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‘Carpetbagger’s’ gives rare chance for D.C.’s top actresses to shine

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‘The Carpetbagger’s Children’
Through Feb. 13
Ford’s Theatre
511 10th St, NW
$15-$55

Holly Twyford as Sissie with (background) Kimberly Schraf as Cornelia and Nancy Robinette as Grace Ann in the Ford’s Theatre Society production of Horton Foote’s “The Carpetbagger’s Children,” directed by Mark Ramont. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Ford’s Theatre)

Few artists evoke memory like the late, great American playwright Horton Foote. His astounding sense of place and ability to gently but truthfully revisit the past through indelibly drawn characters have secured his rank among dramatists.

With his “The Carpetbagger’s Children,” now at Ford’s Theatre, Foote once again takes us back to bygone small town life in coastal Texas. Via revolving monologues delivered by the three surviving Thompson sisters – responsible Cornelia (Kimberly Schraf), defiant Grace Anne (Nancy Robinette), and tractable Sissie played by Holly Twyford who is gay — the splintered family’s well-remembered oral history is revealed.

As the offspring of a union soldier who settled in post-construction Huntington (the usual stand-in for the playwright’s native Wharton, Texas) and made good by buying large tracts of land from the war-impoverished locals, the sisters grew up feeling apart from the surrounding community. And their father’s desire that his heirs not marry for fear they might one day break up his massive estate did little to lessen that sense of separateness.

Looking back, the women recall a life under the thumb of their authoritarian late father. Each in turn talks about property and cotton farming, Grace Anne’s ill-advised elopement to the gold-digging Jackson Le Grand, Sissie’s singing, and strong Cornelia’s moment of weakness when she fell for an insincere suitor. The ladies reverently recollect Beth, their beloved and beautiful older sister who died young, and make frequent reference to their still living (but not seen on stage) brother and senile mother.

While the trio approach the same subjects form different angles, they seem to disagree on very little. Initially, this sisterly consensus among very different women strikes one as an elderly playwright’s (“The Carpetbagger’s Children” is Foote’s penultimate play — written in 2001, eight years before his death at 92) missed storytelling opportunity, but more likely it serves as a testament to the Thompson’s deep-seated family lore.

Gracefully staged by Mark Ramont, the 90-minute show is made up almost solely of engaging monologues — humorous, poignant and real — like most of Foote’s work which includes southern set plays like “Trip to Bountiful” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Young Man From Atlanta” as well as Academy Award-wining screenplays for the films “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies.” The few instances when the characters briefly interact leave the audience yearning for more.

The cast — comprised of three D.C. favorites – is a treat. With steady gaze and set jaw, Robinette captures Grace Anne’s lifelong rebellion. Twyford’s Sissie, the self-described baby of the family, is blissfully dim and musical (she repeatedly sings “O, the Clanging Bells of Time”). But it’s Schraf as Cornelia, the sensible sister selected by papa to run the estate, who subtly anchors the play and fares most convincingly as one of Foote’s southern women.

Just below the box where Lincoln was shot in the head by that crazy actor John Wilkes Booth, set designer Robin Stapley has placed chairs and a lace-covered dining table crowded with silver-framed family photos. The suggested parlor is backed by endless acres of fertile fields and colorful skies.

One by one, each of the actors fades away, exiting through a cutout in the orange sunset, beautifully expressing the end of a family’s era, lost in time but not forgotten.

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Theater

‘Flight,’ an astonishing tale told using diorama and figures

Afghan brothers embark on arduous journey to U.K.

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‘Flight’ at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Mihaila Bodlovic)

‘Flight’
Through March 6
Studio Theatre’s Stage 4
1501 14th St., N.W.
$42-$52
studiotheatre.org

I wish I could fly. It’s a little boy’s dream, and certainly one that would be helpful to young Kabir who along with his older brother Aryan is traversing thousands of miles escaping their battered homeland Afghanistan in search of a future in the U.K.

Their arduous journey is titled “Flight,” an astonishingly moving tale told using diorama, tiny modeled figures, and voiceover. With neither live actors nor a traditional set, the Vox Matus (an innovative Glasgow-based theater company) production isn’t Studio Theatre’s typical offering, yet it serves as a compelling reopening lure after a long closure.

Despite seeming an ideal fit for the times, “Flight” wasn’t crafted with pandemic in mind (it premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2017). The hybrid theater/installation is a reassuringly distanced theater experience.

After ascending to Studio’s third floor atrium, you’re handed a boarding pass and in small groups beckoned up to Stage 4 where you’re led to individual viewing booths. Then, seated comfortably and wearing head phones, you focus on over 200 small, brilliantly made dioramas, successively lit as they slowly pass by on a revolving carousel.

“Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Rome, Paris, London.” The green-eyed orphaned brothers repeat their direct route to a better life with unyielding determination. And the more it’s said, the more possible it seems. But minors traveling alone without passports is a perilous journey fraught with risk and miseries.

