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Posted at 12:43 PM ET, 02/16/2011

Backstage: Arena Stage's 2011-12 season; Michael Kahn directs opera in Dallas

By Jane Horwitz

Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith.

Arena Stage's 2011-12 season will include two world premieres, a mini-Eugene O'Neill festival, visiting productions from Chicago's Goodman Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and a revival of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man."

Artistic Director Molly Smith says she's begun to program the company in 12-month schedules, indicating Arena will rarely be dark. She views the 2011-12 season as a part of the "two-year launch" of Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, following the October opening of the company's $135 million renovated campus at Sixth Street and Maine Avenue SW.

Arena's 2011-12 season:

* "Like Water for Chocolate" (Sept. 9-Oct. 30), the world premiere of a "pre-Broadway" musical adaptation of Laura Esquivel's magical realist novel, will be staged in Arena's Kreeger Theater. The script is by Quiara Alegria Hudes ("In the Heights"), with music and lyrics by Lila Downs and Paul Cohen. Ted Sperling and Jonathan Butterell will co-direct.

* "The Book Club Play" (Oct. 7-Nov. 6) by Washington-based Karen Zacarias, one of Arena's current resident playwrights, will get its second local production, using what Smith calls an "explosive rewrite" by Zacarias that was workshopped at Arena last summer. The comedy premiered at Round House Theatre in 2008 to mixed reviews, though great ticket sales. "She really listened to some of the notices on it," Smith says of Zacarias's rewrite.

* "Equivocation" (Nov. 18, 2011-Jan. 1, 2012) by Bill Cain ("Stand-Up Tragedy") will be a production from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, directed by that company's leader, Bill Rauch. Set in 1605 London, Cain's play imagines that Shakespeare is asked by King James to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot as a propagandist against the Catholic rebels. The play was done in New York by the Manhattan Theatre Club last March. What Smith calls a "high-stakes political thriller" will be done in the Kreeger.

* "You, Nero" (Nov. 25, 2011-Jan. 1, 2012) by Amy Freed - another of Arena's resident writers - is a comedy about the ancient Roman emperor and his public relations problem. It will run in concurrently with "Equivocation" in the Fichandler, an in-the-round space conveniently evocative, notes Smith, of a coliseum.

* "Elephant Room" (Jan. 20-Feb. 26, 2012) by Steve Cuiffo, Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle ("All Wear Bowlers," "Amnesia Curiosa") will be staged in the Kogod Cradle by Paul Lazar. In the piece, three semiprofessional magicians with different specialties collaborate in an effort to heal their own lives. At the end, according to Smith, they "conjure an elephant."

* "Red" (Jan. 20-March 11, 2012) by John Logan, about the painter Mark Rothko, just won six Tony Awards in New York. The Goodman Theatre's Robert Falls will direct this new production of the play, first presenting it on his home Chicago turf, and then at Arena in the Kreeger.

* "Ah, Wilderness!" (March 9-April 8, 2012) marks the opening salvo of a salute to the man Smith says, as far as theater is concerned, is "arguably where it all started, as far as American writers - Eugene O'Neill." His lone comic look at family dysfunction will play in the Fichandler.

* "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (March 30-May 13, 2012), O'Neill's dark masterpiece, will be staged by noted Canada-based director Robin Phillips in the Kreeger.

* "The Music Man" (May 11-July 22, 2012) will play in the Fichandler, another in-the-round musical revival to be staged by Smith.

* "Mary T. & Lizzy K." (June 1-July 22, 2012) by Tazewell Thompson, who'll also direct, is the second world premiere of the season, and will be showcased in the Kogod Cradle. The play is part of a new Arena tradition that Smith has dubbed the American Presidents Project. Since Washington is where American presidents live, she says, "we want to do a play a year about one of our presidents." Thompson's piece explores the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, a freed slave. Abraham Lincoln is also a character in the play.

* "Trouble in Mind" (June 8-July 22, 2012), a play by author and dramatist Alice Childress ("A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich"), was first performed off-Broadway in 1955. In it, a newly integrated acting company is rehearsing an anti-lynching melodrama, with a clueless white director at the helm, and African American actors who have learned how to play stereotypes in order to survive.

Oh, operatic Romeo

Michael Kahn is glad his mother made him study piano. The Shakespeare Theatre Company's artistic director admits that he hated practicing, but says that understanding musical phrasing has stood him in good stead as an occasional opera director.

Kahn has just staged Charles Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet" at the Dallas Opera. He was there during the snow and ice event that nearly paralyzed the city, but he and his singers, despite losing a few rehearsals, made the opening on Feb. 11 to Kahn's great satisfaction. The opera has four more performances - Wednesday and Saturday, and Feb. 25 and 27.

"It's got gorgeous music, the opera, but . . . the story's a little bit simplified," as in many operatic adaptations, says Kahn. He explains that he's restored missing characters from the play and filled in underdeveloped ones with subtext and stage business. "I've given Juliet a mother, Lady Capulet, and I've identified Romeo's parents. . . . I've given the Nurse moments where she actually knows that Romeo and Juliet have met and that Juliet loves him. . . . [The Nurse] overhears a lot of stuff. . . . I've had a good time sort of layering stuff [from] the play that may not be in the opera," says Kahn.

"For me, the libretto is the plot, but the . . . music and the orchestration actually can say to you, somebody should move now; something has to happen now on this crescendo; something has to happen physically on this series of chords. . . . When there's a change of key, that means something's happening."

"I go moment-to-moment in Shakespeare, and I do that in music," says Kahn. "In Shakespeare, the big soliloquies, many things happen in there. There's a rhythm with them. . . . [It's] the same thing with arias for me."

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

By Jane Horwitz  | February 16, 2011; 12:43 PM ET
Categories:  Theater  
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