Constellation Theatre Company, A Rising Star in D.C. Dramatic World

Katy Carkuff as Suzanne and Joe Brack as Figaro rehearse the play, which is better known as an opera. The script is a melange of several translations, and the cast did improvisation.
Katy Carkuff as Suzanne and Joe Brack as Figaro rehearse the play, which is better known as an opera. The script is a melange of several translations, and the cast did improvisation. (By Allison Stockman -- Constellation Theatre Company)
By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 16, 2009

"Apollo's warrant" and "Wag-errant" don't really rhyme, but director Allison Stockman doesn't want to hear that. By which we mean she does want to hear it: "Embrace the rhyme," she instructs her charges. "Make it rhyme!"

Words to live by, or at least to perform by.

It's a Sunday afternoon half a week into the new year, and Stockman, the founding artistic director of Constellation Theatre Company, is dismissing the cast of "The Marriage of Figaro" from the Source building's second-floor rehearsal space overlooking 14th Street NW. Their homework? To parse the rhythm of the play's spoken prologue. But "embrace the rhyme" could just as well be a glib reduction of the company's mission statement, which promises "visionary, expressive design with heightened physical movement and elevated language."

Stockman's self-described "epic ensemble" has built a reputation for delivering the goods, establishing itself in barely more than 18 months as a destination for actors and audiences alike. Constellation made its splashy debut with a June 2007 production of August Strindberg's obscure "A Dream Play," as reworked by Caryl Churchill. ("Brisk, accessible and surprisingly humorous," Washington Post critic Celia Wren said at the time.) An imaginative and popular "The Arabian Nights" followed the same year.

Since then, Constellation has taken on -- with varying degrees of success -- critiques of socioeconomics and ethics (Brecht's "The Good Woman of Szechwan"), Greek tragedy ("The Oresteia") and "Faust"-as-political allegory (Vaclav Havel's "Temptation").

The texts outwardly have little in common except that they call for large ensembles (a trait Stockman looks for) and were all written, or derived from source material, in foreign languages (which she says she hadn't even noticed). But the 34-year-old Baltimore native has nonetheless made her productions reflect a unified artistic vision. The link is Constellation's house style: one that incorporates original music, dance and unabashedly outsized performances.

But -- this is important -- they're still plays. Not musicals. Not even "Figaro," best known as a Mozart opera.

This "Figaro," which opens Thursday at the Source, comes more or less from the source: Pierre Beaumarchais's long-censored 1778 sex comedy wherein a nefarious regal type stirs up trouble by invoking his right to a local virgin before she's married off to some other dude. Stockman needs a little prodding to admit she stitched the script together from a half-dozen translations, though she's quick to share credit with dramaturge Christy Denny and to point out that on-the-fly revisions have come from the entire cast. For this "period-Lite" production, Stockman is emphasizing the play's roots in commedia dell'arte, treating her actors to a workshop by mimes Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell.

Visually, Stockman and resident designer A.J. Guban are using the oblong shapes of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí's buildings and Goya's light, pastoral paintings as their touchstones. Costumer Yvette M. Ryan has dressed the title character and his bride (both servants) more modestly than is historically accurate to help the audience grasp the hierarchy of the characters, given that class is one of Beaumarchais's major themes.

"We've got this French play, set in Spain, that's best known for being an Italian opera written by an Austrian, and we're doing it in the U.S." Stockman says with a laugh. "So we felt like we had some freedom."

The Marriage of Figaro Constellation Theatre Company at the Source, 1835 14th St. NW. 800-494-8497. Thursday-Feb. 22. $20.

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