Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Lillian Hellman’s play, The Little Foxes, first premiered on Broadway in 1939, followed by a film in 1941. Tallulah Bankhead played the Hubbard family matriarch, Regina, on stage, with Bette Davis assuming that role on the big screen. The play has been revived on Broadway three times, with Anne Bancroft (1967), Elizabeth Taylor (1981), and Stockard Channing (1997) playing Regina. The Little Foxes will run from September 23 through October 30 at Arena Stage with Marg Helgenberger as Regina.
Since it’s been nearly ten years since the last Broadway revival, why now? “I think what this play has to say about women – powerful women – it’s incredibly timely, especially considering the election cycle that we are in,” said Megan Graves who plays Regina’s daughter, Alexandra, known as Zan. “Certainly, perspectives on women in 1900 [the time period of the play] are different, but in many ways, unfortunately, they are not. I think it’s surprisingly relevant.”
The Little Foxes centers on the very Southern Hubbard family: Regina; her husband, Horace; her two brothers, Benjamin and Oscar; Oscar’s wife, Birdie; and Zan. Hellman apparently based the characters on relatives from her mother’s family. In the early 20th century, only sons were considered legal heirs. Regina wants financial freedom and she will stop at nothing to obtain that independence. “The stakes in this play are very high, and the lengths that the characters will go to achieve their goals are a little scary,” said Megan. “I, for one, see that in D.C. politics, and so these characters, particularly Regina, but also her two brothers, Oscar and Ben, are very recognizable at any time in Washington. There’s a lot of humanity underneath this grasping for power, but at a certain point the emotional depth becomes subverted.”
Zan becomes the moral core of the play. “Alexandra is 17 and she’s trying to find who she is in the maelstrom of family dysfunction,” Megan said. “She becomes caught between her mother and her father who have opposing ideas about what should happen with the family business and to the family itself. And in the end she makes a choice for her own future that also means rejecting a lot of who she has been up to that point.”
Megan said that she read Hellman’s The Children’s Hour in college, but wasn’t as familiar with The Little Foxes. “I didn’t realize until I auditioned how autobiographical [the play] was,” she said. “We have a great dramaturgical team helping us and the information they are giving us is so incredibly informative. I was able to read interviews that Lillian Hellman gave about the play, what she intended, and what audiences take from the play and how those two things aren’t always in synch. I found that fascinating.”
The mother-daughter relationship is an important theme in the play. “Alexandra really craves her mother’s affection and approval,” Megan said. “The tricky thing is that she also has a very strong sense of right and wrong and at a certain point trying to please her mother and trying to do what’s right aren’t one and the same any more. So there’s a huge conflict for her when she has to choose between what she sees as doing the right thing and doing what her mother asks. That’s what really starts the journey towards growing up.”
Megan was born in Mesa, Arizona, just outside of Phoenix. Homeschooled through high school, she received her BFA from the Shenandoah Conservatory, in Winchester, Virginia. After enjoying Shakespeare in high school, Megan thought she would become a writer. That all changed in college when she began doing local theater in northern Virginia.
She has become a familiar presence for theatergoers in the D.C. area, having appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Folger Theatre, Passion Play and Clementine in the Lower 9 at Forum Theatre, and several productions at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, including The BFG, winning a Helen Hayes Award.
Does she have a favorite? “That’s tough,” she said. “I had a great time doing Midsummer NIght’s Dream at Folger this spring. That was just a lovely group of people and a really joyful interpretation of the play that was just so refreshing and wonderful to do every night. I have to say I have a very warm place in my heart for Passion Play which I did at Forum Theater last year. That was probably the production that has changed how I look at theater.”
Megan said she feels lucky to be part of the cast for Arena’s production. “It’s like a master class in the rehearsals every day,” she said. “Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m in the scene; I can’t just watch. It’s so incredible.”
She feels very fortunate to be working with Helgenberger (above), who won an Emmy Award for playing K.C. Koloski in China Beach, which ran on ABC from 1988 to 1991, and is most identified with her long-running role as Catherine Willows on CBS’s CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Helgenberger’s film credits include Erin Brockovich.