We meet Aryan and Kabir (voiced by Farshid Rokey and Nalini Chetty, receptively) just as they reach the Turkish coast and set sail to the E.U. in a rubber raft. Here, we’re also introduced to the first of many faceless profiteers – ruthless but necessary to the journey – who gain from human desperation.

Soon the boys land in Greece and are forced into farm labor at meager wages. When the harvest ends, the brothers hop a truck to Athens. As they move onward, their longing to attend school in the West, London to be specific, grows more intense.

Throughout what becomes a two-year odyssey, they wear out multiple pairs of trainers, encounter harsh weather, exploitation, sexual violence, hunger, and the occasional random act of kindness. As kids, they take time for a game of soccer and a plunge in the sea at Nice. But inevitably, such moments are cut short by officials depicted as menacing, uniformed seagulls.

“Flight’s” heavy themes and remarkable images blend well. The tiny tableaus chronicling the boys’ flight fittingly range from extraordinarily realistic to fantastical, alternately portraying the vastness and claustrophobic aspects of their ordeal. The intricately made models’ expressive faces, sometimes tear-streaked or bordering on joy, draw us to the likeable, intelligent brothers.

While Vox Motus’ co-artistic directors Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds conceive, direct and design the company’s innovative productions, collaboration with other artists is key to their success.

“Flight” is ably adapted by Oliver Emanuel from Caroline Brothers’ 2012 novel “Hinterland.” Enhancing the work’s intimate storytelling are Simon Wilkinson’s lighting design and composer and sound design by Mark Melville.

Each year more than 300,000 displaced children journey on their own. Behind that hideous number are individual stories; “Flight” effectively relays the personal story of two young Afghans, making them something other than a statistic.

After 45 minutes, the story ends. Slowly, you recede from the brothers’ reality in which you’ve been deeply immersed. A silent, black clad usher gently taps you on the shoulder and leads you out of Stage 4. For past productions, the vast versatile space has credibly passed as a nightclub and a church basement, among other things. This time it’s a window into an alternate world where a duly stamped official document means everything, sometimes including the difference between life and death.

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Theater

‘Nine Night’ explores Jamaican custom of mourning

‘Equally moving and hilarious in many parts’

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Timothy Douglas (Photo courtesy of Round House Theatre)

‘Nine Night’
Through Jan. 30
(Begins streaming on demand Jan. 20)
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md.
$41-$56, and $32.50 (virtual)
roundhousetheatre.org

When Round House Theatre began making plans for the U.S. premiere of Natasha Gordon’s “Nine Night,” they asked out director Timothy Douglas to interview with the playwright about helming the production. “It’s like we were separated at birth,” says Douglas. “It felt right from the first moment we met on Zoom, and I when I learned Natasha wanted to work with me, I made it work.”

A big success in London, “Nine Night” is a dramedy centered on the death of a family matriarch followed by the prescribed Jamaican tradition of exuberant mourning. 

The end-of-life custom entails nine consecutive nights of serious partying to celebrate the life of the departed, but there’s also a spiritual component. On the ninth night, it’s believed that the spirit returns to its earthly dwelling. By celebrating and rearranging furniture, the revelers discombobulate the deceased so they don’t want to stay, ensuring the spirit crosses over.

“In traditional Jamaican culture, nine night is a serious thing,” explains Douglas. “And while I didn’t set out to direct a dramedy. I found it equally moving and hilarious in many parts.”

Gordon, the London-born playwright of Jamaican descent, possessed only a casual knowledge of nine night growing up. But when her grandmother died, her mother became overwhelmed with a devotion to cultural specificity, and the ritual was thrust on the family. 

“From the playwright’s perspective what happened was chaos,” adds Douglas. “And going through that inspired her to write the play.”  

The work’s central character draws from the Gordons’ life experience straddling two different cultures. And while it was the play itself that really grabbed Douglas, he relates to that aspect too. 

“It connected a lot of dots for me,” says Douglas, 60. “Elders in my family are from the Caribbean and share similar ways of celebrating life and in particular the deceased. There was an immediate familiarity on a feeling level for me. And with every bit of specific research, it’s unlocked things within in me rather than being introduced to me cold.”

Douglas caught the theater bug in grade school, and it grew from there. When he attended Marymount Manhattan College it was transitioning from all women to coeducational, and though he was studying technical theater and not acting, he landed all the male leads in the college’s plays. 

It was a part during his last year at Marymount (“Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ of all things,” adds Douglas with a chuckle) that seemingly solidified his desire to be an actor. He went on to train at Yale followed by five or six years of acting professionally. 

But then something changed. The director ardently explains, “I’m grateful to acting. It gave me focus, a way to communicate and navigate complicated life experiences. It saved my life.” But after therapy and spiritual growth coupled with an epiphany experienced while acting in a play in West Hollywood, he knew it wasn’t for him. He needed to direct. 

While “Nine Night” has no LGBTQ characters as identified in the play, Douglas’ upcoming project is a different story. 

