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Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company
Photo: Courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company

Modern Shakespeare: Richard the Third at STC

“Now is the winter of our discontent.”

The opening line of Richard the Third would have you believe that all hardships are over and only good days are to come. But as theatergoers attending Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (STC) upcoming production of Richard the Third will soon realize, anything but peace lies ahead.

Directed by David Muse for STC and running from February 5 through March 10, Shakespeare’s Richard the Third follows the titular role of Richard on his ambitious quest for the crown. A spiteful megalomaniac, Richard (Matthew Rauch) will stop at nothing until he sits on the throne, and thus invites the audience into a world of murder, villainy and even dark fun.

“Yes, Richard does horrific things in this play,” Rauch says, “but my hope and David’s [Muse] hope, I think, is that at least for the first part of the play, the audience reaction will not be ‘Oh, what a terrible person,’ but ‘Oh, isn’t he just deliciously evil’ and it’s terrible, but it’s fun to watch.”

Rauch emphasizes that just because the title of the play is Richard the Third, it doesn’t mean the story is only about him.

“It’s very easy with a face on the poster and the title of the play, for people to think there’s only one person involved,” Rauch says. “The truth is there’s about a hundred people involved and all of them are crucial.”

Some of those crucial people are the women around Richard, including his mother the Duchess of York, Margaret of Anjou and Queen Elizabeth. Rauch points out that while Richard can brilliantly manipulate people and events, these particular women don’t bend easily to his will and disprove the outdated notion that Shakespearean women are damsels in distress.

But a fourth woman equally as important to the play’s development, Lady Anne of Neville (Cara Ricketts), is the person who perhaps best understands Richard.

“Richard sees himself in [Anne] and she sees herself in him, in a way that she probably feels like she may break through to him,” Ricketts says. “He pretends it’s a possibility and she falls for it.”

Bust because Anne is ultimately manipulated by Richard, this doesn’t make her simple.

“My Anne is not a pushover,” Ricketts says. “There’s nothing soft about these women. The foundation for these characters has never been soft women.”

Ricketts adds she is ready to play Anne the way an audience 70 years ago may not have let her.

“During the 50s, you had preconceived notions about what a woman was in terms of society so that’s what you got,” Ricketts says. “Now I’ve got a chance to let loose the girdle and make it rip, so that’s what I’m doing while respecting what that character is.”

These preconceived notions of Shakespearean women are not the only ideas cast and crew hope prove outdated. Perhaps one of the most famous scenes in the play is the “wooing scene” where Richard interrupts Anne’s mourning of her father-in-law.

Rauch stresses that while many feel the scene is “creepy” and Richard comes off as “sexually predatory,” this is not the way they plan to portray Richard.

“The only event that needs to happen in the scene is that Anne consents to come to Richard’s house. Nothing else is implied in that scene or on the page and my hope is that it will not come off as sexually creepy,” Rauch says. “David [Muse] and I were never interested in a Richard who was sexually predatory, not because it’s not politically correct, but because we didn’t believe there was anything in the text that supported that.”

Changes in the character’s tones will not be the only noticeable differences in STC’s Richard the Third production. About 40 percent of the original text – mostly obscure English history – has been cut for a streamlined production.

“The Shakespeare Theatre is, I would argue, literally the best classical theater in the United States,” Rauch says. “They know how to do this here and they have created such a web of support.”

Rauch adds that despite the play’s age, audience members will find a lot of similarities between the 500-year-old story and modern society.

“[This is] a story about a deeply complicated, manipulative, brilliant person who rises to power and the people who are complicit in his doing so,” Rauch says. “All you need to do is read the front page of the New York Times to find parallels to that story.”

See Richard the Third at Shakespeare Theatre Company from February 5 through March 10. Runtime is 2 hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets start at $44. For more information, click here.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Urban Bush Dance Place

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

Photo: Matthew Placek
Photo: Matthew Placek

John Cameron Mitchell Brings Origin of Love Tour to DC

It’s been 20 years since John Cameron Mitchell introduced the world to the complex character of Hedwig, and she’s still as relevant as ever. The Tony Award-winning actor and director is bringing the East Berlin rock ‘n’ roller’s story to National Theatre for one night only on February 8, performing songs from the cult classic-turned-Broadway musical Hedwig & the Angry Inch and telling behind-the-scenes stories surrounding that period in his life. DC is the first stop on the U.S. leg of Mitchell’s Origin of Love tour, and our resident Hedwig fanatic had the chance to geek out on the phone with him about the staying power of Hedwig, his groundbreaking new musical podcast Anthem and how he plans to crowd surf at National.

On Tap: What motivated the Origin of Love tour beyond Hedwig & the Angry Inch’s 20th anniversary?
John Cameron Mitchell:
It was purely humanitarian because my mom has Alzheimer’s. She’s in the later stage, and she’s very happy but requires a lot of care. And you know, our country doesn’t always take care of its own, so I have to pull the wig on for Mom. I thought, “What’s a way I can do a show that isn’t the musical but still uses the songs?” Then it became a memoir of the making of Hedwig that has its own dramatic shape. We [started the tour] in Australia first and then Korea, so DC is really the first Origin of Love show we will have done in the U.S.

