Arena Stage to get $100 million makeover


October 02, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Washington's Arena Stage recently unveiled its plans to expand and update its theater complex in the Southwest section of the city. The $100 million project will incorporate the existing Fichandler Stage and Kreeger Theater and also include a new 200-seat flexible space called the Cradle Theater, designed to incubate new work.

Canadian architect Bing Thom, whose previous designs range from the master plan for the city of Yuxi, China, to the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts in Vancouver, was selected from more than 100 candidates. His eye-poppingly bold design for Arena covers the entire complex with a cantilevered roof and surrounds the component buildings with pools of water.

"When I understood [artistic director] Molly Smith wished to create a theater that functions as a community, I knew we could do something different, something exciting," Thom said in a statement. His design also includes a bookstore, cafe, underground garage, 21 artists' apartments and an enlarged, shared lobby. As part of the updating, the Fichandler and Kreeger will undergo renovations, and the basement Old Vat Room will be replaced by the Cradle.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of incorrect information supplied by the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, the wrong name was given yesterday in the Today section for the author of the play Judas Ballot, which is receiving a staged reading Oct. 11 at Fell's Point Corner Theatre. The playwright's name is Tim Marks. The Sun regrets the error.

Construction is expected to take two years, beginning in fall 2005. Throughout this period, the theater will produce plays at alternate sites, yet to be announced. Arena has launched a fundraising campaign to accrue the $100 million budget for the project.

For more information, including slides of building plans, visit

Holiday comes home

Billie Holiday's back in town. Baltimore's Arena Players has opened its season with the same show that closed its previous season - If My Heart Could Sing: An Evening with Billie Holiday, a revue co-written by the show's director, Randolph Smith and its star, Paulette Pace (writing under the pseudonym, P.L. Neal).

Like the off-Broadway hit, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill (produced at Center Stage in 1993), If My Heart Could Sing is also set in a nightclub. In Lady Day it was a Philadelphia club three months before Holiday's death; in If My Heart Could Sing, it's a fictitious Baltimore club on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1956, three years before her death.

Both shows allow the singer to incorporate bits of Holiday's biography into the act, a liberty Holiday herself probably wouldn't have indulged in, but one that helps flesh out the show.

In addition, If My Heart Could Sing augments the proceedings with a subplot about the club owner's problems with his staff and patrons. Although this largely generic material does little or nothing to enhance our understanding of Holiday, it does add a bit of variety by giving cast members Kara McMillan, Sandra Spears and Aaron Androh a chance to sing.

The main thing the two Billie Holiday shows have in common is that they're showcases for diva-esque female vocalists. Like her precursor at Center Stage, Arena's Pace doesn't attempt to mimic Holiday, but instead lets her own style predominate. Overall, it's a wise choice and one that shows off Pace's smoky, mellow delivery. The singer's vocal style serves her well in jazzy numbers such as "Baby Get Lost" and "Ain't Nobody's Business," but her singing rarely approaches the level of anguish called for in a searing number such as Holiday's trademark "Strange Fruit."

Pace's acting does demonstrate some of her character's anguish, however, particularly after intermission, when she appears to be under the influence, slurring her speech, but fortunately, not her lyrics. In the end, If My Heart Could Sing may not provide new insights into Holiday's character, but it does aptly convey the warmth the singer would have felt performing, as she puts it, for people who loved her, in the town where she grew up.

Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 12. Tickets are $15. Call 410-728-6500.

`The play's the thing'

Rich Espey's Fifty/Fifty took top honors for both best play and best production at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival's annual awards ceremony, held at Center Stage last week. Set at a girls' boarding school, the play was produced at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre in August and directed by Neal Freeman. The award-winning play was selected by a panel of nine judges who work in local theater.

Meanwhile, work is already under way for the 2004 festival. Staged readings of three plays under consideration will be held at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., on Oct. 11. The plays are Katydid, by Robin Wray; Judas Ballot, by Kim Marks; and Aristotle and the Assassin Bug, by Robert R. Bowie Jr. The readings begin at 11 a.m., and each is followed by a discussion with the playwright. Admission is free. For information call 410-276-2153.


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