Don’t Wait to Dive In

Scoping Out a New Theater Season

Destiny of Desire. Arena Stage

This fall, DC’s flourishing theater community rolls out plans for a staggering array of productions. From the Shakespeare canon to American musical standards to world premieres, the Washington area has it all — in fact, too much for anyone who can’t make theater-going a full-time job.

So beyond holding out to see which shows get rave reviews from critics and friends, how can a theater fan flag a few promising plays to see? I start with the companies that have rarely let me down — the ones led by producers and directors who choose great material and execute it with confidence, creativity and intellectual rigor. Starting with the companies that fit that bill for me, I used a few other rules of thumb to pick some of next season’s standouts. 

And The Award Goes To …

Even a great director can struggle with a flawed script or work in progress. So earning a highly respected award is a good sign that a play’s well worth your time.

Studio Theatre seems to agree, opening the season with Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica, winner of the 2014 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. With the guidance of David Muse, Studio’s often brilliant artistic director, this exploration of politics and personal responsibility is sure to shed light on US-China relations in a moving way. Studio is also producing Between Riverside and Crazy, a dark comedy by Stephen Adly Guirgis that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. If it’s anywhere near as good as Guirgis’ universally acclaimed Motherf**ker With a Hat, produced by Studio in 2013, we’re in for laugh-out-loud dialog and a story that makes you think.

Signature Theater will present the flick, winner of a 2014 Pulitzer Prize and a 2013 Obie Award for Playwriting. Just as she did in Circle Mirror Transformation, produced at Studio in 2010, playwright Annie Baker draws extraordinary insights by connecting ordinary people. In this play, they’re three minimum-wage employees working at a crumbling Massachusetts movie theater, chatting about film and their lives as they clean up post-show debris.

Please, Sir, I Want Some More

Except on Broadway and in the touring productions it spawns, there’s no such thing as a three-year run for terrific shows. So it’s always a joy when a fantastic play you missed — or want to see again — comes to Washington’s stages for an encore.

Folger Theatre leads the season with a tried-and-true version of Shakespeare’s Pericles, originally produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Director Joseph Haj, acclaimed for his 2010 Helen Hayes Award-winning production of Hamlet at the Folger, has earned stellar reviews for this magical production, featuring live music by Tony Award-winner Jack Herrick. TheShakespeare Theater Company reaches even further afield, importing George Orwell’s 1984 from England, where it was produced by Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse, and Almeida Theatre. Earning five stars from The Guardian in 2013, this new adaptation puts a timely spotlight on government surveillance and security.

Signature Theatre plucks a play from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Road Show, a musical travelogue about two brothers’ 40-year quest for the American dream. Although some reviews of director Gary Griffin’s effort fell short of raves, I’m banking on Signature to pick a winner for its 26th Stephen Sondheim production.

Studio’s “special remount” comes from its own stage: Bad Jews, aptly dubbed “the funniest play of the year” by The Washington Post. With the deft direction of Serge Seiden, the production broke all Studio box office records last year, but even with an extended run, theatergoers couldn’t get enough of this utterly hilarious but deeply affecting take on religious and cultural identity. Seiden also will direct Studio’s return of Richard Nelson’s fabulous Apple Family Cycle, only now featuring the final two plays in the quartet: Sorry and Regular Singing. So we can keep watching a changing America unfold through a family’s discussions at the dining-room table.

I Loved Your Work In …

Even the risk-averse theater maven can take a chance on the unknown with a favorite director or actor. Ethan McSweeny is one of my mine, so I’m intrigued to see him branch out from his Shakespeare Theatre Company roots with Deirdre Kinahan’s Moment for his Studio Theatre debut. Set in Dublin, this story of clashing siblings was deemed “one of most quietly shattering evenings in the theatre that I have experienced” by The Independent’s reviewer. I’m in.

Meanwhile, STC associate artistic director Alan Paul will follow his astonishing production of Man of La Mancha with Kiss Me‚ Kate — a show he’s reportedly waited a lifetime to direct.It might be hard for any director to miss with this show’s music and lyrics by Cole Porter, but Paul — who won a Helen Hayes award for his direction of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — promises something super special.