OT: What can you tell us about the format of the show, without giving too much away?
JCM:
I’m not playing Hedwig, but I’m dressed as a version of Hedwig. It’s neat telling the story and like the musical, it’s very much about me talking to the audience. [I’m] also telling a structured story about meeting [composer] Stephen Trask and both of our hopes and dreams, and meeting his bass player [Jack Steeb] who became my boyfriend of many years and inspired some important songs – and who passed away from his addiction after the film came out. Jack was really into the linchpin of the whole piece. [I] talk about our relationship and also how the myth of the origin of love – of trying to complete yourself with someone else – can be challenging, and the myth often needs to be reinterpreted.

OT: What other parts of your life did you incorporate into the show?
JCM:
Growing up very Catholic and [in a] military [family], my own need to break free from that [and] my fear of my own feminine energies. The root of [much evil] in the world is people not accepting what’s in them, for better or worse. Like an animal that dies behind your wall, it can stink up the place. You have to air things out. Hedwig finds that these feminine and masculine energies are all useful after going through this forced gender assignment. Hedwig isn’t even a trans person because there was a coercion involved. In fact, “Wig in a Box” marks the moment where she empowers herself with drag, in a sense, as opposed to any kind of trans decision. She uses what she’s learned from her rock ‘n’ roll idols to move on, to create, to love again. All of these things relate to my life and I’ll be talking about them as well as a ton of jokes and a ton of songs and some new songs from my new musical [podcast Anthem] as well.

OT: Does your song selection change with every performance? How do you pick and choose what to include?
JCM:
I’ll be traveling with members of the Broadway Hedwig band who know a lot of songs. It’ll probably be fairly standardized just because we don’t have a lot of rehearsal time, but we’ll probably do two or three from Anthem, we’ll do a couple songs that are in my last film How to Talk to Girls at Parties, and you know, like a Bowie song for fun. It’s going to be a very party environment. I’m hoping to crowd surf at the National.

OT: What makes Hedwig such a universal story, with such staying power over the last 20 years?
JCM:
The character is such a mask. It came out of a drag club that Stephen and I were participating in called Squeezebox that was a very punk rock, rock ‘n’ roll drag bar. Many drag and trans performers were performing with Stephen’s house band. When you’re singing punk rock, you can use your own voice and be awesome. You don’t have to sing like Whitney Houston. They were already punk and didn’t even know it, just by being gender nonconforming performers. So it was a very exciting place that Hedwig was born in. Subcultures always create the new trends. Sometimes it’s a game of influencing and honoring, and that’s what we were about. “Midnight Radio” is a pan to the great female rock ‘n’ rollers that Hedwig tries to stand alongside. For me, playing a fake rock star was an amazing experience because I didn’t have to tour [laughs]. Now I’m a real rock ‘n’ roller and I’m touring.

OT: Who are your major musical influences?
JCM:
I’m pretty eclectic. I tend to be drawn more to real fingers on your instruments as opposed to purely computerized experiences. I like the mistakes and imperfections that come from actual voices and actual instruments. Old 70s funk. A lot of glam – certainly Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop – those three are kind of my great triumvirate. I’ll play Stevie Wonder – he never fails to make me feel better. [I] kind of do a pre-1985 law. There were certainly some great moments of the 90s and of today too, [but] I think it’s a little hard now. There’s lots of people making good music, but the Internet has paralyzed some young music makers into being more self-conscious. Knowing too much is not always good for art because it can paralyze you a little. Let some things develop on their own in the dark and then bring them out. I believe in process. I believe a certain amount of ignorance is good for art and life.

OT: Tell me about Anthem. What does a musical podcast entail?
JCM:
It’s a new service called Luminary that will be launching with us as its flagship podcast, but there will be 40 other new podcasts. They’re going to have their own app and their own content. They want to be the Netflix of podcasts. They’ll be some pre-episodes out first and then a subscription situation. But it’s looking like May 2019. We have seven Tony winners. It’s an amazing cast [including] Glenn Close, Patti LuPone and Marion Cotillard. I feel as strongly about this as I do about Hedwig.

OT: How long has Anthem been in the making?
JCM:
It started out as a sequel to Hedwig, but it was much more autobiographical. But then I realized her story was so complex and mine was [too]. It’s like putting a hat on a hat on a wig. I removed Hedwig from the story and injected more of myself. I play a guy who is out of insurance, living in a trailer, who is kind of me if I never left my small town in Junction City, Kansas. He has a brain tumor, no insurance and he’s crowd funding his treatment on a telethon app. He’s staying online until he gets the money for the operation or until he dies.

OT: Who do you hope comes to see your performance? Diehard Hedwig fans? The local theatre community?
JCM:
Whoever Hedwig is useful to I hope will show up. I like the fact that our audience is so mixed in terms of gender, sexuality and age. It’s [been] useful to others at a certain time in their life when they were young and came out. It made them feel less alone.

Catch John Cameron Mitchell at National Theatre on Friday, February 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $54. Learn more at www.thenationaldc.org.

