Flavors of farce

Oh good, a farce is afoot!  Cyril must get Clotilde, the beautiful and currently naked model who showed up by chance at his cottage after being caught in a squall of rain, out of the spare bedroom before Mr Arbuthnot, the ever-suspicious guardian of Cyril’s beloved Linda, arrives at the cottage to collect Cyril for a round of golf.   Cyril strikes on the ingenious stratagem of disguising Clotilde as Chauncy, a caddy with a gigantic mustache; and . . . You get the idea.

A farce is a theatrical comedy built around exaggerated characters and an unusually convoluted plot. There will be surprise relationships, mad coincidences, and the story includes a deadline so there is an urgent propulsion to resolve the complications before some other thing happens.

Farce has fallen out of favor in recent decades, but it is on the upswing again with big hits like One Man, Two Guvnors (the photo accompanying this article comes from the 1st Stages excellent production in 2014). Farce was once a dominant force on the stage, to such an extent that there were specific categories of farces to let the audience know what to expect.

Sex farce uses desire and affection as the drivers for the plot. A lot of the fun comes from the naughty nature of character motivation, which is harder to pull off in contemporary America because it’s harder to seem naughty.

Slapstick farce is driven mainly by not-quite-believable combat, injury, and pain. Characters have their fingers trapped in window sashes, are hit by spinning ladders, and generally absorb enough apparent punishment in the course of each performance to send them to the hospital before curtain call; but always spring up to be hit again. A lot of Tarantino movies are really slapstick.

Situation farce is familiar to most of us in that it spawned the TV situation comedy – A long series of stories all recurring in the same absurd situation. Lucy always has some elaborate scheme to get into Ricky’s show. For those too young to know about I Love Lucy, the members of the extended Pritchett family spend every episode furiously trying to change each other, only to discover that the thing they were trying to change is one of the main things they love. It’s the same story again and again, and we keep coming back.

Slamming-door farce always involves characters hidden away in different rooms with our hero carrying out extreme measures to prevent the wrong ones from meeting each other.

Farce isn’t pure. Any one you see will potentially include elements of all these categories, making them not so much distinctive varieties as flavors within the playwright’s and director’s spice cabinets as they put a production together.

You’ll also see these flavors of farce coming through in almost any play you see, because the conventions of farce did so much historically to influence the basic rules of theatre. As we put together the Autumn number of Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC, we’ll be on the hunt for a proper farce to include.

In the meantime, when you scent a whiff of farce in something you’re seeing, please drop us a line at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

What you see when you see a play.

Continuing our occasional series on harvesting conversational topics from plays, today we want to highlight the visual elements that might catch your eye during a performance and grow into something to talk about afterwards.

A play on stage offers many things to look at, nearly all of which are chosen by the director and design team for each production. The set, costumes, lighting, and props you will see in a performance, for example, of Urinetown (part of Great Evening #7 in the current edition of Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC) would be different from what someone seeing the same play in another town would see. While the words spoken and sung would be the same, everything meant for the eye is invented anew in each production.

So, you can get a good conversation going with a question like “How did what you were seeing in the play fit with what you were hearing?” This kind of question gets people talking both about what caught their eyes and what they felt was most important or most striking about the overall play.

You could also get the ball rolling by pointing out something visual that particularly impressed you and asking your companions whether they noticed the same thing and how they felt about it. In the bar immediately afterward is a great time for this kind of discussion, because for most people, visual memory fades fairly quickly. We tend to remember what happened long after forgetting the details of what it looked like.

A lot of work, including sketches, plans, and models, goes into putting the visuals of the play in front of you, the audience. In the end, your experience is what determines whether that was work well spent, so take a little time to share with your friends how what you saw struck you, and if you feel inclined, let us know where the conversation went with a message to peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

Would you like to join me for a show?

You will meet a lot of people, perhaps including some of your friends, who will tell you they don’t like theatre. Sometimes these are people you’d like to take out for a great evening including a play. Perhaps you’re eager to take this person along for Great Evening #9 in our July-Sept. 2016 edition of Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC. What to do?

