Bringing a local playwright’s work back from the Fringe
By Peter Marks
Thursday, January 10, 2013
Taking Care of Our Own is the name of a financial aid effort for local actors and other artists run by a regional advocacy group, Theatre Washington. But this week, the phrase also characterizes a happy trend at Washington’s theater companies.
At the Kennedy Center, for instance, the long-running Millennium Stage series, housed in the newly refurbished Theater Lab, was host Monday night to an encore performance of “The Brontes.” The satirical rock-and-roll performance piece by D.C.-based Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue had made a rousingly merry debut in July at the Capital Fringe Festival.
Just as encouragingly, Forum Theatre, headquartered in Round House Theatre’s Silver Spring space, is in the midst of a short run of another hit from last summer’s Fringe: Washington playwright Stephen Spotswood’s “We Tiresias,” an hour-long playlet based on the mythological blind prophet of that name, nimbly performed by three actors from these parts.
It’s gratifying to see organizations as multidimensional as the Kennedy Center and as focused as Forum making time and using space to take care of Washington’s own composers and dramatists. This is what a community actively engaged in developing the skills of its artists does. Not always, of course; it’s just as important that theaters around town remain open to partnerships nationally and globally: Witness the benefits of Studio Theatre’s burgeoning relationship with British writer-director Duncan Macmillan, newly represented there by a terrific production of Mike Bartlett’s “Contractions.”
Forum’s decision to fill a short, otherwise barren stretch of its residency in Silver Spring with Spotswood’s one-act play gives audiences that might shy away from the heat and crowds of Fringe an opportunity to plug into a promising local writer’s imaginative circuitry. Originally staged in a cramped, unforgiving space in the Fort Fringe “complex” on New York Avenue NW, “We Tiresias” breathes easier and with more clarity in the expanse of Forum’s larger black box theater, next to the AFI Silver Theatre on Colesville Road.
The play, under Matt Ripa’s thoughtful direction, provides a clever conceit: Since variations of the tale of Tiresias offer three distinct phases -- in young adulthood he’s transformed into a woman and later back into a man -- Spotswood turns his narrative into a kind of intermingled monologue for three actors. The setting is a bar at an indeterminate time where, to the blues notes of William Elliott Whitmore’s “Hell or High Water,” the oldest Tiresias (Bill Aitken) commences a chronicle of his painful, fantastical life, including his prophecies for the doomed Oedipus.
One needn’t have Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” committed to memory to follow along. Like the stories acted out in and around a shallow pool in Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” “We Tiresias” tries to reduce to raw emotional terms the tragic consequences of supernatural abilities: in Tiresias’s case, the terrible gift of precognition.
Chris Stinson embodies the youngest Tiresias, and Melissa Marie Hmelnicky takes over the narration after the prophet is “cursed” with womanhood. (Both originated the roles at the Fringe; Aitken takes over in Silver Spring from Steve Beall.) The actors also play other incidental characters in Tiresias’s life, culminating in a sweet reunion of the blinded, elderly seer and the child he gave birth to as a woman.
The spinning of a good yarn over a glass of wine or a bottle of beer is a time-honored dramatic device, employed here once again to engrossing effect. Occasionally, there’s a bit of dissonance in “We Tiresias” between the play’s casual setting and the formality of the playwright’s language, especially in some intrusive moments of direct address to the audience.
But by and large, “We Tiresias” is a tale becomingly told. Forum, on this occasion, is taking exactly the right kind of care.