Correction:

A previous version of this story misstated the number of students that Shakespearience will serve. This year, the program served 5,500 students. Next year, it will serve 9,000 students.

‘Beertown’ returns to Washington for more political humor

Yulia Kriskovets/Synetic Theater - Vato Tsikurishvili, right with Matthew Ward, is an anonymous son in search of his father in “Home of the Soldier,” an original play at Synetic Theater.

Rachel Grossman is going to be an eighth-grader again.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound particularly appealing to you. Maybe it gives you Puberty PTSD flashbacks: teeth tangled in the prison of braces, face pepperonied with acne, all half-baked body and hormone-addled brain.

(Clinton Brandhagen) - Left to right: Jessica Lefkow, Matthew R. Wilson, Elaine Qualter, J. Argyl Plath, and Joshua Drew in “Beertown.”

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But Grossman, 36, gets to be the most fun kind of eighth-
grader: a fake one. She’ll be M.J., proud resident of the fictional “Beertown,” which is enjoying a second run in July. One of the perks of this blast to the past is a fake field trip to Washington to create a scrapbook from M.J.’s class trip to the Capitol. “I just got my M.J. haircut,” she reported, a look which is “just shy of militant.”

“Beertown” is Dog & Pony D.C.’s interactive theater experience in which audience and cast members are residents of a fictional Midwestern town deciding what merits inclusion in their official time capsule. (In the play, the now-15-year-old M.J. brings her scrapbook forward as a worthy artifact.) It premiered in November and was nominated for a 2011 Helen Hayes Award.

Grossman said she is excited to see how the show’s central question — How do individuals navigate community? — plays out in the (literally) heated preelection season. During the first run, “we realized we were able to have some very high impact conversations about what’s important to people in their community. Beertown itself becomes this sort of neutral territory in which we can have conversations that we tend to get politically riled up about.”

Grossman, Colin K. Bills, J. Argyl Plath and Jon Reynolds are working on “subtle changes” in the scripted material (parts of the performance are improvised) to “encourage and provoke deeper exploration of the social and political questions of the Beertown of the night,” Grossman said. The larger ensemble will reunite in June; rehearsals begin at the end of that month.

She hopes the “thinking crowd” that is the D.C. audience will see “Beertown” as a stress-free place to get their civics on. “It just creates that playground for them to come in and relax but get some ideas out.”

July 12-22 at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company’s Rehearsal Hall, 641 D St. NW; July 28 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring; dogandponydc.com; 202-210-8847.

Father and son

Paata Tsikurishvili remembers war. When the founding artistic director of Synetic Theater was growing up in Georgia, the former Soviet satellite, conflict raged. Though he was a civilian, “I remember guys who were practicing how to shoot bazookas and guns.” He remembers his dad telling him, “Sometimes, people need to give the blood to achieve things.”

Tsikurishvili is channeling the memories in the direction of “Home of the Soldier,” an original play he created with Synetic’s resident fight choreographer, Ben Cunis, who wrote the script.

“Home” opens on a young man who is video-chatting with his father, a soldier in an unnamed war. In the middle of their conversation, conflict breaks out in the war zone and the father vanishes from the screen. The son, whose understanding of war is rooted mostly in video games, joins the army to find his dad.

Tsikurishvili and Cunis devoted months to research, interviewing numerous veterans, including a Georgian soldier who lost both legs in Afghanistan. “I was talking to him to find out, what is a real soldier’s perspective?” Tsikurishvili said. “When real bullets start flying towards you, how does that feel? What is that emotional moment? How does it feel the first time you kill somebody?

In a close-to-home casting decision, Paata’s son Vato, who is 21, plays the anonymous son. “We wanted to select young kids, because that’s who really fights the war today on the front lines. So the cast is so young, and that really, really touched my heart,” Tsikurishvili said. “I think [Vato] is ready for this character.”

He hopes the play brings military service to the forefront of the audience’s mind. “We have such a wonderful life” in the United States, he said. “But every day, somebody is dying [so] we can have that life. . . . I know how heroic they are. [But] in daily life, we don’t remember.”

Thursday to July 1 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington; synetictheater.org; 703-824-8060.

Bard goes back to school

Here is a funny thing about Shakespeare: Some of his plays are so teenage, it’s a miracle that adults like them. Rumors are flying around like it’s a junior high cafeteria. Everybody is kissing everybody else. Kids are getting hitched and running away together because no one understands and you can’t tell me what to do anymore so just LEAVE ME ALONE. Door slam. Etc.

Despite the all-too-age-appropriate content, teenagers aren’t always so hot on Shakespeare, for reasons you likely already know: the alienating language, the Elizabethan turns of phrase, the daunting status of the plays as Important Classics One Must Read.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company, unsurprisingly, thinks everybody can appreciate the Bard, teenagers included, which is why it offers Shakespearience, a program for students in grades eight to 12 that consists of in-class workshops and student matinee performances of STC productions. Shakespearience celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Marcy Spiro, the community engagement manager, says some form of this program has been around since STC’s inception (this is the 10th year of the officially branded format). This year, the company offered 16 student matinees, a record high for the program. Next year, Shakespearience will serve 9,000 students.

“We’ve worked with everything from D.C. public schools to private schools way out in Virginia and Maryland,” said Jim Gagne, the resident teaching artist who instructs many of the workshops. “We work with a pretty diverse population of students.”

The courses, he said, “are active, active, active. We believe that physical learning is the key to understanding theater . . . so everything we do is about breaking down the barriers and preconceptions students have about classic theater, and letting them know that it’s a play. And that’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to play and explore.”

He understands the apprehension that often accompanies a student’s first exposure to Shakespeare. “Our biggest thing here [is that], truly, the plays were meant to be seen.”

So how would the playwright react if he knew “Romeo and Juliet” is required reading at high schools the world over?

“I think Shakespeare would find it hilarious.”

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