Now, we never want to challenge anyone’s personal taste or preferences. What has almost certainly happened is that this person was taken to a play or several plays at some time, and all those plays had something in common the person didn’t like. They formed a completely reasonable generalization that all plays are like that and therefore not for them.

Maybe they were dragged to a couple of Shakespeare plays and think anything they might see in a theater would be full of archaic language and men in puffy pants. Maybe they’ve only seen silly musicals or slow tragedies and never want to sample those dishes again.  Jason Schlafstein, the artistic director of Flying V Theatre Company, likes to say “Theatre is an art form not a genre.” Someone can be disinterested in several genres within theatre but might enjoy others they haven’t discovered yet.

You don’t want to be combative, unless you’ve already got that kind of friendship; but it can be useful to ask them what they haven’t liked about plays they’ve seen. Listen closely to the characteristics, then ask yourself – is the play you want to invite them to like or unlike what they are describing? If you can convince yourself that it would be different, try to explain those differences to your friend. “It isn’t Shakespeare. This play was written this year and it’s a bunch of people performing live music videos.” That might get them over the hump.

Here’s the big gun. One of the best things about seeing a play together is the conversation you can have afterwards. If you tell your friend, and it really helps if you’re telling the truth here, that the reason you want him or her to see the play with you is that you really want to talk it over with them after the show, you’ve got a strong pitch. You’re communicating that the friend is special to you and that you are interested in hearing what he or she has to say. These are probably the sincere reasons you want to take this person to a play, and they’re also incredibly flattering.

Please let us know if this advice helps you get your company of choice along for a great evening by dropping us a line at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

Staying in Gallery Place for a DC visit

We’ve written before about Gallery Place as a great neighborhood to spend time in while in DC. For those visiting, there are also a couple of great places there to stay and have all the riches of downtown and the mall just steps from your hotel.

The Fairfield Inn and Suites, a Marriott property at 500 H St NW, is a fairly basic but comfortable place to shelter at a modest price.   There’s a fitness center, free wifi, and a breakfast buffet. We know it mostly as the home of the Irish Channel Pub where numbers of our actor friends like the happy hour when they haven’t got a show call to get to. It’s just two blocks from the heart of the neighborhood, but right across the street there are a button-cute townhouse and a lovely church, giving you a sample of residential DC.

The Courtyard Washington Convention Center, another Marriott at 900 F St NW, we know mostly from the Gordon Biersch brewpub on the ground floor (do you sense a drinking theme?). It has the fitness center and wifi of the Fairfield, but substitutes an indoor pool for breakfast – giving you an excuse to try the raft of great breakfast options out and about. It sits less than a block from the Gallery of Gallery Place, so you’re in exciting city bustle from the moment you step ourdoors.

We have stayed at and enjoyed The Hotel Monaco, a Kimpton Group property at 700 F St NW. It is a luxurious place with high-ceilinged rooms, some themed around particular persons from US history, and a free wine reception for guests at 5 PM every evening. It has a fitness center and free bikes to borrow. The general manager even offers bicycle tours around town. The in-building restaurant is closed for renovation until fall 2016, so they’re currently offering “Grab and go” breakfast for guests, and the concierge is working to be extra helpful directing you to the many spectacular neighborhood restaurants.

Finally, we did a quick Airbnb search for next week and were surprised to find a number of quite attractive 1 bedroom properties available to rent in the neighborhood for around $200 per night. We have lately become addicted to staying in apartments while on the road so we can do some of our own cooking and have a couch to retire to when the hustle of touring wears us out. It’s well worth having a look when you’re planning your visit.

Any of these locations would position you for easy access to almost anything we list in Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC. Please share with us any tips you have for staying near the heart of things either in comments here or by dropping a line to peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

A great evening by design

As post-modern Americans, we live largely in a built environment. Because of that, appreciation of design has become a big part of our life. We notice and care about the design of our mobile phones, our clothing, our gardens. An evening from Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC provides many opportunities to evaluate and discuss different disciplines of design.

