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Spring festivals scratch theater's curatorial itch

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:01 PM

In dramatic circles, not everyone subscribes to the view that smaller is better. Nope, some in theater think just the opposite. In the Washington area, this trend toward piling on has translated in recent years to a fairly steady diet of theater extravaganzas, recognizing the output of a writer or the influence of a genre or the impact of a global cultural phenomenon, as the capital did in 2007 with its half-year, citywide celebration of William Shakespeare.

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This spring, the seemingly irresistible curatorial itch gets scratched with several festivals of impressive breadth, including a cover-the-waterfront treatment of the plays of Edward Albee beginning this month at Arena Stage. And at just about the same time, a wide-ranging collection of productions, readings and talks commences at Georgetown University to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tennessee Williams.

These and other gargantuan offerings, such as the Kennedy Center's impending exploration of theater and other performing arts from India, have their alluring facets. But the themed collection of plays that has piqued my curiosity the most is one concerning a dramatist whose name does not unleash a box-office stampede in these parts: Ireland's budding boutique star Enda Walsh, who will be the attraction starting March 15 at Studio Theatre, in a festival that will continue through May 1.

"New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival" is something of a departure for the eclectically contemporary Studio, in that the company on 14th and P streets NW rarely ventures into play-bundling territory - and even more rarely serves as host to a visiting troupe of international stature. For the occasion, it will be Garry Hynes's Druid Theatre Company from Galway, in the west of Ireland, that will be performing its widely applauded version of Walsh's "Penelope." (By the way: Garry Hynes is a she; Enda Walsh is a he.)

That production will be united with two of Studio's own treatments of recent Walsh efforts: the thematically connected "The Walworth Farce" and "The New Electric Ballroom." While "Penelope," running from March 15 until April 3, will feature an Irish cast, "Walworth Farce" offers Washington stalwarts Ted van Griethuysen and Aubrey Deeker, and the "Electric Ballroom" cast includes Nancy Robinette and Jennifer Mendenhall. Both "Walworth Farce" and "Electric Ballroom" will be directed by Matt Torney.

Walsh, who is in his early 40s and hails from Dublin, has not achieved the renown of the two towers of contemporary Irish theater, Martin McDonagh ("The Beauty Queen of Leenane") and Conor McPherson ("The Seafarer"), both of whom have had multiple works produced on Broadway. (Druid Theatre, incidentally, will be represented at the Kennedy Center this week with a revival of McDonagh's "The Cripple of Inishmaan.") Though Walsh shares with McDonagh and McPherson preternatural gifts for beautiful phrases and mordant wit, he's far closer to the literary tradition of another Irishman, absurdist Samuel Beckett, than to either of them.

It was Washington's own theatrical oasis of contemporary Irishness, the troupe known as Solas Nua, that first introduced the city to Walsh, with its productions of "Misterman" and his widely performed "Disco Pigs." Typically, a Walsh world conforms only in tangential physical ways to ours. In "Bedbound," for example, a father is so appalled by his disabled daughter that he confines her to an impossibly claustrophobic space. It's the father's dazzling tornadoes of words about his brutal tactics in the furniture trade that takes the play beyond the room and seems to tell us something about Walsh's jaundiced take on the Irish economic miracle.

Walsh's love of language can get a bit gnarly in plays such as "Penelope," which is based on a Greek myth and set in an empty swimming pool, where four men are living - or more to the point, waiting to die. As New York Times drama critic Ben Brantley observed in an otherwise glowing review of the piece, which visited Brooklyn in the fall: "Its luxuriant verbal overgrowth can reach the point of suffocation." Still, it is gratifying to watch as Studio takes up where Solas Nua left off, devoting substantial resources to an intriguing writer with whom Washington will be getting better acquainted.


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