Backstage: Signature switches gears

March 12, 2013

There are last-minute changes, and then there are, well, really last-minute changes. When two cast members of Signature Theatre’s “Crimes of the Heart” left the show for personal reasons, the theater considered recasting the roles but ultimately decided to replace the entire production with Jason Robert Brown’s musical “The Last Five Years,” keeping “Crimes” actors James Gardiner and Erin Weaver and director Aaron Posner onboard.

Total time between the show swap and opening night: just over three weeks.

The director was a longtime fan of “The Last Five Years” — he’d actually pitched it to another theater on the morning of the day Signature told him it would be taking the “Crimes” slot — and had even discussed the show with Signature’s associate artistic director, Matthew Gardiner, citing James Gardiner and Weaver as his ideal cast for the two-person production. (He has worked with both actors at the Folger Theatre.)

Posner, who typically directs about six shows a year, said he doesn’t have too much trouble shifting gears. “I’m used to holding more than one project in my head,” he said. He also explained that, although the show is a musical, “it’s not [like] suddenly doing ‘Guys and Dolls.’ It’s a chamber musical with two actors and 14 songs. You don’t suddenly do a major musical-theater piece in two weeks. That would be crazy.”

A certain kind of person might enjoy the idea of an impossible deadline — it sounds like one of those “We need $10,000 by Friday or we’ll never save the gym/school/dance hall/cheerleading squad!” movies — but that person is not Posner. “The Last Five Years” appeals in part because it’s “a relatively simple, relatively straightforward piece that’s going to live or die on the strength of the performers,” he said. “It’s just two people singing the songs, and you get involved with them or not.”


(COURTESY WOOLLY MAMMOTH THEATRE COMPANY)

With its miniature cast and contemporary score, it “doesn’t do the sweeping, grand storytelling that we associate with the grand Broadway musical,” said Posner, which makes it a just-right fit for Signature’s space. “It’s an intimate story about two individuals, so it wants to have that kind of intimacy.”

“The Last Five Years” was not a long-running Broadway hit, but according to Posner, “if you’re a person under 40 who loves musical theater, you know and love ‘The Last Five Years’ because it’s a kind of standard for what’s possible for telling the truth onstage.”

April 2-28, Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771, www.signature-theatre.org.

Woolly’s next season

In Woolly Mammoth’s 34th season, “every play has a kind of secret inside,” said artistic director Howard Shalwitz.

The 2013-14 lineup, titled “America’s Tell-Tale Heart,” features diversity behind the scenes — female and African American playwrights and directors — and unifying threads onstage, specifically our national propensity for glossing over issues we’d rather not discuss and finding the humor in what Shalwitz calls “the dark truths and dark questions about our country.”

And the timing is right. “I think it’s an interesting moment because we’re coming out of the recession, we’re hoping that things get back to an even keel economically,” he said. “But there’s still this real sense that the real issues are not being addressed in America today — the issues of class and distribution of wealth and even questions of race.”

This season, said Shalwitz, “starts to look for the cracks in the facade of American life,” he said. “And that’s a perennial Woolly theme.”

‘Detroit’

By Lisa D’Amour. Directed by John Vreeke. Sept. 9 to Oct. 6.

“In a way, the play is about clinging to whatever rung you’re on within the economic structure, and making a good show of it, even if you don’t quite have the means,” said Shalwitz. The cast includes Woolly Mammoth company member Emily Townley as well as Tim Getman, Gabriella Fernandez-Coffey and Danny Gavigan.

‘Appropriate’

By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Liesl Tommy. Nov. 4 to Dec. 1.

Jacobs-Jenkins, an African American writer, “kind of appropriates . . . some of the tropes of that classic ‘big white family Southern reunion’ kind of play, with a subversive racial edge,” said Shalwitz. “There’s secrets lurking under the floorboards as they come back to this home. In a way, this defines the season’s theme better than any other play.”

‘Just the Two of Each of Us’

Created and performed by the Pajama Men (Shenoah Allen and Mark Chavez). Music by Kevin Hume. Dec. 10 to Jan. 5.

For the second year running, the Albuquerque-based Pajama Men grace Woolly for the holiday season. “They create characters and put a whole world together,” said Shalwitz. “It’s very smart comedy.”

‘We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915’

By Jackie Sibblies Drury. Directed by Michael John Garces. Feb. 10 to March 9, 2014.

Six actors — three black, three white — try to retell the story of a tribe that disappeared hundreds of years ago in Africa. “The play is really about the limits of our good intentions,” said Shalwitz. “These are all well-intentioned people trying to understand people who are long gone, lived halfway around the globe a century ago . . . and it’s very funny.

‘Arguendo’

Created and performed by Elevator Repair Service. Directed by John Collins. March 31 to April 20, 2014.

This co-commission will bring the entire Elevator Repair Service company from New York City to Woolly for an ensemble piece about the 1991 Supreme Court case Barnes v. Glen Theatre, in which a group of go-go dancers petitioned for the right to bare absolutely everything. Performances will be accompanied by a post-show discussion with Supreme Court experts.

‘The Totalitarians’

By Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. Directed by Robert O’ Hara. June 2-29, 2014.

This political speechwriter in Nebraska “really looks at the character of our political language and takes that to absurd and hilarious places,” said Shalwitz. “And that’s juxtaposed over some relationships and the question: How forthcoming are we in other aspects of our lives?”

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