Thursday, January 27, 2011

1001 Arabian Nights and 1 Presidential Motorcade

On Tuesday night, I took advantage of the mid-week days off and a husband away on business travel by taking my kids to see a production of "The Arabian Nights" at Arena Stage in Washington DC's newly completed Mead Center for American Theater. My husband is not a huge theater fan.  That is to say, it's not his first choice of ways to spend an evening or weekend outing with his family. He is also not a fan of spending the evening home alone without his family (unlike most of us moms who have no problem enjoying a few hours to ourselves, most men, or at least the ones I know, don't like an empty house).

Anyway, when he is out of town, it's not uncommon for me to take the opportunity to catch a show with the kids so as not to impact quality Dad time when he's home. We're lucky here in Annapolis to have not just our local offerings, but also two major cities in close proximity with a wide variety of performing arts venues. We've taken in theater, dance, and concerts before at the Hippodrome in Baltimore, at the National Theater in DC, at Maryland Hall here in Annapolis, and more recently, at our favorite new venue, the Mead Center, just to name a few.

Arena Stage is located at 6th St. SW, just a couple of blocks off the National Mall in view of the Potomac and the Washington Channel that leads into the Tidal Basin. For 60 years, it has been a hub of American theater in the DC area. It has recently been renovated and expanded as part of the effort to revitalize the Southwest Waterfront area of DC, and it's a stunner of modern design and architecture (says this blogger who hasn't the first educated clue about modern architectural design beyond knowing who Frank Gehry is).

The initial plan in the late 90s was to relocate the venue to a new, more thriving, northwest DC location. Instead, the planners opted (with a nudge from Mayor Anthony Williams) to be a part of the effort to resuscitate their neighborhood. They refitted and integrated existing structures and cleverly shaped Arena Stage into a single, vibrant, stylish, focal point known as the Mead Center for American Theater in an area that was once the remains of unrealized 60s and 70s "urban renewal" efforts. It's a truly remarkable building. In the words of the Artistic and Founding Directors:
“Our center will be a home for American Voices in the nation’s capital – a showcase of the broad range of work from the country’s leading and emerging artists; a birthplace for new American work; and a space to engage audiences in the history, breadth and legacy of the American theater.”
– Molly Smith
Artistic Director
Arena Stage
“The building is absolutely stunning. It is a magnificent and important piece of architecture that contributes greatly to the cultural landscape of Washington. It is one the best designed buildings in D.C. in the last decade.”
– Zelda Fichandler
Founding Director
Arena Stage
The Mead Center for American Theater

I would certainly agree. The Center has three unique stages of varying size and format - all relatively small and intimate - the largest of which, the Fichandler, seats 683 people, and the smallest of which, the Kogod Cradle, seats just 200. Two of the theaters were original stages of historic significance which were brilliantly preserved and incorporated into the new facility. The aforementioned Fichandler was the first permanent "in-the-round" theater in the country built in the early 1960s, and the Kreeger, a more traditional fan-style theater which seats 514, was originally built in the early 1970s. The Kogod Cradle is a new addition seating 200 and is something of a small oval cavern that is aptly named. Click on the Arena Stage link to learn more about the venue and what's on stage, now and in the coming months.

The two shows the kids and I have been to see, a reproduction of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic American musical, "Oklahoma", which kicked off the reopening of Arena Stage last year, and now "The Arabian Nights", were both staged in the Fichandler "in-the-round" style theater. We thoroughly enjoyed both of these terrific shows. In each, the effectiveness of the staging and scenery was striking in its simplicity - really convincing settings accomplished with subtle tricks of lighting and a few simple props. The actors and musicians create the rest of the magic.

I highly recommend the experience. One minor caveat about "The Arabian Nights" is that it has some rather bawdy and suggestive material interspersed through the funny and engaging tales. It's narrated by Scheherazade after all. The website indicates that it is recommended for ages 13 and up. I took my 11-year old and didn't find it to be a problem considering what he encounters routinely on primetime TV and the school bus, but this is clearly subjective. If you would be uncomfortable exposing your kids to slightly raunchy humor with the odd suggestive cucumber or a somewhat passionate (but fully clothed!) encounter between lovers, I would heed the recommendation. Scheherazade was spinning tales literally for her life, so they had to be colorful...

So that explains the 1001 Arabian Nights part of my title, but what about the Presidential motorcade? Well, the Mead Center is about a 45 minute drive from Annapolis, but that includes the unpredictable New York Ave. I've driven up and down New York Ave. more times than I care to recall, on one occasion dragging a muffler shaken off by the ever present potholes. I lived in Georgetown when I first moved to the area after college and commuted to my job at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, making my way out of and into the city via New York Ave. each day.

On Tuesday night as we came into DC on New York Ave., I wasn't surprised at the initial slowdown - nothing out of the ordinary - but as we got deeper into the city, traffic got more and more congested and slowed to an effective stop. It was the worst I'd ever seen. I had allowed a little margin in our arrival time, but not much since I expected to be opposing the commute traffic. The minutes ticked away as we crept at a snail's pace through northeast DC (it's really a lot better looking than it was back in the day - fewer hubcaps littering the sides of the road).

As we got closer to the Capitol, with just minutes to go before the 7:30 start of our show, we began to notice a lot of flashing squad car lights and a huge police presence on the streets, and suddenly it dawned on me; this was the night of the President's State of the Union address. D'oh! I hadn't accounted for that in my travel time. I was secretly beginning to doubt that we would get to the theater in any timely manner.

We finally broke through the bottleneck on New York Ave. and turned onto 7th St. NW, with cops by the dozens lining the streets as we approached the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Then, we heard sirens and saw a fast moving motorcade pass just in front of us along Pennsylvania Ave. headed toward the Capitol - the President himself en route to his address to Congress and the nation. I told the kids to wave to the President. They replied, "The President is making us late for our show."

Well, all's well that ends well. I presume the President got to his gig on time (I missed the address but hear there was a good joke about salmon, and no ruder-than-expected outbursts from that unruly South Carolina contingent). I dropped the kids at the entrance to the Mead Center to find our seats and went to park the car. They were familiar with the place from our recent trip down to see "Oklahoma", so I was confident they could make their way without me, as is often the case these days (sigh). With the number of cops on the street, I deemed a problem in full light of the theater to be unlikely. I parked for free in a lot a block away near the waterfront (it really is very lovely, and both times I've been down there, I've felt altogether safe), made my way to the chic, bright, wavy, front of the Mead Center, climbed the stairs to the Fichandler, and slipped into my seat next to the kids just in time to hear Scheherazade begin her first tale...

Intermission of Arabian Nights listening to musicians

Mead Center between Fichandler and concession bar

Orchestra "barn" for Oklahoma

Fichlander stage for opening scene of Oklahoma

No comments: