- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 8, 2001

Theaters in the Washington area are going back to the days of wine and togas. Classic Greek plays and works inspired by those wily Athenians are popping up all over town like eyes on the Argus. Two prominent Washington theaters — the Shakespeare Theatre and Arena Stage — are going head-to-head this month with offerings from ancient Greece. The Shakespeare is staging "The Oedipus Plays" (starring Avery Brooks and featuring a North African setting), and Arena is presenting "Agamemnon and His Daughters."
The theme continues next spring at Woolly Mammoth, where "Big Love" by Charles Mee will have its area premiere in June. Mr. Mee's unhinged and hilarious take on Aeschylus' "The Suppliant Maidens" knocked out audiences at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 2000 (apparently, the wedding scene and the slapstick horror of the wedding cake toss are not to be missed) and concerns 50 sisters forced to marry 50 cousins. Not thrilled with the idea, the sisters seek refuge in an Italian villa and are hounded by their bridegrooms. The vow the sisters then make is a far cry from "I do."
Studio Theatre also looks to Aeschylus for its production of "Prometheus" (opening March 20), which does not feature an airborne wedding cake but rather the Earth-bound Prometheus. The play, adapted by angel-expert Sophy Burnham, explores Prometheus' rage against the gods (Wouldn't you be annoyed if you were chained to a rock and vultures pecked at your liver for all eternity?) by imagining what happened in the lost plays of Aeschylus' three-play trilogy.
Plenty of choices are available for those who like their catharsis post-Aristotelian. Woolly Mammoth starts its season with "Rocket to the Moon" (now through Oct. 7) by Clifford Odets and starring Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz, who has not graced the stage since the zany "The Chinese Art of Placement" in summer 2000. Mr. Odets was one of the original members of the Group Theatre in New York and a leading contributor to the theater of social protest that was prominent in the United States in the 1930s. "Rocket to the Moon" centers on a beautiful young woman who inspires reckless desires in three men while stumbling to find a clear path for her own muddled life. This is a co-production with Theatre J.
The Woolly season continues with "Spain" (Dec. 10 to Jan. 6), a Spanish-inflected take on "Alice in Wonderland." Barbara, an unhappy woman with wistful dreams about Spain, finds the line between fantasy and reality torn wide open after her husband leaves her for another woman and a Spanish conquistador from the Middle Ages camps out in her living room.
Speaking of going abroad, Studio Theatre travels this season to the "Far East" (Sept. 19 to Oct. 28), an A.R. Gurney romantic drama using the Korean War as a backdrop. Lt. Sparky Watts, American brewery heir, is stationed at a Japanese naval base and meets Julia Anderson, a bored, gorgeous officer's wife. Sparky has already found love with a Korean girl, but Julia longs for romance. Will the two flee from, or remain safely behind, their strict social identities?
Studio is also hosting a special event in September, "The Race of the Ark Tattoo" (Sept. 7-23), a performance piece by Matthew Maher portraying a man with an odd past peddling his wares at a local flea market. Every piece he sells has a story attached to it, so no two performances are the same. The roster continues with William Finn's musical, "A New Brain" (Nov. 14-Dec. 23). The quasi-autobiographical work has the hero, a songwriter named Gordon, slogging away at an inane children's show and suddenly coping with a brain tumor.
Signature Theatre's season already is in full swing with a "Cabaret"-like take on the musical "Grand Hotel," which welcomes guests through Oct. 7. Next up is the American premiere of "Zander's Boat" (Oct. 30 to Dec. 9) by Scottish playwright Grace Barnes. This poetical drama centers on three women from the Shetland Islands mulling their pasts.
The past is present in Arena Stage's opener, "Agamemnon and His Daughters" (through Oct. 7). Kenneth Cavander streamlines a cycle of classic Greek tragedies — "Agamemnon," "Iphigeneia at Aulis" and "Iphigeneia in Tauris" and the Elektra story — into one work that spans 20 years of the family dynasty. "'Agamemnon and His Daughters' is barbaric and intimate at the same time, with twists and turns that leave you breathless," says Artistic Director Molly Smith, who adds that the recurring themes of ambition, revenge, courage, retribution, sacrifice and forgiveness make it totally Washingtonian.
A famous Washington first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, is the subject of Rhoda Lerman's "Eleanor: Her Secret Journey" (Sept. 28 to Nov. 18). Starring actress Jean Stapleton, this memory play begins with Mrs. Roosevelt poised on the edge of a new freedom after the death of her husband.
Arena goes from the intense glare of the public spotlight to a play about loneliness and isolation with John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" (Nov. 1 to Dec. 9). This enduring 1937 play charts the deep, disparate friendship between George, a hard-boiled dreamer, and Lennie, the simple-minded and tender giant who tragically does not know his own strength.
Playwright Sheldon Epps, who made Arena swing like a hepcat last year with "Play On," returns with "Blues in the Night" (Dec. 7 to Feb. 3, 2002), a languid tour through the blues and jazz torch songs of the 1920s and '30s.
Few Washingtonians can forget Avery Brooks' incendiary opening scene in "Othello," which played some years ago when the Shakespeare Theatre was still at the Folger. Mr. Brooks is back in "The Oedipus Plays" (through Oct. 21) at the Shakespeare Theatre. In this new translation by Nicholas Rudall (and direction by Michael Kahn), "Oedipus Rex," "Oedipus at Colonus" and "Antigone" are dynamically condensed into one three-hour experience (and 15 minutes, if you add the intermission). The play also becomes a Greek myth set in ancient Africa.
