Moments to Remember: Theater

Not the best plays—instead, our critics pick a half-dozen favorite stage memories from 2009.

Tom Stoppard is the modern king of remarkable moments, and ACT's fall production of Rock 'n' Roll capitalized on many, the most loaded occurring toward the end of the play. Czech hero Jan (Matthew Floyd Miller) has returned to England on an errand. It's now 1990 and the Iron Curtain has fallen. Having lived through the Prague Spring and the Soviet clampdown, Jan now tells his Red-sympathizing former professor Max (Denis Arndt) that he had been spying on him for the Czech government back in the '60s. As a peace offering, Jan hands over to Max the secret dossier he stole. He thinks Max will be grateful to have the incriminating file kept from the public, or at least be touched by the gesture, but instead Max blows up. Doctrinaire as ever, Max rants, "I don't need saving!" He says he's proud of everything he did in support of Communism. Miller plays Jan's hurt and disappointment with the understatement of a peon long accustomed to abuse on the global chess board, and it's utterly shattering. The rejection lays the emotional groundwork for Max, for once in his life, to set aside dogma and let Jan weep in his arms for the hellish 20 years he endured behind the Iron Curtain. MARGARET FRIEDMANAfter years of waiting for someone to churn out a decent film version of John Kennedy Toole's comic novelA Confederacy of Dunces, Book-It Repertory pounced on the chance to adapt it. And, as if lightning really could strike twice in the same place, director Mary Machala found Brandon Whitehead to play the story's oafish protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, this September. Not only did Whitehead perfectly capture the pomp and poverty New Orleanians so often wear as a badge of honor, but this man got more mileage out of consuming hot dogs onstage than most actors benefit from 10 years of tap-dancing lessons. For a brief time in the play, Reilly works for a weenie vendor, but he actually manages to munch more product than he sells. Morsel by morsel, Whitehead would savor each bland bite as if he were noshing on caviar at a Southern cotillion. He never missed a word in the script; he never sputtered frankfurter chunks at his fellow actors (not that I saw, anyway); and he has now forever linked his outsized performance to the links that send baseball lovers and Capitol Hill drunkards alike home with smiles on their faces. KEVIN PHINNEYDeep into Act 2 of Persephone Vandegrift's Revenge and Sorrow in Thebes, an original reformulation of Euripides' The Bacchae, noblewoman Agave receives the eviscerating news that not only did she succumb to seduction by her nephew Dionysus, but during her resulting bacchanalian frenzy, she also murdered her own son, Pentheus. Sets and props were minimal in Flying Elf's shoestring summer production, which means all the focus was on the actors. Slathered in blood and bearing Pentheus' head on a stick, Jennifer Pratt's Agave became, in front of our eyes, a living embodiment of that dreaded moment of seeing the absolute worst within us. Agave's grief was so huge, so monumental and self-negating, that the head of her son stopped being papier-maché and became a primitive, searing weapon of reproach. MFI do have a thing for a clever set. And having once romped on the Hollywood soundstage where Deep Space Nine was shot, having once spent a frigid night in the shadow of a life-size replica of a Nazi zeppelin (to write about The Rocketeer), one of the great treats of 2009 was getting to sit for two hours watching the lab of Dr. Henry Jekyll rise and fall on the ACT stage. While Matthew Smucker's sets for the April production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were often minimalist to the point of merely hinting at a locale, he made sure every Victorian test tube and cabinet was just so in recreating the not-so-good doctor's private lair. The result: Every time the lab appeared, the audience wondered, "Is this when we're going to see Jekyll's throat-clutching transformation?" Smucker's set became a character in itself—both emblematic of the doctor's secret identity and a sinister presence all its own. KPAccording to Robert Sherwood, when Abe Lincoln's first girlfriend died, his grief was so great he was tempted to trash his political ambitions and follow her into the grave. Intiman's fall production of Sherwood's Abe Lincoln in Illinois dramatizes the moment in which he decides to forge ahead instead with the most haunting song I heard all year, a dirge-like chorus called "I Am Unprepared for Eternity." I think part of the reason it was so memorable, in addition to the music's eerie counterpoint and its being sung by cast members representing the masses, was the double meaning of the lyric: At once, our hero is unprepared for death now and unprepared to live forever. It was a perfect orchestration of his dilemma, one every great figure must face when crossing the threshold into service. It was such a rich, soul-flooding song that I don't remember whether Abe was onstage when it was sung. MFOne of the most challenging—and satisfying—experiences of the year came from the Satori Group, working in tandem with Washington Ensemble Theatre to produce a one-act re-imagining of Shakespeare's Titus. There were no big-budget sets, lights, or costumes, yet clearly there were artistic minds making decisions about how to stage a frugal show in a way that wouldn't shortchange the playwright's vision. With Titus, the two theater groups blended their talents and came up with creepily imaginative ways to depict the substantial blood and gore the Bard called for: Rose petals, feathers, Gummi Worms, red confetti, rhinestones, and even chunks of fruit pie were strewn liberally across the stage. But nary a drop of that sickeningly sweet mixture of Karo syrup, Red Dye No. 2, and iodine so often passed off as "stage blood." The overall effect was decidedly more chilling than any attempt to fake the real thing might have been.

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