Next Season Preview: “The Originalist” at Arena Stage

Up now for your delectation: the 2014-15 season at Arena Stage. Nine productions, five of them world premieres, including this sure-to-be talk-of-the-town entry: “The Originalist,” a new play about conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Arena is the third big D.C. company to unveil its new season, after similar announcements from Shakespeare Theatre Company and Woolly Mammoth Theatre.


Arena Stage (Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post).

Company trademark: American plays, past and present.

The season:

–”The Shoplifters,” written and directed by Morris Panych. (Kreeger Theater, Sept. 5-Oct. 19)

–”Our War,” monologues by 25 playwrights, directed by Anita Maynard-Losh. (Kogod Cradle, Oct. 21-Nov. 9)

–”Fiddler on the Roof,” by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, directed by Molly Smith. (Fichandler Stage, Oct. 31-Jan. 4, 2015)

–”Five Guys Named Moe,” by Clarke Peters and Louis Jordan, directed by Robert O’Hara. (Kreeger, Nov. 14-Dec. 28)

–”Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery,” by Ken Ludwig, directed by Gary Griffin. (Kreeger, Jan. 16-Feb. 22, 2015)

–”King Hedley II,” by August Wilson, directed by Timothy Douglas. (Fichandler, Feb. 6-March 8, 2015)

–”The Originalist,” by John Strand, directed by Smith. (Cradle, March 6-April 26, 2015)

–”Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” by Christopher Durang, directed by Aaron Posner. (Fichandler, Apr. 3-May3, 2015)

–”The Blood Quilt,” by Katori Hall, director to be announced. (Kreeger, Apr. 24-June 7, 2015)

Highlights: The five new works will comprise more than half the season’s offerings, with John Strand’s “The Originalist”–about Justice Scalia and two law clerks of varying ideological persuasions–being the most noteworthy. Veteran actor Edward Gero (“Red”) takes on the role of the acerbic, cerebral Scalia. The Canadian Panych’s “The Shoplifters” portrays a light-fingered senior citizen named Alma; “Our War,” part of the multi-year Civil War theater project, will invite actors and Washingtonians of note to read three-minute monologues by, among others, Lydia Diamond, David Lindsay-Abaire, Amy Freed, Lynn Nottage, Heather Raffo, Charles Randolph-Wright and Karen Zacarias. “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” brings Washington-based Ludwig into the ever-expanding Sherlock fold, while Hall’s “Blood Quilt,” a multi-generational family drama, set on an island off the coast of Georgia, follows on Arena’s presentation of her Martin Luther King Jr. play, “The Mountaintop.”

The season’s two musicals will run concurrently next fall and winter: “Fiddler” in Arena’s largest space, the Fichandler, and “Five Guys Named Moe” in the Kreeger. Arena renews its relationship with the late August Wilson in a production of one of his lesser-known works, “King Hedley II,” last seen in Washington as part of the Kennedy Center’s 2008 marathon presentation of Wilson’s 10-play 20th Century cycle. A recent Broadway success, Christopher Durang’s irreverent “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” completes the menu.

Analysis: As anyone running a theater will tell you, the toughest ticket to sell is one to an untried new play, and with five of them in the offing, Arena is  putting a premium on boldness. The marketability of some of them will be obvious: Both Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo”) and Hall–the latter an alumna of Arena’s playwrights-in-residence project–have Broadway credentials. Meanwhile, a play in the nation’s capital about a sitting Supreme Court justice–one who raises hackles and passions, at that–is bound to attract more than the usual share of attention. As with a forthcoming “Man of La Mancha” at the Shakespeare Theatre, Arena’s “Fiddler” is clearly being positioned as a potential cash cow for the company–though how long revivals of these staple musicals can remain money-earners remains to be seen.

Arena next season beefs up its commitment to local writers, with plays by the D.C.-based Ludwig and Strand. As for the moment’s hot topic–recruiting more women for playwriting and directing spots–Arena has female playwrights involved in two of nine shows, and so far, announced women directing three productions (two will be by Smith, and the third by Anita Maynard-Losh, the company’s director of community engagement). Writers of color are represented in four productions (“Our War,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” “King Hedley II” and “The Blood Quilt”) and thus far, the season will include two directors of color.

 

 

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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