Day 134/365 – The Heavens Are Hung In Black

April 1st, 2012

Some cool washington theatre images:

Day 134/365 – The Heavens Are Hung In Black
washington theatre
Image by Kevin H.
Tonight my friend Pia and I went to the newly-renovated and spiffed up Ford’s Theatre to see "The Heavens Are Hung In Black." It’s a new play that was specially commissioned by Ford’s Theatre to commemorate its post-renovations reopening. Given the theater’s tragic connection with President Lincoln and the fact that this year is the bicentennial of his birth, it was only natural that Ford’s would commission a work about Lincoln.

The play is set during some of the darkest days of Lincoln’s life and presidential administration: the country is disintegrating due to the Civil War, the Confederate Army is on the attack while the Union Army dithers and delays, critics from all sides are assailing the President and his policies, the Lincolns are mourning the death of their son Willie, and the first lady’s reason and sanity have begun to decay. These are heavy burdens to bear and the play gives us an insight into what Lincoln’s internal dialogue might have been like during that period.

As Lincoln grapples with the questions of what direction the war should take and whether he should emancipate the slaves, he holds congress with a variety of ghosts, fictional characters, and contemporaries in a style somewhat reminiscent of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s visitation by the three Ghosts of Christmas. It’s a gimmick that could prove hokey and disastrous if not done well. Fortunately for this production it is carried off well for the most part, although it might be good to cut one or two of these ‘asides’ in the interest of paring down what is a rather long production.

The play as a whole is both informative and entertaining. The set design is excellent and accomplishes much within the particular limits of the theater, managing to transport us from the Oval Office to settings as varied as a military cemetery and the Mississippi River. The performances are uniformly outstanding and the actor portraying Lincoln does a remarkable job of bringing to life what we think the President might have been like as a man.

Ford’s Theatre itself doesn’t look much different, apart from the new and more comfortable seating (although the view from many seats is still blocked by various columns). The bulk of the changes involve the shiny new lobby next door with its new bathrooms and elevator. The new lobby is a welcome addition given that the theater’s original lobby, a spartan eight-foot wide vestibule, meant that crowds were forced to wait outside in the cold prior to the opening of the seating area. It’s always good to come in from the cold.

(February 19, 2009)

12v_harman_kahn_harman gala
washington theatre
Image by shakespearetheatreco
Dr. Sidney Harman and Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn at the Harman Center for the Arts Opening Gala on October 1, 2007. Photo by Kevin Allen.

Day 176/365 – Elizabeth Rex
washington theatre
Image by Kevin H.
Another evening at the theater for me. This time the theater in question was the Keegan Theatre in the Dupont Circle section of Washington, DC, where they were staging a production of the play "Elizabeth Rex." Before the play, I stopped by Nage, a sexy little bar and restaurant a few blocks away from the theater, for dinner.

Nage is a cozy, red-tinted, snug, sensual little nook of a place that shares space with a Courtyard Marriott hotel. A big chalkboard by the entrance lists the daily specials and the options for the three-course, prix fixe meal. The service and cocktails are excellent and the food was pretty good. I started things off with a cantaloupe martini that was particularly luscious. Instead of the standard bread and butter Nage serves bread and hummus, which was a nice switch. For my three courses, I opted for a wedge salad, pork chops with risotto, and rhubarb upside down cake. The salad was good, although they went a little heavy on the dressing. The pork chop and risotto were well-prepared, but a bit bland. Then again, unless you drench it in jerk seasoning or drown it in mustard sauce, it’s hard to get much pizzazz out of a pork chop. The rhubarb cake was quite yummy.

I probably should’ve have gone with my first inclination and ordered the goat cheese baklava appetizer and grilled scallops entree from the regular menu instead of deciding to be thrifty and take advantage of the prix fixe. I’d likely have enjoyed those dishes more. Still, I’d say Nage is worth taking a flyer on. It’s an ideal spot for drinks and a pretty good option for a meal.

After I got my belly stuffed, it was off to the play. This was my first visit to the Keegan Theatre. It’s in the middle of a quiet residential street and is housed in a small brick building that was originally the gymnasium of a private school. Although it is purely a work of fiction, "Elizabeth Rex" is based on a historical incident. On the night before the scheduled execution of her lover, the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth I of England engaged William Shakespeare and his band of players to distract her from her grief over having had to sentence the Earl to death for his part in a conspiracy against the crown.

"Elizabeth Rex" takes place in the barn of the Queen’s estate just outside London. Due to a curfew imposed until after the execution in order to prevent a civil disturbance, Shakespeare and several members of his company are forced to spend the night after their command performance in the barn. Unable to sleep, the Queen joins the players in the barn and has them keep her company to further distract her from her sorrows. The discourse between the Queen and the actors hits on the play’s core themes of love and loss, gender roles, and the dichotomy between the people we are in private and the parts we play in public.

It’s a excellent piece, well-written and powerfully performed. The set design and costumes are quite good and the cast is admirable, with the exception of the actors portraying Shakespeare and the Queen’s counselor. In the case of the latter, given the minor nature of the role the casting of a weak actor is insignificant. However, placing a poor performer in the part of Shakespeare, one of the central characters, is another matter. The producers did strike gold though with the casting of the actors portraying the Queen and the dying actor Ned, who square off against each other in several scenes. Both performers invest their parts with a great degree of power and pathos without being hammy or overwrought. It’s almost enough to make up for the miscast Shakespeare.

(April 2, 2009)

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