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Photo: Margot Schulman

The Many Complexities of Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel isn’t like any other show.

This is what artistic director Eric Schaeffer tells me on a phone call the morning after I catch his new production at Signature Theatre, and I can say with full certainty that he’s quite right.

He relishes the fact he selected a Tony Award-winning play that’s complex, layered and challenging – adjectives he uses to describe the frenetic musical during our conversation, all of which just so happened to pop up multiple times in my post-show notes.

And it’s no coincidence: the 1929 novel turned 1932 MGM film turned 1989 Broadway hit wasn’t easy for me to connect with night of, but I was still thinking about it for days, even weeks, later. But art is meant to push us out of our comfort zones and expose us to new ways of thinking about and experiencing life, and Schaeffer’s known for taking those risks at Signature every season.

Whether it’s debuting daring new pieces or embracing notoriously difficult classics, the director doesn’t shy away from works that might make his audience fidget or his actors balk. And now through May 19, Schaeffer encourages theatregoers to sit in the lobby of a 1928 Berlin hotel as an extremely eclectic cast of characters weaves on the periphery of one another’s lives.

“The show just keeps layering on itself, which is interesting,” he tells me. “It’s not just like, here it is and here’s the story. It’s kind of like a painting that just keeps on taking off layers and layers and layers, which is the really neat thing about the show. I love that it challenges the audience, it challenges the actors. It just becomes this experience.”

His 16-person cast – full of Signature regulars and DC up-and-comers, plus a truly dazzling performance from the magnetic Nkrumah Gatling (Broadway’s Miss Saigon) – was whittled down from the original production’s 28. The method to his madness? He wanted to give the audience a fighting chance at following all of the show’s storylines through the lens of a sticky-fingered baron, aging ballerina, dying bookkeeper and desperate typist, to name a few.

“It was a hard puzzle to figure out, but it was fun once I did,” he says of casting the play. “There’s all these snapshots that are put together, and you keep getting slices of all these different lives and how they’re interconnected – or not – they all just happen to be passing in and out of the hotel lobby.”

Schaeffer selected his talent well, whipping the audience into a sometimes delightful (in numbers like the cheeky “Maybe My Baby Loves Me”), often uncomfortable (grappling with the heaviness of mortality or a successful man’s implied power over a naïve woman) frenzy. In just under two hours with no intermission, the impressive cast sings several dozen songs and swings the mood pendulum from light to dark at only a moment’s notice. It’s hard to keep up with – visually, sonically and emotionally.

The highly stylized, momentum-driven production isn’t just a lot for the audience to handle – the director says that everyone from the ensemble to the leads had an “Oh my god, this is so challenging” reaction.

“Which is great,” he says, “because they’re not doing the same old thing. It makes them grow as artists, which I think is really important.”

His level of commitment to the production extended beyond nudging his cast gingerly out of the nest and into uncharted – or at least less traveled – territory to a set design that married opulence of a building both old and grand with an ambiance that felt modern, contemporary and relatable.

“I really wanted the audience to feel like they’re sitting in the lobby of a hotel just eavesdropping on all of these conversations that are happening.”

And he did just that by collaborating with set designer Paul Tate dePoo III to create a dynamic set that transforms from a decadent hotel room to the black void of a haunting train station within seconds.

“It was a balance,” dePoo says. “It was a constant conversation. We didn’t get too far away from the contemporary world.”

And like Schaeffer, he takes his craft incredibly seriously, aiming to capture the spirit of the chaotic play and its varied cast through the design.

“Hopefully, it tells the story in a way that we don’t feel like we’re disconnected from these people and we appreciate the era they are currently telling the story within.”

Peel back the layers of this theatrical onion through Sunday, May 19 at Signature Theatre. Tickets start at $40 and are available at www.sigtheatre.org.

Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703- 820-9771; www.sigtheatre.org

Stage and Screen: Winter 2019

THROUGH SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 9

The Baltimore Waltz
It’s hard to blame someone diagnosed with the fictional “Acquired Toilet Disease” from going all out in the pleasures of the skin. With the fatal illness starting the timer leading to her impending doom, unmarried school teacher Anna heads to Europe with her brother Carl so she can live a little – complete with lots of food and sex. Meanwhile, Carl becomes entrenched in a bizarre espionage scheme meant to discover a cure for his not-long-for-this-world sister. You might be wondering, “Why did you mention a trip to Europe when Baltimore is mentioned in the title?” Well, about that… Various dates and times. Tickets $50. Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; www.keegantheatre.com

