From black box to Broadway, there’s no shortage of high-caliber theater in America — but language barriers keep some of the world’s best shows out of our reach.
“Generally, in America, we expect everything to be in English, and everything is not,” says Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center’s head of international programming. “We’re missing a lot. I’m always trying to give audiences … opportunities to experience other parts of the world and listen to works in other languages.”
Adams travels the world in search of quality productions for an annual festival of theater from outside U.S. borders. This year, instead of zeroing in on one country or region as she’s done in the past, Adams put together a sampling of performances, staged readings and installations from across the globe. The resulting program, the World Stages international theater festival, opened Monday.
Nine of the 13 full-scale productions in the festival have never been staged in America before, an impressive tally of premieres for the Kennedy Center. “I was trying to include important theater from every continent, and we managed to do that,” she says. “Except for Antarctica. Maybe next time.”
Here’s a rundown of the nine shows you can see in D.C. before they open anywhere else in the country. And if you do see one of the five that are in a language other than English, don’t worry — projected surtitles will translate.
Eisenhower Theater,Thu.-Sat., 7:30 p.m., $29-$69
“Rupert,” written by Australia’s most famous playwright, David Williamson, brings the Melbourne Theatre Company to America. The life of the show’s eponymous right-wing media mogul (Murdoch, that is) is examined in a vaudevillian comedy, which includes bits about the cutthroat business practices and phone-hacking scandal that made him a household name.
Terrace Gallery, Fri.-Sun., 7:30 p.m., $29
Originally “Incendies,” written in French by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad, the play follows twins who travel through their deceased mother’s past to find the answers to secrets she hid in her will. Mexican theater troupe Tapioca Inn will perform “Incendios” in Spanish.
‘La Muerte y La Doncella (Death and the Maiden)’
Family Theater, Fri. & Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 1:30 p.m.,$29
Years after a woman was brutally abused as a political prisoner, she chances upon the man who raped her — and holds him hostage — in a story inspired by Chile’s arduous road to democracy.
Terrace Theater, Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m., $29
A couple with two young children see their marriage wither as the jealous husband spies on his lonely wife’s Internet habits. A suspenseful romance-turned-tragedy, “Harmsaga” is the National Theatre of Iceland’s first U.S. performance.
Family Theater, March 19-22, 7:30 p.m., $49
Festival curator Alicia Adams calls the late Marguerite Duras’ two-character French drama a “seminal work.” In the 1982 play, a young woman visits her grandmother for the first time, seeking answers about the mother she never knew, who committed suicide the day after she gave birth. Through dusty recollections, the grandmother recounts the dreadful day that shaped both their lives.
Eisenhower Theater, March 27-29, 7:30 p.m.; March 30, 1:30 p.m. $29-$69
“Green Snake” is a bold, modern take on an ancient Chinese legend about two snake spirits who transform into human women capable of intense love and lust. Director and playwright Tian Qinxin is a rising star in China, where woman directors are still somewhat rare. Adams says Qinxin’s talent and “Green Snake’s” high production values make this a can’t-miss show.
‘Les Souffleurs commandos poetiques’
Throughout the Kennedy Center, March 28-30
Black-clad artists will take over the entire Kennedy Center, whispering poems through 6-foot tubes (called rossignols) directly into spectators’ ears, during this free-to-the-public collaboration between Tokyo Theatre Company KAZE and French performance group Les Souffleurs commandos poetiques. The troupe calls its art a “tentative de ralentissement du monde” — an attempt to slow down the world.
‘Solomon and Marion’
Terrace Theater, March 28 & 29, 7:30 p.m., March 30, 2 p.m., $49
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, “Solomon and Marion” features Academy Award nominee Janet Suzman as an embittered and lonely divorced woman mourning the death of her son. When a young black man moves in with her, the two forge an unlikely friendship. “The chemistry between [the two actors] just sparks,” Adams says.
‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’
Family Theater, March 28, 7 p.m.; March 29 & 30, 1:30 & 4 p.m.; April 4, 7 p.m.; April 5 & 6, 1:30 & 4 p.m., $20
The lone World Stages show to extend beyond the festival’s March 30 end date, this wacky, kid-friendly, Scottish interpretation of the famed exploits of the man in green tights stars just two actors, each playing multiple roles.
Not all of the characters at World Stages are played by people. Two of the shows are at least partially populated by puppets: “Penny Plain” (March 20-22), a Canadian play performed by one man operating 10 marionettes, and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (March 20-23), a surreal interpretation of the Bard’s comedy with a roster of both human actors and wooden puppets carved by the Handspring Puppet Company.
Handspring, the South African puppet design team behind the magnificent creature at the center of “War Horse,” has put some of its most impressive creations on display for “Raw to Real: Carving Theater” in the Kennedy Center’s Hall of Nations. A puppet made to play Joey, the equine star of “War Horse,” is on exhibit — and it’s a stunning example of how artful handiwork can bring man-made materials to life.
— The puppet is operated by three performers in roles named for their position in the animal: head, hind and heart. Dressed in period costumes, the puppeteers not only articulate Joey’s movements through an elaborate system of levers, joints and tendons, but speak his lines (whimpers and whinnies), too.
— A 120-pound machine, Joey is strong enough to hold the weight of the adult men who ride him onstage. The puppet’s frame is made from cane, chosen for its strength and shape retention, and its skin is a translucent mesh that reflects the mood of the stage lighting.
— Joey’s ears rotate in their sockets when a puppeteer squeezes a set of handles. An elastic band wrapped around each ear’s base provides enough tension to simulate the twitching of a real-life horse. “The way [the horse was] structured anatomically so it can move in the most naturalistic ways is just stunning,” says festival curator Alicia Adams. “I’m mesmerized by it.”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; through March 30, various times and prices; 202-467-4600. (Foggy Bottom)