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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Four Broadway Stars Talk - and Laugh About - Theater; Catch the Video!

It's nice when I can recommend something incredible that happened and lead you to a video. Four great Broadway actors - Zoe Caldwell, Audra McDonald, Richard Thomas and John Glover - spoke about their craft Monday night at the Kennedy Center. The program took place to shine light on the Terence McNally "opera" plays that the Ken Cen is putting on the next month: Lisbon Traviata, Master Class (with Tyne Daly) and Golden Age. Caldwell and McDonald won Tonys for Master Class on Broadway a few years ago. McNally, who was in the audience, said that he wrote the play for Caldwell. At 76, the English actress remains elegant, beautifully spoken and FUNNY. She recalled having to meet McNally in Big Fork, Montana, to go over the play. "I stayed at a dreadful motel," she said matter-of-factly. "Indoor/outdoor carpeting for the fishermen who stayed there." Peter Marks, The Washington Post theater critic, moderated the discussion, discovering that McNally often calls actors himself to offer them the roles. Can you turn them down? "He doesn't really give you that option," McDonald said. Thomas, who told the embarassed Marks that it was okay to mention his John-Boy past, said he appreciated the full theater experience that McNally writes, compared to say, the 90-minute David Mamet play, Race, that he currently co-stars in on Broadway.Thomas, McDonald (Dr. Naomi Bennett on ABC's Private Practice) and Glover (Lex Luther's father on Smallville) all defended their TV lives a bit - with a wink - with Thomas saying, "Our lives are not subsidized." (He looks wonderful, by the way, still with silky brown hair.) Though there was a shared laugh when Marks asked Glover with a straight face: "Did you feel that Smallville was well-written?"
McDonald, who I have seen in numerous productions like Carousel, Ragtime and 110 in the Shade - and signs one of my favorite all-time songs - Stars and the Moon - said that Caldwell taught her so much and was (with another wink) "the best leading man I ever had." Her daughter is named Zoe and the name, she happily displayed, is tattooed on her shoulder. At the end, McNally stood up and turned the compliments back to the stage: "They were all just words till you four said them." One other funny moment had Glover talking about Lisbon Traviata and then saying to Marks, "You're going to review it, aren't you?" Everyone laughed and Marks didn't know what to say except yes. Later, in the lobby, he acknowledged that he tries his best to stay unbiased.
These programs are among the best - and economical ($15) - that the Kennedy Center does. On Thursday April 22, the spotlight goes to gospel with the great Mavis Staples and Dr. Billy Taylor as two of the guests. On Monday, May 3, Frank Loesser will be the subject and shows like Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business will provide the music.

Speaking of Dr. Taylor, I saw the jazz legend up close on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center at a Jazz Club show of pianist Shelly Berg. He was sublime and varied - finishing with a Fats Waller tune - and I will let you know when he is around again. These are also amazing forums - $25 (and no minimums) to sit a few feet away from some musical geniuses. Only one more remains this year - this Saturday March 27, as Toshiko Akiyoshi, one of the great female jazz pianists ever, plays.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Clybourne Park Is Definitely a Neighborhood You Want to Spend a Couple Hours in

As we take our seats at Woolly Mammoth for the revelatory and elegant Clybourne Park, we see people sitting everywhere - in the balcony, on the sides, behind the stage (my friend thought there was a mirror) and most importantly in the upstairs room of the house on stage. One young man sits there thinking, moving a bit. We'll soon learn he's an important part of the play, not given any lines, but the "cause" in a cause-and-effect play that examines not just race relations but the way people talk to each other. 

Simply put, if you like theater, go see Clybourne Park. It's not long and Woolly has all kinds of deals, so you have no excuse. In a brilliant conceit, it takes the Chicago neighborhood where the Youngers of A Raisin in the Sun were hoping to get to and, in 1959, shows how the white neighbors react to a black family moving in. That family is not present but might as well be because the white family's maid and her husband are. Even one of the characters, Karl Lindner, who fights the move in Raisin, shows up here. Then in the second act, we move to 2009 when a white family wants to move into what is now a mostly black neighborhood. The black family now represents the neighborhood, and with a couple real estate people present, the situation quickly deteriorates into racial jokes and defensive mechanisms. Writing in The New Yorker about a concurrent Off-Broadway production, the wonderful writer John Lahr calls the second act "a dance of civility" turned into "a fracas of fulmination."

