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Backstage at Washington Shakespeare Company's 'Juno and the Paycock'

DIGGING THE DIGS: Joe Palka, left, and Christopher Henley in Washington Shakespeare Company's "Juno and the Paycock," running through March 20 at the company's new home at Artisphere.
DIGGING THE DIGS: Joe Palka, left, and Christopher Henley in Washington Shakespeare Company's "Juno and the Paycock," running through March 20 at the company's new home at Artisphere. (Dru Sefton)

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By Jane Horwitz
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Christopher Henley clambers, catlike, around a two-level set as the schemer "Joxer" Daly in Washington Shakespeare Company's "Juno and the Paycock." The Sean O'Casey play about a struggling family in 1920s Dublin runs through March 20 at WSC's new home at Artisphere in Rosslyn.

Joxer, says Henley, is "somebody who's charming at the same time as being kind of disreputable, and it's really fascinating to put those seemingly contradictory elements together."

Speaking also as artistic director of WSC, now in its 21st season, Henley says some die-hards may miss the "uniqueness and funkiness" of the company's former home in the leaky Clark Street Playhouse, in the shadow of the Pentagon in Arlington. "Even though it had a little more flexibility than the new space and lot of good memories attached to it, I can't imagine finding a better successor space than the one we found at Artisphere," Henley says.

Artisphere was the original home of the Newseum, but since last fall has been a multiuse arts venue run by Arlington County's Cultural Affairs Division, with Washington Shakespeare taking up residence in the building's onetime TV studio. "It's great to be part of the center, so that we're not the only thing to keep the doors open. There's synergy between our audiences and other things that are happening at the center, which is really cool," Henley says.

The preening "Paycock" (read: peacock) of the play's title is "Captain" Jack Boyle, played by Joe Palka. Generally broke, drunk and delusional, the Captain falsely fancies himself a hero of the Irish Civil War. His pub-crawling ways are destroying his family. Palka has worked with WSC for several years, but never in a role this size. He began learning the part five months ago and says, "I needed every bit of those five months.''

Palka was an award-winning liberal talk-show host on WWRC-AM in the 1990s, and knows all about chat for chat's sake and, he claims, self-delusion - both talents that figure prominently in his take on the Captain. "I gave up drinking 12 years ago, and I recall the euphoria, not produced by the alcohol, but by the illusions that were created," Palka observes. "In sobriety, you're far more able to embrace life on life's terms. . . . In terms of my connection with Captain Boyle, we all harbor those delusions."

Palka, who is married to WTTG-TV's weather person Sue Palka, just had a successful run of his family-dysfunction comedy "Mookie Cranks a Tater!" at Buffalo's Alleyway Theatre.

'Tether'-ed twins

"People from my generation, a lot of us are multiracial," says 26-year-old Los Angeles playwright Julie Taiwo Oni, whose play "Tether" explores the relationship between mixed-race twin sisters who look nothing alike. The play's world premiere run (reviewed on Page C3) continues through March 13 at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring. The show is produced by Doorway Arts Ensemble, which specializes in shoestring productions and readings of new works, and Montgomery College's Arts Alive Theatre program.

Race, says Oni, whose father is Nigerian and whose mother is American, was a taboo subject in the religious Bakersfield, Calif., household where Oni and her identical twin sister grew up. She realizes now that her parents were trying to protect the children by avoiding the subject. But it has always been, says the playwright, "something I was interested in exploring through my writing. . . . I'm not exactly one thing or the other, and I don't know exactly how to address that. Is it something that I should have a conversation about, or is it something that I shouldn't really think about? I wanted to create a story that has 'twin language' on top of that, dealing with a racial issue in that way."

The twins in "Tether" play tetherball with fanatical enthusiasm onstage, and converse while playing in a linguistic shorthand. They finish each other's sentences and know each other's moves. But by a genetic quirk, the girls are far from identical twins. "Lach" is white and her twin sister "Lam" is black. They never discuss race or even use the word.

Director Jessica Lefkow says she told actresses Gwen Grastorf and Jade Wheeler that the twins had "pinkie sworn" never to talk about race. They use the phrase "touched by the sun" whenever they discuss skin tone. "But as they get into high school, hang out with boys and face questions, they're at a point where, does that work for them anymore? . . . The play is about twins coming to grips with standing where they are now as young women, facing out in the world," Lefkow says.

Follow spots

l British playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah will become the artistic director of Baltimore's Center Stage in July. He'll succeed Irene Lewis, who's leaving after 19 years. Kwei-Armah, who is also a director, actor, singer and broadcaster in England, was tapped for the job after a nine-month search. In London, Kwei-Armah serves on the boards of the National Theatre and the Tricycle Theatre and is considered a groundbreaker for depicting the "black British experience" in London's West End with "Elmina's Kitchen," which was also done at Center Stage. In a press release from the theater, Kwei-Armah is quoted saying that Baltimore has been his "second artistic home" in recent years and that now, "I am pleased to call it my first home."

l A postscript to last week's announcement of Round House Theatre's 2011-12 season: Artistic Director Blake Robison already knows how he'll kick off the season after that. Round House's fall 2012 show - just in time for the election - will be an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "All the King's Men," starring Rick Foucheux as politico Willie Stark, directed by Jerry Whiddon.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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