them.

Beyond that, this play was a delight.There’s a lot to recommend it, but maybe the best reason to go is so that when Tom Story wins the Helen Hayes award for lead performance next year you’ll have seen why for yourself. Continue reading

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We Love Arts: Romeo & Juliet

Drew Eshelman as the Nurse. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Drew Eshelman as the Nurse. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Romeo & Juliet” is a perfectly acceptable production, with the usual beautiful sets and exquisite costumes one expects from them. But it’s a workhorse production, with nothing new to say or add to the performance history. That in itself isn’t really a problem – traditional mountings of plays allow one to reconnect on a basic level with text and character, and this would be a good introductory piece for say, a high school audience to view. But I expect more from STC.

I expected even more than usual, given the press materials’ quoting of director David Muse’s hope that an all-male cast would give a “fresh and dangerous and transgressive” approach to the production. But in this era, just doing an all-male cast is not going to give you transgressive. It isn’t even innovative anymore – companies such as the Globe and Propeller have been doing it for the last decade - a fact pointed out without irony by STC’s own materials (I kept waiting for the punchline in that article – “and now, DC finally catches on to the trend!”). There has to be something more to set it apart. So why do an all-male cast and leave almost everything else derivative and traditional? Oddly, this was the least testosterone-fueled production I’ve ever seen, the opening brawls lacking any sense of the explosive danger of the feud between Capulets and Montagues.

Matters aren’t helped by a Romeo and Juliet with absolutely no chemistry together. Continue reading