To the layout of the Kennedy Center, with its sweeping Hall of States and Hall of Nations, you can add the halls of global drama.
From Tuesday until April 6, the stages of the august performing arts center will resonate to an extraordinary degree with the voices and visages of actors from all over the planet. A French company headed by an English director performing a contemporary South African play. An Israeli troupe composed entirely of actors who are both deaf and blind, illuminating their silences in a communal act of breadmaking. A Mexican company mounting a play in Spanish by a Lebanese Canadian playwright. The National Theatre of China, arriving with a Hong Kong writer’s modern take on a folkloric Chinese love story.
Every continent except Antarctica will be represented at the center’s World Stages international theater festival. And if McMurdo Station were home to some serious theater buffs, we’d probably be treated to an “Iceman Cometh,” too.
As it is, some 15 productions, involving writers, directors and actors from 19 countries, will be presented in short runs all over the complex, in one of the most ambitious aggregations of world theater the center has ever attempted. And the offerings range from the topical (Australia’s “Rupert,” about media mogul Rupert Murdoch) to the whimsical (“Penny Plain,” by Canada’s Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes) to the classical (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as interpreted by Britain’s Bristol Old Vic and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company).
Reflecting the intrepid festival ethos, numerous entries cross borders themselves, as in the case of “Fallujah,” which will be presented March 29 in a single staged reading. A chamber opera that tells the story of a traumatized American marine convalescing in a veteran’s hospital after his latest suicide attempt, “Fallujah” has a libretto by Iraqi American playwright Heather Raffo (“9 Parts of Desire”) and music by Canadian composer Tobin Stokes. Similarly, the performance piece “Les Souffleurs Commandos Poétiques” (“The Poetic Commando Whisperers”) is a collaboration by Tokyo Theatre Company KAZE and the French avant garde troupe of the title.
How many stamps will you put in your theater passport in the next few week? For a road map to the productions — and a few words from the creative forces behind each — read on.
March 28-April 6, Family Theater
Description: Having previously appeared at the Kennedy Center with “Jason and the Argonauts,” which riffed on Greek myth with action figures, Visible Fictions now takes on the merry outlaw of Sherwood Forest. Two actors play multiple roles in this antic production, co-commissioned by the Kennedy Center’s Theater for Young Audiences program and recommended for age 8 and up.
In their words: “We love to take a story and turn it upside down, making us think differently and breathing new life into a tale we all feel we know so well. . . . This production, although set in Sherwood Forest, won’t be what you expect. There will be no trees or even green tights; but there will be all the characters you know, bows and arrows, horse chases, cunning disguises and food fights . . . and all this with just two actors.” —Douglas Irvine, director
— Celia Wren
March 29, Terrace Gallery
Countries: Iraq, Canada
Description: A staged reading of a new chamber opera by Iraqi American playwright Heather Raffo and Canadian composer Tobin Stokes that explores the aftershocks in a marine’s life after surviving one of the most horrific battles of the Iraq war. In English.
In their words: “The essential story of ‘Fallujah’ is of a mother and son struggling to communicate when that son returns from the Iraq War. All the opera’s characters — Iraqis, Americans, mothers and sons — have experienced trauma. Communicating the impossible becomes key to maintaining their relationships. The theater for me has always been a place to explore these kinds of deep but difficult conversations. And opera further touches the extremes of war through the immensity of song. In ‘Fallujah,’ even as characters struggle to make conversation, song reflects their most private emotions and communicates what military families have said is incommunicable. I cannot think of another medium able to penetrate with its scale and sound such levels of loss, longing, love and rage all through the human voice.” — Heather Raffo, librettist
— Peter Marks
March 22 at Terrace Gallery
Country: United States
Description: A staged reading of a new play from on-the-rise dramatist Samuel D. Hunter, a writer in residence at Arena Stage whose “A Bright New Boise” was a 2011 Woolly Mammoth hit. “A Great Wilderness,” about a retirement-age Idahoan who counsels teenage boys away from homosexuality, premiered last month at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Williamstown Theatre Festival sponsors it here, and will produce it this summer.
In their words: “I grew up in northern Idaho, and pretty much all of my plays are set in that part of the country. Coincidentally, the jumping-off point for ‘A Great Wilderness’ was actually a bit of back story in ‘A Bright New Boise.’ In ‘Boise,’ the main character has left his home town after a scandal involving a young man named Daniel dying out in the forest, and the story line in ‘Wilderness’ involves a young man named Daniel getting lost out in the forest. Though my plays don’t share any content in terms of story or character, they all sort of dovetail off one another in certain ways. They’re all basically about emotional and spiritual misfits trying to make their way in an increasingly modern and overwhelming world. The Seattle production was so beautifully realized — with such a strong cast, director and design — that it allowed me to see the play clearly and thoroughly, so I’m really energized to get back into it and continue working.” — Samuel D. Hunter
March 27-30, Eisenhower Theater
Description: An interpretation of a timeless Chinese myth about two sister snakes becoming human and attempting love, adapted from the novel by Lillian Lee (Li Bihua). Traditional versions focus on the upright White Snake; this National Theatre of China production, led by women, including adapter-director Tian Qinxin, takes a keen interest in the defiant Green Snake. In Mandarin, with projected English titles.
