The Fourth Wall

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Misha. Photo: Joe Curnutte, courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

November means different things to each of us. For some it’s a time for families ‒ both biological and those we choose – to break bread in recognition of everything we’re thankful for. To reach across cultural, religious and ethnic divides and find commonality in our shared humanity. To others (at least in the Northern hemisphere), November is a time to prepare for the bite of winter. For the comfortingly familiar stories of star-crossed lovers, fate and destiny to be dusted off and shared around a warm fire. This month’s column has a bit of all of this. Read on for our curated selection.

On Right Now
“Public Obscenities,” Woolly Mammoth Theatre
Showing Nov. 13-Dec. 23
www.woollymammoth.net

Earlier this year, playwright and director Shayok Misha Chowdhury brought the story of Choton and his Bengali family to the stage at the Soho Rep Theatre in New York City. Audiences and critics alike were enthralled by Chowdhury’s tale of the queer American-Bengali PhD student’s journey back home to Kolkata, with his Black American photographer boyfriend Raheem, and the family secrets Choton uncovers while conducting research for his doctoral degree.

Shots of the NYC Soho Rep performance. Photos by Julieta Cervantes

Now theatergoers in DC will get the chance to experience Chowdhury’s magical writing and directing for themselves at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in
Penn Quarter.

I asked Chowdhury how he feels about presenting his play to a new audience. “I started writing the play in January of 2021 and have been working on the piece full-time since then, so it does feel as though I’ve been in a relationship with this constantly evolving organism for nearly three years,” he replied. “This time around, I’m in the thick of doing some significant rewrites. The theaters are so different, so it’s been an opportunity to work with the design team to reimagine the meta-container of the piece to live in a larger theater. In some ways it’s going to be familiar, but folks who saw the last iteration will be seeing something quite different this time around.”

The Winter’s Tale cast with director Tamilla Woodard during first rehearsals. Photo: Peggy Ryan.

“Public Obscenities” is entirely bilingual, with dialogue in both English and Bengali, something that Chowdhury has been wanting to do for years. “I’ve been wanting to write a bilingual play for my whole adult life,” he explained, “but I’ve always been terrified of doing so because I had no sense of how we would actually manifest it ‒ cast people who could play these highly specific roles that required these very specific linguistic fluencies.”

It’s here that the real power of the play resides. A cast that so nimbly navigates the intricacies and subtexts of language, and how Chowdhury’s writing untangles translation and interpretation, that they collectively won the 2023 Drama Desk Ensemble Award in May. Abrar Haque takes on the role of Choton, with Jakeem Dante Powell as Raheem, Gargi Mukherjee as Choton’s aunt and trans activist and TV presenter Tashnuva Anan as Chou, who makes a spectacular entrance toward the end of the play.

This production will be co-presented with Theatre for a New Audience, and I’d suggest booking your tickets immediately.

In the Spotlight
“The Winter’s Tale,” Folger Theatre
Showing Oct. 24-Nov. 22
www.folger.edu

Shakespeare, you say? Oh yes. The 16th-century English bard’s work can still jump off the pages of dusty old high school reading lists and onto a contemporary stage to shock, entertain and – most importantly – make us think.

As part of the Shakespeare Everywhere Festival across DC, from October to the end of December, the Folger Theatre is welcoming audiences back to the venue in Capitol Hill, for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”

Tamilla Woodard ably takes on the role of director for this interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s later, and perhaps most unique, plays. “We’ve been talking about this play for more than 19 months now,” said Woodard. “What I love about this play is that it feels like we get to see a piece of art that shows us the world we’re living in now, but also how we might change it. How we might be.” It’s clear that she’s excited about the opportunity to put a modern spin on the story of King Leontes of Sicily, his queen Hermione, Polixenes of Bohemia and a host of other characters who battle with the lasting effects of a horrible mistake.

“The Winter’s Tale,” as its name suggests, is the kind of story you settle down with around a warm fire as snow falls outside. It’s full of myth and fantasy. It demands suspension of disbelief. What Woodard brings to this fertile material is the opportunity to reflect on morality, responsibility and redemption, without falling into the twin traps of right or wrong. “We’re not setting up a good and an evil. We’re talking about how a man becomes susceptible to his own beliefs in a way that threatens his life, his livelihood and all that he values,” she explained. “We’re all Leontes. We all have the possibility of descending into our systems of belief, so much so that our beliefs take over our identity. Then when we let go of our beliefs, we let go of our ‘Who am I?’ and that’s where we are as a country.”

As current debates center on justice, conflict, forgiveness and identity, “The Winter’s Tale” reaches across 400 years to be as relevant today as the day it was written.

Don’t Miss

It may not be part of the play, but Anke Neumann’s otherworldly, 15-foot hanging sculpture, “Cloud of Imagination,” is the perfect welcome to Shakespeare’s world of fable. Neumann’s work was installed at the Folger Shakespeare Library in August and is composed of 250 individually illuminated flax paper elements, a tribute to the collection of 16th- and 17th-century literature at the core of the library.

Anke Neumann. Photo: Lloyd Wolf

Special Mentions
“See You Tomorrow,” Theater J
Showing Nov. 14-22
www.theaterj.org

Writer, director and actor Iris Bahr’s mother lives in Israel. Daily Whatsapp video calls are the only way that Bahr can stay connected to her from the US in this autobiographical work, set in pandemic times. Then, an emergency forces Iris to relocate her life and take up a caregiving role back home. From a hotel room in Rome while heading back to Israel, Iris offers some insight into this poignant piece of theater.

Anke Neumann’s work at the Folger
Shakespeare Library. Photo: Lloyd Wolf

ACT ONE: New Voices New Works 10-Minute-Play Festival, Anacostia Playhouse
Showing Nov. 6, 13 and 20
www.anacostiaplayhouse.com

The Anacostia Playhouse started life on H Street in 2002, moving to its current location on Shannon Pl. SE in Historic Anacostia in 2013. Artistic Director Stephawn Stephens and his team have provided a much-needed platform for highlighting the voices of talented actors, directors and writers in the historically underserved neighborhoods of Wards 7 and 8 East of the River. Over three days this month, the New Voices New Works Festival will explore the theme of family through the lenses of triumph and trauma. Don’t miss this opportunity to experience the country’s future stage talent in the formative phases of their careers.