Women’s Voices Theater Fes­ti­val: Mid­way through, a pa­rade of stim­u­lat­ing plays.

The gates have opened to a stim­u­lat­ing and un­prece­dented range of voices in D.C. theater, and the pa­rade of pre­mieres by fe­male play­wrights is mak­ing its point: Gen­der par­ity is pos­si­ble.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY NEL­SON PRESS­LEY nel­son.press­ley@wash­post.com

It would be easy to be blasé about the Women’s Voices Theater Fes­ti­val that has taken over Wash­ing­ton’s stages. New plays? Writ­ten bywomen? In 2015 Amer­ica? You don’ t say.

In many ways, mov­ing through this fes­ti­val feels like the most or­di­nary thing in the world. It’s not a rad­i­cally dis­lo­cat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, show by show. Yet the or­di­nar­i­ness is ex­tra­or­di­nary, mainly as a po­lit­i­cal act.

We are well into a sec­ond month of the WVTF, and the pa­rade of pre­mieres by fe­male play­wrights is em­phat­i­cally mak­ing its point: Gen­der par­ity is pos­si­ble. The scripts are out there. Say yes, pro­duce the mata rate above just once ev­ery five shows — the cur­rent sneaky, shock­ing fig­ure il­lus­trat­ing how Amer­i­can theater qui­etly, con­sis­tently dis­crim­i­nates against women — and the world won’t fall apart.

In fact, what’s on­stage ac­tu­ally gets more in­ter­est­ing be­cause of all this new work. The panorama of un­ex­pected char­ac­ters and ut­terly cur­rent points of view has led to a par­tic­u­larly stim­u­lat­ing fall.

Start at the be­gin­ning: The fes­ti­val was con­ceived as a so­cial jus­tice project, pure and sim­ple. The goal of the seven ma­jor D.C. the­aters that kick­started it was to counter the chronic un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of fe­male writ­ers. They in­vited troupes all over the area to make their first show of 2015-16 a pre­miere by a fe­male writer. You want change? Just do it.

The ease and sim­plic­ity of this is ob­vi­ous and, be­cause it has never been done be­fore on this scale, in­spired. It is hoped that this sat­u­ra­tion of pre­mieres — ad­mit­tedly risky, be­cause un­known ti­tles are nearly al­ways the hard­est for the­aters to sell — is spark­ing what one or­ga­nizer calls a “mi­cro-rev­o­lu­tion,” at least lo­cally, where D.C.’s aware­ness about whose sto­ries get told is now sharply raised.

What wasn’t part of the agenda is mak­ing a point about whether women’s plays are dif­fer­ent. “From each other? Yes ,” writer Lisa Kron quipped to NPR’s Su­san Stam­berg dur­ing an in­ter­view as part of the fes­ti­val’s launch event.

If au­di­ences or pro­gram­mers har­bor some sort of idea about what women’s plays are “like” — and they must, be­cause some­thing is driv­ing the bias — what can that mean? Are women’s plays like the sturdy do­mes­tic-po­lit­i­cal re­al­ism of Lil­lian Hell­man’s “The Lit­tle Foxes,” or like the frag­mented psy­chol­ogy of So­phie Tread­well’s “Machi­nal”? Like Lor­raine Hans­berry’s pop­u­lar, gal­va­niz­ing “A Raisin in the Sun ,” or like Adri­en­neKennedy’ s ex­per­i­men­tal, dis­tress­ing “Funny house of a Ne­gro ”? Like An­nie Baker’s quo­tid­ian three-hour study of cin­ema denizens, “The Flick” (due at Sig­na­ture Theatre next spring), or like Suzan-Lori Parks’s three-hour Greek-in­flu­enced Civil War epic, “Fa­ther Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3),” com­ing to Round House Theatre in Jan­uary?

Sug­gest­ing the ex­is­tence of an es­sen­tially fe­male voice is a risky busi­ness that will be tack­led by a panel at the Shake­speare Theatre Com­pany on Oct. 24. (The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Pe­ter Marks is among the moder­a­tors.) To reg­u­lar the­ater­go­ers, it’s hardly news that fe­male writ­ers are not all alike. Some of the most an­tic­i­pated projects this sea­son are re­cent works from Parks, Baker, Lynn Not­tage (“Sweat” at Arena Stage) and Sarah Ruhl (“Stage Kiss” at Round House). Hear­ing more of th­ese voices this fall is not like learn­ing a new lan­guage.

