Onstage, Taking the Low-Risk Road
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 28, 2003; Page N09
This is a short end-of-year paean to failure. Not the extravagant kind of disaster, the $10 million flop that could clip the wings of the most devoted of Broadway angels, but failure of a more modest nature: the type experienced by small and midsize theater companies that seek to extend the boundaries of what they can offer and their audiences will support.
Noble failure is endemic to the theater. It may be a perverse wish to articulate, but Washington could use a little more of it.
The past year has been a soft one for the theater in and around the capital, with far too few adventurous projects of the sort that prick the conscience or stir the blood.
Yes, it's possible to come up with a short list of less-than-stellar productions that demonstrated various companies' appetite for risk: Catalyst Theatre's resurrection of the obscure French comedy "Turcaret"; Studio Theatre's rare unveiling of an original work, "Runaway Home"; Woolly Mammoth's staging of monologist Sandra Tsing Loh's bizarrely unbalanced "I Worry"; Synetic Theatre's dance-fever-crazed "Salome."
And a few leaps into the relative unknown even proved thrilling: the presentation by Theater J and Woolly Mammoth of Neena Beber's droll and insightful "Jump/Cut"; a supple, downsized "110 in the Shade" at Signature Theatre; Shakespeare Theatre's dusting off of a raucous Ben Jonson comedy, "The Silent Woman."
But generally speaking, the inclination seemed to be for theater safely in the audience's comfort zone, a penchant for conservative producing that could best be summed up in a single title: "Camelot." After a deserved success last season with "South Pacific" -- a show that is more problematic to mount than its renowned score indicates -- Arena Stage followed this year with a second-tier Lerner and Loewe star vehicle. Arena's "Camelot" was expensive (the cost approached $2 million) and ably staged by Molly Smith. Still, you had to wonder: "Camelot"? Is this regional theater or dinner theater? Will the question asked of ticket buyers at the doors of the Fichandler soon be: trout or meatloaf?
At the start of the new season this fall, in fact, it felt as if fluff and froth were about all the major companies were concerned with. Consider the offing in September: You could go to the Shakespeare for classic farce ("The Rivals"), Arena for slapstick farce ("Shakespeare in Hollywood"), Signature for period farce ("Twentieth Century") or Woolly Mammoth for political farce ("The Mineola Twins"). Then, for a change, you could head to MetroStage in Alexandria for -- yup, shipboard farce! ("Rough Crossing").
The lavish lineup of audience-friendly offerings continued with the Shakespeare's revival of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Signature's staging of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." For even lighter entertainment, "Mamma Mia!" settled in again at the National. It was left to Studio to provide the challenging fare, which it did terrifically with the D.C. premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks's "Topdog/Underdog," though even that came with a Pulitzer seal of approval.
A case can no doubt be made for a roster of plays that goes down like mom's mashed potatoes. Subscriptions are a tough sell these days for many nonprofit theaters; the trend, theater people say, is in the direction of impulse buying. And putting fannies in seats is a particularly sensitive issue in Washington, where an unprecedented theater building boom is underway. All the major theaters have embarked on or announced plans for wholesale renovations and upgrades, from the $100 million overhaul of Arena's home in Southwest to a new $77 million mainstage downtown for the Shakespeare.
Could it be that Washington's big theaters have overloaded their schedules with crowd-pleasers as a come-on in a perilous environment? Or maybe they've merely front-loaded the season.
Some of what's in the offing in the coming months sounds as if it may not be as broadly appealing -- and that may mean it's a lot more interesting. The second half of Arena's season, for example, is considerably more varied and complex than the first: lesser-known plays by Brecht and Tennessee Williams; a never-produced musical from the trunk of a dead master, Frank Loesser, and a solo piece by the fiery Dael Orlandersmith. And the Shakespeare is about to embark on the tricky, two-part cycle of "Henry IV" history plays.
Still, some of the past year's offerings suggest a theater world all too willing to act as enabler for a wartime capital eager to check its worries at the door. Escape is a service the theater has long provided. But if it completely supplants drama of a more provocative nature, it's not a service to anyone.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company