The cultural tourist part 1: Washington, D.C.

May 24, 2011
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First, some explaining:

This year, I had the honor of receiving a Creative Renewal Grant from the Arts Council of Indianapolis through a privately funded program designed to fan the creative flame for established Indiana artists.

The grant was for my work as a novelist/playwright—which I usually keep separate from my work here at IBJ.

However, in this case, there’s overlap.

You see, a portion of this grant will allow me to take numerous short trips over the next 18 months to explore theater in other cities. As I wrote in the proposal: “I am inspired and renewed by the work of artists taking chances, exploring, and working at the top of their games. ... While I have access to the best of what Indianapolis has to offer, this grant would allow me to take advantage of the wealth of theater around the country.”

That could mean going to the Shaw Festival in Canada, and it could mean seeing “Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark” in NYC.

It might mean exploring ground-breaking companies in Chicago, and it could mean taking a seat at the premiere of the John Mellencamp/Stephen King musical in Atlanta.

It might mean rediscovering the theaters that I wrote about years ago while in Philadelphia. And it could mean first visits to renowned companies in cities I’ve never seen.

Yes, I'm excited. And, of course, I’ll also take advantage of other arts opportunities in those destinations.

I’ll channel those trips into blog posts here under the heading "The Cultural Tourist." If you have an interest in the arts beyond our borders, watch for them. (I may even try to tie them together for a book project. We’ll see.)

First stop: Washington, D.C.

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One of my strategies for these cultural tourist treks is to see work that I wouldn’t see here in Indianapolis. This time, those choices were very clear.

I’ve been waiting all of my theater-loving life to see a production of the Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman 1971 musical, "Follies," but the closest I’ve come is the DVD of 1985’s “Follies in Concert.”

Why the interest?

Well, first, there’s the tremendous score, by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, smart, true, and always in character.

Then there’s the rare-in-a-musical depth of character. In most musicals, characters sing about their inner feelings. Here, the songs largely show how deep the characters are in denial about their true feelings.

And there’s the degree of difficulty. We rarely see productions of “Follies,” because the demands are great and the possible box-office rewards minimal.

At the center of the piece are two former dancers—Sally and Phyllis—who married a pair of stage-door johnnies—Buddy and Ben—and went on to very different lives. Sally has been clinging to the notion that Ben still harbors feelings for her from their affair back in the day. Phyllis, who educated herself to be worthy of Ben, now wonders if it was worth the effort. Meanwhile, Buddy and Ben have both sought companionship elsewhere, for different reasons.

“42ndStreet,” this ain’t.

The show also requires a very special cast to approach its potential. It’s one thing to have a community theater actress sing Carlotta's survival anthem, “I’m Still Here.” It’s quite another for it to be tackled by former movie star Yvonne De Carlo (in the original), Carol Burnett (in the Lincoln Center concert), Eartha Kitt (in London),  Ann Miller (at Paper Mill Playhouse) or, at the Kennedy Center, Elaine Paige. The more we know of the actress’ career ups and downs, the more powerful the sequence becomes.

And Carlotta’s just a supporting role.

At this point, I’d love to go into detail about the Kennedy Center production, which officially opened May 21 and runs through June 19.

I’d love to give my thoughts on Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines as the core quartet.

I’d love to talk about the supporting ladies, including Susan Watson (the original Kim in “Bye, Bye Birdie”), Linda Lavin, Terri White (the “Barnum’” star who, after a period of homelessness, returned to the stage in 2009’s “Finian’s Rainbow”) and the aforementioned Elaine Paige (“Evita,” “Cats,” and just about every other leading role in London musicals).

But my trip to Washington fell before the official opening of the show. I saw it while it was still in previews and the unwritten rule of reviewing is that a legit critic doesn’t comment on the work until it’s declared ready (a rule ignored during the prolonged preview period of Broadway’s “Spider-man,” but that’s another story).

I will say that productions like this of shows like this renew my faith in musicals. And I don't think it's a violation of protocol to say that if what I saw became even stronger by openign night, then this is a must-see for theater lovers (and a should-see for anyone who just likes seeing lots of great actresses).

