Our critic’s picks for the spring theater season

January 27, 2012

Even though two high-profile projects dropped out of Washington’s spring theater season — the Kennedy Center’s reworking of Rodgers and Hart’s“Pal Joey” and Arena Stage’s tryout of a musical version of “Like Water for Chocolate” — you can never count an active theater town out.

The coming months remain chockablock with offerings to pique a playgoer’s curiosity; they include such diverse happenings as a mini-festival devoted to innovative puppeteer Basil Twist, a punk musical about Andrew Jackson and a new streamlining of Eugene O’Neill’s rarely produced “Strange Interlude.” These examples give you a mere taste of what’s to come. What follows is more evidence of how much bold dramatic thinking will be on display.

Most anticipated new musical: “Brother Russia.” Signature Theatre’s artistic director, Eric Schaeffer, reunites with Dana Rowe and John Dempsey, songwriters of the rousing stage version of “The Witches of Eastwick,” for this world-premiere musical about a Slavic theater troupe putting on a show based on the life of the legendary Russian mystic Rasputin.

Most anticipated new drama: “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.” Anne Washburn, whose “The Internationalist” tickled Studio Theatre audiences a few years ago with its playful use of a pretend language, returns to Washington with Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s staging of a comedy mixing the spirit of “The Simpsons” and the dread of the apocalypse. Steven Cosson, artistic director of the inspired New York-based troupe the Civilians, directs.

Most surprising concept: “Astro Boy and the God of Comics.” Natsu Onoda Power, a Georgetown University theater professor and the playwright-director of this world-premiere performance piece, has long been enraptured by the work of the legendary Japanese animator Osamu Tezuka, creator of the ’60s cartoon robot Astro Boy. Previously, Power was part of a Chicago theater ensemble called Live Action Cartoonists. Now she extends her fascination, with a work exploring Tezuka’s life and cartoons that will turn her actors into cartoonists themselves.

Secret tip: “Into the Dollhouse.” A local avant-garde, pop-performance troupe calling itself Banished? Productions has tickled Capital Fringe Festival-goers with bizarrely entertaining exercises in interactivity, such as its dining-habit sendups “A Tactile Dinner” and “Tactile Dinner Car.” In this world-premiere devised-theater piece, inspired by, among other books, Meredith Monk’s “Education of the Girl Child,” Banished? explores the social pressures on young women.

Most promising coincidence: Two cool “Shrews.” Just as they offered piggyback productions of “Othello” last fall, Folger Theatre on Capitol Hill and Synetic Theater in Crystal City both happen to be staging Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” this spring. Happily, the directors are Folger veteran Aaron Posner and Synetic artistic chief Paata Tsikurishvili — and just as happily, their respective “shrews” are the accomplished Kate Eastwood Norris and Irina Tsikurishvili. If the shows are as good as both “Othellos,” D.C. can expect to welcome another exhilarating pair of fraternal twins.

Most important revival: “The Normal Heart.” Director George C. Wolfe’s treatment last year of Larry Kramer’s bristling AIDS play was a galvanizing centerpiece of the Broadway season. With its scalding indictment of government foot-dragging in the early years of the disease, the play is one of those that periodically should be required viewing for American health policymakers. So it’s thrilling to report that Wolfe is remounting this revival at Arena Stage, with a new cast — but the same potent, conscience-pricking story.

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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.
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