- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 28, 2002

The year 2002 was notable in theater for its star turns by both up-and-comers and veterans.
Think about Brian Stokes Mitchell, so full of brawn and rage and banked sexuality as the homicidal barber in "Sweeney Todd," part of the Kennedy Center's abundantly joyous Sondheim Celebration this summer.
Mr. Mitchell's Sweeney was dark and demonic true to the character but he and co-star Christine Baranski (as his partner in crime, Mrs. Lovett, she of the "fleshy" meat pies) brought an aura of seduction and flirtiness to the roles that had not been seen before.
Some women love bad boys, and Sweeney is perhaps the baddest of them all.
Then, this fall, Mr. Mitchell hung up his razor strop and donned doublet and hose to play the nobly deranged knight, Don Quixote, in the musical "Man of La Mancha," which received its pre-Broadway run at the National Theatre. The revival featured a gorgeous, towering set and inspired performances by Ernie Sabella as Sancho Panza and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Dulcinea but nothing eclipsed Mr. Mitchell's glorious baritone and sensitive phrasing when he sang "The Impossible Dream." It was a leap-to-your-feet moment, almost worth enduring the rest of the show (which, admittedly, has seen better days).
Another head-turner was Raul Esparza, also from the Sondheim festival. He flattened audiences and critics alike with his star turns as the pointillist painter George Seurat in "Sunday in the Park With George" and the neurotic writer Charley in "Merrily We Roll Along." Mr. Esparza played George with honed intensity as a way of explaining even apologizing for what it is like to be a highly creative person. George is simply wired differently than most, as Mr. Esparza explained to Dot (the delicious Melissa Errico). He does not work on a painting; he enters its world.
In the song "We Do Not Belong Together," Dot and George struggle with the life of the heart and the life of the head. Dot needs to hear the words "I love you," and it was wrenching when Mr. Esparza said he simply could not speak the words she so longed to hear.
George is a bit incredulous, because his love for her is spread all over the canvas for "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." He just can't believe she can't see it. Mr. Esparza made us empathize with George's inability to communicate, to connect the dots.
Mr. Esparza played Charley with similar edgy energy, although the role ostensibly is lighter musical comedy. His showpiece was the song "Franklin Shepard, Inc.," in which Charley gets on a talk show with his estranged writing partner and details what it is like to work with someone who has become the flavor of the month.
Trying to be light and glib, Mr. Esparza had a heartbreakingly funny nervous breakdown on the air as his anger at Franklin flared in the most inappropriate places. "Franklin Shepard, Inc." could be a throwaway song, but Mr. Esparza gave it humor, frustration and despair.
There was such a glut of riches at the Sondheim Celebration that theatergoers must have thought they were the luckiest people on earth this summer. Who can forget Michael Cerveris' brainy, angst-riddled portrayal of the lieutenant caught in a love triangle between the beautiful, light Clara (played with radiant sensibility by Rebecca Luker) and the tortured, diseased Fosca (Judy Kuhn, almost unbearably intense and abandoned) in "Passion"?
Not only was Mr. Cerveris sexy and sinewy, he did not play the lieutenant as a good-looking dupe manipulated by two strong women. Instead, he led us into the character's mind as it was warped by the strange, engulfing love offered by Fosca. Never was a fever dream so vivid.
Then there was Alice Ripley's rip-roaring, hanging-by-the-tips-of-her-fingernails rendition of "Getting Married Today" from "Company" a show that also was marked by Lynn Redgrave's drop-dead drollery in the song "The Ladies Who Lunch." As the commitment-shy main character, Bobby, John Barrowman also broke out of the leading-man pack, giving us a Bobby who was not a jerk or sexually confused but was a victim of his natural killer charm.
There were other shining moments outside the Kennedy Center oddly enough, one of the strongest is taking place in an abandoned warehouse on 14th Street. There, Patrick O'Neill, a 20-year-old college student at Catholic University, is entrancing Studio Theatre audiences with his nervy, impassioned and highly physical portrayal of the lead character in the musical "Bat Boy." He is young and apparently has no qualms about singing incredibly high notes while not only nude, but hanging upside down from scaffolding. Mr. O'Neill not only is a risk-taker, but shows great versatility and sensitivity as an actor and singer.
Studio has had a stupendous season, not only with "Bat Boy" at the warehouse space, but with "Privates on Parade" and "The Shape of Things." "Privates" featured the tremendous Floyd King, the most supple of clowns, who lent a certain soignee poetry to drag. Yet he was equally commanding in an impeccably cut dinner jacket, cigarette in hand, delivering the droll, Noel Coward-esque ditty "Could You Please Inform Us (Who Really Won the War)?" in this campy, captivating musicale.
The 1977 musical play, by Britain's Peter Nichols (with music by Dennis King), was handled by Artistic and Managing Director Joy Zinoman with silliness and sophistication, combining the broad humor of English music halls and pantomimes with carefully wrought commentary on racism, miscegenation, homosexuality and homophobia and the casual cruelties of wartime. The play depicts a ragtag troupe readying and performing a revue for the hapless soldiers.