Fur­ther mit­i­gat­ing any feel­ing of ex­plo­sive over haul—or, to put it dif­fer­ently, an­other temp­ta­tion to be blasé — is the fact that none of the com­pa­nies have needed to bend out of char­ac­ter to pro­duce a pre­miere. Woolly Mam­moth found an ut­terly Woolly play in “Women Laugh­ing Alone With Salad,” Sheila Cal­laghan’s out­ra­geously provoca­tive gen­der-bend­ing com­edy. Sig­na­ture Theatre is do­ing a 90-minute cham­ber mu­si­cal, “Cake Off.” Stu­dio Theatre pre­miered a taut Bri­tish drama, Clare Lizzi­more’s “An­i­mal.” The Shake­speare Theatre (Yael Far­ber’s “Salome”) and the Fol­ger (Karin Coon­rod’s “texts & be­head­ings: El­iz­a­beth R”) re­cruited noted di­rec­tor-adap­tors to in­ter­ro­gate lit­er­a­ture and his­tory.

Show by show, then, things might not look that dif­fer­ent — al­though the pa­ram­e­ters of “pro­fes­sional” Wash­ing­ton theater are alit­tle mud died, as even vig­or­ous the­ater­go­ers may won­der about un­known com­pa­nies that seem to be spring­ing up just to take part. The fes­ti­val Web site in­di­cates about 50 par­tic­i­pants, with late dropouts and last-minute ad­di­tions, but some are of­fer­ing only four or six per­for­mances (or less) over a week­end or two. About 30 shows meet the thresh­old of 16 per­for­mances for He­len Hayes Award el­i­gi­bil­ity.

Still, the vol­ume of new sto­ries is mak­ing a mark. As Round House Theatre Artis­tic Di­rec­tor Ryan Rilette points out ,it’s the only game in town: Pre­mieres are ev­ery where. By def­i­ni­tion, the gallery is orig­i­nal, and it seems to be ex­press­ing a range of con­cerns, so­cial po­si­tions and vi­sions that typ­i­cally aren’t so read­ilyavail­able.

An apt im­age sur­faced in Venus Theatre Com­pany’s “Witches Van­ish”; at one point dur­ing Clau­dia Bar­nett’s med­i­ta­tion on women who have dis­ap­peared (of­ten vi­o­lently) through­out his­tory, a buried fe­male body slowly pressed into view through a wall.

That’s what is hap­pen­ing as th­ese voices ac­cu­mu­late. It’s a demo­cratic em­pow­er­ment.

Some in­deli­ble impressions:

Jeanne Dil­lon-Wil­liams’ spain ted body in Kath­leen Ak­er­ley’s “Night Falls on the Blue Planet ,” with a mes­mer­iz­ing set de­sign( for Theater Al­liance) by Paige Hath­away. That set was a rec­og­niz­ably cool mod­ern apart­ment be­long­ing to Dil­lon-Wil­liams’s ob­ses­sive char­ac­ter, and it changed to be­come a vi­sion she’d seen in a dream — a vi­sion that she, too, be­comes, col­or­ing her body to meld with her phan­tasm ago ric ally mor­ph­ing en­vi­ron­ment .“Blue Planet” was a gloomy psy­cho­log­i­cal mys­tery, but thor­oughly grip­ping in its ag­gres­sively vis­ual story telling.

Darja, the main fig­ure in Martyna Ma­jok’s “Iron­bound” at Round House Theatre. She’s Pol­ish. Di­vorced. Forty-two. Am other whose son is now grown-up trou­ble. She’s poor and bor­der­line home­less, liv­ing in ur­ban New Jer­sey, ren­dered in James Kronzer’s set as an im­pos­ing se­ries of gi­ant rusted I-beams that dwarf the hapless char­ac­ters. Darja is tough and com­pli­cated—a fighter with a ser­rated edge.