Helgenberger, Maegan said, “is lovely; she’s so giving and kind. We’ve had some good conversations about what the relationship is like [between Regina and Zan] and she’s game to try things. I was amazed at how transformative she is. She’s Regina. She has really taken this role on. The only thing I think about when I watch her work is how thoroughly she has stepped into this piece.”
Stepping into the characters also involves stepping into the dresses that women wore during the play’s time period. “There’s something about being laced into a corset that immediately transports you to the time,” she said. “I can’t slouch anymore; that 20-something slouching girl is gone and I have this incredible posture. It informs the character so much and layer on top of that the beautiful clothes that our designer [Jess Goldstein], unveils, it really helps to make the character come to life. l can’t wait to get all the costumes and get on stage and work with all of that.”
Megan hopes that the play’s themes will resonate with audiences, particularly through her character, Zan. “This play is really about power – who has it, who is trying to get it – manifested through wealth,” she said. “Those who decide in the end to reject that, is a commentary on the choices that people make. In the play there’s a statement about family versus power and choosing one or the other. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of neutral ground at least in this play as far as maintaining that control and also maintaining that family bond. For some it’s simple and for others like Zan, it’s very complicated.”
The Little Foxes Written by Lillian Hellman Directed by Kyle Donnelly Arena Stage 1101 Sixth Street SW 202-488-3300
“America is the worst place for the Jews. Except for all the other places.” Shylock in District Merchants
What a year it has been for Shakespeare fans. Theaters celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death have staged his works in many forms. The Folger Theatre (home of the Folger Shakespeare Library) last gifted us with the very humorous William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), and now presents a contemporary version of The Merchant of Venice.
The title – District Merchants – is the first tip off that we’re not in Venice in the 1500s. Playwright Aaron Posner said that after reading a passage of Shylock’s about slavery, “it made me wonder how this story would function in post-Civil War America.” District Merchants is set in the 1870s in Washington, D.C., but the issues dealt with – immigration, racism, anti-Semitism, income inequality, and the marginalization of women – are incredibly relevant, particularly in light of our current presidential campaign. We see a society in transition. Virtually ever character in the play is on the outside looking in, eager to become part of the new order, but struggling to fit in. As one character says: “People like me don’t have the code. We’re not in the game, so we lose every time.”
Craig Wallace and Matthew Boston
The scenery signals the beginning of reconstruction, with massive columns and iron girders filling the stage and the sounds of building echoing throughout the theater. Shylock (Matthew Boston) is still a Jew, but rather than a Venetian moneylender, he’s now an immigrant who lost his wife and some of his children to disease during the long journey to America. He dotes on his surviving daughter, Jessica (Dani Stoller), but his anxiety to keep her safe threatens to stifle her emerging womanhood.
Shylock’s counterpart is Antoine (Craig Wallace), a black who proudly tells others that he was born a free man, a legacy of his father who fought and died a hero in the War of 1812. Although Antoine dresses like a prosperous businessman, he doesn’t have the resources of Shylock and borrows three thousand pounds to help his protege, Benjamin Bassani (Seth Rue), woo the wealthy Portia (Maren Bush). When Antoine fails to pay the money back on time, Shylock demands his pound of flesh. The dramatic court scene will determine the outcome.
Dani Stoller and William Vaughan
Shakespeare’s Merchant is still jarring to modern audiences; it’s portrayal of Shylock and its themes seen as anti-Semitic. Posner doesn’t water down these xenophobic comments, rather the audience gets a dose of what it’s like to withstand a constant barrage of slights and insults. During each performance, Boston points to someone sitting in the audience, asks the person’s name, then proceeds to use that name in a sneering, disrespectful way. (At the performance I attended, the person singled out was named David who admitted the barbs felt “nasty.”)
