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WAY-OFF-BROADWAY: Curtain Rises on New Arena Stage

March 30th, 2011

When there’s a month with a fifth Wednesday, I’ll be heading Way-Off-Broadway for a look at theatrical happenings outside New York City. (Perhaps we should call it a journey to the Fifth Dimension and start singing “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine”.) First up, a quick trip down to Washington, D.C. to look at the new and improved Arena Stage…

Photo by Nick Lehoux courtesy of Bing Thom Architects

Regional theaters develop and produce the most adventurous and original theater in America today. (Did you hear that thunk? That was my gauntlet being thrown down.) Arena Stage, under the artistic direction of Molly Smith, is at the very front rank of these vibrant organizations, with an enviable track record of shepherding new plays and musicals, including the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal. Now, with their newly-opened Mead Center for American Theater, they have a architectural home that matches their theatrical ambitions.  Here’s what you need to know…

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Now Playing:  Arena is currently in the midst of an Edward Albee Festival featuring a production or reading of nearly every one of his plays. I saw the cracklingly funny and unsettling Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Reuniting the playwright and leading lady from the Broadway smash August: Osage County, the casting of Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as George and Martha is in itself a head turner. Even better, their duet expands and upends your expectations of the play, subtly recalibrating the balance of psychological power in George’s favor and making it feel vibrantly new. Catch it before their booze runs out on April 10 or head next door and see a well-reviewed production of Albee’s expansion of Zoo Story, At Home at the Zoo through April 24.

Getting There:  From New York, D.C. is just a 3 to 3.5 hour Amtrak ride (and might I recommend some train wine and a café car cheese plate.) Once you’re in the city, Arena is one block from the Waterfront/SEU on the Metro system’s Green Line. The Arena website has a good guide to local restaurants for a pre-theater meal. Although the neighborhood around Arena seemed unwelcoming when I was growing up in the D.C. area, it is now undergoing a significant revitalization with new housing and a few restaurants popping up.

Photo by Nick Lehoux courtesy of Bing Thom Architects

Extreme Makeover, Theater Edition:  If you’re a fan of new architecture, particularly how designers work with problematic, pre-existing structures, the renovation of Arena Stage is almost worth the trip on its own. The original and, let’s admit it, visually forbidding theaters, (the beloved, “in-the-round” Fichandler Stage and the modified thrust Kreeger Stage) are both on the list of the city’s Historic Structures so Bing Thom Architects ingeniously enveloped them in a sweeping, expansive skin of insulated glass. The theaters were left almost completely intact—like enormous doll-houses in a large case—and connected with bold, multi-leveled common areas. They also added a new theater space devoted to nurturing work, the Kogod Cradle, a highly-unique oval playing area with a transformative, winding entrance. Under one huge roof, audiences from different shows can mingle while back-of-house staff mix with technical staff in combined and sometimes visible-to-the-public work areas. Overall, the experience is one of an ever-spinning, self-contained village, all devoted to making and enjoying theater.

Photo by Carol Rosegg

What’s Coming Up: Arena Stage’s commitment to the “production, presentation, development and study of American theater” continues in the months ahead with an interesting mix of challenging and crowd-pleasing shows. Closing the 2010-2011 season, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined by Lynn Nottage opens in late April followed by the world premiere of an adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill by Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood and, you know you love it, “Escape/The Pina Colada Song”.) Two fascinating musical options kick off the 2011-2012 season, a return engagement for Arena’s recent smash production of Oklahoma (which reviews hailed as revelatory and tough-edged) and another premiere, this time an adaptation of Like Water for Chocolate.

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