Paul’s mentor and RTC artistic director Michael Kahn will direct two comedies about theater life “behind the scenes.” Adapted by the unfailingly astute Jeffrey Hatcher from Richard Sheridan’s script, The Critic is a fresh take on an 18th century romp. Then Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound fast forwards 300 years to the 1950s for an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, featuring the The Critic’s ensemble cast. With Kahn’s unmatched ability to capitalize on comic possibilities that lesser directors fail to detect, these shows should be an absolute hoot.

At the Folger, we can always count on Aaron Posner for masterful work — most recently, in directing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. This year he’ll take on A Midsummer Night's Dream and give a cast of women a shot at its iconic roles. The ever-outstanding Holly Twyford will play Bottom, the egomaniacal buffoon who spends much of the play with the head of an ass. And Erin Weaver — mesmerizing in Posner’s productions of Arcadia and Romeo and Juliet — will invent her own Puck, whose sprightly antics and eloquent observations permeate the play.

In other auspicious pairings, Signature may have found the perfect show for feisty Sherri L. Edelen and director Joe Calarco in Cake Off, billed as “a musical adaptation of Sheri Wilner’s riotous battle-of-the-baking-sexes play.” I’m still kicking myself for missing Edelen and Calarco’s acclaimed collaboration in 2013’s Gypsy, so I won’t miss this one. I’m also elated to see Nicholas Rodriguez making something of a homecoming to Arena Stage for Destiny of Desire with an all-Latino cast. Rodriguez has appeared in everything from soaps to Broadway hits, but in Washington he’s best known for stirring performances at Arena as Curly in Oklahoma! and Freddy in My Fair Lady.  

New Kids on the Block

The limits of relying on my experience are obvious: My picks reveal a stunning lack of cultural diversity and a bit too much social comfort. When I want to stretch, I’ll look to the two companies that bring fresh voices not only to the Washington community but also to neighborhoods that will benefit from greater access to theater steps from home.

Theater Alliance artistic director Jeremy Skidmore and his successor, Colin Hovde, partnered with H Street Playhouse owner Adele Robey for more than 10 years to cultivate and showcase local talent — and bring theater to people who may never have seen it before — in an underserved corner of Capitol Hill. Now they’re doing the same across the river at the Anacostia Playhouse, founded by Robey in 2013.

Theater Alliance is known for putting African-American performers and perspectives front and center, this year featuring Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Word Becomes Flesh, as well as Langston Hughes’ holiday classic Black Nativity. And the company’s Hothouse project provides an “an intellectual incubator” for local playwrights, including Kathleen Akerley, whose Night Falls on the Blue Planet will premiere at Anacostia Playhouse this month.

Back on H Street, Mosaic Theater Company of DC is a welcome addition to the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s resident companies. Mosaic will elevate provocative — even cathartic — art that invites audiences to grapple with explosive social conflicts from Chicago’s south side to Rwanda. Ari Roth, former artistic director of Theater J, founded Mosaic to pursue his vision for producing transformational art. He’s joined by fellow DC theater veterans Serge Seiden, who was most recently Studio’s producing director, and Jennifer Nelson, an actor and playwright who has held leadership positions with Ford’s Theatre, African Continuum Theatre Company, and Living Stage Theatre Company. (In fact, their powerful partnership spurred this writer to become a Mosaic volunteer.)

The Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, at the heart of Mosaic’s inaugural season, will present and fuel discussion of works by Israeli, Arab, and American authors exploring the personal and political effects of tensions and violence. A centerpiece will be Wrestling Jerusalem, a one-man play that Aaron Davidman has honed since 2007, using the voices of multiple characters to animate the struggle with identity, history, and social justice in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Twenty or thirty years ago, few DC residents could have imagined this wealth of inspiring, enriching entertainment. I have only skimmed the surface of this immense pool. Now it’s up to you: Dive in!

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill. 

Chimerica. Studio Theatre
Pericles. Shakespeare Theatre