National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.org

Photo: Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group
Photo: Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

Follow the Legendary Silk Road in Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage

A new form of performance is coming to the Kennedy Center this month: the national concert drama. DC theatergoers are invited to experience Chinese culture with Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage on January 25-27, featuring the 80-piece China National Traditional Orchestra and 24 performers onstage.

The 100-plus group will perform writer, director and composer Jiang Ying’s interpretation of Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s journey across China via the Silk Road on a pilgrimage to India. The production is part of China Arts and Entertainment Group’s cultural exchange program, Image China, and relies heavily on instrumentalists to carry the concert drama. The musicians play characters, breaking the boundaries between the stage and the music, with many roles designed to be interchangeable to help guide and promote the development of the story.

“[Our] comprehensive and dynamic interpretation has never been seen before by American audiences,” Jiang says.

The production’s intricate design and use of multimedia technology “makes the play more colorful than the traditional drama,” she continues, “which will definitely give the audience a more perfect artistic experience that goes straight to the ear.”

Jiang’s production captures the hardships and dangers Xuanzang experienced during his 17-year expedition from Chang’an to Tianzhu while on his quest to discover religious texts that had not yet come from India to China. Ultimately, he obtained the scriptures from the West.

“I aim to convey a positive energy through this drama – a spirit of perseverance and obstinacy for ideals and beliefs,” Jiang says.

Though the drama focuses on Xuanzang’s Buddhist experiences, it also explores the wisdom and compassion of Buddhism and promotes positive energy. The overarching theme in the story is the spirit of progress – Xuanzang is not afraid of the difficulties that come with developing firm ideals and beliefs.

“It is not only of historical significance but also of practical significance,” Jiang says, reinforcing the importance of progress in the production. “This is the common spiritual wealth and strength of all mankind.”

Jiang’s large-scale, multimedia experience offers a lens into China’s music culture with unique wind instrumentation – the zither, Chinese harp, dulcimer and eagle flute are featured, among others – to help highlight amicable cultural exchange in Chinese history along the legendary Silk Road.

“National instrumental music is the soul of this kind of drama,” she says. “My intention was to introduce Chinese instruments that were just imported from the Silk Road in a [historical] series. It’s because of the combined strength of each component that this concert drama is perfectly presented.”

Catch a performance of Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Friday, January 25 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, January 26 at 1:30 p.m. or 7:30 p.m., or Sunday, January 27 at 1:30 p.m. Tickets start at $70. Learn more at www.kennedy-center.org.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

Photo: Chris Lang
Photo: Chris Lang

American Moor Sheds Light on Black Experience

After a devastating break-in over the holidays, the Anacostia Playhouse is bouncing back and happily welcoming playwright and actor Keith Hamilton Cobbs for his work American Moor from January 9 to February 3. Considered a significant play by the Folger Shakespeare Library, American Moor uses Shakespearean character Othello as a lens to examine the experiences and perspectives of diverse Americans. With television and film credits dating back 20 years including The Young and The Restless, All My Children and CSI: Miami, to name a few, Cobbs has a perspective that resonates. We caught up with him about his role in American Moor before the run begins this week.

On Tap: What is life like after two decades of acting in notable TV roles?
Keith Hamilton Cobbs: Well, life is the same except there’s not as much money in it [laughs]. The last [soap opera] I did ended in 2003, so there has been quite a space in-between. I have been writing and producing [American Moor] for the last seven years. It’s the life of any artist who is not necessarily the object of popular culture. For the object of popular culture, there’s a lot of work, tension and money. For the other artist, they’re just out there making art and living their everyday lives – and my life is a bit like that. I haven’t changed. I am the same, whether I’m the guy doing the soap opera or the guy you’re talking to. I am older, right? But life goes on. You start being an older actor and dealing with all the things older actors deal with.

OT: What story are you trying to tell with American Moor?
KHC: The story of humans, but certainly as Americans. It talks about our particular American dilemma with race, with biases and otherness with making art.

OT: Where did you draw inspiration from for this play?
KHC: This piece started out as an expression of my experience as an African-American actor trying to forge a career and how that related to my reality as an African-American man trying to shape a life. I realized at some point they were the same thing, and that realization created the first draft of the play. But something really profound and glorious happened. When we started to show the play and have post-production discussions, people started to get up and speak back to the play – relaying their experiences and reactions to the play. We realized the cross section of people who were speaking was extremely broad and diverse. Here I am, telling this story about me and my life, but they’re seeing themselves and their lives.

OT: How do you imagine the outcome of expanding narratives across all spectrums?
KHC: What my play is trying to suggest is here you have this person standing in front of you, and if you could expand your frame just a little bit, you’d see you were being offered something. You’re being offered perspective. You’re being offered authenticity. You’re being offered intellect. You’re being offered diligence in the form of this actor. You are being offered all these wonderful things that go into making wonderful theatre, and you are afraid to see them because they threaten what is for you. Were all of us not to be afraid, everything would change. We would begin to explore and discover all sorts of things about one another, certainly about art. Art would expand exponentially into what it would show of us, how it would represent us and what it could teach us.

