World-class new theater is coming to the Kennedy Center’s World Stages festival


From left, Bert LaBonté, Sean O’Shea, Guy Edmonds in Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of “Rupert.” The Kennedy Center is hosting an international theater festival for the next three weeks, including the U.S. premiere of an Australian play about Rupert Murdoch and a dozen other productions. (Jeff Busby/AP)
March 18

Like a G-8 summit or an important IMF meeting, the Kennedy Center’s World Stages festival has made a global initiative official: Washington is not just a destination for international theater, but for international “new” theater.

This year has brought a series of new British plays to Studio Theatre, an array of new scripts from Spain and a festival of contemporary Middle Eastern drama to Georgetown, to name just a few international endeavors. All of them were in the works long before a boatload of Australians showed up with a new play that may be headed to London’s West End.

“Rupert!” was the first big, splashy show at the Kennedy Center’s three-week festival, one of three to take up residence in the Eisenhower Theater, the largest venue available. The biographical drama about media mogul Rupert Murdoch debuted at the Melbourne Theatre Company in August, and for the first time in 30 years, the company is on an international tour.

“We were so happy that the Kennedy Center wanted to bring us here, and not with a classic, and not with Cate, but with a new play,” said Virginia Lovett, executive director of the troupe. “They took a chance on us, sight unseen.”

By “Cate,” Lovett means Cate Blanchett, the two-time Oscar-winning actress who has recently come to the Kennedy Center with the Sydney Theatre Company’s productions of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Uncle Vanya.” But Lovett hardly meant that as a slam; she’s probably thinking in the same vein that Blanchett was when the actress said, in accepting her Oscar for “Blue Jasmine,” “There is so much talent in Australia.”

That talent includes playwright David Williamson. The tall septuagenarian regarded as Australia’s leading scribe of stage and screen towered over the crowd as he spoke to a post-show reception at the Kennedy Center. Williamson’s plays are not well known in the United States despite his prodigious output of about one play and film script a year. Everyone in the room at the embassy-hosted reception of diplomats, theater types and Australian business people knew who he was and they were eager to hear him talk more about “Rupert!”

“Murdoch is increasingly theatrical as he gets older,” Williamson said. “He will be assessed for years to come, and my play is just one assessment.”

But it’s a dramatic assessment that’s going places. While in Washington, Williamson met with a television producer about potentially adapting the show into a miniseries, and Lovett hopes to open a production in London’s West End next year. With some regret, she notes that they may “need a star” to play Murdoch rather than the very capable Sean O’Shea, whom audiences saw here.

They also may need lawyers. A hidden cost of touring a new play about a living person? Lovett had to turn the “Rupert!” script over to an American-based legal team prior to the Kennedy Center premiere. She braced herself for the worst — in Australia, the legal review initiated several rewrites. But the Washington office of an Australian firm came back with good news: They billed her at a discount rate, and they required very few changes.

“You have excellent libel laws in this country,” Lovett said.

New plays from Spain

Embassy support for international theater in Washington is nothing new. But last fall, the Spanish Embassy upped the international theater game and offered more than just wine and cheese. The embassy released a handsomely bound volume of “New Plays from Spain,” with scripts translated into or written in English, and invited three local theater companies to present excerpts at an open-to-the-public performance.

Either the plays or the cava and Manchego must have been excellent, because two theaters have committed to staging new Spanish scripts. Cristina Colmena’s “Happily Ever After” is currently onstage at the Ambassador Theater, and No Rules Theatre plans to stage Emilio Williams’s “Medea’s Got Some Issues” at the Capital Fringe Festival in July.

“This has been pretty successful, I have to say,” said Guillermo Corral, the Spanish cultural attache based in Washington. His counterpart at the consulate general in New York has hosted a similar event, and they are planning “New Plays from Spain” readings in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Theater companies that agree to produce a script receive no financial support — “We are not producers,” Corral said — but they will get marketing help and, of course, a reception.

Middle East dramas

Georgetown University plans to announce its next foray into international theater on Monday, when the university’s Davis Performing Arts Center and the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics introduces “Myriad Voices,” a series of events related to contemporary drama from the Middle East.

Highlights from the festival include: “Syria: The Trojan Women,” an adaptation of Euripides performed by Syrian refugees (September); “Amrika Chalo” by Shahid Nadeem, a “hilarious send-up” of U.S.-Pakistani relations (January 2015); and a new work by the Iraqi-American playwright Heather Raffo (fall 2015).

Rebecca Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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