As the Kander and Ebb song goes: “Maybe this time … ” Perhaps spring 2022 is when the theater industry finally approximates normalcy again, with productions all happening on schedule and anxieties about being in rooms with large numbers of people being replaced by the pleasures of watching plays and musicals in rooms with large numbers of people.
With fingers crossed and a Panglossian belief that this can be the best of all possible theater worlds, here is my cautious curation of what will be worthwhile in a maybe-this-time season.
‘The Merchant of Venice’
Staging this Shakespearean problem play is tantamount to a provocation these days. Which is why I am deeply curious to see what Shakespeare Theatre Company and director Arin Arbus have in mind, in bringing it to us in such troubled times. It has the additional, considerable look-in value of the always-trenchant John Douglas Thompson as Shylock, a Black actor and casting choice that introduces not only irresistible theatrical heft, but also the intersectional issue of race. It is a co-production with Brooklyn-based Theatre for a New Audience.
The Merchant of Venice March 22-April 17 at the Michael R. Klein Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. shakespearetheatre.org.
‘A Strange Loop’
Broadway’s most intriguing new musical this season is both an enticement and an experiment: How deep is the appetite in Times Square for musical theater that breaks ground and challenges audiences to investigate novel modes of storytelling? Fresh from a smashing tryout at D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning show is a psychological funhouse mirror, exploring the wit, anguish and sexual yearnings of a queer Black theater usher named … Usher. Jaquel Spivey is making an exciting Broadway debut as Usher, and director Stephen Brackett — who also staged the adorable “A.D. 16” at Olney Theatre Center — ushers the whole enterprise into vibrant three dimensions.
National Capital New Play Festival
This inaugural festival of original work in repertory propels Round House Theatre into the admirable ranks of companies pumping extra resources into new drama. The festival includes full productions of Charly Evon Simpson’s “It’s Not a Trip It’s a Journey,” directed by Nicole A. Watson, and Tim J. Lord’s “We Declare You a Terrorist … ,” with co-direction by Jared Mezzocchi and Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette. The offerings will also feature readings of new works by playwrights Marvin González de León, Morgan Gould, Mary Kathryn Nagle and Mfoniso Udofia, working with composer Nehemiah Luckett.
National Capital New Play Festival April 5-May 8 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. roundhousetheatre.org.
‘How I Learned to Drive’
The season’s most interesting actor-pairing is a reunion: David Morse and Mary-Louise Parker, together again in this searing, Pulitzer-winning play they performed off-Broadway in 1997. The Paula Vogel work is a delicate treatment of an explosive topic that has grown only more incendiary: the relationship between a teenager and her abusive uncle. Twenty-five years on, Morse and Parker rejoin director Mark Brokaw for an overdue Broadway debut of this powerful memory play, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club.
How I Learned to Drive starts performances March 29 at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York. telecharge.com.
Eugène Ionesco’s 1959 comedy, a cornerstone of the absurdist theater movement and a denunciation of conformity in all its political and social manifestations, isn’t revived often nowadays. That state of affairs never seems to bother Pointless Theatre Co., a band of dramatic stylists who love to stage the modernist classics they studied in college. The previous inspirations for their visually stimulating aesthetic have been as diverse as Peter Tchaikovsky, Dadaism and Italian futurist Fortunato Depero. What they do with a satire translated and directed by Frank Labovitz that requires actors to turn into horned behemoths will doubtless be something to experience.
‘John Proctor Is the Villain’
Kimberly Belflower’s world premiere play at Studio Theatre explores the tempests unleashed after a high school English class in Georgia encounters Arthur Miller’s seminal drama “The Crucible” and the students become enveloped in scandals in their own time. Marti Lyons directs the work by Belflower, who herself hails from rural Georgia and received a playwriting award in 2018 from the Kennedy Center for her drama “Lost Girl.”
John Proctor Is the Villain April 27-June 5 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. studiotheatre.org.
Food is the music of love in this debut musical at Ford’s Theatre with a score by Nolan Williams Jr., and book by Williams and Nikkole Salter. It focuses on a Black family in Philadelphia, mourning the death of their matriarch and struggling with the future of their restaurant in a gentrifying neighborhood. It’s directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming.
Grace March 19-May 14 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. fords.org.
For those who (like me) were not wild about director Joel Coen’s emotionally static “The Tragedy of Macbeth” with Denzel Washington and Francis McDormand, Broadway is offering an alternative that just may outdo it for Shakespearean muscularity: a “Macbeth” with Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga as the overreaching thane and his Lady M. Craig is back under the guidance of director Sam Gold, who staged a riveting “Othello” in 2016 with Craig and David Oyelowo, and followed a year later with a fourth-wall-shattering “Hamlet” starring Oscar Isaac.
The Gibbs and Webb families, Thornton Wilder’s eternal conveyors of the circle of life in small-town New England, arrive on the Washington stage as Shakespeare Theatre Company widens its quest for a definition of an American classical canon. Alan Paul directs an “Our Town” cast whose announced players represent the richness of D.C.'s acting community: among them, Holly Twyford, Craig Wallace, Natascia Diaz, Felicia Curry, Tom Story, Sarah Marshall, Kimberly Schraf, Suzanne Richard, Christopher Michael Richardson and Eric Hissom. Originally scheduled for February, the revival is now set for mid-spring.
Our Town May 12-June 11 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. shakespearetheatre.org.
Step Afrika!, the 28-year-old D.C. dance company, has toured to more than 60 countries. Now it brings its ecstatic steps to Arena Stage for the first of three productions, a collaboration that underlines Arena’s commendable engagement with the art makers of the capital city. “Drumfolk” takes its inspiration both from the 1739 Stono Rebellion, a South Carolina uprising of enslaved people, and from the law enacted there a year later that prohibited enslaved Black people from assembling in public.
Drumfolk May 31-June 26 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. arenastage.org.