OT: You portray an actor auditioning for the role of Othello, and you confront a director who expects you to fit into a narrow perspective of what an African American playing this role should be. Has this happened to you often in your career? 
KHC: Yes, it has happened several times in terms of reading for the character Othello or being considered in relation to that character. People would say, “Oh, you would make a great Othello,” and that’s like someone saying, “You would make a great basketball player.” Well, why? You don’t know anything about me. How do you know I would make a great Othello? All you know is what you are looking at. So yes, that has happened several times. But it has also happened in my life as a black American. As African males, we are seen in a particular way. Certain assumptions are going to be made about us walking in the room.

OT: Where do you believe the root cause of the problem lies? 
KHC: It is ownership of the American narrative. Who owns the narrative? It is still the property of white male Americans – European descendants. The story is theirs. It is about them. The rules are about them, it is skewed toward them. [It] favors them, and they’re going to say what works and what doesn’t. That extends to ownership of theatre. We take most of our theatre that we perceive as good and important from the white Western canon of work, Shakespeare included.

OT: How have the reactions of your diverse audiences impacted your script?
KHC: The work of rewriting this piece – honing and making this dramatic art more efficient – was already being done. But as I began to understand that this piece was about more than me, it allowed me to write in a direction that made the point clearer. This is everyone’s story.

OT: What distinction do you make between typecasting within the African-American male experience and other races or genders?
KHC: It’s an issue for everyone. I’m not making a distinction. As I say, the play is about all of us. It is about racial othering, sexual othering, othering by age. Othering is othering. It crosses all life spectrums. A little less than a year after writing the first draft – [after] the first public performance of this very raw new piece – the responses were from people, who in any simple comparison, were very much unlike me.

OT: How so?  
KHC: Well, there was a little Jewish high school girl who got up and said, “That’s my story. This is me. This is the life I live.” I thought, oh my goodness! Wow, alright! Well, let me look at that. Let me hear you. Let me examine. I began to listen very closely to what people had to say about their experience of this work. It expanded my thoughts and my mind. I realized this wasn’t so much about me, but about the experience of all of us. When you see the play, I feel it’s safe to say you will see yourself on some level.

OT: What’s are the consequences of limitation for character portrayals?
KHC: The consequences are that we don’t grow. As a culture, we do not evolve and we sit in what is comfortable. We sit in what we can define because it is comfortable. We fear change. We shun change and growth and deeper exploration of one another. We will not consider and explore other people’s ideas because so much of what we live now – so much of white male privilege – is based on what exists right now. If it changes, white male privilege becomes threatened.

OT: Why did you choose Shakespeare as the lens through which to tell this story? How did you get into Shakespeare?
KHC: I was studying English and realized when I started to see Shakespeare performed [that] the characters were able to express a depth of emotions as characters in a play that I as a black man was not able to express. The depth of my emotions was something people perceived as dangerous, which I could be shot for. Those characters would open their mouths and say the most beautiful things and express whatever emotions they wanted to express. I decided that I wanted to do that. This gives me a place where I can put all of these emotions.

OT: What impact do you hope American Moor has on American culture?
KHC: It’s already had impact, generating deep thought and conversation about these issues of race – whose perspectives matter, whose art matters – [and] about the nature of love and the declining qualitative nature of our American theatre. How do we fix that?

OT: How do you propose we fix this problem?
KHC: You start with awareness. You start with realizing it is broken. You start with the admission that it’s being made for many of the wrong reasons. You begin to try to think outside of your boxes of privileged perspective. You demand that your educational institutions training actors [and] directors do better and instill in them values that are appropriate to what theatre is supposed to do. These are big things that require individuals to take responsibility as individuals. Discern the truth, because you are the purveyors of truth.

American Moor opens Wednesday, January 9 at the Anacostia Playhouse. Tickets are $30-$40. For more information, click here.

Anacostia Playhouse: 2020 Shannon Pl. SE, DC; 202-290-2328; www.anacostiaplayhouse.com

Photo: Courtesy of Studio Theatre
Photo: Courtesy of Studio Theatre

Sarah Burgess Returns Home For Kings

Alexandria, Virginia native Sarah Burgess hasn’t spent much of her adult life in DC. As a burgeoning playwright who attended college in New York City, it made sense for Burgess to kick off her fast-rising career in the city that never sleeps.

At 35, her first-ever production Dry Powder was chosen by Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, directed by Hamilton’s Thomas Kail, and starred Claire Danes, John Krasinski and Hank Azaria. Talk about a tough act to follow.

While New York may have put her on the map, you could say the playwright’s DC roots are responsible for her sustained success. Her second show Kings was inspired by her intrigue for the inner belly of Washington, and an article she read about fundraising retreats for politicians and lobbyists.

Where Dry Powder took a witty look at the cut-throat lifestyle of the elite in a New York private equity firm, Kings is “a lacerating comedy about a newly elected congresswoman who refuses to play by the rules of lobbyists – or her own party.”

While the themes of her work – corrosive money and power – do not seem to raise many eyebrows these days, her perspective has reinvigorated the conversation about what drives American progress.

Indeed, Burgess has made a name for herself when it comes to social commentary – so much so shes spun the phrase “art imitates life” upside down. Life imitated art when Kings inspired Washingtonian to create a real version of the play’s made-up listicle “Top DC Gay Power Couples Under 45.”

