Firsts are busting out all over

Peter Marks
Theater critic September 6, 2012

A few noteworthy “firsts” make Guinness World Records. More often, they don’t draw the attention of record keepers. They’re the firsts that escape detection on hype meters — milder milestones signaling advances of smaller magnitudes. Washington theater has had some seismic firsts over the years but, perusing the schedules for this fall and winter, biggies are hard to find. Here are eight of the subtler sort.

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. View Archive

First Shakespeare Theatre offering in a bar: If you think of Washington’s premier classical company as being confined within the four walls of the Lansburgh Theater on Seventh Street NW or Sidney Harman Hall on F, think again. For the National Theatre of Scotland’s visiting production of “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” — a hit of the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe — Shakespeare is loosening up a bit and moving the proceedings to a Washington tavern. The play with music, written by David Greig and directed by Wils Wilson, is performed by five actors amid a pub’s imbibing patrons, who take you on their idea of a magical mystery tour. Keep an eye on www.shakespearetheatre.org to find out which D.C. emporium will, come Nov. 14, be its host.

First play under new management: Ryan Rilette, formerly of Northern California’s Marin Theatre Company, arrived in Bethesda a month ago as the third producing artistic director in Round House Theatre’s history. The first play opening (Sept. 5) under his stewardship, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” was selected by his predecessor, Blake Robison, and was directed by Jeremy Skidmore, but it is up to Rilette to oversee production of Rajiv Joseph’s drama about the chaos of Iraq’s capital city after the U.S. invasion. Eric Hissom (Folger Theatre’s “Arcadia” and “Cyrano de Bergerac”) plays the caged and starved title character.

First Annie Baker one-two punch: Baker’s marvelous gimlet eye was on display at Studio Theatre in its 2010 production of “Circle Mirror Transformation,” a play that revealed the foibles of five members of an adult education drama class, under the tutelage of a histrionic instructor. Baker is back now in D.C., her voice echoing on two stages: now at Theater J in “Body Awareness,” set during a week devoted to contemplating body image at a New England college. Then in November, “The Aliens” — a play she has described as being about “three dudes sitting outside a coffee shop in Vermont” — rises at Studio, in a production directed by Lila Neugebauer.

Playwrights receiving first main stage productions in D.C.: Adding new writerly ingredients is essential to the health of Washington’s first-rank theaters. This autumn, potentially nourishing debuts will occur at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, with Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” (through Sept. 30) and Mia Chung’s “You For Me For You” (Nov. 5) ; at Theater J with Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s “Our Class” (Oct. 10); at Studio Theatre with Mike Bartlett’s “Contractions” (Jan. 2), Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s “An Iliad” (Dec. 21) and Oren Jacoby’s adaptation of “Invisible Man” (opened Sept. 5); at Round House with Joseph’s “Bengal Tiger” and at Signature Theatre with Christopher Shinn’s “Dying City” (Oct. 2).

First visit of the Pajama Men: Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez, a.k.a. the Pajama Men, have been comedy staples of fringe festivals for years. Practitioners of what they describe as “fast-paced character-driven comedy made up of strange story lines and jokes,” Allen and Chavez met in high school in Albuquerque and have slowly over the years attracted a following that includes Woolly Mammoth artistic director Howard Shalwitz, who caught their act at the Edinburgh Festival. So they’re coming to Woolly Dec. 11 for a holiday stand with their show, “In the Middle of No One.”

First linkup of Robert Louis Stevenson and Paata Tsikurishvili: Synetic Theater turns the bodies of its willowy and athletic ensemble into conveyances of horror Sept. 20, in “Jekyll and Hyde,” a new adaptation of Stevenson’s classic “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the story of one man and two personalities. Overseen by Synetic’s durable creative forces, director Paata Tsikurishvili and his choreographer-wife, Irina, the company will put two of its best feet forward, in the person of Alex Mills, the slithery Synetic star who will play the story’s placid yin and evil yang.

First play in D.C. helmed by John Malkovich: In French, no less! From Paris’s Theatre de l’Atelier comes “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” a French version of the Christopher Hampton play, adapted from the Choderlos de Laclos novel. Malkovich’s association with the material dates to the 1988 movie “Dangerous Liaisons,” in which he played the duplicitous Valmont opposite Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close. Shakespeare Theatre Company is importing the French production, with surtitles in English, for a short stay Dec. 6-9. (Wonder if monsieur le director will be available for after-play talkbacks?)

First fruit of Molly Smith’s Canadian adventure: The artistic director of Arena Stage has been invited twice to stage musicals at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. First she shepherded Jerry Herman’s rarely-revived “Mack and Mabel,” and then came her treatment of the more oft-revived “My Fair Lady.” It’s the famous Lerner and Loewe musical that she’s directing at Arena Nov. 2, and importing her Canadian Henry Higgins, actor Benedict Campbell, to D.C. (No word yet on who’ll be her Eliza.)

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