Another mythic figure of sorts, "Hamlet," takes the stage with protean actor Wallace Acton in the lead. Handling the radiant poetry and psychological textures of "Hamlet" (Nov. 6 to Jan. 6, 2002) will be Gale Edwards, the esteemed Australian opera and theater director.
The Kennedy Center goes down under this fall with "Cloudstreet" (Oct. 12-14), which is a collaboration between two Australian theater companies — Sydney's Company B Belvoir and Perth's Black Swan Theatre. Featuring a cast of 15, playwright Nicholas Enright fashions an engrossing saga of two unlikely families reluctantly united by tragedy. The production is imbued with mystical overtones and the injustices endured by aboriginal Australians.
"The Island" (Nov. 11-29) revives Athol Fugard's play about South Africa's grim Robben Island prison camp. There, two political prisoners prepare to perform scenes from Sophocles' "Antigone" and grapple while enduring the harsh environment, engulfing despair and the unexpected feeling of hope. Lead actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who won Tony Awards for their performances in the original 1975 production, will reprise their roles. Mae West, she of the exaggerated hourglass figure and vigorous sexual innuendo, is the winking subject of the new comedy, "Dirty Blonde" (Dec. 11 to Jan. 6, 2002), by Claudia Shear. Directed on Broadway by James Lapine, this play begs to come up and be seen.
Another creation of sorts, "Cinderella" (Dec. 18 to Jan. 13, 2001), plants her glass slipper on the Kennedy Center stage just in time for the holidays. This refurbished revival of the 1957 television adaptation now stars Eartha Kitt as the Fairy Godmother and Paolo Montalban as the Prince, the role he played in the 1997 TV version.
The Kennedy Center gets a bit of competition from the often-dark National Theatre this fall with the touring production of "The Full Monty" (Nov. 15 to Dec. 23). This is the adaptation of the hit movie that would have aced the Tonys this year if that pesky "The Producers" had not come along. The story has been transplanted from a depressed blue-collar town in England to one in Buffalo, N.Y., as six downtrodden steelworkers find an unconventional way — stripping — to raise a little cash for a friend.
Olney Theatre Center is currently playing Tom Stoppard's play about the messy miracle of love in "The Real Thing," which runs through Sept. 30. Next, Yasmina Reza pops up with "Art" (Oct. 9 to Nov. 11), which played the Kennedy Center last fall. The play features elegantly devastating dialogue and deals with three longtime friends who have a brutal falling out when one of the men purchases an expensive painting — a canvas that is completely, utterly, white.
"She Loves Me" closes the Olney season. It is a musical adaptation of the movie "The Shop Around the Corner."
Eight times is the charm for Round House Theatre, as it welcomes back Canadian playwright George F. Walker for an eighth visit with "Problem Child" (through Sept. 30). Marty Lodge will reprise his Helen Hayes Award-nominated performance as the boozy, hapless motel clerk Phillie Phillips in this vicious comedy, a cycle of plays set in a seedy motel room that focuses on the desperate world of a young couple, Denise and R.J.
"Home" (Oct. 31 to Nov. 25) is not a no-tell motel but the hardscrabble town of Cross Roads, N.C., in Samm-Art Williams' poetic drama. Told in a series of flashbacks, the story of Cephus Miles plays out through the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
Over at the Folger Theatre, something wicked this way comes with "Macbeth" (Oct. 20 to Dec. 2). Directed by Joe Banno, Shakespeare's play about spot removal, marital bliss, bloody ghosts and revenge will star Michael Tolaydo and Lucy Newman-Williams.
The Source Theatre celebrates its 25th anniversary by staging the work of David Mamet. His early play "A Life in the Theatre" (through Oct. 7) pairs the aforementioned Mr. Tolaydo as a crusty acting pro who takes a novice, played by Jon Cohn, under his tutelage. Joe Banno directs.
Source also will put on British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's "Intimate Exchanges" (Dec. 5 to Jan. 6).
Ford's Theatre stages "To Kill a Mocking Bird" Sept. 27 to Nov. 18 and "A Christmas Carol" Nov. 24 to Dec 30.
The Washington Shakespeare Company launches its 12th season with Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" (Sept. 20 to Oct. 21). The theater has taken the gargantuan play (five acts, 42 scenes, 34 speaking parts) and painstakingly edited the text and pared the cast down to 12 members to create an intimate, fast-paced look at the love affair between the legendary temptress and her Roman hero.
Shakespeare rears his coiffed head again, in a fashion, with "Macbett" (Nov. 21 to Dec. 23), Eugene Ionesco's absurd and wickedly funny play.
Classika Theatre, based on the Russian theatrical tradition, will stage three productions with Yuri Kordonsky of the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg directing. They are "Dangerous Corner" by J.B. Priestley (Sept. 15 to Oct. 27), "The Marriage" by Nikolai Gogo (Jan. 11 to Feb. 23, 2002) and "Forget Herostratus" by Grigory Gorin (April 27 to June 2, 2002).
MetroStage, newly reopened in Alexandria, is staging "Rapture" through Oct. 7 and will present the world premiere of "Harlem Rose" Jan. 30 through March 3, 2002.
Theater of the First Amendment at George Mason University in Fairfax is offering "Bee-Luther-Hatchee" through Sept. 23; "Nathan the Wise" from Oct. 24 through Nov. 18; and "Mississippi Pinocchio" from March 13 through April 7, 2002.


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