On Tap chatted with Sarah Burgess prior to the play’s opening about what it feels like to be a young, female playwright seated snugly at the table with Kings. Directed by Marti Lyons, the show’s second run – and first outside of Manhattan – is in production now through January 13 at Studio Theatre.

On Tap: Are you excited to have your work performed in DC where the show is set?
Sarah Burgess: I’m from Alexandria and this is my second play, so I was so pleased. Studio Theatre is such a revered institution and everyone nationally sees them doing interesting, cool, challenging stuff. For them to want to perform Kings, I was really excited. Having had friends who have had plays at Studio, it felt really great. It’s a play that presents challenges and I’m excited about it being at Studio.

OT: Since you’re now based in New York City, have you been shuttling back and forth a lot? How does it feel being in the area again?
SB: Actually, it’s great. I’ve been hopping on the train. I went down [to DC] yesterday just for a few hours to see a run-through. The play is being published and so as I’m continuing to grapple with subject matter that I actually found a bit more challenging than I expected, it’s been a good opportunity. Marti Lyons is directing this production and I got to know her when she came on board. It’s been so helpful to work with her on it, and then obviously working with these great actors, too. I love being able to come back down here.

OT: Tell us a bit about your reaction to Washingtonian’s response to your show. Did it strike a chord with you when a DC magazine created a list inspired by something you had conceived of in Kings?
SB: I was so excited. I remember I talked to Tommy Kale who directed the production in New York, and he’s also from Alexandria. He [said], “Washingtonian to me is like, I grew up with it in line in Safeway and it’s sort of an institution.” I’ve always thought of it as a national magazine, and it’s still part of the fabric of DC. I was bowled over. Like, it’s your hometown and you have the publication, but also there’s something about when you make up something offhand and then someone takes the time to make the actual thing. It was one of my proudest moments.

OT: It certainly speaks to the power of your art for inciting change. Can you walk us through what the past few years have been like for you as a young playwright toiling away and waking up to the dream breakthrough?
SB: Having your first play in New York is challenging because there’s a decent amount of competition and there are pipelines I wasn’t in, so it was a real life change to be a professional writer. It’s hard to make a living writing and to be able to support yourself at all. I feel very fortunate. I’m learning to adapt to writing on a different schedule [and] not having a day job. I feel very fortunate to have different opportunities to pursue, and I recognize that there’s really an element of luck. Artistic director Oskar Eustis, who was interested in the topic Dry Powder raises, was willing to take a risk on a completely unknown and unstudied playwright. There’s just luck in that.

OT: With your recent successes, are you feeling the pressure of expectations now?
SB: I mean, you have expectations for yourself. It’s not a question of returning to the way you were when you wrote whatever. It’s also recognizing that what you’re interested in changes and I think about that a lot. It’s a unique experience to have a play done and have them reviewed, and to be aware how they sell or don’t sell. It definitely is a separate category of experience from writing. I’m kind of an awkward introvert, so it’s a thing I grapple with. I don’t feel pressure or expectation. I don’t know that much is expected of me. I don’t have that from the outside. It’s more about wanting to be better. I think that has intensified since having my plays [produced].

For information about showtimes and ticket prices to Kings at Studio Theatre, visit here. Kings runs through Sunday, January 13.

Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; 202-332-3300; www.studiotheatre.org

An Inspector Calls

Stage and Screen: December 2018

THROUGH DECEMBER 23

A Civil War Christmas
During the most divisive (literally) time in America, there were still holidays and reasons for general hopefulness. In A Civil War Christmas, the play casts a wide net from battlefields in Northern Virginia all the way to the Capitol Building in DC, featuring stories from a number of intertwining lives demonstrating how glee can exist during a tough and embattled time. This play features numerous songs great for a winter date or your visiting family. Various dates and times. $15-$39. 1st Stage Tysons: 1524 Spring Hill Rd. Tysons, VA; www.1ststagetysons.org

An Inspector Calls
When an inspector knocks on your door seemingly at random asking about a murder, it’s probably going to leave you somewhat shook. For the Birlings, a British family enjoying a festive evening, this surprise guest begins digging up connections with the crime and finds cracks in their seemingly perfect lives. This thriller pleas for a just society and works to pull down the facade on people who aren’t as innocent as they seem. Various dates and times. $44-$102. Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall: 610 F St. NW, DC; www.shakespearetheatre.org

Indecent
Art and censorship do not belong together. When art is restricted, it ceases to be art and is at best incomplete, at worst propaganda. In the 1920s Sholem Asch’s Yiddish drama God of Vengeance broke free from previous restrictions and offered an evocative story of immigration, anti-Semitism and other taboo themes. Arena Stage’s Indecent offer a behind the scenes style story about the Broadway breakthrough, and the people who risked their careers to perform in the show. Various times and dates. $66-$82. Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; www.arenastage.org

MONDAY, DECEMBER 3 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

The Second City’s She the People
The famed Second City sketch comedy troupe is back with this all-female cast providing two hours of laughter. Celebrating the group’s tenth anniversary of their first visit to Woolly Mammoth, this performance is entirely produced, designed, curated and performed by women, and necessarily puts patriarchal norms on blast. Whether the subject is government, homelife or what’s happening in the world, these women will give their opinions and make you laugh while doing it. Various dates and times. Tickets start at $50. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; www.woollymammoth.net

