Washington theater is a city of niches, and few brands are as indelible as Woolly Mammoth’s. A “Woolly play” is new, big, wild. The acting is hyper-real. The design might blow up. The whole thing can soar or splat.
Howard Shalwitz laid down those markers when he created Woolly in 1980 with actor Roger Brady and manager Linda Reinisch. With a nutty-sounding play called “The Kramer” — a sinister office comedy that might be playable today — Washington Post critic David Richards noticed something different about the new gang.
“Not all the actors are right for their roles, but all of them are attuned to the prevailing style, lean and succinct,” Richards wrote in 1981. “This is a provocative marriage of an off-beat play and a troupe that has set out to forge a distinctive ensemble style. Isn’t that what we are looking for in our ‘alternative’ theaters?”
For 37 years, Shalwitz — who announced his retirement Tuesday as of the end of the 2017-2018 season — has stuck to those guns, and the troupe’s reputation as a high-gloss venue for lowdown, dirty subversion and intellectual dares makes this a plum job for an ambitious leader. The pressure will be a fraction of that faced by the new head of the Shakespeare Theatre Company around the corner, the big two-theater enterprise where Michael Kahn recently announced his retirement as of 2019. (The STC job, with its Broadway-scaled Harman Hall and international accent, is also, arguably, the most glamorous theater position in town.) Woolly is a tight, mid-size ship with lots of ways to execute its outsider mandate. Plenty of directors with connections to hip playwrights will apply.
Shalwitz’s departure all but ends the line of artistic founders who arrived during (or before) the 1980s, pioneered a durable infrastructure and radically made over practically all the city’s major stages as of a decade or so ago. Navigating Woolly into a permanent home at 641 D St. NW was perhaps Shalwitz’s most artful act: The company gamely bounced around the city for four years (the Kennedy Center and Theater J were frequent hosts) while developing its “glorious nest,” as Marks initially greeted the spacious industrial-themed basement quarters that opened in 2005. By 2013, the troupe bought the space outright.
What Shalwitz will leave his successor is that smartly conceived 265-seat stage in the heart of Penn Quarter, and an outfit known for shaking out the most aggressive new plays on the American landscape. More than 75 U.S. and world premieres have bowed at Woolly, where Shalwitz has consistently looked for new ways to connect with audiences — as one small example, it was an early and controversial experimenter with “tweet seats” — and for better ways not just to stage but to make new plays.
Of course, when Woolly misfires, the results can be spectacularly bad. “House of Gold” (an icky riff on the JonBenét Ramsey saga) and Robert O’Hara’s “Zombie: The American” (a futuristic comedy with, yes, zombies in the White House basement) were the kind of jaw-dropping messes you never forget. Such are the wages of risk.
On the other hand, O’Hara’s frisky “Bootycandy” succeeded handsomely in New York after Woolly unveiled it, as did Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns: A Post-Apocalyptic Play.” Notable world premieres in the new space alone include Sarah Ruhl's “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” Danai Gurira's “Eclipsed” (produced on Broadway last year with Lupita Nyong'o) and Aaron Posner’s franchise-making Chekhov adaptation “Stupid F-ing Bird.” The troupe’s expert “Clybourne Park” — Bruce Norris’s prickly, Pulitzer-winning “Raisin in the Sun” update — warranted a return engagement and a brief national tour.
Along the way, Shalwitz — the only one of Woolly’s founders to have lasted through the troupe’s first decade — emerged as a national thought leader. In 2012, he delivered a much-buzzed-about keynote address for the Theatre Communications Group’s annual conference, lamenting the competent but bland “assembly line” seasons that pro companies hammer out year after year. Initiatives such as Free the Beast, creating 10 years of funding to expand the planning and production of 25 new works, indicate the philosophy-schooled (Wesleyan ’74) Shalwitz’s knack for turning theory into practice.
“Action” has been another key word under Shalwitz, as Woolly evolved in the 1980s as a sort of little sibling to Chicago’s muscular Steppenwolf Theatre. The house style was powder keg acting, often ignited by neurotic comedy: Reality was out the window, and over- the-top (yet honest) was in. The hole-in-the-wall theater just off 14th Street NW, Woolly’s home for 13 years, was a great place for provocative laughs: Nicky Silver’s antic family satires (“Fat Men in Skirts,” “The Food Chain”) became staples. Favorite writers included Wallace Shawn and Harry Kondoleon, whose “Christmas on Mars” was staged twice in the 1980s and earned Shalwitz his lone Helen Hayes Award nomination as an actor. The romance with Shawn included an “Aunt Dan and Lemon” with Nancy Robinette and Jennifer Mendenhall emerging, like a number of Woolly regulars, as comically gifted and dramatically deep.
By 1989, Richards noted that the Woolly audience had increased from a grand total of 511 souls its first year to over 16,000 annually in a 130-seat space. He added: “It is obvious the Woolly Mammoth was the first theater, since the defunct Washington Theatre Club of the 1960s and ’70s, to prove there was an unwhetted appetite here for the theatrically off-beat and even the off-putting. Furthermore, with its reputation for derring-do, it has attracted some of the city’s most original young actors.”
Naomi Jacobson and Holly Twyford paired memorably in the feminist Shakespeare comedy “Goodnight, Desdemona (Good Morning, Juliet).” After a half-dozen shows including a “Stop Kiss” with Twyford, Rhea Seehorn graduated to TV (lately “Better Call Saul”). Emily Townley, a Woolly actor from way back, is giving one of the richest performances of her career — sumptuously detailed, emotionally real and verbally limber with a riotous cascade of liberal-progressive terms — in Taylor Mac’s “Hir,” a gender-bending comedy that acts like the unruly love child of Nicky Silver, Sam Shepard and NEA Four writer-actor Holly Hughes.
Shalwitz, originally an actor, reduced his stage appearances after Mendenhall directed him in “The Fever,” Shawn’s twisting monologue accusing Americans of vile moral complacency. He’ll appear again in September, in Max Frisch's early 1950s political satire “The Arsonists.”
Actors rarely run the ship, and surely the wiry, clear-voiced Shalwitz’s work on stage — a real company member, in that sense — has informed the hyper-vitality that continues to mark the company’s approach to performance. Guest artists across the years have been outsize, too, and they’ve tended to be prickly observer-provocateurs, from Tim Miller in his “NEA Four” days to the explosive Mike Daisey (“How Theater Failed America,” “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”) and now to Second City’s edgy funnyman Felonius Monk, a star of the recent “Black Side of the Moon” who will be the centerpiece of next season’s “Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains).”
Shalwitz’s successor might broaden the tone, for Woolly surely can be a hothouse for corrosiveness, dystopias and apocalypse. Might deepen the repertoire, too: The brief forays into American classics (such as Clifford Odets’s “Rocket to the Moon”) and Restoration comedy (the modern knockoff “Measure for Pleasure”) make you ache for more nights with Woolly actors in a wider variety of material.
But the sustained zeal has more than kept pace with changing times. Woolly has increasingly pressed ahead as a Washington theater — woke, and the most restless in town.
“We’re exposed to such extreme material on a daily basis, on the nightly news shows alone,” Shalwitz told The Post in 1989. “But I do think in terms of jolting people, challenging them, confounding them.” Woolly’s next head is unlikely to break faith with that.