New Works, New Hope

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 26, 2005

One of the most hopeful events of the theater season occurred amid a hail of gunfire. Eight young actors assembled on a stage in Silver Spring and gave the area's playgoers a first look at a sprawling, documentary-style dissection of the most horrific school shooting in the nation's history.

The play was "columbinus." It wasn't perfect -- that's the way with embryonic work -- but it was fresh and imaginative and brimming with promise. Largely the brainchild of PJ Paparelli, a young director who had worked at the Shakespeare Theatre, the piece attempted to provide context for the Columbine High School massacre. Compiled from transcripts, police reports and interviews, the play at times seemed a mirror of the chaotic adolescent world it sought to evoke.

You didn't have to fall in love with "columbinus," though, to admire the care and the boldness that went into the project. Round House Theatre took a risk with a new piece, booking it for the company's second stage and doing itself a favor in the process: The stimulating play advanced its status as a haven for young theater artists and as a proponent of originality.

No yardstick is a better measure of a theater town's hunger than the wholly new things that are brought to the stage. Judging from the past season's harvest, Washington's appetite is only getting heartier. Not all the signs are positive: The infrastructure for supporting new work remains tenuous, and still too much of the region's theater diet is based on chestnuts: For every "columbinus," there are still several old dependables recycled from the box-office-tested catalogue. Round House, it should be noted, also ladled out a helping on its main stage in Bethesda of the tired "Diary of" -- yawn -- "Anne Frank."

Still, it is possible to peer at the glass and remark on how high it is filled with enterprise. In 2004-05, for example, Signature Theatre devoted 60 percent of its season to new work -- a pair of musicals, one a world premiere, and a comedy by Norman Allen. Woolly Mammoth went 3-for-5 as well, yielding the bulk of its season to new plays by Ian Cohen, Craig Wright and Mickey Birnbaum. Synetic Theatre, the creative caldron stirred by Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, added two original pieces to its repertory, "The Bohemians" and "Jason and the Argonauts," and Theater J weighed in with two premieres of its own, including a new play by Joyce Carol Oates based on her own novel "The Tattooed Girl."

Wait! There's more! While the aforementioned companies formed the hard core of the city's axis of originality, others showed an eagerness to enlist. Small troupes as varied as Washington Stage Guild -- which unveiled the biographical drama "Pound" -- and Catalyst Theatre, offering its "shkspr prjct," an experimental treatment of "Macbeth," staked out terrain on the map of novelty. Even theaters whose programs do not emphasize new work made significant inroads. While Studio Theatre's risky Russian season provided no world premieres, it did introduce theatergoers to the work of contemporary Russian playwrights rarely or never before seen in this country. Most rewardingly, it served up Vassily Sigarev and his "Black Milk," a sardonic swipe at small-time hustlers working the tattered fringe of Russia's new economy.

The Shakespeare Theatre, meanwhile, walked up to the edge of newness -- with an old play. Its presentation of Alfred du Musset's little-known 19th-century drama "Lorenzaccio," in an accomplished new adaptation by John Strand, was not only a high point of the season. It also demonstrated how a burgeoning classical company extends its mission in thoroughly inventive ways.

New work is religion for some Washington theaters -- Woolly Mammoth, for instance -- and merely a cyclical facet of others. In either case, it involves theater in its most fragile state, and its most generous. A company that throws its integrity and its resources behind new plays and musicals is a real giver, not just a taker. Of course, the payoff can be grand. Nothing makes a company's reputation faster than a well-received production it has built from the ground up. The flip side is that the untried involves a lot more heartache and headache. Our brand-conscious society is ever more allergic to names with which it isn't familiar. And critics sometimes have to fight the urge to circle the untested as if it were potential fresh kill.