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4 – SATURDAY, DECEMBER 22

Motown: The Reprise
If you’ve ever wanted to feel transported to the 70s, this might be your best opportunity outside of an actual mechanic time machine, and those don’t exist. Instead you’ll hear hits by Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and others in a celebration of one of the most influential and prolific moments in music history. Providing the sounds is Signature Theatre’s Motown: Hitsville U.S.A. cabaret, and this new flavor of Motown sound will be unlike any other. Various dates and times. $38. Signature Theatre: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; www.sigtheatre.org

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

My Father’s Dragon
Based on the book by Ruth Stiles Gannett, this story follows an adventurous young boy, and his cat companion, who undertake a journey to rescue a baby dragon from a place called Wild Island. While there, he’ll be forced to think quickly and imaginatively to reach his goals. With Game of Thrones off the air until April of next year, you’ll have to rely on other sources for your dragon-themed fiction, and this wordless play might be enough to satiate you until we return to Westeros. Various dates and times. $20. Synetic Theater: 1800 S Bell St. Arlington, VA; www.synetictheater.org

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 5 – SUNDAY, DECEMBER 9

Ballet West: The Nutcracker
Ever since 1963, Ballet West has performed The Nutcracker. The company from Utah is set to revisit the classic tale with reimagined designs, stunning production and, of course, breathtaking choreography. Before you take a holiday vacation, make sure to stop by the Kennedy Center to see some of the nation’s best dancers perform this enchanting story, alongside Tchaikovsky’s unreal score. 7:30 p.m. on all days, with additional 1:30 p.m. performances on Saturday and Sunday. $59-$215. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 12 – SUNDAY, JANUARY 6

Kings
Written by Alexandria native Sarah Burgess, Studio’s latest political comedy finds newly elected representative Sydney Millsap riding a blue wave into DC, armed with idealism and a true sense of duty. Once there, she crosses paths with Kate, a lobbyist, who quickly dismisses her as a one-term rookie. Through laughs about money and power, this refreshing take on democracy in the U.S. depicts how relationships between lobbyists and representatives play out behind closed doors. Various dates and times. $20-$45. Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; www.studiotheatre.org

Photo: Courtesy of Keegan Theatre
Photo: Courtesy of Keegan Theatre

Keegan Theatre’s Holiday Tradition Continues with An Irish Carol

It’s holiday time, which for patrons of Dupont Circle’s Keegan Theatre means a visit to a decked-out Dublin pub for a Christmas classic the way only the Irish can tell it, in the eighth annual staging of An Irish Carol. Written by real life Dubliner Matthew Keenan and directed by Mark Rhea (who also helped pen the script along with his wife Susan Marie Rhea), the play is loosely based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“It’s more of an adult version and has lots of fun as well as poignant moments,” Rhea says. “In the end, it is about love and friendship and how both can help heal someone. We can all use some of that in our lives right about now.”

The show was first produced by Keegan in 2011, fulfilling a dream Rhea had for years – an Irish take on the Dickens’ tale set in a pub. Discussing his vision with Keenan over a pile of hot wings one night, the Irishman asked for a crack at it – and the rest is history.

Although Rhea and Keenan had some grand theatrical ideas, the more rationally minded Susan brought them down to earth and suggested “a really human version” without all the creepy sounds and big production elements.

From that came a charmingly profane story of a man transformed by love. The plot follows Dave, an ornery curmudgeon of a pub owner and Scrooge character, who is transformed through the words of his family and friends. Past, present and future are there, but in a more real sense.

“Originally, we weren’t sure how it would do in the DC area, but it was a huge success so we decided to continue it the next year and then it just kept being successful,” Rhea says. “The audience has continued to grow, so we’ll keep producing this little gem as long as they want to see it.”

Some casting changes occur each year to keep the show fresh, though the audience enjoys seeing the returning actors year after year – including Kevin Adams, who is back as Dave. Timothy H. Lynch plays Frank, a recurring role for the actor since the first production when he read an early draft and was immediately charmed.

“I’ll play this role as long as Keegan Theatre is willing to cast me and prop me up onstage,” Lynch says. “It makes me happy every year to start rehearsal and open the run. Matthew Keenan wrote a lovely play, one where every character matters. They’ve each been touched by Dave, and each touch him in their own, honest ways – ways that don’t get old.”

The actor says as the character continues to mature, he loves discovering new nuances about Frank.

“Year after year, I find a deeper connection to Frank,” he continues. “His arc through the play gives me so much to play with. His attitude, perspective and goals change over the course of the night, giving him an opportunity to reveal himself to Dave and the audience in an unexpected way. I just love the guy and am truly grateful to get to play the role.”

One of Lynch’s favorite things about being part of the production is listening to the stories of each character – the special moments shared each night between the actors and the audience.

“Every night, we [add] a new cast member [from] each new audience. Some can be uproarious, others quietly intense – still others are full of holiday spirit, happy to be together and having a great time. They make it an ever-fresh joy. We see many returning folks, and they bring new friends and family with them. It’s exciting to be part of a growing holiday tradition.”

