Backstage: Kathleen Turner to star at Arena

May 1, 2012

Kathleen Turner will star in Arena Stage’s production of “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” by Margaret and Allison Engel and directed by David Esbjornson (Broadway’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” and “Driving Miss Daisy”). Ivins, who died in 2007 at the age of 62, was a newspaper columnist, humorist and author who filled her columns with Texas slang and spur-sharp observations about culture and politics.

“I think we have a lot in common,” Turner said in a phone conversation. “Good lord, if I were to try to do Sarah Palin, I think that would be a bit of a problem.”

Turner, an Academy Award nominee (“Peggy Sue Got Married”) and two-time Tony Award nominee (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), performed at Arena in a 1981 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She has been a fan of Ivins “for as long as I’ve been aware of her,” she said. “Molly had such a great sense about politics and about citizenship, about our rights and our responsibilities as citizens, that I don’t think have been heard much lately given the state of politics in our country right now.”

“Molly Ivins is a political news icon,” said Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage. “She had a wildness about her. . . . She skewered everybody. She was one of the funniest people in the news, and she always hit the truth button.”

The first reading of the one-woman show was held at Arena three years ago; since then it has been produced in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. “Red Hot Patriot” will be in the Kogod Cradle from Aug. 23 through Oct. 28 — just in time for election season.

Margaret and Allison Engel are twins who managed to write together while living on opposite sides of the country: Margaret, a former Washington Post reporter, is based in Maryland; Allison lives in California. This is their first play.

The script, said Margaret, is about a 50/50 split between Ivins’s words (taken from her writing and interviews) and the Engels’ original writing. “We actually had more of her words initially, but the dramatic requirements really moved us to do much more writing.”

“She really was so prescient about things,” Allison said. “It sounds like she was writing last week.”

Olney Theatre Center’s piano man

Ten years ago, Chris Youstra had an idea.

Youstra, who has musically directed Olney Theatre Center productions such as “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Annie,” “Peter Pan” and “1776” wanted to do “a concert that was more than a cabaret,” he said, one that explored the piano as a tool for songwriters of every style for the past two centuries.

He’d been meaning to do it, but you know how it is. Kids in the house. Working on 10 to 12 concerts and shows every year. Plus, Youstra was composing original orchestrations for most of the songs. “I finally just decided in January,” he said. “I wanted to get it done.”

The result is “Ebony, Ivory and Ink,” a two-night production of musical classics as old as Schubert and as new as Jason Robert Brown. A six-player band will accompany four singers familiar to frequent theater-goers: 2012 Helen Hayes Awards co-host Felicia Curry, George Dvorsky (Olney’s “Annie” and “The Sound of Music,” Broadway’s “Passion”), JJ Kaczynski (Olney’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Triumph of Love” and “Foreigner”) and Tracy Lynn Olivera, who earned Helen Hayes Award nominations for her roles in Olney’s “Carousel” and this year’s “The Sound of Music.” Proceeds from the show will support Olney’s education and outreach programs.

Highlights include Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind”; some of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s most popular numbers from “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Little Shop of Horrors”; and a Rodgers and Hammerstein medley that crams 30 songs into three minutes.

Youstra expects people to feel “some nostalgia for songs that were the soundtracks of our lives when we grew up. I look at this concert as a kind of iPod shuffle of songs I’ve grown to love on the instrument.”

Friday-Saturday, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, olneytheatrecenter. org, 301-924-3400.

Active Cultures gets game face on

Actors and athletes usually occupy separate cliques in high school, but this weekend at the Riverdale Park Arts Festival, Active Cultures Theatre offers a sports-and-stage mash-up with “Sportaculture IV,” five original 10-minute plays all focused on sports in the Washington area.

Four of the productions are commissioned works: “Fight Song” by Bob Bart­lett, “Nobody Beats the Wiz” by Evan Crump, “I Go” by The Post’s Alexandra Petri and “Homestead Gray Pie” by Jennifer Nelson.

The fifth play, selected via a playwriting competition held earlier this year, is by rookie playwright Jean Koppen. She got started in playwriting a year ago when she took a course at her local community theater in Alexandria. By day she works as a researcher for AARP, but her passions are theater and the Washington Capitals.

Koppen started her script by thinking about how she became a Caps fan. Her husband, a lifelong hockey fan, “proposed that we get season tickets,” she said. “And it was this thought process of, ‘Wow, that’s a big commitment. That’s a big financial thing.’ ” They decided to take the subscription plunge and, in doing so, befriended a group of guys in their 20s who sit next to them. They, too, had made a big commitment.

Soon she had her play: “Capsmittment,” about two male Caps fans in their 20s (named after two of the guys who sit by Koppen and her husband at games) who are trying to decide whether they’re ready to make a season-long commitment to their team. “They’re talking about Caps season tickets, but they’re also talking about marriage at the same time,” she said.

“The hockey lingo was easy,” added Koppen. “The part that was the hardest for me was . . . I had to take out all the foul language. It was so limiting!” As anyone who has ever attended a sporting event can attest, eliminating the four- letter words from a hard-core fan’s vocabulary could easily leave them speechless. “The first time I heard an actor read it, though,” she said, “I thought: Okay, it works.”

Saturday-Sunday, Riverdale Town Center, 4650 Queensbury Rd., Riverdale Park, activecultures.org, 301-526-9921. All performances are free.

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