  • The décor of your restaurant, both outside and in, gives you a chance to think about and talk about the visual and audio design of the place.
  • Mixology or cocktail crafting is its own realm of design.
  • The chef designs the dishes for flavor, aroma, and visual appeal.

It can be fun to consider how these different disciplines of design articulate with one another during your meal. Do the sound and sight of your surroundings support or distract from the culinary design elements? Are the general themes of the design around you saying anything to you? Are you and your companions picking up on the same things?

If you stay for dessert, pastry chefs do some of the most elaborate and playful design, with bold graphics in sauces, jewel like colors, and intentional contrasts of sweet and sharp. Did this final course remain in conversation with the rest of the meal or did it make its own separate statement?

When you get over to the theater, there are many recognized disciplines of design all working to craft your experience.

  • The architect who designed the lobby and auditorium probably hits you first.
  • Your playbill is the work of several authors and a graphic designer who probably also had a hand in any posters you saw in the lobby.
  • If there is music or other soundscape playing in the auditorium, the sound designer for the show probably chose it – the same person responsible for sound effects and incidental music in a non-musical play.
  • Curtains being rare, you’re probably able to glance over what the set designer has done to help create the world of the play.
  • Eventually, the lights will go down and come up again, as chosen by the lighting designer whose job it is to color emotional tones and direct your attention where the play wants it from moment to moment.
  • When actors enter the stage they will be wearing things chosen for them by the costume designer and carrying things picked by a props designer.
  • With greater frequency, live plays are supported by projected images or videos which are assembled by a projection designer.
  • A playwright has designed the words to be spoken and much of the action to be carried out.
  • The director designs the whole experience much in the way that the executive chef did for you earlier in the evening.

Most of the same questions we brought up for your dining experience also apply to the play. Are the elements of design working together to enhance your experience of the play? If things stand out or clash, is that an error, or is there content in the clash? Do elements of the design draw your attention to specific places or moments? Are those the places and moments you wanted to pay attention to? In what ways did you feel a unified experience of design, experience, and story? Delivering that whole package, or thwarting the whole package to make some kind of point, is the primary work of the director.

In the bar after the show, you can both appreciate most of the same elements we talked about for the restaurant and have some great conversation about how the different disciplines of design throughout the evening have contributed to your enjoyment. Do you see yourself as a connoisseur of design in daily life? What kinds of design interest you the most? Please let us know with comments below or a note to peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

Great Evenings – Closings and openings

DC’s theatrical summer is in full swing now! One great evening from Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC finishes up this weekend. Three more just got going. Don’t let summer’s heat make you miss these wonderful opportunities.  Get your copy of the guide for the full details now!

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We’ve linked to the show websites below for your convenience, but don’t forget that there are lots of options to save a few bucks on tickets for most of these shows.  See our rundown here.

Great evening #2, featuring Another Way Home at Theater J, has just three nights left – tonight, Saturday, and Sunday. This play takes you to camp Kickapoo with the Nadelman family to help find their missing boy. Picnic in Dupont Circle before and drink at Duke’s after for the whole experience. (DC JCC at 1529 16th St NW, Washington, DC 20036. 202-777-3210. washingtondcjcc.org)

Great evening #4 with Hand to God at Studio Theatre kicked off (because there’s a sock in the play) last week and continues until August 7th. We hear the set design puts the audience right into the church basement with the kids and the mad puppet. Look for a review of this any day, but you might want to pick a night and get tickets before that happens. (Studio Theatre at 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org)

Great evening #5 encourages you to have an adventure at the Capital Fringe Festival. In the guide, guest writer Trey Graham offers his recipe for fun fringing. Several of the online resources he mentions are full of good information about shows you won’t want to miss, and the overall guide is at capfringe.org. Indulge in a wacky evening of theatrical delight.