In a season when most of the holiday fare is aimed at families, Lynch reiterates that An Irish Carol is for adults, which is welcoming to many.

“We’re feckin’ drinkin’ onstage. We’re spoutin’ feckin’ profanity onstage. We’re makin’ feckin’ fools of ourselves onstage. We’re working through honest emotions of people trying to make the best of their lives and trying to help a good, wounded friend. It’s written in an Irish vernacular by a native Dubliner. It’s truly funny and touching and has unexpected turns.”

Rhea shares that even after all these years, none of the actors onstage take it lightly. They’re all aiming for people to have a great time.

“We are pouring our hearts out there every year,” he says. “We love doing it and connecting with the audience each and every performance. It’s a special thing to have created a sort of legacy with this little gem of a show. Hell, it might outlast me, and I would be just fine with that.”

Catch An Irish Carol at Keegan Theatre from Thursday, December 13 through Monday, December 31. The run time is 85 minutes with no intermission. Tickets start at $40. For more information, visit www.keegantheatre.com.

Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; 202-265-3767; www.keegantheatre.com

Photo © Tony Powell. Arena Stage "Anything Goes." October 5, 2018
Photo © Tony Powell. Arena Stage "Anything Goes." October 5, 2018

Anything Goes: Arena Stage Breathes New Life into Golden Age Classic

For a con man on a mission to stop the woman he loves from engaging in a romantic relationship with some Joe Schmoe from another world, anything goes. At least that’s what Arena Stage’s retelling of the classic play entails, with stowaway Billy Crocker on a mission to get to his beloved Hope Harcourt aboard a luxurious cruise ship using every ounce of his street knowhow.

Anything Goes runs from November 2 to December 23 on Arena’s Fichandler Stage, with the theatre’s artistic director Molly Smith at the helm of the production. During the SS American’s journey from NYC to London, Crocker must use various disguises and the help of his friends to win back his love.

“There’s the romance and the love,” says High School Musical’s Corbin Bleu, who plays Crocker. “What’s fascinating about this piece is the differences in class. Billy’s had to fight his way to the position he’s at in the world. He wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth at all and this woman was, but [she’s] had it shoved in her mouth and [doesn’t] want her mother having a hand in everything.”

The musical is set in the 1930s, which local actress Maria Rizzo says is one of her favorite eras.

“It’s a vibrant time to sing music,” she says of the decade. “That’s what’s going to draw our audiences to the show, because there are so many songs people will recognize.”

Rizzo plays tough-talking Erma, balancing the character’s strength and independence with her playful demeanor.

“I feel comfortable playing characters who are big and exciting. I think it’s easy to slip into a stupid or flaky version of her, but I refuse to play a woman who’s dumb. There are so many women written well, like Erma. She’s street smart, even if she doesn’t talk like the classiest of broads.”

To get into character, Rizzo changed her accent by mimicking folks who say “New Joisey” instead of New Jersey. The actress says she shares a lot in common with Erma – namely her resilience and fascination with the here and now – although her character does love attention from the boys.

“So that and [her] voice were the two opposite qualities.”

For Bleu, navigating his role was more difficult because he is playing a character who is playing characters. Each of Crocker’s disguises requires its own mannerisms and voices.

“I know I am a hopeless romantic, and there is that aspect of Billy. He’s willing to go to the ends of the earth to win this woman’s heart, even after being continually denied. There’s several different accents and disguises, and while doing that you have to make sure it stays Billy.”

Bleu and Rizzo are both fawning over the choices Smith has made throughout pre-production, culminating in the new look and feel she’s bringing to this 1934 musical.

“What I love so much about Molly’s shows is that she typically casts cross-culturally, and it’s really reflective of what America looks like today,” Rizzo says. “Even though this show is from the 1930s, and the original cast would have been all white actors, that’s not the show you’ll see because that’s not the world we see right now. It gives the piece a more powerful voice.”

Smith also encourages performers to dig deeper, including the development of character backstories and experiences.

“We had to find ways to make [the script] justified, and we even brought backstories not in the text,” Bleu says. “We all had to come up with our own improvisations of our characters, [and what] the biggest turning point of your character’s life was. It was really, really interesting. I’ve never been part of a production where that process was so open to everyone.”

With fresh faces breathing life into beloved characters, this version of Anything Goes will undoubtedly emotionally engage audiences who span generations.

Anything Goes has a lot of potential for a lot more depth than most Golden Age musicals,” Bleu continues. “You have an incredibly talented ensemble and the choreography is going to be incredible, so there will be that excitement of having seen a great performance.”

Catch Anything Goes on Arena Stage’s Fichandler Stage from November 2 to December 23. Tickets are $92. For more information on the play, visit www.arenastage.org.