In their words: “Generations of scholars and theater enthusiasts have created about 360 types of Chinese operas and stories [from this fable]. The earliest well-known version is from the Ming Dynasty, aimed at convincing young men not to get lured by the lust of beauty. Even online games are developed from this story in China. Young audiences like it because the affection in the play resonates with them. Through her process of becoming a human, Green Snake has endured all kinds of hardship, but she is very tenacious, which makes her very different, even braver than contemporary girls.” — Tian Qinxin, director and adaptor
— Nelson Pressley
March 15-16, Terrace Theater
Description: From the National Theatre of Iceland, a young couple with two children find themselves adrift online as their marriage blows up. In English.
In their words: “This play is a true story based on a murder we covered extensively at a newspaper I was editor-in-chief for in 2005. This is a tragedy about young people getting a divorce, jealousy and a never-ending argument. I finished the first draft the day I got married, on Christmas Day in 2011, to the lead actress in the play. The man in the true story is related to me, and I felt for these people. I got divorced from my first wife in 2008, so I know some of the feelings this young couple is going through. In the original murder case, the woman was online all the time, trying to get some connection with people — hooking up and stuff like that. The man would record some of her actions. I think Iceland holds the world record for smartphone use.” — Mikael Torfason, playwright
— Nelson Pressley
March 14-16, Terrace Gallery
Description: Tapioca Inn is producing Lebanese Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s play (titled “Scorched” in its English-language version) about adult twins who discover secrets in their mother’s past — secrets that connect the siblings to a war-scarred country. In Spanish, with projected English titles.
In their own words: “‘Incendios’ arrived like a balm to heal wounds, a balm that found its way into the personal and social wounds of a group of artists and spectators who reside in a country devastated by violence, loss and impunity. As artists, we needed ‘Incendios’ as much as Mexico needs a clear horizon . . . . I would like to think that ‘Incendios’ is a clear test of how the beauty that lives in the heart of theater and the arts can heal some of the ancestral wounds that we have given one another over centuries and centuries of war.” — Hugo Arrevillaga, director and adapter
— Celia Wren
March 14-16, Family Theater
Description: LA MAFIA Teatro produces Chilean American writer Ariel Dorfman’s drama about the meeting between a former political prisoner and the man who, she suspects, tortured her while she was in detention. In Spanish, with projected English titles.
In their words: On Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who presided over a brutal dictatorship in Chile but was never brought to trial for human-rights abuses: “If justice is not served in real life, then the theater can give us some much-needed emotional healing. . . . Last year, we commemorated 40 years since the coup, which marked the beginning of Pinochet’s dictatorship. That moment changed many of our lives forever. By choosing to do this play, we were forced to examine our own past again — this time with the possibility to share our deepest pains with more freedom and maturity.” — Moira Miller, director
— Celia Wren
March 28-30, in public spaces throughout the Kennedy Center
Country: Japan and France
Description: “Les souffleurs” means “whisperers,” and that’s what will occur in random spots throughout the Kennedy Center in this collaboration between Tokyo Theatre Company KAZE and France’s Les Souffleurs Commandos Poétiques. No script, no stage: Performers whisper poems into the ears of individual listeners through long tubes called rossignols. In English.
In their words: “Tokyo Theatre Company KAZE has done a number of collaborations with [Les Souffleurs actor-writer Olivier] Comte — for example, Comte appeared in the production of Brecht’s ‘Good Person of Szechwan’ that I directed. We do collaborations with European artists very often. When we collaborated with Souffleurs for the ‘Sakura Zensen’ tour, we ‘whispered’ at plazas and in buildings, offices, department stores and museums, as well as on street corners and other public spaces. One of the tasks of modern art is to discover the art, and produce the theatre, that exists for each individual viewer. Souffleurs’ work involves several people performing for the sake of one individual, rather than putting on a performance for hundreds or thousands of people.” — Yoshinari Asano, artistic director of Tokyo Theatre Company KAZE
— Nelson Pressley
March 20-23, Eisenhower Theater
Country: England and South Africa
Description: Shakespeare’s fairy-fueled comedy, from the minds of the acclaimed “War Horse” collaborators, British director Tom Morris (artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic) and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.
In their words: “This is very unlike ‘War Horse.’ Puck possesses tools the fairy queen Hippolyta used, and it’s as if her tool kit itself comes to life. That’s how the language of the puppets begins in the show, and it connects with the theme of the play: In matters of love, the human imagination has a tremendous capacity to rewrite the evidence around it in terms of what it wants to see.”
On collaborating across hemispheres: “There were some pretty surreal e-mail attachments, but most of it was in the room. The rehearsal process began with unpacking puppets, then trying to work out with the company how they worked. To see this is very strange; it’s like someone learning to use a particular wand in ‘Harry Potter,’ learning that the wand will accept some commands, and resist others.” — Tom Morris, director
— Nelson Pressley
March 25-26, Terrace Theater
Description: Eleven members of the Nalaga’at Theater Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble give audiences a sense of the extraordinary interior lives of people both deaf and blind through the everyday act of baking bread. In Hebrew, with projected English titles and American Sign Language interpretation.