Re­bel­lion, in “Salad,” surely a lead­ing poster child for the fes­ti­val’s protest spirit. You know a play is fu­ri­ous when it makes a point by hav­ing an aging woman’s re­pro­duc­tive or­gans fall out from un­der her skirt, but Cal­laghan’s com­edy turned into a mind ben der af­ter in­ter­mis­sion, with the ar­rest­ing Janet Ul­rich Brooks play­ing the older woman in the first act and her messed-up, tor­mented son, Guy, af­ter in­ter­mis­sion.

Re­bel­lion, in Jen Sil­ver­man’s “Phoebe in Win­ter,” an ab­sur­dist drama at Bal­ti­more’s Sin­gle Car­rot meld­ing war and do­mes­tic­ity in an Amer­i­can liv­ing room. Sil­ver­man, like Cal­laghan (and like Ak­er­ley in “Night Falls” and an­other sci-fi ex­per­i­ment, “Bones in Whis­pers”), thor­oughly razes the land­scape she cre­ates.

Re­bel­lion, in Gabrielle Ful­ton’s “Up­ris­ing,” a his­tor­i­cal drama that seems over-di­rected in an oddly breath less style but that tell san­ul­ti­mately wrench­ing story about a free black woman int he 1850s who’ s con­fronted with a hor­rific choice if she wants to stay with her in­for­mally adopted young son.

Holly Twyford, one of the area’s most ac­com­plished per­form­ers, dur­ing the fi­nal pas­sages of “Bad Dog.” Twyford plays a 40some­thing al­co­holic whose spec­tac­u­lar fall off the wagon sum­mons her not-so-sup­port­ive fam­ily. The amus­ing com­edy grad­u­ally and se­ri­ously swings around to the main char­ac­ter’s shame and dark­ness, and Twyford couldn’t be more con­vinc­ing.

En­ter­tain­ment, in the wholly ap­peal­ing “Queens Girl in the World,” a smart mem­oir of grow­ing up along­side the civil rights era of the early 1960 sf rom Ca le en Sin net te Jen­nings at Theater J (a solo work played with verve and charm by Dawn Ur­sula). Karen Zacarias’s “Destiny of De­sire” is of­ten wildly en­ter­tain­ing, too, and the self-con­scious te­len­ov­ela at Arena Stage feels bracingly orig­i­nal, even if the joke about who con­trols thenar­ra­tive reg­is­ters more as loopy fun than as po­lit­i­cal sub­ver­sion.

A lot of the works are flawed, but no more than you’ d ex­pect from pre­mier es, and most have a re­ward­ing cre­ative snap some­where—in a dra­matic style, ina per­for­mance, in a bold de­sign. The jury is still out about how well this fes­ti­val is lur­ing au­di­ences from one com­pany to an­other, or whether the goal is be­ing met of boost­ing the na­tional pro­file of D.C. theater .( It will tar the or­ga­niz­ers if this ul­ti­mately ends up look­ing like a con­ve­nient pub­lic­ity stunt .) G aug ing bot­tom-line suc­cess, and even defin­ing met­rics for that, will come af­ter the fes­ti­val is over in a few weeks.

But train­ing the gaze this way al­ready has gen­er­ated a lively new pool of work with a po­ten­tially pow­er­ful im­pact on the par­ity prob­lem. If it is a mis­take, though, to be blasé about the fes­ti­val, it’s also far too soon to be com­pla­cent about the ac­com­plish­ment. Maybe im­bal­anced sea­sons are be­com­ing a thing of the past, but not yet, not even in Wash­ing­ton, not even in this ban­ner year. Keep­ing the gate open will be the trick: It’s still trou­bling, and a warn­ing, to re­al­ize that with­out the spe­cial ef­fort of this fes­ti­val, the per­cent­ages say al­most 80 per­cent of th­ese works would not have been pro­duced.



Above, Dawn Ur­sula stars in “Queens Girl in the World,” a mem­oir of grow­ing up along­side the civil rights era of the early 1960s, at Theater J. At top, Lois (Naomi Ja­cob­son), left, and Molly (Holly Twyford) have a tense mo­ment as they re­live the past in Ol­ney Theatre Cen­ter’s pro­duc­tion of “Bad Dog,” about a 40-some­thing al­co­holic who falls off the wagon and her not-so-sup­port­ive fam­ily.

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