In spring, Douglas makes his first foray into staging opera with Terrance Blanchard’s “Champion” at Boston Lyric Opera. It’s based on the life of queer boxer Emile Griffith, the talented welterweight who regained the world championship in 1962 when gay sex was still classified as a crime in developed countries. 

And to Douglas’ astonishment, internationally famous mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe is cast to play a supporting role in “Champion.” He’s both excited and terrified: “I’m incredibly lucky that she’s a part of the production. But any hope of flying under the radar with my first opera is over.” 

At 18, Douglas made a beeline from Long Island to Manhattan. For many years he called New York home. Now he’s in Boston where he is the distinguished artist in residence at Emerson College. But over the years, he’s maintained a special relationship with the DMV. In addition to being sort of a staple at Round House, he’s directed to much acclaim at Arena Stage, Studio Theatre, and Theater Alliance to name a few. 

In fact, his professional directorial career kickstarted at D.C.’s Folger with “Richard III” in 1995. 

“I was a complete unknown to them. I had no track record yet. But the Folger was at a point where they could take risks. They needed to replace a director, and on the recommendation of a costume designer who’d heard of me, Michael Tolaydo who played the production’s titular role, agreed to take me on. That really changed things for me.”

“Being pretty much a gun for hire, every time D.C. asks me back, I always say yes.”

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Theater

A look back at the best in 2021 D.C. theater

Stages sprung back to life after shutdowns

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Shakespeare Theatre Company reopened in 2021 with ‘Blindness.’ (Photo by Helen Maybanks)

When everything was closed, Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) took a chance by reopening in the spring of 2021. 

Theater lovers longed for something, and after a year of unquestionably defensible darkness, (STC) opened the doors of the Harman with Donmar Warehouse’s gripping production of “Blindness,” an immersive sound and light installation anchored by Juliet Stevenson’s astonishing recorded vocal performance heard — jarringly, soothingly, eerily — through binaural headphones. 

D.C.’s first return to indoor theater involved masks and social distancing, as well as a stage without live actors and an audience seated onstage. It was a resounding success. 

But “Blindness” was a blip on the early summer radar. Most of the year was awash with streamed productions, particularly one-person shows. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre, out actor Ryan J. Haddad doesn’t hold back. In his refreshingly direct autographical one-man play “Hi, Are you Single?” 

In a January interview with the Blade, Haddad said, “The show begins with my shorts around my ankles and I’m rubbing the crotch of my boxer briefs, the audience sees my walker,” Haddad explains matter-of-factly. “I’m telling you from the start that these are the terms here. If you can’t get on board with me being disabled and horny AF then you’ll have a hard time with this play.” 

Other especially memorable streamed productions included Theater Alliance’s production of busy playwright Psalmayene 24’s “The Blackest Battle,” a revolutionary hip-hop musical that puts an original spin on urban violence. Ingeniously directed by Theater Alliance’s out artistic director Raymond O. Caldwell. 

The innovative work imagines a world where reparations have been paid to African Americans yet Black on Black violence rages on. But despite the bellicose atmosphere, two members of warring rap factions manage to fall in love.  

Throughout the summer months, Olney Theatre Center offered myriad, well -attended outdoor performances, including admission-free nights in August titled “Olney in Drag,” a two-part extravaganza where audiences were asked “enjoy a drink as these fabulous drag queens shine brighter than the stars in the evening sky.”

But the big story of latter 2021 was the citywide reopening of indoor performance venues brought about in large part by vaccinations and audience’s willingness to don masks and present proof of vaccination at the door. In addition to audiences, working theaters have mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for performers and theater staff. More theaters are expected to follow suit as they resume operation. 

When autumn rolled around, curtains went up. Arena Stage opened with “Toni Stone” (through Oct. 3). Written by Lydia R. Diamon, it’s the remarkable story of the first woman to play baseball in the Negro Leagues, also making her the first woman to play professionally in a men’s league in the 1950s. Signature Theatre reopened with a newly reimagined interpretation of “Rent” directed by Signature’s Matthew Gardiner. 

And in no time, national tours of big Broadway musicals busted into town with movies to musicals “Tootsie” and “Pretty Woman” (through Jan. 2) at the National and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” and “Ain’t Too Proud” at the Kennedy Center.  

While many beloved holiday shows returned to familiar stages in December, some new works have arrived, too, including Studio Theatre’s “Flight” (through February), an immersive installation created by Scottish innovators Vox Motus and designed by Jamie Harrison. It’s described as “an invitation to bear witness to the personal stories of two of the 300,000 displaced children who make unaccompanied journeys every year,” “Flight” is the story orphaned brothers who set off on an arduous journey across Europe in search of freedom and safety. 

There are no live actors in this production. Audience members experience the play from individual booths wearing headphones and viewing a handcrafted diorama in which the story unfolds in intimate miniature. 

Despite herculean efforts, things aren’t entirely back to normal – far from it. Currently in New York, newly reopened Broadway shows are cancelling performances citing backstage outbreaks of coronavirus and variants as the culprit. How things play out in our town in the coming year, remains to be seen.

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