Shylock notes that during the reconstruction period in America, there were 1,500 Jews living in Washington, D.C. A parallel is drawn between the discrimination experienced not only by the blacks, but also by Jews like Shylock. The confrontations between Shylock and Antoine come off as a game of one-upmanship – who has suffered and continues to suffer the most.
(Left to right) Seth Rue, Dani Stoller, William Vaughan, and Maren Bush
The contrast between the haves and the have-nots plays out in the love affairs of the two young and seemingly mismatched couples. Lorenzo (William Vaughan), an uneducated and unpolished country boy, is attracted to the beautiful and intelligent, Jessica, who agrees to steal all her father’s cash and gold and flee with her beau to, of all places, Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Maren Bush and Celeste Jones
Meanwhile, Portia, who has conflicted feelings about blacks, is falling in love with Benjamin, whom she believes is white. Portia’s servant, Nessa (an excellent Celeste Jones), is loyal to her mistress but critical of her opinions. “She was born with blinders on and every day people tell her she has perfect vision,” Nessa says. When Benjamin finally tells Portia he’s black, Bush makes the most of the moment – her facial expressions changing from joyous to sadness several times before she delivers her final decision.
Despite the heavy themes, District Merchants has humorous moments, thanks not only to Vaughn’s antics as Lorenzo but also to Akeem Davis who plays Shylock’s mistreated servant, Lancelot. Director Michael John Garcés keeps this talented cast moving at a lively pace. There’s rarely a moment when we aren’t entertained or challenged by what we are witnessing on stage.
“Though this be madness, yet there is method in `t.” Hamlet
The world is celebrating the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and the Folger Theatre has joined in with a production that would probably have the Bard himself laughing in the aisle. For fans who appreciate all things Shakespeare, the Reduced Shakespeare Company needs no introduction. Those just discovering this troupe are in for a treat. The new production, a premiere of William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), continues the group’s humorous and creative way of weaving together Shakespeare’s plots and characters with contemporary references thrown in. The result is a lightning-fast, razor-sharp laugh-fest.
The fun starts immediately as the three sneaker-clad actors – Reed Martin, Teddy Spencer, and Austin Tichenor – bound onto the stage, holding aloft the famed lost play, half a foot thick, the pages loosely bound together. We’re told about all the references within this “faux-bio,” – 101 Venetians, The Real Merry Housewives of Windsor, and, of course, CATS. The many references to Disney are certainly funny but also underline how Shakespeare’s influence is a cultural phenomenon. Spencer, who spends time dressed as the Little Mermaid, Ariel, calls Walt Disney “a modern day Shakespeare” and runs down the similarities between Will’s plays and Walt’s films. The Winter’s Tale? Frozen!
This scripted play has the feel of improv, particularly those bits that involve audience members. Two arrive late and incur the players’ rebuke and empathy: “You rue the day you took the Metro.” Since the two offenders left during intermission, we surmise they were plants. But two others – dubbed Dale and Gale – were obviously not, called onto stage during one segment to wave blue fabric to create the sea while the actors shot water pistols into the audience. (If you are not inclined to participate, make sure you’re not in the front row.)
The costumes add to the frivolity, particularly those that have the actors cross-dressing. The changes are made in rapid fashion so that the flow of the play is never affected. Particularly appealing are the Weird Sisters from Macbeth, one a puppet that is manipulated by Tichenor and resembles the witch from Disney’s Snow White.
Part of the fun is seeing characters from different Shakespeare plays interact. We have Puck (Martin) from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a grudge match with The Tempest’s Ariel (Spencer); Hamlet up against Lady Macbeth; and Viola (Twelfth Night) alongside Richard III.
My one quibble is that the play runs a tad too long – one hour and 45 minutes with an intermission. Although the actors maintained their energy in the second act, several of the scenes, particularly those with Puck and Ariel, began to seem repetitive. Trimming fifteen minutes and presenting the entire thing in one act would have been a better approach.
Still there were plenty of laughs up to and including the end. And these days, heaven knows, we can all use a good laugh.
Photos by Teresa Wood
William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) Folger Theatre 201 East Capitol Street, SE 202-544-7077