In their words: “‘Not By Bread Alone’ was developed over many years, based on the actors’ personal experiences and dreams. And by touching their inner truth, they were able to convey a universal truth to audiences in Israel and all over the world. As a deaf-blind person lives in complete isolation, in complete darkness and silence, it was important for me to create a common time frame for the ensemble and the audience. The show takes the time it takes to make bread. From the moment the audience comes into the theater, the actors are on stage kneading the dough that is then raised and baked during the show. The smell of the bread fills the theater, and the show ends while the bread is ready and the audience is invited on stage to taste the bread and communicate with the actors. . . . We are looking forward to sharing those moments with our audience in Washington, believing that there is no limit to human spirit.” — Adina Tal, director
- Peter Marks
March 20-22, Terrace Theater
Description: The Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes stages an apocalyptic thriller-comedy about an elderly woman who waits for the Earth to expire while survivalists, talking dogs, a serial killer and other eccentric figures fret and bustle around her. Each wood-and-paper-mâché marionette in the piece has an average of 15 moving joints, articulated by 14 strings. “Penny Plain” is performed in English and is recommended for ages 14 and up.
In their words: “I heard an interview with [scientist and environmentalist] Dr. David Suzuki. . . . This got me thinking about how the Earth would best be saved. And the obvious answer was, get mankind out of the way. I’ve been thinking on this sort of thing for a long time, as well as the whole notion of heaven on Earth and that sort of thing. It continually strikes me that we are already in paradise. We, as a species, just seem to prefer plastic and petroleum addiction over living in a garden of Eden. . . . There is darkness within the play, but it’s also filled with great light.” —Ronnie Burkett, creator and performer
- Celia Wren
March 12-15, Eisenhower Theater
Description: From the Melbourne Theatre Company comes David Williamson’s cabaret-influenced play about Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch, which is informed both by Murdoch’s outsize business appetites and the musical influences of tap, disco and flamenco.
In their words: “As a dramatist, what I found interesting was that Rupert is not just a typical businessman hell-bent on acquiring more and more wealth. What his actions reveal, and what hopefully the play is able to chart, is that the primary purpose of his lust for power is to make sure his voice is heard, and in particular his political voice. . . . Rupert, in my opinion, has profoundly influenced the political thinking of his time, and so it should be interesting to American audiences to see just how he has done it and the effects it has had. Rupert may not be near the head of the table of the ultra-rich, but in my opinion is right near the top of the list of the ultra-influential.” — David Williamson, playwright
— Peter Marks
March 19-22, Family Theater
Description: Marguerite Duras’s 1982 play is revived by Thé âtre de l’Atelier and tells the story of a young woman poring over details of the life of her mother, who killed herself the day after she was born. In French, with English subtitles.
In their words: “‘Savannah Bay’ is an emblematic piece from the theatrical work of Marguerite Duras. Many themes which can be found in her preceding plays are weaved into this one: the sense of time, memory, a romantic legend, the connection to the tragic, and the close ties between the theater and life. These different themes which are representative of the universe of Duras circulate in the play, which takes the form of a tragic poem shared between two women who are searching for their own identities.” — Didier Bezace, director
— Peter Marks
March 28-30, Terrace Theater
Country: South Africa
Description: Lara Foot’s play, in a production by the Cape Town-based Baxter Theatre Centre, details a clash of South Africas old and new. A lonely older woman in mourning over her son’s death, played by Academy Award nominee Janet Suzman (“Nicholas and Alexandra”), encounters a young man (Khayalethu Anthony) who reopens old wounds.
In their words: “I started writing in response to a feeling, and as an artist I wanted to illuminate specific social issues. These issues arose in response to, and were emphasized by, the murder of security workers by fellow colleagues for attempting to ignore a strike. The negativity around crime and instability in the country was made more intense with the recent murder of colleague and actor Brett Goldin. Brett was rehearsing ‘Hamlet’ at the Baxter at the time, with director Janet Suzman. . . . The empathy that I felt for Brett’s mother, coupled with Janet’s heartache, courage and resilience, invoked in me a feeling, which sparked an intuition, which led me towards a character, which I named Marion Banning. I saw a flash of a woman, 10 years after her son’s death. I saw her sitting in a chair, a blanket over her legs, paralyzed by aloneness.” — Lara Foot, playwright-director
March 11-13, Terrace Theater
Description: Peter Brook’s Paris-based Thé âtre des Bouffes du Nord performs this South African play by Can Themba, Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon, which is about the aftermath of infidelity and the keepsake that a husband humiliatingly forces his unfaithful wife to care for. In English, with music.
In their words: “This was a story of a revenge so pitiless, one that could only arise in that pressure cooker of a country. In trying to develop that, we felt the music should not be put naturalistically all into a South African context. Another music evolved: Bach, Schubert and South African music all coming together and following the feelings of the characters of the story.” — Peter Brook, director
— Peter Marks