TUESDAY, JANUARY 29 – FRIDAY, MARCH 10

Nell Gwynn
Coming from humble beginnings, an orange seller eventually finds her way to the stage where she immediately becomes a household name. Upon Nell Gwynn’s successes, she manages to make a fan out of King Charles II. Eventually, the royal leader of England brings Gwynn to court as a favorite mistress. From there, the story about this amazing woman takes off. Various dates and times. Tickets $42-$79. Folger Theatre: 201 E Capitol St. SE, DC; www.folger.edu

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 30 – SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 17

Shame
An adaptation of a documentary may not seem all that enthralling at first. However, the subject matter of Mosaic Theater Company’s Shame is more than enough to draw you in as it tackles the challenges facing Israelis and Palestinians who choose to work with one another despite significant hurdles. The story focuses on several examples of this predicament and integrates several mediums, including Facebook messages, tweets and telephoned threats. Various dates and times. Tickets $15-$35. Atlas Performing Arts Center: 1333 H St. NE, DC; www.atlasarts.org

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 4 – SUNDAY, MARCH 3

BLKS
Spurred by a scare, Octavia decides it’s time to forget about any troubles or trepidations and have a raucous night on the town with friends. Joined by companions June and Imani, the three depart into the city for an epic night. But the evening becomes more than a hardcore party session, as the trio encounter strange characters, outrageous events and endure a true test of their friendship. Poet and playwright Aziza Barnes wrote this play, which celebrates queerness and sisterhood as the friends wrestle with universal factors such as truth, love and the struggle of adulthood. Various dates and times. Tickets $20-$51. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 5 – SUNDAY, MARCH 10

Richard the Third
Power as an addiction is not only a trope in real life, but a common theme for villains in a number of stories – and perhaps the most famous is the power-hungry king from Shakespeare’s Richard III. Fueled by a bottomless well of ambition, the ruthless and cunning man continues to reach for more, more and more in his quest for power. By the play’s end, no one in the audience will be rooting for his lust. This is the study of what makes a villain, and few put on better performances than Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC). Various dates and times. Tickets $44-$102. STC’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; www.shakespearetheatre.org

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 7 – SUNDAY, MARCH 3

El Viejo, El Joven y El Mar (The Old Man, The Youth, and The Sea)
A new play by Irma Correa, El Viejo, El Joven y El Mar tells the story of a renowned Spanish philosopher who runs into a fisherman, general and journalist. He speaks with each of them about their different beliefs regarding freedom, reason and faith; all the while, the old man is planning his escape from the Spanish island of Fuerteventura. Though the play is based on historical events, the subtext is heavily rooted in today’s society. The play is in Spanish with English subtitles. Various dates and times. Tickets $48. GALA Hispanic Theatre: 3333 14th St. NW, DC; http://en.galatheatre.org

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14

Story District’s Sucker for Love: A Valentine’s Day Special
No need to get mushy on Valentine’s Day when you can laugh at the misery of others, right? Okay, admittedly that sentence was a little Seinfeld-ish, but on the day dedicated to love, heart drawings and chocolates, Story District’s Sucker for Love provides an alternate mode of entertainment. Instead of a candlelit dinner with expensive wine, head to Lincoln Theatre to hear true stories involving sex, love, breakups, makeups, dating and anything else you can fit into the genre of Valentine’s Day. Show starts at 7 p.m., tickets $35-$45. Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; www.storydistrict.org

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 16 – SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 17

Urban Bush Women’s Hair & Other Stories
Through personal narratives crafted in living rooms, communities and kitchens, Hair & Other Stories is dance theatre that blends conversations with movement to challenge existing – and sometime archaic – American values. The Urban Bush Women company is always on the cutting edge of delivering pieces that fit within the contemporary dance genre while also highlighting the cultural history and spiritual traditions of the African-American and African diaspora. Saturday night opening party starts at 8 p.m. Sunday afternoon performance starts at 4 p.m. Tickets $15-$100. Dance Place: 3225 8th St. NE, DC; www.danceplace.org

Stage and Screen: September 2018

Through Sunday, September 23

Small Mouth Sounds
Six people sit in silence, escaping city noises and distractions in favor of necessary self-reflection. Cell phones? Not allowed. But then again, the retreat is led by a guru who can’t quite stick to the rules. Small Mouth Sounds serves as an adult edition of The Breakfast Club with a minimal set and sound. As you put your phone on silent and immerse yourself in the story, you might be surprised by your own self-reflection. Tickets are $51-$60. Round House Theatre: 4545 East-West Hwy. Bethesda, MD; www.roundhousetheatre.org

