Backstage

Rorschach's Alarming Scene

Tony Bullock with Sarah Taurchini in
Tony Bullock with Sarah Taurchini in "Dream Sailors," Rorschach Theatre's four-part murder mystery about lucid dreaming. (By Keith A. Erickson -- Rorschach Theatre)
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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

It was trial by fire -- alarm.

On the first night Rorschach Theatre had all three productions of its ambitious summer rep up at once, a mist machine intended to make Randy Baker's "Dream Sailors" look even spookier set off a smoke detector. Audiences and actors from the three shows spilled outside the Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University.

"We had just closed the doors to the 8:30 show" when the alarm went off, recalls Jenny McConnell Frederick, Baker's co-artistic producer. Some of the actors were "in stages of partial undress and costume changes. . . . it couldn't have happened at a funnier moment," she says. "The Skin of Our Teeth" and "Dream Sailors" audiences "thought it was part of the show," Baker adds.

He and McConnell Frederick call their summer rep "Rorschach Theatre in Exile." It includes the world premieres of Baker's "Dream Sailors," a four-part murder mystery about lucid dreaming, and Jason Grote's "This Storm Is What We Call Progress," which riffs on Jewish mysticism. ("Storm," which opened the rep, closed last weekend.) The third piece is a revival of Thornton Wilder's philoso-play on human history and human foibles, "The Skin of Our Teeth."

Rorschach has squeezed three-quarters of its 2007-08 season into the weeks between June 22 and Aug. 17. After the company lost its Columbia Heights venue last year, Georgetown's theater department offered it the Davis Center for the summer at a reduced rate.

"Seven months ago it looked like we weren't going to be able to produce a season, and then lo and behold, we had a pretty fantastic opportunity to actually grow, rather than to stagnate. We are very fortunate," Baker says.

The state-of-the-art, air-conditioned Davis Center is nothing like Rorschach's old spot at the often-sweltering Casa del Pueblo, but the company's budget has remained shoestring, and its crews skeleton. Everyone has had to do double and triple duty to make the rep go smoothly.

"The one thing I really learned is how strong we've become," observes marketing director and company member Scott McCormick, who plays the patriarch Mr. Antrobus in Wilder's play. "It's not like one of our normal shows, where Randy's directing and Jenny's producing, or I'm acting and somebody else is coming in to pick up my slack. It's a question of everybody having to do all our jobs constantly," he says.

Director Colin Hovde has had the task of putting on the four-part "Dream Sailors" in a tiny room used as a lighting lab during the academic year. This is his first time with Rorschach. When working with skeleton crews, Hovde notes, the actors "have to be ready for anything to happen" and do a lot of scenery-moving themselves. "They have to really be able to say that this is Camp Rorschach and when you sign up for Camp Rorschach, you have to commit to it," he says.

Grote, an up-and-coming playwright whose "Maria/Stuart" will have its world premiere next month at Woolly Mammoth, says he was pleasantly surprised by Rorschach's premiere of "This Storm Is What We Call Progress" under McConnell Frederick's direction.

The play was written a few years ago, when he still liked to insert whimsical stage directions, Grote says. Before Rorschach did it, "I had given up on it as unproduceable."

"Small companies, I think, do a lot of amazing work, but sometimes they just don't necessarily have the resources. But what Rorschach did with my play -- never mind doing three plays at once, but just with my play alone, which is extremely hard to produce -- I think they did an amazing job of it," Grote says.

Company member Rahaleh Nassri directed "The Skin of Our Teeth," experimentally expanding upon Wilder's play-within-a-play elements.

"I think we were all afraid at first that the work would suffer, having to do three shows at once," Nassri says, but "the opposite happened. We did three very, very different shows, but each of them are still very Rorschach, and I'm proud of all of them." Referring to the fire alarm and other glitches, she adds, "even the things that went wrong were just exciting."

"The Skin of Our Teeth" runs through Aug. 10, "Dream Sailors" through Aug. 17.

Follow Spots

· Signature Theatre will host at an open house Saturday from noon to 9:30 p.m. Highlights from the coming season will be performed and there'll be classes, demonstrations, contests, stage combat for kids and other activities. Visit http://www.signature-theatre.org.

· Studio Theatre's annual garage sale is Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 14th and P streets NW. Furniture and props up for sale include a church pew ("Reefer Madness"), a small coffin with air vents ("The Pillowman") and bunraku puppets ("The Long Christmas Ride Home").


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