Cluster Of Stars

The Actors You're Used To Seeing On The Big Screen Are Finding D.c. Stages The Place To Be

September 13, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Helen Mirren is portraying a tragic Greek queen. Cate Blanchett takes on the role of an iconic Southern belle. Laurence Fishburne plays an esteemed judge. Billy Crystal spins comic scenes of family life.

But rather than appearing on movie or television screens, these stars are aligning along several blocks in northwest Washington.

Though touring productions with big-name actors frequently stop in D.C., and stars try out productions there or perform at the White House, this year is different. Washington isn't merely a stop on the way to someplace else, but a destination in its own right.

"I can't remember a time when Washington theater has had as many celebrity actors as we do this year," says Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center's vice president for international programming. "These are huge film stars. It's a real coup for Washington."

Adams thinks there's a reason why Washington suddenly has cachet. Actually, she thinks there are two reasons, and their names are Barack and Michelle Obama.

The nation's uber-couple make a point of being out and about. They patronize the theater and dine at local restaurants. Just last week, it was announced that Michelle Obama will serve as honorary chairwoman for an Oct. 24 fundraising gala for Imagination Stage in Bethesda, a well-respected children's company.

"This is a very different city since the election," Adams says. "I do think Washington is a very attractive place at this moment in time. The Obamas and the president's mother-in-law come to the Kennedy Center on a regular basis. There's a buzz in the air, a sense of glamour and excitement."

Mirren's star power is such that she can sell out any theater anywhere in the world. It doesn't even matter what play she's appearing in. (In fact, tickets to the Washington run of "Phedre," which opens later this week, sold out five hours after they went on sale, though some seats are still available for new subscribers to the Shakespeare Theatre.)

So it's all the more striking that Washington is the only city in this country where she will perform the title role in Euripides' Greek tragedy. The production ran in London for three months this summer and briefly in Greece.

And a few weeks after Mirren leaves town, Blanchett will preside over "A Streetcar Named Desire" as Tennessee Williams' fading Southern belle, Blanche DuBois. That production eventually will set up shop at New York's Brooklyn Academy of Music, but not until after making its American debut at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It's worth noting that the Washington run is being billed as a transfer, not a tryout; the show that will be seen by local audiences is as finished as it ever will be.

That's not the way things usually are done, and observers say that it's just one more indication of Washington's growing importance on the national theater scene.

"When I came to Washington in 1988, the theater was languishing," says Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre, which is presenting "Phedre." "Washington productions have grown much more professional and much more sophisticated, particularly in the last decade, and audiences have responded."

He cites another reason for the influx of film stars in live theater: the Hollywood writers' strike that ran for six months in 2007 and 2008. Movie actors with no other place to practice their craft turned to the stage.

"For years, the small amount of money that stage actors get paid made it difficult to attract movie actors to live productions," Kahn says. "But ever since the strike, the idea is popular once again. And with all the reality shows on television that are taking work away from actors, it's staying popular."

In addition, some stage projects, such as Billy Crystal's "700 Sundays," which runs through Sept. 17 at Washington's National Theatre, are labors of love. The comedian debuted his one-actor, autobiographical show on Broadway in 2004, and has toured sporadically with it ever since. Sure, Crystal could reach more people if "Sundays" became a movie. But that wouldn't provide him with the satisfaction of re-creating his large, loving Jewish family for a fresh audience night after night.

Some of these productions have found their way to Washington thanks to the city's international connections. "Phedre" is there courtesy of the long friendship between the British ambassador to the United States, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, and Nicholas Hytner, director of London's National Theatre.

"Nigel is a huge theater lover," says Mary Parker, the National's senior press officer. "Shortly after he was appointed in 2007, he began talking to Nicholas about bringing something really big over, and Helen Mirren has always wanted to play Washington."

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