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CurtainUp DC  Report: May 1998
The Madness of May

by Les Gutman

May DC Report Topics
Mad About the Bard, conceived by Floyd King and Ethan McSweeny
A Report on How I Learned to Drive, by Paula Vogel
Web pages mentioned in this report

A brief bit of trivia seems like an appropriate way to introduce this month's DC Report. A few weeks ago, I saw Honour, the play that marked Jane Alexander's return to Broadway after her time here as head of the National Endowment for the Arts. (The play wasn't a particularly worthy vehicle for her trip.) From a Washington perspective, it had another significance: it reunited her with Robert Foxworth, her co-star. The last time they worked together, Ms. Alexander also trekked from DC to NY. Both were company members at Arena Stage, and the then-unknown Jane Alexander made the trip as a cast member in the last play (until this season) to transfer from DC to NY, Arena's Great White Hope. The end-of-season lagniappe reviewed below was co-conceived and directed by Ethan McSweeny, the director of the show that finally broke the DC to NY logjam this season, Never the Sinner. (A link to our reviews of Never the Sinner can be found below.) 
Review: Mad About the Bard
For those predisposed to Freudian explanations, a pivotal moment in Floyd King's development would seem to be the day he discovered that his grandmother's words of wisdom, the very ideas on which he had been raised, were plagiarized. They were not her words, he learned; they had been penned by someone named Shakespeare.  From that shocking discovery emerged King's love affair with the Bard.

Today, King has become, in the view of most who know his work, the king of Shakespearean comedians. Although he indeed has made us laugh playing many memorable clowns and fools, he has also distinguished himself with performances that pull as hard at our heart strings. Mad About the Bard treads in these same currents, combining humor with poignancy. It also reveals a hitherto unknown (to me, at least) dimension of Floyd King's talent: musical theater.

For this show, King and his collaborator and director, Ethan McSweeny, have collected a treasure chest of songs, stories, reminiscences and other material about Shakespeare, acting and the theater. Their sources range from Cole Porter to Noel Coward (liberally) to Harold Pinter. Sometimes, they rewrite with abandon (as with Porter's "Let's Do It," which for them begins "Danes do it, thanes do it, sovereign senators and swains do it"); but they have the good sense to keep their hands off Lorenz Hart's lyrics in "Dear Old Syracuse" as well as Shakespeare's words in As You Like It's "Seven Ages of Man" speech.
Performed in the Folger's Elizabethan Theatre, the show sometimes seems site-specific, as when King provides a funny tour of the details of theaters from Shakespeare's day. More often, however, King simply seems at home, walking around the stage, strewn with props, costumes and memorabilia, as if he owns it (which, in a sense, he of course does). He dons hats, wigs and capes as he moves from topic to topic, all to the end of revealing more about the Bard.

He misses little, and never a laugh. In "Quoting Shakespeare," he demonstrates Shakespeare's pervasiveness in our modern speech. In "Shakespeare 101," he dons academic robes and explains the serious debate over whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare as never before. Then he opens a corrugated box and begins sharing his collection of Shakespearean limericks. Still later, he will open a book and share favorite quotes from famous and infamous reviews. Throughout, King is accompanied by pianist George Fulginiti-Shakar, who also occasionally sneaks his way into the act.

Ethan McSweeny has blended the diverse pieces into a balanced, well-paced whole. King moves about comfortably, shifting from character to character and subject to subject with little formality but lots of style. Slides projected into a large, skewed frame overhead punctuate King's stories and provide an occasional foil to the proceedings below. After two-plus hours (with one intermission), one gets the feeling Floyd King might have gone on all night had McSweeny not stopped him; and I'm not sure the audience would've been inclined to had he not.

Oh yes....there was one thing I didn't get. Why did King make such a horrible face every time he uttered the word critic?
Conceived by Floyd King and Ethan McSweeny 
starring Floyd King 
Directed by Ethan McSweeny 
Musical Director: George Fulginiti-Shakar 
Set Design: Daniel Conway 
Costume Design: Mary Ann Powell 
Lighting Design: Howell Binkley 
Sound Design: Brian D. Keating 
Elizabethan Theatre at Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street SE (202) 544-7077 
May 13 - 31, 1998 
Reviewed by Les Gutman
 NOTE: This might be a good time and place to plug Elyse Sommer's book-in-progress, Shakespeare's Little Instruction Book, excerpts from which are linked below.
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Taking the Train to Learn to Drive: How I Learned to Drive in Baltimore
For the past year, I've had a quick answer to the question I get asked the most: "If I only have time to see one show in New York, what should it be?" My answer has been Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive. (It's NY run just closed, right after picking up the Pulitzer Prize.) Not surprisingly, the play has now begun to crop up in regional theater as quickly as crabgrass in a summer lawn. (Remarkably, the count of scheduled productions is already over 30.) One of the earliest mountings opened May 13 at Baltimore's Center Stage. This seems appropriate enough. Vogel is originally from Baltimore, and the play is set in the vicinity of Route 1 in Beltsville, MD.

Having seen the terrific original NY cast (Mary Louise Parker and David Morse), directed stylishly but subtly by Mark Brokaw, I wasn't sure what I'd think of a knock-off.  I arranged to get off the train in Baltimore on my way from NY to DC long enough to take in the final preview and find out. What I found was an attractive, well-staged (by Barry Edelstein) production that left much less to the imagination than the original, but that was also distinguished by the good use it made of the up-and-coming Jan Hartley's projections..

One of the triumphs of Paula Vogel's play is what Elyse Sommer, in CurtainUp's NY review, linked below, called the "unstereotypical" characterizations of the play's victim and victimizer. (For those unfamiliar, it's about pedophilia.) While I found Melissa Leo's Li'l Bit quite precise (if somewhat more free-spirited than Mary Louise Parker), Dennis Parlato's Uncle Peck was too believable -- quite as one would expect a child molesting uncle to be, but lacking any of the enigma that made David Morse so interesting. This quibble notwithstanding, this play is important enough, and the writing is exceptional enough, that I highly recommend seeing this production, sooner rather than later..

Arena Stage (where Vogel is expected to become playwright-in-residence under the regime of new Artistic Director Molly Smith) has slated a further production of Drive for the end of the next season. In a recent interview, Vogel indicated she was planning a new play to debut at Arena, called A Civil War Christmas. Whether this is in addition to, or might replace, How I Learned to Drive is not clear.

How I Learned to Drive continues at Center Stage through June 7. Box office is (410) 332-0033. Tickets also through ProTix (800) 955-5566.
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Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report
CurtainUp's review of Never the Sinner in NY and in DC
Link to Shakespeare's Little Instruction Book excerpts
CurtainUp's review of How I Learned to Drive in NY

©May 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
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