Seasonal Harbinger


Fall Ushers in Tantalizing Array of Cultural Performances

Don’t let the horrible, humidity-loaded, hot days fool you. Summer is over. It’s over because the fall arts season has begun in Washington, an even better seasonal harbinger in this city than turning leaves or busy squirrels.

In the spirit of the fall season, we bid summer a happy adieu and highlight some of the more interesting cultural performance offerings, many of them internationally flavored, coming up on the Washington arts scene.

For many years, the first indicator of the fall arts explosion has been the Kennedy Center’s Prelude Festival, a month-long splurge of tantalizing performances ranging from symphonic music and dance companies to theater pieces, jazz and other things sometimes difficult to categorize.

This year’s sixth annual Prelude features its signature Page-to-Stage event, in which some 30 Washington-area theater companies show off their wares in a series of free readings of plays and musicals, including the premiere of Broadway playwright and local-boy-made-good Ken Ludwig with his version of “The Three Musketeers.”

But the most intriguing play on the horizon during Prelude will probably be Pulitzer Prize-winning Lawrence Wright’s “My Trip to Al-Qaeda,” a one-man show based on documentary testimony and visual aids that give a harrowing portrayal of the events leading up to Sept. 11, 2001.

Also part of the Prelude, the 23rd Annual Kennedy Center Open House Arts Festival will have a definite European flavor with an “Underground Circus” theme featuring circus acts for the stage and street, including the Perfect Unknowns from Montreal, Pittsburgh’s Zany Umbrella Circus, and the Russian American Kids Circus from Brooklyn, all on Sept. 8 and all for free.

Also from Montreal are “The 7 fingers,” which fuse circus skills with Chinese acrobatics, skateboarding, humor, illustration and an urban hip hop attitude for the production of “Traces” at the Terrace Theater from Sept. 13 to 16.

Combining dance and film, the Prelude will feature the film premiere of George Balanchine’s “Don Quixote” on Sept. 5 at the Terrace Theater—a restored recording of the 1965 performance production featuring Balanchine as the Don and famed dancer Suzanne Farrell as Dulcinea.

Further down the road at the Kennedy Center is a highly anticipated visit from the great British actress Fiona Shaw, who will star in Samuel Beckett’s play for divas of the ages, “Happy Days,” with the Royal National Theatre from Nov. 23 to 29.

For jazz enthusiasts, one of the legendary greats gets a salute at the Kennedy Center with the Django Reinhardt Festival on Nov. 16 and 17, as father and son guitarists Dorado and Samson Schmitt resurrect the fabled gypsy jazz guitarist of the 1920s and 1930s.

On the dance front, there is a performance by Ballet Hispanico and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra with Arturo O’Farrill on Nov. 5 at the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall in a production titled “Palladium Nights,” a resurrection of the 1950s jazz scene in New York.

The Kennedy Center isn’t the only place though to find dance and song with international flair. Lisner Auditorium at the George Washington University has long attracted fresh global talent, although the Global Drum Project may top the list when it comes to fusing different international influences. Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart reunites wtih Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain, Nigerian “talking drum” ace Sikiru Adepoji, and Latin conga legend Giovanni Hidalgo in this boundary-shattering musical journey on Oct. 11. Another highlight will be “Acoustic Africa” on Nov. 12 featuring musicians from Mali, South Africa and Côte d’Ivoire performing “socially relevant acoustic songs.”

Although a little more off the beaten path, another university-affiliated arts center, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland in College Park, has evolved into a premier arts destination in its own right. This season’s international offerings include the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company, which is joined by dancers from India in a thought-provoking and physically rigorous exploration of ritual from Sept. 20 to 22. And on Oct. 25 and 26, Mozart’s fantastical opera “Shapiro” is re-imagined by Pamina Devi: A Cambodian Magic Flute, whose dancers combine the splendors of Vienna with the mystical allure of ancient Angkor.

Of course, there’s nothing more international than opera, and this year, the Washington National Opera has a couple of classics and something a bit new in its first batch of productions. The season kicks off with “La Bohème” on Sept. 15 at the Kennedy Center Opera House—the opera for people who hate opera—in which innovative director Mariusz Trelinski updates Puccini’s timeless tale about a circle of young artists who long for a deeper connection to society. Also on tap is Mozart’s dark “Don Giovanni” beginning Oct. 25, with the Washington Opera’s own Plácido Domingo conducting.