Monday, September 3 – Sunday, September 30

Gloria
As a journalist, writing about the lives of others becomes second nature. But when tragedy strikes a New York-based magazine, who gets to tell the story? After stories from iconic newsrooms have hit the big screen (Spotlight, The Post), Gloria acts out a contemporary journalism story – especially in light of the recent horror faced by staffers at the Capital Gazette. Tickets are $20-$41. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

Tuesday, September 4 – Sunday, September 23

Macbeth
Step away from the toil and trouble of daily life and get into the spooky season with this adaptation of Macbeth. Witches promise him a future of riches and royalty, but Macbeth is too hungry to wait. A hero turns into a murderer, and the psychological aftermath spirals him and others involved into madness. Under director Robert Richmond, the timeless tale takes on a more modern life with some newly added scenes. Folger’s production features music performed by the Folger Consort, and is adapted and amended by Sir William Davenant. Adapted or not, one lesson remains the same: don’t trust a witch. Tickets are $42-$79. Folger Theatre: 201 E. Capitol St. SE, DC; www.folger.edu

Thursday, September 6 – Sunday, September 16

DC Shorts Film Festival
Experience 10 days of film with more than 130 movie options at the 2018 DC Shorts Film Festival. These indie films from around the world are also competing for titles like Best Local DMV Film, Best Animation and Best International Narrative. You’ll watch up to nine films in each 90-minute screening session, so attending just one or two sessions will expose you to many new perspectives from talented filmmakers. After watching, mingle with fellow film buffs at the various festival parties with cocktails, food and music included. Tickets prices vary. DC Shorts Film Festival: Various locations around DC; www.festival.dcshorts.com

Friday, September 7

On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope Discussion
Politics and Prose hosts a conversation removed from the Twittersphere on politics, culture and the Black Lives Matter movement with activist DeRay Mckesson. He was there at a pivotal moment for modern day civil rights – 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri – and now all of his experiences are bound in his new book On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope. The book “offers a new framework and language for understanding the nature of oppression,” according to its summary. Share in the discussion or come to learn. Each event on Mckesson’s tour will feature a special guest. Tickets are $10 for students, $26-$28 for non-students. Book included in ticket price. GW’s Lisner Auditorium: 730 21st St. NW, DC; www.politics-prose.com

Saturday, September 15

Kevin Hart: The Irresponsible Tour
Work hard, laugh hard. Except Kevin Hart’s the one working to make you laugh. The actor and comedian is stopping in DC for The Irresponsible Tour with all-new material. Twitter users have applauded the show online, saying the show’s worth every dollar. Hart also has a new movie with Tiffany Haddish out this month, Night School, making you wonder if he ran his jokes with her and was influenced by a fellow comedic genius. Despite his stature – the punchline to many jokes – Hart is only getting bigger in the comedy world. Tickets are $34 and up. Capital One Arena: 601 F St. NW, DC; www.kevinhartnation.com

Tuesday, September 18 – Sunday, November 11

Heisenberg
When 75-year-old Alex gets a surprise smooch from a comparatively younger stranger named Georgie, it’s not exactly what he expected when boarding the train on this average day. Even less expected was her finding him at his butcher shop sometime after the encounter. Georgie is confusing. Alex is confused. And so is the audience – left in suspense as the play’s runtime begins to unravel her true intentions. This unlikely duo with romantic relations is just another experiment conducted by Tony Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens. He’s just letting the audience in on his conclusive results. Tickets are $40-$89. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; www.sigtheatre.org

Friday, September 21 – Sunday, October 21

Born Yesterday
For DC natives, Born Yesterday may seem like an all-too-familiar story about gaining political power in the hub of the power hungry. But this satire set in the 1940s is more of a comedic retreat from the current stressful affairs, and the winnings don’t go to a who but to a what: the truth. Ford’s Theatre calls this production directed by Aaron Posner “political satire meets romantic comedy,” but all good stories are grounded in reality. Watch this for an entertaining mashup of unlikely allies and girl power to fight corruption. Tickets are $20-$62. Ford’s Theatre: 511 10th St. NW, DC; www.fords.org

Wednesday, September 26

Welcome to Night Vale Live Show
First-time visitors and regular listeners of the Night Vale podcast have a chance to experience a brand-new storyline with a live show tour. The alternate reality podcast production “promises to find unexpected ways to bring the audience into the performance,” according to the Welcome to Night Vale site. Live music by Disparition and special surprise guests will get you totally immersed in the mystery and spooky wonders of the small desert town brought to the Lincoln Theatre stage. In Night Vale, anything can happen. Prepare by tuning in to past episodes online. Tickets are $35. Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; www.thelincolndc.com