Oh, and Bernadette Peters is stunning. (Sorry, that slipped out.)

More information on the Kennedy Center’s production of “Follies” can be found here.

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Before I get to the next show, let’s talk about Arena Stage and its new space.

An early leader in the regional theater movement (which proved that there was valuable work being done outside of New York), Arena was the first regional company to send a show to Broadway (1968’s “The Great White Hope”). It’s been at the forefront of new play development and has helped anchor the D.C. theater scene since 1950. The fall of 2010 saw the opening of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, a complex that includes three theaters, scene and costume shops, rehearsal spaces, a very public reading room and an inviting café.

At first, the space—designed by architect Bing Thom—feels haphazard. It’s ski-slope, pointed roof and odd exterior angles standing out from its unexciting waterfront neighborhood. Inside, one of the theater spaces looks like it could be housing a particle accelerator, another like it could be protecting survivalists. But it remarkably pulls together, creating the dramatic impression that work is being nurtured and developed here rather than enshrined.

Having missed Lynn Nottage’s 2009 Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “Ruined” when it premiered in Chicago—and fairly certain there won't be a production in Indianapolis any time soon—I appreciated the opportunity to see it at Arena.

Why not in Indy?

“Ruined” requires a large cast—rare for a non-musical these days. Further, most of the roles are for African-Americans and, unfortunately, Indy hasn’t developed a deep pool of professional black actors. And I don’t think any of our avocational companies have the means (or the wherewithal) to attempt such a brutal—but ultimately, oddly, hopeful—exploration of the plight of women in the Congo.

The best plays aren’t about issues and political situations. They are about specific characters dealing with those issues and situations. Nottage’s play—inspired in part by Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” (but, to my eyes, equally influenced by “Casablanca”)—tells of a brothel-owner trying to keep her business afloat while not getting too involved with either side of the civil war around her. She reluctantly takes in two young women whose lives—and bodies—have been horribly abused in the conflict.

Despite a tendency to push too hard vocally, Jenny Jules and Jeremiah W. Birkett are appealing as the madam Mama Nadi and the salesman, Christian, who is drawn to her. And Rachel Holmes is in stunning voice as Sophie, unable to work as a prostitute because of the atrocities committed against her, who becomes vocalist for the brothel band.

But even before her wrenching second act monologue, Donetta Lavinia Grays proves the soul of the piece. Initially taking a back seat to the drama, her Salima is presented as just another prostitute—a lure presented by Christian to get Mama Nadi to give shelter to his niece, Sophie. Nottage skillfully keeps her a step away from the center of the action, but Grays subtly and powerfully makes clear that there’s a life going on inside this woman.

And when she finally shares her story, it’s all the more shocking and powerful, because we’ve been aware of her presence all along, knowing that she’s been protecting herself and holding in something nearly unimaginable. It’s her eyes that haunt long after the curtain call.

A side note: I don't believe Nottage could have pulled off such a strong play without a history of gutsy theaters willing to stage her work. While I applaude Arena's produciton, I also applaude those companies that have helped nurture her work—and the audiences that take chances seeing new plays.

And, no I'm not just saying that as a playwright in search of future audiences. I'm also saying it as an audience member who yearns for top-quality writing and is aware of the artistic freedom necessary to create.

“Ruined” runs through June 5. The summer brings the return of Arena’s acclaimed revival of “Oklahoma!” followed by a 2011/12 season includes productions of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and the world premiere of the musical “Like Water for Chocolate.” For more on Arena Stage, click here.

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Your thoughts? And are there productions or theater companies you are aware of that I should try to get to over the next year and a half?

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  • Shaw White
    I love the Shaw Festival. Love it!

    Also love Terri White. First ran into her when she worked at the now-closed Rose's Turn and was amazed at her voice; we would go back to Rose's Turn every time we were in New York just because of her. (This was pre-homelessness.) Last year when we were in New York we saw her at Feinstein's at the Regency and she was just as charismatic.

    Thanks for the report.
  • IBJ
    Thank you

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