Backstage: ‘New Jerusalem’ returns to Theater J

Weldon Brown/Olney Theatre Center - The cast of Olney Theatre Center's “You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” From left: Paul Wyatt, Jaimie Kelton, Vishal Vaidya, Zack Colonna, Janine Sunday and James Gardiner.

In 1656, the Dutch philosopher Baruch De Spinoza was so dedicated to his ideas, he was willing to be exiled for them. Exiled from Amsterdam and excommunicated from the Jewish community.

Alexander Strain, who portrays Spinoza in “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza” at Theater J, studied philosophy in college but was unaware of just how radical Spinoza’s beliefs were until he was cast in this production.

“Amsterdam at the time was supposedly this incredibly enlightened place, at the forefront of progressive thinking,” Strain said. “And yet in that community, Jewish people, while given more freedoms than probably anyplace else in the world at the time, were still living under an oppressive eye.” Even among his own people, Spinoza’s nonconformist view of religion led him to “be condemned, be considered dangerous.”

Today, he said, “I think we all think we’re living in a very progressive, open, free-thinking society.” Yet, “I think we’re all ultimately afraid of thinking outside the box, and I think the play really gets at that idea. We still consider ideas that are very challenging to the norm to be very frightening.”

“New Jerusalem” sold out when it was produced at Theater J in 2010, and many people from the original cast and crew, including director Jeremy Skidmore, are returning. Cast member Eliza Bell moved to Australia and has been replaced with Colleen Delany. Spinoza’s love interest, Clara, was played by Lauren Culpepper, who’s currently in “Really Really” at Signature Theatre. Clara will now be played by Emma Jaster.

Feb. 29 to April 1, 1529 16th St. NW, washingtondcjcc.org/
center-for-arts/theater-j
, 202-518-9400.

Arena looks ahead

Arena Stage’s 2012-13 season will center on the themes of change and transformation, Artistic Director Molly Smith said.

“I think it’s where some of the most powerful dramas are,” Smith said. The other focus of the season is class. “Oftentimes in America, people talk about how there aren’t class divides in America. But there are and have always been.”

The season will open in late September with “One Night with Janis Joplin” in the Kreeger Theater, featuring a number of Joplin’s iconic songs. “My Fair Lady” will be the season’s second show, scheduled for November in the Fichandler Stage.

A world-premiere co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre, “Pullman Porter Blues,” will open in late November. “Pullman” takes place on a train headed to New Orleans from Chicago on the night of the championship prizefight between Joe Louis and James Braddock. A blues band will be onstage for the 14 songs, a mix of original numbers and classics.

“Good People,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay Abaire, is about a single mother facing eviction who reunites with a now well-to-do ex. It will open in the Kreeger Theater next February. Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of“Metamorphoses,” based on Ovid’s mythologies, will also open in February.

“Mary T. & Lizzy K.,” a world premiere commissioned by Arena, will open in mid-March 2013 in the Kogod Cradle. The titular women are Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, the freed slave Elizabeth Keckley, and the play is the first commission of Arena’s American Presidents Project.

Each season, Arena includes a work by a resident playwright, although “The Mountaintop,” by Katori Hall, was written years before Hall’s Arena residency began. The Olivier Award-winning play opened on Broadway in October and has since recouped its investment, making it the first Broadway earner of 2012. The show takes place in the Lorraine Motel the night before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. “I love this play because we’re right in the shadow of the new MLK Memorial,” Smith said. “And this is a play that humanizes him.”

The last play of the season will be “Other Desert Cities,” which is on Broadway and is set to open in April 2013 in the Fichandler.

Additional productions may be announced later.

‘Charlie Brown’ at Olney

Technically speaking, Zack Colonna and James Gardiner have been preparing for the roles of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, respectively, for their entire lives.

“My grandparents had the full collection of the specials on VHS,” Gardiner said. “We’d go over to their house and it was either watching that or old World War II documentaries.” As you can imagine, he watched a lot of “Peanuts.”

“Every holiday, it didn’t matter what holiday it was, my dad would look up in the paper when the Charlie Brown special was on,” Colonna said. “I don’t even think we knew you could own them.”

Gardiner and Colonna will put their lifetime of Peanuts expertise to use when they appear in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” opening Feb. 22 at Olney Theatre Center.

The set, said Gardiner, “looks like it’s straight out of the comic book,” as do the costumes. “The entire proscenium is filled with clips from the comic strip.”

Colonna promised, “We’re not trying to update it or do a crazy emo version.”

Though the show is essentially a singalong nostalgia-fest, Gardiner said there are opportunities to branch a bit from the source material. “The cool thing about playing Snoopy is that, in the cartoon strip and the TV specials, he never talks. So in the actual stage production . . . you have this license to bring what you want: his sarcasm, his sense of imagination.”

They’ve been toying around with the secret inside Snoopy’s doghouse during the rehearsals. “Maybe there’s a bowling alley in there,” Gardiner said. “Maybe there’s a disco party.”

“The reason it still resonates is . . . these kids were dealing with adult problems and issues: the feeling of not being important, of not being wanted,” Gardiner said. “It was something that was handed down to me by my grandparents, and at some point when I have kids, I’ll want to pass it down, too.”

Feb. 22 to March 18, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, olneytheatre.org, 301-924-3400.

 
Read what others are saying

    How to shop for a mattress