In a fight scene during a recent rehearsal for “The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg,” a Kennedy Center world premiere production for young audiences, director Gregg Henry and his cast debated the merits of a knife throw.
Joe Brack, who plays one of Homer’s many enemies, suggested changing the grip to avoid accidentally stabbing his sparring partner, James J. Johnson: “I’d rather poke my thumb a little than catch you in the throat with it.”
Based on the book of the same name by Rodman Philbrick, “Homer P. Figg” tells the story of the young Homer, who, in a plot twist befitting the Greek poet, embarks on an epic journey across Civil War-ravaged America to find his brother and bring him home again.
Take two. Brack switches registers from his normal speaking voice to a goofy-gravelly hybrid, like a Looney Tunes villain who smokes a pack a day. “The time for talking is done!” he snarls. Apparently, so is the time for knife-tossing; deemed too dangerous, the trick is eliminated.
“It’s really fun but mixed with some serious issues,” Henry said. “The Battle of Gettysburg was no picnic.”
Brack and Johnson are just two Washington-based members of the local cast, which also features Veronica del Cerro and three Michaels (Glenn, Russotto and Sazonov). Homer P. Figg, the 12-year-old adventurer, is played by Ryan Mercer, 22, who graduated from Catholic University in May. “Homer P. Figg” is the Columbia native’s first professional show.
Mercer refers to himself as “baby-faced,” and this is not inaccurate: He could easily pass for a secret sixth member of One Direction. He does not actually look 12 years old, but he definitely still gets carded at bars.
“One time, I actually had to grow some facial hair and play a 25-year-old. I don’t know how convincing I was,” he admitted. “I think I might have been the third replacement. Whatever. Living the dream here!”
If nothing else, Mercer said, “I think I’ve got the children’s theater and the children’s roles on lockdown.”
Saturday through Dec. 9, 2700 F St. NW, kennedy-center.org, 202-467-4600.
Jeff Calhoun, who is directing the touring production of “Jekyll & Hyde” that comes to the Kennedy Center over Thanksgiving, should have some special insight to local audiences. He’s been an associate artist at Ford’s Theatre since 2006.
Except — no offense, Washington! — Calhoun doesn’t think there’s anything all that special about D.C. theatergoers. His not-so-secret secret to success: “You do good shows, they like it. You don’t, they don’t. . . . But I don’t find audiences vary that much.”
He’s certainly got enough experience to back up his claim. In addition to helming “Jekyll & Hyde,” Calhoun has worked on 17 Broadway shows, seven of which he directed, including Disney’s “Newsies.”
Calhoun didn’t want to mess with the formula that’s made “Jekyll & Hyde” stay relevant. “You can’t argue with the story,” he said. “It’s a classic story of good and evil.” But he still wanted to find a way to breathe modern life into a tale that’s more than 100 years old. The solution: steampunk.
“Hopefully we’ve created a dangerous, sexy, steampunk visual,” Calhoun said. “Those were the three words [scenic and costume designer Tobin Ost] and I kept coming back to.”
The other major challenge, besides ripping the 19th-century bodices for the enjoyment of 21st-century patrons, was finding a practical way to integrate the chorus into the narrative. Calhoun pointed out that many shows end up having random, loopy villagers suddenly chime into these musical numbers without any apparent justification for their involvement. “It feels dated and antiquated, quite frankly, in today’s market,” he said.
Inspired by his love of “Downton Abbey,” Calhoun “made [the chorus] the servants of the upper crust to really help the metaphor of the haves and the have-nots.”
He anticipates that patrons will see themselves in the show, perhaps in ways they’d rather not. “We all like to think of ourselves as [Jekyll],” he said. “But I think if we’re honest, those secret confessions one makes in their heart, I think there’s a piece of [Hyde] in all of us.”
Nov. 20-25, 2700 F St. NW, kennedy-center.org, 202-467-4600.
For the first time in its history, Theater J is holding Saturday matinees. Financial transactions will still not take place on the Sabbath; patrons need to be subscribers or have purchased tickets in advance.