Women’s Voices Festival a Potent Reminder of Who Goes Unheard Onstage
Posted February 5, 2018 5:30 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — Sit in the audience at Ford’s Theater, where “Jefferson’s Garden” is playing, and you have a clear view of the scene of a crime. There it is, directly above the right side of the stage — the presidential box where Abraham Lincoln was shot.
Stand on the steps outside the Folger Theater, as you go into “The Way of the World,” and you’ll spy the Supreme Court on the next block, with the dome of the Capitol rising beyond. Cross the Potomac River into Arlington, where Signature Theater is doing “4,380 Nights,” and you’ll spot the vast Pentagon, hunkered low to the ground.
Such is the lay of the land in the company town that is Washington, where the Women’s Voices Theater Festival fits in perfectly: steeped in history, consumed with politics and deeply engaged in the cultural wrestling match over the shape that the future will take. Devoted to plays by women, the festival is an excellent place to consider what the American theater needs to look like, gender parity and all.
“Feminism is dead, darling,” a daffy schemer named Rene (Kristine Nielsen, in deliciously silly form) says in “The Way of the World,” Theresa Rebeck’s contribution to the lineup. “They keep trying to resurrect it, but it’s not going to take.”
Mmm, I wouldn’t be so sure. Rene, dear, have you looked at the news?
The aim of the first festival, in 2015, was to seed the male-dominated theatrical canon with a profusion of new works by female authors. With two dozen plays, this second incarnation (officially running through Feb. 15, though many of the shows will continue after that) is smaller and less fixed on world premieres, with plays tested off-Broadway, like Danai Gurira’s “Familiar” and Sarah DeLappe’s “The Wolves,” on the roster.
But it still makes a political statement by its very presence — not quite Time’s Up, the message of the Hollywood campaign, but that the clock is ticking, and the goal posts are not where they used to be.
From Monticello to Guantánamo
History, though, is approximately where we left it. “There’s Monticello,” the man behind me at Ford’s Theater breathed as a handsome suite of French windows arrived onstage in “Jefferson’s Garden,” Timberlake Wertenbaker’s sprawling, keen-eyed, early American tale, with an interracial love story at its center and some bitterness, too.
That romance, which doesn’t go the way you might think, is between fictional characters, but Thomas Jefferson (Michael Halling) is here, too — brainy, compromised, intensely selfish. Caught in his web even after they taste freedom abroad are Sally Hemings (Kathryn Tkel) and her lovely, defiant brother James (the excellent Michael Kevin Darnall).
Flecked with comedy and soothed with song, it’s a beautiful, ultimately mournful play about where the United States went wrong — on race, on gender — way back at the start. The tightness of Nataki Garrett’s pared-down production comes and goes, but the nine-member ensemble is uncommonly winning, and their colorful costumes of crumpled Tyvek (by Ivania Stack) make them look like 3-D paper dolls.
At Signature, an orange-jumpsuited figure is onstage as the audience enters for “4,380 Nights,” Annalisa Dias’ deeply felt drama about imprisonment at Guantánamo Bay. The man is Malik (Ahmad Kamal, sympathetic and funny), an innocent Algerian held captive there for years on end, as he insists on his innocence.
The play works well when it is simple, in the scenes involving Malik and his kind pro bono lawyer (Michael John Casey). But Dias strains for mysterious lyricism with a storytelling frame that evokes “1,001 Nights,” and the director, Kathleen Akerley, cannot fuse those disparate elements.
One of my favorites of the five shows I caught at the festival has, I regret to say, finished its limited run: Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ lively, socially incisive monologue “Queens Girl in Africa,” which got a handsomely polished production by Paige Hernandez for Mosaic Theater Company.
It’s the sequel to “Queens Girl in the World,” Jennings’ solo piece in the 2015 festival, and it follows the same semiautobiographical heroine, a black New York City teenager now reluctantly moving to Nigeria with her parents in 1965. Peopled with more than a dozen characters from around the globe, it poses an acting challenge that the show’s star, Erika Rose, met with impressive nimbleness.
Watching “Sovereignty,” the lawyer-playwright Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Cherokee Nation legal drama at Arena Stage, I found myself thinking about the way Nagle talks. As I learned when I interviewed her last month, she can be entertainingly animated even when speaking about some dry, obscure fact. This is not the way of ordinary mortals, though, and the play’s more explanatory dialogue can sound stilted in the mouths of her actors.
The temperature of Molly Smith’s production wavers from charmingly warm (Andrew Roa, as a new grandfather, is comically endearing, and kudos for using baby dolls with fabulous stand-up hair) to chillier than intended. With its historical and contemporary plot lines, the play tells important stories of cultural and domestic violence, but the characters leave us wanting to know them better.
Style, not substance, is the priority in “The Way of the World” at the Folger, a romp adapted from William Congreve’s Restoration comedy, updated to now and relocated to the Hamptons. Directed by Rebeck, it’s a production to bask in — partly for the sleek, chic design (set by Alexander Dodge, lighting by Donald Holder), but foremost for the chance to see Nielsen let loose in a starring role as a shallow, pampered soul who has long overseen her niece’s $600 million trust. Ashley Austin Morris is also hilarious as a waitress, a recurring commentator on the habits of the obscenely rich.
Nielsen plays a grasping buffoon who lusts after much younger men — a setup that ordinarily, in our entertainment, calls for outright degradation of the woman. Not here, though. Comic humiliation? Absolutely. But there’s a crucial tonal difference: no meanness in it. Rebeck and the brilliant Linda Cho (who also did the costumes for “Sovereignty”) are good to their star. Which turns out to be a lot more fun. ‘Created Equal’
Brief digression: Last fall, at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, I saw a subversive confection of a musical called “Romantics Anonymous” that just about wrecked me. Adapted, from the French film of the same name, by Emma Rice, the Globe’s soon-to-depart artistic director, it’s about a tradition-bucking heroine too timid to stand up for her own genius, whose colleagues bow and scrape before an inscrutable man-fool they’ve been told is a savant.
During the scene where the heroine, reflexively overlooked, watches a man be congratulated for her sublimely innovative achievement, I put my head in my hands. It is so easy to be invisible, or inaudible, simply by virtue of being female.
And this is the thing: that so many women’s stories, for so many years, have gotten overlooked, or drowned out or shouted down, while men’s stories have been enshrined in tradition.
In the theater, telling and retelling the same tales is part of the culture. There are good reasons to revisit the canon, searching for fresh resonances each time. But there are bad reasons, too, like being so tuned in to male voices and experiences that others fail to register as valid or worthwhile.
Gender parity for playwrights, a goal that the Women’s Voices festival is helping to push forward, would almost by default improve our understanding of the world, deepening our knowledge of what it is to be human.
In the gift shop at Ford’s Theater, there’s a T-shirt emblazoned with a famously democratic phrase. “Created equal,” it says, a proud allusion to the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence before it. Equal treatment, though, is something the American experiment has always struggled with. So has the American theater.
In Washington, that most political of cities, the festival is trying to do something about that. Let’s hope it keeps coming back, with sustained focus and tenacious commitment, until it isn’t needed anymore.
‘Women’s Voices Theater Festival’
Through Feb. 15; womensvoicestheaterfestival.org
Through Thursday at Ford’s Theater, Washington; fords.org
Through Feb. 18 at Signature Theater, Arlington; sigtheatre.org
Through Feb. 18 at Arena Stage, Washington; arenastage.org
‘The Way of the World’
Through Sunday at the Folger Theater, Washington; folger.edu