'Old stage horse' Elizabeth Ashley rides again in 'Mrs. Warren's Profession'

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"Of course I will always do anything the Mighty Kahn asks me to do," Elizabeth Ashley jokes in that husky drawl of hers. The Broadway veteran will take on the title role in "Mrs. Warren's Profession" for Michael Kahn's Shakespeare Theatre Company, where the George Bernard Shaw play runs June 8-July 11. Dixie Carter, who was originally cast in the role, is recovering from surgery and can't be ready for rehearsals in May.

"Old stage horses" is how Ashley describes herself and Carter. She seems philosophical about having reached 70. "I'm always grateful when I can get vertical," she jokes. Ashley lives a quiet life in Manhattan now. "When I do a play, I literally cannot do anything else. I sort of stay in my bed and go to work and that's it." No more high life. "I served my time for four decades as a night-stalking savage. I don't have to do it anymore."

Ashley worked plenty during her savage years. She originated the bride's role (opposite Robert Redford) in "Barefoot in the Park" in 1963, starred in the 1974 Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," directed by Kahn, and played Cleopatra to Rex Harrison's Caesar in Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra" in 1977. Most recently she appeared in "Dividing the Estate" and "August: Osage County" on Broadway. After "Mrs. Warren," she'll do Edward Albee's new "Me, Myself & I" in New York. At the Shakespeare, she starred in "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1998) and "The Little Foxes" (2002).

Shaw's heroine Mrs. Warren is an upscale madam who has raised her daughter in privilege and kept her clueless as to Mummy's line of work. "I like that she's very smart," Ashley says of Mrs. Warren. "She's had to live her life in a man's world, in disguise, and with slyness and cleverness and deception. And she has done that with principle and ethics." Mrs. Warren learns her child has grown into a rather priggish young woman.

Ashley identifies. "Being an old whore is not that different from being an actress. . . . We're very, very similar and invariably our Waterloos come with motherhood . . . because it's almost impossible to do both and have your children like you." And, she adds, "even if they like you, they usually don't approve of you."

Artzberger's 'Reasons'

Ryan Artzberger defends his character, the sweet-natured but clueless Greg in Neil LaBute's "Reasons to Be Pretty." In Studio Theatre's production (running through May 16), the lights come up on Greg fending off an epically profane tirade from his girlfriend Steph (Margot White). His sin? He was overheard describing Steph's face as just "regular" when compared with a "hot" co-worker's. It was his colleague Kent (Thom Miller) who brought up the subject, and it was Kent's wife, Carly (Teresa Stephenson), who overheard and snitched to Steph.

Greg, maintains Artzberger, was just saying "a loving thing. He was saying, 'She's just normal-looking, but I wouldn't trade her for anything.' " Steph, however, doesn't see it that way, and therein hangs the relationship roller coaster that is "Reasons to Be Pretty."

Artzberger, who played the title role in "Pericles" at the Shakespeare for director Mary Zimmerman in 2004, likens playing the highly contemporary LaBute to acting the Bard. "I've compared playing Shakespeare to riding a surfboard," he explains. "You just get on and let it play you, and so, if you are receptive and relaxed enough to go where it takes you, then you can surf. But if you're not ready to turn on a dime, as it will do, it betrays you and you're in the water. The same thing is true of this play. . . . You have to be ready to shift gears in a split second."

Political puppets

A puppet play with roots in Spanish peasant culture, Italian commedia dell'arte and Spanish theater's golden age opens Thursday at GALA Hispanic Theatre. And don't assume it's for kids. One female puppet will briefly lift her petticoats to reveal anatomical (if not political) correctness.

Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca's "El Retablillo de Don Cristobal/The Farce of Don Cristobal and the Maiden Rosita" will run through May 2 at GALA's Tivoli Square venue in Columbia Heights.

The play was written and performed in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War to entertain Republican (i.e., anti-Franco, anti-fascist) forces and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of American volunteers who fought with them. The villain of the piece, the horny old landowner Don Cristobal (a cousin to the buffoonish commedia villain Pantalone), represents the forces of dictatorship, says co-director Adhemar Bianchi. The object of Don Cristobal's lust is the immodest young Rosita.

The play's message remains relevant, says Bianchi, and the piece remains more art than agitprop. With GALA's Artistic Director Hugo Medrano translating, Bianchi says, "there are characters in our world right now that respond to fascism and exploitation." His daughter and co-director, Ximena, also co-designed the puppets.

"It has to do a lot with the concept of popular peasant people," says Ximena, referring to the "style of knocking, running around, punching" that the puppets engage in. Her father interjects that the style "is taken from the old rural farces" inspired by Italian players who toured Spain centuries ago.

Father and daughter Bianchi run a large populist theater troupe, Grupo de Teatro Catalinas Sur, in Buenos Aires. The company grew out of a working-class neighborhood during the early 1980s, in part as a response to Argentina's dictatorship at the time. The group uses, Adhemar says, "many, many different expressions, like puppetry, acting, music, circus techniques," as well as street theater, and remains rooted in the neighborhood as a community organization.

Ximena demonstrated for Backstage the three types of puppets in the show, all to be manipulated and voiced by actors. They include traditional hand puppets, larger "table" puppets and nearly human-size stand-up puppets. "It's very funny," adds Medrano, "because sometimes you see Rosita as a glove puppet, and then [she] just disappears and reappears onstage as a big puppet."

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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