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Backstage

Mark Russell, Shooting From the Lip

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; Page C05

"I'm working on a song about Alberto Gonzales, but I can't find a rhyme for 'thumbscrews,' " deadpans Mark Russell. Ba-dum-bum.

The political satirist will take to the stage with his piano at Ford's Theatre tonight through Sunday -- coincidentally (or not) during this inauguration week -- to sift through the past year and the election. "I still do the song -- it still works and I'm kind of proud of it -- 'How Do You Solve a Problem Called Teresa,' " Russell says. He jabs at the right, as well: "I point out that anybody who says that George Bush is stupid makes a big mistake -- and anybody who says that he's brilliant makes a bigger mistake."

From his familiar perch at the piano, political satirist Mark Russell will aim left and right at Ford's. (Mark T. Parsons - /WNED)

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Russell will also "do a lot on myself." He told Backstage the tale of how while in the Marines he was busted from corporal to private for celebrating a payday with a bottle of Canadian whiskey on base. "To this day, when I see a map of Canada, I get my version of battle stress," he says. The military mind-set also made him question government. "Whenever you'd complain," Russell says, "they'd always say you're not supposed to know the big picture. . . . I'm still trying to know the big picture."

Rattling Some Bones

"There was a relic downstairs, the finger of somebody," playwright Michael Hollinger recalls of a visit to New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine. That gave him the idea for "Incorruptible," a comedy set in a monastery, being produced by Washington Stage Guild through Feb. 6.

In the play, the monks at a monastery in France, circa 1250, are distraught because their holy relics, the bones of Saint Foy, have not precipitated a miracle in years, and few peasants want to pay the penny fee to pray before them. In dire straits and eager to attract the pope's beneficence, the monks dig up their graveyard and sell the bones to churches around Europe as relics.

Hollinger learned of the medieval practice of selling fake relics in his research. "This idea of spiritual ends with the most earthly means -- dead bodies, body parts -- really struck me as a wonderful apparent contradiction," he says. Fake relics aside, "a devout Catholic who reveres relics would say that's not a contradiction at all," but rather a question of faith.

So his play becomes "about a quest for the nature of faith. Or maybe I would call it the spiritual versus the material."

When he wrote the play in 1992, says the Philadelphia writer (and associate theater professor at Villanova University), he didn't intend to "send up the church, but . . . at some level, I was certainly talking about what's universal about the inevitable corruption of a spiritual institution."

The Catholic League listed "Incorruptible" in its 1998 Report on Anti-Catholicism, citing a production at Florida Stage. "I took it as a point of pride," Hollinger says, but he adds that more often the play has been "really well reviewed by Catholic papers."

Stage Guild's Bill Largess, who plays the entrepreneurial Brother Martin, agrees "there's a certain irreverence to it, but I'm a practicing, devout Catholic [and] I don't find anything offensive about it. It's poking fun at things that really happened."

Hollinger, a Quaker, calls himself a "generalist" in his choice of subject matter. A recent work about evolution, "Tooth and Claw," ran off-Broadway. Baltimore's Everyman Theatre presented his "Red Herring," a McCarthy-era murder mystery and love story.

"I can just dig around in the Middle Ages . . . and satisfy my curiosity and [then] dive into something else entirely different," Hollinger says. "I just always try to mix it up for myself, partly to cleanse my palate or refresh myself and partly as a challenge to just say, now what's this all about?"

All About Kate

Three years before Cate Blanchett sauntered across movie screens as a frisky young Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator," Kate Mulgrew was donning the baggy pantsuits favored by that iconic star in "Tea at Five," a one-character play by Matthew Lombardo. She'll play the part at Baltimore's Hippodrome through Sunday.

Mulgrew is most widely known for her seven-year stint as Capt. Kathryn Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager" and for a run on the daytime drama "Ryan's Hope." Early in her career, she studied with acting teacher Stella Adler and took to the stage on Broadway in Peter Shaffer's "Black Comedy" and in Shakespeare and Ibsen.

When "Tea at Five" was first offered to her, Mulgrew confesses, she balked a bit because she had "a real antipathy" toward Hepburn dating to Mulgrew's first days onstage, when people compared her to Hepburn. To an actress trying to make her own way, it rankled.

"I questioned a lot of things about her, all of which were dispelled in the rehearsal process. I fell in love," Mulgrew says. She discovered a woman of "courage and behind that courage an intense vulnerability."

Mulgrew cites the suicide of Hepburn's brother Tom when she was 14, and her parents' refusal to discuss it or the disturbing pattern of suicides in their extended family. "She was simply too young to assimilate that grief," Mulgrew says. "The only way she survived it was to become an actress, and not just an actress, but a star, and not just a star, but an icon . . . to prove herself to her parents, without becoming like them."

One can almost hear Hepburn exclaiming "Bunk!" -- and Mulgrew concedes that such a psychoanalytic approach would not have washed with her. "I'd say that she was inherently remarkably intelligent, but she was not an examined person. I think she probably would have disdained that particular approach."

Mulgrew bristles at any hint that her performance is an impersonation. "It's exactly what I do not want to do, that I had absolutely no intention of doing. Every drag queen from here to Tijuana does it better than I do . . . there has to be realization of the character."

Follow Spots

• Washington Shakespeare Company in Arlington continues its off-night $5 readings at 7:30 tonight with "The Comedy of Errors." Audience members are invited to participate. Call 703-418-4808 or visit www.washingtonshakespeare.org/canonreading.htm.

• More details on the Kennedy Center's casting for its March 12-April 3 production of "Mister Roberts": Hunter Foster, currently Leo Bloom in "The Producers" on Broadway and a Tony nominee for "Little Shop of Horrors," will play Ensign Pulver. Frank Deal will play Captain and Stephen Kunken will be Doc.


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