Stage Craft: How D.C. Does Theater

Homegrown players and top shows to watch now

Washington, D.C., gets a lot of press (and tweets) for its dramatic political scene. But dozens of local theater companies, from upstart indie groups to Tony Award-recognized playhouses, help the city rank closely behind New York City for live stage shows—high-action dramas, comedies, musicals and more. “People don’t realize what a huge theater town this is,” says local playwright Annalisa Dias. “There’s just such a wide range of options here for actors, writers and directors.”

This month, there’s another reason to check out the diverse scene: The Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which brings world, national and regional premiere productions by female playwrights to 26 venues around town January 15 through February 15.

“It’s great that the festival focuses on the quality and innovation of the material, not on gender issues,” says Dias.

Among the festival offerings is Dias’ “4,380 Nights,” a searing look at a longtime prisoner at Guantanamo Bay and the political and world happenings surrounding him. At Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theatre, the work is emblematic of the kind of smart, timely works D.C. audiences dig. At venerable Arena Stage, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Sovereignty” follows a young Cherokee lawyer in present-day Georgia as she grapples with issues of race and land rights.

“Sovereignty” at Arena Stage

At historic Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, the restored Victorian environs set the scene for British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Jefferson’s Garden,” a play about the American Revolution and its impact on elites like Washington and Jefferson as well as on the African-American community.

In “The Way of the World,” Folger Shakespeare Library sees acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck reset British wit William Congreve’s 1700 comedy of manners from the English royal court to present-day Hamptons. (Think the foibles of Kardashians, not courtiers.) “It seems like we’ve hit a critical mass, where there’s a social consensus and demand for women’s voices to be heard,” says Rebeck, who also directs the show.

“Washington audiences are really
smart and ready to be challenged,” adds local actress Tonya Beckman. “They aren’t interested in easy answers or things that just skim the surface of questions. And of course, they enjoy political jokes!” Beckman stars in Thornton Wilder’s absurdist “The Skin of Our Teeth” at upstart Constellation Theatre Company. “The play seems really relevant now, since it’s a look at war and the end of the world,” she says.

Shows like “Skin” and “Way of the World” emphasize another marquee aspect of local theater: D.C. is hooked on classics. “Places like the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Folger have always done so many canonical works, and that drew me here,” says Beckman. The Folger, part of the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill, puts on productions in an Elizabethan-style theater with old-timey wooden balconies. Across town, the esteemed Shakespeare Theatre Company boasts two spaces in Penn Quarter. In the larger of the two, the sleek Sidney Harman Hall, “Ugly Betty” star Michael Urie headlines as the Bard’s “Hamlet.”

Foler Shakespeare Library theater

“I feel a responsibility to produce classical theater that resonates with modern audiences and speaks to people across cultures and generations,” says Shakespeare Theater Company director Michael Kahn. “‘Hamlet’ is about the elusiveness of certainty and the ambivalent nature of revenge, about trust, doubt and finding the truth—or not. I’m curious to see how audiences respond to it.”

Other offerings that draw on literature and classic works this month: “The Trail” combines striking choreography, music, sets and costumes (but zero spoken words) to summon Franz Kafka’s crime-and-punishment tale at Synetic Theater; and “Everything Is Illuminated” brings to life Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 novel about Jews during and after the Holocaust in the jewel box space at Theater J.

“Washington artists are lucky, because so many people here work in government or have global power,” says Dias. “Performing before them is a chance for us to both engage with them, and maybe to have an impact in the world.”

“The Tempest” (2013) at Synetic