Editors' pick

NEA New Play Development Project Festival

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Editorial Review

Arena Stage showcases new plays

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Thursday, January 13, 2011

In 2006, all that theater collective Rude Mechs needed to stage a hit show was a projector, a handful of performers and pitch-perfect source material - in the form of David Rees's political comic strip "Get Your War On."

"Normally, we make little shows that travel with six people, or maybe eight," says Kirk Lynn, a writer for the scrappy Texas-based troupe.

But that was before the Rude Mechs won a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts' inaugural New Play Development Program in 2008, which would lead to a project unlike any the group had attempted: a Wild West-inspired musical romp dubbed "I've Never Been So Happy."

"We all love musicals, but it was like, 'Wow, we don't have the money to make a musical,' " says Lynn, who wrote the script. With the grant, he says jokingly, "we just had the bad idea to make some weird western musical that's traveling with, like, 17 people."

The New Play Development Program has offered similar opportunities to a half-dozen other vanguard works of theater. One play that received an NEA nod, "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" by Rajiv Joseph, has since been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and will open on Broadway this spring starring Robin Williams. Another, Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet," is being produced across the country, including a run at Studio Theatre through mid-February.

Beginning Wednesday, local theatergoers will get a chance to experience some of these edgy pieces of new theater - selected from hundreds of applicants - at Arena Stage's #NewPlay Festival, a showcase of NEA winners.

The works are "what is going on in American theater," says David Dower, associate artistic director at Arena, who led the new-play development program that created the festival. "It's diverse in every possible way. What they each have about them is this kind of spark of discovery, this freshness."

Audiences can hear readings of "Bengal Tiger" - a darkly comic look at the front lines of the early days of the Iraq war - before the show opens on Broadway. Rude Mechs will perform its still-in-progress "I've Never Been So Happy," with all 17 cast members and an ensemble of local musicians. And the Foundry Theatre will present Claudia Rankine's "Provenance of Beauty," which was staged on a bus traversing New York streets but has been adapted for the festival.

Rankine "wrote this text as a monologue for the South Bronx, who is, in her mind, a character in her middle age," Dower says. The performance on the bus, he says, "is this woman's voice, talking to you in the first person, about the decades of gentrification that she's lived through. And the bus takes the route she's talking about."

To bring the production to Washington required some ingenuity: The Foundry Theatre mounted three cameras to a vehicle that traversed the bus route, capturing the view through the windshield and the left and right sides. During the festival, Dower says, theatergoers will sit in the configuration of a bus, watch the footage and listen to the narrative. "It's a delight," he says.

Lynn says the stagings of "I've Never Been So Happy" will similarly surprise audiences. The show recalls great American folk tales but is woven with a "Hee-Haw"-like silliness, thanks to talking dogs, projections and puppetry.

"I think we're very much approachable humorists," Lynn says. "In some ways, I think we're very Texan in that way: We're friendly, fun and kind, and we like to talk to people. . . . We invite the audience in."

The New Play Festival Schedule:

Jan. 19: "The Provenance of Beauty" by Claudia Rankine

Jan. 20: Reading of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" by Rajiv Joseph

Jan. 21: Reading of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" by Rajiv Joseph

Jan. 22: Reading of "Happy End of the World" by Lloyd Suh (2 p.m.)
Reading of "Agnes Under the Big Top" by Aditi Brennan Kapil (8 p.m.)

Jan. 23: Reading of "Happy End of the World" by Lloyd Suh (2 p.m.)
Reading of "Agnes Under the Big Top" by Aditi Brennan Kapil (7:30 p.m.)

Jan. 27: "The Provenance of Beauty" by Claudia Rankine (6 and 8 p.m.)

Jan. 28: "I've Never Been So Happy" by the Rude Mechs

Jan. 29: Reading of "John Steinbeck's Pastures of Heaven," adapted by Octavio Solis (2 p.m.)
"I've Never Been So Happy" by the Rude Mechs (8 p.m.)

Jan. 30: Reading of "John Steinbeck's Pastures of Heaven," adapted by Octavio Solis (2 p.m.)
"The Provenance of Beauty" by Claudia Rankine (7:30 p.m.)

Note: NEA Outstanding New American Plays winner "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet," by Tarrell Alvin McCraney -- part of the project -- is being staged at Studio Theatre Jan. 5-Feb. 13.