Capital idea: Stage is set for D.C. to become a theater mecca

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(A much fuller version of this story will be posted before Sunday morning.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- What do theater critics do in conference assembled? They go to plays -- up to 10 in the six days of the recent American Theatre Critics Association gathering in greater Washington, getting a full taste of that flourishing theater scene in the process.

The week gave substance to the claim that the Washington area, with some 60 professional theater companies, may rank third in the country, ahead of such well-established theatrical hotbeds as San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul. To hear Washingtonians tell it, it's even closing fast on No. 2, Chicago (which itself claims to be closing fast on New York).

That's the marquee news from the week's visit. We also visited additional handsome new theater spaces. So add cultural center to Washington's history, government, monuments and museums -- and that's not even counting the Kennedy Center's half-dozen theaters, the historic National Theatre and the other halls that host tours.

Along with a strong economy (government is a steady employer) and good journalistic coverage, Washington theater has benefited from a considerable degree of collaboration through the League of Washington Theaters. The regional Helen Hayes Awards, administered by an independent organization, focus attention on the results, and the pool of active Equity actors is now about 500.

Arena Stage

The biggest and best-known company, born in 1950 and the first winner of the regional theater Tony (1976), is in transition, refashioning its two-theater home into a $125 million three-theater campus. So Molly Smith and her troupe have set up temporary homes in Crystal City (Arlington, Va.) and the downtown Lincoln Theatre. At the former, we saw a very capable (if not quite delirious) version of Charles Ludlam's comic penny dreadful, "The Mystery of Irma Vep" (closes today), with Brad Oscar and J. Fred Schiffman playing all the parts.

Shakespeare Theatre

Michael Kahn's company is a strong No. 2, expanded in 1992 from its origins in the Folger Shakespeare Library into the large Lansburgh Theatre and now the big new Harman Hall. It stages nine productions a year there and at an outdoor amphitheater. We saw a major production in each theater.

The best, able to hold its own with Canada's Stratford Festival, is Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid" (through July 27), directed by Keith Baxter, with musical staging by Gillian Lynne of "Cats" fame. On pretty trompe l'oeil sets, an expansive company of 21 does all the country dances, pastoral songs, juggling, magic and slapstick interludes often omitted. The result is a rich comic smorgasbord, with, at the center, star Rene Auberjonois (of early CMU and Pittsburgh Playhouse fame) playing both Moliere and the foolish hypochondriac, Argan, with pratfall boobishness and a touching, bird-like naivete.

We also saw "Antony and Cleopatra," which ran in rep with "Julius Caesar." It was forthright, stand-and-deliver Shakespeare. Its chief appeal was a powerful, mature Cleopatra by Suzanne Bertish, who turned the final act into an emotional tour-de-force.

The Arlington Story

The star of the week was the Arlington County Cultural Affairs Division and its theater incubator program, based in the Gunston Arts Center, a former middle school. When the program began in 1986, there were 10 community groups in Arlington giving 198 performances a year; within 10 years, there were 55 groups and 1,300 performances. Now, the county operates several theaters and a professionally staffed scene shop and costume facility. Companies have split off on their own, and there are still more applicants for the theater spaces than they can accommodate. Arts have become an economic engine in Arlington while enhancing the quality of life.

Signature Theatre

The incubator's most famous graduate is Eric Schaeffer's Signature, which has made a national name with its Sondheim programs and its just-concluded Kander and Ebb celebration. We saw "The Visit" with Chita Rivera, George Hearn and Mark Jacoby, reviewed here June 29. Signature inhabits a dramatic new two-theater building, the cultural anchor of Arlington's Shirlington Village, where it expects to attract about 80,000 patrons a year.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre

One of the best shows we saw was David Grimm's faux-Restoration comedy, "Measure for Pleasure," a raunchy, colorful, word-besotted farce, staged in Woolly Mammoth's gem of a 265-seat courtyard theater (opened in 2005). This is a company that prides itself on cutting-edge new work, no holds barred: "It's probably impossible to offend our audience," we were told.

"Measure" would be a good test, with modern cross-dressing, double-entendres and other comic anachronisms. It also has sentiment and a tonic jolt of bitter realism. This is a theater I'd drive five hours to see.

Studio Theatre

One of the most inspiring successes is Studio Theatre, led by Joy Zinoman. Thirty years ago it came to Washington's 14th Street area, which was thick with drug addicts and prostitutes but also automobile showrooms with wide column spans, big enough to house theaters. Now Studio has grown into four theater spaces in three buildings, focusing on contemporary plays and hosting other groups.

Similar 200-seat houses give it the flexibility to keep a hit running while also moving ahead with its subscription series. With so many seats, it supports the restaurants that have revitalized the area -- and because it owns the buildings, it has not been pushed out by the rising values of gentrification.

We saw a visiting company, The Civilians, doing their devised documentary piece, "This Beautiful City," about the rise and tribulations of the religious right in Colorado Springs, a pared-down production of the play I reviewed in April at the Humana Festival.

Round House Theatre

In its 30th year, Round House stages some 200 performances each season in its two theaters just across the line in Maryland. We saw a fine production of "Nixon's Nixon," Russell Lees' character-driven comedy about Nixon and Kissinger on the eve of the president's abdication, well acted by Edward Gero and Conrad Feininger.

Synetic Theater, "Carmen"

Synetic is a movement-based theater with a European ethos that derives from its artistic director, Paata Tsikurishvili, and his choreographer wife, Irina. This has led them to some remarkable "wordless" Shakespeare, reinterpreting the plays as mime and dance. At the Rosslyn Spectrum in Arlington, we saw their own interpretation of "Carmen," danced/acted with passion and verve in a compact jungle gym of a set, fired by live violin and keyboard.

Theater of the First Amendment

Based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., the company is led by Rick Davis, an alumnus of Pittsburgh's American Ibsen Theatre. As part of the first annual Mason Festival of the Arts, it staged Karen Zacarias' "Mariela in the Desert," a tragic exploration of thwarted creativity and love.

And more

I had to pass on "Stuff Happens" at Maryland's Olney Theatre Centre. Theaters we saw without performances included the art deco-lovely Bethesda Theatre and the GALA Hispanic Theatre. Some participants stayed longer and saw even more. I'm still sorting it all out -- but Washington is now central on my theater map.

Post-Gazette theater critic Christopher Rawson can be reached at or 412-263-1666.


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