It occurred to Michael Kahn, the longtime artistic director of Shakespeare Theatre Company, that theater in the nation’s capital was missing an opportunity this fall — to stimulate minds in an electorally obsessed city — with what thinkers for the stage have to say about politics and related matters.
So in a gathering with other artistic directors at the Kennedy Center, where they were holding a getting-to-know-you meeting with the institution’s recently installed president, Deborah Rutter, Kahn suggested they all do something about it. “We were sitting around, and I said that the discourse in this country is so terrible and that people were getting away with big lies,” he said. “I was thinking about how we could try to wake people up.”
“There was a groundswell of enthusiasm for it,” he added.
The result is a highly unusual collaboration, starting Oct. 3, and lasting until election eve, Nov. 7, through which five of the region’s highest-profile theaters — Shakespeare Theatre, Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center, Signature Theatre and Studio Theatre — will each devote a Monday night in their spaces to a free performance of a play that speaks to these polarizing times.
“Theatrical Selections” begins Oct. 3 at Arena Stage with a staged reading of Lillian Hellman’s 1941 “Watch on the Rhine,” a Washington cautionary drama about the insidiousness of fascism and a family enmeshed in anti-Nazi intrigue. (The play will be given a full production later this season — and directed by the Shaw Festival’s Jackie Maxwell — as part of Arena’s Lillian Hellman festival, which begins this month with “The Little Foxes.”)
Next up, on Oct. 17 in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, is Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.” Brecht’s allegorical drama of the rise of fascism tells of a gangster in 1930s Chicago who violently seizes control of the city’s grocery business — and models his gestures after a certain Nazi dictator. Then, on Oct. 24, Signature Theatre weighs in with “A Face in the Crowd,” Budd Schulberg’s screenplay, based on his short story, about Lonesome Rhodes, a media huckster who takes on the trappings of a demagogue. The Kennedy Center is up next, on Oct. 31, giving a staged reading of Kenneth Lin’s “Warrior Class,” a 2012 political drama about an Asian-American state assemblyman from New York who, by virtue of a rousing oration, is touted as the “Republican Obama.”
The series concludes on the eve of Election Day at Studio Theatre, with the juicily titled “Ivanka: A Medea for Right Now,” by Joshua Harmon, author of the scintillating “Bad Jews,” Studio’s all-time biggest hit. In “Ivanka,” Harmon imagines Donald Trump’s daughter being repulsed by her father’s hateful rhetoric and, at her wit’s end, repudiating him as Election Day nears. In retaliation, he casts her out of her ritzy apartment. Studio’s artistic director, David Muse, says that staging Harmon’s satirical fantasia as the nation prepares to vote is “something both thrilling and perverse.”
In terms of this election cycle, we can certainly all vouch for the perverse part.
“It felt like a small act of civil disobedience,” Harmon said of his writing “Ivanka” over a week, just before the political conventions this summer. His feelings about Trump’s elder daughter, he added, are more complex than those about other members of the family. “I’m sort of a reality TV junkie and I watched ‘The Apprentice’ for many seasons. She always struck me as the most accomplished and most intelligent in the family.”
He thought about taking on current events in a play “as things got scarier in the election,” but, he explained, “if you’re writing about him, you’re writing about a sociopath.” Ivanka, he thinks, is different. “A person who converted to Orthodox Judaism is a more thoughtful person, thinking deeply.”
Meanwhile, in related political-theater news, Woolly Mammoth Theatre will present a follow-up run of monologuist Mike Daisey’s “The Trump Card,” a witty rant about the Republican presidential candidate that Daisey workshopped at Woolly last summer. The reprise will run at Woolly from Oct. 25 to 30.
For more information about the “Theatrical Selections” series, visit shakespearetheatre.org/theatrical-selections.