DC: Dancing with Presidents

June 18, 2008
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We're on the stage of the National Theatre, rich in history but on the verge of irrelevance. With a mere 1675 seats, it's difficult to compete for tours and concerts with the Kennedy Center and other larger houses.

This is the stage where Lyndon Johnson showed up during a curtain call for "Hello, Dolly!" and danced with Carol Channing. This is the theater where not-yet President Franklin Pierce got into a brawl with a fellow audience member while Julius Booth performed. This is the theater where JFK showed up at 10:30 because he was back at the House watching the Liston/Patterson fight. After the show (the musical "Mr. President", he asked Jackie if the first act was as bad as the second.

The stories are being shared by Thomas A. Bogar, Ph. D., an assistant professor of theatre history at Hood College and the author of "American Presidents Attend the Theatre," a book about the theater-going of every U.S. Pres. (No, Bush the younger isn't the weakest in this regard--that honor goes to Polk, who went to one play and walked out at intermission.)

A while back in this blog, I brought up the fact that public office candidates these days rarely are seen at arts events. But according to the personable Bogar, we've had a number of passionate theatergoers as chief execs, including Lincoln, Wilson and J.Q. Adams.

Later, on the stage, a group of Washington theater folks--two actors, a director/producer, and a designer, field questions about why they settled on Washington. The general consensus: It's like a huge ensemble company with 50 stages.

Is it really that wonderful here? It's difficult to find the cracks just by visiting. But of the three productions I've seen so far, I've been as impressed with the audiences as I am with the productions. For there to be a truly vibrant theater scene, a town needs an audience willing to take majors leaps of faith. There has to be a willingness to follow an artistic vision, allowing for crushing failures in order to increase the chance of major breakthroughs.

"It is impossible for us to offend our audience," says Howard Shalwitz, the visionary behind the 28-year-old Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. He says, a bit amazed rather than boastful, that he can do an entire season of plays by writers that no one has ever heard of. Even when he works with names familiar to theater folks--Wallace Shawn, Sarah Rule, Nicky Silver--he pushes them for their most cutting-edge work. Audiences have come to expect that, helping Woolly Mammoth grow to a point three years ago when it could move into an architecturally praised space under a stack of luxury condos in a high-rent downtown area.

The play we see is David Grimm's "Measure for Pleasure," an attempt to fuse a 21-century sensibility on a Restoration comedy.

While it has plenty of laughs, some bordering-on-brilliant wordplay, a few surprisingly effective tone shifts, and an oddly moving, very conventional ending, I found myself thinking that the audience was way ahead of it. The risque didn't seem risky enough. The ground on this one already seemed broken. But it did leave me wanting to see more from the Mammoth--and impressed with a city that can nurture it.

Later in the evening, we catch The Shakespeare Theatre Company's take on the real thing--a production of Moliere's "The Imaginary Invalid," complete with the music and dance that would have been part of its original production. Inventively directed and expertly played, particularly by star Rene Auberjonois (who you may know from his stints on "Benson" and "Boston Legal"). He's made for Moliere the way Jason Robards is ideal for Eugene O'Neill.

And now, to sleep. If I'm up on time in the morning, it's off to theaters in Virginia and Maryland. If I miss the bus, it's museum-hopping time.

Either way.
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