Greek tragedy seems to offer theater artists the cathartic engine they need to express feelings about U.S. foreign policy.
Scena Theatre's "The Persians" uses a radically modern adaptation by playwright Robert Auletta of Aeschylus's drama, with unambiguous references to the "exploding" desert floor and a "highway of death." Persian characters speak of Americans and Athenians interchangeably as greedy (for oil) conquerors. The defeated king, Xerxes, comes across as a monomaniacal dictator, a la Saddam Hussein.
"He slips right in and contemporizes everything, not in a trendy or a cheap way, but in a way that's kind of profound," Artistic Director Robert McNamara says of Auletta. The adaptation, which runs through Aug. 14 at the Tivoli (14th Street and Park Road NW), "gets right to the front lines, almost like a television show."
Auletta recalls seeing some people walk out of a production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles 12 years ago. (The play, which premiered in Europe, was written in response to the Persian Gulf War.) "Literally people ran out of the theater. They were shaking their fists," he says. "I think people thought it was anti-American, when one [character] raises his fist and says, 'I curse the name of America!' "
Auletta believes "perceptions have changed a lot" since America's first war in the Persian Gulf. He sees his adaptation as "a meditation on destruction and real suffering" of which people need to be reminded. "We had it here at 9/11," he says, but in his play Persian characters bemoan the fact that their suffering is not made known to ordinary Athenians/Americans.
"I think maybe some people might still walk out," Auletta says. "I just feel a different consciousness working now. It's 12 years later and we see that the war didn't solve anything. We see there's a big mess, terrorism's gotten worse. There's got to be a better way."
The Shakespeare Theatre, by the way, will offer a new adaptation of "The Persians" by Ellen McLaughlin next spring.
American Century Theater, which revives rarely done American plays at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington, will open its new season next month with "It Had to Be You" (Sept. 8-Oct. 8), a 1981 comedy by married actor-writers Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor, directed by Ellen Dempsey.
"The humor in it I think plays well, and frankly, after this season, doing things like 'The Emperor Jones' and 'Moby Dick Rehearsed,' " Artistic Director Jack Marshall says, "my subscribers have been saying, 'When are you going to do something that's a little bit lighter?' "
"Spoon River Anthology" (Jan. 5-28), a 1963 adaptation by Charles Aidman of Edgar Lee Masters's poetic portrait of a town, will be staged by Shane Wallis.
Steven Scott Mazzola will direct a lesser known 1951 Lillian Hellman play, "The Autumn Garden" (March 16-April 15). The piece is sometimes referred to as Hellman's Chekhov play. "It really has a Chekhovian structure," Marshall says, in the way it sketches people who gather at a summer resort at a pivotal time in their lives.
Jackie Manger will direct Paul Shyre's 1959 stage adaptation of John Dos Passos's "U.S.A." trilogy (June 22-July 15). A timeless theme in the piece is "America being torn between its basic ideas and being overly obsessed with making money and celebrity," Marshall says.
Ending the season will be a concert version of the 1946 skit musical about soldiers readjusting to civilian life, "Call Me Mister" (dates TBA), with songs by Harold Rome and skits by Arnold Auerbach and Arnold Horwitt.
Bethesda's Imagination Stage will kick off a season of kid-focused theater with an adaptation of "Cinderella" (Sept. 24-Nov. 6) by British playwright Charles Way. Mozart, as a character, will conduct his tunes at the ball. Erika Rose stars as a girl who's angry over the loss of her mother and is, says Artistic Director Janet Stanford, "not a particularly nice young woman at the beginning of the play."
Imagination Stage performed Way's "Merlin and the Cave of Dreams" last summer. "What Charlie does so well is he's able to create psychological sense out of some of these stories that are so archetypical," says Sanford, who will direct.
Over the holidays (Nov. 25-Jan. 15), the company will present a trimmed-down version of the Broadway show "Seussical" by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, based on the writings of Dr. Seuss. Kathryn Chase Bryer will direct Horton the elephant et al.
New York playwright Eisa Davis has been commissioned to re-imagine a Ghanaian folktale in "Hip Hop Anansi" (Feb. 11-April 13). Deaf actor-choreographer Fred Beam will join a cast of deaf and hearing hip-hop artists in the world premiere, directed by Patrick Crowley.
In another world premiere, Washington playwright Mary Hall Surface will direct her adaptation of Eleanor Estes's 1945 book, "The Hundred Dresses" (May 13-June 11). The season will end with another piece by Way, this time an adaptation of "The Borrowers" (July 5-Aug. 13, 2006) by Mary Norton. Stanford will direct.
* "Rising Tide: A Flood of New 10-Minute Plays" will be staged Aug. 15-16 at Source Theatre (1835 14th St. NW), co-produced by Smallbeer Theatre, the In Series and Source. Smallbeer's Lynnie Raybuck says she and Source's longtime literary manager Keith Parker decided to go ahead despite Source's financial limbo and darkened stage. This summer would be the competition's 20th anniversary and the 25th anniversary of Source's Washington Theatre Festival, "and it just didn't seem right to me to let those things just die," Raybuck says. Call 301-277-8117 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Scena Theatre's next season at the Warehouse Theater will feature Steven Berkoff's stage version of Franz Kafka's "The Trial" (Sept. 10-Oct. 16), Jean-Paul Sartre's "No Exit" (Oct. 15-Nov. 20), Conor McPherson's "This Lime Tree Bower" (Feb. 11-March 19) and Charles Marowitz's "Silent Partners" (April 15-May 21), directed by the playwright. Visit www.scenatheatre.org.