It would be interesting to see the New York production to look for the differences. It's an unusual - and very fortunate for us - situation that we get to see a new play the same time as New Yorkers do. I was able to go to one of Woolly's PWYC performances, whereas tickets for a well-received Off-Broadway play start at $50-plus. I'd like to try to get a hold of Bruce Norris and see how this happened; it appears that Woolly has a relationship with him, having produced his Unmentionables a couple years ago. Acting-wise, for me, Mitchell Hebert as Russ and Dawn Ursula as Francine stand out, but there doesn't seem to be a wrong note. In a season when Studio has been bad, Arena so-so and Woolly its uneven self, this play shines. Go see it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bethesda Artists and the Incomparable Environmental Film Festival

We had close to 40 people for our Single Volunteers Bethesda Art Walk last night. The highlights: the pottery of John Snyder at Waverly Street Gallery. He was nice enough to explain his whole process to us. His kiln is large enough to accommodate close to 200 items at a time!  Who knew? He explained how one glaze can account for several different looks depending on location and time. The pots were large and multi-colored, and really stood out in the good Waverly space.
A second highlight were the photographs from Friends of the National Zoo members at Washington School of Photography. And a third highlight and the biggest surprise was a new gallery: Gallery 360, full of photographs of Italian hill towns, C&O Canal, rusted cars (beautiful!) and back-lighted scenic vistas.  Good luck to this worthy new gallery on the scene.
Next week: The Georgetown Gallery Gaze!

It's all about the Environmental Film Festival for the next two weeks - starting Tuesday. This, in my opinion, is the city's best festival.  Most events are free and many are at embassies - and it is hard to miss on a good film.  We went to the Festival Launch Party Wednesday night and heard Nora Pouillon talk. Like everything else they do, it was first class - a guacamole station from Rosa Mexicano! Here are my early recommendations for the Festival:
Tuesday 3/16 - Canadian Embassy film is probably filled, so head to the Gala Hispanic Theatre for Utopia, a United States premier from Spain
Wednesday 3/17 - I always like the offerings from the Swiss Embassy in this festival. At 6:30, check out Un Petit Coin de Paradis, about the eco-transformation of a Swiss ghost town. rsvp
Thursday 3/18 - Let's stay with the free stuff: artist John Gerrard will deliver an illustrated lecture at the Hirshhorn Museum at 7 pm.
Friday 3/19 - The Inter American Development Bank hosts To the Sea, about a father's attempt to connect his son to his Mexico before his wife takes him back to Italy.

More to come!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

We're Back With the Good, The Bad and The Pretty

First, the good. The National Archives continues to show the Oscar-nominated documentaries tonight through Sunday. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers plays Thursday (there's a Meetup group going if you want to join), Friday is The Cove which I reviewed here a few months ago:
"It is a powerful documentary about the slaughtering of dolphins in an incredibly beautiful area of Japan (talk about a juxtaposition). The star of the film is Ric O'Barry, the guy from the old television series Flipper. Apparently, have dolphins to save and O'Barry will be there, even at whatever age he must be now (70+?). The movie unfolds like an undercover spy operation as a team of do-gooders must infiltrate this well-guarded cove to get the footage they need to expose the bad guys. I was engaged but not enthralled; it just didn't have the payoff that say the Enron movie did a couple years ago. But at some point (hopefully between meals), you should see it."
Saturday comes Burma VJ and Sunday Which Way Home, two docs I know less about.

Kudos to Theater J for putting on a hilarious reading of The Odd Couple last week with Floyd King and Rick Foucheux (and others including Arena's Delaney Williams). What would we give to have a full-out version of the still-funny play with those two wonderful actors? I'll ask Theater J head Ari Roth next time I see him.

NEXT, THE BAD. There seems to be a growing trend for what you think would be community-building events to lower the lights and raise the techno-music. One big example was the ill-fated Pecha Kucha at the Austrian Embassy a couple weeks ago. They took $20 from you, showed self-serving presentations of Haiti, and then lowered the lights and raised the volume so that you could not see or talk to anyone! It's my understanding that part of Pecha Kucha's mission is to highlight emerging artists, designers and architects (who give short presentations) and then encourage the crowd to talk with and about them after. When I raised the issue with the beautiful sister organizers Rouzita and Bita Vahhabaghai, one of them laughed at me. I guess I'm not pretty enough.
This week I attended a premiere for the new South Korean movie Mother at the new W Hotel, site of the old Hotel Washington. I am glad to report that the rooftop remains one of Washington's nicest spots, especially once the weather warms up. Also, the young staff at the hotel was incredibly nice, courteous and respectful (including very sweet elevator operators). The problem was that the event organizers lowered the lights so that you couldn't see anyone.  We left for the film - and settled in for a dark, depressing film by an obviously talented director. But coming after seeing Oscar Best Foreign Language Film nominees Ajami, Milk of Sorrow and White Ribbon, myself and my friends Cinthia and Abe walked out in a daze, hardly saying a word. We agreed that we definitely need to see an uplifting film.

I love the Studio Theater and the people who work there but their season this year has been abysmal. We saw That Face on Sunday and just didn't buy the premise. The acting was fine enough, but the plot of a Mom and a son in the same bed, a torturer daughter and her friend, a torturing vixen, didn't resonate. I'm not sure what made this a hit in London, but it's a long way off from last year's tremedous Blackbird at Studio. Let's hope the last two plays - Mamet's classic American Buffalo and Neil LaBute's latest, Reasons to Be Pretty - help salvage this atypical season for Studio.