For these reasons, it's important in a theatrically diverse and culturally advantaged city like Washington for artists to share the challenge of bringing novel pieces to the stage. (Plans are already afoot for the inauguration next summer of the city's very own fringe festival, Capital Fringe, which is to foster all sorts of weird and outrageous dramatic work.) At a time, too, when so many of the area's theaters are signaling their self-confidence and maturity with the construction of beautiful new spaces, it becomes ever more vital that what fills them be distinctive. Even if that also means not everything is brilliant. "Consistency," as Oscar Wilde put it, "is the last refuge of the unimaginative."

You get a sense that the impulse to originality -- or simply to material worth staging -- cycles up at some theaters as it declines at others. This season, for instance, new plays were nowhere to be found on Arena Stage's schedule; the closest it came was "Intimations for Saxophone," a previously unproduced play from the 1930s by Sophie Treadwell. For the 2005-06 season, though, Arena has two premieres on its agenda, including a play commissioned from Sarah Ruhl, a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year for "The Clean House" (a version of which begins performances at Woolly Mammoth next month).

Of the deeper-pocketed theater outposts in town, the Kennedy Center has shown the greatest reluctance to budge from a retrospective posture. While theater is a vigorous component of Michael Kaiser's stewardship, the center is more prone to redo than to do. Its showpiece this season was a revival of "Mister Roberts," a middling war comedy that benefited from Robert Longbottom's first-rate staging. (Only in the subcategory of children's theater has the center exhibited a devotion to play development.) The coming season at the Kennedy Center does feature the birth of the retooled Fund for New American Plays, which will underwrite the cost each year of a new work and invite the sponsoring company to perform it at the center. Even so the highlight of the center's theater schedule will be more popular than adventurous. It takes us back, back, back to the '60s, for a revival of "Mame."

Predictably, the original work introduced this season resulted in some high-profile misfires. Signature's "The Highest Yellow," with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa and book by Strand, imported major Broadway talent -- the cast included Marc Kudisch, Jason Danieley and Judy Kuhn. Though the subject, Vincent van Gogh, was fascinating, the piece proved leaden. Theater J's "Tattooed Girl," meantime, did nothing to promote Oates as anything but a novelist. And Woolly Mammoth's "Big Death and Little Death," the work chosen to christen its new theater on D Street NW, was a big and little mess, a failure that confirmed that the troupe at times drifts into stagy sensationalism.

Still, the seasonal crop also brought to light more satisfying evenings. Apart from "columbinus," the pluses included Woolly's debut of "Grace," Wright's cleverly told tragicomedy set in a plastic America of tacky condos and bogus forms of faith, and "Fallen From Proust," Signature's production of Allen's breezy comedy of sexual confusion. Cohen's "Lenny & Lou," at Woolly, found a deranged kind of art in the act of despising one's mother. And in her "shkspr prjct," director Kathleen Akerley boldly rebuilt "Macbeth" as a writhing experiment for lithe young actors.

In several instances, directors were able to elevate flawed new works. Eric Schaeffer's staging at Signature of the musical "One Red Flower," based on the letters home from American soldiers in Vietnam, built to a moving climax with a flickering image of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Anne Bogart's precision movement for "Intimations for Saxophone" gave it a startling visual texture. Irina Tsikurishvili's sharp choreography for Synetic's "Bohemians" conferred a lyricism on an otherwise choppy work.

One of the gifts an original play bestows on a company of actors is the opportunity to stamp a role as one's own, and some of that happened memorably, too, this season. It would be hard to discuss separately the contributions of Karl Miller and Will Rogers in "columbinus." Portraying the shooters, Miller and Rogers incisively embodied the notion of negative synergy. You saw how black anger and despair could be shared as if chugged out of beer cans.

Kudisch's van Gogh, in "The Highest Yellow," was an ingenious mix of passion and possession, and Jennifer Mendenhall made of an unhappy woman in "Grace" a character of touching empathy.

These moments and performances were all brought to you this season via works you couldn't see anywhere else. Great or not so great, Washington should only be blessed with more of them.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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