And what’s happening with our favorite Brit from across the Pond? After this year’s massive Shakespeare in Washington Festival concluded this summer, you’d think Washingtonians might’ve had enough of the Bard, but you couldn’t be further from the truth.

There’ll be more space for Shakespeare than ever this fall when the Harman Center for the Arts opens at 6th and F Streets in downtown Washington, adding a new 775-seat theater to complement the 451 seats at the existing Lansburgh Theatre for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. The combined two theaters will become the Harman Center for the Arts, named after entrepreneur, businessman and benefactor Sidney Harman, and will officially open with a gala on Oct. 1.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company debuts its season at the Lansburgh on Sept. 25 with a Rebecca Taichman-directed production of “The Taming of the Shrew.” Then, Shakespeare Theatre Artistic Director Michael Kahn kicks things of at the Harman with an epic production of Christopher Marlowe’s grandly eloquent “Tamburlaine,” starring Avery Brooks as the great conqueror—part of a two-part series on the famed English dramatist. The second production will be Marlowe’s tragic (and grisly) “Edward II,” starring Wallace Acton and deemed by many to be the playwright’s crowning achievement.

The new Harman Center will also be used by local performance arts groups such as the Washington Ballet, Washington Bach Consort, Fringe Festival, Dance Place and the Washington Performing Arts Society.

On a smaller scale, the always adventuresome Rorschach Theatre in Adams Morgan plans to get in on the Christopher “Kit” Marlowe action with its performance of “Kit Marlowe,” a new play by David Grimm about the 16th-century playwright who, in addition to being a worthy forerunner and rival to Shakespeare, was also a scalawag, spy and noted bar patron and brawler.

Wait—there’s more Bard though. At the local shrine to Shakespeare, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the theater season kicks off with “As You Like It” on Oct. 17, while the Washington Shakespeare Company in Arlington, Va., forgoes actual Shakespeare in favor of “Caligula,” the play about the tyrannical, crazy-as-a-loon Roman emperor by Albert Camus beginning Oct. 11.

Switching gears to Hispanic offerings, GALA Hispanic Theatre (Grupo de Artistas Latino Americanos), operating out of its new digs at Tivoli Square in Columbia Heights, opens its 2007-08 season on Sept. 20 with “Cita a Ciegas (Blind Date).” Inspired by renowned and enigmatic Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, the play stars Hugo Medrano as a blind writer who, on his daily visits to a park bench, overhears and becomes intertwined with the stories of seemingly unrelated people.

Also at GALA is a mid-November production by the In Series called “Of Love and War,” in which the poetry of Garcia Lorca and Walt Whitman are framed by music and dance. And keep an eye out for the Third Annual Flamenco Fest: Fuego Flamenco III, featuring “Casa Patas” from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 presented in collaboration with the Spanish Embassy.

Meanwhile, Teatro de la Luna, operating out of the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington, Va., will present its 10th Annual International Festival of Hispanic Theater from Oct. 9 to Nov. 17, featuring work from seven countries: Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador, Spain, Dominican Republic and Colombia.

The Irish have a word or two to say themselves, and they’ve found a fine representative in the Keegan Theatre, which begins its 2007-08 season with the U.S. premiere of “Alone It Stands” by John Breen, a legendary play about the Munster Rugby Team’s victory over New Zealand in 1978. Six actors play 62 roles—including the Munster team, the Kiwis, the two coaches, the ref, the crowd, the press, a pregnant woman, several children and a dog—at Arlington’s Theatre on the Run beginning Nov. 15. Also watch for Keegan’s February production of Brendan Behan’s “The Hostage,” a comedy—yes, a comedy—about the IRA taking a British soldier hostage in a bawdy Irish bar.

Arena Stage opens up its season with Beethoven—actually, it’s a play about Beethoven’s music called “33 Variations.” The Moisés Kaufman-written production centers around a modern musicologist who struggles to find the roots of Beethoven’s connection with fledging publisher Anton Diabelli, who in 1819 commissioned 50 composers to write a variation on the waltz he had created—an offer Beethoven initially scoffed at but later obsessed over.

