Jenifer Deal concedes she might be considered "difficult" by some on the Washington theater scene. The striking, 6-foot-tall actress brings an aggressive stage presence and an intense physicality to her work -- ask anyone who saw her rocket around the subway car set in Amiri Baraka's inflammatory "Dutchman" at Source Theatre.
Deal works in "more of a European physical school of acting," propounded by such theater mystics as Jerzy Grotowski and Antonin Artaud, she says. And that is how she will approach the role of the magician Prospero in Washington Shakespeare Company's "The Tempest," Thursday through Sept. 5 at Clark Street Playhouse.
"All Shakespeare wanted us to do is in the text," she says, so actors needn't "superimpose anything. That's what poetry is. . . . So many actors read Shakespeare and you have no sense that it plays in their bodies.
"If your body is prepared and trained adequately, this . . . should roll right out of you," she says. "It's written in iambic pentameter. It's a heartbeat."
When Deal takes a role, she asks to show her fellow actors "the very rudiments of the approach that I take to acting . . . which includes a rigorous warm-up, a reacquaintanceship with the vocal training." She gets some fisheyes from colleagues "questioning the legitimacy of the process." She adds that she assumes she has "angered or alienated some directors by saying I need to do it this way; this is how I work."
Deal, who won a Helen Hayes Award for her performance as a mom possibly communing with space aliens in Source's "The Muckle Man" two seasons ago, works often with Washington Shakespeare, where she has acted in "Tiny Alice," "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Scaramouche" and has "a tremendous rapport" with Artistic Director Christopher Henley. He will direct "The Tempest."
"Of all the actresses I've worked with in Washington, she's the most interested in different approaches to performing," says Henley. "She's explored a lot of the aspects of theater that deal with ritual. . . . It just seemed like a really good fit to me."
Prospero is a duke of Milan living in exile, but Henley is coy about whether Deal will play the role as a woman, a man, both or neither. "Some of it we want to kind of keep as a surprise," he says.
Deal hints that her Prospero will be in touch with both his masculine and feminine sides. A university-trained scholar accustomed to logic, the duke in exile is taught by Caliban "the natural magic of the island," Deal says. "You have this unification of right-brain linear thought with kind of an earth magic -- masculine and feminine, respectively."
And that enables Prospero to forgive the brother who usurped him. "To take the higher road, to progress . . . to a level that the situation doesn't degenerate," Deal says, reflects Shakespeare's "profound understanding of human nature and all that we are capable of, good and bad, to exhort us to evolve and act in a better way."
Arena Stage's 514-seat Kreeger Theatre has been jumping with the unprecedented summer revival of its winter hit "Crowns." Since it reopened July 22 (it closes Aug. 29), the gospel-infused musical has become "the most successful show . . . in the 44 years of the Kreeger," Arena Executive Director Stephen Richard says. And it has drawn new audiences, "attracting folks to Arena who have never been -- in some cases never been to the theater in Washington," he says. "And that is the huge part of our mission -- to diversify, expand our audience."
Arena's box-office figures indicate the show, about African American women in their fabulous Sunday hats, has been seen by 14,000 patrons so far this summer. During the winter run, 41,000 people, including 6,000 newcomers to Arena, saw the musical, which played at 99 percent of capacity.
There are "family groups, church groups, groups of friends," says Richard. "People are coming in their 'crowns,' which is pretty cool. . . . Everyone is talking about coming again and bringing others." He notes that "surprising" numbers -- about half -- of the theatergoers have been white. From here the show goes to the Hartford Stage.
MetroStage in Alexandria will launch its 2004-05 season with "One Good Marriage: A Simple Tale of Glorious Grief" (Oct. 21-Nov. 21) by Canadian dramatist Sean Reycraft. The dark comedy portrays a young couple on their wedding anniversary and the secret that binds them. John Vreeke will direct.
"The All Night Strut!" (Feb. 16-March 27), a musical conceived by Fran Charnas, will showcase tunes from the 1930s and 1940s by such legends as Hoagy Carmichael, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins and Fats Waller. Thomas W. Jones II will direct.
An adaptation of Sophocles' "Electra" (April 21-May 29) by Frank McGuinness (performed on Broadway in 1988-89) will star Jennifer Mendenhall, directed by Michael Russotto.
"The Last Five Years" (June 15-July 24), a musical by writer-composer Jason Robert Brown ("Parade") that traces the love between an actress and a novelist, will be directed by Jane Pesci-Townsend. Tracy Lynn Olivera and Will Gartshore will star.
* Synetic Theatre will perform its much-lauded "Host and Guest" at the New York International Fringe Festival on Aug. 13-21. The show will play here Sept. 3-Oct. 16 at the Rosslyn Spectrum (co-produced by Classika Theatre), and Oct. 23 at Black Rock Center for the Arts in Germantown. "Host and Guest," by Georgian writer Vazha Pshavela, dramatizes an epic poem about Christian-Muslim strife. Visit www.fringenyc.org.
* Toby's Dinner Theatre will host the second annual benefit cabaret and auction for the Rick Stohler Scholarship Fund on Aug. 16, from 6 to 11 p.m. Stohler, a popular singer-actor at Toby's and a primary school teacher, died in 2002. The fund helps Howard County elementary school kids see live performances and study the arts. Call Terry Sweeney at 410-381-3459 or Toby's at 410-730-8312.
* David Pleasant, the athletic percussionist in Arena Stage's "Crowns," was sidelined with a back injury last week. Understudy Romero Wyatt is filling in indefinitely.