What a year of theater in DC. Re-visiting some old favorites, local productions of Broadway shows to new productions never before performed taking place everywhere around town from the Kennedy Center to the DC Fringe festival. Just like any year, this year had some hits and misses from the 25 DC area productions I took in this past year.
It’s hard to identify my favorite show of the year as there are a handful of productions that stood out to me, but they come from such different places it is hard to say one was better than the other. My two favorite shows of the year, in no particular order, were “The Whipping Man” at Theatre J, “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play” at Woolly Mammoth. I saw both before I started the blog, so no links to reviews of the shows and it would be unfair to write one months removed from having seen it. However, the raw emotion of “The Whipping Man” has really stuck with me. It takes place at the end of the civil war and the Jewish son of a plantation owner returning home to the destroyed plantation having suffered a leg injury. Upon returning he encounters the former house slave and another slave he was raised with who deal with his leg injury and prepare to celebrate Passover, as the now former slaves are Jewish too. The politics and relationships of these characters as master/slave and from them all being Jewish at Passover plays out during this stellar show. “Mr. Burns”, on the other hand, is a bit more light-hearted. It starts out taking place in the immediate aftermath of a world-wide loss of power. Yes, it may sound like the back-story to the TV show Revolution, but that is where the similarities end. The show starts out with some survivors camped out trying to retell an episode of “The Simpsons” to entertain themselves. It then fast-forwards several years to the same characters in a rehearsal after having formed a troop that entertains people by acting out scripts from episodes of “The Simpsons” and the commercials that would go along with the program. The second act is 70 years in the future and a full on production of the “Cape Fear” episode of “The Simpsons”, or at least the episode as it was remembered and changed over the years. Oh, and did I forget to mention that the show became a musical about half way through. A truly surprising and enjoyable experience.
Some other notable productions for me were “Dying City” at Signature Theatre, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” at Studio, and “Spring Awakening” at Keegan Theatre. I had never been to the Church Street Theatre, where Keegan makes its home, before this year. I was truly impressed by both productions I saw there this year. I never saw a “Spring Awakening” production before and I found the production quite enjoyable. I also took in “August: Osage County”, having seen the original Broadway production twice. Needless to say, I am a fan of playwright Tracy Letts work and Keegan did a superb job transferring it to its space and recreating the full three story home in such a small space. Unfortunately, my experiences at Studio and Signature weren’t as consistent. While “Dying City” contained some masterful acting at Signature, their production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” just fell flat. It felt like a dated musical that never fully developed the characters they wanted you to care about. There was an interesting mix of shows I saw at Studio, with “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” topping the list. A musical about the former President, as if he were an emo rock star. They cleverly interfused modern times, morals and ideals with the time of Andrew Jackson. “Dirt” and “Invisible Man” both had their moments, but seemed to not quite hold together for the entire productions. Whereas, the production of “An Iliad” was perhaps one of the more disappointing productions for me of the year. While there may be some out there that enjoy this show, I personally found it dull and uninspiring.
Of course, that probably wasn’t the low point for the year. That belonged to “Joey Arias” at Woolly Mammoth. Perhaps that is partly due to the fact that I am not necessarily the target audience for a drag queen show, but this production was a 90 minute walk through self-indulgence. From what I understand, the show was originally a 60 minute production that was expanded. If it had ended after 60 minutes my feelings regarding it might have been different. The puppetry used during the production was outstanding, but the song selection and Joey Arias singing voice were not my cup of tea. A more entertaining drag show was that of the Kinsey Sicks at Theater J. Once again, not necessarily my cup of tea, but at least it was largely self-aware of what it was.
Woolly had a pretty darn good year outside of Joey Arias. It’s production of “Civilization” was a bit bizarre, but had the real makings of a solid drama if it had decided to flesh out the characters…rather flesh out the human characters. The other three productions I saw there this year, “Mr. Burns”, “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity”, and “You For Me For You” were all excellent and make you want to take the risk of going to Woolly because they can truly hit of some good shows.
I only took in two shows during this year’s Fringe Festival. I am going to fall in the minority in saying that “Beer Town” is overrated. It was a somewhat unscripted show that relies on audience participation to steer the show. It is taking place during a town meeting regarding what items should be added and removed from the communities time capsule. There were moments of humor, but that largely had to do with audience member comments. I understand this type of theater could be for some, but for me when I pay to see a production I don’t want the best moments to be from others who paid to be there. Conversely, “The Pundit” was excellent. It is by John Feffer, who has become a mainstay at the DC Fringe Festival. I’ve seen his last two productions and he has entered the must see category if he has another production this summer. “The Pundit” is about a DC talking head on TV that is unexpectedly asked to comment about a terrorist attack in a country he has never heard of. He spits out the perfect soundbites, but the terrorist leader is listening and calls him on his cell phone threatening attacks against the US and his family if he doesn’t publicly support his cause.
I saw three national tours this year, with only “Les Miserables” at the National being worth it. The one thing I did discover is that except for the upcoming visit of “The Book of Mormon” at the Kennedy Center Opera House I am going to avoid that venue for seeing a show. Unless you have outstanding seats it is basically sitting in another time zone. I didn’t have the greatest experiences with “War Horse” and “Jekyll & Hyde” there, but it was definitely due in part to the cavernous theatre.
Now onto the new year, new productions, and most assuredly new venues I’ve never taken in before, with my fiancé who is one of the newly chosen judges for the Helen Hayes Awards.