Speaking of psychological examinations, Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a classic examination into the dark corners of the human psyche. Perhaps no troupe is better able to handle this haunting work than Synetic Theater—featuring the great Russian husband-and-wife team of Paata (he directs) and Irina (she choreographs) Tsikurishvili. One can only imagine what the evocative Synetic, which weaves together movement, drama and visual imagery, will do to bring this psychological thriller to life. After attracting critical acclaim but falling short on commercial success, Synetic is now firmly ensconced with the Classika Theatre troupe in Shirlington, Va., and seems to have found its home—proof that there’s always room for new additions to the eclectic Washington arts landscape.

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

To Learn More: The following is a list of Web sites with more infomation on cultural events in the D.C. area: Kennedy Center: Washington National Opera: Shakespeare Theatre Company: Rorschach Theatre: Folger Shakespeare Library: Washington Shakespeare Company: GALA Hispanic Theatre: Teatro de la Luna: Keegan Theatre: Arena Stage: Synetic/Classika:

Jerome’s Musical Diplomacy

Everyone knows that Washington is the center of the world. The president lives here. The powerbrokers work here. The legislature legislates here, the Supreme Court sits supreme here, and the political pundits pontificate here in print, on television and over any other airwaves they can get their hands on. People around the world even know the city’s arts scene, whether it’s the Kennedy Center, National Gallery of Art or Smithsonian.

But what most people still don’t know about is one of the truly unique cultural passages in town, which provides access to another Washington staple: its many embassies. It’s been going on for 14 years now, to great success, but somehow it manages to be one of those treasures that hasn’t yet hit the mainstream of public discourse.

That would be the Embassy Series, now in its 14 year, which offers a season’s worth of musical events spread out among the city’s embassies and ambassadorial residences. Part rapt-attention recitals and concerts, part receptions and diplomatic-exchange opportunities, the Embassy Series performances are all unique occasions that bring musicians, many of them up and coming, together with members of the diplomatic community and classical music buffs who’ve discovered the concert series like dehydrated desert wanderers stumbling upon an oasis.

“I’m amazed at how it’s grown, and that it’s been that long,” said Jerome Barry, the professional singer (a tenor), linguist, promoter, teacher and founder and director of the Embassy Series. “And it’s still very different every year. There’s always something new, new opportunities.”

Recognizing those new opportunities, the series has been expanding beyond its traditional focus on European musicians and composers, steadily adding to its lineup of embassy mainstays that include Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Poland and Romania.

For instance, this year’s kickoff concert on Sept. 29 features Katryna Tan, a virtuoso young harpist playing at the Embassy of Singapore, a relatively new entry into the series. Another relative newcomer is Venezuela, whose ambassador hosts flutist Marcos Granados, soprano Lauren Skuce and guitarist Oren Fader on Dec. 8.

“That’s one of the things we’re seeing more and more of,” Barry said. “You can count on hearing Mozart, or Strauss, or Schubert and Beethoven at many of the embassies, kind of the canon of Western classical music. But now you also see music created and special to the nation or region involved, performed by musicians from that nation…. We like to highlight embassies or residences that aren’t that well known.”

Among those smaller nations is Slovakia, although don’t get that confused with Slovenia, both of which are on the Embassy Series schedule this season—with the Slovak Embassy hosting soprano Katarina Michaelli and pianist Monika Mockovcáková on Oct. 12, and the Slovenian Embassy hosting Jeffrey Cohan on flute and Nicoletta Sanzin on the harp on Nov. 9.

Old favorites such as the French Embassy, or Maison Française, are still around as well, with pianist Jean-Frédéric Neuburger, winner of the 2006 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, performing on Oct. 2. Another young piano talent is Andrei Licaret, who takes the stage at the Romanian ambassador’s residence on Oct. 10.

Later that month, on Oct. 20, the series again returns to the Cuban Interests Section—a beautiful yet unofficial embassy—with a great program of Latin American and Cuban music. The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China has also become a regular presence in the series, with this year’s concert introducing pianist Chu-Fang Huang on Nov. 30.

Later in the year, expect more powerhouse international performances from Egypt, Austria, Israel, Turkey, Hungary and Portugal—just a sampling of the embassies that give credence to the Embassy Series motto of “promoting international understanding through music.”

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.