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In 2005-06, Arena Stage Will Sharpen Its Revival Skills

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page C05

Arena Stage will present an all-American roster of plays in its 2005-06 season, including two world premieres and six revivals. Among the iconic works revisited will be the 1955 baseball musical (about the late lamented Washington Senators) "Damn Yankees," Garson Kanin's Washington-based comedy "Born Yesterday" (1946), Clifford Odets's Depression-era valedictory "Awake and Sing!" (1935) and N. Richard Nash's romance of self-discovery, "The Rainmaker" (1954).

Zelda Fichandler, Arena's co-founder and for many years its artistic director, will return to stage "Awake and Sing!" Six of the eight shows will be directed by women.

Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith will direct "Damn Yankees," one of six revivals on the theater's schedule next season. The lineup also includes two world premieres, "Passion Play" and "Cuttin' Up." (Susan Biddle - The Washington Post)

"As a theater that's focused on American plays, we go back into the history of the American canon," says Artistic Director Molly Smith, who will direct two shows. "I think it's important to have a healthy mixture."

The single riskiest ingredient may be the season opener, Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play" (Sept. 2-Oct. 16), which Smith will stage. (Woolly Mammoth will do Ruhl's "The Clean House" in July.) A three-play cycle compressed into one evening, the work explores attitudes about the Passion play as it was done in 16th-century England, at Oberammergau, Germany, in the 1930s, and Spearfish, S.D., in the 1970s and '80s.

Ruhl has been working on the project for a decade. "About two years ago, we commissioned her to write Act 3," says Smith. It will be "an epic journey that we take," she says.

Kyle Donnelly will direct "Born Yesterday" (Sept. 30-Nov. 6). In Kanin's farce, a blustery millionaire visits Washington with his mistress looking to buy influence on Capitol Hill. Arena also will hold readings of "lost plays" by Kanin and a "think tank" about his legacy.

"Cuttin' Up" (Nov. 4-Jan. 1), a world premiere with music written and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, is based on a book by Craig Marberry ("Crowns") about the ties of community between black men and their barbershops.

Smith will direct "Damn Yankees" (Dec. 9-Feb. 5), with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, and book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop. "We'll have baseball fever here in Washington, D.C.," she says, and the Nationals will have completed their first season by then. Matt Bogart, who played Lancelot in Arena's revival of "Camelot," will play the protagonist, who sells his soul to the Devil so the Senators can win the pennant.

Fichandler herself chose Odets's "Awake and Sing!" (Jan. 20-March 5), the saga of a family in 1930s New York and a politically charged critique of capitalism.

Lisa Peterson will direct "The Rainmaker" (March 3-April 9), Nash's story of a ranch family and their love-starved unmarried daughter in a drought-plagued Western state. (Signature did the musical "110 in the Shade," based on Nash's play, in 2003; Bogart played the rainmaker, Starbuck, in that production.)

"Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill" (March 31-June 4, 2006) by Lanie Robertson, a musical portrait of singer Billie Holiday near the end of her life, will be staged by Arena Artistic Associate Wendy C. Goldberg.

The season will close with a large-scale reimagining of Eric Overmyer's "On the Verge, or, the Geography of Yearning" (May 5-June 11, 2006), a magic-realist fable written in the 1980s about three Victorian women who go exploring through time. Overmyer, whom Smith describes as "one of the most dazzling wordsmiths of the American theater," has spent years writing for high-end TV shows such as "Law & Order." She says he'll update parts of "On the Verge" and undertake a new play commissioned by Arena.

Hearts of Darkness

"We tried not to point blame in the play. That's very important to us," says PJ Paparelli, director and co-creator of the extensively researched play "Columbinus." The tale deals with the notorious 1999 high school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and with teenage alienation in general. It's running at Round House Theatre's Silver Spring space through April 3.

"When we were in Littleton, we were dying for an answer," continues Paparelli, "but it's impossible. It's impossible to know" why the shooters killed 12 schoolmates and a teacher. "The boys are dead and even if they could speak, what would they say? They left tapes documenting why they did it, but you don't know really the reason why. . . . So it's more what you find on the journey there."

Paparelli had formed the United States Theatre Project with actor-writers Stephen Karam and Sean McNall in the summer of 2002 to "talk about developing a play from scratch. . . . Columbine was one of three or four things we were thinking about." The Theatre Project, Paparelli says, is "committed to developing these plays with interactive community involvement, going inside of a community that surrounds a particular event."

Their inaugural effort is the product of nearly three years of interviews, research, writing, readings, rehearsals and workshops. Patricia Hersch, author of "A Tribe Apart: A Journey Into the Heart of American Adolescence," also contributed her psychological expertise as dramaturg.

Will Rogers and Karl Miller, who play Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, have been attached to the project since 2002 and 2003 respectively, and have also done some of the writing.

Some study took place in this area. The company interviewed 12 kids from a Virginia high school Paparelli won't name. "Among those 12 was the makeup of all the characters in the play," he says. "And among those kids was a boy who was arrested for [pipe] bomb-building." The seeds of Columbine, he argues, are "just bubbling under any school, really." Avoiding a similar catastrophe, he argues, is "a very complex thing, but I think it's just about listening."

When the "Columbinus" project began, Paparelli was associate director at the Shakespeare Theatre. He has since become artistic director of Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, which produced "Columbinus" with Round House. It opens there in May.

Follow Spots

• Robert Brustein, fabled theater director, critic, teacher, actor, playwright and founder of the Yale Repertory and American Repertory theaters, will speak 7 p.m. Monday at Arena Stage. The event is free, but reservations are required. Call 202-488-3300.

• Theater lovers can catch the remaining six segments of National Public Radio's eight-part series about the regional theater movement, "American Stages," on "All Things Considered" every Thursday through April 21. Critic Bob Mondello wrote and produced several of the segments. The first two featured Arena Stage's Zelda Fichandler and Molly Smith. You can hear them online at npr.org. Type "American Stages" into the search line.

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