Great evening #6 takes you to the cool, subterranean environs of Crystal City for Synetic’s Twelfth Night. We took our own advice last month and saw Synetic’s Man in the Iron Mask. These people can put on a show. If you enjoy high voltage spectacle with incredible acrobatics, beautiful sets and costumes, and, let’s be honest, a very attractive batch of performers hie ye to Illyria! (Synetic Theater at 1800 South Bell St, Crystal City, VA 22202. 866-811-4111 synetictheater.org)

Have a great weekend, and please share your adventure stories with us at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

Fast Casual Dining – Choice or Chore?

Are you familiar with the restaurant concept of “Fast Casual”?  It’s the kind of place like Chipotle or Panera –– no table service, but the ingredients are fresher and the menu a little more diverse than a fast food place.  Often, as at Chipotle, the customer gets to assemble a dish cafeteria-style, asking for things to be tailored to their preferences.

We have mixed feelings about this sort of “Fast Casual” restaurant. This is the kind of place that we also think of as an assembly-line or car-wash restaurant. You order the basic structure of your meal from the first person you see, then you follow your food along from person after person at station after station making more decisions and pretty much supervising everything that happens to your meal. At the end, you have exercised extreme creative control over what you’re eating, but you also had to make a pile of quick decisions and interact briefly with four or five different people.

Sometimes we really like this. Eating exactly what we want. Trying out combinations or ingredients we might not previously have thought of. Other times, we just want to order a dish off a menu and get on with our day. How about you — what’s your take on assembly-line cuisine?

We want to know because in every evening in Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC we include a more affordable dining option along with the fancy place. And one thing we REALLY like about these Fast Casual places is that the diversity and quality of the menu usually adds up to great food value for your money. The clientele and staff tend to be young, lively and friendly, giving a really nice vibe for kicking off a great evening.

We’ve included Shophouse, which is Chipotle’s Asian side project, and Merzi, an Indian Fast Casual spot, as dining options in several evenings. Some of our friends and family are crazy about &Pizza which, you’ve probably already figured out, applies this model to personal pizzas. The whole category is growing rapidly; but should we let it grow in our evenings out?

Please share your thoughts either with comments below or by dropping us a line at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

Eastern Market Neighborhood Story

See how the locals live in this pretty, mixed-use area just a few blocks east of the Capitol building. If you take the short walk along Pennsylvania Ave SE from the Capitol complex, you’ll be amazed how quickly the marble walls and intense hill staffers give way to cute little homes and intriguing businesses prowled by locals and a few savvy visitors like yourself. If the late morning finds you near the big dome, this neighborhood is a great side trip for lunch and a recharge before returning to the mall.

Eastern Market is named for the city’s last operating historic market. The market building proper, at the corner of 7th and C Sts SE is open during the daytime with produce stalls, specialty food shops, and a quaint lunch counter. The grounds just outside have produce stalls during the week and craft goods on the weekends.

The neighborhood is bounded by Pennsylvania Ave SE to the south and North Carolina Ave SE to the north. (Where else but the district can you be simultaneously north of Pennsylvania and south of North Carolina?) 6th St SE and 10th St SE provide the west and east borders. Most of the commerce runs along Pennsylvania and 7th with homes and pocket parks filling up the rest of the space. The best metro station for the area is called Eastern Market as well.

If you’re in Eastern Market for one of our evenings from Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC, you’re probably headed to a show at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW), a darling little black box theater in the adjoining Barracks Row neighborhood. There isn’t a great deal of nightlife here in Eastern Market, although the local, divey Tunnicliff’s Tavern is a frequent post show drinking spot for artists performing at CHAW.

There are a number of very nice restaurants in the neighborhood. Acqua Al Due is a charming Italian spot with a sister restaurant in Florence. Monmartre is a sleek and tasty French destination. Radici Market or District Taco are good choices for a quick bite, perhaps to take away and eat on a bench in the tiny park at Pennsylvania and D SE.

Beyond the market itself, there are numbers of attractive specialty stores along 7th St SE. Fairy Godmother and Dawn Price Baby testify to the child raising element in the area. Woven History features funky textiles from far away. Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm there’s a big flea market for those who like to poke through random stuff for treasures.