Mr. King was brilliant as the flamboyant queen, but the entire cast was top-notch including Sunita Param as Mr. King's half-Welsh, half-Indian assistant; David Bryan Brown as an amiable chowderhead from northern England who communicates in an almost Tourette's-like outpouring of profanity; Jim Ferris as a gentle male nurse and Len's lover; Will Gartshore as a studly World War II flying ace; and Tom Gualtieri as a nervous sort who only wants to get home to his fiancee, Susan. This gaggle of actors, especially Mr. Brown and Mr. Ferris, worked beautifully both as entertainers and as creators of solid, emotionally complex characters.
The evening, however, belonged to Mr. King, with his badly dyed hair and endless maquillage, and J. Fred Schiffman as a hilariously loopy Major-without-a-clue, whose outrageously gung-ho attitude yields dangerous results. You adored Mr. Schiffman's character relishing the pronunciation of the word "ooolo" (a Malay term for "jungle") as if it were a particularly juicy chop, while briefing the men.
Miles away from the song-and-dance servicemen of "Privates on Parade" is the truly shocking "Shape of Things," another winner for Studio Theatre. Neil LaBute's morality play is a cruel wonder a beautifully made and streamlined work with modern sensibilities and age-old questions about art and beauty.
Mr. LaBute gives the boy-meets-girl plot line a twisted tweak in his tale of how contemporary society esteems beauty above all. Adam (Scott Barrow) and Evelyn (Holly Twyford) "meet cute" she is a sexy, punked-out grad student wielding a spray-paint can and intent on defacing a statue for the sake of art and truth; he is the geeky college security guard who sort of tries to stop her.
This modern take on the Pygmalion parable has Adam flourishing in Evelyn's company. Just from being around her "amazing" aura, as he calls it, Adam starts exercising; cuts out junk food; and gets contact lenses, new clothes and new confidence. A nip and a tuck there, and Adam has entered hottie territory all because of Evelyn, he says.
Perhaps it is uncharitable, but you can't help but wonder: What is Evelyn doing with him? That is the crux of this cruel play exactly what Evelyn's true motivations are. This play of ideas is brought home through four wonderfully deep, searching performances and direction by Will Pomerantz that keeps things moving at a dazzling clip but still leaves time for the truths to sink in.
Evelyn is a tricky part, because she is someone who, on the surface, seems to operate on pure instinct, caprice and emotion. Miss Twyford makes her a darling, a supremely deluded upgrade on Holly Golightly from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" adorable, irresistibly unhinged and harboring a big secret. When she proclaims, as only the young can, "I am an artist!" and "Art is all!" you both believe her and chuckle at her idealism.
Miss Twyford also dazzled audiences this year with "Recent Tragic Events," a co-production between Theatre J, where it was mounted, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Miss Twyford is so good at playing smart women who are coping with unhinging experiences that you can easily forget she is portraying a character this time, a career woman named Waverly stumbling through a blind date on Sept. 12, 2001. She struck the perfect balance between hysteria and trying to be a good hostess.
At Arena Stage, the whole cast is cooking in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." Directed with deep musicality by Tazewell Thompson, it may be the most satisfying and affecting rendition to date of August Wilson's play about a 1920s black blues singer and a middle-of-the-night recording session. Everything works on all cylinders like a top-notch jazz group playing as if the musicians' fingers and lips were on fire. The ensemble cast gives and takes, indulging in solos and improvisations from time to time, operating like virtuoso musicians more intent on sending the piece into the heavens than standing out individually. Mr. Wilson's dialogue is inherently musical, and the players round out and groove on every note.
Speaking of performances fraught with musicality, there was another great turn in "Recent Tragic Events" Michael Ray Escamilla as Ron, a musician friend of Waverly's from down the hall who blows in like a cloud of ganja and starts drumming on all the furniture and spouting his own personal brand of way-out cat patois. In between his riffs and scats on an infinite variety of topics, Ron slurps down wine, beer and tequila.
Ron is a wonderful character as well as a comic convention because he is both a clown and a philosopher albeit one quite who possibly believes in better living through chemistry. He is happily ensconced in his own neo-hippie world, but Mr. Escamilla played him with such heart and stoned goodness that you couldn't help but like him. Ron's foil is his underpants-free friend Nancy (Dori Legg), who plops down in her Santana T-shirt and eats an amazing amount of pizza all without saying a word, but conveying that she is a strong, vibrant woman by her no-nonsense stance and not-suffering-fools-gladly facial expressions.
Another strong, vibrant woman was Kelly McGillis as the Duchess of Malfi at the Shakespeare Theatre.
Although the duchess is caught between her two brothers one a venal priest (played with epicurean gusto by Ed Gero) and the other an incest-minded brat Miss McGillis' did not play her as a patsy or pushover. Her duchess knew her time on earth was short, and she grabbed as much pleasure and happiness as she could in her short, anguished life. Miss McGillis showed us the grave beauty of dignity and inherent nobility. When she said near the end, "I am the Duchess of Malfi still" you felt as though someone had ripped your heart in half.
In some ways, we Washingtonian theatergoers have been spoiled by this year, not only by the Sondheim festival, but by so many breakout and breakthrough performances. Can local theaters top it? We shall see.

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