On D St. NW, A Theater That Wins Applause

The exterior of Woolly Mammoth's theater, seen in the rendering above, doesn't give any hints of the vastness inside.
The exterior of Woolly Mammoth's theater, seen in the rendering above, doesn't give any hints of the vastness inside. (Mcinturff Architects -- Hennessey, Ink)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 14, 2005

There is no permanent sign yet, no marquee. You enter from an alley-like space off D Street NW. The lobby is shadowy, narrow, long, tall. It lures you down and back to the theater's bright plastic wall. Inside, the auditorium is at once intimate and edgy. Black is the dominant color. A wrecked car, setting the scene for the opening play, is suspended above the stage.

Welcome, Woolly Mammoth, to downtown D.C. After playing for 25 years in churches, reconditioned auto repair shops, borrowed lodgings and places with stage ceilings only 12 feet high, the adventurous theater company today has almost everything its heart could desire. Just in time for tonight's official opening.

It has a three-decade rental contract at $1 per year. A $7.5 million fundraising drive satisfyingly done. A stage that's high, deep, flexible and fully equipped. A scenery shop, ditto. A decent green room, an adequate rehearsal hall, sufficient dressing rooms, an on-site costume shop, plenty of storage. For audiences, there are good sight lines to the splendid stage from every one of the 265 seats, and there's the spacious, strangely alluring lobby.

Architecturally, the new theater space at 641 D St. NW is notable as a coming out of sorts for Mark McInturff, one of the Washington area's best architects -- but, outside of the profession, not one of its best known.

From a studio perched on the Montgomery County side of the Potomac River, close to the District line, McInturff and his small band of associates have been turning out prize-winning houses and house additions for almost 20 years. As a rare nonresidential commission, the new Woolly Mammoth thus becomes, willy-nilly, one of the most visible of McInturff's works.

Not that it's all that visible, at least from the street. Even after McInturff's steel-and-glass canopy and vertical sign are installed some time this summer, the theater's presence in the downtown cityscape will remain low-key. It hides behind a historic storefront whose doors will remain closed. To get in, you go around the corner.

The interior, though, is something else. It's ordinary and extraordinary all at once. The lobby's unusual, tunnel-like dimensions -- 130 feet long and varying in both height and width from about 20 to 40 feet -- derive from the fact that the theater and its support spaces had to be fit into the basement of a huge, multi-use building called the Jefferson at Penn Quarter. (This complex building, designed by Washington architect Philip Esocoff and developed by Dallas-based JPI Development, deserves its own column -- and will get it, by and by.)

Why the basement? Economics, pure and simple. The basement commands less in rent than aboveground spaces, and thus is the place any developer would put a government-mandated "arts use," particularly one that eats up as much space as a theater. (The mandate, incidentally, came from the old Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. and was followed through by the Public Buildings Service of the General Services Administration.)

And why so far into the basement? This, too, has a simple answer: structural necessity. Multistory buildings like this one need lots of columns to keep them stable and hold them up. Theaters, by contrast, need high, column-free spaces. The one place in this particular building where these conflicting demands do not totally cancel each other out is the area underneath the grassy outdoor courtyard built for occupants of the Jefferson's 421 residential units. The courtyard, predictably, is more or less in the middle of the building. Hence, the theater is way back in there. (Even with that relatively lightweight rooftop, a number of huge transfer beams were required to carry the weight across the theater spaces.)

McInturff and Woolly's Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz had the great good sense not to fight these unusual conditions. The developer provided the basic shell (a contribution valued at $4.5 million), and, the architect says, "We decided the finishes they gave us would be the finishes we would live with." This partly explains the lobby's rough-and-ready look -- exposed concrete columns, minimally sealed concrete floors, unpainted concrete block walls, unrefined joints all around and structural oddities here and there. The pair also recognized that the raw look fits Woolly's outre personality.

More important are the moves McInturff (with colleagues Stephen Lawlor and Julia Heine) made to amplify what he calls the "inherited Piranesian quality of the space." He's referring, of course, to Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the 18th-century artist whose etchings of imaginary prisons were spatially complex and emotionally evocative.

Putting first things first, McInturff and crew capitalized on the lobby's length by treating it as a pedestrian street, with a variety of stopping points along the way -- a little cafe behind the storefront window, a niche for ticket sales, another for a store selling T-shirts and plays in manuscript form, and another cafe. Then, they enlivened the space -- basically just a big empty box at the start-- with the canny placement of stairwells, bridges and a long balcony (referred to in the floor plan as the "lobby catwalk"). To lead a visitor's eyes into the depth of the space, McInturff ran a white plasterboard plane along the ceiling from front to back. To celebrate the theater's presence, he designed a high, curved wall made of ribbed polycarbonate panels. The rehearsal hall is visible through a tilted plane of wood-framed glass panels.

Some of these elements run parallel to the right-angled structural frame of the space, and others are set at slight angles to the grid -- six degrees or less, McInturff says. Some elements are dramatically lit, others are left in shadow. Concrete gray is the basic color, enlivened a teeny bit by spots of color -- the white ceiling plane, a purple wall in one niche, a sour green one in another. Woolly's new lobby is not gloomy or complex in the Piranesian sense, but the net effect of all these moves is subtly dynamic. It's a place that invites movement -- and a welcome addition to downtown Washington's catalogue of interesting, semi-public interiors.

The theater itself, designed by McInturff in close collaboration with Theater Projects Consultants, is a winner. The small auditorium is cozy, but, in keeping with the Woolly identity, it's not cuddly. The metal-legged, black-cushioned seats are not quite as uncomfortable as they look. McInturff warmed up the room a little with horizontal wooden planks at the edges of box seats and balcony. But that's it for warmth. Darkness prevails. The walls are concrete block painted black. Catwalks and stage rigging are fully exposed. The balcony level is framed with big, gray steel beams, supported by slender steel columns. They don't look quite sufficient to the task, though the architect insists that they are just what's needed.

The basic aesthetic in both lobby and theater is based on contrasting qualities. To be subtly unsettling, quietly dramatic, elegantly inelegant. Somehow, it works.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company