Arena Stage: 1101 Sixth St. SW, DC; 202-488-3300; www.arenastage.org

Films Across Borders

Stage and Screen Events: November 2018

Through Wednesday, November 21

Films Across Borders: Stories of Women
As a frequent moviegoer, even I find it difficult to keep up with foreign films. Unless they are slated to be acknowledged during award season or carry a tremendous amount of hype, they are often lower on my priority list when it comes to choosing which film off the marquee to watch. However, the American University’s Films Across Borders series is an opportunity to head to several venues and appreciate a variety of stories. This year’s theme, Stories of Women, will showcase an assortment of films representing women from diverse backgrounds and represent the importance of “gender-balanced perspectives and parity” in our society. The festival includes screenings, panels and Q&As on a number of topics within the theme. Times, dates and ticket prices vary. Films Across Borders: Various locations around the DMV; www.american.edu.soc/films-across-borders

Through Sunday, December 2

King John
No folks, we’re not talking about the King in the North, John Snow. Rather, we’re talking about a different King John, and one who has less accolades than the bastard child of Winterfell. Folger’s King John takes audiences back to the days of the Magna Carta and represents a sly look at the politics of Old England. This winter, director Aaron Posner brings this chaotic combination of ambition and boneheaded decison-making to life.  Various dates. Tickets $42-$79. Folger Theatre: 201 East Capitol St. SE, DC; www.folger.edu

Saturday, November 3 – Sunday, December 2

As You Like It
After several people are forced from their homes, they escape into the forest of Arden, a place where you get lost in nature while simultaneously finding yourself. However, this is a Shakespeare retelling so the story encompasses themes like families at each other’s throats and lovers forced to feign the opposite. The New York Times declared this Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery musical adaptation as one of the best shows in 2017, and the refugees who form this new community among the trees are all set to blow DC away in its District debut. Various dates, times and ticket prices. The Keegan Theatre: 1742 Church St. NW, DC; www.keegantheatre.com

Friday, November 9 – Saturday, November 10

Malavika Sarukkai: Thari – The Loom
Making her return to the Kennedy Center after a five-year hiatus, Malavika Sarukkai brings her mastery of the classical Indian dance style bharatanatyam with her latest production, Thari – The Loom. This performance is said to investigate the scope and legacy of the sari, a hand-woven garment famously from India, and how the changing mythos of the symbol “becomes a metaphor for life itself.” Show is at 7:30 p.m. on both days. Tickets $49. The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; www.kennedy-center.org

Tuesday, November 13

Story District Presents: Cat-Headed Baby
Looking for a unique twist on storytelling? Then search no further, as Storytelling District continues its monthly tradition of having locals stand on a stage while delivering unusual tales about superstitions, hoaxes and other oddities. Though it sounds silly, these provocative narratives are more than just random thought bubbles from your DMV neighbors, as each seven-minute performance contains an original true story that aligns with the theme of the month. As if I need to sell you on it any harder, The Washington Post deemed Story District the “gold standard in storytelling.” Doors at 6:30 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $20. Black Cat: 1811 14th St. NW, DC; www.blackcatdc.com

Wednesday, November 14

Limetown Panel
A fictional town covered by a fictional version of NPR, this live podcast offers a true-crime story with a layout similar to Serial with subject matter inspired by The X-Files. Somewhere in Tennessee, 300 people go missing, and American Public Radio’s Lia Haddock is on the scene detailing its happening. This panel discussion will feature creators Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, with author of their new prequel novel Cote Smith, as the trio discusses the new story involving Haddock’s intriguing past. Panel begins at 7 p.m. Tickets $16-$30. Sixth & I: 600 I St. NW, DC; www.sixthandi.org

Wednesday, November 14 – Sunday, December 16

Cry It Out
Parenthood is hard, sure, but you know what else is hard? Making friends as an adult. Without the built-in friend finder of school, navigating life as an adult takes up a ton of time, which sort of puts making new acquaintances on the backburner, and when you add children on top of all that – whew, good luck. Essentially this is where the characters in Studio Theatre’s Cry It Out find themselves, as two young couples separated by a few yards between their homes luckily strike up a friendship, bonding over all the tougher aspects of raising children. This comedy is sure to be a relatable story that examines parenthood and class in the U.S. Various dates, times and ticket prices. Studio Theatre: 1501 14th St. NW, DC; www.studiotheatre.org

Sunday, November 18

Frankenstein
Humans have always had a fascination with science fiction. Before we could even fly country to country or state to state, there were books about alien visitation, trips to the moon and time travel. With artificial intelligence and super computers constantly in the news (shout out to Skyne…I mean Google) one of the original fictional creators of artificial intelligence was Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who sewed different body parts he found in the cemetery together to create a humanoid. However, the doctor was appalled by his creation and fled the scene only to be followed and accosted by his monster, and no, we’re not talking the bolts in the neck one from the Munsters. This play pays homage to Shelley’s novel, which tackled a plethora of ethical questions that our modern science is only now beginning to encounter in the real world. Talk about timely. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets $44. George Mason Center for the Arts: 4400 University Dr. Fairfax, VA; http://cfa.gmu.edu

Wednesday, November 21

Jackson Galaxy
The Cat Daddy himself is making his way to DC. Most famously known as the host of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell, Galaxy has also penned two New York Times bestsellers and has more than 25 years of experience working with our feline friends. For this presentation at the famed Lincoln Theatre, Galaxy will divulge how he found his mojo and how to get to know your cat, and the “raw cat” (aka his ancestor who was totally not a social kitty.) Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Tickets $45-$60. The Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; www.thelincolndc.com