While there is no single giant reason for the visitor to stop in Eastern Market there are enough little ones that you’ll be glad you made time. DC has a lot of grandeur. Eastern Market is one of the best places to learn that it also has a great deal of charm.

Please let us hear about your Eastern Market adventures either in comments here or by dropping us a line at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.

Neighborhood restaurants – do they make the “Great” grade?

Do you know the category “Great Neighborhood Restaurant”? These are the places that rarely act as destinations for people from far away, but they’re faultlessly comfortable and welcoming. The food is always good enough that dinner there sounds like a plan if you live down the block. Maybe they sponsor an adult kickball team or something like that. When you go to yours, you’re likely to see someone you know almost any time. The whole menu looks tempting, but there’s this one dish you’re probably going to get every time. These are, in their own way, great places; and they add a lot to the texture of a neighborhood.

So far, we’ve mostly steered clear of this when pulling together plans for Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC. They just struck us as a little mundane for the kind of elevated date night we’re hoping to send you on.

But a few weeks ago, we tried to take ourselves to dinner before a show in Bethesda and learned that Food, Wine, and Co, which had been our preferred dinner place in that area, and we found out that it had closed its doors for good. As we cast around for a replacement (which was critical not just to feed ourselves but because we had recommended Food, Wine, and Co for great evening #9 in the just released edition) friends directed us to Persimmon (7003 Wisconsin Ave, Bethesda, MD 20815 301-654-9860 persimmonrestaurant.com) which turned out to be very much a Great Neighborhood Restaurant, with super-tasty seafood and friendly service, and definitely a good locals vibe.

We had a very nice meal, and decided we could use it for the evening in the July – September edition, particularly since it was right around the corner from the play. (Sara has updated the Kindle and PDF versions of that edition, so please update yours if you’ve already pulled it down.)

Our question still is, as a matter of general policy, should Neighborhood Restaurants like this be part of a great evening out? They don’t offer the kind of stand-out qualities we’re usually looking for (and which we’ve written about before). Persimmon, for example, has acoustic tile ceilings and absolutely generic booths and tables.   But the service was great, the food was better than fine, and the atmosphere was so much that of a gathering of friends, it was special in its own way.

So we’re putting this out as a question that I hope you’ll help us answer in the comments to this post below. Why should we or shouldn’t we include comfortable neighborhood restaurants in the book? How do they fit or fail to fit into your concept of a great evening out? If you’d like to send a private answer, you can also send it to peteandsara@greateveningsout.com. Thanks!

Fireworks, onstage and in the sky

This post goes out especially to all of you who will be visiting DC for the upcoming 4th of July weekend. There will be scads of things to do and legions of people here to do them. Popping in to one of these three plays from Just the Ticket: An Insider’s Guide to Great Evenings Out in Washington, DC would be a great addition to your DC visit.

The following Great Evenings, described in greater detail in the book, are all available this weekend. Some of the schedules are altered a little for the holiday, so there are details below.

Chalk (We Happy Few at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, DC 20003. no box office phone whfchalk.bpt.me) shows you a new take on a classic custody battle on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, and has a Saturday matinee at 2 PM if you want to escape the heat.

Another Way Home (Theater J 1529 16th St NW, Washington, DC 20036. 202-777-3210 washingtondcjcc.org) takes you to summer camp with a twist on Thursday and Saturday nights with a 1 PM Sunday matinee for day campers.

Born for this: The Bebe Winans Story (Arena Stage at 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC 20024. 202-488-3300. arenastage.org) hits all the right notes on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights with a 2 PM matinee on Sunday for the after-church crowd.

Bonus insider tip from Great Evenings Out central: If you’re on the mall Monday night for the fireworks, you’ll have a better time if, after the last sparks fade, you continue lounging wherever you are for a while and let the bulk of the crowd take a head start. Metro stations fill to overflowing in the half hour immediately after the celebration, and where you’re sitting is probably more comfortable than shuffling slowly in a giant line.

Have a great Independence Day weekend in DC, and please share your adventures with us by comment on this post or at peteandsara@greateveningsout.com.